Read The Cartel Online

Authors: Don Winslow

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Animals, #International Mystery & Crime, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Thrillers

The Cartel (9 page)

“Herrera is coming with us,” Contreras says now.

Lately, Contreras has become more and more annoyed with his old friend. Ochoa can’t blame him—Herrera had always been high-handed, all the more so since assuming the head chair, and he’s started to treat Contreras more as a subordinate than a partner, interrupting him at meetings, dismissing his opinions.

Still, the two men are friends.

They washed dishes together, served time together, came up the hard way under Garza, a hard man.

The three of them get into Contreras’s new
troca del año,
a Dodge Durango. “You can take the boy out of the country,” Ochoa muses as he squeezes his long legs into the pickup’s narrow rear compartment. Contreras gets behind the wheel—he loves to drive a truck.

In the rural shitholes they grew up in, you were lucky to have a pair of shoes. Even a
baica
was a dream. You’d stand there in the dust and watch the
grandes
speed by in their new pickups and think, one day that’s going to be me.

So Contreras has fleets of trucks and SUVs, he has drivers, he even has a private plane with a pilot—but when he gets the chance to get behind the wheel of a pickup truck, he’s going to do it.

As they head out of town toward Contreras’s ranch, Herrera wants to talk. “Did you hear the news? Someone tried to kill Adán Barrera.”

“It wasn’t me,” Contreras says. “His people pay the
piso.
If Adán increases volume, it’s more money for us.”

“What if he wants the throne back?” Herrera asks.

“He doesn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“He sent Diego Tapia personally,” Contreras answers.

“He didn’t come to see
me,
” Herrera says. “You should have told me.”

“I’m telling you now,” Contreras says. “You think I just like chauffeuring you around?”

Herrera pouts for a few moments and then changes the subject. “A beautiful ceremony, I thought. Although I prefer weddings—you get to fuck the bridesmaids.”

“Or try, anyway,” Contreras answers.

“ ‘There is no try.’ ” Herrera chuckles. “ ‘Just
do
.’ ”

“I hate those fucking movies,” Osiel says.

Ochoa quietly pulls his pistol from the holster and lays it by his side.

“It’s my big dick they like,” Herrera says. “You should—”

Ochoa sticks the pistol into the back of Herrera’s head and pulls the trigger twice.

Brains, blood, and hair splatter onto the windshield and the console.

Contreras pulls over and puts the truck in park. Ochoa climbs out of the cab and pulls Herrera’s body in the bushes. When he comes back, Contreras is fussing about the mess. “Now I’ll have to have it detailed again.”

“I’ll just dump it someplace.”

“It’s a good truck,” Contreras says. “Have it steam-cleaned, replace the windshield.”

Ochoa is amused. The
chaca
spent about thirty-seven minutes working in a body shop and thinks he’s an expert on auto repair.

He’s also cheap.

Ochoa understands that—he grew up poor, too.

He was born on Christmas Day to campesinos in Apan, where life promised little opportunity except to make
pulque
or go into the rodeo. Ochoa didn’t see a future in either, or as a tenant farmer, so the day he turned seventeen he ran away and enlisted in the army, where at least he’d have clean sheets, and if the meals were bad, at least there were three of them a day.

A natural soldier, he liked the army, the discipline, the order, the cleanliness so different from the constant dust and filth of the impoverished
casita
he grew up in. He liked the uniforms, the clean clothes, the camaraderie. And if he had to take orders, it was from men he respected, men who’d earned their positions, not just fat
grandes
who’d inherited their estates and thought that made them little gods.

And a man could rise in the army, rise above his birth and his accent and make something of himself—not like in Apan, where you were stuck in your class, generation after generation. He watched his father work his life away, come home red-eyed and staggering from the
pulque,
whip out his belt, and take it out on his wife and his kids.

Not for me, Ochoa thought.

“There was only one man born in a stable on Christmas who ever made anything of himself,” Ochoa liked to say, “and look what they did to him.”

So the army was a refuge, an opportunity.

He was good at it.

His father had made him insensitive to pain; he could take anything the training sergeants could dish out. He liked the brutal training, the hand-to-hand combat, the survival ordeals in the desert. His superiors noticed him and plucked him out for special forces. There they gave him skills—counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, weapons, intelligence, interrogation.

He made his reputation putting down the armed rebellion in Chiapas. It was a dirty war in a jungle, like any guerrilla conflict it was hard to tell the combatants from the civilians, and then he found it didn’t really matter—the response to terror is terror.

Ochoa did things, in clearings, in streambeds, in villages, that you don’t talk about, that you don’t trumpet on the evening news. But when his superiors needed information, he got them information, when they needed a guerrilla leader dead, he made it thus, when a village needed intimidation, he snuck in at night, and when the village awoke at dawn, it found its headman’s body strung from a tree.

For all this, they made him an officer, and, when the rebellion had been put down, transferred him to Tamaulipas.

To a special antinarcotics task force.

That’s when he met Contreras.

Now a white Jeep Cherokee comes down the road. Miguel Morales, aka “Z-40,” gets out, tosses Ochoa a quick salute, and gets behind the wheel of the Durango. Ochoa and Contreras get into the Cherokee.

“I’ll have someone come out and bury him,” Ochoa says, jutting his chin toward Herrera’s corpse.

“Let the coyotes enjoy his big dick,” Contreras answers. “What about the others?”

“It’s taken care of.”

There will be two more killings—of Herrera loyalists—before the sun goes down. When it comes back up, Osiel Contreras will be the sole, undisputed boss of the Gulf cartel.

And he’ll have a nickname—El Mata Amigos.

The Friend Killer.

Ochoa will gain a new
aporto
as well.

El Verdugo.

The Executioner.

2

Christmas in Prison

It was Christmas in prison
And the food was real good
—John Prine
“Christmas in Prison”

Wheeling, West Virginia

December 2004

Keller presses himself against the wall by the door of his motel room and waits.

He listens to the footsteps coming up the stairs to the second floor and knows now that there are two of them and that they made him in the sports bar across the highway where he had a burger and fries. He could tell from the overlong sideways glance of one, and the studious indifference of the other, that they had tracked him down.

To Wheeling, West Virginia.

Keller has been on the move since he left the monastery. He didn’t want to leave, but staying would have put the brothers in danger and brought his world of violence into their world of serenity, and he couldn’t let that happen.

So he moves, like any wanted man, with his head on a swivel.

To a man with a price on his head, no other man is innocent. The Mexican guy at the Memphis gas station who checked out his license plate, the desk clerk in Nashville who looked twice at his (phony) ID, the woman in Lexington who smiled.

He’d hitchhiked from Abiquiú to Santa Fe, getting picked up by two Navajo men driving down from the rez, then caught a bus to Albuquerque where he bought an old car—a ’96 Toyota Camry—from a tweaker who needed cash.

From Albuquerque he drove east on the 40, the irony not escaping him that this was “Cocaine Alley,” one of the main arterials of the drug trade from Mexico through the southeastern United States from I-35, to I-30, to I-40.

Keller holed up in a motel in Santa Rosa for a couple of days, slept most of the time, and then continued east—Tucumcari, Amarillo, Oklahoma City, Fort Smith, Little Rock, Memphis. At Nashville he left the 40 for the 65 and headed north, turned east on the 64, north again on the 79.

Keller’s travels have been random, and it’s better that way—hard to figure out or anticipate.

But eventually terminal, a dead end, as it were.

Barrera has the best killers in the world at hand. Not just Mexican
sicarios
or
cholo
gangbangers, but mob assassins, special forces veterans, and just plain freelancers looking to bank a seven-figure windfall in a numbered account.

It could be anyone.

A drug dealer looking to do a favor for the Lord of the Skies, a junkie praying for a lifetime supply, a convict’s wife wanting to get her husband a pass in prison.

Keller knows that he’s a walking lottery ticket.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

At an SRO in Memphis, Keller thought they had him. The guy who checked in to the room next door followed him into the common shower. Could have been looking for company, could have been looking for two mil. Keller sat up all that night on his bed with his legs stretched out in front of him and his Sig Sauer on his lap. Took off before the sun came up.

Now they do have him.

Trapped in his room.

After a while, motel rooms become like jail cells—claustrophobic, with the same sense of isolation, hopelessness, and loneliness. The television, the bed, the shower, the creaky air conditioner or heating unit that bangs all night, the coffee maker with the plastic cups in plastic holders, the packets of sugar, powdered “cream,” and artificial sweeteners, the clock radio that glows by the bed. The diner across the parking lot, the bar down the street, the hookers and the johns three doors down.

His aimlessness wasn’t just a tactic but also a state of mind, a condition of the soul. He had to be on the move, running from someone he couldn’t know, looking for something he couldn’t identify or name.

Yeah, that’s bullshit, Keller had to admit. You know what you’re running from—and it’s not Barrera—and you know what you’re running
at.

Same thing you’ve been charging for thirty years.

You’re just not willing to accept it yet.

He became his own blues song, a Tom Waits loser, a Kerouac saint, a Springsteen hero under the lights of the American highway and the neon glow of the American strip. A fugitive, a sharecropper, a hobo, a cowboy who knows that he’s running out of prairie but rides anyway because there’s nothing left but to ride.

Lexington, Huntington, Charleston.

Morgantown, Wheeling.

The loneliness didn’t bother him, he was used to it, he liked the quiet, the solitude, the long days in his own capsule speeding through space with just the sound of the wheels and the car radio. He didn’t mind eating alone with just a book for company—paperbacks that he bought in secondhand shops and Goodwill stores.

So he sat alone and ate and read, with an eye always toward the door and the windows, careful to leave a tip neither small nor large enough to attract notice, always paying in cash, always getting it from an ATM in the middle of his day and never where he’s spending the night.

With the exception of his marriage and the years spent raising his children, Art Keller was pretty much a loner, an outsider. The son of an Anglo father who didn’t want a half-Mexican kid, he always had one foot in each world, but never both feet in either. Raised in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, he had to fight for his half-gringo side; at UCLA, he had to prove that he wasn’t there on an affirmative action pass.

So he boxed in the barrio, boxed in college, and also verbally sparred in class with California Anglo “legacy” kids for whom Westwood was a birthright and not a privilege, and when CIA started to court him in his junior year he let himself be seduced. When he went to ’Nam on Operation Phoenix he felt like he was finally an American. When he “swapped alphabets,” as his wife, Althea, put it, and transferred to the new DEA, of course they sent him to Mexico, because he looked the part and spoke the language.

The Mexicans in Sinaloa had no doubt who he was—a
yanqui,
a
pocho
—but he didn’t he really belong to the DEA community either, who saw him as a CIA plant and isolated him. When he finally made an ally, it was young Adán Barrera and then his
tío
Miguel Ángel. Once again Keller had a foot in both worlds, two floating islands that inevitably drifted far apart and left him once again alone.

For a while, he had Ernie Hidalgo—his partner, his friend, his ally against the Barreras. But the Barreras killed him—not before torturing him over the course of weeks—and after that, Keller didn’t much want another partner.

He had Althea and his kids, but she (sensibly, understandably) left him and took his children with her.

And Keller became “the Border Lord,” running the drug war along the entire length of Mexico, his power as aggrandized as his soul was attenuated, his ruthlessness out of control.

And he did something for which he’s still ashamed—used the illness of a little girl, Barrera’s daughter, to lure him across the border. Told a man that his child was dying to entrap him. And enlisted Barrera’s wife to help him do it.

Such was the depth of their hatred.

Was? Keller asked himself.

You’ve tried to put it all in the past—how you bagged Barrera, killed his brother and Tío, your old mentor. How you had a gun to the side of Adán’s head but didn’t pull the trigger.

Barrera went to prison and Keller went into exile, finally finding the only serenity he’d ever known in the simple job of tending the beehives, in the quiet comfort of routine, the solace of prayer.

But the past is a dogged pursuer, a pack of wolves relentlessly running you down. Maybe it’s better to turn and face it.

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