BY JEREMY RIDDLE
About the author
She was in Ciudad Leon for her grandmother’s birthday. She made the trip south every year; it was the only time the two ever saw one another, but she almost didn’t make it this time. It had been a hard year for Maria. She had met a man, fallen in love, planned to marry, raise children, the whole nine yards. Then, he was gone, and Maria was wounded to her soul at the loss.
She had moped around for months just being miserable about it, and then it was time to go see her grandmother. She loved her grandmother, but she didn’t want to do it. She hadn’t wanted to do anything for a very long time. She finally convinced herself that it was an obligation to be here. She had no illusions that “a change may do her good” in regard to Ciudad Leon; she had grown up there, and the degree to which she missed it was evident by the fact that she had lived in the United States for the last fifteen years.
She showed up, and that’s when the weird shit started happening. Strange noises in the night. Shadows that seemed to follow her wherever she went. Indecipherable whispers on the wind. She felt a presence constantly around her, watching her.
The first night, she had been sitting in her bed about to turn in when she noticed what looked like someone standing outside her window. It was only for a split second, then it was gone. She ran to the window and there was no one outside—there was nowhere anyone could have gone so fast. She chalked it up to imagination and went to bed.
Later that night she awoke and sensed someone in her room, standing at the foot of her bed looking down at her. She stared at impenetrable blackness and listened. Time passed, what seemed like hours, but no sound betrayed the presence of anyone but herself. She had finally drifted off to sleep. This wasn’t her imagination, but perhaps it wasn’t a threat, either, and she was exhausted from the bus ride to Mexico.
The presence never left Maria. She felt it everywhere she went in Ciudad Leon. Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of movement in the corner of her eye, but there was never anything there when she looked. She heard whispers, low voices. Her name, other things she couldn’t make out.
On her third night in town, Maria was attacked as she was coming back from the market. Sort of. A big brute of a man had stepped out of the shadows, grabbed a handful of her blouse, spun her around to face him. He was holding a knife and grunted something that would have probably been a curse before he swallowed all that hooch she smelled on him. As it was, it just came out slurred and incomprehensible, and one shot at it was all he got, because no sooner had he grabbed at Maria’s hair than something came out of the shadows and grabbed a handful of his. He was pulled back into the darkness with a squeal, and Maria ran for it. She could hear a commotion behind her, heard the drunken man start screaming. Then he stopped.
Maria reported the incident to the local cop-shop. A few hours later, a body turned up about a hundred yards from where the attack had taken place. It was the drunk. His eyes had been pierced, his tongue cut out, and his ears sliced off. He had been strung up like a deer from a tree limb and gutted, most of his digestive tract ripped out and left in a washtub set beneath where he was hanging. To catch the overflow. The police didn’t tell Maria any of this, just that they had found the guy, and not to worry about him any more.
Maria hadn’t really been afraid of the presence—it had never seemed threatening, just unnerving. Now she considered whether it was actually a protector of sorts.
The next night was her last in Ciudad Leon, and she dreamed. Her departed lover returned to her. He kissed her and whispered in her ear not to fear. Then, he made love to her and held her in his arms, seeing her through the night. “I still love you,” he told her at the last, then he was gone.
It was a bitter dream, and Maria didn’t talk to anyone for a long time after it.
General Rojas had known Tony Zip since before Johnny had been born, and he could bore shit out of a stone with stories of “the old days,” and frequently did. Rojas and Tony Zip had several common interests, but the important one was drugs. Cocaine. In Columbia, where the military was essentially the enforcement arm of the big cartels, it had made the General quite wealthy; in fact, it was what made him a General in the first place. Tony Zip used his connection to Rojas to rise from cheap hired muscle to multi-millionaire made head of his own organization. The General was of course distressed by news of Tony’s demise and more than happy to do a favor for the son of an old friend.
The “favor” included loan of a posh estate with all the comforts of home, a live-in physician to see Johnny through recovery from his injury, and a guard detail of three dozen soldiers armed with the latest in high-tech weaponry and surveillance gear and the best training in murder techniques the U.S. government could provide. They were there to take care of the Reaper if he showed his non-face anywhere near Johnny Fabrizzi.
Johnny thought this would work. He wasn’t sure about the Reaper. Sam Braden had called him Death, and the thought had shook Johnny up pretty badly at first. Then he had fought the guy, and thought better of it. Johnny had punched him, felt that he was solid, warm, vulnerable to a good right hook. The Reaper had left a flak jacket behind, and whatever Death may be, Johnny Fabrizzi didn’t believe for a second that he needed a flak jacket. Or guns. No, the Reaper was a man. An extraordinary man, no doubt, but a human being and not a monster. Johnny had no doubt the General’s men would make short work of him if he ever turned up.
He never got to find out if he was right or not. On the night of the 1st, he was getting out of the shower, turned, and there was the Reaper, blade at the ready. He sliced Johnny’s handless right arm off at the shoulder without a word, then stuffed it in a bag under his coat, spun on his heel, and walked off, leaving Johnny bleeding on the bathroom floor. The door to Johnny’s room had been forced. The guard posted there was found hanged with a garrote from a ceiling beam and had been skinned alive. Other than this, there was no sign of the Reaper ever having been there. No one saw anything. No one heard anything. Johnny’s doctor found him before he bled to death.
Johnny was all doped up and in agony when he came up with his Grand Scheme. A bounty of $5 million on the literal head of the Reaper. He would hire, by God, the greatest assassins on earth to hunt down and kill his mysterious tormenter! American authorities had most of his stateside assets tied up, but Tony Zip had been smart enough to stash a healthy wad of dough outside the States. Johnny had the $5 million easy, but General Rojas sprung for the bounty. It had burned the General’s pride that the Reaper had so easily circumvented his every precaution. He even agreed to handle all the details. Johnny was certainly in no shape to handle them. Or anything else.
He had another month to put it together.
She came to him in his dreams—his wavering, unstable dreams marred by drugs and pain. She didn’t move or say anything, just stood there, smiling, vibrant, colorful. She was standing under a tree in the sunshine. Sometimes she was there for a few seconds, sometimes it seemed like minutes.
There were voices, too. The voices were trying to explain, but they came and went, fading in and out like bad radio broadcasts. Crystal clear, then garbled, then gone. The woman was important, they told him. Danger. Johnny didn’t understand. He couldn’t yet. He thought his arm was bathing in acid, but it wasn’t even there anymore. Just a ghost, like the woman.
The guy’s name was Santayana, a big, mean Cuban expatriot with a glass eye, a rope scar on his neck, and a lifetime spent in tracking down and taking out supposedly untouchable targets. Rojas contacted him the day after the Reaper whacked off Johnny’s arm. Then Johnny told him he wanted to put up $5 million on the Reaper’s head, so the General advanced Santayana half that amount, and shipped him off to the U.S. The only lead anyone had as to the Reaper’s identity was the fat man, Samuel Braden. Johnny had said Braden may have been working with the Reaper. He had disappeared after the Reaper took Johnny’s hand. It wouldn’t hurt to check it out.
Santayana was gone five days. The General was starting to get anxious for a progress report, when a package arrived from Mexico. It was a small package, about the size of a cigarette carton. Rojas removed the wrapper to discover that it was a cigarette carton. Inside was a blank sheet of paper, a vial containing what appeared to be congealed blood, and Santayana’s glass eye. Rojas huffed and threw the whole mess in the trash.
Start all over again.
He picked up the phone.
What will he take next?
At night, his dreams became more, rather than less, chaotic. The woman was always there, but now she was interspersed with explosions, fire, images of war and death. The voices became more frantic. The woman is essential! Find the woman!
Johnny told no one about the dreams. Kept them to himself, and wondered if he was going insane. The woman had become clearer over time, and he had come to realize she wasn’t a specter haunting him; she was a photograph. A slightly yellowed photo, but clear, and with only a little noticeable wrinkling around the corners. The voices chattered out an endless stream of seemingly meaningless babble, but he had finally caught a woman’s name in all of it. Maria. It had repeated several times through the night. And maybe another name, a Spanish name, he wasn’t sure. Maria. Chicago. Night. Maria. Maria. Static. “Important.”
He wasn’t so afraid of the dreams anymore, but he worried that he wasn’t, because he thought he should be. But he didn’t know why. They were his constant companion throughout his “recovery,” if that’s what it could be called. The voices were nonsensical. They didn’t express coherent thoughts, but they seemed to convey emotion. They were there every time he closed his eyes, urging, at times pleading.
Three weeks after the Reaper had taken his arm, Johnny laid down to sleep for the night and had a different kind of dream. He had been in a closed space. There was nothing he could see—it was black as pitch—but it felt like a closed space. He could hear water dripping somewhere behind him, then he heard a voice. Not the chaotic, static-strewn babble he had become accustomed to, but a cold, piercing voice that came from everywhere at once. The Reaper’s voice.
“One more week.”
Then it was gone, and Johnny woke up screaming, hysterical, all reason and self-control gone. He was like that when his doctor ran in and continued like that until he was held down and given a sedative. After he slipped from consciousness, he had no more dreams that night.
The next day, he could still remember it clearly. He tried to tell himself it had been a dream, but it didn’t seem like any dream he had ever had. Or heard of. It had certainly been a crystal clear jolt after three weeks of an old picture, scenes from war movies, and voices that say nothing but talk all the time anyway.
Just then, General Rojas came in, and, for a while at least, Johnny had to put it all on the back burner and listen to how the General was planning to save his neck in a few days by putting a noose around the Reaper’s. It was an interesting idea.
Death Deals is copyright Jeremy Riddle. It may not be copied or used
for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews.
(Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)