This is the opening chapter of my WIP. It is a romance/adventure.
Peaceful bird sounds plied the desert air as three men faced off in tense silence, mocking the sense of imminent danger surrounding them. They stood on the wide shoulder of the deserted highway, unaware of the thin, pale pink and purple ribbon illuminating the horizon, signaling the barest hint of a new day.
Juan stood facing the two men as they silently took stock of him. It was cold, yet heat consumed him. He could feel the sweat gathered under his arms and his pectoral muscles. Somewhere in the last week, the deal he thought would be his ticket out of this hellhole had gone horribly wrong. No one spoke for several minutes. Juan gulped air into his lungs as if rising to the surface after a long swim underwater and broke the silence. He spoke in rapid New Mexican Spanish.
"Diego, you have to believe me," he said desperately, sinking to his knees. "The money was supposed to be there. I don't know what happened, I swear to you, I will talk with Chico and make it right! Please, Diego, give me another chance."
Diego Reyes was an elegant Latino gentleman of short stature with impeccable taste in clothing, a bloodline he could trace back to the conquistadors, and ownership of the largest drug cartel in New Mexico. He gazed down at the young man before him, his cold eyes glimmering .
"You think I like this, Juan? You think this is what I want? I gave you my trust. A precious thing. I give you something, I expect you to make good on it. I expect you to give me what I am due." He looked down at his shoe and flicked his toe to dislodge a desert beetle that had crawled over it. He narrowed his eyes at Juan. "I cannot let this pass without retribution. In this business, mistakes can be costly, and a reputation is vital. I am sorry, mi amigo. This is painful for me as well."
He calmly pulled a small but lethal-looking knife from the holster under his Armani suit coat and touched the point lovingly with the tip of his finger. He looked Juan in the eyes. The sadness had been replaced with a blackness. There was no anger, no emotion. Only cold blackness and judgement. Recoiling at the revelation of this man's true heart, Juan whimpered unconsciously as any man might do when he faces imminent death. He squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered with despair.
Diego lunged and grabbed Juan's hair as if he intended to take his scalp and placed the blade within an eyelash of Juan's left eye. Then he froze, a cold, dead smile on his face. Juan realized with dawning horror that Diego liked this, actually relished this. He would drag out Juan's terror and emotional distress as if he were feasting on a meal so delicious he did not want it to end.
A slight shift from the other member of this desert death scene caused Diego to pause in irritation. He did not like to be interrupted when he was playing with victims. Juan barely shifted his eyes, still rigid with fear in Diego's hands. The man who stopped the torment, Diego's right hand, was an enigma. Taller than Diego by at least eight inches, and broad in the shoulders, he was solid and muscular, with inky black hair that was a little too long, and the bronzed skin of his Spanish forebears. His coffee-colored eyes stared out from a rugged chiseled face. Juan only knew him as El Escorpion, which was not unusual in the business they were in. Many adopted street names when they operated on the outskirts of civil society. Juan also knew that The Scorpion had a reputation that lived up to his namesake. He was lethal in a fight and struck quickly, without remorse.
Gazing at this man now, Juan recognized that killer instinct in those eyes, but there was something else, something he couldn't name or even describe. He reached out for it instinctively, and he felt a tiny glimmer of hope.
"Why not take advantage of this?" The Scorpion spoke quietly, but he commanded the attention of the other men. At Diego's blank look, he added, "He is stupid and not worth the effort it would take to kill him, but he might be useful. Chico lives in Bertram, up the road. Small town, off the radar. Business could be good there. Let Juan set up a meeting with Chico. We get the money, add Bertram to the distribution network, and teach Chico a lesson."
Juan could see the greed swirling in Diego's black eyes. He knew that the Scorpion had struck a chord with his boss. Juan released a breath slowly and looked pleadingly at Diego. Diego leaned over Juan once more, reluctant to give up his game. In Diego's face, Juan could see the avarice in his heart battling with his wish to inflict pain. Diego paused for one more tense second, then released Juan's head from his grasp and shoved him to the ground. With a look of disgust, he wiped Juan's sweat from his hands with a silk handkerchief, but he kept the knife in his hand. The Scorpion remained as he was, legs crossed, arms crossed, leaning against Diego's Mercedes, calm as if he were observing a casual business meeting in a company boardroom. His dusty leather jacket and jeans were a stark contrast to the fastidiousness of his boss. Juan rested his forehead in the dirt and trembled with thankfulness. Diego turned slightly and clapped his right hand man on the shoulder.
"An excellent idea, amigo." He skewered Juan with that same black deadness as before. "Juan, you will do what he says and arrange this meeting. And I swear to you, if something goes wrong this time, I will cut out your heart and feed it to your own mother."
With those words, he flicked the razor sharp knife with full force straight down into Juan's foot, pinning it to the ground underneath. At the man's startled scream, the lustful gleam returned to those dead eyes and he smiled in triumph. Casually, he opened his car door and slid into a backseat wrapped in expensive leather.
The Scorpion never reacted during all of this. Once Diego was in the car, he quickly grasped the knife and yanked it from Juan's foot, ignoring? Juan's moan of pain. He grabbed Juan under the arm and hauled him to his feet. Juan seemed unable to get his trembling legs to move, so the Scorpion half dragged, half carried him to his truck and tossed him into the seat. When the Scorpion closed the door, Juan put his arm out and gave what he hoped was a look of profound thanks to the man who had just saved his life.
"Just set up the meeting. Call me when you have details." The Scorpion walked away with an easy lethal grace in his step. His steps were slow and deliberate until he heard the roar of the truck and felt the rush of red dust against his skin as it sped away down the highway. For a moment he paused, his expression blank, only a squaring of the shoulders and a slight tick in his jaw to indicate any emotion inside. Then, he lifted his chin, eyes squinting toward the rising sun in the direction of the sleepy little town of Bertram. It was time for this to end. With a deep breath, he slid into the driver's seat of Diego's car, wiped the knife and tossed the handkerchief out the window, and returned the blade back to the killer it belonged to. Then he cranked the engine and sped west on that same highway toward the purple darkness that still enveloped the sky.
How insane does a person have to be to leave everything familiar and travel clear across the country to start over? Emma silently asked herself that question for the millionth time as she navigated her way down the hall of Bertram Middle School. Yup, pretty crazy, she thought for the million and first time as she slung the enormous "Mary Poppins" tote--full of papers to grade, lesson plans, curriculum materials, her trusty Chromebook, and every other item?she might possibly need--over her shoulder, causing her to walk lopsided. Thank God it was Friday! "Hey, Char," she called as she stopped in the main office to check her box one more time. Char, short for Charlene, but don't let her catch you calling her that, had been kind and friendly to Emma when she joined the faculty back in August, helping her settle in and get used to a new school, a new environment, and a new state. Emma was thankful for the friendship, and appreciated her friend more every day. Even though Emma had family there in town, and had visited several times over the years, it wasn't the same as living there. Nope, not the same at all.
Char smiled. "Hey. You got plans for the weekend?"
"Just taking my sister out to the Bottomless Lakes"
"Neat place. Have fun!
The people here weren't used to her way of talking. Coming from the Lowcountry of South Carolina to the southeastern desert of New Mexico had been a cultural shock for sure. One of the biggest adjustments had been putting up with people's desire to hear her speak.
"Just say something!" they would tell her. "We just love to hear you talk." Little did they realize that she got a big kick out of listening to them speak, too. In this part of New Mexico, western culture and vernacular was alive and well...and a West Texas "twang" was something to appreciate.
Emma slung her stuff into the back seat and slid into the front seat of her little Toyota. Trusty Maria wasn't flashy but she got Emma where she needed to go. She glanced at the sky and shivered just a little before starting the engine of her car. The late October air was starting to chill down and, since this was the desert, there was nothing to stop the wind. It blew constantly. Something else to get used to.
As she drove home through the streets of Bertram, an old song came on the radio and she fought to catch her breath as her throat closed instinctively. It was her ex's favorite. The music triggered memories, unbidden, to play in her mind. It was like a cheesy Lifetime Network movie. Married too young to 'Prince Charming'. Young and stupid, that's what I was! She winced slightly as the song continued. I should have payed attention to the signs. I should have left the first time he...God, the whole thing was such a cliche. At least I had enough sense to finish college.
The song reached its crescendo in a cacophony of sound as that fateful day replayed in her head.
"Hey," Blake said as he flung his keys on the counter, took off his tacky Burger Buddy tie and plopped down on the couch. When he didn't get a response, he looked over at Emma. "What's the matter with you?" He got up and walked into the kitchen.
Emma glared at him. He was handsome, she admitted to herself. He had those pretty-boy eyes, but his once athletic physique had softened and turned slightly doughy. There was a harshness in his face she hadn't seen. Or didn't want to see, she thought bitterly.
"You know what's the matter." She was so angry, she was trembling. "You didn't delete the messages off the answering machine."
Blake froze briefly, popping the cap on his beer and turning back toward her.
"I heard it all, Blake! Every nasty little detail! It's pretty obvious that you...you're having an affair." She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.
He rushed toward her and gripped her shoulders. "Baby, you know I love you. It didn't mean anything. She threw herself at me. I got caught up in the moment. It's over, and..."
Emma stepped back and wriggled from his grasp. "No, Blake. Enough! It's not like this hasn't happened before. I'm done. You hear me? Done!"
She turned on her heel to get her suitcase from where she'd set it near the door, only to be hurled backward onto the floor with a sickening thud. Blake rose above her with such a look of rage that Emma quaked with fear. He leaned down nose to nose with her and snarled in her face.
"You fat bitch," he taunted. "If you weren't such a loser for a wife, maybe I wouldn't have to look around so much. You think you're so much better with your college degree. Fucking whore is what you are. Fucking..." He raised his fist and hit her so hard she was knocked almost senseless. With lights flashing behind her eyes and darkness threatening to overwhelm her, she fought with waning strength to get away, but he slammed her back on the floor and hit her again.
She didn't remember anything after that. Later she woke up with a cracked rib and too many painful bruises and cuts to count. More than her body was broken that day. Funny. your heart really can break, and there is actual physical pain when it does.
The DJ's voice brought Emma back to the present. She shook her head. This is now, she reminded herself. Her family made a new start here in the desert after her dad's retirement, and here's where she was making her own new start. Part of that was steering clear of relationships. She had learned her lesson and wanted nothing to do with men. Nope. Not at all. Maybe never again.