This Thing of Ours
It’s a hot, dry night in 2009 America when it happens. A densely populated and poorly policed town fell under the spell of a group of organized criminals from Mexico, their primary profits coming from the sale of crystal methamphetamine. As is common with many impoverished mortals, the youth of this area are offered up as sacrifices to this old god. They once divided their allegiances by colors and hand-signals, but now they all serve these new masters. This god cares little when a single man or woman, starving for food or a feeling, takes something that isn’t theirs or hurts others for profit. No, what catches his attention is when individuals, such as those in this town, join together in groups or gangs or however they so name it, to take what isn’t theirs or hurt others for profit. He is the god of pirates and bandits, a former king, and a master of negotiation, specifically with the other powers on behalf of his mortal devotees. He is a quiet god, a god of the dark places.
It begins with two men sitting in a car on an empty street in the middle of the night. They are in a formerly commercial area, filled with closed-down warehouses and abandoned factories. The buildings are dark, heavy metal gates are locked with large chains. It is a forgotten area of business, but during it’s time it was central to the success of the first Mafia emigrants from the East coast. Later, after the businesses began to move their operations overseas—to peoples who hold their gods a little closer to their hearts than in America—the urban gangs pillaged the warehouses of any valuables, copper piping, and would use the locations for deals and exchanges. The concrete and cobblestone beneath it was bathed in blood. Faith and free will are more powerful overall, but the power of blood lingers and that can be useful, too.
The two men, Stevie in the driver’s seat and Hector riding shotgun, parked under the only burnt-out streetlamp on the road. The darkness provides them comfort and concealment, but it is also a place where they can watch a fenced-in gravel parking lot, waiting. Stevie watches, not wanting to take his eyes off of the lot for a second, lest he miss something. Hector holds his gun, an automatic 9mm pistol, in his hand, reciting all of the prayers he learned years ago in Sunday school. Stevie notices Hector’s mumbled incantations. “Pay attention,” he says, curt.
Hector looks at him, offended. “We should pray.”
Stevie decides to dismiss the thought, but then says what he was thinking anyway. It comes out more patient than he expected. “You think anyone actually listens? With what we do?”
He had turned to face Hector who, rather than meet his gaze, turns his eyes toward the parking lot. He’s paying attention, but his lips move imperceptibly as he continues to recite his litany of prayers. He calls on an angel of god, his guardian dear. He says the prayer of the Father and the Mother. When he runs out of planned prayers, he simply asks his creator to help their success. He knows it’s sinful, his life and what he does, but he also knows since all the crews were working together anyway, it should be someone from the neighborhood running things. It should be someone who knows the community. Someone who has a sense of honor. It is then that Hector thinks about what Stevie has been thinking about for the hours they’ve already sat there. The death of Theresa Alamada’s mother at the hands of the current gang leader, a man known only to them as Santa Muerte.
Stevie, remembers when he got the call from Theresa’s cousin, a police officer who still had loyalties to those he grew up with, telling him that the woman who had made him lunch on countless summer afternoons had been stabbed to death. She bled out from wounds that were meant to kill her slowly and with considerable pain. This death was a message to Theresa, that much he knew. How she crossed Santa Muerte he didn’t know nor care. There was nothing she could have done that her mother deserved to die, especially like that. Stevie is pulled from these memories when he sees something or someone moving at the fringes of the illuminated area of the parking lot, near the attendant’s shed.
“I just saw something, in the parking lot. I think he’s there already,” Stevie says.
Hector looks up from his prayers, confused, “But we’ve been here for hours? How could he get past us?”
Stevie pulls out his gun, the same kind as Hector’s, and chambers a round. He flicks the safety off.
After a moment, Hector says, “I believe someone hears my prayers. Even sinners can be forgiven.”
Stevie smiles, “Who says we are sinning?” Hector thinks about answering, but chooses not to. Stevie continues, “These guys from the other side of the border, they have respect. They beat and kill and don’t care who gets in the way. We can do it better.” Then after another moment, “No more dead mothers.”
Hector fights back tears. “Did you talk to Theresa’s cousin? The cop?” Stevie nods. “He told me at her wake that she went slow. Stab wounds.”
Stevie feels rage rising in him. He smacks the steering wheel, pain shooting through his hand. Hector watches the lot and Stevie closes his eyes, muttering a silent prayer. He’s interrupted by the sound of an engine. A truck peels around the corner and accelerates up the street, far too fast. If anyone had been on the street, they would have been run down. Santa Muerte’s truck is not a discreet vehicle. It has neon lights, illuminating it whenever the engine is running. It flies past Hector and Stevie and swings into the empty parking lot, circling so that the truck idles with the front of the vehicle facing the street. Silently, Hector and Stevie steel themselves and exit their vehicle, sticking to the shadows.
The driver of the truck, a man who calls himself Buds, and another of Santa Muerte’s associates who dubbed himself Angel exit the vehicle. They amble around the parking lot, trying not to look suspicious but achieving the opposite result. Satisfied that they are the first ones on the scene, Angel takes up a position near the rear of the vehicle, while Buds leans on the front of the truck, smoking a small cigar while he waits. They stand in silence for a few minutes, but Buds hears the rattle of the chain-link fence off to his left. He turns his head, listens, and hears it again. Buds draws his weapon and moves to go check it out, when Angel catches his eye and nods in the opposite direction.
From seemingly out of nowhere, a man appears wearing a black shirt, jeans, and boots. He has sandy blond hair and stubble. He is known by many names—today he calls himself Holloway—but he’s thought of as the Criminal. The Criminal had been waiting there, out of sight, for some time. He always knows more than he lets on. He approaches the two men with his hands raised, palms facing outward. Angel’s gun is at his side, Buds is leveled with the Criminal’s chest.
“Now hold on, compadres. I come for business.” He smiles and the henchmen immediately dismiss him as a fool. Angel hopes they don’t have to kill him; Bud would welcome it, if only to wipe that smile off of his face. Angel moves to the door and opens it. Santa Muerte steps from the vehicle, ready to make good on his deal with the man he knows as Holloway.
The young man is short but stocky. His exposed flesh is covered in tattoos honoring Saint Death, the Mexican death deity represented by a woman—often rendered in poses similar to that of the Virgin Mary—but wearing a skeleton for a face. His hands are tattooed to look like exposed finger bones, beneath torn flesh. His capacity for rage and violence is higher than his capacity for anything else. Even his associates, Angel and Buds, fear him. The Criminal, however, simply keeps smiling. “Howdy hermano, I think you’re gonna like—” he starts to say, but is quieted. Santa Muerte rushes forward and closes his hands around the Criminal’s throat. Santa Muerte’s mind flickers past images of his brother, gunned down in the streets of Jalisco by the police.
“You are not my brother,” Santa Muerte says, his voice barely above a whisper and his face less than an inch from the Criminal’s. He gasps and apologizes for offending. Santa Muerte releases him. The Criminal regards the trio, thinking for the first time since he began dealing with these men that he might not make it out of this alive. He gestures for the men to follow him and they walk towards the attendant’s shack.
“So,” the criminal asks as they walk, “are you a devotee of the Lady of the Seven Powers or do just think skulls and shit are cool?”
Santa Muerte replies, “The lady of the seven what?”
The Criminal stops and points to his tattoos, “Saint Death? That’s one of her names.” The three men are confused, since they have only heard her referred to as Santa Muerte. The Criminal starts counting off on his fingers, “Lady Sebastienne, Lady of the Night, Senora Flaca, La Chica Blanca,” he looks up, his point made. “The list goes on and on. A lot of different cultures see Death as a woman.”
Santa Muerte is by nature impatient and paranoid, “Get on with it, hillbilly.”
The Criminal nods and walks to the door. There are two combination locks holding it shut. The Criminal turns the dials, saying, “Sure, sure. I am interested in all that mythical crap, is all. Actually, the Aztecs? You know, the other pyramids, human sacrifices, all that? Well, their god of death was called Mictlantecuhtli. That one was half skeleton and half living tissue.” The first lock pops open. The Criminal turns to face Santa Muerte, “You know, to symbolize the duality of the dead and the living.”
Despite his earlier impatience, Santa Muerte’s interest is piqued by the Criminal’s chatter. Buds is less impressed, saying in Spanish “Boss tell this bitch to quit running her mouth.” Angel laughs, but Santa Muerte is not amused.
He responds, also in Spanish, “Shut the fuck up. I want to hear this.” Then, in English, he says to the Criminal, “I went to the Saint Death shrine in Tepito, it’s one of the oldest ones. I left an offering of cigarettes and the finest crystal in Mexico. 100% pure methamphetamine. You ever been?”
The second lock pops open and the Criminal disappears into the booth, still talking, “Nope.” Then from inside the booth, he yells to the men, “You know, I heard a story once that lady death was actually one of Adam’s former wives.”
Angel replies, almost involuntarily, “You’re bullshittin’.”
The Criminal emerges holding a locked briefcase, that the men presume holds the drugs they are there to purchase. Buds still hopes he gets to kill the Criminal, and he certainly doesn’t care about all this lady death mumbo-jumbo. “I shit you not. See, apparently, God created man and woman at the same time, Adam and Lilith. Well, I guess Adam wanted to give it to her doggy-style and she wasn’t into it, so she got banished from Eden.”
“Your woman gotta take that shit, yo” Buds says with a grin, in Spanish. The Criminal ignores him and so does his associates.
“So God goes and makes a second wife for Adam, right in front of him. He sees her being assembled and it disgusted him. He wouldn’t touch her.”
Santa Muerte asks, “Why?”
The Criminal sets the briefcase down on a wooden ledge in front of the mesh window where the attendant takes money and hands out tickets. “Well, he saw her made from scratch. Tissue, blood vessels, organs, all that shit. He was repulsed, so this broad was tossed out of Eden, too.”
Buds laughs, saying in Spanish, “Sounds like Adam was a real prick.” The Criminal just smiles while they laugh and shrugs.
“So Eve is technically his third wife. Anyway, the story I heard said that this second chick’s name was Sariel. As she was leaving the garden, she wasn’t looking where she was going and scared a deer. It went to run away, but fell into a ravine, breaking its back. This Sariel felt really guilty, since nothing had died in paradise before. The animal was terrified, so Sariel helped it along into,” the Criminal pauses, unsure of how to phrase it, “well, whatever comes next. Anyway, she did such a good job with the deer, that God asks if she would like to be lady death and escort the spirits of the living after they die. Some story, huh?” He smiles again and unlatches the briefcase, not opening it.
The three gangsters have momentarily forgotten about their business as they take in the story they were told. Santa Muerte touches the tattoo of Saint Death on his neck, wondering if he has pledged devotion to the wrong deity. Angel is confused, deciding ultimately that his first assumption was correct, that man he knew as Holloway was simply making it up. Buds simply decides to relight his cigar. He flicks his lighter a few times, but it doesn’t light. When he next flicks the lighter, everyone else hears the gunshot and watches as the front of Buds’s forehead explodes in a mess of red.
Buds falls to the ground dead and everyone’s eyes focus on Hector and Stevie, having finally climbed over the fence and snuck around from the rear of the lot. Hector’s arms are before him, level with the ground, and he feels resolute and powerful as the smoke trickles from the end of his gun-barrel. He silently dedicates this death to his higher power. In this case, a higher power happens to be listening. There is a moment when everything seems to freeze for the cartel gangsters. Santa Muerte notices in his periphery that the Criminal has opened the briefcase. He starts to turn his head, but feels the cold steel of a gun barrel on his cheek. The Criminal says, in Spanish, “Prepare to meet your lady, asshole.” He pulls the trigger and Santa Muerte dies afraid.
By this time, Angel has his weapon out and rather than fire, turns his head to look for cover. There is none. Stevie, forgetting that he turned the safety off in the car, accidentally flips the safety back on. He pulls the trigger, but nothing happens. Angel smiles, points his weapon at Stevie and pulls the trigger. As if by magic, both the Criminal and Hector think, Angel’s pistol misfires and explodes, mangling his hand. Panicked, Angel clutches the bloody stump to his chest and makes for the truck. Hector raises his weapon, still exhilarated by his righteous kill, and prepares to fire. The Criminal raises his hand and yells, “No Hector! Don’t! It has to be Stevie for this to work.”
Stevie fumbles with the safety and Hector yells back, “He’s gonna make it to the truck. It’s armored!”
The Criminal raises his gun and shoots Angel in the knee. He drops to the ground wailing. Stevie’s gun is ready to fire, but still he hesitates. The Criminal urges him on, “Go on, Stevie. Think of what he did to that woman. Offer up his death to any gods listening.”
Stevie looks at the scared, pleading man, and his mind flashes on Theresa’s mother again. He raises the pistol and says, “Adios” just before pulling the trigger.
Both Hector and the Criminal look at Stevie, the Criminal wearing a smirk. “Adios, Stevie? Really?” Then to himself, “Movies ruin everything.”
Hector looks at him questioningly, too. Stevie says, rattled, “I thought I should say something.”
Hector touches his friend’s shoulder, “You did good.” Then, “But maybe I should do the talking when we tell the crew?” None of the men think the joke is particularly funny, but they all want to laugh to chase away the quiet that follows death. The Criminal pulls some items out of the briefcase, a raven’s feather, a gold coin stamped with a skull-and-crossbones, a candle, a dagger, and three white cards with the words “Numa Pompilius” written on them. The Criminal mumbles something in Latin—with magic the actual words are never as important as the will behind it or the faith it will work—and strokes the edge of the feather. He then holds the coin in his fist and his fist over the flame of the candle. He then pricks his finger with the dagger, dabbing blood on the corners of all the cards.
“What the fuck is all that for?” Hector asks, wary.
Stevie, more terrified than he would ever admit, asks “Are you doing something Satanic?”
The Criminal laughs, “What? No! Demons are stupid, anyway. Nothing to be afraid of.” The Criminal changes his tone, “Look, this is part of the deal. After we do this, you can collect the money these dead assholes brought with them and we’ll be quits okay?”
Hector approaches the makeshift altar and picks up the feather, but hesitates.
Stevie’s panic takes over and he points his gun at the Criminal, “Fuck this! We’re taking the money and if you try to stop us, we’ll just kill you too.”
The Criminal smiles again, saying to himself, “Ooh, betraying the third party. He’ll love that.” Then he looks Stevie in the eyes and imposes his will on the terrified man. “Trust me. You do this and you guys will have it made running this crew. And believe me, dealing with the cartels? You’re gonna need all the help you can get.”
Hector nods and Stevie lowers his gun. They both go through the steps, Hector reverently and Stevie hurriedly. Finally they stand facing each other and the Criminal says, “Okay, now we light the edge of the card with the candle flame, I say a thing, and that’s that. Okay?”
The two men nod, in too deep to not see the thing through. They all touch their cards to the edge of the flame. The Criminal mutters a simple blessing invoking Numa Pompilius and then rubs his hands together, putting out the card. Hector and Stevie do the same. In an instant, there is a fourth person standing in their circle. He is dressed in a purple pinstripe suit, the cut of which was a style popular in 1920’s America. He wears a silver fedora on his head and in the band is a bright, red feather.
Stevie and Hector shout in surprise, Stevie falling down and crawling away from the group in the gravel.
“The ritual was sloppy,” Numa says to the assembled men, “but the cards were a nice touch. You have paid for my protection, but I get the sense you wanted an audience.”
The Criminal lights a cigarette and tries to appear calmer than he is. “I know you guys get a kick out of ceremony.”
Hector whispers, “Jesus Christ.”
Numa’s head spins to make eye contact with him. “Ha! I came and went as a mortal long before that kid. Plus he doesn’t understand business.”
Stevie, regaining his composure and his feet, asks, “Are you in the mob?”
Numa laughs, “Well, I hate to brag, but yes that was me. I have always had a special affection for that part of the world. It’s the closest we ever got to making a religion out of this thing.” Then almost wistfully, “That really would have been something.”
The Criminal exhales a cloud of smoke then says, “I have business I would like to discuss. One of your kind has to go.”
Hector, stunned, “You can whack a god?”
Numa, smiling, says, “Ask Pan. If you can find the hooved fuck.” Then to the Criminal, “We can talk, but not here. I have shielded this place from mortal eyes, but we are still not alone.” Numa is referring to us. To Hector and Stevie he asks, “Does this concern you as well?”
Stevie can barely look at the man in the suit before them, but Hector finds his presence comforting. “No, I don’t think so. We just wanted to take the neighborhood from Santa Muerte.”
Numa looks at the body, “Ah yes. Poor Alvin Clara.”
The Criminal laughs, a choky thing, “His name was ‘Alvin?’” Hector and Stevie fail to find the humor in it.
Numa replies, “Yes. He chose the wrong deity. Sariel hates most interpretations of what she does, you know. She doesn’t cause it or even find it particularly pleasant. Still, like the poor police saps that will have to clean up this mess in the morning, someone has to do the job.” Numa walks towards Hector and Stevie, suddenly holding a gym bag. “Here is the cash from their truck and their pockets. Their jewelry stays. It’s part of the sacrifice. You have my blessing and remember, I am only a prayer away.” Hector and Stevie thank him; Hector dropping to one knee in supplication. Numa liked that. He grabs both men and kisses each cheek. They nod again and run to their car, peeling off to take charge of their crew. Then Numa and the Criminal disappeared from our sight. We didn’t pick up the Criminal again until two weeks later, in Tallahassee.
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