Authors: Susan Musgrave
Tags: #General Fiction
I laughed and invited him to come in anyway while we got it straightened out. Vernal carried Carmen upstairs and laid her down on the far side of the king-size bed, and we both reached for the telephone at the same time to call the front desk. It was their mistake, I was informed, and if I could please bear with them they would send a bellman for my luggage and find me alternative accommodation.
As Vernal uncorked my complimentary bottle of champagne and ate the squashed Godiva chocolate I hadn’t spotted on my pillow, I started getting dressed. Vernal said there was plenty of room for all of us, that he could always stretch out on the love seat downstairs if the idea of a
ménage à trois
didn’t appeal to me. We both started laughing, and with Carmen still soundly sleeping, Vernal undressed, put on the bottom half of my pyjamas and cut out four lines of cocaine, two for each of us, with a gold razor-blade he took from his wallet.
“It keeps me honest,” he said when I raised my eyebrows at the Criminal Code, the book he said he
used to cut his lines on. He asked if I had a bill, and I dug in the pocket of my jeans for the hundred-dollar note Bret had given me for the mugger.
I had never snorted cocaine before. Two minutes after I had inhaled both white lines, I told Vernal I thought I’d just lost my virginity.
Vernal smiled and asked me if I’d like to repeat the experience.
“Maybe,” I said, “later.” When you first do cocaine, you don’t need much. A couple of lines and you’re good for the evening—not like after ten years, when one line is too many and a kilo isn’t enough.
Vernal said he liked the way I looked at him when I was high. I got edgy all of a sudden, and talkative, and before I knew it I was asking him how he got his scar.
“I cut myself shaving,” he said, adding that I was the first person who’d noticed how dangerous he really was. I laughed and said, “You liar!” imitating Carmen’s accent.
“Criminal liar,” said Vernal, and seemed pleased. He chopped out more lines, and I did them anyway, even though I’d said I’d wait, just to keep him company. After we’d sucked up everything he had in his sandwich-sized baggy, after he had scraped the baggy clean with the gold blade, I asked him if there was more where that came from.
Vernal produced a planning diary from his carry-on bag and opened it to a map of the western hemisphere. He put a finger on a tiny dot in the southwest corner of the Caribbean Sea, an island five hundred miles off the coast of the southern continent, called Tranquilandia.
“You’re not planning a trip there in the near future?” I asked hopefully.
He laughed and shook his head. “Not me,” he said, “but I wish I knew someone who was.”
The slightest thought of him—a letter in the mail, a phone message, the mention of his name—was enough to send a tsunami of exhilaration through my brain. I quit eating, lost weight, got pimples (I
it’s true love when my face breaks out). I woke up each day delirious, gregarious, in an optimistic, euphoric, stuttering, agonizing, blissful,
state. Love, I felt in my blood, was to die for. There could be nothing better, nothing hotter or holier on this earth.
Vernal and I lived for nine months, in sin and a single-bedroom apartment, in Vancouver’s Kitsilano. “Who will ever marry her now?” my father asked.
I was the one who proposed. My brain couldn’t go on forever in a heightened state of etherized romantic bliss, and
when the excitement began to subside I suppose I thought marriage might be some kind of a solution.
My father fought back tears when it came time to give me away. We had to wait outside the church for Vernal, who arrived late. That was Vernal. Late and hung-over. He never changed. Whenever I tried to talk to him about drinking, he’d say, “The graveyard is full of sober men.”
There were a lot of things I didn’t know about Vernal when I married him. I didn’t want to know. All knowledge is loss, I know now, when it comes to love or being married to someone.
We flew to Mexico for our honeymoon. (Like Frenchy, I’ve made a few mistakes in life I probably shouldn’t have, and marrying Vernal was definitely one of them.
Vernal and I were both snorting more cocaine than we probably should have at the time.) I took a copy of Malcolm Lowry’s
Under the Volcano
to read on the train from Mexico City to Mérida. Vernal read as far as the title. “I won’t be taking you anywhere like
,” he promised.
When we got back from our honeymoon and neither one of us had proposed divorce, I felt there might be hope for our marriage. We decided to stay together “because of the kids”—the kids, I believed then, we both wished desperately to have. We gave notice on our apartment and bought a 4,000-square-foot mock-Georgian manorhouse in the walled community of Astoria, twenty minutes from downtown Vancouver, because Vernal wanted a safe place for our kids to grow up. At the entrance to what I nicknamed the Walled-Off Astoria, we had a gatehouse manned twenty-four hours by two security guards. Our
house had an eight-foot-high decorative stone wall built around it, and when you drove through the electronically controlled, floodlit gate you looked straight into the big brotherly eye of a surveillance camera.
I had my own office overlooking our heart-shaped swimming pool. I worked, every morning, translating a book by a Colombian sociologist about growing up homeless, eating shoe leather and whatever else he could scrounge from the dump. Vernal was dead against my making the trip to South America my publisher had planned—he said I’d be taken hostage and he’d have to cash in our entire RRSP to buy me back, or I’d contract an incurable tropical disease and he’d have to keep me on life-support, next to his filing cabinet, for the rest of my natural life. More likely—and I knew this was his worst scenario—I’d fall in love with my bodyguard and give birth to his love-child in some bug-infested jungle guest-house, then bring the baby home and expect him to take care of it. Vernal had begun to blame himself for my inability to bear his children.
When, after eighteen months of trying, we still hadn’t conceived, Vernal went to a breeder and paid $3,800 for a dog. Brutus turned out to have a heart condition and had to be driven to Saskatchewan to have a pacemaker installed.
Our first heated argument, about something other than the prospect of my infidelity or Vernal’s continued drinking, was over the swimming pool. Vernal wanted to hire staff to maintain it. I said there were children starving right in our own city—how could he justify spending money on having someone retrieve Brutus’s sticks from the deep end?
From our balcony on a clear night, you could see into the heart of the city. Our third Christmas together, Vernal gave me a telescope so I would still be able to see how the poor people lived.
One night when Vernal and Brutus were still in Saskatchewan, I got a call. Carmen María said she couldn’t speak on the phone, but that she would be coming to Vancouver at the end of the week, and would need Vernal’s help. She’d also need a room in a hotel—a single room, she added.
From the silence that followed, she must have assumed I knew more than I did. But Vernal read the newspaper for me, selectively, and I knew nothing of the trouble that brought Carmen back into my life. She was coming, she explained, because her husband and his two brothers were being held in custody there without bail.
“What are they in prison for …?” I didn’t add “this time,” but Carmen knew how I thought.
“For getting caught,” she said.
I found the press clippings on Vernal’s desk, studied the photographs of the three Corazóns—Carmen’s husband, Gustavo, and his brothers, Angel and Mugre. The caption below Angel’s photograph read, “At sixteen exchanged a modestly successful career as assassin for chance to make millions as trafficker in drugs.” In the picture his long black hair was tied back in a ponytail. A scar shaped like an exclamation mark bisected his cheek. He didn’t have the eyes of a man who would cut himself shaving.
carried a front-page story describing the brothers as “ruthless drug tycoons” who had negotiated for eighty tonnes of marijuana in the middle of a Colombian jungle and had had the bales dropped from a plane onto a freighter waiting off the Tranquilandian coast. The bales were loaded into the
’s hold. The crew headed north with its cargo.
The article included a sidebar on the disputed territory of Tranquilandia, described as being strategically situated between the major drug producers and the U.S., “where the refined end-product was snorted up by airplane-load,” and for this reason claimed by the Colombian, Venezuelan, Panamanian and American governments.
La Ciudad de las Orquídeas (the City of Orchids), “a sprawling, predatory seaport at the island’s northern tip,” was known to be populated by thieves, assassins, cocaine queens, money laundresses and others attracted by the rich pickings to be had from the port’s thriving import-export business.
The journalist, who had been commissioned to write an exposé of Tranquilandia’s drug trade, had lived over a series of low-life bars and in hotels not included in any of the tourist guides. A
, an old man, a resident of the Hotel Viper, told him that this outlaw territory had been named Tranquilandia by a dark-skinned woman pirate of the Caribbean who was executed in the late 1800s. Chocolata was so revered by the islanders that they had built a shrine in her honour on top of the island’s highest peak. For years, devout drug lords had sent their couriers up the mountain to beseech her image to bless their bullets, render their
crops bountiful, and to seek her guidance in customs and immigration affairs. Resident islanders and visitors from both continents gave thanks to her for drug-related employment, hospitals, orphanages, schools and community centres, all endowed by drug barons.
These days, Tranquilandia was still controlled by a woman, the Black Widow, the spiritual leader of Las Blancas, the same narco-terrorist group responsible for Carmen María’s kidnapping. Carmen had, in fact, been lucky to survive. “They treat hostages like Dixie Cups,” she’d told me. “Use them once and throw them away.”
I read every article I could find about the Corazóns. One paper said their boat had broken down off the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the crew found a remote fiord where they could make repairs. Another reported that the
ran aground and the smugglers had to offload the cargo, which had shifted, so the boat could float again. One story credited a Royal Canadian Mounted Police undercover operation with the bust; another said it was the combined forces of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, assisted by the Canadian navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, tipped off by a pair of German kayakers.
I found myself searching for references, in particular, to Angel Corazón.
The trial lasted three months; I went to court with Carmen every day, at first because she wanted me to be there, and because Vernal liked me to watch him perform—and then for my own reasons. The Corazón brothers sat shackled
together in the prisoner’s box, and Carmen held my hand, digging her long fingernails into my palm each time the prosecutor got up to object. Gustavo, the oldest of the three, with eyes like thimblefuls of black coffee and curly black hair misted with grey, nodded to Carmen when he came into court at the beginning of each day, but kept his eyes trained on the judge after that.
For the first week, I stayed only for the morning sessions. But when I saw Angel looking for me in the crowded gallery, and smiling when he picked me out, I started staying for the afternoon sessions as well. He had a smile bittersweet as a love pill for the sick at heart, a pair of lips you wanted to lick under a moustache that would keep you from getting close enough, and fucky brown eyes. But I think it was his smell that attracted me most: even from the gallery I could smell him—like the air before a storm, long before there is any visible sign of it.
And then there was Mugre Corazón, who had the same hair and regulation outlaw moustache as Angel, only his moustache was grey and stained with nicotine and his skin was a darker shade of brown. He was thinner, too, than either of his older brothers.
meant “dirt.” You didn’t need to speak Spanish to see he came by his name honestly.
I don’t think even Vernal was surprised when the Corazóns were convicted (their Mexican deckhands had all pled guilty and been sent to the penitentiary). It was the eighties, after all, and we were supposed to be saying no to drugs, and an emphatic “No, no!” to foreigners who smuggled drugs by the tons. Vernal, at sentencing, tried to argue that
Gustavo Corazón had brought stability to Tranquilandia, a measure of prosperity to an otherwise impoverished Third World country, by financing low-cost housing, hospitals, community centres, roller-skating rinks and banks.
Angel Corazón had sponsored a rehab clinic where drug addicts went to recuperate. While he recognized that Angel had made a lot of money by exporting narcotics, Vernal said a clinic to treat drug addiction allowed him to “give something back.”
His Honour had a different view of Carmen María’s better half and his brothers. He noted that Mugre Corazón had been responsible for the executions of at least six members of the judiciary prior to the expulsion of the police force from Tranquilandia, and that the “rehabilitation centres” Angel Corazón had built were nothing more than five-star hotels with all kinds of facilities for “drugs and orgy parties.” Gustavo Corazón Gaviria was wanted in the U.S., Venezuela, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico and Bolivia in connection with the biggest busts those countries had ever made. The judge said life imprisonment wasn’t long enough these days for drug traffickers, who looked upon doing time as an occupational hazard.
Afterwards, Vernal was photographed on the steps of the courthouse, holding his Criminal Code. He told reporters it would be more fair to bring back the death penalty than to send men like the Corazón brothers to jail for twenty-five years. “They should kill you before burying you,” he said.