Hank's Law Number Twenty: The most dangerous enemy is the one with nothing left to lose.
If that wasn't AJ and me, I don't know what was. I took a couple breaths and stepped inside.
Oh God. And I thought the cells smelled bad.
The hallway was dark with black shadows, and it stank of fear and offal, curdled and greasy.
Holding the revolver down at my side, I stayed tight to the wall. At the corner, I edged out and took a peek.
AJ's wrists and ankles were strapped to the arms of a wooden chair that looked like it had been stolen from a medieval mental institution. The Weeping Beast pulled a plastic bag off of AJ's face and slapped him with a meaty paw.
AJ was unresponsive.
C'mon, guy. Don't give up.
The Beast was a giant, with thick, trunk-like legs and a lumpy torso made of scrap cement. He crossed the room to a large metal vat and dipped in a plastic pail, filling it, and trudged back to throw it on AJ.
With a grunt, he slapped the unconscious man hard enough to split his lip. The Weeping Beast picked up a thick black cord. Jumper cables. Connected at the opposite end to a Sears Die-Hard battery charger. He touched the ends to AJ's chest.
and the stink of burning flesh.
AJ's head bobbed, body jerked, then went still. He groaned.
Water dripped from AJ's torn and bloodied shirt onto the floor. His head lolled in my direction. His left eye was swollen shut, and the lobes of each of his ears hung loose, bleeding.
One bullet. It would have to be a kill shot.
Back pressed tight to the wall, my breath came hard and fast. “Hank?” His name spilled from my mouth in a silent prayer.
Put him down, Peaches,
” Hank said in my head. “
You'll only feel one thing. Recoil.
The Weeping Beast folded his massive arms over his chest and frowned at AJ, shaking his head. He wiped his cheek and mouth off on the back of his arm and went to rummage through a rusted toolbox. The mucus on his forearm glistened in the bare bulb light. He raised a pair of pliers and clicked them together, absently, thinking.
AJ didn't move.
The Beast put them down and picked up a scalpel.
“Iago,” I said softly. “Iago.”
He spun toward AJ.
I stepped into his private chamber of horror, revolver pointed at his chest. “Iago GarcÃa Falto.”
He turned slowly and peered at me like I was some sort of alien. “
I motioned him away from the tools, to the near corner. He moved obediently, a surprised, openmouthed smile on his mouth, lower lip tucked to avoid the drip.
I backed slowly across the room to AJ, and without taking my eyes off him, went to work on AJ's wrist cuff. “AJ,” I said.
“AJ. Wake up.”
I moved to the other wrist cuff. Fumbling, taking forever because I couldn't take my eye off the Beast. I knocked AJ's hand in his lap. “AJ.”
The Weeping Beast cocked his head, closed his good eye, and opened his dripping eye wide with his thumb and index finger. “
I dropped to a squat and started on the ankle cuff. Sweat ran down my back. The revolver was getting heavy. My hand shook. “AJ.”
AJ coughed, and his head sagged forward. “Okay,” he whispered.
I moved to the last cuff.
The Beast frowned and demanded, “
I rolled the dice, banking on Lennon's report. My Spanish stilted and slow as I tried to say I was his dead sister's guardian angel. “
Un amigo Ã¡ngel de MarÃa
.” I hoisted AJ to his feet, ducking under his arm.
The Beast's face crumpled in concentration. He wiped the drip off his chin. “
.” I edged AJ and me toward the door. “MarÃa Fernanda Falto.”
He began to laugh. A harsh, snuffling sound of the sort a wild boar made, bumping and rubbing its snout into the earth.
Oh God. The report got it wrong.
“I kill her. For the crying.” He came slowly toward us. “All the time, the crying.”
“No closer.” We were almost to the door.
“Then I must kill them all,
I let go of AJ to grip the revolver, wrapping my thumbs over and pulling tight as I'd been taught. “Stop!”
The Beast didn't stop.
I aimed directly at his head. AJ stumbled, knocking into me as I pulled the trigger.
The bullet grazed the side of The Beast's skull.
I kept pulling the trigger.
Knowing there were no bullets left in the gun.
Click. Click. Click.
The Beast yanked the gun from my hand and threw it across the floor. Grinning, a gelatinous bubble of teary mucus dribbled down his cheek, and hung off his upper lip before dripping onto his shirt.
“Run, AJ!” I shoved him toward the hall.
The Beast grabbed me around the waist. He picked me up and threw me over the side of the vat as effortlessly as though I was a child.
Headfirst, dunking me into the filthy water. Eyes stinging, I inhaled a mouthful of water, choking beneath the surface.
He hauled me up by my hair.
I broke the surface, gasping and spluttering to his sick, grunting snuffles.
He held me over the tank, letting me getting my breath back. Knowing he was going to put me under again.
“MarÃa Fernanda . . . MarÃa Fernanda . . . MarÃa Fernanda.” He sang the name, the syllables singsong guttural, the rage beneath them building. “MarÃa Fernanda . . . MarÃaMarÃaMarÃa . . .”
He jammed my head underwater.
My feet scrabbled uselessly against the sides of the vat. His weight pinned my waist over the rim. I arched backward, arms reaching over my head, clawing feebly at The Beast.
Eighty-seven seconds to break point. The moment when you're on the verge of losing consciousness and you inhale water.
Lights sparked behind my eyes. I thrust my arms inside the tank, feeling for anything to either pull myself in or to push myself out.
The sparks faded to a pinprick.
Arms grabbed me around the waist, forcing dirty water up and out of my lungs. Heaving and spasming, I heard Lee's voice in my ear. “I got you, you're okay.”
Took you long enough, cavalry.
When my paroxysm of coughing had eddied down to tremors, Lee turned me into his chest. I sucked in giant lungfuls of him. Sweat and gun grease and the tang of diesel fuel never smelled so good.
The Weeping Beast groaned, semiconscious on the ground. Three Five-seveNs had their rifles trained on him, another two had AJ up and walking.
Lee let go.
“You all right?” I asked AJ.
His velvet eyes had turned to stone. “I owe you, kid.”
“Time to go,” I said. “Please.”
“Not yet.” AJ gestured with a hand to the Five-seveNs and cracked his knuckles. “Get him up.” He turned to Lee. “Get her out of here.”
“AJâ” I began.
“Beat it.” He picked up the pliers and smiled. It was one of the most awful things I'd ever seen. “Zed's dead, baby.”
* * *
Lee and I left the kill house in one of the Grieco cartel's armored Humvees. I sat in the middle of the rear seat bench, in between Lee and one of the Five-seveNs.
“Is good, what you did, SeÃ±ora Renko.” The Five-seveN nodded at me. “You save many people.
La bestia que llora
will die as he lived.”
Lee stared out the window. The frown on his face cut so harsh he looked like a fury.
I wanted to say something. Anything.
But what was there to say, really?
I felt exhausted and ancient. Beyond the years of a human being.
My body didn't seem to get the message. I couldn't stop my knees from bouncing, hands robotically clenching and unclenching the hem of my jacket.
The Five-seveN put his hand on my knee to still it. “You are okay now.” He smiled at me. “Okay.”
“Take your goddamn hand off her,” Lee's voice sliced through the air. He threw a rough arm around my shoulders. I scooted up close to him. His hard, muscled body felt as unforgiving as his face looked.
It's a helluva lot nicer cozying up to an angry statue than being tortured in a kill house.
It came out a shudder.
Lee growled, “You stink of death.”
The tears came then, silently sliding down my cheeks, dripping onto my chest. I didn't have the strength to move out from under his heavy arm, much less raise a hand to wipe them away.
Carlos and his men were on the driveway when we pulled up. Floodlights and panic and the acrid smell of chemicals wafted gently through the air.
He met us at the Humvee, eyes shiny with unshed tears, took me by the shoulders, and kissed me on each cheek. “The angel who saved El Cid. We talk tomorrow, yes ?”
Lee frog-marched me up the stairs to our rooms, gripping my elbow hard enough to leave a mark. Didn't bother me a bit.
He checked the bedroom, bathroom, and made sure the balcony and bedroom doors were locked. “Good night.” He disappeared through the en suite door between our rooms, closing it firmly behind him.
Without a second thought, I stripped down and got in the shower and stayed until my fingers and toes pruned. Feeling remarkably peppy, I put on a tank top and underpants and blow-dried my hair. Amped, I glossed and flat-ironed it to a silk curtain before going back to the bedroom.
The lamp on the nightstand would barely qualify as a kid's nightlight. I clicked on all the lights. It still felt dark.
Univision was rebroadcasting a soccer match.
I'm so not tired.
I splayed my fingers. Not a tremor.
The world's a happy place. Mani-pedi's chipped, though.
Back to the bathroom for fire-engine red nail polish. Waiting for the polish to cure, I turned on my phone and followed along with a YouTube contouring makeup tutorial.
Huh. That really worked.
I cracked my neck.
Time for a little yoga, maybe.
Univision had switched over to a telenovela. I turned it up, dropped onto the floor, and raised my legs into Boat pose.
Lee flung open the door between our rooms. “What the
is going on in here?”
“Nothing.” I wiggled my toes.
The red looks fantastic.
“Maisie!” His short brown hair was sticking up in the back. Indian feathers.
“Geez. I'm sorry . . . I didn't mean to wake you.”
“You did.” He stomped over to the bathroom.
I guess when you have a body like that, you've pretty much earned the right to walk around in boxer briefs whenever you want.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” He turned off the light and shut the door. “You have every fucking light on. Every goddamn cabinet open. What the hell are you doing?”
He turned everything off, came closer, and squinted at me. “Are you wearing makeup at three forty a.m.?”
“Uh . . . I'm a little off the rails, maybe?” I guessed.
“Yeah.” He picked up the remote and turned off the television. “You are.” He loomed over me. “Get up.”
He marched over to the bed and whipped back the covers. “Get in.”
I obeyed and slid under the sheets.
Like an angry parent, he pulled the covers up under my chin, brisk and firm, before switching off the light. I watched his silhouette push the door between our rooms all the way open to the wall and disappear into his room.
I stared at the ceiling, humming. Legs restless beneath the sheets.
“Maisie?” Lee called.
“Be quiet and go the fuck to sleep.”
* * *
Lee leaned against the doorway a scant five hours later, waking me from a light and fitful sleep. “Grieco wants to see you.”
“Okay. What about?”
Lee shrugged and went back into his room, closing the door behind him.
I got up, brushed my teeth, and took stock.
Two steps ahead. Hair and makeup still passed muster.
I put on a Halston Heritage asymmetrical pencil skirt in a soft lead gray, matching Pliner wedge booties, and pale blue work shirt knotted at the waist.
I grabbed my Louboutin clutch and knocked on the adjoining door, pushing it open at his grunt.
Lee, fully suited up, was in 100 percent bodyguard mode. “You packed?”
“Not at all.”
He closed his eyes in that long-suffering way he wasn't close to owning. “Okay. Let's go.”
A maid waited for us in the foyer. “SeÃ±ora Renko, please come this way.”
We followed her out to the front drive, where an empty dark-green two-seater LandMaster Utility Vehicle waited.
“Mr. Grieco is at old barn,” the maid said. “You know the way,
” I climbed in. Two unopened water bottles waited in the cup holders.
Lee got behind the wheel, and we zipped off down the drive. It was sunny. Searingly so, even at nine. I opened my clutch, dug out my sunglasses, and took stock. Travel bottle of Excedrin, camera/scanner pen, package of Dentyne Fire, two lip glosses, and a travel mascara. Add to that Hank's volcanic glass knife beneath the liner, and we were talking save-the-world travel kit.
I opened the Excedrin, peeled off the foil, pulled out the never-ending wad of cotton bigger than the bottle itself, and shook out two tablets. “Want some?”
Lee held out his hand. I shook out two more.
He dry-swallowed while I opted for the Evian.
“It's pretty creepy when you think about it,” I said. “Obviously the whole idea of a kill house, of course, but the fact that we were like, what, less than an hour and change away? That's pretty damn close to the estate. I meanâ”
“Grieco is going to ask you about the locator tag,” Lee interrupted. “I told him Renko insisted you carry one at all times.”
My knee started bouncing. “Okay.”
“You should have never fucking left.”
Great. A parental lecture from a non-parent. Whee!
“Yeah,” I said, “butâ”
“Zip it,” he barked.
My mouth disconnected from my brain and I blurted, “I can't help wondering if RaÃºl had anything to do with this.”
Lee jammed on the brakes and stopped the UTV short. He glared at me. “You need to lock it down, sweetheart. Right fucking now.”
Congratulations! You're a shoo-in when it comes to the pissed-off partner taking on the father figure role.
He wasn't done. Not nearly. “No chirping off like little robin redbreast when you meet with Grieco. Do you follow?”
“No helpful comments. No friendly suggestions. We clear?” He jabbed a finger at me. “Grieco is a fucking drug kingpin, and the shit that went down in that kill houseâwell, guess what? He and your buddy El Cid have done that same shit to other people. For real. Do you get that?”
I tried to take a sip of water, but it wouldn't go down, so I sat there with it in my mouth as Lee drove us to the barn.
We came around the bend and I gasped, swallowing the water into my lungs, choking and coughing. The barn was a charred skeleton, one where a death-eating monster had taken a jagged bite out of the center.
Lee steered the UTV through the sodden sandy soil up to the repurposed stable. The coastal breeze coating us in the stink of charred wood, burnt rubber, and plastic.
“There was a fire last night?” The lights and men all over the estate last night fell into place. It hadn't been only about AJ.
“Looks like it,” Lee said.
The Five-seveN who'd sat by me in the Humvee on the drive back to the estate, approached. “SeÃ±ora Renko? You come with me, yes?”
Clutch in hand, I stepped out.
He said to Lee, “I will see to her, personally.”
Lee started up the UTV and took off.
The Five-seveN walked me to the near edge of the barn. “You wait here,
.” I surveyed the yard. The stucco on the stable was scorched, surrounding trees blackened on the side closest the barn. There had been a fire all right, a big one.
And an explosion.
The rusty diesel fuel tank was a distant memory. Shiny bits of debris were scattered as far as four hundred yards away.
The closest of the two Lincoln Navigators appeared to have taken the brunt of the explosion's blow back. The SUV was peppered with shrapnel and spall, and sticking out like a knife in the armor plate, was the three-inch butt of a metal striker.
Scarily similar to the one that I'd dug out of the porch in JuÃ¡rez.
His back to me, the Five-seveN waited patiently at the edge of the barn to notify Grieco of my arrival.
When gifted with a NY minute, you sure as hell had better take it, because there isn't a return policy.
Nearing the SUV, I dug out the camera-pen I'd made fun of and started clicking away. Finishing with a couple tight shots of the striker, I slipped the pen behind my ear.
I grabbed the wad of cotton from the Excedrin bottle and tried unsuccessfully to pull the striker from the door. It needed pliers and some serious muscle.
Maybe the cotton collected a little residue.
I shook out the rest of the aspirin and jammed the swiped cotton back into the bottle, keeping an eye on my Five-seveN, who still hadn't moved. The ground was littered with pieces of wood, bits of plastic, tiny shards of broken glass, and brass casings everywhere.
Five-point-seven casings to be exact. I grinned.
Looks like my work here is done. Obligatory hat tip to RaÃºl and/or El Eje.
I pocketed some of the 5.7 casings. A ribbon of aluminum lay inches from my foot. At the bottom, a black letter
sat on a “warning” yellow background.
“SeÃ±ora Renko?” The Five-seveN waved at me.
I waved back and dropped the piece of metal into the clutch, then gingerly picked my way around the edge of the barn. Black, wet dust drifted through the air, settling into my lungs.
Carlos stood in the middle of the barn talking to an old man as weathered and creased as an old tractor tire.
The old man examined a machine that resembled a drill press and shook his head. There were a half dozen other machines, including a grinder, all bent and warped and burnt.
Carlos gripped his temples, listening to the old man. He caught sight of me, gave the old man a clap on the shoulder, and strode over.
“Maisie Renko, I see how you bewitched Stannislav.” He kissed me on both cheeks.
“Thank you, Carlos. What happened here?”
.” He spat. “A gift from El Eje.” He took my elbow. “Come, let us go into the other building.”
The Five-seveN followed behind at a respectful distance.
We entered the repurposed stable through an old wooden door. I followed Carlos through a short hallway to another set of glass doors, into his private showroom.
Six of the fiercest muscle cars ever were parked on a glossy terrazzo floor.
“Good Lord,” I breathed as we passed a rally-red Corvette L88. “Is that a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1?”
Carlos's chin lifted. “Yes. Only sixty-nine were made.”
Stretching behind the cars, almost as an afterthought, was a six-foot-high, curvaceous S-shaped wave of polished steel. I was pretty sure it was a Richard Serra sculpture.
And from the vivid paintings of pills and capsules on the far gallery wall, it was safe to assume he was a Damien Hirst fan, as well.
A faint humming droned overhead.
Carlos pointed at the ceiling. “A computer-controlled HVAC system maintains twenty-one degrees Celcius and fifty percent humidity environmental conditions year-round. Special filters remove the sea salt from the air.”
“Do you know they told me you cannot store muscle cars this close to the sea? They will rust out before your eyes.” He gave a snorting chortle. “I told them science and money makes everything possible.”
We walked to the archway at end of the showroom. It opened into the ultimate man cave. As if any man needed more than that showroom full of fury.
A sleek marble bar with a dozen stools, lounge area with big-screen TV, and a rectangular marble-topped conference table. Six of the Five-seveNs, all in black, stood waiting. Carlos led me to one end of the table. A Five-seveN pulled out the chair for me. After I was seated, the men followed suit, Carlos at the head.
AJ walked into the room, wearing tan pants and a loose raw-linen shirt, two more Five-sevenS at his heels.
I could see the square shape of bandages beneath his shirt as he moved. His face was a rainbow of bruises. Tiny strips of skin-colored stitch tape were above his eye, on his cheekbone and chin. His earlobes had been reattached.
But as rough as he looked, it was nothing compared to the dead in his eyes. He was El Cid. AJ was no more.
“Maisie Renko,” El Cid said. “I am in your debt.”
He reached into his pocket and stepped behind me.
I closed my eyes as a shard of pure irrational fear stabbed my lungs.
Something cold and heavy went around my neck, sliding down my dÃ©colletage.
I opened my eyes. Spanish Reals. Pieces of eight, each one wired in white gold, strung together in a thick and powerful web. “
Carlos set a heavy case onto the table. “I, too, am in your debt.” He pushed the case a foot in front of him. The two Five-seveNs each laid their left hands on the case and crossed themselves. They pushed the case to the next men. It happened twice more before the case was in front of me.
El Cid put his hand on it and crossed himself, then popped the locks. “You are one of us now.” He lifted the lid.