Barbara Nickless is the Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author of the Sydney Parnell crime novels. She is a two-time winner of the Colorado Book Award and three-time winner of the Colorado Authors’ League writing award. She also teaches creative writing to veterans at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She loves to hike, cave, snowshoe, and travel as far as possible off the beaten path.
The following is an excerpt from “Ambush.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League winner for Mystery, Crime and Suspense
Inside the room, I bolted the door, dropped my duffel on the bed, then ripped off my bloodstained clothes and stepped into the shower. The stall was moldy, and I had to share it with a spider. I lifted my bare foot to crush it, then stopped. No more death. Sharing the space with the creature seemed only fair, since I was the interloper.
I took my corner, and the spider took his, but he scurried away as soon as I turned on the tap. Fickle friend. I cranked the faucet until the wheezy stream of water was as hot as it would go and then let it burn away the surface of my skin still stained with Angelo’s blood. I used every bit of soap and shampoo as I scrubbed my hair and body, then stood with my face turned into the spray and rinsed my mouth until I no longer tasted blood. My weeping mixed with the fall of water, and I could tell myself the tears were only that—a warm mingling of oxygen and hydrogen.
The minutes ticked by, and still I did not move. Then the air shifted, and the stall seemed to shrink, and, even in the heat, goose bumps ran down my back. Behind me, I sensed a ghostly presence. I didn’t have to turn to picture Angelo standing with me in the small space, his ruined face awash with water, his butchered hands hanging helpless near his thighs. I kept my back turned and my eyes closed, for I could not bear to see him.
Our ghosts are our guilt.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, water leaking into my mouth where it mingled with the tears. “I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. I didn’t know they were following me. And I didn’t know they would go after you.”
A thick silence greeted my words.
My counselor would have advised me to turn around, to face my demons and confirm that they existed only in the traumatized space between my ears. But although Peter Hayes had served in Iraq just as I had, he had not spent long nights alone with the newly deceased. Hayes was wise about many things, but about the dead, I feared he was, well, dead wrong. If I turned, I would learn that I was not alone.
I spread my hands flat against the ancient tiles and pressed my forehead to the slimy wall. The water pounded the back of my head and neck, burned down my back, and roiled at my feet as my chest heaved with sobs.
“You have to go,” I said at last. “I can’t think with you so close.”
By the time the water turned cold, my tears had stopped and Angelo had vanished. I lifted my chin and shunted aside the self-pity. I was here to find Malik. He was all that mattered, and I would not let myself be sidetracked by grief or guilt or fear. His mother had given her life for the Marines, and, if need be, I would do the same for her son. The life of one boy might seem a small thing against the backdrop of a still-raging war. Against the loss of so many. But if I ever came to believe that, my soul would be forfeit.
I stepped out of the shower and turned away from the mirror.
Despite what I’d told Daniel, I needed some sleep to clear my head before I could plan my next move. A good six hours, then I’d be ready for the world again.
To sleep, perchance to dream.
But not here. The Alpha seemed capable of reaching anyone—of corrupting them, or torturing them, or killing them. I had to find a different hotel. A place where no one would be at risk for the simple sin of knowing me.
I dried off with the rough towel, donned a clean tank top and my filthy cargo pants, placed Daniel’s cap and jacket on the bed, then grabbed my bag and cranked up the volume on the television set.
I went out the window above the toilet.
There are good and bad people on both sides of a conflict. The trick is in figuring out which is which. And who is working for whom.
—Sydney Parnell. Personal journal.
At 2:00 p.m. the next day, I sat at a table in an open-air coffee shop in the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec with a café Americano and a plate of sugar-dusted pan dulce.
I’d arranged myself with my back to the adobe brick wall, my chair half-hidden by a riotous climb of brilliant-red bougainvillea and the shade cast by the eaves of the roof two stories above. The afternoon was quiet, save for the occasional rattle of cutlery and clink of glasses as a woman set the tables inside. I tried to relax as I took in the mingled aromas of coffee and baking bread and the sweet waft of the flowers nodding in a soft breeze.
Angelo had died a soldier in a war he hadn’t even known was being waged. But the fact that the Alpha’s men had gone so far meant they were desperate. Malik was not yet in their sights. And for the moment, at least, I’d shaken off their pursuit. Over the next hour, perhaps I would learn something that would help me find Malik. And find a way to keep him safe.
I put down my coffee and sat back. I wore a newly purchased embroidered blue blouse, a long skirt, sunglasses, leather huaraches, and a straw hat, bought at a market that morning. I’d dyed my hair a dark brown and replaced my usual braid with a tight chignon coiled at the nape of my neck. I looked minty and new, or so I hoped, the duffel sitting next to my sandaled feet the only outwardly tattered thing about me.
To any casual observer, I hoped to pass as a local, an idle expat housewife enjoying the afternoon while she watched the sun bake the world into a torpor.
The waiter, a friendly twenty-something, appeared at my table.
“You like the abrazos?” he asked, gesturing toward the pastries on the red-and-white patterned plate. “They are a warm hug, are they not? Those with the cream, they are my favorite.”
I smiled and picked up my coffee. “They are very good.”
“Would you like more coffee?”
“I’ll be right back.”
The little square in the town of Ecatepec was a sleepy, sun-drenched refuge. After my trip to the market that morning, I’d taken an Uber to the Buenavista subway station, then the suburban railway to Lechería Station. From there, I’d used a combination of taxis, another subway, and a bus before walking the final stretch. When I was absolutely sure there was no one on my tail, I’d selected this table tucked into the afternoon shadows. My duffel was within easy reach on the ground, the stun gun with its remaining three cartridges sitting on top of my filthy clothes.
I was there to meet a man named Ehsan Zarif, who ran security for the Jameh Mosque where Malik had been photographed. When I called him that morning and introduced myself, Zarif had assured me the place was known only to the neighborhood locals. “You won’t find it on any tourist map,” he’d promised. Which made it a good place to rendezvous if you didn’t want to be seen.
And Zarif and I did not want to be seen. I had my own reasons. For him, it would likely raise uncomfortable questions if he were spotted in the company of a young American woman, sharing pastries with her on a Sunday afternoon.
And meeting at the mosque had been out of the question—the Alpha almost certainly knew about it by now. Extreme pain like the kind Angelo suffered sooner or later makes everyone talk.
The waiter strolled out of the café and refilled my cup. He smiled at me, then stretched and yawned, taking in the day before strolling back inside. I was his only customer. I scooted my chair a few inches to the right to avoid the encroaching sunlight spilling across the tables and kept my face in shadow. I slid my phone from my pocket and checked the time. Still early.
Ten texts and two voice mails from Daniel. I’d sent him a text earlier, thanking him and letting him know I was all right. I ignored these newest messages and my guilt and dropped the phone back in the pocket of my skirt.
In the distance, a train blew its horn. The sound pushed against the effects of the coffee and adrenaline, and my heart rate slowed. But the sound also brought a deep desire for Denver and those I loved. If his schedule permitted, Cohen would be out for a midafternoon run with Clyde, the mountains rising in steep blue ridges beyond the park near police headquarters. Clyde would ignore the taunts of magpies and mountain blue jays, and the lure of the squirrels darting between trees. He would stay with Cohen.
I sat up when a man appeared on the far side of the square. Of medium height and build, he had a neatly trimmed gray beard and wore jeans, tennis shoes, a collarless shirt, and a black suit jacket. A black ball cap topped off the mix of casual and professional. He stood motionless as he scanned the restaurant patio. I leaned forward, into the sunlight. When he saw me, he smiled and made his way across the square.
I stood when he drew near.
“Ms. Parnell?” he asked in unaccented English.
“Sydney. And you are Mr. Zarif?”
“Ehsan. Please.” We shook hands. “It’s a pleasure to meet someone from my home country.”
“You’re American?” I asked.
“First generation. My parents fled Iran for the U.S. in 1979, after the shah was deposed. I grew up in San Diego, but I went to college in Boulder, not far from your hometown of Denver.”
Of course he had researched my background. “You speak like a native.”
“You’re kind. But not completely truthful. Still, I try.”
“And now you live here. In Mexico.”
“I still have my American citizenship. But I’m an expat. Or, as I prefer, a man of the world.”
“Most people are running in the opposite direction.”
The skin around his eyes crinkled. “What do they know?”
He held my hand for a moment, cupped in both of his in the Persian manner as we took a moment to inspect each other. He was not what I expected. Most people who work security are physical, almost overbearingly so, and they carry themselves with an aggressive body language designed to discourage anyone from getting close to their clients. Zarif’s gentle gaze and frameless glasses gave him the look of someone more comfortable running Google searches than chasing bad guys.
But appearances could be deceiving. And there was the matter of the gun he was packing; I’d taken note of the outline of an ankle holster beneath his jeans as he approached. Possibly there was another gun in his back waistband.
He released my hand.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” I said.
“Of course. Although you were very mysterious.” He smiled. “But then, maybe that’s why I came. Who can resist a mystery?”