In the early hours of the following morning, well after closing time, the Taberna Aztlán exploded in flames and burned to its concrete foundation in ninety minutes.
Héctor learned of the disaster shortly before 6 A.M. when AveMaría shook her husband awake to give him the appalling news. (Since the attack on the machine shed during the Crusade for Souls, she had made it a habit to take her radio to bed, with the headphones clamped in place over her ears in case of renewed hostilities.)
“I knew it was going to happen!” she shrieked. “The jihadistas have struck again! What other kind of maníaco would blow up a bar? O Panchito, you could have been blown up too—just minding your own business and drinking beer, harming no one!” In the horror and fear inspired by the catastrophe, it had not yet occurred to AveMaría that the destruction of the Taberna Aztlán might be something other than an unqualified disaster.
Héctor propped himself on his elbow, trying to escape from the dream that remained more real to him than the world into which he’d awakened. Like most dreams, it was neither a particularly pleasant one nor a nightmare. In this dream, he was having an earnest conversation with George W. Bush in a garish place, painted scarlet, purple, and gold, that looked like a throne room but must have been the Oval Office, as he attempted to explain to the President how he’d managed to fail in becoming the first illegal immigrant ever elected to the U.S. Congress. When his wife woke him, Héctor had been in the middle of suggesting, with all due respect, that the President might have had Tomasina Luna drafted into the Army and sent to Iraq just before Election Day. Now, as he reclined in a half-sitting position against the pillow, his mind proceeded to develop this scenario further.
“Give me the phone,” he told AveMaría shortly, when he was fully awake at last. “I better call Jesús ‘Eddie’ this minute.”
Mrs. Jesús “Eddie” answered the telephone. She and her husband had been awakened by a tremendous blast somewhere in the neighborhood at around four o’clock, she explained, and he’d got up at the crack of dawn to investigate. From what Jesús had reported to her on his cell phone, the Taberna Aztlán was a total loss. Right now, she added, Jesús “Eddie” was at the police station giving the cops what he considered a valuable tip for their investigation. Héctor, who thought he could guess exactly the nature of that tip, had to question the wisdom of conveying it to the police department. With all his other troubles of late, he had no wish to be identified as the accomplice of the man who, otherwise single-handedly, had ignited World War III. Not wishing to alarm his friend’s wife, however, he said nothing of this to Beatriz Juárez but asked her please to have Jesús “Eddie” call him as soon as he left the cop shop.
“It is a miracle from God that he is still alive,” AveMaría avowed as she took the phone from her husband and replaced it on its cradle, “as late as he sits up drinking beer, you know. Poor Jesús ‘Eddie’! He could have been blown into a million pieces, Panchito! What did he ever do to hurt the Islamists? He hardly even goes to church, except to play bingo!”
When, thirty-five minutes later, the telephone rang, Héctor answered on the first ring. Jesús “Eddie” was on the line.
“Ah, compadrito, it is a terrible day for the Rio Abajo! Saenz, the police chief, said he couldn’t comment before he’d talked to the media first, but I got it out of him, finally—we play bingo, me and Beatriz, with him and his wife every Sunday at Our Lady. It was a Qassam rocket, they think—same as what the A-rabs in the Middle East use! The sonsabitches don’t have the guts to blow themselves up like they do in Iraq. But listen, hombre—we got the attention of them towelheads with that note I left on the windshield, yes?”
Héctor, carrying the radio phone with him, walked into the backyard where AveMaría wouldn’t hear his end of the conversation.
“I know, I know, that’s the problem now. What did you tell Benjamín Saenz, Jesús?”
“I said me and you was out last night, havin ‘a coupla’ drinks together at the bar—no point in sayin’ how many; cops remember stuff like that—and the camel jockeys come in and set down, suspicious-like. Then on the way out we seen a white car, Korea make, with a sign KILL THE INFIDELS, written in red like blood, under the wiper blade. Saenz wrote everthing down in a notebook and said he might want us to tell whatall it was we seen in court.”
“But that isn’t what we saw—I mean, the business about the note. And we’d be under oath, remember.”
“Saenz don’t give a damn. He’s a real Nuevo Mexicano. He hates these folks, same as we do.”
Héctor, seeing that argument with Jesús “Eddie” was unavailing as usual, held his peace. At least, his friend had had the good sense not to implicate the two of them. He felt relief at this but also a measure of guilt, though the false testimony had not been his and no oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” had been administered. (Héctor, who’d found it hard to get exercised over Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, had been profoundly shocked by the President’s subsequent perjury, which, in his view, more than justified impeachment.)
“I guess from now on we hang out at Paco’s Place,” Jesús “Eddie” concluded gloomily.
Listening on the truck radio between service calls, Héctor found the rocket attack on the Taberna Aztlán to be the nearly universal subject of discussion this morning, Chief Saenz having held a press conference at ten to read a statement and answer questions pertaining to the crime. The chief had mentioned that an unnamed witness had come forward to report two suspicious-looking males seen drinking at the Taberna hours before the attack, a fact corroborated independently by the barman, and that the police were on the lookout for a white vehicle of Korean manufacture carrying New Mexico plates. Excerpts from the statement regarding alleged witnesses were broadcast at regular intervals, causing Héctor to develop damp palms and a queasy abdomen each time he heard them. Jesús “Eddie,” he conceded, had done the patriotic thing in reporting the jihadistas to the authorities. Only, why had he been so dumb as to write the provocative note in the first place? When, finally, he couldn’t bear to listen in anymore, Héctor pounded the steering wheel with his fist and switched the radio off.
He arrived home at lunchtime to find the blinds dropped behind all the windows of his house and every door bolted shut. Inside, AveMaría huddled with Dubya before the TV, while, in the next room, Contracepción lounged on her belly across the bed reading Cosmopolitan, her mother having refused to drive her to the Darfur Relief office across town.
“They have two suspects already!” AveMaría exclaimed as soon as her husband entered the room. “Someone saw them having a drink at the Taberna Aztlán just minutes before the attack—bearded Islamists in turbans, cool as cucumbers, drinking beer just like anybody else! O Panchito, it really could have been you! I must call the curandera in Tome and ask her to make an encanto to protect us all!”
Héctor, who had little faith in curanderos and their powders, potions, and spells, nodded absently and went on into the kitchen to listen to the voicemail that had accumulated that morning. The secretary to the principal at the high school, who’d continued as a private client of Pancho’s Computer Service after her boss had forbidden her to hire the company on school business, had a problem with her router at home. A fourteen-year-old Anglo kid in the affluent Rio Communities across the river, who had his own account and was an habitué of some of the hardest porn sites on the internet, sounded beside himself with frustration after his system crashed. And a Mr. Cohen or Kant (Héctor had trouble catching the name), calling from Belen’s most disreputable neighborhood, was having difficulties with his Bluetooth technology. With any luck, he thought, he might be able to handle all three jobs in a single afternoon. As the days were short now, and the Cohen typo’s district by the railroad tracks was one Héctor made a point never to visit after dark, he decided to make it his first stop after he’d eaten lunch and dropped Contracep at Darfur Relief to prevent her from ending up in contempt of court.
His daughter, who’d looked forward to spending the entire day reading magazines and watching QVC and reruns of The Bachelor, was indignant at having to go to work, after all.
“O Papaíto,” she protested from a mouth half-full of the Twinkies she favored for lunch, “there’s no point my working just a half day—and anyway, Mamá already told them I was sick! Nobody wants to be around a person that’s spreading germs everywhere! Besides, Mamá says the jihad’s starting again! Suppose I was kidnapped, like those people in Iraq, and held for ransom, or shot in the back of the head and dumped in the river? Then you’d be sorry—but you don’t care, do you. You don’t really care!”
Héctor was about to reply that such atrocities can’t happen in America—but didn’t. America, after all, was changing very fast these days, thanks to all the immigration coming from God knows where—the Islamist countries that were threatening to set the world on fire, in particular. So he said only, “Don’t be silly, Contracepción, and get yourself dressed for work—something decent, not one of those Britney Spears outfits your mother lets you buy. And shake a leg, por favor! I have an appointment downtown in half an hour.”
By the time she came dragging out of her room with a sullen face and downcast eyes, wearing a getup that (Héctor thought) would make Paris Hilton blush, eight minutes remained before he was scheduled to meet Mr. Cohen (or Kant) in east Belen. Neither of them spoke on the eleven-minute drive to Darfur Relief, where Contracepción slammed the car door hard and went trailing up the walk, dragging her woolen scarf behind her along the icy path. America is the best place in the world, isn’t it? Why, then, Héctor wondered, do American children so often seem to be the worst?
East Belen, with its rows of shabby stucco bungalows stretching beside the switch yard, reminded him of Namiquipa. Here lay the breeding ground, he thought, of the juvenile delinquents who stabbed one another—and even innocent people—in the movie theater downtown, and polluted the streets with the exhaust from their noisy low-riders. The Castillo Street address, within sight of the tracks, more than lived up to his expectations. He got out of the van, locked the side doors, and went round to the rear panel ones, which he also locked securely after removing the necessary tools. The street smelled strongly of a mixture of coal and mesquite smoke. Number 11 looked deserted: no curtains hanging behind the wide front window shadowed by the overhanging porch roof, but in their place a blanket, tacked at an angle across it. No name on the mailbox, either, he noted, while four screw holes at the center of the heavy front door indicated where a nameplate had once been affixed. The button in the brass doorbell looked wobbly, like an eyeball partially detached from its socket. Héctor punched it, waited thirty seconds, and punched it again. On the third ring, the door swung inward slowly. In the dimness beyond, he could just make out a ghostly figure standing in the darkened hallway.
“Are you Mr. Cohen?” Héctor asked, squinting to see the figure more clearly. It struck him for the first time as odd that someone with a Jewish name should live in such a poor neighborhood.
“I am Mr. Kahn,” a heavily accented voice corrected him, in an offended tone. “You are Mr. Pancho, the computer-service man?”
The face was swarthy, the beard black and thick, the clothes of a voluminous whiteness, with what looked like a pure white cloud hovering above the head. A turban, Héctor recognized too late, when he was already past the threshold with the heavy door, like that of a vault, falling shut behind him.
Héctor, though he was not particularly adept at remembering faces (a grave failing in a would-be politician, as he’d discovered to his chagrin), could hardly fail to recall this one. To which of two men it belonged he could not have said, but he was absolutely sure of one thing: Its owner had been present at the ill-fated Taberna Aztlán, not twenty-four hours before.