Victor Isidro stood before his father’s desk, staring down at the man seated there, and wanting to kill him.
This man was not Victor’s father. This was the man they gave the name cara de pizza—pizza face—for his pocked complexion, and Victor had often laughed at him behind his back for his appearance.
But Victor did not call Raúl cara de pizza now. And Victor was not laughing now.
“¿Por qué debería confiar en usted?”—Why should I trust you? Victor said.
“Porque su padre lo hace.”—Because your father does.
Victor spat on the floor. He said in Spanish, “Look where it got him.”
Raúl’s eyes darkened under his heavy brows. “Do not forget how the house was taken,” he said.
Victor had not forgotten. And he didn’t need cara de pizza to remind him. Every morning, he woke with the shame of it. Every night he prayed to Santa Muerte that he might take revenge for it. The invader had subdued him so easily he might as well have been the child Raúl now made him out to be.
And that was why he stood in front of Raúl now. Because he believed his prayers to Santa Muerte had been answered, and she would now grant him success in avenging his enemy.
Raúl’s face smoothed as much as it could with that scarred skin. Seeing the anger in Victor’s face must have helped Raúl master his.
“You were his protector,” Victor said. “¿Where were you?”
Raúl swiped at the air dismissively, a gesture that Victor could have choreographed. He had seen it so many times since his father had been captured and he’d been left in the care of this aging assassin—this sicario.
“You are still very young,” Raúl said, “One day you will understand the choices a man must make.”
Raúl said this knowing how it would infuriate him even more. Victor was sure of it.
“I have been in the killing room as much as you,” Victor said. It was a stretch of the truth, a long stretch, and Raúl would know it as well as Victor. But it was true that Victor’s father had bloodied him years ago, when Victor was still too young to shave. And he was not too young to shave any longer. His arm was growing strong and even Raúl could not dispute that.
“In any case,” Raúl said, “your father has entrusted you to me. And that is the end of it.”
“¿And the money? ¿He has entrusted the money to you too?”
“I don’t think he will be happy that you’ve been withholding it from me,” Victor said.
“When I was a boy your age—”
“A man,” Victor said.
Raúl grinned at him. “A man does not need to tell others to call him a man,” he said.
Victor’s vision clouded. He told himself to be calm, that he had nothing to prove to a man like Raúl. And yet, the words that came out of his mouth betrayed him.
“My days of training are over,” he said.
The grin on the cara de pizza seemed to Victor to be intended to infuriate him. Raúl said, “When your training is over I will tell you. You still have much to learn.”
Enough. Victor silently uttered a prayer to Santa Muerte and drew the revolver out from his belt. He pointed it at Raúl’s face and thumbed the hammer back and watched Raúl’s expression shift. It wasn’t fear he saw in that pizza-face, not that, and not respect either, but neither did his expression contain the dismissiveness Victor had seen so often over the past year.
“Ten thousand dollars,” he said to Raúl. “That is all I need.”
Raúl cocked his head at the revolver Victor pointed at him. Inspecting it. For an instant, it made Victor question whether or not he’d remembered to flip the safety off. But when Raúl returned his eyes to Victor’s, the doubt passed away.
“¿Quién le enseñó a disparar?”—Who taught you to shoot? Raúl said.
“You did.” Victor did not need Raúl to remind him of this either. “And you taught me well.”
Raúl lifted his hand and scratched his jaw. Victor watched carefully where both of Raúl’s hands went. And when they stayed on the desktop, Victor felt his chest swell with boldness.
“¿Hasn’t your allowance been enough?” Raúl said. “¿You will rob your own father?”
“This is not a robbery. Now get the ten thousand.”
“¿What is it, if not a robbery?”
“Get me the money. I will not ask again.”
Raúl stared at Victor’s eyes. His gaze was level. Victor had seen Raúl look at men like this many times. He knew what Raúl was looking for, and Victor gave him the deadly eyes Raúl needed to see.
Raúl’s eyebrows lifted. “No,” he said with a sigh. “No, I don’t suppose you will.”
He slowly pushed the chair back from the desk, and rose.
Victor followed him to the hinged section of the bookcase that Raúl drew away to reveal the safe. As he entered the combination, Victor moved around to Raúl’s right and pointed the muzzle at Raúl’s ear.
He did not think Raúl would bring the pistol out from the safe, but thought it would be best if Raúl knew it would not be unexpected. “Only the money,” he said.
Raúl grinned. “Clearly.” He swung the door of the safe open and reached inside with both hands.
He came out with a half-inch tall stack of bills. Hundreds. And shut the safe without drawing out the pistol. He closed the bookcase to hide it.
Holding out the stack of bills, Raúl said, “El Roque will want to know where you have gone.”
Victor had to step within striking distance of the sicario to take the money. He trained the revolver on Raúl’s chest and with his left hand reached out, took the money, and stepped back. He slipped it into his jacket and zipped the pocket closed.
“You can tell him I’m going to see our friend.” Victor stepped back toward the door.
Raúl understood. His head tilted. He stepped with Victor, and said, “Do not do it.”
Victor stopped “Sit down,” he said, motioning with the revolver at the desk chair.
“You are not ready for that, Victor. Even your father—”
“It’s not for you to tell me what I’m ready for.”
“Puedo enviar a algunos hombres con usted.”—I can send some men with you, he said, still standing.
“Jesús Malverde will protect me,” he said, invoking the name of the saint all of Sinaloa had beatified, even if the Church had not. “I don’t need your men. Santa Muerte will give me success.”
“Victor, I would not go alone, no matter what I thought our saints would do.”
“You probably wouldn’t. Now go sit down.”
Raúl scowled at him. “Your father will be angry.”
“Sit down. Or I will sit you down.”
Raúl shook his head. He went to the desk and sat.
Victor backed out of the room and closed the door. He picked up his pack from the floor in the hallway and swung it onto his shoulders, and restrained himself from running as he left the house.
* * *
Victor entered the doorway to the chapel building carrying a small packet in his hand. The leather cord around his neck with a White Queen pendant, he left under the shirt he wore. Santa Muerte was respected here, but this was the chapel of Jesús Malverde, not a shrine to Santa Muerte.
The fragrances brought his visits here with his father to his recollection. . The prayers of the worshipers seemed to drift on those fragrances—the pungency of flowers and the smoke from the candles. He remembered his visits here to downtown Culiacán when he was very small. His father stopped coming as his empire grew and his beliefs became more complicated. He had men who came here on his behalf.
The musicians stood by silently, waiting for payment to begin serenading Jesús Malverde—el ángel de los pobres.
Victor moved through the entryway, and ahead he could see the bust of Malverde, his pencil-thin mustache and black hair and strong jaw. Victor moved into the chapel proper, the walls adorned with pictures of those prayed for here, the ceiling covered with pasted American dollar bills given in thanks. Ignoring the other visitors who sat on the short benches lining the walls on either side of the little chapel, he proceeded to the altar and uttered a short prayer for protection.
He placed the small packet he carried behind the bust. He would deliver the rest when his mission was complete. After putting his hand on the statue’s head, the smooth black concrete cool under his palm, he turned away.
In the street, he brought out from his shirt the pendant of the White Queen and as if she might be displeased by his plea for protection from Malverde, he began praying to her. He offered her praise for her beauty and kindness, for her support. And then he prayed that she might offer him just a piece of her cloak, for its power and protection to cover him from head to toe, to hide him from his enemy and give him success. He asked for the power of her sickle to bring his enemy to his knees humble and defeated, to make his enemy beg for mercy.
He had written the name of the man he hated on the paper that enclosed the bills he had left for Malverde, so that those who tended to the chapel would pray for his success as well. He would pay the rest of his promised gift when he returned.
Two words, he had written on that paper.
Paul Garza walked out of the hospital room into the hallway. The impact of seeing his old friend in this condition hung on his back like a weight trying to drag him down into the glistening white tiles.
Garza had known Donny might be disoriented, and he’d been warned that Donny might not even know him, but nothing could have fully prepared him for what Donny would be like with his mind disjointed by a traumatic brain injury.
They’d enlisted the same day—September 12, 2001, even though they were living a thousand miles apart and hadn’t spoken after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Their thoughts had been that synchronized. They always had been, ever since they were kids running in the woods playing soldier. Their separate tracks into Special Forces weren’t coordinated either. They’d both just naturally gravitated to the toughest assignments they could find.
So maybe it wasn’t only seeing Donny this way that affected Garza so deeply. Maybe it was partly because so much of his own identity was tied up in Donny Lind.
And now Donny didn’t even recognize him.
He made his way down to the cafeteria, where he’d arranged to meet Kim Almario during her break. He found her watching him come across the room, a cup of coffee at her lips hiding her expression.
She lowered the cup as he approached, but didn’t meet his eyes.
He sat opposite her.
“Anything?” she said, her eyes still fixed on the tabletop.
Garza felt his awkwardness acutely.
It was only the second time he’d seen her in four years. The first time was when Garza had shown up for this visit yesterday. He didn’t know Kim well. He had no idea what to say to help her. If anything could.
She finally looked up at him. Her expression told Garza nothing. It only made him feel like she expected something he couldn’t provide. She wore scrubs like all the other nurses here, but she wasn’t on permanent staff, just worked as a temporary RN wherever she could to help make ends meet, when she wasn’t taking care of Donny.
Kim took another sip of her coffee. She lowered the cup to the table again, and said, “You seem okay. Other than this, I mean.” She pointed to her eye, indicating the scar that ran down Garza’s face from just above his eyebrow to disappear into his beard.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m all right.”
It wouldn’t do her any good to know the truth, so Garza kept it to himself. How would it help her to hear about his sleepless nights and the way his memories of Iraq and Afghanistan would rear up in his head whenever they wanted to? What purpose would it serve for her to know how he always struggled with the sensation that he was being hunted? It would do her no good to know that he constantly struggled with suppressing the memories, while at the same time he missed the camaraderie of his buddies and the naked edge of battle so acutely that he wanted nothing more than to turn back the clock.
He was like a man with two minds. But that was not Kim Almario’s problem.
She gave him a smile. “Yeah, I guess you would be. Guys like you are always all right. I swear, I talk to you, sometimes it’s like I’m talking to Donny. Before all this.”
She had her fingertips on the cardboard cup, rotating it on the table.
She went on. “You tough guys,” she said, “you go off, fight wars, get hurt and come back to us.”
Garza let her go on.
“I’ll never understand how you could volunteer for that kind of stuff…” she said.
She shook her head and didn’t finish.
He had an answer for her, he could give her a why, but the way she looked at him, with accusation in her dark eyes, he didn’t think she wanted an answer, at least not from him. Anyway, Garza imagined that she and Donny had had this conversation about soldiering a thousand times.
Instead of saying anything that might give her something to tee off on, Garza said, “How are you holding up?”
She gave a tilt to her head, a sort of shrug. “Day to day.”
“What are they telling you, the doctors?”
“I don’t know, they’re doing their best. There are a lot of cases like Donny. The hospital’s full of them. We’ve got a lot of survivors, all the great gear we’ve got now. Lots more survivors. But a lot more who have to live like him.”
“That’s true,” Garza said. “So, what’s the prognosis?
“Wait-and-see. Manage his meds. Try to keep his moods from swinging too much.”
“He seems kind of out of it.”
“They’re trying a new course. It’ll just be a few days. Then they’ll release him and he can come home again.” She looked up at him. Seeing the hurt in her eyes made Garza’s stomach flip before he could erect any walls.
“I wish I could do something to help,” was what he finally said.
“It was good you came.”
“I’m sorry it took me so long.”
She gave a quick shake of her head. “It’s okay, Paul. He doesn’t know you anyway.” She tilted her wrist to get a look at her watch. “I’d better get back.”
They stood. Their hug was every bit as awkward as Garza felt about this whole thing. Kim put her hand on his arm as if she understood that, and turned from him. She padded off to disappear around a corner.
It seemed to him that like much of what he’d done with his life, he had accomplished very little here.
He walked out of the cafeteria.
His Ducati was waiting for him at the curb outside the massive red-brick building. He could have saved himself sixteen hours if he’d flown instead of making the long ride from LA to this VA facility in San Antonio. But then he would have missed this. He mounted the Ducati and turned the wheel and shifted its weight underneath him and kicked the kickstand up under the chassis. Flipping the stop switch up to reveal the starter button, his whole body geared itself for the sweet roar. He stabbed the button.
The sound of the engine coming to life did something to soothe his nerves. He worked his fingers into his gloves and levered the helmet over his head. Then he leaned forward over the gas tank to take possession of the handles, engaged the clutch, toed the pedal for first gear and sped away from the curb.
He still felt a twinge in his arm from that business down in Sinaloa when he rode, but they’d have to hack off his arm to keep him from this. The thrill of this bike’s jetting glide was enough to offset any pain Garza knew.
At least for a while.
He would call Abbie in a few hours. She was expecting him back in LA for that big family dinner on Saturday evening. Her father’s birthday. But he didn’t want to think about that. And he didn’t want to think about Donny. He didn’t want to think of Kim Almario’s pain. Or the pain of hundreds of thousands of men and women like them. Not now.
For now, and for the next few hours, he just needed the wind to hit him.
He just needed to ride.
Succession is available now, on Amazon.
Copyright © 2015 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, CA 95409.
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 978-0-9912286-9-0 (e-book)