The Candidate

By: Josie Brown

(Romantic Suspense) (The Candidate Series)

December 31st

It was an unseasonably warm New Year’s Eve, and the throbbing mass of partygoers centered around the fountain at the Bellagio was for the most part feeling no pain.

One in particular was especially numb. His captors had made sure of it, doping him up with a cocktail of drugs—a potent mix of zombie cucumber, scopolamine, and some botulism thrown in for good measure—that left him too paralyzed to move, to speak, to cry, let alone to shout out to the crowd that he was, quite literally, a ticking time bomb.

As the Bellagio’s famous fountain pulsated to the sensual sounds of Sinatra, Carlos Rodriguez glared hard at those around him in the hope that someone—anyone—might be able to read the fear in his eyes, if not for his sake, then for the rest of them. Illuminated in the hotel’s many roving spotlights, their faces melded into a living collage: flirting, blowing horns, laughing, and screaming. He tried to scream, too, but nothing came out. Not a whisper. The drugs ensured that.

Then there it was: The countdown.


The last three months passed before his eyes, starting with the moment when that emotionless U.S. Customs official pulled him out of the employee line crawling down the gangplank of the Carnival Cruise ship on his one night of shore leave in Miami. If he had assumed that his Venezuelan passport wouldn’t raise any flags with her, he was wrong. She asked him some seemingly innocuous questions about his purpose for coming into the country.

His answers, innocent enough, still landed him in some hot, dusty hellhole.

There, Carlos was stripped naked, shackled in a fetal position, or made to squat in his own waste. During the scalding heat of the day, he was given little water to quench his thirst, and no blanket when the night temperatures dropped to freezing. As bad as the daily beatings were, the threat of being drowned, tortured, or bitten by his captors’ hounds of Hell was even worse.

He was no longer a man, only a number. They called him Catorce—the number, fourteen, in Spanish.

From the scared whispers and coded taps he heard from the other young Venezuelaños also isolated in the prison’s catacomb of cells, Carlos learned that, like him, they had all come from poor remote villages. None were married or had any immediate family, either back home or here in the United States.

In time, the capitano of their captors, the human devil named “Smith,” told them that they were to play very important roles in the freedom and prosperity of both their old and new countries.

And that was how they were told that they were to be suicide bombers.

When that day—today—finally came, the men were taped down front and back with the bombs, then dressed in nice slacks, collared sweaters and beige cashmere jackets, their hair lightened and spiked. Yes, now they could easily pass as well-to-do gringos. Then they were drugged.

Two hours later, seven vans carrying the human bombs pulled up in front of the seven hotels hosting Las Vegas’ world famous fireworks: the Flamingo, the MGM Grand, Circus Circus, Treasure Island, the Venetian and the Bellagio, all the way north to the Stratosphere.

Only Carlos had been paired with another bomber: some kid, maybe seventeen or so, who had entered their hellhole only the day before. His captors called him Trece, the Spanish word for the number thirteen. Although muscle paralysis had set in quickly, Carlos’s mind was still alert. He could tell that the boy, Trece, was also trying to fight the effects of the drugs. The look in his eyes wasn’t terror, but determination.

Señor Smith had ridden shotgun in their van. When the van reached the Bellagio, Smith roughly yanked Carlos out the back. After positioning him in the heart of the teeming, screaming mass of humanity in front of the fountain, he slapped Carlos on his back and whispered in his ear: “Look at it this way—at least you and the others will die heroes’ deaths for your new country…” before casually strolling away.

Out of the corner of his eye, Carlos watched as Smith reappeared with Trece the boy. They moved in the opposite direction though; deep into Bellagio’s thickening crowd.

What had Smith called him, a hero? No, Carlos was more like a fantasma...

A ghost who would haunt the United States for years to come.

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