Chapter 3 - HARD TARGET

Max stood in the doorway with murder in his eyes, holding a nine iron like a baseball bat. Anna’s throat tightened, remembering his words overheard seven hours earlier: “We won’t dump her body until the designated time . . .”

Surely he wouldn’t kill her in front of their son?

Zach remained beside her even as she tried to pull him out of harm’s way. Stunned, he appeared frozen in place, so she moved to step in front of him.

Max slapped her when she came forward. She cried out in surprise as much as pain. Her lip tore on his wedding band. She tasted blood.

“Why did you leave?” he demanded. “I can’t stand it when you disrespect me like that.” He gripped the golf club with both hands and started swinging like he was warming up in a batting cage.

Who was this man? They’d argued in the past, but he’d never before touched her in anger. This was like someone else’s nightmare.

She pushed Zach further behind her as the first strike took out their small carry-on bag. It was unzipped on top of the dining table. Clothes and toiletries flew through the air, and Zach seemed to recognize the wildness in his father’s eyes and pulled Anna backward along with him into the room away from the swinging club.

“How did you find us?” she asked.

“You know me, babe. I’ve got lots of resources.” He shoved her into the dining table and her elbow struck the edge of the wooden top, sending a lightning bolt of pain up her shoulder. Dazed, she fell back into the wall as Max attempted an uppercut with the nine iron.

Emilio watched dispassionately from the hallway. Weren’t other hotel guests hearing anything? A dining chair smashed into the wainscoting inches from her face, and the framed mirror over her head started to fall.

“Mom! Watch out!” Zach rushed to her side, attempting to catch the frame. She threw her arm up to stop the mirror’s descent, taking the full force of the toppling frame and blocking Zach at the same time. She couldn’t help but scream again as the mirror slammed into her shoulders and shattered, splintering into thousands of tiny pieces.

One shard of glass tore through her sweater and cut her arm, but it didn’t sting as blood welled up to soak her sleeve. She looked up at Zach, ashen-faced beside her. She’d lose it completely if she let herself think about what this was doing to his heart.

Her husband was going to kill her if he could. That was obvious. She straightened from the wall to face him. “What do you want, Max?”

“I want my son. And I want you, too. We need to go back to Mexico.”

“I heard you on the phone in the hotel suite. You were planning to take Zach and dump my body.”

“You misunderstood.”

“The hell I did. And the fact that you just hit me, broke this mirror and you’re holding that nine iron is all a misunderstanding as well?”

“Yes, it is. You misunderstood!” He pounded the club into the floor for emphasis.

“Zach is checking into the hospital Monday for the LVAD procedure, or did you forget that?”

“God dammit, don’t you disrespect me. I’ll have my son back in Mexico one way or the other,” Max reared back to swing once more and a shot rang out. Shards of grout, glass and masonry flew into the air, some of it pelting Max’s bare legs.

Anna screamed again and ducked as Max’s swing went wild. He buried the club head through the sheetrock wall.

“Hey,” shouted a stranger standing in the doorway. “Drop the golf club or the next bullet goes through your kneecap.” He had a gun in Emilio’s face and another pointed directly at Max’s chest.

Max wheeled around in surprise, still gripping the club tightly, “Who the fuck are you? You shot me, you SOB. I’ll kill you.”

The stranger raised an eyebrow. “No, I didn’t shoot you. That was the tile and glass ricocheting, but I can and I will if you don’t drop that nine iron and step away from the woman.”

Anna’s relief overwhelmed her. Their savior was built like a professional bodybuilder with a deep voice and an accent only heard in the land of magnolia blossoms and the blues. His hands were rock steady on both weapons, and while his face wasn’t classically handsome, it was trustworthy. His dark hair was short, and he was wearing one of those orthopedic walking boots that came up to the knee.

Acting saner than he had in the past two minutes, Max dropped the club.

“Emilio,” Zach gasped, sidling up to Anna. The family bodyguard stood perfectly still with his hands clasped behind his head in the hotel hallway. “Why didn’t you help . . .” Her son’s voice trailed off when he figured out whose side Emilio was on.

The stranger motioned for the Mercado bodyguard to join the party, so that he would only need one gun to keep both Max and his employee under control. He then took what she guessed was Emilio’s weapon and slid it behind his back into his waistband.

“Kid, call 911.” The stranger ordered. “Now.”

Zach scurried to the bedside table and picked up the phone, eyeing a paper sack at the door that Anna hadn’t seen earlier. Its contents had been strewn across the carpet in Max’s melee. Game cartridges, DVDs, an unopened iPad, and in the middle of the loot was Zach’s handheld game console.

Max, you bastard, Anna thought. If you’d really hurt me, Zach would have never gotten over letting you inside this hotel room.

“It won’t make any difference when you call the police. You know who I am?” sneered Max.

“Yeah. A low life scum who hits women. Nothing special.”

“I’m Maximilian Mercado.”

“No shit? The Tequila King?” The stranger studied him, assessing something. “You look taller on TV.” Then he shrugged, clearly unimpressed. “I’m a scotch man myself.”

She would have laughed if the situation weren’t so dire. Max hated being dismissed as much as he hated being “disrespected.” He was very proud of his company and his work.

But the stranger wasn’t finished yet. “So I suppose that makes you an uptown scumbag who hits women and stars in his own silly commercials. You should know better. I would think a rich man like you had finer home training.”

Max ignored the jab but she knew it burned. The Mercados traced their heritage back to aristocracy. Insulting Max’s social etiquette in addition to the family business was sure to make him vengeful.

“Nothing’s going to happen to me. I have friends in this town. Who the hell are you?” Max studied the cheap suit and tie that the stranger was wearing. “You’re a rent-a-cop, aren’t you? You know I can have you fired from this job. Evicted from your home.” His voice was tinged with disgust.

The stranger remained silent and Max snorted derisively. “Or possibly arrested yourself for discharging your weapon.”

The stranger continued to stare from deep green eyes. Finally he spoke in a drawl that made tortoises seem speedy.

“I don’t think so, Mr. Mercado.”

“It’s my word against yours,” argued Max.

A shuttered expression came over her rescuer’s face as he nodded. “That’s right.”

And Max has no idea who this man is. I have no idea who he is. Dark eyebrows, high cheekbones, and a nose that had obviously been broken in the past gave him a dangerous look. The revolver he was pointing at Emilio and Max added to the impression.

The stranger glanced at Anna again with unreadable green eyes locked on the blood oozing from her mouth to her blouse. Something changed in his face, and he reached into his back pocket. Flipping open his wallet, he revealed a shiny badge with a big eagle at the top along with words inscribed in blue and gold that she couldn’t quite make out from where she was standing.

“I’m DEA, Mr. Mercado. Now chill. You’re about to be arrested for assault and threatening a federal officer.”

To hell with keeping a low profile and the letter of resignation he’d just signed. Leland wouldn’t think about how his boss would hang him out to dry if this came back to bite him. Max Mercado was a psychopath and, famous or not, the man had just tried to bash Nice Mom’s head in with a nine iron. He’d brought Gorilla Guy from the hallway to back him up in case there was any resistance.

“You’re a federal agent?” Max’s voice was barely audible.

“Right again,” said Leland, walking Gorilla Guy toward the entryway while keeping his Ruger trained on Mercado. And you’re screwed.

“She’ll have to press charges,” insisted Max. “She’ll never do it.” The “Tequila King” sneered at the woman he’d obviously knocked around before Leland got downstairs.

He had been too busy not getting shot or hit with a golf club himself earlier to notice but “she” was stunning. Max’s wife had long blonde hair and striking blue eyes with a lush silhouette and legs that went on for days.

She wore shorts, a snug white t-shirt with a cardigan sweater and a wedding ring with a solitaire diamond the size of Texas. But the thing that caught Leland’s attention over and above her jaw-dropping figure was the considerable amount of blood dripping from her bee-stung bottom lip and the gash in her right arm.

Surrounded by broken mirrored glass, a teenage boy hovered behind her. Apparently Max had been gearing up to beat the hell out of his trophy wife—and in front of his son, too. Leland sought to quash the red-hot anger that surged through him.

“You really need to brush up on your assault law before you go out with your nine iron, Mr. Mercado. She doesn’t have to press charges. I witnessed the assault and you threatened me. I don’t care how wealthy you are or how awesome some think your tequila is. You’re spending the night in jail.”

The elevator door dinged down the hall and two officers stepped out, pulling their weapons when they saw the gun in Leland’s hand. They must have been in the lobby. This was going to get loud fast.

Leland calmly held up his ID and lowered his Ruger. “My name is Leland Hollis, I’m a DEA agent. This man was attacking that woman with a golf club and threatening me.”

The officers hustled toward him and everyone started talking at once. Emilio a.k.a. Gorilla Guy tried to scoot to the fire escape but the police had their guns out, and more officers came up the fire escape at the opposite end of the hall almost immediately.

Apparently the hotel was one block from a police substation. Everyone moved into the room, and suddenly it sounded like a cocktail party. Despite her son’s efforts with the towel, the woman’s mouth and arm continued to bleed like mad. She was taking her sweater off now, and Leland suspected her pain was starting to override the adrenaline rush that had to have come earlier with the attack. The boy grasped her elbow, and the two were deep in conversation as chaos reigned around them.

“You okay?” she studied the boy as he wrapped another towel around her bleeding arm. But the kid wasn’t making eye contact. Something was going on there.

Leland stared at them a moment more before scanning the room. By the doorway he spied electronic games scattered beside on overturned paper sack. Nothing like a little bribery from Dad. Leland’s anger flared at Max, but he forced himself to focus and listen to the woman and her son while they spoke to the officers.

“I was in the room upstairs and heard people yelling. My name is Leland Hollis,” he explained to the police and to her simultaneously as he showed his badge to the city’s finest once again.

With the blood, broken mirror and golf club lying there, it was fairly obvious what had happened. Two of the four officers wasted no time in handcuffing Max and Emilio and leading them both away, ignoring their protests.

The woman looked like she was trying to get to the sofa across the room, and Leland took the opportunity to help her. Her son still clung to her other side and glass crunched under their feet.

“Where are they taking my Dad?” asked Zach.

“To the police station,” said Leland.

The boy looked torn, unsure where his loyalties should lie. Leland appreciated the dilemma. This experience would mark the kid for the rest of his life. Crazy parents were difficult, no matter what the economics of the situation.

“Why do you have a gun?”

Smart kid. “I’m with the DEA.”

“Why were you—”

“You okay? Feeling light-headed?” The woman interrupted her son’s interrogation of Leland and pulled the boy down beside her on the love seat.

Leland was puzzled. Shouldn’t they be asking if she was feeling light-headed?

Zach started to shake his head, but finally looked her straight in the eye and nodded. “I’m having a hard time catching my breath,” he admitted.

This news seemed to really jack mom up.

She smiled brightly, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “It’s alright. It’s just all this craziness. We need one of your white pills.” She started to stand, but the room was filled with more officers replacing the two who’d just left. “They’re on the bathroom counter.” She looked helplessly at the crowd between them and the bathroom door.

One of the officers, unaware of the small drama playing out, took the opportunity to ask questions of Zach about what had just happened.

“Stop!” she snapped.

The officer stilled. “But ma’am, I need to talk to him.”

Leland stepped in. “Not without his mother’s permission. Why don’t we take care of her arm first. You got a first aid kit?”

Officer Betts, according to his nametag, took in the blood and nodded. “Be right back. Looks like she might need stitches, but we’ve got supplies to fix her up till she gets to the hospital.”

Leland turned to her again. “What do you want me to do?” His kept his voice calm amidst the pandemonium swirling around them.

She swallowed audibly. Clearly, she didn’t trust that he could help her. “My son needs his medication . . . now. He has a heart condition with a pacemaker and this,” she swung her uninjured arm to indicate the room, “is really exacerbating things.”

Oookay. Being jacked up—totally justified. “Where’s the medicine?”

“In my bag on the bathroom counter.”

“I’ll get it . . . sit here.” He put a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her down into the sofa again. She started when he made contact with her collarbone. He wondered if that was a reaction to him or the husband who’d just tried to kill her.

Jeez. Where was Leland’s “stay away” tendency now? Completely crushed under the “rescue her” tendency that kicked into high gear when he was around women who were in trouble. The problem was he couldn’t always be there when the trouble was as unpredictable as it tended to be in his line of work. And his not being there could get someone dead.

Copyright © 2013 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

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© Kay Thomas 2015