“‘Nozzing’ again,” Jack said. “I changed my mind about taking you to a speech therapist, Jaime. There’s no cure for certain kinds of stupidity. It’s kind of like laminitis in a horse. Instead of the hoof curling up, your kind of stupidity shrinks the brain into a walnut. We put horses down, don’t we?”

Jaime was breathing through his mouth, staring at the muzzle of the Thompson, his nose crinkling, as though he had no place to put the fear and tension coursing through his body.

“You still have your Uzi,” Jack said.

“I want to go back home.”

“That’s what everybody wants, Jaime. Even if home is just a place they made up in their minds. You know what home is? It’s a black hole in the ground where somebody shovels dirt in your face.”

Jaime swallowed. “Like Eladio, I took money from the gringo to betray you. My family lives in Monterrey. Get word to them that I am buried someplace and that my spirit will not wander, even if this is not true.”

Jack sighed and gazed out the window at the rain sweeping across the fields and the wind troweling green and gold swaths through the corn. “Damn if you guys don’t always make it hard. Leave the piece,” he said.

“You will let me go? You will not harm me when my back is turned?” Jaime said.

“Did I ever lie to you?”

“I will never tell anybody what has happened here. I will always praise your name when I hear it mentioned.”

“Time to haul freight, Jaime. I got my hands full. If I see you on the street somewhere, keep on going.”

“I do not know what that means.”

“It means some people are hopeless. Come on, there’s the door, pilgrim,” Jack said, and made a snicking sound in his cheek.

Jaime went out the French doors into the rain and crossed the patio and began running through the backyard, his head bent low. He ran past the slop bucket the maid had dropped on the lawn, past the barn and the cornfield, his clothes darkening in the rain, and was almost to the pecan orchard before he looked back at the house. His face was white and round and small inside the grayness of the afternoon. Jack watched all this from the window, simultaneously looking at the empty hallway, listening to the creaking of the house and the drumming of the rain, waiting to hear the whisper of voices or the sound of footsteps moving across the hardwood floors or perhaps a door slamming or an order being shouted. All he heard were the sounds of the wind and rain.

Jaime, maybe you’re a whole lot luckier than I thought, he said to himself.

That was when someone from a back window zeroed in on Jaime with what sounded like a fifty-caliber sniper’s rifle and squeezed off a single round and sent him crashing headlong into a tree trunk, dead before his knees struck the earth.

Hackberry had led the way from the barn and across the yard, the rain wilting his hat, driving as hard as ice crystals into his face. He could no longer see the patio and could barely make out the stairs that led down to the cellar door. When he reached the lee of the house, his clothes were wrapped around his body like wet Kleenex. Then he heard the first burst of machine-gun fire. He dropped down inside the stairwell and pulled Pam Tibbs after him.

He wiped the water off the dial of his watch. “That idiot went in early,” he said.

“I told you he has his own agenda,” she said.

He couldn’t argue with her. Trying to put himself inside the thoughts of a man like Jack Collins had been insane. Collins had a Mixmaster in his head instead of a brain.

The door on the cellar was made of metal and had no windows. Hackberry placed his hand on the knob and twisted slowly. The knob rotated less than a quarter of an inch and then locked solid. “So much for Collins’s intel,” he said.

“Was that the Thompson firing?”

“Yeah, there’s no mistaking it.” He pressed his ear against the metal door but could hear nothing inside. He propped the cut-down Remington pump against the side of the stairwell and took out his Swiss Army knife and opened the long blade and worked it into the doorjamb, hoping to get it over the tongue of the lock. He heard a second burst from the Thompson.

“Sholokoff’s people aren’t firing back,” Pam said.

“They’ve pulled back into the house. They’re going to make Collins come after them,” Hackberry said.

“I think something else is going on. I think he might be shooting his own people.”

“Because I told him I saw Eladio making a phone call?”

“That or maybe he found the GPS locator we hid under the cookies and fruitcake and blamed them. It doesn’t take much to set him off. He stubs a toe, and somebody has to die for it.”

Hackberry pushed on the handle of the knife and felt the blade break off in the jamb. “Darn it,” he said under his breath. Just then he heard a solitary shot from what sounded like a high-powered rifle. He picked up his shotgun and went to the top of the steps and looked out into the rain. He could see the cornstalks thrashing in the wind and the gray barn against the pecan orchard and lightning striking in the hills, but he could see nothing of Jack Collins or Eladio and Jaime. Why would the shooter of the high-powered rifle fire only one round? The submachine-gun fire had sounded like it was coming from within the house. Why would someone be using a sniper rifle at close quarters against men armed with automatic weapons?

Unless one of the men with an automatic weapon had bailed and started running and someone had tried to pot him from a door or window?

It was foolish to waste more time trying to figure out the madness of Jack Collins. “Pam, any element of surprise is gone,” he said. “So this is the way we’re going to do it. I’m going in first. Anybody who’s not a friendly dies on the spot. Temple Dowling is probably already dead. The only two friendlies we know about are the hostages, Anton Ling and Krill. The servants are probably gone. That means everybody else is fair game. If I go down, don’t worry about me. You blow up their shit, and we’ll worry about me later. You got all that?”

“Stop playing the hero. You kick open the door and I go in first,” she said. “You’re bigger than I am, and you can shoot over and around me. I can’t do that with you. I can’t even see around you.”

“You always argue, no matter what the issue is, no matter what I say, you always argue,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re unrelenting. It’s like having a conversation with the side of an aircraft carrier.”

She wasn’t listening. She had tied a blue kerchief around her forehead to keep her hair and the rain out of her eyes. Her white cowboy shirt was drenched and split in back, her jeans and boots splattered with mud, and her eyes were charged with light, the way they became when she was either angry or hurt. He knew that in this instance, neither of those emotions was the cause of the intensity in her eyes. She moistened her lips.

“If we don’t get out of this one, it’s been a great ride,” she said.

“It wasn’t just a great ride, kiddo. You’re a gift, Pam, the kind a fortunate man receives only once or twice in a life span. But you’ve got to make it out of here, you understand? I’ve been on borrowed time since the Chosin Reservoir, and at this point in my life, I don’t want somebody else paying my tab. I’m going in first, and you’re going to cover my back. If I go down, you stand on my dead body and waste every one of these guys, then pop Collins, no matter what he says or does. But you get back home to tell the story. You got it?”

“What am I supposed to say? You’re pigheaded,” she replied. “If we weren’t in this spot, I’d shoot you myself.”

“You and Rie will always remain the best people I ever knew,” he replied. “And both of you became a permanent part of my life. How many guys can have that kind of luck?”

He held his shotgun with one hand and the railing attached to the brick side wall of the stairwell with the other. Then he raised his right leg and drove the bottom of his boot into the metal door. The reverberation shook the lock and the jamb and the knob, but the door held fast. He raised his foot and smashed his boot into the door again, then again and again, each time bending the lock’s tongue inside the jamb, until the door flew back on its hinges.

He heard the Thompson begin firing again and empty casings bouncing on the hardwood floors and feet running down a hallway. Then he was inside the cellar, inside the damp-smelling coolness that was not unlike a tomb’s, inside the reek of sweat that had dried on the bodies of people who had been tortured, inside the dirty glow of a yellow lightbulb that shone on the faces of Anton Ling and Krill, which seemed as wizened as prunes, as though they had already entered a realm from which no one returned.

The first man to come down the stairs from the hallway may or may not have been armed. Hackberry could

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