ATEO CURVED HIS SPINE on the back door of the boss's bullet proof sedan wondering why Malie was late. He had done what he was supposed to, shown his numbered sign and stood in the pickup lane with the mothers and chauffeurs waiting for their daughters to come out of the academy. St. Theresa’s closing bell had rung so long ago that most of them were already gone.
He straightened, took a puff off his cigarette and looked for anything suspicious among the shoppers bustling on the other side of the street. They strode from shop to shop and flowed against traffic. Well groomed men and women with their heads focused forward, never looking to the sides. Mothers pulling along young children. University aged boys and girls holding hands, talking and laughing.
The historic suburb had transformed into a small haven for the upwardly mobile in the last five years as more affluent families settled the area. Some of the newer shops had second-and-third floor rooms that their landlords leased as office space to lawyers and accountants. They also rented rooms as apartments to recent college grads who paid their leases by working in the stores below.
Ateo, like a good watchman, mixed scanning the street and sidewalks with trying to peer through the avenue's raised upper floor windows to see if a gun muzzle pointed back at him. Out of habit he imagined a target on anyone he thought could present a threat. He painted an imaginary bulls-eye on the temple of a woman wearing a fanny pack and high-top sneakers. In his mind he rehearsed her trying to pull a gun from that pack, and him grabbing the .45 from his shoulder holster to blow a hole in the front of her head. Just like he would the burly, grey haired man looking too cocksure of himself sitting at a bakery’s patio eating a milhojas, or the waddling eight year-old boy trying to carry an overstuffed grocery bag.
Ateo mentally put targets on their heads, on their chests. Then he sucked his cigarette and heaved his torso against the pistol and bulky Kevlar beneath his blazer.
The suit was the boss's wife's idea. Señora Braca insisted he wear a jacket and tie even though he thought so many layers—jacket, tie, shirt, armoured vest—on one of the hottest days in Bogota’s history was insane. But Senora Braca assured him the jacket and tie made him look professional.
“A clean man,” she explained. “A man who seems in control of himself is always threatening.”
He had assured her. “I’m in control, Señora.”
From clear sky to drain vent, check everything.
His mind drifted back to his wedding night as he did so. In his memory, he stared at his sleeping bride. She knew about his profession and married him despite it, although she often told him he could do better. He had no education beyond the twelfth grade, but this beautiful woman kept telling him he could do better.
He reconsidered his vocation every year since. He did so again, dropping his cigarette as he weighed the options. Genetics and experience made him a formidable hulk and a versatile fighter. A prodigious body count made him one of the Cartel’s most prized and highest paid assassins. He was born to do what he was doing, and was too well paid being a top enforcer to start at the bottom trying something else.
He was proud that Senora Braca herself wanted him to protect her last child. She never considered anyone else for the job. Every morning for the past year she gave him her daughter and made him promise to bring the girl “home safe.” Then she would make the sign of the cross and ask God the same favour.
“Bring my Malie home safe.”
The human half of that partnership groaned when Malie and her two friends finally walked out of the school’s side door. He said nothing when they slowed to shout “Byes” at the two nuns still on monitor duty.
Then Malie turned to Ateo, gave a guilty smile and blamed herself for the delay.
“I was trying to get Sister Mira to give me some extra credit.”
“You couldn't call to tell me?' Ateo shook his head. “Next time, think.”
“I said I'm sorry.”
“You get the extra credit?”
“Of course not. Nuns don't believe in that. You either do the work you're supposed to or you don't.”
“Some give it.”
“Next time call me. Just use your phone. That's why you have it.”
Ateo opened the car door so the teens could climb into the back seat. Once they were packed inside he could take them to their families and return the boss's sedan to the Braca garage. From there he would drive his own sporty Audi home to an evening of watching TV with his plump wife and their two curly-haired sons.
Waiting for the girls to cross the last few feet, Ateo thought about his sons running to him from their modest home, on an avenue of modest homes. A lane less cluttered than the progressive boulevard with its busy shops. For Ateo, an ugly forty-seven-year-old, the nuns were the block’s reprieve, sealed in a nice, quiet bubble of masonry and tradition. They smiled and waved at him, always making him feel welcomed.
The largest grin came from a pasty nun who must have been a hundred years old when the school started sixty years ago. She usually came out to talk to the sisters on monitor duty and waved at Ateo whenever she spotted him delivering or picking up his human cargo. He missed her on those infrequent mornings or afternoons, like this one, when she wasn't around. On those days he'd ask Malie,
“Where's my lady?” and feel relieved when she shrugged her shoulders and answered, “I don't know. Around here somewhere.”
Ateo's gaze went from the nuns down to the first girl climbing into the sedan. She was the smallest and youngest of the three. Malie towered two heads taller and had a hand on the girl's back to push her into the car. Except for their different heights and color, they almost looked like twins. Malie’s skin shone copper to the girl’s teak—a gift from her Afro-Brazilian mother—her mouth parted again to apologize for being late. The smaller girl complained about a class she hated, taught by a nun she couldn’t stand. The last girl, the tallest and slimmest of the three, listened to Ateo gripe at all of them about their tardiness.
“Don’t make me tell you again. Use the phone.”
He said “use it” once more, looked up for a check, felt his nose explode. Blood misted the air in front of his eyes, then fell as a warm drizzle on the back of the small girl’s head. He saw it land, heard her scream loud enough to cover the crunch of a second bullet breaking his brow.