Rise of Faust, Book 1
One way or another, I will keep her safe.
I know the struggle of running to survive. It’s not a battle I would wish on my worst enemy, much less a beauty like Brianna. All she wants it’s freedom, and I’m prepared to help no matter the cost.
Heavily guarded checkpoints stand between us and escape, and the wolves of war are circling. More than ever I need to be sharp and on full alert. I can’t risk the intoxicating distraction of her lips on mine, yet my body aches for her.
With danger closing in from all sides, I’m faced with an impossible choice. Do we run, knowing the pursuit may never end? Or is it time to make our final stand?
Despite the broken beer bottles, the chair swinging over someone’s head, and the guy with the machete, a chill runs down my back when I see what’s at the door.
The man fills the doorway like night incarnate, dressed in black from head to foot. Two ball bearings hewn from the depths of a morgue scan the room from behind the balaclava covering his face.
“Ho-ly shit,” Harlan says from beside me, as he shoves a shell into his shotgun.
“Pops always said you were the bright one,” I toss over my shoulder.
I play it safe and point the shotgun in the air. We don’t need his kind of trouble on top of everything else going on.
I blink, and he turns to the group fighting in the far corner.
A laser-guided punch smashes one’s throat, and he turns his head, marking his next target, before delivering a sweeping back kick to the other’s knee. In the same movement, he rights himself, squaring off and facing the downed, struggling man. His right leg is raised parallel to his body before he drives his heel like a hammer into the diaphragm. Two of the threats are on the floor coughing or gasping for air.
The guy with the machete finally reacts, charging in with the blade overhead. The man in black flicks his eyes from the floor to the new threat and, in one bound, closes the gap between them. As the machete comes down, he intercepts, catching the guy at the wrist with his right hand then pivots on his left foot, torques the wrist down and pushes the guy’s head into a table.
The man in black pulls the weapon from the limp hand. He palms the handle, studying the blade then runs the tip along the attacker’s jawline. The room goes silent.
“You were going to kill me with this?” he asks, as if he’s surprised the guy’s got the cojones to try.
Silence stretches out until they start shuffling their feet. Will there be blood, or anything else, on the floor? These guys can be aggressive, and tempers flare with little provocation. Some of them work in the jungle, so we’ve had to deal with more than one machete fight.
“I asked you a question.” He takes two menacing steps forward until he’s in the shorter man’s face. The blade is still dangerously close to the guy’s neck.
“N-no.” The smaller man retreats. “I was trying to defend myself. Thought you was one o’ them.” He nods towards a couple of guys passing through town in a large transport truck. “The mouthy one started trouble, but when his partner jumped in all hell broke loose.”
“Get out.” The man in black drops the machete to the floor. “Oh, and sharpen your tool”—he moves to the others—“before you give someone tetanus.” You two—clean this shit up and get the fuck out of here.” He nods to a guy holding his throat, still coughing and gagging.
The men jump, struggling to follow his instructions.
Looks like I may not need to use the shotgun. Which means I won’t be fixing the damn ceiling, avoiding having to explain our two smuggled guns to anyone who walks in—especially our “lawman.”
“How the hell…” Harlan’s mouth drops open.
Wish I knew, and wish I had his presence. But we came here, to a spot on a road through the rain forest, to hide from the world. Guyana certainly isn’t what Pops described. And holy hell, we’ve come to regret it.
The man in black opens and closes his coat and moves his neck and shoulders before folding his arms, supervising the man straightening the furniture while the other two head for the door. I lay the shotgun across the bar, waiting to see what happens next.
“Well I’m glad to see everyone’s alive and well,” a new man says from the door.
An American. Who else would have the audacity to be running around in this heat, wearing a clearly tailor-made suit? What’s worse, the guy hasn’t even broken a sweat.
“Another one?” Harlan mutters. While he’s great with numbers, his book smarts have yet to teach him to keep his mouth under control.
I put a hand to the barrel of his shotgun, making sure to point it away from the brawl. The last thing we need is to shed blood after everything the man in black did to deescalate the situation.
The suit approaches us, with a self-assured step. Pulling off expensive sunglasses, he comes straight to me, reaching out a hand. “Dante.”
I don’t take his hand immediately. My mind is racing. What’s he doing here? Is he coming for Harlan? Or for me, for helping my brother?
But Dante doesn’t pull his hand back. In fact, the corner of his mouth pulls into a smile, enough to set one at ease. It’s a good tactic, something I learned during the short time I was a lawyer. That, along with using silence. Most people will start talking because they don’t like an uncomfortable silence. Sometimes the problem is getting them to stop. They feel the need to say something, anything, and spill their guts in the process. If only some of my clients had listened.
Saliva’s pooling around my tongue. What the hell, better to know than to live with uncertainty. I reach out and take Dante’s hand. “Kristoff,” I reply.
Dante’s handshake is firm and sure. My guess is he’s a businessman, though I haven’t a clue what the term means now. We’re in the rain forest, in a village without even a single cross street. The suit he’s wearing probably cost more than what I paid for the bar.
“Can we talk? Somewhere private.”
He’s dismissive yet aware of what’s happening behind him. Self-assured but not overbearing. My gut tells me he’s as dangerous as his partner, only in a different way. I used to defend people like this pair when I practiced. Though I can’t help but feel these two figures would have never been caught, and those kinds of figures could get me killed.
I turn to Harlan. “Keep an eye out for Gerald.” Gerald Vita owns this town, as best as can be described, thanks to Faust. In the U.S. he’d be the mayor, the police chief, the beat cop, the investigator, the judge and jury. In other words, the worst kind of slimy urologist. The last thing I need is for him to come poking around for any reason.
I usher Dante down the narrow hallway to my office. Every time I walk through here I’m conscious of the boards warping at the corners and the light filtering through at the top of the back door.
I grasp the doorknob to the office, getting a weak click when I try to turn it in either direction. Knocking twice, I call out to Celia, “Open the door.” Our cook and part-time bartender complies. “It’s safe.”
“What happened?” she asks, barely above a whisper.
“Everything’s under control,” I assure her. “Go join Harlan up front, while I have a quick meeting.”
She checks behind me, studying Dante apprehensively before lowering her gaze and going around us.
Dante follows me. “Have a seat,” I offer, before walking behind the improvised desk. It’s a thick wooden table with a metal sheet running around the sides and front. Harlan and I took the time to knock out as many dents as we could, but the metal’s taken a lot of kicks and scrapes over the years.
Most disturbing is the green chair behind my desk. The back sits above the desktop, prominently displaying a curious tear at its center. What’s more disturbing is the notch in the middle of the wood. I’ve wondered if the person seated at the time survived.
While I could replace the chair, or recover the back, I keep it around as a reminder to stay vigilant.
I put my hand to my chest as I’m taking a seat. After years of wearing suits I’m conditioned to putting a hand to my chest while sitting. I thought I’d worked through those habits, but apparently they’re ingrained deeper than I expected. Having a man in a suit show up sent me back to the life I left behind. As I recline into the back a splinter digs in between my shoulders.
“How can I help you, Mr….?” I open, getting straight to the point.
“Dante,” he simply provides. “I’m searching for the person managing the pipeline through the region.”
A hollow grows in my chest as I roll my chair closer to the desk. “I’m afraid I can’t provide the kind of information you’re looking for,” I reply, trying to stay as neutral as possible.
His gaze runs over me, assessing my expression and body language. I used to do the same thing, and I pointed out what to look for when I prepared clients for cross examinations.
“With you being the owner and proprietor of the only bar in the region,” he says, completely relaxed. “I find it hard to believe something happens here you aren’t aware of.”
An excellent observation on his part. “I make it a point to mind my own business.”
“I understand,” Dante replies. “In some circumstances, it extends one’s life expectancy.”
Oh hell. “Yes, it can.” A sliver of fear cuts through me. Does he mean in general? Or is he referring to us?
“Who would you recommend I speak to?” he asks, changing his tack.
What a loaded question. The person I should send them to is the one I’d least like to talk to. “Gerald Vita.”
“And he is?”
Again, I get the feeling this man knows more than he’s letting on. “Some might call him our community representative.”
He’s thoughtful for a moment. “I’ll be frank, I’m not looking for a representative, or the flunky put in place to report back to Faust.”
He’s familiar with the Faust organization. While they’re small, his people are brutal, stamping out anyone in their way to maintain control.
“I’m looking for the person who can manage logistics for the area. This person, or persons, stand to make a lot of money by pairing with the right organization.”
I swallow hard. He made quite an entrance. Is he looking to take over? I can’t see things going well with the way Faust’s been entrenched in this area for so many decades.
While I knew we were coming to the middle of nowhere, I’d expected some sort of a township. The way Pops remembered it, at one point this was more of a German town. I expected we’d be within distance of restaurants and cafes, movie theaters, bars, and every other creature comfort we could find back home. Only on a smaller scale. Whatever this place may have been when he was younger, it’s not that now.
The door opens, and Harlan leads in the man in black. With the balaclava gone, I can see the hard angles on the man’s face. His mouth is set in an uncompromising line. He undoes his jacket, and closer inspection shows a harness with two knives, four magazines, a pistol, and God knows what in his tactical pants. He carries enough firepower to wipe out this entire town. Yet he never had to pull his weapons.
Again, I return to the thought of presence. I wouldn’t expect a man like him to accept anything other than complete obedience.
“Perhaps Harlan might provide a bit more information?” Dante questions.
The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. Did I say Harlan’s name in front of Dante? If not, who has he been talking to?
“What about me?” Harlan asks, his gaze going from me to Dante and back.
“I’m interested in who sets up the freight trucks going through,” he repeats.
Harland straightens his shoulders. “Mister, I mind my own business.”
I exhale, relief flowing through me at his answer. Dante glances at his partner, ratcheting the tension in the room, before he continues.
“I suppose you couldn’t tell me who I could speak to, either.”
“No,” Harlan replies. “And if you knew anything about the village you’d mind your own business too.”
Would it be too much to ask for him to stop at no?
“I made it my business to learn about what happens here.” Dante pauses. “Which is why I’m here to speak to you, in hopes of bringing you into our organization.”
Harlan loses some of the color in his face.
“I’m not looking to cause any trouble for either of you.” Dante assures. “I’m aware of the issues you had, and trouble is the last thing you need. But if I can find you, others can also.”
For once I’m at a loss for words.
The sliver of fear is turning into a wedge as I clear my throat. “I’m not sure what you think you know, but—”
“I know,” Dante emphasizes, “you weren’t Harlan and Kristoff when you lived in the States.”
That right there is enough to shut both of us up.
“Harlan, I know you’re here because you ran with the wrong people. Then, when you tried to do the right thing, you were nearly burned alive by the people you worked with.”
Harlan rotates his left shoulder ever so slightly.
“I also know your brother will go to the ends of the Earth for you.” He turns to me. “And your grandfather, may he rest in peace, inadvertently sent you to this little slice of hell.”
The reality of the situation lands in my stomach like a pair of cement loafers.
“We could take care of your problem back home.” He nods toward his partner. “But there’s always the possibility of the unknown.” His partner nods in return. “You’re better off here, in a place where any newcomer stands out.”
Somehow his agreeing with my original observation bothers me.
“Which is why I’ll keep this visit brief. I need the lane cutting through to the coast. I don’t care about the product coming through, or what their men use to keep going.”
What they “use”? This guy’s done his research.
“I want the logistics. And I’m willing to pay for the service.” Dante stands, pulling a thick envelope from his jacket. “I’ll leave you this, for your time.” He sets the package on the desk and turns toward the door.
All I can do is stare. Judging by the size of the stack, however much he’s willing to pay for the lane has to be a frightening amount.
Dante pauses at the door. “If anyone asks, we talked about your liquor supply. And you chose to stay with your current supplier.”
I nod. “Why us?” I can’t help but ask.
“You managed to coordinate logistics to get liquor and supplies to a place you can’t find on a map, while factions are fighting for the territory. You have enough tact to work with the local lawman despite the fact he’s had a stranglehold on the area for years. And, most importantly, you did all this while hiding in plain sight. “You’re a planner, an organizer, and a negotiator,” he ticks off. “Given the right circumstances, you can build the kind of power that could insulate you from any threat.” He puts on his sunglasses. “You just need the right foundation.”