I thought a few of you might like a sneak-peek at Shroud of Lies. Here is the first chapter. Happy Reading! Nancy
Chapter 1 The New Johnny
(Felix Watson - Mexico)
This trip had dispelled my notion that drug lords lived lavish lifestyles – I would never be duped to believe that again. Maybe Fernando’s home was nice by third-world standards, but a better description would be a derelict property rather than living quarters. My rental car eased through the rusty gate off of the dirt road, while I avoided as many of the large potholes cratering the drive as I could. Free-range farm animals required defensive driving while I felt guns trained on me from a guard shack near the main house. Beads of sweat formed above my brow – I had come too far to turn back now.
I stopped my rental car near the front door in an area where no grass or weeds bothered to grow. The stench as I opened my door was overwhelming: a cross between a landfill and a sewer. Just feet from where I parked lay a large decaying animal carcass. At some point, the animal had probably been a cow. The mass of putrid meat had been picked over by vultures; bullet holes created a disgusting mosaic in what was left of it.
No one from the guard shack challenged me, but I felt their distrustful stares. I moved at a slug’s pace in hopes that my movements wouldn’t draw gunfire. The chickens which ran wild on the property deposited their droppings on the ground like landmines to be avoided.
Fernando’s home was an adobe-colored stucco, accented by a sun-bleached red tile roof. Windows were sprinkled along the first and second floors, but each window was covered with blackout shades and blinds – no prying eyes were permitted entry. Scrubby bushes seemed to grow where they wanted on the property. A Saguaro cactus twice my height, stood in the distance; it resembled a hand with an outstretched middle-finger flipping off uninvited guests. My foot sunk into the sandy soil, which was an improvement over the thin concrete sidewalk which led to the front door – it, too, was covered in chicken droppings.
A black iguana stood in my path as I approached the front door; it was the size of a small dog. I stomped my foot in attempt to scare it off- when it held its ground, I side-stepped the hideous thing. My attention remained focused on the lizard and my inability to fight it off, if it were to attack, when the front door opened and an old woman swatted at the beast with a broom. She beckoned me to follow her.
The thick warm inside air wrapped me like a too heavy blanket – either Fernando did not have central air, or he chose to live in an oven. Ceiling fans complained with their loud rhythmic squeaks and wobbly spins – this was far from the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that I had envisioned when I planned my trip to meet the drug lord who had supplied Johnny Corozzo.
An old woman in a faded blue cotton dress led me to a poorly lit sitting room. Her osteoporosis had her slouched so far forward that only her shoulders were visible from behind. She gestured for me to go inside where a man sat at a table, papers strewn in front of him while a flat screen television tuned to a news station was affixed to the wall behind him. The volume was muted. I couldn’t be sure if the man in front of me was Fernando or not. The man’s complexion was dark; he had raven-colored hair and a scraggly moustache that fell over his upper lip.
This had to be Fernando. I plastered on my widest smile and held out my hand to introduce myself. The man eyed my outstretched hand, but did not offer his own – after several uncomfortable seconds, I lowered mine. This was not going well, at all. The man remained seated, while he took a deep drag from his cigarette; his heavy accent startled me when he finally spoke, “You are either brave or stupid.”
There was a fine welcome. “Neither. Johnny spoke highly of you. I wanted to meet you in person.”
He spit out the word, “Stupid.”
Stretching my back, I stood up straighter – I couldn’t let this man see a morsel of fear. “I’m Felix. I was Johnny’s right hand before he was murdered.”
Fernando narrowed his stare, “His right hand?” His question hung in the air daring me to backpedal.
Or maybe that wasn’t it. “Right hand” was a common term, right? English wasn’t Fernando’s first language; calling myself Johnny’s right hand might mean something different here. Sweat from my forehead dripped into my eyebrow. I wanted to wipe it away, but if Fernando hadn’t noticed, I didn’t want for him to think I was nervous. I took a seat in the chair across from him without being invited to sit. “That’s right. Almost twenty years.”
Fernando’s tone was flat. “Strange he never mentioned you.”
Another drip, this one ran down from my temple and onto my cheek. How could people live in this sweltering heat? “That is strange. I was involved in securing his dealership franchise, setting up the remote dealerships, coordinating shipments – everything.”
Fernando took another long drag on his cigarette, “You were an errand boy.”
“I did whatever Johnny asked of me: advice when he wanted it, errands sometimes, sure, but he had my loyalty to the end.” That was an honorable answer.
“Why you? I have plenty of others who want my product.”
My heart pounded so hard that I worried Fernando might hear it. The stench from his stale cigarette smoke both burned my eyes and turned my stomach. The pitch of my voice gave away the fear coursing through me. “You know me. I know how to move your product.”
“I don’t know you.” Fernando leaned back in his seat. “I know you worked for Mark.”
“I never worked for Mark!” Fernando studied my response, I might have just made a grave error. No matter how much I hated Mark Brewer, losing my composure like that made me sound weak. I despised Mark – more had happened after Johnny’s death than Fernando knew. I gripped the arm rests on my chair in an attempt to get my emotions under control before answering. “Mark thought he could call the shots after Johnny died.”
Fernando nodded in a condescending manner, “He did call the shots after Johnny died. He shut the operation down. You didn’t stop him. You were nobody.”
“Mark’s dirty. He set Johnny up.” I wasn’t sure if I was becoming desensitized to the stale odor inside, or if Fernando’s accusation drown out everything else, but he had me focused. I had tried to have this same conversation over the phone, but speaking cryptically got us nowhere and I couldn’t be sure our phones weren’t tapped. I knew if I were going to restart the operation, we needed to meet in person. It was rumored that Johnny had met Fernando only once. It was Johnny’s way of showing respect and convincing his new partner that he could be trusted – now it was my turn.
Fernando pressed his cigarette butt into an overflowing ashtray. It only added to the stale smell already permeating the room. Digging my fingers into the material of the arm rest on the chair, I steadied myself, “Mark was a snitch. He was working with the police. I didn’t have any choice but to lie low at the time.”
“You had a choice, Amigo. You chose to cower in front of him. Now you come here, for what? To tell me you are taking over operations that no longer exist?”
Desperation rang loud in my words, “No, I was biding my time. The police are done asking questions. It’s time to turn the supply chain back on.”
Fernando rubbed his chin as if considering the possibility of a new business arrangement. “What happens when Mark learns that you have defied him?”
“Let me worry about Mark. I just need your assurance that you will supply to me, the same way you did for Johnny Corozzo.”
Silence hung in the air. Fernando didn’t flinch.
I began spewing assurances, attempting to convince Fernando that I would be every bit as reliable as Johnny had been. “You can trust me. I’ve got distribution channels ready. I’ve got cash to pay a deposit on the first shipment.”
Fernando refused to listen, so my volume grew louder. “The police suspect nothing. I’ll keep you informed daily if you want.” The more he wouldn’t listen, the faster the words came out. “Name it. Tell me what I can do to prove to you that I have enough skin in the game. I guarantee to move as much product as Johnny did within three months. Where else will you get that type of assurance?”
Fernando reached into a wooden cigar box positioned in front of him on the table. He extracted a black pistol which stopped me in mid-sentence. The sound of my heart pounded in my ear, my vision clouded, and a final drop of sweat slid down my cheek. In my life, guns had been pointed in my direction exactly three times – this one aimed at my chest was the first one I ever believed might kill me.
The handgun itself was all black, but the end of the muzzle had silver streaks emanating from it – it had fired so many times that the bluing had completely worn away. Fernando shook the pistol, as if he did not already have one hundred percent of my attention by simply pointing the weapon at me. “I give you one chance. If Mark starts trouble, you deal with him. You don’t deal with him, you will deal with me. Comprende?”
My head nodded at his terms – words wouldn’t form. Fernando rested the weapon in his lap; an inrush of blood shot to my head as my heart began beating faster than a machine gun. Without any assurances of product quantity, prices, or delivery schedules – Fernando gestured for me to leave by pointing the muzzle toward the door.
I had hoped to negotiate, to get into specifics on how the operations would be turned back on, but the second Fernando had brandished the pistol, I would have agreed to anything Fernando had offered. I was not in a position to negotiate; negotiations would come once he needed me, after I had proved my value to him.
I rose to my feet, stumbled from my chair, and walked backwards towards the door. Before exiting, I offered, “I will make you a wealthy man. You have my word.”
Fernando nodded his approval, but said nothing. He still held the handgun as I slipped through the doorway.
Meeting with Fernando had been both brilliant and horrifically stupid. Without having come to Fernando’s home – my life would not have been in danger, but I gained valuable insight from this trip. Having seen first-hand the squalor of Fernando’s life, I knew wealth was Fernando’s priority.
Had the meeting gone poorly, I could have been murdered in this disgusting place, then cast out in the front yard like the rotting flesh parked beside my rental car. After I eased through the gate and onto the dirt road outside of Fernando’s property, I took a deep breath in an attempt to steady my racing heart.
The mere act of filling my lungs with air after having a gun pointed at my chest gave me a sense of gratefulness. The stakes were always high with cartels, but working directly with Fernando, I could purchase at the lowest possible price and have the same quality that Johnny had been able to deliver.
It was my time. No longer would I scurry around in the shadows of others. With Mark Brewer out of the way, my name will be synonymous with organized crime – I would breathe life back into the organization which had been disbanded. Fernando’s backing gave me the clout I had sought for years. His backing positioned me to be Kansas City’s next Johnny Corozzo.