The evening before Sartana was due to start her new assignment as a field agent observing the possibly-illegal day labourers she went for a five-mile run, had a shower, ate grilled chicken and steamed vegetables, and laid our her clothes for the next day neatly across a chair in her bedroom: smart dark slacks and jacket, crisp white shirt, polished black boots with a sensible heel, and her badge and identification, new and shiny. Then she checked her alarm clock was set and went to bed early.
The night before that, however, Sartana got drunk. Not just tipsy or slightly inebriated, this was the kind of drunk that you set out a plan for, with goals and tequila. Lots of tequila.
Sartana hadn't been to the bar since college, when she could still drink til 2am and get up to study the next day, before she set her heart on the law and applied for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The place was still small and dimly lit, strings of red fairy lights illuminating rickety tables and a few patrons, all Mexican. She felt her shoulders loosen a bit, her hips swayed to the beat coming from the tinny jukebox and she walked straight to the bar where Sandro still tended the bar, dispensing beer and tequila and not much else.
It might have been years since Sartana visited the place, but she remembered how it worked. She slid a few bills across the sticky bartop and received in return a bottle with no label and a shot glass. She raised it to Sandro in thanks and settled in at the back, where she could tip back her chair and lean against the wall.
The level of golden tequila in the bottle dropped very slowly. Sartana wasn't actually very good at holding her liquor. Her Papa had been, and she remembered how he would sit around the scarred table in their tiny kitchen with three or four of his friends, making their way through a couple of bottles in an evening. When Sartana was little, she thought they were all wonderful, these big, rough men who would drink and laugh and give her sweets and sometimes colourful beaded bracelets or charms. When she was older they swapped sweets for nips of tequila, laughing good naturedly at her as she choked and spluttered and her eyes watered as they taught her how to do a shot. She usually ended up dozing in a corner and found herself in the morning tucked in bed, a stuffed toy by her side and a glass of water on the crate that served as a bedside table.
Looking back now, Sartana knew that those men were as illegal as her Papa was. There were whispers of deportation, or men who disappeared and were only referred to later in whispers and knowing looks. The badge in the front pocket of her jeans seemed to poke into her hip, and she shifted in her seat. The knot of doubt and shame in her belly that had plagued her since she accepted her new role seemed to grow. With an internal growl of frustration Sartana grabbed for the bottle faster than she ought and would have knocked it over if the woman walking by the other side of the table hadn't reached out with lightening reflexes and caught it before more than a few splashes could spill.
"Whoa, muchacha, this stuff's too good to waste."
Sartana felt a flush of embarrassment and felt angry at herself for it. She wasn't a muchacha, she was an agent, a grown woman perfectly capable of upholding the law and upholding her liquor and…the woman was helping herself to the seat opposite and pouring herself a shot from Sartana's glass.
"You shouldn't be drinking alone, it just looks sad." The woman was actually close to Sartana's age, but she had a capable look and low, sexy-rough voice that made Sartana feel young and clumsy in comparison.
"I'm not drinking alone-" she said, instinctively defensive and immediately aware of how patently foolish it sounded.
"Not anymore you're not. My name is Luz, and I am told I make a very fine drinking companion. Now tell me your name and why Sandro told me he sold his last bottle of his best case to you, hmm?"
"Maybe because he knows I won't be able to drink it all," Sartana told Luz with sullen honesty. "It’s good business practise."
"Unless you have a drinking companion, of course," said Luz, helping herself to another shot before pouring one for Sartana, pushing the same glass back. This time when Sartana slammed back the shot there was a faint taste of lemons and chilli and something else sweet on the rim of the glass and she found herself licking her lips thoughtfully, feeling warm and dizzy and distracted. Luz noticed the movement and winked.
Luz didn't talk much, but she was right, she was a very fine drinking companion. She drank more than Sartana, but that was okay because Sartana was close to one of her goals (definite drunkenness) and happy to talk to someone who didn't know her from the agency, or knew that this assignment was meant to be the start of everything she'd been working for. Someone who wouldn't tell her she was crazy because she remembered those friends of her Papa's and thought maybe when it came down to it she might not be able to do what she had to.
Sartana didn't give any details of the job – she wasn't drunk enough to do that in a Mexican bar – but she talked about her doubts to Luz between shots, until she was slurring and repeating herself, and the strings of red fairy lights around the room were kind of fuzzy.
The two Luz's in front of her grinned. "Come on, muchacha, let's get you out of here before Sandro realises he won't be getting any of that bottle back." Sartana looked in surprise at the empty bottle and let Luz pull her up out of the bar onto the street.
"Where's we…where are we going?" said Sartana.
"My house," Luz said as she slung Sartana's arm over her shoulders and they started walking slowly down the street. "You can sleep this off there."
The air was warm and fragrant with the flowers that were still in bloom. The scent tickled something at the back of Sartana's mind and when an edge on the pavement sent her stumbling into Luz she let her face fall into the crook of Luz's shoulder and inhaled. She giggled at Luz's yelp. "You smell like you taste like the flowers smell."
Luz straightened up and got a firmer grip on Sartana. "You don't make any sense, muchacha. Come on, mi casa es su casa."
Luz didn't turn on the lights as they went through the door of her small bungalow and the rooms were lit only by the glow of the candles she lit. Sartana leaned against a wall and watched Luz through heavy-lidded eyes. The flickering light was hypnotic and Sartana liked the way the light made Luz's skin glow, her cut-off shorts and white tank showing of a pleasing lot of it. Without thinking about it, Sartana found herself licking her lips and when Luz walked back to collect her from her resting spot Satarna let herself sway forward to meet her.
"I'm drunk," she said seriously.
"I can tell," said Luz. "I am too, just not as much as you."
"I am so drunk," said Sartana, "that I think I might-" the world spun for a second and she let herself lean forward again, breathing in that sweet floral scent and letting her forehead rest against Luz's collarbone. "-might do things I wouldn't normally do."
Luz felt warm and relaxed against her, and one hand reached up to curl around her upper arm and hold Sartana steady. She dipped her head until her lips just touched Sartana's ear. "And what would that be?"
Sartana grinned against that golden skin and pushed Luz backwards towards the bedroom.
The next morning Sartana woke alone in a strange bed. Opening her eyes was enough movement to make her head split and ache, but it also rewarded her with a view of a tall glass of water and a couple of painkillers on the bedside table. Very, very slowly she moved until she was sitting and able to take the painkillers and drink the water. A few more minutes and she was able to wrap a sheet around herself while she stumbled first to the bathroom and then collected her clothes, which were scattered in a trail leading back to the door.
On the kitchen bench a cover was sitting over a plate of still warm tamales and thermos mug with coffee that was both the worst and best that Sartana had ever tasted. With enough caffeine in her bloodstream to make her toes curl, Sartana felt awake enough to gather the last of her things. Her badge wasn't in her pocket, but she found it on the dresser together with a note: Good luck with the new job, Agent.
Two days later when she got out of her car to get a coffee from the taco-truck lady next to the day labourers she was set to watch and saw the humourless smile Luz gave her, she thought perhaps that she hadn't been imagining the sarcastic slant the handwriting had held. The thought that Luz had been laughing at her all along made her more determined to harden herself to the idea that the men she reported back to the immigration agency needed to follow the law, no matter if they spent their evenings drinking and taking trinkets to their friend's daughters. It was right, and that was something she could live with.
Either way, she kept going back to Luz for coffee. Some agents brought theirs in from home. Agent Sartana Rivera found she preferred her coffee with a hint of lemon, chilli and sweet flowers.