Dwayne Higgins stood at the open window overlooking the street in downtown Fortaleza, Northeast Brazil. The sounds from below filled his brother-in-law’s dingy office where foreign currency exchanged hands on the parallel market. An electric floor fan forced air in his direction. Canned ice-cold coke satiated his thirst in the eighty-seven-degree heat.

Thursday of Holy Week. Semana Santa. People clogged the street like a horde of rats burrowing their way amid the shops, searching for Easter bargains. Street children meandered among the pack, snatching watches and purses, disappearing with their loot. Young women flaunted low necklines and bottom-hugging skirts. Storefronts spilled their wares onto the pavement, obstructing the flow. Choked sewers belched up slime, saturating the air with stench.

In Fortaleza, life pulsated in bars and restaurants and on sun-soaked beaches. For the thirty-year-old, black American from San Diego, Southern California, this two-week visit was not for fun seeking. His Brazilian mother-in-law clung to life on a hospital bed, following a heart attack. Gabriela, his wife, spent most of the day at her mother’s bedside. Their four-year-old son stayed at a sister-in-law’s house, pampered by his cousins.

Dwayne crushed the empty coke can. He threw it into the trashcan near the desk and fan. He looked at his watch. One thirty-two in the afternoon. The Reverend Carlos Andrade was due anytime now to exchange his American dollars for Brazilian currency. Dwayne met the pastor last week at his father-in-law’s house.

The buzz of the intercom, from the security desk in the lobby, signaled that the pastor had arrived. Dwayne buttoned up his short-sleeve, cotton shirt. He could never get used to Fortaleza’s hot, humid weather.

The doorbell chimed. Dwayne peered through the peephole. The bespectacled, sexagenarian pastor stood alone on the other side of the door. He unlocked the door. Without warning, the door collided with his face. He reeled backwards. The pastor stumbled into the room, followed by two armed men. The men were about mid-twenties, heavyset, dressed in black suits and ties. They were both about his height, five-feet-eight.

“Do not move!” said one.

“Put your hands up!” said the other, kicking the door shut.

Dwayne raised his arms above his head. Darn! The envelope with two thousand Brazilian reais for the pastor was in one of his pockets. Instinct told him to fight back. Reason cautioned to stay calm.

One of the men pushed the pastor face-forward against the wall. The pastor clutched his head. A handgun dug into Dwayne’s back. The assailant propelled him towards the desk.

“Put the money in here!” He dropped a black leather briefcase on top of the desk. “Any movement, you are a dead man!”

“I no have keys,” said Dwayne in his faltering Portuguese. “Boss have keys. He is not here.”

The assailant shoved Dwayne against the wall, next to the pastor. He emptied the pockets of Dwayne’s long nylon khaki shorts. He took Dwayne’s wallet with his American driver’s license, cell phone, the two thousand reais, and wristwatch. The men broke open the desk drawers and dumped their contents onto the floor. They forced open the money chest hidden under the desk.

They locked Dwayne and the pastor in the four-by-four restroom. Dwayne felt impotent as he leaned against the door. His 160-pound frame was no match for the two heavyweight armed assailants.

The pastor—pale and shaken—sat on the toilet seat facing him. “I am sorry, my son. I thought that they were just businessmen.”

“Is not your fault, Padre. Place like this need better security.”

His brother-in-law, Tiago Ferreira, six years younger than Dwayne, believed too much security would attract unwanted attention.

“You acted correctly, my son,” said the pastor. “They would have killed us.”

“This should not happen,” said Dwayne.

“My son, I learned in life that bad things happen for our good… God our Father acts in mysterious ways.”

Dwayne wasn’t one for philosophizing. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had he not given in to his wife, Gabriela, he wouldn’t even be there.

Spending the day with his brother-in-law seemed like an excellent idea. It was a distraction from the gloom hanging over the Ferreira family. He was awkward in the face of sickness and death. That morning, the tales of backpackers traveling across Brazil shredded the shroud threatening to suffocate him.

“When will Tiago return?” said the pastor.

“Soon, I hope.”

Dwayne put his ear against the door. “I think men go. I not hear movement.” He pressed down the door handle. Locked. He slid to the floor and propped his head against the door.

The heat in the cramped restroom became unbearable. Perspiration crept down his back, sticking like honey to the hairs of his chest. Air circulated through the half-opened window above their heads. The aroma of deep-fried pasteis filtered in from the pastry shop next door. The minced meat pie—cooked with eggs, onions, garlic, and seedless olives—was his favorite. His empty stomach growled.

Dwayne stretched out his legs under the hand wash sink. He closed his eyes. His life had come to this—trapped in a toilet. The leeches on Wall Street had flushed away his investments and his dream of buying their first home. The owner of the clinic where Gabriela worked as a massage therapist had chopped her hours in half. They were floating in credit card debt.

The locked clicked. Dwayne rose to greet his brother-in-law.

Meu Deus, Dwayne! What happened here?” said Tiago Ferreira.

Tiago’s face was grim. His forehead shone with sweat. As a cambista, he traded in foreign currency, making money on the difference between the buying and selling rates. The economic crisis scouring the globe had robbed him of his job at an importing firm. Tiago called his boss, Doutor Paulo.

Doutor Paulo, owner of a shoe store downtown, arrived around two-fifteen. The six-foot, burly man dominated the room. His stance and expensive-brand clothing and accessories exuded wealth and influence.

Dwayne was shocked. Tiago had lost almost thirty thousand bucks.

“A security system cost less,” said Dwayne to Doutor Paulo.

“Be careful how you talk, rapais,” said Doutor Paulo. “This business is mine. I am the one who makes the decisions here. From what I see here, someone was sleeping on the job.”

“I will take care of this, doutor,” said Tiago.

Dwayne didn’t like Paulo’s tone. He was not a boy. He was a respectable accountant, a husband, and father. He was not responsible for the theft. He was the victim. He had rights.

Two men entered the room through the open doorway. Both men were robust, tough looking, and dressed in jeans and short-sleeve cotton shirts, unbuttoned at the neck. They shook hands with Paulo.

“We arrived as fast as possible, doutor,” said the older man with bushy, black eyebrows. “Here is the place of the crime?”

The two men, Fernando and Roberto, were private detectives. They examined the crime scene. After questioning Dwayne and Padre Andrade about the assault, they allowed the pastor to leave.

“Stay with God, my son,” the pastor told Dwayne.

With Tiago’s assurance that everything was okay, Dwayne left with the two detectives. They walked with him to an office building, a few blocks away. Tiago stayed behind with Paulo.

Over the next hour, in an office similar to Tiago’s, Dwayne peered over hundreds of photos of well-known criminals. None resembled the two assailants.

Sweat clung to his body in the humid air. Hunger and thirst clamored for attention. The detectives ignored his request for water. His brain was in a fog. He wanted to go home to Tiago’s apartment, where he and his family were staying during their visit to Fortaleza.

Dwayne looked at the clock on the wall: 4:05 P.M. When he thought they would allow him to leave, the detectives took him to a tiny room in another part of the building. The stark, gray room reeked like a latrine. Fernando, the older man with the bushy eyebrows, sat down on one side of the small white plastic table. He beckoned Dwayne to sit across the table. Roberto remained standing, behind Dwayne.

“I want to speak to attorney or American Consul,” said Dwayne.

“My friend, we only want to converse a little with you,” said Fernando, glancing at Roberto. “Doutor Paulo will forget everything that happened. Just tell us where your friends took the money.”

“I never see men before.”

“Why should we believe you? Who are you?”

“I tell you before. My name is Dwayne Higgins.”

"Tell me again.”

“I am American citizen. I live in San Diego, California. I am accountant. I am no thief.”

“Why you are here?”

“I am here with my wife and son.” Dwayne fumbled for the correct Portuguese words. “My wife born in Fortaleza. Her mother is sick. In hospital. Heart attack.”

Fernando leaned his chair backwards, balancing on the rear legs. His dark eyes studied Dwayne. “You are the leader of a drug gang. You stole the money to buy drugs in Brazil.”

Dwayne’s anger boiled inside like lava ready to erupt. He couldn’t find the words to respond. The muscles in his neck and back tightened. He shook his right leg—a nervous reflex action since a boy.

“I not use drugs. I not buy drugs,” he said in a calm voice. “I am victim of crime. You not have right to keep me here. I deserve to have attorney.”

Fernando lounged forward and banged his fist on the tabletop. “Here, thieves do not have rights!”

Dwayne’s facial muscles twitched. He heard a click near his left ear. The muzzle of Roberto’s handgun pressed into his skull.

The two detectives conferred in hushed tones near the door behind him. Fernando left the room, while Roberto remained at the door.

Where was Tiago? Why hadn’t he come to get him? What had Tiago got him messed up in? He had to stay calm. He had to think straight. If he wanted to get out in one piece, he had to understand what was playing out here.

It was 5:20 P.M. when Roberto handcuffed and forced Dwayne into an old, gray, two-door Volkswagen. Roberto sat in the driver’s seat. His hairy arms and hands gripped the steering wheel. Fernando sat next to him. Dwayne sat alone in the back seat.

They crawled through streets congested with foragers returning to their lairs. Shadows crept across the city, camouflaging the night prowlers. Uncertainty and fear swamped his mind.

“You take me home now?” asked Dwayne.

“No. We will drive around a little,” said Fernando. “Perhaps, you will remember something more.”

Roberto eyed him in the rearview mirror.

If Dwayne were a devout Roman Catholic like his Brazilian wife, this would be the time for him to start praying. But he had long since detached himself from the church and religion. To please Gabriela, he occasionally accompanied her to Sunday Mass at the Brazilian Church in San Diego. He respected her religious beliefs, her devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and her battalion of Saints. It was enough that his Guyanese-born mother and Gabriela prayed for him. He needed their prayers more than ever now.

His mother adored Gabriela. Who didn’t? A smile, warm hugs, and engaging talk were second nature to her. His female cousins envied her long black hair. She pampered him. He was her king. But Dwayne dared not look or smile at another woman.

Reasoning with a jealous woman was no easy task. Don’t admit to any wrongdoing, his Trinidadian-born father had cautioned him. Apologizing was a sign of weakness. Women never accept your apology anyway.

Dwayne’s captors drove through parts of the city unfamiliar to him. Decrepit buildings, plastered with graffiti, and trash-strewn streets reminded him of a distant past. The sun had set, leaving orange red streaks across the graying sky. He had promised Gabriela to join her and her family at the 7:00 P.M. Holy Thursday Mass of the Washing of the Feet. By now, she was either worried or livid.

She would also be mad at him for not getting the chocolate Easter egg he had promised Ricky. His four-year-old son had his mother’s good looks, smile, and translucent brown eyes.

These last few months, he and Gabriela had disagreed on almost everything. Their reduced monthly income, mounting debt, and his increased workload, due to job cuts at the firm where he worked, squeezed the joy out of their lives.

“All you ever think about is your work,” she often complained. “You never have time for me and your son.”

Her complaints were unjustifiable. All his hard work was for them. Something had to give. His father was right: You give a woman the Moon, she wants a Star.

He and Gabriela had fought about their Brazil trip. He didn’t think it was the right time to take off from work. Income tax season was the time of year when he earned good bucks filing tax returns. Besides, he had argued, they couldn’t afford the expense. Gabriela accused him of being cold and ungrateful towards her mother. He accused her of being selfish and irresponsible. Later, he relented. He was no eunuch.

Roberto sped along the freeway, heading out of Fortaleza. Was Tiago looking for him? His life was in the hands of Paulo and his henchmen. This was only a game to make him talk. Why couldn’t they see that he was telling the truth? If they killed him, they would have to kill Tiago, too. What was their game?

Fernando and Roberto had led him like a goat to the slaughterhouse. He wanted to kick himself for listening to Tiago. It was all becoming clear to him now, like fog dispersed by the early morning sun. Doutor Paulo didn’t call the police. That meant only one thing: his foreign currency operation must be illegal. Tiago must have known.

They drove farther and farther away from his Gabriela and Ricky. Movement on the freeway had increased, slowing them down. Even if he could, jumping out of the moving car would be suicidal. He was no Bruce Willis. He had to be ready to act when they reached their destination.

He had messed up really bad. Was there any redemption for him? Was there anyone willing to save him? Did he deserve salvation? He wasn’t sure of anything anymore. Perhaps Gabriela and Ricky would be happier with another man. It had worked for him and his mother.

His father and mother could never agree about anything. Their constant bickering unnerved him. It seemed to him that they couldn’t jell. They had too many unresolved issues. When they separated soon after his ninth birthday, he was broken and relieved. Life with his mother got worse before it got better. The scars remained, but time healed the wounds.

A cell phone clicked. Dwayne shot into alert mode.

“You can speak, doutor,” said Fernando. The seconds hung in the air. “Tudo bem. It is doutor who gives the orders.”

Doutor Paulo had given the order to kill him. Death gripped him—freezing his blood, constricting his muscles.

Roberto turned off the freeway. The cubicles of clustered houses with warm lights and beating hearts gave way to faceless brushes.

While his captors remained silent, his life force fueled each mile.

To Paulo and men like him, Dwayne’s life and those of his family were inconsequential. Greed reigned.

Roberto slowed and turned off the main road onto a gravel path. Branches reached out to swallow them up. Roberto slowed the car to a stop. He shut off the engine, leaving on the headlights. Desperation stirred. Dwayne had to make his move.

Fernando turned to look at him. “We have arrived at the end of the journey, rapais. You have a last chance. You say where the money is and we will let you go. What do you think?”

“If I know who take money, I tell you. You have to believe. I have wife and son.”

Fernando stepped out of the car. He held open the door for Dwayne to get out. Bending his head to climb out of the two-door car, Dwayne went straight for Fernando’s stomach with a head-punch. Fernando fell.

“Filho da puta!” he said, coming after Dwayne as he ran for the brushes.

Roberto grabbed him first. His hairy fist impacted the right side of Dwayne’s face. The pain exploded in his head, expelling blood through his nostrils. They dragged him back to the car, then forced him to his knees on the gravel.

Standing in front of him, Roberto placed the gun against his forehead, between his eyes. Dwayne closed his throbbing eyes. Ricky hugged his neck. “I love you, papai.” A beautiful girl, with long silky black hair, danced the samba on stiletto heels. She threw back her hair with the flip of a hand. Their eyes met. She smiled at him—a mouthful of white pearls. His heart lurched. She was the one.

Sound waves echoed in his brain at the click of the trigger. His body shivered. They laughed at his frailty. They played with his sanity. He was in their control.

Fernando jabbed him in his side. Dwayne crumbled to the ground like a discarded cloth rag.

Insects buzzed in his ears. The moon pitied him from above. His head pounded. The handcuffs were gone. He massaged his bruised wrists. How long had he lain there?

When he tried to get up, needles pierced his left side. The pain winded him. He used his arms to push his trunk upwards. Taking a deep breath, he raised himself to a kneeling position. Dizziness blurred his vision. Leaning forward, he focused on breathing and restoring calm. He had to find his way back to the town.

Supporting himself on his arms and knees, Dwayne pushed himself up to a standing position. He teetered like a drunk. After making his way to the paved road, he headed right in the direction of the freeway. Roberto had turned left on arrival.

Dwayne walked like a zombie along the deserted roadway. Alone in the world. All that mattered now was to keep moving, to get home to his family. A vise tightened its grip on his head. He had to keep moving.

One step at a time.

Each step forward along the winding roadway was like walking on a treadmill. The town with its lights and life became a mirage in his dehydrated brain. Pain and exhaustion forced him to stop several times for a rest. Time crawled by with the slow descent of the moon.

A bright light hovered in the distance—disappearing and reappearing with the bends in the road. Was it the Light to the other side that people spoke of? Was he dead?

The Light stopped a few feet away.

A man’s voice said, “Dwayne, you’re safe now.” He took his left arm and led him to the Light.

A woman’s voice spoke from the Light, “Meu amor, praise the Lord! You’re alive!” She took his right arm. The two angels led him into the Light.

“Praise the Lord,” Dwayne mumbled.

Sunlight blinded him. Was this Heaven? A tube connected to his right arm replenished his dehydrated body. Gabriela caressed his left hand. Tiago stood beside her.

“Welcome back to the world, brother-in-law,” said Tiago.

“What day is it? Where am I?”

“You slept through Good Friday, meu amor,” said Gabriela. “It’s Saturday.”

The sound of her voice revived him. “You’re in the hospital,” said Tiago. “In a room next to mother.”

“How is she?” said Dwayne. “Mother is conscious now,” said Mauro, Gabriela’s oldest brother, from the foot of Dwayne’s hospital bed. “The doctor said she will stay well.”

“Thank God,” said Dwayne.

“I thought I had lost you forever,” said Gabriela. “Don’t disappear like that ever again.” She squeezed his hand.

“What happen, Tiago?” said Dwayne.

“That filho-da-puta Paulo sucked his blood,” said Mauro. “I advised my brother that Paulo was not a trustworthy person. But my brother is hard-headed.”

“A man has to take risks,” said Tiago, looking at his brother. “Father himself said that.”

“Tiago may be hard-headed, but he has a big heart,” said Gabriela.

“What did Paulo do?” said Dwayne.

“That son-of-a-bitch took my brother’s beach house in Canoa Quebrada to compensate for his loss,” said Mauro.

“But that house more than thirty thousand dollars,” said Dwayne.

“Blood sucker!” said Mauro.

“Paulo refused to release you until I registered the property in his name,” said Tiago.

“We had to get our lawyer and registrar. We had a difficult time reaching them on a prolonged Easter holiday weekend,” Gabriela said.

“I picked up our lawyer,” said Mauro. “Papai and Gabriela located the registrar.”

“It was a race against time,” said Tiago.

Shame and guilt clouded Dwayne’s vision. Nothing his parents had taught him had prepared him for this moment. No response could undo the role he had played in this drama.

“I’m very sorry,” said Dwayne. “I don’t know what to say.”

“I never imagined that it would terminate in this manner,” said Tiago.

“When Paulo got what he wanted, he called Fernando to liberate you,” said Mauro.

“Paulo let me go and advised me where to find you,” said Tiago. “The rest you already know.”

That Saturday night, alone at last with his Gabriela, Dwayne lay in bed facing her. Her silky hair slipped through his fingers.

“I’m sorry, meu amor,” said Gabriela. “It was all my fault for making you come to Fortaleza.”

“Don’t think that way, Gabe. I’m happy I came.” He brushed her lips with his. “I’m truly sorry that your brother lost his beach house.”

“It was a big blow for him, but he’ll recover. He’s strong.”

“Your family has taught me that no sacrifice is too great for those we truly care about. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.”

“Welcome to the Ferreira madhouse.” She laughed.

Dwayne hugged his wife. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in her ear.

They had something precious that the greedy scumbags on Wall Street could not take from them. They were going to survive this economic crisis because they had each other.

Dwayne had a tale to share with his son. His brother-in-law had rescued him. He had a second chance to make things right with Gabriela, his son, and all those he loved. He would mess up again. But he was willing to try.

Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, would be a new beginning.

Story inspired by events surrounding the day my ex-husband disappeared after calling me at work, telling me that he had been robbed thousands of US dollars at the cambista (foreign exchange dealer) where he worked.

Captioned photo: Downtown Fortaleza, Capital of the Northeastern State of Ceará, Brazil.

First published in the now defunct New York-based magazine Guyana Journal April 2009 Issue.