In that space along the South Texas border where cartel money and violence collide, appearances can be deceiving…
“We need to keep an eye on that Acuña boy,” Frank Ramirez said. “He lives in my barrio. And let me tell you, he is running with the Infiernos gang.”
The “Acuña boy” was actually not a boy at all—but a legal adult of eighteen, as was Patrick O’Brien, to whom Frank Ramirez was speaking. O’Brien and Ramirez were the night watchmen at the Longworth’s Ford dealership in El Paso, Texas. The two of them had been working together on the 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. shift for about four months.
O’Brien gave Ramirez a skeptical look. “Ah, Frank, Como se dice en español, ver es creer. Seeing is believing, right? José was in my graduating class at Elliston High School. He’s a good guy at heart, if a little rough around the edges. No podemos juzgar—”
“I’m not judging,” Ramirez shot back. “I’m simply stating what everyone already knows. I see who the boy runs with. I’ve seen his tattoos.”
They were walking the perimeter of the dealership. It was long after dark. Moths fluttered around the halogen parking lot lights, suspended on poles high overhead. Ramirez and O’Brien were surrounded by rows and rows of vehicles: trucks and SUVs and every kind of sedan manufactured by the Ford Motor Company.
“And please, Pat, no more Spanish,” Ramirez said. “I haven’t spoken the language much since my grandfather died—more than thirty years ago. You’re the one who speaks fluent Spanish. I know you spent those summers at the language school in Mexico.”
O’Brien nodded. He had taken four years of Spanish at Elliston High School; and he had indeed spent the past two summers in Mexico. “Okay. I like to practice my Spanish because it’s handy in El Paso; but we can speak only English if you prefer. Anyway, Frank, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about José.”
“He has a red devil tattoo on his bicep!” Ramirez said. “That’s the symbol for the Infiernos gang.” The Infiernos gang was one of the major drug cartels in northern Mexico.
“Anyone can have a red devil tattoo,” O’Brien retorted. “That’s a pretty generic design. You’re judging him by his ethnicity and his class.”
“Pat, that’s ridiculous. I’m Mexican-American too, don’t forget. So don’t give me that politically correct mumbo jumbo. A wealthy white kid like you has no idea what it’s like to live in the barrio. Political correctness is a luxury that I can’t afford. Come on, let’s head over to the guard shack. We can make another round of the lot at midnight.”
Soon they were sitting in the little guard shack, listening to the radio. Tim McGraw was singing “Don’t Take the Girl” when Ramirez spotted José Acuña emerging from between two rows of SUVs.
José Acuña also worked at the dealership. The owner, Fred Longworth, paid Acuña minimum wage to wash cars, clean the showroom, and organize the spare parts in the service area.
“Is Acuña on the schedule tonight?” Ramirez asked, looking through the thin glass. His tone implied that he thought otherwise.
“He sure is,” O’Brien said, tapping a clipboard with a Longworth Ford promotional pen. “His name is right here: nine to five, just like us.”
“Well, it looks to me like he’s creeping around.”
“What exactly do you want him to do?” O’Brien laughed. “Should he walk around banging a gong?”
“It just seemed to me that he was creeping, that’s all.”
Ramirez returned his attention to the copy of Sports Illustrated that lay open on his lap. After a pause of perhaps a minute he said. “To tell you the truth, Patrick, I am a little on the edgy side. After everything that’s been in the headlines recently: the gang wars, the thefts at West Texas Honda, and then the discovery of those coolers in Juarez—right across the border.” Ramirez shuddered. “My God, that was ghastly.”
“Yes, it was.”
“Why do you think that the Mexican cartels cut their victims’ heads off like that? I mean, is that really necessary? When you’re dead, you’re dead, after all.”
O’Brien shrugged. “Not sure. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that it’s just a scare tactic. Wouldn’t you think twice about crossing someone if you knew that they were going to cut your head off?”
The thought gave Ramirez a shiver. “I’d prefer not to think about such things.”
“Well, don’t think about them, then. I’m sure not. Why would you want to worry about Mexican gangsters cutting people’s heads off when you could be thinking about….swimsuit models?”
Ramirez gave O’Brien an obligatory laugh. The kid had a way of cheering him up sometimes. Yes, some people would have suggested that he worried too much about the Mexican drug cartels. But it would be easier not to worry about them if you didn’t live in El Paso. The Texas border town was literally right next door to the Mexican town of Juarez, where two drug cartels were now engaged in a turf war.
The Infiernos gang’s war with their rival, the Chihuahua Junta, was characterized by bloodshed that could rival anything in Iraq or Afghanistan. Last week an anonymous caller had notified Mexican police that five coolers “with significant contents” had been left along one of the main highways near Juarez. The police went to the location specified by the tip. There were indeed five coolers along the highway: each one contained a severed human head packed in dry ice.
“Those heads in the coolers,” Ramirez said aloud. “Were those members of the Infiernos gang or the Chihuahua Junta gang?”
“You’re still thinking about those heads? Man, don’t take this the wrong way, Frank; but you can be a drag sometimes.”
“Sorry.” The younger man’s rebuke made Ramirez feel like a bit of a fuddy-duddy.
“I think the victims were from the Chihuahua Junta,” O’Brien said. “And what is their symbol again?”
“Their symbol. The Infiernos identify themselves with a red devil tattoo. What about the Chihuahua Junta members?”
“Uh, I think it’s a snake.”
“Like a rattlesnake?”
“No. A cobra, I think.” Ramirez snorted. “There are no cobras in Mexico.”
“Well, what do you want me to tell you? Maybe the Chihuahua Junta doesn’t realize that.”
“Stupid gangsters. Idiots.” Ramirez said. “You know, I’m still thinking about how one of those gangs stole eight cars from West Texas Honda last month. Did you hear the whole story? They pulled up in the middle of the night with a car carrier truck, shot the security guard in the back of the head, and then stole those cars. Just like that.”
“I know,” O’Brien said. “I read about it in the paper, too. That’s why Fred Longworth insists that there are two security guards on the night shift. That’s also why we have that shotgun in the locker.” He gestured to the locker in the corner of the guard shack. “I think we’re safe.”
But Ramirez did not feel safe. And despite O’Brien’s naïve assessment of José Acuña, Ramirez believed that the other young man was involved with the Infiernos gang. He had heard the gossip in the barrio. And where there was smoke, there was usually fire.
The cartels had recently begun recruiting Mexican-American teenagers to do their bidding in the U.S. These youths were perfect agents for the cartels, because of their dual perspective. On one hand, they could speak Spanish and were familiar with Mexican culture. At the same time, their status as American citizens gave them the ability to operate freely in the United States.
Ramirez had first learned of the practice from a feature report on CNN. The cartels recruited American teens to be “sleeper agents.” They were paid a retainer of perhaps five hundred or a thousand dollars per week—a lot of money to an American kid, but pennies to the cartels. Then when it was time to carry out a job—a narcotics drop-off, a kidnapping, or perhaps a contract murder—the cartels gave their young agents bonuses. For murder, an American teen might receive as much as $50,000.
The cartels had thought of everything. They even sent the kids down to Mexico for intensive training in weapons handling, car theft, and other black arts of the criminal underworld.
This practice reminded Ramirez of those al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, where Bin Laden & Company churned out jihadis. What the Mexican cartels were doing really wasn’t so different, when you thought about it.
“You’ve seen those stories about Mexican cartels recruiting high school kids, right?” he asked O’Brien.
“Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em.”
“And what do you think about that?”
O’Brien tilted back in his chair and folded his arms. “I think it’s mostly an urban legend, something cooked up to justify the racial profiling of Hispanic kids. That’s what I think.”
Ramirez laughed. “Pat, you are a good kid; but you are incredibly naïve.”
“Coming from you, Frank, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Okay, okay. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions here. But—” Ramirez squinted into the parking lot, which now looked quite surreal and incredibly lonely beneath the halogen lights. “I wonder where José Acuña is.”
“He’s probably mopping up the floor of the service building about now.”
“I don’t see any lights on in the service building.”
“I think that Longworth also wanted him to put temporary plates on some cars out in the lot.”
“Wouldn’t we be able to see him if that were the case?”
“Not if he’s in one of the back rows. And we can’t see the east lot at all from here.”
Ramirez nodded. He had told Fred Longworth just the other day that the dealership needed a security camera system. This would allow them to monitor various points on the lot from monitors inside the guard shack. Longworth had expressed general agreement with the idea; but the tightwad hadn’t actually committed to purchasing the equipment.
“Well, then we would have seen the beam from his flashlight by now.”
O’Brien sighed. “Frank, you’re such a worrywart.” He glanced at his watch. “Would it make you feel better if I went out and checked on José?”
“Yeah, why don’t you do that? I want to write up a formal memo for Longworth about that security camera system we need while I’m thinking of it. Then come back and we’ll make another round of the perimeter together.”
“Okay. I’m sick of sitting here anyway.” O’Brien stood up.
“Do you want to take the shotgun?”
O’Brien waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t need it. José Acuña’s out there if I get in jam.”
“There you go again.”
“No, there you go again.”
Ramirez watched O’Brien as he headed out the door. For a moment he felt intense envy for the younger man. How wonderful it would be to view the world from an eighteen-year-old’s perspective again. At that age you were only vaguely aware the concept of death, and ignorant of the degree of human evil that inhabited this world.
What does Patrick O’Brien know about death? To him it is little more than an abstraction, Ramirez thought. Well, I hope he lives a long time before he has to find out otherwise.
Ramirez went to work on the memo for Fred Longworth. He had been writing in longhand for more than an hour before he was finished. He was quite satisfied with his results, confident that he had laid out all the reasons why the security camera system was necessary.
Now the old man won’t be able to hem and haw when I ask him about buying it.
Afterward, Ramirez slouched back in his chair and relaxed. He began to consider the different kinds of security camera systems that he had seen in catalogs and on the Internet. That was one detail he had omitted from his memo. He should make a recommendation of a specific brand and model.
Then Ramirez sat up straight in his chair, thoughts of security camera systems instantly forgotten.
Where was O’Brien?
He should have returned by now. He was supposed to have checked on José Acuña, then come right back to the guard shack.
Although Ramirez was anxious, he was not seriously worried at this point. Acuña was more than capable of pilfering money or merchandise from the dealership; but he was unlikely to harm O’Brien. Acuña was not that brazen; after all, he was maintaining a guise of respectability by working here at the dealership. A lot of the gangsters didn’t even bother with conventional jobs.
The most likely explanation was that O’Brien had struck up a conversation with Acuña. The two youths were acquainted from high school, and it was obvious that O’Brien—Ramirez’s warnings notwithstanding—regarded Acuña as his friend. They had graduated just a few months ago. (Or at least O’Brien had graduated; Ramirez was not sure if Acuña had even earned a diploma.) They were probably palavering about their school days—football games and parties and, of course, girls. The young girls nowadays were so free and easy that they often shocked Ramirez; so the two young men probably did have a lot to reminisce about in this area.
Ramirez stood up and donned the billed cap that matched his security guard uniform. He briefly thought about taking the shotgun with him but decided against it. He had not yet memorized the combination to the locker. Somewhere amid the mass of papers strewn across the little table that served as the desk of the guard shack, there was a slip of paper that bore the combination. He could take a few minutes to find that slip of paper; but he did not think it was really necessary to take the shotgun. And he knew that Patrick O’Brien would razz him again for being a worrywart if walked out there armed to the teeth.
“Patrick O’Brien, you are a good kid but you have a lot to learn about the world,” Ramirez said aloud to himself as he exited the guard shack.
He scanned the long rows of vehicles and the cluster of buildings that comprised the dealership. There was no sign of either O’Brien or Acuña. The service garage was completely dark except for a small security light that glowed above the employees’ entrance. The interior of the showroom building was lit up as usual; this building was always illuminated because of its obvious appeal to thieves. Ramirez saw no one inside the showroom—just the display vehicles, and the empty desks of the dayshift salespeople.
Where are those two?
Ramirez turned and headed in the direction of the east lot. Maybe Acuña had been attaching temporary license plates to some of the vehicles in this area, as O’Brien had suggested.
But there did not seem to be anyone in the east lot, either. Ramirez looked back and forth across the rooftops and hoods of several rows of Mustangs and Ford Escapes. Nothing but vehicles back here.
We really do need a security camera in the east lot, he thought. The east lot is a real no-man’s land at night.
The east lot faced a two-lane desert highway that was mostly empty at this time of night. Ramirez walked over to the chain-link fence and scanned the road. He could see neither headlights nor taillights in either direction. He also noted that the rear gate was secured with a padlock, as it should be.
Now he was growing concerned. Acuña and O’Brien had apparently disappeared. It didn’t make sense.
I’ll go back to the guard shack and call the police, Ramirez decided. I’m a security guard, not a detective.
As he started back, he noticed something lying between two new Mustangs. He must have missed it before.
It was a large something.
His intuition told him that he should go back for the shotgun before investigating; but adrenaline and a dreadful curiosity overwhelmed his caution.
As he threaded his way between the cars, the truth gradually became apparent. Please don’t let it be what I think it is, he pleaded silently. Oh please oh please…anything but that. I’m too old; I’m not up to this.
But now, with the something directly before him, the truth as undeniable. He knew exactly what the object was—or rather, who it was.
The body of José Acuña lay face-down on the pavement. There was a large, bloody opening in the back of his head, and a large amount of blood had pooled around him. José’s blood had even stained the front right tire of one of the Mustangs.
But he had not heard a gunshot, that must mean—
“I used a silencer,” a voice behind him said.
Ramirez whirled and faced Patrick O’Brien.
“Patrick! I was looking for you. Did you see—?”
Then he noticed: The young man was holding a semiautomatic pistol equipped with a silencer.
This made no sense. What was going on here?
“Patrick! What did you—”
“I told you, Frank. I used a silencer. That’s why you didn’t hear the gunshot from the guard shack.”
Ramirez paused for perhaps fifteen seconds. He looked more closely at the weapon O’Brien was holding. The semiautomatic had not been issued to him by the dealership. Ramirez had not even known that O’Brien owned such a gun.
“Patrick, why?” Ramirez began to tremble.
“You mentioned that red devil tattoo on José’s bicep,” O’Brien said. “That is indeed an Infiernos gang tattoo. But you weren’t right about José’s level of involvement with the gang. You see, José was an Infierno, but he decided to leave. Something about his mother crying because he was throwing his life away as a gangbanger. There is only one way out of the Infiernos gang, though. What got José killed was leaving the gang—not belonging to it. Kind of ironic, when you think about it.”
Ramirez was still trying to get his arms around the totality of this situation: O’Brien had apparently killed Acuña, and he obviously had inside knowledge of the Infiernos gang culture.
Those summers that Patrick said he spent in Mexico, studying Spanish. He had not really stayed at a Spanish language school. Had he?
“Oh come on, now, Frank. Don’t give me that dazed and confused look.”
“But Patrick. WHY?
“Why do you think? It’s called money, Frank—or dinero, as we say south of the border. Do you know what the Infiernos gang is willing to pay a white guy to work for them? An Irish kid, no less? On the U.S. side of the border, I am above suspicion, dude.”
“No! That can’t be. Not you!”
“Yes Frank—me. Sorry to disillusion you.”
None of this was adding up. O’Brien had just killed a man and he claimed to be a gang member. But he didn’t look like a gangster. Nor did he ever act like one. If he truly was a member of the Infiernos gang, he was hiding it pretty well.
“Then why are you here, Patrick? Why did you even get this job in the first place?”
“Cars, Frank. The Infiernos gang is a diversified operation. In a few minutes, a car carrier is going to come right up this highway here.” O’Brien smiled. “Just like the one that hit West Texas Honda. That one was an inside operation, too. The gang had a janitor working there.”
Then Frank recalled one salient detail about the West Texas Honda robbery: the security guard was shot in the back of the head.
“The opportunity to pop José was a bonus, you might say,” O’Brien continued. “I’ll get some extra money for that.”
“Patrick,” Ramirez began. He seemed to stammer on every word. “Let me go back inside, okay? I don’t want any part of this. I’ll tell them I never saw you. Please”
“Not so fast, Frank.” O’Brien leveled the gun at him. “We haven’t finished our conversation yet. I know you’ve got some more questions.”
“No, Patrick. I don’t want to know anything more.”
“Yes you do. Believe me, you do. They screamed when they saw we were going to cut their heads off, Frank. Can you imagine that?”
“The five members of the Chihuahua Junta. You remember—the severed heads that you were so worried about. You should have seen them, a bunch of real tough guys; but they were crying and screaming for their madres at the end.”
“Well, not by myself. I had some help. They made me do it as part of my final initiation. You’ve got to be blooded before the gang will really trust you. They’re funny that way. They want you to get your hands dirty.”
They were interrupted by the rumbling of a large diesel engine. A pair of headlights appeared in the distance, on the southbound lane of the highway behind the east lot.
“Yes, Frank. That’s the car carrier I told you about. This means that you and I have to conclude our business here. You understand that I can’t let you go, right?”
“Patrick, I won’t tell anyone.”
“Sorry man, but I don’t believe you. More importantly, my management wouldn’t believe you—and I’m not talking about Fred Longworth. I mean my jefe across the border.”
“NO, Patrick. I beg you.”
“Be a sport, Frank, and I’ll make this quick. Before these men in the truck leave, they are going to return to the guard shack with me, and one of them is going to cold-cock me with a pistol. This will give me a headache for a few days; but hey—I’m making twenty grand out of this deal. And that gives me an alibi. I’ll tell the police that you put up a fight, Frank. I’ll tell them that you tried to save us both; but they overpowered you and shot you execution-style.”
“Patrick…” Ramirez held his hands up in front of his face. He was on the verge of tears.
“Get down on your knees.”
O’Brien’s command and the semiautomatic pistol left no room for compromise. There was no viable alternative here. In spite of the emotions warring within him, Ramirez found himself complying.
“Good boy,” O’Brien walked up behind Ramirez as he kneeled on the blacktop pavement. The sound of the big diesel engine grew louder.
O’Brien leaned close to Ramirez as he pressed the tip of the silencer against the back of his head. “You were right about one, thing Frank,” O’Brien said softly into the older man’s ear. “There are no cobras in Mexico.”
Ramirez closed his eyes tightly and waited for death. This moment was much like he had always heard it would be. In the span of a few seconds, a variety of images from his past flitted across his mental viewing screen: He saw himself blowing out candles at his tenth birthday party, starting up the engine of the family car at sixteen, lying with a woman—the one who later became his wife—for the first time at twenty.
I have had a good life, all in all, he thought, resigned to his predicament. He exhaled, and waited.
Then Ramirez heard O’Brien’s cell phone ring. The young man fumbled around in his jacket pocket and retrieved the cell phone with one hand. His other hand continued to hold the pistol against Ramirez’s head. Ramirez could not see any of this; but he surmised the situation when the tip of the silencer shifted ever so slightly against his head, and O’Brien began talking in Spanish.
Ramirez understood enough Spanish to grasp the gist of the conversation. O’Brien was speaking to the Mexican gangsters in the big truck outside the gate.
“I’m sorry the gate is still locked,” O’Brien said in Spanish. “Yes. Yes I know I was supposed to have unlocked it.”
There was a noticeable undercurrent of fear in O’Brien’s voice. Despite his outward bravado, he was clearly afraid of these men.
And that fear distracted him.
Still thinking of his wife and his teenage drives in the family car and his tenth birthday party, Ramirez brought his elbow up swiftly toward the younger man’s groin. He scored a direct hit. O’Brien doubled over with a loud OOF!
The cell phone clattered to the pavement. Ramirez could hear an angry Mexican voice shouting on the opposite end of the conversation.
He clambered to his feet and looked for the pistol. If he could grab the pistol then he might have a chance.
He couldn’t find it. Then he saw that O’Brien—now writhing on the ground and cursing incoherently, was clasping something beneath his body, holding the object tightly against his stomach.
O’Brien had fallen on top of the pistol.
There was a sound of metal clanging against metal, and once again there were voices shouting in Spanish—not on the cell phone anymore, but from the direction of the back gate. The gangsters were banging the gate against the fence posts. They were yelling at O’Brien to open it up.
Ramirez looked at O’Brien again. The young man was still paralyzed by pain, but that would not last much longer. He could try and wrestle him for the gun. Yes, he could try. He realized, however, that O’Brien was stronger and quicker.
Ramirez turned and ran in the direction of the guard shack. Somewhere amid the papers scattered across the table that served as their desk, there would be a slip of paper with the combination to the locker. Inside the locker was a shotgun—a Browning autoloader with five shots.
If he could only get there in time. And find the combination. And open the locker.
Ramirez ran, knowing that the red devils would not be long in coming for him.
This story is included in the collection Hay Moon & Other Stories