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2. They say the law

spotted him, but they got cold feet

I mentioned earlier that I had been in Culiacan, Sinaloa, at the beginning of my research, before I met Teresa Mendoza personally. There, where drug trafficking had come out from underground a long time ago and become an objective social fact, a few well-placed dollars opened doors for me into certain exclusive worlds, places where a curious foreigner without any references might, overnight, turn up floating in the Humaya or the Tamazula with a bullet in his head. I also made a couple of good friends: Julio Bernal, head of the city's office of cultural affairs, and the Sinaloan writer Elmer Mendoza-no relation to Teresa-whose splendid novels A Lonely Murderer and The Lover of Janis Joplin I'd read for background. It was Elmer and Julio who acted as my guides through that underworld and filled me in on all the local eccentricities.

Although neither of my friends had had any personal dealings with Teresa Mendoza in the beginnings of this story-she was nobody back then-they did know Guero Davila and some of the other characters who in one way or another pulled the strings of the plot, and they and their contacts set me on the track to knowing a good deal of what I know now. In Sinaloa everything is a question of trust; in a hard, complex world like that one, the rules are simple and there's no place for mistakes. You're introduced to somebody by a friend somebody trusts, and that somebody trusts you because he trusts the friend who vouched for you. Then, if anything goes wrong, the voucher pays with his life, and you pay with yours. Bang bang. The cemeteries of northwest Mexico are full of graves of people somebody trusted.

One night of music and cigarette smoke in the Don Quijote, drinking beer and tequila after listening to the disgusting jokes of the comedian Pedro Valdez-who'd been preceded by the ventriloquist Enrique and his cokehead dummy Chechito-Elmer Mendoza leaned over the table and pointed to a heavyset, dark-skinned man in glasses who was drinking at a table in one corner, surrounded by a large group of the kind of guys that leave their sport coats or jackets on, as though they were cold no matter where they were-snake- or ostrich-skin boots, thousand-dollar belts with leather-laced edging, panama hats or baseball caps with the insignia of the Culiacan Tomateros, and a lot of heavy gold at their necks and wrists. We'd seen them get out of two Ram Chargers and walk in like they owned the place, right past the bouncer, who greeted them obsequiously, forgoing the ritual pat-down that all the other customers were subjected to.

"That's Cesar 'Batman' Guemes," Elmer said softly. "A famous narco."

"Got any corridos to him?"

"Several." My friend laughed in mid-sip. "He killed Guero Davila."

My jaw dropped as I looked at the group: brown faces and hard features, lots of moustache and obvious danger. There were eight of them; they'd been there fifteen minutes and had already downed a case of beer-twenty-four tall ones. Now they'd just ordered two bottles of Buchanan's and two of Remy Martin, and the dancers-this was unheard-of in the Don Quijote- were coming over to sit with them when they left the runway. A group of botde-blond gays-the place filled with gays late at night, and the two worlds mixed without any problems-had been giving the table insinuating looks, and Guemes smiled sarcastically, very macho, and called the waiter over to pay for their drinks. Pure peaceful coexistence.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"Me? Everybody in Culiacan knows."

Four days later, thanks to a friend of Julio Bernal's who had a nephew in the business, Batman Guemes and I had a strange and interesting conversation. I was invited to a cookout at a house in San Miguel, in the hills above the city. There, the junior narcos-the second-generation guys, less ostentatious than their fathers who'd come down from the sierra, first to the barrio of Tierra Blanca and later assaulting the spectacular mansions of Colonia Chapultepec-began to invest in more discreet houses, in which the luxury was reserved for the family and guests, inside. The nephew of this friend of Julio's was the son of a historic narco from San Jose de los Hornos-one of those legendary bandidos who in his youth had traded bullets with the police and rival bands and was now serving a comfortable sentence in the prison at Puente Grande, Jalisco; the son was twenty-eight, and his name was Ernesto Samuelson. Five of his cousins and an older brother had been killed by other narcos, or the Federales, or soldiers, and he had quickly learned the lesson: law school in the United States; businesses abroad, never on Mexican soil; money laundered through a respectable Mexican company whose holdings included big transport rigs and Panamanian shrimp farms. He lived in an unassuming house with his wife and two children, drove a sober Audi, and spent three months a year in a simple apartment in Miami, with a Golf in the garage. You live longer that way, he would say. In this business, envy kills.

It was Ernesto Samuelson who, under the bamboo-and-palm palapa in his garden, introduced me to Batman Guemes, who was standing with a beer in one hand and a plate of burnt meat in the other. "He writes novels and movies," Ernesto told Batman, by way of introduction, and then he left us.

Batman Guemes spoke softly, with long pauses that he employed so he could study you from head to toe. He'd never read a book in his life, but he loved movies. We talked about Al Pacino (Scarface was his favorite movie of all time) and Robert De Niro (Goodfellas, Casino), and how Hollywood directors and scriptwriters, those hijos de la chingada, never portrayed a blond, blue-eyed, gringo drug dealer; they all had to be named Sanchez and be born south of the Rio Grande. His remark about the blond, blue-eyed drug runner was my cue, so I dropped the name Guero Davila, and while Batman Guemes looked at me through his dark glasses very carefully and very quietly, I stuck my neck out by following that up with the name Teresa Mendoza. I'm writing her story, I added, aware that in certain circles and with a certain kind of man, lies always explode under your pillow. And Batman Guemes was so dangerous, I'd been warned, that when he went up into the sierra the wolves lit bonfires to keep him away.

"One shitload of years has passed since then," he said.

I figured him for younger than fifty. His skin was very dark, and he had an inscrutable face with strong norteno features. I later learned that he was not from Sinaloa but from Alamos, Sonora, the homeland of Maria Felix, and that he had started out as a coyote and a burro, using a truck that belonged to him to run undocumented workers, marijuana, and cocaine for the Juarez cartel over the border. He rose in the hierarchy, starting as an operator for the Lord of the Skies and finally becoming the owner of a transport company and a private aviation business that ran contraband between the sierra and the western United States-Nevada and California-until the gringos tightened up the airspace and closed almost all the gaps in their radar system. Now he was living a relatively quiet life off the savings he'd invested in safe businesses and a few other investments, mainly opium villages up in the sierra, on the border with Durango. He had a nice ranch over in El Salado, with four thousand head: Do Brasil, Angus, Bravo. He also raised thoroughbreds for the parejeras, which is a two-horse race they run in Mexico, and fighting cocks that brought him sackfuls of money every October or November from the cockfights at the livestock fairs.

"Teresa Mendoza," he murmured after a while.

He shook his head as he said this, as though remembering something funny. Then he took a swig of his beer, chewed on a piece of meat, and drank again. He was still looking at me hard from behind the dark glasses, a little sneer on his lips, perhaps, letting me know that he had no problem talking about something so old, and that the risk of asking questions in Sinaloa was entirely mine. Talking about dead men didn't cause problems-the narcocorridos were full of real names and stories; what was dangerous was asking questions about live men, because you might get taken for a bigmouth and a snitch. And I, accepting the rules of the game, looked at the gold anchor-only slightly smaller than the Titanic s-hanging from the thick gold chain that gleamed under the open collar of his plaid shirt, and without beating around the bush asked the question that had been burning my mouth since Elmer Mendoza had pointed this man out to me four days earlier. I asked what I needed to ask, and then I raised my eyes, and the guy was looking at me just like before. Either he likes me, I thought, or I'm going to have problems.

After a few seconds, he took another drink of his beer, still watching me. He must have liked me, because he finally smiled a little, just a hint. "Is this for a novel or a movie?" he asked. I told him I didn't know yet; it could be either, or both. At that, he offered me a beer, went to get another one for himself, and started to tell the story of Guero Davila's two-timing.

He wasn't a bad guy, Guero. Kept his word, a lot of heart-brave, really brave. He was good-looking, a little like Luis Miguel, but thinner- and tougher. Great sense of humor. Easygoing. Raimundo Davila Parra spent money as fast as he made it, or almost, and he was generous with his friends. He and Batman Guemes had been up until dawn lots of nights, partying with music, alcohol, and women, celebrating successful operations. At one time they were even close friends-bro's, or carnales, as the Sinaloans put it. Guero was a Chicano-he'd grown up in San Antonio. And he started young, transporting grass in cars to the U.S. They'd made more than one run together up through Tijuana, Mexicali, or Nogales, until the gringos offered him a stay in a jail up there somewhere.

After that, Guero didn't want anything to do with cars-all he wanted to do was fly. He had a pretty good education, high school anyway, and he took pilot's classes in the old flying school on Zapata. He was a good pilot-the best, Batman Guemes acknowledged, nodding emphatically-one of those that aren't afraid of anything: the right man for clandestine takeoffs and landings on the little hidden runways up in the sierra, or for low-altitude flights to avoid the Hemispheric Radar System that scanned the air routes between Colombia and the U.S. The Cessna was like an extension of his hands and his courage: he would land anywhere and at any hour, and that brought him fame, respect, and green. The guys in Culiacan called him the king of the short runway, and for good reason. He was so famous that Chalino Sanchez, who was also a close buddy of his, promised to write a corrido for him using that exact name-"The King of the Short Runway." But Chalino got taken out before he could do it-Sinaloa was not a healthy place to live, depending on the neighborhood-and Guero never got his song.

Anyway, with or without his corrido, he never lacked for work. His padrino was don Epifanio Vargas, a narco boss who was a veteran of the sierra, a guy with real balls, tough and straight-shooting in every sense of the word. Epifanio Vargas' cover was Nortena de Aviaci6n, a company he owned that sold and leased Cessnas and Piper Comanches and Navajos. And on Nortena's payroll, Guero Davila did runs of two or three hundred kilos, before the big deals of the golden age, when Amado Carrillo earned himself the title Lord of the Skies by organizing the biggest air bridge in the history of drug trafficking between Colombia, Baja California, Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Jalisco. A lot of the missions that Guero flew back in the early days were diversionary-he was a decoy for both the land-based radar screens and those Orions crammed with technology and manned by mixed gringo and Mexican crews. And they were for diversion meaning "fun," too, because he loved it. So he made a fortune risking his skin on flights to the limit, day and night: fancy-as-hell maneuvers, takeoffs and landings on forty feet of runway and in places you wouldn't think a plane could ever manage, diverting attention from the big Boeings, Caravelles, and DC-8s-bought during the period when the cartels were all pooling together-that would transport eight and ten tons in one trip. And all this with the complicity of the police, the Ministry of Defense, and even the President of the Republic. Because those were the good times-the high times-of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, with narcos running drugs under the protection of the presidency itself. They were good times for Guero Davila, too: empty planes, no cargo to be responsible for, playing cat and mouse with adversaries that it wasn't always possible to completely buy off. Flights where you risked your life on a roll of the dice, pure chance whether they popped you or not-or threw your ass in jail for a long stay if they caught you on the gringo side.

Back then, Batman Guemes, who had his feet on the ground figuratively as well as literally, was beginning to do pretty well in the Sinaloa narcomafia. The Mexicans were beginning to declare their independence from the providers in Medellin and Cali, raising the stakes, being paid with greater and greater amounts of coca, and commercializing the Colombian drug that they'd only transported before. That made Batman's rise in the local hierarchy easier, after some bloody settling of scores to stabilize the market and the competition-some days, there would be twelve or fifteen bodies, your side and theirs. He had put as many cops, military men, and politicians on the payroll as possible-including Customs officers on the Mexican side and INS officers, the migras, on the U.S. side-and in a very short time, packages with his trademark, a little bat, started to cross the Rio Grande in eighteen-wheelers. Sometimes hashish, what they called goma de la sierra, rubber from up in the mountains, and sometimes coke or weed-marijuana. There was a song, a corrido they say somebody commissioned from a norteno group on Calle Francisco Villa, and the lyrics summed it up: Vivo de tres animates-mi perico, mi gallo y mi chiva. I make my living from three animals: my parakeet, my rooster, and my goat-which in Mexican slang was coke, marijuana, and heroin.

At about this same time, don Epifanio Vargas, who until then had been Guero Davila's employer, began to specialize in drugs of the future like crystal meth and ecstasy. He had his own laboratories in Sinaloa and Sonora, and also on the other side of the border. "The gringos want to ride," he would say, "I saddle the horse for 'em." In not very many years, and with not many shots fired or trips to the cemetery-practically what you'd call a white-collar operation-Vargas managed to become the first Mexican magnate of precursors for designer drugs like ephedrine, which he could import problem-free from India, China, and Thailand, and one of the main producers of methamphetamines north or south of the border. He also started looking into politics. With legal businesses in plain view and the illegal ones well camouflaged behind a pharmaceutical company with state backing, the cocaine and Nortena de Aviacion were unnecessary. So he sold the airplane

business to Batman Guemes, and with that, Guero Davila got a new boss in the drug-running game. Guero wanted to fly even more than he wanted to make money. By then he'd bought a two-story house in Las Quintas, was driving a brand-new black Bronco instead of the old one, and was living with Teresa Mendoza.

And that's when things started getting complicated. Raimundo Davila Parra was not a discreet fellow. Living forever didn't interest him particularly, so he seems to have decided to blow it all fast. He was one of those guys that don't give jack shit about much of anything, as his daredevil antics with the Cessna showed all too clearly, but in the end he basically let his mouth get the better of him-which happens even to sharks, so the saying goes. He got careless-and things got ugly-when he bragged about what he'd done and what he was going to do next. Better, he used to say, five years on your feet than fifty on your knees.

So little by little, rumors began reaching Batman Guemes. Guero was sandwiching his own cargo into flights full of other people's, taking advantage of the runs he was making to do his own deals. The drugs, he got from an ex-cop named Guadalupe Parra, aka Lupe the Chink, or Chino Parra, who was Guero's first cousin and had contacts. Usually it was cocaine confiscated by Judiciales who grabbed twenty, reported five, and sold the rest down the line. This was the worst thing you could do-not on the part of the Judiciales, but Guero, doing his own deals-because he was charging a shitload of money for his work, rules were rules, and doing private deals, in Sinaloa and behind your employers' back, was the quickest way to get yourself in very ugly trouble.

"When you live crooked," Batman Guemes said that afternoon, a beer in one hand and the plate of meat in the other, "you've gotta work straight."

So in summary: Guero talked too much, and the asshole cousin was no brain surgeon. Stupid, sloppy, a real mouth-breather: Chino Parra was one of those guys you sent out for a shipment of coke and he came back with Pepsi. He had debts, he needed a snootful every half-hour, he loved big cars, and he had bought his wife and three kids a mansion in the most ostentatious part of Las Quintas. It was a disaster waiting to happen: the dollars went out faster than they came in. So the cousins decided to set up their own operation, and big-time: a shipment of a certain cargo that the Judiciales had confiscated in El Salto, Durango, and found buyers for in Obregon. As usual, Guero flew solo. Taking advantage of a flight to Mexicali with fourteen fifty-gallon drums of lard, each containing twenty kilos of smack, he made a detour to pick up fifty keys of White Horse, all neatly shrink-wrapped in plastic. But somebody fingered him, and somebody else decided to clip Guero's wings.

"Which somebody?"

"What the fuck. Somebody."

The trap, Batman Giiemes went on, was laid on the runway at six in the afternoon-the precision of the hour would have been perfect for that corrido Guero wanted and Chalino Sanchez, R.I.P., never quite composed- near a place up in the sierra known as El Espinazo del Diablo. The runway was just 312 yards long, and Guero, who flew over without seeing anything suspicious, had just touched down, with the flaps on his Cessna 172R on the last notch, the plane having come down so vertical it looked like he was dropping in on a parachute, and he was rolling down the first stretch of the runway at about forty knots when he saw two trucks and a bunch of people that shouldn't have been there, camouflaged under the trees. So instead of hitting the brakes he gave it the gas and pulled up on the stick.

He might have made it, and somebody later said that by the time they started emptying their AR-15s and AK-47s at him, he'd already gotten the wheels off the ground. But all that lead was a lot of weight to lift, and the Cessna crashed about a hundred yards beyond the end of the runway. When they got to him, Guero was still alive among the twisted wreckage of the cabin; his face was bloody, his jaw smashed by a bullet, and splinters of broken bones were sticking out of the flesh of his legs; he was breathing weakly. He couldn't last long anyway, but the instructions had been to kill him. So they took the smack out of the plane, and then, like in the movies, they threw a lighted Zippo into a trickle of the hundred-octane aircraft fuel that was leaking out of the gas tank. Fluhm! The fact is, Guero hardly knew what hit him.

When you live crooked, Batman Guemes repeated, you've got no choice but to work straight. This time he said it as a kind of conclusion, pensively, setting his empty plate down on the table. Then he clucked his tongue, held up the beer bottle to see how much was left, and looked at the yellow label: Cerveceria del Pacifico, S.A. All this time he had been speaking as though the story he'd just told me had nothing to do with him, as though it was just something he'd heard here and there. Something in the public domain. And I figured it was.

"What about Teresa Mendoza?" I chanced.

He looked at me suspiciously from behind his dark glasses, wordlessly querying, What about her? So I asked straight out whether she'd been implicated in Guero's operations, and he shook his head instantly. No way, he said. Back then she was just another girl, like all the rest: young, quiet, a typical morra-a narco's girlfriend. The only difference was that she didn't dye her hair blond and she wasn't one of those bitches who liked to show it all off. The morras here just do girl things: they get their hair done, they watch the telenovelas on TV, they listen to Juan Gabriel and norteno music, and then they go on little $3,000 shopping sprees to Sercha's and Coppel, where their credit's even better than their cash. You know-when the hunter comes home, the little woman's there to massage his worries away. Teresa had heard things, sure, but she didn't have anything to do with the deals.

"Why go for her, then?"

"Why're you asking me?" he said, turning serious.

Once again I feared he was going to cut off the conversation. But after a moment he shrugged.

"There are rules," he said. "You don't get to pick the ones you like, you follow the ones they give you when you come in. It's all about reputation, and respect. Like piranhas. You go chicken or bleed, the others are all over you. You make a pact with life and death: so many years as a king, and then Say what you will, dirty money spends as green as clean. Plus, it gives you luxuries, music, wine, and women. Then you die fast, and rest in peace. Not many narcos retire, and the natural way out is jail or the cemetery. Cases of really lucky guys, or really smart ones who get off the horse in time, like Epifanio Vargas, are rare. People here don't trust anybody that's been too long in the business and is still active."

"Active?"

"Alive."

He let me chew on that for three seconds. "They say," he went on then, "those who are in that line of business"-he stressed the third-person, distant aspect of all this-"that even if you're good at your business and you're straight with people-no funny stuff, you know-you come to a bad end. You come, slide in easy, you're preferred for some reason over others, you move up before you even know it, and then the competitors come after you. That's why any false step, you pay. Plus, the more people you care about, the more vulnerable you are. Take the case of that other famous gringo, corridos and the whole thing, Hector Palma. The story goes that he and a former associate of his had a falling-out, so this former associate of his kidnapped and tortured his family. So they say, you understand. And on his birthday this former associate sends him a box with his wife's head in it. Happy birthday-to-you.

"Living on the edge like that, nobody can afford to forget the rules. It was the rules that took Guero down. He was a good guy, I give you my word. A fine fellow to work with, that compa. Brave-the type who'll risk his soul and die wherever he's supposed to die. A little talkative, you know, and ambitious, but not much different from the best we've got around here. I don't know if you understand that. But as for Teresa Mendoza, she was his woman, and innocent or not, the rules went for her, too."

Santa Virgencita. Santo Patron. The little Malverde Chapel was in shadow. A single light glowed in the portico, whose doors were open night and day, and through the windows filtered the reddish flicker of four or five candles lighted before the altar. Teresa had been sitting motionless in the dark a long time, hidden by the wall between Avenida Insurgentes-deserted at this hour-and the railroad tracks and the canal. She tried to pray, but couldn't; other things occupied her mind.

It had taken her a long time to decide whether to make the phone call. Calculate the possibilities. Then she'd walked here, watching her surroundings carefully, and now she was waiting, a lighted cigarette cupped in her hand. Half an hour, don Epifanio had said. Teresa had forgotten her watch, so she had no way to know how much time had passed.

She got a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she hurried to stub out the cigarette when a patrol car passed by slowly, headed toward Zapata: silhouettes of two cops in the front seats, the face of the one on the right slightly illuminated, seen and not seen, by the light on the porch of the chapel. Teresa scooted back, seeking more darkness. It wasn't just that she was outside the law. In Sinaloa, as in the rest of Mexico, from the patrolman looking to get his back scratched-wearing his jacket zipped up so you couldn't see his badge number-to his superior who received a stack of bills every month from the narcomafia, crossing paths with the law could often mean stepping into the lion's den.

That useless prayer that never ended. Santa Virgencita. Santo Patron. She'd started it six or seven times, and never finished. The chapel to the bandido Malverde brought back too many memories linked to Guero Davila. That may have been why when don Epifanio Vargas agreed over the phone to the meeting, she named this place almost without thinking. At first don Epifanio had suggested she go to Colonia Chapultepec, near his house, but that meant crossing the city and a bridge over the Tamazula. Too risky. And although she didn't mention any details about what had happened, just that she was running and that Guero had told her to get in contact with him, he understood immediately that things were bad, or even worse than that. He tried to reassure her: Don't worry, Teresita, I'll come to see you, just calm down and don't move. Hide and tell me where to find you. He always called her Teresita when he saw her with Guero on the malecon, in the restaurants on the beach at Altata, at a party, or eating mussels or shrimp ceviche and stuffed crab on Sunday at Los Arcos. He would call her Teresita and give her a kiss, and he had even introduced her to his wife and children once. And although don Epifanio was an intelligent, powerful man, with more money than Guero had ever had in his life, he was always nice to Guero, and he kept calling him his godson, just like in the old days. And once, around Christmas, the first Christmas that Teresa was Guero's girlfriend, don Epifanio sent her flowers and a pretty Colombian emerald on a gold chain, and an envelope with $10,000 inside, so she could buy her man something, a surprise, and with the rest buy herself whatever she wanted.

That was why Teresa had phoned him that night, and was intending to give him that notebook of Guero's that was burning a hole in her gym bag. Santa Virgencita. Santo Patron. Because don Epi is the only one you can trust, Guero had always told her. He's a gentleman, and a stand-up guy-he was a good boss when he was boss, and he's my godfather. Pinche Guero. He'd said that before everything went to shit and that telephone rang Now she knew she couldn't trust anyone, not even don Epifanio. Which was probably why she'd asked him to come there, almost without thinking, although actually thinking about it pretty well.

The chapel was a quiet place she could get to by skulking along the train tracks that ran along the canal. From here, she could watch the street on both sides in case Guero had been wrong in his calculations and the man who called her Teresita-and who gave her $10,000 and an emerald at Christmas-didn't come alone. Or in case she got cold feet and-in the best of cases, if she was still able-took off running again.

She struggled with the temptation to light another cigarette. Santa Virgencita. Santo Patron. Through the windows she could see the candles that threw flickering light across the walls and pews of the chapel. During his mortal life, St. Malverde had been Jesus Malverde, the good bandit who stole from the rich, they said, to help the poor. The priests and church authorities never recognized him as a saint, but the people canonized him on their own. After his execution, the government had ordered that the body not be buried, as an object lesson for other would-be Robin Hoods, but people who passed by the place would put down stones, one each time- religiously, you might say-until they'd given him a Christian burial. The chapel grew out of that devotion. Among the gruff people of Culiacan and all of Sinaloa, Malverde was more popular and had done more miracles than God Himself, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. The chapel was filled with little signs and ex votos placed there in gratitude to Malverde for the miracles: a lock of a child's hair for a successful childbirth, shrimp in alcohol for a good catch, photographs, kitschy religious prints.

But above all, St. Malverde was the patron saint of the Sinaloa narcos, who came to the chapel to offer their lives up to him, and to give thanks, with offerings and hand-lettered signs after each successful return and each profitable deal. Gracias for getting me out of jail, one might read, stuck up on the wall next to an image of the saint-dark-skinned, moustached, dressed in white with an elegant black neckerchief. Or Gracias for you know what. The toughest of them, the worst criminals, murderers from the sierra and the plains, had his likeness on their belts, on scapulars, on their baseball caps, in their cars; when they spoke his name they would cross themselves, and many mothers would go to the chapel to pray when their sons made their first run or were in jail or some other trouble. There were gunmen who glued a picture of Malverde to the butts of their pistols, or on the shoulder stocks of their AK-47s. And even Guero Davila, who said he didn't believe in that sort of thing, had a photo of the saint on the instrument panel of his plane; it was in a leather frame, with the prayer God bless my journy and allow my return, misspelling and all. Teresa had bought it for him at the shop at the chapel, where, early in their relationship, she'd often go, secretly, to light candles whenever Guero didn't come home for several days. She did this until he found out and forbade her. Superstitions, prietita. Idiotic. Chale, I don't like my woman being ridiculous.

But the day she brought him the photo with the prayer, he didn't say a word, didn't even make fun of it-he just put it up on the Cessna's instrument panel.

By the time the headlights went out, after illuminating the chapel with two long sweeps, Teresa was aiming the Double Eagle at the car. She was scared, but that didn't keep her from weighing the pros and cons, trying to foresee the appearances under which danger might present itself. Her head, as the men who gave her a job as a money changer had discovered years before, was good at figures: A plus B equals X, plus Z probabilities backward and forward, multiplications, divisions, additions and subtractions.

And that brought her once again face to face with The Situation. At least five hours had passed since the telephone rang, and maybe two since that first shot fired into Gato Fierros' face. Her dues in horror and confusion had been paid; all the resources of her instinct and her intelligence were now committed to keeping her alive.

Which was why her hand didn't tremble. Which was why she'd wanted to pray, but couldn't. Instead she recalled with absolute clarity that she had fired five shots, that there was one in the chamber and ten in the clip, that the Double Eagle's recoil was very powerful, and that the next time, she needed to aim slightly below the target if she didn't want to miss. Her left hand was not under the butt of the gun, like in the movies, but rather on top of her right wrist, to steady it. This was her last chance, and she knew it. If her heart beat slowly, her blood circulated quietly, and her senses were on alert, it would make the difference between being alive and lying dead on the ground. Which was why she'd taken a couple of quick sniffs from the package in the gym bag. And which was why, when the white Suburban pulled up, she'd instinctively turned her eyes away from the headlights, so as not to be blinded. She looked over the top of the weapon again, finger on the trigger, holding her breath, alert to the first possible sign that something wasn't quite right. Ready to shoot anybody, no matter who.

The doors slammed. She held her breath. One, two, three. Hijole!-shit. Three male silhouettes standing alongside the car, backlighted by the street-lamps. Choose. She'd thought she could be safe from this, on the sidelines, while somebody did it for her. You just take it easy, prietita-that was at the beginning-you just love me, and I'll take care of the rest. It was sweet and comfortable. It was deceptively safe to wake up at night and hear her man's-any man's?-peaceful breathing. There was not even any fear back then, because fear is the child of the imagination, and back then there were only happy hours that passed like a pretty love song, or a soft stream. And the trap was easy to fall into; his laughter when he held her, his lips traveling over her skin, his mouth whispering tender words, or dirty words down below, between her thighs, very close and very far inside, as though it were going to stay there forever-if she lived long enough to forget, that mouth would be the last thing that she forgot. But nobody stays forever. Because nobody is safe, and all sense of security is dangerous. Suddenly you wake up with proof that it's impossible to just live-you realize that life is a road, and that traveling it entails constant choices. Who you live with, who you love, who you kill. Whether you want to or not, you have to walk the road by yourself The Situation What it came down to was choosing.

After hesitating a second, she aimed the gun at the broadest and biggest of the three silhouettes. It was the best target, and besides-he was the boss.

"Teresita," said don Epifanio Vargas.

That familiar voice stirred something inside her. Suddenly, tears blurred her vision. Unexpectedly, she'd turned fragile; she tried to understand why, and in the effort it was too late to avoid it. Stupid bitch, she told herself. Pinche fucking stupid baby. If something goes wrong, you had your chance. The distant lights from the street blurred and wavered before her eyes, and everything became a confusion of liquid lights and shadows. Suddenly there was no one to aim at.

So she lowered the pistol. All because of one fucking tear, she thought, resigned to what awaited. Now they're going to kill me, and all because of one pinche tear.

It's bad times." Don Epifanio Vargas took a long puff of his cigar and stood looking at the ember, pensive. In the semidarkness of the chapel, the candles and altar lights illuminated his Aztec profile, his thick, combed-back jet-black hair, his norteno moustache, all those stereotyped features that Teresa had always associated with Emilio Fernandez and Pedro Armendariz in the old Mexican movies on TV. He was probably somewhere around fifty, and he was big and wide, with huge hands. In his left hand he held a cigar, and in his right, Guero's notebook.

"In the old days, at least there was some respect for women and children." He shook his head sadly, remembering. Teresa knew that "the old days" referred to the time when, as a young campesino from Santiago de los Ca-balleros, tired of being hungry, Epifanio Vargas traded in the brace of oxen and the little field of corn and beans for marijuana plants. He'd screened out the seeds for a clean product, he'd put his life on the line selling it and taken the lives of everybody else he could, and finally he'd come down from the sierra to the flatland, settling in Tierra Blanca. That was when the networks of Sinaloa drug smugglers had first been moving north not just their bricks of Mexican gold but also the first packages of white powder that came in by boat and plane from Colombia.

The men of don Epifanio's generation-men who had once swum the Rio Grande with cargos on their backs-now lived in mansions in Colonia Chapultepec. They had pliant rich-kid offspring who went to high school in their own cars and to American universities. But they'd had their long-ago days of big adventures, big risks, and big money made overnight: a lucky operation, a good crop, a big cargo that got to the right place. Years of danger and money, living a life that up in that sierra would have been scarcely more than a miserable getting-by. Intense and short, because only the toughest of men managed to survive, make a life for themselves, and mark off the territory of a large drug cartel. Those had been years when the lines were still being drawn. When nobody held a place without pushing out somebody else, and if you fucked up, you paid the price.

But the price was your life, not anybody else's with you. Just yours.

"They went to Chino Parra's house, too," he said. "I heard it on the news a little while ago. Wife and three kids." The ember of his cigar glowed bright again. "Chino was found in the driveway, in his Silverado."

He was sitting beside Teresa on the pew to the right of the little altar. When he moved his head, the candles made patent-leather glints in his thick, stiff-combed hair. The years that had passed since he first came down from the sierra had refined his appearance and his manners, but under the handmade suits, the Italian ties, and the $500 silk shirts, there was still the campesino from the mountains of Sinaloa. And you could see that not just because of the norteno ostentation-pointed-toe boots, huge silver belt buckle, gold centenary medal on the keychain-but also, and especially, because of the eyes, which were sometimes impassive, sometimes distrustful or patient. They were the eyes of a race that for generations, hundreds of years, had been forced, time and time again, by a hailstorm or a drought, to start over again, from scratch.

"Apparently they caught Chino in the morning and spent the day with him, talking From what the radio said, they took their time with him."

Teresa could imagine, and it didn't take much effort: Hands tied with wire; cigarettes; razor blades. Chino Parra's screams muffled by the plastic bag or the strip of duct tape, in some basement or warehouse, before they finished him off and went for his family. Maybe Chino himself had ratted out Guero. Or his own family. Teresa had known Chino well, his wife, Brenda, and the three kids-two boys and a girl. She remembered them playing, running around on the beach at Altata, the previous summer: their warm little brown bodies in the sun, covered by towels, sleeping as they drove back in that same Silverado their father's remains had been found in. Brenda was a petite woman, very talkative, with pretty brown eyes, and on her right ankle she wore a gold chain with her man's initials on it. She and Teresa had gone shopping together many times in Culiacan-getting expensive manicures, buying tight leather pants, spike heels, Guess jeans, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera She wondered whether they'd sent Gato Fierros and Potemkin Galvez, or some other gunmen. Whether it had happened before or at the same time as they were coming after her. Whether they killed Brenda before or after the kids. Whether it had been fast, or whether they'd also taken their time with them. Pinche hombres puercos.

She inhaled and then breathed out slowly, so that don Epifanio wouldn't see her sob. Then she silently cursed Chino Parra, after cursing that cabron Guero Davila even more. Chino was brave the way so many that killed or ran drugs were-out of pure fucking ignorance, because he didn't think. He got into jams because he was fuck-stupid, unaware that he was putting not just himself but his whole family in danger. Guero had been different: he was smart. He knew all the risks, and he'd always known what would happen to her if they got him, but he couldn't care less. That fucking notebook. Don't read it, he'd said. Take it, but don't even look at it. Damn him, she muttered again. God damn him, pinche Guero cabron.

"What happened?" she asked.

Don Epifanio Vargas shrugged. "What had to happen," he said.

She looked at the bodyguard standing at the door, AK-47 in hand, silent as a shadow or a ghost. Just because you'd traded in drugs for pharmaceuticals and politics didn't mean you didn't take the usual precautions. The other backup was outside, also armed. They'd given the night watchman two hundred pesos to take off early. Don Epifanio looked at the gym bag Teresa had set on the floor, between her feet, and then at the Double Eagle in her lap.

"Your man had been tempting fate a long time, Teresita. It had to come sooner or later."

"Is he really dead?"

"Of course he's dead. They caught him up in the sierra It wasn't soldiers, or Federales, or anybody. It was his own people."

"Who?"

"What difference does it make? You know what kind of deals Guero was doing. He got caught playing both sides. And somebody finally blew the whistle on him."

The cigar's ember glowed red again. Don Epifanio opened the notebook. He held it in the candlelight, turning pages randomly. "You read what's in here?"

"I just brought it to you, like he told me. I don't know anything about these things."

Don Epifanio nodded, reflectively. He seemed uncomfortable. "Poor Guero got what he'd been looking for," he concluded.

She was staring straight ahead, into the chapel's shadows, where ex votos and dry flowers were hanging. "Poor Guero my ass," she suddenly said. "That pig never thought about what would happen to me."

She'd kept her voice from shaking. Still staring into the shadows, she sensed that don Epifanio had turned to look at her.

"You're lucky," she heard him say. "For the time being, you're alive."

He sat like that a while longer. Studying her. The smell of the cigar mingled with the fragrance of the candles and the cone of incense burning slowly in a censer next to the bust of the sainted bandit. "What do you plan to do?" he asked at last.

"I don't know." Now it was Teresa's turn to shrug. "Guero said you'd help me. 'Give it to him and ask him to help you.' That's what he said."

"Guero was always an optimist."

The hollow feeling in her stomach got worse. The waxy smell of candles, the flickering lights before St. Malverde. Humid, hot. Suddenly she felt an unbearable sense of anxiety, and of trepidation. She repressed the urge to

jump up, knock over the burning candles, get out, get air. Run again, if they'd still let her. But when she looked up, she saw that the other Teresa Mendoza was sitting across from her, watching her. Or maybe it was she herself sitting there, silently, looking at the frightened woman leaning forward on the pew next to don Epifanio, with a useless pistol in her lap. "He loved you," she heard herself say.

Don Epifanio moved uneasily in his seat. A decent man, Guero had always said.

"And I loved him." Don Epifanio was speaking very softly, as though he didn't want the bodyguard at the door to hear him talk about emotions. "And you, too but those stupid runs of his put you in a tough spot."

"I need help."

"I can't get mixed up in this." "You have a lot of power."

She heard him cluck his tongue in discouragement and impatience. In this business, don Epifanio explained, still speaking softly, power was relative, ephemeral, subject to complicated rules. And he had kept his power, he said, because he didn't go sticking his nose in other people's business. Guero didn't work for him anymore; this was between him and his new bosses. And those people mocharon parejo-they took out everybody, wiped the slate clean.

"They don't have anything personal against you, Teresita. You know these

people. But it's their way of doing things. They have to make an example

when people fuck with them."

"You could talk to them. Tell them I don't know anything."

"They already know you don't know anything. That's not the issue and I can't get involved. In this country, if you ask for a favor today, tomorrow you've got to pay it back."

Now he was looking at the Double Eagle on her lap, one hand lying carelessly on the butt. He knew that Guero had taught her to fire it, and that she could hit six empty Pacifico bottles one after another, at ten paces. Guero had always liked Pacifico and liked his women a little tough, although Teresa couldn't stand beer and jumped every time the gun went off.

"Besides," don Epifanio went on, "what you've told me just makes things worse. If they can't let a man get away, imagine a woman They'd be the laughingstock of Sinaloa."

Teresa looked at his dark, inscrutable eyes. The hard eyes of a norteno Indian. Of a survivor.

"I can't get involved," she heard him repeat.

And don Epifanio stood up. So it was useless, she thought. It all ends here. The hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach grew until it included the night that awaited her outside, inexorable. She gave up, but the woman watching her from the shadows refused to.

"Guero told me that you'd help me," she insisted stubbornly, as though talking to herself. "'Take him the book,' he said, 'and trade it for your life.'"

"Your man liked his little jokes."

"I don't know about that. But I know what he told me."

It sounded more like a complaint than a plea. A sincere and very bitter complaint. Or a reproach. She was silent for a moment, and then she raised her face, like the weary prisoner waiting to hear the sentence. Don Epifanio was standing before her; he seemed even bigger and more heavyset than ever. His fingertips were drumming on Guero's notebook.

"Teresita"

"Si, senor."

He kept drumming. She saw him look at the saint's portrait, at the bodyguard at the door, and then at her. Then his eyes fell again on the pistol. "You swear you didn't read anything?" "I swear to you."

A silence. Long, she thought, like dying. She heard the wicks of the candles at the altar sputtering.

"You've got just one chance," he said at last.

Teresa clung to those words, her mind as keen as though she'd just done a line of coke. The other woman faded into the shadows. "One's enough," she said.

"Have you got a passport?"

"Yes, with a U.S. visa."

"And money?"

"Twenty thousand dollars and a few pesos " She opened the gym bag at her feet to show him, hopefully. "And a ten- or twelve-ounce bag of snow."

"Leave that. It's dangerous to travel with it Do you drive?"

"No." She had stood and was looking straight at him, following his every word. Concentrating on staying alive. "I don't even have a license."

"I doubt you'd be able to get across anyway. They'd pick up your trail at the border, and you wouldn't be safe even among the gringos The best thing is to get away tonight. I can loan you the car with a driver you can

Trust I can do that, and have him drive you to Mexico City. Straight to

the airport, and there you catch the first plane out."

"To where?"

"Anywhere. If you want to go to Spain, I've got friends there. People that owe me favors If you call me tomorrow morning before you get on the plane, I'll give you a name and telephone number. After that, you're on your own."

"There's no other way?"

"Heh." The laugh was mirthless, flat. "It's this way or no way. You get led by the rope or it hangs you."

Teresa looked around the chapel, gazing into the shadows. She was absolutely alone. Nobody made decisions for her now. But she was still alive.

"I have to go." Don Epifanio was growing impatient. "Decide."

"I've already decided. I'll do whatever you say."

"All right." Don Epifanio watched as she put the safety on and stuck the pistol into the waist of her jeans, between the denim and her skin, and then covered it with her jacket. " And remember one thing-you won't be safe over there, either. You understand? I've got friends, but these people do, too. Try to bury yourself deep enough so they don't find you."

Teresa nodded again. She'd pulled the coke out of the gym bag, and she set it on the altar, under the statue of Malverde. She lighted another candle. Santa Virgencita, she prayed a moment in silence. Santo Patron. God bless my journey and allow my return. She crossed herself almost furtively.

"I'm truly sorry about Guero," don Epifanio said behind her. "He was a good man."

Teresa had turned to hear this. Now she was so lucid and cool she could feel the dryness of her throat and the blood running very slowly through her veins, heartbeat by heartbeat. She threw the gym bag over her shoulder, smiling for the first time all day-a smile that registered on her lips as a nervous impulse, unexpected. And that smile, or whatever it was, must have been a strange one, because don Epifanio's expression changed-that smile gave him something to think about. Teresita Mendoza. Chale. Guero's morra. A narco's old lady. A girl like so many others-quieter, even, than most, not too bright, not too pretty. And yet that smile made him study her thoughtfully, cautiously, with a great deal of attention, as though suddenly a stranger stood before him.

"No," she said. "Guero was not a good man. He was un hijo de su pinche madre"

3- When the years have passed

She was nobody," said Manolo Cespedes. "Explain that to me." "I just did." My interlocutor pointed at me with two ringers, between which he held a cigarette. "Nobody means nobody. The lowest of the low. When she got here she had nothing but the clothes on her back, like she was trying to crawl into a hole and disappear It was just chance." "And something else, too. She was a smart girl."

"So what? I know a lot of smart girls that have wound up on a street corner."

He looked up and down the street, as though trying to see whether there might be an example he could show me. We were sitting under the awning on the terrace of the Cafe California, in Melilla, the Spanish town that sits across the strait from its country on the Moroccan coast. A noonday African sun turned the modernist facades of Avenida Juan Carlos I yellow. It was the

hour when everyone in Melilla stopped for aperitivos, and the sidewalks and terraces were filled with pedestrians, idlers, lottery vendors, and shoeshine boys. European dress mixed with North African jihabs and djellabas, accentuating the cultural-frontier atmosphere of this place spanning two continents and several races. In the background, around the Plaza de Espafia and the monument to those killed in the colonial war in 1921-a young soldier in bronze with his face turned toward Morocco-the high fronds of the palm trees indicated the nearness of the Mediterranean.

"I didn't know her back then," Cespedes went on. "Actually, I don't even remember her. A face behind the bar at the Yamila, maybe. Or not even that. It was only much later, when I began hearing things here and there, that I finally associated that girl with the other Teresa Mendoza Like I said. Back then she was nobody."

Former police chief, former head of security at Moncloa, the seat of the Spanish presidency, former parliamentary delegate from Melilla-fate and life had made Manolo Cespedes all those things, although they might have made him a wise, seasoned bullfighter, a happy-go-lucky Gypsy, a Berber pirate, or an astute Rifeno diplomat. He was an old man as dark, lean, and canny as a hophead Legionnaire, with a lot of experience and a lot of under-the-table dealings. We had met twenty years earlier, during that period of violent incidents between the European and Muslim communities that had put Melilla on the front pages of newspapers across the continent, back when I was still earning a living as a reporter. And back then, Cespedes, a Melillan by birth and the highest civilian authority in the North African enclave, knew everyone. He would stop in for drinks at the bar frequented by officers from the Spanish army brigade stationed there, the Tercio; he controlled an efficient network of informers on both sides of the border; he would have dinner with the governor of Nador; and on his payroll he had everyone from street beggars to members of the Moroccan Gendarmerie Royale. Our friendship dated back to that: long conversations, lamb with Middle Eastern spices, gin and tonics until the wee hours of the morning. Between us there was always an unspoken agreement: You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Now, retired from his official post, Cespedes was bored and peaceful, growing old, devoted to local politics, his wife, his children, and the noon aperitivos. My visit was a welcome interruption of his daily routine.

"I tell you, it was pure chance," he insisted. "And in her case, the chance was named Santiago Fisterra."

My glass froze in its upward track; I caught my breath. "Santiago Lopez Fisterra?"

"Sure." Cespedes took a drag on his cigarette, gauging my interest. "El Gallego"-the Galician.

I exhaled slowly, took a sip of my drink, and leaned back in my chair, delighted to have picked up a lost trail, while Cespedes smiled, assessing the new balance of our back-scratching account. That name had brought me to Melilla, in search of a period of obscurity in Teresa Mendoza's biography. Until that day on the terrace of the California, I had had only conjectures, or reports that were doubtful at best: This might have happened; they say that such-and-such went on; somebody had been told, or someone thought he remembered Rumors. The rest-the concrete facts-were few; in the immigration files of the Ministry of the Interior there was only an entrance date-Iberia airlines, Barajas Airport, Madrid-with her real name: Teresa Mendoza Chavez.

Then the official trail went cold for two years, until police report 8653690FA/42, containing fingerprints and one mugshot from the front, one in profile, had allowed me to follow her footsteps with a little more certainty from then on. The report was an old one, kept in an actual manila file folder, before the Spanish police computerized their documents. I'd had it before me on a desk a week earlier, in the police headquarters in Algeciras, thanks to a call from another old friend of mine: the police chief of Torremolinos, Pepe Cabrera. Among the bare facts on the report were two names: a person's and a city's. The person was Santiago Lopez Fisterra. The city was Melilla.

That afternoon Cespedes and I paid two visits. One was brief, sad, and almost useless, although it served to add another name to my list and a face to one of the characters of this story. Across the street from the yacht club, at the foot of the old city's medieval wall, Cespedes pointed out a filthy man with thin, ashy-colored hair who was "watching" parked cars-making sure nothing happened to them, you understand-in exchange for a few coins from the cars' charitable drivers. He was sitting on the ground near a mooring post, staring at the dirty water under the pier. From a distance I took him for an older man, battered by time and life, but as we approached I realized that he was probably not yet forty. He was wearing a pair of old pants torn and crudely sewn back together, an astoundingly clean white T-shirt, and filthy, stinking tennis shoes. The bright sunlight did nothing to hide the matte gray tone of his skin, which was covered with blotches. His face was cavernous; there were hollows at his temples. Half his teeth were missing, and it occurred to me that he resembled the sea wrack thrown up at high tide or by storms.

"His name is Veiga," Cespedes told me as we approached him. "And he knew Teresa Mendoza."

Without pausing to observe my reaction, he said, "Hola, Veiga, how are you," and gave him a cigarette and a light. There were no introductions, no other words between them, and we stood there awhile, silent, looking at the water, the fishing boats tied up, the old mineral barge on the other side of the harbor, and the horrific twin towers built to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the city. I saw scabs, scars, marks on the man's arms and legs. He'd gotten to his feet to light the cigarette-clumsily, muttering disconnected words of thanks. He smelled like stale wine and stale misery. He limped when he walked.

"Ask him, if you want to," Cespedes finally said.

I hesitated and then spoke the name Teresa Mendoza. I detected no sign of recognition, or of memory. Nor did I have any better luck when I mentioned Santiago Fisterra. This Veiga, or what remained of him, had turned back toward the oily water of the pier.

"Try to remember, man," Cespedes urged him. "This friend of mine has come to talk to you. Don't tell him you don't remember Teresa and your partner. Don't make me look bad, all right?"

But Veiga still didn't answer, and when Cespedes insisted, the most he got was a puzzled, indifferent look as the man scratched lazily at his arms. And those blurred, distant eyes, their pupils so dilated they occupied the entire iris, seemed to slide across people and things from a place there was no returning from.

"He was the other Gallego," Cespedes said as we walked away. "Santiago Fisterra's crew Nine years in a Moroccan jail did that to him."

Night was falling by the time we paid the second visit. Cespedes introduced the man as Dris Larbi-"My friend Dris," he said, patting him on the back-and I found myself standing before a Rifeno with Spanish citizenship who spoke Spanish perfectly. We met in the Hippodromo section of the city, in front of the Yamila, one of the three nightspots Dris Larbi owned in Melilla-I later learned that and several other things. He stepped out of a shiny Mercedes sports coupe: medium height, very curly black hair, carefully trimmed beard. A hand that extended to shake yours cautiously, to see what you were carrying.

"My friend Dris," Cespedes repeated, and the way the other man looked at him, cautiously and deferentially at the same time, made me wonder what biographical details about the Rifeno might justify his prudent respect for the former congressman.

It was my turn to be introduced. "He's investigating the life of Teresa Mendoza."

Cespedes said it like that, straight out, as the other man offered me his right hand and with his left aimed his car-security control toward the Mercedes, the beeps from the car-bip-bip, fast-confirming activation. But when the words registered, Dris Larbi studied me with great deliberation and great silence, to the point that Cespedes broke out laughing.

"Relax," Cespedes said. "He's not a cop."

The noise of shattering glass made Teresa Mendoza's brow furrow. It was the second glass the party at table four had broken that night. She exchanged looks with Ahmed, the waiter, and he walked over with a broom and dustpan, taciturn as always, his black bow tie bobbling loose under his

Adam's apple. The lights swirling across the empty dance floor cast bright dots on his striped vest.

Teresa went over the tab being run up by a customer at the far end of the bar. He'd been there a couple of hours, and the tab was respectable: five White Label and waters for him, eight splits of champagne for the girls- most of which had been discreetly made to disappear by Ahmed, under the pretext of changing the glasses. It was twenty minutes to closing, and Teresa could overhear the animated conversation the customer was having with the girls. It was the usual exchange: I'll wait for you outside. One or both of you. Preferably both. Et cetera. Dris Larbi, the boss, was inflexible when it came to the establishment's official morality. It was a bar that served drinks, period. Outside working hours, the girls were free to do whatever they wanted. Or in principle they were, because there was still strict control: Fifty percent for the house, fifty for the girl. With the exception of trips and parties, when the rules were modified depending on who, what, how, and where. I'm a businessman, Dris would say. Not a pimp.

A Tuesday. Slow night. On the empty dance floor, Julio Iglesias was singing to no one. Caballero de fina estampa, he sang. Teresa's lips moved silently, following the lyrics, her mind on her paper and ballpoint pen in the cone of light from the lamp next to the cash register. A soft night, she saw as she added the numbers. Almost bad. Pretty different from Fridays and Saturdays, when they had to bring in girls from other places because the Yamila filled to capacity: government officials, businessmen, wealthy Moroccans from the other side of the border, soldiers from the base. A middle-level crowd generally, not too much rough trade except for the inevitable. Girls young and clean, respectable-looking, the work force renewed every six months with Arab girls Dris recruited in Morocco or the marginal neighborhoods of Melilla, or with European girls from the Peninsula. Payments made punctually-that was the key-to the right authorities: Live and let live. Free drinks for the assistant chief of police and the plainclothes detectives- "inspectors," they were called here. An exemplary business, permits all in order. Almost no problems.

Certainly nothing Teresa didn't remember a thousand-or infinite- times from her still-recent days in Mexico. The difference was that people here, though more gruff, less courteous, settled their scores with lead from a pencil, not a gun, and everything happened under the table. There were even people-and this took her a while to get used to-who simply could not be bought off. I'm sorry, miss, you're mistaken. Or in the more strictly Spanish version: Why don't you just shove that up your ass. It made life hard, sometimes. But just as often, it made life easier. You could relax a lot if you didn't have to fear every cop. Or fear every cop all the time.

Ahmed came back with his dustpan and broom, slipped behind the bar, and struck up a conversation with the three girls who were free. From the table with the broken glasses came the sounds of laughter, toasts, the clinking of glasses. Ahmed calmed Teresa with a wink. Everything all right there. That tab was going to be a good one, she noted, looking down at the pad next to the cash register. Spanish and Moroccan businessmen celebrating some deal, jackets on the backs of their chairs, collars unbuttoned, ties in their jacket pockets. Four middle-aged men and four girls. The supposed Moet et Chandon in the ice buckets disappeared quickly: five bottles, and there'd be another one killed before closing. The girls-two Moors, one Jew, one Spaniard-were young, and professional. Dris never slept with the employees-you don't stick your dick in the cash register, he would say- but sometimes he would have one of his friends act as a kind of quality-control inspector. Top drawer, he would later crow. In my places, only the best. If the report was less than excellent, he would never mistreat the girl; he would fire her, and that would be that. Pink slip. There was no lack of girls in Melilla, with illegal immigration and the crisis and all that. Some dreamed of making it to the Peninsula, becoming models, TV stars, but most were happy with a work permit and legal residency.

Only a little more than six months had passed since Teresa Mendoza's conversation with don Epifanio Vargas in the Malverde Chapel. But she realized how long it had been only when she looked at the calendar-most of the time she'd spent in Melilla seemed static, unmoving. It might just as well have been six years as six months.

This was her destiny, but it could have been any other when, newly arrived in Madrid, with a room in a pension near the Plaza de Atocha, her only luggage a gym bag, she had a meeting with the contact to whom Epifanio Vargas had sent her. To her disappointment, there was nothing for her in Madrid in the way of a job. If she wanted someplace out of the way, as far as possible from any potentially unpleasant encounters, and also a job to justify her residency until the papers establishing her dual nationality came through-the Spanish father whom she'd barely known was going to be of some use to her for the first time-she had to make one more trip.

The contact, a rushed young man of few words whom she met in the Cafe Nebraska on the Gran Via, offered just two choices: Galicia or southern Spain. Heads or tails, take it or leave it. Teresa asked whether it rained much in Galicia, and the young man smiled a little, just enough-it was the first time he'd smiled in the entire conversation-and said it did. It rains like hell, he said.

So Teresa chose the south, and the man took out a cell phone and went to another table to talk for a while. When he came back, he wrote a name, a telephone number, and the name of a city on a paper napkin. There are direct flights from Madrid, he told her, handing her the napkin. Or from Malaga. To Malaga, trains and buses. There are also boats from Malaga and Almeria. And when he saw the puzzled look on her face-boats? planes?- he smiled for the second and last time before explaining that the place she was going belonged to Spain but was in North Africa, sixty or seventy kilometers from the Andalucian coast, near the Strait of Gibraltar. Ceuta and Melilla, he explained, are Spanish cities on the Moroccan coast.

Then he laid an envelope full of money on the table, paid the bill, stood up, and wished her good luck. He said those words-"Good luck"-and was leaving when Teresa, grateful, tried to tell him her name. The man interrupted, saying he didn't want to know it-couldn't care less what it was, in fact. He was just helping out some Mexican friends of his by helping her. He indicated the envelope on the table, and said she should use the money well. When it ran out and she needed more, he added in a tone of objectivity clearly not intended to give offense, she could always use her cunt. That, he said in farewell, apparently regretting he didn't have one of his own, is the advantage you women have.

She was nothing special," said Dris Larbi. "Not pretty, not ugly. Not par-ticularly quick, not particularly stupid. But she was good at numbers

I saw that right away, so I put her at the register." He remembered a question I'd asked before, and shook his head before continuing. "And no, the fact is she didn't work on her back. At least not when she worked with me. She was recommended by friends, so I let her choose. One side of the bar or the other, your choice, I told her She chose to stay behind it, as a waitress at first. She didn't make as much, of course. But that was fine with her."

We were walking along the border between the neighborhoods of Hippodromo and Real-straight streets that ran down to the ocean, colonial-style houses. The night was cool, and filled with the fragrance of the flowers in window boxes.

"She may have gone out now and then. Two, three times, maybe. I'm not sure." Dris Larbi shrugged. "It was her decision, you understand? A couple of times she went off with somebody she wanted to go with, but not for money."

"What about the parties?" Cespedes asked.

The Rifeno looked away, suspicious. Then he turned to me before he looked over at Cespedes again, like a man who prefers not to talk about delicate matters in front of strangers.

But Cespedes didn't care. "The parties," he repeated.

Dris Larbi looked at me again, scratching his beard.

"That was different," he conceded after thinking it over. "Sometimes I organized meetings on the other side of the border"

Now Cespedes laughed sarcastically. "Those famous parties of yours," he said.

"Yeah, well. You know" The Rifeno was looking at him as though trying to remember how much Cespedes really knew, and then, uncomfortable, he turned his eyes away again. "People over there"

"'Over there' is Morocco," Cespedes noted for my information. "He's referring to important people: politicians and police chiefs." He smiled foxily. "My friend Dris always had good contacts."

The Rifefio smiled uneasily as he lit a low-nicotine cigarette. I asked myself how many things about him and his contacts had wound up in Cespedes' secret files. Enough, I figured, for Dris Larbi to grant us the privilege of this conversation.

"She went to these meetings?" I asked.

Larbi made a gesture of uncertainty. "I don't know. She may have been at some. And, well You should ask her." He appeared to reflect for a while, studying Cespedes out of the corner of his eye, and then at last he nodded unhappily. "The fact is, toward the end she went a couple of times. I didn't want to know, because these particular meetings weren't to make money with the girls-they were another kind of business. I just threw in the girls for free. Compliments of the house, you might say. But I never told Teresa to come She came because she wanted to. She asked to."

"Why?"

"No idea. Like I told you-you should ask her."

"And she was going out with the Gallego then?" Cespedes asked.

"Yeah."

"They say she did certain things that he needed done," Cespedes prodded.

Dris Larbi looked at him. Looked at me. Looked at him again. Why is he doing this to me? his eyes said. "I don't know what you're talking about, don Manuel."

Cespedes laughed maliciously, arching his eyebrows. He was clearly enjoying this. "Abelkader Chaib," he said. "Colonel. Gendarmerie Royale That sound familiar?"

"I swear I don't get it."

"Don't get it? Bullshit, Dris. I told you, this man is a friend of mine."

We walked a few steps in silence while I tried to figure all this out. The Rifefio smoked, silently, as if unhappy about the way he'd told the story.

"While she was with me she didn't get involved in anything," he suddenly said. "And I didn't have anything to do with her, either. I mean I never fucked her." He lifted his chin toward Cespedes, tacitly saying, Ask him.

It was, as I said, public knowledge that Dris never got involved with any of his girls. And he had said that Teresa was good at keeping the books. The other girls respected her. La Mexicana, they called her. La Mexicana this and

La Mexicana that. She clearly was a good-tempered girl, and although she hadn't gone to school much, her accent made her sound educated, with that big imposing vocabulary Latin Americans have, that makes them sound like members of the Royal Academy. Very reserved about her private life. Dris Larbi knew she'd had problems back in Mexico, but he never asked. Why should he? Nor did Teresa talk about Mexico; when somebody brought up the topic, she'd say one or two words, as little as possible, and change the subject. She was serious at work, lived alone, and never allowed customers to be confused about what her role was in the bar. She didn't have any girlfriends, either. She minded her own business.

"Everything was fine for I don't know six or eight months. Until the night the two Gallegos turned up." He turned to Cespedes, gesturing at me. "Did he see Veiga? Well, that one didn't have much luck. But the other one had less."

"Santiago Fisterra," I said.

"Right. And I can still see him: a dark-skinned type, with a big tattoo here." He shook his head disapprovingly. "Something of a troublemaker, like all Gallegos. One of those that you never know what they'll do next They came and went through the Strait in a Phantom-Senor Cespedes knows what I'm talking about, right? Winstons from Gibraltar and chocolate from Morocco Back then they weren't working the smack, although it was right around the corner So"

He scratched his beard again and spit straight at the ground, bitterly. "So what happened was, one night those two came into the Yamila, and that's when I began to lose the Mexicana."

wo new customers. Teresa glanced at the clock beside the register. Less than fifteen minutes to closing time. She saw that Ahmed was looking at her questioningly, and without raising her head she nodded once. A quick drink before they turned on the lights and threw everybody out. She went on with her numbers, finished balancing the cash drawer. These two probably wouldn't change the bottom line much. A couple of whiskys, she thought, sizing them up. A little chat with the girls, who were already swallowing their yawns, and maybe a date outside, a while later. Pension Agadir, half a block down the street. Or maybe, if they had a car, a quick trip to the pine groves, alongside the walls of the Tercio headquarters. Anyway, none of her business. Ahmed kept the list of dates in another book.

The two new customers sat at the bar, leaning on their elbows, next to the beer pulls, and Fatima and Sheila, two of the girls that had been talking to Ahmed, went over to sit with them while the waiter poured two putative twelve-year-old Chivases with a lot of ice, no water. The girls ordered splits of champagne, with no objection from the customers. The men at the broken-glasses table were still toasting and laughing, after having paid the tab without so much as blinking. The guy at the end of the bar couldn't quite reach an agreement with his companions; they could be heard arguing softly, through the sound of the music. Now it was Abigail singing for nobody on the deserted dance floor, whose only sign of life was the monotonous spinning of the disco ball. I want to lick your wounds, she was singing. I want to hear your silences. Teresa waited for the last line of the final stanza-she knew all the songs of the Yamila's repertoire by heart-and looked again at the clock beside the register. Another day down. Identical to yesterday's Monday and tomorrow's Wednesday.

"Closing time," Teresa said.

When she raised her eyes, she found herself looking into a quiet smile. And into a pair of light-colored eyes-green or blue, she thought after a second-looking at her with amusement.

"So soon?" asked the man.

"We're closing," she repeated.

She returned to the books. She was never friendly with the customers, especially at closing time. In six months she'd learned that was the best way to keep things in their places and avoid misunderstandings. Ahmed turned on the lights, and the scant charm that the semidarkness had given the place vanished: threadbare fake velvet on the chairs and barstools, stains on the walls, cigarette burns on the floor. Even the smell-of rancid cigarette smoke, of musty upholstery that never saw the light of day-seemed stronger. The men who had broken the glasses pulled their jackets off the backs of their chairs, and after reaching a quick agreement with their female companions, they left, to wait for them outside. The other customer had already left, alone, refusing to pay the price for a double-header. I'd rather jerk off, he muttered as he walked out.

The girls gathered up their things. Fatima and Sheila, without touching their champagne, were lingering, hanging on the newcomers, but the two men didn't seem interested in becoming any closer acquainted. A look from Teresa sent the girls off to join the others.

She put the check down on the bar, in front of the dark-skinned one. He was wearing a khaki work shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and when he reached for the check she saw that he had a tattoo that covered his entire forearm: a crucified Christ in a design of sailing symbols. The man's friend was blond and thinner, with light skin. Almost a kid. Twenty-something, maybe. The dark one, thirty-something.

"Can we finish our drinks?"

Teresa once again met with the man's eyes as she raised her head. In the light, she saw that they were green. Playful. Maybe mocking. She saw that they weren't just serene, they were also smiling, even when the mouth below them wasn't. His arms were strong, a dark beard was beginning to show on his chin, and his hair was tousled. Almost good-looking, she thought. Or strike that "almost." She also thought he smelled of clean sweat and salt, although she was too far away to know that. She just thought so.

"Sure," she said.

Green eyes, a tattoo on his right arm, a skinny blond friend. One of those things that happen in a bar. Teresa Mendoza, far from Sinaloa. One day like another, until one day, something happens. The unexpected that pops up-no fanfare, no signs on the horizon, no warning, just sneaking up on you, easy, so quiet it might be nothing at all. Like a smile or a look. Like life itself, or-that other thing that sneaks up on you-death. Which may have been why, the next night, she expected him to come in again. But he didn't. Each time a customer entered, she looked up, hoping it was him. But it wasn't.

After she locked up she walked along the nearby beach, where she lit a cigarette-sometimes she would spike it with a few grains of hashish-and looked at the lights on the breakwater and in the Moroccan port of Nador, on the other side of the dark stretch of sea. When the weather was good, she did that, strolled along the sea walk until she found a taxi to take her to her little apartment near the Poligono-bedroom, tiny living room, kitchen, and bathroom rented to her by Dris Larbi, who deducted it from her salary. Dris wasn't a bad sort, she thought. He treated the girls pretty well, tried to get along with everybody, and was violent only when circumstances left him no choice. I'm not a whore, she had told him that first day, straight out, when he met with her in the Yamila to explain the kinds of jobs that were possible in his business. I'm glad for you, he'd said-and left it at that.

At first he took her in as something inevitable, neither a bother nor an advantage, an arrangement he was forced into by personal commitments- the friend of a friend of a friend-that had nothing to do with her. A certain deference, due to obligations that Teresa knew nothing about, the chain that joined Dris Larbi to don Epifanio Vargas through the man at the Cafe Nebraska, led Dris to let her work behind the bar, first with Ahmed, as bartender girl, and later as cashier, beginning the day there was an error in the figures and she caught it and set the books straight in fifteen seconds. Dris asked whether she'd studied for that. She answered that she'd never gone beyond the sixth grade, and Dris stood looking at her thoughtfully and said, "You've got a head for numbers, Mexicana, you seem like you were born to add and subtract."

"I did some of that back in Mexico," she answered. "When I was younger."

So Dris told her that the next day she'd be earning the salary of a cashier, and Teresa took over the place, and they never mentioned the subject again.

She walked on the beach for a while, until she had finished her cigarette, absorbed in the distant lights that seemed almost to have been strewn over the quiet black water. Finally she looked around and shivered, as though the cold of the late hour had just penetrated the jacket she wore buttoned all the way up, its collar raised around her neck and chin. Hijole. Back in Culiacan, Guero Davila had often told her that she didn't have what it took to live alone. No way, he would say. You're not that kind of girl. You need a man to take charge. While you stay-why, just like you are-sweet and tender. Unbelievably pretty. Soft. Treated like a queen or not treated at all, mi vida. You don't even have to make enchiladas-that's what restaurants are for. Plus you like that, mi vida, you like what I do to you and how I do it, and when I get mine, bang, you'll be so sad. He laughed as he whispered, that pinche Guero cabron, his lips between her legs, So come here, prietita. Come down here, to my mouth, and hang on to me and don't let me get away, and hold me tight because one day I'll be dead and nobody will ever hold me again. How sad for you, mi chula. You'll be so alone in the world when I'm not here anymore and you remember me, and miss all this, and know that nobody will ever do this to you again, not the way I do it.

So all alone. How strange and at the same time how familiar that word was now: alone. Every time Teresa heard it, or said it down deep inside, the image that came to her was not of herself, but of Guero. Or maybe the image was of herself: Teresa watching him. Because there had also been dark times, black doors that Guero would close behind him, and he would be miles away, as though he hadn't come down from wherever he'd been up there. Sometimes he would come back from a mission or one of those runs that he never told her about-but that all Sinaloa seemed to know about- and he would be mute, silent, without his usual swaggering and bravado. He'd dodge her questions from an altitude of five thousand feet, evasive, more self-absorbed than usual, as though he were deeply thoughtful, or preoccupied, or worried. And Teresa, bewildered, not knowing what to say or do, would hover around him like some clumsy animal, in search of the word or gesture that would bring him back to her. Scared.

Those times, he would leave the house and head downtown. For a while, Teresa suspected that he had another woman-he had them, no question, like all these men did, but she resented the fact that he might have one in particular. That thought drove her crazy with shame and jealousy, so one morning, mixing in with the flow of people, she followed him to a place near the Garmendia mercado, where she saw him enter a cantina called La Ballena. "Vendors, beggars, and minors not allowed"-the sign on the door didn't mention women, but everyone knew that that was one of the unspoken rules of the place: Nothing but beer and nothing but men.

So she stood out on the street for a long time, more than half an hour in

front of a shoe store window, doing nothing but watching the swinging doors of the cantina and waiting for him to come out. But he didn't, so at last she crossed the street and went into the restaurant next door, which connected to the cantina through a bead curtain toward the middle of the room. She ordered a soft drink, walked to the curtain, looked through, and saw a large room full of tables, and in the rear a Rock-Ola from which Los Dos Reales were singing "Caminos de la Vida." And the strange thing about the place, at that hour, was that at every table there was a single man with a bottle of beer. One of each per table. Almost all the men looked down-and-out or old-straw hats or baseball caps on their heads, dark-skinned faces, big black or gray moustaches-each drinking in silence, lost in his own thoughts, speaking to no one, like some weird convention of isolated, downcast philosophers, and some of the beer bottles still had a paper napkin stuck in the neck, the way they'd been served, as though a white carnation came with each longneck. The men sat silently, drinking and listening to the music, and once in a while one of them would get up and put a few coins in the jukebox and select another song. And at one of the tables sat Guero Davila with his aviator jacket over his shoulders, completely alone, his blond head unmoving, staring into space. He sat there minute after minute, breaking his trance only to pull the paper carnation out of the neck of the seven-peso Pacifico and put the bottle to his lips. Los Dos Reales fell silent and were relieved by Jose Alfredo singing "Cuando los Anos Pasen"-"When the Years Have Passed."

Teresa stepped back slowly from the curtain and walked out of the restaurant, and on the way home she cried for a long time. She cried and cried, incapable of stopping the tears, yet not quite knowing why. Maybe for Guero, and maybe for herself-and maybe for them. Maybe for the years that pass.

She had done it. But just twice the whole time she was in Melilla. And Guero was right. Not that she'd expected any big deal. The first time was out of curiosity. She wanted to know what it felt like after so long, with the distant memory of her man and the more recent and painful memory of

Gato Fierros, his cruel smile, his violence, still clear on her flesh and in her memory. She had chosen with a certain amount of care-though care not altogether free of chance-so that there'd be no problems and no consequences. He was a young soldier, a mili, who had approached her outside the Cine Nacional, where she had gone to see a Robert De Niro movie on her day off-a movie about war and friends, with a stupid ending, soldiers playing Russian roulette the way she'd seen Guero and his cousin, out of their minds on tequila, play once, acting like idiots with a revolver until she yelled at them and took the weapon away and sent them to bed, while they just laughed, the miserable, irresponsible drunks. The Russian roulette scene had made her sad, remembering, and maybe that was why, as she was leaving, when the soldier approached her-plaid shirt like Sinaloa men wore; tall, friendly, dirty-blond hair and haircut like Guero's-she let him take her for a soft drink to Anthony's and listened to his trivial conversation, then ended up with him at the wall of the old city, naked from the waist down, her back against the stone, a cat sitting a few yards away looking at them with interest, its eyes glowing in the moonlight. She hardly felt a thing, because her mind was too intent on watching herself, comparing sensations and memories, as though she had split into two people again and the other woman were the cat over there looking on, as dispassionate and silent as a shadow. The soldier wanted to see her again, but she was clear-Another day, mi vida. She knew she would never see him again, or that even if one day she should run into him somewhere-Melilla was a small place-she would barely recognize him, or would pretend not to. She didn't even remember his name.

The second time was a practical, and police, matter. The processing of her temporary-residence papers was going slow, and Dris Larbi advised her on a way to speed things up. The guy was named Souco. He was a middle-aged inspector, reasonably presentable, who did favors for immigrants. He'd been to the Yamila a couple of times-Teresa had instructions not to charge him for his drinks-and they vaguely knew each other. She went to see him and he put the question to her straight. Like in Mexico, he said, though Teresa couldn't figure out what that hijo de puta could possibly know about customs in Mexico. The options were money or the other thing. With regard to money, Teresa was saving her last peseta, so she opted for the other. Out of some odd machista dedication that almost made her laugh out loud, this Souco managed to acquit himself admirably during the encounter in room 106 of the Hotel Avenida-Teresa had made it more than clear that this was a one-time thing, no follow-ups-and he even asked for the verdict as they lay panting, cigarettes lit, him with his self-esteem on the line and still wearing the condom. I came, she answered, dressing slowly, her body covered in sweat. That means orgasm? he asked. Of course, she replied.

Back in her apartment, she sat in the bathroom washing herself slowly, pensively, for a long time, then stood at the mirror, smoking a cigarette, looking apprehensively at each of the marks of her twenty-three years of life as if afraid of seeing them morph before her eyes into some strange mutation. Afraid that one day she might see her own image, alone at the table, with the men in that cantina in Culiacan, and not cry, and not recognize herself.

But Guero Davila had been wrong, too. Solitude was not hard to take. It was unaltered even by small accidents and concessions, because something had died with Guero. A certain innocence, perhaps, or an unjustified sense of security. Teresa came in out of the cold very young, leaving the rough streets, the poverty, the apparently harshest aspects of life behind. She had thought she had escaped all that forever, not knowing that the cold was still out there, lurking just beyond the door, waiting to squeeze in through the cracks and make her shiver again. The minute you think the horror can never get close again, it pounces. She was just a girl-a narco's morra, all set up with a house, collecting videos and figurines and pretty landscapes to hang on the wall. Attentiveness to her man repaid in luxury. With Guero, it had been all laughing and screwing.

Later, she had seen the first signs of trouble from afar, without paying them much attention. Bad signs that Guero laughed off or, to be more precise, didn't give jack shit about. He was very quick, very cunning, and he'd just decided to try to pull off something big, and not wait. Not wait even for her, the cabron. And as a result, one day Teresa found herself out in the cold again, running to save her life, carrying nothing but a gym bag and a pistol.

Now, on this side of the long journey, she would never be able to forget the cold, sinister wind that blew out there on the outside. Not even if she had her skin and her sex available for men who weren't Guero anymore. Not even if-the idea always made her smile a strange smile-she should fall in love again, or think she had. But, she thought, perhaps the correct sequence might be: first fall in love, then think you've fallen in love, and finally stop loving, or love a memory.

Now she knew-this frightened her and, paradoxically, calmed her at the same time-that it was possible, even easy, to live in solitude as though in an unfamiliar city, in an apartment with an old television set and a bed that creaked when you turned over, unable to sleep. Possible, even easy, to get up to pee and sit there quietly, a cigarette between your fingers. To get in the shower and caress your sex with your soapy hand, your eyes closed, remembering a man's mouth. And to recognize that a life like that could last forever, and that you could, strangely enough, get used to it. You could resign yourself to growing old, bitter, and alone, stuck in this godforsaken place, while the earth kept turning, just as it always had, even though you never realized it before-impassive, cruel, indifferent.

She saw him again a week later, near the little market on the Montes Tirado hill. She had gone to the Kif-Kif import store to buy spices-in the absence of Mexican chiles, her taste for spicy foods had adapted to the strong Moroccan flavors. Now she was walking home, uphill, a bag in each hand. She kept close to the storefronts that offered the most shade, to avoid the hot sun of the morning, which wasn't humid as in Culiacan, but dry and harsh-a North African heat of dry riverbeds, cactus, low hills, and naked rocks. She saw him coming out of an electrical-parts store with a box under his arm, and she recognized him at once: the Yamila, several days earlier, the man who had finished his drink while Ahmed mopped the floor and the girls said their Hasta mananas.

And he recognized her, because when he passed by her, stepping aside so as not to bump into her with the box he was carrying, he smiled the same way he had when he asked permission to finish the whisky at the bar, more with his eyes than with his mouth, and he said hello. She said hello, too, and kept walking, while he put the box in a van parked at the curb, and without turning around she knew that he was still looking at her, until, near the corner, she heard his footsteps behind her, or thought she did.

Then Teresa did something strange, which she herself was unable to explain: instead of walking on straight up to her house, she turned to the right and entered the market. She wandered here and there aimlessly, as if seeking protection among the people, although she wouldn't have known what to answer if she'd been asked protection from what. But for whatever reason, she roamed among the animated stalls of fruits and vegetables, the voices of vendors and customers resonating under the glass ceiling of the navelike space, and after wandering through the fish stalls left the market by the door that opened into the cafe on Calle Comisario Valero. And so, not looking back once during the entire long walk, she came at last to her house. The entrance was at the top of a whitewashed stairway, on a narrow street that climbed up past Poligono between wrought-iron gates and bars at windows with pots of geraniums and green shutters-it was good exercise, walking up and down the street two or three times a day-and from the stairs you could look out over the rooftops of the city, the red and white minaret of the central mosque, and, in the distance, in Morocco, the dark shadow of Mount Gurugu. As she was trying to find the keys in her pocket, she looked behind her, and she saw him at the corner of the narrow street, quiet, calm, as though he hadn't moved from that spot the whole morning. The sun reverberated on the whitewashed walls and on his shirt, gilding his arms and neck and projecting a neat, crisp shadow on the ground. A single gesture, a word, an ill-timed smile would have made her turn on her heel and open the door and close it behind her and leave the man outside, far from her house and her life. But when their eyes met, all he did was stand the way he was standing, motionless on the corner in all that light off the white walls and his white shirt. And his green eyes seemed to smile at a distance, as they had when she had said "Closing time" at the Yamila, and they seemed also to see things that Teresa had no knowledge of. Things about her present and future. That may have been why, instead of opening the door and closing it behind her, she set the bags down, sat on one of the steps, and took out a pack of cigarettes. She took it out very slowly, and without raising her eyes she sat there while the man came up the stairs. For a moment, his shadow blocked the sun, and then he sat down beside her, on the same step, and still without raising her eyes she saw a pair of blue cotton pants, washed many times. Gray tennis shoes. The cuffs of his shirt rolled up to his elbows, his thin, strong arms tanned by the sun. A waterproof Seiko with a black band on his left wrist. The tattoo of the crucified Jesus on his right forearm.

Teresa lit her cigarette, leaning over it, and her loose hair fell over her face. As she did so, she came a little closer to the man, without intending to, and he leaned away a bit, just as he'd done on the street when he was carrying the box, so they wouldn't bump into each other. She didn't look at him, and she knew that he wasn't looking at her, either. She smoked in silence, serenely analyzing the emotions and physical sensations her body was feeling. The conclusion was surprisingly simple: Better near than far. Suddenly he moved a bit, and she found herself fearing that he was about to leave. Why would I tell you no, she thought, if the answer's yes. She raised her face, pushing back her hair so she could look at him. He had a pleasant profile, a bony chin, tanned face, forehead furrowed from the light, which made him avert his eyes. Everything bien padre. He was looking into the distance, toward Gurugu and Morocco.

"Where were you?" she asked.

"On a trip." His voice had a slight accent that she hadn't noticed the first time, a pleasant, soft modulation, clipped a little, different from the Spanish that people spoke here. "I got back this morning."

It was like that, as though they had picked up an interrupted conversation. Two old acquaintances running into each other, neither particularly surprised. Two friends. Perhaps two lovers.

"I'm Santiago."

He had finally turned. You're either very smart, she thought, or you're a dream. Which, she realized, amounted to the same thing. His green eyes were smiling again, self-assured and quiet, studying her.

"Teresa."

He repeated her name softly. Teresa, he said reflectively, as though, for some reason neither of them understood, he needed to get used to saying it. He continued to look at her while she inhaled cigarette smoke before suddenly blowing it out again, apparently having come to a decision, and when she dropped the butt and stood up, he remained seated on the step. She knew that he would stay there, not forcing things, if she didn't open the way to what came next. Not out of insecurity or shyness, of course. She was sure he wasn't one of those. His calm seemed to say that this was fifty-fifty, and that they had to meet halfway.

"Come in," she said.

He was different from Guero, she found. Less imaginative, less fun. With him, unlike Guero (the young mili and the cop didn't even enter the equation), there were no jokes, no laughter, nothing daring, no dirty words spoken as prologue or spice. In fact, that first time there were hardly any words at all; the man said almost nothing the whole time, as he moved very seriously, very slowly. Painstakingly, she'd almost call it. His eyes, which even then were calm, didn't move from her for an instant. They never turned away, never looked up. And when a shaft of light came in through the shutters, making tiny droplets of sweat gleam on Teresa's skin, his green eyes seemed to become even lighter-they were fixed, alert, as serene as the rest of the thin, strong body that did not mount her impatiently, as she had expected, but firmly, slowly, self-assuredly. Unhurriedly. He was as watchful of the sensations the woman showed on her face and in the quivering of her flesh as of his own control, each kiss, each caress, each situation drawn out to the limit. The entire complex chain of gestures, vibrations, and responses repeated over and over: the smell of wet, naked, tense sex. Saliva. Warmth. Softness. Pressure. Peace. Causes and effects that became new causes, identical sequences, seemingly endless.

And when she grew dizzy with lucidity, as though about to fall from some place she was lying or floating in, and she thought she was awakening, she tried to do her part, repay him somehow, by accelerating the rhythm, or taking him where she knew-or thought she knew-that all men want to be taken, he would shake his head, and the smile would grow brighter in his eyes, and he would softly say almost inaudible words-once he even raised his finger to gently warn her: Wait, he whispered, be still, don't move, don't even blink-and after pulling back and freezing for a second, the muscles in his face rigid, his mind concentrating on recovering control-she could feel him between her thighs, hard and wet with her-suddenly he plunged in again, softly, even more slowly and deeply, until he was deep inside. And Teresa muffled a moan and everything began again, while the sun through the chinks in the shutters dazzled her with flashes of light as quick and warm as knife wounds. And thus, panting, her wide eyes looking at him in such close-up that she seemed to have his face and lips and eyes inside her, her flesh imprisoned between that body and the wet, tangled sheet beneath her, she squeezed him more intensely with her arms and legs and mouth as she suddenly thought: Dios mio, Virgencita, Santa Madre de Cristo, we're not using a condom.


| Queen of the South | 4. Let\s go where no one will judge us



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