Authors: James Carlos Blake
By James Carlos Blake
The Rules of Wolfe
Country of the Bad Wolfes
The Killings of Stanley Ketchel
Under the Skin
A World of Thieves
Red Grass River
In the Rogue Blood
The Friends of Pancho Villa
A BORDER NOIR
JAMES CARLOS BLAKE
The Mysterious Press
Copyright Â© 2015 by James Carlos Blake
Jacket design by Daniel Rembert
Jacket photograph Â© Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis
Author photograph by Maura Anne Wahl
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
The Mysterious Press
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
154 West 14th Street
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In memory of my grandmother
a peerless teller of tales
Though your house be built of the hardest stone, it is only as strong as the creed of they who reside within.
Yes, character is destiny, and yet everything is chance.
We are each the only world we're going to get.
New and Selected Poems
To be free is to do as you wish until somebody stops you.
âA Mexican outlook of long standing
WOLFE LANDING, TEXAS
It's been a slower Sunday than most in the Doghouse, only a half dozen of us still hereânot counting the cantina's resident tomcats, one-eyed orange Captain Kiddo and all-black Sugar Ray, who are dozing on the ledge above the back bar. I'm playing dollar-a-hand blackjack at the bar with my cousins Charlie Fortune and Eddie Gato, and behind the counter with Charlie, Lila the barmaid is doing the dealing. My brother Frank and the Professor are sharing a pitcher at a side table. It started raining around midday and it's still coming down, light but steady. The temperature's dropped through the afternoon but the front door's still open, as well as the windows under the propped-out hurricane shutters. Everybody's wearing flannel or sweats except for Charlie, who's in a sleeveless T-shirt proclaiming, “An Armed Society Is a Polite Society.” He's the reason the windows are open. It's his joint and he likes it cool, which for him doesn't cross over to cold till it hits the freeze mark. The air's heavy with the smells of the river and muddy vegetation, and there's a loud, steady runoff from the roof gutters into the rain barrels. All in all, a pleasant January evening in the Texas delta. A night on which the last thing you'd expect is hazard.
There's not much likelihood of even some passing stranger dropping in, since Wolfe Landing isn't on the way to anywhere else. We're out in the boonies, midway between Brownsville and the mouth of the Rio Grande, on sixty acres in the middle of the last palm groves on the river, a lush little forest, actually, with a good share of hardwoods hung with Spanish moss. Outside the grove, it's almost all scrubland and mud flats between Brownsville and the Gulf of Mexico. Wolfe Landing has been a duly chartered town since 1911, and is named after our founding ancestors, but with a population of only sixty-six and nothing but dirt lanes except for tar-and-gravel Main Street, we're really no more than a hamlet. Whenever we speak of “town,” we mean Brownsville. You could pass by on the road to Boca Chica Beach and never know we're here except for the little roadside sign reading “Wolfe Landing, 1 mile,” with an arrow pointing down the sandy lane that winds through the scrub and into the palms. Even at night you can't see the Landing's lights for the trees. Once in a blue moon somebody will swing down here just out of curiosity, but otherwise nobody visits except on Saturday evenings to enjoy the Doghouse supper specialsâseafood gumbo or barbecue ribs, take your pickâand most of those visitors are Brownsville regulars. Charlie loves to cook and likes to draw a crowd to the cantina once a week, never mind that those Saturday nights almost always involve at least one fistfight, which is anyhow generally viewed as part of the entertainment. But woe to him who pulls a knife in a fight. And very serious woe to whoever introduces a gun.
Charlie wins a sixth straight hand and grins big as he rakes the three bucks over to his pile.
Eddie says he has to wonder if somebody he will leave unnamed is slipping winners to her boss.
Lila smiles sweetly and gives him the finger.
“Eloquent,” Eddie says, and heads off to the men's room. Halfway there he looks back and gives her a wink and she returns it. They've been an item around here for the past couple of months. Charlie doesn't miss the winks, either, and he rolls his eyes at me.
“Siboney” comes to an end on the replica Wurlitzer, and Frank goes over and punches in a moody CD set of Sinatra that goes well with a night like this. You've never seen such a diverse array on a juke as Charlie has in this one. Everything from Hank Williams to Xavier Cugat to the Rolling Stones, but about half the selections are big band standards. There's occasional complaint about all the Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, but Charlie just shrugs and says nobody has to listen to it. His bar, his music. No sober patron ever argues the matter. He's an imposing figure, Charlie. The only Wolfe known to have achieved six feet in height, he's majorly muscled but supple and quick as a snake. His buzz-cut hair and close-cropped beard and the white scar through an eyebrow all add to the effect. He's ten years older than Frank and twice that much older than Eddie, and we're all in good shape too, but none of us would stand a chance against him one-on-one. Maybe not even two-on-one.
Lila uncaps another Negra Modelo for him and Shiner Bock for me and asks if we want to play a hand while we wait for Eddie.
Charlie looks at me. “What say, Rudy Max?”
I say why not, and Lila starts shuffling the cards.
Eddie and I got back earlier today from running a load down to Boca Doble on the Tamaulipas coast last night, and as usual on the day after a run, I'm feeling pretty good. Most deliveries go off without a hitch, but you never know. Every time you go out on one you have to be very much on your toes, and even if you don't run into any trouble you're pumped on adrenaline the whole while. This time it was three cases of M-4s, three of Belgium FALs, three cases of ammo for each type of rifle, a carton of clear-cover Beta C-Mags, and a Dragunov sniper rifle equipped with the works. An altogether very pricey load.
It's what we do, we Wolfes. Besides the law firm and the South Texas Realty Company and the Delta Instruments and Graphics store, besides Wolfe Marine & Salvage and the three shrimp boats and the charter boat, besides all of the family's legitimate and prosperous businesses in Cameron County, what we do is deal in guns. Mostly through the Landing and mostly into Mexico. Been doing it for a hundred years. We have a wide and dependable supply network and can get almost any kind of firearm in almost any quantity. We do business with a variety of customers, but our biggest buyer is an organization called Los Jaguaros, which happens to be the Mexican side of our own family, almost all of whom live in Mexico City. They're descended from the same paternal line and hence also named Wolfe. Many in the family have long referred to the lot of us as the House of Wolfe, an apt designation I've always liked. Guns aren't the only thing we smuggle, and smuggling is but one of our illicit enterprises, which we refer to collectively as the shade trade. Charlie's the head of its operations and answers only to the patriarchs of the Texas side of the family, the Three Uncles, who are the chief partners in the Wolfe Associates law firm and among the most highly esteemed trial lawyers in the state. What we don't smuggle is drugs, and very rarely people. Not only are drugs a commodity of which we disapprove, but also the trade attracts too many folk of irrational mentality and rash disposition. As for smuggling people, it's something of a rule with us not to transport anything that can talk, though every now and then we'll make an exception. We also do quite well in the business of identity documents, from the expertly forged to the officially issued. We can provide you with an entirely documented identity and life record from birth to the present day. Big seller, that package, and selling better all the time. In a world of increasing facility for bureaucracies to turn us into numbers and computerized data packets, it's only natural that a resentful and increasing bunch of us are feeding the machines lots of conflicting numbers and false data. You have to beat them at their own game.
But our principal calling has always been gunrunning. Highly illegal, yes, but the way we see it, there are certain natural rights that transcend statute law, and the foremost of them is the right of self-defense. Without the right to defend yourselfâand the right to possess the means to do itâall other supposed rights are so much hot air. There's more than a little truth to the old saying that neither God nor the Constitution made men equal, Colonel Colt did. Ergo, as we used to say in debate class, any law that denies you the means to defend yourself against others armed with those same means is an unjust law and undeserving of compliance, albeit noncompliance makes you a criminal by definition. There are of course any number of people of intelligence and good conscience who disagree with our view, and that's fine. We Wolfes are great believers in free choice and free expression. If you're content to trust the state to protect your law-abiding self in all situations, be our guest and best of luck. But if you want the means to defend your own ass, as is your natural right, then step right up and be our client. And if some client should want to buy a gun or even a few caseloads of them from us for uses beyond that of self-defense, well, that's his business. We don't permit anyone to tell us our business, nor do we wish to tell anyone his. The same goes for moral outlooks. Don't tread on us and we won't on you. We're a tolerant, liberty-loving bunch, we Wolfes.
Lila deals me a jack down, then one faceup, and I tell her I'm good.
With an eight atop his hole card, Charlie says, “Show me the magic.”
Lila flips him a trey and he laughs and turns over a king to win again and sweeps up the two bucks.
Calls for a card on eighteen and makes the twenty-one. What're the odds? I tell him only fools and drunks call for a card on eighteen, and the only reason he's winning is absolute sheer blind goddamn luck, because he sure as hell doesn't know how to play the game.
“Luck blind as a bat,” Charlie says with a smile, and gives Lila a wink.
She laughs and says to me, “He's not called Charlie Fortune for nothing.” Actually, Fortune was his momma's maiden name.
Then they both look off toward the front door and lose their smiles.
I turn on my stool as somebody with a Mex accent commands, “Hands on your head!
A pair of dudes in black ski masks and wet clothes, one medium high, one short, both holding cut-down pumps. Nobody heard them drive up under the sounds of the juke and the runoff into the rain barrels.
We do as he says. Sitting as I am, though, half-turned toward them, I get a glimpse of Eddie Gato at the entrance to the little restroom foyer in a front corner of the room and out of the dudes' line of vision. Then he's gone.
“Ãrale!” the shorty says to Frank and the Professor. “Asses to the bar.”
They do it, getting up from the table slowly and carefully, keeping their hands on their heads, and come over and sit on stools behind mine.
A sawed-off shotgun is a seriously authoritative weapon, especially indoors. These are an Ithaca and a Remington, but both of them older models, and even from where I'm sitting I can see that neither of the cut barrels is well dressed. Whoever these guys are, they're amateurs and wide-eyed edgy, which makes them all the more dangerous. I figure they're not looking to square a grievance with anybody here or they'd have popped him already. It has to be a heist. In all my years in the Landing there's never before been a robbery try. I doubt these guys are locals or they'd know who we are, and nobody who knows us would try a stunt like this. Maybe they heard something in town about the terrific Saturday suppers at this raggedy joint out in Nowheresville and decided a Sunday night was a perfect time to hit it since the weekend cash wouldn't go to the bank until Monday. Who knows? Could be they were just cruising by on the beach road and spotted the arrow sign and decided to take potluck.
“Apaga esa pinche mÃºsica!” the shorty says.
The other one does as ordered and goes to the juke, reaches behind it, and pulls the plug on Sinatra's melancholic croon about learning the blues.
The nearest of my guns is a .44 magnum Redhawk revolver in my truck, which is parked practically at the front door but might as well be in Egypt. I don't think Frank's carrying, either. Lila is never armed on the job, and as far as I know, the Professor's never touched a gun. But Charlie usually keeps a piece behind the bar, and the question of the moment is whether he'll try pulling it in the face of two sawed-offs that can nail us all before he can put both guys down. I'm guessing he'll give them the money and let them get out the door, then see what we can do. Even if they make it out of the Landing, we can run them down soon enough and teach them the error of their ways. We can find anybody.
Yet there's still Eddie. I think he left his pistol in the truck too, but maybe he's got it and is hunkered in the foyer with something in mind. No telling with him. Could be Charlie's thinking the same thing.
The shorty comes closer to the bar, holding the Ithaca in Charlie's face. “You the boss man, Tarzan?”
Charlie says he is, and the guy says, “Where's the safe, fucker, and no bullshit. I
there's a safe.”
Charlie points an elbow toward a door in the rear. “Back there,” he says. “Office.”
Shorty keeps his piece on Charlie and starts backing up toward the end of the counter to go around it. “WÃ¡chelos,” he says to his partner, who sidesteps toward the bar to keep closer watch on all of us.
Just as Shorty's backing up past the other guy, Eddie Gato comes through the front door, his arms extended in front of him with his Browning nine in one hand and my Redhawk in the other and each gun pointed at a masked head. The same noise cover that worked for them lets him come up behind them without being heard, and he's close enough to spit on them when he says in a normal tone, “Con permiso.”
They flinch and start to turn, the shotgun muzzles angling away from us, andâall in less than two secondsâI drop to the floor and Frank tackles the Professor off his stool and Lila lets a squeak as Charlie yanks her down behind the bar and there are almost simultaneous blastings of handguns and a cut-off and then clatters and thumps on the floor.
My ears are ringing as I look up and see Eddie lean over one of the laid-out robbers, set the Browning muzzle inches from his heart, and . . .
. . . shoot him again. Then he pushes the other one over on his back and does the same to him.
Always make sure. Longtime rule.
Lila and the Professor have witnessed more than a few fights in the DogÂhouse, but I'm not sure either of them has ever seen anybody killed before. Some of the tan has gone out of Lila's face. She says she's all right, she just needs a drink, and she pours herself a stiff one. The Professor accepts one, too, looking a little ashy himself.