This is the first chapter of a book I’m working on about a couple that travels to Venezuela which is on the verge of a social and political collapse. The next chapter will introduce a middle aged couple traveling to the country with the wife’s mother who had been in the states for a year and wants to check on her property there. The wife and husband share a strong faith but he is more pragmatic than she. “See what God is doing and join in,” is her normal way of thinking. “Faith is everything.” He feels much more comfortable making informed, conscious decisions. Can they or anyone they meet stick to their convictions in this seemingly God forsaken country? Is there a leader capable of stepping up and leading the country out of chaos as it falls apart? The couple become involved in family and political intrigue as the story evolves.
This must be how it feels when you get old and you begin to slowly slip, she thought. And when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. And then it gets worse still, until the thought of death brings not fear but comfort.
Anna had been in line since 3:00 this morning. At least the weather was pleasant. The trash which hadn’t been picked up for quite some time did not smell as bad as it would have had it rained. The last few years the rain failed to materialize during the rainy season and as the lakes dried up there were rolling electric outages throughout the city. Strange that a country with the largest oil and gas reserves in the world would be suffering from rolling power outages. The lakes drained every time there was an El Nino and the usual weather patterns changed. One could count on an El Nino about every 10 years. You would think the Ministry of Electricity would realize this and come up with a viable contingency plan. Yet the government still tried to blame the black outs and mandatory rationing on the economic war being raged by the neoliberalists.
It was just breaking daylight and the street lights had finally come back on. At least last year the rains were closer to normal and the reservoirs were beginning to refill. This street would have been a fearful place to be any time after dark had it not been for all the other people waiting in line. The street gangs made a formal curfew for the law abiding and the weak unnecessary. No one dare wonder out into the night unless they were with their well-armed gang comrades. The government called these gangs collectives, or “colectivos” in Spanish, and had even supplied arms to many. In reality they were nothing more than government supported extortionists, demanding money for supposedly keeping businesses safe, controlling drug trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, prostitution, and however else they could usurp money on their turf. In the poorer parts of town the gangs were particularly brutal but now even the best neighborhoods suffered violence.
She would soon be able to check her look in her compact mirror in natural light. She was an expert at dress and makeup and displayed her ample, natural attributes to their full advantage. It was not unusual for families to spend inordinate amounts of money to send daughters to “pageant mills”. Her parents were middle class but from an early age they provided the resources for the best beauty training in Caracas.
For today she had dressed down. She wore jeans and a loose top, a cheap necklace, and loafers. She hid her silky, long brown hair under a ball cap. When the sun came up she would don sunglasses. Even without makeup she was stunning. Perhaps, especially without makeup she was stunning. She had thick arching eyebrows, and long, heavy natural eye lashes. The way the smock draped over her breasts gave the impression they were large and firm. It was obvious by the shape of her thighs she had curvaceous hips and a slender waist even though they were hidden by her blouse. She did not want to attract attention this night but not attracting attention her entire life had been difficult.
Had she been dressed “to the hilt”, for most men a lingering once over would have sufficed. But the way she was dressed today one had to pay attention, to explore to discover the full extent of the terrain. She awakened the latent explorer in men, the same instinct that brought the conquistadors to the new world. But she was not naïve as the natives. If anything, the roles were reversed. Out of desperation she was very close to making a conscious decision to use the potentially devastating resources at hand. God help the man who lay down the straw that broke the camel’s back, who unleashed that pent up fury. She resisted the impulse to check the .357 semi-automatic pistol in the concealed holster riding just beneath her left breast.
When it became clear her husband was to be laid off from his management job in computer programming at Maraven, a support company for the state run oil company, and look for a job outside the country, he took her to a gun range and paid to have them both trained in self-defense.
She was one in less than a thousand who are able to point a gun exactly where they look without lining up the sights to aim. The instructor was not surprised after the first few shots and the pistol drifted lower so that there was no way she was lining up the sights and aiming properly. This was natural for a first time shooter. At least she was keeping her eyes open.
Still, as he reeled up the target, he was surprised not to see a single hole anywhere in the white on the target. He was even more surprised as the target got closer and he saw numerous holes punched in the black of the 3 inch bulls eye. He didn’t believe it. He reeled the same target back.
“Reload like I taught you. Fire when ready,” he said matter of fact without explanation. If this was some kind of joke, he didn’t want to play into it.
Bam, bam, bam, bam….. Ten quick shots and then the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. There were two shots on the border of the bullseye half way into the white, the rest solidly in the black.
“I lost my concentration the last couple shots,” she offered.
“Cono”, was all he could muster as he looked at the target. “No lo hubiera creido si no lo hubiera visto con mis propios ojos.” Or I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes in English. And still he wondered if this was an elaborate joke. Best to play it cool just in case.
“That’s enough for today, he told Anna and Juan Carlos. “Don’t piss her off,” he offered Juan Carlos as they left the shooting range.
Juan Carlos had left a year ago for the job in Manaus, Brazil. He sent back money regularly at first and it was enough to maintain their upper middle class standard of living. She suspected Juan Carlos, like most of his friends (she knew this for certain because they had hit on her) fooled around occasionally. Unless the husband became blatant to a point of disrespect, not even the other wives shared the information with the wife being cheated on, although they certainly discussed it with each other.
And Juan had cheated on her. Instead of treating her like gold because there is no way he could ever do better and because she was a faithful, exceptional wife, simply the fact that he had a prize like her had emboldened him to go after other attractive women. He was a good looking man, but his confidence made him even more attractive. He lacked the moral character needed for a successful relationship with Anna. Her beauty and his lack of character doomed the relationship from the start. That fact was just beginning to dawn on Anna. Juan Carlos was a dumb ass, and unable to discern his own failings, would be forever clueless as to the true root of their relationship problems.
Anna had owned and operated a clothing store in a higher end shopping district. She imported designer label brands that were hard to come by in Venezuela. Her clientele, the ones who still had money, had quit spending it on clothes. Now they staked their prestige on the fact that their black market supplier could still get toilet paper and paper towels. Charmin, extra soft had become the new designer label most sought after. She and her daughter had been relegated to reusing wash cloths to clean themselves and washing them out after each use. Forget about putting chicken in the rice. The luxury now was beans with rice. Most of the time it was just rice or just beans. They owned their condo but now couldn’t afford the monthly maintenance fee. She had received her first eviction notice. If Juan Carlos didn’t send money she would end up at least for a time, living with friends. That would be hell, no woman in her right mind would want someone living in their home who looked like Anna. Who could blame their husband for wanting to be with her?
If Juan Carlos didn’t come through with money soon, she would find someone who could and would support her and their 6-yr-old daughter. Her daughter had spent the night with a friend who lived on the first floor of their building. The friend’s mom would get her off to school. Anna would buy extra food and share with the mom if a food shipment had indeed arrived as had been rumored. The last rumor had been a false alarm. After waiting all night in line and being one of the first to enter the store, what she found was aisle after aisle stocked with Ace washing powder. The rumor was that this time there would be chicken and toilet paper!
You could still get about anything you wanted on the black market if you were willing to pay an outlandish price for it. The government had handed over food distribution to the military. The military paid twice the price for products to get kickbacks, and then sold most of the rest of it for outlandish prices to the bachaqueros, people who resold the products on the black market, sometimes for over 100 times more than what you would pay for them in the US. If a store was able to get a shipment of food, it could be purchased for the government subsidized prices, and long, long lines would form the night before the store opened.
Some products like toilet paper had become tremendously difficult to acquire. One CEO/owner was arrested for hoarding and fined outrageously. The union had gone on strike because his company could not keep the bathrooms stocked with toilet paper, in large part because employees continually stole it. They stole it because they couldn’t find it anywhere else and when they did, couldn’t afford it. When a supply was finally found, the CEO instructed his buyer to purchase as much as possible. When the large purchase was discovered by authorities, the CEO was arrested for hoarding. He couldn’t afford to pay the fine and ended up shutting the company down. These kinds of unintended consequences played out throughout the economy, affecting all parts of the country.
Companies had been expropriated and the government filled their employment roles with cronies of the government. A company that may have operated profitably with 1000 employees would eventually end up with 2000 employees, often with incompetent people in charge. The companies floundered and the economy suffered. Everything in Venezuela was grinding to a halt. The only people prospering were those who excelled in graft.
How long could such absurdity go on, Anna wondered? Some people wanted the United States to intervene. One plane could wipe these MF’ers out. “Do what they did to Noriega in Panama,” had become the prevailing hope. But then what? Who would step in and govern? Perhaps God will destroy us all like Sodom and Gomorrah, Anna reflected. Anna believed the people in the country were getting what they deserved. As long as something benefited a person, they could justify the action, regardless of who else suffered. Chavez manipulated the poor who had been ignored by the previous ruling elite. To stay in power, Chavez had indeed shared the wealth. He shared it, not with the good of the masses in mind, but to gain and maintain power. Chavez at least had the power of charisma going for him. Maduro had nothing except the backing of Cuba, China, Iran, and Russia. Without loans backed by future oil shipments, the government would have folded long before.
While there are vast reserves of oil in Venezuela, it is very heavy and must be treated before being shipped. It is not difficult to do if the proper chemicals are available. But because the government had mismanaged every segment of the economy, the chemicals were not available. This resulted in the shipment of very low quality oil. Few refineries in the world could process it. Oil production year after year dwindled as the government neglected to invest in deteriorating oil infrastructure.
Wherever she looked she saw corruption, incompetency, and cruelty. The protests had begun to die down because people were preoccupied with survival. Maduro and Chavez had been taught by the Cubans that he who controlled the food controlled the people. But who controls the people when the food runs out? The bungling socialist were like the spider who convinced the frog to swim him across the river. In the middle of the river the spider bit the frog and they both drowned. In the afterlife when the frog asked the spider why he bit him, insuring both their deaths, the spider replied, “Because that’s the nature of a spider. I just did what spiders always do.” Perhaps at one point, a long, long time ago, the people in power had good intentions. But if you asked anyone waiting in line this morning, they would all say those in power had been egocentric, corrupt devils since conception. Their parents must have committed an unforgivable sin and sold their offspring’s souls to the devil. And God had let this happen to punish the people of Venezuela for their sins.
Surely there was a leader somewhere in Venezuela with selfless values who would not succumb to corruption once they attained power. It was rumored most of the leaders in the opposition party had been bought off recently. So instead of fighting back after the government had formed a new National Governing Body, their protests were not serious, just enough lip service to keep up appearances. Anna prayed a silent prayer for the people of her country.
“Forgive us, Lord,” she prayed. “Have mercy!”
Anna was the 26th person in line. People throughout the night had tried to jump the line saying they had been in line and their friend was saving their place when they left to relieve themselves. Two ladies had been beaten badly for attempting to pull this stunt. No doubt a few had lost their legitimate place in line. Rather than risk it, many simply urinated where they stood. Anna was smart, she had watched what she drank the day before and then ate salt to help retain the water. Even at that she was about to burst, but she made it until the store doors opened and she could use the store restroom. By the time she finished in the restroom bedlam had broken out in the store. People were filling their carts full of staples, much more than they could use in a month and the register people were refusing to check many of them out. The shelves had already been cleared once and were being stocked for a second time. It was clear the store management was losing control. When the bulletin went out on social media that the government was rolling back prices to 2013 levels the store management gave up.
“Take what you want,” the store owner shouted as his store was looted. “When this is gone there will be no more. I can’t afford to restock. I hope you all choke!”
Anna had managed to get 10 whole chicken friers and about a dozen large bags each of P.A.N., a brand of corn flour, rice, pasta, beans; plus 2 gallon cans of coffee, 2 half-gallon plastic jugs of vegetable oil, 2 large boxes of powdered milk, 4 tubes of tooth paste, and 2, 8 packs of Jazmin toilet paper! She would have tried to get more but things were out of control. The register employees had taken cover and people were leaving the store with full carts without paying.
Anna would have gladly paid had anyone been at the register to take her money. Now she feared someone would take her grocery cart before she reached her car. People were rushing the entrance making egress very difficult. She followed in the wake of a large black man as he bulled himself out of the market carrying a box containing 24, dozen cartons of eggs. When he and Anna got in the clear he grabbed the front of the cart and helped her get it across the street. She had been able to park less than a block away the night before. Luckily he was going her way. He was an intimidating figure and no one would challenge him without a lot of back up…unless they were armed.
“I’m parked here,” she said when they reached her Toyota Forerunner. He had put his egg box on top of her cart when they crossed the street. He continued to pull the cart with her in tow. She skidded on the sidewalk as he continued on silently with no intention of stopping. She whipped her keys out and opened her trunk. She snatched the pipe Juan Carlos had put in there for emergency purposes.
She sprinted to the man as he jogged up the sidewalk with food she had stood in line all night for and had fought for in the grocery store. She had played softball in high school and had been a good hitter. He turned just in time to shrug his shoulder and block the full brunt of the blow as she brought the pipe down on his head. She took another swing as he turned and blocked with his forearm.
“Swing it one more time and I’ll take it from you and crush your skull,” he shouted.
“Okay, Okay,” she said, as she dropped the pipe and whipped out the .357. “I will not hit you with the pipe again,” she promised.
He turned and ran leaving the eggs. She loaded the eggs in the back seat and put everything else in the trunk. On the way home her friend called. She was so shaken she couldn’t talk about what had happened. “I got a shit load of eggs and some other stuff. I’ll tell you how it went when I get home,” was all she could get out. Then her friend said her daughter had awoke with a temperature of 39.5 C (102 degrees F), and was complaining with a sore throat. Probably strep which was easily treated with antibiotics. Problem was antibiotics were less available than toilet paper in Venezuela…
When she pulled into her space in the parking garage of her apartment building, a half-dozen motorcycles pulled in behind her car, blocking her in. Each had a rifle slung over his shoulder. Evidently they were members of a collectivo and had followed her from the grocery store. They dismounted their bikes and were in the process of moving their rifles to the front to be easily accessed and fired.
Anna feared they had seen her pull her gun earlier. There would be no hesitation on their part if she pulled her gun after she got out of the car. She thought for a moment of turning the car back on and ramming their motorcycles. But she knew this would mean certain death. One or two of them would step out of the way and shoot her for sure.
She pulled her gun as she opened her door and shot 2 of them over her shoulder as she stepped out.
For her it happened in slow motion. First shot for the tall slim one standing closest with his gun already raised. Next shot for the short bearded one standing beside him. Then the one who was already firing wildly from the hip. Two more were dashing for cover and one raised his hands. She squeezed two rounds off as they dove between cars on the other side of the garage. The one with his hands up looked at her with questioning eyes as if to say, “Are you going to shoot me? Please, don’t shoot me.”
She brought the gun to her side and the man foolishly went to lift his rifle after all he had just seen. She shot from the hip intending to shoot him in the nuts as his gun came around. The bullet hit the rifle barrel and shattered spraying his groin area. When he fired, the bullets hit in front of Anna and ricocheted harmlessly around her ankles. As the man bent over she followed up with a round to the top of his head. The trajectory went down his neck through the center of his body, the shock turning his organs into jelly.
She carefully moved to see where the other two were who had dove between the cars on the other side of the garage. One was hit behind the ear and was no doubt dead. The other lay with a mortal wound at the base of his neck, the bullet having nicked his carotid artery and blowing away his trachea. As he struggled to take in breaths through the gaping wound, the partially severed artery was filling his lungs with blood.
Anna wanted him to live a little longer, to suffer for her pain and for all the pain of her countrymen. For a brief moment she imagined each of his tortured breaths were a sacrifice offered up to the gods who had inflicted all this heartache and pain. His eyes became fixed and his breaths slowed until there were no more and she thought he was dead. But then he took another deep breath, the blood gurgling hideously. It was so repelling she put the last bullet in his temple, never wanting to hear that sound again.
She wanted it all to be over. She thought if she had another bullet in the gun she would use it on herself. But then who would take care of her daughter, Amaya? Could she be so selfish? Maybe she could, she thought, just maybe she would…
The security guard sat in front of the bank of surveillance screens. He was reading about Oscar Perez, who for most was a hero and martyr, but if you were a government hardliner, a terrorist. In the spring Perez had stolen a government helicopter and piloted friends over government buildings throwing flash-bang grenades and firing harmlessly. He glanced up as Anna’s car entered the parking garage. She was beautiful and friendly and had given him a gift certificate at Christmas from his favorite coffee shop. There were other nice, beautiful women in the building but she was his favorite. He put his phone down anticipating watching her walk across the parking garage. Que bella es!
When he saw the motorcycle gang enter the building behind her, he picked up the phone to call the police. A robbery or rape he feared was about to take place. Lately he was reticent to call the police at all. Many were in league with the collectivos. It seemed everyone one was working an angle. The collectivos could not operate as freely as they did without kicking back some of their take to the authorities. Sometimes the police didn’t even pretend to collect evidence from a crime scene. One might find justice if you knew someone or personally paid the investigator to follow through.
The guard would have never called if he felt he could handle the situation on his own. Someone’s life was in danger. Maybe the intention was simple robbery. But there were 6 armed men. Robbery and rape was a better bet and then likely murder.
Maybe he could run up the stairs and fire his pistol into the roof and scare them off from the doorway. But then he saw the men begin to drop as he heard the shots from a distance. The guard made a backup of the incident and erased the original on the hard drive. No one would believe what had just happened unless they saw it with their own eyes. He would tell the authorities he had witnessed it on video and accidentally erased it from the hard drive which in truth he almost did. This would keep Anna from involvement with the police, which whether she was innocent or not, could be big trouble for her.
He ran to catch Anna before she entered her apartment to tell her he had her back, that she needn’t worry, and give her the tape. In his mind he began to concoct a comic book like scenario where he would become the side kick of Wonder Woman, or become like Kato to the Green Lantern.
Anna was careful not to step in the blood as she walked past the bodies and unlocked the heavy metal door leading into the building.
And just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does, she thought. And to think, last night her only worry was getting mugged while waiting in line. She had gotten the food, but she had sunk deeper into the abyss each step along the way. It just kept getting worse and worse… And then you die, Anna reasoned.
When she died, would she be joined with loved ones in heaven or burn in hell? Surely she didn’t deserve going to hell for killing those men. They got what they deserved. But what had she done to deserve heaven? Nothing she could think of justified that. She was Catholic and had been baptized, but hadn’t been to confession since she was 10 yrs. old. All of that religiousness was just another ploy to get your money, propagated by closet gay men and child molesters, she reasoned. We die and then nothing, no different than a cat or dog that lay smashed on the highway.
The thought of death had become comforting, but now the thought was neither comforting or fearful. One foot in front of the other, she thought. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, she repeated this time out loud. One foot in front of the other, she repeated again and yet again, each time with more resolve.
“One foot in front the frigging other!” she shouted.