Día de los Muertos: Chapter 10

Ten

Hotel Española / 10:00 A.M.

There are three of us. My daughter, Paloma, and my wife,” Heinrich Vasco said. “Shall we have coffee or tea? I prefer tea this time of day. They serve a wonderful tea here,” Vasco said. “They even serve Madeleine cake with it. French you know. Leave it to the French to perfect something the English love.”Heinrich Vasco was a gentleman, you could see that. A real Latin American gentleman of the old school, Calhoun thought. He wasn’t fifty yet, Calhoun guessed, but he had that grace just in the way he stood. Calhoun had seen it as soon as he came into the lobby of the Hotel Española, the best hotel in Tijuana. Vasco seemed to fit the surroundings, the marble and the greenery and the hush of the lobby. The light was diffused and lush and came from a big, old-fashioned skylight that lit the interior and made everything glow. While Vasco spoke, Calhoun watched shadows and the light come and go. The light painted the marble, making it seem cold and perfect. A coterie of the city’s wealthy came for coffee in the lounge at mid-morning. It was the place to do business in Tijuana.”Sure,” Calhoun said. Vasco was wearing a tennis outfit – white V-neck sweater, shorts, white Nikes. He was athletic and slender. He had a towel with him and wiped his face which was sparkling with sweat. Castro had said they had to make the appointment, no matter what had happened that morning. It all started to seem like a dream now. Castro had come and played a game of tennis with Vasco after they’d left Slaughter’s cargo at the Arizona with one of Miguel’s men.

There was a table waiting for them in the garden room in the corner overlooking the pool and the gardens. You couldn’t see any of the city. The hotel was a little walled- off oasis. They could have been anywhere – New York, Santiago, Madrid.

The chairs in the dining room were big and overstuffed. A low table held a tea service and coffee and cake. Miguel and Vasco were speaking in Spanish and Calhoun could follow it well enough, all about their tennis game. Vasco had won and Castro was wondering if he could get his revenge; the Spanish word venganza seemed to hang like music in the dining room. Everyone in the place had money except, of course, the waiters, who looked scared of the rich. That is the way it is in Latin countries: the rich scare people, and the poor don’t pretend otherwise. A waiter poured the water into the teapot and disappeared.

“I wanted to meet you. We heard, of course, that you are the best,” Vasco said. “And well…we can afford the best.” Calhoun could see that Vasco was measuring him. “I would be entrusting not just myself, but my daughter and wife. My family, in other words.” Vasco picked up the lid of the Victorian porcelain teapot and then replaced it absentmindedly. “Darjeeling… You haven’t said a word, Mr. Calhoun.”

“Sorry. It’s been a busy morning,” Calhoun said.

“I know what you are thinking: why is a person like me in need of a coyote?”

“The thought crossed my mind,” Calhoun said. The waiter came back and poured the tea. Calhoun asked for a brandy and the waiter nodded reverentially and disappeared.

“Don’t drink coffee, Mr. Calhoun?” Vasco said, surprised by the order.

“I feel like it’s already four o’clock in the afternoon.”

“In Chile we have all the best customs from Europe,” Vasco changed the subject. “My father was a German. Well, not really. He was Chilean, but my grandfather was a German, a real Junker, I’m told.” Vasco smiled. “My mother’s people were bankers. Since, well, since the Conquest, I think. Tea was always important to us at our house. I miss my mother. Very much. You see, she was a very elegant lady. Anyway, we’ve had some bad luck since she died…at the bank.” Calhoun looked at Castro. “Let’s just say I want to go to America and that I’d prefer to enter without the need to register. I want to send my daughter to school in the U.S. She’s been accepted.” Vasco picked up the teacup and looked at Calhoun. “Sometimes fathers do things with only their children’s best interests in mind. Do you have children, Mr. Calhoun?”

“No,” Calhoun said. He didn’t believe any of the dog and pony show. In the silence you could hear the chatter of some Japanese behind them. There were several tables of Japanese from the maquiladora plants. Calhoun watched Vasco chew a piece of cake. He had a way of doing it that seemed like not chewing at all.

“I don’t want my daughter to know that. I don’t want her to know that, well, that what we are doing is technically illegal. I want her to think that it’s an adventure. Something unique. She has no idea of our reversal. I’ve gotten a job in Chicago with some friends. It’s very important that she think things are, well, like they used to be.”

Calhoun nodded. He glanced down on the garden. A mother and daughter were coming in from the pool. He knew she was his daughter as soon as he saw her because she had the same face as the father. The girl wore a sun hat and a white terry cloth robe pulled around her body. She was tall, very tall and statuesque. Her hair was wet from the pool and made a kind of black rope sculpture around her shoulders. She glanced up and looked at Calhoun and Castro and then her father. Calhoun saw the flat of her stomach, the brown skin, the dark eyes, a Walkman around her neck. She and her mother were holding hands. Calhoun felt his neck tighten the way it did when he saw a beautiful woman. They came by the window and waved. Vasco put his cup down and blew his wife a kiss, then waved them in.

“That, gentlemen, is my family. Sometimes a man can be blessed.” Miguel Castro cleared his throat and looked at Calhoun but Calhoun wasn’t looking. The beautiful vision was burning into his head, the thin beautiful neck, the elegance and youth. He hardly noticed the mother, who was beautiful herself and probably only forty.

“I have gems and I want to guard them against a very cruel world any way that I can,” Vasco said.

“I understand.” Calhoun said.

“How much?” Vasco said, putting down his cup. Calhoun looked at Castro.

“We would have to go alone. I wouldn’t want, well, you understand, it would have to be a special trip. Just us. The three of us. And I’d like to leave tonight at, let’s say…how about ten o’clock?”

“We’re the most expensive…” Calhoun said. The waiter brought his brandy and put it down in front of him.

Vasco waved his hand. Calhoun noticed the wedding ring fat and gold in the air. Then someone caught it and kissed it. It was her. It was the girl, and from that moment on, Calhoun let Castro do the talking and he listened to them talk, saw all the elegance and all the manners and all the family love; and most of all the daughter, pouring tea and keeping the robe around her lovely body. He saw the expensive sandals, and the wire of the Walkman confused in her hair, the slenderness of her ankles. There was one long moment when their eyes met. She was a big woman. Paloma Vasco had green eyes.

“I want you to meet Mr. Vincent Calhoun. He is taking us on a jeep ride. In fact, we go into the United States tonight,” Vasco said.

“Papa, I was just getting used to the hotel.”

“My dear Paloma, there is something waiting for you.” Paloma Vasco put her cup down. “But I thought we were… Her father pulled an envelope out of his pocket with relish.

“I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure. You have been accepted to my old school. The University of Chicago.”

“Papa!” The girl put her arms around him and the robe opened and he saw the brown thighs, the way they were, all the way up. Vasco looked like a man who was still rich and would bounce back from whatever happened to him, Calhoun decided.

“Now, I want you both to meet Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Castro.” Calhoun shook the wife’s hand and she smiled.

“Mucho gusto, señora,” Calhoun said. And then he was looking into Paloma Vasco’s pretty face and she was smiling and laughing and shaking his hand. He noticed that she had a powerful grip and shook his hand like a man.

“Mucho gusto, señorita,” Calhoun said.

 

Calhoun and Castro stayed and talked in the lobby; the Vasco family had gone up to their room. Calhoun was looking at the beautiful portico. It was raining slightly. I have to tell Miguel. I have to tell him that they know.

“…something political is what I heard. The Americans don’t want to let him in. Something to do with his bank’s failure,” Castro said.

“You mean he’s running away from something.”

“Maybe.”

“Why doesn’t he just send the mother and daughter on to Chicago?”

“You don’t understand Latins. He’d never do that. They go with him. That’s my guess. He’s the old school. Aristocratic. My guess is that they change the government in Chile again and he’ll probably get the bank back. That’s the way it is in Latin America,” Miguel said. Calhoun nodded. He looked at his friend.

“All right, so we ask for ten thousand dollars.”

“All right,” Castro said. “Fine. I’ll go up and tell him. She’s very beautiful. The girl.”

“No, she’s more than that.”

“What did Hughes say?” Castro asked.

“Dengue fever,” Castro looked at him. “He said it would go away. I’ll be all right, Miguel. I’ve got to make the two-thirty race at Caliente today,” Calhoun said, changing the subject.

Castro looked at his watch. “No problem. I’ll meet you at the bus station in half an hour. We’ll do this little job for the lawyer and you’ll be back here by one-thirty.”

“Miguel…” I should tell him. Why don’t I tell him that they know? It wouldn’t make any difference. “She’s not your type,” Calhoun said.

Dia Spacer

There was smoke over the valley behind Tijuana where they have the dump. Calhoun drove up in the jeep. Everything was covered with smoke like a fog: the rag pickers and their children, the hulks of cars, the dilapidated cardboard houses, everything partially obscured. Even the road seemed to have disappeared.

We all lie to ourselves. That’s part of living. Calhoun was lying to himself as he drove. The people he was going to borrow money from were his enemies and he was lying to himself about that, saying that they were just another source of cash. But he knew it wasn’t true. He’d sworn that he would never come out here and borrow money from El Cojo because El Cojo was the lowest thing in Tijuana and, in fact, his enemy, because he ran some of the most vicious rat patrols. But in Mexico it’s easier to lie to yourself than anywhere else in the world. It’s just that kind of country, he told himself.

A priest stood in the smoke and watched Calhoun close the door of the jeep and walk up the short driveway towards El Cojo’s house. Calhoun had heard that El Cojo’s front man was a priest, but you couldn’t tell for sure because they don’t let priests wear the collar in Mexico. But they said he was a priest. El Cojo used him because the priest knew the system, and more importantly, he could read. El Cojo had learned one thing in his short life: there was a system bigger than the one he ran out at the dump.

“I have to see El Cojo,” Calhoun said. He was wearing a new clean Bill Blass suit, his havelock and sunglasses.

The priest was wearing jeans and a Disneyland T-shirt and was very pale, almost like an albino, so that out there with the smoke he looked unreal—like a doppelganger. His hair was that blond color albinos have, almost white, and thin on a pinkish scalp. The priest, about forty, looked like he was made from smoke and garbage, like the dumps themselves, not quite real. There was a barking Rottweiler. The priest held it by a leather collar.

“I hear El Cojo is loaning money now.” Calhoun took his sunglasses off. The priest nodded.

“I run that,” the priest said. He kicked the dog. The brute barked once, took it and looked at the priest, then at Calhoun, like he’d like to jump up and tear Calhoun’s heart out. “It’s 100 percent interest per day,” the priest said. He looked him dead in the eye. He’d heard the interest was 70 percent a day.

Calhoun looked around the place while he thought about it. He lied to himself again and said that 100 percent interest a day was no problem. He noticed a gang of teenaged boys sitting on a wall at the side of the house – El Cojo’s crew, he imagined. There was an old yellow Toyota Land Cruiser in the driveway. It was what they used out there on the desert. God damn it, I shouldn’t have come here. More than once they’d chased him. Now he was coming out to borrow money. I should shoot them, he thought.

“Okay,” Calhoun said. He was desperate and he had a sure thing. Rats or no rats, he needed the money.

“How long you want the money?” the priest asked.

“Let me talk to El Cojo.” He wanted better interest and thought he could talk him down to something reasonable.

“Fuck you,” the priest said. “Fuck you and go away then.”

“All right…four hours, just four hours. So I guess that means that I only have to pay 25 percent of a hundred… I need a hundred thousand pesos.”

“You pay 100 percent if you only touch the money and give it right back.”

 

They brought it to him in a can. One of the hotshots on the wall, a real small fry with freckles, brown freckles on brown skin, was carrying it with him. He handed the priest the can and the priest counted out one hundred thousand pesos from the roll in the can and handed it over. One of the kids went out to Calhoun’s jeep and took down the license number and ran back into the house. That’s the surprising thing about Mexico. It seems unsophisticated, but it’s not. El Cojo was wired. He even had a radio in the house and he talked to some of the police who worked for him. The license number would go straight down to the police station and be recorded.

Another kid came up and took a Polaroid of Calhoun. The Polaroid that would circulate later that day in Tijuana. It showed Calhoun standing next to a pile of car parts, half a Cadillac and a Pinto. The priest was halfway in the picture.

“God bless,” Calhoun said, looking at the priest. He shoved the money into his pocket. But the priest was busy with the dog.

“You don’t bring back the money in four hours, we kill you,” the priest said, looking up at him. “And don’t think we can’t find you. We’ll go right inside the fucking Escondido and shoot you. I know who you are. Vaya con díos.” The priest finally smiled. His teeth were badly rotted.

 

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