By JJ Rushmore
Gunshots shattered the sultry afternoon. The crash of one vehicle hitting another punctuated the volley.
I spun around, scanning the parking lot. Twenty yards away a tall man in a white polo shirt lowered his outstretched arm, pistol in hand. A sardonic smile twisted his swarthy face. He stood next to the open window of a white pickup. The truck stood at an awkward angle, its nose mashed into a black SUV. Glass shards sparkled on the blacktop. A metallic tick-tick-tick from the wreck kept time with my pounding heartbeat. Two silhouetted figures slumped in the truck, their red auras dripping down the windows.
The gunman tore off his blood-stained shirt, using it to wipe red splatter off his arms and face. A bushy mustache matched a full head of jet-black hair. His muscular frame glistened in the sun. A snake tattoo slithered from one wrist up over his shoulders and down to the other.
The tattooed man barked Spanish to two shorter men, one skinny, one burly. The skinny one ran to the SUV and returned with another shirt for the gunman. The burly one opened the pickup door, pushed the bodies aside, and drove away.
I dropped to the ground behind the car, my breath wheezing in rapid gasps. Voices speaking Spanish approached. The acrid odor of gun smoke snapped me alert like a smelling salt. I scurried away between the vehicles, crouching low, moving as quickly as I could.
I had to find her fast.
Halfway to the mall, I spied my quarry, a tall brunette pushing an overloaded shopping cart. Her long curls bobbed in time to the clickety-click of her spiked heels.
“Hey!” I called softly. “Connie! Over here!”
The woman slowed her pace, searching the sea of vehicles. She was two cars away, at the end of the row where I squatted.
“Connie! Down here!” I waved my hand frantically.
The woman glanced down and did a double-take. “Bill? What are you doing? Are you all right?” She stepped toward me, and I scuttled over to her.
“Quick! Duck down!” I said, and reached for her.
She drew her hand away. “What? No! I’m wearing a skirt. What’s the matter? Are you hurt?” Her brows wrinkled.
“Just get down!” I grabbed her hand and pulled her onto the asphalt.
“Ow! Now look what you did!” She stared at her knees. “You ruined my new tights. What is wrong with you? Have you got heat stroke?”
“Where have you been?” I hissed.
“Clothes shopping. I said I’d meet you at the car. Why are you whispering?”
“Shhh! He might hear you.”
“Who might hear me?” she whispered back. “What are you talking about? What the hell is going on, Bill?”
“El Serpiente. I just saw him shoot someone in the parking lot. Actually two someone’s.”
An odd look flickered across her face at the mention of his name, her expression quickly transforming into a frown.
“El Serpiente? Are you sure?” She was silent for a moment as the name of the drug kingpin hung in the humid air. “Who did he shoot?”
“I don’t know! What does it matter? He’s a drug lord for Chrissakes! And yes, I’m sure. I saw the tattoo. All that matters is that he killed two people and I saw it.”
“This is bad, Bill, real bad.” Her eyes widened. “Omigod! Did he see you? Does he know you saw him?”
“I don’t think so. Not unless one of his flunkies saw me.”
“That would be Arturo and Miguel. They follow him like remora on a shark.”
We all knew of El Serpiente. You couldn’t live in that border town and not know. But Connie seemed to know more than I did. That wasn’t surprising, since she grew up there and I didn’t.
“We have to get out of here, Connie. Now. Before he figures out what I saw.”
“Okay. Let me get my cart.”
“No. Leave it.”
“Leave it? Why?”
“We don’t have time. It’ll slow us down.”
“I spent hours shopping for those clothes! Think of the money I spent! Besides—” She pointed her finger at me. “I have known Juan Pablo my whole life, and he is not stupid. He knows I would never leave the mall without buying something.”
This was the first I had heard Connie personally knew Juan Pablo, the one known as El Serpiente. “All right. All right. Just take what you can carry and leave the rest.” I didn’t ask how she knew a drug lord. She knew everyone.
Connie grumbled but agreed. Even with both of us carrying shopping bags, we left the cart half full.
As we approached our car, I could see Juan Pablo and his skinny friend examining the damage to the black SUV. We loaded up the car and almost got away, but not quite. As I backed out of my spot, the well-built Hispanic and his skinny sidekick sauntered over to our vehicle, he to my side, and the skinny one to Connie’s. We opened the windows to the Texas heat, and I began to sweat.
“Hey, Amigo. Que pasa¿” Juan Pablo possessed an easygoing, confidant manner, exuding power like Italians ooze garlic. He tipped an imaginary hat at Connie saying, “Signorita,” and winked. She nodded and smiled in return. Skinny leaned his arms onto Connie’s windowsill and leered at her voluptuous body. She ignored him.
Juan Pablo directed his attention to me.
“Did either of you hear any loud noises a few minutes ago? Some estupido backed into my new Escalade.” He gestured toward the damaged SUV.
“No, sorry. We just got here.” I could feel drops of sweat trickling down my face. “We were shopping.” I waved my hand at the packages in the back seat.
Juan Pablo stared at me for what seemed like a long time. He glanced at the packages, and then at Connie’s legs, one eyebrow wrinkling. Suddenly he shrugged and slapped his hand on the car. I flinched.
“Okay,” he said. “Hasta la vista, gringo.” He flashed me a toothy grin.
I waved and drove off, slowly.
“He noticed your tights,” I said, clenching the wheel. “The holes in your knees.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Keep going.” She craned her neck, looking back.
In my rearview mirror I saw Juan Pablo’s burly companion run up to him, pushing a half-filled shopping cart while waving a fistful of white paper ribbons. As I reached the street, the two henchmen were gesticulating and pointing at us. Juan Pablo’s head jerked in our direction, staring at us as I turned right onto the main road.
“Shit. They found the cart. They’re looking at your credit card receipts.” I sped up.
“My name is all over those receipts,” she said. “Damn loyalty cards.” Connie turned around. “Where are you going? Home is the other way.”
“The bank. We need travel money. And our passports are in the safety deposit box.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re leaving the country. For good.”
“I can’t leave! I have a job. My family is here.”
“Listen to me, Consuela! This is serious! As in life and death serious—mostly death. Your friend Juan Pablo won’t let us live if he even suspects I saw him murder those two men. You know his reputation.”
“Don’t Consuela me, William! I don’t think he does know. And he doesn’t just go around killing people. And he’s not my friend, not exactly.”
“Except that he already did. Kill people. In the parking lot, remember?”
“I am not leaving!”
“Oh, yes you are! We’re a couple, and you’ll go where I go. I’ll—I’ll marry you if I have to.”
“Oh, you will, will you? Now, after all this time? How very generous of you. How gallant. How chivalrous.”
I pulled up to the bank. “I’ll be right back.”
Connie fumed in steamy silence as I left the car.
When I returned with the cash and passports, she was holding her phone.
“That reminds me,” I said. “We have to destroy our phones so he can’t track us. And our credit cards. We’ll use cash for everything.”
“What do you mean, ‘we,’ gringo?”
“Come on, Consuela! Don’t play the race card on me. Not now.”
“This is more than that, Bill. This is about family. My family. Blood.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not the one who saw something. He’s after you. El Serpiente won’t hurt me.”
“Of course he will! You’ve heard the stories. He leaves no witnesses.”
“No, he won’t.” She smiled. “Juan Pablo’s my uncle. In fact, he’s my godfather.”
A black Escalade screeched to a stop in front of us. Juan Pablo and his two thugs leaped from the vehicle, brandishing pistols.
I watched in horror. “Oh, no. Connie, what did you do?”
“I sent him a text,” she said, as she exited the car. “He’s family. Blood. Hasta la vista, gringo.”
Once again gunshots shattered the sultry afternoon.
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