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I fell Off the cloud I was riding

I always thought that those narcocorridos about Mexican drug runners were just songs, and that The Count of Monte Cristo was just a novel. I mentioned this to Teresa Mendoza that last day, when (surrounded by bodyguards and police) she agreed to meet me in the house she was staying in at the time, in Colonia Chapultepec, in the town of Culiacan, state of Sinaloa, Mexico. I mentioned Edmond Dantes, asking if she'd read the novel, and she gave me a look so long and so silent that I feared our conversation would end right there. Then she turned toward the rain that was pittering against the windows, and I don't know whether it was something in the gray light from outside or an absentminded smile, but whatever it was, it left a strange, cruel shadow on her lips. "I don't read books," she said.

I knew she was lying, as no doubt she'd lied countless times over the last twelve years. But I didn't want to insist, so I changed the subject. I'd tracked

her across three continents for the last eight months, and her long journey out and back again was much more interesting to me than the books she'd read.

To say I was disappointed would not be quite accurate-reality often pales in comparison with legends. So in my profession the word "disappointment" is always relative-reality and legend are just the raw materials of my work. The problem is that it's impossible to live for weeks and months obsessed with someone without creating for yourself a definite, and invariably inaccurate, idea of the subject in question-an idea that sets up housekeeping in your head with such strength and verisimilitude that after a while it's hard, maybe even unnecessary, to change its basic outline. We writers are privileged: readers take on our point of view with surprising ease. Which was why that rainy morning in Culiacan, I knew that the woman sitting before me would never be the real Teresa Mendoza, but another woman who was taking her place, and who was, at least in part, created by me. This was a woman whose history I had reconstructed piece by piece, incomplete and contradictory, from people who'd known her, hated her, and loved her.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

"I'm still lacking one episode of your life. The most important one."

"Hm. One 'episode.'"


She'd picked up a pack of Faros from the table and was holding a plastic lighter, a cheap one, to a cigarette, after first making a gesture to stop the man sitting at the other end of the room, who was lumbering to his feet solicitously, left hand in his jacket pocket. He was an older guy, stout-even fat-with very black hair and a bushy Mexican moustache.

"The most important one?"

She put the cigarettes and the lighter back down on the table, perfectly symmetrically, without offering me one. Which didn't matter to me one way or the other, since I don't smoke. There were several other packs there, too, an ashtray, and a pistol.

"It must be," she added, "if you're here today. Must be really important."

I looked at the pistol. A SIG-Sauer. Swiss. Fifteen 9-millimeter cartridges per clip, in three neat staggered rows. And three full clips. The gold-colored tips of the bullets were as thick as acorns.

"Yes," I answered coolly. "Twelve years ago. Sinaloa."

Again the contemplative silence. She knew about me, because in her world, knowledge could be bought. And besides, three weeks earlier I'd sent her a copy of my unfinished piece. It was the bait. The letter of introduction so I could get what I needed and finish the story off.

"Why should I tell you about that?"

"Because I've gone to a lot of trouble over you."

She was looking at me through the cigarette smoke, her eyes slightly Mongolian, somehow, like the masks at the Templo Mayor. She got up and went over to the bar and came back with a bottle of Herradura Reposado and two small, narrow glasses, the ones the Mexicans call caballitos, "little horses." She was wearing comfortable dark linen pants, a black blouse, and sandals, and I noticed that she was wearing no diamonds, no stones of any kind, no gold chain around her neck, no watch-just a silver semanario on her right wrist, the seven silver bangles I'd learned she always wore. Two years earlier-the press clippings were in my room at the Hotel San Marcos- the Spanish society magazine Hola! had included her among the twenty most elegant women in Spain. At about the same time, El Mundo ran a story about the latest police investigation into her business dealings on the Costa del Sol and her links with drug traffickers. In the photo, published on page one, you could see her in a car with the windows rolled up partway, protected from reporters by several bodyguards in dark glasses. One of them was the heavyset guy with the moustache who was sitting at the other end of the room now, looking at me as though he weren't looking at me.

"A lot of trouble," she repeated pensively, pouring tequila into the glasses.


She sipped at it, standing up, never taking her eyes off me. She was shorter than she looked in photos or on television, but her movements were still calm and self-assured-each gesture linked to the next naturally, as though there were no possibility of improvisation or doubt. Maybe she never has any doubts about anything anymore, I suddenly thought. At thirty-five, she was still vaguely attractive. Less, perhaps, than in recent photographs and others I'd seen here and there, kept by people who'd known her on the other side of the Atlantic. That included her profile in black-and-white on an old mugshot in police headquarters in Algeciras. And videotapes, too, jerky images that always ended with big gruff gorillas entering the frame to shove the lens aside. But in all of them she was indisputably Teresa, with the same distinguished appearance she presented now-wearing dark clothes and sunglasses, getting into expensive automobiles, stepping out onto a terrace in Marbella, sunbathing on the deck of a yacht as white as snow, blurred by the telephoto lens: it was the Queen of the South and her legend. The woman who appeared on the society pages the same week she turned up in the newspapers' police blotter.

But there was another photo whose existence I knew nothing about, and before I left that house, two hours later, Teresa Mendoza unexpectedly decided to show it to me: a snapshot wrinkled and falling apart, its pieces held together with tape crisscrossing the back. She laid it on the table with the full ashtray and the bottle of tequila of which she herself had drunk two-thirds and the SIG-Sauer with the three clips lying there like an omen-in fact, a fatalistic acceptance-of what was going to happen that night.

As for that last photo, it really was the oldest of all the photos ever taken of her, and it was just half a photo, because the whole left side was missing. You could see a man's arm in the sleeve of a leather aviator jacket over the shoulders of a thin, dark-skinned young woman with full black hair and big eyes. The young woman was in her early twenties, wearing very tight pants and an ugly denim jacket with a lambskin collar. She was facing the camera with an indecisive look about halfway down the road toward a smile, or maybe on the way back. Despite the vulgar, excessive makeup, the dark eyes had a look of innocence, or a vulnerability that accentuated the youthful-ness of the oval face, the eyes slightly upturned into almond-like points, the very precise mouth, the ancient, adulterated drops of indigenous blood manifesting themselves in the nose, the matte texture of the skin, the arrogance of the uplifted chin. The young woman in this picture was not beautiful, but she was striking, I thought. Her beauty was incomplete, or distant, as though it had been growing thinner and thinner, more and more diluted, down through the generations, until finally what was left were isolated traces of an ancient splendor. And then there was that serene-or perhaps simply trusting-fragility. Had I not been familiar with the person, that fragility would have made me feel tender toward her. I suppose. "I hardly recognize you."

It was the truth, and I told it. She didn't seem to mind the remark; she just looked at the snapshot on the table. And she sat there like that for a long time.

"Me, either," she finally said.

Then she put the photo away again-first in a leather wallet with her initials, then in the purse that was lying on the couch-and gestured toward the door. "I think that's enough," she said.

She looked very tired. The long conversation, the tobacco, the bottle of tequila. She had dark circles under her eyes, which no longer resembled the eyes in the old snapshot. I stood up, buttoned my jacket, put out my hand- she barely brushed it-and glanced again at the pistol. The fat guy from the other end of the room was beside me, indifferent, ready to see me out. I looked down, intrigued, at his splendid iguana-skin boots, the belly that spilled over his handworked belt, the menacing bulge under his denim jacket. When he opened the door, I saw that what I took as fat maybe wasn't, and that he did everything with his left hand. Obviously his right hand was reserved as a tool of his trade.

"I hope it turns out all right," I said.

She followed my gaze to the pistol. She nodded slowly, but not at my words. She was occupied with her own thoughts. "Sure," she muttered.

Then 1 left. The same Federates with their bulletproof vests and assault weapons who had frisked me from head to toe when I came in were standing guard in the entry and the front garden as I walked out. A military jeep and two police Harley-Davidsons were parked next to the circular fountain in the driveway. Five or six journalists and a TV camera were under a canopy outside the high walls, in the street: they were being kept at a distance by soldiers in combat fatigues who were cordoning off the grounds of the big house. I turned to the right and walked through the rain toward the taxi that was waiting for me a block away, on the corner of Calle General Anaya.

Now I knew everything I needed to know, the dark corners had been illuminated, and every piece of the history of Teresa Mendoza, real or imagined, now fit: from that first photograph, or half-photograph, to the woman I'd just talked to, the woman who had an automatic lying out on the table.

The only thing lacking was the ending, but I would have that, too, in a few hours. Like her, all I had to do was sit and wait.

Twelve years had passed since the afternoon in the city of Culiacan when Teresa Mendoza started running. On that day, the beginning of a long round-trip journey, the rational world she thought she had built in the shadow of Guero Davila came crashing down around her, and she suddenly found herself lost and in danger.

She had put down the phone and sat for a few seconds in cold terror. Then she began to pace back and forth across the room, opening drawers at random, blind with panic, knowing she needed a bag to carry the few things she needed for her escape, unable at first to find one. She wanted to weep for her man, or scream until her throat was raw, but the terror that was washing over her, battering her like waves, numbed her emotions and her ability to act. It was as if she had eaten a mushroom from Huautla or smoked a dense, lung-burning joint, and been transported into some distant body she had no control over.

Blindly, numbly, after clumsily but quickly pulling on clothes-some jeans, a T-shirt, and shoes-she stumbled down the stairs, her hair wet, her body still damp under her clothing, carrying a little gym bag with the few things she had managed to gather and stuff inside: more T-shirts, a denim jacket, panties, socks, her purse with two hundred pesos. They would be on their way to the apartment already, Guero had warned her. They'd go to see what they could find. And he did not want them to find her.

Before she stepped outside the gate, she paused and looked out, up and down the street, indecisively, with the instinctive caution of the prey that catches the scent of the hunter and his dogs nearby. Before her lay the complex urban topography of a hostile territory. Colonia las Quintas: broad streets, discreet, comfortable houses with bougainvillea everywhere and good cars parked in front. A long way from the miserable barrio of Las Siete Gotas, she thought. And suddenly, the lady in the drugstore across the street, the old man in the corner grocery where she had shopped for the last two years, the bank guard with his blue uniform and twelve-gauge double-barreled shotgun on his shoulder-the very guard who would always smile, or actually, leer, at her when she passed-now looked dangerous to her, ready to pounce. There won't be any more friends anymore, Guero had said offhandedly, with that lazy smile of his that she sometimes loved, and other times hated with all her heart. The day the telephone rings and you take off running, you'll be alone, priettta. And I won't be around to help.

She clutched the gym bag to her body, as though to protect her most intimate parts, and she walked down the street with her head lowered, not looking at anything or anybody, trying at first not to hurry, to keep her steps slow. The sun was beginning to set over the Pacific, twenty-five miles to the west, toward Altata, and the palm, manzanita, and mango trees of the avenue stood out against a sky that would soon turn the orange color typical of Culiacan sunsets. She realized that there was a thumping in her ears-a dull, monotonous throbbing superimposed on the noise of traffic and the clicking of her own footsteps. If someone had called out to her at that moment, she wouldn't have been able to hear her name, or even, perhaps, the sound of the gunshot.

The gunshot. Waiting for it, expecting it with such certainty-her muscles tense, her neck stiff and bowed, her head down-that her back and kidneys ached. This was The Situation. Sitting in bars, among the drinks and cigarette smoke, she'd all too often heard this theory of disaster-discussed apparently only half jokingly-and it was burned into her brain as if with a branding iron. In this business, Guero had said, you've got to know how to recognize The Situation. Somebody can come over and say Buenos dias. Maybe you even know him, and he'll smile at you. Easy. Smooth as butter. But you'll notice something strange, a feeling you can't quite put your finger on, like something's just this much out of place-his fingers practically touching. And a second later, you're a dead man-Guero would point his finger at Teresa like a revolver, as their friends laughed-or woman.

"Although that's always preferable to being carried alive out into the desert," he'd added, "'cause out there, they'll take an acetylene torch and a lot of patience, and they'll ask you questions. And the bad thing about the questions is not that you know the answers-in that case, the relief will come fast. The problem is when you don't. It takes a lot to convince the guy with the torch that you don't know the things he thinks you know."

Chingale. She hoped Guero had died fast. That they'd shot down the Cessna with him in it, food for the sharks, instead of carrying him into the desert to ask him questions. With the Federates or the DEA, the questions were usually asked in the jail at Almoloya or in Tucson. You could make a deal, reach an agreement, turn state's evidence, go into the Witness Protection Program or be an inmate with certain privileges if you played your cards right. But Guero didn't play his cards right-it was just not his way of doing business. He wasn't a coward, and he didn't actually work both sides of the street. He'd only double-crossed a little, less for the money than for the thrill of living on the edge. Us guys from San Antonio, he'd smile, we like to stick our necks out, you know? Playing the narcobosses was fun, according to Guero, and he would laugh inside when they'd tell him to fly this up, fly this other stuff back, and make it fast, junior, don't keep us waiting. They took him for a common hired gun-or mule, in his case-and they'd toss the money on the table, disrespectfully, stacks of crisp bills, when he came back from the runs where the capos had collected a shitload of green and he'd risked his freedom and his life.

The problem was, Guero wasn't satisfied to just do things-he was a big-mouth, he had to talk about them. What's the point in fucking the prettiest girl in town, he'd say, if you can't brag about it to your buddies? And if things go wrong, Los Tigres or Los Tucanes de Tijuana'll put you in a corrido and people'll play your song in cantinas and on the radio. Chale, you'll be a legend, compas. And many times-Teresa's head on his shoulder, having drinks in a bar, at a party, between dances at the Morocco, him with a Pacifico and her with her nose dusted with white powder-she had shivered as she'd listened to him tell his friends things that any sane man would have kept very, very quiet. Teresa didn't have much education, didn't have anything but Guero, but she knew that the only way you knew who your friends were was if they visited you in the hospital, or the jail, or the cemetery. Which meant that friends were friends until they weren't friends anymore.

She walked three blocks, fast, without looking back. No way this was going to work-the heels she was wearing were too high, and she realized that she was going to twist an ankle if she had to take off running. She pulled them off and stuck them in the gym bag, and then, barefoot, turned right at the next corner. She came out on Calle Juarez. There she stopped in front of a cafe to see whether she was being followed. She didn't see anything that might indicate danger, so to buy some time to think and lower her pulse rate a little, she pushed open the door and went inside.

She sat at a table at the far end of the cafe, her back against the wall and her eyes on the street. To study The Situation, as Guero would have put it. Or to try to. Her wet hair was in her face; but she pushed it back only once, because she decided it was better like that, hiding her face a little. The waitress brought her a glass of nopal juice, and Teresa sat motionlessly for a while, unable to think, until she felt the need for a cigarette. In her rush to get out of the apartment she'd forgotten hers. She asked the waitress for one and held it as she lit it for her, ignoring the look on the woman's face, the glance at her bare feet; she sat there quietly, smoking, as she tried to pull her thoughts together. Ah, now. Finally. Finally, with the cigarette smoke in her lungs, she could feel her serenity returning-enough, at least, to think The Situation through with a degree of practicality.

She had to get to the other house, the safe house, before the hit men found it and she wound up with a bit part in those narcocorridos by Los Tigres or Los Tucanes that Guero was always dreaming he'd have someday. The money and the documents were there, and without the money and the documents, no matter how fast she ran, she'd never get anywhere. Guero's notebook was there, too: telephone numbers, addresses, notes, contacts, secret runways in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila; friends, enemies-it wasn't easy to tell them apart-in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and on both sides of the Rio Grande-El Paso, Juarez, San Antonio. That, he'd told her, you burn or hide. For your own good, don't even look at it, prietita. Don't even look at it. But if you're totally fucked, I mean you're totally in a corner and the whole thing has gone to shit, you can trade it to don Epifanio Vargas for your hide. Clear? Swear to me that you won't open that book, under any circumstances. Swear by God and the Virgin. Come here-swear by this sweet thing you're holding in your hand right now.

She didn't have much time. She'd forgotten her watch, too, but she saw that it would be night soon. The street looked quiet-normal traffic, normal people walking normally down the street, nobody standing around. She put her shoes on. She left ten pesos on the table and got up slowly, gripping the gym bag. She didn't dare look at herself in the mirror when she left.

At the corner, a kid was selling soft drinks, cigarettes, and newspapers set out on a flattened cardboard box that read "Samsung." She bought a pack of Faros and a box of matches, stealthily looking over her shoulder, and then walked on with deliberate slowness. The Situation. A parked car, a cop, a man sweeping the sidewalk-they all spooked her. The muscles in her back were aching again, and there was a bitter taste in her mouth. The high heels were bothering her, too. If Guero had seen her, she thought, he'd have laughed. And she cursed him for that, deep inside. Laughing out the other side of your mouth now, aren't you, pinche cabron You and that macho attitude of yours, you and those fucking brass balls of yours, you and.., She caught the smell of burned flesh as she passed a taqueria, and the bitter taste in her mouth suddenly got worse. She had to stop and duck into a doorway, where she vomited up a slimy greenish thread of nopal.

I knew Culiacan. Before my interview with Teresa Mendoza, I had been there, right at the beginning, when I started researching her story and she was no more than a vague personal challenge in the form of a few photographs and press clippings. I also went back later, when it was all over and I was finally in possession of what I needed to know: facts, names, places. So I can lay it out now with no more than the inevitable, or convenient, gaps. Let me mention, too, that the seed of all this was planted some time ago, during a dinner with Rene Delgado, editor of the newspaper Reforma, in Mexico City. Rene and I have been friends ever since as young reporters we shared a room in the Hotel Intercontinental in Managua during the war against Somoza. Now we see each other when I go to Mexico, talk over old times and new, avoid mentioning our gray hair and wrinkles. And that time, eating escamoles and tacos de polio at the San Angel Inn, he offered me the story.

"You're a Spaniard, you've got good contacts there. Write something dynamite about her for us."

I shook my head as I tried to keep the contents of the tortilla from dripping down my chin. "I'm not a reporter anymore. Now I make it all up, and I don't write anything under four hundred pages."

"So do it your way," Rene insisted. "Write a fucking literary piece."

I finished off the taco and we discussed the pros and cons. I hesitated until the coffee and the Don Julian No. 1 came, just when Rene was threatening to call the mariachis over. But his little stratagem backfired on him: The story for Reforma had turned into a private book project, although our friendship didn't suffer on that account. Quite the contrary: The next day he put at my disposal all his best contacts on the Pacific coast and in the federal police force so I could fill in the dark years-the stage of Teresa Men-doza's life that was unknown in Spain, and not in the public domain even in Mexico.

"At least we'll review it," Rene said, "cabron."

At that time, about the only things known publicly about Teresa Men-doza were that she had lived in Las Siete Gotas, a poor barrio in Culiacan, and that she was the daughter of a Spanish father and a Mexican mother. Some people also knew that she'd dropped out after elementary school and a few years later gone to work as a salesgirl in a sombrero store in the Buelna mercado, then become a money changer on Calle Juarez. Then, one Day of the Dead afternoon-life's little ironies-fate set her in the path of Raimundo Davila Parra, a pilot for the Juarez cartel. In that world, he was "Guero" Davila. "Guero" was Mexican slang for a blue-eyed, blond-headed gringo, which Guero wasn't, exactly, since he was a Chicano from San Antonio, but the name stuck.

All this latter stuff was known more from the legend woven around Teresa Mendoza than from documented sources, so to throw some light on that part of her life story I went to the capital of the state of Sinaloa, on the west coast of Mexico, at the mouth of the Gulf of California, and wandered through its streets and into its cantinas. I even followed the exact, or almost exact, route taken by Teresa on that last afternoon (or first, depending on how you look at it), when the telephone rang and she fled the apartment she'd shared with Guero Davila. I started at the love nest they had lived in for two years: a comfortable, discreet two-story house with a patio in back, crepe myrtle and bougainvillea at the door, located in the southeast part of Las Quintas, a neighborhood that had become a favorite of middle-class drug dealers, the ones who were doing okay, but not well enough to afford a luxurious mansion in Colonia Chapultepec.

Then I walked along under the royal palms and mango trees to Calle Juarez, and in front of the little grocery store I stopped to watch the girls who, holding a cell phone in one hand and a calculator in the other, were changing money right out in the open. Or to put it another way, taking stacks of American dollars fragrant with cocaine or high-quality hashish from the sierra, and laundering it into Mexican pesos. In that city where breaking the law is often a social convention and a way of life-It's a family tradition, says one famous corrido, to break the law-Teresa Mendoza was one of those girls for a while. Until a black Bronco stopped one afternoon, and Raimundo Davila Parra lowered the smoked-glass window and sat there and stared at her from the driver's seat. And her life changed forever.

"Now she was walking down that same sidewalk, a sidewalk she knew

every inch of, with her mouth dry and fear in her eyes. She dodged the girls standing around in little groups talking, or pacing back and forth, waiting for customers in front of the El Canario fruit stand, and as she did so she glanced mistrustfully at the bus-and-tram station, the taquerias in the mercado-the street swarming with women carrying baskets and moustached men in baseball caps and sombreros. From the music store behind the jeweler's on the corner came the words and melody of "Pacas de a Kilo"-"Kilo Bricks"-sung by Los Dinamicos. Or maybe Los Tigres-from that distance she couldn't be sure, but she knew the song. Chale, she knew it all too well- it had been Guero's favorite, and that hijo de su madre used to sing it when he shaved, with the window open to annoy the neighbors, or whisper it in her ear, just to infuriate her:

My father's friends and colleagues

Admire me and respect me

And in two or three hundred yards

I can get planes off the ground.

I can hit any bull's-eye

With a pistol or machine gun

Pinche Guero cabron, she thought again-fucking asshole prick, and she almost said it out loud, to control the sob that suddenly rose within her.

Then she looked right and left. She was looking for a face, a presence that meant danger. They would send somebody who knew her, she thought, somebody who could recognize her. So her hope lay in recognizing him before he recognized her. Or in recognizing them. Because there were usually two, so one could back the other one up, and also so they could keep an eye on each other, because this was a business where nobody trusted even his own shadow.

Somebody will smile at you, she remembered. And a second later, you'll be a dead woman. If you're lucky, she added for him, imagining the desert and the blowtorch that Guero had mentioned.

On Juarez, the traffic was coming from behind her. She realized this as she passed the San Juan monument, so she turned left, heading for Calle General Escobedo. Guero had explained that if you ever thought you were being followed, you should take streets where the cars come toward you, so you could see them coming. She walked on down the side street, turning from time to time to look back. She came to the center of the city, passed the white edifice of City Hall, and mingled with the masses of people crowding the bus stops and the area around the Garmendia mercado.

Only then did she feel a little safer. The sky in the west was intense orange over the buildings-a beautiful sunset-and the store windows were beginning to light the sidewalks. They almost never kill you in places like this, she thought. Or even kidnap you. Cars and other vehicles passed by in both directions, and two brown-uniformed police officers stood on one corner. One of them had a vaguely familiar face, so she turned her own face away and changed direction. Many local cops were in the narcos' pay, as were a lot of the Judiciales and Federates and so many others, with their dime bags of smack in their wallets and their free drinks in the cantinas. They did protection work for the bosses or abided by the healthy principle of Live, collect your paycheck, and let live, if you want to stay alive. Three months earlier, a police chief who'd been brought in from outside tried to change the rules of the game. He had been shot seventy times at point-blank range with a cuerno de chivo-the narcos' name for the AK-47-at the door of his house, in his own car. Rat-a-tat-a-tat. There were already CDs out with songs about it. "Seventy Before Seven" was the most famous. Chief Ordonez was shot dead, the lyrics recounted, at six in the morning. A lot of bullets for such an early hour. Pure Sinaloa. The album photographs of popular singers like El As de la Sierra-the Ace of the Sierra-often showed them with a small plane behind them and a.45 in their hand, and Chalino Sanchez, a local singing idol who'd been a hit man for the narcomania before becoming a famous singer, had been shot dead over a woman or for god knew what other reason. If there was anything the guys who wrote the narcocorridos had no need for, it was imagination-the ideas for the songs came ready-made.

At the corner where La Michoacana ice cream store stood, Teresa left the area of the mercado and the shoe and clothing stores behind and took a side street. Guero's safe house, his refuge in case of emergency, was just a few yards away, on the second floor of an unassuming apartment building. Across the street was a cart that sold seafood during the day and tacos de came asada at night. In principle, no one knew of the existence of this place except the two of them. Teresa had been here only once, and Guero himself hardly came, so as not to burn it.

She climbed the stairs, trying not to make any noise, put the key in the lock, and turned it carefully. She knew nobody could be inside, but even so, she walked through the apartment nervously, checking to make sure everything was all right. Not even that crib is completely safe, Guero had said. Somebody may have seen me, or know something, or whatever-in this fucking city, everybody knows everybody else. And even if it doesn't go down that way, say they catch me-if I'm alive, I'll only be able to keep my mouth shut for so long before they beat it out of me and I start singing rancheras. So keep one eye open, mi chula. I hope I can take it long enough for you to grab the money and run, because sooner or later they'll be there. But no promises, prietita-he kept smiling as he said that, pinche cabron- I can't promise you a thing.

The little crib's walls were bare, and the only furniture was a table, four chairs, and a couch in the living room, and in the bedroom a big bed with a night table and a telephone. The bedroom window was at the back of the building, overlooking an open lot with trees and shrubs that was used for parking, and behind that were the yellow cupolas of the Iglesia del Santuario. One of the closets had a false back wall, and when she pulled the panel out, Teresa found two thick packages with stacks of hundred-dollar bills. About twenty thousand, she figured, drawing on her experience as a money changer on Calle Juarez. There was also Guero's notebook: a large one with a brown leather cover-Don't even open it, she remembered-a stash of white powder that weighed about three hundred grams, she estimated, and a huge Colt Double Eagle, chrome with mother-of-pearl handles. Guero didn't like weapons, and he never carried even a revolver-What the fuck good would it do me, he would say; when they look for you, they find you-but he had put this one away for emergencies. Why should I tell you no if the answer's yes. Teresa didn't like guns, either, but like almost every man, woman, and child in Sinaloa, she knew how to use them. And since we're talking about emergencies, this is one, she thought. So she checked to make sure the gun's clip was loaded, pulled back the slide, and released it. With a loud, sinister click a.45-caliber round was loaded into the chamber. Her hands were shaking with anxiety as she put the money, the dope, and the gun in the gym bag she had brought with her.

Halfway through the operation, she was startled by a backfire from a car down in the street. She stood very quiet for a while, listening, before she went on. With the dollars were two valid U.S. passports-hers and Guero's. She studied his photo: his hair cropped short, those gringo eyes gazing out serenely at the photographer, the beginnings of that eternal smile on one side of his mouth. After hesitating a second, she put just her passport in the bag, and it was only when she leaned over and felt tears dripping off her chin and wetting her hands that she realized she'd been crying for a long time now.

She looked around, her eyes blurry with tears, trying to think whether she was forgetting something. Her heart was beating so hard she thought it was about to burst through her chest. She went to the windows, looked down at the street that was beginning to grow dark with the shadows of nightfall, the taco cart illuminated by a naked lightbulb and the coals in the brazier. She lit a Faro and took a few indecisive steps through the apartment, puffing nervously. She had to get out of there, but she didn't know where to go. The only thing that was clear was that she had to leave.

She was at the door of the bedroom when she noticed the telephone, and a thought flashed through her head: don Epifanio Vargas. He was a nice guy, don Epifanio. He'd worked with Amado Carrillo in the golden years of runs between Colombia, Sinaloa, and the United States, and he'd always been a good padrino to Guero, always a man of his word, a man you could trust, a real professional. After a while, he invested in other businesses and got into politics, stopped needing planes. Don Epifanio had offered Guero a place with him, but Guero liked to fly, even if it was for other people. Up there you're somebody, he would say, and down here you're just a mule driver. Don Epifanio didn't take offense, and in fact he even lent Guero the money for a new Cessna when Guero's old one got fucked up in a violent touchdown on a landing strip up in the sierra, with three hundred kilos of Miss White inside, all wrapped up in masking tape, and two Federales planes circling overhead, highways green with soldiers, AR-15s firing, sirens wailing, bullhorns booming-one bad fucking afternoon, no doubt about it. Guero had escaped that one by the short hairs, with just a broken arm-broken once by the law and then again by the owners of the cargo, to whom he had to prove with newspaper clippings that everything had been nationalized, that three of the eight men on the reception team had been killed defending the landing strip, and that the one who'd fingered the flight was a guy from Badiraguato that squawked on retainer for the Federales. The loudmouth had wound up with his hands tied behind his back, suffocated with a plastic bag over his head, as had his father, his mother, and his sister-the narcomafia tended to mochar parejo, as they put it, wipe the slate clean. They took out the whole family, as an object lesson for anybody else who might get ideas.

Guero, cleared of suspicion, bought himself a new Cessna with don Epifanio Vargas' loan.

Teresa put out the cigarette, left the gym bag open on the floor by the headboard, and pulled out the notebook. She laid it on the bed and stared at it for a long time. Don't even look at it. The fucking notebook belonged to the fucking cabron who was probably dancing with La Pelona right about now, and she was sitting there like a pendeja, docile, obedient, idiotic, not opening it. Nor should you, said a voice inside. Just a little peek, whispered another; if this could cost you your life, you ought to see what your life's worth. To work up the courage she took out the package of powder, stuck a fingernail through the plastic, and brought a hit to her nose, breathing deep.

Seconds later, with a new and different lucidity and her senses keen, she looked at the notebook and opened it, at last. Don Epifanio's name was there, with others that gave her cold chills just looking at them: Chapo Guzman, Cesar "Batman" Giiemes, Hector Palma.,. There were telephone numbers, contact points, intermediaries, numbers, and codes whose meaning she couldn't make out. She kept reading, and little by little her pulse slowed, until her blood was ice. Don't even look at it, she remembered, shivering. Hijole! Now she understood why. It was much worse than she'd thought.

And then she heard the door open.

Look who we've got here, Pote. My, my"

Gato Fierros' smile gleamed like the blade of a wet knife, moist and dangerous, the smile of a killer from a gringo movie, one of those where the narcos are always brown-skinned, Latino, and bad. Gato Fierros was dark-skinned, Latino-like Juanito Alimana, that gangster in the Hector Lavoe song-and bad. He could have been the model for the even more famous Pedro Navaja in Ruben Blades' take on "Mack the Knife." In fact, the only thing that wasn't clear was whether he cultivated the stereotype on purpose or whether Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, and gringo movies were inspired by people like him.

" Guero's girlfriend."

The gunman was leaning on the door frame, his hands in his pockets. His feline eyes, which had given him his nickname, never left Teresa as he spoke to his companion-twisting his mouth to the side with malignant charm.

"I don't know anything," said Teresa. She was so terrified that she hardly recognized her own voice. Gato Fierros shook his head sympathetically, twice.

"Of course not," he said, his smile broadening. Odds were, he'd lost count of the number of men and women who'd assured him they didn't know anything before he killed them, quickly or slowly, depending on the circumstances. In Sinaloa, dying violently was dying a natural death. Twenty thousand pesos for a common, run-of-the-mill hit, a hundred thousand for a cop or a judge, free if it was to help out a compadre.

And Teresa knew the score: She knew Gato Fierros, and also knew his companion, Potemkin Galvez, whom everyone called Pote, or Pinto. They were wearing almost identical jackets, silk Versace shirts, denim pants, and iguana-skin boots, as though they shopped in the same store. They were hit men for Cesar Guemes, "Batman," as he was called, and they had hung out a lot with Guero Davila-coworkers, escorts for cargos airlifted up to the sierra, and also drinking buddies at parties that started at the Don Quijote in mid-afternoon, with fresh money that smelled like what fresh money smells like, and went on till who knew when at the table-dancing clubs in the city, Lord Black's and the Osiris, with girls dancing nude at a hundred pesos for five minutes, two hundred and thirty back in the private rooms, before the boys moved on and greeted the new day with Buchanan's and norteno music, their hangovers tempered with lines of coke while Los Pumas, Los Huracanes, Los Broncos, or some other group, paid in hundred-dollar bills, accompanied them with corridos-"Noses a Gram Apiece," "A Fistful of Powder," "Death of a Federale"-about dead men, or men as good as dead.

"Where is he?" Teresa asked.

Gato Fierros gave a low, mean laugh. "Hear that, Pote? She's asking about Guero. My, my"

He was still leaning on the door frame. The other gunman shook his head. He was broad and heavyset, with a solid look about him, and he had a thick black goatee and dark blotches on his skin, like a pinto horse. He didn't seem as much at ease as his companion, and he looked at his watch impatiently. Or maybe uncomfortably. When he moved his arm, he revealed the butt of a revolver at his waist, under the linen golf jacket Guero," Gato Fierros repeated, pensive.

He'd taken his hands out of his pockets and was slowly walking toward Teresa, who was sitting motionless at the head of the bed. When he reached her he stopped and looked down at her.

"Well, you see, mamacita" he said at last, "your man thought he was smart."

Teresa felt the fear writhing in her intestines, like a ratdesnake. The Situation. A fear as white and cold as the surface of a gravestone. "Where is he?" she repeated.

It wasn't her talking, it was some stranger whose unexpected, unforeseeable words startled her-a reckless stranger who didn't recognize the urgent need for silence. Gato Fierros must have sensed that, because he looked at her strangely, surprised that she could ask questions instead of sitting there paralyzed, or screaming in terror.

"He's nowhere. He died."

The stranger continued to act on her own, and Teresa was once again startled to hear her curse them: Hijos de la chingada. That was what she said, or what Teresa heard her say-Hijos de la chingada-regretting it before the last syllable had left her lips. Gato Fierros was studying her with a great deal of curiosity and a great deal of attention.

"Not nice," he said, still thoughtful. "Talking about us that way That mouth on you," he added. And then he hit her in the face, knocking her full length across the bed, backward. He stood looking down at her for another while, as though taking in the view. With the blood pounding in her temples and her cheek throbbing, her head dulled by the blow, Teresa saw his eyes go to the packet of powder on the night table. He picked up a pinch and raised it to his nose.

"Hm, good stuff," the hit man said. "Been cut, but it's still good stuff." He rubbed his nose with his thumb and index finger, then offered some to his companion, but Pote shook his head and looked at his watch again.

"No hurry, carnal? said Gato Fierros. "None at all." He turned once more to Teresa,

"Nice piece, Guero's girlfriend and now she's a widow, poor thing."

From the door, Pote Galvez spoke his companion's name. "Gato," he said, very seriously. "Let's get this over with."

Gato raised a hand, asking for quiet, and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Don't fuck around," Pote insisted. "The orders were to off her, not boff her. So get on with it-no seas cabron!'

But Gato Fierros shook his head like a man listening to the rain. "My, my," he said. "I always wanted a piece of this."

Teresa had been raped other times: at fifteen, by several of the boys in Las Siete Gotas, and then by the man who'd put her to work on Calle Juarez. So she knew what to expect when the killer's knifelike smile grew wetter and he unbuttoned her jeans. And suddenly, she wasn't afraid. It isn't happening, she thought. I'm asleep and this is just a nightmare like all the others, the ones I lived through before, something that happens to the other woman I dream about, the one who looks like me but isn't. I can wake up whenever I want to, listen to my man's breathing on the pillow, hold him to me, sink my face in his chest, and discover that none of this has ever happened. I can also die in my sleep, of a heart attack, a cerebral hemorrhage, whatever. I can die all of a sudden, and neither the dream nor life itself will have any importance anymore. Sleep, without images of anything at all, without nightmares. Rest forever from what has never happened.

"Gato," the other man repeated. He had moved at last, taking a couple of steps into the room. "Quihubo," he said. "What's up? Guero was one of ours, man. A good guy. Remember-the sierra, El Paso, Rio Bravo. And this was his woman." And as he was saying this, he was pulling a Python out of his waistband and pointing it at Teresa's forehead. "Get up so you don't get splattered, man, and let me put her lights out."

But Gato Fierros had other plans. "She's going to die anyway," he said, "and it'd be a waste."

He knocked the Python away, and Pote Galvez stood looking at them, first at Teresa and then at Gato-undecided, fat, with his dark, Indian, norteno hit-man eyes, drops of sweat in his thick moustache, his finger on the trigger guard, the barrel pointing up, as though he were about to scratch his head with it. And then it was Gato Fierros who took out his gun, a big silver Beretta, and pointed it straight at the other man, at his face. Laughing, he said that Pote was either going to have a go at her, too, so they'd be in it together, or, if he was the type of guy who preferred to bat left-handed, then he needed to step aside, cabron, because if he didn't he was having lead for lunch.

Pote Galvez looked at Teresa with resignation and embarrassment; he stood a few seconds more, and then he opened his mouth to say something but then didn't. Instead, he slowly stuck the Python back into his waistband and walked slowly to the door, without turning around. The other killer kept his pistol pointed at him, saying, "I'll buy you a Buchanan's afterward, mi compa, to make you feel better about being a maricon."

And as Galvez disappeared into the other room, Teresa heard a crash, the sound of wood splintering-maybe the hit man putting his fist through the closet door-which for some reason made Teresa very grateful. But she didn't have time to think about that anymore, because Gato Fierros was already taking off her jeans, or rather ripping them off, raising her T-shirt, and pawing at her breasts, and as he did so he stuck the barrel of the pistol up between her legs as though he were going to blow her away from down there. She let him, without a scream or even a whimper, her eyes very open, looking up at the white ceiling, praying to God for it to all happen fast, and when it was over, for Gato Fierros to kill her fast, before it all stopped being a nightmare and turned into the naked horror of pinche fucking life.

It was the same old story. Winding up like that. How could it be otherwise, even though Teresa Mendoza never imagined that The Situation would smell like sweat, like rutting macho, like the shot glasses of tequila that Gato Fierros had knocked back before coming up those stairs looking for his prey. I wish it was over, she thought in her moments of lucidity. I wish it was just fucking over and done with, and I could rest. She thought that for a second and then she sank again into her void without emotions, without fear. It was too late for fear, because fear was what you felt before things happened, and the consolation when they finally did happen was that it all came to an end. The only true fear was that the end would take too long to come.

But Gato Fierros was not going to be that case. He was pushing violently, with the urgency to finish and empty himself. Quiet, Short. He was pushing cruelly, without looking at her, shoving her little by little to the edge of the bed. Teresa emptied her mind as she suffered his thrusts. She let her arm drop, and it touched the open gym bag on the floor.

The Situation can go two ways, she suddenly discovered. It can be Your Situation or the Other Guy's. She was so surprised to realize this, that if the man holding her down had let her, she would have sat straight up in bed, one finger held up, very serious and reflective, to think it through. Let's see, let's just consider this variant But she couldn't sit up, because the only part of her that was free was her arm and hand, which, falling accidentally into the gym bag, was now stroking the cold metal of the Colt Double Eagle inside it, among her clothes and the stacks of bills.

This is not happening to me, she thought. Or maybe she never really thought anything, but instead just observed, passively, while that other Teresa Mendoza thought in her place. Whatever-before she became conscious of it, her or the other woman's fingers had closed around the butt of the pistol. The safety was on the left, next to the trigger and the button to release the clip. She touched it with her thumb and felt it slide down, to the vertical, freeing the hammer. There's a bullet in the chamber, she remembered, there's a bullet there because I put it there-she remembered the metallic click-click-although maybe she just thought she'd loaded the chamber, but hadn't, and the bullet wasn't ready. She considered all this with dispassionate calculation: Safety, trigger, hammer. Bullet. That was the right sequence of events-if, that is, that click-click had been real and not the product of her imagination. Because if it hadn't been real, the hammer was going to hit nothing, air, and Gato Fierros would have time to take it badly. Of course, whatever happened, things couldn't be that much worse than they were now. There might be a little more violence, or rage, in the last moments. Nothing that wouldn't be over within a half-hour or so-for her, for that woman watching her, or for both at once. Nothing that wouldn't stop hurting in a little while. And as she thought all this, she stopped looking up at the white ceiling and realized that Gato Fierros had stopped moving, and that he was looking at her. That was when Teresa raised the pistol and shot him in the face.

Up here was an acrid smell, the smell of gunpowder, and the report of the JL gunshot was still echoing off the walls of the room when Teresa pulled the trigger the second time-but the Double Eagle had jumped at the first shot, recoiling so much that the new bullet only took a chunk of plaster out of the wall. By that time, Gato Fierros was lying against the night table, gasping for air, covering his mouth with his hands, while through his fingers gushed streams of blood that also spattered his eyes, which were wide open with surprise. He was stunned by the blast that had singed his hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes, but Teresa couldn't tell whether he was screaming or not, because the noise of the gunshot so close had deafened her.

She'd gotten up on her knees in the bed, her T-shirt bunched up over her breasts, naked from the waist down, holding her right hand with her left so she could aim the third shot more accurately, when she saw Pote Galvez appear in the doorway, stupefied, his mouth agape. She looked at him again, as though in a slow-motion dream, and Pote, whose revolver was still stuck in the waistband of his pants, put both hands up in front of him, as though to protect himself, looking in fear at the Double Eagle that Teresa was now pointing at him. Under the black moustache his mouth opened to pronounce a silent "No," like a plea for mercy-although what may have happened was that Pote Galvez actually said "No" aloud and she simply couldn't hear it because she was still deaf from the gunshots. She finally decided that that must be it, because Pote kept moving his lips, fast, his hands out in front of him, looking at her apologetically, conciliatorily, speaking words she couldn't hear. Even so, Teresa was about to pull the trigger when she remembered the fist through the closet door, the Python pointed at her forehead, the "Guero was one of us, man, no seas cabron" And the "She was Guero's woman, man."

She didn't shoot. That sound of splintering wood kept her finger motionless on the trigger. Her naked belly and legs were beginning to feel cold when, never taking the gun off Pote Galvez, she backed up on the bed and with her left hand threw the clothes, the notebook, and the coke into the gym bag. As she did this, she watched Gato Fierros out of the corner of her eye. He was still slowly writhing on the floor, his bloody hands on his face. For a second she thought of turning the gun on him and finishing the job, but the other killer was still at the door, his hands outstretched and his revolver at his waist, and she knew with absolute certainty that if she stopped pointing the gun at him, the next bullet fired would be for her.

She grabbed the gym bag, and holding the Double Eagle firmly in her right hand, stood up and stepped away from the bed. First Pote, she decided, and then Gato Fierros. That was the right order, and the noise of splintering wood-which she was truly grateful for-was not enough to change that. Just then she saw that the eyes of the man standing before her had read her own. The mouth under the moustache suddenly stopped, interrupted itself in mid-sentence-now it was a confused murmur in Teresa's ears-and by the time she fired a third time, Potemkin Galvez, with an agility surprising in a man as heavy as he was, had leapt to the front door and was clambering downstairs, pulling his gun as he ran.

She shot a fourth and a fifth time, before realizing that it was useless and that if she wasn't smart, she could wind up without ammunition. Nor did she run after him, because she knew that he wouldn't just let this go, that he was going to come back for her, soon, and finish what the two of them had started.

Two stories, she thought. Although it's not any worse than what I've already been through. So she opened the bedroom window, looked down at the back yard, and saw a few stubby trees and some bushes in the darkness. I forgot to finish off that cabron Gato, she thought too late, just as she was jumping. Then the branches and the bushes were scratching her legs, thighs, and face as she fell into them, and she felt a sharp pain in her ankles as she hit the ground. She got up, limping, surprised to be alive, surprised that nothing seemed broken, and she ran, barefoot, and naked from the waist down, through the parked cars and shadows in the lot.

Finally, out of breath, far away, she stopped, squatting next to a half-ruined brick wall. Besides the sting of the scratches and the cuts to her feet from running, she felt an uncomfortable burning in her thighs and sex. The memory of what had just happened to her now hit her, because the other Teresa Mendoza had just abandoned her, left her with nobody to attribute sensations and emotions to. She felt a violent urge to urinate, and she did so just as she was, squatting motionless in the darkness, shivering as though she had a high fever. A car's headlights illuminated her for a second; she clutched the gym bag in one hand and the pistol in the other.

Arturo Perez-Reverte Queen of the South | Queen of the South | 2. They say the law