Pura Vida

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Chapter One

He called himself Javier.

He stole one bomb component from each small shop. The process took longer, but it kept him off the government’s radar. Small, disparate thefts didn’t raise red flags. He doubted the shop owners even missed the stolen items.

It was four o’clock on a chilly November morning. Javier clicked off his headlights and the Escalade’s bright, colorful dials and gauges went dark. The black SUV hulked along the block of small, patched-up houses of East Austin. Only the occasional porch light illuminated his way.

He didn’t own a computer, nor did he use a cell phone. He knew better than to create an Internet footprint. Javier didn’t buy bomb components with cash either, for once the explosive did its job; forensics would trace its parts, leading police to a description of the buyer. Him. He took no chances. Prison wasn’t an option.

He was thirty-two years old, six feet tall, lean and clean-shaven. He melded into the night with his black clothing, boots, and gloves. His black neoprene ski hat doubled as a facemask should he need it. The hat also hid Javier’s loss of hair, a relentless reminder that time never compromised. His task took many years of preparation and would be his crowning achievement, but the slipping away of his youth angered him nonetheless.

The abandoned house at the end of the street bore a condemned sign on its dilapidated door. The SUV’s hefty tires crackled on its gravel driveway as Javier pulled under the home’s rusty, sagging carport.

He carefully opened his car door, then froze as a furious dog barked across the street, setting off a loud, chaotic chain reaction.

When quiet returned, he moved on.

In just over two minutes, Javier reached the darkened Montez Hardware on MLK Boulevard. He’d cased the store in advance. It was a small, family run operation: no alarms, no cameras.

He inserted his filed-down bump key almost completely into the door’s keyway, nudging it the rest of the way while rotating at the same time. The lock held. The store’s owner had installed a dual sidebar locking system. He’d have to use his tools; two slim, metal picks.

In Javier’s mind, blinding, deafening explosions played on a constant loop. The blasts that tore his homeland apart resided permanently in his subconscious. And the disappearance of his father and uncles burned a hole in his brain that he filled with hatred.

Now, it was the United States’ turn to be ripped to pieces. Now was the time to ignite the Americans’ smoldering anger and fear. Time to turn their bigotry against them. After twelve years, he’d finally drawn close to his objective: Americans would bite and devour one another until their home became a country of ghosts who wandered amid wreckage and festering ruins. Like his own country.

He looked over his shoulder to MLK Boulevard. All was quiet and still; only gray moths flitted in the hazy streetlight. He carefully retrieved his pick tools and focused on the door’s lock.

***

It was four-fifteen AM, and Sister Bridget kept close to the streetlights of MLK Boulevard. Her morning exercise consisted of a three-mile run, which didn’t involve actual running. The middle-aged nun’s gait was more of a scuttle or a trot. She was fair-skinned and big-boned like her German mother, and she had curly, black hair and wide, brown eyes like her Mexican father.

She belonged to the Sisters of St. Paul, whose rules stated that each sister wear her veil and habit at all times when outside her residence. Sister Bridget wore a gray, hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, size men’s large. She huffed and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve. With Placido Domingo’s dramatic Granada resounding on her earphones, she threw back her hood, lifted her face to the wind, and let the opera and the cool breeze sweep over her like a baptism.

She ran past a dark Shell station, a pawnshop, and a corner bodega.

Light shone from the kitchen of Aranda’s Taqueria where the Aranda sisters prepared fresh tortillas for the morning rush. The toasty, wheaty aroma triggered a pang of hunger.

Sister Bridget had been aware that a small, scruffy dog followed her since Nueces Street. She slowed and turned to the dog. She removed her earphones, and with quick breaths, said, “Buenos días, chico.” The dog perked up and gave a happy whine. It was hard to tell in the dark; he had brown or black wiry hair that jutted out in all directions. He appeared to be a terrier of some sort, probably a mixed breed. His furry ears stood straight up and came to a point. His bushy tail arched and wagged.

Sister Bridget stopped and with some effort, crouched to scratch the friendly dog’s head. He smelled like dead fish.

“Time for you to go back to your home,” Sister Bridget said as she straightened and pointed toward Nueces street. Panting hard, the dog gazed at her and seemed to smile, his tongue curving upward at its tip.

Sister Bridget’s sweaty skin turned chill. She shivered, drew her hood back on, and tightened the drawstring snug under her chin.

“Okay, let’s go, little one.” Sister Bridget began to retrace her steps when she spotted a man entering Montez Hardware. What was her friend, Albert Montez, doing there so early? She decided to check in to see if everything was all right.

The little terrier tried to follow, but Sister Bridget wagged her finger and said, “No you don’t,” and “off you go.” She swept her hands forward, encouraging the dog to go home. The dog gave a whimper and lay down with his head on his paws.

She turned and walked toward Montez Hardware. Why hadn’t Albert turned on any lights yet?

There. A light shone in the store. Albert seemed to be using a flashlight. Sister Bridget cupped her hand to the store’s window and waved. The light went out and apprehension gripped her heart like cold fingers. She shuddered when she realized a stranger was in the store.

She turned to call the police as the man threw open the shop door. Could she outrun him? After two strides across the parking lot, the man’s entire weight slammed against her body. Reflexively, she turned her head so her face wouldn’t hit the asphalt. She and the man landed hard, and he roared in pain. Why was he bellowing? Her own head throbbed with searing pain. Her brain told her she was being sucked into the black asphalt, but she told herself that she lay prone on top of the ground. She wondered if she was conscious.

Kicking hard and jabbing with her elbow and fist, she broke free from the man and rolled to her right. A cacophony of vicious snarls and intense, guttural growls mixed with the man’s shouts and curses. What was he saying? Were his words English or Spanish? Opening her eyes was like prying open rusty tin cans. That’s when she saw the robber’s knife glitter in the light from the streetlamp. The little terrier had him by the neck, dislodging the man’s facemask so that the eye opening slid to the man’s ear. Unable to see, he swiped his four-inch blade at the dog. The swift canine released the man’s neck and dodged the knife. Before Sister Bridget had time to think what to do, the man was on his feet, towering over her. The little dog lunged and snapped with bared teeth at the culprit until the man turned and with one swift motion, kicked the small dog with his great boot. The dog tumbled into the boxwoods that separated the parking lot from the walkway.

On her hands and knees, Sister Bridget scrambled to help the dog, but the man snatched her hair and flipped her to the ground, knocking the wind out her. She winced and opened her eyes to see the man bent over her. He drew back his knife, seemingly prepared to slice her throat. There was no time for prayers. She closed her eyes and accepted her fate.

She felt nothing.

Her senses filled with blinding light, ferocious snarls, and shrieks.

She opened her eyes and felt her neck. Was she alive?

In the bright headlights of a vehicle that pulled into the parking lot, the masked man froze, knife in one hand; a boxy switch with wires in the other. The little dog had sunk his teeth into the man’s calf, shaking it furiously.

The man turned and ran into the darkness, the terrier close on his heels.

Albert Montez threw open his truck door and flew to Sister Bridget.

“Are you, okay?” Albert asked, peering into Sister Bridget’s face. “Oh my God. Sister Bridget?”

She tried to sit up, but Albert restrained her.

“Don’t get up. Stay where you are, Sister.”

Albert ran into his store and grabbed the handgun that he kept in the drawer beneath his cash register.

“Stay right there, Sister. I’ll be right back,” he said as he ran after the man.

Sister Bridget painfully rolled onto her side. She then rose to her hands and knees and used the fender and hood of Albert’s truck to stand. Dizzy and nauseous, she held onto the truck with one hand and reached for the column in front of the store with the other, all the while feeling the ground pitch and sway.

Albert ran up behind and steadied her.

“Sister, I told you to lay still.”

“No, no, I am fine.” She waved away Albert’s help, but that small motion caused her head to spin. She lost her footing, and Albert caught and guided her to a chair inside the store. Albert was a large, fit man. A young father of three. He returned his gun to the drawer, grabbed his cordless phone and hurried to get ice from the back room.

“Is the little dog all right?”

“What little dog?” Just then, the terrier limped to the door and scratched at the glass. Albert let him in, and the injured canine went straight to Sister Bridget.

She clutched the trembling creature to her chest, and her pounding heart joined that of the little dog.

“You’re brave, my small friend,” she said to the dog and considered returning him to Nueces Street.

The dog licked Sister Bridget’s chin. No, she wouldn’t be taking him back.

Albert called 911 and handed Sister Bridget a damp cloth and a Ziploc filled with ice. She wiped blood and gravel from the side of her face.

By the time two patrolmen arrived, Sister Bridget had said several prayers and calmed her breathing. She gave a description of the robber. He’d worn a dark leather jacket and black boots. She guessed the man to be a little taller than six feet and maybe 170 pounds.

Officer Hernandez, a middle-aged Latino man, with broad shoulders, a square jaw, and a trim mustache asked about the man’s eye and hair color and race.

“Sorry. I’m afraid he was wearing a face mask.”

Officer Hernandez winced and shook his head. “You say you saw the man breaking into the store? Why didn’t you call 911 right away?”

“No, no. I mean, yes. I saw the man breaking into the store, but I didn’t know that’s what he was doing. I thought he was my friend here,” she gestured to Albert and attempted a smile. “Albert Montez, the owner of the store.”

The officer eyed Sister Bridget’s bloody scrapes. The left side of her face was swollen and had begun to bruise. “How’d that happen?” he asked.

Sister Bridget explained that the man had knocked her to the ground, and she recounted how the little dog had attacked the man.

“That dog?” the officer asked, looking at the motley terrier that lay on Sister Bridget’s lap. The dog shifted his eyes and yawned.

Albert brought a clean, wet rag and a fresh bag of ice.

She dabbed the scrapes, gingerly pressing the cold pack to the side of her face as she answered the police officer’s questions.

“Can you tell me anything else?” Officer Hernandez asked. “Did the man say anything to you?”

That’s what was bothering Sister Bridget. The man did say something, but she hadn’t been able to make out whether the man was speaking English or Spanish.

“He spoke, but I couldn’t comprehend what he said. Maybe I am wrong, but I think he was speaking…Russian?”

The police officer pursed his lips and shifted his eyes toward the ceiling. He flipped his notebook closed.

“Okay, thank you, Ms. Rincón-Keller, and by the way, I have one more que–”

“It’s Sister Rincón-Keller,” Albert Montez interjected.

“What’s that?”

“It’s Sister Rincón-Keller. You called her Ms. Rincón-Keller,” Albert said.

“What are you, a nun or something?” the officer asked Sister Bridget.

“Yes. I mean, no. Strictly speaking, no, I am not a nun. I am a religious sister. I belong to the Sisters of St. Paul. But you may refer to me as a nun if you wish. Most people do not distinguish between nuns and sisters.”

Officer Hernandez stared at her attire. Sister Bridget looked down at the droplets of blood that speckled the front of her sweatshirt. He shook his head.

“Okay, then. Sister. How did you happen to be at the hardware store at four-fifteen in the morning?”

“I was taking my morning exercise, you see. My run takes me by Albert’s store.”

The officer looked down frowning and shook his head again. Sister Bridget was used to such reactions. She didn’t fit the officer’s notion of a religious sister.

Hernandez handed Sister Bridget a card and told her to call if she remembered any more information about the man. He conferred with the other officer who was taking photos of the crime scene.

The two policemen finished their investigation and notes. They took their leave and started for the door. Officer Hernandez stopped and turned to Sister Bridget.

“Word of advice, ma’am, next time you see a robbery in progress, call 911 and go about your business. Leave the crime fighting to professionals.”

“Believe me, Officer, I do not wish to take your job.”

“And you’re sure you don’t want EMS to take a look at your injury?”

“No, it is nothing. Just some scrapes.”

After the officers left, Albert turned to Sister Bridget and said, “I appreciate you keeping an eye on my store, Sister. If it hadn’t been for you, that man probably would have robbed me blind.”

“I think not, Albert. It appeared to me that the man was looking for something quite specific,” Sister Bridget said. “When I looked through the window, he appeared to be looking closely at that aisle over there,” she indicated the electrical section, which was stocked with wiring, switches, fuses, tools, and such. The sight reminded her. “I just remembered something. In your headlights, I was able to see that the man held some kind of electrical device. He must have taken it from this isle.”

“That son-of-a-gun.” Albert rubbed his chin and looked around. “I don’t see anything missing. I came in early this morning to do inven–”

“Thanks be to God for that,” Sister Bridget interrupted.

“Yes, yes.” He paused and watched as Sister Bridget put down the ice pack and lifted the little dog to her bosom. He continued, “Once I do the inventory, I’ll know for sure what it was he stole.”

“I’ll leave you to your work then,” Sister Bridget said.

“Well, what’s to be done with you, my little friend?” She said to the terrier. She placed the dog on the floor and felt around his ribs and abdomen for injuries. The dog winced and whined. When she brought her hand away, blood glistened on her fingertips. Red splotches dampened her sweatshirt too.

“Oh dear. I fear you are damaged, little one,” Sister Bridget said. “I must get medical attention for the poor thing,” she said to Albert.

“And you might want a doctor to take a look at your face.”

“Pish-posh. It is nothing,” she said, waving him away, anxious to get the little dog to a vet. She rose to go, but she felt light-headed, wobbly and almost lost her balance.

Albert caught and steadied her and the dog. “I’m driving you home, Sister.”

“Don’t be silly. I can walk. It’s just a few blocks.”

“I insist!”

Sister Bridget gave in, grateful for the support of Albert’s sturdy arm.

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