The wrecked, bullet-riddled cars had been dragged away from the gate by the time we got back. With the uproar in town, the sheriff’s department hadn’t showed up yet, either, though I was sure they were on their way. It was going to take them a while, though.
I pulled the truck up in front of the porch and got out. Tom was waiting in the doorway.
“Where’s shithead?” I asked. The fury was burning pretty hot by then; I’d been feeding the flames most of the way back from town. It might not have been the healthiest way of coping, but as long as it kept me from breaking down, I was going to stick with it. I had so damned much bottled up grief and fucked-up shit in my head by then that I didn’t dare open that floodgate. That way lay madness and fatal alcohol poisoning.
Tom jerked a thumb toward the back. “In the barn.” I just nodded tightly and started around the side of the house. “Jeff,” he called. I stopped and turned back to look at him. “Try to leave him mostly intact,” he said. “We’re probably going to be making local law enforcement plenty uncomfortable in the near future as it is. Let’s not make matters any more tense than we have to.”
I just nodded, keeping my teeth together. Tom and I had clashed in the past over similar admonishments. He’d done a good job running things back at home, but those of us out on the pointy end tended to bristle at “suggestions” about how we should run ops. I had to remind myself that Tom was right here with us on the chopping block, and that he hadn’t hesitated to grab his own rifle and join us at the gate.
The barn was about a hundred yards behind the house. There were actually three barns, two hay barns and a horse barn. The hay barns had been converted into team rooms and temporary barracks. We’d considered keeping the horse barn as it was; there had been some talk about keeping a few mules and horses for training, in the event that we found ourselves in a situation like the SF guys in Afghanistan back in the early ‘00s. The idea had been scrapped once we’d found out how much it would have cost in time and money to keep the animals.
So, the barn had been turned into a gym. Given that it was big enough that even we couldn’t fill the entire thing with weights and racks, about a quarter of it had been turned into storage and the other quarter into a dojo, with pads on the floor and walls and heavy bags hanging from the rafters.
I headed for the storage area, where a sort of cubicle of lockers had been built. Inside that little cubicle, hidden from the rest of the barn, the captured gangbanger was sitting, zip-tied to a chair with a burlap sandbag over his head. Two shop lights were standing in the corners, aimed at him.
His wounds had been hastily bandaged. He wasn’t at any risk of bleeding out, not yet. It also didn’t look like anyone had been in there since he’d been strapped to the chair. Tom had left him to stew and think about what was coming.
Tom had a vicious streak of his own.
I walked up to him and yanked the sandbag off his head. “Nap time’s over, fucker,” I snarled.
He winced at the sudden brightness and squinted up at me. “Hey, what the fuck man?” he said, feebly jerking his hands against the zip ties. “You can’t do this. I got rights!”
I laughed without humor. It was an awful sound, even to my own ears. “Rights. Sure. Keep telling yourself that, asshole,” I said. I took a step in front of him, momentarily blocking the work light that had been shining in his eyes. I must have been little more than a looming silhouette, but this kid still didn’t understand just what kind of trouble he was in. He didn’t get it, not yet. “It’s only going to make this last longer.”
“Man, fuck you, puto,” he said, trying to spit at me. He’d lost a good deal of blood, though, and he was dehydrated. He managed to almost reach me with a pathetic spray. I kept my face carefully impassive. “You can’t do shit to me.”
I let him eyeball me for a moment, letting him start to bow up, get some of his confidence up. As long as he could stare me down without my reacting, the more he’d start to think he really was as tough as he wanted to be, the bullet wounds in his body notwithstanding.
Then I hit him.
It was a good punch, a hard right hook that took him right in the cheekbone and popped his head around so hard he might have gotten whiplash from it. I followed it up with a vicious left and then another right, then hooked an uppercut to his chin that snapped his head back hard enough that the chair tipped over and he landed heavily on his back on the dirt floor.
I stepped over him, grabbed him by the hair, and hauled him upright again. Holding him up with my right, I punched him three times in the groin, my teeth gritted with the sheer, killing fury that was driving my fist into his body. Right at that moment, I didn’t give a fuck about information. I wanted to punish this son of a bitch, and I was relishing doing it with my bare hands.
I let go of his hair and stepped back. He doubled over and retched violently, puking what little was left in his guts on his shoes. When he had nothing left, and was just dry heaving, I grabbed him by the hair again, twisted his head back, and pulled my folder out of my pocket. Snapping it open with a flick of my wrist, I held the point less than an inch from his eyeball.
“Rights?” I gritted. “You’d have rights if the cops had you. You’d have rights if the Feds had you. But I’m not a cop, and I’m sure as hell not a Fed. I’m a fucking mercenary. And considering you fucks just murdered and mutilated a very good friend of mine, I’m off the clock. So, I don’t even have an employer to make the rules about what I do to you. Think that over very, very carefully before one more word comes out of your fucking sewer.”
There was real fear in his eyes, though one was swelling shut where I’d hit him. He wasn’t looking at me, but going cross-eyed looking at the point of the knife that was poised to put one of his eyes out. He didn’t say anything.
“I didn’t say you could take forever at it, cockbag,” I told him. “Either you start talking, or I start cutting pieces off you, starting with your eye.”
I hadn’t meant to, but the knife blade must have moved fractionally closer to his cornea as I spoke, because he squeezed his eyes shut, as if his eyelids could block the razor-sharp steel.
“I don’t know anything, man!” he all but screamed.
“Bullshit,” I replied relentlessly. “Say goodbye to your fucking eyeball.”
I am not by nature a sadistic individual. But right at that moment, it didn’t matter. Nothing did, only the hate roaring in my ears and turning my vision red, and the vision of Jim’s butchered corpse.
The sudden acrid stink of piss filled the small space, competing with the stench of his vomit, even as he tried to squirm away from the threat of my knife. Between the zip ties and my iron grip in his hair, though, he couldn’t move. The point touched his eyelid.
“Stop, stop!” he screamed. “Madre de Dios, stop!” He squeezed his eyelids tighter shut. Tears of terror leaked out. “I’ll tell you anything, man, anything! Just don’t cut me!”
I eased back the knife ever so slightly, but tightened my grip on his hair. “Well, then,” I said, “start talking.”
“What do you want to know?” he sobbed.
“Everything,” I rasped. “Who sent you? Where are they? What was the job?”
“I don’t know who they are, man.” I tightened my grip fractionally as a warning, and he tried to shake his head frantically. “I swear, man, I don’t know! They were Mexicans, that’s all I can tell you!” He paused a moment. “They were important; they must have been, if they could even get a meet with us, much less hire us. They might have been narcos, I don’t know.”
“How many? Did they have bodyguards?”
“Six, maybe? I don’t know.” He shrieked as I jerked his head back again. “Six! There were six of them, six of the important pendejos.”
“How much security did they have?” I asked.
“I didn’t count ‘em,” he said. Tears were still leaking from the corners of his eyes. He was terrified, and the pain of the blows I’d given him had to really be setting in by then. “But yeah, yeah, there were guards!” I barely had to move even a little to elicit a response from him. Any shift in my stance or my grip was a threat.
“Give me a ballpark figure,” I pressed.
“I don’t know…thirty, forty?” He sobbed. “Please, man, I don’t know!”
“What did they tell you?”
“I just got what Miguel told us; I wasn’t in the meeting itself,” he said. He looked up at me through streaming eyes and saw me tilt my own head warningly. “They said that you guys had killed a bunch of their friends down in Mexico, and that we needed to send a message for them, you know? A message that it’s a bad idea to fuck with them. They didn’t have to tell us anything else, except where to find you.”
I could believe that. Mara Salvatrucha had a well-earned reputation for brutality going back years. They used guns, but they also had a taste for using machetes. They would have taken any suggestions as an insult, and anyone dealing with MS-13 would be wise not to insult them.
Of course, we’d killed quite a few of theirs in Arizona, Mexico, and Central America, too, though it was anyone’s guess if this cell had heard about it. MS-13 wasn’t exactly a hierarchical organization with a well-established intel apparatus. They were more of a franchise.
They must have gotten paid a lot to venture this far north, though. I’d heard of some narco activity in Billings, but for the most part, the Mountain States weren’t a hotbed for cartels. Maybe because the local “habit” of choice was homemade meth, and there just wasn’t a large Hispanic population for the Mexican and Central American gangsters to blend in with.
Which led me to my next, and most important, question. “Where?”
He hesitated for the briefest moment before he sobbed, “They’re in Pueblo.” He had to have pretty well despaired by then. He had to know that if we let him go, he was a dead man. He probably figured that he was a dead man, anyway.
And I was tempted. Between Jim lying in the parking lot, naked and dismembered, and Little Bob all shot up in the hospital, I wanted to ram my knife to the hilt in his eye socket and wrench it around until he stopped squirming.
But then, as I looked down at him, his trousers soaked in urine, blood, and puke, tears mingling with the blood and bruises on his face, one eye swelling shut, and something changed. I didn’t feel sorry for him, not quite. He was still a scumbag and a murderer, who had been party to the sadistic murder of one of my best friends. But at the same time, he was a sniveling, terrified kid, zip-tied to a chair and utterly helpless.
And I’d damned near murdered him myself out of rage. I almost felt sick. I took a step back, folded my knife, stuffed it in my pocket, then turned on my heel and left him there, his chin on his chest.
I stepped out of the barn and looked at the sky, taking a deep, shuddering breath. I liked to think that I’d only ever killed people who were trying to kill me, though that wasn’t actually true. That Qods Force Colonel in Kurdistan suddenly nagged at me. I’d shot him in the back of the head after Haas had been done with him, and buried him in a shallow grave.
Now, having come so close to killing another captive in cold blood, I suddenly realized how much time and energy I’d spent since either trying to justify that killing or just to forget it.
“Well, is he still alive?” Tom asked, forcing me to compose myself and shelve my reverie for another time. He was smoking what had to be his tenth cigarette of the day, at least.
“He’s still alive,” I replied tiredly. “I didn’t even carve anything off him. So, you can get off my ass about it.”
He didn’t say anything, but just nodded and took a deep drag on the cancer stick. I got the sudden impression that he was giving me a moment. “Did he talk?”
“Yeah.” I turned back toward the house. “It sounds like some of the cartels didn’t like our interference down south. They sent some reps north to hire these assholes to deal with us. Shithead back there tells me that they met in Pueblo.”
“It’s certainly enough of a shithole for a bunch of cartel types to blend in there,” Tom mused as we walked back toward the house. “Are you sure he was telling the truth, or telling you what he thought you wanted to hear?”
The truth was that information extracted under duress is always somewhat suspect. I was fairly sure the kid had spilled his guts; he wasn’t trained, he wasn’t nearly as hard as he thought he was, and I’d sufficiently terrified him that unless he was a damned good actor, he hadn’t had the time or the mental acuity to just make stuff up, especially after I’d rattled his brains with those punches. But confirmation of the truth of anything extracted during any interrogation took time, time that we really didn’t have.
“He was convincing enough,” I said, after a moment’s consideration. “That’s no steely-eyed operative in there. That’s a kid who thought he was a lot tougher than he is. I’m sure he didn’t tell me everything, but he wasn’t ready to get the hell beat out of him when he started bowing up. I think I shocked him hard enough that he wasn’t holding anything back. Might have forgotten a few things, but not deliberately holding it back.”
“Hmm.” He glanced sideways at me, and while I didn’t meet his eyes, I could still see the wheels turning. I was calm now, at least outwardly, but Tom had seen me walk back there brimming with fury. I was waiting for him to say something about whether or not I was justifying my own rage-induced violence as some kind of calculated interrogation technique, which it wasn’t. But he didn’t. Maybe he bought my façade. Maybe he knew that he didn’t have to say anything.
“Pueblo, then,” he said, dropping the burnt-out cigarette to the dirt and grinding it out with his boot. “Nothing more specific than that?”
“No, I didn’t get the impression that he was much more than outer cordon security for the meet that set up the hit,” I answered. “We still need to see if we can get some descriptions, but I don’t think he knows much. He just knows they were Mexicans, and they had security.”
“We’ll get Raoul on him, but we aren’t going to have much time. We’re going to have to turn this guy over to the sheriff’s department once they get here.”
I nodded, grimacing. “And they’re not too far behind us, either.” I was momentarily tempted to say fuck it, and hide the kid from Brett until we’d wrung him dry. But that would ultimately mean we’d have to dispose of him later, and after what I’d just almost done, I wasn’t ready to do that again. And if Brett found out we were withholding a prisoner from him, and interrogating him, there’d be hell to pay.
“I hope you didn’t mark him up too much,” Tom murmured quietly. Anyone else, I would have figured they were being a bit squeamish, but with Tom, I knew that he was thinking about long-term consequences for the company. He was a ruthless, cold-hearted motherfucker when it came to looking after the company’s interests, and if bad guys got hurt, as long as it didn’t adversely affect the company, he generally didn’t give a shit. But this was a dicey situation, to put it mildly.
“He’s hurting,” I admitted, “aside from the holes we already shot in him. And I’m sure he’ll tell Brett and the rest that I beat him up. I’ll fess up to it. Call it heat of the moment.”
“I’d rather you weren’t around,” Tom answered. “Brett can’t make things awkward about hauling you in for assault and battery if you’re not here.”
“Brett’s already nervous about what we’re going to do,” I told him. “If I don’t own up to shitstain’s bruises, it’s going to further damage what little relationship we’ve got left with him. He’s already afraid we’re going to go behind his back and start killing people.” Which was precisely what we were going to do; this was out of Brett’s league. “Besides, I wouldn’t worry too much about Brett trying to throw me in jail. You haven’t seen Jim’s remains, yet. I have, and so has Brett. I think he’d be more suspicious if I hadn’t worked the kid over.”
“I hope you’re right,” Tom said, as we stepped up onto the porch. “I don’t want to have to bail you out and then have you break bail to go narco hunting two states away.”
Even as he was speaking, two sheriff’s department cars pulled up to the gate, one of them stopping next to the shot-up cars, the other easing through the gate to approach the house.
“Well, I guess we’re about to find out, aren’t we?” I said.
I was true to my word, and took Brett to see the captured gangbanger myself. The kid was conscious when we walked into the barn, though one eye had swollen shut. He looked like he’d been through the meat grinder.
As I had rather expected, when he saw the badge, he first froze, then immediately started babbling. “That guy tortured me!” he yelled thickly.
“Shut the hell up,” Brett cut him off before he could really get going. “I saw what you and your buddies did in town. You’re in a lot more trouble for that than he will be for hitting you a couple times.” He stepped forward, pulling his handcuffs off his belt. “You got something to cut these zip ties?” he asked me.
Without a word, I stepped forward and pulled my knife out. The gangbanger flinched a little as I did, and Brett’s eyes flickered. He noticed. But he didn’t say anything as I cut the captive free.
If the kid had had any ideas of making a run for it, they were quickly dashed, as Brett had ahold of one of his arms as soon as I cut it free, and slapped the handcuffs on quickly, reciting the kid’s Miranda rights in a dead, robotic tone that suggested that his heart really wasn’t in it.
He hauled the gangbanger out of the barn to the car, and stuffed him in the back seat. The kid seemed to have decided that omerta was the better part of valor under the circumstances, though I had no doubt that as soon as he got in front of a lawyer, he’d be telling a hugely embellished version of the beating I’d given him. It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, though it also probably wouldn’t get him off, though it might get me in trouble. I was a private citizen, after all, so he couldn’t claim police brutality.
With the prisoner safely in the car, Brett turned and looked me in the eye. “You should have told me you had a live one when we were in town,” he said.
I just shrugged. I couldn’t think of anything in particular to say that would reassure him that I hadn’t been holding a prisoner illegally for the sake of interrogating him using violence and the threat of worse violence. In large part, because if I tried to say that, it would be a bald-faced lie.
He sighed. “Given everything else, I think I can arrange for no charges to be pressed, even if this little turd makes a big deal out of it. I’m sure Tom knows some good lawyers, too, in case it does become a problem. It should be an open and shut case of self-defense, and anything that might or might not have happened after can be fairly easily put down to severe emotional distress. I can’t say I wouldn’t have worked him over even worse, after seeing what they did to Jim.”
“You probably shouldn’t be saying stuff like that,” I pointed out. “Prejudicial, or some such.”
He laughed hollowly. “I won’t tell anybody if you don’t,” he said. He looked down at the dirt for a moment. “I probably should tell you not to leave town for a while, in case we need you to come in, but I’d probably be wasting my breath, wouldn’t I?”
I nodded. “We’ve got some work to do. And the less you know about it, the better.”
He sighed again, shaking his head, as he looked back at the car and the gangbanger in the back. “Just promise me one thing,” he said. “If whatever it is is likely to lead to more stacks of bodies in my county, you’ll let me know.”
“I’ll do the best I can,” I told him. “Although—and I never said this—if we play our cards right, this should be taken care of far away from your jurisdiction.”
He gave me a bit of a rueful look. “I’ll believe that when I see it,” he said, as he went to get back in the car. “After all, this happened here. I’m not convinced this little dustup is all over.”
I couldn’t disagree with him, either.
The deputies stayed on-site for hours, carefully documenting everything, even the skid marks from where we’d moved the shattered car away from the gate so that we could get out. Every piece of brass, every bloodstain, every impression of a body, every piece of bloodied, shattered glass was carefully photographed. Each of the gunfighters on the gate was interviewed, though their statements were as bare-bones as possible, and the self-defense aspect of shooting the wounded gangsters who had tried to point weapons at us was always stressed. After the spectacle of Jim’s mutilated body, I didn’t think any of the deputies were terribly interested in finding reasons to go after any of us. It was still a delicate balancing act.
No sooner were the sheriff’s department vehicles out of sight down the road than my remaining team and I were packing to head to Colorado. If they thought we’d hurt them in Mexico, they hadn’t seen anything yet.