Tom eased down to his stomach and crawled to the edge of the ridge disguised in the pallid spatters of desert camouflage. He perched his rifle and peered down the scope, sweat about to trickle into his eyes as he calculated the direction and amount of wind. Two men sauntered across the desert beneath him. He steadied his breathing and aimed the crosshairs around one man. As soon as he reached his destination at a crevice in the canyon, Tom stopped his breathing and squeezed the trigger.
Bang! The man dropped and his companion darted his handgun around in various directions.
Tom breathed evenly as he repositioned the rifle and peered down the scope until the crosshairs surrounded the second man. He wrapped his index finger around the trigger and stopped his breath.
Bang! The second man collapsed. In the surrealism of his perch, Tom stared down into the canyon as another two men approached on mustangs and dismount. The leader stooped to gather the dropped weapons of the dead men before continuing to the crevice to raid its stashed contraband.
Sunlight painted the desert in an array of scarlet and gold by the time Tom removed his cover and stashed his gear. Dust curled up beneath his boots as he traipsed down the edge of the carved canyon path. He peered over his shoulder when a beaten pickup approached behind him, the desert dust sprayed behind by the tires creating a haze in the atmosphere.
"Entra en el camion," the driver leaned across to thrust open the door. Tom climbed into the passenger seat and cast his equipment behind the seat as the pickup sped ahead with another spray of dust. He could see the desert darting beneath them through the busted out area beside his boots, almost covered by a disintegrating mat.
"Debería conducir de vuelta a su casa?" Carlos sped the pickup around the curves of the mesa.
Tom reached into his pocket tp retrieve his vibrating cell phone and checked the screen. "Ir a la Comunión con la iglesia de Cristo en su lugar," he recommended, then added with a sneer, "Yo quiero ser visto en otros lugares."
Carlos smiled and nodded. "El pensamiento inteligente."
The Communion With Christ church was a scarred stone structure that survived the abandonment of its surrounding town as well as a fire that ripped across the interior and gutted everything some century prior. After its restoration, it was purchased by a non-denominational church and used to minister to locals as well as tourists and law enforcement.
When the pickup approached the emptied area, Carlos peered around over the steering wheel with a skeptical scowl. "Are you sure your amigo is there?"
Tom stared at the charcoal Ford parked down the old street and hummed his assurance. "Yeah."
The pickup coasted to a stop, and as soon as he climbed out, the sun beat down on the already moist regulation cut on his scalp. Some sort of hawk wavered on the air currents above and shrieked as he heaved open a wooden door and sensed coolness pass over him. He entered the church and started across to the sanctuary.
A fresco mural of the Last Supper met him at the opposite end of the sanctuary. The eyes of one of the Disciples met his and sent a shiver up his spine. Stained glass angels on either side of the sanctuary allowed sunlight to stream across the wood that creaked beneath his boots. This alerted a man bowed in prayer in the center end of one pew. He rose and turned to meet his brown eyes with a resembling pair and crossed his arms.
"Surprised you came."
"Well, you texted me."
"I did," the man agreed and waved him closer with averted eyes. "Let me speak to you in private."
Tom raised his shoulders and peered around them. "A ghost town isn't private enough for you?"
"I have to be sure. Come," he started down the middle aisle, "to the confession booth."
"Are you serious?" Tom pursued him to the wooden structure with two entrances. "Angelo, what –"
As the man opened one two and he started to open the other, Angelo reached to touch his shoulder and pointed into his side of the compartment. "Go in and I will squeeze in."
Tom stared at him. "Why?"
"Because I want to see your eyes when we speak. Go," Angelo gave him a gentle push into the compartment and squeezed himself in after. He eased himself down until his knees were arched, but he was in a position to see his companion entirely. "I'm concerned that I have rarely seen you since you returned home," he started with apprehension in his voice.
"That warranted a confession booth?" Tom raised his eyebrows. "Angelo, you have lost your mind."
"Afghanistan is a difficult experience to move past, especially for an army sniper."
Tom narrowed his eyes.
"Do you see why I sought privacy?"
"What are you saying?" Tom demanded. He simmered with a storm of anticipation and aggravation at the suspicion and accusation sparked in the eyes of Angelo.
"I have done some research," Angelo explained as he reached into his pocket and extracted a creased page printed that morning. He passed it up to Tom. "The authorities suspect a smaller, more covert cartel called Los Cazadores is attempting a coup by acquiring ex-military snipers to assassinate members of Los Encarnación del Mal."
"And you're accusing me?" Tom crushed the page between his palms and allowed it to drop, voice rising with his blood pressure in each syllable. "Why, because I killed people overseas? You assume I'm a murderer now? I never figured you to be a pacifist, Angelo."
Angelo stared at him with steady eyes, although their sorrow was accumulating. "Remember the time I chased you across the house because you stole my shoe and pitched it up into a tree? You knocked an old lamp over, shattered it to pieces. When mama asked about it, you pointed to me. You have the same expression about you right now. And I am here," he raised his voice as Tom started to move as if to leave, "because I suspect the reason you have been so secretive and distant is because you started down a dark road as soon as you returned. You will be killed or imprisoned, Tom, if you keep this up."
He scrambled up to stand between his brother and the exit. Tom attempted to shove him aside, but he planted his palms against the wood on either side of him.
"You served your country," Angelo snarled, "only to betray it soon as you were done."
Tom darted his hands out and clutched is brother by the throat and shoved his cheek against the metal grate. "I am serving my country, Angelo, because I am willing to get my hands dirty when I have to. I am in the desert sniping criminals while my angelic big brother sits in an air conditioned box, listening to people's problems."
"And what happens when those criminals are dead and those you align yourself with now are in power?" Angelo managed with his mouth distorted by the grate. "Still be serving your country then?"
Tom wrenched him closer by the collar of his navy shirt and drove a punch into his mouth that cast him aside. Angelo was momentarily stunned by the crushing impact of his nose against the wood, but righted himself and snatched his exiting brother by the elbow only to have it meet his chest.
"Stop prying where you should not be!" Tom spun around and pinned his brother to the wooden seat. The rage he pent up while Angelo accused him of murder empowered each punch, until blood streamed out of his mouth and nose.
"You think this is easy for me?" Angelo spat when blood bubbled out of his mouth. "I am a chaplain to the Texas Rangers and U.S. Marshals. What am I supposed to do?"
"I can give you a suggestion of what not to do," Tom snarled as he leered above him at eye-level. "Do not say anything about this to anyone, or you will be battered unrecognizable before being killed. Is that what you want, Angelo?"
Angelo parted his swollen lips to speak. "Is that what you want?"
Another punch sent him into darkness.