On the Streets of Ocosingo, Chiapas
Twisting in his saddle, Roberto Gonzalez looked back as if he had heard one last protesting squawk from his wife, Elena, back at the church courtyard. Satisfied that it was his imagination playing tricks on him, Roberto spurred his mount forward and started looking for the metal posting rail that Counts Ambros and Erros told him about. Street urchins stared up at him, their grimy hands shielding black and brown sullen eyes from the sun’s late afternoon glare. His own eyes protected by w wide-brimmed hat, Roberto scanned the row of buildings before him. A boy’s voice welled up from the stink of the street.
“Señor, may I take a picture of your Andalusian?”
Roberto reined in his horse and leaning sideways saw a ten-year-old boy dressed in navy blue slacks, a white polo shirt; a straw sombrero hung down his back. In his hands, he clutched a small camera.
“Please, Señor? It’s for a class project. We hardly ever see horses like this in the city. It won’t take long.”
Dismounting, Roberto stood by his horse, holding the reins loosely as he waited for the child to focus the lens and then snap the picture. Behind him, the landowner heard myriad noises and then a loud explosion. His horse bolted.
“Whoa! Whoa there,” he yelled in vain as he fell forward, smacking his head against the horse’s right flank and blacking out. Blotches of red, black, and yellow seared his inner eyes while the rest of his body lay numb and unresponsive. A sudden breeze played with his stray bits of hair while the coolness of the wind’s breath upon his face gently nudged him awake. Coughing, Roberto spat out.
“Where am I?”
“With us,” an unfamiliar and gruff voice said. “The Chiapas paramilitary. The mayor wants your help in exchange for your legal return to Chiapas. Is it a deal or do you die on the spot?”
Coughing up more saliva, Roberto spat and the soldier dodged a spit ball.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” the soldier said. “Behave yourself and I’ll untie you.”
Sitting up with a bit of help from the soldier, Roberto took in his surroundings and soon noticed the boy who had stopped him.
“An associate?” he asked, nodding toward the child.
The soldier swung his head and saw the boy.
“Jesus, come here, and meet Señor Roberto Gonzalez, a fugitive from the law.” he said and then laughed.
With measured steps, the boy Jesus inched forward until he stood alongside Roberto. Jesus’ eyes scoured the man and he took in every detail of this wealthy landowner so when Camazotz quizzed him later, he could answer all his questions. Jesus lifted his camera and snapped a picture.
“Here comes the first picture, now,” Count Ambros said.
“Is it our friend, Roberto?”
“Yes, and he’s found the military for us as well. The boy Jesus serves us well. We should award him and make him one of us.”
Erros eyed Ambros as his friend’s eyes lingered over their mutual partner, Roberto.
“Wonder where he stowed his wife?”
“Ask Jesus. Maybe he knows. He’s resourceful enough to find out. Or ask Chilam Balam. He gets around with his people. I bet he could find out as well.”
“You’ve left out Tairino. I bet he would know.”
“Shall I ask him? Our mutual friend wanted a quick visit to the ruins, and so Tairino obliged and took him. Let me see where they may be,” Erros said.
Both counts sent out energy waves, waiting for one of the waves to bounce back after striking a solid object. The pictures from Jesus kept coming and showed that their intended victim was now firmly in the hands of the militia, and out of action. Finally, a detected clunk returned an echo. Erros and Ambros stopped scanning the photo images of Roberto and concentrated on the returned echo. The echo soon reappeared as a shaky image, but enough of it was discerned as a shape of woman.
“Who the hell is that and why is she with Tairino and Cardinal Michaels? Isn’t he celibate? And isn’t Tairino committed to Miriam Coleman?”
“A nice threesome,” Ambros said. “But unfortunately out of our hands. So where does that leave us?”
“Francesca Coleman? She was last seen with Elena.”
“In which case, her father can take care of her. Let’s meet up with the militia and see if we can help the mayor out of her predicament.”
The counts caught up with the militia at San Cristoal de las Cases near its infamous church. Under floodlights, soldiers were at work in the courtyard and inside the church, searching for traces of Father Valorous’ departed congregation. An officer stood in the middle of the yard. Propped up against him like a rag doll was Roberto Gonzalez, wearing a lopsided grin. Holding his hand was Jesus, who had a new camera hanging around his neck.
“A Kodak moment,” snickered Count Ambros.
“Let’s see if the troops require our expertise in looting, ravishing, and debauchery,” Erros added in a snide voice.
As the two counts approached the threesome, one of the soldiers cried out from the belfry and held aloft a huge silver cross. In his other gloved hand, the soldier held dried guano. He tipped his palm, and the dried guano spilled to the ground and scattered into tiny pellets. Erros ran up to the dung. Bending his head he sniffed and gagged.
“They were here,” he said to the officer. “How could you’ve let them slip away? I see no staircase except the one through that door.”
The officer, a captain who had years ago despaired of ever being again promoted, left Gonzalez and Jesus and walked tiredly toward the count. He knelt by the fine dried pieces of shit, examining them carefully.
“It could be just bats roosting in the belfry, but that silver cross is a huge giveaway”
Turning toward a sergeant, he ordered, “Continue searching the grounds and bring me anything that’s suspicious. Scan the grounds and bring me anything that’s suspicious.“”
Turing back toward the counts, the officer eyed their black cloaks, gloved hands, and stylish vaquero clothes.
“You two shouldn’t be out at this time of night. Even with us. The rebels are as well armed as we, and for the cartels. . ”
Looking toward his sergeant again, the captain shouted, “Keep looking. They may have left something behind by mistake.”
The voice came from the belfry. The soldier who found the silver cross held up an old-fashioned gas mask once used by the resistance fighters in Romania and now a relic of a by-gone age. Count Ambros stared at the gas mask dangling in the soldier’s hand and his sharp bat eyes discerned a strand of hair clinging to the inside of the helmet.
“Toss it down. There’s something I want to see,” he said, forcing a calm voice.
Beside him, Erros’ body shuddered as if a cross was thrust through his heart, deadening him permanently. The soldier threw down the mask and the sergeant caught it. Turning, he handed it to the captain who presented it to Ambros, who visibly recoiled as he took it. A single blonde strand of hair clung to the inner part of the helmet.
“Anyone we know?” Erros breathed into Ambros’ ear.
“Yes, but I’m not sure how it got here.”
“We could ask Roberto. He looks dazed, but otherwise alert. You think it’s Elena’s hair?”
Ambros shook his head.
“My gut tells me it belonged to an erstwhile religious sister of ours that we cast out of flock two hundred years ago, a Sister Bagdona.”
Thunder boomed two kilometers away. A few drops of rain, the vanguard of the approaching storm, fell. The sergeant motioned for the soldiers to take shelter indoors. His captain took Roberto by the arm and followed. Jesus had already scampered inside.
“We should get into the church and wait out the storm,” Ambros said to Erros.
A corporal glanced up at the sky, grunted, and then signaled for three men to follow him around to the back of the church. The corporal took one long look, and then ordered one soldier to run back to the church and get the captain. When he arrived back, he was accompanied not only with the captain, but the entire militia. Like his corporal, the captain was astonished to find the army truck gone. It took a moment for him to figure out that Father Valorous and his group had quietly driven away in it while he and his men were making a commotion in front of the church.
“We’ll commandeer the trespassers’ truck and follow the hill road toward Palenque,” he told Erros and Ambros. “We’ll check at each of the bus stops that tourists take and hopefully find the trespassers before they join the Zapatistas at the main demonstration. It’s bad enough that the locals have additional help from outside agitators without bringing in the government troops. ”
The captain motioned for the sergeant to drive and climbed in the front passenger seat. The other soldiers, along with Erros and Ambros, hurriedly climbed into the back of the cold-storage truck. The rain began falling harder, hardly a good omen at the beginning of a six-hour trip on a narrow and twisting highway.
As the truck pulled onto the road, Ambros closed his eyes while his fingers nervously tapped out an intricate code of warning to Father Valorous and his flock that the militia followed behind them. The first eighty-two kilometers went by without incident. But twenty minutes later, their luck changed when a pickup truck pulled across the road and blocked it. A bandito armed with an AK-47 sprinted toward the front of the truck.
“Don’t shoot,” yelled the captain, who was overwhelmed with frustration. His men had the firepower to prevail but only at the cost of his life and that of his sergeant.
Masked boys with machetes wrenched opened the rear door and demanded the soldier’s weapons, automatic rifles, money, and jewelry. Erros and Ambros willed themselves not visible and watched the banditos punch and shout at the soldiers. Their leader tied the captain’s hands behind his back and forced him into the front seat of the pickup. The bandits finished looting the truck, took the ignition key, and ordered the soldiers to take off their boots and uniforms, which became part of the plunder. They piled into the bed of the pickup, which sped away, its rear tires spinning a bit on the pavement, now slick with rain and mud. The soldiers stood there in their underwear, deeply embarrassed at their humiliation but also deeply grateful that they hadn’t been killed and beheaded.
The two counts lifted off, leaving the Chiapas paramilitary soldiers standing in the rain and looking befuddled. Erros and Ambros flew toward Palenque, where they knew Father Valorous and his flock waited.
Camazotz watched as the two counts abandoned their recent charges, including Roberto Gonzalez and Jesus, who were left behind at the church in the mad rush to the truck. Roberto, still unsteady, rose to his feet and blindly stumbled toward the front door of the church. He pushed it opened, staggered into the vestibule and looked up at the stone stairs as if they could provide him an answer to his predicament. Behind him, he thought he heard footsteps mimicking his entry into the church. Turning, Roberto glared into the black vista behind him and shouted.
No answer came from the darkness, except the growl of thunder as the storm made its way across the land. Satisfied that he was alone, Roberto proceeded to climb the steps to the belfry, hoping to sleep the remainder of the night and catch the daily bus in the morning. As he reached the top, he stumbled over a black cape at the side of a step. Wrapping it around his body as the temperature cooled, he sat down on the floor and leaned his head against one of the wooden partitions. Again, he heard the faint noise of feet upon the stairs leading up to hiding place. And again, he shouted out into the darkness.
No one answered, but Roberto thought heard a sigh as if something were debating whether or not to reveal his presence. Finally, after many agonized seconds, he heard a boy’s voice, the same voice that had asked his permission to take a picture of his prized Andulasia horse.
“Señor, it’s me, Jesus Costilla. Chilam Balam sent me to help you escape the reach of the Chiapas authorities. If you come with me now, you’ll be able to stop your wife and her friends from taking back the land from your noble family and others like you.”
“Who are you?” Roberto asked with a raspy voice. “Why are you here now?”
Jesus’ soft boyish voice came out of the darkness giving Roberto a too-adult response.
“I came because you summoned me. I service those who can use me to their fullest capacity. I’m here because Chilam Balam truly cares for you, as does Count Erros and Count Ambros. I am here as their servant.”
Jesus’ voice stopped like a windup talking doll. Roberto’s eyes scoured the area around him, and he wrapped the black cape around his body for protection. The padded steps of the boy came closer, and a small damp hand fell on Roberto’s shoulder.
A shudder whipped through his body, and as the boy squatted by his side Roberto heard a sudden click. A pale yellow light pierced the belfry’s blackness. Roberto looked full faced at the boy. His smudged white polo shirt and muddy pants suggested that the boy hadn’t entered the church or its belfry by climbing the stairs. Looking past the boy’s face, Roberto willed himself to sound casual and asked.
“Is there another way to get out of this church so no one can see you?”
“Yes, if you know where to look.”
“Do you know where to look?”
“Señor, what do I get out of this?”
Seizing his arm, Roberto twisted it behind Jesus’ back.
“You show me how to get out of here without being noticed for starts. Next, we’ll pick up my horse – if he’s still there in the marketplace.”
Wincing, Jesus nodded his head.
“The Andalusian is still there. I swear by my mother’s grave.”
“Good, then you and I are going on a little trip. I need to get to Palenque. It seems that the rebels have plans to take my land. I’ve got others waiting for me to stop them. Now, little boy, can you help me?”
Jesus licked his lips and locked his eyes with Roberto.
“One phone call. That’s all I need to do. I can help you get what you want and what you deserve, Señor. All I need is to make one phone call and take one picture. That’s all I need.”
Roberto released the boy’s arm. After rubbing it for a moment, Jesus pulled from his back back pocket a cell phone. Watching the boy’s every move, Roberto saw Jesus’ fingers punched out a phone number. Both waited as the phone rang, and rang, and rang.
“You sure they’re expecting your call?” Roberto asked, his voice tense yet mocking.
Jesus nodded his head, his eyes glued to the phone. A ragged voice answered
“Don’t move. We’re almost there.”