Coral Russell – An Island in An Ocean of Sand

Posted on Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Quiet and sneaky is fine if you're thinking like a thief. Thieves find entrances, but grifters? Uh-uh. We make them." - Leverage

The faint smell of rotten eggs hung in the air. It was the smell of money coming from the El Paso natural gas refinery towering above the horizon. Roberta wrinkled her nose at the aroma. Three years and I still don't have enough. She touched the button to roll up the windows against the smell. Instead she opened her mouth and breathed in the pleasant, dry air. May was the last month before the desert became a furnace blasting air hotter than the surface of the sun.

Run-down neighborhoods of the lower valley flashed by Roberta's open window. She jerked the steering wheel and made a quick right into the Carolina Senior Residential Home. A worn-brick wall separated the parking lot from two rows of one-room apartments facing the driveway leading into the Home. Roberta slowed her car and crawled past the building marked "Office" on her left. She gave a hand signal to the elderly man staring at her from behind a large picture window. The old man, his face swallowed up by dark-rimmed glasses, dismissed her with a wave.

It was lunchtime at the Home. The elderly--in various stages of infirmity--hobbled across the driveway with the help of walkers, canes, or the arm of a loved one. Roberta tapped the steering wheel. I never, ever want to get that old. The elderly parading past her, resigned to their fate, never looked up from the all-consuming task of getting from point A to point B.

At the end of the driveway, a man leaned out of the last apartment and lifted his hand. A full head of dull, black hair made him stand out from the crowd. Roberta knew Chewy wasn't excited to see her. It might have something to do with her being the boss's daughter. Or maybe he didn't care. There was no sparkle in his features. He never mentioned family or dreams or plans.

Come on. Roberta willed the last old woman to hurry across the driveway. Time is money and her life, her real life, couldn't begin until she had enough. Roberta hoped Chewy would give her the job she needed. The job that would solidify the plan bouncing around in her head. The job that would set her free.

When she entered the bedroom-slash-living room, Chewy handed her a cell phone, his voice animated. "There's a big shipment coming across and we need new stash houses. The plan is to work with a car dealership. Details are on the phone."

She'd worked with him for three years, and this was the first time he seemed on edge. "Something special about this job?"

Chewy moved between her and the door. "Not for you."

Roberta cringed. He wouldn't dare touch her because of who she was, but losing a pound of flesh would be better than what was coming next.


Roberta tapped her fingers against her thigh. Her restless fingers the only sign the bars of her private cage were closing in on her. She should have known. Should have planned. Roberta balled up her fists so hard her knuckles cracked. How the hell could she have planned for a double-crossing, back-stabbing, dull-witted, stinking maintenance man to have a clue to what she pulled off--correction--almost pulled off two years ago?

Relax, she chanted to herself. There's nothing to do but move forward. She knocked a second time, and the door flew open.

A man with a slight build and boyish face posed in front of her. "You must be Roberta! Let me look at you."

Roberta smiled and turned side to side. Her plan was going to require a lot of acting. Good thing she minored in theater at the University. An actor is basically a professional liar, and with her line of work, it was more useful than her major in accounting.

She held up the phone and wiggled it back and forth. "And you're Jesus?"

"The one and only." Jesus shepherded Roberta into his tiny apartment. "This job is going to be easy peasy. It might even be fun." While Jesus droned on about the details, Roberta noticed his eyes. They were shiny, alert and expressive like her father's eyes.

For two years, Roberta skimmed money off the top of her father's business. Matteo Guerra was a high-level leader of the Juarez Cartel. She thought she was doing a very good job of it until her father asked to meet at an abandoned house on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. Roberta watched in horror as her father broke random bones of a man tied to a chair. Her father's shiny, expressive eyes letting Roberta know that this was the only time he would let another person pay for his daughter's mistakes. The broken man's screams of innocence still echoed in her ears.

"Are you okay?" Jesus asked.

Roberta blinked the memory away. "Fine." Everything would work out; she just had to keep moving forward.

"Here's the list of dealerships. You've got to pick a mark."

"There isn't someone already on the inside?"

"Not this time, honey. People are jumpy lately. They want new faces."

With the list of dealerships safely in her purse, Roberta noticed the apartment for the first time. It was immaculate. The place smelled good, like fresh-cut limes. "You have a nice place here."

"Thanks. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Sure. Tea would be great."

The apartment was so small that Jesus crossed maybe twenty feet to the kitchen. The refrigerator opened and closed. Ice and glasses clinked while he spoke. "This is our first time working together. You're the boss man's daughter so need to be handled las burlas se vuelven veras."

Roberta's eyebrows rose. Straight-forward talk was refreshing to hear. "You're not going to offend me. I'm sure my father thinks I can handle myself. Have you worked with Chewy before?"

"Eh! He's a bit dull, isn't he? I just know him from shuffling contacts back and forth. How did he get that job?"

"No idea."

Jesus returned with two glasses and set them down on the ornate coffee table. It gleamed like it was dusted several times a day. "Father? Not daddy, papa, papi. You two aren't that close?"

The cold sweet tea clung to the back of her throat. "Cada gallo canta en su muladar."

Jesus perched like a bird on the other side of the couch and let out a peal of laughter. He fixed her with those glittering eyes. "Right. I can only guess what he must be like to deal with on a daily basis. My family wasn't very supportive. It does free you up to do whatever you damn well please. Takes the pressure off, really."

Roberta's face puckered in response.

"So what's your plan?"


"Oh, come on: no one does this for a living. There's always an escape plan."

Tension froze Roberta. No way.

"Relax," Jesus giggled like a teenager. "I have a plan. I work at the fancy cafe downtown. All these suits --lawyers, government types--eat, drink and tip well. Then I have a night job working at the club downtown. Pull down a couple more of these jobs and then . . . ." He swooped his arm out in front of him. "Brazil. Live and let live."

Roberta's eyes clouded over. Her father had forced her into this particularly crappy corner, but that didn't mean she couldn't change. A world was out there that had nothing to do with drugs. "I'd go to Argentina. Learn to tango."

Jesus gave a slight squeal. "That sounds good too. If I had more time, I'd fix you a caipirinha. Heaven in a glass. We're going to get along I can tell. I hate to rush you off, but I have to get ready for my day job."

"No problem." Roberta's face warmed with a determined smile. She didn't need to wait for the right job to come along. She needed to make this job the right one.

Jesus showed Roberta to the door and winked. "I hope the salesman's handsome."

Roberta assured Jesus, "He'll be perfect."

"The speed of the leader is the speed of the gang." - Mary Kay Ash

Live for God. Live for your mother. Die for your gang. In that order.

Duke eyed the group in front of him through dark-tinted sunglasses. A bandanna hid the rest of his face from view. With a slight nod, the circle of men closed in on a twelve-year-old boy in the middle of the circle. A moment later the Chaneco gang sprang forward, and a flurry of punches and kicks rained down.

The boy warded off the first few blows and even tried to throw a couple of punches, but the volley coming at him from all sides sent him to the ground. The boy's thin arms wrapped around his head as the men drew back and kicked him or knelt down to drive a punch into the boy's side.

As Duke watched the thirteen-second "jump in," he paraphrased a quote from one of his favorite movies: Grab a hot pan, second can seem like an hour. Grab a hot woman, an hour can seem like a second.

Rooster, his second-in-command, sprang into the middle of the group laughing. He dragged the crying twelve-year-old to his feet. The circle of men loosened up, and one by one, they came forward to clap the boy on the back and give him light punches on the chin.

The twelve-year-old tried to smile as Rooster angled the boy in front of Duke. Duke let his eyes trail up and down the boy, sizing him up. He gave a final nod and turned away. The group broke up cheering. Once inside the gang's hangout someone would hand him ice for his face and a shot of tequila to erase the pain from the beating.

Live for God. Live for your mother. Die for your gang.

Duke knew this phrase would be repeated by the other gang members until it became the answer to all the recruit's questions. They would reassure the boy, telling him how much money he'd make, how much respect he would command, how great his life would be now as part of the Chaneco gang.

Duke pulled the bandanna down to his neck. His hand-picked inner circle surrounded him: Rooster, bald except for a thin ribbon of hair down the middle. Scooby, bouncing along to a rhythm all his own. Nectar, who loved oranges and always had one in his hand, tossing it up and down like a baseball.

"Duke?" Scooby hopped in front of him.

Duke lifted his chin to indicate Scooby could continue. Even with his inner circle, Duke rarely spoke. He preferred to communicate through facial expressions, head motions and hand signals unique to the gang. He felt it added to his aura of power and control over the group. When he did speak, the normal chaotic sounds of the street fell silent to listen.

"It's your abuelita. She's in the hospital."

Still silent, Duke continued forward. His entourage jogged past him to a black SUV. Rooster opened the door for him. Nectar climbed in behind the wheel, and they squealed away from the curb.



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Genre - Thriller

Rating – PG13

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Website http://shelf-stacker.com/


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