Off the Rails

By: Jill Sorenson

Chapter 1

What a clusterfuck.

Ian Foster shifted his wounded leg and tried not to look impatient. He was waiting for his new boss, Special Agent in Charge Mark LaGuardia, to give him the details of a short-term assignment in Mexico. Ian wanted to go now. Every second that ticked by, the target slipped farther away, while Ian sat in a dull office building overlooking the San Diego Bay.

Homeland Security’s International Operations Division was about five miles north of the border, removed from the hustle and bustle of customs inspections. Removed from the real action, as far as Ian was concerned. He hadn’t expected to work for Homeland again. He’d hated his short stint as a border patrol agent. The DEA had been a better fit, but that was over now.

Everything good was over.

SAC LaGuardia toggled the connection on his laptop until the frayed screen on the wall behind him lit up with a blocky blue ICE-HSI logo. ICE, or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, had become part of Homeland Security Investigations after 9/11. LaGuardia entered his password and accessed a file on the target, Armando Villarreal.

Ian knew the cartel member well. They’d formed a relationship while Ian had been working undercover at the Hotel del Oro in downtown San Diego. Last week, Villarreal had been shot by his business partner during a sting operation gone wrong. Somehow he’d managed to stumble away from the scene and evade arrest. He’d also taken a hostage.

Two photos of Villarreal popped up on the screen. In the first he wore a neatly pressed military uniform. The second showed him in traditional farmworker garb, with a young woman by his side and a curly-haired toddler at their feet.

Ian wasn’t fooled by the photos. Villarreal was a ruthless criminal, not a heroic family man.

The next picture was of Caitlyn Weiss, a veterinarian who worked at a clinic near the Hotel del Oro. She’d been missing since the shootout. Customs officers had confirmed that her vehicle had crossed the border. It was assumed that Villarreal had kidnapped the woman and ordered her to drive him to Tijuana. He’d left a trail of blood from the hotel to the clinic.

“How far can he get with a hostage and a critical wound?” Ian asked.

“I have no idea. He’s probably dead or dying in some hovel near the border.”

“And if he’s not?”

“We want to take him alive and keep it quiet.”

“At the expense of a U.S. citizen?”

“Not at all. Ms. Weiss is our top priority.”

Ian regarded this assertion with skepticism. LaGuardia wanted to capture Villarreal to exploit his cartel connections, not to save the hostage. She was collateral damage. That was why they hadn’t launched a public, transnational manhunt.

Which was a mistake, in Ian’s opinion.

It was also a mistake to underestimate Villarreal’s ability to adapt and survive. He was a tough motherfucker, cold as ice. Ian didn’t think Villarreal would kill an innocent woman, but he might not be able to protect her from his dangerous associates.

LaGuardia changed the images on the screen once again, revealing a photo of someone else Ian knew—intimately.

Maria Santos.

Four years ago, as a border patrol agent, he’d found her in the desert, raped and badly beaten. He hadn’t been able to investigate the crime because it had happened on Mexican soil. She’d been sent back to Mexico as soon as she’d recovered. His frustration over the case was a major factor in his decision to leave U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He’d walked away from the line, but he’d never forgotten Maria.

In the photo, Maria was sitting in a hospital bed. It must have been taken a few days after they’d met, because her face still bore the bruises from the attack. She was achingly beautiful, regardless. Tall and willowy, with long black hair and big brown eyes.

“If Villarreal is alive, he’ll try to contact his daughter,” LaGuardia said. “Miss Santos is the only one who knows where the girl is.”

Ian nodded his understanding. He’d reconnected with Maria a few weeks ago at the Hotel del Oro. She’d been working there as a maid, and was in the country illegally. She’d recognized him on the spot, but kept his true identity a secret. Against his better judgment, they’d gotten involved.