New Excerpt: Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos

Trust Me

Richard Z. Santos

March 31, 2020

Read on for an exclusive look at Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos!

Charles O’Connell is riding an epic losing streak. Having worked in politics since college, he is used to losing races, but he never imagined that his most recent candidate would end up in jail and that he would also need an attorney. His euphoria at not joining his boss in prison is short-lived no one will hire him now, his credit cards are maxed out and his marriage is on the rocks. An unexpected offer to work in Santa Fe, New Mexico, doing public relations for a firm building the city’s new airport feels like an opportunity to start fresh and make connections with powerful people out west. But when the construction crew unearths a skeleton, Charles’ fresh start turns into another disaster. Soon, a group of Apache claims the site holds Geronimo’s secret grave. Soon Charles realizes everyone has an agenda and numerous dark secrets threaten to erupt. Gabriel Luna, one of the laborers present when the skeleton is unearthed, is willing to do just about anything to reconnect with his teenage son. Cody Branch, an ambitious, powerful millionaire, plans to leverage the deal to enrich himself. And there’s his wife, Olivia Branch, who has a surprising connection to Charles’ past and desperately needs his help. Surrounded by deception on all fronts, including his own lies to himself and his wife, Charles falls into a whirlwind of fraud, betrayal and double crosses. This riveting novel barrels through the New Mexican landscape in an exploration of innocence and guilt, power and wealth, and the search for love and happiness.

Hell of a week for Gabriel Luna. First, he was fired from a job he hated. Then, he discovered his mean bastard of a father gave him bone cancer.

Driving a dump truck on San Miguel Pueblo did not pay well, but it did pay. Gabe was helping to build Santa Fe’s first major airport and, although the dust gave him headaches and he hated the hours and the heat, he occasionally felt something close to pride in the work. Then a bulldozer dug up a skeleton where there was not supposed to be a skeleton, and the whole site went to shit. A man with shiny shoes climbed onto the bed of a truck and, with shaking hands clasped in front of his mouth, sent everyone home. Gabe and the other laborers were given vague corporate assurances that the site would reopen after “a swift investigation into the origin of the artifacts.” He wasn’t holding his breath.

Holding his breath might be better than letting the bone cancer tunnel through his body. The same cancer had worn his father down to nothing but pain and sweat. Gabe would not go out that way.

The diagnosis came from Shaman Jeff, whom Gabe called el Jefe. Wearing his customary blue Halliburton cap and smoking a cigarette, Jeff had said, “Yup, that’s cancer… to the core. Can damn near see it dripping from your nose.”

Gabe imagined his dying old man spitting bone-cancer cells like pollen spores, special delivery, aimed right at the son who was never there. Granted, no actual doctor had diagnosed him. Jeff’s diagnosis came after poking a few lymph nodes and lighting a candle, but in fifteen years, he had never steered Gabe wrong. The cancer was chewing on Gabe’s bones—that was for sure.

Now, a couple weeks after that one-two punch, Gabe pulled up in front of Jeff’s trailer and killed his bike. Time for his second treatment.

Jeff came outside carrying a red backpack and a gallon of water. “Jefe,” Gabe said, “you going to invite me in for a beer?”

“I don’t let Mexicans drink before ceremonies. Causes trouble.” “Damn, do all you old Indians hate to share or just you?”

Gabe put one arm around Jeff and slapped his back.

“Shit,” Jeff said, “maybe if you people had left us something to share.”

Jeff lived alone a few miles onto the Isleta Pueblo. For a fee, he dosed friends, and friends of friends, with Native-grade mushrooms. All a “patient” had to do was sign a paper converting to a Native religion and hand over two hundred bucks. Legal and above board. Gabe had been indulging in this mental enema at least twice a year for almost a decade. After the diagnosis, Jeff talked him up to the full deluxe model for two-fifty: drums, heat, smoke and a mushroom tea that tasted like rotten meat but sent Gabe to the moon and back.

Jeff claimed it purged toxins so the body could fight the cancer, but Gabe never believed in miracles. Still, a dying man needed to have some fun on his way out. He had taken two treatments in less than two weeks.

Jeff reached into his backpack and handed Gabe a gallon plastic bag packed tight with dried mushrooms. “You know who this is for.”

Gabe laughed at the bag’s heft.

“Where do you find this stuff?” he asked. “And what if I pounded all this, right now? Just shoved fistfuls down my throat?”

“I grow it in cow shit under the trailer,” Jeff said. “And, if you ate that much, I’d have to shoot you before you pulled your own face off.”

Gabe turned to hide the look on his face. Since the diagnosis, gut-shaking bouts of fear and paranoia would freeze him in place. Jeff’s treatments helped bring some calm back into his life, but nothing else made much of a difference.

He unzipped his saddlebag, took out a soft plastic lunch box filled with money and handed it to Jeff. Gabe never thought of himself as a drug dealer, no way. He was the middleman who introduced Jeff and his mushrooms to Frederick, a friend of Gabe’s since high school and who most definitely was a drug dealer.

“Our friend says the last batch was almost too strong,” Gabe said. “Some of the customers complained. You believe that? Anyway, Frederick ended up charging more, so you got some extra in there.”

Jeff took his money inside. He never talked details, never counted the cash in front of Gabe, never asked any questions. Gabe supposed the man was ashamed. Escorting friends through a religious experience was honorable, but blowing the minds of teenagers? Not worth a single word.

Gabe leaned against Jeff’s truck, pulled a soft pack from his leather vest and slipped a cigarette behind his ear.

After Jeff had stowed the lunch box inside, he came back, almost limping.

“We’re breaking down like old horses,” Gabe said. “We going to end up in the same rest home for broke Indians?”

Jeff pointed to his new truck. “Who’s broke? And who’s an Indian?”

“Hey, my great-grandma had a braid of black hair down to her ass and that pissed off face you always wear. Fifty bucks says I’ve got more Native blood than you.”

“That’s about as far as this will go.”

Gabe stepped up into the cab, feeling a twinge in his bad ankle. He had always felt kinship with the Natives. New Mexico was bursting with light-skinned Latinos holding their pointy noses in the air like a bunch of matadors munching on olives and calling themselves “Spanish.” Nope, not Gabe. His skin was brown as the Rio Grande, and his brother Lou was even darker. There were Indians hiding in his family tree, Gabe felt them. Not that he could prove it or apply for benefits or anything—he had tried—but extended family was family nonetheless.

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Jeff pulled the truck down the dirt road that led to the sweat lodge, Gabe took the leather bandana off his head and shook out the dust onto the floorboards. He ran his hands through his mustache, sending grit to the floor.

“What kind of focus you want?” Jeff asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll see what I see. Hey, that eagle from last time, you remember? Bring that guy back.”

Gabe popped the cigarette into his mouth and dug for a lighter.

“That was a vulture, not an eagle, and I’m not in charge. Except in this truck. No smoking.”

Gabe rolled his eyes but tucked the cigarette back behind his ear. “Damn things have been hurting my chest anyways. Feel like I’m back in middle school.”

“You tell your boy yet?”

“Working on it. Our schedules haven’t quite aligned.”

Jeff snorted.

“Hey, the kid’s sixteen. Kids are busy little bastards nowadays.” Gabe looked out the window. “And his mom doesn’t always want me to see him. Hey, tonight, can we be outside? I’ve been itching to get up in those hills.”

Jeff looked over at him and raised his eyebrows.

Gabe sighed. “I’ll tell him. I know, I have to tell him. It’s not that easy.”

Jeff’s cell phone dinged, the sound digital and fragile in the truck. “I didn’t think those worked out here,” Gabe said.

“Dude, we don’t live in the nineteenth century.”

Jeff pulled his phone off his hip and glanced at the screen. The truck swayed back and forth across the divider line, but there was no other vehicle for miles.

“My phone never worked out at the construction site,” Gabe said.

“Those bones really did a number on y’all, huh? I’m still going to bed happy, thinking about millionaires with their dicks in their hands.”

“Hey, I needed that job. And my brother works for the head millionaire. You better hope they get building soon or there’s going to be broke Lunas as far as you can see.”

“Lou will just go back to the force if he needs to.”

“Kicking and screaming.”

“White men buying up Indian land to build an airport.” Jeff sneered.  “Karma’s a bitch.”

“Don’t say it like it was my idea.” Gabe sat forward. “Wait, you don’t think that… I don’t have this shit inside me because of that skeleton, do I?”

“An Indian curse? That’s what you’re blaming this on?”

“They dropped the dude’s skull into the back of my truck. I saw the damn thing in my rear-view mirror. That has got to be bad karma.”

“You’re not sick because of that skull. You’re sick because you’re blocked in here.” Jeff thumped his chest.

“Oh, that’s sweet. You should put that wisdom on a t-shirt.”

Jeff shook his head. “I can sweat your ass down to a nub, but if you don’t unlock whatever’s going on inside you, then you may as well wander into the woods and curl up under a rock.”

“Whoa, a little harsh, man.” “You, of all people, can take it.”

Gabe wondered if that was a compliment. He hated it when Jeff got too mystical. After being stuck in Catholic school until he turned fifteen, and one-too-many religious-themed beatings courtesy of his pious father, Gabe had lost or abandoned most of his superstitions. The ceremony tonight would not heal him. All he wanted was to round off some of his edges and, maybe, buy himself a little more time.

Gabe reached into his shirt pocket and counted out the money. He was supposed to pay $250, but Gabe pocketed a twenty and slipped the rest into Jeff’s ashtray. If he called him on the missing cash, Gabe would claim a frequent flier discount.

They rode in silence for a few miles, the land rolling under the wheels and the horizon so unchanging that Gabe felt they were spinning in place. The sweat lodge was a log cabin at the end of a dirt road. If Jefe’s trailer felt like the middle of nowhere, then the lodge might have been on another planet. The hills that became the Manzano Mountains started behind the lodge, and the flat, rocky plain in front of the shack eventually turned into the Chihuahuan desert that stretched thousands of miles south. At times, when Gabe was high on the mushroom tea, the lodge itself seemed to bind the continent together, fusing desert and mountains with its own split logs and packed dirt floor. That was when even in the darkness every step was illuminated, Jeff turned into a shaman, and Gabe became something better than the wreck he had grown into.

Jeff started a fire under a hole in the cabin roof. Water boiled in a pot and he muttered a Native language Gabe only heard during ceremonies. Nervous anticipation flashed through his blood. He wanted the show but the formality made his squirm. Last time, an eagle did fly into the lodge—no vulture, Gabe swore—and circled the room before landing in the corner, sitting on its tail feathers and crossing its leg like a human. “Someone who died, trying to send a message,” Jeff said. During another vision, years earlier, the dirt floor transformed into a woven expanse of tiny, perfectly formed interlocking people supporting Gabe, supporting everything. For the next week, Gabe kept his yard immaculate, did not even throw a cigarette butt on the ground. Life was always a little different afterwards. Gabe would call his brother, send Helen some child support, be nicer to strangers, visit his father’s grave. But eventually, the lesson would leak out of him, the yard would go wild, and Gabe would sink a little deeper into his own life.

Jeff sprinkled powders into the water, then poured the tea into a metal thermos. After Gabe sipped until it was empty, time turned rubbery and difficult to track. Jeff beat a drum, but when Gabe looked, it was gone. The smoke still pulsed with the beat. Then, Gabe was outside with Jeff still drumming. Gabe walked into the hills, knowing where to step, knowing which rocks were loose enough to turn his ankle, stepping around cactus even when clouds covered the moon. Then, a line of fire spread along the top of the hill, thin as thread. The orange thread thickened and rolled forward. Trees that were not there cracked and exploded from the heat and the pressure. The fire line grew stronger, advancing as if on wheels, smooth and unstoppable. The flames, tall, perfectly shaped into a point, stopped inches in front of his nose. Gabe skimmed the flat of his hand over the edge of the flames. Fire is natural, nothing to fear. Forests burn and grow stronger. Gabe might burn and come back stronger.

Jeff grabbed his wrist. “No further. Not yet,” he said. “Your marrow is not your own, and you’re not ready to go.”

Gabe looked back at the wall of flame. The flames turned pain black. At the center of the flames, he saw his dying father. Lou was there. Lou was the good son at the end, tying his father’s wrists to the bedrails against the animal delirium. No Gabe. Fire ants tunneled out of his father’s body and formed a line marching straight towards Gabe.

“Pop,” he sobbed, “I meant to visit. Couldn’t you have found some other way to punish me?”

The flames vanished, leaving Gabe red-faced and cold in the middle of the desert. At some point, Jeff had stopped drumming.

“You’ve got to tell your son,” Jeff said, then turned back to the cabin.

Gabe hesitated, looking back to where the flames had been, as if there could be a different answer. Then he turned and followed Jeff, stumbling on the gravel beneath his boots.

Copyright © 2020 Richard Z. Santos

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