|Trio 2: Americano
Author: Guede Mazaka
Warily, Sands inched across the floor toward the impatient tapping. "Are you sure you know how to use that?" he called.
A faint whoosh and thud streaked past his head, and he instantly froze. So that was what a thrown knife sounded like. "That little exhibition didn't really inspire any trust, Carolina."
"You're too slow," she replied. "Hurry up; it's already evening. El should have been back by now. He never stays away overnight."
In response, Sands took one step, then sort of skidded a second. A hand suddenly seized his wrists and yanked him forward. Before he could recover his balance, something snicked and his hands were free. Rocking back, Sands scowled as he rubbed chafed wrists. "Watch it. I'm still sore from taking care of the door."
"You picked the lock," Carolina said dismissively, skirt rustling as she moved about the room-a kitchen, apparently, to judge by the banging pots. Sands shook his head, and corrected, "No. I borrowed part of the bed frame and jammed the damn lock open. There's a difference, you see. One way, you have gentleman thieves and pieces of wire. The other, you've got bruises and raw fingertips."
"Your hands don't look that bad," her voice floated up, slightly muffled. Slapping his embarrassment down, Sands waved his arms about before him as he walked toward Carolina. His hand smacked wood, and he stopped, tracing out the shape with his palms. A table. A very, very heavily-built table. Butcher's pride and joy. "Damn it," Carolina sighed, irritated.
Bending around the side of the table, Sands asked resignedly, "No guns?"
"Nada." Huffing, she put a hand on Sands' arm and scooted up to perch on the table. "And the knives aren't very good. Too blunt, no balance."
Dozens of small clinks sounded, and both of them jumped. "How about those?" queried El's coffee-stained voice, more grating than before. And then Carolina cursed, leaping off the table, and a stifled thud echoed through the air. Edging forward as quickly as he could, Sands stepped wrongways into a slick spot and stumbled, going hard onto his knees. "Fuck!" he snapped. And then he thought about why the floor would be slippery-"Oh, shit. Is he-"
"He passed out," Carolina replied, tone anxious and preoccupied. //Mary, Mother of God…what has he been doing?// She blocked off Sands' resumed approach with an arm. //Wait. He dropped a bundle of these little daggers on the floor.//
"Cucuy," Sands realized. "Barillo's men. Goddamn it. It's starting already, and El has a deathwish. Wonderful."
Biting her lip, Carolina ignored her companion and hastily examined the unconscious mariachi. There was so much blood…
"Sands. Help me get him up," she ordered, tugging the other man around the blade-strewn floor till he reached El. "I can't see down here."
Working together, they managed to heave the mariachi onto the kitchen table, and then both had to take a rest, already worn out from the effort. "Son of a bitch," Sands panted. "Weighs a ton…Christ, and my hands…are all wet…"
"I don't think most of it is his," Carolina muttered, swiping away some of the mud-mixed clots. "He looks mostly fine, except for his right leg and his left arm."
Brow furrowed, the American lightly poked around on El's thigh until he found what she was talking about. "Stabbed here," he said. "And up there?"
"Shot." Carolina began to lift up the mariachi's shoulder, and El groaned. She froze, lips unconsciously moving, but the man didn't wake up. Sighing to cover up the creeping cold in her gut, she raised the arm and took a quick but thorough look underneath. No second wound. "The bullet's still in there."
"Hell and damnation," Sands snarled darkly. "How are we going to get it out?"
Straightening up, Carolina briskly wiped her hands off on her dress and began pulling objects from the cabinets and shelves around them. Discovering a bottle of what smelled like their medicine, she tucked it under one arm and kept digging. "Well, we don't know where the doctor is, so that leaves me. I saw some things I can use," she tossed over a shoulder. "Stay there and hold him down."
"He rode back here. I think he can handle the pain," Sands pointed out, though he still moved to lay on top of the other man. Dipping a kettle into one of the water jars, Carolina rolled her eyes. "They always move," she replied tiredly. "Doesn't matter how strong they are. So just shut up and let me start a fire for the water."
After she had a few kettles set to boil, Carolina gathered up the various doctor's implements she had found and turned back to the table, only to find Sands brushing fingertips all over El's bloodied face. A grudging smile tugging at her mouth, she leaned a hip against the table edge. "You didn't believe me?" she snorted.
"You threw a knife at me-"
The American muttered something insulting about her mother. "You threw a sharp blade in my general vicinity," he said, disgruntled. "I wanted to find out for myself."
"And I was right, wasn't I? Better than good-looking. He's hot chocolate in clothes." Plunking down the bowls and instruments, Carolina went back to retrieve some rags and hot water, and then pushed a scrap of fabric into Sands' hand. "Wrap up his leg until I can get to it," she told him. It wasn't really a suggestion. "And try not to enjoy it too much."
"As if you would act differently," Sands retorted, sliding down the other man's body. Grinning briefly, Carolina sobered as she regarded the huge, jagged-rimmed hole before her. She picked up a knife and cut off El's jacket- and shirt-sleeves. Sucking in a deep breath, she exchanged blade for forceps, swished them through the hot water, and then started.
The richly embroidered dressing robe didn't move from the window, which only increased Cucuy's nervousness. //We know where they are//, he said hastily, quickly. //I can burn the entire town down by morning.//
Barillo's head suddenly snapped up from the cigar he'd been lighting and turned a pitiless profile towards Cucuy. "What have we been trying to do here?" he asked, mild tone sending chills up the other man's spine.
//Uh…build an army--//
"No!" Turning sharply on one heel, the crimelord sliced a hand through the air. "We're building support. A base, if your dull mind can comprehend that. And in order to do so, we have to make the populace happy…at least until we're sitting in Mexico City. So, Cucuy. Do massacres make people happy?"
//It'd make me happy. Sir//, the other man muttered, shaking off his fear. After all, soul-less devils like Barillo were a dime a dozen in Mexico. Cucuy had seen more than his share in his own life, and he'd outlived them all. //Besides, if one of them tells the President what we have here, we'll all be dead.//
"You really think that our esteemed leader would believe an American with no identification papers and no eyes? Or a prostitute?" Barillo laughed, dragging on his cigar.
//He'll believe El//, Cucuy persisted stubbornly. The morphine was wearing off, and his arm was beginning to wail. //Sir, everyone's heard of the legend.//
"Of course they have," the other man said contemptuously. "Guns, music, Robin Hood in Mexico…it makes for a very good story."
Swallowing down his growl, Cucuy clenched his good hand and tried to make his boss understand. //It wasn't a story that killed fifteen men this morning. It wasn't a story that shot me and stole my knife belt.//
"No," Barillo acknowledged, face somber in the dim red glow of the cigar tip. "That is true. But there is a time and place for all things, my friend. You said the mariachi was wounded, so we have time to play our cards. We'll do this quietly." He turned his back and waved a dismissive hand.
I could stick a blade between those spindly shoulders so easily, Cucuy thought to himself as he turned and stepped into the shotgun blast. //Fuck!//
Staggering backwards, he looked blankly from the red coating his chest, pouring between the hands he had clapped to himself, and then up to the blurring image of a woman looming over him. As he fell into the dragging dark, the last sight he saw were her eyes, cold and brown as cemetery dirt.
"Very quietly," Barillo repeated, glancing down at the body. Hiking up her dress, Ajedrez detached the skirts to expose the men's trousers she wore beneath them, slinging the lace and silk over a nearby chair. "I'll see to everything, father," she assured him.
"I know you will," he replied, a trace proud. "There's no point in immediately storming the monastery; it's a regional landmark. If we destroy it, we'll draw too much attention here."
"Sands and Carolina couldn't have survived without a doctor's help," Ajedrez commented, expertly riffling through Cucuy's clothing for any valuables. "And there are only a few in Culiacan with that kind of skill. Ours is one, but he's too happy fattening off our fees to have betrayed us."
"Jorge Ramirez," Barillo uttered speculatively, blowing a perfect smoke ring. "I had his partner killed, and when I learned he had moved into town, I had thought about having him murdered as well. But he was quiet, and so I decided to let him be. After all, attracting good physicians to this city is difficult, for some reason."
"I'll pay him a visit," Ajedrez promised. "Don't worry, father. By Dias de Los Muertos, it'll all be over."
As the door swung open, Fideo took one last draught from his bottle, and then asked slurringly, //Well?//
//One day, it's going to be a husband with a grudge that walks in, and you'll be too drunk to notice when he blows off your head//, Lorenzo replied nastily. //And don't tell me 'I need spirits to keep the spirits from bothering me,' all right? I get nightmares about the seminary, but I don't live off of tequila.//
//I could tell it was you//, the other mariachi shrugged, getting up off his seat. //And I don't commit adultery. You do. Anything from El?//
Giving him an odd look, Lorenzo flicked two telegrams over. //The first one says, 'More than gold. Come down.' The second one says, 'Vultures circling. Watch your back.'//
Nodding, Fideo swayed drunkenly about the room, throwing his possessions together. //Better pack our guitars. It's nearly three weeks to Culiacan from here.//
Pain. An agonizing bounty of it.
El had fallen to it, and now it was what greeted his slow awakening. General ache interspersed with the occasional burning scrape. To be expected, considering the memories that were drifting back to him. Fierce excruciating hurt lancing through the bones of his left arm, like skewers shoving themselves, one by one, ruthlessly into him. A weight crushing in his ribs.
Right. He'd been shot. He'd fought till they'd all died. All but one that had run, and too lightheaded to give chase, he'd ridden back in a wavering scarlet haze. So his arm was somewhat explainable. But El was very familiar with how a gunshot wound should feel, and this wasn't it. Something was different. Wrong-white pain blotted out his returning vision as the jab caught viciously against a strip of muscle.
"Stay. Down." His chest was slammed downwards.
Snapping his eyes fully open, El snarled, "Get the hell off of me. Gringo."
A sudden explosion of spasming pain interrupted El's consciousness, and thus he missed whatever Sands' response had been. But the misshapen bloody blob of metal that welcomed El upon his second revival was clear enough. And so were the dulcet tones that scolded him. "Stop moving, or I'll stitch crooked, and the scar won't be pretty."
Ironic chuckle grating out of his throat, El let his gaze wander from the newly-extracted bullet to the forceps gripping it, then up the slender arm that held the pincers. "You think I'd care about that?" he asked Carolina sardonically.
"No," she conceded. "The one on your hand is uglier than a dog's ass. Who did it?"
"Me," El laughed unpleasantly, rolling his head to stare at the ceiling. Ah. The monastery kitchen. "Not that I knew what I was doing, back then. Why do you think I took up guns? It's easier to pull a trigger than play a guitar. Easier to…destroy, than create."
Insolent cigarillo hanging from her lip, Carolina arched an eloquent eyebrow. The bullet and forceps plinked dully as they were discarded. "Sands," she said tersely, plucking the smoking cylinder from her mouth.
"Yeah," he nodded, immediately leaning all his weight on El's arms so they were pinned to the table beneath. Before the mariachi could react, Carolina pressed the tip of the cigarillo into the gouge in El's arm, and the sickly smell of burning flesh filled the air. Jaw widening till he could feel the bone strain, El tensed to corpse-rigidity. But he didn't move. Or speak.
Sands, on the other hand, felt no such restraint. "You stupid, stupid bastard," the American growled lowly, fingernails digging into the other man's elbows. "Don't give me that poetic high-toned bullshit. I've been living in your bed for the past month; I know you. You are not. A. Hero."
"Ramirez told us about Moco and Bucho," Carolina added, removing the cigarillo. She picked up the needle. "I think we understand."
"Do you?" El asked skeptically, lifting his head. "Moco is the one who put a bullet through my hand. But he buried my name. And Bucho-my older brother-he murdered me, even if I'm the one who paid for the priest and the coffin."
"Idiot," Sands murmured, releasing the mariachi's arms so he could cross his own over El's chest. "We've shat and bled all over you, and you still think you're the only one like that? Cojones-brained son of a shit-faced Frenchman."
El wrenched a hand up, and, ignoring the rapid-fire Spanish swearing from Carolina's corner, he sank fingers into Sands' sweaty mane and yanked the American down, smashing their mouths together in an airless, ferocious kiss. Pressed hard till he felt the other man's lips give, pressed harder till he felt them split. Swirled the copper and salt over the traces of spice and sweetness, trying to drown them out in rage and grievance and sorrow. Instead, El only tasted more caramel, more pepper, more life. Snarling, he dipped deeper and deeper, probing over teeth and gums and tongue till Sands stopped thrashing above him and went desperately limp.
Once again, fire flashed up his arm, and El ripped himself away from the American, breathing heavily. He darted a glance over at a flushed-face Carolina, who calmly finished putting in the first stitch and remarked dryly, "He was about to pass out."
Looking back at the slumped form of the other man, El finally registered the huge gasping gulps of air Sands was taking. "You still want a share in that?" he asked.
"Hell, yes." Jerking his head up, the American confronted El with brutally scarred remnants of eyes. More coolly, now that his breath had somewhat recovered, Sands said, "Yes, I do. Your fault, you musical jackass. You picked us up; you gave us our second lives. And you just had to fucking put yourself in our blood while you were doing that."
"Yes," Carolina seconded. "We want revenge on Barillo and Marquez, not you. And this is our vengeance, not yours. So don't you dare use it as an excuse for something-for something stupid."
El was silent for a moment, gaze going back-and-forth between his two companions. He closed his eyes, letting his head loll backward, cheek muscle ticking every time Carolina stuck the needle into him. "Why are there so many armed men in town?" he asked at last, monotone and neutral.
"Do you know the President is coming to Culiacan for Dias de Los Muertos?" When the mariachi nodded, Sands continued, "Marquez is supposed to provide a small honor guard during the President's trip, but what he's planning to do is to substitute a private army instead and take over the Presidency. I found this aide in the administration-name's Nicolas-and introduced him to Barillo. They've arranged it so the President will be in town a week beforehand, but our dear friend Barillo will probably talk Marquez into waiting till the celebration. Easier to cover up a coup d'état if there's a lot of distraction."
"That's in three and a half weeks," El mumbled. "They'll be coming after us before that. Cucuy knew where I lived."
"So we'll move," Carolina replied decisively. She tied off the last stitch and picked up the bottle she found. Holding it up in front of El's face, she queried, "What's this?"
Cracking an eye open, El smiled fleetingly. "Gift from my friend. Medicine for infection."
"Well, can't hurt." Without any more preambles, she sloshed it over his arm. The liquid stung like a stallion's kick, and swearing violently, he jolted upright. Which would have sent Sands flying off the table, except for some reason El had automatically thrown his good arm around the other man's waist. Unexpectedly unsure of himself, the mariachi started to let go, but then Sands nuzzled into his throat, and El hesitated.
Clucking disapprovingly, Carolina shoved futilely at both men. "Stop that. I haven't done El's leg yet."
Bending down, El caught Carolina's eyes with his own. "Have I thanked you yet?"
"No," she snorted. "Now lie do-"
El kissed the rest of the sentence away. Not quite as roughly as he had Sands, but still thoroughly and forcefully enough so that he came away with the taste of limes imprinted on his tongue, and so that she was left gingerly touching new-swollen lips. "I will," he pledged, voice low, as he eased back. Unsurprisingly at this point, the American went down with him, fingers twisting in the dust-worn fabric of El's torn clothing. "Hurry up with the leg," the mariachi ordered. "We need to get out before morning."
Swinging open the door, Ramirez bit back a hiss and bowed slightly. //My lady. What brings you here at this late hour?//
//We have a medical case that has us all puzzled, Major//, Ajedrez replied, elegant features arranged in an expression of worry. //It has my father concerned, and so he sent me to seek your advice. May we come in?//
Warily watching the group of tough men that skulked behind her, Ramirez tried and failed to think of a decent excuse for refusing. Feeling as if he were welcoming Death, he nodded and pivoted out of the entryway, sweeping one arm around in invitation. //Of course.//
The doctor turned to walk in, and that was when a rifle butt smashed into the back of his head. Bringing down the rifle, Ajedrez jerked her chin toward Ramirez's body. //Pick him up. You can ransack the house later.//
Burying his head in the cushions, the priest prayed that it would stop. He peeked briefly at the wall clock: still two hours till the cock's crow. It surely wasn't any godly business that came knocking at this time of night.
//Father?// a familiar voice beckoned.
Dropping a few irreligious words, the priest grudgingly got up and went to the heavy church doors, sliding open the tiny window in one so he could look out. As expected, the tall form of the mariachi leaped into view. Oddly enough, he had company. Known company. A woman and a blinded white man, helping to hold him up, and beyond them, two horses. Through the opening, the scents of old blood and sour metal filtered into the church. //We need sanctuary//, El grunted.
//You think Barillo listens to God?//, the priest questioned dubiously. He began to shut the window, but fingers shot in and shoved the shutter back. Glowering death-shadowed eyes loomed large in the square opening. //No. But I think you'll listen to me//, the mariachi hissed.
Wincing, the priest glanced over at the huge carved crucifix on the wall, and then back outside. //All right//, he mumbled, fumbling with the locks. //But any sin that takes place in this church is on your head, you understand?//
//That's fine//, El answered, pushing in as soon as the doors creaked apart. //The more I have, the better I'll do in hell.//
Shaking his head dolefully, the priest squeezed past the gringo's manic grin and the woman's sneer to step out and take care of the horses before anyone noticed them.
"I am constantly amazed by the blue loveliness of the sky down south," Barillo breathed appreciatively, sipping champagne. Beside him, General Marquez rumbled wordlessly, then hawked disgustingly and spat out a wad of tobacco at a nearby spittoon. He missed. Eyebrow twitching, Barillo purposefully kept his face smooth and unruffled. "Is there something that troubles you?" he asked inquisitively.
"Have they found them yet?" the other man demanded harshly. "We have less than two weeks-"
"It's under control, General," Barillo cut off thinly, tone slivering Marquez's protests. "And I thought that we had an agreement. The domestic side of matters is our concern; you need only worry about your army."
"But-" Marquez involuntarily flinched under the cool gaze Barillo turned upon him. "Yes, you're right. I am sorry." Throat working, the General pretended to enjoy the view for a few moments before he spoke again. "How is-how is Lucrezia? The heat has been ba-has been dreadful, these past few days."
"She is fine," the crimelord said carelessly. "Perfectly fine. Now, is there anything else you wished to discuss?"
"No." Taking the hint, Marquez made a stiff abbreviated bow and spun on one heel, marching out of the room. As the door shut behind him, light clicking footsteps sounded from the far end of the second-floor verandah. Ajedrez, resplendent in pale icy green silk overlaid with white muslin, floated into sight, barely anchored by one slender arm hooked through the arm of a short, slight Mexican man. Visibly more pleased, Barillo beamed upon them. "Daughter. Nicolas."
"Father." Gracefully curtseying, Lucrezia darted a distasteful look at the drying tobacco juice spoiling the floor. Her lip curled in a most unladylike fashion. "I will ring for the maid while you two are occupied," she murmured.
"As you wish," he agreed. "But do come back afterward. I always like to have your perspective on business." Inclining her head, Ajedrez curtseyed again, and then slid inside. Nicolas moved up to Barillo's elbow. "And have you been finding our preparations for the President's visit satisfactory?" Barillo inquired.
"Very," the other man replied. "Your men have been most…cooperative."
"So everything will be set," Barillo remarked significantly.
Nicolas nodded confidently, but then raised a soft hand. "I have been hearing some strange rumors," he mentioned. "Rumors that say El is against you."
"Only because we haven't met yet," Barillo told the other man. "From what I've learned, the legend is based entirely on his obvious skills as a pistolero, and the novelty of his 'guitar.' Such a man would care little for the, ah…more refined aspects of morality. Any compunctions he has should be simple to quell."
"So El will be settled," Nicolas persisted, slanting a glance at Barillo's composed face. "That is good. As an aide to the President, after all, I have a duty to ensure his safety."
"Would the President enjoy a musical performance?" Ajedrez delicately interjected, returning. "By a band of Culiacan's finest mariachis?"
Both men regarded her, and then each other. Nicolas lifted a shoulder, briefly distorting his well-tailored suit. "I believe he would. The President is fond of traditional Mexican music."
"We will send you the details," Barillo promised, shaking hands with the other man. Nicolas took his leave, and Ajedrez moved out onto the verandah, closing the room doors behind her. "Marquez," she said in a revolted tone. "He's waiting to ask for my hand."
"Perhaps you should consider it," her father said thoughtfully, polishing off the last of his champagne. Before she could look betrayed, he added, "His widow would be left with extensive resources."
Smirking again, Ajedrez dismissed that scenario with one hand. "That's what other women do. I'm better than that; I don't need to marry him in order to kill him."
"This idea of yours…it was Sands' originally, wasn't it?" Barillo commented. "Do you still believe it will work, considering that the mariachi is most likely the one sheltering the American and Carolina?"
"But also consider-" Ajedrez picked up a tall glass of cool fruit juice from a nearby table "-El, if it is him, has no need for money. What he gleaned from his earlier massacres was a goodly amount, and he seems to prefer a frugal existence. As you've said, it would take too many men and cause too great a disturbance to take him on in a regular fight. We need to offer him what he wants and lure him to a battleground of our choosing."
"Wouldn't Sands warn him?" her father questioned.
"It's not quite the same plan." Ajedrez tasted the champagne, rolling it around in her mouth so the tiny bubbles burst into an explosion of brief burn against her palate. "He wanted to use El to assassinate Marquez, and then you-before he knew we were related, of course. Sands will obviously be suspicious, but I think we can persuade him to cooperate with us. For all his cleverness, the American's still an amateur. A boy playing at ringmaster."
"Have you found them yet?" he asked, examining her expression. Satisfaction flitting across her face, she nodded.
Barillo took one last look at the sapphire sky. "I believe in you, Lucrezia," he finally said. "Thus I leave Ramirez and the mariachi in your capable hands."
Blinking back moistness, Ajedrez lowered her head. "You will not regret this decision," she vowed.
A slight limp still plaguing his stride, El shoved a long bundle under one arm and sauntered into the church's enclosed back garden. Halting by a shady tree, he watched the man in the center of the grounds.
Sands held a rifle in one hand, and a fistful of pebbles in the other. The other man threw the rocks in a wide arc, rattling the bushes and trees ringing the edge of the cleared space. There was a mass of soft fluttering, and Sands whipped the rifle up to his shoulder, firing quickly. Dark shapes plummeted out of the sky, but the American didn't stop; swiftly exchanging rifle for pistols, he continued to shoot birds as he turned, following the sound of wings as a sunflower trailed the sun's journey. The last dove plunged into the tree beneath which El stood, rustling the leaves in her panic. Face glistening with intense concentration, Sands aimed a gun at the mariachi and fired.
Unflinching, El merely tilted his head up and slightly left to track the limp form tumbling out of the leaves above him. Reaching out a hand, he snagged the dove and examined its bloody body. No head, but otherwise untouched. "You've gotten much better," he commented, raising his voice so the other man could hear.
"Thanks," came the panted reply as Sands walked over, tripping a few times over mounds of dirt. Frowning, El remembered why he had come out. The mariachi leaned forward and grasped the other man's arm, pulling him in. El took the pistols from Sands and handed the American the package, leaving him to unwrap it while the mariachi put the guns away and collected the dead birds.
Ripping away the brown paper, Sands ran his hands up and down the smooth length. "A walking stick?" Twirling it, he tested the weight. "Damn heavy. Could crush a skull in with this."
"There's a steel rod in the middle," El explained, returning. "The outside's mahogany, with silver capping."
Running his fingers over the top of it, Sands hmm'd. "Nice workman-ow! Fuck, that's sharp." Jerking his hand away, he instantly stuck the cut fingertips into his mouth and sucked once, then pulled them out and held them up to El. "How bad is it?"
"You're asking me?" The abruptly-lowered tone brought a faint look of nervousness to Sands' face. But then El took the American's fingers in his own mouth, bringing a hand up to grasp Sands', and words somehow seemed a little pointless.
"Oh, God…" Sands whined breathily, feeling El's tongue wrap around his knuckles and swipe into the cuts, thoroughly cleaning them. His knees were suddenly losing bones. Stumbling forward, Sands dropped the cane and snatched out his free hand; grazing El's forearm, he seized it in a fierce grip. Lovely warm heat, so unlike the blistering torment that filled his dreams, began to seep down into his flesh, loosening muscles and weakening his tendons. Drooping, Sands pressed into El's body for support, and fire flashed over his front from ankles to collarbone. "Christ, please…please…"
That drew a rough growl from the other man, and still running his lips over Sands' hand, El backed them both up till tree bark was scratching through the clothes on Sands' back. He was only wearing a thin linen shirt anyway, and it was already soaked with sweat from his shooting practice. "Yet another sin," El muttered, moving from palm to neck.
Pushing back so he could feel the mariachi's rising erection nudging his inner thigh, Sands shrugged awkwardly, letting his head fall sideways in encouragement. "So go to confession," he rasped, air escaping from his desperate attempts to drink it in. Teeth grazed up the cords of his throat, and then they sunk in and lips swirled a bruise to wonderfully stinging life. "That'll take care of it."
Laughing into Sands' skin, El shoved a hard-muscled leg between the American's, and a sandpaper-calloused hand into Sands' shirt. Grinding helplessly, trapped betwixt tree and man, Sands moaned loudly. "If the priest comes, I'll blow his head off," he mumbled, fingers fumbling the mariachi's shirt up the smooth chest.
"Your screaming will be what brings him," El snorted. There were rustling noises and Sands's arms and head were abruptly stuck in a yanked-up shirt. He impatiently wrestled it off, only to have his newly-freed wrists pulled up and bound securely to a tree branch. A cloth gag was tied into his mouth before he could complain, and El's lips were fastened to Sands' nipple before the American could even formulate thoughts of kicking out. "Forgive me, father, for I have sinned," El mouthed against the writhing body.
Sands' indignant snarl was quickly modulated to a pleading whimper when the other man bit down. Flicking a tongue to soothe the abused spot, El stroked his hands up and down Sands' hips, thumbs rubbing circles over the nubbly fabric, straying frustratingly close to Sands' hardening cock. "I have killed many men," El murmured.
Bucking up eloquently, the American was finally rewarded with fingers undoing the front of his pants. Tugging down the trousers, El's long clever fingers caressed scorching lines along the length of Sands' legs. "I have stolen that which isn't mine."
Groaning and yanking uselessly at his wrists, Sands trembled under the lips playing havoc over his stomach. El dipped briefly into Sands' bellybutton, and the American's spine decided to give up all pretenses to rigidity. Knees unlocking, Sands hung from the branches like a windchime, helplessly ringing in the ferocious gusts of the mariachi's will. "I have forgotten the vows of family, of marriage."
Licking back up the other man's arching torso, El briefly teased the other nipple while his hands slithered along Sands' flanks, eventually diving in to encircle the American's straining erection. Working it till Sands was nearly choking on the gag, El stroked down hard once, twice, and then pinned the lashing body to the tree, catching the thick ejaculation in his cupped palms. "I have had carnal knowledge of the bodies of both women and men."
Absently unfastening the front of his own pants, the mariachi shoved them down to his knees. He stepped between Sands' limp legs, over the trousers puddled around the other man's ankles, and started to feed his slickened fingers into Sands' ass. It shocked the American out of his post-climax stupor, and his back bent up under El's intent gaze. Stooping, the mariachi kissed the gagged lips. "And pardon me, Lord, because I feel no shame for this."
Wrenching Sands' thighs up, El thrust in. Forcing past the muffled wailing, he drove relentlessly in and out, breath finally taking on the rhythm of Sands' frantic wheezing. The American's head felt like an explosion, and his nerves were crackling wild; he clasped his legs around El's waist and scrabbled for a grip on the branches, meeting El's movements as best he could. Sharp metallic scents cut through the rising sweat and musk-the bark was scraping his back raw. Uncaring, Sands whipped himself and El to a mind-shattering climax, and ecstatically fell into the pale oblivion surging through him.
Slowly relearning the use of his lungs, El collapsed forward onto the barely-conscious American, burrowing into the crisp crescent of Sands' throat. //Did you enjoy that?// he asked.
//Holy…oh, my God//, came Carolina's breathless voice. Staggering footsteps shuffled up beside the two men, and she slumped against the trunk, then slid down it to nuzzle her head between their legs and lick them both clean. Shuddering uncontrollably, Sands tried to gasp and coughed. El swept a heavy hand up and untied the other man, then removed the gag. Immediately falling forward, Sands sagged against El, tucking down under the mariachi's chin. Carolina came back up and poked a sticky finger at Sands' mouth; he considerately returned the favor and swiped the juices off her hand. //I see you took care of yourself, then//, El noted.
Kissing along his jawline, she nodded and smiled smugly. //I can always look after myself. I just happen to like having company.// Lips quirking, El turned his head and caught her mouth in a deep kiss. She opened herself to it for a long moment, but then pulled back, face serious. "There was a messenger. From Barillo. He wants to see you in three days at the Terasco bar, so he can offer you some kind of deal."
"Ambush," Sands said instantly. He paused to collect his breath, and then went on, "Probably not at the first meeting, but it'll happen."
"I know," El replied, the lines of his face falling into severity. Bending down, he hastily dressed himself. "But the messenger knew where to come. We can't keep moving forever, and-" his mouth twisted ironically "--Barillo is not the kind of man to accept a polite refusal." He glanced down at Sands. "Carolina can come, but you can't. You wouldn't walk out alive."
Inexorably drawing away, El left his two companions leaning against each other and the trunk. He flipped up the walking stick and handed it back to Sands, then made his way back into the church.
"Nice cane," Carolina remarked, snagging Sands' discarded shirt from the ground. "Expensive, but tasteful. An antique, I think."
"Fuckmook," Sands muttered, carefully cradling his present. She glanced at his badly-hidden aggravation. "He's right," she shrugged.
"I know that," the American replied touchily, pulling up his trousers. "I just…if we end up playing doctor in the kitchen again, I'll shove this stick up your pretty ass."
Ignoring that, Carolina checked over Sands' pink-splotched back. "We're going to anyway. You'll be lucky if you don't have splinters back there." She smirked knowingly. "You'll be very lucky if you can walk back to the kitchen."
"Yeah, well, it was worth it." Sands arched an eyebrow at her. "How come you're all better now? I heard you two on the roof last night."
"It's annoying how El keeps wandering away from bed, isn't it?" she commented, amused, as she began to help Sands back inside.
//Fideo?// Walking his horse up to his friend's, Lorenzo peered over the other mariachi's shoulder. Tumbleweed and cacti. Empty flatlands. //What are you looking at?//
//There.// Raising a hand, Fideo pointed out the bleached rib-cage of a steer poking up from the dust. //See?//
//I see that you're depressing and morbid//, Lorenzo snapped, disgusted. //Worse than the sermons we used to get during Lent. Holy Mother, we're going to a fight and this is how you prepare?//
//You're not looking properly//, Fideo replied, a hint of a scold in his voice. //Try again. By the ground.//
Squinting, the younger mariachi found he could just trace the outline of a bundle of fur. Actually-multiple bundles. Rolling his eyes, he directed his horse back to the road. //A group of sleeping coyotes. So?//
//Resurrection//, Fideo clarified, rejoining his friend. Taking out a half-finished bottle of tequila, he drained the remainder and then tossed the bottle in a high arc. It glittered, and when he shot it, the fragments made a sparkling rain. //You should know. It's what lost you your white collar.//
//Like anyone could blame me//, Lorenzo snorted. //Elbows-deep in bloody guts all day, carting out the dead in the evening, and the fucking Church expected me to just pray for comfort? Hell, no. God made women for a reason, damn it.//
"If your men do not get away from her," El informed the room in measured tones, "I will start the slaughter right here. Right now."
"You'd die," Barillo pointed out. Eyes glinting as he studied the seated man, the mariachi nodded. "Yes, I would," El acknowledged. "So would you."
"True." Staring steadily at the gun El had trained upon him, Barillo waved at his men. "Back down," he ordered, and reluctantly, they did.
Sniffing haughtily, Carolina stepped around the fresh corpse, daintily avoiding the blood trickling out from the severed throat as she retrieved her dagger. Wiping it clean, she brushed back her skirt long enough to slip it into the band strapped around her leg, then came up to stand just behind El's elbow. Barillo smiled at her, and in reply, Carolina spat. Shrugging, he gestured at the vacant chairs across the table from him. "Please. Have a seat. Would you like anything to eat?"
Carolina shook her head, and El also demurred, though he did put his gun away. "No, thank you."
"As you wish." Picking up his fork, Barillo resumed his meal. "I have a proposal for you…El? Or would you prefer to be called something else?"
"I don't care," El replied, tone unconcerned. "Whatever you wish."
"That is an excellent attitude," Barillo praised, taking in a forkful of meat. He paused to chew and swallow, then continued, "I need an assassin. I've heard of you, and I have to say, if even half your reputed deeds are true, then I am mightily impressed. And I think I can offer you something in return that you very much need."
"What would that be?" El inquired, showing mild curiosity.
"My word." The other man took a long drink of tequila. Setting down his glass, he steepled his fingers and rested his chin atop them, looking deceptively child-like as he did. "My word that Carolina and Sands are permitted to live."
Raising his eyebrows, El forestalled Carolina's objections with a hand. Turning the motion into a little wave, he appeared interested. Barillo let a bit of teeth show in a lean smile. "The target is the President of Mexico. He has a taste for traditional music, so for his stay during Dias de Los Muertos, we're organizing a few performances by the best mariachis in the country. You and whoever you happen to dig up for the rest of your band will play in the palace at dinner, two days before the celebration. A guide will meet you at the east gate, and show you through. That should give you sufficient time to scout the location. Then, during Dias de Los Muertos, you will sneak back in and kill him. Are we clear?"
"Yes," the mariachi replied, tone considering. "I think we are."
"Excellent." Poking at his food, Barillo put up a charming façade. "Are you certain you wouldn't like some of this before you go? I have been many places, and I have to say, this is the best slow-roasted pork I have ever had. Anywhere."
"We're sure," Carolina said firmly as she and El moved to leave. The mariachi flicked a few fingers toward the back of the bar. "Do you mind if we go out that way?" he asked politely. "Our horses are closer to there."
Spreading his hands expansively, Barillo smiled pleasantly. "Be my guest. Only, I would caution you to watch your step. My men had to shoot the cook. I went in to pay my compliments, and apparently, we've met before under different circumstances."
Predictably, El didn't flinch from that statement, though Carolina shot the crimelord a fierce look of revulsion. Absently taking her hand, the mariachi led the pair of them out.
The door swung halfway open and Sands shot. Settling back in the chair, he draped a leg over an armrest so the pressure was off his sore ass, and waited.
A minute later, a sun-streaked mass of wavy chestnut hair cautiously poked past the door. Ajedrez caught sight of Sands' wave and sighed, pushing all the way into the room. A friendly smile pasted on his face, the American fired again, putting another bullethole in the adobe surrounding the doorway. "Sheldon-" she started.
Bang. Wood chips went flying up from the planks at Ajedrez's feet.
Blowing the smoke away from the tip of his pistol, Sands tutted quietly. "Bad etiquette, darling. Firstly, you should knock prior to entering. Secondly, you should not address former lovers in a familiar tone. And thirdly-" he tilted the gun back towards her "-you should keep your distance, if such is requested."
"Drop the bullshit, Sands," Ajedrez snapped back. "I didn't bring anyone with me, so it's only you, me, and the holy father. Except he is sleeping rather more soundly on the other side of the church."
She took another step forward, and he blew a second hole in the flooring. "If you're wondering how many bullets I have," Sands said carelessly, "Then you're already starting off on the wrong foot."
"You know, this is why it never would have worked out between us," Ajedrez replied tartly, putting her hands on her hips. "Dramatics are cute, but ultimately too obvious for success."
Leaning forward, Sands exposed two slashes of whitened scarring beneath his quirking eyebrows. "Ajedrez, love, are you trying to get me excited? Because really, if I want a decent fuck, I'll go find an actual dick instead of an irreversibly female pretender."
"You-" catching herself, she shifted back and took a deep breath. "Sands. Frankly, I don't give a damn. Because truly, it was only a way of passing the time. Now, I came here because of a certain musical acquaintance of ours. I'm offering you terms."
"I take it El's a little more effective than you planned for," the American remarked, not lowering his gun. "All right. Talk."
"Fifteen million pesos' worth of jewels, and free passage from Mexico. If you do nothing." When Sands didn't immediately respond, she added, "El is being hired to kill the President during Dias de Los Muertos. Nicolas will show him in, he'll fulfill his contract, and then we'll fulfill his legend. I believe my father's even planning to give him a Catholic burial, in appreciation for his services."
"Where will the jewels and papers be?" Sands asked, blank-faced.
Ajedrez let contempt curve her lips, but her tone was courteous as she answered, "In the basement, on your way out. El will die there. And Carolina, as well. Can you understand that?"
"Yeah, I can understand it," Sands replied, nodding.
"It's all settled, then. Good." Keeping her face forward, Ajedrez backed out of the room.
Sands waited until he heard the hoof-beats retreating before he put down his pistol. Slouching back in his seat, he winced as his backside protested, and then made a rude gesture towards the door. "Like hell it's settled, bitch," he muttered direly. "You watched while they took my eyes."
"Though you seem a lot better," commented a voice from the hallway to Sands' left. Whirling, the American snatched up his gun again and pointed it toward the newcomer. "And what the fuck would you know about that?"
"Hey, hey. I helped treat you. Don't you remember-or did the fever completely wipe out your mind?"
Actually, something was pricking at Sands. He should recognize that voice-"You! You dick-eating shit! You're the one that tried to freeze my balls off!"
"It brought your fever down, didn't it? And the name's Lorenzo." Telltale jingling as the other man warily came in cinched it: one of El's mariachi friends. And they were expected, though not for a few more days. "There's another man with me-Fideo-who's dealing with the horses right now. He brewed up that dog shit I bet El's been pouring down your throat. We're here to kill people. That aren't you."
Lowering the pistol, Sands flapped hands in Lorenzo's general direction. "Marvelous. Well, welcome back to Culiacan. El's out, showing Carolina all the best places to hide the bodies, but I'm sure he'll be back soon to play guitars with you."
"Thanks," the other man said sarcastically. "Who was the woman that just left?"
"Lucrezia Ajedrez, daughter of Barillo, who would be the one making all the fuss," Sands informed Lorenzo matter-of-factly. "What'd you hear?"
"Oh, plenty." Boots clomped as the mariachi crossed the room, and glass tinkled as he found the alcohol. "If I'd stayed in the priesthood, I'd pray for you. But seeing as I'm not, and am only a mere mariachi with some doctor's training, I'm just going to wash the road dust out of my throat."
That wasn't a common response. Sands blinked, then shook his head slightly. It was still a weird sensation, fluttering eyelids over dry scar tissue instead of moist eyeballs. "Really."
"Yeah, really," Lorenzo answered wryly. "I've known El for a very long time. And it never fails-he goes out, has a bizarre day, and comes back with more people following him. Which, by the way, means he has a lot of guns behind him."
"Point taken." They sat in a couple minutes of oddly peaceful silence, during which Sands attempted to squish the insistent nagging in his head. But it wouldn't go away, and finally, he gave up. "Hey-you said you're a doctor? So you'd have…salve…or something for, um, wounds. Yeah. Injuries, and such."
//God in heaven with His holy angels//, Lorenzo snorted, sounding as if on the verge of laughing. Luckily, since Sands still had a half-loaded gun, the mariachi managed to restrain himself. "Fucking purring," Lorenzo sighed. "Yes, I can spare a few jars. And if you want, I can give you the recipe, too."
"If you want," Sands replied, trying to be nonchalant and knowing he was failing miserably. Goddamn it. El had a lot to answer for, he muttered silently to himself.
A quarter-mile from the church, El heaved a deep breath, halted and dismounted. Turning to regard Carolina, he demanded, //What?//
Also getting down, she threw both sets of reins over a nearby post and dragged them into the alley behind the closed general store. //Are you going to do it?// she countered. //You aren't, right? You aren't actually going to kill the President.//
El looked at her, and then twisted to lean against the wall. //How the hell should I know? The game keeps changing.//
//No, it doesn't.// She smacked his shoulder, then wrapped her arms around his and snuggled up to his side. //The pieces are moving. But they're still the same, and so is the gameboard.//
Slowly skimming down the side of the building, he sat with knees bent and pulled Carolina to straddle his lap. //All that I'm sure of is this: you and Sands will live, and Barillo and Marquez will die. Beyond that, I can't say yet.//
//You'll live, too//, Carolina insisted. Locking her eyes on his, she repeated more forcefully, //You will live. Or I'll eat a bullet, and then you would have lied.//
El didn't answer; eyes speckled with some stirring emotion, he quietly raised his hand-his scarred one-and skirted fingertips along the hollows of Carolina's throat. //I killed my brother//, he said softly. //I shot him, and then I kept shooting him until he stopped moving. And for what? Money, honor, revenge-they're all nothing beside the memory of us as children, listening to my father sing a lullaby.//
//You feel like that because you loved him. You wanted him to live because of that.// Carolina inclined her head into his caress, letting her lips graze over the side of his palm. //We do matter to you, don't we.//
A single word ripped itself from El's throat. //Yes.//
It was indiscernible who first bent forward, and irrelevant as well. Gently and languidly, they shared a kiss. El stroked a hand down Carolina's back, and then broke the embrace. //Time to get back//, he reminded her reluctantly.
She put a palm to his chest, halting his rise. //Wait-so--//
//Maybe//, El replied. //That's all I can say.//
//You will//, Carolina contradicted stubbornly, getting to her feet. //You'll see that I'm right. I'm always right.//
Sands and Fideo both cocked their heads simultaneously, while Lorenzo threw up his hands with an irritated noise. //Two of them. The Virgin Mary preserve my sanity//, he begged the ceiling.
"Sanity's given far more credit than its worth warrants," Sands bit back, taking up his cane and quickly tapping his way out of the room. Placidly, Fideo followed, and a beat after, Lorenzo grudgingly hauled himself up and did likewise. He walked outside just in time to see the American have his mouth thoroughly explored by first El, and then Carolina. Stepping back from the dazed Sands, Carolina sighed. "Thank God. Talking to Barillo always left a bad taste in my mouth."
//Fideo! Lorenzo!// El said, startled, when his friends came into view. //You're early.//
//We borrowed a few horses//, the youngest mariachi mentioned offhandedly, coming forward to hug the other man. Fideo clapped hands on both his friends' shoulders, and they briefly stood together in a triad before breaking apart. //You look better//, Lorenzo observed. //Finally sleeping?//
//You could say that//, was El's ironic reply. Fideo made a mocking sound, and brushed past the group to move towards the horses. //Go to bed, then//, he called back. //It's late, and we're going to be busy soon.//
Rolling his eyes, Lorenzo nonetheless went to help the other mariachi, pausing by El for a last comment. //He's not quite so sarcastic when he drinks. But then he's just plain odd. And you're cooking breakfast tomorrow.//
Carolina woke up suddenly, groggily attempting to recover her bearings. Bed, blankets, man-oh. //Damn it,// she growled.
Himself stirring, Sands raised a rumpled head. "What-fucking hell. Is the guitar gone?"
Glowering at the empty space on the side-table, Carolina huffed, exasperated. "Yes. Whose turn is it?"
"Who cares?" he retorted. "Neither of us is going to fall asleep again until he's back-" a sheet was shoved at Carolina "-so both of us might as well go." Grumbling bilingually, he yanked on a pair of pants, not bothering to do up the front, and then climbed off the mattress. Sands began to move towards the door, but stopped halfway and then turned back. "Carolina?"
"I'm coming," she replied, hurriedly wrapping the cloth around herself. Standing up, she took Sands by the elbow. "You want your cane?"
"If I leave it here, then tomorrow morning I know this is where I'm waking up." Carolina thought about that, decided he was right, and started pulling him toward the door.
It took them less time than usual to find their third; mercifully, El had stuck to the balconies instead of climbing up onto the roof tiles. As she guided Sands over, Carolina wondered briefly just what El had done for the priest that could possibly be worth all the trouble the mariachi brought with him.
Looking up at their approach, the mariachi continued to pick idly at the guitar strings. "I thought you were tired," he said as Sands gingerly eased onto the ground beside him. The American snorted. "I was," he retorted irately. "I still am. But you left."
Seating herself on the other side of El, Carolina nodded in firm agreement. "Why do you keep coming out here?" she inquired curiously. "When you sleep, you don't talk or scream or move around like you're having nightmares."
El abruptly slipped from meandering plucking to a shimmering melody. Then his ruined hand overreached a chord, and he winced as the tune splintered. Scooting the case over, he put the guitar away. "I do," he told them as he snapped the clasps on the lid. "I see things. Like visions. It used to be that I could write a song, and then they would go away. But now I can't play."
"So get a brace," Sands replied, blowing at the hairs on his face. "A-a gauntlet, or something like that should work."
"And for the dreams?" El asked, pensiveness quickly being replaced with amusement.
Looking at him incredulously, Carolina poked the mariachi's side. "We've been in your bed for a month and a half. What do you think?"
"Wait a moment," Sands objected. "Not that I'd mind, but I fucking hurt. And we don't have anything up here."
Sighing, Carolina eeled across El's lap to yank the loose-hung trousers down over the American's hips. "Do I have to think of everything?" she complained, taking her first lick at his cock.
"Okay, okay," Sands hastily said. His head went back, and his hands went down to nestle in Carolina's long curls. "You've got a point."
Slowly smiling, El lifted up Carolina so he could slide out from under her, then swiftly removed his pants. Kneeling down over her, he teasingly tugged the bedsheet away, leaning down to kiss each bit of revealed skin. He nibbled his way up each inner thigh, causing Carolina to gasp around her mouthful of growing erection. Which in turn provoked a groan from Sands, who clenched his hands. In response, Carolina let her teeth out a little on the next swallow, and the American's hips began to buck.
El spent far too little time tasting the folds of Carolina before he licked a curving path up and around to her left side. One of the mariachi's hands crept up to knead her breasts, and she almost forgot to breathe in the sudden sea of heat that washed through her veins. Rubbing up against El, Carolina worked Sands' cock at an increasing pace, rippling and swirling her tongue all over the stiff flesh till his hips snapped once last time, and saltiness flooded her mouth. Expertly swallowing every drop, she backed off just in time to choke on fresh air as El flipped her onto her back and slid in. //Lord Christ!// she gasped.
Gaze glittering, El shook his head, sending his sweaty hair flying like a dog shivering off water. //That's one name you shouldn't call me//, he mock-scolded, bracing his arms on either side of her. With the first thrust, El stretched over and caught Sands' still-panting mouth in a long, hard kiss. Watching wide-eyed, Carolina felt her skin shrink and burn as tongues tangled and teeth nipped above her.
She could have just laid there, content, for all eternity, but for the unrelenting itch within her. Raising herself up on quivering elbows, Carolina started to fuck herself as she craned up and bit at El's chest. Groaning, the mariachi tore away from Sands and turned his attention back to Carolina, pistoning in and out of her more and more quickly, until all her muscles jerked taut and screaming soundlessly, she climaxed. The squeezing of her around El's cock pulled him after her, and they collapsed into a heap on top of Sands.
When they'd somewhat recovered, Sands asked plaintively, "Bed?"
"My back hurts," Carolina added.
"I'm tired," El protested. His two companions gave him dirty looks, and he sighed. "All right, all right." Dragging himself away, he slowly got them all decent. Picking up his guitar case, El shepherded the exhausted group indoors.
"I believe they've all taken the bait," Barillo murmured, tone pleased. "Just as your plan predicted. Excellent job, Lucrezia."
"Thank you, father." Leaning over the stair rail, she pecked him on one cheek. "Sweet dreams."