EIGHT. . 1

CUERNAVACA, MEXICO

The black limousine and its escort cars proceeded along Insurgentes Sur freeway, forced to maintain a frustratingly moderate speed as the caravan fought the congestion of holiday traffic heading south from the smog of Mexico City. After thirty-seven miles, the limousine and its escorts reached Cuernavaca, the capital’s most popular but at the same time most exclusive retreat. It was easy to understand why the rich and powerful came here each weekend. Sheltered in an attractive wooded valley, Cuernavaca had space, silence, pleasant weather, and most prized of all, clean air. Aztec rulers had built palaces here. So had Cortes. Emperor Maximilian had been especially fond of the area’s gardens. These days, what important visitors from the capital valued were the luxurious hotels and the castlelike mansions.

The limousine proceeded along the stately streets of a quiet neighborhood and stopped at the large iron gate of one of the mansions. Majestic shade trees projected above the high stone wall that enclosed the spacious grounds. The uniformed driver stepped out of the limousine and approached an armed guard who stood beyond the bars of the gate and scowled at the visitor. After a brief conversation during which the driver showed the guard a document, the guard entered a wooden booth beside the gate and picked up a telephone, speaking to someone in the house. Thirty seconds later, he returned to the gate, opened it, and motioned for the driver to bring the limousine into the estate. As the escort cars attempted to follow, the guard raised his left hand to stop them. At the same time, another armed guard stepped into view to close and lock the gate.

The limousine proceeded along a shady, curved driveway, past trees, gardens, and fountains, toward the mansion. As it stopped before the stone steps at the entrance, one of the large double doors opened, and a mustached, aristocratic-looking man came out. It was a measure of his need to seem respectful that he had not sent a servant to greet this particular visitor. His name was Esteban Delgado, and his surname-which meant “thin”-was even more appropriate than when he’d met with the director of the National Institute of Archaeology and History in Acapulco a week earlier, for Delgado’s body and features were now no longer merely rakishly slender but unhealthily gaunt. His aquiline face was pale, and he would almost have believed the rumors that he was seriously ill if he hadn’t been acutely aware of the unbearable tension that he suffered.

At the bottom of the stairs, he forced himself to smile as the limousine’s far-rear door opened and a well-dressed, fairhaired, pleasant-looking American in his middle thirties emerged from the car. The man gave the impression of exuding good nature, but Delgado wasn’t fooled, for the man’s smile-on the rare occasions when he did smile, and this was not one of them-had no warmth. The man’s name was Raymond, and the only time Delgado had seen him smile was during a cockfight.

Raymond ignored Delgado, assessed the estate’s security, then came around the limousine and opened the other door. An elderly man with thick glasses and dense white hair stepped out. He was in his eighties although, except for extremely wrinkled hands, he appeared to be in his sixties.

“Professor Drummond,” Delgado said with forced brightness. “I had no idea that you planned to visit. If I had known, I would have arranged a reception in your honor.”

Drummond shook Delgado’s hand with authority, fixed his gaze upon him, and waited a moment before he replied in Spanish, one of his seven languages. “I happened to be in Mexico City on business and wanted to discuss something with you. Your office informed me that you were here. If you have an hour to spare. .”

“Certainly.” Delgado led Drummond and his assistant up the stairs. “It will be an honor to have you in my home.” Despite the shade trees, Delgado found that he was sweating. “I’ll have the servants bring some refreshments. Would you like a rum and Coke? Or perhaps. .”

“I never drink alcoholic beverages. By all means, you have one if you wish.”

“I was going to send for some lemonade.”

They entered subdued light in the mansion and crossed the cool, echoing marble vestibule. A colorfully dressed teenage girl appeared at the top of the wide, curved staircase, seemed surprised that there were visitors, and abruptly obeyed Delgado’s sharp gesture commanding her to go back to where she had been. At the end of a corridor, Delgado escorted Drummond and Raymond into a mahogany-paneled study that was furnished in leather and filled with hunting trophies as well as numerous rifles and shotguns in glass cabinets, many of the firearms antique. For once, Raymond’s eyes displayed interest. Two servants immediately brought in refreshments and as quickly departed.

Neither Drummond nor Raymond picked up the lemonade.

Instead, Drummond leaned back in his chair, sitting imperiously straight, his long arms stretched out on the sides of the chair. His voice was brittle yet strong, his gaze direct. “I suspect your associates have already told you, but we need to compare reactions.”

Delgado pretended to look confused.

“The woman, Minister. It will come as no surprise to you when I tell you that she has disappeared.”

“Ah.” Delgado’s heart lurched, but he didn’t show any reaction. “Yes. The woman. I did receive information that led me to believe she had disappeared.”

“And?”

Delgado tried to make his voice stern. “What do you intend to do about it?”

“What I am doing, what I have been doing, is using all my resources to locate her. Every element of her background, every conceivable place or person where she might run for shelter and help, is being investigated.”

“And yet after two weeks, you have no results.”

Drummond nodded in compliment. “Your sources are excellent.”

“You still haven’t answered my question. What do you intend to do about this?”

“Relative to you? Nothing,” Drummond answered. “Our agreement remains the same.”

“I don’t know why it should. You broke your part of the contract. You assured me you could control the woman. You were emphatic that she would solve my problem.”

“And she did.”

“Temporarily. But now that she’s disappeared, the problem is the same as before.”

Drummond’s aged eyes narrowed. “I disagree. This disappearance cannot be traced to you.”

Unless she talks.

“But she won’t,” Drummond said. “Because if she planned to talk, she would have by now. It’s an obvious method by which she could try to save her life. She knows we would kill her in retribution. On principle. I believe that she remains silent out of fear and as a sign to us that if we leave her alone, she won’t be a threat to us. I should say, a threat to you. After all, the problem is yours. I was merely doing you a favor by trying to correct it.”

Delgado’s pulse increased with anger. “Not a favor. A business agreement.”

“I won’t quibble with terminology. I came to tell you that despite her disappearance, I expect to be allowed to conduct my business as you agreed.”

Delgado released his nervous energy by standing. “That would be very difficult. The director of the National Institute of Archaeology and History has become furious about your control of the site in the Yucatan. He is mustering government support for a full investigation.”

“Discourage him,” Drummond said.

“He’s very determined.”

Now it was Drummond’s turn to rise. Despite his frail body, he dominated the study. “I need only another few weeks. I’m too close. I won’t be stopped.”

“Unless you fail.”

“I never fail.” Drummond bristled. “I am an unforgiving partner. If you fail me, despite the woman’s disappearance, I will take steps to make you regret it.”

“How? If you don’t find the woman and she never talks.”

“She was necessary only to protect you. To expose you, all I need is this.” Drummond snapped his fingers.

In response, Raymond opened a briefcase, then handed Drummond a large envelope that contained a videotape.

Drummond gave the envelope to Delgado. “It’s a copy, of course. I’ve been saving it as a further negotiating tactic. Be careful. Don’t leave it where your wife and daughter might wonder what was on it. Or the president. You wouldn’t want him to see it. A political scandal of this sort would threaten his administration, and needless to say, it would destroy your chances of becoming his replacement.”

Delgado felt sweat trickle down his back as he clenched the videotape.

Abruptly the study’s door was opened. Delgado whirled, his stomach cramping when he saw his wife step in. Intelligent, sophisticated, well-educated, she understood her role as a politician’s spouse and always conducted herself perfectly. She tolerated Delgado’s frequent absences and no doubt was aware of his frequent indiscretions. She was always there when he needed symbolic support at public functions. But then, she had been raised in a family of politicians. From her youth onward, she had learned the rules. She was the sister of Delgado’s best friend, the president of Mexico.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, dear. I didn’t realize you had company. How are you, Mr. Drummond?” she asked in perfect English. Her expensive clothes and jewelry enhanced her plain features.

“Excellent,” Drummond answered in Spanish. “And yourself? I trust you are well, Senora.”

“Yes, I am fine. Would you care to stay for dinner?”

“Thank you, but I’m afraid I was just about to leave. Your husband and I needed to discuss some matters. I have to fly to Europe.”

“You’re welcome anytime,” she said. “Esteban, I’ll be in the garden.” She closed the door.

The room was uncomfortably silent for a moment.

“Think about it,” Drummond said. “Don’t be a fool and ruin everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Don’t deny yourself the chance to achieve even greater things. Watch the tape, destroy it, and make the further arrangements we discussed.”

Delgado did not reveal the sudden anger that blazed inside him. You come to my home. You ignore my hospitality. You threaten me. You threaten my relationship with my wife and daughter. His jaw ached with fury. There will come a time when you do not have power over me.

And then I will destroy you.

“The director of the Institute of Archaeology and History,” Drummond said. “When I told you to discourage him from interfering with what I’m doing at the site, I meant eliminate him. I want him replaced by someone who knows how to compromise, who won’t make trouble, who values favors.”

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