"Speak to me," he murmured in the darkness.
"We have your man – a meeting is in order."
"You will be handsomely rewarded."
"We'll bring him to the designated place we discussed in the northern mountains – bring the money."
Carlos smiled again. God was hearing his prayer. Something had led him to sit here in the darkness where he often came to think and wait.
"You know the location. Keep him alive until I get there, or the bounty will be cut in half. I want to look into a dead man's eyes."
Driving deeper into a more secluded area of the mountains, Carlos turned his sedan off the winding, single-lane road and his wheels connected with orange clay, bumping the vehicle chassis as he drove further into the new section of woods. Following the rows of taillights that slipped beyond the tall pines and redwoods, he felt another transition as his wheels sank and moved against dark, moist earth.
Yes, this was a perfect place to finish a kill. He loved the woods, even more so than the beach, for it offered the cloistered environment of secrecy … it was where wolves hunted and the true force of nature could be felt.
His every nerve ending was on fire; anticipation made him lick his lips. He breathed in the forest, allowing the scent of pines, raw earth, and broken blades of grass to enter his nose - along with a hint of sulfur.
Carlos narrowed his gaze at the semicircle of black sedans. Pure rage made his hands tremble as he gripped the wheel. Sulfur. If they already did his kill, there would be a price. He glanced at his AK-47, and the thought of taking them all out in a spray of bullets made him breathe faster. If they did his kill …
All senses painfully heightened, he watched the configuration, studied the ritual. Five black Mercedes sedans had come to a stop first, dousing their lights. A long black stretch Mercedes limo made the sixth vehicle. Carlos eyed his shotgun, wishing he'd brought something with a heat-seeker mount. If this was a setup, his magnum and the automatic could get him back to the car. He was the last one in, so he could be the first one out – and the shotgun could take out a pursuing driver, blow an engine, ignite a gas line – maybe enough to blow and flip the first vehicle if it gave chase, blocking the others behind it. So he waited, to see what package they'd brought, then turned off his headlights.
Slowly, one by one, the doors of the sedans opened, and he watched through his black tinted windows, using only the quarter moon as light. An eerie mist seemed to exit the cars with the passengers. One bodyguard got out of each driver's seat, and each went to the backs of their cars to open a door for a higher-ranking boss. Cool. They had brought the upper levels. He stared at them intently, and began recognizing faces he knew. But he waited.
The Italians were represented, then the head of the Asian mob who he'd never met – he had always conferred with his underlings. But if the don had come, then perhaps he was in trouble. Carlos pushed his magnum into his waistband and watched, taking up the automatic in its place. A high-bailer Dominican got out, and then a Russian, and a Jamaican. He knew these men. Their bulky guards stood beside them. Still he waited and stared at the headlights of the limo that were aimed at him, but he relaxed when they went out. All right.
It was odd, but even in the darkness he could see. The moon cast a blue ray into the clearing, and owls could be heard hunting, sending their mournful call out into the trees. The limo had a series of small flags, making it appear to be a diplomat's car. What the fuck – high-level government? Carlos kept his motor running. Suddenly a hundred Gs didn't seem to be enough money, and a setup felt like it was in the offing. He couldn't identify all the countries on the tiny flags. He squinted. Southwestern states and European countries? What was the one with a five-pointed star with an emblem in the center? The assembled team smiled in the darkness. His eyes had to be playing tricks on him as the strange moonlight seemed to made their teeth whiter, longer than normal.
He was about to put his gears in reverse when the limo door opened and two men were thrown from it. They hit the ground with a grunt so he knew they were still alive. Excellent. Their hands were bound behind their backs by nylon tie-strips. Carlos breathed out slowly, steadying his impulses. He continued to study the situation as a tall, light-skinned brother got out next without assistance, looked directly at his windshield, and then nodded and smiled.
"I have the beginning of your hunt, Rivera," the man he didn't know called out. "We are all invested in this, like you are. Bring your weapon, if you'd like – but also your money."
Carlos opened his car door, and carefully got out, packing two weapons, and reached for the silver metal briefcase in the backseat to bring with him. But he left his doors open, and his car running.
"Speak to me," Carlos called out, leveling his machine gun at the men on the ground, and then swinging it up toward the unknown man.
The others in the circle raised their hands, stepped forward to show they were unarmed, and made a half circle around the mystery man, who grabbed the two struggling forms on the ground – bringing them to their knees.
"Carlos, let me formally introduce myself. I am Fallen Nuit. I own Blood Music – and these men here," he said, nodding to the dark suits surrounding him, "are my associates, my brethren – and yours."
Carlos nodded and lowered his weapon, glancing around at the faces he knew.
"The problems with your organization are bad for everyone's business."
"Yes," the aged Russian said. "It makes people wary to go out at night. Makes it hard to make a killing, and drives down profit."
"Makes people ask unnecessary questions," the old Asian said.
"We cannot have that," the elderly don said with a sinister half smile. "Especially in the music and club industry. We need bodies at night."
"As do we all," the graying Dominican agreed, casting his gaze to the Jamaican who nodded. "We need them to keep coming like cattle."
"So," Nuit said, as he walked around the two kneeling men, coming closer to Carlos, "we are all here to form an alliance. Your cause is our cause. A very simple matter of practicality and business. We heard your call to arms, and responded – the way family should when there's an outside threat."
Carlos nodded. He appraised the man who had spoken with a smooth, controlled voice. His vibe was one of pure confidence, arrogance. He liked his style. He couldn't place his race, though, as he looked into the blackest pair of eyes he'd ever seen. It was like staring at a very tall version of Prince … could be Latino, could be black, could be a mixture, skin as pretty as a woman's, no matter. The man named Nuit smiled as though reading his mind, and a flash of brilliant white escaped his lips and caught in the moonlight. Carlos had to shake off the eerie tremor that staring at this brother produced. He had an almost feminine quality about him, but at the same time his vibe was cold business and very male. Wealth and power oozed from his pores. The man put one finger to his lips, just as Carlos was about to yell a question, and smiled a half smile.
"I'm unarmed. Let's discuss this with finesse," Nuit crooned as he slowly came nearer. "I'll come close enough to hear you, but not close enough to make you draw your weapon, si?"
"A hundred Gs seems too little to split amongst so many," Carlos said across the clearing to Nuit, and gestured toward the group. "But that's the bounty."
Carlos studied the headman's smooth, relaxed demeanor, and the way the silk of his voice had more easy threads running through it than his black, custom-tailored suit. The wealth that surrounded the brother was in the billions, and yet it was evident that this relatively young man was in charge. Intrigued, Carlos lowered his weapon and stepped forward two paces – drawn to his sheer power.
"Oh, no," Nuit said with a wave of his hand. "We can't claim this bounty. We came to add to it, and offer you ten times that to finish the job for us." The man nodded as one of the black-suited guards retrieved a leather briefcase from the limo, walked forward, and handed it to Nuit.
"I prefer skin – leather," Nuit said with a smile, his manicured hand stroking the case. "Silver is so … passe. You keep it. I bet what's inside my black bag is bigger than what's in yours anyway." Then Nuit laughed.
A million dollars? Nothing came for free. Carlos lowered his briefcase to rest beside his leg and studied the group harder, noting their every detail so that he could remember each one if this shit went down wrong. Moonlight glinted off Nuit's gold cuff links and huge ring that also held the same crest as the flag he couldn't identify. Without a word, the men behind Nuit held up their hands showing their rings as if to answer the unasked question again. The others had the same ring. He hadn't noticed that before. The shit was beginning to spook him.
"What's the deal?"
Carlos felt suspicion riddle him as he looked at a henchman grab the men on the ground by their suit collars and thrust them forward before Nuit, then step back in line with the others who were watching the transaction.
"These two," Nuit said, putting a foot on one man's back, "are from the FBI. They used to be our helpers – then made some foolish decisions. We still have others inside, and the Minion is inviolate. Not to worry. These are ours – so we cannot accept your money in good faith. Fair exchange is no robbery."
"What's that got to do with me and my bounty?" Carlos asked the question across the small divide between them. "I have one fight – the FBI isn't on my agenda."
A million dollars or not, he was out. Carlos reached down to pick up his silver case, keeping his eyes on the group with his finger hovering on his gun's trigger. To accept their money meant taking up their battle, and he only had one – to avenge his brother and family's deaths. Going after feds was way over the top, and very bad for business. The police were already sniffing around his operations too much. And who the hell were the Minion? This wasn't his fight!
"But it is. These men took out your family."
Nuit's words stilled Carlos, and he set down the case slowly, stood and walked forward, ignoring the protest and pleas of the men on the ground. Either this rich, suave motherfucker could read minds, or he was tripping. When Nuit threw back his head and laughed, Carlos wanted to bitch-slap him.
"Bullshit. Federal agents might whack one of us, but they don't do ritualistic slayings."
"Oh, no?" Nuit challenged. "What's the best way to start a territorial war? What's the best way to make us all come out of hiding, create distrust amongst the group, and make us begin to turn on each other? Make it seem like one of us did this. Like I said, we have friends on the inside who delivered them, and their weapon."
Carlos remained very, very still. He could almost taste blood in his mouth as a new level of rage claimed him. Nuit stared at him, and oddly, as the two remained in a quiet standoff, Carlos could practically feel uninhibited power run through him.
It became difficult to breathe as he watched Nuit's face intently. The feeling was nearly indescribable, and Carlos soon became aware of something else he hadn't expected to feel. This brother was almost swaying him, making him step forward a pace. Something sensual was claiming him, and he shook off the strange reaction. The fact that something almost erotic was drawing him to a man gave him the creeps. Carlos held his ground and stopped moving forward.
"Feels good, doesn't it?" Nuit murmured, as he watched Carlos. His voice dropped an octave, became richer, more seductive. "Hatred is such a pure emotion – intoxicating. And when it finds release … there is no greater satisfaction."
Carlos nodded. "You should have seen what they did to my family. Have you any idea?" His own voice surprised him. It was gentle, sad, a confession of pain like he'd surrendered. What the fuck …
"Yes, I do. It was unspeakable," Nuit replied softly, the tone of his voice drawing Carlos closer to the center of the group where he stood.
"I swear to you, we didn't do it," one of the kneeling forms pleaded, tears streaming down his face.
"Make it fast," the other man sobbed. "Have mercy!"
Carlos's gaze went to the begging men, and he took in the dark brown face of the one and looked at the ashen white complexion of the other. Their cries had broken his attention away from Nuit. He now felt semi-dazed, but totally enraged.
"Did you have mercy on Alejandro? And you dare to beg me for mercy?" Carlos spat on the ground. "You will die so slow and so horrible a death that your mothers, too, will not be able to bury you in honor!"
Nuit tsked, making a little clucking noise with his mouth. "Don't spit out that taste of vengeance," he said as the others chuckled. "Let it coat your tongue with its bitter flavor and fill your heart. For they have broken our code and have visited great pain upon one of our rising stars."
The last part of Nuit's statement made Carlos shift his focus from the bound men to Nuit's face.
"One of your rising stars?"
"Be realistic," the Italian don said. "You don't think you rose so fast from a street-level dealer and gangbanger to all that you are now without a dark angel on your shoulder, do you?"
"Ever since you made the decision to choose this path, we have watched over you – because you were destined to be one of our own," the Russian added with a half smile.
"Hombre,"the Dominican said, "your territory is already marked for you – just claim it."
"Power beyond your imagination," the Jamaican said. His expression was stone behind his dark sunglasses, but his tone was deep and seductive. "Feel it. It is electric."
" 'To be able to topple an empire that is heavily fortified,' "
the Asian murmured, " 'requires a quiet battle from within. Then that empire will feast upon itself, and you can walk with the spoils of war' – from The Art of War." He put his hands together and bowed as he smiled.
Nuit let out a long breath through his nose, closed his eyes, and acknowledged each one of the Dons' comments in their native language. When they nodded, Nuit opened his eyes and smiled. Carlos had understood what had been said to the Dominican … Give him a moment, this is all new. That was cool, if that's what had been said to the others, but not knowing the other languages worried Carlos.
"Relax," Nuit crooned in a voice that made Carlos begin to feel safe.
Carlos considered what he was being told as he studied Nuit. "And, if I want to continue solo?"
Nuit sighed. "It's your choice. But you will no longer be under our protective aegis. One day the police will come, or you may meet an unfortunate end. That is the natural law. We have crafted very different laws that guard our own. You tried to protect your family. They perished at the hands of your enemies. It doesn't have to be this way … unless you prefer to turn the other cheek?"
Carlos listened, and slowly nodded. Turn the other cheek, fuck that.
"Take off that emblem of your old life and cast it away. We will give you a family crest to replace it."
Carlos fingered the cross at his neck with hesitation. With this squad, he'd be stronger. Invincible. He could feel it as he stared at Nuit.
Nuit smiled. "Yes … you will be invincible."
The voice had rippled through him like a lover's touch, stroking every dark desire he'd ever held in his heart. The man before him was showing great patience, his smile knowing; Carlos could hear him talking inside his head. Something was telling him it would be so very, very good. A life like he'd never even dreamed of was within his reach. Two FBI agents were groveling at his feet, and no one standing in the clearing even had a flicker of worry on their faces. All he had to do was say yes. All he had to do was cast off an old gang cross, and take their ring. He'd never have to worry about dying again. Carlos couldn't even blink as he stared into the depths of Nuit's pitch black eyes.
A chance at revenge, protection from a powerful group, a million dollars … Juan's cross in his pocket weighed heavily. His boys and his brother will not have died in vain. Steadying his weapon in one hand, Carlos found the other hand slowly reaching up behind his neck, opening the clasp with his nail, and holding his cross out to the side of him by the chain. Then he flung it – casting away all of his mother and grandmother's silly prayers that had not saved any of those dear to him, not even his sister. There was only one law – the law of the jungle, which required consummate power.
"Very wise choice," Nuit said on a heavy breath. He closed his eyes briefly and laughed from deep within his throat. "The weak ones don't understand that a man must do what a man must do. But you have always known the true laws. Welcome."
"We didn't do your people, I swear to you, Rivera," one of the crying men wailed. "We wanted in; we were supposed to get made, too!"
Nuit's fine leather shoe connected with the man's cheek, splitting it. Blood oozed from the gash and Carlos noted that it seemed to make the group lick its lips – then he heard a growl coming from the limo. His gaze tore to the vehicle and back to Nuit.
"What the fuck?" Carlos whispered.
"The perfect weapon – and she's quite beautiful," Nuit said with an easy grin, studying his manicure. "They used her on your brother, and the others in your family. It was a nice cover - made your Alejandro's death appear to be the result of exotic animal betting … where your brother didn't last long in the ring. They used it on a few of my artists, your people, a few agents that wouldn't comply, and another record label that has been marked by our family. Created chaos. Fear. And this weapon is so blatantly horrific that no one would associate it with an inside job from human authorities – no bullets, no knife, very creative."
Fury took Carlos's reason as he thought of his brother's body, Juan's, and the others. "Then these two will die the same way!"
"Is that your choice?" Nuit smiled.
"Hand the man the briefcase. Put it beside him so he can get a sense of what a million dollars in small bills feels like – sitting beside his own paltry offering. And so he can have something to add to his choice to watch these men die."
Carlos waited as a dispatched guard flipped open the case and walked toward him showing stacks of bills. The breeze made the ends of the dollars ruffle – the smell of new money permeated his nose. Nothing but the Benjamins. Damn. He nodded and the guard stopped, closed the case, and slid it on the ground. Carlos stopped it with his foot. If this family had already given him a quick rise to power, and only wanted him to take out the rest of the traitors, what the hell? Resources were always appreciated.
"I assume that you accept this offering of your own free will, then?"
Carlos nodded to Nuit. "Let's do this."
"Come, Raven," Nuit called toward the sedan.
"Shit!" Carlos backed up two huge paces and clutched his gun preparing to fire as a large black panther jumped down from the limo, snarled at him, and loped toward the men on the ground who were now screaming.
"She won't bite you – if you don't make any sudden moves while she feeds," Nuit assured him while laughing. "She's just hungry. Poor thing. She's practically starved."
Even with all of his rage, the sight of the animal approaching the men gave Carlos pause. Adrenaline made him watch the panther, an eerie intrigue keeping his gaze upon it, but another part of him deep down in his soul had to fight not to cringe.
The animal sniffed the first man, and Carlos stared as the pleading man lost his bowels. His eyes were shut tight, tears streaming down his face as the panther licked the cowering soul's neck and cheek and hair. Then it happened too fast.
The man emitted a whimper, and just as suddenly, his throat was gone. The other prisoner tried to scramble away on his knees – but Nuit's henchmen held him. Carlos stared in horror at the ragged, gaping, bloody hole. Terrible sounds of ripping flesh made Carlos take in air in short sips. The pungent stench of fresh blood surrounded him, making him want to retch as the beast put one paw in the center of the dead man's chest, lowered its head, and began to gorge.
Then it looked up at Carlos, its eyes narrowed to gleaming slits, entrails momentarily hanging from its mouth as the big cat gulped the bloody tissue. Licking the open, empty chest cavity, it lapped up thick wetness, and then sat back on its haunches. In a very calm fashion, it licked its paws clean, began to purr, and stood again, circling Nuit's legs like a giant house pet.
Nuit's hands rubbed the beast's head as it showed massive fangs, closed its eyes with an expression that Carlos could only liken to ecstasy, and nuzzled Nuit's groin. The sight of his pend-
ing fate made the remaining man vomit. Nuit chuckled.
"Soon this poor, abused creature won't have a master. She only did what she was told, no reason to kill her. She's useful to our purposes." Nuit stroked the panther tenderly. "She's gorgeous, beyond comprehension – and is only doing what is natural … and she does it so well."READ MORE >>