Mateo had started to cry but had instantly stopped when one of the men struck him in the mouth.
Diego had stood between Mateo and the man, but the man had laughed.
“Do you want your abuela’s head?” he asked again.
Diego had said nothing but had shaken his head, and the man had moved on.
A similar encounter had happened to all the others, demonstrating that the men had inside information on each of them. Thus there was not one person in any of the cages, even the older, stronger men, who did not believe every word of this. None of them would talk. None of them would even think of trying to tell the truth.
After this was over Lampert came back to Diego’s cage. He slipped something from his pocket and held it through the bars of the cage.
As Diego focused on it he saw that it was a necklace of some sort.
“Take it,” said Lampert.
Diego did not move.
“Take it. Now.”
In Diego’s peripheral vision a man with a gun edged forward, the muzzle of the weapon pointing at Mateo’s head.
Diego reached out and took it. He looked down at the disc of metal attached to the end of the chain.
Lampert said, “It’s a Saint Christopher’s medal. You know who Saint Christopher is, don’t you?”
Diego looked up and slowly shook his head.
Lampert smiled and said, “Saint Christopher is the saint who protects children from harm. Put it on. Do it now.”
Diego slipped the necklace over his head and the medal came to rest on his chest.
“Now nothing can harm you,” said Lampert, still smiling.
Winthrop snorted with laughter.
Lampert turned and walked off, Winthrop behind still chortling.
Diego stared at their elegant clothes hanging on their well-nourished, fit physiques. He lifted off the necklace and let it drop to the floor. Then he stared at the silver ring on his finger, the one with the lion’s head that his papa had given him.
His courage came flooding back as he looked at the lion.
He looked up, slowly raised his hand, made a gun with his finger, aimed, fired twice, and killed both Lampert and Winthrop over and over.
Mecho was on the phone once more.
It was his “friend.”
Details were gone over. The latest encounter with Chrissy Murdoch had convinced Mecho that his schedule had to be sped up.
The “friend” was sympathetic and agreed to be ready. But he reminded Mecho of their deal.
Mecho impatiently answered the man. It would be done.
He clicked off the phone and looked down at the floor of his room at the Sierra.
He stiffened when the paper was slipped under his door. He didn’t move for a few seconds, wondering if something or someone was going to follow the paper in.
He reached under the bed and pulled out the pistol from where he had slid it between the springs. He rose, inched toward the door, touched the paper with his foot, and moved it toward him. Keeping his eyes on the door, he knelt and picked up the paper. He moved away from the door and opened the folded page.
Two words. Two meaningful words.
Mecho folded up the paper and slipped it into his pocket.
He could attempt to follow the person who had given him this warning.
But he chose not to.
Twenty minutes later he didn’t hear or see anything coming.
He sensed it with something other than his ears and his eyes. Perhaps it was their smell. The smell of death coming. It could be quite potent.
He reached under the bed, snagged two more items, rose, opened the door, and moved to his left with a speed that was belied by his immense frame.
There was too much light here for what he wanted. He entered the stairwell and moved down one flight at a time, pausing at each landing.
He was using faculties that most people would never discover they had.
But when you had lived as Mecho had, those faculties rose to the surface.
At least for those who survived.
He left the building at the ground floor and headed west.
The people were good.
Not because they had found him at the Sierra. That would take no skill at all.
No, they were good because they had followed him from his room down to here. Even now he could sense their approach, one set from the left, one set from the right.
He slipped his gutting knife into his waistband and then spun the suppressor onto the end of his pistol.
He kept walking, zigzagging his route and moving closer and closer to the water.
These back streets were deserted. Not even the duenos were out. He wondered about this. But then he thought perhaps they had been told to stay off the streets tonight.
The duenos considered themselves tough until they ran into those who were truly formidable. Then the street toughs melted away into little balls of dough and found places to hide in the darkness, like the mice they were.
Mecho was not and never would be a mouse.
He walked on, instinctively varying his route but heading inevitably to the water, to the Gulf.
It had carried him here from a position of slavery, though the last part of his journey had been as a free man swimming for his life.
He would go back to the sanctity of the water tonight.
It would either be his final resting place or simply one more bump in a long road of them in his life. Sometimes all a person could do was not good enough. So be it. He had never been one to regret. Not when it came to survival.
He passed some late-night stragglers who were too drunk to see that he was walking along with a pistol. He turned down one more street and the deepness of the ocean stretched ahead of him.
It was secluded.
It was completely dark.
There were no people around who could see or be harmed by what was about to happen.
And the tide was coming in.
Tides were often handy.
He quickened his pace.
In a few more seconds he was on his scooter, which he had hidden behind a trash receptacle, and was flying down the sand.
This had surprised the men following him.
That was his intent. His other intent was to draw them farther down the beach, away from the town, away from any eyes, drunk or not.
Two miles later he was away from all such eyes except for the ones