Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Lawyers, Guns, and Money - Part Five
Even if you're used to the stuff one glass of chicha will make you happy. Two will make you sloppy. Six will probably kill you.
My good friend Antonio cut me off halfway through my third cup.
Don Gerardo, Antonio, and myself were back at the card table in the corner of the cantina. Pilar, dressed in a black shirt and black pants, stood by the bar, watching the door.
The room careened all around me so I held onto the edge of the table with both hands and tried to keep my ass centered on my uncomfortable wooden crate.
“So Senor Blaylock knows who you are,” said Don Gerardo. “This is excellent.”
“You and I have very different definitions of that word,” I replied. I got the words out just ahead of a respectable chicha belch.
“He will believe you are in his power.”
“I am in his power.”
“You are under my protection.”
“I don't get the feeling that worries him.”
“Then he is a fool,” growled Antonio.
Don Gerardo let that go right by him.
“What do you want me to do now?” I asked him.
“The plan is unchanged. He instructed you to go to him. Go to him. There is no better place to learn about this man than by his side.”
He stared at me and told me without a word that he was done humoring me.
I sat up straight with drunken indignation.
“Fine,” I said. “I'll go see him tomorrow.”
“Why not tonight?”
I looked Don Gerardo dead in the face.
“'Cause I drank too much damn chicha. I don't even know if I can walk.”
He leaned back from the table and shook his head. Antonio started to laugh. Don Gerardo, after a very long ten seconds, cracked a smile. It wasn't much of a smile but it was enough.
“Tomorrow will be fine,” he said. “I, however, am leaving on business tonight. But I leave Pilar here to help you.”
I raised an eyebrow.
She looked over in our direction at the mention of her name. I shrugged at her. She shrugged back.
“You underestimate my daughter at your peril, Mateo.”
There was nothing I could say to that so I just nodded.
Don Gerardo stood up.
“The man's not stupid,” I said. “What if he figures out I'm spying on him?”
“You worry too much, cabron,” growled Antonio.
“Yeah? It's not your ass on the line, pal. I think he's a bad guy. What am I supposed to do if he tries to kill me?”
“Mateo,” said Don Gerardo, “surely, you of all people do not need me to tell you what to do in that event.”
Antonio let me finish that third cup of chicha after Don Gerardo left.
Pilar saw her father home and then returned to the cantina to check on me.
I hadn't moved from my crate at the table. I sat there, as hammered as I'd ever been in my life, and stared at Antonio's ugly wall. I could see rectangular patches that were less faded than the rest of the wall, edged with the remnants of tape and the occasional scrap of paper. I found it all fascinating in a disorienting kind of way.
Antonio let me be and worked the bar in my stead.
I didn't notice Pilar's return until she sat down on the crate nearest mine.
She took the empty cup from me and placed her cool, dry palm against my forehead.
“I told you chicha was strong,” she said.
“Yes. Yes you did.”
Her hand moved down from my face to cover one of mine on the table.
I looked at her and she held my stare. The smile in her eyes did not reach her lips.
“Would your father really sell me out if I don't scope out Beau Blaylock for him?”
She hesitated before answering me. It was the barest of hesitations but it was there.
“Father will do what he must,” she replied.
“Met Beau yet?”
“Only to say hello when he entered the house. We didn't stay long once he and Enrique settled in.”
“The guy with the shades.”
“What do you think of him? Beau, I mean?”
There was no hesitation this time.
“I think he is a dangerous man.”
Antonio came over to the table and deposited a bowl of steaming black coffee.
“Drink this,” he ordered. “You'll feel a little less like dying in a short while.”
He didn't go back to the bar until I'd had a good gulp of the stuff. It was strong and spicy and might just have been the finest liquid I'd ever poured down my throat. But that might also have been the chicha talking.
“Your father thinks I killed my wife,” I said, more or less out loud.
She squeezed my hand.
“My father doesn't care.”
She had more to say on the subject so I waited for it.
“He believes that a man's past is between him and God. A man is not his past. A man is what he does today.”
It was too much for me to think about. I grunted and stared into my coffee. The oils on the surface swirled in muted orange and purple reflections off the dull yellow cantina light. I looked away from the bowl and soon found myself mesmerized by the blood red polish on Pilar's toes as she moved her foot in time with the Vicente Fernandez tune playing on the radio.
A good half hour ticked away like that, sipping and staring, and by the time I polished off my coffee I knew that Antonio was a genius. I was still plenty hammered but I had energy and full use of my extremities.
“I want to go for a walk,” I announced.
I looked at Pilar who smiled at me in a way I couldn't read but wanted to spend some time studying.
We had a perfect Abandonados night for a walk.
The humidity was down to around eighty percent and a teasing breeze stirred the ninety-degree air around in the moonlight. Like I said. Perfect.
Pilar and I hadn't done any talking since we left the cantina. We walked all the way out Diego Street, up and over the arroyo, and down a wooded path that led I had no idea where.
“We are now on part of my family's land,” she said. “I spent many, many days in these woods as a girl.”
The moonlight filtered through the treetops, casting everything in a warm blue glow. When I looked up I saw a sky full of stars.
“What do you see?” asked Pilar.
“Where I'm from you don't see a lot of stars. Everything's always lit up. Even looking out over the river there's so much light coming out of the city. I've been down here a long time and I'm still amazed at the night sky.”
It took me a second to realize she wasn't listening anymore.
I looked at her and she shook her head.
We stopped walking and listened.
I opened my mouth to whisper but she shook her head again and peered out into the trees. I thought about Antonio's coyotes and swore a solemn oath never to go walking in the Abandonados woods ever again.
I thought about trying to whisper again. Pilar clamped her hand over my mouth and held still, listening. I couldn't hear a thing out there but blinked to tell her I got the message.
“Stay here,” she said. She took her hand away and headed for the trees.
I pulled the revolver and got ready to follow her in.
“I said, stay here. And put that away. Estupido.”
I did as I was told, paralyzed by a combination plate of confusion, fear, and machismo. The gun went back into my pocket, still in hand.
Pilar vanished into the woods.
I still heard nothing but the insects and the grinding of my teeth.
I gave her about thirty seconds and then made for the trees.
The unmistakable sounds of fighting cut the silence. I picked up the pace.
Someone's scream of pain ripped through the woods before I got halfway there.
It wasn't Pilar.
Pilar crashed out of the woods, dragging five-foot-five worth of Napoleonic frustration in a red bandanna by the scruff of its neck.
She let go of Mirebeau Lamar Blaylock's native guide and turned to me.
“I told you to put that away,” she growled.
I looked down at the revolver in my hand. I did not recall taking it out of my pocket.
Pilar didn't waste any more time on me. She helped the little guy to his feet and started talking.
Even in the dark I could see his face scrunched up in pain as he tried to argue. His right arm dangled from the shoulder in a way that shoulders in their sockets don't dangle.
The exchange was short and hard and I didn't understand a word of it. That kind of Spanish wasn't for Gringo ears.
Beau's man didn't get many words in. Before long he quit trying to. When they were done he glared at me. His bandanna had slipped to tilt at an angle I'd have called rakish if I thought he'd done it on purpose.
I refused to get into a staring match and after a few seconds he turned and walked away down the path, good arm holding up the bad one.
“You broke his arm?” I asked.
“Dislocated his shoulder. Enrique will be fine.”
“What was that little conversation about?”
“About you. Senor Blaylock told him to watch you, to make sure you didn't run. I assured him that you would not.”
“Beau said running would be a bad idea. I believe him.”
She took another minute to listen to the woods and then took my hand.
“Let's go back to Antonio's.”
I gave myself most of the next day to shake off the chicha hangover I had. Imagine waking up feeling like someone dropped a cinder block on your head while you were sleeping and then fed you molten lava. That's a chicha hangover.
It was late afternoon when I peeled myself off of my cot.
Pilar was gone. I remembered her sitting on the floor, singing softly, before I passed out.
I had no idea how I got out of my clothes.
I got dressed and then scarfed down the bread and avocado she set out for me before heading out to see Beau.
He was waiting for me on the porch of the big red house, looking comfortable in a rocking chair.
A bucket of beers on ice sat next to him.
“Evening, Matty,” he said as I approached the porch. “I was beginning to wonder when I was gonna see you. Gotta say though, you're not lookin' so good.”
“Chicha hangover,” I replied.
He chuckled. “Say no more. Here. Have a little cerveza. It'll take the hair off it some.”
I settled into the other rocking chair. Beau handed me a bottle of beer. It felt wonderful going down.
“So what are we gonna talk about?” I asked.
“Just like a New Yorker,” he said. “Always in a rush. Relax, friend. Drink your beer. We got all the time in the world to talk.”
It was his show so I drank my beer and tried to relax.
It was hard not to stare at him as he watched the people of Abandonados as they went about their business up and down Diego Street. His hard gray eyes missed nothing.
I was almost finished with it when the beer got chewy.
“Weird,” I said. “This beer's got texture.”
“Is that right? I suppose that'd be the sleeping pills.”
I dropped the bottle and wanted to get up but it wasn't happening.
“Been takin' 'em for so many years now they've got no effect on me but I'd imagine you're feeling a little out of it right now. On top of a chicha hangover I'd bet you feel like twenty pounds of shit in a five pound sack.”
“What?” It was all I could get out.
Beau grinned at me and put a big hand on my shoulder.
“What's that? Didn't quite catch that.”
I dug deep and repeated myself.
“Well, Matty,” he said. “We're gonna talk.”
“I want a little sugar in my bowl... I want a little sweetness down in my soul...”
The words bounced off the walls in the small, dimly lit room I came to in.
Nina Simone? Here?
My arms hurt. My wrists hurt too. The handcuffs had a lot to do with that. I had to look up to see my wrists because my arms were raised up over my head. The cuffs were draped over a thick metal hook hanging from the ceiling, right next to the fixture holding the single bare bulb that lit the room.
If I stretched my feet all the way out the tips of my toes brushed the cool tile floor.
I had no idea how much time had passed. It could have been an hour. It could have been a day.
Other than me on a hook, a cheap metal folding chair, and a matching card table with an old cassette player on it the room was empty. There were no windows and only one doorway. No door.
My shirt was gone but I was still wearing pants, which I found more reassuring than I should have.
And I still didn't know what Nina Simone was doing in the room with me.
“Whatsa matter, daddy? Come on, save my soul... Drop a little sugar in my bowl...”
“I do love this song,” said Beau.
He lingered in the open doorway for a second and then walked into the room. He was still wearing jeans and the denim shirt. The hat was nowhere in sight but the Peacemaker was still on his hip. He slid it out of the holster and put it down next to the tape player.
“You know what she's talkin' about in this song, don't you, Matty? A little sugar in her bowl?”
I spun the wheel of responses. It came up 'Bravado'.
“Wouldn't have taken you for a Nina Simone man, Beau,” I said.
He smiled. “Is that right? You got me down as another West Texas shit-kicker, don't you? Just another dumb cowboy with a big hat and a belt buckle.”
“What can I tell you? I'm a man of limited imagination.”
He shook his head and punched me in the mouth.
“You like to think you've gone native but you still got a lot of city slicker lip left in you.”
He leaned in close and stared me down.
“Don't get me wrong,” he continued, “I love my Hank Williams and Johnny Cash as much as the next guy but there's somethin' about that Nina Simone. I get her, know what I mean, friend?”
I hesitated. Beau kept rolling.
“Would it make you feel better if I put some Hank on? Make it feel more right to you?”
He left the room and came back with a tape a few seconds later. He stared me down while he made the switch.
“This'll put you right, Matty,” he said as fiddle music filled the space Nina Simone vacated. “Right as rain.”
“Now you're lookin' at a man that's getting kind of mad... I had lots of luck but it's all been bad... No matter how I struggle and strive, I'll never get out of this world alive...”
Beau had a knife in his hand when he turned back to me. It wasn't anything more than an ordinary pocketknife but even in the bad light I could see the marks the sharpening stone had left on the blade.
“All right now, Matty,” he said. “I'm sorry about all this. Normally, my man Enrique would be doing this for me but he's laid up with a bad shoulder. You might know a little something about that. Anyway, he's a whole mess better at this than I am so you're gonna have to bear with me.”
“Who the hell are you, man?” I asked him. My voice sounded a little more hysterical than I meant it to.
“When I'm hangin' from a hook in your basement you can ask the questions.”
He ran the tip of the knife across the right side of my ribcage.
I sucked in my breath as the sting set into the cut.
“That one means nothing. Just did it to make sure you had the whole picture. I don't believe in ruining a man 'less I have to and I'm hopin' that you don't make me have to 'cause I kinda like you. This ain't a lot of fun for me but a man says different things hangin' from a hook than he does sittin' on the front porch.”
I growled at him through my teeth.
“There is no company, is there? That's a load of shit.”
“Now there you go with the questions again, Matty. But you know what? I'm gonna give you that one. There is a company, just not the kind I described to you back in the bar.”
I caught the next question before it got out.
“Good boy,” he said. “You're learnin'. As a reward I'll answer that question you didn't ask. I'm not down here for you, Matty. Finding you is what they call, 'slop', back home. A bank shot. Some tenderfoot who stepped into my sights while I was aiming at bigger game.”
I kept my trap shut.
Beau went on.
“So I got a choice. I can haul your ass back to the States and collect both the reward and the bounty-- you're worth a lot of dough, amigo-- or I can give you a chance to help yourself by helping me. Now, you're pretty much living in the open here in Abandonados. Any fool can see that. That means you've got backing, and around here that means one man.”
He let me think about that for a second and then started up again. He moved in and held the knife against my abdomen.
“Now,” he said, “We can do this easy or we can do this hard. That much is up to you, Matty, but make no mistake. We're gonna do it.”
The tip of the knife bit into my side.
“Matty, why don't you go ahead and tell me everything you know about Don Gerardo.”
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Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.