Coffee and Calamity
The problem with getting old, Clacher had decided by midmorning, was the assumption that the “older generation” possessed wisdom, restraint, and patience simply by virtue of age. At nearly sixty, Clacher was beginning to doubt he’d acquired any of these qualities; and, while this lack of development didn’t bother him on a regular day, today was not a regular day.
It all started when a Russian cut in front of him on the way to Flo’s. He slammed on his brakes and swerved toward the shoulder to keep from rear-ending the man. Of course, he hadn’t known then that the man was Russian. He simply blasted his horn a few times and continued driving. But at Flo’s, the man walked in, tall and heavy set. Middle aged, but by no means old; he ordered the last fritter.
Clacher, whose love of apple fritters rivaled only his love for his wife, had to settle for a glazed donut with his coffee, but that had little time to rankle him before he noticed the man’s heavy accent.
He didn’t have any problem with Russians. He’d managed to toddle his way through the tumultuous Fifties without too much xenophobia. But, in the Western New Mexico town of Ebbson, Russians were a rarity. Ebbson boasted a population of about one-hundred, and that was when the population spiked during hunting season. In a town that small, you noticed new people. Especially new people with strange accents. At any rate, the citizens of Ebbson had been paying Clacher to notice people for the past twenty years. He was the Marshal, after all.
Clacher downed the rest of his strong, black coffee. Mr. Russian nodded in his direction with the wisp of a smile.
“Howdy,” Clacher said, throwing out a greeting as he stood, stiff-legged, to make his way toward the coffee pot. Starting a conversation with the man now might mean saving himself trouble later. You never could tell with new people, they might be trouble and they might not.
“Good morning,” Mr. Russian replied. He tore off part of the fritter and popped it into his mouth. “Excuse me,” he said as Clacher passed back by, “Do you know where to find Gabriel Montoya?”
Clacher paused. Trouble, then.
“You bet,” he said, finally. He grabbed a napkin and drew a map, explaining as he did. The old Monroe place, as locals called it, had been purchased by a wealthy Mexican twelve years ago. Nobody knew much about the man; he kept to himself and had few visitors. According to his nearest neighbors, Andy and Rosa Jimenez, he flew a small plane south twice a year.
Suspicions about the man and his ranch abounded. It was hinted that the ranch served as the headquarters of a gang with ties to a major cartel. A messy murder investigation years before had confirmed the fact for Clacher.
“Thank you,” Mr. Russian said. He dipped his head and pocketed the map. Clacher walked back to his own table and tried to focus on his coffee. He doubted very much that Mr. Russian had benign intentions.
Mr. Russian finished his fritter and left. As the cowbell on the shop door jangled, Flo slammed a tray of donuts onto the counter and cursed.
“Dammit!” She waddled to Clacher’s table. “Jesse, the man left without paying! Why don’t you put that badge of yours to good use?” Her sturdy frame quivered with anger.
Clacher sighed. He had a feeling fritter-theft was the least of his Russian induced worries.
Half an hour later, Clacher sat in his office contemplating yet another cup of coffee and waiting for someone to come fix his air-conditioner. It was a rare day: no housewives calling to ask if he’d mind driving their no-good-husbands home from the bar, no kids breaking windows or throwing glass bottles at cars speeding down the highway that doubled as main-street. A waiting day.
He sat, half-asleep, pondering his morning’s excitement when a loud rumble, like the growl of an enormous bulldog, launched him to his feet. The office walls shuddered as he stumbled to the small, dusty window and peered outside. His phone started ringing, but he ignored and watched the gunpowder-grey cloud blow slowly toward town. It seemed to be coming from the south, near the old Monroe place.
Normally, on such occasions, Clacher had the presence-of-mind to wait for the Reserve Sheriff’s department to arrive and provide back-up. Today, he raced from the building to his grey sedan and hit the gas, doing eighty down the highway. His mind raced with wild scenarios. He couldn’t be sure the explosion had been on the old Monroe place, or that Mr. Russian had caused it. But it seemed probable.
He flipped his cell open and dialed Andy’s number.
“Hello?” Andy answered.
“Andy? Hey, you just have an explosion out that way?”
“Sure did. This Jesse?”
“You headed this way?”
As he approached the turn-off, he could smell evidence of the explosion; the air hung heavy with the scent of smoke. There’d probably be grass fires in the immediate area. He’d have Andy gather the Ebbson volunteer firefighters.
Instead of heading straight to the old Monroe place, Clacher sped down the Jimenez’ driveway and sprayed a cloud of caliche dust into the air. He climbed out of the car and slammed the door.
He hollered a greeting as Andy strolled out of his double-wide trailer.
“They’ve got some grassfires goin’ over there, I called the boys an’ I’m fillin’ the truck.” Andy spat tobacco juice at his feet as he spoke.
Clacher nodded, relieved and impatient.
“What’s happening over there?” He jerked his thumb at the smoke strewn sky across the field.
“Well, a bunch a people ran outta that barn, earlier. Some of ‘em left in a couple jeeps. But there were a bunch more of ‘em when they got here yesterday.” He shifted his chaw to the other cheek and spat again.
Clacher scowled and turned to look at remains of the barn. The frame, which still bore stubborn patches of red paint, barely stood. A steady breeze would knock it over. The roof was mostly gone, now just a jagged hole.
“Well, I’d better head over there, then.” Clacher said. He scratched the back of his head, wishing he’d grabbed his rifle. Last time…
He flinched without meaning to, remembering the trap door in the middle of that barn, the dank smell of the earth and the dark. He’d been forced to sit, shackled inside the hole for what seemed an eternity. He’d waited, sitting in what could have been a grave, for a bullet or a beating. The beating came, the bullet hadn’t. Would it this time?
He turned to climb into the sedan. Andy put a hand on his shoulder.
“Take this. We’ll be there shortly.” He held a bolt action 30-06 rifle, powerful enough to take down an elk. The magazine held five rounds; Andy held another five in his free hand.
Clacher pocketed the ammo, nestled the rifle in the passenger seat, and headed down the caliche road.
The drive, which took only minutes, seemed to stretch out—endlessly like the horizon. Little fires sprang up along the edges of the road as he drove, devouring the brown, dry grass. He turned down the Montoya’s driveway. His wrists twitched under an imagined weight, the chains he’d borne several years before.
What haunted him now, though, was an image he’d shoved from his mind, excused as a hallucination. There had been bones. Chained and leaning against the dirt wall in that pit, is bruised body throbbing in pain, he’d imagined a companion. A woman, also in chains, crying to be released. But, when he’d reached out to comfort her, he felt only the cool, smooth surface of bone.
Afterward, it took Clacher weeks to speak of that moment, and then he did so only once. A friend offered an explanation in reply: La Malinche. The victim, the temptress, perhaps evil, perhaps not. Obviously, she had appeared to Clacher in that pit.
Clacher shook his head and put the car in park. He’d half convinced himself that it had only been his imagination. But the memory of those bones festered in his mind; he never convinced himself that they weren’t really there.
He glanced around before stepping from the car; Montoya was nowhere to be found, nor were the group of people Jimenez had seen. He grabbed the rifle and headed toward the barn.
Ash and dirt sifted down from what was left of the roof, mixing with the smoke that still rose from the center of the barn. A few charred bodies--men, from the look of them--lay scattered. Clacher stepped over one, spotted the glint of a steel trap door. It was wood, last time. He lifted the door with his foot, holding the rifle at ready. It creaked and resisted before flying open.
It was a woman’s voice.
“Is someone there?” the voice chimed softly through the debris filled air. Clacher struggled to take a breath, cleared his throat.
“Who are you? Are you okay?” he asked, feeling his chest tighten, telling himself it was only the dust and smoke. He reached toward his pocket, wishing in vain for a flashlight.
“I am La Malinche!” The voice grew hard, loud.
Clacher reeled backward as she spoke.
“I demand to be released! I can make your flesh crawl from your bones. I will curse you! You will die slowly.” She was screaming, now, but he could remember the silky rippling of her laughter--at once beautiful and chilling.
Clacher heard the crunch of a footstep behind him and spun around.
“Bravo, my lady!” the new arrival said.
“Let me out, you sonofabitch!” The woman screamed.
Clacher stared at the man.
“Montoya,” he said, recognizing the youthful face that hid at least forty years of cruelty. Large brown eyes peered from beneath a sheath of thick black hair, meeting Clacher’s glare with equal hostility.
Only a scarred and broken nose belied his innocent appearance. He did not look like a criminal. He had no tattoos, no large scars. He smiled, displaying perfect white teeth. A gentleman.
“Who’s down there?” Clacher jerked his head toward the pit, keeping the rifle trained on Montoya.
“My wife, and some…others.”
Montoya spoke without emotion or explanation. His face remained passive, excepting the hint of a smirk.
“I received a phone call this morning, threatening their lives. I brought them here for safekeeping.”
“And was this ‘threat’ eliminated?” Clacher asked, thinking of the Russian.
“No,” Montoya spat. “But it will be.”
He had no idea who’d bombed his ranch, then.
Beneath them, someone began to moan.
“Let them out,” Clacher said. Montoya smiled.
“The danger is not over, Señor.” He stepped toward the pit and kicked the door shut.
Clacher shifted the bolt on his rifle; Montoya froze.
“Let’s try that again,” Clacher said, his voice low and even. He slid a finger toward the trigger and Montoya let his hand, which had been inching toward the holster on his hip, fall.
At Clacher’s order, he knelt beside the pit and flung back the door. He threw a key into the hole. Chains rattled. Footsteps sounded on the short metal ladder.
Lora Montoya leapt from the pit and lunged at her husband, fingernails extended and ready to claw.
Montoya leapt backward.
But Lora caught Montoya and clawed at his face despite her small size and obvious malnutrition.
“You think you can leave me in the pit to die?” she shrieked. “I am not weak like the others! I am La Malinche!”
She pushed him to the ground and straddled him, pulling a long, sharp object from the sleeve of her tattered dress.
Clacher gasped as he recognized the sharp splinter: bone.
Lora began tracing her husband’s face with the splinter of bone, laughing as she did.
She grabbed her husband’s cheeks with one hand as she dragged the splinter harder and deeper around his face. Drops of blood blossomed on the scratches.
Montoya spewed threats and curses.
“You cannot kill me,” she cackled, “I am already dead.” She spat in his face as if to emphasize the fact.
Clacher just watched, rifle pointed haphazardly. He felt numb--unable to move, unable to stop the murder he knew would occur.
The bones were real.
He hadn’t hallucinated.
Slowly, Lora lifted the bone splinter and pointed it at Montoya’s eye.
“No,” he moaned, fighting her grip. “Please.” Sweat mixed with the blood on his face.
“Oh, yes,” Lora purred. She moaned and shifted her hips. “Oh, yes.” She laughed, moving the splinter closer, agonizingly closer, to her husband’s eye.
Reserve’s Sheriff, Mike Foley, shouted. He and four officers burst inside, guns ready. Backup had arrived. Finally.
Lora paused, flicked her eyes toward the officers, blinked.
“I am already dead. Used. Betrayed. You cannot hurt me,” she whispered.
Mike stood still while she spoke, assessing the situation. He took a step forward, hand hovering above his holster.
Lora stabbed Montoya repeatedly in the chest with the bone before Mike could pull her off him.
The whole thing took a matter of seconds.
Clacher lowered his rifle and rushed to Montoya. He checked his pulse and motioned two officers over.
“Get him to the hospital and keep an eye on him.”
They nodded, used to cooperating with Clacher. Mike handcuffed Lora. An officer led her to the patrol car.
“Thanks, Mike,” Clacher said. “Guess I’m getting a little old for the job.”
“Nah,” Mike shrugged. He took a look around the barn, as if for the first time. “This place gives me the creeps,” he said.
Clacher walked over to the pit and peered inside.
“You got a flashlight handy? Montoya said there were more people down there.”
Mike pulled a maglight off of his belt. Clacher clicked the light on and lowered himself into the pit.
In the dark, three skulls peered back at him.
The Medical Investigator never identified them. They were just girls, somewhere between the ages of twelve and nineteen, according to the osteologist’s report. Probably Hispanic, but ethnicity gets subjective when all you have to work with is a skeleton. We’re all just bones, in the end.
The Office of Medical Investigator deemed them victims of human-trafficking, but Clacher had a different opinion. It was too easy to distance them, if they were random victims of violence. Too easy to defer the grief that should be immediate and heartfelt. The girls bore the spirit of La Malinche. Like her, they bore the stigma of mistaken identity, misplaced blame. They weren’t strangers brought to a strange place to die. They weren’t traitors to their people. They were daughters, sisters, and mothers who had been betrayed, exploited and murdered. Perhaps for the sake of family reputation, or perhaps for a single overgrown ego. They were history repeating itself.
Or so Clacher told himself when he closed his eyes at night and those empty eye sockets stared at him, demanding answers.
He visited Lora Montoya once, at the State Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, buzzing with half-formed questions. Maybe she, La Malinche incarnate, could help him understand. But she merely regarded him with hooded eyes, unwilling--or perhaps unable--to explain.
After that visit, he tried to forget, tried to find closure in the fact that Montoya, convicted of the murders of three girls, received two life sentences. He would never see a woman again. There was some justice in that, at least.
So, he settled back into his daily routine and tried to forget.
Once again a small town Marshal with nothing to do, Clacher went to Flo’s for an apple fritter and coffee. He paid for the Russian’s fritter. He felt older.