Lee Harden Series (Book 3): Primal [The Remaining Universe], page 1part #3 of Lee Harden Series Series
LEE HARDEN SERIES
D. J. MOLLES
To Jon and Dave Carricker
NADIE Y NINGUNO
They’re called Nadie y Ninguno, and wherever they go, death follows.
Approximated as “No One and Nobody,” if you habla ingles.
It is unknown whether the names were given to them, or if, somewhere along the line, they introduced themselves. No one can say for sure, because once you’re introduced, your life expectancy falls suddenly and dramatically short.
There are some people who claim that they’ve survived an encounter with Mr. No One and Mr. Nobody, but they’re all goddamn liars. There’s not a soul in Texas that’s met them and lived.
At least not if you’re Nuevas Fronteras.
Cartel boys have always been a spooky lot. There’s a whole pantheon of saints and demons and pagan deities that get prayed to for everything from a good cocaine yield to helping them get away with murder.
Nuevas Fronteras might not have been in the drug business anymore, but that didn’t make them any less hardwired for superstition.
To Hermanco, the lieutenant in charge of the little cartel outpost of La Casa, Nadie y Ninguno might be men. Or they might be some Santeria hoodoo that the Texas desert shat out, for the sole purpose of eviscerating everyone under his command.
Hermanco doesn’t want to believe that they are demons, because then he won’t be able to kill them if they show up at his door.
A hundred miles east of La Casa, at the Triple Rocker Ranch, Joaquin Lozcano Leyva lays naked in the sweltering bedroom of the main ranch house because he has not slept well for the last several nights.
He keeps picturing those bodies, hanging from the mesquite, with their bottom halves all chewed to shreds from los locos. He stares at the ceiling and thinks to himself that Nadie y Ninguno can’t be anything but men, because Joaquin doesn’t believe in that other shit.
Joaquin once forced a police captain to watch as he killed his newborn daughter by cooking her in a hot frying pan.
It might be the worst thing he’s ever done.
But for all the terrible things he’s done, for some reason, stumbling upon a grove of mesquite trees where your men’s rotting corpses have been hung from the branches like ornaments…for some reason that makes him feel an almost demonic presence in these killings.
So, Joaquin is almost sure that Nadie y Ninguno are just men.
They cannot actually be devils themselves.
But is it such a stretch to think that maybe they are possessed by the devil?
And all the way down by the coast of Texas, with the Gulf of Mexico behind him, and all of North America laid out in front of him, Mateo “El Cactus” Ibarra stands atop one of his oil refineries and stares into the sweltering midday distance, as though he can peel back the temporal reality around him and see the souls of the two men who’ve caused so many problems for him.
He is sure that they would stand out, like two glowing hot coals on a dark night.
Unlike the men in his command, Mateo Ibarra is more selective in his religion. His beliefs can be summed up by saying, whatever controls the universe—let’s call it God—loves me more than any other being he’s created, and favors me above all others.
This is a difficult conviction to maintain when God has let something like Nadie y Ninguno run amok through what should be your birthright.
But Mateo knows they are just men.
He even thinks he knows which men they are.
After all, they appeared out of nowhere about five weeks ago. Right around the time that a few high-profile bodies couldn’t be located and confirmed dead in the wreckage of the battle at the Comanche Creek Nuclear Power Plant.
And, of course, thinking about that battle makes Mateo think about Mr. Daniels.
That double-crossing gringo piece of shit.
And when Mateo begins to think about Mr. Daniels, he begins to think that, really, this whole Nadie y Ninguno business, with the firebombed fuel convoys and the rising body counts, and the transformation of his legions of hardened killers into superstitious children, afraid that El Cuco will come and snatch them from their beds…
Well, Mateo begins to think that, really, this is all Mr. Daniels’s fault.
And when you think about it that way, it’s tempting to go down and get that satphone and dial up that Mr. Daniels, and tell him to get his ass down here to Texas and solve the problem that he created.
Except for the fact that Mateo has told Mr. Daniels to fuck off, more or less.
Mateo told Mr. Daniels that Greeley, Colorado needed to get their act together before Mateo would ever consider doing business with them again.
Mateo told Mr. Daniels that Nuevas Fronteras didn’t have problems, because they kept their house clean.
Now their house is looking a little dirty.
But Mateo Ibarra will be damned to the fires of hell—though he doesn’t believe in them—if he asks Mr. Daniels for help. He’ll solve this problem on his own, just like he promised he would.
He’ll just need to be…more proactive.
Which leads us to the moment when Sean Bull and Pablo Castillo arrive at the rambling collection of buildings in the middle of nowhere, known as Elbert, Texas, because one of the crazy hillbilly cannibals that lives there claims he’s managed to capture Mr. Nobody.
Sean noted that he didn’t smell cooking meat.
Last time he’d been to Elbert, that scent had hung in the air, like standing outside of a barbecue shack.
Sean remembered that because of what he’d learned about that cooking meat.
His nose wrinkled with the memory. “They eat the infected, you know.”
Beside him, Pablo made a soft chuffing noise and leaned back against the front driver’s side fender of the pickup truck they’d driven out here from La Casa.
They were positioned on the shoulder of the road. The driver’s side of the pickup truck was broadside to the little encampment of buildings that was Elbert. Beyond the coven of huddled buildings, there stretched an expanse of broad Texan nothingness, populated only by puffs of scrubby brush and whatever lurked in their shadows.
Sean realized that Pablo was watching him.
He shot his gaze over at his Mexican boss. Sean’s eyes ricocheted off and zoomed back towards the quonset hut, about fifty yards from them. But not before he perceived a clear flavor of disdain in Pablo’s expression.
Sean’s lips flattened out.
He was a gringo.
In Nuevas Fronteras, that made him a bottom feeder.
He was there as Pablo’s driver, and as muscle, should any shooting start. And they didn’t say this, but it was implied, that if you showed back up and your cartel handler was dead…well…you were going to wish that you’d died trying to keep him alive.
Pablo sniffed and faced forward again. “You’ve never eaten the infected before?”
The way he said it, the implication was plain: He had.
Sean swallowed. Said nothing.
“Tastes like pork,” Pablo quipped.
The side door of the quonset hut opened and issued a single figure. The figure slammed the door behind him, and began marching towards Sean and Pablo.
Sean watched him, and his fingers snugged into the grip of the short-barreled AR that was strapped to his chest. Beside him, Pablo’s hand dropped to his side, where he wore a nickel-plated six-shooter, straight out of some spaghetti Western mov
They were both on edge.
In this, the two very different men were united: They were aware that the denizens of Elbert were, to quote everyone who had come into contact with them, “squirelly as fuck.”
The man coming towards them was long and lean.
Maybe too lean, Sean thought. You’d expect someone with meat in their diet (albeit meat from the infected) would not look so starved. But maybe they hadn’t gotten much meat lately. Maybe that was why it didn’t smell like a barbecue shack anymore.
Maybe that was why they were so desperate for the reward that went along with capturing Mr. No One or Mr. Nobody.
Of course, that begged the question: Were they desperate enough to try to lie to the cartel about it? Were they desperate enough to grab some random guy and try to pass him off as Nadie y Ninguno?
The man had a way of walking that Sean wasn’t a fan of.
It was…too confident.
The arms swung wide. The steps were long and rangy. His head and shoulders moved back and forth. Almost like he was strutting. He had the body language of someone who was in the grip of a manic episode.
He stopped a few paces from Sean and Pablo and planted his hands on his hips.
Sean took a moment to look him up and down, checking for weapons, but also taking in the state of the man’s general shabbiness. The pants were so dirty it was a miracle the man could bend his legs inside of them. He wore a cutoff t-shirt that might once have been white—it was difficult to tell whether the khaki color was all dried sweat and dirt, or whether it came from a factory that way.
His arms and chest were corded with enough muscle to imply that they had a scary, raw power to them, but were so skinny and fatless that it further implied that food had been hard to come by lately.
He had a scraggly beard, and shaggy, light brown hair.
But what got to Sean the most were the eyes.
The man had spider’s eyes.
They didn’t have an expression in them.
They just watched. And waited.
They were filled with quiet, violent potential.
He’s insane, Sean decided.
Sean shifted his feet, blading his body so that the muzzle of his stubby little rifle was a little closer to putting rounds into this mad cannibal’s chest. “Where’s Terry? I don’t recognize you.”
The man’s dark, blank eyes shifted from Sean, to Pablo, and then back again. “Terry’s with the prisoner,” he said, and his voice was terrible. It sounded exactly how Sean thought it would. “You’re gonna hafta be okay with the prisoner being…a little beat up.”
“Is he still alive?” Sean asked.
Those eyes widened, and in the growth of the man’s beard, teeth flashed. “Oh, yes. He’s still alive.” A brief cackle that sounded like a crow cawing—if that crow were dying of thirst. “Not for long, though, huh? No, not for long.”
Sean’s eyes narrowed. “I want you to explain exactly why you believe he’s Mr. Nobody or Mr. No One. Because we drove a long way out here from La Casa. And I’m not gonna be happy if this is just some vagrant you’re trying to pass off to get the reward.”
“Right, right, right,” the stranger bobbed his head. He eyed the bed of their running pickup truck. “The reward. Did you bring it?”
Sean scoffed. “So you can try to rob us?” He tightened his grip on his weapon. “Once we confirm it’s who we want, we’ll deliver the reward later.”
The stranger looked at Sean with a shrewd gaze. “Tell me honestly. Would you even recognize them if you saw them?” He leaned towards Sean. Seemed almost to be looming. His eyes sparkled in the shadows of his furrowed brow. “Do you even know what Mr. No One and Mr. Nobody look like?”
Sean swallowed. Decided to bluff. “Of course we know what they look like.”
The man stared at him for another long second. “Yeah,” he whispered. “That’s what I thought.”
The madman didn’t telegraph a thing. He just moved.
Like a rattlesnake striking.
One second, Sean was peering at him suspiciously, and the next, he was stumbling backwards, both hands going instinctively to his throat where the stranger had lashed out and punched him in the larynx.
Pablo lurched off the side of the truck, yanking his six-shooter out.
The wild man was a blur of gnashing teeth and wiry limbs.
He brought the edge of his hand down on Pablo’s wrist, and the silver revolver tumbled out of his grip. Then the madman reared up with one foot and struck hard with the heel of his boot, crashing it down on Pablo’s knee with an audible snap.
Pablo screamed as he hit the ground.
Sean managed to rip his hands away from his neck, realizing he needed to get his rifle up, but the second he touched the grip, a flash of snarling madman was on him, seizing hold of the short-barreled rifle and ripping it up and out of Sean’s grasp.
The sling caught it from being pulled away from his body.
The madman didn’t seem to care. He had, apparently, already accounted for this.
Before Sean could even think of what to do next, the madman spun the butt of the rifle around Sean’s head, so that the sling looped around his already swollen neck, and then the madman began to pull back on the rifle, tightening the nylon sling like a noose…
Movement out of the corner of Sean’s darkening vision.
Pablo, on one knee, scooping that stupid silver revolver out of the dirt and bringing it up.
The madman looked over his shoulder, and saw the threat.
And for a flash, Sean thought he saw a flicker of concern somewhere in all that violence.
Then there was a sound like a giant zipper being yanked closed, terminating with a THUD.
The side of Pablo’s head disappeared.
His brains and blood painted the blank canvas of the white pickup truck.
A rifle report rolled over them.
Pablo’s body flopped to the ground.
And then, like a dog with a catcher’s pole around his neck, Sean was yanked off of his feet and planted on the ground, on his back, his ears ringing, his vision sparkling, and the breath gone out of his lungs.
In the center of his vision, he saw the madman looking down at him, strangling him with his own rifle and strap.
The madman smiled down at Sean. “Now you know what I look like.”
Lee wanted to kill him.
He always wanted to kill them.
He twisted the stubby AR in his grip, tightening the choking sling, and watched the man’s eyes go bloodshot, his face turning purple.
“Lee!” The voice stabbed into his brain.
It was distant, still. It would take Abe a moment to run the few hundred yards from his sniper’s hide, on a small hillock amongst some brush. But even so, the lilting echo of Abe’s voice made Lee stop twisting the choke tighter.
On the ground, the man’s eyes bulged.
His jaw was clenched down, trying to muscle against the strain on his neck, but unconsciousness would come at any second.
“Ssh,” Lee said to him, as soft and gentle as if he were soothing a spooked animal.
“Don’t kill him!” came Abe’s voice again, closer this time.
Lee snarled, casting a dark glance over his shoulder. Then he went back to the man in the dirt. He let up. Not enough for the man to get any blood into his brain, but enough to keep his throat from collapsing.
The man’s expression slackened, the eyes going blank.
The body went limp.
Lee spun the rifle, unwinding the strap and then pulling it from around the man’s neck.
The man wasn’t exactly motionless during all this. His hands trembled at his sides, and his diaphragm fought to get air. His chest rose and fell, issuing long, low groans.
He was out cold. Or would be, for another few seconds.
Lee grabbed the butt of the rifle. Detached the sling.<
The man stopped groaning. His eyes thrashed into focus.
Lee’s hands spidered expertly across the short rifle, checking the magazine—full—and the chamber—loaded. He shouldered the weapon and aimed right between the eyes of the previous owner.
He put his boot on the man’s chest, close to his throat. Pressed down with the ball of his foot.
“Hey.” Lee’s mouth was dry, and his throat hoarse. “Can you hear me?”
The man’s eyes were crossed at first, struggling to bring Lee’s face into focus, but gradually they righted themselves, and Lee watched full consciousness float back into the man’s expression.
“On your stomach,” Lee rasped, moving his foot off the man’s chest.
The man complied.
Lee heard Abe approaching. The steady thud-thud-thud of his running footsteps.
“Relax,” Lee barked over his shoulder. “I wasn’t gonna choke him to death.”
Abe jogged to a halt, huffing, a scoped .30-06 rifle in his hand. The bolt-action kind with the wooden body. The kind that was somebody’s grandad’s old deer rifle.
After a few moments of fuming silence, Lee raised a single eyebrow and met Abe’s gaze.
Abe’s eyes glared out from under his scrunched brow. His lips compressed to all but invisibility behind his bushy, black beard.
“That wasn’t the plan,” Abe snapped.
“I changed the plan. This was the new plan.”
“He could’ve shot you. Hell, I could’ve shot you.”
“I knew you wouldn’t.”
Lee turned and gestured to the man on the ground with half his head gone. “That was a great shot, Abe.”
“Fuck you, Lee,” Abe grumbled under his breath.
The eyes of the two men known as Mr. No One and Mr. Nobody reconvened on the man lying on his belly at their feet.
Abe began removing the lashing he had in the cargo pocket of his worse-for-wear combat pants. A length of bailing wire. The stuff was ubiquitous around here.
Lee stepped around to the side of the man on the ground. “Hands behind your back,” he instructed. When the man complied, Lee knelt down, placing his knee at the top of the man’s spine and leaning all his weight on it.