TITLE: Optical Illusion
AUTHOR: Roseveare, t.l.green@talk21.com
RATING: R, mostly for language
LENGTH: 12,700 words
SUMMARY: Agent Sands continues to win friends and influence people.
NOTES: Written in 3 days, so don't expect literature (quickest thing of any length I ever wrote). The story is incredibly derivative of the film, but what the heck, what I was mostly left wanting to see when the credits rolled was more of the same, and I desperately needed to exorcise Agent Sands from my brain. I thought it would be fun to have Sands continuing to play the spy game after the events of the movie, to see how he might make that work, tricky psychotic manipulative bastard that he is. I know nothing about the politics of Mexico or the CIA and lack the time for research, so this is basically disposable action/comedy fare and may not make any actual sense in context.
DISCLAIMER: Sands, Ramirez, and El Mariachi belong to Robert Rodriguez et al.

Optical Illusion

"You hear he's been having trouble?" Bark of laughter; palm slammed down in the table. "'Trouble'!" His companion didn't flinch, and Bucaro suppressed his mirth. The wrong people might hear it.

"He's left the security of his compound. Something about a girl." A laughing couple entered the bar, and the seated man moved lazily. It was impossible to see behind his sunglasses if his gaze was really following the newcomers. Turning again to Bucaro, he tipped his head and smiled. He had a boy's smile, or maybe a girl's, sultry and winning - although if naiveté was its intent, the dark barrier of glass over his eyes hampered the effect. With slow movements almost drunken in their carefulness, he used the edge of the table to tap cigarette ash onto the floor; then, with equal care, raised his gloved right hand to his lips.

The sunglasses stayed focused on Bucaro. So did the smile. "A mistress?"

Bucaro shook his head. "His daughter."

A hitch in his companion's casual rhythms. "I wasn't aware Armendiz had a daughter. I heard he had a son."

"Yes... Marco. Everyone has heard of Marco. And everyone is afraid of him, with good reason. The girl, not so many people have heard of her. I suppose you could say she keeps to herself. Sophia Hernandez. She has a husband, Miguel Hernandez. Her husband, now... the husband has not been keeping to himself, if you grasp my meaning." He laughed, and waited, but his companion did not join in. The smile, moreover, was beginning to make him nervous. It was not an ordinary smile. It was not a smile he would expect from a man dressed in an obscenely bright yellow t-shirt with a cartoon pig on it. With a shrug, he carried on. "He had some 'adventures' with a troupe of dancers in Culiacan. Of course, word of such things gets around. In this case, it beat him home. So when he gets back... there she is, waiting for him with all weapons primed."

"A metaphor?" his companion clarified abstractly.

"Not a metaphor." He shook his head, fighting laughter. "Her father... takes the side of the boy. He won't let her kill him!"


Bucaro waved his hand dismissively. "Armendiz has played favourites from way back, when Marco started cutting up horses. Armendiz likes horses. His real son is too crazy, so Miguel has become his son. But back to the girl... what she does is to lock herself away. Won't talk to any of them, so they figure - sure, they're safe, she'll calm down eventually. Next day, a mixing truck shows up at the compound. Like a fucking military operation, man - she and her men board up the windows and doors, and pipe in the cement! With Armendiz inside, and the boy - and Marco, him too. As the house is filling up, out they finally break, gasping and clawing, all of them coated in drying cement and her there waiting, laughing. Of course, by the time they're in any state to do anything, the inside of the house is fucking solid. So..."

He shrugged and waited.

The CIA agent said, "I never heard anything so ridiculous. I asked for information, not a soap opera. You expect me to believe one of Mexico's most powerful drug lords has been sent scampering from his stronghold by some girl's fit of pique?"

"Believe it or don't believe it, he's moved his operation to his son's house here in the town. You've seen it. But then, what do I know? Maybe he really just has the decorators in. Maybe he has only sent his daughter off to the country for her health."

"If he's moved his operation, he's moved his security, too."

Bucaro sneered. "Bullshit. He's weakened. This is valuable to you. You got my money?"

"When you bring me the information you told me you had access to... No, not the compound, Bucaro, it's quite clear that the compound is out of the picture for the time being. The house. Armendiz' son's house here in town. Same brief, and soon, Bucaro." The agent spoke with purposeful pauses he sometimes filled with another breath of the cigarette. Bucaro shifted uneasily and the focus of the glasses shifted with him. "In a way, it's fortunate for you that the situation has changed. These persistent delays are doing neither of us any good, my friend. Now, because I do have some form of reluctant respect for your ragged person, though sweet Jesus knows why, I'm going to let you in on a little secret of mine. Just in case you're thinking of not taking that threat - and threat it was - seriously." His chin dipped. The glasses had a ridge around the top as well as the sides, moulding to the flesh so it was impossible to see even a glimpse of his eyes. The mannerism still somehow gave the impression he was looking archly over the top of them. "Look under the table, Bucaro."

Bucaro laughed, and was relieved most of his unease didn't show. "What?" He drew out the word in an amused drawl. He could see both of the agent's hands, arms sleeved in ugly green jacket, above the table.

"Look under the table, Bucaro." Quicker, still light, but with a sharpness now.

Irritably, Bucaro ducked his head under the level of the table top. He raised it again more cautiously. The gun rested on a beige thigh next to a black fanny-pack. Fingers wrapped comfortably around the handle. He straightened, staring at the two arms on the table in front of him. He'd only seen the right hand move. This time his laugh came out unwelcomely shrill. "You're insane."

The smile was back. "Unfortunately, that revelation does not stand to favourably aid your position in the slightest. Now, I've let you on to my little secret, and gosh, I didn't have to do that, did I? I could have just blown you to hell. So what I'm wondering now is... when is my generosity going to see some return?" The agent paused, not for dramatic effect, but to put out the remnant of the cigarette now burning his glove by beating his hand upon the table top in quick, violent movements. When he raised his head again, his mouth was framed by angry lines. He flicked his fingers, hand still raised loosely at eye level as though the cigarette was there. There was more than one hole in his glove. His distraction... hadn't felt like nervousness. Maybe he really was insane. The air of oddity to the proceedings was unarguable.

"Bucaro," the agent said, sing-song airy, pulling them back to the question.

"I..." Bucaro floundered. He looked around, at the couple in the corner, a drunk old man against the bar. He hushed his voice. "I will get you your information. But the price has increased. I will do it for twenty-five thousand dollars."

The agent shook his head and clicked his tongue, the very picture of disappointment. "You want too much," he said. "That's the trouble with the world today, isn't it? Everybody always wants too much. No civic-mindedness, no 'of course I will help you bring down this evil man'. Only cold, hard cash. More directly to the point, I think you'll find, is something an old friend once said to me. 'For twenty-five thousand', he said, 'You might as well kill me as pay it. But five thousand? Five thousand is a number we can both live with.' Think of a number, Bucaro, that we can both live with."

Bucaro shifted again in his seat and, again, the agent's head tipped attentively. "What happened to your friend?" he sneered. "He retire happily on his five thousand dollars?"

"No, I killed him." The statement was matter-of-fact. "But not over the five thousand dollars. I killed him for fucking me around. You, on the other hand, are a smart man, Bucaro. I'm sure you won't repeat his mistake. Although, wait - I am getting exceedingly tired of this conversation. So... a number that we can both live with and... let's cut the crap from here on in, eh?"

"Ten thousand," Bucaro growled. "I will do it for the ten thousand. Have it with you next time we meet. And I will have your information."

"Ten thousand?" The agent rolled the words in experimental fashion on his tongue, rolling his head on his neck in an odd accompaniment.

"That much you agreed before. Getting this information could get me killed. And of course, there is my friend on the inside, with whom I have to split what you give me."

Agent Sands stilled and nodded smartly. "So. Ten thousand it is," he said with good cheer. He raised his gun hand above the table without care for the other patrons of the bar, the fake arm swinging from his shoulder. "Best be on your way, then, my friend. Until next time."

Around them, the old drunk was staring at the three arms as he might pink elephants, the couple hadn't noticed, and the man behind the bar had his back turned and was wiping glasses. Slowly, Bucaro stood up and left. Sands, leaning back in his chair, followed his progress to the doorway. When Bucaro cast a final sour glance back, the man was sketching a left-handed wave that had the fake hand gamely joining in.

"You shouldn't roll your head like that," she told him after the rat had gone. They were all sitting around the small table now, Sands the only one with his back to the door. Not that that peculiar habit mattered so much anymore. "You look blind when you do that."

"Thank you for the critique." Sands distractedly rolled a new cigarette. Bowes wouldn't have wanted to bet that he wasn't paying attention - Barillo's major achievement in taking Sands' eyes seemed to have been to make the man even harder to figure out. Without the rat present, his body language still carefully cultivated the impression of sightedness.

Her job was to help maintain the illusion when it was necessary.

He held the cigarette out and tossed the lighter towards her chest without warning. Just to be contrary. She knew it must take as much concentration on his part to throw the lighter to her and then to palm it again once she'd lit the cigarette as to do it his goddamn self. He liked twenty-four hour service.

The false arm was back in the bag along with the gun he'd held in the real one. The only weapon he had on him now was the gun in his pants. The fanny-pack contained several cellphones, a roll of cash folded differently according to denomination, a collapsible white cane, and a spare pair of sunglasses. His damnable cigarettes he kept in his pocket.

The three of them were garbed like tourists, though not all so outlandishly as Sands, but then she couldn't complain when she had been the one helping pick out his wardrobe. Sands was just about fresh-faced enough to fit in with the illusion of three young friends on holiday.

"We're going ahead?" Bowes asked after some time had passed. She might wait forever while Sands sat and smoked and stayed quiet for the only reason he ever would - to irritate someone.

"We are," he confirmed smugly. "Fortune appears to be smiling upon our endeavours. It would seem a waste to let opportunity slip by."

She shook her head and, detecting the movement, he... if she hadn't known what lay under the glasses she would have sworn his eyes were on her. She leaned back into Rodrigo's chest and smiled the mocking smile she reserved just for him that he would never see. There were some advantages.

Rodrigo's hands played in her hair. His lips planted a silent kiss on the top of her head. If Sands could detect what they were doing, he didn't say anything.

"What time is it?" he asked, and she told him.

"I have a lunch meeting with the FBI in just over an hour. But you two go ahead and eat." He waved a hand vaguely toward the bar, but the bartender was collecting clinking glasses from a table to the left, and for once he missed his mark.

"I have seen the menu here," Bowes said. "I'll wait."

"You might be waiting a while." Sands smoked and shrugged off her contradiction unconcerned.

"FBI?" Rodrigo asked, his fingers trailing along her thigh.

"Retired FBI," Bowes said.

Sands smiled, showing off white teeth. "A real agent never retires. He just... takes it a little bit easier." Which description could in no way be applied to him, and the grin hung around, knowing it. The CIA had known it too, when they put him on an obscenely generous disability pension and sent her and Rodrigo and their new-minted badges to be the little sheep to his shepherd. Consultant. Conductor. Still on the payroll in all but name.

She suspected it had as much to do with wanting to keep him well away from the United States as anything else.

"What do you mean, we might be waiting a while?" Rodrigo asked.

"You won't be needed on this one," Sands all but purred, "as he knows... me of old. No, you will be keeping an eye on the Armendiz town house to make sure nothing goes amiss and there are no signs of an early relocation, and I will meet you back at our rooms either this evening or tomorrow morning, depending upon how useful that exercise proves to be." He stuck a hand up and, waving it, called absently toward nothing in particular, "Oh, barkeep? My friends would like to order. Puerco Pibil. Two." His other hand withdrew from the fanny-pack and threw bills on the table.

Bowes groaned at the thought of the pork dish again, but kept her mouth shut. Sands could be bizarrely homicidal about food.

"Is it wise to meet this man alone?" Rodrigo asked, after waiting for the barman to scrape up the bills from the table and Sands to finish pretending to follow him with his eyes as he withdrew.

"It's so... gratifying that you worry about me so, my little keepers." He stood up carefully and stepped around the table, and his gloved hand somehow found Rodrigo's face without the slightest hint of fumbling to pat, mockingly, upon his cheek. His elbow brushed Bowes' ear as he withdrew, and he showed no surprise or reaction to finding them in an embrace. "And just so you know I care, I wouldn't want to... see... anything happen to either of you."

"So you trust him, then, this FBI?" Rodrigo asked, unmoved.

Sands twined his hands together in front of his waist and cocked his head, and Bowes made a mental note to tell him later that when he did that, too, he looked blind. "I know him," he said. "I've played him. Trust?" He made a rude snort that might have veiled a 'fuck' in it somewhere, and spun slowly on one heel, hand plucking up the bag from the table as he did. With measured strides, he walked to the doorway. He neither stumbled nor paused to feel his way when he reached the three steps down to the street.

Bowes and Rodrigo waited a long time for him to get out of earshot.

"How the fuck does he do that?" Rodrigo demanded, for the most part rhetorically. His arm around her waist tightened too much in his frustration. She kicked her heel back into his shin and he loosened it.

"He spends a ridiculous amount of time committing distances and layouts to memory," Bowes said, contorting her body against his. "I know. I bring him the plans." She tipped her head back; her lips, upside-down, meeting his. "Calculation..." she mused between touches "...is all."

"Agent Ramirez." That same voice with its gliding, gentle tone. Friendly, welcoming even, to the outside. Treachery itself underneath. Right hand rested in open view next to the pork dish, a fork held in fingers still gloved despite the heat, the left holding something in his lap out of view beneath the table. The sunglasses firmly in place, of course. Ramirez had expected nothing else.

"I am still retired," Ramirez said, gesturing - 'as you'. Sands' head shifted fractionally, following the gesture, then back up to face Ramirez with his own reflection in black shades.

"Well, now." Sands smiled. "It's a gosh-darned peculiar coincidence, but it seems the CIA forgot to stamp my badge... just as the FBI did yours."

Ramirez grunted. "I see you ordered for me already." He did not so much imagine to change the subject as inform Sands he wasn't going to let him run away with it.

"I hope you don't mind." A gracious tip of the head, that winning smile, fingers twirling the fork as though they missed a cigarette.

"I don't mind." But he leaned back, relaxing as much as was possible in the hard chair and the given company, not touching his food. He studied the CIA agent, who gave every impression of meeting the stare. "I know what Barillo had done to you. You can stop trying to hide it."

"Goodness, we are judgemental," Sands drawled, tone still light. He brought out the object he'd been toying with underneath the table. Not a gun - a folded white cane. He left it in plain view across the corner of the table and raised his hand to his sunglasses to bounce them briefly on his nose and deliver a flash of empty eye sockets. Raw holes, no surgery. A certain cheerful air of 'fuck you' to the gesture. "Who's trying to hide anything?"

Ramirez, disconcerted, allowed internally that that particular exchange had probably gone precisely as Sands had planned, and moved on. A minute earlier he'd been unsure if he intended to touch the food at all. Now, it was a useful distraction. He ate a moment, regrouping, tasting the unfamiliar dish. And maybe that was just as Sands had intended, too.

"Good, isn't it?" the CIA agent said earnestly, leaning forward a little in his enthusiasm, a gesture of a sighted man. He merely smiled when he received no answer and settled back to pick carefully at his own plate, the contents of which were already half gone.

Presently, Ramirez asked, "Why did you ask me to come here?"

"Is it really such an inconvenience? I paid your travel expenses, didn't I? Set you up for a stay in this very pleasant little town. And it's a very nice hotel, or so I'm told."

"It is a nice hotel. Sands - why?"

"I need your eyes," Sands said easily, gaining a long, silent stare of suspicion. "You see..." And he laughed as though the choice of words had been accidental. "I don't have mine anymore. Instead, the CIA in their wisdom have sent me a pair of silly children who are - and I'm not saying I don't envy them - much more interested in groping each other than taking down Armendiz. So I'd really prefer to have your eyes working with me."

"You want to take down Armendiz?" He was unable to keep the disbelief from his voice.

Sands nodded and made an assenting noise, mouth full. "I want to take down them all, but I'll start with Armendiz."

"All. Take down them all," Ramirez muttered, chuckled to himself, shook his head, and said directly to Sands, "You want to take on the cartels? After Barillo? You."

Instead of answering, the CIA agent pushed his plate aside, rolled a cigarette and lit it, and remembered while he was doing it not to pretend not to act blind. He didn't speak until polluting the air with his first exhalation of smoke. "Can you think of anyone with a better reason?"

"No." Sharp, staccato. He was tired of this game. "But I still don't believe it."

Sands threw his head back, laughing smoke straight up into the air in exaggerated mirth. "You don't have to believe it. Will you do it?"

"Be one of your game pieces? No."

"Help out an old friend," Sands corrected, wheedling.

"We are not friends."

"I helped you get your man - and no, whatever you say, I will never believe that one didn't stick in your craw, mister. This time, Barillo and his doctor friend aren't around to be enjoying dinner behind you. I call that a big win for the world, not to mention your peace of mind... professional and otherwise."

Behind Ramirez was a potted plant and a stone wall. He didn't bother pointing it out.

"Besides," Sands continued, "this time is different."

"Different how?"

"'Game pieces', you said, and... yes, I fear I may have been guilty of enjoying the game a little too much in the past. But. Things have changed, as indeed you took pains to point out, my friend. I have no eyes, and I'm sure, Jorge, that you can imagine what a pain in the ass that is, in our business in particular." Sands' smile had turned sour, and Ramirez was given to notice lines around his mouth that had not been there before the Day of the Dead. "In short, whereas the previous occasion I took pains to play on your desire for revenge, the shoe would now seem to be on the other foot. In other words, I would very much like to stick it to the cartels but good and having you at my back in this pursuit would be an indubitable bonus." He cursed as the cigarette stub burnt down to his glove, and beat the singed leather out against the table. "One of the disadvantages," he said, lips twisting in disgust.

Ramirez suppressed a snort of laughter into a whuff of air. "Why me? Again."

"Well, shucks." Sands waved his hands expansively in something like a shrug and almost sent the pepper grinder flying. "And we did such a dashed fine job last time. I'm hurt you even have to ask."

"Last time I almost got killed and you lost your eyes," Ramirez pointed out.

"We're still standing. Where are the rest of them?"

"You mean the mariachis who pocketed all of your dirty money?"

Sands' mouth scrunched up. "So you heard about that. See, I knew you were a good pair of eyes. The very best. No, Jorge, I do not know where the fucking mariachi and his fucking compadres went, and moreover I will not care in the slightest if I never see them again." A wry twist to his mouth, false to the core - although Ramirez would have laid money on his reaction to the mention of El Mariachi being closest to genuine of anything he had said or done so far. "In fact, I've pretty much said my piece. The only thing I have left to say is - will you do it, Jorge?"

On the last question he leaned forward again, with a return to the air of conspiracy, speaking the words in a low purr of a voice.

"Yes," Ramirez said. He damned his curiosity; the need to know what Sands was about. The draw of possible benefits to Mexico if it was real. His own pride, that said, 'How about a role in bringing down a fourth top criminal, Jorge?' in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Sands'.

"Excellent." The CIA agent brought out a cellphone from his jacket and fumbled over the items on the dinner table to place it in front of Ramirez. His fingers retreated to their own side of the table, and patted about there until they came in contact with the white cane. "You know the drill, Jorge - and, oh! Don't forget to listen to your voicemail."

He held his hand out open-palmed and waited for a blind man's handshake. He stood and tossed some bills back down on the table, folded corners prominent in Ramirez' notice. He flipped the cane from its folded state and tapped his way to the door, sketched a brief wave (toward the man on the next table, who looked puzzled), and tapped cautiously down the steps.

Ramirez trailed him home to the rooms above the nondescript bakery, but he used the cane all the way.

Rodrigo and Bowes were not back that evening, and they were still not back in the morning. So Sands wrote them a cryptic and for all he knew unintelligible note before he left.

The blind beggar hung around for some time in the doorway at the base of the shadowed steps by the bakery entrance. He had been sheltering there and had not, of course, come from the cramped apartment rented by three tourists on an extended vacation. When he finally left, groping his way along the streets, a crumpled shuffle of a man, his usual begging spot was not difficult to find in the quiet early morning. He sat with his back against the wall, the sign leaned beside him, and the crumpled hat from his head turned upside-down in the road in front of the sign.

Sometimes people actually did throw coins inside it.

He felt the more fragile sun of morning grow to the heat of midday, and the quiet of morning grow to the near overwhelming sound of midday. He remembered to say "Gracias" when he heard a coin touch down inside the battered hat.

Bowes might mock him for not picking a spot in a quieter street, and tell him he looked as brown as any real Mexican beggar after too many days of this. He, however, would stick with frequenting the shade of the steps down from the bar on the busy side-street near the market; the bar where the hired men who did work for the cartels would drink. Although he had seen no reason yet to outline this to Bowes in such terms.

It was not long before his cellphone vibrated silently against his ribs, and he turned his head into the wall to answer it, hunching his body so the passersby would think the crazy blind man was talking to himself. "Yes?"

The voice on the other end was a brusque grunt of identification.

"Oh, hello, Mr. Vazquez! But enough of the niceties, let's move on to the important questions. Where the fuck is my information? I expected to hear from you yesterday."

"It took considerable time to collect," Vazquez said in terrible English, unconcerned. "Hours I spend feeling like idiot measuring out your damned paces. I better get my fucking payment good as arranged."

"Of course you will, my good man," the blind beggar said briskly. "My contact will be waiting outside the... Biting Turtle...? bar. You will put the information into his hat. In return, he will shake your hand, and you will receive instructions how to collect your money... if, Mr. Vazquez, you do this today. After today, I will have no purpose for the information, so both our hard work will have been for nothing and, should I survive the fruits of your delay, be assured that I will hunt you down and put a bullet in your useless skull. Failing that survival, you will merely not get paid."

"What the hell you want this for, no how?" The brusque voice sounded amused.

"Goodbye, Mr. Vazquez."

The cellphone vibrated again when the sun was at its highest - judging by the pattern of shade falling over his spot - and the blind beggar again turned his head to the wall to answer.

"Sands?" the voice on the line said immediately with curt irritation.

"Jorge Ramirez. I hope you remembered to check your voicemail. Now, what can I do for you on this finest of days?"

"Your deadline for action is extremely close," the ex-FBI man said. "I wonder why you didn't contact me sooner. It does not leave me long to work."

"You forget, I've experienced your miracles before. I'm sure you'll pull something out of the old FBI hat. I have every confidence in you."

A distinct snort made the cellphone's speaker buzz and vibrate unpleasantly in his ear. Ramirez said, "Your deadline for action is also extremely suspicious. It has come to my attention that due to a transaction taking place the morning of the day in question, there stands to be a great deal of cash funds at the Armendiz town house at the time you make your move."

"Dear me, Jorge. I thought you weren't in this for mercenary principles."

Ramirez swore at some length.

"The money is of no consequence," the blind beggar said, changing tack. "With luck it may prove enough to buy back the faith of Gutierrez and his people when the promises I make to them fail to deliver, and will save me from shooting a great deal more people than the plan already entails."

"I do not believe you."

"You don't have to believe me. We have an unexpected window of opportunity. It would seem appropriate to take advantage of it. Are you still ready to go?" He should hope that the sigh released evoked at least a trace of pity for an abandoned, blinded agent, but feared far too much amusement remained in his voice for the contrary message to carry through. "It would leave me in something of a pickle, to put it mildly, if you back out now. And you do recall what happened the last time a plan went awry on me? Now, I could be wrong, but I don't think you're a man who would wish the likes of that on a compadre, comprendez?"

"I am still in," Ramirez snapped, and cut the connection with a muttered invective of mixed Spanish and English on the subject of which body parts the cartels should, well, part him from.

The blind beggar put the cellphone away and returned to listening for nuggets of gold among violent men's crude drunken stories, and the next hour was only briefly livened up. Though he felt he rendered some quite remarkable playacting in his delivery of a tirade of vexed Spanish and participation in a frantic tug-o'-war against the objectionable piece of shit who tried to steal his hat.

When things had quieted again, he made some phone calls of his own while half of Mexico was inside eating lunch.

Mid-afternoon, two men fought and one threw the other down the steps. The victor crowed to his fellows four feet above the blind beggar's head of all the jobs he would now be doing for the cartels in the loser's place.

Not long after, something heavier and duller in sound than a coin touched down in the hat. The blind beggar leaned forward and fished it out. Paper crunched under his touch. A dollar bill; wrapped around wadded paper much thicker than a bill. "Gracias!" he said, arching his blind gaze around, although he had a good idea where the man's feet had come to rest. "Gracias!" He reached out with his right hand, the folded note from his sleeve transferring easily to his fingers. When he withdrew his hand from the sweaty, too-hard clasp, the note was gone. He heard the booted footsteps of a heavy man moving away.

Not long after that, the cellphone vibrated again.

"Mr. Sands?"

"It is I, Senor Gutierrez. I do hope all the arrangements are still in place for our meeting this evening. "

"Yes." The word was impatient, and the call cut out before the blind beggar could ask if he ought to bring a bottle. Ah well, a man could not hope for scintillating conversation from all his fellow players.

The shadows lengthened and the evening began to draw in as, finally, familiar footsteps approached along the street, paused briefly perhaps ten feet away, then padded over to halt, again, standing over him. He scented the abused remnant of recognisable perfume among the sweat and dirt, and indicatively patted the dust at his side. She slid down next to him.

"I was almost beginning to worry," he told Bowes. "I'll need a driver for this evening." He directed his gaze to where he judged her face to be.

"I'm fine," she said. She didn't sound fine, she sounded frazzled. "I can still drive. But Armendiz has Rodrigo."

The blind beggar tutted.

"We watched them meet with a man. Rodrigo, he wanted to get in closer, to look at some papers. Armendiz' men caught him trying to take them. I waited, but there were no openings. I could not get him out alone. But I have an idea, and maybe with help I--"

"No," Sands said, tipping the sign face-down in the dust and scraping the few coins from the hat into his pockets. He extracted a cigarette from inside his rags and smoked it, feeling the relief of the tobacco after a day without, and eventually granted Bowes further explanation. "I am not losing any more body parts because of your incompetence. If the plan plays out as intended, we'll pick him up tomorrow night. I see no pressing reason to change it."

"And if he compromises the plan?"

"He will not, for the simple reason that I haven't told him enough of it."

Bowes was silent for several seconds. Then she said with too-obvious spite, "Your sign is facing up to the sky. It has been the wrong way around all day."

"Black shirt. Not the fucking Armani. And, Liza?" His sunglasses pinned her stare although she hadn't thought she'd made a noise. "Don't fuck with my wardrobe today, okay? We need to get this right, or we are both very, very dead. Or certainly my plan is, since we can't afford to kill all the mercenaries until after they've played their part."

"Like you could kill them at all, blind man," Bowes muttered. She handed him a black shirt. He'd already stripped off the beggar's outfit and stood now in underwear and sunglasses, in all his skinny, pale, knobbly-kneed grandeur.

Ignoring her remark, Sands felt and sniffed the shirt as though by that he might ascertain the colour. Eyebrows lifted above the top of his sunglasses and his head tipped as he gave her a sardonic, "Thank you," and pulled the shirt on. "Black pants - no, jeans," he said. "Boots. Vest. Yes, black. And I'll need you to find those rather spectacularly macho gunbelts I took off Barillo's man on the Day of the Dead. I hope they're still around."

Bowes laughed. "Who the fuck are you trying to kid?"

"A play on my own legend, my good minion," he responded easily, finding her shoulder and patting it. He squeezed hard enough to hurt.

"And how do you want me to dress?" she asked, shrugging out of his grip.

"Dangerously," he said with relish. "And wear your perfume. But not too much."

She stared at him blankly.

"Fetch the clothes. Chop, chop." Playful little voice, like he spoke to some dog.

"You don't have a legend," she said instead. "Nobody's heard of you, unless it's the ones who say 'You remember that dumb gringo had his eyes plucked out by Barillo's people?' Anyway, isn't fucking anonymity the fucking point?" She threw his pants at him and observed, "You might want to change the Hot Lover Boy socks."

"Golly, I still have those? Well, nobody will see them." He pulled on the boots and fastened the laces without fumbling, and drawled, "And whether they've heard of me or not... I have authenticity on my side. Still, I think you might be surprised how word gets around the scum of this country." His fingers slid along the top of the bed to the vest she'd thrown there, finding it without guidance. He slid it over his shoulders. "Hand me a jacket - not the green one."

He struck a pose in the ensemble. "How do I look?"

"Like a skinny blind ugly cocksucker with delusions of fucking adequacy," Bowes offered.

Sands stuck out an imperious hand. "Find me those gunbelts."

The CIA agent strode into the compound as if he owned it, and for whatever reason the idiot on the gate had let him inside with a gun in his hand. Gutierrez watched with field glasses from the front porch, unamused. Unimpressed. Slight man in black, the affectation of the outfit almost amusing, just the sort of man he had been expecting from the energetic, informal, annoying tones over the telephone. Fucking sunglasses hiding most of his face, greasy long hair tied back. The sort of man the CIA would waste on Mexico.

The woman was another matter. On her, the same kind of garb did not look like affectation. He nodded, satisfied. Maybe he would work with the CIA after all.

The man and the woman headed up the long drive and Gutierrez put the field glasses away and reached for the tequila bottle, pouring two drinks as they approached. The man was speaking to the woman in a low voice, too low for him to hear, and they were a mere six feet away when she elbowed him sharply and he silenced.

He moved the gun into his left hand and extended his right, apparently oblivious to half a dozen men around the patio reaching for their own firearms. "Agent Sands, CIA," he said, as Gutierrez distastefully took his hand. "Hi. Hi." Like he was at a goddamn cocktail party, nodding his head in acknowledgement of the surrounding armed mercenaries. "This is Agent Liza Bowes." He rolled her name on his tongue as though he was impressed and meant them all to be. He didn't have to try.

Gutierrez, though, kept his voice and body-language tightly formal as he shook her hand. Eleanor was not far away, maybe getting more ice from the kitchen. He would not want to make her suspicious. It would only prove painful later.

"Sorry to jump right in like this," Sands said, the same chatty tone he'd used in their previous communication by telephone, "But there's something you may or may not already know about me." And with that he peeled off his sunglasses and, in an unhurried, everyday sort of fashion, hooked them into the collar of his shirt. While all present were still taking in the empty sockets underneath - or so Gutierrez reconstructed in the seconds after - he smoothly transferred the gun back into his lowering right hand, turned sharply, and shot the gate guard at his post.

By the time Gutierrez (the tequila bottle still hanging in his left hand) and the rest of his men had between them approximately nine weapons drawn and aimed near point-blank, Sands' gun was holstered and he waited expectantly with his hands at his sides. The woman, Bowes, was as unmoved. Arms folded over her chest, she looked bored, although she did perhaps give off a certain air of hostility toward her fellow agent.

From around the compound, others materialised in response to the shot. Gutierrez was annoyed that he could not see Cesar among their number - his best man, if things should go amiss, had picked a fine time to go take a piss.

Even Eleanor appeared in the conservatory doorway with her gun drawn and let out a startled sound when she saw Sands.

"Yes, they are... distracting, aren't they? So I'm told, anyway." Sands stepped up to the table and, sliding his hand along, brought it easily into contact with one of the poured tequilas, which he held up cautiously, tipping his head at Gutierrez in query.

"Go ahead," Gutierrez said. Sands knocked back the tequila and nodded, seeming almost supernaturally to find the right place to direct the gesture.

"These babies," Sands said, pointing, "Were a gift from Barillo. You might remember him - a few people still do. Tried to stage a coup, take over the presidency."

"I remember," Gutierrez said. "I heard it rumoured the CIA was involved in stopping him. That was you?"

"It was indeed." Sands bounced fractionally on the balls of his feet as he spoke. Most of the guns on him had largely relaxed. The gate guard had been a demonstration only. They were to take this man seriously, however he might look and sound. Gutierrez understood.

"With or without your eyes?" Eleanor asked, amusement in her voice now covering up that initial shock.

Sands shrugged. "With. Without."

"They tore his eyes out on the Day of the Dead," the CIA woman said. "It did not stop him from hunting them down."

And Gutierrez remembered that someone else had once mentioned to him - not so long since - that Barillo's bodyguards and his daughter had been killed by a blind gunman, whom Barillo himself had had blinded.

"I tell you this," Sands said with an air of drama, "So you know who you are dealing with. Consider it my resume, if you will. After all, I have a good deal of information on you and your people... perks of the good old Central Intelligence Agency... and I felt it only fair to put us on an equal footing."

Many of the men present tensed again, and Eleanor had gone very still. She raised her gun and brushed the side of the barrel back and forth against her chin in that nervous habit that mostly made other people nervous. Gutierrez said, flatly, "I see."

Sands pointed a finger and mimed pulling a trigger. "Good one. But, yes, I also see how that nugget of information could have unnerved some of you. However, the good news is that for the duration of my tenure here in Mexico and perhaps beyond, it should be entirely possible to overlook certain past infringements and current warrants, or even... make them disappear entirely." His chin swivelled until his empty gaze found Eleanor. A few seconds later, Gutierrez watched her jerk her own gaze away as she realised she was trying to outstare the blind man.

"So your proposal amounts to mere blackmail?" he demanded, impatient. "You told me there was money involved."

"Oh, there is. A great deal of money." Sands set his empty glass on the table and inclined his head towards it. Gutierrez made no move to refill. He shook the bottle in his hand a little, but Sands wasn't fooled. "More to the point, your brother's money. And anything else that belongs to him that you might have considered coveting, as the commandment goes. I'm sure you'll have heard about his recent troubles. Maybe you've already thought of utilizing his weakened state. Perhaps it's only a... fortuitous conjunction of our paths that I've come to you today. Is that 'brother', by the way? Or should it be 'half-brother'? Darned if I know how to address folks on these such sensitive family matters."

"Armendiz." Gutierrez spat on the ground at Sands feet as he spoke the word. Sands merely laughed.

"So," the blind man said. "Are you with me?"

Sands relaxed about a mile down the road, when he put his sunglasses back on. Bowes watched him from the corner of her eye.

He always sat in the front of the car with one hand stretched to rest on the dashboard and the window open wide, as though these things gave an increased sensory input of his surroundings and the vehicle's progress he'd be loath to do without.

"Gutierrez is a small-time killer," he said derisively, "But he wants what Armendiz has, or at least does not wish Armendiz to have it. Largely because they are half-brothers, and they were partners, and either of them could have seized the power. It's a family feud subplot that would do any daytime soap proud. Armendiz moved the fastest, or proved the luckiest, in the one moment that mattered. However, Armendiz has spent the last six years with his thumb up his ass letting his help do the dirty work. Armendiz is complacent, and ready to be toppled from his tawdry little throne. In short, Gutierrez is our man. That is how you find a mercenary ready to take on the cartels. Research. He will bring his men with him with the promise of money and power. The extra leverage from the girlfriend is merely a bonus.

"As for the money and power Gutierrez would claim - don't worry, we're not going to give it to him. They may be a little angry about that, but remember, a great deal of them are going to die, and the blind but deadly Agent Sands and the delectable and likewise deadly Liza are simply going to disappear."

Bowes guided the car around a sharp turn at the intersection, putting them on the road that led back to town. "What Gutierrez mentioned before we left, about that man of his who went missing yesterday... what did happen to the man who gave you your information on the compound?"

"Him? Found a nasty surprise waiting for him in a lunchbox."

She watched Sands light a cigarette and try to pretend his hands weren't shaking. Given they'd had less than two hours for her to help him memorise the plans, she was amazed he hadn't fallen on his face. Given the distance down the drive to the gate guard's post, she was amazed he'd hit the target.

"After all, we couldn't risk him spilling the secrets of all our little tricks now, could we?"

Ramirez almost walked out of the bar again before the oily brunette in sunglasses waved her hand in the air and called, in an almost bored voice, "Jorge Ramirez! Over here."

He considered leaving the bar anyway. He didn't like the lazy arrogance in her tone any more than he liked Sands', but at least he knew what to expect from Sands. The woman was hard and beautiful, but very young. She wore a finely-styled American business suit that looked positively outlandish on a woman in Mexico.

He sat down opposite her and she stiffly moved her black case from the table to the floor, to face him without interruption. Then she planted her elbows on the table, laced her hands together in their leather gloves, and stared at him through the lattice. She had a very strong jaw.

"Where is Mr. Sands?" Ramirez asked.

"Mr. Sands has gone out to fuck his Mexican whore girlfriend," the woman said, with undisguised aggression. "My name is Ms. Bowes." She flipped a CIA badge open.

"One of Sands' agency helpers," Ramirez said, nodding slowly.

The observation notably didn't endear him to her. "My life is dedicated to wiping his ass," she said half under her breath and then, snippily professional in contrast, "Shall we get down to business?" When he hesitated, she swiped off her sunglasses to show him she was rolling her eyes. "Or you can call his fucking cellphone and clear it with him."

Ramirez nodded. "I will call him."

"It could be ringing a while," Bowes warned neutrally.

Ramirez listened to it ring.

"Yes?" Inane false cheer imbued the word as Sands finally picked up, sounding out of breath.


"Ramirez. Agent Sands is busy right now. Fuck off." But he didn't cut the connection.

"The person you sent to meet me in your place..."

"Is she a cold-hearted dominatrix sow with a scowl that could knock the little tweety-birdies stone-dead right out of the air and the attitude fucking problem from hell?"

"...yes?" Ramirez offered.

"Then she's a-okay. That would be the lovely Agent Bowes, my seeing-eye bitch. Goodbye, Ramirez." That time, he did cut off the call.

Ramirez raised his eyes to Bowes. "Looks like it's--"

"I heard. Now, if that's out of the way, might we discuss the progress of your surveillance over one Marco Armendiz?"

He looked around briefly and, hushing his voice a little, told her, "I think we have enough to excuse detaining him... at least for a few hours until strings start being pulled. It will be cutting it fine to give you the time you need. My contacts in the AFN will need to know when to move. I have told them we need to coordinate our operation with action from a third party, and we will move tonight." He frowned at her. "When will we move tonight?"

She stared intently at her watch. "Pick him up at ten and keep him for as long as you can. Any of his people you can get with him, get them."

"Unless we find hard evidence on him, we will not be able to keep him. He has power and a regularly demonstrated will to misuse it, and if nothing comes of this, it could cause a great deal of trouble for my contacts and, by extension, for me."

"Your point being?"

"What is Sands playing this time?"

Bowes outright laughed at him. "Who knows? Who ever knows? Does Sands know? Sands is crazy. He should not be put in charge of a fort of toy soldiers, so instead, the CIA put him in charge of Mexico, and they send me here to wipe his ass. His would-be replacement is in Armendiz' hands having fuck-knows what inflicted upon him - having his fucking eyes pulled out, for all I know! - and Sands? Sands is fucking his fucking girlfriend. And the whole rest of us as well." She spread her hands out in an expansive, overly-dramatic gesture that reminded Ramirez rather a lot of the reviled man himself.

She sighed and seemed to shrink a fraction. "I should apologise, Mr. Ramirez. This has not been a good week." Her eyes were briefly frank and vulnerable. "I should not have... I know he trusts you. As much as he trusts anyone. As much as he trusts me."

They sat for a while at either side of the small table, exchanging silently but profoundly their confusion over the man who brought them both there.

After a while, Ramirez asked, "Do you really wipe his ass?"

"No." She grimaced, and added, "I fucked him once. But that was for a bet."

A cellphone rang; hers. She stood and retreated into a quiet corner to answer it. After a brief but clearly intense exchange, she stamped back to the table so violently her boots must have left imprints in the wood of the floor.

"I'm sorry," she said, not sounding much of anything, sorry or otherwise. "I have to go."

"You're fucking crazy!" Bowes hissed, looking over the state of Sands' little Mexican bitch's bedroom in disbelief. "Why the fuck did you kill the girl?"

"I'm crazy? You remember what happened last time, right?" Sands tore his sunglasses from his face and pointed up at the empty holes of his eyes, thrusting them into her face for far closer inspection than she'd ever, ever wanted.

"Get your fucking eyeholes out of my face before I fucking vomit!" Bowes shouted. "She hadn't done anything! She wasn't going to do anything! She didn't know anything!"

"It's the principle of the thing," Sands snapped breathlessly, stumbling away from her shove and crouching down, feeling his way, trying to haul the corpse up by the arms. The weight sent him off-balance and reeling into a wall. There was a harsh 'whuff' of air being knocked out of his skinny body. The corpse fell on top of him as he slipped, smearing blood all over his ugly t-shirt. He slumped as he'd fallen, sprawled awkwardly, shoulders propped up on the wall, letting the corpse lie over his midriff. Apparently calling a time-out while he recovered breath, he asked absently, "How was Jorge?"

"Compliant," Bowes said, caught off-guard.

"Ah... a damsel in distress? I knew he was the Knight Errant type."

"I think, if everything goes down right, we should be able to use him again." She stopped smiling at her own guile and glared at him for his, remembering she was mad at him. A second later she remembered glaring at him was an exercise in uselessness. "Fuck you, Sands."

He resumed his struggle to rise. "Well, that's very nice but, see, I called you because you can see, so if you could find it in your heart to give me a bit of help here--"

"Fuck! You ice your fucking girlfriend and I'm supposed to help you with that as well?"

"I can't drive to dump the body, can I?" he asked as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world. He reached a sitting position, the corpse across his knees, and managed to sound infuriatingly sane. "And do I have to point out that the end result might look a little suspicious if we leave the blind man to clean up all the bloodstains?"

"You want to make me an accomplice to murder and you want me to clean, too?"

"Look... Liza. Don't freak out on me here." His hands spread placatingly, and she didn't trust his golden-tongued smoothness the slightest. "I know that your easy berth turned into nasty, unfair reality when they caught Rodrigo. Believe me, I know. But lighten the fuck up or I'll put a bullet through your head myself. Just remember that if I go down, we go down, all right? Okay, maybe shooting the girl was out of line - I don't know, we'll see how that one pans out. Think of it as a precaution." He edged up the wall to his feet, levering the corpse with him inch by inch. "Now, I have to be meeting Bucaro to collect the information he hopefully has for us if we're not going to screw the pooch big-time on this whole thing, so the clock's a-ticking here. Liza? We need a snap decision. You want to take her legs and talk me down the gosh-darned stairs? Or you want to try time in a Mexican jail?"

Bowes circled the area slowly, keeping to the shadows. For tonight, she hid almost as many guns on her person as Sands, beneath a loose-fitting suit more casual than the one she had worn to meet Ramirez. Darkness was drawing in and she had gone past the point of nerves, settling into the happy complacency of one who knows everything is well and truly fucked no matter what.

Her cellphone vibrated at her left breast and she leaned against a yellow wall to answer it, turning her head at regular intervals to keep a check on both directions down the street.

"We should have killed Bucaro," Sands' voice said in her ear.

"Make you nervous?"

"A completist," he corrected.

She reminded, "You said this friend of his might have been scared off the plan if they'd meant to meet up again before tonight."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." A pause. "Better get back to me for now. You know how edgy I get without you."

Leaving the cellphone up to her ear, Bowes shrugged off from the wall and walked five steps to the right, to where the night echoed his words. She turned to Sands, squatted on his haunches in a recess, and said into the cellphone, "Asshole."

At least Sands' shorts and suit jacket were dark, even if his bare legs did shine like a beacon in the gathering night. Her own sunglasses were in her pocket now; his, obviously, still on his face. She watched him put his cellphone away. His hands had barely left it before he took it out again.

"Hello, Jorge. Good news?" He listened for a long time. "Thank you, and have a nice day... you kiss your mother with that mouth, Jorge?" Whistling tunelessly, he put the cellphone inside his jacket again, Mr. fucking Congeniality himself.

Bowes gave it a few minutes before she asked if everything was all right on Ramirez' end.

"Marco Armendiz is in custody and threatening dire consequences upon anything that moves. The lackeys they didn't pick up with him are hanging around making the place untidy and generally unnerving everything in sight. All is well with the world."

"And when they can't keep them any longer?"

"Well, now, once we're inside you'd better find something nice and incriminating to take home to Ramirez, hadn't you? Or even more people are going to add our names to their bad books."

"Where you're concerned," Bowes said, "Nobody in this fucking country has any other kind of books."

"Milady, do I detect a certain frostiness in thy---" Sands broke off, listened intently for a moment, then shrugged and stood. "Someone's coming. Time to make out." He held out both arms expectantly.

"Fuck--" Already muffled by the time it left her lips.

When the passerby - who might or might not have been one of Armendiz' men on a quick patrol - was out of sight down the street, they pulled apart and Sands dabbed at the blood from his lip. "Honey," he accused in a tone of abused protest, but slid back down the wall without further comment.

Time passed. Bowes circled the area again. This time, there were shadows in doorways and alleys toward the front of the huge walled house. One shadow showed her a circled thumb and forefinger briefly before melting entirely out of sight.

"Gutierrez and his men are here," she reported on returning to Sands.

"I know." He waved his cellphone in vaguely her direction. "Power is all about communication and information, my good minion." His expression crunched into sour lines. "At least someone is in place. Now all we need is Bucaro's fucking friend." He jiggled the cellphone in his hand, almost dropping it, a display of far more obvious nerves than Bowes was accustomed to seeing from him. "Who I'm beginning to suspect doesn't exist. We are running out of time."

But it was anther half hour before Sands said, "Fuck it. Bucaro screwed us over. I knew I should have killed him." He jerked his head toward the front of the walled house, where somewhere in the dark Gutierrez' men waited. "Well, now, it seems it's Mr. Gutierrez' lucky day. Guess we're going to have to keep faith with them after all. But on the bright side, maybe Armendiz' dear daughter will do us a favour and shoot them all when she comes back from the country and finds them squatting in her father's seat of power." He raised the cellphone to his ear. "Gutierrez," he intoned, his voice silk, "Get ready to make a move. My inside man hasn't come through, but we will provide our own distraction for you."

"What distraction?" Bowes asked suspiciously.

He dumped the cellphone in his jacket and muttered, "A distraction for the distraction. Round and round and fucking round." He fumbled with the fastening of the fanny-pack and pressed the whole thing into Bowes' hands. "Set the charges. To heck with subtlety, blow the whole damn back wall."

"Christ! You've been carrying explosives around in this thing all evening? No, wait - we don't have any fucking explosives. Where did you get these?"

He tapped the side of his nose and waved her off. She started to obey, then swung back.

"Fuck, no - why are we even doing this, Sands? All these dumb fucks whose strings you've been pulling, and you couldn't get anyone to go in for Armendiz himself? Why not Gutierrez? Why is he only the distraction?"

"The cardinal rule - always give yourself the part of the plan where the money is."

Bowes hissed in displeasure as he condescendingly patted her cheek and sent her stumbling toward the wall with a hard shove on her ass.

She set the charges either side of the heavily armoured back service gate and ran like blazes. Paused to shoot at the face appearing in a slit observation window high up by the gate, and hurled herself to the ground.

Noise and heat and flame and-- "Oh my gosh," said Sands, somewhere above her head. Fingers touched her hair; their contact transforming from uncertain to steady as he prodded her shoulder. "Come on, Bowes. I think even I saw that, so I imagine Gutierrez will have interpreted it as the signal to make his move."

"Shit." She dragged herself upright, drawing both guns. Sands already had one in his right hand and seemed to be wavering, less sure of balance and direction than usual.

Fuck it - the explosion. She grabbed his left hand and guided it to her right shoulder, simultaneously shooting with the gun in her other hand. A figure materialising through the smoke fell and didn't get back up. "Okay?"

"Up and at 'em," Sands said, a little drunkenly.

Blast still ringing in his ears made a dizzying confusion for a blind man; exacting calculation of shape and space perverted into vertigo. His left hand was on Bowes' shoulder, the gun in his right slapped against stone, jolting his fingers. He seized the edge of the blasted wall as an anchor for his bearings, and his mental map slid back into place. Still awkward as fuck to pick a path over the debris, almost on hands and knees to feel his way, left hand falling to Bowes' trailing wrist. She yanked him impatiently forward and shot at someone he hadn't heard. He stumbled a few steps over loose rubble and found his footing again on level ground.

They'd blasted approximately twenty feet from the south corner of the walls. They were in a courtyard, largely paved, plants scattered only about the edges. There was a door to the front right, uncertain angle... no, a door crashing back. He adjusted his mental map to fit over the sound as he aimed the gun and fired three times. A grunt, and a falling body. A footstep, very quiet, after. He fired again even as Bowes, a trace of sweet scent off to his right, did the same.

He couldn't hear anything except the faint sounds of shooting from the other side of the house, but he kept his gun levelled at the doorway. "Bowes?"

"Yes." Curt and edgy.

"This house has cellars. I expect Rodrigo will be kept there, so Armendiz doesn't have to be disturbed by the screaming. There should be an entrance to the cellars just down behind those bushes at the corner on the right - you do see bushes at the corner on the right?" he double-checked with concern.

"There are bushes. I know all this, I was the one to help you memorise it. Why are you--?"

"Find Rodrigo," Sands said.

He knew she was gaping at him in the silence. He broke the silence by shooting a faint sound that grunted and fell like a man.

"I think that was one of Gutierrez' people," Bowes said.

"Oh? Then you didn't see that any more than I did. Warn them to stay clear of me if you stumble across any. As soon as I'm inside that place, I shoot anything but you that makes a noise. You dig?"

"How will you not shoot me?" she demanded, alarmed.

"I can smell you."

"Fuck!" An expression of utter disgust. "And if I'm too far away to smell?"

"Then yell if you see me. Do I have to think of everything?" He wheeled and pointed toward the entrance to the cellars. "Get Rodrigo out and stash him in an alley somewhere with the drunks. Come back to find Ramirez' fucking birthday present for me when you've done. If you don't find me here, stay with Rodrigo and don't go back to the rooms; I will meet you with a great deal of cash by the dry fountain in the market square at sunrise. If neither, I will likely be dead, so I'll say 'have a nice life' now and leave you to it, Agent Bowes." Reaching out a blind hand - Bowes could be annoyingly quiet when she was chewing on a thought - he found her arm and shoved her toward the cellar entrance. He didn't wait to find out how long it would take her to move before turning and heading for the open doorway.

Stone scraped his shoulder as he went through, drawing a second gun. The cane he reserved in his pocket, its use depending upon how he fared with the furniture layout.

The quiet room immediately inside was no more than a hallway; seventeen feet by eight. Nobody inside except the body he almost tripped over just across the threshold, salvaging balance by bringing his other foot down hard. He heard bones crunch. A groan - ah, not dead yet. He shot downwards, and listened for any sounds but the echo.

Movement in front. He shot it, hands keeping far apart, the second gun ready to cover his back if he had to twist. He readjusted his map to include a body lying at the entrance of the third and furthest of the doors leading out of the hallway, and edged forward, wary of the flight of steps to the right and arching above.

An empty room behind the first door. Kitchens. He did not linger. Empty room behind the second door. Washroom. He could smell the soap, would have known it without the information. Door number three led into the main part of the house where Armendiz and his close lieutenants and bodyguards would be waiting.

Behind door number three was nothing more than an intersection of many more doors. A plant scraped a frond across his face and made him jump. He knew he'd made noise, reacting, and was certain, as he listened, that behind one of those doors someone - several someones were waiting very quietly for him.

He could not wait forever. Maybe instinct, maybe some small background noise level of men breathing that only his subconscious noticed, picked out a door for him. His map wavered uncertainly in the face of the number of choices branching off and the lack of time he'd had to commit them to memory, then settled with reasonable sureness. The room opened out beyond the door, no adjoining walls close by, no bulky furniture, nothing for cover. As he drew nearer a draught informed him that the door opened inwards, to the right.

It was not a plan, but he had nothing else. He ran in, firing, edged to the left, and fell headlong over a low coffee table.

Fucking glass coffee table.


Someone laughed. Someone snorted. He had fuck-all leverage, twisting in a sea of glass, feeling splinters in his hair scour his face as he whipped his head around, and became aware his sunglasses hung off the end of his nose when the sharp fragments stung scar tissue. Someone loosed a shot that went fucking nowhere, and was only meant to make him squirm. He let it. Someone said, "What the shit?" Someone moved their feet a fraction. Sands jerked his head enough to let the sunglasses fall the rest of the way off his face as his mental map of the people in the room fell neatly into place.

The one who'd shot at him was first, then the man with the sense of humour. Mr. What the Shit was too fast and a bullet from him scraped across Sands' ribs, the impact sending his map momentarily into disarray. He curled over the wound as though it was worse than it was and made sure he contorted his neck to give the two remaining men a real good look at his face, in case they weren't curious or entertained enough yet.

"The fuck happened to your eyes?" asked the man with the noisy feet, then dismissed his own question and loosed a bullet that only missed Sands arm because he squirmed again, and said, "Drop the guns. Who the fuck are you?"

Sands turned another squirm into a twist around to level both guns, and fired several times. A bullet thudded into his shoulder, but there were no more.

Breathing heavily, he struggled to his feet and lurched around a bit and swore a whole lot and wished he hadn't worn fucking shorts.

Someone else was still breathing. Soggy sobs of breath that smacked of a hole through the lung. Sands found the owner of the noise semi-conscious with his back rested upon the wall, and stuck a gun in his face. "Throw the fucking gun away. I can smell you holding it."

A crash behind him he ignored, twinned as it was with the movement of air close on his left side.

"Good boy. Now, let's see..." His hands touched a pair of sunglasses, which he appropriated for later use, stuffing them inside his jacket. The man's face underneath was too thin for Armendiz, by all accounts. "Was Armendiz among the men I just shot?"

The head under his grip nodded very minimally, which wasn't the best of ideas while Sands was slowly running a thumb in circles over his closed left eye. "Talk to me," Sands said, tutting. "Tell me where Armendiz fell. To your right? Your left?" He stopped and considered. "No, never mind. I'll do it this way." Pressed his thumb down hard, hoping his bared, grit teeth masked his revulsion. The man screamed just as he had. Couldn't blame him. "Now, I'm not going to take the other unless you give me an excuse to," he said, perfectly reasonably, wiping off his hand on the man's jacket. "I want two things from you while you still have an eye. One, I want you to guide me to Armendiz, and two, to his money." He raised his hand again to the face, tweaked a whole eyelid and felt a frantic nod.

He slapped the face with the hand that still held the gun. "I said talk to me. Now - Armendiz."

He took the wallet from the right corpse and made it through a bad moment where his guide tried to pick up a gun from the floor ("You think I don't mean it? Look in my eyes and tell me I don't mean it... I'm only using you because it's quicker than waiting for my lazy fuckmook Girl Friday to bring her eyes here, so don't get any ideas about me being dependent on yours.")

The money was more difficult, since neither of them was in much of a walking shape and the safe turned out to be upstairs behind a picture in Armendiz' office, right on the cliche. Sands made his guide take the route around the service stairs at the back, where he'd just come from, and used the familiar territory to try get his map back in order. But the idea didn't pay off and by the time they'd reached the top of the steps he'd come to the unhappy conclusion that blood loss left his concentration screwed. Sands shoved his wheezing friend in front, left hand twined in the back of the man's jacket. "Where?"

A turn to the right. Sands bounced off the edge of a door and tried to at least keep track of their current route so he could retrace his steps easily. He wondered how long he had before either Gutierrez' people or Armendiz' people killed all the other group and it occurred to them to sack or check the rest of the house.

His guide opened the safe and Sands wondered who he was. A very trusted lieutenant. Miguel Hernandez, Armendiz' daughter's husband, perhaps?

"Fuck." His hand trailed over stacks of bills laid out in naked piles. "Find me something with a fucking handle to carry it."

Sloppy, and the fellow's rummaging unearthed not a bag but a gun. Sands dived forward, missing the bullet, arm wheeling frantically to scout the territory around him quickly. Crawling - under a desk. The gun must have been in the desk drawer. He shot several times up through the top of the desk, ducking his head from flying splinters. The weight of a dead man dropped onto his outstretched fingers.

"Fuck." He extracted his hand and fell back. And, "fuck."

He was suddenly sure that there was someone else in the room with him. Someone who was standing very, very still - who knew he needed sound to find a target. Fuck, fuck, and fuck. He didn't have his sunglasses on, which meant that - metaphorically speaking - the fucker was getting an eyeful.

Sands moved out from under the desk in a too-quick motion, fetching his shoulder a bash that had the contents of the desktop cascading over on top of him as he fought to stand up.

With the clamour still fading in his ears, he was certain that whoever it was had moved. He raised his own gun, levelling it at blank space in his partial map of the room. Wondered why whoever was there hadn't taken their chance to kill him.

"Bowes?" he demanded of the void. "Stop fucking around--"

"I am not Bowes," a familiar voice said, and he knew, he knew the man had moved again as he spoke. He wavered the aim of the gun, half-certain it was pointed in the wrong place, but less concerned than a moment before.

"I know you," Sands said.

"I know you, too." The smooth voice carried amusement. Fucker. Sands fired a shot that didn't hit anything, more as a release of frustration than anything else. "Can't see me, huh?"

This time, Sands zeroed in on the sound. Closer to the door than it had been? "Doesn't mean I can't kill you." Nothing. "What the fuck are you doing here?" A lightning-flash of thought. "You were with Gutierrez' men!"

With the faint echo of his words disappearing on the air, Sands knew El Mariachi had gone.

There was a jacket draped over the chair at the desk. Sands scraped what was left in the safe into it, bundled it up, and worked his way back down the stairs with the bundle clutched to his chest. Halfway down he remembered to put the sunglasses on.

Bowes was waiting outside. He smelled her as he stepped through the doorway.

"I went back through the cellars to get inside the house," she said, firing at something too far away for him to detect. Her voice was unusually subdued. She stopped shooting, the object of her attentions either dead or fled. "I got some paperwork for Ramirez' birthday... Jesus fucking Christ, what happened to you?"

"I fell over a glass table," Sands said with as much dignity as he could muster. "On purpose," he added. Belligerently.

"Crazy," Bowes said decisively.

"I didn't know it was glass, did I?" He was glad he couldn't see his legs. His shoes squelched. "We need to get out of here. Where's Rodrigo?"

Bowes was very quiet a moment. "Rodrigo has no hands."

Sands sketched half a shrug and aimed his gaze towards her face. "He'll cope."

It was some days following the arrest of Marco Armendiz and the murder of his father that Jorge Ramirez hesitated in the street as he passed the blind beggar slumped against the wall outside the bar off the marketplace - an upside-down sign, and hat, at his side.

"You are still here," Ramirez said, surprised, moving closer. The little dog on its lead snuffled at the beggar's knees. A tip of the head in acknowledgement, although the beggar did not look up.

"I told you," Sands said, "That the money was not the point. I have money. I have been the CIA in Mexico a long time. What does a little more money matter? It has nothing to do with the money." His fingers, without gloves this once, trailed over the head and back of the small dog.

"But you took it anyway, yes?"

"I took it," Sands growled. "What the fucking Mariachi didn't already take to give to charity." And as Ramirez laughed, he frowned, beneath the ugly false beard. "This is Billy Chambers' dog."

Ramirez nodded, and did not bother to vocalise the gesture for the blind man. "If the money was not the point, then what was?"

"Still don't believe in my good intentions?" Sands' voice lightened with thinly-veiled amusement.


They were both silent for a while. Maybe it was a silence of understanding.

"Winning," Sands said then, "is the point. No matter what. A favourable return."

Ramirez thought on it for a time, then suggested, "Perhaps the Mariachi will give the money to charities for the blind."