Sunday, June 5, 2016

Read Chapter One of SHELTER FROM THE STORM--free!



CHAPTER ONE
FOX

Nogales, Arizona

“Run! Hijo de puta, run!”
I had to blink and look twice.  Not just because a shower of cocaine was raining down on me from above.  My quarry, El Baño, had shot out a bunch of ceramic chollos stacked over my head.  This turned out to be where they were hiding their coke, as I found out when I painfully tried to rub it out of my eyes.
“I mean it!” said the guy crouched down with me behind the crates of Mexican flowerpots.  “If you run out that door, I’ll distract him.”
“Oh, wouldn’t you like that?” I sneered.  I was in no position to sneer, really, but I had no idea who this guy was.  I knew I’d come woefully unprepared for this shootout with members of the Presención cartel.  Thinking I’d just be taking out El Baño, alone in a darkened warehouse at one in the morning, it had suddenly turned into the grand opening of a new Disneyland exhibit, complete with fireworks and exciting, heart-pounding rides.
I’d only brought my Springfield .45 semiautomatic with me.  I could have easily strapped on my assault rifle, but I’d left it behind in my Harley’s custom saddlebags.  I thought I’d go in, pick off El Baño from sixty, maybe eighty yards.  Instead, I must’ve walked into the middle of a major deal.  Guys were popping up right and left.  Like a whack-a-mole game, whenever I hit one guy, two more would spring up in his place.
                Already I was shot in the arm.  Bullets cracked overhead, zinging by me, thumping when they hit a column behind me, or embedding in the eighteen-wheeler parked there.   I’d tried to use a dead beaner as a breastwork, but that guy was soon so riddled with holes it was like hiding behind a sieve.  That’s how I wound up behind these pottery crates with this other guy who also seemed to be aiming at El Baño, so named because he’d once left eight guys for dead stacked up like firewood inside a porta-potty.
                I wasn’t about to give my quarry up to this Johnny-come-lately, especially not a guy who looked like he’d stepped out of Saturday Night Fever.  I’m not kidding.  This guy had a polyester shirt emblazoned with an eagle, and the airplane collar was so big he could’ve landed it at JFK.  But he wasn’t flying under the radar with his shiny white belt.  He looked more like a soap opera actor than a sicario, and I’d been in the business long enough to know all the players.  “You want to take the credit for burying El Baño.”
                He shrugged.  He had a very thick but proper Mexican accent.  He didn’t seem at all stressed that ceramic pigs stuffed with cocaine were exploding above our heads.  “I am only thinking of your health.  You only have that Springfield that is almost out of ammo, whereas I’ve got a spare AK under my blazer.”  Indeed, under his white linen Miami Vice style blazer, I could see the outline of an assault rifle.  If he knew I was almost out of ammo, so did the beaners.  “Plus, you are hiding behind a crate filled with terra cotta gangsters.  I, however, have chosen this new shipment of a sturdy lavabo to hide behind.”
                How did this stylish hitman know that I knew Spanish?  And why was he so maddeningly correct in his assessment of my predicament?
                “Hey pendejo!” bellowed one of El Baño’s enforcers.  “Me cago en tu puta madre!”  I shit on your whore mother!  He punctuated his enthusiasm with a burst of semiauto fire.
I had to crawl even closer to my new protector when another chollo shattered overhead, raining down white and black pottery shards on my head.
                The slick sicario finally showed a twinge of irritation.  “There is no room behind this sink for both of us!”  He popped up to let loose a shower of .45 rounds on the cartel members, then just as quickly crouched down with me.
                He said, “Look, you are hit.  You have just enough rounds to get you through that door, if they are not distracted by me.”
                My skeptical legal-minded brain was working overtime.  “You just want to get the credit for the hit.”
                His eyes widened with surprise.  “I just want to get credit for staying alive!  Now go!  Vaya con Dios!
I persisted.  “How will I find you?”
His smile was a dazzling display of capped teeth.  “How can you miss the likes of Santiago Slayer?”
Maybe Slayer gave me the confidence to make a run for it across the empty expanse between the sink and the door.  Maybe it was the fresh downpour of bullets that zinged our way.  I knew the worst bullets were the ones you didn’t hear, and as I hauled ass out the open warehouse doors like a true yellow coward, I didn’t hear a thing.  Just a loud but dull roar in my head, like a tape loop of synthesized meditation music at a spa.
                Fuck!  Fuck!  Fuck!
                What a fucking clusterfuck!
                I literally dodged a few bullets as I made a beeline for my Harley.  I think I surprised a beaner kid who was being just as yellow as me, hiding away from the main action inside the warehouse.  Luckily his rounds went wild, and I plugged him with one of my last two Springfield rounds.  He went down holding his stomach like a guy uttering a Wilhelm Scream.  All dramatic, but, ultimately, dead.
                I was off almost before I pushed the engine button, my boots searching for the foot pegs.  I’d kept my leather chaps on before sneaking inside the warehouse, but now I didn’t have time to slap on my lid or goggles.  I just thrashed it out of there.
                It was kind of embarrassing that killing the baby gangster was my main claim to fame in that botched hit.   I should’ve eyeballed the scenario a lot better than I did beforehand.   I only saw El Baños’ red Mustang out front.  If I had bothered going around the corner of the warehouse, I would’ve seen more vehicles. 
                It was a basic mistake that had almost cost me my life.   Ortelio Jones, my boss, was going to be unbelievably tweaked, especially if it came out that that nancy-boy Santiago Slayer had done the deed.  And why had I never heard of Slayer?  Because he’d been acting in a Mexican telenovela the whole time?  And I’d only managed to put down that kid and probably a couple more enforcers inside the warehouse.  I hadn’t even seen El Baño. 
                Regardless, word of my failure was probably already winging its way to Ortelio Jones, just as surely as Santiago Slayer’s bullets were winging their way toward El Baño’s head.  It was only a matter of time before Jones ordered me back inside the borders of New Mexico, my danger zone.  Jones knew I couldn’t go back inside those borders.  He’d been hinting that he was holding it over my head, too.  Just little things, you know the unfunny jokes cartel kingpins make.
                Things like, “Ha ha, abogado.  Maybe you’d enjoy vacationing in the Land of Enchantment.”  “Very good one, abogado.  Too bad you’ll never be able to see the Carlsbad Caverns again.”  And “next time you screw up, you’re getting a one-way ticket to the Billy the Kid Museum.”
                Regardless of my desire never to set foot in the Billy the Kid Museum in the first fucking place, I knew that Jones was good for his word.  He’d just followed a diligent reporter who posted updates on him, tracked her like a hound.  She knew Jones was getting close to her hideout, and kept tweeting her reports just the same.  He shot her in the face, then used her phone to tweet the photos as a warning to her followers.
                Maybe I wasn’t the best sicario in the world!  After all, it wasn’t what I’d trained for, what I had degrees in.  It wasn’t my dream job when I was a kid.  I was a white guy—very white, according to the SPF level of my sunscreen, the bright ginger shade of my hair—operating in the dark underbelly of the Sinaloa cartel’s world.  I thought I did pretty well for Jones.  I’d racked up eleven high-profile kills since coming to work for him over a year ago.  Not bad for someone whose hair blared out like a searchlight from a mile away, one reason I usually wore a slouch beanie in public.
                I had a rental house off North Royal in Nogales, but I didn’t feel like going home.  Someone was probably already waiting there for me.  Jones wouldn’t see the finer points of how I’d buried the kid and those other brutes.  He’d only see the fact that El Baño had gotten away—or, perhaps, been put down by a guy who looked like he should be singing “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” in South Lake Tahoe.  I didn’t know which option was more humiliating.
                I found myself hanging a north on the frontage road toward Tucson.  Maybe I was going to my favorite watering hole, I don’t know.  It wasn’t until I was almost to the bar that I realized I didn’t want to go in there, either.  In case word had already spread—and it spread fast in these circles—I’d be the laughingstock of my favorite comfort place.
                I kept going, eventually pulling over in the parking lot of Margie’s Corner Café, dark like a church at two in the morning.  I wanted to look at my arm wound.  I had no mirror, but I did have a flashlight.  I took off my leather jacket and went under Margie’s security light to look at it.  It was my first stroke of luck that the bullet had grazed the arm, cut a channel through the leather and flesh before continuing on its way.
                But it was bleeding like a sonofabitch.  It was a sign of my occupation that I kept a box of adhesive pads in my saddlebags.  Tearing what remained of my T-shirt’s arm off, I stanched the flow of blood.  I could barely keep up with it before I could slap the bandage down, ineffectively.  Clusterfuck.  I had to go home sooner or later and face the music.  I just wished I could have a good snooze first.
                This was really the first time I’d fucked up.  All of the rest had been good, clean hits.  The only other time I’d even remotely screwed up was when Ortelio Jones wanted the mark alive.  That motherfucker had punched and kicked like he was being raped as I tried to cram him into the trunk of my Cadillac.  I finally remembered they’d given me a stun gun, and I’d stunned the shit out of the guy before he went limp.
                You have to understand, this wasn’t a job I willingly chose.  It wasn’t like an eager-eyed, idealistic younger me ran around studying to be a sicario.  I wasn’t in awe of the glamor, the fringe benefits, the sex on the side.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I’d been bound to defy my father, an Irishman who traded illegal arms for profit, and uphold the letter of the law.  But if everyone waged war according to his own beliefs, there would be no war.  So I was destined to wind up with Jones.
                A Fiat was pulling into Margie’s parking lot.  Santiago Slayer got out, buttoning his blazer and smoothing it down.  As though he didn’t still have terra cotta dust on his shoulders.  I was surprised he hadn’t brushed that away with a lint roller.
                He nodded primly at me.  “Señor.”
                I nodded back.  “Santiago Slayer,” I acknowledged.  Then I realized I was being kind of an asshole, so I shook his hand.  “Fox Isherwood.”
                He warmly grasped my hand like we were just meeting at a cocktail party. This guy was a smooth operator, I had to hand him that.  “I know.  Your fame has traveled far and wide.”
                “Then why have I never crossed paths with you?”
                Slayer became serious.  “I know how to stay off the grid.  I am only called in for jobs that require the most stealthy, the most sneaky, the most crafty and catlike of skills.  Oh, excuse me.”  His features became mild and friendly again when he checked his phone.  He chuckled at what he saw on the screen. “Oh, yes, yes,” he said to himself, as if recalling fond memories.  He turned the phone to me briefly.  “This girl that I met at a party last night has tagged me in this most awesome party photo.”
                The Instagram photo showed Slayer liberally draped with scantily clad women barely in their twenties.  Since Slayer was probably coming up on forty, that was slightly creepy.  But the real creepy part was that he’d allowed photos to be taken of him at all.
                “Instagram?” I queried, and went for my phone, too.  But I didn’t have that app installed, of course, so all I could do was google “Santiago Slayer.”  Aside from some gaming hits that were hopefully not him, this stealthy, crafty sicario was all over the fucking map.  In addition to a thousand Instagram hits in which he’d allowed himself to be tagged using his real—or rather I should say his made-up, hitman name—he was similarly tagged in Facebook, and I could open those.
                “You sure like to party.”  I snorted cynically, swiping through photo after photo of the Ken doll handsome guy posing with drinks and chicks.  “Your jefe doesn’t get up in your shit about this?”
                Slayer frowned.  “A kingpin, getting angry about partying?”
                I realized that sounded stupid, so I clarified.  “I mean about you being tagged all over the place.  You’re not afraid your cover will be blown?”
                Slayer wiped my existence away with his hand.  “Pfft.  This is partying.  A completely separate reality from our jobs.   As I always say, ‘work and fun do not mix.’”
                That was an odd way to justify it.  There was always bleed-through from one reality to the other.  I lived my entire life like a sicario.   It might’ve been easier for me to keep them separate because women and socializing weren’t part of my reality.  “Yeah, but anyone trying to find you can just easily log onto Facebook or Instagram and figure out which party you’re at.  They have geotags on these things, you know.”
                Again, Slayer scoffed at me.  “Pfft.  Big deal if they see me at a party?  Why would that make them instantly think I was coming to get them?  Oh, excuse me.”  Slayer chuckled at his screen.  “Look.  This girl sent me a sexy Snapchat.  See how pouty her lips are.”
                I waved away his phone.  That sort of shit held no interest for me.  I was all business, to the core.  “Did you even get El Baño?”
                Slayer’s face was blank, he was so entranced with the onscreen girl’s boobs.  “What?  Oh, El Baño?  Let us just say he is happily diving with the dolphins.”
                I frowned, trying to understand his slang.  “You mean sleeping with the fishes?”  If El Baño was dead, maybe I could convince Slayer not to report his success to his boss.  That would keep me out of hot water.
                Slayer finally blacked out his phone’s screen and put it in its holster.  He was professional again.  “Let us just say, El Baño will not live to flush another day.”
                Sidling up to him, I became Slayer’s biggest confidante.  “Hey.  I wonder if I could talk you into taking joint credit for the hit.  You know?  Who is it you work for now?”
                Slayer drew himself up proudly.  “The Bare Bones motorcycle club, but that is no secret.  Ford Illuminati would never tell me to curtail my social refreshments.  I do not miss out on assignments.  I am very punctual, and always report back promptly.”
                “Yeah, speaking of that, have you reported in to Mr. Illuminati tonight?”
                “Not yet.  It is three in the morning.  I would never be so rude.”
                “Exactly.  You strike me as a very polite, well-mannered man.  According to the internet, your reputation that has soared far and wide rings in the streets.”
                Slayer looked pleased and modest at the same time.  “Well.  I cannot deny it.  I have been sometimes labeled with the moniker ‘The Kindly Sicario.’  I have a gentlemanly way of not strewing the body parts all over the place as some messy people do.  Once I even pulled up some flowers nearby—“
                “Wait.  Hang on.”
                Fuck me dry.  It was Ortelio Jones, already harassing me about the evening’s activities.  I couldn’t very well pretend I was asleep and avoid the call, so I put my finger to my lips to tell Slayer to shut the fuck up, and answered.
                “Isherwood here.”
                “Fox,” said Jones grandly.  Contrary to his name, Ortelio Jones was Mexican, with roots deeply intertwined with the Sinaloan drug trade.  His compound was in Los Mochis.  I could tell by his tone that it was too late to take credit for Slayer’s kill.  “I have heard you had a little help tonight.”
                “Well, yes.  Ah, that is true.”
                His tone didn’t stay grand for long.  It only took a few seconds for it to rise to an irate level.  “Just the idea you’d need the help of that clown, Santiago Slayer, is a stain on the Jones name!”
                “Well, ah, just so you know, I didn’t exactly ask for his help.  I didn’t even know he was in the area.”
                It was as though Jones didn’t even hear me.  “Joder!  Now everyone knows it was that cabrón who buried El Baño, not us!  You are going to have to get El Pozolero, his right-hand man.”
                “The Soup Maker.”  El Pozolero was so named due to his penchant for dissolving the bodies of his rivals in big soup pots.  “Just tell me when and where.”
                Jones’ pause chilled me to the bone.  “You will have to cross into New Mexico.”
                I didn’t want to tell him no.  Lord knows, I didn’t want to say no.  I had just been called on the carpet for messing up.  This was not something I was accustomed to.  But New Mexico?  Jones knew to set foot there spelled my doom.  “Ah, you must have other guys who can go there.  What about Armando Grillo, or El Ostión?”  He was called “The Oyster” because he rarely talked.
                Jones let up on me.  “There is one way you can avoid New Mexico, my friend.”
                My heart jumped.  Anything, anything.  Being a sicario was my entire world, my whole identity.  It was the only possible occupation for me after being forced to flee Taos.  Sure, I could’ve become a FedEx driver, a plumber, a waiter.  Anything was possible in this world.  But being a sicario was the only occupation that gave me the same salary and finesse as my old one.
                “This will involve rubbing out a woman.”
                “Fine, fine.”  I shouldn’t have been surprised I could kill a woman with no compunction.  Women had gotten me into this predicament to begin with.  “Who, where?”
                “Her name is Flavia Brooks.  We’ve had word she’s living somewhere near Flagstaff working in a tuxedo rental store.”
                That was oddly specific information for someone who had no known address.  “Nothing more on her location, then?”
                “Nothing.  I will text you a photo shortly.  I want you to go up there and look around tuxedo rental places.”
                “Sure thing, jefe.” 
                I had a reprieve.  After hanging up, I opened the photo of Flavia Brooks (where did this photo come from?).   Dear Lord, she was savage beautiful.  Even a cold-hearted guy like myself had to admit that her caramel skin and bright electric blue eyes ringed in soot were straight out of a magazine’s pages. 
Instantly I had second thoughts about burying this girl.  What the fuck could she have done?  Yet Jones didn’t make a name for himself randomly running around hitting people.  Briefly, I wondered if she was a reporter.  Then why was she working in a tux rental store?  Like me, maybe she was under deep cover.
Then something occurred to me.  “Hey.  The Bare Bones MC—they’re up near Flagstaff, aren’t they?”
Slayer nodded.  “Their mother charter is in Pure and Easy to the south, to be exact.  But they have a Flagstaff chapter.  They recently moved out of the Tucson area after their clubhouse blew up, so they no longer have a real presence down here.”
I thought fast.  “Jones just told me to take a vacation.  To get my mojo back.  There are nice spots up there, aren’t there?”
His eyes shined with zeal.  “Oh, the red rocks are simply amazing!  These sandstone rocks that have been beaten down for centuries…”
Slayer’s voice sort of faded out as he continued raving about the geological strata of eons. A great horned owl had just glided soundlessly over our heads so close I could’ve swore I felt the beat of its wings, maybe twenty feet up.  I dove for my bike’s saddlebags, pissed that my birding binoculars were stuffed way down at the bottom.  I hadn’t used them in weeks, and by the time I fumbled with them and put them to my eyes, of course the owl was long gone.