TGI-freaking-MTM / First except of Zach and Natalie

    Thank God it's Man-Titty Monday!

    Usually I save my praise of the Divine for Fridays and the weekend, but staring at this scrumptious, wet chest has me starting the hallelujahs a bit early this week.

    Once again, thanks to Tracy from Goodreads. She runs a ranch over there — beef everywhere you look.

    I like wet men. I’m not sure what it is about wet man-chest, but it gets me every time. Maybe it accentuates the smoothness of skin. Or maybe it’s because I’m a double water sign — Pisces with Cancer rising. Who knows? Any theories?

    I hope you all had a great weekend. I spent mine sketching out ideas for a five or so historical romances and then went back to torturing Zach and Natalie. It sucks to be them right now. That’s all I can say.

    But what is it they say about writers? We should show and not tell. Given that this is going to be an incredibly hectic week for me — I have a cover story, the biggest special edition of the year, plus the shackling bill vote on Wednesday — I might as well give you something that will keep you happy for a few days.

    I know! How about another image of Jed Hill, aka Zach, and an excerpt from Zach and Natalie’s story?

    This is pretty much how Zach is dressed now, except that he's blindfolded and his wrists are shackled behind his back and chained to a wall. Also, he’s been — how shall I say it? — mistreated for about a week now.

    But, hey, show don’t tell, right?

    From Chapter 1 of Breaking Point, the fifth book in the I-Team series...

    Natalie Benoit watched the streets of Ciudad Juárez roll by outside the bus window, wishing the driver would turn up the air conditioning. It wasn’t yet noon and already the city was a sauna. Even the palm trees seemed to wilt in the humid heat.

    “With eleven other months in the year, why did SPJ have to pick June for this trip?” She fanned herself with her copy of the day’s program, perspiration trickling between her breasts.

    “Don’t tell me you think it’s hot, chula.” Joaquin Ramirez, the newspaper’s best shooter, grinned at her from across the aisle, his camera still aimed out the window. “This can’t be any worse than New Orleans in the summer.”

    “Is that where you are from, Miss Benoit — New Orleans?” Enrique Marquez, a reporter from Culiacán, glanced back from the seat in front of her, his Spanish accent making both her name and the name of her hometown sound exotic. In his fifties, he was still a handsome man, with salt-and-pepper hair, a well-trimmed mustache and brown eyes that twinkled whenever he spoke of his grandchildren.

    “Can’t you tell by her accent?” Joaquin gave Natalie a wink.

    Natalie ignored Joaquin, refusing to take the bait. “Yes, sir. I was born there and grew up in the Garden District.” Which was why she did not have an accent, no matter what her coworkers might think. “I left Louisiana many years ago and live in Denver now.”

    She hoped Sr. Marquez would let it go, but was almost certain he wouldn’t. Mention New Orleans, and people just had to ask about the storm. Given that journalists were far more curious than most people, Natalie supposed his next question was all but inevitable.

    “Did you live there during Hurricane Katrina?”

    Natalie looked out the window, letting the words come with no thought and no emotion, as if what they represented meant nothing to her. “Yes, sir. It was a terrible time for so many of us. I moved to Denver after that.”

    She said nothing about where she’d been during the storm or what she’d witnessed or what that had happened to her parents.

    Lo siento. I am sorry, Miss Benoit.”

    No le gusta hablar de eso,” Joaquin said softly.

    Natalie didn’t speak Spanish well, but she understood that much. And Joaquin was right. She didn’t like to talk about it.

    Banamex. Telcel. McDonald’s. Lucerna. Pemex.

    The names of banks, businesses, restaurants and gas stations drifted before her, barely registering with her mind. What she did notice were the colors of the buildings. Bright oranges. Vivid blues. Lush greens. Lemony yellows. And blazing blood reds. Everywhere reds. It was as if the residents of Juárez had decided to strike a blow on behalf of color in defiance of the drab brown landscape that surrounded them.

    Natalie had signed up for the trip because she’d wanted to get away from the newsroom for few days. She’d been working at the Denver Independent for almost three years now, and she was beginning to feel frayed around the edges. Not that she didn’t love her job. She did. Having a spot on the paper’s award-winning Investigative Team — the I-Team — was every investigative journalist’s dream. But journalism wasn’t a low-stress profession even on the best of days. Burn-out was just another hazard of the job.

    She and thirty-nine other journalists — most American, some Mexican — had crossed the border from El Paso into Juárez early this morning, part of an educational tour put together by the Society of Professional Journalists and the U.S. State Department as a way of bringing Mexican and American journalists together to learn about the issues of immigration, the drug trade, and human trafficking. They’d had breakfast at the U.S. consulate. Then, under the protection of a dozen armed Mexican federales, they’d toured a police station and the offices of El Diario, the local newspaper, where bullet holes in the walls reminded them just how dangerous it was to be a journalist in Juárez.

    “And I thought my job sucked,” one of the other American reporters had said, running his fingers over the scarred wall.

    The sight of those bullet holes — and the empty desk of the journalist who’d been killed — had put a few things in perspective for Natalie, too. The worst thing she had to put up with during the course of the average work day was her editor’s temper. But no amount of yelling from Tom Trent could compare to flying bullets.

    Now they were on their way to the Museo de Historia — the beautiful Museum of History — where President Taft had once dined. After that, they’d visit a new five-star hotel in the downtown area for lunch. It was clear that Mexican officials were proud of their town and were making certain that the tour included a look at the beauty and culture of Juárez, and not just the violence for which the city was unfortunately known.

    She couldn’t blame them for that. There were at least two sides to every story, and although the drug cartels made headlines, most people who lived here were decent men and women just trying to raise families and enjoy their lives. Despite the poverty the unremitting violence, Ciudad Juárez was a city that still dared to hope.

    In the streets below, a young mother, her dark hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail, pushed a baby in a stroller. A shopkeeper in a royal blue apron swept the stone steps of his store. Two teenage boys in bright white T-shirts and jeans walked past a gaggle of pretty girls, their heads craning for a better look as the girls passed them. The girls, well aware of this attention, covered their mouths with their hands and broke into giggles. Nearby, two elderly gentlemen sat on a bench, lost in conversation, fedoras on their heads, cigars in their hands.

    Natalie felt the bus lurch to a stop but was so caught up in the tableau outside her window that she didn’t realize something was wrong until the scene changed. The teenage boys stopped, then turned and ran up an alley. The shopkeeper dropped his broom and disappeared indoors. The woman with the stroller grabbed her baby and backed into a doorway, a look of fear on her face. The two old men dropped to their knees, crouching behind the bench.

    And then Natalie heard it — the grinding fire of automatic weapons.

    Shattered glass. Screams. Staccato bursts of gunfire.

    “Madre de Dios!”

    “What the hell?”

    “Natalie! Natalie, get down!”

    Joaquin’s shout of warning pierced Natalie’s shock and disbelief. She scrambled into the small space between her seat and the seatback in front of her, crouching against the floor, shards of glass falling around her like rain. Pulse pounding in her ears, she looked across the aisle, her gaze locking with Joaquin’s as he reached out and closed his hand over hers.

    # # #

    It was pain and thirst that woke him.

    For a moment Zach MacBride thought he was back in Afghanistan, lying at the top of that canyon wall, a bullet in his back. He opened his eyes to see pitch black — and then remembered. He wasn’t in Afghanistan. He was in Mexico. And he was a captive — blindfolded and chained to a stone wall.

    He raised his head and realized he was lying on his right side, his hands shackled behind his back, his bare torso resting against the filthy stone floor. His mouth was dry as sand. His wrists were blistered where the manacles had rubbed them raw. His cracked ribs seemed to cut into his left side like a blade.

    He tried to sit, but couldn’t summon the strength.

    He was weaker than he’d realized.


    Then something hard and multi-legged brushed his chest as it skittered by, bringing him upright on a punch of adrenaline. Pain slashed through his side, breath hissing between his clenched teeth as he bit back a groan. He wasn’t afraid of the rats or the spiders, but they weren’t the only creatures here in with him. The one time the Zetas had removed his blindfold, he’d seen scorpions. And the last damned thing he needed was a scorpion sting.

    Dizzy from hunger, his heart pounding from exhaustion and dehydration, he leaned his right shoulder against the brick wall and tried to catch his breath, the chain that held him lying cold and heavy along his spine. How long had he been here? Five days? No, six. And where exactly was here?

    Somewhere between Juárez and hell.

    They were giving him only enough food and water to keep him alive, his hunger and thirst incessant, mingling with pain, making it hard to sleep. Only once in his life had he been this physically helpless. Only then it had been much worse.

    If he survived, if he made it out of here alive, he would track down Gisella and kill her — or at least hand her over to D.C. The little bitch of a Brazilian INTERPOL agent had set him up, betrayed him to the Zetas. She’d known what would happen to him — the Zetas were infamous for their brutality — and still she’d handed him over to them with a smile on her lying lips.

    At least you didn’t sleep with her, MacBride.

    Yeah, well, at least he could feel good about that. It would suck right now to have her taste in his mouth or her scent on his skin, knowing that she was behind this. Long ago he’d made it a rule never to have sex with women he met on the job, and despite Gisella’s persistent attempts to get him to break that rule, he’d kept his dick in his pants.

    Hell, they should carve that on your headstone.

    If he got a headstone.

    Would they put up a marker for him if they didn’t have a body to bury? Barring one hell of a miracle, he’d soon be scattered across the desert in small pieces. A year or two from now, someone would spot a bit of bleached bone in the sand and wonder what it was. No one would ever know for sure what had happened to him.

    Besides, who was there to buy a grave plot or erect a headstone? His fellow DUSMs? Uncle Sam? His mother was gone. He hadn’t spoken to his father in five years. And he had no girlfriend or wife — which was a good thing. He’d seen firsthand what happened to women and children when the men they loved and depended on were killed.

    Okay, so no headstone.

    Mike, Chris, Brian and Jimmy were in Arlington, resting beneath slabs of white marble, but for Zach it would be saguaro and open sky. That was okay. He liked the desert. And even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t make one damned bit of difference to him once he was dead.

    Which will be soon if you can’t find a way out of this.

    Not that he was afraid to die. He’d expected his job would catch up with him one day. In fact, some part of him had been counting on it.

    But not yet. And not like this.

    He’d been about to wrap up the biggest covert operation of his career when Gisella had called him and asked him to meet her at a nightclub in downtown Juárez, claiming to have intel vital for catching Arturo Cesár Cárdenas, the head of Los Zetas, who was wanted in the United States for the murder of Americans on U.S. soil. So Zach had grabbed his gun and fake ID — he never carried revealing documentation when he was working a black bag job like this — then crossed the border and headed straight to the club, where he’d found Gisella, dressed to kill, sitting at the bar. She’d bought him a Tecate, walked with him to a table near the rear exit, and started telling him something about a shipment of stolen coke. And then…

    And then — nothing.

    The beer had been drugged. When Zach had awoken, he’d found himself here, surrounded by pissed off Zetas demanding to know who he worked for and where he’d hidden the cocaine. He couldn’t answer the first question because it would imperil the entire operation, putting the lives of others at risk. And he couldn’t answer the second because he hadn’t stolen the coke and had no idea where it was. But this had only angered the Zetas more.

    So they’d brought in a specialist — a man who knew how to inflict pain while keeping his victims alive. Electric shock was his area of expertise. He’d gone to work on Zach two days ago, and so far the two of them were at an impasse. He’d been able to make Zach pass out. He’d made him bite his own tongue trying not to scream. He’d made him want to cry like a baby. But he hadn’t made him talk.

    Zach had the Navy and SERE training to thank for that — Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. Designed to help SEALs survive behind enemy lines, his training had been a godsend, helping him through hour after excruciating hour. Even though he was no longer in the military, he’d instinctively fallen back on that training, silently reciting bits and pieces of the military code of conduct, using it to stay strong.

    I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense… I will never surrender of my own free will… If I am captured, I will resist by all means available… I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability… I will make every effort to escape…

    As weak as he was, he knew he stand much of a chance of escaping. And that meant there was only one thing left for him to do — keep his mind together long enough for his body to give out. Long enough for him to die as he ought to have done six years ago.

    Raucous laughter drifted into his cell from across the courtyard, voices drawing nearer, boots crunching on gravel.

    Zach stiffened, dread uncoiling in his stomach, rising into his throat.

    They were coming for him again.


    He drew as deep a breath as his ribs would allow, swallowing his panic with what was left of his spit.

    I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense. I will never surrender of my own free will.

    # # #

    “Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos, santificado sea tu Nombre.”

    Holding fast to Joaquin’s hand, Natalie looked to her right, where Sr. Marquez crouched against the sliver-strewn floor, eyes closed, a rosary in his trembling hands, his whispered prayers barely audible over the pounding of her heart. She didn’t understand everything he was saying, and it had been years since she’d been to Mass, but she recognized the cadence of the prayer, her mind latching onto the English words, speaking them along with him in her mind.

    Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

    The door of the bus seemed to explode inward in a spray of glass.

    Too afraid even to scream, Natalie watched as three armed men in dark green military fatigues stomped up the stairs, pistols in hand, automatic weapons slung on straps over their shoulders. One stopped long enough to point a pistol at the bus driver, whose pleading cries were cut short with a pop that splattered blood across the windshield.

    Screams. Black boots. Another pop.

    Sr. Marquez prayed faster, his voice shaking. “Danos hoy el pan de este día y perdona nuestras deudas como nosotros perdonamos nuestros deudores.”

    Then Natalie heard the mechanical click and buzz of Joaquin’s camera. Somehow she’d let go of his hand, her face now buried in her palms. She looked up, saw him lying out in the aisle, his camera pointed toward their attackers, a look of focused concentration on his face as he did his job — documenting the news.

    She whispered to him. “Joaquin, no! They’ll kill—”

    The boots drew nearer.

    Joaquin kept shooting. Click. Click. Click.

    “¡No! Por favor, no—” No, please don’t—



    And Natalie understood.

    They were killing the Mexican citizens on the bus while, leaving the Americans alive.

    Pop! Pop!

    She looked over at Joaquin, at his dark hair, his brown eyes, his brown skin, and was blindsided by fear for him. They would think Joaquin was Mexican. And they would kill him.

    Pop! Pop! Pop!

    Blood ran along the floor, pooled beneath the seats, the air thick with the smell of it.

    Pop! Pop!

    “Y no nos dejes caer en la tentación sino que líbranos del malo. Amen.” Sr. Marquez opened his eyes, his gaze meeting Natalie’s, rosary still in his hands. “I am sorry, Miss Benoit.”

    And then the men in the boots were there.

    Sweat trickling down his temples, Sr. Marquez looked up into his killer’s face, pressing his lips to the cross.

    Natalie cried out. “No, don’t—!”


    Then he lay dead, his eyes still open, blood trickling from a bullet hole in his forehead.

    Without thinking, Natalie threw herself into the aisle, shielding Joaquin with her body, struggling for the right words. “Él no es mexicano! Él es americano! He’s a citizen of the United States! He’s American!”

    Cold brown eyes — a killer’s eyes — watched her with apparent amusement, a pitiless smile spreading across a face too young to be so cruel. Then teenage assailant’s gaze shifted to his fellow killers, and he said something in Spanish that made them laugh.

    Joaquin wrapped his arms around her and pulled hard, obviously trying to thrust her behind him, but constrained by the small space. “Natalie, stop! Don’t do this!”

    The young assailant raised his gun.

    “He’s American!” Natalie shouted the words. “Es gringo, americano! He’s—”

    Then she realized the gun was pointed at her.

    Her breath caught in her throat.

    He’s going to shoot you, girl.

    She wondered for a moment how much it would hurt — then gasped as the butt of the gun came down on her temple. Her head seemed to explode. Blinded by pain and limp as a rag doll, she fell forward and felt cruel hands wrench her away from Joaquin, who fought to hold onto her, shouting something in Spanish that she couldn’t understand.

    “He’s American,” she managed to say, her own voice sounding far away, the world spinning as she was dragged down the aisle and passed from one attacker to another. She struggled to raise her head and caught just a glimpse of the man who’d struck her aiming his pistol at Joaquin. “Joaquin!”


    And she knew he was dead.

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