Book: Return to the Same City

Previous: Chapter Ten
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Where will you go that the night won’t grab you?
Rolo Díez
If he had looked carefully when he went home to pick up the artillery, he would have noticed that the ducks were sending him a serious warning sign. But Héctor was not in his finest hour. He was in a hurry to keep a date, and when one is in a hurry, one puts one’s tie on backward, forgets the theater tickets, doesn’t whistle the right tune, puts salt instead of sugar in one’s coffee, falls in love with the wrong woman, spatters one’s pants when urinating, or one encounters an armed man, in the middle of the room, aiming with a bear-hunting rifle.
“I’m only going to shoot you if you start getting nervous,” said Reyes, the bolero-singing Acapulcan cop. “Moreover, I don’t care about your story, nor do I want to hear it. And if possible, I’m not going to shoot you because I happen to like your records. I have a lot of them, too, the same ones. You have good records…The truth is I’m just doing a favor for a pal. In reality, they’re just paying me to take a truck to Acapulco without letting anyone see it or open it or touch it. But they’re asking me to do a favor and I’m doing it…So I’m doing you a favor. I’m not going to kill you, I’m only going to ask that you turn around and one, two…”
***
He’d been tied up with wire to a chair. He tested the resistance before opening his eye. When he did, Estrella was there, before him, waiting.
“It’s a job,” Estrella said, as if apologizing, as he studied Belascoarán’s sad face. “The difference is that I am a professional and you are not. But the bottom line, my colleague, is that this is business, no hard feelings.”
But even though it was only that, business, first he spit on the detective, then slapped him. Héctor’s head swayed. His wrists hurt more than his head. Estrella moved to hit him again, with his open palm, as if in slow motion. Héctor tried to hide his head, but there was nowhere to send it on vacation. The blow fell on the same cheek. Now it did hurt. The second ones are the ones that hurt, Héctor thought, and a tear welled up. Fear or impotence? It was very important to know, the shitty question was not rhetorical; but the Cuban didn’t give him time to reflect.
“Since when, kid, does a professional make so much noise when he’s being followed? You think I’m stupid? Putting a one-eyed man to tail me? That’s straight out of the circus. And I was thinking you were the visible and that behind you was the invisible. But the only invisible behind you is your ass.”
Héctor nodded just as the third blow landed. He felt the Cuban’s ring make a small slash on his cheek.
“You know, kid, I like slapping. It’s like a pleasure, like eating fruit, my colleague. That’s how good it is.”
Héctor nodded again. The Cuban made a move to slap him again and Héctor closed his healthy eye. The blow never came. Estrella had stopped himself, and opened his arms. He repeated the gesture and the detective kept watching.
“Ooonly youuu…” the Cuban sang with open arms, the hand of the slap that never came extended in the air.
Héctor seized the opportunity to look around. They were in a huge empty cargo warehouse. A couple of floodlights lit up what seemed to be an isolated area where there was a half-open office with a couple of chairs, a desk, and a large jug of purified water inside. He was tied up in one of the chairs; in the other, the Cuban had placed one of his patent leather boots. The boot shone strangely under the light.
“Come, Chato,” said Estrella.
To his name and from the shadows, a character who took great pride in his nickname emerged, a tiny piece of a nose embedded in two enormous cheeks and sunken eyes.
“Take him and kill him out there, far away…like the gringo. Come back soon, before midnight.”
Héctor felt himself urinating. Fortunately, he hadn’t had too many refreshments that day and he didn’t make much of a puddle. Estrella turned away without looking at him and was lost in the darkness.
“Fucking gusano,” the detective cried. “Come back here, you prick. If you’re going to kill me, you owe me an explanation of all this idiocy.”
“Oh, face it, it’s all terribly complicated. If you only knew. The thought of explaining it to you exhausts me, One-Eye.”
“I’ll trade you. I’ll tell you who hired me to follow you. Come back, asshole! Gusano faggot, tell me!”
Estrella reappeared from the shadows.
“The truth is, my brother, I don’t give a shit. It could be anyone. The current owner of El Tropicana, Barbas, who God in his glory confuses. My boss, who wants to protect his money. My mother, that brute, who follows my steps from heaven, and pays stupid Mexican detectives instead of hiring professionals from Detroit.”
“You’re going to swap drugs for arms, right?”
“Look, I’ll tell it to you quickly and if you understand, fine, and if you don’t who the fuck cares how informed dead people are? I buy cocaine from some, from others I buy arms with the cocaine.”
“And if you’ve got money, why don’t you buy the arms from the second group of guys and save time?” Héctor asked, putting on his best bewildered face.
“See what an idiot you…Because they buy arms in the United States, and I can’t go around buying things up there. But that’s what contacts, connections, soulmates are for. So I buy drugs in Mexico and with that I buy arms from the States, and I make a lot of people happy. We’re all friends, buddy. Later I send the arms to some friends, who pay me to do that, to have those arms reach those friends; but not all of them, colleague, just part. And I give the other part of the arms to other friends for letting me play on their diamond, for lending me the bat; the balls are mine, kid. Get it? None of it? Shit. See? I told you. You’ll die just as ignorant as when you were alive.”
“And what crap are the Mexicans who you gave the arms going to pull? No, wait. They’ll take them down to Michoacán—” And Héctor shut up, thinking about how he would die smarter than he had lived. Estrella left without granting much importance to the expression of an illuminated angel on the detective’s face.
El Chato didn’t waste time untying him; with unimaginable strength he lifted the chair, detective and all, and loaded it into the back of a small van. Then he got into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
Leaving the shed, a series of fine drops of rain began to fall on the van. El Chato cursed under his breath. The windshield wipers didn’t work. Héctor was trying to keep his balance in the chair. They were on the outskirts of the warehouse district. When they got to the second stoplight, El Chato seemed to have decided their route. Héctor was thinking that dying in one place rather than another made absolutely no difference to him, when a motorcycle stopped next to the driver’s window, and a gloved hand smashed El Chato’s head with a wrench. The big man collapsed over the steering wheel, and Héctor had a laughing attack.
“What are you laughing about, asshole?” she said, taking off her helmet and swinging her ponytail in the rain.
Héctor couldn’t respond. He didn’t know how.
***
“And who do you work for, young Chato?” Héctor asked the character tied up with wire to the chair in the back of the van.
“He’s mute,” said the woman with the ponytail.
“Well, for a mute, he was carrying too many papers. Just look,” Héctor said, showing El Chato what he had pulled out of his bag a couple of minutes before. “Michoacán state police, holy shit. Let me guess…You are the one who’s going to accompany the arms to be unloaded in Michoacán. You are the one who’s going to seize them. You are the one who’s going to tell the press that the Cardenistas were dealing in contraband arms with who knows what dark motives. No. You’re not going to say that, someone more photogenic will say it. You are just going to take the arms to the coast and there you’ll play at inventing an unloading. The papers will do the rest. There’s just one thing you don’t know that I do know.”
“What do you know?” she asked, driving very professionally. No showing off.
“That this Chato knows too much and they’re going to kill him when they unload, or shortly thereafter. That there can be no witnesses to this story. That for the provocation to work, there can be no poor boys out there to later tell the story to someone one day when they’re getting drunk in a Puerto Vallarta hotel.”
“What a drag, to be poor and mute,” she said.
“Maybe you fucked him up with that wrench.”
“I gave it to him gently,” she said, smiling proudly.
“You better drop me off on the corner,” El Chato said. “You can’t stop it. They already tipped off the reporters. Even if there aren’t any arms, there’ll be a scandal for the Cardenistas. They’ll be screwed all the same. A few arms will pop up anyway; these because they thought they were pretty, and the boat and everything, and they’re not even Mexican arms. Just because the Cuban put the operation within our reach. Better to let me off here.”
“No, sir, because you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to give the press a Chato tied up with wire to a chair. A Chato who will tell them the whole story. See what a mess this is.”
“There’s no way to give me a chance?” said El Chato, with an expression that said that any way he looked at it his future was not going to be very bright.
“Like what?”
“Like I give you everything in writing and you give me twenty-four hours to clear out. When all is said and done, I don’t have shit against the Cardenistas. My boss was with Cárdenas during the previous campaign.”
“I’ll think about it seriously. It strikes me that you could become an honorable man again.”
“If I were you I wouldn’t believe it. When I hit him in the head with the wrench he made a face of a man with bad instincts.”
“He made the face of a PRI idiot. And besides, he was going to kill me.”
“How do you know, if you were tied up in the back?”
“Because lately I’ve been learning a lot.”
***
A strategic operation is characterized by the incorporation of a dose of wisdom and a dose of insanity in equal parts. Héctor did not know how to launch one. For him, all war operations were beyond idiotic, all deceiving, all nightmarish. But now he was going to try, because in Mexico, just having faith and the good guys on one side of the fence is not enough. It’s not enough to count on reason, self-esteem, utterly justified rage, the power of Hegelian dialectic, and that kind of thing.
In this stupid country, Pancho Villa formulas like a horse and a lot of balls clearly aren’t enough; behind it you need the artillery of General Felipe Angeles; the morals of Guillermo Prieto, who was secretary of the treasury in the nineteenth century and died in poverty; the sense of direction of a city bus driver; the originality of the Aztec king Cuauhtémoc, who spouted historical quotations when they were burning his feet; the good star followed by the Avila brothers, eternal, triumphant trapeze artists of the Atayde circus; the skill of Hermenegildo Galeana not to dislocate his wrist when using a machete; the patience of the holy Niño Fidencio; and the marksmanship of someone from Tomochic. And therefore, the .45 and the .38 he had stored in the fridge were not enough; he needed a rifle he had in the closet, a heavy coat for the rain, a new patch for his bad eye, some drops for his good eye, a recently sharpened kitchen knife; and, of course, the one small van they’d stolen from El Chato was not enough, he needed at least two or three more. Héctor resolved the problem of the ideological arsenal and the practical, but with respect to the van, he was stumped. Fortunately, the woman with the ponytail had hidden resources, probably the result of having had a millionaire father at some point in her life.
“Let’s go to the corner and we’ll rent them with drivers and everything. Do you have money? Because you can’t rent vans with a credit card.”
“Not a dime,” Belascoarán said, finishing tying the knot of the threads of the war he was preparing.
***
There are complete mariachi bands, half-mariachi bands, mariachis with black uniforms and silver-plated buttons, with popular uniforms, no uniforms, with bugles, without bugles, with bugles and piano dampers, with middle basses and a fat man with a double bass, with three violins, one for decoration, or simply with two. To liven up parties, for accompaniment, for nothing but show, with real or fake guns, with their own cars or base infantry. They swarm around the outskirts of the remodeled Garibaldi Plaza attacking pedestrians, reminding us that in all past times they flirted better, screwed better, sang better; offering the musical glory for the best and most bitter goodbyes to departed and tormented lovers, the most bastardly serenade and raising the barks of dogs to make the future father-in-law turn green with rage, the most melodious of the offensive seducers with antiquated and necessarily romantic techniques. (If it worked for Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, the great ranchera singers, why not for you? Are you perhaps more cowardly than the aforementioned?) They move toward the cars like casualties of unemployment, thereby revealing themselves as equals and equally as afflicted as we are by the Monetary Fund; even if they’re found dressed as mariachis and not as real Mexicans. And they offer themselves so that you might hold hands with the past, return to the old rituals, which really do work, and attack accompanied by a singing army. That is precisely what it was about. No euphemisms.
Nothing half-assed, a holy war sung with mariachis. An authentically Mexican war, born of the best national traditions. The way Dick would have liked it for the end of his report.
With three hundred thousand pesos up front (half down, chief, in case you say later the serenade didn’t work and we have to walk back), Héctor hired four mariachi bands, a total of twenty-six musicians, with silver-plated suits, two sloshed fat men with trumpets, all with real guns but no bullets (there Belascoarán had to be very precise), to sing for half an hour wherever the gentleman told them to. Surprises work, right?
The entourage advanced in procession toward the eastern part of Mexico City. While the woman with the ponytail drove the stolen van, Héctor, looking at his watch every so often as if the time of the date would slip away on him by a dirty trick, was instructing the natural leaders of his four mariachi bands about the order of battle and the appropriate repertoire. First, they would set themselves up comfortably in an arc. Then he would open the garage door and there they would enter one by one. First piece: “The Song of the Black Woman,” later your choice, mariachi by mariachi. And then, right at the end all together, “The Sandal.” Singing the refrain two times, the one that goes “The sandal I throw, I will not pick up again.”
The rain had stopped when they took the viaduct. There weren’t too many cars, the crisis and the autistic suggestion of “Come, little dear, lock yourself up with your TV, it will give you the warmth that humans take from you” was doing away with even Friday nights, which were in turn finishing off Saturday nights, which had in turn eliminated (I don’t give a shit if tomorrow is Monday) the still better than hopeless Sunday nights; when you really lived even if you didn’t know it.
When they turned down Río Churubusco, the woman with the ponytail had convinced him to practice “Mule Drivers Are We” with the mariachis and, like a furious lunatic, detective Belascoarán Shayne was howling Cuco Sánchez’s wonderful lyrics:
If after all, we cooome from nooothing,
And into nooothing by God we will retuuurn…
What would you say if when it is very quiet, inside a legally rented warehouse and being Cinderella’s hour, twelve midnight, while two trucks with machine guns, grenades, and mortars are very harmoniously being unloaded and are being swapped for a few dozen well-packed packages of cocaine, with their plastic intact and the purity guaranteed by a competent chemist who received his degree at the University of Guadalajara; all very legal, then, with no suspicion, and the Acapulcans count the dollars and the gringos weigh the coke, then ten thousand mariachis enter playing “The Song of the Black Woman” and one foolish one-eyed lunatic starts shooting a rifle at random? What would you say if the one-eyed man is also yelling incomprehensible things, almost howling, as he shoots? And instead of stopping playing, the mariachis continue entering the warehouse, the ones in back pushing the ones in front, blowing the bugles and giving it to the violins, and the one-eyed man fires everywhere at the same time and then the Acapulcan druggies get nervous and think someone has pulled a double operation on them and start firing at the gringos with the arms; if they were nervous since before and their hands weren’t ticklish on the triggers and they start firing, too, one group against the other instead of firing at the mariachis in front of them who now finally realize that practically nobody likes the music and start shooting their guns, because they’ll be damned if they’re going to run around with fake guns and blank cartridges with every son of a bitch loose in this city, and they were educated sentimentally by the best Luis Aguilar movies where first you shoot in the air, then you ask questions and later you shoot in earnest. And Estrella, meanwhile, flees to the back part of the warehouse. And one of the one-eyed man’s bullets hits him in the back, near the spine, and Estrella thinks how can he die in Mexico, of all the places he’s been…
And what would you think if in the middle of this mess, while the mariachis in the back insist on making their entrance playing because they, too, were being paid to play, and the detective finds himself wrapped up in a skirmish with the ones who were going to take the trucks with arms, the ones who carry Honduran passports even though they were born in Managua, a woman in a motorcycle helmet enters and hurls two bottles of gasoline onto the truck and a sudden blaze fires up? What would you think? Huh?
In the middle of the fire, the shots, the cries, Héctor thought it best to put a little distance between them, because within a few days a good number of cops, a ton of Miami mafiosi, a truckful of Nicaraguan contras, and twenty-six mariachi musicians dressed in black with silver-plated buttons would be looking for him.
Outside, on the street, in spite of the rain, the neighbors were applauding a truckful of firefighters, the walls of the warehouse were burning. The flames mingled with the flashes of photographers. Who had called the press? The guardian angels were working overtime. Héctor saw himself reflected in a car window. What was he doing there? The pain of the fear, near his spine, paralyzed him. The woman with the ponytail took him by the arm and squeezed. They went off. The detective was limping. They could still hear the shots.
***
The apartment was quiet, the omnipresent ducks would be sleeping. The woman with the ponytail went into the kitchen to make coffee. Héctor slipped into the bathroom on tiptoes and looked at himself in the mirror. He decided to shave. As he did so, dry, with a disposable razor, he said to himself: “Fine, okay; it’s not bad winning every once in a while. Winning even if it’s halfway. Good. It feels fucking great to win every once in a while,” and things like that. It wasn’t working at all. Dick wasn’t around having a gin.
There was one small debt left. One day he would meet other Estrellas on the other side of the world, around the corner. And that day, he’d kick them twice in the balls and sing “Only You” to them.
As he shaved, he discovered that the cut on his cheek was starting to bleed. It wasn’t a big deal, a slash about one or two inches long. How had it happened? Estrella’s ring when he was slapping him? Wiping the blood off the corner of his mouth, Héctor Belascoarán tried to force a smile. The sun was coming up. The light entered softly through the bathroom window. From the kitchen, the woman with the ponytail offered him some coffee; Héctor asked for something cold with lime. She told him they were out. Héctor told her to look under the sink, in the secret hiding place; in the emergency stash where he kept another automatic .45, selected novels of Hemingway, a first-aid manual, a can of Asturian pork and beans, and two Coca-Colas. He heard the woman’s guffaws.
He opened the window. Sleepy children were going to the corners to wait for the school bus. Maids on the way with milk. Drunks going home. Industrial workers starting the hazardous hour-and-a-half trip to the assembly line. Adolescents absolutely lovelorn, convinced that they wouldn’t be loved this time either. Writers who hadn’t slept well going out to take a walk before getting into bed to dream with their eyes open about the novel that wasn’t coming out. Circus magicians mentally practicing the marvelous act that had kept them awake. Farmers without land coming from far away to loathe the bureaucrats of the Agrarian Reform as they stood in line. Remorseful suicides. Pregnant and early-rising mothers; teachers who pulled ingenious algebra lessons out of their hats; insurance salespeople who didn’t believe in insurance; miraculous subway conductors; physicists who couldn’t be like Leonardo da Vinci; journalists on the way home; lottery salespeople who would never win; FM radio station announcers on the way to the job, who knew that once again they would read false news and who dreamed of one of these days passing on the information that was denied them; proud old people who no longer knew how to sleep; nurses of the soul; stray dogs; unpublished poets; blacklisted film directors; democratic bureaucrats on the verge of being fired; rock drummers; compulsive Althuser readers; teenagers swaggering defiantly at six in the morning who couldn’t stop believing they owned a city that adored them; Cardenista bricklayers, zealous conservators of the skill of laying bricks vertically without plumb lines. All the manufacturers of different metropolises, of apparently impossible futures, on their way to the routines pretending that they would be the ones to one day make the city blossom like a flower and become another.
He came out of the bathroom, took the refreshment in his hands, and went into the bedroom preparing to pack a bag. He would go to the woman with the ponytail’s house for a few months. At least to throw off the mariachis. He would be so foolish as to marry her, as absurd as to be a Mexican detective, as strong as fear. And if he left everything? With the artillery and the two volumes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, he’d have more than enough. That and the ducks…He went to the window again, drawn by the light. It was starting to rain. Why weren’t there ever any rainbows in Mexico City? He liked to see the rain fighting with the light. He lit a cigarette.
Héctor Belascoarán Shayne found himself returning. Among other things, to the same city as before. A city the same as and different from the one of always.
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