THE weather went crazy the day Mateo Cruz was born. It was Thursday, January 17, 1985, and an unusually strong storm system spread across the skies in Victoria, Texas, covering the town of 60,000 underneath a blanket of darkness and gloom. The resulting downpour quickly flooded the streets, and the Guadalupe River, which cuts a path through the city, crested over its banks and swamped the low-lying areas.

The night air was unseasonably warm, even for south Texas, and uncharacteristically somber, almost as if the town were holding its breath in anticipation. Most residents avoided the streets, seeking shelter from howling winds that turned the rain into stinging pebbles. With each passing hour, the rain turned ever more oppressive, ceaselessly pelting the windows of houses and the windshields of motorists who had no choice but to brave the storm.

Carlos Cruz silently cursed the storm as he fought to see through the sheets of rain that distorted the view of the road before him. The windshield wipers of his 1972 Cutlass Supreme failed to wipe away the steady deluge, though they whirred frantically back and forth in vain. The tired motor and worn rubber linings couldn’t hold back the steady onslaught.

“Aiiieeeee!” His wife screamed in the passenger seat. Perspiration covered her face, and her typically dark brown hair was matted black from sweat. Her delicate hands roamed protectively over her swollen belly, hoping her touch would slow her son’s hasty entrance into the world.

“Just breathe, mi amor,” he advised, but Veronica Cruz’s cold stare told him his counsel was neither needed nor wanted.

“Just get me to the hospital, Carlos,” she commanded through gritted teeth. “He’s coming.”

“I’m trying,” he said, hoping he sounded more apologetic than frantic. “The rain is falling in buckets.”

Veronica responded not in words, but in the panting short breaths they learned in the Lamaze classes she made him take with each pregnancy. Since this was their seventh child, Carlos had hoped their previous experiences would somehow grant him clemency from the weekly classes of panting like dogs. His wife, however, had been adamant they attend, and when she was with child, she was more headstrong than ever.

With six healthy boys at home, delivered by the same doctor and brought into the world using the same Lamaze techniques each time, Veronica’s superstitious nature and maternal instinct were two forces Carlos vowed never to challenge. He begrudgingly agreed then.

Now that their progress was slowed by the weather and the streets flooded like a river, he was glad he had consented. The breathing exercises and lessons accumulated over the years might make a difference.

“Where are we?” she asked, concentrating on her breathing. Carlos knew she was using the short, focused breaths to draw attention away from the waves of crashing pain. Done correctly, the controlled breathing could alter her pain perception as well as reduce her heart rate and anxiety. He hoped it was working because he was about to lose his mind to fear, and his heart felt ready to burst from his chest.

“We’re at Five Points.”

“Five Points? That’s still over twelve blocks away.”

“I know. But the rain’s flooded the streets. If I go too fast, the engine might choke.”

“Damn you and this car,” she said and a loud clap of thunder punctuated her curse word in a mighty explosion.

“God doesn’t like it when you cuss,” he playfully scolded.

“He’ll forgive me. A cantaloupe is trying to exit my po-po, and it hurts.”

Carlos laughed. Despite his gnawing fear that he might have to stop the car and deliver the baby himself, his wife’s polite word for her vagina made him forget his mounting worry.

At least until the car behind them slammed into their rear end.

“What the…?” Carlos began, almost allowing the cursed F-word to escape his lips. Luckily, he stopped himself before Veronica could stare at him in disapproval. She hated the F-word more than any other in the English language, even more than its Spanish counterpart.

“Just drive,” she told him. “It doesn’t matter. Your brother can fix the damage later.”

“But what if you’re hurt?”

“Just drive!”

But before Carlos could apply pressure to the accelerator, a man tapped on his window.

“Sorry about that, buddy,” the stranger said. “My car skidded when I braked.”

Carlos stared at the man with the broad smile. His features were dark and hidden, but his teeth were exceptionally white. If Carlos had to pick him out of a line up, he would only be able to identify him by the wide grin and large teeth. Carlos had no idea what color the man’s eyes were. Or his hair. And his clothes were impossible to describe, as they were drenched in more than just rain. Inky shadows spread across the fabric, making it difficult to discern both the color and material.

He knew he had to offer some response in order to get going again, but his throat tightened. For some reason, terror gripped him.

“Hey, buddy, you okay?” The man’s concern sounded forced and hollow. “How about your wife? She looks to be in lots of pain.”

At the mention of Veronica, Carlos shifted his gaze to her. Her eyebrows were knitted together, and a look of worry seized her normally radiant features. She obviously felt it too. Something was wrong.

The door to his car flung open, and the stranger’s hand wrapped around his left arm and jerked him out into the pouring rain.

“Carlos!” Veronica shouted from inside the car as the stranger violently flung him into the street.

He wanted to yell for help, but the stranger was too fast. His left hand covered Carlos’s mouth while his right arm wrapped around Carlos’s neck, and tightened. Carlos then found himself lifted off the pavement and dangling within the crazed man’s death grip.

Carlos kicked wildly against the stranger. His feet connected with the man’s left shin and right knee. The man made no cry of pain. Carlos knew he struck him hard enough to at least loosen the man’s grip somewhat, but his hold around his neck was still vice-tight. And getting tighter.

“When I’m done with you, I’m going after your wife,” the stranger whispered. His breath felt fiery hot against Carlos’s cheek. Almost as if he were standing before an open flame. “And your son will be no more.”

Carlos struggled more violently. He never cared what happened to him. He was unimportant. His wife and children were the world to him. Without them, he would be nothing, and he would not allow some deranged lunatic to take Veronica or his unborn child away from him.

He dug his fingernails into the man’s forearm. Instead of breaking the man’s flesh, Carlos broke his fingernails. Each one of them cracked and splintered as if he clawed at stone instead of skin and bone. His arms flailed, and his eyes darted about, hoping and praying that a car’s headlights would spring into view and be their salvation.

“I like it when they struggle,” the man chuckled, sending waves of searing heat against his neck. “It’s sweeter that way.”

Carlos felt his grip on consciousness loosening. The fog of oxygen deprivation blurred his vision, and his lungs desperately tried to pull air into his body, which was shutting down.

His stunted vision was fading to black. Blood no longer rushed noisily through his ears. All he heard was silence. Carlos knew he was mere moments from departing this world and leaving his Veronica and their baby at the mercy of this wicked man.

Without warning, Carlos felt the man’s body unexpectedly stiffen before releasing his stranglehold around Carlos’s neck. His lungs gulped for air as his body crumpled to the hard, slick pavement.

His vision still hazy, he managed to make out another pair of legs behind the stranger. Although he couldn’t see the newcomer clearly, he watched as his savior pulled something long and shiny out of the stranger’s back before flinging him across the street the way a child might toss away an unwanted toy.

“Are you alright, Mr. Cruz?”

Still unable to talk, Carlos nodded as the man helped him to his feet. The newcomer was tall, somewhere over six foot five and Carlos felt dwarfed by his presence. Rivulets of rainwater washed down the man’s head, which was covered in black, short-cropped hair. Unlike the stranger who tried to kill him, this man’s features weren’t covered by shadow. They were clear and easy to read. His rugged jaw looked granite strong, but his smile and tanned face held tenderness and concern along with an edge of urgency. There was also a radiance about him that glowed from within, making his blue eyes look like patches of clear sky.

“Thank you,” Carlos finally said, through a strained voice. It hurt to speak, but expressing his gratitude was more important than favoring his tender throat.

“We need to see to your wife,” the man said.

Carlos cursed himself. He had almost forgotten about Veronica, who was now screaming at the top of her lungs. He had become so entranced by his savior that everything else around him disappeared.

Now that he was properly focused, he sprinted toward the still open driver’s side door. When Veronica saw him, she cried out in both relief and extreme pain. During the struggle, she had positioned her back against the inside passenger door and spread her legs onto the front leather seat.

The yellow dress she put on before leaving the house was now stained black with blood. And it was everywhere. Pools of thick blood coated the seat, and her hands looked painted red. She had been reaching between her legs to deliver her son.

“He’s stuck,” she pleaded. Her eyes looked at him frantically, expecting her husband to know what to do.

“I’ll get us to the hospital,” Carlos said.

“There’s no time,” a voice behind him added. “Your wife is about to deliver, and the baby is breech.”

His savior gently moved Carlos aside and climbed into the car with his wife.

“Veronica,” he said, his voice soothing like music. “I’m going to have to deliver your baby.”

She nodded quickly, as if the man’s words were not to be questioned.

“Wait a minute,” Carlos said, placing his hand firmly on the man’s shoulder. “Are you a doctor?”

“No, but I’m more than capable of delivering your son, Carlos.”

“How do you know our names? Who the hell are you?”

Thunder once again exploded overhead, and lightning flashed brightly through the night sky.

His blue-eyed savior turned around to gaze deeply into Carlos’s eyes. “We don’t have time for this,” he said. “Your wife and son are in danger.” Even though he didn’t know why, Carlos believed the man’s words.

So he let the stranger get to work.



HOMER RODGERS hid in the darkness across the street. Twenty feet away from him lay the body of the one sent to end the life of the infant. The man’s failure wouldn’t go unnoticed, and he would suffer eternally for it.

“The boy will live,” hissed a voice from the darkness around him.

Homer nodded. He knew enough not to speak.

“You will not fail us. Will you, Homer?”

Homer shook his head in response.

“Good,” the voice purred. “You know what happens to those who fail.”

Homer nodded again.

“When you’re called to act, you shall succeed. Or you will learn the true meaning of never-ending torment.”

Homer swallowed, hard. Since he’d first heard the voice call to him from the cistern on his property, his life had been nothing but fear. And waiting.

He didn’t want to do the unthinkable, but he gave up that right to save his wife. In order for her to live, in order for her cancer not to return, he made a covenant. To go against that now would damn them both.



CARLOS watched Veronica bear down one final time as his son was born into the world. The stranger worked busily between his wife’s open legs to readjust his son’s birthing position before gently guiding him out of her protective womb.

When his son let out a wail that shook the heavens, tears freely flowed down Carlos’s cheeks. His son was safe. He was going to live.

But as his savior handed Carlos his son, he watched his wife’s eyes turn dreamy and look off into the distance. “Veronica,” he called to her. His voice cracked with fear.

Her beautiful hazel eyes rested on him for a moment before turning to her son. “He’s so beautiful,” she cooed.

“Yes, he is. He looks just like you.”

“Take good care of him, Carlos. He must be a good boy.”

“Of course he’ll be a good boy. We’ll make certain of that.”

Veronica smiled at him. She looked drunk and unable to focus.

“My beautiful gift from God,” she said. “My Mateo.”

Then, Veronica’s head fell back against the window, and she was gone.

Carlos pleaded for her to come back as he clutched his son to his chest. He tried to reach her, but his savior was in his way. “Do something,” Carlos commanded. “She’s my Veronica. She must be with me. With our sons.”

The eyes of the man who saved him and his son looked at him with sadness wider than the deep sky hue of his eyes. “There’s nothing to be done. She’s gone home to be with God.”

Carlos stood there in the pouring rain, unable to move. In his arms, he held the last gift his wife gave him. Their son. Their Mateo.

The man exited the car and patted him on the shoulder before walking away.

“Wait!” Carlos cried out. “Where are you going?”

His savior never turned around. Instead he kept walking until he blended with the rain and disappeared into the night.