2 | We’ve Only Just Begun
August 29, 2027,
Benito Juárez International Airport, Mexico City The handsome man seated across the aisle gives my arm a gentle tap.
“You dropped this,” he says, handing me my lipstick tube.
This is the guy I noticed at the LAX departure gate. With his dirty blond hair and the non-stop smile, he signed autographs for everyone who asked and chatted with whoever wanted conversation.
I suppose he’s that kind—an extrovert who can’t stop talking.
I’m probably next on his hit list. “Thanks. It must’ve fallen out of my purse when I took out my book.” I flash the cover of Ara Grigorian’s 15 Days with You at him.
“Ah, a romance novel,” he says with enthusiasm. “I’ve met Ara a few times and have read all his books. They’re excellent.”
Never can I imagine a rugged guy like this reading romance novels.
He needs people around him. But who knows? Maybe he talks to fictional characters when he’s alone.
The plane starts to rumble down the runway. I kiss the beads on my rosary necklace and whisper a quick prayer for our safety. I can’t help it. God would’ve given us wings if we’re supposed to fly, no?
“We have an hour to kill before touchdown in Veracruz,” the man says. He flashes me a cute puckish smile. “Can we talk awhile?”
Ara’s book would’ve stayed in my purse if I wanted to socialize.
· 17 ·
With twenty-three pages to go, I intend to read through to the happily-ever-after ending before we land. “I’d rather not kill anything today, thanks.” I open the book, raise it to eye level and read an entire four-word sentence before he interrupts.
“I brought some work with me. Please don’t force me to do it.”
Oh, poor baby! Why not talk to the man next to you? And what’s so dreadful about doing some work on Sunday? I put the book down. He is pretty cute. I’ll give him five minutes, max.
I exaggerate my sigh. “Are you visiting Veracruz? August isn’t peak season for tourists, you know. The heat and humidity makes sightseeing uncomfortable.”
“No worries. Tomorrow I have two morning meetings, followed by midday return flights.” He stuffs his Guitar Mania magazine into a seat pocket. “You’re headed home?”
“I’ve lived in Veracruz for eleven years but grew up in L.A.
Alhambra, actually. I spent last week on vacation, visiting my folks.”
A glance out the window shows we’re climbing fast. I run a hand through my long dark hair, eager for the plane to level off. “I’m curious about the autographs you signed this morning. Sorry if I’m blunt, but I don’t recognize you.”
His bashful expression isn’t typical of any celebrity I’ve met.
“They’re well-wishers. If you hadn’t moved away, chances are you’d know me by sight.”
“What are you famous for—TV? Movies? Sports?”
“At the moment bad luck’s my main claim to fame.” His sigh segues into a rueful grin. “It’s a long story, and not a happy one. I’m Ram Forrester.”
“You are? Mi Dios!” I hope he doesn’t notice my blush. “I’m Brendali Santamaria. We’re supposed to meet tomorrow.” We shake hands. “I watched some of your YouTube videos to prepare for the job interview you had to cancel last week. You look so different in person! The ponytail’s gone, the goatee’s new, and you’re not wearing those thin round glasses.”
His broad smile reveals a dimple in his cheeks. “The ponytail
· 18 ·
had to go. I’ve pretended I’m young too long. The goatee’s temporary, while I’m between shows. I only use glasses to read the TelePrompTer.”
He’s lost weight, too. The pudginess I saw on his videos is gone.
He’s wiry, with nicely developed biceps.
Ram’s head tips to the side, his brown eyes crinkle and his smile takes on a rascally quality. The plane’s dip and turn brings the sun’s rays through the window behind him. This highlights his blond hair and creates a halo effect around him, as if he’s my special angel.
“Sorry about the last-minute cancellation, Brendali. A medical problem arose. I prepared for your interview too, by watching your past news reports. I don’t speak Spanish but your great on-camera presence didn’t need language skills.”
“Thanks.” I want this job, so I shove my book and lipstick into my purse.
“I noticed you at the gate in L.A., but thought I’d misidentified you.” Ram says. The first-class flight attendant takes our drink orders—beer for Ram, tea for me. “In casual clothes, plus the sunglasses and without your braid, I wasn’t confident enough about your identity to introduce myself. Also, my fans kept me busy. I can’t disappoint them.”
“These days I keep my hair loose when I’m off work. I crave invisibility so the wrong people won’t recognize me.”
“You stand out too much to blend in.” He gets my tiniest smile for the compliment. “I’m glad we’re seated next to each other. I wouldn’t want you to think I’d ignored you on two successive flights.
So my conundrum’s solved. Am I keeping you from your book?”
“Oh, I don’t mind.” He’s attentive, too? That’s good! “When your assistant called to arrange tomorrow’s interview, I felt flattered that you’d come all this way to meet me. But why didn’t we do it by Skype to avoid the hassle?”
“I already had the other matter on my calendar—a Mexican film director wants me to do a voice-over for a new Nacho Libre sequel.
Anyway, you’re worth the trip. My show, the Ram Forrester Hour,
· 19 ·
premieres in November. The cohost spot’s the biggest hire I haven’t made yet. As an accomplished Latina journalist, you’re a perfect fit for our viewership. But you know what? Let’s leave the shop talk for tomorrow. Surely we can find other things to discuss?”
He waves off the flight attendant’s offer of peanuts, but I accept his and mine.
“Tell me your long sad story, Ram. I’m a captive audience.” The peanuts go in my purse.
He hesitates. “Oh, hell, you’re a reporter. You can find out easily enough. Here’s the short version. While I walked home from a mall near my condo on Valentine’s Day, a guy drove by and tried to shoot his ex-wife. I walked past her at the wrong moment. He nailed me instead.”
“I read about that when it happened. What a terrible thing to go through.”
“Five bullets hit me—left shoulder and lung, sternum, stomach, kidney.” He uses a cocktail napkin to catch a tear hanging at the corner of his eyelid. “I lost a lot of blood and went into shock. The doctors called my survival a medical miracle. Now, after months of physical therapy, I’m more or less recovered. I find a lot more joy in life these days.”
I reach out and rest my hand on his forearm. “I’m sorry you had to suffer so much.”
Our drinks arrive. Ram pours his beer and continues. “The folks at our departure gate want me back as their evening news anchor. I thanked them but stayed mum about my plans.”
“God must’ve had a special reason for saving you. That’s why miracles occur.”
“And I thought he spared me because he likes my newscasts.”
His laugh is a single “Ha!” He leans toward me and stage-whispers.
“Don’t tell him I’m starting a talk show, okay?”
I grin. Ram’s charming, unpredictable and fun. “Violence has affected me, too. Never have I spoken about it to anyone, though.
It’s too painful.”
· 20 ·
“You should confide in someone. That’s healthier than bottling your emotions up and letting them fester.” He extends a hand halfway across the aisle and returns it in his lap. “You can trust me. I promise not to share your words with anyone.”
If I refuse, will he hire someone else? The compassion in his eyes tells me he means what he says. I shouldn’t say no, but I can’t tell him the family stuff. Not yet. Maybe I will when we know each other better. And he’s right about not holding in my emotions.
“I’ll try.” I take a deep breath and force the words out. “I haven’t been hurt physically, at least not yet. The narcotrafficantes—may they rot in hell, every last one of them—a number of years ago they killed my mentor in broad daylight. He stood only a few feet from me. My best friend, the sister I didn’t have growing up,” I have to stop for another breath. “She, um, disappeared earlier this year.” My voice fades, swallowed by the plane’s hum. “Her body hasn’t been found.”
Water fills my eyes. Never can I spit all the words out. “A few months ago those culeros tortured my boyfriend—to death. The bastardos killed Veronica and Javier to scare me, for no reason other than that. Every day I—”
My throat constricts. I cover my mouth with a fist, stare at the clouds below and will myself not to cry. I slam the armrests twice and continue. “Sorry, this’s hard to say. I feel guilty for living, you know? Instead of them, I mean. Too often I get so angry—”
Desperate for a tissue, I dig into my purse. Ram, who noticed my struggle, offers his.
“Thanks.” I wipe a few tears away. “Every Sunday, in church, I ask God why violence plagues my life. He never answers.”
“I’m truly sorry to hear all this,” he says, handing me his entire tissue packet. “The horrible things people do to each other are inexcusable. Let’s stick to upbeat subjects, okay?”
For the rest of the flight we talk nonstop about our favorite books, movies, music, sports teams, restaurants, foods, hobbies, etc.
I’m fascinated that he plays guitar and had a band before his
· 21 ·
shooting. My volunteer work with the indigenous homeless impresses him. We steer clear of our careers, controversial subjects and backgrounds.
This is way better than finishing my book. Ram’s easy to talk and relate to, like he’s an old friend I’ve rediscovered. Does he feel this way about me?
“The taxis in town aren’t too reliable outside of tourist season,” I say as we head to the baggage claim area. “You could get held up, or worse. I can drop you off at your hotel, but that could put you in danger, too. I have a driver and a bodyguard for a reason.” What can happen? Most of the drive’s on Route 140.
“If you’re saying my choice is to trust a stranger or you and your people, I’ll stick with you if that’s not inconvenient. I’m staying downtown.”
Pedro, my driver, has parked his Explorer right outside the terminal. My bodyguard, Fernando, meets me inside. Once he completes his safety check and stores my luggage and Ram’s carry-on bag in the trunk, I run at full speed straight to the rear driver’s side seat. Ram follows at a relaxed pace. Unlike me, he’s not worried about getting shot.
“Tienes mi arma, Pedro?” He hands over my pistol, as requested.
I keep it on my lap, below window level. The car immediately peels away.
“What’s this about, Brendali—these men, the gun?” Ram’s voice is firm and steady but no longer carefree.
“In Mexico every journalist takes precautions. I rely on these two guys and my self-defense skills.” I tap my gun. “The cartels have sworn to kill me. That’s why I need to leave. I’m tired of playing the mouse while any street cat can hunt me down with no questions asked.”
He blinks but otherwise appears unruffled. “Can I do anything to help while I’m here?”
The men up front are discussing a staged traffic accident ahead,
· 22 ·
picked up on the police radio. I’m glad Ram doesn’t understand Spanish. This isn’t a good sign. In Mexico nothing happens by coincidence.
We veer off the highway at the Avenida Violetes exit. “Què pasa, chicos?”
Fernando turns partway in my direction and looks straight at me. “Tenemous que desvaiarnose en torno a un accidente de tráfico.”
I tell Ram we’re detouring around a traffic jam. His only reaction is a curt nod.
The drive takes us through a mixed light industrial and residential part of town. A bend to the northeast at Avenida La Bamba brings us to a swampy area where the street name changes to Cerro Azul. This stretch of road is too empty for my liking.
“Problemas en el future, en el pasado,” Pedro says while the car screeches through a one-eighty turnaround. Fernando pulls out a large caliber gun. I take the safety off my pistol.
Ram’s eyes widen. He grips the door handle. We ask the same question in unison—”What’s wrong?”/”Que esta mal?”
“Emboscaga más adelante,” Pedro replies. “Voy a dar la vuelta.”
“Ram, Pedro says we would’ve driven into an ambush if he didn’t turn around. He’s heading back to the highway. Sorry I offered the ride, but these guys will get us through unharmed. Stay low until we’re clear.”
“I hope you’re right that God wants me around.” His voice is firm.
“With you here, God’s got us covered. You’re our lucky charm.”
Too bad Ram doesn’t have a gun. We could use a third shooter.
We don’t get far before Pedro’s “Cabezas abajo!” triggers us to lie sideways across the rear seat, our eyes inches apart. The crackle of bullets shattering glass echoes through the cabin. Ram shifts to cover my body with his. We squeeze each other’s hands for reassurance.
“Keep low, no matter what,” I say in a soft voice once the attack ends. Ram drops off the seat, facing forward. I raise my head high enough to peek at the road ahead.
· 23 ·
Two cars speed toward us. Their metallic black and blue exteriors reflect the sun’s rays. “We’re clear if we can get past these cars. They probably trailed us from the airport. Someone at Aeromexico must’ve tipped off the narcos about my flight schedule.”
Ram’s focused on Fernando, not me. I follow his gaze to find out why. “¡Pinche cholos!” Fernando’s slumped against the side window, his head a bloody mess. His gun rests loose in his lifeless left hand.
“¡Mierda! Ram, get the gun, fast.” I point to it. “I need your help.
Pedro, para el coche.” The car squeals to a halt. I scoot out, staying low to keep the door open as a partial shield. I take a shooter’s stance behind it. My pistol’s in one hand. The other, balanced on the doorframe, steadies my aim.
Ram copies me on his side of the car. Good, he knows how to shoot.
“Aim for the front tires of the black car,” I yell, pointing to the closer of the two. That car’s maybe fifty yards away, closing fast. I track the driver’s side tire. “God, guide my bullets,” I say under my breath. I pull the trigger, feel the recoil and repeat.
A single powerful gunshot bursts from Ram’s weapon.
He misses his target but the tire I aimed at deflates. The car bucks and slides to the left. It’s impossible to thread a bullet through the driver’s open window with only seconds to aim and squeeze the trigger. I try anyway. Ram doesn’t.
The driver slumps forward against the steering wheel, unmoving.
Blood smears the windshield. I’m an ace sharpshooter, but no one alive can make that shot. God did this, not me. Nice to know He’s with us.
Driverless, the black car careens into the other’s path. They collide. The blue car skitters into the swamp like a pool ball deflected into a side pocket. The black car’s stationary, the dead driver no threat.
I jump into the Explorer and slam the door. “Salgamos de aquí, Pedro.¡ Darse prisa!” He stomps on the gas once Ram’s inside.
Ram watches me notch the safety back on, place the pistol on my lap and struggle to take off my rosary necklace. My hands shake
· 24 ·
too much to open the tiny clasp. “Let me help,” he says.
I move the clasp to the front of my neck for him. “Estás bien, Pedro?”
He grunts. “Si. Gracias por ocuparse de este asunto, senorita.”
Instead of acknowledging Pedro’s thanks I search Ram’s face and see only relief.
“Your résumé didn’t mention that you’re lethal.” He hands me the necklace.
“When my life’s not at stake I’m a sweet, warm, passionate woman with a kind heart. But anyone who crosses me gets a double dose of ‘up yours, bastard.’”
Ram’s eyelids flutter. Perhaps my polite street slang surprised him, but he says nothing.
I lean forward, press the rosary and cross onto Fernando’s open palm and wrap the rest of the necklace around his fingers. Next, I close his hand into a fist. I’m not qualified to give last rites and it’s too late anyway, but so what? No one will if I don’t. With Fernando’s limp hand in mine I say the Viaticum in a halting voice and try not to tear up. The effort fails.
“Amen,” Ram says as he moves next to me and wraps an arm around my shoulder. “I’m sorry about Fernando.”
I wish I knew more about Fernando’s family. Does he have a wife, little ones? I should’ve asked. In the future I’ll ask the men who protect me.
I lean into Ram and cry into his shirt until I can calm down.
“Fernando’s the third person to die for me.” It’s hard to spit those words out, but the next sentence is full of venom. “I swear it, Ram, I’ll avenge them all so their deaths aren’t in vain.”
Ram shakes his head. “I’m getting you out of here. That’s how I’ll thank you for saving my life. Tell you what—we’ll go through the motions tomorrow in your interview. You’ll need to do another with our station manager, but I’ll make it crystal clear to him I want you as my cohost. You’re coming home, Brendali. You won’t need a bodyguard in L.A.”
· 25 ·
I don’t doubt his sincerity. “That’s wonderful, Ram. Thank you.” I pull back from him and dab my eyes with a tissue.
“Can I buy you dinner? You need company for a while, and a glass or two of some good wine.”
He’s so thoughtful, and right. “Let’s eat in the hotel restaurant. I can’t risk walking around outside.”
Pedro knows what to do with Fernando’s body. While we eat he’ll dump it in some remote place where the police will treat it as another gang hit and opt not to investigate further. The poor guy deserves better. That’s another way the cartels corrupt us.
At the hotel I give Ram my best smile, take his arm and let him escort me inside. A new chapter in my life will begin soon, Lord. Let it have a happily-ever-after ending. After all I’ve been through in Mexico, I’m due one. Please.
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