They shoved Medina in and yanked the hood off his head. He blinked against the brightness.
The man he feared sat across the room.
Roque Isidro. El Roque. Two women flanked the narco like sculptures adorning a throne.
El Roque spoke a word, and the women stood and strode barefooted out of the room and onto the patio, leaving only El Roque, Medina, and the two men who had brought him.
On an ordinary day, Medina would have taken in El Roque’s estate and all its trappings with jealous appreciation. But this was no ordinary day. Today, all Medina could truly appreciate was the threat of El Roque himself. El Roque not looking at him. El Roque rising from the sofa, his unbuttoned shirt falling open to expose the loose, brown flesh of his belly and chest. El Roque bending to take a half-smoked cigar from the ashtray on the table, sparking a lighter to get the cigar going, a cloud obscuring his features and then clearing to reveal black eyebrows clenched against the smoke, his hair slicked back over a head the shape of the end of a hammer.
And now, El Roque looking up at Medina. “You are costing me money,” he said.
El Roque spoke in English with only a trace of an accent, but in English and not Spanish. It conveyed that Medina was an outsider, an Americano like the consumers at the other end of the chain and not inside the circle with El Roque and the two big-shouldered men who had brought Medina here.
Medina replied in Spanish. It was worth a try. “I have isolated the problem and I will end it.”
El Roque turned his back to him. “This is not something complex,” El Roque said, continuing in English. “It is throwing raw meat to caged animals. The only difficulty is not getting bitten.” He turned away from the patio and the sunlight played on his shoulders and gleamed in the blackness of the hair pasted to his scalp.
Then Medina heard the first scream.
It came from a distant room, a muffled wail that began sharply and trailed off into halting sobs. A man’s sobs.
El Roque lifted his eyes and met Medina’s.
For a moment, Medina wondered if El Roque had somehow learned of his temptations, had somehow read in Medina’s terror-filled eyes the plans that had begun to take shape. Over the years he’d been affiliated with El Roque the plans had seemed to form on their own, without prompting. And he’d done nothing to put them into action. Hadn’t revealed even the temptations to anyone, much less taken steps to carry them out.
El Roque switched to Spanish. “Do you know why they call me El Roque?”
Medina couldn’t bring himself to answer. The distant sobs had died away, but they still rang in his ears. He could only shake his head.
El Roque stepped forward. He pinched the cigar between the big, yellow dominoes of his teeth and kept them bared as he advanced. He seemed to grow in size as he came, seemed to eclipse the patio behind him where the women splashed in the pool and the very sky, until his vastness overtook all Medina could see and Medina couldn’t believe he’d ever considered double-crossing him.
In English El Roque said, “It is because I do not move.”
He stared at Medina.
Did he want a response? Medina gazed back into the brown pits of El Roque’s eyes. Words, English or Spanish, wouldn’t come. They seemed petrified in the frozen mire of the plans that had formed unbidden in his mind, plans that he’d never voiced, never even seriously considered—had he? An Americano at the helm of the cartel? It was impossible. In the shadow of El Roque, inhaling El Roque’s smoky breath, Medina saw too clearly how impossible it was. And now, again with the pathetic wail of a man suffering somewhere in this compound, he saw that not only was it impossible, it was suicidal.
“I don’t move,” El Roque repeated, removing the cigar with the scissors of two fingers. “I can’t afford to. A rock has no pity, no…” he waved his hand in the air, smoke trailing in a ribbon of gray against the peaceful blue sky at his back, “…no remorse. A rock is solid. Unmovable. This is what I’ve become. To be in this business I can’t be affected by things that affect other men. I can’t be moved. Do you understand?” He pinched the cigar with his teeth.
Medina did not understand. The words El Roque had spoken to him had been drowned in the sea of screams from the man in the other room. The screams faded. Medina nodded even though he didn’t understand. It might have been not understanding that had led the sufferer into the room of torture.
Another scream rose, feral and sorrowful, with a different tone to it, one that said fatigue was replacing the shock of the pain.
El Roque tilted his head. “Do you want to help him?” he said.
“I… I don’t know.”
A grin twitched the edge of the lips surrounding the cigar. “You don’t know?”
Medina shook his head. He blinked at the smoke and tears came to his eyes.
El Roque said, “What if I told you that man says you are stealing from me?”
Medina took a step back. He ran into someone. A big-shouldered man had moved up behind him. The other one stood so close Medina felt breath on his ear.
“It’s not true!” Medina blurted out in English. He switched to Spanish. “I would not do this.”
The man screamed again, a high-pitched primal scream that reached down into the core of Medina’s belly and twisted into a slipknot that tightened, tightened. It was the last sound the man would ever make. Medina was sure of it.
El Roque peered at him. One of the men gripped Medina’s elbow and squeezed. His hand tingled, and went numb. The other man took hold of Medina’s other arm.
Now they would take him into the room of torture.
His head began to turn from side to side. A plea was on his lips.
El Roque said, “Soon important things will happen.” He removed the cigar from his teeth and licked his lips. Smoke puffed from his nostrils. He pointed at Medina. “This is not the time to be unsure of my people.”
Medina would have dropped to his knees if his elbows weren’t held. “I’m not able to betray El Roque. You must believe me.”
El Roque looked over Medina’s shoulder and gestured for something to be brought to him.
Medina heard stumbling footsteps gain control. And then a familiar voice spoke. “You must be Roque.”
El Roque stepped away. The two men turned Medina around so he could see El Roque approach Garza.
The soldier had only worked for Medina for three months. First in the body shop where they built compartments into vehicles to move product back and forth across the border, and then, to do more important work when Medina learned of Garza’s talents—the way the American government had trained him, and how his skills had been honed in Afghanistan.
Garza’s impassive face bore a vertical scar from his right eyebrow to his upper lip. He watched El Roque’s approach. His only reaction to the smoke El Roque blew into his eyes was a double blink.
“Maybe you are the problem,” El Roque said to Garza. “Before you arrived, we had no problems with our shipments.”
Garza watched him. Medina thought of giving him up to El Roque, blaming the soldier for the shipments the DEA had seized. The thought had some relish to it. But it would require outsmarting Garza here and now. And Medina knew that in his current state of mind he was in no condition to outsmart anyone.
“You don’t believe that,” Garza said in Spanish to El Roque. “Or you would not have brought me here.”
“Perhaps I want to make an example of you. Him, I need.” He gestured with a thumb toward Medina. “You, not so much.”
Garza lifted the eyebrow that hadn’t been scarred. “I thought that was why you killed that other guy just now.”
“Some messages are better repeated.”
Garza waited. When El Roque blew smoke into his face again, Garza spoke in English, “You got another one of those?”
Medina couldn’t see El Roque’s expression, only the tilt of his head. “Maybe I give you a gun instead,” he said. “You kill the traitor for me.”
Garza eyed the men in the room. Last of all, he let his eyes rest on Medina. The only plea Medina made was silent. If El Roque had decided to execute him, begging would accomplish nothing.
Garza said, “I don’t see a traitor in this room.” He turned his eyes back to El Roque.
Seconds of silence followed. Medina bit his tongue.
El Roque turned and walked with deliberate steps to the table at the far end of the room. He placed his hand on a wooden box and lifted the lid. He reached inside.
And came out with a cigar, not a gun.
He pointed the cigar he’d taken from the box at Garza. “Maybe I will believe you.”
“Yes,” Medina broke in, and now the words gushed out, words that would remove El Roque’s ‘maybe’ and make it assured. “You can believe us. I wouldn’t. We wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be possible for me. I don’t have the nerve to steal from you. It would be foolish. I couldn’t.”
The big-shouldered men continued to grip Medina’s arms. He flexed his numb right hand, but felt nothing.
El Roque stared at him a moment before crossing back to Garza. He held out the cigar and Garza took it, examined the tip and bit it off. Garza stepped to an ash tray to dispose of the tip, and then moved to one of the men holding Medina.
Garza stood within eight inches of the man, the cigar in his teeth. “¿Tienes fuego?”
He was asking for a light.
The man hesitated. Medina sensed a shift in the room. The man went to his pocket and came out with a gold lighter, flicked it and held the flame before Garza’s cigar. Garza focused on the flame, puffing smoke into the air. When he had it going fully, he returned to El Roque.
“Gracias,” he said to the narco.
Their smoke mingled above their heads.
El Roque regarded him for a moment longer. Then he spoke to him in the Spanish of a co-conspirator. “We have important things happening now. Very important for us. And these shipments—losing them is causing me concern.”
Garza said, “Tell me. How can we be of help to you?”
El Roque paced toward the open windows. He seemed to have lost interest in Medina. “Moving our product accomplishes nothing if the wool doesn’t come to us. Washed clean.”
Even here, in his own compound, El Roque used the slang. Drugs were product and money was wool. Everyone knew it, and it hid nothing. As the distributor of El Roque’s product north of the border, Medina only knew a little about how El Roque’s product was brought north. And washing the wool clean and getting it back south of the border was even farther removed from Medina’s link in the chain.
They waited. El Roque turned his back to the view of the women outside and said to Garza, “Usted me ayudará a fijarlo.”—You will help me fix it.
Someone darkened the doorway leading to the hall. “¿Papá?”
A young man stood waiting to gather the attention of the others. Something in the set of his lips reminded Medina of El Roque. Could this be the heir?
“Es hora,”—It’s time, the young man said.
El Roque turned toward Medina. He said to the men holding him, “Take them away.”
One of the men yanked the hood back over Medina’s head.
Medina planted his feet. But they dragged him off. Were they taking him to the torture room?
Against the hood he cried out, “I could not steal from you, El Roque. I don’t have the stones.”
El Roque made no answer.
They pulled Medina away. Away from the open doors. Away from the patio. Away from sunlight, from the women playing in the pool, from El Roque. He wanted them to pull him toward the entrance to the compound, out to the airstrip where the plane would be waiting to take him home. Not to the room of torture.
And then, like the sound of deliverance, Medina heard the sweet sputter of the plane’s engine coming to life.