The scream of a chop saw cutting through ceramic tile in the house next door blended with and drowned out Clarissa’s cry of surprise. She knew that when the large carved mahogany door closed behind her and the strange men, her voice would not be heard outside the thick walls of her family’s house. She also knew that what happened in the next few minutes depended almost solely on her.
Clarissa’s family’s home, like most in the neighborhood, wasn’t opulent, but nicely appointed and surrounded by white stucco walls sheltering gardens where lemon and orange trees competed with mango trees for access to the sun.
“Please hurry and take what you need,” Clarissa said as she fought the fear rising from her core and catching in her throat. She wasn’t aware that she was wringing her hands while shifting from one foot to the other as she stood facing the two men in the house’s entryway. She could hear the whimpering of her younger sister and her mother’s whispered prayers in the background.
“Pretty women like you should be more careful before opening the door, senorita. There are many bad people out there,” the older man of the two said as he looked up and down Clarissa from her strapless sandals to her tight jeans and blouse whose front offered a view to what was barely covered. She quietly scoffed at the man’s warning after the initial shock of two men invading her family’s home. A quiet resolve spread from the center of her being to her brain as she fought for control while assessing her next move.
Her sculpted face, arched eyebrows and thin red lips signaled control. She looked from the men to the crucifix on the wall which strengthened her resolve. Then she remembered her university acting classes where she learned to improvise a scene and act it out.
“Papi will be back soon,” she said in measured tones, not responding to the man’s cynical warning or to the weight of his younger partner’s dark eyes as they moved over her body, seeming to undress her. She consciously blocked out the panicked sounds of her mother and younger sister as they huddled near the couch; their heavy odor of panic mingling with their expensive perfume filled her nostrils.
As her mind raced, she avoided eye contact with Mami or Alejandra, afraid she would lose control of her and their reactions.
“My Papi and his friends are armed,” she continued. “But you have to understand, senores, we can not, will not have shooting in our house, so hurry and take what you need and just please leave.”
She waved her arms at objects around the room, unconscious of the gold bracelets, watch and necklace she was wearing. They were all presents from her father.
Clarissa hoped the men had not been watching the house long before they brazenly came through the gate, up the walk and rang the doorbell. She counted on their surprise that a man of the house was expected; an armed man and his armed friends. She saw the puzzled looks on the men facing her, and realized they had expected more typical hysteria from women when they forced their way into the house past Alejandra, her younger sister. The thick door their father had installed was equipped with several locks and there were bars over the all the house’s windows. All measures to prevent just this kind of situation. Most of the houses on Calle Bolivar were like their house: family homes that doubled as fortresses. But Alejandra was expecting school friends and had innocently opened the door when she heard the doorbell. The women had let down their guard and now the fortress meant to protect them could well become their prison.
The older man came closer to her with a revolver tucked visibly into his waistband. He wasn’t large, but the gun gave him more stature. Her whole body tensed as she wondered what she would do if he tried to touch her.
“Ay, look at that, three pretty women, so pleasant to the eye. But that’s not what we’re here for, eh, Jose?”
The younger accomplice dropped his eyes and shifted from foot to foot.
“Eh, Jose?” The older man repeated, sternly, almost as a warning to his younger accomplice who had followed Clarissa’s perfumed scent to stand very close to her.
The wiry older man rocked forward on his toes while he spoke, as if to give himself more height. His complexion had the hue of one who spent most of his life outdoors. A poorly trimmed moustache barely covered the stubs of teeth when he spoke, and his breath left a spindrift of garlic and strong drink. One brown eye was partially closed. Had he lost it in a fight or a work accident, Clarissa wondered. His slicked-back dark hair was streaked with gray and recently cut. He closed the front of his shirt making it clear he wouldn’t need the pistol. He filled his narrow face with a broad smile and winked at Clarissa as one who knew he was holding all the cards in this game of winner take all. He nodded to her mother and sister with almost a bow, as he spoke rapidly to his younger companion in a dialect that mixed Indian and Spanish words Clarissa found difficult to decipher, but whose meaning came across through his hand gestures and head movements. The younger companion was not much more than a teenager, she noted, and she saw goose bumps on his arms as he stood in the unaccustomed coolness of the air conditioned room. His clothes were old but clean, possibly to blend easier into the wealthy neighborhood. Long straight hair fell over his forehead. The vacant look in his eyes changed as he forced an embarrassed smile, perhaps to overcome his own fear. Above all, he did as he was told, moving with a small satchel to the various tables and chests in the women’s bedrooms. His gaze always returned to Clarissa as he passed a tongue over his lips.
“Please, you’re wasting time. When my father gets very angry, he can not think straight and he will start shooting. That is not good for anybody, don’t you understand?” Clarissa could see the man was taking in her warnings and was considering his next move.
“Then you must quickly tell me where the jewels are,” the older man responded. And his voice rose as he balanced again on his toes.
“I want the watches and the necklaces--all the jewelry that you rich bitches wear to the fancy balls in town. And don’t tell me there are none in this big house with such fine furniture.”
He pulled a plastic bag from under his shirt and moved quickly in his search for valuables to put into it. As he moved to the mother’s bedroom, he noticed pistol cartridges lying on the desk next to a picture of a middle aged, important looking man. His focus moved next to the closet, where a man’s pants and shirts were displayed neatly on hangers.
Marisol, Clarissa’s mother, as the wife of a prominent Venezuelan businessman, had been in similar situations, either in public places, in cars, or also in her own house. Some in her circle of friends had suffered the indignity of physical abuse and even worse. But this time she suppressed a smile as she followed her daughter’s lead.
“Listen to me,” Marisol said, as she gathered the few rings and bracelets lying on the vanity in her room as offerings. She too saw the need to stay in control, not become hysterical, not react as the men would expect of women. “Listen to me,” she repeated, hearing her own voice breaking as if it weren’t part of her. But mostly she wanted to gain time as she looked at Clarissa in surprise and then in a dawning of understanding.
“Listen to me,” she said a third time.
“This is all we have in the house. I keep my valuables in a vault at the Banco Nacional on the other side of town. Here, take our computers and our other electronics,” she said, pointing around the room as she looked into Clarissa’s expressive eyes that seem to show pride in her mother.
“But, please, please hurry. As my daughter said, when my husband returns, he will not be as helpless as we are. He is coming with a group of men from the oil company, and I am sure all of them will be better prepared to respond than we were.”
The older thief stayed calm, but the women could see how the younger man’s eyes grew to almost fill his face, as he looked from his hefe to the women and back again, while mumbling something to the older man they understood as “Let’s go now, Carlos, I don’t have many bullets.”
Even after nearly a year, Marisol, in her grief, had not moved any of her husband’s effects from his closet or their bedroom since he had been felled by a heart attack while on a business trip to Miami. There had been no signs, no indication that Enrique had heart disease; he had never mentioned any warning signs. His passing had left his wife and two daughters alone and unprotected in the large house in a prosperous part of Maracaibo. They knew from the stories their friends told after mass or at the various gathering places where people got together, that women, without protection, were vulnerable to the growing criminal element in their city and country as the rule of law gave way to lawlessness. The impoverished had taken the law into their own hands and the political and police structures had bent under the weight of the poor and unemployed masses out of control.
Their father had trained his daughters well to be resourceful, but he had never imagined he would leave them as vulnerable prey to any thief with a gun. When he prospered in his business, he had taken on the services of a driver who also doubled as a body guard. But Marisol had let Pablo go because they could no longer afford him. As the older daughter, Clarissa had formulated plans to keep them safe. Today would be her big test. She hoped for as good an outcome as the grade in her acting class. But when she started she knew she had to convince her mother and sister as well as the thieves.
“OK, senorita, gracias, we have what we need for now,” the older thief said with a grin that exposed his tobacco-stained teeth. “Tell your Papi he should take better care of his women.”
Clarissa made no response as she grasped the door’s handle. She sighed in relief and a large smile took over her face as she looked from her mother to her sister and then through a side window into the street in front of their house. She watched as the thieves disappeared past the house under construction where the unaware and unconcerned workers toiled with their loud machines. This was all the applause she needed for her improvised act. Clarissa was surprised to see her own profile in the wall mirror as she put the many door locks into place. In the mirror’s reflection she saw as well as felt the tenseness of her neck and arms fade as the three women embraced and their shoulders moved in a common rhythm of sobs.
James Stark lives and writes with his characters in the Pacific Northwest. He sends them out to live in such sites as SNReview, straightjackets, irlmagazine, Red Ochre Lit press, among many others.