Chapter 10 - Transition
Vin traveled at a slow, steady pace, stealing in and out of the shadows of any gathering large enough to be a town. He kept his ears and eyes open, gathering information while keeping to himself. Although he wanted to, asking questions was risky. For now, he needed the time for his body to adjust to the arid desert and keep himself toned and sharp. A little more than half-way to his destination and more confident in his Spanish speaking skills, Vin slowed his pace and picked up odd jobs. He worked hard, saved his money and sought remote areas to test a series of weapons he’d collected along the way.
Vin still had the knife he picked up during his final meet up with Chris and it held a special place in his mind - he knew its balance intimately. Now, he had another knife tucked over his shoulder and between the two, his throwing became deadly accurate. Still, he missed the certain finality of a gun. Actively seeking the darkest parts of the stops that could be called a town, Vin honed his fighting skills, gathered gossip and eventually picked up a very nice Sig Saur automatic that melted into his grip like a familiar sporting gal. Summer’s heat was fading when Vin was ready to move, and he headed to the launching site of his plan.
Mexicali could only be described as ragged. On the edge of the Sonora desert and the largest city that he’d seen since crossing the border, Mexicali was a crossroad for travelers of all kinds. People passed through while escaping Tijuana to the west or collapsed from the rigors of the Sonora wasteland to the east. It was the perfect source for the information that Vin required.
He ditched the dirt bike there, trading it and some cash for a beat up Jeep that was nothing more than a frame and engine, both of which were deceptively sturdy. He rented a room that overlooked the main street and found a low key job moving liquor crates throughout the city from a main warehouse. There were plenty of stories out there to absorb.
The first step of finding housing checked off his list, Vin shifted to step two: Weapons. In preparation, he pried up the floorboards under his lumpy mattress and fashioned a snug niche to store most of his money, the gun, and one knife. Once they were safely stowed, he relaxed enough to sleep - keeping the Denver knife tucked under his thin pillow. Before moving on, he hoped to have two more handguns and a reliable rifle, and a safe way to transport them.
The South Texas accent of his Spanish had faded and soon Vin blended in with the community. Working nights and avoiding daylight darkened his hair, which now touched well below his shoulders. He kept it in a neat pony tail and maintained a clean presence, always working alone. In his weeks there, Vin eventually recognized most of the locals and where they fit in the landscape of the city, and knew when a new face in the crowd was there “on business.” The latter individuals were twitchy and desperate, uncomfortable wherever they were and always disappeared without epilogue; Vin suspected they were mules for product moving through the city. This was the path Vin sought because it would lead him to Munos’ shooter. Guns and drugs were a natural combination. It didn’t take long for him to identify two main arteries through Mexicali: Drugs went north and weapons went south.
Vin lay down from a busy Friday night of work, barely aware of the dawning day burning a rectangle of light around the blackout curtain in his sole window, and stared at the stained ceiling of his room. He thought of everything he’d learned in the past months.
Only two family Cartels battling for the two arteries because all other challengers were dead and buried all through the Baja peninsula and the east edge of the Gulf of California. Burying the bodies became unimportant; leaving decapitated bodies visible was an effective deterrent. The two Cartels still in play were the Zamora and Carnicero families, the former coming up from Belize and the latter ensconced on the east edge of Mexico City. Either one had the ability to hire the man that ruined his life. He had to narrow his focus.
Using Ezra’s example, Vin upgraded his wardrobe and left the shadows, finding a job as a bartender in one of the Zamora-held nightclubs. It didn’t take long for the Club managers to use his bilingual skills - useful this close to the border - and soon Vin was in the thick of a night scene vastly different from hauling liquor crates.
His reputation as a quiet, reliable and strong worker, who was unafraid to step in the middle of any fracas, grew rapidly, to the chagrin of his peers. When he came out on top during the handful of challenges from those not happy with his moving into perceived territory, Vin’s stock rose in the ranks, his progress marked by a growing collection of scars.
He moved living quarters often now, knowing he had to be ever vigilant as his list of enemies lengthened. He rented a small place out of town at the edge of the open desert, installed a gun safe and worked to fill it up. During any free time, he kept his skill honed.
Vin worked his way into a bouncer’s position at a Zamora owned nightclub, and from there, fought his way to the private levels above the pounding dance floor. Often stationing himself against the guardrail, Vin watched sickening displays of over indulgence in all vices: Alcohol, drugs, sex and some he couldn’t categorize. His quiet display of might, common sense in avoiding all temptation, and loyalty finally paid off one Tuesday night.
“Mr. Michaels?” Vin turned at his new name. Vincent Michaels was close enough to his real name that he’d avoided any slips - another lesson from Ezra. “Mr. Zamora would like a word.”
Vin raised a brow and pulled a man from another assignment to cover his post before following Oscar, Zamora’s weasely assistant, to a back office Vin had yet to enter. He knew it had a separate entry from the secured parking basement and often heard angry conversation behind the door. Vin figured a lot went on behind that door. Vin also knew that Oscar skimmed cash from the bar. He had many similar bits collected from his time in the establishment.
Weasel Oscar elbowed his way between the hulking twin door guards and knocked on the door. Vin’s sharp eyes quickly picked out where the twins kept their firepower and other weapons; it was second nature to him now. The door cracked open and Oscar pushed in with an annoyed grunt. Vin followed, giving the hulk that stayed behind a wink and a grin as he passed. The giant scowled and narrowed his eyes but did not move. “No love lost there,” Vin thought drily, following Oscar and the other bodyguard inside to a dark anteroom.
“Stop,” the bodyguard Vin knew as Zero growled.
Figuring what was next, Vin raised his arms without a fuss while Oscar complained bitterly about the lack of trust. Zero plucked Vin’s Sig Saur from the small of his back and the Denver knife from his boot and tossed them in a drawer before moving to Oscar. Vin smirked as the assistant was frisked in a much rougher manner. Oscar shot him a glare as he angrily re-arranged his clothing into some semblance of order. Vin was sure he saw a glint of humor in Zero’s eyes as the giant tilted his head to indicate their release.
Oscar patted what remained of his hair into order (reminding Vin of every comb-over joke JD ever told) and moved to open a solid oak door. He knocked lightly first and then pushed the door open. Vin blinked at Oscar’s sudden change of demeanor when he crossed the threshold; instantly, he was subdued and polite. Closer scrutiny revealed a growing shine of sweat near the man’s temple when he passed. Vin followed with caution.
Vin’s foot sank into luxurious carpeting with his first step over the threshold. The room reeked of masculinity from the dark wood paneling to the elegantly carved bookcases. A glass domed clock’s spinning pendulum whirred softly above the club’s muted noise. Framed black and white photos, expensively matted and carefully hung, were of landscapes that could have been anywhere in Mexico or South America. A single guard, lean and hard, stared at him from the far corner and Vin gave him a level look as he stopped in front of a neat and gleaming mahogany desk. He automatically struck an “at ease” posture - hands clasped behind his back, feet shoulder length apart and knees slightly flexed. Unafraid, he blinked once and met the dark, predator eyes of Alberto Zamora, first son of Roberto Zamora and head of the Zamora Cartel.
Alberto rocked back in his leather chair, legs stretched out with ankles crossed, and rolled a fat cigar between his lips with nimble fingers. The silver smoke undulated lazily upward from the ashy end and a dark pair of intense eyes bore a hard gaze through it, veiling any thoughts. Alberto’s thick hair, shot with grey and combed straight back, had a slight wave. His suit was something Ezra would die for.
Zamora’s personal body guard took one step closer and stood at attention. He looked relaxed but Vin knew better. As Vin and Alberto silently sized each other up, Oscar rattled off a short introduction and moved to stand at Alberto’s shoulder. Whereas Vin portrayed calm, confidant strength, Oscar displayed a tight, nervous demeanor that made Vin wonder if he’d missed something. He quickly banished the thought, knowing any flash of doubt would show in his eyes.
The corner of Alberto’s mouth twitched and Vin knew his brief thought showed itself. Still, he held the gaze and carefully wiped his face of emotion.
“You do not disappoint, Senior Michaels,” Alberto finally said. Oscar frowned and glanced between the two of them, clueless to the subject. Alberto uncrossed his ankles and scooted his chair to the desk where he carefully tapped the cigar’s ash box into an ash tray. Vin’s eyes tracked the motion and then flicked up again, but he found his gaze irresistibly drawn back to the bowl. A cupped, mummified hand held the cigar dregs.
“I see you noticed my ash tray,” Zamora chuckled with flat eyes.
“Well,” Vin drawled. “Whole animal butchery is the fad these days.”
Zamora cocked his head for a second and then burst out laughing. Then he stood and patted the corner of his eye with a linen handkerchief pulled from the pocket of his suit jacket. He rested the cigar between mummified fingers and extended his hand over the desk. Vin took just enough of a step to complete the handshake, which caused the bodyguard’s shoulders to twitch. Once released, he retreated to his original stance. The bodyguard relaxed again.
Zamora sat again and let out a breath, amusement still clear in his shining eyes. He looked Vin up and down. “Vincent Michael Tanner,” he said, “also known in these parts as Vincent Michaels. You have an interesting history.”
“Not so interesting to me,” Vin answered calmly.
“I suppose living it is a different thing all together.” Alberto pulled a file from the top drawer and dropped it on the desktop. He flipped it open. “Orphaned at 5 years old, resistant to the system, citizen by choice of both Mexico and America, lackluster grades in school when you bothered to attend, but quite the Army Ranger.” He leaned back again. “You found your skill as a sniper.” He regarded Vin.
After a few seconds, Vin shrugged. “Your point being . . ?”
“Well, finding one’s skill isn’t a gift unwrapped by everyone,” he said. “I understand that the skill comes with a preference for isolation. Working alone suits you?”
Alberto tapped the file with his finger. “It must. You left the Army and worked alone quite successfully as a bounty hunter. Why did you join the U.S. Marshals?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“But you had some trouble, some unsubstantiated allegations of bribery, I believe? Then back to bounty hunting?”
“Then a stint with the A.T.F. and more allegations? You really aren’t a team player, are you?”
Vin headed off the rise of anger. He knew the investigation was inevitable but having someone discuss his life so freely was uncomfortable. Vin cherished his privacy. Instead of showing that weakness, he asked, “Was your ashtray a team player?”
That made Alberto chuckle again. “He was. Then he wasn’t. We all find our level of existence, don’t we?” Vin eventually nodded agreement and silence hung in the room for a few long moments. Appearing to make a decision, Alberto leaned forward, elbows on the file and his chin resting on steepled fingers. “I like you Senior Tanner. Or Michaels. My sources tell me you’re a reliable and discreet worker. You don’t cause trouble, but you stop it when it comes your way. You try to stay out of the limelight. I like you, but people that desire an anonymous lifestyle make me nervous.” He tapped his lower lip as he studied Vin again. “I guess I just do not understand why someone would not desire power. I like to know what drives a man and I cannot see what drives you. That makes me nervous.”
Vin did not move a fraction and did not speak. Oscar’s beady eyes darted between the two nervously, the sweat sheen spreading across his wrinkled forehead as he tried to grasp the undercurrent of the conversation.
Alberto leaned back. The chair squeaked. “What drives you, Senior Tanner?”
“What drives anyone, sir. Whatever makes me happy.”
“What would that be, exactly?”
Vin shrugged. “I am generally easy to please.”
Alberto chuckled again, shaking his head. “This is what I think,” he said. “I think you want to find out what happened in Denver. I think you want to know who set you up and you think I am possibly that man.”
The intensity of the gaze between them made Oscar shift nervously in Vin’s peripheral vision. The man remained silent the whole time, his neck twisting back and forth with the volley of words. Now, his entire face shone with perspiration while he tugged at his tie and nervously cleared his throat.
Alberto Zamora slowly pushed to his feet, his face nothing but stern, sharp lines. “No,” he said. “But I know who is.” He paused. “Is that worth something to you?”
Vin rocked back on his heels, clenching his hands. The burning anger proved more difficult to knock down this time. Did he really know who ruined his life or was it a bluff? “Yes,” he answered slowly. “Yes, that would make me happy.”
“I tell you what,” Alberto started. “I will give you a test. You pass, and I give you a name.”
“What if I don’t pass?”
Alberto shook his head slowly as he picked up the smoldering cigar. “I do not think that will happen, Mr. Tanner. I think you have nothing to lose right now so any gain would, um, ‘make you happy’, am I right?” He didn’t wait for a reply and flicked his wrist, dismissing Vin from his presence. Oscar skittered around the desk and took Vin’s elbow but Vin shrugged him off and issued a warning glare. Oscar cleared his throat again and sidled to the office door, opening it with wide-eyed fear.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Zamora,” Vin said with a slight nod of his head.
“You’ll be hearing from me soon,” Alberto replied.
In the outer office, Vin retrieved his gun and knife while the lean guard ghosted the office doorway. Then Vin shoved out the exit and strode between the door guards, Oscar on his heels. Oscar, now busily quiet, moved to Vin’s side and kept glancing at him as if he were a newly discovered creature. Although it amused Vin, he knew better than to show any sign of letting down his guard. He was sure Oscar had his own minions at his bidding and didn’t really want to invoke unwarranted trouble. Keeping an eye on Zamora would be difficult enough.
Once at the bottom the stairs, Oscar disappeared into the crowd and Vin cut through the gathering mob at the bar to get a beer before returning to his less crowded post on the balcony. It was times like these where he really missed the group dynamic of Team 7. With six brothers backing you, it was impossible to fail. Alone, he felt adrift, and Vin marveled at that thought.
When did he become a team player after all?
Vin’s shift ended at 4 AM and he left the club without a word. He walked to his small place, alert for trouble, but tipping his head back to take a moment to enjoy the stars. It was a clear night, brisk and desert-cool, and the sparking gems of the night soothed him knowing that in Denver, his friends and brothers slept under the same canopy of light. Even though they were physically distant, like the stars, just knowing they were there gave him comfort.
Stopping at the entrance to his building Vin remembered wishing on the stars to get his mother back. It didn’t work then, but he uttered a small wish anyway. “Let me get home,” was all he said.
His words carried away on a puff air, Vin waited until a light breeze carried them away before heading inside. Ever vigilant, his eyes looked for any possible trouble. None found, he was relieved to make it to his door unscathed. The meeting with Zamora was what he had been working toward but now that it happened, Vin did not like the extra press of caution it brought. As with any Cartel member, Vin knew Zamora could not be trusted and now that he had Zamora’s attention, eyes would be on him constantly.
Sighing, Vin closed and locked the door, and then dragged a heavy chair snug against it. It was the normal routine for the night, not really meant to stop any forced entry but designed to give him some time. He scanned the room, then the bathroom, and then headed to the bedroom. Everything looked as it should except - Vin glanced around again. An envelope rested on his flattened pillow.
Moving so that his back was to an interior wall, Vin then approached the bed and lifted the envelope. The initials “V.M.T.”, written in an elegant script, decorated the front. He flipped it over and slipped a folded card from the unsealed envelope that vaguely smelled of cigar smoke.
The front of the card was blank. Inside, the same script etched three names and Vin felt a chill zing up his spine. His reaction was so automatic he didn’t recall retrieving his gun from his waistband. Vin visually checked the room again before reading the line under the list of names.
“For your own ashes,” the line read. Above it were the names of Arturo Carnicero’s three sons, collectively known as The Butchers of Baja: Felix, Adrian and Gustavo.
Vin had just contracted out to kill high ranking members of another Cartel.
Cold sweat percolated at the nape of his neck. What had he gotten into? How could he do this without losing himself? Would this make it impossible to go home again? He crumpled the note in his hand, the previous star-gazing calm completely gone, and Vin fell into that familiar rabbit hole where he dwelled for so long as a Ranger. It was a world where only the mission mattered, but deep down he knew if he was not careful, Team 7's Vin Tanner would cease to exist.
The hunted had just become the hunter.