|The City II: Nightclub
Author: Guede Mazaka
Fred swept a hand across his forehead and braced himself, then nodded at Carolina. In perfect unison, they grabbed the ends of the sheets and used them to scoop Sands off the bed.
"Fucking shitbag cockless-oh, it's morning." Sands fluffed hair out of his face and bounced into the bathroom a good two seconds before Fred could get there. Which meant that that room wouldn't be available for the next half-hour if some miracle didn't intervene.
//Prick takes longer showers than I do//, Carolina sniffed. //Every single day. And the hot water takes forever to refill. I can't believe no one has shot him yet.//
"You never, ever kill people where you're living if you can help it," El's voice suddenly commented from behind them. Fred's and Carolina's subsequent yelps and jerks of surprise didn't seem to affect him at all; he swept past them like a dapper whirlwind, scattering packages and coat and guns in his wake. "Too messy. And the backyard still counts."
At that, Fred's eyebrow went up. When he noticed the unwrinkled state of El's clothing and the unmistakable spring-step of someone who'd gotten a good night's sleep, it arched even further. "I take it you're speaking from experience. And that you don't need to shave, or have breakfast."
"I already ate." While lighting up with one hand, El pulled out a set of thin and short metal rods. Lockpicks. He hummed quietly as he slipped one in and expertly twisted it until the faint clicking of tumblers could be heard. Then he took the cigarillo from his hand and casually handed it to Fred, who blindly took it. What was he supposed to do with the butt now?
El didn't seem inclined to explain, as he was slowly pushing the door open so the hinges didn't creak. About halfway there, Sands caught on. "Hey! Fuck off or I'll take an eggbeater to your spleen!"
"Do that, gatito, and I'll put this cane up your ass as a substitute backbone," El replied, completely unconcerned, as he took one long brown-wrapped parcel, presumably the cane, from its place leaning against the wall and tossed it into the bathroom. "And you've got ten minutes."
"Or what?" Though the muffling effect of the wood made it difficult to tell, Sands did sound a little less nasty than he should. Possibly surprise at actually being given a gift, Fred surmised. Interesting…despite his apparent desire to keep a protective distance around himself, El was showing some signs of care.
El rolled his eyes and muttered a prayer fragment. "Or I won't shave you."
An odd, squeaky silence, and then "Okay" in one of the meekest tones Fred had ever heard from Sands.
Then again, this could be El's way of playing Miguel and them: just enough involvement to distract them and keep them blissfully unaware while he went off and wrecked himself to the point where death was inevitable. Not quite the warrior's way, but pretty damn close.
Fred wondered how he could think so objectively about a man that he'd spent every single rational moment of the past five years chasing. It didn't matter that in the end, El hadn't been directly responsible for Victoria's death; he was still an integral link of the event-chain that had led up to it. Fred should hate him. He had hated El. He had hunted him, mostly for purposes of personal revenge. And now that they were in the same room?
Apparently, forgiveness wasn't a conscious thing. Nor was it as kind as it should be. There were raw, ragged holes where Fred's vengeance and grief had previously eaten at him, and he had no idea with what he was supposed to fill them.
Come to think of it, he also wouldn't mind knowing why his world now tilted a little every time El came near. Like he was now, giving Carolina a funnel-shaped bundle that proved to be a bunch of fragrant flowers. Her favorite, if Fred remembered correctly.
White teeth flashed, abruptly transforming El's face from dark and dangerous to something brilliantly destructive. Carolina visibly twitched, and Fred felt his vision start to spin slightly off-center. //Sorry about last night,// El apologized. //I didn't mean to insult you. But I hate going to nightclubs. I always have.//
She tentatively took the blooms and sniffed them, long and deep so her neck stretched into a graceful curve. El's eyes flickered blacker for a moment, but cleared before she looked back up. //I thought Domino sang at one…//
And that was definitely irony gliding about the corners of his mouth as he smiled again. //Yes. But back then…// he blew out a breath and glanced away, a little sad nostalgia shading into his face //…back then I was on stage, too. It's different up there than on the floor-but you know that.//
//Yeah.// Carolina took another whiff of the flowers before she grinned conspiratorially at El. //I hate schmoozing, too. And Marquez has been such a creep to me.//
//I'll take care of that. I swear.// El returned his gaze to her as he spoke, entire body and voice changing. Even the air around him seemed to thicken and clot, like aging bloodstains. She shivered, but didn't drop her eyes until he nodded and walked over to the packages he'd left on the table.
//I'll-see you after dinner//, she rushed out, and then Carolina was exiting the room, still appearing calm but moving a little too fast for true serenity.
Himself not very steady, Fred took a seat and watched as El undid paper and string to display a small heap of hand-rolled cigarillos. "I take it that's my gift," he commented, permitting a touch of sarcasm into his voice. It was all too pat to be believed, really.
"No, it's your medicine." El sat down and propped up his chin on his hands, regard eerily clear and unwavering. Like the sheen of a knife. Or the burn of death flushing into the nose and down to the lungs.
drowning in water hot water not water heat fire desert--
--"Stop. That." A hand snatched at Fred, plucking away the cigarillo he still held and holding it under his nostrils so the smoke could rake spice all the way up to his teetering mind. He snapped back to find himself out of his chair and slumped into El's arms, hands clutching into the other man's shirt. "It's only going to get worse until Barillo dies."
"What is it?" Fred demanded, hastily pushing himself up. Before he could retreat, El had stubbed out the butt in an ashtray and had seized his hands, locking him in place. "What-" tested the grip, but only found it unmercifully tight "-what did you do?"
The other man looked at him for a moment, fingers squeezing so Fred winced and hissed, then let him go and walked over to a particularly large bundle, which El had deposited by the hallway door. He squatted down and began to unwrap it as he talked, monotone and somber. "There are herbs in them with the tobacco. If you're in too deep, the smell shocks you out. Dulls the headache, too. You'll need them, because of what Barillo's doing. You know we don't just fight with guns and knives, right?"
"So I noticed." Fred's wrists were hot and sore, and the more he rubbed them, the more the sparks spread. He crouched back in the chair and glared at the guitar revealing itself beneath El's hands. "You, G, Dean-or did you not know about him?"
"I found out a few hours ago, but it wasn't that surprising. Miguel's always been good at protecting himself." With almost excessive care, El set the guitar on top of a dresser, then tossed the brown paper wads into the wastebasket. He didn't waste a single movement-everything was pared down to its essential grace.
Fred felt his cheeks grow warm and silently cursed himself as he covered his face with his hands. What the hell had happened to him? Since when did he start ignoring the facts: El was a killer. A lawbreaker, and most of the time, one that didn't seem to feel any remorse.
Well, that was an easy question to answer. When the facts had gotten him dunked into the river, and the mutable midnight grays had torn him back to shore. But still…
He picked up one of the cigarillos and gingerly sniffed along its length. Sharp sweet, dusty spices from wind and earth. And just a hint of leather, as if El had rolled them on his gauntlet. It stirred something in his head and his chest that hadn't responded to anything in a very long time.
you do like him
As off-kilter as Sands was, he wasn't often wrong. Even less so than the blinding.
Fuck, Fred thought. "Thanks," he said.
Sands finished rubbing his hair dry and did up the last buttons on his shirt. He caught himself reflexively trying to check his appearance in the mirror he knew was on his right and ripped out a curse. Flung it at the unseen glass, wishing he could actually shatter it.
Ajedrez was a dead, dead woman.
Barillo was a walking homicide-to-be as well, but Sands could somewhat understand the double-cross there, so he was willing to let that tombstone come from someone else's hands. But not her. Not the bitch that had laid with him-laid by him, whispering secrets and plans and promises.
"Are you done?"
When Sands jumped, he knocked his elbow painfully against the towel rack. Damn it, chains and cloth and spur, but the man was still more quiet sneaking in than bad luck. "Stop doing that-"
Fingers were suddenly pressing hard into the hinges of his jaw, effectively silencing any further words. His mouth opened anyway, and the hand lifted him onto tiptoes before swinging him around to perch his ass on the sink. El's grip relaxed a little after that, and the fucking strong bean-prick smeared lather all over Sands' face. He used a repetitive, continuous fingertip-swirl that rubbed contentment into Sands' skin and got him to calm down just in time to clamp his hands to the sides of the sink. Because there was steel gliding all over his face, flicking cold just under his eye and circling his throat like a hungry winter beast. Little twinges of pain in its wake, where the hairs caught and pulled before surrendering to the cut. No blood so far, but that was a variable of El's mood. Which Sands wasn't sure he could read.
On the other hand, El apparently could crack open Sands like the proverbial book. And that shouldn't put such a weirdly warm, fuzz-covered feeling in Sands' stomach. Maybe it was just a family thing, considering Miguel's paranormal pair and the enormous house library…
"Hold still," El whispered, and then his fingers were holding Sands' chin up by dint of their tight wind in his hair. His spine was beginning to creak in protest, and his hands were so numb from clenching that he didn't know if they were even there. He was trembling, but it wasn't all from the strain. Holy, holy God. And there was no way El could be missing that-not with the way he was pushing Sands back into the sink.
"I…am. Jesusfucking Satan, would you…oh, shit…" Sands tried not to wriggle. He tried not to whimper, either, but his mind had shrunk to the point where it couldn't do more than one at a time. "Oh, fuck…would you just…"
//Gatito.// Like an endearment, almost, except for that nasty bite of mockery at the end. //Done//, El proclaimed with a last scrape, and Sands wanted to scream. Mostly in aggravation.
He was handed the damp towel for wiping off his face, which he morosely did. For all of the five seconds before El's other hand was sliding down the front of his trousers and fucking scratching. Sands tottered into a welcoming shoulder and sank his nails into it as if otherwise he'd be swept away. He groaned into his scrap of cotton. It tasted like fuzzy salt, definitely not his preferred flavor, but-"Christ, pleasepleaseplease…"
Was he begging? Uh…yeah. Shit. This was not-oh. Oh. Rough silk skin. Nails. Undoing his pants, and oops, there went his towel. Oh, well. Someone else could pick it up, because firm close grip, and El was entirely too good at that…fuck. Hotsofthotsoftburningburning-"Motherfuck!" Sands keened, twisting against the scorching-wet towel El had thrown against his cock, while still pulling and teasing--
And he came, going limper and limper. Good thing an arm decided to wrap about his waist, because without it Sands might have gone into a very embarrassing no-knees slide to the floor.
El's chuckle briefly tickled the top of his head as said piece of cotton cleaned him off. He was set up against the wall and had his clothes straightened, then got pushed out of the bathroom with a pat on the ass that wasn't quite a smack. His cane rolled into his foot a moment afterward, but he figured he could grab it in a moment. When his head had returned to his shoulders. //See you after breakfast//, El called after him.
"Yeah…" Sands' legs folded a second before he reached the nearest chair and he sank to the carpet. "Fred? I think he's enjoying this too much."
"Or he's only trying to keep you too wobbly and lightheaded to-"
"-fuck up his shit?" Sands nodded and dragged a shaking hand through his hair. He really needed to tie it back. Tie. Hell, fuck and absolute damnation. "Well, either way…it's working. Shit, is it working."
El stared in the mirror, his hands braced on either side of the sink, and scrutinized the raw, gaunt reflection he saw there. He closed his eyes, then opened them to the same dying crackle that had been there before.
//Give me the strength//, he whispered, pointedly not defining to whom he was speaking. //Give me the strength to be what I was. And to remember what I am not.//
Barillo stared from his cigar to the spirals of smoke wreathing the ceiling fan. He might have been contemplating a particularly striking objet d'art. And considering the number of those scattered around the room, that might have been a possibility, if it'd been any other time.
He slowly lowered his other hand and pulled the pistol in it back across his desk, holding it next to the cigar. Both blew off gray wisps, both could cost him quite a lot. "El is back in town. We didn't know. Why?"
A peek at his peripheral vision revealed that everyone else was still fixated on the fresh body sprawling across his beautiful Turkey carpeting. He kicked off the side of the desk and spun around with a squeal that jolted all those moronically pathetic miscreants out of their stunned contemplation and back to pissing themselves, like they should be. "Why? Why are you all so stupid? Why did no one know, why did no one not find out, and why the fuck is no one cleaning up my floor?" He dropped the gun and yanked out the shotgun from its secret holster beneath the desk. "Do you all-"
//We'll take care of the body--//
//I'll get someone to clean this up immediately, sir-//
And in less than half a second, they were all gone. Except for the only competent people in the entire room: Billy Chambers, Cucuy, and Lucia. Such a pity she turned out to be an only child, Barillo thought, as he'd always done whenever he caught sight of her beautiful efficiency. As good a street captain as she made, her greatest value still lay in being his heiress, in the potential power she offered to her suitors. Soon she would have to settle down with whoever Barillo chose and have children. Continue the line. Ajedrez wouldn't be happy about that, but Barillo didn't have a choice. She was his best bargaining chip, and now was the time to play her.
"You should've let me go," Cucuy grunted, pitted scars even more fearsome in the wink cast off by the cross-handled knife he was flipping over his fingers. He shifted his slouch and tugged at his leather vest, revealing parts of huge bullet scars on his chest. "I would've taken care of him."
"Like your men took care of him in Mexico." Ajedrez nodded primly, a contemptuous glint in her eyes. "Exactly. We might have had him in negotiations, and then you had to try and kill him before orders. You're the one who drove him up here."
Barillo raised a hand before they could get any deeper in their bickering. "Enough. What's done is done. But I want enough bones broken to make sure it's never done again. Do I make myself clear?"
Reluctant nods all around. Still looking balefully at Cucuy, Ajedrez muttered, "At least now we know why Miguel would bother saving Sands and Abberline."
"There's a girl, too." The shadowy air around Cucuy thickened until he was encased in translucent darkness. Like a shroud of coal crepe, making his voice eerily distant. "The singer. Carolina."
A laugh startled out of Chambers. "Marquez's latest? Makes things a bit awkward, don't it?"
Ajedrez released her own laugh, which was a good deal quieter and sharper. "Not in the least. I've seen her; she wouldn't go for that bastard if he was the last man on Earth. No…she's for El." Lucia abruptly got up and came over to kiss her father on the cheek. "I'll go escort Marquez to the Perla Negra and see how things are."
"Cucuy," Barillo snapped before the other man could comment. "Last week's shipment still isn't here. Go find out why, and bring me the fingers of whoever's responsible."
//Sir.// Cucuy got up and sauntered out of the room, well behind Ajedrez. Back in the room, Chambers passed a hand over his brow and adopted a patient expression that didn't fool Barillo one bit. Billy had been a good bodyguard in the beginning, but he'd long since lost that essential edge. A pity that even dulled, he was still too good to get rid of right away.
"You're staying here," Barillo informed him. "I'm going out to a meeting later."
"You might as well take them," Miguel said in a reasonable tone. He propped up his feet on the nearest footstool and resettled Dean on his lap, then took up the next paper and glanced over the numbers.
Opposite him and perching on the arm of another chair, Carolina emanated an uncooperative silence. Miguel clamped down on his sudden irrational urge to drop a frog or something equally nasty into her dress, like he would have done when they were younger and both Ramirez's wards. //Carolina. They haven't been out of the house in a month. They have to get used to people again, and this is going to be the only chance before the real fighting starts.//
//They'll get in the way-they'll mess up my act. I know they will.// Her bottom lip came out in a deadly pout. //Miguel, you can't make me…//
The door opened and El entered, hauling Sands along by way of a tight hold on the scruff of the other man's neck. "Go to hell!" the blind man was yelling. "I am not going just so you strap one of these stupid suits onto me-" grabbed handfuls of his baggy zoot-style trousers "-and then dump me in a corner. And I hate dancing, and she can't sing."
//Jackass, what do you mean-// Carolina started, but then she got a decent look at El. Freshly-pressed suit, perfectly tailored to the contours of his body. He'd tied his hair back as well. //Oh…good evening.//
//Evenin'.// El backed Sands up against her chair and bent him over in a fierce kiss. "You are going. You're going because you need to learn how to use this thing…"
Fred, who'd quietly come in after them, handed El the heavy silver-tipped cane, which was promptly slapped into Sands' hand. Abberline ended up next to Carolina, looking not quite comfortable in his new clothing, which was cut similar to Sands'. He produced a cigarillo from somewhere, then noticed Carolina eying it. "I've switched brands, in a manner of speaking," he sardonically explained.
"Glad to see everyone's getting along with everyone else." Miguel sounded sarcastic. Carolina hoped he was being sarcastic, because hopeful was something for the blind, and one sightless man in the household was plenty. "El, this is Dean Corso. He does my accounting, shares my bed, and takes care of a few other things."
"So I've heard." El let Sands up off the back of the chair, whereupon the other man plastered himself to Fred and huffily dusted off his clothes. Though, Carolina was interested to see, he didn't ever let go of the walking stick.
El went over to Dean, who reflexively flinched back into Miguel before correcting himself and wordlessly offering up the rabbit-smile as an apology. In return, El smiled like a wolf and extended a hand, which Corso took in a quick, tentative handshake. //It's always good to know that my cousin has many allies in many places. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Corso.//
"Honored to meet you." Dean appeared a little more wary than enthusiastic. "You're constantly spoken of in this house, and I'm glad to finally be able to put a face to the stories."
"Spoken of in other places, too, but probably not as nicely." El gazed at the far windows, whose drapes were pulled back to reveal the blazing end of day. "You're the accountant? Well, let me apologize in advance."
Miguel started and looked sharply at his cousin, then pushed himself and Dean out of the chair. //I think it's time to go.//
Which snapped El out of whatever spell into which he'd disappeared. He grinned again, but this time, it was genuinely amused. "As you say," he murmured, offering an arm to Carolina.
She took it, feeling as if she'd just stepped into someone else's story. Then she mentally smacked herself in order to remind herself of the vow she'd made to stop being so damn silly around El. It was really stupid, after all. He was a man, and he was family. Even if he was also very, very handsome in a suit-even better-looking than in those tight mariachi pants-and smelled very nice.
And no, she wasn't strange because she liked the smell of cordite and leather. She was just used to it.
//You know, Miguel used to snitch my ties and shirts when he was younger//, El whispered in her ear, surprising her a little. //Then he'd go and try to sneak into all the-//
//El//, came the-holy Mother of God, Miguel was embarrassed-hiss from behind them.
El turned around as they walked, an innocent expression on his face. //What? You did.//
A slightly pink-cheeked Miguel shoved Fred and Sands into El's other side, then detoured down a side-passage with a Dean that was obviously bursting with curiosity about Miguel's adolescent hijinks. //You go on. I have to see to some business, and then I'll meet you at the club.//
When they had gotten to the car, El unexpectedly halted in his tracks and stared at their driver. "Belini."
"Sir," smarmed the one-eyed man. Sands was also choking a bit, though he was covering it up by snuggling into El's coat. //Evenin', ma'am, other sirs. The Perla Negra?//
//Ah…right.// Still cautious, El helped Carolina into the back seat, then ushered Fred in after her. Sands, however, refused to detach himself from El's hip, and so he ended up in the front passenger seat with El. A quick check of the cars of gunmen escorting them along, and then they were off. Lights and dark flashing by the window like so many blurred paintings. Fred didn't seem to be in the mood to talk, and Carolina didn't feel like making conversation with El when that goddamned gringo was tucked into his lap-where she should be. Sands had gotten to down and actually bring El back, so it was only fair that he let the rest of them have some time with her cousin.
Carolina was determined to at least get a dance with El. Then she could talk to him, find out what he was going to do here, and whether he still missed Domino. And if anyone, even Mr. Big Shot Marquez, got in the way of that, then to hell with her act. She had other ones, just as good, and woe to anyone who made her resort to those.
Fred tossed off the rest of his drink and handed it to a passing waiter, then resigned himself to more of being pushed and shoved around by the giddy crowd. The Perla Negra was one of the topflight nighttime hot spots in town, made all the more so by the fact that, although Lobos-owned, it lay only two streets down from City Hall in the middle of the unspoken neutral zone. And its main attraction was the best woman in town for spice, splash and singing.
Carolina wasn't on for another fifteen minutes, so Fred figured he could play nice until then and sneak out for some solitary quiet when everyone was distracted by her. At present, he was trying to put as much distance between himself and El, who was chatting it up with Fideo and Lorenzo. Who was a major impediment to all of the rational thinking that Fred needed to do, and needed to do soon.
So was Sands, but last Fred had seen him, his colleague had been gleefully tripping up inebriated dancers coming off the floor. It hadn't taken him long at all to get used to being in a mob again. Whereas Fred on the other hand was suffering from a constant, low uneasiness that spiked whenever someone jostled him. Which was approximately five times per breath. God, he needed a cigarillo.
He finally squeezed himself out from a gaggle of fluttery girls, none of which looked old enough to be in the club, and escaped to a dark corner where he could smoke in peace. Unfortunately for him, his arm was snagged before he could even strike the match, and a flame-haired girl whirled him out onto the floor.
"Mary Kelly," she said, simply and with surprisingly little simper. Her dancing was very good as well, which helped cover up the fact that Fred was quite rusty. "Who are you? I don't think I've seen you here before."
He hesitated, not sure what her connections were, but she was rather pretty. And polite, to merely wait and smile while he made up his mind instead of nagging at him. "Fred Abberline."
Her eyebrow rose. "Oh, British. I love that accent…it's like furry fireworks. So what do you do?"
A response that threatened to skate Fred's eyebrows straight off his forehead. He hastily recovered himself in time to maneuver them out of an impeding collision with another couple, then bent nearer and urgently whispered, "So you've never heard of me before? Never?"
Mary's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Should I have?"
"Never mind." So his "corruption" and disappearance hadn't even made the newspapers. Bile clawed up his throat, and he glanced away from her innocent, inquisitive face. To El, who'd somehow ended up taking Sands for a turn on the floor. "I'm on vacation right now."
"Oh, really? So…do you have any plans?"
El, whose gift of cigarillos had immensely helped to dull the headaches and the more horrifying daytime vision. El, who by laws of the Mob could have taken Fred whenever he wanted to, whether Fred was willing or no, but had not. And had shown no signs of doing so.
"No, not really," he answered distractedly, twisting them around so he could keep an eye on that dark head.
A man who had killed more men than Fred could probably count, yet who dearly loved his family and friends. A man who didn't seem to even notice the rules Fred had spent so much time defending. Or the rules that the rest of the Underworld had spent so much time creating.
Lancing pain suddenly shot up from toe to knee, making Fred jerk away. He stared, bewildered, at the exasperated face that had appeared in front of him.
"You could've just told me no," Mary huffed before stomping off. Not knowing how to react, Fred just watched her go. Right into an intercept path with Lorenzo, who put on a huge smile and swiped two champagne flutes from a passing tray.
He stiffened, then slowly turned around to see Marquez, accompanied by a beautiful woman that, after getting over his shock, he placed as Ajedrez. And his old boss, who was the one who'd spoken. "Si-Director Warren."
"Well, isn't this a pretty coincidence," the other man nervously laughed, eyes flicked from Fred to Ajedrez, whose cool smile seemed to jack down the temperature at least twenty degrees. "One of our most wanted criminals. I'll thank you not to resist arrest-"
"-what are you talking about?" interrupted another voice as an arm unexpectedly draped about Fred's waist, and another folded his wrists up against his front so he was pulled back into a lean chest. El's profile slid past Fred's cheek, a vaguely polite, mostly predatory grin on his face. "Charles Warren. I haven't seen you in…yes, it has been five years, hasn't it?"
"Ah…er…" the man might as well have a plate of melting ice cream "…yes. It's-very good to see you, ehrm-El. I-I didn't know you were back in town."
"Neither did I, or else I would have sent over an invitation to dinner." Marquez's bored expression had swiftly animated, transforming him from just another pleasing face to rough and ominously handsome. Beside him, Ajedrez had also sparked to life, elegant statue suddenly full-blooded woman.
She was eying El in a manner that did not sit well with Fred. El was holding him in a way that made him want to sigh in relief and sink back into the lovely encompassing comfort. And the conflicting parts of Fred's mind were gradually ripping him into pencil shavings.
"It's an honor to meet such an influential figure in Los Diablos history," Marquez continued, extending a hand that El shook firmly but, Fred thought, a touch of reluctance. "Are you visiting family?"
"Yes." A mouth skimmed down the side of Fred's face, marking out a streak of fire, then angled back to gently nip at the back of his neck. El left a kiss that was far too light on Fred's nape, then looked up again. "And I'm seeing to some personal business."
"Very good," Warren muttered in a frightened tone. He'd gone white as chalk, and his departing smile was more of a gnarl of lips and teeth. "Well, I'd better get back to the office. Hate to leave it for too long, considering the kind of mistakes that can be made."
"Have a good evening, then," El called after him.
The tangle of happy, alcohol-sloshing people erased Warren from sight like a teacher erasing equations from a blackboard, and everything abruptly coalesced in Fred's head. When El nuzzled him again, he let his chin fall and his neck bend into it, relaxing into the other man's grip. That made El hesitate for a moment, but the start was so infinitesimal that only Fred caught it. "Miss Ajedrez," El greeted. "You've come a very long way since the last time I saw you."
"Indeed." She met his gaze with her own opaque one, but something about her was off. Stirring eddies at the borders of Fred's senses.
The change in music startled all of three, and they simultaneously turned to watch the new act, the last before Carolina, pranced onto the stage. Marquez's eyeballs were almost drooling with delight at the short skirts of the dancers, and Fred noted the flash of revulsion on Ajedrez's face as she saw how her date reacted. She gingerly unhooked her arm from Marquez and beamed graciously when he twisted back to see what was the matter. "I'm afraid I've monopolized your time, Geraldo. I know you want to speak to a few of the men at the bar."
"Oh, no, you've been an absolute angel." His smile revealed the chipped, yellow teeth of a boar. "Isn't she?"
"Of course, General," El replied.
Marquez instantly went rigid and glassy-eyed with rage, but quickly calmed. "I'm afraid you've confused my rank. I never rose above Major. Now, I do apologize, but as Lucia has mentioned, duty calls."
"It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance." El made a slight bow as the other man made his ruffled exit, then turned to Ajedrez. "May I help you?"
"I was wondering if I could trouble you for a dance, if you don't already have a partner for this song." She didn't seem concerned at all with her date's less-than-elegant exodus; on the contrary, her expression was a bit too satisfied. Though it soured slightly as she looked at Fred.
Well, to hell with her. To hell with the law. None of it had made the least particle of difference in Fred's life-his wife's death, his vengeful hunt of those responsible…and now this feeling of clarity and warmth and security, which he had been so long without. Which El had somehow managed to plant back in him.
Music. Light, drifting notes of a spare melody. There, with El, was where Fred was going.
Wherever the hell that was.
Abberline was favoring her with a very impressively baleful look, which made Lucia want to laugh-and made her think. What the hell was it about El that turned everyone, even a man as famously strait-laced as Agent Abberline, to him?
And that why she'd put up with Marquez's pathetic leering and groping to come here tonight. She wanted to know what the source of El's strength was. And she wanted to know if it could be taken.
Something about the way El was regarding her, his eyes veiled with knowledge, simultaneously appealed to and warned her off. "If you don't mind waiting, I'd like to see Frederick back to my table," he finally answered.
Which shocked her, though she did her damnedest not to show it. Abberline didn't seem to like the decision very much, either, but he didn't raise a single objection as they quickly wove their way through the crowd.
//…but why not? Why the fuck is the rum gone?//
//Shut up already, Fideo.// Lorenzo had a pair of girls latched onto either side of him, but that didn't slow his reflexes at all when Lucia, El and Abberline approached. He straightened and never took his eyes from them, though he kept up his end of the conversation with his ever-drunken partner. //You can get shit-faced just as well on tequila. You like tequila better, anyway.//
//They're out of that, too. Hi, Ajedrez.// Irked and showing it, Fideo lurched into the booth just in time to keep a murderous-looking Sands from lunging across the table top at Lucia.
"You bitch," he hissed in a voice of pure acid, and then he was silent.
She wanted to smirk, but a rolling tension, like the stretched second before a lightning strike, crashed into her side. El's eyes, still betraying no emotion, slanted over before directing themselves at the glowering Sands. He tucked a robotic Abberline into Sands' free side and then, with a little help from Lorenzo, propped Fideo upright.
"She's asked El for a dance, and he said yes," Abberline told Sands while staring up at El, voice expressionless and eyes bruised.
"Don't," El ordered, very quiet and hard like the threat of a blade beneath the chin. Lucia couldn't tell whether he was speaking to her, or to them. Or both. And crazy as it was, they all listened to him. Even she did-goddamn it, and she was used to shrugging off everyone. Boys, men, father-everyone. Everyone. "Sands. You learn how to use it yet?"
"What the hell does that have to do-oh." The other man suddenly uncoiled himself and sprawled over the bench, limbs nonchalantly overlapping with the puzzled, fuming Abberline's. "Yeah, well, I'm working on it. Want to make sure I do things right this time. Go have fun, kids."
Fred dug nails into Sands' arm, which didn't elicit so much as a wince. Just a slightly strained, "Knock that off. It's fine."
"Really." He hoped Sands was registering the sarcasm. Actually-no, he didn't. Because that way he got to knock the sense back into the other man before doing the same to El.
"Yes." Lightning-fast, Sands shifted gears and shoved Fred down onto the bench. "Listen, you romantic idiot," he growled, "I can't kill Ajedrez here. Not if I want to live, and it's not a fucking victory unless you're the last one standing. Standing. El had the right of it." He stopped, annoyance tinting the planes of his face. "God damn his perpetually correct ass. I'm still going to kick that six ways from Easter Sunday if he ever does that again without warning me."
"All right, I get it." And Fred did, morose as he was feeling at the moment. He'd just decided to swear loyalty to a man that only Sands and Miguel seemed to be able to fathom to any degree. And even they didn't understand a lot of El. Great.
Well, he wasn't going to watch this if he didn't have to. Fred stayed down and occupied himself with distracting Sands, who contrary to his casual dismissal kept trying to duck up and pester Lorenzo for descriptions on what El was doing.
Lucia had thought she'd built up a fairly complete idea of El-the-man during the negotiations between him and the Barillo gang down in Mexico, on which she had occasionally eavesdropped. Intelligent, dry-witted and acerbic the few times he chose to speak. Deadly-for once the bar stories hadn't been overblown. But tired, she had believed. No energy left to propel the legend.
So much for that assumption. He danced better, and with more verve, than the whole pack of racy youths she was constantly beating off with stick and shotgun. And it didn't seem to matter whether he was on the dancefloor, or on the battlefield.
But Christ, his feet could move. Faster than hers. She swallowed down her jealousy and recalled her plan to mind. "I was curious about something."
"Yes?" El's cheeks were slightly reddened by their fast pace, but his breath was still steady and even. He expertly swung her out, then reeled her back in and executed a perfect improvised solo to the downbeat.
"Why you refused my father's offer." She matched him, step for step. The effort pushed her right to the edge; the air started to feel as if it were scraping its way out of her lungs and her heels were massacring her feet. Any moment now she was going to get a sprain-but so what? Lucia hadn't had this good a partner in ages. "It was very generous. The most generous I've ever seen."
"Why did you come back to Los Diablos?" he countered. Spin and switch sides, then backstep. "Last I heard, your father was planning to send you to Radcliffe."
"I went. And I came back." Lucia was struggling with exhaustion, but then the light caught oddly on El's eyes, making them like black mirrors. And she realized something-she was having fun. The shock of that feeling completely wiped away the fatigue. "You know," she grinned. "Family ties."
He nodded, smiling back. //Exactly.//
His hand whirled her into the dying notes of the song, and she held onto the moment of complete freedom. Then she came back, like always, to the irons of blood-duty and reality. She couldn't leave her father, ever, because she loved him. And she couldn't leave her life either, because even with all the strangling vines-marriage or consort to whatever person her father needed most, skirts instead of pants and lascivious fools who were too useful to be slaughtered like they deserved-there were still too many flowers. She would stay where she was. And so would El. //I hate you now, you know//, she confessed in a cheerful, conspiratorial tone.
//And I hate you, too//, El commented, his eyes briefly straying to the table where Sands and Abberline were. But his smile was still genuine. He understood. And he wouldn't forgive.
Neither would she.
Carolina determinedly stomped all over the butterflies that always invaded her stomach before a show and checked her reflection one last time. Make-up-good. Hair-perfect. Dress-red, clingy, daringly low V-cut on front and back. Slit up the back for her legs, and silver-spangled edging because damn it, if she was going out there, then everyone had better notice.
Like usual, the cues went on and she strutted out, show-smile firmly affixed to her face. And then the world tilted.
Marquez-that fucking greasy dreamer-came right up to the stage and tried to climb up. When the guitarist attempted to stop him, the poor man got yanked down and manhandled away while Marquez, who appeared to be very, very full of the club's good liquor, half-slouched onto the stage.
And then El appeared out of nowhere, carrying a guitar as if he'd been born with one. He casually hopped up and surreptitiously tilted Marquez's next sway in the direction of the floor. As the politician finally lost consciousness and passed out, El struck the opening chords.
Carolina hurriedly stepped to her mark and opened her mouth, expecting a dim croak. But to her absolute astonishment, a gorgeous rich voice emerged. Christ Jesus, she hadn't sounded this good in…in…since that party, the last time she'd seen him.
But the drums were calling, their seductive tempo rippling down her hips, and she just had to sway. And belt it out, because it was all just as it should always have been. She teased and grinned, she murmured and soared and the crowd, that fickle beast, ate it up. Of course, the amazing solo El provided had a good deal to do with that. If anything, he was playing better than before the famous shot through his palm, and he'd been good before that. But no matter. Carolina didn't care what he had done; she only cared about the results, and she couldn't find fault with those.
As she hit the opening note for the second half of the song, Marquez began to stagger up, rubbing at his eyes and irritably smacking the attendants that tried to help him. A little sneer curling her lip, Carolina slinked her way along the stage to pivot and lay herself against El's back. She felt his heat, scented his sweat. His muscles moved against her breasts in a rhythmic, subtle caress, and her voice got huskier.
//I heard the gossipers, loud and clear//, she whispered in between lines. Even though she tried to hold it back, the fury she'd felt then returned to her voice. //You danced with Ajedrez?//
//I can dance with anyone//, he shot back. //Dancing's what everyone does. Playing the guitar-that's a different story.//
Marquez's eyes burned. She could see the rage going red to yellow to pure, brutal white, but she didn't care. Fuck him. Carolina had gotten her answer from El, and she clutched it to her like an impenetrable shield.
Still, a good show demanded motion, so she slipped off El and back over the stage, her heels clicking to the upbeat. Ajedrez's smirk caught her eye, and an odd thread of recognition and comprehension passed between them. The other woman made a little wave in El's direction, as if telling Carolina he was all hers, and then was cooing over Marquez as he was smoothly ushered out the door.
The final verse was coming. Carolina mentally squared her shoulders and prepared herself for it. Because this was the best show she'd ever done, and now she was going to try and top it. And she would. She would.
Dean blinked, then took off his glasses and set them down on the ledger in front of him. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off the headache. But it kept coming, and-
jesus jesus no no move move move don't you dare shoot you motherfucking
oh god. get up get up getupgetupgetup
--he came back to find his hands locked to the phone in a white-knuckled grip. Red…there'd been so much-
--he tore the telephone off its hook and frantically dialed, fighting down the urge to vomit. "Corso," he snarled as soon as he got an answer. //Slaughterhouse district, number 5. Get over-yes, it's top alarm. Get going!//
He didn't wait for the affirmative, but instead hung up and redialed again. Made call after call until his nails were all torn from catching on the spindial. Then he slammed the phone down and threw himself out of the chair, stopping only to grab a coat before he was in the garage, screaming for a driver.
Sands and Fred met El and Carolina at the doorway to her dressing room, Lorenzo and Fideo trailing a few paces behind. "Not bad," the blind man mock-smarmed to her, dropping a friendly arm around her waist. "Well, from what I could tell. Which wasn't much-you sounded all right, but for all I know, you might move like a one-legged elephant."
"Oh, screw you," she affectionately retorted, still too lighthearted to be seriously annoyed with him.
"Really, you were good…" Fred's grin slowly melted off his face as he put a hand to his forehead, then suddenly slumped against the wall. Worried, Carolina reached for him, but before her hand even touched him, he was clamped to El and banging his head against the other man's shoulder. All the while moaning as if someone was tearing out his guts.
El didn't look very well either, though he didn't move at all. But his eyes-they had gone to diamond, cutting and brilliant and so hard and clear that nothing but white flame could be seen in them.
"El?" Sands asked tentatively. He attempted to touch the other man on the shoulder, but Fideo caught his wrist.
//Don't. You'll only make it worse//, Fideo warned, a pained grimace gracing his face. Lorenzo took one look and viciously swore, then spun on a heel and headed back to the main rooms at a dead run.
In her room, the phone rang. The one that was a direct line to the house, and that was never used except in emergencies. But Carolina hesitated, torn between the troubles in the hallway and-
El's gaze swept over her, searing all the way down to the bone. //Answer that.//
So she did, and was rewarded with a hasty message from Dean to get back immediately, and tell El-
//Tell him I already know//, her cousin interjected. He carefully eased Fred off of him, then lighted a cigarillo and made the other man smoke it. While Carolina told Dean the reply, El dropped off his guitar case by her feet and snagged another one from behind a row of her stage dresses. Dean promptly hung up on her, which was uncharacteristic of the politely manipulative little bedmate of Miguel's. Miguel.
//What's happening?// When El ignored her and actually started to walk off, Carolina rushed after him and seized his elbow. She kicked him so he dropped the case, then cursed at what that did to her toes. //Damn it, what happened to Miguel? Tell me. Tell me!//
//You can't help//, he retorted coldly, prying her fingers off of him. //Not like this. Get Sands and Fred home. I'll be there in a few hours, and then you'll know.//
//But I want to know now, goddamn it//. Carolina was sick and tired of everyone running circles around her. Hell, even Sands seemed to be more in-the-know than her, and he wasn't even related. //He's my cousin, too, you fucking heartless bastard. And he took care of me! You left-he stayed. Tell me!//
A raw, fearsome snarl was the only warning she got before she found herself shoved up against the wall. Then her eardrum rattled and plaster sprinkled all over her dress as El punched a hole in the wall, six inches from her head. //I can't yet. I can't do-fucking everything, all right? I couldn't stay because I wasn't good enough, and I can't tell you now because I don't know, I can't do it-okay?// He spun on his heel, then came back. //Goddamn it.//
//I'm…// she looked down at her hands, which were trembling. Shit. She didn't have anything useful with her. Except maybe her spike heels, but that was only two, and…goddamn it was a perfect description. //El…sorry. Get going-wait.//
It was a hard, fast kiss, and so messy that it was more like a clashing. But there was fierce want and strength and pardon under all of that-and not only from her side.
Then he was gone. Carolina was left watching the metaphorical smoke curl from the space in which he'd been, touching fingers to her swelling lip. It'd torn a little, and she could taste the copper and salt.
She violently wiped it off with a hand, then straightened her spine and twisted back to the rest of them. Whereupon she found that Sands was still there, spewing curses at Fideo who had him by the neck, but Fred was gone. "God. Damn. It," Carolina growled.
Then she hiked up her skirt and went to do a quick-change. Maybe she wasn't useful now, but by the time El came back, she damn well was going to be.
El paid no attention to Belini's whining and slapped a wad of bills to shut the man up, then lifted the keys while he was counting the money. He slid himself and his case into the driver's seat of the nearest car and was pulling the door shut when a body came hurtling in. It was a confusing knot of limbs and hissing for a moment, but then Fred wrenched himself into the front passenger seat.
Fucking…El did not need this right now. He grabbed the nearest ankle and hauled them both out, then dragged Fred onto the curb. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"I-" Fred glanced over El's shoulder, then snarled like a lion and threw them both back into the lobby of the club. Just in time for the car to blow up.
//Belini. Stupid fat shit's still selling himself-I really need to talk to Miguel about the payroll list.// El pushed himself up the second shrapnel stopped flying and looked around for the said traitor. He found him being punched senseless by Lorenzo, who'd tackled him at the far end of the parking lot-Fred must have seen Belini running away. //Fuck. No time.//
No time for anything. If Fred wanted to come, then it was his own damn neck and not El's problem. El ran to another car, one that didn't belong to the family, and picked its lock in a handful of seconds. He flung his case in, then let Fred tumble after it as he yelled across to Lorenzo, //Leave him alive! And let Sands question him!//
Lorenzo raised a hand in acknowledgment, then saluted as El tossed himself into the car and fishtailed it onto the road.
"What…what the hell did I see?" Fred queried as soon as they had hit the main road. His voice was shaking all over the place, but his hands looked steady enough.
El pointed at the case, which was in the space where Fred's feet should have been, if the man hadn't been pressing his shivers into El's side. "Get yourself a gun. You'll need it."
Not saying another word, Fred did. But his gaze poked holes in El until an explanation finally leaked out. "You saw Cucuy at work."
"He's like G, like me, only twisted. He can do a lot of the things I can do." El jerked the car into its top speed and careened around a corner. "What he was doing with the eyes-that's part of a working. Los Lobos has been around ever since this city was founded. Our blood is her blood, her land is our land-we are Los Diablos. And he's trying to change that."
Fred nodded, processing that. "He's from the Lent massacres…"
"He killed a very good friend of mine. Azul, who taught me the city. And for that, I put three bullets in Cucuy. One through his heart, which should've killed him." El glanced over to see how the other man was taking it, but found only earnest listening. A great change from this morning.
Everything was shifting again. Modulating. One tune ending, another beginning. Next part of the symphony.
"Suppose you should shoot him in the head this time." Fred laughed a little, ragged like someone had taken a razor to his sense of humor. "And…you called Marquez General. Why?"
The memories of parching sun and wild desert nights rose and fell in a second, leaving only a whiff of mesquite and gunpowder. El grinned at the dark road in front of him, and allowed himself to stroke a hand down Fred's side. "Let's just say…we've heard of each other before now. Never actually met, but…Marquez spent some time in the Mexican army before he came to America."
"Oh," and then Fred became silence. In place of his voice, the old walks were calling. And El was answering.