14. The Master Negotiator

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Looking forward to the weekend, son. Love you, Mom.

Jeff ‘Rhino’ Xu wondered how many times he had read the text message. A hundred? Two hundred? Probably more. He felt embarrassed; ashamed. He was a senior figure in the Red Dragon gang, respected and feared by the criminal fraternity of San Lazaro; and yet here he was, sitting alone, reading the last message he’d received from his parents.

They had been scheduled to visit and Rhino planned to take them to a great restaurant, maybe a show afterwards. Mom loved a show. But the city had been sealed off since the Friday before that weekend. No one could get in or out and now communications had been affected too. The last they’d heard, San Lazaro had been hit harder than anywhere. But what if the virus had reached Los Diablos too?

Rhino shook his head to try and dispel this familiar fog of doubt and despair. He downed what was left of his whiskey then stood up and put on his jacket. Even though everything had gone to hell, it was important to keep up appearances and Lady Rose had put him in charge of tonight’s negotiations.

Cheng opened the door. ‘He’s here, boss.’

‘All right. Let’s do this.’  

Rhino had dealt with Agajanian before. The Armenian had survived an unusually long time for a high-profile gang member and his hair was more grey than black. He was wearing a pinstripe grey suit and puffing on a cigar. Agajanian and Rhino sat opposite each other at a small table, both with two bodyguards behind them. Lady Rose sat fifteen feet away in a booth, sipping from a glass of champagne while a girl painted her nails.

‘I believe you have a proposition for us,’ said Rhino.

Since the authorities had pulled out of the city, numerous sites had fallen under the control of San Lazaro’s gangs. After a firefight had recently broken out between trigger-happy members of the Red Dragons and the Armenians, Agajanian’s boss had got in touch to suggest a less bloody method of settling differences.

Agajanian nodded. ‘As it stands, we’ve got places in your territory and vice versa. Perhaps by making a few swaps we can make all our lives easier and avoid unfortunate misunderstandings - such as what occurred on Tuesday.’

‘Go ahead,’ said Rhino, patting down an errant strand of hair.  

‘We can give you the three Megamart stores, all the autoshops west of Washington Avenue and the First United Bank.’

‘And in return?’

‘We want the six Petroco gas stations and Superbuys.’

Rhino rarely made notes but he took some time to absorb the proposition before replying.

‘You can take First United off the table. What use could we have for a cleaned-out bank?’

‘Right on the corner. Secure building. Strategic value.’

Rhino gave the Armenian a cynical grin. ‘Forget it. Worthless. Superbuys on the other hand is worth too much – so you can forget that too.’

‘Aren’t we negotiating?’ asked Agajanian after another puff on his cigar.

‘We are. What about the Atlanta building?’

Atlanta Heights was an unfinished but very tall apartment block with commanding views over the territory of both gangs.

‘No,’ replied Agajanian quickly. ‘Atlanta’s also off the table.’

‘You give us Atlanta, you can take all the gas stations and keep the rest.’

Agajanian couldn’t hide his surprise at this significant offer but he soon recovered his composure. ‘My instructions were specific. It cannot be part of the negotiation.’

‘Then we seem to have reached an impasse.’

‘Let’s not be hasty. I’m sure we both want to report a success to our superiors.’

Rhino resisted the temptation to glance at Lady Rose.

Agajanian finished his cigar and put it out in a glass ashtray. ‘Straight swap – autoshops for gas stations. We can make special arrangements for the other sites so that we stay out of each other’s way.’

Rhino sighed. ‘We have autoshops. Anything else you can offer us?’

While the Armenian considered this, Rhino waited patiently for the reply. He had to let his counterpart get there on his own.

Agajanian’s face brightened. ‘The Blue Sky Gym.’

‘Come on now,’ replied Rhino. ‘We know you blasted the Salvadorians out of there last week. I’m guessing you’ve picked the place clean.’

‘Plenty of space. Lot of timber for fuel.’

‘Now you’re getting desperate.’

‘Full gym – all intact. I mean, you like to work out, right, Rhino?’ Agajanian offered what he clearly believed was an engaging smile.

Rhino leaned back in his chair. ‘You’re sure there’s no room to move on Atlanta?’

‘Not unless you can move on Superbuys.’

Rhino shook his head. ‘No. Well, it’s a long way from perfect but I guess it’s a start. Gas stations to you, autoshops and the gym to us.’

Agajanian grinned. The pair of them stood and shook hands.

Once the Armenian and his muscle had left, Rhino approached Lady Rose. The girl was still attending to her nails but Rose used her other hand to gesture for Rhino to sit.

‘That didn’t sound like a particularly good deal so I’m assuming you have something more to tell me.’ As she sipped her champagne, Lady Rose fixed Rhino with an icy stare.

‘I do,’ he replied. ‘They didn’t get all the Salvadorians. We picked one up yesterday and Feng went to work on him with his hammer. It turns out they didn’t have a chance to move their stash out of the gym before the Armenians hit them. It’s all still there – guns, ammo, even some gold bars, apparently. Hidden under the boxing ring.’

Lady Rose smiled and pushed the bottle of champagne towards Rhino. ‘Somebody get this man a glass.’