New Horizons
By Katheryn Sandoval (FanFiction.net’s hearthandhomeauthor)

 


Part 1


This entire installment takes place in between the time frame where my last story ended and before the WTR episode "Lost Boys" begins.

The hearty country tunes and upbeat rhythms of C.D.'s couldn't pick Katheryn out of the doldrums she found herself in that afternoon. Not even Molly's reassuring tones and pats on the back could stir her as she rested her forehead against the bar's surface, her nose pressed into the shiny top while she sighed. Molly occupied the stool next to her, uttering a brief and loving remark every few minutes. Still…Katheryn could not be stirred.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Molly asked for what seemed like the twentieth time.

Katheryn nodded the best she could under the current circumstances and position of her head. "I'm quite happy." She sighed roughly, her muffled voice repeating those same words each time Molly had asked over the course of five minutes give or take.

Molly was tempted to give up and let her friend be. "Are you sure?"

"Yes!" Katheryn snapped back and instantly regretted it. It was then at that very moment she knew she was fighting a losing battle. Turning her head to meet with her loving friend's gaze, she slowly lifted her face from off of the bar and swiveled right on her stool. "We kissed." It felt like a relief to spill those words before herself and her best friend.

Molly's eyes grew just a tad bit wider as she listened. "You…and Carlos?"

Katheryn nodded, the slight shock still evident in her expression.

"When did it happen?" Molly was clearly intrigued and tried to will away all desire to smile from ear to ear. Yet that too was almost a hopeless cause.

"Last week…after Trent fought Lyons."

"And I'm just now hearing about this?"

"Well, you're the first to know. Don't gloat about it any. But no one else knows."

Molly searched for Katheryn's eyes, stifling a smile. "I don't understand. Why are you upset about it?"

"I'm not upset about it," Katheryn stated quickly and matter-of-factly, not willing to chance a misunderstanding as a sly smile eased onto her face. "Believe me. I am far from upset about it." Talking and thinking it over was almost as if she was reliving the moment itself as she paused, thinking back to the rather pleasant way it had made her feel. She snapped out of it soon after, pressing onward into her explanation. "It's just…overwhelming…I suppose." Words seemed to fail her. Since making Dallas her home last year, she had fought off a serial killer, survived a near-death experience in the mountains of Utah, and had even secured her green belt just a few days ago under Trent's tutelage. Yet this one moment seemed more overwhelming than all those other events put together. But despite the shock she seemed to have difficulty overcoming, she still could not suppress the smile that willed its eager way to her face.

"I see." Molly clasped a smile together amid her closed mouth, her rosy cheeks beaming over her friend's good fortune as she reached for the coffee cup in front of her and took a sip of the comforting, steaming liquid.

"I know what you're thinking." Katheryn stared horizontally straight at the line of mugs on the counter opposite the bar, chin propped up on her fist, fully succumbing to the joy of the moment with a grin instead of letting some silly worries rob her of the moment.

Molly turned. "What?"

Katheryn was about to speak when the shrill sound of C.D.'s countertop telephone rang aloud, interrupting the already nearly stinted conversation. Her eyebrows were raised as she expected C.D. to come bounding from the kitchen, his hearty voice greeting the person on the other end of the device as he picked up the phone. But he never came.

Both Katheryn and Molly scanned the kitchen door intently…just to be sure…before Katheryn rose from the barstool and eased down the bar, circling to the other side of the counter and picking up the phone to place it to her ear. "C.D.'s," she hesitantly spoke into the device, still glancing behind her for good measure. Katheryn squinted softly as she strained to hear the distant voice that wasn't coming through the line very clearly. "I'm sorry. I can't quite hear you. Who—who is this?" She gripped the phone even closer to her ear as if it would do much good.

Molly's eyes stayed faceted upon Katheryn as the latter's face grew slightly distorted, small wrinkle lines forming at different places on her face as more confusion set in.

"No—I—I can't quite understand you. Can you speak up?" Katheryn was nearly ready to consider the phone call over when a clearer voice reached her ear. She instantly zoned her entire attention towards the voice, listening for each word distinctly.

"I—I need help. Somebody…." A whimper mingled with what sounded like a soft sob as the feminine voice struggled to carry on.

"What's the matter, miss?" Katheryn tried prying more information from the frightened young woman.

"He'll kill me if he finds out."

"Who are you? What's your name?"

The voice hesitated. "Annie."

"Annie, have you called the police?"

Silence. "A friend gave me this number. Said a man named Parker helped her years ago. And he could help me…since he's a Texas Ranger and all."

"Mr. Parker is semi-retired now, Annie. But I have some good friends that can help you. Tell me your phone number. I'll pass it on." Katheryn prayed silently that Annie would give in to the small request. For she sensed that the girl was definitely in some sort of dire straits.

"Um, I can't. Not this number. Can I meet you somewhere?"

Katheryn was apprehensive to comply. She wasn't going to make any of the mistakes she had made in the months past. She had learned her lesson concerning diving into situations with no help. "I—I think I can do that. I'll be bringing someone with me though."

"Oh…Okay." Annie detailed an address before hanging up quickly when someone had seemed to enter the room, stinting her moment of escape.

Katheryn sighed and returned the phone to its home. "That—was rather odd."

"Who was it?" Molly readjusted her arm in the sling as it grew numb.

"She said her name was Annie. She'd like to talk with someone. Said a friend gave her C.D.'s number because she trusted him."

"Hmm." Molly's forehead was creased as she was beside herself with intrigue. "Did she say what was wrong?"

"Not in those words. But I could tell she was trying to keep the conversation as secret as possible."

"You going to call Carlos?"

"Yup." Katheryn reached for the phone again and dialed that familiar number.

"You two make a good team." Molly smiled from ear to ear.

Katheryn only rolled her eyes and grinned, not willing to admit that her best friend was right…although she agreed with her completely. The only matter of concern in her mind at that moment was this mysterious "Annie" and what she might be dealing with. It didn't seem like something to take lightly. And then again, it could all be a hoax.

A brief phone conversation later, Katheryn parted ways with Molly, aiming for her Stingray and the road that would lead her to meet this mysterious "Annie" along with Detective Sandoval by her side.

##

Katheryn carefully found her footing against the pavement beneath her as she eased from Carlos' unmarked police issue and shut the door firmly behind her. She scanned the structure before them warily, a frown gracing her typically jovial features as she didn't see a living soul anywhere in sight. Carlos was right behind her, one hand securing his firearm to his side as he slipped on his sunshades with the other hand. He then shut the driver's side door to his vehicle and traced a careful path to Katheryn's side.

"Snazzy place." Katheryn grimaced, noticing the broken windows, ugly graffiti, and bullet holes that grace the isolated two-story brick structure. No one could tell what the place had been in a former life. But one thing was certain. It had not been a usable facility for quite some time.

Carlos noticed an open doorway with a plastic tarp hanging over the entrance as a makeshift door. "Over there." He pointed towards it briefly before settling his hand back at his side. Subconsciously, his hand stayed hovered over his firearm as undetectable as possible. This place didn't seem very safe from the outside and prompted his sense of urgency.

Katheryn fell into step behind Carlos as he eased forward, bringing the plastic tarp away from the entrance and to the side to allow them to enter. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the rather dark interior before they simultaneously spotted a young woman in the far corner. She was crouched low to the ground with a blanket secured tightly around her as she tried not to shake from the shivers that seemed to consume her.

Katheryn briefly thought to herself that the building didn't seem very cold. Yet perhaps it was something else…something unseen and of the heart that caused the young woman to tremble.

Carlos arrived at the young woman first and bent down to her level. He softly laid his hand on her shoulder as he found his voice. "Annie?"

The young woman was startled, jerking her head around to face Carlos with wide eyes that spelled out the feeling of a very frightened person. She didn't speak. She only glared into Carlos' eyes as if he were ghost of her past…what seemed like a very horrendous past.

"It's okay." Carlos applied a kind grip to her shoulder to comfort the woman. "It's alright," he repeated.

Katheryn bent low to the ground next to Carlos and lowered her voice to a whisper. "What should we do?"

Carlos sighed. "I don't know."

To their surprise, the young woman had willed herself to trust them in that short window of time. She slowly turned around, shifting her entire body towards the two strangers before her as she let the blanket fall off of her shoulders, surrounding her on the concrete floor. Her hands still held a slight tremor, and her lip quivered ever so slightly. But she had mustered up a bravery that she had found hidden deep within her. "I—I'm sorry." Her voice was very low and raspy. "I thought you were somebody else."

"That's okay." It was Katheryn who offered the soft touch this time along with a loving smile. "Annie?" She searched for the girl's eyes as she attempted to further the conversation along. Annie nodded firmly, a slight shiver passing in the wake of her response. Katheryn smiled again before turning to Carlos. "Annie, my name is Katheryn this is Detective Carlos Sandoval. We'd like to help you if you'd let us."

Annie attempted a nod. "I do. I do want your help." She shifted her gaze from Katheryn to Carlos and then back again. "I just…" A small tear eased from eye and slid down her pale cheek, splashing with finality onto her thin blouse.

It was the first time Katheryn had noticed the young woman's attire. It seemed rather…unsuitable…for a young lady. A bit revealing in her opinion. Her skirt rode high also. One hundred questions went in and out of her mind as she sought the words she should speak next. Yet the silence overcame them instead.

Carlos detected Katheryn's hesitation and stepped in, bringing the blanket back around the woman's shoulders. "What did you need to tell us, Annie?"

Annie was apprehensive now. She turned her head to the side and refused to look them in the eyes. No matter how comforting Katheryn and Carlos tried to be, it didn't seem to help very much. "I can't." Annie suppressed a sob. "I shouldn't have called. He'll kill me for sure now." She had made up her mind and proceeded to try pushing her way past Carlos and Katheryn. "I should be leaving."

Katheryn caught her as she stumbled forward, taking her into an embrace and wrapping her arms securely about the now weeping young woman. She couldn't have been more than twenty-five years old. Not far from Katheryn's age. Yet her tears echoed against the cement walls of the tattered building like a young child's. Its varying tones showed the deep layers and shades of everything the young woman had been through that they had yet to discover.

"Please help me," Annie repeated several times through her sobs.

"We will." Katheryn rocked her as she pleaded with them. "We will." Katheryn caught a glance at Carlos over Annie's shoulder. Her eyes asking Carlos what they should do.

Carlos tipped his head forward softly amid a nod. The solution was as unclear to him as it was to Katheryn. But they now knew that this was not a trap. Annie seemed to bear all the signs of a victim. Yet…what was she a victim of?

Ninety seconds came and went before Annie pulled away from Katheryn with an apology, wiping at her eyes with the meager silk sleeve that barely covered her frail biceps.

"Don't apologize." Katheryn searched for Annie's eyes with no avail as she held the young woman by each of her shoulders. "Let's get you to somewhere safe."

"No!" Annie's stern voice broke out into an echo. She shrunk back penitently. "I mean… He'll kill you both too if he finds out."

"No he won't." Carlos spoke up, causing Annie to turn swiftly as she followed his voice. "C'mon. We'll take care of you."

Annie was far from trusting of the strangers before her...however kind they may have seemed. But if they were friends of Mr. Parker, they had to be trustworthy, she concluded as she let Carlos and Katheryn help her to her feet. Her legs were weak and she almost buckled beneath the stress had she not been held by the two people on either side of her. Annie surrendered then. She had finally come to the realization that she did need help. But it would difficult to fully receive the help. But she had to. If not for herself…then for the others who could suffer at the diabolical hand of Wade Mahoney.


Part 2


Fifth Avenue flashed past one…two…three police issues as Ranger Walker led the charge in pursuit of the latest minor drug ring effort of Wade Mahoney. Those familiar silver headlights flashed in and out of unison with the sirens behind them as Walker slammed on the brakes, turning the steering wheel sharply into a narrow right turn down a secluded dirt path. Towering dust clouds engulfed the Dodge Ram and the police cars that followed the path blazed by Walker just a fraction of a second before them.

Meanwhile, Trivette took hold of the passenger side door just in time as Walker sped into and out of a rather large pothole. "Sheesh!" Trivette mumbled with a slight edge of vibrato brought on by another small gap in the dirt road a short second or two later. The thought crossed his mind rather swiftly that he should hold on to his hat. But there was no time. They were on time and about two minutes from descending upon one of Wade Mahoney's smaller organizations.

It had not taken much for one of Mahoney's lower henchmen to give in when threatened with a rather long sentence behind bars. Walker had wondered to himself how Mahoney's cartel was surviving this long with wimps and cowards like Jameson leading the way who had so quickly given in when interrogated. It also made the Rangers wonder just how many more hoops they'd have to jump through before getting close to the number one man himself. They had already spent the past week shutting down nearly fifteen little pockets and associations of Mahoney's vast cartel like the one they were pursuing today. God only knew how many more it would take before making the climb right up to the powerful Wade Mahoney…wanted by both the United States and Mexico as the leader of the seventh largest drug cartel in the western hemisphere.

With a distant building drawing closer and closer, Trivette prepped himself, unbuckling the seat belt with one hand while hovering over the door's handle with his other hand. Coming to a screeching halt and a slight swerve to the left as Walker put the Dodge into park, Trivette swung outward with the door as it left the lock and opened freely on its hinges. He landed safely, his boots clashing into the gravel with a scraping noise as he dug his heels in, arms held outstretched, gun in hand and pointed towards the building from around the edge of the door. He stayed crouched down just enough to give half of his body cover.

One of the officers drew a megaphone from his patrol car and tossed it to Walker from a distance. Walker gripped the item with a disdainful sigh and raised it to his lips. "Texas Rangers! We have a warrant for your arrest. Open up!" He lowered the megaphone. "Or we'll come in there after you." It's your choice, Walker finished silently, speaking only with his narrowed eyes pointed towards the building before him.

Silence gripped the atmosphere as all officers present held their firearms foreword as if ready for battle. It was several uncertain seconds later before the door to the metal warehouse slowly creaked open, revealing two men, hands behind their heads as if they were actually surrendering.

"We don't want no fight." The first confessed with a deep southern drawl that almost could make a body feel sorry for him…if he wasn't dealing drugs that is.

No officer among them budged even an inch as the two stopped in front of the sea of guns pointed at their face. Their hands were still cupped behind their balding heads while they tried begging for mercy with their little sheepish sniffles.

Walker refused to be fooled but was tempted to play along. "Is this all of you?"

The two pitied fools looked at each other as if wondering which story they should choose this time. The same goon turned back to Walker. "Uh, yeah." He nodded vivaciously. "Yup. It's just us."

Trivette stole a wary glance at Walker through the cabin of the truck before returning his eyes to the top of his firearm still extended in his hands.

"Get over here." Walker waved his gun two inches to the right towards the hood of his truck.

The twosome did as they were told, glancing around them and walking idiotically up to the truck in some sort of surrender.

"Hands on the hood!"

They did that too.

"Come here, Nelson." Walker waved over one of the officers as he secured the two supposed dealers in cuffs. They grunted and groaned a bit followed by a stern Texas Ranger style reprimand given by Walker before Officer Nelson hauled the twosome back to his own patrol car, reading them their rights as he shoved them forward and into the car.

Walker and Trivette were inside the building seconds later and had holstered their guns after a thorough search of the three-room shed-like warehouse. They scanned over the many piles of freshly-made methamphetamine lying near the homemade lab while the other officers followed, slipping on the bright blue latex rubber gloves to gather every bit of the drugs as evidence against the two men they had arrested…and eventually Mahoney as was their hope.

Trivette tossed a wayward package of the bagged substance to Officer Reynolds and nearly froze as a sound reached his ears. He stopped mid-stride, turning to face the direction from where he could have sworn he heard something. "Hey, Walker…Did you hear that?"

Walker made his way over to Trivette and tried listening for what Trivette said he heard. It was a bit difficult to do so over the racket the other officers were making while packing up the evidence. "No," Walker shook his head. "I don't hear anything."

"Just listen…" Trivette sternly insisted, pointing towards where he had heard the sound come from.

Walker sighed and tried listening again. This time…he heard something too.

"See?" Trivette turned to Walker with a cocky smile. "I told you!"

Walker suppressed a chuckle as he shook his head and crossed the room ahead of Trivette towards the sound. When he heard it again, it was a bit louder…and was coming from the floor beneath them. It was then that Walker spotted a handle in the floor where a trapdoor was camouflaged quiet ingeniously with the rest of the floor. "Excuse me, Evans." Walker eased past another officer and lifted the quite heavy trapdoor open with a sigh on that last note when it made a sudden thud against the floor.

Walker squatted to the floor to get a better view of what was inside. Yet it was not what he was expecting. "Trivette! Over here!"

Walker was shimmying down into the hole before Trivette even had a chance to come. Once he saw what Walker had seen, he was by no means surprised. There in a little dugout of the earth beneath that shabby drug lab was three young women—barely twenty years of age by Trivette's quick estimation—huddled together in a tight group with mud and tear-stained faces. They were almost unrecognizable beneath the layers of dirt on their skin and the fear the emanated from their widened eyes and quivering lips.

"Oh my Lord." Trivette stopped short in shock as he caught a strong glimpse of the girls.

Walker bent down in front of the first young woman and offered a smile. "My name is Walker. I'm a Texas Ranger. You gals are safe now."

The young women didn't seem convinced as they cowered a bit, staring over Walker's shoulder up at Trivette.

Walker glanced over his shoulder and turned back to the girls with a smile. "That's my partner Trivette. You can trust him too."

The girls still were not buying it and continued to shiver beneath the anxiety of the only life they knew…the fear-filled life that had plagued them for who knows how long.

Trivette's eyes danced from one girl to the other and still to the third, attempting to alleviate their fears with a gentle smile. The youngest of the group—she couldn't have been too far from fifteen years old—raised her head wearily. Her lips quivered as she blinked repetitively to clear her eyes of the blinding tears she could no longer shed. Then she smiled. It wasn't wide or bright. But it was genuine and sincere, revealing another side to the frightened child that still held a bit of trust for another human being.

"What are you going to do to us?" The eldest girl frowned, revealing inset age lines under her delicate eyes that should never grace a young woman still in her youth.

Walker reached his hand out to move a stray lock of her hair away from her eyes. "We're here to help you. No one's going to hurt you anymore. How would you like to have a nice warm bath and some fresh clothes for starters?" The senior Ranger grinned, hoping to perhaps draw the same from the girl.

The middle girl glanced at the oldest in earnest as if to beg her to accept the kind offer given them. The oldest girl was hesitant and turned her head away to think it over. She finally returned her eyes back to the Ranger after a few moments of deliberation and nodded limply as she mouthed an inaudible answer.

"I'll take that as a yes." Ranger Walker proceeded to scoop the youngest into his arms, guiding her carefully up the opening of the little cellar and to Trivette who waited above them.

Trivette guided the young woman to her feet as she was handed to him. He quickly wrapped a blanket tightly around her frail frame just as soon as Reynolds tossed one to him. "How's that?" He offered the rather shy young woman a smile. She didn't offer a smile in return. Nor did she seem very compliant to the attention she was receiving. Trivette's thoughts wandered as he could only imagine what these young ladies had been through to get to where they had found them that day…huddled inside the fears and memories of some diabolical scheme.

##

Annie forcefully wiped at a free-falling tear with the back of her shaking hand as she hovered over the coffee cup before her, the piping steam rising to and vaporizing against her emotionless face. She hesitated to look up at those surrounding her at the H.O.P.E. center's table. Yet the room was quiet, inviting…safe even. The coffee seemed to be helping, breaking down the cold wall inside of her ever so slowly. Meanwhile, the emotional coldness remained…intensified by the memory of the one whom she had dreadfully called husband for the past six months.

All these truths were buried deep within her. She longed to lay them on the table and make them as real and evident as the coffee these kind strangers had offered her. But the wall seemed too strong to tear down. Annie blinked away another tear and hid all the emotions once more behind a long sip of the coffee before she returned the cup to the table.

Detective Sandoval and Katheryn surrounded Annie on either side in silence, letting Annie come to terms with herself in her own time. Even Miss Cahill had found a moment of solace to spend with her friends. For Katheryn sensed she would be relying on Alex's experience with her women's group to help Annie overcome whatever she still kept locked inside.

Several minutes of silence seemed to tick away before Annie gathered up the strength to speak. "My name is Annie," she sniffed hard as a lump grew in her throat. She swallowed hard, unable to look these kind people in the eyes. "Annie…Mahoney."

Katheryn tried not to let her surprise show as she locked eyes with Carlos briefly, remembering the name vaguely from a conversation she and Carlos had several days ago. Katheryn turned back to Annie and reached out a hand, setting it softly on Annie's hand. Unseen to the natural eye, Katheryn could feel Annie's hand trembling ever so slightly beneath her own touch.

"I left him, you know." Annie attempted to lighten her mood with a legitimately fake chuckle edging her voice as she exhaled and lifted her eyes to the window ahead of her. "I shouldn't have. But I had to." This time, she cradled her face in her hands and tried so hard to keep from crying. It was almost no use.

"Annie." Alex had eased behind Carlos and situated her hand on the young woman's shoulder, searching for her attention as she spoke. "What happened?"

Annie bit her lip and turned away; her tear-stained face softly glistened in the meager daylight that lit the room. Alex then bent low to Annie's level and spoke her name again. It held such a tender authority that Alex hoped would alleviate the girl's fears some and cause her to trust them…at least a little bit.

Annie finally gave in and turned to meet Miss Cahill's firm gaze.

"Annie," Alex cradled her hand in hers. "You can trust us." She glanced over at Carlos and then Katheryn. "Detective Sandoval and Miss Katheryn are here for you too. We can help you. I promise you. You'll be protected." Alex ended with a hopeful smile as she squeezed Annie's hand gently.

With a quick glance across the table at those before her, Annie took in a deep breath, pushing her coffee cup away and sitting up a bit straighter in her seat. She took another deep breath…. "It was about seven…eight months ago. I was working the graveyard shift at a factory in Deep Elm. When I got off just past four o'clock, I was exhausted. I was so tired. I could have easily slept standing up. Yet I was starving too. I decided to stop by the diner that was just about ten minutes from my house. I decided I'd eat a bite really quickly and take something home for my father. He's been living with me ever since momma died.

"As I was eating, a man came up to me and complimented me. I looked like a mess," Anne laughed a bit. "My hair was this way and that from wearing that stupid cap. And I'm sure I needed a shower. Anyways…He asked if I was working because of my odd hours at the diner. I told him yes. From there we talked over the rest of my meal and coffee." Anne glanced at the cup sitting before her, almost connecting the two events as some sort of déjà vu. She shook the notion away and told herself silently to continue the story.

A small smile eased onto Annie's face as she remembered. "He was rather handsome. A bit older than me, true. But he was so nice. Raven black hair that fell on his neck, striking blue eyes, a smile that would make you think he had never seen a year above thirty—all this was Wade. He was perfect to me that night. He started to say that he had opportunities in his business for me that were far better than the graveyard shift at some factory. It was like a dream come true to hear someone say there was an easier way. I was supporting myself and my father. And it was so hard."

Carlos had since begun taking mental note of every description Annie had given of the man. If the man was as rotten as he suspected, he would not let any detail escape that would aid him in capturing the ruthless man.

Annie took another deep breathe as the tears seemed to be forever imminent but controlled by the young woman's will. "Wade left me with his number and said to call if I ever wanted to take him up on his offer. It didn't take me long to think it over. I called him the next day. About three hours after I called, he came and picked me up in his limousine himself. I didn't realize he was so rich. I felt like a princess. We arrived at his home a little while later. It was more like a mansion to me. It was beautiful. Wade told me I could work as a housekeeper at first. But there was a sparkle in his eye as if to say he had other plans. One month later, he asked me to marry him. He said I'd never have to worry again in all my life. I trusted him. I loved him." It was nearly impossible for Annie to keep the tears away now. Katheryn quickly passed her a tissue or two as she continued talking. "We were happy for six months…until I stumbled upon one room in the big house that was off to itself in the basement. The room was nearly as big as this one and had stacks of drugs. Wade's bodyguard found me and accused me of stealing. It was more like I had fallen into the trap."

"What do you mean?" Katheryn inserted.

Annie shifted her gaze to Katheryn. "Wade told me to my face that I was just like the others. Too stupid for my own good. So…he began to beat me." She finished that sentenced edge with disdain amid a scoff. She dabbed at a few wayward tears.

Carlos sank into his own thoughts. There was indeed many shades and layers to this Wade Mahoney character. Even with having broken the back of Mahoney's local drug ring, there was still a solid base to this guy that needed to be taken down once and for all.

"Will you be willing to testify against Wade Mahoney in court?" Alex posed as she placed her hand on the young woman's shoulder.

Annie slowly and deliberately turned to face Alex. A level of apprehension still tried to tempt her in everything she said and did. "I—I will."

Carlos took physical note of Annie's story this time with the pen and paper before him while Miss Cahill helped Annie settle into a room upstairs. The pin-drop silence of the room stirred Katheryn's thoughts as she waited for Carlos to speak. She admired his steadfast focus while secretly contemplating how she could aid in the efforts to bring justice to the situation. She seriously should consider Trent's offer to aid him in his personal protection service. It hadn't been a serious offer. It was just a vague comment made by Molly in praise of her saving Trent. But was Molly right? Did she have what it took? No, she shook it off silently; she should stick to writing stories. Maybe one of these escapades would give her the inspiration for a heart-stirring story one of these days.

"Alright." Carlos' voice snapped Katheryn out of her deep reverie.

Katheryn jumped a bit, swallowing hard as she turned to face Carlos. He was already standing and heading for the exit. Katheryn hurried to catch up, gathering her few belongings and making a straight path to Carlos' side as they rounded the corner into the foyer of the H.O.P.E. center intent upon reaching the door. Carlos' opened the door for Katheryn just as he slipped his cell phone out of his inside coat pocket and placed it to his ear. Katheryn eased out of the doorway and onto the veranda in silence as Carlos followed, securing the door closed behind them before they continued to his police issue that awaited them at the street curb.

"Walker," Carlos' voice echoed as they reached the vehicle. "Got some more info on Mahoney…from his wife."

Katheryn could sense the hesitation in Carlos' voice as he spoke. She ceased her step at the sidewalk, resting her hand on the door handle as she listened to the phone conversation. She could faintly hear Walker's voice on the other end amid the peaceful area around them.

"Alright. See ya there." Carlos snapped the cell phone closed and slipped it back into its home inside his coat. He reached for the driver's side door handle, pulling the door open and settling into the seat. He clicked a button to unlock the other side, letting Katheryn follow suit on the other side.

Katheryn glanced at Carlos as he put the car in drive. "Everything alright?"

He barely nodded. "Yeah. Walker said they took down one of Mahoney's smaller drug labs this morning."

"Good." Katheryn smiled, thankful that Mahoney was slowly being taken down one organization at a time.

Carlos didn't seem pleased.

Katheryn's smile then faded. "What is it?"

"Walker and Trivette also found three girls there."

"Oh?"

"Yeah…In a hole in the ground underneath the warehouse."

"That—that's terrible."

Carlos nodded. "It seems Annie wasn't the first girl to be trapped by Mahoney."

Katheryn's surprise was evident, although she tried everything in her power to suppress it. "You mean…."

Carlos nodded, reading her thoughts. "Yeah. Walker said the oldest girl told them everything. He'll fill us in once we get to Ranger Headquarters."

Katheryn nodded, accepting Carlos' words as she shifted her gaze to the Dallas scenery that passed by her on her right. It all seemed to flash by in a blur. For her focus was far from the ride at hand and all on the disheartening thoughts and images of what Annie…and now others had experienced at the hands of this hideous drug lord.


Part 3


A short while later found Carlos and Katheryn striding into the Company B office at Ranger Headquarters surrounded by the usual din and carryings on of the office space. They passed by two other Rangers and issued a brief hello as the door closed behind them to find Walker and Trivette waiting for them at their respective desks. They both stood, their conversations with a third party halting as the twosome made their way over to the far corner.

Carlos raised an eyebrow and grinned as the familiar face turned around and greeted them. "Trent, buddy! What are you doing here?"

"There a reason I shouldn't be?" Trent took a sarcastic jab at his best friend with a smile.

Carlos rolled his eyes and chuckled lightly before directing his attention fully on Walker as the Senior Ranger lifted a file off of his desk. It's printed edge read, Wade Mahoney.

"Thanks for coming, Carlos. Katheryn," Walker began. "So far, the Rangers have been able to shut down sixteen of Wade Mahoney's small labs and operations in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas. We've also received reports that other Ranger companies have been able to take down a few small rings in other parts of the state. About nine months ago, Mahoney moved across the border to Texas and bought a lavish mansion about fifteen miles from here. It's in a rather rich community; and several prominent families of the area live in that neighborhood. We've been watching him closely this whole time off and on. And just recently, he's begun making some rather expensive purchases."

"And some rather lavish steals," Trivette broke in, rounding his desk to the little group before them. He crossed his arms as he thought through his words for a split second. "We've linked him to three jewelry stores heists, two carjacking incidents, and rather large influx of cash into his possession all within the past week."

"Then I don't get it." Katheryn was the first to speak up. "If you've linked him to these crimes, how can you not get a warrant on him? And what about the girls you found?"

"He's managed to keep his nose pretty clean by having someone else do his dirty work," Trivette answered with an undetectable sigh. "Most of the crimes committed have been traced back to someone who has had dealings with Mahoney. Truth be told, we don't have the entire proof we need that Mahoney is the man behind all the crimes."

"But we do know he's a part of it all," Walker finished the thought before answering Katheryn's second question. "The oldest of the three girls told us that they have been victims of Mahoney."

Katheryn nodded forlornly, understanding Walker's underlying meaning without him having to say another word.

"Not to mention being one of the biggest drug lords in the Western hemisphere can make you a little haughty." Carlos sighed. "He probably thinks he can buy his way out of any vicious crime just like he puts up bail for his goons."

"So that's how you know." Katheryn nodded in understanding. "He sends you guys a message by bailing out the goons. Kinda letting you know who's boss in his eyes. I get it."

"Yep." Walker nodded and set the file back on his desk. He took a moment to think through his next words before he raised his gaze to Carlos. "We need to get someone close to Mahoney. Find the proof we need to take him in."

Carlos remembered the paper he had written Annie's account on and reached for it inside his coat pocket. He handed it to Walker. "Here's his wife's story. I tried to get down as many details as I could when Katheryn and I spoke to her today. She's agreed to testify against Wade when we bring him in."

Walker read over the page quickly. "Good work, Carlos."

As he carefully choice his words, Walker lifted a file from his desk and handed it over his desk to Katheryn. Her soft hazel eyes narrowed with a touch of confusion as she accepted it, looking the senior Ranger in the eyes as she did so.

Katheryn carefully opened the file while two sets of curious eyes surrounded her on either side. She tried her best to ignore Trent and Carlos' curiousness as she read the words and descriptions before her. Her eyes were not so wide anymore after reading the words. Instead, they were wide, letting in ample amounts of light for her to see and understand it all perfectly. Walker wanted her to go undercover. But that wasn't all.

Carlos peaked over the file with a bit more effort after seeing Katheryn's eyes widen. "What is it?"

She snapped the file closed and to her chest with a smile. "Not so fast."

Carlos offered a nearly pleading grin before she finally gave in and let him have the file. He read over it thoroughly and was equally surprised. He lifted his gaze to Walker in half disbelief and half apprehension. He stole a quick glance at Kimberly. "Walker, are you sure? Mahoney is a dangerous man. And…I—I don't think Katheryn should be in that sort of danger."

Katheryn's mouth half opened in disbelief as she stared Carlos in the eyes. "You don't think I can do it. Do you?"

Carlos struggled to make eye contact with Katheryn as he shifted his gaze between Walker and Katheryn, waiting for Walker to answer his first question.

"I think she can handle it, Carlos," Trent dared to insert. "You've worked together undercover before."

Walker nodded. "Trent's right. But that isn't the only reason."

Carlos was still not convinced. The thought of putting Katheryn in harm's way when it wasn't at all necessary was not a thought he enjoyed entertaining. Besides, surely there was someone else. "I don't doubt that," he acknowledged Trent with a loving pause to reassure Kath before he turned back to Walker. "But what about someone in the force? My new partner perhaps? How about Sydney Cooke? I've heard great things about her."

Walker shook his head. "Mahoney is already wary of invaders. If we don't fool him good, we won't have a chance to get him. That's why I want you two to go undercover as a married couple. You know each other. You're close."

"You've got a good chemistry going." Trivette grinned, finishing Walker's thought. He quickly retrieved another file from his desk and handed it to Carlos. "We've decided to let you both go undercover and move in to the house next to Mahoney. That way you'll be able to get closer. Perhaps attend some of Wade's cocktail parties and such to get friendly. It would be a great way in."

"Let me see." Trent reached for the file. He smiled a little bit. "Makes sense." He raised his head, grinned innocently, and turned back to the file to read. "Carlos and Katie Santiago. Married for five years. Recently moved to Dallas from Miami after making a fortune within the Santiago family drug cartel. Hmm."

Walker turned to Carlos once more. "Your story is that you've been with the family business all your life. The family business was just raided and shut down by authorities in Miami and you and your wife are seeking refuge within another cartel."

Carlos surrendered with a sigh. He still didn't like it. But he trusted Walker's judgment. "Alright, Walker." He flashed a sincere grin towards Katheryn. "What do you think, honey?"

The men hid smirks and smiles as Carlos used the endearing term for the first time.

Katheryn didn't seem to mind, forgiving Carlos' moment of doubt. She slipped one arm through Carlos' and the other she fisted against her hip, swaying her hips just a bit and blinking fervently as a rather snobbish smile graced her lips. "That's just perfect, darling." Katie was definitely nothing like Katheryn. She had stepped into her character already quite well with girly gestures that Kimberly would never be caught doing.

Carlos looked away from Katheryn with a smile. "Now that we got that settled..."

Walker suppressed a broad smile. "You'll move in just as soon as you can get a bag packed. Your moving crew should already be there waiting on you once you arrive."

"Gotcha." Carlos spun on his heel, facing the exit. He stopped short and turned to Kimberly, waving his hand forward. "Ladies first."

Katheryn was herself again as she turned to Trent. "Isn't my husband so nice?"

Trent chuckled as he watched the twosome head out. "You sure they can handle it?" He turned back to the Rangers.

"Of course…" Trivette smiled. "Especially when you will be Carlos' personal bodyguard."

Trent's eyes widened a bit. "What?"

Walker handed Trent another file that outlined all the details for his undercover character. "This way you can offer them both extra protection."

Trent read it over carefully and sighed. "Sounds like fun. I went to jail twice before landing a place on the Santiago family payroll guarding the rather cocky son, Carlos. And I managed to escape arrest and help bring Santiago and his wife safely to Dallas." Trent looked back at Walker. "I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or mad."

Walker chuckled and accepted the file back from Trent as he offered it back. "I'm sure you'll do just fine."

"Yeah, that's what I'm worried about." Trent finished with a smile and tied up a few more loose ends with the Rangers before finding his way home to Providence Way. Meanwhile, he'd try not to think about all the ways this job could go wrong and think only of how he could help bring Mahoney to justice alongside his close friends.

##

"Breaking news at the top of the hour…It has been reported that yet another of the infamous Mahoney drug cartel labs has been shut down for good. This operation headed by Dallas' own Texas Ranger Cordell Walker has secured the demise of sixteen small operations of the cartel, and the Rangers tell us that it is only the beginning. In speaking with the Texas Rangers, they hope to see to it that the entire Mahoney operation is annihilated within the coming weeks…."

Glass upon glass shattered into a hundred tiny pieces as what was formerly a crystal goblet cascaded at the foot of the television. The crumbled up pile of glass glistened slightly as the meager light from a single light source shed soft light over the floor and the only person in the room. A man in a beige suit occupied the armchair that was situated next to the lamp. A snug black undershirt highlighted his well-maintained chest muscles while they bulged a bit beneath the anger that rose up from him. His fists were clenched tightly, wrapped around some unseen entity…choking it to death…as they hammered the arms of the chair…once…and twice…before staying still. His knuckles turned white. His facial muscles tensed as he clasped his teeth together. An unrelenting anger had consumed him.

"Are you alright, sir?" A male voice interrupted from behind.

The man never budged. "I want that Walker dead. You hear me?! DEAD!"

"Whatever you say, sir." The voice turned to leave but stopped. "Oh, I meant to tell you…Wilkins spotted some moving trucks next door. Seems we got some new neighbors."

"Oh, really?" Mahoney's tensions relaxed ever so slightly. He slowly stood to his feet, the anger having subsided. He slipped into cordiality as some kind of mentally unstable second skin, rounding the chair to his trusted bodyguard with a smile. "We will be sending an invitation out for them to join us for dinner soon I trust?"

Wade's bodyguard grinned. "Anything you say, sir. Anything you say." The man turned to leave.

"Oh!" Wade stopped him in his path with a lift of his finger. "Any chance you caught their names?"

"Santiago." The man's voice was flat and indifferent.

"Santiago," Wade echoed to himself, thinking through all his relations and business affairs. "Thank you." He slipped away from the living area once his guard was out of sight and made his way upstairs. He forcefully opened one of the bedroom doors and hurried to the nightstand on his side of the bed. He lifted a framed picture of his wife and looked it over a moment before easing it to his lips. He pressed a kiss against the glass slowly and deliberately. A moment passed before he surrendered, setting the treasured item down slowly…pensively, gazing at it the whole time as he lowered it down to its home by the lamp. "You should have never left me. It's brought me bad luck you being away." He grinned and turned away. "You should have never left me, Annie. Now you'll have to pay."

##

"So how did it go?"

Katheryn had just arrived at the apartment intent upon packing her things quickly. She only had half an hour to spare before meeting Carlos at his apartment to head to their new home…before sunset hopefully.

Molly quickly followed Katheryn to the latter's bedroom as she entered the apartment. She watched as Kath eased a suitcase out of the closet and plopped it open on her bed.

Katheryn crossed the floor to the closet again and glanced over its contents. "It was alright. We found Annie and took her to the H.O.P.E. center where she told us everything. Carlos got a call from Walker. And now I'm packing a bag to go undercover." She took out about three outfits and spread them across the bed. She never did that sort of thing. But she had to be sure the outfits would be suitable for Katie Santiago. She wrinkled her nose and creased her forehead as she surveyed the contents before her. She loved the outfits. But she was sure Katie wouldn't.

Meanwhile, Molly was busy controlling her surprise. "Undercover? Really?"

"Yeah. I've done it before you know."

"That's right," Molly grinned. "You were undercover with Carlos when you first came to Dallas. I remember now."

Katheryn paused a moment, remembering that whole ordeal. "I never quite knew what hit me." She looked Molly in the eyes with a smile. "But I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Molly nodded and proceeded to look over the contents on the bed. "So what's your cover?"

Katheryn made another trek over to the closet and selected a few personal items, returning to her suitcase and tucking them in at the edge to leave plenty of room for her jeans and other comforts. She smiled a bit more as she glanced up at her best friend. "My name is Katie Santiago. I've been married to Carlos Santiago for five years."

Molly grinned. "Are you bad guys or good guys?"

Katheryn wrinkled her nose with an underlying grin hiding behind it. "Bad guys unfortunately." She released a breathy chuckle as she went in search of her favorite sparring outfit. "Very bad guys. Carlos is the son of a most infamous drug cartel leader from Miami."

"Ah I see. You married a bad guy. Shame on you." Molly stifled another smile.

The twosome shared a brief chuckle before Molly left Katheryn to her packing and headed to the kitchen. She set it in her mind to make up a few sandwiches for the happy couple as they settled into their new home. It was about ten minutes later, a pink sunset teasing the skyline, when Katheryn finally emerged from her room, the door shutting with a soft thud behind her as she hauled her suitcase across the room and placed it by the door with a sigh.

"All done," Katheryn sighed, wiping at her brow. "Although I hope Katie plans on going shopping. Because Katheryn and Katie are totally different in my opinion when it comes to clothing tastes."

Molly turned to her friend and extended two paper bags to her. "I made up dinner for you both. Turkey and ham with Swiss and potato chips. Your favorite right?"

Katheryn nodded and smiled her thanks, taking the bags in hand and setting them on the counter by her small over-the-shoulder purse. She paused and took a moment to glance around the room, her thoughts far from packing and sandwiches as she looked upon the living room and the downtown Dallas skyline beyond their window.

"What is it?" Molly frowned, following the same path with her own eyes and shifting them back to Katheryn.

"Just thinking." Katheryn swallowed a growing lump in her throat as she pursed her lips together, turning back to Molly and giving her best friend a strong hug. Why she was so wary of leaving she could not quite put her finger on. "You think you can hold down the fort here while I'm gone?"

Molly wanted to say no. She couldn't. Well, she could. But not if she were given the choice. "Yes," she sighed. "Of course." They pulled away from the embrace a short while later. "Do you know how long you'll be gone?"

Katheryn shook her head, her eyes scanning her shoes and the floor below with regret before she looked back up. She wished she could give a solid answer. Yet who could?

"Stay safe." Molly swallowed hard as she waved one last goodbye, holding the door open for Katheryn as the latter headed out and towards the end of the hall where the elevator lift waited on her.

Katheryn turned back only one more time with a final wave from within the lift before she tugged on the massive door, its metal frame thudding against the steel concrete floor as gravity took over, sealing her fate with a certain finality that even Katheryn could not trace.


Part 4


Only faint hints of the day's sunlight remained consumed by the coming night sky as Katheryn's Stingray roared to a stop in front of Detective Sandoval's apartment building. The rather larger, industrial-looking landscape hid what view of the sun remained as she stepped one foot out of her car and into the darkness, easing herself forward as she pressed the button to close the top on the treasured beauty. Easing around the front of the car, she opened the passenger side door and took hold of her suitcase, setting it on the broken pavement gently to shut her car door. Glancing up to Carlos' apartment, she saw him briefly look out the window before his figure disappeared away from view. The window suddenly grew dark as the lamps were turned out. Katheryn waited for a brief moment before she heard the clanging sound of footsteps against the metal stairwell that led to the ground below. They were swift and careful. Most of all, they were familiar. Katheryn smirked under her breath. Was it right that she was beginning to memorize Carlos' walking patterns?

"I see you made it." Carlos was catching his breath as he paused next to his jet black Durango, calling across the short distance to Katheryn as he set his large duffle bag on the ground. He reached into his jeans' pocket, shuffling around the tight space for his car keys.

"Of course." Katheryn smiled and began the short walk to Carlos side with her suitcase in hand. It wasn't too heavy. Besides, rolling it would be a waste of time.

Katheryn settled the suitcase by Carlos' duffle just as Carlos clicked the unlock symbol on his keychain. The headlights on the SUV flashed on and off before Carlos eased in front of Katheryn to the back of the SUV, lifted the lift gate, and circled back to retrieve their luggage. "Really? Just one suitcase?" Carlos queried with a touch of disbelief edging his voice.

Katheryn hid another smirk, trying not to bring Carlos' rather chauvinistic statements from earlier today into the conversation. "Is that so wrong?"

Carlos had put her suitcase in the back and had returned for his own duffle. "I—I suppose not." He grinned. "I just…Never mind." He had clearly already put his foot in his mouth one too many times today.

Katheryn flashed a broad smile Carlos' direction as she made her way past Carlos and around back to the passenger side front seat, boarding the SUV with an unmistakable grin.

Carlos eased the lift gate shut with a soft thud and took his place in the driver's seat, shutting the door fervently and cranking the engine. The interior features flashed on their familiar nighttime colors much to Katheryn's delight. She had ridden in the backseat with Molly last time when they had went to the dojo together and hadn't gotten a chance to check out all the bells and whistles in Carlos' new vehicle.

Directing the SUV out of the little parking area and onto the secluded streets adjacent to his home, Carlos set his eyes on the road as the darkened vehicle settled into a moment of silence. The engine's steady hum as the wheels rolled forty-five miles per hour along the streets past houses and small businesses was all that could be heard.

Carlos flashed a glance towards Katheryn in admiration. His brown eyes seemed to glisten as he watched her gaze at the "scenery" with a sense of contentment. He dared to speak up and interrupt her reverie. "Walker's going to meet us half way at the police station to change vehicles. He's also got us a few things we'll need while undercover."

Katheryn nodded, pulling herself out of her reverie to direct a smile Carlos' way.

Carlos had a hard time keeping his eyes on the road the entire time. If Katheryn had known, she probably would have scolded him in some sarcastic fashion. Yet he tried his best not to be too obvious at the same time.

Five minutes passed. Carlos chose to keep his eyes on the road this time as he kept one hand on the steering wheel and the other rested on the door next to him. "Have I told you how beautiful you look when you're thinking rather deeply?"

Katheryn jerked softly out of her deep thoughts and nearly blushed as she tried to process Carlos' words. She hid her struggle behind a smile. "I don't know." She chuckled dryly, hoping Carlos would understand. But she instantly felt ridiculous and wish she would have said something else. "What—what's most important is that I know for sure you've said it now."

Carlos smiled a bit and returned his focus on the road as the Dallas Police Department and Walker's Dodge came into view in his headlights. "He's here already." Carlos parked the Durango alongside the street behind Walker's truck. Both Carlos and Katheryn eased from the Durango in unison, Carlos turning the engine off and removing the keys as he went.

As the twosome formed a path to Walker by his Dodge, a soft glint coming from the entrance to the police department caught their eyes. The full glass door opened and shut, a familiar face emerging from it and approaching the small group under the cover of very little light. Katheryn could have sworn the face was familiar but dared not take a guess at who it was as the nighttime darkness prevented her from being absolutely sure the person was who she thought it was. Besides all this, the woman wasn't wearing her police uniform. And her attire was far from police-worthy…debasing even from her status as an officer. Her blouse was tattered at the hem while a small hole…no…two small incisions were in danger of spreading more at the hips of her calf-length floral skirt. Her hair was spread about her shoulders versus the tidy ponytail Katheryn had remembered from the other woman. Still…between the darkness of night and the oncoming shadows, Katheryn could not be sure whatsoever.

"Carlos. Katheryn," Walker began as the woman stopped next to Walker. "This here is Officer Sydney Cooke. She'll be going undercover with you both also."

With jovial smile, Sydney extended her hand to Carlos first. "Glad to finally work with you, detective. I hear your name around the department a lot."

Carlos chuckled as he shook Sydney's hand, playfully wary of what rumors could be spreading around in the force in his honor. "Good things I hope?"

"Oh, excellent things." Sydney reassured with a grin. "Although there are a few that seem to perhaps be a little jealous."

Carlos rolled his eyes just a bit. "Yeah. His last name wouldn't happen to be Ryan would it?"

Sydney nodded briefly, confirming Carlos' suspicions with an airy chuckle while turning to Katheryn, hand extended. "It's good to see you again, Katheryn."

"Likewise." Katheryn's broad smile hid the fact that she was secretly embarrassed to have not recognized Officer Cooke in the first place. She shook Sydney's hand firmly before they parted and Walker began to address them all.

"Officer Cooke will be going undercover with you both as a maid to give you extra backup. Also…" Walker hoisted a duffle bag out of the back of his truck and handed it off to Carlos. "Sydney put this together for you both. There's some things in there that will be good for you both while on this job." He winked at Katheryn with a smile, nodded to Carlos, and tipped his hat as he turned towards the driver's side of his Dodge Ram.

Carlos was just about to call out to Walker and ask about their change of vehicles when headlights coming from up the street blinded his view as they eased to a stop on the other side of the street. With a deeply-wrinkled forehead and a slightly gaping mouth, Carlos noticed Walker waved towards the driver's door of the luxury car just before he accelerated forward and into the distance, leaving the three to wonder about this mystery car.

Sydney, Katheryn, and Carlos exchanged wary glances within a split second before the window to the fancy vehicle whizzed downward, revealing a rather familiar silhouette despite the darkness.

Carlos grinned, his tensions relaxing as he looked both ways down the road and adjacent to the four-way stop before jogging gently across the one lane to the car ahead. He stooped over a bit to greet the driver. "Hey, Trent. What's up?"

Trent grinned, his hand hanging over the steering wheel as he spoke. "Well, when times get tough in the drug cartel business, Santiago's bodyguard has to double as a chauffeur it seems."

"I see." Carlos' laugh echoed in the small space as stood up to full height and tapped the edge of the door. "Pop open the trunk, will you?" He waved over the women from where he stood, nodding to indicate the way was clear for them to cross. He turned back to Trent. "I've got a feeling the next few days will be far from dull."

"Tell me about it." Trent sighed sharply, his breath evaporating in front of him.

Carlos was about to secure his spot in the passenger side when he halted while at the same time Katheryn's voice stopped him from behind.

"We should probably take the back seat." Katheryn wrinkled her nose up as she posed the idea.

Carlos nodded, surrendering to the obvious. "Yep. You're right." He held the door open for Officer Cooke and waited for her to be settled inside before he shut the door, moving to open the backseat for Katheryn with a tight-lipped smile.

Once Katheryn had scooted through to the other side, Carlos got in also, securing the door shut. "Alright, chauffeur, you can go now." Carlos instructed Trent, slapping him on the shoulder before settling into his own seat.

Trent glared through the rear-view mirror at Carlos with a sarcastic smile, knowing that the days ahead would indeed never be dull.

##

The rather long brick-paved one-lane road soon extended into a wide, circular driveway; a fountain adorned with a cement angel which held a vase of flowing water was centered in the middle of the paved landscape. The mansion seemed to tower over the little car as Trent put it into park in front of the doorway. Double French doors graced the front of the brick palace situated just beyond a narrow little courtyard.

Katheryn tried to get a look of the place as she glanced out Carlos' window on the other side of the car. The tinted windows didn't afford much of a good look she concluded, settling back into her seat as Trent sighed and unbuckled in unison with Officer Cooke.

Trent seemed to delay, peering out of the car in glances…first the windshield, then his own window, and even Officer Cooke's window. "I don't see any welcome committee. I suppose that's a good sign."

Carlos followed suit, hovering over the handle of the door as he too took in the scenery. He lifted his head slightly as he turned to Trent. "You got the keys?"

Katheryn shifted her gaze from Carlos to Trent.

Trent chuckled. "Why would I have the key? I thought Walker gave you the keys. It's your house."

Katheryn turned to Carlos.

"No, Trent. I distinctly remember Walker saying he'd give you the keys."

Katheryn faced the front seat yet again, this time on the verge of a broad smile.

Slowly and deliberately, Officer Cooke's hand eased into the air in the middle of them all, her finger extended, as the single key dangled from her fingernail.

Both Trent and Carlos sighed, relaxing into their seats with a bit of embarrassment in each of their demeanors as they did so.

"Now that we got that settled…" Katheryn dismissed the ordeal with a toothy grin before scooting to the edge of her seat and reaching for the car door handle on her side of the backseat.

Yet before she could even pull the handle, she felt Carlos' gentle touch secure her on her right knee. It caught her off guard as in a split second she settled back into the seat, turning to make eye contact with Carlos. "What is it?"

"You should come out this way…after me. Just because we don't see a welcoming committee doesn't mean they're not out there somewhere."

"Good point." Katheryn released the door handle and carefully eased back over the middle seat to Carlos' side. She swallowed hard as she looked her fingers over for no reason. It occupied her as she fought the bit of nervous tension that began to set in. She wasn't sure if it was from the undercover job at hand or from the touch. Either way…She shut her eyes tightly as she waited for Trent and Officer Cooke to exit the vehicle. It would be slightly less suspicious if they went first. Meanwhile, she took a deep breath, inhaling sharply but silently as to not alert Carlos to her inward struggle. She searched for that familiar tenacity within herself and took hold of it. I can do it, she whispered to herself about ten times before opening her eyes with a smile full of confidence. Katheryn also took note of the door wide open and the cool night air that swished against her blouse as it flowed inside the luxury car.

Carlos stood waiting with one hand on the door and the other outstretched to her. With a fitting smile, Katheryn sank into the realm of Katie Santiago in heart and the best she could in her mind. Putting one foot out the car, she placed her right hand in Carlos' and allowed him to help her out of the car.

The sight of the mansion quickly overtook Katheryn. Her gaze drifted over the property around it. Although dark, she could tell that it was quite the grand place. Enraptured by the entire storybook scene, she tried her best to keep her thoughts and actions in check. Katie Santiago would be used to this sort of display of wealth. Therefore, she had to be used to it too. At least in her attitude. She was just about to shake away her reverie when she jerked softly, almost undetectably, feeling Carlos' lips press against hers with such a fervor. Yet she didn't resist, letting her hand gently rest on his chest as his hand lay gently against her flowing blonde hair at her neck while they kissed.

Trent had since caught a glimpse and was trying his best not to smile, remembering that his undercover character was most likely used to this sort of display.

Officer Cooke noticed Detective Sandoval's quick thinking. She leaned in to Trent as they waited by the courtyard gate. "Is he always this passionate about his undercover roles?"

Trent chuckled lightly followed by a sigh. "Usually his undercover work hasn't required him to be married. But yes, I suppose he does take things…seriously." He moved to unlock the gate with the key that Officer Cooke then handed him.

Carlos and Katheryn hesitantly eased away from the moment, their eyes still locked upon each other, letting the moment sink in.

"You never know who might be watching," Carlos explained, as if the moment needed any explanation.

Katheryn smiled. "No need to explain."

She didn't hesitate to slip her arm into his as he offered. Their steps fell into sync, leading them to where Trent and Officer Cooke awaited them.

"Hmm…That's funny." Trent's forehead was creased as he slipped the key out of the slot, the door swinging open with no effort on his part.

"What is it?" Katheryn battled which façade to take on as she spoke.

Trent turned to Carlos and Katheryn. "It was already unlocked."

Officer Cooke reached a hand to her side to draw out her weapon but suddenly remembered she was not in uniform. She felt sort of naked without her weapon. It had become a part of her since joining the force several years ago. This being an undercover job, she would only have her martial arts training to rely on. Hesitating, she glanced up at the house and sighed. "Nothing appears to be out of place."

"Yeah. Seems too quiet around here." Carlos took a step back. "Didn't Walker say the moving team should be here?"

"Maybe they already left." Trent inserted with a note of encouragement.

"I don't know." Katheryn was usually the optimist. But this was too odd, even for her.

"How is everybody?" A hearty voice from inside the courtyard alerted the little group, causing them all nearly to jump out of their skin in terror.

"That," Carlos swallowed hard, feeling his heart beating against his chest, "was not necessary, Trivette."

"Sorry, guys," Trivette frowned. "We decided to hide the moving truck in the back where it couldn't be seen from the road and Mahoney's house. The real moving truck left a couple of hours ago. The house should be set for you guys." He extended his hand to Carlos, flashing a grin to Katheryn. "Congrats you guys!"

With a sarcastic grin, Carlos shook Trivette's hand. "Nice get-up, by the way."

Trivette glanced over his attire…faded blue jeans, a scraggly cap, and a t-shirt reading Barnes Moving Services. He grinned, "Thanks!" before turning on his heel and heading back into the house, through the basement stairs, and through a secret door that led to the outside where the "moving truck" awaited him.

Officer Cooke waved a hand towards the open French doors, stifling a grin. "After you."

Trent went ahead of them and flipped on a few more of the switches on the wall near the door just inside. He stepped aside once inside the foyer, looking over the grandeur of the entrance with disbelief. He let out a shrill whistle as Carlos and Katheryn entered behind him.

"Got that straight," Carlos agreed, letting his own gaze follow Trent's.

Trent slowly walked forward, as if cautious to touch anything as he made his way to the next vast space on a self-guided tour.

Sydney Cooke was less surprised as she entered but still took it in with the others. "This place has six bedrooms, five bathrooms, a library, and two grand offices each with their own half-bath, two kitchens, a great room, a living room, a den, and a finished basement. There's also a 500 square foot entertaining patio just off of the great room. Oh," Sydney lifted a finger, pointing to a closet-like façade across the room, "and there's an elevator to access the third floor which is entirely a 1500 square foot master suite…" Sydney laid her hand on Katheryn's shoulder with a smile, "…for the happy couple."

Katheryn was speechless as she listened to the facts Sydney dished out while the officer's voice echoed within the two story vaulted ceilings. A grand staircase before them, she assumed, would lead to the second floor while the double-door closet across from the staircase to their immediate left, she also assumed, was the access to the elevator. Either that or it was the biggest mud room closet she had ever laid eyes on. Which seemed to be a possibility worth consider actually.

"When the Rangers requested me for this case, Ranger Walker brought me here for a brief tour this afternoon."

Katheryn nodded, despite the yawn she currently struggled to stifle unsuccessfully. She was silently thankful that Officer Cooke had read her mind and answered her unspoken question.

"Well," Carlos interrupted her train of thought, running a hand through his hair lethargically. "What do you say we call it a night?"

Katheryn nodded limply. "Yes. I'm rather tired. What about our bags?"

"That would be my job." Trent announced his presence as he had made his way back to them.

"Yes, sir." Carlos threw sarcastically with a grin to his best friend, briefly saluting with the tip of his index finger.

Officer Cooke laid her hand on Katheryn's arm, garnering her attention. "I took the liberty of stocking your closet with a few items I figured Katie Santiago might wear." She smiled, searching for Katheryn's eyes. "Don't hesitate to call for me no matter what…under cover or not. That's why I'm here as your maid." The two women shared a brief chuckle.

"You aren't talking about me are you?" Carlos returned to hear the light laughter with his forehead creased after depositing his coat in the next room where the coat closet was.

"I'll never tell," Katheryn threw over her shoulder with a toss of her hair, fully encapsulated in Katie Santiago as she moved forward and to the elevator. "Are you coming?" She smacked away a sigh of annoyance.

Carlos sighed. He like Katheryn far more than Katie. But Katie wasn't so bad either. At least he loved the one underneath the said façade. Smiling, he made his way to Katheryn's side, opening the doors to the elevator for Katheryn. Once inside, he pressed the necessary button, the doors closed against them, and the narrow box began its ascent.

The twosome were mostly quiet for the short journey. Katheryn took note of the shiny golden walls of the elevator, its glistening interior reflecting their faces quite accurately and with no distortion. She would have nearly slipped into her familiar reverie usually brought on by sleepiness at this hour had not the soft thud of the elevator shook her awake.

The doors opened immediately, triggering Carlos to step forward. He opened the next set of doors to reveal the biggest bedroom most likely either of them had ever been in. It had to be at least 1000 square feet by Carlos' silent and quick estimation.

Right before them was a living space, complete with a full sofa and a loveseat set that finished in an L-shape around the coffee table while facing a grand marble fireplace to the far left. In the distance was a large canopied king-sized bed surrounded by ivory-topped nightstands with golden lamps on either side of the bed. Three vast windows lined the wall from one side down to the other and all faced the front of the home. They were familiar…the same ones Katheryn had spotted from outside just a short while ago.

The couple continued to stare in silence just as the elevator doors whirred open and revealed Trent standing there, duffle in one hand and suitcase in the other. "Somebody call room service?" He grinned.

Carlos spun on his heel and moved forward to take the bags from Trent. "Very funny."

Trent whistled yet again as he looked the place over. "Wow."

"Yeah." Katheryn nodded, her eyes still slightly wide from the shock.

Trent turned to Carlos. "Need anything else, buddy?"

Carlos turned to faced Katheryn. She shook her head and bid goodnight to Trent before proceeding forward to scout out the rest of the room. "No. I think we're good," Carlos grinned with finality gracing those last words.

"Alright." Trent clapped his hands together and turned to leave. "Sleep well. I'm going to go try to find my bedroom in this place." He ended on a light note with a chuckle before he slipped into the elevator and let the doors close behind him.

Carlos turned back around to see Katheryn at the other side of the room. She slowly walked alongside the vast bed, running a finger along the surface of the luxurious bedding as she took each step. Carlos stood still for a moment. He couldn't help but admire her from the distance that separated them. A small smile crept to the corner of his mouth…only for the peaceful moment to be shattered as the nearby telephone rang viciously, echoing in the still room with such a force that it caused them both to be startled. The twosome exchanged a quick glance. Without a second thought, Carlos traced a straight line to the telephone which occupied its own stand by one of the windows. A third ring splintered the silence as Carlos tried to ignore the irritating sound. He attempted to read the screen on the home device despite the noise. The chilling sound didn't make matters any better as Carlos read the number swiftly, lifting his gaze just barely to read the name that the number belonged to. In clear, unadulterated light was written only one name. Wade Mahoney.


Part 5


A faint hint of morning sunshine peeked in between the nearly closed curtains of the vast master bedroom and bent against the bed, highlighting it ever so softly amid the morning darkness. Katheryn twisted in her sleep slowly, turning over onto her left side, facing the sunlight. She reached out her arm subconsciously to the space beside her. Katheryn squinted a bit in her sleep as the sunlight hit against her eyes. Within seconds, her eyes began to flutter open as she came to. Stifling a yawn, Katheryn drew her arms back to herself and cradled the covers against her body, shielding it from the cold she hated so much. Although awake now, she kept her eyes shut tightly, as if hoping it was just a dream and she was still asleep. Yet with that subtle wish came the flow of reality back into her mind. It was as if she was in a hotel far from home, waking up to strange surroundings yet feeling safe.

Katheryn then remembered reality vividly. There was no denying it now. She recalled a few seconds ago…as her arm lay outstretched against the other side of the bed. It had been empty. This revelation caused her to become fully awake this time. She sat up in bed, swinging her legs out and onto the floor before stopping to straighten her t-shirt and rub at her eyes. The morning was never gracious to her it seemed.

After a few more seconds and with a somewhat better composure, Katheryn twisted from her place on the edge of the large bed to view the other side, still laden in streams of golden sunlight. It had clearly been slept in, although she couldn't quite know for sure. She had fallen fast asleep before Carlos had returned from checking in with Trent and Walker. And being the deep sleeper that she is, Katheryn never woke up even once until now. Yet the bed had without a doubt been slept in. She distinctly remembered leaving that side neatly made the night before, curling up into her side only.

Katheryn was still in thought, processing the moment when the distant elevator eased open and a stream of joy came in the form of Officer Cooke. She wore a form of maid uniform, accented by a fashionable floral apron while she carried a tray of breakfast goodness into the suite. She gently set the tray on the coffee table in the living space, directing a broadening smile across the room. "Good morning, Mrs. Santiago. I trust you slept well?"

Katheryn beamed a half-smile in return. "Yes. I did." She rubbed the bed over with her palm as she stretched out over the space. "This bed is definitely comfortable."

"Good." Sydney Cooke chuckled. "And your evening with Mr. Santiago was pleasant?"

Katheryn was on the verge of a blush, the reality of sharing her bed with another quickly setting in. "Oh, um, yes. It was alright." She frowned. "Actually I have no clue. Carlos wasn't here when I went to bed. He wasn't here when I woke up either."

Sydney looked at the other side of the bed and then back at Katheryn. "It looks like he was here though."

Katheryn nodded. "Yes, it does. Say, have you seen Detective San—Mr. Santiago this morning?"

Officer Cooke stifled a smile as she caught Katheryn's quick comeback before frowning a bit. "I haven't. But I'm sure he just went to talk to Trent."

Katheryn shook her head. Officer Cooke was probably right. "Thanks." She smiled. "And thanks for the breakfast."

"No problem." Sydney turned to leave. "You call downstairs no matter what. Remember?"

"Got it." Katheryn nodded once and firmly as she watched Officer Cooke ease back into the elevator. After stretching for the hundredth time, she finally gave in and lethargically crossed the room the breakfast provided for her. She sat down on the soft plush sofa and forked in a few bites before sipping on the orange juice. Katheryn smiled a bit, admitting that Officer Cooke had many talents. Cooking was definitely one of them.

Katheryn was just about to fork in another bite of the omelet on the most likely very expensive dish when the phone at the side of the room began ringing. Her thoughts shifted to last night and the call from Mahoney himself as she stood slowly and approached the device. She let out a raspy sigh of relief as she read kitchen on the screen and picked up the phone, placing it to her ear. "This is Katie."

"Your presence has been requested in the gym." It was Officer Cooke's voice edged with a smile.

This place has a gym too? Katheryn was tempted to ask but held her tongue, issuing a brief okay before hanging up. She quickly hurried to change into some gym clothes and brush her teeth before heading out of the bedroom…or apartment…whichever was most accurate to call the elaborate place.

Arriving on the first floor, Katheryn wasn't sure exactly where to go. To her right was the foyer illuminated by the grandest morning sunlight and to her left was a long hallway that she assumed led to the kitchen due to the pleasant aroma that seemed to drift her away from that direction. It almost reminded her of Molly's blueberry muffins. Throwing the reverie aside after a brief smile, she hurried her step forward this time across unfamiliar territory. The first room she passed through was the living space, complete with a crystal chandelier that hung from the second story and shadowed a loft above while it overlooked a grand marble fireplace on the other side of the room that stretched the entire two stories.

Katheryn couldn't help but continue to glance over the items over and over a couple of times as she weaved her way through the vast space to the other side. The arched entryway in the far corner led into the library. Everything within her wanted to stay and check out the titles left behind by the previous owners. She silently questioned the sanity of anyone who would leave precious cargo such as books to the company of cobwebs and dangerous neighbors before continuing on her journey. A few seconds later as she walked, a certain sound became louder and louder before it faded out as she continued walking. With a creased forehead she doubled back to just outside the library. To the side was a large door, unlatched and slightly open. Coming from the opening was a repetitive rendition of thumping. Punch. Punch. Punch. One right after the other.

"That's it!" A male voice echoed up to where Katheryn stood.

Katheryn's interest was piqued once she heard the voice. Smiling at its recognition, she dismissed any fears and scooted passed the door and into the space to find a carpeted staircase leading downward to her right. She followed it swiftly, skipping one or two steps along the way from her eagerness before landing at the bottom. She rounded the corner to reveal the largest gym she had ever seen.

Before her was a vast blue kickboxing mat, etched with the familiar white markings. Surrounding it was several pieces of gym equipment, punching bags, and large rack of weights ranging from five pounds to fifty pounds or more it seemed. There were no windows in the large room; only a set of three skylights at the top of the ceiling that filtered in enough bright sunshine to light the grand basement.

Trent was standing on one side of the punching bag that hung from the ceiling by its metal chain. His biceps were flexed as he tensed, sweat beading from his brow as he had obviously just been engaged in his own workout. Now he seemed to be taking upon a different role while Carlos pivoted on the surface, punching the bag in rhythmic fashion.

"That's it!" Trent repeated. "Left punch, right punch, knee. Left, right, knee. That's better." Trent caught a glimpse of Katheryn out of the corner of his eye as she strode in from around the corner. He never shifted his gaze as he gripped the bag. Instead he lowered his voice; a grin accompanied his words. "Your wife's here."

Carlos stopped clean in his tracks, jerking back his punch as he panted hard. Turning to face the entrance, he saw Katheryn ambling closer to them decked in her long sweatpants and a loose t-shirt. He smiled as he looked her over; she apparently had come prepared to do battle. "I see you found us."

"Indeed I did!" Katheryn smiled as she stopped in front of the twosome. She shifted her eyes to Carlos. "You know you could have left a note."

Carlos raised one eyebrow. "A note?"

"Yeah. To let me know where you were going. We're undercover, Carlos. I should know these things."

Trent hid a smile. "Should I leave the room?"

Carlos flashed a sarcastic frown Trent's way, taking note of Trent's smirk as he returned his attention to Katheryn. "I apologize. I was trying not to wake you."

Katheryn slipped into Katie Santiago with a breathy sigh. "That's sweet of you. But you'd better do better next time, Mr. Santiago." She whipped around as she spun on her heel and began her stretches for her workout.

"You keep at it." Trent glared at Carlos before easing away from the bag to where Katheryn was.

The twosome nearly sat down in unison, their legs outstretched as they each reached for their feet to get a good leg stretch.

"So," Katheryn began as she stretched. "Any action yet?"

Trent shook his ahead. "Nope. Nothing yet."

Carlos took one last stream of punches at the bag and worked to catch his breath as he ambled over to Trent and Katheryn, planting it on the floor near them to work in a quick stretch too. "Walker said it's been pretty quiet over at Mahoney's."

"He probably wants to look good to his new neighbors."

Trent nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Or he's getting a plan together for something."

Carlos sighed. "I should probably go check in with Walker or Trivette about now."

"So soon?" Katheryn feigned a pout. "How about some one-on-one first?"

Carlos hid his apprehension behind a chuckle. "I think I've been whipped enough for one day."

"Very funny." Katheryn called out as she watched Carlos' figure disappear around the corner. She listened as she heard his footsteps against the staircase as he made his way to the first floor before she worked herself back up to her feet. She pivoted on the mat a little with a grin. "I'm all yours."

"Oh really?" Trent chuckled.

"Yup. I need to be ready. You know…just in case."

"Sparring first?"

"Works for me!"

##

Trent, Carlos, Katheryn, and Officer Cooke spent the majority of that same afternoon constructing a plan for the coming evening. Seven o'clock would come before they knew it. And they couldn't go into the next stage of the operation half-cocked. All of them sensed that this dinner would be a turning point in the undercover job…a chance to form a trusted relationship with Mahoney. Just one wrong move would mess it up entirely and put each one of them in jeopardy.

"Alright. Here's the first floor of Mahoney's house." Carlos pointed to a place on the blueprint that lay across the dining room table. Trivette had managed to sneak it into the house overnight once Carlos had informed Walker that dinner was scheduled. "And here," Carlos dragged his finger a few inches downward, "is the foyer. If Walker's right, Mahoney has guards in every nook and cranny of the place. You just can't see them all."

Katheryn carefully detailed as much of the layout as she could in her mind. "Will you be coming with us, Trent?"

Trent shook his head.

"I don't understand. We might need backup."

"And that's exactly why I won't be coming."

Carlos eased into Katheryn with a wink. "He'll be busy enough while we mingle with our new neighbor."

Katheryn nodded, a smile tempting her lips. "Oh, I see. Any objections to letting me in on the plan, you two?" The silence and smiles told her all she needed to know. She bit her lip. "I see how it is. Well, if you both will excuse me," she cocked her head around to look at the nearby clock, slipping into Katie Santiago with a sway of the hips, "I've got a dinner to get ready for." Katheryn pecked a kiss on Carlos' cheek, touching the other side of his face with her hand briefly before hurrying away. It was mostly for good measure in case they were being watched somehow. Or at least that's what she kept telling herself.

Carlos raised an eyebrow, not able to wipe the smile off his face. "Apparently I'm not the only impulsive genius around here."

"Clearly." Sydney Cooke feigned a cough or two as she drew her fist to her lips.

Carlos turned around. "What was that?"

Trent quickly looked away and focused on the layout before them again. "Oh, it was nothing." He set to work, going over the plan for his personal evening's escapades, working through some way to change the subject. "Is everything ready?"

Carlos nodded. "It should be."

Meanwhile, Officer Cooke glanced from Trent to Carlos and back again. Her eyes were squinted as she processed a particular thought that caused unpleasant thoughts.

Carlos took note and frowned. "What is it?"

"I don't get it. How come you told me about the plan but left Katheryn out? She's as much a part of this operation as you both are. Out with it."

Trent looked to Carlos, surrendering with a slight lift of his hands. It had all been Carlos' idea.

Carlos was quite hesitant as he sighed, turning to look at the map. He was currently harboring a mental image of Katheryn by his side much like last night when they arrived and how wonderful that kiss was. His feelings for her seemed to grow each time a situation they ended up in together became more dangerous. And his protective instincts were without flaw when it came to their still-budding relationship. Carlos raised his head to meet with Sydney's intent mien as she stared him in the eyes to wait for a legitimate answer. "To be honest, Sydney, I didn't want Walker letting Katheryn on the case to begin with. This job is very dangerous. But she's very eager. And I love that about her. But I don't want to put her in anymore danger than she has to be in."

"I see." Officer Cooke sighed. "Are you two…?" Her statement trailed off as she posed the obvious question. Carlos' response was a brief nod. "I guessed as much. It wasn't hard to figure out." She paused, deliberating her choice of words. "But you can't let your feelings get in the way."

Trent stood listening. Listening only…while he waited to see what Carlos would say. Secretly, he had to agree with Officer Cooke.

Carlos thought through Cooke's statement a second or two before nodding. "You're right. You are. I—I just wish I could…" He stopped himself short, raising his gaze resolutely with a slight smile. "You're right." Carlos picked up a sheet of paper from the table, folded it twice and slipped it inside his jeans' back pocket as he moved to leave the room. "I'll be right back."

The elevator ride wasn't fast enough for Carlos as he rode to the third floor, although he wouldn't let his eagerness show. Officer Cooke had been right. He had no business keeping the secret plan from Katheryn. Yet it was hard to set aside his thoughts and feelings to admit it to himself. Katheryn was more than a friend now. It hadn't been so hard when they had just met. But even then he couldn't deny having had some feelings for Katheryn when she showed her true colors. Her rebel streak had saved his life after all.

Jolting to a stop, the elevator's doors eased open. Without giving it a thought, Carlos exited before they had fully opened, easing passed the living area swiftly before a second shadow drew his eyes upward. His steps halted as he by reflex reached for his firearm. Yet it wasn't there.

"Well well well...If it isn't Detective Sandoval."

Katheryn fought the urge to cry out a bit as Wade Mahoney's knife pressed into the middle of her throat, causing her to cringe as its cold edge sent chills through her entire being. The sharp edge glistened a bit in the lamplight as he turned it this way and that. Swallowing hard was all she could attempt do as she stood secured in Mahoney's deathly grip.

Mahoney's maniacal laugh echoed a bit as he bathed in the victory of seeing two helpless people before him.

Carlos glared into the man's evil eyes. "What do you want, Mahoney?"

"Oh, I've got what I want." He grinned. "Sit down!" Mahoney barked into the darkness.

Katheryn tensed a bit, feeling the knife cut into her delicate skin as he jolted.

Carlos never moved a muscle. Yet Katheryn saw in his eyes the desire to act differently.

"Move it!" Mahoney tore into the air again.

Carlos turned to see two chairs sitting side by side. He glanced upward to the phone situated just beyond the chairs by the wall. He turned around and communicated a silent message to Katheryn with his soft brown eyes.

Katheryn took heed, thinking of a timely distraction. "Please, sir! Please, don't hurt me!" She wiggled a bit on purpose as she stalled.

"Shut up!" Mahoney turned his eyes away from Carlos long enough for Carlos to ease past the chairs to the phone he pressed two buttons and turned back, securing himself in the first chair promptly. "Say one more peep and you're dead! You understand?!"

Katheryn caught a glimpse of Carlos out of the corner of her eye, nodded penitently before her capturer, and remained quiet for the time being.

Mahoney grabbed her by the arm and dragged her over to the chair next to Carlos, slipping off the ropes that held her hands bound together and retying her up to the chair.

Katheryn winced a bit as the ropes tensed against her wrists for a second time. Carlos noticed her pain and wished to end this now. Their cover was blown for sure. He had nothing to risk now.

Mahoney reached for a second rope and tied Carlos up to the back of his chair this time before standing back up to his feet and ambling across the room.

Carlos and Katheryn watched as the well-dressed goon mumbled to himself a few things and rearranged every drawer and shelf in the room by dumping its contents on the ground. He proceeded to shatter a few expensive vases with a sweep of the hand before running a hand through his thinning hair, panting to himself and mumbling a few more indecencies through his anxiety.

Mahoney laughed. "I bet you thought you had me fooled, eh? Santiago." He laughed some more. "I have friends in high places you know." He began a steady pace back and forth in front of his two hostages. "One call told me all I needed to know about you two. That is…once I got Annie back." He grinned.

"What did you do with Annie?!" Katheryn shot back at the man.

Mahoney only chuckled, stopping in front Katheryn and stooping low to glare into her narrowed hazel eyes. "Oh, you'd like to know wouldn't you? I could take you to meet her if you'd like."

Carlos scoffed. "Quit playing games, Mahoney. What do you plan to do with us?"

Mahoney rose to his feet, staring Carlos in the eyes this time. "I assure you I am far from playing games, Carlos Sandoval. You see, I want Cordell Walker dead. And you two," he pointed at them both, "are my ticket to paradise." He ended with another maniacal laugh and moved to walk away.


Part 6


She could have nearly cried if her body wasn't as weak from struggle. She could have fought back using the skills she treasured so much had it not been for the worry. She could have helped Carlos…had she not been overtaken by Wade Mahoney. As Katheryn woke to her surroundings, the memory of it all seemed to rush back to her. She smiled, remembering how she had stuck her foot in Mahoney's path and tripped him up. Mahoney's groans indicated he had not been hurt but a little bit. After a brief moment of quick thinking, Katheryn had slipped her arms up and over the back of the chair, bringing her still tied up wrists over her head and onto her lap. He wasn't out long enough for her to maneuver her way to Mahoney's knife and cut them both loose. But she did manage to loose the ropes some before Mahoney raised up to receive a kick in the face tendered by Carlos, buying Katheryn some time.

"Got it!" She whispered sharply and darted across the room for the knife as her ropes fell to the floor. Only a small scratch on her palm was evidence of the heated moment as precious time slipped away from them. Mahoney had come to about then. He rose back with a vengeance and aimed for Carlos. There had been no way for Katheryn to get a roundhouse or uppercut in edgewise as the two men struggled, falling over the sofa and crushing the only vase left that Mahoney's terror fit from earlier had not destroyed. And then it happened. Mahoney got the drop on Carlos with a puny four-cylinder. Carlos went in for the gun successfully only to have it go off as Mahoney fought back. Katheryn watched in terror as Carlos fell, hitting his head on the corner of the coffee table as he went down.

Wade Mahoney's victorious laugh had echoed back to her as she watched from where she stood a far off. The entrance was blocked, and there was no other way out. Except the windows of course, she thought as she peeked through the opening in the curtains.

Although everything within her wanted nothing more than to rush to Carlos' side, Katheryn held her ground as the goon made his way over to her. He had an angry glint in his eye that told her only silent prayer was the best thing she could offer Carlos right now. Please let him be alive, she cried over and over silently, remaining emotionless to the man before her.

Then Katheryn frowned, remembering Mahoney's grip upon her arm and how she felt her fingers grow numb as he dragged her to the bed. Afraid for her life but not willing to show it, Katheryn resisted the best she could without crying out. After all, hysterics and histrionics never won any battles.

Mahoney had spun her around and thrown her against the bed face down, grabbing her hands and forcing them behind her back. He muttered and yelled little threats here and there as he tightened the ropes around her wrists even tighter than the first time. Katheryn grimaced a bit under their grip as she eased onto her side once Mahoney had let go.

"Let's go!" Katheryn heard in her head. Was she still remembering…dreaming? "Let's go!" She heard again. But this time the voice was deeper. Angrier.

Katheryn opened her eyes finally to see a tall man towering above her. She tried pushing herself up on her own inside the dark linen closet that she had been tossed into some time ago. Had it been one hour? Maybe two? All she knew was the last thing that she remembered…Being slapped across the face and punched once or twice before and after she had been brought into the Mahoney mansion. She remembered how Mahoney led her to a closet in an unexplored corner of the bedroom apartment. She was surprised as it revealed a staircase. Its three short flights led to the base floor and a door right out into the open air completely away from anyone's view. It was all Katheryn could do to keep from utterly defying Mahoney and his pathetic hand that secured itself over her mouth to yell at the top of her lungs. Before she knew what had happened, they were in Mahoney's home…his bedroom. Mahoney was almost a different man as he showed her a picture of himself and Annie. Katheryn did everything short of spitting in Mahoney's face just at the thought of him having used Annie in unthinkable ways.

Then he switched and turned back into the monster he truly was and issued to her the bruises she currently lifted a hand to as pain seized her face while the man in front of her forcefully helped her to her feet.

"Wade wants to see you." The large man barked as he nearly dragged her across the room. But Katheryn tried with all her might to walk on her own.

Katheryn knew where they were headed. She knew it. Especially after hearing Annie's side of the story. She knew what Wade had in store for her. As she steadied her step upon the grand, winding staircase and climbed each step, a tear eased down her face along with an image of Carlos in her mind. The two were in sync, sending her into an emotional mess inside that she couldn't afford to be in right now. Therefore she blinked the tears away and swallowed hard. He's okay, she repeated mentally about twenty times to convince herself as they landed on the second floor. The body-built man continued to escort her quite roughly as they aimed for Wade Mahoney's bedroom quarters, arriving to see Mahoney there…waiting.

The twosome ceased walking at the bedroom's threshold. Katheryn didn't hesitate to look Mahoney in the eyes. She wasn't scared of him. He was only a man. A man that would soon meet a terrible fate no matter what he ever chose to do to her.

##

Trivette and Walker had left the "moving truck" and were inside the undercover mansion in less than ten minutes after they heard the shot fired from the third-floor bedroom apartment.

"Trent! Sydney!" Walker was the first to call out as they stopped at the foot of the grand foyer staircase.

"Maybe they were target practicing." Trivette tried to break a joke to his partner.

"Not likely." Walker threw over his shoulder and aimed for the elevator.

Trivette heeled him from behind and made it inside the box just in time before the doors closed.

"Walker!" Trent's jumped up from the sofa as Walker and Trivette emerged into the room.

Walker glanced over Trent's shoulder to see Sydney attending to Carlos. It appeared the worst was a small gash on his head that was being tending to by a fresh gauze from the first-aid kit.

"We heard the gunshot." Walker looked Trent over. "Are you alright?"

Trent nodded. "It was Mahoney."

Walker eased past Trent and stopped by Carlos. "Are you okay, Carlos?"

Carlos managed a nod, grimacing just a bit as Officer Cooke applied a bit of pressure to his head wound. "Yeah. I'll live." He politely asked Sydney to stop and stood to his feet, denying the slight spell of dizziness that overcame him. "Mahoney's got Kath."

Trivette followed Walker. "What happened?"

Carlos sighed angrily. "Kath came up on her own to get ready for tonight. I followed her a few minutes to later to see Mahoney holding a knife to her. I was unarmed." He shook his head at the thought. "If I would have only had a gun, Walker. He wouldn't have…" He let the statement go with a sigh. It was difficult to speak the words anyway.

Walker laid a hand on Carlos' shoulder. "We'll get her back."

"If it's not too late."

Trent returned to his best friend's side and glared at him. "Don't talk like that. We'll get her, Carlos. Have a little faith."

Officer Cooke approached Walker. "What should we do, Ranger Walker?"

Walker deliberated the situation for a few silent moments in his own mind as the others awaited his lead. "We'll have to go ahead and take Mahoney down."

Trent sighed. "But what about getting into his organization? If we bust him now, all the other smaller rings will scatter."

"I know." Walker nodded, wanting to trust his instincts instead of the logical. "But I think we should bust him now."

"Frankly, I'd have to agree with Walker, Trent." Carlos' forehead was creased with anger, remembering what Annie had told Katheryn and himself about Mahoney. They had to get Kath out of there.

"Let's go." Walker directed them all to the outside.

A crisp breeze swayed Officer Cooke's long black locks as she stopped short, a hand on Sandoval's arm. "Detective. Are you sure you shouldn't go home and rest? I'll can call you the moment something happens."

"What? And not be here to see Mahoney get what's coming to him?" Carlos snapped, regretting it immediately. "I'm sorry." Carlos closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and middle finger, willing away the stress.

"It's okay." Sydney gripped Carlos' shoulder and offered a smile. "Anyone can do things they regret when someone they love is in danger."

Carlos nodded. "Thanks."

Trent eased up behind Carlos as Sydney parted ways to prepare for the imminent bust. "She's right. You need to rest, buddy. That was a pretty nasty bump Mahoney gave you."

"Not you too?" Carlos stifled a grin and a half-rolled his eyes towards Trent. "I know. You're both right. And if it was anyone else, I'd take you up on that offer. But it's Kath, Trent."

Trent nodded. "I had a feeling you'd say that." He slapped Carlos on the back with a smile and continued forward to prepare with the Rangers to take down Mahoney once and for all.

The bust was successful and textbook. Eight men were taken down and arrested either by gunpoint or roundhouse kick. This left only Wade himself and his bodyguard. Trent was the first to dart after Mahoney's muscle man when the latter aimed for a basement and most likely a secret escape they had devised for such an occasion. But the big man wasn't so big once his face met the bottom of Trent's combat boot a couple of times. It was not an easy take down. But it did not take much time at all while Walker and Trivette had taken down the many guards.

Keeping himself out of combat, Carlos was the first to aim for the staircase, following a hunch regarding where they could be keeping Kath. Sydney had just issued a few choice words, kicks, and punches to a guard when she lifted her gaze to see the Detective in pursuit. She quickly slapped a pair of cuffs on the goon on the floor before hurrying forward and up the stairs after the Detective.

Carlos burst through the first set of double doors he came to, startling Mahoney as he hovered over the first button of Katheryn's blouse. Mahoney stood up and away from the bed as Carlos marched to where he was and took two…three…four good punches at his face.

Sydney arrived in the doorway and hurried to Katheryn's side, freeing her from the belts that held her to the bedposts by her wrists and ankles and turning to make sure Carlos had Mahoney under control. Katheryn hoisted herself off of the bed, rubbing unseen wrinkles out of her blouse as if she was wiping some sort of dirt off of herself.

Carlos continued to fight Mahoney, dodging the man's blows as best as he could. Mahoney nearly had him cornered against the wall when out of no where came a loud shout just before Mahoney fell to the floor unconscious, revealing Officer Cooke in fighting stance, her fists raised as she recovered from issuing a roundhouse kick to Mahoney's back.

Katheryn's smile turned into hints of tears of joy as she rushed over to Carlos. Carlos secured his arms around her in return, embracing her for as long as she would allow while she dared herself to let a few tears go. And a few did come, splashing gently against Carlos' leather jacket and slipping away. She wouldn't allow herself to cry anymore.

Meanwhile, Trivette and Walker were busy discovering all that Mahoney had been hiding in his grand house all these months.

"Hey, Walker. Take a look at this!" Trivette called from the room where they had discovered a stockpile of drugs.

Walker arrived a couple of seconds later and looked over Trivette's shoulder at the desk in front of them. It was your usual office desk. But it was what was on the desk that raised the red flags for Ranger Trivette.

Trivette pointed to a sheet of paper. "It's all in Spanish."

"Hmm…" Walker picked the paper up and flipped it over. Money to Sullivan as soon as the latest girls are shipped to you, was scribbled in normal pen ink. Walker showed the note to Trivette.

"Hmm." Trivette echoed. "Sullivan, huh? You don't think…?"

"Could be." Walker took a quick glance at the other pieces of paper on the table. "Looks like Mahoney's not the top guy after all."

"Who do you think is his boss?"

Walker carefully lifted a well-worn business card from the desk and handed it to Trivette. Clear as day, it read, David Sullivan, Head of Security, Texas State Governor.

##

"Well, so much for Carlos and Katie Santiago." Carlos led the way as Trent and Katheryn followed him into the Ranger Company B office the next day, still processing the events of the day before. It had been a close call. Too close, in fact, as Carlos thought back through how close he had been to losing Katheryn. He shook away the fearsome thought and pushed himself to focus on the present. Annie was indeed missing as Mahoney had threatened. Molly had called in slight panic that night from the H.O.P.E. center to let them know she was missing.

"Yeah." Trent frowned as he followed his friends across the room to where Walker and Trivette waited for them.

Trivette raised his eyes above his computer as the three young crime solvers stopped next to his desk. "You guys doing alright?"

Carlos nodded, turning to face Katheryn with concern in his eyes. "Yeah. I'm okay."

Katheryn swallowed, taking a deep breath as she tried to block the image of Wade Mahoney from her mind.

She made eye contact with Carlos briefly. "I'm doing okay. Truly," she turned back to Trivette. "I'm more worried about Annie far than I am myself."

"Have you guys got any leads on where she is?" Carlos inserted, nearing Walker's desk.

"Maybe." Walker stood and handed Carlos the business card that he and Trivette had taken from Mahoney's home the evening before. "Trivette and I found this in Mahoney's office yesterday."

Carlos reached out his hand and took the card, bringing it into his view as he read the words with a wrinkled forehead and narrowed eyes. Yet they didn't stay that way for long, growing wider as the words clicked with Carlos mentally. "Sullivan?" He spoke with a touch of surprise and handed the card off to Katheryn. "I thought he was in prison."

"So did we." Trivette eased out of his swivel chair and rounded the corner of his desk, handing Carlos a file. "As it turns out, Sullivan escaped from Huntsville several weeks ago and seemed to fall off the face of the earth."

"We're hoping that we can get Mahoney to talk and give us information about his boss and Sullivan if possible." Walker paused. "Mahoney's boss is most likely a leading drug lord."

Trent nodded. "What about Annie?"

"I have a feeling that if Mahoney is connected to Sullivan, then wherever Sullivan is headed to will be the same place Annie ends up." Walker turned to Carlos. "Would you like first try at Mahoney?"

Carlos stifled a growing grin, lifting his head. "Gladly."

##

Carlos leaned over the rectangular wooden table, his arms spread apart and his hands laid flat against its pale surface as he sighed sharply. He turned to view Mahoney's dirty face sheltered by the shadows of the dark room. Two hours had passed with nothing to show of it but a weary detective, an angry prisoner, and a friend who desperately desired to see Mahoney pay for what he had no doubt put Annie and many other young women through.

"Alright, Mahoney." Carlos sank into the second chair at the table, folding his hands on the table's surface sarcastically and leaning into the hardened criminal. "You're going away for a long time, Mahoney. Rape, drug dealing, money laundering—your rap sheet is quite long. No lawyer will be able to dig you out of the hole you've put yourself in. So why don't you tell us who your boss is? It wouldn't hurt, now would it? It may help."

Mahoney never flinched and simply stared straightforward with a smug grin.

Carlos waited a second before tearing himself away from the chair and pacing the room. Katheryn, Trent, and Ranger Trivette watched him from the next room as he paced back and forth next to the table. Trent worried for a moment who exactly was wearing whom down with this strategy. Mahoney seemed steadfast against giving anyone up…as was expected from a guy as low as him.

The door suddenly opened, revealing Walker as he neared Carlos and whispered something inaudible in his ear. Carlos grinned. It must have been something good.

"Good news, Mahoney." Carlos slapped the table as he sat back down. "Your bodyguard is taking a deal. Reduced sentence. Sounds good doesn't it?" Carlos feigned a broad grin before hiding it within his act. "Trouble is…the deal's only good for one of you. So you're plum out of luck, Mahoney."

"Now wait a minute!"

"He speaks." Carlos smiled to Walker.

Mahoney's rough-edged sigh filled the entire room just as it itself was filled with a depth of anger. "Alright…I'll talk."

"Who's your boss?" Carlos continued with no hesitation.

Mahoney grimaced. "I can't tell you that. Sullivan would kill me for sure."

"Who's Sullivan?" Carlos played along with the goon.

Mahoney realized his slip-up and was on the verge of turning a peculiar shade of red as he thought through a decent cover-up. Yet none quite suitable came to mind. "He, um, was a customer."

"A customer? What kind of customer?"

"He would give us our crack and meth stuff in exchange for…"

"For what?" Carlos pushed Mahoney to the edge with every syllable.

"Girls."

Carlos allowed for a moment of quiet as he leaned back in his chair. His look of disgust displayed his feeling for such a crime. It took a sick person to be involved in such an act. "Hmm…Trafficking. Nice addition to that rap sheet we were just discussing."

"Where's Sullivan now?" Walker broke in, striding up to the goon behind Carlos.

Mahoney was far beyond apprehensive as he realized the corner he had painted himself into…even if it had only been a ploy set up by Walker and Carlos. Good thing he didn't know that. "He—he was headed across the border last I heard. Mexico City. Now what about that deal?"

Carlos turned to Walker with a contented grin, ignoring the latter question from Mahoney. They finally had the lead they had worked so hard to get that afternoon.


Part 7 (final part)


Katheryn's eyes fluttered open beneath the strains of sunlight that pushed their way through her bedroom curtains and caused her to stir slightly. She reached a hand subconsciously over to the other side of her bed only to remember she was no longer sharing her bed with anyone. It was an odd remembrance at first. The idea had begun to seem attractive in the nights that had passed since. That one night and day had felt like a lifetime. And perhaps it had been. Katie Santiago was no more. She had lived her brief life in that glamorous uptown mansion for one short night alongside her husband. And now it was over.

Katheryn tossed to her other side, leaving her back facing the empty side of the bed as she warded of a twinge of disappointed sadness that the mission had not lasted longer. She had enjoyed working alongside Carlos and Trent. Even Sydney and she were somewhat friends after the last couple of ordeals that had brought them together. But if her track record was any indication of her future, she had nothing to worry about. Another chance would no doubt come.

A knock sounded against her bedroom door, interrupting her deep thoughts.

"Come in." Katheryn groaned and forced herself to sit up. She swung her legs out and planted them on the floor, willing away the drowsiness with all her might.

Molly entered, a grin forming on her face as she crossed the room with a breakfast tray in hand. "How was your second night back home?"

"Very well." She accepted the tray from Molly and set it on the covers next to her and glanced over the spread. "Thanks. Mmm! Looks good."

Molly continued to smile her approval. Yet Katheryn's smile faded. Molly noticed this quickly and eased the breakfast tray over a few feet. She took a seat next to her best friend, searching for her eyes. She sensed she knew what Katheryn was thinking about. "They'll be okay."

Katheryn turned to Molly and half-smiled. "You read me like a book."

"That's what friends are supposed to do." Molly reached a hand and softly squeezed Katheryn's hand.

"You're right. I just wish I could have gone with them and been there when they rescued Annie." Katheryn glanced at the clock on her nightstand and sighed. "Carlos said they'd get an early start. They should be almost to Mexico City by now."

Molly nodded. "I still can't believe Mahoney was just a henchman."

"Me neither."

"Sad to think there's men even worse than him roaming the streets."

Katheryn nodded and sighed, her eyebrows raised as she thought through the truth Molly had stated. She was right. "Well," Katheryn stood and shoved a bite of oatmeal in. "I've got to get going."

"Why so soon?" Molly frowned.

"I'm working out with Bobbie at the Ranger gym this morning."

Molly nodded. "I see. You really should eat then."

"I will." Katheryn threw over her shoulder with a promising grin as she reached her bathroom, turned on the faucet, and splashed some invigorating cold water on her face. She managed to get in a few more bites of Molly's delicious cooking before dressing fully and heading out for her anticipated morning workout with Ranger Hunt.

The morning came and went before Katheryn had taken the opportunity to realize how much she had enjoyed her workout session at Ranger Headquarters. It was great to get back into a routine of things after nearly becoming a victim to Wade Mahoney's diabolical intentions. It was even more of an inviting thought that the Rangers and Carlos should be arriving in Mexico City at any moment to take down Sullivan and rescue Annie. Mexico City. It seemed so far away.

I should be down there with them, Katheryn threw aside the fleeting thought alongside some punches as she sparred with Ranger Hunt.

"What's on your mind?" The Ranger called back in between breaths after dodging the punches.

"Nothing."

Bobbie scoffed, a smiling following.

"Okay…Just wondering what's going on below the border right about now."

"I bet you're thinking of a certain detective too I bet."

Katheryn stifled a growing smile. "Maybe."

"I hear you two did a convincing performance while undercover." Bobbie stopped pivoting and took a deep breath, easing her helmet and gloves off. "What do you say we go get some lunch at C.D.'s? I'm sure that'll take your mind off of it."

"Word sure spreads fast. And I doubt it." Katheryn shook her head as she reached to take her helmet off and then her own gloves also. "But I like the idea."

The two women hit the showers and changed as quick as possible, the idea of a relaxing lunch at their favorite haunt reverberating in their minds.

Katheryn inhaled deeply, relieved as the cool breeze of C.D.'s beat against her face and neck as she entered the restaurant. She glanced over the entire dining room with a feeling of gladness to be back. It's funny how an undercover assignment could make one feel they had not been in a particular place for months. Yet it had only been days. She dismissed her reverie and followed Bobbie, planting herself on a barstool next to the ranger and propping her elbows up on the bar.

"Well, if it isn't two of my favorite customers!" C.D. beamed a smile as he rounded the edge of the counter to the other side. He grabbed the coffee and poured three ceramic mugs of the steaming liquid. "What'll it be, you two?"

Bobbie sighed sharply, thinking the question over. "Some chili sounds good, C.D."

C.D. turned to Katheryn. "And for you, young lady?"

"I'll take the same." Katheryn hid a chuckle. She couldn't help but grin at C.D.'s grandfatherly ways she enjoyed so much.

"Coming right up!" C.D. then called out the order to his cook as he aimed for the kitchen, the door falling shut behind him as he entered through it.

Street noise filtered into the little haunt just briefly before being stifled by the shutting door as another patron entered and eased up behind the two women. "Save a place for me?"

Katheryn turned around and smiled. "Trent!"

Trent eased out of his leather coat and tossed it on an empty barstool before claiming the vacant seat next to Katheryn. "Have you heard?"

"Heard what?"

"Mahoney's hearing date has been set."

"That's great!"

"Yep. Next week. Annie's testimony should put him away for good."

"Hopefully the Rangers will be able to get her back."

"Oh you bet they will," Bobbie quickly chimed in.

It would all depend on Walker, Trivette, and Detective Sandoval to see to it that Annie was brought back safely to heal from whatever horrors she had been forced to face.

##

The grand hacienda was situated just to the northeast from a cluster of trees at the far edge of the property where almost fifteen Federales, including Rangers Walker and Trivette along with Detective Sandoval remained hidden by the brush. With guns drawn, they waited. Waited for a clear path right into the middle of the Mexican mansion.

"Looks like four guards by the front door." Carlos clasped his binoculars in both hands, leaning against a tree while focusing in on the distant structure as he glided his right index finger over the focus knob. "They keep pacing up and down the veranda at different points."

"Any sign of Sullivan?" Walker whispered as he remained secluded on Carlos' left.

Carlos shook his head. "No. Not yet."

"How about Annie?" Trivette called from his place by Walker.

Carlos shook his head a bit more forlornly this time.

"Hold the phones." Carlos stood up a bit straighter as he noticed movement on the veranda. "Think we may have something here." He passed the binoculars to Walker.

Walker raised the binoculars to his eyes and scanned over the grand house. "That's Sullivan alright."

Emerging from the grand house was a man in an all-black suit. His hair was combed back neatly and accented his tanned complexion. A grin completed his well-to-do mien while he reached for a cigarette and flicked his lighter against the deadly little stick of ambition. He chatted with one of the guards as if it were a family reunion, puffing smoke from his mouth with every word as he raised and lowered the cigarette to and from his mouth.

"Do you want to be the one to tell him?" Carlos raised an eyebrow.

Walker continued to peer through the binoculars. "What's that?"

"That smoking is bad for your health."

Walker smiled. "I'm sure he'll figure that out real soon."

"True." Carlos grinned and turned back his focus to the hacienda.

Then came the bone-chilling sound. A stomach-turning echo that filtered through the light winds and settled unwelcomingly among the gathered law enforcement there. It sounded like a young woman. The sound came incessantly…one right after the other. A scream. A cry for mercy. A slap and then another sob. Meanwhile, Sullivan still chatted up a storm with the friendly guard.

Carlos tried to keep from grimacing every time he heard the sound as it sent chills through him. Images of Annie, curled into herself beneath a thin blanket, crossed his mind. He remembered how Katheryn and he had found her in scant clothing and how deep her sobs had been when she had finally let go and let Katheryn hold her.

"We've got to go in now. He could kill her." Carlos' voice was nearly above a whisper as he presented his case.

Walker hesitated. The risk was high. But so was letting the suffering continue.

"Sullivan!" Walker had stepped from his place behind the tree and eased past Carlos and into the open. He slowly put one foot in front of the other, approaching the hacienda with eyes pointed to the man whom he had once considered reliable.

"Well well." Sullivan grinned, tossed his cigarette on the veranda floor, and blew one last smoke cloud into the morning air. "How have you been, Walker?"

"Better than you're going to be."

"Oh, is that a threat?" Sullivan chuckled.

"Nope. It's a promise. Now, hands behind your head and come down here. Move it. Same goes for you guys." He faced the guards with equal authority beaming from his eyes.

Two guards did as bid, tossing their rifle and machine gun over the railing at Ranger Walker's feet and lifting their hands in the air. Three Federales were just about to rush in and cuff the two young men when Sullivan suddenly turned, drawing out a handgun and firing off a few times in Walker's direction.

Walker ducked into a body roll and darted for cover beneath the veranda. He then crawled back from underneath the wooden structure and let a few go upward towards a retreating Sullivan.

"I got him!" Trivette called over the constant gunfire as Carlos covered him long enough for Trivette to chase after Sullivan with a Federale close by. Their figures soon disappeared as he closed in closer and closer to the goon.

Meanwhile, Walker ducked from fire yet again, easing out from his cover every other second to let off another shot. A short gun battle later was ended when the last guard threw down his empty weapon and chose the hard way. Walker did nothing less but exceed the ambitious fighter's expectations with a few punches and a roundhouse kick to the temple. About seven Federales rushed in as Walker fell back into fighting stance and watched the guard collapse cold onto the ground.

Carlos didn't hesitate, climbing the steps up to the veranda and placing his back against the wall next to the door. His gun was drawn in both hands against his chest. "El Patron! Open up! You're under arrest!" Silence pressed around him on every side.

Walker cautiously made his way up the veranda and took his place on the other side of the door, gun drawn to his chest same as Carlos. Their eyes met as Walker began counting down. Only his lips moved. Three, two, one, go!

Walker turned completely around and threw open the door with a solid forward kick. The two officers entered swiftly into the foyer side-by-side with arms and guns outstretched. There in the middle of the living space next to the stucco fireplace was El Patron himself. The boss. Or at least that was what he had deemed himself since starting communication with customers across the border.

"Hands behind your head!" Carlos shouted, his eyes narrowed and his forehead tensed as he drew nearer to the now grinning hoodlum.

"On the ground!" Walker followed suit.

El Patron didn't seem so powerful now as he failed to reach his firearm in time. He was defeated.

Carlos holstered his gun while Walker still held his at the man. Carlos reached into his back pocket for the handcuffs, cuffing the man tightly and hoisting him up to his feet forcefully. "Where's the girl?" Carlos breathed into El Patron's ear.

The boss only grinned and refused to speak.

Walker locked eyes with El Patron then, piercing into his soul with an authority only Walker could convey. "Now. Where's Annie?"

"You'll never catch up to her now." El Patron's cackle echoed against the wooden beams above them.

"What do you mean? Where is she?!" Carlos yanked on the man's collar a bit.

A scream from the far side of the vast hacienda caused Carlos to spring into action. He nodded to Walker and proceeded to race down the long hall, hearing the shout once again as he ran with his gun in hand. He paused at the edge of a turn, panting some as he caught his breath before rounding the corner swiftly, gun outstretched.

Tears streamed down the young woman's face as she crawled further down the hall, struggling to get to her feet as she clamored for freedom. Her matted hair stuck to her tear-stained face. A mascara streak ran down her cheek. Her blouse hung limply off her shoulder, nearly revealing what she had desperately tried keep hidden…her dignity.

"Annie!" Carlos called out to the young woman and holstered his weapon as he strode forward.

Annie's sobs would not be stopped. She was bound and determined to escape from Mahoney, El Patron, and anyone else who had betrayed her.

"Annie!" Carlos echoed, easing in front of the young woman and stooping low. "Annie! I'm not going to hurt you!"

The young woman beat against Carlos weakly with the balls of her fists, still crying and defending herself from the invisible monster still preying upon her mind and heart.

"Annie!" Carlos took hold of both of her shoulders. "No one's going to hurt you anymore! I'm Detective Sandoval." He tried making eye contact with her. "Do you remember me?"

Annie stopped striking towards the gentle hands that held her softly and raised her head slowly to meet the Detective's gaze. She nodded once, maybe twice. She was too weak to do anything else. Annie then took a deep breath and relaxed only to nearly collapse in Carlos' arms.

Carlos caught Annie in his arms in time and stood to his feet, hoisting her up in his arms as he traced a path back to Walker. The living area was now vacant of all criminal activity and was replaced by the studious oversight of the Federales as they gathered evidence and prepared to secure El Patron's fate.

Annie's groan stirred Carlos from his moment of observation and urged him forward, out of the house, and onto the veranda. He spotted Walker talking with a worn-out Trivette by one of the Federales' Jeep Wranglers and trudged forward down the steps and across the vast yard.

"Walker!" Carlos called out while still a few yards away.

Walker lifted his eyes from his conversation and took a step forward as Carlos ceased walking in front of him. "How is she?"

Carlos wrinkled his forehead as a looked at her pale face. "She needs to see a doctor."

Walker noticed the few lacerations and bruises before he nodded. "I agree. Let's go."

Carlos turned to Trivette. "What about Sullivan?"

Trivette stepped forward to help ease Annie into the back seat of the Jeep. "He got away."

"You've got to be kidding me."

"Nope."

Carlos sighed. "At least we got El Patron and Mahoney."

"Yeah." Walker chimed in. "But trust me. Sullivan's day is coming. He'll be able to hide for only so long."

##

A light rain tempted the dimmed skies over Dallas as the hues of sunset ensued. A gentle wind accompanied it and blew the droplets of rain onto the windows of the Methodist hospital. Its monotonous song, although lulled, seemed to bring with it a feeling of relief and new beginnings.

The steady beep of the hospital monitors mingled with the foot traffic and voices just outside the little hospital room on the fourth floor where the door remained only slightly ajar.

Within the comfort of the room, Annie slept soundly and unmoved by the noise. It was heaven compared to what she had been through. After being treated in Mexico City, Annie was allowed to be transported to the states, having sustained only mild injuries. None of which were life-threatening. But all of which had taken quite a toll on the girl's delicate body.

Katheryn and Carlos chose to take turns checking in on Annie over the course of the following couple of days. Now it was Sunday. And after they had enjoyed a thorough afternoon with the Malloys and Pastor Jones over a wonderful spread of food, they mutually agreed to bring Annie a little bit of home she had long missed. After visiting for a while, the couple retired to the provided seats, allowing Annie some time to rest while they rested a bit themselves.

Katheryn's elbow was propped on the arm of the chair as she leaned against Carlos. She took a deep breath as she watched Annie sleep. "I'm glad she's doing better."

Carlos smiled softly as he gently wrapped his left arm around Katheryn at her shoulder. "Me too."

A soft knock sounded on the door frame. "May I come in?" Alex whispered with a grin.

"Of course!" Katheryn called back in an even whisper.

Alex crossed the room as Katheryn stood to give Alex a hug. "I called Trent. He said you guys would be here." Alex turned to Annie. "How is she doing?"

"Better." Katheryn nodded curtly, recalling the specifics the doctor had conveyed. "She's been through a lot. Too much. But she will live, thank God."

A smile eased onto Alex's face. "That's great." Her smile faded. "Abuse can leave terrible scars. It's good to know she has people like you around to help her heal."

Katheryn agreed. She would do her best to see that Annie received counseling and any other forms of healing as she returned to a new life she had yet to discover. It would be a long journey. One that would definitely need its share of shoulders to lean on along the way.

"I have some news." Alex continued with a brief nod towards Carlos.

The detective stood, looked up a little higher, and surveyed Alex's facial expression for any hints as to what the news could be.

"As it turns out, Sullivan won't be running anymore." Alex tried to keep her voice as gentle and low as possible.

Carlos leaned in closer. "Oh? Why's that?"

Alex inhaled. "It seems that Sullivan tried to board his personal jet out of a private strip just outside of Mexico City the day after you and Walker busted El Patron. The Federales shot down his plane after he had flown about a mile out. The entire plane was destroyed. A body was never found."

"Wow." Katheryn's eyes widened.

Carlos smirked. "I bet he wishes he wouldn't have ran."

Katheryn's breathy chuckle followed up Carlos' comment. "Yeah. That's the truth."

"Well," Alex laid a hand on Carlos' shoulder as she took a deep breath. "I've got a hearing to prepare for."

Carlos nodded amid his smile. "Thanks for coming, Alex." He eased in for a hug. "Now it's time we put Mahoney away for good."

##

A deepened chill could be felt across the courtroom that Tuesday morning. Light coughs and shuffling echoed around the courtroom as Alex walked up the middle aisle, eased passed the swinging gate, and took her place at the right of the courtroom.

Alex spread a few papers in front of her as she sat upright in the chair provided. The papers outlined the evidence that Walker and Trivette had confirmed in the past few days since taking down El Patron. It was just like Mahoney had confessed. El Patron would supply the drugs if the payment was innocent young women who never knew better. Mahoney was simply one of El Patron's many charmers who had climbed the ladder of the assailant's successful business of human trade below the border.

There was nothing significant about the moment as Alex waited for Mahoney and the judge to show. She had done this many times as the Assistant DA. Yet there was a sense of satisfaction that overcame her as she prepared in her mind the words for hopefully a full trial that would help but a man like Mahoney in his place for many years to come. The evidence was there. The witness would soon follow to provide the evidence if need be. Mahoney would likely be on his way to trial without a doubt.

The side door to the far left of the courtroom slowly eased open. A uniformed officer led Mahoney into the courtroom, gripping his arm as Mahoney took small steps in his shackles to his seat on the left of the courtroom in front of the judge's bench.

Alex locked eyes briefly with the man, exchanging silent thoughts of battle as the former turned back to her preparations. His haunting shadow would only try to put fear where confidence was required.

Alex turned as the courtroom door quietly eased open. Annie was there, shadowed by Katheryn by her side and Carlos just behind.

"Are you sure you can handle it?" Katheryn softly squeezed Annie's hand.

Annie nodded, swallowing hard before stepping forward on her own accord. "I've got to." She glanced at Katheryn once before going ahead of them and taking her seat just behind Miss Cahill.

Katheryn lingered a bit by Carlos and sighed. She caught a glimpse of Mahoney out of the corner of her eye and jerked her head away. All of the emotions flooded over her again as images of that cold knife at her throat flashed through her mind. She was then tucked away in that gruesome closet again, huddling for warmth as she fought away the thoughts of what Mahoney had in store for her.

Carlos was tempted to slip his hand into hers briefly. He did so, giving it a soft squeeze as he felt her trembling slightly. "Are you okay?"

Katheryn nodded, willing herself into an unseen confidence she realized she did have despite what she had nearly gone through. She turned to Carlos with a smile. "I'm okay. Let's take our seats."

Carlos nodded and followed Katheryn forward. He wasn't fully convinced that Katheryn's brave face was legitimate. But he knew her enough to know she was a fighter…in way more than the physical. Nothing could keep her from making sure justice prevailed. Not even her fears. It was a part of her that Carlos fell in love with a little more every day. Too bad it was also what could overwhelm him about her.

Judge Prather's domineering presence shadowed the bench of the courtroom as his footsteps sounded against the steps leading up to the great seat of justice. He took his seat slowly and slipped on his glasses, setting a few files down in front of him. "Order in the court," The judge struck the gavel down once and firmly. It was all that was necessary as all eyes shifted to him.

"Mr. Wade Mahoney," Judge Prather focused his eyes on a rather thick file before him as he raised it a bit to get a better view through his glasses. "You are charged with multiple counts of rape, trafficking, multiple counts of illegal substance possession with intent to sell, multiple counts of attempted murder, and theft to top this broad list off. It would take far too long to outline the details." Judge Prather sighed and tossed the page down softly. He directed his eyes to the accused. "If enough evidence is presented by the prosecuting attorney, the accused faces no less than life imprisonment. I will see to that. But that is a light sentence compared to what most would want you to face. That said, no matter what common opinion is, you are still entitled to a proper trial by jury. You do have that right at least.

"Furthermore, you have a right to defense counsel." The judge peered over his glasses at Mahoney and the empty seat next to him. He smirked. "Will you be defending yourself, Mr. Mahoney?"

The double doors to the courtroom suddenly burst open softly and in strode a man out of breath as he adjusted his necktie and buttoned up the bottom button of his suit as he stopped by Mahoney. He plopped his briefcase open on the table and drew out a few documents before setting the case aside. He smoothed over his buttoned suit jacket and looked confidently towards Judge Prather. "My apologies, your honor. Traffic was a nightmare."

"You'll have real nightmares if you arrive late to my courtroom again, young man. Identify yourself."

"My name is Arthur Mahoney, Attorney at Law."

Alex's wide eyes turned to meet her enemy. Mahoney?!

"Are you of any relation to the accused?"

"Yes, sir. I am Mr. Mahoney's younger brother."

Judge Prather turned back to his papers and pushed his sliding glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "Very well. What is your plea, Mr. Mahoney?"

Wade Mahoney tugged on his brother's arm and pulled him downward to whisper a sharp comment in his ear.

The brother eased back upward seconds later and cleared his throat. "Our plea is not guilty, your honor."

"Very well." Judge Prather straightened in his high-backed chair and raised his voice. "It is the opinion of this court without the giving of evidence by the prosecuting attorney that sufficient evidence remains to warrant a proper trial. I am setting that for two weeks from today at the same time. Yet due to the plea of not guilty, I am also setting bail for Mr. Mahoney at one million dollars." The gavel struck again as the judge turned the chair to stand up. "This court is adjourned."

Shuffling of feet and hastened steps echoed inside the courtroom as the few people who had chosen to attend the hearing slowly made their way out of the courtroom.

Alex stood and turned around to face the others. "A million dollars is nothing for Mahoney." She sighed.

Carlos eased out of his seat. "Can you appeal the judge's decision to give Mahoney bail?"

Alex shook her head. "I'll try. But I doubt it would make a difference."

"At least the judge set his trial date," Katheryn inserted with a half-smile.

"Yeah." Carlos nodded.

Annie tried her best to listen to what her friends said as the gavel's bang continued to echo in her mind. The fears of days gone by still haunted her ever so softly as she scanned the room. Mahoney looked straight towards her. His eyes could almost convey the same hurt that his hands had already dealt.

Annie winced as she turned away and choked back a bit of cry. She stifled it successfully but feared more would come.

Katheryn caught a glimpse of her tears. "Are you okay, Annie?"

Annie nodded. "Yes. I—I just need to go home…wherever that is."

Alex, Carlos, and Katheryn exchanged wary glances as they remained concerned for Annie. She had spent the night at the H.O.P.E. center since being released from the hospital Monday morning. Annie was thankful, deeply thankful. Yet her heart was far from whole.

Katheryn smiled. "Come home with me, Annie. Molly and I would love to have you with us."

Alex smiled, approving of the idea. "That's a wonderful idea."

Carlos nodded. "I'll drive." He then stepped forward and led the way out of the courtroom.

"Thank you." Annie reached for Katheryn's hand and squeezed it as they exited the courtroom.

Katheryn stopped and took both of Annie's hands in hers. "You're very welcome, Annie. You deserve the very best in life. I'm just thankful God used me to help you reach the place where you can find healing. The journey's far from over. But I'm here for you, Annie. Don't ever forget that."

Annie willed away the tears with a tight-lipped smile and eased forward into an embrace as Katheryn wrapped her arms around the young woman. Annie wasn't trembling any longer.

Carlos looked behind him at the two young women as he stopped walking. He smiled as Alex stopped beside him. "Moments like this make it all worthwhile, doesn't it?"

"It does." Alex nodded but could not find the joy to smile. "Yet she's just one young woman among so many out there who have had to face abuse, Carlos."

"I guess we have to take one at a time then. Make a difference where we can." He lifted his head a bit higher.

"Indeed." Alex inhaled, finally smiling as Katheryn and Annie proceeded forward to catch up with them. "Indeed we do."

##

The entrance to Thunder Karate opened swiftly and shut as a burst of cool air greeted Alex and Walker. They made their way down the hall and rounded the corner into the vast dojo to see Trent and Katheryn engaged in quite the sparring match. Smiles laced their faces as their feet moved all over the mat. Walker and Alex smiled at the little display and continued on to where Carlos watched the whole ordeal…in street clothes, mind you. He wasn't getting involved in the action today. Not with those two at the helm.

"Phew!" Trent stopped the sparring match with a raise of his hand. "Alright, Kath. You're good. I'll give you that." He ended with a chuckle before reaching for some water and a towel at the edge of the mat. He returned to Katheryn with a spare water and towel before tracing a path to Carlos, Walker, and Alex. "Hey, guys. What brings you by the dojo?"

Alex stifled her smile. "I've got a bit of news regarding Mahoney."

"Hey, Kath!" Trent called over to Katheryn who was already nearly finished with her bottled water.

Katheryn wiped at some runaway sweat on her forehead and started towards her friends, still panting a bit as she recovered from her brutal sparring session. Yet as difficult as it was, she wouldn't trade it for the world. For she was getting better every day.

"What's up?"

Alex shifted her gaze to and from the threesome as she spoke. "Mahoney's changed his plea."

"You're kidding." Carlos was the most shocked as his eyebrows arched in surprise. He turned to Trent and Katheryn and crossed his arms. Turning back to Alex, he struggled to find the words to say. "How? What happened?"

"I have no clue. I was just as surprised as you are. I got a call from Judge Prather first thing this morning. He will be issuing a sentence later on this afternoon."

"Wow." Trent focused on Alex's words. "Do you think someone talked him into it?"

"I can't see how." Carlos shook his head.

Katheryn took a deep breath. "Me neither."

An unwarranted silence fell over the group for a second that Walker would not allow. "So, Carlos. Katheryn. How did you like being a drug family for a day?" He ended with a grin.

Carlos issued a smile as glanced toward the woman who had so willing portrayed his wife. "It was a pleasure. Although Katheryn was much better at it than I was."

"Oh?" Katheryn punched Carlos on the arm. "Was not. Whose idea was it to plant a kiss on me under the moonlight when I was trying not to think of all the wrong things that could happen?"

The rest of the group was on the verge of laughter while Carlos feigned a grimace as he rubbed on his arm where Katheryn had planted her punch.

Katheryn relinquished the playful argument with a loving smile and turned to Trent. "What do you say we get back to the mat?"

Trent let out a raspy sigh. "I don't think so." He raised a hand. "I think I've had enough for one day."

Oh, quit it." Katheryn slapped in the air towards Trent's midsection with a grin, unimpressed by Trent's excuse.

The group shared a bit more laughter before Walker and Alex bid the young crime solvers goodbye until later that afternoon when they all were sure to be together for Mahoney's surprise sentencing. Carlos also had to bid goodbye and did so reluctantly, snagging a quick kiss from Katheryn before he went back on duty.

Left to prepare for the afternoon karate class, Trent set to work straightening the dojo for the arrival of his students. Katheryn was just about to head to the back rooms to change and head home to Molly and Annie when Trent's voice stopped her.

Katheryn crossed back over the mat and didn't see Trent. She immediately shifted her gaze upward to the loft office.

"Up here." Trent smiled downward at her.

Katheryn hurried up the steps and took a seat next to Trent. "What's up?"

"I wanted to talk to you about something."

Concern tempted Katheryn's thoughts as she cocked her head softly. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Trent quickly assured her with a smile. "Quite the opposite in fact."

"Oh?"

Trent inhaled. "I'd like to ask you to join me as a part of my protection agency. I can't promise a steady schedule by any means. But you've proven yourself to be a great asset. I know you've doubted whether or not you wanted to try out for a place in law enforcement. But helping people is something I can tell is in your heart. And if you are willing, I'd love to have you join me." Trent extended his hand towards Katheryn. "What do you say?" He smiled, hopeful for her answer.

A smile steadily crept onto Katheryn's face as she glanced around the room. She loved this place. And Trent was right. She loved helping people. "I'd love to." Katheryn took ahold of Trent's hand with her own and gave it a firm couple of shakes.

It was reaffirmed in her life and heart that day that she was home and would be helping people alongside her closest friends…her family…for the foreseeable future in an even greater way. It was perfect. And nothing could ever change her mind.