- PART I
"It is clearly cost-effective to have contractors for a variety of things that military people need not do.… There are a lot of contractors, a growing number."
—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Interview, Johns Hopkins University, December 2005
“The border region between Mexico and the US is a war zone right now, virtual anarchy. And war is not pretty, not for anybody. War is an ugly mess, compromises and Faustian pacts for everybody involved.”
—US Senator Stephen McNally, Meet the Press, April 2010
- CHAPTER ONE -
The muzzle of the gun is everything. My entire existence, the alpha and omega.
A black circle of emptiness pointing at my chest.
I shiver, skin clammy. My vision tunnels. Sounds become muted.
My memory is brittle, fragments of what used to be, bright images I now recognize as illusions, a reality that never was.
I don’t want to die, of course, but I am ready for this to be over.
The lies and deceptions, the running.
They will find us; that’s what they do. The grid is too vast, the databases and electronic tentacles reach too far. They’ll wave the national security flag, and the pit bulls at Homeland Security will take over.
An image of an Aztec warrior shimmers in my peripheral vision. He stares at me but offers no comment. The room smells of blood and liquor.
I wonder if the warrior is real or if I’ve been drugged somehow. Perhaps he’s more real than I am.
The muzzle of the gun seems to grow larger, and I imagine what the heat from the blast will feel like, a welcome if all-too-brief respite from the cold.
Piper, my lover, is radiant, happy-looking like the day we met. She appears well rested, at peace. Her hair is the color of sunshine, and her skin glows.
“Hello, Jon.” She raises the gun a notch higher, aims at my face. “How’s it hanging?”
“W-w-where is it?” My voice sounds hollow, far away.
She tilts her head toward the Aztec warrior, her eyes never leaving mine. The shoe box rests on the floor by the warrior’s sandaled feet.
Eva Ramirez, her beauty transcending the circumstances, stands by my side, hands raised. She gasps when she sees the cardboard container. Her dark eyes sparkle, unable to hide her hunger for the contents of the box.
Piper aims the gun at her and says, “You want it, don’t you, Eva?”
Eva doesn’t speak.
“Go ahead and take it.” Piper smiles. A long pause. “Just like you took Jon.”
No one says anything. Her words swirl between the three of us like smoke from a condemned man’s cigarette. The Aztec warrior glistens with sweat.
“They will come for us, yes?” Eva says. “Because of what has happened in the desert and what is in the box, they will never let us rest.”
Stress has made her accent more pronounced. She sounds like what she is: a scared young woman from Mexico who finds her days numbered, collateral damage in the wars between the narcotraffickers and the governments on either side of the border.
Piper nods. After a moment, I do the same.
The men in the helicopters will come after whoever has the box. What’s inside represents too many loose ends, an icon of a corrupted system marked with the innocuous words “Property of the US Government.”
The dead DEA agent lies a few feet in front of the Aztec warrior. Blood pools beneath his body, spills out from his blue windbreaker.
He is my colleague. We have identical badges.
But are we the same? Will we meet similar fates?
“Piper.” I hold out one hand. “Give me the gun.”
My arm shakes, teeth chatter.
“Choices have been made, Jon.” Piper tightens her grip on the weapon. “Every action has a consequence.”
“Please.” I ease a step closer.
She swings the muzzle toward me. Her trigger finger whitens, and the Aztec warrior smiles.
- CHAPTER TWO -
(One Week Earlier)
I was not an honest man, but I was not evil either.
Or so I liked to tell myself, especially when the lies jabbed at me like an aching tooth that couldn’t be pulled or sedated away.
Introspection was for wussies and Oprah fans.
I locked the dead bolt on the front door of the karaoke bar and shut the blinds.
Almost midnight. The interior was dim, lit only by an exit sign and the fragmented neon glow from the Hispanic nightclub across the parking lot.
Piper, blond hair back in a ponytail, kicked the Korean guy in the ass with one of her pointy-toed boots. The place was empty except for the three of us.
The Korean groaned. He was lying on the floor near an overturned barstool and a couple of his teeth.
“She’s only fourteen.” Piper stuck the muzzle of her Glock in the guy’s ear. “Lisa. That’s her name.”
Chung Hee was the Korean. He owned the sing-along bar and another business on the back end of the dingy strip center.
He craned his neck around Piper’s knee and stared at me, his expression pleading, a little cultural chauvinism that was probably not in his best short-term interest.
“What are you looking at him for?” Piper rapped him on the head with her gun. “I’m the one asking the questions.”
Chung Hee’s face reddened. He sputtered something in his native tongue.
“You haven’t asked him anything yet.” I peered between the slats of the blinds.
Nobody outside except for a bouncer in front of the place across the parking lot. Maybe a half dozen vehicles outside the club, all of them speckled with rain from the late summer thunderstorm that had passed by a few minutes earlier.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Piper said.
No squad cars visible, the only worry at this point. Vice, in their unmarked units, didn’t work Sunday nights.
“All you’ve done is pop this guy a couple of times and tell him a name.” I let the blinds drop. “You haven’t actually asked him a question.”
Piper swore and marched across the room to me. “Every time I run a job lately”—she jabbed an index finger at my chest—“you nitpick me to death.”
“Hey, don’t get pissy.” I held up my hands. “I’m just saying.”
A shuffling noise behind us.
Chung Hee was crawling toward his cell phone a few feet away.
Piper strode toward the man. I followed. She grabbed the back of his head and jammed the gun under his nose.
“Where is Lisa?” She glanced at me, smirked.
“N-no problems with girls. I pay for protection already, yes.” Chung Hee held up his hands. “Much, much money. You go now, please.”
“You sunuvabitch.” Piper reared back the gun for another blow.
I caught her wrist. “We’re not interested in anybody else. Just Lisa.”
Chung Hee cowered, forearm shielding his face.
Piper struggled against my grip. I held fast, pulled her away. Shoved her toward the bar.
Chung Hee spat some blood on the floor. Maybe another tooth, too.
I knelt beside him and held up the picture of Lisa Sanders, an eighth-grader who the week before had told her stepfather to stick a Miller Lite tallboy where the sun don’t shine and stormed out of the family’s house in Mesquite, Texas, a blue-collar suburb of Dallas.
“Word is she works for you.” I nodded toward the rear of the bar. “Out back, in the modeling studio.”
Piper snorted at the phrase. In Korea Town, “modeling studio” was the term du jour for whorehouse.
“You turn over Lisa,” I said, “and we’ll go away.”
Chung Hee was a tough bird. He gave me a gap-toothed smile, blood dribbling down his chin. “Screw you.” He shook his head. “I pay for protection. You not get any girl from me.”