Late January 2008
“Don’t make a sound,” Lucas Rocha whispered to his sisters.
Outside their shack, three men wearing bandannas across their faces were systematically beating his older brother, Patricio. Blood streamed from his mouth and ears. His bare brown chest and arms were so covered by his own blood that the limp-legged teen slipped through their grip and collapsed to the ground.
Death squad, thought Lucas. He gritted his teeth, fear twisting his stomach into knots. He had heard about Esquadrão da Morte. They were vigilantes, paramilitaries who were paid by local business owners to provide protection from thieves. Tonight they had come to discipline Patricio.
“Up,” said the shortest of the militia. “Get him up. I want him on his feet for this. Faça!” He was a squat, pit bull of a man, thick and terrible. He slapped Patricio several times. He seemed analytically indifferent. Patricio’s eyes widened, and he managed a slight grin.
“You have the wrong man,” Patricio said, spitting blood. Even from afar, Lucas could see it was a lie. Patricio knew he was caught. Lucas’s brother was one of the most notorious thieves in the Rio favela.
The squat one signaled to the men holding Patricio. “The left, give me the left,” he said. “Are you left-handed, Rocha?” He sneered. “Maybe I will leave you your good hand.”
“I am—” Patricio had time to say.
The man snapped Patricio’s left pinky.
Patricio began wailing and shaking, struggling against the men who held him fast. The squat man began to laugh now. He had been indifferent to beating Patricio, but pain . . . torture . . . this he seemed to enjoy. Lucas stared in shock, unblinking.
“What do you say to me?” demanded the man. “I want to hear the words, Rocha. Say them. Admit that it was you. Admit that you are the thief.”
No, thought Lucas. More, Patricio. Say you’re sorry. Beg for mercy. Admit to his crimes without contrition and the paramilitaries might punish the rest of the family. Become a snitch or they might even tear apart the Rocha shack, leaving the family homeless.
The man bent Patricio’s ring finger until it snapped. The scream was more horrible than the first, more desperate. They were trying to break him. Lucas felt himself pressing the door of the favela, inching toward the opening. He shouldn’t. His sisters needed him. He was the only one left to protect them. But Patricio—
“SAY IT!” shouted the squat one. He released Patricio’s hand, dropped low, and slammed his clenched fist into Patricio’s stomach. Lucas bit his own lip, drawing blood. Patricio shuddered and began to convulse. The other two militia threw Patricio down and he began crawling in the dirt, retching.
One muttered something to his leader. The squat one glanced toward Lucas and his sisters, who cowered behind him. “Yes,” he said. “If Rocha won’t tell us, his sisters might.”
Patricio held his damaged left hand close to his chest and locked eyes with Lucas, a look of resignation. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed. Then his expression hardened, and he turned to the squat one.
“You hit like a woman,” he said, “which makes sense. A shrimp like you is always the woman of the group.”
God no, thought Lucas. Not like this. Patricio was sacrificing himself. If they killed him, that would end the matter; a death would be enough to satisfy the militia this time.
The squat one began reaching for something in his belt as he strode toward Patricio. Lucas threw open the door and ran at the man. “Get away from him!” he cried. “Get away!”
The man struck him, spinning him to the ground. He spat. “Ease off, kid,” he grunted. “This is the medicine for robbing our clients. Be grateful none of our clients mentioned you.”
The evil glint in his eyes above his mask made it clear to Lucas that this man lived to inflict pain. The squat one began to turn toward Patricio, but the teen had gathered enough strength to prop up his body and kick him squarely in the back of the knees causing him to fall to the ground. His bandanna came free as he rolled to one side. Lucas would never forget his pockmarked face—or the crimson serpent tattooed on his neck. The glint of something on the ground caught his eye. It must have fallen from the man’s pocket. It was Patricio’s switchblade.
Patricio crawled toward his brother, but the other two paramilitaries grabbed him again. He managed a shit-eating grin despite his puffy, bloodied face.
“Too late to say I’m sorry?” he said. A stream of blood oozed from the corner of his mouth.
The pit bull, suddenly calm, stood up and dusted himself off. “Never too late,” he replied. A terrible feeling grew in Lucas’s chest. Casually, as if it were the simplest thing in the world, the pit bull of a man drew a revolver from his waistband and pointed it at Patricio’s face.
“NO!” shouted Lucas from the ground.
The gunshot thundered in the dead of the night.
“Apology accepted,” said the squat one. His tone was flat; Patricio might have otherwise bumped into him on the street for all the emotion he showed.
Lucas couldn’t comprehend what he had just witnessed. The other militiamen regarded Patricio’s body, silent. Fernanda and Inez gaped in horror.
Lucas surged to his feet, snatching up Patricio’s switchblade as he did so. The knife flashed open as Lucas hurled himself at the squat one.
“I’ll kill you!” he shouted. “I’ll KILL YOU!”
The man stepped to the side and brought the barrel of his revolver down across the side of Lucas’s skull, slamming him to the ground. His vision doubled and a wave of nausea swept over him as he retched in the dirt. Lights danced across his vision. The pain was almost blinding.
“Your brother had a lesson to learn,” said the squat one. “Shall we teach you the same lesson? Stubbornness runs in the Rocha family, does it not?”
Lucas clutched his brother’s switchblade. The man’s eyes drifted to the knife, then back to Lucas’s face.
“You may try,” he said, taunting. “But if you do, who will look after your sisters? I know a whorehouse whose owner will pay well for them. But it’s your choice, boy. Are you smarter than your brother?”
Lucas clawed his way to his feet. Shaking, unsteady, he lunged lamely with the knife. The pit bull of a man dodged it easily and, with precise cruelty, smashed the butt of his pistol across Lucas’s forearm. The knife fell from Lucas’s numbed fingers. He nearly passed out from the searing pain and dropped to his knees, moaning. Still, Lucas’s chest swelled with a rage he had never felt before. He met the man’s eyes with a newfound defiance burning within him. Assassin, he thought. I will kill you for this.
“Let’s get out of here,” the man said. “Our job is done.” As the other two paramilitaries retreated, he paused as if a thought had struck him. He leaned close enough that the boy could smell the monster’s rancid cigar breath. Lucas willed himself not to flinch.
“Boy,” he said, grinding a grimy index finger into Lucas’s forehead, “pray we don’t see each other again.” He cast an evil eye toward Fernanda and Inez. “Someone must look out for them, eh? It can be you . . . or it can be me.” He picked up the switchblade and began to leave when he suddenly spun around and tossed the knife, its blade burying deep into the dirt perilously close to Lucas’s hand. “Keep it—something to remember your brother by. But if you steal around here again, I promise you… você é o próximo!
Lucas watched the men go. He stared at his brother’s body as his sisters began to cry.
Você é o próximo.
The words would haunt him. He would hear them in his dreams, reverberating again and again in his sleep. He would see Patricio’s body. He would hear his sisters cry out for their dead brother.
Você é o próximo.