Día de los Muertos: Chapter 6

 

Six

Wang’s Rancho / 7:15 A.M.

Driving into Wang’s rancho, Calhoun had glanced at Castro. He was his one true friend. In Tijuana, that was saying a lot. There was something about Castro that made you know he liked you. The way he looked at you. Castro was talking about a movie they’d both seen one night while they’d been stuck with cargo in the Hotel Arizona.

“You remind me of Jaffe in Asphalt Jungle. Do you remember that picture? They’re all captured in the end. Everybody has a…what do you gringos call it?”

“Foible,” Calhoun said. He smiled. He remembered the picture. “Yes, I remember him. He stopped to look at some young girl in a roadhouse and the cops catch him.”

“We all have weak spots, don’t we. Mine are women and movies. And we already know what yours is,” Castro said. “You don’t listen to anyone.”

There was a mirage on the road in front of them, silver water that seemed like human emotion, always changing, mercurial—a trick of light and asphalt that stayed just in front of the jeep. They could see Wang’s rancho and the grove of cool cottonwood trees around up on the left. There was nothing else out there except the desert, which, at this time of the morning, was white with glare. They’d made this trip so many times that the danger seemed almost negligible. They saw the Cessna that was bringing the cargo fly overhead, dip its wings, then start to land. There was a dirt runway behind the rancho.

Castro had turned his body toward him, his cowboy shirt unbuttoned so you could see the sea of coarse black hair and the automatic and the gold cowboy belt buckle. All his handsome, dark Latin features were in sync now with that smile, the desert scenes going past his face in the window of the jeep. Castro was a judicial. The Judicial Police were all the worst, the bottom of a corrupt barrel, vicious, opportunistic, but the fact was Calhoun liked him despite everything. He was the only one in Tijuana Calhoun could really trust.

“You’re ill, you know that,” Miguel said. He said it almost casually. “I decided you have to see a doctor. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it. I’ll give you the name of someone on the plaza.”

“You know, amigo, someday I’m going to have to shoot you for not minding your own business,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun looked at the Mexican’s face, the dark eyes, the spotless white cowboy shirt wet and stained dark under the arms. He looked very fit. There was something about Castro, about his big jaw and dark wavy hair and the way his face spread out big that reminded you of one of those old movie stars. It was a big face for a Mexican. Gilbert Roland, Calhoun thought.

Calhoun pulled off the main dirt road and onto a track that went up to Wang’s rancho. The dust from the dirt road to the rancho had billowed up so they were riding with just a little narrow opening in front of them.

“Amigo, you know what’s wrong with you? No one ever knows when you’re joking and when you’re serious… That is…” Castro searched for the right words. “That is a serious character flaw.”

“What time is it?” Calhoun asked. He put both hands on the wheel again.

“Almost seven-twenty,” Castro said. “We should be back in town by eight.”

“Let’s load this cargo,” Calhoun said. Castro looked at him, but didn’t say anything.

Dia Spacer

Calhoun’s cool detachment of half an hour ago was destroyed. Kneeling in the sun, he was trying to shovel sand with his bare hands. . Suddenly it felt as if he’d been hit in the back with a rock. It was the first bad pain he’d gotten from the fever. He stopped working for a moment. Castro was watching him in the mirror. Calhoun tried to speak but the pain was suddenly overpowering, as if his spine had been broken. He let his face fall in the sand. The wave of pain crashed, then flowed away. In a moment he raised his head. His face glittered with bits of sand. He went back to work, slowly trying to clear the jeep’s front axle. It seemed hopeless.

Calhoun had been driving and it was his fault. He grabbed a handful of sand and squeezed it till it hurt. The axle was caught on a rock and the rock had the whole front end of the jeep off the ground. Castro was gunning the engine. Calhoun watched the rear wheels dig deeper into the soft sugary sand. They were axle deep in the rear and going nowhere, just sloshing sand and rock, making it worse. Calhoun stood up, threw the door open and looked at Miguel Castro behind the wheel.

“We’ll have to rock it off. All of us.” Castro stopped gunning the engine. It got quiet suddenly. The noise of the engine and tires stopped. Calhoun turned around and looked across the desert toward Wang’s rancho and beyond the jeep track to the highway that led to Tijuana.

“Hey, amigo. I think now we have a big problem,” Castro said. “La patrulla rata.”

Calhoun looked up. It was the worst thing that could happen. They’d been spotted by one of the rat patrols that scouted the desert for people to rob. With the jeep stuck they were vulnerable.

“La patrulla rata,” Castro said again. “Look.”

A car, a half mile below on the highway, had stopped. Four men were standing around the shimmering, burning blue metal of a Ford Taurus. The outline of their car was phantasmic, not clear, from where Calhoun stood.

“I thought you were supposed to stop this kind of shit. You’re a cop, aren’t you? Mexican federal fucking police.” Calhoun felt his soaked shirt sticking to his skin. He was sick again. The fever he thought he’d lost had come back.

“They’re my own men,” Castro said. “Judiciales. I can tell.”

“Well that’s fucking great,” Calhoun said.

“Welcome to Mexico,” Castro said, joking. He was trying to pretend things weren’t that bad. But Calhoun knew they were. It was that bad and it was only a little before eight in the morning.

“Well, why don’t you go down there and tell them we’ll pay them off?” Calhoun said.

“It won’t work. Not with that sort. They know I’ll kill them as soon as I can. That’s the way it works here.”

“Great. Anyway, they need a four-wheel drive to get up here,” Calhoun said.

“Maybe,” Castro said. He got the binoculars out of the jeep and focused on the patrol. “I know all of them…Judiciales,” he said again.

“Maybe we don’t have to worry,” Calhoun said. He wiped the sand off his face. His shirt had turned gray with sweat. “Maybe they don’t mean to bother us.

“I don’t think you understand,” Castro said, lowering the glasses. “You could say that they are ‘off duty’.”

“Well, maybe they’ll show you a professional courtesy,” Calhoun said, trying to joke about it.

“Yes, they will tear my asshole out after I’m dead,” he said. He wasn’t smiling.

Calhoun looked at the newly loaded cargo sitting in the back seat. Four Chinese girls, all teenagers, none of whom spoke any English. They didn’t have a clue about what was happening. But they knew it wasn’t good and were scared.

“Get the fuck out!” Calhoun said. He held the door open. They didn’t move. Wang had told them to stay in the car until they got to the hotel in Tijuana. They weren’t going to do anything else but sit there. “Get out and help, for Christ sake!” Calhoun said. It was useless. They didn’t understand a word he said. He let a round off from the automatic in the air. They froze. Calhoun reached inside and pulled one of the girls out roughly. Another girl climbed out on the other end, happy to get away from him.

Calhoun shook the gun at the other two and they piled out, terrified, thinking he wanted to shoot them. He took them to the back of the jeep and put his hands on the bumper and made an exaggerated motion of pulling up. The girls understood now and nodded and tried their best. Calhoun got a few rocks and dumped them in front of the jeep’s back wheels but he could see it was useless, the front end was too hung up. He was hit by another muscle cramp and slumped to his knees. It’s a nightmare, he thought. I’ll wake up. I know it’s a nightmare. He heard Miguel’s voice asking him what was wrong with him.

“Hey, amigo, look.”

Calhoun turned around and looked behind them down the arroyo. A new, white Land Rover, the kind that the Mexican highway patrol use, a big Land Rover, had stopped by the men in the Taurus.

“Give me the binoculars.” Castro pulled them off the seat. He took a look, then handed them to Calhoun. Two hundred yards below there were four federal police standing around a new Ford Taurus with an official government seal on the door. They all had automatic weapons. They were talking to the men in the Land Rover. They seemed to have all the time in the world, their dark faces mean-looking.

“They’ll take that Land Rover and come now,” Castro said. Calhoun had thrown his coat into the sand. His shirt was open. You could see his white Mylar vest and the shoulder harness and the extra clips, the harness soaked with sweat. His sunglasses reflected back the yellow hell of morning.

“We’ll tip it over,” Calhoun said suddenly.

“What?”

“Tip the motherfucker over. Maybe it will go right.”

“You’re crazy. It’s too heavy.” Calhoun was getting the jack out from under the passenger seat. “It will roll down the fucking hill,” Castro said.

“Am I? Look…for yourself,” Calhoun said, looking up. “We’ve got about five minutes to do something. Then it’s my guess we’re going to be in a hell of a predicamento.” The Chinese girls had gone to a scrap of shade from a rock outcropping. They looked exhausted and dazed by the heat now. They were talking in Chinese. They were dirty from the sand and dust from the back tires. Calhoun motioned to them to come back toward the jeep. He tried to show them what he wanted them to do. They didn’t understand. He got the jack under the passenger door and moved it up so that the uphill tires were lifted off the ground. He kept the jack going. He got on the high side of the jeep and pulled on the running board. It barely budged.

Castro came immed’ately and helped. They counted to three and tried again. One of the girls stepped forward and got next to Calhoun and they lifted again; this time the whole jeep rocked. The girl told the others to help and they stepped out of the shade. This time with six people lifting and Calhoun using the jack with one hand the jeep tilted, then started to go. Calhoun counted the revolutions; it was like watching dice. The jeep rolled once, rolled again, all of them watching. It came up on the tires and stopped.

It was too late to cross over to Palmdale. Calhoun drove back to Wang’s rancho. He knew they couldn’t outrun the Land Rover, knew the police would radio ahead if they tried to get on the main road. Calhoun stopped the jeep, looked at the stand of cottonwoods and then at the rancho’s white walls sparkling in the sun. Calhoun calculated the size of the rancho’s one room in his mind’s eye, then threw the jeep forward, drove to the back of the rancho and backed up, trying to maneuver the front of the jeep into position.

“Now what the fuck are you doing, amigo?” Castro said.

“Hold on.”

Calhoun backed up ten feet, then floored it and sent them crashing through the rancho’s back wall. The wall broke apart like an old clay pot. Calhoun ran the jeep inside the empty room right up to the other wall, slamming on the brakes, trying to stop before they went through the other side, big chunks of wall on the hood.

It was dark inside. Calhoun could see out one of the rancho’s narrow windows right in front of them. There were some old yellow curtains over the window. They could hear the Land Rover coming up the hill, its powerful engine growling, and then saw the top of the Rover break the crest of the hill. Calhoun counted five men in the Land Rover and swore under his breath.

The Land Rover slowed, swung around and stopped right in front of the rancho, pointed toward the cottonwood trees. Calhoun waited for them to spot the jeep, but they didn’t because the sun was in their eyes. They were looking toward the cottonwood trees and not the rancho. They were only a few feet away. He could tell the men thought they’d hidden down in the arroyo behind the trees. Calhoun pulled his forty-five from the harness. Castro turned to him and shook his head and smiled. They watched the men in the car talking, one was pointing toward the arroyo. Calhoun saw one of the men glance right at them and laugh. Two men got out of the Rover, unslung their machine pistols and walked toward the trees. Calhoun heard the girls whispering; he turned around and told them to shut up. The two men, one of them very fat, came back toward the Land Rover, shaking their heads. The other two got out of the Rover. They were all standing in front of the rancho just on the other side of the wall in front of them. It would only be a moment or so before one of them would get the bright idea to look in the window, Calhoun figured.

“Now what?” Castro whispered. Castro’s face was covered with fine red dust from the adobe.

Calhoun turned around. The girls were holding each other. The dust from the adobe wall covered their faces, making them look like Mexican girls. Calhoun realized he was covered with it too, his white suit brown now. The side windows on both sides had popped out when the jeep rolled and let in everything from the wall.

“I’ll go around back. When you hear me yell, you drive through the wall, hit the Rover, try to take it out. Try to run somebody over on the way,” Calhoun said. “I’ll have to back up now a little.” Castro smiled and crossed himself. He glanced at the men. They were on the radio.

“They’ll hear when you move the…” he said. Dirt fell into Castro’s mouth when he spoke and he had to stop. Calhoun shrugged his shoulders. There wasn’t much choice, they needed ramming room. He moved the shift lever to R. The jeep started to back up. The noise sounded extra loud inside the rancho. Castro lifted both his automatics up, still spitting sand, and pointed them toward the Rover. They crept back slowly, then stopped, the back end of the jeep sticking outside of the building now.

“When you hear me yell, go for it,” Calhoun whispered. Calhoun opened the door on his side and stepped out into the rancho. His leg got tangled in a chair and he almost shot himself. It was cool and dusty in the room. He got the girls out the other door and led them outside into the sun. He made them sit on the ground against the back wall. Calhoun stopped for a moment and looked out at the empty runway behind him and at the makeshift windsock lying against its pole. There was no breeze at all. I’ve been in a jam before, he thought. For a moment, he was frightened. He popped his clip out and looked at it, shoved it home and undid the snaps on his backup ammo. He took an extra clip out and held it in his left hand. He saw the tailpipe of the jeep and the flow of the exhaust, heavy and clear. He could hear the putter of the engine. He glanced at the little slice of shade the girls had crouched in. He heard the voices of the judiciales, a car door open, a few words of Spanish.

There was silence. He heard their car doors slam. He walked around to the front of the building and exposed himself. “Hey you guys, let’s make a deal!” Calhoun yelled. He saw the men. They were all standing by the window, leaning against it, smiling, two of them looking in. One of them was flipping Castro off and laughing. They’d just spotted the jeep.

“Give us the girls,” one of them said. He turned toward Calhoun and fired. Calhoun stepped back around the corner. Hunks of adobe were blown off the corner of the building in front of him. Calhoun heard the unmistakable racking of automatic weapons.

Calhoun held his breath. He heard the jeep’s engine gunned. Castro drove straight through the wall in front of him. The whole wall pushed out toward the Rover. The jeep climbed up over the debris and slammed one of the judiciales into the Rover, crushing him. The other four backed away, falling over themselves. Two got tangled up with each other and fell down on the sand, chunks of wall falling on top of them.

Calhoun stepped around the corner and shot as they tried to recover; one of them was trying to get his machine gun swung around. Calhoun shot him in the head at almost point blank range, rushing him. The other one fell into Calhoun and bounced off him, the man’s machine pistol knocked out of his hands. He got up and ran toward the cottonwoods. It was like a dream, the slow motion of the man making for the tiny hope of bright trees. Calhoun saw how hard he was pumping his fat legs, the sound his boots made on the ground. Calhoun lifted his forty-five and waited a moment, then shot him in the back at ten feet. His cowboy hat flew in the air, the impact from the forty-five knocking the runner face down like he’d been clubbed.

They were back in Tijuana in less than an hour.

 

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