A Pink Dormouse Production
Six months earlier.
"A word, if you wouldn't mind?"
The mariachi turned around, his hand going straight to his gun. The speaker was an older man, tall and heavy-set, wearing a loose cotton shirt and tight blue jeans. He was British, with an accent like a footballer or a character in a gangster movie.
"He," the man nodded towards the private room that the mariachi had just left, "a friend of yours?"
"Not exactly." The mariachi turned again and continued on his way, not wanting to think about the 'there but for the grace of God' thoughts brought on by what he had seen in the room.
"But you know who he is?"
The mariachi nodded.
"They're saying he's insane. That no one could do what he claims he did."
"He killed his enemies after they blinded him?" The rumours had taken a week to reach the town in which the mariachi had been holed up since the Day of the Dead. After hearing them repeatedly from different sources for another week, he had felt compelled to return to Culiacan to find out if they were true. "I can believe that. As for his sanity..." he tried to remember the look in Sands' eyes as he talked of killing the cook - cold, clear, cynical. "No, he was sane when I met him before, but now? After all that? Who can tell?"
They had reached the end of the corridor. The mariachi started to turn left towards the exit, but the man stopped him and indicated right.
"Come and have a coffee with me. I've got a business proposition for you." The man started to pick the lock on one of the doors a little further along the corridor. "Administrator's office - they have a better class of coffee than the canteen." Task accomplished, he cautiously pushed the door open.
"You don't think Sands was insane before," the man said, as he poured out the coffee. He seemed unworried by the gun that the mariachi kept levelled at him. "The organisation I'm currently working for agrees with you. People at the organisation knew him, see. They reckon it'd take more than a bit of torture to drive Sands mad." He turned and held a cup out to the mariachi. "I don't speak the lingo and I need some help. Got dragged away from a holiday in your capital to come down here, and I'd quite like to get back there sooner rather than later."
"You want me to translate for you?" The mariachi took the cup in his left hand, keeping the gun in his right.
"Quite a bit more than that. They are prepared to pay someone - you - very handsomely to get Sands out of this here hospital and take care of him for a while."
"Because if you don't, he's going to end up either dead, or locked in an asylum for the rest of his natural."
"No, why is the British Government so interested in an American agent?"
"Did I say we were official?" The man looked surprised at the assumption.
"You look like a policeman." More like a British policeman than a British gangster, maybe, but what would he know?
"I used to be a copper; now I freelance as a security consultant. There's good money in a job like this one I'm offering you, but I don't have the time to take it on right now."
"Who says I do?" The majority of his money was safe with Fideo and Lorenzo. There was enough to keep him in comfort for a good long while so why should he need more?
"I hear a lot of people are looking for you. Take this job and it'll get you out of their way until all the fuss has died down. Walk away and I won't bother you again, but if you do I can't vouch for your safety."
"You still haven't told me why the interest."
"That doesn't need to concern you." The man shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure why, myself, but they've given me a fair wage to find you and give you keys, an address and transport. You just need to keep Sands out of harm's way and maybe do a couple of other jobs for the organisation. After that, you'll be free to go your own way and do what you want with the money."
"How much money were you offering? And where is this place you want me to take him to?"
Two months earlier.
"I believe you know the whereabouts of the former Agent Sands."
The mariachi kept walking. He placed his hand on his gun and did not look at the American following him.
"There's to be an official enquiry. I've been sent to bring him home. But - "
Somehow the mariachi should have known there would be a 'but.'
" - It's probably better for all concerned if he should meet with an accident before he crosses the border."
"And you want to pay me for arranging this 'accident'?" He stopped and turned to look at the American.
"I'm glad we understand each other."
The mariachi was woken by the train slowing to take a bend. He opened his eyes and kept perfectly still; mostly to check that was all it had been, but also a little because he would prefer not to disturb Sands just yet. Satisfied that there was nothing new for him to worry about, he leaned back against the wooden slats of the truck's side and tried to sleep again.
When had taking care of Sands ceased being just a job he had reluctantly taken on and become a duty he was willingly carrying out? Whenever it had been, the revelation had made him realise that he needed a damn good reason to kill the man in his custody - better than any that the CIA seemed prepared to give him. And that realisation had led inevitably to where they were now, stowed away on a freight train heading north. He had thought he might be able to stand back and let someone else deal with the man, who was too much of an embarrassment to the Agency to ever be allowed home. But Sands had shot and killed the man the CIA had sent to ensure he was dead. So now they were both on the run.
After abandoning the mariachi's car at the first town they had come to, they had hitched their way south, walking when no lift was available - anything so long as they kept moving. After two days they had doubled back, due to the fact that the mariachi had killed enough cartel members and other outlaws to ensure an uncertain welcome wherever he went in Mexico. The United States was unlikely to be safe for the long-term, but they would worry about that after they crossed the border. And besides, he would not be leaving his home country for good. There was much still to be done there. Allowing time for his legend to die down once again would only help his work.
The mariachi turned his thoughts back to his travelling companion. Having brought Sands with him, he wished he had spent more time getting the man used to being outside again. Sands had found the previous two days difficult, both physically and mentally - walking miles in boots not yet broken-in; re-learning to cope with the assault on his senses from the wider world; fielding questions from total - and not always friendly - strangers. It would have been less of a strain if they had spent more days in the courtyard, and even beyond, prior to starting their journey. But the mariachi's reason for taking Sands out before, if he had had a reason at all, had been atonement-in-advance for abandoning Sands to his fate. He had not intended it to be preparation for an undertaking on this scale.
He glanced down at Sands - as undernourished as he had been since the mariachi took him from the hospital - wrapped in their only blanket, with his head resting on the other man's right thigh. Sands' right arm was draped across both the mariachi's legs, Sands' fingers curled loosely around a pistol. The first two days, he doubted that Sands had slept more than two hours in total. Sands had seemed convinced that if he slept, he would suffer nightmares and these would lead to losing their ride. Now, though, he had been mostly unconscious for - the mariachi checked his watch - almost eight hours.
The mariachi disliked complex puzzles and he could see no solution to any of those that came with Sands. No matter how much Sands ranted that he had been kidnapped, he still seemed to trust the mariachi: trusted him to the point that it seemed he had refused food prepared by anyone else. At least that was what the maids had told the mariachi. Sands was strangely attached to his records, too. The mariachi had bought the player and the first box from a market stall, the same day he had gone out to make his first kill that had been purely about money. He had added a few more albums more after each bounty-kill, some more to Sands' tastes - it seemed - than others.
"How much longer?" So Sands was awake again, the mariachi noted.
"Some hours yet." He moved a lock of Sands' hair that was lying a little too close to one empty eye-socket. "You get more sleep."
"Fuck that." Sands sat up, drawing his sunglasses from inside his jacket as he did so. He put them on and smoothed his hair back from his face. "I thought this was supposed to be a Fun Road Trip, not an excuse to lock me in an even smaller cell." He stood up, swayed slightly but then stood perfectly still, assessing.
Sands seemed to run on vast reserves of nervous energy, constantly alert for any minor change in his environment or companions. He circled the interior of the truck twice, the first time a little unsteadily, the second perfectly balanced against the train's movement. Then he strode straight to the truck's doors and flung them open. The mariachi screwed his eyes shut as sunlight flooded the interior.
"This is more like it."
He opened his eyes to see Sands leaning out of the truck, one hand on each side of the doorway. It looked most unsafe, as he also had his gun in his right hand. The mariachi moved so he could see beyond Sands. They were passing through a deserted area. It was unlikely anyone would see them, less likely still that anyone who did would take action. But he had not saved Sands from one death only to see him meet another.
"Come back here."
"What, you're worrying about me now? Gee, El," he said, in a mocking sing-song voice, "you're such a spoil-sport." He leaned back as a telephone pole whistled past. "Whoa, too close." He stepped back into the truck and closed the doors. Then he whirled around and returned to where the mariachi sat, standing with one foot on either side of the mariachi's legs.
The mariachi looked up, waiting for the next outburst. He disliked this method of travelling too but it would not be long until they were close enough to the border to get off. Sands dropped to his knees.
"You know," he said, "I always had a good memory for faces." He reached out and slid his hands behind the mariachi's head, twisting his fingers slightly in the mariachi's hair. "But lately I've been forgetting what you look like."
"You only saw me once. What does it matter?"
"It matters to me." Sands ran his thumbs slowly down the mariachi's jaw-line.
The mariachi wanted to move away but his back was already against the side of the truck.
"Am I making you nervous?" Sands asked, continuing to explore.
"Why would you make me nervous?" Yet another of the many mysteries about Sands was why he wanted so much to invade the mariachi's space. Sometimes it could be explained away as a need for a reference point in a strange - especially a noisy - place. Or curling up against the mariachi when they travelled - Sands was so thin it seemed he felt the cold when most would not. A truck driver had commented on that, though. What was it Sands had said in reply? He thought he remembered, but the reference was obscure. "So what is it, this 'close enough for government work'?"
"Fucked if I know. It's one of those useful phrases I picked up somewhere." Sands explored the contours of the mariachi's face some more as he spoke. "Pretty fucking meaningless though. Where I come from, heterosexuality is like sanity. You either are or you aren't."
"And are you?"
"That's for me to know and you to wonder about. On both counts."
He suspected that Sands was toying with him, being deliberately unsettling to see how far he could push the boundaries. Well then, he would let him. He leaned his head back against the slats.
"I was right," Sands said, "you are beautiful." He leaned forward so they were forehead-to-forehead, nose-to-nose. "So, El, what's your plan? You do have a plan, right?"
"We keep moving until we are safe." He had contacts. His hope was that they also would have contacts and that, through them, he would find his way to some place where no one knew who he had been and what he had done. And failing that, maybe he would just contact the men who had originally employed him. Let them take care of Sands for a while. After all, the mariachi thought, he had done more than enough to earn the money they had given him so far.
"We could be on the move a long time. Not big on the planning are you, El?" His tone was scathing, but there was a hint of affection there as well.
"If you think you could do better alone," he did not want to abandon Sands but they needed to work as a team or not at all, "then you are free to leave any time."
"I can't do that," Sands said softly. He ran his hands through the mariachi's hair again.
"Why not?" He was very uncomfortable with the situation for reasons that were just out of reach. He curled his fingers until his nails dug into his palms and waited for Sands' answer.
"Because," Sands lowered himself onto the mariachi's lap.
"Oh, what the hell." Sands pulled his head forward into a kiss. It was forceful, tongue pushing between closed lips, fingers digging into neck, nothing gentle about it at all.
The mariachi panicked because he had not expected that. He jerked his head back and banged it against wood, and then he lashed out, catching Sands just below the shoulder. Sands was instantly on his feet, gun drawn. He flicked the safety catch off, and pointed the gun straight at the mariachi.
"Hit the blind man, why don't you? Didn't you say you could out-draw me? Well, you were wrong." Sands' hand was shaking. His finger tightened on the trigger. Then he spun around and took three steps into the far corner of the truck before turning to face the mariachi once again.
The mariachi let out a breath he had not realised he was holding. He rested his hand on his gun but did not draw it. Yet.
"So now you know," Sands said. "I guess you were right on both counts." He pointed his gun at the mariachi once more. "How does it feel to have a good reason to hate me?"
"Who said I hated you?" The mariachi tried to think of words to explain how he felt about Sands. What had started out as pity tinged with empathy had grown into something altogether more complex. He had spent a lot of time over the past months listening to Sands talk - and had discovered someone with intelligence, a bizarre sense of humour and the ability to get himself into and out of the most ludicrous situations as much by luck as by judgement.
"Why wouldn't you? Fuck it," Sands spat, "I might just be in love with you, but I can't say I like you that much" The hand holding his gun wavered. "In fact," his hand stilled again, "sometimes I don't like you at all, what with the kidnapping and everything."
"I don't hate you." The trouble with Sands, he thought, was that it was always the most outrageous things he said that were actually true. This latest revelation was one he could have done without, but he would find a way to work with it. He had done nothing - as far as he knew - to encourage Sands to develop this strange obsession with him. But then he had little understanding of what went on in the mind of someone locked up - alone for the most part - for half a year. Sands deserved sympathy and understanding - not hatred.
"I don't hate you," he repeated, more emphatically. There was little else he could say.
Sands lowered the gun.
"I offended your manly pride. You have every right to throw me out at the next stop."
"I won't do that. Come back over here."
"Going to hit me again?" Sands' gun flicked back up.
"Not unless you do anything further to 'offend my manly pride.' Come over here and we can talk."
Sands slid to the floor where he was. He leaned back against the corner of the slatted walls and pulled his knees up to his chest.
"Tell me what you're thinking." He rested his gun-hand on his knees, keeping the revolver levelled at the mariachi.
"I'm thinking that I'm stuck on a train with a blind crazy-man, who has no idea of what it is to be in love." He tried to keep his voice free of emotion. There was no telling what Sands might do if he detected the merest hint of pity or superiority.
Sands shook his head.
"I can't do this right now. " He reached into his jacket pocket with his free hand and pulled out his tobacco and papers. Then he began to roll a cigarette one-handed.
The mariachi pulled his lighter from his pocket and threw it across the truck to land at Sands' side. He wanted to give Sands solid assurance that nothing had changed, but it would be unwise to make too great a move until he had regained a little of Sands' trust,
"I hope that's what I think it is." Sands transferred the tobacco to his pocket and the roll-up to his lips. Then he reached over to pick up the lighter, walking his fingers along the floor until they made contact with it. He turned it over in his fingers and then lit the cigarette.
The mariachi began to make a cigarette of his own, watching Sands all the time for any advance warning of another mood-swing.
"Could I have my lighter back?"
Sands stood up slowly and crossed the floor. He holstered his gun, then crouched down in front of the mariachi and held out the lighter, snatching his hand away as soon as the mariachi took it. He sat down cross-legged and finished his cigarette, then remained there, motionless.
The mariachi waited, finishing his cigarette and then grinding it out on the floorboards.
After what felt like hours, Sands spoke again.
"It's getting cold. Give me the blanket and I'll get out of your face."
"You can sleep here. I trust you."
"Now who's the crazy-man?"
"Not crazy. But still a little quicker on the draw." He tapped the floorboards next to where he sat.
"Wanna bet?" Sands moved to where the mariachi had indicated. He took the blanket, pulled it around himself and stretched his legs out on the floor. Then he shuffled up to rest his head on the mariachi's chest and slid his left arm under the mariachi's waist. His right hand, it seemed, was resting over his gun.
Thee mariachi reached down and stroked Sands' hair gently until he was sure that Sands was asleep. Then he pulled the blanket up a little higher around Sands' head and pulled him in close. The situation had indeed changed but recent events had in no way dampened the respect he had for Sands' skill with a gun, nor for his ability to find his way out of a tight situation. And those were the skills that mattered here.
Sands had no real understanding of what love was - he could not - and he seemed not to realise that the mariachi cared for him. Just not in the way that Sands seemed to want. And that was the way things were. They were bound together by pain and loss and they would stay together because their skills and resources complemented each other. At least until it put either of them in too much danger.
The mariachi was by no means tired, but there was little for him to do now, so he closed his eyes and hoped that his dreams and those of Sands would be all peaceful for once.
He was woken abruptly from dreams of Carolina - happy and sunlit - by fingers digging into his shoulder.
"I think we've injured each other enough for one day," he said, reaching across with his other hand to loosen Sands' grip.
Sands whimpered and transferred his grip to the mariachi's hand. At least he seemed to have no imagined enemy to lash out at for once.
"We don't have time for this right now," the mariachi whispered in a soothing - though not too soothing - tone.
Sands fell silent. The mariachi was acutely aware of the tension bound up in the body pressed against him.
"Want to tell me about it?"
"I don't - I can't - " Sands shifted slightly against the mariachi. "You tell me something."
"What do you want to know?" the mariachi said cautiously.
"Oh, I don't know - anything. Just talk to me."
So the mariachi told him about Fideo and Lorenzo. About places they had been, songs they had sung, people they had met. And then about others he had known before, and their adventures. But he said nothing about Carolina, or his daughter, or Domino.
Slowly Sands relaxed. He released the mariachi's hand and slid his own back under the blanket to rest on his hip. His breathing, which had been ragged, evened out. The mariachi carried on talking, hardly noticing as his own hand slid under the blanket to caress ribs that were too pronounced, even through two layers of fabric.
The mariachi realised that the train, and his voice, had been the only sounds for quite some time. He paused in his latest story, trying to determine if Sands was still awake.
"It fucking terrifies me sometimes." Sands turned his face towards the mariachi's, obviously expecting a response.
"What does?" He expected to be told the blindness, or something connected with the nightmares, or maybe the lack of a plan.
"This... thing that I feel about you. It's as if, when I'm with you I'm - not whole - less broken perhaps."
"I don't need to hear this." Sands was not in a good place mentally, right now. Whatever he said while in this mood, he would almost certainly regret it in the morning. And then take it out on anyone that happened to be around him at the time. Not good at any time, doubly bad when they had contacts to negotiate with, and a border to cross.
"I think that you do. I need you to understand."
The mariachi sighed, hoping he could find a way to distract Sands from the subject.
"There are more important concerns to worry about." He worried whether they could really make it into the US unnoticed. He worried about telling the former agent that his own government would rather see him dead than rehabilitated. He worried that they had too many enemies to ever settle anywhere safely. And most of all he worried that Sands was too far gone to cope alone, but would one day become too much of a liability for them to stay together.
The train slowed again. The mariachi checked his watch and noted the time with relief.
"This is our stop." He stood up, then extended a hand to help Sands to his feet. They collected their possessions together - the backpack with spare clothes, the blanket, his two guitar cases, Sands' shoulder-bag containing his favourite albums.
"You ready?" he asked, sliding the doors open.
The mariachi grasped Sands' wrist and they jumped from the train together.
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