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 Ben Reese
 Ben Reese
by Ben Reese  FollowFollow
Ben's an ex-reporter, an ex-editor for a famous dotcom, and currently partner in an advertising firm. He was born on Leap Day and once lost more goat-milking contest to a member of the US House of Representatives (Note: the Rep cheated). Ben lives in Seattle with his wife, two sons, small dog, and a voracious tortoise named Claire.
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Chapter Uno

Looking back, the words had slipped from his mouth without conscious thought. He was used to buying a ticket for his abuela every Sunday when he went into town for fresh coffee beans, their one extravagance. That Sunday, with fewer than 48 hours across the border, he hadn’t been able to find fresh coffee beans like back home and even if he had, he hadn’t a grinder nor the ancient cast iron coffee pot abuela had used to brew their weekly treat. But the store did sell tickets, as he must have noticed when he walked through the door into the artificial chill of air conditioning.

Thus the words had tumbled from his mouth, as if it were a bag of freshly roasted beans on the counter rather than a Styrofoam cup of oily, steaming liquid.

As if his abuela were still alive.

As if he were still living in the home he’d grown up in.

As if he were still in Mexico.

Una lotería, por favor,” he said, and everything changed.

Manuel had discovered who he was only a week before that fateful morning.

His abuela had been old, very old, so old that he couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t small and wrinkled. Even when he’d been a boy and sat on her lap while she ground the maize for the tortillas for the family’s evening meal, she’d seemed smaller than he and crinkled like a fruit that had sat too long on the windowsill. When she’d passed, his logical side had not been surprised, but he found he was still shocked that someone who’d been so tough and so feisty and so there for him his entire life was suddenly gone.

He’d been the only one at her funeral aside from Father Sanchez. The lack of mourners might have struck him as sad had he and his abuela not been alone together for the past seven years, when his hermano Miguel had departed to seek his fortune in el norte. Since then, they hadn’t heard from Miguel and had had only each other for companionship. During the day, Manuel worked hard on the farm, planting chiles in the heat of the spring, tending the plants during the scorching burn of the summer, and then harvesting the bright red peppers in the still blazing autumn. Up until last year, he’d returned from the field each night to find his abuela waiting for him.

Now, he’d thought as he watched Father Sanchez’s burro retreat down the trail with the portly priest on its back, he was truly alone.

It was later that evening while going through his abuela’s meager possessions that he’d found his true identity. It was in a shoebox pushed far under the straw mattress she’d slept on every night for uncounted years and every minute since she’d taken abed just twelve months ago. Under a photo of a beautiful raven-haired woman that Manuel knew to be his madre, arm in arm with a mustachioed man he didn’t recognize, he found it--his birth certificate.

Chapter Dos

Manuel was in Arizona less than 48 hours when he proved that lightning can not only strike the same place twice but even, on occasion, three times.

He was first struck when he found the folded birth certificate, in the ornately scrolled border of which were the words Cedars-Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles, California. Up to this point in his life, Manuel’s knowledge of the United States was informed only by what he’d gleaned through the static-filled shows his neighbors, three miles down the dirt road they shared, would sometimes pull down on the old black and white television they’d salvaged from the local dump, its rabbit-eared antenna wrapped in tinfoil to better reception. He knew his hermano Miguel had seen el norte as an opportunity, a land where work was plentiful and where someone born with no advantages still had the chance to make his way in the world. He knew his abuela considered el norte to be home to gringos who cared more about themselves, their big cars, and their money than their families and communities.

And now he’d discovered he was one of them.

Lightning next struck Manuel when he returned to the convenience store where he’d purchased his Sunday coffee. In his hometown, la lotería results were posted on a chalkboard in the general store each week. There was no chalkboard in this store, only plastic-wrapped sticks of beef jerky, signs for beer and a rack full of cigarettes, but the clerk took Manuel’s ticket from him and fed it into a device on the countertop.

From the loud whoop the clerk let out when he read the results, one might have thought it was he who’d been struck by lightning.

Lightning struck Manuel the third and final time on the same night that he collected his winnings from la lotería. The first two strikes changed Manuel’s life forever, but it was the third that affected him most deeply--he fell in love. And nothing would be the same for him ever again.

After la lotería officials were finally persuaded to let him leave--un-photographed, un-press released, wholly, disappointingly un-publicized--with the new bank book that corresponded to the account they’d set up for him, Manuel had gone to a diner and celebrated his good fortune with a meal. He settled on a cheeseburger and put down his menu to see her for the first time.

She came in through the front door, taller than any of the men in Manuel’s village, striding on long, shapely legs, the sunlight of late afternoon giving her golden hair a deep glow that illuminated her determined face. She wore a knee-length camel’s hair coat, under which a short black skirt could be seen. Black boots hugged her calves snugly, and a silky white scarf was wrapped around her long, elegant throat. She didn’t wait to be seated as the sign at the door instructed her, but instead came directly to the booth where Manuel sat, now staring raptly at a woman more beautiful than any he’d ever seen before. She slid across the ripped red vinyl of the bench across from him and looked in his eyes.

“Hello,” she said. “You’re Manuel.”

Si,” he whispered.

And he was lost.

Chapter Tres

“My name’s Julie Griffin. I’m 20 years old, and I’ve been waiting tables at Zeppo’s Diner for three years--but just until I get enough money to move to L.A. and get my singing career started, you know.

“So, I see guys like him all the time. They always open the door and look around before they come in, like they’re afraid somebody’ll kick ‘em out, you know? And, really, maybe somebody should. Before they, like, take all our jobs and everything, right?

“Anyway, after looking around, the skinny guy with the big creepy moustache came in and sat down at the four-top right near the door.

Just another beaner who can’t talk English no good,’ I thought after he finally gave me his order. ‘Like, he’ll probably be asking for Tabasco for that cheeseburger, just wait.’

“But then that woman came in. I mean, she was hella hot and she had all the grace and, like, um…poise, yeah, all the poise in the friggin’ world. You know what I mean? I do everything I can to look good, you know. I try to, like, keep my posture good and to always wear nice clothes and stuff. I mean, I know I’m no skank but I’ll never, ever look like that. Not in a million years.

“So, she slips into the booth across from him and I was going to see if she wanted any coffee or anything, but they were talking, like, real intense and everything. It was a slow afternoon so I was just watching as I got the beaner’s drink. At first I thought they were fighting because they were looking at each other so close and all.

“Then, get this, he totally steps out of the booth and picks her up and carries her out the door! She’s got her arms wrapped around his neck and her head cuddled into his shoulder and all. And he’s totally crying! With tears, like, running down his face into that big moustache. He carries her right out the door, through the parking lot and down the road. It was kinda romantic but I was pissed ‘cause I thought he’d done a dine-and-dash, like right in front of me, and, like, stiffed me for a tip. Then when I went to clear his table I totally found a hundred-dollar bill under his fork! Cha-ching!

“So, you know, when the police came around and asked about them later, I knew exactly who they were talking about. I’d, like, totally have remembered them because of that scene and the big bill and all, you know, even if I hadn’t seen them all over TV after they did all that stuff.”

Chapter Cuatro

Money, dinero, actual currency, had never been a large part of Manuel’s life. On nights when his abuela decided to stew a chicken, he’d walk down the road to Señor Felipe’s farm with a basket of chiles to trade. When their garden needed fertilizer, Manuel would be dispatched to the same farm with one of the blankets his abuela wove each winter to barter for a wheelbarrow of droppings. Sometimes a few pesos were exchanged, but Manuel and his abuela saw the brightly colored slips of paper as simply more materials to trade for more of life’s necessities.

Manuel’s older brother Miguel was the only member of the small family to take an interest in money. In his eyes, pesos were transformed into pointy-toed leather boots with fancy stitching, silver and turquoise belt buckles as big as the chipped plates their abuela used to serve Sunday dinner, or the shiny, lowered cars with tinted windshields he and his brother would sometimes see the narcos driving as they migrated south to the villas where they wintered.

Late at night, in their shared bed, as their abuela snored, Miguel would regale Manuel with tales of the money to be had in los Estados Unidos and all the things it could buy. Thus, though he was sad to see him go, it came as no surprise to Manuel when, in his 15th year, Miguel left the farm for el norte. Manuel and his abuela never saw Miguel again.

Though Manuel always listened to his hermano, he never felt the same urge to accumulate money or goods. The only thing he coveted, the one thing that snuck shamefully into his mind during those late-night discussions, was a roadside produce stand. In a land as dusty and dry as this, he thought, what could be better than fresh, cool vegetables that snapped between your teeth or a ripe fruit bursting with sweet juices that ran down your chin when you bit it? And how magnificent it would be to offer them to passersby from behind the counter of a smartly built stand, a clean white apron tied securely around his waist. That, thought Manuel, would be something that would make him feel truly proud.

Given the lack of money in his life, one might have expected Manuel’s newfound wealth to change his perspective. But that never happened, thanks in part to something his abuela told him when he was 17.

He’d had a dream the night before. In the dream, he was in a dark cave, struggling to find his way out. When he was almost ready to despair that he’d ever escape, his way was lit by the glow of a vein of gold twisting though the walls of the labyrinth. Elated, he ran toward the glow, which grew so bright as he approached that it blinded him. He raised his hands to shield his eyes but found the glare resolving into the shape of a woman made of light and he was filled with a sense of love and well being.

Manuel shivered that morning as he helped his abuela collect the eggs from the henhouse, partly due to the cool desert dawn and partly from the residue of his dream. As he reached beneath a hen and retrieved a pair of brown eggs, he told her about the woman made of light.

Ella es su ángel de la luz,” the old woman said matter-of-factly. “Y ella es más importante para usted que el oro.

He carefully placed the eggs into the old wicker basket and turned to her, as she stood silhouetted in the beam of light streaming in through the henhouse’s rickety wooden doorway.

Cuando ella es tuyo, todo lo demás bebe será como nada,” his abuela told him. “Tu ángel será tu todo.”

As his abuela grew older and her eyesight grew weaker, she’d taken more to speaking of a world only she could see. Out of love for his abuelita, Manuel let such talk pass without comment or much thought. Who was he to question her? But for some reason, this little bit of prophecy-cum-dream interpretation had stuck with him, and he’d never stopped looking for his ángel de la luz, always half expecting her to materialize whenever a bright ray of morning sunlight struck his eyes.

And now that she had, he found he’d do anything--anything at all--that she asked of him.

Chapter Cinco

Testimony of Joseph Michael Cornell

Mr. Kuehn: Prosecution calls Michael Joseph Cornell.

DIRECT EXAMINATION BY Mr. J. KUEHN, Deputy District Attorney

Q: Mr. Cornell, would you please state your full name for the record?

A: Michael Joseph Cornell, but my friends call me Joe.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Cornell. And what’s your profession?

A: (laughs) Right now it’s prisoner, counselor.

Q: What was your occupation previously, Mr. Cornell?

A: Before I got busted, I was what I like to call a “private security consultant.”

Q: And what did you do in this capacity, Mr. Cornell?

A: I provided security for clients--guarding things, guarding people, muscle jobs, firepower. You name it; I’d do it if the price was right.

Q: Is it fair to say another word for what you did is “mercenary,” Mr. Cornell?

A: You could call me a merc, sure. That about covers it.

Q: And how did you come into contact with Alexa and Manual Flores?

A: The same way most of my clients got in touch, through an employment ad I ran.

Q: And where did this advertisement appear?

A: A few places, but the one she found was in Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Q: Is this the ad?

A: Yes, sir. That’s one of mine all right.

MR. KUEHN: Your Honor, I’d like to submit this magazine and have it marked as Exhibit A.

THE COURT: It will be received.

MR. KUEHN: (continuing)

Q: Mr. Cornell, please describe what you found when you arrived at the Flores property?

A: What I found was a full-blown training camp. Me, Trigg, and Roscoe got flown in on a private jet…

Q: That’s you, Travis, a.k.a. “Trigger” or “Trigg,” Oberman, and the late Roscoe Mitchell?

A: Yeah, we were the team. You hire me you get them too. The Lear landed on a private strip in the desert and we got put up in a guesthouse back behind the main house. It was slick. Private rooms, hot tub, you name it.

Q: And the rest of the facilities?

A: Top-notch all the way. There was a weight room, firing range, obstacle course, and even a fully mocked up model of the target property.

Q: And that’s where you trained?

A: Yes, sir. She ran us through the works, six days a week, dawn to dusk. If she hadn’t been paying so well and putting us up so nice, we never would have put up with it. But kicking back at night with a stogie, that scotch she flowed and all those luxuries, that made it worth it. We did what she asked, no questions, no complaints.

Q: You say she, referring to Alexa Flores. What about Manuel Flores? Was he involved in the day-to-day routine?

A: Nah. He was always around but she was the boss. She doted on that skinny bastard. Him in that green cardigan she bought him. Trigg used to call him the Mexican Mr. Rogers. We couldn’t figure it out. A smokin’ hot blonde like her and a burrito-eater like him. Roscoe tried to put the make on her one night after he’d had some of that scotch, but she turned him down flat, not even a nibble. She must’ve told little Manny ‘bout it too, ‘cause after that he started coming down to watch the training with her and he’d always be carrying that fancy scattergun she got him.

Q: And you have no knowledge of the current location of Alexa and Manuel Flores?

A: No, sir. Once everything went down and shots started flying I lost track of ‘em both. I don’t know how the hell they got out or where the hell they went. If you didn’t catch ‘em when you caught me, they could be anywhere now. Anywhere at all.

Chapter Seis

Manuel and Alexa Flores were in Mexico.

Four days previously they’d crossed the border in a car they’d hastily purchased with cash the night before and been married before a parish priest, Alexa wearing a flowing gown of white, Manuel in a ruffled white guayabera. They spent their wedding night in a bed of hay in the barn behind the chapel and then left early the next morning, heading south to their rendezvous.

The guns lay spread on the hotel room’s green bedspread in a neat arrangement, shotguns and assault rifles lying parallel at the top of the bed, various pistols and a selection of a half dozen hand grenades arrayed beneath, and finally an array of magazines, like metal commas, lined up at the bed’s foot. With her left hand twisting a lock of blonde hair and the tip of her tongue protruding between glossy lips, Alexa circled the bed, occasionally reaching out to stroke a checkered handgrip or weigh the heft of an empty magazine.

“¿Sólo estamos hablando de las armas, sí? Tienes que comprar tu munición en los Estados Unidos.”

Distracted, she momentarily forgot she was supposed to be depending on Manuel to translate and nodded.

Cariño,” she said. “Tell them we’ll take all four of the AR-15s with two clips for each, and we’ll take three of the .45s. We’ll pass on the grenades, but we could really use a few flashbangs. Can they get them or maybe stun grenades?”

Manuel suspected the smugglers spoke English every bit as well as he knew Alexa spoke Spanish, but they dutifully kept up the illusion and looked to him as Alexa continued to assess the selection of arms.

“¿Granadas de aturdimiento?” he asked.

“Sí. No es difícil,” said the one who appeared to be in charge. “¿Cuántos quieres?”

Manuel glanced to Alexa, then back to the smuggler.

“Una docena.

“Sí, no hay problema,” the smuggler said with a shrug.

Truthfully, none of the three smugglers in the room knew quite what to make of the pair. It had taken a few minutes for Amado to figure out who was on the phone when Miguel’s hermanito contacted him earlier that week to set up this meeting. Miguel had run with the gang briefly a few years back, but Amado and his friends considered him a dreamer, always talking about the money he’d earn north of the border but never willing to be a real hombre and seize those riches here in the land of his birth. And his younger brother? The gang had never considered Manuel at all, seeing him as the weaker of the two, fit only to stay at home caring for his abuelita.

Now Manuel was here negotiating the purchase of serious firepower, accompanied by una mujer muy hermosa, and Amado felt his control over the situation slipping away. As it became more difficult to smuggle narcotics north across the border, the gang had diversified into smuggling firearms south. It was simple to have accomplices in los Estados Unidos purchase the arms legally at gun shows, and border guards could always be bribed to look the other way when contraband was headed into rather than out of Mexico. With the current state of his nation, there were always buyers willing to pay a premium for high-quality, trustworthy firearms.

This pair was different though. They didn’t even blink when Amado quoted an initial price fully double what he charged his regular customers. What’s more, they wanted the guns smuggled back north again, and were willing to pay extra for it. Far from being an added complication, this simplified the transaction enormously for Amado, who’d simply have the purchase made and delivered up north, no smuggling necessary. In essence, Manuel and his mujer would be paying more than double for merchandise they could have purchased legally themselves--but they didn’t seem to care at all.

Flashbangs? Sure he could provide them. Was there anything else they needed?

Chapter Siete

It should have been a good day. They’d given the boys the day off from training and spent the morning watching them horse around in the pool. She found it fascinating how the three mercenaries, so fierce when going through their drills, were transformed into laughing children as they splashed one another and tried to mount the smiling inflated turtles floating about.

Later, she and Manuel had driven the new SUV an hour into the nearby resort town and eaten a leisurely lunch at a seaside café. And after that, they’d gone into the hills to inspect a tract of land Manuel thought might make a good field to plant with maize. Finally, they’d ended up back at the compound on the 200-acre spread they’d purchased with the lottery winnings and shared a candlelit dinner of Manuel’s homemade enchiladas.

It should have been a great day. But all along, one thought pulsed in her mind and curdled her stomach. “Tonight,” she thought. “I can’t put it off any longer. I have to tell him tonight.”

She was sitting on the edge of the bed with a piece of paper in her hand when he came up the stairs.

“Manuel,” she said, and he could see she’d been crying. “Please come sit with me. We need to talk.”

“Maybe you’ve noticed our marriage isn’t exactly like everyone else’s,” she said with a rueful laugh. “I mean, we live in a compound and our live-in guests are mercenaries. It’s not precisely a needlepoint Home Sweet Home, if you know what I mean.

“The thing is, Manuel, I… I knew you’d won the lottery before we met. The woman who arranges appointments for winners, Lauren, was my college sorority sister. I knew, Manuel, I knew! She told me when you were coming in to collect your prize. Then I sat in the car and she called me with your description as soon as you left the office. ‘Mexican with a moustache, and not very tall,’ that’s what she said.

“I almost couldn’t go through with it. I sat in the parking lot talking myself into moving and had to call Lauren back to find out which way you’d gone. She’d been watching you through the window and saw you go in that burger joint. All I wanted was the money I needed to make my plan happen. I thought if you were old, I could be a trophy wife and wait to inherit. I even thought about marrying you, sticking it out a year, and then divorcing you, just to get a cut.

“Then, when I walked into the diner, there were two men who met Lauren’s description, and I had just a second to choose. I looked at the other guy first, and then… then I looked at you and I knew, mi amor. I knew it was you, in so many ways.”

Here Alexa started crying again and couldn’t continue. When Manuel moved to comfort her, she shook off his hand.

“No,” she said, wiping tears away with the back of her hand. “Let me finish.”

“You never questioned. Not that first moment when I sat in your booth. Not later. Not about any of this, any of what I’ve been doing. You’ve just been here for me, with no demands and no questions. It was like you knew all along that I was coming, that we’d be together and that we’d be happy.”

Manuel considered telling her about his abuela and his angel de la luz, but knew better than to try interrupting.

“Well, no matter how it came about,” she said, “here we are. I love you more than anything, and you deserve an explanation.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned him to you before, but I had a brother, a twin actually, named Jack. We were close, like twins always are, but very different too. Jack was big--like six-four and 250 pounds or so--but despite his build, he was always the sensitive one, the one who needed defending. And throughout our childhood, I was his main protector. Bullies on the bus, barking dogs, thunder, the vegetables he didn’t want to eat, you name it and I fought it off or reassured him about it.

“It wasn’t until we were nearly 18 years old that Jack got his confidence. I don’t know what did it. Puberty? The old car my parents gave him in hopes it’d make him a little more independent? My growing annoyance at having to protect him? Whatever it was, Jack found his courage and then, as soon as he was old enough, he took the ultimate confidence-booster and joined the Army.

“This was right after 9/11, so of course he was sent to Afghanistan. And of course, he saw horrible things. And when it turned out that maybe my brother’s newfound confidence was just a thin shell covering the same boy he’d always been, of course he decided to re-up for another tour, just to prove he could. He was wounded twice and won a few medals. He was well respected by his fellow soldiers too.

“But when he finally came home, Jack was broken, talking about how he didn’t deserve our love and care because of the things he’d done. He started drinking, and despite everything I tried, he ended up living on the street for a while.

“Eventually, Jack started to try to pull it together again, to put things behind him. I’d lent him some money and he used it to take a bus to Chicago, a city he’d never been in, somewhere new where no one knew him. It was going to be a new start.

“And that’s where it happened.”

Chapter Ocho

Alexa stopped talking and looked down at the paper she’d been worrying in her hands. She uncrumpled it and gave it to him without a word. Manuel read:

What a Dump!

Dave Matthews' tour bus dumps on sightseers -- EW staffer's aunt gives inside scoop on bathroom waste from band's tour bus hitting tourist boat

ByWhitney PastorekonSep 10, 2004

For those who missed it, the Dave Matthews Band got into deep s--- Aug. 8 when their bus driver allegedly dumped 800 pounds of bathroom waste from a bridge into the Chicago River, hitting passengers on a tour boat. After extensive investigative reporting, we got a nearly firsthand account from Barbara Zink (below), a volunteer tour guide for the Chicago Architecture Foundation (okay, she's EW staffer Whitney Pastorek's aunt).

Hi, Whitney!

Yes, that was one of our boats, but fortunately I was not on that day. Twenty minutes into the tour it began raining poop. There were 120 people on board, and at least two thirds of them got hit. We're talking hundreds of pounds of slop! No one could begin to guess what hit them-until their brains registered the smell. Some passengers were throwing up. Several were sent to hospitals, just to be sure. And yes, they all got full refunds.

Surveillance cameras at nearby businesses helped Chicago police and the Illinois attorney general trace the bus to Stefan A. Wohl, a driver for the Dave Matthews Band. Wohl denies doing this, but the attorney general's office is charging them with violating state pollution laws. Mayor Daley is hopping mad!

Can hardly wait to see what flavor Ben & Jerry's comes up with for this.

We just booked an Alaskan cruise for next summer.

Love ya! Barbara

“Jack was on that boat,” Alexa whispered. “It was the final straw. He killed himself the following day. Dave Matthews killed my brother, mi amor. And I want his head.”

Chapter Nueve

You know what the poet Robert Burns said, and I’m paraphrasing here, about the best laid plans, whether you’re mouse, man, or six feet of blonde Amazon fury, as my ex used to call me? Those plans? The plans you sweated over, sacrificed for, and spent the past 10 years of your life formulating? Yeah, those plans. He said they go awry. And, boy, was he ever right.

It started so well.

Here’s another saying: you get what you pay for. That one’s nothing but true too. The tough guys I hired were worth every dime, and the one they called Trigg really did know his way around those explosives. The diversion he created with the incendiaries was a work of art. By the time we made our entrance, the back lot was burning merrily, sending up plumes of lovely distracting black smoke. The fire trucks hadn’t arrived yet, but there was already a lot of yelling, running, and pointing of cellphone cameras on the lot.

The inside assistance I’d paid so dearly for was excellent as well. The lot passes, completely legit, passed us off as wranglers for an animal act prepping to shoot later that week. The sealed horse trailer packed with gear and guns was smuggled into place a week previously and it was right where it was supposed to be. The blueprints to the studio and the access card to get us through the rear fire doors, what I paid for those is going to put both of an unnamed security guard’s twin daughters through college. Brown or Vassar or some other nice private place too.

My point is, everything was perfect and worth every cent of Manny’s money I spent. Every single cent.

And still, those best-laid plans….

I could hear the rumble of the studio audience over the shrilling of the fire alarm as mi amor and I pushed through the back door two steps behind Roscoe and Joe. The crowd was up and out of their seats, filling the aisles like a thick snake made of people, and moving in an orderly way that was proof they thought this was still a routine fire drill. All eyes were focused toward the exits at the back so no one immediately saw us but the few who remained on stage: Conan, his stupid sidekick--and my foe. Dave Matthews was wearing jeans with a rip in the knee, a T-shirt, a baseball cap, and… flip-flops. There’s no question he deserved what was coming.

At this point, everything was still going as planned. Our next move, which we’d rehearsed countless times on the mock stage we’d built at the compound, was to separate Dave Matthews from the hosts, bag his head, duct tape his hands behind him, and make for the same doors we’d come in through. Then it was into the horse trailer for him and out the gates with the rest of the stampede.

But as we moved toward our target, the plan disintegrated.

I felt more than heard the first shot. It buzzed past my head from behind, close enough to vibrate the skin of my cheek. I saw the results though. Conan’s sidekick, what’s-his-name, did an abrupt backflip over the couch, a spray of blood trailing from the hole that had suddenly appeared in his chest. The security guards backstage on the left had seen our weapons and were firing across the stage, and they obviously weren’t concerned with whom they hit.

At the sound of shots, the crowd turned. Screams rose and the line became a crush as people’s well-maintained discipline broke and they shoved for the exit.

Things were off course, but this wasn’t unexpected. We’d trained for what would happen if we met armed resistance. Roscoe and Joe spun and returned fire with the AR-15s, aiming to make the guards retreat rather than to kill. There was only one death I was after tonight, and we’d planned to keep it that way if possible.

Conan was cowering under his desk as Manuel and I pushed forward, him with his shotgun and me with my .45 Sig Sauer extended at arm’s length, its barrel pointing straight into Dave Matthews’s face. Mi amor had moved behind him, pulled the hood over his head, and, holding the drawstring with his non-shotgun wielding hand, was using it to pull Matthews backward onto the ground when I was hit.

The first bullet slammed into me from behind, my left shoulder exploding with pain as it shattered my collarbone, spinning me to the floor with its impact. The second bullet caught me in the hip as I fell, embedding itself deep, and the third ended up in my right thigh, just barely missing the femoral artery as I was told later.

From my back on the stage floor, I had an upside-down view of Roscoe lying in a pool of blood and Joe sheltering behind him, still snapping off shots at the guards in the wings. The last thing I heard as black crowded in on my vision was the twin clap of Manuel’s over-under as he let loose with both barrels.

As for my plan… I’ll see you in hell, Robert Burns.

Chapter Diez

She returned slowly, from timeless, depthless darkness to fleeting glimpses of pale, blurred light. Sound crept in as the bright periods lengthened--a door opening and closing, a quiet murmur of voices speaking words she could never catch.

And then, nearly a month to the day since she was hurt, her eyes opened, focused, and Alexa was back.

When she first returned, Alexa had no idea where she was. Then she recognized the curtains diffusing the sun that was streaming through the window. She’d sewn those. They’d been meant for the farmhouse she and Manuel were having built on the site of his old home in Mexico. She’d never even seen the house, but the curtains she’d sewn while they were setting up the compound had been sent there, so she assumed that must be where she was.

Rotating her head on the pillow, she saw a man she didn’t know. He was clearly Mexican and was busy packing instruments in a black leather bag. He turned and smiled when he saw she was awake. He helped her get a drink of water from the straw in the glass of water on her bedside table, but he wouldn’t answer any of her questions.

“Choo are very lucky woman,” was all he’d say, other than to tell her Don Flores would be glad to see she was awake.

It was a half hour later that the door to her room opened again and Manuel entered wearing a crisp white apron over his usual jeans and shirt. His boots were dusty, and he appeared happier and more relaxed than Alexa had ever seen him.

Mi angel,” he said, and dropped to his knees beside her bed. For a long time, they merely held onto one other.

Over the next few days Alexa grew stronger and made longer and longer trips from her bed, joining Manuel in the kitchen for breakfast and greeting him in the living room in the evening when he returned to the house from the produce stand he’d erected near the dusty road. He didn’t sell the juicy fruits or vegetables, he told her, but rather gave them away to passersby or local families in need. The produce stand was, she understood, his pride and joy, his generous nature made physical.

They didn’t speak of Jack or Dave Matthews or the raid on the Conan show. She didn’t ask him how he’d managed to not only escape but to get her out too. Nor did she inquire as to the fate of the mercenaries, or whether or not the law was looking to arrest them. They spent those first days of Alexa’s return as a happily married couple, learning more about each other, falling deeper in love, and enjoying every second of it.

Within two months of her reawakening, Alexa was able to walk about the grounds of what had become the Flores estate, moving slowly using a cane and with Manuel holding her elbow for support. That morning, they’d celebrated their first wedding anniversary, one year to the day they’d been married after crossing the border. Manuel had prepared her a breakfast in bed and delivered it on a tray overflowing with fresh cut flowers. Now he was leading her slowly across the front lawn toward what he’d told her was a very special present he’d been saving for quite some time now.

Pausing for frequent rests, they walked in the direction of the stone smokehouse at the edge of the property. Leaving her to stand before the thick wooden door, Manuel stepped forward and used a key from his pocket to unlock the heavy padlock on the door.

Mi regalo para ti, mi ángel,” he said, as the door swung open.

The first thing she noticed was the stench, a wave of rancid food, feces, and despair that almost bowled her over. Then, as her eyes adjusted to the light, she heard him.

“Hey!” he croaked, his voice rusty with disuse. “Hey, lady! Help me out here! My God, please! Help me!”

Chained to the wall of the smokehouse, his jeans tattered and filthy and his face bruised, sat Dave Matthews.

Her mouth slightly agape, Alexa could only stand there looking down, thoughts racing through her head. She stood several moments more, not hearing Dave Matthews pleading below her, unmoving until she felt the warm smooth metal of something Manuel was pressing into her right hand. She looked down and saw the hacksaw he’d given her.

Para su cabeza,” he said, smiling.

Also by Ben Reese



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