KEEP YOUR ENEMIES CLOSE...
Victor is the killer who always delivers...for the right price. And Heloise Salvatierra, patron of Guatemala's largest cartel, is ready and willing to pay him just that to eliminate the competition: her sister. Heloise has been battling Maria for control of the cartel in an endless and bloody war. Now Victor decides who survives. An easy job if it weren't for the sudden target on his back.
...AND THEIR ENEMIES CLOSER.
Victor's not the only one on the hunt. Someone else has Maria in the crosshairs and will do anything to get the kill. In the middle of cartel territory with enemies closing in from all sides, Victor must decide where to put the bullet before one is placed in his head....
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The beach was white sand, stretched in a crescent around the bay. Dark waves lapped against the shore as feral dogs foraged along the water's edge, searching for scraps left by backpackers. On the farthest spur of sand two wild horses ran back and forth in some ritual Victor couldn't hope to comprehend.
The seller he was meeting called himself Jairo. He was old and tanned, short and hairy. He had a beard, pure white and bushy, that rose to his cheekbones. His shirt was unbuttoned to his sternum, revealing a thatch of colorless chest hair. Gold neck chains gleamed from among the curls. His eyebrows were still black, and almost met in the middle. He smelled of rum, or else local aguardiente—Victor hadn't spent enough time in Guatemala to be able to differentiate between them by scent alone.
The last of the sun was disappearing over the horizon, but the heat of the day remained. Victor's clothes were lightweight and loose, pushed taut against him by the breeze. It came from the east, from out across the Caribbean Sea, somehow cool and warm at the same time.
Jairo was from across the border in Honduras, and he dressed like a bum. His shirt was dotted with grease stains from a couple of days' worth of messy eating. Threadbare denim shorts hung to his knees. The legs that protruded from the shorts were thin and weak. He wore rubber sandals that revealed that the skin of his heels was cracked and split. He had tattoos on his forearms. They were too old and faded and his skin too tan for Victor to make out what they portrayed.
He was no international arms trafficker. He was no Vladimir Kasakov. He was no Georg, even. He was just a small-time gun runner. He was just a man in possession of an expensive rifle. How he came across the weapon, Georg hadn't passed on to Victor, and Jairo hadn't offered its history. He hadn't even wanted to show it to Victor without seeing the money.
"I check that the weapon is in good condition," Victor had said. "Then you get to see the cash."
Jairo shook his head. "That's not how this works."
They spoke in English, because Victor didn't want Jairo to know he spoke Spanish as well as he did. Better, even.
"It works how I say it works."
Jairo was silent. He glanced at the wild horses.
"Don't forget that you want to sell the gun more than I want to buy it. I can walk away at any point and keep my money. You'll still have a rifle you don't want."
Jairo thought for a while. He didn't blink a lot, but he rubbed one palm with the other thumb.
He shrugged. "Okay, you can check it. Make sure it's legit."
He was nervous while Victor did. He couldn't stop moving. He couldn't stop fidgeting. If he wasn't shifting his weight, he was rubbing his palms together. If he wasn't rolling his shoulders, he was scratching the back of his neck. Victor took in all the telltale signs and acted as if he didn't see them, as if he didn't understand. He wanted to buy time. He wanted to assess the situation.
The Accuracy International AX50 was a big piece of engineering. It came in a case made from toughened military-grade polymer large enough to hide a person inside—dismembered, but doable. Victor had squeezed bodies into smaller. Inside the case, thick foam rubber encased the component parts, isolated and identifiable to Victor's gaze. He checked each part in turn and acknowledged that every one was as it should be, as expected. Accessories came in a separate compartment and were, like the weapon itself, all good. Too good.
He kept his thoughts to himself for the moment, still assessing. Jairo was growing even edgier, because in the dim light he couldn't see Victor's eyes in the shadow of the khaki cap and he couldn't read the expression beneath.
"What do you think?" Jairo asked when he couldn't stand the silence any longer. "You like it?"
"It's beautiful," Victor said.
Jairo was picking something from his teeth. "You gonna buy?"
Victor kept his gaze on the rifle. "How much do you want for it?"
"A hundred thousand is the price agreed by the middleman. You have the cash? You buy?"
The rifle retailed for a fraction of that, even with all the accessories, but there was a heavy premium on black-market weapons. Jairo was adding a considerable premium to that premium, but for such a weapon it was a seller's market. If Victor wasn't prepared to overpay, he was never going to be able to acquire what he needed. Despite what he had said, he wanted the gun more than Jairo wanted to sell it.
He rubbed the gun oil from his fingers. "Where did you get the weapon?"
Jairo shrugged and adjusted his footing. "What does it matter? I'm not gonna ask you where you got your money from. You brought it, yes? In your truck?"
He had his pickup parked where the sand dunes became prickled with long grass. Jairo's own vehicle—another pickup—was parked on the beach itself, out in the open as agreed. Victor had arrived early, but Jairo had been earlier. He had been drinking. There was a sheen to his skin and a glaze to his eyes.
"Let me see it."
Victor shut the case and thumbed the catches. He dragged it from the load bed of Jairo's pickup. Even with Victor's strength, it was heavy. The rifle alone weighed more than twelve kilos. He carried it in his left hand. He led Jairo to his truck. Led, because Jairo didn't move fast. He followed at a slow pace. In part because his stride was short, like his height; in part because he had poor footwear for traversing sand; in part because of all the nerves.
"A hundred grand is a lot of money," Victor said as they walked, "even for a weapon like this. Black-market rates are black-market rates—I get that—but this rifle is brand-new. There's still packing grease on the components. Someone tried to wipe it away, but you can't do that. You have to use it. You have to get it dirty first. You have to put it together and fire rounds and strip it apart again and scrub and clean and oil it. Then you get rid of the packing grease. Good try all the same."
Jairo acted confused. "What does it matter if it's brand-new? You're getting a good deal."
"That's my point. The price is too good, black-market rates and all, for a brand-new weapon. This has never been used. It's mint in the box. So where did you get it?"
Jairo shrugged. "I don't own the gun," he explained. "I'm only the seller."
The light was fading quickly and the blue pickup Victor had bought for cash looked almost black. He set the heavy case down in the load bed and dragged forth a sports bag. He shoved it into Jairo's waiting grip and ripped open a packet of beef jerky from a container of supplies.
"Want some?" He offered the packet to Jairo.
Jairo glanced up. "Looks disgusting."
Victor shrugged as he chewed. More for him.
Jairo wasn't hungry. He was wasting no time, unzipping the sports bag and peering inside, smiling when he saw the bundles of American dollars.
"You know," Victor said after swallowing, "at first I wondered if you were part of a sting operation. A nonproliferation thing. That's always the biggest risk when buying this kind of hardware. I figured there could be binoculars and cameras on me, officials and cops waiting out of sight behind the dunes, ready to rush in when I showed the money. Until then, I'd committed no crime. So I was weighing up my odds, wondering if they had a clear shot of my features, wondering what repercussions I would face further down the line. Just because I had committed no crime didn't mean there wouldn't be fallout. A man like me can't afford to be on someone's radar."
Jairo was half listening, because he had noticed something about the bag. He reached inside.
"All those nerves you had," Victor continued. "I figured they had you over a barrel, and you'd get them off if you gave up your buyer. Me. But then I found the packing grease. No way an official sting operation would use brand-new weaponry like that. No way they could get hold of it, even to lure an utterly deplorable person such as myself. They would use what they had, what they had confiscated. So this has to be something else. I overthought it. The simplest explanation is usually the right one."
Jairo pushed his hand deep into the bag and drew out one of the thick bundles of cash. They appeared to be straps of hundred-dollar bills, a hundred bills per strap, secured with a rubber band. Jairo peeled back the first bill to see that the rest were nothing more than rectangular pieces of blank paper.
"No, no, no," Jairo muttered.
"You didn't think I would bring a hundred grand in cash to make a deal in the middle of nowhere, did you? That's how you get yourself killed."
"You've made a huge mistake."
Victor said, "When I've already made so many, why stop now?"
"You don't know who you're dealing with."
Victor's tone was wistful. "If only the reverse were true, Jairo, we could save ourselves an awful lot of inevitable unpleasantness."
The sun was little more than a red line on the horizon. The horses had gone with the approaching darkness, but the feral dogs still scoured the beach. They had no fear of the night and were hungry and determined. The waves had lost their remaining luminescence, blackening as the day became night.
"Where's the rest of the money?" Jairo asked, speaking with fast, desperate words. "In your truck? Nearby? It had better be, for both our sakes."
Victor shrugged like Jairo had done several times.
"It's not here at all?" Jairo gasped. "That wasn't the deal. I bring gun. You bring cash. You don't know what you've done."
"But that's not all you brought, is it?"
Jairo was silent.
"The simplest explanation is usually the right one," Victor repeated. "This is a shakedown. This is a robbery."
"It's not me," he said.
"Excuse my sarcasm when I say, 'No kidding?' No offense, Jairo, but I wouldn't have bothered with the charade if I thought you were behind it. I would have simply killed you and carried on with my day, a rifle in my truck and a spare hundred K to spend at the blackjack table."
"I jest—half jest—but the funny thing is that now that you know I know, you're not showing the same nerves as before. Why's that? Who wants the money?"
It was never unexpected that those Victor dealt with would seek a better deal. It was never a surprise to be betrayed. He kept few acquaintances, and of those, he used them only from time to time. He had to deal with new people to do his job and to stay alive. He had to find a constant stream of suppliers. Suppliers who operated in the same underground world as his were untrustworthy by default. Some were even less trustworthy than Victor was.
"Marxists," Jairo explained, shaking his head in some private conflict. "Crazies. They call themselves the Army of the Poor."
"The guerrilla group from Honduras? They disbanded decades ago."
"Doesn't mean there aren't those out there who wish they hadn't, that would like to start a new war, a new revolution. Like I said, they're crazy."
That was how they had the rifle then, Victor realized. Part of a larger arms cache—maybe stolen, maybe hijacked, maybe donated—lying unused and waiting somewhere in the jungle, waiting to be put to use, waiting to be activated when they had enough numbers, enough resources to reveal themselves and pursue fruitless goals.
"They're raising funds," Victor said. "For the cause."
Jairo nodded. He thumbed one of the bundles of blank paper, as if he had been wrong, as if dollar bills would magically appear and fix the mess he had found himself trapped within.
"This isn't the first time you've done this," Victor said. "Even with your nerves, you did everything else right, so you've had practice. How many times has this setup worked?"
Jairo hesitated. "You're the fifth person they'll have robbed."
"Then you shouldn't have been nervous with me. It should be old hat by now. My fifth job was a walk in the park. Figuratively and literally. Gorky Park, if you're interested."
"I don't want to be part of this," Jairo said. "I hate them. But I have no choice."
"There's always a choice," Victor said, then understood. "Ah . . . You weren't scared the shakedown would go wrong, that I would see it coming. You're scared of what happens when it goes right. You don't have the stomach for it. That's why you were drinking, isn't it?"
Jairo was silent. He couldn't look Victor in the eye.
One of the feral dogs was barking at gulls trying to steal the morsels of food it had found for itself. The gulls swooped down in daring raids as the dog chased them away.
"They're not going to simply rob me, are they, Jairo? They're going to kill me. That's why it's worked four times before: no one left to report the crime."
"Don't bother. I don't want to hear it. I want to hear how they're going to do it. I didn't see any signs that anyone is nearby, so they're keeping their distance." He glanced around. "Let me guess: I give you the cash; I take the rifle. I think it's all fine; then I drive into an ambush when I try to leave the beach, when my guard's down. Sound about right?"
Jairo could only nod.
"I like it," Victor said. "Whoever thought it up knows their stuff. Can't do much with my hands on the wheel. That's why I don't like driving. You're getting nervous again, Jairo. Calm down—I'm not going to kill you."
Jairo was confused.
"On one condition," Victor explained. "After I've killed your friends, I want your assistance cleaning up the mess. I don't just mean the physical mess, but the fallout. I have a job to complete, and I can do without the added attention. It's proving to be difficult enough as it is."
"I don't understand."
"You don't need to understand at this moment. All you need to understand is that this is a genuine deal. I don't really have rules, Jairo. There's not much I haven't done. There's even less I won't do. If there's a worse person out there, I haven't met him, and I've met plenty. But if someone plays straight with me, then I'll probably play straight with them in return. I'd like to call it a do-no-harm kind of philosophy, but in the business I'm in that would be beyond ironic. So let's say that if I agree to a deal then I'll honor it, and while I don't necessarily expect the other party to do the same, there'll be the severest of repercussions if they don't. What I'm trying to tell you is that if someone leaves me alone, I'll leave them alone. You could say I try to keep my word, but I'm also a very bad person. If I weren't presenting you with a genuine offer, if I were trying to trick you, I would say something like, 'I'm not going to kill you now' or 'I'll help you get out of this,' which would allow me to keep my word and still kill you later. Juvenile, perhaps, but who wants to grow up if they don't have to? But that's not what I said. I'm offering you the unprecedented chance to continue your miserable existence. All you have to do is back the winning team. So, are you going to switch sides?"
Excerpted from "Kill for Me"
Copyright © 2018 Tom Wood.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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