Jefe sat behind his desk, glaring at the door to the stairway. On the road outside, the rumble of an approaching vehicle drew closer and then faded as brakes squealed and the vehicle stopped in front of the iron gate.
“Is that him?” he asked. One of the guards tugged at the curtains behind the safe, looked down at the road and nodded. “That’s him.”
Jefe pounded his fist on his desk. “Weapons,” he said through clenched teeth.
The guards looked at each other and then at Jefe.
“Take out your damn guns and point them at the door!” he shouted.
As footsteps sounded on the stairs outside, the guards shrugged and pulled out the pistols tucked in the holsters clipped to the backs of their belts.
The door swung open to reveal a guard holding a man dressed in a yellow windbreaker and white cotton pants wearing a blindfold. The guard walked him in a few steps and threw him on the floor in front of the desk.
Rickie Hewitt tumbled the floor with a grunt. Pushing himself up to his knees, he ripped the blindfold off and tossed it on the floor.
Glaring at Jefe, he asked, “Jesus Ramón, what are you doing?”
Still seething, Jefe looked down at him. “Welcome to Los Rojos.”
Rickie groaned as he stood up. “Yeah, well, we could have done this over the phone.”
Jefe slammed the desk with the palm of his hand and stood up. Rickie flinched and took a step back. Through clenched teeth, Jefe said, “I don’t think you understand the problem you’ve caused.”
Rickie pressed his fingertips to his chest. “I caused?”
“This is why we don’t bring in merchandise from Beverly Hills,” Jefe said. “They will be missed. And what happens when they are missed?”
Rickie closed his eyes and let out a sigh. “I don’t know. Can we just sort out whatever it is you brought me here for?”
“People look for them!” Jefe yelled.
“Oh come on. People look all the time.”
Jefe stepped slowly around the desk, working his jaw. He stopped in front of Rickie while the guards took up positions to either side with their pistols trained on Rickie’s head.
“The police put out CART alerts and tell families they’re doing everything they can,” Jefe said. “That’s not looking for people. I’m talking about somebody really looking.”
“What then?” Rickie asked, eyeing the pistols. “You gonna’ kill me?”
“Thirty six nine one oh four five.”
“Just numbers. Numbers that go live if I don’t show up somewhere and tell them not to.”
Jefe squinted. “Coordinates?”
“Yeah, the ones you’re standing on.”
“Why would you do such a thing?”
“Life insurance.” Rickie eyed the guards. “How about you stop thumping your chest and talk to me like a professional?”
Jefe flicked his eyes at the guards and they tucked their pistols back in their holsters.
“Good,” Rickie said, “Now what’s the problem?”
“What’s your name?” Jefe asked, strolling back to his desk.
“You know my name.”
Jefe sat down and brushed his nose. “Your real name.”
Rickie pursed his lips and shook his head. “That is my real name.”
Jefe rubbed his forehead and sighed. “You irritate me, Mr. Hewitt.”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, Ramón. You know the drill.”
“Before you get too carried away with yourself, know that both our lives rely on Los Rojos remaining unknown to those who try to find it,” Jefe said.
“I understand that.”
“It seems your young Bess has a persistent mother. She’s hired an investigator to find her.”
“Do you have a name?”
“Tom Carlisle and George Maddock.”
“So we tap them out before they can find anything.”
“They found the Blue Eagle in less than 24 hours.”
Rickie’s mouth fell agape.
“Ah, yes,” Jefe said. “You see what you’ve done now?” He narrowed his eyes and smiled as beads of sweat lined Rickie’s forehead. “And I have a question.”
Rickie swallowed. “What’s that?”
“Why did I find this out from my people and not you?”
“How would I know?”
“You said you have been doing this for a long time. Why weren’t you watching the mother?”
Rickie licked his lips and drew the back of his hand across his mouth. “My job was to secure and deliver merchandise. I left a clean break in the trail. That’s it. That’s what you pay me for.”
“Except this time, it was your idea to go to Beverly Hills.”
“That doesn’t change anything except the price you charge for services. I did my job.”
“Then why did we find you at the airport with a suitcase?”
“I was going on vacation.” Rickie wiped his brow. “A well-deserved one.”
Jefe glanced at the guard that had brought Rickie in and held out his hand. The guard brushed Rickie’s shoulder as he stepped past him and laid a packet with an airline ticket on the desk.
Jefe eyed the ticket without picking it up. “Just you?”
Rickie’s eyes drooped as he looked at the floor.
Jefe took the ticket out of its packet and read it. “St. Thomas.” He grunted and asked, “You like Bushwhackers?” Glancing at Rickie, he said, “This is a one way ticket.”
“Yeah, I like adventure.”
“And you were going to just leave those numbers behind and let them, as you say, go live?”
Rickie shrugged and flashed a nervous smile. “Life insurance.”
“No, Mr. Hewitt. A man who knows as much as you can be a liability.” Jefe tucked the ticket back into the packet. Running his finger along its length, he said, “And I know you’re not stupid enough to step on the paws of a very vicious dog.”
“Or maybe I am,” Rickie said. “So where does that leave us?”
“It leaves us with a loose end.” Jefe tossed the ticket back on his desk. “We’re tracking Mr. Maddock, but Mr. Carlisle was smart enough to walk away before we could do anything about him.”
“Well, look,” Rickie said. “He knows about the Blue Eagle. If that’s shut down, he doesn’t have anywhere else to look. And he’s probably more worried about dodging bullets than anything else right now.”
“He’s a loose end.”
Rickie shrugged. “Yeah.”
“And so is the mother.”
Rickie’s eyes flared for just a moment. Jefe let out a chuckle. “Do you like her Mr. Hewitt?”
“She’s a drunk who let her daughter get kidnapped to work as a prostitute. No, I don’t like her.”
“You don’t like me either then, as I am part of that equation.”
“You pay me to not care about liking you.”
Jefe leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. “Enough of this. Here’s what you’re going to do. You will reintroduce yourself to the mother and you will find Mr. Carlisle.”
“I don’t do wet work Ramón.”
“I know. When you have them, Mr. Gutierrez here will take care of the rest.”
“Who’s Mr. Gutierrez?”
“He’s the man standing behind you. The man that won’t be more than ten feet away from you until this is taken care of.”
Jefe stood up and walked to the safe. He dialed the lock and pulled the door open, standing back so Rickie could see the stacks of money lining the shelves.
“Jesus, Ramón. How much is that?”
Jefe pulled two bundled stacks of one hundred dollar bills from one of the stacks and closed the door. Walking towards Rickie, he said, “Your merchandise has fetched a very handsome price for her services, as you said she would.” He grabbed Rickie’s hand and slapped the money in his palm. “This is a gesture of good faith.”
Rickie stared at the money. “This is twenty thousand dollars.”
Jefe nodded. “As much as four night’s service with Teresita Fuego.” He arched a brow. “Do we have an understanding?”
Still staring at the money, Rickie quickly nodded. He pocketed the bills and looked back up at Jefe.
“Now shake my hand, Mr. Hewitt.”
Rickie reached out to press a sweaty palm against Jefe’s and let out a sigh.
Jefe let his hand drop to his side and wiped his palm on his leg as he walked back behind his desk. He sat down and steepled his fingers.
“Good. Now that we understand each other, go clean up this mess of yours so we can get back to business.”
That night, Bess and the other girls drank champagne in the parlour with men they had never met. It wasn’t unusual for there to be new men, but there wasn’t a single repeat customer who had come back to spend time with their favorite girl. Typically, that girl was Bess and she could feel the cold from the other girls as they made themselves up each night, because she was the favorite and that meant they had fewer opportunities to keep breathing through the next day. Sane people sitting in her living room as she tried to explain this would have gagged at the thought of such an insidious code of survival. But in a world where their value had been reduced to the body count of men who would pay money for their company, it made sense in a way that she would never be able to explain to somebody who hadn’t been through the torments of Los Rojos. That night was different, though. They all had clean slates as they milled with the clients, smiled and stroked their lapels while handing them glasses of champagne.
Another client walked through the door, escorted by a guard dressed in his tuxedo. The man looked over the room and asked the guard something. The guard nodded and smiled, pointing at Bess and then patted the man’s back before he made his way across the room to Bess.
She watched the client approach, trying to assess what he would want, what he would be like, how he would treat her. She had learned to tell by the look on their faces most of these things before they even said a word. The minds of men drawn to a place like Los Rojos carried with them a simplicity that was almost childlike.
At the same time, she noticed the guard quickly walk up to Jefe and whisper something in his ear. Jefe’s expression darkened and his gaze lashed out her like a beam of light. She had learned to decode most of his expressions, and she quickly tried to think of what she had done this time to inspire his annoyance. She held his gaze and shook her head, but he did not react. Whatever he was thinking, she knew to expect to hear about later, after she had performed her services and secured the reputation of Los Rojos in the minds of its customers.
Angela appeared with a tray of full champagne glasses just as the client stepped in front of Bess and introduced himself. He didn’t even acknowledge Angela when she handed him a glass, instead staring into Bess’s eyes, as if he were making sure who she was.
Teresita Leche was the first to head for the door with her client in tow. Bess felt a somber sense of relief knowing her friend would earn another day’s keep with the simple girl-next-door tenderness that had somehow managed to survive and reveal itself when she needed it most. She only wished she could see it the rest of the time, instead of the defeated pale green eyes that stared back at her whenever there weren’t clients around.
“Should we go yet?” Bess’s client asked. Bess held Jefe’s gaze for a moment longer and then painted a soft smile over her face as she turned to her client. Gently stroking his forearm, she said, “Not yet.” Nodding at his glass, she said, “Drink your champagne.”
As if he had forgotten about it, he glanced at it and said, “Sure, yeah.” He tipped the glass, barely taking a sip.
He wasn’t the type who liked to talk much and shifted from foot to foot, holding the forgotten glass in his hand as he watched the girls head one by one to the door with their charges. He scanned the room, shifting his gaze to each girl, the guards, the wall and every corner of the room. When he reached the end, he casually shifted his gaze and started over again. She could tell he thought nobody noticed, but the truth was that a man who looked around the room instead of the girl standing next to him was painfully out of place.
“How about now?” he whispered, taking a step forward.
She grabbed his arm, holding him in place. “Not yet.” She gave him a good look over. Whatever he was thinking about, he didn’t seem to notice her. “Drink your damn champagne. You look nervous.”
He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Bess, you need to trust me.”
Bess knew her face flushed a ghostly white, shining across the room like a beacon. She ducked away and nuzzled his lapel to hide her face. She gripped his arm hard enough to make him wince. “You need to shut up. Right now.”
She flipped her head back and started laughing. Patting him on the chest, she raised her voice loud enough for everyone to hear and said, “That’s terrible. I can’t believe you think that’s funny.” She drank down half her glass and laughed some more.
Once all but one other couple had left the parlour, Bess tugged at his arm and started to walk towards the door. She kept her head down and let out another giggle as the guard standing next to Jefe stepped towards the door. She winced when the guard turned and stood in front of the door, barring their exit. He stepped aside and opened the door to let the other couple out, then quickly closed it and stood in front of it so Bess could only stand there as she and her man stared at the guard, wondering why they couldn’t leave.
Glaring at them both, Jefe stepped up to the guard and put out his hand. The guard fished a slim stack of bills from his pocket and handed them over.
Jefe unfolded them and slowly counted as he strolled back to the bar. He plopped the bills on the bar and let out an exaggerated sigh.
Jefe looked at the client and smiled. “Whew. Wow. Five hundred dollars.” He leaned against the bar and patted the bills. “You could buy a real nice dinner with that much money.” Turning to the guard, he said, “Felipe, what would you do with that kind of money? Would you buy a nice dinner with that?” The guard didn’t respond.
Turning back to the client, Jefe said, “I call him Felipe because we’re all on a first name basis now.” He narrowed his gaze and Bess could feel the muscle’s in her client’s arm tighten. “Isn’t that right?”
Bess felt her shoulders tense as Jefe stood up and stepped towards her client.
“Let’s try last names,” Jefe said. His hand lashed out and seized the client’s throat. He tightened his grip until the man started to gag. “Bess Kincaid. She’s from the northeast heights. She’s a loner. Likes books.” He squeezed harder and the man grabbed at Jefe’s wrist, trying to pull it away from his throat. “She’s sixteen years old.” He squeezed harder and the man’s eyes started to bulge. “And she’s been a pain in my ass since the day she arrived at Los Rojos!”
Bess shrieked, “Stop it!” Jefe growled and shoved the man back. The man coughed and desperately sucked in a wheezing breath as he pawed at his throat, now red with the imprint of Jefe’s fingers.
Glaring at Bess, Jefe asked, “What is it about you?” She stepped back as he lunged at her and threw her on her back. Scooting away from him across the carpet, she blurted out, “I told him.” She was lying – she had never seen the man before. But she also knew she could manage Jefe’s pummeling rage better than the man still gasping for breath as his eyes darted around the room, looking for a way out that didn’t exist.
Jefe stopped and bared his teeth. “What?”
“Don’t you remember him? He’s been here before.”
Jefe shot a glance at the man. “I don’t remember him.”
“It was right after I got here. I didn’t understand. I didn’t think it would matter. I just told him my first name.” Bess leaned against the wall and smoothed her dress. She took several deep breaths, trying to calm both herself and Jefe at the same time. She looked deep into his eyes, trying to see past the animal glaring at her, trying to reach the soul that had once been a father. “That’s all,” she said.
Jefe rubbed his nose and dragged the back of his hand across his mouth, still seething. He backed up to the bar and groped for the money, never taking his eyes off her. “Then what was this for?” he asked, shaking the bills at her. “Did he need help with his memory?” He threw the bills at her and pointed at the client. “Dispose of him,” he said.
The man started to kick away as the guards picked him up by his shoulders. One of the guards pulled out his pistol. Bess heard the crack of bone as the butt slammed against the base of her client’s skull and his head slumped down to his chest. The only sound after that was the sound of his shoes sliding across the carpet as the guards dragged him out of the parlour and handed his limp body to the guards outside.
Bess heard the iron gate swing open and then the muffled clang of its latch as it closed.
The guards resumed their positions on either side of the parlour door and waited.
Bess looked away from the door and back at Jefe. For a moment, she saw his eyes recede, as if he were thinking of something soft, something left behind. He folded his hands and pressed them against his mouth to hide his expression as he let her see into part of his soul that he would never allow anybody else to see.
“Do you know what happens now, Teresita Fuego?” he asked.
She swallowed hard and forced herself to keep her eyes on his, probing again to see the father inside that she knew she could touch if she just kept trying. She tilted her head and let her eyes soften and a wan smile ease onto her face.
“Whatever happens will be according to your will, Jefe. I know that.”
He nodded slowly, still letting her see something inside him that was quietly trapped behind the embrace of a madman’s mind.
“Can you forgive me for trying to stay alive?” she asked. Living was an endeavor on many levels. All the girls breathed and survived. That was one level. She could tell that Jefe knew she was talking about something more.
“Why did you risk yourself for Teresita Joven?” Jefe asked.
Caught off guard, Bess blinked at the question. She could have told him, again, that it was because the girl was too young to know how to cope with what the rest of them had been through. That was true, but there was something else. Angela still lived on one of those levels that the rest would never find again. Innocence itself was a tier of living above the drone of breath and survival. She studied his eyes, still soft and allowing the faded glint of a time before, and hoped he would hear what she said next.
“Because she is still somebody’s daughter. You understand that.” Bess let the pleading in her heart drape over her face like a soft veil. “I know you do.”
Jefe closed his eyes and she could barely sense his breathing. A man nobody had seen in a very long time stepped forward and spoke for him in that moment. His voice reached out to her, unshackled by the tortured rage that had kept him silent until that moment.
“I do,” he said.
He opened his eyes and lowered his hands. The glint of who he had once been receded as his piercing azure gaze returned. Bess’s heart sank as his face congealed back into the mask of her captor – a man she knew would have to stop her from living if he was to survive.
He stepped behind the bar, reached down to a shelf beneath it and pulled out a syringe, vial and rubber tubing. One of the guards stepped over to the bar to pick them up and approached Bess.
Knowing she could do nothing to stop what came next, Bess opened her palm and let the guard wrap the tubing around her arm. As he uncapped the needle, she stared into Jefe’s eyes, groping for the glint of a man she thought might have heard her. Even as the drug seeped into her veins and cast a foggy veil over her world, she looked at him, waiting. Even as the room blurred around him, she waited. Until the last tendrils of darkness finally took her, she waited.
But she never saw him again.
Tom Carlisle had been on the road three days straight when his smart phone started vibrating against the Formica countertop of a diner nestled in the desolation next to a lone stretch of highway. He set his coffee cup down when he saw George’s name flash on the screen.
He clutched the pone and asked, “Where have you been?”
“Yeah, nice to hear your voice, too.” The voice on the other end sounded tired.
“What’s wrong?” Tom asked.
“Where are you at?”
Tom glanced around at the assortment of worn truck drivers hunched over their tables and the local lot lizard perched on a stool dabbing at overcooked eggs.
“Me? I’m in the middle of nowhere. Got eyeballed at the Blue Eagle. Did you know it was closed?”
“Yeah, I know. They tidied that up real quick.”
“Why haven’t you answered your phone?” He heard a tired sigh on the other end.
“Sorry about that. I had to go dark.”
“Did you pick up the trail?”
“Yeah, you might say that. Jesus, Tom, these guys…”
Tom took a sip from his coffee, grimacing at the bitterness. “What?”
“It’s like a damn club. All these high rollers with money and an appetite for young tail. They talk about it like fishing in the Gulf or big game hunting in Africa or something…”
“George. The trail.”
“Yeah. Right. Anyway, I got in with these guys. They have holes in the wall that I don’t think even the pimps know about. And I found somebody to lean on.”
“Lean? How do you mean?”
“They call them virgins. Guys who go out for their first time. It’s like a frat party when they send them off. But this one guy. He didn’t seem to think too much of the idea. He liked talking about it, but actually going out… Well, he seemed like the type who wasn’t too comfortable with the whole thing. So I got him to go in for me.”
“And I haven’t heard from him.”
“Here’s the other thing. I can’t find the guys anymore. All there little hangouts. It’s like they were never there. And nobody knows anything.”
“We seem to be poking one hornets’ nest after another.” Tom waved his empty cup at the waitress, who was too engrossed in a conversation with the lot lizard to notice.
“I’m sorry man. I’m just trying to find this girl.”
“I know. So it seems this is all local. Or at least regional.”
“Yeah, I think we’re real close to it.”
“And a million miles away.”
“Yeah. That too.”
Tom gave up on the waitress and let his cup drop to the counter with a clatter. She glanced at him as he peeled off one-dollar bills and dropped them on the countertop. The phone still pressed to his ear, he stepped through a glass door covered in fine grit and into the dirt parking lot.
The vista was dry and immense, a wash of desolation where a man could be lost and free all at the same time.
Walking towards his car, he said, “I’m going to orbit for another day. After that, meet me at our new office at the De Marco.”
“The De Marco?”
Tom chuckled. “Yeah. I got a discount.”
George laughed. A tired wheeze of humor from a man who Tom knew was at his wit’s end.
“Take a break, George. We’ll pick something up. These guys aren’t going to stop looking for what they want. Something will turn up.”
“Alright boss. See you in a day.”
“Yeah. Check in with me tomorrow night.”
The line went dead. Tom looked again at the sprawling expanse of empty scrub desert and imagined walking into it, stretching out the distance between himself and everything in the world that he would never be able to push away because it kept coming back.
The ten thousand dollars strapped to his leg held him back. But just barely.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence