Author’s note: It’s 1985. The American government is secretly supporting the Contras in a war against the elected Sandinista government of Nicaragua. In neighboring Honduras, a modern-day Don Quixote is campaigning for the yet-to-be established office of World President. William Walker and his campaign-manager-cum-Sancho-Panza become entangled in a covert (and illegal) plot to arm the Contras. Their quest to reveal the plot and save themselves from brutal death squads takes them on a race through the war-torn Central America of the 1980s.
1. Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1985
At midday, just before the siesta hour, you crossed the street into the plaza and took your position near the statue of Francisco Morazán, the Great Liberator of Central America. You stood to the Liberator’s left, the side closest to Citibank and toward the street where people returning from their lunch breaks at McDonald’s often idled for a few minutes in the shade of the ceiba trees. The shade was important, even here in the relative cool of the mountains—you didn’t want to sweat too obviously when you were campaigning. Especially when you were fundraising. As the afternoon wore on, you would shift with the shade to the west side of the Plaza. On Sunday mornings, of course, you were on the opposite side, on the steps of the cathedral.
You checked your campaign material—newspaper clippings about the campaign Beto had photocopied and covered with plastic, so they’d last. So much friendlier, in environmental terms, than a wad of campaign fliers. The clippings vouched for your legitimacy. Even if people had never heard of you or the International Union for Democracy, the clippings said, you were for real. And the IUD wasn’t a party, in the traditional sense. It was a movement. Most people only glanced at the clippings anyway. You wanted them to get the gestalt—your picture, the headline, the newspaper’s masthead. El Diario de México. La Prensa. El Espectador. The International Herald Tribune. The New York Times. The Guardian.
The piece from the Miami Herald, International Edition, a few years back, was actually the best, its tone the least ironic. The word “quixotic” right there in the headline. “Quixotic Campaign for Elected World Government Yields Few Votes.” Your picture right there below the fold. A very good lead. “William Walker, candidate of the International Union for Democracy for the office of World President, knows the odds are long. For starters, the office he’s running for doesn’t even exist. He’s not certain it will ever exist. Yet Walker, 53, soldiers on because, he says, the planet needs a democratically elected world government.”
It was not a bad photograph, actually, you shaking hands, surrounded by a crowd in a marketplace. You had forgotten where, exactly. Lately, you had noticed more double takes, people looking at your face and then at the picture in the clipping. Five years on, there was a lot more salt, a lot less pepper; somewhat less hair overall. More mileage on the face. A bit more jowl. Although you were conscientious about what you ate. Regrettably, the coverage lately hadn’t been quite as ample, in volume or in spirit.
You made sure the petition was there on its clipboard. Also covered in clear plastic. English on one side, Spanish on the other. Made certain there were signature sheets beneath the petition, a couple of well-worn ones, at least one half filled. Potential supporters were much more likely to sign if they saw themselves as one among many.
You double-checked the condition of the slick campaign brochures, for people whose donations were unexpectedly generous, who should be invited to come by the headquarters at the Hotel Boston in the evening for a little stroking. Regrettably, the campaign had had little call for these brochures since arriving in Honduras. Checked your tie and your fly. It was practically reflex by now, but it was the sort of thing you had to pay attention to, the devil in the details.
When you looked around the Plaza Morazán, you could hardly believe you were in the heart of a capital city. So much smaller than the Zócalo in Mexico, smaller even than the corresponding plazas in Managua or Guatemala. The benches in the shade were mostly occupied by your supporters—shoe shiners, newspaper sellers, lottery vendors, the guy with the ice cream push cart, and a couple of godblessem falling down drunks. You could win over the little people, and you were damn proud of that. Because at the end of the day you were in it for them.
Plaza Morazán was the best location in Tegucigalpa for grass roots fundraising, the kind of day-in day-out slogging that paid the campaign bills. Everybody seemed to pass through—government office workers and employees from the shops and banks. Tourists and international business types, servicemen from Palmerola Air Base who were often sympathetic to the cause. They came to catch a microbus home, to look at the statue of Morazán, or to while away the time. Generally the gringos were bored with Tegucigalpa’s meager shopping and glad of a little diversion.
You had no problem being a diversion, an amusement. Or hell, an annoyance. Because if they were annoyed they would make a contribution to the campaign to get rid of you and that was no big loss. You had to face it, if you made the pitch and you couldn’t get through, they weren’t going to become supporters any time soon. You had to recognize that some perfectly intelligent people hadn’t matured politically to the point where they were ready to take you seriously. Although of course the evidence was all around them. You had no problem with that.
You couldn’t afford to be proud in your position. You had to believe. You had to keep on working. Shake the hands. Make the pitch. Give the speeches. Kiss the babies. Drink their beer or their rum or their guaro, or at least pretend to. Eat their beans and tortillas or their fish and chips or their beans and weenies or their pasta. Because the people who believed in you gave what they had. If they had money they’d make a contribution and if they didn’t they’d give you a meal and you couldn’t refuse. Because that was not pride but arrogance. Because dammit the job needed to be done and you were the man to do it, and nobody else was doing it.
The movement was going to catch fire and it was going to spread from hamlet to village to city to capital and from capital to capital and continent to continent. And you were going to be at the head of that movement and you were going to win them to your point of view. Not all of them, but enough—a majority in each country. But you had to be realistic. Start small, in Honduras and Nicaragua and El Salvador and Costa Rica. Build an organization, a network, a party. You couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in Culo del Este if you didn’t have an organization. And you were after something a lot bigger. Keep your eye on the prize, like Dr. King’s people used to say.
You would wager that if the American Founders were around they would be your supporters or allies. They would be pushing for supranational democracy, probably each for his own reasons. Hamilton would be thinking about trade. Adams too. Jefferson would be looking for a counterweight to the powers of national governments and surely he would see the symmetry of a Republic of Nations with elected, rather than appointed, proportional representation.
For that matter, you had the Old Man’s example. Everett W. Walker, King of the World, for chrissake, with the goddamn portable throne. King Everett the First, in the twentieth century you just weren’t going anywhere with such a ridiculous notion. It wasn’t even a viable scam. But that hadn’t stopped the Old Man and in that respect alone, he was right. One country at a time. Be patient. Keep going, plugging away.
Your way, the democratic way, was a lot more complex and therefore much more demanding and you had to remember that. It was not just a matter of showing up with the goddamn throne and bribing some guard to let you set it up on the steps of the national assembly or the presidential palace or whatever. Claiming the territory usually meant a round or two of free drinks at some bar full of expat Americans. It meant you could walk out on the hotel bill or the restaurant tab without getting arrested and if or when worse came to worse, your son and vassal would make everything right by washing dishes for a few hours.
No, you had to win minds and hearts. You had to persuade people—voters, every last man, Jack and Jill—they were the sovereigns. The Old Man in his fulminant racism had never understood the truth of that, the single great Truth. The people were sovereign. And that, chiefly among many other reasons, that was the reason he had failed. That was the reason Everett the First was nothing but an obscure historical footnote, an amusing anecdote.
A blue police Nissan with a light bar came up the street from the river and passed you and began a slow counterclockwise circuit of the plaza. The two cops in the car seemed to be studying Morazán and the shoeshine boys and the drunks and the office workers in the plaza. It was up to you to take care of the supporters, set the good example. Make sure there was no trouble from the cops, but without getting confrontational. You crossed the street and stood in the shadow of the Banco Atlántida, slipped the campaign material between the sections of the Miami Herald, International Edition.
Your dealings with the police had been the same, wherever you took the campaign—nasty and brutish, but hardly ever short. The paraphrase would go well in the section of the speech about the opposition of established interests to the emerging democratic order. You made a note to check with Beto about the appropriate Spanish translation of the phrase. And who the hell said it? Was it Hobbes, or Locke, or Mill?
The patrol car eased past. The cop on the passenger side gave you the once over. You returned the look. You made sure to smile. That was the thing—look them right in the eye and smile. Look away, show the least fear and they were on you like hyenas. It had taken you a long time to learn that. Show them you were afraid of them and they had won. The cop looked away and said something to the driver, who swung the car into the outside lane and down the narrow street toward the police station.
You crossed the street and took up your strategic position again. A couple of guys who looked to be American were strolling toward the plaza, one with his tie loose and his jacket slung over his shoulder, the other in chinos and a polo shirt. Not in a hurry to be anywhere in particular. You angled toward them. You wanted to be well out in front of people. Give them a chance to sort you out. Above all, you didn’t want to surprise them or look like a threat. You wanted to attract their interest, but failing that you wanted them to see you as neutral. That was one thing you’d learned from panhandling, how to size up a likely donor, get through the defenses. Close the deal.
Funny how life prepared you for what you were meant to do. Who would have thought that panhandling in New York could prepare you to run for the most important office in the world? But destiny was not a linear thing, an orderly progression where you could predict what came next. It was disorderly, almost chaotic, while you were experiencing it. Only in looking back could you begin to appreciate the subtle way one thing prepared you for the next. Sense the workings of the Higher Power, as the AA people phrased it.
The two gringos crossed the street, apparently intending to pass through the center of the plaza. You moved a few steps to position yourself in their line of sight, next to a concrete bench in a patch of shade. A few of the supporters were sitting on the bench—shoeshine boys and a guy selling newspapers and a guy who sold lottery tickets. Others drifted over to be in on the show. You stood in the middle of the walkway, so the gringos would be included in the conversation, whether they intended to or not.
“Buenas tardes, caballeros,” you said to the guys on the bench. “Que tal están?”
They said buenas tardes back, and said they were well. That was the exhilarating thing about campaigning in Central America—people were so goddamn polite.
“Guillermo Walker, candidate for World President,” you said in Spanish and thrust your hand out to the lottery vendor, “at your service.”
“Coronel Jose Luis Lopez Gallegos, your servant,” the vendor said, in heavily accented English.
Christ, another alias. Some of the other supporters on the bench grinned because they were in on the joke, others merely because they knew that the lottery vendor’s name was Hortensio Zelaya. In the last week, Hortensio had grown bored with campaigning and had taken the names of various prominent Honduran politicians, beginning with the heads of the opposition party in the Congress and proceeding through the cabinet. Lopez Gallegos, if memory served, was the Minister of the Interior, and was rumored to have ties to paramilitary units that operated in Olancho, on the Nicaraguan border. You couldn’t afford to antagonize a person like that—not with the campaign organization and the power base in such a tenuous condition. The police car possibly was not coincidence. You would have to talk privately with Hortensio. Ears—orejas—were everywhere.
You continued with the campaign routine, shaking hands with the other supporters all around.
You asked them, collectively, what did they think of the current state of relations between the United States and Honduras?
“Very bad—pésimas,” Hortensio translated himself. He seemed to have appointed himself spokesman for the supporters. “We need más dolares.”
You went on with your pitch, in Spanish. “What if I were to tell you, my friends, that there is a way to bring more balance to relations between Honduras and the United States? To bring more balance to the relations between all nations? To spread the benefits of capitalism and democracy more evenly among nations?” The phrasing of the speech, its pacing, its delivery were automatic. You gauged the progress of the two gringos and took one more step back so that in passing they would walk between yourself and the supporters. You switched to English. “Hello, friends. How are you this fine afternoon?” You extended your hand to the man with the blazer slung over his shoulder. “Pleased to meet you. Bill Walker, candidate for World President.”
The man accepted your extended hand. “Al Jones,” he said.
You gripped firmly and smiled. “Mr. Jones. A pleasure to meet you.” You extended your hand to the man in the polo shirt. “Bill Walker.” You repeated your name at least twice. Three times was even better, in your experience.
“Smith. Fred Smith.” Smith was not particularly tall, but he was thick of torso and the sleeves of his polo shirt were taut around his biceps. Smith’s hand, thick and hard, applied a force at once perfunctory and crushing to your hand. You controlled a grimace and Smith released his grip.
“What brings you to this fair parcel of God’s green earth? Business or pleasure?” It was not the standard approach, but the casual ferocity of Smith’s handshake had flustered you.
Jones smiled. His front teeth were somewhat uneven and his smile struck you as decidedly carnivorous. “Business. Strictly business.”
“Business can be a little difficult here in Honduras. In view of the difficulties between the United States and our neighbors, that is.” Christ, that was awkward. Stilted.
“Yeah, most businesses that’s true.” Jones had a mild southern or maybe Texas accent and pronounced the word “bidness.” “Our line o’ work, though, a little international tension can be useful.”
You began to talk about the benefits of international stability for capital movements and trade, the benefits of the rule of law and an electorate that could express its frustrations at the ballot box…The standard stuff for the business audience.
Jones held up his hand. “No disrespect, Mr. Walker, but we’re on a kinda tight schedule. We got a real interest in meeting with a fella we understand is a friend of yours. Cuban gentleman.”
The hair on the back of your neck prickled. Dubón. Jesus Christ, they were spooks.
Jones seemed to read your fear. “You could arrange such a meeting, we could arrange for a substantial donation to the campaign fund.” Jones let that sink in a little. “We’d like to talk to you about it. See if we can’t work out the details.” He fished a card out of his shirt pocket and handed it to you. “Say around nine o’clock tonight?”
For a moment you stood speechless. Paralyzed. A goddamn possum in the headlights. Your tongue regained its function and your wits came back and you nodded. “Nothing on tonight. No speeches. I’ll bring Hernández.” You noticed Jones and Smith exchange glances. “Rigoberto Hernández—Beto, my campaign manager. I won’t talk money or any kind of arrangement without him.”
Jones nodded. “Sure, no problem.” He extended his hand and you shook it. “Nine then.”
Jones turned away and you were relieved when Smith fell in beside him without offering to shake hands again. You watched them saunter across the plaza and turn right on the one-way street that led downhill past the offices of the Honduran version of the FBI, the imprecisely named Department of National Investigations—and on out toward the American embassy. You looked at the card Jones had handed you. You knew the place, La Barbacoa, a restaurant not far from the airport. Beto was absolutely going to soil his trousers.
Hortensio Zelaya interrupted your reflections. “Son la CIA,” he pronounced the acronym as though it were a Spanish word, and pointed with his lips, campesino-fashion, toward the departing gringos. The other supporters nodded gravely in agreement.
You found that you were nodding along with them. “Evidently our campaign has attracted their interest.” You said it to yourself as much as to anyone else.
2. El Hotel Boston
How in the hell does he get into these messes? He goes to the plaza to do his penny-ante fundraising and he comes back to tell me we have a meeting with la CIA. La CIA, my ass! I tell him this fundraising is a waste of his time. It doesn’t even pay for the breakfast he eats in the hotel restaurant and the chintzy tip he leaves the old waiter. He gets that hurt puppy dog expression, like I’m taking away his only toy.
“We have to win the common people, Beto,” he says to me, like I haven’t heard it a million times before, “They are the ones who will carry us through the bad times…” et cetera, et cetera, and blah-blah-blah. Practically the whole speech he gives the teachers unions and the cooperativas—how it is an insult not to ask them for money, for their time, for their votes because they are the ones who will decide. Like I haven’t heard the whole damn thing at least a thousand times. Like I didn’t write half of it myself personally.
He still believes all of it, that is the thing. Which is why the newspaper sellers and shoeshine boys and whores give him their fifty centavos. They believe in him. And so do I, after all this time. But he is driving me crazy. I have seen the Central Psychiatric Hospital of Honduras and even a person as crazy as me does not belong there. But forget about it, he is driving me there, straight to the asylum
I tell him not to hang around with Pastora and Dubón. But he says to me “Beto, they are democrats. We—meaning the American government—should be supporting them. They are not like the Ortegas, kissing Fidel’s ass. We can help them and they can help us.”
I tell him this is looking for trouble. I tell him all the four hundred reasons it is a bad idea to play chess with a man who has a price on his head. And my candidate for Presidente Mundial, he smiles at me and I have one of those times when I know that I am a total idiot. Just like today. I am wasting my life with this man who is completely crazy and I am absolutely cracking up and they are going to take us both to the asylum and throw the key away.
I should not be in love with him, for one thing. To be in love with somebody who is old enough to be your father is unnatural. And for another thing he absolutely would be shocked and probably he would just get rid of me. Probably that would kill me. Instead of just making me crazy.
How can he not know? It must be that he chooses not to notice. He is so good at denying things. But of course he has to be or he could not keep on going. No matter how we measure it, no matter what we settle for, he is never going to get on a ballot anywhere under any circumstances. Ever. Period and it’s over. Forget about it. And he is never going to recognize that I am in love with him, period, forget about it..
It is too convenient for him that I like women also. He notices the maids and the school teachers and the secretaries but not the waiters and the clerks and the faggot priest who is going to burn in hell and who cries after every time. If he notices the way I look at him, he puts it down to dedication to the cause of world democracy. God, he is such a hopeless fool.
I have to tell him that I hope la CIA is buying tonight because after we take the cab we are broke. We are worse than broke because we owe this hotel fifteen hundred dollars. Or maybe with the inflation it’s down a little bit. And I have to make sure to get to Rosario before my candidate talks to Doña Luz. Because he will say to Doña Luz, “I’ll have Beto take care of it,” and we’ll be screwed. But Rosario I can manage, and somehow she will bury the bill for another week. But God, if I have to do her again, please don’t let it be in the linen closet because she almost broke my back in there. At least let me get her in a bed. But with these beds, who knows, she could still break my back.
And then I have to get that son of a bitch Rathskob to do the bank transfer for this quarter. If there is anything left to transfer. If he has not put the whole damn thing in junk bonds and lost it all. We are completely insane to depend on a man like him. But my candidate will not listen because his great and loyal compañero Arthur Rathskob has saved his candidacy at least three times by bailing him out of jail. Of course my candidate was in jail in the first place because Rathskob was playing his little games with the money. But I cannot prove it. Probably not even God knows what atrocities Rathskob committed with the accounts before I came along.
This money, this bequest, is the source of everything good and bad in the campaign. Without it we are nowhere, and with it we are stuck here in this stupid country, so we are also nowhere. It’s like that old Senator said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” And it is also the hemlock. I suppose that is why my candidate William Walker persists with his stupid penny-ante fundraising in the plaza, because then he can believe that he has not sold himself. But he has sold us, and not even to the highest bidder. At least not yet, but we will see what la CIA is offering.
Doña Concha María Álvarez Diaz de la Peña Rosales Cuadro. She must have been a very strange old lady to get involved with William Walker, candidate of the Intercontinental Union for Democracy. But the certain thing is that she was very rich. Enough to throw William Walker a five-million-dollar bone, who knows why? Because he amused her. Because she was senile like a fox. Because she knew that if she made her son-in-law Arthur B. Rathskob the trustee, he would be so busy chiseling on the interest from five million that he would leave the rest of the family alone.
Who knows if she really believed in these crazy ideas of my candidate? But we are tied up here or in some place even worse with this bequest. “To promote the ideals of universal suffrage and the sacred dignity of all individuals by establishing in each of the countries of the Americas a branch of the Intercontinental Union for Democracy…” Damn it.
What the hell will happen to him if I am not here to take care of everything? To keep the books and bribe the cops and pay the bills and buy drinks for the journalists and put fuel in the campaign bus. He will be sleeping in doorways. But he says to me, “Beto, I have slept in doorways. There are worse places.”
And I say to him, “Of course. There is for example a Honduran prison. Or a Nicaraguan one.” He just looked at me and I have one of those moments when I know that I am a complete fool.
3. La Barbacoa
Possibly the choice of meeting place was coincidental. If not, you had to admit they had cojones. Rumor had it that the last attempted coup, and one before it, had been planned here. You had to wonder whether they had anything to do with those attempts.
You unfolded yourself from the backseat of the Volkswagen Beetle taxi onto the patch of sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Given who you were dealing with, you couldn’t be sure whether the choice was a matter of arrogance or ignorance. You adjusted your jacket and checked your fly.
From the highway, La Barbacoa presented a façade of seedy kitsch. The outside wall was half-rounds of bamboo over raw cinder block. Where swatches of palm frond thatch had fallen off, clay tile roofing showed through. Gas torches flickered on either side of an entrance framed in concrete tikis. You noticed that several of the vehicles parked along the shoulder of the road—a Mercedes, Jeep Cherokees, a Range Rover—were attended by chauffeurs in army fatigues.
Traffic at this hour had thinned. Microbuses and the odd taxi darted around heavy trucks with tarpaulins snugged over their loads. In the taxis, you knew, were the relatively well off; those who could not afford a car, not yet. They were shopkeepers and civil servants and assistant managers of one enterprise or another, those ambitious or desperate enough to stay past the dinner hour. In the buses were the shopgirls and cashiers and clerks and the maids and cooks of the wealthy.
You had campaigned door to door through their barrios, those of working poor and those of the aspiring middle class. You had walked the muddy half-paved streets where the snotty-nosed children of the poor played futbol scurrying half naked amid chickens and pigs prospecting in the ditches. In most of these poor barrios, the dwellings were nothing but wattle and adobe and scavenged corrugated steel or fiberglass roofing that appeared to have been excised from the countryside and grafted onto the steep and eroding hillsides around the capital. Even in the middle class barrios of cinder-block houses with TV antennas sprouting from their flat roofs, you smelled raw sewage in the gutters. You had to wonder whether democracy in this country could be any more permanent than these slums, these hopeful barnacles of concrete on the denuded hillsides? Or would it, too, wash away with the hillsides in some hurricane?
Brakes squealed and a horn blared. The rear fender of the departing taxi, when you turned, was centimeters from the front bumper of a microbus. The driver of the microbus leaned again on his horn and accelerated after the taxi. Beto stood on the sidewalk, stuffing a wad of small bills into the front pocket of his guayabera shirt and shaking his head in disgust.
“A problem?” you said.
Beto's round face shone in the flickering light from the gas lamps. “El pendejo ese,” he said, “didn’t want to give me the change. He thought he could get away with something because we were speaking English in the taxi. So first he tried to charge me fifty Lempiras and then he tried to pretend that he didn’t have change.”
Beto's Puerto Rican accent became more pronounced in both English and Spanish when he was upset. You had to watch him when he was in this state.
You put a hand on Beto's shoulder. “Pendejo for sure,” you agreed. “He must be from Manhattan.”
Beto’s smile was forced. “The Bronx,” he said.
You said, “I need you to watch my back in here, Beto. I’m not sure what they want, but I’m sure it’s not what we want. Keep us out of the jungle.”
You turned to the door. A hand on your sleeve restrained you momentarily and Beto gestured you grandly through the door. “Don’t worry, I’ll watch you like a cat watches a mouse.”
Inside the building the light was little better than outside. A small black man in a tuxedo and a bow tie, apparently the head waiter, stood beside a sort of podium, which was clad in the same bamboo and thatch as the exterior of the building.
“Señor Walker, Señor Hernández? Bienvenidos a La Barbacoa. Your hosts are expecting you.”
You followed tuxedoed man down a short stairway badly lit by a single flickering gas torch.
The stairs ended in an expansive outdoor concrete patio with a large grill pit flaming at its center. On three sides, the patio was surrounded by open-sided thatch-roofed booths. The waiter led the way to a back corner of the patio, where Jones and Smith were waiting. Jones stood up and shook hands. Smith, to your relief, saluted with a wave of two fingers above the rim of a frosted cocktail glass.
Jones said, “Gentlemen, welcome.”
“Mr. Jones, Mr. Smith…this is my chief of staff Rigoberto Hernández,” you said.
“Everybody calls me Beto. Even the journalists and the spies.” You shot him a look that seemed to go wide of its mark.
Jones laughed and waved at seats. “Well, Beto, we’re glad you gentlemen could make it.” He indicated the waiter. “You met Señor Barrios here, Justo Barrios.” Jones pronounced the surname Berry-ohs. “He’s the big boss. Owns the place, but he likes to dress up like the mater dee.”
Barrios smiled and bowed slightly. “What will you drink, gentlemen? Our specialty is of course the daiquiri.” His gesture indicated Smith’s drink and he pronounced the word in the American way.
“Un daiquirí, por favor,” Beto’s Puerto Rican accent changed the final “r” sounds to “l.” You wished he’d settle down.
You considered. You felt resolute. “Dos. And a mineral water, please.” Across the table, you noticed, Beto's eyes went round.
Jones said, “Another Chivas, Justo. Doble, por favor.”
Jones’s accent in Spanish was painfully Texan, you decided. Funny how another language could intensify peculiarities of pronunciation.
“You don’t mind my asking,” Jones said, “how’s the campaign going here in Tegus?” He pronounced the city’s nickname “Ta GOOSE.”
“Fairly well, I’d say,” you said. “More support every day, especially with the working people.” It was the standard line. No matter how slowly things progressed, you were optimistic.
“How’s the fundraising going, down there in the plaza?” Jones’s gaze was level, appraising.
“Not bad. Not bad at all considering the poverty of the country,” you said. The man didn’t beat around the bush.
“Lot of expenses, though. Hotel. Gas. Telephone. You have to eat. Even beans and rice cost you something.”
You nodded. “International campaigning is a challenge.” You left it at that.
“Moving money internationally, now, that can be difficult…” Jones let the thought trail off.
Again you noticed his carnivorous grin. You got the feeling Jones knew a lot about the finances of the campaign. You couldn’t miss the implied threat, but you kept your tone neutral. “There are some bureaucratic hurdles, yes.”
“But nothing that can’t be solved by a courier with big tits and a nice smile,” Beto said. “Especially if she is blonde. She can bring in all the cash you need, and nobody even opens her luggage.”
Jones’s stare measured Beto.
“We do what we need to keep the campaign going,” you said, as evenly as you could manage.
“Within the limits of the law, of course.” You wanted to kick Beto under the table. It would not be hard for these people to go from the very generic large-breasted blonde to Dulce.
“Of course,” Jones said. “Inconvenient, though. Considering that money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
“But also the hemlock of politics,” Beto said.
“Maybe,” Jones said, “but I never heard of a politician committing suicide by ingesting money.”
“Touché,” Beto said. He was looking at Jones with a little more respect.
To your relief, Justo brought the drinks. Jones raised his glass. “Salud,” he said.
“La suya,” you said.
The daiquiri was a small marvel, and you said so to Justo, who acknowledged the compliment with a slight bow. “Gentlemen, what will you eat?”
Jones said, “Like I mentioned in the plaza, we’re interested in meeting with your old friend Don Rufo Lopez Dubón.” You wondered how Rufo would respond to Jones’s Texification of his surnames.
You took a sip of the mineral water and considered. You had to wonder what they thought. That the International Union for Democracy in Honduras was a front for Pastora and his people, perhaps. Perhaps they thought you were smuggling weapons, or who knew what fantasy. What would they say if they knew the truth—that you played chess and argued political philosophy with the old guy? That you sat around and listened while Rufo and Pastora drank ron añejo and conducted a ribald amateur psychoanalysis of Fidel and Raúl Castro versus their Sandinista counterparts, Daniel and Humberto Ortega?
Beto interrupted your thoughts. “Why do you need us? Dubón is in Costa Rica, in San José or at his finca in the beach. Go to see him. Call him on the telephone.”
“Valid point, Beto. We did that. Laid out our needs. He declined to be helpful.” Jones looked at you over the rim of his glass. “We were hoping you’d be willin’ to use your influence. See if you can persuade him to help us out.”
“What do you want him to do?” Beto asked.
“He’s payin’ the bills for another friend of yours.”
“Pastora, you mean?” you said.
“Exactamundo. We’d like Señor Dubón to stop payin’ the bills. We’d like Comandante Zero to get with the program.”
Beto persisted. “And Don Rufo will listen to us because…?”
Jones flashed the carnivorous grin. “We can help you get his attention.”
You liked to surround yourself with good people who would take the initiative, like Beto. You trusted them. But there were things only you could decide.
“Speaking theoretically now,” you said, “if I were to help you out with this, what do we get out of it?”
“Theoretically,” Jones said, “twenty-five thousand dollars. Any bank you want.”
“Fifty thousand,” Beto said. Your mouth opened, but no words came. You shut it.
“Twenty-five thousand now, the rest after the meeting.” Beto’s tone was the one he used in negotiating with street vendors and shop owners. The one he deployed just before he turned to walk away.
Jones stared at Beto, the muscles in his jaw working, his eyes flat. “Thirty thousand, fifteen up front.” His tone was even, as though he had just raised the stakes in a game of seven-card stud.
For chrisssake, you shouldn’t be bargaining over the thing like you were buying a curio in the market. You took a second sip of the daiquiri and regretted it, because it was good and you wanted a third. It was time to step up, make the decision. They were arrogant, certain you’d sell out. You could use that…let them make a contribution to the cause.
You pushed the drink slowly away and heard yourself say, “Forty thousand, twenty in our account at the Chase Bank branch in San Jose by close of business Friday, the balance in the same account within twenty-four hours after the meeting. All we do is meet and present your position. No guarantees on what he’ll do.”
Jones’s jaw muscles clenched and unclenched again. He nodded. “Only guarantee we need is you meet by a week from Friday,” he said.
You looked at Beto and raised an eyebrow. You could see white around Beto's irises, but he shrugged and nodded at the same time. Which meant he would find a way. You said to Jones, “Thank you for your contribution to our campaign.”
“My pleasure,” Jones said, and you regretted that you had not stuck at fifty. You had to figure that Jones thought he was getting off cheap because he hadn’t countered.
Beto insisted, “And he will listen to us because…?”
Jones fished a card out of his shirt pocket and wrote something on it. “Day before the meeting, you call this number and identify yourself like it says here. We’ll give you two pieces of data, and some instructions we’d like you to pass along to Dubón and his buddy.” You took the card. “They’ll listen.”
Jones raised his Chivas. “To an arrangement among honorable men,” he said.
“Honor entre ladrones,” Beto raised his drink and translated—unnecessarily, you thought—“Honor among thieves.”
“Democracy for the common man,” you said. The IUD slogan. Let them think about that. You were pleased to see that your hand held the glass of mineral water.
“Aquí no mas.” Evidently a man unfamiliar with figurative speech, the driver reacted literally to Beto’s “right here” by slamming on the brakes. You braced yourself as the cab slewed to a stop in the middle of the street, a dozen meters from the front entrance of the Hotel Boston. Under the best of circumstances the hotel’s sign, illuminated by a single small fluorescent fixture, was difficult to spot after dark. On this night, the fixture was not lit. Perhaps, you thought, someone had neglected to flip the switch, or more likely the fluorescent tube had burnt out again. Of course, from the moment he picked you up in front of La Barbacoa, the driver had been going much too fast in a pointless attempt to look like he knew where he was going.
The meter read seventeen-fifty. Beto handed the man fifteen Lempiras and said it was all he had. Apparently delighted to have minimized his losses, the driver stuffed the bills in his shirt pocket and lurched away. The cab swerved onto the street fronting the river in a panic of brake lights and squealing rubber. You sought Beto’s eyes. Words, for several moments, were superfluous.
“Who in the hell…” Beto said, his open-handed shrug conveying the rest of the question—who would be stupid enough to spy on the campaign in such a clumsy fashion?
“And why?” The second question might yield the answer to the first, you thought. Beto had nothing but another eloquent shrug.
That the taxi had appeared within seconds after you stepped between the concrete tikis onto the sidewalk in front of La Barbacoa, by itself invited suspicion. Taxis were notoriously scarce in the late evening, except near the tourist hotels and the nightspots frequented by American troops on weekend leave from Palmerola Air Base. The driver looked familiar, but you couldn’t place him. You met so many people on the campaign trail, and Tegucigalpa was not a large city. Perhaps you had ridden in the man’s taxi on another occasion, or perhaps shaken his hand at the transportation union rally?
Beto had twice repeated the name of the hotel and then given the address—Avenida Lempira, two blocks from the river. You had driven no more than half a kilometer when you felt the point of Beto's elbow in your ribs. Beto yanked urgently on the lobe of his right ear, signaling an eavesdropper, una oreja. With his left index finger positioned between his thighs, Beto pointed at a small black disk duct taped to the back of the front passenger seat. A slender black cord looped from the microphone into the console between the seats.
Whether the cord was attached to a cassette recorder or a radio transmitter was impossible to say. If forced to bet, you would have put your money on the recorder purely on grounds that operating a transmitter was beyond the technical capability of the person who had taped the microphone in plain view.
You looked again at the driver’s profile and recognized the policeman who had given you the once-over from the patrol car in the Plaza Morazán just before Smith and Jones appeared. One of the natural marvels of Honduras, you thought, was the magnificent ineptitude of its officialdom. No doubt Jones and Smith et al. had already tapped the phones in the Boston, at the very least, and probably bugged the rooms, as well. Why bother, then, to bug the taxi? Why rely on the technological acumen of Honduran Military Intelligence, or whoever they were? The more you thought about it, the less likely it seemed that Jones and Smith would run the show quite so badly. From which you could conclude…what? That the Hondurans were acting on their own?
Rosario was at the reception desk when you entered the lobby.
“Buenas tardes, Señorita Tovar.” You said it in unison with Beto. She beamed. With most hotel guests, she was formal, even a little stiff. With Beto, on the other hand, she flirted openly, at least when Doña Luz was not around. And you couldn’t fault Rosario’s judgment on that score. Doña Luz might not concern herself with the quotidian details of her hotel’s operations, but she was nonetheless formidable.
You weren’t sure what to make of Rosario. She appeared to have no interest in politics, and you could understand that. Political success didn’t require everyone to care about politics. In fact, that was the great thing about the message—it wasn’t divisive. No need to alienate a part of the electorate to succeed. Leave that to the traditional parties.
“You have a fax, Señor Walker,” Rosario said. She handed you two sheets of curled thermofax paper and turned her smile again on Beto. Something was going on between them, that much was clear. You hoped she was discreet. Hoped they both were. Especially now that you had to assume the place was bugged.
At first, you didn’t recognize the logo of the business on the fax cover sheet, “Tabacalera Martí, S. de R. L.,” with a postal address in San José, Costa Rica. The message on the second page was three hand-lettered lines:
You were still preoccupied with the clumsy attempt at spying and its possible relation to conversation at La Barbacoa. Eyes and brain refused to focus on the letters. You handed the sheet to Beto. Such huevos, Smith and Jones. So matter of fact. No direct threats, simply the implication that things would not go well if you refused. Nothing specific—“we want him to get with the program.”
“Que carajo es esto?” Beto said, and excused himself to Rosario for using such a strong swear word. He flipped to the cover page. “Tobacco. Is somebody sending us cigars?”
A light went on in your brain. Of course. Rufo dabbled in tobacco growing. For a Cuban of his generation, the reference to Jose Martí would be emblematic, a clear reference to the true liberator of Cuba. As soon as you thought of Rufo, chess came to mind along with the meaning of the first line. Rufo would know you were familiar the algebraic chess notation system. O-O-O: castle queenside. What the hell did that mean? And what the hell was two dash three? Assuredly not chess. You put your finger below that line and looked at Beto.
Beto shrugged. “Two to three? Two minus three?”
Another bulb came on in your head, and you could not suppress a chuckle. “Equals minus one. Menos Uno.”
You waited while Beto processed.
“Rufo Dubón,” he said.
You could almost see Dubón’s mischievous grin coming through the curled thermofax paper, like the Cheshire Cat. You could imagine some spook scratching his head over Dubon’s punning nom de guerre, which played on Pastora’s code name in the revolution against Somoza in Nicaragua—Comandante Cero. Commander Zero. It sounded weird in English, you thought.
“It helps me to keep things in perspective,” Dubón had said one evening at the chessboard, after casually obliterating your Sicilian defense. “Pastora is Commander Zero. I command nothing, so I should be less than zero.” Rufo waved his omnipresent cigar. “Except the money, of course.” Another wave of the cigar and the trademark raffish grin.
So you knew who had sent it. What the hell did it mean? You said to Beto, “Dubón says castle. Castle queenside. It’s the old notation we used to play chess by mail.”
Beto's look was eloquently blank. “And…?”
You had to figure it was another pun, but it certainly wasn’t obvious. “It’s a defensive move. Only time you’re allowed to move more than one piece at a time. You do it early in the game. Sometimes, it’s used to disguise an attack.”
“And…?” Beto said again.
Was Dubón advising that the campaign’s next move should be to castle, to get into some sort of defensive posture? Or announcing his own move, as if playing by mail? A third bulb lit up in your brain. You remembered an evening with Rufo during the campaign’s most recent swing through Costa Rica. Cigar in hand, a glass of cognac at his elbow—Dubón had set up a pair of chessboards and, “to save a time,” played concurrent games against you and Pastora. To Dubón’s considerable amusement, both of his opponents had elected to castle at the outset of the game.
“Another chess pun. A double one.” Beto was not a chess player. You explained. “In Spanish, the chess move ‘castle’ is ‘enroque.’ ‘The castle’ is of course ‘la torre.’ Does anyone come to mind?”
“Roque de la Torre. Who never played chess in his life,” Beto said when the answer came to him. “Y qué?”
And so, indeed. You were only eighty percent sure. “I think he’s asking us to come to San José. Or the finca.” The timing could not possibly be coincidental. You had to conclude that Rufo knew about Jones and Smith.
You said to Beto, “Find Roque, get him dried out and have him get Rocinante ready to go. We roll for San Jose the day after tomorrow.”
5. The Bed of Rosario Tovar
This part of the job I hate. Breaking her heart is bad enough, but breaking her heart for a $1500 hotel bill—that is the worst. He says to Doña Luz “Beto will take care of it,” like we already have la CIA’s money in our hands. Like there is no doubt that the spooks will pay. And I know that I will be here in her bed because la CIA has bugged the rooms at the Hotel Boston and I refuse to do it in front of them. Thank you, God that I didn’t do her in my room the time before. Although in the linen closet she almost broke my back.
When she is awake, she seems prettier somehow. In her sleep she is so plain. Not ugly, exactly, but so plain I almost wonder how I could do her. She cried like I knew she would when I said we were leaving. She cried, I comforted her, things escalated, and just before I took off her bra she promised to hold our check for ten days. Probably in that moment she would have given me the combination to the hotel safe. Probably she would have given me her first child, or agreed to murder somebody. She is like so many plain women with big hearts, so desperate.
What would she say if she knew about all the men? Or even about the women? Probably she would deny it. If she asked me, I would tell her and it would break her heart. In some way I think she knows and so she does not ask. And I am such a bastard I take advantage of her. Like all the other plain ones. I know how they feel in their desperation, how they long for a touch, long to be held. The way they want to be held. Even where they want to be touched and how, each one of them specifically. And they are so grateful they will do whatever I ask. Probably this gratitude is why I love women but have I never been in love with one woman and maybe I cannot be.
But I am like them in a way, in love with my candidate, grateful for whatever attention he gives me, willing to do whatever he asks, even if it means being a whore with plain sweet Rosario. Even breaking her heart. Afterward I feel like he asks too much when he says. “Take care of it, Beto,” and the truth is I resent him for it. He does not take care of things. But it is also true that I resent him only afterward because I love the act of making love to these plain women, arousing them, making them come two times or three or even four like with Rosario. She would never have experienced that without me, and so she is better off even if I break her heart. Which is what I tell myself every time. If she is lucky she will find some plain guy or maybe she will end up with some ugly bastard who will love her, and she will put up with him in bed, even if he does not make her come even once. After he falls asleep she will think about this night and she will pleasure herself. So I have given her a gift. That is what I believe because it is true. And also convenient.
Convenient for me that I am here in her bed and not in the linen closet this time. Convenient for William Walker that she will bury the bill so he can keep living on his little cloud, doing his penny-ante fundraising in the plaza, making his speeches, doing his interviews. The same speeches, the same speeches, the same reactions. Even the same jokes in the crowd. It is like the jokes fly ahead of us to the next town and they turn up like old friends. “Are the loony bins all full?” “The gringos think we will buy anything, even a used politician.” “Vote for him because even a loco is better than the Partido Nacional.” “Vote for him because even a loco is better than the Partido Liberal.” “Vote for him because at least he came here to ask for our vote.”
That last one is the thing he hears. Even if they think he is crazy, they have worse things to say about their own politicians. And almost everywhere they give us money and someone signs our petition or signs up to the Alianza Democrática Internacional. And in a way this is not so different than what I do for Rosario and the others. Exploit them and give them hope at the same time. Even if it is a stupid hope because it is so desperate that it cannot possibly be true.
Forget it—these are the thoughts I have at two in the morning next to a woman. Not next to a man, but probably that is because with men it is hardly ever in a bed. Especially in these godforsaken countries where hardly anyone is out, where it is all sneaking around in the woods and alleys and restrooms. And churches of course. Even in the confessional that time in San Salvador with that fag Spaniard who was so cute and such a whore. And then he heard my confession and absolved our sin. Hail Mary twenty times and the Stations of the Cross. Another reason, as if I need one, to despise the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Not that the Protestants are better but at least they have some variety.
But if I stay here in her bed, I am just putting off what I have to do with Roque, that old loser. “Find Roque and get him dried out,” my candidate says, as though it is not at all complicated. In reality, it is not the finding that is difficult, it is the part that comes after. If I do not get to him soon, in the next hour, he will be passed out and I will have to pay some other drunks to carry him to Rocinante and maybe even pay off the whores. Which is not worth it, even at twenty Lempiras apiece. Each time it is more difficult with the old goat.