It was over. A confusing mix of feelings filled me. Disgust at what I’d just done, but also a raw, screeching animal triumph. I was alive and my enemy wasn’t.

I slung my rifle and clenched my teeth against the bile rising in my throat. I pulled the belt out of his limp hands, then rifled through his pockets. It didn’t feel great searching the still warm and bloody corpse, but I was too broke to be picky. I wasn’t going to leave anything here that could help me.

Magnus’s roll of cash was stained red with his blood. It was too much for Fast Count so I just stuck it in an empty pocket of my vest. I’d have to count (and wash) it later.

When I picked up the pistol I immediately recognized it from the movies. It was huge, heavy and stainless steel with ridges on the top and bottom of the barrel. When the system told me what I had, it was no surprise.

Magnum Research Desert Eagle Mark XIX (B) Ammo (.50 AE): 0/7
Handling: D Damage: C Serial: None
Penetration: C Accuracy: D Value: ???

Magnus hadn’t been lying—it really was empty. Out of sheer paranoia I checked the chamber and the magazine myself. With no possibility of blowing my balls off, I tucked the giant pistol into the waistband of my jeans.

The belt was odd in that it wasn’t the belt that was special, it was the buckle. That made sense, really. Magnus was so much bigger than me his belt wouldn’t have fit. I held the heavy buckle in my hands and looked it over. It was covered in blood, both mine and Magnus’s. The system told me what it was.

Silver Skull Belt Buckle (Shadow Focus)

+2 to Street Cred

Special: Enhances your natural aura of intimidation by 25%

Value: ???

Even though the value was still ?? I had a feeling the buckle was worth a ton of cash. It granted a passive intimidation effect boost, and the Soldado skill that was similar did the same thing with a cooldown and a relatively short duration. Maybe it would be like role playing games and I’d start to see crazy boosts as I “leveled up”, but this was clearly a magic item. If magic is what you could call whatever the Karmic Mirror did.

“Yo, white boy! You alright?” I heard Hondo’s voice calling from the road. He sounded a bit stressed, but I didn’t blame him.

“Yeah, coming back now,” I yelled back.

With one last look at Magnus, I left him there in the desert. Someone would find him eventually, but we’d be long gone. Until then, I’d let the scavengers have their feast.

I retraced my steps, just barely able to see where I was going in the faint light of the stars. I made a mental note to get rid of my shoes as soon as I could. I’d seen far too many detective shows where shoe prints were used to bust someone. Not only was I leaving prints in the dirt, I’d probably stepped in blood and was leaving bloody shoe prints everywhere.

The slope up out of the ditch onto the road was steeper than I remembered on the way down, and I struggled a bit. When I hit the top I had what seemed like a very long time to take in the scene.

Pargo had brought the Bronco and was crouched near Flattop with a first aid kit open beside them. Two brown-skinned men in black stood over them with submachine guns pointed at them. All four of them were looking at me, and both of my friends had been disarmed.

Hondo was on the road near the front of the Wagoneer with another two men. Another one of the black-clad goons with his gun pointed at Hondo’s head, and then the man obviously in charge of the whole thing. A slim man standing about 5’9″, he was impeccably dressed in a grey, tailored suit with a chunk gold watch peeking out from his right cuff. He had tanned skin, curly brown hair and a friendly smile which he was directing my way.

At the end of that moment of frozen time there was a path I could have taken where I brought the rifle up and started shooting. That could have only ended with my death and that of my friends. Maybe an action hero could have pulled that off, but I certainly couldn’t. Instead, I stopped and deliberately kept my hands off the slung rifle. The fact that we weren’t already dead gave me a bit of hope.

“Mack, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” the man in the grey suit said.

He had a Spanish accent, but not a Mexican one. I needed to know who he was, so the mirror told me.

“La Espada” , Capitán Regional
, Sinaloa Cartel

“Uh, hello,” I responded. Fucking Cartel. We were in the shit.

“I have to admit that when I heard about this beef my associates had with you and your friend, this was not the result I expected,” Espada said with a chuckle. “Where is your friend Manny, anyway?”

“He’s left the shadow life behind.”

“Is that right? Disappointing. I was hoping to meet him. Oh well.”

That seemed like a not-so-veiled threat and it pissed me off.

“I’ll bet. Now you won’t be able to kill him with the rest of us. I can see how that would be disappointing.”

The goon behind Espada reacted to my disrespect. He shoved Hondo away and snarled as he swung the gun in my direction. Faster than I’d thought was possible I’d brought up the AK and pointed it directly at Espada with my finger on the trigger. I was hopeful I could shred him before I was killed. In my peripheral vision I could see the other two goons had backed off and pointed their guns at me.

Espada frowned and spoke fast before the shooting could start.

“Deténgase! Stop! This is not that kind of meeting!”

“What kind is it, then? You’ve got my friends disarmed and are pointing guns at them,” I asked.

“That is for our protection,” Espada said. “You did just kill our former associates. If you can agree that we will have a conversation without bloodshed, I will be happy to de-escalate. That is all I want here—a civil conversation. After that we will both go our separate ways.”

“A conversation about what? What do we have to talk about?” I asked.

Espada didn’t answer, instead saying something in Spanish to his three goons, gesturing to them to lower their guns. Reluctantly, they did. The guns were no longer pointed at me or my friends, but it was obvious they could come up and go to work with no effort.

He turned back to me. “There. Now, may I ask you to lower your rifle so we can speak on equal footing?”

Since the only other option seemed to be a gunfight, I lowered my AK.

“Fine. What did you want?” I asked.

“Do you know who I represent? If you haven’t, please identify me.”

When I nodded, he continued.

“You’ve killed one of my distributors. They were ridiculous, and Magnus was insane, but they moved weight for me. They were a valuable part of my US operation, and now they are gone.”

I started to protest, but he waved me to silence. “I understand, it was you or them. That is the reality of our business. Even so, it leaves me with a problem and I dislike problems. I now have to replace that distribution. It’s fortunate for me, then, that your organization seems so capable. You’ll take over the Hip’s distribution responsibilities.”

“Whoa, hold on. You want us to sell weed for you? You’re not just going to take the weed?”

It seemed crazy. We kill their distributors and as punishment we have to take their job?

“Why would we take it?” Espada asked, arching an eyebrow. “I’ve already done my job. I’ve delivered the product and been paid for it. And no, you wouldn’t be selling for us. We don’t use that kind of arrangement here in the US. You sell it however you like. In one month, we will deliver another thirty kilos. More, if you’d like, but never less. As the Hip did, you will pay us for it in cash. $14,000 per kilogram.”

That was impossible. There was no way we could sell 30 kilos in a month. A good day of sales for us was two or three ounces. That was with Manny’s help, which might no longer be on the table. We’d need to sell eleven or twelve times as much per day for thirty straight days. Maybe not impossible, but it would definitely not happen at our current scale.

“And what happens if we can’t do that in thirty days?” I asked.

He looked at me as if he was disappointed I’d asked such a stupid question.

“Then I am inconvenienced, and this,” he said and gestured to the carnage around us. “Is no longer a slightly unorthodox change from one distributor to a new one, it becomes an attack on the Cartel.”

If we didn’t come up with enough cash to buy another thirty kilos in thirty days, we were all dead. Got it. Just needed to scale up eleven or twelve times, no sweat.

Espada turned to one of the two guys standing near Pargo and Flattop.

“Ve por el auto.”

The goon nodded and jogged down the road, and Espada turned back to me.

“That’s it. Any questions before we leave?”

I had a lot, but I knew time and presumably Espada’s patience was limited. At some point I’d expose just how green I was and he’d have second thoughts about trusting us with $420,000 worth of his marijuana.

“Do you know who the Hip were selling to?”

“No, I don’t. I don’t get that involved in the business of my distributors. You could ask one of the Hip, if you left any alive.”

“Byron,” I said and squatted to look underneath the Jeep to where he was lying in the dirt on the far side. He wasn’t moving.

“Bled out,” Hondo supplied.

Espada’s vehicle hadn’t been too far off, as it pulled up right then. A shining black Escalade with tinted windows.

Espada stepped forward and extended his right hand. Out of sheer habit I took it. He didn’t seem to mind that mine was covered in blood and gave me a firm handshake.

“Good luck, Mack. I’ll see you in thirty days.”

Espada and his goons got in and the Escalade drove off.

As soon as Espada was gone, Pargo stepped away to recover the weapons the Cartel had taken and tossed into the ditch.

The remaining three of us gathered around the open back of the Jeep Wagoneer. Flattop was holding the bandages on his side and looked like he was in pain, but was otherwise fine. The Jeep’s cargo area was nearly full of thick plastic bags stuffed with weed. If we sold it all at retail price it’d be $1.5 million. A fortune.

The three of stared at it for a while, and Hondo summed everything up succinctly.