In this excerpt, Gabriel and his boss try to recruit a criminal with a secret hobby, and a special talent…
Read below, or listen to Laura Petersen’s wonderful audiobook version!
In the silent dim gray, the limousine’s facing benches seemed less car than train. Gabriel remembered long rides in Russia, bundled up in the cold cheap seats. The memory grew immediate, the start of a dream he shook off. The limousine had stopped.
Gabriel followed Thorn out to face a bluer brighter sky above a boarded-up building that stank of urine and rat. The rest of the street looked like anyplace: market, laundry, nail salon, carry-out Chinese, bank. As they walked Gabriel oriented himself. Van Ness behind them. The bar where he’d met Gita was only a few blocks away. Gita would find all this exciting.
Thorn led him to the nail salon. “It’s downstairs. All I know is we’ll get in.”
At the bottom of the stairs was a gray metal door, with a webcam stuck to the doorframe with duct tape. Thorn tried the doorknob. It was unlocked.
Inside, boxes and bright light and dust. Gabriel sneezed four times.
Ahead stood two men, one photographing the other. The model stood shirtless, muscular, his head and face shaven, in the hard white light of photographer’s lamps clipped to ceiling joists, a silver screen behind him. Black tattoos on his chest, his arms, his forehead, crude work by San Francisco standards. In one hand he held the skull of a longhorn bull, in the other a 9mm pistol, pointed at Gabriel.
“You should try allergy pills, vato,” the photographer said in a nasal voice. He wore a tank-top shirt and jeans. He turned his back to them, showing a smaller gun tucked in the waistband. “Make yourselves at home. Wit’ you in a minute.”
Gabriel and Thorn sat on the floor. The shirtless man kept his gun on them. Behind him, a screen rotated webcam images: the door, the alley, two views of the limousine.
“You know,” the photographer said, “with the gun, muy cool.” He took a few rapid pictures, stepped back and squatted low to take more. He reviewed the camera’s display screen, frowned. “Maybe.” He turned to Thorn. “Like your ride, güero. Good for parties.”
“Thank you,” Thorn said. “Are you Efraín?”
Efraín whistled. “Está bien, Buenaventura. Baja el arma.”
The model frowned at Efraín.
“OK. Baja la calavera.”
The model put the skull on the floor. “Maldita policía,” he said.
“My friend thinks you’re cops,” Efraín said, putting down his camera.
“Somos consultores,” Gabriel said. “No tenemos armas.”
“Consul –” Efraín laughed, a short ugly bark. “These guys are bagmen, B.V. I don’t see no bag though.” He moved fast, putting his gun inches from Gabriel’s face. “You shouldn’t know about this place. Who told you?”
Gabriel smelled powder from the barrel, smelled oil and lead and steel. He was jealous. All his guns were toys.
“This is our bag,” Thorn said, holding up the envelope. “We’re offering you a job.”
Efraín stepped back. Gabriel looked away from the gun in quick glances. Unkempt black hair, sallow skin with red pimples on his face and upper arms. Wide narrow eyes. Tattoos poked past the edges of his shirt.
“Bagmen speaking college Spanish.” Efraín spat on the floor. He tucked the gun away. “Always nice to find work. Buenaventura.” Efraín passed the envelope to Buenaventura.
Buenaventura tore it open with his teeth. “Papeles,” he said. To Gabriel they stank of vinegar.
“It’s a test,” Thorn said. “The center is the goal, held by your enemy. The black lines are buildings, same on every page. Blue squares are enemy soldiers. The colored dots are ways of setting up your people. Each page is different. Some use five men, some seven. Which is best?”
Efraín sat on a stool and studied it, wary at first but increasingly absorbed. At eighty-five seconds by Gabriel’s count Efraín put down his camera. At one hundred forty seconds, he nodded his head, eyes vacant. At one hundred ninety he beamed. “Anaranjado. Orange. Seven men.”
Thorn nodded. “Orange is best. Gabriel, how long?”
“Three minutes twelve seconds.”
Efraín rubbed the paper between his fingers, wrinkled his nose. He too noticed the smell. He let the papers fall to the floor. “That was fun. You got any more?”
“That’s urban combat strategy,” Thorn said. “Average time about twelve minutes. Less than half get it right. We have jobs that use your talents. Worth a lot of money and also not criminal. You’ll have a new life.”