How could it still be so cold a month into spring? Snow flurries had fallen the day before, and they’d made Carla nervous. It reminded her of the dust cascading down from the blast last week.
Her heels clacked hard against the sidewalk. They’d told her downtown could be so impersonal, and she was glad. Hardly anyone noticed her. She kept her arms wrapped her torso, as tight as she could get them, with the band of her purse intertwined.
A heavy hand suddenly grabbed her left shoulder. It frightened her like nothing else; the mere thought of someone touching her. But it also angered her. She whirled around to see a husky, bearded man with wild eyes looking at her. How dare you touch me, she screamed silently. Her father had warned her about people like that. “What?!” she snapped.
“You almost stepped right into traffic,” the man said. That heavy hand gestured to the road. His eyes went from wild to a normal-looking bright.
“Oh…wow,” Carla finally muttered.
“Didn’t mean to grab you like that,” said the man.
“No, no! That’s okay.” He wasn’t one of those people from the beige-colored building, but he looked friendly nonetheless. Still, she remembered what her father had said: unless he knew who they were and had pointed them out to her, don’t trust them! And say nothing to them, beyond ‘thank you’ or ‘hi.’
She continued walking, growing increasingly leery of fellow pedestrians. When she strolled passed the federal building, she got the feeling someone was following her. She always had that feeling. It had started in grade school, when a gaggle of mean girls tormented her from the moment she arrived every morning until the moment she made it into her front yard. Then her father taught her how to throw a punch.
“Just roll up your fist like this,” he’d explained one evening after dinner.
Her mother got mad. “Teaching her to fight like an animal?!”
“No,” her father replied matter-of-factly, “teaching her to stand up for herself.”
One punch, one punch – right to the face. And that’s what Carla did to one of those girls. Just swung around and swiped her puny fist across the girl’s upper lip. Not enough to bruise it or cause it to bleed, but sharp enough to startle her. Startle both of them.
Yeah, somebody was following her. But she knew, once she passed the federal building, she was near her next destination. She slowed her gait and glanced around as much as her stiffened neck would allow. She came to another intersection and stopped, seeing the traffic well in advance. She didn’t want anyone grabbing her, or needing to grab her to save her from herself.
Damn this cold! Spring, spring! It’s supposed to be spring. The wind hustled past her. The cutting edge of it reminded her of the old house where she and her younger sister had grown up. A breeze would roll through it, if both the front door and back doors were open at the same time. It created a tunnel effect. Carla and her sister and other kids from the neighborhood loved to stand in the middle area when sharp winds hurtled over and – with those doors open – through the house.
Her father liked it also and sometimes would stand with them and pretend the wind was too much for him; fake-slamming into the walls and onto the floor, yelling, “Help me!”
But they were the only ones. Her mother hollered about the electricity bill and yelled about the childishness of it all.
“You’re all acting silly!” her mother groused.
“But, mama, we’re having fun,” Carla would say, trying to rationalize.
“Stop acting so stupid!”
If she only knew how bad that word hurt, Carla snarled into her pillow. ‘Stupid.’ Her mother never liked to do things just for fun. But her father was different. He was whimsical and free-spirited. He could actually make her mother laugh – at times.
She stopped at Elm and Pacific, the northeast corner, looking south towards the Indian deli – just as she’d been told. She turned to her left and saw a woman slightly taller than her, wearing a police-style uniform with her hair pulled tightly back into corn rows.
Carla shuddered. She glanced at the upper left side of woman’s torso and saw the name on the bronze-colored badge: Jamal. Carla exhaled.
As the woman got closer, Carla began, “Are you – ?”
The woman silenced her with an upraised hand.
Oh yeah, she recalled. No questions. She felt embarrassed.
“They’ve found them, Carla,” the Jamal woman muttered. “The police are there already. Our man watched them. You did take the bottles with you – right?”
“Yes – of course. Into the dumpster on Turtle Creek – beside Cody’s.”
“Good.” Jamal smiled reassuringly.
Carla grinned, but she was beaming deep inside. Her father would be so proud. With each step, she believed more and more her father had been right. ‘Who says a low IQ means you’re too stupid to do anything?’
“You know where to go now, right?” Jamal asked.
“Yes, to the –”
Another upraised hand. “As long as you know.”
“Good. We’ll see you later,” she added with a smile. She wheeled around and hopped into the gray SUV – all so effortlessly and in a split second.
These people move and speak so fast, Carla mused with the same degree of wonder she’d had from the beginning. Entering that beige-colored building two years ago had intimidated her like nothing else. If her father hadn’t been with her, she would have screamed at the sight of the burly man and small woman with over-sized glasses at the front counter. They were genuinely scary! But the folks in the back were much different. Much kinder and soft-spoken – a lot like her father.
“How long have you known these people, daddy?” she asked, gripping his left forearm.
“A long time,” he quietly replied. “They’ve been good to us – to our entire family. They’re good to everyone who’s good to them. But you have to be good, too, you know. Understand?”
Carla looked at her watch – 2:54 p.m. – and strolled to the huge electronics store further down on Elm. She still couldn’t believe the number of people rushing about in downtown Dallas.
The training sessions had tested her ability to remain aloof and constrained in the midst of such human traffic. The heavy noises had bothered her more than anything. Enough to make the trainers question their selection.
But that’s when Carla’s mother (of all people) jumped into the mess – inherently jeopardizing the relationship they had with the group – and pulled her away for a few moments.
“Remember what I said about all those people? Remember?”
“Yes,” Carla replied meekly after a few terrifying seconds. Her mother – usually loud and intrusive – had vowed to stay in the background throughout the entire training procedure and let Carla’s father serve as liaison with the trainers.
“What was it I said?” her other queried.
“Just don’t talk to anybody. And don’t stare.”
“Yes, exactly!” Her mother smiled, which she rarely did. “Good Carla.”
The second trial run made Carla realize she could truly remain aloof and discreet; allowing her to move unnoticed from point A to point B without interacting with somebody. A third and fourth run solidified the group’s trust in her.
The snow flurries had stopped falling. Carla entered the electronics store and ambled to the pre-paid cell phone rack. Model A42997: it was almost hidden towards the back of the spindle. Paying with cash, she hurried back outside and found a shadowy overhead. Sticking her left forefinger into her purse allowed her to see the code embedded in the lavender fingernail polish: 990Y23L17. She input that reference into the phone’s text box and waited.
“This is Paula,” answered the woman’s voice.
“This Ms. C496233.” Oddly, remembering all those codes was easier than remembering which way was north and which was south.
“Hi, Carla,” Paula replied. “How’s your hand?”
She knew she had the right person. “It’s okay.”
Carla had been nervous about Paula at first. But her father told her it was just another test. “It’s just one of those things called a coincidence,” he said.
Paula had been the name of her kindergarten teacher; the one who said she was “too stupid to know day from night.”
“Paula, la pendeja,” her father had said one evening at home.
“¡Callarse!” her mother had shouted back. (Shut up!)
Carla didn’t speak Spanish – then or now – and she certainly didn’t know why her father felt compelled to silence the teacher with a shotgun blast to the head late one Saturday night. Sitting in the back seat of their old Buick, Carla became mesmerized by the sight of the brilliant neon lights slathered all over a part of town she’d never seen before. “Stay down, girls,” her father ordered her and her younger sister, Andrea.
Carla peered above the rim of the window and was startled by the sight of a large group of women stumbling out of a building; all of them wearing very short dresses and skirts and very high-heeled shoes.
“There she is,” the girls heard their father mumble. “Paula, la pendeja.” They were parked across the street from the building. He picked up what Carla later realized was a shotgun and pointed the tip out the window. “Cover your ears, girls!”
They did as ordered. But the loud boom still echoed through their heads and made them shriek.
The screaming from the crowd of women overwhelmed them instantly.
Carla’s father slowly pulled out of the parking lot and onto a street in the opposite direction.
“What happened, daddy?” Carla asked.
“Don’t worry about it. You girls want some ice cream when we get home?”
“Yes!” the screamed in unison. Carla glanced back and wondered what those words above the doorway to that building meant: B-E-E-R and D-A-N-C-I-N-G.
She still didn’t know what they meant. But she wasn’t thinking about them now. Paula on the phone instructed her where to go next.
“The furniture store two blocks down on Elm. The one with the big clock hanging outside the front door. Remember?”
The word ‘good’ meant so much to her. It was actually everything. It told her she was doing things right. Outside the furniture store, she again found herself beneath some shade and stuck her right forefinger into her purse. The code on the fingernail read, 990Y23L18. Just one number different. But the text didn’t produce another call on the phone.
Instead a picture displayed.
She recognized it: a large house; different from the other one. It was the mayor’s house. The last house had belonged to someone called an attorney. “He’s a lawyer who works for the city,” her father had told her. “He’s bad, too. Like Paula, la pendeja.”
This person, the mayor, was another bad one, the people from the beige building had told her. Once she got there, they said, her job was done. Done for now. If she handled this one right, they’d give her a bigger job. Bigger jobs – done right – meant more clothes and more music.
She boarded the bus, number 359, at Elm and Akard. It took her to the Bishop Arts section south of downtown where she found another deli; this one an Italian place.
The young woman in a blue coat met her at the doorway. “Ms. C?”
“Ms. C496233,” Carla announced.
“Good! I’m Brittany. Let’s eat.”
They entered the deli and found a booth off to the side. Brittany ordered for both of them. They ate mostly in silence, before Brittany pulled a soft drink can out of her purse. “Remember what this is?”
“Yes – soda.”
“Good. Now, on to the house.” Brittany followed Carla into the bathroom, and then they left the diner.
Carla got onto another bus at Zang and Bennett and arrived at the Arthur Court neighborhood; actually two blocks from it. The residents of those monster houses didn’t want the buses coming too close to their gated estates, Carla’s father had told her. She didn’t understand why. “Everyone takes the bus!”
“Most everyone,” her father had corrected.
She still didn’t know what the problem was, but she couldn’t bother with it at the moment. Brittany had put the soda can into a box and sealed it up. Along with the mayor’s name and address, the letters ‘T-O B-E O-P-E-N-E-D B-Y A-D-D-R-E-S-S-E-E O-N-L-Y’ were printed in several spots around the front of the box. Like so many sets of letters she’d seen, Carla didn’t know what they meant. But, as instructed, she didn’t ask questions about them. The drawing beside what her father had told her was the return address piqued her curiosity, though: a blue-tinted dome atop an otherwise flat-roofed building that had what appeared to be several columns lined up in front of it. She didn’t recognize the name on that return address, Senator somebody.
“A senator is a very important person,” her father had told her. “Not too important that we can’t get rid of them.”
“Okay,” Carla answered. Her father always knew what he was talking about. She barely trusted the people from the beige-colored building. But, when her father said they were okay, she felt safe with them. They always had to talk with him first – in private.
Carla arrived at the tiny building in front of a gigantic set of wrought-iron gates and handed the package to the little man wearing a police-type uniform inside. He studied it for a minute or so and then said, “Oh, okay.” He grabbed a clipboard from the desk behind him. “Sign here,” he added, giving her a pen.
She signed the name, ‘M.S. Carl.’
“Say nothing else and do nothing else,” her father had ordered her. “Absolutely nothing. Do you understand me?”
“Of course, Daddy.”
“Thank you,” the little man in the little building grumbled.
“Thank you,” Carla responded brightly. She could say that much – only that much.
That night, after her parents had treated Carla to dinner at her favorite restaurant, she spoke briefly with her sister and the latter’s two young children.
“Say nothing about what you’ve been doing,” her mother warned her – as usual.
Carla’s sister always tried to cull information from her; more than just, ‘How was school?’ or ‘What did you have for lunch today?’
Afterwards, Carla plopped down onto her favorite spot on a couch in the den, the family’s two corgis curling up on the floor nearby.
“Well, would you look at that,” her father muttered at the TV.
The local news was awash with terror. A frazzled reporter stood outside, her stringy hair whipping uncontrollably in the wind. Behind her Carla could see a small building and a set of gates that looked familiar.
“I’ve been there!” she suddenly said.
Her parents turned to her. “Ay, Carla!” her mother scolded.
“Don’t say anything!”
She looked at her father.
“No – don’t say anything,” he repeated.
“Oh – okay,” Carla finally said. She hated when her mother snapped at her like that. But what could she do? She turned to the dogs. They simultaneously rolled over, fighting for her ticklish fingers.
“…the explosion ripped through the house. Officials say both the mayor and her personal assistant were present and critically injured.”
Carla glanced to the TV for a few seconds. She recognized the reporter’s voice. But she became too consumed with the dogs.
“Reports that they were killed have not been substantiated. We need to emphasize: NOT substantiated.”
She heard her father sigh heavily, before he muttered – loud enough for her to hear – “Good Carla.”
The dogs were too important for anything else now.