Héctor woke on New Year’s morning with a reverberating headache that made his wife’s remonstrations (in the pinch, AveMaría had been appointed an emergency designated driver to take the party home safely the night before) the more painful to bear. He felt thoroughly ashamed of himself—first for getting drunk, and second for . . . the other thing.
Héctor could not decide whether his plan had amounted to a success. Had Jacinta Ruiz really got the message he’d intended to send her last evening? Or had she been hoping to appeal to his jealous instincts in the arms of the dashing Rodolfo? Perhaps even—the thought penetrated like a manzanita thorn—she had never felt anything for him, and, falling victim to his own vanity, he’d simply imagined it all and made a fool of himself for nothing. He had no idea where to begin sorting the thing out, and a hangover was no aid in this endeavor.
In another part of the house, someone was practicing vocal scales—Contracepción beginning her warm-up for rehearsal again. (Hadn’t the girl had all New Year’s Eve to practice while she babysat Dubya?) Maybe the Juárezes would flee to Las Cruces for the rest of the day, in order to take advantage of the holiday sales.
Héctor’s New Year’s resolution had been to return home by the first of February. How, he asked himself, could his family be in greater danger in Belen than on the Juárez Ranch, directly athwart the path of countless jihadists swarming across the border each night? (Even more to the point, who was he—Héctor Villa, a collateral descendent of The Centaur—to be intimidated by a couple of immigrant Islamists hiding out like rats in a decaying tenement house?) As a corollary to this resolution, Héctor had determined on making a bold reconnaissance of Belen for the purpose of seeing for himself what the strategic situation there really was.
Upon learning that her husband intended a visit home, AveMaría announced that she and the family were coming, too—a proposition Héctor promptly vetoed as too dangerous. Until he could ascertain the threat level posed by Abdul Kahn and his associates, he insisted, his wife and children would stay put on the Juárez Ranch—no ifs, ands, or buts about it. This intransigency sent Dubya, who’d had his heart set on being reunited with his collection of 25 or 30 stuffed lions, into a tantrum and put AveMaría in a pained sulk. Only Contracepción, in her preoccupation with her laptop and her singing career, acted indifferent to the paternal decision. Héctor, who’d fully expected Jesús “Eddie” would wish to join him on the trip, was greatly relieved when his friend declared himself content to stick to his post at the border, “defending the Rio Abajo here on the front line,” as he put it. Jesús, though often useful in an emergency, was rather too conspicuous, Héctor felt, for a delicate reconnaissance mission such as this one, as likely as not to turn up in a trench coat, dark glasses, and a cowboy hat. Furthermore, his proclivity for the bottle made him a potential liability around the Taberna Aztlán and other local watering holes, where (as an earlier generation of embattled Americans used to say) “Loose lips sink ships.”
Like a fighter pilot departing on a volunteer mission, Héctor accepted the tearful farewells of his womenfolk and left the Juárez Ranch on the Ides of January in AveMaría’s Subaru, which, in addition to getting twice as many miles to the gallon as his van did, had the added advantage of failing to identify its owner in large red letters along the side panels.
The day was cool, cloudless, and windless, the pale winter sky a mild blue sealant annealing the ragged circular horizon with the folded, scoriated, tawny-pink desert dotted with sotol, yucca, and creosote bush. To save miles and avoid Las Cruces, Héctor took the slower cutoff from Deming northeast to Rincón on the Rio Grande, south of Truth or Consequences. It felt wonderful, after so many weeks of constraint, to be away from the ranch, and even (he had to admit) from his family. Ever since he’d found himself with both the time and the opportunity to see to it that an oil change was performed every 3,000 miles, the Subaru ran beautifully, and Héctor was feeling surprisingly lighthearted as he drove north on I-25 at 80 mph. North of Elephant Butte, the valley of the Rio opened out on both sides of the highway, and then it really was as if he could see forever, from the low-lying, rather sinister Black Range to the west, across the Jornada del Muerto and the San Andres Mountains to the White Mountains, their high peaks gleaming with snow, far away in the east. Though no outdoorsman, Héctor found that this vast wide-open country, a land of expansive valleys transected by mountain ranges and punctured by solitary bergs like mangled iron, appealed to and soothed his spirit. And why should it not, it occurred to him suddenly—it was all a part of the northerly extension of Old Mexico!
His spirits fell after he took the first exit off the interstate and followed South Main Street into Belen. Héctor had never before thought of the town as looking seedy, yet that was how it struck him this shining, perfect afternoon. The outlying houses were small, not much more than adobe shacks, many of them in a state of partial collapse and surrounded by litter and junked cars. The scene overall was familiar in a way that was strangely disturbing. He puzzled briefly and came up with the answer. The place reminded him of the Third World—in fact, of TV footage he’d seen of those dusty, underdeveloped Iraqi towns in the desert away from Baghdad! All that was required to complete the effect, Héctor thought, was a few gowned and turbaned figures walking about. When he reached the downtown district and saw what looked like a couple of swamis walking out of Geraldo’s Mexican-Chinese Café as he sat waiting at a stoplight, Héctor realized that Jesús “Eddie’s” gloomy report the previous month had been only too accurate. Belen was being taken over by the Enemy.
In his flush days, Héctor would have put up at the Holiday Inn Express at 2111 Camino del Llano; today, he checked in at the Super 8 at 428 South Main. He ate a late lunch at TJ’s Mexican Restaurant—a favorite of his and Jesús “Eddie’s”; also a place one would not expect to be patronized by Moors—and afterward stopped off at Dominguín’s Sporting Goods, where he purchased two boxes of .44 Magnum shells for the handgun he’d transferred that morning from the van to the Subaru. Héctor toyed with the idea of stopping by the Taberna Aztlán for a shot or two of liquid courage, but in the end concluded he really didn’t need it—yet. So far, no one had appeared even to recognize, let alone challenge, him. And he would begin a serious reconnoiter of the town only after dark, when the Enemy could be expected to show his face. For now, he would check on his own house to assure himself that all was well and that the pipes hadn’t burst, or the furnace exploded, in his absence.
To Héctor’s astonishment, a vehicle sat on the concrete apron outside the garage—an ancient Chevrolet Suburban painted in as many colors as Joseph’s coat and quite obviously pieced together from parts selected from a smorgasbord of junkyards in two countries.
The white fence surrounding the house, stained a rusty pink from the blowing winter dust, had pickets missing here and there, leaving gaps through which Héctor caught a glimpse of patchy dead grass and a scattering of children’s toys across it. The shades and blinds were down behind all the windows, save for the one fronting the master bedroom from which the glass had been partly knocked out and a Zapotec blanket hung behind the frame. Héctor’s first thought was that, in his somewhat abstracted state of mind, he had come to the wrong house. But it was not so. The number above the front door was his, and so was the name on the mailbox resting atop the red-white-and-blue post. This house belonged to him, and somebody had appropriated it since the Villas’ temporary removal to Rancho Juárez two months before.
Héctor parked against the opposite curb, got out of the car, and started across the street. When he was halfway to the other side, he turned, walked back to the Subaru, and took the .44 from under the driver’s seat. He held the gun in his hand for a few seconds, then put it back under the seat and retraced his steps empty-handed. This time, Héctor strode through the once-intact gate that hung now on one hinge and up the walk to the front door. He lifted the knocker and with it struck three ringing blows. Finally he took a step back from the door and waited. He was about to strike again when the door opened slowly inward against a short stout mestizo wearing his hair combed forward over the upper half of his face, too-tight blue jeans, and a black muscle shirt that showed off the elaborate tattoos along his thick arms.
“¿Quién es?” he demanded in a truculent voice.
Héctor was too astounded to resent this. “¿Quién ES?” he replied. His tone conveyed no retort but a natural, uncomplicated desire to have the answer.
“I am Zapata—Hipólito Zapata. Who wishes to know?”
“My name is Héctor Villa. I am the owner of this house. And just what is your reason for being here?”
A woman appeared behind Señor Zapata, as short as he but much fatter. As Héctor’s eyes adjusted to the semidarkness beyond, he became aware of the whites of what seemed dozens of pairs of eyes, all of them staring at him.
At the name of Villa, Zapata’s suspicious, haughty face—the face of a proud householder—expanded in a wide, toothy expression of welcoming delight.
“¡Ah, Señor Villa! ¡Buenas tardes!, ¿cómo está? It is so good to meet you! Josefa, just look! It is ‘Pancho’ Villa, of whom we have heard so much!” Zapata stepped back and held the door wider, describing a sweeping downward motion with his arm. “¡Señor—pase, pase por favor! ¡Mi casa es su casa!”
Like a man in a dream, Héctor complied. Hipólito Zapata shook both his hands together, and Josefa, too, stepped forward and gave him her small, limp, fat one. Behind her the eyes had withdrawn among piles and heaps of strewn debris, random as salients in a natural landscape. The house smelled of burnt lard and maize, and the kitchen was full of smoke. Héctor could not believe his eyes. He didn’t recognize his own home.
“I do not understand,” he told Zapata in his strongest, no-beating-about-the-bush voice. “Please explain. How it is you know about me. And what you are doing in my home.”
Zapata shut the door firmly and locked it. Then he grandly gestured Héctor toward what remained of AveMaría’s favorite sofa.
“¡Josefa—dos cervezas aquí, y pronto!”
He seated himself beside his guest on the sofa, sat back, and folded his arms comfortably over his stomach.
“Compadre—is it possible you have not been told? That you do not know who is Hipólito Zapata? That I do not believe!”
“Know you? Of course, I don’t know you! Why in the name of the Devil should I?”
“But I am the second cousin of Eufemio Villa, three times removed! You have been too long away from your own people, hermano, a real jefe living up there in Washington, D.C.—in the Casa Blanca, so I am told!”
“I haven’t been living in Washington. I’ve been in New Mexico, on the border—” Héctor corrected, before he caught himself. Loose lips sink ships, including his own little boat.
Zapata looked bewildered.
“That Eufemio, he told me you got yourself elected something-or-other and moved the family to Washington. He said, ‘There’s plenty room in Pancho’s house for you to live while you’re looking for work in Albuquerque. He won’t mind—a jefe like him living like Porfirio Díaz in the Casa Blanca with Jorge Bush.’ That’s when he gave me the key, so I wouldn’t have to break in like a ladrón—an escalador!”
Josefa came with two bottles of beer and a bowl of fried pork skins, and went away again. From every corner of the house, the eyes were reappearing, advancing like those of feral creatures emerging from the jungle shadows. It seemed to Héctor the Zapatas must have at least a dozen children, or even more.
“¡Salud, primo!” Hipólito raised his bottle for a toast. “No se inquiete: We’ll be out of here in a month—two, at the most—when I find the job I am looking for in Albuquerque. Comprende—more than the minimum wage, benefits, a month’s vacation paid. This is El Norte, hermano! Hipólito Zapata knows how to make the most of it.”
An object buried deep in Héctor’s pocket started to vibrate suddenly like a rattlesnake’s tail. He rolled sideways to free the pocket and drew his cellphone out.
“¡Oiga! ¡Oiga!¡ ¿HÉCTOR?”
It was AveMaría, sounding hysterical.
“Yes, yes, I’m here, ¡diga! What is it, AveMaría?”
“Well, what about her?”
“She’s run off to Vegas with some singer! While Dubya and I were away at the Wal-Mart in Deming! She left a note on the kitchen table. Beatriz found it and showed it to me when I got home! We thought she’d been kidnapped for ransom, at first!”
Five minutes later Héctor closed up the phone and returned it to his pocket. Then he stood from the sofa with great dignity.
“If you and your family are not gone from my house in a week,” he told Hipólito Zapata, “I’m calling the Homeland Security Department to carry you out. ¿Comprende, amigo? ¡Escúcheme bien!”