But then again, Nick was never on time. So, why worry now? It was a beautiful late spring day in southern Mexico, and the soft sea breeze caressed Mary McCloud’s flushed face, teasing golden tendrils free from her severe chignon. With another hectic day at the village school safely behind her, the young art teacher strolled up and down the weathered wooden boardwalk, trying to forget her jittery nerves and focus on the beauty of the beach and the gaudy splendor of the shops.
“You’re blocking my view of the sea, chica,” said a rough, gravelly voice edged with humor. “Keep pacing up and down in front of my ice cream stand and you’ll scare off all the customers. That’s going to cost you.”
“Huh?” Mary’s worried expression melted into a warm smile the moment she saw the dark, deeply lined features of Go-Go Gutierrez. “Sorry, Señor G! I must’ve passed your ice cream stand three times without even noticing it. Maybe you should hire someone to paint a new sign!”
The big-bellied, mountain of a man threw back his head and laughed. Despite all her worries, Mary McCloud could not help teasing her oldest friend on the boardwalk. The truth was that Go-Go’s Ice Cream was a landmark, painted all over in glowing shades of blue and silver and gold. Mary had done it all herself, working nights and weekends free of charge. She’d created a beautiful cloudscape, but what Go-Go wanted was a sexy supermodel eating ice cream. He had said, “Someone like you, chica, only with more curves, more meat on the bone.” Mary quickly added a big fat silly-looking hippopotamus in a peppermint-striped string bikini, gobbling ice cream with great enthusiasm.
“Here, take this. My sales are lousy, so I’m giving the stuff away.” The hulking giant with the silver-gray hair handed the slim, golden-haired, art teacher a small vanilla cone with sprinkles.
“You know I’m going to end up as fat as a hippo myself one of these days,” Mary teased. They went through this ritual almost every afternoon. Go-Go insisted on paying her off with free ice cream every time she passed his stand, even though she had painted his place just for the fun of it. Having a friend like Señor Gutierrez was definitely bad for her figure! But Go-Go was actually a very important man on the boardwalk. Mary had the feeling he’d been a rough customer in his youth, and his reputation was still quite fearsome among the local population. That was good for her, because with Go-Go’s protection she could wander the village on her own and never worry about fending off local men looking to pick her up. Ordinary female tourists were not always so lucky.
“You let yourself get too fat, that good-for-nothing boy won’t want you anymore.” The big man was still teasing, but his small dark eyes were serious. “You can do better than Nick, chica.”
“Not around here,” Mary teased, licking her ice cream cone. “Not unless I can get you to leave your wife, and your six kids, and your – what is it now – your seventeen grandkids?”
“It is eighteen.” Señor Gutierrez couldn’t help smiling as he watched his favorite customer devour her ice cream. “But I am speaking to you like a father now, Mary. You have talent, a kind heart and a strong character. You need a man, not a boy.”
“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” Mary chirped. “My art comes first. Anyway, I know you’re just jealous of Nick because he’s got all the other girls chasing him!”
“You’re not chasing him,” Go-Go noted approvingly. “He’s the one chasing you. I just don’t want him to get you into trouble. Like he did with the stupid writing he put on my brand-new sign!”
Mary looked up at the cloudless blue sky, rolling her emerald-green eyes in mock exasperation. “Go-Go, you’re not only being jealous, you’re being ridiculous. When are you going to admit that Nick’s advertising jingle gets you just as much business as my fancy artwork?”
Nick’s jingle really was very clever. Late at night, Mary’s mischievous friend had snuck over to Go-Go’s Ice Cream and wrote it out under the hippo’s feet in flowing cursive script, using a thick black marker. Based on an old rock classic, the jingle ran, “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging hippos/Cause summer’s here and the time is right to grab a cone at Go-Go’s!”
“I don’t like it,” Go-Go was grumbling. “Rock music is for people on drugs. One day that Nick is going to get you into plenty of trouble. You should stop hanging around with that no-good boy from New York. You are a full-grown woman, not some empty-headed tourist girl.”
“Real tourists are rich, Go-Go. They don’t live off handouts from big, soft-hearted locals.”
“Handouts,” Go-Go scoffed. “When do I give handouts? I give payment to the beautiful lady genius who painted my ice cream shop and brought in all the customers. You know, I think I will paint my ice cream delivery trucks with hippos too. Hippos make people want to eat and eat!”
“That’s quite a marketing strategy.” Mary said gravely. She meant to sound very grown-up, but she couldn’t help giggling like a little girl. Hanging out with Go-Go always brought out her silly side. She loved him more than anyone she had met in Mexico, except, of course, for Nick.
“I have other ideas, too.” Go-Go handed her a laminated plastic card with her name on it. “See that? Membership in Go-Go’s Ice Cream Club. This will open doors for you everywhere you go in Mexico, my little golden-haired artistic genius. Now you can build up points for free ice cream!”
“You mean, now I can get fat as a hippo for half the price?” The slim young woman smiled, thanked her friend for the ice cream and strolled off down the boardwalk, a thoughtful look on her delicate features. Now, that the school year was almost over, Mary knew she would have to watch every penny in order to survive the blistering hot summer ahead. Her plan was to spend the entire break sweltering in her tiny studio apartment, painting seascapes and sunsets. She’d paint until she couldn’t lift a brush! In another year she’d have enough money to show her paintings at a small gallery back home in Montreal. If she lived within her means she could paint all summer long, and if her paintings were no good she would always have her teaching to fall back on. Mary was the sort of girl who played it safe, whether it was watching pennies or guarding her heart from needless pain. Nick was the one who believed in trusting one’s talent and taking risks.
With his soulful dark eyes, impish high spirits and zest for life, Nick Napoli was a born heartbreaker, though, thankfully, Mary was immune to his charm. Ever since the day they’d met, he’d been like a big brother to her, teasing her for her shyness, praising her vast talent and shamelessly encouraging her to quit her job and devote herself to painting full time.
“And I suppose you’ll support me while I paint? Are you planning to set me up in my own seaside villa? How will you explain that to the other girls?”
“I swear to you, baby, those other women mean nothing to me!”
It was all in fun, of course. This was the soap-opera style conversation they always had over late-night drinks at the beachfront café or strolling on the sand or just lying around sunbathing on the roof. The two of them were like a couple of teenagers, really. They talked about sex for hours but never really did anything about it. Nick teased her for living like a nun, and she teased him for being irresistible to every tourist girl in town. Mary wasn’t naïve about her friend’s active love life, but she never had to battle feelings of jealousy about Nick’s other women, because they both knew things were perfect just as they were. Nick had all the women he could handle, so he never pressured her to take things beyond friendship. Mary was grateful, because as much as she adored Nick she just didn’t see him in a sexual way.
Of course, it would be lovely to say that she never saw any man that way, or that she never felt drawn to any man out of pure sexual desire. Unfortunately, there was always an exception to the rule. A wry smile tilted the corners of Mary’s generous mouth as she sat down to rest on one of the simple stone benches that dotted the boardwalk. Nick didn’t know it, as her carefree companion had been off on one of his regular jaunts to New York City, but just a few weeks ago Mary had run into exactly the kind of dark and highly dominant male she usually avoided. The result had been quite predictable. A tawdry one-night stand followed by a humiliating brush-off the following day. At least she had the deep satisfaction of knowing that she would never see Maximilian Santiago again!
“Hey, you! Pretty Señorita! Get your head out of the clouds!”
“Nick!” Mary spun around, one slim hand flying to her throat. She gave a breathless laugh, and felt a tide of relief surging through her. Seeing the battered jeep pulled up to the edge of the boardwalk made her realize how foolish it was to worry. No matter how feckless he appeared to be, Nick was devoted to her. He would always turn up sooner or later.
“Come on, get in.” Nick’s smiling face was a sight for sore eyes. But his own dark eyes looked unusually nervous as he patted the seat beside him. “I know I promised to take you out for dinner, since you’re going to be living on canned food and bottled water all summer long. But something’s come up at home. I’ve got to be on the seven o’clock flight back to New York.”
“Oh, poor, Nick. Did your father cut off your allowance again?” Mary jumped into the jeep at once, remembering to close the creaky, old passenger side door as firmly as possible. Nick loved bargains, and his second-hand jeep was literally falling apart. Sometimes he was so broke, he needed to borrow money from Mary or sleep on her tiny sofa. But even though he loved the scruffy lifestyle of a struggling painter, sensible Mary was well aware that her carefree companion came from wealth. Whenever he came back from New York he always seemed to have plenty of cash.
Nick looked sulky. “I don’t live off my father. You know that. I have my own business!”
“Of course, dear.” Mary didn’t press the point because she knew Nick was very sensitive about being seen as a rich boy. He didn’t realize how lucky he was to have a family that cared!
The two of them grabbed burgers and milk shakes at Smoky Joe’s Café, a fun Fifties style American restaurant by the airport. Nick cheered up as soon as Mary promised to look out for his pitiful old jeep. His wild stories about fending off sex-starved American tourists had her laughing so hard her sides ached. Afterwards they barely had time for a goodbye kiss at the terminal gate.
“Do you want me to take your jeep back to my place?” Mary asked, holding the keys in her hand. Nick was always asking her to babysit his broken-down heap when he was out of town.
“Sure, that would be great, baby!” Nick’s playful features flashed a quick frown. “Actually, I just remembered, I left a big canvas bag full of art supplies in the back. My landlady says the smell of paints and paint remover stinks up her whole house!”
Mary bit her full, soft lower lip. Nick’s landlady was always complaining, just because he was usually late with the rent. Mary always paid her landlady on time, even when it meant skipping a meal or two. Still, Mary knew how paints could smell, which was why she always stored hers in a shed on the roof of her apartment building. But there wasn’t any room to spare. “I know! I’ll take your jeep over to the village school. I can keep the paints in the art supply room until you get back!”
“That’s my girl!” Nick kissed both her cheeks. “When I get back we’ll take the jeep and go up the coast to those Aztec ruins. You could paint something really powerful in a place like that!”
Mary laughed. “Are you trying to turn me into a serious painter? I like painting in watercolors, and I like studies of sunsets and the sea because they give people a cheerful feeling.”
Nick looked thoughtful, and even a little sad. “You are a serious painter, baby. You just haven’t discovered the key that will unlock your vast talent. I wish I could be there when it happens!”
“Why, Nick, I’ve never heard you sound so solemn and melancholy.” Mary felt uneasy for a moment. She loved Nick but sensed that he was pulling away from her, from their special friendship. For no reason she could fathom, tears sprang to her emerald-green eyes.
By the time she wiped them away Nick was gone.
First, fat little Tito pulled Francesca’s hair, and then in revenge she spilled his paints all over the floor. Mary spoke sternly to the little boy at once, reminding him he was a gentleman in Spanish. A few low, soothing words soon dried Francesca’s tears as well. With the proper approach it was easy to get both of them to clean up the mess together. Mary loved working with children. Still, crazy mornings like this one made her almost grateful for the crackle of static on the classroom intercom. Wiping her hands with an old rag, the young, art teacher pressed the button and said, “Si?”
“Señorita McCloud, please report to the main office at once!”
Señora Ramos was waiting for her in the office, and for once her stern, deeply lined face was wreathed in smiles. There was a man with her, and even though he was facing away from Mary as she entered the room something about the outline of his broad shoulders was disturbingly familiar.
“Ah, there you are, my child! What a pleasure it is to have such a talented young artist on our school staff. The lovely Señorita McCloud is our youngest teacher by far, but a most dedicated and caring professional. My dearest, Mary, may I introduce His Excellency, Maximilian Santiago?”
The tall, broad-shouldered man in the expensive, tailored suit had already risen from his seat, the effortless movements of his big body reminding Mary of a jungle panther’s silent deadly grace. But it was the strikingly chiseled, purely masculine beauty of his dark, sardonic features that stunned her senses, even as the shock of sudden recognition sent waves of color flooding to her cheeks.
It couldn’t be, her dazed mind repeated over and over, as the dark-eyed stranger took her slim white hand and raised it slowly to his lips. It couldn’t be! Her shameful and uncharacteristic behavior from weeks ago had come back to haunt her. But how? Mary’s foolish one-night stand had been with a wealthy businessman from Mexico City, a man who laughingly told her that he was only briefly passing through her sleepy beachfront town. What harm was there in a single naughty night when she would never see him again?
“The Señorita is surprised,” Max rumbled, biting back a triumphant smile as he studied the slim, long-legged blonde he’d slept with just weeks before. Yes, Mary McCloud was as lovely as he remembered. At the moment her pale, sensitive, delicately refined features were a study in confusion. Her shining, emerald-green eyes were dilated with shock and her full, rather pouting lips were slightly parted in a way that insisted on an immediate male response. Max had every intention of kissing her again, and soon. But first there was more important business for him to manage.
“The two of you are acquainted?” The stern headmistress gave Mary a sharp enquiring look. Though she ran a modern daycare and preschool, Señora Ramos was very old-fashioned about certain things. She expected her unmarried female staff to behave like proper young ladies on and off school property. This had never been a problem for Mary until today.
“It was a chance meeting,” Mary murmured, feeling both guilty and defensive. “I was doing some sketching on my day off, copying one of the religious frescoes at the church. Señor Santiago just happened to notice me scribbling away there in the dark.”
“I warned you that your eyes would be ruined,” Maximilian Santiago reminded her, his voice low and teasing. “And that would be a pity. They really are such an extraordinary shade of green.”
“Yes, well I hear that sort of thing all the time from men who want to pick me up,” Mary shot back. “However, as I explained to you that afternoon, I am not in Mexico looking for a good time.”
“Yes, I can see that now.” Max was amused. The two of them stared at each other, each measuring the other. He understood Mary’s embarrassment, and yet nothing untoward had happened within the holy place. It was only after they left the church that things had gotten very interesting.
“Fascinating.” Señora Ramos puckered her mouth as though sucking on a lemon. “As you know, Señorita McCloud, our school is in serious financial difficulties. We educate many of the poorest children in this village free of charge, and we will continue to do so. But in order to survive it is very important that we attract children from wealthy, respectable families as well.”
“Yes, of course.” Mary put on her brightest smile, knowing that she had to be a perfect lady to help the school stay afloat. Her revenge on Max would have to wait, yet she couldn’t resist sprinkling a little sugary sarcasm into her voice as she asked, “Do you have a child, Señor? Would you and your wife like a tour of the school?”
One corner of Max’s generous mouth quirked, reminding Mary far too vividly of his kiss. “I am not married, Señorita McCloud. However, my younger sister has a small son who will soon need schooling. Adam is very fond of drawing, so I would be most grateful if you would show me around your classroom after the lunch bell rings.”
“Why not?” Mary asked. “You can come down now, if you’re not afraid of ruining that fancy suit of yours. Most watercolors wash out in time.”
“I am glad to hear that,” Max replied. “Because you have a few dabs of it on your nose. Fortunately, green paint goes well with your emerald eyes. And the red matches your crimson lips.”
“It is true!” Señora Ramos gave an almost girlish giggle as she gazed at rich, handsome Max. But when she looked at Mary her eyes were stern and commanding. “Please, Señorita McCloud, do what you can to convince Señor Santiago that his nephew will be very happy at our little school.”
Mary was steaming as the two of them walked down the narrow, dimly lit hallway together, their shoulders and hands nearly brushing at each step. This whole situation was ridiculous!
“Children, we have a visitor,” the young art teacher announced, trying to sound bright and cheerful instead of agitated. That walk down the hall had gotten her all mixed up. The musky smell of Max’s cologne and the warmth of his hands brushing hers had made her light-headed. Even in the brightly-lit art room she felt disturbed by the overpowering male presence of Maximilian Santiago.
“I know you!” cried fat little Tito in Spanish. “On television I saw you with a bunch of other policemen, getting a medal for chasing the drug cartels out of central Mexico. You’re with Special Units, the ones with helicopters and machine guns. Do you fly in a helicopter every day?”
“No, my friend,” Max replied. “Special Units does many things besides chase people with helicopters. I am still in law enforcement, but I’m afraid I’m not really a policeman any more. On most days I work behind a desk in a very large office in Mexico City, with thousands of other people.”
“Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world,” put in little Francesca, knowingly. “Tito probably just saw someone else on television and thought it was you. But I saw you on television too, at the Ariel Awards. Those are Mexican Film Awards, like the Oscars,” the little girl put in politely, for the benefit of her teacher. “You were posing for pictures with Rosa Navarro, the sexiest film star in Mexico. But you’re not a star yourself, because I know all of them.”
“Quite correct,” Max said, smiling. “I was accepting a technical award on behalf of my father. The Santiago Corporation makes modern sound equipment and communications devices. No doubt you have heard of Reynaldo Santiago, the billionaire. I am his son, Maximilian Santiago.”
“Right!” Mary cried, feeling dazed and a bit bewildered. She’d expected gorgeous, grown-up Max to look ridiculous in the children’s art room, just standing there in his fabulous suit. But the children adored him, and he was clearly at home with them. Mary pasted on a huge smile. “Just like his father, Señor Santiago has achieved success in many fields. That can happen for us too, if we work hard. Let’s paint a picture to show Señor Santiago what we want to be when we grow up!”
For the rest of the class, the children painted, and Mary showed her guest the various projects they had completed earlier in the school year. Fingering the ceramics and the paintings kept her from focusing too much on the dark, vibrant man beside her.
“Are you really doing all this for your nephew?” Mary made no effort to hide her skepticism. The art period was nearly over. “Where is he, anyway? Did you bring him with you today?”
“He’ll be home soon,” Max replied. “At the moment, he is with my sister, Alejandra, in Paris. She works in a leading fashion house for an important designer.”
“I see.” A slight frown creased Mary’s smooth white forehead. Max’s story didn’t quite ring true. But his family problems were not her business. The sad look in his fabulous dark eyes had no effect on her. None at all. “Children, you may begin to clean up your desks. I’m very happy with how hard you worked today, and how kind you were to our special visitor. Make sure to wash out your paint brushes and leave them in the sink!”
Max watched her handle the class with quiet appreciation, noting how she praised them while demanding proper behavior. “You work well with children, Señorita. My sister is bored with them. Her relationship with Adam’s father ended shortly after he was born, and now she is interested in someone new. Adam is something of an encumbrance to her, a child whose mother has moved on. But I suppose all this sounds like a soap opera to you. The jet-set woman and her unwanted child.”
“Unwanted children are everywhere, Señor Santiago,” Mary said crisply. Just then the bell rang, preventing her from tumbling into self-pity and saying something stupid about her own past. All of a sudden, the children were gone for the day and she was alone with Max. Her heart lurched.
“I didn’t come here this morning because of my nephew, Adam,” the sexy male informed her. “I came because I wanted to see you again. To see you and to make love to you again for hours.”
“That’s funny,” Mary replied tartly. “When I called your office in Mexico City, you told me that you were going to be busy for several weeks. You said I shouldn’t call again, that you would call me when you had ‘more leisure time to spend in the country’. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Max winced, knowing the slender blonde with the refined features and feisty green eyes spoke the truth. “You cannot be expected to understand this, Señorita, but sometimes to uphold the law and protect the safety of others I must do unpleasant things I do not wish to do. It’s my job.”
“Your job?” Mary asked innocently. “You mean that high-paying corporate job you told me about over dinner that night, working with your father’s favored clients and making millions of dollars? Or are we talking about your real job? Tito and Francesca both seem to know more about you than I do. Serves me right for not having enough money to afford a flat screen television.”
“I am with the Attorney General’s office,” Max told her, with a casual shrug of his broad shoulders. “I oversee certain investigative functions of the Federal Judicial Police, the senior law enforcement branch in Mexico. But my job is not who I am. You teach for a living, yet you are an artist. When I visited your apartment, I saw much beauty. And not all of it was in the graceful curve of your breast or the exquisite lines of your long and slender legs. Do you remember when I lifted your long, long legs over my shoulders and explored the moist cleft between your thighs?”
“Now you’re an art critic too?” Mary remembered far too much. She wanted to recapture that night. Instead, she broke the spell with a flippant remark and glided over to the classroom window. There wasn’t much to see, of course. Only the school parking lot and the supply shed. But for some reason there was a police van parked in front of the shed. While Mary watched, three uniformed officers in helmets and bulletproof vests emerged from the van with a battering ram.
“Madre de Dios, I am finished! Disgraced and dishonored, ruined forever! This is the end of all I have built. The end, Señorita, do you understand? And it is all… your… fault!” Señora Ramos pointed her stubby finger with melodramatic emphasis before collapsing again into helpless, wailing sobs. The crumbling stone walls of the village jail seemed to echo with the woman’s cries.
“I’m very sorry, Señora. I’m so sorry. I’m sure this is all a mistake!” Mary had been locked up with the hysterical older woman for hours, with nothing to eat or drink. It was hard to think of anything but getting even with the man behind it all.
Mary knew that the dozens of little plastic baggies full of cocaine carefully concealed in the canvas bag had been put there by Nick Napoli. But why on earth would Nick want to hurt her? What could he gain by framing her?
The moment he suspected that the Federal Judicial Police were on his tail Nick must have simply panicked. Terrified of a prison sentence in Mexico, he dumped the drugs and ran for his life. By now he was probably safe in New York City. But he wouldn’t be safe for very long, coming home empty-handed. Mary doubted whether the mob would forgive a total failure. Poor Nick!
A huge, ugly cockroach chose that moment to run across the stone floor of the cell. Mary stomped down with all her might, but the hideous insect effortlessly glided under the bars and escaped. That was something she couldn’t do, even though she was as innocent of drug dealing as the swarm of bugs that shared her prison cell. Now that she thought of it, stomping the cockroach was not even worth it. If she could stomp anyone, it would be that disgusting Maximilian Santiago!
Mary gripped the rusted iron bars of her cell in her small white hands, putting her face between the bars and glaring out at the world beyond her prison. Fear and shame were mingled with a fierce and vengeful anger as she put together what had really happened to her. Now that she was in jail, she understood the true meaning of her one-night stand with the devastatingly attractive male.
Maximilian Santiago must have been investigating Nick for weeks, if not months. His men probably had poor Nick under video surveillance, watching his comings and goings, noting who he knew and how he spent his days. They must have decided that Mary was in on things long before Max ‘accidentally’ bumped into her at the church. Mary’s cheeks flamed as she saw too late that the overwhelming attraction they’d shared had been pure manipulation on his part. Max had charmed his way into her apartment, into her bed, and made love to her with consummate skill for hours. He’d kept her jumping through hoops all through the hot afternoon, trying one position after another, giving her climax after climax until she slept at last, spent and unsuspecting, leaving him free to search her apartment. Oh, he’d admired her paintings and no doubt gone through all her things. And it was all to find out what she knew about Nick’s pitiful attempt at drug smuggling!
But in the end, the joke was on Max after all. Mary smiled grimly as she gripped the bars. The man he’d been after had slipped through his fingers, leaving him holding nothing but the bag. Mary knew that she was only in jail now because the Mexican authorities needed an arrest to save face. They knew she was innocent. Max knew she was innocent. Up until the very moment of her arrest she’d been absolutely ignorant of Nick’s true nature. She’d been a blind little fool, seduced not by Nick’s sex appeal but by his easy, boyish charm and his genuine appreciation of her talent.
Max and the Mexican police knew all that, of course. But they probably hoped she would break down at the threat of jail, and blubber a fake confession to save her skin. Whatever lies she came up with would merely be extra evidence they could use against Nick, if they ever caught up to him, and if the mob hadn’t already killed him for coming home without the product or the money.
Mary didn’t know much about Mexican law, but she felt quite certain she could hold out in the crumbling village jail for a long, long time. She knew how strong she was. And she knew the difference between right and wrong. Above all, she knew how to defy the man she hated for making love to her until she let down all her defenses. Deceitful, dishonest, devastatingly seductive Max would never get her to give in again!
Just then there was a loud clanking sound as the hallway gate was unlocked from the outside. A heavily built older man shambled into view, his brown face worried and his small black eyes full of sadness. Without saying a word, he approached the cell in silent despair, lifting his massive paws to embrace Mary as best he could through the rusted iron bars.
“Go-Go! Oh, Go-Go, thank God you’re here!” Mary’s joyful cry died to a whisper as she looked over her shoulder at her cellmate. Señora Ramos had cried herself to sleep and was now snoring lustily on the bare wooden bench that served as the cell’s single bed.
“Is the Señora not good company?” Señor Gutierrez smiled with a trace of his old humor.
“She’s driving me crazy,” Mary whispered, rolling her sea-green eyes in mock exasperation. “To hear her talk, you’d think we were both going to be locked up for the rest of our lives!”
“Well, I don’t think the old woman has anything to worry about,” Go-Go said, the unhappy look in his eyes making Mary apprehensive. “I’ve just spent the last hour talking with my friends here on the local force. I gave them a bite and they snapped at it, but…”
“A bite?” Despite all her worries, Mary’s delicate features took on a look of amusement. She pictured a crowd of brown-uniformed local policemen standing around eating ice cream cones.
“You know what I mean, chica. I offered them a mordida, a bribe. That is the only way to get things done around here. The police only help those who have money to pay.”
“Oh.” Mary’s lovely face fell. Money was the one thing she didn’t have to offer.
“Anyway, they took the small bribe I offered, but they say that for the amount of money I have at my disposal they can only spare the old woman, not the young miss.”
“But I’m innocent!” Mary reached through the bars and grabbed the old man’s massive shoulders. “You know I’m innocent, don’t you, Go-Go?”
A pained look crossed the old man’s weathered features. “I told you time and time again that boy was no good,” he said, scolding Mary just like a disappointed father. He gently removed her small hands from his big shoulders, his ebony eyes quietly reproving. “You are to blame for choosing the wrong friends, and for not listening to the advice of those who know what’s best for you.”
“I thought you were my friend,” Mary said bitterly, choking back tears. “I thought you really cared about me, Go-Go!”
“I do care about you, little one. But you must understand, this is a federal case. The Federal Judicial Police are the most powerful law enforcement organization in Mexico. They are highly trained and extremely professional. They don’t even take bribes! They answer directly to the Attorney General’s Office. Max is their chief, and he wants to close this case very badly.”
“Well, he won’t get any help from me,” Mary choked out. Tears were running down her cheeks, but she refused to give in to shuddering sobs like Señora Ramos. “Take back your money, Go-Go,” she sniffled, cutting off her tears and forcing a wobbly smile. “I’m not leaving here.”
“If only I could get you out of this jail,” Go-Go said sadly. “Once the federal people take you away it’s finished. You’ll be shut up for months before you’re even brought to trial. We’ll never see you again. But if we could only get you out of this jail cell, I’m certain I could smuggle you out of the country, or at least get you to Mexico City. Every Tuesday afternoon a delivery van comes down with barrels of ice and syrup. You could climb inside for the return trip and no one would ever know. Once you reach the capital you’d be home free. You can claim asylum at the Canadian consulate!”
Mary shook her head. “It’s no use. I’m not leaving this jail, Go-Go. They want me as a witness against Nick. That has to be the only reason they’re still keeping me!” The reality of her situation was only now starting to hit her. She might be locked up for years. And if she were taken to one of the nightmare jails she’d read about in Mexico City, she might very well die in prison.
“What has happened? Why are you shouting?” Señora Ramos had woken up from her brief nap in a sour mood. The elderly, black-clad woman stood up in the cell and glared at Mary, the scowl on her wrinkled features saying plainly that she blamed the young woman for all her troubles.
“Wonderful news!” Anxious to calm the old woman, Mary cranked up a thousand-watt smile even though her heart felt ready to crack right down to her shoes. “You are going to be released, Señora. My friend Señor Gutierrez has spoken to the local police on your behalf!”
“I do not believe you.” The plump, petulant principal of the village school was so busy scowling at Mary that she didn’t even notice Go-Go standing right there. “Everyone knows about the great Señor Gutierrez. That old man is no better than a criminal himself!”
“Hush, mamacita,” Go-Go said gently. “I am here to help you. Señorita McCloud speaks the truth. You should not be angry with her. She is not a criminal, and she has done nothing wrong!”
“Then why is she in jail?” Señora Ramos demanded spitefully.
“She is here because I wish it,” said a deep voice. Maximilian Santiago appeared out of nowhere, flanked by two heavily armed federal guards in helmets and body armor. They carried long assault rifles and in their jet-black uniforms they looked more like combat soldiers than police. Yet, Max looked as elegant as ever in a dark green tailored suit. It was as if he were on his way to a Mexican film premiere with an eager starlet on his arm, instead of taking a hapless prisoner to jail.
“Do you wish to keep me here forever?” Mary asked, gazing at him through the bars. They weren’t alone, not with Señora Ramos and Go-Go hanging on every word. But even though they had an audience, the heat between them made Mary feel they were the only people in the whole world.
“No,” Max said bluntly. “But you will not leave this jail until I get a signed statement. You are my personal responsibility, Señorita Mary McCloud. You stay with me. The rest of you may go.”
The cell door slid open, and Señora Ramos scurried away without even a backward look. But at least Go-Go took the time to look into Mary’s eyes and shake his head sadly as he departed.
It was obvious that the two of them never expected to see her again.