La Terminal, Guatemala City
The guardian who called himself Jose spotted the boy walking into the market.
Jose was paid to spot thieves. He was paid even more to kill them.
He watched the young man push his way through the jostling crowd of shoppers and sellers; every one of them too busy haggling for a deal to notice the young man.
Jose figured the young man was in his late teens, maybe twenty. He looked like any of the other countless boys who roamed the streets of Guatemala City, or Central America in general. Dark wavy hair; a round face with a wide, curved nose that betrayed his Mayan ancestry. He was shorter than Jose had been at that age, but height wasn’t as important in Guatemala like it was back in the States. If anything, height was a bad thing because height made you stand out and standing out was never a good idea. In Guatemala, anonymity was sometimes the only asset you had.
The boy’s black jacket made it easy for Jose to track him in the crowd. Even though it was just past eight in the morning, it was already stifling hot outside. The tin roof above made it even worse inside the market. The jacket meant the young man was either a thief or a gunman. And judging the way the boy’s eyes furtively looked at random people, Jose pegged him for a thief. Assassins were usually focused on the man they’d come to kill.
And Jose knew all about assassins.
Thieves wore jackets because jackets made it easier for them to quickly hide whatever they stole if they were lucky enough to get away unseen. Then, they could ditch the jacket and easily blend into a crowd. And of all the things Guatemala City lacked, crowds was not one of them.
A policeman in any other big city in the world might’ve just kicked the young man in the ass and told him to get the hell out of there.
But Guatemala City wasn’t like any other big city and Jose was a guardian, not a policeman. He and the other guardians were paid by the merchants to do what the police said they were too busy to do: protect them from thieves and other crooks. The merchants paid the guardians to be invisible; to be a threat implied until someone stole something. Then they were expected to stop the thief, preferably by putting a bullet between the thief’s eyes. Because a dead man can only steal from you once. The management even paid a nice kill bonus to any guardian who nailed a thief in the act. A thousand Quetzales on the spot. Blood money on demand.
Since guardians were technically outside the law, the killing was technically murder. That’s why killing a thief came with an added bonus besides the money: a couple of days off until the police lost interest. With all of the gang and drug and gun activity in the capital city, police interest in avenging dead thieves didn’t last long.
Sometimes the vendors got to the thief first and beat him to death. Since this cost a guardian his kill bonus – not to mention his time off – Jose made sure he shot a thief first.
After all, even trained killers had to eat.
Jose realized that another guardian on the other side of the market had also spotted the young man, but was still too far away to get a clean shot. Jose was the only one in position.
His training kicked in and he moved fast and smooth; going down an aisle parallel to the young man; tracking him step for step though the organized chaos of the market. Cuts of meat and fresh-killed poultry swayed on hooks above bundles of roses and fresh fruits and vegetables and cheese. Crates overflowing with oranges and pineapples and large canvas sacks of coffee from every region of the country were piled on the floor beside the various stalls. Vendors hawked their wares over the din of the crowd; announcing good prices while prospective customers barked back counter offers.
On such a humid morning, the only thing worse than the close heat of the market was the thick smell of meat, ripening fruit and sweating humanity coming together in a putrid stench. Jose half hoped the little bastard stole something just so he could shoot him and get the hell out of there.
He could tell that the thief was new to his craft. He did a lousy job of blending in as he bumped and pushed his way through the crowd. He didn’t even to pretend to browse merchandise; looking only at the vendors instead. He checked their hands and craned his neck to see the areas behind the stalls where bags and bankrolls were kept. Seasoned vendors were very careful with their goods, but newer vendors were often more careless. They were too eager to pick up new customers and didn’t pay enough attention to their money. They made easy prey for sharp-eyed thieves like the young man now among them. Jose was paid to hunt the hunters.
The young man stopped at the stall of a new coffee wholesaler from Coban. The vendor was young, only a few years older than the thief and his competitive prices had drawn a lot of attention. A thick knot of potential buyers crowded around the front of his stall. Lots of pockets to pick. Maybe some loose cash the overwhelmed vendor might lay down.
Easy pickings for a careful thief.
Jose knew that this was where the thief would strike if he struck at all. He slid the Glock from his waistband; holding it flat against his leg so as not to scare the vendors or their customers too soon. Or the thief.
Jose had plans. He needed that bonus money.
The coffee vendor had a thin stack of Quetzales in his hand, offering and counter-offering the customers who bid for his goods. Yet another customer butted in and made the bidding even worse. The vendor was distracted and leaned just a bit too forward and only for a second. But a second was all the young man needed. He lunged between the customers, snatched the money from the vendor’s hand and began running toward the loading bay at the other side of the market.
He crouched low amid the crowd as he ran; obviously hoping to blend in as he made his mistake.
Cries of ‘ladron!’ – thief! – immediately went up from buyers and vendors alike as they dropped as low to the ground as they could. They knew bullets could start flying at any moment from any direction.
The young man kept running, but looked around – wild-eyed – as he tried to find a path through all the crouching people. But everyone near him was lying flat and no one would move.
No one except Jose.
The boy looked at Jose just as Jose fired twice; catching him once in the upper chest and once in the forehead.
As soon as the firing stopped, vendors dashed back to their tables while customers scrambled to get as far away from the thief as possible. Dead bodies were bad news anywhere, especially in Guatemala where the police weren’t too picky about who they convicted for a crime. Jose tucked his Glock back into his waistband as he ran to where the thief had fallen. He wanted to claim his prize before any of the other guardians tried.
As he looked down at the young man, he tried to feel something. Anything. Less than sixty seconds before, the boy had been alive. He’d been just another hungry young man among the millions of other hungry young men roaming the streets of Guatemala City. Alive, he’d been worth nothing. But dead, he was worth a thousand Quetzal bonus and a few days off. The thief was worth more now that he was dead than when he was alive.
It was an irony that was not lost on Jose. In fact, that same irony had been eating away at him for some time now. He didn’t feel an ounce of remorse over killing the thief. He only felt sorry for himself because gunning down desperate young men in markets was the only kind of job he’d been trained to do.
The young man’s left leg was still twitching as Jose took the money from his outstretched hand. The din of the market quickly rose back to its normal level as the business of buying and selling resumed. Death was common in the Central Market of the capital city and quickly forgotten. Most of the merchants were too poor to afford feelings, especially for thieves.
The coffee merchant showered Jose with praise as he gave the man his money, but gratitude died easy in Guatemala. Words were cheap. The kill bonus was the only thing that mattered to Jose. And he hated himself for it.
He spotted Manuel Luis, the market’s head guardian, marching down the aisle toward him. Wearing a black flak jacket, pants and polished black combat boots, Manuel was one of the few guardians who didn’t try to blend in with the crowd. He was ex-Kaibil out of Poptun and had spilled more than his share of blood, both on the market floor and up in the mountains.
“Good work,” Manuel said in Spanish as he pressed the money into Jose’s hand. Killing was so commonplace in the market, Manuel always carried bonus money for his guardians. “Now get the hell out of here. One of these fucking peasants has probably already called the police so they’ll be here any second. Be sure you disappear for a couple of days and don’t tell anyone where you’re going. Call me in a couple of days and I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come back.”
Jose had been through this drill before. He figured he had about fifteen minutes before the police got there. The farther away he was from the market, the better.
The only people who looked at him as he left the market were the guardians, who were annoyed he’d gotten a kill so early in the day. Thieves would be wary of the market for a couple of days at least, until their greed and hunger pushed some poor bastard to try his luck at stealing something. Until then, their kill bonuses would have to wait and, with the weekend right around the corner, that money would come in handy.
Jose heard some of the vendors whisper to each other as he headed for the side exit. They whispered the name they’d pinned on him after his first kill three months before. El Jaguar, they said. El Jaguar.
Some of the guardians loved their nicknames. They thought it made them sound badass. But Jose knew nicknames got you a reputation and reputations could get you killed. That’s was why he’d chosen the name ‘Jose’; the most common name he could think of. Nicknames got you remembered and getting remembered got you killed.
And few people had worked as hard as Jose to be forgotten. And to forget.
La Antigua Guatemala
(Approximately 45 km west of Guatemala City)
By the time the sun began to set behind the western mountains, Jose had already been in Antigua since lunchtime. The old colonial city was only about an hour and a half from the capital, but felt like a world and a half away. Antigua was good for a man long on funds and even longer on time.
He’d spent most of the day in the shaded courtyard of an old church on Alemeda Santa Lucia; drinking Cokes and smoking cigarettes. He liked the Coke bottled in Guatemala because it was made with real sugar, not the fake stuff they used back home in the states.
Jose had spent a good part of the afternoon thinking about that word: home. The very concept of home was as foreign to him since as the idea of living in Guatemala had once been. Sure, his parents had been Guatemalan, but he had been born and raised in New York. Jose’s parents told his brothers and sisters stories and legends of their homeland, while telling them how lucky they were to live in America.
But life had a way of pulling a man in directions he didn’t expect. And when Jose had volunteered to serve America, he never thought it would bring him back to the same country his parents had worked so hard to leave. And he never thought he’d be away from his country for so long.
He crushed his cigarette beneath his sneaker and took another swig of Coke. Dwelling on the past was a waste of time and counter to all his training, so he stopped it. It was times like these when the words of his mentor from The University came back to him:
One foot in the past. One foot in the future. Pissing on today. Work the mission. Let the past go. Dead men can’t hurt you.
If only that was true.
Jose decided to focus on the casual pageantry along Alemeda Santa Lucia. The scene reminded him of Times Square, only busier. Taxis and cars and small motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks rumbled over the cobblestones; jockeying for position. Brightly colored buses added to the confusion by stopping and pulling out into traffic whenever they pleased. Los ayudares – the helpers on the buses– announced each bus’s destination in a sing-song way Jose found almost endearing. “Guate, Guate, Guate!” was the most common call, shuffling people onto the buses bound for the capital city.
Every once in a while, a horse drawn cart aimed at the tourist trade ambled into the mix just to make it interesting. A tired traffic cop waved at the stalled mess in vain like a busted windmill. It was a chaotic mess, but somehow, it worked.
The cobblestone streets made the traffic worse, but Jose knew the city would never pave over them. La Antigua was the old capital of the country and rejected modernity at every turn. New buildings were built to look like the haciendas that the dons had built centuries before. The narrow, uneven sidewalks looked like they’d been added as an afterthought, probably because they had been. There were no traffic lights or crosswalks in the old town, so everyone took their life into their own hands whenever they crossed the street.
Tourists usually stayed well north of this part of town, preferring the charm of the restaurants and church ruins and the yellow arch of the old convent just north of Parque Central. Antigua’s open air Municipal Market was just up the road on Santa Lucia, but most gringos never needed to come this far south.
Jose didn’t blame the tourists for staying where they were. He figured everyone who came to the old town fit into one of three categories: people who were there to learn; people who were there to earn or people who were there to escape, if even only for a little while. Escape sounded like a damned good idea to Jose.
He knew most of the other guardians at the market would’ve blown their kill bonus in a whorehouse; drowning themselves in cheap beer and cheaper company for a few days, waiting for the police to forget about the kid he’d killed.
But Jose wasn’t just another guardian. He’d been trained to bank the money he made. He’d been trained to plan ahead and execute. That’s why he’d come to Antigua in the first place: to clear his head and figure out what his next move would be. He knew he’d stayed in Guatemala too long. He knew he didn’t want to go back to the market. And he didn’t want to go back to being the man he’d been before the market.
Because killing was a rotten way to make a living; even if killing was the only thing he knew how to do. All of the killing was killing his soul and he’d reached a point in his life when things like that mattered to him.
He’d made a life out of death. And, goddamn him, he didn’t know any other way. What’s worse, he’d grown to like it. And miss it.
Later that night, Jose traded the street chaos of Santa Lucia for the dancing chaos of a nightclub closer to El Parque called Mono Loco – The Crazy Monkey. It was exactly the scene he needed to clear his mind.
From his spot at the bar, Jose watched the local boys eyeing the drunk gringas gyrating to thumping music. The boys acted like they didn’t speak English. The girls acted drunker than they were. All of them waived around brightly colored glow sticks in the thudding darkness.
Most young Americans came to Antigua for the Spanish schools. Half were missionaries who needed to learn Spanish for a two-year hitch to help peasants dig for water in the hills. The other half were aspiring doctors who hadn’t gotten into med school in the states, so they opted for schools in Costa Rica. Hence the need for Spanish. Jose figured they hadn’t gotten into medical school because of partying too much back. Old habits die hard.
Watching the kids dancing made him remember the young thief he’d killed in the market that day. He’d been about their age, maybe a bit older. He…
Jose felt his mind beginning to drift again and he stopped it.
He didn’t regret killing the boy. He only regretted working in the market in the first place. Despite all his training, he knew that was wrong, but his training was all he had left. Conscience was a luxury he couldn’t afford any more.
The dance music thudded as he took another pull on his beer, a Gallo. He wanted the music and the alcohol to block out his thoughts. It was only his second beer of the night and he had decided to order a third when he sensed someone standing close to him at the bar. Too close.
As he turned to see who it was, something hard pressed into the left side of his rib cage. He didn’t have to see it to know it was a gun.
“Easy, Michael,” the man said in English. “No need to get jumpy.”
It had been almost a year since Jose had heard English and even longer since anyone had called him by his real name: Michael Rivas. He recognized the voice of the man who’d said it, but didn’t look at him. He looked at his beer instead. “James Hicks.”
“And here I was thinking you forgot your friends.” The pressure against his side let up, but not much. “Been almost a year.”
Michael knew how long it had been, but didn’t care. “How the hell did you find me?”
“Jesus, Michael,” Hicks laughed. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten who you’re dealing with here.”
Michael had always hated and admired Hicks at the same time. Hicks was the kind of man who was difficult to describe, which made him perfect for his chosen profession. He was neither tall nor short, heavy nor thin, handsome nor ugly. He had brown hair and brown eyes and fair skin that tanned easily, so he could blend in damned near anywhere in the world. His most remarkable trait was that he wasn’t remarkable and was often forgotten within minutes.
Hicks was also the deadliest man Michael Rivas had ever known.
But that didn’t mean Michael could afford to act scared. “How about a different question: Why are you looking for me in the first place?”
Hicks shrugged as he casually looked around the nightclub. “Nobody’s seen you around campus lately. The Dean’s been worried about you. We all are. He wanted to give you some time to clear your head, but…”
Michael laughed. “Campus. The Dean. Christ, you guys make me sick with your goddamned lingo, you know that? You make it sound so…collegiate…when all we are is a bunch of…”
He felt Hicks press the gun against his left side again. It came from under the ledge of the bar so no one else in the club could see it. He knew Hicks favored a .22 for field work. Not the most powerful gun in the world, but easy to conceal. And deadly at this distance. “Careful, Michael. Loose talk can still get you killed.”
“In here?” Michael thumbed back to the speakers. “I can barely hear you over this shit and you’re standing right next to me.”
“What about that security camera over my left shoulder?” Hicks said. ”The one aimed down at the bar to keep an eye on the bartender. Think they could read your lips if they wanted to?”
Michael glanced up and saw the camera. He lowered his head in defeat. He should’ve noticed it when he sat down. He should have scoped out every camera in the place before he sat down out of force of habit. But he hadn’t and Hicks knew it.
“That’s why I’m on this side,” Hicks said, “so they can’t read my lips. The other cameras are too far away and…”
“You made your point, damn it, but you still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.” Michael swiped his Gallo off the bar and finished it in one pull. He put the bottle back on the bar and signaled the bartender for another. “I thought you were in New York these days.”
“I took a few days off.” Hicks eased up on the pressure against Michael’s ribs and seemed to relax a bit, though Michael knew Hicks never relaxed. He looked out at the crowd of dancing gringas with the dancing glow sticks and the local boys on the edge of the dance floor. “Just taking in the sights. Soaking up some local flavor. I wanted to give you something, too, if you’re interested.”
Michael accepted his new beer from the bartender and pushed the rest of the money he had on the bar her way. This would be his last beer of the night because it was never a good idea to be drunk around a man like Hicks. “Tell me what it is and maybe I’ll be interested.”
“A chance to get your old job back.”
Michael thought that’s what it might be. Part of him had hoped that’s what it was. “What if I don’t want it back? I’m the one who walked away, remember?”
“Then I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending the rest of your life as a guardian at the Central Market,” Hicks said. “Shooting fifteen year old kids is a great way for a man with your skills to make a living.”
It was Michael’s turn to laugh. “So you heard about that, too, huh?”
But Hicks didn’t laugh. “We hear about everything, ace. You know that.”
“Well your intel is off for once. That punk was at least eighteen, closer to twenty.”
“He just turned fifteen last week.”
Hicks looked back at the dance floor, the lights flashing red and green and blue on his face. “Why would I lie?”
But Michael knew he wasn’t lying. He also knew that finding out the thief was just a kid should’ve bothered him, but it didn’t. He didn’t feel anything anymore and that’s what stung. “You know all the right buttons to push, don’t you? You son of a…”
Hicks jabbed him in the side again, harder than before. “Calm down.” He motioned back to the camera. “We don’t need you to come back, Michael. As far as The Dean is concerned, you’re already out free and clear. He knows things went sideways your last time out and he considers your freedom as his way of saying no hard feelings.”
“Mighty generous, considering.”
Hicks shrugged. “You don’t know anything that could really hurt us, so he let you go. But he knows where you’ve been working and, quite frankly, he’s disappointed which is why he sent me to remind you that you still have a place at the University. A place that could give you a chance to have a life again.”
“A life.” Michael slowly turned his bottle of beer, watching the sweat pool on scarred wooden bar top. “I remember that kind of life.”
“So you remember what it felt like to do some good.”
“I don’t remember there being much good about it.”
“Fair enough. Let’s call it something else. Let’s say you at least felt useful when you worked for us. But, if you call killing starving children a good use of your training, then you might as well just go back to the capital when Manny gives you the okay.”
Michael looked away. Not at anything in particular. Just at anything but Hicks. Going back to the market had sounded like a rotten choice when he’d thought about it. It sounded ridiculous now that Hicks had actually said it. He took another pull on his beer. “Maybe I’ve got other options?”
“Maybe sign up with a contractor.”
Hicks shook his head. “You don’t have the attitude for merc work, ace. You’re a man who needs parameters. Definable goals with visible horizons and measurable results. You’re not the kind of guy who can sit around for months waiting for the phone to ring with a job offer.”
Michael put his beer back on the bar. “I could drop the Life all together.”
“Turn the other cheek? Renounce your sins and give yourself to Jesus?” Hicks smiled. “It’s been tried before and it never takes. People like us are too far down the road to turn away from what we are. Salvation works for some people but not us. We are exactly who we’re supposed to be because we’re not fit to do anything else. That’s why the training took in the first place.” He jabbed the gun into Michael’s ribs again. “And that’s why we both know you’re going to take this job.”
Michael looked at his beer. He thought about breaking his rule; about downing it and ordering another. Maybe switching to straight tequila instead. That way, he’d be too drunk to make a decision like this.
But getting drunk would lead to a rotten hangover and the same problem staring at him in the face the next morning.
He didn’t want to go back to the market. He also wasn’t fit for anything else. He was trained to do one thing and one thing only: to kill. He’d been doing it for fruit sellers and coffee growers and butchers for too long. Might as well go back to doing it where it made a difference.
And, of course, the money was better.
He pushed the beer bottle aside. “So what’s the job?”
Hicks shook his head. “You know how this works, Michael. You have to say you’re in first, then we talk.”
Michael shut his eyes and said it fast before he changed his mind. “Yeah. I’m in.”
Hicks took the gun away from his ribs. “Good boy. It’s a real simple job. We have reason to believe someone is about to testify against an asset who The University wants to protect. We have to get to the snitch before he talks to the cops. And, if it’s any consolation, this snitch is also a Grade-A piece of shit.”
Michael never cared about the reason why someone had been selected as a mark. The only details he had ever really cared about were: Who? Where? When? Never why. But this time, he wouldn’t ask ‘how much’ because he knew this one would be free. This was his ticket back into the University. He was mindful of the camera above the bar and lowered his head when he asked, “Where is he?”
“He happens to be right here in Antigua as we speak. A few blocks away.”
Michael should’ve known. “What a coincidence.”
Hicks laughed again. “You know there are no coincidences in our world. This clown’s been on our wish list for a while, but we’ve never had a reason to rush anything. Figured we’d take care of him when we got around to it. Now that you’re back on board, we can cross him off the list.”
Michael didn’t like it, but he wasn’t in a position to be particular. “What kind of protection does he have?”
“None. No body guards, no weapons either. He’s just another skel who knows too much for his own good.”
“Sure. Your device is still active, isn’t it?”
Michael knew he was talking about the phone the University had issued him when he was ‘On Staff’, as they called it. It looked like any other smartphone and appeared to work the same way, except it didn’t. It operated on an entirely separate system than any cellular or satellite network in the world and it only worked for people who had been given specific devices and specific permission to use them. People like Michael Rivas and James Hicks.
“You know it is. Hell, I’ll bet that’s how you found me.”
Hicks ignored that question. “You’ll be able to download the target package as soon as you get outside. Everything you need to know about the mark will be in there.”
Michael knew the package would have pictures and an address, but it wouldn’t answer one question. Again, he was mindful of the camera. “What’s the deadline?”
“By noon tomorrow.”
Michael should’ve been surprised, but he wasn’t. “That’s not a lot of time.”
“A man with your skills doesn’t need a lot of time for an op like this. The punk is exposed. No protection at all. This is a strictly tap-and-go task. Hit him in public, private, we don’t care; so long as it’s done by noon tomorrow and you get away clean.”
“What about after? Will you be there to get me out?”
Hicks looked at him as though he was speaking in tongues. “Hell no. I’m heading back to New York first thing in the morning. This is your chance to play your way back on to the team. Do the job, then get yourself back to the States. You come back alive, you’re back On Staff.”
Michael didn’t like it, but he didn’t have to. “Anything else I should know?”
“There is. I’ll be taking your gun with me when I leave.”
“What?” Michael remembered the goddamned camera again and looked away from it. “How the hell am I supposed to…do this without a gun?”
“I trained you to be resourceful. Time to put that training to work. I don’t want the cops matching the bullet you put into that kid in the market with the one you put into the mark. They might not be big on running water or feeding their people down here, but Guatemalan cops love forensics. Linking those two shootings would raise a hell of a lot of eyebrows and we can’t have that right now. Understand?”
Michael understood, but he didn’t like it. Especially because he knew Hicks was right. “Fine, but the next gig I pull better be worth something and pay accordingly.”
Hicks laughed once more and made like he was hugging him. Just two drinking buddies saying goodbye at the end of the night. “You’ll get better assignments when you can tell the difference between a .22 and a fucking glow stick.”
Hicks slapped him on the back as he tossed an unlit glow stick up on the bar. The same glow stick the kids were dancing with on the floor. “See you soon, ace.”
Michael slapped the glow stick off the bar as Hicks disappeared into the crowd. He didn’t bother checking for his gun in his waist band. He knew Hicks had already lifted it when he’d hugged him.
Now he needed to find another gun.
He knew it wouldn’t be too hard. Because in Guatemala, anything was possible.
Next Monday in Part Two: Weapons don’t come easy for gringos, Michael Rivas.
* * *
Terrence McCauley is a multi-award winning writer of crime and pulp fiction. His short fiction has appeared in THUGLIT, SHOTGUN HONEY, BIG PULP and several other publications. He recently signed a three book deal with Polis Books to relaunch two previous novels and publish a brand new work: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, featuring protagonist James Hicks. Terrence is represented by Doug Grad of the Doug Grad Literary Agency. Terrence’s website is www.terrencepmccauley.com