The Mute Bounty Hunter

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She came down from the hills on a big bay horse with the two corpses rope-tied to the twin skinny pack mules she was leading. Blood had dried over the wounds and the corpses swayed as the mules stiff-walked down the dusty street. Some people watched from porches or windows. She rode up to the US Marshal’s office next to the Dry Goods Supply store and got down from her big horse, at least fifteen hands high, and looped the reins around the railing. The mules stood there in the cold, shifting a little. She didn’t hesitate. She walked up the creaky wooden steps, her boots clunking, and opened the door and went in. A bell on the door rang as she entered. Jack Ryles, the US Marshal, was sitting by the stove with his boots up on the desk, smoking a cigarillo. It stank of cigarillo smoke in the little office. The stove was giving off intense warmth. He looked at her evenly without blinking with his blue eyes as she came in. She touched the brim of her straw hat — it was a Mexican sombrero that would have looked silly on anyone but a beautiful black haired woman, which she was — and stood there returning the Marshal’s bold empty gaze with her own bold empty gaze. Aside from the sombrero and riding boots she was wearing a colorful serape thrown over one shoulder and a leather coat and a man’s white shirt under it and also a man’s riding trousers, and two Colt Navy pistols were stuck into the frayed black leather belt holding up the trousers.

-Well now, said Jack Ryles. What have we got here, young lady?
She took the folded wanted poster out of her coat pocket on the side that didn’t hold clinking rifle and pistol shells and unfolded it and held them out toward the Marshal, who didn’t move to take it but sighed, glanced at the wall where the exact same bill was posted (The Natchez Brothers, Extremely Dangerous, Wanted for Horse Thievery. Fifty Gold Dollars For Each Brother, Dead or Alive) and said, drawling his words a little:
-Where are they?
She raised her chin toward the window giving onto the dusty, near-empty street.
The Marshal swung his legs down until his bootheels touched the floor. He pushed back his chair with a squeak. He stood and crushed out his cigarillo in a clay dish full of ash and other spent cigarillos and went slowly to the window. He bent to peer outside through the warped and discolored glass panes. He saw the mules shifting in the cold and the bodies tied to them with lengths of rope, blood drying on the wounds. He rubbed his jaw. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and there were thick bristles, some frosted white by his advancing age.
-Well. You got them horse thieving fuckers. I’ll be twice god damned, he said.

Wearily, the Marshal walked from the window back to his desk. He pulled open a desk drawer and took from it a gray cloth bag that clinked when he set it down by his pistol. He opened the bag and counted out gold coins, placing them in a careful stack. Then he used the barrel of the Colt pistol to move the stack over the desk toward the silent woman. He tore a sheet of paper off a pad and scribbled a few words on it with a quill he plucked from a small jar of ink that sat open and pushed the slip of paper over next to the stack of gold pieces. He laid the quill on the paper. He said:
-Sign here to claim your bounty. I am content that you have earned every dollar of it.
She stepped up to the desk as he sank back into his chair and tilted it on its back legs against the wall. She bent over the desk, picked up the inky quill and signed in a rapid series of scratches. She slipped the quill back into the ink jar.
-Just leave the corpses of these poor sons of bitches lying there in the street if you like, and I’ll have the coffin maker come by with his wagon and pick them up later today or tomorrow after he’s made the coffins. It’s fiesta day for our local coffin maker. Oh, and by the bye. In future you don’t need to bring in the bodies of miscreants to secure your bounty money. Just the heads will do fine. Easier that way, no?
The woman nodded. Then she picked up the stack of gold pieces and placed them into a yellow chamois pouch and shut it by pulling its strings. She tucked the pouch into an inside pocket of her leather coat as the Marshal looked on with one eyebrow cocked, his boots back up on the desk and his hands folded in his lap. She nodded to him and went out, down the creaking wooden steps to the cold and dusty street where she unroped the corpses and took them down from the shifting wide eyed mules. She dragged the corpses up close to the bare wooden sidewalk and propped their bloodied shaggy heads against its edge. Then she wound the rope tightly into a bundle and tied it together and put it in one of the big stained leather saddlebags hanging over the bay horse’s withers. Inside, the Marshal had tilted his chair back down and now bent forward a little to watch her through the window. She felt his gaze, glanced up and touched the brim of her hat in Adios, then she swung up on the bay and clicked her teeth and the bay backed up four steps, turned and set off at a jog, the mules giving a few dry bleats of anguished resistance then following meekly on behind pulled by the lead-rope. She was gone in a few seconds, turning sharply at the end of the street to head back out into the arid desert with her pack mules under the vast incessant blue sky. In his office, the Marshal tilted his chair back again and rested his head against the wall and shut his eyes.
-I’ll be God damned to hell, he said.

 

The Wrath of a Medusa

Morning glare. White dust in the sleeves of her leather jacket.

The sun had risen as Akiko rode her bike north, the wild hair stinging her cheeks.

She throttled down at the dusty outskirts of Ciudad Juarez.

Veering into the parking lot of a shuttered cafe.

Wind-beaten, sun darkened. Blue eyes, the intense blue of a sea in the evening, as dusk falls.

Akiko wrested off the sun-visored helmet, scalding her fingers and the palms of her hands, and set it behind her. She plucked the map of northern Mexico from her pocket and unfolded it sitting on the hot bike seat. The cooling engine ticked. Water dripped inside it.

Flies. There was a ditch nearby heaped with black plastic garbage bags fluttering in the hot breeze. It smelled raw and fetid.

Trucks screeched past, battering her with wind.

Akiko flipped over the map. She studied the red pencil marks she’d made. An intersection circled, with a red marginal arrow pointed to it.

She refolded the map and stuck it carefully back into her breast pocket.

She was thirsty, and had a headache from the tequila of the night last.

Anejo, washed down with cold Tecate, the rims of the bottles salted and a lime wedge stuck down the necks.

It’s an interesting day today. Akiko, the deadly assassin, is now thirty-one. But only she knows it. There’s nobody in the whole world to call, no voice anywhere to wish her a happy birthday, or to take her out for lunch or bake her a chocolate cake.

She’d considered confessing as much to the blue eyed man in the mountain village. A man in his late forties. A former killer, like her.

Tomorrow’s my birthday, and you know what? Nobody on this whole deranged earth gives a fuck.

An assassin’s life is a lonely one. But she chose it. Loneliness is in her nature.

She’d had trouble sleeping from all the tequila she drank after leaving the blue eyed man with cash and passports for his escape South.

At about two AM she was sitting naked but for a thin wool blanket by the open window. The night air was cold and stank sweetly of pinon fires. It was unforgettably still. The sky was a dark dark blue and there were stars in it, drifting constellations.

That’s when it came to her.

That she had one more job yet to do before dropping out of her insane line of work, heading to the little island on the Sea of Japan, and purifying her dark karma in the perfect isolation of a well-earned and meticulously planned retirement.

She puts on the helmet, tucking her hair up into it, and kicks the engine to life again.

Vroom.

*

At ten o’clock she walked into a dusty cemetary overloaded with bright flowers, many of them plastic.

She herself was carrying a bouquet. Roses. Yellow. Real ones.

She found the gravestone in the heat and the dust.

Knelt.

Shut her eyes.

Felt the heart beating in her.

She opened her eyes to a rainbow light-blur; stinging tears.

She set down the roses, their stems wrapped in clear plastic misted by water vapor, at the base of the stone.

It was carved with a simple name, clear dates divided by a dash.

A slim hyphen standing for the man’s whole life.

This was the grave of the journalist in Ciudad Juarez — the one she’d told the blue eyed man about.

She was supposed to kill him. She hadn’t. She’d appeared as if conjured by magic in his house late one night, woke him, and listened to his story.

She told him exactly what she was. She confided she’d read his articles and decided against taking his life — even though the Organization wanted it, and Omitsu had sent her to do the “hit” personally.

Then she’d left him — intact, alive, grateful and impressed.

She remembered only later that the journalist’s lush garden smelled intensely and fantastically of roses. That scent haunted her on the roads south deep into the mountains of Sonora.

Ten days later, the journalist was assassinated in Ciudad Juarez, on his way to an interview.

A grenade tossed into his car at a stop-light. He was blown to bits. Then the bits were methodically machine-gunned.

But not by Akiko.

Not by the blue eyed, black haired killer Molly Vance.

*

It was this same martyred journalist who had claimed to possess evidence that a certain unbelievably rich and powerful retired General Ortega and his eldest son “Chucho” were the men behind the disappearance and murders of over two hundred women and girls, mostly factory workers, in the city of Juarez.

He had, in fact, shown some of his documentary evidence to Akiko. Records of late night conversations with men who claimed to possess inside knowledge but refused to be named.

The gray haired journalist had presented these documents personally, even somewhat ceremonially, in a private meeting, to the Chief of Police in Juarez. But had heard nothing since. Only that the “investigation” was ongoing.

Your life is deeply in danger, Akiko told him in her stilted Spanish. This is a greater problem than just the General you speak of. There is an Organization of such men, and their power is extreme. Go. Go now. You must go.

The man had shrugged and lifted his hands from his knees.

Where could I go? To evade men as powerful as you say — this is impossible. I will stay and fight.

He didn’t go anywhere. He waited in Juarez, to see the investigation, if there was one, through to the end. And was killed. Remorselessly, by the same men who mutilated and raped young women and left their carved up bodies in garbage dumps, ditches, and shallow desert graves.

After laying the bouqet of cut roses, Akiko searched in a side pocket of her leather jacket. With two fingers she withdrew a newspaper clipping: a heavyset, greasy-haired, thick-moustached General Ortega and the blade-like dark haired and slim”Chucho” shown together in civilian clothes, posing quasi-clownishly beside a thoroughbred racing horse owned by the General.

At the Kentucky Derby, just last year.

She places the newspaper clipping under the roses. Then, bowing her head, Akiko thinks:

General Ortega;

“Chucho.”

You have awakened the bitter wrath

of a Medusa —

the deadliest assassin of all.

After today,

you will race no more horses.

*

She didn’t go back into town.

She rode the bike out into the wastes. The bleak yellow-gray desert.

Wind whipping her hair.

There were some rock formations, then the camel humps of low mountains.

In Ciudad Juarez she’d visited some stores and asked questions.

Throttling down now, the wind soothing and almost cold. Sweat dripping cold down the base of her spine and at her armpits.

She took a narrow dirt road, bumping along in a cloud of dust, sand and gravel showering her motorcycle boots.

Up into the hills.

There.

She’d stopped the bike, kicked the kickstand down, wrenched off the sweaty helmet and sat back on the seat and peeled off her thin riding gloves.

Tilting her head back, she could see the cave entrances.

They were black in the shuddering heat waves, and the cliff was honeycombed by them.

Overhead: vultures. Sky. Nothing.

She drank water from a red plastic screwtop bottle she took from her navy duffel bag.

She’d brought three more such bottles and filled them with cold water, which was now almost hot, before leaving the city.

Next: she took a flat-folded black canvas shoulderbag from the duffel.

Dismounted the bike. Slung the empty bag over her left shoulder.

And now she drew from inside the duffel a long, polished-looking forked oak stick.

She left the bike ticking in the murderous heat and eerie silence of the desert and walked uphill on a bare rocky path, her gaze fixed on the dusty toes of her motorcycle boots.

She used the stick like a walking staff, gripping it just below the forked part. Thumping it lightly with each upward step.

Here. The caves.

She crouched outside one.

Peered in. Her nostrils flaring.

It smelled stale, dry and cool.

She crouch-walked closer to the entrace and stuck her head almost inside.

Shut her eyes.

When she opened them, she could see a little better.

It wasn’t complete darkness. A litter of rounded stones just within.

She shrugged the empty bag from her shoulder onto the dusty path. She leaned her stick against the eroded cliff-side. She picked up the bag and shook it open. Then she set it by the cave entryway and picked up the stick again.

She eased the stick fork-first into the dim. Pressing her lips together, her gaze fixed. Sweat coming out cold on her body. Flipped a stone backwards.

The ferocious hissing clacking of the rattlers was startlingly loud.

There one was, writhing, its tail raised. Another writhing in the same hole.

Akiko pinned the snake close to the head with the fork and twisted it so the stone-colored body whipped and curled around the polished shaft, the angry tail clacking, and in a single deft movement tossed the snake into the open mouth of the canvas bag.

Then she did exactly the same with the other snake, which was bigger and longer and seemed even more fierce. She zipped the bag shut and sat back on her heels. Sweat dripped into her ears. She shook her head, and the sweat drops flew away in a halo.

She picked up the bag by its straps and walked along the path to the next cave.

By the time two hours had gone, Akiko had ten rattlesnakes in the bag which she carried not over her shoulder but carefully by its straps in her right hand.

She descended the steep trail, using the stick to help her balance.

At the motorbike, she drank half of a bottle of water. Gasping.

The sun dazzling red through her shut eyelids.

*

She left the hills for blazing open desert.

Parking in a windswept expanse of reddish-gray sand, she drew a pair of chef’s tongs from the duffel and hiked away from the bike amid the stumps of cacti, carrying the other, still-empty bag.

It was late afternoon, and even the shortest cacti cast same-sized black shadows.

The wind was hot and smelled of sagebrush and broken stone.

She kicked over a bread-loaf sized rock. As the scorpion beneath it tried to scuttle for a nearby shadow, she seized it with the tongs. The legs waving crazily, deadly stinging tail erect. She placed it into the bag and zipped it shut.

It took about an hour of this work to gather fifteen scorpions of various sizes.

She strapped the bag of scorpions onto the right side of her bike. The bag of rattlesnakes was strapped to the left.

Mounted again, she put on her helmet and gloves, kicked the engine to life and turned in a wide U back toward the city of killers.

Vayos Con Dios

Two days later, he was in Mexico City.
Fumes. Traffic. Men sweeping the streets with brooms.
Ice cream pushcarts. Taco pushcarts.
Billboards. Women.
Donkey carts. Plush cars. Buses.
Hooting and roaring.

Sweat at the back of his shirt.
His scalp tingling.
His nostrils full of charcoal smoke, exhaust.
The stench of seared meat.

As soon as he hit Mexico city, he went to a dealership and sold the Jeep for a pittance.
Then he bought a small, battered blue tin can of a car.
He paid the cash down on it, paid extra to have it held on the lot for him.
The Jeep screamed “American.”
The blue tin can– driving it he might pass for French, or even German.
He’d go deeper south in that. Deeper into his cover.

He’d kept a safe deposit box under one of his false names in a Georgetown bank.
A .44 pistol. An envelope full of US currency.
One hundred gold krugerands in a money belt.
Two passports.

The name on his current working passport: Cole James.
He’d bought it in French Guyana.
The Agency didn’t know.
The name on the other: Frank Younger.

*

He slept the first night in a fleabag hotel.
Had to avoid the luxury places.
At night he walked and walked around the great Plaza.
He went into a blazingly bright bar and ordered tequila, almonds, grilled shrimp.

He devoured it. Ravenous.

*

He took apart the pistol and cleaned and greased it on a newspaper spread over the coverlet of the hotel bed.
In the next room, a woman was panting and screaming.
He thought about it. Probably the fat whore he’d seen earlier, posed at the entranceway in the flashing neon.

He’d bought a bottle of Centenario. He took swigs from the neck.
Wiped his mouth with his hand.

Looked at himself in the faded and streaked mirror.
Ageing. Haggard from lack of sleep. Unshaven.

What now?
He didn’t know.

*

In the morning he walked around again.
He went into a cybercafe.
He sat at a computer.
It felt dangerous.

He didn’t open the browser. He finally just got up and walked out.

At a street stall, he bought a small Olivetti typewriter.
He carried it back with him to the hotel — a small black suitcase.
He didn’t have any real paper. He rolled a sheet of cigarette paper into the carriage.
He typed — click click click — Government by Shadows: The Group of 22.

*

At night he went out again.
Thirsty.
In a bar, he drank tequila.
He ate pork tacos from a banana leaf at a street stall.

As he made his way back to the hotel, having memorized every step, two rooster-sauntering men followed him.
They were wearing: shiny shoes, pleated trousers, colorful shirts, gold necklaces.
Both Mexicans.One had a greased ponytail.

He pondered it. They were take-off artists.
Ordinary criminals, looking for tourists.
He was only surprised they’d tagged him as American.

His blue jeans and white shirt — he could have been any nationality.

Or maybe they were going after Europeans, now, too?

He waited for them at a traffic blaring corner.
They parted slightly as they approached.
The one that wasn’t poneytailed had a goatee. And a gold tooth.

At a glance: no pistolas.
But the ponytailed one brought something out of his pocket.

Flick.

*

Greased Ponytail waves his switchblade lazily in the blue eyed man’s face.
Goatee takes hold of his shirt. Purses his lips to speak Mexican —

The blue eyed man grasps and twists Goatee’s shirt-holding hand palm upward and turns it so he lets go of the fabric and staggers, a wild Texas two-step.
Hits him twice in the throat, edge-of-hand blows.

It’s so quick that Greased Ponytail has time only to blink, once, before the blue eyed man snatches the toothpick from his lips and hits him viciously in the solar plexus.
Doubling over, Greased Ponytail retches and spills beer-shrimp-chilis-corn onto the sidewalk.

He, the blue eyed man, now takes control of the knife arm at the elbow joint, knocks the knife loose. It clangs, skitters, even as Goatee sinks to the sidewalk and lies gasping in the fetal posture, holding his neck.

The blue eyed man crouches. Picks up the knife. Shuts it. Sticks it in his pocket.
Puts the non-chewed end of the toothpick in his mouth.

Stands, slowly.

Looks at Greased Ponytail, who is still doubled over, wobbling and gasping for air.
At Goatee, who is jerking with agony and, like his amigo, wholly engrossed in the non-threatening task of trying to breathe.

Walks away.

Vayos con dios.

Hola, Mexico

He was driving. South.
Deep in Mexico.
In eternity.
In sheer, violent blue endlessness.

Heading for those mountains, rising like shoulders of rain out of the parched, broken, cactus dotted, windswept desert.

Battering wind, dusty, cool, shattering insects on the windshield.
He’s got the windows rolled down. So he can taste the dry air.
Taste the smashing wind.

His elbow roasting in the sun glare, where it rests on the window.

Sometimes he puts his hand out, opens the fingers. To feel the wind.
To feel the violent, surrealistic, shattered, unborn reality of Mexico.
He tries to snatch it. But the wind always escapes.

He shuts his eyes.
Sees the road, the white line unfurling.
Mountains distorted by heat.
Sweat stinging his face.

Empty road, mirage wavering asphalt.
Lakes appearing. Castles.

He licks his lips.
Turns on the radio.
It’s a Bible thumping preacher, out of Texas.
Shrieking Gospel into the blurred airwaves.

He can see the man vividly in his mind’s eye, dark-suited with a face like a hatchet, shouting in his roadside pinewood chapel.
Shouting into a big steel-gilled microphone.
He, the blue eyed man — gaunt-faced, handsome, with thinning hair, in a blue denim shirt, jeans and steeltoed cowboy boots — makes a face.
He switches the station.

A long crackle of radiowaves.
Then the blare of horns.
A mariachi song. Okay.
He turns it up, until the harsh clangs of the guitar make the air tremble.
He listens. Falls into a trance.

When the song ends, his head jolts.
But he hasn’t fallen asleep.
He’s still driving the Jeep. Straight and fast.

But now dusk is climbing the mountains.
They’re turning a fantastic rose-hue.
And in the distance, a little town, already lost deep in a well of shadow.

He’ll stop. He’ll eat at a Mexican cantina.
He’ll fill the jeep with gas.
Maybe get a cerveza or two, some shots of tequila. Why not.

As he slows down to forty, the blue eyed man bends.
Reaches under the seat.
Pulls out the gun.

Holding the steering wheel one handed, he flicks open the cylinder.
At a glance, he sees it’s fully loaded.
Gleaming copper cased bullets.
He lays the pistol on the hot leather passenger seat, where it bounces slightly.

The wind-roar subsides. The rattle of windshield glass slows to a soft ticking.
He realizes the windshield is so filthy it’s tinging everything brown and dull.
He’ll get it washed in the town. And now he sees the first color splashed billboards.

Ads for Las Cervezas Mas Fina.
Houses, more like shacks.
Chickens walking around a fenced yard.
Dogs, their tongues lolling out, lying in the shade of an adobe wall.

He pulls into the first service station that appears in the brown dust of his bouncing vision.
He brakes the Jeep, sweeps up the pistol, and in a smooth movement, as he steps out onto the overheated asphalt, sticks the barrel into his belted sweat-cold jeans waistband at the front  and pulls the tails of his shirt out to cover the grip

Hola, Mexico.

Mexican Killing Ballads

MEXICAN KILLING BALLADS by Okamoto is available as a shocking and beautifully crafted little e-book from Amazon/Kindle.

How can you decide if you want to read this dark, gory, poetic and rather crazy little book of stories and micro-stories?

Do you like violence and mayhem told in a morose, sensitive, melancholy and lyrical way?

This despairing little book contains a “planed-down-to-bareness” story that is one of my own personal favorites of all I’ve written over the years: “The Coffin Maker’s Son.”