Hector felt the bump and rattle of the small aircraft as its wheels touched down on the tarmac. Lights flashed by in the darkness as the plane decelerated. He also felt his left hand being tightly squeezed as if in a vice. Turning to his much younger and now only sister, Miranda gave him a brave but watery smile. He smiled back and gently squeezed her hand in return.
"It will be okay," he told her in their native Spanish. "The bad men can't get us anymore. We're in America now and they will protect us."
Only eight years old, she looked up at him with those watery brown eyes of hers and, after a few moments, tentatively nodded her head and laid it against his shoulder.
Softly squeezing her hand yet again, he turned his head to gaze back out the window, wishing desperately that he could believe what he'd just told her was true. Unfortunately, given what he and his sister had been through, trust wasn't something he had a lot of at the moment.
The fifteen year old watched as the private jet they were in bypassed the terminal and gates for the big jets. Large metal hangers were soon sweeping past and he wasn't surprised when, before too long, they slowed dramatically, turned and parked in one. Like a well-oiled machine, the flight crew had the plane quickly powered down, the door open and the stairs down. Hector undid his seatbelt buckle, as did his sister, but before they could get up he felt a large hand land on his shoulder.
"Just stay put for a moment, and let me check everything out, okay, Tory ... Miri?"
The tone of the deep voice, like so many times before, let him know it wasn't really a question. Looking up at the big, black man who had been their protector ever since he found them in the jungle, the teenager and his tiny sister simply nodded back.
Everything, evidently, was as promised because in a matter of minutes they were hustled down the stairs and into a waiting limousine with dark tinted windows. Miri clung to his hand with both of hers the entire time. From that point on, though, everything was pretty much a blur.
There was a lady named Marisa already in the car waiting for them. Whit told them they'd be staying with her and, for some reason, pretend she was their aunt. Hector didn't question it, even though her accent was wrong for that—hers sounded Mexican. She seemed nice enough, though, even if she did talk a lot. She didn't even stop when the car dropped them off in front of a four story building.
When he thought back on it later, Hector realized he really hadn't been paying much attention for a while. He did recall there being a doorman, and that they rode on an elevator to the ... honestly, he wasn't even sure what floor they were on. The only other thing he remembered, as his head hit the pillow, was their new aunt pointing out that Whit—their giant protector—lived in the apartment right across the hall. That gave him a little peace of mind, at least.
"Oh, Whit, they looked so lost!"
Sitting at the kitchen table, Clarence Whittaker glanced up at Marisa as she brought him a hot cup of green tea. Any caffeine at this point and he would be up all night—thought, truth be told, with the things he'd seen over the last two weeks, it probably wouldn't matter as sleep was going to be tough to come by anyway.
"That's as good a description as any, I suppose," he agreed.
After taking a long sip, he gazed at the children's new caretaker over the steaming cup. He'd known the pretty Latina for a few years now and was glad she was willing to take this assignment—especially considering what happened last time. Always the earth mother type, she'd be exactly what those two kids would need right now.
"Doc Rivers will be over in the morning to look them over. Jake will be by at 11 with their new documentation. And then, after you take them shopping for clothes and such, you can bring them by the school at four."
"You sure you want to drop them into school so quickly?" she asked, a concerned expression on her face. "That poor little girl didn't say one word the entire time. And do you think the two of them will do okay with everything being in English?"
Whit glanced back toward the darkened bedrooms where the two were sleeping before his eyes returned to Marisa. "With those two the sooner the better, I think." He stopped to take another sip before returning to the question. "Linda will be here over the weekend to evaluate them, and she can tell us what she thinks—but for now, my gut tells me they don't need any more time rattling around in those heads of theirs. Besides," he continued with a telling smile, "their English is better than mine."
A noise ... there was something ... something was out of place. Danger! Snapping straight away from a deep sleep, Hector shot up in bed in a bit of a panic. A few seconds passed before he remembered where he was—then he heard her voice.
He saw the small silhouette backlit by the hall nightlight. All too familiar with both the person and the problem, he pulled back his sheets and scooted over in the bed to make room. In the blink of an eye, the slight frame of his sister was tucked up against him, with her pulling his right arm over her. He could feel her shake, as sobs wracked her body. He hugged her to himself and did his best to sooth her.
"I miss her so much." The words came out between her sobs. "Her and Merri. Oh, Tory!"
Tory could only agree, his soft voice choked with emotion. "I miss them, too, Miri. I miss them, too."
The noise level in the hallway went from very minimal to not far off from a live rock concert—and all it took was the ringing of the last bell for the day. Marisa couldn't help but laugh at the cacophony and chaos, as all the children piled out of their classroom doors.
"Hey, hey, hey ... no running you two!"
"Yes, Mister Whittaker."
Marisa had to admit, with his height, muscles, dark skin, and bald head, Whit cut one impressive figure standing there in the entryway. Just his voice alone had those boys quaking in their shoes, if not crapping in their pants. He definitely had that intimidating PE teacher vibe down pat. That scary vibe, however, had a totally different effect on her.
"Hello, Mr. Whittaker," she called nonchalantly from behind him.
He turned and gave her the barest of smiles and a nod. "Miss Hernandez."
"Oh, if only..." she mused privately to herself as she walked past him.
The crush of children rushing past her made forward progress a bit difficult at that moment, especially with the perpetual pain in her hip and left leg. Strangely enough, she was more amused by the whole situation than anything—feeling a bit like a salmon trying to swim upstream. Fortunately, the boisterous crowd of children and teenagers did lessen eventually. After a couple turns, she finally found herself walking down a mostly deserted corridor toward the music room, the sound of a solo violin leading her on.
Stepping into Mrs. Sylvia Woodrum's classroom, Marisa quietly found a seat and listened as Miranda played. While no expert in classical music or the violin, she could tell that Miri had really improved over the last few months of lessons. What made her smile every time, though, was how animated the little girl would get when she played—her long black hair swaying back and forth as she moved. Oh, if only to have the musical talent this precious little girl or her wonderful brother had in their pinky fingers!
The lesson over, Miri turned to put her violin away when she caught sight of Marisa. A smile lit up her face like the sun emerging from behind some clouds. With overflowing exuberance, she practically bounced over to her guardian—violin still in hand.
"Tía Marisa! Tía Marisa! You're early again. Did you hear me? Did you hear me?"
"Of course I heard you, sweetheart. You play so beautifully, just like your mother. But what did I tell you about speaking Spanish at school?"
"But it's after school, Tía," she replied with that absolutely adorable smile of hers. "Besides, " she said, switching back, with a twinkle in her eye and a nod toward her teacher, "it's okay, Mrs. Woodrum already knows Spanish anyway."
The child just stared back up at her with those huge brown eyes and cherubic innocence.
Reaching out with both hands, Marisa began running her fingers over the mischievous girl's scalp, as if looking for something.
Miri looked at her quizzically. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for horns," she replied, matter-of-factly.
Marisa just laughed and pulled her niece—for that's how she thought of her anymore—into an affectionate hug and kissed the top of her head. "I'm just teasing you, chiquita. Now go put your violin away and behave while I talk with your teacher, okay?"
Watching the petite girl bounce over to her case, Marisa was warmed by a peculiar notion. So what if she could never have children now? She didn't have to give birth to Miri or her brother to love them.
"I must say, Mar, your niece has just blossomed since she started playing the violin again."
Marisa nodded, looking back toward Miri's teacher. "That she has, Sylvia. I just wish Hector would do the same."
"He still won't touch an instrument?"
"No," she replied, with a sad shake of her head.
"What does he do when Miranda practices?"
"He just listens and helps me do things right," the child replied, hearing her name mentioned. "He's a lot better than me. Mamá used to say he was a... child prodigy, " shifting at the end to the Spanish term her mother had used once.
"Do you think he really is that good," Sylvia asked, switching to French—they'd done this before—and nodding her head toward Miri, "or was that just her being his mother?"
"No, he really is that good," the girl replied, also in French, before her aunt could. "Mamá was just amazed that he was already better than her."
Marisa gasped out loud and looked over at her charge. "You can speak French, too?"
The girl just nodded her happy little smile.
"Why you cheeky little monkey!"
"Gentlemen, we do not stop 'til nightfall."
"What about breakfast?"
"You've already had it."
"We've had one, yes. What about second breakfast?"
"I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip."
"What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn't he?"
"I wouldn't count on it."
The three of them had just picked back up on their venture through Middle Earth—Miri now firmly planted on his lap with their grapes and Tory ensconced in the papasan chair with his popcorn—when the phone rang. Both groaned at the interruption. Whit just smiled, but upon seeing who it was from the pop-up on the flat screen TV, he quickly paused the movie and tapped the Bluetooth in his ear.
"What do you have for me, D?"
"Nothing good, I'm afraid."
The somber tone of the normally cheerful Dani, his boss's personal assistant, concerned him. He could immediately tell this call would have none of their usual banter. "Talk to me."
"Something's come up, Whit. Several things, actually. The directorate wants a face to face."
"Alright," he replied, more than a little shaken by the news. "Give me a few minutes and I'll be on."
Whit ended the call and just sat there, mulling over in his head what might warrant such a sit down. He'd only met with the whole directorate on two other occasions, and neither was good.
"Do we have to leave?" Miri asked, squirming on his lap, the disappointment evident in her face.
Glancing over at Tory, he could see he had the same expression as his sister. Snapping back to the need to make a decision, he quickly considered his options. Normally when he would get a call like this and the kids were with him, he would just wait to take it until after Marisa got back from her physical therapy—but this clearly sounded urgent.
"No, you can stay," he decided. "Why don't you guys just watch the movie, while I head back to my office for this?"
Seeing Miri about to protest—no doubt about how he'd miss part of the movie—he gave her his most serious look and she relented without a word. After relocating her from his lap to the couch, he un-paused the film and then headed back for what he figured would be a most unpleasant meeting.
Marisa was a bit puzzled when she got back and opened the door to Whit's apartment. The TV was on, playing one of the Lord of the Rings movies—she rolled her eyes at that selection—but no one was there watching it.
"Guys, it's me," she called out as she shut the door and dropped her purse on the couch. Nothing.
Worried and reaching for the pistol in her shoulder holster, she was about to call again, when Miri came around the corner and shushed her. Taking her aunt by the hand, the young child led her to the hallway, where she could see Tory crouched down and listening at the door to Whit's office.
"Tory, you shouldn't be..."
Miri tugged on her arm to stop. "Tía, it's about Papi," she pleaded quietly. "It sounds bad."
Hesitating for a moment, Marisa glanced over to Tory. The anguish on his face moved her deeply. Knowing what needed to be done, she motioned for him to follow her and Miri to the kitchen. Opening the fridge, she grabbed out the milk and chocolate syrup for the younger two and set them on the counter. While they made themselves chocolate milk, she located a mug and poured herself a cup of coffee, with just a little cream and sugar.
Once they were all seated at the table, she looked each of them firmly in the eyes. "Niños, you mean the world to me and you do to Whit, as well. You've got to know ... when it comes to you two and your father, we will move heaven and earth to keep you safe. So, let's just wait here for Whit to finish and trust that he'll let us know what's going on, okay?"
Knowing Miranda would do whatever she said, Marisa looked at Hector. The anguish was still there and she knew why. Guilt, especially the unreasonable variety like his, was such a harsh taskmaster. Still, it was her job to keep him safe—even from himself. Staring at him, she watched the boy match her insistent gaze and then ... finally ... reluctantly ... nod in agreement.
The news had been what he'd feared. It was Tumaco all over again. A year and a half earlier, Whit lost six of his people in a firefight, plus the politician they'd been sent to protect. Three others, including himself, were wounded—one severely, Marisa. They'd been set up, betrayed. Now it had happened again—this time it was a car bomb in central Bogota, and the target was Tory and Miri's father.
One of the assistant directors, in the split screen box to the right of his boss—he thought her last name was Cisneros—gave the report. "Goodman and Haines made it out with minor injuries. They also pulled Delmonico out, but she will likely lose both legs."
Whit winced at the report. Five lost in the blast—six counting Cheryl. "And the judge?"
"A broken arm and a concussion," his immediate boss, Hugh Foster, replied, "but otherwise fine."
"And the status of the extradition hearings and other trials?"
Jaime Ortiz, the regional director there on the ground in Bogota and in his own box on the screen, gave the reply. "Obviously, they'll have to be postponed slightly," he admitted, "but Judge Valderrama is vowing to be back on the bench as soon as he physically can be and a lot of that, frankly, is due to you and Marisa. He knows his surviving children are safe with you and can focus on putting these criminals away for good."
"I hear a 'but' coming," Whit commented, staring rather intently into the webcam. "What is it you're not telling me, chief?"
"Word of Hector and Miranda still being alive and walking out of the jungle has somehow gotten out."
Dismayed, the black man shook his head in disbelief. "How did that happen? Nobody survived in that camp and we told absolutely no one when we found them and hustled them out of the country. I know we've let the kids video chat with their dad a few times but we got your clearance on that."
"We honestly don't know how this got out, Whit. What we can say, though, is that it doesn't appear to be connected at all to those video chats." Director Foster paused and then leaned forward on his forearms. "But the leaked information is not the primary reason why we called this meeting."
At this point, Director Ortiz spoke again. "As you can imagine, Agent Whittaker, the thought of an untouchable judge has the Colombian drug cartels and paramilitary groups worried. So, as of this afternoon, the bounty for them being delivered alive to one of them now stands at half a million U. S. dollars each."
"Shit! I thought things were getting better down there. What happened?"
"Nature abhors a vacuum," Ortiz replied. "The Colombian government, with our help, has the Rastrojos on the ropes, as you well know, but the reality is that's just opened the doors for other criminal bands like the Urabeños, AUC, and Paisas, to step in—not to mention longtime bad actors like FARC and the ELN. We're putting pressure on all of them, to be sure, but, there's another player new to the scene here that seems to have a real hard-on for Valderrama. Unfortunately no one's talking about who it is."
"So, it's gotten personal?"
"It seems that way," his own boss, Director Foster, interjected. "And Whit..."
"We're hearing some chatter about movement here in the U. S."
That news hit Whit even harder than the bombing. The bastards were coming for his charges and it pissed him off. "They're actively looking for them here?"
"Yes. Like I said, this is looking more and more personal. Whoever this is, they're cutting deals with a lot of bad characters who have criminal operations here in the states."
Angry, Whit glared back at the screen. "So, now what?"
Marisa looked up as Whit emerged from the office. His disturbed countenance shook her to her core. "It's pretty bad, isn't it?" she asked.
He nodded as he sat at the table. Looking first to Hector and Miranda, and then at her, she listened as he tried to lay out the situation in the most basic, straightforward way he could. The kids were understandably upset to learn about the attempt on their father's life. She was too. She'd been with them for their video chats with him, and had come to like the man. Genuine heroes with such integrity and character—like he and Whit—were hard to come by in this world.
As Whit talked, however, Marisa got the distinct impression there was even more to this story—more bad news he didn't want to worry them about. Suddenly her brain connected the dots and the picture cleared up. The four of them were on their own! It wasn't permanent—probably would last only a few days as the directorate pulled people to cover the losses in Colombia and reassigned others—but that didn't change the reality that, for now, they were on their own.
Knowing she didn't want to scare the children, she reached across the table and laid her hand over Whit's. "You need to call Mike."
Gazing out at the nighttime urban landscape from his fourth floor window, Whit was thankful the last two days had been quiet. Truthfully, neither he—nor the directorate, for that matter—knew if the bounty on the children's heads was just a shot in the dark or if someone actually had a bead on where they lived. Fortunately, up to this point, nothing out of the ordinary had surfaced here in the neighborhood or over at Brookside Academy.
Whit stayed with his own normal half-time teaching schedule there to maintain appearances but, just to be safe, he had Marisa keep the kids home from school. They complained a bit about being cooped up indoors and not being able to go to the park, but not too much. They knew it was for their protection.
Still standing at the window, staring out at the fluffs of snow as they drifted down through the glimmer of the streetlights, the tall black man fingered the ring on a chain hanging around his neck. "Just a few more days," he whispered to himself. The lack of backup from the director had him worried, but thankfully Mike had been able to take some time off and come help. He'd even brought a few friends.
Checking his watch, Whit stepped back from the window to retrieve his coat and gloves. In a few days, he'd have a new team standing guard. At the moment, unfortunately, he needed to check the near perimeter personally. Just as he reached his coat rack, however, his cell phone began to ring. By the ringtone, he knew it was Mike, so he quickly tapped his ear piece.
"Whatcha got, Mike?"
"Whit, get out of there! Get out now!"