This is a short story for our Father’s Day theme in writing club.
“Think of your children.”
He was. That was exactly why he was doing this. “I don’t want to die,” Brian told his partner.
“Really? Because you’re not acting like it.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Go home! Get a different assignment! I’ll talk to the chief –”
“They already know where home is.” He appreciated her concern, truly, but his mind was set. “This way, at least, it’ll end with me.”
“With your death.” She’d said it as a reminder to him, even though he’d been the one to tell her.
A quiet heat settled over stationary car, and Brian’s partner made no attempt to get the AC going. Even rolling the windows down wouldn’t help; the night was too young to push away the heat from the South Texas desert sun.
They both knew the stakes. They’d picked up chatter that Valenzuela was convinced there was a mole in his cartel. Then they’d called Brian. His fate was inevitable.
But not the fate of his daughters.
His partner broke the silence first. “Look, let’s say everything you hope for happens. You go in there, Valenzuela kills you, and it ends there. Your kids already lost their mom. Now you want them to be orphans?” Wanted this? Never.
She’d take care of them, right? “Bethany is turning eighteen soon. They’ll be fine.”
“You’d have her spend her carefree years raising Diana?” Brian’s younger daughter had just turned eleven.
“If it’s a choice between that or Valenzuela killing them to get to me? Yes!” Brian checked his tone, knowing his partner was just trying to protect them all. “Look – I’m just asking you to drop me off, then go and tell my kids. They’ll need a familiar face.”
“They’ll need their father.”
No. As much as his heart begged him to go home for just one more hug, they had no idea how long the cartel had been tracking him. Better not guarantee Valenzuela had their information.
Brian sighed. His partner could complain all she wanted, but his mind was set. “Look, I’ll get all the information I can from him first.” He found the two parts of the listening device in front of the gear shift and handed her the receiver. “Listen as long as you can, but go.”
She accepted it, staring into her hand before saying the word he knew she hated. “Okay.”
Brian let the wire uncoil, tucking it between his belt and pants, all the way around his waist. Not the best sound quality there, but Valenzuela’s men had checked him for wires before, but never there. “Thank you.”
“I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
Brian matched her sigh. “Me too.” With nothing left to say, he put his hand on the door handle, ready to step into the vast, empty night.
“Brian – promise me –”
He turned back to her, waiting for her to finish. “Yes?”
She swallowed. “Promise me you’ll try to survive?”
Of course. Even after all that had happened, he wasn’t suicidal. “I’ll do my best.” But not at the cost presented to him now.
She flicked the receiver on, which obediently recorded and connected to the car. “Good luck.” Her voice came to him in double: one from the car’s driver and the other from its speakers.
Brian only nodded, pulled on the handle, and stepped out.
The reclaimed car was parked in the middle of the desert, mercifully cool in the autumn night. Driving it to the warehouse was loud by comparison. Brian rolled the windows down as he went, cherishing his last few moments of free air.
Would there be death? Certainly. Torture first? Probably. But perhaps he could instill some doubt in the cartel, too. Weaken it from the inside, then let his partner exploit it later. Hopefully.
All too soon, the search lights came into view. Nowhere to hide – not in the empty desert. Valenzuela liked this warehouse location for that very reason.
Brian was sure they spotted him almost immediately. If not by the car, then by the rooster tails of fine sand in his wake.
They didn’t shoot. Not yet. They’d want to know how much information he’d leaked, and to punish him accordingly. A simple shot to the head wouldn’t be enough for Valenzuela. Not for this kind of betrayal. It was too fast.
The lights found and tracked him all the way there.
Brian pulled up, parking the car in its usual spot and stepping out. No welcome party, not this time. Still, he pulled the loaded revolver from under the driver’s seat, checked the hammer was forward, then slid it into his pants at the small of his back. Six rounds wouldn’t be enough to wipe out everyone at the compound, assuming by some miracle Brian would be able to fire even a second shot. No, the gun was simply because it’d send up a read flag sooner if he wasn’t wearing it this time. He had to play ignorant as long as he could, for his partner’s sake.
Armed minions outside didn’t stop him, but the short walk to the main section of the refurbished warehouse was as far as he got. Brian kept to the usual routine, stopping, parting his stance, arms aloft as the inner minions patted him down. They found and left the gun; they were checking for wires.
The warehouse was as tall and vast as four high school gyms. The floor plan was split in thirds by two rows of trucks, all pointed out, at the desert. Half faced north, loaded with cocaine mostly. The other half pointed south, weighed down by firearms.
From the east, Valenzuela turned the corner and headed straight at Brian, flanked by the only other two members of the cartel that still outranked Brian. Strange to have them all in the same place at the same time, but after last week, this was a special occasion. Valenzuela was rubbing his fingers and inspecting them as he walked.
With the three men approaching, and the two men who had just patted Brian down, they looked almost evenly matched. Except they’d all happily obliterate Brian in an instant, either out of a personal vendetta – such was Carlos’s case – or the simple act of obeying would keep them in Valenzuela’s good graces just a while longer.
Brian adopted a slight Boston accent as soon as Valenzuela was within earshot. “What d’ya want?”
“You should speak to me with more respect,” Valenzuela commented, eyes lingering on his fingertips a moment longer. Then, casually, he looked up to Brian. “You owe me a great deal.”
“No one’s arguing that,” Brian countered. Valenzuela admired honesty above all else, so Brian had designed his cover story to be blunt, verging on rude. “But you pulled me away from a project.”
“This is more important, I assure you.”
They stood in silence for a moment, half challenge, half patience. Brian wouldn’t speak next, though. He wanted the air practically begging to be filled with information.
Valenzuela broke the quiet. “Are you aware we have a mole in the operation?”
He was just going to come out and say it? Okay, then. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t. After last week? Someone talked, that’s for damn sure.”
Valenzuela showed the surprise he must have expected Brian to answer with. Still, he stifled it by putting his chin over his left shoulder. “Carlos here thinks it’s you.” He wasn’t wrong.
Brian snorted. “And I think Carlos is a damn liar.” Whoever smelt it, dealt it, as Diana might say.
“Pendejo,” Carlos shot back.
Brian pretended not to understand. His cover story didn’t include Spanish, which allowed the established members of the cartel to talk “safely” in his presence.
“You’re on American soil right now,” Brian snapped. “Speak English.”
Carlos was more than happy to announce his accusations. “You went to the ATF office. I saw you.”
Not just the tracker, then. An actual tail. Who else had seen? At least it wasn’t Valenzuela himself. Brian needed an ally, so he turned his attention to the one actually in charge.
“Don’t tell me you believe him.”
Valenzuela was slow to respond. Too slow. “Are you telling me he’s wrong?” Something in Valenzuela’s tone struck Brian oddly. Not just a challenge. It was more like he already knew the truth, but was waiting for Brian to deny it.
So he didn’t. “I did go in.” Brian kept his gaze on Valenzuela. “I applied.”
Guns clicked around him as they went from resting by sides to trained on Brian.
Valenzuela, on the other hand, seemed to relax at the new confession. “You wanted to be a double agent for us?”
If Valenzuela bought the story, it would make Brian the triple agent, technically. Brian could only hope. “Unless you already have someone I don’t know about?” The accusation was mostly for his partner’s benefit.
“It could be useful,” Timothy whispered in Spanish from over Valenzuela’s other shoulder.
The leader didn’t respond, but the comment was enough to confirm no double agents already existing inside the ATF.
Instead of answering, Valenzuela addressed Brian, back in English. “Why should I believe you?”
Good question. “Because Carlos is a moron?”
The accused lifted his gun – a boxy but sturdy Glock – sideways, with one hand pointing it directly at Brian’s head. The shooting stance was weak, but it wouldn’t matter from this distance.
Still, Brian matched him, pulling his own revolver and cocking the hammer before finishing the movement.
As they squared off, it wasn’t lost on him that Carlos’s gun was more similar to his own service weapon than the one in Brian’s own hand.
Valenzuela leaned to Timothy, giving his order in Spanish. “Take it.”
It was a test of Brian’s loyalty to let him disarm him. For a brief moment, Brian considered pulling the trigger. Six rounds, five targets. It was possible. Unlikely, but all four of the armed men were in each other’s line of fire. The hesitation might buy another two shots after the first, if Brian was fast enough.
That left two targets remaining, likely the men behind Brian, now without allies in their range. A textbook crossfire. Brian wasn’t that fast.
Better to keep Valenzuela talking. So he let Timothy take his gun, allowing an appropriate amount of hesitation and confusion to maintain the illusion that Brian hadn’t understood the order in Spanish.
“That’s better.” Valenzuela was back to addressing Brian. He pressed his goatee flat for a moment, pondering, then accepted Brian’s gun from Timothy. “What do I do with you?”
“Give me back my gun and I’ll save your operation before your mole destroys it,” Brian suggested.
“Or we can kill him, cut our losses, and move on,” Carlos offered, eyes on his boss but gun still on Brian.
“A test,” Timothy suggested. A reasonable compromise, and one Brian welcomed, even if he couldn’t show it. Passing a test meant he might be able to earn his life back after all.
Valenzuela turned his head, addressing Timothy but keeping his eyes on Brian. “The girl?”
Girl? What girl? Had they caught his partner? That didn’t make sense. They’d have to have brought her here after him, in which case he’d have seen their approach. No, the girl had arrived before him.
“That’s the idea,” Timothy responded.
“Okay. You – and Carlos – go get her. Bring her to us.”
Both men flanking Valenzuela obeyed, with only a little hesitation from Carlos.
But, as far as they knew, Brian didn’t understand the ominous order. “I’ll take my coffee black!” he called after them. He half expected Carlos to flip him off, but both men just ignored Brian entirely.
Valenzuela was pondering Brian’s gun. “Did you come here to kill me?”
“No.” Brian could answer honestly in that, at least. “Do you plan on not paying me?”
“I haven’t decided.” Valenzuela pondered Brian’s gun a moment longer, then thumbed the center cylinder of the revolver open.
“Are we negotiating?” Brian asked.
Valenzuela pulled at one of the rounds as he answered. “Negotiating? No. That would imply you have something to offer and I have something to lose.” He changed fingers and finally managed to pluck the round out. Without looking, he dropped it unceremoniously on the ground. It clanked, echoing ominously in the massive room.
“Anything you want, I can make that happen,” Brian offered. “Just say the word.”
Two more clinks on the polished concrete. That put the gun at half-empty.
“I want the traitor dead.” The mole, he knew Valenzuela was saying. He wanted Brian dead.
Which meant thinking quickly to maintain his cover. “Mole? You think there’s just one?” Brian started to move closer, but it only took a glare from Valenzuela to stall his step. “What do you think I’ve been working on?” Leaking information to the ATF. “Not leaking information to those damn Yankees.”
Another two rounds landed on the ground between them.
“We’ll know soon enough.” Valenzuela clicked the cylinder back in place and spun it. That last round was for the girl, it would seem.
Brian pushed his alternate explanation of events while he had Valenzuela to himself. “Best I can tell, there’s not just one traitor. There are five on the inside.” That information would mean something different to his partner, still listening through Brian’s belt, than it would to Valenzuela. “Kinda looks like Carlos is one of them.”
Valenzuela made no attempt to hide his surprise. He didn’t say anything, instead thumbing the cylinder in a way that came across as half-anticipation, half fidgeting.
Brian pressed his influence while he had the chance. “That’s why you brought me on, remember? No history. No allegiances. Fresh eyes.” His was intentionally quoting Valenzuela, forcing him to recal a time when he trusted Brian.
“We shall see.” Valenzuela didn’t say anything more, but instead continued to fidget with Brian’s gun for another full minute of silence. It didn’t matter where the cylinder landed; the gun would find the loaded chamber and fire the round on the first pull.
That silence was broken by the clanging of a door deeper in the warehouse, promptly followed by a series of curt screams. A struggle.
A girl’s screams.
As the sounds made their way around the northern row of trucks, Brian tried to imagine who they belonged to. An American, he decided. If ever the cartel trafficked people, they offloaded the Mexicans as quickly as possible, but kept the American girls until they could fetch the best price. They wouldn’t risk being caught harboring a Mexican on this side of the border.
Every thought – and his own blood – drained from his head as he saw the girl’s face.
They had his eldest daughter? Here? Everything he’d feared – everything he’d come here to avoid – had already happened. She was too wonderful for this mess: a soccer player with better-than-average grades, and a perfect protector and teacher to her sister. His only complaint as a father might be that she’d always been too smart for her own good.
How had they managed to catch her? Even if they’d found her by following him, he had taught her to be aware of her surroundings. To not be a victim.
Apparently Brian’s teachings had failed her.
Bethany hadn’t noticed him yet. She was still hugged from behind as Timothy half-carried her down the long walk. She was screaming and kicking so much that her feet barely touched the ground.
Then Valenzuela’s plan caught up with him. Brian’s test wouldn’t be determined by any responses he could give. His innocence depended on her. If she recognized him, especially as her daddy, the game was up. Brian needed to relay that to her. But how?
The men behind him had their semi-automatics attached by straps over their shoulders for the express purpose of being difficult to steal. The only possible weapon was the one in Valenzuela’s hand.
Five rounds on the ground. At best, one left in the gun. That was assuming the sly overlord hadn’t palmed it. Either way, stealing it meant they’d know his true allegiances.
Brian stood no chance stopping them all before they killed both himself and his daughter. Himself he could accept. He’d come knowing that.
But not Bethany.
Then a terrifying silence smothered the warehouse. She’d recognized him.
Act know, or they’d both be dead. “Who the hell is this?” Brian half-shouted, choosing to address Carlos instead of Valenzuela for no other reason than to guarantee Bethany heard him.
She was smart. She knew what her daddy did, and even helped him lie about it to her little sister.
But she’d never been literally under the gun about it before.
Bethany stared at him a little too long before forcing her eyes to Carlos. “Let me go.” Terror was evident in every syllable, but also courage.
Brian stifled his pride.
Valenzuela rolled Brian’s gun in his hand until he held it by the barrel, offering it to Brian.
Brian saw where this was headed, and didn’t like it. “This –” Brian still grabbed the gun, wondering if Valenzuela had left that last round in it or not. For now he had to treat it as both unloaded and loaded. Schrödinger’s gun. “This is your test? To see if I’d shoot a little girl?”
Valenzuela finally spoke again. “Carlos tells me this is your daughter.”
“Carlos is an idiot.”
“Prove it,” Carlos snarled. “If you are who you say you are, you won’t hesitate.” His gaze lowered into a leering glare. “But you’ve already hesitated.”
Brian stepped toward Carlos, but Valenzuela shifted his weight. It was enough of a sign to the entire cartel that he wouldn’t allow bickering.
“That’s because I think, Carlos,” Brian accused, tapping the front of the gun against his own temple. “I shoot her now, then what? We dump her body in the middle of the desert?” That concept turned his stomach more than holding a loaded gun to his own head. “When they find her body – they will find it – they’ll also find the ballistics for my gun. So we dump her where they won’t find her – in Mexico. Do you want to cross the border with the body of a cute, missing, blonde, American girl in the trunk? Because I don’t. Might as well piss away my freedom right here on the cocaine.”
Carlos was as quick to retort as he was to accuse. “You’ve never had trouble shooting people before.” Brian wished he hadn’t said that in front of Bethany.
“That’s because nobody cares if some asshole gangbanger dies. Bad guys kill bad guys. Fact of life. But they’re gonna come looking for her killer. For me.”
“She’s seen this place,” Valenzuela reminded Brian. They couldn’t let her go, much as Brian needed her safe.
Brian locked eyes with his daughter a moment, hoping she trusted him. Hoping whatever luck Brian had accumulated in his life could be spent in this one night. Hoping she’d survive.
“We let the desert kill her, then. There’s nothing for a hundred miles in any direction.” Except his partner, out there, listening to every word. “Just sand. She can’t get to civilization quick enough. She runs, she dehydrates herself faster and dies sooner. When they find her body, all evidence will point to natural causes. A runaway run too far. A pity, but no crime. No investigation.”
Bethany clearly didn’t understand. But she also didn’t say protest.
“You just want her to survive,” Carlos accused.
Double or nothing.
Brian tossed his revolver to his left hand to show his empty right palm to Carlos. “Give me your gun and I’ll shoot her now. The feds will come looking for you.” Brian half-hoped he’d agree. With a full gun and a little bit of cover, he just might be able to satisfy his primal fury and kill them all.
But, unlike Brian’s accusations, Carlos was smarter than that. “He’s trying to trick us,” he told Valenzuela.
“How? You think I can magically summon a friend to drive out in the middle of the desert – in the middle of the night – to pick up some stranger’s kid?”
Timothy’s eyes finally left Bethany to look Brian up and down. “He can if he’s wearing a wire.” Exactly Brian’s plan.
Brian looked to Valenzuela to translate, which he did. Sort of. “Take off your shirt.”
“Oh, now Timothy wants to get kinky?”
Carlos raised his gun back Brian’s direction. “Take. It. Off.”
“Okay, okay.” He tucked his gun back into his pants, put a hand on either hip and lifted his shirt off, confident they wouldn’t see the wire. They watched TV, and expected the wire to be down his front, not under his belt.
Carlos stepped forward, moving his gun to his offhand – directly at Bethany – to pull Brian’s ears forward and check behind. The gun was within reach, but the risk to his daughter was too great.
“Shoes,” Carlos demanded. Guess again, asshole.
Brian obeyed. “You want me naked before you’re satisfied?” He wasn’t sure Carlos caught the double entendre there.
The man’s eyes floated down, to where he’d be able to see the wire if he had x-ray vision. Fortunately it was thin and invisible behind the belt. “The –”
“Enough, Carlos.” Valenzuela spoke with enough authority to silence the room. He even had Bethany’s attention before he turned to Brian. “Kill her and we can get on with business.”
“The mole –” Carlos started.
“Will be dealt with,” Valenzuela finished, speaking over his shoulder without looking. Then his eyes locked with Brian’s. “Be done with it.” And kill his own daughter.
Not a chance. “Gladly.” He looked to Bethany, deciding to project coldness instead of cruelty. “Come.”
Bethany burst into tears, a sight that stopped Brian’s heart.
But he managed to keep his feet moving.
“Please,” she begged.
He’d give her the moon, if he could. “Shut up,” he snapped. He’d only been that unkind to her once before, when she’d pleaded with him to dance after he’d had a hard day. It was safe to say that, if he regretted the words then, he hated himself for those words now.
A stupid hope soared in him. Would Carlos leave them alone? Just long enough for a reassuring hug and maybe a kiss on the top of her hair. But they weren’t so lucky, so Brian had to keep acting all the way to the door.
The instant he opened it, greeted again by the dry night, Bethany turned back to him, still visibly crying in the starlight. “Please don’t make me.” She wasn’t acting.
If she didn’t understand now, hopefully she’d find it in herself to forgive him later. “You want nice? Okay. I’ll give you a ten-minute head start. Then I’ll let the dogs out.” He could only hope she was sound enough of mind to remember the skies. They’d only talked about Sirius – the single-star constellation represented by a dog – last week. “You keep the dogs directly behind you and you run, then maybe you’ll last a little longer.” That’d point her directly at his partner, and point her at Bethany.
Bethany managed to collect her breath. “Can I have a gun? They used to give pirates –”
Carlos almost laughed. “So you can shoot us?” And get herself shot in the process? Brian had to agree with Carlos on this one, if for very different reasons.
“Look at me,” Brian demanded, grabbing his daughter roughly by the shoulders.
But she’d gone small, eyes on her tennis shoes.
“I said look.”
She obeyed, cheeks still streaming in a sight Brian wouldn’t forget for the rest of his days, however numbered they were.
“Remember my face. Look. Memorize it. Because when you’re out there, alone in the desert, dying of thirst, I want you to remember me.”
Bethany swallowed and nodded, lip curling in a poor attempt at a sneer. “I’ll remember.”
Carlos was looking at his watch. “Nine minutes until we release the dogs.” Little did he know he was merely reminding her of her heading.
Bethany turned her back on them and took a slow, brave step onto the sand.
Then she froze.
It had only been about twenty seconds when Carlos spoke again. “Eight and a half.”
Why wasn’t she running? Brian desperately hoped she wasn’t considering some stupid attempt at bravery.
So he pulled his revolver and shot his only round into the sand at his daughter’s heels. “Go!” he shouted as the echo of the shot faded into open sky.
He was sealing his own fate with the act, but it was worth it to see her run into the desert and to safety.
Valenzuela had crossed a line by kidnapping Bethany. Now Brian had nothing to stop him from crossing it back.