Bess was close enough now that she could hear the soft clamor of the reception like a distant babbling brook. She crouched down as she padded the rest of the way through the weeds and sagebrush bordering the compound.
She angled across the back of the shower room and down the side of the block until she came to the adobe stucco wall encasing the courtyard. The murmurs from the parlour were almost loud enough that she could make out a few a words punctuated by soft giggles and the clink of champagne glasses.
The wall was at least ten feet tall and there was no climbing over it. Bess stared at the rough tack of its stucco coating as she studied the details she had stored away during her time on the other side of those walls. She recounted the steps and imagined every path through the place. She glanced at the bars over the kitchen window and thought she might be able to pry them back with her bare hands, just as she had imagined. She saw herself smashing the window and scrambling through, then tripping over the sink and looking up wide eyed as Jefe’s men burst in, pulling the pistols hidden under their shirt tails. She let out a sigh and shook the image from her mind.
Twenty feet or so behind the kitchen, she saw neat cinder block walls with a gate swung open to reveal a dumpster. She idly wondered who came to pick up the trash at Los Rojos as she crept up to the dumpster and pawed through a jumble of milk crates and boxes stacked next to it.
She stood up and glanced around, then gingerly picked up a crate and set it next to the courtyard wall. Her blood started to surge as she moved quietly in a low crouch between the wall and the dumpster, fetching enough crates to stack against the wall to form a haphazard stair step.
She mused at how she always knew Los Rojos would be an easy place to get into and licked her lips to fight back the panting that welled up in her chest as she thought of what would happen once she was back inside.
She gingerly stepped up on the first crate and sucked in her breath as her weight pressed it into the sand. Placing her palm against the wall for balance, she stepped up on the next stack and felt her body sway as the crates started to lean away from the wall. Hunching down so her head would stay beneath the top of the wall, she stepped up on the last stack. The crates forming the final tier leaned even further away from the wall, threatening to topple out from underneath her feet. Hugging the wall to keep the crates from tumbling down, she eased her head up so her eyes were even with the top of the wall and peeked into the courtyard.
The tuxedoed guards next to the gate leaned against the wall and talked quietly to each other. With all the girls in the parlour, they stood at ease without the guard dog look. Bess had never seen them this way before and they almost looked human. More importantly, they weren’t paying attention.
A lone guard sat in a plastic chair on the walkway in front of the block, casually watching the sidewalk as he waited for the parade of girls to start leading their clients from the parlour back to their rooms.
Bess watched them all for a few moments to confirm what she had always suspected. All their attention was on keeping the girls under control as they went through their nightly routine. The thought of somebody trying to sneak in never crossed their minds.
Bess took a breath, then hoisted herself up on the wall and immediately hugged herself flat against its rounded top. She held her breath and stared at the guards next to the gate. One of them was gesturing to make a point while the other one chuckled at some unheard remark.
She kept her eyes glued on the guards as she crawled towards the block, the stucco grinding through her halter top with a dull scraping. The block guard coughed and looked towards the gate, trying to hear what the others were talking about.
Bess scooted the last few feet to the block and then hoisted herself into a low crouch on its cement roof. She had been so worried about them hearing her scraping along the top of the wall that she forgot about the moon and how its light angled down into the courtyard. She froze as her shadow flitted across the ground. The guards next to the gate stopped talking and jerked their heads around to scan the courtyard.
Bess eased back along the roof of the block and away from the courtyard, but it was too late. One of the guards standing next to the gate yelled out. “Mira Allá!”
Still crouching, Bess backed further away from the courtyard as she unslung her pack and ripped open the zipper with shaking hands. She pulled out one of the bottles and set it on the concrete roof. Barely able to control her hands, she grimaced at the smell of gasoline as it sloshed out of the bottle when she twisted off the lid. It slipped from her hand and the thin clatter of the metal lid hitting the cement sounded like an alarm bell as she fumbled for one of the rolled up strips. Hastily stretching it open, her elbow knocked over the bottle and she scrambled to pick it up as a thin stream of gasoline splashed out onto the roof.
Bess took a deep breath and closed her eyes, freezing her body in place. Goddammit, calm down. A part of her screamed out to hurry up – but she remained frozen, forcing herself to think of the lake and the swells rolling up to the boat. She felt the rhythm of the tiller swaying and the way she shifted her weight just as the water heaved into the side of the hull and splashed over her face.
She opened her eyes and carefully stuffed the strip into the bottle until only an inch of cloth remained. She watched as the gasoline soaked in and then pulled it part way back out, mesmerized by the liquid dripping from the strip and down the side of the bottle.
She stopped for a moment, thinking through the next steps and then fetched the box of matches from her bag.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the guards pointing at her from the gate, yelling more urgently in snarling bursts of alarm. See. They’re surprised. That’s all. They can see you, but they can’t touch you. Breathe.
A grim pulse of pride pulsed through her body as she imagined them to be nothing more than a rolling wave coming towards her, something she could see. Something she could wait for. Something she could push back against. She struck a match and inhaled the smell of sulfur as its flame bloomed to life.
Their hands moved behind their backs.
Bess picked up the bottle, touched the match to the strip and extended her arm to hold the bottle away from her as the strip caught fire and flared up with a glowing yellow flame. She looked into their eyes just as their hands reached their pistols.
With a growling grunt, she heaved the bottle at the wall next to them. She watched the bottle float across the courtyard, entranced by the flickering fire that clung to the strip as it whipped through the air. Then the bottle crashed against the wall and fire leapt out from its insides, licking at the wall and splashing onto the guards.
One of them screamed as flaming gasoline splashed into his face. The other batted wildly at his tuxedo jacked as it was swallowed up by fire and disintegrated into crimson shreds of cloth floating down to the grass like burning leaves. Then his scream, as the fire found his skin and sunk into it like claws of a beast he could not see.
Bess slung her pack over her shoulder and scrambled to the edge of the roof on her hands and knees, her mouth stretched into a snarling grin as she stared wide eyed at her prey like a wild animal.
She heard Jefe’s voice again, booming out over the courtyard as the girls glared at her waiting for their turn to hear the click of an empty chamber or the blast of a single bullet.
Behold the wrath of your fire.
Instinct overwhelmed her then and some invisible force seem to control her movements as her heart pounded with adrenalin.
Crouching like a cat, she slid her knife from its sheath and took three quick breaths as she watched the block guard jump up from his chair. She leapt off the roof to land squarely behind him with a faint thud as she bent deep at the knees to absorb the fall.
In a single swift movement, she pulled the knife up against the guard’s throat and yanked the pistol from the holster clipped to the back of his belt.
The guard snorted and she could feel him starting to say something as she jammed the barrel of the pistol against the base of his neck and leaned forward to whisper in his ear.
“The sharp edge you feel against your throat is a real knife. And that pressure against the back of your head is the barrel of your pistol.”
He started to run to help the burning guards who now writhed in a flaming heap next to the gate. Bess pulled the blade against his throat, opening up a sliver of a wound. She felt his face tighten at the pain. “No. Let them burn. And put your hands behind your head while it’s still attached to your shoulders.”
The guard fumed through his nose and slowly laced his fingers behind his head as Bess moved the pistol to the middle of his back.
“Now listen to me. You need to behave or I’ll pull this blade through your artery and let you bleed out right here on the sidewalk. You believe me, right?” She jabbed the pistol in his back and he nodded slowly, his face tightening in anger.
She wheeled him around to face the parlour as the girls and their clients streamed out onto the sidewalk to see what was happening.
Jefe pushed through the crowd and stopped when he saw the lifeless bodies of his guards burning on the grass.
Bess’s body locked up and she swallowed hard when his azure eyes found her. For a moment, she saw the shock in his eyes. And then it was gone, replaced by the burning hatred of a man whose only purpose in life now was to see her stop breathing.
Jefe glared at the guard she had captured as Bess swiveled the knife to make sure Jefe would see it. Jefe’s voice bellowed from across the courtyard. “What the hell are you doing?”
The guard yelled back, “She’s got my -“
His body lurched. A split second later, Bess heard the shot and saw a wisp of smoke from the barrel of the semi-automatic pistol in Jefe’s hand. The guard slumped, slipped from her hands and crumpled to the ground.
A wailing shriek burst out over the courtyard as the girls screamed and ran towards the wall Bess had climbed just minutes before. Their clients looked like trapped animals as they eyed the gate, now blocked by the burning bodies of the guards. Their eyes darted in panic, desperately looking for another way out. When they couldn’t find one, they ran towards the girls and huddled next to them against the wall.
Bess whirled around, looking for anywhere she could hide. As Jefe leveled his pistol at her, Bess darted into the block and yanked open the door of her old room. She ducked down behind it as bullets ripped splintered holes through the wood just over her head.
Bess swung the pack off her shoulders and pulled out another bottle and strip. She stuffed the strip halfway into the bottle and turned it over to let gasoline drain out and soak the rest of the rag. She grunted as gasoline sprawled across the palm of her hand, realizing she had just saved herself several seconds in preparation time. She smeared her hand along her pant leg and pulled out another match.
From behind the door, she heard Jefe yell out, “Get her!” Running footsteps clomped from across the courtyard and down the sidewalk towards the block as she struck the match. Holding the bottle at arm’s length behind her, she hunkered down and peeked from behind the door, timing their steps as the parlour guards ran towards her. The wave rolled towards her until something inside her snapped on like a switch. Now.
She touched the match to the rag, waited for a moment as the flame engulfed the gasoline-soaked cloth and then heaved it down the sidewalk. The bottle landed just in front of their feet and burst into a small boiling explosion. The guards tried to cover their faces as the fire flashed up and into their bodies.
As the flame and smoke wrapped around them, Bess felt a sickening urge to cry when she saw the round white bulge of their eyes staring back at her as the fire curled away their tuxedoes and ate at their flesh. The frigid determination of cruelty had been stripped away to leave nothing but a pleading agony that begged for just another moment to breathe and make it all stop. All that was left in their last breaths were their screams and the agony of the inevitable. As she watched them writhing, a sickening knot of pity clutched at her as they finally understood what it meant to have everything they were taken away, knowing there was no way to ever get it back.
Didn’t you know?
The fire latched onto one of the poles holding up the awning and started to boil with black curls of smoke that obscured her view of the parlour.
Straining to watch Jefe through the thickening smoke, she whirled back behind the door as the muzzle of his pistol flashed again and bullets ate through the door just inches from where she had crouched just a split second before. A voice called out calmly from deep inside her mind. Six. Three more bullets ate through the door as she hunkered on the steps leading into her room. Nine.
Bess peeked back around the door as the fire latched onto another pole and grew into a small inferno licking at the top of the awning. Oily black smoke billowed out over the courtyard and she could no longer see Jefe or the parlour. Realizing she could hide behind the same smoke, Bess slowly crept from behind the door and along the sidewalk towards the fire.
Jefe’s voice boomed out again from the other side of the smoke. “She’s one fucking girl! Get her!”
The smoke seemed to twitch, a faint swirl drifting just enough for her to detect movement from the other side. She glimpsed the last parlour guard bolting out into the courtyard between the walkway and the gate and around the outside of her smoke screen.
Bess jumped up, took two loping bounds and then rolled onto the grass as the guard spun towards her with his pistol drawn. She heard the shot and then her shoulder felt like somebody had hit her with a hammer. She yelped as reflex took over and she pushed up from the ground, dodging to the side as the guard fired another shot. She pushed in a different direction, closing the distance between them as she pulled her knife from its sheath. The guard turned towards her, trying to level his weapon when she lunged to the side and ripped the blade across the back of his leg.
The guard grimaced, dropped his pistol and grabbed his leg. Tumbling to the ground, he snarled and squealed like a wounded animal as blood soaked through his pant leg. Bess glanced at the pistol lying in the grass, but instinct told her she didn’t have time.
Without thinking, she bounded back behind the cover of the growing fire and its thickening curls of black smoke. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was aware of a nagging soreness in her shoulder. She turned to see blood oozing out of a gash cut along the outside of her shoulder and dripping down her arm. The bullet had ripped through a layer of skin, but her muscle was intact and she didn’t think it had broken any bones. She fished the last halter top from her pack and pressed it against the wound. Grimacing against the pain, she pressed down hard to slow the bleeding while she thought of what to do next.
She hunkered down as shots rang out again and bullets snapped through the air just over her head. She studied the smoke, realizing Jefe was shooting blind. She turned her ear towards the sound as another shot rang out, trying to pinpoint where they were coming from.
As more bullets snapped around her, Bess eased the next bottle out of her pack and prepared the next strip.
“You can’t hide back there forever!” Jefe yelled. He fired three more times and something in her mind snapped. Nine. She wondered if he was counting too or if he was just too mad to care. Either way, he would have to take time to reload again and he didn’t have any guards left to send after her. And if he wasn’t counting… even better.
Bess stood up and stepped out from behind the smoke and into the courtyard. She watched as he tracked her with his pistol, his azure eyes glaring as he kept the barrel pointed straight at her face. His brow creased as he squinted at her and sweat from the heat of the fire dripped down the clenched muscles of his face.
“I am going to miss you Teresita Fuego,” he said. “I mean that. I know you don’t believe me now, but I really am.” She could see his eyes reaching out to her, his gaze a darkened shadow of what she had seen in Teresita Lago’s eyes. The hint of the man she had seen just once was still trapped behind his twisted soul and she could see that he truly wished he could have been somebody different. But he would never find the courage to step out from behind what he had become. All that was left of him now was everything he had ever done. And it had to end. Now.
She looked straight into his eyes and said, “I believe you. I’m the kind of person people miss.” She waved her hand towards the girls standing next to the courtyard wall, their eyes gleaming with anticipation as they stared at the bottle in her hand. “We all are.”
Bess crouched and set the bottle on the grass. She struck another match and held it up as she looked at him. His lips parted in a sneering grin, contorted by the thin wisp of smoke and the ripple of a small heat wave curling up from the match’s burning tip.
“But you, Jefe,” she said, “are not somebody people will miss. You are all pain and earthly strife. You dared call it justice, but it’s just cruelty, leeching the life out of everything you touch. You’re blind, Jefe. Not because you can’t see, but because you refuse to look at the blood dripping from your own hands.”
The image of every man who had stood up for her flashed through her mind. She saw her father’s limpid gaze as his hand slipped away from hers. The sheriff’s body lurched through the air, collapsing in a crumpled heap with eyes wide in death. George’s ivory grin flashed with promises he couldn’t keep as a faceless thug riddled his writhing body with machine gun bullets.
The worst of them all was the faint pop of a lone pistol snuffing out the life of a kind man who had died for the sins of his own son.
Her eyes welled up and she couldn’t help weeping for each of them now, knowing that the sight of Jefe burning in agony could never pay for their sacrifice.
Her words came in a gushing wail. “A real man would have the balls to see that. But you, Jefe… You’re just a coward.”
Bess touched the match to the strip and held it out from her body as the flame swirled up around the cloth.
Jefe’s eyes flickered as his gaze tracked the flaming strip. “Don’t,” he said. He reset his grip on the pistol and stared at her through the site.
Bess pulled her arm back, preparing to throw the bottle.
“Beg me to stop, Jefe. Go ahead. Beg me for your life and I might let you breathe long enough to say goodbye to your daughter.”
Jefe scowled and his eyes drooped as he pulled the trigger.
“This is the only way you will learn, Jefe”
Bess’s lip quivered as his eyes dimmed and the man who had once been a father finally looked back at her and realized his moments were gone.
The ember flared, gripping her in its embrace as she sobbed the last words she would ever say to him. “Because you have refused to let me teach you.”
Her mouth sagged into a sad smile and she tilted her head to the side as she hurled the bottle through the air towards his feet.
Just as he started to turn and run, Bess heard the bottle pop against the concrete and then the concussive whoosh of air as the gasoline exploded into a ball of fire that jumped up and swallowed Jefe’s body in a swirl of orange flame and black smoke.
His face contorted from the pain but his eyes stayed on her, now filled with the same dreaded realization of what it meant to know that his next breath would be his last and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
The flames licked at his face and his flesh started to swell until he could no longer fight against the agonizing pain and let out a howling screech as he fell to his knees.
A young voice leapt out from the wall where the girls were huddled with their clients. “Papa!”
Bess whirled around to see Angela starting to run towards Jefe’s burning body as Leche reached out and pulled her back, curling her arms around her so she couldn’t move.
Jefe reached out for Angela, grasping at nothing that could save him. He looked blankly towards his daughter, his eyes now blinded by the fire that still licked at the blisters of his swollen face, before taking a final gasp of air and crumpling in a flaming heap on the sidewalk.
Bess stared into the eyes of Jefe’s daughter as she clawed at the air, trying to reach out to her father as tears streamed down her face. She remembered her own father as he drew his last breath and slipped away from her. Her mouth quivered as she walked towards Angela, seeing the same look in the girl’s eyes that she knew had been in her own that day.
Bess knelt down in front of Angela and cupped her hand over the girl’s cheek as the rivulets of her tears glistened in the fire light. Bess pulled the picture from her jacket and showed it to Angela. “I know who you are,” she said.
Angela looked at the picture and nodded, then closed her eyes as her body convulsed with sobbing. Bess turned over the picture and read what the old man had written on the back.
“En la oscuridad que nace, la justicia de los angeles.”
“What does it mean?” Leche asked.
Bess tucked the picture into Angela’s palm and said, “In darkness born, the justice of angels.”
Angela opened her eyes, now puffed red and wet with tears that Bess would never forget.
Bess felt her eyes starting to water as she realized that she had done the same thing to Angela as Jefe had done to her. Justice was not righteous. It was cold and agonizing. It’s only merit was to give pause to those who would assail its sanctity – because righting its scales was the most insidious thing she had ever known.
Bess looked into Angela’s eyes and saw the first shadows of a simmering hatred that would never die already setting in.
The other girls stared at Jefe, their faces slack with shock and a vague sense of relief they wouldn’t understand until later. She looked into Teresita Leche’s pale green eyes, now filled with an overwhelming tiredness as the realization that the nightmare was actually over started to set in.
Some of the clients pawed absently at the wall, wallowing in shock and still looking for a way out. Others looked at the ground, probably wishing it would open up and swallow them up right then and there. A few looked at Bess, their eyes strained with a realization that they, too, would need time to fully understand. If, on some lonely night over a beer, one of them explained it to another man who thought he was entranced by the kind of forbidden fruit Los Rojos had once offered, Bess knew the world would be at least a little bit better than it was before.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence