The Cartel (77 page)

Marisol opens the door to the house to see men shoving Erika into her car. Shaking, she raises the pistol and shoots.

Chuy feels the bullet zing past his head. He looks up to see a woman in the doorway of the house, shooting a little pistol at them. Raising his rifle, he goes to blow her away, but then he remembers that Forty wants her alive. Then he hears an engine, turns to see headlights coming at him, and hears shots coming from the car that’s roaring down on them.

So he lowers the gun, climbs into the passenger seat, and says,
“Vamanos!”


Keller sees Marisol standing in the doorway, the pistol in her hand. She yells, “They have Erika!” and points down the road.

He keeps going.


Out into the countryside.

Off the pavement, onto dirt.

Down along the south side of the river under the cottonwoods. He can hear the car in front of him but it’s gaining ground, the sound of the engine fading.

A bullet hits his windshield, spiderwebbing the glass.

Keller keeps going but then the sniper takes out the front right tire. It blows out and he goes into a skid, fishtailing into the ditch. Opening the passenger door, he doesn’t make the mistake of using it as cover, because the professional
sicarios
shoot through car doors. So he dives out onto his stomach, rolls away from the car, and crawls back to the edge of the ditch.

He can hear the car getting farther away and knows what’s happened. They dropped a shooter off to stop the pursuit.

A bullet comes by his face.

The shooter must have a night scope.

And a high-powered rifle.

All Keller has is his pistol.

And no time if he’s going to help Erika.

He moves to make some noise, waits for the next shot and then yells in pain, and slides back into the ditch. It takes thirty seconds but then he hears the shooter coming toward him.

Keller waits.

The shot could come any second, but he waits until he hears the shooter’s feet crunch on some dry leaves. Then he lunges for the shooter’s ankles. Feels the burn of the muzzle flash on the side of his face, but takes the shooter’s feet out from under him and jumps on top of him, trapping the rifle against his chest.

Keller slams the pistol butt into the side of the shooter’s face again and again until he feels the body go limp. He pulls the SAT phone off the shooter’s hip, hits the button, and says, “I have one of your guys. Bring her back or I’ll kill him.”

He hears a thin, young voice answer casually, “Kill him.”

The line goes dead.

Keller goes back to the car and tries to get it out of the ditch, but it’s no good. Then he walks back to the wounded man.

He’s groggy, but conscious.

That’s good. Keller wants him conscious.

“Where did they take her?!” Keller yells.

“I don’t know.”

I don’t have time for this, Keller thinks. Erika doesn’t have time for this. He picks up the man’s rifle and slams the stock down onto his left leg. The bone shatters and the man screams.

“I don’t know!”

Keller grabs the man’s foot and shoves it toward his chest, driving the sharp jagged shin bone up through his flesh.

The man howls.

“Listen to me,” Keller says. “I’m going to hurt you bad. You’re going to beg me to kill you. But first you’re going to tell me where they took her.”

“I don’t know!”

Keller drives the gunstock onto the broken bone.

“I don’t
knooooooowwwwwww
!!!”

Keller grabs a piece of the torn flesh in his hands and rips downward, skinning it off the man’s leg.

The man babbles.

He’s a Zeta…He doesn’t know where they took the policewoman…Somewhere out in the countryside…Yes, he does know who the leader of the team was…They call him Jesus the Kid…they were supposed to take the policewoman and La Médica Hermosa…

“Where? Where is she?”

Keller rips more flesh off the leg.

The man vomits.

Cries, whimpers, tries to crawl away, his fingers digging in the dirt, a smear of blood behind him.


They search all night.

Marine and army helicopters shine searchlights down on the riverbed. Military vehicles cruise up and down every road and track. Ordinary citizens—if such courage can be described as ordinary—go out in their own pickup trucks to look for Erika Valles.

They don’t find her.

They do find her car, pulled off along the riverbank.


Chuy lies in an arroyo and watches all the commotion.

They dumped the car along the river and then dragged the woman police off to the south, through the old cotton fields and then into the desert.

Now she lies beside him.

He’d cut the sleeve off her shirt and stuffed it into her mouth, so she didn’t scream, not too loud anyway.

It’s time to go now, while the soldiers are looking along the river.

Using the arroyo as cover, he leads his team away.


They find Erika a little after dawn.

The vultures led them to the site.

Keller squats beside her, then personally collects what’s left of Erika Valles and gently places the pieces of her into a body bag.

He puts the jack of spades he found on her chest in his pocket.

The marines take him to Marisol’s house.

Now there are soldiers on guard out front, now there are
federales
and Chihuahua state police.

Now.

Colonel Alvarado stands outside the house by a knot of his soldiers. When Keller walks up to him, he says, “I’m so sorry to hear about—”

Keller launches the punch from the ground and hits him square in the mouth. Alvarado falls back into one of his soldiers, then, as his men start toward Keller, pulls his pistol.

Keller pulls his Sig Sauer and points it at his face.

A dozen rifle barrels come up, aimed at Keller.

“Do it,” Keller says. “Tell them to do it. Or my hand to fucking God I’ll kill you where you stand. I don’t care anymore.”

Alvarado wipes a smear of blood from his mouth. “Get out. Get out of my country.”

“It isn’t your country,” Keller says. “You don’t deserve this country.”

He feels someone grab his elbow and turns to swing.

It’s Orduña.

“Come on,” Orduña says. “These pigs aren’t worth it.”

He walks Keller into the house.

Marisol is sitting at the kitchen table, an untouched cup of tea on the table by her hand.

She looks up when Keller comes in.

A look that asks him to give her the world back.

He wishes he could. He’d give anything if he could.

But he shakes his head.

The look on her face is horrific. She grows old in an instant. Then she gets up. “I want to see her.”

“You don’t, Mari.”

“I have to go to her!”

Keller grabs her and holds her tight. “You don’t. I’m begging you. It’s nothing you want to see.”

“I want to take care of her.”

“I will,” Keller says. “I’ll take good care of her.”

Marisol breaks down sobbing. Keller finally persuades her to take a pill, and when she finally falls asleep, he walks outside.

The soldiers are gone, replaced with FES troopers.

“I need a vehicle,” he tells Orduña. “I need a jeep.”


We
can bring the body in,” Orduña says.

“I have to do it.”

Orduña orders a man to bring around a jeep, and the marines help Keller load the body bag onto the back and then strap it on.

There’s no undertaker in Valverde anymore, one of the bitterest ironies of the whole thing. Keller has to drive to Juárez, where the undertakers have become rich in the city’s one thriving industry. He asks Orduña, “Look after her.”

“She’ll be safe.”

Keller gets in and starts west toward Juárez.

The soldiers respectfully let him through the checkpoint, and he delivers the body to a funeral home that Pablo Mora refers him to. The reporter knows all the funeral homes and he and Ana meet Keller at the one he recommends.

“How’s Marisol?” Ana asks.

“Not good.”

“I’ll go,” Ana says.

“That would be nice.”

The funeral director isn’t shocked at the condition of Erika’s body. He’s seen too much of it. He gives Keller this Humpty-Dumpty line that would be sick if it weren’t sincere. “We will put her back together again.”

“Okay.”

“We’ll make her look nice. You’ll see.”

She looked nice before, Keller thinks.

She looked plenty nice.

A twenty-year-old woman brave enough to volunteer for a job in which everyone else had been killed? And they murdered her for it, and cut her up, just to show everyone who’s really in charge.

No, Keller thinks, just to show
you
who’s really in charge.

He heads back out to the jeep.

They take him on the street and they’re very good.

He hears the footsteps but someone has a pistol jammed into his kidneys before he can pull his weapon, and they move him into the van, push him to the floor, get a hood over his head, and have the van moving again within seconds.

Keller feels the van drive out of the city.

The urban sounds fade and they’re in the country.

They drive for hours. Finally, the van pulls over and Keller tries to prepare himself, knowing that you’re never prepared for this. He hears the van door slide open, then feels hands picking him up, taking him out, and guiding his steps.

The air feels good.

He hears someone give an order and recognizes the voice as that of Colonel Alvarado.

Alvarado works for Adán Barrera, so Keller wonders how long it will be before they force him to his knees and put a bullet in the back of his head.

The hood comes off, and Keller sees Alvarado.

He expected that.

He didn’t expect Tim Taylor.


Adán heard a gurgling sound in the distance and then realized that it was close, that it came from his own throat as he heard about Magda.

It was Nacho who brought him the news.

Nacho, the harbinger, the raven, with the discreet bearing and hushed solicitous voice of a funeral director. And yet there was this salacious undertone, this frisson of pleasure as he described what the Zetas did to her.

“I’ll call you back,” Adán said.

He staggered up the stairs.

Did they have to do that? Strip her, torture her, slice her up, carve their filthy calling card into her? Did they have to do
that
?

He went to the bathroom, knelt in front of the toilet, and threw up. He vomited again and again until his stomach muscles hurt and the back of his throat was raw and then he laid his face in his forearms on the toilet.


I’m
the one who’s supposed to have morning sickness,” he heard Eva say.

He turned around and looked up to see her smiling at him.

“Something I ate,” he said, “didn’t agree with me, I guess.”

“You can’t eat spicy anymore,” Eva said. “I keep telling the cook but she doesn’t listen. We should let her go.”

“Whatever you want.”

Eva ran some cold water, took a washcloth, and held it against his forehead. This was her newest persona—maternal, caregiving, beatific. She’d been honing it since she came back from the doctor with the news that she was pregnant. Two months in, she already had that storied glow, although Adán suspected that was cosmetic.

When Eva had cared for him sufficiently, she went back to bed. Adán brushed his teeth and rinsed his mouth and then went back downstairs.

It’s over, he decided.

This overabundance of caution, this sensitivity to time and situation. It’s time to deal with his enemies, put an end to things, settle them once and for all.

Time to settle with Ochoa.

Time to settle with Keller.

He called Nacho back and gave the necessary orders.

Now he sits and waits for the man to be delivered to him.


“How long have you been working with Barrera?” Keller asks. “The whole goddamn time?”

“No,” Taylor says.

They’re standing outside a prefab building out in the country. It could be anywhere in the north, but Keller knows from the length of the drive that they’re probably still in the Juárez Valley.

“Just
now,
” Keller says. “You’re just working with him
now.

“The Zetas killed one of our guys!” Taylor yells. “And I will stop at
nothing
…You of all people should understand that. You think I like it? I’ve spent my life fighting scumbags like Adán Barrera, but now it’s either him or the Zetas, and I choose him.”

“So you’ve made a deal,” Keller says. “What am I, the kicker?”

“It’s not what you think.”

“Go to hell.”

Alvarado starts in. “You North Americans are clean because you
can
be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or as a nation. You’re experienced enough to know that we’re not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we are given the choice of taking the money or dying. We’ve been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? The country was falling apart, violence getting worse every day. The only way to end the chaos was to pick the most likely winner and help him win. And you North Americans despise us for it at the same time you send the billions of dollars and the weapons that fuel the violence. You blame us for selling the product that you buy. It’s absurd.”

And convenient, Keller thinks. “You sided with Barrera and then grabbed with both hands—money, land, power.”

“Just listen,” Taylor says. “For once in your life, Keller, just goddamn listen.”

They take him inside.


He’s aged.

Adán Barrera always had a boyish face, but that’s gone now, along with the shock of black hair that always fell over his forehead. His hair is cut short, there are hints of gray, and lines around the eyes now.

He’s aged, Keller thinks, and so have I.

Keller sees bodyguards stand within sight but out of earshot. They’re going to shoot me right in front of him, Keller thinks. Or he’ll do it himself if he’s grown the balls.

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