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16. Unbalanced load

Teo Aljarafe returned two days later with a satisfactory report. Payments received prompdy on Grand Cayman, efforts made to find a small bank of their own and a shipping company in Belize, good profits on the money-laundered of its powder and weed-deposited in three banks in Zurich and two in Liechtenstein. Teresa listened attentively to his report, looked over the documents, and signed a few papers after reading them carefully, and then they went to eat at Casa Santiago, on the boardwalk in Marbella, with Pote Galvez sitting outside. Ham with fava beans and roasted crayfish, which was juicier and tastier than lobster. A Senorio de Lazan Reserva '96. Teo was talkative, charming, handsome. His jacket over the back of his chair, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up twice over his tanned forearms, his firm wrists with a dusting of fine hair. His Patek Philippe, buffed fingernails, the wedding band gleaming on his left hand. Occasionally he turned his face away, looking out toward the street, wanting to see who came

into the restaurant, his fork or wineglass in midair, and when he did he showed her that impeccable aquiline Spanish profile of his. A couple of times he rose to say hello to someone. Tomas Pestana, who was having dinner in the rear with a group of German investors, had apparently not seen Teresa and Teo when he came in, but a few minutes later the waiter came over with a bottle of good wine. From the mayor, he said. With his compliments.

Teresa looked at the man sitting across from her, and she meditated. She wasn't going to tell him that day, or tomorrow or the next day, and maybe not ever, what she was carrying in her womb. And there was something else curious about that: At first she'd thought she would soon be able to feel something, have some physical awareness of the life that was beginning to develop inside her. But she felt nothing. Just the certainty of what was there, and her thoughts on it. Her breasts might have become fuller, and her headaches might have disappeared, but she felt pregnant only when she thought about it, reread the medical report, or looked at the calendar marked with two skipped periods. Still-it occurred to her just then, as she listened to Teo Aljarafe's banal conversation-here I am. Pregnant, like some stupid teenager without enough sense to take precautions. With something, or someone, on the way. Still undecided on what to do with my fucking life, with the life of this baby, or with Teo's life. She looked at him, as though searching for some sign.

"Is there anything under way?" Teo asked distractedly, sipping at the mayor's wine.

"Nothing for the moment. Routine stuff."

After dinner he suggested they go to the house on Calle Ancha or some good hotel on the Milla de Oro, where they could spend the rest of the evening, and the night. A bottle of wine, a plate of Iberian ham, he suggested. But Teresa shook her head. I'm tired, she said. I really don't feel like it tonight.

"It's been almost a month." Teo smiled.

That smile. Easy. He brushed her fingers, tenderly, and she sat looking at her motionless hand on the tablecloth, as though it weren't really hers. With that hand, she thought, she'd shot Gato Fierros in the face.

"How are your daughters?" she asked.

He looked at her, surprised. Teresa never asked about his family. It was a tacit pact with herself, which she had never broken. "They're fine," he said after a moment. "Fine."

"Good," she replied. "I'm glad. And their mother, I suppose. The three of them."

Teo put his dessert fork down and leaned over the table, looking at her quizzically.

"What's wrong?" he said. "Tell me what's happened today."

She looked around, the people at the tables, the traffic out on the avenue still lit by the sun setting on the ocean.

"There's nothing wrong." She lowered her voice. "But I lied to you. There's something under way. Something I haven't told you about."

"Why?"

"Because I don't always tell you everything."

He looked at her, worried. Impeccably open. Five seconds, almost exactly, and then he turned his eyes toward the street. When he turned them back, he was smiling slightly. Charming. He touched her hand again, and this time, too, she didn't pull it away.

"Is it big?"

Orale, Teresa said to herself. This is just the way things are, and in the end everybody makes their own destiny. The final push almost always comes from you and you alone. For good or ill.

"Yes," she answered. "There's a ship on the way. The Luz Angelita."

It had grown dark. The crickets were chirping in the yard like they'd all gone crazy. When the lights were turned on, Teresa ordered them turned off again, and now she was sitting on the porch steps, her back against a column, gazing at the stars above the thick black tops of the weeping willows. She had a bottle of tequila, unopened, between her legs, and behind her, on a low table near the chaise longues, Mexican music was playing on the stereo. Sinaloan music that Pote Galvez had lent her that afternoon-Quihubo, patrona, this is the latest by Los Broncos de Reynosa, tell me what you think:

My mule had started limping bad, The load had all shifted to one side. We were dodging pine cones on the path Up in the sierra in Chihuahua.

Little by little, the former hit man was adding to his collection of corridos. He liked them tough, violent-mostly, he told her very soberly, to feed his nostalgia for all that. A man's from where a man's from, and you can't change that, he said. His personal jukebox included the entire norteno region, from Chalino- What lyrics, dona-to Exterminador, Los Invasores de Nuevo Le6n, El As de la Sierra, El Moreno, Los Broncos, Los Huracanes, and other gangster groups from Sinaloa and up that way, the ones that turned the police gazette into music, songs about mules and murders and lead and shipments of the good stuff, and Cessnas and new pickups, and Federales and cops, traffickers and funerals. As corridos had been to the Revolution in those bygone days, so the narco-corridos were the new epics, the modern legends of a Mexico that was there and had no intention of going anywhere, or changing-among other reasons because a not inconsiderable part of the national economy depended on the drugs. It was a marginal, hard world, of weapons, corruption, and drugs, in which the only law not broken was the law of supply and demand.

There Juan el Grande took one in the chest,

But he died defending his people.

He let my mule get past,

And then he killed the lieutenant.

"Unbalanced Load," the song was called. Kind of like mine, thought Teresa. On the cover of the CD, the Broncos de Reynosa were all shaking hands with each other, and under his coat, one of them had a huge pistol sticking out of his belt. Sometimes she would watch Pote Galvez while she listened to these songs, fascinated by the expression on his face.

They would still have a drink together once in a while. Come on, Pinto, have a tequila. And they would sit, saying almost nothing, listening to the music, Pote respectful, keeping his distance. Teresa would hear him cluck his tongue and see him shake his head, Orale, feeling and remembering, mentally drinking at the Don Quijote and La Ballena and the Sinaloa dives that floated around in his memory, maybe missing his buddy Gato Fierros, who was no more than concrete-encased bones by now, nobody to take flowers to his grave and nobody to sing pinche corridos to his pinche memory-that hijo de puta Gato, whom Pote Galvez and Teresa hadn't spoken another word about since then, ever.

Lamberto Quintero, our hero,

Had a pickup truck tailing him.

It was on the highway to Salado

And they was just out for a spin.

From the stereo now came the Lamberto Quintero corrido, which with Jose Alfredo's "El Caballo Blanco" was one of Pote's favorites. Teresa saw his shadowy silhouette come to the door, look out, and immediately move away again. She knew he was inside, always within range of her voice, listening. If you were in Mexico, you would already have so many corridos it wouldn't be funny, patrona, he'd said once. He didn't add, And maybe I would, too, but Teresa knew that he thought it.

Really, she decided as she stripped the band off the Herradura Reposado, every pinche man in Mexico aspires to that. Like fucking Guero Davila. Like Pote. Like, in his own way, Santiago Fisterra. Have a corrido, real or imaginary, written about you, with your name on it-music, wine, women, money, adventure, even if it cost you your skin. And you never know, she thought, looking at the doorway where Pote had appeared. You never know, Pinto. After all, corridos are always written by other people.

His buddy turns to him and says,

That pickup's been tailing us some.

Lamberto just grins and says,

Why d'ya think I brought the machine guns?

She drank straight from the bottle. A swig that went down her throat with the force of a bullet. She stretched out her arm holding the bottle, held it up, offering it with a sarcastic grin to the woman looking down at her from the shadows of the lawn. Cabrona, why didn't you just stay in Culiacan? Sometimes I'm not sure whether it's you that's come over to this side or me that went over to the other side with you, or whether we've exchanged roles in this farce and maybe it's you that's sitting on the porch steps and me that's half hidden out there looking at you and what you're carrying inside you.

She'd talked about this once more-she had a feeling it was the last time-with Oleg Yasikov that same afternoon, when the Russian came by to see whether the hashish run was ready, after everything had been settled and they went out for a walk on the beach. Yasikov had looked at her out of the corner of his eye, studying her in the light of something new, which was neither better nor worse but simply sadder and colder.

"And I don't know," he'd said, "whether now that you've told me certain things I'm seeing you differently or whether it's you, Tesa, who is changing, somehow. Yes. Today, while we were talking, I was looking at you. Surprised. You had never given me as many details or talked in that tone of voice. Nyet. You were like a ship casting off. Forgive me if I don't express myself well. Yes. They're complicated things to explain. Even to think."

"I'm going to have it," she abruptly said. She spoke without thinking about it, point-blank, as though the decision had been forged at that instant inside her head, linked to other decisions that she had already made and was about to make. Yasikov had stood there, still, inexpressive, for a long time, and then he'd nodded-not to approve of anything, which wasn't his place, but rather to suggest that she was a person able to have or do whatever she wanted, and that he also thought her perfectly able to deal with the consequences. They took a few more steps and he looked out at the ocean, which was turning lead-gray in the dusk, and then, not facing her, said: "Nothing has ever scared you, Tesa. Nyet. Nothing. Since the day we met I have never seen you hesitate when it was a question of life and freedom. Never. That's why people respect you. Yes. That's why I admire you. And that's why," he concluded, "you are where you are. Yes. Now."

That was when she'd burst out laughing, a strange laugh that made Yasikov turn his head.

"Fucking pinche Russki," she said. "You don't have the slightest idea. I'm the other girl, the narco's morra, that you don't know. The one that looks at me, or the one I look at-I'm not sure which me is me. The only thing I'm sure of is that I'm a coward, with nothing I ought to have. I'll tell you-I'm so afraid, I feel so weak, so indecisive, that I burn up all my energy and my willpower, to the last ounce, in hiding the fact that I'm afraid. You can't imagine the effort. Because I never chose this, and the corrido, somebody else wrote the words to it. You. Patty. Them. What a pendeja, huh? I don't like life in general and mine in particular. I don't even like the parasitic fucking tiny life that's inside me. I'm sick with something that I refused to try to understand a long time ago, and I'm not even honest, because I won't talk about it. I've lived for twelve years like this. All the time pretending and not talking."

The two stood in silence, watching the ocean go dark. Finally, Yasikov nodded again, very slowly.

"Have you made a decision about Teo?" he asked softly. "Don't worry about him." "The operation"

"Don't worry about the operation, either. Everything's in order. Including Teo."

She drank some more tequila. The words of the Lamberto Quintero corrido faded and she stood up and walked, bottie in hand, through the garden, beside the dark rectangle of the pool. Watching the narco girls pass by, he let his guard down, the song said. When some well-aimed bullets took him down. She walked among the trees; the branches of the weeping willows brushed her face. The last lines of the song faded away behind her. You saw him go down, you bridge to Tierra Blanca. And you'll always be there to remind them that Lamberto can never be forgotten. She came to the gate onto the beach, and just as she reached out to open it, she heard behind her, on the gravel, the footsteps of Pote Galvez.

"No, Pinto. I want to be alone," she said without turning around.

The footsteps stopped. She kept walking, and took off her shoes when she felt the white sand under her feet. The stars made a vault of luminous pinpricks all the way down to the horizon, above a sea that whispered along the shoreline. She walked along the water's edge, letting the waves wet her feet. She saw two lights, motionless, wide apart: fishing boats working their nets near the coast. The distant brightness of the Hotel Guadalmina cast a wan light over her as she took off her jeans, T-shirt, and underwear and walked slowly into the water; it was cold now at night, it gave her goose-bumps.

She was still carrying the bottle, and she took another swig to warm up, the rank fumes of the liquor rising through her nose and taking her breath away. The water reached her thighs, and soft waves rocked her back and forth as she found her footing on the sand. Then, not daring to look at the other woman, who was back on the beach beside the mound of clothes, watching her, she threw the bottle into the waves and let herself sink into the cold water, feeling its blackness close over her head. She swam a few yards along the bottom and emerged, shaking out her hair, brushing the water off her face. Then she began to swim farther and farther out on the dark, cold surface, propelling herself with strong, firm movements of her legs and arms, plunging her face in up to the eyes and lifting it out again to breathe, farther and farther out, so far from the beach that her feet no longer touched the bottom and everything disappeared except her and the sea. That sea as somber as the death that she felt like giving herself up to, so she could rest.

She swam back. And she was surprised to find herself doing that; her mind went around and around, asking why she hadn't kept swimming, right on into the heart of the night. By the time she touched the sandy bottom again, half relieved and half bewildered to feel terra firma once more, and came out of the water shivering with cold, she thought she had figured it out. The other woman was gone. She was no longer standing beside the clothes dropped on the beach. She's probably decided to go on ahead, thought Teresa, and she'll be waiting for me up ahead there, where I'm going.

The greenish glow of the radar screen illuminated the face of skipper Cherki from below, giving a silvery-green cast to the gray hairs of his unshaven chin.

"There she is." He pointed to a dark blip on the screen. The vibration of the Tarfayas engines could be felt in the narrow wheel-room's walls. Teresa was leaning against the door, protected from the night's cold by a thick wool turtleneck sweater, her hands in the pockets of her slicker, right hand touching a pistol. The skipper turned to look at her. "In twenty minutes," he said, "unless you give other orders." "It's your ship, skipper."

Scratching his head under his wool cap, Cherki glanced down at the GPS screen. Teresa's presence made him uncomfortable, as it did the rest of the crew. It wasn't done, he'd protested at first. And it was dangerous. But nobody said he had a choice. After confirming their position, Cherki turned the wheel to starboard, keeping a close eye on the compass until it reached the point he wanted, and then switched on the autopilot. On the radar screen, the blip was directly ahead, twenty-five degrees west of the fleur-de-lys that marked north on this compass. Exactly ten miles. The other dark blips, the faint trails of two speedboats that had roared away after transferring their last bundles of hashish onto the fishing boat, had been out of radar range for thirty minutes. The Xauen banks lay far behind them.

"Iallah bismillah," said Cherki.

We're going there, Allah willing, Teresa translated.

That made her smile in the darkness. Mexicans, Moroccans, or Spaniards, they all had their St. Malverde somewhere. She noticed that Cherki turned around from time to time, looking at her with curiosity and ill-concealed reproach. He was from Tangiers, a veteran fisherman. That night he would be earning more than his nets did in five years.

The swaying of the Tarfaya on the swells calmed a bit when the skipper pushed the throttle levers to accelerate along the new course; the sound of the engines grew louder. Teresa saw the needle on the gauge rise to six knots. She looked outside. Through the glass fogged by salt spray, the night flowed past as black as India ink. They were running with lights; on radar they could be seen as well without lights as with them, and a boat without lights raised suspicions. She lit a cigarette to counteract the smells-the gasoline that turned her stomach, the grease, the lines, the deck impregnated with the rank, sharp odor of old fish. She felt a knot of nausea in her throat. I hope I don't get seasick now, she thought. With these cabrones watching.

She left the wheelhouse, stepping into the night and onto the deck wet with spray. The wind made her feel better. Shadows huddled against the gunwale, among the forty-kilo bales wrapped in plastic, with rope handles to make them easier to handle: five well-paid Moroccans, trustworthy, who like Cherki had worked for Transer Naga several times before. She made out two more shadows, fore and aft, half silhouetted against the fishing boat's running lights: their escorts, Moroccans from Ceuta, young, taciturn, and in good shape, of proven loyalty, each with an Ingram MAC 11 submachine gun with fifty.380 caliber rounds under his life jacket and two MK2 grenades in the pockets. Harkenos, Dr. Ramos, who had a dozen men for situations like this, called them. "Take two harkenos, boss," he'd said. "So I won't have to worry while you're on board. Since you insist on going this time, which I think is an unnecessary and actually crazy risk to take, and you won't take Pote Galvez, at least let me organize a little security detail. I know that everybody's paid and all that, but just in case."

She went aft and saw that the last rubber, a thirty-foot Valiant with two powerful outboard motors, was still there, towed on a heavy line, carrying thirty bales and its pilot, another Moroccan, under tarps. She stood at the wet gunwale and smoked, looking out at the phosphorescent spume raised by the fishing boat's bow. She didn't need to be there, and she knew it. Her queasiness worsened with the reproach. But that wasn't the point. She'd wanted to go, supervise it all in person, out of complex reasons that had much to do with the ideas she'd been turning over in her head over the last few days, with the inevitable course of things from which there was no going back. And she had felt fear-the familiar yet uncomfortable old physical fear, rooted in both her memory and the very muscles of her body-when a few hours earlier the Tarfaya had approached the Moroccan coast to supervise the loading of the bales from off the rubbers: low, flat shadows, dark figures, muted voices, no lights, not an unnecessary sound, no radio contact except anonymous squawks on the walkie-talkies on successive preestab-lished frequencies, a single cell-phone call by each boat to check that everything was all right on the land side, while skipper Cherki anxiously watched the radar screen for any blip, any sign of Customs, the chopper, the spotlight that would suddenly pick them out of the darkness and lead to disaster or hell-anything, in a word, unexpected.

Unexpected, but that could happen. Somewhere in the night, far out at sea, aboard the Fairline Squadron, struggling against seasickness with pills and resignation, Alberto Rizocarpaso sat at a portable computer connected to the Internet, his radio apparatus and his cables and his batteries all around, supervising everything like an air traffic controller following the movement of the planes he's responsible for. Farther north, in Sotogrande, Dr. Ramos would be smoking one pipe after another, alert to the radio and the cell phones that no one had used before and that were to be used once, and once only, that night. And in a hotel in Tenerife, hundreds of miles away, in the Atlantic, Farid Lataquia was playing out the risky bluff that would allow him, with luck, to bring Tender Childhood off according to plans.

It's true, thought Teresa-Dr. Ramos was right. I don't need to be here, yet here I am, leaning on the gunwales of this stinking fishing boat, risking my life and my freedom, playing this strange game that I can't even once avoid or delegate to someone else. Saying good-bye to so very many things that tomorrow, when the sun that's now shining in the Sinaloa sky comes up, will be gone forever. With a well-oiled Beretta and a full clip heavy in my pocket. I haven't carried a gun in twelve years, and the fact that I'm carrying it now has more to do with me, if something happens, than with the others. My guarantee that if something goes wrong I won't wind up in a pitiche Moroccan prison, or a Spanish one, either. The certainty that at any moment I can go where I want to go.

She tossed her cigarette into the sea. It's like taking the last step, she reflected. The last test before you rest. Or the next-to-last.

Telephone, senora." She took the cell phone Cherki was holding out to her, went into the wheelhouse and closed the door. It was a Russian SAZ88, scrambled for use by the police and secret services, and Farid Lataquia had managed to find six of them-he'd paid a fortune on the black market. While she brought the phone to her ear she looked at the echo the skipper was pointing out on the radar screen. The dark blip of the Xoloitzcuintle, a mile away, appeared at every sweep of the antenna. There was light on the horizon, coming softly through the haze.

"Is that the Alboran lighthouse?" Teresa asked.

"No, Alboran is twenty-five miles away, and you can only see the lighthouse from ten. That's the boat."

She put the phone to her ear. "Red and green at my one-ninety" said a male voice. Teresa looked at the GPS, then the radar screen, and repeated aloud what she'd heard; the skipper changed the range on the radar to calculate the distance. "Everything okay by my green," said the voice on the phone, and before Teresa could repeat those words the person hung up.

"They've got us on visuals," said Teresa. "We'll board her on the starboard side."

They were outside Moroccan waters, but that didn't eliminate the danger. She peered out the windows at the sky, afraid she would see the dark cloud of the Customs helicopter. Maybe the same pilot, she thought, will be flying tonight. How much time between one thing and another. Between those two instants of my life.

She punched Rizocarpaso's number from memory. "Tell me from the top down," she said when she heard his laconic "Zero zero."

"In the nest and no news," was the reply. Rizocarpaso was in telephone contact with two men, one located on top of the Rock with powerful night-vision goggles and the other on the highway that ran beside the helicopter base at Algeciras. Each with a cell phone. Silent sentinels.

"The bird's still on the ground," she told Cherki as she hung up.

"Thank God."

She'd had to restrain herself from asking Rizocarpaso about the rest of the operation. The parallel phase. By now they ought to be getting word, and the lack of news was beginning to make her nervous. Or, looking at it another way, she said to herself with a bitter grin, beginning to reassure her. She looked at the brass clock on the wheelhouse bulkhead. No matter how things went, there was no need to torment herself anymore. Rizocarpaso would let her know as soon as he heard anything.

Now the ship's lights could be seen clearly, neatly, against the night. The Tarfaya would turn its lights off when it moved in close, so as to camouflage itself against the other boat's radar blip. She looked at the screen. Half a mile.

"You can prepare your men, skipper."

Cherki left the wheel room, and Teresa heard him giving orders. When she stepped to the door, the shadows were no longer huddled against the gunwale; they were moving around the deck laying out the lines and fenders they'd soon be needing, stacking bales on the port bow. They had hauled in the tow line, and the Valiant's outboard motor started up as its pilot began making his own approach. Dr. Ramos' harkenos still stood motionless, like statues, their Ingrams and grenades under their coats. The Xoloitzcuin-tle could be made out clearly now, with the containers aligned on the deck, and the mast and starboard lights, white and green, reflected on the crests of the waves. Teresa saw the boat for the first time, and she approved of Lata-quia's choice. A low draft, so the cargo was almost at water level. That would make the transfer easier.

Cherki reentered the wheelhouse, switched off the autopilot, and steered manually, approaching the container ship carefully, parallel to the starboard side and along the stabilizer fin. Teresa lifted the binoculars to study the boat: the Xoloitzcuintle had slowed but not stopped. She saw men moving around among the containers. Up top, on the bridge's starboard aileron, two other men were watching the Tarfaya: no doubt the captain and an officer.

"You can cut the engines, skipper."

The boats were near enough for their two radar blips to merge into one. The fishing boat was now dark, illuminated only by the lights of the other vessel, which had altered course slightly to protect the fin. The white mast light could no longer be seen, and the green light gleamed on the aileron like a blinding emerald. They were almost hull to hull, and on the sides of both the fishing boat and the container ship sailors were hanging out thick fenders. The Tarfaya adjusted speed, slow ahead, to match that of the Xoloitzcuintle. About three knots, Teresa calculated. A second later she heard what sounded like a muted gunshot: the report of the rope thrower. The men on the fishing boat picked up the hawser that ran to the back of the deck and secured it to the deck bits, without pulling too tight. The rope thrower fired again. One long line stern, one bow. Turning the wheel delicately, the skipper pulled alongside the container ship and left the engine running, but out of gear. The two boats were now moving at the same speed, the large one pulling the small one along. The Valiant, too, skillfully maneuvered by its pilot, was now linked up to the Xoloitzcuintle, on the fishing boat's bow, and Teresa watched the crew begin to lift bales. With luck, she thought, eyeing the radar and knocking on the wood of the wheel, it'll all be over in an hour.

Twenty tons headed for the Black Sea, with no intermediate ports. By the time the rubber set a course to the northwest, using the GPS connected to the Raytheon radar, the lights of the Xoloitzcuintle were disappearing over the dark horizon, far to the east. The Tarfaya, which had turned its lights back on, was a little closer, its mast light bobbing up and down as the boat moved through the waves, steaming unhurriedly southwest. Teresa gave an order, and the pilot of the speedboat pushed the throttle forward, accelerating, the hull of the semi-rigid skimming along, bouncing on the wave crests, with the two harkenos sitting in the bow to give it stability, the hoods of their windbreakers pulled up to protect them against the needle-like spray.

Teresa once again punched the memorized number, and when she heard Rizocarpaso's flat "Zero zero," she said only, "The kids are in bed." Then she sat staring out into the darkness, toward the west, as though trying to see hundreds of miles out, before asking if there was any word yet. "Negative," came the reply. She hung up and looked at the back of the pilot at the Valiant's control panel. She was worried.

The vibration of the powerful motors, the sound of the water, the bouncing against the waves, the night over them like a black sphere, all brought back memories, good and bad. But this wasn't the time. Too many things were in play, loose ends that needed tying up. And every mile the speedboat covered at thirty-five knots brought her closer to the unavoidable resolution of those matters. She felt like prolonging this race through a night without landmarks or references, with only tiny, very distant lights marking the land or the presence of other boats in the darkness to give any sense of space. Prolong it indefinitely, to hold off that ending; just sit suspended in the night and the sea, this limbo, this intermediate place without responsibilities, with nothing but waiting, with the roaring engines thrusting at her back, the rubber floats on each side tensing, elastic, with each leap of the hull, the wind and salt spray in her face, the dark back of the man leaning over the controls, reminding her so much of another man. Of other men.

It was, in sum, an hour as somber as herself. Or at least that was how the night felt, how she felt. The sky without even the thin crescent of moon, which had lasted only a while, no stars, a haze rolling in inexorably from the east, swallowing up the last gleam from the Xoloitzcuintles mast light. Teresa scrutinizing the dry heart, the calm mind that lined up every one of the remaining pieces like dollar bills in the packets of money she had held, hundreds of years before, on Calle Juarez in Culiacan-until that day the black Bronco pulled up beside her and Guero Davila rolled down the window and she began, without realizing it, to walk the long road that had brought her here, now, in the Strait of Gibraltar, tangled in this absurd paradox. She'd come over a raging river, with the load all on one side. Or was about to.

"The Sinaloa, senora."

The shout startled her out of her thoughts. Hijole. Sinaloa, eh? Tonight of all nights, and now of all times. The pilot pointed toward the lights rapidly approaching, out beyond the curtain of spray, the silhouettes of the bodyguards squatting at the bow. The yacht was running with all its lights on, white and sleek, its brightness slicing through the sea, toward the northeast. As innocent as a dove, Teresa thought, as the pilot turned the Valiant in a wide semicircle and approached the stern platform, where a crew member was waiting to help her aboard. Before the bodyguards coming over to boost her up could get to her, Teresa calculated the pitch and sway, put one foot on the float, and jumped across, taking advantage of the lift from the next wave crest. Without saying good-bye to the men in the speedboat or even looking back, she walked across the deck, her legs numb from the cold, while the crew member threw off the line and the speedboat raced away with its three occupants, mission accomplished, back to its base in Estepona.

Teresa went below to wash the salt off her face, lit a cigarette, and poured herself an inch of tequila. She drank it in one gulp, before the mirror in the bathroom. The violence of the drink brought tears to her eyes, and she stood there, cigarette in one hand and empty glass in the other, looking at the teardrops run slowly down her face. She didn't like her expression, or that of the woman who gazed out of the mirror back at her: dark circles under her eyes, her hair a mess, rigid with salt. And those tears. They met again, and she found her tireder, older. Teresa turned away abruptly and went into her cabin, opened the closet where she'd left her purse, pulled out the wallet with her initials, and sat for a long time, studying the wrinkled half-photograph.

The scrambled telephone in the pocket of her jeans rang. Rizocarpaso's voice reported briefly, without unnecessary words or explanations: "The kids' godfather has paid for the christening." Teresa asked for confirmation, and the voice on the other end replied that there was no doubt: "The whole family went to the party. They just reported in from Cadiz."

Teresa hung up and stuck the phone back in her pocket. She felt the nausea returning. The liquor she'd drunk didn't go well with the humming of the engines and the swaying of the boat. With what she'd just heard and what was about to happen. She carefully returned the photo to her wallet, put her cigarette out in the ashtray, calculated the three steps that it would take her to reach the head, and after calmly covering that distance she knelt before the toilet and vomited up the tequila and the rest of her tears.

When she came out on deck, her face washed again, she was still wearing the slicker over the wool turtleneck. Pote Galvez was waiting for her, motionless, a black shape on the gunwale.

"Where is he?" Teresa asked.

The bodyguard didn't answer right away. Perhaps thinking about it. Or giving her the chance to think.

"Below," he said at last. "In cabin four."

Teresa went down, holding on to the teak handrail. Pote Galvez murmured, "Con permiso, patrona," and stepped ahead of her to open the locked door. He gave a professional look inside and then stood aside to let her pass. Teresa entered, followed by the bodyguard, who locked the door again behind him.

"Customs," Teresa said, "boarded the Luz Angelita tonight."

Teo Aljarafe looked at her expressionlessly, as though he were far away and none of that had anything to do with him. His day's growth of beard gave his chin a bluish cast. He was lying on the bunk, dressed in wrinkled chinos and a black sweater, socks. His shoes were on the floor.

"They intercepted the boat three hundred miles west of Gibraltar," Teresa continued. "A couple of hours ago. They're towing it to Cadiz now They'd been following it since it set sail from Cartagena Do you know which boat I'm talking about, Teo?"

"Of course I do."

He's had time, she told herself. Here inside. Time to think. But he doesn't know where this is going.

"There's something you don't know," she said. "The Luz Angelita is clean. The most illegal thing they're going to find on her, when they empty her, will be a couple of bottles of whisky that the crew didn't pay tax on Do you know what that means?"

Teo, processing that, his mouth half open, didn't move.

"A decoy," he said at last.

"A decoy. And you know why I didn't tell you before that that boat was going to be used as a decoy? Because when you passed the information on to the people you've been talking to, I needed everybody to believe it was a real run as much as you did."

"You ran another operation tonight."

You're still one smart hijo de puta, she thought, and I'm glad. I want you to understand why. All my men have died knowing why.

"Yes. Another operation that you didn't know anything about. While those bastards from Customs were rubbing their hands together and boarding the Luz Angelita, looking for a ton of coke that never got loaded on,-our people were doing business someplace else."

"Very well planned How long have you known?"

He could deny it, she suddenly thought. He could deny everything, protest, get all indignant, tell me I've gone crazy. But he's thought about it enough since Pote locked him in here. He knows me. Why waste time, he's probably thinking. What's the point?

"For a long time. That judge in Madrid I hope you've made a lot of money on this. Although I'd like to think you didn't do it for money."

Teo grimaced, and she liked that. The hijo de puta almost managed to smile. In spite of everything. He was just blinking too much. She'd never seen him blink that much.

"I didn't do it for money."

"They squeezed you?"

Again, almost a smile. But it was only a sarcastic smirk. With little hope. "Imagine."

"I understand," Teresa said.

"Do you really?" Teo was analyzing that word, his brow furrowed, in search of some sign of his future. "Yes, maybe It was you or me."

You or me, Teresa repeated inwardly. But forget the others: Dr. Ramos, Farid Lataquia, Rizocarpaso, all the people that trusted in him and in me. People we're responsible for. Dozens of loyal people. And one Judas.

"You or me," she said aloud.

"Exactly."

Pote Galvez had melted into the shadows of the bulkhead, and Teo and Teresa looked into each other's eyes calmly. A conversation like so many before. At night. All that they needed was music, a drink. A night like so many others.

"Why didn't you come and tell me? We could have done something. We could have come up with a solution."

Teo shook his head. He'd sat up on the edge of the bunk, his feet on the floor.

"Sometimes everything gets so complicated," he said simply. "You get all tangled up, you surround yourself with things that become necessary. They gave me the chance to get out, and still keep what I have start over from scratch."

"Yes. I think I can understand that, too."

That word again, "understand," and it seemed to illuminate Teo's head like a hope. He looked at her very attentively.

"I can tell you what you want to know," he said. "There won't be any need to"

"Interrogate you."

"Right."

"Nobody's going to interrogate you, Teo."

He was still watching her expectantly, weighing her every word. More blinking. A quick glance at Pote Galvez, then back to her.

"Very clever, the operation tonight," he said at last, tentatively. "Using me to put out the decoy It never occurred to me Was it coke?"

He's probing, she told herself. He still hasn't given up on living.

"Hashish," she replied. "Twenty tons."

Teo thought about that. Again the attempt at a smile that never quite jelled.

"I guess it's not a good sign that you're telling me," he concluded. "No. It's really not."

Teo wasn't blinking anymore. He was alert, searching for signs, but he alone knew what they were. Somber. And if you can't read it in my face, she told herself, or in the way I'm measuring my words with you, or the way I'm listening to what you still have to say, then all this time with me was wasted on you. The nights and the days and the conversation and the silences. Tell me, then, where you were looking when you embraced me, pinche pendejo. Although you may have more class than I thought. If you do, I swear, that reassures me. And makes me happy. The bigger a man you are, and all of them, the more it reassures me and makes me happy.

"My daughters," Teo whispered suddenly.

He seemed to finally understand, as though until now he'd been considering other possibilities.

"I have two daughters," he murmured, lost in his own thoughts, looking at Teresa without seeing her. The low light of the cabin made his cheeks look sunken, two dark hollows down to his jaw. He no longer looked like an arrogant Spanish eagle. Teresa observed Pote Galvez' impassive face. Some time before, she had read a story of samurai: When they performed hara-kiri, another warrior would cut off their head so that they could die without losing their composure. The trigger man's narrowed eyes, alert to his employer's sign, reinforced the association. And it's a pity, Teresa told herself. The composure. Teo was holding up well, and I'd have liked to see him hold up until the end. Remember him that way when I don't have anything else to remember-if I manage to stay alive.

"My daughters," she heard him repeat.

It sounded muffled, with a slight tremor. All at once his voice had felt the cold. His eyes were vacant, staring into space, the eyes of a man who was already far away, dead. Dead meat. She'd known that meat when it was tense, hard. She'd taken pleasure from it. And now it was just dead meat.

"Come on, Teo, get real."

"My daughters."

It was all so very strange, reflected Teresa. Your daughters are my child's sisters, or they will be, maybe, if seven months from now I'm still breathing. And what the fuck does mine mean to me. What do I care about that thing that's yours, too, and that you're leaving without even knowing about, and what do you care whether you know or not. She experienced no pity or sadness or fear. Just the same indifference she felt toward what she was carrying in her belly, the desire to be done with this scene the way a person would want to get through any hassle.

Casting off, Oleg Yasikov had said. And not looking back.

Then she nodded slowly, almost imperceptibly. Pote Galvez took his revolver out of his waistband and reached down for the pillow on the bed. Teo said something about his daughters again, but whatever it was became a long moan, or wail, or reproach, or sob. All four at once, maybe. And as Teresa turned toward the door, she saw that his eyes were still vacant, looking at the same spot, seeing nothing but the well of shadows toward which he was being dragged. Teresa went out into the corridor.

I wish he had put on his shoes, she thought. That was no way for a man to die-in his socks. She heard the muffled shot just as she put her hand on the rail to go up on deck.

She heard the pistolero's footsteps behind her. She did not turn around, but waited for him to catch up to her, on the wet gunwale. There was a line of pale light in the east, and the lights of the coast glittered closer and closer, with the flashes of the Estepona lighthouse directly north. Teresa lifted the hood of her slicker. It was cold. "I'm going back, Pinto."

She didn't say where; there was no need to. Pote Galvez' heavy humanity leaned farther out over the gunwale. Thoughtful and quiet. Teresa could hear his breathing.

"It's time to settle some old debts."

Another silence. Above them, against the light of the bridge, she saw the silhouettes of the captain and the crew member on watch. Deaf, blind, and mute. Hearing and seeing nothing but their instruments. They earned enough so that nothing that happened back on the stern had anything to do with them. Pote Galvez was still leaning out, looking down at the black water murmuring past below.

"You, patrona, always know what you're doing But I've got a feeling

this could be cabron."

"I'll be sure you're okay, Pinto. You'll be taken care of."

He ran a hand through his hair. Perplexed.

"Quihubo, mi dona You think you're going to do this alone? Don't insult me" He seemed truly hurt. Stubborn.

They stood watching the flashes from the lighthouse in the distance.

"They can take us both out," Teresa said softly. "Nasty."

Pote Galvez said nothing for a while. One of those silences, she sensed, with life in the balance. She turned to look at him, and she saw him run his hand through his hair again and then drop his head between his shoulders. A big, loyal bear, she thought. Straight as an arrow. With that resigned air, determined to pay whatever it cost without another word. Like the rules said.

"Well, it's a pretty clear decision, patrona. You might as well die in

one place as another."

The bodyguard looked back, toward the wake of the Sinaloa, where the body of Teo Aljarafe, wired to a hundred pounds of lead, had sunk into the sea.

"And sometimes," he added, "it's better to choose how you die, if you can."

17- Half my drink, I left on the table

It was raining in Culiacan, Sinaloa, and the house in Colonia Chapultepec was enclosed in a bubble of gray gloom. There was a definite line between the colors in the garden and the leaden tones outside it. On the window, the largest drops of rain melted into long streams that made the landscape look wavy, watery, and mixed the green of the grass and the leaves of the Indian laurel with the orange of the poinciana flowers, the white of the gardenias, the lilac and red of the bougainvillea and hibiscus. But the colors died away at the high walls that surrounded the garden. Beyond them, there was only a blurry, formless gray, in which one could barely distinguish, behind the unseen riverbed of the Tamazula, the two spires and white cupola of the cathedral and, farther on, to the right, the yellow-tiled bell towers of the Iglesia del Santuario.

Teresa was standing next to the window of a den on the second floor, gazing at the landscape, although Colonel Edgar Ledesma, assistant commander

of the Ninth Military District, had advised her not to. "Every window," he had said, looking at her with the eyes of a cold, efficient warrior, "is an opportunity for a sniper. And you, senora, aren't here to give them opportunities."

Colonel Ledesma was a pleasant sort of man, very correct in his bearing, who wore his fifty years as lightly as he did his uniform and his close-cropped hair. But she was sick and tired of the limited view from the downstairs windows, sick of the large living room with fake French provincial sofas mixed with acrylic tables, horrendous pictures on the walls-the house had been seized by the government from a narco now in prison in Puente Grande. From the windows and the porch you could see only a slice of the lawn and the empty swimming pool. From upstairs you could see in the distance, at least if you were aided by memory, the city of Culiacan. You could also see one of the Federales who were assigned as her escort inside the walls: a man in a plastic poncho whose girth was expanded by a bulletproof vest. He was wearing a beret and carrying an AR-15, and he stood smoking under a mango tree that sheltered him from the drizzle.

Quite a bit farther away, behind a wrought-iron gate that opened onto Calle General Anaya, Teresa could see a military pickup and the green forms of two soldiers-guachos, everyone in Sinaloa called them-standing guard in combat attire. That was the agreement, she'd been informed by Colonel Ledesma four days earlier, when the chartered Learjet that was bringing her down from Miami-the only stop from Madrid, since the DEA discouraged the idea of any intermediate stop on Mexican soil-landed at the Culiacan airport. The Ninth District was in charge of general security, and the Federales took over on the inside. Transit police and the Judiciales, the special investigative police attached to the courts, had been excluded from the operation because they were considered easier to infiltrate, and because it was common knowledge that some of them moonlighted as hit men for narcotics gangs and cartels. The Federales might also be persuaded by greenbacks, but the elite group assigned to this mission, brought in from the Distrito Federal-no agent with any Sinaloan connections allowed-was supposedly unbuyable. As for the military, they weren't incorruptible but their discipline and organization made buying them very expensive. Harder to buy, then, and also more respected. Even when they were detailed up into the sierra, the campesinos always said they did their job without looking for angles or "considerations." And Colonel Ledesma had a reputation for being a tough, straight-shooting man, of absolute integrity. The narcos had murdered a nephew of his, a lieutenant. That helped.

"You should move away from that window, patrona. The wind"

"Chale, Pinto"-she smiled at the bodyguard-"give me a break."

It had been like a weird dream, like witnessing a chain of events that weren't happening to her. The last two weeks lined up in her memory, a succession of intense and perfectly defined chapters. The night of the last operation. Teo Aljarafe reading his absence of future in the shadows of the cabin. Hector Tapia and Willy Rangel looking at her in amazement in a suite of the Hotel Puente Romano when she presented her decision and her demands: Culiacan rather than the Distrito Federal-We do things right, she said, or not at all. The signing of confidential documents with guarantees for both parties, in the presence of the U.S. ambassador in Madrid, a high official of the Spanish Ministry of Justice, and an officer from Foreign Affairs. And then, once her bridges had been burned, the long trip across the Atlantic, the technical stopover on the Miami runway with the Learjet surrounded by police, the face of Pote Galvez inscrutable each time they exchanged glances.

"They're going to want to kill you every minute," Willy Rangel had warned her. "You, your bodyguards, and anybody breathing anywhere near you. So you need to be very, very careful."

Rangel had accompanied her to Miami, briefing her on everything she needed to know and do. Instructing her in what was expected of her and what she, in turn, could expect. Afterward, if there was an afterward, there would be help for the next five years in setting her up wherever she wanted- the United States, Latin America, Europe-a new identity including American passport, official protection. Or nothing, if that's what she wanted. And when she replied that what came afterward was her business, and hers alone, thank you, Rangel rubbed his nose and nodded, as though he'd seen that coming. After all, the DEA figured that Teresa Mendoza had stashed away, in Swiss and Caribbean banks, between fifty and a hundred million dollars.

She continued to watch the rain fall outside. Culiacan. The night of her arrival, when at the foot of the Learjet's steps she boarded the convoy of military and Federales vehicles waiting on the runway, Teresa had seen off to the right the airport's old yellow control tower, with dozens of Cessnas and Pipers parked around it, and to the left the new facilities under construction. The Suburban she got into with Pote Galvez was armored, with dark tinted glass. Just she, Pote, and the driver rode in it, and the driver had a police-frequency radio turned on. There were blue and red lights, guachos in combat helmets, Federales in street clothes or dark gray uniforms, armed to the teeth, sitting in the rear of the trucks or the open doors of Suburbans, their baseball caps and ponchos glistening with raindrops. Machine guns mounted on jeeps and pickups were aimed in every direction, and radio antennas whipped in the air as the vehicles took curves at top speed and the convoy moved through the city, to the deafening ululation of sirens. Chale. Who'd have thought, said Pote Galvez' face, that we'd be coming back this way.

They drove at high speed down Zapata, turning at the A1 Valle gas station onto the north beltway. Then came the shore drive with the poplars and the big weeping willows whose graceful branches drooped to the ground, the lights of the city, the familiar places, the bridge, the dark waters of the Tamazula, Colonia Chapultepec. Teresa had thought she would feel something special in her heart when she was back here, but the truth was, she discovered, one place was not very different from another. She felt neither elation nor fear.

During the drive, she and Pote Galvez had looked at each other many times. Finally Teresa asked him, "What's in your head, Pinto?" He took a moment to answer, staring out the window, his moustache a dark brushstroke, the spatters of water on the window speckling his face when they passed streetlights.

"Well, you know, nothing special, patrona" he replied at last. "Just that it's strange." He said this without emotion, his norteno, Mayan face inexpressive. Sitting very straight and formal beside her on the leather seat, his hands crossed over his belly. And for the first time since that night in the basement in far-off Nueva Andalucia, he looked defenseless to Teresa. They hadn't let him carry a gun, although they told him there would be guns in the house, for personal protection, even with the Federates in the garden and the guachos on the perimeter, in the street.

From time to time the bodyguard turned to look out the window, recognizing this or that spot as they flew past. Not opening his mouth. As silent as when, before they left Marbella, she made him sit down with her and explained to him what was coming. For both of them. She was not fingering anybody, just collecting a big debt from un hijo de su pinche madre. Him and nobody else. Pote sat awhile thinking that over. "Talk to me," she'd finally said. "I need to know how you're looking at this before I let you go back over there with me."

"Well, I don't know how I'm looking at this," was his response. "And I tell you that-or rather don't tell you anything-with all respect. Maybe I even do have my opinion, patrona. Why say no if the answer's yes? But the opinion I have or don't have is my business. You think it's right to do something, you do it, and that's that. You decide to go, and I, well, I go with you."

She stepped away from the window and went to the table for a cigarette. The pack of Faros was beside the SIG-Sauer and the three full clips. At first Teresa wasn't familiar with that pistol, and Pote Galvez spent one morning teaching her to take it apart and put it back together again, over and over until she could do it with her eyes closed. "If they come at night and it jams, you'd better know how to fix it without turning on the light." Now Pote Galvez stepped over with a lit match, bowed his head briefly when she thanked him, and replaced Teresa at the window, to give a look outside.

"Everything's in order," she exhaled. It was a pleasure to smoke Faros after so many years.

The bodyguard shrugged, the gesture implying that in Culiacan, "order" was a relative term. Then he went out into the hall and Teresa heard him talking to one of the Federales stationed in the house. Three inside, six in the garden, twenty guachos on the outer perimeter-reliefs every twelve hours- keeping back the curious. The journalists, and the hired squad of executioners who by now were on the prowl, were waiting for their chance. I wonder, Teresa said to herself, how big a price the representative to the House of Deputies and future senator from Sinaloa, don Epifanio Vargas, has put on my head.

"What do you think we're worth, Pinto?"

He had come to the door again, with that look of a big clumsy bear he had when he wanted to be inconspicuous. Apparently quiet and slow-moving, as always. But she could see that behind the narrowed lids, his dark, suspicious eyes never lowered their guard, never stopped seeing everything around them.

"They'll take me out for free, patrona But you're a big fish to catch, now. Nobody would take it on for less than full retirement pay for life." "You think it'll be the escorts, or that they'll come from outside?" The bodyguard pursed his lips, thinking.

"I think from outside. The narcos and the police are the same thing, but not always Understand?" "More or less."

"That's the truth. And the guachos-the colonel looks to me like the real thing, stand-up, you know? He'll keep his men in line." "That, we'll see about, no?"

"It'll be something to see, all right, patrona-see it once and for all, and get our asses out of here."

Teresa smiled when she heard that. She understood what he was saying. The waiting was always worse than the fight, no matter how bad the fight was. Anyway, she'd taken additional measures. Preventive measures. She wasn't born yesterday-she had money and she'd read her classics. The trip to Culiacan had been preceded by a campaign of information in the right places, including the local press. Just Vargas, was the motto. No squealing, no squawking, no ratting, no fingerpointing, no blowing the whistle on anybody but Epifanio Vargas: a personal matter, a mano a mano, a duel in the dust. Admission free, and everybody welcome to watch the show. But not another name or date. Nothing. Just don Epifanio, Teresa, and the ghost of Guero Davila, burned to death on the Espinazo del Diablo twelve years ago. This was not a betrayal, this was a limited, personal payback, the kind of thing that could be understood very well in Sinaloa, where double-crossing was frowned on-you die, cabron-but revenge was what filled the cemeteries. That had been the deal struck in the Hotel Puente Romano, and the Mexican government had signed on the dotted line.

Even the gringos had signed, although grudgingly. Concrete testimony, a concrete name.

The other drug bosses who used to be close to Epifanio Vargas, even Batman Giiemes, had no reason to feel threatened. That, as one could well imagine, had reassured Batman and the others considerably. It also increased Teresa's chances of survival and reduced the fronts that had to be covered. After all, in the shark-feeding ground of Sinaloan drug money and narcopolitics, don Epifanio had been or was an ally, a pillar of the community, but also a competitor and, sooner or later, an enemy. A lot of people would be very happy if he could be taken out of action for such a low price.

The telephone rang. It was Pote Galvez who answered it, and he looked at Teresa as though the voice on the other end had just spoken the name of a ghost. But she wasn't the least bit surprised. She'd been expecting this call for four days. And the time was getting short.

This is very irregular, senora. I can't authorize this." Colonel Ledesma was standing on the living room rug, his hands behind his back, his uniform perfectly ironed, his boots, spotted with raindrops, gleaming. That short hair looks good on him, Teresa thought, even with all the gray. So polite and so clean. He reminded her of that captain in the Guardia Civil in Marbella, a long time ago, whose name she'd forgotten. "It's less than twenty-four hours before your testimony." Teresa remained seated, smoking, her legs in black silk pants crossed. Looking up at him. Comfortable. Very careful to make things very clear. "Let me tell you again, Colonel. I am not here as a prisoner." "No, of course not."

"If I accept your protection it's because I want to accept it. But no one can keep me from going wherever I want to go That was the agreement."

Ledesma shifted his weight from one leg to the other. Now he was looking at Gaviria, the lawyer from the Mexican national prosecutor's office, his liaison with the civil authorities handling the case. Gaviria was also standing, although farther back, with Pote Galvez behind him, leaning on the door frame, and the colonel's aide, a young lieutenant, looking over Pote's shoulder from the hall.

"Tell Senora Mendoza," the colonel pleaded with the lawyer, "that what she's asking is impossible."

Ledesma was right, Gaviria said. He was a rail-thin, pleasant man, shaved and dressed very correctly. Teresa glanced at him for no more than a second, her eyes taking him in and spitting him out as though he didn't exist.

"I'm not asking, Colonel," she said, "I'm telling. I intend to leave here this afternoon for an hour and a half. I have an appointment in the city You can take security measures, or not."

Ledesma, powerless, shook his head.

"Federal law forbids me from moving troops through the city. I'm already stretching it with those men I've got posted outside there." "And the civil authorities" Gaviria began.

Teresa stubbed out her cigarette with such force that the fire burned her fingertips.

"You and the civil authorities, let me tell you-don't worry your little head about me. Not a bit. I'll be there tomorrow, on the dot, to do what I said I'd do for the civil authorities."

"You have to consider that in legal terms"

"Listen. I've got the Hotel San Marcos full of very expensive lawyers." She motioned toward the telephone. "How many do you want me to call?" "It could be a trap," the colonel argued. "Hijole, no kidding!"

Ledesma ran a hand across the top of his head. He took a few steps around the room, Gaviria watching him anxiously.

"I'll have to consult with my superiors," the colonel said.

"Consult with whoever you want to," Teresa told him. "But get one thing straight: If I'm not allowed to keep that appointment, I'll interpret it as being held here against my will, in spite of the government's commitment. And that violates the agreement Plus, I remind you, in Mexico there are no charges against me."

The colonel looked at her fixedly. He bit at his lower lip as though a piece of loose skin were bothering him. He turned and started toward the door, but then stopped halfway.

"What do you gain by putting yourself at risk this way?"

It was clear that he really wanted to understand this. Teresa uncrossed her legs, brushing out the wrinkles in the silk.

"What I gain or lose," she replied, "is my business, and no fucking concern of yours."

She said it and then fell silent, and in a few moments she heard the colonel's deep, resigned sigh. "I'll ask for instructions."

"So will I," the lawyer from the prosecutor's office added.

"Orale. Ask for all the instructions you want. Meanwhile, I want a car at the door at seven o'clock sharp. With him"-she pointed at Pote Galvez- "inside and armed to the teeth. What you've got around us or on top of us, Colonel, is up to you."

She said this looking the whole time at Ledesma. And this time, she calculated, I can allow myself a smile. It makes quite an impression on them when a woman smiles as she twists their balls. What, Colonel? You thought you were the Marlboro man?

W

hhhp-whhhp. Whhhp-whhhp. The monotonous sound of the windshield wipers, big drops of rain drumming like hail on the roof of the Suburban. The Federale who was driving turned the wheel to the left and started down Avenida Insurgentes, and Pote Galvez, beside him in the passenger seat, looked to one side and the other and put both hands on the AK-47 in his lap. In his jacket pocket he was carrying a walkie-talkie tuned to the same frequency as the radio in the Suburban, and from the back seat Teresa could hear the voices of agents and soldiers taking part in the operation. Objective One and Objective Two, they were saying. Objective One was her. And they were going to meet Objective Two in just seconds.

Whhhp-whhhp. Wiihhp-whhhp. It was still daylight, but the gray sky made the streets dark, and some businesses had turned their outside lights on. The rain multiplied the lights of the small convoy. The Suburban and its escort-two Rams belonging to the Federales and three Lobo pickups with soldiers manning machine guns in the back-raised fans of water from the brown torrent that overran gutters and drains and filled the streets on its way toward the Tamazula. A band of black crossed the sky, silhouetting the tallest buildings along the avenue, and a reddish band below it seemed beaten down by the weight of the black. "A checkpoint, patrona" said Pote Galvez.

There was the noise of a round being chambered in Pote's AK-47, and that earned the bodyguard a look out of the corner of the driver's eye. When they passed the checkpoint without slowing, Teresa saw that it was a military patrol and that the soldiers, in combat helmets, had pulled over two police cars and were holding the Judiciales at gunpoint with their AR-15s and Ml6s.

Clearly, Colonel Ledesma trusted the police just so far. Clearly, also, after searching for a loophole in the law that kept him from moving troops through the city, the assistant commander of the Ninth District had found one in the small print-after all, the natural state of a soldier was always very close to a state of siege. Teresa saw more Federales and guachos posted under the trees along the median, with transit police blocking the intersections and detouring traffic down other routes. And right there, between the railroad tracks and the large concrete block of the administration building, the Malverde Chapel seemed much smaller than she remembered it, twelve years before.

Memories. She realized that for that entire long round-trip journey, she had acquired only three certainties about human beings: that they kill, that they remember, and that they die. Because there comes a moment, she told herself, when you look ahead and see only what you've left behind-dead bodies all along the road you're walking down. Among them, your own, although you don't know it. Until you come upon it, and then you know.

She looked for herself in the chapel's shadows, in the peace of the pew set to the right of the saint's image, in the reddish half-light of the candles that sputtered among the flowers and offerings hung on the wall. The light outside was fading quickly, and as the dirty gray of the evening deepened, the flashing lights of one of the Federales' cars illuminated the entrance with intermittent red and blue. As she stood before St. Malverde, his hair as black as beauty-parlor dye, his white jacket and the kerchief at his neck, his Mayan-Aztec eyes, and his charro moustache, Teresa moved her lips to pray, as she'd done so many years before-God bless my journey and allow my return. But no prayer would come. Maybe it would be sacrilege, she thought. Maybe I shouldn't have wanted to have the meeting here. Maybe with the years I've become stupid and arrogant, and now I pay.

The last time she'd been here, there had been another woman gazing out at her from the shadows. Now Teresa looked for her, but didn't find her. Unless, she decided, I'm the other woman, or have her inside me, and the narco's morra with the scared eyes, the girl who ran away carrying a gym bag and a Double Eagle, has turned into one of those ghosts that float along behind me, looking at me with accusatory, or sad, or indifferent eyes. Maybe that's what life's like, and you breathe, walk, move so one day you can look back and see yourself back there. See yourself in the successive women- yours and others'-that every one of your steps condemns you to be.

Teresita. It's been a long time.'

She stuck her hands into the pockets of her raincoat-underneath, a sweater, jeans, comfortable boots with rubber soles-and took out the pack of Faros. She was lighting one at the flame of an altar candle when she saw don Epifanio Vargas silhouetted against the red and blue flashes at the door.

He looked almost the same, she saw. Tall, heavyset. He had hung his raincoat on the rack next to the door. Dark suit, shirt collar open, no tie, pointed-toe boots. With that face that reminded her of old Pedro Armendariz movies. He had a lot of gray in his moustache and at his temples, quite a few more wrinkles, a few more inches at the waist, perhaps. But he was the same don Epifanio.

"I hardly recognize you," he said, taking a few steps into the chapel after glancing suspiciously to one side and then the other. He was looking at Teresa fixedly, trying to relate her to the other woman he had in his memory.

"You haven't changed much," she said. "A little heavier, maybe. And the gray."

She was now sitting on the pew, next to the image of Malverde, and she didn't move.

"Are you carrying?" don Epifanio asked, ever cautious. "No."

"Good. Those hijos deputo out there patted me down. I wasn't, either."

He sighed, looked up at Malverde in the trembling light of the candles, then back at her.

"The gray I just turned sixty-four. But I'm not complaining."

He came closer, until he stood very close, studying her from above. She remained as she was, holding his gaze.

"I'd say things have gone well for you, Teresita."

"Haven't gone bad for you, either."

Don Epifanio nodded slowly, agreeing. Pensive. Then he sat down beside her. They were sitting exactly the way they had been the last time, except that she wasn't holding a Double Eagle.

"Twelve years, right? You and I on this very spot, with that notebook of Guero's"

He paused, giving Teresa a chance to add a memory of her own to the conversation. But she said nothing. After a moment don Epifanio took a cigar out of the chest pocket of his jacket.

"I never imagined," he started to say as he took off the wrapper. But he stopped again, as though he'd just come to the conclusion that what he'd never imagined didn't matter now.

"I think we all underestimated you," he said at last. "Your man. Me. All of us." He spoke the words "your man" a little softer, as if trying to slip them in unnoticed among the rest.

"Maybe that's why I'm still alive."

Don Epifanio thought that over as he held the flame of his lighter to the cigar.

"Being alive is not a permanent state, or guaranteed," he said with the first puff. "A person stays alive until he's not anymore."

The two of them smoked for a while, not looking at each other. She'd almost finished her cigarette.

"What are you doing, Teresa, getting involved in all this?"

She took one last puff, then dropped the butt and carefully put it out with the toe of her boot.

"Well, I'll tell you," she replied, "it's to settle some old debts."

"Debts," Epifanio repeated. He took another puff on his Havana. "It's better to just let some debts go."

"No way to do that," said Teresa, "if they keep you from sleeping at night."

"You don't gain anything."

"What I gain is my business."

For a few seconds the only sounds were the sputtering of the candles at the altar and the rain beating on the roof of the chapel. Outside, the red and blue of the Federales' car was still flashing.

"Why do you want to screw me? All you're doing is playing into the hands of my political enemies."

It was a nice tone, she had to admit. Almost affectionate. Less a reproach than a hurt question. He was the betrayed godfather. The wounded friend. And the fact is, she thought, I never saw him as a bad guy. He was often sincere with me, and maybe still is.

"I don't know who your enemies are, and I don't care," she answered. "You did wrong in killing Guero. And Chino. And Brenda and the kids."

If this was about affection, she could go that route, too. Don Epifanio looked at the ember of his cigar, frowning.

"I don't know what they've told you. But whatever it was, this is Sinaloa You're from here, and you know what the rules are."

"The rules," Teresa said slowly, "include collecting debts from people that owe you." She paused, and she heard the man's breathing as he concentrated on her words. "And besides the others," she added, "you tried to have me killed."

"That's a lie!" Don Epifanio seemed genuinely shocked. "You were here, with me. I protected you, I saved your life I helped you escape."

"I'm talking about later. When you changed your mind."

"In our world," don Epifanio said, after thinking about it, "business is complicated." He studied her once he'd said this, like a man waiting for a tranquilizer to take effect. "Anyway," he added, "I can understand that you'd want to send me the bill. You're from Sinaloa, and I respect that. But to strike a deal with the gringos and those cabrones in the government that want to bring me down"

"You don't have any idea what cabrones, if any, I've struck a deal with."

She said this somberly, with a firmness that left the man thoughtful. He held the cigar in his mouth, his eyes squinting from the smoke, the flashes from the street turning him alternately red and blue.

"Tell me one thing. The night we met you'd read the notebook, hadn't

you? You knew about Guero But I didn't realize that. You tricked me."

"My life was on the line."

"So why are you digging up all these old things?" "Because until now I didn't know who asked Batman Giiemes for a favor. And Guero was my man." "He was a DEA cabron"

"Cabron and DEA, he was my man."

She heard him swallow an obscenity as he stood up. His corpulence filled the small chapel.

"Listen," he said. He looked at the image of Malverde, as though calling the patron saint of drug lords as a witness. "I always behaved well. I was godfather to both of you. I loved Guero and I loved you. He double-crossed me, but despite that I saved your pretty ass The other was much later, when your life and mine took different paths Now time has passed, I'm out of that. I'm old, and I've even got grandchildren. I'm in politics, and I like it, and the Senate will let me do new things. That includes helping Sinaloa What do you gain by hurting me? Helping those gringos that consume half the world's drugs while they decide, depending on what's convenient to them at the moment, which narcos are good and which ones are bad? Helping the people that financed the anti-Communist guerrillas in Vietnam with drug money and then came to ask us Mexicans to pay for the Contras' weapons in Nicaragua? Listen to me, Teresita, those people that are using you now once helped me earn a fuckload of money with Nortena de Aviaci6n, and

then launder it in Panama Tell me what those cabrones are offering

you Immunity? Money?"

"Neither one. It's more complex than that. Harder to explain."

Epifanio Vargas turned to her again. As he stood before the altar, the candlelight aged him.

"You want me to tell you," he insisted, "who's been trying for years to fuck me in the United States? Who's pressuring the DEA? A federal prosecutor in Houston, named Clayton, with close ties to the Democratic Party And you know who he was before he became a federal prosecutor? A defense lawyer for Mexican and gringo narcos, and a close friend of Ortiz Calderdn, who was director of aerial interception in the Judiciales and who's now living in the United States in the Witness Protection Program after stealing millions of dollars And on this side, the people trying to bring me down are the same ones that were in bed with the gringos and me: lawyers, judges, politicians, all trying to take the heat off themselves by making me a scapegoat for the whole system You want to help those people fuck me?"

Teresa didn't reply. Epifanio regarded her for a while and then shook his head powerlessly.

"I'm tired, Teresita. I've worked hard all my life."

It was true, and she knew it. The campesino from Santiago de los Ca-balleros had worn huaraches and picked beans. Nobody had ever given him anything.

"I'm tired, too."

He was still watching her, probing her, searching for a chink through which to see what was going on in her head.

"There's no way for us to work this out, then, apparently," he concluded. "I don't think so."

The cigar's ember flared, illuminating don Epifanio's face.

"I've come here to see you," he said, and now his tone was different, "to talk to you-to explain things to you Maybe I owed you that, maybe I didn't. But I came, like I came twelve years ago, when you needed me."

"I know, and I thank you for that. You never did anything that bad except when you killed Guero and when you tried to kill me" She shrugged. "Everybody has their own road to walk."

A very long silence. The rain was still pelting the roof. St. Malverde looked impassively into the void with his painted eyes.

"All those guns and cops outside don't guarantee a thing," Vargas said at last. "And you know it. In fourteen or sixteen hours a lot of things can happen"

"I don't give a shit," Teresa replied. "You're at bat now."

Don Epifanio nodded as he repeated, "At bat now"-a perfect summary of the situation. He lifted his hands, then dropped them to his sides in desolation.

"I should have killed you that night," he said. "Right here."

He said it without passion, calmly and objectively. Teresa looked at him from the pew, not moving.

"Yes, you should have," she said just as calmly. "But you didn't, and now I've come to collect."

"You're crazy."

"No." Teresa stood up in the flickering candlelight, in the flashes of red and blue. "What I am is dead. Your Teresita Mendoza died twelve years ago, and I'm here to bury her."

She leaned her forehead against the fogged-up second-floor window, the wetness cooling her skin. The spotlights in the garden reflected off the rain and turned it into millions of drops of silver falling across the yard, among the tree branches, or hanging on the tips of the leaves. Teresa held a cigarette between her fingers, and the bottle of Herradura Reposado sat on the table next to a glass, a full ashtray, the SIG-Sauer with its three extra clips. On the stereo, Jose Alfredo: Teresa didn't know whether it was one of the songs Pote Galvez was always playing for her, on the cassette for cars and hotels, or whether it had come with the house:

Half my drink, I left on the table to follow you-/ don't know why.

She'd been up here for hours. Tequila and music, memories and a present with no future. Maria la Bandida. Just put me out of my misery, don't let me die of a broken heart. The night I cried. She finished her drink, half the glass, and refilled it before returning to the window, trying to keep the room's light from making her too conspicuous. She wet her lips on the tequila while she sang along: Half my future you took with you, I hope it does you more good than it did me.

"All of them have left, patrona."

She turned slowly, all at once feeling very cold. Pote Galvez was at the door, in shirtsleeves. He never appeared to her like that. A walkie-talkie in one hand, his revolver in its leather holster at his waist, he looked very serious. Dead serious. His shirt stuck to his heavy torso with sweat.

"What does that mean- 'all of them'?"

He looked at her almost reproachfully. Why ask if you know the answer? his look seemed to say. "All of them" meant all of them.

"The Federales, the escort," he explained. "The house is empty." "Where'd they go?"

He didn't answer. He just shrugged. Teresa read the rest in his suspicious norteno eyes. Pote Galvez' rat detector didn't use radar. "Turn out the light," she said.

The room went dark; now there was just the glow from the hallway and the spotlights outside. The stereo clicked and Jose Alfredo was cut off midword. Outside, behind the tall entrance gates, everything looked normal: she could see soldiers and jeeps under the streetlamps. In the garden, though, there was no movement. The Federales that had been patrolling it were nowhere to be seen.

"When was the relief supposed to come on, Pinto?"

"Fifteen minutes ago. A new group came and the old ones left."

"How many?"

"The usual: three ugly ones in the house and six in the garden." "What about the radio?"

Pote hit the button on the walkie-talkie twice and then held it out to her. Nothing. "Nobody says anything. But if you want, we can talk to the guachos."

Teresa shook her head. She went to the table, grabbed the SIG-Sauer and stuffed the three reserve clips into her pants pockets, one in each back pocket and one in the right front. They were heavy.

"Forget them. Too far." She loaded the pistol, click click, one round in the chamber and fifteen in the clip, and stuck it in her waistband. "Besides, they could be in on it."

"I'm going to have a look," the bodyguard said. "Con su permiso."

He left the room, revolver in one hand and walkie-talkie in the other, while Teresa went to the window again. She stood to the side and peeked out. Everything looked to be in order. For a second she thought she saw two shadows moving among the shrubbery, under the big mango trees. That was all, and she wasn't even sure of that.

She tapped the butt of the pistol, resigned. Two pounds of steel, lead, and gunpowder-not much for what they must be organizing for her outside. She took the semanario off her wrist, put the seven silver bangles in her one empty pocket. No need to announce your position.

Her mind was working fast. Numbers pro and con, balances. The possible and the probable. Once again she calculated the distance from the house to the main gate and the walls, and reviewed what she had been recording in her memory these last few days: spots that had some protection and spots that were exposed, possible routes, potential traps. She'd thought about all this so much that even though she was going over it now point by point, she had no time to feel fear. Unless fear, tonight, was the sense of physical helplessness that had come over her-the sense that her flesh was vulnerable and that she was infinitely alone.

The Situation.

That's exactly what this is, she suddenly realized. The truth was, she hadn't come to Culiacan to testify against don Epifanio Vargas, she'd come to hear Pote Galvez say, "We're on our own, patrona." She'd come to feel what she was feeling now-with the SIG-Sauer at her waist, ready to pass the test. Ready to step through the dark doorway that had stood before her for twelve years, stealing her sleep in the dirty gray dawns. And when I see the light of day again, she thought, if I do, everything will be different. Or won't be.

She stepped away from the window, went to the table and took a last swig of tequila. Half my drink, I leave on the table, she thought. For later. She was still smiling inwardly when Pote Galvez appeared in the door. He was carrying an AK-47, and over his shoulder a heavy-looking canvas bag. Teresa's hand went instinctively to the butt of her pistol, but it stopped midway. Not Pinto, she told herself. I'd rather turn my back and let him shoot me than distrust him and have him see it.

"Ande, patrona," the pistolero said. "They've laid a trap for us worse than the Coyote's. Pinches hijos de su madre."

"Federales or guachos Or both?"

"I'd say it's the Federales, and that the others are just watching. But who knows. Should I radio for help?"

Teresa laughed. "Help from who? They all went off to Taqueria Durango for vampire tacos and heads on stakes."

Pote Galvez looked at her, scratched his head with the AK-47, and then managed a smile-simultaneously confused and ferocious.

"That's the truth, mi dona," he said, as the light dawned. "We'll do what we can." And at that, the two regarded each other, one in the light, one in shadow, in a way they never had before. Then Teresa laughed again, sincerely, inhaling air deep inside and with her eyes open, and Pote Galvez moved his head up and down like a man catching a really good joke.

"This is Culiacan, patrona," he said, "and we're going to be laughing out loud in just a minute. I wish those hijos de perra could see you before we burn their asses-or vice versa."

"Well, maybe I'm laughing because I'm scared of dying," she said. "Or scared it'll hurt before I die."

Pote Galvez nodded again. "You're just like everybody else, patrona, what did you think? But dying takes time, so while we're dying-or not-let's make sure we take some others with us."

Listening. Sounds, creaks, the pitter of rain on the windows and roof. Try to keep the pounding of your heart, the throbbing of the blood in the tiny veins that run through the inside of your ears from drowning out all the rest. Calculate every step, every movement of your eyeballs. Motionless, with your mouth dry and tension rising painfully in your thighs and belly to your chest, cutting off the little breathing you still allow yourself. The weight of the SIG-Sauer in your right hand, your palm tight around the butt. The hair you pull back from your face because it gets in your eyes. The drop of sweat running down your forehead to your eye, stinging, that you finally lick up off your lips with the tip of your tongue. Salty. The waiting.

Another creak in the hall, or maybe on the stairs. Pote Galvez' look from the door across the hall-resigned, professional. His misleading bulk kneeling, half his face peering around the door frame, the AK-47 ready, the stock removed to make it easier to handle, a clip with thirty shells clicked into place and another taped on with masking tape, upside down, ready to be turned over and changed the instant the other one empties.

More creaking. On the stairs.

Half my drink, Teresa whispers to herself, I leave on the table. She feels hollow inside, lucid outside. There are no reflections, no thoughts. Nothing but absurdly repeating the chorus of that song and focusing her senses, interpreting sounds and sensations. At the end of the hall, above the opening for the stairs, is a painting: Black stallions galloping over a broad green prairie. In front, a white horse. Teresa counts the horses: four black, one white. She counts them as she has counted the twelve balusters coming off the stairs, the five colors of the stained-glass window that opens onto the garden, the five doors on this side of the hall, the three sconces on the walls, and the one ceiling light. She also mentally counts the round in the chamber and the fifteen in the clip, the first shot double-action and a bit harder, and then the others just fire, one after another, the forty-five in the three reserve clips weighing down her jeans. There's enough, she thinks, although it all depends on what the bad guys bring in. Anyway, Pote Galvez recommended that you squeeze them off one by one. No nerves, no rush, just one by one. They last longer and you waste less. And if the lead runs out, insult them-that hurts, too.

The creaking is footsteps. And they're coming up the stairs.

A head comes up over the landing, warily. Black hair, young. A torso and then another head. They're carrying weapons, and the barrels swing back and forth, looking for something to shoot at. Teresa puts out her arm, looks at Pote Galvez out of the corner of her eye, holds her breath, and pulls the trigger. The SIG-Sauer recoils, spitting bullets like thunderclaps-boom, boom, boom-and before the third report, the hallway echoes deafeningly with the short bursts from Pote's AK-47-ra-a-a-a-ka, ra-a-a-a-ka, ra-a-a-aka-and is filled with acrid smoke.

Through the smoke she sees half the balusters shatter into fragments and splinters-ra-a-a-a-ka, ra-a-a-a-ka-and the two heads disappear, and from downstairs she and Pote hear voices yelling, and somebody running, and Teresa stops shooting and pulls back her weapon, because Pote, with unexpected agility for a man of his size, gets up and runs, bent over, toward the stairway. Ra-a-a-a-ka, ra-a-a-a-a-ka-he fires his AK-47 again, now with the barrel pointing down the stairs, not aiming. Another long burst, then he sticks his hand in the bag over his shoulder, feeling for a grenade, pulls the pin with his teeth-just like in the movies, thinks Teresa-tosses it down the stairwell, turns back, still hunched down, and throws himself down the hall on his belly while the stairs go FMMMM! Through the smoke and the noise and a blast of hot air that hits Teresa in the face, everything on the stairway, horses included, is blown to smithereens.

A la fucking chingada.

Now the lights suddenly go out all over the house. Teresa doesn't know whether that's good or bad. She runs to the window, looks out, and sees that the garden is also dark, and that the only lights are the streetlamps, on the other side of the walls and the gate. She runs, hunched over, back to the door, stumbles over the table and knocks it down, with everything on it- the tequila and the cigarettes, shit!-and throws herself down by the door again, sticking an eye and the pistol out. The hole that was the stairs is weakly lit by the glow from the broken stained-glass window.

"How are you, mi dona7."

It is just a whisper. "Okay," she whispers back. "Fine." The bodyguard says nothing else. She can see his form in the darkness, three paces away, on the other side of the hall. He is wearing a white shirt.

"Pinto," she whispers again. "Your shirt!" They'd be able to see it a mile away.

"Too late to change now," he says. "You're doing fine, mi dona. Make the ammo last."

Why don't I feel any fear? Teresa asks herself. Who the fuck do I think all this is happening to? She touches her forehead with a dry, ice-cold hand, and clutches the pistol with a hand wet with sweat. I wish somebody would tell me which one of these hands is mine.

"The hijos de pitta are coming back," Pote Galvez whispers, swinging his AK-47 out the door.

Ra-a-a-a-ka. Ra-a-a-a-ka. Short bursts, as before, with the 7.62 shells tinkling as they hit the floor, the smoke swirling in the darkness making Teresa's throat itch; blasts from Pote's AK-47, blasts from the SIG-Sauer she holds with both hands-boom, boom, boom, her mouth open so the noise doesn't burst her eardrums-blasts shooting toward the blasts that come from the stairs; the buzz of the bullets passing close by-ziannng, ziannng- and dull, sinister chuffs against the plaster of the walls and the wood of the doors; the clink and crash of breaking glass when the windows on the other side of the hall are hit. The carriage of her pistol locks to the rear, click, click, with no more rounds to shoot, and Teresa is confused for a second, until she realizes what's happened.

She pushes the button to release the empty clip and clicks in another, the one that was in the front pocket of her jeans, and when she frees the carriage it chambers another round. She aims to shoot but waits, because Pote has half his body in the hall and another grenade is rolling toward the stairs, and this time the blast is huge in the darkness, thunderous, truly deafening- FMMMM. Cabrones! When Pote stands up and runs hunched over down to the hole, the AK-47 ready, Teresa stands up too and runs beside him, and they arrive at the destroyed railing at the same time. When they peer over, ready to wipe out anybody that might still be standing, the muzzle flashes from their guns reveal at least two bodies lying in the rubble of the stairway.

Chingale. Her lungs hurt from the gunpowder and smoke. She muffles her coughing the best she can. She doesn't know how much time has passed. She is very thirsty. She is not afraid.

How much ammo, patrona7" "Not much." "Here you go."

In the darkness, she catches two of the full clips Pote Galvez tosses to her, but misses the third. She gropes along the floor for it, then sticks it in one of her back pockets.

"Isn't anybody going to help us, mi dona7."

"Get real."

"The guachos are outside The colonel seemed like a decent man." "His jurisdiction ends at the wall. We're going to have to make it out there."

"No way. Too far." "Yeah. Too far."

Creaking and footsteps. She grips the pistol and aims into the shadows, clenching her teeth. Maybe this is it, she thinks. But nobody comes up. Chale. False alarm.

Suddenly they're there, and she hasn't heard them come up. This time the grenade rolling along the floor is aimed at the two of them, and Pote Galvez has just enough time to see it. Teresa rolls inside, covering her head with her hands, and the explosion lights up the door and hallway like day. Deafened, she takes a few seconds to register that the distant murmur is the sound of the furious bursts of gunfire that Pote Galvez is getting off. I ought to do something, too, she thinks. She gets up, staggering from the shock of the blast, grips the pistol, walks on her knees to the door, puts one hand on the frame for support, stands, steps outside, and starts firing blindly-boom, boom, boom-blasts of gunfire from both sides, the noise growing louder and louder, closer and closer, and all at once she sees black shadows rushing toward her, flashes of orange and blue, boom, boom, boom, and bullets zing

past, ziannnng, and there are chuffs on the walls everywhere, even behind her, to one side, under her left arm, and Pote Galvez'AK-47 joins in-ra-a-a-a-ka, ra-a-a-a-a-ka-this time not short bursts but long, endless ones. Cabrones! she hears him scream, cabrones! and she realizes that something is going wrong, maybe he's been hit, or maybe she has, maybe she herself is dying right now and doesn't know it. But her right hand keeps squeezing the trigger, boom, boom, and she thinks, If I'm shooting I must be alive. I shoot, therefore I am.

Her back against the wall, Teresa rams her last clip into the SIG-Sauer. She has checked herself all over and is amazed not to find a scratch. The sound of rain outside, in the garden. From time to time she hears Pote Galvez groaning through his teeth.

Are you wounded, Pinto?"

. "I fucked up real bad, patrona. I took some lead."

"Does it hurt?"

"Hurts like hell. Why would I tell you no if the answer's yes?"

Pinto." "Si, senora."

"Staying here won't cut it. I don't want them to hunt us down when we're out of ammunition, like rabbits." "Say the word."

The porch, she decides. There's an overhanging roof with shrubbery underneath, at the other end of the hall. The window above it is no problem, because by now there won't be a pane of glass left. If they can make it there, they can jump down and then cut their way through, or try to, and make it to the entrance gate or the wall beside the street. The rain can save their lives as well as it can slow them down. And the soldiers can fire inside, too, she thinks, although that's another risk. There are reporters outside, and people watching. Not as easy as at home. And don Epifanio Vargas can buy a lot of people, although no one can buy everybody.

Can you move, Pinto?" "Yes, patrona. I can." "The idea is the hall window, and then jump." "The idea is whatever you say."

This has happened before, Teresa thinks. Something similar, and Pote Galvez was there that time too. "Pinto." "Sefwra."

"How many grenades are left?" "One."

"Well, go for it."

The grenade is still rolling when they take off running down the hall, and the blast goes off just as they reach the window. Hearing the stutter of Pote's AK-47 behind her, Teresa puts one leg and then the other through the window, being careful not to cut herself on the splinters of glass, but when she puts her left hand down for support, she cuts herself. She feels the thick warm liquid run down the palm of her hand as she swings herself out, and the rain hitting her face. The tiles of the overhang creak under her feet. She sticks the pistol into her waistband before she drops, and she slides along the wet surface, braking at the downspout. Then, after hanging her feet over the edge, she kicks off and drops.

She splashes through the mud, the pistol once more in her hand. Pote Galvez lands beside her. A thump. A groan of pain. "Run, Pinto. Toward the wall."

There's no time. From the house, the cone of light from a flashlight is seeking them out, and the shooting starts again. This time the slugs make a dull sucking sound when they hit mud, a splash when they hit water. Teresa lifts the SIG-Sauer. I hope all this shit doesn't jam it, she thinks. She shoots single rounds, carefully, not losing her head, in an arc, and then throws herself facedown in the mud. Then she realizes that Pote Galvez is not firing. She turns to look at him, and in the distant light from the street sees him sprawled against a porch column.

"I'm sorry, patrona," she hears him whisper. " This time they fucked me good."

"Where?"

"In the gut I don't know whether it's blood or rain, but there's a lot of it, whatever it is."

Teresa bites her muddy lower lip. She looks at the lights on the other side of the gate, the streetlamps that silhouette the palms and mango trees. It will be tough, she sees, to do it herself.

"Your gun?"

"Right there between us. I put in a double clip, full, but it slipped out of my hands when I got shot."

Teresa lifts her head to see. The AK-47 is on the porch steps. A burst of gunfire from the house forces her to duck.

"I can't reach it."

"Well, I'm truly sorry."

She looks toward the street. There is a crowd of people on the other side of the gate. Police sirens are wailing and a voice is yelling through a megaphone, but she can't tell what it's saying. In the trees, to the left, she hears splashing. Footsteps. Maybe a shadow. Somebody trying to get around on the other side of them. I hope those cabrones don't have night-vision goggles, she thinks.

"I need the AK-47."

It takes Pote Galvez a moment to respond. As if he were thinking about it. "I can't shoot anymore, patrona," he finally says. "I don't have the strength but I can try to push it to you."

"Get real, Pinto. They'll kill you if you so much as stick your nose out."

"Fuck 'em. When it's over it's over."

Another shadow splashing around in the trees. Time's running out, Teresa realizes. Two minutes more, and the only way out won't go anywhere anymore. "Pote."

A silence. She has never called him by his name. "Senora."

"Pass me the pinche gun."

Another silence. Raindrops pitter in the puddles and on the leaves of the trees. Then, in the background, the muffled voice of the bodyguard: "It was an honor knowing you, patrona." "Lo mismo te digo." Same here, Pote.

Este es el corrido del caballo bianco, Teresa hears Potemkin Galvez sing softly. And with those words in her ears, breathing great lungfuls of air in fury and desperation, she grips the SIG-Sauer, half stands, and begins to shoot toward the house to cover her man. Then the night bursts forth in gunfire again, and slugs rip into the porch and the tree trunks. And silhouetted against all that she sees the chunky mass of the bodyguard push itself up and limp toward her, heartbreakingly, anguishingly slow, while bullets come at him from every direction, one after another hitting his body, ripping it to pieces like a doll whose joints are being torn apart, until he falls to his knees next to the AK-47. And it is a dead man who, with the last strength of his body, lifts the weapon by the barrel and tosses it away from himself, blindly, in the approximate direction of Teresa, before he rolls down the steps and falls on his face into the mud.

Then she screams: Hijos de toda su puta madre! ripping that last howl up from her belly, emptying the pistol's last shells into the house. Then she throws it to the ground, grabs the AK-47, and takes off running, her feet sinking into the mud, toward the trees to the left, where she saw the shadows before, with the low branches and shrubbery lashing her face, blinding her with splashes of water and rain.

A shadow better defined than others-the AK-47 to her cheek, a short burst of fire that makes the gun hit her chin as it recoils, cutting her. Gunshots behind her and to the side, the gate and wall closer than before, figures in the lighted street, the megaphone still roaring incomprehensibly. The shadow isn't there anymore, and as she runs hunched over, with the AK-47 hot in her hands, Teresa sees a hulking mass. It moves, so without stopping she lifts the gun, turns the barrel, pulls the trigger, and shoots as she passes. I didn't hit it, she thinks when the blast fades away, crouching as much as she can. I don't think I hit it. More gunshots behind her and ziannnng ziannnng near her head, like lead mosquitoes. She turns and pulls the trigger again, and the AK-47 jumps in her hands with its pinche recoil. The flash of her own shots blinds her as she moves away, just as somebody sends a burst of fire where she'd been a second earlier. Fuck yon, cabron. Another shadow in front of her. The sound of footsteps running after her, behind her. The shadow and Teresa fire at each other at point-blank range, so close that she sees a face in the flash of the gunshots: a moustache, eyes wide open, a white mouth. She almost pushes him over with the gun barrel when she runs past, as he falls to his knees among the shrubbery. Ziannnng. More bullets fly past, she trips, rolls along the ground. The AK-47 goes click, click. Teresa rolls over onto her back in the mud and creeps along like that, the rain running down her face, as she pushes the lever, pulls the long double-curved clip out, and turns it around, praying that there's not too much mud in the mechanism. The weapon is heavy on her stomach. The last thirty rounds, she says to herself, sucking on those showing at the top of the clip, to clean them. She pushes the clip in. Click. She pulls back hard on the carriage and lets it go. Click, click. Then, from the nearby gate, comes the admiring voice of a soldier or a cop:

"Orale, mi narca! Show 'em how a Sinaloa girl dies!"

Teresa looks toward the gate, bewildered. Unsure whether to curse or laugh. Nobody is shooting now. She gets to her knees and then stands. She spits out bitter mud that tastes like metal and gunpowder. She runs through the trees, zigzagging, but her splashing makes too much noise. More gunfire behind her. She thinks she sees other shadows slipping along next to the wall, but she's not sure. She fires off a short burst to the right and another to the left, Hijos de puta, she mutters, runs five or six yards more and crouches down again. The rain turns to steam when it hits the hot barrel of the gun. Now she is close enough to the gate and the wall to see that the gate is open.

She can see people out there, lying in the street, crouching behind cars, and can hear the words being repeated through the megaphone:

"Come this way, Senora Mendoza We're from the Ninth District We will protect you"

You could protect me a little more over this way, she thinks. Because I've still got twenty yards to go, and they're the longest twenty yards of my life. Certain that she will never be able to cover that distance, she lies down in the rain and says good-bye, one by one, to the ghosts that have been by her side for so many years. See you there, guys. Fucking pinche Sinaloa, she says- one last parting word.

Another burst of gunfire to her right, and one to her left. Then she grits her teeth and takes off, stumbling in the mud. So tired she falls, or almost does, but then suddenly nobody is shooting. She stops abruptly, surprised, turns around, and sees the dark garden and the back of the house in shadow.

The rain is pelting the ground at her feet as she walks slowly through the gate, still carrying the AK-47, toward the people looking in from outside, guachos in ponchos gleaming with the rain, Federales in street clothes and uniforms, cars with red and blue lights, television cameras, people lying on the sidewalks, in the rain. Flashbulbs.

"Put down the weapon, senora."

She looks into the spotlights that are blinding her, confused. She's unable to understand what the voices are saying. Finally she raises the AK-47 slightly, regarding it as though she'd forgotten she was holding it. It's heavy. Really fucking heavy. So she drops it and starts walking again.

Hijole, she says to herself as she passes through the gate. I am so fucking tired. I hope some pinche hijo de puta has a cigarette.

Afterword

At eight that morning, Teresa Mendoza was driven to the attorney general's office in the Ministry of Justice building, with military vehicles and soldiers in combat gear cutting off all other traffic to Calle Rosales. The convoy roared up with sirens screaming, lights flashing in the rain. Armed men in gray Federales uniforms and green combat fatigues stood guard on the roofs of neighboring buildings, and barriers were set up on Morelos and Rubi streets; the historic old section of the city looked like a city under siege.

From the gate of the law school, where a space for journalists had been cordoned off, we saw her get out of the armored Suburban with blacked-out windows and walk under the arch toward the neocolonial patio with wrought-iron lampposts and stone columns. I was with Julio Bernal and Elmer Mendoza, and we would get only a glimpse of her, lit by photographers' flashbulbs, in her short walk from the Suburban to the arch, sur

rounded as she was by agents and soldiers, and protected from the rain by an umbrella. Serious, elegant, dressed in black, with a dark raincoat, a black leather purse, and a bandaged hand. Her hair combed back with a part down the middle, gathered into a chignon at the nape of her neck, two silver earrings.

"There goes a girl with balls," Elmer said.

She spent an hour and fifty minutes inside, sitting before a commission consisting of the attorney general of Sinaloa, the commander of the Ninth Military District, an assistant federal attorney general who had come in from the Distrito Federal, a local representative to the House of Deputies, a federal representative, a senator, and a notary acting as secretary. And perhaps, as she took her seat and answered their questions, she could read on the table the headline from one of that morning's Culiacan newspapers: "Battle in Chapultepec: Four Federales Killed and Three Wounded Defending Witness-Gunman Also Killed." And another, more sensational: "Narca Slips Through."

Later I was told that the members of the commission, impressed, treated her from the first moment with extreme deference, and that the general commander of the Ninth District apologized for the security lapses, and that Teresa Mendoza listened and then inclined her head a little. And when she concluded her testimony and everyone stood up and she said, Thank you, gentlemen, and walked to the door, the political career of don Epifanio Vargas had been ruined forever.

We saw her reappear outside. She walked under the arch and came out toward the street, surrounded by bodyguards and soldiers, photographers' flashbulbs popping, while the Suburban's engine started and the car rolled slowly forward to meet her. Then I saw her stop and look around, as though she was searching for somebody in the crowd. A face, or a memory. Then she did something strange: she put a hand in her purse, rummaged inside, and took something out, a piece of paper or a photograph, and looked at it for a few seconds. We were too far away, so I pushed forward through the reporters, trying to get a better view, until a soldier stopped me. It might, I thought, have been the old half-snapshot I'd seen her holding during my visit to the house in Colonia Chapultepec. But from that distance, I just couldn't tell.

Then she tore it up. Whichever it was, piece of paper or photograph, I watched her tear it into tiny pieces before letting them fall to the wet ground. Then the Suburban drove up between us, and that was the last time I ever saw her.

That evening, Julio and Elmer took me to La Ballena, Guero Davila's favorite cantina, and we ordered three Pacificos and listened to Los Tigres del Norte sing "Carne Quemada"-"Burned Flesh"-on the jukebox. We drank in silence, looking at other silent faces around us.

I later learned that Epifanio Vargas lost his political position shortly thereafter. He spent time in the Almoloya prison while his extradition to the United States was being processed-an extradition which, after a long and scandalous review, the attorney general denied.

As for the other characters in this story, they each went their own way. Tomas Pestana, the mayor of Marbella, is still leading the city into the future. Former commissioner Nino Juarez is still head of security for a chain of department stores, now part of a powerful multinational corporation. Attorney Eddie Alvarez has gone into politics in Gibraltar, where a brother-in-law of his is the minister of labor and economy. And I was able to interview Oleg Yasikov while the Russian was serving a short sentence at Alcala-Meco for a murky affair involving Ukrainian immigrants and arms trafficking. He was a surprisingly pleasant fellow, and he spoke about his old friend with great affection and almost no inhibitions; he even told me some things of interest that I was able to fit into this story at the last minute.

I have never been able to learn what happened to Teresa Mendoza. There are those who say that she changed her face and identity and now lives in the United States. Florida, they say. Or California. Others claim that she went back to Europe, with her daughter, or son, if she had the baby. They mention Paris, Mallorca, Tuscany, but the fact is, nobody knows anything.

As for me, that last day as I sat before my bottle of beer at La Ballena, in Culiacan, listening to songs on the jukebox with a bunch of moustached, silent Sinaloans, I was sorry I lacked the talent to sum it all up in three minutes of words and music. Mine, for good or ill, was going to be a corrido on paper, more than four hundred pages of it.

You do what you can with what you've got. But I was sure that somewhere near there, somebody was already composing the song that would soon be playing in Sinaloa and all of Mexico, sung by Los Tigres, or Los Tucanes, or some other legendary group. A song those tough-looking individuals with big moustaches, plaid shirts, baseball caps, and blue jeans who surrounded Julio, Elmer, and me in the same cantina-maybe at the same table-where Guero Davila had sat would listen to, their faces stony, and each with a Pacifico in his hand, nodding in silence. The story of the Queen of the South. The corrido to Teresa Mendoza.

La Navata, Spain, May 2002


| Queen of the South |



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