Back to Basics
A Pink Dormouse Production
El had the common sense - and plain, old-fashioned courtesy - not to ask any questions until they were safely back at the apartment. Once the door was closed and locked though, he started. As he probably felt he had every right to, Sands supposed. They had been together one way or another for what felt like a long time and suddenly they were both finding out a whole new set of facts about each other. Sure, Sands had kept things from El but he had had good reason to. Especially since it was obvious that El had not given all the facts to him.
"I would like to know," El said, moving to stand behind Sands, then wrapping his arms around the other man's waist, placing his hands over Sands', "whether you really trust me."
Now that was hardly playing fair, in Sands' opinion. He was very sensitive to touch nowadays, and he associated the feeling of El's arms around him with safety. His very own Security Mariachi, a concept he would have sneered at - and then demolished - back in the old days. So El, doing that and then asking that was hardly playing by the rules. In fact, it was blatant manipulation.
And El knew it, moving Sands' hair aside to kiss his neck. Which added to the whole 'protected and wanted' vibe that was doing nothing for Sands' ability to come up with a straight - or at least a believable, mutually acceptable - answer. Yeah, he trusted El one hundred percent at this precise moment. But did he trust El the rest of the time? That was a more debatable matter.
"Going to tell me?" El asked, bringing his lips around to graze the other side of Sands' neck.
"Why don't you tell me why you're asking?" Sands steeled himself for the unknown, and then pushed El's hands away and took two steps forward. He stopped and stayed perfectly still, while he orientated himself. The kitchen should be right... over there. He walked steadily across the room, using the stick just a little - because, while he knew that El had more sense than to move anything, he had to be certain - then he reached out to lay a hand on the edge of the sink and found his way from there, along the units, to the cupboard where the glasses were kept. He took down a glass, moved back to the sink and ran the cold water. He dipped the glass under the stream of water, turned the tap off again and then raised the glass to his lips and took a long drink.
Sands heard El enter the kitchen and turned to face him, leaning back against the edge of the sink, still holding the glass.
"Going to answer my question?"
"Going to answer mine?" Sands smirked. He thought he knew the answer, but still wanted to hear it.
"I need to know," El said, taking a step towards Sands.
Sands sidestepped El and leaned against the cupboard next to the sink.
"That's not much of an answer." He took a sip of his water. "Obviously you don't trust me." He paused for one, two, three heartbeats before continuing. "If you did," another pause, collecting his thoughts, "you'd give a straight answer to my question."
"You never told me you knew people in this city." El kept his distance from Sands. "If you trusted me, then surely you would have told me that, when I suggested we come here?"
"I didn't know if I still did know people." Sands replied quietly, as he reached across with his free hand and turned the tap back on. The kitchen was less likely to be bugged than the living room and upping the background noise should cut down on how much of the conversation got picked up. "A lot can happen in five years - and my main contact allegedly left town some time ago. There I've told you something. Now you can tell me exactly how you know ex-DI Briggs, formerly of the Flying Squad."
"He approached me last year," El said, sounding very cautious. "He offered me money to take care of you."
"So it was him," Sands mused, more to himself than to El. Not that El's verification of what Briggs had implied proved that Briggs was working for the man Sands had been enquiring after - but it was one more piece of evidence pointing in that direction. "But you already had more money than you could ever have spent back in Mexico; why did you accept the job? And don't tell me he threatened you; I know you and you're stronger than that. So what was it?" The more Sands could give El to think about, the longer he could put off the questions he suspected that El wanted to ask him. "I'd given you your revenge; you could have easily disappeared back into obscurity all by yourself. Why did you decide you needed to take on my baggage as well?"
Sands heard El pick something up, followed by the sound of water swishing around - the kettle presumably - and then it sounded as if he was putting it down and switching it on. More background noise - excellent, Sands thought.
"You deserved a chance," El continued, "instead of what they had planned for you - when you were over your injuries."
"What did they have planned for me?" Sands thought he knew. But he had been telling himself all these months that El had no idea about any of it.
"The doctors wanted to return you to the US - to an institution."
Sands' throat tightened. So history had been about to repeat itself, meaning that there was basis in reality for some - maybe all - of his dreams. They were definitely dreams, he reminded himself, there was enough consistency about what he assumed was real to convince him of its validity. He gripped the edge of the worktop behind him with his free hand. Trying to be the man he had been before for the past two days had taken a lot out of him - and now he wanted to rest, not deal with difficult questions from El.
He could hear every sound in the room, right down to El's breathing. And El had known all along that Sands had had far greater dealings with the flip side of sanity than he had ever let on. The walls began to close in on him. He tightened his grip on the worktop, until he was surprised that it, as well as his fingers, was still intact. He had assumed, wrongly it was starting to seem, that El would leave if he heard all that had gone down prior to Mexico. But El was still around - so far - Sands thought, as he heard glass smash at his feet. Then he lost his grip on the worktop and staggered forward, his head contacting with El's shoulder as El's arms wrapped around him.
Sands gasped. Christ on a goldfish-powered bike, he was on the verge of a panic attack because of a few home truths it now seemed El had known all along.
"I think you need to sit down," El said.
"Yeah." And 'yeah' to the question of trust, thinking about it. Yeah, he trusted El more than anyone else in the world. It might be best not to give El everything he seemed to be asking for at one sitting though.
Sands was lying on the couch with his head in El's lap. He was trying to relax, trying concentrate on El's hands skimming over his hair and down his sides. But there were too many thoughts rushing through his mind, crashing into each other and sparking new concerns. He twisted slightly and El's hands stilled. What was he expecting? An explanation? Reassurance that Sands was as sane as could be expected under the circumstances? Maybe the best thing was to start with the obvious and work from there.
"I guess I should remember to keep on breathing in future." Sands tried to sound unconcerned.
"It might help." There was a faint smile in El's voice, which implied understanding - most unfair, in Sands' opinion. El could have let on how much he knew sooner, and saved Sands a lot of unnecessary worry.
"So you kept me from getting locked up by locking me up?" Sands picked up where he had left off. "Real logical that."
"I kept you safe."
'For which I'm eternally grateful' was not going to pass Sands' lips. He rolled onto his side, facing away from El and let one hand drop down to fiddle with one of the chains on El's pants.
"Still sure you made the right decision?"
"Most of the time." El reached down to lift Sands' hand away from the chain and held onto it, running his thumb over each finger in turn. "How do you know Briggs?"
"I don't. I used to know the man he'd like me to think he's working for."
"You don't believe him?" El continued to caress Sands' fingers.
"I don't know. Luigi says the man in question left the country, but maybe he came back. Or maybe he never left. He's a slippery customer - and he's got money - so anything's possible." Sands laced his fingers through El's. "I'll tell you all about him tomorrow, after we meet Briggs' boss." He tightened his grip on El's hand. "I want one of us to go in there without any preconceptions about who we're meeting." Sands released El's hand, and then rolled into a sitting position. "Now, if there's nothing you want to watch on TV, I think I'll listen to 'Dark Side of the Moon'. And you can fix us both a drink."
So what if the living room was the most likely place for a person to plant listening devices? Sands decided that if they were going to have this conversation, then he might as well get comfortable and take his time over it.
"What did Briggs tell you about me then?" Sands asked two tracks in.
"He said your psych file made very interesting reading."
"Oh I'm sure it does. Did he tell you - " that they locked me up before " - what was in it?"
Well, that was one worry out of the way. Sometimes Sands wondered if his obsession was not so much with wanting El as with wanting to be El. To be able to divide the world neatly into allies and enemies with no middle ground. Knowing who to kill and who to rely upon. But if that was the case, then why did El stay with him, someone who not only viewed the world in shades of grey but who was neither one thing nor the other?
"Probably hasn't read it then," he said before picking up his glass from the table and drinking the remaining contents. "Not that I have either, I just keep running into people who claim to know all about me from it. Generally turns out that they don't."
"You haven't read it?" El sounded surprised.
"Never saw the point. It's not as if I gave them a set of truthful and consistent answers any time they decided they wanted to analyse me." Sands would love to have seen the file, of course. Or at least to have known more about what was in it - but he had never found anyone he both believed had read it and whom he trusted to share the details with him accurately. "How about you fix me another drink? It's still early after all." And there were still plenty of things Sands wanted to hear about before he could feel secure enough to even try to sleep.
"So tell me about Briggs' wife," Sands said, several tequilas later, having reassured himself - by way of more random questions between album tracks - that whatever El already knew of Sands' past, it was not going to change anything. What would happen if Sands actually had to tell El the full story was less certain, but for now he was content to file that with all the other inconsequential problems in his life.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Simple curiosity. Besides," Sands shifted, making himself more comfortable, "I like listening to you talk." It was a plausible reason, being true, although not the answer to the question that had been asked. Which was, of course, that a particularly insistent fragment of his mind had been screaming at him to ask about her since before they had even returned to the apartment. It had been tempered a little by another fragment, which argued that just because Briggs was being a little paranoid there was no need for Sands to do the same.
El leaned across Sands to refill both glasses then sat back up again. Sands shifted until he was comfortable again and then reached out a hand to check that his glass was where he expected it to be. There was a knack to drinking without lifting his head from El's lap - and Sands was not going to interrupt the coming narrative by fumbling the move.
"Where shall I start?"
"At the beginning. That usually works for me." Sands picked up his glass, took a drink then placed it back down again. "You agreed to work for Briggs before you met his wife. Then what happened?"
"We went to Mexico City. His wife was working there and he was complaining about missing her. I needed to buy a few things - and the hospital weren't going to release you for a couple more days."
"Back-track," Sands said. "Briggs' wife was working in Mexico City. What does she do?"
"She's a professor of languages at an English University. That was why they were in Mexico originally."
"Briggs doesn't strike me as the intellectual type. Is she pretty?" Sands had been accused of vanity plenty of times in the past. Back then he had had every right to be proud of how he looked, now he was... unsure. Yeah, 'unsure' was a good word for it.
"Very much so." El ran a finger down Sands' cheek. "And very devoted to her husband."
"Blonde? He strikes me as someone who'd go for blondes." Sands picked up his glass and turned it around in his hand. "And I'm betting that she's a lot younger than him."
"Yes. To both."
Sands felt oddly reassured by that. El's tastes seemed to be firmly entrenched in brunettes; and Helene, while intelligent and pretty, had not been particularly young. Sands had long-since resigned himself to not competing with the dead. So long as he could claim victory over the living he would have to be satisfied. There was just one final question to be asked.
"What did you think of her?"
"I liked her; she was very helpful. But," El stroked Sands' cheek again, "I don't chase after other men's wives."
Sands took another sip from his glass. It seemed as if all was well in his world again. And it might even stay that way, at least until after tomorrow night's assignation. What El would make of their prospective employer, was the one thing that Sands was still trying not to think about until after the meeting.
Club Paradiso was situated below a restaurant that Sands was sure had been called the 'Blue Moon' the last time he had visited. He was much calmer before this meeting than he had been the previous night. That one had been all about testing, this was the job offer. Or it could turn out to be a bloodbath. It all depended on who was running the show for real.
Sands stepped away from the bouncer, then took El's arm and allowed himself to be steered into the nightclub itself. He stopped. The room's echoes felt very wrong for what he had been expecting, and it was far too quiet for a party too.
"Is anyone here at all?" he asked El.
"Three men at the far end," El replied just above a whisper. "One a little ahead of the others - tall, broad, long, grey hair - "
" - Expensive suit, gold earring, beard." Sands should have guessed that no one could keep up the pretence well enough to fool him. "I'm guessing the other two aren't exactly small either."
"You know them?" Pretty good guess then.
"I know him." Far too well in his former employers' opinion. And that had remained so even after they discovered that their mark was actually being pay-rolled - unofficially, of course - by his adopted country's government - amongst others. He raised his voice. "Hey, Dariel! How've you been keeping, man?"
"Sands, my old friend." That virtually accentless voice brought back some interesting memories. "Come greet me properly then we can discuss this over dinner. Tell your... associate to wait where he is."
Sands turned his attention back to El.
"Better do as he says. Keep me covered but don't be too obvious about it."
El gave Sands' hand a brief squeeze then released it again.
"You have a clear floor between us and them."
"Good." Sands took a cautious step towards where the voice had come from. He heard one set of footsteps approach, and then stop a few paces ahead of him.
"Well, my friend?"
He walked forward again, this time stopping what he estimated to be two feet in front of the man.
"Here I am."
He was pulled forward into a rib-crushing hug. That would be Dariel all right. Sands could practically feel El glowering behind him. But then there were some people you had to allow to take liberties. Especially those who were wealthy, well-armed and bent in every sense of the word.
"I was worried when I heard what had happened to you," Dariel murmured close to Sands' ear.
Sands knew from past history that Dariel favoured silk and wool blend suits - and it felt like that was unchanged. Plus his custom cologne still had heavy undertones of patchouli - bloody hippy.
It was almost like coming home, but with more luxurious surroundings. And without his kid sister whining about how he stole her boyfriend - ten fucking years ago and not even that good a screw - or his mother threatening to tell stories about what a cute baby he had been. He wondered if he should have splashed out on a tux of his own rather than hiring one. He would have to do that if this became a regular way of getting work, of course.
"I'm still standing." Sands smirked then reached up and twisted a curl from Dariel's ponytail around his fingers. It had been salt and pepper before; he idly wondered if it was all grey by now.
"I should have known you could handle yourself." Dariel released him but kept his hands on his shoulders.
"Yeah, you know me." Sands smirked and dropped his own hands to his sides.. "I always come out on the top in the end. Even if I was out of the loop for six months," he added, trying not to sound too resentful.
"Ah, yes," Dariel said. "I must apologise for that. I meant to come and get you as soon as you were fully recovered from your injuries. But I was unexpectedly called back home. My brother," he paused long enough for Sands to start processing the information, "met with an unfortunate accident."
"This would be the brother who told you never to show your face on his estates again? The one who, in fact, paid you to move to Canada?" Sands was highly suspicious about the circumstances of this 'accident' but was hardly in a position to be judgemental.
"I only ever had one brother."
"So now you're Lord High and Mighty of Nowhere Town, Scotland?" Yeah, Sands could picture that. What the residents would make of Dariel and his cronies was another matter entirely.
"I sold the title. Which took a little longer than I anticipated. Then, when I returned, you were no longer where I thought you were, and at least one agent from your CIA was mysteriously unaccounted for."
"No, Dariel, he was dead." Sands smirked again. Dariel had always seemed to underestimate him just that little bit. But surely if Briggs knew that Sands had killed the agent in question, then he would have told his boss?
"I heard you were still dangerous." Dariel ran his thumbs along Sands eyebrows then brought them to rest, one on each arm of Sands' sunglasses. "And still pretty. May I take a look?"
Sands gritted his teeth and then nodded. It was probably best to humour someone who thought that ten grand was small change - especially when they were your best chance of well-paid employment at present. He heard a noise behind him. That would be El getting restless, he supposed.
"Go on then, find out what they did to me," Sands said, inwardly preening at that 'still pretty' since Dariel had no reason to flatter anyone unless he meant it. "Then I can introduce you to El and we can get around to discussing this mission you have for us."
He felt Dariel lift the sunglasses away from his face and held his breath.
"Crude," Dariel whispered. "Very crude. Of course," he added at a more normal volume, "I never did find torture to be a particularly efficient means to any end." He fell silent, long enough for Sands to take a couple of breaths while wondering what was to come next. Then the sunglasses were replaced and Sands heard - sensed - Dariel take a step back. "I could fund the reconstructive surgery, you know."
Sands said nothing. Dariel had both a Daddy-complex and a Godfather-complex so a flat refusal would go down badly - very badly.
"I realise," Dariel continued, "that it would be considerably more complex now than six months ago. But the cost is never going to be a limiting factor."
"No," Sands said. "The limiting factor in this is how much I'm prepared to go through. It may surprise you to learn that I don't particularly relish pain - not the kind of pain we're talking about here." He flashed Dariel a smile that said 'you know exactly what types of pain I do like.' "So I think I'll give you a rain-check on that offer. Besides," he threw in another smile for good measure, "I'm sure you don't really want me tied up with hospital shit, when I could be out causing whatever mayhem you've got planned for me."
"Very well," said Dariel, "call your... associate over here and introduce him to me."
Sands turned slightly and beckoned to El. He heard him approach then stop, and then felt El's arm around his waist. Protective? Or possessive? Sands would ask later if the subject came up. This had all the hallmarks of being about to turn into a situation, so he was going have to watch his step and avoid getting on the wrong side of either of them.
"Dariel, this is El. El - Dariel. Okay, I've introduced you both, where's the party we were promised?"
"All in good time," Dariel said. "First we eat, then we can join the party once it has got going a little."
First rule of dining with self-styled crime-lords: eat whatever they eat. In Dariel's case, this meant blue steak - so rare it might as well be straight from the bullock - followed by coffee and single malt. No starter, no dessert, just large lumps of dead animal. Sands suspected this was a biker-thing rather than a British thing. And the single malt was, of course, something ridiculously rare from some unpronounceable vale in the Scottish Highlands - probably made with water strained through centuries' old peat and matured in casks almost as old since before anyone there had been born - ludicrously expensive and not a patch on an averagely aged Talisker. But the second rule of dining with self-styled crime-lords was not to criticise their choice of intoxicant.
Conversation over dinner touched on only the edges of Dariel's business empire. If El had worked out any of what the man did to make his money, he had not reacted in any way that Sands had picked up. Not that he expected much of Dariel's money to come from drugs as such; Sands' last information had been that he was moving into falsification of identity documents - identity reassignment Dariel called it - and other computer-based crime. Plus there were the various government back-handers for useful information that only ever implicated those criminals not doing business with the Big Guy himself. Sands wondered once or twice if and when the rest of the old crowd would be turning up. Some were probably dead or in jail, and others would have business elsewhere, but there was no mention of any of their whereabouts.
They returned to the main floor area of the club to find that the other guests had started to arrive. It was not so crowded as to make Sands uncomfortable - in fact the additional people made him feel a little more secure - this was an invite-only event and there would be enough concealed weapons scattered amongst the attendees that none would try anything without a very good reason. Dariel led Sands, El, and his two sidekicks to the far end of the club, presumably well out of earshot of any uninvolved bystanders.
"Evening," said Briggs from just beyond where Sands had halted.
"Oh, the pet ape," Sands said. "I hope he's house-trained."
"Watch it," Briggs growled. "Boss, are you sure we need these people?"
"Quite sure," said Dariel. "Now why don't you all make yourselves comfortable and let me explain why I brought you here?"
"About time," Sands muttered, as El guided him to a couch. Not only had he not heard anything about the plan yet, he was sure it was well past the time that Dariel would have broken out the cigars in days past. He briefly considered leaning against El, as he would usually do at home, then remembered that he was the decision-maker of the team here, and instead leaned back against the other corner of the couch's back and its other arm, with his feet across El's lap. He needed to convince Dariel that he was perfectly capable of functioning the way he had before - hell, he needed to convince himself of it too.
"Cigar?" Dariel offered.
"Have I ever refused?" Sands smirked. This was definitely his kind of homecoming. He heard the case flick open and reached out towards it, then took a cigar and proceeded to make a careful examination of it.
"It's just my usual brand," Dariel said."
"Yeah, I thought as much. We seem to be short a few people," Sands added, as he accepted a light from one of Dariel's henchmen. "Where's Marianne? It's not like her to miss a party."
"Marianne... will not be joining us."
"Really?" Sands ran through the options quickly. He had always thought of the woman, who had been part of Dariel's organisation longer than anyone, as indestructible. Either she was on one of her trips to London or Paris - unlikely because he expected she would want to meet up with him again - or Dariel had sent her off to do something very important. "Where is she?"
"She left," Dariel said in a tone that implied further questions at this time would be most unwelcome. Sands let his thoughts drift momentarily to nights spent with Marianne - when Dariel was occupied elsewhere or when Sands had needed a break. Mildly stoned on her home-grown - no worse than smoking Dariel's finest Cuban cigars - with his head nestled between her breasts, talking crap about what job one or other of them would be doing for the Big Guy next. His memories of her all seemed to be about softness. Even though she could lift a big-engined bike off the ground effortlessly, where he would have struggled. But soft none the less - smooth skin, pillowy breasts, fine hair that got everywhere when she unplaited it, fingers uncalloused through always wearing gloves to work. It was the contrast with Dariel more than anything. Dariel was hard - hard muscles, tough business decisions. Hard games, hard cock that Sands had spent more time around - one way or another - than had entirely fitted with his brief.
Sands heard Dariel clear his throat and forced himself to concentrate on more immediate concerns. He would have plenty of time to reminisce later; if he really wanted to - since what he had now far surpassed anything he might have fleetingly shared in back then.
"Now, tonight's business..." Dariel paused, giving Sands a little time to appreciate his cigar. "While I was away, certain other interests gained some of my customers. The losses in this country were... unfortunate - but I can recover the trade in time, or diversify as I have before. However, the situation in Central America has declined further than I would like - in spite of the sterling work by our friend here - " Sands assumed that Dariel was referring to El " - in keeping down the numbers of undesirables amongst the Mexican Criminal Element."
Well, that explained what El had got up to when he had left Sands to his own devices in the attic. He would ask El himself about the details later. Dariel's attitude to others in the 'Import-Export' side of the 'business' had always been slightly eccentric, and it did not surprise Sands in the least that the man would be organising a vendetta against any number of cartels for reasons of his own.
"So, boss," Briggs said, "you want us to go back to Mexico and deal with the problem?"
"Not quite yet," Dariel said. "You, I want in Mexico now - with your wife if she is agreeable - gathering information. You two," he shifted slightly, "I want you to assemble a team of mercenaries and assassins. A mixture of the subtle and the... not so subtle - I want to hit certain of the cartels hard; I want to demolish their strongholds, and I want to knock out their leaders. If you can strike at several sites at once, then so much the better. But it would definitely be the best if it is obvious that the attacks are the work of more than one group."
"Chaos and confusion," Sands said. "I like your way of thinking. Do you have any names in mind?"
"A few, and doubtless you can add to them. The pair of you are officially dead by the way - or will be once everything is finalised - I have arranged for a little road traffic accident to take place. Hopefully no one will think to cross-reference the DNA profiles, since that is always the most expensive form of evidence re-organising."
Sands decided not to ask who had annoyed Dariel enough to provide the bodies - El might get twitchy about that.
"That's... good," Sands said, deliberately echoing Dariel's inflection. "Now what's in it for us?"
"Remember a few years ago, when I offered you a share of the business? As I remember you refused because the price was too high. Accept this job and you could buy your way in several times over. Or you could move away. I have friends on the Spanish Costas - they would welcome you with open arms over there."
"And if we turn you down?" Sands said, still highly suspicious.
"Nothing would happen to you, my dear boy. Do you honestly think I would go to all this trouble and then have you and your charming partner here... disposed of?"
"We'll need time to talk things over," Sands said. Dariel seemed to harbour some vague fondness for him after all this time, which was useful, but there was no reason to actually trust the man - or his plans - without a few further checks. A man who had waited twenty years to arrange the death of his own brother was quite capable of doing the same to a former associate, should he know where that associate might be found. And besides, El would not be pleased if Sands decided anything without at least seeming to consult him first.
"Of course," Dariel said. "I expected something of that nature. Now, why don't we all enjoy the party and talk business again tomorrow?"
Sands first heard Dariel stand up and walk away, accompanied by his minders. Then that was followed by the sound of Briggs getting to his feet.
"If you two don't mind, I'll go find the wife. She was wanting a chance to say hello to you both."
"Yeah, you be getting along." Sands smirked. "And take your time over getting back - El and I have a lot to discuss."
Sands heard Briggs leave. For a brief moment he pondered how it would look to the others, should he now curl up against El as he wanted; then he realised that would be the best position for talking without being overheard. And it would give him some idea of how El was taking it all. He dropped his cigar into the ashtray on the table then shifted around, ending up with his head resting on El's shoulder.
"First impressions?" Sands asked, toying with one of El's cuff-links, and wishing he could fully appreciate how good the mariachi almost certainly looked in a tux.
"You had a relationship with him," El said, in a tone Sands interpreted as accusing. Which was hardly fair, considering what Sands had been able to find out about certain women in El's past, including his employer in Montreal. If Chenie really had known the Rat Pack then she would hardly have been oblivious to their non-showbiz activities.
"Not being judgemental are we, El?" Sands asked with a slight curl of his lip.
"No, just surprised." El placed his hand over Sands', stilling it.
"Well don't be. For one, I wouldn't quite describe it as a relationship," Sands said, wondering if it would have been better to have told El a little background information. "It's not like I cared about him or anything. And he only liked me 'cause I was pretty and useful. But yeah, we screwed a lot - it was in the small print of the job description."
"Which was?" El asked in a guarded tone.
"Officially I was his right-hand man for a while there. Kind of where Briggs would like to think he is headed - except I don't think he approves of the screwing side of it."
"I'll tell you all about that later - somewhere where we aren't going to be overheard. Let's get one thing clear," Sands said, sitting back up. "I was working for Dariel," he dropped his voice, "and for my other employers - the sex was just a part of that."
"And your other employers knew about it?" El hissed back.
"I never bothered to ask them. Look, Dariel's got fingers in a lot of pies; I passed on information about some of them, and kept quiet about others. So long as everyone was happy, it never mattered too much."
"And was everyone happy?"
"For a while - I said I'd tell you the full story later." Sands raised his voice to something approaching normal volume. "So what do you think? Do we go along with this plan of his?"
"I think you already decided that for us," El said, not sounding pleased with the idea. And that was a little unfair - they would have a few hours to talk this over in the morning, before Dariel expected them to give him a decision.
"We're a team, remember?" Maybe now was the time for him to tell El a little more about his past; it might just give him a little reassurance as to the trust issue. "The main speakers are over on the other side of the room, right? Is anyone standing near them?"
"That's where we're going." Sands stood up. "There are a few things you need to understand but I don't want anyone listening in."
"This goes no further, understand?" Sands said, once he was certain nothing and no one could pick up what he was about to say. Not that he was expecting all of the goons in this place to be fluent in Spanish but if Dariel was conducting business efficiently, some of them should be, precisely because of who they were entertaining. "Dariel's been deep-cover so long that hardly anyone remembers what he did before. He has his own reasons for doing things and most of the time that fits in with what the people paying him want."
"But not all the time?" El sounded cold, and he seemed to be holding himself apart from Sands, who decided not to risk closing the physical gap between them just yet.
"Course not. Credit the guy with some intelligence. The story goes that he came from money, did reasonably well at public school and then got sent down from Oxford for all the misdemeanours you'd expect. After that he more or less disappeared from everyone's records for a well over decade - he was running clubs in London's East End and probably laundering a lot more money through them than he made legitimately but he was never that much of a big time mover." Sands paused, hoping he was remembering everything correctly. "Then, in the early seventies he showed up in Canada and started doing exactly the same thing but on a much bigger scale."
"So he's a drug dealer?" El asked suspiciously. "Or he's masquerading as one?"
Sands weighed up the possible answers, trying to decide which would piss El off least. Dariel was both - and neither - and a full explanation of what he did would take up more time than they had before someone was bound to interrupt them.
"I told you, he works for the government." Or several of them - never let it be said that Dariel was overly nationalistic. "But obviously he has to do enough illegal transactions to convince the real criminals that he's one of them." And then a few more to keep the cash flow nice and healthy, and others because Dariel would not want others to profit too much before he turned them in. "I did mention the part where he mostly works with computers these days, didn't I? He thinks drugs are a little, shall we say, passť." Or at least the totally illegal ones, Sands had an idea that Dariel's organisation would be making its way into a few little money-earners in the grey market areas of prescription pharmaceuticals, if not the out and out black market.
"But he still buys and sells drugs?"
"I guess so. You'd have to ask him to be certain. But I don't get why you're making such a big deal of this - you were happy to take his money before you knew anything about him."
"There were other reasons besides the money."
"Sure there were." Sands knew - suspected - that he had been a part of those reasons, but now was not the time to bring that up. "Look, Dariel wants you to do what you'd be doing anyway, if you hadn't skipped out of Mexico with me. Why worry about his motives?" He almost added 'besides you never objected to anything I've done' but decided not to complicate the issue any further.
"Because..." El seemed to be considering the matter. "Tell me why we should take him at his word."
"Because he needs us. It sounds to me like things have fallen apart more than the guy's letting on and if he can't keep on playing both - all - sides for all that he's worth then it'll be Game Over."
"Would you have bought into the business if you'd had the money when he asked you?"
"Honestly? I don't know." And that was an honest answer - Sands had never entirely decided which way he would have jumped if things had ended a little less abruptly; and with a little less carnage involved. "I'm not saying we should work with him in the long term - just that the current offer could be as useful for us as it is for him."
"And these other people we need to work with. Who are they?" Sudden change of subject; maybe El was coming around to Sands' way of thinking.
"I haven't decided yet. We need some good, solid firepower, a couple of sharpshooters, one or two explosives experts - and drivers - we have to make sure we have enough drivers." Sands ran through the names in his head and came up short - even assuming he could get half of those he knew were still active. "Look, how about we rope in some of your buddies too? That way you can be sure it's all above board."
"Lorenzo and Fideo did seem a little restless when I spoke to them."
"Are they up to it?" It was definitely a good sign if El was starting to think out some plans of his own.
"I don't think they've lost any of their talent since the Day of the Dead."
"So we're agreed then?" Sands was confident that he had talked El around to the sensible way of thinking. "We tell Dariel we're on, when I visit him tomorrow?"
"For now." El slipped an arm around Sands waist.
Sands was about to say something about it being a bad idea to back out of a deal like this once it had been made, when he heard the clicking of high heels on wood, getting louder as whoever it was approached. The footsteps stopped.
"Hello, El," the woman said.
Home Counties, Sands guessed. If this was Briggs' wife then he would dearly love to know what her family thought of her desertion of the hunting, shooting and fishing crowd for the poverty of academia and an ex-plainclothes copper. It was evens which of them was less likely to get Christmas cards, her or himself.
"Melanie," El said. "You haven't met Sands?"
Well, Sands thought, they may as well all speak English now they had the official linguist joining the party.
"Not until now. What are you doing over here? The others are talking about you."
"That's just peachy," Sands said. "You go tell them we'll be right over." He waited while he heard her footsteps retreat across the dance floor. "Okay, let's go be sociable, then I'll finalise things with Dariel tomorrow."
Dr. Melanie Briggs was almost likable, Sands decided a couple of drinks later. She was keeping El, Briggs and Dariel engaged in conversation, which gave him the chance to think matters over. In spite of what El seemed to think, Sands was not yet one hundred percent committed to the deal. He had his doubts about working for Dariel again and, after what had gone down before, he was a little unsure of the guy's motives in hiring him. Maybe El was the one the man was really interested in, and hiring Sands was just a way of 'ensuring his continued loyalty.' That idea stung but it did make a lot of sense. Well, he would just have to make it clear once again that they came as a package or not at all. No way was Sands letting El go off on his own into danger - why let anyone else have all the fun?
He moved to mould himself a little closer to El - for no reason other than comfort - and tuned back into the conversation for long enough to figure that it was still just small talk. Which meant that he still needed a way of finding out the scale of Dariel's business losses, although the inheritance alone should ensure that he and El got paid; and to figure out just who else from the old crowd had left the organisation over the past few years. Marianne, for one, could have been a good sharpshooter to have on the team. Sands had only witnessed her in action once, but she had left an impression. And she could hold her own in a fistfight too. The voice of reason pointed out that there were others who owed him favours, rather than the other way around, which was what Marianne's response would be, under the circumstances.
He knew straight off who would be his first choice for setting up the explosives. Assuming the guy had managed not to get caught out by one of his more anarchic revenge schemes. And general psycho-bastards were easily tracked down - and rarely expensive - so El's mariachi friends would be in good company, when it came to providing firepower. It looked as if drivers were going to be the trickiest to find and hire, but maybe the rest of his prospective team would have ideas in that department.
So, now he had some of the names arranged in order of preference he had to figure out how to approach them. He supposed that he needed to face the fact that groundwork was no longer the best way for him to get his information. Luigi was fairly soft as informants went, and even so it had been one hell of a risk for Sands to approach him alone. Certain of his other old contacts would clam up or vanish if they saw Sands approaching with El - if they were still around in the first place - and those were also the most likely to set him up.
No, Sands decided, it was time to forget his contacts and try a different approach to hiring - one that involved buying a laptop and all the peripherals and software to go with it. First thing tomorrow he would phone around a few suppliers, and then present Dariel with a shopping list of office equipment at their meeting. All he had to do after that was ask the right questions of some little-known and highly specialised search engines, place carefully worded ads in a couple of equally specialised online publications, and maybe check if any of the email addresses he had long ago memorised were still active.
It started to sound as if he was one hundred percent committed after all. But then, his life had been lacking purpose recently - and what better way of finding it again, than responding to an invite from a borderline psychopath to go shoot up a few cartels back in Mexico? All expenses paid and a generous reward at the conclusion. Nicely straightforward, and hey, he had back-up gun, regular fuck and best buddy all rolled into one in the shape of El, which certainly cut down on the number of significant dates he had to pretend to remember.
"You mind?" El said.
"Huh?" Obviously something had happened in the conversation when he should have been paying attention.
"Do you mind if I go dance with Melanie?"
Yes, Sands minded but no, he was not going to say so. He sat up and lifted his glass from the table.
"Sure, go ahead. Just make sure you come straight back after." He smirked. About time he got El a bit more used to taking orders.
"Where else would I go?" El stood up and kissed Sands on the forehead.
There was no real answer to that. Sands listened as El and Melanie walked away.
"You seem to have done well for yourself there," Dariel said.
"I guess so," Sands said cautiously. It would be impossible to juggle El and Dariel, even if the idea had appealed. He felt no less at home now than when he had arrived, but he was coming to realise just how much everything had changed over the years. The organisation was no longer somewhere to stay long-term - if it ever had been - but it would always be a convenient stopping-off point between one scheme and another.
"Yes," Dariel continued, "he looks very good indeed."
"And he's mine."
"Of course he is, dear boy. But there is surely no harm in my appreciating his best points, is there? Now tell me, is it considered normal to tango to The Pogues?"
"Not usually this track." Sands decided it was his turn to force a subject change. "You told me that Marianne's gone. What about Mylo?"
"He went down - oh, it must have been two years ago now - and Nils went back home shortly after." There was more than a hint of regret in Dariel's voice.
Well that was two less mad-as-snakes bikers for him to try and round up. Most Harley Boys were about as predictable as their machines were reliable - there had been a good reason why Marianne rode a Guzzi. But at least it explained why the Big Guy was so keen to get Sands and El on board - his best woman and two of his most loyal men out of the picture - and Briggs was hardly a replacement for any one of them.
"And Marianne's definitely not coming back?" Sands tried not to sound like he cared.
"I left word that I had been in contact with you, whether she has yet to receive it or whether she has chosen to ignore it, I could not tell you."
It sounded as if Marianne was somewhere other than Paris or London - somewhere she could not be contacted directly. That was intriguing but it would be better to ask her about it when - if - she decided to give Sands a call. It would be good to talk to her again - at the very least she would be able to give him a little more detail about what had been happening while he had been in Mexico.
"Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?" El asked, once they were back at the apartment.
"Such as?" Sands had decided they should leave the party before anyone near them produced anything more suspect than the cigars, but he had no guarantee that others had not been cutting lines where El might have seen them.
"Something happened five years ago, didn't it? Something that makes you distrust Dariel now?"
"Now you know I don't trust anyone." Sands flopped onto the couch. "But yeah, maybe there are a few more things you should know."
El came over to the couch. Sands sat up to make room, then lay down with his head in El's lap.
"He knew about your other employers?"
"He had me sussed within a week," Sands paused, then relaxed a little as he felt El's hands skim over his hair, "but he never let on because he wanted more influence in the US. Getting the people he was already working for to fix it would have been noticed, so he thought he'd groom up his own pet Agent. Of course I realised eventually - about a week before everything blew up in our faces - then I challenged him. He offered me a cut of the business - or just a little more say in things - in return for knowing exactly what my side had on him. The little chemical dependence I'd been cultivating had nothing to do with my decision, obviously. We were all set to roll but then matters were taken out of our hands."
El said nothing about what Sands had said - or about what it should be obvious he had omitted. But he showed no sign of moving away either, which Sands took as a sign he should continue.
"We got word that one of the Far Eastern Concerns was planning to drop by during a party, but what we didn't know was there had been the usual inter-agency screw-up and the local boys had been planning to shut him down as well. They stormed his place in the middle of the chaos, more people got killed or injured than looked good on the balance sheets, but it seems that Dariel somehow emerged from it all whiter than white to all concerned."
"There was more to it than that though?"
"I guess the Agency needed a scapegoat. I was coming down off a three-day high, so I must have been the obvious choice. They sent me on a little trip to an asylum, then with me out of the way, they could avoid a diplomatic incident on all fronts."
"As far as I can figure, Dariel pulled some strings to get me out. All I know is suddenly I'm officially sane again and they're packing me off to Mexico." There, El knew everything. Now it was up to him what he wanted to do about it.
"You didn't trust me enough to tell you all this before?"
"Would it have affected how you reacted to everyone this evening?"
"And that's why I didn't tell you, remember? Planning on backing out of the deal now? Because if you are I want as much warning as possible so I can get far away before he finds out."
"I suppose that whatever you do, I'll be there with you."
"Thanks for that," Sands tried to throw in as much sarcasm as he could. "Now can we talk about something else for a while?"
Dariel was alone in his office when Sands arrived. Not that he took the Big Guy's word for it, of course, preferring to close the door and lean against it perfectly still, while he listened to every stray sound in the room.
"Okay, I'm here and it's just the two of us. Let's talk."
"You have reached a decision?"
"We're in." Sands smirked as he found his way to a chair. "You really think I'd show my face around here if we weren't?"
"Whatever was it that caused you to stop trusting me?"
"Probably the fact that you kept me out of the loop for so long." Not that he had exactly trusted the man ever, but there had been a time when he had trusted his own ability to predict what Dariel would do next.
"I have already explained why that happened - and apologised - but that was not entirely my fault. Now, has your associate told you what he was being paid per head before?"
"Yeah." Sands sat down and began to roll a cigarette, deliberately overplaying the casual attitude.
"Well, this time I can offer you both ten times that - out of which you will need to pay your team - plus I can refund all reasonable expenses you incur. Also I have set aside a considerable sum for your start-up costs."
"So you still have plenty in the bank?" Sands ran his tongue along the paper and sealed the roll-up.
"Of course. My income is a little below the level I would prefer but my hard assets are as considerable as ever."
Sands reached into his pocket, replacing the tobacco pouch, and drew out a lighter and a sheaf of papers torn from a notebook. He leaned forward and pushed the papers across Dariel's desk then leaned back and lit his cigarette.
"Specs and prices for the office equipment I'm going to need."
He heard the papers rustle as Dariel picked them up and began to flick through the carefully scribbled notes. He smoked the cigarette lazily, waiting for a verdict on his demands.
"This all seems to be in order," Dariel said eventually. "Will you be requiring any daily deliveries to your new residence?"
Sands shook his head. He was not going back down that route, tempting though the offer might be. He had El for stress relief now - and El would hardly approve of the other methods Dariel might provide.
"Are you quite sure? Think of it as a perk of the job."
"And remember what happened last time."
Flashback. He remembered chaos, sounds and lights. Paranoia - heart racing from the chemicals in his blood - not from the despair at being outnumbered and outclassed. Scrambling for yet another discarded gun as he realised that there was someone else, stalking through the shadows in the gallery, picking off one man at a time with a single shot apiece.
Then silence and the stench of blood and betrayal. Not caring as he turned to fire his last clip at Dariel, the only other man still standing on the dance floor. Then he remembered sparks flying behind his eyes as that shadowy other - now down on the same level as them - whapped him across the back of the head with her rifle barrel.
Sands shook his head, trying to clear it completely before he answered.
"Quite sure." He started to roll another cigarette. "Now tell me about this safe house you're moving us to."
To Be Continued...
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