It suddenly feels like I’m choking on my tongue. He knows. He knows I’m not a virgin. “I don’t know what you mean,” I say. Hector tuts disapprovingly, shaking his head.
“I’ve slept with hundreds of women, my girl. I know what an intact hymen feels like. And yours is most definitely broken.”
I don’t answer. It’s better to keep my mouth shut than to confirm or deny the fact. Hector shifts in his chair, apparently getting comfortable. “So really, I should kill you. I would never normally risk such a liability out there, walking and talking, mentioning my name in places it ought not to be breathed. But, you see, I’m currently under investigation for murder. You may know a little something about that, given Raphael’s interaction with Judge Conahue, perhaps? No?”
He dips his head, mouth open, clearly waiting for me to say something. I don’t. “You can imagine how awkward it would be if the authorities chose to visit my home while one of my men was burying a body out the back, of course. They have very unique ways of finding buried bodies these days. Freshly disturbed earth is a bit of a giveaway. A lucky thing for you, Sophia. A very lucky thing.” A clock on the wall chimes, making me jump. Three a.m. Hector sucks on his teeth, tapping his fingertips together, as though he’s thinking on something. “Selling you is the easiest option for me right now, so yes, I have played along with your little ruse. Raphi’s a hot head. He can’t be trusted to have nice things unfortunately. He breaks them, and then refuses to clean up after himself. You leaving this place is best for everyone all round. But let me tell you, Sophia. I heard what Raphi said to you just now. Raphi is a man of his word. He will look for your family, and he will kill them if he finds them. I am in a position to prevent that from happening. All I require from you is that you keep your mouth shut. You don’t talk about me, ever, to anyone. You don’t talk about my home or my employees. Does that sound like a fair trade to you, sweet girl?”
My throat is as dry as the Sahara, but I still manage to croak out an eager, “Yes.”
Hector nods. “Then we have an agreement. I would advise against breaking it, Sophia. I have eyes and ears everywhere. I also have an uncanny knack of discovering if people have been opening their mouths, when they should be keeping them firmly closed.”
“I won’t say anything, I swear.” I almost can’t believe he’s letting me go with another cartel. Seems to me that it would be easy enough to send me out with Raphael a couple of miles into the desert and have him put a bullet in the back of my head, but I am not stupid enough to question him. He stands up and takes me by the elbow again. “Time for us to wait outside. I don’t particularly like the man who has purchased you. I’d prefer he didn’t have to step foot inside my home. Come.”
Hector is weirdly protective about his home, but then again he’s weird all round. I let him take me outside onto the veranda, where he sits me down on the bench swing. “Please don’t move from this spot.” Hector paces with that deliberate, unhurried gait of his down the steps to where Raphael is standing, staring out into the desert. I’m left to do the same. Without any light pollution out here, the dark black velvet of the night sky glitters with an explosion of stars. I have no idea where the rusted van I was brought in here has gone, nor the men that traveled with us. No vehicles, no other people, nothing. Just us, the house, and the stars. Yet again, I’m tempted to slip silently off. The men’s backs are turned. It would easy enough to do right now, but the fear of what they will do to me when they catch me—because there is no if—is enough to keep my bottom firmly planted on the bench.
I hear the rumble of engines before the lights come into view. It’s hard to tell how far away the convoy of cars is in the darkness, but it seems as though there are many of them. I count one, two, three, five different sets of headlights. My whole body is begging me to get up and run, to flee, to see how far I can get at least, before I’m trapped with yet another group of insane, violent men, but it’s too late for that. Too late for anything but to sit and watch the approaching armada of cars float toward us on the horizon. It’s a full five minutes before they’re close enough to make out the great plumes of dark dust and sand being kicked up behind the vehicles in their wake. There are seven cars, not five. Why so many? Hector said he didn’t like the man who’d bought me. Maybe the feeling is mutual. Maybe the extra muscle is to ensure there’s no trouble as the deal goes down.
I’m on the verge of hyperventilating by the time the cars, a mix of sedans and dirty four by fours arrive in front of the house. Hector walks out to the lead car. A window buzzes down, and he shakes hands with the dark figure inside. Men begin to pour out of the cars. Every single last one of them is Mexican. Covered in tattoos and sporting a variety of weapons, they don’t look any friendlier than Hector’s people. The last person to get out of the cars is grossly overweight, dressed in a cream suit, complete with panama hat. And he’s wearing sunglasses. At three thirty in the morning.
Hector slaps the man on the shoulder, grinning and shaking his hand. They speak in rolling, loud Spanish together, and the men standing around them burst into laughter. The fat man signals one of his guys forward. He’s carrying a brown paper bag—the kind Mom used to put my lunch in back when I was in elementary school. Hector doesn’t touch the bag. It’s Raphael that takes it from the other guy, perhaps his counterpart within this other cartel, and begins withdrawing bundles of money from inside. I can’t see what denomination the money is in, but Raphael lines up ten stacks side by side next to each other on the hood of the fat guy’s car.