Since all is well, keep it so:
Wake not a sleeping wolf.
But the very hairs of your head
are all numbered.
Two men came looking for me in Los Cabos. I do not know who they were. At first, Carlos thought they were surfers: their chiseled faces, tapered frames, and long, sun-bleached hair typified the dozens of wave-jocks who dropped into the cantina each year with the onset of hurricane season. And yet—these men were oddly different. Unlike the usual crowd, they wore no baggy shorts, Day-Glo wetsuits, or tie-dyed tank tops, but dusters. Gray, canvas neck-to-knee dusters. Even in the coolest of Baja mornings, such attire is superfluous. When the two men started asking questions about me, Carlos grew suspicious. After seating them out on the terrace, he rushed back into the kitchen and called me.
The phone rang in the darkness. Opening my eyes, I saw a thin beam of sunlight piercing the shade on the trailer door. Dust sparkled in its narrow path as it slanted across the room, a pile a clothes, the bedpost, a tattooed ankle at the end of my mattress.
The girl moaned as I reached over her for the phone. Carlos was jabbering before the receiver even reached my ear. His voice was hushed but excited.
“Zip, you get down here fast! Two men—they ask about you!”
“What men?” I rasped from my sandpapered throat. “Americans?”
“I think so, but I no sure. They ask me many questions.”
I sat up. “What kind of questions?”
“Questions like—you know Zip McClanahan? Is there where he work?”
I loosened my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “So what did you tell them?”
“Nada. I pretend I speak no English. But then—” he hesitated.
“They ask me in español!”
Español. I massaged my throbbing temples in an effort to kick-start my brain. “You think they’re policia?”
“No. And no federales, either. They too blanca.”
So they weren’t cops. I dropped to the next on the list. “How about reporters?” I asked. “Do you think—”
“No, no,” he said. “Zip, you know if they reporters, I would lie. But I am afraid to lie to these men. There is something about them that frightens me. They are very big...even taller than you. And very—how you say—different.”
“I don’t get you, amigo.” I said. “What do you mean—‘different’?”
He told me about their hair, their ice-blue eyes, the overcoats.
“Yeah, I guess that sounds weird,” I responded, “but so what…maybe they’re afraid of getting sunburned.”
“Our Father, who art in—”
“Carlos! What the hell are you doing?”
“What does it sound like I’m doing? I pray. You come now!”
“Pray? What’s so wrong that you need God’s help?”
A second of silence. “I am ashamed to tell you.”
“Oh. Well, okay then, I’m going back to sleep.”
“No!” He waited a moment, then started back at a whisper. “Zip, these men—I think they are…” He paused.
“Spit it out—”
“Angeles!” I think they are—angels.”
I groaned. “Aw, Carlos, it’s too early for this stuff.”
“What? You think I crazy? Oh no, I no crazy. Zip, these men—they shine.”
“Well, it’s a bright day, amigo.”
“No, es not the sun that gives them light. If they are—”
“If they’re angels,” I said, “they’re a long way from heaven.”
“And they looking for you,” he said.
Silence filled the line. “Zip?”
I sighed. “So what else did they say?”
“Not a lot. All they ask is ‘Donde esta Zip McClanahan? Esta aqui where he work?’ When I no answer, they look at each other, then ask me again. “Zip, por favor—you come now. And fast. I afraid.”
By the time we hung up my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. I pulled on the previous night’s clothes, moistened my mouth with a beer, and fished my .32 out from under the bed. Angels or not, this sinner wasn’t ready for heaven.
* * *
Pebbles popped in a wake of dust as I swung the pickup off the access road and onto the blistering Pacific Coast Highway. I checked my watch: not even nine a.m., and already the desert burned white hot. Heat waves rippled off the asphalt as I gunned the blunt-nosed Ford north towards the cantina. How could anyone stand to wear an overcoat on a day like this?
Unless they were hiding something. Shotguns, maybe? Probably not. At this time of day, there’d be nothing in the cash register, and if these guys were in fact robbers, why would they ask for me? So maybe they were reporters. Maybe they had a whole television studio wired under those coats. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody had tried the hidden camera trick on me. A few years earlier, while I tended bar one Saturday night in a northern California rock club, a cute redhead with a pre-fab nose sashayed in and tried to flirt a history out of me between drink orders. Though I took her interest as a compliment, I dodged her little interrogation as best as civility would allow—that is, until the band broke and I heard a whirring sound escaping her Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. When the bouncer came over to escort the lady and her video camera off the premises, the rest of her tabloid TV crew barged in and let the whole place in on who I was. I had to quit on the spot.
Well, this time I wasn’t resigning. I’d gone as far as they could push me. The next person who shoved a camera in my face was getting his or her ass kicked all the way to the U.S. border. Banging the truck into fourth, I buried the gas pedal and left a six-foot long strip of tire on the searing Highway 1. At this time of day the road was deserted; most of the surfers had hit the beach at sunrise, and anyone chartering a fishing rig had left long before that. Just north of the Hotel Pamilla, I passed a tractor hauling a wagon filled with straw and little brown children, and a mile beyond that a couple of cyclists changing a flat. I slowed as I approached them, but they waved me on. From there on lay nothing but sand, stone and scrub until the cantina.
* * *
Carlos stood waiting for me in the shade of the palm awning, his thick thumbs tucked between his stained apron and bloated belly. As soon as my tires hit the gravel he came running across the parking lot, hands flailing.
“Did you see them?” he cried as I killed the engine. “Did you see them?”
“See them where?”
“They just left! Maybe three minutes ago! They go south.”
I shook my head. “They didn’t come my way.”
His eyes widened. “You had to see them! There was nowhere else for them to go.”
“Maybe they pulled into the Hotel.”
“No. They no have time. You had to—” his voice trailed off as he stepped forward and gazed towards the little hill cresting the road. They just…disappear.”
I started a snicker, then stifled it. Down here on Baja, where they planted shrines at the scenes of fatal auto wrecks and found the Madonna’s face in scrub trees, folks took their superstitions seriously. Carlos was as religious as the rest of them, and ridiculing his beliefs would do nothing but my dent my last surviving friendship. As he made the sign of the cross, I slipped across his shadow, walked through the empty barroom and onto the terrace.
They had taken a table by the seawall. A glass pitcher stained with mango pulp sat on the checkered tablecloth, flanked by a couple of clay mugs. One mug pinned some dollars to the table; the other a folded newspaper. I picked up the paper and opened it. The sports section of the Houston Chronicle.
I took the paper back into the cantina and spread it out on the bar. Carlos was in the kitchen now, rattling off Hail Marys in Spanish. “Put on some coffee,” I called to him, and glanced out the front door. The identity of the two visitors still puzzled me, but I wasn’t going to let it ruin my morning. After two years in Cabo most of the locals knew my name, if not my history. If these guys really wanted me, they would find me.
At least they’d left the sports section. Though two days old, it would still provide a good companion to breakfast. Rarely did I read American papers anymore, though not from their lack of availability. Gringos were always leaving papers and magazines in the bar, and on the sidewalk outside the tourist bureau there stood at least a half-dozen newspaper boxes vending a variety of Yankee rags. But the concern for things American had long gone out of me. No longer did I care about riots, strikes, abortion, space shuttles and Supreme Court decisions, and I sure as hell didn’t care about American politics. As the locals liked to say, if it didn’t put a peso in the pocket or a fish on the hook, it wasn’t worth the worry.
But this morning, there was one desire the paper could fulfill. The NFL season was ten weeks deep, and I longed to see the passing stats.
I found them on the second page, where a sidebar posted the numbers on every NFL quarterback, including his attempts, completions, touchdowns, and total yards. Just as I’d expected, Jim Gilman of the Raiders capped in boldface the top of every category. He was having a tremendous year: 3,785 total passing yards, 28 touchdowns, a mere 2 interceptions. He’d even rushed for over 300 yards. With numbers like that, he was a shoo-in for All-Pro. Hell, he’d probably even win the Super Bowl.
Damn it all.
I checked the league standings. In the NFC East, Dallas looked like a playoff lock, while the Giants sat in a three-way tie for second place with Washington and Philadelphia. In college ball, USC led both the AP and UPI polls. I scanned the entire page for any mention of West Texas State, but there was nothing.
I turned the page, found a few editorials, some letters to the editor, and a column of fillers entitled “Sports Shorts.” I was just about to fold it up when one of the small headings caught my eye.
Police Continue Reporter’s Death Investigation
I pulled it closer.
JUPITER FALLS, Conn., Nov 18—A spokesman for the New Haven County Task Force on Crime announced today that local police were stepping up their investigation into the recent murder of former ESPN sports reporter and WNHC anchorwoman Kerry Dalton. In an afternoon press conference, Jupiter Falls Police Chief Mario Cholo said detectives had been pursuing several strong leads in the case and were close to arresting a suspect in the brutal slaying.
Ms. Dalton, whose body was discovered in a high school football stadium on November 10, was buried last Friday in a ceremony attended by state and local dignitaries. On Thursday, the annual Thanksgiving Day Football Game will be played in her honor.
I started to read it again, but suddenly my head got light and the room began to spin. I grabbed onto the bar and tried to straighten my legs, but my knees felt like rubber. I was going to get sick.
I made it to the seawall just in time. Everything inside me came up and out. After a while the retches turned to sobs. When it finally stopped I slid down to the stones and sat there—frozen and empty—while the sun dried the tears from my face. A sick emptiness enveloped me; I felt like a broken, discarded puppet. Lifting my eyes, I gazed through my misty grief into the bar. The newspaper was scattered over the floor.
So Kerry was dead.
Murdered. In Jupiter Falls.
Somehow I always knew I was going back there again. The day had finally come.