Día de los Muertos: Chapter 18


Hotel Arizona / 6:00 P.M.

Calhoun made a call from the Hotel Arizona’s front desk up to their room. The lobby was crowded with American men in for the weekend. Middle manager types with girlfriends. It was that kind of hotel. For some reason, the sight of them made Calhoun nervous. He put the phone down and walked back outside to the street. The vet’s shot was working; he felt better.The evening was warm and close-feeling. He crossed the street to the hotel parking lot and got into the jeep. He took stock, checked the back seat, made sure it was orderly. The customs police would notice things like that. Something felt wrong. He saw the greyhound dying on the track, closed his eyes and grabbed the wheel. Soon I’ll be finished with all this. He started the engine.

He pulled the jeep out of the lot and pulled into the hotel’s loading zone. Be nice. Be nice to the girls. Be nice to them. It’s important they relax. Calhoun watched Castro lead the girls down to the street from the hotel lobby. The Chinese girls lined up by the car door on the sidewalk. Calhoun nodded to the pretty one. The rest of the girls stood stoop-shouldered, like they were about to disappear. Not her. There was something different about her. “How are you doing this evening, ladies?” he said. He opened the back door of the jeep for them and waved them in. The pretty one went in last. Miguel had bought her a Coke in the lobby. She had it in her hand. Calhoun could see the cheap fabric of her worn dirty pants hugging her ass when she bent over. He slammed the car door behind her.

He waited for a moment and looked down the street. Nothing special, just a busy Tijuana street in the evening. He had a feeling then that it wasn’t going to go right. It was just a feeling. He felt the sweat suddenly roll down his arm. He almost had them get out of the car right then but stopped himself. It was ridiculous, he told himself. He’d been doing this for months and nothing untoward had ever happened, but he’d never done it like this. Never tried to use his credentials at the line. He looked at Castro on the stairs of the hotel. They looked at each other. They had never been forced to go on blind chance before. Calhoun nodded and Castro turned around and disappeared back into the lobby. This time everything has gone wrong. Everything.

Calhoun could feel the sweat start up like he had a radiator under his shirt. He felt it start to trickle down his arms before he got into the jeep. He took his coat off at the last minute. It was better if he wore it. But it was too hot. He glanced at the front of the Hotel Arizona through the open doors of the lobby. He had a feeling, something…today. He looked at the girls. Get in the car, he told himself. Get in the fucking car… No time now. They’re waiting. He saw Castro watching, waiting for him to leave.

Calhoun threw his coat onto the seat and slid in. He could smell the girls, the city, the jeep’s interior. He adjusted the rearview mirror, brought it down for a moment to look at the girls. They were all looking at him. They didn’t know what the hell was going on. He adjusted the mirror back, forced himself to move the shifter into first gear.

The jeep’s plates said U.S. Government. Calhoun had stolen them from the motor pool at the consulate. He’d been saving them for this kind of emergency.


It got crowded as they approached the crossing. They had to queue up like everybody else and wait in the broad sixteen lanes of traffic under the halogen lights. The street hawkers worked the stopped cars waiting to cross into the U.S. Calhoun inched the jeep forward. He fished for his DEA credentials and laid them on the dash. He was a wanted man, the credentials might not even work, now. You have no choice, he thought. He glanced back at the girls. He caught the pretty one’s eye.

The hawkers worked the lines of stopped cars with piñatas and cowboy hats, plaster Madonna dolls and plaster SS helmets, shoving the stuff up against the windows of the jeep. An old woman lifted one of the Madonna dolls with silver painted conical tits up to Calhoun’s window. He shook his head, mouthed ‘No thanks.’ Another vendor was holding up a donkey piñata, the colored bunting raggedy and soiled-looking. The man held up their progress, walking across the front of the jeep, stopping Calhoun from moving up in line. Better ones in town, Calhoun thought. Other vendors took advantage and suddenly the jeep was surrounded – piñatas, newspapers, puppets, Madonna dolls, everybody’s mouth moving. He couldn’t see the car in front of him anymore. Calhoun honked his horn.

“Get the fuck out of the way. U.S. government business.” He nudged the jeep against Mr. Piñata. Out of the way, Mr. Piñata. The man slammed the hood of the jeep with his open palm. BANG. Pissed. Fuck you. Calhoun rolled down his window, tried to wave them out of the way. The vendors, angry now because he’d run into Mr. Piñata, didn’t want to move. All their faces had turned ugly. He leaned on the horn, gunning the engine, popped the clutch and the jeep pushed through the mob.

Calhoun heard a loud cough. He glanced into the mirror. The pretty one held her hand to her mouth. She coughed again. From somewhere deep in her, a guttural rip. Not normal, too short. It stopped just as suddenly. Calhoun, surprised, glanced in the rearview…the pretty one. He nudged the brake, his eyes fixed on the girl, now. Her face was waiting for something bad – she had gone ash-colored. She was staring at nothing, her eyes big in her pretty face.

The sound came again, out of nowhere, deep retching. Guts loosed suddenly. Liquid blasted out of her mouth. The pretty one heaved a stream of vomit, glutinous- white, like bad milk. She grabbed the head rest in front of her with both hands, tried to stand up, spilling and spraying hard enough to hit the dashboard across the front seat.

Calhoun had to grab his DEA credentials as she sat up and shot more vomit onto the dashboard, like some kind of machine gone haywire. He looked in the rearview mirror, saw the girl’s tongue, the way it was hanging over her teeth, the color of the tip.

He looked up in time to slam on the brakes, knocking the girl back into the other girls. The horrible sound went with her. There was no way he could back up out of the traffic now. He was caught. The line was straight up ahead. He saw the green lights of the customs booth. We’ll be caught now.

“Ahhhhhh yhaaa… Ahhhhhhh yhaaaa!” The girl screamed something.

“Hey! Can’t you get her to… Jesus… Shut up. Jesus.” Calhoun let go of the wheel. People from the other cars were looking in at the girl. She stopped screaming, was coughing, asking for help. The other girls tried to move away from her. Then she stopped; there was quiet in the car suddenly. She said something to the others, scared, waiting for the coughing to come back. One of the other girls opened the back door for her, started to help her out of the car

“No…no…lock the fucking door!” Calhoun tried to reach over the seat, his seat belt stopping him. Two girls, somehow understanding him, began to hold her back. Calhoun hit the seat belt button, felt it pop. The car behind him began to honk, wanting him to pull up. Honking now, honking at me. Can’t let her out.

“Keep her in the fucking car!”

She was going for the open door, the horrible coughing sound scaring the other girls, making them back away. The coughing girl put her hands up to her throat, tried to stop it, tried to control the coughing.

Calhoun hung over the front seat, grabbed her by the pants. He felt her fleshy soft ass. He managed to get a hand on her ponytail and yanked her backwards all the way back into the car. The girl turned on him, threw the Coke in his eyes. A horn honking, the traffic behind him somewhere, honking. Suddenly everything had gone dark, the Coke in his eyes making it impossible to see, burning him.

He could hear her moving out of the door. Calhoun lunged over the seat again, tried to grab her again, blind, unable to see her, trying to keep driving, too. He got hold of her shirttail in his hand. His hand slipped down to her kicking knees, his eyes stinging. The traffic in front of him came back into view. He began to see again.

“God damn it. Grab her, for fuck’s sake! What the fuck is wrong with her?”

He let go of the wheel and turned around completely. The other girls screamed, seeing the jeep go slowly out of control. Calhoun tried to grab her ankles with both hands. She was getting away. She pulled herself through the open door, almost free. For one more second he held her by an ankle. His shoe slipped off the brake pedal. He managed to keep hold of the ankle. The jeep headed for the car in front of them. She broke for it, out the door, falling first on the pavement, shoes in the air, kicking one of the other girls in the eye.

Free. Calhoun watched her in disbelief. He pushed an hysterical girl back from him so he could watch where she went. He could feel the jeep free-wheeling then. They crashed into something. HONKING HONKING HONKING. He continued to watch the girl. His vision was still clouded. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers. “Grab her!”

The girl was kneeling by the jeep, holding her throat, trying to breathe. She staggered off, moving between the cars, crying out in Chinese, heading toward the customs booths.

Calhoun twisted back around. The jeep had stalled against the rear end of a van. He stared at the girl as she stumbled toward the line. The van’s driver got out, a white guy with a beard. Calhoun ignored the man yelling at him, watched the girl, wiped his eyes. Calhoun heard a horn again, LOUD. Stunned, he watched the girl walking between the lanes of traffic, wiping her mouth, stumbling toward the customs booths, shoulders forward, hands slapping her chest between gags.

He threw the jeep into park and opened his door all at once. Outside, hundreds of people stared at him across lanes of stopped traffic. He moved around the back of the jeep. He heard the van’s driver yelling at him. He started to run after her.

For a moment Calhoun wondered if he were dreaming, if it was some kind of nightmare. In the red blur from his burning eyes he saw the girl zigzagging between stopped cars – someone reached out and pushed her away from their window. She stumbled, got up, the cars closed up. Calhoun couldn’t reach her. He jumped up on the hood of a station wagon, over that, then over a VW. He fell, a woman, not the girl, screaming somewhere close to him. He tried to focus, his eyes coming back now, better, but burning. Everything behind a red-gray film. The next car over, a fat Mexican lady, mouth open, yelling at him. He wiped his eyes. He could see normally again.

They still weren’t in the same lane. The girl was trying to run, hands at her sides, pathetic. She was trotting toward the border in front of her, slowing. She was one more lane over to his right. Calhoun jumped on the hood of a truck and realized there were dozens of people getting out of their cars to look now. He jumped down, slipped, got up. He was in her lane now, a few yards away. She turned around and looked at him. She was saying something to him in Chinese. She stopped. She was trying to say something, holding her throat, coughing quietly, as if she were just someone at a restaurant that suddenly had swallowed something too big and needed help. He stepped toward her, hands out in the I’ll help you sign.

“Stop, please stop. Let me help you. For Christ sake, let me help you… We have to get back in…” She started walking backwards away from him, stopped, tried to catch her breath. A women nearby screamed at Calhoun to help the girl.

He tried to get her to stop walking, made a stop motion with palms held out. Then she just stopped, like a switch had been thrown. She crumpled onto her knees. She was turning blue.

Surprised, she looked up at him, then collapsed completely. Calhoun rushed her. She was kicking on the ground, supine. He looked up. The U.S. Customs people were coming out of their booths. She turned over, began crawling toward the U.S. One of the U.S. Customs men stepped into Mexico toward her.

“Don’t touch her,” Calhoun ordered. The customs guy stopped in mid-stride, confused. “I’m a doctor, don’t touch her,” he screamed.

Calhoun knelt down, pinned her with his knee, tried to clean her air passage with his finger, but it kept being blocked.

“Hey, buddy, you better do something quick.” The customs guard was looking down at them.

Calhoun reached into her mouth. His fingers touched something plastic, there was something plastic in her throat. He poked it with his fingers. Her air stopped. He tore at the object with his index finger, the capsule thing broke apart. The girl immedíately started breathing again, then just stopped in mid-breath. People were crowding around them now, watching. He looked up, holding the girl down at the same time, afraid she would stand up and run.

“I’m a doctor…she’s sick,” he said. “I’m a doctor.” He bent down and blew into her mouth, the taste of vomit on his lips. She was still trying to crawl toward the U.S. side. He had to put a knee on her chest to keep her from struggling. A chunk of something blew into his mouth. He spit it away, tried again to blow air into her lungs, but there was too much in the way.

He lifted his head up. It was doing no good, she was going purple from lack of air. She was dying. They were only a few yards from the border. She seemed to understand that she was close to the U.S. She put her head down on the black asphalt and closed her eyes. One of her hands reached frantically up toward the border guard.

Don’t die…please don’t die on me. Calhoun picked her up and tried the Heimlich maneuver twice, his fist deep into her gut. It popped. A balloon of heroin rolled out of her mouth and fell onto the street, and then another. He felt her chest expand against his fist and let go. She sucked air frantically. He stepped back, waited. He saw her do it again. Calhoun bent down and picked up the balloons. She was breathing normally, standing there looking at the crowd. He walked her back all the way to the jeep. He crushed the balloons on the asphalt before he got in. When they drove up to the booth she was fine.

“What’s the story with the girl?” the man said.

Calhoun flashed his DEA credential and didn’t answer. The man looked at him for a moment, hesitated, then waved them through.

Dia Spacer

Calhoun stepped out of the shower. Castro had brought him in the jeep back to the Arizona. Castro, smoking, waited in the bedroom. Calhoun looked at his watch. It was only seven o’clock. He wiped the steam off the mirror. The mirror had some kind of black chips on it. He saw his face. He looked tired. He heard a knock on the bathroom door.

“Amigo? ¿Qué dices? Bad day. Just like the movies. Like Asphalt Jungle. You saved the girl’s life. You should be proud of yourself.” Calhoun opened the door to the bathroom.

He walked into the room, a towel around his hips. He saw his suit on the bed, stained with vomit and asphalt. He didn’t want to look at it. Castro followed him into the room.

“What happened, amigo?” Castro sat down in one of the chairs by the bed and lit a cigarette.

“I can’t wear this shit. Look at it. Look at this shit. How the fuck do I know what happened? She nearly died.” Calhoun heard his own petulant voice. It sounded strange to him. Not the same now, something changed. The hot shower had just made him feel sick, not clean. Calhoun threw his suit pants on the floor; they were splattered with vomit, still wet. Castro just looked at him.

“Amigo. He still wants to see you tonight. I think you better get dressed.” Calhoun looked at Castro a moment.

“Here,” Castro extended his big brown hand. “Take this. It will calm you down. You saved a life. It’s a good thing.” He handed him a new pint of Presidente brandy.

Calhoun closed his eyes, saw the way she’d struggled, sucked for air, eyes open big.

“Take it, amigo.” Castro was dressed in a blue silk shirt and jeans. He had his service auto stuck in the belt of his pants in one of those hand-tooled holsters the Mexican police used, a spare clip next to it.

“Fuck Slaughter,” Calhoun said. He meant it now. He’d had enough. “Fuck him.”

“I have to get back to the station,” Castro said. “I’ll meet you at ten on the plaza. Drink this. I promise you it will make you feel better.” Castro pushed the bottle at him. Calhoun pushed it away.

“Take it, Vincente.” Miguel went to the bathroom and unwrapped a paper- covered glass and poured him a drink.

“I want to know why he doesn’t leave me the fuck alone,” Calhoun said.

“There are so many things people want to find out in this town… You know, it’s like they tell Nicholson in that movie: ‘It’s Chinatown, Jake,’ you know.”

Calhoun picked his pants up off the floor. “You go tell Slaughter I’m through. All right?”

“I tell him that and you’re a dead man, amigo. Do you want to be a dead man?”

“Yeah, I do. Tell him I’ll try to pay him somehow.”

“Vincente, I like you, okay?” Castro came up behind him and gave him the glass. “You are my amigo. I think you should reconsider. He’ll tell me to come back and kill you. That’s a predicamento,” Castro said.

Calhoun opened his dirty pants and put them on. “That’s a predicamento,” he said, agreeing. “How would you do it?” Castro walked to the door and turned around.

“I’ll see you later then… I’ll leave this.” He put the bottle on a table.

“I asked you a fucking question. How you going to do it?” Calhoun said.

Castro stopped and thought about it. “That’s not funny.” he said.


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