Leverage meant expansion. Other lines, multimedia in X-rated videos, Web sites, phone sex lines, everything had a dirty basis in this country, and then the masters converted it into clean, cold cash. One day, he, too, would be a master of the game - he could taste it, like fate. A small taste of power was never enough. It was better than any drug he plied.
Carlos kept his line of vision steady. Yeah. Soon. One day. After his other holdings had produced, then came the club, and increased shipment levels of product, new products like Ecstasy, and designer packages. More money meant more guns at his disposal, more mercenary soldiers. That meant more territory - which had to be run vigilantly, efficiently, or you'd lose your damned control, then your life. What about this didn't Alejandro and his compadres get? A man had to have skillz. Had to strategically build an empire.
He dismissed the sudden melancholy, peering at his glistening platinum Rolex watch, and then glimpsing himself in one of the mirrors as he passed. Carlos Rivera liked what he saw – a young man, in top form from working out, wearing alligator shoes and belt, a custom-tailored, gunmetal gray Nino Cerruti suit, maroon bandit collar, silk shirt, manicured hands – not marred from picking fruit or performing other manual labor – and a smooth barber cut. He ran his palm over his jaw line. Fine, oh yes, he •was indeed the man.
He glimpsed himself again and kissed the heavy silver cross that he always wore in place of the puny gold one he'd ditched as he'd gained more wealth. His family was too superstitious. So what if the first one had been blessed when he was christened? So he'd even traded up on his cross, a piece of jewelry, which was the only concession to the women in his family. Just like he'd upgraded his car and women and everything else around him. Carlos alighted the floating staircase to his sanctuary. He was blessed.
Entering the more quiet confines, he went to his private bar, selected Remy, and poured himself a drink. He took a sip and studied the rim of the crystal glass, watching the light form a prism against it. His mother never owned anything beyond Dollar Store plastic.
His mother and grandmother were so naive, refusing to accept the gifts from this new life that he could offer them – only because they believed in fairy tales… good men didn't do bad things. Good men, like his father and uncles, were poor, immigrant bastards who died young under the weight of a factory, or in the sun picking fruit for men who also stole to own those factories and those farms.
Blood Music had snubbed him, though. He'd have to have someone from his organization pay them a visit. It was pure bullshit that they wouldn't send their artists to his club to perform, just because some nobody had bought it over a month ago not far from his establishment. What the hell? People died in the alley every day where he'd come from. He'd certainly lost enough men in gun battles, nudging out a respected space between the Russians and Asians. Even the Italians now gave him some props. The Dominicans and the Jamaicans had been a problem, but they'd come to terms. It was all good. Negotiation was always possible, and there were always weaknesses in any operation that would allow an alliance to be formed.
He let his breath out hard. Nobody snubbed him. Maybe he would just go to Blood's competitor, Warriors of Light Productions, and have them in … but there were people there he didn't want to deal with. The shit was complicated.
A vibration at his waist drew his hand to his cell, but the 911 on it along with Alejandro's code made him circle his wide glass-and-chrome desk, set down his drink, and add his gun to his wardrobe.
"Talk to me," he said slowly, answering his brother's page.
"You gotta come down here, man. It's fucking chaos!"
"Come where, bro? You ain't making sense."
"The station, the morgue. They got Julio, Miguel, and Juan is in the hospital – he don't look like he's gonna make it, though, man. Can't let their family do the body ID, not when you see what's left."
"See what's left? What the fuck, man? Who did this! Where did it go down?"
"I don't know who did 'em. But you know it's got to be bad, I'm telling you, if I agreed to come down to do the ID. I went to pick up Julio, Miguel, and Juan from their positions at the clubs we got alliances with on Santa Monica, they were all meeting up at the last one on the list tonight, the transactions up to then were smooth, but when I got there, it was off da hook. Cops everywhere, body bags … You should have seen our boyz – they're fucked up bad."
Carlos paused, silence strangling the digital line between the brothers. His mind raced through his organization's long list of adversaries and business deals pending, trying to quickly assess who in the mix could be sending a message, about what deal, about what part of his territory? His cousin and two best friends?
"Where were they shot?"
Again there was a long pause before Alejandro spoke.
"That's the thing. They weren't shot."
"Stabbed? What the fuck, talk to me!"
"Naw, bro … more like half eaten."
"Glad you could finally come in here on your own recognizance, Rivera," Detective McKinsey muttered with a disdainful grin. "My partners, Malloy and Berkfield, will be so sorry they missed your visit."
"Cut the bullshit, man. My family is in there on trays." Carlos bristled as he waited for the slow process of gaining entry, the muscle in his jaw pulsing as his mind worked the puzzle of who would be bold enough to come for his inner circle like this.
"Yeah," McKinsey said with disgust, "we can have us a little conversation, later. I take it your enterprises will keep you in L.A. for a while, especially when you see what's left of your posse."
"I was there, man, when they came with the ambulances,"
Alejandro murmured to his brother, still stricken. "I don't need to see it again. I'll wait for you out here."
Carlos didn't respond to the comments from either of the so-called men standing before him. How many times had he seen one of his own on a tray, in a casket, on a sidewalk, whatever – it came with doing the kind of business he did. Pussies. In a war, there were casualties. Collateral damage, they called it on the news. In a war, there was a body count. In a war, there were soldiers, and some of them got shot. And in a war, there was territory gained and lost based upon who had the strongest men.
They left Alejandro where he stood and proceeded to the cold rooms. Carlos almost knew his way there by heart, just like he knew prison entry-and-exit procedures, and he waited while McKinsey got them through yet another layer of the system's security.
"Thought you should see this, Rivera, especially since a young artist died the same way not too far from your club, and not too long ago. Thought you might want to finally have a conversation about that, given the heat is now turned up and coming in your direction? If you bastards are duking it out in the streets for some new turf, we know that goes on all the time – but you all really have to lighten up on your style of doing hits. This bullshit causes media attention, now that drive -bys are old hat."
Carlos continued to ignore the fat asshole beside him; the man's cheap polyester suit made him want to vomit.
"Just open the door," Carlos ordered in a low sneer. "If you guys can't handle it, I might know some people who know some people that can."
The two exchanged a glance of pure hatred as McKinsey pushed open the door.
"See if your people who know some people can handle that,"
the detective muttered, hailing the coroner on duty as they approached a table.
Frozen where he stood, all Carlos could do was stare at the gruesome remains of his cousin and best friend. Nauseating bile rose to burn his esophagus and coated his tongue.
"Chilling, ain't it?" McKinsey said with triumph. "Even for you, huh?"
"What the fuck …" Carlos's voice had become a gravelly whisper, trailing off in horror as he made the sign of the cross over his chest.
"Throats ripped out, some instrument sliced down the center of the first victim's chest, halving it, cutting through the esophagus, aorta, and the hearts are – for lack of a better observation, eaten away. Frontal attack, though," the coroner said in a monotone voice. "The one over there has his left arm hanging by a thread of ligament and cartilage. The lacerations look like he tried to block his throat, but the victim's arm was apparently snatched away by a significant force before his throat and chest cavity were opened up. We found, of all things, something that looked like a huge animal claw lodged in it. We're running analysis now to determine if this was the weapon used, or if this was dropped on the body afterward as a little leave behind marker for this ritualistic killing,"
"Weapons fired everything in the clips," McKinsey added, his smile one of vindication. "Oh, your boys were strapped and went down with a struggle – full metal jacket type of shit in that alley. We found enough rounds back there to light up half of L.A., but of course, nobody heard or saw a thing – except Juan Dejesus. Alas, his tongue and the lower half of his jaw are missing, like somebody kissed him and decided to take a bite out of his face. He's in a coma, lost enough blood to flat-line him within the next twenty-four hours. So, suffice to say, we don't have a witness who can speak to the assailant's whereabouts – or give a description."
"I've seen enough," Carlos whispered, exhaling quickly, and only allowing a tiny sip of putrid air back into his lungs.
"Bet you have," McKinsey muttered, following Carlos's hasty exit from the dead room.
Carlos felt his body go hot and cold at the same time. Perspiration had formed beads on his brow; he could sense the moisture before he swiped at it. The detective leaned against the wall as Carlos bent and sucked in air with one hand bracing himself against the elevator door.
"Madre de Dios,"Carlos whispered, again crossing himself. "When I find out who did this…"
"Want to talk to us first? Like maybe tell us a little something about your drug operation; in exchange, we might be able to give you a little amnesty – and bring down whoever's shaking up L.A.? Fair exchange is no robbery, Carlos."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said more calmly as the elevator opened and he regained his composure. "I run a clean business. Whoever – "
"More like whatever," McKinsey corrected. "Pit bull rings - you all in that illegal betting business these days? Maybe somebody let your boyz get eaten and took odds on how long they'd last in the ring? Or, are you all doing exotic animal bouts - moved up from dogfights to lions, tigers, and bears, oh my? Something for the wealthy crowd to entertain them beyond mere drugs? What is it, Carlos?"
"I'm going to the hospital, unless I'm a suspect and you're holding me?"
"No, we're not holding you." McKinsey sneered. "We'll let you back out on the street as lion bait. One way or another we'll find out the connection between your club – all of its dirty little secrets – and who's also offing Blood Music and Warriors of Light Productions artists."
Carlos let the comment pass, never flinching as McKinsey mentioned Warriors of Light. He let his line of vision settle on his distraught brother as the elevator doors opened. Damali Richards had been passed over somehow, too. She was like him, a survivor from the old neighborhood … and the only one inside the music scene whom he could trust – that is, if he could get to simply talk to her again.
"You already have my attorney's name on file – if you want to bring me in for real questions," Carlos spat out, pacing quickly out of the too-close confines of the elevator. "And tell Malloy and Berkfield they can suck my dick."
He hated hospitals. More than the smell, he abhorred the rocking, the wailing, and the sense of no control people had over their fates as they waited for a sign of good news. Men in white coats, white men, who thought they were better than him and played God, were always in control in places like this, keeping the bereft at their mercy.
"His mama is there with the family," Alejandro murmured, nodding in the direction of the Dejesus clan.
As soon as Juan's mother saw them, she began a new bout of loud sobs, and it took her daughter, younger son, and an older female friend from the neighborhood to keep her in her chair as she screamed invectives toward Carlos in her native tongue.
Juanita, her daughter, approached the two men, once her mother's wails had been subdued and had given way to piteous moans.
"He's in intensive care," Juanita whimpered, going into Car-
los's arms when he opened them for her. She hid her face in the lapels of Carlos's suit and wept as he rubbed her back. "Promise me that you will find out who did this to him."
Saliva in his mouth had suddenly grown thick and salty, and Carlos bent to kiss the top of her head, stroking it, and then looking up to the ceiling, fighting the buildup of moisture in his eyes. Her mother's moans, her flurry of Spanish prayers, the cry of a woman against his chest… how many times, Father God, would he have to hear the wail of women as death took its sweet territory within his?
"Look at me," he ordered in a gentle voice, lifting her chin with one finger. "I promise you, with my word as my bond, that whoever did this will know no peace as I hunt them down like a dog in the street. Juan was … is my best hombre. Like a brother. Your family is my family. Mi casa es su casa, comprendre?"
With trembling fingers the young woman traced his cheek, her large, brown eyes now red from tears, her face distorted by pain and streaks of white crusty tear lines. "My mama won't allow you into intensive care, upon her orders. The cops came and asked us questions about who we knew that could do this, who my brother ran with … I told them I didn't know. But, if you know …"
"I swear to you on my father's grave, Juanita, neither Alejandro or I know who did this, but we'll find out."
"Get away from my daughter! Get away, get away!" the older woman shrieked, coming out of her wailing haze, temporarily lucid enough to see her only remaining grown child pressed against what she considered evil incarnate.
"I have to go to her," Juanita whispered, opening his hand and placing a small gold cross within it. "My grandmother swears this is the only thing that kept him from being totally eaten like the others." Slipping out of his hold, she turned back once. "It was under his shirt… he's had it ever since he was an infant. He was christened in it. It was dipped in holy water with him as a baby. May it guide you and protect you. Find them."
He stood with his brother on the outer edge of the surreal scene, transfixed. Alejandro stood by him silently; a huddle of women and a little boy, who had suddenly become the man of the house, rocked in the waiting-room chairs. His best friend was dying, his other tight friend dead, his cousin gutted – his job now was to go to his aunt, his mother, make the rounds, pay for all funerals – even the imminent one, Juan's. Men had to be assembled, a team to search and destroy, his boundaries had to be reinforced – tomorrow the news would hit the media, and wannabes would try to push up against his weakened borders. Old vendettas would resurface, and he'd have to show the old timers that this had not interrupted his operations, or his security forces.
He glanced at his old lover from his youth as he turned away. Juanita's innocence washed through his soul, making him remember Damali, forcing him to wonder what a life with someone like her would have been like. Reality knifed at the illusion. He shook it off as he and his brother crossed the linoleum floor and bolted for fresh air. They probably would have had a boy, like Juan's little brother, one that he couldn't protect or provide for, one waiting for his turn to seek his own fortune; a daughter who would have few choices; a woman who would one day become old and fat and grieving as that son perished in the streets or went to jail, and that daughter became a baby's momma; and he'd work like a mule to drink himself to death for pennies - but not before beating the beauty from his woman, or being laughed at as an old bum by the young, up-and-coming lords of the jungle.
it wasstill dark when their flight touched down in LAX.
The three-hour West Coast time differential had not been on their side. Despite Dan's incessant chatter, they were able to get him to catch an airport van at curbside and go home, while Big Mike and Shabazz waited for the rest of the luggage. Damali and Marlene had to practically body slam Dan into a shuttle to get him to leave.
But now that her team was all assembled, walking two abreast through the concrete parking lot, Damali missed Dan's cheerful banter. Big Mike had been able to dissuade a few weary groupies from barraging her with autograph requests, and she wondered what it would be like if they were megastars like the ones on the Blood Music label. How would they hunt vampires, then? How would they come and go at will under fairly anonymous circumstances as a smaller club act? But that level of fame was the least of their worries. She'd deal with that if and when it ever came up.
The Dee Dee thing would take a long time to heal, and she glanced at Jose every now and then to be sure he was all right. Then again, how was he supposed to be all right? The man looked positively shell-shocked, and the rest of the team was walking in silence like on a funeral march. In a sense, they were.
Big Mike released a grunt as he lifted and set the FX boxes on top of the four-by-four rack and secured them.
"Me, Marlene, Shabazz, and Jose can take the Hummer," Daniali murmured, her attention off in the distance. "Mike, J.L., and Rider take the Jeep."
"Need to stop and get more ammo before we roll up on the compound at night," Mike said in a tired voice. "It ain't daylight yet."
"Sho' you right," Shabazz muttered.
That was the extent of what anyone had to say as they all climbed into the vehicles, turned on the ignitions, signaled each other, and pulled off. It was so quiet within the Hum-V, Damali swore you could hear a pin drop. She didn't even reach for the radio to tune in to her favorite station. Thumpin' music seemed inappropriate, given the circumstances. She just let the events repeat and run like an endless loop videotape inside her mind as Mike flashed her with his headlights to get her to pull over next to the cathedral.
Shabazz rolled down his window, and pointed his nine in Mike's direction to cover him as he went up the wide, cement steps, and rang the bell using the code that would get a response. A few minutes passed, and the church door cracked open. A briefcase was handed to Mike, and a hand extended. The edge of a black robe cautiously peeped out of the huge red door, and a trembling hand made the sign of the cross on Mike's forehead. Then the door shut hard.
Mike raised the case toward the waiting vehicles, and got back in the Jeep and pulled off. Damali followed him. Marlene's hand went to the two-way radio and tuned in to the other vehicle's frequency band.
"Everything okay, Mike?"
"Yeah, Mar. More holy water, hallowed earth … I got enough to sweep the compound, and some to spare."
"Good." Marlene sat back in her seat and stared out the window.
Jose had never even taken his eyes off the distance. He just didn't seem to care. Shabazz had pulled his gun back in the window, and patted Jose's shoulder, but Jose didn't acknowledge the touch. Damali just drove.
Highway turned into narrow, one-lane roads as their two-car caravan snaked its way up the misty, North Hollywood mountainside. Commercial districts had given way to residential communities until the houses became mansions separated by vast expanses of land. The full moon cast a bluish tinge on the rows of tall pines and redwoods and made the dense foliage take eerie shapes as they approached the place they called home.
Damali stared at their fortress that was set on a high vista surrounded by time-activated ultraviolet lights. All shrubs and trees had been removed from the landscape, except a few tall palms on the outskirts of the property – for safety purposes. Steel gates were still closed down over the bulletproof-glass windows and skylights. The clean edges of the modern concrete design didn't appear to have been disturbed. Tonight it bothered her that the brightly lit building looked more like a prison than a place to live.
"Seems clear," Damali said into the radio receiver as she pulled the Hum-V to a stop behind the Jeep in the driveway.
"Yup. But only one way to be sure," Mike answered from the other vehicle.
"Jose, why don't you sit this one out?" Damali looked at him when he didn't respond, and glanced at Marlene and Shabazz.
Shabazz gave her a nod, and he, J.L., Big Mike, and Rider all exited their vehicles on cue.
J.L spoke into his transmitter as he walked ahead of the four-man sweep team. "All sensors are still operable. The normal alarms haven't been tampered with. I'm going to open the garage. Mar, you drive the Jeep in, and I'll flood the interior with UV. We could have picked up an unwanted passenger."
Shabazz leveled his gun toward Marlene to cover her as she jumped out of the Hum-V, ran over to the second vehicle, and engaged the ignition within the Jeep. Intense lamps lit up within the garage over the other parked sedans. Both trucks rolled forward slowly. The ground team had already gone in and was ready to fire at any intruder. Damali sighed. Normal people didn't have to go through this mess just to come home from a business trip. She watched the garage doors slowly seal them away to safety, and as the team went room by room, she couldn't help feeling a twinge of resentment.
"We need to have a meeting before any of us goes back to sleep," she said in a weary tone. "I know everybody is beat up, tired, and through – but we've gotta deal with this now."
A series of disgruntled mutters followed her as she led the way to the war room. People dropped their bruised bodies on the seat closest to them, fanning out to claim director's chairs, metal stools, the sofa, and an armchair. The crew looked like hell. But they also seemed relieved. J.L.'s systems and monitors vere operating at normal levels. Damali walked over to the expansive metal table in the middle of the area that was littered with equipment and weapons and hoisted herself up to sit on it.
The war room was mostly metal and concrete; maybe they should have all just met in the study or game room or even the kitchen, just to get away from the madness. They had all worked so hard at making every other room and the studios in the compound feel warm, lived in, like a real home – but the weapons area was where the illusion ended. No amount of art, plants, cool furniture, or serene colors could disguise that.
She knew all of them were maxed out, stressed beyond the edge, and for a moment Damali wondered whether or not a more comfortable atmosphere might make the conversation feel less invasive. She was also worried about how Jose would handle the details that needed to be discussed. Then she immediately banished the thought. They had to deal with this head-on.
"Damn," Rider said, dropping his weapons on a nearby table with a clatter and flopping on the sofa. "I need a drink and a good card game."
"First light, you're on." J.L. eased into a director's chair with a groan. "Feel like I got my ass kicked."READ MORE >>