Thriller & Suspense

Alone at the Gate

By

This book will launch on Dec 10, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒
Synopsis

Julian Keller, at the age of twenty-three, never managed to excel at anything. He’d been defiant as a child, rebellious as a teen, mischievous as a young adult—not to mention good-for-absolutely-nothing, as his mother never tired of reminding him—and is now permanently broke while working as a photo journalist.

After stumbling on an opportunity in Nicaragua in 1978, Julian rises to become an influential smuggler of that harmless plaything for the wealthy called ‘cocaine,’ which he proceeds to fly in from Bolivia. However, buying private planes and LA beachfront mansions with the kind of ease with which he'd once bought chewing gum turns stale once he begins to learn about the inner city crises that his ultimately not-so-harmless merchandise unleashes all over the United States.

Meanwhile, LAPD detective Eric Welsh—whose mother was murdered in Los Angeles when he was ten—emerges from his bleak subsistence as a homicidal vigilante hunting sex offenders when he takes in Sonia, a traumatized twelve-year-old Nicaraguan refugee. While Eric rediscovers life beyond the ambit of vicarious revenge, he bonds with Sonia, watches her grow up, and is in awe of the indomitable strength with which she won’t allow to be defined by what she’s suffered through.

ERIC

Los Angeles, Sunday, January 8, 1978


They say that you need balance in your life. Moderation, everyone from Socrates to Cicero will have you know, is key. Do this a bit and that a bit, and keep an open mind. Get a job, find a spouse, and settle down. Raise some children, find a hobby, take vacations, maintain a pleasant social life, and don’t do anything excessively.

Bullshit, all of it.

Moderation is a sin. A waste of life. Obsession, pure and focused, is worthwhile. Who needs balance when you can have purpose—or, much better yet, revenge? When you get to right a wrong? When you get to gaze into the failing eyes of loathsome men deserving of an agonizing death?

You know—do God’s work?

*

It was almost daybreak. Eric Welsh sat in a window booth at Johnny’s Diner in the seedy eastern section of downtown. The place was almost empty: two tired-looking hookers at a table by the entrance door; a quietly soliloquizing drag queen on a barstool at the far end of the room; an old man at the counter, sound asleep, ten inches from the blaring TV set.

The yawning waitress sauntered past. “More coffee, Detective?”

Eric nodded. “Please.Thanks, Cindy.”

He turned to gaze outside. A solitary sweeping truck lurched by. Wilshire Boulevard was desolate by now, its preceding nightly theater of (badly) hidden drug deals, hookups, scuffles, cries and sirens gone. Across the LA riverbed, a whiff of pale blue light welled up against the blackness of the sky. Eric took a sip, leaned back. This—this quiet and unsullied predawn magic hour—was his favorite time of day.

He checked his watch. Four thirty-five. He’d leave at five. He couldn’t wait.

With each minute that went by, the thrill of anticipation—that incandescent mix of rage and bliss that, through the years, had gradually taken hold of him—suffused him with euphoria no so-called “balance” could provide.

Arthur Brenner—the Downtown Ripper, as he’d been labeled by the press last year—was set to be his prey. Five hours earlier, Eric had been at the bastard’s house, gathering all the evidence he’d need to get him locked up ‘til the end of days.

But did he want that? Bust him on the straight, that is?

Shreds of morning news reverberated from the TV. Something about high inflation rates, and clashes in Cambodia. Record highs of seventy cents for gas, and mounting problems of Iran’s embattled Shah. Jimmy Carter, talking about cutting aid, and issuing sanctions against, some tyrant president in Nicaragua.

Big problems. Global problems. Things that Eric couldn’t do a thing about.

He glanced over at the prostitutes. The blonde was nodding off, a half-smoked cigarette about to burn her hand. The petite Chicana was busy counting crumpled bills. And both of them were unaware that someone who kept murdering prostitutes was working right across the street, behind the counter of a cheap hotel.

Eric turned his gaze from the women to the Liberty Hotel. Brenner’s dark blue Oldsmobile was parked in the adjoining parking lot.His shift would end at six. He’d drive straight home.

He always did. Eric had been watching him all week.

Brenner didn’t know this yet, but today was his last day at work.

Eric ran a thumb across his badge. It said Detective Lieutenant, set in dark blue letters on a bed of polished brass. At just thirty-two, he’d risen quickly through the ranks: SWAT at twenty-three, Detective 1 at Major Crimes, D2 at Robbery Homicide. Two medals of valor, advanced hand-to-hand combat instructor certification, lieutenant since last fall.

But it wasn’t rank or laurels he was after. Nor was it to make chief one day, or—God forbid!—end up at city hall.

Eric’s life was dedicated to revenge. Or, to be more precise, to vicarious retaliation against a man named Alistair, who might or might not be his father. And who’d killed his mum; his tormented mum, who’d found success against all odds and (almost) managed to escape her past. Who’d made it out of London’s East End, immigrated to America, settled in a beachfront home in Malibu, and saved her son from a subsistence in some wretched dead-end life.

Almost. Had it not been for that bastard, Alistair.

Eric willed himself to snap out of his reverie. He got up, pulled out a wad of cash, tossed some bills onto the tabletop, and headed for the door. Time to do, not think.

Soon thereafter, Eric passed by Arthur Brenner’s house again. It was now twenty after five. Brenner wasn’t going to get home for another hour—even on a Sunday morning, the drive would take him at least twenty minutes.

Time to set the trap.

Eric drove another hundred yards, took a right and parked around the corner, out of sight. He checked his weapons, grabbed his leather gloves, got out and walked back to the house.

Brenner’s residence was set up perfectly: a thick-walled LA-craftsman, set back from the street, a spot that was quiet and yet close enough to Pico Boulevard for Eric to go unremembered and unrecognized.

The place looked different in the washed-out early morning light than it had last night in the dark. Less sinister some- how, and much more bland: the yard was plain but neat, the grass mowed and the hedges trimmed, the windows clean, the curtains closed. Eric stopped and cast a surreptitious glance around the street.

Not a move.

He entered the narrow driveway and edged along the right side of the house toward the backyard, which looked as well-kept and yet uninhabited as did the front. There was a patch of grass, two cherry trees, an unembellished wooden bench and little else. He checked the neighbor’s house: a tall fence and a hedge. Only one small window on the northern side faced Brenner’s house. Good.

He reached the back door to the kitchen: inside, clear and open spaces. No kitchen table. Appliances lined up so neatly they looked as if they had been set up with a measuring stick, reminiscent of a model kitchen in a boring furniture department store.

The door lock had been simple, thankfully. An easy pick- and-tension job, without the need to break a thing or leave a mark, when Eric had entered Brenner’s house earlier. He checked his watch again: 5:30. He left the door ajar and stayed outside, crouched down, waiting for his prey to return home.

Thirteen weeks he’d tried to chase this asshole down. Thirteen weeks with almost nothing to go on, and meager investigative resources. A trail of seventeen murdered downtown streetwalkers—every one of whom was either black or Mexi- can to boot—doesn’t exactly get priority treatment in the department: just spic- and negro hookers, so who really gives a shit.

Three nights ago, an unexpected serendipity: Caprice, a prostitute with whom he’d always had a good rapport since having helped her out on solicitation and minor drug possession charges, was attacked near skid row after dark. She not only managed to escape, but also recognized the man who’d strangled her. It was Arthur Brenner. She said she was sure of it, for Brenner was a desk clerk at a low-priced down- town-inn at which she’d serviced traveling business men before. Caprice didn’t talk to cops; didn’t trust them. Except for Eric for some reason, even though he’d never told her that his own late mother back in London was a prostitute.

After finding out where Brenner lived, and checking the hotel staff’s work schedule for the month—Brenner was on night shift through Saturday next week—Eric broke into his house last night.

He had to be sure.

And he got more than he’d hoped for.

Brenner was some kind of hobby photographer, apparently.

Eric came across a homemade darkroom in the basement, which, aside from various chemicals, assorted cameras and other photo gear, contained several storage boxes. Each of them was labeled thoroughly with female first names, street locations and respective dates and times—of death, presumably. Along with strands of hair, acrylic nails, tattered lingerie, and high-heeled shoes.

And photographs.

Hundreds of elaborate and multi-angled close-up shots of almost every strangled prostitute who’d washed up down- town over the course of the past two years.

It was an open-and-shut case.

Eric should have called it in before he broke into a house without a search warrant. He should have followed procedure; arrest and read him his Miranda rights, then drag him off to LA County jail and all that shit. That’s what he should have done, according to proper police protocol.

He heard an engine rev, followed by the sound a bumper makes when clattering against the curb while pulling into a steep driveway. Eric ducked and froze, his hand resting on the holstered pistol grip, hoping Brenner would be entering through the front.

Which, thankfully, he did.

Eric heard the entrance door snap shut, followed by the thumping sounds of heavy shoes that walk on hardwood floors. He slipped in through the back door, weapon drawn, met again by the pervasive scent of lemony floor polish that lingered in the air.

“Good morning, Arthur,” he said calmly.

Brenner’s reaction to a gun-wielding stranger in his house was eerily unfazed. “Who are you?” he asked without ostensible surprise.

Eric swallowed down his rising bile. “Detective Welsh, LAPD, Robbery Homicide.” He paused to gauge the creep’s emotional response. “I’m here to arrest you for the rape and homicide of at least seventeen women between February ‘76 and December ‘78.”

Brenner, dressed in dark brown slacks, a green-and-yellow argyle sweater vest, a checkered sport coat and a flat cap, didn’t flinch.“A Browning Hi-Power,” he stated with a nod at Eric’s gun. “That’s not a department-issued weapon.”

Eric cocked his head, nonplussed. “No, it’s not.”

Brenner made a faint indignant gesture with his hand. “I know. It’s a shame police officers are forced to substitute their arsenal out of pocket. How on Earth is an ancient six-shooter going to stop the kinds of adversaries you’re up against?” He shook his head and clucked his tongue. “I’ve always thought the department should issue semi-automatics. As I’m sure you’re well aware, cities like Chicago or New York have more than twice as many law enforcement officers per capita than LA, and yet the public expects you to stand firm against an increasingly well-armed criminal element with outdated weaponry.”

Brenner sounded rigid and rehearsed; robotic as a politician. Except without the smile.

Eric met his lifeless gaze.“You’re a police buff.”

Brenner nodded. “I was going to be a police officer. Passed Written and Fitness in the top twenty percent.” He sighed. “Didn’t make the cut in Human Relations, though. Politics, you know.”

Eric smirked wryly. “I know.”

Brenner looked like a caricature of an accountant: rimless glasses, pencil mustache, center-parted hair. Average height, average looks, average build; average, average, average, on the face of things. He took off his jacket, put it on a coat hanger by the door and turned back to Eric. “I figured you would come one day. I’ll make some coffee. Can I get you a cup?”

Eric opted to conceal his puzzlement. “No. Thanks.”

“Mind if I have one before we go? I can’t function without coffee.”

Eric nodded, lowered his weapon and stepped aside, keeping his distance while he let Brenner enter the kitchen.

“I’ve always thought the police department doesn’t get the recognition it deserves,” Brenner noted as he shuffled to a kitchen cabinet and raised his hands, “I’ve been—”

Eric raised his gun again. “Careful with your hands.”

Brenner turned around and looked at him. “Detective, I’ve got to get the coffee, and a cup—”

“Just—move slowly. And keep your hands in plain sight.”

“Of course, Detective.”

Brenner did as he was told, accompanying each deliberate move from here on out with questioning side glances. Like an overzealous first-year boot, trying to impress his training officer. Whenever Eric nodded yes for him to go ahead—grabbing coffee, opening drawers, turning on the faucet—Brenner nodded back obediently, without one outer sign of consternation or bewilderment. “I’m gonna go ahead and get some milk from the fridge, if that’s okay.”

“Sure.”

Brenner switched the coffee maker on and waited for the brew to trickle in. Several interminable minutes ticked away, in a scene so utterly bizarre it defied description; two men, lurking on opposite corners of a residential kitchen, locking eyes. Brenner’s were the color of an overcast and dreary sky, but less alive; two vacant blocks of ice. It was an eerie standoff, its utter silence punctuated by the quiet hiss of boiling water trickling through the coffee filter cone.

Then, at last, the coffee maker’s plasticky shut-off click split the air. Brenner made a careful half-turn to his left and filled a cup. Eric, his arms relaxed, his weapon dangling by his side, watched him from across the room.

Brenner turned back, leaned against the kitchen sink, and took a careful sip. “You look familiar,” he said, the first words spoken in what felt like an eternity.“I’m quite sure I’ve seen you in the paper. Aren’t you the one who found the shipping container with those little Burmese girls last year in—San Pedro, was it?”

Eric didn’t answer right away. Just studied Brenner, tried to fathom what could possibly be going on inside his brain. “Sounds like you read the crime beat.”

“Oh, yes. And not just because of my own work,” Brenner noted, slipping the admission of guilt in passing like a minor bagatelle. “That really was a shame, those girls.” His eyes went glassy, the way eyes do when one remembers something wonderful. “They were so young. Some as young as eight or nine, was it?”

Eric fought an overwhelming urge to take a shot at Brenner’s crotch for speaking—for even thinking of those children with that nauseatingly enraptured gaze.

“I’ve always found the rape of little girls sickening,” Brenner went on matter-of-factly. “Girls that age haven’t done anything yet. They’re still innocent.”

A pause.

Women, well now that’s—that’s different, don’t you agree?”

Eric raised his brow. “Different.”

“Yes. I mean, women are never innocent.” The faintest conspiratorial smile flashed across Brenner’s face. “Once women reach adulthood, they all turn into whores,” he stated like a lecturing anthropologist. “So they must all be taken care of. Right?”

Eric forced himself to grin, his grip tightening around the weapon in his hand. “And that’s why you... ‘took care’ of those working girls?”

Brenner set his cup of coffee down. “Of course. I know you can’t; the law won’t allow it. But you would of course, if things were less screwed up in this... permissive cesspool in which this country threatens to descend. Wouldn’t you?” He picked his cup back up. He seemed abuzz somehow, speaking with the stilted intonation of a willing TV-interviewee during some man-on-the-street opinion poll. “I know of course you have to arrest me,” he went on. “Men like me—the kinds of standouts this society of the weakest common denominator has chosen to label ‘criminals’—have to be locked up; silenced; exterminated with the vanishing minority of those who still stand up against Man’s Natural Order. But I will not shy away from telling the reporters about—”

Eric raised his head, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “The reporters?”

Brenner looked at him, his eyes revealing slight surprise. “Well—yes. The media will obviously want to learn about my reasoning and philosophy, and you can tell them I will take interviews from every single—”

Eric had enough. “Stop,” he quietly admonished him.

“Stop. What do you mean, stop? Doubtlessly, the public wants to hear my story and my—”

Eric calmly cut him off again: “Do you really think I’m interested in your reasoning?”

Brenner’s upper lip began to twitch. “Well. You oughta be. And the public surely is. I’ve completed this entire mission for our country’s sake and—”

“You won’t hurt for what you’ve done, will you.”

For the first time since the two stood face to face, Brenner looked perplexed. “Hurt?”

Eric gave a pensive gaze. “Prison won’t even feel like punishment to you, will it. You’re a sociopath. You can’t perceive mental pain.”

Brenner’s stare was blank and sinister at once. “Mental pain. I don’t understand.”

“I know you don’t,” Eric uttered in a mocking sympathetic voice, undeterred by Brenner’s evident bewilderment. “So I ask myself: how can I quench my thirst to make you pay?”

There was another pause, silent and disturbing, like a lull before a monster storm.

Brenner looked, at last, perturbed.

Eric pointed at the ticking kitchen clock.“You hear that? Time’s up.”

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

Then Brenner lunged.

He was surprisingly fast. He grabbed the coffee pot and tried to throw its contents into Eric’s face while storming forward in an amateurish attempt to punch him in the head. Eric sidestepped, pulled, and used his free hand to counter with a mild left jab, hitting Brenner’s chest just hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Brenner gasped and slumped onto the ground, crawling on all fours across the kitchen floor.

“Stay down,” Eric ordered him. He reached into the inside pocket of his leather jacket, pulled out a sound suppressor and screwed it to the barrel of his gun. Then he took his jacket off. He reached down, grabbed Brenner’s leg, flipped him over like a rag doll, and pressed the bunched-up jacket in his face. Then he held up Brenner’s ankle so the dorsum of his left foot faced the back door to the driveway. Brenner seemed to regain some strength and began to struggle again. Eric hit him with a measured but temporarily incapacitating blow to the throat. He let go of Brenner’s ankle and held out his right hand with the firearm as far back as he could, ensuring not to hit him at too close a range.

CLICK.

A single shot, muted by the silencer, ripped through the top of Brenner’s foot and hit the back wall behind him, his scream stifled by the heavy jacket in his face.

“What you have here,” Eric noted in a calmly lecturing tone, holding Brenner’s mouth shut in order not to startle any neighbors who might call 9-1-1,“is some profuse blood loss.” He reholstered his gun and reached over to expose the upper half of Brenner’s face while keeping his mouth gagged. Tears streamed from Brenner’s eyes. His lower leg began to twitch.

Satisfaction flooded Eric like a soothing wave. “Your blood will keep running out,” he commented, “but since I shot your foot, which is as far away from your heart as I can get, it will take some time for you to die.” He stared at Brenner’s face. Still no sign of fear or devastation; only physical pain.

Not good enough.

“You know of course how infamous you’ve become,” Eric went on. “Your capture would be a huge media event.”

Now he thought to see the faintest glint of terror in the back of Brenner’s eyes. “That is, if you actually were ever to be captured,” he clarified, still gauging Brenner’s mien.

Brenner looked, at last, distraught.

This was it. This was what Arthur Brenner sought: relevance. Emergence from obscurity, a legacy. This was his Achilles’ heel.

“You’ll also be interested to know,” Eric said with rising glee, “that once this is over and you’re dead, I’ll tell the press you weren’t who I thought you were; that you were not the notorious Downtown Ripper. That I was wrong and you were just a false lead.” Eric pulled a second pistol from his ankle holster and dangled it before his victim’s face. He smiled. “Recognize your gun? You should. I found it last night in your basement. This is what you fired at me with, after mistaking me for an intruder. You were just a clumsy, quickly-forgotten moron who was dumb enough to open fire at a highly decorated LAPD detective, who clearly identified himself upon entry on the count of exigent circumstances. And then you got yourself shot. Nothing more.”

Eric felt a glorious rush.

He was becoming him. Felt, like him, remorseless pleasure in the suffering of another, a sentiment that terrified and ravished him in equal shares. “You will not get the recognition you’ve been craving for your whole pathetic little life,” he snarled. “No history books will ever show your name. No TV interviews for you, sport. You’ll be no Ted Bundy, no Charles Manson; you will be forgotten in a day. The Downtown Ripper will go down in history as never found, you hear me? Do you hear me, Alistair?!

Eric wasn’t sure what Brenner choked out through the leather jacket that was pressed against his mouth, but it might have been the utterance, “Alistair? Who’s Alistair?

Then Brenner’s head sagged to his right. He was on the verge of passing out. Eric reached into his pocket and yanked out a vial of cocaine he’d confiscated from some dime-bag hoodlum weeks ago. He opened it, tapped half its content onto the back of his hand, pulled away the jacket and blew the powder into Brenner’s gasping face.

It worked. Within seconds, Brenner perked back up.

“Oh no, I won’t let you go just yet,” Eric noted, unaffectedly. “Look at me. LOOK AT ME.

Brenner did, terrified, writhing; as his eyes met Eric’s, more tears streamed down his face.

Eric brought his face within an inch of Brenner’s. “My mother was a prostitute,” he hissed.

Brenner’s gasps grew louder and more panicky. Then a series of convulsions jerked his head and torso back and forth. Eric started laughing so maniacally he almost scared himself. “Stay with me,” he wheezed, slapping Brenner’s face to keep him conscious. “Stay with me, motherfucker, STAY WITH ME.”

He’d seen enough men dying to recognize that Brenner was now close. “My mother was a prostitute,” he said again, floating in a muddled state of craze and grief and ecstasy. He felt like crying suddenly, but forced himself to smirk instead— this sick asshole would not get to see him cry.

A few more gasps, a final twitch, and off the man named Arthur Brenner went, but not before his eyes widened in what Eric was relieved to see was genuine despair.

He checked the scumbag’s pulse. He was gone.

Eric let go of him, rose up, and took a seat. Buzzing with adrenaline, he sat still for a few minutes, waiting for his trembling hands to calm.

Time to clean this up.

He grabbed Brenner, heaved him up, and propped him on a kitchen chair. Twice, the body slumped down again, and Eric had to stabilize it. He put his jacket on and wiped the coke residue off the floor with a wet paper towel. Then he went through Brenner’s jacket on the hanger by the door. He pulled out his wallet and removed a twenty dollar-bill. He dusted it with coke, rolled it into a tight straw and swabbed Brenner’s nostrils with one end of it. He unfolded the rolled-up bill and put it back into Brenner’s wallet, which he then placed into his inner jacket pocket, along with the half-empty vial of cocaine.

Next.

He took Brenner’s pistol and placed it into his cold hand, making sure to get plenty of fresh prints onto the grip and trigger. He fished for Brenner’s car keys, walked out into the driveway, started his car, and slowly rolled it back some fifteen yards. He put it in park and got out, letting the engine idle.

Then he left.

He walked back the hundred yards to his own car and drove off. He circled the block, grabbed the dashboard mic and took a stabilizing breath.“Control,” he called out, “this is One-Henry-twenty-six, I’ve got a code three, in pursuit of a suspect, 148 and possible 187, moving westbound on Pico and South Western Avenue. Suspect appears to have spotted me and failed to comply to my signal, he’s speeding up and—he just took a right on South Gramercy, stops at a residence a half block in, requesting assistance at Pico and South Gramercy!”

He put down the mic, turned right on Gramercy, revved the engine and sped up to Brenner’s house. He stopped in front of it with screeching tires, his car askew. He jumped out, ran back into the driveway and reentered the kitchen, yelling, “Police, put down your weapon, on the floor, on the floor!!

He grabbed Brenner’s lifeless right hand with the gun and guided it to empty the full clip into the wall and floor—the more shots, the lesser the chance of neighbors being able to agree on their exact number. Then, using his Browning, Eric shot a single round into Brenner’s abdomen, aiming at a point of entry that would lead to a prolonged death—just for the unlikely case that someone would request an autopsy and measure serotonin levels.

Almost done.

He retrieved the gun from Brenner’s hand and aligned his body in an angle that supported his premeditated “firefight” scenario. He took off his gloves, stuffed them back into his jacket pocket, and walked out into the front yard, the Browning in one hand and his badge in the other. Frightened faces popped up behind windows in the neighbors’ homes.

Eric held up his badge.“LAPD!” he announced to no one in particular over the sound of sirens closing in.

Moments later, two patrol cars pulled up. “Detective Welsh, Central, Robbery Homicide,” Eric identified himself. He held up Brenner’s gun. “Call an RA-unit, suspect’s down with two gunshot wounds.”

He followed them inside. “Suspect’s down,” he gasped again.

And, since the four officers had their back turned toward him, he allowed himself a smile.


CHAPTER 2


JULIAN

Thursday, July 6, 1978


The customs officer at LAX eyed Julian with a scrutinizing glare. “Anything to declare?” he asked.

“Nope.”

He flipped through Julian’s PanAm boarding pass. “What was the purpose of your visit to Nicaragua?”

”I’m a stringer.”

The man in uniform looked up.“A stringer?”

“A freelance reporter. I was working on a story for Newsweek.” Julian smirked at his grandiloquence. He was a freelance news photographer, sure, but no prestigious magazines like Newsweek were setting up expense accounts for him.

Newsweek, huh?” the officer repeated with a doubtful grin, momentarily distracted by a group of singing Hare Krishnas with their tambourines.“Got any credentials?”

Julian dug out the press card from his breast pocket and handed it over.

The official studied it. “Open your bag, please.”

Julian did as he was told, surprised by his composure. He knew that what he carried would, if discovered, translate into serious trouble. But somehow he kept calm, felt as if he floated in a gentle trance. The officer began to rummage through the camera bag, checking lenses, bodies and accessories, while Julian willed his mind to wander off and reminisce about the past few months: the children of Managua, children of such unspoiled purity their sight had taken Julian’s breath away; students, marching, risking torture and imprisonment amidst their nation’s simmering unrest. And Alejandra. He couldn’t stop thinking about Alejand—

“Open this up for me, please?”

Julian raised his head. “I’m sorry?”

The customs officer held up a camera with a tele lens and

power winder, eyeing the bulky apparatus with a helpless stare.“I don’t know how to—”

“Oh, sorry, of course.” Julian took apart the pieces with the casual know-how of a special forces soldier disassembling his MAC-10. He knew the customs drill: hold up the separate parts, make sure the officer can check that light is falling through the lens, shoot off three empty frames to demonstrate the camera is legit, and all the while he managed to maintain a smile that was just faint enough to come across as friendly, yet not timid or uptight.

The customs officer removed a black bag from a side pocket and held it up. A questioning look.

“Exposed film. Labs are hard to come by in Managua.You can open the bag; the rolls are all sealed.”

He did and peeked inside.“Alright, that’s fine,” he concluded languidly and turned his head, redirecting his gaze toward the next traveler in line.“Have a nice day.”

“Thanks, you too.” Julian repacked his bag with neither hurry nor a too-pointed sluggishness, feeling all the while a rousing sense of bliss. He slung the bag around his shoulder and walked toward the exit gate, feeling positively giddy while suppressing an arising urge to skip. Or readjust the bags he’d duct-taped to his waist.

The reason for his sudden hubris was because until today, he’d not excelled at anything: he’d been defiant as a child, rebellious as a teen, mischievous as a young adult, and mostly unsuccessful as a burgeoning professional. His early school evaluations had been variations of Smart-But: smart but lazy, smart but angry, smart but maladjusted, antisocial, disobedient and recalcitrant. Smart but “good-for-absolutely-fucking-nothing,” as his mother never tired of reminding him through his childhood years.

Today, however, at the age of twenty-three, after having failed at everything he’d ever tried to do, he succeeded and did well. No, he did more than well—he shone. Aside from perhaps the poker tables, the ability to keep a straight face under mental pressure isn’t one for which there are a lot of beneficial application fields, but Julian had discovered one.

Minutes later, he left the terminal. It was July, the air scorching hot, and heavy with the smell of gasoline. Julian hailed a taxi and got in. “Downtown, San Pedro Street,” he summoned the driver, half-expecting to be followed, and amazed that he was not.

He was actually here, home free.

As the cab crawled southbound on Sepulveda Boulevard, Julian’s head was spinning with big numbers: four kilos he’d brought in, which had cost him almost half the cash he’d taken from that German, Günter Speer.

He remembered reading somewhere that cocaine went for something like at least two hundred dollars a gram in the U.S. For the hundredth time, he did the math, and still he thought this couldn’t possibly be right. According to these anecdotal media stats, he was sitting in a cab with close to a million dollars strapped around his waist. A lot of bread for almost anyone, let alone for him—a (barely) self-supporting stringer who, until two weeks ago, was almost broke.

It was dizzying.

The cab merged onto the 105. Julian slumped into his seat and actually chuckled to himself. He felt invincible, felt his head get lighter with each mile he moved away from LAX.

He knew almost nothing about coke; in fact, he’d only ever tried it twice himself. All he knew was that it was expensive, very popular, non-addictive and non-dangerous: he’d seen the swanky magazine ads for cocaine paraphernalia—cutting blades of solid gold, coke spoons made from ivory, and gem-encrusted snorting straws or bullet vials—and what was good enough for football, rock and movie stars could surely not be bad.

The taxicab kept heading east. Julian gazed outside, dead tired and elated all at once. Read street signs and felt pent-up stress dissolve, his mind whirring with euphoria and relief. Slid past Hawthorne, Watts, Compton, and South Whittier. Viewed from up here on the elevated motorway, the notorious ghettos of LA looked benign, and everything he’d seen and suffered through in recent months began to fade.The entire city looked enhanced somehow; brighter, cleaner, more appealing. Strangely enough, it was not the prospect of a lot of money that unleashed this curious surge of giddiness. It was the notion of success, of having, for the lack of a more fitting word, won—done well at something, just this once—that thrilled him.

“You visiting or coming back?”

Julian looked up, his gaze meeting the cab driver’s in the rearview mirror. “Coming back.”

“From where?”

Julian tried to place the driver’s Spanish accent. “Managua.”

“Ah. Lots of trouble there now, no?”

“Yeah. Lots of trouble.”

“So, how you make out?”

“I’m—sorry?”

Eric saw him grin. “Gringos go to South America, they have a shopping list.”

Shopping list? “Forgive me. I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

The driver laughed. “You no go on beach vacation in Nicaragua, no?”

“No. No beach vacation.”

Eric thought to notice an assessing gaze.

“You are reporter?”

“That obvious, huh.”

The cabbie shrugged. “Gringos go to such a place for making money with war, or money with news. You no look like you work for Washington.”

Julian tried to get a better look at him, but all he saw in the rearview mirror were the man’s eyes, the invisibility of other facial features amplifying their inquisitive expressiveness somehow.“Where are you from?”

“Guatemala,” the driver proclaimed, a tacit sense of pride reverberating in his voice. “My father work for American fruit company.”

“How long’ve you been in LA?”

“I come in fifty-five, soon after coup d’état.” He laughed. “I have American aunt in California. I figure if American government get rid of democracy in Guatemala to make money, I go to democracy in America. Make money here.”

Julian nodded, unsure what to make of that. “You came with your family?”

The innocuous question seemed to drain the life from his eyes. “No,” he said, a trace of grief reverberating in his voice. “Just me. No one else.” Then he fell silent.

Julian felt steamrolled by a sudden wave of tiredness. He hadn’t slept much in the last ten days. Too scary and exciting. His unexpected journey from reporter to drug smugg—Geez, he was now a drug smuggler? That sounded serious in his head.

But, technically, that’s what he was.

Strange. As strange as it was to think that only a few weeks ago, he’d been destitute, without much hope to even come up with the cash for his flight back home.

Until, that is, his path had crossed that of one Günter Speer.

*

Four weeks ago, he’d met Speer at the Imperial, the hotel where most of the remaining foreigners hung out at night. Julian had already heard about the dubious gun runner who was supposed to’ve made a fortune after Jimmy Carter called off military aid for Nicaragua’s current rogue regime.

Built in the early 1960s, the modernistic structure looked like something from a Stanley Kubrick film and had once been a tourist spot for millionaires and movie stars. These days, the place was occupied by global crisis-profiteers who stayed there at drastically reduced rates in exchange for putting up with the minor inconvenience of war. On the evening they met, Speer was sitting in a sea of seasoned cynics on the patio by the pool. An unlit cigarette in one hand and an empty shot glass in the other, he was busy leering at some passing prostitutes when someone from the press corps casually introduced the two. The fact that Julian pronounced Speer’s name correctly, which few Americans were able to, caused the previously dismissive-looking German to perk up. “Ah, a fellow coun- tryman, I see!” he hollered in a deep Bavarian drawl.

“Not quite. American. I just happen to know German.” “You’re from where?”

“Detroit. Originally.”

“But how you speak German? I even hear no Ami-accent!”

Speer was drunk. Julian felt uncomfortable in front of the bystanders, most of whom he didn’t know. He’d always had an irrational aversion to being the center of attention, and Speer’s penetrating voice and poignant accent had a way of making rooms fall silent when he spoke.

“My mother was from Germany,” Julian mumbled.

“So you grew up speaking German, then!”

“In part, yes.”

“Then you must sit and have a drink with me.You must! I spend so much time in these foreign shitholes I’m losing my own Muttersprache. Sit! Sit here!”

Julian, feeling ill at ease, sat down anyway. He perched himself onto a sofa close to Speer, hoping the man would cease shouting. But no such luck: “You can’t get a decent beer around these stupid parts!” Speer yelled as if Julian was hard of hearing,“so you will drink whiskey, ja?”

“Gin.”

“Well okay, gin. Hola, linda Liebling,” he hollered over to the barmaid in a Spanish-German muddle, slapping Julian’s back. “Otro whiskey para mi, y una ginebra para mi Freund!”

For the following hours, they sat and Speer rambled on, switching back and forth between German and English. Julian mostly listened. Speer was like a heavy, over-sweetened wine, so pompous it was comical; his laugh too loud, his jokes too lewd, his stories satiated with pomposity. He was in his fifties, short and stout, with thinning grayish hair, a bushy mustache and a close-set pair of little piggy eyes. He acted like a pencil pusher who, after having spent a lifetime in a cubicle, had won the lottery and roamed the world—crude and manner- less, offending everybody in his wake.

For some reason, Julian stuck around. There was something inexplicably compelling about Speer, if mainly for his value as a living cautionary tale. Speer didn’t seem to mind, or even notice, that Julian barely said a word, nor did he show the faintest sign of interest in him—all he needed was a sounding board—and kept spewing out a rambling flood of stories, contemplations, theories, and ideologies.

Remarkably—and surely, Julian figured, attributable to a lifetime spent inside a murky twilight zone of semi-illegality—Speer managed to keep talking without saying much, let alone revealing anything of substance about who he was and what he did.

“Take this advice from me, mein junger Freund,” he muttered at some point, sounding like a tired, drunken high school guidance counselor. “If this”—he raised his hands toward the picture of ambiguity in which they sat—the white-gloved servants and the military guards, the well-dressed diplomatic attachés and long-haired photo journalists, the hookers and the socialites; the high-pitched laughter on the nearby patio and the sporadic bursts of submachine gun fire wafting over from afar—” if this is the life you really want, this perpetual volcano dance of disconnected people who drift from one war to the next—” He stalled again, his gaze enraptured and his mind, it seemed, adrift.“Then you must have a Fluchtplan,” he suddenly snapped back, rubbing his face with the palm of his right hand as if repositioning a mask askew.

Julian turned to look into Speer’s bleary eyes. “An escape plan?”

Jaja, you must always be ready to take off at any time, leave behind... everything. You must not get attached to anyone. And don’t take sides. And never think with your Bauch, I mean your—how do you say, your stomach, your heart.”

Julian feigned attentiveness. “Okay?”

“This is important. You must always have bribe money in your pocket. Like at least a hundred thousand American oder so,” Speer added as if raising this kind of cash was a mere formality. “And passports. You must have several different passports from countries with opposing ideologies, you—you never know which nationality you’ll need to set you free.”

Julian gazed at him. Speer threatened, it appeared, to sag onto the floor. His eyes were dark and cold, inanimate. Like a tired shark, a ravenous lonesome creature, forced to roam the world in constant motion because idleness meant death.

“You see here,” Speer went on, his breath heavy with the smell of whiskey while he arduously bent down to pick up his attaché case. “I have this with me every place I go. It’s my get-out-ticket.” He opened the case halfway, turning it so Julian caught a peek inside: several passports, held together with a rubber band. A few thick manila envelopes, various documents, and what looked like bank books of some kind.

And guns. A pair of semiautomatic guns.

Speer leaned in close. “This, you see,” he slurred, nodding at his sad little getaway-briefcase, “is what you need to have when things go to the Devil, you know.” He looked strangely proud.

Julian raised his brow. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, deciding silently to never end up like this man.

Speer seemed to have reached that late-night tipping point where bluster turns to mush. His head faintly swaying, he stared off into the distance with what looked to be an air of undisclosed dejectedness. “We reach awareness of our inevitable death at the age of—what? Three years old? Four? And then, langsam und allmählich... piece by piece, death becomes more real with every decade that goes down the drain.”

He stalled again, seemingly in thought. Or was he passing out? “And then, one day,” he suddenly went on, his head jerking up as if he’d jolted from a second-nap, “if we’ve lived our life—” He was struggling for words. “If we’ve done good; very, very good; or very, very bad... we welcome it. Welcome... death.” He started hyperventilating, as if holding back a surge of tears.

Julian, uncomfortable and at a loss for words, removed his gaze from Speer to give him time to recollect himself and looked around; took in the mix of characters who gathered like a flock of lost souls in the underworld on this warm night—a night that, at a time of peace, would probably feel boringly genteel, but had now morphed into the manic celebration of an impending civil war that seemed increasingly inevitable: a “volcano dance” indeed, attended by an audience of contemporaries who looked upon this junction with— depending on which side they represented or made money off—distress, excitement or rapacity.

Speer had managed to rise up, if only just. “Then we welcome death,” Julian overheard him say again, much quieter this time, a whisper, as he staggered off.With faltering steps.

And no goodbye.

*

Three weeks went by. Weeks through which the situation in the country escalated by the day. Eyewitness reports of kidnapped student leaders, murdered dissidents and executions in the hinterlands kept mounting, along with evermore preposterous assurances of innocence brought forward by Somoza’s puppet aides that no one bought.

Julian’s meager savings ran out quickly while he roamed the war-torn countryside, trying to come up with leads to stories that would sell. Photos of charred corpses of some local peasant’s children, he knew too well, were about as interesting to western media outlets as a dead cat on the Interstate. A harmed foreigner—a harmed white foreigner, that is—now that’d be a different story. Every newsman knows that one dead white is worth ten thousand blacks or browns.

It was therefore that the posh sedan he spotted off a rural roadside caught his eye—as opposed to the shot-up carriages and pick-up trucks he’d passed. Traveling in a borrowed van while on his way back to Managua from the city of León, Julian saw a white Mercedes in the middle of a forest glade, a couple hundred yards from the deserted road.An idyllic place, the kind of spot one might have chosen for a picnic date.

What Julian found inside the car was not idyllic, but it was surprising and, he realized, a template for a photo feature that might actually sell. Günter Speer, enveloped by a whirring swarm of flies, sat slumped into the backseat of the car. A second man who looked to be of Filipino descent was at the wheel, curiously upright for someone who, judging by the rancid smell and color of his skin, must’ve been dead for days. As Julian watched them, so quiet in that car, he felt no sadness or dismay—the sunlit corpses in that golden early evening light looked too tranquil.

They’d each been hit by several bullets, followed by, it seemed, one respective bullet to the forehead, fired from up close as a final coup de grâce; no one, Julian figured, shoots this accurate between the eyes from far away or in the middle of a heated firefight.

Julian screwed the 24 lens to his camera and started shooting close-ups of the decomposing pair—getting within inches of the bodies with a wide-angle evoked a sense of being in the middle of it all, thus amplifying its sales potential. Not until he moved toward the driver’s side did Julian spot Speer’s coveted “escape kit,” which was, curiously enough, still there, still tucked beneath the dead man’s lifeless arm. Julian ceased taking photos. He raised himself back up and looked around.

He was all alone, at least as far as he could see.

He bent down again and pried the briefcase from Speer’s hand. He pulled it out and opened it. The contents were the same ones he’d seen three weeks earlier: a pile of documents, four manila envelopes with cash, two handguns and four pass- ports, issued in Speer’s name by, respectively, the nations of West Germany, East Germany, Rhodesia and Liechtenstein. While Julian tossed the documents and passports in the back- seat of the car, he was suddenly befallen by a sense of being watched. Paranoid, he spun around again.

Still nothing.

He grabbed the briefcase, hurried to the van, started the engine and took off, heading south toward the capital.

Halfway there, he made a pit stop to throw Speer’s handguns into Lake Xolotlán—he wasn’t sure why he’d even bothered to take them along in the first place—and drove on, feeling equally and simultaneously remorseful and entranced: judging by his fleeting glance, there had to have been tens of thousands of American dollars in those envelopes.

While driving through Managua’s cobbled streets and alleyways—past pockmarked buildings in dilapidated shades of yellow, blue and white, dodging checkpoints, roadblocks, giant potholes and a boisterous protest march—his initial pangs of guilt dispersed and reassembled into sentiments akin to grim resolve: Speer’s weapons fueled Somoza’s sneaking genocide, Julian forced himself to think, which meant his violent death was likely to save countless innocents from theirs.And stealing from a bastard wasn’t truly reprehensible.

Or was it?

By the time he walked into the entrance hall of the hotel, Julian suddenly felt paranoid about the telltale piece of luggage in his hand: the upscale leather attaché case looked about as fitting on him as a feather boa, and the very sight of it screamed Stolen! from afar. He took the stairs, walked past three remaining members of the dwindling staff that through the past few weeks appeared increasingly more ill at ease in view of the impending storm that headed for the capital, and rushed toward his room. He hurried in and locked the door. He placed the briefcase on the bed, snapped open the fasteners, grabbed the envelopes and dumped their contents on the sheets. He stepped back and gasped.

He’d never seen so much money.

Julian shoveled stacks of hundred dollar bills around the bed, like a toddler wallowing in autumn leaves. This was surreal—Monopoly, a heist flick, Scrooge McDuck. What, he couldn’t help but think, would Mother say—he’d referred to her as “Mother” for as long as he remembered because “Mom” had always sounded far too intimate for what she’d been to him—if she got a look at all this money?

Money.

Lamentations over money and the lack thereof were the first things he remembered when he thought of her, along with mental pictures of her hate-filled eyes as she was sitting in the living room. Rambling on about the things she could have done; the careers she could have had; the wealthy men she could have been with had it not been for that “deadbeat” she had married and that “fuckup” she had raised. “You’ll always be a fucking loser!” she’d yell at Julian once she’d reached that point of drunkenness that made her eyes go crazed. “Your sister’s gonna be a lawyer or a doctor,” she would screech, her jaw pushed forward like a rabid pit bull, “and you’ll be digging ditches!”

Digging ditches.

The rather specific task of digging ditches had for some mysterious reason always been her benchmark of complete and utter failing as a human being. Even now, six years after he had left Detroit, her voice still managed to elicit chills in him.

Vicious mothers are like phantom pain that never goes away.

Julian willed himself away from his demented reverie. He walked over to the desk next to the balcony and tore a bottle from his duffel bag. He opened it, took a heavy swig of gin, and slumped onto the bed.

As his solitary evening progressed and Julian got increasingly more drunk, something strange took shape inside his mind until, sometime after midnight, the accumulated cash no longer seemed enough. Suddenly, he couldn’t push away the urge to multiply the haul. He was too inebriated to be certain if this fit of greed was coming from within—the innately human urge for more no matter what—or if it was for reason of his knowledge of a particular piece of information he couldn’t shake: all he needed, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking with a growing sense of urgency, was to get a hold of The Brazilian.

Yes.The Brazilian was the man he had to get in touch with now.

*

“The address?”

Julian’s head bobbed up. “What?”

The cabbie turned to look over his shoulder. He grinned broadly.“Time to wake up, amigo!”

Julian shook his head, as if trying to knock loose a deadlocked cog inside his brain.

Oh. Right. This was six days later and he’d made it back alive, unharmed and unarrested. “Um—it’s—the Blackstone. 34-505 San Pedro Street, you know it?”

“Four blocks up, on right side, right?”

Julian squinted out into the seedy streets of east downtown. “Right.”

Moments later, they arrived. Julian paid, got out and watched the taxi disappear. He looked around, still drowsy as he caught a glimpse of skid row for the first time since he’d left. Less than seven miles and yet a world away from Beverly Hills, the area looked unchanged: condemned buildings, little traffic, decommissioned stores, and long-abandoned factories; used syringes, empty bottles, human waste, all made tolerable somehow by the ever-glistening sun that had a way of sugar- coating the most sordid of environments.

He turned around and headed for the gate.

He’d been residing at the Blackstone, an ancient welfare hotel, for the past two and a half years. Not much atmosphere—save for the nightly staggering-drunks-and-junkies spectacle evocative of footage from a zombie film—but forty bucks a month could not be beat, not in LA.

He climbed eight flights of stairs and entered his abode. Once he’d removed his shabby surplus army jacket and his shirt and pants, he stepped over to the windowsill, grabbed a kitchen knife and began to gently cut and peel the duct tape from his skin.

First the shrink-wrapped, triple-layered plastic bags, then the bundled cash. He’d been very thorough—haunted by visions of a package dropping from his pant leg in front of a customs official or some airline personnel—and the removal procedure took some twenty minutes and a little skin.

Done.

He sighed, relieved, laid out his haul: four kilograms of pure cocaine, or so he’d been assured, and almost fifty grand in cash. Julian’s room—walls the color of a twice-used coffee filter, two plastic bags with clothes, a mattress on the dusty floor—was picturesque in its dereliction.The elevated mood with which he found himself to be suffused was nothing if not healing, or comfortingly numbing at the least. How soothingly distracting from the horrid sights he’d struggled to digest. This, Julian knew—this sense of effervescent buoyancy—he had to feel again.

And again, and again.

He reached into his duffel bag and pulled out sixty-seven rolls of undeveloped Tri-X film. The makeshift darkroom— aside from his two cameras and tattered car, his most valuable possession—took up half the place. As sleep-depleted as he was, Julian was too wired to sit down and pondered for a moment what to do with all his excess energy, and whether he should process a first badge of film.

And then decided not to.

He didn’t want to kill his buzz. Didn’t want to see again the bodies on that hillside near Managua. Didn’t want to be reminded of the wide-eyed children who’d been forced to watch their parents being burned alive. The fearless students who’d stood up to tanks with sticks and rocks while he—Julian, the onetime starry-eyed idealist who’d traveled there to “make a difference” and “expose the truth”—stole money from a wartime profiteer and was now sitting here, back in safe LA, to count his haul.

He picked up a bag of coke and weighed it in his hand against the bag of film. A bag of truth and one of wealth. He paced around the narrow room, and only now he realized he didn’t have a clue how—or where, to whom and for how much—he’d actually sell that valuable powder he’d just smuggled in.

About the author

Born and raised in Germany, Florian Schneider is a former small-time photo journalist turned marginally less small-time advertising photographer. He lives in Southern California with his unbelievably impressive Mexican-American wife. view profile

Published on April 20, 2020

80000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Thriller & Suspense

Enjoyed this review?

Get early access to fresh indie books and help decide on the bestselling stories of tomorrow. Create your free account today.

or

Or sign up with an email address

Create your account

Or sign up with your social account