The world’s busiest origin and destination airport, it was built in a mid-century modern architectural style in 1928. It wasn’t the prettiest of airports, but that didn’t matter to me. I’d studied this airport, had pocketed all its secrets and had learned how to get around without being spotted by airport security. In the early days, I’d traveled by the private terminal, my organization paying over two thousand per flight, and an annual membership fee of four thousand just so I could go from car door to plane without a care in the world. The staff there had learned to turn the other way when elite customers smuggled in alcohol or some drugs, but it had all ended when security started bringing out the dogs. I opted out of VIP status, gave up first-class for economy, and blended in.

All so I could smuggle a backpack lined with dope behind the seams, a delivery to the cartel straight from Pakistan. I was an international mule in the drug world, one of the best, specializing in assignments from Thailand and Pakistan. I could move supply, and I could move it fast. In those days, a three-day turnaround had only been achieved by two people: El Chapo—and myself. He used tunnels to smuggle; me? I used my pretty face. Big cornflower blue eyes, gold-spun blonde hair, and a dazzling white smile; I looked like a kid on her way back from a cultural trip in the east, like someone who’d grown up in a nice house with a white picket fence, who had rich parents that paid for my college education and supported me in traveling the world before starting my first job in the fall.

My real life was nothing like that. I had dead parents, a dead older brother, and three young mouths to feed—Ashley, Danny, and Sophie. They were 13, 8, and 5. We lived in my parents’ retired meth house in a scary part of LA, an old two-bedroom with one bathroom—tiny, but it was home. The detached garage had been the meth lab, but that had blown up in a freak accident, killing both my parents. Sophie had only been a couple of months old.

12:25 PM

In three minutes I would walk into the crowd, drop the backpack and walk away. I knew someone would be there to pick it up just seconds after I dropped it, but I wouldn’t look. Everything in my world was need-to-know, and I didn’t need to know who was picking up the drugs. My job was just to deliver them.

12:26 PM

I started to walk toward the trash to throw away the paper plate I’d been eating a pizza from. I’d bought it to kill time and satiate my hunger. Plane food isn’t very filling, but a slice of warm, cheesy pizza always did the trick. The sounds of feet pattering, people talking, planes landing and announcements over the PA system filled my ears. I checked my watch again.

12:27 PM

A minute to go. I blended into the crowd, pulling my baseball cap down and keeping my head low. My sunglasses would’ve looked silly since I was wearing them inside the terminal, but it was a necessary precaution. I knew where the cameras were, knew how to obscure myself so that I was difficult to make out. There were multiple eyes from the cartel in this airport, each waiting to back me up. They were there to distract security and pick up my supply.

At exactly 12:28 PM, I made the drop.

The LA heat beat down on my bare shoulders. It had taken three different buses, traveling through LA like the local I was, taking public transportation because my beater car was parked at my house on the street. When I got to the house, I found myself smiling, my heart thumping at the thought of seeing my kids. The house was small with peeling white paint and needed a new roof, but it was home. The curtains were shut and the front and iron screen door were locked, just as I’d instructed. I dug in my pocket for my keys, jingling them. Just as I was about to stick them into the lock, the door burst open.

“Mommy!” yelled a small voice, little hands reaching to undo the lock on the metal screen door. It was Sophie, sporting a smile with two front missing teeth. Her blonde hair was curly, but neatly brushed, and her big blue eyes had gone wide from the sight of me. I was filled with warmth from looking at my baby sister, the five-year-old that was the heart of this family.

“She is not Mommy. That’s Sissy,” Ashley hissed, rushing to the door. Almost as tall as me, with straight golden hair, Ashley was the person I trusted to look after Sophie and Danny. She was only thirteen, but she was a lot like me, resilient and responsible. Ashley was smarter than me, did better in school than I ever had, and was focused on making a better life for herself than the one I could provide.

She gave me an apologetic look as she picked up Sophie, putting her on her hip. She undid the lock and stepped back.

“She really shouldn’t be—”

“Answering the door,” Ashley finished for me. “I know. She’s just so… fast.”

I cracked a smile, giving her a one-armed hug. “You used to be pretty fast yourself,” I said, remembering when she had been Sophie’s age.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t have been this bad,” she grumbled.

“You’re right,” I said, walking into the small kitchen and picking up an apple off the counter. “You were worse.”

“Who’s bad?” Sophie asked, looking mildly upset.

“Not you, baby,” I said, motioning her over. Ashley lowered her to the ground and she ran to me, jumping up and down as I cut a slice of apple with a pocket-knife I found in a drawer. She happily ate the apple slice I handed her as Ashley filled me in on their week. Danny had gotten an A on his spelling test. Ashley had outgrown her uniform and needed a new one. Sophie had been taken to the park every day except Sunday—”Church,” Sophie said, mouth full—and I raised an eyebrow. We weren’t particularly religious.

Ashely shrugged. “She wanted to go. Her friends from kindergarten were there.”

I cut the last of the apple and handed Ashley the slices to give to Sophie.

“I’ll be back in a bit,” I said, and went to the back of the house, sliding open the glass door to the backyard. I went to the shed and found a locked box on a high shelf. I dusted it off, unlocked it and found some of my personal stash of weed. It was the good stuff: purple OG kush. I needed a release, any release, and this was going to have to do. I rolled up a joint and lit up.

“Fuck,” I said, taking in the scent of the weed; it smelled enticing. Next door I could hear the Juarezes, an old couple, screaming at each other, their TV blaring to muffle the sounds, but who were they kidding? They were loud as hell. On the other side, Mr. Patterson was grilling, sausage by the smell of it. Cop sirens blared nearby.

This was my neighborhood. A little drama, a little danger, and a lot of demons that resided in the people. They struggled every day to overcome them, but all weren’t successful. Most of my neighbors were crackheads and tweakers. The innocent ones smoked weed like me, usually the teenagers, but in reality, they were nothing like me.

I was dangerous.

High as a kite, I went inside and helped myself to the mac n cheese with hotdogs that Ashley had made for dinner. It was gooey and cheesy and salty from the hotdogs and just about the best thing I’d ever tasted. I had two bowls of it, filling up my third from the stove when the front door banged open. I turned around, immediately reaching for the gun under the sink.

“Ellie? Is Ellie home?”

I grinned and drew my hand away from the sink. Danny. He walked in carrying a baseball mitt and a Slurpee from 7Eleven. His skin was tanned, and his blonde hair was bleached white from the sun. Out of all us siblings, he was the only one that got brown eyes. They were deep and rich, like melted chocolate on a hot summer day.

“Ellie!” He ran over, throwing his arms around me. At eight years old, he somehow managed to be the smartest one in the family, the brainiac that always said that one day he’d go to college and then he’d take care of all of us. He never acted tougher than he was, never bragged about anything—but he was a goody-two-shoes. There was no rule-breaking around him.

“Ashley had a boy over,” he said almost immediately.

“Snitches get stitches,” Ashley yelled from the other room. She stomped over and made a motion of gutting him with her pinky. Sometimes I forgot that Ashley was a kid, too.

“We’ll talk about this later,” I said, giving them both a look. “Right now, I need a shower and then I’ll head to work.” When I said work, I meant that I was going to drop by Distribution and pick up my next job. Ashley and Danny knew what it meant.

“Can I come?” Sophie asked, trailing in after Ashley. She had a baby doll in her arms.

Everyone turned to her and answered at the same time.


My older brother Pete and I were my dad’s bastards. We were born to different mothers, and our mothers died right around the same time from drug overdoses. We were paired up in the foster care system and sent from home to home until Dad got out of jail for drug possession, a sentence he’d been serving since before our moms had died. He’d taken one look at us, skinny and miserable, and decided to take us in. Sure, there were rules—”Don’t touch anything, you little shits”—but it was home, somewhere permanent.

Then Dad met Janet. She was the best thing that ever happened to us. Suddenly there was someone doing laundry, making meals, helping with homework. She was smart, and she was young and pretty. She called Pete and me her kids, and for the first time in our lives, we had a family. Dad married Janet, had Ashley and Danny, and we were all happy. Everything was going great until Dad lost his job. He’d cleaned up good for Janet, but now he had a lot of mouths to feed, and he started reverting to his old ways to put food on the table. Janet got pregnant and desperate. She was starving, Dad was starving, and even though we kids got most of the food that came from the food bank, we were starving, too.

First came love, then came marriage, then came a meth lab in a baby carriage. Literally. After Sophie was born, Janet would go shopping and pick up pseudoephedrine, which was used to make crystal meth. It was an over-the-counter drug, a nasal decongestant found in many OTC cold medicines. She’d steal it, ripping it out of the package and putting it in Sophie’s carriage, and then she’d walk right out with a smile on her face. I’d been eighteen, buying cigarettes instead of stealing them, and it hurt my heart to see Janet have to do that. She was a good person. She shouldn’t have to steal drugs to survive.

But that was the path they chose. The woman who had become my mom was cooking meth in our garage, helping my dad who had plenty of experience in that department. He’d cooked meth before, and he was good at it. People paid good money for my parents’ crystal, and before long, we were okay again. They paid off the house, got us the good stuff at the stores—no more off-brand Oreos and cheap plastic toys. We got real Oreos, real cereal, real chips, real toys. This was a time before cellphones, but my brother and I were really happy with our Walkmans and cassette tape collection. We were happy in general—until we weren’t.

The garage blew up. Dad and Janet were in it. Thankfully, Sophie and Danny had been at daycare and Ashley at school. Pete had been at work, and I’d been fucking around with my friends downtown, smoking cigarettes and shopping for the highest, tightest jeans I could find. Boys had mattered back then. I’d wanted to impress them, wanted to be wanted, to be desired. I was just a dumb eighteen-year-old wasting her time instead of going to college. Not that I’d get the chance anyway.

The cops found the bodies, but they found the meth lab first. The place was closed off, and everything was seized and destroyed. Pete had been living with roommates in a small apartment in WeHo and I’d been couch surfing with friends, so there was no way we could be pinned for the drugs. CPS took the kids away, but Pete and I fought for them, and in a couple months, a judge ordered them into our care. We started raising them by ourselves, even though I was still a teenager and Pete had barely turned twenty. We got a lot of visits from CPS at first, but things cooled down after our first evaluation. Pete had a stable job thanks to his mechanic apprenticeship, and I was taking care of the house and kids.

Our futures had looked bleak at the time. We’d sit on the front porch steps after the kids were put to bed, looking up at the smog of LA, sharing cigarettes and discussing life. We’d laugh, we’d cry, and we’d hold each other, wondering how the fuck we were gonna raise those kids right. We didn’t want them to be fucked up like we were. Struggling to make ends meet, living in a tiny house, barely having enough money to put food on the table.

And then Sergio came into our lives.

Pete and I had been saving up every spare dime and penny for weeks. We were gonna do Danny’s fourth birthday at Chuck E Cheese. We couldn’t afford a party, and we didn’t have anyone to invite anyway, but we could at least pay for a pizza for the kids and some tokens for the games. It was their first time at a Chuck E Cheese so it kind of blew their minds. Sophie would be too young to remember, but Danny and Ashley had the time of their fucking lives.

“Look at them,” Pete said, flipping his baseball cap back. He always did that when he came inside of a building, except the kids had kept him so busy that he hadn’t gotten the chance until after they’d finished eating. With newfound energy, they’d gone off on their own, but still within eyesight. Sophie was asleep in a stroller next to us.

“I know,” I said, smiling. “We’re not doing so bad, are we?” We’d had the kids for a couple of months now, and even though we were struggling (and I mean struggling), we still managed to make them happy. Pete was just about to answer me when a man sat down across from us. The first thing I noticed were his neck tattoos, snaking up to his jaw, and traveling down to his arms, even his knuckles. Piercing green eyes, a handsome face, dark hair, and medium skin; he was the very definition of a bad boy—and I loved bad boys.

“Not here,” Pete said immediately, getting to his feet. He seemed to know the guy.

“Relax, sit,” the stranger said. “I’m out with my kid. See that one at the Whack-a-Mole? That’s mine.”

“This isn’t a good time—” Pete began, but he was cut off.

“The hell it isn’t.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“You must be Ellie. I’m Sergio.” His voice was rough yet smooth, like honey washing over river rocks. He put his hand out for a handshake, and I almost shook it.

“Don’t talk to her,” Pete hissed, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I’ll get you the money. I swear to fucking god that I’ll get it to you. I just—I need some time.”

“You been sayin’ that for months,” Sergio said calmly. He folded his hands on the table and looked into my eyes, giving me a small smile. I blushed.

“But I mean it,” Pete said. “I’ve got a second job lined up. I start next week. I—”

“You didn’t mean it before?” Sergio asked in a dark voice, flicking his eyes to Pete. My brother looked terrified. I’d never seen anyone but our dad spook Pete before.

“How much to square up?” I asked, swallowing down my nerves.

“Nothing to worry your pretty little head with,” Sergio said, giving me a wink. “This is between me and him.”

“You deal with him, you deal with me,” I said stiffly. This guy was bullying my brother. I didn’t give a fuck that he was hot; nobody messes with my family.

“I like your sister, Pete,” Sergio said, cracking a smile. “Tell you what, I’ll let this one go.”

“What’s the catch?” Pete asked. He’d paled considerably. I had a feeling that Pete knew exactly what the catch was.

Sergio leaned forward, grinning.

“I got a job for you.”

The Hitman

I remember her.

It was early morning, right before sunrise, and I was praying Fajr, the first prayer of my day. I started each morning facing Mecca, worshipping the God in my sky, and afterward, I’d have a conversation with Him. I prayed for my son, the little troublemaker that was proving to be a lot like me, and then I prayed for her.

“Don’t hurt me.”

I closed my eyes and begged God to forgive me.

Hand-to-hand combat, Jiu-Jitsu, Gun-Fu (martial arts with guns), and Muay Thai. I trained every morning after prayer, my body burning from the strain on my muscles, practicing the skills that would save my life and end another’s. I had a heightened sense of proprioception, which was a fancy word for an enhanced sense of where every body part is. I’d taken anatomy classes, memorizing the human body from head to toe, but specializing in joints, main arteries, and the throat. I knew how to take a man down, but I also knew how to kill him immediately if I needed to. Most often, my job was to do the latter.

This morning I trained in multi-step exercises after my workout. It was an efficient way to work several muscles and body parts together. It was a dangerous combination, making me both sure-footed and deathly silent. I could cut through a room without making any sound, almost always getting the advantage on my targets. To do this, I had to train, and I had to train hard.

I put my body through the wringer every single day, save for Fridays. Fridays were reserved for Jummah prayer, which was the Muslim equivalent of a Sunday church sermon. I’d be gentle with my body on those days, icing my sore muscles and drinking enough water to satisfy a horse. I ate clean, even though it could’ve been a cheat day, but there were no cheat days for people like me.

Hitmen don’t cheat.

The streets smelled of betel leaf and ittar, a combination of the paan that most men chewed, and the musky cologne they wore. Dirt roads with open bazaars, donkeys pulling carts and beat-up Asian-made cars weren’t an unusual sight. My boots crunched against the dirt and rocks as shopkeepers jumped at the sight of me walking past their stalls. Only one dared speak to me, greeting me warmly, inviting me in for a cup of chai. I raised a hand in thanks and shook my head. I had business to attend to today.

“Come, brother. Just one cup,” said Bilal, the young owner of a small convenience store. He’d spoken in Urdu, which I was fluent in. I liked Bilal, liked that he was fresh-faced and untouched by the difficulties of life in the east. He came from a privileged background and instead of going to college, he’d stolen the funds to open up his humble store. His father had wanted him to become an engineer, but Bilal hated numbers. He’d left Islamabad, a six to seven-hour drive north, to hide away in the streets of Old Lahore.

We were in Pakistan, the world’s sixth-most populous country. The people here were hospitable and friendly, especially if they got the feeling that you weren’t from around here. I looked like a foreigner with my western clothes and American accent, but I was originally from Old Lahore. I’d been born here twenty-eight years ago. Where I’d spent the time in between—that was a story I would never tell.