American Blood by Ben Sanders introduces Marshall Grade, an ex-NYPD officer living in witness protection and caught up in the disappearance of a local girl (available November 17, 2015).
After a botched undercover operation, ex-NYPD officer Marshall Grade is living in witness protection in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Marshall's instructions are to keep a low profile: the mob wants him dead, and a contract killer known as the Dallas Man has been hired to track him down. Racked with guilt over wrongs committed during his undercover work, and seeking atonement, Marshall investigates the disappearance of a local woman named Alyce Ray.
Members of a drug ring seem to hold clues to Ray's whereabouts, but hunting traffickers is no quiet task. Word of Marshall's efforts spreads, and soon the worst elements of his former life, including the Dallas Man, are coming for him.
Sometimes at night he lay awake and thought of his dead.
Sins of others but they still robbed his sleep. That boy they’d left in South Brooklyn. That blown tail job in Koreatown. Midtown South Precinct said the transfusion almost saved him. What a prospect: the Big Exit, morphine and someone else’s blood in your veins.
Sins of others, but he’d still borne witness.
Complicit. They were still his dead.
He thought of it as the night brigade. Misdeeds paraded for his musing. Maybe it was cathartic: daytime thoughts didn’t stray there, so he reconciled by dark. Torture and opiate within the same dim reflection.
He pushed aside the sheet and sat on the edge of the bed. The clock readout floated disembodied: a bloodred four A.M. Beyond the window the night lay hushed and starless. He sat there a long time. Now and then the brief light from a car on the street below, the room in soft relief with each passing.
Four thirty A.M. On the bedside table his phone buzzed with an incoming call. It seemed to hover there on the glow of its screen. He watched it a moment, some feeble thing crawling for the edge. Then he lay down again and answered the call. A blocked number.
“Is this Marshall?”
He lowered the phone and cleared his throat gently against the back of his wrist. “Yeah. This is Marshall.”
“We spoke on the phone couple of days ago. You said you have some stuff we might like to look at.”
So purposefully elliptic. He gave it a bit of time. He watched the shape of the fan above the bed through a few lazy cycles. He said, “I remember. You still want to talk?”
“Yeah. You know how these things work?”
“We’ll give you a general location to get to. Once you’re there, we get a bit more specific.”
Marshall said, “Okay.”
“You in Albuquerque?”
“No. But I’m close.”
“All right. We’re talking a single-admission ticket. You know what I mean?”
“I can’t bring any friends.”
“Exactly. No friends.”
Marshall didn’t answer.
“You said you could sample us one key. That still okay?”
“Yes. That’s fine.”
“Good. That’s exactly what we like to hear.”
Marshall didn’t answer.
“No need to bring any hardware either. In fact, we’ll pat you down, so I’d say empty pockets are probably best. It just helps keep everything nice and relaxed, know what I mean?”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.”
“Well, good. I think we’re going to get along just fine.”
Marshall didn’t answer.
“Head up on I-25 toward Algodones. Keep your phone on.”
The call ended. He laid the cell facedown where he’d found it and got up and dressed in the dark and walked through to the spare bedroom, a finger to the wall for his bearings. The cupboard light clicked on automatically as he opened the door. Waiting for him in the corner the old document safe he’d bought in El Paso. Standing half in shadow, like it knew it was wrought for nobler deeds. He knelt and spun the dial through its left-right routine, fluid and unthinking. Swing of the door almost unbidden. A chamber for his past life: guns, ammunition, the better part of two hundred grand cash. Everything so neat and orderly, like some court exhibit. Three shelves’ testimony to his former self.
He straightened and removed the 870 from the shelf above and sat down cross-legged. He opened the breech and fed it seven 12-gauge rounds from the half-full box of Magnums in the safe. Same again for the Colt, .45 after .45. Each successive round a little more reluctant as the spring fought him.
He locked the safe and stood to leave. For an instant the light made art of the scene. This tall backlit figure, a gun in each hand.
* * *
He took the Corolla. The duffel with the samples was already in the trunk. Algodones was a forty-minute drive, south and west on I-25, right on the Rio Grande, maybe twenty miles from Albuquerque.
That stretch of I-25 is hard country. Out of La Cienega and it was arid for miles, barren hills and a few brave tufts of vegetation at the roadside. Like the last vestiges of a more verdant world, scoured to khaki by some vindictive god.
They rang again at five fifteen. He pulled to the shoulder to take the call. The same capitalized warning of blocked number.
“Where are you?”
He said, “I’m on 25.”
“You anywhere near Bernalillo?”
“Oh. You coming in from the north?”
“Yeah. Santa Fe.”
“How far are you from 22?”
“Close. Maybe ten minutes.”
“Okay. Well, that works out pretty good then. Take a right when you get there. There’s a diner a couple more miles up the road.”
Marshall ended the call first. A minor victory, but it probably wasn’t a bad thing to maintain an equal hang-up score. There was a psychological benefit there somewhere.
The diner itself was another fifteen minutes’ drive. A roadside billboard on I-25 proclaimed its existence, together with a bold-print promise of twenty-four-hour service. The place was called Otto’s. It was a plain rectangular structure like an oversize trailer home, lonely amidst a big gravel parking lot large enough to take eighteen-wheelers. There was a trailer-less truck cab parked nose-in by the entry and a Jeep Cherokee way over in a corner. A couple of dust-filmed sedans by a side exit. Above them the stub of an air-con unit slotted through the wall, drifts of steam rendered whitely on that dark vista.
Grit popping beneath the tires as he turned in. He parked beside the truck cab, headlight glare in tight focus on the cladding, each blemish in searing relief. Sudden darkness as he cut the motor. He sat a moment in the quiet with the engine ticking as his night vision recovered, and then he got out and locked the car with the key. He left the Colt in the glove compartment. Forewarned of a pat-down, it was probably best where it was.
He rounded the truck and headed for the entry. That cool taste of night. Northward the mountains all camouflaged by gloom. In the east the dawn just breaking. A thin blue seam in gentle flexure across the far edge of the world. A marvel this hard land could be coaxed to such a template.
A bell dinged as he entered. He let the door fall closed behind him. In front of him the counter lay behind a long glass display of food. A slice of apple pie caught his eye: cold, gelatinous, bulging against plastic wrap. To the left a long row of booths below the front-facing windows. Two guys side by side near the end, facing the door.
Marshall walked over. They didn’t move, but their eyes followed him in. Both of them hunched slightly over folded arms, coffee cups standing half empty. He stood there in the aisle a moment, awaiting his pat-down, but the guy on the right signaled for him to take a seat. An issue of discretion, presumably. A gun-check in a diner is a fine way to draw attention.
“Don’t worry about it. Sorry it ain’t much of a respectable hour.”
There was a wry smile on his face that detracted from the sincerity a bit, but Marshall reasoned even the pretense of civility was better than none at all. In any case, he’d met at less respectable hours with even less respectable people.
He said, “Sure,” and sat down.
The vinyl creaked a little under his weight. He slid across and centered himself on the seat. He knew their backgrounds. On the left was Troy Rojas, Hispanic, six years’ worth of Army followed by twelve years’ worth of Walpole. In 1992, just back from the Gulf and high on something, he’d shot and paralyzed a Massachusetts State Police Trooper who’d pulled him over for speeding. Rojas’s crucial error: discussing the events with a Boston PD informant two months later. His colleague on the right was Cyrus Bolt, twenty years of drug offenses on his résumé. Without doubt a consummate shit bag, but perhaps not quite in Rojas’s orbit.
Bolt had some coffee. He wasn’t an attractive guy: coke-fiend-thin, all lines and sinew. Like something chewed and spat out. He would have been pushing forty. He said, “And what is it that you do, Mr. Marshall?”
Marshall shrugged in a manner intended to convey versatility. “Bit of this, bit of that.”
Bolt tipped his mug at him like a little toast and smiled knowingly. “Whatever’s going. I like that.”
A waitress came over, coffee flask in hand. Hispanic and heavyset, weary like she’d been doing the rounds since this time yesterday. Marshall hoped she was on the home stretch. He took the one remaining mug from the little stand in the center of the table and set it upright and requested coffee only, no food. She leaned and poured carefully, the four of them briefly captivated, and then she moved on.
Marshall looked around. Just one other customer. The truck driver, presumably, at a table over to the right. A coffee of his own, and what looked like eggs Benedict in a swamp of hollandaise. Overall not really an inspired choice of venue, given that a diner with one other customer is unlikely to afford much anonymity. Or maybe the waitress was in on it. He had some coffee.
Rojas ducked his head, smoothed a hand through his hair. There was a waxen gleam to it. “What we normally do, we take the sample off you, check it all out, and then maybe have another talk.”
Rojas turned his mug through a slow revolution on the tabletop, watched it carefully. He glanced up. “You got something for us to look at?”
Which strictly speaking was the truth, because there was indeed something to look at. The fact that the sample’s value as a stimulant was somewhat tenuous was information Marshall preferred to withhold.
Rojas said, “What’s your supply like? We’ve got a real issue with keeping enough stock around. So the bigger the better, basically.”
Marshall said, “We’ve got a hookup via Colombia.”
An outright lie, but it seemed imprudent to undermine a happy discourse.
“So stock’s no trouble.”
“Yeah. Stock’s no trouble.”
Rojas nodded slowly and mulled on that. He was watching Marshall with something akin to cool indifference. Marshall didn’t mind. He had some experience with the expression and was confident he could affect something of an equal if not greater standard. He did so for a few patient seconds. Then he had some coffee. Bolt had some coffee. Rojas had some coffee. The truck driver looked over idly and had some coffee.
Marshall said, “You guys out of Albuquerque?”
Rojas rocked his head, noncommittal. “Kinda.”
Marshall nodded. He said, “Well.”
He was quite partial to a good “well.” He liked the quiet, reflective pause that it often inspired.
He said, “Why don’t we go outside and have a look at my stuff.”
Neither of them answered. Rojas reached up and took a napkin from the stainless-steel holder on the windowsill and balled it and dabbed his mouth.
He said, “We don’t really check stuff out in this sort of environment. Public’s not a good idea.”
He gestured vaguely, like dispelling fumes. “And we’re just talking in very general terms here. We haven’t got down to discussing anything specific.”
Bolt said, “Not that it’s on record or anything. We just like to point out that at this stage we could be talking about anything here.”
Marshall nodded and swept an upturned palm, conceding the merits of cautiousness. Beside him the windows were just a long bank of mirrors. A slight tilt the only flaw in that inverse world. He said, “So what do you want to do?”
Rojas said, “We can head somewhere a bit quiet. Or just … You know. Private.”
Marshall said, “We could have gone straight there and avoided the preamble.”
“Well. We like to get a sense of what our potential colleagues are like.”
Marshall nodded slowly. “And your rivals?”
The tabletop was faded laminate, milky orbs where the neon was reflected. Rojas thrummed his nails a couple of times. “Coffee for the first meeting. Maybe something a little sharper for the next.”
Rojas smiled, almost lascivious.
Marshall smiled. He grasped the implicit warning, but he didn’t think they were going to give him any trouble. It wasn’t arrogance, just a calm certainty gained from experience. He’d met very few people who shared his faculties.
He said, “We don’t have to dig around in the back of my car and make a scene. You can just take what I’ve got and do what you like with it. If you want to talk some more you’ve got my number. If you don’t want to talk, that works, too.”
Rojas thought about that. Marshall slid toward the aisle a fraction and laid an arm along the back of his seat. The waitress circled back around. Bolt waved off the offer of a refill.
Rojas said, “How much have you got?”
“A key. As requested.”
Rojas didn’t answer.
Marshall said, “Like I told you. You can do with it whatever you want. If you want to take things further, it’s entirely up to you.”
“This your standard practice?”
Marshall thought a bona-fide purveyor of illicit substances probably wouldn’t make a habit of dispensing one-kilo product samples too regularly. But he wanted to leave the right impression, so he looked calmly down the barrel and said, “Yes.”
“That’s quite an expense.”
He shrugged. “We don’t do it every week. Like I said, we’ve got a lot of stock. Our issue is more to do with distribution as opposed to supply.”
Rojas looked at him and nodded sagely, like this was a dilemma they were accustomed to resolving. He said, “Okay. Why don’t we go outside.”
Marshall patted the back of the chair slowly, like comforting a ghost. “All right. Let’s do that.”
He nodded at the trio of mugs. “It’s on me.”
He dug in his pocket. He had forty-seven dollars: two twenties, a five, and two singles. The five being the middle made it an easy find by touch. He laid it on the table and paired up the corners precisely and creased a sharp transverse fold, dead across the center, a perfect bisection.
Rojas and Bolt watched like it was street magic, some sleight of hand imminent. Marshall trapped the bill squarely under his mug and slid to the edge of the seat, stood up, and waited in the aisle.
Rojas nodded toward the door. “After you.”
* * *
The waitress smiled as they went out and told them to have a nice day. Marshall reciprocated. He figured at the very least they were good for one out of three.
They’d been seated when he entered which meant it had been difficult to establish if they were armed. Walking ahead of them the situation was no better.
Out the door and the bell dinged merrily. Highway noise borne easily on the cool air. He could see headlights sliding across the gloomed distance. All motion rendered gradual by that huge landscape.
His choice of parking space was slightly problematic, because he wanted them behind him as he opened the trunk. The present configuration meant a straight path from the door to the car would put them on his left. A serviceable prospect, but not really ideal, because he wanted their view obstructed.
He dug the Corolla’s keys from his pocket and spread them on his palm and pretended to search through them as he walked off to the right, toward the Cherokee parked in the corner. Six o’clock darkness, a plausible mistake for a preoccupied man.
Rojas and Bolt walking abreast behind him, trailing tight, maybe two feet. Halfway there and Bolt pulled him up.
Marshall glanced up and stopped. “Oh. Yeah.”
He turned on his heel and threaded between them and headed back over to the Corolla. A slight arc so they would approach the trunk square. He heard them fall in behind, one or two feet, very close. Bolt on his right, Rojas left. This tight little procession. Breath rising palely like their own spirits departing.
He reached the Corolla. Morgue-cool to the touch. Rojas gave him no space. He stepped up tight against the taillight, close to his left shoulder. Trunk lid up and he’d have as good a view as any. Bolt was hanging a couple of steps back, off to his right. The low hum of the air-con and a softer, lonely note off the highway.
Marshall faux-searched his keys, the bunch on his palm again, that gentle chime of metal. Their positioning wasn’t stupid. Rojas was near enough to be trouble. Bolt could shoot him in the back if things got difficult.
Rojas dug his hands in his pockets and tensed against the chill. He jiggled one knee. “Let’s not make an event of it.”
Marshall abandoned the ruse. He selected the correct key and inserted it in the lock. The metal grated gently. The sound of it so clear on that huge stage it seemed for a moment the focus of everything.
The mechanism thunked cleanly. The lid popped up an inch proud. Marshall shifted his stance fractionally so his back was to Rojas. Crunch of gravel as he turned on the balls of his feet. And then he swung the lid up, just sudden finger pressure under the flat of the key, like flipping a switch.
The set dressing was good: the duffel’s zip was open, clear baggies of white powder visible within. They drew Rojas’s attention.
In a single easy motion Marshall leaned down and picked up the Remington 870 shotgun from where it lay against the bottom lip of the trunk and took a swift shuffle-step toward Bolt and smashed him in the face with the butt of the gun.
Bolt didn’t even raise a hand.
The shotgun butt broke his nose. His head snapped back in a whiplash motion. He went down bleeding and Marshall, pulled by the momentum of the follow-through, stepped toward him to give himself space and brought the gun up and sighted on Rojas.
Rojas was crouched in the gravel beside the car, one hand on the fender to steady himself, the other at the small of his back.
Marshall said, “What are you hiding back there?”
Rojas didn’t answer. Quiet now in the aftermath. Just the three of them privy to the skirmish and in that hushed vastness it was as good as never happened. Rojas hunkered in the dust. Bolt fetal, hands to his face, blood seeping between his fingers. Marshall looming over him.
Rojas rose to full height, the hand still hidden. He stepped slowly away from the car, giving himself some room. Marshall tracked him with the gun barrel, nothing in his face.
“You’re going to bring that arm round where I can see it and you better make sure there’s only fresh air at the end of it.”
“How old are you?”
“I’d say that’s the very least of your worries.”
“You’re not old enough to be playing with guns.”
Marshall prepped the trigger, took the slack out of it. “Playing or not. I’ve got pretty good at it.”
Rojas didn’t answer.
Marshall said, “Your friend here will attest to that.”
“This is not the sort of thing you want to do.”
Marshall said, “I wouldn’t take your advice on things I would want to do. So I think we’ll just carry on.”
“You’ll end up regretting this.”
Marshall sighted down the barrel. Rojas’s chest neatly centered. “Well. You just keep that hand hidden and we’ll see where the balance of regret ends up.”
Rojas nodded at the shotgun. “Haven’t pumped a round yet.”
“Take my word that I have.”
Rojas didn’t answer.
Marshall said, “It’s your life you’re betting. And I don’t think I’m going to miss from this range.”
No answer. They stood there a moment. Rojas locked on the bore and he could have been reflecting on things been or looking for a way out. Marshall moved a fraction closer. Six feet between them, a vaultlike silence, that gun their whole world.
Marshall said, “If you’ve got something back there, I’d drop it.”
Marshall moved closer again, just a step. The 870 was a long weapon, and he couldn’t afford to put it in grab range. He could sense Rojas willing the opposite. Marshall counted himself in, backward from three, and then he kicked him left-footed in the groin.
Rojas retched and doubled over, but kept his footing. Marshall moved in close and kicked him again in the gut, a big blow off the left instep. Rojas dumped his breath and fell prone. A nickel-plated .38 in his hand. Marshall stepped on his wrist and stooped and pried the gun from his fingers and slipped it in his belt.
“You carrying anything else you want to tell me about?”
Rojas gasping. Legs pulled double and an arm across his stomach, trying to pry his other wrist free. The skin all bunched and twisted where Marshall’s sole had bit and turned. “No. Jesus, get off.”
“What about Mr. Nose?”
“He’s not carrying.”
Which Marshall thought was probably untrue, but not problematic given Bolt’s present condition. He said, “I see him hanging on to anything but his face I’m going to pop both of you.”
Rojas still trying to jerk his wrist free.
Marshall said, “That’s only going to make things more uncomfortable, doing that.”
He checked the windows. No faces hovering there. His little reckoning still a private matter.
He dropped to his haunches and bridged the shotgun across his knees. “You should have done as you were told.”
Rojas didn’t reply. He seemed to have given up on the hand, like he’d accepted he wasn’t getting it back. His breath was shallow, whistling.
Marshall said, “Sorry about the misdirection. But I’m not really in the business.”
“What do you want?”
Marshall glanced back at Bolt to make sure he wasn’t doing anything he shouldn’t. The only nonconforming article was his nose, which was bleeding a lot.
Marshall said, “I’m looking for someone.”
“A young lady.”
“What’s her name?”
“Alyce Ray. Alyce with a Y.”
“Never heard of her.”
“I thought you might say that.”
“Right. Well, either your boss or one of your colleagues or someone you sell to knows what’s happened to her.”
Rojas didn’t answer.
Marshall said, “Point is someone’s got answers, and I think you’re in a good position to get them for me.”
Rojas didn’t answer.
Marshall scanned the distance. This light and this sparseness, he’d see red and blue a long way off. He said, “You can ask some questions. You’ve got my number.”
“Yeah, well. Have a think about it.”
“What are you, like a PI or something?”
“No. Just a concerned gentleman.”
“You just made a pretty stupid mistake.”
Marshall said, “Probably two of them. If you count him as well.”
Rojas said, “How guys like you end up dead.”
Marshall stood up. The windows still clear. “We’ll see. If I don’t hear from you, I’m going to have to come looking. And it’s going to be the something sharper rather than the coffee. If you know what I mean.”
Rojas smiled up at him. This awful grimace. “You don’t have to come looking. I wouldn’t fucking worry about that.”
“Speed things up if I do. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle.”
Rojas didn’t answer. Marshall could see him battling the urge to cradle the wrist. He laid the 870 in the back of the Corolla and took the .38 from his belt so he had a gun at hand. Then he closed the trunk lid and took the key from the lock and stepped over to where Bolt was lying. Still not a sound from him. Half-lidded and half-conscious. Marshall dragged him by his collar a few paces so he was clear of the car.
Marshall said, “I wouldn’t hang around.” He nodded at Bolt. “That’s not the kind of face you get from walking into a door.”
And then he got back into the Corolla and drove away.
Copyright © 2015 Ben Sanders.
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Ben Sanders is the author of three previous novels: The Fallen (2010), By Any Means (2011), and Only the Dead (2013), all of which were New Zealand Fiction Bestsellers. Sanders's first three novels were written while he was studying at university; he graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Engineering, and now writes full-time. American Blood is his first novel in the U.S., and has been optioned by Warner Bros. for a major motion picture. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.