Victoria

Two days later.
He’s bent over the Olivetti.
Sweating, bare chested
in the roaring Mexico City heat.
Clack. Clack clack.

He’s typing with two fingers,
like Papa Hemingway.
The stack of typewritten pages has grown.
There’s a loud,
insistent knock.

He stops typing.
Sits up straight.
Listening,
he shuts his eyes.

One? Two?
He decides it’s one.
He knows, for some reason he can’t fathom,
it’s a woman.
He feels it’s her,
the near-raped rich girl
from the Club Papillion.

How did she find him? How?
Security cameras.
She’s rich and misbehaving —
and she has a father.

All this the blue eyed man
comprehends in a flash.

He picks up his blue shirt from the bed
and shrugs it on
before going barefoot to the door.
He unchains and opens the door a crack.
Sees a wide, gleaming eye.
An arched eyebrow.

She’s dressed today in a white blouse,
blue slacks, barely any jewelry.
She’s wearing flat white leather shoes
with star patterns cut into the toes.
Her hair is parted in the middle
and combed back shining.
She’s put on pink lip gloss
and a little eye-shadow, that’s all.

She looks very thin
and very prim,
as if stepping fresh through the gate
of a convent.

He opens the door.
Wide.
Gestures with his palm.
She steps in.
He shuts the door, locks and chains it.
She goes to the bed —
a liquid, strange, cutting walk.

Sits on the edge.
It squeaks as the springs settle.
Gazes up at him.

May I do something for you? he asks.

You already did. Two nights ago. I am Victoria.

Her English is perfect.

So he tells her his first name.
The real one.

Then:
How did you find me here?

She shrugs. Smiles a little.
My father. His men.

Obviously,
the topic of finding people is boring.
He’s found, that’s all.

The blue eyed man goes to the chair.
Turns it around.
Sits.

Looks at her.
At the wild beauty,
the youth.
The amazing youth.

At the green eyes,
the wild black hair.

For some reason,
she evokes for him Ilena Sanchez.
And so many others.

Are they downstairs?
Si.
All around the hotel?
Si.

He feels a little better.
It wouldn’t have helped to get a room with a fire escape.
Not since they’re all around the hotel.

I am to go with you?
Yes.
To see your father?
Yes.
So he can thank me personally,
and with the appropriate Latin warmth?

She smiles. A dimple. Dazzling teeth.
Si.

He says:
I will leave my own weapon here. But these —
he opens a drawer and takes out Bald Man’s pistol
and Cowboy Boots’ switchblade —
I should present to you as souvenirs.

She takes them, smiling
— this time her lips are pressed together,
as if in recognition of a secret joke —
from his hands.
Then, Victoria turns her body
as he studies her calm Latin profile
to slip them into her small white purse,
which she now zips fast.

She stands.

Are you coming?
Of course.

He stands.

They look at each other.
She takes two steps foward, then three.
She looks up at him,
her brows at his chin,
eyes great and shining.

He says,
You don’t need to —

She lifts herself on her toes,
ballerina-like,
and kisses his lips,
softly. Delicately.
It’s like the kiss of a butterfly
or a flower.

He shuts his eyes.
His heart is drumming.
She licks her upper lip
with the point of her tongue
and says to him,
And now that I’ve thanked you as I should,
shall we go to see my narco papa?

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.

Score

Sabine, hiking fast. Torn by brambles, whipped by fir branches.

When she hears the crack of a twig she drops and lies flat. screened by dense-growing ferns.

Two more men. She smells them before she sees them. They stink of fear-sweat. And gun grease. And nylon cloth. And fear-sweat again. Sweat is shining on their grease paint darkened hands and faces.

They’re in the same dark Ultra paratrooper Nazi type uniforms as the previous team, gliding through the primaeval forest.

Sabine peers at them, through the fronds of the lush fern that screens her, as they move softly in the fog. In the diminishing rain and the reek of metal and sweat.

They’re holding their light automatic rifles at ready and are using signs to “speak” to each other.

It seems they sense Sabine might be near but they are looking in the wrong direction.

Sabine hears it: a rattle of branches. A swishing in the ferns off to her left.

She shuts her eyes. It sounds like a deer. Yes. Probably. That.

The Ultra agents are too stupid to suspect it is a deer based on the gliding rush and the tapping of fern fronds — how could it be a human being? Even a little girl? It’s too swift, too sudden, too glissando, like musical notes played by an accomplished musician.

The agents are stupid, and fearful, and jumpy. They make tense hand signals to each other and jog double time toward the glissing rushing ferny sound.

To head it off. Off at the pass. Idiots.

Tense, their eyes wide and staring out of the smears of black grease they’ve layered on for camoflauge.

Sabine wants to laugh. To laugh herself sick. She doesn’t. She rolls over very quietly, unslings the rifle from her right shoulder, and lays it flat beneath the fern. Then she rolls back onto her belly, meantime reaching down to grasp the hilt of her combat knife, which slides from its sheath in total silence.

She lies there, her breasts pressed flat, her heart beating. One of the man hurries past her only three yards distant — she sees the black clad legs moving briskly.

He’s jog-walking with his rifle pointed at the direction of the deer-gliding-sound.

Sabine’s eyes move. She takes in the location of the other man. He disappears behind a clump of pines. He’s about twenty yards off.

Silence. Silence, except for the drip drip of rain water from the massive branches above, and the shrills of a few distant birds.

Sabine adjusts her grip on the knife. Reverse grip. She braces her elbows.

The Ultra agent is now seven yards off, with his back to Sabine.

She pushes off the rain soaked leaves and runs fast and silently until she is directly behind the Ultra agent. She taps his elbow. He spins, eyes wide, and tries to hit her with the rifle barrel. Sabine ducks it and flows to his right side and with one smooth movement leaps onto his shoulders, wrapping her legs around his neck. Then she drops her body to one side — in the same direction the agent was moving — speeding up his spin to a whirl. He loses his footing on the mossy earth and they’re airborne. Sabine lands first on her left shoulder with the tight grip of her legs on the man’s neck, the momentum of the fall tossing him over her. He comes down on his back on a decaying log that shatters. He grunts. Sabine releases her leg grip and rolls onto his chest, smashing down with her knees as he gurgles and tries to scream. Whips her knife edge across his throat just under the ear twice, once for each artery.

She rolls off the twitching body, snatching up the rifle one handed and spinning as she rises. Putting her forefinger into the trigger guard, she brings up her weapon and sights the other Ultra man, who has turned at the noise and is standing thereĀ  looking amazed in a patch of sunlight. She presses the trigger three times, hitting the man twice in the chest and once in the wide open mouth. He falls.

Sabine runs to him, keeping the rifle steady, looking for movement. But he’s dead. Sprawled backward, blood pattering from the back of his skull. Sabine lowers the rifle and jogs back to the first man. He’s dead, too, his blind eyes staring at the canopy. She tosses the smoking rifle on his chest.

Ultra: 0. Sabine: 4.

The One-Armed Man in the Military Greatcoat

I talked with a young man in a military greatcoat. His right sleeve was pinned to the shoulder. He was rolling a cigarette one handed as I approached him. He offered me one. I don’t smoke, but I took it and put it in my dry lips. He lit it for me. I couldn’t follow how he managed that. He was holding a matchbox in his one hand, and then out came a match and his fingers struck it into flame. I bent to let him light the hand rolled cigarette for me. The yellow chamois tobacco pouch lay in his lap. He blew out the match and tossed it away smoking. Nearby us a Japanese girl was playing with a red ball. The man in the greatcoat said he’d picked her up in the Empty Lands. I asked what that was, and where. He said: It’s a barren place, mostly just grasses and low hills, but sometimes you see a broken tower, or even a dome that turns out to be a ruined astral observatory. I asked him what other creatures he had met there. He said: A blue eyed coyote. A big raven holding a red thread in its beak. A few white owls. And this little girl here. She was walking around dazed. I took her along with me although I didn’t know where I was heading. Eventually we reached a kind of ampitheater. We walked around it. There were old broken statues in niches. It was twilight, but it’s always twilight in the Empty Lands. I saw bats shooting overhead. Then I saw a shooting star. It was night. The starry sky was vast and it took my breath away. But it didn’t look real. It was different than the starry sky here on earth. I tried to find the constellations. Couldn’t. Where was the Big Dipper? Orion? Gone. In their place were other stars in other relationships.

I asked him where he’d lost the arm. He said: At the Somme. It was probably still there. In the mud. Maybe the rats ate it. He laughed. The little girl dashed to us and crawled onto his lap. I asked her name. The man in the greatcoat said he didn’t know; didn’t even know his own. I asked the little girl where her parents where. She said, In a car. In a car where? The girl’s eyes looked at me. Upside down, she said. Then she jumped from the lap and dashed off, her bare legs red from the cold. I sat down next to the man in the greatcoat. I asked: Do you feel anything strange is happening here? He laughed. Who knows? It was strange to see my arm lying in the mud. After that, nothing seemed strange.

I asked how he’d thought to come back. He drew in a hiss of air through his nostrils. Then laughed. Thought? Yes, I said, picking a shred of tobacco from my lips. He shook his head slowly. He bit his lower lip, released it. Then he said. I really don’t know. We walked around for what seemed like years. Then I saw a town. In the distance. There was a beach, a boardwalk, like Atlantic City. A big lit up ferris wheel. There were people, eating ice cream. They were strangely dressed. A man playing an accordion, with a monkey jumping around holding out a hat for coins. It felt like home. We walked into the ocean, the little girl and I. We stood there in the waves. It felt good. Clean. Cool. We were both laughing. When we came back we got on a small train. When we got out of the train, here we were.

Gone

As it rained harder, the cold drops plinking and hissing on the barrel of the automatic rifle and dripping from her bangs, Sabine jogged back to the other man she’d killed. She slung the rifle over her shoulder by its strap, crouched, and tore open the small knapsack strapped to the dead man’s back.

She tried to avoid his gaping eyes.

She was trembling from hunger. In the knapsack she found five foil wrapped energy bars, military rations. She ripped the foil on one and bit off a large square.

She shut her eyes, chewing. She could feel the energy of the food — a paste of high protein carob and nuts and dried fruit — enter her body like lightning, and tears flowed out of her squinted eyes, mingling with the cold raindrops. She tried to chew slowly, but within instants she was shredding the foil from a second energy bar. She stopped halfway from the end to drink a long metallic gulp of water from the dead man’s canteen. Gasping. Then she drank again, tilting her head back, shutting her eyes. Bliss.

Choking and retching a little, she screwed the cap carefully back onto the canteen. Then she rummaged further into the knapsack and found the back plastic box. It was a First Aid kit. Standard issue. She clicked it open. Scissors. Gauze. Alcohol swabs. Everything. She shut the box and laid it on the dead leaves.

Next? Amazing. Stuffed into its small plastic pouch, a waterproof rain poncho. Sabine wrenched it free, spread it, and slipped it over her head. She put up the hood. There. Although shuddering, she already felt warmer.

She found extra clips for the rifle, too, and a thin dark wool sweater, and a collapsible spirit stove and two small cooking pans. The other man would have exactly the same items in his pack. That meant seven more energy bars, another canteen sloshing full of clean water, another first aid kit — Sabine shuddered with joy. What luck. What stunning luck.

I’m off, she said to the corpse. I’m out of here. It was wonderful to hear her own radiant, singsong voice over the crackling rain. But first, one thing.

Searching the front pockets in the corpse’s Ultra issued military fatigues, she found it. The homing device. She pressed a button, and it flashed vivid red. It was picking up the signal from the chip in her ankle.

Sabine opened the first aid kit. She ripped apart one of the packages of alcohol swabs with her teeth, and wiped down the point of her combat knife.

Rain was popping on the rich foliage all around her. The Ultra agents must be spread out for a miles in the forest. It might take the next team up to twenty minutes to reach her position. No time, Sabine said. No time for fire, or boiling a pan of water. Pas de temps. Only time for this.

She sat back in the mulch of rotting leaves, pushed the plastic hood of the poncho back, wiped the loose strands of clinging hair from her face to get a better view, and braced her right foot on the left knee.

She searched for the little white scar and for the bump. Keeping her lips tight and trying not to clench her teeth too much, Sabine pushed the point of her combat knife into the flesh. Blood jumped out. She felt dizzy, then sick.

She worked the point in deeper, touched the microchip. She was whimpering now. She thought the voice in her throat sounded like a panicky animal. A wounded cat.

She cut deeper, keeping her grip firm yet relaxed, and then, with a grunt, levered the microchip out along with a splash of blood. She clamped a gauze pad on the wound. Hard. Panting, the breath whistling in her nostrils.

Then, just three times, she wailed. Wailed into the rain and fog.

Sabine wiped the knife blade clean on another gauze pad and sheathed it. The pulse throbbing in her ears. Blotting out most of the roar of the shattering rain.

As soon she trusted herself not to faint, Sabine sterilized the cut with splashes of antiseptic fluid and wound a bandage around and around the ankle, then taped it down tight. The pain was vivid, hot, intense. Use it, Sabine, she said. Okay? Use it.

She shut her eyes for a moment and breathed in and out slowly. Okay. She could use the pain to help keep her head clear. It was just a matter of breathing right.

Okay? Oui. Ca va.

She jogged back to the tiger pit. Stepped down into it, carefully avoiding both the sprawled body and the cruelly pointed stakes. She unbuckled the other small knapsack and slung it over her shoulder.

And the rifle? No. This was already too much weight.

She’d get far, far away from that deadly microchip and then discard whatever she could manage. She’d shed all extra weight. She’d travel light, like the rain and the wind. She’d get to a highway. Then, clearly, she’d be gone.