Uneven Exchange, page 1
By S.K. DERBAN
Copyright © 2015 by S. K. Derban. All rights reserved.
First Print Edition: September 2015
Limitless Publishing, LLC
Kailua, HI 96734
Formatting: Limitless Publishing
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
To my husband, Mario.
My love, my laughter, my life.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
Silence permeated the vacated city street with the stealth of a shadow. Even the birds seemed mute as Jon Dawkins, the visiting DEA agent, stepped out from the second-floor lobby of the hotel and onto the stairs leading down to the street. He noticed how few cars were parked along the curb and surmised it was due to the early hour, yet the sidewalks were already steaming from the midday heat.
In the bright sunlight, the streets glistened with water left from a welcome predawn cloudburst. The frequent rain showers were necessary in helping to create and preserve the lush vegetation of the region. Even throughout the inner city, majestic trees with rich, dense foliage grew in abundance. Although Agent Dawkins appreciated Guadalajara’s beauty, he had no time to linger. His upcoming meeting with Ramón Torres was long overdue.
Jon sprinted anxiously toward his compact rental car, then immediately slowed. During the span of a few minutes, the intense humidity had caused his shirt to cling uncomfortably to his chest. While unlocking the door with one hand, Jon pulled at the sticky fabric with his other. He coveted relief from the air conditioning and rushed to start the engine.
Instantaneously, a fiery explosion ripped through the morning calm. Sections of torn metal mixed with fragments of human skin rocketed into the sky. A profusion of bloodstained, broken glass catapulted outward and landed more than a block away. The only recognizable objects among the scattered refuse were a half-melted tire and a charred, severed hand.
Seated in a nondescript car parked less than a block from the detonation, three men witnessed the explosion. Rico Aleman was the lone occupant of the rear seat. From his vantage point, Rico’s view was blocked by the driver, Carlos Camacho. Consequently, Rico found his attention drawn to the man in the front passenger’s seat, the man responsible for rigging the bomb.
His name was Miguel Santiago, known to many only as the Magician. This was not the first time he had killed, and Rico knew it would not be the last. Rico had been studying Santiago’s profile from the moment he felt the explosive backlash. Even as the metal and glass fragments blasted in their direction, Santiago’s facial muscles remained locked in an unemotional trance. Although Rico could not see directly into Santiago’s eyes, he had looked into their cold blackness many times before. He remembered an expression about a person’s eyes being the windows to their soul. If that were true, he figured the Magician would be one of the walking dead.
HOLIDAY IN MEXICO
Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Alexandra sat relaxing in one of the two barrel-style chairs, called equipales. The traditional leather chairs rested side by side on the rust-colored, Saltillo-tile-covered balcony. An oversized, white terrycloth robe concealed her firm, slender body, and her hair was brushed back and twisted into an impromptu knot. Even without a trace of makeup, her naturally tan complexion appeared smooth and flawless.
With knees hugged to her chest, Alexandra cupped both hands around a steaming mug of freshly brewed coffee. Deep in meditation, she unconsciously savored the Colombian blend while she gazed blindly upon the crystalline water. The musical ringtone of her mobile broke her concentration.
“Hello,” she answered softly.
“Hey there,” Jake responded.
Just hearing his voice warmed Alexandra’s soul. “Hey yourself.”
“I knew I would find you there.”
Her mouth curved into a joyful smile. “Find me where, exactly?”
Jake chuckled. “Exactly in the spot you are now sitting.” Confidently, he added, “You are outside, on the balcony, in one of those leather, barrel chairs.”
Surprised by the accuracy of his comment, she quickly scanned the patio, wondering if a camera was hidden nearby. “They are called equipales,” Alexandra corrected him.
“Ek-key-pal-lays,” Jake sounded out the syllables phonetically. “And since it is a little before nine, you are probably still lingering over your morning coffee.”
Alexandra chuckled joyfully. “Did you set up a conference call without telling me?”
“Of course I didn’t. I know you, that’s all.”
“Well, since you are absolutely correct, I guess you do know me.”
Alexandra could sense Jake’s chest puff with confidence. “Of course I know you,” he said. “We’ve been partners for more than three years.”
“That we have,” she said quietly with an instant sadness. If only we were something more. “So tell me,” her tone brightened. “Since it’s barely six in the morning your time, shall I consider this my wake-up call?”
“Not really. I’m up early today and wanted to catch you first thing.”
“Why? Is there a problem?”
“Well, before you left, I forgot to go over the timing of the Point Loma remodel. And–” Alexandra sensed a hesitation in Jake’s voice, “–I thought I would rough out the plans today.”
“Isn’t Kathryn coming in?”
“I don’t know.” He seemed evasive. “I guess she is.” Alexandra detected a slight stammer. “Daniel Jake Taylor.” She imagined staring into his piercing blue eyes. “You know Kathryn can help with anything you need. I think you simply wanted to hear my voice.”
“I always like to hear your voice.” Much to her dismay, his response sounded nonchalant. “We’re partners, aren’t we?”
“Yes, partners.” Knowing her tone rang with sarcasm, Alexandra rushed to continue. “The weather is gor
“That would be nice, but I have a lot of things going on this week.”
“You have a lot of things?” Alexandra laughed, trying to mask her disappointment.
“Don’t be giving me a hard time,” he playfully warned. “I can’t help it if I’m single.”
Neither can I. “So it’s decided, then?” she asked suddenly. “You don’t mind reviewing the Point Loma project with Kathryn?”
“No, I don’t mind a bit. I’ll talk with her first thing this morning.”
“Okay, that’s great. You know I’ll be home on Sunday night and will be in sometime Monday morning.”
“Sounds good. Have fun.”
“You too. Bye.”
Alexandra depressed the off button and absently lowered the phone to her lap. Her gaze then followed a lone seagull as it glided effortlessly above the surf. She looked out upon the ocean and observed how the various shades of blue extended as far as the eye could see. An opalescent, aquamarine color dominated the water, with cloud-shaped patches of deep sapphire set apart for no apparent reason. Even as the sailboats crossed from one color into the next, the separation remained constant.
Drawn like a magnet, Alexandra descended the clay-tiled stairs leading to the secluded beach. While still dressed in only her bathrobe, she stepped out onto the white sand and stopped to crunch her bare toes through its thick, cornmeal texture. She placed both hands into her deep pockets and stood still while the salty breeze gently grazed her slender frame. With her eyes closed, Alexandra tilted her face toward the sun and allowed the powerful rays to suspend time with penetrating waves of warmth. She first thanked God for her many blessings, then shook her head in remorse for the stupidity of inviting Jake to her condo.
What was I thinking? As always, Alexandra was thinking about a relationship with Jake. The thought of him rarely left her mind, and being alone with him in Mexico would create nothing but problems. Alexandra knew it, yet she had still broken down and invited him. She loved Jake while at the same time hated how that love caused her to dishonor God and to disrespect herself. Alexandra sighed loudly as she tightened the belt of her robe. While slowly climbing the balcony steps, she announced to the solitude, “I need to get a life.”
After taking a quick shower, Alexandra decided to ride into town on her bicycle. While peddling, she attempted to clear Jake from her mind by making a mental shopping list. As she rode along the coast, she glanced in the direction of the pier and only half noticed the arrival of the morning water taxi from Cancun.
Two DEA agents, both in casual attire, glanced at the woman riding by. Conner’s brief glimpse immediately became an intense stare as he wondered if Armando experienced the same observation. He dared not look away, afraid even a quick turn of his head would make her disappear. Neither spoke until she peddled past.
“It couldn’t be, could it?” Armando asked first.
While tugging at the rim of his baseball cap Conner scrutinized his partner. “Then you saw what I saw!” he exclaimed. “I don’t know how it’s possible. We just left her in Cancun.” Conner’s energetic eyes studied the back of their subject with interest. Shaking his head, he continued, “No, and the hair is definitely a different color. Wow! But it sure looks like her.”
“You’re telling me. This is unbelievable! Vamos amigo,” Armando said. “Come on! Let’s follow her and get a closer look.”
At a soft jog, the twosome began following the female rider. Conner knew they should be more worried about losing her than being noticed, and within seconds, they finished jogging on the uneven wooden pier planks and stepped onto the dirt road. The agents then turned left as their target slowed.
Alexandra quit peddling when she neared the open-air marketplace. Her beach-cruiser-style bike rumbled to a standstill along the unpaved road, stopping directly in front of the low cement sea wall. She leaned her bike against it, grabbed her string bags from the front basket, and started across the street.
Glancing in both directions, Alexandra looked for traffic more out of habit than necessity. The only vehicles usually along this section of the frontage road consisted of an occasional pickup, driven by the native farmers, or motorbikes rented by tourists. Fortunately, the loud noise of either one could typically be heard in plenty of time. As Alexandra crossed, her huarache-style leather sandals crunched along, picking up and depositing tiny pebbles on the dirt road.
A loose-fitting cotton sun dress camouflaged Alexandra’s shapely figure. Yet she loved the way the unbleached fiber contrasted with her natural brown skin tone. The brightness of the light shining through the woven gauze also revealed the silhouette of her long, sensual legs. Why am I dressing for Jake when he isn’t here to notice?
“¡Señorita Aleex! ¡Me alegra verlo!”
“Good to see you too, Ariceli. How are your niños?”
“Fantastico. Gracias a Dios. Thanks to God. ¿Y que necesistas hoy? What do you need today?”
“Of course, I wanted to stop by and say hello. There are also a few things I need to pick up,” she answered before glancing across the street. “¿Oye, Ariceli, conoces a esos hombres? Do you know those men? I noticed them staring at me when I looked to cross the street.”
“I do not know them, but I know why they are staring at you. You are a beautiful woman, Miss Aleex!”
Alexandra laughed and decided it best to simply ignore the men. As she gradually filled one of her shopping bags with a selection of fruit, the string expanded willingly to capture the colorful medley. She then moved toward the rear of the market.
“Have you seen enough?” Armando asked his partner.
“I sure have, Mando. This is big.”
“No, mi amigo. This is huge!”
Drug Enforcement Administration
National City, California
The shrill ring of the telephone broke Special Agent Kevin O’Neil’s concentration. Frustrated by the disturbance, he abruptly snapped up the receiver and responded with a curt “Yeah?” before quickly adding, “O’Neil here.” He could instantly hear the delay of a long-distance telephone call.
“Hey, SAC.” Conner emphasized the acronym for special agent in charge. “It’s me, Reeves,” he shouted more loudly than necessary. The agent’s voice echoed, as if he was in a large, empty space.”
“Conner, keep it down,” Kevin heard Armando caution in the background. “Remember our neighbor.”
“What’s up?” Kevin asked.
“You are not going to believe this.” Conner lowered his voice. “We may have found Daniela Santiago’s twin sister.”
Kevin bolted upright. “Twin sister?” he asked. “To my knowledge, she doesn’t have a twin. Have you been hitting the tequila?”
“I’m not kidding, SAC. And no, I haven’t been drinking. Not even a beer. But Mando and I sure did hit the jackpot. I’m telling you, this woman we discovered really looks like Daniela. Maybe it’s one of those separated-at-birth things.”
“I think you’ve been watching way too much television.” While speaking, Kevin grabbed a blank pad from the side drawer of his desk and reached for a pen. “But seriously,” he continued, “if what you’re telling me is true, I can only imagine the possibilities.”
“I know. Mando and I have been planning nonstop. We—”
“Conner, hang on a sec. I can tell that Scott will need to hear this too.” He punched the red hold button and then the extension marked S. Riggins. “Scott, if you’re in there, pick up on line one.” Without waiting for a response, Kevin returned to his call. “Okay, Conner, let’s have it.”
“Riggins here.” The assistant
“We’re on with Conner. He’s got news about Daniela.”
“Hey, Riggs,” Conner said. “Okay, as you know, we have Daniela Santiago under complete surveillance. Even this morning, right before we left for Cozumel, she was still in her condo here in Cancun. Then, less than two hours later, we see this female that looks just like her, only with blondish-brown kind of hair instead of black. It’s unbelievable! From what we can tell, they look pretty much like identical twins.”
“Who is she? What have you found out about her?” Kevin asked, then unconsciously printed Daniela’s name on his notepad.
“We followed her to the Mayan Sun condos, and leave it to Mando,” Conner said, “he’s going out tonight with the condominium manager who gave us the lowdown.”
Growing impatient, Kevin pressed, “Tell us, then. Who is she?”
“Her name is Alexandra Callet. She was one of the first buyers in the complex about three years ago. Now for the best part. Miss Callet lives in San Diego! According to the manager, she comes to Cozumel, always alone, about four times a year.”
“San Diego?” Kevin asked while scrawling the information. “Do you have anything else?”
Almost sounding disappointed, Conner responded, “Well, so far, that’s it. We wanted to call you as soon as possible.”
“No, I’m glad you did,” Kevin told him. Then, in a more authoritative voice he said, “I don’t know how he can keep track of all their names, but tell Armando his hot date is going to have to wait. You guys better take the very next flight home. I assume everything’s in place with Daniela?”