“You’ll just have to kill me if you don’t believe me. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Her wrists were tied to the arms of the chair with knotted rope. His eyes darkened and she saw a flash of a grin, then emotionless again. He would kill her without a second thought. The smell of mildew and burnt rubber forced its way through her nose and into her brain. He rose from his chair and walked over to her. He removed a lighter from his pocket and lit it.
“Oh you’ll talk,” he said, bringing the lighter down toward her hand. He moved it back and forth across her fingers, first quickly and then slower and slower until it started to burn…
Suzanne recoiled her hand from the hot pot on the stove. She stuck her burned fingers in her mouth and looked down to see the stew boiling over the edge, putting out the fire and turning the stove into a mess. The rescue of Veronica Mendoza would have to wait.
“Mom! I need to leave in 10 minutes, are you gonna have dinner ready soon?” said Brooklyn from the top of the stairs. “Jayden just texted that everyone’s supposed to eat before they come over.”
The timer on the oven read 15 minutes left for the bread-bowls and the soup still wasn’t right. It needed something. It mostly tasted like blended tomatoes.
“Yeah, hun, just a few minutes.”
She had forgotten that Brooke’s movie night was tonight. If only she had started dinner right when she got home from work instead of trying to piece together the climax of her novel. Veronica had finished a draft of her in-depth undercover editorial on homeless parents in Los Angeles on the back of paper bags while scavenging for leftovers behind a Whole Foods to cook a meal delicious enough to land an exclusive one-on-one interview with the Dalai Lama who—”
“What are you staring at?”
Suzanne jumped. Brooklyn had walked up right behind her. The scare embarrassed her. So uncool. Veronica would have heard, like she heard Guillermo come up to her in the bar in Acapulco. A smirk crept across her face as she placed the straw to her lips. “You got no class Billy boy. You gonna interrupt a girl in the middle of a margarita?” she said without turning, catching his eye in the mirror over the bar…
“Oh dear, we need to put a bell on you!” Suzanne said and forced a chuckle.
Brooke looked at the ceiling with her eyes and said, “So Jayden decided we should watch a new movie instead, so just package up whatever you’re making because we gotta go to the theater like right now. It starts in 20 minutes.”
“Well I could put some soup in a tupperware for you, you’ll just have to be care–”
“Do you see what I’m wearing? How do you expect me to risk eating soup in the car? Just give me the bread bowl.”
“They’re not done yet.”
“Ugh. Fine. Just give me some money and I’ll buy something at the theater.”
“I’m sorry Brooklyn.”
“Whatever Mom, let’s go.”
The car bumped along, the passengers silent. The blood was just starting to drip down Guillermo’s head. She could see it from the back seat as he drove. It looked like a red snake slithering down a boulder—gradual yet persistent.
Suzanne wiped the drips off the side of the container. No one would touch the rest of it, but it felt like a waste to throw it away. The fridge was packed. She managed to squeeze it into the bottom shelf and shut the door. The bread bowl was good and she picked at it, staring out the window.
The way Brooke had torn the twenty out of her hand. How long had she acted like this? She knew she wasn’t great at the regular mom-stuff, but she tried. Recognition, that’s all she desired. If Brooke would just say “Mom you’re pretty good at juggling your job and your responsibilities at home. Not to mention the progress you’ve made on your book.”
Through the window, she could only see the fuzzy shape of objects in the dying light. This was why Guillermo hadn’t bothered to blindfold her. By day, she could have followed the route, even after only two weeks in town. By night, she was helpless. But not alone. Julio would get to the bar soon and realize what her absence meant. He knew she was getting too close to El Conquisto. He would assume the worst and he would find her. He needed her.
Suzanne blinked. And blinked again. The running water mirrored her thoughts as a plan flowed through her mind. If she wanted to be valued like Julio valued Veronica, she’d have to show her daughter how much she needed her, how everything would fall apart without her there.
Instead of cleaning up the mess in the kitchen—the crusted baking sheet, the overflowing trash, the thick red blotches of tomato sauce on the stove and counters and backsplash—she walked into the living room and made more mess, pushing over a chair and clearing the clutter off the coffee table onto the carpet. There was a drawer in the table by the door where they kept the keys. She opened it, took out the keys, then pulled the drawer out and dropped its contents on the floor. Her hand was on the doorknob when she paused. Then grinning, she stepped out into the night, leaving the door ajar.
Outside, there were bright lights shining in her eyes. She could see a chain link fence and counted four men. Two of them grabbed and held her, the others just shined their flashlights. Guillermo led their group into the compound, then out left past two buildings, around a small bonfire of tires, and downstairs into a musty basement. They tied her up and left the room. There was a figure sitting in the shadows in front of her. She already knew who he was and what he would say.
“Mom where have you been, I’ve been so worried about you. I didn’t know what to do without you here….It’s alright now honey, Mommy’s here for you….I never realized how much I love you Mom until I thought I’d lost you….Now now Brookie, I know you love me, you just needed to see the light. A little push in the right direction….Never leave me again Mom, I need you.”
She figured she had walked long enough. The night had cooled and she had no jacket. Brooklyn would be getting dropped off any moment now. She could picture her walking up the drive and turning the corner to see the door ajar. Her cute dimples disappearing as her jaw dropped. Her little knees crumpling under her. The entire neighborhood there to console her in her devastated state. Suzanne brought her hand to her mouth. Her steps quicken–click, click, click. It was still and silent. The wind stung her eyes. They started to water. She started to run–clack, clack, clack.
She could hear it, a commotion outside the building, the crackle of gunfire. Julio. He would not have come alone. But how quickly could he have gathered all of Los Leones? They had started to utilize her investigation to form a plan of attack, so she knew they valued her too, but De La Cruz was not a man of impulse but of strategy; he would be resistant to make such a dramatic move, especially to aid an outsider. How many would follow Julio anyway? How many adored him as he adored her?
She would never know. The door was still ajar and the mess still made. There was no sign of Brooklyn. She’d made it back before her. She must still be having fun with her friends.
She looked around the room and thought of everything there was to do. The drawer and the papers and the chair and the kitchen mess. The laundry and the shower and the bedspread and the garage mess. She released a breath she had noticed was stalled in her lungs. She picked up the drawer and saw a chip in its surface. She fingered it as she stared off into space.
The door opened with force. From her prison in the chair, she could not see the door. She felt the rush of cool air and then the door shut again with a thud. She craned her neck in an attempt to see and the form of a man appeared in her periphery. Something was wrong. Julio wouldn’t have walked in so casually; he would have come in guns blazing. The man took the last few steps into her vision and she saw it was Guillermo.
“The insurgents have been taken care of sir. We have identified each individual of the raiding party as a member of Los Leones. But no sign of the leader De La Cruz.”
“Now is the time to strike in retaliation. Their foolish plan has weakened them,” he said, “which means we don’t need her anymore.”
She put the keys back inside the draw and closed it. The chair, righted. The papers, collected and thrown away. She had to scrub hard to remove the dried spots on the counter.
“I can help you!” Veronica said. She wasn’t so cool now. She was desperate. “I know about De La Cruz. I know their plans!”
El Conquisto just laughed. He pulled out his gun and shot Veronica in the heart.
The door swung open. Someone was here, but too little too late.
“Mom, I’m home! Oh my god, you’ve got to see this movie, you would totally love it! It’s all about this cool writer who gets all tied up with an underground Mexican drug cartel.”