King of Swords is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters and real people, living or dead, is coincidental. Having said that, the backdrop and historical context of the novel is based in fact. The drug war in Mexico has been an ongoing confrontation between government forces and the ever-strengthening cartels - now the largest illegal drug trafficking networks in the world, whose primary target market is the United States.
Thousands of police and soldiers have been killed in the last decade, as the war has intensified due to a crackdown by pro-U.S. administrations. Cartel members slaughter one another by the thousands every year, as well as huge numbers of innocent bystanders. The brutality of the turf wars that are a constant and ongoing facet of the trade is stunning; well over a thousand children have been butchered during Mexico's 'lost decade', as have countless family members of traffickers, killed in retribution or as a deterrent.
The last two Secretaries of the Interior for Mexico died in suspicious air crashes. The Mexican cartels are now the largest narcotics trafficking networks in the world, with revenues that exceed those of many nation states. Roughly ten thousand people per year die as a direct result of cartel violence in Mexico.
The Sinaloa cartel is real. The Knights Templar cartel is also real, as is the Gulf cartel, the Tijuana cartel, and the Zeta cartel. New cartels pop up when the heads of the old groups die, and the names change with some frequency. The only constant is the bloodshed; the natural consequence of the economics of trafficking in an illegal substance that generates in excess of fifty billion dollars a year, wholesale, for the cartels in Mexico; a country where the average person makes a hundred and sixty dollars a month.
A Description of the Tarot Card, 'The King of Swords'
In full regalia, the King of Swords sits proudly on his throne - with a long, upward-pointing, double-edged sword clutched in his right hand, and his left hand resting lightly on his lap. A ring adorns his left Saturn finger - representing power and commitment to responsibility. The King's blue tunic symbolizes a desire for spiritual enlightenment; his purple cape symbolizes empathy, compassion and intellect. The backrest of his throne is embellished with butterflies, signifying transformation, and crescent moons orbit around an angel situated by his left ear, positioned, perhaps, to lend a delicate guidance. The backdrop of the sky has very few clouds, signifying pragmatic mental clarity. The trees dotting the landscape stand still, with not a rustle - reflecting the King of Swords' stern judgment.
The Kind of Swords Reversed
The reversed King of Swords depicts a man who is ruthless or excessively judgmental; when reversed, the King of Swords suggests the misuse of mental power, authority and drive. The reversed King of Swords can represent manipulation and persuasion in order to achieve selfish ends. He is a very intelligent character who likes to demonstrate to others his superiority, either verbally or through actions. It is best to be wary of this type of person because, although he may be charming and intelligent, he is remorseless and can do only harm. He has only his personal interests in mind and will do whatever necessary to achieve those interests, even if it means destroying others.
Three Years Ago
Armed men lined the perimeter of the large contemporary home on the secluded stretch of seashore just above Punta Mita, twenty-three miles north of Puerto Vallarta. The stunning single-level example of modern Mexican architecture sat on a cove, where the heavy surf from the Pacific Ocean flattened out over the shallow offshore reef a hundred yards from the beach. Nine foot high concrete walls ringed the compound, protecting the occupants from prying eyes and would-be intruders. Not that any were in evidence. The property and the coastline for a quarter mile in each direction belonged to the house's secretive owner - Julio Guzman Salazar, the Jalisco cartel's chief and the eighth richest man in Mexico, although his name didn't appear on any roster other than the government's most wanted list.
The building's Ricardo Legorreta design boasted thirty-eight thousand feet of interior space, with nine bedrooms in the main house, separate servant's quarters adjacent to the twelve car air-conditioned garage, a full sized movie theater with a floating floor, its own solar and wind power generation system, and a full time domestic staff of eleven. An Olympic-sized swimming pool with an infinity edge finished in indigo mirrored glass tile created the illusion of water spilling into the deep blue ocean.
The white cantera stone pool-area deck took on a pale cosmic glow as the last sliver of sun sank into the watery horizon, making way for the dark of a late-November night. The armed men encircling the house were hardened and efficient, exuding a palpable air of menace as they roamed the grounds, alert for threats. The security detail, which traveled with Salazar everywhere he went, consisted of eighteen seasoned mercenaries who were proficient with the Uzis they held with nonchalant ease.
Motion detectors provided an early warning system outside of the walls, where infrared beams crisscrossed the expanse between the beach and the house, ensuring that nothing could penetrate the elaborate defenses undetected. Salazar could afford the best security money could buy, and his private army comprised not only Mexicans and Nicaraguans and Columbians, but also two South Africans and a Croatian. All had seen more than their share of combat, either of the civilian variety in the ongoing drug skirmishes between rival cartels, or in full-scale armed conflict in the Balkans or Africa.
At seven p.m. precisely, the bright halogen headlights of expensive vehicles began making their way down the long road from the coastal highway that connected Puerto Vallarta with Mazatlan, and through the enormous gates of the opulent home. Each car was allowed inside to drop off its passengers after undergoing scrutiny from the men charged with Salazar's protection, who inspected the SUVs inside and out. During the next hour, seven Humvees and Escalades discharged their loads before pulling back out of the compound and parking in a brightly-lit area designated for the purpose. Two armed guards patrolled the flat expanse, guns loaded and cocked.
In the constant drug wars that were the norm on mainland Mexico, every minute held the possibility of instant death for those in the trade, and so the men on the security team were in a constant state of readiness for attack. Their vigilance had paid off many times over the past decade, when rival factions had attempted to challenge Salazar's stranglehold on the Jalisco trafficking corridor. He'd emerged victorious from that series of ever-escalating brutal engagements, the last of which had culminated in nineteen corpses beheaded or shot execution-style in Culiacan over a three month period.
The Sinaloa cartel was the most powerful one in Mexico, and for some time had nurtured its aspirations of expanding its lethal tentacles into Jalisco, the neighboring state to the south - Salazar's home turf. The Sinaloa cartel controlled much of the marijuana produced in Mexico and had grown to be the largest cocaine and heroin trafficking entity in the world, handling over seventy percent of all Columbian product that made it into the U.S.. Salazar's operation was considerably smaller, but the brutality of his tactics made him a difficult adversary to encroach upon; after ten years of unsuccessful attempts to execute him, an uneasy truce now held sway.
The lush, planted areas of the compound were lavishly appointed. The beachside pool deck's verdant landscaping was circled with the flicker of tiki torches - placed there for the big event that was just getting underway. An eighteen-piece mariachi band in full regalia had assembled by the massive palapa over the hotel-sized outdoor pool bar. They aired their traditional music for the guests, who were almost exclusively children and their mothers. It was Salazar's oldest son's seventh birthday; the party was an important event. Attendees had come from as far as Mexico City to honor Julio junior's big day. There was a giddy sense of privilege and wealth in the festivities - the boy had been presented with a pony, along with every imaginable video game and technological miracle a young man could wish for.
Clowns and acrobats japed and tumbled around the sidelines, performing astounding feats of dexterity and contortionism amid long bursts of yellow flame from a troupe of fire-breathers. Peals of adolescent laughter punctuated the melody of strumming guitars and blaring horns and violins, while the women circled the children's area clutching piña coladas and daiquiris in their lavishly bejeweled hands. All the guests knew one another - Salazar's social circle was small and exclusive.
Off to the side, Salazar and a handful of his closest male friends and associates stood beside a fifteen-foot diameter fire pit, smoking Cuban cigars and drinking five-hundred dollar tequila from brandy snifters as they discussed business in hushed tones, occasionally glancing a watchful eye over their wives and offspring. Salazar was easily distinguished from the group due to his height and distinctive beard - he was barely five four, and sported a Lincolnic beard in the fashion that his father had affected until he'd died in a car crash when Salazar was nine years old.
Two female dancers in traditional folk garb approached the specially erected stage with a male dancer in the classic Mexican vaquero outfit, who executed a series of exhibition tricks with a lasso, dancing with the whirling rope to the delight of the assembled children. When he was finished, the trio remained on the stage. A spotlight flicked on. From a newly-pitched tent adjacent to the pool, a man in a black suit emerged, flamboyantly brandishing a large sombrero. He bowed to the arc of enraptured kids before finally placing it onto the head of the birthday boy.
The crowd laughed and clapped in mutual surprise - this was one of Mexico's most beloved singers, popular for two decades before Salazar's son had been born. He swiveled and moved onto the performance area with a practiced ease and began singing one of his most famous ballads, a perennial favorite with young and old alike. The adults sang along and clapped, as did the children, who were captivated by the theatrical production numbers and the pomp of the event.
A small prop plane meandered along the coastline at an altitude of nine thousand feet, its lights extinguished, its radar off and its radio silent. The pilot held up a hand with two fingers extended, and then watching his digital timer, made a curt gesture, signaling to the man in the rear that it was time. The passenger, dressed head to toe in black and with a balaclava covering his face, nodded and gripped the lever of the sliding door on the fuselage's side, twisting it and forcing it open. He was instantly buffeted by a blast of warm air which tore at his clothes and burned his eyes, until he pulled a pair of night vision goggles into place and hurled himself into the dark, rushing void. The wind clawed at him as he tumbled through the night sky. After counting to twenty, he pulled the handle of his specially-configured parachute harness and whumped to a near halt, the straps straining at the arrest of his descent.
A black rectangular glider-parachute billowed above him as he manipulated it with two handles, until he quickly got his fall under control and directed himself at the glowing patch of coastline where the party would now be in full swing. He glanced at the luminous hands of his oversized military-blackened Panerai watch and smiled under the woolen mask. So far everything was going according to plan.
A few minutes later, through his night vision goggles, he could make out the flat roof of the main house, where three armed sentries watched the proceedings by the pool and scanned the beach for threats. He was now barely fifteen hundred feet above the compound. Even at that altitude, he could hear the music and singing, and make out the shrieks of glee from the children as they chased each other around the party tables to the bouncing melody of the band. As he'd hoped, the volume of the musicians drowned out any hint of flapping from his chute. The rooftop security men were engrossed with the show, so were unlikely to look up.
He connected the right control cable handle to a clasp on the harness, which made steering more difficult but was essential to momentarily freeing up his hand. From a strap on his chest, he grappled with the grip of a MTAR-21 compact assault rifle; a small, evil-looking weapon with a handmade silencer and flash suppressor. The gun was affixed to the harness with a three foot nylon rope to prevent an inadvertent loss during the nocturnal descent. He groped until he felt the familiar pistol grip and trigger guard, and flipped the safety off. He was now two hundred feet above the roof at the far end of the house - the three sentries were still on the beach side of the roof, watching the entertainment and scanning the surf line.
When he was twenty yards above the men, his weapon belched two short bursts, catching all three guards unawares and ending their lives before they could register any surprise. His feet alighted on the waterproofed concrete surface next to them, and he immediately reeled in the chute, securing it in place with one of the guard's guns after shrugging out of the harness.
Eighty feet away, on the far end of the roof, a gathering of gulls stood with a black bird - a raven or crow - in their midst, silently observing the new arrival from the sky. A sound from below startled them, and the gulls alighted. The black bird remained, as if undecided, and then with a squawk also flung itself into the night.
He stole his way, catlike, to the corner of the house nearest the beach and carefully unpacked the contents of his small backpack, extracting two spare 32-round magazines for the gun, a black nylon rope with a grappling-hook, three grenades and four smoke grenades, a fiber optic scope on the end of a black aluminum telescoping rod, a heavily modified sniper rifle with a collapsible stock, a silencer and ten-round magazine for it, and a waterproof camera. He slipped one of the magazines into a pocket on the side of his pants, along with the camera, and turned his attention to the sniper weapon.
Inspecting the rifle and confirming it was intact, he drew several deep breaths, preparing himself for what was to come. He carefully threaded the silencer onto the barrel and unfolded the carbon-fiber stock, then inserted the magazine and silently eased back the precision-machined bolt, chambering a round. Ready now, he flipped the night vision headgear up and out of his line of sight and peered through the telescoping fiber optic lens at the festivities below. He quickly located the group of male guests and confirmed Salazar was among them. Satisfied that his quarry was in his kill zone, he surveyed the rest of the deck and spotted three security guards unobtrusively standing in the shadows at the base of the portable lighting towers that illuminated the party. Returning his attention to Salazar, he calculated the distance and the strength of the light breeze - not that it would make much difference on a shot that was no more than forty yards; it was force of habit.
One of the fallen sentry's radios crackled as a coarse voice intruded, demanding a status report. He reached over and turned the volume down, then returned his focus to the celebration, this time peering over the edge of the roof through the scope of the rifle.
Salazar was gesturing at the famous singer like an orchestra conductor, singing along with him, obviously well on the road to inebriation, when the top of his head blew apart, speckling his entourage with bloody shards of bone and brains. A second ticked by as the shocked group registered what had happened, even as the band continued playing, unaware that the party had just come to an abrupt end.
The farthest security guard lurched backwards, dropping his gun as he died, and then the screaming from the crowd began. The other two sentries swiveled around with weapons in hand, searching for assailants. A slug tore the second guard's throat out as it sheared through his spine, and the third guard's chest erupted blood even as he wheeled around to his fallen associate. Pandemonium reigned as the women ran crying towards the house with their terrified children in tow. The band fell silent and hurriedly made for cover behind the concrete pool bar, instruments clattering against the deck stone as they took flight.
A large exhibition light exploded in a shower of sparks, then the other three quickly followed suit, and finally the spotlight shattered, leaving only the torch flames and a few indirect wall sconces on the house. Salazar's friends had rushed to their families and were herding them to safety inside, leaving the pool deck empty save for the band and the trembling entertainers.
On the roof, the uninvited guest tossed the rifle onto a dead guard's chest and methodically lobbed the grenades over the front of the house, not looking to see where they landed, their detonations ample evidence they'd found a mark where the rest of the guards had been stationed. He raced back to the beach side of the roof, pulled the pins on the smoke grenades and threw them onto the right side of the pool deck, allowing the breeze to waft a dense fog over the area. Satisfied with the effect, he wedged the steel hook into the concrete roof rim and tossed the line over the side. He scanned the walkway that ran along the wall's edge to confirm there were no armed assailants immediately proximate, and swung his legs over the side, sliding down the rope to the ground, where he landed in a crouch.
From the plants at the side of the deck, the dead guards' radios crackled with panicked orders as he moved through the smoke to the fire pit, where Salazar's corpse lay sprawled face down on the white cantera in a pool of blood. He hauled on a shoulder and flipped the body onto its back, then fished in his pants for the tarot card that was his signature. Carefully balancing the image of a crowned man holding a sword on the cartel kingpin's mangled face, he took two pictures with the little camera before returning it to his pants pocket. He reached down and stuck the card in Salazar's gaping mouth so that he could be sure it wouldn't blow away during the ensuing action. Peering through the billowing clouds that largely obscured the house, he pulled the tab on his last smoke grenade and tossed it onto the sand, enveloping the beach with an impenetrable haze.
A hail of bullets tore a chunk of stone from the deck a few feet from him; he swiveled in a crouch and fired a few short bursts from his silenced assault rifle in the direction of the barking male voices. Another bullet ricocheted off the fire pit, signaling that it was time to make his departure. The surviving guards from the front of the house were closing in, and even he was reluctant to take on over a dozen armed men in a wide-open gunfight.
He unclipped a final grenade from his backpack chest strap and pulled the pin, flipping it roughly twenty feet towards the house, and then unclipped the MTAR-21, emptied the magazine in the direction of the approaching guards and tossed it aside, satisfied with the screams of pain from their direction. He wrenched the night vision goggles off his head and threw them as far as he could towards the house before turning to run for the beach. The grenade's concussion delivered yet another delay for his pursuers - the shrapnel from the explosion would stop any chase long enough for him to get a thirty second lead, which was all he needed. He sprinted to the water line across the luminescent sand and without hesitation dived into the mild surf, swimming energetically as he strained towards the mouth of the cove.
A beam of light played across the water from the beach, and he sensed bullets shredding through the waves around him as he plowed further from shore. Counting to himself, he swam submerged for twenty seconds at a time, coming up for gulps of air before plunging into the safety of the deep.
Once he was past the rocks at the mouth of the cove he angled to the right, and within a few moments reached a slimy outcropping of rocks a hundred yards from the angry killers on the shore. He fumbled around in the dark until he found the smooth fiberglass side of the black jet ski he'd secured there the night before and hurriedly tore the camouflage fabric from its sleek hull and freed it from the rocks. The tide had risen to the point where the small watercraft slid easily onto the waves, and within seconds the engine fired and he tore off into the sea, jumping easily over the surf that roiled atop the reef line.
A few bursts of distant rifle fire chattered across the water but he was already out of range - the shooting was little more than a lament from the thwarted security. Savoring the adrenaline rush as he flew over the small swells at forty-five miles per hour, he reached beneath his chin and pulled the soaking balaclava over his face, jettisoning it into the sea as he plotted a course south, where a vehicle waited on a lonely stretch of beach for his nocturnal arrival.
Tonight would be the stuff of legends, he knew. In a business where money flowed like water, he'd just pulled off the impossible in a spectacular and flamboyant manner. After this, he'd be able to command whatever fee he wanted, and there would be an international waiting list of eager clients. He'd left the card in Salazar's maw to seal the deal and continue to build his reputation. It had started years ago, as an idea he'd gotten from an article he'd read about the American war in the Middle East, where the kill squads assigned playing cards to each target they were hunting. He'd liked the idea, but had taken it one step further. When he'd begun his career as contract killer, he'd made a point of leaving a tarot card with a depiction of the King of Swords on it, and he'd adopted a nickname that now struck fear into the hearts of those he targeted.
King of Swords. El Rey de Espadas. Or as the press had taken to calling him, El Rey.
It might have been a little melodramatic, but nobody was laughing now that his legacy of impossible kills was the stuff of front page headlines. Not since the days of Carlos the Jackal had an assassin gained such notoriety, and he'd carefully selected the contracts he'd taken for maximum publicity value, in addition to the money. He'd quickly developed a reputation as a phantom, an invisible man - a contract arranged with him was as good as putting a bullet in the target's brain at the time the deal was negotiated.
El Rey was a star, a legend, and even his clients approached him with a certain trepidation when they required his services. These were generally men who butchered whole communities to make a point, but who deferred to El Rey out of respect.
He'd earned that respect the hard way, by taking the sanctions that were considered impossible and then delivering. In his circles, respect was earned at the edge of a knife blade or the barrel of a gun. It was blood currency. And now, he could name his price. Tonight's logistics had cost him just under a hundred thousand dollars - the contract price had been two and a half million. Not a bad evening's work. But after this, his rate would start at four million and quickly increase from there, depending on the level of difficulty.
Off to his left, the lights of Punta Mita's expansive coastline sparkled in the overcast night. Some of the homes along that stretch of beach cost well over five million dollars, he knew. Rich Gringos and successful narcotraficantes were the only ones who could afford them, and with a little luck, soon he would be part of the elite that called the area home. But he'd need to do a few more jobs before he could hang up his tail and horns and call it quits, and he was in no hurry to retire. El Rey loved the adrenaline rush of the kill; the more planning involved and the greater the level of challenge, the better.
He glanced down at the dimly illuminated compass he'd mounted beneath the handles and made a small adjustment to his course, musing at the direction his life had taken as he sliced through the inky water, effortlessly making his escape into the warm tropical night.
Two Years Ago
The central square in downtown Puebla was typical of larger Mexican towns; a cultural hub for the community as well as a gathering place. Tourists from all over Mexico traveled to visit the cathedral adjacent to the square; the area was one of the most picturesque in the region. A steady procession of cars cruised around the city center, although traffic was kind in the early afternoon. A light breeze rustled through the trees that sheltered picnickers from the harsh sunlight as they languished on the freshly trimmed grass.
Rosa sat at one of the quaint cafés with her daughter, Cassandra, eating fresh fruit sorbet. It was summer, so school was out, and they were visiting Rosa's parents for a week - a refreshing break from the press of humanity in Mexico City, which was among the largest cities in the world, and the place she reluctantly called home.
The weather was hot, but not punishingly so, and free from the oppressive pollution that sat like a blanket over the valley where Mexico City resided. Some of the air quality problems were a function of geography, and some were due to the virtual absence of any emission control on cars until recently. The capital of Mexico was surrounded by hills, which prevented the thermal layer of un-breathable toxins from dispersing. It was one of nature's cruel tricks that so many people lived in an area where breathing the air was the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
She wished that they could move, maybe to Guadalajara, where the weather was usually nice and the verdant region of Lake Chapala was little more than an hour away, but her husband's job wouldn't allow for that. She hated that they were locked into living in their little three bedroom row house in Toluca, near the airport, in a neighborhood that seemed chronically victimized by crime; but life wasn't always fair or easy and they were doing the best they could.
Rosa had a decent career as an insurance agent for her own small agency, and between her income and her husband's they did as well as they could expect, but sometimes she was affected by a sense of melancholy, especially as she watched her eight year old daughter growing up in less than ideal conditions. Cassandra had been a miracle baby; Rosa's doctor had convinced her that she would never be able to carry a baby to term due to a host of chronic immuno-deficiencies, but a strong faith in God and skilled care at the hospital had brought Cassandra howling into the world, where she'd been Rosa's pride and joy ever since.
Glancing at her daughter, Rosa brushed Cassandra's hair out of her eyes, and using a corner of her napkin, wiped away a smudge of strawberry from the little girl's upturned lips. Cassandra - Cass - gave Rosa a look of embarrassment and hastily rubbed her forearm across her face. Rosa smiled at the gesture. That was another way to do it, she supposed.
A policeman on patrol tipped his cap to the pair as he strolled by; she returned his smile out of courtesy. A striking example of classical Mexican beauty, with flashing eyes the color of espresso and black hair that shimmered like silk against her café-au-lait-complexioned skin, she was accustomed to admiring attention from men, even though she'd long ago pledged her heart and soul to her husband - the love of her life.
Cass had inherited her stunning features, but with an unexpected twist of dirty blond hair - a testament to her father's partial German lineage several generations back. Even now, barely an adolescent, she was a gorgeous child, and Rosa knew she was destined to break hearts when she blossomed. It was not out of the question that she could be a model once she hit her teens; a few of Rosa's friends had already said as much.
As they watched the cars go by and the kids playing on the square, both mother and daughter felt happy to be relaxed in a place that was safe and relatively unspoiled. They'd just finished lunch at a small restaurant at the base of one of the old hotels facing the church, enjoying the best chicken Mole Poblano Rosa had tasted in years. Mole sauce was more of an art than a recipe, and each region had its own take on the dish. In Puebla, the sauce was nearly black, as thick as liquid tar, redolent of chocolate and clove and thirty-something other spices and ingredients. It was a rich and heady dish, and few restaurants could pull it off as well as the one they'd dined at. Puebla was one of the Meccas of Mexican culinary accomplishment, and Mole Poblana was a signature Pueblan specialty.
Cass had busied herself naming the pigeons that paraded and strutted across the street in the square, and one particularly unctuous example of male avian belligerence had captured her attention. She'd announced to Rosa that his name was El Guero - the pale one. The bird was almost blindingly white and had a remarkable presence; a swagger in each step and with chest puffed out, he fanned his wings and tail feathers in a display of mating finery. The smaller gray females were clearly impressed with his moves, as was Cass. Back and forth he swooped, cooing loudly as he pranced, the bird king of the Puebla park holding court for his admiring subjects.
Finished with their post-prandial treat, they left the vicinity of the square and made their way to the parking lot where they'd left their car - a Peugeot that had never seemed to run correctly since the day they'd bought it new, on payments that amounted to twenty percent annual interest. Rosa hated the little blue beast; they were counting the days until it was paid for so they could sell it and get something more reliable.
Two blocks from the square, a Ford Expedition pulled to the curb beside them, and two men who had been following a few yards behind abruptly grabbed the pair and forced them towards the rear door. Rosa screamed, as did Cassandra, who also kicked and tried to bite her assailant's arm. One of the men punched Rosa hard enough to break her nose in an effort to stop the yelling, before he manhandled her to the vehicle. There was sparse pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk, but the few people who saw the altercation stopped walking, frozen in place. Kidnappings were an unfortunate and all too regular feature of some larger cities in Mexico, and the armed gangs that specialized in it were not to be trifled with. Shootouts were not uncommon, because those drawn to the profession were typically violent and desperate, with nothing much to lose.
The man who had punched Rosa pinned her on the rear seat while the other man lifted the struggling, screaming Cassandra and stuffed her next to her mother. One kidnapper got in back with the pair; the other climbed into the front passenger seat. The truck roared off down the street in a cloud of exhaust and a squealing of tires. It had no license plate, a not particularly rare occurrence for those who didn't want to pay registration fees, so there were no immediately identifying marks other than a description of a large white Ford SUV.
The man in the rear seat slapped duct tape over Cassandra's mouth, then reached over and did the same with Rosa. The abductor in the passenger seat trained a pistol on Rosa's head, convincing her quickly that creating further havoc could be a fatal miscalculation. Cassandra sobbed into the tape, terrified of what was happening and what was likely to come.
Twenty-five minutes after being snatched off the street in broad daylight, their assailants threw Rosa and Cassandra down a flight of stairs into a basement with a filthy mattress and a broken sewer line evacuating into one of the corners. The stink was overpowering, and once the tape had been torn from their mouths, Cassandra vomited all over herself, infuriating the four men who descended the stone stairs a few minutes later. The largest of them slammed her against the far wall and issued angry instructions to one of his subordinates, who quickly returned with a hose from the garden immediately outside the basement entrance.
Rosa attempted to shield her daughter, but the large man grabbed her by the hair and punched Rosa in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her and crippling her with pain. She collapsed on the floor, helpless, and two of the men alternated kicking her with their pointy-toed cowboy boots. After a few blows, she mercifully slipped into unconsciousness. Even so, the men continued to rain kicks on her abdomen and back until they tired of the sport and turned their attention to the young girl.
A stream of cold water struck Cassandra in the face. The men laughed as she screamed in fear and rage at the shock, as well as the vision of her mother's inert form in the filth on the dank basement floor. Once the vomit had rinsed clean, the large man approached her huddled shape as she shivered, soaked and terrified, and tore her dress off, ripping the thin fabric as though it was tissue. Grunting, he lifted her like a rag doll and threw her onto the stained mattress. Stunned, she cried in panicked horror as the men circled her in preparation for the afternoon's diversion. The large man fumbled with his belt, and the others smiled in anticipation as Cassandra's unholy shrieks reverberated off the uncaring walls of her private hell.
Two days later, a package arrived at Rosa's husband's work with his name written carefully on the label in black felt pen, with a return address in Puebla - that of Rosa's parents. A local courier brought the box in and the receptionist signed for it, then instructed the mail boy to take it to his office, where he was hosting a staff meeting for his immediate subordinates.
No one working that day would ever forget the screams of horror and grief that emanated from his office when he opened the special delivery. Inside, wrapped in plastic and surrounded by crushed newspaper, were Cassandra's and Rosa's heads, neatly severed at the third cervical vertebrae, with their eyes crudely sewn shut. Each had the brand of a scorpion seared into their foreheads, and the tail of a scorpion protruded from each of their mouths, where the predatory arthropods had been lodged as calling cards.
Four Months Ago
The crowd broke into a rousing cheer as Hector De La Silva took the podium at the rally in Durango. Long one of the more popular governors in Mexican history, his term had passed without him seeking re-election - his aspirations for the presidency as the likely successor to Mexico's highest office quite obvious. He'd already begun the convoluted and colorful campaigning that made Mexican elections something of a spectacle - the fiery rhetoric and accusations vivid and damning, the promises lofty and inspiring. Nobody actually believed anything the candidates said - history had shown that no matter who was in power, the campaign promises were immediately forgotten as soon as the voting was over, but the process was celebrated for the showmanship and sense of theater.
Hector, or 'El Gallo' as he was known - the rooster - was in his element; a consummate performer from decades of holding political office, he knew how to play to a crowd like a virtuoso. He was famous for slamming his forehead into the podium when his speech reached its climax, underscoring the sacrifice he was prepared to make on behalf of his constituency - the head-banging routine was now as popular and expected as the flip off the top rope in the Mexican wrestling matches; the Lucha Libre, where masked wrestlers-cum-gymnasts performed amazing feats of physical dexterity as they pretended to fight each other. Nobody believed that was real, either, and yet it was hugely popular, trailing only soccer for entertainment value.
The assembled spectators waited in quivering anticipation as El Gallo mounted the stage, clad in an everyman cowboy shirt and sporting a cowboy hat. This was a man of the people, a member of the masses, he assured them, even as his four hundred dollar ostrich-skin boots gleamed in the sunlight. Never mind that his brothers were among the wealthiest landowners in the region, or that his father had been a household name in building low income housing. Forget all that, his demeanor seemed to demand. Here was a humble, simple man, who reluctantly would shoulder the considerable burden of steering the nation back onto the path of righteousness; having somewhat lost its way - though certainly not because of the actions of his political party, which was also the current president's. No, the country was in mortal peril because of a crisis in morality, exemplified by the surge in popularity and power of the drug cartels.
He cleared his throat and began to speak, a deep baritone long bent to the artifice of holding an audience's attention, well modulated, passion and intensity obvious in every syllable without any evidence of stridency. This was a man's man, a leader and a visionary, a man capable of finally, after centuries of oppression, delivering to the Mexican people the promise of their legacy.
"Look at the prosperity Mexico has enjoyed over the last eleven years. Under the party's leadership, a new, burgeoning middle class has been created, and poverty has been eradicated in many of its most pervasive forms. Our economy is the eleventh largest in the world, strong and resilient, like the Mexican people, who have triumphed in the face of adversity and built a better future for our children!" El Gallo proclaimed, emphasizing points by stabbing at the air with his hat.
The crowd burst into well-choreographed spontaneous applause, led by party agitators who were in attendance to galvanize cheering at the appropriate points. The television cameras tracked over the thronged celebrants - one could hardly watch the outpouring of enthusiasm without being moved.
"I love my children, and I have taught them to love God, and Mexico. I like to think I've shown them the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil, between a road with promise and one that leads to purgatory. Children are the country's future, and so we must do everything in our power to build a safe environment where they can excel. They shouldn't have to worry about drug cartels shooting up the streets, or pushing their poison in our schools. We cannot give in to their terrorism. Not because it's the right thing to do. Not because it's the easy thing to do. But because of the children. We must do what it takes, for the children, for Mexico's bountiful harvest of talent and hope!"
The hunched figure adjusted the tripod of the high velocity rifle, watching as the oration hit full stride and the gathering of citizens applauded again. The actual words were lost on him because he was behind the speakers, in the tower of the church three hundred yards from the optimistic assembly. He was invisible to the security forces in place around the rally, the rifle recessed in the small rectangular openings of the tower's pinnacle.
The gunman watched the red balloons that framed the stage for clues as to the amount and direction of any wind. He was in luck. The late spring gusts were nowhere in evidence. It would be an easy shot.
He was startled by a car backfiring on the road below. Several security men ran in the direction of the percussive blast, accompanied by six soldiers. They watched as the ancient farm truck rolled down the street, straining under its load of hay. At the next intersection, the engine backfired again; the group of gunmen exchanged relieved looks, laughing with merriment at their defense of El Gallo from a poorly tuned V8. The sentries returned to their positions as the great man continued to paint his verbose vision of a bright new future.
A crow landed on the balustrade of the tower, and fixed the man with its beady stare. For a reason he couldn't define, he was momentary chilled; the hair on his arms standing erect. He wasn't a believer in omens or symbols, but lurking somewhere in his schooldays the crow was deemed a foreteller of bad luck. An impression from his past nagged at him, tried to surface, but he shrugged it off - he didn't have time to waste on being spooked by a bird. The man grinned at his own imagination - allowing a crow to throw him. It would be a day of bad luck, all right, but not for him.
The crow bobbed its head several times, then pecked at the stone it was standing on before giving up on its project and flying away.
He reached into his pants pocket, extracted a pair of dense foam earplugs and set them in front of him, along with a digital watch displaying the time. He had thirty seconds. Checking to ensure that everything was in place, he compressed the plugs and inserted them into each ear before returning his attention to the florid man pontificating on the stage. He seemed to be reaching a crescendo, and the gunman couldn't help but smile again. This was going to be a funny one, if there ever had been. He couldn't wait to see the papers tomorrow.
El Gallo was building his intensity, railing against the cartels as the embodiment of Satan crawling over the planet in human form. The words were powerful, and the emotions high as his voice increased in volume.
"These scum are a cancer on the body of the state; they are toxic purveyors of poison and suffering. They accommodate the demands of the rich Gringos, who buy their products even as their own country collapses from the weight of its own excesses. They have turned Mexico into their whore, and its children into their slaves. We suffer so that pimps and rich socialites can snort the devil's dandruff during their orgies. I would send a message to these traitors who suckle at the tit of the false God to the north. I would send a telegram. The message is, no longer will we be your burros or your lapdogs. No more will you use our blood to lubricate your war machine. We are Mexican, and we are tired of being the back yard where you dump your problems, where you come to turn our daughters into prostitutes and our sons into groveling peasants. Your time is over, and we will now reclaim the bounty that is our birthright! We are strong and proud. And most of all, we are Mexican. We are family - and we will be free!"
The bells of the church began ringing, announcing the arrival of the noon hour, and El Gallo, in fever pitch, slammed his head forward onto the podium in his now-famous trademark move. The crowd burst into a spirited and hearty applause.
It was only when he slumped to the floor with blood spreading over the back of his hand-stitched white silk cowboy shirt that the screaming began.
The young novitiate moved with easy determination to the doors of the church as the pealing of the bells trumpeted God's grace and presence in everyday life. An ancient woman crossed herself as he passed, her weathered face momentarily glowing with a devoted smile. He turned when he reached the door and genuflected, his cassock brushing the ground as he crossed himself before the vision of an unfortunate savior crucified so that humanity could be saved, movingly depicted in the statue that dominated the wall above the altar. The sun streaked through the elaborate stained glass windows over the door, bathing the interior in a dazzling multi-colored glow; the nearly empty chamber radiating a tranquility that was regrettably absent from the cruel world just outside the doors.
With bible in hand, and fingering his rosary, he exited the house of worship and crossed the street; a pious man on a mission to save the world.
Twenty minutes later, the bodyguards and soldiers crept up the stairs to the tower top, guns at the ready as they strained their ears for any hint of threat. The huge bells had fallen silent, and the only sound besides the scream of the sirens from the square across the street was the cooing of amorous doves taking refuge in the tower rafters.
The leader of the team held up a hand in warning when he spotted the rifle, still on the tripod, a single spent shell casing lying by its side. He softly moved towards it; the blood drained from his face as he saw the item held in place by the votive candle.
The stern countenance of the highly-stylized rendering of the royal presence seemed to sneer at the intruders, the brandished sword proclaiming to one and all the regal superiority of the seated man.
He approached the card as if in a trance, then reached down and retrieved the tattered rectangle, holding it up for his men to see.
The King of Swords had struck again.
April 18, 2012 - 6:15 a.m.
The concrete walls of the industrial building on the outskirts of Mexico City were painted a garish orange, the roll-up steel doors clashing navy blue with a coat of high-gloss enamel. The large parking area was empty except for three Cadillac Escalades - an unusual sight in the neighborhood, which ran more to dirt roads and twenty year old dodge trucks. The surrounding buildings were the dingy gray of unpainted cinder block, with rusting rebar sticking out of the roofs where the builders hadn't bothered cutting off the steel from the support beams. Graffiti covered almost every area; the raw odor of garbage and filth pervaded the run-down outpost.
The skyline of Mexico City could be seen in the distance; tall buildings thrust angrily to the heavens, into the perennial layer of brown pollution that hung over the valley. A rooster crowed its welcome to the first rays of dawn. Two scavenging dogs trotted from building to building, their emaciated forms a testament to the pickings to be had. In the near distance, a shanty town of rough tarpaper walls with tarps or corrugated steel roofs emitted a sour stench, while here and there the sorry structures belched smoke into the air from early morning wood fires stoked up to cook the day's sustenance.
A small mirror on the end of a rod eased out from around the corner of one of the neighboring buildings, enabling the Federal Police officer manipulating it to watch the orange structure without having to duck his head into view. Seeing nothing, he made a series of short hand movements to the group of thirty heavily-armed commandos behind him. This was the armed conflict team that consisted of the most battle-hardened members of the Federal Police force, who specialized in urban assaults, usually with backup from the army or the navy. All the officers had been marines, and all had been in numerous armed engagements with the narcotraficante armies that were the new scourge of mainland Mexico.
The men ran towards their orange objective, crouched low so as to present less of a target. The commander's radio crackled with confirmation that another group of similarly-equipped police commandos had the rear of the building covered, as well as the flanks. He checked his watch, then pushed the button that would start the stopwatch function before making another series of hand signals to indicate they were going in.
Three of the officers carried a heavy steel battering ram with handles on it to knock down the front door in seconds; each of the windows had two officers framing the glass, ready to fire through it or take out anyone who tried shooting from inside. The commander made a fist, and the iron projectile drove the steel door into the building, knocking it off its hinges. Eight of the men entered, with more ready to follow. The distinctive popping-chatter of Kalashnikov assault rifles began echoing around the large warehouse, quickly answered by the more sonorous burst-firing of the M-16 assault rifles the police favored.
Even though the Federales had the overwhelming majority odds due to sheer numbers, their adversaries inside the building continued the firefight until they'd exhausted their ammunition. As the sulfurous stink of cordite wafted through the air in the enclosure, the surviving drug dealer tossed his pistol away and raised his arms over his head, having already jettisoned his empty assault rifle.
The final tally was four civilians killed and five police, with three more seriously wounded - in spite of their body armor and precautions. The leader of the team moved towards the surrendering shooter and slammed him across the face with his rifle butt, then, reaching around his equipment belt, retrieved a set of blackened steel handcuffs. He ordered the man to lie on his stomach and slapped them around his wrists. Two other officers dragged him to his feet, past the fallen bodies of his entourage, out to the waiting police van.
A tall, athletically-proportioned man in his early forties, wearing the distinctive blue uniform of the Mexican Federal Police, ran a hand through his thick, slightly-graying hair and let forth an exasperated sigh. Captain Romero Cruz circled the object of his current attention, a seated man shackled to a metal chair bolted to the floor in the center of the room. A solitary hundred watt incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling, providing meager but adequate illumination for the interrogation cell. The captive was a high-ranking member of the Knights Templar cartel - close allies with the Sinaloa cartel. This man, Jorge Rodriguez Santiago, was rumored to be a confidante of the Sinaloans, which made him doubly valuable to Captain Cruz. Santiago had been the sole survivor of that morning's bloody firefight; a surprise capture who normally would have been holed up in Michoacan, where his brutal gang ruled with an iron fist.
Santiago glared at Captain Cruz, blinking away the sweat and blood that trickled from his hairline into his eyes. The look conveyed an almost demonic hatred, and an arrogance borne from the knowledge that no prison in Mexico would be able to hold him for long. Cartel chieftains tended to escape with astounding frequency, no doubt due to the abundance of money at their disposal to lubricate the system.
This was not the first time Santiago had been arrested under serious circumstances, so for him, it was merely an annoying interruption to his lucrative criminal career. The last time the case hadn't even gone to trial; the judge miraculously ruling that the prosecution had failed to make an adequate case. That had been a blow for the Federales, and was among the judge's last decisions before he retired to a hilltop compound in Costa Rica, to live out his days with a nineteen year old soul-mate who had a nose for stimulants, as well as an apparent affinity with vastly older men.
Santiago began spewing vitriol about what would happen to every member of the force who had participated in his arrest. Cruz stepped forward with surprising speed and backhanded him - a dismissive slap - more an insult than a rebuke.
"You're going to regret this, you bitch-" Santiago spat.
Since the slap hadn't gotten the message across, Cruz punched him in the jaw - it was he who would do the talking, and Santiago would answer the questions put to him, only speaking when told to.
Cruz blew on his reddened knuckles, the skin abraded by the prisoner's coarse stubble. He motioned to the other man in the room, his lieutenant, Fernando Briones, to bring him the nightstick that lay on a table in a corner of the room. Briones, a compact pit bull with skin the color of brandy, obliged.
Santiago spat a bloody lump onto the floor, then grinned at the captain, displaying a mouthful of gold capped teeth, with an incisor now conspicuously missing.
"You hit like a pussy, you marecon," Santiago sneered.
Cruz slammed the wooden club into the side of the captive's head; his ear began streaming blood as it swelled from the blow. Santiago appeared momentarily dazed, and for once didn't have an insulting comeback.
That was more like it.
Captain Cruz glanced at Lieutenant Briones and made a gesture with two fingers. Briones fumbled in his uniform shirt's pocket and fished out a packet of cigarettes, offering one to Cruz. He took it, and Briones lit it for him with a disposable butane lighter. He inhaled the smoke with evident satisfaction, and then blew a stream of nicotine into Santiago's tearing eyes.
"These are good. What are they? Cuban?" Cruz asked.
"Argentine," Briones told him, holding up the pack so Cruz could see it. "Parisienne. They're made with black tobacco - they don't have all the impurities the American brands do. They're supposedly better for you. They taste better to me, so who knows..."
"Imagine that. Cigarettes that are good for you. What will they think of next?" Cruz sighed mild bemusement, and then approached Santiago. "So, you shit-bird, do you like cigarettes? Is that something you like to put in your mouth when you don't have a burro cock in it?" He puffed a few times, ensuring that the cigarette tip was glowing red, then held the ember against Santiago's neck. The sickeningly-sweet smell of searing flesh was a small price to pay for the shriek of blind pain and fury that burst from the warlord. Now they were getting somewhere.
"You see, you piece of shit, you're not so tough. You're a big man when you have a bunch of your boyfriends around with guns, but alone, you're nothing. Listen to you, blubbering like a baby. I bet you'd give me a blowjob right now for a piece of ice, am I right?" Cruz asked conversationally.
Santiago struggled against the restraints holding his wrists, tearing flesh in the process. Blood dripped deep crimson from the black metal cuffs.
"So now you're starting to figure this out." Cruz paced around Santiago while he talked. "I can do anything I want to you. Anything. You have no power here. I am judgment day for you - I'm God and the devil rolled into one, and you will tell me what I want to know. I actually hope you hold out and this takes a while, puta. I'm going to enjoy inflicting every morsel of misery I can on your worthless carcass." Cruz paused, blowing a few lazy smoke rings. "Two of the men who died this morning were my friends. I'm sure they experienced considerable pain before they passed on, so I look at this as payback on their behalf. If I have my way, before this is done you'll be begging me to kill you. You'll cry, and you'll tell me things I didn't even ask about just to get me to stop. And I'll savor every minute of it. In fact, I'll think up new and creative ways to cause you so much pain that you'd stab your mother to death with a crucifix to make it stop. So I hope you make me do this the hard way."
Santiago glared at Cruz, his fury palpable. "I want to see my lawyer," he hissed.
Cruz nonchalantly swatted him on the other side of the head with the nightstick, the impact making a dull thunk against his skull. He struck him on the upper arms a few times, for good measure.
"I'm your lawyer. And I say case closed, you lose. So now I'm going to ask a few questions, and then you're going to answer them, or I'm going to make you wish you'd never been born. You want to try me on that? What's that line from the Clint Eastwood movie? Do you feel lucky?"
"I'm not saying anything."
Cruz took a final puff on his cigarette and then applied it to Santiago's neck again, generating a bloodcurdling howl of agony.
"Well, I don't believe that. I think you will. In fact, I'm betting on it. So here's my first, simple question. Where's Carlos Aranas hiding these days?" Cruz asked.
Aranas, or 'El Lobo', was the absolute boss of the Sinaloa cartel, and the object of Cruz's investigation into the latest string of grisly drug-related slayings in Mexico City. Cruz was a special type of cop, the Mexican equivalent of the top echelon of Homeland Security in the United States, and he'd been given virtually unlimited latitude by the President himself to do whatever it took to bring the cartels, whose violence was terrorizing the country, under control. Cruz headed up an autonomous task force that was working its way up the food chain until it got to the chiefs of the various cartels - the Knights Templar cartel, the Tijuana cartel, the Gulf cartel, a host of others; and the most powerful and dangerous - the Sinaloa cartel.
Cruz had earned his role by being tough, extremely smart, relentless, and incorruptible. A combination that was rare anywhere in the world, but in Mexico, virtually unheard of. For Cruz, bringing down the cartels wasn't so much an occupation as a religious cause, and his life's exclusive focus.
And the biggest fish in that particular polluted pond was Aranas, whose savagery was legendary; a fact Cruz knew firsthand.
"Come on, Santiago. Where's El Lobo hanging his hat?" Cruz asked again.
"You must be fucking crazy if you think I'm going to talk to you. Give up El Lobo? You're insane," Santiago said.
"That's right. I am. And if you don't give me what I want, you're going to find out exactly how dangerous a crazy man can be, especially when he has your testicles in his hand, like I do yours. So talk," Cruz insisted.
Cruz sighed again and nodded at Lieutenant Briones, who burrowed around in a rucksack before extracting a two foot long tube with a pair of electrodes on one end and a handle on the other. A cable ran from the evil looking implement to a metal box with a dial, which Briones dutifully plugged into the wall. Cruz held up the wand and inspected the electrodes with a grim smile.
"Do you know what this is? We got this from some Guatemalans who were operating a kidnapping and torture ring. This is a picana - or as you'll soon think of it, your worst living nightmare in hell. It delivers a high voltage electric shock, but with low current. Since you probably didn't pay much attention in school, that means it's excruciatingly painful, but won't leave a mark, so it can be used for hours without leaving any trace. I've heard about these, but never actually used one." Cruz brandished it like an épée. "I've been saving it for when I captured one of the Sinaloa cartel captains, but you know what? I'll make an exception today, seeing as I'm in a good mood, and you'll be the first I use it on. Now the question is, do we start with the genitals, or your anus, or maybe go with the less tender areas as a warm-up? I don't want to see your miserable tiny prick if I don't have to, so I'm thinking we start on your neck, and work down," Cruz explained dispassionately.
Santiago's eyes flared wide with terror.
"Oh, I see you might be familiar with it? Why am I not surprised? I'll bet you never thought you'd have one used on you, though, huh, tough guy? Today's just full of surprises, isn't it?"
Cruz walked over to the table, picked up a bottle and returned to Santiago. He poured a few drops of water onto his neck, just above the blistering from the cigarette burns. Santiago shook his head, trying in vain to avoid the stream, further tearing his wrist skin.
"The water increases the conductivity, for maximum effect. Now, one more time, and then this gets uglier than you can imagine. Where is El Lobo?"
"Fucking your mother."
Cruz looked at his lieutenant and laughed. "We have a comedian. That's very funny stuff. Hold that thought for a minute." He glanced at Briones. "Lieutenant, give me about half the maximum voltage to start, and let's see how the funny man reacts," Cruz instructed. "Bring that rag over here and help me stuff it in his mouth. We don't want our esteemed guest biting his tongue off and spoiling the party."
Briones tossed the rag to Cruz and approached Santiago from behind. He clamped his hands on either side of Santiago's head, grinding his thumb into a pressure point just below the ear to force his jaw open. Cruz jammed the rag in and hurriedly pulled his hand away lest Santiago bite him. He stepped back, regarding the result with professional satisfaction.
Briones stationed himself by the rheostat and waited for a signal. Cruz nodded.
The lieutenant hunched over the box and turned the dial halfway up. The rod emitted a faint hum.
"You might want to plug your ears, Lieutenant. I have a feeling our boy here is going to be crying like a bitch kitty in a second," Cruz said. He applied the rod tip to Santiago's neck.
The reaction was immediate. Santiago's entire body stiffened, his eyes bugged out, and his face turned beet red as his stifled shrieks penetrated the rag. Cruz studied Santiago impassively as he flayed and convulsed for ten seconds, then he disengaged the picana.
Cruz made a gesture with the device, and Briones pulled the rag from Santiago's mouth, who greedily gulped air as though he'd been drowning.
"Give me something, Santiago. Or I can do this all day. In fact, you know what? I bet I could charge admission to the families of the cops you killed this morning; make money allowing them to use it on you, if I get tired. Remember, I'm authorized by the President to do whatever it takes to get information, so there's no way out of this for you."
"You...you are so fucked," Santiago hissed through swollen lips. "You don't even know it. And your president? He's a dead man."
Cruz shrugged, and Briones returned the rag to Santiago's mouth and then cranked the knob again. Cruz held the wand to Santiago's neck, this time for twenty seconds.
Briones cut the current and removed the rag.
"Oh, look, what a shame. The big brave drug lord pissed his pants like a little schoolgirl. Hey, pissy pants, are we having fun yet?" Cruz taunted.
"Your brat pissed hers before I fucked her," Santiago growled, spitting blood at him.
"What did you say?" Cruz's eyes narrowed to slits.
"You heard me. She was pretty good for a five year old, or whatever she was. I think she kind of liked it when I had my boys go at her, too. Shame she lost her head. I could have trained her to be really-"
Cruz dropped the picana and pummeled Santiago's face with his fists. Briones grabbed his arms from behind and dragged him away, but not before he'd inflicted considerable damage. Santiago was now bleeding freely from cuts on his cheek and a newly broken nose; a bloodshot eye was swollen half closed. Cruz stood panting his anger out until he regained enough control for Briones to release him.
Santiago raised his head.
"Tell the President I had a hand in having him killed, will you?"
"What are you talking about? You're nothing. An insect. You have nothing, and you'll rot in a military prison until you die. You, kill the President? You're a urine-soaked piece of shit, nothing more," Cruz growled, barely containing his rage.
"You remember that when El Rey takes him and his American master out. I'll be watching it on TV. That's a day people will remember for a lifetime."
"You think these puny lies will buy you bargaining power? You're mistaken. It's pure bullshit. And it's not going to work."
"Remember you said that when your ass-licking president is lying dead with the Gringo cunt. Remember how smart you were." Santiago fixed Cruz with his good eye. "And remember when your little baby was on her hands and knees, begging for me to give it to her, like your stinking whore wife did, and I-"
Cruz cranked the control box to maximum and took two steps towards Santiago, jamming the prod into his soaking crotch.
Santiago convulsed and screamed so horrifically that Briones was momentarily frozen in place. As Santiago convulsed, smoke began to rise from where the prod was in contact with his wet pants. Briones raced to shut off the current, and Santiago slumped over, unconscious.
Cruz spat on Santiago, and then handed the picana back to Briones, who averted his gaze.
"Let's take a break for an hour and let this fecal speck stew in his filth. Maybe he'll get more talkative now that he sees what I'm capable of," Cruz said, checking his watch and straightening his uniform before moving to the door. "I'll see you back here at five. Grab something to eat. This could be a long night."
Briones' eyes stayed glued to the floor, and he didn't respond.
"Hey. Lieutenant. These are the bad guys, eh? They killed a bunch of cops this morning, and this one claims he raped and killed my wife and daughter. This is an animal. Nothing but an animal..." Cruz said.
Briones slowly raised his head and met his stare. "He's probably lying about your daughter, sir. The story is well known. He used it to bait you, to get a reaction-"
"It worked then, huh? I'll bet he thinks twice about doing it again. Go get something to eat. We need to keep at him until he breaks. And he will break. Make no mistake about that," Cruz assured him.
Cruz knocked twice on the door in a distinctive pattern; it swung open, unlocked from the exterior. Two beefy police officers stood outside, guarding the room. These were men fiercely loyal to Cruz - men he trusted with his life. One of them handed Cruz back his service pistol, which he holstered.
Cruz instructed them not to allow anyone into the cell while he was gone, then marched down the dank yellow hall, past two more armed Federal Police officers, to the scarred double doors of the industrial steel elevator. He punched the button and stood waiting as Briones joined him.
"I'm sorry if I seemed to lose it, Lieutenant. It was momentary. It's been a long day, and I think I'm tired from the assault this morning." Cruz stabbed at the button again, impatiently. "You were right. I gave the prick exactly what he wanted - a reaction. Learn from that. Always keep your emotions out of the job," Cruz softly advised the younger man.
"I think I would have shot him," Briones admitted.
"That's why we don't allow guns in the room." Cruz turned his head and studied the lieutenant's profile. "Are you sure you're up for this? I can arrange a replacement if you'd rather sit it out. I won't think any less of you - this is a tough assignment, and this part isn't for everyone."
"No, sir. I was also friends with several of the men who were killed today. I would want the same if one of these scumbags killed me. It's the least I can do...to help you with this."
"Good man. I'll see you in an hour. I'm going to my office to start a report."
"Do you...Sir, no disrespect, but do you think there's any truth in what he was saying about the President - and the U.S. president? He sounded pretty cocky for a man in his position," Briones ventured.
"That's why I want to write it up. I don't know what to think right now, but these bastards have turned the country into a killing field wherever they go, so I wouldn't put anything past them. I want to capture exactly what he said while it's fresh in my mind. We can investigate later. But yes, I'm taking it seriously. I agree he seemed sure of himself, and that's troubling."
"And he mentioned El Rey," Briones underscored.
"I know. Then again, that's like mentioning the boogieman. So it may mean something, or nothing. But either way, I'll record it, and once we're done with him, add it to the pile of things to do," Cruz concluded.
The elevator finally arrived, and the two men stepped aboard. They rode up two floors to the ground level in stony silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Briones exited and proceeded purposefully to the security area that led to the outside world, while Cruz continued to the fifth, where his task force occupied the entire floor.
His mind flitted back to the day, two years prior, when he'd opened the container and seen his life crumble around him, his beloved family brutally butchered to send him a message. He pursed his lips and forced the images and emotions back into the ugly little box where he kept them hidden away and closed the door on that line of thought. He would extract revenge and make the bastards pay the ultimate price for their crimes, but he couldn't do it by wallowing in despair. There had already been more than enough of that after the slaying, when he'd taken a two month leave of absence and stayed drunk for most of it in Los Barriles, over on the Baja peninsula - an area that was uniquely free of the drug battles prevalent on the mainland. The southern part of Baja wasn't a good trafficking choice, because there was only one road north, and it had military checkpoints every seventy-five miles, making it the hardest route imaginable for drug smuggling. Whereas northern Baja, by the border, was a battle zone much of the time - the Tijuana cartel had been at war with the Sinaloa cartel, leaving hundreds dead during the last year.
He'd crawled into a tequila bottle and stayed in a haze for six weeks, gradually emerging from the funk with a purpose. He would go back to work, and he would make those who'd destroyed his dreams of happiness pay for their savagery. He would avenge Rosa and Cass, and he would be merciless.
El Rey? Fuck El Rey. Cruz would be the bloody sword of fury descending upon his enemies, cutting them out of life like a cancer. And he didn't need some tarot card voodoo to do it. They would pay. And he would be the mechanism of their destruction.
Romero Cruz was far more committed to scorching the earth, hunting down and annihilating enemies than some fairytale ninja assassin. Cruz had nothing to lose; he was already dead inside, which made him far, far more dangerous. The man who didn't fear anything was the worst enemy you could have, and that was what Cruz had become. His was the wrath of the righteous, and he would extract his pound of flesh from the wicked, and they would pay with their lifeblood.
That was his mantra every day.
That was why he still woke up.
To be an angel of vengeance.
General Alejandro Ortega studied the features of the man sitting across from him, wondering what he needed to say to make him happy. Because the last thing he wanted was for the attorney who represented the Sinaloa cartel to be unhappy with him. That could be a quick trip to a shallow unmarked grave, even for an army officer of his rank. It had happened before.
Ortega didn't intend to test the man's patience. Carlos Zapata was one of the wealthiest lawyers in the country, and a visit from him was never a good thing.
"I wasn't aware that Santiago had been captured. That must have been a Federal exclusive operation. I can assure you that the army was never notified. If it had been, well, it's unlikely he would have been apprehended, obviously," Ortega stated in the formal-and-polite tense of Spanish.
"Jorge Santiago is a trusted ally of my clients," Zapata said crisply. "His incarceration is an affront to their authority, and calls into question their ability to protect those who rely upon them. I won't bore you with how delicate the balance of trust is on handshake deals. There's a bond, and friends look out for friends. So my question is, how can something like this happen, and how can you make it right?"
"I can assure you I started making inquiries the moment you called and informed me of the issue. It's not public yet. None of the television stations or newspapers have reported anything," Ortega observed, nervously smoothing his gray moustache.
"We need to know where he's being held, so I can get someone on filing motions with the court for immediate consultation with him. I know how this works, and we cannot afford for him to disappear for two weeks to be 'interrogated' in a back room somewhere."
"Of course. You'll know everything, as soon as I find out. This is deeply disturbing to me as well," Ortega assured him.
Zapata leaned forward. "My clients are bound to start asking what value they're receiving for their money if friends can be attacked by government forces with no warning. And I'll remind you that it's not in anyone's best interests for precarious power structures to be disrupted by the absence of a strong leader. That will lead to instability - younger rivals challenging one another for position, which inevitably leads to unfortunate outcomes."
"I understand. Please convey to your clients that this was an unfortunate and unforeseen result of action by forces not within my purview. And even though I had no part in today's events, I'll still work diligently to ensure everything that can be done, will be," Ortega promised.
"Start by finding out where he's being kept. Then you can stand back and stay out of the way." Zapata rose from his chair and fixed Ortega with a frigid glare. "You're lucky you don't have to go report on the bad news to my clients yourself. They don't take these sorts of setbacks lightly."
"No, I wouldn't imagine that they do. I'll call as soon as I know something."
Cruz was waiting patiently in the hall, chatting with the two guards, when Briones emerged from the elevator and strode hurriedly towards them.
"Sorry, sir. I got stuck in traffic on the way back from my house. There was an accident..." Briones offered.
"Forget it. We've all been there. Let's get back to our shit-bag and see what we can shake out of him. You okay? Ready for this?" Cruz asked.
"Perfect. Let's get to it."
The guard unlocked the door, and Cruz and Briones entered the cell. Santiago was slumped over in his chair, still unconscious. Cruz paced over to him and jerked back his head by the hair, looking for any trace of fakery, but didn't see any. He quickly took a pulse, which was faint and uneven.
"Get medical down here immediately," Cruz told Briones, who hurried to the door and alerted the guards. One of them murmured into his radio for help. Briones came back to help Cruz with Santiago.
They un-cuffed him and lay him on the floor. Cruz walked over to the picana and gave Briones a hard look. The lieutenant hastily gathered up the cord and the wand, stuffed it back into the rucksack, and carried it from the cell. The two sentries stood impassively by. Cruz knew he could count on them to have seen and heard nothing. Loyalty was a precious currency in the force, and you watched your peers' backs if you wanted to go very far. It could be your own ass on the line at any point, so it was always better to be discreet.
After a few minutes, Cruz heard the distinctive sound of a gurney being wheeled down the corridor to the interrogation room. Two paramedics ran a quick check on Santiago's vital signs, then heaved him onto the gurney like a sack of cement. Cruz ordered the two officers by the door to accompany Santiago to the hospital and stand guard in whatever room he was in -if he needed surgery, they were to take up a station outside of the operating room. He wanted to take absolutely no chances that Santiago could escape, or be broken out of captivity by his mob.
Cruz took the elevator up to his office, accompanied by Briones, and they got their stories straight for the inevitable investigation should Santiago die. It would be a cursory formality, to be sure, given that the captive had participated in gunning down a group of police that morning, but it was better to be prepared in advance. Both men had been with the department long enough to know how the drill worked, so they agreed that it was best not to mention the picana or the battering during questioning. Any injuries could be attributed to the assault and gunfight. Nobody was going to look too closely at the rights of a violent, psychopathic drug peddler; as long as they remained on the same page, there shouldn't be any issues.
Cruz showed the lieutenant his interrogation summary, on the off chance he'd omitted some key element or gotten something wrong or remembered it differently. Briones read it slowly and placed it on the desk between them when he was done.
"Really, the only thing we got from him was that he claims to have been involved in your family's execution, which is unverifiable, and he also claims to be involved in a plan to assassinate the President, as well as the American president. Which is also unverifiable. Where does that leave us?" Briones asked.
"I think we have to assume, given the circumstances of the interrogation and when and how he blurted it out, that there may be some truth to his claim. Santiago isn't smart enough to invent a story like that while in extreme pain. Besides, it doesn't come across on the report, but the way he said it...you heard him - it was like he was bragging. Like he wanted me to know what he'd done, so when it happened, I'd understand the power he wields," Cruz concluded.
"I know. I got that, too. It's what makes me nervous about all this. He seemed almost...I don't know, almost happy with himself. And if he actually did hire El Rey, we have a real problem."
"That's the understatement of the year. The fucking media has made El Rey's exploits more popular than reality TV, and it will result in an uncontrollable circus if even a hint of this leaks. It has to be just you and I that know about this until I'm able to nose around and see if we can find any corroboration," Cruz warned the lieutenant.
"The cartels certainly have the money to hire him..." Briones mused.
"I know. That's what scares me. Who knows what kind of twisted schemes these lunatics can cook up?" Cruz stopped and stared out the window. "But why kill the President? He's only going to be in office till the end of the year, so why bother?"
"Some kind of a power statement? To show the population who really runs the country?"
"Could be. But I don't buy Santiago would spend a fortune to prove a point. And it could backfire on him. I don't know. Who the fuck knows what these animals dream up while they're high?" Cruz groused.
"What do you think it costs to hire El Rey to do something like this?"
"El Rey? Probably, oh, I don't know, five million U.S.? He's got to be the most expensive killer in the world by now. I'll say one thing, he knows how to market - now that he's a celebrity in the press, he can command a lot more. These cartel bosses are just like everyone else. They read the papers, too, and money is no object to them..." Cruz trailed off, considering his last statement. Santiago could easily afford five million - just as easily as he could fifty. The take on trafficking Mexican cocaine was estimated to be in the twenty-five billion dollar-plus range at wholesale prices. That was almost the national budget of North Korea. So money was certainly not an issue.
"So how do we proceed from here?" Briones asked.
Cruz surfaced from his ruminations. "We wait to see what's wrong with Santiago. And then we try to follow up on any leads, and root around to see if anyone on the street has heard any rumors. A loudmouth like Santiago would never be able to keep quiet about something this big, especially if he was behind it."
The desk phone rang, and a terse conversation ensued before Cruz slammed the receiver down.
"They took him to Hospital Angeles, in Pedregal." Cruz let out a sigh. "We'd better get over there and see what the damage is. Santiago would be the best place to start if we're going to get to the bottom of this."
"Traffic will be hell. It's going to take forever to get there."
"Nobody said that police work was all glamour and fun, young man." Cruz, who was only five years older than Briones, often called the lieutenant 'young man' as a subtle reminder of the power structure. "Hope you don't have any plans for tonight," he added.
Even with the emergency lights on, it took them fifty minutes to get to the hospital. Dusk had set in as they pulled into the lot by the emergency room. Traffic congestion in Mexico City was infamous, especially during rush hour, and it could take close to forever to cross the city during peak periods.
The pair approached the marble-floored lobby of the pristine edifice and took the elevator down one floor to the operating rooms. Cruz had spoken with one of the officers sent to guard the prisoner, and he'd reported that the doctors had rushed Santiago into surgery after a hurried evaluation. The officer had called for backup, and there were now eight heavily armed tactical squad members lining the hallway to the surgical theater. Cruz walked purposefully to the officers guarding the doors of the OR.
"What are they doing in there?" he demanded.
"Some kind of procedure for his brain," the officer replied.
"His brain? What's wrong with it? Did they tell you anything?" Cruz asked.
"No, they just said that his pupils had a problem, so something was wrong with his brain. He never regained consciousness; that's all we know right now."
Cruz stalked the hallway, mind racing. A few minutes later, a green-gowned doctor emerged from the room, blood splattered down his front, and removed his surgical mask to speak with Cruz.
"I'm Dr. Consera. I presume you're running this show?" he asked Cruz.
"Captain Cruz. Yes, this is my prisoner. He shot four of my men this morning and was taken after a considerable struggle," Cruz informed him, for the record.
"Well, that explains the contusions and bruising..."
"Why are you operating on him? Was he hurt by the blows he sustained?" Cruz asked.
"Not really. We did a CT and an MRI, and this man has an abnormal heart. An area is enlarged, which is typical of victims of chronic atrial fibrillation." The doctor flexed his hand, trying to get the muscles to relax. "No, what happened is that something, probably the morning's events, caused a bout of fibrillation, and a clot formed in his heart and then traveled to his brain. Your man had a massive stroke. We went in through his leg and removed as much of it as we could so blood flow could return to the affected area of the brain, but it's anyone's guess how much permanent damage he's experienced. In these cases, you just don't know," Dr. Consera explained.
"So he's in a coma?"
"Precisely. His brain has been deprived of blood for at least an hour and a half, maybe more. Blood carries oxygen. Human tissue requires oxygen to live. If it was totally deprived of blood for that long, or longer, it doesn't look good for him."
"Then what's the prognosis, as we speak?" Cruz asked.
"Poor. It would be a miracle if he ever regained consciousness. But in the end, we'll just have to wait and see. I'd normally do a positron emission tomography scan of his brain to see what level of activity the area the clot-affected portion retains, if any, but it would be a waste of time at present. Maybe in a few days, but right now, he's in God's hands," the doctor concluded.
"Or the devil's. The man is a major narcotraficante, Doctor, and probably snorted kilos of cocaine every week."
"That would make the chronic heart condition much worse, of course. It would explain a lot."
"One thing I don't understand. How does the clot form - from his heart beating, what, faster?" Cruz asked, genuinely curious.
"Atrial fibrillation isn't necessarily tachycardia - a racing heartbeat. It can also be where the heart skips a beat, sometimes a lot of beats, which has a tendency to allow blood to pool in the enlarged heart chamber instead of pumping through. A little sticks to the valve, and then a little more, and pretty soon you have a clot the size of a pencil eraser headed for your brain, and, game over. Once it lodges, more blood begins to clot behind and in front of it, so it's a downward spiral from there. We went in through the femoral artery into the brain and sucked out as much as we could get, and pumped blood thinners through him to get the remaining clotting to dissolve, but the damage already done after such a long period without oxygen...well..."
"Then there's nothing that could have prevented this?" Cruz asked, seeking to clarify how the stroke would be reported by the doctor.
"Not really. If he was on medication, and he didn't take it, that could have caused problems as his blood thickened over time. Of course, the shock of being in a gun battle and being captured and, er, questioned...my official position is that this was just an unfortunate occurrence that was the result of an underlying medical condition, and couldn't have been realistically prevented." The doctor assessed Cruz frankly. "Although you might want to avoid putting cigarettes out on prisoners, or bludgeoning them," the doctor said quietly, glancing at the guards to ensure they hadn't heard him.
"Thank you for all your help and explanation. What happens to him now?"
"We'll transfer him to a private room in the intensive care wing, and watch and wait. That's all we can do."
Cruz joined Briones, who stood talking quietly with several of the other officers.
"He's in a coma. Probably forever. But I still want a guard on him in case there's some kind of divine intervention and he comes to. I do not want this asshole having a miracle escape on our watch, do you read me?" Cruz ordered.
"Loud and clear, sir." Briones stepped away from his companions, and they wandered a few feet down the hall. "Do they know what caused it?"
"He's got a bad heart, and it shot a blood clot to his brain. He stroked out. Nothing we could have done about it, the doctor tells me," Cruz said, holding Briones' gaze.
"He seems awfully young to have a bad heart," Briones observed.
"Santiago's two years older than I am. But this was a congenital condition. So it's not the same as a heart attack, or coronary artery disease. It's a combination of Hoovering coke, and God knows what else, and inheriting lousy genetic material."
"So yo - we're in the clear."
"Yes. But I want him guarded twenty-four-seven for the duration. He's too high profile, and he's got nine lives. I don't want him strolling out because he beat the odds yet again."
"I'll schedule a detail. What are his chances?" Briones asked.
"About the same as Shakira being at my house when I get home."
"So don't hold my breath," Briones concluded.
"I think we'll be okay if we station four men at the hospital in eight hour shifts. I want one outside his door, and another at the entry to ICU, and then two more downstairs outside the lobby doors. The last thing we need is his gang trying to break him out. We know he's a vegetable, but they don't, so I could see one of their bright young bulls thinking it would be a great idea to come into the hospital shooting. These pricks have no fear, and even less sense, so anything could happen," Cruz warned him.
The stainless steel double doors of the OR opened, and two nurses wheeled Santiago down the hall, an IV drip attached to his inert arm. Cruz motioned to them to stop.
He approached Santiago's bruised and battered face, now deathly pale.
Cruz leaned over his head and whispered into his blood-caked ear, "Looks like you didn't win this one, did you, you piece of shit? I hope you come out of the coma, and live a very long life in excruciating pain. Consider it my promise to you that I will make that happen. Now, get well soon..." He straightened, smiled at the nurses, and allowed the gurney to continue its journey along the antiseptic halls.