Novella: the Border Marches [Book 5]

To be Released August, 25 2013
THE BORDER MARCHES


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The events in this book take place after the events in the Nine of the North.  It is recommended that books 1 – 4 of the Western Front series be read, prior to reading the Border Marches.
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This is a work of fiction.  All of the characters, organizations and events in this novel are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously; any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2013 Archer Garrett. 
All Rights Reserved.
No Part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.
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Acknowledgements:
My wife, for her patience during this project.
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***

“You hear they found six dead in Alemán?”
“I heard seven.”
“Nope, six.  Hanging from the rafters in a warehouse; skinned out.  The seventh only had his legs flayed.  They found ‘em on account of his screams.”
“Something wicked’s headed our way.  I don’t know when, but if I had to say, I’d reckon sooner than later.  Any day now, this whole things gonna’ come apart and all that mess is gonna’ sweep our way.” 
“It’s already here in fits and starts.  They found two border agents just outside of Zapata the other day, or what was left of ‘em.  Execution style.  One of ‘em was from Garceno.  Beth knows his sister.  Said he had a little girl.  Six years old.”
“Why don’t we just go?  Pack up everything and head north.  I don’t want to be here when it starts to unravel.”
“It’s already started.  Look around.”
“Then why are we still here?  Why aren’t we doing something?”
“I reckon ‘cause we got jobs, and families, and bills.  Plus, I think deep down, we don’t believe it’ll really happen.  I mean, we sit here and say it will, but we ain’t never gonna’ do nothin’ about it.”
“Maybe so.  Hey, you ready for another round?”
– Overheard in a bar in Salineno, Texas, three days before Black Thursday, the day the world shrugged.

Manuel
Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico


Manuel looked over his shoulder before rounding the corner.  He ducked into a darkened alcove and withdrew his cuchilla.  He held his breath, pressed himself against the wall and waited.  The group of men passed him by without so much as an errant glance in his direction.  Manny exhaled deeply and plunged the blade back into its sheath.
The city hadn’t been much different than the other border towns before the world changed.  It was steeped in poverty and rife with seedy characters.  Cartels, human traffickers, drifters – they all seemed to converge in places like Alemán.
And that was back then.
The collapse had not been good for the town.  In fact, it’d nearly destroyed it.  Rival cartels battled in the streets while the citizens of Miguel Alemán cowered in their homes.  The people would’ve fled, if they’d had somewhere to flee to.  But they didn’t; nowhere was safe.
Alemán was lost.
But then Texas happened.  A wave of victories swept the borderlands, dealing the cartels a series of crippling losses.  Coupled with the pressures from their rivals to the south, the narcos’ grip on the area faltered. 
The citizens of Miguel Alemán, with the help of a new faction, wrested their city from the cartels.  The bodies of fallen sicarios swayed in the breeze for all to see.  They served as a bitter warning to their comrades.  No longer would the men and women who called this place their home be victims. 
But as it is said, nothing lasts forever.  The peace that los Serenos, or the Watchmen, and the citizens had delivered to Alemán was growing dim.  Slowly, the blight of the narcos was creeping back in.  It wasn’t quite as it had been before, though.  The new war was a cold one, one that was waged with back-alley executions and volatile alliances, like the shifting sands of a shore.  And Manuel was flailing in the surf, never knowing if the next wave would be his last.
As the last of the crowd faded into the city, he emerged from the shadows and continued down the filthy street.  Up ahead, a boy leaned against the side of an abandoned shop, guarding the entrance to the alley beside him.  He took long, purposeful drags from his cigarette as he scowled at the passersby.  The bulge under his coat was readily apparent, but no one paid it any mind, except Manuel. 
He studied the boy from the corner of his eye as he approached.  How old was he? Twelve?  Thirteen?  Manny’s heart broke.  The child could’ve easily been his own son. 
He paused mid-stride and sucked in air through his teeth.  The thought was chaste, not yet damned by the realities of the world.  Still, the cut it made was intense, like a dull blade in an old wound.  The boy could never be yours, he told himself, your son’s dead.
He turned away as he passed the boy, the thought still lingering in his head.  Manuel cast a quick glance to either side before ducking into the next alley.  He rested the palm of one hand on the pommel of his cuchilla while he searched his coat with the other.  Finally, he produced a soft-pack of Marlboros.
Manuel lit the cigarette and pulled the smoke deep into his lungs.  The cherry glowed dimly and illuminated his haggard face.  They used to say these things’ll kill you, he thought to himself, but not now.  No one believes they’ll live long enough to die from ‘em anymore. 
He watched from the shadows as a group passed by the alley’s entrance.  They looked hollow, used up, hopeless.  The world had ended, but still they kept on breathing.  They were like walking locust shells, brittle and barren.
He sensed a sudden flash of movement somewhere behind him.  Manny instinctively dropped low.  The garrote caught the brim of his cap and tore it from his head.  He landed hard in the mud, turning over a trash can as he fell.  His blade flashed in the faint sliver of light that pierced the alley as he withdrew it.  In a flash, he sprung to his feet.  Manuel spat the grime from his mouth and searched the shadows for his attacker.
The man lunged, but he stumbled over the refuse that had spilled onto the ground.  As he teetered off-balance, Manny side-stepped him and planted a boot in his side.  The assailant stumbled sidelong and crashed into the alley wall.  He groped through the darkness, momentarily dazed by the collision.
But a moment was all that Manuel needed. 
Behind the man, Manny could see his silhouette plainly against the dim glow of the streetlamps.  He side-stepped again, before slamming his boot into the side of the man’s knee.  With his leg torturously disfigured, the attacker howled in pain and collapsed under the weight of his own body.  Nearby, his blade clattered loudly against the pavement.
Manuel kicked the knife out of reach as he approached.  He put his own blade to the man’s neck as he squatted beside him.  The man bit down hard on his lip to keep from wailing in agony.  Crimson streamed from his mouth.
Manny snarled in thick Spanish, “Who sent you?”
¡Vete al cuerno!
He hadn’t the time for insolence, or the mind for mercy.  He grabbed a fistful of the man’s hair and jerked his head back.  Their eyes locked.  The man spat blood into the night.  In a single motion, Manuel drew his cuchilla across the man’s throat.  He watched as his attacker’s eyes widened in shock and then grew dim as the life slowly drained from them, until finally, they stared blankly towards the sky.  Upon releasing his grip, the body slumped forward and collapsed onto the alley.  Manny stepped over the corpse and back into the dull lights of the city.
***

Manuel pushed the door open and peered into the darkened tavern.  A pair of men sat at opposite ends of the bar.  Small groups huddled around their tables and drank lukewarm cerveza in the shadows.  Ranchera music drifted through the establishment and out into the night.  The patrons looked up from their hushed conversations to eye him warily.  He met their gazes each in turn.  One by one, they grew disinterested in him and returned to their idle chatter.
Manny aimed for a solitary figure seated at a booth in the back corner of the room.  Their eyes locked as he approached.  As he neared, the man growled, “You’re late.”
“I got held up.”
The man sighed and flicked his wrist as he simply said, “Sit.”
Manuel complied.
The man pushed an empty shot glass towards him.  He grabbed a half-empty bottle and filled it, before repeating the ritual with his own glass.
“How’ve you been, Josué?” Manny asked.
“I’m alive, am I not?”
“If you can call what we’re doing living.”
“It still beats the alternative.”
Manuel snorted and downed the shot.  He rolled it across his tongue and let it slowly trickle down his throat.  Was it better?  He wasn’t so sure anymore.
Josué reached across the table and refilled Manny’s glass, before continuing, “You’ve got some blood on your face.”
He shrugged.  “Ain’t mine.”
 Josué studied him for several moments, trying to see past the cold veneer.  Finally, he spoke.  “You really think you can pull this off?”
Manuel nodded and replied, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
“You know they’ll take you for a liar if you don’t, even if it’s not your fault.”
He nodded.
“They’ll think you sold them out; told their secrets to the narcos.  It won’t be safe here for you anymore.”
“I know.”
“As long as you know,” Josué replied, “I figure you deserve a fair warning.”
“I appreciate your concern,” he retorted.
“I am concerned,” Josué said as he slid a slip of paper across the table.  “We’re amigos, Manny.”
Friends. 
Manuel folded the note and stuffed it in his coat pocket.  As he arose from the table, he replied, “That word died a long time ago.”

Jake
New Falcon, Texas


The heavy, steel gate creaked loudly as the sentries rolled it along its track.  They nodded and exchanged greetings with Hayden and Jake as they rode past.
“Careful out there,” one of the men added.
“Always.  Radio us if anything comes up – channel 7,” Jake replied.
“Roger.”
A second pair of guards manned the gate towers on either side of the entrance.  They scanned the horizon with their night-vision scopes for any signs of trouble.  So far, the night had been uneventful.
One of the men paused his search and called down, “How’s that baby, Jake?”
“Growing like a weed, Luke!”
The guard chuckled and added, “What about yours, Hayd?”
“He never quits cryin’.”
Luke added with a chuckle, “Y’all’ll have your own scouting party before long.”
Jake smiled and replied, “The world ain’t ready for them two, not yet.”
The guards fell into idle banter as the two men spurred their horses and galloped across the Gap.
The Gap was the no man’s land that lay between New Falcon’s main wall and its outer ring.  It was a desolate expanse, free of trees or brush or outcroppings.  No one made it across the Gap, not unless the men in the watchtowers willed it.
The walls were made from HESCO bastions and topped with concertina wire.  The main wall was nearly 18’ tall, while the outer one was half as high, affording the watchmen a clearer view of the world beyond.  The bastions were filled with soil dug from within the Gap, creating pitfalls and trenches that served to further impede any attackers and channelize their advance.
Though the 800 or so yards between the walls was bleak and foreboding, it was a stark contrast to the settlement that lay within.  New Falcon was a key holding, carved out of the disputed borderlands by the Republic of Texas.  The city, if it could be called a city, was situated atop Falcon Dam and encompassed its twin power plants, one of which was located across what was considered the “Pre-Republic” border.
The reservoir and abundant power supply allowed the parched ground within the settlement to flourish.  Crops were abundant and the livestock was fat.  Homes had clean, running water and reliable electricity.  In many ways, it was much like the world had been before.  It was a paradise, of sorts, as long as one remained within the walls. 
The same features that made the settlement so arcadian also made it a rich target.  It was a shining jewel in the borderlands, one that demanded constant vigilance for its continued existence.  New Falcon wasn’t established as a mere experiment to see if freedom was still possible along the border, however; it had a purpose.
The settlement provided the Republic with the ability to control the distribution of electricity in the area.  An unreliable grid coupled with the threat of brutal violence had been enough for most of the citizens south of the old border to flee deeper into Mexico, where territory disputes were less fierce.  The flight south had also limited the narcos’ ability to strike Texas and fade back into the border cities.  If a man chose to venture into the region, he was one of several things:  a guardsman, settler, bandit or a narco sicario.
In addition to controlling the area’s power supply, New Falcon also provided Texas with a forward operating base that required minimal resources to maintain.  Guardsmen and vehicles could safely be transported from Camp Mabry and inserted into the settlement by way of Chinooks.  From there, the team of soldiers could carry out their mission and be subsequently extracted.  A small barracks and armory were maintained within New Falcon, but it was seldom used.  The Republic could scarcely spare to pull units from its cities or the cold war that was brewing with the former U.S. on their eastern front.  For the most part, New Falcon and the other settlements along the border were on their own.  The last communication with the world beyond had been a supply drop from Fort Hood nearly two months ago.
New Falcon wasn’t completely isolated, however.  Ciudad Miguel Alemán was a day’s ride to the south.  It’d been a comfortable distance when it was stable, but as conditions in the town began to worsen, the threat seemed to creep ever closer.  Soon, something would have to be done.
 As they passed through the outer gate, Jake and Hayden’s demeanors changed.  No longer were they in the protective confines of the city, nor were they under the watchful eyes of the marksmen.  Any time spent beyond the walls, no matter how short the span or mundane the reason, was dangerous.  Besides, they were scouts, high-value targets, the types that best served their foe when they were kidnapped, tortured and ransomed back.  They slowed their pace and retrieved the carbines that were slung across their backs. 
The grey-green hues of the night-vision never failed to unnerve Hayden.  He’d never experienced the feeling when using them before, but still, he couldn’t shake it.  There was something about the desolate landscape that was all around him, the unspoken menace of the rocky crags and brush-filled flats that seemed to be amplified when it was viewed through the goggles.  The tunnel-vision experienced by the wearer certainly didn’t help.  Danger always seemed to be just out of view. 
Hayden’s horse sensed his trepidation and neighed anxiously.
“You alright?” Jake whispered.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You’re lying; that horse knows you better than anyone.”
Hayden admitted reluctantly, “Night shift.”
“I know what you mean,” Jake replied, “There’s something about this place and the witchin’ hour.  It’ll get to you if you let it.”
Hayden nodded in agreement, but didn’t reply.
He fell in behind Jake as they turned south. They guided their horses down the rocky slopes that led away from the dam.  Jake leaned forward and whispered reassuringly into Threeper’s pricked ears.  The horse replied with a friendly nicker and a roll of his head.
They searched the trail for any signs of trespassers – an errant boot or hoof print, a snapped twig, a wrapper carelessly cast aside – simple mistakes that could warn them of things to come.  After a ways they swung west in a wide arc and followed a narrow break of mesquite.  Jake scanned the ground, while Hayden kept an eye on the horizon. 
“Quiet tonight,” Hayden whispered as much to himself as anyone.
Jake offered a throaty, “Mmhm,” without looking up.
“Jake.”
“Yeah?”
Listen.  It’s really quiet; something’s off.”
Jake tugged gently at the reins until Threeper stopped.  He climbed down from his horse and landed with a gentle thud.  With his carbine in one hand, he slowly edged a short distance away.  Threeper tried to follow after him, but he turned and placed the palm of his hand on the horse’s nose.  Threeper seemed to nod, before swinging his head and milling off in the opposite direction. 
After a ways, Jake dropped to one knee and planted the butt of his rifle on the ground beside him.  He breathed in deeply, closed his eyes and used the gun as a crutch as he strained to hear something amongst a sea of nothing.
The air wasn’t exactly empty, but Hayden was right, it was near enough.  Oh, there was the occasionally hoot or chirp, or even the distant yips of a pack of coyotes, but something was missing.  But what was it?
An irritation overtook him as he sat there searching for a sound that he admittedly couldn’t even place.  Like a lost thought that tormented the mind, it wanted to be discovered.  He bit his lip in frustration; he couldn’t remember what he couldn’t remember.
Then, it hit; the sound exploded right beside him, like a brushland serenade.
Chic, chic, chic, chic chic chic chic-chic-chic-chic-chic-zwEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
The giant locust was as loud as a banshee, and nearly as terrifying.  Jake’s heart leapt into his throat and hung there for a moment.  He bit down hard, filling his mouth with the coppery taste of blood. 
The locusts.
The trademark sound of a south Texas night; they were almost deafening at times.  Why were they so quiet?  What secrets had they been told?
Jake jumped once again as his radio crackled to life.  He quickly reached for the knob and turned the volume down.  Even though Geram’s voice echoed quietly through the ear buds, it still seemed too loud for such a late hour, on such a foreboding night.
“JAKE.”
“Go ahead.”
“WHERE ARe you… … …thing you need to see.” The middle third of the transmission trailed off as Jake adjusted the volume down too far, and then back up again.
“Down and out west,” Jake replied, “between the Rio and Highway 2.”
“Good, we’re just ahead; western wall, near the draw.  We’ll hold up until you get here.  Take your time and watch your back.”
“Roger.”
Jake jogged over to Threeper and planted a boot firmly in the saddle.  As he climbed back atop the horse, Hayden scanned the surrounding hills with his rifle pulled snugly against his shoulder.  He’d heard Geram as well.
As they aimed their horses north, Hayden whispered, “The locusts, it was the locusts.”
“I know,” Jake replied.
***

Hidden behind an outcropping, Geram watched Jake and Hayden appear on the horizon.
“Alright,” he said, “I’ve got a visual on you.  We’re behind the rocks, near the wall.  Swing wide and come up behind us.”
“Roger,” Jake replied.
The pair did as instructed, while warily scanning their surroundings. 
“Think he’s got someone?” Hayden asked.
“No, but something’s got him spooked.”
They moved from one cluster of scrub trees to the next, utilizing what little the land offered them.  The moon wasn’t quite full, but it was close enough to give them pause when crossing the open expanses.  Finally, they reach Geram and Logan.
“What ya got?” Jake asked.
Geram pointed ahead and whispered, “We noticed some signs of traffic out west of here.  I don’t know how we missed it before.  Looks like there’s been movement in and out for several days.”
“Movement where?”
“I’m not sure.  That’s when I called you.  Let’s leave the horses here and take a look.”
Geram stepped out from behind the outcropping with the others in tow.  They approached slowly, their rifles shouldered and pointed outward.  Jake’s hands were clammy, though he was unsure if it was from the night air or the anticipation of what might lie ahead.
The terrain steepened as they neared the draw.  They slowed their progress and chose each step with care.  A tumble down the hill would be a sure way to compromise their position.  When they reached the bottom, Geram led them to a clump of young huisache.  They crouched behind the saplings as he peered beyond.
“Trail should’ve led somewhere around here,” he whispered.
After several moments, Logan motioned and said, “Wall looks like it’s sagging.”
“And why would that be?” Geram wondered aloud.
They watched the area for several minutes longer before Geram finally announced, “Keep an eye out; I’m a step over and have a look.”
He eased out from behind the brush and approached the curiosity in the wall.  After a dozen or so yards, he noticed several boot prints, and then several more, until the entire area was trampled with them.  It was as if someone had been all over – searching, or working, or doing something – but what?
It was only then that he noticed several bitterbrush boughs piled near the wall.  He’d been focused on the obvious, and they were much less obtrusive.  Still, their purpose was readily apparent, even if he couldn’t see the tunnel beneath them just yet.
“Y’all might want to have a look at this,” Geram whispered into the radio.
He craned his neck and peered into the hole while the others approached.
When they reached the crude entrance, Logan dropped to one knee and cursed aloud.  He turned to Geram and asked, “Think they’ve made it into the city?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Geram replied grimly.

Manny
Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico


Manuel exited the tavern and headed west on Insurgentes.  He turned up his collar and tugged his cap down over his face.  It was too warm for the coat, even if it was the middle of the night, but it was worth the minor discomfort.  The loose jacket concealed his long-barreled ‘cohete,’ as well as his cuchilla.  In a city where the brandishing of a weapon was as common as a sombrero, Manny reasoned discretion was a virtue.  No sense in surrendering the element of surprise to one’s adversary.
Insurgentes cut through a dangerous section of the city, but there were worse.  It wasn’t as if anywhere was considered safe anymore.  At least, in this district, los Serenos – the Watchmen – had a strong presence, but they hadn’t exactly prevented him from nearly being garroted in the alley either.  Soon enough, he thought, maybe they would have the means to push back against the cartels.  Manny would help them, or he’d die trying.  And even if he did die, maybe he would still win.  Maybe he would get to see Emilio again.
Emilio had been ten.  He was so precious; so innocent.  His heart was tender and full of love.  He never should’ve even lived as long as he did.  He was a preemie, born to a mother who surrendered her life so that he might have one of his own.   Losing Mía devastated Manuel, but he didn’t have time to be weak.  He had a son to raise. 
Manny moved back in with his mother, Emilio’s nana, soon after he was born.  He scolded her for spoiling the boy, but she paid him no mind.  She was the matron, and she’d do as she pleased.
Emilio died in Manuel’s arms, not long after the world changed.  There had been so much blood.  He remembered crying out as his son slipped away.  In his last breath Emilio had looked at him with eyes that were fearless and whispered, “Papá, está bien. Veo a Jesús.”
His son had been caught in the cartel’s crossfire.  Emilio had died because some man had decided to order a hit on several rival narcos.  The sicarios didn’t even care that they’d shot the boy.  After they’d executed their target, they simply walked away, never even bothering to glance in Emilio’s direction.  Manny had sworn an oath that day, by the blood that stained his hands – his son’s blood, that he would find the men that were responsible. 
And kill them.
The sicarios were Zetas, part of the Z-G alliance – dangerous men to swear a vendetta against.  But even more dangerous was the lieutenant who had given the order, la Sombra.  He was a vicious killer, and a rising star within the organization. 
But Manuel was much more than a grieving father with a taste for blood.  He’d been a trained killer.  Not some common, narco street thug; he had been a real assassin.  But that was long ago.  He had promised Mía he’d change; he’d make an honest go at life for her.  He turned his back on everything he had ever known for her and never looked back.  But she was dead, and so was their son.
One of the sicarios had died in the bombing of Matamoros.  News of the man’s death had left him feeling disgusted.  Manny felt wronged – cheated.  The satisfaction of exacting justice had escaped him.  He wouldn’t let it happen again.
He faded in and out of the shadows as he hurried through the city.  There were still people out, but not nearly as many as earlier.  He used them when they were available, melting into their presence so he could catch a quick glimpse behind himself, before continuing on. 
The world as he knew it may’ve ended, but life certainly didn’t.  There was a while, shortly after the worst of it, where it seemed humanity might roll over and die.  People huddled in their homes, afraid of the unknown.  But the sun kept rising and the babies kept crying, and eventually they were forced out of their dens, to pick up and continue on. 
In many ways, it wasn’t much different than before.  People still got married, had children and celebrated the milestones that mattered.  They went to the market, gossiped with their friends and even worked, though it might be tending to a backyard garden or guarding their neighborhood against marauders.  In many ways, the world was the same as it’d always been, it was just a little bleaker than before.
Manny breathed a sigh of relief.  If anyone had been following him, he’d lost them.  Still, it was no time to temper his suspicions.  He doubled back to areas that offered him a tactical advantage – shadowy alcoves or areas that would channelize a pursuer.  He paused and waited, but his fears never materialized.  Satisfied, he finally headed home.
His flat was on the second floor of a neglected apartment complex on the corner of Chetumal and Guaymas.  It was protected by a private security guard, one of the few careers that had flourished.
“Hey, Manny.  You’re out late.”
“Just needed to clear my head.  Any trouble tonight, Raul?”
He shook his head and replied, “It’s been quiet enough.  We had some suspicious characters hanging around earlier, but they eventually left.  Too bad, I need some practice.”
Manual feigned a smile and replied, “Yeah, too bad.”  He paused after unlocking the steel security door and said, “You need anything – coffee, something to eat?”
“I’m fine, thanks though.”
“Well, you know where to find me if you change your mind.”
“Yeah, thanks Manny.”
He nodded and stepped inside. 
The halls of the building were narrow and dim.  Dirty hands had left smears and stains on the walls.  Paint peeled off in flakes.  The place was musty and stale and hung heavy with the collective smell of the meals that had been prepared that evening.  It was a loathsome odor, but one that he’d grown accustomed to.
Manny removed his right arm from his coat sleeve and let it hang freely at his side.  Beneath the cover of the jacket he gripped the long-barreled .44 magnum, ready to fire at a moment’s notice.  He moved slowly but purposely, his footfalls carefully chosen.  He knew the location of every board that creaked and avoided disturbing them.
The lights began to flicker as he reached the stairwell.  He paused and waited for what might happen next.  After several erratic moments, the building faded to black. 
Great, Manuel thought to himself, was it just another blackout, or could it be something more?  He retrieved his revolver and a flashlight, before continuing up the stairs. 
The second-floor hall appeared more threatening by the bluish glow of the LEDs.  Though there was no one but he in the space, adrenaline still raced through his veins.  He hadn’t yet forgotten the encounter in the alley. 
He paused at his door and listened for several long minutes, but heard nothing.  Satisfied, he unlocked the door and stepped inside.  He paused mid-stride, confused at what he saw.  His mind processed the scene with a series of half-thoughts.
Something was wrong.
The entire place was plundered.
There’s someone in here.
Manny swung left, then right, quickly clearing the open flat.  Seconds were like eternities, and he used that to his advantage.  He took deep breaths and forced himself to remain focused on the task at hand.  He side-stepped the couch, carefully slicing the area behind it until it was in full view.  There was only one room left.
If someone was waiting for him in the bath, then they knew he was in the apartment.  They’d seen his light and heard his movements.  He’d be dead as soon as he turned the corner.  He’d need another way.
With one eye on the open door of the bathroom, he eased backwards until he reached the floor-standing mirror beside his bed.  With his revolver leveled in front of him, Manny repositioned it.  Its wooden base scraped noisily across the floor, interrupting the awkward silence of the room. 
The combination of the bathroom and the floor-standing mirrors allowed Manuel to investigate the area without ever exposing himself.  After several moments, he pushed his weapon back into its holster.  He was alone in the apartment.
With the room secured, he examined his surroundings.  Couch cushions were flung about, drawers hung open and cabinets had been thoroughly rifled through.  Jars of preserves had been shattered against the kitchen floor.  It seemed nothing in the flat had been spared.  It was an extensive ransacking, and though it had been made to look like a burglary, Manny saw it for what it was.
Someone had been searching for something. 
The mugging in the alley didn’t seem like a coincidence anymore.  Someone knew, or thought they knew, who he was working with.  They’d plundered his apartment in search of knowledge.  They wanted to know who he was dealing with and what was he doing, but they hadn’t found anything.
The only evidence that linked him to the Watchmen was a sealed letter and a folded note, both in his pocket.  He retrieved the slip of paper he’d been given earlier and gave it a final look.  Manny produced a matchbook, struck a match and held it to the note.  He watched as the fire danced upwards, and could feel the heat on the tips of his fingers.  As he released it, the last of the instructions were engulfed.  Nothing but ash remained when it reached the floor.
Manuel retrieved a canvas ruck and several sundry items from the closet, before turning for the kitchen.  He stuffed it with some dry goods from the pantry and several bottles of water.  He pulled the refrigerator away from the wall and squeezed behind it.  Manny produced his cuchilla and plunged its tip into a tiny gap between two slats.  The boards were pried out of position with little more than a creaking protest.
The false floor concealed a small reserve of ammo, silver coins and a handheld radio.  He emptied the cache into his pack; Manuel doubted he would be returning.  After grabbing a change of clothes and several items from the bathroom, he left.
The hall seemed darker, more nefarious than it had been before.  Manny gripped his revolver tightly as he cautiously advanced through the darkness.  Upon reaching the stairwell, he paused and considered his actions for several moments, before deciding to ascend.
He kicked the door open and quickly cleared the flat roof.  There was no one but him and the yellow moon, ever watchful.  A few wispy clouds drifted by, but otherwise the night was theirs alone.  Manuel stacked several pallets against the door before turning and strolling over to the parapet wall along the edge of the building. 
He quietly stared down at Raul, observing him as he guarded the complex.  The man’s presence was little comfort to Manny, however.  Raul had either been complicit with the invasion, or the intruders had managed to slip by him.  Compromised or incompetent, neither was a quality he preferred in his sentries.  Though he was exhausted, he couldn’t stay the night there; it wasn’t secure anymore.
He turned and crossed the roof, stopping directly opposite of Raul’s position.  He peered over the edge and eased along the parapet until he found the balcony he was searching for – Mrs. Santos’.  She was as deaf as an adder.  Manuel dropped to one knee and retrieved a length of rope from his ruck.  He fastened it to the roof and then began the precarious descent to the balcony, and beyond. 
He landed on the balcony with a gentle thud.  He turned and peered through the security bars that protected the glass door.  No sign of Mrs. Santos.  From there, Manny checked the ropes integrity and peered down to determine its reach.  It would take him only a few more feet; he’d have to finish his descent the hard way. 
Again, he grasped the rope and eased over the railing.  Manuel lowered himself to the limits of the rope and bounded across the wall until he was over the soft soil of a flower bed.  On three, he released his grip.  As the ground quickly approached, he loosened his body and prepared to roll upon impact.
Manny hit hard and let out a weak croak.  His perfectly-timed maneuvered had failed miserably somewhere along the way.  As he writhed in pain and pleaded with his lungs for a breath, a faint shadow danced across the corner of his eye.  Manuel dragged himself behind an ill-kept bush as Raul rounded the corner.
He held the revolver close to his body and tracked the guard’s movement with its barrel.  Could he kill him if he had to – a man that he’d once considered a friendly acquaintance?  But was he?  Or had it all been a façade?  Manny whispered a prayer and hoped he didn’t have to choose.
Raul stopped several yards away and eyed the ground in front of him.  He knelt and retrieved something, before examining it closely.  The matchbook!  Manuel cursed himself, but remained motionless.
The guard glanced around warily, but the shadows were too dark.  Finally, he stood and continued with his patrol.  Manny waited until the man had disappeared again before grabbing his pack and dashing off into the night.

Jake
New Falcon, Texas


“There’s no way I’m letting you go in there alone,” Jake replied.
“The tunnel’s narrow, hardly big enough for two people,” Geram countered.
“It’s plenty wide.”
“You’ve got a kid, and a wife too.  What’re they going to do if you get killed?”
“I’ve got a brother, too; a stupid one, apparently.”
“Geram,” Hayden said, “you know him better than anyone, but I think Jake’s mind is made up.”
“He’s right,” Logan added, “besides, two barrels are better than one.”
“Fine,” Geram conceded, “but if you get shot, I ain’t dragging you out.”
“Don’t worry,” Jake replied, “you’ll be in the lead.  I’m sure they’ll hit you too.”
Geram turned to the others and said, “Remember, our lives’re in your hands.  Cede this ground to no man.”
Logan and Hayden nodded solemnly.
“Alright then,” Geram said, “let’s go.”
***

The tunnel pierced the dirt and rock at a sharp angle.  The men crouched low and silently crept into the blackness.  The cavern unfolded in front of them in greys and greens, illuminated by their invisible infrared lights. The men’s vision was obscured only slightly by their front sites as they stared down the barrels of their shouldered rifles.
The burrow had obviously been made in haste.  The walls and ceilings were precariously supported by whatever manner of structural supports that was readily available.  Most of the lumber looked to have been reclaimed from the numerous ghost towns that littered the border lands.  Beams bulged and splintered, threatening to yield at any moment to the massive weight that bore down on them.
Geram crouched low so that Jake could lean over him with his shouldered weapon.  The tunnel was too narrow for them to advance shoulder to shoulder, so the formation was a compromise.  The tight quarters also ensured that any exchange of gunfire would be lethal for everyone involved.  They’d have to seize victory through rapid dominance, or not seize it at all.
With every additional step, Jake could feel his world closing in on him.  His breathing became labored.  His heart raced.  Despite what his fears would have him believe, it was no time to lose focus, and he knew it.  Jake pushed the thoughts out of his forefront and concentrated on the mission.
Geram, sensing his brother’s anxiety, paused and whispered, “Take a moment.  Close your eyes and suck in a few deep breaths.  It’ll pass.”
He quietly heeded the advice.  Jake took several long moments to meditate and mouth a simple prayer.  Finally, the cloud of unease weakened. 
“Lead on,” he whispered.
Not far ahead, the cavern meandered to the right; for what reason, the men weren’t sure.  Perhaps a particularly hard strata of earth had been encountered, or maybe a mammoth sandstone deposit blocked the way.  Whatever its purpose, a threat could be waiting for them just around the bend, biding its time for the perfect moment.  The men redoubled their focus and proceeded with heightened caution.
Their backs were beginning to throb.  Their knees ached with every movement.  The burrow was beginning to inflict its wrath upon them.  Several yards from the corner, they crouched and rested for a time.
“Alright,” Geram said finally, “we’ll sweep it together.  Two men, one motion; got it?”
“I know the routine.  Lead the way.”
Geram eased along the tunnel wall until he was at the precipice of the bend.  He glanced back at Jake and nodded.  He didn’t have to say it; Jake knew what he was thinking.
On three.
Geram burst around the turn with Jake immediately behind him.  The aim of their barrels started on opposite walls, but crossed somewhere in the middle.  The act was brutally efficient and over as quick as it had begun.  The hall was clear.  They’d survived it. 
It took them a moment to process the scene that was before them.   The cavern terminated but a few short yards ahead.  They’d reached the end, but there was something else. 
A body, most likely a narco underling, lay on the floor, buried to his chest in a heap of rubble.  His eyes bulged from the weight of the soil.  His face was already beginning to swell.
Just then, their radios crackled to life.
“Y’all alright in there?”
“Yeah,” Geram replied as he began to back away, “we’re headed out.”
“Roger.”
He turned to Jake and said, “Let’s get out of here before the rest of this place collapses.”
“Best idea I’ve heard all night.”
The men ducked low and raced for the exit.  After several strides, Jake added, “At least he got what was coming to him.”
“Yeah, but it ain’t over; they’ll try again.”
“Guess the mayor’ll want to hear about this.”
Geram snorted and replied, “The mayor.”

Manny
Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico


As the sun began to set, Manny finally roused himself.  He had been staring at the exposed beams overhead for the past hour or so.  He’d been too tired to commit to being awake, but too anxious to fall back asleep.  Several hours of rest were all that he had managed.  He had spent most of the night searching for a safe house, but he wasn’t comfortable with any of his options.  Transients or suspicious characters seemed to be everywhere, and he didn’t want to take any chances – not after the condition he’d found his apartment in.  Reluctantly, he had come to see the padre. 
Father Salazar had taken him in without question, but Manuel never doubted he would.  The padre and his own father had been close, childhood friends.  Manny knew that anyone associated with him was offering their lives as forfeit, but Salazar didn’t care.  His tired eyes had narrowed as he uttered the words in his usual, soft-spoken voice, “Y si nuestro Dios está con nosotros, ¿quién puede detenernos?”
And if our God is with us, then who can ever stop us?
“I don’t know if God is with me, father,” Manuel had replied.
Dios está siempre con usted, así que no estás con él? Acérquense, hijo mío. La hora está cerca.”
God is always with you, so are you not with Him?  Draw close, my son.  The hour is near.
If only you knew how near it truly was, Manny had mused.  But as he lay there staring at the ceiling, he wondered if perhaps the padre did know.  Draw close.  But how, when I’ve worked so hard to drive this wedge between He and I?  All thoughts for another time, he decided; for now, he’d matters to attend to – matters that wouldn’t wait.
He sat up and stretched wide, before crawling to the window and peering at the city below him.  The view was commanding, but limited.  Most of the stained-glass was opaque; only a few pieces were translucent enough to see through.
The room was never meant to be a watchtower, though.  It was intended as a safe haven for the hunted.  In fact, the church had a long history of hiding fugitives from Mexican strongmen.  It was the site of a Spanish mission that had been converted into a parish during the times of the Old Republic.  The parish had served as a refuge for many a Texan spy sent to the area by Sam Houston.
Suddenly, the hidden door creaked open behind him.  Manny drew his revolver and spun in a single, fluid motion. 
 “There’s no need for that here,” Salazar said, “it’s just me.”
“Sorry Padre.”
He smiled and replied, “No worries.  The church is empty; come down if you’d like.  We can eat together before you leave.”
Manuel nodded and said, “I’d like that.”

***


Father Salazar had just finished preparing the table when Manny emerged with his ruck slung over his shoulder.  He shrugged it off and set it in the corner, before taking his seat.  The room was small, just off the side of the kitchen, but it felt inviting – like home.  It was good to see the padre again; he was the closest thing to family that Manuel had left.
The smell of freshly-baked bread filled the air, causing Manny’s mouth to water.  He couldn’t remember a more perfect aroma.  The meal was simple, dried figs from the parish’s courtyard, strawberry preserves from last year, apple wine and, of course, the bread.
The men bowed their heads as the priest offered up a prayer of thanksgiving; for food undeserved, and old friends returned, and salvation unearned.  After he finished, Salazar broke the bread and handed half to Manuel.  He then uncorked the bottle of homemade wine and filled both glasses, before sliding one across the table to his godson. 
“Is this a Communion, Padre?”
The old man chuckled and replied, “Not quite, though it does appear that way, I suppose.”
“I haven’t had Communion in a long time…”
“Since…?” The padre’s voice trailed off.  Manny nodded. 
They ate in silence for a while, the memory of Emilio hanging over them.  No occasion was safe from the sorrow.  It was always just around the corner, or hiding in the next conversation, waiting for an opportunity to crush the souls of the living. 
Finally, Salazar offered, “It could be Communion, if you’d like.  I mean, I am your priest, so…”
Manuel shook his head, “I don’t think I should.  It…” he paused to sigh, before continuing, “…it wouldn’t be right.”
The old man considered his words carefully, but none seemed proper.  Finally, he leaned forward, rested his elbows against the table and said, “The path you’re on won’t end well.  Before it’s over, it’ll consume you whole.”
“It already has.”
“You’re not the only one who’s lost, we all have.  But you have to choose not to let this be what defines you-”
Manny interrupted him to say, “Padre, it’s good to see you.  It’s been too long.  Please, let’s not do this.”  His words were kind, but firm.
“…As you wish.”
The remainder of the meal’s tone was cordial, but subdued.  Afterwards, they shared a pot of coffee in Salazar’s study.  They talked of times long gone, when the path seemed wider and there were fewer snares.  Finally, Manuel arose to leave.
“When will you be back?” the old man asked.
“I’ve some things to do yet; it might be a while.”
“Be careful.”
“I will.”
The two men embraced, like father and son.  Manny grabbed his ruck and aimed for the back exit that led through the courtyard. 
As he walked away, the priest said, “Manny.”
He turned, but didn’t speak.
“Those men, killing them won’t bring him back and it won’t give you peace, either.”
“I know,” he said, “but they don’t deserve to live, not anymore.”
***

Manuel eyed the warehouse from the shadows of the alley, searching for anything that might indicate trouble.  It was empty, devoid of all life, which was to be expected.  The commercial district had long since been relieved of anything of value.  Nothing remained, save the empty shells of the buildings and chain-link fences topped with barbed-wire.  The area was littered with trash that twisted and swirled in the breeze like flotsam and jetsam.  Abandoned vehicles, completely stripped, languished along the curbs.  It was the perfect venue for the clandestine convergence.  He checked his watch; it was time.
Manny brushed open the flap of his coat and withdrew the pistol-grip shotgun that had been strapped to his side.  He only carried the short-barreled pump on particularly perilous nights when an encounter might occur a little more than an arm’s length away.  As far as concealable weapons went, it was unwieldy and inaccurate, but it was deadly when it met its mark – delivering nearly three times the energy of the revolver.  And while pistol and rifle ammo was becoming scarce throughout the borderlands, shotgun shells could still be found.  Plus, components could be harvested from off-caliber shells and reloaded into the proper size ammunition.  Even lead from birdshot and wheel weights could be melted down and recast into larger pellets or slugs.
With the weapon in hand, Manuel dashed across the street to an abandoned box truck.  There were no working streetlamps, so the light of the moon was his only enemy.  He was but a flitter of a shadow moving through the wasteland – a forgotten wraith haunting a forsaken place.  From his cover, he searched the night, but saw no one.  Once again, he warily braved the darkened expanse that lay before him.
He didn’t pause when he reached the warehouse.  He was exposed – at the mercy of anyone who might be watching.  Instead, he quickly moved along its exterior until he reached the side entrance.  He checked the knob; it was unlocked, just as the note had said.  Gingerly, he twisted it and disappeared inside.
The building was a great urban cavern, hollow and black.  He left the door ajar so that he could at least find his way out if the situation suddenly went awry.  Several high windows had been shattered, either by gunfire or vandals, allowing in only the faintest glow of the moon.  Manny waited for his eyes to adjust, but it was hopeless.  Reluctantly, he activated the flashlight that was duct-taped to the barrel of the shotgun.
The beam of light pierced the void, revealing the emptiness the warehouse.  Discarded boxes and pallets were scattered about, but little else remained.  To his left were the stairs he’d been instructed to climb.  He ascended sideways with his back to the wall so that he wouldn’t be blindsided by an ambush. 
The rough-cut lumber creaked beneath his weight.  The stairway was far from solid; it trembled and swayed with every step.  Manuel considered it a minor victory when he reached the top.
Before him were several offices, most likely reserved for management and shipping and receiving.  In the center was a common area used for meetings.  A thick layer of dust blanketed everything – the long conference table, the chairs and the cheap, fake plants.  In the center of the table were a hand-held radio and a small canvas sack. 
A voice crackled through the radio and said, “Have a seat.”
Manny silently complied.
 “The bag; put it on your head.”
“I’m having to take a lot on faith right now.”
“As are we.  I’m sure you understand.”
“Fine,” he snorted as he pulled the canvas sack over his face.
He could hear the footfalls behind him, even though the man had tried to move in silence.  Manuel sensed the man’s presence as he leaned in.
“I’m going to take you by the arm.  There’ll be a prick and then you’ll feel drowsy.  I imagine you’ll be out for about an hour.  Is that alright?”
“Do I have a choice?” Manny asked.
“Yes, you do.  You can tell me no and we’ll leave.  But if you want to meet with us, there’re precautions that must be taken.  It’s up to you.”
“I guess if you wanted to kill me then you’d of tried by now.”
The man did not reply.
“Okay.  Do it.”
He felt his arm being pulled from his coat, revealing the exposed skin.  The needle’s prick was faint, hardly noticeable.  He smiled.  He turned his head to speak, but decided against it.  Perhaps he would close his eyes, if just for a moment.

Manny
Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico


“Higher, Daddy!”
Manny pushed as hard as he could, sending Emilio soaring into the air.  The boy laughed and cheered for more.
“Higher!”
“Any higher, and you’ll be in the clouds!”
“Really?  Nuh-uh!”
“Yes really!  You’ve already got a little bit of cloud on your toes.”
“You’re a storyteller, Dad!”
“I’ve never told a story in my life!”
“You’re telling one now!”
“Fine, maybe I am, but don’t tell your nana.”
“If you let me jump I won’t tell!”
“Okay, but be careful.  On three.”
They counted together, “One…”
“Two…”
“…Three!”
Emilio leapt at the apex of the swing’s ascent.  He landed firmly on his feet, surprisingly.  The boy was clumsily adjusting to his growth spurt.  As he turned, smiling widely, the first shots rang out.  He stared blankly at his father, uncertain of what to do.  Manny sprang forward, grabbed his son’s arm and raced to a nearby café.
Three steps, the three longest steps in Manuel’s life, and the gunfire echoed through the square again.
“Daddy…”
“We’re almost there…”
“Daddy…”
The boy stumbled and fell forward.  Only then did Manny see all the blood.  There was so much.  He caught Emilio before he hit the ground and cradled his head.  His shirt and arms were stained crimson. 
The boy looked into his father’s eyes and said, “Wake up…”
“Wake up, Daddy.”
“Wake up, Manny”

***


“Wake up, Manny”
He didn’t want to, but reluctantly, he did as he was asked.
The room was dim.  Everything always seemed so dark.  He couldn’t remember the last time he was able to enjoy the sunlight on his face without looking over his shoulder.
Manuel glanced up at the gabled ceiling and reasoned the room was a second-story study or a hidden loft.  At the end of the table was a figure, his face obscured by the shadows.  He began to speak, but Manny lifted his hand and interrupted him.
“Wait; just wait.  What’d you give me?”
“It’ll pass soon enough.”
He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.  His head was throbbing.  Eventually, it subsided somewhat.  Manny reached in his coat and retrieved the letter.  He examined the seal one final time.  It was a falcon stamped in crimson wax.  In its claws were a sword and a torch.  A banner overhead proclaimed:  Væ qui calcat in me.
With a quick motion, Manuel slid the envelope down the length of the table.  The man opposite of him eyed it before saying, “So it is true.”
He opened it, careful to avoid damaging the seal.  He removed the letter from within and read it silently.  When he had finished, he asked, “You know what this says?”
“More or less.”
“And you’ve agreed to act as our liaison – to coordinate all of this?
Manny nodded.
“So… what’s in it for you?  You’re not even from here.”
Manuel paused before replying, “I’ve family here.  If the cartels are turned back, then they’ll be a little safer.”
“And you’ve no other reasons?”
“Do I need an ulterior motive?”
The man shrugged and replied, “People seldom do what’s right anymore.”
“I’m not most people.”
The man eyed him for a while before standing and saying, “We appreciate what you’re doing.”
“You’ll only get one chance,” Manny replied, “and if you lose, Alemán goes back to them.  It won’t be a cold war anymore.  They’ll kill everyone who resists, and probably a lot who don’t.”
The man nodded and considered the words for several moments, before saying, “They’ll do that anyway, slowly, until they take the city again.  Time is short; we must move quickly.  We’ll make our stand during the Day of the Dead.  And if we’re lucky, we’ll add a few more to the ranks of the unliving.  But for now, I must be going.  Forgive me, but we’ll have to drug you again.”
***

He awoke in the upstairs room of the warehouse with his ruck beneath his head.  He was groggy, and was nagged by a dull ache in his head.  His body was sore from his time spent on the floor.  Manuel had certainly seen better days. 
He reached for the table and struggled to his feet, before checking his watch.  It was nearly midday.  If he hurried, he could make it back to the parish and catch a few hours of sleep before sunset.  He’d need rest if he was to make it through the night.  He shrugged into his pack and quickly descended the stairs. 

***

Manny moved through the shadows that hung heavy in the empty neighborhood.  A streetlamp flickered in the distance, casting odd flickers of light through the night air.  He checked his watch; surprisingly, he was ahead of schedule.
He’d left the parish over an hour ago and had spent most of the time weaving through the city, ensuring that he hadn’t been followed.  He was fairly certain that he’d been tailed for a time, but he managed to lose the men in the bustle of the open-air market. 
Most of the houses were abandoned, but a few were inhabited still.  Hard people, unwilling or unable to leave were all that remained.  The empty houses had been gutted of anything of use; fixtures, wiring – even wood had been pried free and fed to the cook stoves.
The vacant homes concerned Manuel because they introduced an uncertainty into the routine of the neighborhood.  Of the residents that were left, he knew who went to bed early and who stayed up watching the streets.  He had learned which dogs were alert and would bark, and which would ignore a passerby as long as they didn’t trespass.  But if there were squatters about, particularly violent ones, they might complicate Manny’s plans.  So he moved deliberately, mindful of his surroundings and ready to strike at a moment’s notice. 
Finally, he reached his destination – a hedgerow along a derelict home.  He listened for the sounds of transients, but heard nothing.  Satisfied, he eased into position. 
The house across the street was nondescript for the area.  It did have one stark difference, however; in it was the man that had gunned down Emilio.
It was surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire.  A pair of guards stood watch at the gate and several dogs patrolled the area beyond.  The doors and windows were all protected by steel bars.  In short, it was impenetrable, at least to Manuel.  He’d have to wait them out, and he wouldn’t have to wait long.
After several minutes, the sicarios emerged from their fortress.  There were four of them, rifles slung across their backs.  Manny waited until they’d rounded the corner before emerging from the hedgerow.  He shadowed them from a safe distance as they followed their usual route. 
The first time he’d trailed the men, he had nearly been killed.  The area was unfamiliar to him, and he’d been clumsy.  One of them must’ve become suspicious, because they suddenly spun with their rifles shouldered.  Fortunately, Manuel had been able to disappear into a nearby alley.  He hadn’t returned to the neighborhood for nearly a week, but he couldn’t be kept away.  Eventually, the lust for revenge had drawn him back in. 
After several blocks, the sicarios split off.  Two by two, they parted ways.  Manny watched as his mark, Alonso, and his partner headed south. 
Now was his opportunity. 
After they had disappeared into the darkness, Manuel darted east into a nearby alley.  He’d rehearsed the routine a dozen times.  He rushed through the narrow tunnel, dodging dumpsters and heaps of refuse.  At a convergence, he turned south again.  He ran parallel to the men, separated by a long row of shops.  Breathless, he reached the mouth of the alley.  Manny crouched low and waited. 
***

“I’m just saying that I wish they’d move us to another safe house.”
“You’re just paranoid, Alonso.”
“We’ve been there over a month and our routine’s hardly changed.  If anybody was watching us-”
His partner interrupted him and said, “Nobody’s watching us, amigo.”
“Los Serenos could be.”
“The Watchmen are a fairy tale.  What we’ve got is a handful of vigilantes that started spreading some rumors.  They got lucky and killed a couple of low-level lieutenants and now everybody thinks we’ve got some competition in town.”
The men rounded the corner and headed east.
“I think it’s more than that,” Alonso replied, “They had too many hits for it to just be a group of well-armed locals.  I think we’ve got ex-narcos, or Federales, or some new player; los Serenos is real.”
The sicario snorted and replied, “You’ve some imagination, amigo.  I say we round the entire city up and start killing people until we get names. Then, we put an end to whoever it is.”
“If the Sinaloas don’t come north and end us first…”
You worry too much,” the sicario said with a smirk, “The Sinaloas, the Watchmen, the Texans…”  He paused in front of the alley, turned to his friend and added derisively, “Quit being such a little lamb!  We’re Zetas!  Who should we fear?
The blast was deafening and caught the men completely unaware.  Alonso, paralyzed in terror, watched as his compadre dropped to his knees.  His torso had been viciously flayed open by the wad of lead.  The man gurgled and groped at himself in a vain attempt to prevent his insides from sliding out.  The racking of the slide snapped Alonso’s attention back onto himself.  The ambush wasn’t over yet. 
He spun in the direction of the sound while pulling the rifle over his head, but he was too slow.  The second blast caught Alonzo in his pelvis, crippling him immediately and sending him tumbling to the ground.  His weapon clattered on the pavement somewhere beside him.  A shockwave of pain caused him to nearly faint, but he fought through it.  As his friend writhed in the street, in his final throes before death consumed him, a hand emerged from the darkness, grabbed Alonso’s ankle and dragged him into the alley.
Alonso’s shrieks were met by a brutal kick to the ribs.  He curled into a ball and coughed violently, his air expelled from his lungs.
Somewhere to his side, the sound of the shotgun being racked could be heard again.
In a final act of defiance, Alonso mustered the last of his strength, retrieved his pistol and unloaded it wildly in the direction of the sound.  He smiled when he heard a man groaning in pain.  His jubilance was quickly replaced with horror as the shotgun exploded again.  Its flash blinded him and the hot lead obliterated his hand that held the pistol.  Again, he wailed in agony.
A gloved hand was forced over his mouth as the figure leaned in and snarled, “La Sombra, where is he?”
Alonso’s shrill cries were his only reply.
The man buried the barrel of his shotgun in the gaping cavity in Alsonso’s hip and said, “We both know you’re going to die.  You can go painlessly, or you can wallow in your death like your compadre – your choice.  Now, where is he?”
The blood loss was taking its toll on the sicario.  He mumbled, “Casa grande… on Grijalva…”
“The one with the lions?”
Sí…
The man leaned in closer and whispered, “You killed a boy in Matamoros, no?”
Alonso stammered between groans, Sí… but… please…
The figure arose and began to walk away.
“Wait!  Don’t leave me here!  You said you’d finish this!”
The man turned and replied, “I guess you were mistaken.”



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