LEINE BASSO CROUCHED in the shadows next to the hulking metal shipping container. The odor of oil mixed with hydraulic fluid and diesel clashed with the briny sea air. Bright spotlights pierced the darkness casting a harsh yellow hue over the container yard. Leine checked her watch: eleven o’clock.
Only three hours before the China Blue Star was scheduled to leave port for Hong Kong.
Three hours to find one shipping container in a massive sea of identical containers.
Lou paid off the security guard, which gave Leine only a short window to find the container before he released the dogs. She adjusted the fit of the pack, tightening the straps so it molded to her body. She’d pared down the equipment as much as she could, but it was never enough.
C’mon, Lou. Give me some good news.
She closed her eyes and imagined the young face in the photograph. A lead from the trafficker’s hard drive had led her to a seaport currently run by cartel thugs on the west coast of Mexico. She hoped she wasn’t too late.
“Leine.” Lou’s voice came over the wireless earpiece.
“I’m here,” she replied.
“Left, three aisles, number fourteen-thirty-four-twelve.”
“Got it.” Gun drawn and keeping to the shadows, Leine moved along first one aisle, then another, searching for shipping container 143412.
There it is.
Stacked three high, the 40 foot-long steel boxes loomed above her. The one she was looking for was stacked 40 feet in the air on top of two other boxes. She moved to the end of the bottom container and reached for a handhold. Before she could grab the next one, someone seized her pack and yanked her off, slamming her back-first into the pavement. Her nine millimeter skittered across the asphalt, disappearing in the darkness between two containers. The impact took her breath away, the pain from a recent rib injury spiking through her like a spear.
Leine rolled, narrowly missing a kick to the face. She grabbed her attacker’s foot and gave it a vicious twist. The assailant corkscrewed and landed on his side with a grunt.
Ignoring the deep ache in her side and with adrenaline fueling her, she sprang to her feet and kicked the gun from his hand. The weapon pinged off the side of the container and bounced into the shadows, out of sight. Before she could get clear, he scissored his legs and caught her at the knees. She sprawled forward.
This time she couldn’t ignore the pain.
Winded, she slid a knife free from the sheath attached to her leg. She pushed off the ground, rolling to a crouch as her opponent climbed to his feet, a knife in his hand. He lunged forward. Leine parried with a thrust to his throat. At the last second, he ducked.
They circled each other like roosters in a cockfight, both acutely aware of the weapon in their opponent’s grip. Leine feinted left and rushed forward, scoring a direct hit on the man’s shoulder, slicing through the black fabric of his shirt and drawing blood. He pivoted and came at her from the side but she rotated her torso, narrowly missing a slash to her kidney. She turned to face him as he came at her again. At the last second she stepped wide, allowing him to slip past her. Using his own momentum, she shoved him forward. He stumbled a few steps, recovered, and spun to face her.
Leine swept her arm forward in an arc and released the knife. The blade buried itself in his eye socket, a scream dying in his throat as his hand flew reflexively to his face. He collapsed to the ground as he exhaled his last breath.
“Leine. What’s going on? Are you okay?” Usually unflappable, the sharpness in Lou’s voice betrayed his concern, even over the radio.
“I’m fine.” Her hand supporting her now-throbbing rib, she leaned over the body with a grimace and extracted the knife, wiping the blade on the dead man’s shirt. The tattoos on his forearm suggested cartel affiliation. Leine doubted he was working alone. “Just some unexpected company.”
“Did you find the container?”
Leine scanned the metal boxes above her.
“I don’t have to tell you to be careful, right?”
“No, but it’s nice to know you care.”
Leine grabbed the man’s legs and gritted her teeth as she dragged the body into the dark gap between containers. She removed his transmitter, turned off the voice activation, and slid on the earpiece. She didn’t want the next gunman to come along and sound the alarm before she had a chance to subdue him.
After she retrieved the weapons she checked to see that the body couldn’t be observed from the aisle. Satisfied, she walked back to container 143412.
With a quick glance to be sure the fight hadn’t attracted company, she latched onto a vertical handle at the end of the first container, wedged her toe onto a hinge, and began to climb.
As she was preparing to hoist herself up and over the top of the container, she heard movement below her and froze.
“Where are you?” the voice muttered in Spanish, clear enough for Leine to hear through the transmitter.
She craned her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the man below her. Compact in bearing and dressed in black like the man she’d just killed, instead of a knife he carried a modified submachine gun.
“Answer me,” he snapped into his earpiece. When he received no reply, the man stepped over the smear of blood left by his compatriot. It looked like he might continue on when he abruptly stopped. Leine held her breath. If he glanced down, he’d notice the blood. With her left foot wedged onto the barest of toeholds and gripping the top of the container with her left hand, Leine slid her gun out of its holster, ready to fire—something she was loath to do since the sound would bring others.
The man pivoted 180 degrees, scanning the area, his gun in front of him. Leine ignored the muscles screaming in her left hand as the metal cut into her flesh.
He stood still for another moment, observing his surroundings. After a few seconds, he touched his earpiece.
“He’s not here.” The person at the other end acknowledged the transmission. “I’ll keep looking,” the gunman said as he moved out of Leine’s line of sight.
She released her breath in a quiet sigh and slid the gun back into her shoulder holster. With her right hand now free, she grabbed onto the top of the container, relieving her left hand. She waited a couple of beats to make sure the gunman was clear and then pulled herself up and over.
The higher vantage point worked well to monitor the yard. When the other gunman had traveled far enough that he wouldn’t hear her, Leine shrugged out of her pack and set it aside. She stretched flat onto her belly and put her ear to the container. There was no discernible movement inside.
That didn’t mean much.
“I’m on the roof,” she said in a low voice.
“Hear anything?” Lou asked.
Leine unzipped the main compartment of the bag and pulled out a battery pack and a mini plasma cutter and placed them on the roof beside her. Next, she reached into another compartment for a fiber optic night vision camera and a collapsible light hood.
She deployed the hood and marked the area to be cut, then flipped the plasma cutter’s switch to on and adjusted the amps. Angling the tip as she cut, the small hole took only a few minutes. Turning off the cutter, she stowed it back inside the pack along with the hood.
Alert for movement on the ground below her, she activated the camera and fed the probe through the hole, watching the video feed on the small LCD monitor as she did. At first, all she could make out were the metal ribs of the container. She fed the line further into the dark interior and a moment later the camera swept past an object. Leine pulled up on the scope to get a better look. The object moved. Two tiny light circles appeared and blinked off and on.
As she angled the camera for a better view, she realized she was looking at a dark-haired girl huddled in the corner, her eyes glowing dots in the camera’s lens. Leine pulled back for a wider shot. Dozens of bodies came into focus, placed side by side on the floor of the container with no room between them. Most were lying prone—except for the young girl.
“I’ve got something,” Leine said into the mic.
Lou let out a sigh as though he’d been holding his breath.
Another girl, this one with light-colored hair, sat up and looked first at the girl in the corner and then at the camera.
Leine’s heart beat faster. From what she could tell, she matched the picture.
“Is she there?” Lou’s clipped tone gave away his anxiety.
“Yeah. I think so. And she’s not alone.”
Leine relaxed her shoulders, relief flooding through her.
“Let’s get them out of here, Lou.”
ELISE WAVED A fistful of pesos at the bartender in an attempt to flag him down. She stood her ground as the press of spring-breakers surged against her, pushing her into the crowded, mile-long chrome bar. The oppressive heat from the packed club combined with the pulsating music from the nearby speakers reminded Elise of an old movie from the seventies she’d seen a few nights before, and not in a good way.
The bartender raced past, his dark eyes barely registering her.
Earlier, when Josh had been with her, the bartender had gushed over them both. That was over two hours ago. The bar wasn’t as busy then. With an impatient sigh, she lowered her arm. Elise was not used to being ignored when money was involved. In her world, currency was king. Both her parents ran with an elite crowd even for Angelenos—the A-Listers of the financial world. Her father was the head of a thriving biotech company about to go public, and her mother worked as a financial consultant, dealing primarily in hedge fund management. Both ultra-busy professionals, neither had time to spend with their seventeen-year-old daughter. Elise preferred it that way. If she needed an adult, which was rare, she went to the housekeeper, Teuta, a grandmotherly woman from some Eastern European country Elise had never heard of.
“I’ll only be gone five minutes,” Josh, her date for the evening had said, and disappeared with some guy he’d just met at the bar. That had been two hours ago. Elise was now officially bored.
Giving up on getting a drink within the next millennium, she shoved the money back in her Louis Vuitton clutch and squeezed past the crush of wasted partiers. Teuta would be horrified to know her little Eliseka had crossed the border from Southern California into Mexico with a boy she hardly knew, ending the evening alone at a bar in Tijuana.
Unable to locate Josh anywhere in the club, Elise made her way to the exit, pushing disgustedly at the ogling drunks who staggered up to her. Apparently they’d never seen a blonde wearing a low-cut, sparkly dress and five-inch Louboutin heels.
So juvenile, she thought.
Outside, the heat from the unseasonably hot spring day radiated off the sidewalk into the evening air and mixed with the nauseating smell of car fumes and cigarettes. Brash neon from the row of nightclubs lit the street as though it were daylight, casting everyone around her in a sickly kaleidoscopic glow. People milled past, laughing as they hurried to the next bar. Her anger growing, Elise dug her phone out of her purse and called her best friend, Brittany.
Elise plugged an ear, unable to hear over the music blasting from the club behind her.
“Josh left me at the bar.”
“Seriously? He is so dead.”
“Yeah. Listen. Can you come and pick me up?”
“Of course, sweetie. I can be at the border in a couple of hours.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to ruin your Saturday night.”
“Believe me, you didn’t ruin it. I’m happy to get out of town. There’s nothing going on.”
Elise ended the call, slipped the phone back into her purse, and turned to wave down a taxi. It wasn’t far to where she was going to meet her friend, but Elise didn’t feel like walking and possibly breaking a heel.
A cab immediately pulled to the curb and Elise walked over to the driver.
“How much to the border?” she asked.
The cab driver scanned her from head to toe and back again, his leer punctuated by a missing front tooth.
“For you, señorita, almost free.”
Elise rolled her eyes. She turned and walked away, ignoring the slow crawl of the taxi behind her. She’d find another, more respectful driver.
“Come on, chica. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Elise kept walking. The cab driver attempted to get her attention, but when he saw it wasn’t working, sped past her.
Josh hurried toward her through the crowd, an apologetic smile on his face. She crossed her arms and glared at him.
“Babe, I’m so sorry. Please don’t be mad. The guy had this killer weed, and I lost track of time and…”
“Are you kidding me? You left me alone in that club for two hours, Josh. Two hours. What the hell?”
Josh stepped closer to Elise, sliding his hand along her bare arm. The casual, thrown together look of his über-expensive T-shirt and jeans, along with the perfectly tousled, sun-kissed hair reminded her of a model she’d seen in a magazine advertising men’s cologne.
“Aw, come on, babe. Don’t be like that. I’ll make it up to you.” His grin brought out the dimples in his cheeks and Elise tried hard to suppress a smile. He was still the hottest guy she knew. So what if he was a little forgetful? It was probably the weed.
“See? I made you smile. I know you love me.” Josh grinned, hugging Elise with one arm as he turned them around and headed in the opposite direction.
“Wait.” Elise stopped. “Brittany’s supposed to pick me up.”
“So text her and tell her not to come. The guy told me about a sick party near Rosarito. Some movie star rented a house outside of town and is having an all-weekend bash. There’s a band.”
“Like who?” Elise wasn’t impressed by most celebrities. Her mother did a lot of business with A-Listers in the film world, too. She couldn’t think of many she’d go out of her way to meet.
“He didn’t say who the actor was, but he told me Swarm of Nihilists is going to be there all weekend!” Josh did the Nihilist Salute fist pump. Elise almost rolled her eyes again. Josh was heavy into S.O.N.
“Fine. But can we leave if it’s bullshit? I mean, how do you know this guy?”
Josh’s earnest expression almost made her laugh. “He’s a roadie for the Nihilists. He totally knows his shit.”
Elise shook her head but after a few minutes of cajoling finally relented to Josh’s pleas. They walked to where he had parked the Porsche his dad had given him as an early graduation present and were soon headed out of the city center toward the beach town of Rosarito. Elise texted Brittany, telling her to cancel her plans to come and get her.
r u sure? i can b there in 2 hrs, Brittany answered. Josh is hot, but how well do u really know him?
i’m sure. ty 4 worrying, she replied. Elise slipped the phone back in her purse. She knew all she needed to about Josh. He came from a wealthy family, was gorgeous, and drove an awesome car. Plus, he hadn’t really abandoned her at the club. So what if she had to go to some party where she didn’t know anybody? If Swarm of Nihilists actually turned out to be there she’d have a great story to tell her friends Monday morning during first period.
Josh wove through the back streets as though he knew where he was going. Elise relaxed and watched as they passed darkened dentists’ offices and brightly lit neighborhood groceries. Locals had gathered near a popular taqueria with banda music blaring from a loudspeaker. Drunk high school and college kids crawled the alleys for forbidden excitement, all against a backdrop of colorful billboards that screamed cheap pharmaceuticals and even cheaper attorneys. The neighborhood thinned as they drove past the turnoff to the main freeway.
“Where are you going? Isn’t that the way to the toll road?” Elise asked, looking behind them.
He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a book of matches. “The guy wrote down how to get there on the back of this.” He handed her the directions. Elise turned on the overhead light to read them.
“He called it the library or something.”
“You mean libre? The free road?” Elise shook her head. “You’re not seriously trying to get out of paying the toll. What is it, like two bucks?”
“No, of course not.” Josh frowned in irritation. “It’s just that he said it’d be easier to find the house if we went this way.”
“Who was this guy again?”
Earlier in the evening, the man with the Russian accent had started a conversation with Josh while they were at the bar waiting for drinks and had offered to get both Elise and him high. Elise had declined.
“A friend. And you’ve known him how long?”
Josh gave her a look. “You sound like my mom. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine. We’re gonna see Swarm of Nihilists!”
With a resigned sigh, Elise leaned her head back and closed her eyes. The warm night air drifting through the window felt so much better than being inside the hot, stuffy bar. Thoughts of what she was going to wear to her friend Nicole’s big party the next weekend filled her mind. She wasn’t sure she wanted to invite Josh. She’d have to see who else was available. They’d look good together though, she’d give him that.
A few miles later, Josh had Elise read the directions out loud. He found the street and turned right, heading west along a gravel road. The car began to climb and they left the lights of the city below them.
“You’re sure you know where you’re going, right?” Elise asked, wondering why there weren’t any streetlights.
“Yeah. He said it would look like we were heading nowhere but to just keep going to the top of the hill.”
The road grew steeper and Josh shifted into second gear to get traction. Just as Elise was going to ask him to take her back, a dramatic white arch with black lettering loomed in the darkness before them.
“What does it say?” Josh asked.
Elise glanced at the lettering on the stucco façade as they passed underneath.
“Vista del Mar.”
“That’s it. He said it would be a little ways past that, and we’d see the house in front of us.”
They continued along the gravel road. Hulking concrete skeletons of unfinished homes stood as brooding sentries on each side.
“Must be a really new development,” Josh said, by way of explanation. Elise wasn’t so sure. There were no building materials lying next to the houses, and she didn’t see any heavy equipment.
“Where are the streetlights? You’d think there’d be something, right?”
Josh shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe that’s the reason they decided to have the party here—less people, less hassle. Look—” Josh pointed through the windshield. “You can see the lights of Rosarito.”
Elise’s gaze followed his outstretched arm as he pointed at the bright lights of the seaside town far below them. She rummaged inside her purse for her phone as they drove further along the darkened street. She brought up the GPS and squinted at the lit LED screen, trying to figure out where they had ended up.
They turned a corner and Josh stopped the car. “What the fuck.”
Elise looked up. The Porsche’s headlights spilled across the road and onto an oversized, black SUV parked in front of them, blocking the way. Two flares burned bright orange in the expanse between the two vehicles. A muscular man with blond hair leaned against the truck, arms crossed, smoking a cigarette.
Confused, she turned to Josh. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“That isn’t the guy from the bar, is it?”
Josh shook his head. “Uh-uh.” He made to get out of the car, but she grabbed his arm.
“Don’t. What if he wants to rob us?” Elise had heard stories about carjackings and highway robbery near the border. From what her friends had told her, those kinds of things weren’t supposed to happen between Tijuana and Rosarito.
“He won’t get much. I blew most of my money at the bar.”
“Yeah, but you’re driving an expensive car. He could steal it, and then we’d have to wait out here until someone comes to get us or walk all the way back.” Elise glanced out her window at the deserted buildings nearby and shivered.
“Shit. I never thought of that.” With a quick look behind them, Josh seized the gearshift and slammed the car into reverse. Elise braced her feet against the floor and gripped the armrest as Josh backed away, the tires spitting rocks.
Elise twisted in her seat to watch through the rear window. A second SUV came out of nowhere, bounced onto the road behind them, and blocked their escape. Elise screamed. Josh braked hard and the Porsche skidded to a stop.
“What should we do?” Elise’s panicked voice sounded overly loud in the small space. She raised her window and locked her door. Josh did the same.
“Shit. I can’t give them the car. My dad just gave it to me. He’s gonna be so pissed.” The whites of his eyes glistened in the glow from the dash. “What should I do?”
He’s scared to death, she thought. Cold dread crept its way up her spine as she recalled the horror stories she’d read online. What if they figured out they both were from wealthy families? It wouldn’t be hard, not with the kind of car they were in, or with what they were wearing. She glanced at Josh’s expensive wristwatch, worth enough to feed a developing nation, and then at her shoes. The diamond chips on the heels twinkled in the darkness. What if they kidnapped them both and held them for ransom?
Jesus, Elise thought, her heart racing. My parents don’t even answer their phones unless it’s business. They won’t know what happened to me until it’s too late.
“Did you take a wrong turn?”
Josh shook his head. “I’m sure it was the right one. Maybe they just want us to turn around.”
“I don’t think so, Josh.” A chilling thought flitted through Elise’s mind. “The guy at the bar. He did this, didn’t he? He saw your watch, or maybe he even knew what you were driving and decided to make some easy money.”
Josh shook his head. “No. It’s not like that, Lise. He was totally cool.” His voice didn’t sound as confident as it had just a short time ago. A sheen of sweat formed on his forehead.
The man with the cigarette leaned down and picked something up off the ground. He flicked the butt away before he ambled over to the driver’s side and tapped on the window. Josh stared straight ahead, his fingers clamped to the steering wheel.
“Get out,” the man said, motioning at the door.
“Th-this isn’t my car.”
Josh’s pleading tone grated on Elise’s nerves. So not the guy she thought he was.
The man smiled benignly and stepped back. He raised his arms and something hard came crashing down across the windshield, buckling the glass. Josh jumped at the same time Elise screamed.
The man slammed the tire iron against the window again and again, methodically smashing through the safety glass. Then he moved near the front of the car and smashed the left headlight.
“Stop—!” Josh shouted, his voice a double octave higher than normal. “Not the car.”
The man stopped and walked back to Josh’s window. He leaned against the fender and stared at him through the glass.
“Open the door.” His muffled voice and bemused smile didn’t lessen the impact of his demand. Josh was shaking, and his hands looked like they were going to choke the life out of the steering wheel. When he didn’t respond, the man went to work on the side mirror.
At that moment, a second man appeared at Elise’s window and she screamed. She closed her eyes and turned away, hunching her shoulders, afraid to look directly at the man standing next to her and wincing at each blow of the tire iron.
The man outside her window tapped again, more insistently this time. Her breath now coming in short bursts, Elise opened her eyes to slits and slowly turned her head, hoping that the scene before her could be controlled by what she did or didn’t allow herself to see.
Her stomach lurched at the sight of a gun against the window. She closed her eyes again and shook her head.
Tap, tap, tap. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks as Elise gripped her knees to control her shaking hands.
“Get out of the car. Now.” The man’s menacing tone made it clear it wasn’t a request.
“We’d better do as they say, Lise.” Near tears and trembling, Josh reached for the door.
“No, Josh. Don’t.”
But it was too late. He opened the door and climbed out. The first man seized him by the arm and shoved him away from the car and onto his knees, aiming a gun at his head. With the weapon still trained on Josh, he reached inside the car and unlocked Elise’s door.
“No!” Elise screamed as the second man wrenched the door open, grabbed her by the hair, and yanked her out of the car. She landed hard on the gravel beside the Porsche. A sharp pain lanced down her leg, followed by the warm, sticky-wetness of blood.
Elise didn’t have time to gain her feet before the man grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off the ground. She kicked and squirmed and tried to rake his face with her nails as he dragged her away from the car, losing one of her shoes in the process, but the man never faltered. The moment before he shoved her into the back of the open SUV, Elise managed to twist around and look back at Josh.
Shoulders shaking and head bowed, his wristwatch glinted in the moonlight. A light breeze ruffled his hair.
“Take my car. I promise I won’t report it if you let me go,” he pleaded with the man in front of him.
“I thought you said it wasn’t your car,” the man replied with a smile as he moved behind him.
“I lied. I’m scared. Please don’t kill me. I—I’m only eighteen.” Sobbing now, Josh put his hands up as though they were playing a game and it was time to quit. Elise held her breath. Overwhelming fear tightened her chest and spread to her throat, the nausea in her stomach gaining momentum.
Before she could utter a sound, the man aimed the gun at the back of Josh’s head.