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Authors: Jordan Dane

Reckoning for the Dead

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Jordan Dane

R
ECKONING FOR THE
D
EAD

A Sweet Justice Novel

Dedication

To my uncles and aunts—

Loren, Beth, Larry, Joyce, and Lorena.

Laughter is like taking a vacation

without returning home ten pounds heavier.

Acknowledgments

In this fourth book of the Sweet Justice series, I was influenced by the escalating violence along the United States/Mexican border. And after researching how the drug cartels work through the gangs on the U.S. side, I had to write a story to shed light on that. Covert operative Alexa Marlowe goes off the grid when her former lover and boss, Garrett Wheeler, goes missing under mysterious circumstances and is suddenly replaced by someone she doesn't trust. And when surprising DNA evidence surfaces on an old cold-case murder in Wisconsin, Jessie Beckett learns more about her already frightening past as her relationship with Seth Harper deepens. Will Jessie let Seth into her life enough to help her through the ordeal? I love writing about strong women and the men who love them. As a writer, it's my job to throw roadblocks in their way even though I feel bad when I do so. The characters in this series have become very dear friends. And I feel blessed to have them be a part of me.

And speaking of blessed, I'm fortunate to have friends and family who bring joy to my life. My dear husband constantly surprises me with the many ways he supports my work. And my parents have always nurtured each of their children in unique ways. I'm truly blessed to have them. And my weapons wizard, Joe Collins, is a real-life hero that I'm lucky to have as a friend.

Special thanks to my amazing editor, Lucia Macro. Your collaboration is remarkable. As always, you bring everything together and make it fun. And thanks to all the staff at Avon Books who played a part in this project, with special recognition to my agent, Meredith Bernstein. I'm so happy to have you in my life.

And finally I want to express my profound gratitude to my readers. I love hearing from you through my Web site at
www.JordanDane.com.
Except for the many voices I hear in my head, writing is a solitary activity, but finishing a book is only part of the equation. The most important part is for you to read the book and take a journey with me. You complete my creative circle, and I'm especially grateful for all of you who have been following this series and enjoying my books. The passion I feel for writing is made richer by your continued and cherished support.

Chapter 1

El Paso, Texas

Nearly midnight

A
fter he'd sent a text message on his cell phone, twelve-year-old Ruben de los Santos did as he'd been ordered to do. He followed the man from a safe distance as he left the cantina, heading for his car. The parking lot was down two blocks and around a corner if the man stuck to the well-lit streets. If he knew of the shortcut, he would use the alley.

That was what Ruben prayed he would do.

When the stranger looked over his shoulder, Ruben ducked into the shadows of a doorway and waited until it was safe to move. With his heart racing, he counted to five before he emerged from the shadows. By the time he did, the man was gone.


Ay, Dios mio,
” the boy muttered, with his eyes alert.

Ruben looked down the lit street and saw no sign of the man, but when he turned toward the alley, he caught a glimpse of movement. It had to be him.

He ducked into the alley and stepped up his pace to catch the man. When he got to the end of the alleyway, he stopped and held his breath. Slowly he inched closer to the corner and peered into the darkness.

That was when a hand grabbed his shirt collar and pulled him off his feet.

“Please . . . don't hurt me,” he begged.

Ruben covered his face with his hands and raised his voice higher, sounding more like the boy he was.

“Why are you following me, kid?”

The tall, muscular man kept ahold of him. His body was cast in nothing more than a bluish haze. Ruben couldn't see his face. And although the boy felt the heat of the man's breath on his cheek, he tried not to be afraid.

Ruben de los Santos wasn't alone.

“You will see soon enough,
señor.
” The boy forced a smile with courage he didn't feel.

The big man released his grip on Ruben and pulled away. He reached for his weapon, but it was too late. Members of Ruben's gang emerged from the shadows like ghosts rising from the grave. The stranger was surrounded.

“Who are you? And what do you want?” the man demanded. He aimed his weapon into the crowd, shifting his barrel from face to face. He was outnumbered and outgunned.

“Lower your weapon,
pendejo.
You will not be asked a second time.” Arturo, one of the older boys, stepped forward and held his gun sideways, aiming between the man's eyes. Ruben held his breath, unable to take his eyes off the two men. If one of them fired, many would die. And Ruben had no doubt he would get caught in the cross fire.

The standoff continued, neither man backing down, until the one Ruben had trailed into the alley finally lowered his weapon. The boy let out a ragged breath and made a quick sign of the cross, but it wasn't over.

After they'd taken the man's weapon, every gang member of
Los Chupacabras
beat and kicked the stranger until he dropped to the asphalt.

After he was down, lying unconscious and bleeding on the ground, Ruben searched his pockets for his wallet. He pulled out the few hundred dollars he had in cash and gave it to Arturo, the boy in charge. And Ruben got a look at the man's driver's license and saw his name and where he lived.

“I'll need that.” Arturo held out his hand. “Cash is ours, but his ID goes with me.”

One of the other boys pulled a van into the alley. They loaded the wounded man into the back and carried out the rest of their orders. The man was to be taken across the Mexican border and delivered to someone linked to the Pérez cartel in Juárez. Ruben's gang in El Paso had powerful connections on the other side of the border, men who supplied them with drugs to sell. And in return,
Los Chupacabras
carried out execution-style killings, acted as drug mules, and bartered for weapons with their brother organization. That was why Ruben had taken the risk to follow an armed man into the alley.

He had passed his initiation. And the unconscious man in the back of the van had been his ticket in, but what the American from New York City had done to piss off the cartel and earn him a one-way trip across the border, Ruben didn't know.

And didn't care.

Outside Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

Three hours later

Ramon Guerrero's footsteps echoed as he walked the shadowy corridors of the rancho, guided by the meager light from flickering torches. The old hacienda belonged to his family, handed down through the generations. Although it had no electricity, and its only source of water was an old well on the property, it served its purpose by sheltering him and his men. It had been a good location to hide the many hostages who were held for ransom as a funding source for his drug operation. And being remote, the ranch enabled him to carry out the unsavory side of cartel business without anyone's knowing what went on behind its adobe walls.

An armed guard stood at the end of the long passage. The man had been slouched in a chair but now stood at attention as Guerrero approached.

In his native tongue, he asked the guard, “Has he admitted anything of value?”

The man only shook his head.

“Then it is my turn. Unlock the door,” he ordered. The guard did as he was told.

A dark silhouette of a man was backlit by moonlight from the only barred window, with eerie shadows, cast from a single torch, undulating against the wall. The hostage had been stripped of his clothes. Completely naked, hanging from a metal bar, his body sagged from its own weight. Ropes cut into his wrists, and blood had run down his arms. Deep contusions were visible on his taut belly and rib cage, an aftermath of the beatings he had endured before and after he'd been delivered to the hacienda.

In the corner of the cell was a wooden bucket. Guerrero picked it up and threw dirty water at his prisoner.

“Ah.” The man groaned and tried lifting his head, without much success.

“My name is Ramon,” the drug lord said in English. “Your fate is in my hands.”

“Go to . . . h-hell.”

Guerrero grimaced at the prisoner's lack of respect.

“You will make it there well before me. I can assure you.”

When Guerrero got close, he held his breath. The stench of blood and other distasteful smells made it hard to breathe. He grabbed the man's dark hair and yanked his head back. The prisoner's face was battered and bleeding. And one eye was swollen shut. Guerrero had allowed his men first crack at the hostage.

The man had brought unwanted interest. He'd been asking too many questions across the U.S. border in El Paso, calling attention to Guerrero's Juárez operation. After receiving reliable intel from a number of sources, Guerrero figured he had an edge to exploit that could expand his reach. He gave the order to take the man alive and deliver him, and any identification he had on him, to the rancho's gate. Perhaps the hostage would be Guerrero's way of gaining more power within the cartel.

Like many, Guerrero had ambitions. The hostage had crossed his path for a reason. His appearance could not merely be chalked up to good fortune. He preferred to think of the opportunity as his fate, his much-deserved due.

“I am surprised you took such a risk. Did you not think we would find out what you were doing in Texas? Did you think being across the border would protect you?” Guerrero walked around the naked man, taking in every old scar that marred his body. One scar in particular had caught his eye. No doubt, the man had seen his share of fights, but the prominent burn scar on his back had betrayed him. And, given what Guerrero already knew, he had enough to get what he wanted without the man's cooperation. It was one thing to have the man's ID but quite another to truly know who he was and what he did for a living.

“Surely someone of”—he paused for effect—“your stature would have others to take such risk.”

The hostage flinched only for a second, but Guerrero was certain he'd seen a reaction.

“I don't know . . . w-what you're t-talking about.”

“That doesn't matter. Not anymore.” He leaned closer, and whispered, “You see, I know who you are . . . who you really are. And that will be enough to get me what I want.”

“You don't know shit, Raymond.”

“The name is Ramon.” He gritted his teeth at the man's insolence. “And if you wanted your real identity to remain a secret, you should have removed that scar from your back.”

The hostage glared at him but didn't say a word. Even beaten as he was, he mustered enough contempt to provoke Guerrero.

“Why are you pissing on my turf?” he pressed. “What did you hope to gain?”

The man did not hesitate. “I'm looking for a man . . . to kill him.”

Guerrero stared at the hostage in disbelief at his gall before he burst into laughter. The sound echoed off the walls of the cell—a foreign noise in a place where screams were more common.

“And how is that going for you?” Without waiting for an answer, he shook his head, and said, “You Americans have such arrogance, but we shall see how long that lasts.”

Under his belt at the small of his back, Guerrero pulled out a black hood and covered his prisoner's head. The hostage jerked and fought it, but he didn't say anything. The American didn't have the good sense to cower. He held his head up, and the black cloth moved with every breath of his defiance. When Guerrero pictured the smug look on his face under the hood, he balled his fists to make his point about who was in charge.

In the stifling heat, he punched the hostage in the gut.
Once. Twice.
The prisoner clenched his stomach muscles and took the blows without uttering a sound, withstanding the abuse in silence.

“We shall s-see”—Ramon panted—“h-how strong . . . you are.”

It took all his willpower to lower his hands. He stopped the beating only because he had a call to make. “Th-there are far worse . . . things to endure.”

When he had first communicated his part in the capture of such an influential American, his cartel boss had sent word promptly. He had ordered him to make a journey to a rendezvous point, bringing the prisoner with him. Guerrero would make a gift of the American and, hopefully, reap rewards for his efforts.

Gasping and winded, he walked across the cell and spoke to the guard on the other side of the door. In minutes, his man returned and, between the bars, handed him a loaded syringe. With a smirk on his face, Guerrero shoved the hostage's head to one side and injected the needle into his neck. The man struggled, making a futile attempt to fight back. As his prisoner fought the drug, Guerrero hit speed dial on his cell phone and contacted the man he hoped would be very grateful . . . and generous.

As he listened to the phone ring in his ear—waiting to report he'd confirmed ID and give the details of how he would transport the prisoner—Guerrero wasn't done tormenting his hostage. Before the man drifted into a merciful oblivion, he leaned closer and whispered in his ear.

“Your name is Garrett Wheeler.” He spat on the man's bare chest. “And I know who you work for,
cabrón.

“I
'm picking up a cell-phone signal from inside the walls of the residence outside Juárez. No ID on the caller, but I can track the GPS signal. If the guy with the cell moves, I'll know it.” The handler for the mission had made contact with the man who had ultimate control over the op. From an encrypted international phone, he spoke to him now, nothing more than a voice on the other end of the line.

“Did we get a visual? Do they have the hostage inside?”

“Yes. We got a visual confirmation from team two.”

After the hostage had been taken by a group of young thugs known as
Los Chupacabras
in El Paso, surveillance tracked the movement of the van the gang had used to cross the border into Mexico. Once they left U.S. soil, the handler rotated surveillance teams, so they wouldn't lose their target.

“Your order, sir?” the handler asked.

“Make contact with team one in Juárez. Tell them you have a signal you're following. It's their backup plan, in case something goes wrong on their end. If that GPS signal moves, I want eyes on it. Keep me informed.”

“Copy that.”

Short and sweet, the man taking the lead on the operation gave his orders and ended the call. The handler's part in the mission had ramped up. He made his call to team one and followed orders.

New York City

Before dawn

Dressed in gray slacks and black cashmere sweater, Alexa Marlowe stared out her apartment window, located on the third floor of a brownstone on the Upper East Side. For the last week, she'd been restless, and sleep hadn't come easy. In her line of work, that was a hazard of the trade, but she had another reason to worry. And after getting a call from Tanya Spencer yesterday, arranging for an early-morning meet at Alexa's place, she wondered if the Sentinels' analyst had been losing sleep for the same reason.

When she heard the soft knock on her door, she rushed to answer it.

“Good morning, Tanya.” She forced a smile. “Please . . . come in.”

“Thanks for accommodating my crazy schedule.”

Even before dawn, the woman was impeccably dressed, in a navy Burberry blazer and a pencil skirt. Her black skin looked radiant, with only a hint of the flawless makeup she wore. And her Southern drawl could melt butter. That voice had calmed Alexa on many covert-ops missions when she had needed analytical support . . . and a friend.

“Sorry to get you up this early, but I thought we should talk somewhere away from headquarters. And your place was on my way to work.”

“No trouble. Can I get you coffee?” Alexa asked.

“Yes, please.”

Alexa already had a pot made and served Tanya a cup before they sat in the living room.

Being a covert agent, Alexa viewed the world differently from most people. She looked for ulterior motives and conspiracies under every rock. It was how her brain worked, out of necessity. Her survival sometimes depended on it. And since Tanya Spencer had a similar background—having worked many years with the privately funded Sentinels and served as Garrett Wheeler's right hand for the last decade—Alexa figured the woman's cryptic words meant she was only playing it safe.

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