Día de los Muertos: Chapter 19

Nineteen

La Avenida Revolución / 7:15 P.M.

For some reason, Calhoun had a hallucination / dream that he was a rat and that he was running down the street on four legs. It was very bizarre, but since he’d gotten the shot he’d had interludes that weren’t right. He saw things that just weren’t right.”Pussy, pot or pills?” a kid whispered his offer in a doorway. Calhoun ignored him and kept walking down the brightly lit Avenida Revolución, part of the multitude on Tijuana’s main drag where the action never stopped. Tonight, because of the big holiday, the street was packed with tourists. The wide boulevard was full of car headlights, lit shop windows and all manner of human beings looking for entertainment, victims, or escape to America. Calhoun climbed one of the shoeshine stands that lined the sidewalk. He’d undone his tie. His hands were moving all the time now, and it felt like the skin on his fingers and toes was too tight. He could hear his heart pounding against his chest like he was running a race. He gave orders to the shoeshine man in Spanish and tried to settle back to wait for Slaughter to show. He tried to relax but it was impossible. His foot started to shake and he started to sing softly to himself in a kind of whispered monotone.

“I’m gonna tell you how it’s a-gonna be…” He beat out the rhythm on his knees. “One of my professors at UCLA told me rats from the same colony won’t attack each other,” Calhoun said to the shoeshine man. He spit, leaning out over the stand. “He claimed there was a kind of group solidarity. Human beings on the other hand – we’re an entirely different story. Aren’t we?” Calhoun told the shoeshine man. “Put two of us in the same room, drop in the money and the biggest ass-kicking rat comes out on top… Fuck everybody and get out of my way is our motto. It should be written on all currencies,” he said, looking down at the shoeshine man. People on the street were looking at him as they passed.

Hustlers on the street measured Calhoun as they passed, their faces pale, colored from the ugly electric lights of the Avenida. Their eyes said: in a week where will you be? In a week you’ll be lower still. And a week after that? You’ll be our bitch, our bidding, ours to feed on. Not yet, he thought, glaring back at them. Not quite yet. I’m still strong, I’m still strong – can fight if I have to. God damn right. He watched the other rats pass from his perch on the shoeshine stand. A pop song was playing in a bar down the street…loud. “You’re so pretty the way you are. You’re so pretty the way you are.”

I got rat insides. Most of me has turned to rat. That’s what I am, you know. A rat, hairy and greasy and afraid of the daylight. I’d do anything, anything, for money now. They’re coming, coming with the rat poison and putting it out for me, he told himself. Then he realized that he was talking to himself and stopped it. He took his cell phone out and dialed the Amigo Hotel; he asked for Celeste’s room.

“It’s me, it’s Vincent.”

“I wondered when you were getting back to me,” she said.

I’ll be there in an hour. Sorry. We’re leaving tonight. I love you. I love you. Did you hear me? I’m better now. I had some medicine. Better now,” he said into the phone, looking out into the street.

“Vincent?”

“Yeah.”

“Vincent, no matter what happens…I want you to know…”

“Don’t talk like that, we’re leaving tonight for Mexico City. Okay?”

“Sure…” she said.

“I’ll see you in an hour. I have the tickets. I have two tickets for Mexico City.

Tomorrow morning we’ll be gone,” he said. “Did you hear me?”

“I heard you.”

“I love you. Nothing matters but that.” He closed the phone and looked down the Avenida and then at his shaking feet.

The assortment of lights on Tijuana’s main strip created more shadows, hiding more than it illuminated. Calhoun watched the crowds stream past. There was a heat to them. It was a gross collection of eyes and mouths gaping and wanting and being in harsh electric light. Ghastly isn’t the word for it. Dead frightening, when you got a good look at it, he thought. At them, at this awful collision of humanity. It makes you want to take drugs. They might as well be walking around naked. Liberté …Égalité, Fraternité, amigos!

Calhoun watched the nameless faces pass, big gringos, Guatemalans, Serbs, whores of all colors, sexes, catamites. Asians in cheap suits, gang-bangers in Hush Puppies, all of them glistening, inhuman, in the harsh electric light like some bad science fiction movie. Night Of The Living Fuck-ups, he told himself. Every pock mark and dimple, crease, panty-line and tattoo caught in the light seemed to dwell on the obvious and the garish in full black and white hysteria. It was people’s desperate faces that had begun to bother him – having to see them like this – raw human faces, a stream of face sewage. “Well, it ain’t opening night at the opera,” Calhoun reminded himself, saying it out loud. “It’s Tijuana at seven o’clock. Pussy, pot or pills is the order of the day!” He felt a chill go through him and grabbed the arm of the stand and smiled at no one.

He tried to remember what it had been like before all this, before it went bad. Before he’d started losing. In April he’d been on top of the game. It seemed he couldn’t lose. It had been a Sunday at the Winners’ Circle at Caliente, the beginning of April. That was the first gate he’d run through that he shouldn’t have.

“There’s money in wogs, Serbs, you just have to choose,” Slaughter had told him. Money was the word Calhoun remembered hearing so well. He’d been looking down at the familiar scene: trainers and their greyhounds on the track, a plastic cup of Dos XX’s in his hand. “You could get some of that. Good money in cargo right now,” Slaughter had said. Slaughter used the slang expression that was popular: People had become cargo, merchandise.

“It sounds illegal,” Calhoun had said. But the M-word had been used and he was all ears.

“I’m in it up to my ass,” Slaughter had told him. He had a beautiful English accent. It made everything Slaughter said sound righteous and clean despite his trendy grunge look. He could have said corn-hole the Pope to a priest and made it sound good. “Could get you wogs, for example. If you wanted to do wogs…” he offered again. Slaughter turned around and faced him. “The wogs trust white people. And they are splendid about paying. Believe me. Like clockwork, old man… Money in the bank. My service is different. First Class. Only people with money. We bring them from the capital ourselves,” Slaughter said.

“How much?” Calhoun had asked.

“Five thousand dollars per head on the U.S. side. And I’ll pay in any currency you’d like: guilders, deutschmarks, whatever you want. You just get them across. However you like. I’ve heard about you,” Slaughter said. “You grew up around here. You know the desert.” His girl, a petite Mexican girl, came from the bar and put her hands around Slaughter’s waist.

“Fuck!” Calhoun had said, looking at her ass wrapped in a leather mini skirt, and not the cheap kind. This was beautiful black leather that fit. If he can afford that kind of pussy looking the way he does, I’m in.

“Yes, well, as I said. I can get you the work if you want it. I’ve heard that you could use it.” Slaughter turned back around and faced the track, full of himself.

That’s where it started. Calhoun had called Slaughter the following day from his office. They’d had lunch at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, in the old wood- paneled dining room, and it was on. He’d been doing cargo since. After Slaughter, he’d found others. He’d grown up on the border, knew the hundreds of desert arroyos to the east intimately. And then there was his ace in the hole, as he called Castro. That had been six months ago. Now it had all changed. He was just one of the rats now waiting for them to put out the poison. It’s just a question of which plate I eat from. He felt the sick feeling in his stomach. He touched his face; it was warm and wet. The shoeshine man was looking at him. It was obvious now. People could see he was sick.

Calhoun searched the faces in the crowd. He was scared and pretended that he wasn’t. Of course I’m scared.

Calhoun looked down the street and saw Castro. He pretended to be waiting for a bus, his foot on the bench, smoking, watching the women pass. Calhoun looked away toward the bright lights of the jai alai palace, headlights stared back at him, metal animals, moving in through the warm, greasy night.

“¿Señor?” The shoeshine guy was staring up at Calhoun, finished. His shoes were clean. Calhoun handed the shoeshine guy five dollars and looked down the street, watching for Slaughter.

“Otra vez,” Calhoun said. “Clean ’em up again.” He rubbed his hands together. The shoeshine man went back to work, got out his jar and carefully daubed shoe polish over Calhoun’s left shoe. Calhoun bent over and admired them, a two hundred dollar pair of Kenneth Coles. Mighty fine. A drop of sweat hit one of the shoes.

You’ve got… He did a quick calculation. Almost a thousand in cash left for emergencies. That’s enough to break for it, isn’t it? Calhoun spit on the ground. The problem was he owed thirty grand to Slaughter. And more to El Cojo. And where could they go on a thousand dollars? I want to leave with her. I want to be in love with her.

A cockroach skittered out from under the shoeshine stand onto the sidewalk. The thing’s shell was big and glossy-dark. It skittered up the stand, then changed direction and dashed back to its hiding place.

If he tried to leave town and El Cojo or Slaughter found him? They’d cut everything but the bottom of his feet. He’d be one of those corpses they find in the Tijuana dump with radio antennas sticking out of his asshole and eye balls. The message received by everyone loud and clear: Don’t fuck with the boys.

The shoeshine man looked up at him – his face blurred, then reformed as the sepia visage of Pancho Villa. “Cucaracha,” he said, grinning, nodding at the big one that had climbed all the way up the stand and stood on the tip of Calhoun’s left shoe, almost the same color. The shoeshine man tried to brush it off. The bug raced up his arm and sat on the man’s shoulder. Calhoun could see its antennae moving, the fever intensifying it. Calhoun reached over and got the shell between his ring finger and thumb and pressed until the shell caved in and the bug danced-died, scratching him softly, staining his hand.

“Don’t encourage them,” Calhoun said. “They’ll take over. I know. They’re like Nazis.”

 

Slaughter stood out. Maybe it was the whiteness of his skin. Calhoun watched him go into the cafe across the street. The place had no front doors, all open air so you could see all the way through to the back. Calhoun watched Castro come up through the crowd, the Mexican’s face anonymous at night. Castro climbed up in the chair next to him.

“He’s not alone…he’s got two people with him in a car down the street. How are you feeling?”

“Better. I feel better.”

“Good.”

“Can anything else go wrong today?” Calhoun asked. He looked at Castro. The man’s eyes glowed at night, or at least looked that way. He seemed like some kind of nocturnal animal. “I don’t think I’d do very well in jail,” Calhoun said for some reason.

“Amigo. You have to be like Paul Newman in Hud,” Castro joked. “You go in there and you act like you are the biggest cock in this town. Just like Paul Newman in Hud.”

“He wants his money,” Calhoun said. “And I don’t have it.”

Calhoun climbed down from the shoeshine stand and crossed the street to the cafe. Calhoun saw Slaughter sitting in the back corner of the place. He’d never seen Slaughter completely sober. Not once. He sat down across from him. He fished into his pocket for a cigarette. Slaughter had a coffee and brandy in front of him. He looked very young. You could have mistaken him for a fraternity kid.

Calhoun ordered from the waiter, who looked like he’d rather be any place else in the world.

“Do you know why I like Mexico, old man?” Slaughter said, leaning close.

“No, why?”

“Because everyone is crazy and they know it. They expect you to be crazy, too. And you are crazy for trying what you managed tonight. I admire that in a man.” Slaughter had a square jaw and a flat nose. His hair was covered with the same blue do- rag from the afternoon. His lips were moist as he watched the passersby. He glanced at Calhoun for a moment then back out onto the street. A good-looking whore went by and gave Slaughter the eye.

“You lied to us… I said no drugs, ever,” Calhoun said. “She was full of them.”

“I didn’t lie in the beginning. Things change. That’s capitalism. It’s fluid, dynamic. People in China wanted to maximize their ROI. It was their idea. We had to accept. Return on investment. I try to be on the cutting edge, old man.”

“Fuck you. What do you want?” Calhoun said. He started to sweat. He took the paper napkin off the table and ran it around his face. The drinks came. Slaughter waited for the waiter to leave. “I say, you don’t look well, old man.”

“No past, only future,” Calhoun said.

Slaughter eyed him and smiled. “How did the shot work for you?”

“Yeah, thanks. I appreciate your concern for my health.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you had dengue fever.”

“Fuck you. Now, what is it?”

The waiter came to the table with Calhoun’s mescal. “Time to pay up.”

“I have a problem,” Calhoun said.

“Everybody in Casablanca has problems.” Slaughter smiled. “Frank Guzman, cross him and we’re even. He’s here in Tijuana; I told him you could get him out.”

“No,” Calhoun said. “He’s too big. He’s wanted for being behind the assassination of Asturias. I read the papers. His picture’s everywhere. No way. The police will shoot him on sight and anyone with him when they catch him. And they’ll catch him. He went against his pals in the PRI. They don’t like that,” Calhoun said.

“You owe me a great deal of money, isn’t that correct?”

“Yes, I owe you money. But I’m not dying for you.”

“How much?”

“Two hundred thousand pesos. You owe El Cojo a hundred thousand pesos now, plus interest. He’s looking for you already, I could take you to him right now. I have people outside.”

“So do I,” Calhoun said. “I’ll have it for you tomorrow,”

“You’re lying. I doubt you have a thousand. I know. I’ve heard. You owe everybody in town… You’re finished… Do this and I’ll take care of El Cojo, too. You don’t want to end up with an irreversible medical problem.” Calhoun took a drink and thought about it.

“Tonight, you said.”

“Yes. It has to be tonight.”

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said. “Then it’s over. You and me canceled out. And you pay Cojo, too.”

“Fine,” Slaughter said. “It’s over then. Here’s his number.” He slid a paper over to him. “He’s at the Empresa in a penthouse. He’s waiting for your call. Get him to Palmdale. My people will pick him up on the other side. You get him to Palmdale and and you don’t owe me anything,” Slaughter said.

“Do you know what it is, Calhoun? What the Mexicans are getting so excited out there on the streets tonight?”

“Yeah…Día de los Muertos.” Calhoun wiped his face with the paper napkin again and it started to come apart.

“That’s correct, Day of the Dead. A celebration of death. Thanatos…as my Classics teacher at Eton used to call it. They’re celebrating Thanatos.” Slaughter put his elbows on the table and reached for Calhoun’s collar. He touched it gingerly. “If you don’t do this for us…I suggest you put on your very best suit and start celebrating, too.” He let go of his collar and smiled. “You know the best thing about an English public school education, Calhoun?”

“No.”

“It builds character. And it’s character that allows us to succeed in this miserable life. We public school boys built an empire…people forget that now. As far as I’m concerned, you’re just another bloody wog who might be standing in my way. Have I made myself clear?”

“Perfectly.”

“Excellent…I’ve heard that dengue fever makes you fuck like a rhino,” Slaughter said. “Is it true?”

“Yeah. Ask your girlfriend. She knows,” Calhoun said.

“You manage to make everyone hate you. You’re good at that. That’s a talent,” Slaughter said. “Very good at it. Why weren’t we friends?”

“Well, amigo…” Calhoun said, getting up. “I ain’t running for mayor. So I don’t have to be nice to assholes.”

 

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