Monday, February 4, 2013

The Lost Curse -- first chapter

Prologue: Gunfire exploded through the remote canyon, filling the air with a thunderclap of gunpowder, bullet, and primer. Even as the sound bounced and echoed its way across the cliffs, a single brass casing ejected from the pistol. Still hot, it spun through the air, flashing in the setting sun. The light ricocheted off its metal jacket like ball lightening.

Birds, startled from their evening roosts, erupted with disapproval. Their protesting wings beat the cooling air as they lifted out of the canyon, cackling their alarm. But the bullet did not pursue any of them. It has already found its target.

When the projectile penetrated him, the young Paiute Indian stiffened in protest. The man crumpled to the ground, his face and torso landing in the cold water of a thin stream.

From across the creek, a young dog heard the sound and saw the outcome. Fury at the attack drove the dog, without hesitation, through the water and toward the shooter. Teeth bared and hackles bristled to their fullest, the animal rushed to defend his slain master.

A second bullet pierced through the dog’s face and neck, exiting out its shoulder and stopping the dog just short of its target. Seventy pounds of remains crumpled to the stone-strewn earth in a heap.

As the second casing fell to the earth, three men remained standing. Two stood, shocked at the sudden turn of events. The other, stilled by hatred, breathed deep and waited a few moments. Then, not wanting even the animals in the canyon to find the man’s body, he ordered the frightened pair to lift the corpse and carry it deep into a crevice in the side of a cliff.

The dog they left for the scavengers and maggots.

Chapter One: Shooting through the sky at 510 miles per hour, the A320 cut through the icy atmosphere and left a contrail dissipating behind them. Somewhere below, a child or adult saw the white line spreading across the blue expanse between Los Angles and Salt Lake City. They didn’t see the killer on board the plane.

Most of the hundred and thirty passengers inside the plane’s cabin—oblivious of the contrail, the killer, or the people watching them from below—read, slept, or stared out the windows. None of them knew of the deadly cat-and-mouse game taking place.

Halfway back in the plane, vivid blue eyes watched a tiny cell phone screen. A special app tracked every keystroke and recorded every word that passed through the “mouse’s” cell phone a few rows ahead. Still, the cat didn’t want to miss a thing.

Sitting in the business section, Cole Matthews didn’t know he sat so close to the claws of a hungry cat that tracked his electronic moves. Instead, he remained focused on a valuable chunk of cheese waiting for him in Utah.

Dressed in a Valentino business suit and Berluti shoes, Cole worked his smartphone. A large gold ring, with a tiger’s-eye stone, encircled his left thumb. The ring only fit his thumb, but he liked it that way. It reminded him of a business deal that went bad a decade earlier. That’s when he discovered, the hard way, that everyone has a different motive for working, and sometimes their reasons interfered with his plans. Now, every time he hired a new employee, he let the ring remind him to be cautious.

Cole’s thumb pressed the keys of his phone. I’ll be on the ground in twenty minutes. The ringed thumb pushed Send.

A minute later, the response came back. I’m waiting at the baggage claim.

The plane slowed its airspeed and descended half a mile in the atmosphere. Though no cabin lights indicated their descent, the passengers felt the shift and knew it signaled the end of their two-hour flight. Zippers sounded as passengers placed items back inside their carry-ons; seatbelts unclicked for last-minute trips to the bathroom.

Next to Cole, a handsome Hispanic teen straightened and glanced at the overhead indicator lights with deep brown eyes. For Cole, who spent his time more worried about making money than making conversation, the teenager had been a perfect seat companion. The youth had spent the entire flight watching the landscape out the window. Now, however, the teen’s movement distracted Cole from his phone. Looking at the change in cabin activity, Cole glanced back down and sent one final text. No mistakes this time. I have several buyers waiting.

A few rows back, in the economy seats, Ryan Polson intercepted a copy of the final text and then saw that Cole had shut off his cell phone. Punching in a few commands, Ryan closed his own phone and slipped the still-active devise into an inside suit pocket. His jaw worked a piece of gum while he finger-combed his blonde hair. Intense blue eyes tracked the stewardess making her final walk through the aisle. If she asked to see his phone, it would appear turned off even though ti still recorded everything the “mouse” did electronically. As soon as Cole Matthews reactivated his phone when they landed, Ryan would know.

The plane slowed and descended further until individual buildings came into view, sitting like gray and brown cubes on the landscape. Flaps lowered on the plane’s wings. The aluminum bird rocked gently on the air currents as it came closer to the earth. Through the window, cars came into view on I-15.

Now the man-made bird lowered its landing gear, the hydraulic system humming through its belly and locking into place with a deep, powerful sound. Trees came into focus and the flight attendants took their seats. A few horses appeared in the fields. The runway came into view and the plane swept in, one hundred feet above the ground, fifty, twenty. Lights and signs appeared on the runway, whisking by at one-hundred and thirty miles an hour.
On the runway, the rear wheels touched ground, followed by the nose wheel as the plane settled to earth.

Resting from its flight, the airplane exited the straight runway and rolled toward its numbered gate. Across the cabin, the sound of seat belts unlocking filled the air in staccato announcements. A few impatient passengers stood up to retrieve their bags from the overhead bins even before the plane stopped.

Once the covered walkway had been extended to the cabin door and the secure portal released, passengers left their seats, threaded together, and moved up the narrow aisle toward the Salt Lake International Airport.

Lifting a backpack to one shoulder, eighteen-year-old Severino stood, anxious to be finished with sky travel for a while. It had been a long journey of airplanes and airports since he’d left Cusco, Peru, almost twenty hours earlier.

Bent under the overhead compartment, Severino waited for his older seatmate to rise form his seat and, again, noted the tiger’s-eye ring on the man’s thumb. Tiger’s-eye stones increased focus and promoted balance. To hide a smile, the teen looked away. Even though the man stayed focused during the two-hour flight out of Los Angles, anyone who spent that much time texting had to be out of balance. Someone needed to tell him the ring wasn’t working.

The older man, with silver streaking his dark hair and business deals filling his mind, didn’t know or care about the teenager’s thoughts. He rose from his seat without looking at the youth and pushed his way into the line of people shuffling toward the exit.

Without moving, Severino watched him leave and then turned his attention back to the still-crowded aisle. People moved by, shoulders hoisting luggage, bags jostling other people. One passenger smiled and waited, creating a slot for the teenager. Severino nodded his gratitude and entered the aisle. Mimicking the short steps of those in front of him, he moved with the crowd toward the door. Passengers moved out of the crowded warm plane and entered the ramp’s cool interior.

Ahead of him, the line of people moved up the ramp and spilled into the openness of the terminal, breaking apart—wanting more distance between them than normal. Their actions were a common response to the confines of the airplane and Severino felt the desire for more space wash over him. As he moved from the passenger seating area into the large corridor, he rolled his shoulders in appreciation of the reclaimed freedom.

He followed the crowd ahead of him, knowing they would lead him to the baggage claim area where, he hoped, the Bradfords would be waiting for him. In Los Angeles, Spanish had been as prevalent as English, but here, in the center of the United States, he doubted he would hear much Spanish and not a word of Quechua.

Coming down the escalators, his dark eyes searched the sea of faces below him. Then he made a visual connection and smiled.

On seeing the Peruvian descend the escalators, Jonathon Bradford returned the smile and stepped forward. The last time he’d seen Severino had been at midnight beside a river in the Andes Mountains while terrorists searched the jungled slopes for him. Severino saved his life that night and Jonathon hopes, in some small way, to be able to repay him.

Still, he wasn’t sure how to greet the teen.

Jonathon’s mother answered the question for him. She surged passed Jonathon and swallowed Severino in a full hug as soon as he stepped off the moving stairs. “Mi hijito precioso,” she breathed, “my precious son—you are finally here.”

At the emotional welcome, the backpack slid from Severino’s shoulder and he hugged the woman he had never met, holding her tight. For a full minute they embraced, Rosa murmuring her gratitude over and over, and Severino whispering that she did not need to thank him. He would do it all over again.

The words and the scene filled Jonathon and his father with their own sense of emotion and they waited, respecting the union and not wanting to intrude.

When Rosa stepped back she wiped the tears from her eyes, speaking in fluent Spanish. “Es increible to finally have you here.”

A smile emerged from the Peruvian. “Si, it is incredible. I can’t believe it. Thank you so much.”

A hand to the shoulder and a grin became Jonathon’s greeting to Severino. “Well, believe it, hermano. You’re here in the U.S. You made it.”

The group spoke in Spanish, the language flowing from all of them like water. The luggage carousel began to turn, a metal whirlpool that pulled everyone toward its slow, circular current. Though Jonathon’s parents still chatted with Severino, they drifted with the others toward the carousel’s pull. In the slow human current, Severino moved with them, nodding quiet replies, his answers polite.

This hesitant side of Severino intrigued Jonathon. In Peru, Severino held a rifle with ease and risked death by the Shining Path terrorist to free Jonathon from their grasp. Now the Peruvian stood on foreign soil for the first time in his life; holding a backpack instead of a gun, his gaze downcast instead of elevated with fury.

Through light brown eyes, Jonathon watched Severino, withholding his own questions. There would be time later to get to know him. For now, Jonathon would let his parents claim Severino’s attention. He understood their need and the instant bond they felt. Twice last year, the eighteen-year-old saved Jonathon’s life in Peru—once by getting him out of the sacred tunnels of the Incas and, a second time by helping Jonathon escape form the terrorists. That made Severino an instant and cherished member of their family.

As an expression of gratitude, his parents paid for Severino’s visit to America. For the next month, they wanted to get to know the Peruvian and let him experience a world different form his own. Jonathon also knew his parents hoped that if Severino saw opportunities beyond his impoverished mountain home, then he would accept their offer to pay for a college education. So far, Severino refused to go to school.

They extended the same offer to Severino’s sister, Delia, who nursed Jonathon back to health after finding him in the tunnels. It took a while for the shy sixteen-year-old to accept their offer, but she now lived with her mother in Lima and attended a private high school. Through emails and Skype calls, they saw her adjusting and growing in confidence and ability, adapting to life in a metropolitan area. Most important, she no longer lived in fear of the Shining Path terrorists.

Jonathon lowered his gaze at the discomforting thought. Though he hadn’t told his parents, he knew Severino refused to go to school because of his association with the Shining Path terrorists. Severino had not given up his quest to find his father’s killer, and Jonathon doubted he ever would. By posing as a terrorist, Severino planned to discover the man responsible for killing his father and bring him to justice. Whether that justice would be legal, Jonathon honestly didn’t know.

A drinking fountain became Jonathon’s temporary oasis, and he moved there to distract himself and give his parents more time to visit. The steel bar responded to his push, and cold water hummed out of the belly of the machine, arcing over the drain. Several mouthfuls of water moved down his throat before Jonathon straightened and turned, colliding with a man engaged in a quiet cell phone conversation.

“If you’re sure he’s found a real Spanish turtle, I want a photo now…”

Startled and apologetic, Jonathon stepped back, out of the man’s path. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t see you.”

Anger at the unexpected collision lifted the man’s face. Beneath a crown of blond hair, the man’s vivid blue eyes displayed fury. The man’s expression pushed Jonathon back even more. He saw enraged muscles work along the man’s jaw and Jonathon braced for a verbal barrage; then the voice on the other end of the cell phone reclaimed the man’s attention. Returning to the conversation, the man cursed the jostling, pressed the phone tighter to his ear, and walked away.

Uncomfortable with the entire moment, Jonathon watched him go.

“Type A personally,” a quiet voice commented. Startled, Jonathon turned to find Severino standing beside him. The Peruvian nodded, motioning toward the man walking away. “I saw you bump into him.”

“It was an accident.”

“I know. You okay?”


“He chew you out for it?”

“I think he wanted to, but he went back to his phone conversation instead. Something about a Spanish turtle. Do you know what that is?”

Unfamiliar with the term, Severino frowned and shook his head. “A turtle that speaks Spanish, I suppose. He probably won’t find too many of those around here.”

The remark brought a smile to Jonathon’s face. “Well, apparently someone has. The guy said he wanted to see a photo of it now.”

Classic Type A personality—very impatient. They make great terrorists but rotten friends.” With his last comment hanging in the air, Severino bent and got a drink form the foundation.

Next to him, Jonathon’s gaze followed the Peruvian, thoughts spilling through his mind like water. Would a month with Severino prove the youth to be more of a friend or a terrorist?

Jonathon didn’t know, but for his family’s sake, he hoped Severino would be more of a friend.
If Severino knew the thoughts his comment provoked, he didn’t show it. Finished with his drink, he nodded toward the carousel. “They might pick the wrong bags if I don’t help.”

At the baggage claim, the pair joined Jonathon’s family and watched the luggage drop out of the square portal and onto the convey belt. Backpacks, duffel bags, garments bags, soft-sided and hard-sided suitcases of all colors circled n front of the flight’s passengers. Hands emerged from the crowd and claimed each piece.

A press against his shoulder turned Jonathon’s attention. Severino stood close, his eyes on the carousel. “There’s your angry friend. He is more interested in his phone right now, not the luggage. Maybe the photo of his Spanish turtle is coming soon.”

Though Severino did not point, Jonathon knew where to look,. The blond man stood next to the baggage clam, watching the baggage but holding his phone in his hand.

A duffel bag fell out of the portal and landed on the silver conveyor belt. It would pass in front of the blond man before it reached them. Severino nodded. “There’s my bag.”

“Want me to go get it?” Jonathon asked.

“No. I’ll get it. Maybe I can spot what a Spanish turtle looks like while I’m there,” he grinned.

Before Jonathon could protest, Severino moved through the crowd, working his way between people until he stood on the opposite side of the man. Positioned next to him, Severino pretended to watch the passing luggage but Jonathon saw his focus stay on the phone. Bags passed in front of them, including Severino’s duffel. Checking the tab, Severino let it move on by and waited for the next duffel. When it passed he checked the tag. The man glanced at his phone then back that the conveyor belt. More luggage passed, more duffel bags, Severino’s bag began to come around again

Through the sounds of a busy airport, Severino heard the quite hum of a phone on vibrate. The blond-haired man turned his hand over and checked the phone. Wanting a bit more privacy, the man shifted away from the Peruvian and opened his phone. He worked a few buttons and an image uploaded on the screen. As it did, the man’s blue eyes scanned the image and the muscles in his face went slack. Stunned, the man looked up, trying to process what he had just viewed.

When the opportunity to view the picture appeared for that split second, Severino reached in front of the man and apologized. “Con permiso.” Checking the tag, Severino locked his hand around the duffel’s straps, lifted the bag from the belt and pulled it across, in front of the man. “DiscĂșlpame.”

Annoyed, the man stepped away, glanced again at the picture on his phone, and exhaled under his breath at the image. Though only a whisper of sound, Severino heard it and knew the photo had a powerful impact on the man.

With his duffel bag in hand, Severino turned and threaded his way back through the crowd to the Bradfords.

“Is that it?” David Bradford reached for the duffel.

SĂ­, es todo,” Severino confirmed.

“Great, then we can head home. We have three other children waiting at home who are very excited to meet you,” he said and smiled. Holding the duffel in his left hand, David slipped his right arm around his wife and led the way to the exit.

Jonathon hung back. “Pretty slick move. Did you see the photo?”

“I saw something, but it didn’t look like a turtle to me. It looked like a rock.”

“A rock?”

“Si, a very big rock.” Severino shouldered his backpack, his eyes scanning the crowd, his voice conveying disappointment. “And I had been hoping a Spanish turtle was an American term for a really cute girl.”

He brought his gaze back to Jonathon’s and smiled.

For that brief moment, Jonathon saw a typical teenager, not a terrorist, in Severino’s dark brown eyes. Relief and surprise brought laughter form him. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll meet plenty of American girls this summer, I promise.”

“If they look like rocks, I’m not interested,” the Peruvian teased.

“Hey, all the girls I run with look like models.”

Dark eyes canted sideways, and the Peruvian looked at Jonathon. “Did I tell you all terrorists can spot a liar?”

The comment froze Jonathon’s smile even as the doors opened and they stepped out of the terminal into the hot, dry air of a Utah summer.

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