|The City III: Slaughterhouse
Author: Guede Mazaka
The moment El pulled up to the hulk of wood and metal, shadowy figures ran out from the side of the building, their machine guns occasionally throwing back a bit of moonlight. They stopped in the middle of the road, legs braced wide apart and guns raised.
"Ah-" Fred began, speaking for the first time since they'd left.
El mentally rolled his eyes and shoved the other man down while slamming on the accelerator. It wasn't his car, after all. "Hold onto something."
Apparently, Fred took that as a hint to latch onto El again, which threw him off-balance and nearly made him spin the car off the dock. El managed to correct their trajectory just soon enough to hear the bangcrunchscream of bodies flipping up over the hood. He yanked the wheel around and sped up once more in order to break through the double doors of the meatpacking warehouse.
Fred yelled something while the wood was shattering, but there wasn't a free moment to ask for clarification. Gunfire started up the second they were through, so El kept the car careening around until he'd found a relatively sheltered spot. Then he kicked open the door and flung out his case. As if it were magnetized, bright trails of sparks instantly sprung up behind its glide; he took advantage of the shooters' distraction to leap from the car and flip out his sleeve guns.
Not as many on their feet as he had seen. Miguel and G and whatever other Lobos pistoleros El's cousin had brought here had already cut out their swathe. El quickly took care of the few remaining on the ground floor, then ducked behind a pile of boxes with his case. He could feel Miguel, searing blue-white call from an upper-level room. Brilliant as the sun and angry as only the wounded could be, but very much alive. G was a fainter resonance in the space of El's stretching mind, wavering like a candle in a light breeze. He needed to get to them, and fast-but first all those sharpshooters on the balconies had to be gotten out of the way. The range was a little long, though-
--a small cannon went off mere feet from El, making him dive to the floor. When he looked up again, one less sniper leaned over the railings. And a very pale-faced Fred, rifle in hand, was swearing continuously as he simultaneously tried to rub his shoulder and reload. El scrambled back out and swapped his pistols for the rifle, then swung it up and began to methodically pick off the now-panicked Barillo gunmen.
"Someone left that in the backseat, so I…it's been a while," Fred muttered. He irritably pushed at his obviously sore shoulder. "Seems I'm out of practice."
"Not with the important part. You can shoot. You just can't recover right." El snapped off another shot, then tugged them behind a concrete pillar. Which put a row of hanging, gutted carcasses in front of them. Most of them weren't cattle.
"Oh…my…" Fred's face twisted, suddenly revealing a lethal fury. "To hell with God. I can't believe this…what the hell is wrong with you people?"
All people with positions in the shipping businesses, El noted. A lot of them he remembered as Lobos, but a few that weren't familiar at all, and at least two that had been Barillo associates from very far back, when it'd been Bucho's gang. No eyes in any of their skulls, but their bodies were still in one piece. "They didn't do as much as they could have," he noted.
"What? You're saying you've seen worse?" Fred snarled, whirling about and grabbing El's elbow so he couldn't turn and shoot. "Are you? You goddamn jaded-"
El easily shook him off and fired off more rounds until the upper level looked clear enough to chance a staircase. "I grew up with that. In Mexico. So yes, I have seen worse. I'll keep seeing worse, because this is what I do."
The other man seethed. "You-"
//Shut up!// El yelled, his anger surprising even him with the velocity at which it broke its barrier fences. He snatched up his case and slung the rifle over a shoulder, then wrenched his pistols back from Fred. //Just shut up, you hypocritical little bastard. I didn't ask you to come. I didn't ask you to share this with me-to find out how this part of my life goes. If you can't deal with it, then get out of my fucking way and let me take care of it.//
He stalked off to the nearest stairwell, barely recollecting that stomping around on concrete and steel was a lousy idea in a firefight. A brace of sorry baby-faced pistoleros tried to charge him at the staircase entrance, but El simply tossed his case into the one's nose, then ducked the second's shot so it took out the third and blew holes all around. He paused a second to put fresh bullets in his guns before tucking them back up his sleeves and retrieved his case. Scavenged a machine gun from one of the new corpses and set his feet on the first step.
"This is how you've lived? Always?" came a frayed whisper from behind him. A presence shied up beside him, but stopped short of actually touching him. "Is this why…"
"I chose this. And I kept choosing it. Remember that." Iron was trickling into El's veins, hardening them to wind chimes that rang crazily in the storm. He started moving, and then he was running, taking steps by twos and threes.
His vision bounced and shook wildly, jagging into disjointed clips. Stained gray pits in the walls. Metal rods. The black hole of a gun muzzle, and then the flashing white of another soul falling into the muck. He skidded up to the landing and across the hall, foiling the attempts of the men at the far end to make him into wire screen. Miguel was somewhere nearby-El could hear the rattling of a second gunfight going on. He rolled up onto a knee, propped it against the case, and sprayed the corridor with machine-gun fire. Bodies tumbled like oversized dominos of punctured flesh, and the moaning set up a howling counterpoint to the violent melody of the shooting. It got under his skin, twitched his fingers into drumming the gun, the walls.
One, two, and he was up. Striding down the cramped hall, hearing the click-clack of an opponent's approach a full measure before they actually came in sight. Pull the trigger on the upbeat, let it go on the down, and keep up the footwork.
The last Barillo man had just fallen when the soft dissonant squeak of shoes sliced through El's trance. He whipped about, pistol first. Metal sang high and loud and fierce as the two guns collided.
"El." Miguel's pupils were huge with adrenaline and shock, and his voice was down to a few threads, only held together by the rasp of breath. His left side and leg were soaked in blood.
"Miguelito," El said slowly, double-image of a younger boy, scraped all over from a fall off his bike, briefly superimposing itself. He jerked his head out of the past. "Miguel. Where is she?"
"In-" he waved a hand as El went into the room "-in there."
G had had worse injuries, though at the moment, she wasn't sure if she could actually list them. Painkillers did that. She usually hated the spaced-out feeling that those always brought, but right now she would gladly take some more.
Dean's face blurred into view, then came into focus as the bed dipped under his weight. He supported her chin as his hand put a glass to her mouth, which she only now realized was drier than the flatlands of hell. "Help any?"
She smiled and swallowed the water, then struggled aside to make room for him. Her broken ribs promptly shrieked, and the bulletholes in her arm and side also weren't very happy. "I forgot how much this hurts. And now I can't do anything. I hate healing."
"Same here." He gingerly tucked her into his side and pulled up the blankets. His face was haggard, blue-black crescents dangling from each bloodshot eye, and for once his immaculate suit had disappeared, leaving only a wrinkled, unbuttoned shirt and silk boxers. "Though I'm happy to say that I haven't gotten shot in a while. Or beaten up."
"You're very kind." The sarcasm in her voice was a comfortable mockery, its malevolence worn smooth by long acquaintance. "Can't play much, either. You're going to be very sore for a few weeks."
It never ceased to delight her how Dean blushed, the rose creeping from chin to ears and then down the fine cheekbones. He ducked his head, and was muttering something about tax season coming and having to lock himself in solitary work when the bedroom door flew open. Ricocheted off the wall to be smacked away a second time as an aggravated El came after an equally angry Miguel. //You did what? Jesus Christ, Miguel-why didn't you tell me? How the fuck am I supposed to win your damn war with all this-this shit going on!//
//It's not my war! It's the family's, you mud-eating son of a bitch, and you're damn well part of it.// The effect of Miguel's fury-fueled arm-flinging was somewhat spoiled by his abrupt wince and near-topple during the middle of it. Pained grimace on his face, he clutched at his injured hip. When El sighed and offered a hand, Miguel stared at it as if it were a foreign object.
//Don't make me carry you again.// El waited, and a moment later, Miguel took the hand. With his cousin's help, he limped over to the bed and settled down on the other side of G. She immediately snuggled into the arm that wrapped about her waist, while Dean carefully climbed over her to lie down against Miguel's chest, deftly avoiding the bulky bandaging.
G closed her eyes and, finally able to touch Miguel again, let herself relax. Even El's presence couldn't do so much as ripple her sense of utter relief and comfort, subtly terrifying as the emanations from the man were. At any rate, he'd become slightly less frightening-probably because he was aiming the glower in other directions.
//Fine. It's ours. So what the hell were you doing with…// El's voice bent sideways as he jerked around to confront the noise at the door. Abberline's face froze where it was, halfway inside, then assumed a determined look and came all the way through. He wasn't quite sidling-that was more of a Sands-movement-but his approach to El's side definitely wasn't straightforward. El watched him walk up with a wary expression, shoulders hunched slightly with tension. He didn't seem very pleased with Fred, while the other man looked as if he wanted to grab on and burrow deep to where it was safe. G sympathized, a little; she was very familiar with the nausea of being constantly jerked around. And the fierce cold of loneliness.
"All of the captains are downstairs," Abberline murmured, quietly reaching out to finger one of El's sleeve-chains. He kept his eyes lowered. "They want to know what to do, where to go."
//Can't damn well tell them until I find out what happened.// El pulled his arm away as he spoke the harsh words, then paused and regarded Abberline. Brought a hand up to rub at the bridge of his nose and lifted his other arm as if to encircle something. Fred instantly stepped in and tucked his head into El's neck, fingers twisting in the other man's shirt. El's leather-covered hand drifted up to rest on the dip of Fred's waist, which provoked a slight shiver. He stroked that down, a curious set of emotions mixing on his face, before returning his attention to Miguel. //Listen. Just tell me, all right? I'm not angry because you didn't…I'm…angry because I didn't see it in time. Cucuy's getting stronger.//
That was a statement with which G could wholeheartedly agree. She remembered a cragged face, hewn from some barbaric altar, and flashing silver. "We need to put up a stopgap, at least," she interrupted in a soft voice. "A goat…"
"No. It's too far gone for that," El replied. "If Cucuy's messing with what I think he's messing with…" He dragged up a chair and sat down, taking a minute to rearrange Abberline in a comfortable position. //Los Lobos is my family, and Los Diablos is my city. I never denied that, Miguel. I only denied that I was fit for them-but that's before now. Anyway, I'm still not here to sit in the house and play around in nightclubs. I'm here to kill, and you called me back to kill. So?//
Miguel glanced away and stared at a picture of Ramirez, which was hanging on the far wall, slightly diagonal of the bed. His fingers traced out circles on G's waist and Dean's arm, as he usually did the rare times he needed to compose himself. G let her head tilt onto his shoulder and silently snuggled closer to him. She felt his reluctant smile, the genuine one, briefly alight on the top of her head and she closed her eyes to finally seek out sleep.
Damn, damn, damn. Bizarrely enough, Miguel wanted to just turn over and dive under the pillows like a small child. Things hadn't gone anything like he'd wanted them to, or like he'd expected them to, and now people wanted to know. Wanted him to give orders and draw up plans when he was exhausted and hurt and only wanted to sleep.
When he'd failed. And they still trusted him. G and Dean-they still came to him without hesitation.
Maybe the urge to hide wasn't so inexplicable after all.
//How did you do this?// he asked. His voice was thin, confidence shot to hell. //All those years…how did you put up with this?//
Over Abberline's dark head, El twisted his mouth into a parody of a smile. By no means a gargoyle, but the sentiment was the same. //This is war, Miguel. There are prices to be paid. Risking nothing is hard-no one ever wants to walk by himself. Risking everything is easy. Just look at gamblers.//
The fatalism had its broad ring of truth, but Miguel didn't want to reach for that bauble. He refused to believe that. //No. That's not it-that's not a victory. If you lose everything, if you don't have anything behind you, then your win's just as much of a loss as the people who got themselves killed.//
El shrugged. //Sure. For you. But you asked about me. We're not the same, Miguel. You're not ever going to be what I was. And even if you did, I'd kill you as soon as possible. You understand?//
No, he did not. Why did his goddamned cousin always have to speak bloody riddles? Why couldn't El simply be as direct as his bullets-
Skritch and flare of a match. As El held it up to the cigarillo, the flame cast yellow flickers over his face, highlighting the blackness in his eyes and the hollows of his throat. He looked like a priest of some underground cult, or a wandering demon. //In the cathedral, Miguel. And later, too. I wanted to know what kind of man you'd become. I wanted to know if I'd managed to teach you anything that was actually worth anything.//
//And?// Miguel harshly demanded.
//And I'm happy it was you who took over. I'm proud.// The match was extinguished and flipped into a nearby wastebasket, abruptly sweeping away the near-vision so his cousin once more appeared as only a man. Strong, full of power-but still mortal. Still with the chinks in the armor and the old scars.
//It was hard, you know//, Miguel confessed. He stared at his hands, cut and scraped but still whole. Not crippled before his time. //Almost everyone from the older generations was dead, or wounded, or running from the police. I didn't know what the hell I was doing.//
//I know.// His eyes never leaving Miguel, El took a single drag before passing the cigarillo to Fred. //What happened?//
Buscemi rushed into his store, muttering curses under his breath. He made his way through the forest of guitars to the phone and ripped it off its hook, then stared at the dial. And stared.
"Jackass. And I would still feel responsible for you." He extended a finger and slowly twirled the dial for the first number, then the others. A voice came on. "Need to talk to El. Emergency-code? Um, 'things aren't pointing north.' It's that bad."
Beat of gabbling on the other end of the line.
"What do you mean, no calls are allowed through? I gave you the fucking-" Buscemi closed his mouth and listened. "I see. Well, shit."
He slammed down the phone and eyed his jacket. Walk right out into a raging turf war, or stay here and go to bed. Go. Stay.
El had greeted him as a friend, even though he'd no way of knowing how Buscemi would react. Shit.
Slow, soft shimmering in the air. Words, sensuous and golden-he'd never believed it when El had said that the guitars talked at night, but now, here was actual proof. And like all the other strange happenings in Buscemi's life, it pointed straight at his old friend.
Sands cocked his head and listened very carefully, then slammed down his stick. It banged on the floor, vibrations traveling into his feet, but didn't hit flesh.
"Holy Mary!" Carolina yelped, inches behind the cane. //You jackass prick!//
"And are we dressed appropriately for a night strolling through the butcher shops?" Sands snarked. He dodged back from the hand whistling through the air so the slap just missed him. "Tart. Come on, where'd your big strong cousins get off to? And where the fuck does Freddie keep going?"
She snorted in disgust, but retained enough politeness to take his elbow and guide him through the huge gopher-farm that the Lobos called a family mansion. "He's probably gotten into the web now, so he can track El better than us. The city likes him."
"Really." Sands injected a good dose of lasciviousness into his sarcasm. "And how does that happen for those 'not of the blood'? A good fuck with the city plumbing system, or what?"
Carolina smacked him and sped up until his cane couldn't keep pace. Grumbling, Sands flipped it under an arm and prayed that she wasn't pissed off enough to walk him into a wall. "Well, what about me?"
"What about you? Didn't it hit yet?"
"What hit? What am I supposed to be looking for, a big truck ramming through my head?" Sands tripped over something and almost bore both of them to the ground, but he managed to stagger back up. Didn't manage to avoid her retaliatory elbow. "Hey! It's a simple question, okay? Like I know anything about it, Witch of Broadway deadwood."
Embarrassed, fuming silence. And then Sands started to get it. "Wait. Aren't all of you people psychic whatever-the-fucks?"
Carolina mumbled a bunch of Spanish. Then she resumed her stomp-n-haul routine. "Yes. No. There's some that are really strong, and some that aren't."
"Like you," Sands chortled. "So you've got nothing, then."
"Shut up, gringo. I can feel Los Diablos, and tell when my relatives are nearby, if they aren't shielding." On the next step, she came damn close to yanking his arm out of its joints. "But five years ago, El disappeared-completely disappeared. Because he's that good. Now Fred can feel him because El is letting him. And he's not letting us. You get that, Sands?"
He took a moment to shove the acid-lashings of frustration back down his throat before answering. "Yeah. I get that. The fuck."
Well, well. Seemed that he wasn't quite as far in El's good graces as he had figured, considering the shaving and the "gatito" bullshit and the good-all right, fine-the mind-shorting kisses. Tricky bastard of a mariachi. But he'd better not be counting on Sands to just sit quietly in the corner and take this kind of nonsense, because in that case he was going to be rewriting the entire game plan.
Jesus Christ. Idiot had given Sands a wonderful antique bludgeon-cane, same thing-and he actually expected nothing in return? Like hell. Once the gift was accepted, the vow was made, there was no going back.
And shit, Sands was developing loyal instincts, wasn't he? God. They were all so, so fucked over.
Might as well have fun with it.
Carolina walked into Miguel's bedroom to see Fred sprawled on the floor, a scrap of paper peeking out from between the whitened knuckles of his fist. Dean was standing on the other side of the bed, looking rather shaken, and Miguel had a ferocious scowl on his face. He was half out of the bed, struggling toward the…Carolina glanced over to see the open window, then slapped her hand against her forehead. //What the hell happened?// she stormed.
//Don't do this right now, Carolina--// Miguel began, but she was having none of it.
//Oh, no. Don't you even start, you overprotective shit. I am sick and tired of always patching you idiots up and not knowing why. What did you tell him?// She stalked up to him and, when he tried to rise, whacked down on his shoulder so he fell back with a wince. Dean and G immediately growled and crawled over, but Carolina could really care less about them. She tossed up her hands and kicked at her skirt. //You-you men! Always trying to play the hero, do the right thing when it's really the stupid thing. I'm in this just as much as you-bastard, you put me in this. You owe me an explanation.//
//Part of it was trying to make you happy//, Miguel muttered. He covered his face with his hands. //Listen. I was talking to some of the Barillo men. The old ones, who were with Bucho, and weren't happy at what Barillo was doing to their organization. Tonight we were meeting to discuss just what he'd brought Cucuy in to do. But Barillo found out.//
"In other words, we have enemy spies in the house," Fred summed up. He looked up at Sands, who had ambled over to him. "Did you get anything out of Belini?"
"No. Fat ass doesn't know shit, except that he's cheap as a dockside whore. And a quart low, but nothing useful." At Fred's sudden jerk away, Sands laughed and put an arm over the other man's shoulders. "Hey, you think I'd do that crap myself when there was someone else around? I never even touched the fucker. Well, once to check for a pulse, but that doesn't really count."
Carolina rolled her eyes and planted her hands on her hips. No point in accusations now; they had work to do. She looked her cousin in the eyes, conveying silent forgiveness. "So?"
"So El recognized Marquez." Miguel took a deep breath, his normal attitude of smooth efficiency clicking back into place. He gently pushed G and Dean back and stood up, leaning heavily to one side. "He wrote down the name of a Mexican official, Nicolas, who'd be willing to sell us some…interesting documents-that's on Fred's paper. Fred, you're going to make sure those papers get to the Times's top reporters as soon as possible. That will hamstring Marquez's campaign, and keep him too busy to help Barillo. The captains will pull back to defensive positions, and concentrate on guarding our assets. We lost a lot of ground in the supplying business tonight, and we need to reassure our remaining operatives. And I'll be busy vetting all our employees for loyalty."
"And what's El doing right now?" Sands queried, also rising to his feet. Fred looked from him to Carolina, then got up and walked toward the door, still holding tightly onto the paper.
He stopped for a moment to tap Carolina on the elbow, and--something--jumped from him to her, planting a warm frisson deep in her gut. And then she could feel him, like holding hand over a candle flame. "Bring him back," was the only thing Fred said.
//He left. He thinks he knows why Cucuy's been cutting out eyes-some kind of working against us-and he thinks he can stop it//, Miguel explained.
Fred flinched, remembered horror momentarily flooding his eyes, then shook his head and firmed his jaw. He began to say something else, but never finished and simply walked right out of the room.
Which was a completely understandable reaction if El had left him behind, or he hadn't been able to stop El from leaving. Apparently, he couldn't do anything and he knew it, so he was off to make sure El had plenty of room in which to work. Carolina was both impressed by Fred's surprising acquiescence-and a little sorry that she'd been feeling so envious of him earlier. She should've known that none of them were, in fact, getting more from El than the others. That stupid, stupid, stubborn…damn it. She loved him. And she was going to kick his ass if he didn't knock off with the secretive attitude.
"So…" Sands had crept up beside her, absently spinning his walking stick between two fingers. "Don't suppose anyone knows where the jangling fuckwit went?"
Miguel bent over the bed to kiss Dean and G, then straightened and picked up the phone from the side-table. He stared at it for a few seconds, brow furrowed. "A pork slaughterhouse, in Chinatown. On the Street of Heavenly Fire. I think. He's blocking me, but that's where Cucuy is doing whatever he's…"
The spot just above Carolina's left ear suddenly imploded, cracking pain all through her head. She flung herself sideways, nearly fell and caught hold of something-Sands. "Snap out of it, you lousy shit-loving whore-"
//Fuck you//, she retorted, forcing the agony out. Crammed it down the city's ever-ravening mouth, released it into the cesspool of light and lust and liquor. Slamming the door on that, she whipped about to check on Miguel. Who'd fallen back onto the bed, half-growling words that hung in the air, almost visible red and green and blue wavers. G had gone pale as rice powder, and Dean's lips were pressed together so tightly that they had almost disappeared.
//He's-goddamn Cucuy.// Miguel slung an arm around Dean for support and hauled himself back up. //I'll kill him.//
//Like hell. You're staying put until your leg heals.// Carolina crossed her arms over her chest, prepared to knock out her cousin if necessary. Stubborn ass-and by the looks on their faces, Dean and G agreed with her. //Now, I'm going. See you tomorrow morning.//
Sands coughed, hacking and obnoxious. "We're going."
On the bed, Miguel finally gave up his struggles and laid back, still holding onto the phone. His fingers idly twisted in the snaky cord as he took a breath. And another, slow and deep. "Fine. But Carolina…" hint of a smile, proud and regretful //…watch yourself, all right? I didn't put up with stupid girly shit for all these years just to have you end up in the dirt.//
"I don't get a goodbye?" Sands asked in an insulted tone. Everyone else rolled their eyes.
//Well, of course not. That's why I said see you in the morning.// Carolina buttoned up her trenchcoat and hustled Sands out of the room before he could annoy anyone into killing him. Sorry as it was, she was going to need him.
It was frighteningly silent in the building, like the quiet of a winter battlefield's aftermath. Though he tried to walk while making as little noise as possible, just the creak of his boots was like a whipcrack ripping through the air. His chains clinked in time to the pulse of his heart, which in turn followed the faint thrumming beneath his feet.
Los Diablos was whimpering tonight, trapped in a brutal tug-of-war. She liked Los Lobos, and favored them because they knew how to treat her. But even the strongest steel link could be broken if the hammer was heavy enough, and Cucuy's was like a godkiller. Every pair of eyes, every death…they all served to put another nick in the connection. It would be to have reforged. Patched with blood and flesh and bone.
Aside from the main chamber, through which El was currently gliding, the slaughterhouse was mostly tiny hallways and rooms, resembling cheap plywood coffins in their size and their atmosphere. Even if he hadn't been able to practically touch the oily blackness oozing from Cucuy, he would have been able to detect the other's presence simply by the way the air froze.
Somewhere behind him, a door opened and closed with a thundering clang. El swiftly ducked behind the nearest pillar and waited for the footsteps to betray their maker. As they began to pass his hiding spot, he spun out and slammed a gun into-"Buscemi? You? What the hell-"
His friend pushed the gun out of his nose. "Fuck. That hurt."
El swept his eyes over the surrounding emptiness, then dragged them back into a small room. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
"I needed to tell you something, and this is where the guitars said to go." The other man stopped and considered that. "Which, by the way, was very weird. They've never done that before."
"It's a weird night." El couldn't stop himself; he kept glancing at the doorway, strung-out nerves twitching every time something went through the ventilation. His sense of the melody was off, and Buscemi's discordant tune wasn't helping. "Look, can it wait?"
Irritated, Buscemi rocked back on his heels. "No. No, it can't. Christ, I rush all this way-"
"Okay, okay, fine. I'm sorry, so will you just hurry up and tell me?" El tried not to make impatient gestures with his pistols.
Buscemi eyed him oddly, as if he were some crazed beggar, but nevertheless began talking. "I was in the red-light district-and don't even fucking ask, all right? Some of us aren't used to being solid metal all the time. Anyway, some of Marquez's men came by, and they were drunk as priests. Mouths flapping. It looks like there's a backup plan in case he doesn't win the election."
"Yes." Cucuy was going down a floor. Still on the other side of the building, but El needed to get Buscemi the hell out of this. "Well, what is it?"
"Why the hell are you so impatient? Wait. Why are we here, anyway? You like taking night tours of spooky places?" the other man asked, bending a searching look onto El. He ducked under the return glare and held up his hands. "Man, can't take a joke? Fine. Marquez is planning an assassination…oh, God. Oh, God. You're on a one-man revenge-streak again, aren't you? Fuck. Fuck! I should've known when they said-goddamn it, El, don't you ever learn?"
"Learn what?" El pushed past Buscemi and glanced in all directions before he stepped into the hallway. "I learned plenty. I learned that people should finish what they start, and that other people should stay the fuck away. So get out."
Buscemi came after him, finger a metronome gone wild. "That is not it, you moron. Jesus-do you want a repeat of last time?"
"No!" El snapped over his shoulder. He edged them back toward the nearest exit door, head swiveling until his neck ached, sharp and splintery. And this was why he didn't want anyone else around: they were distractions, weaknesses. Walking deaths in a barren land of misery. "I'm not letting anyone-"
"That's it, you jackass!" his friend interrupted, almost yelling. "You thought you were all good and great before; you didn't listen to anyone, talk to anyone and so no one could figure out what the hell was going on until it was too late. My God-they were my friends, too, you bastard. But then Domino died and you got yourself mangled, so what did Campa and Quino do? Wait for you to wake up from surgery? Hell, no-they went after Bucho themselves because they wanted to please you! You! It's always you, you, you and there's nothing you can do about-gurk."
Buscemi's eyes, already bulging with pent-up resentment finally coming loose, shook that extra particle out of his head. Then glass veiled them, preserving their angry surprise, and the eyelids came down. The man stumbled forward a step, then stiffened like a board and toppled into El's arms, taking them both to the ground.
Horror wasn't ice-water sluicing down the spine, wasn't a chilly breeze gusting over goosebumps. Horror was warm wetness dotting the cheek, was the moisture of a final breath squeezing out of dying lungs.
The last remnant of the old time jazz gurgled blood all over El's neck while he stared at the silver blades protruding from the back of Buscemi's head and the middle of his spine. Then his nerves screeched and his eyes jerked his head around just in time to let a knife slice past his cheek.
El heaved the body-Buscemi, damn it-off and scrambled for cover, but before he could stagger through the door to the main floor, another knife flicked ferocious pain from thigh up to waist. Sheer emotion kept him up and running, then diving to avoid the clatter of bullets from the far side of the huge room. He popped up long enough to take care of those fucks, then whirled about and drove Cucuy back into the hallway with a rain of bullets. His pistols clicked empty; still so full of anger he could bite it off and live on it, El rattled the uncooperative guns. "Shit!"
More pistoleros. Wasn't going to be one-on-one like the first time, it seemed. El hurled his guns into the oncoming faces, then forced his weight onto his wounded leg and charged. Seized a waist and tossed the other man into the wall while making a grab for his machine gun. The throw wrenched it into El's hand just in time to slam the butt into another attacker. The rest were far enough away to shoot, so he did. Fresh scarlet layered over the older stains that had permanently ingrained themselves into the building.
Copper stung his nose. Cordite raked at his eyes. He turned back to the corridor entrance to find Cucuy's baleful face staring back at him. El used the gun to block one of the blades darting toward him, but the second one made it past and lodged in his arm, which shocked fire and went numb.
His leg wanted to collapse, so he let it. Plunged down behind a pile of bodies and crates and smelled the rage building.
//El?// rasped the hellish shade. Soft wet squishing sounds. //Coward. You always run. Leaving your friends' bodies behind.//
Abrupt sucking sound, like a finger pulled out of nearly solid mud.
//I'll do this to all of them, you know. To Miguel, to your pretty little girl-cousin. To those two angel-faced agents you've culled from the street.//
One of his guns was lying by his hip. El gingerly picked it up and wiped off the blood, then swiped a half-moon clip of fresh bullets from a nearby body. He had to wait a moment to make his vision steady.
//And I'll give the city new eyes. Eyes that know where to look.//
Without making a sound, he let out the old cartridges into his lap and carefully set it down on the floor, then slid in the new ones. They scraped a little, making him silently wince.
//Barillo. You know how he's paying me? Not in money. Not in sweet little bedmates.//
El nudged the barrel back into place, biting his lip at the tiny click. He put his thumb to the hammer and slowly tugged it back.
In the silence that welled up after that proclamation, El ripped out the blades and bound up the wounds as best as he could with stolen handkerchiefs. The air was crackling, separating into cutting breezes, and a weak rumble came from deep underground; Cucuy was trying something. With Buscemi's eyes.
//And you know what kind of coin you'll be paid in?//
El pressed the gun to his nose and forehead, listening hard for the remaining fragments of song. When he found them, he took a breath so deep it burned.
//You'll be paid in--//
//Satisfaction//, he snarled, flinging himself up and over the crates. He fired as many times as he could, watching flowers of red bloom all over Cucuy's chest. Let himself tumble without any attempt at control, silver flashing past him. The floor whacked into him like a crashing wave, then bore him up onto his feet.
Cucuy was still standing. He lobbed two small, dripping spheres at El, who determinedly ignored them. Instead, he lunged for the other man's legs and knocked Cucuy to the ground. They skidded at a crazy angle and banged into a freight elevator. A punch burst the air from El's chest, and then another came down on his back. For a brief moment of excruciating dizziness, he thought it might have broken. But no-he could move. Could slam his own fists into bullet wounds, make them wider.
One of them must have hit the button, because there was a desultory ding and then the doors cranked open. Cucuy seized El's injured thigh and crushed it, tearing a howl from El. He surged back and tried to stun Cucuy into letting go by smacking him into the metal lattice that made up the elevator. No good.
And then the doors opened again, allowing them to fall out onto the top floor's catwalk. Someone screamed.
//Mother of God!// Carolina instantly jumped back from the sniper corpse she'd been examining. Beside her, Sands whirled around, gun first; she grabbed his wrist and yanked him back. //No! They're too close together.//
El's gaze lashed over hers, and then he was shoving Cucuy out onto the spindly bridge that crossed the slaughterhouse's main floor. Cucuy was screaming something-his eyes caught sight of her and Sands, and they turned black. //There's a price, El! Someone has to pay, or it'll all fall apart. Los Diablos wants her cup of blood.//
"What the hell does that mean?" Sands hissed as he and Carolina warily went after the wrestling pair.
"Cucuy-whatever he's been doing, it's gone too far to be revoked. Someone's going to have to die to set things right-" Carolina made a grab for him, but Sands was too fast. He was onto the bridge and nearly to the two men when Cucuy suddenly managed to break free.
Sands skidded to a halt and fended off the first lunge with his cane; the wet snap of bone ricocheted about the huge building. Cucuy howled and went down, then thrust out his unhurt arm and grabbed Sands' ankle. Five knives fanned out in Cucuy's hand, which easily knocked aside the walking stick.
Carolina didn't think. She raised her gun and shot, then staggered with the force of the recoil. Her foot slipped off the edge of the catwalk, causing her to lose her grip on the gun and reflexively seize the railing. The rough metal cut into her hands, as badly as broken glass.
Sands kicked himself free and stabbed with the cane, but at the last moment-as with Carolina's shot-Cucuy did an impossible wrench sideways so the tip went into his shoulder instead of his head. Christ Jesus, was he immortal?
No. He bled. He needed blood in his veins to live, and eventually he would run out.
//It still has to be closed//, Cucuy hissed at El, who was lurching to his feet. //The working…my hands…either way, you're as good as dead.//
"No, he's not," Sands snapped, livid. He yanked his stick free of Cucuy's flesh and crawled back a few feet before half-collapsing. Something about the way his ankle bent was wrong…not broken, but still out of commission. A small trickle of blood spilled from his pants cuff, so Cucuy must have had a blade in that hand, too. "Damn it, El, don't you even-we know what you're thinking. Don't."
//And what the fuck am I thinking?// El swayed, grimacing every time his blood-soaked leg shifted. The corners of his mouth were drawn so far back that his wolfish snarl seemed to split his face, and his eyes were almost sheer brutality.
Spurts of crimson drizzled the metal grille beneath them as Cucuy heaved himself back up. He took a step toward Sands, who went still as a rabbit in hiding. El's face veiled itself in a shadow as he also came forward. Which made Cucuy laugh, and hump himself in a step towards Carolina. //Which one? I don't need any more than that?//
//You dare…// El's fingers, the ones on the scarred hand, spread and flexed until they popped. //I promised once before to my uncle that this city would stay with whom she chose. And she chose--//
//--you over your brother. God, was he mad about that.// Cucuy's teeth were strangely white, like pearls set in silver so tarnished it had no gleam left.
El returned the fearsome grin with his own hunting smile. //She picked Los Lobos. And I don't think that she's changed her mind about her decision. I don't think I've changed my mind about mine.//
"You'd make a lousy guardian if you were dead," Sands interrupted, speaking very quickly in a voice sent soaring by pain. "Yeah, yeah, all those stories about protecting angels and spirits of the ancestors. Well, they're complete horseshit. Legends don't put food on the table. They don't kill off the fuckmooks of the world. In fact, they don't do shit except pretend to be all high and noble and-"
And Carolina understood just as Cucuy twisted about and shouted, "Shut up!"
He leaped for Sands again, but in mid-air, something jerked him left and sent him tumbling against the railing. Too close to her, so close she could see the rusty veins in the yellows of his eyes. Filthy, jagged nails reached for her, and she instinctively threw herself back. Cucuy tried to follow, but El's furious face appeared above his shoulder and his huge, gore-streaked body was slammed over the rail. The air stretched in an echo of the battle-
Something invisible surged up in the space above El and Cucuy, then bent and coiled. Tore itself into a million pieces, and suddenly everything was clear and bright. And falling, with Cucuy's tumble down-
He almost took El with him, but Carolina seized El's waist at the last moment and hauled him back. She promptly sat on him, slapping at the tears that had sprung up from her eyes. //You stupid, stupid…I didn't fall in love with you because you were a-a name. A symbol. I fell in love with you because you weren't that-because you were a man and you treated everyone else like-they were people, too.//
He stared up at her, eyes focusing and unfocusing. //What?//
"Hey, confession of deepest feelings. What happened to your charm and tact, you whacking lunatic?" Sands wriggled over and, in contrast to his jeering tone, showed nothing but pure relief when he pushed his face into the side of El's head and inhaled. He rested his brow on El's shoulder. "You prick," he added in a quieter, more shaky voice. "I could hate you when you pull this kind of shit."
El looked past them, at something on the ceiling. His mouth relaxed out of its rage-induced rictus into something vaguely resembling an amused smile. "Is that a 'confession of deepest feelings'?"
"Correction: I do hate you, because you're a dumbassed Mexicunt border-jumper that can't see past his great big wad of selfishness." It was hard to tell because El's shoulder was muffling the other man's voice, but Sands sounded like he might have started to choke on…Carolina decided she didn't want to think about the improbability of that. She already was going to have her hands full enough.
El lifted a hand and stroked Sands' hair, then awkwardly levered himself up and touched Carolina's cheek. She leaned into it and hid her face, embarrassment starting to weave its way through her. Of all the ways she had planned to tell him…a thumb wiped off her tears. That little shiver that'd jumped from Fred to her floated back up and grew until it had tendrils in every bit of her. And the city sang, wild and gorgeous as El's guitar.
She succumbed to a tiny grin. Most eligible bachelor, after all.
Clattering and shouts. Carolina looked over the edge to see Fred's tiny figure, so far below, looking back up at her. So he hadn't been able to wait, after all. Not that she could blame him.
"Throw your bladder in a cement mixer," Sands mumbled, paddling deeper into the blankets and the warm, slightly squishy pillow. Which grunted and whacked him, jarring his still-mending ankle. "Ow! Motherfuck, if you tear out the stitches-"
Mouth swallowing up the rest of his complaint. Possibly because of the weird cigarillos, neither Fred nor El had morning breath. It was freaky one way, damn good the other. And…yep, his ass was being groped. By two different hands.
//It's very round//, Carolina giggled. //Like a girl's.//
//Shhh…// El pushed Sands further into Fred's enthusiastic kissing, thus preventing any offended replies. His fingers, large and long and just rough-skinned enough, continued to rub and knead and probe in ways that made Sands almost forget he was supposed to be insulted. //You'll get him upset. And I'm still not healed enough to fuck him senseless.//
Oh, God. Sands tried not to moan at the thought of that, but between the other three, that was very much a losing proposition. He scrabbled for a grip in the sheets. Dragged himself free of the lovely tongue-tangling just in time to have his wrists caught in a loop of cotton bandage. Well, maybe. Felt like it, but was stronger than leather…and Sands wouldn't put it past El to have picked up some other tricks in Mexico besides the cigarillos.
He was lashed to the headboard, Fred still squirming beneath him, and then bound wrists draped about his neck. "Who would've thought-prissiest agent in the whole region likes kink."
"Do you ever shut up?" Fred sighed, using his arms to pull Sands down into another prolonged session of kissing. His fingers threaded into Sands' hair, and his knees grazed heat over Sands' sides as they went up. Fred suddenly jerked, gasping lips parting very nicely for a thorough inspection. And then he groaned, twisting.
"I can't believe I didn't try this before," came Carolina's fascinated voice. Her silky lips briefly skimmed over Sands' shoulder before nudging in to try each of them. She tasted as she'd already had breakfast. Sweet citrus juice, just astringent enough to pleasantly clean out Sands' mouth.
El's palm rested possessively between Sands' shoulders, nails occasionally curling in to scratch. To judge by the way the mattress shifted, he was reaching for-oh. Oh, fuck. Finger, and-Sands arched in a long ripple, then eagerly shoved back. Inadvertently added another finger that way, because El was a surprising bastard like that. Sands bit down on Carolina's lip and got a punishing nip before she withdrew.
Fred shuddered and whimpered into Sands' shoulder. "Please, God-shit. Yes, please, more-oh-Christ-more-"
He was constantly wriggling, sliding their cocks against each other. Skin skating over skin, but there were sheets in the way, and sometimes it wasn't the right angle for the stroke to touch all the way. Frustrating. And then El did some kind of fingertwist that snapped the moorings of Sands' mind. "Oh, goddamn. What he said-" fuck himself, because El wasn't doing it, the shit "-please. Please."
Pulling at his wrists, feeling the bandage stretch and yank tighter. Fred was doing the same thing, his arms moving in little spastic tugs that made Sands to bob up and down in response. Only improved the angle, but…hand tucking itself up against his belly, caressing it once before finally moving all the crap out of the way and directing him into Fred. Thank you, Carolina. "About fucking time."
//Be patient, gatito.// El lifted his hand, which forced Sands up since the man's fingers were still firmly planted inside of him. In turn, Fred had to shove up his hips. His breath was strained, but it was impressive that he still had some. Sands had lost all of his.
They had to stay like that for a moment, and then El lowered his hand. Sands hissed in relief and desperation, trying to push forward into the welcoming heat, to push back into the teasing fingers. But El had seized his hip and was holding him too fucking motionless. Below him, Carolina's nails occasionally scratched light lines over his stomach as she expertly worked Fred's erection. Lucky goddamned bastard panted and writhed, nearly driving Sands insane. And then Fred came, clenching in random spasms, and Sands wanted to scream.
But El drew a hand down his back, and leaned up to nuzzle Fred's wrists out of the way. Fixed teeth into the nape of Sands' neck. Methodically chewed and nibbled the nerves there to shreds before moving an inch down, along the spine, and repeating the procedure. He did that for every single bump of Sands' backbone, ignoring the cursing and then the pleading and finally, the wordless mewling. And then-and then-
Carolina's breathless laugh as she tumbled down somewhere beside him. Fred taking his tied hands from about Sands' neck and idly rubbing thumbs over Sands' nipples, while El bent away to…
"He's licking her," Fred informed Sands, sounding far too peaceable. Because he'd gotten to-fingers twitched warningly inside, and that thought was irrevocably lost to the white bursts that peppered his mind.
An achingly long time later, Carolina finally gave a funny, taut gasp, then followed that up with a throaty coo.
"Please…" Sands managed, feebly wiggling.
Fred smirked into his chest. "Seven minutes. You're already that far gone?"
"Shut up, you shitty little eunuch-" Fingers whipped out of him, leaving behind an emptiness that hurt, but then the short tether securing Sands' wrists to the bed frame was slashed, and he was flipped over. Pulled up to sit on El's lap and then flopped against a shoulder like a rag doll, except the moment El's cock drove into him, every single muscle in Sands' body shocked rigid. He couldn't do anything but toss his bound wrists about El's neck and keen as someone else was nice enough to take hold of his hips and roll them for him. Pushpullpushpull-
spread shiver lines of light from one to another and see the delicate webwork
--and he was savaging El's collarbone, tasting blood, as Fred and Carolina snickered behind his back, as his brain slowly recollected itself. Got used to the sensation of an extra sense, and of overlap.
El chuckled into his ear, nibbling at it, and petted Sands' buttock. Very precise, so he hit all the developing sore spots.
Oh, fuck it all.
They were sprawled around the library because it had the biggest, most comfortable chairs, and with the collective injury count, that was top priority. Dean gritted his teeth, picked up his pen, and determinedly ignored the people flipping through his-through Miguel's books. He could always-
--a hand closed over his wrist, curling till his bones began to grind together. Miguel tsked and shook his head. "I'd rather you didn't."
"Didn't what?" Dean did his best to look innocent, and was rewarded with a sharp bite under his ear. He gasped, and then his eyelids fluttered shut as Miguel used a nail to etch into the soft skin of his underarm. "Oh…"
"You can go scope out the book auctions later," Miguel promised in a voice as honeyed as his nipping was sharp. Content, Dean settled back against the other man's chest and picked up the next bunch of files.
"Are you two done?" El asked, laughing and showing it. He was perched on the couch across from Miguel, Fred molded to one hip, Sands pillowing down in his lap and Carolina leaning back against his knees.
Over by the window, Lorenzo looked from Miguel to El, then snorted. He kicked Fideo awake. //Come on. They're done with the groping, and we're finally getting down to business.//
Sands stirred, sniffing at the smoke drifting from Fred's cigarillo. "Killing all the reporters."
G snickered and stretched her arm across the space between her armchair and Dean's to flick at his hair. "It could be worse."
"Front-page article." Sands sent an eyeless glare her way, only partially placated by El's hand stroking over his belly. "Huge headlines. And what did they nickname me? 'El Gatito.' Whoever the fuck told them that is tomorrow's mincemeat pie."
Miguel coughed politely, which joggled Dean's elbow. Luckily, he'd already lifted his pen off the page. He blew on the ink to dry it, then discarded that folder and picked up the list. "Fifteen pistoleros, one street captain and Tavo. Off the payroll."
"I still can't believe you kept him around," El remarked, absently running his hands through Fred's hair. "Him and Belini…hell, even Uncle Ramirez didn't like them. He only kept them around because he could use the greasiness, once in a while."
"I was thinking of getting rid of them, but the war started up and I was already shorthanded." Miguel stared out the window while his fingertips slipped up Dean's side in a surreptitious motion. It tickled, but Dean resisted the urge to squirm. Instead, he carefully put all the folders in order, then switched them for a newspaper.
"'Marquez Loses Election Twice Over,'" he read before snapping the paper shut on the photo of the unmasked General's enraged face. Even if it happened in another country, massacres of women and children never played well with voters. "And there's no way we could simply get him deported? His tax records are horrendous."
Lorenzo and El both made noises of negation. The younger man plopped into a chair. "No. I was looking into that, and apparently, the bastard's got an American wife somewhere up in Minnesota. They never see each other, but she's happy enough with her monthly allowance to not care."
"Marquez is going to assassinate the Mayor and his top officials. That's what Buscemi told me." El's face darkened, and his voice grew rough and raw. Then Fred turned and snuggled his face into El's throat, and the moment passed. "It would work, a little. They'd have to call new elections, with that many dead. And news gets stale, fast. He might have a chance to turn the stories around and make it out to be heroic, or something like that."
Miguel let out a breath and put his head back. "You know, one of the things Ramirez told me was to never kill politicians if I could help it. Gets us too much attention."
Dean looked at the profile shown to him, mouth drawn and eyes a little worried. It was hard to remember that Miguel was younger than him, when the other man had done so much for Dean. And to him, but he loved it, so he didn't care. But at times like these…"What if you're not killing a politician?"
Miguel's head came down, and his eyebrow arched in an inquiring manner.
At the end of the room, Fideo startled everyone by laughing and saluting Dean with a flask of tequila. "It's always the opposite."
"We're saving the Mayor." El mulled that over, then nodded. "Okay. I can do that."
"You all remember that this guy's sworn to root out the gangs, right?" Lorenzo incredulously asked. "Doesn't anyone find this ironic?"
"Not really. We'll just feed him Barillo's lot." Miguel licked affectionately at the sore spots just under the edge of Dean's collar. "Do I pay you for that?"
G chuckled in the background as Dean twisted around and kissed the other man into the chair padding. He probably had gotten compensated for this, somewhere along the line. But right now, he didn't particularly care about how or when that had happened. There were other matters he wanted to see to first.