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twenty-two degrees

The Expatriate

Stephen Richter

Stephen Richter


22ยบ by Stephen Richter


twenty-two degrees

For Ronaldo Wilson and Micah Perks. Without your guidence and support “twenty-two degrees� would not have been possible. Special thanks to the University of California for bringing me in from the cold.

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The Expatriate

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Ex·pa·tri·ate (eks – pá- tri – at´) 1. To send into exile. 2. To leave one’s country and reside in another. An expatriated person.

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“I am going a long way With these thou seest - if indeed I go (For all my mind is clouded with a doubt) To the island - valley of Avilion; Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies Deep - meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea, Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson (The passing of Arthur, 1.9)

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CHAPTER I Strangers in the Night Friday, December 23rd I opened my eyes. Lying on my side, on my bed, I watched the sun rising over the sea of Cortez. The sliding glass doors of my bedroom were open. The warmth of the desert mornings were still novel to me, even after three months down here. I loved Costa Azul. It was a magical place. I rolled onto my back and stretched. Three geckos clung to the ceiling above me. They scattered. “Get back to work.” I said, yawning. I looked over at the closet, to my left. The trail of ants was still there, in the corner, crawling up and down the wall. “Maybe geckos only eat mosquitoes,” I mused. I reached for my necklace of shells, hanging from the headboard, and put it on. Sitting up, I slipped into a pair of cut-off Levi’s, then stood. The grit of sand under my feet was a reminder to stop leaving the door open at night. The scorpion, scurrying towards the shadows under my bed, was another. I went to the kitchen for a broom. Climbing the tile steps, my stomach tightened into a fist. I doubled over from the pain. It angered and humiliated me. I hated it all so much. Half running, half hopping, I burst through the bathroom door. Perspiration beaded on my forehead, and above my upper lip. I jerked my shorts down, sat on the toilet, and reached for the bucket under the sink. The constant vomiting and diarrhea were wearing me out. It was dehydrating the hell out of me. I couldn’t allow that to happen. I took a mental note. Be sure to drink another liter of water before the walk. I kept my face in the bucket. My stomach heaved. 9


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It’s almost over now. Don’t let it get the best of you ... My body purged itself. It rejected everything that I had attempted to eat the night before. I sat the bucket on the floor, at my feet. A string of saliva stretched from my bottom lip. I closed my eyes, locked my fingers behind my head, and breathed through my mouth. The nausea would soon pass. I just had to be patient. My name is Sidney. I am 33 years old, and I am dying. I cleaned myself up. I washed my face in the sink, then looked into the mirror of the medicine cabinet. The irony was the fact that I doubt that I had ever looked better. Three months of sunshine hid any trace of pallor, or the sickly skin tone I would surely have if I were back home. The vomiting, diarrhea, and exercise had brought my body fat percentage down to the single digits. I suppose looking at the glass as being half full doesn’t do any harm. It’s not as if I were living in some sort of state of denial. I realized it was all heading south. I just tried to stay positive, that’s all. I had to. Even if the best I could hope for would only be to slow the process a bit, that was something. It was something I could reach for. “All-right doctor Frankenstein ...” I said, looking into my own eyes. “Let’s get this over with.” I opened the medicine cabinet. I removed two boxes and six bottles. I walked to the kitchen and sat everything down on the counter. I retrieved my log book from above the refrigerator, then the bathroom scale from under the sink. I was ready. I pulled my shorts down again and stepped out of them. The readout on the scale was 210 pounds. I smiled. Despite the diarrhea, I had gained three pounds. The steroids were reversing the muscle degeneration process. I made the entry in my log book. “Now, if we can just find a way to keep this food down, we’ll be in business.” I said. I walked naked towards the refrigerator.

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I blended up a “liquado” with milk, bananas, and 100 grams of protein power. I smoked a joint to get my appetite up, while I prepared everything. The herb settled my stomach a bit. I lined up my pills: Zolax, Novadex, Anadrol 50, three Dianabol, six amino acids, and a multi-vitamin. I opened a box of Decadurabolin and removed one of the pre-loaded syringes. I did the same with the Sustonon 250. Thank God for Mexican pharmacies. I shot myself up on each side of my ass, popped my mouth full of pills, and drank my protein shake. I put my shorts back on, slipped into a pair of sandals, then grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator. I headed for the sliding glass doors of the living room. Stepping outside, I surveyed the view. A dirt hill sloped from the bottom of my stairs to the deserted highway below. It was peppered here and there with cactus. I had no address here, really, just kilometer twenty-two. At least that was the nearest man-made landmark. A post, with KM.22 painted on it, stood on the side of the road, at the bottom of the hill. Across the highway, la Carretera Transpeninsular, I believe they call it, is a bar called Zippers. Its palm-leafed palapa roof marks the only connection to the modern world in Costa Azul. Beyond Zippers, the Sea of Cortez sparkled before me. It stretched as far as the eye could see, from the cliffs on the southern boundary of Costa Azul, reaching far to the north, past the cape of Punta Gorda. I put on my sunglasses, and gazed into the rising sun. I smiled. My name is Sidney. I am thirty-three years old, and I am living, really living, for the first time in my life. I walked down the stairs. “Sid Vicious!” said a voice, “What’s up, bro?” I stopped, turned around, and looked back up the hill. It was Raymond Quinn, my landlord. He stood shirtless and barefoot, in front of his rickety Winnebago. His blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. “Morning, Ray.” I said.

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He lifted a bottle of Pacifico beer in my direction, toasting the sunrise. “Beautiful morning.” he said. I looked out over the sea again, then back up at Ray. “Another day in paradise.” I said. “I’m surprised you’re not in the water, man.” “No-can-do-oh, amigo.” Said Ray, “I’ve got to make some money here, bro. Things are getting pretty lean.” “But I just gave you rent yesterday,” “That money’s gone.” he said, “I had to spend it all on materials, to make these next two boards. I already have them sold. I just have to finish them. But until I’m done, Rusty and I are starving, man.” I noticed the surfboard on the sawhorses in front of him. “Starving?” I said. “You low on food, Ray?” Normally I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking another man such direct questions about his living conditions. But Ray, or “Captain Q” as he was known here in Costa Azul, could not be embarrassed in any way. “Bro,” said Ray, his eyes widened. “I have one tortilla, man, one. Rusty ate the other two last night with the last of the free-holies.” He downed the remainder of his beer. “Aw Christ, Ray.” I said. “Where’s he at?” “Right here.” he said. He walked over to the T.V. tray, that stood beside the open door of the mobile home. “Look at this thing.” He returned, holding up a shriveled corn tortilla. “See?” He tapped it against the top of the surfboard. “It’s as hard as a rock, Sid.” “I’m not talking about the tortilla, man.” I said, “Where’s Rusty at?” “Oh.” Said Ray, “I guess he took off before sunrise. Poor kid’s out there surfing on an empty stomach.” “Well, why didn’t you guys come over last night?” I said. “You know I have all kinds of food in the house.”

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“Your lights were already out, bro.” said Ray. “Besides, I’ll have this board finished by noon today. Then I can go and pick up some money in Cabo.” “Ray,” I said, pointing up at the house. “Take your ass in there and cook you and Rusty some breakfast, man. I just went to the mercado yesterday. There’s eggs, cheese, onions, pancake mix... Knock yourself out. I’m going to take a walk down on the beach, then I’ll be back.” I turned and started down the hill. “Right on, bro. Thanks!” said Ray. “Hey, Sid! While you’re down there, tell Rusty to come up and eat, then. I’ll make enough for all of us.” “All right.” I said, over my shoulder. “And go ahead and burn the rest of the joint I left on the sink!” “Will do, amigo!” said Ray. I walked across the highway, then down the dirt road toward Zippers. The sand thickened beneath my feet. I rounded the bar, and the great palapa-roofed patio of the restaurant. All the chairs sat upside-down on their table tops. I plodded out beyond Zippers, across the sand. The sea air filled my lungs. The surf roared. It thundered in, in rhythmic intervals, from the other side of the sandy hill. I walked down the decline of wet sand, closer to the water. My path carried me south, along the coast. The sand hardened. The weight of my steps lightened. The marijuana turned the air to velvet. It caressed my skin. I looked out over the water. A ray broke through the surface, a hundred yards offshore. It spread its wings. The whiteness of its underbelly shone in the sunlight. It rotated in the air, then fell back to the sea. Then I spotted Rusty. He rose from his stomach to a standing position with one motion. His surfboard slid down the twelve-foot face of glass, with a smoothness and grace that denied his fourteen years of age. I watched

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him gather all of the speed the wave had to offer. His rear hand dragged behind him, raking the wall of water with his fingertips. Rusty leaned in and shot back up the face. He ploughed into the whitewater. The nose of his board pointed to the sky. He corkscrewed his torso back towards earth. The board and the rest of his body followed with an explosion of white foam. Down he plunged once again, shaking the wet hair from his eyes. He crouched lower, picking up more speed. At the bottom of the face he made his second turn. I continued down the beach. About fifty yards ahead of me I noticed a group of eight vultures. They stood at the edge of the breakwater. Something in the shallows had captured their attention. Whatever it was, it seemed as if they were waiting for the tide to go out so they could get a crack at it. Vultures have more patience than any other creature on the planet. Three more of them circled overhead. I looked back towards "Gringo Hill." Another two were en route. My gaze returned to the group on the beach. Their patience sickened me. Maybe it was the symbolism of it all. I ran at them, my arms flailing. "Sons of bitches!" I shouted. After the first twenty yards, it all began to seem rather dramatic to me, and I laughed into the wind. I kept running, though. The birds took flight. A wave crashed. I reached the spot where they had been standing. An object washed ashore. It looked like a piece of driftwood. I drew nearer. The breakwater licked and pushed at it. It rolled back and forth in the retreating tide. Finally, the waves abandoned it on the sand. It was a four foot-long Moray eel. Its eyes stared into the void. Its moment of death must have been some time ago. I wondered how long. Protruding from its gaping mouth was the back half of a silver fish.

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"Whoa, cool." said Rusty, walking up beside me. "It looks like it choked to death." His surfboard was tucked under his arm. "Looks that way, doesn't it?" I said. I roughed up Rusty's wet blond hair. "Hey, man," I continued, "I saw you out there shredding. You're getting pretty good, Russ. I was impressed." Rusty's eyes beamed. He smiled up at me. Sun freckles were painted across his nose and cheeks. "You really think so, Sid?" he said. "Absolutely." I said. "In fact, I'd be willing to put money down that you win your whole age division at next summer's invitational." I looked back at the eel. My expression faded. "What's wrong, Sid?" said Rusty. "Nada." I said. "Come on, let's get out of here. Your dad is cooking breakfast up at the house." We turned and left. Walking up the sand toward Zippers, Rusty turned to me. "Sid, have you ever been with an older woman before?" he said. "What?" I said, taken off guard. "I mean, not an old lady. Not like a grandma or anything." he said. "Just ... you know, older." "How old are we talking about here, Russ?" I said with a smile. I adjusted the sunglasses on my nose with my middle finger. "I don't know," he said, "like four years older than yourself." "I'm only thirty-three, Russ. That's not that old." I said. "No ..." he said, "I mean, like when you were my age." "Oh." I said. I was beginning to understand. "Four years? Well sure, why?" Rusty smiled to himself. He looked to the road ahead of us. "I was just wondering." he said. We plodded on our way around the bar and restaurant. Rusty's face took on the countenance of a dream. It was an expression that young men have worn for centuries, for millennia, I suppose. It was

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an expression of tragedy, of yearning. It embodied all of the heartache of youth, all of the passion and desire I had ever known, and that which I would never know again. For a moment, I envied him. "This wouldn't have anything to do with a Miss Dulce Bustamante, would it?" I said. I put my hands in my pockets and looked out over the water. "Sid, I think I'm going crazy." "Rusty! Sid! Come on, breakfast is ready!" said Ray. I looked back over my shoulder. Ray was standing on the porch with his hands on his hips. "Come on, bros! Let's eat." Rusty and I looked at each other. He forced a smile. I nodded. "We'll talk, Russ." I said. "Yeah," he said. "It's cool, Sid. Forget about it. Let's eat." "Rusty!" said Ray. "We're coming!" said Rusty. He started up the hill. I followed him. The sun beat down on my bare back and shoulders. !!!

Rusty and Ray sat at the table, eating. I ate two bananas, but passed on the chorizo and eggs. I headed out back to the patio for a workout. There was far too much testosterone in me to sit down and be social now. I had to put it to use. I draped a towel over the bench press to keep from burning myself. I rubbed on some sunscreen, then rewound my Nirvana tape. I loaded up 280 pounds, laid down, and began to fight my way back towards the land of the living, one rep at a time. "Not today. Not today, you won't." I said through my teeth, looking at the vultures circling overhead. I finished my sets. My ears rang. Sweat poured down my body. Walking back inside, my eyes had to adjust to the shade.

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"Whoa," said Rusty from the table. "You're getting pumped, Sid!" "You're getting obsessed is what you're getting." said Ray with a mouthful of food. "But I'm dying, Ray." I didn't say. I walked over to the steps that led down from the kitchen. I placed my feet on the top step, then planted my hands on the tile floor of the living room below. I began to do decline push-ups. "Just trying to stay healthy, Ray." I said. Ray washed down his food with a mouthful of Pacifico. "Then take up surfing," he said. "I could teach you, Sid," said Rusty. He turned around in his chair. I continued to do push-ups. "You could use one of my boards," said Ray. "Surfing is great exercise, bro. I'm telling you. It sure beats the hell out of all this ... this hedonism, man." He took another drink from his beer. I laughed. My chest was burning. I continued to push. "Hedonism?" I said, between grunts. "Do you have any idea what that word means, Ray?" "I do." said a woman's voice. I froze in the "up" position. A pair of feet, the color of honey, stood before me. The toes were pedicured and painted with peach. A gold toe-ring adorned one of them. A drop of perspiration fell from my nose to the floor. I looked up at her. "Watch out, Dulce. Let me get up." I said. She was standing so close to me that I couldn't get out of my push-up position. My weight, plus the angle of my body, made my arms tremble. She smiled down at me. She didn't move. "Dulce." I said, "Come on." "What's up Dulce?" said Ray from the table. "ÂżQue onda, como estĂĄs, que pasa mama?" He killed the remainder of his fifth bottle of Pacifico.

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"Hola, Ray." she said with a smile. "Dulce." I said. "Hi, Dulce!" said Rusty. She looked at me. "What's the matter, Sid? Estรกs cansado? Are you getting tired?" She stepped closer. Her knees pressed against my shoulders. She squeezed my head between her legs. I collapsed to the floor. Dulce laughed. Ray laughed. Rusty stormed off to the bathroom. "Damn it, Dulce!" I said. The sand from the floor stuck to my chest and arms. My head lay on her feet. "What?" said Dulce, laughing. She squatted down with her knees together and patted me on the head. "And you said that you would never throw yourself at the feet of a woman." she said in a whisper. She stood, walked up the steps around me, and sat down at the table next to Ray. I rolled onto my back. My chest still heaved from my breathing. Despite all of the open doors and windows, Dulce's perfume was everywhere. It was not overbearing, just present, even at the back of my throat. The breeze had died. It felt as if her presence had sucked all of the air from the room. Or perhaps I was becoming melodramatic in my dying days. Either way, though, Dulce Bustamante had a great deal of power, power over men, for an eighteen-year-old girl. She realized it, too. Maybe the money had something to do with it. Her parents owned the La Jolla de Los Cabos Resort, up the beach. Dulce lived like a princess in the white mansion at the top of the cliff opposite my house. I stood and dusted myself off. Ray and Dulce were already smoking a joint at the table. Ray laughed in her ear. Dulce's lion's mane of chestnut hair draped over the back of her chair. I walked to the refrigerator for a Pacifico. Dulce watched me pass out of the corner of her eye. I turned a chair around backwards

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and straddled it, joining them at the table. I took Ray's lighter and popped the cap off my bottle of Pacifico. Dulce reclined in her seat. She crossed her legs. She took a drag on the joint, squinting a bit, then passed it to Ray. "So when are you throwing this party thing of yours, bro?" said Ray. "It's tomorrow evening." I said. "So I've heard," said Dulce. Her green eyes flashed. "My parents are coming, but you never invited me, Sid. Aren't I invited?" "Sure. Of course." I said. Ray passed me the joint. Rusty came out of the bathroom. "Damn, Russ." said Ray. "You sure were in there a long time, buddy." Rusty blushed. "Sidney." said Dulce. She leaned forward, reached across the table, and took my hand. "Were you really not going to invite me?" Rusty stared at her. "You weren't doing anything naughty in there, were you, Russ?" said Ray. "Dad!" said Rusty. Ray laughed, slapping the table. He downed the last of his Pacifico. "Aw, come on, Ray." I said. "Knock it off." Dulce took my beer from me. Hers was still full. She stared into my eyes, then drank from the bottle. Rusty headed for the front doors. "Rusty!" I said. "Hey, Russ!" said Ray, "I was only joking, man!" He burst with laughter. It reeked of beer. "Sidney," said Dulce. "You haven't answered my question." I pulled my hand from hers. "Excuse me, Dulce." I said. I stood and headed for the living room. "Hey Rusty!"

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Rusty bumped into Monique in the doorway, then ran outside. When I reached the door, Monique pulled me into an embrace. "Bon jour, mon cher." she said. She stood on her toes and kissed me on the lips. Rusty was gone. Monique slapped me on the ass, then walked inside. "Allo, Capitan, Dulce, bon jour." She went to the refrigerator for a beer. Her black hair was held back with a red bandana. She wore paint-stained overalls. Monique is from Marseille, France. She is an artist. She is twenty-seven years old, with black hair and clear blue eyes, eyes the color of the sea in Costa Azul. I told her that once. Monique is the love of my life. Or at least she was, until I told her that I was dying of ____. Now we just torture each other. I looked down the hill. There was no sign of Rusty. My temples pounded. "Sidney?" said Monique from the table. "What is the matter, mon cher?" "Hey, Sid!" said Ray. "Come on, man. Don't just stand there with your dick in your hand. Bring your ass back over here. We've got two beautiful women sitting at the table." He was slurring now. "You got a shot glass, Sid? We should all play quarters or sump'n." The room began to spin. "Oh, shit." I whispered. "Sid?" said Dulce. "Sidney?" said Monique. I ran for the bathroom. Ray roared with laughter. "God damn, Sid. You know, for a big guy you sure are a lightweight!" I closed the door behind me. I turned on the shower to cover the sounds of my humiliation. Thirty minutes later, everyone had left.

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Monique and I lay together in the hammock outside my bedroom door. There was no breeze, but there was comfort in the shade of the porch. A gecko scurried across the roof above us. "I hate you," said Monique. She wrapped a leg over mine. A small peace sign was tattooed on the top of her little foot. She caressed the back of my calf with her toes. "I hate you, too." I said. She kissed my forehead. "I know." said Monique. She nuzzled her face into my neck. Her hair smelled of conditioner. "I don't blame you." "Monique." "Oui, mon cher?" "Why are you leaving me?" I said. "Why now?" She groaned. "Oh, Sidney. Must we go through this again?" "Yes." I said. "You're damn right we're going to go through this again, Monique. Because I want to understand. Make me understand, for fuck's sake." "Don't talk like that to me," she said. "Do not use these words with me." "Okay," I said. "I apologize. I just want to understand, baby. Is that so wrong?" "What is there not to understand, Sidney? I have to leave." "But now?" "Oui, yes, now." she said. "What am I supposed to do? My family is leaving. They have lost everything here! My father's dreams, their life savings, the restaurant, it has all been stolen out from under them. This country has taken everything from us! It has taken everything from me! And now it takes you." "Monique, I realize that things haven't been very easy for you lately." I said. "And I know that my condition has been difficult for you to deal with. But, please, baby. I'm all alone in this. I'm scared." "Sidney, stop it." she said. Her voice cracked. "We sold the house last week. There is nothing more to say. We're moving back to Marseille."

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"But what's one more month?" I said. "One month, Monique. Is that so much to ask for?" "I can't." she said. "The hell you can't." I said. "I already told you that I would pay for your ticket back to France. You could stay here with me. Just a little longer, Monique. That's all I'm asking, or at least until ..." "Until what?!" she said. "Until what, Sidney?! It's hard enough on me as it is, to see you like this. You want to force me? You want to make me watch you suffer?!" "That's not what I meant." I said. "But that is what you are asking me to do!" "What I am asking," I said, "is that you don't just run off and abandon me! For Christ's sake, Monique! You say that you love me. Why don't you act like it then?! Or if not, couldn't you at least fake it for a few more weeks?" "I do love you, you bastard!" she said. "Then act like it!" I said. "Don't leave me like this, not like this. For the love of God, Monique." "No." she said. "I am not going to wait around here just to watch you waste away!" She was crying. She climbed out of the hammock. "Merde! Shit!" She paced back and forth in front of me. "I should not have come," she said. "I do not even know why I bothered coming here!" "Monique, wait." I said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Look, let's not ruin our last three days together, okay?" "No!" she said. "Don't touch me!" She took off down the steps. "Monique, come on, don't go!" I struggled to get out of the hammock. She ran. "Monique, stop!" I ran down the stairs after her. She was already behind the wheel of her Jeep. It roared to life.

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"Monique!" Dirt and gravel spat from the tires. She left me, coughing in a cloud of dust behind her. The Jeep raced down the hill, onto the highway, then disappeared. I knelt in the dirt. "Damn it!" I said through my teeth. I looked at the cactus next to me. I had an impulse to wrap my arms around the trunk and squeeze it as hard as I could. I had to do something, anything, to take my mind from the pain Monique had left in her wake. It was choking me, flaying the flesh from my bones. It hurt so damn bad, it was almost ridiculous. How did she ever get under my skin like this? How long can one really last once his will to live is gone? How long would I last, once Monique was gone? It was not supposed to be like this. I had no right to do this to her. This was not what I had come down to Mexico to do. I looked up at the vultures overhead. I thought about the eel on the beach. I tried not to think of my family back in the United States. I was tired again. Perhaps life would look better after Siesta. I stood, and walked back to the house. !!! I slept through Siesta, and well into the evening. When I awoke, the sun had already set. I cursed myself and rose from the bed. Now I knew for certain that I would not be able to sleep tonight. As if the demons in my mind were not plaguing me with enough insomnia as it was. "Great." I said, looking at my wristwatch. 6:30. I lumbered into the living room in the near-darkness. Once again, I had forgotten to close the sliding glass doors. I turned on the lights. A multitude of geckos and scorpions alike fled for cover.

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I looked toward the chair and music stand that stood in the far corner of the living room. My guitar case sat on the floor amid a tangle of cables at the foot of a camcorder on a tripod. I nodded. This was what I had come down to Mexico to do. My name is Sidney, or "El Sid" if you prefer, as I am known in some circles. I am a flamenco guitarist, a "virtuoso", or at least I have been called that every now and then. I have come down here to say goodbye, the only way I know how. I am going to record my finest work; the last and best performance I have ever given. If and when the recording makes it back to the United States, I will already be gone. I figured that it would be better for everyone this way; myself, my parents, my sister, my ex-wife and my two sons. None of them even know where I am right now; not a soul. I shook the thoughts from my mind. The silence makes one think too much. I sat down and picked up my guitar. Tomorrow would be the big night. I needed to practice, more to hear the music than anything else. It would bring me peace, for the moment. I played for two hours. I was restless now. I decided to take a shower. Since it was Friday night, I figured I would head on down to Zipper's. All of the "Gringo Hill Elite" would be gathering together for Zipper's "Moonlight Music Night." I wanted to confirm that everyone was going to show up for my little concert tomorrow evening. They would all be down there, dancing and having cocktails beneath the grass roof of the patio. I put on some cologne, adjusted my clothes in the mirror then stopped. There were little splatter marks and snail-trails in the sink. If I didn't know any better, I would have almost sworn that it was semen. "You weren't doing anything naughty in there, were you, Russ?" Ray's words came to mind.

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"No." I said, shaking my head. "Probably some sort of gecko trail or something." I turned off the light and walked out of the bathroom. I thought of Monique for a moment. I sighed, then turned out the living room lights. Leaving the glass doors wide open, I headed outside, and down the hill towards Zippers. I crossed the highway. Lounge music, just audible above the surf, rolled toward me over the sand. I smiled. The sound of a piano was joined by the shaking of maracas. Then came a voice, in accented English, singing Strangers in the Night. I walked down the dirt pathway, lined with tiki torches, to the entrance of the bar. Wandering in de night. What were de chances we'd be sharing love, before de night was true. I walked inside. "Sidney!" "Hey, Sid!" "There he is!" "Yoo-hoo, Sid, darling, over here!" "Hi-ya Sid!" The calls came from the party of ten, seated around the large table at the center of the restaurant. The gang was all here. A lovely night indeed. "¡Buenas tardes!" I said, walking towards the table. "¿Como están ustedes? How's everybody doing tonight?" "Marvelous, Sidney. How are you, sweetie?" said Ruth. I reached her and her husband Howard first. I leaned over Ruth's shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. Ruth and Howard are retired. They're from Vegas. "I'm doing great, Ruthie." I said. "Wow, you sure smell good. I love your perfume." I turned to Howard and patted him on the back, urging him not to get up. "Howie, how's it going, buddy?" I said. He patted my hand, on his shoulder. He wore a gold ring with a horseshoe of diamonds. "I'm doing good, kid," he said, looking up at me. "Let me buy you a drink, Sid." "Sure." I said. "Thanks."

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"You know, I haven't worn this perfume in ages." said Ruth. "Do you really like it Sidney?" "I love it." I said. "Hey, Javier!" said Howard, "una cerveza michilada, and a tequilla para Sidney!" "SĂ­, seĂąor." said the waiter, from the bar. "Hola Sidney." "Hola, Javier." I said. I nodded to him, then worked my way around the table, greeting everyone. "That's right, bring your butt on over here and give Brenda some sugar!" said Brenda. Brenda and her husband Dennis are like Ruth and Howard. They are very wealthy, and happily retired. Except they come from Alabama, by way of Boca Raton Florida, that is. Brenda downed the last of her margarita, then walked over to greet me with open arms. I stepped into her embrace, and squeezed her body to mine. I closed my eyes, smiling. "It's good to see you, Brenda." I said. She rocked me back and forth. "Oh, my baby!" she said. "I have missed you. Where have you been lately, honey? Shame on you." She spanked me on the butt, then stepped back, taking both of my hands in hers. At fifty-six, Brenda was still quite a bombshell. She had smooth tanned skin. Her sandy-blonde hair fell over her shoulders in curls. The candlelight silhouetted her body beneath her white cotton dress. She might have been naked beneath it, for all I knew. It would have certainly been befitting. Brenda was a very natural woman. "Now don't you look positively dashing tonight," she said. Her eyes flashed. "Aren't you going to have a drink with me?" "Where's Dennis?" I said. "You didn't see him?" she said. She encircled my waist with her arm, and led me towards the two vacant chairs, at the far end of the table. "He's dancing with Tracy." "Well, well, well, if it isn't my long lost friend, Sidney," said Brian, from the other side of the table. Brian and his wife Tracy are

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from London. They sell time-share at the La Jolla de los Cabos Resort, up the beach. Tracy has been supporting them both lately. Brian has been on a three-month bender, since the day of his 36th birthday. "How's it going, Brian?" I said. I took my seat next to Brenda. That was when I realized Monique was sitting next to him. Brian touched his shot glass to Monique's. They slammed their tequilas. Monique made a face. She fanned herself with both hands, then grabbed a quartered lime, and bit into it. Brian didn't flinch. He placed his empty shot glass on the table. "It's going better now." said Brian. "Jolly good, actually." He turned to Monique. "Vous les vous otre tequilla?" Would you like another? he said in French. The bastard. "Oui, mon cher." said Monique, laughing. Her face flushed. They were both drunk. "Hello, Monique." I said. "Se単or." said Javier. He placed a salted beer mug, a quarter filled with lime juice, in front of me. Next to it, he placed a shot of Herradura Tequilla. "Gracias, Javi." I said. I raised my shot glass towards Howard and Ruth. "Gracias, Howie. Salud." "Salud!" said everyone at the table, raising their glasses, except for Monique. I drank my shot, and set the empty glass on Javier's tray. "I'll have another margarita, Javier, if you would be so kind." said Brenda. She scooted her seat closer to mine. "Yeah, in fact, let's have another round of tequilas for everyone, Javier." said Howard. "Howard, you are a gentleman," said Brian, "But I must insist, this round should be on me, old chap."

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"Aw, can it, Brian," said Howard. He had a good buzz going. "We all know you're broke, no need to put on airs here. You're among friends, baby!" He roared with laughter. "Howard!" snapped Ruth, trying not to laugh. Brenda laughed. "Howard honey, you are just awful. Now stop that." I stared at Monique over my beer mug. She was laughing. She hadn't understood the joke though. I knew she hadn't, yet she was laughing. It irritated me. "Oh, don't be so bloody, Howard." said Brian. "Bloody?" said Howard, "Now that's the first thing you've said all night that's made any sense. Hey Javi! Bring me another bloody Maria, will ya'?" I began to down my entire mug of Pacifico. "Whoa, easy there, Sidney," said Ruth. "You're gonna get a headache, sweetie." "Let the man drink his beer, Ruthie," said Howard. "The man wants to drink fast? Let him drink fast. Maybe he's thirsty." "I'm just saying ..." said Ruth. "Let the man drink his beer," said Howard. "Go on, Sid, that's the way. Pound it, kid. Arriba!" Strangers in the night. Two lonely people, we were strangers in the night. I placed the empty beer mug on the table with a sigh. I was a little winded. "Yeah! All right, Sid." said Howard, clapping his hands. "Now the party's really gonna get started, eh Sidney? Aw, I love this kid. The kid's an animal.� "Sidney is not an animal, Howard," said Ruth. "What are you talkin' about? Of course he's an animal," said Howard. "He's one of them party animals. Just like I was at his age." "Wanna dance?" I asked Brenda.

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"Well, who lit your fuse tonight, sugar?" said Brenda, scrutinizing me with her eyes. She flashed a glance towards Monique. Brian was lighting her cigarette at the other end of the table. They were both laughing. "I'd love to, honey. Come on." said Brenda. She took me by the hand. Monique watched us leave. As Brenda led me to the dance floor, I noticed Ray and Rusty sitting at the bar. Rusty had a soda in front of him. Ray was drinking tequila. He must have picked up his money for the surfboard, I thought in passing. Rusty was already looking in our direction, so I waved to him. He didn't respond. I took Brenda into my arms and began to dance. It seemed as if Rusty was looking right through us. When we made our first turn, I realized why. On the stage, Zipper's Moonlight Band continued to play. Rafael Bustamante, the owner of the La Jolla resort, was on guitar. His American wife, Patty, was on the keyboard. And despite the fact that they had a drum machine, Rafa still made his eighteen-year-old daughter, Dulce, sit in on the maracas every Friday night. It was the one condition of Dulce's weekly allowance. Dulce Bustamante. Poor Rusty. Tonight, they all had Santa Claus hats on. I winked at Dulce as Brenda and I glided by. She was mortified with embarrassment. Her father continued to croon. Brenda laid her head on my chest. Lauve was just a glance away, a warm endearing chance away ... "Sid!" said Dennis. Dennis, and Brian's wife, Tracy, danced over to us. Dennis looked like Colonel Sanders on holiday, or a very well-groomed Santa Claus of the tropics. His white beard and goatee were trimmed neat and close. He wore white shorts and a red

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Hawaiian shirt over his jolly Southern frame. Tracy was the exact opposite, tiny, demure, English, with straight red hair. "Hey Dennis," I said, dancing up next to them. "I hope you don't mind me borrowing your wife. Don't worry though, buddy. I'll bring her back later." "Worry?" said Dennis. He burst with laughter. "Hell, son, you're the one who better worry. That woman bites! She's likely to tie you up, and turn you into some kind of love slave!" Tracy giggled. "Oh, stop it, Denny," said Brenda, laughing. "Sidney, now don't you listen to one word that man says. He's obviously done lost his mind." "Hello, Sidney." said Tracy. She let out a little shriek of delight as Dennis dipped her all the way to the dance floor. She looked up at me, upside-down. I noticed her left eye had a slight bruise underneath it. We laughed. We danced. Looking over Brenda's shoulder, I saw Monique, staring at us from the table. Howard and Ruth seemed to be arguing about something. Turning, I saw Brian at the bar. His eyes burned with displeasure in the direction of Dennis and Tracy. Then Rusty came into view, gazing at Dulce with an expression that troubled me just as much. Ray spilled his beer all over the bar-top, and was cursing. Turning towards the stage, I made eye contact with Dulce. She refused to let the moment slip away, and stared at me without shame, until I nearly blushed. I nodded to don Rafa. He smiled like a celebrity. And eber since zat night, we've been togezer, lauvers at first sight... "Are you all right, Sidney?" said Brenda, into my ear. "Yeah, Brenda. I'm okay." I said. "Bullshit." she said. I laughed.

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"Honey, you can bullshit the rest of the world if you want to, but you cannot bullshit me. Brenda knows." "Oh, Brenda." I said. "I love you. You know that? What would I ever do without you? "Why you would just drop dead, now wouldn't you?" she said. She laughed. "Sid?" I didn't realize that I had stopped dancing. "Sidney? Baby, what's wrong?" she said. I pulled her close and started dancing again. "It's just that ..." I couldn't tell her. "What?" said Brenda. Running my hand over Brenda's hip, and holding her body as close to mine as I was, I wondered if she really did have the audacity to be naked under that dress of hers after all. I laughed. "Would you like to let me in on your little joke?" said Brenda. "I'm sorry, Brenda." I said. "I've just been kind of down lately. Holiday blues, I guess." "Then why were you laughing, sugar?" she said. "Come on everybody, let's have a toast!" said Howard from the table. "Dennis, Tracy, Brenda, come on you guys, the drinks are here. You too, Ray. Come on over here!" "Well?" said Brenda. "What?" I said. "Don't play with me, Sidney. Tell me why you were laughin'." "I don't know, Brenda." I said. "I just had this funny thought, that's all." "Sidney." she said. "Would you stop beatin' around the bush and just spit it out?" "I can't." "You better." "Brenda, are you naked under that dress?" I said.

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The song had ended. Brenda laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. I looked around, positive that everyone in the restaurant had heard me. "Sid, Brenda!" said Howard. "Come on!" Everyone was at the table now, holding their shot glasses. "Come on, sugar." said Brenda, taking me by the hand. She pulled me into motion. My embarrassment trailed out behind me, dissipating in our wake of liquor and perfume. Before we reached the table, Brenda looked at me over her shoulder. "Naked as a J-bird." she whispered. On stage, don Rafa stepped closer to his microphone. He caressed the stand with his fingertips. His wife, Patty, rolled into her keyboard intro. She slipped a foot out of her shoe and pressed the "start" button on the drum machine with her big toe. Rafa extended his right hand towards us. His eyes closed. His face contorted with passion, beneath the white fur of his Santa Claus hat. Besame...Besame mucho. His lips trembled. Shaking her maracas, Dulce rolled her eyes. "All right, everybody." said Howard. "I would like to propose a toast." We all stood around the table with our glasses held high. "To good friends." he said. "To good times. And even though I haven't known any of you for very long, I have come to love you all like family. And when you get to be my age, you realize that's what it's all really about, being with the ones you love." Smiles spread around our circle. Heads nodded in agreement. Monique and I stared at each other. "So, a merry Christmas, and may God bless our little family of expatriates, alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, dirty politicians, crime share swindlers ..." Everyone was laughing now. "God bless us all. Salud." he said.

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"Salud!" we said in unison. We drank our shots. "Hey, Javi!" said Howard, "Let's have us another round of tequilas here, okay? And one for the band, too. Gracias." We drank for two more hours. By eleven o'clock, the night was a blur. The Herradura swirled in my head. Sweat poured. The conversation around the table floated past me in fragments. I sat between Brenda and Monique now. "Je teme, mon cher." said Monique, into my left ear. "I love you, Sidney. You make me a crazy woman. I want to kill you." "Kill me?" I said. I looked at her and nodded. I took her hand in mine, smiling. There were two of her. "I guess you could do that." I said to the Monique on the left. "I wouldn't mind so much." Both Moniques smiled, then merged into one. Nothing else mattered now. Nothing else existed. The room, and everyone else in it, spun in the background behind her. Her eyes stared into mine. "I don't really mean that, Sidney." she said. She leaned forward. Our foreheads touched. She caressed my cheek with the back of her hand. Her eyes glistened with tears. "I am going to miss you." I said, slurring the words. "Hey, Sidney!" said Dennis, from across the table. "So what time is this shin-dig of yours starting tomorrow?" The people at the table snapped back into focus. The room continued to spin in a blur behind them. "Oh." I said. I was standing now, though I didn't remember getting up. "That's right, everyone. Tomorrow night at eight o'clock I will be giving a private concert, un concierto de la musica flamenca. Just for you, my closest friends, my dear, dear friends." I raised my half-full glass of tequila. "A flamingo concert?!" said Howard. "You hear that Ruthie? I told you Sidney was the Vegas type. Boy, this kid's got class!" "Flamenco, Howie." said Ruth, "Not flamingo. It's from Spain."

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"Ruthie, I'm tellin' ya', it's Flamingo!" said Howard. "Don't you know that Sidney's famous for his lounge act? I mean he's not exactly Wayne Newton, but I hear he does one hell of a Viva Las Vegas. Don't you, Sidney?" Dennis laughed. Brenda tossed a tortilla chip at him from across the table. "Actually, Howie," I said, "It's not really a lounge act." I drank my tequila, then sat down. "I've heard Sidney's CD." said Tracy. She was sitting between Dennis and her husband Brian. "It has some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. It's quite popular in London, actually." "Oh, do shut up, Tracy." said Brian. He drank the remainder of his tequila. "Hey," said Brenda. "Don't you go on talkin' to her like that." Brian looked towards Dennis, then back at Brenda. "Sorry." he said. "All right," said Dennis, "enough of that." He waved a hand in dismissal. "Now, Sidney's putting on this concert at eight o'clock tomorrow night then. So, I assume we will all be attending, correct?" "You betcha!" said Howard. "Of course, sweetie." said Ruth. She smiled at me. "We'd be honored," said Tracy. "Quite." said Brian. Monique nodded. She squeezed my hand. "Well, you know I'll be there, sugar," said Brenda, "I wouldn't miss it for the world, Sidney." She patted me on the thigh. "I'm there, bro." said Ray, sitting at the far end of the table. Rusty was still seated at the bar, staring at Dulce. The band played on. Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from ... "Well, there you have it," said Dennis. "It's a date. Let's have us a toast then." "Excellent idea, Denny." said Brian. He reached for one of the fresh shots of tequila that Javier had just brought.

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"Another toast?" said Ruth. She giggled. "I think we've all had way too much tequila already." "Rather." said Tracy. She laughed too. "Oh, piss off, Tracy." said Brian. "Stop being such a bloody pest, eh?" "Hey!" said Brenda and Ruth at the same time. Monique laced her fingers with mine. "Lookie here, Brian." said Dennis, leaning across Tracy. "I don't take kindly to that sort of talk while I'm drinkin', you hear me? Now if you can't handle your liquor, son, then I suggest that you take that mouth of yours elsewhere." "Yeah, knock it off, Brian." said Howard. "Don't be a schmuck. Now how about that toast." "Okay." said Ray, rising to his feet. "I've got one." He swayed a bit. We all picked up fresh shots of tequila. "Two guys are sitting on a porch." continued Ray, "One guy turns to the other and says, 'I'm throwing a party tonight. You coming?' The other guys says, 'Well what kind of party is it going to be?'" Howard laughed. “This is supposed to be a toast?” said Ruth. “Hold on, now,” said Ray. “I’m coming to it.” We continued to hold our glasses up. “So the other guy says ‘What kind of party is it going to be?’. His friend adjusts his suspenders, spits on the ground, then says ‘well, there’s gonna be a little drinkin’, a little fightin’ and little fuckin’. The other guy’s eyes get all big and excited. He says ‘Is that right? A little drinkin’, a little fightin’ and a little fuckin’? Man! That sounds pretty wild! Hell yeah, count me in. In fact, what should I wear?’ The guy’s friend puts a hand on the guy’s shoulder and says ‘Well hell, you might as well show up naked, because it’s just going to be you and me, amigo!’ Cheers, everybody!” said Ray. Silence.

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Smiles faded. Mouths dropped. “That is disgusting,” said Ruth. “Sidney, I don’t feel good,” said Monique. She stood, nearly fell, and then rushed off towards the bamboo doors of the rest room. I followed her. The room rocked like the deck of a ship. I staggered, tequila blind, towards the bar and the rest rooms beyond it. Javier passed by me. He carried a plate of flaming shish-ka-bobs to the couple seated at table five. The Shis-ka-bobs sizzled and crackled. Monique was already behind the door marked “Damas”. I walked inside. She was kneeling over the toilet. I knelt beside her on the tile floor, and held her hair back for her as she threw up. “Oh, daddy, I’m so sick,” she cried. “It’s okay, baby,” I said. “Sidney’s here. You’re going to be all right. I’ll take care of you.” I wiped the perspiration from her forehead with some toilet paper. I could hardly focus enough to keep the room from spinning. Her chest heaved. She stared into the toilet bowl. “Por qua, mon cher? Why do you love me, Sidney?” she said. “Why, when I’m such a drunk? How can you love someone who is so bad to you?” “I can’t help it,” I said. “I just do.” She vomited again. She was crying. “I’m so sick, daddy! she said. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me, Sidney.” “I’m not going anywhere, baby,” I said. When Monique’s stomach was finally empty, I helped her to her feet. We both swayed back and forth. Her face changed. She shook her arm free of my grasp. “Let go of me,” she said. “I don’t need your help, Sidney. I don’t need anything from you.” “Monique, come on,” I said. “Don’t start.” “Fuck you, Sidney!” She pushed me with both hands on my chest. “I don’t need you!”

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“Then to hell with you,” I said. I lost my balance, and nearly fell to the floor. “I don’t need this kind of abuse.” I’m out of here.” I walked through the bamboo door, back into the restaurant. “Sidney!” Monique’s voice roared behind me. I stumbled across the dance floor, passing a table of six fishermen. They were drinking tequila. Monique reached the bar. She snatched a bottle of beer from the top of it. She threw it at me. Rusty had just walked out of the men’s room. He was crossing the floor between us when the bottle left Monique’s hand. It shattered, clipping Rusty on the side of the head. He dropped. Neither I, nor the fishermen, had seen what had happened to Rusty behind us. Ray, however, was already out of his seat. he ran past me, towards the bar and Monique. “What the hell have you done to my son?” he said. Everyone in the bar saw him push Monique. She fell on her ass. The fishermen were on Ray before any explanation could be given. Rusty scrambled away from the melee on all fours. He hadn’t really been hurt. He bled from a small cut on the back of his scalp. Ray was no match for the fishermen. They were beating the hell out of him. Suddenly, I found myself beside Ray. I held one of the fishermen in a headlock. Another fisherman was punching me in the face. I couldn’t feel the blows, but my head snapped back with each one. Monique was laughing. “Denny, wait!” said Brenda. Dennis plunged into the tangled mass of bodies like a bowling ball. The fisherman wasn’t hitting me in the face anymore. Dennis head-butted him across the nose. “Come on, boy!” said Dennis. “You aren’t so tough when it ain’t six on one, are you?” My vision cleared for a moment. I saw the face of another fisherman to my left. I punched it. Someone hit me in the temple. I fell to the floor.

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The room still rocked like a ship. Lying on my side amongst the shuffling legs and scuffling feet, I saw Dulce screaming on stage. She ran to my rescue. The cement floor felt cool against my cheek. I smiled. Someone kicked me in the stomach. I farted. Brenda and Monique argued over by the bar. Monique laughed. Brenda slapped her across the face. “¡Déjalo! Leave him alone!” shouted Dulce. She jumped onto the back of the fisherman who was kicking me in the stomach. Her nails raked at his face. He howled, caught hold of her wrist and flipped her over his shoulder. My body broke her fall. Even though it knocked the wind out of me, I was touched by her gesture. Her head smashed into mine. “¡Híja!” shouted don Rafa. He leapt from the stage and rushed at his daughter’s assailant. He wielded his Gibson guitar like a battleaxe. “Sons of your whore mothers! You touched my daughter!” he said in Spanish. The fisherman hardly had time to look in don Rafa’s direction. The Gibson slammed into the fisherman’s hip. He collapsed, shouting obscenities in Spanish. He fell against Ray, knocking him to the floor. Don Rafa arched his back, swinging the guitar overhead. “Sidney! Sidney! Ay Dios!” Dulce clung to me, screaming in my ear. Her body pressed against mine. “Oh, God! Sidney, are you all right?” Before don Rafa could bring the Gibson down upon his fallen foe, one of the fishermen hit him across the shoulder blades with a chair. Rafa’s wife, Patty, screamed. She kicked off her high heels. They flew across the room. The couple at table five ducked. Patty snatched the microphone from its stand and jumped from the stage. She ran towards the fray, her bare feet slapping the concrete floor. The microphone spun in circles over

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her head. The cord trailed out behind her, still plugged into the mixer and PA system. The room filled with the sound of the whirling microphone, roaring through the speakers. Patty slung it at the head of the fisherman who had vanquished her husband. “Keep your hands off my husband, you bastard!” she said. The impact of the blow sounded like a thunderclap, due to the reverb of the Peavy amplifiers. The fisherman fell. “Somebody help them!” said Ruth, from the table. “For God’s sake, Brian!” said Tracy. She stood next to Ruth, wringing her hands together. “Don’t just sit there, you bloody sod! Do something!” Brian reached for his tequila. “Oh, shut up,” he said. “All right,” said Howard. “If Brian’s too much of a pansy, I’ll handle this! They want some fisticuffs? They’re gonna get it!” he rose from his chair, and took off his glasses. His face was stone. He began to shadowbox in front of the table. He mumbled to himself. Ruth watched in horror. “Oh my God!” she said. “Tracy, Brian, please. You have to stop him! I’ve seen him like this before. He’ll kill somebody!” “Oh, please,” said Brian. He drank his shot. Howard was oblivious to the supplication of Ruth. He jabbed with his left, then executed a lethargic combination. His bones cracked. Ruth’s eyes widened. he placed his hands on his hips, and started to do deep knee-bends. “They don’t want none of this,” he said. His eyes were ablaze. “But they’re gonna get some.” “Howie! Please, sweetie, they’re not worth it!” said Ruth. “I’m beggin’ ya!” Howard shuffled off towards the brawl, both fists in front of his body, like a boxer of the nineteen-twenties.

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Patty caught a mule-kick to the stomach. She flew backwards, flailing through the air. Behind her, near the bar, Monique and Brenda pulled at each other’s hair. The microphone landed on the ground with a screech of feedback. “Let go of me, you little hussy!” said Brenda. Monique seized the front of Brenda’s dress with both hands. Patty ploughed into them, blasting them apart. Monique fell to the floor, ripping the thin cotton dress from Brenda’s body. Patty landed on her ass, her back slammed against the bar. Brenda stood there, butterball naked, eyes a-blinking. She screamed. “Sugar pie!” said Dennis. He had witnessed his wife’s defrocking. The fisherman he was fighting took advantage of the moment and kneed him in the testicles. I tried to rise. I wanted to help Dennis. Ray laid face down to my left. Rafa Bustamante rolled in pain next to him. Dulce wouldn’t let me up, though. She shielded me with her body, lying on top of me like a Secret Service man. “Sidney, no! Don’t get up. You’re hurt,” she said into my ear. “I won’t let you.” Howard stepped over us. He tapped the fisherman on the shoulder, who had just kneed Dennis in the balls. The fisherman turned around. Howard hit him square on the chin, his horseshoe ring split the fisherman’s flesh open. Now he started working on the man’s body, working the ribcage and kidneys, with a savagery that brought a hush over the restaurant. The fisherman’s eyes bulged. The remainder of his companions, those who were still standing, watched in bewilderment. “You filthy punk!” said Howard. Sweat flew from his brow. His gray hair whipped wildly, like Cab Calloway’s. He was going into a frenzy. “I’ll teach ya’ to mess with my friends!” He unleashed a barrage of combination blows, crosses, hooks and haymakers.

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The fisherman’s eyes rolled white. he stumbled backwards. Howard followed. he was relentless. “¡Ya! ¡Ya basta!” shouted the other two fishermen. “That’s enough! He’s had enough, old man!” Howard didn’t understand the Spanish. But even if he had, there was no stopping him now. “Brian, you bastard. Do something!” said Tracy. Brian jumped to his feet. “Shut your bloody hole!” he said. He slapped Tracy to the floor. “Stop that!” said Ruth. Brian kicked Tracy in the buttocks. “Bastard!” said Tracy. Ruth pummeled at Brian’s back. Her bracelets jingled like sleigh bells. “Leave her alone, you bum!” said Ruth. She tripped, and grabbed hold of Brian’s pants leg. She clung to him. Tracy crawled away. “Let go of me, Ruth!” said Brian. “You dirty bum!” said Ruth. “Are you gonna beat me too, you coward?” “Why don’t you mind your own bloody business?” said Brian. He reached down and tried to pry Ruth from his leg. She bit his thigh. Brian screamed. He snatched a handful of Ruth’s hair. Ruth shook her head like a pit-bull. Her wig pulled free. Brian’s eyes widened. “Rape!” shouted Ruth. “Oh God, he’s raping me!” Over by the bar, Monique ran for the door. She vanished into the night. Javier ran to Brenda’s aid. He wrapped a tablecloth around her naked body. Her nipples were hard. “Denny, look out!” she said. Dennis was still doubled over from the kick he had received to his testicles. A wounded fisherman struggled to lift don Rafa’s broken Gibson overhead. Brenda screamed. Dennis looked back over his shoulder. He shielded his face with his arms.

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The combination of the alcohol, steroids, and physical abuse had finally caught up with me. I looked up through the strands of Dulce’s hair that covered my face. I was fading, falling towards unconsciousness. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Howard finished off his fisherman with one last haymaker. I watched the man drop. Howard looked in Dennis’ direction. The guitar fell through the air above Dennis’ head. Howard sprang into action. He was magnificent. A small fishing net decorated one of the beams that supported the palapa roof of the restaurant. Howard snatched it free. Without breaking stride, he hurdled over Dulce and I. He grabbed one of the flaming shish-ka-bobs from table five, then charged like Spartacus towards Dennis and his attacker. “Your ass is mine!” said Howard. He flung the net, leaping headlong into the air at the same time. My vision blurred in and out of focus. I fought to remain conscious. I could not look away. It was all too bizarre, too surreal. The net struck first, entangling the fisherman. The guitar dropped from his grasp. Howard fell upon the man, tackling him to the ground. Before I passed out, I watched Howard plunge the flaming shish-ka-bob into what appeared to be the fisherman’s net-covered butt cheek. My eyes rolled back. I slipped into darkness. !!! “Sidney?” The voice seemed distant, miles away. “Sidney?” Please, God, please wake him up.” She was crying, whoever it was. “No te preocupes, niña. Ya está volviendo en sí,” said the voice of Beto, the owner of Zipper’s. “Don’t worry, child, he’s already coming to. Look.”

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I opened my eyes. Dulce and Beto were crouched over me. Beto beamed. His smile broadened. I smiled. I’m not sure why. “Ay, gracias a Dios,” said Dulce. “Thank God.” She made the sign of the cross over herself, then kissed her fingertips. She crossed me, then held her fingers to my lips. I kissed them. Dulce sighed with relief. “Órale, cabrón,” said Beto. he laughed, squatting on his haunches. He braced his weight against an antique shotgun. “You had us worried, Sidney. You’ve been out for awhile, amigo.” Dulce wiped her eyes. She kissed me on the cheek, then took hold of my arm. “Come on, mi amor,” she said. “Let’s get you up.” “Sí. Levántantate, Sidney,” said Beto. He took hold of my other arm. They pulled me to my feet. I swooned for a moment, then regained my balance. My head pounded. I groaned, and looked around the restaurant. Waiters mopped the floor, and straightened out tables. Other than a few missing chairs, and the fishing net lying on the on the floor near the bar, there was no evidence of the brawl. I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. The pain in my ribs told me otherwise. “¿Que ha pasado?” I said, rubbing my head. “What happened?” Where is everyone?” Beto patted the barrel of his shotgun, cradled in his arm. “I chased away the trouble-makers,” he said. “One of them hurt don Rafael, you know.” I looked at Dulce. “He’s all right,” said Dulce. “Him and Mama already went home.” “Sí, sí,” said Beto. “Todos se fueron. Everyone left, except for Dulce here. She waited for you, my friend.” He laughed, slapping me on the back. “I go now,” he said. Beto walked away, shouting orders to the waiters, who were cleaning up the restaurant. “Are you okay?” said Dulce. She stared into my eyes.

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“Yeah,” I said. “I think so. I just don’t remember what happened too clearly. It all happened so fast.” Dulce’s face flushed. “I’ll tell you what happened,” she said. “Monique happened, again.” “Oh,” I said. I looked away from Dulce’s gaze. Her hands were on her hips. “That’s right, Sidney. Again,” she said. “You know, I usually keep my mouth shut about her, because it’s not my place, but I’m just sick of it all. I’m sick of watching the way she treats you.” I rubbed a hand over my face. “Let’s not talk about this, okay? Come on,” I said. I took Dulce’s hand. “I’ll walk you to your truck.” She pulled her hand away. “No,” she said. “You are not walking me to my truck. You’re going to listen to me, Sidney. Estoy fastidiada. ¿Me entiendes? I’m fed up, and tired of you ignoring me.” “Dulce, what are you talking about?” I said. “You,” she said. “You treat me like a child, Sidney. You don’t listen to a word I say.” “That’s not true,” I said. “It is true, Sidney,” she said. “I have always been a good friend to you. I would do anything you asked me to. And yet you act as if I don’t even exist.” “Dulce, I don’t understand,” I said. “Where’s this all coming from, all of a sudden?’ “Por Dios, Sidney!” she said. “My God, are you that blind?” The pain on her face broke my heart. I understood all too well. I just didn’t want her to say it, to vocalize what I had seen in her eyes for some time now. It was an impossible situation, even if Monique wasn’t a factor. There was nothing I could do. I realized that my condition was the reason for Monique’s return to the bottle. And there was no way in hell I was going to let Dulce get mixed up in this. I had hurt enough people already.

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Dulce turned her back on me. She wept. I placed a hand on her shoulder. She grasped it. “Why, Sidney?” she said. “What’s wrong with me? What did I do wrong? Why can’t you love me?” “Dulce, you don’t understand,” I said. My voice cracked. “It’s not you. It’s me.” Dulce turned and faced me. “But I love you, Sidney,” she said. “Ay, te queiro, mi amor. Te quiero tanto. I love you so much it’s killing me. Don’t you see? And you don’t even care!” “Hey, hey,” I said. I took her into my arms. She resisted. I persisted. She gave in, crying, as she lightly pounded my chest with her fists. “Listen to me. That’s not true. I do care about you, Dulce. I care about you very much.” I stroked her hair. She rested her head against my chest. “I’m telling you, it has nothing to do with you, míja. It’s something else.” “What,” she said. “Monique? But she’s leaving, Sidney. She’s walking out on you. Just like she did tonight. She doesn’t even care about you. Not the way I do.” “No,” I said. “It’s not Monique, either, Dulce. It’s just ... You see, I ... Dulce, I’m ...” I was choking up. “Sidney, tell me,” said Dulce. “It’s okay, mi amor; please, just tell me.” My mouth moved, but no sound came out. A tear ran down my cheek. I held Dulce tighter. I rested my chin on top of her head. I looked out over the moonlit Sea of Cortez behind her. My body trembled. “Sidney?” said Dulce. “What’s wrong?” I held her tighter. I still couldn’t speak. I closed my eyes. “Sidney?” She tried to free herself from my embrace. “Sidney, you’re hurting me! What’s the matter with you?” I blinked, then released her.

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“Oh, Jesus,” I said. “Dulce, honey, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just need to go to bed, okay? I don’t feel well. I’m all beat up, míja. Plus, I know I’m going to have a hell of a hangover in the morning. Let’s just talk about it tomorrow, when our heads are clearer, okay?” “¿Me lo prometes?” she said. “You promise?” “Sí. Te lo prometo,” I said. “Come over before the party, and we’ll talk, all right?” “Bueno,” she said. I extended her my hand. She looked into my eyes. It hurt. I smiled. Dulce took my hand. I kissed the top of her fingers. “Come on, beautiful,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.” I headed for the front door. We walked hand in hand, into the night. Outside, I looked up at the moon. “Good God, Dulce,” I said. “This has been one hell of a night.” She laughed, covering her mouth with her free hand. “What?” I said. “Did you see Howard?” she said. We both laughed. Dulce’s red Suburban was just up ahead. It seemed to be rocking. Then a silhouette moved inside the truck’s interior. Dulce and I looked at each other. “¡Óye! Hey!” she said, walking towards the Suburban. I walked up beside her. The passenger’s side door opened. Rusty climbed out of the truck. he had a look of guilt on his face. I noticed his fly was undone. “Hey, Russ,” I said. “What’s up, Buddy? You okay?” “Yeah,” he said. He took a few steps backwards. “I’m all right.” His left arm was behind his back. He was hiding something. “What were you doing in my truck?” said Dulce. Rusty continued to walk backwards. “I just didn’t want to go home, yet,” he said. His lips trembled.

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“No, it’s all right,” I said. “Dulce can give us both a ride then. Come on, Dulce.” “What have you got behind your back, Rusty?” said Dulce, walking up to him. “Nothing.” “Let me see,” she said, grabbing his arm. Rusty struggled. “Hey! Dulce, come on now, leave him be!” I said. “What have you got?” she said. “I don’t have anything,” said Rusty. Dulce pried the object from Rusty’s hand. Rusty ran off into the darkness. Dulce gasped. In the palm of her hand was one of her used sanitary napkins. “You little pervert!” she screamed.

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CHAPTER II In the Flesh Saturday, December 24th “There is so much I would like to say. I wish there was some way, a way I could be there to ...” “No. No, No that’s no good,” I said. I pushed the stop button on the tiny camcorder remote. Across the room, the red light above the lens turned off. I sighed, then laid my back against the couch pillow behind me. This was harder than I had thought it was going to be. I wiped the tears from my eyes. A car door closed, somewhere outside. I looked at my watch. 9:30 a.m. “Oh Dulce. Please, not yet,” I said. I rose, then walked around the camcorder tripod, towards the open glass doors of the living room. A white Grand Cherokee sat next to the cactus, at the bottom of the steps. Dennis climbed the stairs, smiling. He removed his sunglasses. “Howdy, Sid!” he said, extending me his hand. I shook it. “Morning, Denny. Wow!” I said. I couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s one hell of a shiner you’ve got there, buddy.” Dennis laughed. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’ve tried all the remedies, too: ice, steak, I put a piece of carne asada on it for an hour this morning. That didn’t work. So finally, I told Brenda we’d have to try an even older remedy. I told her to strip down naked and just sit on my face.” “Aw, come on, Denny,” I said. “That’s not how you get rid of any black eye.” “Well hell, son, I know that,” said Dennis. he threw an arm around my shoulder, and led me back inside the house. “But it sure smelled better than that carne asada, let me tell ya!” We both laughed. he gave me a little punch in the ribs. I groaned.

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“Well now,” said Dennis. “Looks like I ain’t the only one who got a good workin’ over last night.” I smiled. “I guess not,” I said. “You know what the worst part is? I don’t even remember most of it.” I headed for the kitchen. Dennis took a seat on the couch. “You want something to drink? A little venom of the snake that bit you, maybe?” “Yeah, why not,” said Dennis. “You got any Pacifico?” “Sí, Señor,” I said, pulling the bottles from the refrigerator. “So you mean to tell me that you don’t remember nothing that happened last night?” said Dennis. “Not much,” I said. I popped the caps, placed the bottle opener back on top of the fridge, then walked back down to the living room. “Not even old Howard?” said Dennis, with a raised eyebrow. I handed him his beer. “To be honest,” I said, “I really don’t know what to think about all that. I thought I might have imagined it all, or maybe I had some sort of mild concussion, and hallucinated the whole thing. Cheers.” “Cheers,” said Dennis. We touched bottles. I sat down on the coffee table across from Dennis. “No, it happened, all right,” he said. “I laid awake half the night wondering about it myself.” “Yeah,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.” The beer washed away the taste of toothpaste from my mouth. “I have, said Dennis.” “Haven’t you ever heard of any of them incidents where a mother sees her child trapped under a car? Then all of a sudden she gets this incredible surge of adrenaline, and flips the car over with her bare hands?” “Do you really think that’s what happened to Howie?” I said. “I don’t know,” said Dennis, shaking his head. “But what I do know is that I ain’t seen anyone throw a haymaker like that in a good forty years, you hear me? And that man threw about sixty of’em last

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night. He ruined that poor boy, ruined him, Sidney. Then that bit with the net, and the leapin’ and ... I don’t know, Sidney. The old bastard scared the hell outta me.” I nodded. We sat in silence. Dennis snapped out of it first. “Well, anyway,” he said. “I’m here like I said I’d be. So just what was it that you wanted to talk to me about, Sidney?” he crossed his legs and leaned back into the couch. “I need to ask you for a favor, Denny,” I said. “Shoot,” he said. I took a drink from my beer and stood. “This isn’t easy for me,” I said. I paced the living room floor. “You’ll only be the second person I’ve ever told this too; outside of my family back home, that is. Dennis’ smile faded. He set his beer on the coffee table. “What’s going on, Sid?” he said. “You in some sort of trouble?’ “No,” Denny,” I said. “It’s nothing like that, nothing I could go to jail for. It’s just me ... It’s ... “ “Well, what is it, son?” he said. His concern touched me. It was then that I realized just how close we had all become down here. “You see, Denny, I ... Well ...” I took a deep breath to gather my strength. “Denny, I’m dying of ________ .” “Oh, sweet Jesus, Sidney,” he said. “Oh my Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Sidney, are you sure?” “Yeah,” I said. “Oh, lord,” said Dennis. He stood, and started to pace the floor around me. “Sidney, are you absolutely sure?” he said. “How do you know? Did you take a blood test? I mean, sometimes them tests can be wrong, son. You have to be sure.” “Denny,” I said. I placed a hand on his shoulder, to stop his pacing. “I’m sure. I’ve known for some time now. That’s why I came down here in the first place.” “I don’t understand,” said Dennis.

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“Denny, sit down,” I said. “You’re making me nervous.” I picked up his bottle of Pacifico and handed it back to him. “Here, now have a seat and I’ll explain everything, all right?” He sat down. I explained everything. “So after I finish editing the tape,” I said. “I would like you to hold onto it for me. Then, once everything’s all said and done, and I’m finally gone, I would appreciate it if you would make sure it gets back to my family in the United States.” “You mean personally?” said Dennis. “To take it there myself?” We were working on our fifth round of Pacificos now. “I know it’s a lot to ask,” I said. “No, son, it’s not that at all,” he said. “Aw, hell, Sidney.” He ran a hand through his hair and took another drink from his beer. “Well, I guess I’m gonna have to come clean too then.” “What do you mean?” I said. “You see, Sidney, I’m in a little bit of trouble, myself,” he said. “And it ain’t no parking tickets, either.” He pulled a pack of Delicados from his shirt pocket and tapped it against his hand. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he said. “No. Go ahead,” I said. “What kind of trouble are you in, Denny?” “Sidney, I’m only telling you this because you are like a son to me,” he said. “And if circumstances were different, I would agree to what you are asking me to do without hesitation, believe me.” I nodded my head and continued to listen. “Look, Sidney,” said Dennis. “Brenda and I aren’t actually down here enjoying our retirement, the way it seems.” “I don’t understand,” I said. Dennis looked at the floor. He exhaled, with a cloud of smoke, then picked a flake of tobacco from his tongue, with his finger. He looked me in the eye. “Last April I was arrested in Florida, for conspiracy to traffic two hundred tons of marijuana into the United States, from Sinaloa, Mexico.”

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I didn’t know what to say. “That’s right, Sidney. Now, listen to me. I had already finished doing a nickel piece in Everglades Federal Penitentiary four years earlier. So, if I were to get convicted on the conspiracy charge, I’d end up doing quite a stretch for them sons of bitches.” “How the hell did they catch you?” I said, still amazed. “Well they never really caught me,” said Dennis. “It’s a conspiracy charge, nothing but hearsay. They have one driver of ours in North Carolina, and another in Chicago who are willing to testify that I am the head of the family, and that they were working for me. That, combined with a recorded phone conversation between my house in Boca Raton and a number in Mazatlan is all they’ve got. But nowadays it’s enough.” “Jesus, Denny,” I said. “So,” he said, “after looking at all of the options, I posted the two hundred thousand dollar bond, in cash, and skipped out on my bail. I mean, they had me cold, Sidney, as long as they have two people who are willing to testify, that is. Until I figure out how to remedy that situation, Brenda and I are trying to put as much time and mileage as we can between ourselves and the Miami Federal Courts building. You follow me?” “Absolutely,” I said. I was overwhelmed with a sense of wanting to protect Dennis and Brenda. “Denny, I understand completely, and I’ll tell you another thing. I appreciate your trust, man. No. Hell, no. There’s no way you can go anywhere near the United States. I’m sorry that I even asked you to do something like that. Good God, Denny. Even the thought of you going to prison ... Jesus, man. Screw the United States. You guys should never go back.” “Then you see where I’m coming from?” “Hell, yeah.” I said. “And you don’t have to worry about this going any further than this room, Denny. I’ll take that to the ... Reality came crashing back in. For some reason it shook me a little harder this time. I tried to regain my composure. I swallowed the

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lump that was rising in my throat and forced a smile. Dennis closed his eyes. He nodded, and placed a hand on my knee. “I know, son,” he said. His voice tightened. A single tear rolled down his cheek. I could barely breathe. “Come on, now,” I said. I rose and turned around. “Everything’s going to be cool.” I wiped the corners of my eyes, then headed for the kitchen. “Let’s have another beer.” “Yeah,” said Dennis. “Let’s have another beer.” “Now what are you two boys up to in here?” said Brenda. She removed her sunglasses. Tracy and Ruth walked in behind her. They all carried brown grocery bags in their arms. “Hi, sweetie,” said Ruth. “How do you feel?” Dennis stood. He gave Brenda a kiss on the cheek. “I feel like a million bucks, Ruth,” I said. “It’s a beautiful day, and three beautiful women just walked through my front door bearing gifts. Life is sweet. What more could I ask for?” Tracy smiled. “You’re so adorable, Sidney,” she said. “Isn’t he, though,” said Brenda, looking back at Tracy over her shoulder. She climbed the steps to the kitchen, then kissed me on the cheek. “How you doing, sugar?” She looked into my eyes. Tracy and Ruth put their bags down on the kitchen table behind her. “I’m doing good, Brenda,” I said. I closed the fridge with my foot and took the bottle opener from on top of it. I avoided Brenda’s gaze. She held her bag of groceries, waiting for me to turn back to face her. I walked to the sink to open the two bottles of Pacifico. I looked at Brenda, then back to the bottles. I opened them. “I’m feeling fine Brenda, really,” I said. She walked up beside me. “Brenda stop pesterin’ that poor boy,” said Dennis. he peeked into the grocery bags on the table. He reached into one, smiling, and

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pinched off a hunk of white cheese. Tracy slapped his wrist, but it was too late. “Oh, Denny, you’re worse than a little boy, honestly,” said Tracy. She laughed. Dennis stuffed the cheese into his mouth. “I know something’s wrong, Sidney,” Brenda whispered in my ear. “And I will corner your butt some time today. Believe that. So don’t you go and get drunk to try to weasel out of it, ya hear me?” “Yes, Brenda,” I said. She turned away from me. “Denny, stop,” said Tracy, laughing again. Dennis was back into the cheese. “Denny, get out of there!” said Brenda. Dennis’ eyes widened. He ran behind Ruth, giggling, with a handful of queso blanco. Ruth reached back and tried to spank him, too. “Denny, we spent two hours in the supermercado this morning,” said Ruth. “And I have no intentions of going back for more cheese, just because you want to be a sneaky snacker.” “All right, girls,” said Brenda. She placed her bag down on the table. “Now let’s get everything out for the pasta salad first. Then we can get started on the hors ‘d’oeuvres.” “Sounds good to me,” said Ruth. “Do you have a cutting board, Sidney?” said Tracy. “Sure,” I said. “And I know where it’s at,” said Brenda. “Denny, don’t even think about it.” Dennis was working his way back towards the grocery bag with the cheese in it. “I need you and Sidney to run down to the tienda for me. I have some strawberries and champagne on order at the store in front of the Corral Baja resort. Plus, ya’ll know how I am about men in the kitchen while I’m cooking. So go on, git.” I handed Dennis his beer. “All right, all right,” said Dennis. “We’re leaving, just hold on a second.” He slipped up behind Brenda and wrapped his arms around her. “Now, you know I ain’t going anywhere without no sugar.” He kissed her on the neck, tickling her with his beard.

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Brenda shrieked with laughter. “Let go of me, baby! Come on, now, git!” she said. Dennis released her. Before he could walk away, Brenda pinched Dennis’ butt. He jumped into the air. Beer splashed. We all laughed. I followed him down to the living room. “And make sure you check them strawberries out before you pay for them,” said Brenda. “Ricardo’s likely to hide all the bad ones on the bottom.” “All righty,” said Dennis, over his shoulder. We walked outside, beers in hand. We both put on our sunglasses. “Howdy, Ray!” said Dennis, looking towards the Winnebego. Ray and Rusty were working on a surfboard, in front of Ray’s makeshift tool shed. Ray looked up at us ,shielding his eyes from the sun. He waved with his free hand. “Hey, bros. Buenos dias!” he said. “Hey, Ray. Hey, Russ. What’s up fellas?” I said. Rusty didn’t respond. He was looking down at the highway. “Hell of a brawl last night,” said Ray. Dennis and I descended the stairs. We walked towards Dennis’ Cherokee. Dennis laughed. A red Suburban climbed the hill towards us. Dust rose around it in the morning sunlight. Rusty retreated to the tool shed. “Yes, it was, Ray,” said Dennis. “Yes, it was.” Dulce rolled down her window, pulling up alongside of us. She pushed her sunglasses down over her nose, surveying the situation. Emerald eyes stared into mine. It took me a moment to speak. Dulce’s beauty had that effect on men sometimes. “There you are,” I said. “¿A donde vas?” said Dulce. “Where are you going?” “We were just heading down to the store in front of the Corral Baja,” I said. Dulce and I continued to stare at each other.

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Dennis looked at Dulce, then to me. “You know, if ya’ll want to talk, go ahead,” he said. “I’ll just run on up to the tienda, myself. You want me to bring you anything back, Sidney?” “Well, I did want to stop of at the farmacia,” I said. Maybe I better go with you after all.” Dulce and I continued to stare at each other. “I’ll take you,” said Dulce. “Hola, Dulce! Que pasa!” said Ray, behind us. Dulce and I continued to stare at each other. “Well, all righty then,” said Dennis, clapping his hands together. “That settles it. I’ll just meet ya’ll back here.” He walked around to the driver’s side of his Cherokee and climbed behind the wheel. “Come on, get in,” said Dulce, in Spanish. “Okay,” I said. “But would you mind giving me a ride to Cabo San Lucas?” “Habla español, Sidney,” she said. “You speak perfect Spanish. It pleases me when we speak Spanish to each other.” “Bueno,” I said. I repeated my question en español. “Of course I will take you to Cabo, my love,” said Dulce. I walked around to the passenger’s side. “Hola, Ray,” she said, rolling up her tinted glass window. I climbed into the truck beside her. Dulce leaned across the seat and kissed me on the lips. I shouldn’t have, but I kissed her back. Her lips tasted of candy. Her perfume rushed to my head. Her hair brushed against my face. God forgive me. Pulling away, Dulce smiled. She took my hand and placed it on her thigh. The smoothness of her skin, and the intimacy of the touch made me swallow. She put the Suburban’s transmission into “drive”, then took hold of my hand again, lacing our fingers together. She settled back into the driver’s seat. Her bare feet released the brake pedal.

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We looked at each other. Dulce smiled again. The Suburban headed down the hill. We turned onto La Carretera Transpeninsular and drove south, towards Cabo San Lucas. !!! We drove through the gates of Cabo Bello. It is a gated community, about six kilometers north of Cabo San Lucas. Weaving our way through the white-washed homes, and groves of cactus, I looked out of my window. “El Arco”, the great arch of rock at land’s end, sat on the other side of the bay. It flashed into view, through a clearing in the cactus. We continued down the hill, towards the cliffs, and the Misiones de Los Cabos resort. Dulce turned onto a dirt driveway. At the top of the gravel incline we pulled up beside a two-story, whitewashed villa with a palapa roof. There was nothing to obstruct our view now. A cruise ship sat in the bay. Sport-fishing boats maneuvered around it. Some headed north, into the sea of Cortez. Others headed south, into the waters of the Pacific, in search of marlin, tuna, dorado and wahoo. Sailboats glided past, dwarfed by the size of the floating resort. “I go now, okay?” I said in Spanish. “I will only obtain a few of my things. Then we can leave form here.” “Why can’t I go in with you,” said Dulce. Her eyes flashed. “Do you have embarrassment of me? It is not important to me what she thinks, the Monique.” “Dulce, por favor,” I said. “I do not have desire to make trouble. I only wish to pick up my things and leave, all right?” She nodded. “De acuerdo,” she said. Dulce leaned over to kiss me. Her eyes closed. She clung to me, caressing my chest and my face. Her body pressed against mine. I opened my eyes, wondering if Monique was watching us from inside the villa. We continued to kiss. Dulce moaned.

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My heart pounded in my chest. “Good. Good, I go now,” I said, pulling away. I opened my door and climbed out. I walked around the front of the truck, over the gravel pathway, to the entrance of the villa. Monique’s mother, Jacqueline, answered the door. She was barefoot, in jeans, with rubber gloves on. I noticed the cardboard boxes on the tile floor behind her. “Monique is in the studio,” she said. “Go on back, mon cher. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.” I walked around the house, past the swimming pool, to the back of the property. Monique’s Labrador, Renee, shuffled up beside me. I stopped, and crouched down to pet him. His tail wagged. He licked my cheek. I laughed. The door to Monique’s studio opened. Our eyes met. I patted Renee on the head one last time, then rose. “Hello, Monique,” I said. “Hello, Sidney,” she said. We stood in silence, looking at each other. Monique rolled her eyes. She smiled. “Monique, I need to talk to you,” I said. She closed the door of the studio behind her back, as if she were hiding something. She was still smiling. “I came to pick up my things,” I said. Monique walked down the brick steps. The cuffs of her overalls were rolled up. her bare feet crossed the patio towards me. Bougainvillea leaves covered the ground. “I knew you would come,” she said, closing the distance between us. “Well, I said. I looked down at the ground. “I just came to get my things, that’s all.”

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Monique slipped up against me, wrapping her arms around my waist. She looked up into my face. The blue of her eyes caught the sunlight. “Sidney, I’m sorry, mon cher,” she said. “I’m sorry for these things I do. I can’t help it, Sidney. I love you so much, it’s making me crazy. This whole situation is making me crazy.” “Monique,” I said. “Wait, let me finish, okay?” she said. She stepped away from me, and placed her hands in her pockets. “I have been thinking of what you said to me yesterday, on your porch.” “That was wrong of me,” I said. “I had no right to pressure you like that, Monique. It wasn’t fair, and I apologize.” “No, Sidney,” she said. “You were right. Ever since you told me of your condition, I have been so preoccupied with my own pain and feelings about it, and with how the situation would affect me, that I had forgotten what you must be going through yourself. Then when you told me about how frightened you were ... Oh, Sidney.” tears welled up in her eyes. “Monique, come on now. don’t do that,” I said. “We cannot let this thing get the best of us. I shouldn’t have said those things yesterday. We have to be strong. I’m okay now. Everything’s okay.” “No,” she said. She wiped her eyes. “It’s not okay. I’m not okay. You’re definitely not okay, Sidney. So stop patronizing me! Nothing will ever be okay again, for the rest of my life.” “Hey,” I said. “Listen to me. You’re going back to France. Everything is going to be fine. But you cannot drag all of this emotional baggage with you. If you do, you will never be able to get on with your life. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. You’re a talented painter, with a great future ahead of you. You just have to stay positive, and move on with what is best for Monique.” “But I can’t!” she said. “I can’t be positive. I can’t look at the bright side. I can’t do any of that any more.” “You have to,” I said.

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“It’s killing me, Sidney!” she said. “don’t you understand that? I have crazy thoughts, fantasies of killing myself, of killing us both. I have nightmares about you, wasting away in that house, all alone, scorpions and lizards crawling all over you. I can’t take it any more! I want to die.” “Stop it, “ I said. I swallowed. “I do,” she said. “I want to die, Sidney.” “Stop!” I said. I fought to hold back the tears. Monique placed her hands on my chest. “Maybe it would be better that way,” she said. Her voice softened. “Maybe we should just ...” “Shut up!” I said. I grabbed her wrist. “I do not want to hear that kind of shit. You understand me?” I pulled her behind me, past the bougainvilleas, to a spot beside the swimming pool, with a clear view of the bay. “Do you see that?” I said, pointing out towards the arch. “What,” she said. “Do you see that?” I said. My chest heaved form my breathing. “What?” she said. “The cruise ship?” “No, “ I said. “Everything. The bay, El Arco, the Sea of Cortez, the Pacific, the blue sky, this is paradise! Look around you, damn it! We are alive, Monique. You and I, right here, right now. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We all may be dead by then. And if we are, and we spent this day bitching and moaning about our problems, then we deserve every torment that may lie beyond the grave.” “I only feel this way because I love you,” she said. “Monique, listen to me,” I said. I placed my hands on her shoulders and turned her to face me. I smiled. “Henry David Thoreau once said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. And it is true.” “What’s true?” said Monique. “That they’re all afraid, Monique. They’re beyond hope,” I said. “Most people, where I come from, they live that way. They’re

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stuck in their miserable lives of meaningless routine. They get up. They go to work. they come home. They eat. They worry about the next day. Then they go to bed. They scamper about the little one hundred mile radius of their existence like a bunch of lab rats, and then they die.” “What does that have to do with us?” said Monique. “We don’t live like that.” “But I used to,” I said. “before I found out that I had _______, that’s how my life was. I was dead, on the inside. That’s the irony of it all. Now, now that I am dying, I’m finally living, for the first time in my life. “But it hurts me so much, Sidney,” she said. “I can’t deal with it sometimes.” “Yes you can,” I said. “How?” she said. “By living, Monique,” I said. “We’re all dying. From the moment we’re born, we’re dying. It’s just a question of when. But how many of us are really living?” “I don’t know,” she said. “Are you living, Monique?” She didn’t answer. “It’s just about using the time we have,” I said. “And making it count, making it worth it.” “And is all this worth it, Sidney?” she said. I sighed. I placed my hands in my pockets and looked out over the bay. “Look at that cruise ship out there,” I said. She looked. “Thousands of my countrymen have paid thousands of dollars, just so they can come down here, and experience seven hours of the way we live. And yet, here we are, living it, day after day, week after week, month after month. I mean, at that rate of exchange, this experience has been worth millions.

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Monique smiled. “What I’m trying to say, Monique, is that all we really have is now. Forget about what might happen tomorrow, because we don’t know. We may not even see it. So it doesn’t matter. Enjoy life. Live. It’s too precious not to. If I’ve learned anything from this experience, I’ve learned that. Savor every single moment of it. Take the time to experience the beauty of this place. It really is paradise, you know ... At least that’s what I intend to do. And that’s what you should be doing. Especially when you only have two more days of it left!” Monique looked back out over the bay. “Oui,” she said. She nodded her head. “Two more days.” The tips of her hair were touched with white paint. A streak of paint was on her cheek. “Sidney, I’ve been thinking about your offer,” she said. She continued to stare at the sea. “Sidney?” said Jacqueline. She stood in the open French doors of the villa. She shielded her eyes from the sun, with her hand. “someone is waiting for you in the salon, mon cher.” Monique looked at me. “Merci, Jacqueline,” I said. “Merci beaucoup. I’ll be right there.” I looked at Monique. “Dulce gave me a ride here,” I said. “Everyone is already at the house getting things ready for tonight.” Monique raised an eyebrow. She looked back towards the French doors. “Sidney, come on, mi amor,” said Dulce. My stomach dropped. “We have to hurry,” she said. “Everyone is waiting. We’ve been gone for awhile now.” She walked towards Monique and I across the patio. “Mi amor?” said Monique. “Why does she call you this? What is going on, Sidney?’ “Hola, Monique,” said Dulce, walking up behind me. Her voice was sugar. She took my hand in hers, smiling. Monique didn’t answer.

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“So here you are. Sidney, I’ve been waiting for you in the truck all this time,” said Dulce. Monique watched us. Her eyes burned. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to leave you out there like that. I was talking to Monique, and ... “ “Está bien,” said Dulce, cutting me off. “It’s okay, but we have to go, baby, come on.” She pulled me by the hand. Dulce tossed her hair over her shoulder with her free hand. She stopped, then turned to Monique. “There’s still a million things to do before the party tonight. I don’t mean to be rude, but we really have to get back. Are you still coming tonight, Monique? Or will you already be gone?” “I’m not sure,” said Monique. “Am I coming, Sidney?” “Well, of course,” I said. “I assumed you were. Still coming, that is. At least that’s what I thought you had said.” Dulce squeezed my hand. Her nails dug into my skin. Monique smiled. “So you really want me to be there for you then?” she said. “Is that what you want, Sidney?” I looked at Monique, then at Dulce. I felt dizzy. “Sidney?” said Dulce. I squeezed her hand for support. Everything blurred in and out of focus. I took a deep breath. My eyes went blind for a moment. “Yes,” I said, regaining my composure. “Please. I’d like you to come. I really have to go though.” I looked to Dulce. “Come on, míja. Let’s go,” I said in Spanish, so Monique wouldn’t understand completely. “Take me from here, please. Take me from this place.” My tone worried Dulce. It was written on her face. “Sí, mi amor,” she said. “Vamonos.” Dulce led me by the hand, past the swimming pool. I didn’t look back. I heard the sound of Renee’s paws on the concrete behind me. I didn’t look back. In the truck, Dulce and I argued for a while. I believe she slapped me. I believe we kissed for awhile. I do remember reclining

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my seat back, and staring out the window during the drive back to Costa Azul. Vultures circled, high above the ocean cliffs. I cursed them in silence, in Spanish. !!! My head spun. I staggered through my open front doors, wading my way across a sea of concern and inquiry. “Are you okay, Sidney?” “What’s the matter, Sid?” The voices only heightened my nausea, my sickness with it all, and I was all so sick of it. My vision blurred in and out of focus. I pressed on, up the stairs, into the bathroom. I locked the door behind me. The sound of the shower covered Dulce’s voice on the other side. Maybe it was Brenda’s voice, or Tracy’s perhaps. The floor rose up to meet me. I gripped the toilet bowl with both hands and pulled my chin above the rim. My whole body trembled. Vomiting, gagging and coughing, my body emptied itself. Fifteen minutes later it was over. Pulling myself back together, I washed my face in the sink. The cold water ran warm from the faucet. I rinsed out my mouth, brushed my teeth, then gathered my supplies from the medicine cabinet. A half-empty bottle of Pacifico sat on the floor, in the corner of the bathroom. I figured that it would probably be better than washing the pills down with water from the sink. It would be infinitely better than going into the kitchen for bottled water. I would never hold up under the weight of Brenda’s concern. I had already been in the bathroom too long as it was. And after the entrance I had made, there were going to be questions, regardless of what I did. Popping a bunch of pills in front of everyone would only make matters worse. I shoved the handful of pills into my mouth. Someone knocked on the door.

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“Just a minute,” I said, over the pills. I washed them down with Pacifico. I removed two pre-loaded syringes from the boxes of Decadurabolin and Sustanin 250. “Sidney?” said Brenda, on the other side of the door. “You okay, sugar?” I pulled my shorts down. “Yeah. I’m all right,” I said. “Just a bit too much beer and sunshine, that’s all. It didn’t mix very well.” I slid the needle into the flesh below my hip. “I feel better now, though,” I said. I drove the plunger home with my thumb. It burned. I pulled the syringe free, then applied pressure to the puncture wound with a piece of toilet paper. I looked over my shoulder, into the mirror. I gasped. There, just above the small of my back, was a red open sore of some sort. “Oh God,” I thought. “Is that what a lesion looks like? Am I getting lesions now?” my mind reeled with panic. “Or could it be the side effects of the steroids?” “Oh, Jesus,” I whispered. I touched it with my fingertips, and winced. “Sidney? Come on, sugar, are you sure you’re all right?” said Brenda. “Yeah, Brenda. I’m fine, really,” I said. “I’ll be out in a second.” “Sidney?” It was Dulce now. “I’m coming,” I said. “Ahorita.” My voice shook. My heart raced. I squeezed the sore between my thumb and forefinger, gritting my teeth. It oozed with pus. I cleaned it with toilet paper, put my shirt and shorts back on, then turned off the shower. I opened the door. Brenda and Dulce stood side by side, searching my face with their eyes.

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“I’m all right,” I said. I smiled. “Just no mas cerveza until I eat something.” Dulce smiled. Brenda frowned. “Sidney, now you know it’s too early and too hot to be drinkin’ like that, sugar,” said Brenda. She turned to Dulce. “What am I going to do with this boy? He’s gonna worry me to death.” “I know,” said Dulce. “Me, too. He pushes himself too hard, Brenda. I tell him all the time, but he never listens.” Dulce took my right hand in hers. Brenda took hold of my left. T hey pulled me towards the kitchen. “What he needs is a good ass-whippin’,” said Brenda. “But I already had one last night,” I said. Dulce and Brenda both laughed. “Well, a spanking then,” said Dulce. Brenda’s eyes flashed. “Yes,” she said. “But a good one, with a wooden spoon or something.” “Hey,” I said. We entered the kitchen. “No one is going to spank anybody,” said Ruth. She placed a tray of prawns on the table. “Not my Sidney, at least. How ya doin’, sweetie?” Brenda and Dulce released me. “I’m better now, Ruthie,” I said. “Here,” said Brenda. She handed me a saucer with some French bread and cheese on it. “This will settle your stomach a bit. But no more drinkin’. You hear me?” She pointed a finger at me, then walked to the oven. She opened it. The kitchen filled with the aroma of garlic. I sat down at the table. Ruth arranged the prawns on the platter. Dulce took a piece of cheese from my saucer, then sat on my lap. She wrapped an arm around my shoulder. Ruth looked at us. She returned her attention to the prawns. Dulce took a bite of the cheese. Brenda removed a casserole dish from the oven and walked towards the table. Dulce placed the remainder of the cheese in my mouth with her fingertips.

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“I go to the house in order to bathe myself, and to arrange myself, yes my love?” said Dulce, in Spanish. “Bueno,” I said, chewing. Brenda set the casserole dish on the table. She looked toward Dulce and me. “Come to the house in some two hours,” continued Dulce, in Spanish. “My father has the equipment, the apparatus, everything you asked him for. To you he lends it.” Brenda removed her oven mittens. She continued to stare at us. “Okay, my love,” I said en español. “Give him the thanks for me. Tell him that I come in two hours then.” “I will,” said Dulce. She wrapped her other arm around my neck and kissed me. The sweetness of her lips, the taste of her breath, the smell of her hair; I gave in to it all. I gave in to her despite my concerns about what everyone would think and say. I felt Dulce’s energy. It passed through me. Something in the contact, her touch, her breath, the kiss, it communicated genuine love. And I was without shame, sin vergüenza. That’s not a good thing to be in Spanish, though. It sounds rather bad, actually. “I go now,” said Dulce. She stood. Brenda and Ruth reorganized the dishes and platters around the table. They looked at each other. Dulce turned to them, smiling. “I’m going to go home and change, then I’ll be back to help out, okay?” she said, in English. “Sure, honey,” said Brenda. “We could always use another pair of hands.” She smiled. “Oh that’ll be wonderful,” said Ruth. “There’s still plenty to do before this place will be ready for tonight. Besides, I don’t know where Tracy ran off to.” “Okay then,” said Dulce. “I’ll be back after I change.” She leaned over, kissed me on the forehead, then headed for the stairs. Brenda’s mouth dropped open. She watched Dulce go. Dulce put on her sunglasses, walked though the open glass doors, and

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disappeared into the sunshine. Ruth smiled at me. She carried the platter of prawns to the refrigerator. I stood. Brenda turned to face me. “Oh, no you didn’t,” said Brenda. “Brenda, I – “ “Sidney!” said Brenda, cutting me off. Her voice was almost a whisper. “Have you lost your natural born mind?” She grabbed my wrist and pulled me behind her. “”Come on,” she said, heading for the living room. “We’re gonna have that little talk of ours now, mister.” “Brenda, I can explain,” I said. “You better,” she said. We walked out onto the porch. She released my wrist, then faced me, folding her arms. Dulce’s Suburban turned right at the bottom of the hill, onto la carretera. Down below, Tracy, Ray and Brian sat in the shade of the astro-turf patio of Ray’s Winnebago. They were laughing, talking, and drinking, of course. Their conversation grew in volume. “Well?” said Brenda. “Brenda, it all happened so fast,” I said. “Dulce started telling me all these things last night, at Zippers.” “All these things?” said Brenda. “Oh, Sidney,. Come on! Do you have any idea what you are dealing with?” “Look,” I said. “I know it’s a volatile situation with Monique, Brenda, but what am I supposed to do? She’s leaving me.” “I’m not talking about Monique, Sidney,” said Brenda. “I’m talking about Rafael Bustamante, Dulce’s father.” “Don Rafa?” “Yes, don Rafa,” said Brenda. She poked me in the chest with her finger. “Don’t you know who he is? You should have been thinking very long and hard about that before you started hugging up with his daughter, Sidney. Good Lord.” “Don Rafa owns the La Jolla Resort,” I said. “What’s that got to do with anything?” “Sidney,” said Brenda. “Rafael Bustamente is nothing more than a glorified gangster.”

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“What?” “Well, don’t act all surprised now,” said Brenda. “Like you didn’t know. I just hope to God you haven’t gotten into that poor little girl’s pants.” “Wait a minute, Brenda,” I said. “Poor little girl?” “She’s a child, Sidney.” “She’s eighteen years old,” I said. “And she is definitely not a child, Brenda. Believe me.” “She’s seventeen years old, Sidney. And she’s that mobster’s little baby girl,” said Brenda. “Don’t you get it?” “Rafa? A mobster?” I said. “Hold on, Brenda. What are you talking about?” “Oh, Sidney!” said Brenda. “Haven’t you been paying attention to anything that goes on around this place? The man is from Culiacán, Sinaloa. He is the head of the drug cartel over there!” “You can’t be serious,” I said. “The hell I’m not,” said Brenda. “But how do you know?” Brenda looked up at the Bustamante mansion, high on the cliffs, above my shoulder. Her expression faded. “I just know, all right,” she said. She looked back into my eyes. “And I’m telling you, Sidney. You had better just leave that one alone, sugar, please. Them people don’t play around, and if you were to get mixed up in ...” “No! Brian, stop it!” shouted Tracy. Brenda and I looked in the direction of Ray’s Winnebago. Brian dragged Tracy by her hair, toward their yellow VW bug. “Get your bum in the car, you bloody tart!” said Brian. “Hey, dude. Let her go!” said Ray. He ran after them. “Mind your own bloody business, Raymond!” said Brian. “If you know what’s good for you.” “Ow! Brian, let go of me!” said Tracy. “You get your hands off of her!” said Brenda. She ran down the steps, barefoot.

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“hey!” I said. “Knock it off, Brian!” I followed after Brenda. “Don’t be a dick, man!” said Ray. “Let her go!” He grabbed the collar of Brian’s Polo shirt. Brian released Tracy. He spun around and punched Ray in the temple. Tracy screamed. Ray staggered backward for a moment, then regained his balance. His eyes narrowed. “You son of a bitch!” said Ray. He charged. Brian ran. They sprinted down the hillside, zig-zagging all over the property. Dust rose in their wake. Brenda stopped to help Tracy. I broke into a run, chasing after Ray and Brian. Brian had a fabulous stride when inspired by fear. he cut left, then right, slaloming through the cactus. he hurdled six squat stands of cacti, then longjumped over a four foot long iguana, without breaking his rhythm. Ray was right on his heels. “Hey!” I said, “Stop!” I leaped over the three cacti, scratching my shin on the needles of the last plant. I growled, then tripped over the iguana. Dust flew. Shouting obscenities in both Spanish and English, I barrel-rolled across the ground. I popped back up and sprinted after them. My heart pounded. The steroids pushed me. I was gaining on Ray again. The three of us streaked down the hill, in a blur of dust clouds, pumping elbows, and sandaled feet. No one spoke. We descended into the arroyo. Dirt became sand. Brian ran east, down the dry riverbed, toward the overpass of the highway. Ray caught him. He threw an arm around Brian’s neck and took him down like a steer wrestler. Sand sprayed from their impact. When I reached them, Ray had Brian in a headlock. Brian’s eyes bulged. His face reddened. “Ray!” I said. I tried to loosen Ray’s hold on Brian’s neck. “Come on, man. Let him go. Look at his face. He can’t breathe!” “I should break your neck!” said Ray, through his teeth. Brian opened his mouth. Neither air nor sound escaped.

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“Ray!” “I should break your lousy neck!” “Ray, stop!” I said. I pried at his forearm with all of my strength. Brian slipped out of the hold. He crawled away, choking and gasping for air. Ray and I fell over backward. Brian stood. He was coughing. He pointed a finger at Ray. “You bloody hypocrite!” said Brian. “I know who you are! I know who you are, Raymond Quinn!” Ray stood. “That’s right,” said Brian. “And I know what you’ve done. So, you just stay the hell away from me.” “Screw you, man!” said Ray. He took a step toward Brian. “You’re David McCabe!” said Brian, coughing. Ray froze. His eyes widened. Brian smiled. His chest heaved. He massaged his throat. “So you just keep your bloody distance, then,” said Brian. “Do we understand each other, mate?” I stood. Ray said nothing. The color faded from his face. “That’s what I bloody well thought,” said Brian. he dusted off his shirt-front, then smoothed out his hair. He spat on the ground. “Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I must be getting back now.” he turned, then walked up the arroyo, away from us. Ray closed his eyes. He gripped his hair with both hands, clenching his fists. “Ray?” I said. I placed a hand on his shoulder. We were both still short of breath. “Are you all right?” “Just leave me alone, Sidney!” said Ray. He pulled away and marched off toward the beach. I bent over, placing my palms on my knees, and tried to catch my breath. I looked to my right. Perspiration ran down my face. Brian grew smaller, climbing the hill back to the house. I looked to my left. Ray passed under the highway, then disappeared behind a sand dune.

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I looked up to the sky, and breathed through my nose. Sweat blurred and stung my eyes. I wiped my face. Overhead, three black silhouettes circled beneath the noon sun. I closed my eyes, then exhaled. !!! “I’m just so sick of it, Sidney,” said Tracy. We both sat Indianstyle on my bed. My cigar box of marijuana sat between us. she cleaned. I rolled. The drapes were closed. The fan oscillated in the corner. “Tracy, I’m telling you,” I said. “You do not have to put up with him laying hands on you like that.” I licked the glue strip and then gave her the joint. “Sidney, look, it’s not that simple,” she said. “The hell it isn’t,” I said. “You just pack your things and leave. It might wake him up, Tracy. Without you there, paying all of the bills, he’ll either have to get off the bottle and go back to work, or go back home to London. Tracy took my lighter from the cigar box and lit the joint. She nodded her head. “Perhaps,” she said, with an exhale of smoke. She closed the cigar box and placed it aside. “But he’s so bloody stubborn. Who knows what he might do. It could get very ugly, you know.” She scooted closer, then passed me the joint. Our knees touched. The bottoms of her feet were dusty. “Either way,” I said, “You’re going to have to do something, Tracy.” “I know,” said Tracy. She leaned forward and touched my necklace of shells, lifting them from my chest. “These are very beautiful,” she said. “How you doing, honey?” said Brenda, peeking through my bedroom door. “You feeling a little better?” “Much,” said Tracy. She let go of my shells and took the joint from me. Brenda looked at us. Her eyes narrowed. She smiled.

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“Well ain’t the two of you just like a couple of peas in a pod.” Tracy patted me on the thigh. “Sidney’s been absolutely wonderful,” said Tracy. “I suppose I just needed a shoulder to cry on. I do feel terrible though. I’m sure I must have talked Sidney’s poor ears off, though he’ll never admit it. He’s such a dear.” Brenda looked at me. She shook her head and smiled. “That does seem to be the general opinion round these parts,” she said. “Well, I’ma leave y’all alone. I still have to finish dipping the strawberries. Besides, Ruthie will have a fit if she smells that grass y’all smoking. I did want to remind you, though, Sidney, that you still have to pick up all that sound equipment in about an hour. Plus, Denny called on the cell, and said that he still hasn’t had any luck finding more champagne. He’s in Cabo now. So you might have to run Ruthie back home to get some from her and Howie. Okay, sugar?’ “All right, Brenda,” I said. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes. Thanks, Momma.” Brenda rolled her eyes. “Now, don’t you start trying to sweet talk me, mister,” she said. “I ain’t through with you, yet. We’re gonna finish that talk of ours when you get back.” “Yes, Brenda.” I said. Tracy laughed. She placed her hand back on my thigh. Brenda noticed. She shut the door behind herself. A gecko scurried across the roof. I watched it disappear into a crack above my closet. Tracy saw it too. We looked at each other, into each other’s half-closed eyes. She smiled, then smeared a hand over my face. “I’m stoned,” she said. “Me too.” “You know, you really ought to do something about all these bloody lizards, Sidney,” “Geckos,” I said. She laughed. “So, what are you going to do,” I said.

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“Kill him, I suppose,” she said. “No, really,” I said. “I’m serious,” she said. “You want to help me?” She held the joint to my lips. I took a hit, then exhaled. “No. That’s no good, Trace,” I said. “You just need to get away from him, that’s all. “But where would I go?” “Come on, Tracy,” I said. “You have Brenda and Denny, Ruth and Howard. Any of us would take you in without a second thought. I don’t think that’s really your problem. It’s just a matter of you making the decision to leave.” “Is that an offer, Sidney?” she said. Our eyes met. I swallowed. “Well ... “ “Well what?” she said. “Couldn’t I just stay here? You wouldn’t mind if I stayed with you, would you, Sidney?” She squeezed my hand, rubbing my knuckles with her thumb. “I don’t trust him, Sidney. Who knows what he’ll try to do? I’d just feel safer here with you.” “Listen, Tracy,” I said. “I really do want to help, but – “ “Oh, Sidney, please,” she said. “It could really work, really. Besides, now that Monique is leaving, you’re going to be all alone, too, and I could be there for you.” She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “We could be there for each other.” “Oh, Tracy,” I said. “I don’t know. This is really a difficult time for me right now.” “For me also, “ she said. “That is precisely why it is such a good idea, Sidney. I’ll take care of you. I’m making fabulous money at the La Jolla. I just sold a two bedroom, a studio and a Presidential unit last week. We wouldn’t have a care in the world, financially. We could just relax, and nurse our wounds together, maybe even take a nice little holiday someplace. I’m pretty. I’m funny. I’m neat, and I’m an excellent cook. What more could you ask in a roommate?”

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“You’re quite a saleswoman, Tracy,” I said. “Can I take that as a yes, then?” “I hope you realize, that if we do this, people are going to talk, Trace,” I said. “Oh, ballocks,” she said. “They will.” “Well let them,” she said. “One doesn’t drop everything and move to a foreign country, all by themselves, if they worry very much about what the neighbors might say. Wouldn’t you agree?” She took another draw on the joint. I smiled. “Well, if you think you could stand the drama ... “ I said, with a sigh. “I’m a drama Queen,” she said. “That’s what worries me.” “Well, not with you, Sidney. Of course not with you,” she said. “Ballocks,” I said. “Isn’t that the term?” Tracy laughed. “So I can stay, then?” “Yeah,” I said. “Go get your things. And may God have mercy on our souls.” I made the sign of the cross over Tracy, then kissed her forehead. I climbed off the bed. “Where are you going?” she said. I stopped in the doorway. “I’ll be right back,” I said. “I just have to run Ruthie up to her house real quick, pick up a few things from don Rafa, then I’ll be here for the rest of the night.” Tracy nodded. She bit her thumbnail. “Don’t you worry, Tracy. Everything is going to be cool,” I said. “Don’t go back to your place yet. I’ll go with you later, okay?” “Thank you, Sidney,” She aid. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much this means to me.” “It’s cool.” I said. “Just lay back, smoke some more weed, and relax, all right? Get some rest for tonight. It’s going to be a great party. We’ll have fun.”

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“Okay, she said. “Do you mind if I borrow a T-shirt?” “Use whatever you like, baby. This is your place too now. Cool?” “Cool,” she said. She smiled, and stretched herself out on my bed. “You say that word a lot. I like the way you say it. I love your California accent.” “Ballocks,” I said, in my best English. “I like that expression. I’m going to use it more often.” Tracy laughed. “I’ll be right back, momma,” I said. “Ciao.” I turned and left. “Ciao,” said Tracy, behind me. Ruth and I traveled north on La Carretera Transpeninsular. I drove. Ray still hadn’t returned yet. It was getting late, so I had borrowed his beat-up Datsun B210 without asking. I looked up at Denny and Brenda’s hacienda, at the top of the hill, above the arroyo. A black Jeep Cherokee was parked amongst the cactus, at the foot of the hill. Two men, wearing binoculars, climbed out of it. We passed the La Jolla de los Cabos resort. I looked through Ruth’s window, out over the palapa roof of the La Jolla’s lobby. The Sea of Cortez sparkled in the sunshine beyond it. Ruth smiled at me, behind a very “Las Vegas” pair of sunglasses. I smiled back, then returned my attention to the highway ahead. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” said Ruth. “Everything’s going to be fine. It’s going to be a wonderful party.” “Oh, I’m not really worried about that, Ruthie,” I said. I turned left onto calle Leona Vicario. The Datsun shook and vibrated from the incline of the hill. I downshifted. The engine roared. “I just have a lot on my mind right now,” I said. “What?” said Ruth. “I can’t hear you.” Her whole body shook. Ruth’s wig began to slide down over her forehead. We continued to climb. I clutched the gear-shift. The vibrations traveled up through my

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arm, shoulders, and neck. My sunglasses slid down the bridge of my nose. Ruth held her wig to her head. Her back-arm jiggled and shook. “I just have a lot on my mind!” I said. The Sea of Cortez appeared, vibrating in the rear-view mirror. I downshifted again. The engine screamed. We pulled up to the gates of Howard and Ruth’s estate. “Thank God,” said Ruth. She leaned over me and honked the horn twice. “Oh, that Raymond is such a filthy man,” she said. She adjusted her wig. “This is just awful, Sidney. Now I’m going to have to take another bath.” She sniffed the inside of her forearm. She retched. “I smell, Sidney,” she said. “My God, I smell like feet!” The gates opened automatically. I drove up the gravel road to the entrance of the house. I readjusted the sunglasses on my nose and turned off the engine. It started back up again then puttered out. “That crappy Raymond Quinn’s feet,” said Ruth. She climbed out of the car, sniffing her hands. “I smell like I’ve been massaging that man’s feet!” She climbed the steps to the double doors of the estate. Ruth and Howard’s maid, Caridad, answered the door. “Sidney,” said Ruth, “You just go on down to the parlor, sweetie. Howie’s already there. I’ll join the two of you as soon as I bathe.” I followed her up the steps to the open doors. “Take your time, Ruthie,” I said. “There’s no rush. Hola, Caridad. ¿Como estás?” “Hola, Sidney. I am well,” said Caridad, in Spanish. She smiled. “Now that you have come to visit me.” She brushed a strand of gray hair behind her ear. I kissed her on the cheek, then walked into the house. “I’ll be down in a flash,” said Ruth. She climbed the staircase on the other side of the foyer. Her bracelets jingled. “Could you do me a favor too, sweetie?” She stopped at the top of the stairs. “Sure,” I said.

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`”Be a dear, and make me a martini, will ya’ Sidney? I love the way you make that martini with the orange taste to it. It’s fabulous. I don’t mean to be such a lush on the day of your party, though.” “You’re not a lush, Ruthie,” I said. “Well, you know what I mean, sweetie,” said Ruth. “I know how much this whole thing matters to you, Sidney, and I want to see it turn out right. So if anybody should stay sober today, it should be me. If not, nothing will get done. Well, Brenda, sure she’s an absolute rock, God bless her. But other than that, everyone else is so flighty. And I want to be there for you, sweetie. You know? But my nerves are so shot, from that wagon ride we took in Raymond Quinn’s filthy car. I’m frazzled, Sidney.” “I understand, Ruthie,” I said. I laughed. “And I love you. So go freshen up, and I’ll have a nice orange martini waiting for you when you come down.” “Precious,” said Ruth, shaking a finger down at me. Her bracelets jingled. “Never, ever, has there been a more precious man. Thank you, sweetie.” She turned and walked down the hall. “Now, where did you say Howie was again?” I called up after her. “In the parlor, sweetie!” she said. “The living room parlor? The TV room parlor? What parlor, Ruthie?” I said. “You know I get lost around this place,” She was gone. “Ruthie?” There was no answer. I looked toward the front doors, at the entrance in the foyer. Caridad was gone. “Ballocks,” I said. I smiled. “Sidney! Hi’ya, kid. Caridad told me you was up here,” said Howard. He wore sandals, shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt. “Hey, Howie,” I said. ‘How’s it going?” “Fabulous, Sid. I’m doing great.” He embraced me then gave me a light slap across the cheek. “Look at ya’, not a scratch.” He examined my face. “That’s what I like to see. You got in there, mixed it up a bit, but you walked away clean. Gotta love it.”

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“I don’t feel like I got away so clean,” I said. “My ribs are killing me.” “Well, you’re sure doing a lot better than them fishermen, let me tell ya’,” said Howard. “What do you mean?” I said. “You didn’t hear about it?” said Howard. “No.” “Yeah, it was wild,” said Howard. “The cops found all of them in their car, about four kilometers down the highway from Zippers. They had all been shot in the head. I guess they had it coming though, eh?” “Wow,” I said. “Well, come on,” said Howard. He threw an arm around my shoulder. “Let’s have a drink.” We walked across the foyer and down the hall. “Howie, there’s something I need to talk to you and Ruthie about,” I said. “Sure, kid. What’s on your mind?” said Howard. “Howie, this isn’t very easy for me ...” !!! I walked out from behind the bar carrying two martini glasses. I swayed a bit. The vodka had gone to my head. “Whoa, easy there,” I said, regaining my balance. Ruth giggled. She and Howard sat next to each other on the couch. The Sea of Cortez was an endless expanse of blue, through the bay windows behind them. I handed Ruth and Howard their glasses. “Thanks, Sid,” said Howard. “Boy, these look great.’ “Oh, look, Howie!” said Ruth. “He even put a twist of orange peel in them!” “Two martinis a l’orange, a la Sidney,” I said. “Aw, this kid’s got class,” said Howard. “Look at that. That’s the kind of stuff I’m always talking about, Ruthie, the little details. It can make all the difference sometimes. Bravo. Bravo, Sidney.”

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“Bravo,” said Ruth. They both raised their glasses toward me. “Wait a second, “ I said. I swayed on my way back to the bar to retrieve my cocktail. Ruth and Howard continued to hold theirs high. I spilled a little vodka on the bar top. I turned around, raising my martini glass toward Ruth and Howard. “To Ruthie and Howie,” I said. “And even though I shouldn’t even be drinking, I will have one more, to toast to your health. I love you guys. I really do. Cheers.” “Cheers,” said Ruth. She sniffled. Howard patted her knee. “Don’t get all schmaltzy on us, Ruthie,” said Howard. “Come on now. Cheers.” “Cheers,” said Ruth. We all took a sip. We all winced. “Ahhhh,” said Howard. “Now that hits the spot. Okay, Sidney. Enough already. So what is it that you wanted to talk to us about? I mean, I’m having a swell time drinking with you and all, but this isn’t what you came here for. There’s something on your mind, and you’ve been stalling ever since you got here. You’re making me nervous now. What is it, pal?” My stomach tightened. “Howie, leave him alone, sweetie,” said Ruth. “When Sidney’s ready I’m sure he’ll tell us. Won’t you, Sidney?” I took another drink from my martini. “No. Howie’s right,” I said. “I have been stalling. There’s something very important I need to discuss with the both of you. It’s very hard for me to talk about, but it’s something I have to do.” My heart pounded in my chest. My ears rang. Heat rushed to my face. I told them. It took forty minutes to calm Ruth down. It broke my heart, hearing her wail like that. The news was a crushing blow to both of them. Finally, after the tears and questions were over, I asked them about taking the videotape to my family. Ruth and Howard looked at each other. Ruth burst into tears again.

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“Sidney, listen to me, son,” said Howard. He held Ruth’s head to his chest, stroking her cheek with the back of his hand. “Ruthie and I would be honored to do what you’re asking us, if it were possible. Believe me, kid. You mean the world to us. It’s just that Ruthie and I have some very serious problems, Sidney.” I sat down on the couch, next to Ruth, taking her hand in mine. “I don’t understand, Howie,” I said. “What’s going on?” Ruthie reached over and caressed my face. She sniffled, then looked at Howard. “Go on,” she said. “Tell him, Howie. He should know.” Howard nodded his head. he took a drink from his martini then set the glass down on the end-table next to him. “It all started in Vegas,” said Howard. “I used to work for some pretty important people there. I handled collection work, debts and such.” “He was the muscle ...” said Ruth, patting me on the knee. She nodded “ ... a problem solver.” “Howie, are you trying to tell me that you were some sort of ... “ I couldn’t even say it. “A cleaner,” said Howard. “Yeah, you’ve got the picture. Look, five years ago I was given a contract to recover a very large sum of money. The vic and his wife lived up on Mt. Charleston. My instructions were to force the guy to give me the money from the safe. After that I was supposed to do both him and his wife, then burn the house down. It was a little complicated, sure, but I’d seen worse. Believe me.” My head spun. I breathed through my nose. Howard’s words washed over me, wave after wave, making me dizzy. “There was no moon, so it made it easier for me to creep up to the fence in the darkness. I had to be careful. There were staff inside the house. Plus, the vic had a couple of security guys who patrolled the property.” Ruth’s hand tightened around mine.

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“I caught the first security guy smoking, by the swimming pool. He was facing the house, so his back was to me. I came up on him out of the bushes. I covered his mouth with my hand, then hit him five times in the neck with a buck knife. I stashed his body behind the pump house.” Howard took another drink from his martini. I was perspiring, despite the air conditioning. The vodka was getting to me. Howard’s words were getting to me. Everything began to blur. “The next one I caught coming out of the side door to the kitchen.” I don’t remember when I actually got up and left. “I stuck’im twice in the kidneys, then I cut his throat.” But Howard’s words followed me, out the door. “Then the cook walked in on me, but I already had my silencer on by then. I plugged him twice in the face, then walked into the living room.” His words followed me down the highway, back to Costa Azul. “Right while they were watching Letterman on the TV, head shot, head shot. The third I hit in the chest. He fell to the floor and tried to crawl away.” I turned onto the dirt road and drove under the highway, up the arroyo. “I climbed the staircase to the bedroom. They were both sleeping. I cracked the vic with my pistol, on the side of his face, to wake him up.” The Datsun screamed and vibrated against the dirt hill. I wiped the sweat from my eyes with the back of my wrist. The road narrowed, winding its way up the cliff side, toward the Bustamante hacienda. “He didn’t want to show me where the safe was. So I shot him in the shoulder. Then I went to grab his wife, who was hiding under the sheets. I figured he was going to need some more motivation.” I downshifted into first gear and floored the gas. The Datsun struggled on. My stomach reeled. I swallowed. I fought to maintain.

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Three cows rose to their feet in the road up ahead of me. Their ribs showed against their hides. They moved of into the cactus, and up the hillside. Their heads hung beneath the heat of the afternoon sun. “I pulled the covers back, and the strangest thing happened, Sidney. Lying there on her back, all beat-up and black-eyed, was a woman I recognized instantly.” The Datsun rounded the far side of the canyon. I continued the climb in first gear, cursing myself for not borrowing Brenda’s Jeep. The vibrations heightened the sickness in my stomach. Me head pounded. “She was older now, but there was no mistaking her. It was little Ruthie Praskowitz, from Brooklyn. We had grown up in the same brownstone together, such a long, long time ago. It turns out that she had married the bastard. He had been beating in her for years. She recognized me, too, Sidney. And as I looked down, into her swollen face, she smiled at me. I knew right then and there that I was in big trouble. I had to protect her, Sidney. Even if it meant turning my back on everything.” The Bustamante hacienda came into view, high on the cliff side up ahead. “He’d been beating me for years, Sidney.” Ruth’s voice echoed in my head. I looked to my right. There appeared to be two men with binoculars, hiding behind a cactus. They crouched down, then disappeared from sight. “I gave her my pistol.” “He gave me his pistol” I shook my head, denying the hallucination of the two men in the cactus. I needed water. I had to cool down. “I killed the bastard,” said Ruth. “She sure did.” “I opened the safe,” said Ruth. “And we took the money,” said Howard. “All of it.”

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I hit a pothole. I swore in Spanish. “Howie took care of the house. He lit the whole place on fire, then we ran away.” “Yeah, we ran away,” said Howard. “But with the people I was working for, it’s never that easy, kid.” “We’ve been running for five years, now,” said Ruth. I pulled up to the wrought iron gates of the hacienda, in a cloud of dust. I killed the engine. My chest heaved. I struggled to free myself from the seatbelt. It was stuck. Perspiration stung my eyes. The sickness was making me panic. I jerked and pulled at the seat belt like a wild man, spewing obscenities an español. Mid-frenzy, a black object caught my attention, through the windshield. A vulture had landed on the hood of the Datsun. I yelled with surprise, then slammed the palm of my hand onto the horn. The bird took flight, in a flurry of dust and molting feathers. I looked off the road, to my right. A multitude of black-clad, binocular-wearing men dove behind groves of cacti, nopales, maguey and boulders. I looked back toward the gates of the hacienda. “Oh, God,” I said. I felt my forehead with the back of my hand. “I’m delirious.” I closed my eyes, and breathed through my nose. I heard the sound of the automatic gates open, tires on the gravel road, then an engine idling beside me. “¿Sidney, que te pasa, mi amor?” said Dulce. I opened my eyes. She smiled at me from the driver’s seat of her Suburban. “Leave the car here, my love. Come up,” she said, in Spanish. I pushed the button on my seat belt again. This time it opened. The belt popped free. “Ballocks,” I said, shaking my head. “¿Que?” said Dulce. “Nothing, my love. I go,” I said. I turned the engine back on, parked the car on the side of the road, then walked over to Dulce’s Suburban. I climbed in beside her.

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“Did you miss me?” said Dulce. She leaned across the seat to kiss me. “Yes,” I said. I wrapped my arms around her waist. “Like the sand without her sea.” We kissed. “It’s never that easy, kid.” Howard’s voice returned to me. “Never.” I held Dulce tighter. I tried to distract my mind from the swiftly fading illusion of the life and death I had been searching for in Costa Azul. Nothing was as it seemed. Nothing, except Dulce’s hair on my face, and the candy of her lips, one with mine. !!! “Sidney, my friend. What’s happening? How are you been?” said don Rafael. He extended me his hand. I shook it. “Buenas tardes, don Rafael. ¿Como está usted?” I said. Dulce stood beside us, smiling. “No, no, Sidney,” said Rafael. “Please, my friend. Let us speak English. I need to practice.” His voice echoed down the hall of marble. behind him, through the rows of Roman columns, the estate commanded a view of the entire bay, stretching on to the horizon. Even the fishing village of San Jose del Cabo was just visible over don Rafael’s left shoulder. “Sure, Mr. Bustamente,” I said. “We can speak English, if you’d like.” “Ay, papa,” said Dulce. “Hablamos español. Es mejor.” Rafael smiled. he stroked his daughter’s hair. “No, míja. It is not better.” He continued in English; “I want to learn good ingles. and if I am wanting to learn, I must speak. Verdad, Sidney?” “Yes,” I said. “That really is the only way. But, you do already speak excellent English, don Rafael.” Rafael laughed. “No, my friend, I do not,” he said. “But, I am learning.” He took hold of Dulce’s hand. “Now this one ...” he

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continued, “This one I sent to American school, to the best schools, so that she may learn the ingles.” Dulce slipped her arm through her father’s. She rolled her eyes. “And she learns ingles cien por ciento, one hundred percent, Sidney; but she not like to speak it, never. Come, let’s sit out on the patio.” I walked with them through the hall, keeping to don Rafael’s left, as etiquette required. “I do not speak English, because it is not pleasing to me,” said Dulce, in Spanish. She roughed up her father’s hair. He laughed. Don Rafael and I walked to the gazebo, on the other side of the swimming pool. It was not far from the cliff side. Dulce went to tell their maid to bring us something to drink. Rafael took a seat on the couch across from me. “I must tell you, Sidney, I am very pleased you invited my wife Patricia and I to hear you play la guitarra tonight,” said Rafael. Three men walked toward the gazebo from the swimming pool. One carried a briefcase. The other two wore pistols at their hips. “I love the music of España. The flamenco has so much pasión,” said Rafael. he noticed the three men. “Excuse me,” he said. he stood, and walked over to speak with them. Dulce returned. She waved to her father in passing, then sat down on the couch beside me. She took my hand in hers and nuzzled her face into the side of my neck. “Te quiero,” she said. “I love you, Sidney.” My heart raced. My eyes were fixed on don Rafael and the men with pistols. “Tranquil, Dulce,” I said, in Spanish. “Tranquil, please, your father.” Don Rafael looked in our direction. My stomach tightened. He returned his attention to the group of men. Dulce crossed her legs and leaned up against me. She wrapped my arm around her shoulder. “Don’t preoccupy yourself,” she said. “There is no problem with my father. He has trust in me. Moreover, you are pleasing to him.”

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Don Rafael took the briefcase from the man. All three removed their cowboy hats and shook Rafael’s hand. They turned and left. I tried to pull my arm from Dulce’s shoulder, but she would not release my wrist. She smiled. My sphincter palpitated with fear. I felt as if I were losing control over my bowels. Don Rafael turned toward us. His smile vanished. I coughed, snatched my arm free of Dulce’s grasp, then covered my mouth with my hand. “Dulce,” said don Rafael. “Carry this to my office, please.” He was speaking Spanish now. His eyes burned into mine. “Sí, papa,” said Dulce. She sprang to her feet. Dulce took the briefcase and disappeared. Don Rafael walked back to the couch across form me and sat down. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He formed a steeple with his fingertips. “Listen to me well, my friend,” he continued, in Spanish. “You seem to be a good man. I lend you the music equipment, that which you asked me, in order that you may offer your concert tonight. I have no problem with that. But this I tell you one time only. Never touch my daughter like that again. do not draw yourself near to her, cabrón. You comprehend me?” “Absolutely, sir,” I said. The maid arrived. She placed two cocktails down on the glass table, between don Rafael and I. “Good,” said don Rafael. “We speak no more of this.” he raised his glass to me in a toast. I lifted mine. My hand trembled. “May your concert of this night be a great success. Salud,” he said. “Thank you, sir. Salud,” I said. We touched glasses. Beyond the cliff side, just above my house, a lone vulture circled, black against the sun. !!! “Sidney?’ said Tracy. “In the flesh,” I said. I spun around so she could get a good look at me. Tracy stood in my living room, dressed to kill. She closed her compact, put her lipstick on the coffee table, then looked me up and down.

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“Well, don’t you look sexy,” she said. “I love it. Very Spanish. Very oh-lay.” I smiled, bowed to her and kissed her hand. “Good evening, Señorita. And I must say that you look beautiful tonight,” I said in Spanish. “Thank you, dear,” said Tracy. “Whatever you said, it sounded lovely.” “I said that you look beautiful,” I said. “Thank you, Love,” she said. “You really know how to make a girl feel better.” She slipped up against me, embracing me. Her hand cupped the back of my head. Perfume radiated from her body. I laced my fingers together, at the small of her back. “So, we’re going to watch each other’s backs tonight?” I said. “Yes,” she said. She continued to caress the back of my head and neck. “I’ll make sure you don’t drink too much. Plus, I’ll do my best to keep Monique and Dulce from cornering you tonight. Would that help?” “You’re a life saver, Tracy,” I said. I continued to hold her. “And I’ll see to it that Brian stays away from you, okay?” “Promise?” “I promise.” “Thank you, Sidney.” The sky above the Sea of Cortez turned to scarlet. we heard the sound of vehicles approaching, through the open doors. Tracy kissed me on the cheek. “Good luck, darling,” she said. “I know it will be a wonderful show.” We parted. Tracy walked up the stairs to the kitchen, to make herself a drink. “Sidney, sugar, you look fantastic!” said Brenda. “Doesn’t he look just like don Juan, Denny?” She kissed me on the cheek, then wiped away the lipstick with her thumb. Dennis laughed.

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“Well, hell, honey I don’t know what don Juan looked like. How you doing, son?” Denny patted me on the back. “Hi’ya, kid,” said Howard. “Denny, Brenda, hi’ya Trace. How’s everybody doing?” “Wonderful, Howard,” said Tracy, from the kitchen. “Well, I’m doing just fine there, Howie,” said Dennis, shaking Howard’s hand. “Yoo-hoo! Hi’ya, sweetie,” said Ruth. She walked around Howie and Dennis, then stood next to Brenda and I. She gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. “Oh ... my ... God,” said Ruth. “You look fabulous! Brenda, look at him. he looks like Zorro.” She took my cheeks between both of her hands. “A precious, precious Zorro.” Her breath smelled of vodka. Brenda and I exchanged glances. “He does not look like Zorro, Ruthie,” said Howard. “Zorro wore tights and one of them leotard things. Can’t you tell the kid’s dressed as a bull fighter?” “Hey, everybody. What’s up?” said Ray. Rusty was with him. “Hey, Russ,” I said. “I’m glad you made it, buddy.” “Yeah, me too,” said Rusty. He smiled. “You look nice, all dressed up,” I said. I roughed up his hair. “Come on, let’s put those cases of beer out back.” I took one of the boxes from Rusty. “Lead the way, bro,” said Ray. we walked up the steps to the kitchen. Monique and her parents walked through the front doors. Her father, Etien, carried a magnum of champagne in his arms. My heart skipped a beat. Ray and Rusty stacked the boxes of Pacifico against the back wall of the kitchen. “Do you mind putting about half a box of those in the freezer for me?” I said. “No sweat, bro,” said Ray. “I’ll do it, Sid,” said Rusty.

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“Thanks, bros,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” I walked down to the living room. “Jacqueline, como talles vous?” I said, taking Monique’s mother’s hand. I kissed her cheek. “How are you this evening?” “Tres bien, Sidney. Merci,” said Jacqueline. “I am so glad you invited us to hear you play.” “Etien, good evening my friend,” I said, shaking his hand. We embraced. He kissed my cheek. I patted his back. “It’s good to see you.” “It’s good to see you too, mon ami,” he said. “It will be a great gift for Jacqueline and I to hear you play once more, before we leave Mexico.” “I’m so glad you all came,” I said. Monique and I made eye contact. She smiled. I cleared my throat. “It means a great deal to me,” I said. I tried to keep my attention on Etien and Jacqueline. “It’s very difficult for me to express how much ... “ I looked at Monique. “ ... to express how much the news that you were all moving back to Marseilles affected me, that is. The effect it had on my ... “ Etien and Jacqueline nodded. Monique looked away. “Sidney,” said Tracy, from the balcony of the dining room. “Excuse me, for a moment,” I said. I turned my back on them and walked away. “Sidney,” said Etien. “The champagne.” I stopped, forced a smile, and turned back around. “Merci, Etien,” I said. “Thank you. I’ll just go put it on ice.” I avoided Monique’s eyes. Etien passed me the magnum of champagne. I started for the stairs. I felt her eyes on my back. I couldn’t resist. I glanced back at her. “It hurts so much, Sidney. I can’t deal with it sometimes.” Monique’s words of earlier that day echoed through my head. I looked away, and willed my legs to climb the stairs. the house was

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filling with people. some of them I did not even know. it didn’t matter though. I set the magnum down on the kitchen sink. “Thanks, Trace,” I said. “I was about to fall right into that one.” “Don’t worry, Sidney,” said Tracy. “I’m looking out for you, darling.” She smiled and offered me her cocktail. I took it. I looked out over the crowd of people, socializing, moving about the living room below. I began to down Tracy’s entire cocktail. She took it back. “Easy, love,” she said. “Pace yourself, Sidney. It’s early yet.” She drank the last of her margarita then set it on the sink behind her. “You’ll be fine. Trust me. Everything’s cool.” “Ballocks,” I said. We both laughed. “I just have to stay calm,” I continued. “Do you want to slip out back and smoke a joint with me?” “Sure,” she said. “That’s cool, let’s go.” I smiled. “You like that word, don’t you?” I said. “I do,” she said. “You’re cool,” I said. “Very cool. Come on.” I took her by the hand and headed for the back door. When Tracy and I returned, the entire house was full. we looked at each other. Tracy had “los ojos del sapo” the eyes of the frog. I suppose I must have had them as well. we smiled. I pulled Tracy behind me. we floated through the crowd in slow motion. her grip tightened on my hand. Voices murmured. Ice jingled in glasses. The sounds of small-talk and party conversation swirled around us. We returned to the kitchen. “My God,” Sidney,” said Tracy. “I never realized that you knew so many people.” “I don’t,” I said. I opened the freezer and removed a bottle of vodka. “Want a cocktail?” “Sure,” said Tracy. I reached into the refrigerator and grabbed an orange.

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“You do not invite me to one,” said Dulce, in Spanish, behind us. I banged my head on the roof of the refrigerator. Tracy laughed. I turned around. Dulce cut her eyes at Tracy. “Hey, Dulce, what’s up?” I said, in English. I touched the bottle of Stolichnaya to the back of my head. “I didn’t see you.” Dulce folded her arms. She looked at Tracy, then back at me. “It makes forty-five minutes since I arrived, Sidney,” she continued en español. “Where were you? With her? The old skinny woman?” She indicated Tracy with a nod. “Dulce,” I said. “Dulce, darling,” said Tracy, “What ever it is that you are saying, you seem to feel very strongly about it. Why don’t you repeat it in English, dear, so we can all enjoy your opinion.” “You have nothing to do with the matter,” said Dulce, in Spanish. “Sí, yo tengo mucho que ver con esto,” said Tracy. “I have much to do with it,” she continued, in Spanish. “Especially when you speak of me in that manner, young lady. It is a lack of respect.” Dulce’s mouth dropped open. So did mine. “Sidney, there you are, my friend,” said don Rafael, walking up with his wife, Patty. Tracy stepped beside me and slipped an arm through mine. “Hello, Pat, Rafa, how are you?” said Tracy, turning on her charm. Dulce surveyed the situation. Her eyes burned. “Tracy!” said Rafael, “I did not know you would be here.” He took her free hand and kissed it, then turned to me. “Tracy is my number one closer of the sales, at La Jolla do los Cabos. She make me much, much money for the resort this month.” I put the orange and the bottle of Stolichnaya down on the sink, next to me. I wiped my hand on my pants leg. “Don Rafael. ¿Como está usted?” I said, offering him my hand. He shook it.

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“English, Sidney,” said Rafael. “You must let me practice, my friend.” “Hi, Tracy. How are you doing, Sidney?” said Patty. “I’m good, Patty,” I said. “Just a little nervous. I always get this way before a show.” Tracy and Patty embraced. “You look lovely, Dear,” said Tracy. “Smashing.” Rafael wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “I too, get nervioso before my shows,” he said “Es natural. How about we have a drink to calm los nervios, eh?” Dulce stepped in front of us. her eyes stared into mine. They implored me. Her brow wrinkled with hurt, and confusion. “Dulce,” said Rafael. “No drinking for you. You are too young for such things, míja. So, stop making faces at Sidney.” Dulce paid no attention to her father’s words. Her eyes continued to stare into mine. She folded her arms. “Do you want her, Sidney?” she said, in Spanish. Rafael’s expression faded. My stomach tightened. Patty and Tracy looked at her. Dulce clenched her fists at her sides. “Tell me!” she said, “Tell me now!” “Sidney, shame on you,” said Brenda. She stepped up and took me by the hand. “I’ve been looking all over the place for you, sugar. Come on, now. Denny and I have something to show you.” She pulled me away from don Rafael, pushing me ahead of her, towards the dining room. She looked back at everyone, over her shoulder. “Pardon me, everybody. I don’t mean to be rude. But I just need to borrow our Sidney here, for a minute or two. Okay?” Brenda pushed me all the way to the stairs. She snatched my hand up again, then took the lead. She pulled me through the crowd. “Hey, there’s the party animal right there!” said Howard, pointing at me again with his cocktail from across the room. I nodded to him. He gave me a thumbs up. Brenda continued to pull me behind her.

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I spotted Ruthie, through the bodies in the living room. She sat on the couch next to Monique’s father, Etien. Her laughter roared above the din of the crowd, conversation, and cocktails. A martini glass sat in front of her. We made eye contact. Ruthie burst into tears. I turned my head, and followed Brenda outside. The porch was crowded. There were even people swinging in my hammock. I frowned. Brenda looked around us. She puffed out her cheeks. “Good grief,” she said. “Come on.” We descended the steps, to the dirt below. We walked hand in hand through the cactus, in silence. The moon illuminated the Sea of Cortez, with a band of silver light. It stretched from the beach, all the way to the horizon. “Sidney, would you please tell me what the hell you are trying to do to yourself?” said Brenda, breaking the silence. “What do you mean, Brenda?” I said. I laced my fingers with hers. “What is it?” she said. “Are you trying to kill yourself? Is that what it is?” She looked at me. The moonlight shined on her face. “I try to understand you, Sidney. God knows I do. And I get so afraid for you sometimes, even though it’s not my place, nor my business ...” “Brenda, everything is fine,” I said. “You don’t have to worry about me like that.” “Sidney,” said Brenda, “Now I know you’re not blind, sugar. You are playing with fire. That girl in there can get you killed, and yet it doesn’t seem to bother you in the slightest. Something’s wrong with that, Sidney. Something is very wrong with you right now. I can see it. I can feel it, but you won’t tell me anything. Why?” “Brenda, listen to me,” I said. I stopped and turned her to face me. “I have some very difficult issues going on in my life at the moment. I know how much you worry about me, Brenda, and that is exactly why I try not to dump all of my problems on you.”

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“Sidney, we all have problems, sugar,” said Brenda. She placed a hand on my cheek. “You don’t have to go through them alone.” “Sidney?” said Monique, behind us. Brenda and I looked back. “Can I speak with you for a moment please?” I looked at Brenda. She sighed and shook her head. “Go on, sugar,” said Brenda. “Handle your business, son. We’ll talk when things calm down, okay?” she kissed me on the cheek. Brenda walked up the hill to the house without looking at Monique. Monique laughed. She downed the remainder of her cocktail. “Allo, Brenda! A good evening to you too, Darling!” said Monique, over her shoulder. “What are you doing, Monique?” I said. I walked up to her. “I need to talk to you, mon cher,” she said. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. The moonlight bathed the cactus and desert around us in silver. Monique’s eyes glistened. I placed my hands in my pockets. “Okay,” I said. “What’s on your mind, honey?” “Everything,” she said. “Everything, “ I repeated. “Oui, everything.” “And, how do you feel about everything?” “Bad,” she said. “Bad,” I said. “Oui,” said Monique. She laughed, then looked down at her empty cocktail glass. “You getting drunk tonight, babe?” I said. “Oui,” said Monique. “I think maybe so.” She looked back into my face. I smiled, then looked up at the moon. A halo of light encircled it. “Well,” I said. “What the hell. You’re drunk, I’m stoned. The world is insane, and life is but a strange illusion. so, what the hell.” “I do not understand,” said Monique. “Me neither,” I said. I laughed.

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“Sidney, I – “ “Sidney!” said Tracy, from the porch. “It’s show time, darling. You’re on in five minutes!” I looked up at the house, then back to Monique. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ve gotta go play some music.” I walked up the hill, toward the house. “We talk later, oui mon cher?” said Monique, behind me. I stopped and turned around. “Oui,” I said. “Come on. Why don’t you come up and let me play for you.” I smiled. “Sidney,” said Brenda, from the porch. “Everyone’s waiting for you, sugar.” “I’m coming,” I said. I turned and walked up the stairs to the porch. “All right, everybody. Let’s do this. Let’s make some music, eh? Óle! I clapped my hands together. !!! The house was dark, except for the one track light on above my chair, in the corner of the living room. I gulped down one last martini a l’orange in the kitchen, then headed downstairs with my guitar under my arm. I took my seat. I tuned up. I glanced at the faces around me, the faces of strangers, the faces of my friends, the faces of those I feared, and those I loved. I smiled. I closed my eyes, took a breath, then dove into a “Sólea`”. My mind cleared. My fingers came to life, dancing over the strings. Sólea is a song of solitude and loneliness. I played it that way, de mis entrañas, right from my guts. Memories of my life flashed before my mind’s eye. I saw the birth of my first born son. I watched him walk away from me, on his first day of kindergarten. I sat on a white coral beach with my wife, laughing and eating sandwiches. The sun sparkled on the east China Sea.

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I gathered up all of my solitude, my loneliness, and pain, until I could feel it burning like a knot in my chest. Then I let it go, accenting that pain with notes, twelve heart-breaking beats to each measure of sadness. I had them now. I had them all, held captive in my domain of arpeggio, tremolo, rosquiado, y la musica flamenca. My fingers flew. They had a mind of their own. My face contorted from the passion of the moment. The crowd gazed, listening in silence. Here and there, faces were wet with tears. I blazed through the final run of picado, taking the piece to its climax, then finished. “Ole`!” shouted a voice. Everyone applauded. Clapping and whistling, their approval reached me from every corner of the house. Standing at the balcony of the dining room above was Dulce. She wiped her eyes. Standing in the crowd near the front doors was Monique. Brenda sat Indian-style on the floor before me. Tracy gazed at me, misty-eyed, from the couch. “Gracias,” I said, into the microphone in front of me. It squeaked, with a little feedback.. “I just want to thank you all for coming. I have some really beautiful material I’d like to play for you tonight.” People smiled. Some of them clapped. “But before we get started,” I said, “Would somebody mind bringing me a shot of tequila, Please?” They laughed. “I’ve got you, bro!” said Ray, from the kitchen. “Gracias,” I said. !!! My head spun. An elderly man, who I didn’t know, was talking to me in Spanish. We stood next to the dining room windows. I nodded to him. “Sí, es muy interesante,” I said. “Very interesting.” I hadn’t understood a word the man had said. “Sidney!” said Howard. “There you are.”

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“Excuse me,” I said to the man, in Spanish. I turned to Howard and smiled. “What’s up, buddy?” Howard gave me a shot of tequila. “Here ya’ go, kid.” He put his arm around me. “I just gotta tell you, Sid, that flamingo stuff of yours is in a class all by itself there, pal. I was blown away, really. Cheers.” “Cheers,” I said. I drank my shot. Music began to play, dance music. someone must have got into my CDs. People danced in the living room below us. “Hey, hey, hey ...” said Howard. he started to do the mashed potato beside me. “Jesus, Howie,” I said. “Jesus ain’t got nothing to do with these moves, kid,” said Howard. Two very drunk Mexican women joined Howard. “There ya’ go amigas, just like this ...” He said. I backed away from them. “Well, where do you think you’re going, son?” said Dennis, behind me. I jumped. He roared with laughter. I turned around. My vision blurred, in and out of focus. “Hey, Denny,” I said, swaying on my heels. He shoved a shot of tequila at me. I took it. Denny’s shirt was unbuttoned. He was sweating. his whole body looked like a lobster. The alcohol had colored his skin with Alabama crimson. “Cheers,” He said. “Cheers.” I drank my shot. “Well, would you lookee there!” said Dennis. “Go ahead, Howie! Work’em! Work’em, you old son of a bitch! Yessir!” Dennis danced off to join Howard. I stumbled toward the stairs. The crowd had thinned a bit, but the house was still full. Laughter roared. Liquor poured and Dionysus wandered the desert landscape. I blanked out at the top of the stairs, then found myself transported to the far corner of the living room.

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Ten people in their underwear sat around my coffee table. Ray had somehow managed to get a game of Spin the Bottle going. Brenda and Ruth were among them. I laughed, then fell onto my ass. Beto, the owner of Zippers, helped me to my feet. He wore only a T-shirt and boxer shorts. A lampshade was on his head. “Oh no, Beto,” I said, in Spanish. “What passes with you?” “It is nothing, Sidney,” said Beto. “It is a game, only. I am diverting myself very much with your friends!” Sweat poured down his face. “And that of the lamp?” I said, pointing at the lampshade. I swayed back and forth. “It’s part of the game, too.” He said. “Come on, Beto!” said Ray, across the room. “Ay, I have to go,” said Beto. “It touches to me to give the bottle a turn.” He walked back to the coffee table. I needed some air. Outside, the porch buzzed with activity and conversation. I staggered through the doorway. People patted me on the back, and shook my hand, in passing. I blanked out again, then found myself trying to force open the driver’s side door of Denny’s Cherokee. “Sidney, come here!” said Tracy, behind me. I turned around, then realized that I had no shirt on. I felt my chest, then shrugged my shoulders. I was perspiring. I wiped the sweat from my eyes. I saw them. Tracy, Monique and Dulce sat side by side on the little adobe wall of my cactus garden. I fell onto my ass again. All three of them laughed. I began to laugh too. I laid back and stared up at the moon. The earth rotated beneath me. I could feel it. “All right, then,” I said. “I give up. Go ahead and kill me now. Whoever wants to do it, be my guest.” I exhaled. They were still laughing.

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I lifted my head to look at them. Tracy passed Dulce a bottle of tequila. Monique handed Tracy a joint. “Hey ...” I said. I struggled to my feet. “What’s going on here?” Dulce took a drink from the bottle then passed it to Monique. “Sidney,” said Tracy, in a cramped voice. She exhaled a cloud of smoke overhead, then stood. “Look, the girls and I have been talking ...” “Oui,” said Monique. She drank from the bottle, then passed it to Tracy. “Tracy, she talked about how much stress you have today. How nervous, how sad you were, how important tonight’s show was to you. And it was, so, so beautiful, mon cher.” “Sí,” said Dulce, with a heavy nod. Her head hung from the liquor. “Que ... que hermosa. Sí, que hermosa la musica, Sidney. It was beautiful” She looked up at me again. “I promised not to ruin your show.” She smiled. perspiration beaded on her forehead. Her face flushed. Wet hair was plastered to her cheeks. “We all promised,” said Tracy. “Oui, Monique?” “Oui,” said Monique. “Just for you, mon cher.” “A truce,” said Tracy. She passed the bottle of tequila to Dulce, then wrapped an arm around Monique’s shoulder. She kissed Monique’s cheek. Dulce tilted the bottle skyward. My eyes widened. I envisioned don Rafael placing a pistol to the center of my forehead. Dulce swallowed. Rafael pulled the trigger. My vision went white. “Dulce!” I said. She blurred back into focus. “Your father. If he catches you drinking he’s going to murder me.” They all laughed. Dulce passed the bottle to Monique. “Papá went home hours ago,” said Dulce, in English. At least I believe it was English. I wasn’t too sure about anything by that point. “Oh,” I said.

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“Sidney!” said Beto, from the porch above us. “They’re calling for you, my friend. Come up!” I looked at the girls. “Go on,” said Monique. She smiled. “Sí,” said Dulce.” Beto calls you. “Go ahead, Sidney,” said Tracy. She winked at me. “It’s your party. Now be the host. Get on up there.” I swayed from side to side, scrutinizing them. My eyes narrowed. “I come now,” I said to Beto in Spanish. I didn’t remove my eyes from Tracy, Monique and Dulce. “Come!” said Beto, beckoning with his arm. Tracy offered me the bottle of tequila. I took it, drank from it, then passed it back to her. “Gracias,” I said. “Thanks, all of you.” They all smiled. I walked up the steps to the porch. !!! The bottle spun on the coffee table, in a blur of Pacifico tan. It stopped. Brenda showed us her breasts. We all cheered. The bottle spun again. It stopped. Ray wiggled his bare foot beneath Ruthie’s nose. Ruthie kissed each one of Ray’s toes. I nearly choked on my shot of tequila. “I bet you smell like you’ve been massaging Ray’s feet now!” I said, then immediately regretted it. Ruthie squealed with laughter, gasping for breath. She rolled onto her back, and kicked her legs straight up into the air. We all laughed. The bottle spun again. It stopped, pointing at me. “One tequila! Two tequila! Three tequila! Four!” I shouted. I slammed all four shots that Beto had placed before me. I fell over backward, drooling and coughing. I looked to my left.

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Howard stood butt naked, next to the stairs. He wore only my straw sombrero on his head. He was talking to one of the girls he had been dancing with earlier. They blurred out of focus. Howie turned into a lizard. I shook my head. They disappeared. Ray and Beto pulled me back into a sitting position. “Okay,” said Ray. He stood up, adjusting his bikini briefs. “I’ve got a good one, a real good one.” “Give it to us, Baby!” said Ruth. We all laughed. “All right. here it is.” He continued. “Whoever the bottle lands on this time, has to strip naked, dance on the couch, then run down the hill, shouting arriba!” “Wooooo!” “All right!” “Yeah!” “Éso!” We were all in agreement. The bottle spun again. It stopped. I blacked out. “Swing it!” The voice was bringing me back. “I love it!” My vision was returning. “Oh, yes!” The room spun into focus. I found myself looking down at Brenda. “Come on, Sugar! Swing it!” she said. I suddenly realized that I was standing over her, on the couch. I was beating her across the forehead, temples, and nose with my engorged penis. “Sid-ney! Sid-ney! Sid-ney!” Voices chanted. People clapped their hands. My face beamed with pride. I leaped from the couch, and began to Riverdance. My bare feet slapped the tile floor, to the rhythm of the clapping.

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A woman screamed outside. I ran through the front doors. My mind forked. I saw Dulce and Monique punching and kicking at Brian. He held Tracy in a rear head-lock. They kneeled in the dirt. I ran down the stairs, screaming. “Arriba! Arriba! Arriba!” I streaked through the moonlight, like a New Guinea hunter. I kicked Brian in the ribs, with all of the momentum and strength in my legs. He released Tracy. I tore into him, pummeling him without restraint. “Arriba! Arriba! Arriba! Arriba, motherfucker!” “Sidney, stop!” “Stop him!” “Sidney, that’s enough!” “Ya, Sidney! Ya basta! Stop!” “Good Lord, Sidney ...” I blacked out. The warmth of the breeze, and a pot hole in la carretera brought me back around. I found myself lying on my back, in the back of Monique’s Jeep. The moon shined on my face. A halo of light still encircled it. I heard laughter, over the wind and noise of the engine. I sat up. Monique drove. She had a bottle of Pacifico between her thighs. Dulce sat in the passenger seat. “Look, he’s awake again!” said Dulce, laughing in Monique’s ear. Monique looked back at me over her shoulder. “Sidney!” said Monique. “Are you awake, mon cher?” She laughed, gripping the steering wheel. Dulce drank from a bottle of tequila. She held it out for me to take. “My love!” she said, in Spanish. “You woke yourself. Take, take!”

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I took the bottle. The Jeep swerved again. I fell onto my side, spilling tequila over my face and neck. Dulce and Monique shrieked with laughter in the front seat. I sat back up. Dulce turned around, kneeling on her seat. She reached for the bottle. Her hand opened and closed like a little girl’s. The wind blew her hair. Her eyes flashed in the moonlight. “Wait,” I said, in Spanish. My vision was blurring again. I placed the bottle to my lips. I closed my eyes and swallowed four times. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. My head spun. My stomach twisted and tightened. The whole world smelled of tequila. I opened my eyes with a belch. The taste of Herradura and bile burned at the back of my throat. I swallowed it back down and breathed through my nose. The wind on my face helped. “Where are we going?” I said. I handed Dulce the bottle. “¿Que?” said Dulce. Her hair blew in my face. I leaned forward, between the two front seats. “What happened?” I said, looking from Dulce to Monique. “How did I get here? And where are we going?” “What happened?” said Monique. She took a drink from her bottle of Pacifico. Monique and Dulce looked at each other. They burst with laughter. Beer sprayed all over the side of my face. The Jeep swerved out of control. I saw the road rotate in the headlights. The centrifugal force pulled me behind Dulce’s seat. I saw the hills of cactus, illuminated by the moonlight. Tires screeched. We continued to spin. I saw the carretera, the way from which we had come. We continued to spin. The Sea of Cortez came into view. The floor began to rise beneath me. The earth tilted.

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I clenched my teeth and gripped the seat. Dust flew. The engine roared. We bounced. Then there was silence. The Jeep sat on the side of the road. No one moved. We stayed where we were, blinking our eyes. The Jeep was facing forward again. Monique and Dulce looked at each other. They laughed. “I think I better drive,” I said. I grabbed the roll-bar and pulled myself to my feet in the back seat. My grip failed me. I fell from the back of the Jeep, flailing my arms. The ground knocked the wind out of me. I looked up at the moon, gasping. Dulce and Monique came running. “We have to revive him!” said Monique. She snatched the bottle of tequila from Dulce’s hand. “We must,” Monique poured tequila on my face. I shook my head, coughing. Monique kept pouring. Her aim finally brought the stream of tequila directly into my open mouth. My mouth filled. Tequila overflowed, down my cheeks. Monique and Dulce laughed. I scuttled away backward, like a crab. I swallowed the mouthful of tequila, then fell into a fit of coughing. “Whatareyoucrazy?” I said, slurring the words. “Don’t do that.” I tried to rise. I fell to one knee. “You girls are drunk.” I stood, swaying back and forth. “And friends do not let other friends of their friends who drink, drink with their friends, and do their driving while their friends are drunk in the company of good friends,” I said. “Understand? Monique and Dulce stared at me. “No,” said Dulce, shaking her head. “No,” said Monique. I frowned. “Man, you girls are drunk,” I said. “It’s a shame. Shame on you.” I pointed at Monique. I pointed to Dulce. They looked at each other and burst into laughter again.

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“All right, enough already,” I said. “This is all getting a little too silly here for my blood.” I pointed to myself with my thumb. “Silly,” said Dulce, toying with the word. “Sidney silly.” She laughed. “Silly Sidney,” said Monique. “That would be English!” They both roared with laughter. They kept laughing, until tears rolled down their cheeks. “Okay,” I said. I staggered forward, with my hand out. “That’s it. Hand’em over. Gimme the keys.” Monique gave them to me. I walked around to the driver’s side of the Jeep, and climbed behind the wheel. The girls squeezed into the passenger seat together. They were still laughing. I started the engine. “Now, where are we going?” I said. “San Jose del Cabo,” said Monique. “A la posada,” said Dulce. “To the Christmas play.” “Christmas, ” I said. Dulce and Monique nodded. “Okay,” I said. The road blurred. It writhed like a snake before me, then snapped back into focus. I put the transmission into first gear. “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house ...” I said. I pulled onto the highway, heading North. Monique and Dulce listened to me with smiles on their faces. “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse ...” We zig-zagged down la carretera , crawling toward San Jose del Cabo, at 20 miles per hour. !!! Dulce and Monique skipped down the cobblestone street, arm in arm. I staggered behind them, with my hands in my pockets. We crossed the courtyard of the old Spanish church. People were everywhere.

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Lights were strung over the streets, in the trees, and along the doors and roofs of the colonial buildings. Booths selling foods and sweets were set up along the square. Children ran, chasing each other around the fountain. Lovers strolled by, holding hands. Mariachis played, roaming through the crowd. Families walked together beneath the lights and moon of la Noche Buena; Christmas Eve. I watched Dulce and Monique bouncing through the crowd ahead of me. I felt cut off and alone now. I was a dead man, walking through the land of the living - the ghost of Christmas Present. I joined the mass of people working their way into the assembly hall, where the children were putting on their play. Dulce, Monique and I could only find standing room in the aisle against the wall. The posada began. Parents sighed. They laughed. The children paraded across the stage, dressed as shepherds. Then came the manger scene. The three kings arrived ... Dulce, Monique and I watched the entire performance. None of us spoke. Afterward, the priest addressed the audience. “And he was the spirit of God, in the flesh,” said the priest, “Who died, so that we should not perish, but live, and have life everlasting ...” Monique ran for the door. I followed her, stumbling, bumping into people as I ran. Outside, I lost sight of her in the confusion of the crowd. I looked up toward the church. I saw her. She walked across the square, past the fountain. I ran. She continued to walk. I weaved through the bodies in the crowd, up the stairs, and across the square. I caught Monique by the arm. She pulled away from me. “No!” she said. “Leave me alone.” She was crying.

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“Monique, please,” I said. I was crying, too. People stared at us. “Sidney, I do not want to see you anymore! I don’t want to ever see you again ... Never,” she said. She turned to walk away. I searched my mind for the words, the magic words that would make her stay. “Monique, don’t leave me,” I said. She walked up the street. My heart pounded. “Monique, don’t leave me!” I said. She vanished into the crowd. “Monique,” I whispered. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around. Dulce embraced me. !!! th Sunday, December 25 : Christmas Day I opened my eyes. Lying on my side, on my bed, I watched the sun rising over the Sea of Cortez. The sliding glass doors of my bedroom were open. I heard a vehicle pull up outside. “Merry Christmas, Monique.” It was Rusty. “You want some help?” “Merci, mon cher,” said Monique. Their voices carried across the desert morning air. “Merry Christmas, Rusty.” “Wow, cool,” said Rusty. “How long did it take you?” A car door closed. “Three months,” said Monique. “Watch out for the corners.” I heard them climb the stairs to the porch. “You think he is still sleeping?” said Monique. I smiled, despite my headache. I closed my eyes again, and pretended to be asleep. “I think so”, said Rusty. They walked into the room. I opened my eyes. Monique screamed. She covered her face with both hands. “I hate you!” shouted Rusty. He ran outside.

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Dulce sat up in bed, naked beside me. She covered her breasts with the sheets, pulling them from my body. I laid naked, looking from Dulce to Monique in shock. “What happened?” I said. “What’s going on here?” Dulce rubbed her head. Hair fell over her face. She groaned. Monique wept. “You stupid bitch!” said Monique. “Oh, shut up, Monique,” said Dulce, rubbing her head. “He has __________, you idiot!” said Monique. “You just had sex with a man who has __________! You stupid, stupid little girl!” “¡¿Que?!” said Dulce. “Tell her, Sidney!” said Monique. “Well, I sure hope you used a condom, darling, or you will be dead soon, just like him! So go to hell! Both of you! You deserve each other!” She ran out the door. “Sidney?” said Dulce. Her eyes widened. “Dulce, I –” “Sidney! You came inside of me last night! Is it true what Monique says?” Her whole body trembled. “Oh, God,” I said Dulce screamed. She leaped from the bed and ran out the door naked, screaming through the desert. My eyes widened. I looked at the enormous canvas, propped up against the wall. It was an oil painting of me, playing the guitar. It was beautiful. My chest heaved. “I’m a dead man,” I said. My temples pounded. I hopped off the bed and paced the floor. “I’m a dead man!” I ran into the living room. I smacked the camcorder off its tripod. “Dead!” I flipped the coffee table over. The glass shattered. “Dead!”

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I grabbed my guitar, and ran to the kitchen. “Dead!” I went to work on the microwave, the cabinets, the blender, all of the glasses and dishes. “Dead! Dead! Dead!” My guitar was in splinters. I swung the neck, smashing everything into pieces. “Dead!” I punched the kitchen window. It shattered. My fist bled. Tears ran down my face. I leaned out of the window frame. Glass cut into my palms. Three vultures sat on the roof of Ray’s Winnebago, watching me. “Come on!” I said. “Come on! I’m a dead man, everybody! I’m a dead man! Kill me! Kill me! Kill me! Please!” I let go of the window frame and fell to the floor. I curled up into a ball, naked amongst the fragments of dishes and glasses. I wept into my folded arms.

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CHAPTER III Knights In White Satin I waited for the end to come. It didn’t. I laid on the floor, looking at the door, but neither don Rafael, nor his band of cowboy hat-wearing pistoleros showed up. My hands throbbed. I looked at my watch. 8:00. Perhaps pistoleros only come to kill you at high noon. I heard footsteps on the stairs outside. My heart thundered. I held my breath. “Bloody hell ...” said Brian. He slurred his words. Brian looked around, then saw me lying on the floor. He laughed through swollen lips. They distorted his speech. “Well, well, well. It seems as if the old karmactic wheel has come back around to bite you in the ass, mate.” “Go to hell, Brian,” I said. “Ouch!” I tried to stand. I noticed the purple around Brian’s left eye. It had swollen shut. his lip had a gash in it. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sidney, put some bloody clothes on,” said Brian. I brushed the fragments of glass from my thighs and ass. “If it bothers you, get the hell out,” I said. “I’m in no mood for this shit, Brian.” Brian reached into his waistband, at the small of his back. “I don’t bloody well care what you’re in the mood for, you bastard.” He removed a chrome .38, cocked the hammer with his thumb, and pointed it at me. “Brian, what are you doing?” I said. My legs trembled. “You know what, Sidney?” said Brian. His words slurred. “I should just blow your bloody head off, for what you did to my face last night.” “What are you talking about?” I said. “I figured you’d say something like that,” he said.

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“Brian, I swear, I don’t remember anything from last night!” I said. Brian pointed the pistol at my bedroom door. He fired. Wood splinters flew into my room. He pointed the pistol back at me again. “Shut up, Sidney,” he said. “If I wanted to kill you, I would have already done it. I’m looking for my wife, asshole. Tracy! Come on out, love!” “She’s not here,” I said. “I haven’t seen her since last night.” “Tracy!” said Brian, shouting towards the upstairs bedroom. “There’s no use hiding!” “Brian, I’m telling you she’s not here,” I said. “Look, put the gun down, man. No one is worth all this, no one, Brian. You still have a life. You can walk away from this. I can’t. I’m fucked. Take a look around you! I’m in a world of shit, Brian. I’m a dead man, no matter how you slice it.” Brian laughed, wheezing through his lip. “What the hell are you talking about?” he said. The sound of a woman’s laughter outside made us both freeze. “I’ll go get some ice from the house,” said Tracy. The screen door of Ray’s Winnebago banged shut. “Brian, don’t!” I said. He ran for the front doors, shouting at the top of his lungs. “WHORE!” I ran to my bedroom and threw on my jeans and tennis shoes. Tracy screamed, outside. Two shots fired. “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus,” I said. I laced up my shoes and ran for the back door. “I’ll kill you and that bloody child molester!” said Brian. I peeked over the cinder block wall of the patio. Brian fired another round into Ray’s front door. “Shit! Shit!” I whispered. I looked around the patio for a weapon, for something. A shotgun fired. Glass shattered. Tracy screamed.

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“Come on, motherfucker!” said Ray. I looked over the wall again. Ray’s front door had been blown off its frame from the inside. It laid in the dirt. “I’ll kill your fucking ass!” Ray charged out of the Winnebago naked. He had a pump shotgun. He fired at Brian. Brian was already running down the hill. He shot back at Ray over his shoulder. A round ricocheted off the side of my house. Plaster rained down on me. I hopped over the wall. I ran toward the Winnebago. Tracy was still screaming from the inside. Brian’s Volkswagen roared to life. Ray fired at it. The rear window exploded. The Volkswagen peeled out in a cloud of dust, down the hill. Brian cackled with laughter. “You missed me, you bloody child molester!” said Brian. His head stuck out of the driver’s side window. “I’ll be back for the both of you! Ha ha ha ha ha!” Ray stood naked on the hill, looking after Brian. I ran inside the Winnebago. “Tracy!” I said. “Oh, Sidney! Oh, God!” said Tracy. She ran into my arms. She was wearing Rays bathrobe. Tears streamed down her face. “He’s crazy! He’s bloody crazy!! Oh, God!” “That son of a bitch!” said Ray. He ran inside the Winnebago. “I’ll kill him!” He dug through a drawer in the cabinets behind the driver’s seat. “Ray, think man!” I said. “What about Rusty?” I held Tracy in my arms. Ray pulled the drawer out and dumped its contents onto the carpet. “That’s why I’m going to go handle his ass,” said Ray. He rummaged through the junk on the floor, picking up shotgun shells. “I’m not going to wait around here for him to come back.” Ray snatched a pair of jeans from the back of the passenger seat, and walked naked out the door.

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“I’m going with you!” said Tracy. She pulled away from me, grabbed a pile of clothes from the floor, and ran out the door after Ray. “Tracy!” I said. I followed her outside. “Ray! just hold on a second, just one second, and listen to me, damn it!” They turned to face me. Tracy zipped up her jeans. “Listen to me,” I said. “I am in a world of shit right now! And ...” Two black Suburbans climbed the dirt hill toward us. “Oh, shit! Run!” I said. “Get to the car!” I bolted past them. Tracy and Ray looked. They ran behind me. A man with dark glasses and a cowboy hat on leaned out of the passenger’s window of the lead Suburban. He fired an AK-47. Tracy screamed. Rounds impacted in the dirt all around us. I opened the driver’s side door of Ray’s Datsun. The window shattered. Tracy dove into the back seat. Ray fired his shotgun, then climbed into the passenger seat. The keys were in the ignition. I started the car. “Go! Go! Go!” shouted Ray. I floored the accelerator and drove on a head-on collision course down the hill, right for the lead Suburban. “What are you doing?” said Ray. Three rounds punched holes in the Datsun’s hood. I shifted into third gear. I gripped the wheel. My palms bled. “You wanna kill me?” I said, through my teeth. More rounds hit the Datsun. The windshield spider-webbed. “Sidney!” Ray screamed. He braced his hand against the dashboard. Tracy screamed. I screamed. We rocketed toward the Suburbans. They swerved out of our path. Ray fired a parting shot at the Suburban behind us. Its rear window exploded. I cranked on the steering wheel. the Datsun fishtailed onto the highway. Steam bellowed from the bullet holes in the hood. The engine rattled. “Hurry, Sidney!” said Tracy, looking out the rear window. “They’re coming!”

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I raced down the highway. The rattling of the engine grew in volume. “We’ll never beat them on this road!” said Ray. He racked his shotgun, then looked back over his shoulder. The car shook and vibrated. I saw the lead Suburban in the rear-view mirror. It turned onto the highway behind us. I noticed a dirt road, fifty meters ahead of us, on the right. “Hang on!” I said. I down-shifted, floored the gas and cranked the steering wheel. Tracy screamed. We swerved off the highway, and onto the dirt road with a thud. Ray bounced into the air. The shotgun fired. It blasted a hole in the roof above Ray’s head. We all screamed. The Datsun pitched and bounced down the dirt road. I shifted into third gear. “Can you see them?” I said. “I can’t see anything!” said Tracy. “There’s too much dust!” We hit another pot hole with a bang. “Shit!” said Ray. His head slammed against the door frame. A knocking, then a clanging rose from the engine. We roared under the highway, then into a canyon between two hills of cactus and boulders. Dust and steam trailed out behind us. The engine screamed, with a grinding of steel. I had the gas pedal floored, but there was no longer power to the wheels. There was too much steam to see the road ahead of us now. “The car’s dead!” I said. “Get ready to run!” I slammed on the brakes. We bolted from the Datsun and ran up the hillside opposite us. There was no sign of the Suburbans yet from around the bend. We climbed on all fours through the cactus. Tracy was ahead of me, Ray just below. “Get down!” said Ray. “Here they come! Here they come!” We slithered on our bellies behind a boulder, gasping for breath. Vultures circled overhead. I peeked around the corner of the boulder. Both Suburbans sat, idling down below. Men with cowboy hats and

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automatic weapons roamed the hillside opposite us, where the Datsun was parked. Others looked through the car’s interior. They shouted to each other in Spanish. None of them searched our side of the canyon. I pulled my head back behind the boulder. My chest heaved. Sweat stung my eyes. “They’re looking for us on the other side,” I whispered. “Are you sure?” said Tracy. I nodded, swallowing. “Who the hell are they?” said Ray. “Don Rafa’s men,” I said. “Aw, shit,’ said Ray. “What the hell did you do?” “It’s a long story, Ray.” “It doesn’t matter, now,” said Tracy. “They’ve seen your car. They’ve seen us all. We have to get out of here.” “No shit!” whispered Ray. “Quiet!” I whispered. I rolled onto my side. I looked over at Ray and Tracy. We were all covered in dust, and razor-like cuts, from our run through the cactus. A gash above my left eye trickled blood down the bridge of my nose. It burned. “If we move they’re gonna see us,” I said. I wiped the blood away with the back of my hand. “We have to wait.” It took forty-five minutes for don Rafa’s men to leave. It felt like hours. When the last Suburban disappeared around the bend in the road, we started up the hill again. “We have to get to a phone,” I said. “If I can just call Denny, he might be able to get us out of this.” “We have to get my son!” said Ray. “He’s still back there!” “You’re no use to Rusty if you’re dead, Ray,” I said. “We can’t go back to the house, bro, at least not until we get a hold of Dennis.” Ray slung the shotgun over his bare shoulder. The morning sun beat down on us. “Then we have to make it to the la Jolla, there’s a phone there,” said Ray. “Are you sure Denny can help?”

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“Yes,” I said. “Denny and Rafa are business partners.” “The la Jolla’s out of question, too,” said Tracy. She slipped, then regained her balance. We continued to climb. “Rafa owns the entire resort. It’s too risky.” The Sea of Cortez came into view in the distance. “We’re pretty high up,” I said. “We better start heading East.” “And then what?” said Ray. “Get to the highway and hitchhike?” “If we can make it to the beach, it’s only another kilometer or so to my place,” said Tracy. I have a cell phone there.” “But what if Brian’s there?” I said. “I say we just head straight to Denny and Brenda’s then,” said Ray. “That means going past the house again, Ray,” I said. “We’d never make it across the arroyo unseen. We’d be in the open the whole way. It won’t work.” “God damn it! Rusty’s still down there!” said Ray. “Raymond, I know!” said Tracy. “But we won’t make it!” “Ray, listen to me,” I said. “I think Tracy’s got the best option. It’s closer. It’s faster. And we’d only have Brian to deal with that way.” “Fuck Brian,” said Ray. “I just want my son back.” “I know, Ray,” I said. I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I promise you, we are not going to leave Rusty behind, okay? We’ll get him. Come on, let’s start working our way east.” We wandered through the cactus, beneath the sun, until the highway came into view once more. “So why the hell does Rafa want to kill you anyway, Sidney?” said Ray. “Why does Brian call you David McCabe, and a child molester, Ray?” I said. “Stop it,” said Tracy. “Both of you.” “No, it’s all right,” I said. “I’m sorry, bro. If you really want to know, I’ll tell you. I’ve got nothing to hide anymore.”

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I told them everything. “Oh, God, Sidney,” said Tracy. “Jesus, Sid,” said Ray. “Yeah,” I said. “So, this morning I just laid there on the floor waiting for them to kill me. But once they showed up, I realized something. You see, even though I was prepared to die, I didn’t want to die. Not today, not tomorrow, either. I’m living, Ray. I’m living for the first time in my life. And despite how bad things have become, I’m just not ready to give that up. It’s too precious.” We climbed over a formation of boulders. We zig-zagged our way down the hill, toward la carretera. “Rusty has some very serious problems,” said Ray. “Ray, you don’t have to explain,” I said. “Raymond, we believe you,” said Tracy. “It doesn’t matter.” “No,” said Ray. “I want to clear the air here. Rusty’s mother and I divorced two years ago. Russ had a very difficult time adapting. There were some incidents. He killed his dog with a baseball bat. That fall he attacked a teacher at school with a pair of scissors. It was a bad time. They committed Rusty to a state mental hospital.” “Ray ... ” I said. “Let me finish,” said Ray. He wiped the corner of his eye with his thumb. Tracy lost her footing again and slipped. I helped her up. “They put my boy on all kinds of drugs, Sidney. They said he was psychotic. Then some quack psychologist puts him under hypnosis and claims that Rusty’s behavior stemmed from sexual abuse as a child. Those motherfuckers accused me of molesting my own son!” Ray’s eyes widened. His chest heaved. “They even got the police involved,” he continued. We walked through the cactus of the low country. The highway was just up ahead. “So what happened?” I said.

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“I busted him out of there,” said Ray. “I took Rusty and ran. We’ve been down here in Mexico ever since. And Rusty’s been just fine.” “And the police?” I said. “They say I’ve kidnapped him,” said Ray. “Brian saw you on that show, America’s Most Hunted,” said Tracy. “We have a satellite dish. That’s all that bastard does, drink and watch TV.” We crept under the highway, to the beach. We followed the coastline to the north, across the sand. “Oh, bloody hell ... “ said Tracy. A yellow VW Bug sat in front of the palapa-roofed beach house, up ahead of us. “He’s home,” she said. Ray un-slung his shotgun and chambered a shell. “That’s his problem,” said Ray. Tracy’s hands trembled. She wrung them together. “Maybe this is not such a good idea after all,” she said. “We don’t have any choice, Tracy,” I said. Tracy brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. A cut above her cheekbone was caked with dirt and blood. her lips trembled. I placed a hand on her shoulder. “Tracy, it’s going to be all right,” I said. “We’ll just go in, nice and easy, get your phone, and get the hell out of here, okay? Brian’s probably passed out by now, anyway. Everything is going to be cool. Trust me.” Tracy attempted a smile. “Ballocks, Sidney,” she said. “Ballocks. She reached for my hand on her shoulder. My eyes widened. I pulled my hand away. “No,” I said. “Don’t touch me, Tracy. I’m bleeding, so are you. I could infect you.” “Come on,” said Ray. “Let’s do this.” We crept up to the house, one by one, across the sand. We crouched down behind Tracy’s VW Bug. I peeked my head above the

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hood of the car to get a better view of the upstairs windows. there was no movement. The tile courtyard in front of the house was empty. Water trickled from a fountain at the center of the courtyard. Wind chimes jingled by the front door. The surf roared in the background, behind us. “I don’t know,” I said. I crouched back down. “I didn’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean shit.” “Oh, to hell with this,” said Ray. “I’m going in there. We’re wasting time, Sidney. I gotta get back to Russ.” He took off running. He kept low to the ground, his weapon in front of him. he stopped at the front door and pressed his back against the door frame. Ray waved for us to come over with his shotgun. Tracy and I ran to the door, keeping low. Tracy tried the door knob. It was unlocked. She nodded to me. I grabbed hold of the door. Tracy stepped back. Ray stood behind me. He elevated his muzzle. I counted, nodding my head. One ... Two ... Three ... I pushed the door open. We entered the house in silence. Ray scanned the living room with the barrel of the shotgun. There was no sign of Brian. I mouthed the word “phone” to Tracy and held up a hand to the side of my face, imitating one. She nodded, then beckoned me to follow her. I signaled to Ray to keep his eyes on us. He nodded. Tracy and I crept through the living room, into the kitchen. It was a disaster. Glassware and dishes were in pieces. Empty bottles of Sauza Tequila Blanca were everywhere. “Ballocks!” said Tracy, in a whisper. She searched the kitchen counter, then the drawers. “It’s not here.” Ray stood in the doorway. he looked back over his shoulder at us. “Find it?” he whispered. “It must be upstairs,” said Tracy.

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“Fuck,” said Ray. He looked back toward the living room. “All right, let’s go then.” He walked to the living room ahead of us. “Ray!” I whispered. “Wait up.” Tracy and I followed him. We entered the living room. “Raymond!” whispered Tracy. Ray stopped in the middle of the living room. He turned to face us. There was a noise. Ray’s head burst open, right in front of us. Tracy and I froze. Ray fell to the tile floor. Blood and brain matter poured from his twitching body. It pooled about him, filling the grout lines in the tile. Tracy screamed. We both spun around and looked upstairs. Brian stood on the top step in his boxer shorts. He wore a Santa Claus hat on his head. In one hand, he held a bottle of tequila. In the other, a chrome .38 revolver. He pointed it at us. Smoke rose from the barrel. “Ho! ... Ho! ... Ho! ...” said Brian, slurring. His eye was still swollen shut. I looked toward the shotgun on the floor. “Don’t even think about it, Sidney.” He cocked the hammer back with his thumb. “Brian!” screamed Tracy. “What have you done? You bastard! What have you done?” “Oh, do shut up, Tracy,” said Brian. He pointed the pistol at her and fired. The round missed. it impacted into Ray’s torso. Blood flowed. Tracy dove behind a couch. Brian squeezed the trigger again. Nothing happened. My eyes widened. The pistol was empty. I ran up the stairs, taking them three at a time. “You son of a bitch!” I said. Brian threw the pistol at me. It struck my cheek. He turned to run. My vision blurred. I fell to one knee, but bounced back up, climbing the stairs on all fours. I leaped at him and caught his ankle. He fell.

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“Let go, you bastard!” said Brian. He kicked and thrashed at me like a wild man. I caught a foot to the face. My neck snapped back. I slammed my fist into Brian’s testicles. He screamed. I clutched them. He sat up, shrieking, and cracked me across the back of my head with his bottle of tequila. It stunned me. My grip loosened. “Ha ha ha ha! I have you now, you bastard!” said Brian. He rose to his knees. “I’ll beat you to death, Sidney, I will! I will!” Brian beat my head with the bottle as if he were pounding a tent spike into the ground. The bottle refused to break. “Ha ha ha ha! I will, Sidney! Oh, yes! I will! I will! Look! Oh, look I’m doing it!” The bottle shattered. A shotgun fired. Tracy screamed. I passed out. !!! I opened my eyes. Tracy shook me. “Sidney, get up,” she said. I tried to rise. My legs wouldn’t respond. My skull throbbed. My temples pounded. “Sidney, quickly,” said Tracy. “We must get out of here, now!” The room blurred, then resolved back into focus. She pulled me to my feet. Brian, or what remained of him, was scattered about the floor. Tracy slung Ray’s shotgun over her shoulder and tucked Brian’s .38 into the back of her jeans. She looked out through the bay windows, over the balcony. “Oh, Jesus ... ” I said, looking down at Brian. I vomited. “Shit!” said Tracy. “Here they come! They’re coming!” I looked up. Outside, four Suburbans roared up the beach toward the house. The lethargy in my head vanished. “We gotta get out of here!” I said. I ran toward the staircase. “There’s no time!” said Tracy. “We have to hide!” “Where?” I said. I stopped.

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“This way!” said Tracy. She ran to the far end of the balcony, toward the bedrooms. “Into the palapa, quickly!” She climbed up the banister and grabbed hold of the lacquered palm-leafed frame. She pulled herself onto one of the cross beams of the massive grass roof. The four Suburbans roared to a halt outside the courtyard. I climbed onto the banister. “Sidney, hurry!” said Tracy. She worked her way through the beams and cross sections, to the highest point of the palapa’s framework. I followed her up. The front door burst open. Men in cowboy hats, with automatic weapons, streamed into the living room below us. They shouted orders and obscenities at each other en español. Tracy and I laid on our stomachs, hugging a lacquered cross beam log with our arms and legs. our chests heaved. Don Rafael entered the living room down below. He lit a cigarette. Pistoleros swarmed all over the house. Don Rafael crouched down to examine Ray’s body. He stood, then called for one of his men. “Fermín, son of your whore mother, come here!” said Rafael, in Spanish. A man in a cowboy hat with an AK-47 ran from the kitchen. The twelve inch fringes of his jacket bounced and swayed with each step. “S ...s-s-s-sí, Jefe,” said the man. He had a stutter. “What passes here, cabrón?” said Rafael. “Who killed these sons of their fucking mothers? And where is the gavacho?” Perspiration rolled down my face. It trickled down the bridge of my nose. “We have not yet encountered him, s-s-s-s-s-señor!” said Fermín. A drop of sweat fell from the tip of my nose. My eyes widened. “Son of the dick! Did you just spit on me, cabrón?” said Rafael. He touched his neck with his fingertips. Fermín’s eyes bulged.

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“In the name of the most holy virgin, I swear to you that I did not,” said Fermín. Rafael glared at him for a moment, then looked up toward the balcony. I wiped my face on my arm. Sweat continued to pour. “And what the hell passes up there?” said Rafael. “Bulls without balls, all of you! Where is the gavacho? Find him!” “No está aquí, Jefe!” shouted the voices from the bedroom. “He is not here.” “Nor is he here!” shouted the pistoleros in the kitchen. Tracy closed her eyes. Her whole body trembled. I looked back down at don Rafael. A drop of perspiration fell from my nose. “They have not found him in any part, s-s-s-s-s-señor,” said Fermín. “Son of the dick! You did it again, cabrón!” said don Rafael. He touched his neck, then stared at his fingers. “You threw spit on me again!” He slapped Fermín with the very same hand. Fermín began to stutter worse than ever. “In the name of the most holy virgin, and all the holy mysteries. In the name of the sacred heart, and the most sanctified land of the holy basilica, I swear to you, s-s-s-señor, I did not!” “Toma, Jefe,” said a pistolero, from the balcony upstairs. He was holding a cell phone. “Here, take. This is the only thing the dead cabrón up here had on his person.” Tracy and I both looked. The pistolero tossed the phone down to don Rafael. “Shit,” I said, under my breath. A drop of sweat fell from my eyebrow. “Perhaps the phone pertained to the gavacho, s-s-s-s-s-sseñor,” said Fermín. The drop of sweat landed on don Rafael’s forehead. Rafael reached up and touched it with his fingertips. He held out his hand so Fermín could see the wetness. Fermín trembled, shaking his head in disbelief. “Hijo de la verga!” said Rafael. Fermín ran.

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Don Rafael chased him. “In the name of the most holy virgin of Guadalupe, all the holy mysteries, the sacred heart, and the most holy trinity!” Fermín hurdled over a couch, spewing sacred pledges. “Son of the dick!” said Rafael. He drew his pistol and hurdled the couch behind Fermín. “ ... in the name of Saint Jude, the twelve disciples of our lord Jesus Christ, the sacred tears and the milk of Mary Magdalene!” Fermín tripped over Ray’s body. He slid across the floor. Rafael stood over him, his chest heaving. “So, it pleases you to spit on me, cabrón?” said Rafael. He racked the slide of his 9 mm. Fermín held up his hands, stained with Ray’s blood and brain matter. He pleaded. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “ ... in the name of holy Moses, the supplication of Ruth, the blessed boils of Job, and the head of the Baptist!” “Y tu madre, cabrón,” said Rafael. He emptied a whole magazine into Fermín, then spat on his corpse. All of the other pistoleros stood around Rafael, gawking in amazement. “What are you all looking at?” said Rafael. He tucked the 9 mm. back into his pants. “Vamanos, cabrónes! Let’s get out of here!” He turned and walked out the door. His pistoleros followed. Tracy and I climbed down from the palapa. The Suburbans were gone. We both tried not to look at the bodies on the floor. We kept our eyes on each other, instead. Tracy’s eyes were green. I hadn’t noticed before. “Rafa has my phone,” said Tracy. “I know,” I said. “We have to get to Denny. He’s the only one who can help us with this. We’re in deep shit, Tracy.” “Well, let’s go, then,” she said. “We can take the Bug. There’s a spare set of keys in the bedroom.”

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We ran to Tracy’s bedroom. Tracy grabbed her keys, then a box of rounds for Brian’s .38 from the closet. Tracy kept the .38. I took Ray’s shotgun. We ran downstairs, out the front door, and climbed into the Volkswagen. Fragments of glass were strewn all over the back seat. Tracy drove. I rode in the passenger seat, reloading her .38. The Volkswagen bounced and rattled down the dirt road. The surf roared. Two vultures stood on the sand, gazing out over the Sea of Cortez. We avoided the highway and the arroyo. Tracy took a dirt road that wound through a canyon, to the north. It brought us within half a mile of Dennis and Brenda’s hacienda. It was two hills south of us. We parked, then started our climb. The sun beat down on our bodies, sapping the strength from our limbs. We marched on. I looked over at Tracy. The dirt and sweat had matted her hair. The sun had already chapped her lips and peeled the skin from her nose. My shoulders were burning. We looked like a couple of refugees from some kind of desert war. Tracy and I trudged on, over one hill, then the next, until the top of Denny and Brenda’s hacienda came into view. we crept out of the cactus, and onto Denny and Brenda’s property, with our weapons at the ready. My heart raced. My eyes scanned the back yard and swimming pool areas for movement. We walked in silence. Tracy covered my back. Heat waves radiated from the concrete of the patio. We approached the house. I looked across the arroyo. High on the opposite cliff side sat the Bustamante hacienda. Tracy tried the handle of the French doors. They opened. I entered first. “Denny?” I said, walking into the salon. “Brenda? Anybody home?” There was no answer.

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“I don’t know, Sidney,” said Tracy, in a whisper. “I don’t like it. It’s Christmas day, for God’s sake. Where the bloody hell is everyone?” She cocked the hammer of Brian’s .38 with her thumb. We moved through each room on the ground floor. Nada. We entered the kitchen. The aroma of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie lingered in the air. Pots, pans, bowls and cooking utensils were laid about the kitchen countertop. “Christmas ... ” I said. “Son of a bitch. They’re at Ruth and Howie’s for Christmas dinner.” A phone rang in the living room. Tracy and I both jumped. We pointed our weapons in the direction of the noise. “Shit!” said Tracy. She exhaled, closed her eyes, then elevated the barrel of her pistol. “It’s just the bloody telephone.” The answering machine picked up. we walked into the living room. “Dennis? Brenda? Please answer. Please.” It was Dulce. I reached for the phone. Tracy grabbed my hand. “Are you mad?” said Tracy. “Dennis, Brenda, please pick up. It’s an emergency!” said Dulce. She was crying. Tracy and I looked at each other. She released my hand. I answered the phone. “Dulce,” I said. “Sidney?” said Dulce. “Ay, Dios. Sidney, I thought you were dead. I don’t know what to do. Papá has turned crazy! he is going to kill you!” “Dulce, this is all my fault,” I said. “And I can understand that your father wants to kill me. I just don’t want anymore people to get hurt, that’s all.” “Sidney, listen to me!” said Dulce. “He is going to kill you! You have to leave. We ... we have to leave los Cabos!” “We?” I said. “What are you talking about?”

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“Sí. Nosotros, tu y yo. ¿Me entiendes? You and I.” said Dulce. “I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. But I do know that I love you, Sidney. And I am not going to just stand aside and watch Papá kill you!” She was crying again. “Dulce,” I said, “where are you at, right now?” “I’m in my truck, at your place,” she said. “I have Rusty with me, too. I found him hiding under the mobile home. Everything is full of bullet holes here! He is terrified, Sidney.” Tracy stood at the windows, looking out over the cliff side, and the arroyo below. “Rusty?” I said. “Oh thank God, Dulce. Okay ... why don’t we –” “Sidney!” said Tracy. “There are men with guns, all over the hillside! They’re climbing toward the house!” “Shit!” I said. “Dulce, meet me at Ruthie and Howard’s! I gotta get out of here!” “Sí, mi amor,” said Dulce. “Sidney, I love you.” I hung up. “Where?” I said. “Down there! look!” said Tracy, pointing. On the hillside below, a group of some forty men in desert camouflage crept through the cactus with M-16 A2 service rifles. Here and there, moving amongst them, were men wearing jeans and blue windbreakers. The yellow letters DEA shone in the sunlight. “Tracy, run!” I said. We sprinted through the house and burst through the French doors of the patio. Tracy and I ran for the hills behind Dennis and Brenda’s property. We vanished into the cactus. Agents from the DEA, La Policia Judicial and Interpol poured across the patio behind us. They surrounded the hacienda. Agents rushed through the French doors, into the house. Tracy and I hurried back the way we had come, down one hill, then the next, until we reached the canyon. We climbed into the

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Volkswagen. This time I drove. The Bug roared through the canyon, down the dirt road. The highway was just up ahead. A wall of dust trailed out behind us. I downshifted, floored the accelerator, then threw the wheel. The Bug skidded across the gravel, onto la carretera. We headed north. “Those weren’t don Rafa’s men back there, Sidney,” said Tracy. “I know.” “What the hell is happening here?” she said. “This is the end, Tracy,” I said. I shifted into fourth gear. “The end of all secrets, and secret lives. The end of life as we know it.” “What are you talking about?” said Tracy. “I’m not really sure anymore,” I said. “All I know, is that nothing will ever be the same, Tracy. If we somehow make it out of this, if we somehow manage to reach the end of all this madness, life will never be the same again.” “If we make it out of this,” said Tracy. She opened the glove compartment and removed a pack of Cartier cigarettes. She lit one. “Do you really believe we’ll reach the end of this bloody nightmare?” I took the cigarette from Tracy’s fingertips. I inhaled on it, then coughed. It gave me a head-rush. “You don’t smoke, Sidney,” said Tracy, taking the cigarette back. “I know,” I said. “I just figured what the hell. It’s not like it’s going to kill me or anything.” I forced a smile. “Sidney,” said Tracy. “You never answered me. Do you believe we’ll make it? Will we really reach the end of this mess?” “I don’t know about myself, Tracy,” I said. I released the gear shift and took Tracy’s hand. “But I swear to you, I will make sure that you get out of this, okay? I promise.” Tracy laced her fingers with mine.

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“Don’t talk like that, Sidney,” said Tracy. “We’re both going to make it, darling. You’ll see.” “Yeah,” I said. “We’ll see.” Heat waves rose from the asphalt of the highway ahead. The Sea of Cortez sparkled in the sunlight, through Tracy’s window. Cactus blurred by, outside mine. above us, circling beneath the sun, I knew they were there, but I didn’t bother looking this time. The VW raced toward the fishing village of San Jose del Cabo. !!! We turned left onto calle Leona Vicario, to take the hill up to Ruthie and Howard’s estate. On the side of the road, at the bottom of the hill, two rental vans were parked. The van in front had its hood up. Steam poured from the engine. Men in tropical shirts, with Panama hats on, unloaded the overheated van. They carried rifles and shotguns. They looked at us. The Volkswagen puttered up the hill. “Oh, Jesus,” I said. “Did you see that?” said Tracy. “I think everyone’s in trouble now,” I said. “We have to warn Howie.” I drove up to the gates of the estate with the horn blowing. The gates opened. We skidded to a stop beneath the steps to the front doors. Tracy and I ran for the entrance, weapons in hand. Caridad screamed, in the open doorway. We ran past her, into the foyer. “Howie! Ruthie!” I said. My voice echoed through the house. “Denny! Brenda!” said Tracy. Everyone came running. “What’s going on?” said Howard. “Holy shit, kid. What happened?” “Sidney!” said Brenda. She had Monique with her. “Oh, Lord! Sugar, what’s going on?” “Good God, son!” said Dennis. “Tracy, are you all right?” “Listen to me,” I said.

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“Sidney, what have you done, now?” said Monique. “Hold on,” I said. “Just listen to me for a second.” “Sweetie, what happened?” said Ruth. “My God, what are y’all doing with them guns?” said Brenda. “God damn it! Listen to me!” I said. I racked the shotgun, chambering a shell. The room fell silent. “Don Rafa’s trying to kill me, Brian’s dead, the feds are crawling all over Denny and Brenda’s place, and two van-loads of tacky Vegas-type hit men are at the bottom of the – ” “Everybody put your fucking hands up!” Ten tacky Vegas-type hit men burst through the front doors. Their shotguns and rifles pointed at us. Ruthie stepped in front of Howie. Brenda drew closer to Dennis. Monique stepped in closer to me. Tracy and I looked at each other. “Don’t even think about it!” said one of the men. They walked into the foyer, surrounding us. “Put the weapons on the floor!” “Do what they say, Sidney,” said Howard. he stepped forward. “Howie, don’t!” said Ruth. “All right, fellas,” said Howie. “I know why you’re here. And I’ll come with ya’. Just leave these people out of it.” “Howie, no!” said Ruth. “Sons of your whore mothers! Put your hands in the air!” said don Rafael. A flood of cowboy hat-wearing pistoleros poured through the front door. The aim of their AK-47s moved from our group, to the Vegas hit men, then back again. Tracy and I raised our weapons. “Fuck you, motherfucker!” said one of the men from Vegas. “Don’t come in here talking about people’s mothers, asshole!” All their weapons pointed at don Rafa and his pistoleros, now.

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“Why don’t you just take your ass on outta’ here, pal, before you go and get yourself hurt.” “Mind your own business, gringo!” said don Rafael. “We’re here for the gavacho. get out of the way!” “FREEZE! Everybody on the ground!” shouted voices in both English and Spanish. Windows shattered. Canisters of tear gas rolled into the room. Gas mask-wearing DEA, Interpol and Policia Judicial agents swarmed into the house from all sides. Everyone was coughing. No one lowered their weapons, though. Rifles, pistols and shotguns pointed from person to person. Trigger fingers trembled. Tempers flared, and obscenities flew. “You, put’em down!” “Go to hell!” “¡Véte a la verga!” “Son of the dick!” It was a Mexican stand-off. Our backs were to the staircase. We were all choking and coughing. Monique buried her face in my back. Tears flowed. Strings of mucous stretched from our noses to the floor. Don Rafael and I made eye contact through the fog of C.S. gas. He aimed his pistol at me. “¡Hijo de la verga! You murdered my daughter!” He fired. I dove for the staircase. Gunshots erupted through the room. Bodies fell, all around. I pushed Monique ahead of me, onto the stairs. She climbed on her hands and knees. Brenda and Denny followed. I fired the shotgun into the fog. Visibility was nil. “Howie!” I said. “Get out of here!” I fired again.

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“Ruthie, come on, honey!” said Howard, coughing. He pulled Ruth by the hand. The banister of the staircase splintered into pieces, from a buckshot blast. Fragments of wood pelted against me. Howard screamed. Ruthie lay face-down on the stairs. The back of her head was missing. Her body twitched. “Howard, come on!” said Tracy. She pulled Howard up the stairs behind her. I followed them on my hands and knees. The tear gas aided our escape. Gunshots roared, down below. The screams of the fallen echoed between the blasts. We all ran down the hallway to the master bedroom. Denny locked the door behind us. He ran to the windows. Howie stood with his back against the doors. Tears streamed down his face. He closed his eyes. He didn’t speak. Everyone else was still coughing. “What do we do now?” I said. “We’re trapped!” said Monique. “Oh, Jesus!” said Brenda. “Denny, there’s no way out!” “Maybe we can climb down.” said Denny. He opened the drapes. “Whatever we’re going to do, we better do it quickly!” said Tracy. Howie opened his eyes. His face was stone. He removed his shirt. We all stared. Round scars peppered his torso, from his shoulders to his stomach. “Up onto the roof. Stay low ... ” Howie’s voice was a monotone. “Follow it down to the back corner. You can jump from there.” He walked into the bedroom closet. There was a rustling of steel and equipment. “There’s a dirt path. It leads to a covered garage, on the hillside.” Howie tossed an M-60 onto the carpet. He strapped on a vest of fragmentation grenades, then two bandoleras of ammunition for the 60. “Inside the garage, I keep an RV. It’s gassed up. The keys

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are in the ignition.” He slung an M203 grenade launcher over his shoulder. He crouched down and removed the shoelaces from two pair of dress shoes. “Howie, what the hell are you doing?” said Dennis. “You all better get going,” said Howie. He laced the shoe strings through the grenade pins, attached to his vest. “I’ll try to keep them busy enough for you to get away. That’s the best I can do.” He walked back toward the double doors of the bedroom. “Howie, come on!” I said. “Don’t talk crazy!” “They killed my Ruthie!” said Howie. His voice cracked. “Go on. get out of here! Go!” Dennis ran to the windows. He opened the sliding glass doors and stepped out onto the balcony. “Come on, ladies, let’s go!” said Dennis. He hoisted Brenda up onto the roof. “Howie ...” I said. My eyes welled up. “Go on, get out of here, kid,” said Howard. He walked over to his wall stereo unit. He pushed the play button and turned the volume all the way up. Music echoed through the house. I couldn’t move. Howie picked up the M-60 with a grunt. he pulled the bolt back and inserted the first bandolier of rounds. He opened the bedroom doors. Knights in white satin ... never reaching the end ... He walked down the hall. Denny hoisted Monique onto the roof. I stepped into the hall. Letters I’ve written ... never meaning to send ... “Freeze! Drop it, old man!” voices shouted from downstairs. “You sons of bitches!” said Howie. “You killed my Ruthie!” The M-60 spat fire. Howie’s body shook. Death rained down on the men in the foyer. Beauty I’ve always missed ... with these eyes of old ... “Sidney! get over here!” shouted Dennis, from the balcony. I couldn’t move. Screams rose from the foyer. The M-60 roared without ceasing. Howie’s flesh vibrated and shook against the recoil.

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The last round of the bandolier finally passed through the white-hot barrel. Howie threw the M-60 down the staircase. A round clipped Howie’s shoulder. Blood splattered. “Howie!” I said. Just what the truth is ... I can’t say anymore. “Sidney! Come on, boy!” said Dennis. “I’m climbing up!” Howie fired the M-203. The house shook. Explosions erupted. The concussion rang my ears. I dropped the shotgun, stunned. “Howie!” I said. “Sidney!” said Dennis. He sounded miles away. Howard climbed up onto the banister. He pulled on the shoelaces hanging below his chest. all of the grenade pins on his vest sprung free with a jingling sound. I thought of Ruthie’s bracelets. Cause I love you ... yes, I love you ... “RUTHIE!” Howard dove head-first from the banister, his arms spread wide. I ran to the bedroom. Dennis was gone. Oh, how I love you ... Oh, how I love you! I jumped onto the balcony and leaped for the roof with both hands. I caught the edge. My body swung out over empty space. The explosion shook the house like an earthquake. I nearly lost my grip. I hung from the roof, kicking my legs. The windows shattered. “Damn it,” I said through my teeth. My palms bled. My right hand gave out. I hung from the roof by my left hand. I looked down at the concrete below. Smoke billowed from the ground floor of the house. “Sidney!” said Dennis. He grabbed my wrist. “Come on, son! You’ve gotta help me, or we’ll both go over!” It felt as if my shoulder was coming out of its socket. I slung my right arm toward the roof. My hand caught the edge. My shoes

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grabbed traction against the side of the house. Dennis leaned back with all of his might. He pulled me onto the roof. We were both panting. I looked toward the front of the estate. The ceiling had collapsed there. Smoke rose into the sky. There was chaos in the courtyard. People ran in all directions. “Come on!” said Denny. We ran. I followed him up one rooftop then down another, until we finally reached the far back corner of the estate. Howie was right. Denny and I jumped from the corner of the house to the hillside below. Brenda, Tracy, and Monique were already running up the dirt path toward the covered garage. Denny and I followed. I looked back over my shoulder. at the bottom of the dirt road, parked beside the far corner of the estate, was Denny’s Cherokee. We reached the garage. I slid the door closed again, behind us. Our chests heaved. Everyone was covered in sweat. Reality descended upon me like a wave of nausea. Brenda opened the passenger door of the RV. “I can’t go with you,” I said. “What?” said Brenda. She turned around. “Sidney, get your butt in there!” “Brenda, I can’t.” “Sidney!” said Monique, “There’s no time for this, mon cher. We can talk later, just get in! Please!” “No,” I said. “You have to!” said Tracy. “Listen to me!” I said. “Ray is dead! Rusty is still back in Costa Azul!” “Son, we have to get out of here!” said Dennis. “Denny,” I said, “There’s no time. If we drive this RV out of here, we’re gonna get caught. Listen to me. You know it’s true.” “We have to try!” said Brenda.

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I walked over and kissed Brenda on the forehead. “I love you, Momma,” I said. I hugged Tracy. “Go to the airport with Monique, then get the hell out of here.” I took her .38. “Sidney?” said Monique. She was crying. “I’m sorry, Monique. I’m so sorry.” I kissed her on the lips. “Give me your keys, Denny.” “Sidney ... ” said Dennis. “Dennis, give me the God damned keys!” I said. “I’ll take the Cherokee. They’ll follow me. They’ll think it’s you. Wait ‘til it’s clear, then get the hell out of here. I’m going back for Russ.” Dennis gave me the keys. I opened the door, then turned around. “I love you guys,” I said. Tears ran down all our faces. I sprinted down the path, keeping low to the ground. I crept up to the passenger’s door of Dennis’ Cherokee. I unlocked it, reclined the seat, then climbed inside. I slid the key into the ignition. Voices shouted orders in both Spanish and English, in the courtyard around me. I scooted into the driver’s seat. I started the engine. The Cherokee roared to life. The tires spat gravel. I peeled out in reverse, sat up, then slammed the transmission into first gear. The agents in the courtyard all looked in my direction. I raced toward the gates of the estate. People dove out of the way. Shots fired. I noticed don Rafael in handcuffs by the front doors of the house. I thundered past, in second gear. The rear window exploded. I ducked down. The Cherokee shot through the front gates and fishtailed onto calle Leona Vicario. Agents ran for their vehicles. “Yeah!” I said. I slapped the dashboard, then shifted into fourth gear. I looked into the rear view mirror and smiled. “That’s the way ... Keep on coming, baby.”

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A caravan of jeeps and sedans raced down the hill behind me. I tucked the .38 under the driver’s seat. I gripped the steering wheel with both hands and floored the accelerator. I turned right, onto the highway. The Cherokee fishtailed again. I corrected, then rocketed down la carretera, heading south. The Jeeps and sedans followed me. In my rear view mirror, far in the background, an RV drove down calle Leona Vicario. It crossed the highway, turning left, heading toward the city of La Paz, and freedom. I smiled. A tear ran down my cheek. I’d been living in Los Cabos long enough to know every bend and curve in La Carretera Transpeninsular. It was all the advantage I needed to keep ahead of my pursuers. The la Jolla de los Cabos resort came into view. I roared down the highway into Costa Azul. The sky turned to crimson. The sun was setting. I pulled up to the house and stepped out of the Jeep. I placed my hands on my head, and knelt in the dirt. Jeeps and sedans pulled up all around me. DEA agents ran at me with their pistols drawn. “That’s not him!” one shouted. They tackled me to the ground. After a brief interrogation, they decided to take off in search of Denny, rather than try to detain me. I suppose they must have intended on kidnapping Denny back to the United States, to stand trial, instead of going through the extradition process. So they left. They gave me a black eye, a busted lip and a fractured rib for my troubles, but other than that, the plan worked. I rose to my feet with a grunt. That’s when I noticed Dulce’s Suburban, parked in front of Ray’s Winnebago. I started up the hill. The door to Ray’s tool shed opened. Rusty backed out of the tool shed, buttoning his pants.

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“Hey, Russ!” I said. He turned and saw me. He didn’t answer. “Russ! Are you all right, son?” He sprinted off into the cactus. He disappeared over the hillside. I limped up the hill, holding my side. “Rusty!” I said. I reached the tool shed. A chill passed over me. I opened the door. “No! Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, my God! No!” I couldn’t stop screaming. Inside the tool shed, Dulce lay on the floor, naked. Her wrists were duct taped behind her back. A piece of duct tape was over her mouth. A bloody hammer lay on the ground beside her. Her forehead was caved in. The green of her eyes was now replaced with a white glaze. I walked back to the Cherokee in shock. I removed the .38 from under the driver’s seat, then headed to the house. Scorpions scurried across the rubble-strewn floor. I plopped down onto the couch. I placed the .38 beside me and cried into my hands. My body shook. The sun sank further behind the hills. I looked around the house. My camcorder lay on the floor. it was still connected to my TV set. Both remote controls sat on the floor beneath the remains of my coffee table. I picked them up. I turned on the TV, then pushed play on the camcorder remote. My own face appeared on the screen. “There is so much I would like to say. I wish there was a way, a way I could just be there to ... ” The screen blurred for a second, then cleared. “Swing it!” shouted Brenda. I stared on, in amazement. “I love it!” Tears streamed down my face.

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“Oh yes!” I was laughing, crying, and losing the final fragments of my sanity. “Come on, sugar, swing it!” I reached for the pistol. I placed the barrel to my temple. “Sidney?” said a voice. “Mr. Richmond?” I pointed the pistol at the man standing in my doorway. “Who are you?” I said. “Mr. Richmond, I’m a private investigator. Your parents hired me. Please! Put the gun down! We have to talk!” “What do you want?” I said. “Mr. Richmond, there’s been a terrible mistake.” “What are you talking about?” I said. My finger trembled in the trigger well. “Sidney, the blood test you gave got mixed up with someone else’s at the clinic!” “What?” “Mr. Richmond, you do not have __________ . I’ve been looking for you for over three months now! Your family is worried to death! Listen to me! Sidney, please! Put the gun down!” The room spun.

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Monday, February 3rd: Traffic on the 405 freeway was bumper to bumper, heading into Los Angeles. Rain drizzled. I shifted into neutral, and stepped on the brake pedal. I turned the volume down on the radio, then loosened my tie. Yesterday’s edition of the LA Times sat on the passenger seat, next to me. The headline “Missing Boy Found In Mexico After Two Years” was printed above a column on the front page. Brake lights glared in front of me. I gripped the steering wheel, and steeled myself against an approaching migraine headache. My name is Sidney. I’m 33 years old, and I’m not dying anymore. I’m not living anymore, either. I’m just getting by like the rest of us. I get up. I go to work. I come home. I eat. I worry about the next day, then I go to bed. I scamper about the little 100 mile radius of my existence like a lab rat ... I closed my eyes. The radio played. A horn honked behind me. Many miles away, there’s a shadow on the door, of a cottage on the shore ... of a dark Scottish lake ... Many miles away ... many miles away ... Many miles away ... EL FIN

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“One thing I ask: for they say the gate of the King of Darkness is here, and the shadowy marsh, Acheron’s overflow: let me have sight of my dear father, his face: show me the way, open wide the sacred doors. I saved him, brought him out from the thick of the enemy, through the flames, on these shoulders, with a thousand spears behind me: companion on my journey, he endured with me all the seas, all the threats of sky and ocean, weak, beyond his power, and his allotted span of old age. He ordered me, with prayers, to seek you out, humbly, and approach your threshold: I ask you, kindly one, pity both father and son: since you are all power, not for nothing has Hecate set you to rule the groves of Avernus. If Orpheus could summon the shade of his wife, relying on his Thracian lyre, its melodious strings: if Pollux, crossing that way, and returning, so often, could redeem his brother by dying in turn – and great Theseus, what of him, or Hercules? – well, my race too is Jupiter’s on high.” With these words he prayed, and grasped the altar, “Trojan son of Anchises, sprung from the blood of the gods, the path to hell is easy: black Dis’s door is open night and day: but to retrace your steps, and go out to the air above, that is work, that is the task.”

Virgil - The Aeneid Book VI

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Ash Wednesday, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico… Major Louis Burns walked along the marina with his hands in his pockets. Moonlight cast shadows across his path. He looked over his shoulder. A splash in the water caused the major to jump. He jogged the rest of the way to the gate of Muelle D. A pelican flew from the water. It landed on the quarterdeck of a fishing boat. Major Burns shook his head. He removed a card from his pocket and swiped the security pad on the gate. The gate opened. The major walked to the bottom of the gangplank. Sweat rolled down his face. It stained his armpits, soaking the Varga girl on the back of his Tommy Bahama shirt. He approached the end of the landing then stopped in front of a monster of a fishing boat. Across her back was written: !

!

!

! The River Styx Newport Beach, CA

The major climbed aboard. He scanned the marina with his eyes. The pelican choked down the fish in its mouth. “Where you hiding, hard charger?” said the major. “You ain’t that good.” He looked back across the dock, over the marina again. Nothing stirred. A cell phone rang. The major answered it. He descended into the cabin. “Well, what the hell am I supposed to do? I don’t have it yet,” said the major. He walked to the bar and poured himself a glass of Southern Comfort. The boat rocked with the tide.

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He stopped. The major placed his cell phone and cocktail on top of the bar. He turned around. Footsteps crossed the quarterdeck outside. The major swallowed. Men entered the cabin of the boat. “Well it’s about time, gentlemen,” said the major. “You sons of bitches have a lot to learn about noise discipline, though.” He smiled. Across the marina, a sound like a firecracker caused a group of tourists to look towards the water. There was a second crack and a flash of light from inside one of the boats. “Viva México!” said a tourist. They all laughed then staggered away, arm in arm.

**** Viernes Santo (Good Friday)… A black Cadillac Fleetwood glided down the two-lane highway. Cactus stretched on for an eternity in all directions. Vultures circled overhead. The Pacific coastline appeared then disappeared again. The Cadillac rolled on, cresting another hill. The ocean came into view once more. Fausto looked at his gas gauge. He frowned. The sun darkened his aviator sunglasses. He tapped the gauge with his finger. The gaslight turned on. “Great,” said Fausto. He lit a cigarette then wiped the sweat from his forehead. His hair was cut high and tight. Fausto tossed a Zippo cigarette lighter over his shoulder. It landed on a sea bag in the backseat. The letters USMC were embossed on its side. 148


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A statue of the Virgin Mary gazed through wreaths and rosaries, out over the desert, from a roadside shrine. The Cadillac shrank on the horizon. Flowers and crosses decorated each curve in the highway. Fausto drove on. Not a soul was to be found on the streets of Todos Santos. Fausto rolled down his window. The heat and dust forced him to squint. The Cadillac crept along the avenida principal of the pueblo. A woman appeared up ahead, limping across the road towards the mission. Fausto pulled over and parked across the street from a hotel with Moroccan decor. He reached over the seat. Fausto fished a trifold brochure from the sea bag. It had a picture of the same hotel on its cover. Meet with florist - 0930 hrs. was scribbled beneath the picture in black ink. Fausto climbed from the vehicle and stretched. Dog tags jingled beneath his t-shirt. He looked up at the brass letters above the balconies. Hotel California Fausto crossed the street, through dust and wind. He entered the building. “Welcome to the Hotel California,” said the girl at the front desk. She sounded French. Fausto pulled an envelope from his pocket. It was from the Red Cross. He looked at the handwriting on the back. “Excuse me,” said Fausto. He removed his sunglasses. “I was wondering if you might know where I could find a woman named Persephone Mauvais?” The girl smiled. She brushed the hair from her forehead. Daffodils adorned the desk beside her.

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“You must be Fausto,” she said. She extended her hand. “I’m Persephone.” Fausto frowned. He shook her hand. “You’re younger than I thought you’d be,” said Fausto. “I’m twenty-three.” said Persephone. “When was the last time you spoke to my father in person?” said Fausto. “Wouldn’t you like to get cleaned up first?” said Persephone. “You’ve been driving a very long time.” She gathered up a towel, soap, and a room key. She walked from behind the check-in desk. “Come,” said Persephone. She took Fausto by the arm. He followed. “What would you like to know?” she said, “Where all the people of Todos Santos have gone?” Persephone led Fausto through a courtyard with a fountain. “No,” said Fausto, “That’s not what I wanted.” They climbed a flight of stairs. Fousto’s knee buckled. “Jesus, I guess I am a little-” “Tired?” said Persephone, “Yes, you look very tired.” She led Fausto down a hallway and unlocked the door to room nine. “So, where have all of the people gone?” said Fausto. Persephone smiled. “Everyone’s dead,” she said. “Didn’t you know?” “You’re joking, right?”"said Fausto. They entered the room. “Yes,” said Persephone, “but you do look terrible, Fausto.” Fausto yawned. He rubbed his face. “Like someone about to collapse,” said Persephone.

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Fausto collapsed. He fell in slow motion. His cheek landed against the floor. The air smelled of sandalwood. Persephone’s feet crossed the black floorboards towards him. Fausto lost consciousness. **** “Dehydration,” said a man. Sunlight silhouetted him against the skylight above Fausto. Persephone leaned into view. She placed a washcloth on Fausto’s forehead. Mirrors decorated the ceiling above her. “What happened?” said Fausto. “Looks like a little heat exhaustion,” said the man. He seemed to be in his forties. He smiled. “I’m Omar,” he said. He reached into a black duffle bag on the floor. “Fausto,” said Fausto. He sat up on the bed. They shook hands. “I’ve heard,” said Omar. He handed Fausto a business card. "Just get some rest. You're going to be fine. Maybe give him some pomegranate juice," he said. "You a doctor?" said Fausto. Omar laughed. He stood and walked to the door. Persephone accompanied him. Fausto couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other. It sounded French but different. Fausto looked down at the business card Omar had given him: " Ohm-ar Red Tantric, White Tantric, Kundalini yoga / CPA Todos Santos B.C.S Mexico (52) (624) 142 0666 151


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Fausto turned the card over. “The road to enlightenment is paved with precious things left behind” - Midas "You've got to be shitting me," said Fausto. He dug through his pants pockets and produced a pack of cigarettes and his lighter. Omar’s footsteps sounded on the stairwell outside the door. Persephone walked back into the room. Fausto lit his Zippo. Persephone took the cigarette from Fausto’s lips. “Please don’t,” she said. Fausto caught her wrist. He noticed a gold chain and a locket around Persephone’s neck. “Where did you get this?” he said. Persephone pulled away. She held the locket to her chest. “Louis gave it to me,” she said. “What?!” said Fausto, “That’s my sister’s.” “He gave it to me,” said Persephone. She backed towards the window. “What for?” said Fausto. “He was a nice man.” “Was?” “Is... He is nice man, your father, he always brings me fresh flowers to-” 152


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“Where’s my father, Persephone?!” said Fausto. Persephone stared at him. Her back pressed against the wall. Fausto smacked his palm against the wall beside her head. She closed her eyes. “Where is he?” said Fausto. His eyes searched her face. “What was he doing down here? With you...” His eye teared. Perspiration rolled down Persephone’s neck, wetting her linen shirt. “I don’t know,” she said. Persephone wiped the tear from Fausto’s cheek with her thumb. He was unshaven. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I have no idea where he went.” “Then help me,” said Fausto. He drew close to Persephone. Persephone slipped away. She straightened out her shirtfront. “Okay,” she said, “I did see Louis on Wednesday, in Cabo San Lucas. He was with Dionisio, the divemaster there.” “Dionisio,” said Fausto. “I was hitchhiking to Playa Médano and they gave me a ride into town,” she said. “Can you take me to him?” Persephone looked out the window. The old woman limped across the road, away from the mission. Dust and sand blew around her. “Could you at least show me the way?” said Fausto.

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Persephone looked into Fausto’s eyes. They were black. She took the Zippo from his hand and lit the cigarette she had taken from him. She exhaled into the air with a cloud of smoke. “You have your father’s eyes, you know that?” she said. Fausto stared at her. Persephone shook her head. “I have no one else...” said Fausto. They held each other’s gaze. “D'accord,” she said, “ Okay, I’ll go with you.” “Thanks,” said Fausto. “As long as you give me a ride back,” said Persephone, “I need to get some flowers in Cabo anyway.” “Deal.” Persephone walked through the open doorway. “Can I have my lighter back?” said Fausto. She continued down the hallway, to the stairs. Fausto followed. ****

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They crossed the lobby. Persephone took her purse from the chair at the check-in desk. She brushed some hair behind an ear and wrote a note. They walked out of the hotel. Across the street, Omar’s face reflected in the backseat window of the Cadillac. He tried the door handle. “What the fuck there, Omar?” said Fausto. Omar stiffened. He smiled. “Just admiring your Brougham, Fausto, it’s beautiful,” he said. Persephone opened the passenger’s door. She climbed inside. “That’s my dad’s Bro-ham you’re admiring there, Omar.” Fausto climbed behind the wheel. “Never lets anyone drive it though, especially not me.” Fausto put on his shades and fired up the engine. He rolled down his window. Omar leaned in. “You shouldn’t rush into things without meditation,” said Omar, “Seriously, you need some rest, Fausto.” “Good looking out, Omar,” Fausto stepped on the gas pedal. The Cadillac drove away. “Namaste,” said Omar. He looked back at the hotel. The Cadillac glided down the road past the mission. The sun sank on the horizon. Fausto drove through a grove of palm trees. A cloud of mosquitos dissipated then reformed again. Water trickled. A vein of sawgrass and cattail split the desert near an oasis, beneath the town of Todos Santos. The Cadillac turned onto highway 1. 155


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Persephone placed a foot on the dashboard in front of her. Her skirt opened. A pale thigh. A friendship bracelet adorned her ankle. Fausto looked back at the road. The Pacific appeared then disappeared again. The Cadillac crested a hill. Cactus stretched to the horizon, to the coast and the blood red sea approaching sunset. They drove south, towards Land’s End. The Cadillac passed shrine after roadside shrine. Each cross marked the place of someone’s death on the highway. The majority were at the curves in the road. Some crosses had flowers beneath them. “So, what exactly do you do down here?” said Fausto. “Im a florist.” “in the desert?” “You’d be surprised how much people will pay to have a little beauty,” said Persephone, “especially in the desert.” “What about my father?” said Fausto, “Did he ever pay?” “For what?” Persephone fished through her purse. “For the beauty,” said Fausto, “Did he ever have to pay for this beauty you’re talking about?” Persephone laughed. She took out a bag of weed and rolling papers. She rolled herself a joint. “So, what do you do in the army?” she said. “Marines.” “In the marines, then.” Persephone lit her joint. “Drug counterinsurgency,” said Fausto. “Counter-whom?” “Intelligence to stop drugs and drug-lords.”

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“Well, you’re not stopping me,” said Persephone. She smoked her joint and squinted. “This is México, Fausto. You’re a gringo down here. Never forget.” “And what are you, invincible?” “I’m better than invincible, I’m Canadian.” They crested a hill. The coastline appeared. They descended into the next canyon. “I have three days, Persephone.” “Me too,” she said, “I leave Easter Sunday.” “Why so soon?” Four skeletal cows crossed the road at the bottom of the arroyo. Fausto pumped the brakes. The Cadillac stopped just short of the crossing cattle. Ribs moved beneath their grey hides. Their heads hung. Fausto drove around them. The Cadillac accelerated to the top of a curve. “I’m only here for the winter,” said Persephone, “After high season I go back to Montréal.” “Why did my father give you the necklace, Persephone?” Persephone pointed. “Your gas lamp,” she said. “Shit,” said Fausto. The black Cadillac coasted down the hill, towards Cabo San Lucas, on nothing but gravity and gas fumes. El Arco, the great stone arch at Land’s End, marked the outer edge of the bay. Cruise ships, yachts, and fishing boats drifted off the coast of Médano Beach. The sky and sea purpled with the approaching night. The lights of the resorts sparkled in the twilight. Fausto yawned.

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He blinked and shook his head. “I need coffee anyway,” he said. He put the transmission into neutral then raised his arms above his head. “Woooooooo! burn the boats, baby, we’re coming in hot!” he said. He looked to Persephone. She raised her arms and smiled. She shrieked. The Cadillac coasted down the hill into the PEMEX service station at the edge of town with a bounce. **** Cabo San Lucas, Mexico - 20:30 hrs. The Cadillac climbed an unpaved street. It labored up the backside of a hilltop colonia. Persephone looked out over the city and bay. The Cadillac’s undercarriage scraped a rock. It sparked. “Damnit, Persephone!” said Fausto, “this is horseshit.” The dirt road steepened. At the top of the incline, sat a white minimalist residence. “There?” said Fausto. Tires spat gravel and lost traction on the hill. The Cadillac slipped backwards. “That’s where he lives, Fausto. Do you want to go or not?” Fausto put the tranny into first gear and floored the gas. The Cadillac lurched forward. “I like your attitude, Fausto,” said Persephone, “you are man of action.” “Action Jackson.” The Cadillac climbed and fishtailed and fought its way to the gates at the top of the hill. “That’s how we get her done,” said Fausto. He set the parking brake with his foot.

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“Yes,” said Persephone. She looked Fausto up and down then climbed out of the vehicle. They walked to a stainless steel intercom beside an iron Door. The walls were over ten feet high. The view of the bay behind them was spectacular. “Wow,” said Fausto. “I know,” said Persephone. “Don’t let it get to you, Fausto.” She dialed a sequence of numbers on the key pad. “It happens to everyone.” A telephone rang somewhere inside the compound. The ringing continued. “He’s not here,” she said. “Want me to text him?” Fausto stared at the bay. “Huh? Yeah, do that,” he said. Persephone turned away from Fausto. She leaned over her mobile device. Light from its screen illuminated her face. She laughed and typed with her thumbs. “Get the fuck out of here, Dionisio. You’re such a cabrón,” Persephone laughed. “He’s over at... Oh, god-” “Oh, god what?” “It’s just pictures... He’s at Passions, and Nikki Beach at the ME,” she said. “The who?” “The Meliá,” she said. “He’s texting me again. He wants us to meet him there.” “Where?” “Nikki Beach,” said Persephone, “It’s spring break, Fausto. There’s no way Dionisio will abandon the party tonight. No way in hell.” “What’s wrong with you people?” said Fausto. “Bunch of goddamned hedonists.” “It’s getting late.” “Alright, damnit, we’ll go to spring break.” said Fausto.

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Persephone’s eyes flashed. “I’ll get my scarf.” They climbed back into the car. Persephone removed her shirt. Her breasts were pale like her thigh. She pulled a long silk scarf from her purse. She tied it around her neck, then wrapped it around her body into a dress. Persephone shook her hair out then looked at herself in the rearview mirror. “It’s Hermès,” she said, “You can drive, you know,” “I will if you let me.” Fausto twisted the rearview mirror back to where he could see again. He started the engine. Persephone laughed. “You can’t counterinsurgency everything, Fausto.” “Just trying to find my father, that’s all.” “Let’s go find him then.” Fausto nodded. **** The black Cadillac bounced along a dirt road between the Casa Dorada Beach Resort and the Meliá Cabo San Lucas. Shirtless and bikini-clad people roamed the streets in flip-flops and straw sombreros. Humvees and limousines inched through the crowd to the main entrance of Nikki Beach. Arclights crossed the sky above the red glow and smoke rising from the oceanfront nightclub. Fausto parked. The stream of tourists engulfed the vehicle. Fausto reached into the seabag in the backseat. He removed a navy sport coat with brass buttons. Maj. L. Burnes USMC

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was embroidered beneath the inside pocket in gold. Fausto put the jacket on over his t-shirt and jeans. “Fancy,” said Persephone. Fausto locked the seabag in the trunk of the Cadillac. They crossed the street, hand in hand. They walked to the entrance of the the nightclub. “Persephone!” said Ricardo at the velvet rope, “Canada’s in the house, baby.” “It is now,” said Persephone. “Clearly Canadian,” said Ricardo, “Mmmm, grade A maple syrup right there. Y’all seeing this?” He closed the rope in front of Fausto. “He’s with me, Ricardo,” said Persephone. “My bad,” said Ricardo, “Welcome to paradise, soldier.” “Marine.” Persephone pulled Fausto behind her. They merged into the crowd entering the courtyard. Bass thundered through the open air. Moonlight shimmered on the beach and bay beyond the resort grounds. The crowd was dense but far better than the chaos being caused by college students on the public side of Playa Médano. At Nikki Beach, everyone wore white. Fausto and Persephone wore black. A DJ in white denim spun dance music from his tower above the swimming pool. Persephone pointed. A shirtless man in linen pants danced onstage. Black curly hair shook with beads of sweat. Go-Go Girls in white plumage samba-danced around the man. Hips gyrated. The man’s shoulders shimmied in a blur, like a Turkish dancer. “Dionisio,” said Fausto.

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A girl grabbed ahold of Dionisio’s waist onstage. Her eyes widened. Dinisio’s ass shook in a flurry between henna-painted hands. A conga line formed. It coiled around the DJ booth. Dionisio danced at the head of the serpent. The conga line snaked onto the dance floor below. People cheered. Dionisio raised his arms to the night sky. “Hurry!” said Persephone. She took Fausto’s hand. “What?!” Fausto followed Persephone into the sea of dancing bodies. She placed Fausto’s hands on her hips. They merged into the conga line dancing behind Dionisio. Fausto shook his ass and tried to mimic Persephone’s movements. “I can’t believe this shit.” said Fausto. They sambaed their way poolside, around a palapa, a fountain, then to a private corner on the sand. A row of giant beds were elevated on stilts beside them. Sheets of white fabric blew in the night breeze. Dionisio placed his forehead to Persephone’s and grinned. He lifted her off the ground. A diver’s mask was tattooed to his shoulder. “Have a drink with me, “ he said. “Nice moves there,” said Fausto. He adjusted his jacket, “Hard to keep up with.” “Who is this sexy man?” said Dionisio. He smiled. “Fausto,” said Persephone, “Fausto Burns.” Dionisio’s expression faded. “He’s looking for Louis, Dionisio, have you seen him?” Dionisio seemed sober now. He looked towards the entrance of the club. “He never showed,” said Dionisio, “I’ll radio him tonight.” “Show up for what?” said Fausto. Dionisio looked around.

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“I’m meeting a friend here,” said Dionisio, “After that I can take you to use ship-to-shore radio at my place, yes?” People danced all over the beach. Beyond the white ropes of the club the crowd swelled into a fish farm of dancing bodies. Fireworks exploded overhead in molten red. “How long?” said Fausto. “Thirty minutes,” said Dionisio, “maybe less, or the anchovies are free.” He put on a linen shirt and buttoned it. “You like anchovies?” “Does my father?” Dionisio smiled. “Yes... Yes he does like anchovies.” “Alright,” said Fausto, “where should we wait for you?” “Smart and sexy... Are you Greek, Fausto?” “No.” “Shame.” Dionisio looked at Persephone. “Meet me in the beach bar at midnight.” “No time for quickies, Dionisio,” said Persephone. “always time for quickie, my darling, this is Dionisio!” He backed away from them smiling, his tongue between his teeth. “What the hell’s with you people?” said Fausto, “Thirty minutes there, Dionisio! No bullshit. you hear me?” Dionisio danced into the crowd. Fausto ran a hand over his scalp. The music thundered. He squeezed his temples between his thumb and forefinger. Persephone touched Fausto’s cheek. Fireworks painted their faces with color. “I like you,” she said. Fausto Smiled. “Buy you a drink?” “I don’t think we should, Fausto.” “I’ll watch your back, Seph.” Fausto pointed to his eyes. “Better than waiting here for Dionysus with our dicks in our hands.”

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Persephone laughed. “Don’t let Dionisio hear you say that.” She shook her head. “It’s true,” said Fausto. Persephone wrapped Fausto’s arm around her shoulder and clasped his fingers. They walked down to the beach bar on the sand. They kicked off their shoes. Fausto rolled up his jeans. They sat on barstools beneath a moonlight sky. “Tequila, porfis,” said Persephone. “Dos,” said Fausto. The bartender obliged. Fausto looked into Persephone’s eyes. She smiled. He looked at the locket around her neck. “Persephone?” “Yes?” Fausto watched the colored lights play over her face. Boats floated on the bay over her shoulder. “Salúd,” said Fausto. He raised his glass. “Salúd,” They drank for thirty minutes. Dionisio returned, covered in sweat. He searched the beach bar but Persephone and Fausto were nowhere to be found. He tapped his PDA. Persephone rolled into Fausto’s arms atop one of the giant beds on stilts above the beach. They kissed. Persephone reached inside Fausto’s jeans. The screen lit up on her PDA. Dionisio peeked his head over the mattress with a cell phone to his ear. Persephone howled. She rolled off the bed and hit the sand with a thump. Fausto laughed. “I need to leave, like now, people,” said Dionisio. He put away his device. “We can do this at my place, yes, we can, we will, my friends. But we must go now, okay? right now.” 164


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“We’re the black Cadillac at the top of the hill,” said Fausto. He tossed Dionisio the car keys. “Go on ahead. I’ll get Persephone and catch up with you.” Dionisio nodded. He walked through the crowd. Fausto tried to help Persephone to her feet. She slapped his face. “Fuck you, Fausto, why’d you throw me off there?!” “I didn’t throw you off anything!” “Then why’d you laugh?!” A firework burst with a flash of blue. “Come on, Seph, give me your hand.” said Fausto. Persephone jumped into Fausto’s arms. He caught her. “Carry me... I’m dizzy. I’m tired, and you did this to me, Fausto,” she said. “I told you I didn’t want to drink.” Fausto shuffled through the dancing bodies with Persephone in his arms. Her face pressed against his chest. Her arms clung to his neck. Fausto walked out of the club. Sweat rolled down his face. They reached the top of the dirt road. Fausto set Persephone down. Three men in boots and black cowboy hats looked through the Cadillac’s open trunk, across the street. “Wait,” said Persephone. Fausto walked towards the men.

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“What you doing there, hard-chargers?” Fausto closed the distance between them. A Cadillac Escalade idled in the shadows of an alley, in the background. “Que quiere este güey?” said the man with the seabag. Fausto gripped the man’s hand. “That’s my father’s.” It happened in a blur. Persephone screamed. The first man ran off, his arm bent grotesquely backwards. The second man crawled away from Fausto. Blood poured from a hole on the side of the man’s head. He scrambled to his feet and ran into the night. Cowboy hats littered the ground. Fausto crouched in the street behind the Cadillac. His knee pressed into the remaining cowboy’s throat, beneath the bumper of the vehicle. “Fausto, stop!” said Persephone. She ran. Fausto pressed his thumbs against the man’s eyelids. His nostrils flared. A human ear lay in the dirt beside Fausto’s knee. Fausto blinked at the sight of it. “Fausto!” Persephone threw her arms around him. She pulled. Fausto sprang to his feet. “Goddamnit!” he said. “What’s wrong with you people?” His eyes widened. Fausto looked around. He breathed through his teeth.

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The remaining cowboy ran down the hill towards Nikki Beach. “Motherfuckers. What the fuck’s wrong with you?!” said Fausto. “Fausto!” said Persephone. She rolled the seabag into the Cadillac’s trunk and slammed the door shut. “Get in the car.” Fausto climbed into the passenger’s seat. Persephone drove. The Cadillac fishtailed around the corner in a cloud of dust. The moon shone overhead. Headlights illuminated Persephone’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Fausto looked back. Dionisio was passed out cold in the backseat. His linen shirt was rolled up, exposing his stomach. A syringe hung from a swollen injection site beneath his navel. Fausto’s lips puckered up, like a fish, but he couldn’t find the words. “Ay, Dionisio,” said Persephone, “you could have at least helped us, cabrón.” Dionisio smiled. He moaned. “Their black hats, they were freaking me out, so I stayed here.” His accent was even thicker. “Want to secure that syringe there, hard-charger?” said Fausto. He pointed. “Oh, god. How embarrassing is this?” said Dionisio. “It’s not what it looks like, Fausto, not really.” “Really?” said Fausto. “Nothing in the Baja is, Fausto, never.” He removed the syringe from his skin and rolled his shirt down. “How do you know my name?” “I’m psychic,” said Dionisio.

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“I introduced you two at Nikki Beach,” said Persephone. Fausto nodded. Persephone turned onto the same dirt road from before. Dionisio’s house sat at the top of the incline. “Easy there, Seph.” Fausto reached for the steering wheel. “Maybe I should just-” Persephone rolled her eyes. She floored the gas. Dionisio laughed. **** Low lights. The place was shagadelic, a spy palace of plastic, stainless steel, and fur. Fausto stood before a wall of windows. Fireworks exploded over Nikki Beach. The lights of the hillside stretched to the marina. El Squid Roe and Cabo Wabo overflowed with tourists. The cruise ship headed into the Sea of Cortez beneath a full moon. Fausto looked down at his hands. He opened and closed them. They were sticky. He looked back out over the bay. “Where you at, daddy?” Bosa Nova music played. “You alright?” said Persephone. “No.” She joined Fausto at the windows.

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“My friends,” said Dionisio. He tossed the seabag onto an endless white couch. “Let’s radio Louis.” “Who were those men?” said Fausto. “Thieves.” “With diamond earrings and ostrich boots?” “Nacos, and thieves.” “What have you and my father been doing, Dionisio?” “Financially or sexually?” “Horseshit.” “You didn’t know?” “Dionisio,” said Persephone. “What? It was long time ago. Louis and I were very young, so sexy and so young, Fausto. You weren’t even born so stop making that face.” “You’re not that old.” “I’m sixty-three, Fausto.” “How come you look so young?” “Let’s try the radio. I’m worried about Louis.” “Where is he?” **** Static. The speakers hummed. The room looked like the bridge of a submarine. LED screens showed swell patterns, tides, buoys, and inferred weather. Dionisio pressed the SEND button on a microphone at the console. “Daddy, can you hear me? Over.” said Fausto. Persephone looked at Dionisio. A framed photograph of Dionisio and a bookish gentleman with eyeglasses on sat on top of the desk. “Daddy come in. It’s Fausto. Over.” Headlights moved along the hillside road. “What the hell were they looking for?” Fausto stood. He marched back to the living room. Fausto emptied the seabag onto the couch. 169


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- a brochure from the Hotel California. - a tackle box, lead fishing weights. “We have company, old man.” A pearl colored Cadillac Escalade climbed the dirt road in 4-wheel drive. - a Manila envelope. - a fishing photograph. Two men in shades with Major Burns, one of them looked like the gentleman from Dionisio’s photograph. Their arms were around each other’s shoulders, a black marlin at their feet, cigars between their lips, on the rear deck of the River Styx sport fishing yacht. Headlights illuminated the compound’s walls. “What the hell are you all mixed up in?” “Hurry!” said Persephone. Fausto speed-packed the seabag and followed her. The telephone rang at the intercom on the wall. Dionisio emerged from the kitchen. Four ice chests slung over his shoulders. He carried a spear-fishing trident. Dionisio handed Fausto a diving knife. “Defend yourself,” said Dionisio. Fausto shook his head. “I’m a diver not fighter.” They ran down an observation corridor lined with windows. It curved around the cliffs to a swimming pool on a plateau. The black Pacific churned and hissed against the rocks below them. Pieces of rebar 170


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protruded from the wall of the sea cliff. Dionisio descended the ladder into darkness. Persephone followed him down. Fausto brought up the rear. At the bottom, a Zodiac was tarped and chained inside a cove. “Can you drive a Zodiac?” said Dionisio. “I was born in one.” said Fausto. They pushed the boat into the water. Persephone jumped in then Dionisio. The Zodiac drifted away from the cliff and the breakers. Fausto dove from the rocks. He swam to the Zodiac and climbed aboard. Rounds impacted into the water all around them. Men shouted from the observation deck of Dionisio’s swimming pool. Fausto pulled the ignition cord. The engine sputtered. “I think they’re after you, Fausto,” said Dionisio. “How you figure?” said Fausto. He grunted and pulled the cord again. The engine failed. “The one screaming says he wants his ear,” said Dionisio, “He points to you, Fausto!” A 250 pound pistolero jumped from the observation deck. He landed inside the Zodiac. Persephone and Fausto launched into the air. They landed with a splash. Fausto swam back towards the boat. Rounds peppered the water. The gunman grappled with Dionisio. Persephone pulled herself onto the nose of the Zodiac. “Dionisio!” said Persephone. “Don’t worry, darling, he’s messing with-” The gunman’s head exploded from the impact of a NATO ball round. Gore splashed over Persephone. The body pitched forward. Persephone watched, amazed. More gunshots erupted from the cliffside. Dionisio’s body fell backwards into the sea. He sank beneath a pool of blood. Persephone crawled astern. Her lips trembled. She yanked the ripcord. The engine started. Fausto pulled himself into the boat, over the dead gunman. Persephone cranked throttle. The front 171


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end of the Zodiac lifted from the sea. Rounds impacted behind them. They raced away from the sea cliffs towards deeper waters, beyond Land’s End. **** Persephone followed the dissipating wake of the Carnival cruise ship, beneath a band of moonlight. She gripped the throttle. Her knuckles were bone white. Fausto reached over and placed his hand on top of Persephone’s. He killed the engine. The lights of Cabo San Lucas sparkled in the distance behind them. Fausto moved Dionisio’s ice chests. He rolled the gunman’s body overboard. It bobbed in the water alongside them. Fausto took a waterproof bag from the Zodiac’s deck. He filled it with seawater, like a bucket. He splashed the water in Persephone’s face, washing away the gore. “What’s wrong with you?!” said Persephone. Fausto seized her by the shoulders. Moonlight illuminated her face. “This is the part where the mysterious blonde comes clean.” Persephone’s eyes widened. She watched the first bull shark hit the gunman’s body. Perhaps it was a tiger shark. More dorsal fins appeared. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The body bucked and splashed with each hit. It was becoming a feeding frenzy. “Why did my father give you the necklace?!” “I can’t watch this!” “Why, goddamnit?!”

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The sharks tore the gunman to pieces. “Because he loves me,” said Persephone. She looked into Fausto’s eyes, “Louis loves me, Fausto. He loves me more than anyone in the world!” “Filthy whore.” Fausto pulled the ignition cord. The engine sputtered then started. Fausto cranked the throttle and headed back towards the lights of Cabo San Lucas. **** The Zodiac idled through a labyrinth of slips and ships, across the plate glass surface of the marina. Fausto examined each vessel they passed. He killed the engine. The Zodiac drifted towards a monster of a fishing boat. The River Styx Newport Beach, CA was written across her stern. Fausto grabbed the grate behind the rear deck. He slung Louis’ seabag over his shoulder. Fausto took the trident and the diving knife then climbed aboard the River Styx. A pelican landed on the deck of a sailboat. It watched them. Persephone followed Fausto up the ladder. Fausto jammed the diving knife into a doorframe beneath the bridge. He pried. The door opened. “Good looking out, Dionisio.” They walked down a passageway, down a cantilever staircase, to a lounge and bar, beneath the main deck. Fausto found a light switch. 173


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The room was a mess. Overturned couch pillows. Broken glass. Splintered wood. Bullet holes and two distinct bloodstains marked the wall opposite the bar. On top of the bar, sat a half-full cocktail glass and a bottle of Southern Comfort. “Oh, Louis,” said Persephone. “What do you mean, ‘Oh, Louis?’ Tell me the truth, Seph.” “Who’s truth?” “The whole-” “Louis’ truth? Dionisio’s? Mine?! You don’t want the truth, Fausto. You just want-” “I just want to know what the fuck Louis was doing here!” “Louis paid me to wait for you at the Hotel California.” “And Dionisio?” “He knew Louis’ fishing friends.” Persephone stared at the blood stains on the wall. “And you just needed a father figure, then. Is that it? Daddy didn’t treat you nice enough so you decided to use mine?” “You’re jealous.” “Whatever my father’s mixed up in he did it because of you!” “That’s not true.” “Then what is?!” “I love him, Fausto.” “Well, it looks your like sugar daddy’s still alive then, sister.” Fausto picked up the cocktail glass and took a sip. “Daddy drinks Southern Comfort. The bullet holes are over there not here. I think he’s alive.” Footsteps sounded on the deck above them. Fausto turned off the lights. The door opened. A shadowed figure pimp-slapped someone. There was a shriek, a thud, and a muffled groan. **** Charlie opened his eyes, blinking. He was shirtless on top of the bar in skivvies and black socks. A red handprint marked his cheek. Charlie’s 174


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wrists and ankles were hog-tied with a Hermes scarf. Persephone wore a loud silk Versace shirt tied in a knot above her navel. “I don’t know anything,” said Charlie, “No mames, güey.” Fausto held up the bottle of Southern Comfort. He squeezed Charlie’s cheeks together. “Open your mouth.” “Wait!, esperate,” said Charlie, “If you’re gonna kill me with booze at least use the good stuff, cabrón. It’s up there! We have Don Julio.” “What happened here?” “I just drive the boat, man.” “Why you here so late, boatman?” “I had a no-show charter. I’m just cleaning.” Fausto opened Louis’ seabag. He retrieved the fishing photograph of his father. “Who are these people?” “You’re looking for the devil himself, aren’t you? You must be Fausto.” “How… Who was your charter, the no-show?” “You’re my charter. I’ve been waiting for you and Louis for three days, man.” Fausto socked Charlie in the mouth. “Why would I lie?! “Where is he?” “I don’t know! But you’re here. so we can leave, right?” “We’re not going anywhere.” “You can’t back out now, Fausto. Not with these-”

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“I’m not in this!” Fausto snatched Charlie’s trachea. “You keep talking like you know me and I swear to god I’ll fucking-” “Kill me? Go ahead...” Charlie swallowed. “That’s nothing compared to what El Profe will do to me.” “El Profe?” said Fausto. He looked down at the photograph. The bookish man with his arm around Louis’ shoulder was smiling. “What’s a professor gonna do to you that’s worse than death?” said Fausto. Charlie trembled. “The unspeakable, alright? If I don’t show up with Louis’ bag by tomorrow morning... I’m fucked.” “Who is El Profe?” “El mero mero chignón. El padrino.” “Fausto, let’s go! We can run. We should just get out of here!” “They’ll find you,” said Charlie. Fausto looked at the bullet holes and blood stains on the wall. He blinked. “You want to find out what happened to your dad, right?” Fausto ran a hand over his scalp. He gripped the bar top for support. “Who better to find him than El Profe? I mean, you have Louis’ bag. He can help you, man.” “There’s nothing in Louis’ bag,” said Persephone. “Nothing in the bag?” said Charlie. “How do you know that?” Fausto regained his balance. A long crackling groan rose from the back of Charlie’s throat. It lasted for what seemed like an eternity. “Go on, man. Just kill me.”

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“No way,” said Fausto. “Sí güey,”said Charlie. Fausto untied him. “No, you’re gonna help us, Charlie. Or you and El Profe get to do the unspeakable, you hear me?” “What do you want from me?” “To do what you were paid to do. Take me to see El Profe.” “Orale pues.” “I’m done dancing around this hell hole.” “Good.” “I want answers.” “That’s what I’m talking about.” “Shut up, Charlie.” Charlie rubbed his wrists. He nodded. Persephone helped him off the bar. “Go ahead and keep the shirt. It looks nice on you. Sorry we all started on such an awkward note but, welcome to the River Styx. I’m Charlie, your captain. We’ll be departing for Isla Espiritu Santo as soon as I get some more clothes on. Excuse me.” He climbed the staircase. Fausto removed his wet t-shirt. He rung it out then draped it over a chair. Dog tags jingled. Persephone wrapped her arms around Fausto. She rested her head on his chest. She listened to his heart. The engines rumbled to life. “I don’t understand you, Persephone.” “Thanks for risking so much, for Louis.” “He’s my dad.” “I like you, Fausto.” She ran her fingers over Fausto’s back and shoulders, over the scars: the shrapnel, the knife wound, a gunshot... “I like you too.”

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“My friends,” said Dionisio. He walked down the staircase wearing raw silk pants, Gucci loafers, and a lilac shirt. His hair was wet. “My body’s not even cold yet and you’re about to have sex on top of a bar. That says a lot about our relationship.” Persephone flew into Dionisio’s arms. They placed their foreheads together. “Have a drink with me! This time yes,” said Dionisio. “Yes!”said Persephone. Dionisio walked behind the bar. Fausto smiled. “Glad to see you made it, old man.” “Old?!” said Dionisio. “Old enough to teach you both a lesson.” He reached for the bottle of Don Julio on the top shelf. “How did you do it?” said Persephone. She took a shot glass from Dionisio. He poured two more. “Don’t worry darling, I just swam to lover’s beach then took water taxi to Puerto Paraiso. I keep fresh clothes at Marina Fiesta spa. You think I would really die in wet Gucci? Please... I mean, who are we talking about here?” Everyone raised their glasses. “Dionisio!” They toasted. They drank. “So, I take it you’ve been here before,” said Fausto. “I tell you later,” said Dionisio. He gathered the ice chests together and placed them in a freezer behind the bar. Fausto watched him. He pulled his father’s seabag close. “You know Charlie, then?” “Don’t even get me started on Charlie, darling.” Dionisio lit a cigarette with Fausto’s Zippo. He turned on the stereo system behind the bar. Persephone and Fausto made eye contact. 178


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Dionisio poured another round. His body moved to the rhythm. Fausto slid his arms through the straps of his father’s seabag. The music played. ...but you don't care. Fausto walked to the stairs. Dionisio danced. Persephone joined in, half-heartedly. So what is right? Hips moved. All the while her eyes followed Fausto. And what is wrong? Fausto climbed the staircase. Give me a sign. The River Styx glided out of the marina into the bay. Fausto leaned against the safety rail. The crowd on Medano Beach writhed and pumped beneath the arclights. “What the hell does she take me for?” said Fausto. Engines roared. The River Styx kicked up a frothy wake. It carved a path into the Sea of Cortez.

What is__

love?

Ba - by, don’t hurt__

****

179

me,

don’t hurt__

me

no more.


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El Sábado Santo (Black Saturday) 0000 hrs. The moon sank on the horizon. The Milky Way shone above the River Styx. Fausto sat on the deck beneath the conning tower. The seabag sat at his feet. He opened and closed the Zippo with his thumb. Persephone sat down beside him. “The necklace belonged to Esperanza, my sister,” said Fausto. “Where is she?” “Dead.” “I’m sorry.” “Killed herself when she was sixteen.” “Were you close?” “No.” “The necklace means a lot to me too, Fausto.” “Her mother mailed it to Louis, after. They were together before he married my mom.” “Why are you telling me this?” “Because he took that locket everywhere.” “Why would he give it to me?”

“You must be pretty special.” “Fausto, wait. Don’t.” “I’m sorry.” “We can’t. We really can’t.” “What aren’t you telling me, Persephone?” Persephone touched the locket on her chest. “Louis...” “Louis, what?” “Fausto!” said Charlie. He wore a peacoat. “Come quick.”

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Fausto followed Charlie into the steering room. He handed Fausto a handset. The was a crackle of static then a voice came over the speakers. “Fausto, come in. Over.” “Daddy?!” Fausto adjusted the volume on the receiver. “Goddamn, boy, where the hell you been? Over.” “Daddy where are you?” “On the island. Charlie says you’ll be here by sunup. You got my seabag there, devil pup?” “Daddy, about the seabag.” “Forget about it! I’m just happy you made it, son. Get some rest. I’ll see you when you get here. Over and out.” “Dad?” Fausto turned around. Persephone, Dionisio, and Charlie watched him. Fausto smiled. “He’s alive!” said Fausto. Persephone looked down. “Think I’m ready for that drink, Dionisio. Come on, Charlie, you too, we’re celebrating there, hard charger. Hey, Seph?” “Go ahead. I’ll be down in a moment.” “What’s wrong?” “Just give me a moment.” “Okay... I’ll see you downstairs.” Persephone watched them go. Dionisio threw his arms around Fausto and Charlie’s shoulders in the passageway. “One and two and step and two... It’s Greek, come on, like man.” “You’re a piece of work, old man.” They entered the stairwell. Persephone turned around. She walked towards the steering wheel. The autopilot flashed on the console. 181


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Persephone pushed a button. The steering room lights turned off. Only the glow of the instrument panel illuminated her face. Persephone looked over her shoulder. The passageway was still empty. She picked up the radio handset and pressed the SEND button. “Papa.” ****

24.5000° North, -110.3667° West Isla Espiritu Santo, Mexico - 0530 hrs.

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The River Styx slowed. The silhouette of an island came into view off her port side. The Sea of Cortez reflected the pink of the predawn sky. Fausto stood on the quarterdeck. He watched the island grow in detail. Dionisio joined him. He leaned on the guardrail. “You are good son, Fausto.” “What are we walking into, old man?” The River Styx rounded the southern tip of the island. A rock formation, like a giant mask over fifteen feet high, stared at them from the cliffside. “Tragedy,” said Dionisio, “almost Greek, the mask, no?” “La mascara !” said Charlie. He steered from the spotting tower, high above them. “Two more bays and we can anchor.” “Be wise with your words, Fausto, you’ll be fine,” Dionisio said. The River Styx entered a small bay. A temporary pier made of pontoons and aluminum stretched from the shore to the shallows. Charlie berthed alongside it. The sunrise glowed yellow and red. A man in white Tommy Bahama and a Panama hat stood at the end of the pier. He saluted. Fausto smiled. The silhouettes of Louis and Fausto met at the middle of the pier. The sun rose red behind them. They saluted then embraced. Persephone watched from the deck of the River Styx. She touched the locket at her neck. She followed Charlie and Dionisio ashore.

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“I know it looks god awful, boy, but it ain’t what it looks like,” said Louis, “I’ll explain everything back at HQ, fair enough?” “Sounds good,” said Fausto. He carried the seabag on his back. Persephone approached them. “Hello sweetheart,” said Louis. “Hello, Louis,” said Dionisio. “I was talking to my baby girl, here,” said Louis. He kissed the crown of Persephone’s head. “You Peloponnesian freak.” He knife-handed Dionisio in the armpit then tickled him. “Stop it, Louis!” said Dionisio. Louis chased him. Dionisio nearly fell. “Damnit, Louis!” “Alright, alright,” said Louis, “Just fucking around. Goddamn, cut me some slack, people. I’m happy. I have everybody I care about in the world here with me at the high point in my life. Hell, we should be celebrating. Come on, mount up.” A Pericú indian man wearing an “Old Guys Rule Los Cabos” t-shirt held the guide ropes of six burros. They each mounted a donkey then followed a precarious trail up the cliffside, towards the island’s interior. The donkey train climbed higher into the sierra. The view was breathtaking. Louis led the way. Persephone, Fausto and the rest followed behind. Relax it’s Only Money was embroidered on the back of Louis’ Tommy Bahama shirt. A marlin and a pair of die were soaked with sweat just beneath it. The donkeys descended towards an oasis of trees and greenery. It looked like a volcanic lake. The water was deep blue, like the cenotes of the Yucatán. 184


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“That your HQ?” said Fausto. “No, that’s fresh water there, son,” said Louis, “makes everything here possible.” “Makes what possible?”said Fausto. “I’ll show you.” The donkey train descended into the valley. At the backside of the cenote was a brush-covered entrance to a cave. They left their burros with the Pericú man and followed Louis down a dark passageway. They came to a pair of ornate hardwood doors. Louis knocked three times. A man in a white golf shirt with a red Polo insignia answered the door. He smiled then stepped aside. “The architect is from Sinaloa,” said Louis, “He studied in Manchester. That’s what I love about these boys. They’re heavily invested in education.” They entered a stealth resort made of concrete and tinted glass. It was almost church-like. The River Styx floated in the bay far below them. Men in golf attire walked about the main concourse, engaged in conversation. Every breast bore the red Polo insignia. Fausto noticed that no one appeared to be armed. “Hey there, Adonis?” said Louis. “You give him the grand tour, darling. I need to freshen up. I keep smelling fish.” Dionisio walked down a corridor. Reproductions of medieval art from the crusades adorned the walls. “Dinner’s at five sharp there, fancy pants. Don’t get sidetracked,” said Louis. Fausto placed a hand on Louis’ shoulder.

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“Not here, son. We’ll talk in a bit.” Louis opened a door with a card key. “Keep an eye on my seabag. Go ahead and clean up. I’ll be back in thirty.” Louis looked at Fausto. He smiled. “My boy... I’m so glad the two of you finally got a chance to meet. It means a lot to me.” Persephone and Fausto made eye contact. “See you in a bit,” said Louis. He threw an arm around Persephone’s shoulder and led her up the corridor. His laughter echoed down the hall, long after they’d vanished from Fausto’s sight. Fausto entered the minimalist suite. His view stretched to the horizon through a thin band of tinted glass the width of the entire room. A long sleeve shirt with a blue Polo insignia was laid out on the bed. A pair of khaki trousers were folded beside it. Fausto closed the door. **** The contents of Louis’ seabag were spread out on top of Fausto’s bed. - a brochure from the Hotel California. - a navy blue sport coat. - a tackle box: - 2 large lead fishing weights. - 3 small sinkers. - 5 squid lures. - a fillet knife. - Fausto’s USMC Zippo lighter. - the photograph of Louis and his friends on the deck of the River Styx.

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“What am I missing?” said Fausto. He was showered and shaved. He wore Ralph Lauren, courtesy of a host he had not yet met. Fausto picked up one of the large fishing weights. There was a circular space with three small holes on the bottom of it. He put it down then grabbed the Hotel California brochure. On the back it read: Meet with florist - 0930 hrs. “Persephone,” said Fausto. He looked at his watch. The stopwatch read 00:46:05 “Goddamn their asses, they’re fucking.” Fausto swatted the empty seabag off the bed. “Fucking! Filthy old bastard, what the hell’ve you gotten me into?” “What’s the matter, son?” said Louis. He closed the door behind himself. He noticed the contents of his seabag on top of Fausto’s bed. “Sorry, dad. I just-” “Hard to put your head around, isn’t it?” “What’s going on?” Louis looked Fausto in the eye. “Son, I’m...” “What?” “I worry what you’re going to do with your life, if the corps doesn’t kill you first. I worry all the time, Fausto, until I’m sick to my stomach.” “What are you saying?” “I don’t want you to make the mistakes I did and end up without a pot to piss in.” “I won’t have anything to do with trafficking drugs, daddy.”

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“You got it backwards, boy. I’m no criminal. I’m a warrior. Just like you feel the need to be, which is my fault too. I realize that.” “What the hell are we doing here?” “Selling an idea. I need your help to pitch it.” “To who, the devil?” “Devil went down to Georgia, Fausto, not Cabo. My friends are venture capitalists.” “With a stealth mountain?” “Yep.” “And a professor who does unspeakable things to people?” “Don’t believe the hype, boy.” “Who are these people?” “Revolutionary thinkers, son.” Louis walked to the window and looked over the Sea of Cortez. “Fausto, this Op. is green lighted at the highest level. They use old birds like me to do the groundwork, the bag work. Why do you think we sent for a Marine escort to deliver our bag?” “I ain’t involved in this.” “Here are TAD orders attaching you temporarily to my command. The second page is from DOD and USNORTHCOM, signed by General Jacoby. You will escort me to an undisclosed extraction point near La Paz by tomorrow evening.” Fausto read the document. He frowned. “What’s in the bag?” “What does it say in your orders?” “Nothing.” “That’s what you need to know then.” “Why the hell did you bring your girlfriend into this?” “I didn’t. You brought her here. And she’s a lot more than my girlfriend, Fausto.” 188


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Louis repacked the seabag. He paused to look at the fishing photograph then continued. “I’ve had this seabag since Vietnam,” said Louis, “kind of ironic the way it’s brought you back to me. Don’t let it out of your sight.” He threw the seabag like a medicine ball. Fausto caught it against his chest. “Yesir.” “Run your orders under some hot water. We have to eat dinner with these people at 1700. I’ll be back.” Louis left. Fausto stared at the door. He held the seabag to his chest. He thought of the Red Cross message, of his father’s so called disappearance. He thought of the narcos in the black hats. He thought of Dionisio, Omar, and Charlie. Everything was so wrong. Only one thing felt right and he tried not to think of her anymore. Fausto turned and placed the seabag on the bed. Outside the window, a mammoth superyacht approached the island from the east. A helicopter was secured to one of the rear decks. Its rotors turned. Fausto walked to the bathroom and ran water in the sink. He placed his orders under the faucet. The paper dissolved through his fingers. Fausto looked at himself in the mirror. “I like you.” whispered Fausto. Someone knocked on the door. Fausto opened it. Persephone ran into Fausto’s arms. She kicked the door shut behind her. She buried her face in Fausto’s chest and held him like a vise. Fausto caressed Persephone’s hair and neck. The chain of her locket laced between his fingers.

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“Fausto, I have to tell you something...” The helicopter rose from the deck of the superyacht outside. It flew over the windows above them. Shadows from the rotors played over their bodies. “Just tell me the truth, Seph, please.” “Fausto, I’m-” Someone knocked on the door. Persephone ran into the shower and shut the curtain behind her. “Just a sec.” Fausto opened the door. “Come on, boy. We’re on,” said Louis. “What’s wrong with you?” “I gotta use the head.” “No time.” Fausto looked back at the bathroom. “Let’s go, boy,” said Louis, “Move it.” **** Louis and Fausto crossed the concourse abreast and in step. They both wore navy blue sport coats. They had the same build, the same walk. Fausto looked at his father. He hadn’t seen him in ages. He’d only heard rumors: Colombia, Nicaragua, then finally Mexico. Fausto had no idea where they were going nor what they were doing, only that he was now under orders to bring the old man home. The Old Man, that’s what everyone called Louis, even his most senior officers did. Something to do with Louis’ time in Vietnam. Fausto looked down at the bay. The superyacht dwarfed the River Styx. It dropped anchor just beyond it. Men in white Ralph Lauren filled the concourse. They

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inched their way towards a pair double doors. Chamber music played over the PA system. Banquet tables filled a massive conference hall. Napkins were stuffed into wine glasses. Plastic plates and plasticware adorned each place setting. Windows stretched from the floor to the vaulted ceilings. One table was elevated above the others. Its back faced the bay and the endless blue. Fausto followed Louis up a small staircase. The table had real china. A bronze centerpiece with two knights riding the same horse stood beside a vase with white lilies. The hall filled with men. They found places around various tables and stood behind their seats. “Don’t say word. I’ll do the talking.” said Louis. He stood behind his chair. Dionisio entered the hall. He wore a white suit. He climbed the steps and took his place behind a chair on the other side of Louis. Two men escorted Charlie into the hall. He wore Ralph Lauren just like Fausto’s. Omar followed behind them. He carried a briefcase. The hall filled to capacity. Every man stood behind a chair, waiting. A white tapestry with a red cross in it hung on the wall at the back of the hall. Omar stood behind the chair next to Fausto’s. Charlie stood next to Omar. “How are you feeling, Fausto?” “You tell me, Omar.” Omar looked at Dionisio. Con te Partiro played over the PA system. A petite man entered the dining hall. He carried an iPad mini. He wore corduroy pants, a white polo shirt and eyeglasses. Everyone applauded. The man waved. Men cheered. Charlie whistled. Everyone in the room clapped except for Fausto. The cheering grew louder. “Bravo!” said Louis.

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He elbowed Fausto in the ribs. Fausto clapped. El Profe urged the room to be silent with his hands. The music faded. He climbed to the top of the steps then turned to address the crowd. “Brothers,” said El Profe, “today is El Sábado Santo. It is a very special evening. I am so pleased you all made the journey. But this is not a happy occasion.” “What the hell is this?” whispered Fausto. “Stand fast, boy.” “We are at war,” said El Profe, “a holy war against tyranny and evil, against the devil responsible for the loss of over 50,000 lives and for tearing our beautiful country to pieces!” People applauded. El Profe removed his eyeglasses. “This demon preys upon the innocent and the guilty alike, on women and children, on our mothers, our sons, our sisters and daughters... Yes, we are few and they are many but we shall not rest. We shall remain vigilant and fight with passion and fervor for justice, until the demon has been destroyed and peace is restored to our land.” “He’s talking about ‘El Sapo,’ Miguel Torrez is on-” “I’ll handle this, boy.” “But-” “Be still and follow orders.” “Ours is a righteous cause, my brothers. And I know how hard it is to leave your homes and your entire lives behind to do what is right. But your sacrifice shows your commitment to your families, to your communities, your country, to God, and to the future of all Mexicanos!” People stood. Everyone applauded. Fausto looked at Louis.

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“Who’s sanctioned this?” whispered Fausto. “I’m a contractor with the full backing of the US government. Now be still.” “Enjoy your meal,” said El Profe, “and prepare for what lies ahead. God wills it.” “God wills it!” replied the crowd. The professor took his seat at the head of the table. Everyone else in the room took their seats. Chamber music played over the PA system again. “Beautiful speech,” said Louis, “you gave me goosebumps.” “Thank you, Louis. It’s good to see you again,” said El Profe, “And this is?” “My attaché, Fausto.” “Mucho gusto, Fausto.” “Igualmente señor,” said Fausto. Servers poured jamaica into wine glasses. Men entered the room with platters of bread and seafood. The hall filled with the sounds of conversation and dining. “Everyone is here then,” said El Profe. He put his eyeglasses back on. “Dionisio, you go first.” “Of course.” Dionisio stood. He walked to the head of the table and placed a small ice chest in front of El Profe. “How many?” said El Profe. “Three months worth.” “The love of your life isn’t worth more than three months?” 193


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“I will have more, very soon.” “When?” “Two weeks.” Dionisio swallowed. He looked at Fausto then back at El Profe. “Come to the boat tonight,” said El Profe, “We’ll discuss it there.” Dionisio closed his eyes. He nodded. “Of course.” He returned to his seat. “Louis,” said El Profe, “What do you have for me?” Louis held up a USB drive. “Intel on our boy’s location and everything you need to handle your business.” El Profe nodded. Omar stood. He took the USB drive from Louis and brought it to the head of the table. El Profe examined the bottom of his iPad mini. “I think you need a Lightning port to USB adapter to read the drive,” said Omar. “But this is the newest iPad they make.” “That’s the problem,” said Omar. El Profe sighed. “Man will resign himself each day to new abominations,” he put down his device. “Soon only bandits and soldiers will be left.1 Did the United States government at least bring me something to view this on?” He tossed the USB drive back to Louis. “My laptop didn’t make it out of the marina,” said Louis. “How much am I paying you, Louis?” Fausto looked at his father. “Use mine,” said Omar. He opened his briefcase. “Your attaché is sweating,” said El Profe. Fausto wiped his face with a napkin. 1

Jorge Luis Borges - The Garden of Forking Paths 194


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A group of armed men climbed the steps. They stood behind El Profe’s chair. “Not to offend now,” said Louis, “but it’s been a hell of a time getting here, my friend, thanks to your buddies in the black hats and whoever’s been feeding them their intel.” “Yes, I know,” said El Profe, “My government actually helps them, well, at least some of them. They deal with the devil yet they do not want the United States to take action. And now your government is coming to me. Such irony. Do you know the devil, Fausto?” “Not personally.” El Profe laughed. “I like you, Fausto.” Fausto’s stomach sank. Omar placed an open laptop in front of El Profe. Louis walked to the head of the table. “May I?” said Louis. “Please,” said El Profe. Louis stood beside him and pointed at the screen. “Now, this here is Cabo San Lucas,” said Louis. ‘El Sapo’ is currently in a house in the Punta Ballena development, an exclusive community of private residences 3 miles north of Cabo. We believe he is waiting there to meet with leaders from the transnational criminal and terrorist organization called the Hezbollah.” El Profe nodded. “If so,” said Louis. “You’re all gonna be in a world of shit down here. Now, officially my government can’t have anything to do with this

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operation. President Enrique Peña Nieto has not been given intel on the matter. I am here acting as an independent advisor.” “Claro,” said El Profe. Louis scrolled down with the arrow keys. “Now this here is the BLU-80/B "Bigeye," an air-delivered "binary" chemical weapon. The warhead carries two separate, comparatively harmless substances. When they’re mixed together after release they form a lethal agent. Since there are U.S. civilians visiting and living in Punta Ballena, we’ve put together a non-lethal binary mix. It forms a BZ hallucinogen. It’ll work as an incapacitant agent. Fire the rocket from your helicopter. It releases the gas. Your boys hit the beach without any resistance and grab your man.” “Sounds good,” said El Profe, “you shouldn’t have any problem then.” “You mean your team should have no problem,” said Louis. “You are the team, Louis. Every man at this table.” Fausto, Dionisio, Charlie, Omar, and Louis looked at El Profe. “Let’s just call it penance for your sins.” The men behind El Profe pointed their weapons. “Now, wait a minute,” said Fausto, “This isn’t our fight, sir.” “Ours is an ideological battle, Fausto. My knights defend the values of a society based on ethics.” “What the hell does that mean?” said Louis. “It means I don’t sleep with the devil, Louis.” “Horseshit,” said Louis. El Profe smiled. Louis pulled El Profe out of his chair by the collar. He put him into a headlock. “Daddy wait!” 196


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Louis jammed the tip of a palm knife beneath El Profe’s chin and spun him around to face the armed men. “Bájale!” said Louis. The men continued to point their weapons. “The Old Man has nothing to lose anymore? Is that it?” said El Profe, “Now that he is dying?” “Drop em!” “Don’t listen to him,” said El Profe , “He won’t harm me. I have his dirty secret.” Sweat rolled down faces. Fingers trembled in trigger wells. Everyone in the hall was on their feet. Men shouted at the base of the stairs. Fausto gauged the distance between Louis and the gunmen. “Cada uno es hijo de sus obras...” 2 said El Profe. He could barely breathe now. “Que no Viejo?” He fought for breath in Louis’ arms. “Let go of me!” said Persephone. A man with a pistol led Persephone into the hall. Louis’ seabag was slung over the man’s shoulder. The crowd parted for them. Louis’ expression crumbled. The knife dropped from Louis’ hand in slow motion. It hit the concrete floor with a metallic bounce. He released El Profe. Louis looked toward Persephone then at Fausto. “I’m sorry, son.” 2

“Every man is the son of his own works.” ! Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 197


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Gunmen around the room took aim at Louis. “No!” said El Profe, “Don’t shoot. It’s okay, leave him! It’s alright.” He massaged his throat and motioned for the men to bring Persephone forward. “El Viejo and I are old friends.” Louis stared at El Profe. “Aren’t we, Louis?” The man pushed Persephone toward El Profe. Her eyes darted from Louis to Fausto to Dionisio. Her bottom lip trembled. El Profe caressed her cheek. Fausto’s heart pounded in his chest. “Okay,” said Fausto, I’ll get the son of a bitch! Just let the girl go.” El Profe looked at Fausto with a suspicious smile then back at Louis. “The girl? said El Profe. “Fausto, are you aware-” “I’ll do it, alright. Just leave her and my father out of this.” “Her?” “Fausto, please,” said Persephone. “Oh, this is more vile than I had even imagined,” said El Profe. He roared with laughter. “This is exactly what you deserve old man!” He slapped Louis on the back. El Profe laughed so hard he almost cried. Louis’ jaw muscles rippled beneath his skin. “At first I was just going to duct tape her neck and make Charlie cut her head off with your little knife there, Louis. Then I would dismember her right here in front of you, maybe video tape it and make you watch it again and again, but, you know what? I think God has something else in his plan for your little familia, cabrón. So, why don’t you apologize for your rudeness and just do as I say, me explico?”

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The silence was long and heavy. Everyone watched Louis. “I’m sorry,” said Louis, “I’ll do whatever you want.” “Good,” said El Profe. “apology accepted. Now, show me how this thing works.” He tossed the seabag to Louis. “Everyone return to your seats.” Andrea Bocelli sang over the PA system. El Profe sat back in his chair. Dionisio, Omar and Charlie took their seats. Charlie took a sip from his jamaica with trembling fingers. Persephone sat in the chair next to Fausto’s. She gripped his hand beneath the table. Her nails dug into his skin. Louis stood beside El Profe. He opened the seabag and removed the two large fishing weights. El Profe crossed his legs. He made a steeple with his fingers and listened intently. “Alright, here’s the deal,” said Louis. **** A helicopter idled on the tarmac outside the entrance to El Profe’s island fortress. The sun sank on the horizon. Louis, Dionisio, Omar and Charlie ran towards the open cargo door with their heads down. Persephone and Fausto stood in the middle of the flight deck. El Profe and his men waited at the edge of the asphalt. El Profe walked towards them. “I’ll come back for you. I swear,” said Fausto. “You better, Fausto, I’ll kick your ass.” They embraced. 199


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Fausto looked at El Profe over Persephone’s shoulder. “We have a deal,” said Fausto. “Bring him to me and she goes free. I give you my word,” said El Profe. Fausto pointed to his own eyes then to Persephone and El Profe. He ran to the helicopter and climbed inside. Louis sat in the passenger seat. He wore a headset. He gave orders in spanish. Fausto watched Persephone shrink from view beneath them. The helicopter banked to the west, over the Sea of Cortez. Persephone watched the helicopter fly away. She felt El Profe’s eyes on her back. A hand touched her shoulder. “You have nothing to fear from me, señorita,” said El Profe. Persephone turned around. “I don’t believe you.” “I’m not a monster.” “What are you then? “A believer, a man of my word.” “Un caballero?” El Profe smiled. He removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. His eyes were green. A multitude of men waited at the edge of the tarmac. A train of donkeys descended into the valley from the hillside above them. Ee Profe put his glasses back on. “Tonight you are my guest.” He offered Persephone an arm. She accompanied him across the concrete. Persephone looked back. The helicopter was only a black speck against the setting sun. “He will be fine,” said El Profe, “I’m sure he will be just fine.”

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“and my father?” “Who am I to betray another man’s secrets, señorita?” The crowd parted like the Red Sea. El Profe escorted Persephone back inside the cave. **** The helicopter landed on an empty beach. Two huts with palapa roofs stood beside a grove of reeds. The sky reddened. Louis wore black. He walked across the sand in fatigues and combat boots. POLICIA was embroidered across the back of his shirt in yellow letters. He looked out at the sea. The River Styx approached from the east. “Let’s go, ladies!” said Louis. Charlie and Omar emerged from a hut with a wooden crate on rope handles between them. They loaded it onto the helicopter. They wore Policia uniforms like Louis. Fausto and Dionisio crouched in the sand. Fausto painted tiger stripes of green camo-stick across Dionisio’s face. He flipped the tube over then filled in the empty spaces with black. “Why are you doing this, Dionisio?” “He took something precious from me.” “Hey there, killer, let’s get you tightened up,” said Louis. Fausto handed Louis the camo-stick. Louis’ face was perfectly camouflaged. He filled in the empty spaces on Fausto’s face with black. “A dying man has nothing to lose, daddy?”

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A formation of pelicans glided above the breaking waves. The River Styx killed her engines 100 meters offshore. One of El Profe’s men climbed into the zodiac and started the engine. “Not now, son.” The Zodiac hit the beach behind them. It skidded to a stop. Dionisio and Omar pulled it up the sandy bank. “Who is Persephone really, daddy?” “She’s your sister.” “Let’s go!” said Omar. Charlie and Dionisio held onto the guide ropes of the zodiac. A wave crashed, dragging them back into the shallows. Louis and Fausto ran to the boat. The helicopter took off in a cloud of sand and spray.

**** El Profe and Persephone crossed the dining hall. Men donned plastic crusader helmets and followed them down a passageway to a stairwell. They descended deeper into the mountain. At the end of the passageway was a chamber. Candles burned. A camera sat on a tripod. Industrial lights added to the illumination. The room filled with El Profe’s knights templar. Persephone looked to El Profe. “What is this?” said Persephone. “Don’t worry. Just stay close to me.” A señora, another woman in perhaps her late twenties, and a man in boxer shorts and a t-shirt were led into the room. Their hands were bound behind their backs. 202


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**** The River Styx pressed on towards Punta Ballena through the darkness. Inside the cabin, tactical lights glowed red. Fausto chambered a round into an M-16 A3 service rifle. The men looked from one to another with hard glances. Charlie turned to Fausto. “What am I supposed to do again?” “Just stay close to me,” said Fausto. **** El Profe held Persephone’s hand for support. Ranks of Knights Templar stood behind them. The cameraman removed his plastic helmet and focused the camcorder. He gave El Profe a thumb’s up. El Profe cleared his throat. He pointed at the lens. “You evil demon. I have seen the video on the internet,” said El Profe. “That was my mother, cabrón! To do such... such evil things... so now I will show you your mother, your sister and your cuñado you bastard.” “Don’t do this,” said Persephone. El Profe squeezed her hand tighter. Tears ran down his cheeks. “Do it now,” said El Profe. The man with the duct tape nodded. ****

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“Do it now,” said Fausto. Charlie cranked the throttle on the zodiac’s engine. Louis, Dionisio and Omar crouched in the bow of the boat. They donned gas masks. The helicopter flew above them. It headed towards the shore. It fired a rocket. On the beach, a group of wealthy tourists strolled along the oceanfront. A man watched them from one the balconies of a massive white beach house. He wore a black cowboy hat and gauze wrapped around his head. He carried a 9mm. pistol. The man lit a Delicado cigarette. A loud pop caused everyone to look up. A cloud of smoke engulfed the shore. The sound of coughing echoed down the coast. Laughter rose to the night sky. Tourists disrobed. The zodiac skidded onto the sand. People danced nude in the moonlight and smoke. “The colors are free!” said a naked man, “They’re giving em’ away!” He dove into the water. “This is the end,” sang a well groomed blonde woman with glazed eyes, “beautiful friend-” Louis bumped the woman’s shoulder as he ran past her. He led the charge onto the property. Fausto followed his father through the smoke. They burst through a side door, into the kitchen. “En la boca llevarás...” sang the chef. He drummed on the granite counter top like congas. Olive oil and garlic sizzled, unattended on the range behind him. Louis and his fire team ran past, into the hall to a staircase.

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“Daddy look out!” Gunfire erupted from the top of the stairs. They fell back towards the kitchen returning fire. Rounds peppered the walls. Glass shattered. The banister splintered. Louis charged the staircase with his rifle blazing. Black cowboy hats dropped in the smoke. A pistolero squeezed the trigger of his pistol one last time. Louis took a round to the stomach. “Move!” said Louis, “This way!” Louis ran down the second floor corridor. Fausto caught up with him at a full sprint. Fausto pulled a BZ grenade from his h-harness and threw it into the hall ahead of them. The second floor filled with smoke. Gunfire erupted downstairs. Fausto, Louis, and Charlie charged the double doors at the end of the hallway. They burst into the master bedroom. A handsome man in a green t-shirt, dog tags and boxers stood in the middle of the room. His eyes were glazed. His hair was shaved high and tight. “I am not afraid of you or your gasses, old man,” he said, coughing. “Fausto, down!” said Charlie. He fired his rifle. A pistolero fell in the doorway behind them. “Good looking out, Charlie!” Fausto aimed at a cowboy hat creeping through the smoke near the sliding glass doors of the balcony. He fired a warning shot. “Get on the ground!” The man dropped his pistol. He crouched and fell into a fit of coughing. Dried blood stained the gauze wrapped around his head. Fausto inched closer to him.

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Charlie grabbed the pistol from the floor and tucked it into his belt. Louis zip-tied the handsome man’s wrists behind his back. “Let’s go!” said Louis. Fausto pointed his rifle at the cowboy on the floor. The cowboy looked up at Fausto. “No mames güey, you mutilated me! Now you return to kill me, cabrón?!” Outside the windows, Louis and Charlie ran across the lawn, back towards the beach with the handsome man between them. Fausto ran for the doorway. “Baboso,” said the cowboy. Fausto ran down the hall. “Fausto, quickly!” said Dionisio, “grab his other arm!” He struggled to lift Omar to his feet at the bottom of the staircase. “Leave me here,” said Omar. His chest heaved. His shirtfront was soaked. His gas mask was completely fogged up. “Get your ass up!” said Fausto. He pulled Omar’s arm over his shoulder. “On your feet! Now!” “I like you, Fausto,” said Omar. Blood showed at the corners of his mouth. They ran through the kitchen. Black smoke billowed. Fire alarms blared. Flames licked at the ceiling from the grease fire burning on the stove. A braid of garlic ignited on the wall. Fausto and Dionisio burst 206


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through the side door, into the night air, coughing and gasping for breath. They threw their gas masks to the ground. They ran across the lawn dragging Omar between them. “Charlie!” screamed Fausto. Louis shoved the handsome man into the zodiac at the shoreline. “Come on, boy!” Charlie ran back to help them. “Hurry!” said Charlie, “they’ll get us all!” “He’s right,” said Omar, “just put me-” They tripped. All three men slid across the ground. Dionisio pulled Omar onto his back. He rose to a knee. Fausto scrambled for their weapons at the edge of the sand. “Fausto hurry!” said Charlie, running up. Dionisio took Charlie’s hand. He tried to stand. A gunshot echoed. Charlie’s head exploded from the devastating impact. His body pitched backwards onto the sand. Rounds impacted all around. Dionisio low crawled across the sand. Two more rounds struck Omar in the back. “No!!!” said Fausto. He rolled onto his back and returned fire at the balcony of the white beach house, screaming at the top of his lungs. Rounds impacted. Fragments of plaster rained down the cowboy. He dove back inside the upstairs bedroom. Smoke and gas fumes engulfed the coast. Flames rose to the sky. Dionisio and Fausto sprinted to the zodiac. Fausto cranked the throttle. The boat cut a wake across the bay. Punta Ballena burned like Hades

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behind them. Naked people danced on the sand. They frolicked in the streets and on balconies, oblivious to the chaos. “Not so easy, was it, cabrón?” said the handsome man. He bounced on the deck of the zodiac between Louis and Dionisio’s feet. Dionisio socked the man in the mouth. “A lot easier than you’d think there, Rico Suave,” said Louis. He fell over sideways. “Daddy?!” “He’s hit!” said Dionisio. He applied pressure to Louis’ abdomen with a t-shirt. “Get us to shore, Fausto, quickly!” Fausto rounded the point of Misiones del Cabo at full throttle. He gunned it towards the arc lights of Playa Médano. **** “Please,” said Persephone, “show some mercy. Tomorrow is Easter. If you claim to be-” “Someone will pay for what he has done to me,” said El Profe. “If someone must pay, let it be the cuñado but let the women go free,” said Persephone. “Why me?” said the brother-in-law, “Oh god, don’t do this!” “That’s not enough,” said El Profe. “How much is enough?” said Persephone. “Alright, the cuñado,” said El Profe. He walked to the camcorder and pressed the pause button. “But only if you do it for me yourself.” “Do what myself?” “Remove the head from his body.” Persephone backed away. “I won’t do that.” “Yes, you will,” said El Profe, “And after you do it I will let you go free. I give you my word.” 208


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“You just gave Fausto your word that if he brought you your enemy I would go free.” “But what if Fausto is unsuccessful?” Persephone looked at the trembling man in the blindfold, boxers and socks. “Please don’t kill my husband,” said the blindfolded woman. “Don’t kill any of us.” “Consider it your own way out of this cave tonight should Fausto fail,” said El Profe. “I can’t.” “I will help you,” said El Profe. He whispered in the ear of one of his knights. The man drew a pistol and pointed it at Persephone’s head. “It will make it easier for you. If there is a gun to your head then you will have no choice. You can do this.” El Profe nodded to the cameraman. He pushed the record button. The man with the duct tape duct taped the cuñado’s neck. Another man placed a hacksaw in Persephone’s hands. “Are we rolling?” said El Profe. “Si Señor.” El Profe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He looked into the lens and pointed. “You evil demon. I have seen the video on the internet!” **** Fausto helped Louis up the rusty iron ladder to the concrete patio of Dionisio’s swimming pool. Dionisio chained the Zodiac back into place against the cove wall. The handsome man was hogtied on his side on the deck of the boat. Dionisio stretched the canvass cover over the top of the boat and secured it with a padlock.

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Fausto and Dionisio ran up the observation corridor lined with windows. They dragged Louis, limping between them. They rushed through the living room, out the front doors to the black Cadillac. Fausto helped Louis into the backseat. The sky turned predawn-pink. Dionisio returned with the handsome man. They locked him in the trunk. The black Cadillac Fleetwood glided down the two-lane highway. Cactus stretched on for an eternity in all directions. The Pacific coastline appeared then disappeared again. The Cadillac rolled on, cresting another hill. Fausto drove. Dionisio applied pressure to Louis’ stomach in the backseat. Louis sat up. “Daddy, wait! You have to lie down.” “Boy, I’ve got this. Ain’t like I’ve never been shot before.” “Louis,” said Dionisio. Louis took out a cigarette and lit it with a USMC zippo. “How far are we from Los Barriles?” “Under an hour,” said Fausto. “Let’s get her done then,” said Louis. “No mames güey,” said the handsome man from inside the trunk. “I’ll kill everyone you have ever known in your life, Old Man!” “You know you’ve got a foul mouth on you there, Miguel.” “How much is he paying you, Louis?!” “Louis, darling, you’re bleeding everywhere!” said Dionisio. “How is Persephone my sister, daddy?” Fausto looked up in the rearview mirror. “Aw christ,” said Louis. He exhaled with a cloud of smoke, “I better lie down.” Louis slid back against Dionisio. He closed his eyes. Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday) 0600 hrs.

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The sky glowed beyond the peaks of the Sierra Laguna. The highway turned inland, winding through the desert. The Cadillac passed shrine after roadside shrine.

**** Persephone sat on a lounge chair on the rear deck of the superyacht. A blanket covered her shoulders. She held a cup of coffee between both hands. Her fingertips were stained. She trembled. Her hair blew in the breeze. Persephone stared out over the ship’s wake, towards the sun rising above the Sea of Cortez. El Profe sat down beside her. He sipped an espresso then placed the cup and saucer on the deck between his feet. “How can you live with such horror?” said Persephone. “It is horrible,” said El Profe, “I have dreams you could not even imagine. I wake up screaming like Dante sometimes.” Persephone looked at El Profe. She closed her eyes then covered her mouth with one hand. She ran for the guardrail and vomited overboard. “Why did you do this to me?” she said, coughing. El Profe caressed Persephone’s back. He gathered her hair into a ponytail and held it for her. When Persephone’s stomach was empty she continued to heave and scream silently over the guardrail. Her tears fell to the sea. “Los Barriles!” shouted a man from the spotting tower.

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The superyacht headed towards the shore.

**** The Cadillac descended into the fishing village of Los Barriles. It passed the country club. A cloud of dust trailed behind them. Fausto followed the dirt road to its end. A Palapa-roofed restaurant sat on the beach. Fan palms blew in the breeze. “Doña Meche makes a seafood pasta alfredo, boy,” said Louis. His face was covered in sweat in the backseat. “So damn good it makes you want to cry.” “We’re here,” said Fausto. All of the chairs at Doña Meche’s sat upside down on the tabletops. The superyacht dropped anchor in deep water, offshore. “Go and get her boy,” said Louis, “I’ll stay back with the gear.” Dionisio and Fausto nodded. They walked side by side over the sand, unarmed. A dingy motored towards the shore. On the hillside behind them, a caravan of Cadillac Escalades descended into the valley. “Fausto-” “Thank you,” said Fausto, “you’ve been true friend. No matter what happens-” “Forget about it, darling. I had my reasons.” El Profe and Persephone climbed from the boat. Five men in Ralph Lauren with automatic rifles followed behind them. They walked up the beach towards Fausto and Dionisio. Cadillac Escalades filled the dirt road in front of Doña Meche’s. A multitude of armed men climbed from the vehicles. Louis dialed a phone number and pressed the send 212


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button. He dropped his cell phone to the floor and kicked it under the seat. “I like you, Fausto,” said El Profe walking up, “You said you would be here and here you are, on time.” “How you doing, Seph?” said Fausto. “This is no longer concerns Persephone,” said El Profe. He opened his arms. Persephone hesitated then carefully embraced him. “Cuidate mucho,” said El Profe. “Goodbye,” said Persephone. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and walked right past Fausto towards the black Cadillac. Men moved out of her way. “I don’t understand,” said Fausto. “Where is he?” said El Profe. “In the trunk,” said Dionisio. “Fair is fair,” said El Profe. He waved a hand overhead. The passenger door of one of the SUVs opened. A handsome young man with black curly hair climbed from the vehicle. He ran to Dionisio. They embraced. Everyone walked towards Louis’ Cadillac. “Daddy needs a doctor fast,” said Fausto, “He’s been shot.” “If El Sapo is in that trunk you may have anything you want,” Sirens wailed. Police vehicles were followed by armored personnel carriers. Humvees, carrying Mexican army troops raced down the dirt road. Shots erupted. People scattered. El Profe retreated to the boat and speeded toward the superyacht. His knights templar fought it out with the police and military on the beach, exchanging automatic weapons fire. Persephone, Dionisio, and the young curly haired man piled into the Fleetwood. “Papa!” said Persephone. Fausto fired up the engine. “Everybody get your heads down!” He removed his t-shirt, threw the tranny into reverse and floored the gas 213


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pedal. The Cadillac rocketed back up the road towards the police barricade. Fausto waved the white t-shirt outside the driver’s side window. Shots fired. The rear window exploded. Fausto slammed on the brakes. “We’re unarmed!” shouted Fausto. He waved the t-shirt outside the window again. “Give me the goddamned phone!” said Louis, “It’s under the seat.” Dionisio found it and gave it to Louis. It was still on a call. Louis placed it to his ear. “Roberto, it’s me!” said Louis. “Let us through, damnit. Alright son, let’s go. Back her up real slow.” Fausto backed the Cadillac to the military barricade. A colonel in the Mexican army leaned into the backseat window. “No mames, cabrón,” said the colonel. “I’m hit, Roberto,” said Louis. “We gotta get him to a hospital!” said Fausto. The colonel looked around the interior of the car with suspicion. “Please!” said Persephone. “Ándale pues,” said the colonel, “Get him out of here. Pinche viejo. Thanks for calling us, compadre.” “Thank you, compadre,” said Louis. Fausto drove past the barricade. They raced up the hill to the carretera. The black Cadillac Fleetwood glided down the two-lane highway. Cactus stretched on for an eternity in all directions. Vultures circled overhead. The Pacific coastline appeared then disappeared again. The 214


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Cadillac rolled on, cresting another hill. It took the off ramp for the los Cabos airport then pulled over onto the dirt shoulder. Louis handed Fausto a locker key. “There’s money and three plane tickets. I won’t be needing mine,” said Louis. The young man with the curly hair climbed into the driver’s seat. He shut the door. “Daddy-” “I just wanted to see you both together, just one time,” “Louis-” “Now get out here before we all go to jail,” said Louis, “Don’t worry, Adonis here will take good care of me.” “Goodbye, Fausto.” Dioniso kissed Fausto on the forehead. He embraced Persephone then climbed into the passenger’s seat. The Cadillac peeled out. It roared down the highway, away from them. Persephone and Fausto stood in a cloud of dust staring at one another.

**** Louis sat in the backseat of the Cadillac. A tear rolled down his cheek. “Don’t worry, darling, we are almost there,” said Dionisio. Louis took out a cigarette and Fausto’s USMC lighter. “Radio!” said Louis, “what kind of half-assed extraction is this anyway?” Dionisio turned on the stereo. Guitars played. Louis looked out the window. He exhaled with a cloud of smoke.

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On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air Cactus blurred by, outside the open window. Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light “No mames güey,” said the handsome man from inside the trunk. “Don’t think this makes us even, Old Man!” Louis felt the wind on his face. He smiled. My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim I had to stop for the night... Louis closed his eyes. The black Cadillac Fleetwood drove down the desert highway. It passed shrine after roadside shrine.

El Fin

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The Expatriate

Stephen Richter

Stephen Richter

twenty-two degrees  

Twenty-two degrees north is the latitude of Los Cabos, Mexico and the setting of the two stories that comprise the novel. First is The Expat...

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