I’d had romantic thoughts of leaving Magnus’s corpse in the desert to be feasted on by the scavengers, but it wasn’t to be. After the killing and the confrontation with the Cartel Flattop, Hondo and I were all a bit out of it but Pargo stepped up.

“Hondo, Mack. Get Magnus and bring him back here. Leave your rifle here, Mack,” he ordered.

He didn’t wait to see if we were going to follow the orders. He picked up one of the AK-105s and started to disassemble it with practiced motions.

I unslung my AK and set it down beside Pargo after removing the tactical light.

“What are you going to do with them?” I asked him.

Pargo looked up. “Move, gringo. This is a public road and we need to clean up before we go.”

Hondo slapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s go, Mack. Pargo knows what he’s doing.”

I turned on the tactical light and led Hondo back down into the ditch, following Magnus’s blood trail once again. We hurried as fast as we could without speaking, the sense of urgency that Pargo had conveyed settling in. He was right, after all. We’d just had a gunfight on a public road, even if it was out in the middle of the desert. Anyone could show up. That reminded me of something.

“What happened with the Cartel guys before I came back? How’d they find us?” I asked.

“They just came up out of the ditches like ghosts. Pargo was busy treating Flattop and they had the guns on us. We had no chance. If they’d wanted to kill us, it would have been easy for them to do.

“Espada said something about how noisy we’d been when he showed up a couple minutes later. They must have seen you leaving, because they knew your name and told me to bring you back. Sorry, Homes.”

Some part of me was annoyed, but it wasn’t like there had been anything else he could have done. What should Hondo have done, taken a bullet rather than call me back into a dangerous situation?

“Don’t worry about it,” I replied, deep in thought.

We’d cut it too close with the ambush, or just got unlucky. Somehow when we’d hit the Hip, Espada and his guys had still been near enough to hear—and maybe see—our gunshots. Pargo’s rifle was hard to miss, plus all the full-auto fire from our AKs. They’d come to see what was going on, and caught us. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? I was still unsure.

Hondo had obviously had the same thoughts. “We fucked up. Bad.”

“Nah, you saw the maps,” I said as I stepped over a short ridge. “This was where we could hit them. Nothing else worked.”

“Still, the fucking Cartel.”

“Hey, some guy I know once told me that no one was going to hand me anything, and that there was risk involved.”

“Fuck you, Homes. This is different.”

“Is it, though? We’re going to be just as dead if we fuck up here. I’d say this is better, since the stakes are so much higher. Go big or go home.”

“You’re crazy, white-” he started and then broke off with a yell when the beam of the tactical light fell on Magnus. “What the fuck!”

I’d already seen it, but I still had to clench to keep my food down. It was worse than gory horror movies because it was real. Not only that, I’d done it. I tried not to look at his shattered head.

Hondo turned away. “That’s nasty. You couldn’t just shoot the motherfucker? We have to carry that shit back to the road.”

“Let’s just get it over with,” I said. “You grab his left arm and we’ll drag him back. He’s heavy.”

With a few muttered protests, Hondo grabbed the left arm and we dragged Magnus’s heavy corpse back toward the road. Bits of skull fell off, but I was happy to leave them where they fell. It wasn’t like there was any way we could clean up this particular crime scene. Without computers, could they match the Hip with DNA evidence? Was that a thing here?

Getting Magnus out of the desert was one thing, but dragging him up to the road was tough. I was thankful Hondo was there, as there would have been no way I could have done it on my own. Even with his help, when we got to the top we both stopped and took a breather.

“Move it. There is no time,” Pargo yelled from near the Jeep. Him and Flattop were awkwardly shoving Byron’s body into the Jeep. Huck and Hubert’s corpses were already in there, lolling on the blood-stained seats. The guns were nowhere to be seen.

“Put him in the driver’s seat. Vamos!”

I had no idea what Pargo was trying to accomplish until we got a little closer and I smelled it. Gasoline. The odor was overpowering. The leather seats were soaked, and gasoline puddled on the floor boards. Hondo and I lifted Magnus off the road and stuffed him into the driver’s seat. It wasn’t easy, but we managed it.

Pargo was standing nearby, looking impatient. Flattop leaned against the Bronco, his face pale.

“Get away, I light it,” Pargo said.

Hondo and I backed away. Pargo closed all but the driver’s door, lit a road flare and tossed it underhand into Magnus’s lap from fifteen feet away. With an explosive whump and gout of flame the interior of the Jeep became an inferno.

Pargo spared a few seconds to watch the inferno, then we all got into the Bronco and drove away. The Bronco was fuller than it had been when we left, with thirty kilograms of weed in the back as well as everything else that had been looted from the Hip and their Jeep. I pulled Magnus’s pistol out of my waistband and set it on the seat beside me as I relaxed. Flattop and I had taken the rear two seats while Hondo rode shotgun.

“Gato would not approve, sobrino,” Pargo said after we’d driven a few minutes. “Going into business with a Cartel is stupid.”

It wasn’t clear which of the Soldados he was talking to, but Hondo just grimaced and Flattop replied. “What the fuck choice do we have? Besides, Gato’s not here.”

Pargo looked into the rear view mirror, looking at Flattop’s face. He looked me over as well and frowned.

“Bandage your face Mack, you are dripping on my seats. There is a first aid kit on the seat in front of you, Flattop.”

I brought my hand up to the cut on my right cheek. Now that the adrenaline was fading, I could feel it. The blood from my face had soaked my shirt and the tactical vest, but at some point it had stopped bleeding much. It throbbed and hurt, but really just felt weird.

The kit on the back of the seat wasn’t a big one, but Flattop found a bandage in it that was large enough for my cut.

“Look at me,” Flattop instructed. “That’s nasty, Mack. Going to be a hell of a scar. You need to change this bandage and clean it up when we get back.”

He put the bandage on, not particularly gently.

“Thanks,” I said. He nodded, sagging back into his seat.

“We got time to kill,” Hondo said. “How about one of you geniuses back there tell me how we’re going to come up with $420k in thirty days so the Cartel doesn’t hang us from a bridge?”

“Might be beheading instead. They like chainsaws,” Pargo supplied.

“That’s real helpful, OG,” Flattop said.

Pargo simply shrugged, like of course he’d been trying to help.

“We sell the weed. What else would we do?” I said to Hondo.

“Thirty kilos of weed? You and your boy can’t move that much in thirty days.”

That felt like a little bit of Karmic payback, as I remembered a similar conversation I’d had with Manny not that long ago.

“Hey, this isn’t a Me and Manny problem. This is an everyone in this truck problem, now. You heard what Espada said, he thinks we’re an organization and he knows all of our names. If we fuck this up, it’s not just me he’s going to kill.”

“I don’t have time to sell fucking weed-” Hondo started to say, but Pargo rolled right over him.

“Quiet, sobrino,” he yelled. “The gringo is right. This is our problem and we must meet it together.”

“You back in, OG? You serious?” Flattop asked.

“As you said—what choice?” Pargo replied.

“Hondo, it doesn’t matter how much me and Manny could sell because that’s the wrong approach. We’ve got to get out of retail sales. We need to find wholesale clients.”

“Thirty keys is a lot of weight, Mack,” Flattop said. “You can’t just find people willing to buy that much on the street.”

“No shit. That’s why we need to find the Hip’s clients and sell to them.”

“Who you going to ask?” Hondo said. “We just killed all of them. We all got that Victorious title same as you, Mack. That means we wiped them out.”

“No, sobrino,” Pargo said. “All officers and the leader, but not everyone. The gang is dead, but maybe there are some soldiers left.”

“Zeke,” Flattop said.

“Zeke,” I agreed.

“The guy you shot and put in the hospital. The guy who’s friends we just killed. That Zeke? You’re nuts if you think he’ll help us.”

“One way or another, he will help, sobrino,” Pargo said.

Pargo was really beginning to grow on me. I nodded in agreement.

“Pargo’s right. We’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”