A Drive in the country

(A Story from the Daniel Faust series)

The kid knew he was going to die.

He hadn’t internalized it, not yet. But as the black Lincoln pulled away from the city lights, leaving the Las Vegas strip in the rearview mirror and turning toward the endless desert flats, he knew. I sat across from him in the backseat, riding easy, feeling the weight of the blue chrome .45 against my hip.

“I thought we were going to talk to Jennifer,” he said.

“You had your chance to talk to Jennifer,” I told him. “Now you’re talking to me.”

Scrawny as he was, he looked like a cow. Big cow eyes and a droopy cow face with a sad-sack expression. Just bright enough to know he was born for the slaughterhouse. I’d told Jennifer, when we decided what to do about him, that this night had pretty much been inevitable.

“Where are we going?” he asked me.

I didn’t answer. Louie the Tramp, one hand on the steering wheel, glanced to the rearview mirror. High beams washed over us from behind, a truck coming up fast on this desolate strip of highway, and the thin slash of glass framed Louie’s bloodshot eyes and his cauliflower nose. He smirked like an imp. He was getting off on the kid’s nervous energy. I was just bored by it.

“Y’know,” Louie croaked, his voice raspy from fifty years of chain smoking, “those old-school Sicilian mobsters, when they’d take a guy out and go Old Yeller on him? They called it ‘going for a drive in the country.’”

I stared out the window at nothing in particular.

“That they did,” I said.

“Probably still do, y’know, where they got actual countryside. We just got a lot of desert. Sand and rock, rock and sand.”

“The occasional cactus,” I said.

“You ever get out to Sicily, Dan?”

I shook my head. “Nah. My girlfriend wants to visit Scotland, so that’s probably gonna be a thing soon. She’s…not from there, exactly, but I think she’s got some Scottish blood in her.”

The kid’s head whipsawed between us. “Hey,” he said.

“Aw, you gotta go to Sicily. Take the lady. She’ll love it, I promise. There’s this place, makes the best goddamn pesto alla trapanese you’ll ever taste.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve got pretty high standards for pesto—”

Hey,” the kid said again, louder.

He wanted my attention. So I gave it to him. I turned and looked him in the eye, watching him sink back into his seat like a delinquent student in the principal’s office.

“We met once,” I said. “Do you remember me?”

He replied with a timid nod.

“Say my name.”

“Faust,” he stammered. “Daniel Faust.”

I took a deep breath and let it out as a tired sigh.

“When you came to Vegas, me and Jennifer took you aside and explained how things work. The New Commission runs this town. You know that. If you want to operate in our house, you follow our rules.”

His head bobbed. “I—I do! I paid out to her, every week! I’m a good earner. She told me so.”

“You were told the rules. Among said rules, don’t deal within two hundred yards of a school, don’t cut your product with fentanyl, and—now here’s an important one—don’t deal to kids. When people break our few and simple rules, bad things happen.”

He fumbled for a response. The best he could come up with was a softly murmured, “I’m a good earner.”

“Bad things happen,” I said, “such as, for example, hypothetically, some street dealer sells fentanyl-cut heroin to a sixteen-year-old varsity athlete, and our budding Olympic star overdoses and dies.”

“Listen,” he said, “I—”

I held up my hand to shut him up.

“Now, hypothetically, this dead track star’s dad happens to be a major-case detective in Metro. The kind of person who can cause very serious problems for all of us. And he finds, in the aforementioned dead track star’s cold and pale hand, a bindle with a local dealer’s personal brand.”

I reached into my breast pocket and tugged out a tiny plastic square, faint yellow grains still clinging to the inside. The bindle bore a gaudy scarlet logo, a laughing, toothy clown head.

In the sudden silence, nothing but the purr of the engine and the thrumming of the wheels on the highway, I could hear the kid swallow.

“A local dealer,” I continued, “who can be tied directly to the Commission. Now that’s a headache.”

“Big fuckin’ headache,” Louie said.

“Cop Dad wants justice, and not just the ten years this hypothetical dealer would catch if he went down for the crime. And we want Cop Dad to not come after the Commission with guns blazing. So, Jennifer was put in the unenviable position of deciding what was more valuable: our entire operation, or the life of one dumbshit street dealer who couldn’t follow the rules.”

I slipped the bindle back into my pocket and looked him in the eye.

“You know what she chose, right?”

“She said I was a good earner,” he whispered, looking shell-shocked. “Would it…would it help if I apologized?”

I stared at him.

“Louie,” I said, “do you believe this asshole?”

“No, Dan,” he replied, “my sense of belief is deeply troubled.”

I leaned back against the headrest. Distant rock formations glided by, painted midnight black by the shadows.

“First time we met,” I said to the kid, “I told you what would happen if you broke the rules. That I’d be paying you a visit.”

“Yeah,” he said, almost too soft to hear.

“You didn’t believe me. Hey, Louie, how are we on time? Have a way to go yet?”

“Little bit. Fifteen minutes till we get out far enough from the city.” He grinned into the rearview mirror. “Gotta find a good place for digging.”

“Kid,” I said, “because I’ve got nothing better to do, I’m gonna tell you a little story. A story about me and my pal Louie here, in fact. And when I’m done, I think you might have a better understanding of how you landed in this particular predicament…”

*     *     *

The day I got the call, I had a woman tied up in my apartment. No, not like that.

Desi Srivastava—honey skin, dark eyes, and a temper like a keg of compressed TNT—sat in the heart of a pentacle drawn in white chalk, her shoulders shifting as she squirmed inside a hospital-issue straitjacket. Beeswax candles burned at the cardinal points of the pentacle’s star, another propped behind a stone snake idol on my nightstand, positioned to cast the serpent’s shadow across her face.

“I’m never going to get this,” she grunted.

I sat on the edge of my motel-remainder bed. I'd shoved it against the wall to make room. A stick of sandalwood incense smoldered next to my left foot, sending up trickles of sweet-scented smoke, filling the apartment with a gray haze. The floorboards glittered dark purple all around us, the scattered shavings of a ground-down chunk of amethyst.

“Stop trying,” I told her.

She shot me a look that could curdle milk. “Stop trying? That’s your advice? Thanks, Yoda, real cryptic.”

“How many years did you spend at the circus, working that contortionist act?”

“Too many.” She showed me her teeth. “The pay sucked.”

“You’re relying on muscle memory. Trying to use your own skills and training. Don’t.” I pointed to the stone idol. “Every magician walks their own road. Their own path to power. You’ve got the strongest aptitude for working with god-forms I’ve ever seen. You can’t get out of that jacket, but Kadru, Mother of a Thousand Nagas, can. Let her.”

Desi turned her gaze to the stone. Her breathing slowed, her dark eyes narrowing to slits.

“You’ve studied her for weeks,” I said. “You know her aspects, her secret truths. Now wear the mask. Become her.”

She inhaled, impossibly deep. The breath escaped her black-painted lips as a slow, rattling hiss.

As she slumped to the floor, her spine rippling in ways no human’s should, I felt a glow of pride. Like a father watching his kid take off on her first bike ride, no training wheels. Then my phone buzzed against my hip. Great timing. I slipped off the mattress and padded over to the far corner of the room, cupping my hand over my mouth.


“Faust,” Louie said, “the boss wants to see you. We got a job.”

Not the kind of invitation I could turn down. When Nicky Agnelli talked, Vegas listened. I glanced over, watching Desi squirm, inch by wriggling inch, through the neck of the straitjacket. Her torso compressed to the width of a fist, then expanded, bones crackling and reknitting on the other side.

“I want to bring my apprentice in on this one,” I said.

“Dizzy? The goth chick? For real?”

“She’s ready.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to take that up with the man,” Louie told me. “Not my call. Come on down to Alize, he wants to do lunch.”

*     *     *

Out on the desert highway, the kid cut me off.

“Wait. You’re…being metaphorical, right?”

“That’s an awful big word for a dipshit smack dealer,” I told him.

“I mean, magic? And you’re saying a woman literally turned into a snake.”

I shook my head. “No, she took on the god-form of the mother of nagas and translated her spiritual attributes into—you know what? Let me give you a demonstration.”

I reached into my breast pocket and slipped a playing card into my palm. Queen of hearts.

“The thing about magic is, it’s essentially a lie. A con game. Now, I can lie to you”—I reached behind his ear, flicking the card between my fingers, brandishing it like a throwing knife—“by pretending to pluck this card from your ear.”

Then I let go. And the card hung, suspended in the air, inches above my open palm.

“Or I can lie to the universe and make it forget that gravity exists for a minute or two.”

He blinked, staring at the slowly turning queen. “That’s…that’s a trick, right?”

“Might be,” I said. “Might be a bit of invisible thread and a blob of wax to hold it in place.”

I twirled my finger. The card danced, spinning in the air between us, flitting across the car and back again, landing in my palm.

“Or maybe it’s the real deal.”

“Hey, kid,” Louie said, glancing into the rearview mirror. “Nobody ever took you aside, told you about the weird stuff?”

His eyes widened in recognition. In the underworld, “the weird stuff” was sort of a code phrase.

“Just to stay away from it,” he said. “And…not talk about it. Ever. So why are we talking about it?”

I smiled. “Who are you gonna tell?”

He shrank back in his seat, the implication weighing him down.

“Now,” I said, “if you don’t mind, I’ll continue.”

*     *     *

The restaurant perched at the top of a casino tower, fifty-six floors above the Vegas Strip. A span of dark leather chairs and ivory tablecloths, where silent waiters with towel-draped arms poured dollops of red wine into waiting glasses. I wore my one good sport coat and a partially loosened tie that hung at an angle. Desi, torn fishnets and a battered army-surplus jacket. We weren’t the usual clientele. Still, a harried-looking host hustled us through the restaurant without a word, toward a big round table in the back.

Nicky Agnelli sat with his chair against the wall, a wolf on two legs, his eyes gleaming and hungry behind titanium-rimmed Porsche Design glasses. Identical twin blondes took the chairs to his left and his right, scooping gobs of black caviar onto tiny buckwheat crackers.

“Oh god,” Desi groaned, “not these two.”

“Be nice,” I whispered.

“They’re total bitches. Why do I have to be nice?”

“Because they’re not human,” I told her, “and they kill people for fun. So be nice.”

Louie the Tramp jumped up from the table, draped in a suit two sizes too big, and pulled out a couple of chairs. He gave Desi a nod and yanked me into a hug, kissing my cheeks.

“Here he is,” Louie said, “the man, the myth, the legend—”

“The ‘acutely aware of when I’m being buttered up.’ Hey, Louie. Are we it?”

“Nah, Tyrone’s in on this one too. Cue-Ball’s on his way. C’mon, sit, sit.”

“Yes, sit down, Danny.” Justine, one of the twins, shot a withering look at Desi. “You must be tired, carrying that baggage around.”

Juliette, the other twin, wrinkled her nose. “I think it’s nice that he’s taking care of the underprivileged.”

Nicky sighed, resting his hands on their shoulders. “Ladies.”

Juliette looked Desi up and down. “I’m saying you dress like a homeless person.”

“Yeah.” Desi dropped into the chair beside me, rolling her eyes. “Thanks. I figured that out on my own.”

“I wasn’t sure. Because you seem dumb. As well as homeless.”

“Ladies,” Nicky said. “Please. Dan, thanks for coming out. Caviar? Hundred and sixty-five bucks an ounce, you ought to get in on this.”

“I like my fish fully grown and deep fried,” I said. “You got work for us?”

“Got work for you,” he replied. “Chill on that a minute, let’s wait until everybody’s here. Louie sounds like he might croak from emphysema any minute now. Don’t want to make him repeat himself.”

Louie thumped his chest. “Hey, I’m healthy as a horse.”

“A dead horse, you prick.” Nicky grinned. “Quit smoking already. You’re my best ear on the streets. I don’t need you dying on me.”

“And when I do, I’ll be a tiny, fluttering angel, taking a piss on your shoulder.”

Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, a cloud passed over the sun. And Nicky’s eyes turned a cold, baleful yellow.

“More like you’ll be working for my dad in hell,” he said, flashing a smile with too many teeth. Then the sunlight returned, and his face shifted back to normal. “Ah, here we go. Tyrone, there’s this thing called punctuality. Look it up.”

Tyrone was a bald string bean, as tall as he was skinny, and he swooped in to hug Desi from behind. “Dizzy! How you been, girl?”

“Better than ever, at least that’s what everybody tells me.”

I clasped hands with Tyrone, pulled him in, and we clapped each other on the back. He made his way around the table, shaking hands with Louie.

“No caviar for this fat fuck,” Louie said, poking at Tyrone’s taut stomach. “He needs to lose a few pounds.”

Tyrone grinned and took a seat on my left. “Sorry I’m late, but it was easy to find you. I just followed the smell of cheap-ass cigars and Everclear.”

“You followed the smell of your mom’s—”

Gentlemen,” Nicky said. The table fell silent. When the King of Las Vegas spoke, everyone listened.

*     *     *

“Wait a second,” the kid said, “who’s this Nicky Agnelli guy? I thought the New Commission ran Vegas. I mean, everybody says it’s Jennifer’s town now.”

“This was a few years ago. There’s been a regime change since. But back in the day, Nicky’s word was law.”

I still held the queen of hearts in my palm. I showed it to him, running my finger over the glossy, slick pasteboard.

“See, that’s life, especially when you live in our world. You might be riding high, thinking everything’s going just right. And one instant later…”

I twirled the card in my fingertips. Now it was the ace of spades.

“…everything changes.”

*     *     *

I was never a big fan of French cuisine, but lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant, on Nicky’s dime, wasn’t something to pass up. I ordered filet mignon, coffee-crusted and served up in a cognac cream sauce. Desi went for the Dover sole.

“Opportunity is knocking,” Nicky said, “and it’s a limited-time offer. Louie, lay it out.”

Louie nodded, sharp, taking out his phone. He showed us a photograph of a guy with a tailored suit and a bad comb-over.

“Meet Martin Goreki. Senior partner at Armitel Equity Management. Hedge fund manager, stock trader, paper pusher. Also, on the side, quite the budding cocaine entrepreneur.”

“A business,” Nicky said, “he’s been running without so much as a courtesy call to yours truly, let alone letting me dip my beak in. I can’t have that.”

“Gonna break his legs?” Tyrone asked.

“Gonna break his wallet,” Louie said. “Goreki’s making friends with the Cali Cartel, trying to set up a big buy. The meet hasn’t gone down yet, but a little birdie told me he’s already put the bid price together: a cool hundred Gs in bearer bonds. Fully matured, untraceable, cleaner than cash. And until he gets with his contact and makes the buy, those bearer bonds are sitting snug in a safe, in the man’s office at Armitel.”

“A hundred thousand dollars makes up for the cut he should have been paying out to me, plus interest.” Nicky glanced over at Tyrone. “I’m also thinking about having his legs broken, but that’s neither here nor there. Best part? He bought the bonds secondhand, with money he embezzled from his clients. We rip him off—and by “we” I mean you—and he can’t even squeal to the cops about it.”

“There’s a wrinkle,” Louie told me, “which is why we need you on this job.”

Of course there was a wrinkle. He swiped his screen, bringing up a second picture. Now a man in his fifties stood at Goreki’s shoulder, wearing dark glasses on his narrow, rodent-like face, his long black hair tied in a ponytail. He wore an ivory suit, and his fingers glittered with silver rings.

“The man has a bodyguard. Ivan Koslov, special security consultant, formerly allied with a certain New York family. The Brighton Beach crowd, if you get my drift. Now he’s freelance and on Goreki’s payroll.”

“Bodyguard?” Tyrone squinted at the picture. “Doesn’t look too tough to me. What, does he do that krav maga kung fu shit?”

“He does the weird shit.” Louie looked my way. “He’s one of your crowd, so we need you to make sure he didn’t, you know, put a whammy on the loot or anything.”

I chewed on a sliver of medium-rare steak, juices bursting between my teeth.

“What do we know about the building?”

Another picture on the screen. This time, an office building under a clean desert sky. Ten stories or so, alternating lines of beige stone and glass the color of aquamarines.

“It’s over on North City Parkway,” Louie said. “Attached parking garage, most of the neighbors are also offices, so the whole block empties out at five o’clock. Armitel occupies the entire ninth floor, and there’s a key-card access door just past the elevators.”

I nodded. “Security?”

“Provided by building management. They use Gold Star Northwest, so you’re looking at five or six guys on patrol routes, pepper spray, maybe Tasers.”

“And pulling down minimum wage. I’ve taken scores guarded by Gold Star before. I know how these guys operate.” I glanced at Desi. “Mall cops. They’ve got orders to run and lock themselves in the security room if anything looks dicey. Occasionally you’ll get one who thinks he’s an urban ninja, but usually the only threat is if they manage to call the real cops.”

“Cut the building’s comm trunk,” Tyrone murmured with his chin in his hand. “End that nonsense quick. What about cameras?”

Louie swiped his screen again, bringing up another angle on the building. “Camera in the lobby, another up on nine, just outside the elevator and emergency stairwell. The security room is on the first floor and they’ve got at least one guy stationed around the clock, but it’s a coin flip if he’s actually watching the monitors.”

“I don’t gamble my freedom on coin flips,” I said, then looked to Tyrone. “What do you think, kill the whole electrical system, simulate a power outage?”

“You read my mind. Though without seeing what kind of backup generator they’ve got, and how they prioritized the feeds…what do we know about their alarm system?”

“GTL Security,” Louie told him.

“Cream puff. You can fool a GTL box with the foil from a stick of bubble gum if you know the trick to it. Yeah, I can work with that.”

“One other thing,” Louie said. “After the suits go home, they lock the place down tight. There’s a rolling security grate over the lobby doors, hardcore titanium, and since they’ve got twenty-four-hour security, it’s designed to be locked from the inside.”

I shifted in my chair, thinking. “Could cut our way through, but that’s a hell of a lot of noise.”

Desi reached out, tapping the screen with a sharp black fingernail.

“They’ve got restaurants on the first floor. A fast-food place. We could get in there easy.”

“Yeah,” Louie said, “but there’s no connection between the auxiliary businesses and the office complex. No doors, no way to pass between them on the inside.”

“They got HVAC.” Desi’s eyes glinted, an eager smile on her lips. “That means vents. I could wriggle through, open up the grate from the inside.”

Tyrone arched a thin eyebrow at her. “Girl, those vents are like six inches tall and maybe a foot wide. You’re tiny, but you’re not that tiny.”

“She can do it,” I said, sipping my wine as the entire table looked my way.

“If he says I can do it,” Desi added, “I can do it.”

Tyrone shrugged. “Starting to sound like a plan. What about the safe, though? We need a boxman.”

“Already handled,” Nicky said. “Paddy said yes, he’s in.”

I shook my head. “I’d rather work with Coop. He’s more reliable, more experienced—”

“And on the East Coast at the moment,” Nicky told me. “Trust me, I called him first. And yeah, you don’t have to say it, Paddy’s a prick. But he’s a prick with skills and his own gear, and most importantly, he doesn’t have anything better to do tomorrow night.”

Tomorrow?” I held up my open hands. “Whoa, not a chance. That gives us no time for recon. We have to case the building, test police response times, get our hands on the blueprints…I need a week, at least.”

“And I need a pony. Difference between us is I can actually buy a pony.”

Juliette’s eyes lit up. “We’re getting a pony?”

Nicky sighed. “No, babe, figure of speech.”

Justine leaned against his arm. “But we are getting a pony, right?”

Nicky pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Louie? Fill ’em in.”

“The meet with Goreki’s cartel buddy is set to go down any day now,” Louie told us, “and once it does, bye-bye bearer bonds. We’ve gotta move on this. Tomorrow night Goreki’s got an invite to a charity ball on the other side of town. He’ll be there, and so will his ‘bodyguard,’ hopefully giving you a window to get in and get out with a minimum of…you know. Weird stuff.”

I read the look in Nicky’s eyes. Cold steel. This wasn’t a job offer so much as a command performance, and while I wouldn’t have touched this score with a ten-foot pole on my own, I knew I wasn’t getting out of it.

“What’s the split?” I asked him.

“Louie gets five percent, matchmaker fee for setting this up and running the intel, and you, Tyrone, and Paddy get ten each.”

I nodded to my left. “What about Desi?”

“Hey, bring her if you want, but I didn’t invite her to the party,” Nicky said. “Pay her out of your cut.”

“She’s going to earn her keep, and I charge extra for rush jobs. Five percent for Desi, apprentice wages, and Tyrone and I get twelve percent each.”

“What about Paddy?” Nicky said.

Fuck Paddy,” Tyrone said with a laugh. “He ain’t here. We won’t say anything if you don’t.”

Nicky pursed his lips, running the numbers in his head. He stared me down, and I gave him a taste of his own medicine, staring right back.

“Fine,” he said, throwing his hands up. “Twist my arm a little harder, why don’t you? Fine. But only because I know you can get the job done. I want to see you on my doorstep, morning after tomorrow, with a nice big present for me, okay?”

“I’ll wrap it in a bow,” I told him.

*     *     *

The kid had been silent, riding in the backseat beside me, his lips slightly parted. He was running the numbers, too.

“Wait,” he said. “A hundred thousand dollars in bearer bonds.”

“Yep. See, bearer bonds are special: they’re basically the same as cash. They’re not tied to anybody’s name or account, so it’s impossible to prove if they’re stolen. Which is great if you need to make some sketchy purchases—like buying a bundle of coke from the Cali Cartel, case in point—but if you lose ’em, you’re screwed. A score like that is pure catnip.”

“Yeah, but…twelve percent? So all you had to do was break into some office building, and you got paid twelve thousand dollars for it?”

My gaze slipped away, looking past him, out the window. Out across the endless desert night.

“No, kid. I didn’t.”

*     *     *

Sunset the next night found us on the east side of Vegas. Della’s was a pool hall, the kind with scratched-up tables, beer-sticky floors, and a regular crew of red-eyed barflies dead set on murdering their livers. We were just killing time, waiting for the call. Tyrone leaned across a table, taking careful aim, and let his cue fly. An orderly triangle of scuffed balls erupted in a hollow crack and a sudden burst of uncontrolled chaos as they shot in all directions.

My nerves simmered like the frayed end of an electrical cable. That old familiar tension right before pulling a job, when I stared down the double-barreled shotgun of my future: freedom and easy money on one side, a prison cell or a shallow grave on the other. By the end of the night, I’d find out. I nursed a Jack and Coke—just one, to settle my stomach and keep my mind right. Desi wandered over, cradling a margarita.

“It feels like we should be doing something,” she said.

“We are. We’re waiting. As soon as Louie’s inside man spots Goreki and his sorcerer buddy at the party, he’ll call and give us the green light. Drink your drink and try to relax.”

She took a sip. Her eyes met mine over the glass.

“What do you think we’ll run into in there?”

“Wards, maybe. Could have put a witch-eye on the bonds, to track them if they go stolen. Nothing we can’t handle. I just want to be sure the Russian isn’t on-site. Important rule: never get into a fight with another magician without studying them forward and back. Know thy enemy. Whenever possible, dox thy enemy.”

“I bet we could take him,” she said, a little bluster warring with the nervous energy in her voice.

“That’s a bad bet to lose. Okay, theory-craft: how would you kill me?”

She blinked. “Why would I?”

“I don’t know. I left the toilet seat up. I ate the last slice of pizza. If you had to take me out, how would you do it?”

Her brow furrowed. She looked me up and down, weighing her options.

“Well, you do that thing with your deck of cards. I guess I’d start by coming up with some kind of hex to neutralize them—”

I made my fingers into a gun and pointed at her forehead, pulling the trigger.

“Bang. And you are already dead. Because I’ve got four or five other ways to fight, including a very non-magical forty-five automatic. Another rule: never, ever fight on a magician’s own terms. Never let them see you coming, never let them control the battlefield, and if you feel the need to say anything to them, tell it to their tombstone. The correct answer to the quiz, by the way, is to come up behind me, ram an ice pick through the back of my neck, and keep walking.”

“Cheerful,” she said, flashing a wry smile. “Uh, newbie question here, but speaking of guns, shouldn’t we…have some?”

“Nope. Never on a B-and-E. If you get caught, you’re looking at automatic prison time just for carrying. Besides, what do you need a piece for? You’ve got weapons.”

She gave a hesitant shrug. “I guess. You’re sure I’m ready for this?”

“Desi, you’re the best student I’ve ever had.”

“I’m the only student you’ve ever had.”

“Technicalities.” I sipped my drink. “You’re a faster learner than I ever was, and you’ve got a natural talent. I wouldn’t bring you along if I didn’t think you could handle it. It’s my neck on the line too, you know.”

“Ours,” Tyrone said, stepping around us with his cue and hunting for an angle on the eight ball. “You got this, Dizzy.”

Down toward the bottom of her margarita, Desi rested one hip against the table and looked my way.

“Can I ask you something?”


She tilted her head and leaned a little closer.

“Why haven’t we ever, you know, hooked up?”

I laughed, then paused, seeing the flash of hurt in her eyes.

“It’s not you,” I said. “I’m not laughing at you.”

“Then what?”

“I’m your teacher, Desi. I’m not sleeping with my student. That’s all kinds of wrong.”

“I won’t be your student forever,” she said.

“No, but then there’s Roxy. We’re getting pretty serious. And I’m not screwing around behind her back.”

“Does she even know what you really do for a living?”

“Nope.” I lifted my dwindling glass to the light, counting water spots. “And she’s not going to find out. Roxy’s…normal. She’s the one spot of blissful normality in my life, and I’m looking to keep it that way.”

“You know I’m good at tarot cards,” she told me. “Wanna hear your future?”

“I’m all ears.”

Desi pushed away from the table, turning to face me. She poked a fingernail against my chest.

“You’re going to leave her, or you’re going to drive her away and make her leave you. You don’t want normal, Daniel. That’s a lie you sold yourself on. You thrive on chaos, and the only place you’re ever really, truly happy is when you’re standing in the heart of the storm.”

I shrugged and tossed back one last swig, finishing my drink, clinking the glass down on the lacquered rim of the pool table.

“Guess we’ll find out,” I told her.

Tyrone held up his cell phone.

“Just got the text from Louie. We’re good to go. Ready to do this?”

I put my arm around Desi’s shoulder, giving her an affectionate squeeze.

“Come on,” I told her. “Let’s get paid.”

*     *     *

“Oh, I get it,” the kid said, nodding slowly. “This is one of those stories. She stabbed you in the back, right? Or this Roxy chick did. Somebody took off with the money.”

I stared at him until he shut his mouth, and kept it shut.

“How much farther, Louie?” I asked, still staring.

“We got a little time yet.”

“Time’s funny,” I told the kid. “You’ve always got less than you think.”

*     *     *

We stole a dusty hatchback from a sleepy suburban tract. The house was dark, the owners fast asleep, and if everything went right they wouldn’t know it was gone until the morning.

“Mask up,” I said as we rolled toward the parking garage.

Desi leaned in from the backseat. “He didn’t say there were cameras in the garage.”

“It’s an automated ticket machine,” Tyrone said. “They’ve all got cameras built in. Don’t want ’em reviewing the footage later and catching a glimpse of our smiling faces.”

He pulled over just long enough to tug a black knit ski mask over his face. I did the same, and Desi followed our lead. He punched the button, grabbed a ticket in one blue-latex-gloved hand, and promptly tossed it to the concrete as the mechanical arm swung up ahead of us. We rolled inside, slow and easy, watching for security guards on the prowl.

We found Paddy in the garage, leaning against a panel van with his beefy arms crossed and a toothpick jutting out between his chapped lips. He spat it out as we pulled up, and as soon as he got a look at me, his eyes narrowed behind his mask.

“Oh,” he said, “it’s gonna be one of those jobs, then.”

“Nice to see you too, Paddy.”

He ignored me, walking around to haul open the van’s back doors. A pair of long, bulky duffel bags waited inside.

“If I’d known there was gonna be weird shit, I would have demanded more than an eight-percent cut.”

Tyrone and I shared a look. Desi, to her credit, didn’t say a word. Paddy slung one of the bags over his shoulder, metal jangling inside, and gave an expectant wave. “Well? The other one ain’t gonna carry itself. How about one of you actually does some honest work?”

I hoisted the bag and wished I hadn’t. It felt like fifty pounds of wet concrete, the nylon strap biting into my shoulder with every step I took. Paddy shot a look at Desi.

“I don’t recognize those eyes. Who’s the skirt?”

“My apprentice,” I said. “So mind your language.”

“Apprentice? She’d better not be getting a cut of the action.”

“When that’s any of your business, I’ll let you know.”

The four of us synchronized, coupling Bluetooth earpieces with our cell phones and getting on a shared line. For this part, once we were clear of the garage and back on the sidewalk, we took our masks off. Paddy found a spot to lurk by the lobby doors, out of sight from the road, both bags at his feet. Tyrone circled the building. We’d spent the day doing as much recon as we could manage. While the restaurants on the first floor weren’t connected to the office complex, they were linked to each other; a heavy steel door, down a short flight of steps and behind a concrete wall, looked like a utility-access hatch. Locked, but nothing Tyrone couldn’t handle. Desi and I stood outside the darkened glass window of a Jamba Juice. Out in clear view, watching the occasional pair of headlights drift by. I focused on my breathing, slow and steady, keeping my nerves in check.

“I’m inside,” we heard Tyrone say, the earpieces crackling. “And just hit pay dirt. I’ve got electrical, comms, everything linked to the street-level restaurants.”

“Less yapping, more doing,” Paddy growled. “I’ve got my ass stickin’ out in the wind here.”

I motioned for Desi to shield me with her body, standing between me and the traffic as I fished out my lockpicks. Not much camouflage. I’d have to work fast. I ran a finger along the oilcloth case, gliding over a dozen picks in a rainbow of shapes and lengths, as I eyed the front door’s lock. I tugged out a pick and a tension rake, then crouched down, eye to the keyhole.

“How are we looking, Tyrone?” I murmured.

“Found the alarm box. Sixty seconds. Don’t move until I say go.”

My pick rasped along the pins, helping me to draw a map of the lock’s inner workings by sound and feel.

“Oh, evenin’, officer,” Paddy said. “Oh, me? Standing here with two bags of safecracking gear and a ski mask in my back pocket? Oh, I’m not doing anything suspicious at all—”

“Paddy, shut up. Dan, I’m almost in.”

So was I. The tumblers rolled, the lock teetering on the edge of surrender.

“Alarm’s cut,” Tyrone said. “Go!”

The lock clicked. I stood and shoved the handle forward in one smooth motion, Desi darting under my arm and slipping inside. I yanked the door shut, pocketed my picks, and walked away, fast.

“Desi’s inside. Tyrone, meet me back at the lobby doors.”

The three of us waited. I glanced up the steps at the heavy metal grate just behind two pairs of polished double doors. If Desi couldn’t pull out the stops and deliver, we were in for a long night. I didn’t rush her. Didn’t say a word.

“So what are we waiting for?” Paddy griped. “What’s she doin’ in there, anyway?”

“Wait for it,” I said.

Then a sound rustled over the earpiece, slow and slithering and serpentine. A faint, rattling hiss.

Paddy’s eyes went wide. “Aw, fuck me. What is she doing, Faust?”

I savored a swell of pride and bowed my head, putting two fingers to my temple.

“Hail to you, Kadru, mother of nagas,” I whispered, smiling. “We welcome you.”

The only response was a faint, indulgent chuckle. Then she went silent.

Ten minutes later, movement caught my eye. Desi, her mask on and moving fast, jogged across the lobby floor. She crouched down, unlatching the grate, and hauled it up and open before unlocking one of the doors from the inside. We scrambled to tug our masks into place and lug the duffel bags up the steps, one eye on the street as we hustled inside. Every second counted, but I still couldn’t resist pulling Desi into a quick, tight hug.

“Knew you could do it,” I told her, and her smile lit up the lobby.

Not a rent-a-cop in sight. The lobby was a long, wide stretch of deep-gray marble, doors on one end and elevator banks on the other, with a few granite benches taking up space along the walls. A pair of art installations loomed up ahead to the left and right: twisting, turning cyclones of colored glass, each about the size of a small truck, one tinted orange-red and the other icy blue.

“Sun and the Moon,” Tyrone said. “Heard about these. Chihuly designed ’em. Each one’s crafted from fifty interlocking pieces of blown glass.”

He caught my look and shrugged.

“What? I like art. I know things.”

“Paddy, Desi, head up to the ninth floor. You see any guards on patrol, jump ’em and zip-tie them. Make sure to grab their radios, too. Me and Tyrone are going to take control of the security room. Don’t start drilling until we give the all clear.”

I wasn’t exaggerating when I told Nicky I wanted a week just for recon. The key to any successful heist is information; I don’t like to make my move until I’ve worked every angle and found a solution for any possible emergency. The last thing you want on a job is an unexpected surprise. But that was exactly what we got when we hit the security room door and stormed in. We expected a half-asleep guard, maybe two—not a couple of empty chairs and abandoned video screens.

“This ain’t right,” Tyrone said. “Somebody on a bathroom break?”

I shook my head, running a finger along the control console. “They’d call another guard to relieve them. I’ve read Gold Star’s training manual; they never leave cameras unmanned. Instant firing offense. Hey, you two up on nine yet?”

Paddy’s voice echoed through my earpiece. “Yeah, quiet and clear. I’m working on the card lock now.”

I nodded to Tyrone. “Kill the feeds. I’ll watch the door.”

While he got to work, prying up a corner of the console and snipping wires, I lingered in the doorway with my ears perked. Not a sound. No distant footsteps, no radio crackle.

“Maybe Louie got old info,” Tyrone said. “Hell, it’s an office building, not a bank. They don’t really need around-the-clock security. Maybe building management cut ’em loose.”

“Maybe, but…” I bit the inside of my cheek, frowning. “Desi, Paddy, get back down here. I’m calling it. We’re scrubbing this job. Something doesn’t feel right.”

“Bugger that,” Paddy said. “You leave if you want, but this is like taking a rattle from a baby’s crib. It’s free money.”

Tyrone set the console lid back into place.

“Hey,” he said, “alarm’s cut, no guards, he’s got a point—we already did the hard part. Twenty minutes and we’re out of here a hundred grand richer.”

“Damn it. Okay, fine. Let’s check out the ninth floor and see how it looks.”

It looked like a cubicle farm, an entire floor of fabric walls ringed by private offices for Armitel Equity’s big winners. I took a steadying breath, stretching out my psychic senses. They wriggled forth, invisible to the naked eye, glowing in my second sight like squirming violet sea anemones. Sniffing for threads of magic, for wards or occult traps.

Nothing. Even standing right outside Martin Goreki’s office door, the entire floor was as spiritually dead as the paper-shufflers who worked there.

“Why would you hire a sorcerer for security,” I murmured to myself, “and not use him?”

Paddy didn’t care to speculate. He roughly shouldered past me, shoving open the office door and turning on the light. And froze, staring across Goreki’s mahogany desk.

At the open panel on the opposite wall. And the black iron safe, the door hanging wide, completely empty.

That was when the burglar alarm went off. Squawking like an air horn, blaring across the cubicles. Desi clapped her hands over her ears.

“What the hell?” Paddy shouted at Tyrone. “You said you cut the alarm!”

“I did! Dan, where’s the loot? Who cleaned out the safe?”

I waved them to the elevators, running fast. “It’s a fucking setup. Let’s go! Leave the bags, we gotta move.”

The elevator glided down to the first floor. I could barely hear it chime over the siren’s wail. We burst out the rumbling doors, out onto the polished marble. Running between the tall sculptures of spun and colored glass, the lobby doors in sight.

Then a whirlwind of sand blew across the lobby, carried on a hot gust of wind, and coalesced into a nightmare. Its form wavered, rippling, never holding together for more than a second or two. I made out a drooling crocodile snout, patches of armored hide, baleful and misty eyes as it towered over Paddy.

And a claw curved like a scythe, two feet long, thrust into Paddy’s open mouth and punched out the back of his skull.

He crumpled to the marble in a cloud of blood and powdered bone. My deck of cards leaped from my breast pocket, riffling into my outstretched hand, crackling with raw power. I flicked my fingers and sent two of them flying, slicing the air like screaming hornets. They passed right through the creature and kept on going.

The apparition thundered through the lobby, bearing down on Tyrone. The scythe whipped out and Tyrone collapsed to his knees, howling and coughing up blood, clutching his belly as his guts spilled out around his fingers.

“Desi,” I shouted, “get behind me!”

Desi ripped her ski mask off, black hair flowing and eyes blazing bright as she squared her footing. She hooked her fingers in a ritual gesture, the first part of a warding spell.

“I can do this, Dan. I can do this.”

The apparition turned her way. It snorted a cloud of sand from its crocodile snout. Accepting the challenge.

My mind raced. It wasn’t a demon, and my senses didn’t taste anything that felt like sentient life. A construct of some kind, controlled by an enemy mage. Which meant—

“Desi, get back! That spell won’t even—”

The scythe lashed out. The world went silent, slow motion.

Desi’s head hit the floor a couple of seconds before the rest of her body did. Bouncing, rolling, her big, dark eyes staring up at me.

Couldn’t grieve, couldn’t ache, had to bottle up my screams and fight. A puppet meant a puppeteer. Had to be close, in visual range, somewhere in the lobby—

I gripped a card in each hand. Then I spun, dropped to one knee, and let them fly, powering them with my rage and my pain as they streaked for the glass sculptures. The Sun and the Moon shattered, bursting into a rain of glittering shards that scattered across the marble floor. Exposing the nook where Ivan Koslov had been hiding, waiting for us. His concentration broke, and the creature vanished on a puff of white sand.

Panicked, he whipped out a snub-nosed revolver and opened fire. I dove for cover, keeping low, as wild bullets whistled past me and blasted chunks out of the wall. He raced in the other direction, right out the front door and into the night.

I couldn’t chase him. Tyrone was still alive. Looking bad, but sucking in air through his clenched teeth, lying in a puddle of his own spilled intestines. I crouched beside him, reached into my pocket, and gave him a ballpoint pen to bite down on while I checked him out.

“Hold on, buddy. It’s bad, but you’re gonna get through this. I’m going to get you some help, just—”

Tyrone stopped breathing. No final death rattle or shudder, he was just…gone. Like flicking a light switch. I closed his eyes.

Then I ran.

*     *     *

“Here’s good,” I told Louie.

He pulled off the highway onto an access road. More the suggestion of a road, worn and faint and wobbling across the flats toward the red rocks in the distance, tires slipping and kicking up sand as they struggled to keep hold. He drove for another couple of minutes and killed the engine. The headlights stayed on, twin beacons drawing long strokes of yellow light in the starless dark.

“Out,” I told the kid.

He stood in the headlights’ glare, frozen. “So…that’s it? That’s the end of the story?”

I walked around and opened the trunk. Took out a shovel and tossed it his way. He caught it on instinct.

“Just the beginning. While I tell you the rest…start digging.”

*     *     *

Nicky ran his business from the back room of the Gentlemen’s Bet, a dive strip club on the sour side of town. He was conferring with Louie over a couple of glasses of Irish whiskey when I kicked his door in.

“You son of a bitch,” I shouted, not sure which of them I was angrier at. “You are fucking dead—”

The twins were faster than they looked. Stronger, too. Juliette leaped over the desk in a blur, her sister clamping onto my left arm and twisting it behind my back.

“Danny,” Justine growled in my ear, “you’re one of the only people we like. Don’t make us hurt you.”

Nicky pushed his chair back, rising, eyes wide. “Wait, wait, hold on—what’s this about?”

“What it’s about,” I snarled, “is that your intel was shit. The safe was empty, and Goreki’s pet mage was on-site. He ambushed us.”

Louie and Nicky shared a worried glance.

“Wait,” Louie said, “where are the others?”

“Dead. They’re dead, Louie. My entire goddamn crew.”

“That can’t be right. My guy confirmed that Ivan Koslov was at the party, right next to Goreki the entire time. I mean, he was in the room with both of them.”

I shot a look at Nicky. “Did you arrange this? Were you trying to get one of us whacked?”

Nicky straightened his tie, taking a deep breath to keep his temper in check.

“Dan, you’re distraught, and you’re saying some really unwise things. I’m gonna be generous, because we’ve got history, and let that slide. But don’t push it.”

“I want your guy, Louie. Who is he? What’s his name? He was in on this, and I want him.”

“I’ll find him.” Louie looked up to the ceiling, shaking his head. “I’ll track him down, and we’ll go talk to him together, okay? You got my word on it. He’s always been reliable. I’ve known him for years. This has to be some kind of mistake.”

Nicky sighed at the twins. “Ladies? Let Dan go. He’s not gonna do anything stupid. Are you, Dan?”

I stood frozen as they released my arms, adrenaline raging through my veins.

“We’re done, Nicky. You two just got my friend killed. You got my student killed.”

“I didn’t tell you to bring her along. That was your choice. And Tyrone was a big boy, he knew the risks.”

“We’re done, Nicky.”

“We’re done,” he told me, “when I say we’re done.”

*     *     *

Louie leaned back against the car and chuckled.

“Yeah, you and me had a little bad blood for a couple of days, didn’t we?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t know you’d gotten played as badly as the rest of us. Not at that point.”

The kid was digging, silent, his shovel chipping away at dense-packed sand.

“How deep?” he asked me, his voice small.

“Six feet long,” I said. “Doesn’t have to be all that deep. Two feet should do it.”

*     *     *

Desi’s apartment was a cramped little studio, a walk-up above a gelato shop. The air in the stairwell smelled faintly of strawberries and limes. I picked the lock on her front door and let myself in, toting an empty gym bag on one shoulder.

We might not be organized in the world of magic, but we have our traditions. When one of us goes down for the big sleep, it’s custom for her friends and family to clean out their lodgings; grimoires, notebooks, occult paraphernalia, and ritual tools, it all has to go. Can’t have people who aren’t clued in stumbling across that stuff. We call it a locust job. Usually easy to find volunteers: on a locust job, you keep what you take.

This one, I had to do on my own.

Secondhand furniture, bought from thrift stores on the cheap. Clothes scattered everywhere, empty pizza boxes piling up on the kitchenette counter. The little apartment was a burst of spontaneous chaos, the wake of Hurricane Desi. I felt her in the stillness now, standing silent in the heart of the storm, hearing traffic grind by on the street outside her dusty window. I imagined her walking out of the bathroom, or through the door at my back, giving me her big-eyed smile.

But Desi was dead, and my memories were the only place I’d ever see her smile again.

I wandered over to a cluttered vanity, the tiny scalloped table filled with jars and brushes, potions and creams. My gaze drifted to the mirror. She’d tucked a photograph into the bottom edge of the frame, just above her hairbrush.

Me and her. My arm around Desi’s shoulders, both of us grinning into the camera, the dancing fountains of the Medici glittering behind us. I remembered that afternoon. She’d made her first real breakthrough, casting a spell of her own without any help from me. I took us out to celebrate.

“Stupid fuckin’ kid,” I muttered. I had to squeeze my eyes shut for a second, and smile.

I kept the picture.

She had an old, battered laptop, the silver clamshell festooned with stickers for bands I’d never heard of. I powered it up while I rummaged through a low, overstuffed bookshelf by the futon, plucking out a few choice titles. One of her folders on the laptop was marked Diary. I looked back at the picture, thinking about our talk at the pool hall.

I erased the diary file without opening it. Her secret thoughts were hers, to take to the grave.

Nothing incriminating in her email, nothing that could tie her to the occult underground. I was just doing some housekeeping when the laptop pinged, a fresh alert coming in: “This is a reminder for your Spirit Airlines 7:30 flight. Make sure to check in now!

I squinted at the screen. Desi hadn’t told me about any plans for a trip. As I was puzzling it out, my phone buzzed against my hip, an incoming text message. “This is a reminder for your Spirit Airlines 7:30 flight. Make sure to check in now!

I called the airline. Twenty minutes of arguing, low-level social engineering, and borderline bribery got me the answers I needed. We weren’t the only two people with tickets we’d never ordered: someone had made reservations for Tyrone and Paddy, too, putting us all on the same flight to New York City.

The empty safe, the lack of wards and guards, the ambush in the lobby, and a paper trail. All the pieces clicked together.

*     *     *

The desert night carried a chill that cut to the bone. The kid was sweating, though, standing in a tiny trench as he dug his own grave.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

“It was an inside job,” I told him. “Ivan Koslov and Louie’s inside man conspired to rip Goreki off. Ivan cleared out the safe—as his security specialist, he’d have the combination—and the inside man fed Louie a line about this amazing, easy score.”

“We all make mistakes,” Louie said with a shrug.

“So Ivan grabbed the bonds and waited for us to show. The idea was to kill all four of us, hide the bodies, and make it look like we’d fled to New York with the loot. Nicky and Goreki would both be chasing ghosts, while Ivan and his pal laughed all the way to the bank. They didn’t count on one of us surviving the ambush.”

“So did you find him?” the kid asked. “The inside man?”

“Sure. But I found Ivan first.”

*     *     *

Nicky sent me a peace offering. His personal seer, a psychic with a knack for remote viewing, tracked Ivan down. He was on his way out of town, bags packed, his own ticket in hand, but he stopped off for lunch first. The Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop on Cheyenne, quick and casual. He ordered a turkey sub and a bottle of water, sitting toward the back with his roll-on suitcase at his side.

He bit into his sandwich. Then he winced, spitting the chewed mouthful into his napkin. Pulling back the bread, he stared down at the thin white layer of sand on top of the sliced turkey.

He had about two seconds to get the message. That was all I gave him before I came up behind him and drove an ice pick through the back of his neck. The spike tore through skin, muscle, and cartilage, spearing out from his throat. I wrenched the pick free, wrapped it in a handkerchief, and kept walking, stashing it inside my hip pocket all in one smooth movement. I was halfway out the door before anyone noticed he was dead.

Louie called me. His voice was faint, labored, desperate.

“Found…found the fucker. He shot me. He shot me, Dan.”

“Where are you? I’m coming right now.”

He wheezed out an address, a high-rise condo about two blocks from the Strip. I barreled up the stairs to the third floor, looking for 305. The door hung wide open. In a stylish, modern living room, the air-conditioning on full blast, Siberia-cold, I found two bodies. One was still breathing. Louie sat propped against the wall, one hand still clutching his silenced .22, the other clamped to the wound in his side. Blood spread like spilled wine across his Italian silk shirt, and his hair was plastered to his scalp with cold sweat.

The other man, I didn’t know. He had two bullets in his heart and a long-barreled .357 in his outstretched hand, sprawled out on a storm-gray rug.

“I shoulda waited for you,” Louie gasped. “I wanted to make good, you know? Make it up to you. So I confronted the bastard. He got the drop on me. I got him, though. Got him good.”

“Stop talking.” I put my arm around him, standing on his good side and hoisting him to his feet. “Save your strength. C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

I took him to Doc Savoy, Vegas’s number one fix-up man for problems you couldn’t bring to a real hospital. Real hospitals kept records and had to report gunshot wounds. The Doc only took cash, no insurance, but he didn’t talk to cops. Once Louie was all patched up, he filled me in: the dead man, Fields, was a long-time informant and matchmaker who had been reliable for years. Solid as a rock.

What he didn’t know, until he’d dug it up that morning, was that Fields had been investing his dirty money. Investing it with Martin Goreki, who “lost” it when he needed cash to buy the bearer bonds. Fields smelled a rat, got tight with Ivan, and that was when they hatched their plan. And it would have worked, flawless, if I hadn’t survived the ambush.

*     *     *

The kid leaned on his shovel, out of breath. Standing in a shallow grave, six feet long and two deep. I reached under my coat and took out my pistol. I held it loose in my hand.

“And that’s the moral of the story. You break the rules, you cross the line, you reap the consequences.”

Louie chuckled. He could smell the kid’s fear, same as me. He liked the aroma.

“Shoulda learned that lesson sooner. Maybe we wouldn’t be here right now. Dan, you wanna do the honors?”

I raised my gun in a slow, steady hand…and swung it around, aiming it in Louie’s face.

“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”

He took a startled step back, hip thumping against the sedan door. “Whoa. Whoa, Dan, what the hell are you doing?”

“You almost got away with it, Louie. Almost. Hell, you skated for two years, that’s pretty good. Thing is, I was pulling a job up in Reno last week. And the wheelman on that job? He was Fields’s brother. We got to drinking, and got to talking. He confirmed every bit of that story, all the pieces he knew. Yeah, Fields invested his money with Goreki, Goreki ripped him off, and he was definitely tight with Ivan. Just one little problem, Louie…Fields didn’t go in for any heavy stuff, as a rule. He didn’t own a gun.”

“That’s…that’s crazy. That doesn’t mean anything. Dan, I was shot—”

“I know. And I thought it was weird. I mean, nice building, nice neighborhood. A hand cannon goes off, and nobody calls the cops? Hard to mistake that sound for anything else. Now a twenty-two with a suppressor? That sounds like a door slamming, a backfiring car. I went and talked to Doc Savoy about that bleeder I brought you in with. Been a while, but Doc’s got a memory like a steel trap.”

I took a step closer to him, sighting down the barrel of the gun, aiming for a kill shot.

“He didn’t pull a three-fifty-seven slug out of your side, Louie. It was a twenty-two, just like the two bullets the coroner dug out of Fields’s chest. There were three men pulling the bearer-bond scam: Ivan, Fields, and you. You murdered Fields to shut him up and cover your tracks. Then you shot yourself someplace nice and nonlethal. Gave yourself a war wound and instant deniability.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just—that’s not proof. None of that is proof—”

My free hand slipped into my breast pocket and came out with a single slip of colorful paper.

A bearer bond.

“I went to your house last night, Louie. You were smart, not cashing these in. Keeping ’em nice and hidden for a rainy day. Stashing it all in a bag in your crawl space, though? Not so bright. First place I looked.”

He knew it was over. I saw his face fall, bluster turning to despair turning to ice-bladder fear. He opened his mouth, started to say something. I knew this part. This was the part where he would beg, bargain, offer me anything he could think of in exchange for his life.

I didn’t need to hear it. So I pulled the trigger and shot him between the eyes.

Louie’s corpse hit the sand, silhouetted in the sedan’s headlights. The kid froze. He stared at me, then at Louie, then back to me. I holstered my gun.

“So,” he said, barely louder than a whisper, “what now?”

“Now? Now you roll his body into that grave and fill it in. Tamp it down nice and tight.”

He blinked. “Are…you going to kill me?”

“Nah. Thing is, Louie had a bad back. If I made him dig his own grave, I would have been out here all fucking night. I’ve got better things to do.”

He climbed out of the trench, then stopped again, uncertain.

“What…what about the dead kid who overdosed? And his dad, the cop?”

“See, you weren’t paying attention. I said hypothetically those things happened.” I raised my hand and pointed west. “You’re gonna want to walk that way, about twenty minutes. Should be able to find a ride once you reach the highway. You can either keep going, all the way to Salt Lake City, and try your luck there, or you can come back to Vegas and follow Jennifer’s rules. This was your warning. You only get one, kid, so think hard.”

“Wait,” he called out as I opened the driver’s-side door. I paused, looking back at him. “Can’t I get a ride with you?”

“Nope,” I said. “Car’s full.”

He stood dumbstruck in the headlights as I reversed out, tires rumbling into a three-point turn, and drove down the access road. I glanced in the rearview mirror.

Tyrone and Paddy sat in the backseat, silent, their sightless eyes staring back at me. Desi sat beside me. Her long black hair flowed behind her, the faintest hint of a smile on her black-painted lips. A long, sad smile. Her luminous hand reached toward mine, almost touching. Almost.

I wasn’t lying about the car being full. Just like I never lied to myself, believing that revenge would make my ghosts go away. I didn’t feel good about killing Louie, didn’t feel much of anything at all. And the dead were still with me. I was their wheelman now, all the way to the end of the line.

All the way to the gates of hell.