It was about an hour before sunup, and I had already made it down through the switchbacks. The “prevent” defense seemed to have worked—my pre-seizure sense of lunacy had been degaussed. I was feeling good. My epileptic curse had been pushed back to the future.
And I was proud of myself for going out of my way—by two hundred miles—to give Sarah a ride. Despite her claims to fame, there was still a sad mystery to her, and I could relate. Very few foreigners move to Mexico to escape success.
I tapped my fingers on the nose of my Red Fin and made an instant decision to drive due west and surf Bichos for an hour or two. I had to take the highway a little farther north to get there, which meant that the drive wasn’t going to be as safe. But if Bichos was still getting the scraps of that southwest swell we had snagged at Gagger’s, it could be a great morning.
I looked out at the palm trees. Not a frond was stirring. It was going to be a windless morning at a mysto break. I felt blessed, and still a little buzzed.
Until a small group of men stopped me at a roadblock—they were wearing black ski masks and carrying machine guns. But their camouflage pants gave me hope, and I could see that some of these guys were wearing combat boots. There was a chance they were military and not with the cartels.
Or they could be the Mexican seguridad policía secreta, the Grupo Marte—a very badass undercover outfit that was originally organized to target left-wing Americans and Mexican socialists. But the locals will tell you that today, the SPS is just in charge of disappearing people.
I wasn’t sure enough to make the call about who these guys were, so my immediate strategy was to play dumb.
I rolled down my window.
“Bono days,” I said, intentionally overmangling my typically mangled Spanish. “Me, surfino. El gordo olas at Bitchens. Yes?”
I smiled, proud as hell of my ability to play Doofus Kook from SoCal on his first surf trip to Mexico. If there were such a thing as a Mexican Academy Award, I would have just won one.
The man closest to me pulled off his ski mask and shouldered his machine gun. He looked at me with a little disgust. He was about thirty years old, with black eyes and a shaved head. There was a tiny hangman’s noose tattooed under his left eye. I couldn’t tell if he had any rank, but it was clear that he was el jefe.
“Don’t bullshit me. I speak English,” he said with an accent so crisp it sounded nearly British.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“You just figured I’d go easy on an idiot tourist.”
Okay. So the boss had me dead cold. I decided to let him lead. I nodded.
“I’m going to ask you a couple of questions.”
I nodded again.
“But first I need to tell you that it is very important that you tell me the truth.”
“I will,” I said.
“Don’t answer so fast. I want you to think about that. I want you to understand how important they are.”
I didn’t nod this time. I just stared back at him.
“What’s your name?”
“Nick Lutz,” I said, but then I couldn’t hold this guy’s gaze. “Nicholas. Sometimes they call me Pirata.”
“My amigos,” I said.
“Because of the patch?”
“I hope that’s why.”
I looked down at my hands. They were gripping the steering wheel as if it were a trapeze.
“What happened?” he asked, pointing to the patch.
“I got hurt at work,” I said.
He turned my head so he could see the round scar on the back of it. If he knew what an exit wound looked like, he didn’t show it.
“Do you have a passport?”
“Not on me.”
“Are you a US citizen?”
“I have an FM3,” I said, and nodded. “Yes.”
I could see that about half the guys wearing camo were also barefoot. I’d never heard of barefoot soldiers. And the secret police probably all wear shoes. So maybe this was a cartel kidnapping, after all.
“Do you have it with you?”
I nodded and reached for the glove compartment. When I opened it, Winsor’s bag of dope fell out. I grabbed at it.
“Don’t touch that,” he said. “Just get me the FM3.”
I got the FM3 and handed it to him.
“It’s expired,” he said.
“No way,” I said, faking surprise. “Really?”
But the performance wasn’t very believable. I might have to return my Oscar.
“Yes, really,” he said.
“Is there anything I can do to fix this?” And I immediately regretted giving all my cash to Sarah.
“Are you offering me a bribe, Pirata?” El Jefe asked, and then smiled. “Remember—the answer is the important part.”
“I’m not,” I said.
He handed me back my FM3.
“Just two more questions,” he said.
“No problema, señor,” I said, and then grimaced an apology. “No problem, sir.”
“Who is the president of México?”
“I’m not,” he said, as if he had been trained in interrogation by my ex-wife. “If you are a Mexican resident, you should know who our president is.”
“I do,” I said.
And somehow I remembered.
God bless this cocaine. It must have been cut with Adderall.
“¡Profe!” El Jefe called out to one of his soldiers, and laughed. I could see that he might even have been a little impressed. Then he turned back to me.
“Are you ready for your Final Jeopardy question?” he asked.
“It’s called the Final Jeopardy answer,” I corrected, and then instantly regretted it. “At least up in the States, I mean.”
“But we are not in the States,” he deadpanned.
He squinted slightly.
“Do you have any drugs, Mr. Lutz?” he asked.
I glanced over at Winsor’s bud-filled baggy, which had landed on the passenger seat. I picked it up and handed it to him.
“Just this,” I said. “It belongs to a guy I surf with.”
He sniffed Winsor’s pot and put it in his pocket. “So, no drugs?”
“I’m sure,” I said. “Positive.” And for the first time, I was able to hold his gaze.
I started up the Suburban, but El Jefe reached through the window and shut it off.
“Not yet,” he said as he removed the keys.
Then he clapped his hands, and a very large and very white German shepherd appeared from the back of a canvas-topped truck that I hadn’t seen parked in the shadows. As I squinted, I could see that it was a 1979 Dodge Power Wagon, jerry-rigged into a troop transport.
“Who’s that?” I asked him, faking a grin at the dog.
“He’s our drug-sniffing dog,” he said. “We got him from our friends at the border. But every time he sniffed somebody out up there, a customs agent got beheaded, so they said we could have him.”
He opened the door, and I stepped out. The dog sniffed over every inch of the Suburban. El Jefe even had the dog sniff through it twice. But the Suburban was clean.
“It’s not the drugs, you know,” he said. “The drugs don’t matter. The problem is the lying.”
“It is?” I asked.
“Countries whose people no longer know that the truth matters can’t survive. It’s very simple.”
They must not watch much cable news down here, I thought.
“Lies are the bricks of corruption,” he said. “We have to teach la paisa that truth is power.”
“But I’m an American,” I said, bobbing to take myself out of a fight that wasn’t mine.
“So you should understand this more than anyone.”
“It does makes sense,” I said as I crossed the finish line.
And then, like one of the biggest idiots in the history of mankind, I reached down to pet the dog.
“I love dogs,” I said.
The German shepherd began wagging its tail like crazy.
“And he must love you, too,” El Jefe said.
I tried to snuggle this beauty, but the dog started barking at me.
El Jefe smiled. Then he reached to the side pocket of my surf shorts, unzipped its zipper, and removed the bindle.
I could barely nod. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Lying matters,” he said.
He snapped open the bindle of coke and deftly tapped a small pile onto a knuckle. He snorted it.
“Is this stuff any good?” he asked.
“I thought so.”
“But all good things come to an end, don’t they?”
El Jefe tapped out another tiny dune of cocaine and held his knuckle under my nose. He smiled—and I snorted.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Don’t confuse generosity with weakness,” he said.
If it weren’t for the coke, I probably would have fainted.
“I don’t have any money left.” I was begging. “I gave it to a friend who was having a medical emergency.”
“You’re a saint. Every gringo is.”
“I’m not—but it was a good deed.”
“And one that won’t go unpunished.”
This guy must have memorized the Big Book of American Clichés.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“We’re going to send a message to your friends,” he said.
I imagined my body hanging from a bridge. I gulped for air. There is a big debate going on in Mexico over which side is committing more atrocities in the drug wars—the military or the cartels. But it didn’t matter, because it appeared that I had both covered. Unless this guy was policia secreta and then it mattered even less because I would probably be disappeared.
“Then don’t shoot the messenger,” I said, flashing my cliché-club membership. I forced a smile.
“Good one,” he said.
El Jefe nodded to two of his soldiers, and they instantly pinned me over the hood of the Suburban and ripped the back of my shirt wide open.
“In Singapore, this is known as a caning,” he said. “But down here in México, we just call it el vapuleo.”
“I don’t speak much Spanish,” I said.
“You won’t need to.”
Another soldier handed El Jefe a four-foot switch of bamboo about half an inch in diameter.
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“You’ll see,” he said.
El Jefe flicked his wrist, and the bamboo whistled. He spread his feet and whipped the thin reed behind him as if it were a fly rod, slowly winding up—and finally releasing its vicious hollowness expertly between my shoulder blades. I screamed.
“¡Primero de veinte!” El Jefe counted out.
He wound up again, and then deliberately crisscrossed his first wicked slash. I saw a flash of light. My ears rang, and I could feel a warm stream of blood begin to trickle down my spine. Seven casts later, I blacked out—until a bucket of stagnant water choked me awake for the back nine.
I looked back at El Jefe. He was smiling, and pressed the bamboo reed against his lips.
At that moment, I was certain I would never lie to him again—and El Jefe was certain, too.
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