I saw a guy that morning who looked like something hanging in the back of a butcher shop. Face all muscle and meat, red flesh-ribbons dangling from his jaw, maxillary sinus exposed, carotid calmly pulsing. Dog mauling, I figured—maybe a Doberman. He was chatting on his cell as he bought a Post at the newsstand on Ninth and 15th. Me, I just walked on by, heading for my office, locked inside this head, locked behind these eyes. After fifteen years, I don't even blink at it anymore. I've got this condition—I can see every wound everybody ever had.
Bodies take a lot of abuse over a lifetime. The only time you're unmarked is the day you're born—it's all downhill from there. I see each cut, gash, stab wound, surgical incision, and bite that ever broke the skin. So the world looks a little different from my perspective. But like I say, I've learned to adjust.
Actually, I don't go out much.
When I got to my office, a woman was waiting outside. Unusual. I run my business mostly by email, instant message, and, to a lesser degree, phone. That's why I don't upgrade my office, which is a spare, dark little room in a building on Tenth.
This woman was about thirty, and she looked nervous. She didn't have any major facial wounds, which meant I could see her features clearly. They were striking, Latin—large dark eyes, velvety black eyebrows, dark hair carelessly tied up.
Oh, and she was pregnant. Very pregnant.
"Are you Paul Catoctin?"
"That's why I have the key," I said, unlocking my door. She came in behind me. She wore tennis shoes and a simple black maternity dress, no sleeves—it was August—but you could tell the clothes cost money. And her bag—brown calf leather that looked soft enough to sleep on. Speaking of lovers, she might not have dressed to impress that morning, but she was gorgeous.
"My name's Caroline Vasquez. I'm hoping you can help me."
"Most people email."
I sat at my desk. She stood looking at me, awkwardly holding her belly, since there was nowhere to sit.
"Here," I said, taking mercy and moving a stack of papers. Caroline Vasquez perched herself on the edge of the desk, hands remaining protectively on her belly, and looked sideways at me.
"How far along are you?" I asked.
"Lucky guy, the father."
I don't know why I said that. I'm terrible with women. I hadn't had a girlfriend in fifteen years, since I acquired the condition. I'm a man with all the standard needs and desires—but as you can imagine, the condition makes it difficult. While I've grown to appreciate a certain beauty in the variations of traumatized flesh I see every day—the lacework of shredded skin, the vibrant ruby of an arterial exposure—it's tough to get sexually aroused by a naked body that's, at best, merely covered in bloody cuts and gashes. Unfortunately, most people have also had some kind of surgery in their lives, so just imagine fucking someone with a glistening appendectomy incision. Or fake breasts, God forbid. And don't even think about any woman who's given birth—just the word "episiotomy" sends a shudder through me.
Now, just to be clear, my condition is almost entirely visual. If I try to touch the wounds I see, I can only feel just a velvety hint of them, like a memory...but the primary tactile sensation is the smooth, unbroken flesh. Which means that sex in total darkness can work. At the time I met Caroline Vasquez, I'd managed that twice. Twice in fifteen years. That was my life.
One good thing is that on video, at least, or in photographs—or in reflections—I don't see the wounds. Which is why I spend a lot of time watching pornography.
"I'm gay," Caroline Vasquez said. "The father's an anonymous donor."
"Oh," I said awkwardly, "ah, I see. Sorry."
I'd never seen such a beautiful lesbian. But it made it easier, actually. I already felt more at ease around her.
"I need you to take a look at someone for me, ASAP," Caroline said. "One day, very simple job, and I'll pay you well."
"That doesn't sound like what I do."
She wrinkled her brows in irritation, causing a little red cut on one of the furrows to pop open like a tiny mouth. "What kind of investigator are you, anyway?"
"I'm a data recovery specialist," I said. "That means I acquire information and people pay me for the information. If you want me to look at somebody's financial history, court records, land deals, uh, digital correspondence—I can do that. If you want me to leave this office and follow somebody—not my thing. But I can refer you to the best—Jack Wheeler—"
"Jack's the one who sent me to you," she said. "He said you'd be perfect for this. He said you're not a doctor, but you know everything there is to know about injuries and...scar tissue."
I hesitated. Jack's an old friend and colleague. He doesn't know about my condition—no one does. He just thinks I have a sixth sense when it comes to reading people's scars, guessing how they got them.
"That's true," I admitted.
My grandfather, Walt Catoctin, who carried the blood of the Kittocton Indian tribe, raised me in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. He taught me to hunt when I was very young. I was small for my age, but by the time I was twelve, there was no better shot with a rifle in the whole county. I was extremely good at killing things. And I had fun doing it.
I don't know exactly how I got my condition. But I'll tell you a story.
The winter I was thirteen, I went hunting alone one day. The weather was dark; a blizzard was expected. After about an hour, I saw a magnificent stag, majestic, a king of the forest. Twelve-point antlers. An emperor. I shot the stag—and it ran off. I tracked it. I hadn't missed—I was too good a shot to miss—but a bullet that would have killed a lesser buck had merely staggered this one. The blood trail seemed to go on for miles. Then night fell...and snow began to fall. The stag had gotten lucky... the snow would cover his trail completely. But now it was dark and I was far from home, and I hadn't dressed warmly enough—or brought any food. I tried to go back the way I'd come, but the snow hid the stars, and my arms and legs became heavy, and I was on the verge of abandoning my rifle. I realized with a sudden terrible clarity that I was freezing to death. And then I saw the stag.
It was standing only a short distance away, looking at me. It seemed unafraid. I had the strange feeling, for a moment, that it was a man. A tall young brave, fearless and naked, looking at me, just waiting to show me the way home. And then I shot the stag right through his heart.
With my hunting knife, I cut open his great chest. I drank some of his steaming blood and pulled out the feverish entrails and warmed my hands on them. I gored out his chest and crawled inside as much as I could, huddled there, my upper body inside his, the heat of his life still stored in the muscles all around me. The feeling was pre-human.
When I woke up and crawled out of him, gore-streaked and reborn, it was morning and the snow had stopped. I found my way back home. During the night, my grandfather had died of a heart attack.
That was the first part of the story.
"I need you to look at my twin sister's husband," Caroline said. "His name is Juan Goría. Some time ago, he disappeared. Now he's returned—and he has some very strange scars. I want you to tell me what they are, if you can."
"I might be able to do that," I said.
"Can you do it today? I'll pay you five hundred dollars."
"Cash up front," I said.
She took five hundred dollars out of her bag and set it on the desk. "Another five hundred if you can tell me what the scars are and how he got them."
"I can do this today," I said, looking at the money.
"Good," she said. "I want you to see his entire body. He's at the Royalton on 44th, and in about an hour, he'll go to the sauna. You can get a look at him there."
I stood. "Let's go, then."
"One other thing," Caroline said. "He'll have men around him. Three men."
She rose carefully. "No...associates. Although he does have four bodyguards. But they won't go into the sauna—they'll wait outside."
"On the way," I said, grabbing my keys, "tell me all about Juan Goría."
We went outside and got a cab. The driver's neck wound glistened, bits of frayed skin fluttering whenever he turned his head. A small, serrated knife, I thought—probably a clumsy robbery. We hit traffic.
"A few years ago, my twin sister Francesca and I went to Mexico, the state of Sinaloa, to work for a group called Ayudar A Los Niños," Caroline said. "They aid the street children there—many are addicts, street thieves and prostitutes—hidden victims of Sinaloa cartel, which controls the state and was at war with the Gulf cartel. We were raised here, in New York, by our grandparents, and I had no idea what it would be like down there. The war between the cartels made it dangerous to even go outside. They were mad people, brutal—they would walk into cafes and open a sack of human heads and roll them across the floor."
I tried to imagine living in a place like that with my condition. The parade of grotesqueries on every street. And I thought New York was bad.
"Francesca became attached to two young children she rescued—brothers. Alvaro and Hector, five and seven. Tiny little boys who had been surviving on their own. It was forbidden for us to bring children home—but Francesca knew that if they were moved to the orphanage they would go right back to the street."
We were halfway to 44th Street, traffic inching along. On the sidewalk, a man walked a collie whose belly hung open in neat pink flaps. Spayed.
"Where does Juan Goría come in?"
"At Ayudar, we worked with priests from the Diocese of Culiacán. They introduced us to wealthy philanthropists from Sinaloa and Durango. One was Juan Goría. He was handsome, smart, from a wealthy family—he'd been to business school at UC San Diego and come home to run a Sinaloan shipping company. His brother Raul is one of the top surgeons in Mexico. Juan tried to seduce me. When I resisted, he switched his attentions to Francesca. She resisted, too, but he was very persistent. Alvaro and Hector were going to be sent to the orphanage and Juan offered to legally adopt them. Somehow he was able to pay bribes and do it. After that, Francesca gave in and began seeing him."
"You said he disappeared," I prompted.
"I'm getting to that. After she'd been seeing him for a few months, Juan took Francesca and the boys away for a week at his family's ranch. I don't know exactly where it is... in the country, and supposed to be quite beautiful. Two weeks passed, and they didn't come back. Then Juan came back—alone. He told me they'd gotten married, and she and the boys would stay at the ranch from now on. I knew something was wrong. She wasn't answering her phone. Finally I got an email from her, confirming his story. I felt he must have done something to her, held her against her will. I tried to find the ranch, but no one could tell me where it was. Juan remained at the Diocese of Culiacán for a time, but he wouldn't tell me anything about my sister. Then, one day, he just disappeared."
"That's what we thought. The war between the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels had escalated—there was violence everywhere. Assassination, massacres, kidnappings. But no ransom demand came for Juan. After a month, people assumed he was dead. I still couldn't find Francesca. The U.S. government was no help—they said her email indicated that she wasn't missing, and it was her choice if she wanted to cut off contact with her family. I kept emailing but got no response. This was last October. Not long afterward, I was attacked...a stranger broke into the house...I'm lucky I escaped with my life. I left Mexico immediately. It took me months to recover."
Interesting, I thought—she had no visible significant injuries. On the other hand, I can't see through clothes.
"You never found out what happened to Francesca?" I said.
Caroline took a deep breath. We entered Times Square. "I kept calling, emailing. Short emails, begging for a reply. I never gave up. A month ago, I sent her a long email, telling her—a lot of things. About the attack that made me leave Mexico, about my pregnancy. And then...she replied. She said she was fine—and she and Juan would come to New York in a month to be here for the baby's birth. I didn't even know Juan had been found—I still believed he was dead. Anyway, they arrived three days ago."
The cab pulled up at the Royalton. Caroline paid and we got out. She pointed at the Sofitel, another luxury hotel—right across from the Royalton. "Come in here first."
I followed her into the lobby. "I'll wait here," she said, sitting in a dark red armchair. "I've rented a room. It's directly across from the Royalton penthouse suite—where Juan and Francesca and Juan's men are staying. They have the whole floor."
"You're watching them?"
Caroline nodded. "Juan and his men are keeping her there, I think. I haven't seen her since she's been back. By the way, this is Juan—it's old, but clear."
She showed me a photograph on her iPhone. Juan Goría was handsome, with a strong jaw and neatly parted black hair. Upper-class Mexican professional.
"Ohh," Caroline said, a beatific look coming over her face as she touched her belly. "He kicked."
I smiled politely.
She looked at her watch. "They'll be going in the sauna soon."
"How do you know their schedule?" I said.
"Jack Wheeler." Of course. "Are you ready, Mr. Catoctin?"
"I am," I said. "And call me Paul."
I left her nestled there in the red armchair, hands resting delicately on her belly.
I was raised by an uncle after my grandfather died. When I was eighteen, I needed open heart surgery for an atrial septal defect. That's a hole in the heart. One day, hunting, I'd just fallen to my knees in the forest. I could hear my heart losing the beat...it was like some mad Morse code, like some radioman beyond the grave sending me urgent signals, tap-tap-tapping a message.
As I lay naked under the white sheet on the operating table, the anesthesiologist asked if I'd ever had general anesthesia before.
"No," I said.
"It's like time travel. Like that"—snapping his fingers—"blink and it's over."
Well, I stared up at the cold white ceiling and I breathed deep from the mask, thinking I'd blink and open my eyes in the recovery room. But it was not like time travel, not at all. Or actually, it was, but not the way he meant. A woolly black curtain of darkness went down, and when it rose again, I was not in the recovery room but back inside the great stag's warm, protecting corpse. Pre-human, a kind of communion. I was becoming a part of the deer, our spirits were somehow joined. And after a while I fell backward into scratchy white hospital sheets and I looked down at myself and saw my whole torso open like a horrific red flower—they had forgotten to close me up!
I croaked out a scream, and nurses came running, and when I saw their gashed and shredded faces lean over me, I screamed again and received an injection of sedatives.
It took me several days to realize my chest wasn't really open. I could see my neatly sutured wound in the mirror. And the doctors' and nurses' faces looked normal in the mirrors, too. I felt sure I was going crazy, but I learned to pretend that everything was fine. (Only weeks later, when I began to realize that every wound I saw on every person corresponded to something in that person's history, did I realize I wasn't crazy. I had just been given a bizarre and not particularly useful gift.) So I kept my mouth shut and hoped it would go away.
It never did.
They were already in the sauna. Juan Goría and his three companions, just like she'd said. But I couldn't tell which was Juan, because their faces were bloody wrecks.
Naked, I sat on my towel. I looked at myself: the huge bloody fist-space in my chest marked the site of my open-heart surgery. Purplish puncture wounds on my knee were the work of a pit bull when I was sixteen. The neatly clipped and bloody stem of my foreskin ringed the head of my cock. (That's another thing that makes sex off-putting.) And a hundred other scratches and lacerations were a lifetime's accumulation.
The faces of Juan Goría and his men had been peeled apart. They looked like 3-D craniofacial models, sans skin. All the red musculature of their faces and jaws was exposed...raw meat with veiny eyeballs embedded in it. I couldn't tell which one was Juan. Two of them also had gruesome horizontal abdominal incisions as well. All the incisions I could see were clean, precise, surgical.
Obvious: These men had all had extreme facial reconstructive surgery. And two had had abdominoplasties as well.
"Hi guys," I said. "Hot in here, no?"
They stared at me. "Not hot enough," one said in smooth English, only slightly accented. His face was the most deconstructed, the most gory and fucked-up. "We like it nearly...intolerable."
"Brave men," I said. "You all staying at the Royalton?"
"What does it matter?" the same one said.
"True," I said. "I'm Bill." I waved, like a tourist. "What's your all's names?"
The man's blood-mask briefly grinned, the muscles tugging the lips apart. My act seemed to amuse him. "Juan," he said. Then he looked at the others as if encouraging them to play along.
"Osvaldo," the largest of them said, before the shortest said, "Cruz." They were the two who'd had abdominoplasties. "Ramon," said the fourth.
"What you all here for, business or pleasure?"
"We are here to do a little of this and that in your beautiful country," Juan said, rising so that the flaps of skin on his face trembled delicately. "More heat, my friend?" With a slow, deliberate motion, he turned the heat all the way up.
"How's the hunting where you're at in Mexico?"
"The hunting?" Juan said. He looked at his friends. Now that I'd registered their major surgical wounds, I was noticing other, unrelated ones. Osvaldo, for example, had jagged knife punctures all up his side. "How is the hunting in Mexico, my friends?"
"The hunting is good this year," Osvaldo said. "Very good hunting."
Cruz and Ramon stared at me—their eyes white marbles in red swamps of gore.
"Do y'all hunt deer?" I said. "I bet you don't have deer hunting in Mexico."
"Do we hunt deer?" Juan said. "My friend, I have a ranch in a valley in the most beautiful part of Mexico. It is stocked with javelina and exotic rams and monster mule deer and huge, huge whitetail bucks. My friend, we go hunting twice a year and—we kill them all! Ha ha. Todos los animales están muerto! You should see the rifles we hunt with, my friend. It is a slaughter. The blood fills the valley. At the end of the week, in the, the, what is it, the hanging room, they are all hung up by their legs, javelinas, rams, and the great, stupid deer. Hundreds of animals! I have whole teams who go around to the bodies with, you know, with the knives, to cut up—drain the blood" He paused. "And then, next month, we restock the valley."
"Sounds like something," I said.
Juan Goría kept laughing. "You have never hunted like we have hunted, friend."
I excused myself and went into the locker room. I showered quickly, but when I was done, Juan and his friends had come in, too. In the mirror, I saw their real faces. The other three had only the faintest scarring and facial irregularities. But Juan, who'd had more extensive work (which was strange, because he looked quite similar to the picture Caroline had showed me), had clearer—and fresher—scar tissue.
My Spanish is passable and what I gathered from their conversation was that they were going to dinner soon, but had to go upstairs for Juan to make a phone call first. I got dressed and went back across the street.
Caroline was right where I'd left her, in the red chair, but now she was talking on the phone, holding back tears, uttering phrases like "But why won't you—" and "Please, I don't understand, can't you—"
When she hung up, I sat across from her.
"That was Francesca," Caroline said in a bewildered voice, wiping her eyes. "It's so bizarre...she won't tell me anything, and she won't agree to meet me anywhere except in the Royalton, with Juan there. And she—she kept asking strange questions..."
"Like about the baby. And saying how I must, must call her when I go into labor, because she has to be there...and can't she and Juan throw me a baby shower—in the Royalton. It doesn't sound like her. It's all so...insensitive." She stroked her belly, her dark hair falling in a curtain over her scratched-up face.
She bit her lip, struggling.
"The attack I told you about—in Sinaloa? It was a rape. I think he was part of a gardening crew from the neighborhood—they never caught him. The rapist is the father of my baby."
"Christ," I said.
"And Francesca knows that—because I told her in the email I sent a month ago. The one she finally responded to."
I told Caroline about the sauna, about how the scars had come from major plastic/reconstructive surgery.
"But Juan's face hasn't changed," she said. "Except for the scars."
"I know," I said. "I heard them say they were going to dinner. I'd like to go back and keep an eye on them, if it's okay with you. No extra charge. I'm curious now."
The restaurant in the Royalton was dark, oak-paneled, with gentle flames rising smoothly from a long silvery grille on one side of the room. Juan Goría and his friends sat near the corner, their meat-flower faces trembling and glistening. There was one addition to their group: Francesca Vasquez. She looked exactly like Caroline—same gorgeous dark eyes, same black hair—just not pregnant. And she wore a backless black dress that revealed deep red slash wounds across her back.
Three bodyguards ate at the table beside them. Caroline had said four. That meant one bodyguard likely still upstairs.
Only one aspect of my condition is aural: when I see a dead person or animal, I can hear, very faintly, the sound they made as they died. Most people and animals die quietly, so even at funerals, this isn't really an issue. Sometimes if I see an animal that's been hit by a car, I'll hear a terrified cry or squeal. But where it's really a problem is restaurants. All around me I can hear the meat—very faintly—screaming.
I'm a vegetarian.
Rising, I went to the men's room. Just as I'd entered the handwashing area and nodded at the attendant—who stood ready to attend to me with his table of towels and breath mints and crumpled dollar-bill tips—the door burst open again behind me and the attendant yelped, "Hey!"
Francesca had followed me. She locked the door behind us and shoved a hundred-dollar bill at the attendant, who immediately stopped protesting.
"Who are you?" she demanded, clutching my shirt.
"I'm—I'm Bill Lewis, from Idaho."
"Don't bullshit me! I saw you watching us at dinner. They saw, too—they're onto you. Now who are you, who sent you?"
Someone pounded on the door, tried to open it. "Francesca!" a Spanish-accented voice said. "Por esta puerta!"
"Your sister sent me," I said quietly. "She's worried about you—terrified."
Francesca went pale. Her eyes were deeper, darker, than her sister's. "Tell Caroline to get the fuck away! Tell her to get out of the city before she has the baby! Ignore anything I say on the phone. And no police—no police!"
The Spanish voice called to someone else. A key turned in the lock and the door opened to reveal one of the bodyguards and a black-suited hotel employee with a shredded lower lip. I shoved past them and the bodyguard hesitated, unsure whether to grab me or Francesca. I raced out of the restaurant into the chic, dark lobby.
"Sir? Sir? You have to pay," someone called after me. I looked back to see hotel people and Mexican bodyguards hurrying after me. In the lobby I turned a corner and ducked into a fire staircase, then sprinted up two flights of stairs and into a quiet hallway. I walked calmly to the elevator and got in. While they were looking for me downstairs—now was my chance.
On the penthouse level, I emerged in a hallway with a single door. Now, like I said, my expertise as an investigator lies mainly in the digital realm—but I do know a few tricks of the trade. For example, I carry in my wallet four magnetic keycards. It's almost guaranteed that if you need to get into a locked hotel room, at least one of these keycards will do the trick. And one did.
The penthouse suite was dark and massive—and empty. I peered into one of the bedrooms, saw the huge, sumptuous king-size bed, the half-eaten room service breakfast still on a tray.
A gun touched my neck. Fuck. The fourth bodyguard.
"Hands—up." Thickest Spanish accent yet. I got frisked. I wasn't carrying a gun, of course. A rough hand pushed me down the hallway.
"A través de esta puerta." He nudged me into the bathroom—a palatial, sleek, dark-tiled space. Biggest tub I'd ever seen. In the mirror, I saw his real face—square, heavy, older. Glancing back to see his face as only I could see it, I recognized patterns of pointillist wounds constellating on both cheeks and his forehead. That means severe bruising. I don't see bruises themselves—for some reason, my condition only lets me see wounds that broke the skin or tore the tissues—but when a bruise is so bad that tiny beads of blood break the skin, you get that pointillist pattern. This guy had been beaten with a baseball bat at some point.
"Why are we in the bathroom?" I asked.
"Es más fácil arreglar el desastre aquí." Easier clean-up. "Ahora de rodillas." Get on your knees.
"Listen, I'm a friend of Juan's—," I said, but then the gun clattered on the tiles. When I turned, a man who seemed to be made of grievous injuries was strangling the bodyguard so violently and with such maniacal pleasure that I heard the hyoid bone crunch. I saw the strangler's reflection in the mirror: a thin, hollow-eyed Mexican covered in scar tissue. To my eyes, his face looked like a collage of giant butterflies with meat-wings. He appeared to have been flayed with machetes.
As he let the bodyguard's corpse fall, I picked up the gun.
"Who are you?" I said.
"Who are you?" The Strangler didn't seem afraid. "Were you at the ranch?"
"Juan's ranch? Nope, never been. What do you know about Francesca?"
"¿Quién es Francesca?"
A door slammed and voices barked in Spanish—Juan's, Osvaldo's...
"¡Mierda!" The Strangler turned off the bathroom light and closed the door. Only a small nightlight glowed. "Ayúdame." He hefted the body halfway into the tub. I helped him roll it over the edge, and then we closed the shower curtain.
Footsteps approached the bathroom. I aimed the gun at the door. When it opened, Francesca froze for a moment. Then she shouted, "He's not down here!" An angry voice shouted back in Spanish, and she answered, "Lo haré , pero tengo que mear primero," then slipped into the bathroom and shut the door.
"What are you doing?" she hissed. "You're going to get yourself killed... get other people killed. And who's he?" We both looked at the Strangler.
"I don't know who he is," I said. "He just killed the guy who's in the bathtub."
"Yo soy el ángel de la retribución," the Strangler said.
Francesca tugged the shower curtain aside and saw Antonio's corpse. "Oh, God." She touched my face—she had tender hands, caring hands. Unmarked hands. "We have no time," she said. "You have to make my sister leave town, hide, before she has the baby. Promise me."
"I don't know if that's a promise I can make," I said. Footsteps were coming down the hall.
She cupped my face urgently. "I'll lead them away. Then go right, then left, and there's a fire door," she said. Someone pounded on the door, shouted her name.
I shoved my cell phone into her hand. She jerked her head at the shower curtain.
The Strangler and I hid behind the curtain, standing on Antonio's corpse, while Francesca led whoever it was away. Then we ducked out and slipped down the hall to the fire door. We ran down two flights, emerged in a hallway, and got in the elevator.
"Who are you?" I said.
"What were you doing up there?"
"I look for Juan. We were not sure he really came back...must be something very important."
"Come back from what?" I said. "Who is Juan?"
Quintana stared at me with something like incredulous contempt, if a walking blood-sponge can have such an expression. "Who are you?" he said. We left the elevator and hurried outside to 44th Street.
'"Retribución.' Let me guess—did Juan give you your...scars?"
He just lowered his mangled head, skin-flaps swaying, as if I were too stupid to be humored. And then he leapt into a cab and was gone.
Caroline was still waiting downstairs at the Sofitel.
"Juan Goría isn't your normal businessman, that's for sure," I said. "You have a suite upstairs? Let's go there."
On the elevator, I made Caroline give me her cell phone, and I sent a text message from it to my phone: "call this # when you can." When we got to Caroline's suite, I recounted what had happened at the Royalton.
"So she does want to get away. She's being held against her will. I knew it."
"That still leaves a pretty bad situation," I said. "Maybe we bring the police? There is a dead body over there now."
"If she said no police, no police," Caroline said. "We don't know what kind of danger she might be in. We wait for her to call. Don't worry, I'll put you on retainer." We were looking out her window—at the penthouse suite of the Royalton. Heavy curtains blocked the windows. Behind them, had Juan found Antonio's body yet?
"Don't you think you ought to get out of New York?" I said. "Francesca was clear about that. She seemed to think the baby would be in danger. Could Juan want to take the baby?"
Caroline put both hands on her belly. "I'm not going anywhere until I get my sister back. She's here, now, and I'm not going to take the chance of him whisking her away to Mexico again."
"I guess we wait, then," I said. I took an armchair and Caroline lay on the bed.
Puzzle pieces started to jam together in my brain. None of them quite fit, but almost. Navarro Quintana had mentioned the ranch. Juan Goría had had extensive facial reconstruction surgery, but he still looked the same. Juan had disappeared when...
I fell asleep. The phone's vibrations woke me—after dark. Caroline remained asleep on the bed.
"Hello?" I said softly.
"It's Francesca. I can talk, but I'm not sure how long. Juan's asleep."
"Come to one of the north windows if you can," I said, going to the window and looking across. "I'll see you."
After a moment, one of the Royalton penthouse suite's curtains rippled and she stepped through, ensconcing herself between the curtain and the glass, concealed.
"Good," I said. "That'll muffle your voice. Is he sleeping in the room with you?"
"Can you see me?"
Her dark eyes scanned buildings—and met mine. Held them.
"I see you. What's your real name?"
"Paul," I said.
"Paul," she murmured. "Paul, I need you to help my sister, get her out of here before it's too late. Before Juan has a chance to take the baby."
"So Juan wants the baby," I said, glancing at Caroline, who was still asleep. "Listen, you've gotta fill in some blanks for me. You obviously don't want to be with Juan. So what's he holding over you?"
"The boys," she said. "Two little boys my sister and I rescued in Sinaloa—Alvaro and Hector. He adopted them legally. If I escape, he'll kill them."
"Who is Juan Goría?"
Francesca laughed harshly. "He's security director for the Sinaloan cartel. Which means among other things, he's their chief torturer."
"And after you learned the truth..."
"He kept us prisoner. The whole time, I've been kept from email or phone. He read my email and replied as me. His 'ranch' is a fortified compound. I got pregnant there, but I had a miscarriage. He thought it was intentional—he was furious."
"Why'd he disappear? And why'd he reappear—and come to New York, now?"
Caroline stirred, murmuring in her sleep.
"The war between the cartels became too dangerous," Francesca said. "Three of his lieutenants were killed...their heads with their genitals in their mouth were left on the street...Juan was targeted for assassination. He and Raul and the others had plastic surgery. Became unrecognizable. He could move freely in Sinaloa like that, run the war remotely. But then the war ended. A U.S.–Mexico task force killed the Gulf cartel and Juan and his people have power again, unchallenged. But when Juan read Caroline's email about the baby, that she was due in just a month, he had more surgery—had his original face reconstructed so he could come to New York with me and be here to snatch the baby as soon as it's born."
"I still don't get it," I whispered. "Why does Juan want the baby?"
"Because the baby's his," Francesca said desperately. "He was the rapist. With his other face, she never recognized him."
"Shit," I murmured.
Caroline rose sleepily from the bed—then realized I was on the phone. "Is it her?" As she joined me at the window, she saw her sister across the way at the Royalton.
"Chess!" She snatched the phone from my hand. "Tell me what's going on!"
Whatever Francesca was starting to say, she got cut off when the curtains were yanked open and thick arms grabbed her from behind, dragged her out of sight.
"Where are you going?" Caroline shouted as I headed for the door.
"Over there. Call the police, tell them a woman's being attacked."
"Just do it!"
Downstairs, I sprinted across 44th to the Royalton. A black-suited employee recognized me and yelled, but I jumped in the elevator and took it straight to the top, to the hallway with one door. Then, gun ready, I dipped the magnetic keycard and flung the door open.
The penthouse suite looked empty. I edged in. I edged down the corridor toward the north side of the suite. A door was open—master bedroom. Francesca and Juan's room. I peered in...nothing. Empty. The whole suite was empty. Where were they?
I yanked the curtains open and looked across at the Sofitel from the same spot where Francesca had stood minutes earlier. Caroline stared anxiously back at me. I held up my hands helplessly to show her I hadn't found anything.
Then the phone rang—the hotel phone. I grabbed it.
"What are you doing there?"
"Who is this?"
"Navarro Quintana. And that is my gun you are having, no?"
"It is," I said. "Would you like me to return it to you? I bet you can see me through the window right now, can't you?"
"Sí...I'm right across the street, in the Sofitel."
"God damn it," I said, hanging up the phone. I scanned the windows of the Sofitel, but I didn't see him. When I turned to leave, a man stood in the doorway, aiming a gun at me.
"Un amigo de Navarro?" I said. He had wound patterns just like Navarro's—that same flayed, fanned pattern, skin hanging loose in ribbons and thin red flaps.
"You're the one he told me about," he said.
"Paul Catoctin, it's a pleasure. I'm guessing you two were guests at Juan's ranch? Victims of the torturer...and now you want revenge. Who are you—Gulf cartel? Former Mexican military?"
"We were police. Which he owns. Call me Guillermo."
"You must've been looking a long time. Did you know he had a whole new face for a while?"
"We had heard that," he admitted. "So where is he?"
"They were in this suite ten minutes ago."
Guillermo pointed over my shoulder. I looked out the window—and saw Juan closing Caroline's curtains over in the Sofitel.
Fuck. He had to assume Caroline now knew about the plan to grab the baby. In that case he couldn't wait until it was born—he'd have to risk grabbing Caroline herself before she had time to flee. And he was doing it now.
"Come on," I said.
We took the elevator. A middle-aged woman got on with us halfway down with her nose split open and peeled back (rhinoplasty). Faintly, I heard the death-scream of a hog...she must've had a ham sandwich in her purse. When we stepped into the lobby, we saw two of Juan's bodyguards sitting with the ashen Francesca. Each held one of her wrists. They must've been coming down on the elevator as I was going up, I realized.
One started to rise, and Guillermo shot him in the face; the back chunk of his head smacked the wall. The funny thing about my condition is that seeing somebody actually suffer horrible trauma seems completely unremarkable. The rhinoplasty lady shrieked. Guillermo shot the other bodyguard through the eye. Splash #2 on the wall.
We started toward Francesca when I heard a sound and Guillermo staggered. I looked at him. The other funny thing about my condition is sometimes I can't tell when people are hurt because old injuries obscure a new one. Then I saw a bit of Guillermo's face-meat fly off and realized he'd just been shot from behind again. Juan's friend Ramon was walking up on us, gun raised. I shot him through the heart and he crumpled.
People were screaming.
I helped Francesca to her feet. When she got up, I realized her ankle or foot was broken. They must've done it as punishment. She'd gone white with pain.
"That's Juan's brother Raul, you know," she said, nodding at Ramon's corpse. "With his new face."
"Wait here," I said. "I'm going across the street."
But when I looked back, she was hobbling after me. "Wait there!" I yelled. I stuffed the gun in my jacket and ran outside. Sirens wailed. I became part of the chaotic crowd, the mangled mob, the laceration parade. I ran across the street. Navarro stood outside the Sofitel, his bloody skin-petals fluttering anxiously.
"Your friend Guillermo's dead," I told him. "We just killed Raul and two bodyguards. Now let's go upstairs and get Juan."
We walked through the Sofitel lobby, past guests gawking at the Royalton melee. In the elevator, I told Navarro, "There's one bodyguard left, plus Juan and Osvaldo and Cruz. That means maybe four of them. I hope you have another gun."
He did. The elevator opened. I led Navarro to Caroline's door. We heard voices inside. "Four of them," Navarro hissed. "I hope you are good with shooting."
"I am," I said. "Ready?"
When I opened the door, we saw Osvaldo and Cruz and the last bodyguard standing in the center of the room, looking down. Juan Goría was on his knees, and Caroline lay sprawled on the carpet in front of him, moaning, her face twisted in agony and her dress hiked up.
Juan looked up, hair wild. "How the fuck do you deliver a baby?" he shouted. I shot him in the shoulder. Navarro shot the bodyguard in the head. It popped like a rotten strawberry. I shot Cruz twice in the chest, and Navarro took out Osvaldo. The room was splashed with blood and bits of gore.
Juan lay moaning on the carpet, clutching his shoulder, blood pulsing out between his fingers.
"I thought you were good with shooting," Navarro said.
"I was leaving him for you."
We approached Juan, guns on him. Caroline crawled backward across the carpet, away from him, tendons standing out on her neck.
"Por favor!" Juan pleaded. "I only came here for my child. I have no children. I am a humble man. Have mercy, my friends!"
"He was going to steal the baby," Caroline gasped.
"Yeah, he's the father," I told her. "You didn't recognize him when he raped you because he'd had plastic surgery."
"Oh God, shoot him!" she screamed.
"Seria un placer," Navarro said, and emptied his gun into Juan's head, which erupted into a glorious ragged mess of red pulp.
"Fuck!" Caroline yelled, eyes closed in agony.
I knelt between her legs. Real-life vaginas often look bloody to me—I can see the torn hymen. "How do you deliver a baby?" I said.
"Just...catch?" Navarro suggested.
"I just don't want to fuck it up," I said. "Doesn't this take eight or ten hours?"
"AAAAGGGGHHGHH," Caroline screamed.
"That baby's coming now," Francesca said from the doorway. She limped in, dragging her broken ankle through the pool of blood leaking from Cruz's body, and sank to the floor beside me. "Just help her along," she told me.
"I'd love to, but I don't know what that means," I said. "Where are the cops, Francesca?"
"All over the place downstairs," Francesca said. "Right now, focus on this."
"I am focused. But what do I do?"
"When you don't know, don't do," Navarro advised.
Francesca squeezed her sister's hand. "Breathe, Caroline," she said. "Regular breathing. Only push gently with the contractions. Okay—oh, okay, he's coming now." We glimpsed the head.
"Huh, wow," I said, fascinated. This was different from the usual sorts of gore I saw. Francesca put her hands lightly on the baby's head as it emerged further. "What are you doing now?" I said. "Are you pulling it out?"
"You don't pull! You provide support."
Caroline's other hand clawed the bloody carpet. Then I realized she was groping for my hand. I grabbed hers and squeezed. She screamed as the head came further out. Then, amazingly, a little shoulder emerged, and then the other shoulder, and then the rest of the football-sized body suddenly slid out fast and slippery, steaming with life, as hot as entrails. The baby was a boy. Francesca picked him up and handed him to Caroline, who cradled him in exhausted arms. I looked at the baby. He began to cry. His body was brand-new, undamaged.
He was in for it.