They removed the rich woman’s handcuffs and the scratchy cloth hood that had been tugged roughly over her salon hair. Elizabeth was wearing a low-cut evening dress, glossy as a new peeled egg, and her bugged-out green eyes were sharp as stinging nettles.
The two men standing in front of her were in their early thirties, and around the same age as Elizabeth. Both men wore matching suits the dark color of freshly tilled cemetery clay. The short man was hardly four feet tall and Elizabeth in her stilettos towered over him. The other man was six-six and two hundred and fifty pounds of piano-wire-tense muscle.
Elizabeth had been gagged with duct tape and the smaller of the two men tore the tape away and she winced.
“That should save you a salon visit,” Small Guy said.
The handcuffs had discolored Elizabeth’s wrists to the color of blueberry jam: she bruised easily, not used to the hard life. Now she began to sob uncontrollably, her thin body racked with shudders, tears beading down her pale cheeks.
Both men glanced uncomfortably away from her.
“Quit the act,” Small Guy hissed. “You’re fooling no one.”
She ceased weeping and stroked a ribbon of chestnut hair behind her shoulder with her trembling hand.
Elizabeth was at one end of a large unfurnished room with plastic sheeting on the floor: bare plaster walls, wet cardboard smell, conveniences—seen to be appreciated. The men blocked the path to the only exit. There were two more doors: the kitchen and bedroom. Outside the living room window was a fire escape but the wooden window frame had been scabbed shut with paint.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” she said.
The two men were still as statues while staring at her. Elizabeth wondered if she threw them a quarter would they move.
“I have to say, this is not a smart way to start a negotiation,” she said. “Who exactly are you?”
“You don’t know us?” Small Guy asked.
“Why should I?”
“Because of what we’ve achieved.”
“Which is what? Kidnapping a helpless lady?”
“Oh, come now, Elizabeth, we both know you’re not a lady.”
She studied Small Guy’s face, which was almost colorless like melted paraffin.
“You do know us,” he said. “I am sure of it. For example, you asked what we did, well, we did Hernandez and Martinez and Mitchell and Flores …”
Elizabeth glanced at the plastic sheeting laid across most of the floor.
“This is what happened to them?” she said.
“Tough men. But they all talked. Every last one of them … before the end.”
“That’s how we got to you,” Big Guy said.
Her stilettos had embroidered a trail in the plastic sheeting like ants marching toward the only exit behind these two men. Trapped. No way out. Staring at the ground, she noticed Small Guy’s over-polished bluchers.
“You ever consider wearing lifts?” she asked.
“Stacked heels? Wouldn’t they diminish my stature?”
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“That’s the spirit,” he chuckled.
“You obviously want to talk, to bargain,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d be dead. … You need what I have.”
Small Guy checked his wristwatch.
“You don’t want to kill me,” she stammered. “You want to control my operation. But you can’t do what I do, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking. How about I give you what you really want, a partnership.”
The two men exchanged oblique glances. Big Guy was about to speak but Small Guy said, “We’re already in a partnership. No more partners required.”
“Think about it,” she said. “You get what you want, all my connections and logistical network, and I get what I want—a chauffeur-driven limo out of this dump, and a flea bath.”
“What would Hector think?”
“Hector’s not my partner. He works for me. That’s all. I’m in charge.”
“You would be willing to make us equal-stakes partners?”
“What guarantee do you offer?”
“What do you need?”