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.
No Part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed
in any printed or electronic form without permission.
* * *
My wife, for her patience during this project.
* * *
hear they found six dead in Alemán?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
don’t we just go?Pack up everything and
head north.I don’t want to be here when
it starts to unravel.”
already started.Look around.”
why are we still here?Why aren’t we
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.”
you ready for another round?”
– Overheard in a bar in Salineno, Texas, three days before Black
Thursday, the day the world shrugged.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
a moment was all that Manuel needed.
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
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
snarled in thick Spanish, “Who sent you?”
¡Vete al cuerno!
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.
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.
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.”
got held up.”
man sighed and flicked his wrist as he simply said, “Sit.”
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.
you been, Josué?” Manny asked.
alive, am I not?”
you can call what we’re doing living.”
still beats the alternative.”
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.
reached across the table and refilled Manny’s glass, before continuing, “You’ve
got some blood on your face.”
Josué studied him for several moments, trying
to see past the cold veneer.Finally, he
spoke.“You really think you can pull
nodded and replied, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
know they’ll take you for a liar if you don’t, even if it’s not your fault.”
think you sold them out; told their secrets to the narcos.It won’t be safe here for you anymore.”
long as you know,” Josué replied, “I figure you deserve a fair warning.”
appreciate your concern,” he
am concerned,” Josué said as he slid
a slip of paper across the table.“We’re
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.”
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.
out there,” one of the men added.
“Always.Radio us if anything comes up – channel 7,”
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.
of the men paused his search and called down, “How’s that baby, Jake?”
like a weed, Luke!”
guard chuckled and added, “What about yours, Hayd?”
never quits cryin’.”
added with a chuckle, “Y’all’ll have your own
scouting party before long.”
smiled and replied, “The world ain’t ready for them two, not yet.”
guards fell into idle banter as the two men spurred their horses and galloped
across the Gap.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
horse sensed his trepidation and neighed anxiously.
alright?” Jake whispered.
lying; that horse knows you better than anyone.”
admitted reluctantly, “Night shift.”
know what you mean,” Jake replied, “There’s something about this place and the
witchin’ hour.It’ll get to you if you
nodded in agreement, but didn’t reply.
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.
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.
tonight,” Hayden whispered as much to himself as anyone.
offered a throaty, “Mmhm,” without looking up.
“Listen.It’s really quiet; something’s off.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
it hit; the sound exploded right beside him, like a brushland serenade.
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.
trademark sound of a south Texas night; they were almost deafening at
times.Why were they so quiet?What
secrets had they been told?
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.
“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.
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
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.
they aimed their horses north, Hayden whispered, “The locusts, it was the locusts.”
know,” Jake replied.
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.”
pair did as instructed, while warily scanning their surroundings.
he’s got someone?” Hayden asked.
but something’s got him spooked.”
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
ya got?” Jake asked.
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.”
not sure.That’s when I called you.Let’s leave the horses here and take a look.”
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.
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
should’ve led somewhere around here,” he whispered.
several moments, Logan motioned and said, “Wall looks like it’s sagging.”
why would that be?” Geram wondered aloud.
watched the area for several minutes longer before Geram finally announced, “Keep
an eye out; I’m a step over and have a look.”
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?
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.
might want to have a look at this,” Geram whispered into the radio.
craned his neck and peered into the hole while the others approached.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Manny.You’re out late.”
needed to clear my head.Any trouble
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.”
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?”
fine, thanks though.”
you know where to find me if you change your mind.”
nodded and stepped inside.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
had been searching for something.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
no way I’m letting you go in there
alone,” Jake replied.
tunnel’s narrow, hardly big enough for two people,” Geram countered.
got a kid, and a wife too.What’re they
going to do if you get killed?”
got a brother, too; a stupid one, apparently.”
Hayden said, “you know him better than anyone, but I think Jake’s mind is made
right,” Logan added, “besides, two barrels are better than one.”
Geram conceded, “but if you get shot, I ain’t dragging you out.”
worry,” Jake replied, “you’ll be in the lead.I’m sure they’ll hit you too.”
turned to the others and said, “Remember, our lives’re in your hands.Cede this ground to no man.”
and Hayden nodded solemnly.
then,” Geram said, “let’s go.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
sensing his brother’s anxiety, paused and whispered, “Take a moment.Close your eyes and suck in a few deep
quietly heeded the advice.Jake took
several long moments to meditate and mouth a simple prayer.Finally, the cloud of unease weakened.
on,” he whispered.
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.
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.
Geram said finally, “we’ll sweep it together.Two men, one motion; got it?”
know the routine.Lead the way.”
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
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.
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.
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.
then, their radios crackled to life.
“Y’all alright in there?”
Geram replied as he began to back away, “we’re headed out.”
turned to Jake and said, “Let’s get out of here before the rest of this place
idea I’ve heard all night.”
men ducked low and raced for the exit.After several strides, Jake added, “At least he got what was coming to
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
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?
don’t know if God is with me, father,” Manuel had replied.
“Diosestá siempre con usted,
así que no estás con él? Acérquense,
hijo mío. Lahoraestá 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.
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.
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.
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.”
smiled and replied, “No worries.The
church is empty; come down if you’d like.We can eat together before you leave.”
nodded and said, “I’d like that.”
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.
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.
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.
this a Communion, Padre?”
old man chuckled and replied, “Not quite, though it does appear that way, I suppose.”
haven’t had Communion in a long time…”
The padre’s voice trailed off.Manny
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.
Salazar offered, “It could be
Communion, if you’d like.I mean, I am your priest, so…”
shook his head, “I don’t think I should.It…” he paused to sigh, before continuing, “…it wouldn’t be right.”
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.”
not the only one who’s lost, we all
have.But you have to choose not to let this be what defines you-”
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,
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.
will you be back?” the old man asked.
some things to do yet; it might be a while.”
two men embraced, like father and son.Manny grabbed his ruck and aimed for the back exit that led through the
he walked away, the priest said, “Manny.”
turned, but didn’t speak.
men, killing them won’t bring him back and it won’t give you peace, either.”
know,” he said, “but they don’t deserve
to live, not anymore.”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
voice crackled through the radio and said, “Have
bag; put it on your head.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
guess if you wanted to kill me then you’d of tried by now.”
man did not reply.
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.
pushed as hard as he could, sending Emilio soaring into the air.The boy laughed and cheered for more.
higher, and you’ll be in the clouds!”
really!You’ve already got a little bit
of cloud on your toes.”
a storyteller, Dad!”
never told a story in my life!”
“You’re telling one now!”
maybe I am, but don’t tell your nana.”
you let me jump I won’t tell!”
but be careful.On three.”
counted together, “One…”
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.
steps, the three longest steps in Manuel’s life, and the gunfire echoed through
the square again.
“We’re almost there…”
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.
boy looked into his father’s eyes and said, “Wake up…”
“Wake up, Daddy.”
“Wake up, Manny”
didn’t want to, but reluctantly, he
did as he was asked.
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.
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.
just wait.What’d you give me?”
pass soon enough.”
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.
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.”
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?”
you’ve agreed to act as our liaison – to coordinate all of this?
what’s in it for you?You’re not even
paused before replying, “I’ve family here.If the cartels are turned back, then they’ll be a little safer.”
you’ve no other reasons?”
I need an ulterior motive?”
man shrugged and replied, “People seldom do what’s right anymore.”
not most people.”
man eyed him for a while before standing and saying, “We appreciate what you’re
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
he reached his destination – a hedgerow along a derelict home.He listened for the sounds of transients, but
heard nothing.Satisfied, he eased into
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
just saying that I wish they’d move us to another safe house.”
just paranoid, Alonso.”
been there over a month and our routine’s hardly changed.If anybody was watching us-”
partner interrupted him and said, “Nobody’s
watching us, amigo.”
Serenos could be.”
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.”
men rounded the corner and headed east.
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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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.
shrieks were met by a brutal kick to the ribs.He curled into a ball and coughed violently, his air expelled from his
to his side, the sound of the shotgun being racked could be heard again.
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.
gloved hand was forced over his mouth as the figure leaned in and snarled, “La Sombra, where is he?”
shrill cries were his only reply.
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
blood loss was taking its toll on the sicario.He mumbled, “Casa grande… on Grijalva…”
one with the lions?”
man leaned in closer and whispered, “You killed a boy in Matamoros, no?”
stammered between groans, “Sí… but… please…”
figure arose and began to walk away.
“Wait!Don’t leave me here!You said
you’d finish this!”
man turned and replied, “I guess you were mistaken.”