Ariela woke to a coldness that told her that the fire in the wood stove had gone out. It wasn’t the first time that she’d slept straight through the night and let the fire go out in the last few weeks. She breathed out heavily watching the fog from her breath disappear into the cold air of her little bedroom.
“I wonder how cold it got in here last night,” she mumbled to no one in particular.
Despite everything that was happening, Ariela had been sleeping well. She was working hard during the day and often late into the evening. She was frequently so tired by the time she reached her small house at night that she went directly to bed. Helping her cousin, Enrique, was wearing on her. Usually Ariela could manage four solid hours of sleep no matter what the conditions. It was a skill she had learned as a Marine. Sleep and eat when you can. You don’t know when you’ll have a chance to do either again.
Enrique was becoming more and more of a problem. Ariela believed that Enrique, in his heart-of-hearts, was entirely beyond redemption. He was selfish, depraved and corrupt in every way imaginable. Every day Ariela regretted her decision to help him manage the National Guard armory.
They had an agreement – Enrique and Ariela – that she would help him as long as he didn’t lie to her. Ariela was sure that Enrique had lied to her. She could see it in his eyes. She couldn’t prove it, though. A woman of her word, Ariela was hesitant to break her promise without absolute proof of Enrique’s deceit.
“Perhaps Uncle Fernando would advise me,” Ariela thought as the slipped out of her sleeping bag and slid her feet onto the cold, oak floor next to her bed.
Enrique was Fernando Hernandez’s oldest son, but Ariela knew that he was something of a disappointment to his father. What Ariela couldn’t figure out is why Fernando had entrusted Enrique, who had never proven himself even remotely reliable, with the monumental task of managing all the armory’s resources. The conundrum worried her more than a little.
Ariela had grown close to her uncle Fernando – technically Fernando was a third or fourth cousin, Ariela wasn’t exactly sure of the number – over the years. He had taken her under his wing when her father left and Ariela always felt that she had been something of a favorite among her innumerable cousins.
Going to Fernando to discuss breaking her agreement with his oldest son might be pushing things, though, Ariela reasoned. She would have to make this decision on her own … and live with the consequences.
As Ariela shuffled to her tiny living room to fire up the wood stove, she considered her choices.
Continuing to help Enrique was almost out of the question. Just being around Enrique made Ariela’s skin crawl. Not only was he a worthless human being but his physical advances were growing in intensity.
Breaking her agreement with Enrique would most likely have dire consequences, however.
“What if ….” Another thought came to Ariela. She couldn’t believe it had even entered her head.
“What if Enrique was to have an ‘accident’,” Ariela murmured quietly.
Ariela’s sharp, military mind began to turn over the possibility to consider it from all sides.
An accident was not all that unlikely. Fernando currently had Enrique preparing to attack a group of survivors several miles to the east. From what Ariela could ascertain, they had taken out one of the eastern outposts – the one that had not responded to radio contact for several days – and tortured the sons of Fernando’s sister, Marta, eventually killing the older boy and his mother.
Ariela knew Marta well – she was a venomous snake of a woman – but could not picture her two boys. Supposedly, the younger boy, Daniel, had somehow escaped and made it back to town.
Ariela looked vacantly at her cold oatmeal. Perhaps she could use Daniel somehow to orchestrate Enrique’s accident.
If Enrique fell victim to an accident, Ariela rationalized, the resources of the National Guard unit would naturally fall to her as second-in-command – unless Fernando suspected that she had a hand in Enrique’s death.
“Somehow, I must have no connection,” Ariela barely tasted the cold gruel as it crossed her lips. “Somehow, I must be nowhere near Enrique when he is killed.”
Ariela pushed the problem of Enrique’s death into what she liked to refer to as her co-processor. She had always been very good at multi-tasking. Ariela would often visualize pushing a problem or a question into a special compartment of her brain and frequently wake up the following day with a solution. She had been able to do this as long as she could remember. More often than not, the solution had come to her during her morning shower in the old days. Now that morning showers were pretty much a thing of the past, the solutions would often come as she walked to the armory.
“How fitting,” Ariela thought and smiled. Ariela thoroughly enjoyed irony. The walk to the armory was enjoyable despite the cold.
“Ariela, get over here! We have to get ready.” Enrique shouted.
“Ready for what?” Ariela asked.
“We’re going to attack those bastards that killed Marta and Ricky tomorrow!” Enrique was literally writhing with excitement.
Ariela’s skin started to crawl again.
“What do you need me to do?” Ariela remained calm.
“Help us plan the attack,” Enrique said simply as if Ariela should have read his mind.
Enrique showed Ariela hand-drawn maps based on information from Daniel, Marta’s surviving son. It appeared that they would be attacking a farm in the eastern half of the next county that sat low in a valley, obscured by trees.
The more Ariela studied the map the less she liked what she saw.
The dense trees indicated on the map made attack by vehicle nearly impossible. They would either have to expose themselves for nearly a half mile if they approached from the east or run straight down a fatal funnel of a driveway if they approached from the west. Vehicular approach from either the north or the south seemed impossible due to the density of the tree cover.
Daniel had noted that there were numerous defenses in place. Tangle wire. Booby traps. Security cameras. Military firearms. Observation posts. It was as if these people expected to be attacked.
Ariela didn’t like this one bit. Normally, military advantage went to the high ground. There were other factors, however, that could provide just as much – maybe more – advantage. Whoever these people were, they seemed to have made the most of their surroundings.
“Enrique, these people are ready for an attack,” Ariela began. “Look how the trees give them natural protection. Look at all of the defenses that Daniel has noted.”
“They killed Marta,” Enrique was in a panic.
“OK, I get it,” Ariela kept her voice low and calm. “We are duty-bound to avenge her death. Do you want to die in the process?”
Enrique’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head as he waved his hands. “What about all this … this National Guard stuff?”
“The ‘stuff’ is nice,” Ariela agreed, sarcasm in her voice, “but we need people who know how to use it … and understand military tactics.”
“That’s why you’re here!” Enrique screamed.
“I need some time to think,” Ariela was ready to snap Enrique’s fat neck.
“We don’t have any time,” Enrique continued on his tirade.
“If we rush in without a good plan, we’ll just end up dead,” Ariela stepped closer to Enrique.
Enrique stepped back reflexively. He’d never seen a look on Ariela’s face like the one she had just given him.
“Enrique, here’s what I’m going to do,” Ariela began. “I’m going to take these maps and notes back to my house and review them. I’ll come back tomorrow with a plan. In the mean time, I want you to get everyone together and start getting ready for … for a war. That’s what this is going to be.”
Ariela quickly wrote down a list of tasks that filled an entire page.
“Make sure all of this is done by the time I get back here tomorrow,” Ariela ordered. “I’ll be back around Noon. We’ll review the plans with the crew and then mount up after dark. Our best chance will be to hit them early in the morning while they’re still, hopefully, asleep.”
Ariela snatched up the map and notes and stalked out of the armory leaving Enrique with his mouth agape. She had little hope that the well-prepared band of people they were about to attack could be caught unaware.
“That little bruja …” Enrique was furious. “Who does she think she is ordering me around?”
Nevertheless, Enrique quickly assigned tasks to the 40 or so gang members hanging around the armory. Ariela’s list was long and even with 40 people working all night Enrique wasn’t sure they could get everything done by Noon the following day.
Ariela took her time walking back to her little house. The air was fresh and it helped her think. Not only did she have to come up with a battle plan … she had to come up with one that would get Enrique killed and keep her alive.
Ariela had made her choice. Enrique would die in battle.