PrologueChapter 1234567, 8, 9, 10

Marcus Josué McKinnison meandered the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, making his way gradually to the meeting spot. He knew it well; the small restaurant had great fish tacos and his stomach grumbled at the thought. A breeze blew in from the west, across All Saints Bay, helping to make the midday heat bearable. He wore a light cotton, button-down shirt that allowed the breeze to blow up from the bottom. The sweat cooled his dark skin. He adjusted the wide-brim, straw hat on his afro as he strolled up the hill in the midday bustle.

Marcus turned right at the corner and spotted the SUV, a second one across the street, midway down the block. He thought he recognized both drivers and one of them may have spoken into his wrist as Marcus approached. He walked into the restaurant, let his eyes adjust to the shadows, out of the sun, and made his way to the back. Hector sat alone at a table, but Marcus made note of the burly men spread throughout the place. Hector looked up from his menu and then handed it to a waitress as she came by; he said something, showed two fingers, but his smile was infectious when he saw Marcus. He stood up with his eyes and arms opened wide.

Sta mio grand muchaco! Aiyee! Mi compadre.” Hector came out from behind the table and took Marcus’ handshake and then pulled him in for a hug. Marcus stiffened at first, but appreciated the gesture. Hector swatted him on the back and squeezed him, picked him up off the floor and then put him back down.

“Come, come, sit down. Sientate, sientate.” He held out Marcus’ chair, took his hat, and set it on the empty chair. Marcus eased himself into the seat and could feel the tension releasing out of his shoulders; he hadn’t realized how anxious he had been about the meeting. The heat, the smell of the fresh tortillas, light, golden brown chips still sizzling with grease on the wax paper, guacamole mashed in a pestle bowl, next to a deep red sauce… Hector poured from a cold pitcher of beer into a tall glass in front of each of them before he sat down.

“This El Unico thing seems to have worked out well for you,” Marcus began with a wry smile.

“We are all part of the One and Only, my friend.” Hector looked around appreciatively, leaned back in his chair, and spread his arms. “And it’s about to get a lot bigger and better,” he grabbed some chips and dipped them in the guacamole, waiting for Marcus to ask the question. “And I have you to thank for all of it.”

Marcus made him wait, grabbed a handful of chips himself, raised his eyebrows, and finally spoke after a few crunches.

“Okay, I’ve been half-paying attention to the news… what are you up to?”
Hector leaned forward and clasped his hands.
“Well, I’m glad you asked,” he said with a wink. “You are looking at the next governor of the Free State of Northern Mexico… which will shortly be joining the Free States of America. Provisional at first, but then…”

Marcus raised his eyebrows, then took a few more chips. “Politics now, eh, El Presidente? Or should I say El Jefe?”
Hector laughed.

“Those fucking cabrons in some of the less, uhh, enlightened parts of the country were never going to give me, give us, what we earned, bro. There wasn’t gonna be any Jorge Washington, know what I mean?” he exaggerated the accent with flair. “There was never going to be a headline,” and now he spread his hands apart in front of his face, like there was a marquis: “‘Heroic Mulatto Liberates the Republic.’” He started laughing, reached across the table, and slapped Marcus’ shoulder. Marcus just grinned; Hector was one of the few people who knew Marcus’ parentage.

“Naah, esse, your black-Irish ass, my beaner ass,” he went on, hooked a thumb at himself, “were never going to stand up and give speeches to middle America. That was always going to go some whitebread governor, my negro. That’s fine.” Hector waved his hand and then grabbed some more chips.

“But–” he held up his forefinger for emphasis, “I’ll give the ’necks credit, they at least keep their word, unlike those fuckin’ commies…” Marcus was curious and gave Hector what he knew he wanted, Marcus’ fullest attention.

“Okay… what? So, you get to be provisional governor of New New Mexico?” Hector held his eyes. “How the fuck did you pull that off? I didn’t know you had friends in Mexican politics.”

“Politics?” Hector snorted. “Nah, I went above their heads. I made some deals, Josué.” Hector winked. Only two people had ever called Marcus by his Haitian name. His mother – and the big man with the perfect teeth across the table. “I got two of the cartels to come to the table…” Marcus had a flashback to Afghanistan, standing in the back of a gun truck with Hector, poppy as far as the eye could see. “I’ve got a cousin in, uhhh, trucking. Whoof, what he could do with this.” They’d all laughed at him.

Marcus was trying to piece it together, while Hector rambled on. “…had a meeting with some of the cabrons, the big boys,” he continued, “and I convinced two that there will be plenty of money, real money, if they become real fucking businessmen. I explained to him the difference… what was it you said?”

And now Marcus’ brain started to spin. Hector dipped a chip in some salsa and pointed it at Marcus for emphasis.

“– You said, ‘the difference between being a drug dealer and the CEO of a pharmaceutical company…’”
“…is the scope of their ambition. One is happy to be hunted like a dog for a little money…” Marcus added, his mind replaying the memory.
“– and the other makes real money and dictates policy to Presidents. One of those is never going to jail, you said,” Hector finished, then took a swig of beer.

Marcus raised his eyebrows and sipped his own beer again. It was cold, slightly bitter, the perfect complement to the chips, guac, and salsa.

“So… you asked me to meet you me here to tell me that you’re going into business as a drug dealer??” Marcus asked. “And I still don’t get how you got the cartels involved in this? What do the Free States get out of it and how in the hell did you get them to agree?” Marcus asked in rapid fire.

A waitress walked up at that moment with two plates of fish tacos and sat the steaming dishes down in front of each man.

“I ordered when I heard you were, ah, comin’ up the street; I know you love the fish tacos.” Marcus just nodded and the men sat in silence for a few moments and ate; it was a tradition they’d had since Afghanistan. Marcus thought it was the best he’d felt since he’d left the District.

“What do they get, Hector?” Marcus finally asked after a few bites, the cream sauce sliding out the side of the taco and onto the plate.

“A lot.” Hector dusted salt off of his hands from the chips. “No more War on Drugs. It’s over. Free people can stick – or not!” He raised his eyebrows and Marcus grimaced. It had been the vaccine mandates that started them down this road. “–whatever the fuck they want to in their bodies. Or not! Or not. We live with the consequences, amigo. No more door-kicks, none of that fuckin’ bullshit.” Hector picked up his beer and was about to take a drink before he stopped and held up his glass: “To you, my friend, the man who taught me about the alternatives – the possibilities – while standing in poppy fields as far as the eye could see. You saw what I could not; you showed me the way.”

Marcus wasn’t sure how to take it, but held up his glass, and took a sip. He let the cool liquid slide down his throat, some of it spilling out onto his beard and soaking his moustache. “Ahhhhh…” he sighed. He kept thinking about the implications and then something clicked.

“But… how? What was their cut – and what’s yours? I don’t get it.”
Hector put this beer down and smiled.
“Ai, Papi…” he started laughing. “It won’t be like that. No more killing. This will be legit.” He grabbed his beer again.
“I solve a lot of their problems, Esse. Illegal immigration? No more. We’re basically western Texas in the Sonora, Baja, and all the way across to Monterrey, Reynosa, all that shit, down to a place called Las Carreras.” Hector let it sink in.

He stared at his friend for a moment. “Warm water ports, Papi. On the west and east coasts of the Yucatan.” Marcus stared.

“So…” Marcus began, “you cut a deal…”

“Oh, si si si. I cut a big deal with the FSA… to make up for losing Los Angeles up to Portland and Boston and New York. The commies think they won that negotiation because they only gave up San Diego and got to keep Long Beach, San Francisco, Seattle, all the way up. Jefferson got its own piece of dirt, but no coast. Spokane inland…” He took another sip of the amber liquid and put it on the table.

“I was their ace-in-the-hole, Marcus. I got my people, our people, the FSA – all of this,” he sat back and opened his arms, “east and west coast warm water ports, my friend, more than covers what was lost in the northeast and out west. That’s how the United States originally set the state boundaries, you know? Get everyone access to a river so they can get to a seaport.” He looked around and smiled. “Fuck that Panama Canal, too. How much easier if we put rail or roads across this stretch of the Yucatan?”

Marcus was stunned into silence; he had no idea of the scope of his friends’ ambition.

“Eh, look, the USA just shifted a few parallels south, mi amigo,” Hector took a giant bite of his fish taco. “And it got a little thinner.” He moved his hands down and inward at an angle. “Oh, yeah,” he mumbled while chewing, “And I got rid of the war on drugs.” He leaned forward again. “Even the cartels could see what it meant. And so could the red-staters in the ol’ USA… Why would immigrants stream north of the Rio Grande when I can bring America right down here, cabron.” He raised his eyebrows. “You’re not the only one who plays chess, Homie. Or cards.”
Marcus just stared at him, his mind racing.

“I took a page out of your people’s book.”

Marcus looked quizzically at Hector.

“My people’s book? How you figure that?”

“Look at what the Wops and the Irish – your people – did.” Hector winked again. “They got labor and transportation first. Dockworkers, truckers, unions, and then eventually they got into selling drugs – coke, mostly, when it couldn’t be ignored. Well, there’s nothing that says you can’t go the other direction, Marcus. We had drugs first, but now we’ll get the ports, the dockworkers, trucking, all of it. Mexican SimCity, baby!” Hector laughed.

“With the money you make from selling coke?” Marcus hissed.

“Hey. Heyheyhey.” Hector shook his finger. “Mister Free Markets, we’re going full Portugal. That’s part of the deal, too. We – the cartels included – take on the whole of it: rehabilitation, courts, all of it. Just like a legitimate corporation would. You were the one who told me there’ll always be some portion of the population that will do drugs. Prohibition doesn’t work.” Hector shrugged and took another bite of fish taco.

“I have a long-term play, too, cabron,” he said, lettuce slipping out the side of his mouth. He finished his bite. “To help get people off the smack – so you can stop looking at me like that. Decriminalizing drugs means we can use plant medicines – the real stuff, the ancient shit. Peyote, psilocybin, mushrooms, ayahuasca, the toad…maybe a little MDMA, too, Josué. I’m gonna bring people back to God.”

Marcus raised his eyebrows incredulously. “What!?”

“Josué, I told you before! I smoked peyote when I was fifteen as part of our ceremonies. I smoked the toad at sixteen and became a man. This is part of what my people do. All the gringos coming down south to fix their PTSD, to find God, our God… No more war on drugs, Marcus, my people get to be a part – a legitimate part – of America, man.”

“You’re going to convince drug dealers to help you get people off of drugs?” Marcus leaned forward and whispered. “Do your business partners know this, Hector?”

“Look, I’ve got to deliver on some big promises or… we lose our provisional status –”

“– that’s not all you’ll lose,” Marcus interrupted. “You’re gonna lose that thing attached to your shoulders.” Marcus pointed to his friend’s face.

“Marcus, everyone’s tired of war. Even the cartels.” Hector took another large bite of a taco. “You know they, umm, provided some of the muscle for… that, uh, other… that last op.”

“Ohhh.” Marcus’ chest went cold. “You already had this in the works, eh? Cartels as muscle. Fuck me. How many families, Hector?” Marcus shook his head side to side.

Hector leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Less than a thousand.” He tipped forward and looked at Marcus squarely. “You – Cand – the AI… it was right, man. We had teams waiting when El Bitchedente declared martial law. Moral sanction, my man…” Hector took the last bite of his first fish taco and let the phrase hang. “They self-identified anyway, Josué. The vaccine thing… We, uh, saw the signal… and sent our response. Those who responded weren’t living behind walls like Afghanistan, Marcus, so… you know, no one was expecting…”

Marcus rubbed his forehead.
“A thousand families sounds like several thousand innocent people,” Marcus pushed back from his food and stared at Hector. Hector crunched some chips, slowly.

“Mmm. How many righteous to keep God from destroying the Sodomites, eh, Marcus? Always the same question.” He swallowed. “This was a fucking war. The men… with those families, just a few years ago were calling you a dirty, unvaccinated nigger and ready to throw you in a fucking camp.” He pointed to the side, as if there was a camp outside the door. “We,” he jabbed his thumb into his own chest and a finger at Marcus, “are not the bad guys.” He looked around the restaurant and seemed to realize he had raised his voice.

“You think Washington wouldn’t have done what we did if it would have cut the Revolution down to a matter of weeks and not years?? You think it was better that Grant wasted tens of thousands first…? Or that Sherman showed the South what… It, War, really is? Hell, Truman dropped two fucking nukes on Japan – and I know you don’t think that was wrong. I’ve heard you argue that with other people!” Hector stared off out one of the side windows of the restaurant, then finally looked back to his friend.

“Josué, I don’t regret it. I won’t apologize for it. We lost people, too. Good people.” Hector’s voice rose. “I count Candace the first casualty of the War – the Lord smile on her blessed memory.” Hector bowed his head and said a whispered prayer in a language Marcus didn’t recognize. His shoulders shook while he sobbed quietly for a moment. He looked up, “I do not regret watering the tree of Liberty, Marcus. Not for Candace, not for you, and not for the people we lost… Not for what we got, either.”

Marcus held up his hand and lowered his head, the tears falling onto his plate. It was a while before either man spoke.

“I’m not saying tha-” Marcus began.

“No, I know you’re not, Josué,” Hector reached his big hand across the table and covered Marcus’ for a moment, “but it’s like you’re only capable of excusing other people’s actions, never your own. Know what I mean?” Hector leaned back and they sat in silence for a little longer. He poured more beer into their glasses and took a deep breath.

“All of this is a lot better than a long civil war, amigo. As far as national divorces go, this is about as good as it can get… And there is a lot of work to be done. Look, I-” Hector sat forward slightly, “I know how bad you hurt, man. And I know you hadn’t thought beyond Kendrick, probably just wanted to curl up somewhere and, uh… but Brother – this is what we have. These are the cards we’ve been dealt.” He sat back. “Shit, I’m thinking we’re going to have to build a border along the San Andreas fault because in three years – after the commies get done eating themselves – we’re going to have a different immigration problem. We’ll get it all back eventually.” He laughed to himself. “Marcus, we have a seat at the table now. With leverage, man. A chance to implement some real solutions. Like no more sovereign immunity. No pubsec unions.”

Marcs stared at his friend. He wasn’t sure whether to be terrified or in awe.

“You think you’re going to get anyone to agree with that?”

“Hey – those were some of the terms for this piece of dirt.” He pointed down. “I’m gonna try, Homes. We need leadership now, Marcus. Real leadership. I didn’t do this so I could win the war and then lose the fucking peace.”

Marcus nodded. He understood in his head, if not in his heart. Hector was right; he hadn’t thought beyond Kendrick. The truth was that he’d hoped to die in the maelstrom afterwards in the District, but Hector had made sure he was never without security, moving him from one mission, and safe-house, to another, barely enough time to rest, always men there with him.

“I’m tired too, Hector. I just wonder when everyone stops being a means to someone else’s ends,” Marcus took a long draught of his beer.

“Not until Gabriel toots his little trumpet, amigo,” Hector made like he was playing one. After a bite of his second taco, Hector pulled a manilla envelope from off of the chair next to him and slid it across the table. “Passports and some kicking around cash.” Marcus started to argue but Hector held up his hand.

“Please just take the cash. It’s not a ton, but enough. Clean money. Passport’s Canadian. If you take the cash, I’ll stop having you followed.

Promise.” Marcus looked up.

“You’ve been having me followed?”

“Ohhh, like you didn’t fuckin’ know.” Marcus smirked for a moment. “Don’t look at me like that. You’d do the same thing if the situations were reversed. Silly cabron, think I’m gonna let something happen to my boy, hunh?”

Marcus dumped the passport out and opened it to see his new identity.

“Canadian?” Marcus asked.

“They’re the Switzerland of the Western Hemisphere, man. Nobody bothers Canadians.”

Marcus flipped open the passport.

“Bartholomew J. Sampson?” He read out loud. “You made me Bart Sampson? Bart fucking Sampson, you asshole?” Marcus knew that Hector was a huge fan of The Simpsons. Hector tried to hide his smirk by wiping his mouth with a napkin, then held up hands.

“Come on, man, you know how bad I am at alias names and shit like that?! Listen. I did you a solid… The boys were gonna make you O.J. Sampson, but I said that was out of bounds, Homes. Not for my negro.”

Marcus just shook his head and laughed. Hector joined him and then threw some napkins across the table. Marcus wiped his face and then looked at his friend.

“I can’t believe you wasted good money just to set up that joke!” and both men started laughing again.

“Hey, with that ‘fro you’ve got going on now, and the Mod Squad moustache, you’re lucky we didn’t go for Linc!”
Both men laughed again, like they hadn’t since Afghanistan.

“Okay,” Hector said seriously, then held out his hand. “Where is it? Whatchoo got for me? C’mon.”

Marcus took a deep breath, then reached to the back of his pants and pulled a manilla envelope sealed with tape from where he’d been carrying it. He dropped it onto the table between them, but left his hand on it for a moment.

“Ahhh,” Hector crooned, like he was looking at lost gold. “C’mon now, Josué,” he said softly, but he didn’t reach for it.

Marcus took his hand off of it and picked up his beer. A deal was a deal, after all. Hector picked up the envelope and held it like he was weighing it.

“Seems a little light,” Hector said and winked. Marcus scowled, but he knew Hector had been right – again. It had helped to write it.

“A hundred and eighty-seven pages of my soul, fuckin’ beaner.” Hector smiled, but his eyes were watering. He placed the envelope delicately off to the side of the table.

“I could use some help, amigo,” Marcus just looked across his plate and Hector held up his hands in response. “Okay. Fine. Respect.” He looked around the restaurant.

“Look, there’s an open ticket in there,” now he pointed to Marcus’ envelope, “to Cabo. When you’re ready, come down. Please. Por favor.”

Marcus shrugged.

“I’ll tell you what, man. I’ll make you one last deal.” Marcus could feel his scalp tingle. “No. No games,” Hector said, looking at him. “You let me know when you’re going to come down – you come, you do a private ceremony with me, my cousin – he’s a shaman…ayahuasca and the toad, amigo.”

Marcus rolled his eyes. “And in return? I get what?”

Hector smiled.

“In return you’ll find God, learn to be alive again,” Marcus grimaced, grunted, and then went back to eating his remaining taco.

Hector folded his arms.

“Okay. What do you get?” Hector cupped his chin, then tapped it a few times with his forefinger. “I’ll tell you what – you come down and do the ceremony and I’ll tell you if I had the nuts… if I drew the straight or I was bluffing. No lie.” Marcus’ head snapped up. Hector crossed his heart and smiled. Marcus looked into his friend’s eyes and the phrase about the sucker at the poker table crossed his mind.

Hector tilted his head, stood up, and grabbed Marcus’ envelope, then threw a stack of bills on the table. He signaled his men with a nod and chairs scraped. He leaned over and put his arm around Marcus’ head, kissed his afro, and whispered:
“Come back and see me, cabron. Por favor. Please. I’m gonna teach you how to forgive yourself.” He stood up and whispered an ancient native blessing over Marcus, then walked past, his hand slipping off of Marcus’s shoulder. Marcus wiped his eyes, then turned over his shoulder.

“Oy, Unico… how will I get a hold of you?” Marcus called.

Hector stopped and turned around. Marcus looked around the restaurant and noticed that everyone else appeared to have something else to do or somewhere else to look.

“Ehhh, Cabron, I’m pretty sure you’ll know how to signal me… I’ll be waiting for it.” Hector turned to walk and then stopped and pivoted back: “Plus, we gotta find you a sweet mamacita to take care of you right, Josué.” El Unico shook his head, saluted, and laughed himself out the door.