Before the armed men in ski masks strolled into his living room, Oscar Salazar was having a pleasant morning.
Not perfect, but pleasant.
The imperfection involved his orange juice. Marta hadn’t properly chilled it. She had, however, prepared his toast correctly and the coffee she’d brewed well—black, rich, and hot as embers. In light of these offerings he elected to overlook Marta’s failure to put the proper chill in his orange juice. He had considered his morning pleasant.
But when the three men stepped into his living room as if the house were theirs and not his, and they fanned out, one of them mouthing words with the calmness of a priest, words that Oscar couldn’t fathom for the shock of seeing the three men wearing ski masks and the guns in their hands, he was nearly unable to swallow his sip of tepid orange juice.
What was he saying—this one in the purple mask? Salazar couldn’t concentrate on him. The big one absorbed his attention. Three hundred pounds if he was an ounce, the giant stood in the corner with a hand on Marta’s shoulder. The third one cozied up on the sofa next to Salazar and opened a laptop computer.
At some point the glass holding his orange juice had fallen from Salazar’s hand. The lukewarm stickiness of the juice seeped through the fabric of his slipper to ooze between his toes. He lifted his foot off the floor, as if that could stop the soaking.
“Oscar,” the one in the purple mask said. “Pay attention.”
He looked up. The purple mask had silver and white snowflake patterns embroidered on it. The other two masks were basic black. The talker’s jacket hung loosely from squared shoulders over a trim frame, a posture that reminded Salazar of a schoolteacher standing before a chalkboard.
“That’s better,” came the voice from the purple mask.
Salazar’s eyes kept drifting over to the giant. He could have been a bear, for the shape of him. The giant guided Marta to a chair and, when they reached it, she cratered under the weight of his hand. He pulled a roll of silver duct tape out of a pocket, stripped a piece free and began taping her wrists before her. Then a knife materialized in his hand. The chrome steel blade shone in the light beaming in through the east-facing window. Marta whimpered.
Salazar kept his seat.
The giant only used the knife to cut the tape.
He bent to her ankles, wrapping the roll around them to strap them to the legs of the chair.
Salazar turned back to the purple mask. The mouth was saying something about Salazar’s security, the alarm system, the video cameras, the guards that were supposed to keep things like this from happening.
Salazar began, “How did you—”
The one with the mouth lifted a finger. “You have lots of questions. We understand. But all you need to know is right in front of you.” He lifted the gun, not pointing it, just making sure Salazar had seen it.
And Salazar had seen it. There was nothing special about it. Just a .38 revolver with a snub nose, the metallic nubs of the bullets peeking out of the cylinder. And somehow the familiarity and simplicity of the weapon had a different effect than the one that this purple-masked intruder must have intended. Instead of frightening him, it released Salazar from his confusion. He could almost feel the handle of that revolver stroking his own palm, the trigger hooking his own finger, the recoil rattling his own joints.
He smiled. “So you have guns. I have seen guns before. They do not make you more of a man.”
The one in the purple was distracted by the giant, who hefted Marta, chair and all, and carried her out of the room toward the kitchen. The giant paid no attention when the one in purple called after him, “Hey!”
Salazar began to wonder who was in charge here. He’d thought it was the one in purple, the talker. But the giant clearly wasn’t under the talker’s control.
The one seated next to Salazar wore latex gloves instead of leather ones like the others, allowing this one to work the keyboard of his laptop computer. When he stopped typing, the screen brightened.
The logo of Salazar’s offshore bank emerged.
“The profit from drugs was good for you,” the talker said. “But it was too risky, wasn’t it? And anyway, people are easier to get. Some of them you don’t even have to buy. You can just take them. Street kids are all over the place in Rio, aren’t they?”
Salazar did not permit himself to reply.
The giant returned to the room, without Marta. He came near and the talker turned to him and seemed about to question him. But he turned back to Oscar instead.
“How many over the years?” he said. “In the thousands, right? Scooped off the streets. Sold. Re-bought. Sold again. That’s another great thing about the human trade, isn’t it? With drugs, once they’re sold, they’re gone. But with people there’s always another bidder. The value might drop, but the profit’s good every time. Isn’t that right?”
“You are confusing me with someone else.”
“Don’t insult me, mercader de almas. I know that’s what they called you. That’s who you are.” The mouth grew thin and straight. “This isn’t one of the courtrooms you bought your way out of. There’s no one here to buy us off. Or mount a defense.”
Salazar focused on the eyes of the man in the purple mask. Hazel in color.
“This is not your game, Oscar. It’s ours.” The talker drew near. He crouched down on his heels. “We’re here to strip you clean, little man. Every penny. You won’t have a cent left to pay for protection from your enemies.”
The one with the latex gloves tapped Salazar on the arm. He pointed to the screen. He’d already entered Salazar’s ID number and password, and brought up the online wire transfer screen. It showed the balance in Salazar’s three accounts with this bank, and the latex-covered fingers had entered a transaction that would wire all his balances out of the bank.
The cursor blinked in a field titled, “PIN.”
They’d retrieved some of his information, but some they didn’t have. The number authorizing transactions he changed several times a week. Salazar lifted his chin to the talker. “Too bad you need me for this to work.”
Too quickly for Oscar to dodge him, the giant seized a fistful of Oscar’s hair. His scalp flared in pain. Oscar came up from the sofa. His hands went to the giant’s arm. Then he felt another pair of hands, gloved, on his own. The talker was trying to free him too.
“Let him go,” he said.
The giant flung Oscar back to the sofa. Oscar rubbed his scalp, amazed that his hair hadn’t been ripped away.
The talker and the giant glared at each other for a moment, and then the giant stalked out of the room.
Before the talker could regain his composure, a scream echoed from the kitchen.
The talker bolted to his feet. He seemed torn between going after the giant and staying with Salazar.
“You come in here talking about what I’ve done—what you think I’ve done,” Salazar said. “Hiding your faces. You hurt an innocent woman. This doesn’t make you a man either.”
The giant returned. He wiped the flat of the knife blade on his thigh.
“What did you do?” the talker said.
The giant ignored him. When he sat next to Salazar, the sofa sagged. Salazar didn’t want to look at the blade. It caught light from the window.
“We’re in no hurry, Oscar,” the giant said. “The bank’s open for wire transfers for what? Another three hours?”
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Berrier. All rights reserved.
Published in association with the literary agency of Janet Kobobel Grant, Books & Such, Inc.,52 Mission Circle, Suite 122, PMB 70,Santa Rosa,CA95409.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
ISBN 978-0-9912286-1-4 (e-book)