The shooter aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger. One dead. He squeezed again. A second victim dropped in his tracks. He held his breath and squeezed a third time. As the third victim fell to the ground, he whispered, "Gotcha!"
The teenage boy standing next to him whistled in appreciation. "You're a crazy man with that gun."
Ben Benedict, former military sniper, grinned as he blew off imaginary smoke at the end of his plastic M1911 Colt .45 and shoved the gun back into its plastic holster on the arcade video machine. "That's me. Your average lunatic with a gun. But you notice I won."
The thirteen-year-old playing "House of the Dead" with Ben laughed. "Really, man, you're loco. I've never seen anybody shoot like you. You never miss."
Ben accepted the compliment without bothering to deny the charge of insanity. It was entirely possible the kid was right.
Ben had done his best to hide the nightmares, the night sweats, the daytime flashbacks, the trembling that started without warning and ended just as mysteriously, from his family and his new boss at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called ICE, the largest branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
As far as Ben knew, none of them suspected his struggle to appear normal since he'd resigned his commission in the army six months ago to become an ICE agent.
"One more game," the kid pleaded.
"It's Wednesday. I know you have homework."
"I can do it later."
Ben shook his head. "I can't stay. My stepmom's giving a prewedding party for my sister Julia and Sergeant Collins tonight. My whole family's supposed to be there. She'll have my head if I'm late."
"I can'tbelieve your sister's gonna marry a cop on Saturday."
"Sergeant Collins is not just another cop. He's my friend," Ben said. Their families owned neighboring plantation homes south of Richmond, Virginia. They'd been best buds until Ben's parents had divorced, and Ben had left Richmond to go live with his father in Chevy Chase. After that, Ben had only seen Waverly when he visited his mother on holidays and vacations.
Waverly Fairchild Collins, III, possessed a notable Virginia pedigree, but his family had been forced to sell most of the land around their plantation home after the Crash in 1929. The Benedicts still owned the vast tract of rich farmland surrounding their estate, The Seasons, where their ancestors had grown tobacco, but which now produced pecans and peaches.
The family gathered at the old plantation house, a white, two-story monstrosity right out of Gone With the Wind,
on holidays and special occasions.
"That cop might be your friend," Epifanio said. "But to me, he'll always be a sonofabitch."
Ben bit his lip to keep himself from giving the kid a hard time about his language. At least Epifanio had given up using fuck
every other word.
Ben had met Epifanio five months ago, when his older brother Ricardo had been caught in a joint ICE-MPD sting aimed at gang kids boosting cars in Washington, D.C. for shipment to South America. Sergeant Waverly Collins, head of the Metropolitan Police Department Gang Unit, was the man who'd arrested Ricardo. Epifanio didn't know that Ben, representing ICE, had also been involved in the sting.
ICE was working with the MPD Gang Unit because so many members of D.C. gangsthe Vatos Locos, Latin Kings, 18th Street gang, and especially MS-13had once been members of violent gangs south of the border.
Gangs had been named a danger by Homeland Security because so many of their members were illegal aliens. Ben had seen the results of gang violencethe extortion, the theft, the beatings, the senseless death and destruction. The government feared that foreign terrorists might recruit these kids, many of them gangsters without a moral compass, to commit acts of terrorism. Hence the effort to interfere with the gangs' financial survival by eliminating all their sources of income.
Illegal aliens caught in the sting, including Ricardo, were deported back to their homes, usually somewhere in Central or South America.
Upon learning that he was being deported, Ricardo had asked if someone would notify his grandmother. His abuela
didn't have a phone, so he couldn't call her, and she couldn't read, so a letter wouldn't work.
Ben seemed to be the only one moved by the eighteen-year-old's plea. Despite warnings from Waverly not to get involved, Ben had gone to see Ricardo's grandmother at her run-down apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, a half hour north of his row house in Georgetown.
Mrs. Fuentes was a small, wizened woman with white hair she wore in braids bobby-pinned at the top of her head. She reminded Ben of his maternal grandmother, who'd died in a private plane crash along with his grandfather when he was ten.
Quiet tears had streamed down Mrs. Fuentes's brown, wrinkled face when Ben told her Ricardo's fate. Mrs. Fuentes offered Ben a cup of coffee, which he'd felt obliged to take.
When she had him seated in the tiny living room, where the brown couch was covered with vinyl to protect it, she told him how worried she was that Ricardo's little brother Epifaniowho, thank the Blessed Virgin, had been born to a black father in the United Stateswould follow in his older brother's footsteps and end up dead on the streets from drugs or gang violence. The 18th Street gang was already pressuring Epifanio to join.
Waverly laughed when Ben told him later how he'd offered to check in on Epifanio now and then and do what he could to keep the kid in school. Waverly warned Ben that he was asking for heartache. He'd told Ben his chances of keeping Epifanio out of the 18th Street gang and off hard drugs highly addictive crystal meth and crack cocainewhen his brother had been a gang member and a methamphetamines addict, were slim to none.
Despite Waverly's advice, Ben had made a point of seeing the kid at least once a week over the past five months, although he never had told the kid what he really did for a living. Epifanio thought Ben worked in an office in downtown D.C., which Ben did. It just happened to be the ICE office.
It had taken a long time to earn the kid's trust. And there had been setbacks.
Three months ago, Ben had come by one afternoon when Mrs. Fuentes was still at her babysitting job and been concerned when Epifanio didn't answer his knock. He'd stepped inside the unlocked apartment and found Epifanio sitting on his bed, leaning against an interior wall spray-painted with graffiti, his pupils dilated so wide that Ben could have fallen into the kid's eyes.
"What are you on?" he'd demanded, searching around the kid's iron cot for drug paraphernalia. He'd pulled out his cell phone to call 911, afraid the boy might be in danger of OD-ing, but Epifanio had grabbed his wrist and said, "It's only Ecstasy.""Only
Ecstasy?" Ecstasy wasn't addictive, but it was still a powerful narcotic. Then he'd had another thought. "Where did you get the money to buy that junk?"
The kid had hung his head.
"I stole the E from a locker at school," he'd mumbled.
Ben had been so mad he could have wrung the kid's neck. "I'm taking you to the emergency room."
"It'll wear off in a couple of hours," Epifanio protested.
Ben had hauled the kid out to his car anyway, taken him to the emergency room and waited with him while the hospital did a blood test. The toxicology report confirmed that the only drug in Epifanio's system was the amphetamines in Ecstasy.
Ben had been standing by, his arms crossed over his chest, when Mrs. Fuentes arrived at Epifanio's hospital bedside, her dark brown eyes huge with fear.
Epifanio had been defiantly silent in response to Ben's disapproval. But when his grandmother sank into the chair beside his bed, crossed herself, closed her eyes and folded her hands in prayer, the kid started to cry.
"I'm sorry, Abuela"
he said. "I won't do it again. I promise."
Ben had kept up his visits to the household. And the kid had been true to his word. Two months later, Epifanio was still off drugs, still not part of a gang and still in school. Ben was counting his blessings, but because of constant reminders from Waverly that the good behavior couldn't last, he was taking things one day at a time.
"I'm looking forward to having the sergeant as my brother-in-law," he told the boy.
"I hate cops," Epifanio said, his dark eyes narrowed, his lips pressed flat.I'm a cop,
Ben thought. But he merely met the kid's gaze.
Epifanio made a face as he holstered his own plastic gun. "You might wanta watch yourself when you come around to the neighborhood. I been hearing rumors of something bad goin' down."
"Bad like what?" Ben asked.
Epifanio shrugged. "Just guys lookin' over their shoulders, you know? That sorta creepy feeling you get when something's not right?"
Epifanio might not belong to the 18th Street gang, dubbed the 1-8 by the MPD, but most of the kids in his neighborhood did. It was impossible for him to avoid them entirely.
As far as anyone in the neighborhood knew, Ben was supposedly a "Big Brother" from the community group Big Brothers and Big Sisters. His ICE connection was a secret. Which was why another ICE agent monitored the activities of the 18th Street gang.
"Thanks for the heads up," Ben said.
Trouble among the gangs hit the streets like ocean waves. Some waves passed without incident. Some devastated everything in their path. He put a hand on Epifanio's shoulder and said, "You be careful out there, too."
"You know I will," Epifanio said with a cheeky grin.
"How about that homework?" Ben said.
The kid grinned. "I ain't got"
"Don't have" Ben automatically corrected.
"Any homework," Epifanio finished, his grin widening.
Ben ruffled the boy's short dreads, something he wouldn't have done even a few weeks ago. "Then go read a book."
As they left the Games & More video arcade, Epifanio teasingly flashed Ben the 18th Street gang sign. He laughed when Ben frowned at the display, then sauntered down the street toward home.
Ben stuck his suddenly trembling hands deep in his pockets, clenching them into fists. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He had trouble catching his breath.He felt the searing heat of the desert. The grittiness of the sand at his collar. The stickiness of blood on his hands.
"Hey! You gonna stand there all day? We're late!"
Ben's tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He jerked a nod toward Waverly, who'd pulled his Ford Explorer up to the curb.
"You okay?" Waverly asked, sticking his head out the open window.
Ben forced himself to take a step. Another step. He crossed behind the car, to give himself time to recover. After all these months, he wasn't going to let this
get the better of him. The incidents were occurring less often. They were less severe. Surely, at some point, they would stop entirely.
By the time he got to the front passenger door of the car his hands were out of his pockets and functioning without a visible tremor. As he slipped into Waverly's Ford he said, "I can't believe you and Julia are letting Patsy throw you a party, especially this close to the wedding."
"Your dad was more of a dad to me than my own. When she suggested it, I didn't want to say no," Waverly replied. "Don't blame me if your stepmother invited your whole family. Julia said just about everybody agreed to come."
Ben groaned. "Everybody? My mom and the senator in the same room with my dad and Patsy?"
"Yep," Waverly said.
Ben groaned. Although his parents had divorced twenty years ago, his mother had never forgiven his father for cheating on her with another woman. His father had never forgiven his mother for her lack of understanding and inability to pardon what he claimed was a single lapse in judgment under extraordinary circumstances.
Both had remarried within a year, and from what Ben could see, both had remarkably successful second marriages. But he was pretty sure his parents had never really stopped loving each other. Otherwise, they wouldn't still be so miserable in each other's presence.
Unfortunately, their continuing attraction made things pretty uncomfortable whenever their respective spouses were in the room. Which meant the party tonight would be a parental minefield, exacerbated by the warfare that went on between the very different children who'd grown up as relatives because of their two second marriages.
Ben was one of thirteen siblings. And nobody was married yet or had produced offspring.
Actually, fourteen siblings. He was forgetting the reason for his parents' divorce, his father's bastard son, Ryan Donovan McKenzie. Ryan was the result of a one-night stand his father had indulged in with a barmaid, Mary Kate McKenzie. His dad had insisted on acknowledging and supporting his illegitimate son, and invited Ryan to every family gathering. The Black Sheep always declined.
"How many of the Fabulous Fourteen have said they're coming?" Ben asked Waverly.
"The senator's three kids by his late wife, one of your three brothers, your stepmom's twins with her ex from Texas and your three half sisters. And, of course, my lovely fiancée. In short, nearly the whole dysfunctional bunch. No surprise, the Black Sheep sent his regrets. Should be a great party."
Ben felt his heart take an extra thump. "I can hardly wait."
"How are things with the kid?" Waverly asked as he drove out of the ethnically and economically mixed Columbia Heights neighborhood toward elite Chevy Chase, Maryland, where the party was being held. Columbia Heights was becoming gentrified, forcing out the poor, but right now it was still a blend of the crumbling old and the very new. The distance to Chevy Chase wasn't far in miles, but it might as well have been a trip to the moon, the two worlds were so far apart.
"The kid is fine," Ben said as he reached for the rep-striped tie he'd left in the backseat with a jacket earlier in the day.
Ben buttoned up his shirt, slipped the tie around his neck and began to tie it. "I'm optimistic."
"You're jaded." Ben shoved the Windsor knot up to his throat.
"Maybe so. We'll see."
Ben hesitated, then said, "Epifanio has heard rumblings that something bad is in the works."
"If the kid asks too many questions, they're going to shut him up. Forever," Waverly warned. "Don't push it."
"I didn't ask for information. He volunteered it."
"Someday somebody's going to make the connection between you and ICE and the kid. They'll start to wonder what he's told you. And" Waverly made a ragged sound as he drew his forefinger across his throat.
"I'm his Big Brother. That's all."
"Yeah. Right," Waverly said.
As the man in charge of the MPD Gang Unit for the past two years, Waverly knew far more about gang behavior than Ben did. If Waverly was worried about Epifanio, Ben knew there was something to worry about.
"Have you heard something I haven't?" he asked.
"Just the same stuff as the kid," Waverly said. "That something is going to happen. Something big."