Hours before the deadly desert sun rose above the low hills in the east, Clayton Unser walked over to one of the Valdez prison guards to ask a few questions. The moon had been full, bright enough to cast shadows, and the guard wore NVG’s (Night Vision Goggles), but Clayton made sure the man heard him coming. No reason to startle anyone in the dark when they’re holding an M4 assault rifle and wearing a .45 Colt Commander in a hip-holster. Clayton raised his hands palms up as a sign of reassurance, not surrender, and to make it an easy reach for the 9mm Glock 17 in his shoulder rig in case things got dicey.
Fortunately, the guard turned out to be a calm and alert seasoned soldier working the graveyard shift who didn’t mind company, and after a few minutes of small talk about the cool night and the blazing heat that lay hidden below the horizon Clayton got to the point: “I hear the prisoners have an interesting name for the ceremony.”
“Ceremony? Strange word for it. More like an ancient Aztec ritual, but yeah, the inmates call it El día que Dios duerme,” the guard said.
“The day God sleeps,” Clayton translated. “Why?” he asked.
“You’ll see for yourself in a few hours.”
“Come on, man,”
The guard shrugged. “Every year on this very day two guys beg, plead, and pray for death, but so far God’s been sleeping and never answers. The rest of the inmates pray their asses off that God stays asleep and don’t wake up ‘cause if he does they know they’ll be the next ones begging to die.”
Clayton had nodded his head in thanks, then turned and walked away. Now, six hours later, he watched a group of prisoners making final preparations for what definitely was a gruesome annual ritual. Sweating hard through their light-blue uniforms, they hurried around the dusty yard below the main house setting up steel tables with built-in drains and gutters for the blood, and then laid out a medieval array of metal probes, bone saws, long knives, and short handled razors.
Clayton shook his head as he watched them work. I’m getting too old for this shit, he thought. He’d buried his father years ago, but it was Big Earl Unser’s gravelly voice that still scolded him from the grave: Always fucking complaining. Be thankful you’re drinking iced coffee in the shade instead of baking down there with those poor bastards.
The high porch of the main house faced west so the mid-morning sun hadn’t hit him yet, but the night chill of the Sonoran desert was long gone, and Clayton already felt the heat. Taking his daddy’s advice, he enjoyed a long cool caffeine shot and then got himself refocused.
He put down the coffee, picked up a pair of Steiner military binoculars, and scanned for threats across a flat treeless plain that stretched for miles in all directions. The compound was surrounded by a multi-layered security system and hidden sentries, but Clayton hadn’t survived this long without taking his own precautions.
He zoomed in and out, searching the beige and gray barren desert for any activity, but the only movement came from a flock of small birds flying fast and low towards the house, and from the sand eddies swirling far off in the distance.
Clear and quiet, Clayton thought. Maybe too quiet… Maybe.
If there was something out there he couldn’t see it or feel it so he flexed his shoulders and rotated his neck to release the tension.
After his internal threat meter gave the all clear he lowered the binoculars and turned his attention back down to the sweating, grim-faced prisoners. Their work done, they stood in a straight line with their heads bowed, silently roasting in the sun.
“Going to be a hot day,” Clayton said.
“Hot and bloody,” Gonzalo Valdez replied, which brought a nod of agreement from Clayton.
Clayton and Gonzalo sat a few feet apart on the open-air porch, both with their backs against the rough white-washed wall of the old ranch house.
Clayton’s chiseled features, crystal blue eyes, thin mustache, and the neat part in his dark brown hair made him appear more like a British stage actor than a spy. The CIA’s Deputy Director of Covert Operations was one of those rare unreadable human beings. His age could be anywhere between thirty-five and sixty, and although his calm demeanor and movie star smile immediately put people at ease, there was something else there that told you he could take your life without wrinkling his suit or breaking a sweat.
In contrast, few people ever felt relaxed around Gonzalo Valdez. His face and hands were scarred from years of bare knuckle boxing on the streets of Panama when he was a boy. His body was marked by knife cuts and bullet wounds, and his dark skin, shaved scalp, high cheek bones, and yellow cat-like eyes gave him the predatory look of a stalking panther. You didn’t need to know he was the head of the notorious Valdez crime family to instantly fear the man.
Clayton’s chair creaked as he stretched his legs out, crossed his suede Oxfords at the ankles, and began reading a thick military personnel file. It was the John Bishop file and Clayton shook his head in disbelief as he went through it. The Special Forces sergeant had a career that was beyond impressive, spectacular really. The report cited Bishop’s countless acts of heroism, detailed the twenty-three times he’d been wounded, and listed all the medals he’d received. More than any soldier since Vietnam.
“Jesus,” Clayton said, without looking up. “You know John turned down the Medal of Honor? Flat out refused it?”
Gonzalo was staring intently at a framed photograph resting on the wooden table in front of him. He only nodded subtly in response to Clayton’s question. His eyes stayed fixed on the image of a happy couple. Clearly pregnant in her gown, the tiny bride and the tall-tuxedoed groom both had big toothy smiles on their wedding day.
The comfortable silence shared by two old friends was only disturbed by the rapid turning of pages as Clayton scanned quickly, searching for answers. He finally sighed in resignation, dropped the file, then steepled his fingers under his nose to help him concentrate.
After a minute he gave up: “Why?”
“Why did my nephew refuse his nation’s highest honor?” Gonzalo asked.
“John has always done things his own way.”
“So he never told you.”
“No, but if he got the Medal they would’ve pulled him out of combat. Back then he wasn’t ready to walk away from war.”
“And now?” asked Clayton.
“We’ll see. He hasn’t been home or spoken to me in years.”
“So out of the blue he quits the Army? Leaves Special Forces?”
“Your point, Clayton?”
“Your nephew is probably the deadliest man on the planet. Now he’s coming home, practically on the anniversary of his parents’ murder. I’m kinda wondering what his plans are.”
“After I’m done here we’ll meet with the Mexican cartels and broker this peace treaty. Put an end to this senseless violence,” Gonzalo said. “Tomorrow, if we’re still alive tomorrow, we fly to New York for John’s welcome home party so you can ask him all about his plans.”
“We can’t have anymore cartel murders on our side of the border,” added Clayton.
“Yes, my friend, they understand that kidnapping and killing U.S. citizens has to stop.”
“Maybe get them to stop killing each other, too,” said Clayton.
“Maybe, but there’s a lot of bad blood between these families. Expect the meeting to start with each side dumping a bag of heads on the negotiating table. Then, well, who can say.” Gonzalo shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms to bring home the point.
“You broker this deal for us, you’ll have a new title at Clandestine Services,” Clayton said. “From now on you’ll be known as ‘The Peacemaker.’ ”
“Will that go on a business card?”
Clayton laughed. “The title will be unofficial, but as always, the United States of America will be extremely grateful for your assistance. Anyway, I’m looking forward to finally meeting John.”
Gonzalo reached for the framed photo of his sister Christina and her husband, Michael Bishop. “Hard to believe it’s been so long.”
“John was in the car with them that day?” It wasn’t really a question. Clayton knew the whole sad story, but sensed the Gonzalo wanted to talk about it.
Gonzalo looked up for the first time. “The Davis brothers were gunning for me. My baby sister had her whole life ahead of her when they shot her down. They slaughtered her and her husband in front of John and put that scar on his face. He was just a boy when it happened.”
“And you’ve kept them alive all this time?” The them Clayton was referring to was Tom Tom and Skeeta Davis.
“The prisoners here are all condemned men. They live only as long as they keep the brothers alive.”
Clayton thought about what that meant. In addition to the five inmates standing in the yard, he’d seen about twenty armed men around the ranch when they landed at Gonzalo’s private airfield late last night. Gonzalo was a careful man, so Clayton knew there were hidden security teams for miles around. Another twenty? Maybe more? That was close forty or fifty men including the surgeons and a full medical staff all dedicated to keeping two men alive—what was left of them anyway.
The isolated twenty-thousand-acre property in the desert was a private prison, specially designed and built for Tom Tom and Skeeta Davis. Kept in an underground dungeon, once a year they were carried up to the surface. Carried because they would never walk again. Carried, because every year on this day as known El día que Dios duerme, the anniversary of his little sister’s murder, Gonzalo Valdez personally removed a body part from each of the brothers.
Clayton had witnessed many horrific events throughout his long career at CIA: genocide and torture, unspeakable atrocities that haunted his dreams, but in all his years in the field, he’d never encountered such a brutal and long-term commitment to vengeance.
Four burly Valdez soldiers wearing shoulder rigs with 9mm Beretta 92FS’s over their white tees carried the stretchers into the yard and placed each of the Davis brothers onto two of the steel tables that were set up in front of the house. Both brothers were naked and they squirmed and rolled trying to keep from being strapped down onto metal tops that were already super-heated by the sun. Once they were firmly secured, the soldiers bowed to Gonzalo, then stood at parade rest behind their charges.
From the other side of the yard the medical team came out of a small white wooden house trimmed with red around the door frames and shutters. Two surgeons and three nurses walked over with seven more prisoners trailing behind with the equipment: oxygen tanks and masks, coolers with blood bags, IV’s, clamps, sutures, heart monitors, defibrillators, and the various drugs that the surgeons would use to save their patients, as they had done time and time again.
When all was ready the medical team and the men around them stood at attention. Tense and sweaty, they waited in silence. The land was silent too. The birds stopped chirping, the flies stopped buzzing, and the wind died so abruptly it was as if the whole world paused in anticipation of what was about to happen.
Gonzalo kissed his baby sister’s picture, carefully placed it on the table, then stood up and unbuttoned his Guallavera.
“Why ruin a good shirt,” he said as he hung it on the back of his chair. He stepped off the porch, walked down the short flight of wooden stairs that led to the yard, and strolled over to confer with the doctors who would clamp off arteries and repair the damage he was about to inflict.
Clayton watched him walk amongst the prisoners, marveling at his power. At over sixty and only five-nine, Gonzalo was by far the most lethal-looking man he’d ever seen. Dark, hard, and lean, his muscles rippled across his chiseled back as he moved, but his physical strength paled in comparison to his persona. He walked freely and fearlessly past twelve men who stood next to a table full of weapons. Men whom he’d made prisoners and condemned to death. Any one of them could grab a scalpel or long knife and gut him before the guards could react, but his fierce yellow eyes kept them cowed and resigned to their fate… a fate that only Gonzalo Valdez would decide for them.
He spoke briefly to the doctors, then turned back to the tables and picked up a pointy eight-inch metal probe and began inspecting each of the brothers. Tom Tom and Skeeta were painfully aware of the purpose of examination. Naked and strapped down across their waists and chests, they twisted frantically as Gonzalo searched for the best place to start.
“There’s not much left to cut,” he said to them. “In a few more years I’ll have to find new ways to remind you of your crime.”
Clayton came over to take a closer look and quickly wished he hadn’t. Twenty-five years ago Gonzalo started with their hands and feet and systematically continued up each appendage until their arms were gone just above the elbows, their legs were cut off at mid-thigh, and each brother was missing an eye and ear. When Clayton made the mistake of looking down at the rough jagged scars that covered their groin areas he swallowed the bile that bubbled up into his throat and unconsciously grabbed his crotch for reassurance.
“You first this time,” Gonzalo said to Skeeta.
Skeeta’s screams were garbled and inhuman when Gonzalo slowly began slicing him with a scalpel to mark where he’d make the deeper cuts with a heavier blade. He’d taken both their tongues many years before.
Did I just call him The Peacemaker? Clayton asked himself as he walked back up to the porch and tried his best to ignore what was happening just a few feet away. He picked up the picture of Christina and Michael Bishop and thought about their son. The once traumatized little boy was now a man and wherever he went death followed. John Bishop was heading home, and once again, Clayton wondered if New York was ready for what was coming.