Authors: Gary Brandner
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
The night steamed.
Two merchant seamen, one American and one British, rolled through the streets of Veracruz with their arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. Over the course of the evening and many tequilas chased with beer, they had become fast friends. Their clothes were soaked through with sweat. They sang “El Rancho Grande” in pidgin Spanish, badly off key, and thought they sounded pretty good.
Under a flickering street lamp, they lurched to a stop and peered down the dark street ahead of them. They rocked back and forth, trying to focus.
“This is a shit town,” said the American.
“If only it wasn’t so bleedin’ hot,” said the Britisher.
“It’s the humidity does it,” the American explained.
“Bleedin’ hot, that’s what it is,” his friend reiterated. “They only got two seasons here, hot and damned hot.”
The two of them laughed uproariously at the old joke. When they recovered their breath, the American said, “Talkin’ about hot, let’s get busy and find us a couple of them
. From eatin’ chili peppers, they can burn a man’s pecker off if he ain’t careful.”
“I’d risk it. This might be me last chance to use the thing for any purpose but to pee through.”
“Once the war starts, most of us able-bodied seamen’ll be conscripted into His Majesty’s Navy.”
“There ain’t gonna be no war,” the American predicted. “The frogs can’t fight, and the limeys won’t.”
“I don’t like that kinda talk, mate.”
“Didn’ mean no harm, buddy. Sick an’ tired o’ war talk, tha’s all. Rather talk cunt.”
“Right. Let’s get on with searchin’ out them
The two seamen fell silent to watch a figure coming toward them through the mist on the far side of the street. It was a man, tall with heavy shoulders. His bald head glistened as he passed under a street lamp.
“Maybe that bloke can direct us to the local gash,” the Englishman suggested. “Unless he’s lost himself.”
“That guy ain’t lost,” said the American. “Lookit the way he’s starin’ straight ahead. He knows where he’s goin’.”
“Do you suppose he speaks English?”
“It don’t matter. I can talk some Mexican if I have to.”
They started across the street to head off the big man.
“Hey, buddy,” the American tried.
The man kept coming in his slow, heavy stride, giving no indication that he had heard.
“Better try your Mexican,” suggested the Britisher. “You ain’t doin’ so good in the mother tongue.”
The American cleared his throat and started over self-consciously.
“Hey, señor, donde está la casa de señoritas?”
Still there was no response from the big man. They could see his eyes now, wide open and unblinking.
“I don’t think ‘e ‘eard you, mate.”
“He heard me, all right. I think he’s a wise guy, is what I think. What about it, Bo? Are you a wise guy?”
The man came on with no change in his blank expression. the seamen took this as a challenge and planted themselves shoulder to shoulder in his path.
When he reached them, the big man swept his arms out before him as though parting a flimsy curtain. The back of his left hand caught the Englishman on the side of the head, crushing his cheekbone and sending him sprawling to the cobblestones. His right slammed the American into a stone wall hard enough to dislocate his shoulder.
The now sober seamen lay groaning in the street and watched the big man round the corner and vanish.
With the same steady pace, he continued along Avenida Bravo, a street of dark, silent buildings where tourists never walked. He stopped before a three-story wooden building that needed a coat of paint. At street level, on the corner, was a small grocery store, closed for the night. Most of the curtained windows in the upper two floors were open to catch any stray breeze off the Gulf. There was a narrow entrance with a faded sign that read:
Royale Hotel y Apartamientos
The man turned, squared his shoulders with the doorway, and went in. An unlighted hallway led back through the building past closed doors. At one side was a narrow flight of stairs, the treads worn concave. The big man started up.
Behind one of the doors on the second floor, a Señora Portero heard the heavy footfalls on the stairway. She assumed it was her worthless wretch of a husband returning from the cantina smelling as usual of pulque and the cheap perfume of some
. If Señor Portero thought he was going to slip in and climb under the blankets that night without hearing the opinions of the
, he was much mistaken.
When the footsteps reached the second-floor landing and came down the bare hallway, she jerked open the door. The accusations died in her throat when she saw what stalked past her in the hall. She shrank back into the room and closed the door firmly. With her back pressed against the panel, she made the sign of the cross and silently forgave her husband any sins he might commit that night, if only he came safely home to her.
The big man with the shaved head continued to stare straight ahead. He came to the end of the hallway, turned, and went up the next flight of stairs to the third floor. He stopped before a door on which a faint “33” was outlined where metal numbers had once been screwed into the wood.
On the other side of the door, in a corner of the apartment curtained off for sleeping, John Hooker lay on his stomach under a single sheet and dozed. He wore only a pair of shorts. A light sheen of sweat glistened on his bare shoulders. His dreams were troubled.
Beside him, Alita Ruiz slept deeply. She lay curled on her side, fragrant black hair spread across the pillow. One of her hands rested palm down on the small of Hooker’s back. In his light sleep, Hooker was aware of the gentle pressure. It was comforting.
A splintering crash out in the larger room catapulted Hooker out of bed and onto his feet, instantly awake, the adrenalin pumping. In the bed, Alita gasped, pulled the sheet up to cover her round, brown breasts, and blinked the sleep out of her eyes.
In one long stride, Hooker was at the chest of drawers, the only furniture in the corner besides the bed. He knocked aside a framed photograph of the U.S.S.
and grabbed the big Colt .45 automatic that lay behind it. Holding the gun, he barged through the beaded curtain Alita had hung to give the bedroom a sense of privacy. Three steps into the larger room, he stopped dead.
The faint light from the hallway shone in through the shattered front door. Standing in the room was a powerfully built man with a shaved head and eyes as empty as marbles.
“Hold it right there,” Hooker said. He raised the massive pistol to be sure the intruder could see it. Often, one look at the cannon was enough to scare off a would-be attacker. Not this one. He was oblivious to the gun as he started toward Hooker in a slow, measured stride.
Hooker gave no second warning. He pointed the .45 at the big man’s breastbone and pulled the trigger. Instead of a booming report, there was a hollow
of the hammer falling on an empty chamber.
“Shit,” Hooker said. He pulled the trigger a second time. Another
. He released the spring-loaded clip and immediately saw the problem. No bullets.
“Shit,” he said again, and stepped forward to meet the oncoming stranger. He swung the pistol in an upward arc, getting his shoulder into it. The barrel cracked the big man on the side of the head. The naked scalp split open just above the ear. Blood spilled down the side of his face. The force of the blow knocked the intruder a step to one side, but he made no sound — not of pain, rage, or even surprise. The marble eyes continued to stare as he righted himself and came at Hooker again.
Hooker retreated a step and sized up his opponent. The intruder was maybe an inch taller than Hooker’s six feet two and looked to go something over two hundred pounds. Obviously, hitting the guy in the head was not going to get the job done. When the man stepped into range, Hooker pivoted on the ball of his right foot and drove his left fist into the liver. It was a punch that could paralyze a man, but this one barely grunted, and Hooker knew he was in trouble.
Before he could start another punch, a set of thick fingers clamped around his throat just beneath the chin. Incredibly, he was lifted completely off the floor one-handed.
Hooker kicked his bare feet and flailed his arms as he looked down into the impassive face, but his strength quickly drained. The flow of blood through the carotid artery to the brain was cut off. He felt himself slipping helplessly into unconsciousness. The functioning part of his mind thought fleetingly about death. Was this the way it came after so many near misses in thirty-five years? A bald headed stranger crashes into your room in the middle of the night and chokes the life out of you? Ridiculous.
There was a roaring in his ears like the wind he had heard on the foredeck of a boat under full sail. Wobbly white circles radiated outward in his vision as the darkness squeezed in. He felt weightless. Disembodied.
Then, as suddenly as they had seized him, the powerful fingers released their grip on his throat. Hooker hit the floor and crumpled. Dimly, as his vision returned, he saw the big man walk unhurriedly back out through the broken door into the hallway. Under the light there, he could see the smear of crimson on the side of the bald head where the gun barrel had laid open the flesh. Yet the man’s step never faltered as he turned toward the stairs. The footsteps descended without haste and faded at last into the night sounds.
A new sound gradually gained Hooker’s attention. It grew louder until it was a buzzing like a nest of angry rattlesnakes.
Hooker raised himself painfully on his elbows and turned to look toward the source of the buzzing. Alita, with the sheet wrapped around her, stood shivering among beads of the curtain. Her coffee-brown eyes stared down at him, her mouth open in a helpless “O.”
Hooker croaked at her, then had to stop and massage his cramped throat muscles.
“What happened, Johnny?” Alita said. “Are you all right?”
Hooker forced air out through his larynx until he could speak in a rasping growl. “I’m okay. What happened to my gun? The clip was empty.”
Alita bobbed her head timidly. “I took the bullets out.”
He stared at her for a long, silent moment. “You took the bullets out.” He let his head drop back to the floor with a thump.
Quickly, Alita was kneeling at his side, her cool brown hand on his forehead. “I never liked that gun. It was too big. I thought you might hurt somebody with it.”
“That,” he said, “was the idea.”
“Or maybe hurt yourself,” she went on. “Two months ago, I took out the bullets, and you never noticed until today. So you see?” She nodded her head emphatically, having made her case.
Hooker closed his eyes and groaned softly.
“Anyway,” Alita continued, “bullets no good against that one. Nothing hurts him.”
Slowly, painfully, with Alita steadying him, Hooker got to his feet. He worked his jaw back and forth while rubbing the aching tendons of his throat. Nothing seemed to be broken or permanently damaged. He turned his attention to Alita.
“Say that again?”
. One of the dead ones. Your bullets can’t hurt him because he’s already dead.”
“Oh, yeah, your Indian superstition.”
“Mayan legend,” she corrected him. “In ages past, Mayan priests turn men into
. Some places they still do.”
“Is true, Johnny. I know. I am Maya.”
“Sure you are. You’ve got as much Mayan blood as a taco has prime beef.”
Alita drew herself up. At five feet three, she somehow managed to look regal standing there wrapped in a sheet. “My mother was one full quarter Maya.”
Hooker came over and put his arms around her. “Honey, whatever combination you are, I’d get rich if I could bottle it.”
“You talk crazy sometimes,” she said, but melted against him.
Hooker held her close for a moment, then pushed her out to arm’s length. “But if you ever do that to my gun again, I’ll break your Mayan neck.”
She turned her liquid brown eyes up to him. “I promise, Johnny, I never do it again. I worry about you, that’s all.”
He tried to hold a stern expression but found it was impossible and relaxed into a grin. “Come on, let’s go back to bed.”
Alita nestled against his chest, then frowned suddenly as she looked beyond him at the writing table that stood next to the shattered door.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing.
Hooker turned and saw a wrinkled sheet of paper on the table, the pulpy kind with ruled lines that came in five-cent tablets with the head of an Indian on the cover. He let go of Alita and walked over to smooth out the paper. Penciled in block capital letters was the message: “
QUINTANA ROO ES LA MISMA COMO MUERTE
Alita came up behind him and gasped as she read the words. “Quintana Roo means death. I tol’ you, Johnny.”
Hooker folded the sheet of paper and put it in the drawer in the top of the table. “I’ve had about all I can take of Quintana Roo for one night. Let’s forget it.”
“I knew there would be trouble,” she said.
He gave her a sharp look. “Enough.”
At the sudden snap in Hooker’s tone, Alita closed her mouth. She went back through the beaded curtain to the bed and lay down, covering herself with the sheet.
Hooker did what he could to put the door back together, then picked up the .45 from where it had fallen and went back into the sleeping alcove. From a dresser drawer, he took the spare clip, checked to see that it was fully loaded with Winchester .45 cartridges, and shoved it into the butt of the pistol. He returned the automatic to its place behind the U.S.S.
Alita watched him from the bed. “Why do you need such a big gun, Johnny?”
“Because when I shoot somebody I want him to damn well know he’s been shot.”
“Do you like to shoot people?”