TULPAS

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Prologue

Just as I settled down for breakfast in the sunny courtyard of the old hacienda— converted to hotel—my phone vibrated. I really wanted to sit here amid the flowering bougainvillea and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, but I sensed that wasn’t going to happen. Shara had called me half an hour ago and said she would text if there was any news.

Her message was brief and urgent: Dom heading into Merida. Get out before they take the airport, Alex. Get out now!

My empty stomach groaned as my gaze fell on my untouched breakfast of eggs, potatoes, bacon, half an avocado, toast and coffee. I texted back: Maybe I can still make contact.

I started speed eating, but was barely a quarter way through my meal when Shara replied. Alex, NO! Go now. Those 6 journalists captured in Cancun found dead this a.m., decapitated on the beach.

I gobbled down two more bites, swallowed half a cup of coffee, swiped a cloth napkin across my mouth. I set my plate down on the Mexican tile courtyard floor next to a dozing scrawny pale brown dog, and hurried to my room. I packed and checked out within five minutes.

Outside the hacienda, I looked for a taxi. Carlos at the front desk said there was always one nearby. Always except this morning. Except right now. A tree-lined boulevard separated the two lanes of traffic and it was cluttered with early morning vendors selling colorful hammocks, fruit and pastries.

Maybe if I walked out to the boulevard I could flag a taxi from either direction. I spotted a truck across the way loaded with armed men dressed in black. Instinctively, I stepped back toward the shadow of the hacienda wall. I wasn’t afraid, just cautious. I’d always been lucky as a journalist in foreign places and made friends with the locals, even when they had good reason not to be friendly to an American.
But I’d had a couple of close encounters with Dominion forces in Cancun two days ago, and had barely avoided capture when I turned a corner and nearly collided with several armed men in black. Armed kids, actually. They looked about fourteen, at best. My press badge was in full view and that was probably what set them off. I kept my head down and moved around them, hoping they would ignore me. One of them ordered me to stop, but I kept going.

“Mátalo!” Kill him.

The instant I heard the command, I bolted into an office building, raced up a staircase and down a hall. I clambered out an emergency exit and jumped the last six feet to an alleyway. I spotted more armed men at one end, their backs to me. I darted out in the other direction and merged into a crowded market. I knew I needed to flee Cancun.

I took another step back under the awning of the hotel and bumped into someone. “Lo siento, sorry.”

A lean, grizzled old man with a scraggly white goatee nodded and smiled, revealing crooked front teeth. I expected him to hold out his palm and automatically reached into my pocket for change. To my surprise, the viejo addressed me in fractured English, a nasal tone. His voice was high pitched for a man and some of the words literally squeaked out of his mouth. “You want Dominion. I take you. Sí, sí, I take you to el jefe? Only fifty dollar.”

I let the change drop back into my pocket. Since arriving in Merida yesterday afternoon, I’d made several inquiries about meeting a Dominion leader. I’d guessed that Dominion was coming here and figured an advance team was on the streets. Now I was torn between doing my job and saving my neck. Never had that phrase meant more. I hesitated, then made a bargain with myself.

“Twenty dollars, no more.”

I figured the old man would walk away. But I was wrong. “Twenty-five and I take you right now.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“Es facil. You no pay until you meet el jefe.”

“I don’t mean the money. How do I know it’s safe, seguro?”

“Tu no sabes. Yo no se.”

Great. No assurances. It sounded damn risky, especially after what Shara had texted me. Thirty-six was too young to die. Shara would get over it. After all, we were separated, heading for divorce. However, our daughter Kari, who’d just turned twelve, would be devastated. She kept saying she wanted to live with me rather than her mom and Charles, whom she despised.

A taxi eased up to the front of the hacienda. The driver leaned toward the curb and called out, “Aeropuerto?”

That made up my mind. “Si, un momento.”

I turned to the old man as I pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “Take this for your trouble, su trabajo.”

The old man waved off the bill. “I go with you. El jefe esta allá.”

“What, he’s at the airport?”

“Sí, sí, vamonos.”

I hesitated a moment, then shrugged. Whatever. We both climbed into the back of the taxi. Maybe I could land an interview and get out safely. That was my new plan, sketchy as it was.

As the taxi pulled away from the curb, I decided to see how much the old man knew about Dominion. Mi nombre es Alex Brooks. Como te llamas?”

“Hector.”

I started to ask another question, but he held up a hand, nodded toward the driver, and touched a finger to his lips. “Espérate. El jefe will answer your questions.”

As if on command, the blare of salsa filled the car and the driver kept fiddling with the volume on the radio. I settled back in my seat and stared out the window, feeling a sense of unease about all of this. We moved through the narrow, cobbled streets lined by one-story shops, most of them painted a pale green, and gradually the old city fell behind. A few minutes later we arrived at our destination on the outskirts of town.

The airport seethed with bedlam. Dozens of distraught and confused people, many of them tourists, milled outside the entrance with their luggage. Soldiers in black uniforms and berets directed traffic, patrolled the crowd, and guarded the entrances.

Shit. They’re here. But what did I expect, just one friendly representative of Dominion waiting for me? The taxi stopped and the driver opened the trunk and took out my luggage. Buen suerte, the driver hissed when I paid him.

I would need more than good luck, I thought grimly, turning toward the entrance. Hector moved directly toward a small group of Dominion soldiers. He spoke briefly to one of them, then motioned for me to follow him and the soldier who cut a path through the crowd. Foreign and Mexican passengers were on their phones trying to get answers, to find a way out, their lives on hold. Worry, anger, and indignation rolled off of them in waves. Some were here on business no doubt, but the couples, especially the ones with children, were on vacation. The families reminded me of what was missing in my life. I’d taken this assignment partially to escape my ravaged personal life.

I’d returned from a three-day trip to Los Angeles and found that Shara and Kari were gone. She’d left a note, telling me she’d moved out. We’d grown apart and she’d gotten too close to her partner. FBI agents in love. That was three months ago and she was trying to make it up by feeding me as much information as she could about Dominion. The problem was that very little was known about the group. They’d materialized in Mexico as if out of nowhere.

The soldier leading Hector motioned toward the guards at the entrance and they immediately opened the doors. Boss man must have known we were coming and told the guards to let us in. I caught a brief glimpse of myself in the tinted window next to the door. I looked burdened and disheveled, my usually trim beard bushy, khaki-brown hair mussed. Still young, but feeling the years. The extra pounds I’d gained since the break-up didn’t help my appearance, either.
I’d been told that I should be doing television news, not because of my reporting abilities, but because of my supposed rugged good looks, square jaw, straight nose, pale blue eyes. But the only appeal television news had for me was the possibility of a bigger paycheck. Print journalists were still the best, as far as I was concerned.

The chaos outside the airport matched the turmoil inside. A rippling black wave of armed men moved across the concourse. Here and there groups of travelers huddled together on the floor, soldiers holding them at gunpoint. Workers in the shops looked stunned and frightened.
We were guided to an unmarked door, entered a private lounge. The chaos vanished. A hostess greeted us in Spanish and English and asked if we would like to order food and drinks. Hector waved her off and led me past the comfortable chairs and couches to a table in the far corner. I took a seat and was surprised when Hector joined me. I scanned the empty room, waiting. Hector stared at me, his arms folded over his chest.

“Donde esta el jefe?” I asked.

“Aquí. Right here,” Hector said. “You’re looking at him.” He held out his left palm, revealing a tattoo of a trident inside a circle. What do you want to know?” Hector’s crisp English showed no trace of a Spanish accent.

“Whoa, I’m confused. What are you talking about?”

“I’m telling you that I’m in charge, commander-in-chief of all Dominion forces.”
It seemed unlikely. Yet, there was a distinct change not only in his speech, but the way he held himself and, oddly enough, his appearance. I definitely wouldn’t mistake this man for a beggar. He’d wore wire-rimmed glasses and looked more like an intellectual. Or maybe even the leader of a rebel force.

“What’s your full name?”

“This interview is about Dominion, not me. Just call me Hector, and don’t ask anything about my background.”

“Can I record the interview?”

“No recording, no notes. Just listen and remember. I am testing you.”

What did that mean? “Okay. Why did your militia take on the same name and uniform as the rebels in Iceland, who overran the government last week?”

“We are not a copycat movement as the international press has claimed. We are the same. We are one. We are Dominion, and the truth will soon be known.”

“Why were the journalists killed in Cancun?”

“Many people died there.”

“But why the journalists? They weren’t combatants.”

“Our followers are sometimes overly enthusiastic in their missions. They see the journalists as propagators of lies.”

I nervously tapped my index finger against the table, wishing I could be writing what I was hearing. I would take notes as soon as I could. “About your followers. Why are people so attracted to Dominion?”

“They understand that we are saviors, that we are the future, that we will lead them from poverty and hopelessness. They know that those who oppose us must be eliminated. Simple as that.”

He sounded dangerous and simple-minded. “So the rich are your enemy?”

“Not necessarily. The well-to-do are welcome to join our cause, but there will be no more free rides for them. No more socialism for the rich.”

“What about the poor?”

“Everyone deserves food, health care, and a place to live.”

“How can you guarantee any of that?”

Hector leaned closer to me, his expression intense. “We are here to bring the world into balance with appropriate population, with appropriate distribution of wealth.”

“Where are you from?”

“Earth, just like you, just like all of the Dominion leadership. I am descended from the mind of man.”

What the hell was he talking about? “How are you going to control the birth rate?”

“I did not say anything about the birth rate. You must listen better.” He abruptly stood up. “That’s all I will tell you now. You will be put on a private jet to Miami. You will write the truth. If you don’t, expect to die like the others in your profession.”

Shaken and baffled, I stood and picked up my luggage. I wanted to ask why I was getting the story, but decided not to push my luck. Hector guessed my thoughts.

“I selected you because you survived Cancun and came to the right place at the right time. How did you get here?”

Oddly, the question made me uneasy. “Well, I took a bus.” I remembered ducking into the bus station and looking for a bus to Merida.

Hector smiled. “Oh, did you? Think carefully about that. You might learn something very important.”

I didn’t want to think about it. I just wanted to get away from him, and to Miami.

Hector stood erect and seemed younger and more capable than the old man I’d met. “I won’t mislead you, Alex. I have no need for deception. But you and the world are not yet ready for the truth. When the time is right, all will be known.”

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