“I’m just going to come out and say it,” said DEA Agent Avery Tan.
“Please do,” replied Agent Mike Sanchez, leaning back in his chair at his usual café table in a forced look a relaxation. A tall glass of iced tea, garnished with sprigs of mint, bled moisture onto the white clothed tabled between them. The ceiling fans above turned in lazy circles, moving little of the hot, humid air as they did so and providing no relief. Sanchez needed something cool but he left the glass unmolested, afraid he might throw it were he to pick it up.
“I don’t think you’ve done a damn thing since you’ve gotten here,” Tan said. “I think you’re either dirty or lazy but, either way, the result is the same.”
Sanchez shook his head in slow movements from side to side. The corners of his mouth twitched as if a smile might come emerge at any moment but was restrained. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Then maybe you can explain to me why you know who the biggest supplier of cocaine is but you haven’t done anything about it?”
The self-satisfied grin on Tan’s face irritated Sanchez more than the words that were spoken. Maybe it was that he had a good fifteen years on Tan and that he could not get his mind around the idea of taking a lecture from a kid only a few years out of the academy. Maybe it was the little bit of fat on Tan’s face and arms that spoke to his experience as being more in office than with actual fieldwork. Maybe, Sanchez thought, he just didn’t like half-Asian kids who could have worked at a bank but decided instead to play narco. Whatever it was, Sanchez could not get past the urge to slap the silly look off Tan’s face.
“You’re new here,” Sanchez said. “So I’ll explain this as slowly as I can. They trade the drugs produced here on the commodities market on Athena. It’s legal out here and look,” he said, waving his arm like a television game show host. “Society hasn’t collapsed.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’s legal out here,'” Tan asked. “It’s been illegal by UN convention for over a hundred years.”
Sanchez dismissed him with a grunt and a roll of the eyes.
“Well,” Tan said, standing and straightening his sea-green tie over a white shirt increasingly soaked through with sweat. “If you’re not going to do anything, then I guess I’ll have to. And I won’t go home until the job’s done.”
“Oh, you’ll be going home,” Sanchez said. “But you’ll be lucky if you’re able to walk.”
“He called you dirty,” ATF Agent Todd Johnson asked, repulsed by the possibility that the accusation could have been made. His football player frame grew tense and his biceps twitched within the sleeves of a cream linen guayabera shirt too tight for the arms it contained. “Little bastard,” he grumbled under his breath, reaching for his pint of beer.
“I know,” Sanchez said. He leaned against the zinc-topped bar and closed his eyes in frustration. “I knew DC was going to send someone, I just wish it was someone capable of seeing the larger picture.”
“Did you tell him about the deal?”
“And he wasn’t impressed?”
“Well, hell,” Johnson said. “If they’re upset with your progress, I guess it’s only a matter of time until I get my own Agent Tan.”
“Count on it.” Sanchez pulled out his last pack of cigarettes from Earth and lit one. He downed his shot of whiskey and tapped the bar, alerting the bartender of his desire for another. There were traces of white powder along the entire length of the counter. Sanchez ran his finger down a zigzag path, collecting some on the tip, and put it to his tongue it to confirm his suspicions. He studied his finger for a moment and said, “There’s going to come a point where they’re not going to want us here any more.”
“Who,” Johnson asked. “Washington?”
“Washington,” Sanchez scoffed. “The colonists. There’s going to come a point where they won’t want Earth telling them what they can do any more.”
“We’re not already there,” asked Johnson with a knowing glance. “I already feel like more of a negotiator than a law enforcement officer.”
“Maybe,” Sanchez said. “I don’t know.”
The bartender dispensed the next shot. Sanchez rolled the glass between his fingers for a minute as if considering its properties before lifting it to his lips and pouring it down. He looked at his watch.
“Ah hell,” he said. “I’ve got to go.”
Sanchez slid a couple of Colonial Dollars from his pocket across the bar, picked up his San Francisco Giants baseball cap, placed it on his head, and pulled the brim down over his eyes. He slouched toward the door and out onto the dirt road, pausing as his eyes adjusted to the bright orange light of the local star. Sanchez glanced both ways for mule traffic and reckless trucks before putting his head down and beginning the slow lurch toward Pedro de Santos’ estate outside of town.
It was an easy walk and the money saved by not charging his truck was available for another day. Santos was close anyway. Cobanito was his town and he seemed to believe that proximity equaled empathy for the people he employed even if the Santos mansion was surrounded by two miles of his own coca fields and sat like a castle atop a hill. Sanchez could have hitched a ride with one of the many workers that plied the roads but he needed the time to thing, to prepare his words with as much care as possible. He waved as he passed the guard at the foot of the modest hill and climbed up the winding path, leaving the coca fields behind in exchange for a yard that resembled less a lawn than a golf course.
Sanchez knocked on the heavy wooden door. The stain had faded outside the deeper nooks which gave it the aged appearance of a door from a cathedral on Earth if not for its decorations. Carved with images of angels and devils together in acts never described in the bible, it alternated between erotic and disturbing. After the briefest of moments it swung wide to reveal the large, bright face of Pedro de Santos, clad only in a white sleeveless undershirt and jockstrap. Even on a man as fit as Santos, the jockstrap was not appealing.
“Mike,” Santos cried, holding his arms wide. He moved in and hugged Sanchez like an old friend. Santos smelled of days old sweat and Sanchez worked to wrest himself from the vice-like grip. “It’s so good to see you. Though I have to admit, I’d forgotten you were coming until you arrived at the gate.”
“Come in, come in,” Santos said, stepping aside. He led Sanchez into the parlor where he insisted on Sanchez having a seat and a drink. Sanchez complied and sat mute with his crystal tumbler while Santos displayed the latest of his conspicuous consumptions.
“These are the actual baseball bats played with by the Sand Dollars in the Colonial Series.” Behind each bat was the jersey of the player who used it, also no doubt the real thing. Santos acted like a human box score, re-enacting the five game series and each bat’s role therein. “I cannot tell you how much I bought them for, I would be too embarrassed.”
“Well, it’s a hell of a collection, Pedro. That’s for sure.”
Santos studied his wall with the same pride as a man seeing his daughter in her first prom dress. “Oh,” he said, turning. “I forgot! This jockstrap belonged to Mustafa Izmir, the Sand Dollars manager. I have not even washed it! You must try it on sometime.”
“Yeah, well,” said Sanchez. He found the reason to sip from his drink. It flowed over his tongue with a smoothness of Galilean Whiskey. “I had a couple of things I wanted to make sure I had the time to discuss.”
“And what’s that,” Santos asked. A butler appeared with a robe that Santos slipped into, unconscious of the unease in both his servant and Sanchez up until then.
“I’m sure you heard that DC sent out a new agent,” Sanchez said.
“Yes,” said Santos. “Is your government very unhappy with your progress?”
“You could say that,” Sanchez said. “And the US is doing this on behalf of the UN Anti-Drug Program, so you could say that it’s ‘our’ government.”
Santos’ face belied his buffoonish behavior. Beneath the dark eyes and handsome face an intelligence lurked that reveled itself in the smallest curl of his lips–a sense of humor found only in those who knew the true situation.
“Earth is a long way away–of this we’re both aware.”
“Yeah,” said Sanchez, nodding. “But I’m here because this new guy, Tan, doesn’t seem to. And I’m afraid he’s going to cause some problems until he figures out the score.”
Santos’ eyes narrowed as his expression grew cold.
“Any problems he causes are yours, Michael,” he said grimly. “The deal we have is beneficial to us both and I have upheld my end.”
“Of course. And I’ll do everything I can. I guess what I’m asking for is… Restraint,” Sanchez tried. “Even if you’ve been baited. Legitimately.”
A grin broke Santos’ stern expression.
“Of course! Of course I will. I am a very restrained man, Michael. I have nearly a half-billion legal customers out here. I feel no need to put that at risk because some new mosquito feels the need to buzz around my head.”
Sanchez nodded with appreciation but wondered whether Santos considered him to be an old mosquito. He didn’t like where he saw the whole metaphor going. He finished his drink, placed the glass on the table, and stood.
Santos rose with his guest. “Off already?”
“Yeah,” Sanchez said. “I should make sure that Tan knows what’s what.”
“Well, thank you for your visit,” Santos said. He lead leading Sanchez toward the door with an arm around the shoulder. “It’s open communication like this that makes equitable arrangements possible.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for your patience,” Sanchez said. He stepped outside and turned around.
“Happy to help,” Santos said. With nothing more said, the door slammed shut and Sanchez found himself face to face with a wooden representation of an angel fellating a rather large demon.
Sanchez turned, unsure of the whole conversation. It was a state he often found himself in after meetings with Santos. As he collected his thoughts, he surveyed the vast fields of coca and added the crop’s approximate value up in his head. The sum was enormous, certainly enough to upset any man if lost. Finding something not quite like resolve, Sanchez began the walk back into Cobanito to find Tan and physically restrain him if need be.
Tan lugged a large metal drum of gasoline out into a field of coca plants. It wasn’t his best plan, but it was an easy first step. In the center of the field, he dropped the drum next to eight others of similar size. Taking a moment to breathe and wipe the sweat dripping from his forehead, he glanced around. No guards. Producers in the colonies were so much less paranoid than on Earth. There was no way he could burn down the entire field even if the fire spread beyond his wildest expectations but he hoped the message would get through. Drug production anywhere would not be tolerated.
He pried the cap off a drum, snaked in a rubber hose attached to a pump, and began to douse the tall green crops, spraying every other row to conserve what he had. Gasoline was, after all, expensive in the colonies. There were few refineries. It all came either directly from Earth or was processed in transit from oil acquired on a moon in a neighboring system. The few refinery ships and the difficulty in transporting large quantities kept the price high. Tan wanted the biggest bang for his budgetary buck.
It was almost dawn by the time the gasoline had been sprayed and the first match lit but the resulting fire was still brilliant even in the early morning light. Flames licked across twenty-five acres like a burning sea and the smoke blotted out the pink morning sky. Agent Tan watched dumbfounded at the beauty of what he had done and entranced by the first dry heat felt on the planet thus far. His skin was warm and tight, almost comfortable were it not for the billowing clouds of choking black smoke.
Tan didn’t want to leave his fiery creation before it was exhausted but people were going to come to extinguish it and he only had nine rounds in his service pistol should things turn ugly. He retreated to the dirt road that ran along the field and hopped into the old pickup truck he purchased from a corn farmer for another exorbitant sum. It took three turns of the key and frantic pumping of the pedal to start the tired engine. It finally turned over. Tan paused a moment to film the fire on his phone for posterity. Then he selected a best-of playlist of the Athenian band Optic Nervous and put the truck in gear.
He bumped along the unpaved road, heavy guitar riffs loud but tinny through the truck’s wrecked speakers, digitally transmitted to the radio from his phone. He smiled with smug satisfaction at the thought of Sanchez’s reaction. There was no way to be friends with a drug lord when you were destroying his livelihood.
“That was you,” Sanchez said. He worked to keep his voice low but it rose to barely contained shout. The neighbor upstairs thumped with heavy feet on the ceiling in response. He dropped it to a hissing whisper. “That was you?”
“Hold on, hold on,” Tan mumbled as he navigated the phone’s menu system. He pulled up the video of the fire and transmitted it to Sanchez’s screen. It appeared in a new window, inside the larger news broadcast.
Mike Sanchez collapsed into his recliner. He leaned forward, cupping his face in his hands, pulse racing at what he saw. He glanced at Tan and saw him grinning, arms crossed and a small bounce in his feet.
“That’s something, right,” Tan asked. He had the same tail-wagging look as a puppy that had shit on the floor and expected a reward for the present.
“You stupid… fucking… idiot,” Sanchez said. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Uh, our job?”
“No,” Sanchez said. He grabbed his wireless keyboard and opened a new window on the screen. In it, a spreadsheet appeared with a series of figures that meant something to someone, just not to Tan. “No,” Sanchez said, pointing at the screen. “Our job is to stop the flow of drugs to Earth.”
“And all this does is stir up the beehive! I’ve cut the amount of coke going to Earth by almost seventy percent. The direct flow is nil, you sad, sorry, son of a bitch. Do you really think that you can stop all the drug production on this planet? This whole planet? You and me?”
“No,” Tan said, his joy fading. He fumbled with his phone to replay the video and regain some of his good mood. “But I can make sure it’s not traded in the open.”
Sanchez hissed a reply, shaking his head, and sank further into the recliner. Tan wasn’t wrong, exactly. Any kind of open trade was technically within their jurisdiction. But Sanchez still felt wrong. Maybe because he kind of liked Santos. The man was honorable in his way. Or, maybe, because Sanchez’s only concern was the protection of American citizens and he just didn’t give a shit if the colonists got high. Either way, getting shot at on sight wasn’t going to help him do his job, however he defined it.
He sighed. “You’d better lay low for a while. Santos is going to want your head.”
“Fine,” said Tan. He turned off the video and stuffed the phone back into his pocket. “I’ve got some surveillance I need to do anyway.”
“Low means low, agent,” Sanchez said over his shoulder. The door slammed shut in reply. Sanchez began rubbing his forehead, harder and harder as he became more furious, trying to ease the throb that was growing to match deep inside his brain.
“I’m just saying that there are ways to make murder look like suicide,” Johnson said. His tone indicated that he was joking but his eyes were serious. “It just seems like a two birds, one stone kind of solution to your problems.”
“Yeah,” Sanchez mumbled, fumbling with a local cigarette. “Yeah.”
“I know some guys here who could probably help out,” Johnson said. “Its funny, the diverse people who have emigrated.”
“I’m not going to kill him,” Sanchez said. He stared at Johnson to determine the seriousness of his suggestion until the cigarette snapped in half. He tossed the halves into the ashtray. “I may throttle him until he’s purple but I’m not going to kill him.”
“Your choice,” Johnson said. He added a casual shrug that usually accompanied a polite disagreement about proper lawn care. Polishing off his rum and cola, he wiped his lips with a bare forearm. “All right,” he said. He stood, straightening his shirt. It was wrinkled in the back but few shirts weren’t on Shaanxi. “I’ve got to go see some guys about some guns.”
“Yeah,” Sanchez said with an absent salute of his glass. “Have fun.”
Johnson patted his friend on the back in commiseration, turned, and found Pedro Santos with four employees waiting by the bar’s front door. “Mike,” Johnson mumbled. “You’ve got a visitor.”
Sanchez turned as his heart dropped into his stomach. It deep fried in digestive acids. “Oh shit.”
“Want me to hang around?”
“No,” said Sanchez. “I don’t think he’s here to kill me. Yet.”
“Well, okay then,” said Johnson, rolling his head on his shoulders. “Good luck.”
Santos passed Johnson as he left, the two trading slight nods of acknowledgement. Santos didn’t walk all the way to the bar. He stopped instead at a table, making a noisy show of sitting. Sanchez pulled himself up off his stool, carrying his drink and himself toward the table.
“Pedro,” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets to hide the adrenaline tremble in his fingers.
“Agent Sanchez,” Santos said. “Have a seat.”
Sanchez pulled out a chair and lowered onto it, watching the four men behind Santos with a wary eye. He placed his drink on the table and fished a cigarette out of the crumpled soft pack in a shirt pocket. One of the large men lit Sanchez’s smoke. He took a moment to appreciate the taste, like a man in front of a firing squad before the hood is drawn.
“Don’t even start,” Santos said, cutting him off. “I told you I’d be patient but this… this! This cannot go unanswered.”
“I’m sorry about your field,” Sanchez said. “I had no idea he was going to do that and, if I had, I would have stopped him.”
“Fuck my field,” shouted Santos. “I lost ten people! Ten people! Ten!”
“At a quarter past eleven this morning,” Santos said, reaching deep for calm. “The plant manager got a call that explosives had been placed around the building. The only reason I’m talking with you is because we got that call and evacuated nearly everyone first.”
“I don’t want to go to war with your government, Mike,” Santos said. He leaned close to make his point. “I don’t want to go to war with you. But this cannot stand. I thought we had an agreement.”
“We did. We do,” Sanchez said. “I’ll take care of this. I promise.”
“Fine,” Santos said. He leaned back in his chair and waved the bartender over for an order. “Because it would be a shame if this planet became as dangerous for you as it has me lately.”
The sun was down under the hills and all that remained was a wine colored sky, growing dimmer until. Agent Tan peered through his binoculars with what light remained at his next target. It was a large storehouse a few miles outside of Cobánito that held the harvested but unprocessed coca plants. It was the size of an airplane hanger and Tan hoped his remaining dynamite was enough to bring it down. He noted down the number of people he saw coming and going and the number toting guns. His first instinct was to call in some backup but Sanchez had made his position clear and Johnson seemed just as lax. So he sat by himself, watching.
The bushes behind rustled with movement and Tan drew his pistol, rolling onto his back to see what was coming. Collapsing through the vegetation and onto the dirt, Sanchez landed with a grunt. Tan eased his finger off the trigger and lowered the weapon.
“I didn’t think you’d want to be here,” Tan said. He set the pistol on the dirt next to him and picked up his field glasses.
“Believe me,” Sanchez said. “I don’t. I’m here to try to stop you.”
“Not going to happen,” Tan said, pausing to write a note on his pad. “And I think you’ve said everything already. So if you don’t mind…”
“Tan,” Sanchez said. “This really isn’t helping and you’re putting targets on both our backs. What good does it do us if we’re both dead and the drugs start flowing again? Sort of defeats the purpose, if you ask me.”
“Yeah,” Tan shrugged. “Well, it’s not just you here any more. I do the job the way Washington tells me to do it.”
“Washington’s two fucking months away,” Sanchez hissed. “Come on, man. Listen to me on this!”
Tan peered silent through his binoculars at the storehouse in the distance as if Sanchez weren’t even there.
Sanchez stared at him, mouth open in disbelief for a moment. He picked himself up out of the bushes and took one final glance down. Trudging back through the dense vegetation, he found his roofless, door truck parked on the side of the road. Glancing once more at the patch of vegetation in which Tan hid before turning the key, Sanchez sighed, listening to the electric engine purr. He wasn’t sure whether he was about to cross a line but it sure as hell felt like it.
“Tan’s off the reservation,” Sanchez said, sitting in his usual chair at the café. “There was nothing else I could do.”
Johnson laughed, holding up his hands in defense. “I know.” He snorted “I know, I get it, but that’s cold.”
“Cold,” Sanchez asked. “Me? Cold? You said I should kill him.”
“Yeah,” Johnson said. A sly smile broke across his face before he could hide it. “Sure. Off him. Bury him somewhere and plant tomatoes. But you handed him to a drug lord. That’s just cold, I don’t care which way you cut it.”
“Yeah, well,” Sanchez mumbled. He watched the ceiling fan so he wouldn’t have to look at his colleague. It spun with as much enthusiasm as it ever had, moving little air and providing little relief. “I told them not to kill him if they could help it.”
“You told Santos that Tan was fair game,” Johnson said. “‘Fair game’, those were the words you used.”
“Fine. Yeah,” Sanchez said. “After which I added that it was better for everyone if he didn’t end up dead. Hurt, sure. Broken, maybe. But a dead agent just attracts attention.”
Johnson finished his iced tea and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.
“You know,” Sanchez said. “If we were back on Earth, Tan would be exactly the kind of agent I’d want to partner with.”
“Sure,” Johnson shrugged. “He’s a go getter.”
“Exactly,” Sanchez said. “But he just doesn’t seem to get the program here.”
Tan sprinted through the rough terrain that surrounded the storehouse on all sides. He leapt over the tall weeds, trying to keep his head low to avoid the weapons’ fire ringing out behind him. Quick glances over his shoulder revealed a small army of torches, lanterns, and flashlights bobbing through the darkness, hot on his trail.
He had no idea which way he was headed, hoping that, whichever way he went, if he went far enough they might eventually give up. While looking behind he tripped over an exposed root and slammed face first into the dirt. His head knocked against the ground with a wooden thump. Disoriented and confused, he wobbled as he climbed to his feet. His legs would not cooperate and brought him back to the dirt over and over again. By the time he regained some balance, it was only to see a rifle butt swinging into his face by a man who wielded it like a baseball bat.
The next thing Tan saw was the interior of what seemed to be an ordinary two-car garage. It was strangely familiar for an otherwise alien world and Tan’s mind wondered whether he had possibly tripped on the way to his car. Perhaps the whole Shaanxi experience had been nothing more than a dream. The appearance of Pablo Santos, dressed like a field worker amidst a small group of men, scuttled the thought.
“Well,” Santos said, waving over a man with a bucket and cloth. “You were out. I was worried my man had put you into a coma.”
The man with the bucket doused Tan’s face with ice-cold water and the foggy distance between his eyes and brain closed until the feeling of driving his body by remote control vanished. It was then that the realization of being tied to a chair dawned.
“So worried, you felt the need to tie me down,” Tan asked. With his swollen tongue, it came out in a mumble of words.
“Obviously there’s a limit to any concern,” Santos said. “And after what you’ve done, my concern is minimal.”
Tan coughed a laugh.
“I just don’t understand you, Agent,” Santos said. He chewed his lower lip as if trying to work through a complex problem. “Why do you feel the need to do these things?”
“To stop your drugs from coming to Earth,” Tan said.
“But my drugs don’t go to Earth,” Santos said. “To be honest, I don’t even think about Earth. I’ve got a whole market out here to sell to and not have people think of me as a criminal. I don’t understand why you can’t just leave that alone.”
Santos crouched down in front of Tan, putting his hands on the bound man’s knees.
“Leave a good thing to be, Agent Tan.”
“Your ‘business’ is illegal,” Tan spat. “That’s all I need to know.”
Santos’ chin dropped to his chest and rested there for a long minute. The sad figure frightened Tan more than being tied to the chair. It was the posture of a man forced to return to ways long thought left behind, a melancholy at the seeming necessity for violence in a trade that provided what people wanted. Santos may have been an eccentric and dealt in drugs but Tan began to see why Sanchez had respect for the man. Drug dealers often claimed it but Santos was the real deal; he was a businessman and he loathed what was sometimes necessary to stay in business.
Santos stood up, straightening his trousers. He walked over to a workbench and scanned the table, looking for the right tool. It was under several others, none of which Tan could see but all that clinked like solid metal. Santos picked it up, strolled back over, and kneeled. In his hand was a box-cutter. He clicked the blade up until an inch of sharp steel protruded from the end.
“You can torture me if you want,” Tan said. “It won’t change anything.”
“I’m not going to torture you,” Santos said, closing his eyes. “What would be the point? I know Mike already tried to talk to you. And if you won’t listen to him, you clearly won’t listen to me.”
“Then what,” Tan asked. He could feel Santos’ frustration and for a brief instant it made him feel invulnerable. Would the man actually hurt him if there were little point? The instant passed as Santos looked up, his jaw locked in an expression of resolve.
“I’m left to punishing you for what you’ve done,” Santos said, pulling Tan’s belt away from his trousers. He slid the blade under and, with the slightest twitch of his wrist, sliced through the black leather. “Do you know what a eunuch is?”
“For what it counts,” Sanchez said. “I think you made the right choice.”
“Sure,” mumbled Tan. He could still feel the cold razor against the soft skin of his balls. “Somehow it just doesn’t count for that much.”
The engines of the Tomcat transport ship began the high whine of the intra-atmosphere vertical take-off jets spinning to life. A member of the ship’s crew waved Tan inside. Tan leaned down, still wincing with bruises, and picked up the two large pieces of luggage he had brought to Shaanxi.
“We’re doing the best we can, Agent,” Sanchez said. “If the colonists want drugs, well… we’re not really in a position to stop them. All we can do is prevent them from making it to Earth.”
“Okay,” Tan said. “I get it.”
“Tell the boys back in DC I said hello.”
Tan nodded with the slow movement of a defeated man. He set down a bag to shake Sanchez’s hand before trudging into the open bay of the awoken ship. Sanchez watched his colleague disappear as the ramp closed. He held his hands to his ears as the jets pushed the heavy ship off the ground and into the sky. When it was out of sight, Sanchez took a stroll from the port to the bar Johnson had adopted as his office. Johnson glanced up from the paperwork on the counter as Sanchez entered and signaled the bartender for an extra drink.
“How’d it go,” he asked.
Sanchez smiled with relief as he mounted the stool. “Good,” he said. “Good. He’s on his way home.”
“It’s probably best for everyone.”
“I think so,” Sanchez said. He cleaned his space at the bar with a napkin, sweeping up the fine white powder that dusted the surface. “What are your plans today?”
“Going to see a guy about some guns,” said Johnson, turning his attention back to his papers. “You?”
“I guess I’ll see a guy about some drugs.”