Road Trips and Recruiting

A Pink Dormouse Production

Part II

"It's just the one night. We agreed that it was better for just one of us to approach him. Yes?"

Sands nodded. 

"And that it was better if that one of us was me?" El continued.

Sands nodded again. He might have a link to The Outlaw through Marianne, but he also had links to certain official channels that could be a stumbling block to making contact. Even if those official channels were more likely to want him dead than want him back, should he ever be dumb enough to try contacting them.

"So you may as well stay here with your computer, while I go on my own. You're perfectly capable of looking after yourself."

"Go. Just get on with it. Don't go blaming me when you suddenly need back-up in the ass end of nowhere."

"Anyone would think you were worried about me." El turned and left in a swoosh of new leather.


Sands managed to spend his first two hours of solitude studying the plans of the compound. Following the lines with his fingertips was easy enough; persuading his brain to store the information as a snapshot of a map was harder. Yet another of those tasks that took multiple times as long now as it would have before. Plus he had to memorise wall-to-wall and door-to-door distances far more accurately, which added to the frustration. At least it kept his mind off other things.


El checked into a motel on the edge of town. Several sources had agreed that The Outlaw had made camp in the woods nearby, and was waiting to be approached by prospective employers. Logically, El thought, if his man were out there, then someone in the area must surely have seen him.

El left his guitar case in the motel room, taking only as many weapons as he could conceal under his coat, and went looking for the right sort of bar.

He found somewhere that seemed to meet his needs on around the fifth attempt. It was crowded, noisy, and none too clean by local standards. Although there were bars in Mexico whose owners would think the staff and patrons here were overly fastidious. El walked up to the counter, casting a suspicious gaze over those appraising him, and ordered a drink. 


Sands was taking a break when his cell rang. Not El, unless El was using a call box. And not any other number that Sands recognised.


"I need to speak to someone called Sands," a woman said.

"That's... interesting. And might I ask why?"

"Marianne said- " All became clear.

"Hello, Corky," Sands interrupted. "You took your time about getting back to me. What's to say I haven't lost interest?"

"Good locksmiths are hard to come by. Locksmiths you can trust are very rare indeed."

"So you're a locksmith these days, are you? I found out what went down in Chicago, by the way."

"I found out a few things about you too. Unlike Marianne, I don't have any reservations about contacting old friends in Toronto."

"Going to share what you found out?"

"Not right now; why don't you come down here, and meet with me and my gal? I always prefer doing these things face to face."

Sands considered the proposition. He and El needed to go to New York already to meet with this Irish mercenary El had been told about. And there were others in that town that might be of use to the mission.

"Five days time," he told her. "Email the address to me tonight, to give me a chance to investigate it."

"I think we can do that," Corky said. "Now, how will I recognise you?"

Sands thought about a few of the more tempting items he had found for sale online.

"I'll have a black fedora." He had found several in different stores, and five days was plenty of time to allow for delivery. "Now how will I know you?"

"I'll mail you my arrest photos."

Either Corky's sources had been less well informed about Sands than she thought, or she was playing with him. Sands decided to play along while he figured it out.

"That should be sufficient. I'll be waiting to hear from you."


El's enquiries were slow to get results. Possibly he was too well dressed for this bar, his coat and trousers too new. But he would have stood out just as much in his usual clothes, for different reasons. So he sat quietly at the bar, keeping his glass topped up, and ensuring that the same was true for the bar staff. As the night wore on, and the drinkers became noisier, he picked up snatches of conversation that seemed to be related to his subject. He bought another drink for himself, and one for the man who served him, then moved to stand closer to the table the conversation was coming from.

"I heard that he and the president of the Jaguars fell out over a woman."

"Them? Never! It was philosophical differences. The Outlaw read philosophy; his president made fun of him for it. So they fought, and both of them lost. Or they both won. Either way, they vowed never to cross paths again."

"I heard a rumour that the Jaguars are coming this way. Do you think The Outlaw will move on?"

"I hope so. If he doesn't, I think I will." The man got up and, staggering a little, made his way to the exit.

El waited until he was certain that the man would not return and that the conversation had moved on a little. Then he sat down in the empty chair, keeping his glass sheltered behind his hand, so that none of the others could see its contents.

"So, this Outlaw, how bad is he really?" El asked when there was a lull in the conversation.

"Oh, he's bad all right," one man said. "All of us are steering clear of the woods while he's up there."

It only took El one round of drinks to get all the information he needed. Then he turned down all offers of further alcohol (not that he had been drinking it from the start), and returned to his motel room, a plan for the next day already half formed in his mind.


Sands was not going to sleep properly tonight. In fact, he was not even going to try. He was far too accustomed to waking up next to El to leave himself open to nightmares when there was no one there to chase them from his thoughts. If he took one of the valium he had scored from one of Luigi's daughters, or nieces - Sands had found them hard enough to distinguish back when he could see them - then he would avoid dreaming. But he would also be vulnerable to anyone who happened to come sneaking around the house, so it was not worth the risk. Not for one night.

His computer told him that it was well after midnight, and his concentration was starting to go awry. He closed down all the work-related programs, put the map away against the wall and debated what to listen to. El's demo CD was as good a place as any to start.

Sands lay back on the bed, letting the music wash over him, and tried to picture how El looked in his new get-up. Sometimes Sands suspected that he cared too much about the look of that which he would never see, but things were different when it came to El. He would never know - could never ask - whether El had bought that coat, and the trousers, cut from equally fine-grained leather, out of necessity, or because he knew that the feel of them would have an effect on Sands. 

He hated that it was easier to visualise the layout of a building than the look of a person. People changed from moment to moment. He only knew a few of El's expressions from their one meeting, and from the photographs in the files he had studied prior to that meeting. So all he had was his imagination. And that was about as trustworthy as the other fragments of his mind. Christ, some days he would give anything to be what passed for sane in the wider world. Most days, however, he enjoyed being a genius, even a shattered, poorly-put-back-together genius. And El had not left for good as yet, which ought to tell him something.

Sands could feel himself starting to relax a little too much, so he sat up with his back against the headboard and his knees pulled up to his chest. He thought about exchanging the demo for the first CD of his latest borrow from the library. Yeah, he would listen to a story - something he could follow without concentrating too hard, and that would give him something else to think about.


El lay on the bed in his motel room. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the same beautiful, blasphemous image of Sands with his arms outstretched and his head slightly bowed in mock penance. At the time, the sight had aroused him to anger and lust in almost equal measure, but now the memory invoked an altogether different longing.

He got up and poured himself a single measure of tequila, then drank it slowly. He was certain that had felt far less need to drink before he got involved with Sands.

The drink blurred the edges of that vision a little, but it was still there when he closed his eyes. He concentrated his thoughts, realising that he wanted to recreate that moment under less pressured conditions. Then he was able to relax into sleep.


Moving through trees was different to moving among buildings, whether inhabited or ruined. El had to quickly learn a whole new repertoire of background noises, and to recognise which changes were significant. 

Working with Sands had changed the way he looked at the world, El realised, pausing to assess a movement ahead. The wind in the tree branches was changing the light patterns constantly; El paid more attention now to what he saw. Partly because he never knew when Sands would ask about some detail that seemed insignificant. And partly, El supposed, because he appreciated his surroundings that bit more, knowing what his partner had lost.

From conversations the previous night, he had managed to piece together both where The Outlaw had made camp, and how that camp might be guarded. Now he stood, shielded by an ancient tree, and watched as a man dressed in a chain shirt and leather pants cooked a rabbit over an open fire. El pulled a knife from his belt, calculated the distance and angle, then threw it. The knife embedded itself in the body of the rabbit and stuck there, quivering ever so slightly.

The man drew a handgun easily as big as anything El carried. He stood up, shaking a mane of long dreadlocks out of his face, then swept the gun over the area.

El drew a gun of his own and stepped out into the open.

"Peace, my friend. I only wish to talk."

"Interesting way of introducing yourself." The man nodded at the knife. Then he reached over the fire and pulled the blade from the meat, turning it quickly in his hand before dropping it to the ground. "You're not a Jaguar, and you're not local. So what brings you here?"

"You. I came to meet The Outlaw." El took another step forward, gun still aimed. He nodded to the weapon held by the other man. "I hear you're good with that."

"Only good? You've been listening to the wrong legends."

"Legends do not always tell the true story. A friend of mine used to know Marianne."

The Outlaw glanced towards the edge of the clearing. El retrieved his knife and pocketed it before the man could recover from his surprise. Then El too looked over at the motorbike chained to a tree. Its petrol tank was intricately painted and a leather pouch hung over the front wheel. Bulky panniers almost hid the back wheel. The transport of a man with no fixed home.

"Marianne? I heard she was dead. She gave me a good deal on the bike though."

El looked to the other man again.

"She moved away, retired I think. But she told my friend that you might be looking for work."

"Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. You seem to know about me, but I don't even know your name."

"They call me El, as in El Mariachi."

A look of recognition flashed across the man's face before he could conceal it.

"Another legend who's supposed to be dead. So you want me to go to Mexico?"

El nodded. 

The Outlaw holstered his gun, then removed the rabbit from the fire, transferring it to a wooden platter. He quartered it swiftly with an impressively fearsome knife and offered the meat to El.

"Eat. And talk. I want to hear all about this work you have for me." White teeth flashed in contrast to dark skin. 


Above the two men, stretched out prone along a thick branch, the woman watched, and listened. It sounded as if her quarry would be moving on soon. Which was good, because she was starting to become a little bored of the operation. This work The Outlaw was being offered sounded interesting, though. Maybe she would ask if there was a place for someone with her talents to join in. After all, if The Outlaw left the country, she doubted that her current employers would still be interested in him.


The sounds made by his neighbours leaving for work had spurred Sands back into action. He thought he might have catnapped enough to count as having had a couple of hours sleep, and some toast and strong coffee would make up for the rest.

Breakfast over, he checked his email accounts. The word was out in New York that someone, no name mentioned, was after a sharp shooter. Sands drafted a reply, assuring his contact that payment was on its way with a place and time for both that exchange and for interviewing any job applicants that wanted to approach him in person.

If he was going to do this job properly, he had to ensure that the cartel leadership as well as their property was obliterated. Others would take their places, just as there was currently squabbling back in Culiacan over Barillo's former empire, but his job was to cut the structures down to size, not to wipe them out altogether. Besides, if he left any of the bosses alive, they might just decide to exact revenge on him and El. And that would really wreck any retirement plans either of them might come up with.

No, he was not going to think about the future, or El, right now. He was going to listen again to the taped reports that Ramirez had sent along with the original plans of the compound. Then he was going to once more go over his own version of those plans, and damn well commit every last corner and doorway to memory.


When El got back to the house, he found Sands sitting outside, wearing El's old jacket and apparently talking to a cat.

"Don't you have work to do?" El asked, as he joined Sands on the bench. Easier to ask him that, than to ask if everything was all right.

Sands shooed the cat away and leaned against him.

"Too tired right now. Dariel forwarded Briggs' reports to me."


"It all seems to tally with what I've heard from Ramirez. I printed them out if you want to compare them with what your man said."

"He called today."

"Your man? Anything new?" Sands twisted around, ending up with his head in El's lap.

"Nothing that you need to know now." Lorenzo had had plenty to say, but Sands was obviously tired, and El was hungry. They could discuss everything in the morning.


Sands could smell smoke. He told himself not to panic, at least not until he had assessed the situation. It smelled like wood smoke, and there was a scent of leather under it. Plus he was lying on something harder than his bed, under something heavier than a sheet, but softer, smoother, than a blanket. He listened. The only sound was someone breathing, and papers rustling. The house could not possibly be on fire. Which was a relief.

He sat up, realising that he was covered, not by bedclothes, but by El's coat, which slid down onto his knees. Footfalls and the jingle of chains, then the couch dipped as El sat down by Sands' feet.

"Was I out for long?" Sands shifted around and leaned his head against El's shoulder, realising that neither of them was wearing a jacket now.

"Some hours." El started to stroke Sands' hair.

"Well you should have known I wouldn't sleep with you out of the province. Did you find him?"

"I did."


"He agreed to work with us."

"So you think he's worth the money we're going to be paying for him?"

"I think so. He says he needs to speak with an arms dealer in Miami about picking up some equipment."

"Indeed?" Sands pushed his head against El's hand, hoping for more attention. "Wonder if it's the same one I planned on using. You said you spoke to one of your mariachi buddies as well?"

"Lorenzo. Yes, his team is now up to seven. And Fideo has been speaking with your Jones about the explosives."

"Very good. You read-"

"Briggs' report? Most of it. It does, as you said, tally with what Ramirez told us. And with what I have been hearing from Lorenzo." The couch shifted again as El stood up. "Now did you want to eat, or to sleep?"

"Food first, then bed." For some reason, Sands got the impression that it was late enough that he may as well put off starting work again until morning.


New York was busy. Busier than he remembered; and definitely busier than Toronto or Montreal. It was more confusing than Culiacan on the Day of the Dead, and that was saying something. Sands wondered just where all the people had come from, and when exactly they would be kind enough to go back there. He pressed up against El, as tightly as he could, for the short walk from the car to the hotel's reception desk.

El stopped, turned, pushed Sands back against a wall.

"Stay there. I'll check in."

Sands took a deep breath, then another. He had to learn to deal. And quickly. Tomorrow he had a meeting that he planned to attend without El. He would have to tell El about the planned art theft eventually, but he would prefer it if all the plans were in place beforehand. All he needed was to take his time and concentrate, without letting anything overwhelm his senses.


Next morning he was feeling confident in his ability to cope alone, combined with the self-satisfied feeling that came from being pinned against the wall and fucked senseless when not too high to appreciate it. He was starting to get a handle on one of El's kinks; fuck with religious imagery and get fucked hard in return. He would have to fine-tune that one before he started experimenting to find out some more.

He took a cab to the bar, which made life a little easier in terms of dealing with the crowds. El was off to meet with his Irishman, so there were no awkward questions to answer from that quarter.

Sands knew the bar of old. This time of day, he expected the bar to be pretty much empty. It sounded that way as he walked in, then stopped and took stock of his surroundings.

The jukebox was turned off, making it easy for him to pinpoint one other person, who was standing where Sands remembered the bar being. He made his way over and brushed the back of his hand lightly against the rail under the counter. Then he brought his hand up to rest on the countertop and tapped it lightly with his fingers to attract the attention of the barman.

"Can I help you?" Okay, barwoman. Chalk that one up to experience. Sands tried to decide if he recognised her voice and decided not.

He settled himself on a barstool, paid for a glass of water and waited. Of course this felt uncomfortably like his routine of a few months back, before he had finally coerced El into bed and into a - admit it - relationship. But, Sands hoped, there were subtle differences in the signals he was giving out here, which should be enough to keep interested parties of that variety away from him. Besides, he had never gone looking for casual pick-ups this early in the day.

There was a subtle creak and change in the air as the door to the street opened. The sound as it closed again was muffled by footsteps. Work boots, not particularly large and worn by someone lighter than the average workman. Whoever it was pulled up a stool next to Sands and he caught the scent of one of those unisex colognes that were invariably worn by a certain type of woman.

"I'll have what he's having." She shifted slightly. "My gal's just parking the truck."

"Let me pay for that," Sands said, aiming his comment in the direction of the barwoman. "And I'll have another while you're there."

He toyed with his glass, waiting for Corky, if it was her, to make the next move. The door opened and closed again, then a second woman approached the bar. High heels this time, and a lighter, flowery perfume.

"Hi," the newcomer said, sitting down on the other side of Sands. Not his preferred way of doing business, but he would go with it for now.

"I'm Violet," she continued.

Sands lifted his hand away from the glass and Violet took it briefly in hers, then let go.

"Pleased to meet you," Sands said. "He turned to the other woman. "And you must be Corky. Marianne told me all about you, back in the day. A shame we never had the chance to meet then, but you were otherwise detained as I remember."

"Yeah, well I trusted the wrong people," Corky said. "A mistake I don't plan on making again. You say you're having difficulties opening a lock?"

"In a manner of speaking." Sands wondered whether smoking was still allowed in this bar. He pulled out his tobacco and waited for objections. "The lock opens a safe, which contains certain pieces of art bought with laundered money. Obviously we don't want such items to remain in the possession of common criminals."

"So you want to retrieve them into the possession of uncommon criminals?"

"It's only a crime if you're caught and convicted. And I'm sure the current owner will have more pressing matters to attend to than the whereabouts of a few paintings."

"Where's the safe, and what's in it for us?"

"Mexico. How does thirty percent strike you?"

"Fifty percent. And I'll find the buyers."

"As I'm the one creating the distraction, so you can go about your work unhindered, I think I deserve at least sixty-five percent."

"Forty is as low as I'll go. Conditional on seeing the plans of the building and some sort of inventory of the safe's contents."

"Sixty:forty may be a split we can both live with." He would still be walking away with twice the cut he would have had if he had just been doing the job Dariel was paying him for. And this half came without any other strings attached.

"I'll email the documents to you later. Along with your next instructions."


El felt very out of place in the bar, for all that he recognised the music playing in the background. The Pogues: Melanie Briggs liked the band, as well as the Clash, and the Damned. She also liked spending her husband's money, even when she had been spending it on clothes for a man she had not, at that time, met. When he thought of her, he usually remembered her standing in one particular boutique in Mexico City, hand on her hip and the black hat he had eventually given to Sands dipped over one eye. Strange how Sands seemed to dislike her so much when she had done so much to make him feel at home with El in their first home together.

El aside, the bar was full of Irishmen. And Americans who liked to claim Irish ancestry. El had more sympathy for the former, living and working in a country where they would never quite belong, than for the latter. Who were, after all, just another type of tourist.

He bought himself a drink and settled down in a dark corner to wait for his contact.

Sean Malone was not a tall man. Shorter than El and surprisingly blond, he wore a long brown coat that looked like it could conceal a variety of weapons. He flashed a gold-toothed smile at El as they shook hands, then sat down, holding his glass of whiskey as affectionately as if it had been his best gun.

"I got a message from Father Patrick. He said you had a job for me."

"I might do," El said carefully, trying to give the impression that he hired mercenaries every day. "But first I need to know more of your credentials."

Malone wore glasses with wire rims and little round, very dark lenses. He looked over them at El before starting his story.

"My brothers were Republicans. I was too, to start with, but then I had what you might call a disagreement with the leadership. So I hightailed it to Africa and got myself involved in other people's wars. Spent some time in South America doing much the same thing - before you ask, it's Portuguese I'm fluent in, not Spanish." He paused to take a sip from his glass. "The last few years I've worked in more of an advisory capacity. And let me tell you, that's getting dull."

"So you'd like to see a little action again?" El asked.

The door opened behind them. As they both turned to look, El caught a glimpse of eyes too green to be real. Then Malone pushed his sunglasses up to cover them.

"I want to be in the thick of things again before I get too old," Malone said, turning back to El.

"I can understand that." El suspected that, were it not for his responsibility to Sands, he would keep fighting until there was no fight left in him. As it was, he was not entirely sure that he or Sands was suited to a quiet life, but he intended to give it a try once this adventure was over.


The woman edged through the drinkers. She glanced continually around the room as if searching for someone, although she knew precisely where her real prey was seated. Tracking him to the city had been tricky, but she had sharp ears, and had been trained to make the most of that. Then she had been lucky enough to have overheard the man talking to his partner on a cell before getting into a car back in Canada.

She had pieced together an outline of what he needed his team for, ad she knew that she had what they needed. The only difficulty would be in convincing the man. His current companion started to get up and she planned her entrance. Then she was seized by the collar.

Twisting around she looked up into the face of the barman.

"I don't know what you're doing in here, but you can get right out now."

She smiled shyly at him and batted her eyelids.

"I was looking for someone. But he's gone. And so am I." She wriggled out of the barman's grasp and ran for it.


Sands was waiting in the hotel room when El got back.

"Did you find who you were looking for?" El asked.

"Yeah. Did you?"

"I think so. I'm not sure that I trust him, but-"

"-We can't trust any of them, El. We just have to hope that the money is enough to make them stick with the plan."

"So what next?"

"We hang around here a few more days; I have a few old contacts to look up. Then we head for Miami to see a man about an arms deal."

El decided not to ask what type of contacts Sands was referring to. He knew about the pot of pills in Sands' jacket pocket, but he also knew that there were as many there now, as there had been the first time he had found them. 

"You want me to meet them with you?"

"Maybe. It depends which of them respond to the messages I've been putting out." Sands stretched out on the bed. "You going to stand there all day?"

"Do you want me to?"

"Hell, no."

El moved to sit on the bed and ran a hand through Sands' hair. 

"I want-" Sands cut short whatever he had been about to say and curled around El. 

Sands was more... balanced, away from Toronto. Another good reason why they needed to get far away from their old lives once they were finished with Mexico. Then maybe they would get a chance at normality.

Not that Sands would ever be normal again; had he even been normal before? But it would be a lot healthier for him if they could stay in one place for months rather than weeks, or days, at a time. 

El slid his hand up and down Sands' back. Yes, they could have a lot more times like this - no pressure, no need to talk about anything - if they could just walk away from everyone.


Another day, another bar. This time they were meeting Sands' contacts together. Which was just as well, since the final contact was late and Sands was getting edgy.

"Will you stop that," El hissed, removing Sands' hand from his knee yet again.

"Well, if you won't let me start a fight-"

"Absolutely not. We could always leave."

"Not yet. I still think we need a sniper."

"And this contact-"

"Might know where to find one."

"Why do we need a sniper when Lorenzo doesn't?" El asked. He wanted to get down to Miami for supplies, and then on to Mexico before any of the others started getting restless. The combination of Fideo, Jones and large quantities of explosives was particularly worrisome, from what Lorenzo had let slip.

"Escape routes. If the head honcho is in his office when we attack, it's too easy for him to get out the back way. Or lay low - he could hole up in his bunker for months unless we take him out before the real fighting start. And I'd hate to leave a loose end like that."

"So you want to take-" El cut his sentence short, seeing a man approach the table. He glanced back at Sands, who was frowning in what seemed to be both concentration and confusion.

The man pulled a chair up to the table and sat down.

"Hello, Sheldon."

"Where's your sister?" Sands said sharply.

"She says very sorry but she couldn't make it after all. I have a note from her though."

"Beautiful, just beautiful." Sands chuckled. "Still pussy-whipped then. And she doesn't even trust you to tell me the facts yourself." He held out a hand for the note. "Are you two still fucking, or did she get morals along with her promotion last month?"

"At least I can get women."

El glared at the man. Then he slipped his hand under the table to brush against Sands'.

The man slammed a folded paper into Sands' palm, then got up.

"There's your information. We'll be expecting the money transfer tomorrow." He walked away.

"Follow him," Sands whispered to El. "I don't like this one bit."

"And you?" 

"I'll wait here a while longer. If they are trying to double-cross us, they won't risk doing anything in this place. Now go." 


He would have one more drink, then leave, Sands decided. El had followed Rachel's brother (what was his name anyhow?) to an apartment block, and had called in again later to report that someone matching Rachel's description had also gone in. Neither had come out again, so Sands was assuming that they were calling the place home these days. 

He was just itching to know what Rachel's note said. From the feel of the paper, she had written on both sides of it, and he would bet good money on the words being more useful than her shopping list. 

Still, it was best that they get out of town sooner rather than later. Sending her brother was a sure sign that Rachel was getting far enough up the corporate ladder not to care about the information Sands had on her nearly as much as she had before. Or maybe other people had better information on her these days and she was trying to keep on the right side of them. Either way, Sands hoped that she was not quite safe enough to be able to send people after him this time.

He had paid good money - he would be paying good money tomorrow - for the details of potential fences for that little art collection that was going to fall into his hands. That information meant more to him than the names of professional assassins he might have overlooked. 'Never trust a thief to sell the goods' was one of Dariel's mottos, one that applied as much to friends-of-friends as to hired helps got any other way.

He heard someone approaching his table. Someone who was either wearing very soft soles, or was treading very lightly indeed. Sands raised his head, one hand instinctively hovering over his gun.

"I hear you're looking for a sniper." The woman sounded very young - but voices, like appearances, could be deceiving.

Sands drew his gun, hoping that El had been right when he had said this table was not easily monitored from the bar. 

"Might be." He gestured with the gun. "Sit down. "No," he amended as he heard the woman start to move towards the other chair, "stand still a minute."

Sands got to his feet and took a step towards the woman. Then he reached out to pin her arms to her sides. Short and skinny too. He slid his hands down her arms, removing the pistol from her right hand and transferring it to the table behind him.

"You can have that back later. Now stay perfectly still." He reholstered his own pistol and then patted her down (very nice boyish figure she had there), removing two more guns, a knife and a hefty set of keys. Then he moved his hands to her face. He was pretty much off dangerous women these days - and pretty much monogamous too, come to think of it - but no harm in checking out the merchandise.

Short hair, remarkably smooth skin, what would probably be described whimsically as 'elfin features' and not a line anywhere. Fuck. Sands dropped his hands as if they had been burned and stepped back rapidly, sending his chair crashing to one side and then colliding with the wall behind it.

"How old are you?" he asked when he had got the hang of breathing again.

"Fourteen," the girl said. "But I'm good. I was trained by the best. The name's Mathilda." 

"Never heard of you." 

"I don't advertise much; I don't need to. So... you interested enough to talk to me, or are you going to stand there all day?" Sands could hear her clearing all her crap up off the table. Fuck, he was letting all his advantages go to hell.

"I don't work with," he paused for emphasis, "kids."

"I'm not a kid."

"So you lied about your age before?" Sands smirked. "I don't know what you've heard about this little trip I'm planning, but it's going to be mighty dangerous. I'm not sure someone of your... apparent youth could handle it."

"Your loss." She dropped something back onto the table. "If you ever change your mind, my number is set to speed-dial ninety nine on your cell." Sands heard her walk out. He reached down and searched out his chair then righted it and sat down. Fuck, he really needed that other drink now. And maybe something stronger when he got back to the hotel too.

He took his time over his drink, calling El to check nothing had changed over at Rachel's place. Neither of the other two had re-emerged, so it seemed safe enough to tell El to head back to the hotel. Which was what Sands was going to do next.

And once back there himself, he was going to look up this Mathilda on Hitmail. El would probably have plenty of moral objections, plenty more than Sands did, about getting kids to work for them, but if she really was good then she could be useful. He needed references, though, before he even thought about calling her back. There was no one else he needed to see in New York, so he would have El plan a route down to Miami tomorrow. 

As well as his arms dealer, he had just thought of one, possibly even two, snipers to talk to there. Which would hopefully solve the problem without any tedious discussions with El. Sands finished his drink and got up.

The bar had filled up some since he and El had arrived. Sands felt uncomfortable pushing through the crowd, but forced himself to stay calm. He paused just outside the door, taking a couple of welcome breaths of not-so-clean air. It still tasted better than that he had just been forced to inhale on his way through the crowd.

His ears were ringing from the noise of all those folks talking. Which was why he never heard the man step up behind him until it was too late. His arms were pulled back behind him and his cane clattered to the ground. His attacker kicked it away.

Sands tried to twist out of the hold; but the man, it sure smelled like a man, wrenched Sands' arms back further. Much further and at least one shoulder was going to pop. Not advised.

Sands stilled, resisting the urge to shout out, while he tried to listen for any others in the area.

"Okay," he said calmly. "You got my attention. Now what can I do for you?"

"That fat wallet of yours for a start. And maybe those fancy sunglasses." The man pulled the two of them backwards into what had to be the alley running down the side of the bar. "Come on, tell me you plan to hand them over."

Hold on. This was just a straightforward mugging? Sands wondered if the man knew he was dealing with an armed victim here. Although killing muggers, while probably a public service, might well have the unfortunate side effect of getting him noticed. Plus there was the tricky matter of getting a hand free to draw his gun first.

"You want my wallet?" He tried to throw enough of a tremor into his voice that the man would believe fully in his compliance. 

"Yeah, that's right."

"I suppose you want my watch too?" Sands asked pseudo-nervously.

"I never saw any watch."

"It's a pocket watch. Let me get it out and I'll show you."

The man grunted and twisted Sands' right arm higher behind his back, letting go of the left as he did so. Sands winced, then started to slide his now-free hand towards his pocket.

"Try anything," jab of a gun barrel under his ribs, "and you get this."

Fuck. He had kind-of been expecting that. There was a dumpster somewhere in the alley, he remembered. Now did he need to dive forward or back to get behind it? If he just had the advantage of surprise, it would matter a little less. He twisted a little and tilted his head up towards his attacker's face.

"Want to see what's behind my fancy sunglasses?" He raised his hand to take them off.

There was a faint whistle from further back up the alley. The grip on Sands' arm loosened and then the man fell away from him. Sands staggered forwards, finding a wall when his elbow jammed painfully into it. He turned and pressed his back against the wall, drawing his gun as he tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

A soft thud-thud, followed by the sound of someone coming towards him, then stopping a few feet away. A pause, some faint, hard to place sounds, then a voice.

"He's dead." The voice was familiar.


"Told you I was good. Changed your mind about hiring me?"

"Maybe." Whatever they did next, El was going to find some reason not to be pleased about it.

To Be Continued...



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