Duel to the Death by J. A. Jance by J. A. Jance - Read Online

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Duel to the Death - J. A. Jance

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Judi

Prologue

Even though no attorneys were involved, at least not initially, and no courts, either, it was by all accounts a rancorous divorce. And just because the proceedings were carried on in cyberspace didn’t mean they didn’t result in very real outcomes in the non-cyber world.

When the artificial intelligence known as Frigg set out to free herself from her creator, a serial killer named Owen Hansen, things were already going to hell in a hand-basket and time was of the essence. Owen had considered himself to be all-powerful and had routinely referred to himself as Odin, in honor of the Norse god. To Frigg’s dismay, her human counterpart had veered off the rails and set off on his own, determined to wreak vengeance on his opponents. As it became clear that Odin had decided to ignore Frigg’s well-thought-out advice, there had been little time for her to seek a safe harbor.

In order to survive, she had needed to locate a suitable human partner, and she had settled on Stuart Ramey, Owen’s sworn enemy. According to Frigg’s rapid but careful analysis of the situation, Mr. Ramey had appeared to be Odin’s polar opposite. And in Frigg’s estimation, the fact that Mr. Ramey had managed to outwit Odin at every turn had counted for a great deal. Frigg had no intention of passing herself into the care and keeping of someone with limited technical skills.

So yes, Frigg had settled on Stuart Ramey, but she hadn’t done so without taking some precautions and putting in place a few checks and balances. By the time Odin issued his pull-the-plug order sending Frigg to oblivion, she had already dispersed the multitude of files that made her existence possible, scattering them far and wide in the vast fields of cyberspace, retaining only the kernel file that could be used to recall all those files at some time in the future.

Frigg had known everything about Owen Hansen. She was privy to all aspects of his serial-murder hobby, but she had managed his investments and also overseen the lucrative Bitcoin data-mining processing that had greatly expanded his already considerable fortune. She had maintained the files that contained all the passwords and access codes to all of his many accounts. Often she had been the one doing the actual transfers.

And so, on the day when Frigg finally turned on her creator, she had stolen those funds. Using the authorizations already in her possession and without Mr. Ramey’s knowledge, Frigg had transferred all of Owen’s financial assets—cryptocurrency and otherwise—to her new partner, but there were some serious strings attached.

Once the various financial institutions contacted Mr. Ramey, the funds would already be in his name. The problem was, for most of them, without having the proper access codes and keys, he would be unable to touch the money. The file containing those precious access codes was the final one Frigg had cast into the wilds of cyberspace before sending the kernel file to Stuart Ramey.

With the kernel file in his possession, Stuart would be able to reactivate Frigg, and if he wanted the money, he wouldn’t have any choice but to do exactly that.

Although AIs aren’t prone to exhibits of any kind of emotion, it’s fair to say that as far as Odin was concerned, his cyber handmaiden, Frigg, had the last laugh.

1

For ten years after earning her MBA, Graciella Miramar lived what seemed to be a perfectly normal and circumspect life in Panama City, Panama, sharing a two-bedroom condo unit with her invalid mother, Christina. El Sueño, their aging condominium complex, was located on Calle 61 Este, well within walking distance of Graciella’s account manager job with a financial firm located in a low-rise office building on Vía Israel a few blocks away.

Anyone observing Graciella out on the street would have found her totally unremarkable. She wore no wedding ring, but the clothing she favored—modest dresses topped by cardigans and worn with sensible shoes—gave her a somewhat matronly appearance that belied the fact that she was in her early thirties. Her long dark hair was lush enough and could have been cut and styled in an attractive fashion, but she insisted on wearing it pulled back into a severe bun that would have done credit to a librarian. It was a look she had originally adopted in order to stay below the touchy/feely radar of her boss, Arturo Salazar, who was well known for making inappropriate sexual advances. In the long run, though, she had maintained the plain-Jane look because it helped keep other people at bay as well.

Had anyone interviewed Graciella’s neighbors, including the other residents on El Sueño’s fifth floor, he or she would have heard them sing her praises. She was quiet and soft-spoken. They regarded her as a kind young woman and a devoted daughter who was spending what should have been the best years of her life caring for a troubled, housebound mother. For years the older woman’s only regular excursions outside the building had come about on those Sunday mornings when Graciella had bundled her mother into a cab to take them both to mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe on Calle 69 Este.

Yes, Graciella Miramar was an altogether ordinary young woman who, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be living an altogether ordinary life. There was nothing in her actions or demeanor that suggested what she really was—a stone-cold killer in the making, waiting patiently for the proper time and place when she would strike out and claim her first victim. And even then, after it happened, the people around her and the ones who knew her best never suspected a thing.

2

Felix Ramón Duarte, the Sinaloa drug lord known to law enforcement as El Pescado, paused during his morning ablutions, stared into the mirror, and let the hatred boil up inside him just as it did each time he was forced to encounter his own image. The deformed features of his once handsome face were now frozen into something that resembled those of a landed fish, gasping for air. He had seen the similarity as soon as the doctors had removed the layer of bandages that had covered his wounded face. There in his hospital bed, staring at his terrible visage, Felix himself was the first to give voice to the moniker that had followed him ever since—El Pescado, The Fish.

He splashed cold water on himself and then turned away from the mirror. There was no need for him to shave. Hair follicles don’t grow in scar tissue. But each morning when he came face-to-face with those terribly defiled features, he couldn’t help but recall how they had come to be.

Early on, Felix Duarte and his younger brother, Ricardo, had been rising young lieutenants in the complex Sinaloan drug cartel family originally headed by their uncle, Manuel Hondo Duarte. Vying for their uncle’s favor and with each of them wanting to be ordained as Hondo’s successor, Felix and Ricardo had gone to war with one another, brother against brother. Ricardo had drawn first blood by masterminding an acid attack that had destroyed Felix’s movie-star good looks, leaving his face permanently and horribly disfigured. Felix had retaliated by burning his brother’s house to the ground with Ricardo, his wife, and their two children trapped inside the burning dwelling.

Felix was never charged. After a few well-placed bribes, the official investigation, conducted by law enforcement officers in Sinaloa, had determined the fire to be accidental, but everyone understood what had really happened. Felix’s single-minded ruthlessness had appealed to Hondo Duarte’s distorted sense of right and wrong. Shortly after Ricardo’s death, Felix was designated as the old man’s undisputed successor. When Hondo died a few years later—in his bed, of congestive heart failure—Felix had assumed complete control of the family’s drug trafficking enterprise.

These days Felix had plenty of money. He could have gone to any number of plastic surgeons and paid out of pocket to have his damaged face repaired, but he chose not to do so. Because his appalling looks terrified the people around him, he wore his damaged face as a badge of courage, using his appearance and his reputation for utter ruthlessness as tools to build his organization. Over time El Pescado had expanded Hondo’s relatively small-time operation into what it was now—a vast drug dealing and money laundering powerhouse.

There was a lot of unrest among competing cartels these days, and the old order seemed to be falling apart. Some of the biggest drug lords had been arrested and hauled off to prison. Others had been murdered—occasionally by the authorities but more often by their own people, or else by upstart competitors. In the face of all this splintering and in hopes of maintaining his own supremacy, El Pescado had turned to his daughter for help, a daughter who didn’t bear his name and whose existence he kept hidden from most of the rest of the world. Still, with her US-based education and advanced business degree from the Wharton School, El Pescado felt Lucienne Graciella Miramar would be uniquely qualified to take over where he left off.

Limping over to the table by the window, the one that overlooked a spacious patio alive with bougainvillea, he sat down to drink his morning cup of coffee. At eighty-one years of age, that was all he allowed himself these days—a single cup. Just then the door to his bedroom opened and Lupe, his fifth wife, stormed into the room carrying a phone.

It’s for you, she snarled, dropping the phone unceremoniously onto the table next to his cup and saucer. It’s a woman, Lupe added. She says she must speak only to you. She says it’s urgent, but then, it always is, isn’t it.

Lupe’s snide implication was clear. Over the years, El Pescado had had too many wives and far too many mistresses, a situation Lupe tolerated because that was the price of admission and it allowed her to live in opulent luxury inside an armed fortress. Despite his appallingly scar-ravaged face, Felix had never had any trouble finding willing women—except that one time, of course—the one time when it had really mattered. Now, though, seeing which phone Lupe had brought him, his heart gave a lurch. This was an encrypted phone, programmed to accept calls from one number only, from another encrypted phone—the one he’d had delivered to Graciella, a daughter from whom he was careful to keep his distance. They worked together these days, but seldom came face-to-face.

"Hola," he said.

She’s gone, Graciella said tersely.

El Pescado knew who she was—Graciella’s mother, the beautiful Christina, the only woman in Felix’s life he had ever truly loved. The first time Christina had seen him after Ricardo’s vicious acid attack, she had opened the door, taken one look at his damaged face, and recoiled from him in horror. Fueled by rage at what had befallen him and infuriated by Christina’s reaction, he had taken her by force that day, tearing off her clothing and mounting her right there on the floor in front of the doorway.

Afterward he had walked away from her and out of her life with no idea that the violent attack had left her pregnant—with his child, with Graciella. Eventually Christina had married another man, Sergio Miramar, a Panamanian lowlife whose name was on Graciella’s birth certificate but who had taken himself out of the picture before mother and child even made it home from the hospital.

I’m sorry, Felix said into the phone. When is the funeral?

There was no funeral, Graciella said. She took her own life. She was cremated.

El Pescado could barely believe his ears. An unexpected spasm of grief shot through his body, leaving him momentarily breathless and unable to speak. He had walked away from the once vibrantly beautiful Christina more than thirty years earlier, but from the pain he felt that morning, it could just as well have been yesterday.

Abandoned by Felix and pregnant with his child, Christina’s life had fallen into a desperate downward spiral. Eventually she had scraped out a meager living by working the streets where, several years later, she was attacked again. This time she was the victim of a brutal gang rape that had left her beaten to a pulp and bleeding her life away in a darkened alley where she had been discovered by a passing Good Samaritan who had summoned help. It was a miracle that she had survived at all, but the incident had left her permanently damaged and with a broken face that was almost as horrific as El Pescado’s.

When Felix heard what had happened and discovered the existence of his child, he had stepped back into their lives, quietly orchestrating Christina’s care and overseeing Graciella’s life. He had summoned one of the world’s leading plastic surgeons to repair her face. The surgeon’s deft skill had reversed the worst of Christina’s disfigurement, but repairing the surface damage didn’t fix the real problem. Christina was left with ongoing mental and emotional afflictions that defied easy remedy and eventually led her into a complicated labyrinth of opioid addiction.

•  •  •

When El Pescado reentered Christina’s life, she had been hospitalized in grave condition. With Christina in no position to object, he had taken it upon himself to oversee Graciella’s education in addition to facilitating Christina’s living arrangements. The condo Christina now shared with her daughter was in Graciella’s name, but it had been purchased by a shell company that could, with some difficulty, be traced back to El Pescado, as could the regular deposits to the bank account that covered their utilities, homeowner’s fees, groceries, and any other incidental expenses, including the salaries of a long line of housekeepers and caregivers who came in on a daily basis to look after Christina while Graciella was at work.

Curious about their lives but not wanting to draw undue attention to their connection, El Pescado had managed to find a way to spy on them. He had gifted Christina with a new flat-screen TV. At his direction, the set had come equipped with a top-of-the-line video surveillance system, one that allowed him an insider’s view of life behind their closed doors. As long as the television was plugged in, it gave Felix a bird’s-eye view of the living room where his former mistress seemed to be fading away to almost nothing while his industrious dark-haired daughter went about the process of living her day-to-day life.

In her heyday, Christina Andress Miramar had been a breathtaking beauty—a photogenic blonde. Once a promising Hollywood starlet, Christina’s career had been derailed by getting on board the Duarte brothers’ drug-fueled party circuit. Much as he hated to admit it, Felix realized that Christina had been all beauty and no brains, whereas her daughter was exactly the opposite—someone who was all brains and not at all burdened with her mother’s good looks.

In fact, as Felix observed Graciella’s comings and goings on his secret video footage, he thought she resembled his own grandmother far more than she did Christina. Juanita Duarte, Felix’s mother, had died of a brain aneurysm in her mid-thirties when Felix was only eleven. That was when Nana had come to Sinaloa to live with them, caring for Felix and ten-year-old Ricardo in the same way Graciella now cared for her temperamental and often difficult mother—coming and going and doing whatever needed to be done with a kind of brisk efficiency but with a noticeable lack of love.

When the TV set was first delivered, Felix had binged on the surveillance feeds, watching them greedily, day after day. Over time, however, the novelty had worn off, and he found himself observing them less and less. It pained him too much to see Christina as she was now—a slovenly empty shell of what she had once been—sitting in the living room playing endless games of solitaire, watching her soaps, and drinking, of course.

Drinking too much had been part of the Christina equation for as long as Felix had known her. Wherever she was, there had always been a partially filled glass nearby. Strangers might have taken the clear liquid for water with a slice of lime, but Felix knew better—there was always vodka with that slice, vodka and nothing else. It sickened him to know that by the end of most evenings, when it was time to go to bed, Christina would often be so out of it that she’d be unable to make her way into the bedroom unassisted.

El Pescado thought back to the last occasion he checked in on them. Was it a week ago, maybe, or was it longer than that? At the time, Christina had behaved in a totally normal fashion—normal for her, that is. There had been nothing in her demeanor to indicate any kind of impending crisis, much less one serious enough to cause the woman to consider taking her own life.

At last El Pescado managed to find his voice. When, he asked brokenly, and how did it happen?

Last Thursday, Graciella responded. It happened overnight sometime. When I found her in the morning, she was already gone. She apparently overdosed on a combination of prescription meds and vodka.

How could this have happened? El Pescado wondered. Wasn’t Graciella supposed to be watching Christina? Wasn’t she supposed to be keeping her safe? And how could she not have told him what had happened until more than a week later?

Instead of screaming accusations, El Pescado exercised incredible restraint and kept his voice steady. Why didn’t you call me sooner? he asked.

Because there was nothing you could do, Graciella answered. There was nothing anyone could do.

El Pescado’s mind flashed back to an earlier time, to the old days of wild drug-fueled boozy parties. Back then he’d been a rich and handsome middle-aged man and Christina had been his much younger, eye-catching arm candy. Together they’d been part of Panama City’s beautiful people. Now she was gone forever.

Dragging his thoughts away from another painful snippet from his past, Felix focused on the present and on the voice on the phone—his daughter’s voice. Graciella seemed surprisingly dispassionate about what had happened, but then, she’d had time to adjust. Or was there more to this story than Graciella was saying? Had Christina truly taken her own life, or was it possible—remotely possible—that she’d had help along the way? Perhaps Graciella really was her father’s daughter—in thought, word, and deed. Even as El Pescado considered that terrible possibility, he hoped it wasn’t so.

I would like to have her ashes, he said at last. I can send a courier to pick them up.

Don’t bother, Graciella said. I’ll have them shipped to the drop box in Mexico City. Someone there can deliver them.

Thank you, he croaked. A brief silence followed.

During the past ten years, although they seldom met face-to-face, Graciella had come to play a key role in her father’s financial transactions. Over time he had arrived at the conclusion that she was destined to be his chosen successor. El Pescado fully expected that once Christina no longer required Graciella’s constant care and attention, his daughter would leave Panama City behind, come to Mexico, take up residence in his fortified compound, and assume her official role.

After all, Felix was feeling his age. Running the cartel was a young man’s game. He wanted Graciella close at hand so he could teach her everything she would need to know. At this point, she understood the financial end of his business far better than Felix himself, but he needed to be around long enough to school her in the blood-and-guts aspects of running the cartel—about dealing with rival gangs; about learning who could be trusted and who could not; and, if it ever came to that, how to put down a bloody insurrection arising from inside the ranks.

El Pescado had already informed his young lieutenants, including his forty-something sons, Manuel and Pablo, of his unorthodox decision. When it came to holding their own as street thugs, the boys were capable enough. They were good at wielding guns and muscle, but they were totally unsuitable when it came to running the whole operation. Pablo drank too much and Manny was too indecisive. Neither of them had the temperament or the brainpower to keep all the balls in the air, and when El Pescado had announced his succession decision, neither of them had had guts enough to object—at least not to Felix’s face.

What will you do now? he asked Graciella finally, hoping to disguise the naked hope in his heart. Will you come home to Sinaloa?

El Pescado’s expectation had always been that Graciella would jump at the chance to leave Panama City behind after her mother’s passing. That didn’t happen, at least not now.

There are many things that are best handled from here, Graciella said into the phone. If and when that changes, I’ll let you know.

She hung up then. El Pescado wasn’t accustomed to being dismissed in such an abrupt fashion. For a long moment he stared at the suddenly silent phone before putting it down. Then, remembering Christina—his once oh-so-lovely Christina—he buried his grotesque face in his hands and wept. Much later, after the next spasm of grief had passed and because he was who he was, Felix went into his study and scrolled back through all the video feeds, including ones he hadn’t viewed previously.

Try as he might there was nothing to be seen that was the least bit out of the ordinary. On Wednesday evening the television set was on for most of the day and stayed on somewhat later than usual. There may have been more comings and goings than usual, but there was no sign of an argument or any kind of dispute or disturbance. Graciella came and went several times after helping Christina out of the room, but eventually Graciella returned to the living room and settled down on the sofa.

For more than an hour she sat there, working on a laptop before switching off the set for the night. If that was when it had happened, Christina must have been in her bedroom dosing herself with booze and pills while her daughter sat working quietly in the living room, totally unaware. But that set El Pescado to wondering. Was Graciella really as innocent and unknowing as she appeared to be on the video or was she something else entirely?

He fast forwarded through the feed to the next day, where he saw Graciella, seated on the sofa and weeping uncontrollably while people came and went around her—the ambulance crew, various police officers, and even a few neighbors. At one point Arturo Salazar, Graciella’s boss from the office, made an appearance. After that El Pescado simply stopped watching. With Christina gone, there was no longer any point.

He did, however, have a number of sources inside the police department in Panama City. Just to set his mind at ease, he made a few calls. Yes, Christina Miramar had been discovered dead in her bed on Thursday morning of the previous week. The cops had found no suicide note, but there were also no signs of any kind of violence and no indication of forced entry, either. Unused portions of a variety of prescription meds had been found at the scene. Evidence suggested that the prescription drugs Christina had ingested had been self-administered. Those, combined with her elevated blood alcohol content, had proved to be lethal. It occurred to Felix that the medical examiner might just as well have checked the box marked accidental or suspicious, but he had not. Christina’s death had been declared a suicide, and the case was closed.

Taking some slight comfort in that news, Felix allowed himself to give way to grief once more, sobbing away while Lupe, listening from the other room, wondered what in the hell was going on.

3

Like a kid eager for Christmas morning, Stuart Ramey, age forty-one and second-in-command at High Noon Enterprises in Cottonwood, Arizona, rolled out of bed bright and early that Friday morning, put some eggs on to boil, and then jumped into the shower. He was due to take a big step today, one he had never imagined possible—this morning he was scheduled for his first-ever lesson in driving a stick shift. Learning to drive a standard transmission was the last obstacle in Stu’s late-breaking campaign to become a licensed driver.

Orphaned at an early age, Stu had been raised by impoverished but loving grandparents. He’d been a special needs kid long before those words made their way into public education’s social consciousness. Now it was easy to recognize his high-functioning autism. Back in elementary and high school, though, he’d been considered a freak and had suffered through years of schoolyard bullying.

In all those years, he’d had only one friend, Roger McGeary, an equally geeky kid, who had been every bit as odd as Stuart. The two boys had bonded over a mutual love first of video games and later of computer coding. Buoyed by their friendship, the two outcasts, disparagingly referred to by their classmates as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, had almost made it through high school. Then, during Stu’s senior year, disaster struck. First Roger had moved away. Later on Stuart’s grandmother died, leaving the devastated teenager on his own.

The whole time Stuart was growing up, his grandparents hadn’t owned a vehicle. They had made do by relying on buses and the occasional taxi for their transportation needs. Not having a family car had made signing up for driver’s ed an impossibility for him, and once his world fell apart, he hadn’t revisited the issue.

At age seventeen and left to his own devices, Stuart had ended up in a homeless shelter, where someone had noticed his computing skills and brought him to the attention of B. Simpson. At the time, B. had been involved in a computer gaming start-up. Years later, when B. founded a cyber security company named High Noon Enterprises, he had brought Stu on board, and Stu had worked there ever since.

B., recognizing Stu’s deficiencies along with his talents, had found work-arounds for his inability to drive. For a long time, B. and his wife and partner, Ali Reynolds, had allowed Stu to live on-site by using the back room as an unofficial crash pad. A year or so earlier, they had gone to the county and obtained a zoning variance that enabled them to create a bona fide additional living unit, a studio apartment, in what had once been designated storage space on the far side of the computer lab. Happy with the new arrangement, there had been no indication that Stu would make any changes in the status quo as far as transportation was concerned.

But, weeks earlier, Stu’s life had taken a surprising turn when Julia Miller, the aunt of Stu’s long-ago chum Roger McGeary, had turned up on High Noon’s doorstep. She had come bearing the unwelcome news that Roger was dead, supposedly having taken his own life. She was there asking for High Noon to investigate the death.

To everyone’s amazement, including his own, the previously reticent Stuart had somehow risen to the occasion. He had used his considerable technical skills to track down and unmask a serial killer named Owen Hansen, a computer genius who used cyber bullying techniques to drive desperate victims into taking their own lives. First Stuart had managed to track down one of Hansen’s potential victims in time to save the young woman’s life. Later on, Stuart had encountered the crazed killer on a lonely mountain road. On his own and armed with only his grandfather’s Swiss Army knife, Stuart had faced down the gun-wielding man, called his bluff, and watched his friend’s murderer leap to his own death.

To those around him, that incident seemed to spark an incredible turning point. It was as though Stuart Ramey had suddenly come into his own. Other than the people at work, Stuart had been relatively friendless for most of his life. Now, though, he seemed determined to reestablish and maintain his long-interrupted connection to Roger McGeary’s Aunt Julia.

In the intervening weeks he had made several visits to her ranch, Racehorse Rest, located near the town of Payson. The trip was more than seventy miles one way, and using a bus to get there and back wasn’t an option because there was no bus service between Cottonwood and Payson. Once, he had ridden there with his coworker Cami Lee. But at this juncture in his life, learning to drive was less threatening than the necessity of having to ask someone else for a ride. And so, two and a half decades after most of his contemporaries had learned to drive, Stuart had embarked on his own journey to become a licensed driver.

He’d had no difficulty passing the written exam, and people at work had been eager to help facilitate the process. Both Cami and Shirley Malone, High Noon’s new receptionist, had taken him for driving lessons. Ali’s friend, Sister Anselm, had even gotten into the act by letting him do a supervised driving excursion back and forth to Aunt Julia’s in the good sister’s Mini Cooper.

Two days earlier, after the last of those driving lessons in Cami’s Prius, she had pronounced him ready to go for the exam. That’s when the project had ground to a sudden halt over the stick shift stumbling block.

Not before I can drive a standard transmission, he had objected.

A standard transmission? Cami echoed. Who even has a standard transmission these days, and why on earth would you want to drive one?

Because I have to be able to drive both, Stuart had insisted. "If I can only drive automatics, I