Authors: Andrew Peterson
Also by Andrew Peterson
First to Kill
Forced to Kill
Option to Kill
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Andrew Peterson
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
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Cover design by Jason Gurley
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013922354
To Abedonia Marie Fagan (1954–2009) and Tarsilla Martinez Davidson (1929–2013), the best sister- and mother-in-law a guy could ask for. Both of them now walk in grace with God.
Pastor Tobias awoke to the sound of metal rattling. He was a light sleeper—it didn’t take much to rouse him. He pulled the insect netting aside and hurried over to the window. On the road below, a column of four pickup trucks approached the one-lane bridge at the south entrance to the valley, the truck beds clanging over the rutted road and the headlights bouncing. The pickups negotiated the final hairpin turn and began crossing the wooden bridge. Tobias’s small home, more like a tin shack, overlooked one of the most remote areas of northern Nicaragua. He looked at his watch—2:00 am. No one should be arriving in the middle of the night.
This wasn’t good; he’d seen it before.
Across the valley, lights flicked on as other people heard the caravan of trucks. Most of Santavilla’s fifteen hundred residents remained asleep, but that would change soon enough.
Tobias threw on some clothes, grabbed his flashlight, and started down the path. Several hundred feet below, the trucks rolled past his position. Being careful with his footing, he picked up his pace. Although in his midseventies, Tobias kept himself in good physical shape. Still, a misstep on this trail could be fatal—the mountainside angled sharply away, creating a fall he’d never survive. He adjusted the focus on his flashlight to make the beam wider.
The trucks picked up speed, their beds rattling again in sequence as they hit a deep rut. From his current position, Tobias couldn’t see the vehicles, but their headlights cast eerie shadows through the trees. To his right, a village elder stepped out of his hut.
“Pastor Tobias, what’s happening?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll get dressed and come with you.”
“Thank you, but please stay here. I’ll go see what’s going on.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”
“I’m sure. I’ll be right back.”
Tobias began a medium-paced jog when the terrain became more manageable. Half a minute later, he crossed the creek, using the earthen dam, and cleared the last of the big trees blocking his view.
The trucks had fanned out from the road and formed a semicircle around Mateo’s home, their headlights harshly illuminating the tiny structure. Each pickup produced two men. At this distance, Tobias couldn’t see much detail, but two of them wore the trademark white buttoned shirts associated with El Jefe’s criminal band. The other four were dressed in green combat uniforms, and they carried assault rifles with large magazines.
“Wait!” he yelled.
The gunmen either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore his command. With building anger, Tobias watched one of them kick open the front door. A few seconds later, they dragged Mateo’s wife out the door. Mateo staggered out after her, holding a hand to the side of his head. He’d obviously been struck, probably with the butt of a rifle.
Dressed only in a T-shirt and underwear, the woman offered no resistance as they pulled her across the gravel. Mateo yelled something and tried to free his wife from her assailant’s grasp, but a different gunman drove the barrel of his rifle into Mateo’s stomach. Mateo clutched his midsection, doubled over, and fell to his knees.
Nearly out of breath, Tobias yelled, “Stop this!”
One of the white shirts—who Tobias recognized as El Jefe’s chief enforcer—grabbed a bullhorn from the cab of his pickup. A metallic voice echoed across the landscape.
“Residents of Santavilla, let this serve as an example of the price of disloyalty. El Jefe is a generous man and pays you well for your work. Hoarding will not be tolerated.”
Several gunmen turned toward Tobias as he closed the distance. The enforcer issued a hand signal, and they brought their weapons up but didn’t fire.
Tobias pointed at the leader with the bullhorn. “What are you doing? This is an outrage! You can’t just break into people’s homes in the middle of the night.”
“It’s much worse than that, old man.”
One of the uniformed mercenaries grabbed Pastor Tobias by the arm. The flashlight fell from his hand as he felt the iron grip on his biceps. He grimaced from the pain. The thug was purposely hurting him.
The enforcer motioned to several of his men. “Search the house.”
Two mercenaries disappeared inside. Tobias listened to the destruction as the men tore the place apart.
“Please,” Mateo said, “my wife is very ill and needs pain medicine. I have no extra money. El Jefe pays us pennies, and—”
“Silence! I will hear no more of your insolence.”
Mateo tried to get up. “Please, I’ll—”
The mercenary who’d struck Mateo in the stomach stepped forward and kicked him in the rib cage. Mateo curled into a fetal position.
“Enough,” Tobias yelled.
A high-pitched shriek came from inside the house.
“Leave her alone!” Tobias jerked free and ran toward the door.
He didn’t make it.
A sharp blow on the back of his head grayed his vision. Fighting to remain conscious, he fell to his hands and knees. One of the mercenaries grabbed his left wrist and began hauling him toward the trucks. Tobias wasn’t a small man, and the mercenary had trouble dragging him. A second man joined the effort, and Tobias felt his shoulder strain to the dislocation point. He cried out as the two men yanked him to his feet. The white-shirted enforcer stepped forward and backhanded Tobias across the cheek.
“This is not your business, old man. You cause only pain and suffering with your foolish beliefs. And now you’ve caused your own.”
A wave of nausea took the pastor. He bent over and vomited.
A second, higher-pitched scream emanated from the house as one of the gunmen yanked Mateo’s daughter, Antonia, through the door. In her early twenties, she too wore only a T-shirt and underwear. The man shoved the young woman to the ground next to her father.
Mateo managed to uncurl himself and rise to his knees. He wrapped his arms around his daughter, who glared at the gathering of mercenaries with bald defiance.
“Please don’t hurt my family,” pleaded Mateo.
The gunman who’d pulled Antonia outside handed the enforcer a tiny glass vial with a black cap. It was about an inch long and half an inch in diameter, filled almost to the top with gold flakes that shimmered in the headlights.
Before the enforcer brought the bullhorn up again, he gave Mateo’s daughter a long look, then smiled. She quickly averted her eyes.
“Everyone knows the rules. All gold panned on free Sundays must be turned over to El Jefe for cash payment on the same day it is obtained. No hoarding is allowed.”
Tobias knew Mateo was guilty. He’d planned to use the gold as currency to buy opium for his sick wife. In many areas of Nicaragua’s gold belt, it was regularly substituted for money. Mateo’s reason for keeping the gold wasn’t to enrich himself, only to ease his wife’s suffering.
“El Jefe is not without mercy,”
the enforcer continued.
“He has decided to spare this man’s life, but he must be punished.”
The mercenary on the leader’s left removed a pair of tin snips from his thigh pocket.
Pastor Tobias felt a second wave of nausea. “What are you doing? Stop!”
Without a word, the gunman grabbed Mateo by the hair and forced his head to the side. In a fluid motion, the gunman snipped off the upper half of Mateo’s ear. A semicircular chunk of bloody cartilage fell to the dirt. Mateo’s wife covered her mouth, stifling a scream.
With an expression of disbelief and shock, Mateo looked down at his severed flesh, fell to his knees, and howled. He pressed a hand against the wound.
Tobias tried to free himself and cried out in pain when his shoulder strained again. “You call that mercy?”
“Let him go,” the enforcer said.
Despite his injured shoulder, Tobias managed to remove his shirt while rushing over to Mateo’s side. Mateo’s hand was already covered with blood. Tobias hadn’t realized an ear could bleed so much.
“Mateo, let go of your ear. I’m going to apply pressure with my shirt.”
“I need the gold to buy my wife’s opium. She’s very sick
. . .
I’m not a bad man.”
“Bless you, Mateo. You don’t deserve this.” Tobias folded his shirt into a tight square and pressed it firmly against the wound.
The enforcer asked, “Is there something you’d like me to tell El Jefe?”
With resignation, Mateo looked up. “I’m sorry.” He lowered his head again.
“I’m certain your apology will be accepted. I trust this unfortunate
. . .
misunderstanding won’t happen again.”
“No, sir, it won’t.”
“Hold this in place,” Tobias told Mateo, then stood and squared off with the enforcer’s men and lowered his voice. “You tell your boss he won’t get away with mutilating people like this.”
“You are dangerously close to pissing me off,” said the enforcer. “Perhaps you’d like to experience the tin snips yourself.”
Tobias squinted, knowing the threat had teeth. As much as he wanted to lash out, he knew it wouldn’t do any good, and he certainly didn’t want half his ear cut off. “You will answer to God for this.” Tobias returned to Mateo’s side and turned the makeshift bandage over.
“Is that so? Then where is your God? Where? Your ignorant beliefs are poisoning the town.”
who are poisoning the town,” Tobias yelled. “You supply the miners with mercury, but you don’t teach them how to handle it safely. Mateo’s wife has severe mercury poisoning from working the mills all day. The rivers and streams in this area have fifty times the safe limit. Mateo’s wife is nearly deaf from the crushing drums. Rubber gloves and ear protection are cheap, but your greedy boss doesn’t supply them. The mill workers are exposed to mercury vapor all day long. Your boss’s mining operation is slowly killing everyone in Santavilla. You—”
“Enough! I will not debate this with you. El Jefe gives these people work and protects them. You give them nothing.”
“I give them hope, something you’ll never have.”
The enforcer narrowed his eyes. “Is that a threat?”
“It’s not a threat,” said Tobias. “Their faith gives them hope, even through savage injustices like this.”
The leader waved a hand. “Need I remind you that El Jefe has shown mercy tonight? Things could’ve been much worse. This discussion is over.” The enforcer raised the bullhorn.
“Hoarding gold will not be tolerated. I trust everyone understands the consequences now.”
Tobias told Mateo to keep pressure on his ear and approached the enforcer again. Two mercenaries crossed their rifles, blocking his path.
“I know what Macanas is doing,” Tobias whispered.
The enforcer reached for his sidearm but stopped. A twisted smile formed. “Be careful, old man.”
Then, as quickly as they’d arrived, the gunmen turned, piled into their trucks, and drove slowly out of town.
Mateo told his wife to go back inside the house.
Tobias averted his eyes while she limped through the door. Clearly, Mateo had been ratted out. There was no way Macanas could’ve known about Mateo’s secret gold stash otherwise. Tobias inwardly flinched at the thought of a snitch living among them. Someone had betrayed Mateo, and he intended to find out who it was. He had his suspicions, but being a man of God and having no proof, he needed to temper his desire to judge.
“Run to my home,” he told Antonia. “Get the hydrogen peroxide solution. It’s in the small cabinet above the sink. Grab the first-aid kit too. Here, take my flashlight.”
Antonia took the flashlight but didn’t leave until Mateo said it was okay.
Tobias helped Mateo get to his feet. “I’ll stay with you until we get your bleeding under control. The hydrogen peroxide is going to sting, but it should help to prevent an infection.”
“Thank you, pastor. You’re a kind man.”
“If only kindness could protect us. Things are only getting worse here. I’m going to ask for help.”
Mateo looked up at him, wide-eyed. “We can’t go to the police. No one else cares about us. Who is going to help?”
Tobias looked toward the receding pickups. “Someone I should’ve asked long ago.”