Read The Cartel Online

Authors: Don Winslow

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Animals, #International Mystery & Crime, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Thrillers

The Cartel (7 page)

He tells her that these feelings are perfectly normal, that she’ll adjust, especially when she’s out of COC and integrated into the general population. But Magda can’t imagine how that could even happen in a place with thousands of men, and wonders if they’ll put her in a cell with the two other women, and doesn’t know if that would be a good or a bad thing.

Cosmetics arrive the next day. Expensive makeup, exactly the kind she normally uses, with a small hand mirror. At the bottom of the box she finds a note—“Courtesies of a fellow Sinaloan.”

So much for Jorge.

But who is it?

Magda is not stupid.

She knows the narco-world and its players. There are dozens of Sinaloans in Puente Grande, but maybe a handful with the means to pull off the sort of privileges she’s experiencing. Like most Sinaloans in the business, she knows that Adán Barrera, the former Señor de los Cielos, is a resident here.

Could it be?

Step away from yourself, she thinks, looking into the mirror as she applies the makeup, such a simple thing that is now a great pleasure. He’s
Adán Barrera
—he could bring in the most beautiful women in the world if he pleased.

What would he want with me?

Magda makes a frank self-assessment—she’s still beautiful, but closer to thirty than to twenty. Women her age back in Sinaloa are considered old maids.

But three afternoons later, a bottle of good Merlot arrives with a glass, a corkscrew, and another note: “A few friends and I are having a ‘movie night’ and I wonder if you’d like to come as my guest. Adán Barrera.”

Magda has to laugh.

Inside the most brutal prison in the Western world, the man is
her as if they’re high school students.

He’s asking for a

To “movie night.”

She laughs even harder when she realizes what else she’s thinking—oh, God, what should I wear?

The guard stands there, clearly waiting for an answer.

Magda hesitates—is this just a setup for a gang rape?

If it is, it is, she decides. She has to take the chance, because she knows that she can’t survive fifteen years in this place as a “normal” inmate.

“Tell him I’d love to,” Magda says.

What first strikes Magda about Adán Barrera is how shy he is.

Not a quality you usually see in a

His entire affect is subdued, from the tone of his voice to his clothes—tonight a black Hugo Boss suit with a white shirt.

Adán’s a little shorter than she is; there are a few flecks of silver in the temples of his black hair. He smiles shyly and then looks down as he shakes her hand and says, “I’m so glad you came. I’m Adán Barrera.”

“Of course,” she says. “Everyone knows who you are. I’m Magda Beltrán.”

“Everyone knows who

Adán notices the wine bottle and glass in her left hand. “You didn’t like the wine? I’m sorry.”

“No,” Magda says. “I just didn’t want to drink it alone. I thought it would be more fun if we drank it together.”

She’d decided on one of the blue dresses that he sent. At first she went with the sweater and slacks as appropriate for a “movie night,” then decided that he’d sent dresses for a reason, and didn’t want to disappoint him.

Adán walks her to the front of five rows of folding chairs that have been set in front of a large-screen television. She notices that their whole row is empty, but that the others are filled with inmates who try to look at her without staring. Other inmates stand by the door of the dining hall, clearly on guard.

Adán pulls out a chair for her, she sits down, and he sits beside her. “I hope you like
Miss Congeniality.
Sandra Bullock?”

“I like her,” Magda says. “It’s about a beauty pageant contestant, isn’t it?”

“I thought…”

“That’s very considerate of you.”

“Would you like something? Popcorn?”

“Popcorn and red wine?” Magda asks. “Well, why not?”

Adán nods to an inmate, who hustles to a popcorn machine and comes back with two bowls. Another inmate hands Adán a corkscrew and another glass.

He opens the bottle and pours. “I know nothing about wine. It’s supposed to be good.”

She rolls the glass and sniffs. “It is.”

“I’m glad.”

“Do I have you to thank for the clothes?” she asks. “The cosmetics?”

Adán dips his head in a slight acknowledgment.

“And my safety?” she asks.

He nods again. “Nobody will touch you in here unless you want him to.”

Does that include you? she wonders.

“Well, I’m very grateful for your protection,” Magda says. “But may I ask why you’re being so generous?”

“We Sinaloans have to look out for each other,” Adán answers. He nods to an inmate and the movie starts.

She doesn’t go to bed with him that night.

Or the next, or the next.

But Magda knows that it’s an inevitability. She needs and wants his protection, she needs and wants the things he can give her. It’s no different in here than out in the rest of the world, but it’s entirely different in the sense that he is her only choice.

Magda wants and needs affection, companionship—admit it, she tells herself, sex—and he is the only choice. She knows that he will never accept anyone else having her. It would be not only a rejection and a disappointment, but a humiliation.

Magda has been around enough to know that a man in Adán Barrera’s situation cannot allow himself to be humiliated. It could be literally fatal—if you’re humiliated, it’s because you’re weak. If you’re weak, you’re a target.

So if she wants a man, it has to be Adán.

And why not?

True, Adán’s older and not beautiful like Emilio or handsome like Jorge, but he’s kind of cute and not at all repulsive like some of the older bosses she’s seen. He’s nice, he’s polite, he’s considerate. He dresses well, he’s smart, interesting, and well-spoken.

And he’s rich.

Adán can provide her with a life in this prison vastly better than she could otherwise have. With him, she’s protected, privileged, and she has the “little” things that make life in this hellhole just tolerable.

Without him, those things go away, along with—much more important—his protection. If he withdraws that, she knows that sexual assaults will quickly follow, and she’ll become a pass-around item among first the guards and then the prisoners.

She sees it happening with the other two women.

They have sex for liquor, food, and drugs. Especially drugs. One of the women looks catatonic most of the time, the other—clearly psychotic now—sits naked in her cell and displays her genitals to anyone who passes by.

So Magda knows that it’s just a matter of time before she gives herself to Adán, and while she tells herself that it’s not rape, she’s also smart enough to know that it’s definitely a power relationship with her on the bottom.

Adán has the power, so he can have her.

They both know this, neither speaks it, and he doesn’t press things. But she knows that she can’t let it go on until it becomes a joke, until laughs and whispers go around the prison that she is making a fool of the lovesick

If Adán ever heard one of those jokes, she knows her throat could be slit and her body tossed literally to the dogs.

He would have to do it, to restore his honor.

Magda has heard the stories about the woman who spurned Adán’s uncle and ended up with her head cut off and her children tossed to their deaths off a bridge. This man Adán, she reminds herself—this polite, shy man—threw two small children off a bridge.

Or so the story goes.

So when, after four “dates,” he asks her to dinner in his cell, they both know that the evening is going to end in his bed.

Adán looks across the table at Magda.

“Are you enjoying your dinner?” he asks.

“Yes, it’s good.”

It should be, Adán thinks. The swordfish was specially flown in from Acapulco packed in ice. The wine should meet her approval. He knows all about Magda by now, of course, about her background, her youthful affair with the young cocaine trafficker; more important, her longer relationship with Jorge Estrada.

The Colombian had made a foolish mistake in not paying Nacho to bring product in through the airport. It would have been a simple matter of setting up a meeting, paying a modest fee, and Nacho would have graciously offered the use of his turf.

But Estrada was too arrogant or greedy to do that, and his willful disrespect had gotten his woman thrown into prison. Worse, he knew there was a problem, that’s why he sent her instead of doing it himself. Now it was too late—her case, like his own, was too high-profile for a quick, quiet fix.

Magda is staring at him.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “A business distraction.”

“Do I already bore you?” she asks, with the practiced, pretty pout of a pageant contestant.

“Not at all.”

“If there’s something you’d like to talk about…” She reaches across the table and touches his hand.

It’s an intimate gesture. “Adán, I don’t want to wait anymore.”

She stands up and walks to the partitioned area that comprises his bedroom. Turning her back to him, she starts to unzip her dress, but then stops, looks over her shoulder in a way that makes her neck long and elegant, and says, “Help, please?” because she knows that he wants to unwrap her like a gift.

Adán steps behind her and pulls the zipper down, past her shoulder blades and the small of her back, then he leans in and kisses her neck.

“If you do that,” Magda says, “I can’t stop you.”

He keeps kissing her neck and then pushes the dress down below her shoulders and cups her breasts. Then he slides the dress over her hips and down her legs until it pools like water at her feet.

She steps out of it and turns to him.

“Turnabout is fair play,” she says, unzipping his fly. “What do you like?”


“That’s good,” Magda says, “because I

Her love with Emilio had been pure passion.

Simple and direct.

With Jorge had come more sophistication, and he taught her things in bed, things he liked, things that any man would like.

Now she uses them all on Adán, because this cannot be,
cannot be,
a one-night stand after which he figures he’s had what he wanted and throws her back into the pool. He has to know that the whole sexual world is in her fingers, her mouth, her
and that she could give him things no other woman can.

But it’s also clear that he’s had some experience himself, because Adán knows his way around a woman’s body and isn’t selfish. Magda is surprised when she feels a climax building inside her, more surprised when she feels herself toppling over that waterfall, even more surprised that he’s still hard.

When she looks at him curiously, he says, “I was always taught, ladies first.”

There’s something in his eyes, this small superior glint, that makes her competitive with him, so she does something that she was going to save up for another time and she watches his eyes go wide, feels his breathing get hard, then hears him moan (you’re not distracted
are you?), and she keeps him there for a moment and cranes her neck up so her mouth is by his ear and demands, “Say my name.”

He doesn’t and she stops what she’s doing and feels him tremble.

“Say my name.”


She starts to move. “Say it again.”


“Scream it.”


She feels him come inside her.

It feels like safety.

They start a life of odd domesticity, given their circumstances.

Officially transferred from COC into the unit with the two other women, Magda actually moves to the cell next to Adán’s and spends most of her nights with him.

He gets up early to work and then joins her for breakfast. She goes back to her cell to read or work out, then they lunch together. He goes back to work and she reads more or watches television until they have dinner together.

Some afternoons he takes an hour or two off and they go out into the yard and join one of the volleyball games with other inmates, play basketball, or just get some sun. In the evenings it’s television or movie nights, although more and more often he wants to go to bed early and make love.

He’s enamored of her.

Lucía was pretty, petite, and thin. Magda’s body is lush—full hips, heavy breasts—a fruit orchard on a warm, damp morning.

And she’s smart.

A bit at a time, Magda reveals the extent of her knowledge about the business. She lets drop small bits of information about the cocaine trade, people she’s met—friends, acquaintances, connections. She casually mentions the places she’s been—South America, Europe, Asia, the United States—to show that, while she’s a proud Sinaloan, she’s no mere
hillbilly, either.

That she could be an asset to him, and not only in bed.

Adán doesn’t doubt that, actually.

It isn’t a matter of doubt, it’s a matter of trust.

Magda sees the blade.

A glint in the sunshine.

“Adán!” she screams.

He turns as the small, thin man—perhaps in his thirties—steps toward him, knife leveled horizontally and held back at the waist like a professional. The man thrusts the blade, Adán pivots, and the knife slices the small of his back. The attacker pulls back the blade to try again, but two of Los Bateadores are already on him, pin his arms behind him, and start to drag him off the volleyball court.

“Alive!” Adán yells. “I want him alive!”

He reaches around and feels the hot, sticky blood seep through his fingers. Francisco grabs him, then Magda, and then he blacks out.

His would-be assassin doesn’t know who hired him.

Adán believes him, and didn’t think that he would, actually. Juan Jesús Cabray is a good man with a knife, serving a pair of sixty-year sentences for dispatching two rivals in a Nogales bar with a blade. He did a couple of jobs for the old Sonora cartel back in the day, but that means nothing now. Now he’s tied to a pillar in a basement storage room as Diego lazily shoulders a baseball bat and prepares to swing.

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