It didn’t look like any police station Bricker had ever seen. And that was saying something. He’d spent more than a few years as an MP in the Marine corps, bounced all over the Middle East and worked out of some grade-A shitholes. But if he were still cashing a government check, this dungeon would take the cake.
His cuffs were way too tight. They dug deep into his wrists. He could feel the blood run down his fingers and drip onto the floor. The Federales had roughed him up pretty good. The big one had a mean right cross. Bricker’s eye was pretty damn-near swollen shut. As per usual though, Lito got the worst of it. He had a tendency to shoot his mouth off and tonight that tendency got the better of him. Bricker wasn’t sure what Lito said to the little Federale, Bricker didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, but man, his words must’ve been choice. It had been a good half hour now and Lito was still unconscious. Bricker hoped he’d come to soon. Somebody had to make it clear to these non-English speaking fucks that he and Lito had no idea how that shit ended up in the Caddy.
Bricker and Lito came to Juarez, Mexico, or “Dirty Vegas” as they’d referred to it ever since they heard Lito’s brother call it that when they were ten, looking to have one last hurrah. They were best friends see. At least they used to be. And both seemed to want to pretend they still were, maybe hoping if they drank enough bad tequila, they could make things go back to the way they used to be. Bricker was leaving on Tuesday for good, moving 1700 miles away. They had a lot of things to put to bed before then.
In this modern world, a man with Bricker’s skill set is in high demand. Once he broke free of the Corps, the private security firms aggressively courted him. He felt like a star pitcher, being pursued by the Yankees and Red Sox. There were endless rounds of country club golf, $60 glasses of scotch and $200 steak dinners. It was fun, feeling wanted like that. You sure didn’t get that kind of treatment in the Corps. Eventually, he settled on an outfit based in Charlotte, NC. A six-figure salary, full benefits, company car, moving costs. Bricker liked to joke that he had hit the lottery. Lito should have been happy for him. Any good friend would have been. But Lito wanted to know where his lottery ticket was.
Years ago, Bricker and Lito went down to the Marine Corps recruiting station together. Bricker actually turned 18, the legal age to enlist, two months before Lito, but he waited to see the recruiter until they were both able. The plan was always to do it together. The two got into a lot of trouble when they were kids. They were smart, but didn’t really apply themselves in school. Colleges wouldn’t take them, but they figured the Corps would. One problem, Lito had a heart murmur.
This was right after 9-11 and the Corps was taking in high school dropouts and convicted felons by the dozens, but apparently a heart murmur was a deal breaker. Bricker quickly made up his mind that he wouldn’t go without his friend. Lito almost let him stay too, until Jenna got a hold of him.
Lito finally stirred, his head pounding, blood spilling from a cut on his forehead. He was alive though and that made him happy. He suddenly burst into laughter. Bricker shook his head. This fucking guy. He couldn’t help but ask:
“What did you say to that asshole?”
“It loses something in the translation,” Lito said, “but let’s just say I compared him unfavorably to Speedy Gonzalez.”
Now Bricker was laughing. It felt good, like the tension was slowly but surely leaving his body. Lito always had that effect on people. Bricker called it “the other side of the coin.” Sure he could, and often did, piss people off like no other, but he could also make a widow laugh at her husband’s funeral.
Lito took a look around the dank hole they were trapped in and shook his head.
“Man, Jenna is gonna be pissed.” He was right.
Bricker knew Jenna exactly as long as he knew Lito. The three of them met in Mrs. Piccola’s first grade class. She was an awkward little girl with pigtails and glasses. Back then, Bricker and Lito couldn’t have been less interested in the opposite sex. When Bricker was eight, he stole Jenna’s retainer and blamed it on the black kid.
When they were twelve, Jenna was the first girl in her class to get boobs, big ones, and Bricker and Lito led mobs that teased her mercilessly. When she hit high school though, this meant she got a lot of attention from older boys. This and a complex situation at home meant she grew up more quickly than the other girls in her grade. As a result, she was wildly confident, borderline aggressive. When she wanted something, she went after it. Straight up seized it. Senior year, she decided she wanted Bricker.
Lito and Jenna had been competing for Bricker’s attention ever since. At least Lito saw it that way. Every second of Bricker’s time was a prize to be won. The problem was, as time went on, Lito won less and less. Jenna always thought Bricker was better than Lito. She said it more than once. Bricker never liked to think he was better than anybody, but he knew what she really meant. It was time to leave the childish bullshit behind. It was time to become a man.
Twelve weeks at Parris Island will make a man out of anyone. Five years bouncing around from war zone to war zone will test that man in everyway imaginable. Bricker never understood how much he had changed until he returned to Las Cruces that first time.
At 21, Lito was the same no good booze-swilling, tow-truck driving pussy hound he was at 18. For good measure, Bricker checked in again at 23 and 25, but things hadn’t changed. It was then that Bricker had to admit to himself, to Jenna and finally to Lito: I am better than this. Lito, I am better than you.
To his credit, Lito took this as a challenge. He may have been an asshole, but he was a determined asshole when he wanted to be. When someone told him he couldn’t do something; he’d generally get up off of his ass and prove them wrong. Lito dedicated the last couple of years to doing just that. He inherited a small used car dealership when his alcoholic Uncle went on a bender and drove into a ravine. Despite some early cash flow problems, he turned the place around. By all accounts, Lito had transformed himself into a bona fide legitimate businessman.
He showed up to Bricker’s house the previous evening looking the part. A beautiful classic Caddy he called “Princess.” Expensive clothes. A haircut he claimed cost him $100. Though Bricker couldn’t imagine why anyone would drop a C-note on a trim.
Jenna didn’t buy Lito’s “transformation” for a second. “He’s a conman,” she said, “always was.” She hypothesized that he’d “borrowed” the car from the dealership, that he’d shoplifted the clothes from JC Penny. “I wouldn’t put it past him.” She figured, new coat of paint aside, he was the same Lito and would just end up getting Bricker into trouble. But more importantly, Jenna reminded Bricker that they had a 1700-mile move to execute. The house was still full of boxes. The U-Haul had to be picked up the next day. Aside from being against the idea of this trip altogether, she also thought it was very poorly timed.
Jenna usually called the shots, Bricker rarely put his foot down, but he did just that here. “I need this, honey. I’m doing it. I have to.” Jenna knew not to argue.
It had taken Lito a few more years than it probably should have, but he finally got his shit together. Bricker was proud of his friend and made up his mind to tell him. He spent the night looking for the perfect place, the perfect moment. The bar with the cockfights was just too loud, too raucous. The strip club they hit after didn’t fit the bill either. Lito was throwing around a lot of money and they had a hell of a time keeping the Chicas out of their laps. After a while, Bricker just stopped trying. They must’ve been in there for two, three hours. And then… Well, that’s when they ran into the Federales.
Bricker and Lito stumbled out of the strip club, drunk and happy to find Mexico’s finest going to work on “Princess” with crowbars and hunting knives. The interior was gutted. The door panels ripped open. By the time Lito got over to them, they were pulling the first AR-15 out of the wheel well.
“This is a God damn setup if I’ve ever seen one,” Lito said, nursing the wound on his head, while pacing feverishly around the mold-infested hut.
Bricker had the same thought. He’d heard stories for years. Most of these Federales weren’t on the up and up. Many spent their days scooping up drunken Gringos on trumped up charges, fishing for bribes. And why were they sitting in this dank hole? Why hadn’t they been taken down to the station and formally charged? Another possibility kept creeping into Bricker’s mind though. He had to put his doubt to bed. He turned to Lito.
“I need you to tell me that you didn’t know those guns were there, that they planted them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lito scoffed. He wouldn’t look Bricker in the eye.
Bricker raised his voice, demanding his friend’s attention.
“Look me in the eye and tell me.”
Lito stared his old friend dead in the eye and with the kindest and sincerest tone he said, “I swear on my mother’s grave, they planted that shit.”
That was all Bricker needed to hear. He could always tell when Lito was lying and he was telling the truth now. Truth or not though, they were still in deep shit. He tried to convince himself that they’d just need to cough up a little dough and then he’d be allowed to go home to Jenna, but it wasn’t working. While overseas, humping a rifle, he developed a sixth-sense; a little tingle inside that told him danger was coming. That sense was screaming right now. He knew things were about to get complicated.
Somehow Lito had nodded off. The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Bricker heard the first shot. BOOM! It sounded like a cannon. It had to have come from a .44. As Lito shot awake, Bricker heard the Federales returning fire with their 9mms. Then: RAT-A-TAT-TAT! An AK-47 roared and the door exploded open.
Two men, clearly well trained, burst in and cleared the room. A third man entered very cautiously and shouted at Bricker and Lito in Spanish. You didn’t need to be fluent to know he wanted them to move.
They stepped over the bullet-ridden bodies of the big and small Federale on the way to a black SUV. They were shoved inside. Seconds later, their heads were covered in burlap bags. The SUV was moving, taking them to God only knows where.
The shack the Federales stuffed them in was a shithole, but this place made that look like the Four Seasons. Bricker could forgive the look of the place, but the stench was getting to him. It smelled like dog food. He remembered hearing stories about a town called Sol de Mayo. There was a Neutro pet food factory there and the whole town supposedly reeked because of it. Best Bricker could tell, they had been taken there.
“Hello, Lito,” their capture, the Man with the Scar, said.
The words stung. Lito knew this man, knew him well. Bricker was angry that Lito had lied to him. But more than anything, he was angry that he couldn’t tell. He could always tell. Had he lost it? Had they lost that connection? He wasn’t sure what that said about him, about their friendship.
Bricker turned to Lito, expecting an explanation, an apology, but none came. In fact, Lito wasn’t the least bit concerned that Bricker had found out, that he had been outed. He was too scared of the Man with the Scar to care. In the 20+ years he’d known Lito, Bricker couldn’t remember ever seeing him the least bit frightened. This was a guy who got off on running from the police, who savored the opportunity to throw his fists around. But here, man, it looked like Lito was about to piss himself.
The Man with the Scar got right up in Lito’s face.
“Where are my weapons?!”
“The Federales. Someone must’ve tipped them off. They got everything,” Lito said, his voice trembling.
The Man with the Scar smacked Lito with the back of his hand. Lito’s lip split wide open. The Man with the Scar then focused his penetrating gaze upon Bricker.
“Who is this man?”
“I’m…” Lito cut Bricker off mid-sentence.
“He’s a friend. From high school. Works at the dealership.”
It occurred to Bricker that his wallet and his identification were gone. The Federales had confiscated them. There was seemingly no way for this behemoth to verify Lito’s story.
“What is your name?” The Man with the Scar demanded.
“Ben. Ben Johnson.” Bricker said, thinking fast. Ben Johnson was the name he used to feed cops and store security guards when he got in trouble as a kid.
Right around noon, Lito found a quiet moment and finally tried to apologize. It was amazing how he’d rationalized everything. As per usual, nothing was his fault. He had no other choice. The dealership was in trouble. He needed money and couldn’t get a loan. A Mexican Cartel member offered him a pile of cash to smuggle in some guns. It was easy. No one suspected a well-dressed white man crossing the border. The dealership made it even easier. He used a different car each time, made it harder for the Border Guards to recognize him. After a few trips, Lito had earned enough to save his Uncle’s business, got the new car, some fancy duds. Each time he went out, he swore to himself it’d be his last, but the money was just too good. He got used to it, addicted to it.
Bricker wouldn’t look at Lito though. He wouldn’t say a thing. He knew his friend could handle being screamed at, but the silent treatment always did drive him crazy. Bricker made a promise to himself right then and there. Once he was out of this, and he would get out of this, he was never going to speak to Lito again.
4pm, the hottest part of the day. It was well over a hundred degrees outside and needless to say, the shack wasn’t air-conditioned. Sweat was pouring down Bricker’s face. He looked and felt like he had been sprayed with a garden hose. The heat was less troubling though, than the thought of Jenna, sitting at home, waiting. He was supposed to be back late last night. He was supposed to pick up the U-Haul a few hours ago. She probably tried his cell phone a hundred times. The Federales had thrown it against the wall the night before, busted it all up. It’d just go straight to voicemail. She probably tried to call the police, but since he hadn’t been gone for 48 hours, they’d tell her to sit tight, that they couldn’t do anything for her. Being in this mess sucked, but he could handle it, he’d been in jams before. But the thought of her worried and panicked. That was something he just couldn’t deal with.
Bricker and Lito were ushered into the next room. On the table, were two large packs, two canteens, a few army-issue ration packs, night vision goggles, a GPS device and a six-shot revolver. Lito was confused, but Bricker was not. He knew what was coming. The AR-15s were gone, seized by the Federales. Lito owed the Cartel now. And if Lito owed them, Bricker owed them too. This is how they were going to pay down their debt.
The Man with the Scar explained that the packs each contained 50 pounds of black tar heroine. The value of heroine depends on its potency, but Bricker figured he had to be staring at millions of dollars in product. Their job was to carry this into the United States. A brutal 75-mile hike that would take them over some of the harshest terrain imaginable.
The Border Patrol had really stepped their game up recently. It was getting harder and harder to sneak a package through one of the major points of entry. Not that the cartels didn’t try anything and everything. Last Bricker heard, they were stuffing cocaine into shark carcasses. But these days it was a higher percentage bet to strap a pack on a Mexican desperate for money and send him into the desert. Seemingly once a week, Bricker read about a drug mule dying while trying to cross into New Mexico. Hunger. Dehydration. Hundred-degree heat. Rival smugglers. Crazed vigilantes. It was becoming such a problem that the Border Patrol had started bringing in expert trackers to deal with it. Bricker would have no problem putting a slug between the eyes of some scumbag smuggler, but what if some crusading cop got in his way? He knew he’d do whatever it took to get back to Jenna. The thought gave him chills. A lot of blood would be spilled before this was all over. Fucking Lito.
“You will deliver in five days,” the Man with the Scar said.
Bricker was floored. “Maybe I could swing that, on my own. But there’s no way I can carry both bags. I can’t do this alone. And with his useless ass,” he motioned to Lito, “we’re going to need at least seven.”
The Man with the Scar made it clear, they would deliver the product to the provided coordinates in five days or they would die. There was no negotiating. No exceptions. Bricker and Lito were each given a new pair of boots. The same brand and style the Border Patrol wears. Bricker knew this would make them much harder to track. The two men were ushered back into the adjoining room and told to get some sleep. They would be leaving at nightfall.
Somehow, Lito had managed to doze off. It never failed to surprise Bricker. That asshole could sleep through a nuclear war. Bricker used to have trouble getting to sleep even under ideal conditions, but he had made some progress over the years. Doing a tour overseas, you either learn to sleep during some hairy situations, or you don’t sleep at all. Now was not the time though. The seconds were ticking away. At nightfall they’d be pushed out into that desert. He didn’t intend to be around then. Bricker was glad Lito was out. It meant he wouldn’t have to see the look on his old friend’s face when he realized he was being left behind. After all that had happened, it was surprisingly easy.
There had been something building inside Bricker over the last twelve-plus hours, something he thought he had left overseas. That fire in his belly. The thirst to stay alive. That indescribable something that allows a man to take a life. Jenna had seen it rear its ugly head once or twice. A tense situation at a bar one night. That time some drunk idiot almost ran them off the road. She saw it and it scared the shit out of her. Bricker spent every waking moment trying to keep the monster inside of him locked up in a cage, but now he simply had to let it out…
The first guard went down quickly and quietly. When the man’s neck cracked, the hair on the back of Bricker’s neck stood up. He felt a charge running through his body, a high. It made him feel fully alive for the first time in a long while.
Bricker got a hold of a second guard and smashed a knee into the man’s face over and over again. The Guard eventually went limp in Bricker’s hands. He stuffed the body into a broom closet and moved on. He used a jagged piece of broken window glass to peel open the Third Guard’s throat. Bricker cut his hand badly in the process. There was so much blood. His. Theirs. But Bricker simply did not care. He was running in the red now. The adrenaline must have clouded his judgment, impaired his senses, because he never saw the Man with the Scar. He just felt the board crack over the top of his head.
As a bucket of water blasted him in the face, Bricker shot awake. His head felt like Neil Peart was playing a drum solo inside it. Man, he needed an aspirin. No time though. A Cartel Goon approached, a shit-eating grin on his face. Somehow, he was holding Bricker’s driver’s license. Now, they knew everything.
“Hello, Mr. Bricker. Someone would like to speak with you.” The Goon jammed a cell phone into Bricker’s hand.
“Hello. Bricker?!” Jenna was on the line. She sounded downright terrified.
Bricker struggled with the two men holding him down, but it was no use. The Cartel Goon smiled devilishly.
On the other end of the line, Jenna screamed. A man snatched the phone from her and started talking. Bricker recognized the voice instantly. It was the Man with the Scar!
“No more bullshit. We have your wife. You have five days to deliver the product.”