This week, I take a break from my rankings (many more to come!) to share an excerpt from my upcoming Hellfire, the fourth Hawk Tate novel!
My father had turned the engine off and taken the keys with him, a conditioned response performed without the slightest bit of forethought.
Pull to a stop along the shoulder. Turn off the ignition. Remove the loose tangle of metal and shove it in his pocket as he exited.
Just from that one simple open-and-close of the door, I could feel a blast of cold air push inside the car. From the passenger seat, I could even see the loose collection of snowflakes that had sauntered in, settling on the indented cushion in front of the steering wheel.
And I could feel the temperature inside the car plummeting with each passing moment.
Framed in the jagged cone of light from the single overhead stanchion alongside the road, the small sedan he had stopped to help was plainly visible. No more than a foot off the side of the highway, it was dark in color, the rear flashers winking at me in even intervals.
Stooped alongside it was a single figure, their form masked from view by the swirl of bulky clothing enveloping them. Moving in slow, stilted motions, the person was going about the unenviable task of attempting to change a flat tire.
A task that was being made much more difficult by the elements.
A job that they might never have completed had my father not decided to stop.
As a boy of eleven, I remember not being able to fathom such a gesture. The weather outside was abysmal, growing worse by the moment. Our own car was in dire need of new tires, not exactly equipped for the storm.
Long before the days of cell phones, we were already late getting home, my mother no doubt terrified of what might have befallen us.
Of course, my father must have already known all that and a hundred other reasons why we should have kept going.
Not that a single one stopped him from doing it anyway.
Start to finish, the endeavor took more than twenty minutes. Under optimal conditions, I’d seen him change a flat in less than half that, but given everything going on, I’m willing to bet the swap was seen as a success.
By the time he was finished, the front windshield had frosted over, blocking my view. I was starting to feel a chill that resonated clear to the bone, meaning I couldn’t even imagine how he must have been feeling as he wrenched the door open and swung inside.
Nor would I ever find out, as not once did he say a word about it. Instead, he merely brushed the collection of flakes from his coat and turned the heat up high, holding his exposed fingers to the vents.
Not until the flesh was wet with snowmelt and bright pink in color did he put the car in drive and start away.
By then, the car he had stopped to help had already done the same.
“Who was that, Dad?” I remember asking as we inched our way forward in the storm.
“A nice lady named Paula.”
“Oh,” I said. “So you knew her?”
“Not before tonight,” he answered.
Again, as a child of that age, what had taken place was borderline incomprehensible. “So then, why…?”
“Sometimes in life, we do things simply because there’s nobody else around to do them.”
Not once did he even look my way, nor did we ever speak of it again after that night, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a story that resonated with me in a way he could have never intended.
Or maybe he did…
Edgar Belmonte was never much of a football fan. Despite it being known as the most beautiful sport in the world, despite it being viewed as the official pastime of Venezuela – the country he was now campaigning to become the leader of – the game had never really done it for him.
A heavy-set child, he had not cared for the constant running. It made it impossible to participate in, and not much more fun to watch.
If he was going to devote two or three hours to something, he wanted there to be a lot more action than one or two goals.
Some might call such a thing an attention deficit issue. To him, it was merely a matter of priorities.
Now a grown man in his forties, he still didn’t particularly care for the game. Gone was any of the baby fat that had dogged him through his youth. In its stead was a body that was fit and trim, now proudly displayed by the Armani suit that was cut to perfectly mirror his shape.
Still, some preferences are established in youth, and his disdain for the sport was one that would stay with him through the end of his days.
But that still didn’t change the fact that football stadiums could come in quite handy from time to time.
One such instance being on nights like this, when more than thirty thousand people were crammed tight into the space, all waiting for him to take his place before the microphone.
Tucked away in the underbelly of the structure, Belmonte and his team had acquired the home team locker room for the evening. A palatial area more than sixty yards in length, it was more than enough space for the tiny assemblage of people.
All dressed in dark suits and matching ties, they were a harsh contrast to the blue-and-green color pattern around them, every surface capable of holding paint covered in the team colors.
“This is fantastic,” Giselle Ruiz said. Standing in the center of the room, her feet were set wide, one on either side of the dragon emblazoned on the carpet. “I can feel the vibrations of the crowd rising up through the floor.”
Standing perpendicular to her a few feet away, Chief of Staff Hector Ramon placed his hands out to either side, mimicking her pose. “Just wait until Edgar takes his place out there. This whole damn place will be moving.”
From across the room, Belmonte’s only response was a thin smile, his lips pressed tight together. Tonight had been a long time coming. There would certainly be much more to do thereafter.
But it was a turning point for sure. A spot that schoolchildren across the countryside would one day read about in text books.
The night that a hero came forward, and Venezuelans moved toward finally taking back what was theirs.
The preparations for the night had been in motion since the start of the campaign a month prior, though the big surprise they had in store was something they had thrown together just a few days before. The brainchild of Ruiz, Ramon, and himself, it was something so bold that it would either submarine them or catapult them into the stratosphere.
No middle ground whatsoever.
Belmonte was betting everything he had on the latter.
Raising a bottle of water to his lips, he asked, “How much time do we have?”
At the sound of his voice, any hint of side discussion bled away. Every head turned in his direction.
“You go on in sixteen minutes, sir,” Ruiz said.
“And how many people do we have out there right now?”
“There are still about a thousand waiting to file in from outside,” Ramon answered. “They should all be in place in time.”
Belmonte nodded. Tonight would be one of the most photographed and talked about in his nation’s history. It was imperative that every image showed a full stadium behind him.
Sixteen minutes would be more than enough time to ensure that happened.
The feed coming in was grainy and distorted. It jumped every few moments, reminding the people around the table of being inside a darkened room with a strobe light going at full capacity.
Brief pockets of darkness interspersed with snippets of light, each offset enough that things seemed to be jumping ahead instead of moving in smooth motion.
“Is this the best we can do?” Charles Vance asked from the head of the table. Despite the late hour, he was still wearing his full suit, the navy blue material free of wrinkles. With his chair twisted sideways, the heel of one polished wingtip rested on the corner of the table.
As Special Director for South American Operations, there was plenty on Vance’s plate to keep him working ninety hours a week or more. In the previous year, the situation in Venezuela had escalated to a point that a country that had earned five percent of his attention when he started was now demanding almost a full day a week.
This tonight was just the latest example. One more in what had been an interminable slog through the sham known as election season in that part of the world.
“Let me see what I can do, sir,” a young man in the corner said. His age alone would have been enough to demarcate him as the tech wizard in the room. The shaggy hair and eyebrow ring he wore drove home that assumption.
Despite all that, he was still wearing a suit. It was ill fitting and the tie was loosened, but it was a suit.
Vance demanded as much from every person in his employee. Regardless of gender or time of day. Regardless of location.
If they were on the clock, they would look the part.
The room was one of several tucked away in the bowels of the Central Intelligence Agency spread outside of the nation’s capital. Buried beneath three floors of concrete and soil, no more than a handful of people even knew the meeting was taking place.
Of those, most were present, a trio of people seated around the table before Vance. On his right were Peter Reiff and Dan Andrews. Both in the same age bracket as Vance, they had all started around the same time together.
These two had been brought in by him personally upon ascending to the Special Director seat.
With brown hair and olive skin, Reiff still held the ability to catch the stray glance from a passing female. A fact he was quite proud of, his suit was cut to enhance the effect.
Beside him, Andrews was different in every way, his extra weight causing him to sweat profusely. Taken together, his suit had been reduced to a rumpled mess, his thinning hair plastered to his head.
On the opposite side of the table sat Hannah Rowe, a woman several years their senior. In her early fifties, already her hair was trending toward silver, lines framing her eyes and lips.
Vance might have had to appoint a few females when taking his new position to keep the powers that be in Human Resources happy, but that didn’t mean he had to bring on someone that would be a distraction.
Or a temptation.
“Who do we have on the ground there?” Andrews asked.
Vance glanced down to the printout before him, but was cut short by Rowe getting there first.
“Ramirez,” she said. Nothing more.
Cocking his head back a few inches, Andrews looked to Reiff in his periphery. “Ramirez. Which one is he again?”
Again, Vance began to respond.
Once more, he was cut short, the pattern fast growing to become an annoyance.
“She is Manuela Ramirez from Miami,” Rowe said. “Thirty-one years old, she is posing as a local graduate student.”
“Oh, right,” Andrews said, pretending to understand completely.
It was clear from his tone and his expression that he didn’t.
“She has joined up with a group calling themselves Libertate Loco,” Vance added. “Just another nameless faceless young adult getting swept up in the movement.”
There was plenty more he wanted to add. Comments about young people, about political movements, even about females in general. After a year in his post, forced behavior was finally starting to become habit.
He bit his tongue.
“Probably in the cheap seats,” Reiff said. “Might be tough to get much of a view of things.”
“Which is why we have a backup in position,” Rowe said. Her tone indicated no small amount of disdain, as if she didn’t like being challenged. “John Farkus is there as well. He will be looking on from seats with a high vantage point.”
“Basically,” Vance said, fast growing weary of the conversation, “she’s our ears and he’s our eyes.” Lifting his chin a few inches toward the tech in the corner, he said, “Speaking of which, how we coming over there? This thing is set to go live in just a few minutes.”
If the disjointed feed they were receiving was all that came through, they would make do. It wasn’t like it was the first time he’d had to deal with such things.
These were third world countries, after all.
At the same time, if he could survive the ordeal without getting motion sickness, that would be a good thing as well.
Raising a single finger behind him, the tech said nothing. From his stool, all that was visible was his back, a thin trail of brown hair streaming down from the base of his skull.
If Vance had his way, removing the ponytail would have been a condition of hiring. Just like in the good old days, every male would wear their hair high and tight, as he did.
Ponytails would be the only accepted look for females.
Like a great many things, though, Vance had learned to loosen his grip on accepted norms over the years. Trying to classify someone by their haircut simply wasn’t acceptable any longer.
The eyebrow ring the young man wore was a different story entirely, something he was fast trying to reach a solution on.
The thought rested at the front of his mind as the tech whirled around. Lifting his feet from the floor, he used the swivel chair to turn back and face them.
A satisfied look was on his features.
“All clear, we are a go.”