Día de los Muertos: Chapter 7


Hotel Cuauhtémoc / 8:25 A.M.

The Hotel Cuauhtémoc’s arcade shaded the rooms against a savage morning sun. The hotel was from another era, when Tijuana was a small desert town. Across the dirt street were the last few hovels in Tijuana’s worst neighborhood, La Cumbre, and beyond that, a thousand miles of empty Sonoran desert. One of the many lizards that lived in the lobby started to move. Like a windup toy, it crossed the red and white tile floor making a horrible, sentient, dragging sound. Oblivious to people, it crept over Calhoun’s shoe while he was talking to the desk clerk, its tail slipping back and forth, knocking him in the ankle.

The night clerk had never asked what went on in room twelve. He wasn’t going to ask why Calhoun’s suit was stained red, either. He pretended there was nothing wrong. Calhoun had his gun out at his side. They used the Cuauhtémoc as a safe house. The clerk would clean the room himself as soon as they left, and it would be ready again in a few hours if they needed it. The clerk had taken to keeping the key in his pocket. He hadn’t told his wife about the hundred dollar bills he’d been collecting all summer. She’d asked once who the men were who came from downtown, and he’d said they were old amigos and left it at that.

“Just like always?” the man said. His greasy hair, done in the pompadour style older Mexican men love, was combed back like the young Elvis. He wore a gold crucifix, the cross held tight up against his Adam’s apple.

“No, we’ll be leaving soon. Just waiting for a call,” Calhoun said. “I want you to call the room if you see any strange men parking out in the street.” Calhoun handed the night clerk a hundred dollar bill.

“Today, fiesta,” he said, smiling at Calhoun and fondling the bill. “Today, second of November. Día de los Muertos.” The man turned around and nodded to the religious calendar on the wall, a picture of the baby Jesus. “Day of the Dead,” he said again for emphasis in case Calhoun hadn’t understood the Spanish.

“Day of the Dead. Fiesta alegre! Fiesta alegre!” He himself planned to go up the street and get laid after the day clerk came in. He fanned himself with the hundred dollar bill Calhoun had just given him. He described the pleasures of the flesh, such as they were, that one could purchase up the street for just ten dollars. Concrete cubicles, one bidet for twenty girls in bad electric light, but pleasure nonetheless. Calhoun listened to the desk clerk’s description. He already knew what day it was. He turned toward the doorway that led out to the dirt road in front of the hotel. He stopped in the doorway and turned back to look at the clerk. He thought about death, what the Yaqui had said to him at the Escondido the night before. She was wrong—I’m not going to die. He nodded to the night clerk, then slipped his havelock on, which made him look like an officer in the Legion going out into the Casbah. Day of the Dead. So what? So what? Another lizard crept by him, its head up, moving quickly, greenish gills going like a matron at a fancy ball. The lizard dropped onto the road with a pronounced thud in front of him and moved to a puddle of water from the heavy rain of the night before.

“Fiesta alegre,” the clerk said again behind him. “Fiesta alegre.” The phone on the desk rang. The night clerk picked it up, listened, then cupped the receiver and called to Calhoun out in the street. “Es para usted, señor.” Calhoun turned around and came back into the lobby and took the phone.

“It’s Breen. I’ve got to talk to you…” There was a pause while he waited for an answer from Calhoun.

“I’m kind of busy today,” Calhoun said. “Can you handle it?”

“Customs just arrested someone called Wang. He says you know all about smuggling people.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Calhoun said.

“You better come into the office. People here are starting to wonder what the fuck is going on.”

“How did you know where I was?”

“Wang was nice enough to give me the number.”

“All right, I’ll come…it’s almost nine…I’ll be there in an hour or so.”

Calhoun walked out from the slip of shade into the sun, to the front of the motel. He found a garden hose attached to a fifty gallon water barrel which had been set up for guests to serve themselves potable water. He turned the welded spigot and soaked his hat, cleaned his face off. He watched the water, silvery and unreal, darken the hat. He slapped it back on his head, heavy and wet, and immediately felt relief from the heat. He rubbed his dirty face and wiped it off with the back of his hand. He stood up and looked at the jeep parked in front of the blue door to room twelve. The back window had popped out; otherwise it was beat-up but all right. He fished for a cigarette. It was too hot to smoke but he lit up anyway, tasted it, then threw it onto the empty parking lot that radiated heat and fumes. He looked at his watch again. They were waiting for a call from Miguel’s contact who would tell him if it was safe to go further into town. He turned around and looked at the low-lying motel with its primary blue doors. It seemed like he’d already put in a full day’s work.

“Wash up, we won’t be here long. Wash!” Calhoun pretended to rub his face. He looked at the pretty one and made a motion with his hand. “We are just waiting for a call.” He held an imaginary phone to his head. “Want to make sure it’s okay to go on. No more trouble, I promise.” He looked at the girls. They looked at him. Still frightened, they didn’t move from the bed.

“What do you expect?” Castro said behind him. “They’re still in shock.”

“I got a call from Breen… He knew I was here,” Calhoun said.

Castro had been leaning back in his chair half asleep with his feet up on a table, his white cowboy hat slid back on his head. It was the only thing that was clean—he’d left it here at the Cuauhtémoc on the table the day before. There was a wedge of oiled black hair showing from under the hat. The captain brought his feet down.

There was a short, banging ring, then another from the phone next to him. Calhoun stared at the phone while it rang. Each ring seemed to be louder than the one before.

Castro finally picked it up. He held the phone and listened, looking at Calhoun. “Where? They don’t even have any luggage,” Castro said. He put down the phone. “We’re the last to know, my friend.”

“Know what?”

“That the little darlings are full of heroin. We’ve been had.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Calhoun said. “I’m going to kill Slaughter. If we live through this.”

“How much do you think it’s worth?” Castro said.

“There’s four of them. I don’t know…enough to kill you for,” Calhoun said.

They could hear the rumble of a municipal water truck out on the street and the sound of the cow bell that let people know it was passing. Calhoun tasted something in his mouth. He went to the bathroom and spit into the sink. A dark bit of adobe had gotten in his mouth. Someone from the hotel banged on the door and asked it they needed water from the truck. Calhoun went to the door and said no. He saw two late model cars parked on the street. He shut the door and told Castro.

“Friends,” Castro said. They heard the bell from the water truck again. “We could just leave them. Wash our hands of it.” Calhoun looked at the girls. He took his hat off and wiped his face. It was starting to get warm in the room. His big body was sweating from the heat, suffering from the lack of air.

“No. If people know about the heroin, they’ll turn Tijuana inside out to find them. And when they do, they’ll rip it out of them,” Calhoun said.

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. We have to cross them or they won’t get out of here alive.”

“It would be better at the Arizona then, safer,” Castro said. The phone rang again. Castro went to the table and picked it up.

“¿Quién habla?… Yes, we have them. It’s all right. Of course. We’re booked up this afternoon. We’ll do it tonight. I’m sorry. They’ll have to stay at the Arizona in the meantime.” Castro held the phone again. “It’s Slaughter, he wants them to cross right away.”

“Fuck him.” Calhoun moved toward the phone angrily. Miguel pushed him away. He spoke with Slaughter and put down the phone.

“Where do you think she’ll end up?” Castro said. The pretty one had come out of the bathroom. She had washed her face. She was standing in the doorway of the bathroom. Her face was wet. She had taken down her hair and was putting it up again. She didn’t look like she was carrying anything inside her. Calhoun turned around and looked at her, then turned away.

“Did you know? Tell me the truth, Miguel.” “No.”

“Fucking Wang… They swallowed it at the rancho,” Calhoun said.

“Yes, I suppose so…”

Calhoun went to the window. He heard the water running in the bathroom. One of the other girls had decided to wash up.

“I said I’d never do drugs,” Calhoun said.

“It will be our secret. Where do you think she’ll end up?” Castro said again.

“That looks like a rich man’s wife to me,” Calhoun said. The girls started talking to one another in Chinese. Another girl got off the bed and went to the bathroom.

“She’s better looking than that Chinese movie star…you know. That’s who she looks like. I can’t think of her name, it’s too hot,” Castro said. The phone started to ring again. Calhoun went to the table by the bed and picked it up, then immediately put it back on its cradle and collapsed.

“I told you, you were sick.” Castro said. Calhoun tried to answer. He saw Castro talking to him from a corner of the room but he was seeing several Castros. “It’s all right. You’ll be all right. There’s a doctor on the plaza I want you to see,” Castro said, picking him up.

“Call Slaughter back and tell him we want more money. Tell him we know,” Calhoun said from his knees.

When Castro got off the phone Calhoun was still on his knees, his whole body shaking. His friend looked down at him.

“Well…don’t look so fucking happy,” Calhoun said. They both started to laugh.

“Hey, amigo, you look like shit,” Castro said.

“This is what I get for sleeping with your sister,” Calhoun said.


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