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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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I said, “You won't mind if I don't call you Grampa. Who's Ronaldo?”

“My pet goat, when I was ten. My father butchered him and I ate three ribs before I found out. I am bound to say I finished. Who was to say when we would eat again?”

“The golem at the door never heard of him.”

“Miguelito is overprotective. You have not had lunch, I hope.”

“Never when I'm going to be in Mexicantown.”

“Come dine with me. I have no business to discuss at present and since my daughter deserted me, I eat alone, and that is merely feeding.”

I followed him into a private room separated from the rest of the establishment by heavy brocade curtains. Here were none of the Mexican movie posters or paintings of bullfighters that attracted the general population outside, just paneled walls and bright ceramic tiles and a certificate in a silver frame attesting to the fact that Emiliano Francisco Sorno was a naturalized citizen of the United States. Zorborón was an Anglo corruption of his surname, which translated as “cunning”;
El Tigre
himself seemed to prefer the one that had been hung on him by accident. A long time ago he'd fought under it professionally, until he'd found out the money end never entered the ring. He was a quick study, and his sense of timing was dead on. Police informants said he'd gotten out of gambling just before casinos were legalized and thrown over the dope racket when it fell under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security.

For whatever underworld information was worth; that pipeline went both ways.

“You know Nolo.”

Manuel Suiz—Manolo, Nolo; which name you used depended on where you stood in the community—paused in the midst of laying out the flatware to turn his head my way and decline it a tenth of an inch. He bore no resemblance to the Tiger, and I'd never learned if they called each other cousin for reasons of family or friendship. He was pear shaped, soft through the middle, but the fat didn't reach his face. He was completely bald. His eyes were large and liquid, with long silken lashes. It was a feminine sort of face except for the black beard beneath the skin. That made him more potentially dangerous than his macho countrymen, because it combined the more dreaded qualities of both sexes.

That was too much to get out of appearances. Suiz ran one of the few four-star restaurants in town. For all I knew, pullets were the only ones who had any reason to fear him. So far, the stickup artists and shakedown crews left him alone because of his connection to Zorborón, but these new gangs weren't long on respecting inherited traditions. That was an angle to take if I needed one.

Zorborón did the ordering. I was pretty sure he was ordering off the menu, not because he didn't have one—he'd have memorized it by then—but because that's what you did when you knew the owner and you had a guest. My Spanish was a little better than I made out, just in case I felt like overhearing something he'd sooner I missed, but it was going at 78 rpm and I'm strictly 33
. I got
and nothing else until he got to
; when it comes to beer and strong spirits I'm a polyglot. “I think you will like this beer,” he said, when Suiz left. “I import it from a very old friend whose family started the brewery during your—our—Prohibition. You can get it nowhere else in this country.”

“Sounds fine. I always heard bootleggers were good company.”

“Not this one. He is vain without reason and sensitive about his many faults. But none of us really chooses his friends. A tumbleweed has no say which fence he will come to rest against.”

“It's even worse with relatives. They're why
tu me ves ahora.

He arched his brows, splendid black ones plucked as neat as inverted commas. I'd tipped my hand as to Spanish, but if I didn't get his attention we'd kill the afternoon making pleasantries and building metaphors. A Grand Jury had given up on him when he met every question with a homely platitude.
“Tu familia?”

“Not mine. Someone else's.
Sabe los Pasadas?

Which was a mistake. The brows came down and collided and he whittled off a long curl of vowels and consonants that zinged past my ear without grazing it.

“English,” I interrupted.
“Por favor.”
I demolished the accent.

“Forgive me. Spanglish is the local dialect. I despise it and become carried away when someone even attempts Castilian. Yes, I know of the Pasadas. In the pueblo where I was born, whenever one approached, you took off your hat and stepped aside from the pavement. If you stepped into horseshit, that was your misfortune.”

“That was in the old country. The Pasada I met today is all about democracy. There's a brother involved. He wears the tarantula.” I touched the back of my hand with a finger.

He lifted a quarter-inch of lip. “I know of these as well.
Hijos de putas.

“They may be sons of whores, but let's not blame the
just yet. He's sixteen, the ideal age for carrion. The family thinks there's hope for him.”

“Please continue.”

“They may have carried the melting-pot idea a little too far. Place he lives, the only Mexicans he sees are cutting grass and delivering takeout. So he skips school and comes here to explore his heritage.”

“I came here to escape mine.”

“That's the story, except for one detail. His brother-in-law's the son of a cop.”

“How big of a cop?”

“An inspector.”

“Detroit?” When I nodded, he nodded. “This clears up a mystery for me. I'd wondered about the police presence here one day recently. It seemed unnecessary. The gangs have been quiet lately.”

“Not so quiet. I saw a crime-scene photo taken on the field of battle.”

“That was many months ago. The so-called Zapatistas came out on the short end. I did not disapprove of this outcome. Every time they parade around under that name they defile the movement.”

I digressed. Delicate negotiations are zigzag affairs when cultural differences exist. “I saw a picture twenty years ago, a man with a bandanna on his face hoisting a rifle above his head. Someone told me it was you.”

“It might have been. I never saw it.”

“It was taken in Chihuahua, near the caves where the Villistas hid out from Pershing in l9l6. Ring a bell?”

“One tires of hearing about Villa. A bandit with a cause is still a bandit. We named ourselves for Emiliano Zapata—my own namesake, I add proudly—an illiterate peasant born to
la causa.
Do you know what that was?”

“I'm pretty sure it had something to do with liberty.”

“An abstract concept, impossible to grasp the meaning of when you have never seen it in practice. He fought for land. Not conquest, not vast tracts to govern, but patches for growing beans and grazing milch cows, with proper deeds in the names of citizens of the Republic of Mexico—farm plots of eighty to one hundred acres, out of a land mass the size of Western Europe. For this he was called a Marxist. In one hundred years, nothing has changed. The land still belongs to the wealthy, and those of us who oppose the status quo are called terrorists. It is enough we have that to deal with without a band of psychotic children shedding the blood of their own and calling themselves Zapatistas.”

I had a thought. “Are you by any chance bankrolling the Maldados?”

Our food came, borne on a tray by a light-skinned youth in a green apron, who uncovered the dishes and set them before us, cautioning us not to touch the plates. Strips of rare steak sizzled and steamed furiously on beds of rice, tomatoes, and peppers, and a platter of tortillas kneaded and baked on the premises gave off their warmth through towels covering them. The boy filled our glasses with a long showy stream of water from a pitcher and set out frosted mugs and squat green bottles with an armadillo on the label. He asked if there was anything else. I shook my head at Zorborón, who dismissed him with a wave.

“No. I do not subsidize activity that encourages police invasion. In older days I would purge the neighborhood of these gangs, but I am as they say a reformed character. A grandfather has too much at stake to risk bringing further scorn upon his name. If Carmelita were a man and did not take a new name upon marrying, I would counsel him to use Sorno. I myself cannot after all this time. It would be like Nolo deciding to start wearing a toupee on top of years of baldness. Questions would be raised.”

We ate for a while in silence. Mexican food prepared by Mexicans the way they prepare it in Mexico is a rare thing, even in many places in Mexico. Each village has its own cuisine, and the big cities serve up theirs the way the tourists are accustomed to. What we were eating might have been locked in an airtight clay pot in some mud pueblo unknown to maps, shipped to the nearest airport on the back of a mule, and flown directly to
La Riata
without going through Customs, still steaming when it arrived. I didn't worry about what kind of parasites it may have contained; the
from the stubby green bottles would have stopped an epidemic in full cry. It was as bitter as burnt cordite and there were hops floating on top. At least I hoped they were hops. The alcohol went up my sinuses like ammonia and filled my head with helium.

“Try the
” said my host. “I turned down a princely offer to distribute them in cans.”

“What did NASA offer you for the beer? Twelve ounces would put us on Mars.”

Serious men ignore rhetoricals. “I have no influence with this spawn, if that is what you have come to ask for. They do not fear the police, and they certainly do not fear an old cockfighter.”

I wiped my hands with a napkin and brought out Ernesto Pasada's picture. I'd stopped at a Staples on the way and had copies made. “Ask your people to show this around, tell them the boy's a runaway.
Amber Alert? If he can't stay here, he'll go home. In theory.”

“Perhaps you should stop trying to speak Spanish. Your atrocious usage is distracting.”

I waved a hand and picked up my fork, grateful for the release. I couldn't concentrate on conjugations and still enjoy the fajitas.

Es verdad,
this Amber Alert?”

“No, that decision comes from high up. His family expects him home today when school lets out. In theory. But I doubt even the Maldados would want to mess with a dragnet that big. That is, if they buy it.”

He shook his head. “They will waylay the boy and offer to turn him in for a reward.”

“Kidnap and ransom, they'd do that?”

“They are animals. I need hardly spell out in what condition the boy will be returned once their demands are met. If they are not, he will simply have vanished.
” He pursed his lips and blew a puff of air, gracefully dispersing it with the hand holding the picture.

“Anyone can point out a problem. I'm looking for the solution.”

“Is your job, no?” He was fluent in pidgin. “I will show this around. Anyone who spots the boy and reports it to me will find himself in good graces with
El Tigre del Norte.
Some of the older residents will consider that coin of the realm.”

“You're not a
Tío Taco

“You do not know us as well as you think. I sacrificed more than money when I went legit. Legit, this is a word?”

“It is if you're legit. I'll see you semi and raise you notorious.”

“I have heard this term applied to me and I am puzzled by it. Our nearest equivalent means ‘obvious,' and yet I pride myself on my subtlety.”

“It started out as another word for ‘famous,' but it kept getting trampled over and turned into something else, like ‘alibi' and ‘discrimination.'”

“Such a difficult tongue.”

“Isn't it? I think the government's in charge.” I drank some beer. I was starting to get used to it. “Have things changed that much in the neighborhood?”

He sat back and stripped the cellophane off a black cigar with a portrait of a geezer in white side whiskers and a rusty black coat on the band; the founder of the tobacco company, or maybe just an early president of the Republic. He bit off the end and deposited it in an ashtray shaped like a pagan god who looked like Mickey Rourke. Even the presence of an ashtray violated state law. “Everything here is zoom-zoom. In the village where I was born, the water wheel is considered a great technological advance. You will hear from me regardless. Your address and telephone number, they have not changed?”

“Nope. I'm saving up for a water wheel.”

He chuckled in the midst of lighting up. I didn't think the joke was that good. Another time I might not have gotten a reaction at all. He was still as easy to read as the temple of Quetzalcoatl.



“What can you tell me about the Maldados?”

Zorborón frowned and blew on his cigar tip, making it glow bright red. “The bull is merely out to pasture. He has not been made a steer.”

“I thought you were a tiger.”

He ignored that. I didn't blame him; it was a pointless direction to go in. The Latin way of conducting business seemed roundabout, but it always circled back to the main thrust. I did the same.

“Snitches are a glut on the market,” I said. “I'm not looking to make a citizen's arrest. I just want to know what I'm up against.”

He shrugged, a gesture with as many meanings as his language has dialects. “You know
El Hermano

I shrugged; in my case a gesture with only one meaning.

“Luís Guerrera,” he said. ”They call him the Brother now that he has none.”

“I know Jesus got smoked by the cops and that Luís is now the brains of the outfit, such as they are. Domingo Siete gives the orders, but that's only because the rest of the gang is afraid of him. His parents must have been smoking Acapulco Gold when they named him Seventh Sunday. Guerrera's the boy you go to when you want to do any sort of business here.”

BOOK: Burning Midnight
3.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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