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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the August 2018 issue

Dance with Death

Panamanian writer Melanie Taylor Herrera looks on as two assassins kill time at a nightclub​.
 

Two men head for the table in front of the dance floor. They sit down in the aluminum chairs silently and in unison. The man wearing the skintight black shirt orders two drinks. The bar is empty. It’s almost nine on a Wednesday night—a lazy night that slips through the waitresses’ and bartender’s fingers like thick wet sand. The men watch the few couples moving on the dance floor. Both men are light skinned and average height. The man in the black shirt’s small, sunken eyes notice everything. He has a small nose and fleshy lips. The other man has gray eyes rimmed with thick lashes, a broad nose, and very thin lips. When the waitress arrives with their drinks, they reach for their glasses without shifting their gazes from the dance floor. The man with small eyes drinks whiskey on the rocks, and the man with gray eyes, rum with lemon. They take a few sips, stand, and head for the exit, leaving their glasses on the table. The man in the black shirt tells the waitress something. She nods in agreement. As the men leave, two girls barely twenty years old enter in jeans that reveal their lower back tattoos; their tank tops show off their youthful cleavage. One girl drags her feet as she walks; she thinks she’s too tall. The other bounces forward; she’s wearing towering heels to make up for her short stature. As the waitress clears away the rum with lemon and the whisky on the rocks, the girls order a soda and a glass of ice. The waitress purses her lips in response. The girls exchange a look and purse their lips too, nervously touching their hair as they do so. They look at the nearly empty dance floor, the neatly arranged tables and chairs, and wonder if they’re wasting their time. Half an hour later the two men return, sit down, and order another round. They drink and cast a sideways glance at the two girls sitting at the next table, sharing a soda. The man in the black shirt likes the redhead and the man with gray eyes takes an interest in the tall blonde with the bun. The man in the black shirt sighs in frustration and the other checks his watch. They can’t get distracted, not yet. They need to leave one more time to complete this first phase. When they finish the job, they’ll disappear from the scene as quickly as possible. The short girl likes the man in the black shirt; his mouth twists slightly to the right and he looks like he’s smiling even though he’s not. The tall girl also likes the man in the black shirt; he’s slightly taller. A bachata comes on and the tall girl closes her eyes and moves to the beat in her chair, as the redhead quietly sings along. The men get up one more time. The girls watch them leave and they both let out a sigh. The bar feels even emptier than before and they order one beer and another glass of ice. The men drive an old, unmarked dark blue 4x4 truck with tinted windows and stolen plates. They drive to a high-rise building called Roca Vieja in the upscale Punta Paitilla neighborhood and park on the sidewalk across from the building. The security guard for the building is distracted as he talks to a housekeeper walking her dog. Finally a red car, an Audi A4, drives up and pulls into the parking lot. The men make a mental note: 11:20. Phase one is over. The man they are monitoring does exactly the same thing four days a week. He leaves the parking lot, but instead of going directly from the elevator to his apartment, he walks to the front of the building to smoke a cigarette. A very convenient habit. 

“Think his wife won’t let him smoke in the house?” asks the man with gray eyes. 

“Who cares?” responds the other. 

The man with gray eyes says nothing. He thinks the other man is arrogant, pretending not to be curious. He starts the car and drives back to the bar. They walk in, and without exchanging a word, they each ask one of the girls to dance. The girls stand up, neither one looking the men directly in the face, and follow them to the dance floor, synchronizing their steps with the men’s steps even before they begin to dance. The man in the black shirt holds the redhead firmly. She finds his hand warm and soft. He leads her with conviction, as if he’d been dancing with her forever and knew how to direct her, when to turn, when to swivel her hip to the right or to the left, when to move on the dance floor. He manages all this with the light pressure of his right hand. His left hand sits on his partner’s hip, right on the curve, making her tingle inside. As he turns her, she unconsciously memorizes the man’s cologne. The man with gray eyes leads the blonde by the hand. They try dancing cheek to cheek for a while, but then let go of each another. He admires the way she moves her hips to the rhythm, syncopating and swaying with the music. The song ends and the men lead their partners back to the table and leave the bar, this time for good. At 11:15 the next night motorcyclists speed past the front of the Roca Vieja building. They swivel around, spot a red Audi, double back to spray the car with bullets from a mini Uzi, then disappear into the night. The security guard and the housekeeper walking her dog run toward the car, which has crashed into a line of parked cars. The man driving the motorcycle thinks they should have waited until the man had smoked his cigarette and killed him in a single shot, but the one with the mini Uzi had disagreed and in the end the shooter calls the shots. They ditch the motorcycle and flee in a car where they have everything prepared. At 11:30 the redhead ends her shift as a clerk in a fast-food restaurant, puts on high heels, walks slowly over to a table in the restaurant, and lingers over a coffee before taking the bus home. As the black coffee steams around her face, her gaze wanders, and she recalls the previous night’s dance, the warm hand that guided her, and the other that rested on her hip, his cologne . . . . She wonders whether the man goes to the bar regularly and wants to go back another night to see if she’ll run into him. At 11:45 the blonde wakes up to the sound of her youngest son, just six months old, screaming and crying. With sleep nagging her and an unbearable heat that the fan can’t disperse, she turns on the television. As she’s fixing a bottle, she hears the midnight news announce that assassins have just killed an important businessman in his car outside the Roca Vieja building.

“Baile Con la Muerte” © Melanie Taylor Herrera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Christina Vega-Westhoff. All rights reserved.

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