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John Brizzolara's thriller about the Mexican border – Wirecutter

An excerpt and an interview

Chapter One

It was always night in the Hillcrest Club, one of those Southern California cocktail lounges with the red vinyl booths, artificial plants, Formica bar, and no windows. Anyone coming in off the street, no matter what time of day or night, had to stand in the doorway blinking either fierce sunlight or blinding neon out of his eyes for a good 30 seconds before he adjusted to the greasy lighting inside. If you didn’t like who you saw coming in, you had enough time to duck out the exit by the rest rooms before he could spot you. The door led to the parking lot by the entrance ramp to Route 163. It locked automatically from the inside so that you couldn’t come in that way — you had to walk around the side of the building along a narrow concrete path. This arrangement made it a long shot that your car would be recognized by a wife, secretary, or neighbor if you needed a few fast shots before 8:00 a.m. It also made the place perfect to soak in when you didn’t want to run into creditors without notice.

It was always night in the Hillcrest Club, one of those Southern California cocktail lounges with the red vinyl booths, artificial plants, Formica bar, and no windows. Anyone coming in off the street, no matter what time of day or night, had to stand in the doorway blinking either fierce sunlight or blinding neon out of his eyes for a good 30 seconds before he adjusted to the greasy lighting inside. If you didn’t like who you saw coming in, you had enough time to duck out the exit by the rest rooms before he could spot you. The door led to the parking lot by the entrance ramp to Route 163. It locked automatically from the inside so that you couldn’t come in that way — you had to walk around the side of the building along a narrow concrete path. This arrangement made it a long shot that your car would be recognized by a wife, secretary, or neighbor if you needed a few fast shots before 8:00 a.m. It also made the place perfect to soak in when you didn’t want to run into creditors without notice.

It was late afternoon and I didn’t think I was avoiding anyone in particular. I owed the phone could bucompany $80 and my landlady twice that, but I wasn’t worried about them sending anyone around to collect. I was working on forgetting the dead man I had left behind me that morning and the mess I had made over the weekend while trying to trace one Herman Villez in Tijuana. I wasn’t expecting any more excitement when the front door of the Hillcrest Club swung open and two figures were silhouetted against the feral brightness of University Avenue.

One of them must have weighed in at 250 and was tall enough to have to duck the door frame. They both wore nice suits. People with nice suits don’t often drink at the Hillcrest. They had followed me from T.J., but I didn’t know that. That’s probably because I’m not really as bright as I like to think I am. All that business with the cops had distracted me on the ride back up.

I kept drinking my beer and resumed my conversation with Bananas — a 67-year-old, shell-shocked Anzio vet and a pleasant drunk — a great guy to talk to when you didn’t have anything in particular to say and felt like saying it.

“Why is it,” I asked him, “that every joint like this one in San Diego County has plastic ferns? I mean anything will grow in this part of the country, even in the dark, choked by alcohol and tobacco fumes. Why phony plants? You tell me that.”

The old man smiled a gummy smile and said the only thing I’d ever heard him say in the three years I’d known him, the only thing anyone had heard him say — as far as I know — since Anzio. “God bless America,” he intoned, “nickel and dime.”

That was Bananas’s act. His entire act except for holding out his thumb and forefinger horizontally when he wanted another shot of Kessler. More often than not he made as much sense as anyone else in that place.

As I was agreeing with Bananas, I noticed the two guys who had just come in sidle down the bar toward me. A San Diego Gas and Electric worker on the barstool next to mine decided it was time to take a leak. The taller guy, sleek black razor-cut hair, Wayne Newton mustache, and knife scar at the edge of one eye, occupied the vacated seat. He turned and spoke to me in quiet Spanish, smiling like we were old friends. He looked vaguely familiar, but we weren’t old friends. I had a nagging suspicion we weren’t going to be new friends either.

“You are a very nosy cabrón,” he said. The smile he wore was like a cellophane bag that was making it hard for him to breathe.

I didn’t say anything, no gems came to mind.

“Very nosy, much huevos, eh? You must be tough, such a curious little cat. You are tough, eh?”

“Just who in hell are you?” — a reasonable question, I thought — “or would that be telling?” Actually, I now recognized both him and his partner as the pimps I had seen around Coahuila. I noticed his friend had maneuvered himself toward the rear door and was pretending to study the jukebox.

“I asked you if you were a tough guy.” His smile was history now. I was quickly trying to figure why a Tijuana pimp who looked like Conan the Barbarian in a Pierre Cardin suit and his sidekick would follow me across the border and pick a fight in a San Diego bar, but nothing added up. Okay, they weren’t pimps.

“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.

On the street I was nearly as blind as the guy who came bounding around the corner of the Hillcrest, still clutching his eye with one hand. I wasn’t unhappy to see blood running from between his fingers onto his suit. If I’d had a handkerchief, I wouldn’t have been able to resist offering it to him, all apologetic and letting bygones be bygones, landing myself in traction. As it was, I did the smart thing and ran into five lanes of University Avenue rush-hour traffic, dodging and weaving like a linebacker. I didn’t look back for three blocks.

I congratulated myself that I had lost him and decided to celebrate. The only place I could get served looking the way I did, I figured, was my apartment.

Chapter Two

Once inside my two-room bungalow on Robinson and Third, I decided against a drink. I was too busy shaking and throwing up. Conan had broken my nose, my right eye was swelling closed, and I couldn’t breathe. I lay down on my Salvation Army couch and tried not to pass out. The way to do this seemed to be to stare at the ceiling around the corners of a washrag filled with ice cubes. If I closed my eyes, the blackness was too inviting. I had to be careful not to look at all the blood too. The sight of blood makes me sick. Like I told the man: tough, that’s me.

After a while I put on a record by Mink DeVille, took two Tylenol with codeine, and practiced breathing through my mouth while I tried to think of what to do next.

So I was wrong about their being pimps. At least they weren’t just pimps. It was a safe assumption that they were in the smuggling business. Maybe the girls were a sideline or maybe I was wrong about that altogether. I didn’t know. I did know that the big guy hadn’t recognized Herman Villez or his name. That wasn’t surprising. Even if they had moved him across the border, there was no reason they should remember his face. I also knew that if I went back down to T.J. and stuck close to Conan, there was a good chance I’d eventually run into Nabor or Morelos or whatever his name was.

I wasn’t too crazy about the idea.

Nabor/Morelos was a sensitive subject down there. That meant he was not just a garden-variety smuggler. Juana had said his fee was unusually high but that he guaranteed safety. Detective Bevilaqua of the Tijuana police had done a take on my description of him. It all pointed to his being well connected.

I felt my broken nose and thought about the dead man. I decided that T.J. was out of the question, at least for a while.

I could hang out at the Casa del Sol in Chula Vista, where the illegals rendezvous, exchange information about work and connect with “mules” to drive them to L.A., but that would probably get me nowhere. If they didn’t talk to Juana, they wouldn’t talk to me, and if Herman Villez showed up there, he would get in touch.

That left the man who had hired Juana Villez and brought her to the United States to dance in his club. The man who recommended Morelos. My boss, whom I’d never met. Mr. E. Walters.

I wasn’t too crazy about that idea either, but it was the only one I had that, as far as I could tell, didn’t involve my getting killed.

Juana would want to know what I had found, but she was working tonight and I didn’t have anything positive to tell her. I listened to the rest of the album, felt the pain pills kick in, and watched the shadows crawl across the piles of clothes, overflowing ashtrays, and dirty dishes in my apartment.

I put Little Feat on the stereo and poured some Ancient Age into a clean coffee cup I found. After a while I had another one.

When it was fully dark and I was feeling just wonderful enough to think about it, I decided to go in to work on my night off and see her. Thinking about Juana made my face and the back of my neck burn like a schoolboy berserk with new hormones.

In the bathroom mirror I could see that I looked battered enough to hope that she would want to kiss it and make it better. I thought about that while I took a shower.

When I walked out of my apartment, my hair was blown dry, there were two more pain pills under my belt, and I was wearing my best chocolate-suede sports jacket and Hawaiian shirt. The Canary Island palm in front of the next bungalow was silhouetted against the nearly full moon. A hint of Santa Ana winds gave the night a velvet feel. I cooed back at the pigeons in the palm tree and waved at my neighbor Wayne. Wayne ignored me; the pigeons cooed back. Whistling the guitar hook from a Tom Petty song on my way to my usual parking space, I felt ready for anything.

I don’t think I stared at the vacant curb for more than a few minutes before I remembered I had left my Maverick in the parking lot at the Hillcrest Club.

Would they be waiting for me? Did Wayne Newton the Barbarian rip my car apart with his bare hands?

I walked back up the sidewalk and let myself in again to the mock Moorish little house. I phoned the Hillcrest and got Gordon, the night man.

“York, you okay?”

“Yeah, how’s my car?”

“All right, I guess. I heard about what happened. What was that all about?”

“Later. What about the two guys?”

“They split just before the cops got here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Thanks.”

I walked back to the Hillcrest through my neighborhood — the only area in San Diego, aside from the Barrio in Logan Heights, that you could really call a neighborhood. A lot of the old residents were complaining about the number of gays coming in opening boutiques featuring unicorns and X-rated greeting cards. It didn’t bother me except that it was hard to find a place to drink without a guy in a mustache and work boots singing Streisand songs or some overweight girl in a flannel shirt calling you “Jocko.” When the area wasn’t being called “Homo Hill” it was called “Little Saigon.” The Vietnamese opened restaurants, barber shops, delicatessens, flower shops, and produce stands. Unicorn boutiques and hair salons came and went, but the immigrant businesses did a solid trade.

Sometimes during the rainy season I would stand outside the Phuong Nam and listen to the waiters or the old men who gathered at the Number One Barber Shop, and I would close my eyes to find myself in another time, another life. I didn’t do it too often.

Gordon looked upset when I asked if I could borrow his car for a few hours, just in case they were still in the area and watching mine. I told him not to worry about the car or the money he owed me on last week’s Padres game and took the keys.

The Trans Am smelled like a dumpster behind a McDonald’s. There were Big Mac boxes and empty milkshake cups all over the floor. Still, the 427 engine pulled me from 0 to 60 in about seven seconds as I headed north on 163. It was just the car to be in if I was followed. A loop north, nearly all the way to Miramar Naval Air Station, proved no one was following me. I turned around and headed back toward San Diego. I listened to Steely Dan on Gordon’s cassette.

The Low Down’s 30-foot neon dancer that flooded Pacific Coast Drive with garish colors for nearly a block either way was doing a stuttering bump-and-grind with her left hand missing. Maynard was getting the sign fixed. He had told me himself when he hired me as a security guard three months earlier.

Dick Holster was working the door that shift. He swore it was his real name. I even saw his driver’s license once under the little flashlight they issued to us that brings out the watermark on California licenses — it also shows up any cute X-Acto knife work on the date of birth, which is mostly what we look for on the IDs of the Navy kids who come to the Low Down.

Dick was a quiet, competent man. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for a year and then quit. He never told me why. He was cool and fair with a dry sense of humor, and I would want him on my side of any trouble. I knew he subscribed to the National Centurion, some gun magazines, and the Survivalist, owned some property in the mountains, and had once applied for a PI license but didn’t get it. He didn’t have the kind of authority complex I expected to go along with this package; he didn’t need to feel bigger than he was or push anyone around. He was a little hard to figure. Anyone who wanted to be a private detective was probably immature. My ambition was to sing like Ray Charles.

“Nathaniel York?” he read. “I thought York was your first name.” Dick was paying me back for all my cracks about his name and my insistence on seeing his license that time. He handed back the card with the miniature photo of me that a girl I once dated said made me look like “a dissipated Dondi.”

“I don’t mind Nathaniel, but no one ever uses it. People always insist on Nat or Nate or Nathan. None of which are my name. So it’s York.”

“What happened to you?” He shined his flashlight in my eyes.

“Plastic surgery. I’ve decided to turn Japanese.”

For a Monday night, it wasn’t a bad crowd. Two dozen sailors in Levi’s, windbreakers, and haircuts from an old yearbook were seated around the horseshoe stage watching Liz do toe touches, running her hands over the insides and backs of her thighs.

I could watch Liz dance all night, she was that good at it. She had fine suntanned legs that were nicely muscled but not too muscled, a perfectly hemispherical ass that moved more ways than one, and high breasts, no more than a handful but enough to draw the eyes upward. She worked hard at dancing, and it showed. She was also naturally sexy in the way that some women are, no matter what kind of shape they’re in; it comes through in the eyes, in the smile, and in the air around them.

The sailors might as well have been watching a training film — “This, men, is a woman’s backside” — for all the life they showed. From the bouncer’s point of view, that was just fine. If you seemed to be enjoying the show a little too much, you were asked to leave.

On the floor next to Dick were all the checked motorcycle helmets, briefcases, and bags. We started checking briefcases and bags about the time the idea of whipping out dildos at the girls became all the rage. The helmets we checked because we didn’t like the idea of getting hit with them.

I wondered who the briefcases belonged to, and I scanned the room. They weren’t hard to find. Off in the corner where the timid guys sit, they laughed a little too loudly with each other and pretended they were too well laid to really care about Liz’s charms. Their ties were loosened at identical angles to their collars. They probably operated computers across the street at Major Turbines and had names like Harvey and Norm.

They should get together with the sailors and go to a movie.

I chose a barstool next to the waitress station and said hello to Suzy Lee. Maynard had the DJ bill Suzy as “The Red-Hot Yellow Peril.” Smiling prettily at me from beneath jet bangs, she said, “Can’t get enough of the place, eh? What is it?” Her face twisted in mock puzzlement. “The atmosphere?” She was wearing a blue silk kimono she didn’t bother to close. I admired the way she tugged at the top of one black stocking that gleamed wickedly in the low light of the bar and adjusted a garter belt. “My magnetic personality?” Her wink used both eyes, all of her face, and her shoulders.

I ordered a Coke and said, “You know, you’re the most scrutable Oriental I’ve ever met.”

Her laugh sounded the way a puppy does when you step on its tail. “I’ll tell Juana you’re here.”

Chapter Three

It had been on a slow night like this one that I had first seen Juana. They might have been the same fresh-faced sailors around the horseshoe, and I remember a handful of old-timers, machinists from the plant down the road who peered up at the stage with lifeless, secretive eyes from over the tops of their beers. I had been watching the girls make the rounds in their G-strings to see if anybody needed refills. The drill was to scan the girls as they leaned toward the customers; if anybody touched them where they shouldn’t, they were out the door.

Juana was carrying a tray and following Suzy Lee to see how it was done. Trailing, they called it. She was waiting her turn to go onstage and dance, and she looked scared to death. She must have been 21 — they’re very conscientious about that kind of thing in topless bars because most of them are run by very sensitive interests — but she looked 17. She was wearing a tight blue skirt that was about as long as a mayfly’s memory, sandals, and what looked like a man’s white shirt tied up in front like a halter and rolled at the sleeves. I guessed her to be five feet tall. She looked so good with her clothes on I didn’t want her to take them off. Her face, in the bruised lighting, looked like a Mayan carving of some regal, delicate bird. Her eyes were and are huge and dark — soft, but with a kind of wariness that isn’t quite disillusionment. Her hair was long then, all the way to her waist, black and rich like a jungle night. All the girls at the Low Down were beautiful — they had to be — but Juana, all flashing eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and velvet sienna skin, could have made Helen of Troy look like a transvestite with a hangover.

She would look up at the stage, trailing the dancer — I forget who it was — the way she trailed Suzy Lee; trying to drink in the movements and memorize them, knowing she was about to go on. You could tell she was about as familiar with the atmosphere as she was with the moon’s.

When she approached the bar, she would let Suzy Lee order first and then repeat after her as the bartender set up the drinks, “Meelair Lite” or “Jean and Towneek.” Then she would smile up at the bartender — it was Clifford that night — for confirmation on her English. Cliff only scowled at her. Nothing personal, that was just Cliff. In a place where the dancers collected tips from the men in the horseshoe of barstools at the lip of the stage and then collected tips as waitresses when they weren’t dancing, there wasn’t much left over for a 25-year-old bartender that looked like Karl Malden. I sympathized with him up to a point but suspected that he wasn’t quite human. Anyone who didn’t melt when Juana smiled couldn’t be quite human. I smiled at her for both of us and lied to her in Spanish that her pronunciation was very good. Her cheekbones seemed to lift even higher as her smile broadened in my direction.

Suzy pressed herself against me and wrapped her arms around my waist. She introduced us. “York is the big strong hunk who protects us from the bad horny men. Stay away from him, he’s mine.” She narrowed her eyes at Juana and then laughed, letting me go. “I wish.”

In Spanish I made sure Juana knew it was just Suzy’s sense of humor, adding that it wasn’t going to be easy being the most beautiful dancer in the place. I wasn’t just saying it.

It got me another smile. “You are Mexicano?”

I shook my head. “No, I —”

“Cubano. ¿Sí?”

I told her I was a lot of things, none of them Hispanic unless you counted the Corsican.

“Where did you learn to speak Spanish so well?”

I could listen to her voice all night, and for the first time since taking the job I thought about doing just that. I made it a rule not to sleep where I ate, or however the old saw goes, partly because it was a good idea no matter where you worked and partly because most of the girls at the Low Down either were gay, were into more dope than even I felt comfortable around, had wacko boyfriends with guns, or had interesting combinations of all of the above.

“I learned Spanish in high school, but not very well. I picked up more from some Puerto Rican people in my neighborhood in New York. Again, not very well.”

She assured me that King Carlos never spoke better. She was probably right. I was being modest and King Carlos probably lisped.

The dancer onstage finished up and Larry, the disc jockey, started gabbling about fine foxes and funky stuff and flash-dancin’ mamas.

“I have to go.” She looked toward the stage as if it were the gallows. “My first time, you know? I’m nervous.”

“I know. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”

Her smile had collapsed. A ghost of one flickered that was more of a facial tic, and then she headed for the backstage curtain. The previous dancer emerged and began circulating, taking drink orders from the sailors and the old men.

We all listened to Bob Seger sing “Fire Down Below.” It sounded like he was in the room.

Larry interrupted the record and introduced her. “…straight from Mexico City, hotter than a jalapeño, welcome our newcomer, Juana!…Do you wanna?” Larry played with the delay on his console, and his words echoed around the dance floor. He mixed the volume up on Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night,” and Juana appeared blinking into the spotlights. She wore a black, silklike pair of pants that I recognized as belonging to one of the other girls. The pants could be untied on either side of the ankles, calves, knees, thighs, and waist and would come away in a few deft movements if you had enough practice. She wore a Harry Belafonte–style balloon-sleeved shirt that revealed enough cleavage to explain her getting the job without any experience — if it needed any explaining. On her head, covering part of her hair, which was tied up in the classic Spanish style, she wore the kind of hat that Zorro wears. In her hand was a bullwhip. She tottered a little inexpertly on high heels and blinked into the footlights.

The getup must have been Maynard’s idea. I looked toward the rear of the room and saw him leaning against a pool table with his arms folded and a happy grin on his face. He looked like somebody’s idiot son.

It took her only a few moments to adjust to the lighting and the spike-heeled shoes, and then Juana began to move with the kind of grace you associate with expensive, exotic cats. She took it slow and trailed the whip around her neck like a snake, playing with the grip end without quite touching it, holding it out as if it had a mind of its own and were trying to touch her everywhere. She kept her eyes on the whip as if it were hypnotizing her or she it. By the end of the first song she had thrown her head back and allowed it to touch her throat and slide downward while she sank to her knees, her eyes still closed. She made the thing look alive and I envied it. So did the rest of the lads. The sailors and the old men got to their feet and applauded and shouted. They waved money in the air and laid it out on the edge of the stage. She moved leisurely around the horseshoe, smiling and bending to pick up the money with her legs tightly together. I don’t know where she got that routine, but it was a big hit. Not as athletic as most of the acts you see at the Low Down maybe, but she didn’t need to execute flying splits or yoga positions.

She still hadn’t taken off anything but her hat.

On the sound system, the Rolling Stones started up “Beast of Burden.” She tossed the hatful of money to the side and whip on top of it, moving with the same languid tension and bridled sensuality. The routine was, the second number was the cue for the dancer to earn her money topless. Usually this was worked up to with a gradual tease, but Juana simply stared into the spotlights, unbuttoned her shirt, and let it drop unceremoniously to the floor. She looked in the general direction of where I was standing and then met my eyes. Her breasts were full and pearlike and smooth, only slightly lighter than the rest of her skin, the stuff dreams are made of: lonely dreams full of frustration and ache, the kind that leave the pillow full of sweat and the sheets a tangled mess. She danced for the next two songs looking at me every few moments and smiling.

If anyone tore up the bar or raped the waitresses, I missed it. I was lost somewhere in a pair of eyes.

I never had a chance.

Since she was the new kid, she had worked the last show. At closing time she said goodnight to me and started walking down Pacific Coast Drive along the shoulder of the road. When I had killed the switch on the big neon sign, she disappeared into the night. I locked up as quickly as I could and called out after her in Spanish to wait.

I saw her stop and turn, silhouetted against a pair of oncoming headlights. I ran to catch up. “You’re not walking far at two in the morning, I hope.”

“No, not far. I live there.” She gestured up Laurel to an Edwardian-looking house that had long since become low-income rental units specializing in transient clientele.

“You live with Liz?” I knew that Liz had a one-bedroom place she shared half the time with her coke-dealer boyfriend, an incorrigible little scamp I had to 86 one time for pulling a buck knife on some Navy chief. Juana nodded.

“How about a late dinner or an early breakfast? Hungry?”

“No. Maybe some coffee.” She smiled. “I never went out with a policeman. I’ll feel very safe.”

I looked down at my uniform. “I’m just a rent-a-cop. Consider me rented.”

We walked back up the street to my car and drove to the Silver Gate Diner. She drank coffee and so did I. I ordered an omelet and played with it while I babbled on about the Low Down and Maynard, past jobs, New York, San Diego, the Padres; all of them seemed to be the wrong things to talk about while trying to impress a woman with a face that would bring a statue to life. She didn’t say much, just nodded and smiled and stirred her coffee long after it was cold. She showed me her first night’s tips, about $60, which was almost impossible on a Monday night at the Low Down unless you happened to look like Juana. I congratulated her and told her not to wave cash around in the Silver Gate Diner at 2:00 a.m. “Tell me about yourself,” I said, “anything at all. I’m getting tired of my voice. How did you get the job dancing? Just walk in?”

“No, the owners have a hotel in Ensenada where I was working as a maid. They offered me the job and said they could arrange the papers. They said I would make a lot of money. It seems to be true.” Instead of looking happy at this, she seemed to be puzzled, as if it were the only thing they told her that was true. Maybe it was just the expression someone might wear if they were bone tired from dancing and waiting tables for eight hours. “I have my green card,” she said brightly, and then, as quickly, her expression darkened again. Hurriedly, as if to cover something, she went on. “Anyway, I want to take lessons to dance and to act.”

“You should give them.”

I had heard that Wolf Enterprises, the company that owned the Low Down, had interests in Mexico. That jibed and it didn’t tax my imagination to think they could buy a green card for her like they might buy a new pool table. I didn’t know how much juice that would take, but they might well have it. Still, with all the juice in the world, an army of tame, well-connected lawyers and some key friends at the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, it would take a couple of months to get a residency permit, what they called the green card, though it wasn’t green. Sometimes it could take up to a year and even then it could fall through.

Something had been bothering her. She was leaving a lot out. In a strange country after her first day at a pretty strange job, sitting across the table from a stranger in a mock cop’s uniform, it wasn’t likely she’d give me an epic and detailed life history; but I got the feeling it wasn’t me or the job or geography that made her seem sad and afraid.

No doubt they had told her that they would make her a star in the United States, that if she just took off her shirt and danced in their club, Hollywood would be beating the door down in no time. I wasn’t going to tell her otherwise. Things happened around the kind of beauty Juana had.

I drove her back to Liz’s apartment and took myself home. She had agreed to meet me for dinner the next night before our shifts began.

We had seafood at Anthony’s and watched the tourists yell at their kids and take pictures in front of the Star of India and the tuna boats. She wasn’t any more eager to talk about herself, and I held up both ends of the conversation by making up names for all the people that walked by. I became more convinced that there was something on her mind, but I was going to wait for her to spill it, if she ever decided to.

When the conversation turned to movies, she brightened up. She knew more about American movies and movie stars than Rona Barrett. I was left in the dust, but neither of us minded. She recounted plots from movies I’d never heard of and delighted in describing what everyone was wearing in what scene. I was happy just listening to her voice; it sounded the way cool silk feels against hot skin.

“…You would look like him a little if you had a mustache.” She squinted at me.

“Who?”

“Burt Reynolds. You’re not listening. I am boring you.”

“You could read me the phone book without boring me. You like Burt, eh?”

“I told you, he is my absolute favorite. If I could become a movie star, I would make all of my movies with him.”

“I’ll grow a mustache.”

For the next two weeks I took her to every matinee in San Diego County that didn’t have a title like Wet Housewives or Lavender Truckers. She held my arm once while Burt Reynolds kissed Goldie Hawn. I made a mental note to buy Burt a drink if I ever met him.

On her nights off, she told me, she was going to school to learn English, but she didn’t say where. When she offered to make me a dinner of carne asada and ceviche in my apartment, I didn’t turn her down. I bought a bottle of Frascati, a bottle of Beaujolais, and a bottle of El Presidente brandy. Over the finished dinner — which was better than any I’d ever had in the too-many mediocre Mexican restaurants in town — we drank brandy and she told me that my mustache was funny-looking. I pretended her English was bad and that I thought she had said that it smelled funny. When she leaned closer to place her nose near my upper lip, I kissed her and she kissed me back. Long and hard. The world dissolved into soft lights, a velvet tongue, and the scent of her hair like sweet earth and night-blooming jasmine. I held her for a long time, her head against my chest, until I felt a dampness on my shirt and her shoulders shake in my arms. I lifted her face and saw the tears and streaked makeup.

“Okay. Tell me about it,” I said as gently as I could.

She shook her head and used a Kleenex. She had drunk far more than she was used to and she started to pour another. I took the snifter from her.

“This won’t help, but maybe I can.”

“I’ll make some coffee,” she said.

She got up and walked a little unsteadily to the kitchen. I followed her. She leaned against the sink and lowered her head. She started to sob again. I held her and after a while she started to tell me about Herman Villez.

“When I left Mexico I promised my brother I would arrange for him to join me here as soon as I could. The man who brought me here, Mr. Walters, would not help me except to give me the name of a man in Tijuana who would smuggle him across for $300. It is more than the usual amount, but I was told he guaranteed safety. The man’s name is Morelos, and he, Mr. Walters, said he could be found in the bars in a district called Coahuila. He was described to me as a man with holes from some disease on his face. I wrote to Herman and I sent him the money. I received a letter from him two weeks ago saying that he had arrived in Tijuana and had met the man. He said everything was arranged, that he was to leave in a few nights. He told me to wait for him at the Casa del Sol in Chula Vista until he arrived. I waited there for three nights the next week. I took the trolley. That’s where I have been. I lied to you about the English lessons. I showed his picture to the alambristas there, but no one had seen him. Or if they had, they said nothing. They are all very frightened and always lie, even to their own people. They trust no one. I must find this man Morelos and ask him what became of my brother. These coyotes are dangerous men, and I am afraid. My brother and I are very close; he has always taken care of me and now I must take care of him. I’ve failed. Something terrible has happened to Herman. He may have been arrested or killed. You always hear of the terrible things that happen to the alambristas.”

The word meant, literally, “wirecutters.” It was the term Mexican illegals used instead of mojados, or wetbacks, along this part of the border because you didn’t have to cross a river to get here, just a fence. She lied to me about the English classes all right, and I sensed there were holes in her story you could drive a Buick through, some of which could be explained by the fact that she herself was here on phony papers, but if that was the way she wanted to tell it, that was all right with me. There was enough truth in it to make a start.

“What about Walters? Couldn’t he trace him for you?”

She looked away and shrugged. “He said to wait, that he was probably only delayed but that he would come soon. I know that isn’t true.” She gave me a look that held all the certainty anyone could have about anything. “Herman would have gotten in touch with me somehow.”

“Yeah, they have phones in Tijuana and a sort of a post office. What about the woman who was with Walters when he hired you?”

“I don’t know her name. I never saw her again. She was very beautiful, but cold-looking, you know? Mr. Walters gave me his card long ago when he asked me to think about coming to work for him in the United States. The second time I saw him I agreed. The next day he sent a car for me. It brought me to the club. There was no trouble at the border. He gave Liz some money and asked if I could stay with her. Liz was very nice, of course. It was just temporary, he said. Soon he would get me my own place. That was some weeks ago. I’ve seen him once since then, and I asked him about Herman. He told me to be patient. Herman would come. He said that he would soon have some news for me that would make me happy. He did not mean news about Herman, but some job for me. I haven’t seen him since then. When I have tried to call him, there is a machine that answers his telephone, and he has never returned my calls.”

From her purse she handed me a business card with the name E. Walters embossed in gold and a number with a North County exchange. There was nothing else on the card.

E. Walters was the name on the liquor license at the Low Down. He owned at least two other topless joints, one in L.A. and one in Carmel. He signed my paychecks as head of Wolf Security Systems, which was an organization of doormen, bouncers, night watchmen, department store guards, ushers, repo men, and professional witnesses for law firms.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” I sat her back down on the couch and spoke to her from the kitchen as I made the coffee. “In the morning I’ll go to the detention center in San Ysidro. You said you have a photograph of Herman. I’ll see if I can spot him. If he was arrested, he might still be there. I can’t very well circulate his picture with the Border Patrol in case he’s lying low somewhere and still trying to dodge them, but I can go to Coahuila and see if he isn’t still hanging around — maybe find your Señor Morelos with the terminal acne.”

“You would do that?” She looked up at me with eyes that weren’t yet cried out. Her brother must be something special.

“I would do that.”

She brought my head down to her mouth and I stayed that way for a long time. After a while she said, “I will pay you.” She reached into her handbag the way she did when she showed me her tips that first night. The bundle had grown. There must have been about $1000 in 20s, 50s, and 10s.

“You’re spoiling the moment. Put that in a bank somewhere.”

“I don’t like banks,” she said defensively.

“Give it to Maynard. Tell him to put it in the house safe at the Low Down.”

“He keeps my green card, and he won’t let me have it.” She looked at me to see what I made of that and then said, “I don’t like Maynard.”

“No one does. Sorry, that was my dumb suggestion for the night. I have much better ones.” I brought her closer to me.

She leaned back on the couch, and I felt all of her beneath me. I supported my weight on my elbows and gradually brought myself down until she moaned and I felt her body against mine. She reached between my legs with her right hand and closed her fingers around the hardness there. My arms couldn’t support my weight anymore, they shook like jade branches in an earthquake. It was my turn to moan.

Her tongue silenced me and I rolled to the side, gradually letting her down onto me as I lay on the floor. She straddled me and sat up, lifting her skirt over her head with a fluid ruffle of soft beige. I had seen her take her clothes off before, onstage. But this wasn’t a show. She looked at me now with an intensity and hunger that you always hope to find in a woman with that kind of beauty but usually don’t — settling for something close enough to get you through the night but not close enough to want to remember the next day. She unhooked her flesh-colored bra and it fell away. She stayed upright for a moment just breathing and looking at me and for a while I didn’t do anything because I knew that to begin meant that it would have to end.

“Nathaniel,” she said, her breasts rising and falling as she tried to take in enough air to say whatever she thought had to be said. “This doesn’t have to…I’m not…we…” She bent to kiss me again. My mouth met hers and we finished the thought the only way that made any sense.

I slid her hose down from her hips and she pulled my shirt from my waist. Her lips played over my belly, the scar just above it, then back down. I felt her fingers on my belt and the buttons on my Levi’s and in the next moment she had me in her mouth, all of me that mattered except for the little timekeeper existing somewhere in that cold place between the heart and the brain who kept pointing out that tomorrow or the next day or a year from now she would just be something else that I had lost.

When I entered her she bit her lip and laughed, shuddered and grew quiet. She said she was sorry that she laughed. I told her that I wasn’t. I told her that was perfect.

We made love until dawn, and when it came time, I shook just as hard and laughed too — because it was perfect. And maybe because nothing else ever had been. I lay beside her tracing patterns on her cheek, still chuckling like a madman over some private joke. She kissed my forehead and my face until I stopped. She said, “You are a funny man.”

“Ha-ha funny?”

“No.”

“Then you mean strange.”

“Different. A man who laughs when he makes love…and doesn’t mind when I do. Do I sound stupid because I can’t speak English well?”

“Not to me.”

She said nothing for a while. A gray light came in through the venetian blinds; early-morning fog that would burn off by noon. Then she said, “If you were a Mexican man, you would slap me for laughing, and I would be humiliated if you laughed.”

“That’s what makes this country great. We’re a funny people. We make the world safe for comedy.” It was a bad substitute for what I wanted to say. The cleverness hung like body odor or old cigarette smoke in the room.

“You need to protect people, don’t you?”

“I don’t know about that.”

“I think that about you, but I don’t know why it is.”

“It’s a minor neurosis, I can deal with it.”

“A what?”

“Nothing.” I kissed her again because I wanted to and because it would stop me from talking about love and protecting people. She moved on top of me again.

I must have put the radio on because I remember music that isn’t on any record I own. It probably isn’t on any radio either.

We slept eventually, and very late that morning she made me breakfast. Rice Krispies and papaya slices. We talked about everything: dancing and acting and movies and the regulars at the Low Down, Ronald Reagan, and the Russians. We talked about the night before and how fine it was, and then we talked about her brother, Herman Villez.

We talked about everything except love.

She gave me the family photo, taken, she said, after Easter Mass two years ago in front of an uncle’s ranch outside of Hermosillo. I drove her back to Liz’s apartment around eleven o’clock. The hard strains of heavy-metal music came from an open window along with the too-loud voices of people who had been up all night on cocaine and were too stoned to realize they didn’t have to hold back the night anymore.

I kissed Juana on the tip of her nose and drove myself south to San Ysidro.

Chapter Four

At the detention center a woman behind a sliding-glass window asked me my business. I told her I was a reporter for the San Diego Reader doing a piece on the treatment of illegals by the San Diego Border Patrol. As just a curious citizen I could wait weeks or months to get clearance, and then I would get only the sunshine tour, but as a representative of the press I hoped I would have a little leverage if I needed it. She told me to have a seat and wait for a Mr. Weintraub.

Weintraub’s first name was Douglas. That’s what it said on the plaque on his desk. Douglas Weintraub, assistant administrator. Doug looked like an old cop to me, maybe fbi, maybe military police. He had that dull look that comes with aging authority. He was about 55 with narrow eyes above coffee-drinker’s pouches and a whiskey-drinker’s nose. His sideburns were a little too long for his haircut, and he looked like he would speak with a Southern accent but he didn’t. He was courteous but forgot to shake my hand. I put it back in my jacket pocket and sat down uninvited.

“So, you’re with the Reader,” he said, standing.

“If I sell them this story, I am. I’m freelance.”

“Then the Reader didn’t send you here?”

“Not exactly.”

“You’re writing this article on…whattyacallit? Speculation?”

“Right.”

“You didn’t tell the receptionist that.”

“It didn’t come up.” I smiled, trying to look like a clever cub reporter.

He didn’t smile back. “You mind if I ask who you’ve written for in the past?”

“I wrote for the Village Voice in New York. I did stringer stuff for the Daily News back there. I did a story on the American Nazi Party for Rolling Stone last year, a piece on male-pattern baldness for Esquire…” I was just getting going when he interrupted me.

“I never read any of those…” He thought and then said, “publications.” He said it as if it were a clever euphemism for toilet paper. “I don’t read the San Diego Reader either.”

“Over 100,000 people in this country do.” I made up their circulation figure.

“Well, Mr.…”

“Hammil,” I said. I don’t know if it was some vague hunch I had that I should keep my real name from the Border Patrol’s notice, a kind of clairvoyance about what was to come, or if I was just having fun. “Raoul Hammil.”

“Mr. Hammil, before I could authorize a visit to the facilities, my office would require a letter from your superiors addressed to our public-information officer in San Pedro outlining the exact nature of your article and the manner in which the Border Patrol would be represented.”

“I told you, Mr. Weintraub. I’m a freelancer. At the moment I have no…superiors.” I smiled a gosh-shucks kind of smile. “The Border Patrol will be represented fairly, I believe. I could agree to submit the article to you before publication for your perusal.” No reporter would agree to something like that, but I hoped he didn’t know that.

Doug sat down and spread his hands to show me that they were empty, that he was powerless. “I’m sorry. That’s not good enough. You understand.” Now he extended his hand for me to shake. “It’s a sensitive matter.”

“Yes, it is.” I stood up and started to go, leaving his extended and meaty hand poised over his desk. “Then it’s okay with you if the article reads, ‘The Border Patrol Administration Office would not permit an on-site inspection of the detention center’?”

“That would not be accurate.” He closed his hands and sat forward.

It was my turn to spread my palms and shrug.

He glanced at his watch. “The morning is a bad time. Maybe if you were to come back after lunch I could get someone to take you on a brief tour. We’ve got nothing to conceal here. We don’t mistreat these people.” He was suddenly standing again. “They’re a lot better off if we get them. We don’t take their money or molest them or kill them the way their own people do. We feed them here. Your tax money buys them the kind of meal many of them could never buy for themselves. We take them back across the border and arrange for their transportation to wherever they say they’ve come from, which is more than their own government does for them. If we’re a little cautious about who we allow into the place, it’s because we’re trying to do a job with no help from the media, who seem intent on portraying us as storm troopers. Come back this afternoon and you’ll see beds for people who’ve never slept in one, quality food and medical care for people who’ll never see it again unless they become regulars or graduate to the penitentiary. Come back after lunch, Mr. Hammer, and write your story.” He dismissed me by screwing a True Blue cigarette into a white holder and lighting it. The witless tool of the commie fag New York press had been told off and shown largess by one of the front-line defenders of Our Way of Life.

I turned to go. I was about to say thank you when he said, “Mr. Hammond, I don’t think I like you or your way of doing business, but maybe you’ve got enough gumption to tell your readers the truth. I’m gonna count on that.”

“I appreciate it, Mr. Weinhardt,” I said as I closed his office door behind me.

Herman Villez wasn’t at the detention center, or “staging area,” as they called it. The place resembled a well-maintained pow camp, which, in a sense, is exactly what it was. A hurricane fence enclosed a compound of numbered one-story buildings that looked like barracks, only their cinder blocks were painted a cheerful yellow. The guy who showed me around was Agent Ybarra, a broad, pleasant-looking Chicano who probably lifted weights. He parked a turquoise-and-white Border Patrol passenger van that he had used that morning to bring the previous night’s catch back over the border.

“You’re not gonna see much,” he said, unlocking a gate set into the chain link. “This time of day it’s pretty quiet. We got three guys left from last night.” He indicated a trio of tired-looking men squatting against the fence and smoking cigarettes. They didn’t speak to each other. Their clothes looked dusty and cheap; their faces and arms had seen a lot of sun over the years. They could have been in their 30s or their 60s. I didn’t get that close, but none of them were Juana’s brother.

“One of these guys is a refugee from El Salvador. He goes to El Centro for official deportation tonight or tomorrow. This other guy goes to the marshal’s office to be arraigned on charges of resisting arrest. He had a knife and tried to use it. Didn’t do him any good. He’ll probably do time at mcc.”

“Metro Correction Center.”

“Right.”

“What about him?” I pointed to the third man. He wore imitation designer jeans that were too big for him and worn out at the knees.

“He turned himself in this morning. He was coming across last night and got separated from his daughter, just a kid, 14. They split up and ran from my patrol. He showed up here about nine o’clock to see if we picked up his little girl. We didn’t. He goes back tomorrow with the ones we round up tonight.”

“What about the girl?”

Ybarra turned and gestured out at the miles of valley stretching out below San Ysidro along the Tijuana River basin. “We’ll keep an eye out for her.”

“Yeah.” I turned from the scenery. There was too much of it to go along with the thought of a lost kid. I looked at the men in the yard. If they gave a damn what happened to them, you couldn’t see it in their faces. “The guy who resisted arrest, you get a lot of that?”

“Enough.”

“Every night? Once a month? Anybody besides him in the last couple of weeks?”

“Sure.” He smiled. “There was a guy a few nights ago that bit one of our people. Right here.” He pointed to his inner thigh. “He got away, though.”

I wondered if Herman Villez was a biter. “You see the guy?”

“Oh, I know who he is. A regular. We’ll get him again and when we do, Caulfield is gonna bite his leg off. Then we’ll just drive him back to First Avenue in T.J. He’ll come across again in a few nights and get caught. It becomes a game after a while.”

“Caulfield?”

“The guy he bit.”

“I thought your regulars do a prison term.”

“Not the everyday working guys. There’s not enough jails, man. No, our biter is an old friend. He picks fruit up here every summer and spring, spends the money he makes on whiskey and boys in T.J. He gets real pissed off when we catch him. He’s okay, though, you know.”

“He got a name?” I brought out my notebook as though I were taking notes for the Reader.

Ybarra grinned a goofy way. Anybody who could make that face had to be human as hell. I laughed before he even said anything. “Juan Garcia, what else? Just like these other two guys. Caulfield calls him the Tooth Fairy now.”

“The Tooth Fairy?”

“He’s an old queen, man. Too much.” Ybarra looked at his Casio watch. “You wanna see the barracks with the beds and all that? You missed lunch for these guys. A restaurant down the road caters their meals. Sloppy Joes today.”

“Yummy. Thanks, Agent Ybarra. I’ve got enough for now.” I turned to go. Ybarra stopped me with a hand on my arm.

“If you’re a reporter, I’m Maria of Romania. Who are you looking for?”

“You’ve been a lot of help. If I was looking for somebody who was picked up, I would hope he ran into you.”

“Don’t let Weintraub get in your knickers, he’s really okay. Most of the guys here are okay, more or less. There are a few John Waynes and whatnot, what the hell? If you were looking for a wirecutter, they could do a lot worse than be picked up by the Border Patrol. A lot worse.” I believed him.

“Yeah, they might miss out on the Sloppy Joes.”

Ybarra laughed, then added, “If there’s somebody out there” — he gestured at the valley, the dmz between hostile countries in a quiet but nonetheless real war for the American dollar — “somebody we should know about who’s liable to do more than just bite, you let me know. Okay?”

I nodded and walked back to my car. I would.


HOW HE DID IT: JOHN BRIZZOLARA TALKS ABOUT THE MAKING OF WIRECUTTER

How this one happened went like this.

During 14 years of marriage, it became a custom for my ex-wife and me to create and exchange supernatural thrillers on Christmas Eve, stuff we spent weeks on. It was a tradition started, as far as I know, by the British writer M.R. James (author of, for example, “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”). We thought this was a cozy, Dickensian thing to do. We were right, and it drove us to produce — something, anything, while we struggled to make our livings elsewhere.

We had published some of these stories in the genre magazines and once even — so happily — received a check from Amazing Stories on Christmas Eve.

While listening to (of all things) “Hotel California” by the Eagles, I was struck with a spookiness, an unsavory narrative, and while the music did little for me, the implied story creeped me out and I wanted to do something like it in fiction.

My original story idea was along the lines of “Heart of Darkness” meets The Day of the Locust. I think I got close, but as the Johnny Mathis song says, “It’s Not for Me to Say.” Anyway, what started out as a quest for a supernatural short story grew into a novel that had nothing to do with the occult.

Coincidentally, around that time a friend gave me a copy of James Crumley’s Last Good Kiss. It was a Raymond Chandler pastiche, but the best I’d ever read. I was a Chandler fanatic, and Wirecutter is a slavish imitation of that style. I began it in 1983 in the Coronado heat.

But back to the embryo. For my ghost story, or Christmas horror, I had in the back of my mind a large population of untraceable, undocumented aliens. In other words, people who if they disappeared off the face of the earth would hardly be missed. I had a kind of wicked witch character in a rambling castle on the borderlands of the East. She commissioned illegal migrants from “coyotes,” to enslave the migrants or eat them or make them into cat food, whatever. I hadn’t gotten that far in my plotting.

So I heard it was possible to ride along with the Border Patrol and applied. It took forever. They were dragging their feet because at about that time The Border, a Jack Nicholson film about ins corruption, came out. It was hardly a public relations promotion for the State Department. They were concerned about how I would portray them. Well, I didn’t know — because I hadn’t met any of them.

Finally clearance came through. I was allowed on a night run in December along the Brown Field Sector.

I had only been in San Diego a short while and was unprepared for the almost Arctic atmosphere of Otay Mesa in December. The aquamarine Ram Chargers were heated, all right, but no one had mentioned anything about a “night shoot.” This was a procedure where target practice was exercised under the stars.

In almost complete blackness, agents sped to a stop, seemingly at random, got out of their cars (being careful to use the door of the vehicle for cover), and fired at a shadowy, man-shaped target that would suddenly spring up. Within seconds the target had to be identified as woman, child, or armed man. With luck this decision might be aided with a flicker of peekaboo moonlight. More often than not the targets were shot with .357 magnums and mistakes were made.

I looked around for cover, but nothing seemed safe; bullets were coming from unpredictable angles. Finally, one of the agents suggested, “Get behind that board.”

The “board” he was referring to looked like an old Burma Shave sign riddled with bullets. This was about as much cover as a Bantu dictionary. In my herringbone jacket and moccasins, no socks, I huddled there for about nine years, my teeth chattering, and not simply from the cold.

One woman, Maria I believe her name was, proved to be the best marksman. I cowered a little less when it was her turn.

The other things I remember from that night were the jackrabbits and the green-screen nightscopes showing up body heat on the mesa. Long-eared rabbits would dart suicidally into the headlights of the Ram Chargers. “It’s a miracle we didn’t kill half of those stupid bastards,” I remember commenting to the driver. His answer was, “Oh, I figure we must have.” To this day, I don’t know if he was joking.

The marvels were the infrared nightscopes. I imagine they were fairly primitive compared to what they are using now, but they were effective. Most of them were mounted on the backs of flatbed trucks and were the size of television cameras, boxy, almost like WWII radar machines. No one seemed to be expert in using them, but they weren’t hard to figure out: whatever you pointed at, if there was body heat (including rabbits) you got a green image. I was astounded at the number of human bodies we found. Didn’t mean all or even half of them were illegal, but there were an awful lot of people where they shouldn’t be, in unlit canyons with names like Moody’s, Springs, and Deadman’s.

In the intervening years it has become unclear to me how, exactly, I met Danny “Tokes” Lopez. I know it was in the Unicornia, a Tijuana bar. Danny was funny. We were buying drinks for hookers who were even funnier. But I wanted a coyote, a pollero.

Danny didn’t seem to fit either of these professions convincingly. But it was not long before I saw him hustle Anglo and Hispanic suckers into deals on “cultured” pearls, 24-karat-gold bracelets, and illegal trips to Fargo, North Dakota, which he assured them was just a short bus ride from Los Angeles.

So Danny agreed to take me to a once famous and pink hotel where in a single room, no one had the space to sit or lie down but had to stand upright, even in the bathroom — the effluvia from which was horrendous no matter where one stood in the room.

That night he took me through a drainage ditch in Tijuana west of the San Ysidro border crossing with maybe 30 other pollos. The stench again was horrific. We were to cross the Tijuana Estuary at its low ebb, and I noticed most pollos wore layers of clothes so that when they got through the glop — or the guts — on the other side, they could strip off their outer layers of clothing and be more or less presentable for employment options.

This was before the Berlin Wall of America’s Bottom Left was erected. I did not go through with the others to Monument Road in Imperial Beach. This was sheerly because of cowardice, the stench, the mire my clothing was becoming progressively more sopped with, and the gathering conviction that I had no idea whatever what I was doing.

I had no trouble walking back through Customs: I just looked like another falling-down drunk after too many cheap tequilas (diluted with 7UP or Sprite) and beers. Not an uncommon visual.

Driving home, what struck me was Danny “Tokes” Lopez and what he did for a living. A Robin Hood in a sense, but a hood no less. His nickname meant “propina, tips; la mordida, the bribe.” He was, he said, 18; I figured 16. He carried a crummy Saturday-night special in his boot. A pig-iron .32.

But the most lingering image was returning to my home about 2:00 a.m. My son was sitting in my desk chair.

“I’m sick,” he said.

“What’s wrong, Nutley?”

“I don’t know. Mommy gave me some stuff, but Pat and her daughter are here and they don’t want me to sleep in the same room cuz I might infect ’em.”

I felt his head. It was warm. His cheeks were flushed and I could see hives on his face.

“Where were you?” he asked.

“Mexico.”

“Why do you always go there? I don’t like that place.”

“It’s a part of the world we’re very close to, and it’s interesting right now. It’s like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Remember that?”

“Yeah, I loved Allan Quatermain.”

“Well, it’s kind of like that. It’s an injustice that’s horrible. I want to expose it, remind people.”

“Like Batman?”

I had to laugh. “No, like a writer.”

I broke off my laugh as it occurred to me that my son’s outbreak of hives, etc., were symptoms of stress. He was worried, anxious: maybe he had, in his mind, exaggerated the superheroic dangers I was involved in.

Or maybe he had a crush on a girl, was worried about school grades, or was being hassled by some schoolyard bully. I didn’t think to ask; a writer’s self-absorption, especially when excited about a project, will eclipse everything. It is like something George Orwell said: “Writing a novel is like deliberately undergoing a prolonged illness.” Something like that.

The danger I most feared (aside from another night shoot — unless Maria held the gun) was reading National Geographic in the waiting room of the deputy chief ins guy while he demonstrated disdain for the press by eating at the local Pollo restaurant across the street for an inordinate time (two hours?) after our appointment. To be fair, I think he was meeting with an sdpd liaison officer. Still, I’m not a fan of National Geographic especially — any more so than of the Ice Follies.

Chapter 10 was maddening. I didn’t know how to make a vital transition. When I was grudgingly satisfied, my Apple II crashed and lost ten hours of work. I was told there were methods to retrieve it, but they all seemed contradictory and I am a computer whiz like Pee-Wee Herman is Orson Welles.

I let out a scream at 1:30 or 2:00 a.m. that must have terrified the neighbors. My wife called out, “You all right?”

My son stepped into the room, this time looking less rubious and plagued. “Why is Mommy yelling?”

“Oh, sorry, my fault. She heard me shout in my sleep. I was dreaming of an action sequence for the book and I couldn’t stand it.”

“What was the scene?”

“Okay, there’s a trailer in San Ysidro. I think it’s still there. Pretty sure. Old-fashioned type, you know, like in the old movies. Now there are about 15 la migra, ins, federal coppers; they’ve surrounded the place.”

I explained the technical problem of how one side of the trailer was against an embankment, on rusted old railroad tracks, and the whole thing set in concrete. I had the trailer filled with good guys and smugglers, all armed. Since it was on an old gasoline dump, I couldn’t know if it was still flammable — or who to ask. The bomberos in TJ were uncertain. The sdpd could not be sure without an excavation. In short, I didn’t know how to get anybody out of there alive. Good or bad. I had written myself into a corner.

“Trapdoor,” my son said.

“Trapdoor in the floor? A hole in the concrete?” What is this, Abbott and Costello?

This would occur to a child, but hardly to an adult trying to write anything but young-adult novels. “Tijuana was full of tunnels and trapdoors and things during Prohibition,” my son pointed out. I didn’t ask him how he knew it, but it was true.

(A few years ago I crawled through a lengthy underground tunnel, fully lighted and entered through a warehouse in TJ. The tunnel ended 120 feet or so from the warehouse in Otay Mesa where it was supposed to end. The excavators surfaced in the full light of authority.)

“A lot of them are probably still there,” the lad said — meaning the bootleggers’ tunnels — as he laid his head on my shoulder. A boy’s world is plagued with trapdoors. Later, I suppose, we just call them “life, pitfalls, shit happens, one damned thing after another…you name it.”

It was a couple of years later that I placed the book with Doubleday. It was well reviewed (with one exception, in San Diego magazine: “The novel is hard-boiled to the sake of sadomasochism!”).

The “Newgate Calendar” in the New York Times liked it, but my favorite review came from an ex-border cop turned writer: I was listed as a former bartender, and the Albuquerque Journal Magazine guy wrote, “I don’t know if he can mix a margarita or not, but he can tell a story that’ll fuse your synthetic socks to your Kinneys.”

The book was picked up for mass market by Pocket Books, with a cover illustration of my anti-hero Nathaniel York, looking oddly like Judd Hirsch, and a woman wearing heels running down a road. Well, still, I always wanted to be a “paperback writer.” And now I was one.

The paperback did about 35,000, the hardcover about 10,000 to 15,000. (Respectable for a first book, but hardly Clancy stuff.) You can never know about these figures anyway.

Other good things have happened: I received a multiple book review from Doubleday’s Filings. The thing was, this was to be another year’s security, and this was exactly when the largest publishing firm of Teutonic yuppies decided to dismiss half their pub list. They kept Asimov, who wouldn’t necessarily go anyway, but fired their editorial staff (kids who grew up on Josie and the Pussycats) and bought out the contracts of writers who didn’t sell in large numbers.

The book has been optioned several times. It seemed to have legs for a while; at any rate, for a few years. I made more money on the movies that never materialized on screen — a good thing too, a dodged bullet, when you think about it.

Wirecutter is dedicated to my ex-wife, whom I still love, and my son. “To Diane for all the years and all the faith; and for Geoffrey…for always.” It is hard to look at that these days, because of the difficult nature of faith and the circumstances of the divorce.

The guttural, most real memory of the writing of that book is of my son’s affection, helping Dad do his book stuff — and though I don’t know his heart now that he is a man of 23, I never really knew it, but I believe he loves me and I know he did when he was sitting on my knee and offering me his trapdoor.

The process of writing fiction is in itself a trapdoor, a means of escape. Facts are necessary, or at least verisimilitude, but truth must be in it as well or it’s no good. And the truth is quite another trick unto itself.

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Property astir on El Cajon Blvd.

Lafayette Hotel, Red Fox Room, Mississippi Apartments

Chapter One

It was always night in the Hillcrest Club, one of those Southern California cocktail lounges with the red vinyl booths, artificial plants, Formica bar, and no windows. Anyone coming in off the street, no matter what time of day or night, had to stand in the doorway blinking either fierce sunlight or blinding neon out of his eyes for a good 30 seconds before he adjusted to the greasy lighting inside. If you didn’t like who you saw coming in, you had enough time to duck out the exit by the rest rooms before he could spot you. The door led to the parking lot by the entrance ramp to Route 163. It locked automatically from the inside so that you couldn’t come in that way — you had to walk around the side of the building along a narrow concrete path. This arrangement made it a long shot that your car would be recognized by a wife, secretary, or neighbor if you needed a few fast shots before 8:00 a.m. It also made the place perfect to soak in when you didn’t want to run into creditors without notice.

It was always night in the Hillcrest Club, one of those Southern California cocktail lounges with the red vinyl booths, artificial plants, Formica bar, and no windows. Anyone coming in off the street, no matter what time of day or night, had to stand in the doorway blinking either fierce sunlight or blinding neon out of his eyes for a good 30 seconds before he adjusted to the greasy lighting inside. If you didn’t like who you saw coming in, you had enough time to duck out the exit by the rest rooms before he could spot you. The door led to the parking lot by the entrance ramp to Route 163. It locked automatically from the inside so that you couldn’t come in that way — you had to walk around the side of the building along a narrow concrete path. This arrangement made it a long shot that your car would be recognized by a wife, secretary, or neighbor if you needed a few fast shots before 8:00 a.m. It also made the place perfect to soak in when you didn’t want to run into creditors without notice.

It was late afternoon and I didn’t think I was avoiding anyone in particular. I owed the phone could bucompany $80 and my landlady twice that, but I wasn’t worried about them sending anyone around to collect. I was working on forgetting the dead man I had left behind me that morning and the mess I had made over the weekend while trying to trace one Herman Villez in Tijuana. I wasn’t expecting any more excitement when the front door of the Hillcrest Club swung open and two figures were silhouetted against the feral brightness of University Avenue.

One of them must have weighed in at 250 and was tall enough to have to duck the door frame. They both wore nice suits. People with nice suits don’t often drink at the Hillcrest. They had followed me from T.J., but I didn’t know that. That’s probably because I’m not really as bright as I like to think I am. All that business with the cops had distracted me on the ride back up.

I kept drinking my beer and resumed my conversation with Bananas — a 67-year-old, shell-shocked Anzio vet and a pleasant drunk — a great guy to talk to when you didn’t have anything in particular to say and felt like saying it.

“Why is it,” I asked him, “that every joint like this one in San Diego County has plastic ferns? I mean anything will grow in this part of the country, even in the dark, choked by alcohol and tobacco fumes. Why phony plants? You tell me that.”

The old man smiled a gummy smile and said the only thing I’d ever heard him say in the three years I’d known him, the only thing anyone had heard him say — as far as I know — since Anzio. “God bless America,” he intoned, “nickel and dime.”

That was Bananas’s act. His entire act except for holding out his thumb and forefinger horizontally when he wanted another shot of Kessler. More often than not he made as much sense as anyone else in that place.

As I was agreeing with Bananas, I noticed the two guys who had just come in sidle down the bar toward me. A San Diego Gas and Electric worker on the barstool next to mine decided it was time to take a leak. The taller guy, sleek black razor-cut hair, Wayne Newton mustache, and knife scar at the edge of one eye, occupied the vacated seat. He turned and spoke to me in quiet Spanish, smiling like we were old friends. He looked vaguely familiar, but we weren’t old friends. I had a nagging suspicion we weren’t going to be new friends either.

“You are a very nosy cabrón,” he said. The smile he wore was like a cellophane bag that was making it hard for him to breathe.

I didn’t say anything, no gems came to mind.

“Very nosy, much huevos, eh? You must be tough, such a curious little cat. You are tough, eh?”

“Just who in hell are you?” — a reasonable question, I thought — “or would that be telling?” Actually, I now recognized both him and his partner as the pimps I had seen around Coahuila. I noticed his friend had maneuvered himself toward the rear door and was pretending to study the jukebox.

“I asked you if you were a tough guy.” His smile was history now. I was quickly trying to figure why a Tijuana pimp who looked like Conan the Barbarian in a Pierre Cardin suit and his sidekick would follow me across the border and pick a fight in a San Diego bar, but nothing added up. Okay, they weren’t pimps.

“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.

On the street I was nearly as blind as the guy who came bounding around the corner of the Hillcrest, still clutching his eye with one hand. I wasn’t unhappy to see blood running from between his fingers onto his suit. If I’d had a handkerchief, I wouldn’t have been able to resist offering it to him, all apologetic and letting bygones be bygones, landing myself in traction. As it was, I did the smart thing and ran into five lanes of University Avenue rush-hour traffic, dodging and weaving like a linebacker. I didn’t look back for three blocks.

I congratulated myself that I had lost him and decided to celebrate. The only place I could get served looking the way I did, I figured, was my apartment.

Chapter Two

Once inside my two-room bungalow on Robinson and Third, I decided against a drink. I was too busy shaking and throwing up. Conan had broken my nose, my right eye was swelling closed, and I couldn’t breathe. I lay down on my Salvation Army couch and tried not to pass out. The way to do this seemed to be to stare at the ceiling around the corners of a washrag filled with ice cubes. If I closed my eyes, the blackness was too inviting. I had to be careful not to look at all the blood too. The sight of blood makes me sick. Like I told the man: tough, that’s me.

After a while I put on a record by Mink DeVille, took two Tylenol with codeine, and practiced breathing through my mouth while I tried to think of what to do next.

So I was wrong about their being pimps. At least they weren’t just pimps. It was a safe assumption that they were in the smuggling business. Maybe the girls were a sideline or maybe I was wrong about that altogether. I didn’t know. I did know that the big guy hadn’t recognized Herman Villez or his name. That wasn’t surprising. Even if they had moved him across the border, there was no reason they should remember his face. I also knew that if I went back down to T.J. and stuck close to Conan, there was a good chance I’d eventually run into Nabor or Morelos or whatever his name was.

I wasn’t too crazy about the idea.

Nabor/Morelos was a sensitive subject down there. That meant he was not just a garden-variety smuggler. Juana had said his fee was unusually high but that he guaranteed safety. Detective Bevilaqua of the Tijuana police had done a take on my description of him. It all pointed to his being well connected.

I felt my broken nose and thought about the dead man. I decided that T.J. was out of the question, at least for a while.

I could hang out at the Casa del Sol in Chula Vista, where the illegals rendezvous, exchange information about work and connect with “mules” to drive them to L.A., but that would probably get me nowhere. If they didn’t talk to Juana, they wouldn’t talk to me, and if Herman Villez showed up there, he would get in touch.

That left the man who had hired Juana Villez and brought her to the United States to dance in his club. The man who recommended Morelos. My boss, whom I’d never met. Mr. E. Walters.

I wasn’t too crazy about that idea either, but it was the only one I had that, as far as I could tell, didn’t involve my getting killed.

Juana would want to know what I had found, but she was working tonight and I didn’t have anything positive to tell her. I listened to the rest of the album, felt the pain pills kick in, and watched the shadows crawl across the piles of clothes, overflowing ashtrays, and dirty dishes in my apartment.

I put Little Feat on the stereo and poured some Ancient Age into a clean coffee cup I found. After a while I had another one.

When it was fully dark and I was feeling just wonderful enough to think about it, I decided to go in to work on my night off and see her. Thinking about Juana made my face and the back of my neck burn like a schoolboy berserk with new hormones.

In the bathroom mirror I could see that I looked battered enough to hope that she would want to kiss it and make it better. I thought about that while I took a shower.

When I walked out of my apartment, my hair was blown dry, there were two more pain pills under my belt, and I was wearing my best chocolate-suede sports jacket and Hawaiian shirt. The Canary Island palm in front of the next bungalow was silhouetted against the nearly full moon. A hint of Santa Ana winds gave the night a velvet feel. I cooed back at the pigeons in the palm tree and waved at my neighbor Wayne. Wayne ignored me; the pigeons cooed back. Whistling the guitar hook from a Tom Petty song on my way to my usual parking space, I felt ready for anything.

I don’t think I stared at the vacant curb for more than a few minutes before I remembered I had left my Maverick in the parking lot at the Hillcrest Club.

Would they be waiting for me? Did Wayne Newton the Barbarian rip my car apart with his bare hands?

I walked back up the sidewalk and let myself in again to the mock Moorish little house. I phoned the Hillcrest and got Gordon, the night man.

“York, you okay?”

“Yeah, how’s my car?”

“All right, I guess. I heard about what happened. What was that all about?”

“Later. What about the two guys?”

“They split just before the cops got here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Thanks.”

I walked back to the Hillcrest through my neighborhood — the only area in San Diego, aside from the Barrio in Logan Heights, that you could really call a neighborhood. A lot of the old residents were complaining about the number of gays coming in opening boutiques featuring unicorns and X-rated greeting cards. It didn’t bother me except that it was hard to find a place to drink without a guy in a mustache and work boots singing Streisand songs or some overweight girl in a flannel shirt calling you “Jocko.” When the area wasn’t being called “Homo Hill” it was called “Little Saigon.” The Vietnamese opened restaurants, barber shops, delicatessens, flower shops, and produce stands. Unicorn boutiques and hair salons came and went, but the immigrant businesses did a solid trade.

Sometimes during the rainy season I would stand outside the Phuong Nam and listen to the waiters or the old men who gathered at the Number One Barber Shop, and I would close my eyes to find myself in another time, another life. I didn’t do it too often.

Gordon looked upset when I asked if I could borrow his car for a few hours, just in case they were still in the area and watching mine. I told him not to worry about the car or the money he owed me on last week’s Padres game and took the keys.

The Trans Am smelled like a dumpster behind a McDonald’s. There were Big Mac boxes and empty milkshake cups all over the floor. Still, the 427 engine pulled me from 0 to 60 in about seven seconds as I headed north on 163. It was just the car to be in if I was followed. A loop north, nearly all the way to Miramar Naval Air Station, proved no one was following me. I turned around and headed back toward San Diego. I listened to Steely Dan on Gordon’s cassette.

The Low Down’s 30-foot neon dancer that flooded Pacific Coast Drive with garish colors for nearly a block either way was doing a stuttering bump-and-grind with her left hand missing. Maynard was getting the sign fixed. He had told me himself when he hired me as a security guard three months earlier.

Dick Holster was working the door that shift. He swore it was his real name. I even saw his driver’s license once under the little flashlight they issued to us that brings out the watermark on California licenses — it also shows up any cute X-Acto knife work on the date of birth, which is mostly what we look for on the IDs of the Navy kids who come to the Low Down.

Dick was a quiet, competent man. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for a year and then quit. He never told me why. He was cool and fair with a dry sense of humor, and I would want him on my side of any trouble. I knew he subscribed to the National Centurion, some gun magazines, and the Survivalist, owned some property in the mountains, and had once applied for a PI license but didn’t get it. He didn’t have the kind of authority complex I expected to go along with this package; he didn’t need to feel bigger than he was or push anyone around. He was a little hard to figure. Anyone who wanted to be a private detective was probably immature. My ambition was to sing like Ray Charles.

“Nathaniel York?” he read. “I thought York was your first name.” Dick was paying me back for all my cracks about his name and my insistence on seeing his license that time. He handed back the card with the miniature photo of me that a girl I once dated said made me look like “a dissipated Dondi.”

“I don’t mind Nathaniel, but no one ever uses it. People always insist on Nat or Nate or Nathan. None of which are my name. So it’s York.”

“What happened to you?” He shined his flashlight in my eyes.

“Plastic surgery. I’ve decided to turn Japanese.”

For a Monday night, it wasn’t a bad crowd. Two dozen sailors in Levi’s, windbreakers, and haircuts from an old yearbook were seated around the horseshoe stage watching Liz do toe touches, running her hands over the insides and backs of her thighs.

I could watch Liz dance all night, she was that good at it. She had fine suntanned legs that were nicely muscled but not too muscled, a perfectly hemispherical ass that moved more ways than one, and high breasts, no more than a handful but enough to draw the eyes upward. She worked hard at dancing, and it showed. She was also naturally sexy in the way that some women are, no matter what kind of shape they’re in; it comes through in the eyes, in the smile, and in the air around them.

The sailors might as well have been watching a training film — “This, men, is a woman’s backside” — for all the life they showed. From the bouncer’s point of view, that was just fine. If you seemed to be enjoying the show a little too much, you were asked to leave.

On the floor next to Dick were all the checked motorcycle helmets, briefcases, and bags. We started checking briefcases and bags about the time the idea of whipping out dildos at the girls became all the rage. The helmets we checked because we didn’t like the idea of getting hit with them.

I wondered who the briefcases belonged to, and I scanned the room. They weren’t hard to find. Off in the corner where the timid guys sit, they laughed a little too loudly with each other and pretended they were too well laid to really care about Liz’s charms. Their ties were loosened at identical angles to their collars. They probably operated computers across the street at Major Turbines and had names like Harvey and Norm.

They should get together with the sailors and go to a movie.

I chose a barstool next to the waitress station and said hello to Suzy Lee. Maynard had the DJ bill Suzy as “The Red-Hot Yellow Peril.” Smiling prettily at me from beneath jet bangs, she said, “Can’t get enough of the place, eh? What is it?” Her face twisted in mock puzzlement. “The atmosphere?” She was wearing a blue silk kimono she didn’t bother to close. I admired the way she tugged at the top of one black stocking that gleamed wickedly in the low light of the bar and adjusted a garter belt. “My magnetic personality?” Her wink used both eyes, all of her face, and her shoulders.

I ordered a Coke and said, “You know, you’re the most scrutable Oriental I’ve ever met.”

Her laugh sounded the way a puppy does when you step on its tail. “I’ll tell Juana you’re here.”

Chapter Three

It had been on a slow night like this one that I had first seen Juana. They might have been the same fresh-faced sailors around the horseshoe, and I remember a handful of old-timers, machinists from the plant down the road who peered up at the stage with lifeless, secretive eyes from over the tops of their beers. I had been watching the girls make the rounds in their G-strings to see if anybody needed refills. The drill was to scan the girls as they leaned toward the customers; if anybody touched them where they shouldn’t, they were out the door.

Juana was carrying a tray and following Suzy Lee to see how it was done. Trailing, they called it. She was waiting her turn to go onstage and dance, and she looked scared to death. She must have been 21 — they’re very conscientious about that kind of thing in topless bars because most of them are run by very sensitive interests — but she looked 17. She was wearing a tight blue skirt that was about as long as a mayfly’s memory, sandals, and what looked like a man’s white shirt tied up in front like a halter and rolled at the sleeves. I guessed her to be five feet tall. She looked so good with her clothes on I didn’t want her to take them off. Her face, in the bruised lighting, looked like a Mayan carving of some regal, delicate bird. Her eyes were and are huge and dark — soft, but with a kind of wariness that isn’t quite disillusionment. Her hair was long then, all the way to her waist, black and rich like a jungle night. All the girls at the Low Down were beautiful — they had to be — but Juana, all flashing eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and velvet sienna skin, could have made Helen of Troy look like a transvestite with a hangover.

She would look up at the stage, trailing the dancer — I forget who it was — the way she trailed Suzy Lee; trying to drink in the movements and memorize them, knowing she was about to go on. You could tell she was about as familiar with the atmosphere as she was with the moon’s.

When she approached the bar, she would let Suzy Lee order first and then repeat after her as the bartender set up the drinks, “Meelair Lite” or “Jean and Towneek.” Then she would smile up at the bartender — it was Clifford that night — for confirmation on her English. Cliff only scowled at her. Nothing personal, that was just Cliff. In a place where the dancers collected tips from the men in the horseshoe of barstools at the lip of the stage and then collected tips as waitresses when they weren’t dancing, there wasn’t much left over for a 25-year-old bartender that looked like Karl Malden. I sympathized with him up to a point but suspected that he wasn’t quite human. Anyone who didn’t melt when Juana smiled couldn’t be quite human. I smiled at her for both of us and lied to her in Spanish that her pronunciation was very good. Her cheekbones seemed to lift even higher as her smile broadened in my direction.

Suzy pressed herself against me and wrapped her arms around my waist. She introduced us. “York is the big strong hunk who protects us from the bad horny men. Stay away from him, he’s mine.” She narrowed her eyes at Juana and then laughed, letting me go. “I wish.”

In Spanish I made sure Juana knew it was just Suzy’s sense of humor, adding that it wasn’t going to be easy being the most beautiful dancer in the place. I wasn’t just saying it.

It got me another smile. “You are Mexicano?”

I shook my head. “No, I —”

“Cubano. ¿Sí?”

I told her I was a lot of things, none of them Hispanic unless you counted the Corsican.

“Where did you learn to speak Spanish so well?”

I could listen to her voice all night, and for the first time since taking the job I thought about doing just that. I made it a rule not to sleep where I ate, or however the old saw goes, partly because it was a good idea no matter where you worked and partly because most of the girls at the Low Down either were gay, were into more dope than even I felt comfortable around, had wacko boyfriends with guns, or had interesting combinations of all of the above.

“I learned Spanish in high school, but not very well. I picked up more from some Puerto Rican people in my neighborhood in New York. Again, not very well.”

She assured me that King Carlos never spoke better. She was probably right. I was being modest and King Carlos probably lisped.

The dancer onstage finished up and Larry, the disc jockey, started gabbling about fine foxes and funky stuff and flash-dancin’ mamas.

“I have to go.” She looked toward the stage as if it were the gallows. “My first time, you know? I’m nervous.”

“I know. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”

Her smile had collapsed. A ghost of one flickered that was more of a facial tic, and then she headed for the backstage curtain. The previous dancer emerged and began circulating, taking drink orders from the sailors and the old men.

We all listened to Bob Seger sing “Fire Down Below.” It sounded like he was in the room.

Larry interrupted the record and introduced her. “…straight from Mexico City, hotter than a jalapeño, welcome our newcomer, Juana!…Do you wanna?” Larry played with the delay on his console, and his words echoed around the dance floor. He mixed the volume up on Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night,” and Juana appeared blinking into the spotlights. She wore a black, silklike pair of pants that I recognized as belonging to one of the other girls. The pants could be untied on either side of the ankles, calves, knees, thighs, and waist and would come away in a few deft movements if you had enough practice. She wore a Harry Belafonte–style balloon-sleeved shirt that revealed enough cleavage to explain her getting the job without any experience — if it needed any explaining. On her head, covering part of her hair, which was tied up in the classic Spanish style, she wore the kind of hat that Zorro wears. In her hand was a bullwhip. She tottered a little inexpertly on high heels and blinked into the footlights.

The getup must have been Maynard’s idea. I looked toward the rear of the room and saw him leaning against a pool table with his arms folded and a happy grin on his face. He looked like somebody’s idiot son.

It took her only a few moments to adjust to the lighting and the spike-heeled shoes, and then Juana began to move with the kind of grace you associate with expensive, exotic cats. She took it slow and trailed the whip around her neck like a snake, playing with the grip end without quite touching it, holding it out as if it had a mind of its own and were trying to touch her everywhere. She kept her eyes on the whip as if it were hypnotizing her or she it. By the end of the first song she had thrown her head back and allowed it to touch her throat and slide downward while she sank to her knees, her eyes still closed. She made the thing look alive and I envied it. So did the rest of the lads. The sailors and the old men got to their feet and applauded and shouted. They waved money in the air and laid it out on the edge of the stage. She moved leisurely around the horseshoe, smiling and bending to pick up the money with her legs tightly together. I don’t know where she got that routine, but it was a big hit. Not as athletic as most of the acts you see at the Low Down maybe, but she didn’t need to execute flying splits or yoga positions.

She still hadn’t taken off anything but her hat.

On the sound system, the Rolling Stones started up “Beast of Burden.” She tossed the hatful of money to the side and whip on top of it, moving with the same languid tension and bridled sensuality. The routine was, the second number was the cue for the dancer to earn her money topless. Usually this was worked up to with a gradual tease, but Juana simply stared into the spotlights, unbuttoned her shirt, and let it drop unceremoniously to the floor. She looked in the general direction of where I was standing and then met my eyes. Her breasts were full and pearlike and smooth, only slightly lighter than the rest of her skin, the stuff dreams are made of: lonely dreams full of frustration and ache, the kind that leave the pillow full of sweat and the sheets a tangled mess. She danced for the next two songs looking at me every few moments and smiling.

If anyone tore up the bar or raped the waitresses, I missed it. I was lost somewhere in a pair of eyes.

I never had a chance.

Since she was the new kid, she had worked the last show. At closing time she said goodnight to me and started walking down Pacific Coast Drive along the shoulder of the road. When I had killed the switch on the big neon sign, she disappeared into the night. I locked up as quickly as I could and called out after her in Spanish to wait.

I saw her stop and turn, silhouetted against a pair of oncoming headlights. I ran to catch up. “You’re not walking far at two in the morning, I hope.”

“No, not far. I live there.” She gestured up Laurel to an Edwardian-looking house that had long since become low-income rental units specializing in transient clientele.

“You live with Liz?” I knew that Liz had a one-bedroom place she shared half the time with her coke-dealer boyfriend, an incorrigible little scamp I had to 86 one time for pulling a buck knife on some Navy chief. Juana nodded.

“How about a late dinner or an early breakfast? Hungry?”

“No. Maybe some coffee.” She smiled. “I never went out with a policeman. I’ll feel very safe.”

I looked down at my uniform. “I’m just a rent-a-cop. Consider me rented.”

We walked back up the street to my car and drove to the Silver Gate Diner. She drank coffee and so did I. I ordered an omelet and played with it while I babbled on about the Low Down and Maynard, past jobs, New York, San Diego, the Padres; all of them seemed to be the wrong things to talk about while trying to impress a woman with a face that would bring a statue to life. She didn’t say much, just nodded and smiled and stirred her coffee long after it was cold. She showed me her first night’s tips, about $60, which was almost impossible on a Monday night at the Low Down unless you happened to look like Juana. I congratulated her and told her not to wave cash around in the Silver Gate Diner at 2:00 a.m. “Tell me about yourself,” I said, “anything at all. I’m getting tired of my voice. How did you get the job dancing? Just walk in?”

“No, the owners have a hotel in Ensenada where I was working as a maid. They offered me the job and said they could arrange the papers. They said I would make a lot of money. It seems to be true.” Instead of looking happy at this, she seemed to be puzzled, as if it were the only thing they told her that was true. Maybe it was just the expression someone might wear if they were bone tired from dancing and waiting tables for eight hours. “I have my green card,” she said brightly, and then, as quickly, her expression darkened again. Hurriedly, as if to cover something, she went on. “Anyway, I want to take lessons to dance and to act.”

“You should give them.”

I had heard that Wolf Enterprises, the company that owned the Low Down, had interests in Mexico. That jibed and it didn’t tax my imagination to think they could buy a green card for her like they might buy a new pool table. I didn’t know how much juice that would take, but they might well have it. Still, with all the juice in the world, an army of tame, well-connected lawyers and some key friends at the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, it would take a couple of months to get a residency permit, what they called the green card, though it wasn’t green. Sometimes it could take up to a year and even then it could fall through.

Something had been bothering her. She was leaving a lot out. In a strange country after her first day at a pretty strange job, sitting across the table from a stranger in a mock cop’s uniform, it wasn’t likely she’d give me an epic and detailed life history; but I got the feeling it wasn’t me or the job or geography that made her seem sad and afraid.

No doubt they had told her that they would make her a star in the United States, that if she just took off her shirt and danced in their club, Hollywood would be beating the door down in no time. I wasn’t going to tell her otherwise. Things happened around the kind of beauty Juana had.

I drove her back to Liz’s apartment and took myself home. She had agreed to meet me for dinner the next night before our shifts began.

We had seafood at Anthony’s and watched the tourists yell at their kids and take pictures in front of the Star of India and the tuna boats. She wasn’t any more eager to talk about herself, and I held up both ends of the conversation by making up names for all the people that walked by. I became more convinced that there was something on her mind, but I was going to wait for her to spill it, if she ever decided to.

When the conversation turned to movies, she brightened up. She knew more about American movies and movie stars than Rona Barrett. I was left in the dust, but neither of us minded. She recounted plots from movies I’d never heard of and delighted in describing what everyone was wearing in what scene. I was happy just listening to her voice; it sounded the way cool silk feels against hot skin.

“…You would look like him a little if you had a mustache.” She squinted at me.

“Who?”

“Burt Reynolds. You’re not listening. I am boring you.”

“You could read me the phone book without boring me. You like Burt, eh?”

“I told you, he is my absolute favorite. If I could become a movie star, I would make all of my movies with him.”

“I’ll grow a mustache.”

For the next two weeks I took her to every matinee in San Diego County that didn’t have a title like Wet Housewives or Lavender Truckers. She held my arm once while Burt Reynolds kissed Goldie Hawn. I made a mental note to buy Burt a drink if I ever met him.

On her nights off, she told me, she was going to school to learn English, but she didn’t say where. When she offered to make me a dinner of carne asada and ceviche in my apartment, I didn’t turn her down. I bought a bottle of Frascati, a bottle of Beaujolais, and a bottle of El Presidente brandy. Over the finished dinner — which was better than any I’d ever had in the too-many mediocre Mexican restaurants in town — we drank brandy and she told me that my mustache was funny-looking. I pretended her English was bad and that I thought she had said that it smelled funny. When she leaned closer to place her nose near my upper lip, I kissed her and she kissed me back. Long and hard. The world dissolved into soft lights, a velvet tongue, and the scent of her hair like sweet earth and night-blooming jasmine. I held her for a long time, her head against my chest, until I felt a dampness on my shirt and her shoulders shake in my arms. I lifted her face and saw the tears and streaked makeup.

“Okay. Tell me about it,” I said as gently as I could.

She shook her head and used a Kleenex. She had drunk far more than she was used to and she started to pour another. I took the snifter from her.

“This won’t help, but maybe I can.”

“I’ll make some coffee,” she said.

She got up and walked a little unsteadily to the kitchen. I followed her. She leaned against the sink and lowered her head. She started to sob again. I held her and after a while she started to tell me about Herman Villez.

“When I left Mexico I promised my brother I would arrange for him to join me here as soon as I could. The man who brought me here, Mr. Walters, would not help me except to give me the name of a man in Tijuana who would smuggle him across for $300. It is more than the usual amount, but I was told he guaranteed safety. The man’s name is Morelos, and he, Mr. Walters, said he could be found in the bars in a district called Coahuila. He was described to me as a man with holes from some disease on his face. I wrote to Herman and I sent him the money. I received a letter from him two weeks ago saying that he had arrived in Tijuana and had met the man. He said everything was arranged, that he was to leave in a few nights. He told me to wait for him at the Casa del Sol in Chula Vista until he arrived. I waited there for three nights the next week. I took the trolley. That’s where I have been. I lied to you about the English lessons. I showed his picture to the alambristas there, but no one had seen him. Or if they had, they said nothing. They are all very frightened and always lie, even to their own people. They trust no one. I must find this man Morelos and ask him what became of my brother. These coyotes are dangerous men, and I am afraid. My brother and I are very close; he has always taken care of me and now I must take care of him. I’ve failed. Something terrible has happened to Herman. He may have been arrested or killed. You always hear of the terrible things that happen to the alambristas.”

The word meant, literally, “wirecutters.” It was the term Mexican illegals used instead of mojados, or wetbacks, along this part of the border because you didn’t have to cross a river to get here, just a fence. She lied to me about the English classes all right, and I sensed there were holes in her story you could drive a Buick through, some of which could be explained by the fact that she herself was here on phony papers, but if that was the way she wanted to tell it, that was all right with me. There was enough truth in it to make a start.

“What about Walters? Couldn’t he trace him for you?”

She looked away and shrugged. “He said to wait, that he was probably only delayed but that he would come soon. I know that isn’t true.” She gave me a look that held all the certainty anyone could have about anything. “Herman would have gotten in touch with me somehow.”

“Yeah, they have phones in Tijuana and a sort of a post office. What about the woman who was with Walters when he hired you?”

“I don’t know her name. I never saw her again. She was very beautiful, but cold-looking, you know? Mr. Walters gave me his card long ago when he asked me to think about coming to work for him in the United States. The second time I saw him I agreed. The next day he sent a car for me. It brought me to the club. There was no trouble at the border. He gave Liz some money and asked if I could stay with her. Liz was very nice, of course. It was just temporary, he said. Soon he would get me my own place. That was some weeks ago. I’ve seen him once since then, and I asked him about Herman. He told me to be patient. Herman would come. He said that he would soon have some news for me that would make me happy. He did not mean news about Herman, but some job for me. I haven’t seen him since then. When I have tried to call him, there is a machine that answers his telephone, and he has never returned my calls.”

From her purse she handed me a business card with the name E. Walters embossed in gold and a number with a North County exchange. There was nothing else on the card.

E. Walters was the name on the liquor license at the Low Down. He owned at least two other topless joints, one in L.A. and one in Carmel. He signed my paychecks as head of Wolf Security Systems, which was an organization of doormen, bouncers, night watchmen, department store guards, ushers, repo men, and professional witnesses for law firms.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” I sat her back down on the couch and spoke to her from the kitchen as I made the coffee. “In the morning I’ll go to the detention center in San Ysidro. You said you have a photograph of Herman. I’ll see if I can spot him. If he was arrested, he might still be there. I can’t very well circulate his picture with the Border Patrol in case he’s lying low somewhere and still trying to dodge them, but I can go to Coahuila and see if he isn’t still hanging around — maybe find your Señor Morelos with the terminal acne.”

“You would do that?” She looked up at me with eyes that weren’t yet cried out. Her brother must be something special.

“I would do that.”

She brought my head down to her mouth and I stayed that way for a long time. After a while she said, “I will pay you.” She reached into her handbag the way she did when she showed me her tips that first night. The bundle had grown. There must have been about $1000 in 20s, 50s, and 10s.

“You’re spoiling the moment. Put that in a bank somewhere.”

“I don’t like banks,” she said defensively.

“Give it to Maynard. Tell him to put it in the house safe at the Low Down.”

“He keeps my green card, and he won’t let me have it.” She looked at me to see what I made of that and then said, “I don’t like Maynard.”

“No one does. Sorry, that was my dumb suggestion for the night. I have much better ones.” I brought her closer to me.

She leaned back on the couch, and I felt all of her beneath me. I supported my weight on my elbows and gradually brought myself down until she moaned and I felt her body against mine. She reached between my legs with her right hand and closed her fingers around the hardness there. My arms couldn’t support my weight anymore, they shook like jade branches in an earthquake. It was my turn to moan.

Her tongue silenced me and I rolled to the side, gradually letting her down onto me as I lay on the floor. She straddled me and sat up, lifting her skirt over her head with a fluid ruffle of soft beige. I had seen her take her clothes off before, onstage. But this wasn’t a show. She looked at me now with an intensity and hunger that you always hope to find in a woman with that kind of beauty but usually don’t — settling for something close enough to get you through the night but not close enough to want to remember the next day. She unhooked her flesh-colored bra and it fell away. She stayed upright for a moment just breathing and looking at me and for a while I didn’t do anything because I knew that to begin meant that it would have to end.

“Nathaniel,” she said, her breasts rising and falling as she tried to take in enough air to say whatever she thought had to be said. “This doesn’t have to…I’m not…we…” She bent to kiss me again. My mouth met hers and we finished the thought the only way that made any sense.

I slid her hose down from her hips and she pulled my shirt from my waist. Her lips played over my belly, the scar just above it, then back down. I felt her fingers on my belt and the buttons on my Levi’s and in the next moment she had me in her mouth, all of me that mattered except for the little timekeeper existing somewhere in that cold place between the heart and the brain who kept pointing out that tomorrow or the next day or a year from now she would just be something else that I had lost.

When I entered her she bit her lip and laughed, shuddered and grew quiet. She said she was sorry that she laughed. I told her that I wasn’t. I told her that was perfect.

We made love until dawn, and when it came time, I shook just as hard and laughed too — because it was perfect. And maybe because nothing else ever had been. I lay beside her tracing patterns on her cheek, still chuckling like a madman over some private joke. She kissed my forehead and my face until I stopped. She said, “You are a funny man.”

“Ha-ha funny?”

“No.”

“Then you mean strange.”

“Different. A man who laughs when he makes love…and doesn’t mind when I do. Do I sound stupid because I can’t speak English well?”

“Not to me.”

She said nothing for a while. A gray light came in through the venetian blinds; early-morning fog that would burn off by noon. Then she said, “If you were a Mexican man, you would slap me for laughing, and I would be humiliated if you laughed.”

“That’s what makes this country great. We’re a funny people. We make the world safe for comedy.” It was a bad substitute for what I wanted to say. The cleverness hung like body odor or old cigarette smoke in the room.

“You need to protect people, don’t you?”

“I don’t know about that.”

“I think that about you, but I don’t know why it is.”

“It’s a minor neurosis, I can deal with it.”

“A what?”

“Nothing.” I kissed her again because I wanted to and because it would stop me from talking about love and protecting people. She moved on top of me again.

I must have put the radio on because I remember music that isn’t on any record I own. It probably isn’t on any radio either.

We slept eventually, and very late that morning she made me breakfast. Rice Krispies and papaya slices. We talked about everything: dancing and acting and movies and the regulars at the Low Down, Ronald Reagan, and the Russians. We talked about the night before and how fine it was, and then we talked about her brother, Herman Villez.

We talked about everything except love.

She gave me the family photo, taken, she said, after Easter Mass two years ago in front of an uncle’s ranch outside of Hermosillo. I drove her back to Liz’s apartment around eleven o’clock. The hard strains of heavy-metal music came from an open window along with the too-loud voices of people who had been up all night on cocaine and were too stoned to realize they didn’t have to hold back the night anymore.

I kissed Juana on the tip of her nose and drove myself south to San Ysidro.

Chapter Four

At the detention center a woman behind a sliding-glass window asked me my business. I told her I was a reporter for the San Diego Reader doing a piece on the treatment of illegals by the San Diego Border Patrol. As just a curious citizen I could wait weeks or months to get clearance, and then I would get only the sunshine tour, but as a representative of the press I hoped I would have a little leverage if I needed it. She told me to have a seat and wait for a Mr. Weintraub.

Weintraub’s first name was Douglas. That’s what it said on the plaque on his desk. Douglas Weintraub, assistant administrator. Doug looked like an old cop to me, maybe fbi, maybe military police. He had that dull look that comes with aging authority. He was about 55 with narrow eyes above coffee-drinker’s pouches and a whiskey-drinker’s nose. His sideburns were a little too long for his haircut, and he looked like he would speak with a Southern accent but he didn’t. He was courteous but forgot to shake my hand. I put it back in my jacket pocket and sat down uninvited.

“So, you’re with the Reader,” he said, standing.

“If I sell them this story, I am. I’m freelance.”

“Then the Reader didn’t send you here?”

“Not exactly.”

“You’re writing this article on…whattyacallit? Speculation?”

“Right.”

“You didn’t tell the receptionist that.”

“It didn’t come up.” I smiled, trying to look like a clever cub reporter.

He didn’t smile back. “You mind if I ask who you’ve written for in the past?”

“I wrote for the Village Voice in New York. I did stringer stuff for the Daily News back there. I did a story on the American Nazi Party for Rolling Stone last year, a piece on male-pattern baldness for Esquire…” I was just getting going when he interrupted me.

“I never read any of those…” He thought and then said, “publications.” He said it as if it were a clever euphemism for toilet paper. “I don’t read the San Diego Reader either.”

“Over 100,000 people in this country do.” I made up their circulation figure.

“Well, Mr.…”

“Hammil,” I said. I don’t know if it was some vague hunch I had that I should keep my real name from the Border Patrol’s notice, a kind of clairvoyance about what was to come, or if I was just having fun. “Raoul Hammil.”

“Mr. Hammil, before I could authorize a visit to the facilities, my office would require a letter from your superiors addressed to our public-information officer in San Pedro outlining the exact nature of your article and the manner in which the Border Patrol would be represented.”

“I told you, Mr. Weintraub. I’m a freelancer. At the moment I have no…superiors.” I smiled a gosh-shucks kind of smile. “The Border Patrol will be represented fairly, I believe. I could agree to submit the article to you before publication for your perusal.” No reporter would agree to something like that, but I hoped he didn’t know that.

Doug sat down and spread his hands to show me that they were empty, that he was powerless. “I’m sorry. That’s not good enough. You understand.” Now he extended his hand for me to shake. “It’s a sensitive matter.”

“Yes, it is.” I stood up and started to go, leaving his extended and meaty hand poised over his desk. “Then it’s okay with you if the article reads, ‘The Border Patrol Administration Office would not permit an on-site inspection of the detention center’?”

“That would not be accurate.” He closed his hands and sat forward.

It was my turn to spread my palms and shrug.

He glanced at his watch. “The morning is a bad time. Maybe if you were to come back after lunch I could get someone to take you on a brief tour. We’ve got nothing to conceal here. We don’t mistreat these people.” He was suddenly standing again. “They’re a lot better off if we get them. We don’t take their money or molest them or kill them the way their own people do. We feed them here. Your tax money buys them the kind of meal many of them could never buy for themselves. We take them back across the border and arrange for their transportation to wherever they say they’ve come from, which is more than their own government does for them. If we’re a little cautious about who we allow into the place, it’s because we’re trying to do a job with no help from the media, who seem intent on portraying us as storm troopers. Come back this afternoon and you’ll see beds for people who’ve never slept in one, quality food and medical care for people who’ll never see it again unless they become regulars or graduate to the penitentiary. Come back after lunch, Mr. Hammer, and write your story.” He dismissed me by screwing a True Blue cigarette into a white holder and lighting it. The witless tool of the commie fag New York press had been told off and shown largess by one of the front-line defenders of Our Way of Life.

I turned to go. I was about to say thank you when he said, “Mr. Hammond, I don’t think I like you or your way of doing business, but maybe you’ve got enough gumption to tell your readers the truth. I’m gonna count on that.”

“I appreciate it, Mr. Weinhardt,” I said as I closed his office door behind me.

Herman Villez wasn’t at the detention center, or “staging area,” as they called it. The place resembled a well-maintained pow camp, which, in a sense, is exactly what it was. A hurricane fence enclosed a compound of numbered one-story buildings that looked like barracks, only their cinder blocks were painted a cheerful yellow. The guy who showed me around was Agent Ybarra, a broad, pleasant-looking Chicano who probably lifted weights. He parked a turquoise-and-white Border Patrol passenger van that he had used that morning to bring the previous night’s catch back over the border.

“You’re not gonna see much,” he said, unlocking a gate set into the chain link. “This time of day it’s pretty quiet. We got three guys left from last night.” He indicated a trio of tired-looking men squatting against the fence and smoking cigarettes. They didn’t speak to each other. Their clothes looked dusty and cheap; their faces and arms had seen a lot of sun over the years. They could have been in their 30s or their 60s. I didn’t get that close, but none of them were Juana’s brother.

“One of these guys is a refugee from El Salvador. He goes to El Centro for official deportation tonight or tomorrow. This other guy goes to the marshal’s office to be arraigned on charges of resisting arrest. He had a knife and tried to use it. Didn’t do him any good. He’ll probably do time at mcc.”

“Metro Correction Center.”

“Right.”

“What about him?” I pointed to the third man. He wore imitation designer jeans that were too big for him and worn out at the knees.

“He turned himself in this morning. He was coming across last night and got separated from his daughter, just a kid, 14. They split up and ran from my patrol. He showed up here about nine o’clock to see if we picked up his little girl. We didn’t. He goes back tomorrow with the ones we round up tonight.”

“What about the girl?”

Ybarra turned and gestured out at the miles of valley stretching out below San Ysidro along the Tijuana River basin. “We’ll keep an eye out for her.”

“Yeah.” I turned from the scenery. There was too much of it to go along with the thought of a lost kid. I looked at the men in the yard. If they gave a damn what happened to them, you couldn’t see it in their faces. “The guy who resisted arrest, you get a lot of that?”

“Enough.”

“Every night? Once a month? Anybody besides him in the last couple of weeks?”

“Sure.” He smiled. “There was a guy a few nights ago that bit one of our people. Right here.” He pointed to his inner thigh. “He got away, though.”

I wondered if Herman Villez was a biter. “You see the guy?”

“Oh, I know who he is. A regular. We’ll get him again and when we do, Caulfield is gonna bite his leg off. Then we’ll just drive him back to First Avenue in T.J. He’ll come across again in a few nights and get caught. It becomes a game after a while.”

“Caulfield?”

“The guy he bit.”

“I thought your regulars do a prison term.”

“Not the everyday working guys. There’s not enough jails, man. No, our biter is an old friend. He picks fruit up here every summer and spring, spends the money he makes on whiskey and boys in T.J. He gets real pissed off when we catch him. He’s okay, though, you know.”

“He got a name?” I brought out my notebook as though I were taking notes for the Reader.

Ybarra grinned a goofy way. Anybody who could make that face had to be human as hell. I laughed before he even said anything. “Juan Garcia, what else? Just like these other two guys. Caulfield calls him the Tooth Fairy now.”

“The Tooth Fairy?”

“He’s an old queen, man. Too much.” Ybarra looked at his Casio watch. “You wanna see the barracks with the beds and all that? You missed lunch for these guys. A restaurant down the road caters their meals. Sloppy Joes today.”

“Yummy. Thanks, Agent Ybarra. I’ve got enough for now.” I turned to go. Ybarra stopped me with a hand on my arm.

“If you’re a reporter, I’m Maria of Romania. Who are you looking for?”

“You’ve been a lot of help. If I was looking for somebody who was picked up, I would hope he ran into you.”

“Don’t let Weintraub get in your knickers, he’s really okay. Most of the guys here are okay, more or less. There are a few John Waynes and whatnot, what the hell? If you were looking for a wirecutter, they could do a lot worse than be picked up by the Border Patrol. A lot worse.” I believed him.

“Yeah, they might miss out on the Sloppy Joes.”

Ybarra laughed, then added, “If there’s somebody out there” — he gestured at the valley, the dmz between hostile countries in a quiet but nonetheless real war for the American dollar — “somebody we should know about who’s liable to do more than just bite, you let me know. Okay?”

I nodded and walked back to my car. I would.


HOW HE DID IT: JOHN BRIZZOLARA TALKS ABOUT THE MAKING OF WIRECUTTER

How this one happened went like this.

During 14 years of marriage, it became a custom for my ex-wife and me to create and exchange supernatural thrillers on Christmas Eve, stuff we spent weeks on. It was a tradition started, as far as I know, by the British writer M.R. James (author of, for example, “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”). We thought this was a cozy, Dickensian thing to do. We were right, and it drove us to produce — something, anything, while we struggled to make our livings elsewhere.

We had published some of these stories in the genre magazines and once even — so happily — received a check from Amazing Stories on Christmas Eve.

While listening to (of all things) “Hotel California” by the Eagles, I was struck with a spookiness, an unsavory narrative, and while the music did little for me, the implied story creeped me out and I wanted to do something like it in fiction.

My original story idea was along the lines of “Heart of Darkness” meets The Day of the Locust. I think I got close, but as the Johnny Mathis song says, “It’s Not for Me to Say.” Anyway, what started out as a quest for a supernatural short story grew into a novel that had nothing to do with the occult.

Coincidentally, around that time a friend gave me a copy of James Crumley’s Last Good Kiss. It was a Raymond Chandler pastiche, but the best I’d ever read. I was a Chandler fanatic, and Wirecutter is a slavish imitation of that style. I began it in 1983 in the Coronado heat.

But back to the embryo. For my ghost story, or Christmas horror, I had in the back of my mind a large population of untraceable, undocumented aliens. In other words, people who if they disappeared off the face of the earth would hardly be missed. I had a kind of wicked witch character in a rambling castle on the borderlands of the East. She commissioned illegal migrants from “coyotes,” to enslave the migrants or eat them or make them into cat food, whatever. I hadn’t gotten that far in my plotting.

So I heard it was possible to ride along with the Border Patrol and applied. It took forever. They were dragging their feet because at about that time The Border, a Jack Nicholson film about ins corruption, came out. It was hardly a public relations promotion for the State Department. They were concerned about how I would portray them. Well, I didn’t know — because I hadn’t met any of them.

Finally clearance came through. I was allowed on a night run in December along the Brown Field Sector.

I had only been in San Diego a short while and was unprepared for the almost Arctic atmosphere of Otay Mesa in December. The aquamarine Ram Chargers were heated, all right, but no one had mentioned anything about a “night shoot.” This was a procedure where target practice was exercised under the stars.

In almost complete blackness, agents sped to a stop, seemingly at random, got out of their cars (being careful to use the door of the vehicle for cover), and fired at a shadowy, man-shaped target that would suddenly spring up. Within seconds the target had to be identified as woman, child, or armed man. With luck this decision might be aided with a flicker of peekaboo moonlight. More often than not the targets were shot with .357 magnums and mistakes were made.

I looked around for cover, but nothing seemed safe; bullets were coming from unpredictable angles. Finally, one of the agents suggested, “Get behind that board.”

The “board” he was referring to looked like an old Burma Shave sign riddled with bullets. This was about as much cover as a Bantu dictionary. In my herringbone jacket and moccasins, no socks, I huddled there for about nine years, my teeth chattering, and not simply from the cold.

One woman, Maria I believe her name was, proved to be the best marksman. I cowered a little less when it was her turn.

The other things I remember from that night were the jackrabbits and the green-screen nightscopes showing up body heat on the mesa. Long-eared rabbits would dart suicidally into the headlights of the Ram Chargers. “It’s a miracle we didn’t kill half of those stupid bastards,” I remember commenting to the driver. His answer was, “Oh, I figure we must have.” To this day, I don’t know if he was joking.

The marvels were the infrared nightscopes. I imagine they were fairly primitive compared to what they are using now, but they were effective. Most of them were mounted on the backs of flatbed trucks and were the size of television cameras, boxy, almost like WWII radar machines. No one seemed to be expert in using them, but they weren’t hard to figure out: whatever you pointed at, if there was body heat (including rabbits) you got a green image. I was astounded at the number of human bodies we found. Didn’t mean all or even half of them were illegal, but there were an awful lot of people where they shouldn’t be, in unlit canyons with names like Moody’s, Springs, and Deadman’s.

In the intervening years it has become unclear to me how, exactly, I met Danny “Tokes” Lopez. I know it was in the Unicornia, a Tijuana bar. Danny was funny. We were buying drinks for hookers who were even funnier. But I wanted a coyote, a pollero.

Danny didn’t seem to fit either of these professions convincingly. But it was not long before I saw him hustle Anglo and Hispanic suckers into deals on “cultured” pearls, 24-karat-gold bracelets, and illegal trips to Fargo, North Dakota, which he assured them was just a short bus ride from Los Angeles.

So Danny agreed to take me to a once famous and pink hotel where in a single room, no one had the space to sit or lie down but had to stand upright, even in the bathroom — the effluvia from which was horrendous no matter where one stood in the room.

That night he took me through a drainage ditch in Tijuana west of the San Ysidro border crossing with maybe 30 other pollos. The stench again was horrific. We were to cross the Tijuana Estuary at its low ebb, and I noticed most pollos wore layers of clothes so that when they got through the glop — or the guts — on the other side, they could strip off their outer layers of clothing and be more or less presentable for employment options.

This was before the Berlin Wall of America’s Bottom Left was erected. I did not go through with the others to Monument Road in Imperial Beach. This was sheerly because of cowardice, the stench, the mire my clothing was becoming progressively more sopped with, and the gathering conviction that I had no idea whatever what I was doing.

I had no trouble walking back through Customs: I just looked like another falling-down drunk after too many cheap tequilas (diluted with 7UP or Sprite) and beers. Not an uncommon visual.

Driving home, what struck me was Danny “Tokes” Lopez and what he did for a living. A Robin Hood in a sense, but a hood no less. His nickname meant “propina, tips; la mordida, the bribe.” He was, he said, 18; I figured 16. He carried a crummy Saturday-night special in his boot. A pig-iron .32.

But the most lingering image was returning to my home about 2:00 a.m. My son was sitting in my desk chair.

“I’m sick,” he said.

“What’s wrong, Nutley?”

“I don’t know. Mommy gave me some stuff, but Pat and her daughter are here and they don’t want me to sleep in the same room cuz I might infect ’em.”

I felt his head. It was warm. His cheeks were flushed and I could see hives on his face.

“Where were you?” he asked.

“Mexico.”

“Why do you always go there? I don’t like that place.”

“It’s a part of the world we’re very close to, and it’s interesting right now. It’s like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Remember that?”

“Yeah, I loved Allan Quatermain.”

“Well, it’s kind of like that. It’s an injustice that’s horrible. I want to expose it, remind people.”

“Like Batman?”

I had to laugh. “No, like a writer.”

I broke off my laugh as it occurred to me that my son’s outbreak of hives, etc., were symptoms of stress. He was worried, anxious: maybe he had, in his mind, exaggerated the superheroic dangers I was involved in.

Or maybe he had a crush on a girl, was worried about school grades, or was being hassled by some schoolyard bully. I didn’t think to ask; a writer’s self-absorption, especially when excited about a project, will eclipse everything. It is like something George Orwell said: “Writing a novel is like deliberately undergoing a prolonged illness.” Something like that.

The danger I most feared (aside from another night shoot — unless Maria held the gun) was reading National Geographic in the waiting room of the deputy chief ins guy while he demonstrated disdain for the press by eating at the local Pollo restaurant across the street for an inordinate time (two hours?) after our appointment. To be fair, I think he was meeting with an sdpd liaison officer. Still, I’m not a fan of National Geographic especially — any more so than of the Ice Follies.

Chapter 10 was maddening. I didn’t know how to make a vital transition. When I was grudgingly satisfied, my Apple II crashed and lost ten hours of work. I was told there were methods to retrieve it, but they all seemed contradictory and I am a computer whiz like Pee-Wee Herman is Orson Welles.

I let out a scream at 1:30 or 2:00 a.m. that must have terrified the neighbors. My wife called out, “You all right?”

My son stepped into the room, this time looking less rubious and plagued. “Why is Mommy yelling?”

“Oh, sorry, my fault. She heard me shout in my sleep. I was dreaming of an action sequence for the book and I couldn’t stand it.”

“What was the scene?”

“Okay, there’s a trailer in San Ysidro. I think it’s still there. Pretty sure. Old-fashioned type, you know, like in the old movies. Now there are about 15 la migra, ins, federal coppers; they’ve surrounded the place.”

I explained the technical problem of how one side of the trailer was against an embankment, on rusted old railroad tracks, and the whole thing set in concrete. I had the trailer filled with good guys and smugglers, all armed. Since it was on an old gasoline dump, I couldn’t know if it was still flammable — or who to ask. The bomberos in TJ were uncertain. The sdpd could not be sure without an excavation. In short, I didn’t know how to get anybody out of there alive. Good or bad. I had written myself into a corner.

“Trapdoor,” my son said.

“Trapdoor in the floor? A hole in the concrete?” What is this, Abbott and Costello?

This would occur to a child, but hardly to an adult trying to write anything but young-adult novels. “Tijuana was full of tunnels and trapdoors and things during Prohibition,” my son pointed out. I didn’t ask him how he knew it, but it was true.

(A few years ago I crawled through a lengthy underground tunnel, fully lighted and entered through a warehouse in TJ. The tunnel ended 120 feet or so from the warehouse in Otay Mesa where it was supposed to end. The excavators surfaced in the full light of authority.)

“A lot of them are probably still there,” the lad said — meaning the bootleggers’ tunnels — as he laid his head on my shoulder. A boy’s world is plagued with trapdoors. Later, I suppose, we just call them “life, pitfalls, shit happens, one damned thing after another…you name it.”

It was a couple of years later that I placed the book with Doubleday. It was well reviewed (with one exception, in San Diego magazine: “The novel is hard-boiled to the sake of sadomasochism!”).

The “Newgate Calendar” in the New York Times liked it, but my favorite review came from an ex-border cop turned writer: I was listed as a former bartender, and the Albuquerque Journal Magazine guy wrote, “I don’t know if he can mix a margarita or not, but he can tell a story that’ll fuse your synthetic socks to your Kinneys.”

The book was picked up for mass market by Pocket Books, with a cover illustration of my anti-hero Nathaniel York, looking oddly like Judd Hirsch, and a woman wearing heels running down a road. Well, still, I always wanted to be a “paperback writer.” And now I was one.

The paperback did about 35,000, the hardcover about 10,000 to 15,000. (Respectable for a first book, but hardly Clancy stuff.) You can never know about these figures anyway.

Other good things have happened: I received a multiple book review from Doubleday’s Filings. The thing was, this was to be another year’s security, and this was exactly when the largest publishing firm of Teutonic yuppies decided to dismiss half their pub list. They kept Asimov, who wouldn’t necessarily go anyway, but fired their editorial staff (kids who grew up on Josie and the Pussycats) and bought out the contracts of writers who didn’t sell in large numbers.

The book has been optioned several times. It seemed to have legs for a while; at any rate, for a few years. I made more money on the movies that never materialized on screen — a good thing too, a dodged bullet, when you think about it.

Wirecutter is dedicated to my ex-wife, whom I still love, and my son. “To Diane for all the years and all the faith; and for Geoffrey…for always.” It is hard to look at that these days, because of the difficult nature of faith and the circumstances of the divorce.

The guttural, most real memory of the writing of that book is of my son’s affection, helping Dad do his book stuff — and though I don’t know his heart now that he is a man of 23, I never really knew it, but I believe he loves me and I know he did when he was sitting on my knee and offering me his trapdoor.

The process of writing fiction is in itself a trapdoor, a means of escape. Facts are necessary, or at least verisimilitude, but truth must be in it as well or it’s no good. And the truth is quite another trick unto itself.

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