Bro. Billy Joe had been correct, Héctor reflected bitterly: Abdul Agha and the Crusade for Souls were a nationwide story all right, though everyone tried to pretend it was nothing more than a curious local phenomenon. From the start, the New Mexico media had sought the appropriate tone in reference to a “certain unrest” in Valencia County, and their colleagues across the country had followed suit. As far as Héctor Villa was concerned, the business merely amounted to the Crusades all over again.
Once the contents have been safely removed, a machine shed, unlike a cathedral, doesn’t offer a great deal to damage. Bradford’s barn remained largely intact after the attack, save for a few dents in the galvanized sheeting and the scorched places on the concrete floor where the barbecue grills had been overturned. Fortunately, the Muslims had been routed by the furious Christians before they could utilize the propane canisters as suicide bombs, so no one was very much hurt beyond a few bruisings and some pulled hair. Still, the psychological trauma produced by the assault was enormous. The Moorish chieftains had been identified and arrested, including the blind cleric, Abdul’s father, who had directed the attack from the safety of a new Hummer parked across the road. (The vehicle, loaded with firearms, had, according to police reports, been stolen from a driveway in Corrales a couple of weeks before.) Of the six or seven ringleaders, only two were found to be residents of Belen, the others being recruits from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and El Paso. The revelations profoundly shocked the Rio Abajo communities, which had not suspected that the valley had become a corridor for international terrorism. AveMaría took to her bed for nearly twenty-four hours after the FBI office in Albuquerque announced that the senior Agha had been a member of the Taliban in his native land before the State Department granted his extended family refugee status and admitted them all to the United States within months of U.S. forces commencing hostilities in Afghanistan late in 2001. Among the other masterminds of what a reactionary congressman from Colorado was describing as “Jihad on the Rio,” three had been granted visas to promote Islam as a “religion of peace” in America; one held an expired student visa (Middle Eastern Studies at Michigan State); and a fifth was a chemistry student from Pakistan on scholarship at the University of New Mexico. (Grave though the situation was, an un-Christian minority had been unable to refrain from gentle mockery of the First Assembly of God Church and Bro. Billy Joe.)
Despite attempts by politicians and the media to downplay the religious confrontation, tension in Belen, as in other towns along the river, was palpable. When, barely a week later, a car parked on an Albuquerque street exploded at the curbside, the incident was widely rumored to have been a car bombing, although the city police attributed it to rivalry among Mexican gangs. Police stations in the region were swamped with reports of gratuitous insults offered to men wearing turbans and women in burnooses, and Abdul’s father’s mosque was defaced by an enormous drawing of a pig executed in pink spray-paint. At the same time, from around the United States, Islamist sympathizers weighed in with their comments and imprecations. In the circumstances, the juvenile court felt obliged to transfer Contracepción from the mosque to the local chapter of the Darfur Relief Society International for the remainder of her sentence, where even there no one was particularly polite to her. (The Albuquerque Journal, in a lengthy investigative story, had recently identified the Muhammad-in-Alcohol as the effective cause of the “unrest,” making sure to mention by name all those involved in the scandal.)
Héctor, while taking care to leave his own sentiments unexpressed, could not help but feel vindicated by the events unfolding from his wife’s determination that their daughter should have a boyfriend at whatever cost. AveMaría, for her part, seemed to have forgotten entirely both her romantic hopes for Contracepción and Abdul Agha and the role she’d played in fomenting jihad, in her relief at the Villas’ narrow escape from terrorism and her fear that a terror campaign was coming to New Mexico. “Panchito,” she often implored her husband, “perhaps, after all, we should go home to Namiquipa! Méjico is a poor country, yes, but it is not an unlucky one, it is not maldita, like El Norte! First, the Trade Towers, now Bradford’s machine shed! O Panchito, if we remain here in Belen, we may all be martyred, every one! Perhaps I should visit the adivina in Magdalena, and ask for her advice?” (To this plea, Héctor always replied steadfastly that President Bush had a strategy for victory against terror, at home as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the terrorists were in their final throes, as he knew from watching Vice President Cheney on TV, and law-abiding Americans had nothing to fear.) As for Contracepción, her grief at losing Abdul was nothing compared with the humiliation she suffered on account of Kathleen O’Malley, who was frequently seen joy-riding around town nowadays in Abdul’s tomato-colored Dodge and whose father was said to be preparing to apply the military skills he’d acquired during the Troubles in Northern Ireland to the coming Christian-Muslim wars in New Mexico.
Bro. Billy Joe had rescheduled the remaining meetings of the Crusade for Souls, so Héctor was free in the days following the Battle of the Machine Shed to spend evenings at the Taberna Aztlán in the company of Jesús “Eddie” Juárez, after AveMaría had taken an Ambien and retired early with Dubya asleep in Héctor’s place beside her in the bed. Jesús “Eddie,” Héctor had always suspected, was at best a nominal Christian who attended Mass only to maintain the peace at home and whose real interest were the bingo games on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons in the basement of Our Lady of Belen. Thus Héctor was quite unprepared to learn his friend’s sentiments regarding Jihad on the Rio and astonished by the violence with which he expressed them.
“The goddamn Islamists,” Jesús “Eddie” brooded over his sixth or seventh beer as they sat at their regular table watching the ten o’clock news. “They’re heretics, hombre—say it was Muhammad that was crucified, not Jesus Christ at all! Not even the goddamn Anglo Protestants believe that.”
Héctor did his best not to feel offended. “Not all Protestants are Anglos,” he reminded Jesús “Eddie” mildly.
Jesús “Eddie” smiled tolerantly. He felt good and was prepared to take an ecumenical view of things, being secretly pleased that Contracep had broken up with the raghead kid and was back on the meat market again.
“The worst thing about Protestants ain’t they hate the Pope, it’s that they’re mostly Anglos,” he conceded generously.
“I don’t hate the Pope,” Héctor told him. “President Bush and Laura flew all the way to the funeral in Rome last year, remember?”
“That’s because Bush wants the Hispanics all to vote for him. Some of them did, maybe, but not me, hermano. I’d rather die than vote for the goddamn Republicans! ’Cause, you know what? They’re all Anglo, too!”
Héctor saw the conversation was going nowhere. “Well, the thing you have to admit about Protestants and Republicans is, at least they’re not Islamists, anyway!”
“That’s true, that’s true . . . ” Thoughtfully, Jesús “Eddie” aimed the neck of his beer bottle at his epiglottis. Then he set the empty bottle down with a bang on the table. “Wish one of them teetotaling sky-butts would walk in here tonight,” he added. “I’d hold him down and force-feed him a coupla beers, for the fun of it!”
Having unbosomed himself of this sentiment, Jesús “Eddie” remained silent until the bartender had brought two frosty new bottles and gone away again. Then he said in a conspiratorial voice, leaning across the table, “Compadre—How about we start a crusade of our own, you hear what I’m saying to you?”
Héctor’s first thought was that his friend must be joking. “You think it would do any good?” he asked doubtfully.
“Hombre, how could we lose? We shoot at them, we kill a few, the rest blow themselves up—boom-boom!—just like in Iraq!”
Héctor understood that his friend, very far from jesting, was in dead earnest. “But that would be, like, war,” he protested. “You can’t just decide you want to kill people for whatever reason and then go out and start doing it—only the President of the United States can do that!”
“They started it!” Jesús “Eddie’s” muddy eyes glowed with the light of religious enthusiasm. “Guy was telling me the other day, this is the first time the Rio Abajo’s been invaded since the Civil War! Said he got it out of a book, somewheres—I don’t know. These Islamists got no rights in a democratic country. Hell, it’d be like shooting a pack of coyotes—rabid coyotes! I tell you, compadrito: Everbody—the cops, the FBI, the President of the United States—why, they’d all be looking the other way while it was going on and give us a medal after it was over!”
Héctor was profoundly shocked. He felt deeply disappointed in his good friend Jesús “Eddie.” “AveMaría wouldn’t go along with any such thing,” he said firmly, “and I don’t think President Bush would, either. He believes in the civil rights of all Americans. And he thinks Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Anyway, this isn’t Mexico, remember. Pancho Villa wouldn’t have stood a chance, trying to get away with all he did up here.”
“This is Nuevo México—not Mexico or America, neither one! In the Rio Abajo, we do things our way, hermano—ever since Coronado and the Camino Real. What do you think he’d have done with a bunch of ragheads? Same thing he done with the f–king Pueblos, that’s what!”
Héctor understood that Jesús “Eddie,” who ordinarily held his liquor fairly well, must have taken a few shots of rye with his beer earlier in the evening. Around the age of ten or twelve, he’d learned from dealing with his Uncle Rafael not to converse with drunks except when necessary, and never to try to reason with them. He determined to keep his mouth shut while nursing his own drink and awaiting the chance to make a diplomatic departure.
Héctor was preparing to ask the barman for his tab when a small white car like a breadbox on wheels pulled off Route 47 into Taberna Aztlán’s lot and parked directly in front of the window where he and Jesús “Eddie” sat watching. The front doors of the vehicle opened simultaneously, and two men stepped out, one on either side. They were small, lean, dark-skinned men wearing trimmed black beards and turbans that glowed like ivory in the outdoor lights. With almost military precision, the two snatched the turbans from their heads, rolled them up, and stuffed them deep into the pockets of their long, dark coats. One of the men looked familiar, Héctor thought.
“Did you see that, hombre?” Jesús “Eddie” demanded. “Them towelheads are coming in here!”
They appeared in the doorway seconds later and paused there, looking carefully about as if casing the joint. Then they scuttled like rats to a shadowed corner of the room and seated themselves in darkness at a table for two.
“Can you believe it?” Jesús-“Eddie” hissed. “You think they could be jack Muslims—walking into a bar just like that?”
The barman took their order and returned with the drinks. Héctor couldn’t tell for certain what they were drinking: He guessed Tequila Sunrises. He was still trying to recall where he recognized the familiar-looking one from. There were so many Islamists on the Rio Grande these days.
Jesús “Eddie” swept his half-finished beer aside with the side of his hand. “Come on, compadrito. The Crusade is about to begin—right here and now!”
The last time Héctor had been in a fistfight was in elementary school, when Adán Romero challenged him after he’d caught Lolita Sanchez giving him a kiss on the playground at lunchtime and he’d been forced to accept in order to save face before a woman.
“Suppose we just leave,” he suggested nervously. “We make any trouble, the barman might not let us in here again.” The familiar typo, he’d realized in that instant, had been one of the jihadists attacking the machine barn.
“We are leaving,” Jesús “Eddie” whispered. “Put your coat on now, and we’ll pay up on the way out.”
The light from the windows of the Taberna Aztlán fell just short of the front ends of the cars aligned in the parking area along the concrete stops. Moving stealthily and in a crouched position, Jesús “Eddie” approached the breadbox from behind and went round it, letting the air out of the tires one after the other. When he’d finished, he tucked a paper bar napkin under the wiper-blade on the driver’s side. On the napkin, Jesús “Eddie” had written with a red felt-tip pen: CRUSIFY THE MUSLIM DOGS!!!
“There,” he remarked in a satisfied voice. “Those f–king camel jockeys will know we mean business, all right, when they come out later and get a load of that.”