Jack was tired, a bone numbing exhaustion he hadn't felt in a long while. It almost made him groan aloud to think that home was only 45 minutes away. He would give anything to be able to have a shower and slip into his own bed for a full night's sleep. To wake in the morning and spend the day with Kim and Kate, the two women in his life.
Instead here he was, arriving at the 'Ranch Bar' with Miguel, right-hand man of the Salazar brothers. Jack was pleasantly surprised when he and Miguel entered the bar; it was a step up from the usual meeting place. In the low light he saw the last of the patrons collecting up their jackets and bags, making for the exit, their conversation a low murmur. The last few glasses were gathered up, the tables wiped.
A couple entwined on the dance floor barely moved, oblivious to those around them, Leonard Cohen playing quietly on the sound system. Jack couldn't place the song, something low and seductive, but he immediately felt some of his tension draining away; the bar's ambience relaxing.
A spicy tang filled the air and Jack's stomach rumbled. How long was it since he had eaten? Heroin had blunted his appetite (all of his appetites), but this smelt delicious. Miguel caught his eye and they shared a smile. Jack had to admit he greatly enjoyed spending time with Miguel, he was a fun-loving man who just happened to have a career in strong-arm persuasion.
Tonight's mission was to find out why the wheels ordered by the Salazars' had not been delivered. It was a simple order, three SUVs and three BMWs, all black. The SUVs were for Mexico and had caused some conflict between the two brothers. Hector wanted cloth seats because of the heat, while Ramon insisted in leather. There had also been a protracted argument over whether black was the best colour in the intense sunshine, but they both agreed black looked cool.
Miguel threaded his way between the tables to a private booth in the rear. A trim man with wide shoulders was sitting alone at a table strewn with bottles of red wine, whiskey and a number of half-filled glasses. The man stood at their arrival and engulfed Miguel in a bear hug. His wide smile revealed gleaming white teeth and Jack noticed bright green eyes. "Miguel," he laughed, "Why do I never see you? You spend too much time down in Las Nieves. What is there, I wonder, that you can't get here? Teresia was here last month looking for you. You've broken her heart & I am left to comfort her. Don't worry," he laughed again, "She no longer pines for you!"
Turning his attention to Jack, Bobby smiled warmly, "So who's your friend?"
"Bobby, this is Jack, he's good. And Jack, this is Bobby, I strongly advise you to ignore everything he says."
Laughing again, Bobby shook Jack's hand while indicating they should sit. "Jack, what can I get you, is whiskey okay? I'm feeling lonely tonight. I arranged to have dinner with my little sister Angela, but all she has eyes for is her new love. Look at them on the dance floor, they have been there two hours already and I have no one to talk to. Miguel, you gotta meet this guy, he's got a good line in military arms, can get whatever we want, all still in their factory casings. Doesn't talk much, but Angie doesn't seem to mind."
Passing over drinks to his two guests, Bobby continued, "So Jack, how did you meet up with this low life? The first time I ever met this guy he steals my car. Still hasn't repaid me either." Pointing his finger at Miguel, Bobby growled, "You owe me Miguel."
Laughing, Miguel says, "Jack, take no notice, we were six at the time and the car was a plastic toy. He beats me up, bloodies my nose and throws the car down the stairs, breaking the wheels off. Then he takes off with my fire truck and still he claims I owe him!"
'A Thousand Kisses Deep', that's the song, thought Jack. The number finished and the couple on the dance floor made their way toward them. They were a handsome couple. Angela was tall and slim with the same dark hair and gleaming teeth of her brother. She laughed at something her partner was saying, looking up at him with adoring eyes, a flush to her cheeks. Jack felt a pang of anger. He was immediately ashamed for it, but it was still there. They were both so young and obviously in love. Jack had felt that way once.
Angela threw herself at Miguel, squealing in delight. "Where have you been? I've missed you. Thanks for the graduation cheque, my friends were all so jealous." Grabbing hold of her partner's hand, she pulled him forward then wrapped his arm around her, leaning back into his embrace. "Miguel, this is Mike, we met last month... my friends are very jealous," she added with a laugh just like her brothers. "Mike, Miguel is my almost-uncle, don't trust him with anything."
Mike was laughing at this introduction and he gave Miguel a warm handshake. Angela turned her attention to Jack and he noticed her flashing green eyes with long dark lashes. She was a stunning girl, thought Jack, probably the same age as Kim. Angela pumped his hand enthusiastically and introduced Mike who, after greeting Miguel then nodded to Jack, his smiling blue eyes suddenly turned distant. Mike moved to sit next to Angela, at the far end of the booth from Jack.
The conversation swirled between Angie, Mike, Miguel and Bobby, giving Jack an opportunity to quietly study Mike. He was a bit taller that Jack and well built, with brown hair, a ready smile and a deep relaxed laugh. Yet he would glance over at Jack occasionally and the warmth would diminish. Did he know, or somehow sense, that Jack was an undercover agent? Mike was only in his early 20's and Jack was sure they had never met before. He knew the others at the table hadn't noticed any change in Mike, it was barely perceptible, but Jack was trained to notice such details.
Mike took Angie by the hand and suggested they leave. Miguel said it was far too early in the night, but Mike leant over and whispered to Angie, then raised her hand to kiss her gently on the inside of her wrist. She flushed softly and rose, excusing herself as she headed to the ladies. The men rose to say their farewells. Mike and Bobby hugged warmly, Miguel received a two-handed handshake and a laugh, while Jack, the furthest away, got another searching look and a curt nod. Jack was accustomed to being able to read people and it bothered him that he couldn't get a handle on Mike. Angie returned offering hugs to all before they left arm in arm, the ribald laughter of Miguel and Bobby following them out the door.
An immediate change came over Bobby, it was time to discuss business.
"Angie doesn't know any of my business matters and I prefer to keep it that way. Right, the cars are all collected. It didn't take long, we just grabbed them from Brentwood and Santa Monica, people never seem to learn how to properly secure their vehicles. We have three black SUVs, all with great sound systems and six BMWs. One's a convertible, two are black and the others are silver. You can decide what you want.'
Pausing, Bobby sipped his drink before leaning forward, his mood now sombre, "We might have a little problem at the warehouse out by LAX where we store the cars and weapons. We've noticed an increase in traffic out there and we aren't sure if we're being watched. If you need wheels fast, we can just boost some more, not a problem –"
A sudden noise sounded from the front entrance of the now deserted bar.
"What was that?"
All three men pulled their guns but before they could move, a man entered from the rear, leveling a micro-Uzi at them. Two more came through the front.
One man stepped forward, his flash of a smile not reflected in his cold glance at the three men. Jack felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in alarm. Marco had a large police file but no priors – he had a reputation of never leaving a living witness. Jack knew this evening would end very badly.
Marco casually looked around as he sauntered forward, "Well hello Bobby, Miguel, how fortunate to see you two together, it saves me a trip." Waving a hand dismissively at their guns, he said, "You can put down your weapons, you won't be needing those. Not anymore."
Before he could say anything further the man with the Uzi gave a little cough and pitched forward, face first, having been shot through the back of his neck. Jack, Bobby and Miguel moved quickly, firing as they went and downed both men, but Bobby, trapped behind the booth, was hit twice in the chest, falling back over the seat.
Miguel quickly kicked the weapons away from the two men while Jack checked the vitals of Bobby. There was a whisper of a heart beat but Jack knew he was beyond help. There was movement to the rear of the room and Miguel and Jack turned as one to see Mike enter with gun drawn. When he saw Bobby he moved over to the fallen man but paused when he saw the look on Jack's face. Mike reached out and touched Bobby gently, closing his eyes.
Jack noticed Mike's hand was bleeding badly and motioned to it. Mike glanced down at his left hand and shrugged, saying, "It could be worse. I had to use a knife on the guy guarding the rear and I found he was wearing Kevlar."
Miguel called Jack over to the two shooters. Both wore body armour. Marco was dead from a head shot, while the other was just winded from three shots to the chest. Miguel nodded to Jack who moved forward, his gun ready.
Mike gave a start and said, "Wait! You can't kill him."
"It sends a message." stated Miguel flatly.
"It's survival, it's them or us. You just killed two, now we kill two."
"But that was in the heat of battle, self-defence, this is in cold blood."
Jack sighed, "Look kid, thanks for your help, but we need to do this, it sends a message." He fired twice.
Mike turned away, looking ill.
Miguel patted his pockets to make sure he had everything, then stopped by Bobby for a moment with bowed head. He left by the back exit, nodding to Mike on his way out.
Jack put away his gun and watched as Mike crossed back to Bobby and sat down. "What will I tell Angie?" he muttered quietly. Then rousing himself, he said aloud, "You'd better go, SWAT will be on their way."
"Aren't you coming?... and what made you return back to the bar anyway?"
Mike shrugged, "Everything looked wrong outside... the bouncer was gone... it just didn't feel right, so I sent Angie home in a taxi and went round the back."
The distant sound of sirens filtered through the club and Jack knew they needed to get moving.
"Those sirens are SWAT, you'd better go." Mike stated as he began checking his weapon.
"What about you?"
"I know who you are Jack, you came and spoke to us at the Academy about Special Ops. I'm with SWAT and we've been trying to get intel on illegal weapons' shipments."
"Why's SWAT so slow? You must have called them over ten minutes ago."
Mike shrugged again and Jack wasn't sure if it was defiance or embarrassment, "There wasn't time, so I didn't call."
"You mean you just came in alone, without backup?" Jack shook his head, "Sonofabitch."
"I knew you three were here. Don't worry, I won't mention your name in any reports."
Jack hurried to the rear, but paused, "What's your name, anyway?"
"Edmunds... Chase Edmunds."