Abdul Kahn’s face had remained entirely expressionless throughout the forty-five minutes required to get the wireless router that connected the three computers in the house back up and running, yet Héctor felt as certain that he had been recognized by the other man as he was in making his own identification.
He’d experienced an excruciating three-quarters of an hour, therefore, tinkering with the settings on each of the three machines, the router, and the cable modem, while endeavoring never to turn his back on Kahn while he worked, keeping him in sight at all times. Even so, he was expecting, at any moment, an ornate dagger in the back, a jeweled scimitar across the base of the neck. Who knew how many terrorists were numbered in this cell, and whether there might be others lurking in the rest of the house, around corners and in the darkened hallway? The place resembled exactly the grim dens whose images were broadcast periodically by Al Jazeera after a kidnapping followed by a threat of beheading: blankets pinned behind the windows; minimal furniture; bare, grimed walls; a few thin bamboo mats scattered about on the floor; and, off in the corners here and there, a hookah or a cezve surrounded by cups and saucers. Had Héctor been familiar with “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the house might have reminded him of the brigands’ cave in the forest, minus the heaps of treasure. As for Kahn, he seemed equally determined to keep the repairman under close surveillance, hovering so close at times that Héctor was able to catch the thin odor of water-strained tobacco in the matted beard growing about the long, yellow teeth. Without doubt, these computers harbored among them evidence of a multitude of satanic plots and schemes aimed at destroying America and spreading Islam throughout the world. One careless move on his part—one accidental flicker of the screen exposing dark secrets never intended for his eyes, or those of any other infidel—and the next instant, his head would be rolling among the coffee things on the floor. Still, he completed his work without mishap, wrote out a bill for the job, and accepted payment in cash from Kahn, escaping the house with no damage beyond the burning imprint of the jihadista’s dark, expressionless eyes upon his soul.
Immediately upon leaving No. 11 Callista Street, Héctor canceled his remaining afternoon appointments and drove directly to the police station, where he gave his story to the deputy chief—Saenz was gone from the office that afternoon—and demanded that he and his family be placed immediately in the Witness Protection Program. The deputy, a pudgy Anglo named Corcoran with a roll of fat at the back of his neck and poured into a too-tight uniform, looked bored as he heard him out, seemingly unimpressed by his account. The request for protection he dismissed with what seemed to Héctor unnecessary contempt.
“WPP is for the really big fish,” Deputy Chief Corcoran informed him. “We’ll check your story out, buddy, and decide if you’re one of them, or ain’t.” His small sneer and sarcastic tone suggested he himself had little doubt on that score.
Héctor, who’d expected his timely witness to be more than sufficient to prevent another catastrophic terrorist strike on the Rio Grande, was appalled by this laconic response.
“But it had to have been Kahn and his friend who fired the Qassam at the Taberna,” he protested. “Those computers I worked on are probably connected with other terrorist cells—maybe even Al Qaeda itself! And what if me and my wife and kids get blown to bits by another rocket before you guys get around to checking out my story? What you need to do is round up a couple of men and go over there to Callista Street—pronto—and have a look for yourselves!”
Deputy Chief Corcoran’s gaze was now definitely hostile.
“You ever hear of any such thing as a search warrant, Señor Villa? This ain’t Mexico, you know. Cops can’t go around arresting illegal immigrants on our own. That’s the federal government’s job, even if they don’t do nothing about it. What do you think the ACLU would do to us if we up and grabbed this guy on just anybody’s say-so?”
On the way out of the station, though he took the paper at home, Héctor deposited a quarter in the box and extracted a copy of the Valencia County News-Bulletin. The photo above the fold showed the Taberna Aztlán as a smoldering ruin, and the lead story described plans to rebuild the place on location behind a defiant façade inset with 1,776 beer bottles cemented in rows. “Millions for tribute, not one cent for protection,” he thought sardonically. It was a phrase he’d come across soon after crossing the border and remembered ever since. It had the genuine American ring to it, Héctor thought, like the Gettysburg Address or the Liberty Bell. He was highly disappointed in Deputy Chief Corcoran’s thoroughly un-American response in the course of their interview.
His own first impulse in the crisis had been to do whatever was in his power to protect his country. Having fulfilled that duty, Héctor felt that his immediate responsibility now was for the preservation of his family—apparently, without the aid and cooperation of the law. For the moment, he hadn’t the slightest idea how this task was to be accomplished, while whatever plan he decided on was certain to meet with the hysterical reaction of his wife when she learned that the Villas were in actual, rather than potential, danger. As he needed to inform Jesús “Eddie” at once of his run-in with Abdul Kahn and unsympathetic reception by the deputy police chief, Héctor thought he would use the occasion to seek his friend’s advice on protecting his family. Possibly Jesús “Eddie” would feel some alarm on his own behalf, but Héctor doubted it. Nor did he find alarm justified, since, the more Kahn tried to recall what Héctor’s companion at the Taberna Aztlán had looked like, the more likely he was to see Héctor—and only Héctor—seated there among shadows in the half-dark. He tried Jesús “Eddie” on his cellphone and found him in Paco’s Place downtown.
“Ah, compadrito,” Jesús “Eddie” exclaimed, “the murdering sonsabitches that destroyed our Taberna and forced us to drink in a dump like this deserve to be caught as soon as possible and have their cojones fed to the pigs! Come on down here, compinche, and drink a couple beers with me. The Corona’s the same, anyway, and plenty cheaper than what that ladrón at the Taberna used to charge.”
Paco’s Place, on West Reinken Avenue, was a quarter or less the size of the Taberna Aztlán, with room for a single widescreen TV only. Héctor discovered Jesús “Eddie” seated at a table before it, with his feet up on a chair and a basket of popcorn beside him on the table. Jesús “Eddie’s” basketball team was way behind, and already the carpet surrounding the screen lay under a thick covering of flung popcorn.
“You, a soccer fan, are lucky, hombre, to care nothing for these American games. Living in America, you do not have to watch your team lose time after time, week after week—bastardos!” Jesús “Eddie” interrupted himself, hurling another handful of corn at the unfortunate players.
Héctor, always sensitive to his inability to appreciate the sports so dear to his fellow Americans, said nothing. Instead, he drew back a chair on the same side of the table as Jesús “Eddie,” out of the direct line of fire, and took a handful of popcorn himself.
“S’up, hermano?” Jesús “Eddie” inquired. “You look like you just got fingered to run for office again.”
As he had never credited Jesús “Eddie” with being the sensitive or observant type, Héctor had to conclude that a compound of misery and fear must be smeared across his features like a facial. So be it, he told himself: He was not, in any event, the kind of hombre to beat around the bush.
“I met one of the terrorists from the Taberna Aztlán this afternoon,” Héctor explained. “As a matter of fact, I spent almost an hour with him at his house, working on his computers. The name is Abdul Kahn. I recognized him the moment I walked in the door. He recognized me, too.”
Jesús “Eddie,” grunting in indignation, half-rose from his seat to fling a double fistful of popcorn at his favorite team. Then he gave a long, astonished whistle.
“No shit! The crazy raghead might have killed you! It is a very unlucky thing for you you were recognized, compadrito. Now, the terrorists know who to go after when they want to hit somebody.”
This was hardly in the spirit of sympathetic concern and helpfulness Héctor had been expecting.
“They know how to find you, too,” he responded sharply. “For all we know, Kahn followed me this evening, on my way over here.”
Jesús “Eddie” swallowed his beer the wrong way and sat for a moment, choking and spitting into his cocktail napkin. As soon as he’d recovered, he put the bottle down and took a long, careful look around Paco’s Place. Among the Stetsons and gimme caps were a cyclist’s helmet and even a Bavarian alpine hat with a feather stuck in the band, but no turbans that either he or Héctor could see.
“We need to get protection from the cops,” Jesús “Eddie” said at last.
“I asked about that when I made out my report at the station. The deputy chief said no way. Their Witness Protection is for VIPs only.”
“You’re a VIP. You ran for Congress.”
“Yeah I did. And lost.” Nothing, Héctor had learned to his regret, is so American as celebrity—except the abysmal obscurity that inevitably follows its loss.
Jesús “Eddie” sat in silence for several minutes, ignoring both the TV screen and the popcorn bowl.
“This is serious business, hombre,” he concluded.
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
“Looks to me like the Juárezes and the Villas better migrate for a spell, until the cops pick up these two guys.”
“I had the same idea. Only where would we migrate to?”
“That’s the question, that’s the question . . . ”
Jesús “Eddie” sat back and closed his eyes. Héctor himself could have used a double shot of tequila, but the service at Paco’s Place left something to be desired, and he found it impossible to get the barman’s attention. While he was attempting to do so, Jesús “Eddie” opened his eyes suddenly. “I got it!”
“My family owns part of an old ranch out on the desert halfway between Deming and Columbus, just a house and a few outbuildings. The ragheads won’t never find us there. We’ll go south and hang out for a while until they catch these folks and send them away for a long paid vacation at Guantanamo, courtesy of Uncle Sam.”
Héctor considered. He was familiar with the general locale: an expanse of sotol and mesquite desert, flat as a drilling pad, sunstricken in summer and swept by cutting winds and sandstorms in winter, whose principal inhabitants were antelope, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas. AveMaría, after more than twenty years in the United States, barely tolerated a roadside picnic. And he had a tough time imagining her and the family living under the same roof with the Juárezes. Beatriz had never troubled to disguise her good-natured contempt for Mexicans, illegal ones especially, while AveMaría was deeply disapproving of Jesús “Eddie’s” extravagant drinking and of the influence she supposed him to have on her husband.
“How big is this place?” he asked reluctantly.
“Plenty big, plenty big! Why, at one time, my grandparents, aunt and uncle, cousin Elena and their families were all living there together! Lots of room for everybody, compadrito!”
Héctor sighed inaudibly. It seemed an offer he couldn’t refuse. And it would likely not be long—not more than a week or ten days, he expected—before the Belen police, acting on his tip and that of Jesús “Eddie,” caught up with Abdul Kahn and his accomplice and put them safely away behind bars.
“OK,” he agreed resignedly, “when do we leave?”
“I don’t know about the Villas,” Jesús “Eddie” told him, “but the Juárezes are out of here early tomorrow morning—before the next Qassam hits.”
The prospect of informing his wife and children that they would be evacuating their house overnight and going off to live indefinitely in the desert, like the Lebanese refugees on TV, seemed to Héctor more daunting even than a tour in Iraq. For courage, therefore, he ordered a final beer, fortified this time by a shot of rye. Had not President Bush called upon all Americans to sacrifice for the cause of freedom?