The thought popped into her head as she lay in the soft-washed
yellowed sheets in the hospital bed. The thought popped in between
the gas pains and muscle spasms, through the pungent odor of
alcohol swabs, and if she'd read the thought in a book, she might
have smiled at it.
She wasn't smiling at anything now.
She stared past the IV drip bag at the whitewashed plaster ceiling
and tried not to groan when the pains came, knowing that they would
end; tried not to look at the hard-eyed Mexicano at the end of the
bed, his hand never far from the pistol that lay under the
newspaper on the arm of his chair. Tried not to think about
Tried not to think about anything, but sometimes the thoughts
popped up: tall, wiry Paulo in his ruffled tuxedo shirt, his jacket
on the chair, a glass of red wine in one hand, his other hand,
balled in a fist, on his hip, looking at himself in the full-length
mirror on the back of his bedroom door, pretending to be a matador.
Paulo with the children's book Father Christmas, sitting
naked at her kitchen table with a glass of milk and a milk
mustache, delighted by the grumpy Santa Claus. Paulo asleep next to
her, his face pale and trusting in the day's first light, the soft
light that came in over the gulf just before sunrise.
But the thought that might have made her smile, if it was in a
Just like the fuckin' Godfather.
LIKE THIS: AN Italian restaurant called Gino's, with the full
Italian-clichi stage setting-sienna orange walls, bottles of
Chianti with straw wrappers, red-and-white checked tablecloths,
baskets of hot crusty bread as soon as you sat down, the room
smelling of sugar and wheat, olives and peppers, and black oily
coffee. A few rickety tables outside faced the Plaza de Arboles and
the fifties tourist-coordinated stucco church across the way, San
Fernando de Something-or-Other. The church belfry contained a
loudspeaker that played a full, slow bell version of the Singing
Nun's "Dominique," more or less at noon, depending on whose turn it
was to drop the needle on the aging vinyl bell-record.
Paulo took her to lunch almost every day, picking her up at the
hotel where she worked as a bookkeeper. They'd eat Mexican one day,
California or French the next, Italian twice a week. He picked her
up about noon, so on most days she could hear, near or far, the
recorded bells of San Fernando's.
Gino's was the favored spot. Despite the clichid Italian
stage-setting, there was an actual Gino cooking at Gino's, and the
food was terrific. Paulo would pick her up in a black BMW 740iL,
his business car, with his smooth-faced business driver. They'd
hook up with friends, eat a long Caribbean lunch and laugh and
argue and talk politics and cars and boats and sex, and at two
o'clock or so, they'd all head back to work.
A pattern: not predictable to the minute, but predictable
ISRAEL COEN SAT up in the choir loft at the back of the church with
his rifle, a scoped Remington Model 700 in .30-06. He'd sighted it
in along a dirt track west of town, zeroed at exactly sixty yards,
the distance he'd be shooting across the Plaza de Arboles. There
was no problem making the shot. If all you wanted was that Izzy
Coen make a sixty-yard shot with a scoped Remington 700, you could
specify which shirt button you wanted the slug to punch
Not that everything was perfect. The moron who'd bought the gun
apparently thought that bigger was better, so Izzy would be
shooting at sixty yards through an eight-power scope, and about all
he could see was a shirt button. He would have preferred no
magnification at all, or an adjustable two- to six-power scope, to
give him a little room around the crosshairs. But he didn't have
that, and would have to make do.
The problem with the scope was exacerbated by the humidity in the
loft. Not only was the temperature somewhere in the 120s, he
thought, but the humidity must have been 95 percent. He'd sweated
through his shirt at his armpits and across his chest, and the
sweat beaded on his cheeks and forehead and arms. When he put the
rifle to his cheek, the scope fogged over in a matter of seconds.
He had a bottle of springwater with him, and that helped keep his
body cool enough to function, but there was nothing he could do
about the fogging eyepiece. The shot would have to be a quick
No matter. He'd scouted the play for three days, he knew what the
conditions would be, and he was ready, up high with a rifle, yellow
vinyl kitchen gloves protecting against the inadvertent
fingerprint, the jeans and thin long-sleeved shirt meant to guard
against DNA traces. Izzy was good.
He'd been in the loft for an hour and ten minutes when he saw the
740iL ease around the corner. He had two identical Motorola
walkie-talkies sitting next to his feet. Izzy believed in
redundancy. He picked up the first walkie-talkie, pushed the
transmit button, and asked, "Hear me?"
TEN OF THEM had been sitting in the back of Gino's, the talk
running down, a friend leaving and then another, with his new
girlfriend, who'd been brought around for approval. Then Paulo
looked at his watch and said to Rinker, "We better get back."
"Just a minute," she said. "Turn this way." She turned his chin in
her hand, dipped a napkin into a glass of water, and used the wet
cloth to wipe a nearly invisible smear of red sauce from his lower
"I was saving that for later," he protested.
"I couldn't send you back that way," she said. "Your mother would
"My mother," he said, rolling his black eyes.
THEY WALKED OUT of the Italian restaurant-Just like the
fuckin' Godfather-and the black BMW stopped beyond the
balustrade that separated the restaurant's patio from the Plaza.
They walked past an American who sat at a circular table in his
Hawaiian shirt and wide-brimmed flat hat, peering into a
guidebook-all the details as clear and sharp three days later, in
the hospital, as the moment when it happened-and the driver started
to get out and Paulo called, "I got it, I got it," and Rinker
reached for the door handle, but Paulo beat her to it, stepping in
front of her in that last little quarter-second of life. . .
The shot sounded like a firecracker, but the driver knew it wasn't.
The driver was in his pocket as Rinker, suddenly feeling ill-not in
pain, yet, but just ill, and for some inexplicable reason,
falling-went to the ground, Paulo on top of her. She didn't
understand, even as a roaring, ripping sound enveloped her, and she
rolled and Paulo looked down at her, but his eyes were already out
of control and he opened his mouth and his blood gushed onto her
face and into her mouth. She began screaming as the roaring sound
She rolled and pushed Paulo down on the cobbles and turned his head
to keep him from drowning in his own blood, and began screaming at
the driver, "Paulo, Paulo, Paulo . . ."
The driver looked at her, everything slow-moving. She saw the boxy
black-steel weapon in his hand, a gun like she hadn't seen before.
She saw his mouth open as he shouted something, then he looked back
over the car and then back down at Paulo. Then he was standing over
them, and he lifted Paulo and put him on the backseat, and lifted
her, and put her in the passenger seat, and in seconds they were
flying across the Plaza, the hospital three minutes away, no
She looked over the seat, into Paulo's open eyes; but Paulo wasn't
Paulo had gone. She could taste his blood in her mouth, crusting
around her teeth, but Paulo had left the building.
IZZY COHEN SAID, "Goddamnit," and he wasn't sure it'd gone right.
The scope had blocked too much and he ran the bolt and lifted the
rifle for a second shot, the bodies right there, and he saw the
driver doing something, and then as Izzy lifted the rifle, the
driver opened up and the front of the church powdered around him
and Izzy thought, Jeez . . .
An Uzi, he thought, or a gun just like it. Izzy rolled away from
the window as the glass blew inward, picked up the two
walkie-talkies, and scrambled to the far corner of the loft and the
steel spiral stair, the bullets flying around him like bees. He
dove down the stair and punched through the back door, where a
yellow Volkswagen Beetle was waiting with its engine running. Izzy
threw the gun in the back, climbed in, and slammed the door. The
driver accelerated away from the church's back door and shouted,
"What was that? What was that gun?"
"Fuck if I know," Izzy said. He was pulling off the latex gloves,
shaking glass out of his hair. Blood on his hand-he dabbed at his
cheek: just a nick. "A fuckin' Uzi, maybe."
"Uzi? What is this Uzi?"
"Israeli gun, it's a machine gun . . ."
"I know what IS a fuckin' Uzi," the driver shouted. "WHY is
this fuckin' Uzi? Why is this?"
"I don't know," Izzy said. "Just get us back to the plane and maybe
we can find out."
THE AIRSTRIP WAS a one-lane dirt path cut out of a piece of
scraggly jungle twenty kilometers west of the city. On the way, the
driver got on his cell phone and made a call, shouting in Spanish
over the pounding of the Volkswagen.
"Find out anything?" Izzy asked when he rang off.
"I call now, maybe find out something later," the driver said. He
was a little man who wore a plain pink short-sleeved dress shirt
with khaki slacks and brown sandals. His English was usually
excellent, but deteriorated under stress.
A couple of kilometers east of the airstrip, they stopped and the
driver led the way through a copse of trees to a water-filled hole
in the ground. Izzy wiped the Remington and threw it in the hole
and tossed the box of shells in after it. "Hope it doesn't dry up,"
he said, looking at the ripples on the black water.
The driver shook his head. "There's no bottom," he said. "The hole
goes all the way to hell." The phone rang on the way back to the
car and the driver answered it, spoke for a minute, and then
clicked off with a nervous sideways glance at Izzy.
"Two dead," the driver said. "One bullet?"
"One shot," Izzy said with satisfaction. "What was that machine
The driver shrugged. "Bodyguard, maybe. Nobody knows."
THE AIRSTRIP TERMINAL was a tin-roofed, concrete block building,
surrounded by ragged palmettos, with an incongruous rooster-shaped
weather vane perched on top. What might have been a more
professional windsock hung limply from a pole beside the building,
except that the windsock was shaped like a six-foot-long orange
trout, and carried the legend "West Yellowstone, Montana." A Honda
generator chugged away in a locked steel box behind the building,
putting out the thin stink of burnt gasoline. Finger-sized lizards
climbed over walls, poles, and tree trunks, searching for bugs, of
which there were many. Everything about the place looked as tired
as the windsock. Even the trees. Even the lizards.
From the trip in, Izzy knew the generator ran an ancient air
conditioner and an even older dusty-red Coca-Cola cooler inside the
building, where the owner sat with a stack of Playboy magazines, a
radio, and a can of Raid for the biting flies.
"I'll call again," the driver said. "You check on the plane."
When Izzy had gone inside, the driver, now sweating as heavily as
the American, dug a revolver out from under the front seat of the
Volkswagen, swung the cylinder out and checked it, closed the
cylinder, and put the gun under his belt at the small of his
Izzy and the driver had known each other for a few years, and there
existed the possibility that the driver's name was on a list
somewhere; that somebody knew who was driving Israel Coen around
Canczn. But the driver doubted it. Nobody would want to know the
details of a thing like this, and Izzy wouldn't want anyone to
Only two people had seen the driver's face and Izzy's in the same
place: Izzy himself, and the airport manager.
The driver walked into the airport building and pulled the door
shut. The building had four windows, and they all looked the same
way, out at the strip. And it was cool inside. Izzy was talking to
the airport manager, who sat with a Coca-Cola at a metal desk,
directly in front of the air conditioner.
"Is he coming?" the driver asked.
"He's twenty minutes out," Izzy said, and the airport manager
The driver yawned. He had twenty minutes. Not much time. "Nice
trip," he said to Izzy. He tipped his head at the door, as though
he wanted to speak privately. "Hope your business went well."
"Let me get my bag," Izzy said. He stepped toward the door, and the
driver pulled it open with his left hand and held it. Izzy stepped
out, the driver right behind him, his right hand swinging up with
the revolver. When it was an inch behind Izzy's head, he pulled the
trigger and Izzy's face exploded in blood and he went down. The
driver looked at the body for a moment, not quite believing what
he'd done, then stepped back inside. The airport manager was half
out of his chair, body cocked, and the driver shook his head at
"Too bad," he said, with real regret.
"We've known each other for a long time," the airport manager
"Why is . . . Let me say a prayer."
"No time," the driver said. "Today we killed Raul Mejia's baby
He shot the airport manager in the heart, and again in the head to
make sure. Back outside, he shot Izzy twice more, the shots
sounding distant in his own ears, as if they'd come from over a
hill. He dragged the body inside the airport building and dumped it
beside the airport manager's. He took Izzy's wallet and all of his
cash, a gold ring with a big red stone and the inscription
"University of Connecticut, 1986," and every scrap of paper he
could find on him. He also found the padlock for the door on the
manager's desk, and the key to the generator box in the manager's
pocket. He went outside, padlocked the door behind himself, killed
the generator. There was a black patch of bloody dirt where Izzy's
head had landed. He scuffed more dirt over it, got back in his
Volkswagen, and pulled away.
Raul Mejia's baby boy.
The driver would have said a prayer for himself, if he could have
RINKER DIDN'T KNOW the names of the players. When she woke up, she
was in the hospital's critical care unit, three empty beds with
monitoring equipment, and her own bed. Anthony and Dominic, Paulo's
brothers, were sitting at the foot of the bed. She couldn't quite
make out their faces until Anthony stood up and stepped close. Her
mouth was as dry as a saltine cracker: "Paulo?"
Anthony shook his head. Rinker turned her face away, opened her
mouth to cry, but nothing came out. Tears began running down her
face, and Anthony took her hand.
"He was . . . he was dead when they got here. . . . We, uh, you
have been in surgery. We need to know, did you see the man who shot
Rinker wagged her head weakly. "I didn't see anything. I just fell
down, I didn't know I was shot. Paulo fell on top of me, I tried to
turn his head, he was bleeding . . ."
More tears, and Dominic was turning his straw hat in his hands,
pulling the brim through his fingers in a circular motion, like a
man measuring yards of cloth.
"We are trying to find out who did this-the police are helping,"
Anthony said. "We, uh . . . You will be all right. The bullet went
through Paulo and fell apart, and the core went into you, in your
stomach. They operated for two hours, and you will be all
She nodded, but her hand twitched toward her stomach.
"I think I'm, I might have been, I think . . . ," she began,
looking at Anthony and then Dominic, who had stepped up beside his
Dominic now shook his head. "You have lost the baby."
Dominic reached out and touched her covered leg. He was tough as a
ball bearing, but he had tears rolling down his cheeks. He said,
"We'll find them. This won't pass."
She turned her head away and drifted. When she came back, they'd
SHE WAS IN the hospital for a week: missed Paulo's funeral, slept
through a visit by Paulo's father. On the fourth day, they had her
up and walking, but they wouldn't let her go until she had produced
a solid bowel movement. After that painful experience, she was
wheeled out to one of the family's black BMWs and was driven to the
Mejia family compound in Mirida. Paulo's father, rolling his own
wheelchair though the dark, tiled hallways, met her with an arm
around her shoulder and a kiss on the cheek.
"Do you know what happened?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No. I don't understand it yet. We've been
asking everywhere, but there is no word of anything. Some people
who might, in theory, have reason to be angry with us from years
ago have let it be known that they were not involved, and have
offered to help find those who were."
"You can believe them?" she asked.
"Perhaps. We continue to look. . . . There was a strange
circumstance the day Paulo was killed." He hesitated, as if
puzzling over it, then continued. "Two men were killed at an
airstrip not far from here. Shot to death. One was the airstrip
manager and the other was an American. There was no indication that
they were involved with Paulo's assassination. With that strip,
there is always the question of unauthorized landings"-he meant
drug smuggling-"but still, it is a strange coincidence. The
American was identified through fingerprints. He was not involved
in trade, in"-he made a figure eight in the air with his fingers,
meaning drugs-"but he served time in prison and was believed
connected to American organized crime, to the Mafia. A minor
person, he was not important. We are asking more questions of our
police, and our police are talking with the Americans. We will find
out more, sooner or later."
"When you find them," Rinker said through her teeth, her cold eyes
only inches from the old man's, "when you find them, kill
His eyes held hers for a moment, doing an assessment of the woman
he knew as Cassie McLain. They didn't know each other well, but the
old man knew that Paulo's involvement with her was more than
casual; knew she'd been pregnant with one of his own grandchildren,
this tidy blond American with the perfect Spanish. After the
moment, he nodded. "Something will be done," he said.
"This dead American at the airstrip," she said, at the end of the
audience. "Do you even know where he was from?"
"That we know," he said. He closed his eyes for a minute, parsing
the information in his head. He smelled lightly of garlic, and had
fuzzy ears, like a gentle Yoda. There was a legend that in his
early years he'd had an informer hung upside down by his ankles,
and had then lit a fire under his head. According to the legend,
the informer stopped screaming only when his skull exploded. Now
Mejia opened his eyes and said, "He lived in a town in Missouri,
called Normandy Lake. A woman who lived there told the Missouri
police that he'd gone to Canczn on vacation. She said she would
come for the body, but she didn't come. When the police went back
to the house, she had gone. She'd packed all her personal
belongings and had gone away."
"That's crazy," Rinker said, shaking her head. But her brain was
moving now, cutting through the glue that had held her since the
shooting, and she was touched by a cool tongue of fear. After a
moment, she said, "I don't want to go home. I'm a little
frightened. If it would be all right, I would like to go to the
ranch until I can walk. Then I think I will go back to the
"You are welcome to stay as long as you wish," the old man said. He
smiled at her. "You may stay forever, if you wish. The friend of my
She smiled back. "Thank you, Papa, but Canczn . . ." She made the
same figure eight in the air as he had. "Canczn is Paulo. I think
it would be better to go away when I am well."
One of the old man's bodyguards wheeled her back out to the BMW,
and as the car pulled away, she looked at the driver's shoulders
and the back of his head and realized that she now knew more about
what happened at Gino's than the old man did.
SHE KNEW THAT the bullet had been aimed not at Paulo, but at
If the old man found out that his baby boy had been killed because
of Rinker, and that Rinker had never told them of the danger-she
hadn't expected it, hadn't believed it could happen-then maybe the
old man's anger would be directed at her.
She shivered at the thought, but not too much, because Rinker was
as cold as the old man. Instead of worrying, she began planning.
She couldn't do anything until she got her strength back, which
might take some time. She'd benefited from the report put out by
the Mejia family and the Mexican police that she'd been killed
along with Paulo-at the time, they'd done it simply to protect her
from a possible cleanup attempt if it turned out that she'd seen
The story would serve her well enough. The St. Louis goombahs
didn't have anything going in Mexico, as far as she knew, and the
only information they would have gotten would have come from the
On the other hand, with the old man pushing his drug-world
contacts, sooner or later the truth would come out. By that time,
she had to have made her move.
Before she talked to the old man, she hadn't had anything to do;
now she'd be busy. As Cassie McLain, she'd retired, and was living
on her investments. As Clara Rinker, she had to move money,
retrieve documents, talk to old acquaintances across the
She had to be healthy to do it all.
RINKER SPENT A MONTH at the old man's ranch, living in a bedroom in
the main house, with an armed watcher to follow her around. The
middle brother, Dominic, visited every third day, arriving at noon
as regular as clockwork, to bring her up to date on the family's
All the time at the ranch, she waited for her image of Paulo to
fade. It never did. To the very end of her stay, she could smell
him, she could taste the salt on his skin, she still expected to
see him standing in the kitchen, listening to futbol on a
cheap radio, his white grin and black tousled hair and his weekend
bottle of American-style Corona . . .
BY THE SECOND week on the ranch, bored but still weak, feeling more
and more pressure to move while remaining determined not to move
until she was solid, she began talking with her watcher. His name
was Jaime, a short, hard man with a deeply burned face and brushy
mustache. He was good-natured enough, and went everywhere with a
pistol in his pocket and an M-16 in the back of his truck.
Rinker said, "Show me about the M-16."
After a little talk, and perfunctory protests by Jaime, he hauled
two chairs out to a nearby gully, set up a target range, and showed
her how to fire the M-16. She did well with the weapon and he
became interested-he was a gunman, deeply involved with the tools
of his profession-and brought out other guns. A scoped, bolt-action
Weatherby sporting rifle, a pump .22, a lever-action
treinta-treinta, and a shotgun.
They spent two or three hours a day shooting: stationary targets,
bouncing tires, and, with the .22, they'd shoot at clay pigeons
thrown straight away. The clays were almost impossible to hit-at
the end, she might hit one or two out of ten, learning to time her
shots to the top of the target's arc.
As they shot, Jaime talked about rifle bullets and loads, wind
drift and heat mirages, uphill and downhill shooting,
do-it-yourself accurizing. He liked working with her because she
was serious about it, and attractive. An athlete, he thought,
though she didn't really work at it, like some gym queens he knew
in Canczn-trim, smart, and pretty in a blond gringo way.
And she knew about men. He might have put a hand on her, himself,
if she hadn't been in mourning, and mourning for the son of Raul
Mejia. He remained always the professional.
"There is no way that you can carry or keep a long gun for
self-protection," he told her. "With a handgun, you have it always
by your hand, like the name says. With a rifle, which is very good
if you have it in your hand, well, it will be in the bedroom and
you will be in the kitchen when they come for you. Or you will be
sitting in the latrine with your pants around your ankles and a
Playboy in your hands-maybe not you, but me, anyway-and the rifle
will be leaning against a tree, and that's when they will come. So
this gun"-he slapped the side of the M-16-"this gun is fine when
you are shooting, but you must learn the handgun for
She demurred. She wanted to learn the long guns, she said. Rifles
and a shotgun. Not a double-barreled bird gun or anything cute, but
a stubby, fat-barreled combat pump. She didn't want to learn how to
shoot any fuckin' birds: give her a shotgun and a moving target
five yards away . . .
He shook his head and smiled good-naturedly and showed her the long
guns, two weeks of first-class tuition, but he kept coming back to
the handgun. "Just try it," he'd say. "You are very natural with a
gun. The best woman I have ever seen."
"Shooting's not exactly rocket science," she'd said, but the phrase
didn't translate well into Spanish; didn't come off with the irony
of the English.
IN HER SECOND two weeks on the ranch, she went a half-dozen times
into town, to her apartment, and gathered what she needed in order
to move. She also wiped the place: There'd be no fingerprints if
anyone came looking for her. Then one Wednesday, after she'd been
on the ranch for a month, Dominic came out and said, "We've got
word about a man who some people say might have been the driver for
the shooting. We don't know where he is, but we know where his
family is, so we should be able to find him. Then we might learn
"When?" she asked.
"By the weekend, I hope," Dominic said. "We have to know where this
came from, so we can get back to business. And for Paulo, of
THAT WAS ON a Wednesday. She was still not one hundred percent, but
she was good enough to run. She'd handled everything she could by
phone, she had documents she could get to, she'd moved the money
that had to be moved. She would leave on Thursday afternoon.
She'd already worked it out: She had two doctor's appointments each
week, on Monday and Thursday. The driver always waited in the lobby
of the clinic. When she came out of the doctor's office, if she
turned left instead of right, she would be at least momentarily
free on the streets of Canczn, and not ten yards from a busy taxi
She should have half an hour before the driver became curious. If
she got even two minutes, she'd be gone. She'd done it
RINKER AND JAIME went for one last shooting session on Thursday
morning, with the shotgun. Jaime had six solid-rubber,
fourteen-inch trailer tires that he could haul around in a John
Deere utility wagon. They went out to the gully and Jaime rolled
the tires, one at a time, down the rocky slope. The tires
ricocheted wildly off the rocks, while Rinker tried to anticipate
them with the twelve-gauge pump. When she hit them, at ten yards,
she'd knock them flat, but on a good day, she struggled to hit half
of them with the first shot. She learned that a shotgun, even at
close range, wasn't a sure thing.
When she'd emptied the shotgun, they'd pick up the tires and Rinker
would drive them to the top of the slope and roll them down while
Jaime shot at them. Taking turns. He did no better than she did,
though they both pretended that he did. On this day, she made what
she thought later was almost a mistake.
Jaime pulled the Beretta from his belt clip and said, "Just one
time with the handgun, eh? Make me happy."
"Jaime . . ." With asperity.
"No, no, no . . ." He wagged his finger at her. "I insist. We have
time before the doctor, and this you should learn."
"Jaime, goddamnit . . ."
He ignored her. A half-dozen empty Coke cans sat in the back of the
John Deere, and he threw three of them down the gully. "You can do
this. You will find it much harder than the rifle or the
"Give me the gun, Jaime," she said, making the
He stopped in midsentence, looked at her, and handed her the
Beretta. She'd always liked that particular gun when she was
shooting nines: It seemed to fit in her hand.
And she liked Jaime and might have wanted to impress him a bit, on
this, her last afternoon. She flipped the safety and pulled down on
one of the cans and shot it six times in three seconds before it
managed to flip its now-raggedy ass behind a rock.
They stood in a hot, dusty, powder-smelling silence for several
seconds, then Rinker slipped the safety on and passed the piece
back to Jaime.
Jaime looked at the gun, then at her, and said after a while, "I
He didn't really. He'd probably find out soon enough.
That afternoon, she ran.
Excerpted from MORTAL PREY © Copyright 2002 by John
Sandford. Reprinted with permission by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a
member of Penguin Putnam Inc. . All rights reserved.