Created & written by Marrton Dormish
Powers: The Serial is a fictional series based on true stories. With the exception of recognized personalities, locations and institutions from the past and present, all characters and places depicted in this series are fictional.
Six-year-old Ayala Tola’s eyes fluttered open. Through the early morning mist, she glimpsed the sky. She hovered there, face-skyward, soaking in the pale blue. Most of all, she ignored the dusty ground beneath her. She imagined herself waking in the cushioned courtyard of “the palace with room for everyone” that her mother described to her and her little brother, Amare, every night before they fell asleep in each other’s arms.
A bony arm flopped onto her face. “Amare!” she scolded. She threw off her brother’s arm and rolled toward him. His eyes were closed but there was a slight grin on his face. Ayala warily turned back to the sky, but now a puffy cloud blocked her view. Amare’s arm flopped onto her again. “’Mare, qu-it!” Ayala rolled out from under the pesky arm and sat up, not in a palace courtyard lined with pillars of gold, but in an abandoned quarry dotted by piles of blankets and makeshift tents that sheltered her family’s destitute neighbors. She reached over, whimpering, and shook her mother’s shoulder, “Mami, ‘Mare whacked me!”
Amare bolted upright, “Ay! No, Mami! I din’t!”
Ayala shook harder, “Yes, he did, Mami. He did again, even though you told him not to.”
“No-ooo, I din’t!”
With her hand still shaking her mother, Ayala cast an accusing glance at Amare. “You did, too!”
She shook harder. “Mami.” Since her mother’s back was to her, Ayala thought perhaps she hadn’t heard her. She reached around and gently took her mother’s chin. Usually, when she did that her mother would pretend to bite her fingers and they would laugh. But this time, her mother’s chin felt cold. “Mami?”
Howie Jones tossed his keys next to the pile of mail and empty pizza boxes on the kitchen counter. With a deep sigh, he leaned back against the garage door. He knew his wife, Erika, was home, because her shiny maroon Volvo was parked in their three-car garage, but the house itself was dark. Before the accident, he would have called out, “I’m home!” But LJ wasn’t home, and his nearly grown daughter was the only one who seemed to care any more whether he was there or not.
Howie didn’t mind the dark. Somehow it made the day of the accident seem less real. It hid the fact that his wife had become a part-time recluse. When she wasn’t stubbornly keeping her counseling appointments four days a week, against the advice of her partners, Erika was in the master bedroom, under the comforter on their king-sized bed. She hadn’t even been to church in six weeks, and she never missed church.
He ghosted to the refrigerator, squinting from the light when he opened it. LJ had been doing the grocery shopping, so the fridge was full of salad, vegetables and V-8. Howie wrinkled his nose. Ever since he’d thawed the last elk steak in the freezer and drank his last beer earlier in the week, he’d been going hungry. Erika and LJ both liked to cook, but since LJ worked most nights at the nursing home and Erika hadn’t been herself during her pseudo-recuperation, he’d been forced to scrounge up dinners for himself. Howie felt vaguely guilty for not wanting to cook—something he’d done very little of since his bachelor days just out of college—but the idea of having to make dinner or even mix a salad made him feel so tired that he’d taken to having pizza delivered instead. He let the refrigerator door shut. His hand slid into the inside pocket of his overcoat for his cell phone. He had the closest BlackJack Pizza on speed dial.
Before he could dial, his phone vibrated. Its screen glowed, “New text message.” He pushed a few buttons and saw a message from LJ. “Hey Daddy-o! Get the Highlander back today? Hope its better than new! Salad and low-cal casserole in the fridge for you and Mom. Watch a MASH rerun with me after I get home from work? TTFN.”
Howie slowly texted back. “Yep. Good as new. About time. Will make sure your mom gets dinner. Im turning in early tonight. Sorry. What the heck does TTFN mean?”
LJ’s reply arrived in seconds. “Daddy you are so cute. ‘Ta ta for now.’ TTFN.”
Howie had lost track of the number of times his only child had made him smile since the day he found out Erika was pregnant 17 years earlier. But in the six weeks since he had totaled his brand new Highlander while speeding to meet Erika at the emergency room, and ever since LJ had taken his place at Erika’s side before and after her “procedure,” Howie hadn’t been able to feel much of anything, let alone smile at a text message from his daughter.
He flipped on the kitchen light and picked up the pile of bills and junk mail on the counter. The torn shreds of an envelope fluttered to the floor. When he bent to pick them up, he noticed a familiar logo and the word “Hospital.” On another, he read “Dilation and Curettage (D&C)/17 weeks of pregnancy.”
Holding those shreds of paper took Howie back to the edge of Erika’s hospital bed.
She wouldn’t look at him. He couldn’t speak.
He’d been giving a presentation when she’d called that afternoon, worried about unusual bleeding, but he’d gotten busy and forgotten to check his message. He hadn’t answered when she called again, because he was in the middle of an informal conference with his boss. He had five new voicemails when he got into his new Highlander to drive home from work. “Howie,” Erika had said in the second message. “LJ is meeting me at the E.R. I think I’m miscarrying. Come as soon as you can.”
He peeled out of his downtown Denver parking garage and ran every light until he’d collided with the left rear of the jet black BMW. Erika had just forced LJ to visit the hospital cafeteria when Howie finally arrived.
Erika was the one who finally broke their silence. “I didn’t even get to hold him. They took him away while I was still under anesthesia.”
In her six years with Archer, Gregg and Purnell, Courtney Adams had climbed the proverbial ladder two steps at a time. During law school at NYU, she interned in AGP’s Global Financial Services department. After she graduated summa cum laude, she joined and within four years became the deputy director of the Financial Audit department, headquartered in downtown Denver. Her name and photo regularly appeared in the “Who’s Who” and “Up-and-Coming” sections of the local business journal. She also regularly rubbed shoulders with AGP’s managing partners and got chosen to wine-and-dine Fortune 500 clients.
Courtney reveled in the attention she got, in the authority she exercised, and in her proximity to power. Yet she knew what people said about her—she only got hired because her great uncle was the original “Archer” in Archer, Gregg and Purnell; she only rocketed up the Financial Audit ladder because she was pretty and engaging and the partners needed some “eye candy” to maintain and win contracts with big businesses.
Once, while getting a drink of water outside the men’s bathroom, she had accidentally overheard a conversation between two of her male employees, both of who were fresh out of law school. One had said, “Can you believe how hot our boss is?” “Yeah, Ms. Adams is smokin’ hot for a tax attorney.” “Dude, she’s hot for a supermodel.”
At first, Courtney felt conflicted by what they said. She knew how to play the role of the ditzy, attractive girl, and sometimes actually enjoyed it, like she had on New Year’s Eve in Breckenridge when she had accidentally met her new boyfriend, Michael Airdrie. He seemed to like her that way.
But at work she wanted to be taken seriously, so she quietly had both of the bathroom culprits transferred. When the partners took her for granted, however, she could only work harder to prove she belonged, all while being on call to charm venerable clients like Cronus Corp., even though she privately believed its iconic CEO, Sam Cronus, to be a dirty old man.
Her one great coup was landing the responsibility for conducting audits of part of Cronus Corp.’s portfolio. She knew she was good at what she did, but she wanted more than anything to prove that to the partners. In fact, after she’d found the subtle discrepancies in Cronus’s complex web of accounts, she realized, belatedly, that she was probably too good at her job. She loved numbers because they never lied and they never treated her like an object. Still, she knew she needed irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Cronus to even approach the partners with her discovery. So Courtney dug deeper. She followed the clues, comparing Cronus’s official books with her own quiet inquiries, especially regarding accounts linked to Cronus’s 401(k) and pension funds for employees. At least she assumed her inquiries were quiet, and that no one else knew what she knew, or at least what she strongly suspected.
After she’d started dating Michael, who worked at some hush-hush government agency he never talked about, she’d considered but ultimately decided against confiding in him, since that would mean playing fast and loose with attorney-client privilege. Anyway, Courtney liked being a different person with her boyfriend. So she lived two lives — by-the-book, hard-working professional (when she was allowed to be) at AGP, and bubbly flirt when she was out on the town with Michael.
Then one night Courtney realized she was being followed.
“I guess this is what it’s like to live in a war zone, Rosa,” said Sister Abigail to her companion. “The people will not let the cartels rob them of this.”
She spread her arms toward the busy stalls lining the outdoor mercado, or market, not far from their Juarez, Mexico convent. Boys chased each other in and out of the stalls. Mothers with babies in their arms haggled loudly with vendors. Abigail had a smile for everyone as she zigzagged her way across the narrow street. She pinched a small cheek, hugged a young mother and cooed at her baby.
In spite of her preoccupation with her old boyfriend’s emails and her subsequent, very generic response under the direction of Mother Sofia, Sister Rosa Avana Paredes smiled. She was content to soak in the joy Abigail left in her wake. “Abigail, I think your charism, your spiritual gift, is making people smile.”
“You really think so, Rosa?” Sister Abigail beamed. “What a wonderful thing to say!”
She wrapped her arm around Rosa’s shoulder. When they were outside the convent walls, Abigail insisted Rosa call her by her first name, even though Abigail was known to be the most likely choice to take over when Mother Sofia retired.
“I just love the mercado, Rosa, don’t you?”
They followed their noses to a stall with freshly baked bread, where Abigail promptly ordered 100 loaves to be delivered to the convent by siesta. Then they approached a vegetable and fruit stand. While Abigail haggled over the price of some red chíles, Rosa wandered over to an open gate behind the vendors. Inside, a group of women bustled around a courtyard setting up decorations for what looked like a quinsiniera, a birthday party for a girl turning 15. While the women worked, a group of a dozen or so young men debated the contents of a newspaper article, and a few of their elders sat in the shade smoking their pipes while they watched a group of kids kick around a “fútbol.”
Rosa smiled as she remembered her own quinsiniera. Her family had still been intact then. Her father, mother and big brother Ernesto had been so proud, and she had preened herself and posed for hours in her fancy white dress.
Rico had been there, too. Before her quinsiniera, her brother’s best friend had called her “La Mosca,” “The Fly,” because she always wanted to be included in their plans. After her quinceañera, Rico started calling her “Linda,” “Beautiful.” She still remembered him staring at her with those dark eyes of his.
Better not to think about that, Rosa thought. She lowered her head and turned toward the vegetable stall.
She turned right into the solid chest of a man wearing an unbuttoned sky blue shirt over a white tank top T-shirt. He grabbed her arms and whispered urgently, “Rosa! Linda! You cannot be here! ¡Vete afuera! Get out of here!”
Rosa knew that voice. To her shame, she knew the muscled chest. She raised her eyes and met Rico’s. Despite the hard, cruel lines around his eyes, he looked scared. Rosa froze in a tangle of emotion.
Over Rico’s shoulder, Rosa saw Abigail drop the red chíle in her hand, pick up the skirt of her habit and run toward her, shouting, “¡Oye, Señor! ¡Dejale en paz!” “Hey, you! Leave her alone!”
Suddenly, gunfire drowned out the buzz of the market. Screams from the crowded mercado nearly drowned out the gunfire. People scattered in panic.
In one motion, Rico threw Rosa to the ground, crouched and drew a silver 9mm Beretta from the back of his pants.
Abigail had nearly reached her when two bullets tore through her habit from behind. Blood blossomed from Abigail’s mouth, and she fell onto Rosa with her arms spread wide.
“Noooo!” Rosa cried in terror. “Abigail!”
Rico fired one, two, three, four, five, six deafening shots into the courtyard behind the nuns. With a glance at Rosa, he darted for cover on the other side of the gates.
Her face covered with Abigail’s blood, Rosa scrambled up and desperately dragged her sister out of the line of fire.
“Oh, God! Dear God, help us!”
From the back of a small beige pickup, three men with AK-47s sprayed the courtyard with bullets.
Then, as quickly as it began, the firing stopped. Moans from inside the courtyard drifted into the street.
Rico sprang up. “¡Idiotas!” he raged at the men in the truck. “You idiots! I told you to wait!” He pointed at Abigail’s crumpled form. “That is not revenge! That is not what El Jefe ordered.”
The satisfied grins of the gunmen vanished. “I should kill you all right now and leave your bodies to rot with the rest of them!” Rico gestured to the carnage inside the courtyard.
He knelt in the street, and, still holding the Beretta, he raked his hands through his hair. He turned toward the nuns.
“I swear, Rosa, I didn’t know you were even in Juarez. I didn’t know you would be here. That the Sister would be here. Ernesto’s killer, one of them, was here. This was for Ernesto!” He replaced the Beretta in the back of his pants. On hands and knees he crawled to them. He looked at Abigail in horror. “I will burn in hell for this.”
Abigail’s eyes had already begun to glaze over. “Rosa? ¿Es-tás…bi-en? Are you okay?”
“Yes, Sister! Yes, I’m fine!” Rosa tried to wipe the blood off her face, but only succeeded in smearing it.
Sirens wailed in the distance. “Abigail! Help is coming! Don’t worry! Don’t worry! You will be fine!”
Abigail winced in pain. “It…hurts.”
Rosa cradled Abigail in her arms and wept.
Rico whispered to her, “Rosa, she needs a priest.”
“No, you need a priest, you monster!”
“Rico! We need to go!” urged the men in the truck.
“I wanted to see you again, so bad, Rosa, but not like this,” Rico rasped, his throat tight with despair. “Not like this…I…I keep a copy of your e-mail in my pocket.” He pulled a neatly folded piece of white paper from his pocket, and dropped it onto the dirt next to Rosa. With a last glance at the bent black habits of the two nuns, Rico ran to the truck and hopped in the cab. “Drive!” he ordered.
“Rosa,” whispered Abigail. “Help…the wounded.”
“You are wounded, Abigail!”
“No…I am…finished. Pray…with…me…Rosa. Pray…me…into…His arms.”
“Our Father, who art in heaven,” wept Rosa, reciting the familiar words with Abigail, whose voice got softer and softer. Finally it trailed off altogether as she took her last breath. Rosa sobbed out the end for her sister, “And lead us…not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…For Thine is the kingdom…and the power and the glory…World without end.”
After not having set foot in his hometown for more than six years, Nathan Patrick had gotten to spend 12 continuous weeks there under the auspices of what his editor, George Lindsey, called a “working sabbatical.”
“You mean an unpaid sabbatical?” Nathan argued.
“Be thankful that you can have a few months to get your head straight. That’s your job right now. Stay in Denver. We’ll pay for your counseling, as long as it’s a reasonable rate, but we won’t be able to pay your salary while you’re not on the job. And we can’t get you back covering stories until you’re cleared by a counselor.”
“Gee, thanks, George. Remind me to lie about the crap I see next time.”
“Hey, this is a helluva busy time for news people, Patrick. The Middle East and North Africa are going up in flames and we have to be able to allocate our resources accordingly.”
“Is that all I am to you, George? A resource?”
“Very funny. Just get right so I can get you back out there.”
After 10 weeks of intensive counseling, three times a week, Nathan for one considered himself well. He wasn’t so sure about his counselor, though. It’s not that she was incompetent. Far from it. He’d actually cried twice in front of her, and he hadn’t cried since he was a kid. It was more that he sensed Erika Jones, MA, CPC, needed to talk to someone herself about whatever it was that was bothering her.
What Nathan wasn’t ready to do yet, was leave town while things were heating up with Avery. Since he didn’t have much else to do in between counseling appointments, and since he certainly didn’t want to let his mother know he was still in town—even though he was staying in the Washington Park townhome she had thankfully insisted on maintaining—Nathan started attending Avery’s classes at Denver College. His favorite class was “Development Practice,” the first one he’d visited back in January.
When he first slipped into the back of her class he’d only wanted to surprise her, but he’d learned so much since then that he started taking notes on her lectures and class discussions. After they learned he was a reporter and rarely missed recording important stats, quotes and ideas verbatim, some of Avery’s students had even asked to borrow his notes. He felt like a visiting scholar or something.
To Avery’s credit, she didn’t feel threatened by him being there. In fact, she enjoyed the dynamic he brought to the class enough to invite him to be a “guest” speaker and facilitate the discussion for a class period.
His presentation was on “Development and the Media.” He had some jitters going in, but the students made it easy. They were passionate and observant and asked great questions, and he was honest and expansive with his answers.
After the class ended and he and Avery were alone, he couldn’t help but beam at her. “That was amazing, Avery.”
“I have some pretty great students, don’t I?”
“Actually, I meant to say, ‘I was amazing, wasn’t I?’”
“You were okay, I guess,” Avery said with a shrug. “I mean I’ve had four or five other world-class foreign correspondents speak to my class, so it’s getting kind of old…”
“Aha! You said, and I quote, “other,” meaning you admit I’m world-class.”
“Oops! It was a slip of the tongue.”
His iPhone buzzed once, twice, three times. “Hey, George is buzzing me. I thought he forgot about me.” The message read, “Call me. ASAP.”
“Do you mind if I call him really quick, Prof?”
“Sure, go ahead,” she said, flipping open her own mobile. “I’ll call for a reservation at Simm’s while you’re talking with him.”
Nathan walked toward the lecture hall’s window as he speed-dialed George, who picked up on the first ring.
“Patrick, that you?”
“I think so. What’s up?”
“You are booked on the next flight out of Denver direct to Juarez, Mexico.”
He looked out at the manicured early spring grass surrounded by stately red brick buildings on the quad, and imagined dirt streets and rows of tightly packed shacks.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“You mean, I’m cleared?”
“Yep, you’re cleared.”
“Erika cleared me?”
“Well, I actually haven’t been able to get a hold of her yet, but I’m assuming 10 weeks of therapy should have smoothed your rough edges.”
“I’m not sure what to say.”
“You could ask why you’re going to Juarez.”
“Why am I going to Juarez?”
“Just confirmed via our wire services that there’s been a massacre there. Twenty-four people killed, including seven women, six children, and a nun for God’s sake. Looks like she was actually targeted by the cartel.”
“So what do you want me to do if the wire is already reporting it?”
“We need to go deeper than we have ‘til now. We want you to get inside and interview the perpetrators, and the cartel’s leadership if you can.”
Having successfully made reservations for two at Simm’s Landing, which overlooked the Denver skyline, Avery sidled up next to him. He looked at her apologetically. She frowned, “I don’t like that look.”
Nathan held up his index finger and whispered, “One sec.”
“How am I going to do that, George? Just show up at the airport with a sign that says, ‘Need to speak with El Jefe’?”
“Very funny. We’re working our contacts. Should have something for you by the time you get there.”
“Alright, then. I’ll pack my toothbrush.”
“Listen, Patrick. I hadn’t wanted to throw you back into the fire like this, but we just don’t have anyone else that’s close enough to send, and we want to beat the networks on this.”
“I know the drill.”
“I’ll have someone text you your flight number, hotel info and all that.”
“Be careful, Patrick.”
“You know me, boss.”
“That’s why I said to be careful.” The phone went dead.
“Ah, well, crap.”
“What?” asked Avery.
“I’m going to Juarez.”
“There’s been a shooting. Couple dozen killed including some kids and a nun.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah, they want me to poke around a bit.”
“Nate, that’s probably the most dangerous city on earth right now.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“I mean it, Nate,” said Avery, taking his arm. “You do not want to mess with the cartels.”
“Thank you for your concern, Professor Cohen-Tate. Wow, that’s quite a mouthful.”
“Ha, ha. You’re sure you have to go?” She laid her head on his shoulder.
Nate nodded. “Sorry you won’t be able to take me out to Simm’s Landing.”
Avery pushed him away and punched him on the shoulder. “Hey, buddy, it’s your turn to pay! When you get back, you owe me dinner at Simm’s.”
“Okay, okay. Hey, Prof, can you give me a ride to the airport?”
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