Line in the Valley, chapter 1
I’ve decided to post the first chapter of book 3 in my series. It’s titled Line in the Valley, and is about Jerry Nunez’s unit fighting a cartel incursion on the Texas border. The Amazon judges read this and decided it blows, so I’d like to hear what you guys think.
Please drop critiques on me. Don’t be gentle. It’s not my first time.
Thanks and hope you enjoy it.
Line in the Valley
Carlos Ramirez’s phone rang in his pocket, rousing him from a half sleep, half pleasant buzz. He put his beer down, lifted himself halfway off his recliner, reached past belly fat and dug his phone out. The caller ID showed it was his coworker and across the street neighbor, Andy Carter. Carlos slurred a greeting.
“Hey Andy, what’s up? Why you bothering me now, when you know by this time every night I’m into my tenth beer?”
Carlos’ wife gave him a dirty look from the kitchen as she washed dishes. She had complained about his drinking for years and threatened to divorce him more than once, to no avail. She was Mexican, devoutly Catholic and wouldn’t want to be stuck taking care of their kids alone. He knew she would never leave him.
“Sober up, pendejo,” Andy said. “You remember that little shithead Antonio Guevara you arrested last week? He’s walking around by the corner, next to the Melendez’s. He’s been looking toward your house.”
“Shit,” Carlos responded. “That little punk needs his ass kicked. Again. You see any of his little gangster friends with him?”
“Nadie mas, hermano,” Andy answered. He was white, but like most of the white people in Arriago and all the white cops, he spoke fluent Tex-Mex Spanish. “Nobody but him. He’s been walking from the corner toward your house and back, talking on a cell phone.”
“A cell phone? Who did he steal that from? When I arrested him he didn’t have a phone, and he gave me his house number to write on the blotter. That little shit can’t afford a cell phone.”
“He must have burglarized another car, or maybe one of his gangster homies gave it to him,” Andy said. “Who gives a fuck why he has a phone? I didn’t call to talk about his phone, I called to tell you he was outside in case you want Jesse to run him off.”
Carlos took another swallow from his beer. “Nah, I won’t bother Jesse for this. He’s the only one on duty tonight, he’s probably busy. I’ll go outside and run Antonio off myself. He’ll probably piss his pants and take off as soon as he sees me. And if he doesn’t, I’ll kick the shit out of him again.”
“Andale Carlos, that’s what he needs. Call me if you want me to come outside and videotape it.”
“Go to sleep, hermano. Thanks for the call.”
Andy hung up, and Carlos struggled out of his chair. He went to his room and pulled on a t-shirt, then grabbed the flashlight and pepper spray off the duty belt hanging on his bedpost. He thought about it, then went to his closet and threw a .38 snubnose into a pocket. He doubted he’d need the gun for Antonio, but you never knew how stupid a wannabe gangster could be.
Antonio Guevara was the seventh grade, fourteen-year-old head of Los Nortenos, a middle school “gang” made up mostly of eleven to thirteen year old aspiring thugs who desperately wanted attention. Since annointing themselves gangsters, they had been trying like hell to make a name for themselves in the tiny Texas border town of Arriago. Being the oldest, Antonio naturally fancied himself the leader. He and his flock, all eight of them, had been making themselves royal pains in the asses to the town’s 2,400 residents. They had spent the last month spray painting wooden fences with their made-up gang symbol, bringing beer to school in backpacks, beating up terrified ten-year-olds and even talking trash to police every time they saw a passing patrol car. Arriago had real gangsters, but they tried to keep a low profile. The Nortenos wanted everyone to know who they were.
Carlos had caught Antonio breaking into an old woman’s car the previous week, and Antonio bowed up to fight. Carlos convinced Antonio that he didn’t really want to fight a cop after all. Antonio hadn’t needed any medical attention afterward, but Carlos knew he would feel the asskicking for a few days.
Carlos walked toward the front door, past his sons playing Xbox in their bedroom, and told his wife, “I’m going outside to handle something, I’ll be back in a minute.” She asked what he was talking about and he ignored the question, walked out the front door and turned toward the corner, two houses away.
He didn’t see anything at first. His neighborhood was poor and overgrown with brush, especially on the corner where Antonio was supposed to be. Then, in the pale light of a barely working street lamp, he made out the baggy, rumpled outline of Antonio, standing half-hidden behind a bush.
“Antonio!” Carlos yelled. “You don’t live here! What you want, boy? Didn’t you get enough last time I arrested you?”
Antonio stepped out from behind the bush. Carlos saw that he had a cell phone to his ear. Carlos walked toward him fast, calling out, “Hey, I’m talking to you! What you doing here, pendejo?”
Antonio yelled back, “Fuck you, lambiache!” and spoke into the phone. He didn’t back away.
Antonio was a punk and a coward. He shouldn’t stand his ground. Surprised, Carlos yelled back, “Ass kisser? Boy, you better run, because I’m about to beat you to death!” He quickened his pace, ready to whip Antonio’s ass again.
Before he made it out of his front yard the sound of racing engines came from around the corner. Carlos stopped, unsure what to make of it. He didn’t see light from headlights, he just heard engines. Antonio looked toward the sound and didn’t move. Carlos heard him say, “Aqui, aqui!” Right here, right here.
Two black Ford Explorers raced into view, screeched past Antonio and made the turn toward Carlos. Their lights were off. The lead Explorer covered the distance to Carlos’ house in two seconds and slid to a stop. The brake lights didn’t come on. The second Explorer skidded to a stop in front of Andy’s house. That one didn’t have brake lights either.
Carlos stepped back, turned on his flashlight and pointed it toward the Explorer in front of his house. The SUV’s doors flew open. Two men in ski masks jumped out, dressed in all black with AK-47 rifles, body armor and tactical vests. Carlos turned his light to the man who had come out of the back seat. The man shifted his body so that his chest faced Carlos, and raised his AK. He moved like a soldier, his actions quick and efficient.
Carlos took another step back. What the fuck is going on? Behind him he heard his front door swing open. He turned to see his wife standing at the front step. He looked back as two more men with rifles and gear ran toward his house.
The impulse to react finally worked its way through the alcohol. Carlos jammed his hand into his pocket and grabbed his pistol. Before he was able to yank his weapon free the man pointing the AK at him pulled the trigger one time.
A white-orange flash exploded from the rifle’s muzzle. The bullet hit Carlos to the right of his sternum, punched straight through and exited his back. His vision went grey. He dropped flat onto his back, struggling to breathe. He heard his wife scream “Dios mio!”, then more shots. The scream stopped, but was replaced by shrieks from his sons’ room. He turned his head and could just make out another man in black rushing through the door. Down the street he heard more shots, more screams. Andy’s screams.
He looked up. Antonio stood over him, flashed a gang sign and said, “See that, bitch? See what happens when you mess with Los Nortenos? Never fuck with me, bitch.”
Carlos couldn’t process this. His sons’ screams drowned in automatic gunfire. Slow, painful recognition worked through the haze of pain and alcohol. His family had just been murdered. He had just been murdered. This couldn’t be the work of Antonio and his band of preteen shitheads. They couldn’t do this. It didn’t make sense.
Antonio kicked him in the groin. Carlos’ body rocked from the blow, his blurred vision bounced, but he couldn’t feel the impact. He heard feminine screaming and could just discern Andy’s teenage daughter running down the street. Gunfire sounded, the scream disappeared as if it had never been there. Carlos saw the blurry, ghostlike image of the girl slam facedown to the pavement. He heard laughter and shouted comments in Spanish.
Carlos closed his eyes and tried to breathe. When he opened his eyes he barely saw the man standing over him holding an AK to his face. He heard Antonio’s voice, but couldn’t make out the words. He croaked, “Why, Antonio? Why?”
Antonio laughed. The man next to him said in Spanish, “Muevete atras.” Move back. Carlos didn’t understand him. He managed to wheeze, “No entiendo, no entiendo.”
The man in black fired another round, from ten feet away. This wasn’t the first time he had shot a man in the head with an AK. He knew enough to stay at a distance so that the blood, bone, brain, skin and hair wouldn’t spatter back on him. Carlos never heard or felt the round. It hit beside the bridge of his nose and exited the back of his skull. The blast scattered shards of Carlos’ head across his lawn, spraying the yard with an arc of gore.
Carlos died without knowing that all seven Arriago police officers, and all seventeen Harper County deputies, had died with him. Or that their families had been killed. Or that the Arriago mayor, municipal judge and twelve firefighters had been killed. Or that the same thing had happened in every Texas town along a hundred mile stretch of border between Roma and Brownsville, within fifteen minutes of Carlos’ murder.
NOTE ADDED 3/23/13
Son of a. . . after my writer buddy Lilas told me to look, I checked the CreatSpace account I forgot I had, and saw these two reviews from “ABNA expert reviewers”:
What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
The narrative was smooth, fast reading, as well as the realistic dialogue, but the strongest aspect is the quick intro to the story line. Gets you thinking, could happen, right?
What aspect needs the most work?
Nada. Excellent work. Good character descriptions, but if you added some physical descriptions of the characters, it might add a little more.
What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
Mad that this is just an excerpt, because I would still be reading this well into the night. Very original, albeit possible, plot. We,unfortunately, live with these possibilities everyday, especially those on the southern borders. This contemporary thriller would sell.
Review #2 (which also addresses the second chapter):
What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
The pacing here is great, which means I wanted to keep turning the pages and reading further. The staff sergeant’s briefing is detailed and vivid, and the reaction of the tired and half-drunk cop to the news that a wannabe gangbanger is hanging around outside his house was completely convincing. What all that adds up to is the fact that the author has a distinctive voice, which is pretty hard to come by. That means, IMO, that it’s worth toiling away on the hard work that it might take to make this publishable, because the voice is the one thing is hardest to come by.
What aspect needs the most work?
Well, I’ll just mention the fact that if you want someone to read a lot of content, please format it with paragraphs… This segment read as one very very very long paragraph, with no breaks, which is very hard to process. NB: My ratings, below, don’t reflect that, but be aware that it makes life harder for a reader.
[Chris Hernandez note: I have my novel formatted correctly, but when I loaded it onto the ABNA submission page it changed it into one big paragraph. I tried three f'kin' times, and it did it every time. I even went back and tried to do it manually, but it kept making the excerpt into one big paragraph. And then I get criticized for that. Bastards!]
What I struggle with here is what happens after Carlos and his neighbor and their families are murdered. Instantly, we’re plunged into the military response team, telling me it’s going to be all action. I found myself craving some kind of bridge to that scene — Nunez and Quincy could hear rumors about this, or we could see Lacey being told about it, or something else. The segment started with a big bang (well, technically, a lot of ‘em…) and sometimes it’s good to take a step back and take the time to set the stage and develop the characters so that we know what’s going on and care about the people who are here. It’s as if the 9/11 story went straight from the attacks to the invasion of Afghanistan, without us understanding how or why the attacks took place and thus why it’s logical that the invasion is taking place. Yes, I’m sure Lacey is about to explain it all to them, but then that would fall into the category of telling the reader, rather than showing them. As it stands, this feels like an abrupt and unconvincing jump for the reader.
What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
The writing needs a lot of polishing: there are lots of awkward phrasings — eg “pulled the trigger one time” rather than pulled the trigger once. Or, “saw the blurry, ghostlike image of the girl slam facedown onto the street” — presumably it wasn’t the image of the girl that slammed down but the girl herself?
And there are exchanges between the two soldiers that feel unnatural, as if the conversation is taking place just for the reader’s benefit. (which goes to my criticism above.) Sure, all this information about Laura and the marriage is great to have but don’t just download it, dribble it out in a natural way. It’s a shame to waste an intriguing idea, after all.
The idea is intriguing, and I assume it comes from all the narco-trafficante stories. One element that I would hope is going to be explained somewhere very early on is just why they would want to wipe out every law enforcement member and their families? Clearly this would bring about precisely the kind of reaction that is taking shape: a military incursion. To make this more than just a “soldiers shooting guns and being violent” novel, there needs to be a logical backbone to the story, one that is apparent to the reader from early on. I did find myself wondering just why this would unfold this way (beyond the fact that it was because a novelist wanted it to happen this way to write the book he/she wanted to write…)
The level of detail in the writing here is mostly excellent, particularly segments like
“Lacey paused to take a drink from a
plastic water bottle, then screwed the cap
back on and set the bottle to the side.
“Okay gentlemen,” he said,
looking over the room again.
“Here’s what’s up.”
I could literally see this scene in my mind’s eye, and that’s an excellent sign.
For me, a lot comes down to where this excerpt goes next. If it veers off in what I think of as “fictional gun porn” — a novel about soldiers and their weapons and their brotherhood and so on — then you’ve lost me as a reader. If you can convincingly explain why drug cartels would do this, and make this a story about people, then I think it could be very interesting, with work on style and structure.
[Chris Hernandez note: so if this becomes a story about soldiers and their weapons and brotherhood, he's not interested? Or did I misread that?
It sounds to me like one guy loved it, and one guy saw positives and negatives but doesn't care for military fiction. Damn it.]
Filed under: Writing | 34 Comments
Tags: cartels, military fiction, Texas border, veteran writers