Día de los Muertos: Chapter 8

Eight

Plaza Tijuana / 9:00 A.M.

Calhoun turned back to the doctor. The sign on his office door said Dr. Kevin Hughes/ Physician/ Cancer Specialist/ Growth Hormones Available/ No Appointment Needed. Calhoun knew what kind of doctor Hughes was. Tijuana was full of sent-down doctors of his type. The type whose credentials had been pulled up north after amputating the wrong foot or getting too friendly with some of the patients. They came to Tijuana and opened “clinics” of various kinds: sex change, longevity, cancer, bio-feedback. This one sold steroids to American high school kids. Hughes was a notorious pederast, even by Tijuana’s low standards. The doctor had one of those big open smiles in a fleshy baby face wrapped under a mess of thinning black hair. It was the kind of smile that people put on when they have a lot to hide.

They were in a second story walkup in a very old building above the Plaza Tijuana. Calhoun was sitting on an examination table from another era. The ancient table’s dark leather was creased. You could hear the cars and street traffic on the plaza through the old-style bay windows. The room’s three windows had been stenciled with the words La Clinica Hughes in large black letters that looked very impressive from the plaza. There was a gray pigeon preening reening itself on the ledge as the doctor spoke. The bay windows were dirty, streaked with grit spewed from the maquiladoras that ran night and day outside of town. The view outside was of tiles and roof tops lit by the morning sun. Drab, half-completed buildings stood against the skyline and looked slightly smudged, as if they’d been rendered in red charcoal. Everything looked unfinished, which was the hallmark of Mexico these days. The frantic building that had gripped Tijuana before the devaluation had suddenly stopped, just as quickly as it had begun.

“Dengue…that’s what you have,” Hughes said enthusiastically. “Breakbone fever, the old-timers call it.” The doctor turned toward a small white porcelain sink stained with rust marks and began to wash up, his back to Calhoun. The doctor’s pants were shiny and worn out and the same charcoal color as his thinning hair. “All of a sudden you will be hit with a colossal pain that shakes you…right?”

“Right,” Calhoun said.

“A nasty virus…mosquitoes, of course, are the vector, as we call it. The tiger mosquito.” The doctor bent over the sink slightly in a green paper smock, the half-length type that doctors use in Mexico—the thing made an odd rustling noise. Hughes glanced back over his shoulder at Calhoun. He’d been very careful not to look at Calhoun while he slid his pants on.

“There’re two types—hemorrhagic and another. Couldn’t say which of the two you have. Need tests for that. I could order them…”

Calhoun buckled his pants. He heard the rip of the paper towels, the clang of the dispenser, the running water, the rubbery sound hands make while they wash each other. Slightly sexual, the sound was. Calhoun finished dressing, trying to take in the diagnosis.

“If you start bleeding from the ears and gums, well…I’m afraid it’s a turn for the worse,” Hughes said, brightly talking over the water. He turned around and turned the tap off. “But you look strong. About thirty-five, aren’t you? I’m sure you’ll give the old virus a good run for its money,” he said, slapping his wet hands together. “I think it’s harder on the dark races,” Hughes said, warming to the subject. “Just my opinion of course…But it seems to drop these little Mexicans like flies. Especially their women.” He snapped one of his still-wet fingers but it wouldn’t pop. He clapped his hands together instead.

Calhoun finished buttoning his shirt. His face was warm, as if he were standing in front of an open fire. It could suddenly alternate between Turkish bath and Alaskan glacier. He’d worn his gun in a sling holster. The doctor had looked at it but not commented when Calhoun had taken his jacket off. Calhoun picked the holster off the peg on the wall now and put it on. Hughes pretended he didn’t see it, but watched. The forty-five was heavy-looking, the harness worn and wet like something you’d expect to see on a horse that had been run hard.

The doctor made more noise behind him: the ripping of paper towels, the closing of the garbage can lid. He turned around and faced Calhoun again. He seemed pleased with himself.

“What’s the prognosis?” Calhoun asked, trying to keep his tone bland, as if he were talking abut a third person. Calhoun looked down at the floor; the linoleum hadn’t been mopped in god knew how long. There were bits of blue paper towel and small red caps from the steroid syringes on the floor. Calhoun imagined that Hughes gave out free samples to his “patients,” probably telling them the injection must be given in “the large muscles of the buttocks.”

“It means you’re in for a bad patch, I’m afraid. Your body will fight off the virus or it won’t. It’s quite simple, really. We don’t have much of a bead on dengue. The profession’s at a complete loss. Too bad it’s not the clap. I’d have you right as rain in a day if it were the clap. Those were the days. Completely in the dark, now, though…with this…” Hughes said again. “A lot of nasty things out there. It’s the damn five-gallon buckets all over the hills.” Hughes stepped on the pedal of the fancy aluminum garbage can. The lid popped up and he threw in the blue paper towel he’d wiped his hands with. “They fill with rain water and breed the vectors.” The doctor’s words were suddenly modulated, intended to communicate that the consultation was over.

“…I take cash. That’s the way it is here. Cash and carry,” Hughes said. He pulled off the paper smock and laid it by the sink so he could reuse it. It seemed as if everything in the office had been used up and then used again.

“What can you give me for the fever?” Calhoun asked. “I need something for that. And to, ah…keep going.

“I’ve seen you at Caliente a couple of times. Who sent you?” Hughes asked, changing the subject.

“A friend.” Calhoun tucked in his shirt and reattached the shoulder harness to a strap of Velcro at his side. The gun seemed to weigh more. He checked to make sure his cell phone was tucked into its holster.

“A friend. I see. Well, Tijuana is full of helpful sorts, isn’t it?” Hughes said. “That’ll be fifty dollars. You can give it to the girl outside.”

“What about a prescription? Something to keep me going?” Calhoun finished adjusting his harness, pulled his white cotton suit coat off the wooden hanger and put it on.

“I can give you something to make you feel better, and for…strength, if you want. There’s nothing for the fever except aspirin. If the symptoms persist, you may have to go to the hospital. I suggest you go to an American one. If it develops into full blown hemorrhagic fever, you won’t want to be fooling around in Tijuana. You’ll want to get into a good American hospital. But you look healthy. I wouldn’t worry.”

The doctor wrote out a prescription for dexedrine and handed it over. Calhoun saw that the doctor’s hands were shaking slightly. He noticed a school ring with a green gemstone. Hughes shook his hand. Even the handshake was indifferent and purposefully weak-kneed and unctuous.

“Best of luck… By the way, we don’t accept pesos. You understand… Their currency isn’t worth a damn lately. The filthy stuff isn’t good for anything but flossing a pig’s behind.” Hughes chortled at his own joke.

Calhoun took the narrow, poorly-lit stairs back down to street level. The stairs were steep and shabby. He passed a young boy, maybe fourteen, on the way up. The boy smiled. It was the smile of a catamite. Very soft and luxurious. He had his arms folded tight like a woman while he stepped. Calhoun stopped at the bottom of the stairs, took out his dark glasses and waited a moment, trying to put Hughes and his handshake behind him. Then he stepped outside into the city. Hate shaking hands, he thought. But then, people still expect it, don’t they. One of our niceties. Pederast or president, everyone wants to shake your fucking hand.

 

“Where are you going?” Slaughter said. A new red Buick had pulled to the curb. The Englishman was sitting on the passengers side. One of the kids from his crew was driving. There was a thin, pale white man sitting alone in the back seat. The man tried to get Calhoun’s attention. “Get in the car. We’ll give you a lift,” Slaughter said. Calhoun went to the rear door and slid in. “What good luck, just talking about you,” Slaughter said. He turned around and looked at Calhoun. “Where to?”

“The office,” Calhoun said.

“I’m afraid I have one for the dumps,” Slaughter said. “He’s in arrears.” Calhoun turned and looked again at the man next to him. He was frightened and looking to Calhoun for help. “I’d like to get out,” the man said. He made a move for the door handle, and Slaughter reached over and slapped him hard, knocking him back into the seat.

The kid punched the accelerator. A bus honked at them. The driver of the Buick whipped the wheel, avoided the crash, and they were off into the welter of midmorning traffic.

“I think they’re going to kill me,” the man said, looking at Calhoun. Slaughter laughed and turned around. The Englishman put his hand on the driver’s shoulder.

“Stop the car,” Calhoun said. He’d begun to sweat again. “I don’t want anything to do with this. Let me out.”

“Don’t be silly. You don’t look well, old boy. Heard about the bad luck this morning. Jolly good show. My girls would have been toast. Sorry, had to keep the little secret from you.” Slaughter turned around and smiled. Calhoun gave up. They were only a few blocks from his office. It wasn’t worth the argument.

“I suppose you must put in an appearance…on occasion, I imagine.” Slaughter told the kid to take Calhoun to his office on Avenida Marie de Leon.

“You remember me? I met you once at the Escondido…Harry Cohn,” the man said. Cohn wiped his mouth. He reached over and tapped Calhoun on the arm. Like Calhoun, he was sweating and seemed to be trying to think of what he could say. His hands were locked one on the other.

“Mr. Cohn has run out of time,” Slaughter said. “We never think about it until we run out.” Calhoun noticed how dirty the windows of the car were. The rain, he thought, the rain washes down with soot in it. Funny how much it’s rained.

“Do we, Mr. Cohn. I mean, you had acres of time to pay me. I was very liberal with you,” Slaughter said. The Englishman had worked for some record company in L.A. until he found his true métier, working Tijuana’s underworld.

“Jesus Christ, let me out,” Calhoun said. “Pare el coche,” Calhoun said to the driver. The kid didn’t pay any attention.

“Mr. Cohn, I want you to meet my confrere, Mr. Calhoun. He owes me a great deal of money, too. But he’s very useful,” Slaughter said.

“I owe him exactly forty-three thousand dollars,” Cohn said quietly. “I have been losing lately… You wouldn’t understand… Are you a gambler? Otherwise, you wouldn’t understand… I can get the money.” Cohn was looking at Calhoun, his eyes big in his head. He had very short black hair and he was rubbing it with one hand. “I told him that my wife’s family has the money, but he won’t listen to me. If he would just let me go back to Los Angeles…I would get the money and come straight back here. I swear to God,” Cohn said. Calhoun looked at the man.

“Oh, but Mr. Cohn… You’ve left out the best part of the story. Why would you do that?” Slaughter said. The car turned onto the Avenida Juarez, the wheels burning rubber. The kid driving liked to speed, it was a big joke. Calhoun saw a body louse crawl out from the kid’s shirt collar and move up toward his hairline. He turned away and looked out the window.

“Listen, mister. Please. I don’t know who you are but, please, I have kids, I got a wife…they need me. This can’t happen to me.”

“Tell him the rest, Mr. Cohn. It isn’t fair if you don’t tell him the rest,” Slaughter said. Cohn buried his face in his hands and started to cry. It was loathsome. Calhoun looked into the mirror of the Buick. The kid driving smiled. He made a gesture with his free hand, bringing it up to his head and pulling the trigger of an imaginary gun.

“I told Mr. Cohn I would employ him in our little enterprise and he agreed. Then he let us down. Didn’t you, Mr. Cohn? You let us down. I had cargo that needed moving and you missed your date.” Slaughter had been talking facing front. Now he turned around and looked into the back seat. Miguel said he’d been certified psychotic up in L.A. Calhoun could believe it now when Slaughter turned around. There was a murderous look on the young Englishman’s face. “You fucked with my hustle. Didn’t you, Mr. Cohn? I would have let you work it off. The entire amount.” Slaughter pulled on his do-rag, adjusting it while he spoke, completely out of control.

“Slaughter, let me out. This isn’t any of my business. I don’t want to get involved.”

“Mister, please… Please… You have to help me.” Cohn took his wallet out and opened it. A plastic accordion full of his life fell out. “Look… Please. Help me.” Calhoun felt a chill go through his body. He looked at Cohn. He looked like just another American tourist, nothing special about him except the fear. The car seemed to be getting smaller. He smelled something and realized Cohn had wet himself. He looked at Slaughter. He was saying something but Calhoun couldn’t hear it for a moment. The Englishman had broken into a blurred image. The car seemed to have shrunk, too, like a tunnel.

“You had no business coming to Tijuana,” Calhoun said, turning to Cohn. “No business at all. Now you’re in this…” He pulled his coat off. He suddenly felt very hot. His pistol exposed, Cohn looked at him not sure now that he’d been talking to the right man, that maybe it was Calhoun who would kill him. “You should have stayed on the other side, but you didn’t, you came here. Now you’re in this,” Calhoun said.

“I don’t want to die.”

“No one wants to die, Mr. Cohn, no one. Believe me, you are not alone. But it’s the right day for it, isn’t it, Calhoun? Tell our friend what day it is.” They came to a stop in front of the American consulate in Tijuana. Calhoun opened the car door. He was looking into the eyes of a dead man.

“Día de los Muertos,” the kid said for him. He turned around, he must have been only fourteen or so. He was smiling.

“What’s that mean?” Cohn asked. “What’s it mean?!”

“How much does he owe you?” Calhoun asked

“A lot,” Slaughter said.

“All right. You lied to us about what the girls were carrying. Let him go. That’s what the lie will cost you,” Calhoun said. “You don’t let him go…we don’t cross them. Period.”

“Fine,” Slaughter said quickly. “Fine. I admire you, Calhoun. You’re a gentleman. And I owe you for rescuing the cargo.”

“Get out, asshole,” Calhoun said. He grabbed Cohn by the shirt and yanked him out of the car. “Get the fuck out and go home. If I see you again, I’ll shoot you myself.” He threw him against the car. Cohn ran into the traffic and was almost killed. Slaughter thought it was funny.

 

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