Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
He straightens his shoulders. “My father could never find steady work so our family always lived in poverty. What’s more, he had no trade or skills that he could pass on to me, not that he would have. He hated me. I was not allowed to go to school for fear someone would find out what I was. My own parents set me adrift. Condemned me to a life of poverty, struggle and isolation. I was sixteen.”
He reaches for the bottle. I pass it over, let him refill his glass and my own. “You’re articulate for an uneducated man.”
“We had a Bible,” he answers. “The only book we owned. My mother taught me to read with that Bible. Before she decided I was possessed by the devil.”
He drinks, continues. “I moved to Chihuahua, an unemployed drifter. Found a few odd jobs that paid poorly and required long hours of hard labor. I shared the fields and factories with petty criminals who always tried to take advantage of weaker men. I knew I had to defend myself to survive and I quickly learned to use my fists and my wits. I also became skilled at using a knife. It wasn’t long before I won respect among the migrants. Word got around and I attracted the attention of local gang members.
“Gangs were always on the lookout for young ‘badasses’ to recruit. There was a constant need for new blood since gang wars continually decimated the ranks. Young, tough, uneducated
like me who were dissatisfied with their lot made a perfect pool in which to fish.”
I am so engrossed in Culebra’s tale that when Max pokes me in the arm I jump. “What?”
“Pass the bottle, will you?”
Grudgingly, I do. “Are you done interrupting now?”
Max flutters a hand in a go-ahead gesture and I turn back to Culebra and mimic the action.
“One day as I was walking home from work, a gangbanger pushed me against a wall and demanded my money while other bangers stood around smiling. I was enraged that anyone would steal from a poor
struggling to earn a living. I pushed my aggressor back and told him to ‘go fuck himself.’ The banger pulled a knife and came at me. But I quickly grabbed his arm, twisted it behind his back and took the knife away. I spun the banger around and kneed him in the groin for good measure. As I walked away I waved the knife and thanked him for the ‘souvenir.’
“The next day members of the local gang again confronted me. But this time, I was invited to have a drink with the boss. He told me that he needed men ‘with balls’ in his operation and that I handled myself well the other day. I realized that the confrontation had been a test. He offered me a job delivering drugs and collecting payment and offered me a salary about ten times what I was earning as a common laborer. The money was irresistible to a young man with no real future ahead of him. And working for a criminal gang wasn’t much different from being an outcast as far as I was concerned. So I accepted the offer as my only opportunity for a better life.
“Like all new hires, I was assigned a mentor to teach me the business. His nickname was Julio the Pick because his preferred method of execution was to shove an ice pick into the back of a man’s head. No loud noise, little blood—he liked it that way. Julio was unusual because he was in his forties in a business where most didn’t live beyond their late twenties. His longevity was testament to the fact that he was good at his chosen profession and was an asset to the boss.
“Julio had trained many a young ‘badass,’ but I struck him as someone special. He sensed that I had an innate intelligence and was driven to make my mark in life. All the young ‘badasses’ liked fancy clothes and pockets full of money to attract the ladies. I was no exception. But Julio and I both knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied to just strut around like a peacock. No, I was someone who could rise up through the ranks and become useful to the organization. So Julio took me under his wing and taught me the ‘tricks of the trade’—how to disable an opponent in a fight and how to shoot. Shooting straight was especially important since it raised the odds that you would survive the inevitable gun battles that you would face. Julio taught me how to carry my weapon so I could draw it quickly from the holster and where to aim to quickly disable or kill an opponent. But he couldn’t teach me, or anyone else, how to think fast on my feet to outwit a rival. That was something you had to be born with. Julio must have felt that I had that quality.
“I was a quick study and practiced long hours to learn my lessons. Julio was proud of me and it wasn’t long before I began calling him
Julio. I knew that delivering drugs and collecting payment was a dangerous job (after all, why would I be paid so generously if it were not?) and that Julio wouldn’t be there when I got my first real assignment. Julio was too valuable to the boss to be sacrificed on a drug run. Besides, this was a way to see who had the right stuff. Those who survived could move up in the organization. Those who didn’t were the cost of doing business.
“Finally, the day came when another recruit and I were ordered to deliver a shipment of drugs to a rival gang and return with payment. We met the rival boss’s son and two henchmen at a remote desert location. I knew that doing business with rival gangs would never be easy. So it was no surprise when the son started threatening us. ‘Tell your boss that his last batch of drugs was shit. And if he sells me shit, he ain’t gonna be paid shit. I know you motherfuckers are schoolboys, so give me the shipment and tell your boss that he’ll be paid after we test it. Not before.’ I saw the henchmen slide their hands inside their jackets. I sensed that the son was going to take advantage of us newbies and try to impress his father by returning with both the drugs and the money. There would never be any payment. The stomach of my partner was growling so loudly that he was obviously shaking with fear and on the verge of shitting his pants.
“What do I do now? I knew that if we returned without the drugs and the money both my life and my career would be over. I also remembered a lesson taught to me by
Julio. ‘To make it in this business you have to command respect. And to command respect, others have to know that you are willing to kill when necessary.’
“My partner and I looked at each other and I shrugged. The son, with a smirk on his face, directed his men to fetch the drugs from our vehicle. As they started to walk toward us I noticed one drop an empty hand from his jacket. At that instant, I quickly pulled my gun and shot them both through the forehead—first the one still holding his gun and then the second one as he reached for his gun. As their bodies fell, I trained my pistol on the son, whose smirk had been replaced by a look of shock and fear. ‘We came here to do business and that is what we’ll do,’ I told him. I then ordered my partner to put the drugs in the son’s car and take the cash. While he shuffled back to our car with the money bag, I frisked and disarmed the boss’s son. ‘Tell Papa that it’s always a pleasure to do business with him.’ With that, we drove off, leaving the son standing alone with two corpses.”
I find myself staring. “Honor among thieves?”
Culebra raises his shoulders. “Have you heard enough?”
“No. I want to hear it all.” I just need another drink. I take the bottle back from Max, who had just refilled his own glass, and top mine off. “Go on.”
“News of the drug transaction quickly spread through the organization. The boss realized that he had a talented recruit and complemented Julio, telling him he trained his new student well. He doubled my salary and made me a captain. ‘Captain Badass’ I called myself.”
Max chuckles. I shake my head. Culebra continues.
“Over time, I proved my worth. I came to command the respect that Julio told me was so important in the business. I earned good money. I was able to afford a nice house and car and had found success beyond my father’s dreams. I could now afford to support a family and decided it was time to marry. I found a young woman with pleasant looks, but not a great beauty. I prized loyalty and childbearing ability above a pretty face. In time we had two children, a boy and girl and, to my surprise, I became a devoted father. My wife never knew about my shape-shifting ability and I hoped that I didn’t pass this trait to my offspring. I wanted them to live normal lives, attend good schools and be socially accepted, not be outcasts as I had been.
“But I wanted more. I wanted to move up the ladder. To become a man of importance, one to be reckoned with, one who would be accepted in social circles I never could have entered before. I read avidly to gain more knowledge about the world. This made me somewhat of a black sheep among my compatriots, but I knew they were losers. I had bigger plans than the next score. I also knew book learning wasn’t enough. It took money—big money—and with no formal education or skills beyond drug running, what could I do to earn more and become more?
“I asked Julio what prospects I had. Julio gave me a stern look: ‘If you want to make more money, you will have to do what few are capable of and what few can live with—you will have to become an assassin. You will be paid handsomely to kill targets on command from the boss, but you will have to learn to live with the knowledge that you kill others for a living. These targets are not scumbags who threaten your life during a drug deal. You sometimes have to kill scumbags because they threaten to kill you. You justify it as an act of self-defense. But an assassin kills victims that the boss wants eliminated because they interfere with business. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. This is not killing in self-defense. This is deliberate stalking and murder for money—big money. Don’t overestimate your ability to sleep well. You will struggle with your conscience. This is not a profession that you can walk away from if you decide you’ve had enough. You know too much. Assassins who try to retire don’t live too long. As far as a boss is concerned, dead is dead and dead men don’t talk.’
“Julio went on, ‘I have seen you work. You have the skills and temperament to be a professional killer. But you now have a family and you are a devoted father. Do you really think you could do this? Take my advice. Be satisfied with your present position. You are a captain. You make a good living. Be content with what you have. Don’t be like Icarus and reach for the sun.’
“I respected Julio and I considered his advice, but the success I’d achieved made me arrogant. I thought I could handle anything. Money would buy me respect and the social position I craved. So what if I killed a few people? They probably deserved it anyway. If they interfered with the business of a gang boss, they were likely guilty of crimes themselves but were too well connected to be charged with anything. Hell, I was doing society a favor by eliminating them.”
Culebra releases a breath. “You wanted to know.”
I nod. “So you started your life as an assassin. How does one do that, exactly?”
“The boss sent me to a school in the Dominican Republic.”
I choke on a mouthful of whiskey. “There’s a school for assassins?”
Culebra smiles grimly. “A training camp established during the Trujillo regime ostensibly for ‘advanced military training.’ Bullshit. It was a school for assassins. Dictators and gang bosses need such services. They don’t negotiate with the opposition, they eliminate the opposition. Service rendered, problem solved, hands clean.” He brushes his hands together as if brushing away dirt.
“I learned to use explosives and poison and kill silently at close range. I learned how to stalk my victims and how to judge the best time to strike. Then it was time to go home and put my education to use.
“At first, my targets were corrupt, politically connected types who tried to extort more money from the boss. One worked for the treasury and ran a money laundry on the side. His fee for service was always rising. If the boss suggested taking his business elsewhere, the finance guy would hint that he had friends in high places and that they would be interested to know what the boss was up to. The fool never realized that his threats made him a target. I remember him because I used Julio’s favorite technique to do the job. He lived on a crowded street, so the kill had to be silent. I entered his home when I knew he was alone and snuck up behind him when he was standing at the refrigerator. I grabbed him by the forehead and shoved an ice pick into the back of his skull. He fell to his knees while I rocked it back and forth to mince the brain tissue.” Culebra claps his hands and holds them palms up. “
Julio was right—no muss, no fuss.”
Culebra is watching my face. Gauging my reaction. When I don’t react, he continues.
“Jobs were not so frequent as they are now so I had more time to spend at home. I found that I enjoyed watching my children grow. I got to know my wife more intimately and even helped her plant a garden. The money was great. I bought a bigger house for my family and a nicer car for myself. We lived in a fancier neighborhood among a better class of people. My children attended a private school and my wife wore finer clothes. Life was good. Little did I realize what a charade this was. Devoted family man by day and killer by night. It couldn’t last. And it didn’t.
“The end came when the boss’s son fell for a pretty, young woman from a notable family. She refused his advances and bruised his ego. The son became depressed when he learned that she had accepted a marriage proposal from another young man, a judge’s son. The boss was angry that his son ‘wasn’t good enough for this bitch.’ So he decided to show what happens when people disrespect him or his family. He gave me the job to ensure that the young woman would never reach the altar on her wedding day. She had to die on her way to the church.
“When I got the order I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. There was no way I could kill an innocent young woman on her wedding day. I would spend the rest of my life seeing her face in my daughter’s eyes. The boss wanted me to plant a bomb under the car her family would use to drive to the ceremony and detonate it by remote control when they approached the church. But I couldn’t go through with it and didn’t. The marriage ceremony went off without a hitch. I knew the boss would come after me for failing to carry out an order, but I would deal with that. Strangely, I never thought that my family would be involved. After all, this was a business matter and they were civilians. How wrong I was.”