Back to Basics

A Pink Dormouse Production

 

Part III

Sands scowled in the general direction of the computer screen, knowing that it was time he started working. Elsewhere in the house El was getting ready to leave, which he did not like one bit. Sure, he accepted it. Sure, he could get far more work done without distractions. But this was going to be the first time he had been by himself since they had moved here two weeks before. And no, he was not panicking. Not at all -- just a little concerned about whether they were spreading their resources a little thin by separating so soon. 

He heard footsteps behind him. Footsteps but no clink of chains or spur -- Sands swivelled the chair around quickly, a hand going to each of the guns at his hips.

"It's just me," El said, as he came to a halt just in front of where Sands sat.

Sands breathed out and let the guns drop back into their holsters. Then he reached out until one hand contacted with El's leg. He followed the seam downwards -- no chains.

"Change of image?"

"I thought it would fit our cover better than the usual."

"Since when did you start talking about 'our cover'?" 

"What else would you call it? I'm going now." El kissed Sands quickly on the forehead.

As El straightened up again, Sands pushed himself up out of the chair and hooked an arm around El's waist, pulling him in close. In Mexico he had lived with an almost constant nagging voice telling him that some day El might walk out and not come back -- either through choice or through death. That voice had increasingly been silent as they drove through the US and it was Sands, rather than the other man, who wandered by himself. In Montreal El's presence had been a constant, even in his absence, and the voice had shut up altogether. But now unknown dangers lurked beyond their house, and that particular voice of unease was back with a vengeance. 

"Right now?" Sands sought out El's lips, wanting a way of making him stay just that short while longer. Work be damned. It would still be there in half an hour, or an hour, or however long he chose to spend kissing his... whatever El was. He sucked on El's upper lip; nipped at the lower; darted his tongue out to taste both. He moved his hand to press into the small of El's back and brought his other hand up to curl around the back of El's neck. He kept up a succession of butterfly kisses, lips only slightly parted as he waited for El's lead to up the tempo. Then El placed one hand on each of Sands' hips and stepped back and away, breaking the contact.

"Later," said El.

"You will --" Sands stopped himself from trying to extract any sort of promise and tried to hide the sudden rush of shock and emptiness with sarcasm and a sneer. "Not thinking of disappearing already, are you?"

"I said, it can wait till later. I have work to do in town," El told him firmly.

"Yeah," Sands said, trying to regain the upper hand -- who was running this operation, anyhow? "And we can't have the neighbours getting suspicious about how we get the money to pay for this place, can we? Might blow our cover."

The voice of reason took this opportunity to point out that Sands would be better calling his contacts without El listening in anyhow -- at least until he had sounded out which of them were worth chasing in earnest.

And what was El planning to do in town? Sands' paranoia asked. Surely they could have come up with a cover that allowed both of them to appear to work from home? Most nights since they had moved into their new house, Sands had been too exhausted to dream -- or at least to be woken by his dreams. But those dreams that had made an impression had all been a replay of that last shoot-out in Dariel's club. Except, of course, that now the fire fight took place in darkness and it was El who was the other man left standing with Sands at the end. But the outcome was much the same -- they faced each other down, Sands' finger tightened on the trigger, then... nothing. Or rather he woke up, in panicked confusion, to find El there beside him, reassuring him as always -- and apparently unaware of Dream El's suspected betrayal and subsequent demise at the hands of Dream Sands. Because, there was no reason to assume that El would be wearing a bulletproof vest in the dream, as Dariel had done in the memory. But Dariel had not, it later came out, betrayed anyone -- and nor would El. At least Sands hoped that he was right on that, while his paranoia continued to nag him about it.

"I'll be back long before you have time to get bored." El interrupted the fun conversation that the various areas of Sands' mind were having.

"Don't be so sure of that -- I'm the one with zero attention span, remember?" Okay so El might have been teasing when he had said something to that effect earlier in the week, but he had still said it.

"But you have all these fine toys that your -- that Dariel -- bought for you." There was a hint of resentment in El's tone that was almost gratifying. And it was not that El had been neglected in the handing out of equipment either. "Just try not to annoy any of our neighbours before I get back."

"Don't worry -- I won't go killing anyone. Well, not unless they really deserve it." Sands heard El turn and walk away. "And get me some more tobacco and papers."

"You smoked all that you had already?"

"Yeah, I've been working," Sands said, as if explaining the blatantly obvious. "I always smoke more when I'm behind a desk." Which was not the entire story, but it was all the reason he wanted to give. Come to think of it, he was running a little low on bourbon too.

***

El placed his guitar case in the trunk of the car they had been provided with -- 'old but not a classic' was how Dariel had described it -- respectable enough to fit in with the neighbourhood but not too expensive for a jobbing-musician to own. Then he got in and drove towards town, with a lot of matters on his mind -- mostly concerning Sands, unsurprisingly.

For the most part things between them were no more complicated than they had ever been. Which was to say that nothing involving Sands could ever be simple. While he did give every appearance of having a childlike attention span -- and that could be exhausting for those around him -- it was, at least some of the time, because he was concentrating on several ideas at once. In which case the rapid subject changes would make perfect sense to Sands, if not to anyone else listening.

Sands had been working himself very hard these last two weeks too -- pushing himself to learn as quickly as possible the fine details of his new office equipment during the day, and then insisting every night that El took them to some remote spot, where Sands could shoot tin cans -- and anything else that should cross his path. He was consistently accurate -- giving El a suspicion that he had been practicing while they had been living in Montreal -- but he was as much a perfectionist in that area as in others.

Somewhere along the way Sands had learned to read Braille as well -- or at least he had learned enough to index-label his entire record collection -- so it was now stored in one place, rather than scattered around the house. So, yes, Sands was further proving he was bright and extremely adaptable, which left one more question to plague El: could this complex, confounding man ever truly care about anyone other than himself?

At first, El had believed Sands incapable of love -- in spite of the declaration the other had made (and besides, that had been under extreme circumstances). But now he was seeing some evidence that Sands did posses more than the limited range of emotions he had shown at first. It was obvious that Sands felt some form of bond to this Dariel and, more remarkable, that was nowhere as strong as the bond he claimed to feel for El. So where did that leave El? Could he risk opening himself up again, knowing that his heart -- what remained of it -- was constantly at risk of being torn out to leave him as an empty shell? Sands was too perverse to leave -- but he was also never likely to go long without finding trouble of one sort or another. And there were only so many times he could rely on skill and good fortune to be the last man standing.

Plus, El could almost hear Sands saying, committing to someone that fucked-up would drain a person very quickly. If he started to give more, Sands could -- would -- grow ever more demanding. And so it would go on, until there would come a day when Sands would want more than El could give. No, it was better to hold back, and try to maintain the same balance that Sands claimed he wanted to keep.

El was nearly at his destination. He pushed all thoughts of Sands to the back of his mind and concentrated on finding a place to park.

***

With El gone the house was just too damn quiet. Dariel's offer of daily deliveries had triggered a craving that Sands had almost forgotten about, one that was had been keeping out of the way until now. It crept closer to the surface, feeding into his other phobias. Which in turn made him want even more. The craving was under his skin, making it itch, making him want to fuel the fire just to put it back out again.

It would be crazy -- crazier than he was already -- to call Dariel up and say that yeah, he did want to take up that little offer after all, but then again maybe he should have a couple of lines just to remind himself what he had not been missing at all. Nice respectable suburb like this, one of the ladies-who-lunched was bound to do a spot of hobby-dealing. But finding out which involved interacting with the neighbours, and he had far more important ways to spend his time right now. Sands shook his head and told the craving to get back to where it had been sleeping all these years. What he was going through right now was no more than the memory of a feeling -- nothing to go hassling anyone else about. He had handled coke plenty of times in Mexico, hardly even thinking about keeping any for himself, much less actually taking it. Besides, he had work to do. And by the time that was finished for the day, he would have El back -- with any luck -- and El was not going to see Sands any more wired than he had done already.

Sands rolled himself another cigarette, then turned back to his computer. Everything was finally set up just how he wanted it. Sure, the ear-piece interfered with listening to music while he worked, but he had managed to find a text-to-speech program that functioned in every language he was half-way fluent in, and had a voice that only pissed him off after a couple of hours listening to it. Plus the inbox of his garbo@hepburn.ch account was finally cleared of everything bar the new email telling him that his replacement Hitmail account had been cleared. Which meant he had a choice of contact details he could give out to potential team members. Hitmail had other advantages besides a longer string of automatic remailers than the competition: full any-browser compatibility (mercenaries in the field used whatever was available); a personals section with easy-to-use categories; and a very useful links-database, which included about the best telephone number search engine Sands had found.



If Ramirez had an email account, he had not checked it anytime when Sands had been watching him. He was still registered as living at the same address however, and the number given seemed familiar, so that was what Sands entered into cell phone number one. 

"Hello, Jorge," Sands said to the suspicious sounding voice that picked up. "It's been a while..."

"Who is this?" Ramirez sounded more confused than expected -- and less angry -- ah, that would be because he was not expecting Spanish-speaking Sands to call him up. English-speaking Sands would be a little unexpected, with the rumours of being dead and all, but had he ever totally dropped the dumb-tourist act for anyone in Mexico? Besides El, and the succession of maids El had hired, obviously. Yeah, there had been the boy -- and maybe Ramirez had been around then too -- but that portion of events was a little blurred around the edges, so maybe neither of them remembered it too accurately.

"You don't remember me? I'm disappointed. And there I was looking forward to working together again."

"Why aren't you dead yet?" The penny had, it would seem, dropped.

"See, Jorge you do remember me."

"At least I can see. Which could be a good reason for not working with you."

"No need to be cranky, I just want you to find a couple of things out for me. A nice, low-risk assignment."

"Do you know how many people have contracts out on you?" Ramirez asked.

"No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me." Sands lowered his voice in a way that would be menacing in any language. "Of course if you should happen to tell any of them that I didn't die in a car crash two weeks ago, someone very close to me might just take a contract out on you. But enough of this entertaining exchange, I have a couple of names for you. I'm sure you must have heard of at least one of them."



Ramirez had gone on to confirm Sands' suspicions -- the two cartels that Dariel wanted brought down had done a lot of business over the years with bike gangs. While Dariel, it seemed, happily accepted money from any agency of any government, he was unswervingly loyal to the Scorpions. So it was no great shock that he wanted to inconvenience their two main rival gangs. Sands worked on Ramirez until he agreed to do some undercover work in preparation for the main action. Dariel might have already sent Briggs, but it was always better to get a second opinion. Especially one from someone he knew could do his work well. 

He had warned Ramirez about Briggs being on the case too. Under other circumstances they would probably get along socially -- and might even be able to work well together -- but for now Sands wanted his man to be totally independent of anyone else in the field. There was a beep in his other ear, letting him know that he had mail. Which turned out to be a catalogue from a vintage clothing store. It was definitely time he ordered some more T-shirts, but deciding which could wait until later.

Now that Sands had someone investigating the cartels, it was really time that he tried investigating the guy he was working for. He had been putting off contacting Marianne, not just because he had hoped she would get Dariel's message and contact him that way, but also because there were far too many stories she could tell El. And while there was no doubt in Sands' mind that those two would get along if they met -- they were both a lot more honest and open than he was (not saying much there, sure), and they both liked their guitars and guns -- getting along meant swapping stories, in Sands' experience. So he had deliberately put off this moment until he could talk to the woman by himself.

The advantage of the hepburn.ch email address was that he had used it on and off for long enough that mailing the number of his cell phone to dubois@faithfull.fr should get him a call back as soon as she received it. He assumed that if things were dicey between Marianne and Dariel, she would be back once again to using her own last name, no matter what country she happened to be in right now.

While he was planning his next move, Sands checked the personals on Hitmail for familiar names. There were a few, but none he would actually want to work with. Come to think of it, which of those names he had thought of by himself did he really want to work with? El, obviously; Marianne too, and maybe those mad Brits he had met on an enforced holiday in Florida. Sands decided that the next thing he needed to do was to come up with a few more names -- right after he had been outside for some fresh air. Not that he had any problem being in a confined space by himself, obviously.



Sands unlocked the back door and opened it just enough to convince himself that he needed an extra layer of clothing. He went back into the house and felt along the row for his jacket, finding El's usual one first. Come to think of it, that would do. Sands lifted it down and pulled it on.

There was a bench to the left of the back door; El had balanced on one arm of it when he went outside to pick out a new tune on his guitar. Sands sat on it, pleased to note that it was sheltered from today's -- admittedly light -- breeze, so that he could make, and then light, his roll-up without inconvenience. Outside the house there was plenty of background noise -- more than enough to combat Sands' fear of silence and isolation, even today -- but it did nothing for any of his concerns about what could be happening to El in town. He should have gone along too. There were plenty of advantages to having back-up, even if it made the pair of them a little more conspicuous.

El's jacket was a comforting reminder of him, though -- it took a little more of the edge off the craving that was trying to claw its way back to the surface, now that Sands was less focussed on his work. Something brushed against his leg; he reached down and encountered cat. Must belong to the house without the yip-yappy dogs, he assumed. He scratched the cat's head, then left it to its own devices -- it seemed quite happy to wind between his legs -- while he finished his smoke.

"I think she likes you."

Sands turned towards the voice -- on the side with the dogless neighbours, so he had been right about that -- and thought about whether he wanted to talk to civilians today. Probably better to be friendly, he decided, if nothing else, he would have an extra source of information on any unusual happenings in the area.

"Cats generally do." Cats and children, always determined to be friendly, whether they were welcome or not. At least dogs had the sense not to clamber all over him. Sands stood up and made his way over to where the voice had come from. "Hi," he continued. "I guess you caught me slacking."

"You work from home?"

"Yeah." He paused to get the story straight in his head. "I'm a freelance writer."

"You found the local library yet? I hear they just got a stack of new books-on-CD."

So it was already around the neighbourhood that he was blind -- he would have to think how to turn that to his advantage.

"Really? How do I get there?" Sands knew, in fact, but asking kept the conversation flowing. And who knew what other genuinely useful scraps of local knowledge he might pick up if he played at being interested?

"It's just a short bus ride away. Hey, I'm going later -- want to come along?"

"Sure." Sands started to turn away, then stopped again. "I'd better get this draft finished up first. Call round when you're ready to go." If nothing else, it would get him out of the house -- and going some place with a civilian in tow would make life a lot more complex for anyone attempting to disrupt operations.

***

El was convinced that he was being followed. Not just by one of Dariel's men. There had been at least two watching the house ever since he and Sands had moved in, and anyway that was supposedly 'for his own safety'. But also now by some other person, or persons, unknown. 

His suspicions had first been raised after he had telephoned Chenie from a call-box -- he could not be sure that the cell Dariel had given him was not already bugged, after all he had learned from listening to Sands' stories -- and found out that she had a new barman, Marie-Claire had new tenants, and Helene had a new 'young man'. He did not ask whether Chenie meant young by her standards or by Helene's. 

Walking away from the call-box he was aware of an extra shadow, some way behind him. It was not so constant as the first, which had stuck to him steadily since he had parked the car, but it was there, nonetheless. Although the way it appeared and disappeared in the very edges of his perception did make him wonder if there were two shadows, constantly changing places. He ducked into an alley and pulled out his cell, ready to either call Lorenzo -- or to face whoever was behind him, should they choose this moment to challenge him.

"Stop right there," a voice said behind him. 

El stayed perfectly still and listened for any sound that could indicate just how many he was up against. 

"Now turn around nice and slowly," the same man said -- and there was at least another one with him.

El did so and saw two men -- Italians, he thought -- both with pistols levelled at him.

"What is this? A mugging?" he asked, trying to sound shocked and surprised but not at all as if he had been doing anything worthy of suspicion.

"What's that you've got there?" the man asked, indicating the guitar case.

"Just my guitar. I am a musician, and my brother-in-law said he could find me work at the recording studio where he works."

"Really?" said the man. "Well, my brother-in-law has heard tell of a Mexican bounty hunter, who keeps his guns in a guitar case and has been paid to come up here to kill members of our family."

El kept his free hand raised and slowly lowered the case to the ground.

"Why don't you take a look for yourselves?" He straightened up, equally slowly. "It's just a guitar." He pushed the case towards them with his foot. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I heard that legend too, back home. But I also heard that El Mariachi died years ago. Some people say it was in a fight over a woman, others that it was defending his village from bandits."

"See if he's telling the truth," the man said to his silent companion. The second man crouched down and cautiously snapped the clasps of the case open, then raised the lid.

"See," El said, "it's just a guitar."

"Take it out of the case," the man told his companion. "We have to be certain about this."

"Be careful with it. If you damage it, how will I earn my living?"

The second man lifted the guitar out of its case.

"It's just a guitar," he said, handing it to the first man.

"So it is," he said, turning it over in his hands while his companion kept El covered. "Very sorry to have bothered you." He handed the guitar back to El. "But you must understand that we can't be too careful."

El shrugged.

"I thought these things only happened in America. But it was no trouble at all. I can still reach the recording studio in good time. And if I see any of my countrymen carrying guns, I shall be sure to tell them not to bother you gentlemen."

"You do that." The men holstered their guns and turned to go. El replaced his guitar in its case, wondering if he should alert anyone -- and if so who -- that there were new rumours going around the city.



El made certain that he had no other additional shadows, then ducked into another side street to call Lorenzo. He had avoided explaining too much about what he was doing with Sands every time he had called the other two mariachis, and really he wanted to save explanations until all four of them were in the same room. Maybe by then he would understand things a little better himself. He suspected that Lorenzo was doing likewise in relation to events at home, but at least it seemed that both he and Fideo were in good health, keeping out of trouble and more than willing to get involved in whatever scheme El might have for them.

They agreed that they should stay in touch more regularly from now on, and that Lorenzo -- with or without Fideo; that should be his choice, not El's -- should investigate people and places as El learned of them, and then report back. Sands said he might be getting Ramirez to check things out, and Dariel was sending Briggs back to Mexico, but El wanted his men to know what they were letting themselves in for first hand.

Once he had finished his call, El made his way to the recording studio and was not surprised to find Dariel waiting in the lobby.

"My men told me about the... incident with the Sicilians," he said. "Let me assure you, it will not happen again."

El gave him a sceptical look.

"I shall have Luigi spread some counter rumours," Dariel continued, "that should set everyone's minds at rest."

"Luigi works for you?"

"Of course he does," Dariel said, very matter-of-factly, but not in a way that implied he was talking down to anyone. "Sands did not tell -- but then I am not sure whether Sands ever knew for certain. But enough of this. Now you are here, you may as well see around the building."

***

Sands waited until he was back inside the house before switching his cell back on. He could have invited his new friend in for coffee, he thought as he switched the kettle on, but then she might have started asking too many questions about what he actually wrote. And the more complex a cover he came up with, the harder it would be to keep it consistent -- especially when there were two of them involved in this particular operation.

He took his coffee through to the office and logged onto Hitmail. The library had been a bust in terms of work -- although he had got an unabridged reading of 'Love in a Cold Climate': instead of biographies he thought he would go for fiction based on real people for a change. But there had been no reference works there that did not have their equals or betters available to him online.

So far, he had not had any response to the very specific personal ad that he had placed for the Brits, but he did have five for the more general one looking for mercenaries. Unfortunately none seemed to be what he was looking for, so he dashed off the same 'thanks, but no thanks' reply to all of them and tried to think of other ways he might track down the perfect team for the mission.

Checking the time with his computer, he decided that it was not too late to be calling England. It was past lunchtime but he was not hungry, and El seemed to be complaining at him about that less these days. Sands began to work his way through the various 'H Tyler's listed for Manchester. After the fourth incorrect try had also sworn at him, he began to wonder if he should be more sickeningly polite, or simply respond in kind. Then the fifth person picked up and -- joy of joys -- sounded vaguely familiar.

"Mrs Hazel Tyler?" Sands asked smoothly.

"This is she," came the answer -- the mother of the less mad Brit could put on some very nice airs when she wanted to. "But if it's about some competition we're supposed to have won, we don't want none of your timeshare offers." Yes, Sands had hit the jackpot this time.

"Actually, Mrs Tyler, I was calling about your son."

"Vince? He's all right, isn't he?"

"As far as I know," Sands said, "we lost contact around two years ago, and I was hoping to get back in touch."

"Well," Hazel said, and Sands could almost hear her thoughts, as she tried to decide whether he was a genuine friend or just some shag that her son wanted never to hear from again. The latter would have been closer to the mark, to be honest, were it not for the money that was on offer.

"If you could maybe just pass on my number," Sands offered. The men knew who he was and that, when they met him, he had been working for the government -- how else had he kept them from being questioned about the gas station explosion? So letting them know he was looking for them, without mentioning why, might just pique their interest, or trigger warning bells, enough for them to get in touch. 

He gave her both the number of his cell and his email address -- she seemed to do a double-take at Hitmail -- and that was that. Now he was back to waiting.

***

No one called. Sands occupied himself by going over newspaper reports and police official statements, trying to learn what had become of those he expected to get into contact with him. Some, he discovered, were dead or in jail, but others were simply unaccounted for. It was frustrating. He could either go over every single report that his searches turned up, which took forever since the computer-generated speech was far slower than he had been able to speed-read. Or he could refine his searches ever more tightly and miss that one piece of important information that contained the 'wrong' set of keywords.

It was depressing, too. He had been outstanding at his job. He was still amazingly good at some parts of it, but there were other areas where he was never going to be the star turn again. He needed something to lift his mood, something that would make him feel invincible again. No. He would just keep pushing at this search until El came home. Because, after all, his craving for El had to count as marginally saner, and less of a long-term health risk, than that other craving. He told it to go play elsewhere again, and typed in a new set of keywords. Then he rolled a cigarette, while the computer steadily told him the top ten hits he had turned up this time.

***

Sands heard a car pull up outside. He was ninety percent certain that it was El's, which was useful, or overly obsessive, depending on how you chose to look at it. Or not look at it, in this case. He paused the computer, which was reporting the results of yet another search, and listened to the footsteps approaching the front door. It sure sounded like El. And that was a key being fitted smoothly into the lock, not someone trying to pick it. Sands un-paused the report and concentrated on analysing exactly what the latest lack of information might be telling him.

Familiar footsteps crossed the hall, passed through the living room, and then came to a halt in the office doorway.

"Me again," El said.

"Yeah, I know." Sands removed his earpiece and swivelled the chair through one-eighty degrees. "That's why I don't have two guns pointed at your head right now." He stood up and stretched, ending up with his arms wrapped around the back of El's shoulders. Sands felt somehow more complete, in spite of his crappy day, although if El asked, he would happily deny everything.

El said nothing. He just slid his hands around to the small of Sands' back and moved his knuckles in lazy circles on either side of Sands' spine. Well, if Sands was going to stick with one addiction from now on, El was definitely the better choice. Much more of this and he would definitely be back to feeling invincible.


Sands let El guide him through to the living room, and then they sprawled, tangled loosely together, across the couch. El resumed his attention to Sands' back.



"I got your tobacco," El said, some time later. "And another bottle of bourbon."

"That's... good," Sands said, unsure whether he meant the shopping or the massage. If El decided to stop doing what he was doing, Sands might just go check out that bourbon, come to think of it. But El just kept right on doing it. 

Sands was half-hard, but there would be plenty of time to deal with that later. Maybe it was time to come clean with El about a matter that seemed far less important than it had a little while earlier.

"I came up against a lot of dead-ends in my searches today." 

"So you know where not to search another day. Did you want to go anywhere tonight?" El meant 'did you want to go shoot things?' Sands assumed.

"You know," Sands said, "I think we should just get take-out and a movie. Do what the normal folks do, for once." 

***

El had been gone at least an hour the next day when a call came through -- from France, according to the Caller ID.

"Bonjour, Marianne," Sands said before she had a chance to say anything. He tried to sound bored and slightly irritated -- it had taken her long enough to get in touch. Yeah, so he owed her for any number of favours, but he would remember that later -- say in another decade or so. And they were not going to discuss at all the fact that their last meeting had ended in her knocking him out cold after he threatened to shoot Dariel. Come to think of it, had Dariel actually mentioned that at all, ever, since Sands had been back?

"So you finally admit to speaking my language," Marianne replied, her French taking Sands back to all the conversations he had listened in on while wondering if Marianne knew he understood far more than he let on. Marianne's English sounded as if she came from somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic -- which, Sands suspected, was a result of picking up most of it from TV at an early age.

"And you finally went home. Going to tell me what happened?"

"Going to tell me where you disappeared to, Shel?" Okay, so she pronounced it more like 'Chelle' but he would have his revenge for that later.

"Dariel told you my full name -- I'm sure you were informed about everything else as well." Including the little matter of who he had really been working for back then. And what they had done to cover up that stupid fuck-up that was entirely not Sands' fault.

"I haven't spoken to Dariel in two years," Marianne said. "Not since Mylo died." Maybe she would not be quite as useful an information source as he had hoped. But she would still be able to fill in some of the gaps in his knowledge. And besides, he wanted her for her shooting ability more than for anything she could tell him about Dariel and his organisation's changing status.

"So who're you working for these days?" Sands asked, hoping that Marianne would have some useful associates who could also join his team.

"Myself and my family."

"Your... family." Sands was glad that he was not drinking coffee because that revelation might just have choked him.

"Yeah, me, my gal and her three kids. Mylo and I were screwing the three months before he bought it. After that I went over to London to meet up with Nils -- consoling each other, you could call it -- and we found out that Mylo had a wife and babies that neither of us knew about."

"So you took them on? How very... noble." El would probably be impressed; Sands was not. Families got in the way of far too many important matters. "But you must get bored of cosy domesticity, every once in a while?"

"I've still got the houseboat in London to escape to. Hey, why don't you come over sometime and we'll see a show? I hear 'Mama Mia' has been getting some good reviews."

"I haven't seen anything in a long time." Sand tried to collect his thoughts. Marianne would know none of this, if she really had been out of the loop for two years. "Let's just say that I upset the wrong people down in Mexico."

"You... They..." Marianne paused. "I guess that rules out the Louvre, if you're ever in Paris, as well, then."

"Got it in one."

"Shit, Kitty, I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You know I never gave a fuck about art. So," Sands said, quickly changing the subject, while resolving to have words with Marianne later about the whole pet-names issue. Preferably before El found out. "Are you, or are you not, up for a little shooting trip to Mexico?"

"This would be you working for Dariel again?"

"Yeah, did I forget to mention the part where I also pissed off the Agency enough that I don't even get a disability pension?"

"Thanks for thinking of me, but I'm sticking to killing things I can eat these days."

"Isn't that what they all say? C'mon, Marianne, we've both seen all the same films. You tell me you're retired, I up my price and then we ride off into yet another epic battle."

"Not this time, Sands," Marianne said, in a tone that sounded like she meant business. "I've got a life here, people I can't let down. That's more important to me than money."

Sands worked a little more on persuasion, throwing in guilt and obligation as bargaining chips, but no luck. Marianne was not going to budge on this one, although she did offer to throw him a couple of leads for people who might be worth checking out. At least it meant she and El were unlikely to meet -- that still had all kinds of potential for causing chaos. And Sands was the only one around here who set up those kinds of situations. Plus he resented certain of Marianne's comments -- and did not want El hearing them -- like the one inquiring whether Dariel's payments to him included 'enough Charlie to build a garden wall'.

***

Dariel was not at the studio when El arrived this time. They had not spoken as much as he would have liked the day before; Dariel had shown El around and talked about music -- The Who, The Stones, The Yardbirds, and others -- but that had been all. El wanted to know more -- who this man was; why he had such an interest in Sands; what his plans for them were once they were finished in Mexico.

So he asked questions of a few people, and then made his way to an imposing office block in the centre of town. The woman at the reception desk called up to Dariel's office without question, while giving El the impression that she would not be doing the same if he had asked to speak to a different occupant of the building. She also seemed relieved when Dariel asked that El be sent straight up -- the sooner he was out of sight, the better for her, El thought.

Dariel was sitting behind his desk. In each of the corners behind him was a large, besuited man -- 'hired helps' Sands would probably call them. He glanced up as El walked in then returned his attention to some papers on the desk.

"Wait there -- I shall be with you shortly."

El leaned against the doorframe, which gained him glares from both 'helps' and waited. He studied the room and its occupants closely. All of the furniture looked solid -- nothing that could be easily overturned in a fight, other than the chair that Dariel was seated in and another on El's side of the desk -- and there was only a single picture hanging on the wall. Dariel's desk was uncluttered. His pen lay neatly to the side of the papers he was reading, other papers were stacked neatly in a filing tray, a computer monitor sat over to the other side of his desk.

After a few minutes Dariel shuffled through the papers, re-ordering them, then folded them and slid them into an envelope. Sealing it, he beckoned one of the 'helps' to come closer and handed the envelope to him.

"Deliver that for me. You," he looked at the other, "stay here with me." Then he -- finally -- looked over towards El. "Won't you sit down? And then you can tell me why you are here."

The man with the envelope left. El crossed to the chair and sat down, feeling a little uncomfortable at having to speak his mind in front of a stranger. He looked at Dariel, sizing him up. The man had been very handsome once -- he was still striking, in spite of his age -- and he knew it. If anyone was going to beat Sands' sense of his own importance then Dariel could well be the one to do so.

"What did you want to know? I am certain that you must have many questions." Dariel took a cigar box out of a drawer, removing one for himself. He offered them to El, who shook his head. If he was going to smoke anything here, it would be the tobacco he had brought with him.

Where was he to start? He was not sure how much Dariel knew -- and unwilling to give anything away that the other man had not already heard elsewhere. 

"How much of this did you plan?" It had been pure chance that Briggs had met with El in the hospital all those months ago, he was sure. But had the man been there looking for Sands -- or had he wanted to speak with El all along and simply made use of the situation?

"Now that, as your Sands would say, would be telling." Dariel lit his cigar, and leaned back in his chair. "I have followed Sands' career since he left my service, of course -- knowing that it was only a matter of time before he and the Agency parted company. I had not been expecting anything quite so dramatic. But then Sands always had a spectacular flair for getting himself into trouble."

"And what of me?"

"When I contacted Briggs in Mexico," Dariel blew smoke towards the ceiling, "I gave him two objectives -- to ensure that Sands was taken care of; and to find someone who could deal with our problems down there. When he saw you entering the hospital, he could hardly believe his luck."

"It must have been a blow for you when we left Mexico?"

"Not at all, dear boy, I knew Sands would find his way home eventually. And by then I was intrigued to see just what the two of you were capable of together. I must say, you seem remarkably skilled at keeping him under control."

"He listens to me." Most of the time, El added to himself.

"So I gather. When Briggs told me that you had agreed to help us, I had a feeling that you would do better at handling Sands than most people."

"But why the interest? You could not have known at the start how well he would adapt to his situation."

"I need an heir." Dariel glanced at the painting, then back to El. "With Marianne and Nils gone, and Mylo dead, my options seem to be limited. Sands is resourceful and resilient -- I am sure he will prove to be an excellent choice."

"And that's it? You think Sands will take over from you?"

"I hope that he will."

El was taken aback. He thought that the deal was that they did this one job and then they would be free to go wherever they chose. And he had thought to take Sands far away from all this -- somewhere safe -- at least until he had had a chance to really think about what he wanted to do next.

"And if Sands does not want that?"

"Then you are both free to go." Dariel said, although El could not say he was convinced by the man's tone. Dariel glanced at the picture again. "But somehow I think that he will give the matter more consideration than you seem to think."

***

Sands kept working, chasing up every lead, no matter how tenuous, but getting nowhere much. He was constantly surprised by how empty the house felt when El was out, doing whatever it was he did in town. And equally, Sands was irritated by how much that nagging craving at the back of his mind fed on his disappointments and on his worries of abandonment. He kept himself amused by finding ever more outrageous T-shirts and ordering rare albums on vinyl, even though he was unsure how long he would have to enjoy them before they were once more on the move. And then when El came back there were movies to rent and tin cans to shoot -- not to mention the sex. So all in all domesticity had its upsides, even when Sands was itching to be out doing something -- and proving himself once again.

It was another three days before he received any more useful information. But then it flooded in. Obviously Friday was the day for mercenaries to catch up on their email and answering machine messages.

First off was Marianne, who called him dead on nine in the morning.

"Shel," she said, by way of greeting. Sands chalked up another point towards the revenge he was going to exact, if -- when -- they met up once all of this was over.

"Marianne... what do you have for me? A change of heart about my mission would be most pleasant."

"No can do, I'm afraid. But I do have some ideas as to who you can ask again."

"So tell. I'm a busy man."

"Time was you'd spend all day round my flat, doing bugger all of any importance."

"Time was I could read those graphic novels you used to be so fond of. But that was then -- and this is now. So spill."

"Okay, it might be worth your while looking up the guy I sold the Guzzi to. He used to go by the name Tyr, but since he fought with the Prez of his gang most people have referred to him as The Outlaw. He can shoot, he can fight hand-to-hand -- and he's well put together."

"And where might I find him?" Sands carefully avoided commenting on Marianne's taste in men -- or mentioning that he was perfectly happy with what he had. This was business, after all.

"I know someone who knows someone."

"That's what they all say. The question is, can you deliver?"

"If you're genuinely interested, I'll have a contact number for you by Monday."

"That's more like it." The good thing about long distance calls, Sands thought as he said his good byes to Marianne, was that the cost put people off a lot of the usual fucking around that went with the extraction of useful information. Although it could have been fun to pick a fight over the relative merits of 'Annie Get Your Gun' and 'Calamity Jane' -- Sands always argued for whichever Marianne was against that day -- for old times' sake.



He had not spent long searching for information on 'Tyr' or 'The Outlaw', when he received an email that was actually useful. It gave a time, a date, and a place -- and was signed 'S.A.J.'. So that was his pyrotechnically-inclined Brit accounted for. It meant a trip to the US, but that was no big deal. Assuming that the passports held up under close scrutiny, and the Agency really did believe him dead.

That one was followed by another, which was equally useful, although less welcome. Miguel Bain was dead. Another sniper out of the running. Sands had exhausted all his ideas with that name, so he would just have to hope that one of his other contacts would know someone.

"Any luck?" El asked, from the doorway. He had stayed home today -- the first time he had done so all week -- and still Sands had little idea what his partner actually did in town.

"How d'you fancy a road trip?"

"You want me to take you somewhere? I'm sure that can be arranged."

"We'll need a different car. People will associate that one with you by now. And find something flashy -- the guys we're going to see like that kind of thing." In fact the guy in question also liked exploding cars, but was less inclined to do so if he liked both the car and its owner. Still, Sands thought, a road trip would be fun. And there was nothing to stop people contacting him while he was away, if they wanted in on his team.



Dormouse
 

 

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