Descent Into Madness
Fernando Hernandez had vacillated from nearly manic to more or less clinically depressed for more than a week. Ariela wasn’t sure how much more she could take. Normally, her uncle Fernando kept a very even keel. His erratic behavior since the bombing of the armory and the loss of his sons was so far out of character that Ariela wasn’t sure what to do. Even when Fernando’s wife passed away, he was so very stoic. Ariela never saw him cry. He barely stopped working for the funeral. Someone else had made all the arrangements.
“What could possibly have pushed him over the top?” Ariela wondered.
Fernando could see how Ariela looked at him – the pity, the disillusionment, the derision. She could not possibly understand. She had no way of knowing what he was going through.
Fernando had never tasted serious defeat. The bombing of the armory, the loss of his sons was something new and wholly unprecedented. He couldn’t shake the feelings of dread … of hatred … of loss. It wasn’t the loss of his sons that bothered him the most. It was … the gnawing away at his source of power. First, it was the loss of his financial empire as the American economy nose-dived into the ground. After that, it had been the loss of his outpost … and his sister along with it. Most recently, the loss of his armory and, yes, his sons …. Three major defeats in as many months. This was the final straw!
Fernando had been reduced to a sobbing shadow of his former self. His beautiful niece, Ariela, had found him that way – sobbing in his office, his head in his hands, defeated – adding insult to injury. He hated her for that.
Occasionally, Fernando would look across the room at Ariela and see how beautiful she was, how intelligent, how skilled and how strong. It was as if the sun had broken through heavy rain clouds. The day would brighten. Ariela’s eyes would glisten like raindrops on blades of spring grass and Fernando’s heart would soar. She was his hope! She was his savior! She would bring his empire back from the precipice!
Then, Ariela would disappear from sight and Fernando’s soul would shrivel. The storm clouds would roll back over his life and his loathing and self-doubt would return. His hatred for Ariela would return too. Who was she to question his abilities with her haughty thoughts? Who was she to pity him with her fawning and condescension?
Was it worth it? Could he keep on going? Everything was so difficult now; much more difficult than before. How could he continue? Every movement felt as if he was struggling in mud up to his armpits. His head ached. His limbs were numb. There was a tingling sensation at the tips of his fingers. Every noise was amplified. Each breath filled his nostrils with icy fire.
Fernando felt his heart struggling in his chest. He was sure he could hear Ariela’s beautiful heart beating freely inside of her. Fernando could see it. He could see Ariela’s heart in his mind – so young, so liberated from concern and worry. Gradually Fernando’s diseased mind painted a picture of his vibrant, young niece that embodied his failures, his losses and his defeat.
Ariela no longer represented sunshine. She was an evil witch sent to steal Fernando’s power.
Fernando began to plot.
As the week wore on, Ariela noticed the change. For the first day or so after the armory attack, Fernando had looked at her with hope and longing. Perhaps he had seen her as a talisman of hope. Now, his eyes seemed laced with insanity. His expectant looks had turned to stares spiked with hatred. His face was gaunt. His eyes were rimmed with black and sunken deeply into their sockets. Ariela watched as the fear and hatred and defeat played across her uncle’s features.
Little by little, Ariela realized that her life might be in danger. The uncle who had loved her so deeply for years seemed to have lost his grip on reality and, along with it, his fatherly love for Ariela.
For some reason, Uncle Fernando had always favored Ariela. She was not truly his niece but he had treated her as if she was. In fact, she had often been treated as a daughter. Fernando’s own sons had regularly been jealous of the relationship between Ariela and Fernando. Fernando was a hard man, but Ariela believed that he had somehow found a soft spot for her in his heart.
Although, Ariela’s gringo father had disappeared as soon as he had discovered that her mother was pregnant, the situation was not unique across Fernando’s extended family. There were many single mothers in the Hernandez clan. Ariela had never quite understood why she and her mother merited so much favor from Uncle Fernando.
As Fernando plotted, Ariela considered a pre-emptive strike. As they moved about the house, they circled one another like two brooding wolves – wary and watchful, hiding their teeth until the time came for their use.
The day dawned as a few in early March do. Nebraska’s cold winter had given way to a brief glimpse of the coming spring. As the temperature rose, the warm, moist air blowing over the melting snow created a fog bank so thick that it limited visibility to spitting distances.
Once the proud home of Nebraska settlers, the Hernandez estate was covered in planted trees. The original owners of the land had homesteaded not far from the site of Fernando’s mission-style home. Remnants of the original farm-house still stood in the trees to the west. The house was weather-worn and dilapidated, but Fernando had never had it removed. It was well-hidden from sight and he frequently spent time there, alone, planning his next business venture or contemplating the death of an enemy.
Fernando hadn’t slept well in days. This morning, rather than toss and turn in his opulent king-size bed, he had dressed and hiked the short distance to the old farm-house. Here he normally found solace. Here he could ordinarily arrive at solutions to problems that often nagged at him elsewhere.
Today was different. The problem that had plagued Fernando for days offered no solution in the old house. Instead, Fernando thought he heard the voices of the ghosts of the farmer and his family who had built the house. They mocked him. They taunted Fernando with his recent shortcomings and failures. They whispered, insidiously, how much stronger and smarter Ariela was than Fernando.
Fernando closed his eyes and rubbed his neck. Rivulets of perspiration ran down over his temples. A shiver ran through his body.
Just a little over two football fields’ distance away, in one of the comfortable guest rooms of Fernando’s sprawling home, Ariela awoke from a dream. Something had happened in the dream that caused her to wake, but she could not remember what.
Ariela remembered that she had been dreaming about her uncle, Fernando … and another man; an Anglo. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs but still could not recall the details of her dream.
Thunder rumbled quietly off in the distance as Ariela looked out of her bedroom window. The fog was thick and swirling in the breeze. The gray mass was ghostly. Ariela listened as melting snow trickled through the gutters and downspouts.
In the swirling fog, Ariela thought she saw a human figure striding across the patio. She squinted, trying to make out the shape. Nothing. The fog was too thick. Perhaps it was Fernando’s driver. He was the last of the staff remaining at the house.
Ariela peered into the fog again as a quiver ran up her spine. Something wasn’t right. It was too quiet. The birds weren’t singing. A hush had come over the entire area. Ariela strained her ears probing for sound. The short hairs at the base of her neck were standing up; there were goose bumps on her arms.
Perhaps this was it. Perhaps her uncle was coming for her. After all the years of mutual love and adoration, quite possibly it would come down to a kill or die situation. How strange. How terrifying.
Ariela dressed quickly slipping her holster over her belt and sliding the Beretta into its familiar resting place. She left her boots beside her bed, preferring the quiet of her bare feet.
A board creaked somewhere in another room of the house. Ariela inhaled deeply and then released her breath slowly and quietly between her lips. Her chest shuddered slightly. Her face and hands felt feverish and itchy.
“This is no time to freeze up,” Ariela chided herself. “You’re not some child hiding from the Big Bad Wolf. You are the wolf. He is the prey.”
Ariela steel herself and then, finally it seemed, caught a sound. It was outside of the house. A motor. Growing louder. One of the tractors?
Ultimately, Fernando gave over control of his functions to his diseased mind. His vision was clouded – not only by the fog but by a blood-red haze produced deep within his sub-conscious. Fernando’s thinking was clouded as well.
In his day, Fernando had been a man to be feared. As he grew older and richer, he had stopped handling his own “wet work”. Most who knew him still feared him, but not for what he would do himself. Rather, they feared him for what he could command to be done.
When he was in his twenties and thirties, though, Fernando was a man who enjoyed killing. His blood would boil as the thrill of taking his enemies’ lives filled him. Hands on, up close and personal – Fernando took pleasure in looking into his enemies’ eyes as they pleaded for their lives. The sense of absolute power was unequaled. Drugs were no match. Sex wasn’t even close. There was nothing on the face of this earth that drove Fernando to greater heights than the taking of a life.
Now, he would do it again. He was certain. Ariela, even with all of her Marine training, was no match for him. No one could match el Patron! It was like a game of chess and Fernando was certain that he was several moves ahead of his opponent.
Beams of lucidity fired through the red haze in Fernando’s mind. He could see them … and feel them as they drove themselves home. He planned his moves carefully. The pawn as a distraction. The bishop as an initial strike. The back-door attack of the knight. Fernando’s skin buzzed with excitement.
Ariela’s mind worked differently. To her, this was no game. She took no pleasure in defending herself against her uncle. She had no desire to take his life. She knew for certain, though, that he was coming for her. Every sense that she had developed, in battle or in training, told her that danger was imminent. Ariela had seen the danger growing in her uncle’s eyes day by day, hour by hour.
Ariela, checked the hallway outside of her room and then glided, silently toward the kitchen. The motor she had heard earlier was growing louder. Ariela slipped out the back door of the mud room into the concealment of the hedges. She could see lights moving through the fog.
The sound of the motor was clearer now that Ariela was outside. It was definitely a tractor and it was definitely coming from the direction of the lights. What confused Ariela was the fact that the lights were moving in the direction of the house with no signs of slowing.
Suddenly, the tractor roared out of the fog. The jaws of its hay fork were open like the mouth of a giant, green dragon. The tractor’s lights cut through the fog illuminating the house and the hedge in which Ariela had concealed herself. With a monstrous crash, the tractor plowed into the side of the house – exactly where Ariela had been sleeping moments before – crushing the exterior wall and caving in the roof above it.
The cab of the tractor was empty. It was a distraction!
Ariela scanned the yard behind the tractor looking for any sign of Fernando. The fog was too thick. She couldn’t see anything.
The tractor’s engine was still roaring as it attempted to smash its way completely through the house.
Ariela lowered herself into a battle crouch and drew her Beretta. Something about the pistol didn’t feel right. It was too light. Ariela slipped the slide back half an inch. No round in the chamber! She dropped the magazine. Empty! She snagged the spare magazine out of the pouch on her left side. Also empty!
How many times had she checked her pistol before she shoved it into its holster? It was automatic. Why had she not done so today? What was wrong with her?
Over the roar of the tractor, Ariela could hear maniacal laughter. A dark figure darted across the yard in the direction of the house. It was Fernando.
Ariela stopped breathing for a moment. Despite his age, her uncle still moved swiftly and smoothly. This would be no walk in the park. Ariela had heard stories of her uncle’s abilities when it came to killing. She held no illusions that he was not dangerous. The thought froze Ariela in place momentarily. Just a moment too long.
Ariela heard the crunch of footsteps on melting snow behind her. Somehow Fernando had managed to make it around the far side of the house and come up silently on her six o’clock.
A quick glance to her rear revealed to Ariela that Fernando had, indeed, outmaneuvered her. He stood behind her holding a military rifle of some sort. Ariela didn’t pause to identify the rifle. She dove through the hedge row just as Fernando opened fire.
Fernando cackled as he watched his evil witch of a niece dive through the hedges. He had made his first move with the knight, leaping over the pawns and unloading Ariela’s trusty 9mm and its spare magazine while she slept. Then he had played the tractor as his pawn to distract the hateful wench. Now, his bishop struck! Fernando fired the AK-47 in his arms on full auto, spraying 7.62mm projectiles indiscriminately. The red haze returned in full force. The pitch of Fernando’s laugh rose an octave.
Ariela ducked and dodged as bullets whistled past her. As she juked to her left, Ariela felt like she had been hit just ahead of her left temple with a sledge hammer. She dropped face first in the melting snow and slid a few feet in the mud.
Unexpectedly, her dream returned to her with absolute clarity. She saw her uncle and another man – an Anglo with dark, short hair and gray-blue eyes – locked in combat. Each man faced the other with a steely stare. Fernando drew a knife and tried to stab the Anglo. The Anglo side-stepped, grabbed Fernando’s wrist, twisted and then slammed the heel of his hand into Fernando’s elbow. El Patron’s elbow snapped like a dry twig. The knife clattered to the ground. Quick as a cat, the Anglo grabbed the knife and spun to grab a handful of Fernando’s long hair with his other hand. As he pulled back on the handful of hair, the man plunged the blade of the knife into the side of Fernando’s neck. The Anglo ripped the knife from left to right exposing Fernando’s spine. Blood gushed from the severed veins and arteries. Fernando dropped to his knees. Maintaining his leverage on Fernando’s hair, the man slammed a boot into the back of Fernando’s neck.
Ariela thought she heard vertebrae cracking but then realized that it was a three-round burst of small-arms fire.
The dream was over. Ariela succumbed to the blackness.