Narrow the Gate
Eusebio Rey was doing his best to move through the housewares store’s parking lot toward its door, accomplish his errand, and arrive at the office before the sun began to heat the Buenos Aires morning. After negotiating a mob of bicycles, taxis and peddlers he entered and stood to read the signs overhead. Heating and air conditioning, by all means. He made his way three aisles rightward. Halfway down were the filters for air-conditioner wall units. If the store had nothing else, it was amazingly well stocked with filters. He bent down—his size was on the lowest shelf. A child ran past, pushing a bright red police car in front of her. Her shoes skidded wonderfully on the floor as she rounded corners.
Rey was an editor for El Libertador, a large Argentinian daily. Damn them all and then damn their sons, it was still Argentina that he lived in. No man, no group of men, would change that. The people were the same, the streets: God knew what he had made and wanted no change. He reminded himself of that constantly, yet had to restrain himself from letting this conviction find its way into print.
The trip downtown to the newspaper took an hour. Eusebio paused at Fabi’s desk on his way through the lobby, but she was in the middle of a phone conversation. He huffed up to the third floor, to his office. The stairwell trapped the day’s warmth, and he immediately retrieved a hand towel from his desk.
As he wiped down his face and neck (his balding head he compensated for with full mustache and even fuller eyebrows), he went through his phone messages. Nothing critical. He took out the wall unit’s old filter, sending up a small breath of dark dust. No wonder it wasn’t cooling. The new filter seemed to energize the unit, and it hummed in renewal. The office cooled noticeably.
“Fabi—mail?” over the intercom.
“In front of you.” He looked.
“Thanks. Anything else?”
“There is the…wait, please…” Fabi called his line. There were too many odds and ends, too many stories. Finally, she’d gotten him all the morning’s particulars.
“Also: look through the letters. Do you see the brown envelope?”
“Yes. No return address.”
“That’s the one.” She paused.
“It might be from him. From El Cazador.” She didn’t know what else to say. If it was in fact from the storied sharpshooter her boss wouldn’t tell her. If there was any communiqué she would read it, more than likely, with the rest of the city. Eusebio could be tight-lipped.
“Perhaps.” Eusebio hung up.
He quickly moved the letters away from the paper bag he’d carried up. Tortillas with strips of pork, a little cheese…his wife had packed a salad of pears and tamarind, but he’d still be hungry. Payday wasn’t until Monday. Maybe he could chase everything with some of the vending machine’s sparse offering.
He washed down the snack with a warm bottle of water, then lit a cigarette and sat back with the letter. It was indeed from the rebel. Or assassin, depending on whom you asked. Any official organ described him as the latter—an agent of instability, a threat, El Cazador—The Hunter? —no, he himself was to be hunted, and ground out. He wanted nothing for his homeland, only for himself. For his people, he wanted chaos.
Rey didn’t really know enough to judge, and he wasn’t paid to judge. He ground out regional and national news, hard news, not op-ed.
The letter was fairly succinct. Whoever-it-was felt that he’d made at least a small point, and while he didn’t expect any real change, at least those at the helm would know that their machinations wouldn’t go unanswered.
He stretched, dragged on his cigarette then snuffed it into a piece of tamarind. He closed his eyes for a moment, and considered the final words of the letter:
El quieu habla siembra—
El quieu escucha recoger.
Pilo Oropeza hadn’t made it a habit of sending letters regarding his deeds or his aims. He didn’t do what he did for pleasure or glory…quite the reverse. It was out of necessity and he’d probably cost himself his soul by his methods. He hadn’t conjured up a name for himself, and certainly nothing so torrid as the name he encountered in the papers, on TV.
Something had begun to gnaw at and shadow him. It wasn’t necessarily the fear of being caught, or even the torture and terror that would surely follow his apprehension. Those were real dangers—no abstractions—he’d heard too much of haulings-away to filthy jail cells by brutes seeking confessions. He’d caught himself lately beset by lapping wavelets of futility. His cause was on the side of right, resources weren’t necessarily an obstacle, and he’d garnered a little support. Why, then, the quickening sense of fear?
Pilo hadn’t sent letters, but he was sending them now. There were four dead by his hand. No one’s luck held for so long. Rage had given his foes purpose, and his actions, far from making them turn back or stand down, had only solidified their resolve.
His grievance was shared by so many, hid down under the skin of compliant villages, teeming weathered ports and desperate, utterly broke cities.
Pilo was a boy when a regional coalition took control of the anarchy that was Argentina. In the north, his home Venezuela followed. He remembered the days and nights jostling and shivering in the midst of the caravan moving slowly southward from Caracas, away from the mountains of his childhood, the fantastic colors of the markets, the buildings so tall he couldn’t see their tops.
Both countries did a strange dance during a frantic nine months, while El Niño’s rains intermittently poured during the day and people fell asleep to the hissing of the asphalt under the vast skies. Sometimes, new cabinet rotations with new figureheads were routed before they could even elaborate their versions of economic deliverance. The lucky rejects weren’t hacked apart and left for the dogs.
Colombia and Peru followed without any more than pockets of resistance (with the coalition trading on arguments of greater hemispheric autonomy, greater power), and then the remainder of the former South America. Only then was the group able to exult fully in its rapid series of capitulations, and only then could it hammer out a name for the body it had wrought. Thence came Mano del Sur. Given the rapidity of the coalition’s rise (and its potential clout), “Southern Hand” didn’t seem to click with those hearing it, especially in the bigger cities. No, this was without question a fist, and Puño del Sur became the easy preference.
A year into the Fist’s existence, Pilo, then a quiet yet determined 23, fixed Nestor Cantu in the crosshairs of his M-1 during the carnaval in Barranquila and fired. The swirling assembly heard the crack over tumult and cast about for its source after watching a wide-eyed Cantu jerk backward over the rail over his podium.
So was born The Hunter.
Now the fourth man had gone down: a distant cousin of Cantu who’d developed a proposal to open the archaeological sites of Colombia’s municipal government districts to various speculative interests, including a number of museums and resorts.
There was really only one more target before he quit. Pilo knew it. He might not even get the chance. Then, one way or another, it would be over.
Eusebio Rey’s boss headed up Grupo Sur, the publishing concern that had remained standing after a flurry of media mergers. It was said that he came from old money, and his name hinted at it. He was, however, a slender gentleman given to smiles and quickly nodded agreements, and so he insisted upon being called simply “Lalo.” He held a copy of Pilo’s letter in his hands, and shook his head slowly.
When this man walked away from a kill, he always left the same thing behind: a handful of Bolivars, smooth and lustrous from lack of use. The shiny nickel centers of the coins apparently left a great impression on their discoverer—lying in the dirt, winking up in the brilliant sunlight.
He read the precisely measured words to the bottoms of the page, which ended:
He who speaks, sows—
He who listens, reaps.
That day…the day of the fourth man. San Cristóbal held silver Venezuelan clouds over the fútbol pitch of the Polideportivo. There was talk of the event being cancelled, but Ambrosio del Cuzco stopped it immediately. The worry was to be saved for grandmothers…and no, he wanted no shield!
His ascent to the podium was steady, with head held high, jaw set, and then he spoke. Opportunities awaited, and not just for those on the top floors, looking down in idle amusement at the teeming streets below! His confidence established, he spoke, words dispatched to the crowds on wings, common cause and—the shot brought a look of surprise to del Cuzco. His eyes questioned the thud, the bright pain magnified on the huge screens at the end of the stadium.
Pilo, concealed within the opposing far end of the stadium within a small booth, scarcely had time to secure his rifle and leave, almost forgetting the bolivars.
Security cameras were rewound and scanned around the clock, at the command of both local and national authorities for over a week before a slight figure, barrel glinting, was registered by a midfield camera. The figure sat, immobile, leaned over the scope for ten minutes before slowly working the bolt, renewing his aim and taking fire. Only then did the figure rise again momentarily, busying itself with its rifle then a brief look around and hurried departure.
The pause, frozen for one decently detailed frame, and enlarged, was compared tirelessly against mugshots, crowd shots, employee badge photos and even school annuals, though to no avail. Whoever this man was—lean, maybe even a bit athletic, with a smooth, handsome jaw—he had vanished yet again.
Pilo heard Valentin’s fear over the phone, as over bared teeth his older cousin told him, with no ambiguity, to pack a bag and get southward—to Tia Blanca’s, if possible, to buy some time, and so he now stood in front of a tired Barreiros bus, red and white and emblazoned with painted fares and offers. He had to make it to El Amparo, near Venezuela’s border with Colombia. The town sat on the Rio Arauca, a nice-enough place under more pleasant circumstances.
The bus was so full that it has listed first left, then right, before deciding on a defeated sag. He made his way through the aisle, past the animated and the quiet as well, the odor on the bus human and thick. The passenger on the very last seat on the right was a small man in a reasonably tidy suit, and Pilo sat down next to him, duffle resting on his shoes. In the seat across from him a man sat adjacent a large accordion which crowded him toward the seat’s edge. At his feet were three leashed terriers who stared up at Pilo. They were used to the bus’s sensory cacophony, and so were still. Cute little pups, thought Pilo. If he got the chance, he’d pet them a bit.
The disembarkation at the station was a slow process, and Pilo did have a moment to pet the appreciative dogs.
“Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar,” gestured the proud owner, an older fellow in a gold-trimmed green vest. Pilo nodded and smiled.
The station was about a kilometer from Tia Blanca’s…not a bad walk. He rang her from the station’s phone booth, then began walking.
He opened the door to children and the smell of soup on the stovetop. He hugged his aunt, then was pulled outside for games. His duffle and sling lay on the tired wooden porch while he played.
Later the next day Pilo sat in the house and drank orange juice with a little mezcal. He liked coming to Tia Blanca’s—helping her with chores, playing with cousins, nieces and nephews, tending the little yard and garden a bit. Blanca was from his Dad’s side. She shared his father’s taciturn edge.
Now the little family sat in front of the TV, lolling under the waves and feeling drowsy. A show rolled by which featured sketch comedy, wherein bewigged or drunken characters tried to outfox each other, buy love potions, rob banks or obtain drivers’ licenses. Then, a game show. Pilo winced as tall young men dashed across a stage and hurled themselves against heavily breasted girls, thus breaking the balloons the girls held against their torsos. (His niece, who lay on her stomach and swung a foot back and forth in midair, was only nine).
A talk show followed the spectacle. No one was happy on the talk show. The guests fumed about their spouses, then the spouses were produced and immediately vilified, while the host looked on in consternation.
Pilo’s uncle had built the place a little bit off the road. He liked accessibility, but privacy also. When Pilo’s cousin Val opened the side kitchen door and ran into the living room, he was winded. After he’d gotten to the village he’d run the rest of the way. Val scanned the living room for a moment, until Pilo turned around from his vantage point on the floor.
“Come with me,” was all his cousin got out before Pilo got up and ran after him. The rest of the family stared after the two. “Close the door,” admonished Blanca before returning to the screen.
There was a small barn behind the house with pens attached for chickens. Val pulled Pilo into the weeds behind the barn.
“They…know.” He still hadn’t stopped panting.
“What?” asked Pilo. “Who knows what?”
“The paper. I saw the paper from the city. They know it’s you. They’ve found out. Someone has said that you are El Cazador.” Pilo suddenly felt the night’s muggy weight. The grassy field reaching outward from the back of the house seemed very small. He’d told no one. Partly because he wasn’t doing this for any acclaim, but also because any fool knows that one doesn’t let on about one’s plans. It’s the surest way of getting caught.
“What do you have in the house…right now?” asked Val.
“Only some clothes.”
“Can you retrieve it? You have to move. Tonight. This won’t wait.”
“How long will the television take to pick it up?”
His cousin was becoming increasingly agitated. Every moment spent was one lost.
“Pilito, come on. Just get everything together. I can give you a ride.”
“What do we tell Tia Blanca?”
“We tell her you’ve got to go.”
The two got up, composed themselves, and went back inside. Tia Blanca noted the speed, the unknowable crisis of young men, the fervor. “Ah, mi Conejitos,” she laughed, “a kiss for your Tia before you leave!” They were gone within ten minutes.
Four hours ahead of the first broadcast of the hunter’s identity.
Five hours ahead of the knock on the door of Pilo’s small apartment.
Six ahead of the knock at Tia Blanca’s.
Fabi surprised Eusebio with a phone call early one morning. Lalo, with a lunch invitation. It was therefore with great difficulty that he pieced together an article on sewerage, his mind already half in the taxi.
As he met Lalo and the two were seated, Eusebio realized that this was only the second time his boss had had him to lunch, the first being the day he was hired. He wasn’t peeved at the thought…what did it matter, he was about to dine at La Nacional! Best to revel in the restaurant’s splendid, gracious atmosphere. The waiter poured their water, and Lalo asked him—smiling, content—for a moment.
The two picked up their menus, Eusebio studying his intently.
“Any favorites, Lalo?” The boss chuckled.
“Whatever you feel like, they do it wonderfully.” The waiter returned presently, and Eusebio (who, after agonizing over the options, knew he’d have to have a steak), ordered the ojo de bife, which Lalo chose as well. “Oh, a bottle of Crianza, the Rioja, por favor.” The waiter nodded, collected the menus and was gone.
“How is Alfrida?” asked Lalo.
“She is well,” said Eusebio, tearing off a bit of bread. “She keeps too many things in the air at once, but seems to handle it all…I’m sometimes all in after just the office! And Carolina?”
“Ah, mi Lina, mi Cara…” Lalo shook his head briefly. “Maybe we don’t want the same things any more. And if we do…we have to argue too much to find out what those things are…” He shrugged. “I don’t know.” Eusebio nodded in quiet sympathy.
The steaks arrived. The wine was so good that Eusebio had to watch himself and not return to it repeatedly in delight. When they’d finished, with the waiter dispatched for coffee, Lalo pulled two cigars from his jacket.
“Here we are. From a friend in Habana,” he said, passing one across the table. The men lit the cigars slowly, with snapping draws on the end that released brief, rich florets, then both leaned back.
“The paper is doing well,” Lalo stated simply. Eusebio lazily released a jet of smoke, and nodded.
“It’s fortunate to have the staff that it does. I and the other editors are blessed with a conscientious group.” Lalo nodded.
“This whole ‘El Cazador’ business, though, Lalo began. “It’s a mess. This…thrill-seeker. Killing, over one border then the next, and gets to read about himself from time to time.”
“I agree,” said Eusebio, “but as far as I can tell, it’s the tabloids that keep up the sensationalism…the thrill, yes…”
Lalo took a slow drink of coffee, then considered his cigar.
It’s just that Grupo Norte has such a reputation—our paper strives for high standards—we feel that to stop covering this lunatic is the best policy.” Eusebio was taken aback, and unsure of how to respond.
“Not cover him…at all.”
“No, nothing,” said Lalo, but then, opening his arms in camaraderie: “Look at the Accord,” he said, referring to the American drive toward strengthened relations, “the Fist!” he beamed, allowing himself the slight scandal of using the bloc’s vulgar nickname. “So much is there—more in one day than with many other places. There’s a career there, Eusebio, awards for those skillfully covering these developments!” The editor nodded, summoning a bit of enthusiasm.
Lalo was off then to the winds, leaving Eusebio to return to the office and stare, unblinking, at his screen.
Pilo and Val made it as far as Tunja, north of Bogotá, by the kindness of several strangers who, thankfully, seemed unaware of his new status. They needed to cross the Rio Magdalena to continue their flight. They needed a professional. Val spoke quietly to a man in dirty jeans and aged cowboy hat. The man was Cuna, and had no European blood. His ancestors had fought away de Heredio, Drake and Pointis. He directed Val to a man across the small square who sat at a café table and drank a grapefruit soda.
The second man was also Cuna, and Pilo marveled at his cousin’s conversation with him. The man, much older than the one who referred him, was a cabra, a goat, the sort of man who helped one get somewhere without a lot of questions. The man nodded at Val, then Val motioned for Pilo to pick up his bags and follow. The elderly fellow rounded a corner of the café and led the two across an oblong dirt lot toward his car.
The bags were lifted into the cavernous trunk—indeed, there is space aplenty in a (once) canary-yellow 1957 DeSoto.
For two days the party wended its way through the mountain’s roads, emerging at last on the highway which led straight upward through Sincelejo, then to the coast. Twice Pilo was told the man’s name, and twice he had missed it. He finally settled for Val’s approximation of “sir.” After much more discussion, clambering over the roadways and a night spent under a terrifyingly endless blanket of stars, the man instructed Val to render for Pilo the word for “friend.”
Three hours after passing through Sincelejo the two reached their destination: a bus station which would take them on their last short leg into the city, and their appointment. Pilo paid the old man generously and the cabra smiled as he unloaded their bags. The smile lit his face, which was like a relief done in wax paper, and he stepped close to Pilo.
The two looked into each other’s eyes. The man stooped to the dirt by the car and drew a circle. He picked up a pinch of the dirt from inside the circle, raised it to Pilo’s chest, and released it so that it fell across the young man’s chest. He tapped Pilo’s chest lightly, then retrieved a quart of oil from the car’s trunk, poured it carefully into the crankcase, got into the car again, and drove away.
Pilo and Val got off the gritty bus at the foot of the Avenida del Centenarios.
The city swarmed around them, and Pilo grabbed at his cousin’s sleeve, suddenly fearful of losing him in the crush. Val sensed this and caught his cousin by the back of the arm. The two clutched their bags tightly, and stepped away from the curb and the throngs clambering on and off the buses.
“Are we safe?”
“We’re safe. Just try to stay together. It’s not that far though town.”
They walked quickly and carefully, stepping around the surging crowds and the cyclists seeking to cheat the streets and ramp up onto the walkways to make their deliveries. Up the sidewalk the two went, and Val noticed the almost grim look on his cousin’s face.
“Pilito, it’s okay! Look, we approach the gate!”
They walked toward the gate, the Torre del Reloj, and then entered through its stone arch, wary of the cars that shot through and around as well, and then they were inside the Walled City. They stepped over to the side of the arch’s entrance and leaned back against the cool stone. Val lit a cigarette.
“This is it,” he said to Pilo. “Cartagena. Look around. I can’t believe you’ve never been here…it’s an amazing place.” He took a couple more drags and dropped the cigarette to the ground.
“Come on. To the left.”
Pilo followed Val’s lead, and as the two moved steadily through the crush he kept looking upward at the two jutting edifices which stood in serene grandeur against the wan sky. On the right loomed the Catedral, its ruddy brown interspersed with the dark red that dominated the roofs of the city. On the left, coming into ever-better view, was the San Pedro Claver, topped over its central axis by a glorious golden dome.
“It’s beautiful,” breathed Pilo when the two stepped onto the plaza in the church’s front.
“It is,” agreed Val. “San Pedro, apostle to the slaves.”
“Is this where we meet the Brothers?” asked Pilo. Val felt a little sheepish for misleading his cousin, and shook his head in correction.
“No…not here,” he said. He lifted his case again and walked around the side of the hulking building, with Pilo scurrying behind. The two made their way around the wall, coming out on the western side, with the dome directly overhead. The sun was lowering itself over the Caribbean, and swathed the sky in a pomegranate and orange canopy that bled into purples and blues at its edges. Pilo looked down from the spectacle to see Val standing across the narrow street in front of a rude structure which, whatever it had once been, was now home to another church.
“The Brothers are inside,” said Val.
The first exuberant conclave of the emergent new leadership was scheduled for Brasilia.
The city shone forth an irresistible light for the world…its charms, its vision and finally, its example.
In relocating of the capital inland to the heart of Brasil it had demonstrated the power of clear-eyed will, vibrant flexibility, an embrace of change. When one then considered the plans of its chief architects Niemeyer and Marx, the city was truly an ideal: a model of governance, commerce, communications, and the most wonderful marriage of habitation and culture.
It was a natural destination, and soon there would arrive the spiritual architects of the moment, as members of the UN, IMF and several American ambassadors (representing the nascent, dearly sought Americas Accord) joined members of the Mano del Sur for talks, dreams, grand things.
What to call the gathering, however…with considerations of flags and countries all being in flux. If the assembled were hesitant to use the word “Brasil,” what, then? Where were they meeting? The EU, even after adopting a common platform and currency, had let members retain their names.
It was a nagging burr, a distraction, a great unknown with no easy way to address it.
Pan-Asia seemed more a thing with every passing year. The US would find itself scrambling for a toehold, eyes on an equally moribund Europe, while Canada and Africa tended to their own parochial doings. This left the landmass known, still, as South America, both casting about and incredibly resolute. Speech-wranglers, copywriters, whomever…let them stand by, let them be ready. A new titan was being born in the West.
To Rey the proceedings were an abstraction, pageantry, of little value. The cordons around the delegates were tight, impenetrable. Existing security details were augmented by locally hired men, and these aggregates moved as a knot, their burdens smiling behind them and issuing fluttering waves enroute to boardrooms, or luncheons, or dinners set with crystal and linen.
There was nothing for a man like Rey to report…merely results, a cheap aftermath for him after taking his readers through the thick of so many stories. The wheels turned, the streets hummed (or convulsed), and always he’d been there. Were those days over? He thought of Alfrida. She’d probably welcome the change.
The sun settled into a deep red westward smudge overhead, matching—as it prepared to disappear—the rooftops of Cartagena. Pilo and Valentin stood at the door of the small church in front of them, briefly taking in its façade. The few attempts at exterior grandeur had been half-hearted, and in any case had been executed 100 years ago, when the prior occupants had plied their (more orthodox, certainly) brand of faith.
The street’s frantic traffic had thinned somewhat, but there were still many people. Coming and going, the lanes and alleys charged with life under the deepening shadows. Valentin knocked.
“Did you knock loud enough?” asked Pilo.
“Yes,” answered his cousin. “They hear. They expect us.”
A man answered the door, inquired as to their names, and welcomed them inside. The street’s door opened on to a large, oblong room hung in its ceiling with circular wrought-iron wheels that held candles in small notches. Two parallel rows of rude wooden pews led forward to a raised platform which housed a pulpit of sorts, and which was crowded roundabout with rough statuary and tables of supplications, candles and flowers.
“Buen’ Noches,” said the man cordially. “You are Pilo, and you are Valentin,” yes? I am Fra Esteban.”
“Fra Esteban,” said Pilo. “We are honored with your welcome.” Val echoed the thanks. The man was ropy and bronzed, with a thick head of black hair that threatened to overpower his mestizo blood. This he tied back with a cotton headband, and the effect was repeated by the dull gold sash he wrapped over his right shoulder and tied at the left side of his waist. It was a little much, perhaps, but it gave his faded black trousers and white t-shirt a needed boost. Fra Esteban wore, on the middle finger of his right hand, a gold ring with an irregularly cut purple stone. The two travelers were impressed. They followed as he led backward through the pews to the pulpit.
The pulpit itself caught Pilo’e eye, and the priest noticed. “The cross of our savior,” he remarked of the carving which hung on its front. “Overlaid with two daggers…one pointed upward, ever sharp and receptive…one pointed downward to dispel the deceiver and those who would follow him.” He looked at both men, who nodded.
“We are the Church of Christ the Avenger.” Pilo and Val nodded again, not knowing how else to respond.
“These tables hold many wonders, but we do not keep the wonders from the people. The power that we have, we share with those who seek it. Would the redeemer have us do otherwise?” He raised his eyebrows thoughtfully. “This table behind me, this reliquary, for example…” and he gestured toward a delicate wooden box with a very old metal frame, the box painted gold and festooned with stones which appeared genuine, “…this contains the right-hand bones, the breastbone and the beads of Fra Anastasio. He was my predecessor’s great-grandfather. Fra Anastasio could see: do you understand? He knew what troubled the soul. It is said that he could calm a frightened woman, that he could draw the poison from a bitter man’s heart.” The priest fixed the two again with his simple, direct gaze. “It is said that he could heal.” He turned and walked to the back of the sanctuary, and Pilo and Val again followed.
Fra Estaban led the two through a door behind the wall of the pulpit area, where he apparently maintained a living quarters of sorts. There was a sink, a stone hearth, an elderly icebox, and a table sat with four chairs.
“Please, sit,” the priest instructed. He went to the hearth, made plates of chicken, rice and thick corn tortillas, and returned to the table. He poured thick, almost opaque golden beer into glasses, then sat down finally.
“Please, friends, try the beer.” Both raised their glasses, eager for a cold refreshing draught after the dust and warmth of the afternoon.
“I like it!” pronounced Val. “It’s different.”
“I like it too,” said Pilo. “It’s a little sweet. Do you make it?”
“Yes,” answered their host. “As my father taught me. You have not had such beer?”
“No,” said Pilo. “Not in Venezuela, anyway. This is a treat.”
The men ate hungrily, then one by one sat back. Fra Estaban offered pipes, but neither cousin felt like one. He lit one alone.
“You are happy?” he asked. “You are happy men?” he puffed thoughtfully, leading.
“Yes,” they answered, almost in unison, after a moment’s pause.
“Our path, however, is not clear to us,” said Val.
“Your paths are intertwined, young Valentin, yet it is your cousin whose life presents the dilemma.” He turned to Pilo, who was taking a drink and had to consciously swallow as he returned the look into the eyes that were now softly shining brown lozenges.
“It is you, Pilo, called Oropeza…you are troubled with…” and he stopped for a moment, set down his pipe, then picked it up again. “You seek the good. You seek the good, in great contrast to those who do not. Give me your hands.” He sat the pipe down again, and took Pilo’s extended hands. The priest’s hands were warm and dry, and their strength was apparent underneath the skin.
“There are unjust men who seek you. You must guard your steps.” His voice lowered into a steady calm, barely above a whisper. “You have come to many crossroads. Every man and woman has done so. You feel, within yourself, the need for wisdom at such moments, and you must take care to embrace that wisdom.” Fra Esteban’s eyes closed, he uttered a brief prayer, set his mouth, and opened his eyes. He placed the nail of each of his thumbs over the center of Pilo’s palms.
Tu Dios, tu Manos, he breathed, then dug the thumbnails sharply into Pilo’s palms. Pilo started and reflexively pulled his hands back with a sharp gasp. He looked at his hands, which now had a crescent cut in each palm that beaded blood at its edge.
“There is a room back here as well,” said the priest, gesturing over his shoulder. “You may sleep. Tomorrow you may wash, and we will speak again.”
“Fra Esteban, your help…” said Pilo. “We thank you, I thank you…”
“Yes. Until the morning.”
The room contained four beds and a stand with a wash basin. Pilo and Val both wondered how much more there was to this seemingly small (from the street, anyway) building. Val took a towel, dipped it into the water, and drew it across his neck, sighing with the cooling. Pilo sat on the edge of his bed, looking at his hands. He owned a small brush that he used for his fingernails when he bathed. He needed that brush now.
“Did that hurt?” his cousin asked.
“Yes, but I didn’t really feel it as much until a moment ago. I’ll clean myself up a little.” They were soon stripped to shorts, with their clothing laid on the floor neatly in front of one of the spare beds. Val blew out the candle on the wall, then leaned back onto his bed with another contented sigh. He heard a murmur from the other bed.
“Pilito?” he asked groggily.
“It’s nothing,” came the answer in the blackness.
“No.” Val could hear hesitation in his cousin’s voice, though. “Well, I know it’s stupid, but I was going to ask if we might leave the candle burning. It’s fine, though, it’s out, it’s fine,” he added quickly.
“What does it matter?” asked Val.
“I’m…I’m afraid of the dark,” Pilo replied. “But no. I’m fine, it’s okay…”
Val began to say something, settled for a scowl, rolled onto his side, and sank into sleep.
Next morning, Pilo’s eyes blinked open. It was early: he sensed the earliness. He felt rested, though. Neither the room nor the bed suggested deep slumber, but he’d had the best night’s rest in ages. He turned his head to look at Val, who lay as the dead, emitting a little rasping snore. He sat up, dressed again and stuck his head out of the room. Fra Esteban had been down the short hall making coffee and heard him. He handed Pilo a mug of coffee and stack of clothes and pointed him toward the shower. Half an hour later they sat in an enclosed courtyard, Pilo’s coffee refreshed and he himself relaxing with the priest. The city stirred to life outside the walls, but it was just that—outside. Elsewhere. Of no consequence, not to this morning, nor to him or to his friend. Fra Esteban lit his pipe and commented about the wonder of the sunrise. Pilo might get a few answers now, in addition to whatever else.
“How did Valentin learn of you?” he wondered. As good a question as any. Fra Esteban nodded.
“Your cousin has traveled. He has met many people…some who come and go and live a completely ordinary…regular life. Some who do not. He has a curiosity about him. He learned of me and the Brothers, inquired with us, and so arranged this visit.” A thoughtful puff, then a turn of the head upward, cloudward, and a question of his own.
“I understand your task,” he said, “but perhaps not its origins. This is an undertaking of time, travel, and—let us be forthright—money.”
“I had an uncle,” Pilo said, then paused for a swallow of coffee. “Tio Baz. He was my father’s brother, and I only saw him a few times. He would come to see us, and we’d go out into the country. He had guns.” Pilo stopped, nodding faintly. “I’m not sure what he did for a living. Or why the guns. He had an old M-1, with a folding stock. American paratroopers carried them into battle…easy to handle. He saw that I liked shooting it. I liked the way it felt. And I was good at shooting. Very good.” A breeze curled into the courtyard, abated, then slipped in again.
“He left me some money. When I’ve needed to travel, I am able.” Easy enough. Fra Esteban considered the words.
“You love these lands. Our lands,” he said. Pilo nodded. “Then you shall be blessed.” Pilo’s eyes met his, looked away, met his—
“But I must tell you, as I know you are prepared for the truth, that some live in life, some in death.”
Pilo drank his coffee down, feeling the sky a dream with the coffee a biting detail.
“I’ll wake Val,” he said. “He’ll want to talk a little before we leave.”
The Tour of New Beginnings came close to being scuttled, but its principals argued for its completion.
The news raced out of Lima, then exploded when picked up by the wire. Four were wounded and one killed at a meeting of the board of directors of Peru’s largest bank. The board was driven outside by teargas, then fired upon.
Oropeza! With new tactics, or accomplices, or both. Pilo saw his image again everywhere: the dark wave of hair, the easy laugh somewhere behind the eyes.
His skin had darkened, though, and he’d let his hair go, and his beard as well. These he left unkempt, wild, and largely dirty. His clothes were those of the farmer, laborer, and he found that going several days between washing kept most people at bay.
He sat that night on a mat under the stars, down a path in the middle of a grove. Was this disturbance a spur toward the final act? It didn’t feel that way. He brushed away an ant, then several more, then stood up suddenly, stamping his feet. He picked up the mat, shook it and folded it in two. He looked around. The woods were quiet, the still broken only by a distant engine from town, faint voices raised for whatever reason.
This person, whom- or whatever, was a stick thrust into a puddle and sharply stirred…muddying the matter, and moreover, muddying Pilo’s message. Complication and furor, no way to prevent it, no way to contain its damage. Fra Esteban told him to feel the path forward, and this branching nuisance would not become a snare.
Eusebio felt in his shirt, then through the pockets of the jacket on the back of his chair, then back to his shirt pocket.
He was out of cigarettes.
This thought hit him at the precise instant that Fabi appeared at his door with four lean youths—three girls and a boy. College-age, maybe, probably, but why were they here?
“I don’t mean to disturb you sir,” she began, “but here are some new associates for you—”
“From the Department of Public Interest…”
This time merely a quizzical look.
“I’ve told them we can probably start them on research somewhere, fact-checking…I thought you would know best.” She threw up a half-smile, then ducked back out of the doorway.
Boludez de Puño, concluded Rey. All hands on deck. He had no time for babysitting, though. The four shifted on their feet.
“One moment,” said the editor testily. He picked up the phone, which had rung even as he reached for it.
“Eusebio! Good morning!” Lalo. Just as well. He’d get the matter tended to directly.
‘Yes, Lalo, your timing is impeccable—”
“My friend, I’m rushed,” Lalo broke in, “but just a brief word. We’re still staying silent about all the “Hunter” business. Very well?”
“Even now,” said Lalo. “Best all the way around. I must run. Best to Alfrida, of course,” and then he was gone.
Eusebio hung up, having completely forgotten his forlorn interns.
Lalo nodded briefly in confirmation toward his finely suited visitor, then walked past him out of the office, annoyingly late for lunch.
Eusebio Rey hadn’t been in journalism for over 20 years without making a great many contacts. Bank presidents…business leaders…street peddlers. All knew someone. All could share something. He cleared his activities for the rest of the day and pulled out a legal pad. To Caracas, to those he knew there. He looked at the clock, dully noted its having reached midnight and beyond, and looked over what he’d collected.
This Oropeza worked as a temp, in administrative-assistant roles, that type of thing. A little accounting. Nothing to explain the ease with which he moved. Nothing to explain him, really. A cousin, Valentin, an electrician by trade, sometimes working in a warehouse, manning a forklift. Aided by Venezuelan work programs. About the rest of the family, little could be ascertained. A father, gone when Pilo was a boy. Loss, a gap.
Val and Pilo sat on a hill near Carepa, north of Medellin, under periodic gusts that stirred their modest, secluded camp. Pilo had taken the rifle from his bag and laid it out on a blanket for cleaning. He loosened and removed the trigger assembly and then, with a slight tug, detached the receiver from the stock. Val could sense concern under his cousin’s quiet, and finally, Pilo spoke.
“This imitator. He is complicating everything.” He tugged lightly at the spring, trying to remove it from its cradle—once, then harder, causing Val to make a noise of alarm.
“I’m waiting for a moment where this feels right,” said Pilo. This struck Valentin as stupid. There was no place here for hand-wringing, and he held back a harsh, mocking laugh, instead stirring the fire, and asking “How so?” Pilo was silent. He’d wanted to mention his misgivings, discuss them further with Val, but first he had to admit that the situation was still within his control, that it wasn’t spinning away from him. He’d largely accomplished what he set out to do, and miraculously sat here on the ground, belly full, a free man. There was no way to separate fear from this undertaking. This thought, again, he spoke aloud.
“Of course there isn’t,” said Val, “but life isn’t about avoiding fear. That’s impossible. It’s about meeting it and overcoming it.” ¡Bájate de esa mata e’ coco! he thought inwardly. He bit away a chunk of jerky, took a pull from his canteen, then gestured toward the rifle components. “You’re a wonder with that weapon, but the problem is a basic one.” Pilo gave a brief nod, laying out the guide rod and bolt. “These politicians have become more than a silhouette, more than a pair of shoulders and a head of hair in your scope. Whatever the contents of their hearts, they have become men.” A nod, again, as Pilo fumbled with the cap of a bottle of oil.
“Giants,” said Pilo. “Not merely men. Giants. They prepare for the fray while a kitten walks among them, nipping at their heels.” Val laughed and shook his head. “Kitten, no. Men do not fear kittens. You are a lion. A lion of Venezuela.” Pilo looked at his cousin for the first time in the conversation, searching for a hint of jest, but Val was serious, and the latter now relaxed in comfortable memory.
“Tio Paco…that’s where you get the skill, no mistake.” Pilo smiled and nodded, beginning his reassembly.
“That trip we made. Do you remember?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Val. “We saw nothing much, so we settled for targets of cans and paper. I couldn’t believe you fell to the rifle so naturally.” Val cocked his head in reverie. “That was so long ago. I miss Tio Paco.”
“Yes,” said Pilo. “Me as well.” Val rolled out his blankets in the gathering twilight, as the insectile call and response of the evening began.
“Hey, Pilito,” said Val, gingerly producing something from his pack, “look what I brought you.” He handed over a sheet of some sort, which Pilo took in interest. “It’s a sticker. I found it up north, and put it on wax paper to save it for you.” Pilo looked at the sticker, stark black on dull red stock, and saw a grainy, high-contrast image of himself—the image from the security camera, repurposed for portable fame. Beneath the image, the words EL CAZADOR appeared in blocky boldness. The effect was sharp and direct, and the surprise and mild delight in Pilo’s eyes matched Val’s pleasure in delivering the piece. Current realities dictated a change, however.
For a while, at least, Pilo must disappear.
Valentin had, with the aid of a librarian, compiled a list of prominent newspapers, and after a quick hug and well-wishes for Pilo he’d clambered aboard a bus headed into Medellin, ready now to consult that list. He purchased a phone card from a vendor at the edge of the city and walked into the streets, block by block, until he saw a weary, graffitied phone booth. The receiver was a little slick, and he rubbed it against the tail of his shirt in distaste. Three calls down, he reached the number for El Libertador, and this he now dialed. He was put through to the editorial desk with surprising speed, and heard the voice of an anxious man at the other end.
“This is his cousin.” Rey was silent, perfectly still for fear of losing the line.
“May I ask a favor of you?” sighed Val. “Whatever your answer, I understand.”
“Yes, by all means.” A pause.
“Will your newspaper stop discussing Pilo Oropeza?” Rey sat down slowly, his mind racing. At the other end of his receiver was a man with Oropeza’s ear…perhaps he had some influence on him…or—and here Rey started in sudden realization—this was him. He had no time to collect his spinning questions, but cleared his head enough to speak.
“Ah, my friend. I appreciate your contacting me. I must tell you, however…” a slight, distracted sniffle on the other end, “that decision has been made for me.”
Medellin was as busy as Pilo had heard, and the first night there he’d lain on a hillside, tired and amazed at the city’s sweeping lights. He now sat on a bench in a square, in plain sight, as it were. He’d never give himself a second look, so why should anyone else? Lunch sat uneasily inside him, especially under the sun. The food here was deceptively rich. He pulled his hat down and felt the beer working its way through him.
He stood and walked across the street to a bar. Inside was dark and cool, and he walked toward the end of the long bar in search of the restroom. As he came back out he felt a hand on his sleeve. He looked up into the face of a biker, sleeves cut away to reveal massive arms, and sporting a crewcut topped with Aviators. The biker released Pilo and smiled.
“Don’t worry, Señor O. I won’t tell…I’ve better things to do. But it will cost you.” Again the smile.
“How much?” asked Pilo, chilled.
“How much do you have?” Pilo hesitated a moment, in a slight frown of discomfort or maybe indecision, then produced a roll containing three hundred Colombian pesos and forty dollars. This he handed to his new acquaintance, who nodded, patted him on the shoulder and returned to his beer. Pilo was shaking as he walked out the door. Two garters contained his real money. If that was discovered, he was finished.
What did the biker do? Any number of possibilities existed, including employment as a cocalero, given where Pilo was. Such a life…although one with sleepless nights, such must be the case. Police, Feds, DEA-funded killers, rival operations. No life at all, really, as corpses have no use for money. There was one other way, and he was determined to see if it fit him in the least. Southward, then west…to Popayan. Coffee…cacao. There was legitimacy. There was a life that, while difficult, would enable him to take his next steps in a time of his own choosing. He arrived in the village within a day and was guided to a tent which (his supervisor was at pains to point out) included a shower.
“The boss will come soon,” said a thin man in a faded blue t-shirt. “He always comes about midday, after work has picked up again.” Pilo nodded.
“Every day?” he asked.
“Most days,” responded his acquaintance. “He likes to check progress.” The workers were in constant motion, hauling in dark red pods by the bushel for opening and sorting. The cacao beans were collected in huge bins, and these Pilo helped haul around, station to station, until they were ready for processing into their final product.
The man shook a cigarette toward him in its box, but Pilo declined. “Oh,” said the man. “Here he comes.” A nod toward the little foot-path that descended through the brush, stone steps interspersed with wooden, from the large, pale yellow house from which the plantation was run.
A man came down the last few feet of the path, talking animatedly with a woman who accompanied him.
“Guillermina,” said Pilo’s helpful information source. “His wife. Such legs.” Legs, yes, shapely and alluring under the hem of a soberly knit white dress. Carlos Rojas himself, in linen with a wide-brimmed hat, paused briefly for a moment of chatter with the crew leaders before sending each on his way again. The sun had reached its zenith already, yet its warmth held firmly: the boss pulled a handkerchief from what was apparently a very deep pocket and pressed it against his neck. He smiled toward the rather small crew, but then (for the most part), he smiled at everyone.
The boss glanced upward as the sun redoubled its energy and gestured toward the small group of newly hired men, of which Pilo was one. He walked toward the weighing house, and the hires fell in behind him, tramping over the moist soil toward the building, and entered the cool grey structure as he held the door for them.
A few workers looked up from their cleaning and sorting chores, or their scales and sacks, nodded toward the group and resumed work. Rojas directed his charges into an office and retrieved a frosty bottle from a freezer in the room’s corner. Each man had a drink of the cold, clear liquid poured for him, and with a raised hand they drank.
“My friends,” said the owner, “you are joining a strong and thriving company. A company, I may tell you, that began strong and will only increase in strength. A company whose products we can scarcely meet the demand for, yet which continues to cultivate new business.” He paused, taking in every eye. “Tomorrow, you officially become a part of that company.” Murmurs and smiles. The liqueur took away some of the day’s heat. The boss continued.
“Here, we produce solids and cocoa powders for a variety of uses, and of course the all-important cocoa butter, so necessary for the production of confections worldwide.” He pulled a container from the refrigerator underneath the freezer, and poured a frothy, sepia-colored mixture into each man’s cup.
“Soon, ChocPrima Ilimitado introduces a new drink. You have seen the banana trees which stand over our youngest cocoa trees as shelter, yes? We will soon introduce a banana-chocolate cocktail, followed by other delicacies…there are huge markets for such drinks.” Pilo looked around…his fellows were enraptured by the presentation. They licked the flavor from around their lips.
“It is good,” Pilo’s friend said aloud.
From the refrigerator, a thick, oblong bar of chocolate was produced. The boss held it aloft proudly.
Here, though, my friends…here it why we come to work each day. He displayed the candy with his chest full. All recognized the wrapper, but one man had a slight touch of puzzlement, and received a nod which welcomed his question.
“Why, jefe, the name?”
A laugh of delight.
“The name! Yes,” he said. “We must call is something…so, what to call it?” he played out. “In this case, it’s Explorador. The label, quietly lustrous in the room’s fair light, said in tan on dark brown chocolat grand cru over the words (these in white) PREMIER SINGLE BEAN ORIGIN.
“Although…” teased Rojas, “we could just as easily call it ‘Moreno 1857’ or ‘Dulce del Popayan 1896,’ or any other old thing that popped into our heads. It’s the same gibberish, really, but much of these products are destined for Americans—and as we know—they will pay for anything they feel to be of superior quality!” Laughter, as el Jefe tore the wrapper open and passed the bar around to be broken into pieces and sampled.
“You must know, if you do not already,” and here he stopped briefly to light a long white cigarette, “that our beans are Criollo. These beans are the finest. There are none better. They are from Venezuela (the mention of which made Pilo’s heart leap), and are unsurpassed.” He shook his head slowly, the pride evident. He looked the men over, happy for the question. Questions didn’t bother him, unlike the owners of some other plantations that came to mind: in fact, they indicated interest and personal involvement with the company a person worked for. And was he not the face of his company? Few things troubled him. If his operations ended tomorrow he could still withdraw with Mina—near or far—and comfort himself until the end of his days with fantastic sums of money. Yet for the present, his operations thrived, were blessed, and he gladly gave to them his energies.
He recognized Pilo with a tight inward pleasure when the young man had first showed up seeking work. Carlos Rojas was informed, devoting a portion of each morning to the great clattering of the world, and especially of his lands. The man sought a retreat behind hair and toil, but the youth was still there, biding his time or simply looking for a new life. Fine and well. This Oropeza, or whatever he called himself these days, would be a fine worker, focused, out of gratitude—a new chance, peace, whatever shape the opportunity took. Dabblings or not, Rojas understood action. For him, that translated into a living vitality, an essence which others sensed and responded to. He’d shelter Pilo, and thus (even if he didn’t consciously realize it), provide a haven hewn from power.
Rojas liked power.
At the foot of the Andes, within view of the solemn mystery of Macchu Picchu, Ernesto de Nogales passed his days. He hadn’t noticed the woman at the front desk of the hotel.
She was old, seemingly unconcerned with the dump she ostensibly ran on the outer edge of Huancayo, and she was usually watching her stories, besides. Ernesto came and went, kept to himself and was planning his departure from town when a Federal anti-terror squad deftly opened his door in the dim pre-dawn and awakened him to shackles and cuffs.
His rifle was discovered in a large, cheap armoire. It was a .308, and most of the men groaned upon seeing it (as Oropeza used 30.06 ammunition only). In any case, the team bundled de Nogales downstairs and into the back of a van, the gun and his effects thrown into the middle compartment under the seat.
One hour to Lima, and then the better part of the day ascertaining that while the man had in fact committed the recent shootings, he had no connection to Pilo.
The reporters, keenly aware that some sort of capture had happened, soon had to spread the word amongst themselves: a shooter was being held, yes…but not the one they wanted.
This development was not on Eusebio Rey’s mind.
He sat, shirt glued to his back in the heat of an interrogation room. He held very few cards, and none involving Pilo Oropeza. What was this about? The detective in charge of his case offered him a cigarette, but Eusebio waved it away. He wanted to vomit. Alfrida—
The detective looked over his shoulder as another man walked in. The two men shook hands briefly, then the new arrival sat.
“Señor Rey,” he began, “Felipe Nanda. So very nice to meet you.” He opened a bottle of water and took a quick drink.
Detective Ramos tells me you may be able to be of assistance in our search? Eusebio looked at the new man with what he prayed was a look of utter sincerity.
“Señor Nanda, I have spoken, in fact, to two of this man’s family members.” There. A bone for them.
“Yes?” led Nanda.
“Yes. It was within the last two weeks. His aunt—she lives in a small village near the border, on the Rio Araugas. She was somewhat apprehensive, she said he was there but that he’d left on the 23rd, she was very distracted. Kids. I don’t know.”
“Interesting. The other?”
“Ah, a cousin. Valentin Díaz. He claimed Oropeza was in Venezuela. That might have been a lie.” Nanda nodded, waiting.
“Díaz said that they had been in Cartagena, but were long gone…he stated that he was unaware where his cousin was, but then he became…angry.”
“Yes. He said, ‘He’s not finished, you know.’ I have the feeling that he blurted it out, that he regretted it…” The two officials exchanged looks.
“Not finished,” said Ramos.
“No,” said Eusebio, soaking his shirt in new sweat.
“And we have no idea where he is,” said Nanda, and stood, then paused. “Your boss didn’t want to pursue this,” he continued, “why did you?”
“I didn’t want it,” said Rey, “not in particular. I wanted to write about it. Is that so surprising? That a reporter should want to report?” Nanda nodded in assent.
“Señor Rey, you have been very helpful, but we will need you to stay with us for a while…” Eusebio blanched. “You’ll have your phone. The best meals, a fine bath—”
“My wife,” said Eusebio simply.
“Certainly,” smiled Nanda, turning to leave. “Without question. You may speak to her freely.”
With that, a guard entered and walked toward Eusebio. The guard had an air of serenity about him. Señor Rey could be at ease!, and he gestured for the haggard newspaperman to follow him.
The Popayan life surprised Pilo.
With hair long, untended beard and darkened skin he toiled through each day among his fellows, the hours a rhythm, the final moments a blessing. Relaxation, food that delighted him in its simple delicacy, complete and perfect slumber. Something in him felt deeply calm and gratified, and if this time must end, he’d still have had the call to life in the morning air and leafy wonder inside himself.
After the passage of a dim cloudy season and its gradual abatement, he sought to call Val. The plantation had several phones, but their reception was often spotty. On his fourth attempt he reached his cousin, who perked up noticeably when realizing who’d called.
“Pilito!” he exclaimed. “Are you…how is everything?” The voice sounded wonderful to Pilo, having so long been absent.
“Val! Hey, it’s really okay…really good! I’m working. Hard days, but it’s just us out here, you know? Peaceful!”
“That’s good to hear, mi Primo! Ah: girls?” Finally. Someone to tell other than those who, from within the camp, hadn’t made the connection.
“As it turns out…yes. Her name is Paloma.”
“Her dad is in coffee, spices and chocolate in Oaxaca. He wanted her to know all aspects of the business if she was going to maybe join the company someday.”
“A guacha, I may hope…” Pilo laughed.
“I tell you, she’s great. She’s a hard worker. No-nonsense.” He paused. “And yes, ¡maldita sea!…bonita.” The two chatted a while more, then wrapped up the call, happier for the conversation.
One thing troubled Pilo, however. A newspaperman Val had contacted had been arrested, and it took a moment for Pilo to place the name. Rey…Rey. In Buenos Aires. Dots were being connected, and Pilo suddenly wondered if he’d erred in calling his cousin—erred badly. Nothing was out of reach to the interested in this world they all lived in. Borders, countries, official bodies. Ears caught, sorted, delivered. His mind closed off the thought before it finished …and snares closed.
By the end of several weeks’ time, spent largely in the consumption of growing piles of newspapers and a couple of blessedly diverse stacks of magazines, Eusebio Rey was released. He was mentally stiff with confinement, ill-rested and with no clear answers about…anything, really. He had little idea of the conditions at the office, only that he’d been assured that he’d resume duties with no noticeable differences. Had nothing changed, then, or had it in fact changed, but in ways he wouldn’t be privy to? Speculation, turmoil. Enough. He walked out into dusk, sucking at the air. It would’ve done him no good to see Lalo pick up his phone that morning and order his release…just one brief chore among many, one little nagging thing to not lose track of. One high-strung editor, pent, freed…Lalo really needed an assistant for such logistics—
Eusebio caught a taxi home to Alfrida. Recoleta sat in the suburbs: cozy, relatively safe, yet a suburb with a few urban charms—no far-flung outpost of bland gentrification. Eusebio knocked on the door, received Alfrida into his heaving chest. Very soon after he was toweling off a hot shower and crawling, shuddering in disbelief, into bed. His wife tucked the sheets around him, the spread pulled to his chin, and settled in next to him. They lay, night above and Buenos Aires below, and Alfrida slipped her hand underneath her husband’s back and closed her eyes in search of sleep.
She let him blink slowly awake, Sunday morning dawning, then had him lean forward so that she could prop up his pillows against the headboard.
“Frida,” he said after a yawn. “How sweet of you!” She placed a tray over his lap, laden with eggs, Medialunas, sausages and a small carafe of orange juice (doctored, he knew, with prosecco), and coffee.
“Ah, mi Gordito…you’ve been…” She didn’t know what else to say. It was simply good to have him back. “You need a nice, lazy morning.” Eusebio looked around for the remote, muttering about the cat, but then his wife found it on the opposite nightstand. She clicked the screen to life and lay down beside her husband, stretching her legs in relaxation.
After sifting through the cultural bits and bobs, Alfrida worked her way over to the real stuff, the political chat. Eusebio munched as he watched the news team detail a tour of the capitals to be conducted in the coming months, of both the Mano and the UN, and an American delegation as well.
“This one, this man,” he gestured toward the screen, “he and his whole group are from New York. What position should he have with the Fist?”
“Apparently, being a man of the people is not a concern any more,” said his wife. Taking a piece of fruit from her plate, she munched and watched.
Night had fallen, and Pilo stood at the window of his small building and stared at the stars through the window’s cheap blinds. Loma tossed a meal together and cooked for them on the hot plate: fish and vegetables in a tart sauce of her own creation. She stayed most nights, burrowed into Pilo on the single mattress laid atop an ancient army box spring. Each night meant life, shared slumber, a shared space with a man she was beginning to understand the workings of. The workings might cause him to depart, but that was something she’d grapple with if and when it happened.
After the meal Pilo stretched out on the bed, tense and distant. She talked to him about Oaxaca, little stories about the streets, the people. While Loma talked she held a small chunk of chocolate between her thumb and forefinger. The chocolate melted slowly, leaving a dark slick on her fingertips.
“Papi?” she said. Pilo rolled over onto his side, facing her, still exhaling the day. She smeared the chocolate slowly across her navel, working a delicate moist hillock into its cleft.
“Papi, you still look hungry. Eat.”
Later, he lolled toward sleep, but a single shrewd face hung before him.
Behind Soto were the others…beginning with Cantu. His father had worked for Consolidated Fruit for a number of years, and it was one of the few things he spoke of in utter bitterness. Exploitation, gain added to gain, so much wealth gotten from the strain of Latino backs…Cantu was merely the newest face of such interests. He’d certainly shed no tears for Agostino Parra, who’d spearheaded the campaign to make the favelas of Rio hip…cool…some sort of creative and funky paradise, all the while squeezing the occupants ever tighter for their pathetic resources. The favelas were a labyrinthine, crazy-quilt vision of hell, shacks atop hovels laced with webs of alleys and tiny, bleak terraces. A sediment-record of misery, drowning in sweat, shit and cocaine. No. No tears.
He’d taken Ignacio Allemagne in Maracaibo, that stooge of Chávez and then Maduro…tinkerer with price controls, dabbler in Venezuela’s clumsy Socialism. Yes, he dabbled while Venezuelans wept with hunger. Ambrosio del Cuzco, that cousin of Cantu’s. His blood had fittingly spilled out into the soil of San Cristóbal. Rapacious development, where did it end? It knew no end. No one had seen fit to halt the charge toward the ancient sites, whether for money or disinterest or fear. Pilo had seen to him, the bastard.
Now…to Caracas. Pietro Soto was a fresh insult. Oh, he’d bring these lands to heel…handing down not just the edicts of the Fist but those from American pens as well. He was of a kind with those career graspers who chattered on about the Accord. They were excitable dogs, thought Pilo: each prodded on by the bark of the other, driven, indeed, by their own barking…quiet for a time, then an anxious, probing yelp followed by a tiresome resumption. Worse yet, Soto was a New Yorker, a name on a guest list, one who stilled late-night questions with very expensive whiskey.
No man—certainly no man of this land.
One week later, he walked into Caracas. The bus ride had shredded his nerves, as he sat among dozens of strangers, hidden behind newspapers or the bright cellphone wash which lit the bus by night. Did they merely feign boredom, disinterest, detachment? The gun sat in its bag between his feet, its oils and age a sharpness which blared up into his nostrils from beneath the seat.
The girls. They’d ridden along for a nightmarish two-hundred kilometrós, giggling, a fount of chatter, yet merely an annoyance until one of them became curious: a short ladilla who kept looking over at him. She shook her head knowingly, nudged one of her party and said It is him. No doubt behind her eyes…It is him. Soon the group, six craning necks, apprised the wanderer across the aisle, eyes wide, breathing slowed. Pilo’s throat was dry, thick, and he couldn’t summon breath. Then he raised a finger to his right ear and shook his head pitifully. He pointed to his mouth and again shook his head. He returned his gaze to his window, heart racing. It must’ve been enough for the group, who fell back into chatter and departed in a boisterous gaggle at the next stop.
He got a motel room within a few blocks of the Estadio—nothing flashy, so as to minimize potential contact with anyone in an official capacity—and checked in. Then it was back out onto the streets, moving among his beloved fellow citizens, all of them in a distracted, happy hum he wouldn’t know again. Life. They were here, in a delicious Now, and he forced himself to sweep aside envy.
The storage space caused him a bit of panic, until he found his key in a side pocket and entered the facility. He only needed a couple of items, one of them a shirt folded away in a box of clothes in a chest. He tucked these belongings under his arm, and locked the roll-top door again and left. Back to the motel, stopping only for sandwiches and a couple of bottles of Destilo on the way.
He sat in the dim room, slowly unwrapping the food, and ate in focused appreciation. The beer, smooth and agreeable, was perfect. He ran a bath, as hot as he could stand it, then slowly sank in and let the heat envelope him, cleansing and purifying, slowing his thoughts until he could distinctly hear his heart under the water, slow, sure, steady, a young heart momentarily at rest. This moment, this perfect rest.
In the morning the beard fell away under an old pair of scissors, then the razor smoothed his face down to the recognizable him. There, in the mirror, was a work-hardened man, skin smooth and firm, lean with resolve, a man with the richest and reddest of blood thudding through his chest. He slicked his hair back into a single ponytail, clapped his hands forcefully together and then dressed.
It had been a year since Del Cuzco.
The flags of South America were combined into one banner. Now just the colors remained, and this mishmash was overlaid by a dove with a paper in its beak. MANO DEL SUR read the inscription on the scrap, and these now fluttered at the Estadio. Security had done a sweep, then, in a breathtakingly stupid move, withdrawn. As he entered the grounds and searched for the service doors Pilo has spied another of the stickers which bore his image, this time printed on vivid yellow stock. It meant vindication…or doom, and damn the delay in pondering the two possibilities.
As he slipped inside the doors he saw the slight stairwell leading to the upper levels and made for it, startled into gasping by a cat he almost stumbled over at the foot of the stairs. He reached the top floor and entered a storage closet. There were in fact people moving in the building, but he’d not encountered anyone on the way up. Soto had taken the stage and adjusted the microphone to polite applause, and now he spoke. Sighting him in was a quick matter, and with two small adjustments Pilo was ready.
Nausea, though. Not like before. Everything glared at him in high relief, the woodgrain leapt from the walls, the flyspecked glass through which he looked seemed to him a thin membrane that sealed him away, but only just. The other times felt like a dream…not like now, not like here. The sun was caustic, the grit beneath his boots scraped deafeningly, and the metallic taste at the back of his throat sickened him. He couldn’t. The others were numbers in some ledger or other, but there stood Soto, with a leviathan screen at his back, and the will, the means and the window to implement…anything, everything he wished.
Pilo could feel the bars, he could sense the gray damp, the bare-bulbed basement cell. It hung in the air above him, ready to lower itself like a tarpaulin by the mere pulling of the rifle’s trigger. God watched, or maybe not. Maybe God had fled like the cat, with other business to attend to, somewhere else. Somewhere bathed in life, not sudden and vicious death. Armed animals now roamed the hills, they’d even come to Popayan—flourishing amid an armed countryside. He was but one of them, playing fast and loose with increasingly cheapened lives.
Mama…cuida de mí. Watch over me. Watch over me. Watch over me.
Soto drove home one point then another, gauging the crowd, working them, directing them, exultant. Fireworks whistled skyward then, in a great arc behind the podium, all glee and celebration.
They were dazzling, and the thousands assembled fixed their heads up, up, in smiles and exclamation, eyes flashing in the light, the jets of color, the swooshing delight and popping excitement. A few eyes noticed something on the field below, however…a figure walking steadily, purposefully across the turf, headed directly for the podium. The realization rippled through the stands, becoming a murmur, then an excited clamoring. A figure came into view, one young man, clear of gaze and clad in the unmistakable maroon jersey of the Venezuelan national team. Pilo had only a couple hundred feet left before he heard the furious clicking of a bullhorn being keyed, then “HALT.”
Pilo stopped. The first of the security forces were already over onto the grass, barricades hurdled in a confusion of clattering tactical equipment, then the snap of weapons locked into place, aimed straight for him, muzzles enclosing the perimeter in a growing array. Hard breathing in the circle, wide eyes, barely controlled rage. Pilo took in this impromptu perimeter, and stood in his own free patch of space for the very last time. Slowly, eyes never leaving the gaze of the security detail, he lowered his rifle, then stood again. He looked up at the podium in that last instant, and stared now at Soto. The man was composed, tie still knotted perfectly, glasses resting perfectly on the regal nose, but his eyes…his eyes knew fear, and the hands that gripped the chromium frame of the podium contained the pounding of his heart. The look was enough.
Pilo’s point, to the extent that he could make it, was made.
“The Hunter is yours,” he said simply, then darkness.
The presumptive end of the drama caused a reaction that rose and fell among the moment’s other stories, near and far.
Remarkably, Pilo’s story proved to be grist for the mill for almost anyone with a point to make, or a cause to further. Again, the agitated jockeying: stooge, zealot, assassin, fool, hero. Again the determined snarls about the region’s destiny, its needs, its direction. One thing did seem to be determined, however. The Americas Accord bore further study. Maybe it would prove beneficial to its southward neighbors, but that was for another day.
On Monday, Eusebio sat down to his desk, settling in and automatically reaching for his lighter. Instead, he picked up his new E-cig, a cool cylindrical contraption in ridiculous cerulean.
It took the example of one man to wake a land, a people…
He chuckled to himself…old Lalo would sputter at the column. What, though, could the boss do? The newspaper’s presses were in the very building Eusebio sat in, two floors down. Let Lalo read, then: let him drink in the words, then let him call Eusebio with the indignation, the inevitable sacking…
He’d told Frida of his plans, and she’d laughed straightaway and described (in rather colorful detail) where Lalo could put his cares and decorum.
A new tag arose, and spread.
It was a single, easily applied message, bold, legible even at a distance. Spray cans were now poised over cardboard templates to emblazon a striking S E C in maroon or black. There…on brick or siding or sun-washed wood…
SIEMPRE EL CAZADOR