1. The Bottle of Smart Water
Midnight at the AM/PM mini-mart. I ride shotgun in a white 1991 BMW 525i with my crew. My name is Victor Bank; behind the wheel is Mike Elroy; Jeremy Messner and George Olson sit in the back. Twenty minutes ago, we held-up a tweeked-out biker with the Arellano drug cartel for about fifty grand in hard cash and a trunk load of crystal meth.
We park at the AM/PM because George pisses and moans about Smart Water. He's a big dumb Mexican self-conscious about his weight. He's on this health kick and thinks Glaceau Smart Water is a miracle cure for shedding pounds. I look at my cell phone and it's 12:00am. I think about the heist. George is inside the mini-mart and we're waiting on him.
I hate dope, even though part of my racket is selling drugs. I figure anyone stupid enough to use deserves what they get. I'm thinning the herds for polite decent society. The Arellano cartel is a Mexican drug cartel that up until now had business arrangements with me, only I decide I'm ready to strike out on my own.
I look up in the rearview mirror. Through the tinted back window I see two silhouettes creeping up on us, and that's when I recognize the jack.
Get the fuck out of the car, the prick shouts in a heavy Spanish accent as he shoves a .9mm in Mike's face.
Jeremy's Mossberg answers from the back and the prick, the bottom half of his face separates from his head and the side of the car is redecorated red like bad postmodern art.
I have a Sig Pro 2340 .40mm in my lap, cocked and loaded, ready to rock and roll. I raise the Sig but the other prick shoots into the car first. Mike takes one in the shoulder and I blast through the car window and drop the fucker.
George comes running out of the mini-mart with the bottle of Smart Water; runs up to the prick as he's screaming and flopping around on the ground, and - pop, pop - punches his ticket with two to the head.
Mike's bleeding bad.
The car seat's turning red.
I look to my left and see two more car loads - they're all Arellano's boys - Mexicans in cowboy hats, bolos, and white Stetsons. They're chambering their pieces or pumping shotguns. I think I even see one slap a clip into an assault rifle.
George throws open the back door and jumps into the car, Mike hits the gas, and the car peels out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell.
2. Twenty Minutes Ago at the Arellano Stash House
I grab Mark Bishop by his hair and tell him he better be at the fucking stash house to let us in or else. He has blonde hair with highlights. Looking at his hair, sometimes I wonder if he's a fag.
He's part of the college scene - the ones looking to get high on mommy and daddy's dime.
The kids of America.
“You think he'll come through?” Mike says.
Mark owes me a grip of cash. He tells me how he's been moving a lot of product through the campuses and scoring his shit from an Arellano stash house. If I clear his debt, he'll get us through the front door, only he's having second thoughts.
“He better fucking come through,” I say.
Mike says there's a sucker born every minute in Phoenix and Mark's one of them. He calls the suckers quicki-marts: fully stocked, convenient, you're in and out in record time. Jeremy and George give a little snort from the back; nod and smile.
“Drugs are a $65 plus billion industry,” Jeremy says. “The government spends over $49 billion a year in the war on drugs. I'd say that makes them the biggest suckers of all.”
“Forty-nine billion?” I say.
Jeremy says it breaks down to $1,575 dollars spent per second.
The stash house is a grade A shit hole same as all the others around it. The door is full of splinters, the windows barred, the stucco peeling.
We roll up on the house. Everything's dark and quiet. The neighborhood is a Mexican barrio called Naked City that's withered and died off over the years. The streetlights went out or got shot out a long time ago.
We check and re-check our pieces, slip silent and deadly out of the car, creep up to the door. I give the handle a slight turn to see if Mark leaves the door unlocked like he's supposed to, but it isn't. I signal Jeremy to open it the old fashioned way. He blows open the door, we rush in, and inside is a big bad Mexican biker tweeked out of his mind crashing hard from a seven day binger.
The biker, he's armed to the fucking teeth with semi-auto folding-stock SG 551, fully-auto AK-47 with 100-round drum, and S&W .357 magnum. He hides behind a table with Mark's severed head sprawled out in a bloody mess across the top. The head stares sightless back at us. The eyes are rolled up into the back; the stump is bloody and mangled.
We pour through the door, guns blazing, lighting up the place like the Fourth of July. The biker raises the AK-47, moving like a video game on turbo mode. A few of the rounds clip him in the arm, leg, one in the gut, not that it matters because he's superhuman wired on meth and nothing registers. The house is an apocalypse of staccato gun fire, muzzle flashes, smoke, exploding furniture, and blood. Jeremy dives to the floor and pumps a round in his chest dead-on at close range. His chest blows out of his back and splatters against the wall. Jeremy fires point blank at his head and it explodes like a throwback to the movie Scanners.
We round up the meth and cash.
I wait for the others to load the trunk; tell them to hurry.
Police sirens wail in the distance.
3. Psyching the Arellano Posse with the Fake Death Con
I tell Mike to get us the fuck out of here. We're flying down streets, skidding around corners. The tires screech. The car reeks of burnt rubber, blood, and exhaust. I check the rearview mirror and the two cars loaded with Arellano's boys, they're still on our ass.
“C'mon, lose these cock suckers already,” Jeremy screams, when - bang! - a shotgun blast takes out the back window. Before we realize it's happened, Jeremy's shot and George catches a ricochet.
Mike makes a hard right, slams on the brakes and parks. He screams at us to get out of the car. We all scramble out and make a break for it. We dive into some bushes as the two cars whip around the corner. He pops a round into the gas tank and the BMW blows with flames blasting out the windows like giant blowtorches.
The cars screech to a stop and the Mexicans jump out, shielding their faces from the inferno. They're looking around, gibbering back and forth in Spanish. I'm getting worried they won't buy the fake death, when they hop back into their cars, peel out, and pop smoke.
I look at my cell phone and it's 12:10am. I don't like how the shit's going down. I tell the others we need to book. We hear the first of the police sirens; they're getting closer fast. We haul ass down the street in the opposite direction, duck down an alley, as a cop car races past.
The shit's getting real crazy now. I know I need to get busy. The cop doesn't see us, but I know there'll be more. We break through a backyard and run through a vacant lot. The others keep up with me pretty good for being shot, but Jeremy's bleeding worse and Mike's getting dizzy.
Mike says we need to get out of this neighborhood. There are cops everywhere. The Mexicans might be looking for us.
“We should've never fucked with these guys,” George says, holding his left arm where the ricochet nicked him.
Mike tells him to shut the fuck up, and I say wait, let him say his piece, and tell him to say what he's got to say but make it fast.
“The drugs and cash are gone,” he says, “We don't have nothing to show for it.”
I say what's done is done and tell George he still has his life to show for it.
4. Jesus Delgado and the Story of the Pozole Maker
Out of the blue it pops into my head: the story about the pozole maker. It's a story this kid tells me while I'm in Tijuana conducting business with Arellano. For some reason, with all the shit going down, I can't help but think about it.
The kid's name is Jesus Delgado. He used to work for Teodoro “El Teo” Simental, one of Arellano's former lieutenants until he decides to come into his own much the same way as I do.
They call Tijuana 'la linea,' a collection of emergency architecture, where the aesthetic of chaos and improvisation meet.
To me, it's just another shithole.
The kid asks me if I've ever heard of pozole - do I know how to make it? I tell him no. He says you take 2 pounds lean beef, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 large onion, 1 clove garlic, salt, pepper, cilantro, 1 can hominy, 1 can stewed tomatoes, 2 ounces tomato paste.
“Dump the ingredients in a large cooking pot and stir repeatedly,” he says.
Stir to perfection.
He says this is the secret to making pozole.
You got to blend it together into an unrecognizable chili mush, similar to a body that turns to sludge when it's boiled in an acid bath.
Then he asks me, “You ever heard of the pozole maker?”
The kid's eyes grow wide; he's high as a kite. He tells me the pozole maker's name is Santiago Meza Lopez - El Pozolero del Teo - Teo's stew maker.
The kid says picture this, and makes a frame with his hands the way Hollywood directors do: “The pozole maker standing inside a shack built of cement blocks, hunched over a large metal drum canister… and next to the drum is a heavy duty black plastic Hefty bag bulging with what look like thick sticks. It's nighttime and in the distance a coyote howls beneath a gibbous moon. The pozole maker works for El Teo for $600 a week. He opens the lid to the drum, fills it with 200 liters of water, pours in two sacks of caustic soda. The drum is situated on top of a grill over a cinder block fire pit. There's a small pile of wood scraps, pieces of furniture, and odds and ends of trash inside the pit that he sprays with lighter fluid and sets on fire.”
I think the kid has a gift for storytelling, the way Clive Barker would on crack. The kid tells me how El Teo is at a beach party one night and says he wants a gun. The kid says picture El Teo look to his top lieutenant, Raydel 'Muletas' Uriarte. Gathered around El Teo are his FEM thugs decked out in uniforms - the ones with the patches that have a skull and crossed crutches on them - which is supposed to symbolize all the carnage they cause. Picture a hooker pouring some coke on her tits. She walks up to El Teo, he buries his face in her tits, snorts, and he says 'I want a new gun… something fancy, exotic.'
The kid says Tijuana is a literal and veritable feast of flesh.
He says this is a power struggle between two giants.
This is the way Godzilla lays waste to a city when fighting Rodan.
Extortion is business as usual, he says.
Kidnapping = mucho $$$.
They keep them locked in cages.
There's a cage for every hideout in the city.
They lock them up like animals until the ransom is paid.
“The acid bath is starting to boil now and the pozole maker is opening the bag and pulling out the secret ingredients to his recipe… one head, one torso, two feet, two hands, two arms in four pieces, from wrist to elbow and from elbow to shoulder, two legs in four pieces, from ankle to knee and from knee to thigh.”
The kid says this is what happens when you fuck up a job. There's cause and effect, but there's also choice in the world, and it's a series of choices that triggers a chain reaction of cause and effect that snuffs out an innocent life. They don't bother locking you in a cage and ransoming you when you screw the pooch because you're poor and nobody important and nobody will miss you. The problem with this is everyone has family or friends or people who know them somewhere.
Even the devil has a father.
Muletas sends the kid to pick up the gun from a gun shop in Phoenix called Cross Hairs. El Teo wants a fancy gun, so the kid tells me how Muletas puts in a special order for a 24 karat gold-plated Desert Eagle XIX .50AE cal.
'You go to Phoenix… hey pendejo, you listening to me?' Muletas says. He gives the kid a little smack in the face to get his attention. 'You go to Phoenix, pick up the shipment, and bring it back. Trabajo fácil. You do this, and we pay you four hundred. This gun is muy importante to the jefe, so don't fuck it up, comprender?'
They call it a 'straw buy:' you pay a U.S. buyer with a clean record to purchase the guns; you pay someone like the kid to smuggle them across the border; you need approval from the Mexican Defense Department to buy a firearm in Mexico; you can't buy anything larger than a .38 caliber because larger calibers are for military use only, so you go to the United States where it's everyone's God given right to bear arms.
Problem is, the kid says he does exactly what Muletas tells him not to do and ends up botching the job, but he manages to smuggle the Desert Eagle across.
“Now picture the pozole maker taking the pieces out of the plastic Hefty bag… they've been washed and drained of blood as much as possible, the way whole pieces of chicken and pork look all packaged nice and neat behind the glass case of a changarros. He takes each piece out one at a time and drops them into the acid bath, cooks them for eight hours, stirring constantly, to perfection, and when there's nothing left except human sludge, teeth and nails, he cools the liquid and pours it into a plastic bin, then burns it with gasoline.”
The kid says sometimes instead of burning the remains, the pozole maker buries the plastic bin. Or sometimes, he gives the bin back to El Teo's thugs and they leave it outside a restaurant or on a busy street with a note attached warning "anyone who works for Arellano will be turned into pozole."
I tell the kid to tell me more about the guns he smuggles; to stop flip-flopping back and forth between stories, but he's high as a kite. He snorted five big fat rails of coke one after the other. He says stay with him, it will all make sense at the end.
“And now picture a beautiful woman, Maria Delgado, waving a photograph in front of the pozole maker's face. She's part of the Citizens United Against Impunity, and she's with dozens of other families whose relatives have disappeared without a trace in Tijuana. She's waving the photo because the pozole maker gets busted by the Mexican military and federal police on his way to a beach party, along with a hooker and two of El Teo's thugs. They're armed to the teeth with AK-47's, body armor, and hand grenades, but after a short chase, they give up without a fight. The next day, the pozole maker's taken to the cement shack, where he's lined up in front of reporters and all the families like a man awaiting execution before a firing squad.”
The kid tells me how he drives to one of El Teo's hideouts - a little shithole changarros tucked away in a narrow alley barely noticeable from the street, lost amid the refuse of shanty houses. Muletas stands outside. The kid follows him inside and they pass a glass display case in back packed with chicken feet, pig snouts, pig ears, pig hooves; whole chickens with heads cut and guts still intact; pig heads and pig stomach and hind pig legs; various slabs of raw beef.
They squeeze into a claustrophobic storeroom. Muletas opens a door at the back and they descend into a dank, musty earthen basement. El Teo waits in front of a row of grimy kennels for big dogs. Three light bulbs dangle from electrical cords in the ceiling that cast three dim spots of light on the floor and shadow everywhere else. Something stirs in one of the cages, but the kid says he can't tell what it is. He shows the Desert Eagle, and El Teo takes the gun and says, 'Excelente… you did good… it's a beautiful weapon, no?'
Muletas says yes, but the kid, he can't bring himself to answer and only nods his head. El Teo slowly walks toward the kennel where the kid says he notices the movement.
'Now, of course, mi amigo, I will not be paying you for this,' El Teo says. The kid tells me he hears the sound of bullets loaded into a clip. His legs want to give out beneath him. 'The guns you lost were worth roughly five thousand dollars, American… so the next jobs you must do for no pay until your debt is no more.'
The kid tells me El Teo pauses in front of the kennel, and says over his shoulder, 'I assume you do not have a problem with this arrangement, sí?' and the kid says he just nods his head, because what else is he going to do.
He says he hears the distinct click of a magazine insert into a gun, then the sound of the slide pulled back and a round chambered.
'Come here,' El Teo says. Muletas shoves the kid forward. 'Over here, I want to show you something.'
The kid says he sees the kennel more clearly now. A man crouches inside with a plastic grocery bag hanging loosely over his head. The man begs and pleads, but his mouth is gagged.
'Eh, hermano?' El Teo says, aims, and fires. The man's head blows apart and he slumps over, twitching around like a fish out of water. El Teo pulls the bag off and blood gushes all over the ground, rushing up to the kid's feet.
There are 5,300+ drug-related murders in Mexico in 2008, the kid says.
This makes the cocaine cowboys of the 80's look like Sunday school.
“But despite it all, the pozole maker still asks for forgiveness. He wants fucking redemption. It was just a job. He says he felt no ill will toward them… it was just a job. But Maria Delgado's heart is closed. She doesn't want to forgive, she just wants to know. And now picture her, in the final closing scene, she's begging him to look at the photo but her voice is swallowed into the babel of all the other families petitioning the same. She's waving the photo at him but the picture only bleeds into a sea of others.”
The kid fights back tears and his voice is getting squeaky. I'm not sure he's going to hold on long enough to tell the rest, but he chokes down the hate and anger long enough to finish.
“She muscles her way in closer, and she's in front of him now, screaming at him, screaming louder than all the others. She shoves the photo in his face, the photo of her husband Emanuel Delgado, father of two beautiful daughters, eldest brother of five, mi hermano, demands and screams, slaps the photo in his face with all the fury and scorn and pent-up rage the way we imagine God's wrath as fitting. And he sees the photo and takes it from her hands. He lowers his head, nodding solemnly. She collapses to her knees, she knows now, she doesn't understand why, but she picks herself back up anyway.”
5. End of the Road but the Ride doesn't End
I snap out of memory lane and I spot a 1995 Ford Escort parked across the street under a blown-out street light, in front of a dark house with a foreclosure sign posted in the yard. The car's a bucket and looks like it's been parked there for a week. I think fuck it, it'll have to do. I smash the driver window and I'm on the floor underneath the steering column pulling down wires, trying to hot wire the thing.
I start the car; scoop up the crew. We get a few miles when I see blue lights in the rearview mirror. The cop car roars up behind us and the siren starts wailing. There's a digital clock in the dash next to the radio that reads 12:30am. I slow down and pull over. George wants to know what I'm doing, why I'm pulling over. Mike and Jeremy tell him to shut the fuck up, and Mike turns to me and says What's the plan?
I wait until the cops get out. One hides behind the driver side door with his gun trained on us; the other passes between the cars from the passenger side shouting at me to turn off the car, for all of us to put our hands out the windows. Mike asks again what's the plan and I look to him and smile, throw the clutch in reverse, and hit the gas. I see the cop fall and can hear him screaming under the car. There's a thump, thump, sound and the car bounces like we just ran over two speed bumps really fast, and the cop's not screaming anymore.
The Escort smashes the front of the cop car and I throw it in drive. The cop hiding behind the driver side door starts unloading into the back windshield. Jeremy slumps forward as the whole interior explodes in red, dripping blood and brain matter. I wish it was George instead. I throw the car in reverse again and gun it at the door. The cop tries to jump into the cruiser but isn't quick enough and the door, it mashes him into the frame. The door rips away as the Escort scrapes across the side of the cop car and the cop's mangled body falls out.
I throw the clutch back in drive and haul ass out of there. I get Dr. Ling on the phone, our fix-it man, and tell him we're coming in hot. I drive to Ling's, pull around to the back, unload the crew and Jeremy's body. Ling is ranting in Chinese because he hates it when I dump him with a body. I clean up inside while Ling patches up the others, clean the Escort as best I can, then drive it out to the desert and burn it.
I walk through the desert, it's pitch black, but I can still make out outlines and shapes against the darkness. Phoenix glows in the distance like a circuit board of winking lights. I head back to the city, thinking about my all night death bout. I'm thinking about Jesus Delgado and how he got his brother killed. I cover maybe a hundred yards when the car finally blows behind me; lights up like a beacon in the middle of the desert. There's a big square box looking shape ahead. I'm tempted to look at my cell phone to check on the time, but I'm pretty sure it's after 1:00am.
A row of floodlights spring on and the box shape, it turns out to be a police SUV. The cops have been sitting there the whole time, probably waiting to bust teenagers out getting liquored up in the desert before a little target practice on the cactuses. The inferno I've started still rages behind me. The lights shine on me, the SUV starts up. I draw my Sig, chamber it, and I say shit, here we go again, alright mother fuckers, give me your best shot. I'm tired of walking through the desert anyway, and I need a new ride.