Shadowline

Chapter 11 - Allied

When one was a quiet, diligent worker who kept opinions to themselves and made a point not to garner attention, Vin found that he heard quite a lot. In his time working the clubs, he learned whom the players were in the Ecstasy and cocaine game, where the stuff came from as well as where most of it went. Mexicali’s supply simply greased the wheels for the trip across the border to the wealthy American pipelines.

So, when Zamora’s trade-for-information card crossed Tanner’s hand, he knew exactly where he had to go: Tijuana. From there, the Butchers of Baja could ship via ocean, tunnel, in trucks or on bodies all along the U.S. border. The multi-pronged approach always netted results on the plus side.

With the sudden absence of Munos, Vin planned to enter the final battleground where the two Cartels fought to make a stand. Street shootouts were common in Tijuana, as well as the sudden appearance of decapitated, tortured or bullet-riddled bodies on the public thoroughfares. The Butchers proved to be the most violent, fighting to keep their place after the murder of their top broker. Zamora’s family, however, had the most to gain and the resources to win this far north.

Vin did take the time to obtain a referral. The club’s manager did not seem surprised when Vin asked. Alberto gave him all he needed to obtain a legitimate job when he made it to Tijuana.

As Vin drove west, he was well aware of the close proximity of the U.S. border to his right and worked to push all such distraction aside. He stopped often and exercised, keeping tone so when he reached Tijuana he would be a focused Ranger machine ready to find his targets. Days later, when he crossed the line from bleak desert to bustling city, Vin Tanner was lean muscle and on the hunt. Upon arrival in the ramshackle Jeep, his first task was to find safe place for his guns.

His time in Mexicali allowed Vin to garner two more handguns and one nice rifle that met his needs. All were in good condition and "borrowed" from wares that originated in the States. Vin wondered if his old team knew about this pipeline.

Skirting the edge of Tijuana, he finally settled on a storage facility to the south with adequate security. Vin knew that a place like this was easily breached; the secret was not tipping anyone off as to what the locker contained. Because cash spoke a universal language, the proprietor didn’t ask, Vin didn’t tell, and there was no paper trail to follow.

After that, he carefully entered the city from the east, getting the lay of the land and a feel for the population. Dirty, thin children ran wild in the street, harried women in tattered clothes walked hurriedly with ducked heads, and over-dressed business owners stood like sentinels in front of their stores. As the weak afternoon sun sank to sunset and the legitimate business started locking their doors, Vin began to think about finding his work contact. While driving the main road at a reasonable speed, a black SUV with a red and blue light bar pull in behind him. Vin knew this wasn’t by chance - he’d just stepped into the game.

When the unit’s light bar came alive, he was glad he’d stashed the guns first. Vin pulled off the main road to a cross street with less traffic and the SUV stopped behind him. Vin rested his hands on the top of the steering wheel in plain sight and watched two hefty Officers approach in his rear view mirror. They both carried assault-style rifles slung over their shoulders that caught his interest; he could guess what side of the border they came from, too. The Jeep was open to scrutiny with the vinyl side panels removed and the only thing visible was his bag of clothes.

“Identification,” the officer said at Vin’s door. The other Officer continued to peer in the Jeep, his rifle muzzle pointing to the ground.

In Spanish, Vin asked to reach for his wallet. Vin couldn’t see the Officer's eyes because he still wore very dark sunglasses, but Vin did see his forehead wrinkle in surprise.

“Slowly,” the man replied in Spanish.

Vin pulled out his Denver driver’s license. He knew better than to ask why he was pulled over; Vin recognized a shake down when he saw one. The Officer snatched the ID from Vin’s fingers and slipped it into his shirt pocket, behind the tarnished badge. “Get out.”

Vin obeyed silently, rather amused by the whole encounter. To which Cartel were these men loyal?

The Officer motioned with the tip of his rifle for Vin to move to the sidewalk. Vin walked around the front of his Jeep, keeping an eye on both rifles. The other cop started digging through Vin’s bag. When they reached the sidewalk, the Officer with him pushed him up to a wall and roughly patted him down. Vin took the abuse silently even when the man roughly checked his crotch with the edge of a hand.

“You like that, eh?” the cop said as he pressed Vin closer to the wall. He could smell the damp rottenness of the decaying wood under his cheek. Still, Vin did not react.

“I’m just trying to get to my job,” Vin said, his words a muffled from his cheek-to-the-wall position.

“Where’s that?”

“Coyote Flats.”

“What do you do there?” His questioner’s breath was hot against his ear as he pressed closer. “Do you escort perverted old men who like pretty boys like you, huh?” Vin felt a hand under his shirt, flat on his stomach.

“No.”

“No? Lace your fingers on the wall over your head,” the Officer growled. The clammy hand moved downward and fingertips slid under the waistline of Vin’s jeans. “But you are advertising so much. I have not seen you before and I know Coyote Flats.” Vin felt the man’s thigh high and tight between his legs, the cold wall through his thin shirt and the Officer’s other hand squeezing his clasped hands against the building. The rifle had to be slung along his back, Vin thought.

“I’m new.” As his interrogation continued, Vin’s peripheral sight kept track of the second Officer. With the contact now so close, the second man turned his back on the Jeep and watched, smiling and moving closer with each invasion of Vin’s body. “Just a little closer,” he thought.

Fingers brushed the top of his underwear and Vin was glad he wasn’t going commando today. His attacker’s full body now pressed fully against Vin, a hard line of flesh indicating the man’s excitement. Hot breath dampened Vin’s neck as the uniformed body squirmed against him. Vin’s eyes flicked sideways - the other man was close enough for Vin to see his dilated eyes when he lifted his sunglasses to rest atop his head.

“Ahhh,” the attacker sighed.

Then Vin moved. He jerked one arm free and the assailant's ribs cracked with his powerful elbow jab. An “oof!” of wind emptied the man's lungs and he sputtered. A quick spin and jab broke the man’s nose and he fell back. Vin’s side-kick bent the partner’s knee backward. Both men dropped to the ground, rifles clattering on the broken cement. Vin second kick connected with the second Officer’s chin and sent him to oblivion. He followed through with a final kick to his attacker’s jaw, and both Officers were down and out.

Vin collected his I.D. and picked up the rifles, tossing them in the Jeep before driving directly to Coyote Flats. After tucking the weapons under the seat along with loose clothes, he jumped out, ran his fingers through his hair and regrouped with a deep sigh before strolling to the front door where an obvious bouncer stopped him by barring the open doorway with an impressively muscled arm.

“Closed.”

“Jesus is expectin’ me,” Vin said, looking right in the mountainous man’s eyes. He held up the piece of paper from his former boss. “Name’s Tanner.”

A broad, shaved head twisted on a tree-stump neck as the bouncer looked just inside the door. Vin could see a pair of eyes reflecting light in the shadows, the body shrouded in darkness. The eyes studied Vin for a moment before a vague, dark outline of a head nodded. The mountain man’s arm fell away.

“Thanks.” Vin tipped his head then tilted it sideways, giving the man a sidelong look. “There’s a couple rifles under my car seat that belong to some local cops. I’m sure they’ll be by to pick ‘em up.”

The bouncer’s face remained expressionless, but the sudden twinkle in his eyes told Vin the message was positively received. Vin then stepped past him and into Coyote Flats just in time to see the shadow person disappear down a hallway off one end of the bar.

It took a few minutes for Vin’s eyes to adjust. With the sun just setting, the room was not as crowded as it would be later but he was surprised that every seat at the bar was already occupied. Music pulsed from a neon jukebox to one side of an empty, postage-stamp sized dance floor; Vin figured it was the normal state. A couple of pool tables occupied the back area and small, round tables were scattered around the rest of the floor. Coyote Flats wasn’t a huge place but Vin got the feeling that it pulled in a good share of the night crowd in this part of town. Apparently, the locals liked it.

Old cigarette smoke permeated everything and the place had a heavy, used feeling but Vin could see that it was surprisingly clean and the fixtures well cared for. This wasn’t the kind of place where American teens, drawn by the under 21 drinking age, clumped and drank themselves sick; this was a place where deals were made. He’d seen plenty of places like this all over the world.

When the mystery shadow person returned, Vin realized it was a woman. Her clothes were dark and blended in with the shadow but the edges of her neckline and sleeves sparkled with gold beading. She was small framed, but stood confidently with her shoulders back and chin raised, and brazenly scanned Vin from head to toe with bright, intelligent green eyes. A taller, broad man wearing a yellow polo shirt backed her.

“Mr. Tanner,” the man greeted, stepping around the woman and offering his hand. “I was told you would show up eventually. I understand you are quite a worker.”

Vin nodded, wondering exactly what the man was told, and shook his hand. “I get my jobs done,” he said lowly. He winked at the woman. Her eyes turned stormy and narrowed as she spun on a heel a returned to the bar.

“That is Ronnie. I am Jesus. You can start tonight, yes?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

Jesus gave Vin a quick tour and then tipped his head to the hallway off the bar. “Come. We will talk.”

They passed the elbow-to-elbow, packed bar and Vin saw Ronnie at the far end filling a beer from tap. She spared him a cold glance before turning her back to him. Two other bartenders appeared from the far end and dealt with the growing crowd while the jukebox kicked to life with a scratchy version of “Cheeseburgers in Paradise”. Vin slipped into a small office at the end of a short hallway and Jesus told him to close the door. The bar noise cut to a dull throb.

Jesus dropped into a battered desk chair with a sigh and plucked a half-burned cigar from a pottery ashtray. Vin noticed the tray’s molded cigar rest was a set of ample boobs. His lips twisted in amusement. Jesus motioned for him to sit in the only other chair. Vin felt it wobble when he sat.

“I know why you are here. Word travels in the Zamora family. Understand that I cannot directly help you, but if you keep your ears open, you will hear what you need in this place.” He drew a circle over his head with smoke from the cigar in his fingers. “I stay neutral. I am the Switzerland of Tijuana.” He laughed.

“Switzerland wasn’t as neutral with the Nazis as first thought,” Vin said, leaning back so his chair squeaked.

“True,” Jesus agreed, nodding. “But at the time, not so obvious, yes?”

“I got it.”

“I can get you what you need when the time comes. Just let me know.”

“Will do.”

There was a knock at the door just before it cracked open. Tree-neck poked his ham-sized head in. “Espinoza and Hernandez just stopped by. I didn’t let them in. They got what they wanted.”

Jesus looked to Vin. “Espinoza and Hernandez the local cops?” Vin asked.

“Yes. They are lap dogs for the Butchers.” He sucked on the cigar and blew out the smoke as he dismissed Mountain Man with a flick of his wrist. “I take it they introduced themselves in their normal, charming manner?”

Vin chuckled. “Yeah. I kept their guns safe in my car until they could hold ‘em again.”

Jesus snorted. “How kind of you. You certainly started out on the right foot.”

Rising from the chair, Vin headed to the door. “I’ll get right to work.”

“I have a room upstairs. You can stay there until you find another place.”

“Thanks.” Vin slipped from the room, surprised to see that the place had filled to capacity in the few minutes he was gone. “At least I’ll be busy,” he mused, heading to back the bar staff.

Moving in and out from behind the bar as the night wore on, Vin appreciated the fact that he’d picked up his Spanish quickly. He didn’t say much, as was his normal taciturn way, and he knew that his time in the sun lightened his hair just enough for most everyone in the bar to treat him with obvious suspicion. Even with that, he was surprised at the things he overheard. Keeping a schooled expression at all times - a knack he’d perfected from watching Ezra - made patrons believe he did not understand them.

The most difficult to ignore were the flashy, obviously spoiled young women dripping with sparkly things and wearing scant skirts and mind-boggling, spiky heels. The overly made-up eyes that belied their youth raked Vin’s body with heated intent made him squirm, but what they whispered to each other about what they wanted to do to him . . . it repulsed, entertained and struck Vin ridiculously funny all at the same time. They were easy to avoid in the press of the crowd.

Ronnie pointedly ignored him the first week. If her part of the bar needed stocking, she went through the other bartender, Eddie. Eddie was a young, good looking man who was as vain as the sparkly girls he served. His white uniform shirt was usually unbuttoned more than it should be and Vin had no doubt he worked out. Usually, he acted as if Vin didn’t exist, speaking to him only when the bar needed stocking.

Mountain Man, whose name was Xavier, was the leader of the bouncer staff and treated Vin as if he’d worked here for years instead of days. Vin wondered if he had Jesus’ ear like Ronnie did. The three of them called the shots here, that much was clear.

All of it was fine with Vin. With his total immersion in Mexico, he now thought in Spanish and rarely used English. Using what he overheard in the Club, Vin separated the wheat from the chaff - the players from the watchers - within a week. Watchers were merely baubles but the players would get him closer to the Carnicero brothers and this mission’s end.

From there, he would find the one that set his life a downward spiral. Vin shook his head and scolded himself. “Mission first.” He sighed and looked up, surprised to see Ronnie regarding him with a perplexed frown from the far end of the bar. He schooled his face to blankness and returned to the task of stocking the shelves.

The night was unusually busy and from what Vin was able to overhear, there was a consensus that something big would be going down soon. He made a point to work through the crowd and appear busy to the players Vin ranked at the top of the list - pushers with an impressive list of clients and whores - and those regarded as reliable mules.

Finally, well after midnight when the crowd was thickest and well-oiled with drink and recreational supplements, Vin finally heard the names he sought.

“Adrian’s not happy but the other two insist.” The speaker was an acne scarred man Vin recognized as a regular. He had rat-like eyes, broad shoulders and sleeves of tattoos - he was a mule known for working the numerous tunnels under the border.

Vin worked in closer, collecting glasses and wiping wet rings from nearby tabletops. The music was thumping loud and bodies writhed together in sweaty dance moves. It was hard to hear but Vin was close enough to catch most of the conversation.

“. . . from his station down south . . . some kind of hit . . . Felix’s territory . . . border . . .”

“Hey, there!"

A sharp - nailed hand squeeze his ass cheek and Vin jumped, bumping the table and causing the drinks on it to wobble precariously. Someone giggled near his ear. He smelled pot, cigarette smoke and Jägermeister.

“Oh, don’t go,” the woman purred as she pressed in closer. She held a shot glass in one hand while the other roamed freely over Vin’s back, shoulders to . . . !

“I did not mean to disturb you,” Vin said stepping away. The girl - Vin figured she was barely twenty - was backed by three other girls just as drunk and about the same age. Their dark makeup, smudged from sweat and Vin hated to think of what else, gave them raccoon eyes. They frowned for a second.

“You talk funny.”

“I know that accent,” one of the clump slurred. “Texas!”

“Yeah!” another agreed.

The first one moved in closer, stopping Vin’s retreat by grabbing his belt and pulling him in. “I have an Aunt in Texas. Maybe we’re related.” She giggled and tried to press her nose under Vin’s ear.

“What are you doing, slacking off?” Vin flinched at the sharp voice behind him, relieved when Ronnie pulled him away. She dragged him through the tightly packed bodies, releasing him when they reached the sanctity behind the bar.

“Thanks,” Vin said as he automatically wiped the spot on his neck where he could still feel old lipstick.

Ronnie snorted, unable to check a smile. “You looked in trouble. I know those girls. You didn’t stand a chance.” She snatched a towel from the bar top and quickly rubbed his cheek. “Mascara,” she said. “It doesn’t become you.”

“I hope not.”

Ronnie chuffed, smiling, and thrust the towel into Vin’s chest. “Stay back here for awhile, Cowboy. It’s safer.” She then left him for her end of the bar.

Vin turned over the nickname in his mind and a wash of loss came over him with the memory of his old friends. He missed them. Then he gritted his teeth and shook his head. “Get over it,” he muttered to himself.

Dawn lightened the windows when Xavier threw the last customer out on the sidewalk. Eddie quickly departed after cleaning his area, hooking up in the back alley with a swaying girl that Vin figured must not be freezing due to the alcohol content of her blood even though she wore a barely-there dress. Eddie had teased her all night and now his reward was near. Vin chuckled, imagining Eddie would get more than he bargained for.

As Vin went through the motions of cleaning up and closing the place down, he caught Ronnie studying him when she thought he couldn’t see. He ignored her, wanting nothing more than to finish up and see what else he could hear on the street about the Carnicero brothers.

The other bouncers left except for X, as Vin called him now, who waited by the door to escort Jesus to the bank to make the morning deposit. Jesus emerged from the back with a briefcase and nodded to Vin and Ronnie as he headed out with X on his heels.

Ronnie slipped to the back and Vin heard her drag out a bag of trash. Then he heard her return followed by the familiar snick of the back door lock. Ronnie ambled into the room, wiping her hands on a towel. Vin straightened, stretched and pitched his towel onto a pile on the bar. Ronnie stopped and watched him, her head tipped aside.

Vin couldn’t help but return the look. Ronnie was, as Buck would say on his polite days, a looker. Slim, athletic and nicely curved in the right places, she had a great body but Vin found himself drawn to her hazel eyes. With her dark hair and skin, they stood out even though she wore minimal makeup. He didn’t know much about her, really. She always seemed to be as far from him as she could manage. Except now.

“What?” he asked, a little self-consciously. “Do I still have mascara on my face?” He touched his cheek and grinned.

She gave him the first real smile he’d ever seen on her face and it was stunning. “No, you’re fine.” Her cheeks flushed slightly and her eyes widened. “No. Well, I mean . . .” she sputtered. Vin just laughed and her eyes narrowed. “You aren’t going to help me here, are you?”

“Nope.” He headed to the door. “Can I walk you somewhere?”

Her mouth opened, snapped closed, and opened again before saying. “Sure. I mean, you won’t get us lost so I have to save you again, will you?”

Vin smiled and it felt good. He realized he hadn’t done that in a while. “I promise. You’re in charge, boss.”

“Okay, then.” She grabbed her purse from the back, slipped on a coat and tossed Vin his jacket. After stepping to the sidewalk, she turned and locked the door.

It was cold. Vin slipped his jacket on and wished he’d brought a warmer one. He turned up his collar and jammed his fists into the deep pockets. Ronnie pulled out a scarf and wrapped it around her neck. The sidewalk was damp with morning dew and littered with trash. Vin saw an arm sticking out from the adjoining alley, flat on the dirty asphalt. He recognized the clothing as a patron of the Club.

Ronnie snorted and took Vin’s elbow, snuggling in close. “I don’t know how they do that to themselves,” she said lowly. “I just don’t get it.”

“Neither do I.” Vin’s side warmed with her presence. “It’s a waste.”

They walked in silence for a short block or two then Ronnie tipped her chin and looked up at him. “I know a place that has great coffee. Game?”

“Sure.”

Ronnie walked faster, pulling him along as she made a few twists and turns between buildings. Vin’s bump of direction told him he wasn’t far from the small apartment he’d acquired two days ago.

“Here.” She pushed open a door and they stepped into a very small café. Half of the tables were already full of people ready to start their day. The smell was incredible - coffee, chocolate, peppers, tortillas - Vin’s mouth watered instantly. Ronnie led him to a far corner, unwrapping her scarf as she settled into a sturdy, bright blue chair. All the chairs were painted bright colors, each one unique.

Before taking his seat, which was lemon yellow, Vin scanned the room and automatically catalogued the customers. None of them appeared to be a threat so he relaxed after turning his chair so his back was to the wall. Ronnie laughed and shook her head.

“What?” he asked.

“You are always so guarded,” she stated. “Looking, analyzing, studying. You don’t miss a thing, do you?”

“No, not really.” He smiled at the girl - barely twelve, he estimated - that brought them coffee in heavy, white mugs. Vin wrapped his hands around the mug and enjoyed the hearty scent wafting by his nose.

Ronnie collected her mug and picked it up, resting her elbows on the table. From there, her hazel eyes studied him through the steam cloud. “I think I know why you’re here,” she said quietly.

Vin raised a brow and took a sip. Heaven in his mouth! After the short appreciation, he decided to play things close to the vest. He didn’t really know alliances in this town. “Looks like I’m here having the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”

Anger flashed through the dusky green, reminding Vin of Chris. “Don’t play games. I want to help.”

Vin took another sip. “Help?”

She put her cup down and leaned in. “You’re here for the Butchers aren’t you?”

Careful to keep any reaction from his expression, Vin took another sip as he mind raced. What gave him away? What had she heard? If she read him, who else could?

“Look,” she said, gripping her mug tighter. “I do not like what the Cartels have done to this city. Tijuana has never been an international garden spot, but it’s my home. It used to be like any of your American towns - like in Kansas.”

“You’ve been to Kansas?” Maybe distraction . . .

Her eyes glowed and her jaw jutted forward. “Do not tease me, Cowboy. We both know how serious this is. This place - my home - is a powder keg with a very short fuse and my friends and my family - what’s left of them, anyway - are in the middle of it all.”

Distraction wasn’t going to work. He regarded her, every sense alert. “I am just working, Ronnie. As soon as I have enough money, I’m leaving.”

She looked insulted. “I doubt that. I mean, you’re leaving, true, but money isn’t the reason.”

Vin frowned, hoping to cause doubt. “I don’t know what . . .”

“Stop. Just stop,” she snapped, straightening into the back of her chair. The server girl returned, doubt in her eyes when she looked at Ronnie. Realizing she must look upset, Ronnie exhaled and smiled at her. “We’ll take the eggs, tortillas and salsa, Carlita. Your mama makes the best salsa in Tijuana.”

The girl smiled and relaxed. “Yes,” she said. “She does. I’ll be back.” She scurried off, and Ronnie smiled after her.

Then she turned back to Vin. “Sorry. I hope you like tortillas.”

“Of course I do,” he said.

Ronnie rolled her eyes. “Look. You don’t belong here. It’s obvious. Your Spanish is excellent, but there’s a Texas accent you can’t shake. You’re fit and healthy and American and I have the internet - I know who you are, Mr. Tanner. That spells trouble in itself, but I also know that you just came from Mexicali. That means Zamora. Zamora and Tijuana add up to war, and you are a soldier. I want to help.”

Vin saw no sense in denying anything she said. “If that were true, isn’t that just changing one Cartel for another?”

“Zamora is the lesser of two evils. The Carniceros are the worst of the bunch. Killers for the sake of killing. My brother . . .” Ronnie’s voice hitched. She took a moment to gather control. “I’ve seen what the Butchers are capable of. I want them out of my city. We have shootouts in the streets. Kidnapping. Beheadings. It’s ugly and unsafe. We can’t walk our own streets. Everyone is afraid.”

Vin dropped his eyes and gazed at the swirl of vapor rising from his mug. He not only felt her sorrow, he knew it. Lived it. Worked in it. As a Ranger, he truly believed that what he did helped towns in the same turmoil to gain stability in a crazy world.

Here and now, it was all about one thing: Getting his life back. Listening to Ronnie, he felt a twang of guilt for being so self - centered. But like she said, this was not his country, it was hers. If his singular goal helped her home town, so be it, but Vin fought the notion of being some kind of urban guerilla.

Ronnie read his discomfort. “I know you aren’t a hero,” she said, surprising Vin with her perception. “I just want to help. Your goal is my goal.” She grinned and sat up as Carlita delivered their food. Ronnie thanked her and gave Carlita’s small wrist a squeeze, drawing a bright smile from the girl before she left.

Vin inhaled the aroma coming from his plate and his mouth watered. He tore a bit of tortilla, used it to gather up some of the eggs and spooned a dollop of salsa on it. Once in his mouth, it melted together into absolute deliciousness.

Ronnie let him swallow the first bite before saying, “I can get you to the Carnicero boys. Two of them, at least.” Vin avoided choking by gulping a mouthful of coffee. Ronnie looked at him thorough her lashes, amusement crossing her features. Her outline wavered in his watering eyes as pepper burned the back of his throat.

“You what?” he gasped.

“I always know when they come through town and I heard they are coming here soon.”

“Do you know why?”

She shook her head, spinning her fork in her downy eggs. “It’s always for revenge. They seek tight control by using fear. It works. Someone always dies when they come here.” She became somber. “I grew up with them, you know.”

Vin suddenly knew exactly why Zamora sent him to Coyote Flats. “All three of them?”

Ronnie nodded. “The middle one, Adrian, and I are the same age. We went to the same schools. All three brothers were mean and cruel as kids and have only gotten worse. They moved to Oaxaca after school. Their father moved up quickly in the business and the Carnicero Cartel became the biggest drug runners around Mexico City. They have always had a hand in things here. Their biggest dealer came from here, but he was killed months ago – as you know." She gave him a level look. "Now, there is competition to regain that spot. We live in a war zone because of it. My brothers, my uncle . . . all victims.”

Vin reached over and covered her hand with his. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.

She returned the sentiment with fire. “Don’t be. It won’t bring them back and sorrow dulls the fighting spirit. I will take you to them.”

Still not ready to admit anything, Vin only nodded and returned to his meal. They finished in silence, but it was a silence laced with shared desires. Full of strong coffee and good food, Vin escorted Ronnie to her home. The morning sidewalks bustled with people getting to work. Cars honked and blocked the intersection by her house.

Vin touched her elbow with the intention of guiding her around the stalled traffic, but when he felt her stiffen under his hand, he immediately glanced to her face. Ronnie, wide eyed, only hesitated a second before grabbing Vin’s hand and tugging him down the next alley.

Vin followed, glancing back in time to see two men with assault rifles bear down on the stopped cars from opposite directions. Gunfire erupted and Vin took Ronnie in his arms and pressed against the alley wall. He could feel her heart thundering against him as screaming and the staccato sound of gunfire dominated the air.

Then it was quiet. Vin’s ears rang as the sharp scent of gunpowder stung his nose. After a minute, he felt Ronnie squirming in his arms and he finally stepped back and released her. Ronnie darted to the street and stopped, furious rage hardening her face. Vin joined her at a slower pace as he scanned the area.

“This is what I mean,” she snapped. Vin looked at a bullet riddled car in the intersection, the interior splashed with shiny, red blood. “This is my home. I want it back.” She turned stormy eyes to him. “I will fight for it, Mr. Tanner.”


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