"Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."~ James Baldwin
“I know your heart. You may be something of an enemy, but I do know your heart.” (Loc. 3841)
Sometimes my reading life gets stuck in a rut, and I begin to feel like a hamster perpetually going nowhere in one of those crazy running wheels. I have an alarming addiction to historical romance and without intervention I'd read nothing else. But, like a diet with only one food, that's not healthy. In fact, it can be limiting and eventually downright boring. So I consciously keep an ear to the ground for books buzzing in other sub-genres to mix things up a bit. In this case my "ear to the ground" was "A Guest Pandora's Box" post by Dabney, Elisabeth Lane and Alexis Hall at All About Romance discussing Carolyn Crane's Against The Dark, the first in her romantic suspense series, The Associates. A retired safecracker/interior designer and a math nerd/secret agent man? Oh, yeah, baby, count me in! I was hooked on this series immediately and quickly inhaled it along with Off The Edge (#2) and Into The Shadows (#3). So I guess it's not a surprise that I also devoured Behind The Mask, #4 in the series, in practically one sitting. How do you do it, Carolyn Crane? How do you get me to step out of my comfort zone and make me fall in love with, oh, say, a badass assassin/mercenary with caveman tendencies and a kickass/former CIA agent/forensic botanist?
I believe part of the answer can be found in characters who are never one dimensional, never all dark or all light, instead encompassing, and balanced by, both, filled in with many shades of gray in between. Take for instance, Hugo Martinez in Behind The Dark who "started out as something of a benevolent mercenary" fighting in places like the Balkans, Algeria, the Israeli/Lebanese border, then morphing into the mythical Kabakas at the height of the wars in Valencia, South America. Kabakas with his signature "blood-red mask with silver stars painted in it", "an uncanny ability to put a blade in a man's eye from a hundred feet away", and always killing all but one person to act as a messenger. But this assassin also occasionally fought for the "downtrodden" and is the same killer who finds and rescues a crying toddler, Paolo, sitting by his dead mother on a battlefield. Who loves the child as his own son even if he doesn't quite know what to do with him or how to interact with him.
"It was Paolo he wanted to hold, yes, but maybe, just a little bit, it was Hugo’s younger self. Hugo left, holding his boy to his breaking heart. All these years. It would’ve been so easy to play with him. So easy to call him by his name. (Loc. 2777)
“I never…I never knew,” he confessed. Never knew the boy would want that. Never knew how. (Loc. 2809)
Or how to say 'I love you' beyond actions like building up the fire to keep him warm as Paolo plays by the fireplace or teaching him things, questionable though they are, like:
"Don’t cower unless you have a reason. Don’t fall to your knees until they cut you off at the shins." (Loc. 712)
A man who cared for his mother after his father died, and she lost her position as a maid to a billionaire oilman. Who collected treasures like shiny coins, train tickets, bottle caps, colorful stamps, American baseball cards, his Moro graduation rite wand, and the "small puzzle box", a treasured gift from his father because it was one of the rare times he'd been kind to Hugo, and it had symbolized "hope." Here's Hugo/Kabakas: complex, multi-faceted, heartbreakingly real.
Or how about Zelda Pierce, a "retired" CIA agent who freely admits she's a master at "cold fucking", able to "have sex with truly awful, truly evil men without breaking a sweat." But she's bailed her twin sister, Liza, out of jail, put her in countless drug rehab programs, and is determined to save her once again by switching places with her after Liza's boyfriend, Mikos, loses her in a card game to a brutal drug cartel leader known as Brujos. Zelda, who's tormented and guilt-ridden by her failure after she broke under torture six years ago, giving up a fellow undercover agent's name, resulting in his death. This is Zelda who loves creating a blueberry muffin taste by combining blue and yellow Jelly Belly jelly beans. This is Zelda who acts as witness, "an ally, if only in spirit" for those she sees die.
She’d seen too many people die horribly, but she always took the time to honor the dead in her mind, and to imagine a kind of peace for them. She used to do it with animals on the roadside as a girl, and even plants. (Loc. 513)
Maybe it's Carolyn Crane's talent for creating fascinating details that are just totally made-up but feel like they should be real. It could be something as prosaic as the plant in Behind The Mask known as Savinca verde. (I googled the freaking plant, and finally ran across an interview with the author admitting she made it up. Brilliant!) For hundreds of years, the plant has grown only on the Verde Sirca mountainside in Buena Vista, Valencia, South America, the harvest in bud form bringing financial stability to the small village.
The Savinca verde was only valuable to wholesale florists when the flowers were in bud form, so that they could bloom just before they were sold for exorbitant amounts of money in high-end floral shops. In fact, a tract of open flowers always meant tragedy—no farmer would let the precious flower open unless he was injured or dead. You never wanted to see the blood-red heart of the savinca. (Loc. 307)
Hugo sees this flower in both forms as a metaphor for himself: the many deaths Kabakas brought to so many people, that awful lonely, isolating feeling of being unloved and unwanted all his life in the red heart of the blooms and his stunted potential in the buds caused by the emotional, mental, and physical abuse of his father.
The villagers believed the plants could feel. He, too, believed it at times, and he felt a sudden rush of grief for them. Like a small child, a plant could not run away when there was trouble or fighting. It could only grow, vulnerable in its tiny patch of dirt. An unaccountable thickness filled his throat as he peered across to the red swath at the top side of the slope. Flowers blooming unloved in the fields. (Loc. 2320-2325)
Perhaps it's how the romance and danger/suspense elements find that sweet spot, that delicate balance that is, as Goldilocks said, just right, along with the perfectly paced intervals of action interspersed with description. Zelda's mission ratchets up from merely dangerous to life threatening when Brujos' men hand her off to the henchmen of a truly evil villain, El Gorrion. Soon, Zelda disarms the leader and his helpers and almost manages to commandeer the plane taking her to El Gorrion's compound. This scene was a nail biting one for me and is followed immediately by a dramatic introduction to Kabakas in all his murderous glory. Honestly, I'm a little squeamish about graphic violence, but the scene in which Kabakas mows down El Gorrion's men at the air strip was as beautifully choreographed as a ballet. His power and almost otherworldly abilities to withstand assault of any kind was mesmerizing and riveting.
She sucked in a breath, centering herself. And then she heard a sound she didn’t recognize—a swish-swish-swish, like something flying through the air, followed by a strange yell—a shout of pain, but worse, somehow. Eerie and high-pitched. Another cry sounded farther away.
Suddenly, everything quieted—even the animals and birds. Everything but the labored breathing that told her somebody was behind the Jeep, frightened out of his mind. Aguilo.
She glanced up. Bodies were everywhere. And then she saw him—a huge beast of a man in a Kabakas mask strolling casually and openly across the field toward the truck where one group had taken refuge.
More shots. Still he walked—or more like stalked—right into the gunfire. He wore fatigues, leathers, black boots, pockets, and packs, all battered and battle-worn. He had the bandolier. Blades gleamed between the fingers of his massive leather-gloved hands.
His massive, leather-clad hand dwarfed the blades he threw. He was all dark confidence. Nerves of steel. No mercy, no apologies. Never a fuck-up. Never a break in his excellence. She watched him move, body torqueing, pure economy, fingers hugged by the leather, shining where it gripped tightest.
A silver barong had appeared in his left hand, the essential Kabakas accessory. It seemed to glide alongside him as he closed the distance with a confident stride, brown skin gleaming with sweat, muscles surging over his forearms and disappearing into his gloves. The man pulsed with power.
Calm and sure as the moon, the Kabakas impostor strode on, right into the gunfire. With a flick of the wrist, he threw a knife, and Guz was down. Pierced in the knee. Wailing in pain, Guz rolled over, leveling his pistol at his masked attacker. He was between her and Kabakas now. She stiffened as Guz shot, once and then again at nearly point-blank range.
The man acting as Kabakas reached over his shoulder into his pack and drew out a barong sword. Now he had two. He began to swing them in a figure eight, Sinawali style, as he strolled toward the leader.
It was something to behold, the way the silver ends shone in a figure-eight blur that sometimes shifted into more of an X pattern. Guz shot at him, and the Kabakas impostor just kept walking. Guz shot again. Clang. Zelda felt the breath go out of her. Using the blades to block bullets. A Kabakas hallmark. It wasn’t magical; if you angled blades just so, and if you were good at gauging directions and trajectories, you did have roving plates of armor. (Loc. 896-949)
Every bit of dialogue between Zelda and Hugo or Hugo and Paolo or Dax and Zelda (or whomever), each and every action taken by all the characters including the secondary characters, and even the smoking hot sex scenes mixed with a bit of kink are necessary to advance the story. The attraction between Zelda and Hugo sizzles almost immediately. Her history as a Kabakas hunter of Hugo, her front row seats to the Kabakas killing spectacle and being an eyewitness of the man and the myth in action feeds into an elemental part of her psyche. Hugo likewise recognizes the warrior in Zelda and responds in kind. I had no doubt these two were made for each other. I loved how Zelda helps Hugo open up to Paolo, the villagers, and to her.
His hands balled into fists deep inside his pockets as Liza’s words rang through his mind. He is a real person. See him. She’d meant it about Paolo, but she could’ve said it of Julian and the villagers. Why should his word have weight? Hugo wasn’t a part of the village. He barely interacted with them or treated them as neighbors. How arrogant to assume they would trust him about El Gorrion not coming back, or risk their families on rumors—or on the casual word of an outsider to a shopkeeper. He’d thought it would be enough. It wasn’t. (Loc. 2336-2342)
I love Hugo and Zelda, with all their flaws and insecurities and vulnerability. Maybe because of them. Behind The Mask and all the Associates books that precede it are something beyond just romantic suspense, with an added dark, edgy element. They may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I love each and every one of them, especially Behind The Mask. My "reading" comfort zone is historical romance, but as long as there are Associates books (and books like them), I'm more than willing to push those boundaries and try something wonderfully different. I highly recommend this book as well as the first three in the series.