A DESPERATE SILENCE

A Desperate Silence

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The girl gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Her fingers were pale where knuckles stretched skin, her arms were thin as sticks. Bones–not flesh–defined her body. Toes on toes, her bare feet pressed the accelerator flush against the Honda’s floorboard. Her head scarcely topped the dashboard, but she saw the narrow horizon of blacktop change suddenly to desert and barbed wire. Raising a wake of dust, the car hurtled headlong off the highway toward a fence. Gravel smacked the windshield.

As the fence loomed closer, the world careened past the moving car–low trees, jutting rocks, rolling terrain. The child’s chest heaved, but all sound of her breathing was smothered by a song blaring from the radio. The music rose tinnily above the rattle of loose metal and the high-pitched whine of hot engine.

The girl jerked the steering wheel to the left, straining her muscles, frantic when the vehicle didn’t respond the way Paco had taught her it would. She was sure the car would crash and she would die in flames and twisted metal. For an instant, she imagined giving in to the black night. But she was a fighter, and so she focused the last reserves of her energy on steering the car. Finally, she felt the shudder of tires forced back onto the hard surface of the road.

Dim yellow headlamps filled the rearview mirror, and the child’s heartbeat stuttered. It was el demonio, the demon–with his dark hungry face. The lights glowed like the eyes of a crazy animal. A sudden memory jolted through her mind: fingernails scratching her neck just as Paco’s strong arms pulled her from the demon’s reach.

But there were no grown-ups with her now–and no safe place. Just the yellow glowing eyes of her pursuer growing larger in the rearview mirror.

Blood smeared the girl’s cheek and lip. Dried blood where she had slammed her cheek against metal, fresh blood where she bit her lip in fright. A deep blue-black bruise darkened the inside of her left thigh. Beneath the delicate chain and the silver medallion around her neck, the skin was red and scratched where the demon had torn at her with long cold fingers.

Suddenly, there was a new danger–bright flashing lights in front of the Honda–coming at her! These lights snaked across the road, blocking her path. The child was trapped. Her eyes opened wide, and panic stole her breath away.

What was it? A truck A bridge? A train!

She swerved the Honda and hit the brakes again–but too hard. The car went into a skid, across the road toward barbed wire and tracks. She couldn’t escape the metal snout of the train engine.

A cry of terror escaped the child’s mouth, just as a fat hunter’s moon broke over the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. The moon’s glow suffused the night sky. She whispered the first words of the prayer.

Our Mother, Nuestra Madre–

And then she squeezed her eyes shut as a solid wall of moving metal caught the front end of the Honda. The noise of rending metal and a shower of sparks raked the night as the train pushed the car fifty yards along the track.

The dark green Chevrolet Suburban slowed on U.S. 285 just south of Lamy, New Mexico, and Lorenzo Santos Portrillo tried to make sense of what he’d just witnessed: the Honda had collided with a train. He peered out into the moonlit desert, straining to locate the ruined car, to gauge the seriousness of the accident. What he saw was an illuminated mess of smoke and dust and twisted metal roughly a quarter mile away. Directly ahead, the stalled train blocked the road.

His eyes were invisible in the unlit interior of the vehicle. His even white teeth were clenched. The scent of citrus cologne clashed with the uncharacteristic tang of nervous sweat and blood. Despite his agitation, Lorenzo’s physical movements remained tightly controlled, but his mind refused to harness information with its usual discipline. He’d seen a ghost tonight; at first he believed she’d returned from the grave to do him evil.

But her terror had persuaded him she was merely human.

Renzo eased his foot off the accelerator, letting the Suburban coast. He was focused on the flashing lights of the train, and he almost failed to register a car, hazard lights blinking, pulling off the side of the road opposite the scene of the accident.

The warning message squeezed through to his consciousness: more people to deal with tonight. They were crossing the road, shining flashlights over the terrain as they approached the crash.

Was the girl alive or dead?

Lorenzo drove slowly. In the time it took the Suburban to cover the last eighth of a mile, a man–lantern in hand–swung himself down from the train and darted toward the wrecked Honda. The car had been crushed by the train’s massive engine.

Lorenzo’s gloved fingers grazed his steering wheel; the gloves were cheap leather throwaways. On his left wrist, the thick silver bracelet–etched with the face of Serpent Skirt–was smeared with Paco’s blood.

The blood had a dull sheen visible even in the darkness of the car. He remembered to check his face in the rearview mirror. When he briefly snapped on the overhead light, he saw the droplet of blood above his lip. He wiped the stain away.

The Suburban vibrated as its right tires ate soft shoulder less than a hundred feet from the wreck. The beams of the car’s headlights illuminated weeds and a downed barbed-wire fence. A discarded plastic bag, caught on a barb, shivered in the evening breeze like a stranded octopus.

Lorenzo put the Suburban in park, engine idling. as he pushed his arms into his suit jacket, he slid a .22 semiautomatic into the right pocket. His briefcase was on the floor of the passenger side. His suitcase and his golf clubs were in the trunk.

A harsh sigh escaped his lips. It would be dangerous to deal with multiple witnesses. Not that he couldn’t do it. Two nights ago he had killed four men–two of them trained bodyguards. But he needed all his wits, his resources–he couldn’t deny he’d been shaken by the discovery of the child. He took a breath, exhaled slowly, and stepped out of the car.

Moving across the rough terrain toward the wreck, he quickly reviewed the possible scenarios. He discarded most of them. It would be best to deal with this particular situation quietly.

He prepared his face: overlaying concern with compassion, he became the essence of the Good Samaritan. When he was close enough to the men gathered around the driver’s side of the Honda, he called out. “Can I help? Should I call someone?”

He saw several heads turn his way before the beam of a flashlight blinded him. He turned his face from the light. A male voice was ordering members of the group: “Let me through, see if I get a pulse.”

Renzo moved around the far side of the Honda. He gazed in one window, but the vehicle’s interior appeared empty. No Luggage, no sacks, no bundles. This wasn’t the time or place to complete his search.

He heard men murmuring worriedly. Fragments of conversation floated on the cold night air.

“Just a kid…”

“…saw it happen…”

“…one minute this white Honda was on the road…”

“…why would a little girl be all alone out here…”

A minute passed, then two. Renzo’s fingers slid over the grip of the semiautomatic. Covertly, he hefted its weight as he kept one ear on the conversation around him.

“Maybe she’s illegal…”

“…no I.D….”

“…called state police…”

His patience was waning. He stepped closer to the edge of the small group; shoulders parted to allow him a view. He stared impassively down at the child’s inert body. Her head lolled back, and he saw that blood covered her eyes, her throat. One of her legs was twisted in a peculiar position. She looked dead.

Renzo thought each word as he pronounced it: “I know C.P.R.–”

“So do I.” This man was hunched over the child’s body, his fingers pressing for a pulse. “C.P.R. won’t help this little one. She’s gone.”

Relieved, Renzo made what he thought were appropriate noises of distress. After a moment, he turned and walked back to the car. He guided the Suburban in a wide U-turn across the broken white line and into the southbound lane.

As he drove, he reached for his cellular phone, paged his associate, and entered Code 77. Divine wrath. Translation: kill complete.

Moonlight cut across his eyes for an instant, and Lorenzo Santos Portrillo–or Renzo as he was called by his few social contacts–blinked. What haunted him was the knowledge that he had killed this child already, ten years ago.

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