“Sure,” I told him in English, glancing around the room to see who might step into this on my side. It didn’t look good: Bananas; Eddy Nunzio, the bookie who was older than Bananas; his girlfriend who turned heads in Vegas as a showgirl when you could still count the neon signs; Carl, the squirrel behind the bar who was given to fits of deafness and blindness at the sight of Abraham Lincoln’s portrait; and Stevie McLain, the delivery kid from Mayfair Market who, on a good day, might whip his weight in week-old celery. “Tough, that’s me. See this beer? That’s just a chaser. A minute ago I was drinking straight shots of molten copper.”
He frowned as if he were considering ordering one himself. “You were in Tijuana asking a lot of stupid questions. Why are you looking for Nabor? What do you want from him?”
“I’m not looking for any Nabor. I’m looking for Herman Villez.”
“This Villez I don’t care about. The other man you were describing is a friend of mine. With the holes in his face.”
Pockmarks. So now I had a name for the pollero or coyote and someone who might lead me to him. I brought out the photograph that Juana Villez had given me. I showed it to Conan. He looked at the family portrait: the dapper-looking gent in the broad-striped suit and mustache; the heavy woman dressed in black who peered at the camera as if it were a drunken mariachi who wanted to marry her daughter; Juana Villez at age 19, whose awesome beauty survived the crude photography; and holding her hand, Herman Villez in his mid-20s, grinning negligently from beneath a thin mustache and shoulder-length hair.
I tapped the photo indicating the boy in the Western shirt, his thumbs hooked into his Levi’s. “This is who I’m looking for. His sister lives here now. She sent money to him to pay a pollero to bring him across. She told him to see a man with pockmarks somewhere in Coahuila. Said his name was Morelos, but of course everyone’s name is Morelos, no? I didn’t know his name was Nabor.” I smiled at him. “Anyway, this Herman Villez paid somebody. He was supposed to meet his sister in San Ysidro. He never showed. She hasn’t heard from him and she’s worried. She doesn’t know that many people up here, and her English isn’t all that great. I told her I’d ask around and take a look, that’s all.”
He nodded gravely and took my elbow in a grip that would have cracked open a live lobster. “Let’s have a talk, just you and I.” His smile was back and he had me on my feet looking up at a set of perfectly white teeth the size of dice. He ushered me quickly toward the men’s room. His companion, who looked like a mongoose in a serge suit, nodded at him and turned his attention back to the jukebox. He looked up every few seconds to make sure no one tried to give me a hand. No one did. My escort lifted me off the floor and pushed open the door to the men’s room with the back of my head. Inside, the meter reader, or whatever he was, was combing his hair. When the door struck him in the back, he yelled, “Hey!” and spun around.
With one hand, Conan yanked him out the door. He fell to his knees behind my dancing partner. I couldn’t resist. I pushed off from the sink and butted him in the chest with my head and one shoulder. He was supposed to topple over, tripping backward over the guy behind him on his hands and knees. The old gag. It didn’t work. He just looked at me as if I had disappointed him terribly. Then he sent his fist into the bridge of my nose.
After the light show had died down and the roaring in my ears had quieted to the sound of distant surf, I could make out what he was saying: “…things that are none of your concern. It can be very hazardous. I don’t know your Herman Villez. No one does. You will never find him. It’s too bad for his sister, but maybe he will show up soon. Who knows? A thousand things might have happened. Maybe he was arrested by Immigración. You must not come to Coahuila and ask questions anymore. If you do, you will be killed.”
That was the second time that day that I had been told that.
“You understand now, don’t you?” He seemed genuinely concerned, apologetic, as if he were telling his favorite kid about matches. There was blood all over my hands, the sink, the floor, and my shirt. He offered me his handkerchief. I waved it away, and as we walked out of the men’s room, I pretended to search the pockets of my jeans for my own. He paused to replace the cloth in his breast pocket while standing between me and the exit to the parking lot.
My fingers closed over the keys in my pocket. I splayed four of them between my fingers and made a fist. I could sense his partner behind me, but not close enough to worry me. I brought my hand out of my pocket, began to turn, and then spun toward the steroid nightmare from Gentlemen’s Quarterly, bringing my arm around like a whip. My fistful of keys connected with his left eye and he staggered backward, bringing both hands up to his face. I kicked him in the groin and he went lurching out the rear door, which closed and locked neatly after him.
I turned and the mongoose was already on me. He swung at me and I ducked. I hit him twice, quickly and hard in the stomach. He bent over looking toward the rear door, waiting for the big guy to reemerge with a war axe or something. I grabbed his right collar with my left hand, his left collar with my right. With my wrists crossed just beneath his Adam’s apple, I began digging my knuckles into his windpipe. As I stood there doing that for a while, I heard what sounded like a wrecking ball being sent up against the back door. Then it got quiet. The guy I was holding turned a bad color and stopped fighting me. I dropped him and ran for the front door. On my way out I noticed that there was no one left in the place except Bananas.