Durango, Viceroyalty of New Spain
Álvaro de Padilla was overcome by dread as his visions dissipated and focus returned to his tired eyes.
The Jesuit priest wondered what world he was emerging into, the uncertainty of it both terrifying and, oddly, exhilarating. He could hear his throat straining against his ragged breaths and feel his strained heart pounding in his temples, and he tried to calm himself. Then his surroundings slowly took shape again and placated his spirits. He could feel the straw of the mat under his fingers, confirming to him that he was back from his journey.
He felt something odd on his cheeks and reached up to touch them, only to realize they were moist with tears. Then he realized his back was also wet, as if he’d been lying not on a dry bed, but in a puddle of water. He wondered why that was. He thought perhaps he had drenched the back of his cassock with sweat, but then he realized his thighs and his legs were also soaked, and he wasn’t sure it was sweat anymore.
He couldn’t make sense of what had just happened to him.
He tried to sit up, but felt all the strength had been drained out of his body. His head was barely off the mat when it turned to lead, and he had to recline, dropping back onto the straw bedding.
“Stay rested,” Eusebio de Salvatierra told him. “Your mind and your body need time to recover.”
Álvaro shut his eyes, but he couldn’t shut away the shock that was coursing through him.
He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t experienced it himself. But he just had, and it was unnerving, terrifying, and . . . astounding. Part of him was scared to even think about it, while another was desperate to relive it, now, immediately, to venture back into the impossible. But the harsh, disciplined part of him was quick to stomp out that insane notion and set him back on the righteous path to which he had dedicated his life.
He looked at Eusebio. His fellow priest was smiling at him, his face an edifice of tranquility.
“I’ll come back in an hour or two, when you’ve regained some strength.” He gave him a slight bob of encouragement. “You did very well for a first time, old friend. Very well indeed.”
Álvaro felt the fear seep back into him. “What have you done to me?”
Eusebio studied him through beatific eyes, then his forehead wrinkled with thought. “I’m afraid I may have opened a door that you’ll never be able to close.”
It had been well over a decade since they’d traveled here, to Nueva España—the New Spain—together, ordained priests of the Society of Jesus, sent by their elders in Castile to continue what was by now a long tradition of establishing missions in uncharted territories in order to save the wretched, indigenous souls from their dark idolatry and their wicked, pagan ways.
Their task was challenging, but not unprecedented. Following in the heels of the Conquistadors, Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit missionaries had been venturing into the New World for more than two hundred years, and after many wars and uprisings, many indigenous tribes had been subdued by their colonizers and assimilated into the Spanish and mixed-blood mestizo cultures. But there was still a lot of work to do, and many tribes to convert.
With the help of early converts, Álvaro and Eusebio built their mission in a lush, forested valley deep in the folds of the Sierra Madre Occidental, in the heartland of the Wixáritari people. With time, the mission grew. More and more small communities that had been living in isolation throughout the wild mountains and canyons joined them in their congregación. The priests formed a strong bond with their people, and together Álvaro and Eusebio had baptized thousands of natives. Unlike Franciscan reductions, where the Indians were expected to adopt European lifestyles and values, the two priests followed the Jesuit tradition of letting the Indians retain many of their precolonial cultural practices. They also taught them how to use the plow and the axe and introduced them to irrigation, new crops, and domesticated animals, all of which dramatically improved their subsistence farming lifestyle and earned their gratitude and respect.
It also helped that, unlike the more rigid and exemplary Álvaro, Eusebio was a warm, gregarious man. His naked feet and humble attire had inspired the natives to refer to him as Motoliana, which meant “the poor man,” and, against Álvaro’s advice, he’d embraced the name. His humility, his exemplary life, and his thoughtful conversation, all of which were illustrative of the principles he preached, greatly inspired the natives. He also soon developed a reputation as a miracle worker.
It began when, during a drought that threatened to annihilate the natives’ approaching harvests, he recommended that they form a solemn procession to the mission’s church, complete with prayers and vigorous flagellations. Copious rains soon relieved the locals of their fears and turned the season uncommonly fruitful. The miracle was repeated a couple of years later, when the region was suffering from excessive rains. By a similar remedy, that blight was checked, and Eusebio’s reputation grew. And with it, doors gradually opened.
Doors that might have been better kept shut.
As the initially guarded natives started opening up to him, Eusebio found himself drawn into their worlds more deeply. What had begun as a mission to convert turned into an open-minded journey of discovery. He began to take trips deep into the forests and canyons of the forbidding mountains, venturing where no European had gone before, meeting tribes that usually welcomed strangers with the tip of an arrow or the edge of a spear.
He never returned from his last trip.
Almost a year after he’d disappeared, Álvaro, fearing the worst, set off with a small contingent of tribesmen to find his lost friend.
Which is why they were here now, sitting around a small fire outside the tribe’s thatched xirixi—the ancestral house of God—discussing the impossible.
“It seems to me that you’ve rather turned into their high priest, or am I mistaken?”
Álvaro was still shaken by his experience, and although the food had restored some strength to his limbs and the fire had warmed him up and dried his cassock, he was still highly agitated.
“They’ve shown me more than I can possibly show them,” Eusebio replied.
Álvaro’s eyes widened with shock. “But—my God, you’re embracing their methods, their blasphemous ideas.” He looked scared, and he leaned in, his brow crowding his eyes. “Listen to me, Eusebio. You must end this madness now. You must leave this place and come back to the mission with me.”
Eusebio looked at his friend and felt his spirits sink. Yes, he was happy to see his old friend, and he was delighted to have shared his discovery with him. But he found himself wondering if he hadn’t made a huge mistake.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” Eusebio told him, calmly. “Not yet.”
He couldn’t tell his friend that he still had a lot to learn from these people. Things he hadn’t dreamt possible. It had taken him by surprise to discover—slowly, gradually, and despite his preconceptions and deeply ingrained beliefs—how strong the natives’ connections were to the land, to the living beings that shared it with them, and to the energies that seemed to emanate from it. He’d talked to them about the creation of the world, paradise, and the fall of man. He’d told them about the Incarnation and the Atonement. They’d shared their insights with him. And what he heard startled him. For his hosts, the mortal and the mystical realms were intertwined. What seemed normal to him, they deemed supernatural. And what they accepted as normal—as truth—seemed like magical thinking to him.
He now knew better.
The savages, he discovered, were noble.
“Taking their medicina, their sacred brews,” he told Álvaro, “has opened up new worlds for me. What you just experienced is only the beginning. You can’t expect me to turn my back on such a revelation.”
“You must,” Álvaro insisted. “You must come back with me. Now, before it’s too late. And we must never speak of this again.”
Eusebio flinched back with surprise. “Not speak of it? Think, Álvaro. This is all we must talk about. It’s something we need to study and understand and master—in order for us to bring it home and share it with our people.”
Álvaro’s face flooded with shock. “Bring it back?” The words sputtered out of his mouth like poison. “You want to tell people about this, this—this blasphemy?”
“This blasphemy is an enlightenment. It is a higher truth they must experience.”
Álvaro was outraged. “Eusebio, I warn you,” he hissed. “The Devil has sunk his claws into you with this elixir of his. You are at risk of perdition, my brother, and I can’t sit back and allow it—not for you, not for any fellow member of the faith. You need to be saved.”
“I’ve passed the gates of heaven already, old friend,” Eusebio replied, calmly. “And the view from here is magnificent.”
It took Álvaro five months to send a message to the archbishop and to the prelate-viceroy in Mexico City, get their replies, and assemble his men, and it was winter by the time he ventured back into the mountains at the head of a small army.To stop his friend.
To put an end to his sacrilegious ideas using whatever means necessary.
To thwart the Devil and his insidious temptations, and save his friend from eternal damnation.
Armed with bows, arrows, and muskets, the combined force of Spaniards and Indians ascended the first folds of the sierra on steep, rough paths that were covered by thick, matted bushes. Winter torrents had broken up the trails that snaked up the crumpled mountains into deep, stony channels, while straggling branches, flung horizontally across them, made the contingent’s progress even more difficult. They’d been warned about the mountain lions, jaguars, and bears that inhabited the region, but the only living things they encountered were voracious zopilote vultures that hung overhead in anticipation of a bloody banquet and scorpions that haunted their fitful sleep.
As they rose higher, the cold became more intense. The Spaniards, used to a much warmer climate, fared badly. They spent the days fighting the wet, rocky inclines and the nights huddled around their bivouacs, kindling their fires until, mile by arduous mile, they finally neared the dense forest that enshrouded the settlement where Álvaro had left Eusebio.
To their surprise, they found the pathways that wormed through the trees strewn with huge pieces of timber that had clearly been felled by the natives. Fearing an ambush, the troops’ commander ordered his men to slow their pace, prolonging their suffering and straining their nerves and their vision as they crept through the thick gloom of the funereal pines. After enduring toil and torment for three weeks, they finally reached the settlement.
There was no one there.
The tribesmen, and Eusebio, were gone.
Álvaro didn’t give up. He prodded his men forward, the native scouts following the tribe’s trail through the folds of the sierra until, on the fourth day, they reached a deep barranca at the bottom of which flowed a thunderous river. The ravine had been spanned by a rope and timber bridge.
The bridge had been cut down.
There was no other way across.
Álvaro stared at the ropes that hung over the edge of the cliff, consumed by anger and despair.
He never saw his friend again.
Five Years Ago
“Pull the goddamn trigger and get your ass out here,” Munro barked through my earpiece. “We’ve got to clear out NOW!”
Tell me something I don’t know.
My eyes darted around, reacting to the three-bullet bursts and the longer, wild frenzies of gunfire that were echoing around me from all over the compound. Then some dull thuds and a searing grunt tore through my comms set, and I knew that another operative from our eight-man team had been cut down.
My body froze as opposing instincts dueled for control. I swung my gaze back to the man who was cowering next to me. His face was all sweaty, locked in anguish from the big, bloody gash in his thigh, his lips quivering, his eyes wide with fear, like he knew what was coming. My grip on the handgun tightened. I could feel my finger hovering over the trigger, tapping it indecisively, like it was red hot.
Munro was right.
We had to get out of there before it was too late. But—
More gunfire pummeled the walls around me.
“That’s not what we’re here for,” I rasped into the mike, my eyes locked on my wounded prey. “I’ve got to try and—”
“—and what,” Munro rasped, “carry him out? What, are you Superman now?”
A long burst ripped through my comms set, like a jackhammer to my eardrums, then his manic voice came back. “Just cap the sonofabitch, Reilly. Do it. You heard what he’s done. ‘It’ll make meth seem as boring as aspirin,’ remember? That’s the scumbag you’re worried about wasting? You happy to let him loose, is that gonna be your contribution to making this world a better place? I don’t think so. You don’t want that on your conscience, and I don’t either. We came here to do a job. We have our orders. We’re at war, and he’s the enemy. So stop with the righteous bullshit, pop the bastard, and get your ass out here. I ain’t waiting any longer.”
His words were still ricocheting inside my skull as another volley of bullets raked the back wall of the lab. I dove to the floor as wood splinters and glass shards rained down around me, and took cover behind one of the lab’s cabinets. I flicked a quick glance across at the scientist. Munro was, again, right. There was no way we could take him with us. Not given his injury. Not given the small army of coke-fueled banditos bearing down on us.
Dammit, it wasn’t supposed to go down this way.
It was meant to be a swift, surgical extraction. Under cover of darkness, me, Munro, and the six other combat-ready guys that rounded off our OCDETF strike team—that’s the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, a federal program that drew on the resources of eleven agencies, including my own FBI and Munro’s DEA—we were supposed to sneak into the compound, find McKinnon, and bring him out. Him and his research, that is. Straightforward enough, especially the sneaking in part. The thing is, the mission had been ordered up hastily, after McKinnon’s unexpected call. We hadn’t had much time to plan it, and the intel we were able to put together on the remote drug lab was sketchy, but I thought we still had decent odds. For one, we were well equipped—sound-suppressed submachine guns, night vision scopes, Kevlar. We had a surveillance drone hovering overhead. We also had the element of surprise. And we’d been pretty successful in raiding other labs since we’d first arrived in Mexico four months earlier.
Quick in and out, nice and clean.
Worked a treat for the in part of the plan.
Then McKinnon sprang his eleventh-hour surprise on us, caused Munro to go apeshit, got hit in the thigh, and screwed up the out part.
I could now hear frantic shouts in Spanish. The banditos were closing in.
I had to make a move. Any longer and I’d be captured, and I didn’t have any illusions about what the outcome of that would be. They’d torture the hell out of me. Partly for info, partly for fun. Then they’d bring out the chainsaw and prop my head in my lap for a photo op. And the worst part of it is, my noble death would all be for nothing. McKinnon’s work would live on. In infamy, by all indications.
Munro’s voice crackled back to life, blaring deep inside my skull. “All right, screw it. It’s on your head, man. I’m outta here.”
And right then, my mind tripped.
It was like a primeval determination bypassed all the resistance that was innate to me and brushed aside everything that was part and parcel of who I was as a human being and just took control. I watched, out-of-body-experience-like, as my hand came up, all smooth and robotic, lined up the shot right between McKinnon’s terrified eyes, and squeezed the trigger.
The scientist’s head snapped back as a dark mess splattered the cabinet behind him, then he just toppled to one side, a lifeless mound of flesh and bone.
There was no need for a confirmation tap.
I knew it was final.
My gaze lingered on the fallen man for a long second, then I rasped, “I’m coming out,” into my mike. I took a deep breath, popped the strikers off two incendiary grenades and lobbed them at the pistoleros who were hunting me down, then sprang to my feet, laying down a wall of gunfire behind me as I bolted toward the exit. I stopped at the back door of the lab, took one last look at the place, then I burst out of there as the whole place went up in flames behind m
San Diego, California
The doorbell chimed shortly after nine a.m. on a lazy, sunny Saturday morning.
Michelle Martinez was in her kitchen, emptying a dishwasher that had been stacked far beyond anything the laws of physics could explain while accompanying the rousing choral outro to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” that was belting out from the radio. She looked up, used her forearm to sweep back the chestnut-brown bangs that kept playing games with her baby blues, and gave a gentle yell in the direction of the living room.
“Tom? Can you get that, cariño?”
“You got it, alteza,” came a reply from the front of the house.
Michelle grinned, threw a glance over her shoulder at her four-year-old son, Alex, who was playing out in the backyard, and got back to emptying the cutlery tray. In the background, the lead Chili was lamenting the dark days he’d spent chasing speedballs in the bowels of LA. She loved that song, with its haunting guitar intro and its epic closing chorus, despite the emotions its lyrics stirred in her. Being a retired DEA agent, it was a world of pain and devastation that she knew well. But right now, what she loved far more was when Tom called her that—your highness. It was so not her, so wildly off the mark, and the sheer absurdity of it never failed to tickle her.
He usually said it when she asked him for something, which didn’t happen that often, not even with her consciously reminding herself to do so every once in a while. The fact was, there wasn’t much that Michelle Martinez couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do for herself. She was as self-sufficient as a military spouse, which is exactly what her mother had been, something that had probably been ingrained in her by watching her mom all those years while growing up on army bases in Puerto Rico and New Jersey. It was that self-sufficiency, combined with her iron will and her intolerance for bullshit, that had got her into all kinds of trouble—she’d been expelled from a handful of schools before dropping out of high school altogether—but it was also what had helped her straighten up, get herself a General Education Diploma, and parlay her wild streak, her sharp tongue, and a series of brushes with the law into a meteoric, if ultimately cut short, career as an undercover agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The thing was, guys didn’t appreciate feeling like you didn’t need them. At least, that’s what her girlfriends kept telling her. Apparently, it was some vestige from man’s hunter-gatherer days, and, truth be told, they weren’t all wrong. Tom seemed to enjoy the occasional request, whether it was for something as trivial as opening the front door or for something more, shall we say, intimate. And it had generated the alteza nickname that she’d grown to love, one she far preferred to the various macho nicknames her fellow agents had for her back when she was on the force. Alteza was much smoother on the ears and had an old-world, romantic ring to it. It was a word that triggered a little grin at the edge of her mouth every time she heard him say it.
The grin didn’t last long.
As the chorus gave way to the song’s closing solo guitar strums, the next sound she heard wasn’t as pleasing.
It wasn’t Tom’s voice. It was something else.
Two sharp, metallic snaps, like someone had just fired a nail gun. Only Michelle knew it wasn’t a nail gun at all. She’d been around enough sound-suppressed handguns in her life to know what the automatic slide action of a real gun sounded like.
The kind that fired bullets that killed people.
She yelled out his name as she sprang to action, propelled by instinct and training, almost without thinking, as if the threat of death had triggered some kind of Pavlovian reflex that took over her body. Her eyes quickly picked out the large kitchen knife from the mess of cutlery, and it was already firmly in her grip as she rounded the counter and hurtled toward the kitchen door.
She reached it just as a figure emerged from it, a man in white coveralls, a black cap, a black pull-up mask covering his face from the nose down and a silenced gun in his hand. The split-second glimpse she got of him shouted out some vague features—thickset, bad skin, what looked like a buzz cut—but most of all, she was struck by the unflinching commitment that emanated from his eyes. She took him by surprise as they almost collided and she leapt at him, pushing his gun hand away with her left hand while plunging the knife into the side of his neck with the other. His eyes saucered with shock, and the blade had pulled down his face mask, exposing his thick, black Fu Manchu moustache just as blood spewed out of his mouth. He dropped the gun and reached up for the knife with both hands and grappled with it, but Michelle had plunged it in deep and it was solidly embedded. She’d also clearly hit his carotid as blood was geysering out of the wound, spraying the doorjamb to his left.
She wasn’t about to hang around and watch. Especially not when her gut was screaming at her that the man probably wasn’t alone.
She threw a flat kick at the gurgling intruder’s midsection, sending him crashing into the wall of the hallway, away from the fallen handgun, which was lying there, tantalizingly close. She bent down to grab it when another man appeared, at the other end of the hallway, similarly masked and armed. The man flinched with a stab of shock at the sight of his bloodied buddy, then his eyes locked on Michelle’s and his gun sprang up in a solid, two-fisted grip. Michelle froze, caught in the crosshairs, staring death in the eye, right there, in the hallway outside her kitchen—but death never came. The shooter held his stance for a long second, long enough for her to dive at the handgun, spin around, and loose a couple of rounds at him. Wood and plaster splintered off the walls around him as he ducked out of sight, and she heard him yell out, “She’s got a gun.”
There were others.
She didn’t know how many, nor did she know where they were. One thing she did know: Alex was out back. And it was time to hightail it out of there and get him to safety.
Her mind rocketed into hyperdrive, focused acutely on that single objective. She darted back and took cover behind the kitchen wall, tried to ignore the pounding in her ears, and listened to any sounds coming at her from the front of the house, then she made her move. She fired off three quick rounds down the hall to keep them guessing, then rushed across the kitchen and flew out the patio doors, running to the drumbeat of survival as fast as her legs would carry her.
Alex was there, on the grass, orchestrating yet another epic confrontation between his small army of Ben 10 figurines. Michelle didn’t slow down. She just stormed over to him, tucking the gun under her waistband without breaking step, and scooped up his tiny, three-and-a-half-foot frame in her arms and kept going.
“Ben,” the boy protested as a toy flew out of his tiny grasp.
“We gotta go, baby,” she said, breathless, one arm clasped around his back, the other pressed down against the back of his head, holding him tight.
She sprinted across the lawn to the door that led to the garage, stopping to glance back only once she reached it, her heart jackhammering its way out of her rib cage. She saw one of them appear through the patio doors just as she flung the garage door open and ducked inside, fiddling with its key to lock it behind her.
“Mommy, what are you doing?”
His mouth was moving, but nothing was registering as her eyes surveyed in all directions, her mind totally channeled on one thought: escape. She told him, “We’re just going for a ride, okay? Just a little ride.”
She flung open the door of her Jeep, hustled Alex inside, and clambered into the driver’s seat. The Wrangler was parked with its back to the garage’s tilt-up door, which was shut.
“Down there, sweetie,” she told Alex, herding him into the passenger’s foot well with a careful mix of urgency and tenderness. “Stay there. We’re gonna play hide and seek, okay?”
He gave her a hesitant, uncertain look, then smiled.
She dug deep and found him a smile as her fingers fired up the ignition. The V6 sprang to life with a throaty gurgle.
“Stay down, all right?” she told him as she threw the gear lever into reverse, floored the gas pedal, then turned to face back and yanked her foot off the clutch.
The Jeep bolted backwards and burst through the garage door, careening onto the street in a storm of rubber and twisted sheet metal. She spotted a white van parked outside the house and slammed the brakes, and just as the Jeep screeched to a halt, she saw two men, also in white coveralls, rushing out from her front door. She slammed the car into gear and roared off, keeping a nervous eye in the mirror, expecting the white van to come charging after her, but to her surprise, it didn’t. It just stayed in its spot and receded into the distance before she hung a right and turned off her street.
She snaked her way past slower cars and turned left, right, and left again at the next crossings, zigzagging away from the house, keeping one eye peeled on her rearview mirror, her mind ablaze with questions about Tom and what had happened to him. She didn’t know what state he was in, didn’t know whether he was even still alive, but she had to get help to him, fast. She reached into her back pocket, pulled out her phone, and punched in nine-one-one.
The dispatcher picked up almost instantly. “What’s your emergency?”
“I’m calling to report a shooting. Some guys showed up at our house and—” She suddenly realized Alex was in the car with her, eyeing her curiously from the foot well of the passenger seat, and paused.
“Ma’am, where are you calling from?”
“We need help, okay? Send some squad cars. And an ambulance.” She gave the dispatcher her address, then added, “You need to be quick, I think my boyfriend’s been shot.”
“What’s your name, ma’am?”
Michelle thought about whether or not to answer as she glanced at Alex, who was still staring up at her, wide-eyed. She decided there was no point in adding any more information at this point.
“Just get them there as fast as you can, all right?”
Then she hung up.
Her heart was thundering away furiously in her chest as she checked her mirror again and flew past another slow-moving car. There was still no sign of the van. After about five minutes, she started to breathe easier and helped Alex up and into the front seat, where she belted him in. It took her another half an hour of just putting miles between her and her house before she felt she could pull over, and finally did so in the parking lot of a large mall out at Lemon Grove.
She didn’t move for a while. She just sat there, in shock, picturing Tom—and started to cry. The tears smeared her cheeks, then she looked over and saw Alex staring at her, and she forced herself to stop and wiped them off.
“Come on, baby. Let’s get you back into your seat.”
She got out of the car and helped Alex into the back and onto his booster seat, belted him in, then got back in and sat there again, shivering, collecting her thoughts, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
Trying to figure out what to do next. Who to call. How to deal with the insanity of what had just happened.
She looked up into the mirror and glanced at Alex. He was just sitting there, looking tiny, staring at her with those big, vulnerable eyes of his, eyes that fear had now firmly in its grip, and as she stared at his face, one name broke through the daze and the confusion swirling around inside her head. And although it was someone she hadn’t spoken to for years, right now, it seemed like the right move.
She scrolled her phone’s contacts list, found his name, and, mumbling a silent prayer that his number hadn’t changed, hit the Dial button.
Reilly picked up on the third ring.