Juan Carlos Reynoso sat at a poker table in a dusty back room of the Chico Rico Grill in northern Tijuana and stared at the pair of threes as if they might somehow become Aces if he stared long enough. The rest of his poker playing opponents were becoming impatient, but were too afraid to rush the mafia mogul. The room was musty and subbed as a storeroom for the supplies, with cases of beer and boxes of taco shells piled in the corner. Reynoso’s two large bodyguards were playing their own private game of gin on top of one of the stacked cases, never out of reach of their shotguns.
“Jefe,” one of the players said, pointing at the cards in his hand. “Por favor.”
Reynoso looked at the large pot and grunted while slapping his cards face down and shoving then under the pile of chips in the center of the table.
The door opened and Reynoso’s cousin stuck his head in. “Jefe,” he said looking at Reynoso. “That kid. The one with the briefcase.”
Reynoso’s cousin glanced around to be certain he didn’t say any more than he needed. “He is here.”
Reynoso squinted. “What?”
Reynoso’s cousin just nodded.
“He can’t be,” Reynoso’s voice elevated. “Our contact never received the package.”
“Maybe he is here to return it?” his cousin suggested.
Reynoso slid his chair back and gestured to his two bodyguards. That’s all it took. They were already at the door, one of them holding it open, both of them with their shotguns. They strode down the short corridor to the bar where the kid sat on a barstool sipping a glass of beer, his eyes darting everywhere. The Chico Rico Grill was packed and the Mariachi band playing up against the wall in the back had five couples dancing in front of them. The rest of the bar was filled with partiers around wooden tables with small unlit candles in the middle of them.
As if the regulars knew to stay away, the kid was alone at the bar, five empty stools around him. As soon as Reynoso showed up with the two shotgun-wielding bodyguards, a hush came over the crowd, while the band played on eerily.
Reynoso dropped into the stool next to the kid and rested his arm on the bar. “You came here to bring me back my briefcase, yes?”
Reynoso was close enough to see the kid’s lips trembling. He was clutching the glass of beer as if it might escape.
“I uh . . . not really,” the kid said, shooting glances at the dirty mirror behind the bar.
Reynoso examined the mirror and found the reflection of two Americans staring directly at him. Two men dressed in collared shirts hanging over their pressed blue jeans. These were not usual customers. Reynoso turned to face the table where they sat.
“Quien es los gringos?” Reynoso asked the bartender.
The old man behind the bar could sense the gravity of the question and didn’t want to have the wrong answer. He simply said, “No se, Jefe.”
Every Mexican in the city knew to obey Reynoso’s orders, so he never had to ask twice for anything. On occasion, however, an unwitting American would cause him a temporary moment of disrespect. Now one of the Americans leaned back in his chair and placed his feet on the table, as if in complete disregard for Reynoso’s authority.
Reynoso simply flicked an index finger toward the men and his body guards began to move toward the table. The second man at the table stood up. He was tall and lean and was favoring his left leg, as if he was suffering from an ankle sprain.
The bodyguards stopped, one on each side of Reynoso taking a protective stance with their shotguns aimed at the tall American. The band immediately stopped playing and in the silence there was shuffling of feet moving away from the confrontation, creating a open pathway between the two combatants.
“Who are you?” Reynoso asked indignantly.
Surprisingly, the guy sitting with his feet up spoke. “I’m Nick Bracco, this here is my partner Matt McColm.”
The kid’s words came out scratchy and insecure. “I didn’t want to come, Jefe, but they forced me.”
Reynoso looked at the kid, then the two men. “Is that true?”
Reynoso didn’t like the tone of the man’s voice. There was a certain attitude that came with it. As if he wasn’t sitting in the middle of Reynoso’s home bar and staring down the barrel of two shotguns.
Reynoso got to his feet. More shuffling. More whispers. “If you want to live another thirty seconds I suggest you take your feet off that table.”
The man calling himself Nick slowly removed his feet from the table top and remained seated. “Your problem,” he said, “is that you rely too much on fear and intimidation. That’s what causes you to travel with such a small crew. Two gunmen. That’s not enough.”
Reynoso shook his head in pity. “You do not think I have men protecting this place?”
The tall American frowned and said, “Not anymore.”
Reynoso was intrigued by this brash invasion. He wanted to know more about these men. He asked the obvious, “You have other men outside?”
Nick shook his head. “Nope. Just us.”
There was no conceivable reason why such an admission would be made. Even if they were alone it made no sense to admit this.
Reynoso pointed to Nick. “Keep your hands on the table where I can see them.”
Nick leaned forward and placed his hands palm down on the table.
“Good,” Reynoso said. “Now why don’t you tell me why you are here.”
“We’re with the FBI,” Nick said. “We came to ask about the package you sent with Dane.”
Reynoso almost laughed. “You want to know about its contents?”
“And why would I tell you this?”
“Well, full disclosure, we already know it came from a Russian courier. One of your men already admitted this to us outside.”
Reynoso cursed under his breath, knowing it must’ve been his nephew Pedro. The kid was always a weak link. That was the danger in running a family business, you were always dealing with weak links that you couldn’t kill.
“Is he alive?” Reynoso asked only mildly interested.
“Yes,” Nick said. “All three of them are alive. Just tied up and gagged.”
Reynoso kicked at the floor. Dust particles drifted up and dissipated under the slow moving ceiling fans. “That is enough insults.” He lifted his hand and the two bodyguards brought their shotguns up and aimed them at the two men.
Nick held up a hand. “Before you shoot us. We’re curious about the briefcase you gave the kid. This Russian. Was that a onetime thing, or was it part of a series of deliveries?”
Reynoso tapped one of his bodyguards on the arm to get him to stand down. “You are quite inquisitive about this package. I will tell you before we kill you. The Russian who gave us the package is now dead himself. He did not tell us all the details about the package until the delivery was already moving. He will not be using our services, or anyone’s services any longer.”
Nick rose to his feet. “Good,” he said. “That’s really all we came for.”
Reynoso placed his hand on his chest. “Do you think you have jurisdiction in my country?”
Nick slowly shook his head. “No. We’re here on our own. Just a couple of American citizens having a beer.”
“And do you think you can just leave now?”
“I know we can.”
Reynoso like the man’s bravado, going down with dignity. He searched the crowd and saw no one who could cause him trouble. He owned the police department so a killing inside the Chico Rico Grill would never even raise a solitary question.
Reynoso turned toward the kid at the bar, who was shaking like a wet dog. “You think you will survive this too?”
The kid’s eyes widened.
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