Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Death By Heat, fiction by Cindy Fazzi


His eyes were closed, but his mouth hung open as though crying for help. He had dark, curly hair and scaly skin the color of the earth. He was in his teens.

Cory Hidalgo, an ER nurse, was only a few years younger than this poor soul when she herself immigrated to this country. Same brown skin and black hair, a similar faith in the American Dream, except he was dead and she was of no help.

She almost closed his mouth, but changed her mind. She would leave him this way for the supervising physician. Even with her surgical mask on, the odor of sweat and filth from the body clung to her nostrils.

Only God knew how long this boy and dozens of migrants like him had been trapped in a windowless tractor-trailer before it broke down on the highway. Had he struggled? Had it taken minutes or hours for his organs to get baked in the moving inferno?

Murder. This was more vicious than any shooting or stabbing death she’d ever seen. Indeed, those cases were rare for a small Texas hospital located in the lonely stretch between Laredo and San Antonio.

“What’s happening here?” Dr. Blanco burst into the triage room.

Cory stepped back to give the doctor some space. “We have a DOA. No name or age or address. He was one of dozens found dead inside an abandoned rig. There were others who survived.” She grabbed the clipboard with the form for the death registry. “The paramedics followed resuscitation protocol for forty-five minutes to no avail. This is for you to sign whenever you’re ready, Dr. Blanco.”

The doctor was responsible for declaring a patient dead. She preferred to be called Rita, but Cory always addressed her as Dr. Blanco, given the twenty-year difference in their ages. Cory was no taller than a teen at five-foot-one, but at least, she was the same height as Dr. Blanco.

“I wonder if he’s an organ donor.” The doctor checked the man’s mouth for breathing before closing it gently. “What else did the paramedics say?”

“They said the rig was left on the side of I-35, about twenty-five miles outside of Encinal.” Cory pulled her cardigan tight against the arctic air conditioning. She never liked cold weather or winter or snow. She was a tropical girl at heart, born in the Philippines but raised in the States from the age of ten.

Dr. Blanco checked for a heartbeat and examined the man’s pupils. “Were they migrants?”

“Yes. The truck had gone through a checkpoint in Encinal without any problems. The driver must have picked up the migrants after passing through the checkpoint. Either that or a corrupt Border Patrol agent allowed it to enter the U.S. with the migrants inside.”

Dr. Blanco signed the form to confirm the patient’s death.

“Coming through,” yelled Jonah, a physician’s assistant with the build of a nightclub bouncer. He was pushing a gurney with a young, brown-skinned man on it. The patient’s fetal position, pained moaning, and overpowering body odor reminded Cory of a trapped animal.

Cory and Dr. Blanco moved to the side as Jonah positioned the gurney in the middle of the room. The night shift was supposed to get two ER nurses to assist the emergency physician, but not with the current staff shortage. Cory and Dr. Blanco were lucky to have Jonah at all.

“More patients are en route, all of them suffering from hyperthermia.” Jonah handed Dr. Blanco a form. “This is from the paramedics. They have zero information about this patient’s identification and medical history.”

Cory grabbed a temperature gun from the counter and aimed it at the patient’s forehead. “What’s your name?”

The man only made grunting noises. The paramedics had already unbuttoned his shirt and loosened his belt. His ankles were swollen, his bare feet dirty.

Cory clucked her tongue. “His temperature’s one-hundred-three.”

Dr. Blanco switched gloves before attending to the newly arrived patient. “He’s going to need IV, but give him water now,” she ordered. “Jonah, we’ve lost the other patient. Can you take him to the mortuary, please?”

Cory filled a plastic cup with water from the sink. Jonah pushed the DOA’s stretcher out the door.

The second patient, too weak to sit up or drink water, remained supine. Cory gave him water using a dropper while Dr. Blanco checked on his heartbeat with a stethoscope.

¿Cuál es tu nombre? ¿Puedes escucharme?” Dr. Blanco asked simple questions but got nothing. To Cory, she said, “We need to immerse him in cold water to get his temperature down fast. Get some ice on the way to the birthing room. Fill the tub with water.”

“I’m on it.” Cory sprinted out of the room and onto the hallway. She found a pitcher in the breakroom and filled it with ice from the ice machine. The clock on the wall showed it was 10:03.

Less than an hour ago, she and Nancy, the ED clerk, had thought this was a slow summer night. Only six patients had been admitted and discharged since their shift began at four in the afternoon. All easy cases. Mercifully, nobody had COVID-19.

Cory ran to the birthing room with the pitcher. Certified nurse-midwives and their patients used this room. It was empty tonight. She dumped the ice in the tub and started filling it with water.

The tub was almost full when Jonah arrived with the patient. “Antonio, this is Cory,” he told the young man. “She’s going to give you an ice bath to bring your temperature down.”

Cory turned off the tub’s faucet. “You know his name?”

Jonah parked the gurney parallel to the tub. “He seems to be in and out of consciousness, but he was talking just a minute ago.”

The patient’s breath was labored. Cory grabbed a pair of trauma shears from a drawer. “I’m going to cut your pants, okay?” She didn’t wait for his response.

Jonah snatched another pair of scissors to cut Antonio’s shirt.

The ripe smell of urine smacked Cory as she yanked off the cut jeans. The poor man must have wet his pants a while back; his clothes, like his skin, were dry.

Cory and Jonah stripped the patient down to his boxers before Jonah lifted him from the wheeled stretcher and lowered him into the tub.

Antonio yelped, eyes shot open, but he didn’t resist.

Jonah’s squawking two-way radio startled Cory. He stepped outside the room to answer the call.

Cory knelt by the birthing tub to check Antonio’s temperature again. Still high. “Just a little longer, okay?”

He mumbled, although in Spanish, which Cory didn’t understand.

She took a face towel from the closet and wet it in the sink. When she returned to the patient’s side, she said, “You can call me Corazon, if you like.” Perhaps it would be easier for Antonio to remember her Christian name, which meant heart in Spanish. “I was named after a president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino. My parents loved her.” She pressed the damp cloth on his forehead.

“Corazon,” murmured Antonio.

“That’s right.” She smiled, pleased that he understood her, though he still seemed dazed.

Jonah came back and stood in the doorway. “That was Nancy calling. Another ambulance will be here in ten.” He pulled the gurney toward the door. “You won’t believe what the paramedics told me earlier.”

“What did they say?” Cory got up.

“There were sixty-two migrants in the rig, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala. Half of them were…” He mouthed “dead.”

“Oh, God.” Cory approached him.

Jonah shook his head in dismay. “Apparently, the bodies were literally on top of each other. Can you imagine death by heat? I mean, it was one-hundred degrees outside all day today. That truck was like a furnace.”

“It’s murder.” Cory glanced down at the wet towel in her hands, trying to shake off the image of bodies piled high. “Whoever smuggled these people is a murderer. The criminal is out free while his victims were fried alive.” She was a naturalized U.S. citizen by sheer luck. In the forked road of destiny, her family happened upon the right path. Her mother, a nurse like her, immigrated to this country with a special status. Cory and the rest of the family followed a year later.

Jonah ticked his chin toward Antonio. “Are you okay here with him? I need to run.”

“I got this. You can take the gurney with you.” She pointed at the wheelchair in the corner. “I’ll use that to take him to the ER.”

Jonah left with the gurney. Cory went to the sink and wet the towel anew.

“Where’s my money?”

Cory glanced over her shoulder.

“Do you know where my money is?” Antonio’s eyes were glazed. “Don’t let anybody touch my money…Don’t let anybody take it…I worked hard for it…”

The perfect English, as though he was American, surprised her. He seemed to be in a trance, perhaps hallucinating. Heatstroke could alter a person’s state of mind. She wrung the towel in haste and returned to the tub.

“Nobody’s taking anything from you.” She applied the compress to his forehead. “So, you do speak English. Do you know the name of the person who almost killed you?”

He reversed back to moaning, his eyelids fluttering.

“Stay awake. I can’t carry you.” She patted his cheeks. Facial growth covered his jaws, which made her wonder how long the migrants had been traveling.

She grabbed a bathrobe and a bath towel from the closet, then moved the wheelchair beside the tub, “Antonio, it’s time to go to the ER.” She coaxed him into a sitting position.

He gripped the sides of the tub. Yes, he was lucid now, and he definitely understood English.

Cory got up and extended her hand. “Take my hand and I’ll pull you up.”

He followed her instruction. He was shivering, his arms blooming in goosebumps.

Cory clutched his hand even as she wrapped the towel around his shoulders with her other hand. “Very good. Now get out of the tub, one foot at a time.”

When he was safely out of the tub, Cory wrapped him with the bathrobe.

Amanda, a nurse from the maternity ward, entered the room with what looked like bunched-up tarps. “More patients have arrived. Dr. Blanco wants you to prepare the tub for another person. Plus I have a couple of inflatable tubs.” She set the bundle on the floor. “Dr. Blanco wants you to fill these with water.”

“Okay.” Cory guided the patient’s arms into the sleeves of the bathrobe. She glanced at the other nurse. “I’m glad the maternity ward can spare you.”

“Everyone who’s not working in the ICU has been mobilized,” answered Amanda. “You want me to take him to the ER?”

“Yes, please.” Cory helped Antonio get into the wheelchair. His eyes widened like someone who just realized where he was. He murmured in Spanish.

“Antonio’s a little dazed because of heatstroke,” Cory told Amanda. “But he understands and speaks English.”

Amanda gave her a thumbs-up and wheeled the patient out of the room.

For the next hour and the next, Cory and the rest of the staff worked without a pause. They got another DOA, plus nine men and women burning up from heat exhaustion. All had been turned away by area hospitals that were already full to capacity.

The birthing tub and two inflatable tubs weren’t enough, so they used body bags. Cory lined up the bags in the ED’s hallway. She and Amanda filled each bag with ice, while Jonah and four nurses lifted the patients and placed them inside the bags. They closed the zippers up to the waist, just enough to prevent the ice from leaking. The migrants’ groans and cries reverberated throughout the first floor.

At midnight, the hospital’s overnight ER crew consisting of one doctor and one nurse arrived. Cory and the night staff stayed.

By the time she left the hospital at four in the morning, an orange glow had draped the horizon, promising another sizzling day. She drove home without remembering how she got to her driveway, barely awake after working for twelve hours straight. And yet the mystery of Antonio lingered in the backroom of her mind. Extreme heat dilated the blood vessels, hence his body fluid moved down to his ankles. The other migrants had swollen hands or feet as well. That much Cory could explain, but not Antonio’s American accent.


A nightmare jolted her awake at three in the afternoon. In her dream, an army of faceless zombies chased her down a labyrinth of streets in a ghost town until she hit a dead end. The sea of empty faces surged toward her like a wave when a familiar figure broke through the crowd with a growl. It was Antonio.

By four o’clock, she was back in the hospital for another night shift. All ten migrants had survived. They were recuperating in the observation ward, which was part of the Emergency Department. That was how she found herself checking on Antonio a couple of hours into her shift. She proceeded to the ward with her iPad. To her surprise, a Border Patrol agent was sitting on a folding chair by the door.

“ER nurse.” She pointed at her ID hanging from the lanyard around her neck, in case her scrubs weren’t enough to prove that she was a staffer.

“No problem.” The man stood up, towering over her. There was another chair across from him, but no other guard in sight.

“I thought Border Patrol guarded the…well, border?” She hadn’t meant to sound sarcastic. Too late.

“Yes, ma’am. But we also apprehend undocumented immigrants within one-hundred miles of land and coastal borders.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and rocked back on his heels. “This, right here, is thirty-seven miles from the border. Well within our jurisdiction.”

He wore an olive-green uniform, similar to military fatigues. On the right side of his short-sleeved shirt, the name R. Dolan had been embroidered. The left side displayed a patch bearing a coat of arms and marked with: CBP Border Patrol Agent.

“Are you going to arrest my patients today?” she asked.

“Just trying to make sure nobody escapes. They need to be processed. After processing, everything will be up to ICE.”

Her gaze fell on the gun tucked in his belt holster, clearly an exception to the rule; the hospital banned weapons of any kind. She gave him a wooden smile before entering the ward.

Inside, Antonio was not only sitting upright on a bed but also wearing a surgical mask. Was he afraid of catching COVID-19? He was watching the muted TV mounted on the wall.

Cory approached him. “Hello. Remember me?”

“Corazon.” He squared his shoulders—alive and well, far from the zombie in her nightmare.

“That’s right. You look a lot better.” She lifted the blanket to check on his swollen ankles. He was wearing pajama bottoms underneath the hospital gown. His ankles looked normal, but now they were restrained with ankle cuffs. Her anger flared unexpectedly. Was this really necessary?

She glanced at the other patients. They were asleep except for one, a middle-aged woman occupying bed number four. She was supine, but her eyes were fastened on Antonio before moving to Cory. A bed sheet covered her legs. Cory assumed that she, too, wore ankle cuffs.

Cory scrolled down her iPad’s screen and found the information for bed number one, which Antonio was occupying. Still no last name. Age: twenty-six. Domicile: Chihuahua, Mexico. “What’s your last name, Antonio? I need to add it in your form.”

He responded in Spanish, but didn’t reveal his surname.

“Will you speak in English, please? I know you can.”

He continued to speak in Spanish. Why was he pretending not to speak English? She should be irritated, but instead, unease rose inside her. It didn’t help that her troubling dream had just flashed in her mind.

She inspected the IV attached to his left arm and the amount of dextrose and electrolyte content entering his body. His chart showed normal vital signs. “Glad to see everything’s in order.”

Antonio fired away in Spanish. All Cory understood were the words baño and zapatos. In Tagalog, they meant bathroom and shoes, respectively. The Filipino language was rooted in Spanish, thanks to three-hundred-seventy years of colonization. And yet Cory could neither understand nor speak Spanish. Perhaps he was asking for a pair of shoes so he could go to the restroom.

She offered him a pair of disposable slippers, but he declined. It must mean he wanted his own shoes. “All right. I’ll see what I can do.” From her iPad, she read the notes left by the day crew. The migrants’ belongings were in storage.

She stowed her iPad in a closet and maneuvered one of the wheelchairs lined up against the wall. She pushed it toward Antonio, but the mumbling of the woman in bed number four stopped her in her tracks.

“Do you speak English, ma’am?” Cory asked.

She appeared as weak as second-brewed tea. Could she be hallucinating? “Antonio needs to go to the restroom. But I’ll be right back,” she assured her.

She detached Antonio’s catheter and helped him into the wheelchair. He continued speaking in Spanish, pointing at his bare feet.

“I know, I know. We’re going to storage to get your shoes.”

At the door, a brown-skinned agent now accompanied Dolan, who was white. The embroidered name on the man’s shirt read J. Iglesias. He, too, was armed.

“Agent Iglesias, do you speak Spanish?” asked Cory.

When the agent nodded, Cory turned her face toward Antonio. “Why don’t you tell Agent Iglesias whatever it was you were trying to tell me?”

But Antonio only gazed at his bare feet.

How odd. What was wrong? The poor man must be intimidated by the Border Patrol. Cory waved a hand to indicate whatever. “I’m taking him to the restroom, then to storage to get his shoes,” she told the agents.

“Happy to escort you, Miss…” Iglesias leaned forward to read Cory’s ID. “Miss Hidalgo.”

A phone trilled. “Gotta take this.” Dolan whipped out the phone from his pocket.

Cory proceeded to the restroom next door. Iglesias was about to open the door for her when Antonio spoke in Spanish. Iglesias responded also in Spanish, leaving Cory out.

She bugged her eyes out at the agent. “What did he say?”

            Iglesias smirked. “The dude refuses to go to the bathroom without his shoes. He says it’s in the storage room. Which way?”

            She pursed her lips. “The restroom has all kinds of germs. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask for shoes.” Except Antonio could have worn the disposable slippers—why had he declined?

            Her suspicion was growing, but she couldn’t quite spell out what she suspected Antonio of. She pushed the chair down the hallway, Iglesias on her heels.

            At half past six in the evening, the comings and goings in the hospital had petered out. The last of the visitors were streaming out of the in-patient wing.

The storage room was two floors down, so Cory and the two men rode the elevator. Iglesias questioned Antonio in Spanish, but the patient only stared and stared at his lap.

The knob of suspicion Cory had felt earlier nudged her again, not only because she didn’t understand Spanish but because of Antonio’s silence. She knew he’d recovered from heatstroke, judging by his normal vitals. So why was he refusing to answer when questioned? She could only attribute it to fear of authorities.

When the elevator door opened, Cory pushed Antonio’s chair out, Iglesias behind them. Their destination was at the end of the long corridor, past the out-patient ward, which was empty at night.

Iglesias jogged to overtake them. He blocked the room with the sign Storage. “I can’t let the tango enter. Can’t risk him escaping through a window or something. Nurse Hidalgo, how about you get his shoes?”

Cory raised her eyebrow. “His name is Antonio, not Tango.”

“It just means target.” He grinned, baring little teeth. He was only a couple of inches taller than Cory, but his compact, muscular build projected power. “Sorry. I forgot that I’m not talking to law enforcement.”

“Okay.” She opened the door with the key card also hanging from her lanyard. “See that?”

They all looked inside. The windowless room, only slightly bigger than a closet, was crammed with brown boxes and milk crates, backpacks and plastic bags, boots and sneakers, umbrellas and old crutches. It was the equivalent of a junk drawer.

She folded her arms across her chest. “It will take me forever to find anything in there. Let Antonio find his own shoes. Please uncuff him.”

Iglesias shook his head. “I can’t do that.”

“You have to uncuff him.”

“No can do.”

“Please uncuff him.”

The nurse and the agent went like that a few more times, until Antonio himself intervened in Spanish.

Whatever he’d said worked because Iglesias knelt down to remove Antonio’s ankle cuffs. “Okay, dude. You win. Just because I don’t want you to piss in your pants.”

Cory anticipated helping Antonio get his bearings, but his agility surprised her. He slinked out of the wheelchair and dived into the pile. He squatted as he sorted out odds and ends.

Iglesias hovered like a storm cloud.

Cory watched them from a few feet away with an insistent tug of anxiety. A trip to the storage room had never been this stressful.

At last, Antonio found his shoes.

Iglesias snatched them from his hands. “Let me take a look.”

Antonio remained in a squat. His eyes shone, alert.

“What are you looking for?” Cory’s question came out tentative. It seemed ridiculous for Iglesias to inspect a pair of sneakers, and yet she herself was worried about what the agent might find there. A razor or a knife? Drugs? Cash?

Don’t let anybody touch my money. Antonio’s nonsensical chatter last night came back to her. Was there any truth to it?

Iglesias thrust the shoes into Cory’s face. “What do you make of this?”

It was a logo consisting of three letters: YZY. The sleek, brown shoes were not brand new, but they weren’t well-worn either.

Cory shrugged. “I’m not familiar with the brand.”

“I’ve seen it before…I just can’t remember where.” Iglesias dropped the shoes on the floor. “You can put them on. Chop-chop.”

Iglesias stepped outside the room. Antonio plopped on the floor, then scooted on his ass to get just outside the door, away from the pile of junk. He picked up the sneakers and put them on. Right foot, then left foot. He fumbled with the laces.

The agent’s stance was intimidating—his feet wide apart, his hands on his hips. The very presence of Iglesias and Antonio in the same space saturated the air with tension. Cory found herself holding her breath. She just wanted to return to the observation ward.

An alarm bell went off. “Attention, hospital personnel! We have a Code Black,” Nancy’s voice on the intercom boomed. “All hospital personnel, please follow Code Black procedures!”

Cory’s heart skipped. Code Black meant a security problem, like a bomb threat or a hostage taking or patient kidnapping. She locked eyes with Iglesias.

He touched his gun, as though by instinct. “What does Code Black—”

Antonio bolted to his feet and stumbled into a run, toward the elevator.

Cory shrieked.

“Hey!” Iglesias sprinted off like a halfback.

The corridor led to the elevator, but Antonio might head for the stairwell. His no-accent English, his ramblings about money, his persistent silence. Everything fell into place.

She grabbed the ankle cuffs and darted after the men.

Iglesias was catching up. He jumped Antonio and toppled him down. He pinned him face down with his entire body.

“I got the cuffs!” yelled Cory.

Antonio was flailing underneath the weight of the agent. “Get the zip ties in my right pocket,” Iglesias barked. “This bastard is not a migrant. He’s the perp.”

“He spoke perfect English about his money. I should have known better.” Cory dropped the ankle cuffs, her body fizzing with adrenaline. She bent down, pulled out the ties from Iglesias’s pocket, and slapped them on the floor beside him.

“The shoes. They gave him away.” Iglesias lifted his torso just enough to grab Antonio’s arms and positioned them palm to palm behind his back. The agent expertly slipped the ties into Antonio’s wrists. He straddled Antonio as he tightened the restraints. “I knew I’ve seen that logo before. It just came back to me. They’re Kanye’s shoes—Y-Z-Y for Yeezy.”

“Kanye? Like Kanye West the rapper?” Cory’s head whirled.

“A-K-A Ye. That’s the one.” Iglesias got off Antonio and knelt down as he shackled Antonio’s legs with the cuffs. “This bastard is definitely not a migrant. Only loaded human traffickers can afford a pair of shoes worth six hundred bucks.”

            The elevator dinged. Out came Dolan with his gun aimed at Antonio.

            “Everything’s under control,” shouted Iglesias.

            “I requested the Code Black after talking to the Supe.” Dolan slid the firearm into his holster. “His first call was to alert me that they found a bag of cash buried near the spot where the rig broke down. Then he called again saying one of the migrants recovering in Encinal ratted out Antonio de Armas as the smuggler and rig driver.”

            Iglesias rose and pulled Antonio up by his shoulders. “Are you Antonio de Armas?”

            Antonio shook his head. The two agents and Cory surrounded him.

            Dolan removed Antonio’s facial mask. He pulled his phone out from his pocket and tapped the screen. “Yep, this is Antonio de Armas. One of the migrants upstairs confirmed it as well.”

            “Which migrant?” asked Cory. “A middle-aged woman?” Bed number four! So, she was trying to tell Cory earlier.

            “A woman, yes.” Dolan raised his phone to show them an image. “Antonio’s commercial driver’s license. He’s a U.S. citizen, a resident of Brownsville, Texas. He delivers vehicle parts from Mexico when he’s not trafficking migrants.”

            Cory couldn’t see the license well from where she stood, but she had no doubts. Antonio’s surgical mask wasn’t meant to protect him from COVID-19 infection, but to hide his face. Horrible pictures crowded her mind. A heap of bodies inside the sweltering rig. Antonio burying his ill-gotten money in the ground. Antonio clambering inside the tractor and blending in with the dehydrated and dead migrants.

            “He could have just escaped. Why did he have to make a fool of us here in the hospital?” asked Cory.

            “I’m guessing he was afraid he wouldn’t survive the heatwave in the middle of nowhere without calling for help.” Dolan was stroking his chin. “Also, he probably spent all his energy burying his money first instead of running away.”

The heatstroke had been real, but not as bad as he’d made it appear. Cory took a step forward to look Antonio in the eye. “You’re a murderer. You killed all those people.”

            “Thirty-five people,” Iglesias corrected her. “He killed thirty-five migrants who paid him anywhere from ten to fifteen grand each. That’s the going rate.”

            Antonio’s stern gaze revealed nothing, but his mouth curved, smug.

The two agents agreed that Dolan would stay put to guard the other migrants while Iglesias would deliver the suspect to the closest county jail where he would stay until he could be transferred to an ICE detention center.

            Iglesias clapped his hands once. “Let’s go. I’m taking you to where you belong.”

            Cory strode toward the elevator and pushed a button.

The agents flanked the criminal who inched forward in his ankle restraints. No more wheelchair. Maybe he never needed it to begin with. No wonder he’d insisted on collecting his shoes. He was planning to escape all along. Lucky his ruse was discovered before he could bust out.

She gazed down at his designer shoes. The symbol of his greed. The cause of his downfall.

            The elevator door opened with a ding. The three men stepped inside, but Cory declined to join them. “I’ll use the stairs. I need to clear my head.”

            Iglesias acknowledged her with a nod. “Thanks for your help.”

Dolan gave her a salute.

She forced a smile as she gave Antonio a final once-over. Her skin prickled just thinking how vulnerable he’d been in the tub last night. He could have drowned accidentally. A smartphone plugged in an electrical outlet could have fallen into the tub. He could have died a dozen ways, but it wouldn’t have brought back to life the thirty-five migrants.

The elevator door closed. May she never encounter another mass murderer ever again. She headed for the stairs. The long night shift stretched ahead of her.

Cindy Fazzi is a Filipino American writer and former Associated Press reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States. Her historical novel, My MacArthurwas published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2018. Her contemporary thriller, Multo, will be published by Agora, an imprint of Polis Books, in June 2023.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Overcommitted Murder, fiction by R. G. Lynn

Jack’s text is all of six words.

And it comes in the middle of cross-town traffic. 

“Share a meal, Clair? Some vino?”

I crank the wheel to avoid a cement truck, hit the voice-to-text button right after I flip off the driver.

“As if. No,” I say out loud to the empty car.

“Benny’s at five-thirty,” texts Jack. “Some wine. Some calamari. See you then.”

Dinner with Jack.

Ask me to memorize Macbeth or learn to speak Chinese—both of which I’d rather do if I had a clear five minutes—which  I likely never will, should I live to be a thousand. Chief financial officer for the credit union, that’s me. Not to mention VP at the Chamber of Commerce; head of the church improvement committee; picture-perfect mom to picture-perfect princess twins; travel coordinator for said daughters’ soccer league; tennis coach at the country club; groceries, laundry, TV and—oh yeah, the occasional bathroom break—I don’t have five lousy seconds, let alone an hour to watch my spouse ingest overcooked chicken while he mansplains the history of the freakin’ National Guard.

Which Goddamn-Jack-Almighty well knows. He’s seen my schedule. He knows how overcommitted I am.

But then I have a thought. A way to make the night worth some rearranging.

As ever, I’m goal-oriented.

I squeeze him in.

Before I know it—whoosh, I’m at Benny’s, sitting across the table. Back straight, eyes forward, fallen arches flat on the dark hardwood floor. I shake back my two-hundred dollar sandy brown haircut and marvel at the evening crowd. Men and women at tables all around us, laughing, smiling, chatting. How do they find time to relax? Freakin’ losers is what they are.

Goddamn life is nothing but a whooshing blur. 

Then I think, after tonight there’ll be some down time. I can’t help but laugh at that one. 

Down time for somebody. For sure.

Across the table from me, Jack’s a grinning, over-privileged blond ape. Pretty boy jock. Gung-ho Army man. 

The waiter stops by our table. 

He’s cute with glasses. His name is Don. I order the calamari with dipping sauce.

And give Don a knowing wink. We have a secret. Set up on the way over. 

Don knows me. He winks back.

They all know me. 

Every restaurant in town knows me. God knows we never eat at home.

I check my watch. “Don’t tell me you’ve got the night off, Jack.” 

Jack pours the wine. “Third shift is overstaffed, we rearranged the calendar is all. I got lucky.”

I’m thinking I got lucky. 

I say so. “I never would’ve been able to make the time for this.” I swallow half the glass and shove it across the white linen cloth. “More, please.” 

“Hey, go easy. We’ve got all night.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” 

If he only knew.

“Like I said, if you hadn’t have texted when you did, I never would’ve had time.”

He ignores me. Like usual. “I was thinking we should talk,” he says.

My mind races down twelve tracks at once. 


Oh, yeah, dickhead. There’s plenty to talk about. Missed birthdays. Missed anniversaries. Missed meals and family vacations forever cancelled. 

There’s Jack’s mother’s fur coat, promised to his daughter at birth, pawned for a hunting rifle. There’s the family property in Maine. There’s the stocks and bonds, cashed in and lavished on his new girlfriend who I’m not supposed to know about—what’s her name? Trudy?

I drink and push the empty glass over. “Fill ‘er up.”

This time he stops at half a glass. “I’d like you to be sober. When you hear what I have to say, I mean.”

“Sure.” I drain the glass and again, look at my watch. “Go,” I say.

His eyes go to my wrist and he shoot me a question. “Do you have someplace you need to be later tonight? I guess I should’ve asked.”

My God, this man.

“Only to pick up our daughters. From choir practice? She’s done at eight.”

“Oh, crap. Sorry.” 

He really didn’t know. Didn’t even think about the girls. “You couldn’t bother to ask where they are tonight?”

Jack shrugged. “I figured you had them busy doing…something.” 

Don arrives with the plate of calamari rings, all golden-brown fried and piled high. He puts the appetizer down in the middle of the table. Sets a bowl of red dipping sauce next to it. 

I tingle, loving the anticipation. 

Imagine Jack, blue faced, blowing chunks of blood.

“Try the sauce, Jack,” I say. “You’ll love it.”

“Just as you ordered, Clair,” says Don. 

But I don’t like the way he says it. He winks again and departs.

Was there something off about the way he said my name? Something not right. 

“Clair.” Like he’s taking a tone. 

Like maybe him and me aren’t okay on the plan. 

I thought we were okay on the plan.

My stomach does a little lurch.

Which doesn’t matter, because I won’t be eating anything tonight. “Save your appetite for the funeral lunch,” I tell myself and giggle out loud. 

The wine’s getting to me. I giggle again.

“What’s funny?” says Jack.

“Nothing,” I say. “Try the sauce.” Giggling again. 

Jack scoops up a healthy dollop of dip on his calamari ring. Stuffs it into his mouth.

Giggle. “Gimme another drink,” I say.

What would I do without Don? 

Without Don, I wouldn’t even have time to kill my husband. 


I don’t have time for this kind of shit. The bitching about her schedule. 

The giggling. 

Twenty years of marriage—God, I hate that giggle. Like a little-damn-girl. 

And so, naturally, I went and made two more just like her. Giggling damn girls spreading make-up and clothes all over the freakin’ place. 

And all the damn shoes.

Claire’s wristwatch caught a gleam of Benny’s recessed light. 

She drank again from her glass. 

How long did it take this stuff to work? Goddamn that Don. If he screwed me over…

“It’s not like I have all the time in the world,” I say, and Clair seems to sober up. “I really did want to talk to you about the girls.”

“What about the girls?”

On the defense now, she tosses back her head. I really hate that haircut. I want to tell her that. Want to wipe my disdain in her face like used toilet paper. 

But I’m nothing if not on task.  

“Well, just if something were to happen to us, I’d want—”

“What’s going to happen to us?”

“Nothing, nothing. It’s just, I’ve been thinking—with me re-upping in the Guard and taking on the board position at the Sportsman’s Club, with the girls older now—I don’t wanna drop the ball…”

“Oh, you’ve done that plenty,” Clair says. Real snarky like. Her lip curls up like it’s snagged on a fishing hook. 

Imagine what she’ll look like in an hour when the stuff in the wine takes effect. Imagine her lip snagged for eternity. “Let me fill your glass,” I say, finishing the bottle.

“Thanks. Eat up,” she says, and I swallow another appetizer. 

“I notice you’re not drinking any wine,” Clair says.

“I notice you’re not eating any calamari.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I’m not thirsty.”

“They make the best damn dipping sauce here at Benny’s.” I have another bite and relish the burn at the back of my throat.

Odd. The dipping sauce never burned before.

“Anyway,” I say, “I just wanted you to know I had my attorney change the will. If something happens, the girls will go to my Aunt Agnes.”

“Like hell.” Cough. Cough.

“You okay?”

“W-went d-down the wrong pipe,” Clair says. Cough.

“If not Agnes, who? I don’t have time to run around looking for somebody else. You’re not the only one with more obligations than God.”

Cough. Cough. “I…don’t know…not Agnes.”

Stupid bitch would argue with her dying breath. In fact she is.

I reach for my water glass. Untouched until now. Damn, my throat burns. “Let’s…let’s just table it for later, huh?”

“T-table?” Cough.

“Table the discussion.” I stand up, pick up my phone. The numbers on the face move in a blurry circle. “I’ve got to go. Forgot I was supposed to pick up my suit at the cleaners.”

Across from me, Clair climbs to her feet. Pushes back her chair awkwardly. “Yeah, yeah.” Cough. “Me too. I’ve got to drop off some papers at the accountant.” 

I reach for my water glass and tip it over. It falls on the aged hardwood floor of Benny’s Hot house. Steakhouse. But hot. 

I pull my tie loose from around my neck. “Never been so damn…hot…” I dig at my collar.

Clair’s sagging back into her chair. “I…don’t have time for this,” she says.

“Me neither,” I say. 

She can’t giggle anymore. Instead, there’s a choking kind of sound somewhere deep. Far off.

Maybe it’s me making the sound.

“I’ve got too much to do to die,” I say. My knees hit the floor as I collapse.

Before everything goes black, I hear Claire’s last words on earth. “Put it…on your calendar,” she says.


As I feel the blood churning up from my lungs, I realize—my calendar is suddenly wide open.

Richard Prosch’s work has appeared in Mystery Magazine, Down and Out Magazine, Tough Crime, Wild West, and online at Boys' Life. He won the Spur Award from Western Writers of America for short fiction, and his 2022 novel, Pony Boys was a Spur Award-finalist. His web site is www.RichardProsch.com.

Monday, November 14, 2022

El Curandero, fiction by Hector Acosta


The bright, yellow egg yolk sat perfectly unbroken at the bottom of the water-filled glass, the murky water magnifying its size and color. The sight of the yolk always reminded Juan of the story his mother read to him about the goose who laid golden eggs. All around the egg yolk were long, milky strands resembling spider webbing, the fiber stretching from the yolk itself and up to the surface of the water, where a thin layer of white foam had form.

        “You were right to call me Señor Parker,” Juan said in Spanish. “See all this?” he pointed to the strands, his finger following one of the strands to the surface, “this is all the bad energy which I pulled from your body. Someone wishes you ill.”

        He stopped and waited for Adolfo to translate the speech to Mr. Parker, who sat on the bed and stretched. Juan stayed quiet, watching Mr. Parker’s well-toned body ripple and shift as he stretched his arms to the ceiling and arched his back until it produced a satisfying and small cracking sound. Adolfo had told him that Mr. Parker was in his forties, but with his full blond hair, trim body, and wrinkle-free face, it was hard to believe. He’d be handsome if it wasn’t for the splotches of red which covered his neck, shoulders, and chest like irregularly shaped pools.

        After Adolfo finished translating, Mr. Parker got up and walked over toward Juan.

        “I knew it,” Edward Parker muttered, his eyes moving up and down the glass. He turned to Adolfo and said, “I had a deal go bad at work this week and haven’t been able to meet my daily steps goal all week. Not to mention this,” he said, motioning to one of the red spots.

        Juan gripped the glass tighter and tried not to look at Adolfo, only for Adolfo to cough and remind Juan he almost missed his cue.

        Adolfo, a man who, until a month ago, Juan assumed he would never see again. He was as thin as a bad lie, with shiny, slicked black hair frozen in place thanks to a hefty use of hair gel. He’d shaved his stubble, trimming it down to an angular goatee, but his eyebrows were still too bushy and big for his face, like dark clouds hovering over almond-colored eyes.

        Clearing his throat, Juan said, “You will need weekly limpias. This…” he motioned to the glass, “is too much to wipe away all at once.”

        It had been Adolfo’s idea to play the role of the translator for Juan’s Spanish-speaking only healer. “The guy is will be expecting a certain…ambiente, you know? He has certain expectations, and the fact you’re not a little old, hunchback woman is going to throw him off already. The least we can do is have you speak only Spanish.”

        “Should I wear a sombrero too?” Juan had asked.

        While Adolfo translated, Juan looked at the strands connected to the yolk. He’d added a bit of salt to the water beforehand, just like his mother taught him, so that when he cracked the egg and dropped the yolk in, he’d be guaranteed some strands. But Juan’d never seen so many appear so quickly.

        “And how much do you say he charges for each session?” Edward asked, his eyes on Juan, who tried to look wise and mystical. Juan wasn’t wearing a sombrero, but he wore a pair of loose, white pants and a flowy white shirt, along with a large silver cross he’d gotten off a pawn shop a day ago.

        “Well, Mr. Parker, it all depends on a variety of factors. As you can imagine, pulling away the bad shi—” Adolfo paused and corrected himself, “energy, out of a person, that takes a lot out of Don Alvarado.. It can even prevent him from booking more jobs.”

        “But he guarantees he can make me better? And get rid of all the bad energy?”

        Juan nodded when Adolfo asked him the question in Spanish.

        Edward again looked at Juan. The man’s gaze stirred things in Juan’s gut and drips of condensation caressed the fingers holding the glass.

        Walking over to Juan, Edward took the glass without asking. When he did so, his fingers grazed Juan’s, and maybe it was just Juan’s imagination, but he thought they stayed there longer than necessary. Edward brought the glass up and studied the egg.

        Adolfo and Juan waited, neither daring to move.

        Setting the glass down on a nearby counter, Edward said, “¿Qué dices, Curandero, de veras me puedes ayudar?”

        It was a good thing Edward had taken the glass from him, because hearing him speak Spanish, good Spanish, mind you, Juan might have dropped the glass himself.


        “I told you, Juan,” he said, “I told you this was going to work,” Adolfo said and reached for his drink, a giant frozen margarita with a small beer bottle embedded into it. When the waitress placed the drink on the table, Juan thought of another story his mom read to him once, of a sword stuck in some stone and the one person in all the kingdom who could pull it out.

        Juan stared at Adolfo and thought of the last time he’d seen him before he reappeared a month ago. They’d been living together in an apartment, both working as curanderos. Juan had always been the one with the deft hands and knowledge gleaned from his mother’s lessons. At the same time, Adolfo was better at talking with the customers, convincing them to either book another appointment or buy some of the herbs and candles. Things had been good, or at least Juan thought they were good. Until the day Adolfo told him he was leaving.

        “Nada personal, Juan,” Adolfo told him as he packed up his stuff. “But I don’t want to spend my life running eggs over abuelitas complaining about their arthritis and getting paid in tamales. I’m better than that.”

        Sometimes, in the middle of the night, or after he had too many drinks and left the bar alone, Juan wondered what he would have done if Adolfo had asked him to go with him. If he’d said Juan was also better than this life he’d been living.

        “I’ll never understand why you love these types of places,” he muttered and took a sip of his beer.

        They were seated in a local Tex-Mex restaurant corner booth, miles away from Edward’s neighborhood and hours from the meeting they had with him. The restaurant was empty when they’d first arrived but was now full of people done with work and celebrating the weekend. Bright decor and loud Mariachi music surrounded them, giving Juan the start of a headache.

        “What’s not to love? Adolfo said as the waitress appeared with a large tray of tortilla chips and a bowl of thick, nuclear yellow cheese.

        “Are you two hombres ready to order?”

        Adolfo went with something called a smothered, bothered, covered, border burrito, while Juan chose a plate of fajitas and asked for the kickin’ ranchero sauce on the side. Once the waitress left, Adolfo plunged his hand into the tortillas and reached for the queso.

        “Two men came looking for you,” Juan blurted out.

        Adolfo stopped mid-queso dip. “¿Quién?”

        Who, Adolfo wanted to know. He tried to keep his tone casual, but Juan noticed the edge of his word, the way it could have cut through flesh.

        “Dos tipos,” said Juan, “About a week before you showed up. Said they were old friends of yours.”

        They’d been waiting at Juan’s door one day after he came back from a job. One of them, a fat and bald guy with a bent nose, leaned against the stair’s railing, and the way the structure whined as he shifted his foot, Juan wonder if it would support him. The other one, big and muscular, and bien bien moreno, stepped forward and introduced himself as Santiago. Juan didn’t fail to notice they were now blocking his way inside. They were looking for Adolfo, Santiago told him, were old friends of his and heard he was back in town.

        “I could tell they weren’t your friends,” Juan said just as the waitress returned with their plates.

        “What you tell them?” Adolfo asked.

        “The truth. That I hadn’t seen you in almost three years, but if they did find you, to give you an ass-kicking for me.”

        Adolfo stared at Juan. “They bought it?”

        “They haven’t come back around since,” Juan said.

        “Good,” Adolfo said, reaching for the bottle of Cholula hot sauce. “Good.”

        Who were they?”

        “Just some guys, nothing you gotta worry about,” Adolfo said, uncapping the bottle and covering his already-covered burrito with bright red sauce.

        Juan grunted. “Bullshit. Those two looked like they would have skinned you alive if they’d found you. Let me guess—you owe them money?”

        "Nothing like that,” Adolfo said, unwrapping his utensils. Glancing at Juan, he sighed and said, “They weren’t happy with a limpia I did, okay?”

        Juan blinked, not sure he heard correctly. “I thought you gave that up?”

        “I’d do it every so often when either the opportunity came up, or I was desperate. Mostly just me swatting some vieja complaining about headaches or their bad love live with whatever branch I found beforehand.”

        “Why were those guys looking for you?” Juan asked

        “They’re brothers. They’d hired me to help out their sister and weren’t happy when I told them there wasn’t much I could do and that they should take her to a real doctor.”

        “Did you give them back the money they paid you?”

        Adolfo grunted. “¡Ni a putas! Why would I? I did my part. Plus, I always set expectations. Gave them a whole speech about how I wasn’t guaranteeing anything.”

        “What was wrong with the person?” Juan asked.

        Shrugging, Adolfo dipped a chip into the queso. “Cancer of some sort.”

        “God damn it, Adolfo,” Juan said. While Juan might not have followed all of the lessons his mother imparted on him, one he’d managed to adhere to was never giving people false hope. In his mother’s view, there was a large divide between the people she saw and their everyday maladies, and other curanderos who promised they could heal anything and everything.

        “It was a dumb mistake,” Adolfo said. “But don’t worry, I‘m going to fix it with those guys. That’s part of the reason why I returned here.”

        For a second, Juan wanted to ask if he was the other part of the reason Adolfo came back. But he knew better. Adolfo returned because of his new business idea.

        “You should see this guy, Chino,” Adolfo had said pulling out the nickname he used to call him, Chino—on account of Juan’s curly hair. “El tipo es bien extraño,” he continued. “He’s a...what do you call them, the weirdos who always think they’re sick or about to get sick? Hypocrites?”

        Juan didn’t know the word either, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t that. “And he wants a limpia?” he asked.

        “He will after I sell him on it.”

        It turned out Adolfo worked for Edward Parker as a driver. This despite the fact Juan knew Adolfo didn’t have a valid driver’s license. He could have asked how he got around that fact, but instead decided to stick to Adolfo’s plan, which sounded less and less thought out.

        “When I say the guy is weird, I mean it. The stuff he spends money on! Card readings, psychics, objects that supposedly will bring him luck. He’s one big walking mark, and I’m surprised no one has tried to milk him for all he’s worth already. “

        “Until you.”

        Adolfo shook his head. “You’re not listening. I don’t want to milk him dry. He’s our way in. All we need is to impress him, and he’ll start recommending us. You know how the richies are. They jump from trend to trend.”

        Adolfo cut into his oversized burrito, spilling its meat, rice, and beans contents into the plate, reminding Juan of the summers he spent in Veracruz, where his grandma ran a farm and kept pigs. Juan couldn’t have been more than seven years old when he saw his grandma slice open a pig’s throat, the blood spilling into the concrete pen and coating his grandma’s rough, brown skin.

        “You’re still good to follow through with the next step?” Adolfo asked without looking up from his plate.

        Tearing a piece of the flour tortilla, Juan piled it with meat and bell peppers. “You sure he’ll be okay afterward?” he asked. The meat was flavorless and stringy, nothing like the fajitas Juan would make at home.

        “You saw him today. He looks fine, doesn’t he?”

        An image of Edward sitting on the edge of the bed, the top button of his shirt undone, puffs of blond chest hair peeking through slipped into Juan’s mind, silencing the brightness of the restaurant. Blinking the image away, he found Adolfo staring intently at him. “Relax,” he said, “I’m only put a bit into his morning coffee, just like we talked about.”

        The discussion to poison Edward came up far more naturally than Juan would have ever thought.

        “We’re going to have to keep him on the hook, somehow,” Adolfo had been musing one day, shortly after Edward agreed to meet Juan. “The guy likes to jump from treatment to cure—toda la pinche gente adinerada son igual. They throw the money away without thinking about it. I’ve seen this guy jump from acupuncture to steam baths to vegan diets all in the same week.”

        “I thought the goal was to get him to recommend us to his other rich friends?” Juan had asked.

        “That’s not going to happen if we don’t leave an impression on him. He’s not like one of your regular clients, the ones who come to you just out of sheer belief and tradition. He’s going to want to see results.”

        “Even though there’s nothing wrong with him,” Juan said.

        “Pretty much.”

        Sitting across from him now, Juan wondered if Adolfo knew exactly what he was doing with the conversation, leading Juan to the same solution he had in mind.

        “Your tío get us more of the stuff if we need it?” Adolfo asked, finishing his margarita and setting the glass by the edge of the table for the waitress to pick up.

        Juan leaned forward, glancing around to make sure no one was listening to them. “What do you mean ‘if we need it?’” he asked. “You just said you’re barely putting any into the guy’s coffee. You know how dangerous that stuff is?”

        The truth was, even Juan didn’t know how dangerous the substance they’d been giving Edward really was. He was repeating what his uncle always told him about thallium poisoning. His uncle, who’d worked in an ore smelting plant over in El Paso for most of his life and used to tell Juan stories about his co-workers suffering diarrhea, hair loss, nausea, vomiting and “la piel bien bien roja, como el kool-aid qué te gusta.”

        The skin as red as the kool-aid you like to drink.

        “Cálmate, wuey,” Adolfo said, “There’s plenty left in that bottle he sent us. I’m just thinking for the future. For the next clients.”

        Leaning back in his seat, Juan picked at his meal and tried to ignore the migraine building in his head. “Estás loco,” he told Adolfo. “We got lucky with Edward. You have a way of giving him the stuff without him noticing. How would we do it with anyone else?”

        Adolfo grinned and said, “Way ahead of you.” Raising a queso-stained hand, Juan thought he was motioning the waitress over, but a different woman reached their table, Adolfo already pulling his chair back to stand.

        “You’re late,” he told the woman.

        “Hay no empiences,” she said, tugging the strap of her exposed bra. “I told you I didn’t get off till five thirty.”

        The woman was short, and curvy, wearing tight, bedazzled jeans and a white t-shirt that drew the attention of most males in the nearby area. She had long, black hair and big breasts, and when she leaned and kissed Adolfo on the cheek, it sparked a bolt of jealousy across Juan’s mind.

        “Juan, this is Sofía. Sofía, this is Juan.”

        Taking a seat, Sofía wasted no time reaching for a tortilla chip and dipping it into the queso, somehow managing to do so without getting a single drop of yellow on her polished nails. “Nice meeting you, Juan,” she said.

        “Uh, hi,” Juan muttered, glancing at Adolfo and trying to figure out what was happening.

        “Sofía here is a cleaning lady. She—”

        “I’m a house cleaner, pendejo,” she said and, in the same breath, flagged down a waitress and ordered a beer.

        Rolling his eyes, Adolfo continued. “Sofía is a house cleaner. I met her the other day while she was house cleaning Edward’s house.”

        “Has Adolfo told you how much of a weirdo he is? Requires I wear different gloves for each part of the house and that I wear these dumb little bags on my feet so ‘I don’t track dirt and other things from room to room,’” Sofía said.

        “We got to talking, and she mentioned how she services most of the neighborhood.”

        Juan’s heart raced, and his chest tightened as if he was trapped in a rollercoaster ride and had no control over where it was taking him.

        “It’s true. Every house in a three-block span is one of my clients.”

        “Tell her what you told me about the guy who lives across from Edward.”

        “Mr. Garth? Oh, he’s a freak too, but on a whole other level. Guy has a whole room dedicated to this weird collection of, like, cartoon toys and stuff. You should see the tetas on some of the toys he has up and around, bigger than mine.”

        “The other thing Sofía.”

        “Oh yeah. He believes in ghosts. Thinks he’s been haunted his whole life by his mom, who died giving birth to him or something.”

        “Sounds to me like he could use a limpia,” Adolfo said, running his finger around the bowl of queso, collecting the last bit. “Maybe a session to see if we can invoke el espiritu.”

        “Yeah, I can get you guys dirt on all my clients,” Sofía said. “And if I can’t find anything, I can help you poison them, like you’re doing with Mr. Parker.”

        Even though he’d been expecting it, the words still made Juan’s stomach drop. “You told her?”

        “I figured it out,” Sofía said, tapping on the table to get Juan’s attention. Ever since this guy showed up, Mr. Parker hadn’t been acting normal for the last few weeks. Then I heard him talking about you coming in to try to heal him and figured something was up.”

        “One morning she caught me putting the stuff in his drink. I had to tell her.”

        “Lucky for you both, I decided to join you rather than turn you all in. Lucky also because I’m going to help you expand,” Sofía said.

        “Expand?” Juan asked. “You want to poison every single client? I think that’s going to be noticed eventually.”

        “First of all,” Adolfo said, nodding to the waitress who picked up their plates, “If you’re shitting blood, are you going to tell your neighbor? But more importantly, how often do you think they notice people like us? You think they would ever realize if a cook started to include ingredients they’re allergic to into their food? Or the gardener directing pollen toward their side of the bedroom? We make their lives just a little bit miserable for a while, and then bam, we show up and make everything better.”

        Think about it, all these assholes hire people like us,” Sofía said, motioning to the three of them sitting around the table, “to keep their house in order, cook for them, fix their cars, and keep their yard neat, but I bet you we’re invisible to them.”

        “Come on, Juan. Don’t you want to stop taking the bus everywhere? Don’t you want to make something of yourself with what your mom taught you. I’m not saying we’re going to end up using the stuff, but it’s better to be prepared, right?”

        The grin Adolfo threw at Juan was one he’d seen countless times before. It was the one he gave him when they were both just getting hair on their lips and elsewhere when he dared him to follow him into the empty lot a few blocks from their house, where no one ever went. The same grin he gave him when he convinced Juan to dip into his mother’s purse and take twenty dollars.

        “I’ll reach out to my uncle,” Juan said, just as the waitress placed a five-layer tres leches cake between them.


        While there were still a couple of spots of red on Edward’s body, mostly cluttered among his left arm and shoulders, the rest had disappeared. Bare-chested, Edward marveled at this fact, staring at himself in the full-length mirror while Juan collected his stuff from the counter.

        “Increíble,” Edward said, turning around and craning his neck to inspect his back on the mirror. “Incredible,” he said again.

        Glancing at Edward, Juan’s eyes slid from Edward’s trim waist to his broad shoulders. He was browner than he would have expected, and he had a sudden image of Edward in a tanning bed wearing nothing but a speedo and those strange little goggles. Blinking away the image, he made some non-committal noise and returned to packing his tools.

        Juan has been treating Edward weekly for a little over six weeks now. The sessions usually consisted of an egg limpia or a barrida, which involved Juan bundling some herbs together, dipping the bundle into a bowl of water and then running the soaking bundle all over Edward, who was ordered to remain perfectly still with eyes closed. Juan enjoyed these moments, when he was close to their client, so close he could smell the cologne—some subtle, French thing, Juan guessed—and take his time inspecting Edward’s body. During the last session, as Juan was doing just that, he thought he saw one of Edward’s eyes flutter open and catch him staring, but he couldn’t be sure.

        “Incredible,” Edward repeated in Spanish and, to Juan’s disappointment, reached for his shirt lying on a chair. “And it’s not just the redness that has gone away. So has my migraines. I feel like I’d been living underwater for a few months, moving in slow motion and drowning, and I finally got pulled out.”

        Juan smiled and continued packing. If his uncle were right, Edward would still be feeling some of the effects from the thallium for a couple more months, but Adolfo had been tapering off on the doses for a while now, as well as introducing some Mexican pharmacy-bought antidote to counterattack it.

        “I’m sure Adolfo already told you I had some doubts about this whole thing in the beginning,” Edward said, sitting on the bed and buttoning up his shirt. “I hope you didn’t take it personally. I’ve just been searching and visiting so many places and people, trying to find something to…” he paused and frowned, running his hand through his hair as he grasped for an elusive word. Finally, he just shrugged and let it drop.

        This was the most Edward had spoken directly to Juan. Even though he’d shown he could speak Spanish, and spoke it well, he usually stuck with English and relied on Adolfo to “translate” for Juan. But Adolfo hadn’t been able to make this session, so it’d been only Juan and Edward this whole time.

        Qué bueno que lo pudiomos ayudar,” Juan muttered.

        “I imagine you’re going to be helping a lot of new people soon,” Edward mused, still sitting on his bed, watching Juan. “Adolfo told me he couldn’t be here today because he’s meeting Mrs. Dolson.”

        Adolfo had been busy this week, setting up meetings with many of the clients Edward referred them to, and figuring out who from their rosters of underpaid, overworked employees he could bring into their plan. For Mrs. Dolson, they were using Sofía, who cleaned the old woman’s house twice a week.

        “The old bitch always makes me do the bathrooms all over again,” she’d told Adolfo and Juan when they met for dinner at yet another tacky Tex-Mex restaurant.

        “Word of warning,” Edward said as he rose from the bed. “Be careful around her.”

        Juan thought he was talking about Sofía but realized Edward was referring to Mrs. Dolson. “She’s known to have roaming hands,” he said, closing the distance between himself and Juan with three strides of his long legs. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a wad of folded bills and presented them to Juan.

        “Adolfo handles the payments,” Juan said, looking at Edwards’s face and fighting the sudden desire to run a finger across the angle of his chin and feel his stubble.

        “This is for you. Think of it as a bonus for the work you’ve done,” Edward said. His lips thin but somehow fitting his face twitched into a smile as his eyes focused on Juan. “Take it.”

        The two words prickled against Juan’s skin, and he reached for the money. He thought he saw the smallest of nods from Edward when he took hold of the bills, and he almost let out a gasp as Edward’s finger skimmed across the palm of his hand.

        “When can I see you again?” Edward asked.

        “Adolfo handles the scheduling. I know he’s scheduling a lot of sessions, but I’m sure we can get —”

        “No,” Edward said shaking his head. “When can I see you.”


        Juan was pretty sure they’d forgotten his eggrolls.

        He checked the bag as he climbed the steps up to his third-story apartment, the Houston heat pressing against his back even as the sun dipped into the horizon. He rummaged through the chopsticks, multitude of soy sauce packets, and cartons filled with General Tso’s Chicken and Lo Mein. The eggrolls were the best thing the restaurant made, so good they were worth putting up with the place’s long wait time, overpriced menu, and dirty tables.

        He'd left Edward’s place without giving him an answer, stammering something about being late for his next scheduled session and racing out of there like a teenager fleeing a classroom after someone pointed out the tent in his pants. He replayed the conversation as he climbed the last set of stairs to reach his apartment. His stomach tingled with a mix of nervousness and excitement as he thought of the way Edward’s fingers lingered on his palm, the brazen look he gave him as he said he wanted to see him again, the emphasis of the word you. The single word stayed in his mind, the salt on the a rim of a margarita, and just like when he drank too many of those drinks, it made Juan’s stomach flutter.

        Thinking back to the moment lifted his mood to the point he almost forgot about the missing eggrolls. It also prevented him from noticing the man waiting at the top of the stairs until he almost bumped into him.

        Just like before, Santiago was blocking the entrance to his house.

        “Señor Alvarado,” the big man said as a way of greeting.

        “I already told you I hadn’t seen him,” Juan said, stopping five stairs away from the apartment landing. Hearing creaking from behind him, he glanced back and found the other one, the bald one, climbing up the steps. He was on the second floor already, and the way he was huffing and puffing, Juan thought there might be a chance he’d dropped dead before he reached him.

        Y te creímos,” Salvador said. “But that was almost three months ago. A lot can change in that time. Isn’t that right, Heriberto?”

        “Yea….a….lot…change,” Heriberto said, the man trying to catch his breath and sound intimidating at the same time. Juan would have found it funny if he still wasn’t wedged between two men, one who was nearly double in size of him.

        “We’ve been hearing some interesting things about you Señor Alvarado. That you’re working for the gringos and fresas. Is that why you can take an Uber now? Wasn’t he taking the bus last time we saw him?” Santiago asked his brother.

        “Yeah,” Heriberto said. “Not anymore though. It’s like he came into money.”

        “You’ve been watching me,” Juan said.

        “We’ve been watching for your….” Santiago paused and climbed down a step, the stairs groaning under his weight. “You know, what is Adolfo to you? They used to say you were primos.”

        “He’s my friend,” Juan said before correcting himself. “Was.”

        If Santiago caught the error, he didn’t show it, just took another step down. “Lousy friend. The rumor is he left you high and dry a few years back. Someone did that to me, I wouldn’t want him back in my life anymore.”

        “And especially not someone like Adolfo,” Heriberto chimed in, having finally caught his breath. He also took a step toward Juan. “Es un ratero, and a liar.”

        “I haven’t seen him,” Juan said, and this much was true. Technically, Adolfo was still crashing in his place, but he saw less and less of the man. He was either arranging new clients for Juan or scoping out the people who would help make the clients’ lives miserable before Juan swooped in and magically cured them.

        “Is he that busy with his new girl?” Santiago asked.

        “You know, the one with the big tetas?” Heriberto, only two steps below him, added. “Spends almost every night at her place seems like.”

        “What do you two have planned with that old woman?”

        Juan’s knee shook, and he almost dropped the bag of Chinese food he was holding. He wasn’t sure what to focus on first; the fact the two brothers seemed to know so much about Adolfo and his life, or that Adolfo had been lying to him.

        “Adolfo said he was going to return your money,” Juan whispered, a loud dim in his ears.

        “¿Qu­é dijo?” Heriberto asked. “I couldn’t hear him over the whimpering.”

        “I think he said Adolfo was going to return our money,” Santiago answered.

        “How much does he owe you?” Juan said and reached into his pocket, grabbing the money Edward had given him. “I can give you what I have right now. Maybe that’s en—”

        His words were cut short by Santiago slamming a fist into his stomach, yanking away his breath and instantly blurring his vision. The Chinese food fell on the floor, Lo Mei splashing against his tennis shoes as Juan fell to one knee and gasped for breath.

        “How pathetic are you,” he asked, gripping Juan by the hair and pulling him to his feet. “Guy goes and leaves you, and not only do you take him back—and don’t pretend you haven’t—but now you’re even offering to pay his debts.”

        Heriberto grabbed Juan’s left wrist, slamming it on the railing. “Hey, if the vato wants to pay Adolfo’s debt, maybe we should let him, Santiago.” He said and snickered. “Didn’t you always say you’d break each of his fingers if you caught up to him?”

        “Sabes que, I think you’re right,” Santiago said releasing Juan’s hair. Reaching down, he picked up a small loose concrete slab and held it in his hand like a baseball. “Hold him tight,” he told Heriberto.

        “No, please, wait,” Juan said, struggling against Heriberto’s grip. “We can pay you, I promise.”

        “You don’t get it, do you?” Santiago said, slapping him lightly on the cheek. “I want to hear this from him. I want to take everything out of him.” Santiago raised the hand holding the piece of concrete. “You? You’re just what I have to make do with till then,” he said and brought the concrete down.

        In order to prepare for the pain of having his fingers broken, Juan inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. He was so focused on being prepared for the wracking pain he almost missed the clanging sound and the way the rail he was being leaned against shook.

        “I think he peed his pants,” Heriberto said with a laugh, releasing Juan’s grip.

        Juan opened his eyes and cast a quick glimpse at the portion of the rail that his palm had been resting against just moments earlier. Even though the logical part of him already Santiago hadn’t gone through with his threat, a part of him still expected to see his fingers mangled and crushed. He stared at his uninjured hand and watched his fingers move under his command to be sure.

        “Tell him we’ll be back,” Santiago said as Heriberto reached into Juan’s pocket and took out the folded bills. “Make sure he knows that for what he did to us, we expect more than just a refund.” Patting Juan on the cheek one more time, Santiago let the slab fall to the floor.

        They descended the stairs without another word, the clanging of their steps attacking Juan’s ear as he slumped down on the floor among spilled soy sauce packets and General Tso chicken.


        The queso was a brighter yellow in this restaurant than at the last one, Juan noted. There were also chunks of brown meat and diced tomatoes trapped within the thick, congealed cheese. The appetizer had been the first thing Adolfo had ordered, but surprisingly, it’d gone untouched so far.

        “Four thousand dollars,” Adolfo said, his attention alternating from his phone and a small notepad on his side of the table next to the tortilla chips. “Just for this month alone. Mrs. Dolson has you booked two times next week—she says she really likes when you wear those tight shirts by the way—and the Garth guy has you every other Wednesday.”

        Juan only half listened, his attention on Adolfo himself. He’d made a couple of changes to himself in the last few months, starting with his new phone. “We need to present a certain look to everyone,” he’d told Juan at the strip mall store they went to pick it up. “Most of these people schedule everything electronically, and I can’t be pulling out an old phone that takes five minutes to load up the email app.” Juan cosigned for the phone contract because his credit was a lighter shade of red than Adolfo. His phone remained cracked and three generations behind.

        His clothes looked more expensive, something he’d been able to verify by looking through his section of their closest and fingering some of the price tags still left on the jackets and shirts. At least he did look good with them, though that might have to do with the new haircut and shave.

        “¿Oyes, Juan, me escuchas?” Adolfo asked, snapping his fingers in front of Juan’s face. “Did you hear what I asked you?”

        Blinking, Juan had to admit he didn’t.

        Adolfo grunted, “I wanted to know if you still thought Mr. Parker was worth doing? Guy still has you booked every week, but the asshole let go of Sofía, and it’s not like I’m driving him anymore, so we got no one to help us out with him. I know he’s the one who originally hooked us up with a lot of our clients, but it’s not like we need that from him anymore, and if we free up that day, I bet we can get Mrs. Dolson in for another session at double the pay.”

        The mention of Edward caused a burning sensation in his stomach, like heartburn, except he’d yet to eat anything. Squeezing his hands, Juan shook his head. “Yeah, I was going to talk to you about that. He mentioned he was pretty sure he wouldn’t need us anymore.”

        “Shit, really? Why didn’t you tell me? That works out perfectly then.” Adolfo’s thumbs flew across his phone for a few seconds and afterward flipped some pages on his notebook and crossed out a couple of lines. Glancing up at Juan, he asked, “You okay? You’ve been acting weird and moppy these last few days.”

        Before Juan could answer, the waitress came over to see if they were ready to order. Adolfo told her they weren’t, as they were still waiting for their third, but did ask for a Margarita—with top-shelf tequila, please. Juan asked for a water.

        “I’m okay, just tired, I guess. It’s been almost back-to-back sessions.”

        “Yeah, I know,” Adolfo said and picked up a tortilla chip, “but look at how much we made this month. And it’s not like we have a lot of expenses. This is almost all for us.”

        “And Sofía, right?” Juan asked.

        The tip of the chip broke against the stiff surface of the queso. Adolfo picked up a spoon and swirled the dip before saying, “She’s the reason you’ve been so pissy lately, isn’t it? You know she earns her share. You think la vieja Dolson would keep scheduling sessions if it weren’t for Sofía mixing her medication? Or Mr. Garth and how he keeps thinking it’s ghosts who keeps moving his shit around.”

        “It was supposed to just be us two,” Juan said. The words were muttered, yet to his ears, they felt like the loudest thing he’d ever said. His hands held the edge of the table as if afraid his words would shake the entire restaurant. “Three years ago, you left, and I was fine with it. I kinda understood. You would never be happy until you were…” Juan motioned to him, “here. But then you came back, we figured out how we could both get there, and then you brought her in.”

        Adolfo stared at him without saying anything. The silence grew, taking over the entire table so that when the waitress came with their drinks, she set them down and, without prompting, said she would give them more time and come back.

        “Maldita sea, Juan,” Adolfo muttered, reaching for his drink and taking a long drink out of it. “Why are you trying to ruin this thing? What we have is good.”

        “Sofía told me you’re moving in with her.”

        Setting the drink down, Adolfo nodded. “Shit, I told her to let me tell you, first.”

        “Just like you were going to tell me about the two brothers you still haven’t paid, I bet.”

        Adolfo’s stiffened in his chair. “What the fuck are you talking about.”

        “A week ago, they paid me a visit, Adolfo,” Juan said, his fingers tearing up a napkin, bits of white fluttering down to the table. “They told me you hadn’t paid them anything. Didn’t you say that’s why you came back, to make it right with them?”

        “Why didn’t you tell me, Juan?” Adolfo asked. His voice was calm, almost casual, but Juan could see his eyes, and the thoughts behind them. He looked like the stray cat his mom used to take in during the hot summers, the way the animal would be comfortable and kneading the carpet one moment and then desperate to flee the house the next. That’s how Adolfo looked, like he was waiting for someone to open the door so he could flee.

        Juan had meant to tell Adolfo about the meeting with the brothers on the stairs; he had even called him from the apartment landing, his pants stained with Chinese and his wrist pulsing in pain. His phone had gone straight to voicemail. And then he’d waited for him in the apartment, sat on the sofa after taking a long, hot shower and waited for him to come home. Except Adolfo didn’t come home that night, arriving at noon the next day and telling him how he and Sofía drove out for some tacos, got lost, but found a great little bar he would take Juan to the next weekend.

        With every bit of detail Juan heard about Adolfo and Sofía’s evening, the need to talk about the brothers compressed down a little further, squeezed until it became pocket size, and then he placed it in the deepest part of his brain.

        “I did make it right, I mean, I am going to make it right. I just needed to get a bit more money before I reached out to them. Fuck, Juan, you should have told me this. You don’t know those two. They’re dangerous. They could mess everything we’re working so hard on here.”

        “All because you won’t give them a refund,” Juan said. His voice cracked because he’d never been like Adolfo.

        Adolfo had nothing to say this time, which was all the confirmation Juan needed.

        “You didn’t tell them to find a doctor, did you? When you found out the sister had cancer.”

        Adolfo took another longer sip of his drink and said, “Not right away. ¡No sabía! I just assumed she was normal sick, and then later, they’d already paid me so much that for me to suddenly say no would have just angered them.”

        “So you kept taking their money while telling them you could make her better. Christ, Adolfo. That’s something we were taught never to do.”

        “Oh please,” Adolfo said, “Don’t bring you’re her into this. And don’t you pretend you’re any different. We’re all using their beliefs and taking their money, aren’t we?”

        “I’d never do what you did.”

        “No, you would just come up with the idea to poison someone.”

        The jab hurt, and for a moment neither spoke, only stared at the other. Then Adolfo took a deep breath and said, “This is why I left the first time. I like you, Juan. I really do. But whatever thing you think we have, it’s not like that. You were driving me nuts by the end. That’s why I think it’s better if I move out now before things get even more tense. We wouldn’t want to ruin what we have right?”

        If Adolfo had stopped right then and there, Juan might have had regrets. But he plowed through, adding, “After all, we got our business to think about.”

        Our business. Not us to think about. Juan would have even settled for our friendship. But looking at Adolfo, he realized it would always be like this. Too one-sided.

        “I wonder where Sofía is,” Adolfo said, glancing at his phone before he started to cough. The coughs were deep and long, sending Adolfo into short spasms as his chest heaved in and out.

        “She’s not coming,” Juan said.

        “What are you talking about,” Adolfo asked. The question was asked in between coughs, his face growing bright red. Redder than Edward’s skin had ever been.

        “She didn’t even think twice about it, Adolfo,” Juan said, lining up his fork and knife in front of him, so they pointed at Adolfo, who kept coughing, the sounds being lost by the cumbia playing over the restaurant’s speakers. “When I told her there might be a chance it might just be me and her from now on, and she said that would be okay.”

        She actually said, ‘Honestly, I always regretted not going for you, though I guess that would have been a waste,’ but Juan didn’t want to be mean and rub salt on the wound.

        “¿Qué me hicistes?” Adolfo asked, clutching his sides and groaning.

        In response, Juan set the empty thallium bottle between them. “You were right,” he told Adolfo, “we never consider those who serve us. Like the waitress who’s been helping us all night—I bet you didn’t even catch the family resemblance.”

        “Fa…family?” Adolfo muttered, his head dropping a bit.

        “To her younger sister. The one you gave months of false hope and left when it was too late for anyone to help her.”

        “¡Pinche culero!” Adolfo tried to lunge at Juan but instead tumbled and almost fell to the floor, caught at the last minute by Santiago, who’d appeared out of nowhere, still wearing his white cook apron.

        “Calmado, calmado,” Santiago muttered into Adolfo’s ear and helped him back up to his chair, where he propped him up and kept him in place by resting his two large hands on his shoulder.

        To Juan, he asked. “You finished here?”

        Juan looked at Adolfo. His eyes were already glazing over, and a small bit of drool slowly dripped from the side of his mouth. Juan had the waitress pour a full bottle of thallium into Juan’s drink, not having been sure how quickly it would react nor its full effect. He wondered if he used too much.

        “Yeah, I am,” Juan said, keeping his eyes on the queso and trying to ignore the whimpering sounds coming from Adolfo. “And we’re done, right?”

        “Yeah, buddy, absolutely,” Santiago said, in a tone that Juan figured would keep him up at night.

        Pushing his chair back, he thought about taking one last look at Adolfo but decided against it. He didn’t want to remember him this way.

        Walking outside the restaurant, the humidity assaulted Juan, his shirt immediately sticking to his skin. Glancing around, he spotted the Silver Lexus idling by a parking space and moved towards it.

        “Everything went okay?” Edward asked him when Juan slipped into the back seat.

        “He took it better than I thought he would. Actually wished me luck and said he was thinking of moving out of the city anyways.”

        “Really,” Edward asked in Spanish. “I’m surprised. I thought he would be upset about you deciding it was time to break off the business part. No offense, I liked him at all, but there’s nothing he was doing that you couldn’t do.” He patted Juan on the leg and let his hand rest on his thigh.

        “Yeah,” Juan said, closing his eyes and leaning against the leather seat. The car’s engine turned on, vibrations moving across his ass and back.

        “I have to drop you off at home. Have work to deal with, but hopefully, I won’t be long.”

        “It’s fine,” Juan said, trying to will away the image of drooling Adolfo that sat center in his mind. And it was fine. He trusted Edward. He knew they would work out.

        And if not. Well, he could always reach out to his tió.

Hector Acosta is an Edgar nominated author who lives in Houston with his wife and cats. His stories have been features in Vautrin, BAMS 2022, and more. He has been told he watches too much wrestling.