“Where are we going?” Fulton asked.
“We were set up.”
“So where are we going?”
“Shut up and walk,” Emily said.
Fulton was not a military expert. Still, he got the distinct feeling this excursion was not grounded in sound military judgment. Presumably it was not best practice in the paramilitary services industry to go wandering around enemy territory with minimal armament, negligible intelligence and a bewildered civilian in tow.
He flipped on his lens.
Searching for network… materialized along his peripheral vision in smoldering orange script. Apparently they’d wandered into one of those remote corners of the world where wireless coverage never evolved beyond the most primitive 2G networks. A bit like discovering a lost jungle civilization.
Fulton switched back to Mark I eyeball.
No maps. No communication. All he had was Emily pulling him along in her wake like a bit of interstellar flotsam or jetsam caught in a black hole’s gravitational pull. “You know I understand it’s not my place to try and run things. You’re the boss and all. But I’m wondering why it is we’re moving deeper into the slum when the deal is done. Shouldn’t we go home? What more are we looking for?”
“The one who set us up,” Emily said.
“I didn’t know that was part of the job.”
Perfect, Fulton thought, she is a psychopath.
Everything around him seemed to be decaying. Cracked, uneven pavement turned to bald dirt in places. Sagging buildings leaned into each other like drunks struggling to support one another. Fulton always thought of slums as shantytowns dominated by huts built out of scrounged corrugated metal. Here everything was prefab concrete. The government poured the neighborhood into existence a century ago and never bothered with any upkeep.
Also missing were people. Normal people, at least.
Instead they had a handful of surly, malnourished young men lurking on corners and at the ends of alleys. Some smoked cigarettes. Others fiddled with mobile phones. All of them stared as Emily and Fulton hurtled deeper into the slum.
“Lookouts,” she explained. “You have to prove yourself before the cartels will jump you in.”
Fulton had only the vaguest idea of the cartel hierarchy. He’d spent the flight down reading everything he could find on the present state of affairs in the Free Trade Zone. All together the cartels controlled about seventy percent of the country. There were maybe a dozen of them all together. The Ninos were the most powerful of the bunch. They’d evolved as the financial arm of some generic left-wing insurgency: the something or other liberation front. As time passed and the Ninos made money they outgrew the movement that spawned them. Now no one, not even the security analysts who ostensibly made careers out of knowing such things, seemed to have any idea where the insurgency ended and the cartel began.
Fulton passed a boy younger than the others by a wide margin. No more than thirteen. He held up a mobile handset and snapped a photo. The flash lit up a broad swath of street. The boy tapped at the handset for a moment then slid the phone back in his pocket.
It was plain to Fulton that the lookouts functioned as a homegrown intelligence network. They snapped photos and sent/posted them to a central location. A cartel “analyst” could then track arrivals as they moved through the slum. A fairly elegant workaround for poor network coverage — crowd-sourced intelligence.
“These paparazzi don’t worry you?” Fulton asked.
“This whole area is a neutral zone. No one cartel can do any kind of violence without the others’ approval, unless it’s a clear case of self defense. There’s a lot of money to be made here. They don’t want it turning into a war zone.”
“That didn’t stop them earlier.”
“That wasn’t a cartel hit,” Emily said.
“Do you have any evidence for that theory or are we just, you know, going with your gut?”
“Which is more likely? That all dozen-plus cartels sanctioned a hit on short notice or that some independent operator is involved?”
The principle of Occam’s Razor in action. Always begin with the most logical explanation. Fulton gave up on talking sense. Emily’s mind was clearly made up. She was not much of a conversationalist. Also he was getting winded.
Eventually they stopped at another casino. Fulton could tell it was a casino from the pink neon sign someone hung in the window to advertise the fact. Otherwise he might have mistaken it for another crumbling, nondescript slum building.
The casino in the HO EL was a showpiece for the guests’ benefit, to make it seem as if they might plausibly have shown up for something other than sex with the hotel’s complement of used-up hookers. This, on the other hand, was little more than a concrete box with steel bars over the windows. It was the kind of place bank accounts went to die: a black hole for cash where the house edge extended well beyond the science of probability.
The place was infested with degenerate gamblers.
They sat hunched over video slot machines at the bar, huddled round banged-up table games with faded felt and scarred wood finish. They looked more like vagrants than players, as if they were stuck on the streets in the dead of winter and all they had for warmth were these brokedown table games.
Degenerate gamblers didn’t care about winning or losing. Studies showed they actually sought out worse odds, to enhance the rush when they won. Psychologically they were no different than the gaunt, drug-addled women working the HO EL, only the gambler’s high came from his own brain, watching that little white ball skitter around the track or waiting for the dealer to flip his hole card. This was their smack, their cocaine, their amphetamine.
They were so high they did not so much as look sideways at Emily. Not when she stepped through the door, not as she sauntered between the tables with Fulton in tow – not even when she removed her submachine gun from inside her coat, pointed it straight up and fired a burst into the ceiling.
Only then did they stagger for the exits, lurching like zombies.
A man emerged from a back room with a pistol.
Emily shot him through the chest.
Again time did that funny thing where it seemed to stretch out. Time stretched, bent and curved, though Fulton knew all too well this was really nothing more than elementary physiology, the physical effect of the same adrenaline rush the fleeing gamblers craved so badly.
“Jefe?” Emily said. She kept her weapon trained on the door to the back room.
A male head poked out into the doorway. Immediately he took a burst to the face. Another instant and he was nothing but a sack of skin and bones with blood pooling round his head.
They found Jefe (whoever Jefe was supposed to be) in the back room. Here the walls were papered over with naked women of every race, color and creed, dominated by a life-sized Arab model wearing nothing but a headscarf. Elaborate henna tattoos ran the length of the her arms and legs.
In the center of the room Jefe cowered beneath a card table piled high with local currency.
He wasn’t much to look at. A short, simple-looking man wearing a t-shirt and jeans. If Emily hadn’t killed two people to get here Fulton would have pegged him for a backroom poker dealer skimming tips. Here, cowering before him (Emily, really), was the banality of evil. He wore a monocle over one eye – the poor man’s substitute for a proper chipset. Tiny bits of light flickered across its lens. Text and images in miniature.
“Up,” Emily said.
Jefe crawled out from beneath the table. He struggled to one knee then stood. The man was even less imposing upright. He stood maybe as tall as Emily and only slightly more built. He had dark, beady eyes that flitted all over the place, from Fulton to Emily then all around the room and back again.
Cocaine in action, Fulton thought. He recognized the twitchy eyes from Reese’s binges.
“Remember me?” Emily asked.
Jefe cracked a lopsided smile, exposing half a mouth full of stained, crooked teeth.
Perfect, Fulton thought, another crazy person. The smile, too, reminded Fulton of Reese, who was almost certainly crazy, and the thought of someone as crazy as Reese raised in a culture of institutionalized violence set his spine tingling.
“You sold us out,” Emily said.
Jefe just shrugged.
“Who put out the hit?”
Here Jefe laughed.
Fulton expected Emily to shoot him through the kneecap like she’d done to that girl Lela earlier. She traced the length of his body with the gun barrel (up, down, side to side) looking for the perfect place to strike. The barrel kept returning to Jefe‘s stomach.
It took hours to bleed out through the stomach.
Jefe clearly underestimated her. Who wouldn’t, growing up in a culture where women had all the social rights and privileges of patio furniture? So he continued grinning like a moron despite the fact Emily had just shot two of his flunkies to pieces from across the building.
Sirens kicked on in the distance.
These aren’t our cops. Emily’s earlier words echoed inside Fulton’s head.
He hadn’t the slightest idea what the cops would do if they broke down the door to find him and Emily standing over a corpse. This Jefe chap was hardly a pillar of the community, but there was a good chance he supplemented their salaries. Fulton doubted very much the MPs would let him and Emily walk with the State Department to sort out the paperwork. This was the clean solution to the problem of neutral ground. No single cartel would have to take responsibility for killing the gringos, and the whole gang would get a PR victory (“Contractors arrested after bloody shootout;” “AEGIS not above law South of the Border”).
Heavy vehicles trundled down the pavement.
Footsteps scurried, making scratch-scratch-scratch noises against the pavement.
And just as Fulton expected a platoon of half-crazed Latino marines to burst into the room with guns drawn, Emily lowered her weapon.
“Juan Rodriguez Castellano, a.k.a El Jefe, a.k.a El Fuchs, with the powers invested in me as a paramilitary contractor employed by your government, I am placing you under arrest for facilitation of black market commerce, illegal possession of firearms and profiting from unlicensed games of chance.”