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Inca Poison Ch1-3 by Kevin Chilvers

© Kevin Chilvers

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1



The Mendoza Ranch - Rural Colombia 2006



Rodriguez, leant on the veranda rail beside his father, Eduardo Mendoza, and stared out over the mountain valley.

Eduardo sighed. ‘We are losing our hold over the authorities as our funds dwindle. In another three months, this cartel will be extinct and we will be forced to flee Colombia and hide.’

‘But Dominic is making pure cocaine at a fraction of the cost of the old method.’

His father’s shoulders sagged. ‘I forget you are so out of touch in the jungle. Yes, your reckless brother is a gifted chemist, but the British Navy has sealed our smuggling routes in the Caribbean. What good is cocaine if I can’t get it out of the country?’

‘What about taking it overland to America?’

‘Prices have tumbled since the Mexicans flooded the market; Europe is where the money is now.’ Mendoza pulled himself upright and spun to face Rodriguez. ‘If we can’t move stock across the Atlantic we are finished.’

‘Then we will find a way past the British Navy ships.’

‘I have tried. They intercept almost every shipment.’

‘Then why not lie low for a while? Shut the factory and bring Dominic home. He hates it in the Rainforest.’

Mendoza shook his head. ‘The Judge wants your brother’s balls after the incident with his daughter. I’ve tried a bribe, but it’s a matter of family honour. If Dominic returns now, he will be charged with rape. All we can do is hope the British warship is needed elsewhere and sell cocaine here; thought it scarcely pays the bribes.

A weak smile crossed Mendoza’s face. ‘You’re a loyal son, Rodriguez and deserve better.’ Mendoza straightened his waistcoat and led the way inside. ‘Come, let us drink a toast to your lost inheritance.’

Rodriguez took the offered glass and sipped the tequila. ‘I can break the blockade.’

Mendoza chuckled. ‘Are you trying to cheer up an old man? The British cannot be bribed or threatened like our corrupt officials.’

‘Not a bribe but the Royal Navy cannot crew their ships if they do not have enough crew.’

Mendoza sat, rested his elbows on a table and his chin on his hands. He studied Rodriguez through narrowed eyes. ‘You are serious. How?’

Rodriguez nodded. ‘Deadly. The British navy has many commitments around the world that are more important than the blockade. If I can kill enough sailors, they won’t be able to crew all their warships. The British will be forced to prioritise.’

Mendoza sucked air through his teeth. ‘You will have to kill thousands.’

‘I know. About 10,000 by my calculations, and I have a way to do it. We found a British explorer, Vincent Smythe, and his guide in the rainforest near our drug factory. He had a very old book: a journal written by a Spanish conquistador who was captured by Inca. I kept Smythe alive to translate it for me and he found something very interesting. There’s a recipe for a poison made by Inca in the Fourteenth Century. All the ingredients are readily available in the rainforest and we have the equipment to manufacture it.’

His father studied the floor for a moment. ‘It’s too risky. Such an act will turn the entire world against us.’

‘Not if we don’t get caught and we must break the blockade. Smythe also had this...’ Rodriguez handed his father a gold, lemon-shaped bottle, small enough to conceal in the palm of his hand. ‘Carlos forced the guide to taste just one drop of the liquid inside. It’s the Inca poison. At first it had no effect, but then the guide became very sick. If he’d been in Africa, I would have sworn he had Ebola. It scared the crap out of me. If we poison the food in all the British navy bases and convince them that one of their sailors contracted Ebola and spread the disease, they won’t look for anyone straight away.’

Mendoza studied the bottle. ‘The risk of discovery is high if this fails.’ He picked up the phone. ‘I know an expert in tropical diseases and biological weapons. He’s odd, but needs money.’ He dialled and spoke for a few minutes outlining the plan. Then he cupped the receiver and looked at Rodriguez. ‘The doctor can add an inert strain of Ebola to fool the British for a while. He wants to know how long it took for the guide to die?’

‘Two weeks.’

Mendoza relayed this to the doctor and listened before glancing at Rodriguez. ‘Doctors don’t routinely autopsy Ebola victims. He doubts they will discover the truth until it’s too late. As for the poison, he says we must ensure it works and an antidote cannot be made in time. He will test it before we decide to proceed. He needs five weeks and wants twenty human guinea pigs.’

‘There are plenty of orphaned brats living on the streets of Rio who won’t be missed and I know someone who will collect them for me. Will they do?’

Mendoza asked the doctor and then ended the call. ‘He says they will be perfect, as long as they are healthy and older than ten so their immune systems are developed. He wants five a week.’

Rodriguez lifted his glass in a toast. ‘To free trade.’



2


Rio de Janeiro, 2006


Hawk lounged beneath a roof of vines in a street-side cafe in Rio de Janeiro. He sipped coffee he didn’t really want. Not the best way to spend his 34th birthday but he was working: doing a favour for a rich old man in England and grabbing a chance to escape a monotonous existence flying businessmen around Europe.

He’d chosen this seat because it afforded a good view for some distance along the pavement lining Rio de Janiero’s Copacabana beach. This was the tenth day, but one thing his previous career in the British Special Forces had taught him, was patience.

A child strolled by. Hawk sat up straighter and, for what felt like the thousandth time, compared the kid with a photograph he’d committed to memory. The thirteen-year-old boy was thinner and the Pepsi logo on his grimy t-shirt faded after three months living on the streets but, it was Romero. Holiday over.

He slipped the picture back into his pocket and followed. The kid weaved through the crowds of tourists, which flowed like the surf on the white sand opposite. Should he catch up to him? Try to talk to Romero and explain? Too risky. The kid wouldn’t trust a stranger; not after the way his aunt had treated him following the death of his parents. That’s why he’d run away.

Suddenly the kid ran. Hawk cursed under his breath but buried the urge to chase. He scanned the street for the reason. There was nothing obvious, but spooking the kid would only send him into hiding. Romero didn’t know about his English Grandfather so he must believe he has no one else left in the world who cared. Hawk lengthened his stride to keep Romero in sight. If he was going to unite Romero with his grandfather he’d have to gain his trust.

Romero streaked towards a fat woman. She strolled beside her husband carrying a huge handbag plastered with American flags.

They collided.

The kid tumbled to the ground and rolled around rubbing his back. Tears streamed down his cheeks. The woman’s hand shot to her mouth and her eyes opened wide. She reached down, helped Romero to his feet and brushed him down. She spoke to him. The kid nodded and hobbled into the crowd. The woman re-joined her husband and continued strolling, blissfully unaware of the robbery that had just taken place.

Hawk spotted the sleight of hand. It was a performance worthy of an Oscar but sad that a kid from a good family had attained such skills so quickly. He was obviously a survivor; something Hawk could admire, but he’d better get the kid off the streets fast.

The boy swerved into an alley and climbed cobbled steps between houses. Hawk followed. He stepped into the cover of a doorway when

Romero stopped at the top and emptied the woman’s purse; notes and coins went into his pocket, the rest he posted into a drain before continuing up the road away from the coast.

Dreary housing blocks towered on either side of the narrow street casting deep shadow. Hawk’s rubber soled shoes made no sound on the hexagonal tiles worn smooth with age that surfaced the road. Laundry hung limply from lines strung over the road from balconies on either side created a mediaeval atmosphere. Romero ambled up the hill without looking back. No one was in sight. Hawk considered calling his name.

Fifty-yards separated them. Hawk studied the kid: lean, lanky, with an easy stride. Bound to be quick on his feet. The fitness Hawk had gained from seventeen years military service remained despite the two years since he’d left, but he was no sprinter. What would he do in Romero’s shoes? He’d run from a stranger. Hawk needed to get closer for a sure catch; then grab the kid and pin him down for long enough to show him his grandfather’s letter and explain.

Romero turned and vanished between two houses.

“Bugger!” Hawk sprinted and found a track that cut between the terraced buildings. It was empty. So was a storm-culvert that ran behind the houses.

It separated the rear of the terrace block from a wasteland dotted with islands of prickly pear on the opposite bank. The steep hill climbed across open ground to more houses but the boy had vanished.

Had he detected the tail? Hawk couldn’t see how; he’d made no sound and the boy hadn’t looked back. No, Romero was unaware he was followed, but if Hawk lost him now he’d have to start again, and Rio was a bloody big city.

Hawk scanned the open ground with a practiced eye. The kid hadn’t crossed it, not enough time, so he’d gone to ground somewhere in the thorny scrub that topped the culvert wall. He sat on the ground to wait for Romero to break cover and decided this was far better than running his inherited air charter company. His experienced staff didn’t really need him and he missed life in the Royal Marines so perhaps he could use his skills to make a living as a private detective.


#


It was like Rio was holding its breath. For the next ten minutes nothing moved. This was supposed to be simple. Find the kid. Take him home to England. Performance review: could do better… Metal scraped on stone. Hawk stretched cramped legs, eased into a crouch and flexed his muscles to loosen them ready for the chase.

Romero reappeared further along the culvert but, instead of retracing his steps, he clambered up the hill. Hawk scrambled behind making sure to keep a coppice of cactus between him and the child.

When he emerged onto a road, the boy was strolling a good way ahead. Rats rummaged through rotting rubbish that spilled from bags piled against a wall daubed with slogans that left no doubt what the local residents thought of the police.

The kid kicked a discarded can, which clattered on the stone. Hawk peered anxiously at the featureless concrete dwellings shading the road, but nobody pulled aside curtains made from sacking to investigate the noise. He had another chance: this was a neighbourhood where residents preferred not to know what was going on.

They passed bars with shuttered doors, and windows decorated by explicit pictures of naked women partaking in seedy floor shows. It was as if the scrub was a border separating working class families from a world of filthy decay. At night the place would be a seething mass of drunken revellers, but right now it had less life than a graveyard. A good thing. No witnesses when he grabbed the kid. Hawk increased his pace to catch-up for a second attempt.

The boy remained focussed ahead oblivious to his tail. Mouth dry, Hawk willed him not to look back as he tensed his muscles ready to sprint.

Ten yards to go: almost in reach. Almost certain of a catch – almost. He prepared to sprint...

An engine chugged, the rattle of an exhaust rang from the buildings. A van rounded a bend and crawled towards them. It pulled into the kerb ahead of Romero.

Convinced Romero had a guardian angel; Hawk stepped into the cover of an alley as he waited for the van to move on. He wondered if he could survive as a private detective after a career in the SBS. Things were much easier when the targets were bad guys and you could just shoot the buggers.

A woman climbed from the passenger seat. Slammed the door. The van accelerated. It raced past Romero then slid to a halt with a squeal.

The driver leapt out. Grabbed the boy’s arm. The kid kicked, twisted free and sprinted towards the woman. As he pulled alongside he dodged to pass. Her arm snaked out and wrapped around his neck. She jerked him back towards her, lifted him and pressed something to his face. Romero kicked like a hanging man on gallows and then grew weaker and went limp.

Hawk charged as van man reversed to the woman. Two against one. Focus and don’t lose the kid now. The driver flung the door open, climbed out and ran around the van. He grabbed Romero’s legs. Together they heaved the kid into the back like a sack of dung.

Hawk reached the front of the van. He aimed for the man who’d returned to the driver’s seat as the rear doors slammed shut.

The woman spun to face him. Her eyes blazed. Her hand came up from her side, her arm stretched straight and pointed.

Hawk slid to a halt. Stared at the gun. Noted her wry smile. Cocky. Dangerous woman. Shit!

Her trigger finger blanched. He dived. Rolled. A bullet chipped the surface of the road and pinged by his ear. He was still moving when the engine revved and the van roared away. The bitter taste of lemon tainted Hawk’s saliva as the vehicle rounded a bend and disappeared. The sound faded into the distance.

He got to his feet, picked up the cloth and lifted it to his nose.

Chloroform.


#


All Hawk could think about as he trudged back to the culvert was a thirteen-year-old runaway in the back of a van, with a woman who was willing to murder a stranger without hesitation. He had to find the kid fast.

An iron disc was set into a concrete block in the ground at the point where Romero had reappeared. The drain cover looked heavy but it yielded to his hooked fingers aided by a spring counterbalance. A metal ladder set into the wall led into a vertical shaft, which dropped into an arch-shaped passage lined with brick and ran parallel to the culvert. He guessed this was an overspill for heavy floods. Bent double, he chased a trickle of foul-smelling water towards a welcome blast of air and came to a raised platform set into a recess. Light filtering through a storm drain at eye-level revealed Romero’s pitiful existence.

There was a candle on a stone ledge and a cheap cigarette lighter beside it but, thankfully, no cigarettes, a few trinkets, a photograph of a smiling boy with his parents and a tatty sleeping bag in the corner. He studied the photograph of Romero aged about eight; a cute kid with mischievous eyes but if there had once been a frame it had long since disappeared. Most likely stolen or pawned. He found a loose brick in the wall, eased it out, removed paper money and a dog-eared business card advertising a children’s mission. How the hell he was going to find the kid now? He flicked the business card between his fingers. It was a slim chance but, hell, it was all he had.


#


Ropes binding wrists and ankles limited Romero’s movement. He was being jostled around like peas in a baby's rattle so he rolled onto one side, pulled his knees to his chest to steady himself and fought the urge to vomit; a disaster since sticky tape clamped his mouth shut.
His head spun and for a moment he couldn’t recall what had happened. Slivers of light filtered through scratches in blacked-out windows illuminating a space long enough to stretch out. Romero straightened his legs, rolled onto his back, struggled into a sitting position and wedged himself in a corner. Better.

A stink of petrol percolated through musty sacking that cushioned him from metal walls. A throaty roar reverberated like marbles in his tin can. Memories flooded back: the man and woman, the funny smell… he was in the van. What did they want with him? Where were they taking him? His streetwise mind summoned all kinds of horrors to explain his kidnap and he rocked back and forth. He’d heard police removed street children to state-run homes; more like workhouses if the stories were true…

They skidded around a corner. He slid. Clenched his teeth as ropes cut into skin. He lay still until the pain subsided.

The man and woman didn’t look like police. What then? He’d heard that other kids disappeared never to be seen again. No one knew what happened to them but there were rumours... terrifying rumours.

Brakes squealed. This time the van jerked to a stop and his shoulder crashed against the metal bulkhead. Tears filled his eyes. A door clattered at the front. Slammed shut. After a pause, someone threw open the rear and air rushed in.

The woman’s silhouette appeared; framed against sunlight in the opening. Her hands reached in towards him. He crabbed back, digging his heels into ridges on the floor until he could go no further.

‘Come here, you brat.’ Her shrill voice hurt his ears as bony fingers gripped his ankles. She hauled him out and jammed him against the side of the van with a clang. He gasped.

Crouching, she freed the bindings on his legs. She left his hands tied behind his back. His toes throbbed as the circulation returned. Tears blurred his vision. He blinked them clear and looked around. Rusty cars were stacked against a tall corrugated metal fence which surrounded two sides of a courtyard. A breeze block building opposite with a moss infested roof and off-white paint peeling from its walls looked abandoned.

The driver strode to two gates, closed and bolted them and then returned.

‘Move!’ A hefty shove propelled Romero towards a door at the end of the building. Another push. Romero tripped over a sill and staggered into a drab corridor smelling of mould. A line of broken windows to his left looked back to the yard. Three doors led off to his right. The man grabbed his shoulder, leant over to open the first door and a final push sent Romero sprawling face down on the floor inside; adding another bruise to his shoulder. The door slammed shut and footsteps retreated back down the passage.

Romero regained his breath. Rolled onto his side. He was in a long narrow room. Iron bars set into blacked-out windows gave the place a prison-like feel; not that he’d ever been in prison but this is what he imagined it would be like. He saw four more children sitting in a line of threadbare armchairs, which were lined up like soldiers on parade. Beyond them two mean-looking men sat beneath a bare fluorescent strip light that hung on chains over a café-style dining table. Beer-stained t-shirts strained against their bloated bellies. One struggled to his feet with a grunt. He reached a hand behind his back and pulled a hunting knife from his belt as he lumbered towards him.

Romero jammed his back against the door and his brain fogged when a hairy tattooed arm reached out. Podgy fingers latched onto his arm. The man hauled him to his feet and rotated him to face towards the door. A knee rammed into his back. Romero gasped as a smelly hand pressed his head to wedge his cheek against the wood. Cold steel brushed his wrists. Romero’s legs buckled...

The blade sliced through the rope and freed his hands. He was spun back to face the room. The guard ripped the sticky tape from Romero’s mouth. Tears flooded Romero’s eyes as delicate hairs tore from the top of his lip. The thug chuckled, threw him into an empty chair and shoved a plate of Rissoles filled with sweetcorn into his lap. ‘Eat.’

Romero wiped his face with the back of his hand and nudged the arm of a girl in the adjacent chair. ‘Did they tell...?’

‘Eat. Don’t talk,’ the guard growled and returned to the table and picked up a hand of cards.

Judging by their dirty clothes, the other children also lived on the streets. The youngest, a scrawny boy, looked about ten. Then there were two more boys, both around eleven and a girl. He’d had little to do with girls so he couldn’t guess her age though her breasts had begun to form. She caught him looking at her and smiled. Mortified, he studied his feet hoping his blush didn’t show.

An hour later, the woman returned with two more men. They were dressed in posh suits and butts of guns poked from beneath their jackets.

The short slim one wore expensive gold jewellery around his neck. The other man’s head almost touched the top of the door frame and his huge shoulders threatened to split his coat in two. A scar across his cheek from his ear to his lip warped a grin. Romero tried not to stare.

The woman hustled Romero from the chair and lined him up with the other children. ‘Stand up straight, brats.’

The smaller man walked the line examining them. Romero’s skin prickled beneath the man’s gaze and he was glad when he moved on to the girl.

‘You’ve done well,’ the man said spinning to face the woman.

She looked scared.

Rodriguez handed her an attaché case. ‘I’m in a hurry, Ada. Here’s your fee.’

Ada unlocked the case. Flipped the lid. Romero stifled a gasp. He’d never seen that much money. The grin on her face grew wider as she flicked through bundles of banknotes as if shuffling cards.

She snapped the briefcase closed. ‘A pleasure doing business with you, Mr Rodriguez. I will put the children in your car.’

Romero swallowed. Why would someone want to pay so much for him?




3


The Children’s Mission was above the city where Rio’s poorest families squeezed into a concrete jungle perched precariously on the hillside. Ironically, it overlooked the luxurious splendour of the Copacabana below. Modern Latino music spilled from an open door leading into a prefabricated hut. Groups of teenagers stood around laughing and joking.

As the taxi sped away, Hawk switched his attention to an older man dressed in jeans, a tee-shirt and a Nike baseball cap. He stood at the door talking to the kids. He raised thick eyebrows; his questioning eyes warm and welcoming. ‘Boa Tarde, Senior.’ He waved the children inside.

‘Boa Tarde.’

The man switched to English with a broad Irish lilt. ‘I suspect you speak English better than Portuguese and, since this is not a tourist area, I presume you’re not here by accident, so how can I help?’

‘I’m looking for Father Patrick. A child’s life is in danger. I need his help.’

The smile faded. ‘I’m Father Patrick. You’d better come inside where it’s quieter.’

Hawk followed the priest through a hall to a door leading into an apartment at the rear of the building. The music faded into the background when the door closed. A woman sat in a rocking chair in the corner sewing. She glanced up. Smiled a welcome.

‘Mary is mending the children’s clothes. Do you mind if she stays?’ The priest asked.

‘Of course not.’

‘Then how can I help, Mr...?’

‘Hawkins. Simon Hawkins.’ He handed the priest the card he’d found in the sewer. ‘I found this in the boy’s belongings. His name is Romero Lopez. Lord Hartingdon, Romero’s grandfather, hired me to take him back to England.’

The priest raised an eyebrow. ‘The Ambassador’s son? A tragic accident to be sure. Senor and Senora Lopez were loved by most of Rio’s people. I heard the boy went to live with his aunt.’

‘He did. It’s the first place I looked. She’s a cruel woman who took him in for his inheritance. When she discovered the money is tied up in trusts she took him out of school and put him to work on their farm. Romero ran away. He’s been living on the streets here in Rio since.’

‘And you want my help to find him?’
Hawk swallowed. ‘I found him earlier but I lost him again. Now he’s in trouble.’ He told the priest about Romero’s kidnap.

‘A man and a woman in a rusty white van with a dented right wing you say...’
Hawk stayed silent.

‘I’m afraid Romero is not the first,’ Father Patrick said. He wrung his hands. ‘Others have disappeared over the last three weeks and witnesses, all children, described the same van. None have been seen since.’

‘Why do you think they want them, Father?’

The priest gave a wry smile, but his eyes filled with sadness. ‘To sell into prostitution or slavery, I would think.’

‘Then why hasn’t anyone done anything?’

‘I tried. I talked to the police but they refuse to help. Our politicians won’t admit the homeless children exist and the police do as they are told. I can’t do more. I’m but a simple servant of God and my hands are full keeping these poor souls away from drug and alcohol addiction, so sorry, I am unable to help. Mary, will you please show Mr Hawkins out?’

Mary, a short woman with a big girth and an equally big smile stopped Hawk at the door. She stared into his eyes for a moment; seemed to struggle to decide something. ‘Can you really help the boy?’ She said at last.

‘If I know where to look. His grandfather is an important man in England. He is rich and kind and will give Romero a good life. Romero is the sole heir to his estate so one day the kid will be an Earl.’

‘Then come with me.’ She beckoned him outside and they squeezed into a battered Lada. As she shifted into gear, she turned to look at him once more. ‘Please, you must do whatever I say or our lives will be in danger.’

She drove uphill in silence, deeper into the Favela where people sat on doorsteps drinking and smoking outside dwellings constructed from a mishmash of materials. Many openly displayed machetes and guns. Hawk sensed the Beirut-style atmosphere but relaxed when he saw the way people waved at Mary; they knew her here.

She stopped outside one of the shacks, motioned for him to stay silent as she climbed from the car, strode up a mud path and rapped her knuckles on the door. A moment later there was a rattle from the inside and a gaunt looking man pulled it open. He smiled at Mary but it faded when he glanced over her shoulder and locked eyes with Hawk. She spoke to him. He looked nervously down the road.

Mary talked rapidly, obviously at ease with the man who seemed unhappy, but she leant close, her eyes staring straight into his and replied in an angry whisper. Hawk couldn’t hear what was said.

The man’s hands animated as he explained something to her. When they finished, she brushed hair from his eyes, kissed him on the cheek and waved goodbye.

‘He is my brother,’ she said as she squeezed into the car. ‘He did not want to tell me anything. The men who took the boy belong to a Colombian drug cartel. They will kill him if they find out he talked.’

‘How did you persuade him?’

She shook her head. ‘That is my business. I can take you to the place but maybe I should take you back to your hotel instead, eh?’

‘No. I am being well paid to find Romero.’

Mary stared at him; a glint in her eye. ‘My heart tells me you are not a man to care more about money than a boy.’
He threw her a wry smile but said nothing.

She drove back through the city. Took a dual carriageway north past the airport. Thirty minutes later, they swung into a run-down industrial area where a maze of abandoned warehouses slumped behind rusty fences.

Mary parked the car at the end of a dirt track and switched off the engine. She pointed. ‘The place you want is at the end of that road. I’ll park around the corner and wait out of sight. Be careful, Mr Hawkins. My brother says these are dangerous people.’

‘So am I, Mary. Romero’s grandfather chose me because I have certain special skills.’ Hawk climbed from the car and picked his way between ruined buildings to a pair of tall gates set into a high corrugated iron fence at the end of the track. Praying there were no dogs, he shinned to the top of the barrier and peered into a car-breaker’s yard.

The van with its kettledrum wing sat on a square of oil-stained earth in outside a breeze-block building that looked on the verge of collapse. A dim light filtered through dirty windows. He needed to see the strength of the opposition. There were at least two people inside. One armed and prepared to kill but he doubted they were alone. He had to get Romero out of there before he came to harm so there was no time for an extended surveillance operation. That left one option. Hawk swung a leg over the top of the fence but at that moment, the driver of the van emerged from the hut and strode across the yard to the gates.

Hawk dropped back to the ground outside the fence and positioned himself ready to jump him when the gates opened but, for the second time that night, the arrival of a vehicle interrupted his plans. A black Range Rover swept around the corner and forced him to duck into a shadow as it turned in through the gates. They shut and bolts clanged into place.

Hawk returned to the top of the fence in time to see two men follow the van driver inside the building. He groaned. Now the odds were at least four against one and, standing well over six feet with a fifty-inch chest, the ugly guy looked like he’d give Tyrannosaurus Rex a run for his money. Were there yet more people inside.

Hawk swung his feet over, dropped inside the yard and was about to run to the hut when the woman with the gun shepherded Romero outside with four more children. Her head was twisted over her shoulder as if she was talking to someone behind. Hawk darted into cover behind a wrecked car as the new thugs followed her out. She loaded the kids into the Range Rover and slammed the door.

‘Thank you, Ada,’ the short man in the Armani suit said. He reached into the passenger seat and lifted a black briefcase in the air. ‘We have enough merchandise so I’ve brought you a bonus. He placed the briefcase into the woman’s hands and slid into the passenger seat in front of Romero. He leant out of the window. ‘Goodbye, Ada.’

The ugly man climbed into the driving seat. Ada’s accomplice strode to the gates and heaved them open. The engine started and the Range Rover drove out into the street. As soon as it cleared the yard, Ada grabbed the case and led her friend inside the building.

Hawk sprinted up the road but the Range Rover stopped near the junction where he’d left Mary. His heart flapped like a trapped bird’s wings. Had they seen her? He crept nearer to the car, ducked behind a pile of rubble and held his breath.

The engine purred and fumes from the exhaust wafted in his direction. He buried the urge to cough. The passenger window was open. Hawk crawled closer. Wrapped his fingers around a jagged rock and willed one of the men to climb out. If he could disable one man he’d stand a chance of rescuing the kids. Seconds ticked by, then a minute, but no one exited the car and he wondered what they were waiting for.

The answer came a moment later.

An explosion ripped the air. A ball of flame expanded high into the sky from the compound. It was as if everything had been sucked from the atmosphere. After a short pause, metal sheets clattered to the ground. Shattered glass tinkled on the Range Rover’s roof. A brick bounced beside Hawk’s head with a thud.

The debris settled. ‘Drive on Carlos.’ Oxford English carefully pronounced; the short man.

The vehicle pulled away leaving a pall of dust as it rounded the corner. Hawk sprinted to the turning in its wake. He was relieved to see Mary had backed the car into the gateway a few yards up the road.

Mary crossed herself as he climbed in beside her. ‘Dues me livre! What was that bang?’

‘A bomb,’ Hawk said. Who the hell was the short man? Not a lower ranking minion in the cartel, that was for sure.

Mary grabbed his hands. ‘Thank God you’re not hurt but…’ her hand flew to her mouth… ‘The boy?’

‘He’s alive and well with four more children in the Range Rover but these men are ruthless. We must follow without being seen and get the kids back. I was in the British special forces, Mary. I’m trained so let me drive.’

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