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On a breezy autumn afternoon, Maria Luz Concepcion returned to Guatemala to kill a man. As the airplane banked, its descent through thick clouds brought the first view of her country in almost twenty years. Corrugated mountains, a trackless sea of green and brown. The plane drifted lower. Misty rectangles on hillsides resolved into a patchwork of fields and houses. A serpentine line became a road. A silver flash, a lake.
Once at the gate, Luz joined the rolling wave of deplaning passengers. They all shuffled up the jetway and along an interminable corridor to Luz's first hurdle — Immigration. The tide carried her toward black swinging doors at the far end that swallowed each arrival in turn. Then the doors flapped for her, and she emerged — not in the dark maw of some carnivorous beast but in a bright, echoing room.
As she waited her turn, Luz studied the gatekeepers who stood between her and Martin Benavides: The bald guy with thick Coke-bottle glasses who barely looked at the supplicants but spent tedious minutes flipping each page of every passport. The bulldog-faced woman with the pen stuck in her hair and the crisp khaki uniform. The younger man who asked so many questions.
They held the key to her future, these civil servants in their cages of glass and metal, destined to spend their days in noise and harsh light, vigilant against the undotted i, the uncrossed t. Against criminals, the indigent. Against women planning murder.
The young man beckoned. Luz's stomach rose to her throat. She pasted on a smile when she approached his kiosk. He stuck out a hand for her passport, a first-rate fake that gave her name as Luz Aranda. Once she relinquished it, Luz smoothed her shirt over her hips with damp palms and stood before him, fingers intertwined, mimicking as best she could the decorum of a Catholic schoolgirl at early-morning Mass.
The agent flipped to the photo page. He squinted at her.
Luz no longer believed in God, but the habit of prayer lingered.
Bargaining, really. Dios, por favor. If you'll get me through Immigration, I'l ... What in heaven's name could she promise? Let me go home, so I can kill Martin Benavides. No, keep it simple. Let me in, and I won't ever bother you again.
Luz released her hands and wiggled her bloodless fingers, willing her expression into nonchalance as the man compared her face to the photo. Too late — and unnecessary — he'd already looked down and was riffling through the pages to stamp her entry. Ink-stained hands with fingernails bitten to the quick, a bald spot at the top of his head, photo of a chubby woman holding a snaggle-toothed child tucked in the corner of the glass partition. Not a dragon guarding the gates after all.
Luz beamed when he handed back the passport. She'd taken one more small step toward Martin Benavides' death when the man said, in soft Spanish that reminded Luz of her father, "Señorita, you have been away for a long time."
A long time, yes. Luz pressed her palm against her open mouth as her mother's hand had silenced her screams of terror that last night in Guatemala while they fled blindly in the dark. Pinpoints of lights threaded through the trees and distant gunfire came closer. They ran on.
But that was a long time ago, and this ... this pencil-pusher was not going to block her path. She summoned the spirit of her mother to her side, not the pale and wasted woman in the drab New Hampshire apartment who'd lost all hope, but the beautiful fighter from her childhood. Luz had promised her mother to return.
So she straightened and found her voice, although she hesitated over the fluid cadences of her native language, which she'd seldom used in the months since her mother's death. "I — I had a good job working as a nanny in Florida," Luz lied, "but I missed being home."
The second part, at least, was true.
"Ah, that is a good reason for your beautiful smile. Bienvenida, señorita. Welcome home."
Luz claimed the bulging suitcase containing all she had left in the world. Customs inspectors waved through the throngs of tourists with their dollars or euros to spend on hotels and nice restaurants, on embroidered skirts and handbags, carved masks, tour guides to Mayan ruins, boat rides around Lake Atitlan. But for those with Guatemalan passports, the line dragged as inspectors upended suitcases and poked through the contents to exact the proper duty for every single item purchased abroad.
Luz had receipts for new shoes and a small radio, and she had double and triple-checked her paperwork for the all-important black jar lying, swaddled in layers of clothes, in the center of her suitcase.
Unlike Immigration, however, even the worst stickler at Customs could only gouge her for a few extra quetzales. In any event, it was an efficient woman who totaled the receipts on a handheld calculator and presented Luz with a modest bill.
Taxi drivers swarmed when she walked outside, but she waved them off. Richard had told her to turn left outside the terminal, walk past the taxi stand and a multi-story parking garage to a covered bus stop at the intersection with the main road. Then take the number 83
bus into the city. She was to sit in an empty row on the right side of the bus, near the middle, placing her suitcase so it blocked access to the adjoining seat. After a few stops, a man would get on and ask, in gringo-accented Spanish, if he could sit. He would carry a folded Prensa Libre, the inaccurately-named morning newspaper that was no free press at all but the propaganda arm of the Benavides, which Martin had started a decade earlier when he was still president of the country. The man would leave the newspaper when he got off. In it, Luz would find an envelope containing specifics about the coming days, details about how she would get close enough to kill the man who'd murdered her father.
Beyond the tumult of competing taxi drivers, the sidewalk narrowed. Few arriving passengers slipped through the gauntlet of taxis to take the inexpensive city bus into town. Ahead of Luz, a small boy wrestled with a stroller while his mother, baby on her hip and suitcase in her other hand, tried to help him steer. The group wobbled inches from traffic streaming into the airport. The woman turned as Luz approached. She raised her hand and began a hesitant smile that evaporated when the woman glanced at Luz's heavy suitcase. She dropped her hand, smoothed her child's hair, and swung around.
With the pause in their progress, the little boy let go of the stroller.
One arm wrapped around his mother's leg; the other scratched his cheek. The stroller slid toward the curb.
Three steps and Luz was beside them. She shot out a hand to steady the stroller. "Can I help?"
A line of sweat beaded the woman's upper lip. The baby, red-faced and crying, pulled at her hair. A bundled-up toddler of indeterminate sex lolled in the stroller. "But you have your hands full already," she said.
Luz stifled a chuckle. The boy couldn't be more than three; the child in the stroller looked too young to walk; a baby in arms. "Not nearly as full as yours, señora."
"That is very kind of you." The woman considered her straggling brood. "Perhaps you could carry Tomas?" She grimaced as she untangled a chubby hand from her hair and held out the crying baby.
"Of course," said Luz, regretting her impulsiveness. But the baby, warm and smelling of sour milk, curled against Luz's chest. Tiny fingers clutched the front of her shirt, and with a tremulous shudder, Tomas closed his eyes. Perhaps his reaction was a testimonial to her daycare experience; more likely, the child was simply too spooked to complain.
"I'm Teresa. My children," she said, with a sweep of her chin encompassing infant, little boy, and swaddled child in the stroller.
"We've been visiting my parents." Teresa chattered, self-absorbed, talking over her shoulder about her extended family.
A bus rolled up shortly after the little caravan reached the bus stop.
It was a school bus, in shape and size exactly like the ones Luz had ridden to high school in New Hampshire. There the resemblance ended. This one was painted tomato red. Exuberant drawings of parrots and monkeys decorated white rectangles on the side. Garlands of pink plastic flowers wound around the luggage rack.
Teresa shooed the older boy ahead and then clambered on board, kicking the stroller up one step at a time. Luz followed, baby Tomas in her arms. The boy took the window seat behind the bus driver.
Teresa jammed the stroller next to him and then sat across the aisle.
Teresa scooted over, an invitation. Luz couldn't walk to a seat in the middle holding Teresa's baby. One simple instruction and she'd already screwed up. The baby's soft hair tickled her cheek as her arm tightened around the tiny sleeping bundle. Time to give him back.
When Richard broached the possibility of Luz's participation in his operation, he first spent a long time systematically making his case against the Benavides: their control of the major pipeline funneling cocaine from the fields of Peru via Colombian labs to North American markets; their negotiations with an organized crime distribution ring in the U.S. that would vastly increase the efficiency with which coke found its way to street-corners all over the country; the importance of crippling the cartel before that happened.
Gradually, the noose of his logic tightened, and Luz got a tantalizing glimmer of the question he would pose. By the time Richard suggested she might be the person who could get close enough to kill Martin Benavides, Luz had said simply, yes — but Richard couldn't know the lightness in her limbs as though she had sprouted angel wings and was turning cartwheels in heaven. Dancing for joy at the prospect of killing. She had no business pretending to be a good person.
Luz loosened unresisting fingers from her shirt and planted a feather-light kiss on the baby's head. Tomas arched his back, stared open-mouthed into Luz's forfeit soul, and reached for his mother, who opened her arms to claim him. Luz continued up the aisle alone.
She'd never taken this route from the airport into town. When Luz was little, the closest she got to an airplane was her father pretending to be one as he ran up mountain tracks with her on his back, both of them with their arms outstretched and careening side to side. Laughing. And when she and her mother were evacuated, it was from a postage-stamp mountain clearing. Both of them spattered with her father's blood but alone and mute in their shock, they'd clung together on the floor of the helicopter, its back gaping open, and watched their dizzying ascent as the pilot swerved to avoid incoming flack. Until their life in Guatemala disappeared and only darkness remained.
These sights and smells signaled home, though. Baskets of bananas, oranges, melons. Overripe and redolent in the humid air. Instant saliva created pressure at the back of her throat, a remembered taste of mango. Acrid charcoal smoke mixing with diesel exhaust. Roasting meat. Corn and peppers.
Vendors on every corner — fruit, of course, and other food, but also bootleg DVDs, knock-off watches, lottery tickets — each stand shaded with a tattered tarp lashed to streetlamps and store awnings. Dozens of tinny radios competing for attention. Balconies hung with laundry.
Signs along the roads for the small shops: lavandería, joyería,carnicería, mechánico.
A man sprinted from the farmacia on the corner and hopped on.
He paid the fare, pushed sunglasses to the top of his head. When he walked up the narrow aisle, however, his dark copper hair brushed the low, school-bus ceiling, and the sunglasses slid back. Although he retrieved them with an athletic backhand catch before they hit the dirty floor, a blush spread over his pale cheeks. Hunching his shoulders in a vain attempt to make himself shorter, the man looked briefly at her. His jaw set in a determined frown told Luz he had a job to do. He wasn't a slumming American tourist taking the cheap bus into the city. This had to be her contact.
"Con permiso?" he asked when he got to her.
Luz checked for the newspaper — yes, tucked under his arm.
Without speaking, she began to shift the heavy leather suitcase closer to her feet. It caught against a broken fitting on the seat in front of her. As Luz attempted to maneuver it, the man pushed from his side.
The bus lurched away from the curb, the bag shifted, and the tall man toppled into the seat next to Luz. His nose squashed against her temple. She smelled spicy aftershave.
"Sorry," he said, ears scarlet, freckles standing out on his cheeks.
In Luz's fantasies about her arrival, this contact was always a military man, taciturn. With a crew cut. A gun in a shoulder holster.
A scar on his cheek. But this guy, with his freckles and the totally non-piratical gold hoop in his ear, was hardly older than she and looked like a strong wind would blow him all the way to the ocean.
Whoever these friends of Richard were, she didn't care. They'd provided her plane ticket from Boston to Miami. The hotel in Miami where she'd memorized her new identity and practiced assembling the bomb. Luz had always considered her identity a fluid concept. This latest incarnation hadn't seemed more of a stretch than recreating herself from a daughter of the revolution to, say, the daughter of a broken revolutionary, or from a lonely immigrant child to a smart-alecky teen.
The bomb, though — for Luz, who had trouble programming her damn cellphone, that was a challenge. Speed and precision, her instructor said, were the keys. Luz could do speed or precision, not both. Hurrying fingers never got Tab X precisely into Slot Y. And when she worked for accuracy, the timer always blared with a shrill, adrenalin-heightening jolt.
Luz spent a couple of long, nerve-wracked weeks before muscle memory took over. Once she passed their quizzes, she received her onward plane ticket, some cash, and keys to an apartment here in town.
Now, this stranger would hand over the last details of her mission.
She didn't know how many were involved. Richard, whom she'd known all her life, her American life anyhow. With his bushy eyebrows and hair the reddish-orange of jocotes demarañón, with his staccato bursts of incomprehensible words, Luz had initially regarded Richard as a potentially scary woodland animal — not tooth-and-claw dangerous, but the sort of creature who might jump out at you in the dark. Countless hours spent trekking in the mountains with her father, however, had instilled in Luz an appreciation for watchful patience. Richard's brusque ways got things done in this strange place, yet he was gentle with her bewildered mother. Gradually, Luz stopped seeing Richard as an alien species, recognizing — even at the age of twelve — that she was the alien here.
Curiosity blossomed, and she adopted Richard as her totemic guide to this strange new world. Tracking animals, knowing which plants were good to eat, telling directions by stars and sun — those lessons from her father were precious but of relatively little use in downtown Portsmouth. It was Richard who showed her how to use a blender, chopsticks, the remote control. How to drive a car.
She learned Richard's moods, then his language. She sought his advice, took him to parent-teacher meetings when she could. Got him to chaperone an unforgettable eighth-grade field trip to Canobie Lake where, on the bus ride to and fro, he dazzled the pre-teen boys with magic tricks — instantly elevating her status to okay to sit with in the cafeteria.
In addition to Richard, there was his associate John —"call me John," with a wink to suggest his lack of concern at so transparent a pseudonym — whom Richard had taken her to meet in a State Department conference room. The guys in Miami, both the one who patiently explained the bomb and the one who brought her documents, were definitely military. Or ex-military.
John had used the phrase "off the books" to describe the multi-departmental drug task force he was recruiting to bring down the Benavides. Luz figured he meant something more like "unauthorized and totally illegal." Even if they were acting unofficially, Luz would look the other way with pleasure. They'd given her what she wanted; now she would return the favor.
How had this young man gotten mixed up in Guatemalan politics, though? Luz imagined tapping his arm and asking why he wanted Martin Benavides dead. She didn't realize she'd laughed out loud until he turned, startled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Toward the Light"
Copyright © 2020 Bonnar Spring.
Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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