The ship docks twenty-seven minutes late; its floodlights, muted to a pale yellow, nudge against the blackness of the early morning air. Alex watches from the harbour as the captain, a white smudge against the charcoal backdrop, scurries out of the bridge and below deck. The mules lining the perimeter of the shipyard drop their cigarettes and sink into the underbelly of the vessel in a disjointed line.
Before Alex can follow, her voice startles him into stillness. “My father won’t be happy about this.”
It’s the first time she has spoken in the hour they’ve been waiting for the shipment. She had slid out of her car upon arriving and into place beside him on the harbour, a sharp nod her only acknowledgment of his presence. Alex had tried to forget she was there, but the orange ring of light from her cigarettes lit her up amber, an unholy glow that drew his gaze unfailingly. Even in the dark he could see the bright red lipstick haloed around the cigarettes’ filters.
When she darts her eyes to him at last, they glint gold under the flame of her lighter. Her grin is a slow stretch of red.
Alex storms into the cargo hold to find the captain directing the other mules as they haul crates filled with sealed plastic packages onto trolleys. He’s a new recruit, less than eight months under his belt, and he trembles when Alex grips him by the lapels and slams him overtop one of the crates.
“There was a weather warning,” the captain blurts, before Alex can ask. “A storm. I didn’t want to risk the product.”
Alex increases the pressure on his clavicles. It was a good call, he knows, but it’s unwise to let the mules think that thinking for themselves is permitted.
“Next time you’re late with a delivery, a storm will be the least of your worries,” Alex hisses. He releases the man, throws him towards the remaining empty trolleys. The mules regard him warily. “You’ve got ten minutes,” he growls.
They manage it in five.
She’s still grinning when Alex returns to the harbour. He makes to move past her and into his car but she catches his hand. The contact breeds a heat that makes his fingers throb. She pushes a lit cigarette between his lips and he tastes the plastic waxiness of her lipstick.
When he inhales, his chest aches for one faltering moment, the long-fingered smoke stealing his breath.
They share a ride to the complex—she tosses her keys to a startled mule and requests that he follow behind them in her car. Alex isn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly isn’t for her to fiddle with the radio dial until the static shifts to the sound of an old James Taylor song Alex can just about recall the lyrics to. Her voice is silken around the softness of their edges; liquid warmth.
Oh, I gotta spend just a little more time with yo
Her smile makes Alex think of the moleskin journal he fills with lyrics of his own, the grand piano in his entrance hall that breathes them to life. She had found them, once. They had been working late, deliberating the details of a drop to a local distributor. Alex had returned from a smoke break to find her splayed across his sofa, one long finger touched to the top right corner of the journal’s pages.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Alex hadn’t needed her to clarify the question. She had been frowning, Alex’s dreams caught in the palms of her hands; dreams that would never see the light of day in the darkness of the world they inhabited
Now, the streetlights strike her through the windows and her eyelashes cast deep shadows over her cheeks.
I see you, Alex thinks, his fingers rippling a piano concerto across the steering wheel of their own accord.
Outside the Colonel’s office Alex sits as far from her as the leather waiting chairs allow. The grin she’s been wearing all night expands and slips into laughter but she says nothing; they sit in charged silence until the Colonel’s secretary announces they are free to go in.
Even sat behind his colossal desk the Colonel dwarfs the room. His bulk spans three feet in the shoulders and his head balances on a neck built like a car tyre. He inclines his head and the woman crosses the room to take his hand and kiss his cheek; her twists something in Alex’s gut.
The Colonel turns his attention to Alex. “I trust that the product is ready for transport?”
“Yes, Colonel.” Alex tries to keep his voice steady even as the woman takes a seat perpendicular to her father and crosses her ankles on the side of the desk. “The truck is loaded and secured in the underground level.”
The Colonel nods. “Be ready to leave for South America at six tomorrow morning,” he demands, waving a hand in dismissal. Alex is halfway to the door when he adds, “And don’t be late with a shipment again. You’d hate to see me angry.”
His hand curls possessively over his daughter’s shoulder, the first warning of many.
When Alex steps onto the private plane the next morning she is already on board, reclined in an armchair and sipping from a champagne flute. The Colonel, directly opposite, misses the reflexive widening of Alex’s eyes at the high hem of her skirt, the point at which her sheer blouse cleaves open to reveal caramel skin.
Alex takes the window seat parallel to them on the other side of the aisle and fixes his gaze on the runway outside. Some of the mules are transferring packages from the truck into the cargo hold of the plane. It’s a large shipment—close to two thousand kilograms—to be split between one of the larger cartels and a number of smaller distributors, one of whom is a first-time customer. The Colonel likes to oversee these drops first-hand; Alex has yet to be trusted to handle one solo.
“I want these order forms triple-checked,” the Colonel barks, slinging a file folder across the aisle. It hits Alex in the chest. “It’s your head if we’re short. Understood?”
Alex feels eyes on him the whole flight. He doesn’t dare look who they belong to.
Three hours in she alights from her seat to head to the bathroom, brushing her knuckles across the back of Alex’s neck as she passes. He startles from his inspection of the spread sheets to find the Colonel fast asleep and his daughter walking backwards up the aisle, her grin that maddening slow stretch of red.
It disappears with her into the bathroom and Alex is on his feet and following before the danger can register.
He kisses her with the intention of keeping it at bay forever.
The deal goes south—the new customers turn out to be undercover police and they lose half a dozen mules and a third of the shipment. The Colonel refuses to surrender and heavy fire breaks out, the air bursting into tiny flames, a hundred lighters sparking at once.
Alex dives to the Colonel’s side to cover him as they make their escape and receives a bullet in the shoulder for his trouble. He grits his teeth against the pain and keeps running, faster and farther away. The horizon hangs before him like an omen, a slash of slowly darkening red.
Only five of their outfit make it to the escape van parked two streets over from the drop zone. Alex lets out a cry of relief when he sees her in the front passenger seat. There isn’t time for anything more than their eyes to meet before she’s directing the driver to their preordained safe house while Alex tries to stem the bleeding from his shoulder. The Colonel finds his voice only when the chain of police cars disappear from the rear-view mirror.
“Motherfucking pigs,” he spits. “We’re out at least twenty million. Interfering bastards.”
His daughter offers platitudes, condolences,
‘everything’s going to be alright, daddy’s.
She slides her eyes to Alex; his wound throbs in time with his heart.
Warning the second.
Their designated medic is detained in a police station somewhere and so she is the one to stitch him up. There’s little in the way of supplies but a few long pulls from a vodka bottle dull the edges of the pain enough to get Alex through it without screaming.
Her touch is gentle, soothing even as the antiseptic stings, salt-like. “Does it hurt?”
Alex shrugs his one good shoulder. “You get used to it.”
“If you were a musician, you probably couldn’t say that.”
“You’re the Colonel’s daughter,” Alex mutters. “There’s no way out of this for you.”
He doesn’t finish the thought, but she doesn’t need him to. She empties her hands of bandages and scotch tape and fills them with him instead; strips them both of their clothes and pushes him backward onto the bed. She takes his uninjured hand in her own and draws it to her chest. Her heart pounds beneath Alex’s palm, violent; the warning he cannot bring himself to heed.
The price is a second bullet, bleeding dark red onto her fingertips.
Written by Shannon Eden