Up until that moment, I’d never before been frightened. I kill for a living and I’m very very good at it. Of course, that career has occupational hazards. I’ve been in shootouts and I’ve seen friends killed. I’ve killed a few myself. I’ve grown used to looking over my shoulders to make sure my own men aren’t targeting me. And, I’ve been in situations where any rules of nature or war would have dictated my termination.
And I’ve survived.
Because I am not a man who frightens – and others are.
So, I don’t know what to make of myself right now. I’m sitting comfortably in my room. There’s no visible threat. And yet my hands are shaking. And in those shaking hands is a loaded gun. I am considering killing myself just to avoid that which I fear.
It had all started off so simply. It had been a straight-forward collection run. The #2, Ernesto Juarez and a team of his men – including myself – were to go into the city and collect some past due funds from one of the street captains. Now, this kind of work is never entirely routine. Street captains who aren’t paying sometimes resist our reminders of their obligations. They might get a bit uppity and decide to try to climb the ranks. Or, they might switch to a rival organization and come at us guns blazing – with more guns that we might have otherwise predicted. Most of the time, though, these collections are routine. The street captain pays what he can, we rough him up, and then we come back a second (more dangerous) time for the ‘final’ collection. At that point, either the captain pays, or he dies.
This was a first visit.
That didn’t stop us from taking every precaution. We knew where our target would be. He’d be sitting at the bar of his seedy nightclub, as he always did. So we came in heavy, encouraged his security to take off, sealed off the entrances and exits and then, finally, Ernesto decided to have a chat with the man.
Ernesto walked up to him at the bar. My security team and I were watching everything. And then the captain turns and extends his arms as if to greet Ernesto in a bear hug. And a moment later, Ernesto falls dead, blood pouring from his body. I have no idea why the captain did it. He had to know what was coming next. Within seconds, he too was dead.
Fearing some sort of follow-up, we took off.
We killed the captain, but I, the commander of the security team, was in seriously deep trouble. In a routine collection, somebody had targeted Ernesto and killed him. They’d used the captain to do it. And I’d let it happen.
And now, I was back at the ranch. And one of my men had dropped by to let me know the boss wanted to see me.
And I am, for the first time in my life, frightened.
It is one thing to die. It is another to be killed by El Espíritu – the Ghost.
I’ve never met the man, but everyone has heard the stories. He’s called the Ghost because he disappears and nobody can find him – not even his own men. But there’s more to the name than that. He seems to move like a ghost. When he wants you dead, you die without warning. And nobody even knows you were marked. He manipulates men like puppets – acting as if he is a spirit from beyond the grave.
But that is not what frightens me.
El Espíritu is also known as some kind of freakish lover of Meso-American culture. On the innocent side, he’s rumored to love gifts of arrowheads and other artifacts. Everybody who has a chance of meeting him keeps a few around just in case. But there’s a darker side. He loves the Aztec stuff. He loves the concepts of human sacrifice. I have heard that he believes the purest sound a man ever makes is the scream moments before he knows his end is coming. I don’t know what he does to bring out that scream, but I’ve seen what other men do. And I can’t allow myself to imagine worse.
I don’t want to make that sound.
And so, having failed him, I’m sitting with my gun. Contemplating my options.
And then I put the gun down and decide that I must take my chances.
I get up and grab my emergency arrowhead from the dresser. And then I walk to the main residence.
I knock on the door.
A smallish man opens it. I don’t recognize him, so he must be El Espíritu.
He doesn’t look imposing at all. I hand him the arrow head, my hands still shaking, and he takes it, smiling.
Then he welcome me in, turning his back. I think I might have a chance to kill him. But I know better than to try. A man in his position is never defenseless.
“Raul,” he begins, “Don’t worry. What happened in that nightclub could not have been prevented by you.”
I breath a sign of relief, but I’m not convinced that I’m out of the woods yet.
“The captain and Ernesto were plotting against me.”
I had heard nothing of the sort, but El Espíritu had more to say.
“So, I stole from the captain, as punishment. Naturally, you and your men went to visit him. And while your guns were cocked and ready to go, I had a sniper shoot Ernesto – through a small window above the front door. You thought the captain did it, you killed the captain, and my problems were solved.”
I nod stupidly.
“Tequila?” asks El Espíritu, cheerfully.
“Y-Yes,” I stammer, embarrassed by my fear.
“Raul,” continues El Espíritu, “That kind of information is the kind of information you should keep to yourself. Use what your people don’t know to motivate them. But only my #2 is allowed to see the details.”
His #2? I am to take Ernesto’s position?
“Raul,” he continues, “You are to be my eyes an ears here. You are to manage everything. I know you know the business and I know you are smart. And while you are fearless, you know that you do not want to cross me.”
“You will be rewarded handsomely. This is a major promotion. Now, I’m going to go away for a while. But understand, at all times, that I am watching.”
I nod once more. Then El Espíritu put down his drink. I want to ask where he was going, but I knew enough not to do so. He walks to his garage door, opens it, steps through it, closes it, and disappears. I hear a car engine start and then I see the plume of dust left behind by the tires.
Minutes later, even that is no longer there.
I thank the Lord for my life. And I promise never to cross El Espíritu.
Two hours later, an early 90s Honda with Texas plates appears at the U.S. border crossing. The Customs Guard recognizes the driver. They’ve searched him a number of times before, but his story has always checked out. And so he smiles and waves the car through.
As night fell, that same car pulls into a suburban Texas driveway. Professor Jose Barrida gets out of the car. His wife and kids run to meet him.
“How was the trip?” asks his wife.
“Fine,” says Barrida, in a perfect American accent.
“Find any artifacts?” she asks.
He shows her an arrowhead.
They go inside and eat dinner.
They put the kids in bed and then they watch a movie together, curling up on the couch.
Finally, they go to bed.
Professor Jose Barrida, U.S. Citizen, Ph.D in Meso-American culture, and Mexican drug lord lays his head on his pillow.
He would never let Raul know that somebody else had killed Ernesto. He had others who would deal with it and, tomorrow, he’d use the computers at his University office to put them on the case.
For now, he closed his eyes, and then slept, soundly.
Once again, he has disappeared.