To read Chapter 21 click here
Even before I went to prison, I knew what it felt like to be a prisoner. It's true that none of the floor to ceiling windows that artfully graced the south wall of studio apartment 4F had bars over them. Nobody tried to stop me at the door. There is a sense in which I could have just walked away. But in another sense, it's just as true that I had nowhere else to go. Some combination of my recent isolation in the mountains, Chespy's unapologetic violence, and the military atmosphere of the highways served to close down my vision; everything felt heavy and inescapable as I let myself into my new accommodations. Standing in the doorway, I had the overwhelming sensation of being hunted, like I could hear the horns and the baying of dogs somehow getting closer. The decor of the condo didn't help. I like the color gray; the living room in my last home was a study in gray scale. But this place - the entire building - seemed to have been decorated by a chromatic atheist. The lobby was draped in at least three shades of what might have been gray, rimulose travertine. The artfully stained and pitted concrete walls displayed what looked like imitation Rothkos, save that there wasn't the slightest hint of color, just eery, slightly out of focus geometries fading from black to white. Even the manager that handed me the key to 4F was wearing a light dove gray suit. I guess this is what passed for someone's modernist vision, but the actual vibe was more new-age bomb shelter meets stage IV melanoma. I couldn't avoid thinking that this was some mad interior designer's attempt to bash me upside the head with the affect heuristic.
The umbral scheme leaked into 4F, though there might have been some intrusions of color if there had been more furniture in the place. The living room looked more like a pantomime of a home than anything you'd care to live in, with only a single upholstered easy chair, a television mounted on a wall, and some empty bookshelves. The attached kitchen had most of the usual accessories plus a small table. I looked inside both the dishwasher and the refrigerator. The smell of long-chain monomers wafted out of the latter, but not even the slightest ghostly aroma of meals long past. Still, none of the stuff looked brand new, just sort of lightly used, as if this was a place for short stays. The bedroom consisted of a steel bed and a black, Ethan Allen-ish looking chest of drawers. The closet was empty save for a few forlorn hangers. I was relieved to find a stacked washer/drier combo in a small washroom just off the kitchen. My clothes hadn't been washed save by hand in two months, and I was pretty sure that they were rancid enough to qualify as a personal defense system.
Whoever might have once stayed here, the place was completely devoid of any of the accouterments of modern life: there was no soap, food or cleaning supplies; no vacuum cleaner or extra light bulbs for the overhead track lighting; no telephone or plates. Aside from the furniture, the only item of consequence I was able to locate was a thick envelope set in the exact center of the kitchen table. It had "Rudy" written on it in black ink, confirming, at least, that I was where someone wanted me to be. When I peeled it open I found 15,000 pesos, around 1,300 dollars US at the time. I sat staring at the money for a few minutes before my desire for a shower wrestled my conscience into submission. I took 3,000 pesos and left the building, looking for a deposito or a Famsa. It didn't take me long to find a generic equivalent of the latter, and I was able to pick up some food, detergent, paper plates and cups, sheets, and a variety of other necessities. The teller seemed to be very studiously averting her eyes from me as she rung up my purchases. I tried to tell myself it was because of my rough appearance, but I secretly wondered if maybe my contact with Chespy had somehow left a sort of stain on me that natives could recognize. I wanted to smile at her but I felt that somehow this would only make things worse.
My first hot shower in months evoked the kinds of sentiments Marvell wrote poetry about. I stayed under the steaming spray until my skin puckered, and then I stayed some more. I spent twenty minutes hacking my Old Testament beard down to a trim goatee, regretting all the while that I hadn't bought a machete along with the razors. I started my first of many loads of wash and then retired with a glass of jugo de toronja to the windows that looked down on the street. Evening fell, and when the glass finished turning into a mirror I went and turned the lights off.
This was clearly a fairly prosperous neighborhood. Very urban, it consisted mostly of residential buildings, but there were at least half a dozen storefronts scattered along each block, such that there was light but consistent foot traffic well into the night. Doormen occasionally walked out to open doors of taxis, people walked their dogs; it could have been any side street in any major city in the west, from this view. But it wasn't any other city, and the longer I observed, the more I noticed certain details that hinted at a city at conflict. The four story building directly across the street had an obviously recently constructed security gate that spanned the front of the property; the cement that anchored the immense steel posts was of a much lighter shade than that of the rest of the sidewalk. The adjacent structure to the west had aftermarket security coverings on all of the windows, even the oddly-shaped lancet ones on the third floor. A woman and her child walked quickly, hand in hand, the parent checking behind her every fifty feet or so. The violence was only just starting in Monterrey; some would actually look back on 2005 as a good year soon, though that information would have shocked everyone at the time, considering the already overflowing morgue. Outrage about a few murders per diem would slowly morph into a stunned sort of silence as the machine guns, grenades, and anti-tank rockets came out to play, in this war that precluded any opportunity for valor or meaningful sacrifice. I think that is what quietly irked so many, that the decent and strong couldn't ever figure out how to expend their energies on anything positive that pushed the balance back towards something approaching civilization. There can't be any heroes when evil melts into existence, shoots a dozen people in the back just to kill one target, and then effervesces back into the concrete. It felt like a war, but there was no localized battlefield, just a constant field of conflict that extended everywhere, at any hour. The people became prisoners of war who could not escape to greener pastures, because an empty field could be just as dangerous as a crowded marketplace. There is no possible voyage when war is universal - no exit.
And I was sliding my way slowly into participation. I didn't want this, but I didn't know how to separate myself from it, either. It seemed like this was always going to be my destiny, from the first moment I had been deposited on the Hammer's doorstep. It took me a very long time to fall asleep that night.
I woke early the next day and made some eggs, chorizo, and cheese tacos. Not knowing what else to do I turned on the television. Someone had already paid for a Sky package, so I flipped to the BBC and tried to catch up on how humanity had been faring in these early days of the Great Anthropocene Extinction Event. The war in Iraq sputtered on, though it was just starting to dawn on the neocons that no wayward and fortuitous Marine platoon in Basra was finally going to stumble upon a hidden WMD lab. Battered Humvees and smart-bombed houses assaulted me, a sort of malefic chorus that seemed to harmonize with the world outside my own windows. This depressed me more than silence so I moved the armchair to a point where I could watch the street. I was startled out of my reverie at just past 8:30am when I heard someone placing a key into the door. I had just enough time to stand up before the door swung open and a man crossed the threshold.
It took me half a second to place him, because on the past occasions when we'd spent time together he'd been wearing his norteno camouflage, not the simple three button black suit he sported now. He was carrying an assortment of plastic bags in each hand that he battled with as he removed the key from the door and kicked it closed. He shot me an immense smile when he saw me backlit by the window.
"Wolf," I nodded a greeting.
"Hey...you," he responded curtly. "What are we calling you now?"
"Mexican ID or Canadian one?"
He smiled and crinkled his nose in response, as he hefted the bags up on the kitchen table. "We should just call you el Sinnombre. Never heard that used as an apodo before."
“The Nameless," I translated. "Sounds appropriately spooky." I watched as he removed a series of eggshell blue disposable plastic containers. A rich medley of aromas quickly rose to meet me, and despite having already eaten breakfast, my stomach perked up. Lobo noticed my interest.
"Question: when was the last time you broke your fast with anything besides
"Ah,” I reflected. "I honestly have no idea. That's pretty much the option in Cerralvo. I ate breakfast about three hours ago. Want to guess what I made?"
He laughed. "Breakfast tacos."
"Mexico is getting to you."
"Viva la Republica, and so forth," I called out as I brought some paper plates from the kitchen.
"I love my family. Don't get me wrong. But I was born here in the city, and I find it easier to breath here, even with the smog so thick you can carve your initials in the air. I can't sleep well without the sound of angry taxis."
“Really? You seemed pretty comfortable at Gelo's little shindig," I said aloud, thinking back to the day when I witnessed the transfer of...something... from a souped up Chevy Nova to a truck, not to mention the day we spent together at the coyuntura.
"One has to, shall we say, put in an appearance from time to time. But the life here in the city is more appropriate to me. And here, we don't eat tacos for breakfast." He began to open the containers. The first two contained French style crepes with fresh strawberries and a small container of what looked to be maple syrup. The third was piled high with spinach, ham, mushroom, and cheese quiche, the fourth Belgian waffles. It went on from there, an enormous quantity of food for two people.
"I knew I liked you for some reason," I remarked as I dug into a quiche. It was one of the best things I'd eaten in a very long time. As I ate, I watched Lobo. I had known for some time that he was an attorney specializing in real estate transactions, and that his manners were more refined than the rest of the Hammer's crew. But now, seeing him in his element, I began to see what I was doing here.
"You know it was Chespy who dropped me off?" I asked offhandedly, casually scanning his facial topography.
His brows arched. "No...I did not," he admitted, and if he was lying, he was doing a fine job of it. "I was simply told that you would be here. That man.. ." He paused vacantly. "It would be better for all of us if you maintained some distance from him. He‘s not...stable."
"You say that as if I'd been given any choice. Surely you know I've been herded here like one of the mountain goats I so recently befriended."
"Goats? Really? Where the demonios did they...no, I don't want to know," he said, waving a leaden hand. "Rudy, surely you know that you must find some occupation, if you are to stay here. We all must work. We all must find our place."
"I was working. Construction, delivering muebles. Surely Don Rogelio told you."
"Si, making what? 1000 pesos a week?"
"700," I smiled grimly.
"For how many hours?"
"Around 55 or 60."
"700 pesos," he repeated. "That's a dollar an hour, more or less. You understand that the people who make this in Cerralvo, they do not...look, the houses they own, their cars, most of the money the live on, this money does not come from their sueldos. Most of them get money from family in los Estados Unidos. Or they have family they send to Monterrey to work in the factories. Or they run contraband or do jobs for the narcos. Nobody who lives in even a small house and drives a beat-up old wreck of a car survives on what you are making. Nobody."
I nodded as if I already knew this, though I had not. It made sense, though. Even with the weekly pay, I had never stopped eating into my reserves. I flailed about mentally for some way of avoiding the truth of just how bad my position was. Finally, spent, I turned to Lobo and looked him in the eyes. "I don't want any of this. You may be right about everything, but that doesn't change anything. I don't want this life." He didn't say anything, so I continued "Look outside. Gelo's told me enough about the old days to know that things are changing. Even Chespy made a comment about the inmates taking over the asylum. Don't tell me that more than half of what you saw in Aldama didn't trouble you. I was there. I was watching you more than anything else."
He didn't respond for a time as he buttered a scone. Setting this down on his plate, he looked momentarily dejected. Pursing his lips, he removed his eyeglasses. "You are correct on...the state of things. Mira, you were never for the soda, I told Rogelio this and he said he agreed, that he had known for a very long time. You have seen some of his family. He has workers. But today...very few groups like ours work alone. There are just too many specialized skillsets and gear to do things in a vacuum. It used to be, all you needed was a truck and a little backbone, and you could make money. Now it's all...steganography and straw purchasers." He squinted at my surprised expression. "Don't ask, because I don't know. I was supposed to learn this first thing months ago and it's beyond me. I am not a programmer. Beyond this, you know Gelo's needs?"
His question seemed like a test, one that I wondered if I ought to fail intentionally. But you have to know the right answer to be effective at this, and I didn't have a clue. Finally, I took a stab in the dark. "His problem is money."
"Everyone's problem is money. Be more specific."
"I wondered for several months about Gelo's real estate fixation. Every time he drove me somewhere, he was pointing out another home he owned, another field, another business. He told me he had other places, both along the frontera and here in the city. I'm guessing this is one of them?" I asked, and finally el Lobo nodded. "He doesn't spend much on his clothes. He doesn't wear jewelry, and he won't allow his kin to wear any. Yet he built a church within walking distance of his house, to save his wife the effort of having to go to the big one downtown. When you told me what you did professionally, I figured out he has real limitations on how he can safely spend his money. You give him an umbrella to buy land. He feels safe with this. He's limited elsewhere."
"You touch on something," he acknowledged. "Though I think you underestimate his powers a little. He could spend money on clothes and...trinkets...if it pleased him. But when it comes to starting genuine businesses, he has always had to stay small. The...oh, the taquerias and tallers are not a problem. No one of consequence regulates this, especially in Nuevo Leon. Especially if the PRIistas stay in power. But others..." he paused, thinking over his words. "The day we first met, you left with him, after the business was done. Did he say anything about what was in the trailer?"
I thought back over the months. "Furniture. Some style from Michoacán, I think he said." Lobo seemed to be wanting more, so I continued. "He said that he had set up companies in the States to sell the legitimate cargo. Or that he had someone set them, someone he called the manosos." I could see that this somewhat surprised the man, I so settled back into my chair.
"Interesting," he said at last. "These people, these 'clever ones,' they are accountants, specialists. Lawyers," he took a faux bow. "We are people with professional skills, people that figured out we could make twenty times the money working for the cartels than for legitimate businesses. When we first tried to purchase a negocio to distribute some of our legal materials, it was a disaster. A disaster that was completely my fault. No, no," he pushed his plate away. "We all must know the limits of our abilities, and I didn't know what I was doing. I know my way about America. I went to study there for several years when NAFTA was being drafted. I was not born there like you or el Topo, and I will never be comfortable with your laws. I made mistakes that even a first year law student would have noticed. So we reached out to the people Gelo knew...upstairs. They sent me to a man, an attorney, in el DF. He was an American. I spent several weeks with him, and he taught me about many things, especially shell companies. You know this term?"
"Sort of. Like a business that's strictly legal. Like it's all on paper."
"Well...some are like this, yes. Not all. Generally they exist to be used for a variety of financial maneuvers. You keep them around so you can make fast decisions and still maintain some degrees of separation between you and what you are transacting. In any sane system they would be illegal, but of course only rich people know how to deploy them, and rich people make the laws. This American, he used his firm to staff thousands of Boards, all in shell companies based out of Delaware. He was very big on Delaware, couldn't stop talking about the favorable environment there. Panama as well. Cyprus. The Seychelles. Other places. But mostly Delaware. He charged his clients immense fees for this service. But he was a big fish, and we are small. Before the furniture, we shipped the product in petrochemical equipment. I found some favorable laws in Montana and Nevada, so that is where I based my own shells. Fortunately, I have not needed to start any since those initial few dozen, and I have not done this sort of work in many years. Those entities still function for our small needs." He folded his napkin and leaned back in his seat. "To do more, we would have needed someone local, someone who was comfortable in those environments, maybe even in a courtroom, someone that-"
"Someone like me," I interrupted.
"I don't know," he responded. "Truly, I do not know all of Gelo's plans. I think if things were more stable, then yes, something like that. Not for some years. You would first need to go to school, get the necessary certifications and licenses, have some work done to your face." I must have looked skeptical because he smirked. "You think Rogelio doesn't have the patience or the money to send you to university? Who else would do it? Can you imagine someone like Edelmiru going to class with a bunch of teenagers? Or el Mochaorejas walking into a government office in Nevada? Can you even imagine him in a suit and tie? Of course not. They would be a suspect in something before the door swung closed behind them. But you, you could do it. It is obvious that you come from some money. No," he insisted as I started to correct him. "It's not something that can be washed away. We who live in the shadows of a land comfortable with power and privilege are very sensitive to the presence of such. You still do not understand the effect this has on Mexicans, especially those graspers and social climbers that pepper the government here. They may stand foresquare and permanently for whatever anti-Americanism is favored by the public on occasion, but when Uncle shows up, they simper like the rest of your favored pets."
"And you want me for this? Maybe I'd be an awful...plutocrat. That's what you want me for? To exude status? That can't be enough to get done the things you want completed."
"We don't know what you are useful for specifically, only that it is both too expensive and increasingly difficult to rely on the experts of more powerful men. Gelo thinks it is past time that we groom a few more of our own. Maybe it's to replace me when I retire. If I had to guess, it's the intercambios he wants, finally."
"The interc...the pawn shops?" I let slip before thinking about my words. I'd seen the places all over town, and used several of them to change dollars into pesos. They seemed to offer a variety of services, everything from banking to Western Union transfers, money orders, and plenty of space to pawn valuable items for short-term loans. Some of the nicer ones had a jewelry and tech section that rivaled department stores. Suddenly I saw their value. For some reason, I'd never thought much of them before. "Money laundering, of course. Tons of cash, gold, silver. Better than a strip club, I'd bet."
"Much better," he confirmed. "But highly regulated by both the thieves in el DF and locally by a guild. Gelo has been wanting in that game for years, but who does he have that could do that sort of work, besides me? And I'd never pass their screens anyway. Edgar? The only thing he can count is the women he wants to sleep with. Miriam could do it, but she's too young and the Senora would literally kill Gelo if he put his daughter in that part of the business. El Cachas? He'd terrify the clientele too bad, they wouldn't even come in the door. We think we know someone that could train you on how to clean the money, beyond what we already know. If this is in fact what Gelo wants for you. Ask him to tell you about the Puerto Rican. El Lotto, se llama,"
I stood up and walked to the windows, looking down on the street. I was sorely tempted by this offer. If I was going to make it down here, I needed a real profession. The more I saw of the world of the narcos, the less impressed I was. All of the violence, the glorification of the way of the psychopath - none of it called to me. But money laundering touched on a streak of fiscal libertarianism that ran deep. Everything in Mexico could be grabbed by using money or influence in a manner that was only a semiotic shade away from outright theft; why shouldn't I do the same, when the only victim would be the government, who was intending to rob the money anyways? There was an argument, I realized, that depriving them of funds might actually reduce the total net corruption, though I suspected that I was merely engaging in the sort of creative rationalizations that the Hammer wanted to pay me for. Still, it was almost a Robin Hood-esque offer, one that would keep me relatively safe and away from people like Chespy. There are some rather glaring holes in this logic, I know. But hindsight wisdom is the cheapest of complacencies, and I really didn't have any better options.
I turned around to watch Lobo for a moment. My decision would have been easier if he'd looked more appropriately Mephistophelean; why these people refused to take to their villainous roles with old-fashioned Basil Rathbone hauteur annoyed me immensely. But he didn't look evil. I hadn't read Hannah Arendt by this point, so I didn't really know what to think about the fact that he looked more like your average weary, middle-grade professional than an active and central participant in a criminal enterprise. Except for his eyes, maybe. They knew things, and like so many people down here, he kept his eyes on you even when he laughed. I still wasn't sure why they called him Lobo. These nicknames generally had some connection to the person's identity, and I wondered what was so wolf-like about him. He was sort of lean in a way that could potentially be described as lupine if one were attempting to be poetic. His suit was decent but definitely not high-end, and despite his attempts at refinement, it was obvious to me that he had moved up in the world. How did I know this? It was inherent in the words he chose, the button collars and slightly scuffed shoes that had been resoled at least once, the atmosphere of beta he exuded from his pores. Would I have trusted him at first glance, if I walked into his office? Probably not. Neither would I have bought a used car from him. I began to see what he meant by presence.
"No guns? You promise me this?" I asked finally.
"I can promise nothing. I am patron of my office only. But I can promise that Gelo is never wasteful, and asking you to fill in for one of his soldiers would be stupid. I myself have never been involved in that sort of thing."
I turned back to the window. There were basically three options here, I reflected. Accept, deny, or accept with the option to walk away if I didn't like what I saw. I suspected that none of the Hammer's crew would appreciate this latter option, which is why I didn't mention it even as I chose it. I turned finally and went to sit back down at the table. "When do I start?"
The next five weeks were satisfyingly boring. For the first few days, Lobo came by my building to pick me up in his white Jetta at just past 8am. I eventually started taking the subway to save him the detour. I spent the day with him at his practice, both as student and errand boy. I was surprised to see that he worked in a space that was little better than a cubicle. I suppose I initially believed that when he said he was an attorney, he meant that this was his main occupation and that he used it as cover for his other activities. That, I discovered rather quickly, was a rather large misapprehension on my part. El Lobo worked by referral only; his name was not in the phonebook, and he had no website. All his mail went to a PO Box at a Fed-Ex store – in Guadalajara, where it was redirected by a cousin. It's likely that you couldn't have found his office even if you had wanted to give him your business. The space he led me to on that first morning was the definition of nondescript, just another pile of metal and brick that sprouted like mushrooms along the conduit of the elevated train. The elevator only functioned intermittently, so we walked up the six flights through a stairwell that was sporadically lit. I don't know who occupied the rest of the building, for the most part. It wasn't the type of place where you met to chat at the water cooler. The ground floor consisted of a number of small stores and restaurants, one of which became my regular spot for the weeks that I was employed there. One corner of the second floor was some kind of medical screening company; I don't know exactly what they did, but there were signs plastered all over the place claiming that they accepted blood donations. The rest of the building must have consisted mostly of storage space, because there were far too few people in the stairwell for there to have been many offices. The halls were painted a drab taupe-ish color and had faded acoustic tiles running along the ceiling. The faint smell of ammonia pervaded the place. The carpet was worn down and showed the underlying concrete in patches. I guessed the building was at least thirty ill-maintained years old, though it was probably considered a shitty address even immediately after having been constructed.
There wasn't any sort of plaque or legend on Lobo‘s doorway; there wasn't even an internal office number in evidence. The door opened up on a shadowy space of perhaps 250 square feet, an oddly shaped room with one long rectangular section that gave way to a small window. There was a washroom in the back that smelled like an industrial dumping site, complete with a toilet, sink, shower, and shelves containing plastic trays and bottles of various chemicals. Every bit of furniture looked to be Watergate~era government issue, and was liberally dented and scratched in all of the usual places and ways. A few light brown filing cabinets stood in one corner, next to a large desk upon which sat a single economy-level Dell computer. The south corner was taken up by a large machine I couldn't identify, next to a slanted architect's desk. A fairly recent Xerox corporate color printer completed the ensemble. It was a very Hammerish space, I decided: functional, clean, not flashy, way closer to "ugly" than anyplace you'd rather pay attention to. Still, whatever notions I had about this office being in any way normal were dispelled almost immediately when Lobo turned to me immediately after letting us through the heavy steel door.
"There are not many rules I have, but you must observe this. Look," he walked to the wall, where in the half-gloom I saw what appeared to be a series of two light switches. "You must never touch these. Ever. The lights for the office are here," he said, walking towards the desk. Out of sight down near the edge of the shelves was another set of switches. He flipped these and the office lit up in a sickly yellow light. "Second thing: do not touch the computer, unless I tell you. If, for some reason you ever have to boot this up, you must switch the plugs from this surge protector to this one." I watched as he pointed from a brand new multi-outlet to a smaller, older one that was screwed into the desk down inside the chair well. I watched as he unplugged several cords from the first and inserted them into the second. He saw my apparent interest and pointed inside the desktop's case. "Magnets, built inside. Wired to the wall switch, and to this outlet as a backup. Activate either first and everything goes away. Very strong magnets, they tell me."
"You did this?" I asked, picking up the first surge protector to give it a better look. I couldn't tell it had been altered in any way.
"No, no. I'm not a...how you say in English? Ludic? Is that right?"
"Luddite, I think."
"Yes, that. Not a word one uses very often in either language. I am not one of these, but this is beyond me. This was put together by Mickey Lunes, one of the technical people we pay the men upstairs for services. You don't know him yet, but you've seen some of his work. The Nova you saw the day we met was one of his."
"Mickey Lunes?" I asked, smiling.
"He name himself after some famous maker of smuggling boats and cars for the Columbians. Gelo met him once when he was in Florida in the bad old days, or so he says. I don't know the story, you can ask him, or ask Mickey himself. It's some kind of hero-worship; he has a copy of the man's federal indictment on his workshop's walls. It's framed," he snorted. "He does all our cars for us. Not all are so simple as the one you saw. Some of them, he puts an aluminum gas tank under the backseat, gets rid of the old one so he can extend the trunk down. He puts some kind of special shocks on the car to jack it up. You can put a half ton of whatever you want in the trunk and the car drives and looks normal."
We settled into a routine. Mostly I ran errands for him and watched how he completed certain forms. Like the men above him, Gelo sold Lobo's services to other small-time traffickers. Most of Lobo's work consisted of filing legitimate paperwork, sprinkled with small touches of forgery. He had stacks and stacks of blank paperwork from a dozen nations that he used when necessary, everything from blank vehicle titles to property deeds, legal resident cards, and all manner of IRS and Hacienda paperwork. The machine in the corner turned out to be a printing press. He only seldom used it, but he showed me how it operated. Of perhaps more interest to me was the process by which he stripped information off of old titles using the various chemicals in the bathroom. The man was essentially a one-stop shop for aged-looking documents that could flesh out real estate transfers in order to make them seem genuine. These methods were only used as a last resort, he said; generally, all you needed to do to fake a transaction was a little clever accounting. But it helped to have the equipment, just in case the history needed to be fudged a little.
I won't deny it: the work was interesting. Lobo preferred to use physical methods, but was rapidly improving in the digital realm as well. I showed him how to use IRC channels to find tons of software that he might not want to pay full price on (or any price at all, technically), and we spent a lot of time exploring Photoshop. I can't help but wonder at the techniques he has developed since. I'm certain he's having a field day with digital currencies like Bitcoin. I think I could have legitimately apprenticed under him for some time. My moral qualms were present but minor. It was only money I was manipulating, not people. No one was getting hurt but some government leeches who were already flush with stolen cash.
It was not to be. I don't know if Gelo ever really grasped how the narco-world he understood had already frayed beyond repair. He was orderly. He maintained relationships, thought long-term, minimized as much as possible his profile. His goal was to die a wealthy man and to bequeath these riches to the family he cherished. The new generation cared nothing for these things. Alliances shifted, colleagues vanished. These men sneered at honor and family; they wanted only power, now, and the thrill of its acquisition. None of them gave a damn for a long and placid life, and none of them cared about any loyalties beyond those that gave them the most exciting orders. They were drunk on the broadening chaos. I don't think Gelo ever really got that. Everything he was trying to avoid, they were running towards. If I had known the level of his misunderstanding at the time, I wouldn't have trusted in his security or his calm assurances. I probably should have known better.
Lobo and I generally ended our days around 4pm. My existence in 4F was simple, and I needed few luxuries after my time in the mountains. I might run a few errands on the way home, and usually picked up dinner somewhere along the way. Lobo encouraged me to use a different route to and from the office each day, which required me to learn a large variety of alternate and back streets. That led me to an increasing appreciation for the neighborhood. It was a vibrant urban space, and the people were kind if increasingly guarded. I dressed casually -not like a narco- but I still noticed a few sidelong glances from time to time. There were plenty of Americans in Monterrey for legitimate business reasons, though, and I wasn't too concerned about a few odd looks. The two women that cleaned the apartment once a week were so shy that they insisted on coming when I was not going to be home. There was definitely a story there, but I didn't pry.
The Friday evening that ended my employment with Lobo and the entire Ramos family enterprise was a pleasant one. April was blooming beautifully and the weather was warming nicely. I stopped off at a Pollo Loco on my way from the train and was really only thinking about a shower and dinner as I approached my building. I was about to turn towards the door when I saw Chespy's gray Land Rover parked illegally on the sidewalk of the building across the street. I stopped in my tracks. When no one exited the vehicle I walked towards it until I could see that it was empty. I gave serious thought to just walking on by and spending the evening in the Macroplaza or at a movie, but I had the feeling that he wasn't going to just go away. I found him slouched in my easy chair, the television on, my copy of Celine's Journey to the End of the Night sitting open on his lap. He gave me a sour look as I closed the door behind me. "Honey, I'm home," I said, by way of greeting.
"Dude," he waved the book around once before tossing it to the floor. "No wonder you are such a boring fuck. I read half a page of this shit and already I want to slit my wrists."
I walked to the table and set my bags down. I raised my finger in imitation of him. "One, it cost me 7 pesos. Two, I need to practice a more formal dialect of Spanish. Three, it's all about a time and place where the whole fabric of ethics, rationality, and sanity has come tumbling down. Seems fitting, somehow." I opened up my container of chicken and went to the kitchen to pull a Topo Chico from the fridge. By the time I made it back to the table Chespy had appropriated one of my legs. I moved the container to the other side of the table and sat down. "Four, you don't get to criticize my jale when you broke into my place to begin with." I eyed the duffel bag laid haphazardly behind my easy chair, hoping to whatever god happened to be listening that he wasn't going to ask to stay over for the night.
"Like anyone would break into this dump. You realize this is the most depressing building in the history of the world? What's up with all of the gray?'
"Says the guy with the gray truck."
He laughed and stole more of my chicken. "You are in luck," he said between bites. "I have come to rescue you from this evil wasteland."
"Oh," I raised a brow, already preparing my excuses.
"Some of the boys are going to an andro, have a bit of a night out. We rented out the whole upstairs deck. It will be epic, we'll have some musica, food, drinks, the girls will love you. We'll tell the whores you are some rich American looking for a compliant trophy wife to take back north. You'll have to fight them off with a baseball bat."
"You know I'm working now," I said, wiping my mouth with a napkin. "Real work. I've been told to minimize my profile. The code of los manosos, or something.
"'Real work,' he says. Technical support. That's a step up, I admit. We need our accountants. But that's not real work, kid. Nobody holds a plaza with a desk."
"I doubt you hold it without one," I answered truthfully. I'd seen enough in the past weeks to understand how Capone was finally brought down by pencil pushers. You want the money, but you can't hide it without a lot of intelligent work being deployed first.
"Whatever. Doesn't matter. There's no risk to a party. It actually helps our...public image...to be seen from time to time. Gelo thought it would be a good idea, to have you meet a few people. It will be fun. You know that word? F-U-N," he drew this last word out, as if he were talking to an idiot.
"The Hammer approved this?"
"I wouldn't be here otherwise. Seriously, go put on something that would be wildly inappropriate for a clerk." He saw me look at his bag. "Oh, I might have used your shower earlier. Funky showerhead, bro. Find a shirt that embodies the same vibe and we'll be good."
I left him watching the television, and took a shower. I spent the next twenty minutes trying to find an escape hatch to this whole mess. I figured that at worst, I could just slip away after a drink or two. I doubted he'd miss me. I still wasn't sure what his interest in me was, but I was certain it wasn't because he enjoyed my company. There was a plan here, and I needed to figure it out.
I didn't own any club attire. I'd left half of my clothes back in Cerralvo, but had saved a pair of Diesel jeans and an Emporio Armani button down shirt just in case I needed to look decent, so I removed these from their ziplock bags. I strapped the quick-release holster for my Halo onto my left forearm and then added a blue pinstripe suit jacket to the ensemble. I figured Chespy would feel this was falling short of the ideal, and I wasn't wrong.
"Dude," he moaned as he looked me over. He had changed clothes while I was in the shower, and swept his arm in an elaborate self-presentation gesture. He was draped in black from head to foot. Figures.
"This is Paul Smith," I murmured defensively, looking down at the jacket.
"It's a suit. I don't care if it's..." he pinched his nose theatrically, and for the first time I wondered if he was high. Lots of narcos used their own product, and he was acting...friendlier than he had on prior occasions. "Look, you liked the jacket I was wearing when I picked you up from the Great Nowhere? It's in the Rover. You can have it. Lose the nerdwear."
I shrugged the jacket off and threw it over the back of the chair. True to form, Chespy immediately locked his eyes on the blade. "You won't need that," he said, reaching down to pick up his duffel bag. "I brought you these!" He unzipped the bag and removed some sort of shoulder strap with two matte black pistols dangling heavily in holsters.
"I'm...fine," I stammered, backing away.
"You will be seriously underdressed without these. I'm not kidding, that club is going to be like an armory tonight. Metal detectors ten blocks down the street will go off."
"Chespy, no. I'm good without them."
He must have seen some heretofore undetected resolve in my eyes, because he dropped the guns back where they came from. "Fine, fine. I'll just leave them here, in case you ever need them. Robbers and such."
"You are the only home invader I know," I quipped, relaxing a little from the confrontation.
"Sure, sure. Except, how's that thing on your arm going to help you if-" His words barely had time to sink in before I saw him pivot towards me and lash out with his left arm. I spun into the blow, trying to catch it on my right shoulder before it could reach a full head of steam, and simultaneously jabbed out with my left fist, trying to punch through his throat. I missed badly, but the move surprised him and it gave me the time I needed to spin back and draw the Halo. The blade flicked out as I dropped into a low stance, moving towards the duffel bag so he couldn't get there first.
He nodded approvingly. "Okay, the accountant has practiced that. Good. First problem, though: that's the grip for a slicing weapon, and what you've got is primarily a piercing one. Gimme," he motioned with his right for me to hand it over. I wondered if I was handing him the weapon he would use to murder me, but Chespy laughed. "We've been over this, at the cabin, remember?" I did, and thought about how he'd just had two firearms within reach. If he'd wanted to kill me, he wouldn't have needed to ask for my blade.
"Watcha," he said as he handled the blade loosely. His grip was more forward than mine had been, looser, with his knuckles more in line with his target -me- than mine had been. "Second problem,” he listed, running his thumb along the flat edge of the knife. "This is sharp, but not sharp enough. It's got to be like a laser, man, just this devastating line of pure destruction. What's your instinctive action when someone does this?" He made a move to lunge at me, and I turned sideways to him, my hands out, eyes pinned to the blade in case I had to divert it. "No…okay, the nerd has studied a bit. But most people, they do this," he held his hands up in a sort of ugly blocking maneuver that looked more like the motion of a traffic warden than that of a fighter. "So your first move is usually something like this," he concluded with a vicious horizontal swipe with the blade. "You take the fucker's fingers off, or as many of them as you can. His hand can't grip now, so that side of his defenses are down. Yours might take a digit off right now, but you'll still leave him able to open his car door. You want it to be something you can shave with. A blade like this, you have to be tactical with it. Look, he moved forward and gripped my shoulder, and I felt his fingers dig into the muscle. "Right here? One thrust in, and your target won't be able to lift his arm up beyond his waist. Then here, and here." He went on for a few minutes, a macabre display of knowledge that left me a little nauseous. No one had ever showed me moves like this in any of the dojos I'd practiced in.
"Your left arm's not right. It's obvious the way you hold yourself. People will pick up on it. Stand like this," he showed me a stance, and I mimicked it. "Once the fun starts, you won't be able to hide it, but you only need a few seconds to end the fuck, so it won't matter. You sure you don't want the juguetes?"
"Very sure," I responded quickly.
"Motherfucking knife fighting tax man. ‘Cuts what you owe and the throats of those you give it to.’ That should be like on your card," he pretended to grumble. He was obviously enjoying himself. He handed me the blade back and turned, which is when I tried to punch him in the kidney. It wasn't a direct hit, but it was close enough. I can't really explain why I did this. It was like some need for annihilation was competing with my desire to show him that while I wasn't in his league, I still had teeth, over which was sprinkled a hefty dose of some childish response to him always bullying me around. The sort of thing you do when you are 25 and terrified. I tossed the knife away and pressed the attack. His hands blurred up and blocked me, and then he came on, using his extra 70 pounds to seize the initiative. I connected on one really good blow to his right cheek before he rained hits down on me, taking advantage of my weak left-side defense. A few years later, when I was attempting to survive the daily violence of a maximum security tank in the county jail, I showed a jujitsu practitioner some of the movements Chespy used on me. He claimed that they were a form of Krav Maga. Whatever it was, I'd practiced several arts over the years, and I'd never seen anything so brutal. He smashed his arrowed knuckles into my solar plexus and then leaned in, using my own momentum to throw me across the easy chair. I crashed down on my back, the chair landing on its side next to me.
"Little shit," Chespy laughed like a loon, sucking in huge quantities of air. I was pleased to see his teeth were red with blood.
"That better be yours," I groaned, taking stock of the various parts of my anatomy that were sending petitions for better overall management.
"I may just like you yet," he said, moving to offer me a hand. I tried to kick his knee, but just barely grazed his calf as he danced away, giggling. Whatever else you can say about him, the bastard was awfully fast for someone his size. "Unless I shoot you first. Come on, guedo. Las putas nos estan esperando! The blood will give us a mating advantage."
I lifted myself off the floor gingerly. I bent over and collected my blade and slipped it back into the holster. Chespy eyed me warily. "You done, grasshopper? Don't make me force you to wax my car, Daniel-san style."
"Yeah, I'm done, peace," I said as he angled towards the door. He deflected my punch and threw me forward. My entire visual field became the flat plane of the door, then, a second later, the ceiling.
"Ow," I admitted, feeling my nose. My hand came away dripping red gore. His laughter was maniacal. He caught my raised hand and lifted me up. My head swam a little as we left the apartment. Chespy aimed me away from the elevator and towards the stairs. I took a few feigned aggressive steps after him and he skipped down an entire flight, whooping loudly. He waited until we were in the middle of the lobby before he launched a bloody gob of mucus out on the floor. The manager behind the desk must have made a disapproving face because Chespy screamed at him to keep his “maldita hole shut."
"You should thank me for bring some fucking color into this nightmare place!" I shot the manager an apologetic glance as we left the building. It wasn't until we were at Chespy's truck that I realized he'd left the pistols in my apartment. The psycho rooted around in his backseat before throwing me the leather jacket he'd been wearing the last time I'd seen him.
"Here. I'm kind of tired of it. It's yours." I looked at the label before putting it on: Tod's of London.
"You people," I grumbled as I eased into the passenger seat.
Chespy directed the Rover into San Pedro, and then up the side of one of the mountains. l had heard that this was the wealthiest municipality in the entire nation, and the colonias we passed through made me a believer. It took me awhile before I noticed that we had left behind the more commercial areas of the city some time ago, and even longer before I said something about this.
"Got to make a stop first," he responded vaguely.
"Of course you do," I griped, not at all surprised by the arrival of the other shoe finally dropping onto my head. His total unpredictability had kept him alive for a long time, something he shared with the Hammer. I should have paid better attention to both them, in retrospect.
"Chill. I've got to talk to someone. It's a party, too, one that's probably more your speed only you are definitely not invited. You just hang out with the others. I won't be but a few minutes. Don't worry about the goons. You can stab them up if they get frisky. They're so stupid not even alcohol can find their brains." I laughed a little at this line, and tucked it away for later.
"Am I going to be the only gavacho there?" I asked, trying to fill the silence and maybe fish out a few details about our destination.
"Maybe. Hard to say. I wasn't exactly invited either, not as a guest. But it doesn't matter. We got tons of gringos, Chinese triads, a couple of motherfucking Africans, for chrissake. Now those are some mean fuckers. From Ghana , ex-military. The shit they do over there makes us look like kids arguing over sand castles at the playground. And they aren't anywhere nearly as nuts as the German. Trust me, you got the right mindset, we don't see skin. One of the advantages of being color blind."
"One of them? There are others?"
"Oh sure, I can solve one of them Rubik's cube thingies in about two seconds. Plus, I've always got an excuse for the traffic cops. Watch." Chespy gunned down on the accelerator and the Rover's engine screamed around a Mercedes sedan. He kept the pedal mashed to the floor as we flew towards the next traffic light. I said Chespy's name twice as we neared the intersection, finally clenching myself down into the seat as he blew through the very red light. I heard a horn blaring angrily behind us but the nut sitting next to me was cackling so loud it faded in comparison. He took one crazed look at me and I decided that he was definitely high.
The neighborhood gate we soon pulled up to could have stopped a tank. The group of blue-uniformed guards manning the security checkpoint had hard stares and harder weapons. Definitely not rent-a-cops. They spoke to Chespy for a moment and then one of them made a call. I watched the muscle. Each had a pistol in a holster slung midway down their thighs, and all but one wore the same type of body armor over their chests. Their eyes gave nothing away. I looked over and saw that Chespy seemed to have fostered an instantaneous hatred for the entire crew; he was grinding his teeth audibly. Some sort of alpha- dog thing, I reasoned. The guys were total pros, though, and were at least smart enough not to show any sign that might be misconstrued as hostile. Fortunately they let us through fairly quickly. Any longer, and I think Chespy might have gotten out of the Rover and challenged their practiced sangfroid. After going a few rounds with him, I wasn't sure who I would put my money on.
The neighborhood we entered consisted of only a dozen or so large lots of Sardanapalian extravagance. We wound our way up the mountain until we arrived at yet another immense gate, this one of some reddish stone I couldn't identify. Several more guards stood on the exterior side of this, though this crowd seemed to know Chespy. One of them spoke quickly into a radio and the gate slid open silently. The property on which the house sat must have been at least 8 or 10 acres, though it was hard to gauge because of the incline. The house was simply spectacular, a huge, multi-story Tuscan affair, complete with rust-red roof tiles and at least two fountains. It was a clear testament to both the panoply and the plenitude of power. I've read that during the 90's, more than 3.5 billion dollars US in drug profits were laundered through El Paso annually. It's hard to draw such numbers out of the realms of the abstract. That house made things very, very concrete for me. This wasn't money in the normal sense of the word. This was the ability to do anything.
Chespy didn't pull up to the main house, but rather to a separate three- story structure on the right that was linked to a 9-car garage and the main complex by a long, covered walkway. Expensive cars lined the circular driveway, though in the area that Chespy parked most of the vehicles were SUVs. Security, I figured. Chespy led me into this secondary structure, which turned out to be the living quarters for the staff. A thick man with long hair tied into a pony tail frisked us in the foyer, and Chespy handed over a 1911 in a holster. Where the devil got it from I wasn't sure. I passed the man my knife without complaint.
"There's a nice game room upstairs, got some televisions and a pool table," Chespy mentioned as we moved up an elaborate metal and stone staircase. The "game room" was on the third floor, and was easily the size of a middle class home in the States. It had very British-looking wood paneling that was sort of at odds with the Italianate exterior, but was still very tasteful and obviously expensive. Seven goons sat on leather couches watching a soccer match on a massive flat screen. They eyed me carefully as Chespy introduced me. If they registered surprise at my presence, they didn't show it. One of them made a comment about how we needed to be more careful during our "makeout sessions," and the others laughed. Chespy made an exaggerated gesture of wiping some additional blood off of his teeth with a cocktail napkin and then swatted me on the back of the head.
"Hang out here. I'll be back in a bit," he started to turn but then stopped.
"I mean it, about staying here. I encourage disobedience in the ring. Not here. You scanning me?"
"Go," I said wearily, turning to read the titles on one of the bookshelves. I didn't really want to engage in conversation with the sicarios in the corner, so I continued my inspection of the room. There was an elaborate wood bar set-up situated halfway across the room along a wall, and I briefly considered making myself a drink to take the edge off. I changed my mind and instead wrapped some ice in a towel and held this on my right temple, which was still aching nicely. One of the men in front of the television grinned but I ignored him.
I spent a few minutes cataloguing the booze. It was all pretty top-end, and it was obvious that whoever owned this place employed a professional bartender or sommelier, because you just don't generally find such an awesome selection of Saint- Estephe and Listrac-Medoc sitting on the shelves of most people's wine racks. A particular bottle in the California section caught my eye and I pulled it out of its cradle for a better look. It was a 1997 Imposter McCoy, and the absurdity of finding a bottle with a waiting list for the waiting list tossed haphazardly amongst 200 other bottles in a guardhouse in Mexico finally pushed my weary brain into the numb zone. I left the bottle behind and walked out onto the long balcony that lined the game room.
The view was beyond priceless. Monterrey spread out before me, a few million lights twinkling beneath the dark teeth of the Sierra Madre Occidentals. For a brief moment, the entire tableau appeared to be in the process of being swallowed by an immense beast rising from the desert floor. No, I reflected, the monsters eating the city are all up here, right here in this very house. In a moment of crystal clarity so potent in made the pain in my jaw swell like a wave, I saw what it would be like to follow the path Chespy was so obviously trying to lay down for me, the years of protecting men for whom there were no moral considerations. A few years later, after I had been transformed from one type of prisoner to another, a friend pressed me to try my skeptical hand at poetry. More out of an attempt to placate her than out of any hope for aesthetic approval, I tried to summarize the myriad impressions I gathered whilst standing sentinel on that balcony, and what I thought it might be like to be a part of that world. In the resulting poem (see below), I called the city a rape victim. That was, in the final analysis, rather optimistic, I think. The city was already a corpse. It just didn't know it yet.
Chespy found me there a half hour later, and he ushered me back downstairs, where we collected our various armaments. I honestly don't recall much of the ride to the club. I think Chespy must have sensed my dark mood, though I suspect he figured I was simply cowed by the obvious wealth of his bosses; whatever he thought, he jacked up the radio and left me to my reflections. I've been told since that the Zetas often used a similar tactic to recruit soldiers. They take them out, display their economic might, give the men a taste of the good life. Chespy must have felt I required an extra dose, since I wasn't likely to be impressed by a mere middle-class presentation. It so, he miscalculated badly. I'd already seen through the illusion of money. Lobo's presentation had been far more intelligent. He‘d zeroed in on my admitted fascination with systems vulnerability: the cracks in the edifice of society, the small holes left behind for men of intelligence and craft to squeeze through. The mansion and the M-72 standing in the corner by the billiards cues didn't interest me in the slightest.
The club was just starting to jump when we pulled up to the valet. "Here," Chespy handed me a white envelope stuffed with dollars. "For drinks," he laughed at my expression. I thumbed through the notes quickly, counting at least a thousand dollars.
"You expecting me to buy a round for everyone?" I asked but he ignored me, opening the door to step outside. A long line of fit, young, primped up civilians lined up outside the club, the ubiquitous velvet ropes keeping the mass from surging forward. Chespy snorted at this and walked right up to the door. Several of the heavily muscled men near the hostess stand must have been cartel, because they greeted him warmly and the bouncers let us pass. To enter the club you had to move up a long staircase. Once inside the main cavern of the club, a series of three staircases led back down to the dance floor, which was already writhing with half-lit human forms. The DJ's perch was even with the entry level, so he and his entire entourage hovered about 18 feet over the crowd. Two suspended walkways hugged the walls and led to two separate VIP lounges. Another group of men parted to let us enter the one on the right.
There were maybe 50 or 60 men packed into a well-appointed lounge, complete with a bar of perhaps 12 feet that lined one section of the wall. Two bartenders and a barback dispensed a progressively extensive flow of booze, and from what I could see from my vantage, they were good at their trade. Obvious prostitutes reclined on couches and divans, and there wasn't a single female present that was dressed like a girlfriend or a significant other. Chespy was off like a shot, leaving me behind. I got a glass of scotch neat and found a table near the back corner. No one seemed to want to know who the gringo was, and I didn't mind this a bit.
Most of the men seemed of a type: confident, brash, lords of all they saw. Their attire was modern and expensive, and l got the impression that this was basically the coyuntura for the younger generation. The Hammer had his horse races and cockfighting, these guys had the prostitutes and the obvious white lines left haphazardly on tables and the bar. They enjoyed being princes, and had the armament to make anyone who felt otherwise vanish. I wasn't the only wallflower, though. Hidden behind their more boisterous amigos were 6 or 7 men that hung in the shadows, drank seldom, and remained watchful. I don't know if these were serious men forced to put in an appearance, or if the cartel always had some sober men at their gatherings beyond the gatekeepers. Maybe both was true. Strangely, several of these men nodded to me eventually, though we never said a word to each other. Even stranger, Chespy seemed to approve of my behavior, as he nodded to me twice. I figured he would reprimand me for being a buzzkill, but I didn't get any of that. He did send a few of the girls over to talk to me, but I told them to get lost.
After about 90 minutes of observing the ego parade my numbness started to fade a little. Tiny tendrils of fear began to reach their way into my consciousness, and almost instantly I was ready to leave. I knew Chespy would disapprove so I scanned the whores. There, on one of the couches, I saw a girl of maybe 20 who had the look of someone who was fast realizing that she had gotten herself into something she wasn't so sure about anymore. I put my jacket back on and walked right up to her. Leaning over, I whispered, "get up, we're leaving." She seemed a little surprised but I could see her analyze me quickly and just as quickly decide that I was probably a safer option than most of the gun-toting sociopaths that surrounded us. Chespy saw me leaving with the girl and gave me a goofy grin and two big thumbs up. I nodded back. It was the last time I saw him.
I followed the girl out on the street. She tried to talk to me twice but I ignored her. I waved a taxi down and opened the back door. She got in after hesitating and I leaned over and handed her the envelope Chespy had given me. "Don't come back," I commanded her. She looked from me to the envelope and back again before reaching out tentatively to place her fingers on it. "Look at me," I said sternly, still holding onto the cash. "Something bad is going to happen in there tonight. Do not go back." She crossed herself with her other hand and I let the money go. I slammed the door to the cab and walked away.
I went straight back to the apartment, where I packed everything. I spent an hour wiping down every surface in the entire apartment with bleach, before dumping the sheets and every last item that might bear my DNA into a trash bag. I still had roughly 30,000 pesos on me, money that Lobo had continually showered on me over the past few weeks. I placed 1000 in an envelope for the cleaning ladies and another 2,000 in my jacket pocket. The rest I hid in my pack. I walked the detritus of my life down the block and deposited it in a dumpster. I hopped the train, hoping to reach Cuahtemoc before the last bus departed for my destination. Unfortunately I had missed this by more than an hour. I left the station and walked outside. Even at 1:30am, there was a line of a dozen taxies, the drivers of which stood in small groups talking and smoking. I saw an older man sitting alone in the passenger seat of his car, his legs stretched out to rest on the concrete.
"You know Cerralvo?" I asked, approaching him.
He gave me a quick inspection. I'd had a long night and I think my glare was enough to convince him that I was one of those fares for whom the fewer questions or discourse the better. "Si," he finally answered. "Long drive."
I tossed the bundle of 2,000 pesos on his lap. His eyes bulged out when he saw that the notes were all 500s. "That should cover it. No chit-chat. You understand me?"
"Completely," he nodded, and you know what? I'm pretty sure he did.
I watched the sun rise from the back porch of la ranchita. Blackie wandered back home just past 7:00am. His head shot up when I called softly to him, and he nearly knocked me over in his enthusiasm. He sat with me under a mesquite, his thick tail helicoptering around the entire time. His presence seemed to begin to loosen some kind of psychic knot that had twisted itself around my spirit the last few months, and I marveled at how just a few hours of contact with Chespy had turned me into a cold and potentially violent man. I could see why men followed him. In past ages he would have been a commander bellowing out orders from the first ranks of the shield wall, the captain of a pirate vessel. He was a force of nature, he sucked you in. The only way to survive his undertow was to stay out of the water entirely.
The Hammer showed up an hour after his dog. He didn't notice me at first, and jumped a little when I said his name. For some reason, I'd never really noticed that he was getting older. His reputation had made a giant out of him, but on that morning I seemed to see through that to the real man for the first time. I was angry. I had arrived ready and prepared to tear his head off, but after the trials of mountain and city, he just looked like a tiny old man come to putter about with his horses so he could ignore the coming apocalypse for a few more hours. I felt sympathy for him. But I also needed for there to be zero confusion about what I was about to tell him. I stood up and stalked over to him.
I could see him evaluating me in a new light. Rather than trying to interrupt my chain of thought so as to gain a superior position, he gave me time to speak my bit. "You want to know what I did last night patron? I went to a party. Two parties, as a matter of fact. The second was in the VIP section of a club downtown. The first was at a very large, very expensive house on the side of a mountain in San Pedro. You know the house I'm talking about, patron? It has a large game room upstairs. Down the side of the house, there's an immense terrazzo fountain with goldfish in it. Children were there, dressed up in their finest little church outfits. They tried to poke the fish with sticks. There were lots of men with guns. Any of this ringing any bells, patron?" This last was clearly unnecessary, because the dark clouds that increasingly gathered behind his eyes was the all evidence I needed that he knew exactly what I was talking about. In an instant I knew without the tiniest shadow of a doubt that Chespy had lied to me: Rogelio had never approved of his visit at all. I was being recruited without his permission.
"Thees...thees...hijo de su puta madre! He no have the right to-"
"Wrong, patron" I spat back at him, once again trying load as much condescension as I could muster into his supposed title. “He can do whatever he wants because you can't stop him. That's all the 'right' he needs. You need to..." I paused, carefully considering my words. "You need to inform him - but only if he asks about my whereabouts - that I'm on some kind of special mission for you. Maybe I'm in the south learning some skills that I will need as your new money launderer. Whatever you tell him, make it stick, because I need some time away from all of you. Just...stay out of my way for now." I didn't ask if he understood, just turned my back on him and started to walk away. Blackie followed in my wake, tail still flapping about as if all was right with the world.
I look back on this and regret I did not show him more kindness. He had wanted to use me, yes, but he also protected me for a time when I didn't deserve the protection of anyone. He was my only real ally down there and he merited more consideration. But in that moment, as I walked across the desert towards my taller, I couldn't feel anything good or kind. I was enveloped and crushed by the weight of bad decisions and broken illusions. This fog would not lift for a very long time. Sometimes I wonder if it ever lifted completely at all.
To be continued…
Ashes Falling Like Snow
It never takes long
-and much less time than it used to-
for the disconnect to arrive
though I find it forever impossible
to later pinpoint
my switchblade eyes flicked from
to papered-over windows,
my chronometer mind reduced
to vertebral clouds.
The here-and-now effectively
“not quite 12 pesos to the dollar”
as they say down here
though only a fool trusts
or even listens
to anything that they say.
the view helps.
Monterrey spreads out beneath me,
a rape victim in the truest
sense of the word,
bowing before this gilded porch,
the hidden threat not so hidden.
Subtlety is not much appreciated
in this trafficker’s Emerald City
of thugs, sicarios, killers and worse;
all believers in the real Golden Rule:
he who has the most gold
makes the rules.
Can’t forget that salient little
detail, though I try mightily.
Hard to believe
-then again, not really-
that less than a kilometer
from this immoral high ground,
this temple to Grade Three thinking,
people live on less than a dollar a day.
I used to feel something for them
down below, once,
victims of this cruelest of juxtapositions.
That was before the best
parts of me
before anagnorisis became
too much to ask for,
before I made soul-attrition
Ah, well: mors certa, vita incerta,
none of the old justifications
seem to serve me anymore.
I turn around
from the dying to the dead.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?
An old question answered
with the possession of a mirror.
Back to work, then.
My stethoscopic gaze covers
the dramatis personae of this
tragic farce, this lingering limbo
between hell and hell:
a study in polite anthropophagy
-they are, after all, here to
feed upon each other.
And also, of course, to display
their once upon a time
Mayan Princess wives
Now reduced through bitter competition
To sleazy Mexican Barbie dolls,
all equally bleached
and silicone enhanced:
a Stepford wife
for the appropriate Latin weltan-schuung.
The glazed and distant shine
in their blue contact-covered eyes
reminds me somehow of light
thrown outward from a star
that’s been dead
for a billion years.
Nearby, their husband’s mistresses
take an opposing tact,
draped in the latest
or their version of it.
Each side borrowing the imagined
traits of the other,
Five meters away,
a world apart,
their children laugh and play
traumatizing the goldfish in the fountain.
at least for now.
Living Christmas ornaments
shiny and covered with glitter
brittle and easily broken.
It’s never easy to watch
the halos slip to become garottes
as they follow Daddy’s memes
and his footsteps,
as the darkness outside becomes one
with the darkness inside.
A communicable cancer, maybe. No, more: the
commodification of a dope-fiend logos
always ready for the next
the next hired gun
the next hollow man.
It’s all ineradicable, or so they hope.
I gave up hoping a long time ago.
The Janus-men stand along the wall,
surrounded by those who worship
and protect them
most of the latter so stupid
alcohol couldn’t find their brains.
Men like Hollywood sets: facades
propped up with boards and wires,
before time kills them.
The inner circle, the root,
they never leave the back room,
not an existential crisis
among the lot of them.
Men for whom hate
is more complicated in the abstract.
All of them too crisp and ironed
to be real;
skin like polished wood
each occasionally seeing something oracular
in the glow of their Blackberries;
If there is something the dead
truly are holding back,
they know what it is.
I don’t know why I’m here
I once had my reasons, I think;
I tried to move from seeking
meaning to making meaning,
to see prosperity as a value
and not a condition.
Pure sophistry, a toxin
I drank as a tonic.
No more, no more.
I haven’t spent any real money
since the earlier days
of those earliest years,
now just going through the motions
playing referee, lifeguard
for these bad-trip Norman Rockwell paintings.
In Medea, the chorus asks
what further horror could match this?
Maybe I’m just looking to answer:
with violence as both rudder and river
with “straw purchasers”
and forged End-User Certificates,
with 30 pieces of lead instead of silver,
in becoming what we hide
in screams instead of phonemes
placebo gods, every last bit of it.
Sometimes, in those brief, blessed
moments of disconnect
I can see this entire milieu
– the obscene mansion,
the people who infest it,
even the jacaranda trees –
engulfed in flames:
this whole rotton circus freak show
evaporating in the auto-de-fe of
the Greater Good,
returning to earth finally as ashes
falling like snow,
The thought makes me smile
for the first time in weeks.
An ugly grin for an ugly face
-like an open grave
I’ve been informed-
and I catch myself
dropping back into my null state;
After all, we wouldn’t want
to disturb the guests.
Perhaps, in my tale
-a common theme
to a life lived poorly-
when I claimed to disbelieve
as an institution.
One desire do I hold
it only comes to the surface
in the moments before sleep,
all the freedom I allow myself:
if I could have changed,
taken another path in the forest,
lived a life
where I merely
read about people like me
in the papers:
if I could have been different
from what I have become:
because if I really had options
beyond that which nature programmed
beyond the call of the machine inside
then no evasions suffice
no justifications exist
no blame can be affixed
for what I have wrought.
And though I am a survivor
-no! a conqueror!-
of the most treacherous
urban jungle known to man.
I am nowhere near strong enough
to bear the weight
for the hells I have created.
|Thomas Whitaker 999522|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Donate to Thomas's education/defense fund