(This short story first appeared in Lunate magazine)
A man squatting at the bottom of a set of stone steps with an M-14 rifle balanced on his knees is not the something that I expected to see on the path down to the beach, but there he was. The gun was complemented by a black beret, khakis, and high-leg tactical boots. We were in Zihuatanejo, not set aside in its own ‘beware’ box as a known war zone, in the Rough Guide to Mexico.
‘Did you see him?’ Bill said.
‘Rambo? Yeah. I saw him. He’s nicely accessorised, I’ll give him that.’
‘Odd place to see a soldier.’
‘He wasn’t a soldier, but that’s some fashion statement,’ I said.
‘Not a soldier? Really? You can always tell, you merchants of death, always spot one another ?’
‘You can tell. It’s like a brotherhood. You can tell. How’s your hand?’ I said to Bill to stop him talking about that stuff.
‘Fine. Looks like I’m accessorising. Bandages can be beachwear. It’s my hand. I’ll be fine. And dry.’
‘I didn’t see the other knife,’ I said. ‘Sorry about that.’
‘You said. Still bleeding. Still hurts.’
After spending that day at the beach we walked back up the path. Our skin was hot and sand, whipped up by a late afternoon light wind, stuck to the errant sun cream on our legs. We walked slowly and sometimes into each other because we’d been drinking five-dollar buckets of beer all day. A child had ferried the beer to our sun loungers as soon as we waved a hand and this we found amusing and it had opened up our wallets.
‘How much do you think that kid makes?’ Bill said.
‘The beer kid?’
‘The beer kid.’
‘How much did you give him?’
‘A dollar a bucket. On top of the five. We’re going to need to make some money quick if we carry on like this. I’m nearly out.’
‘A US dollar a bucket in a third-world country. There were what, ten or so others on the beach? So fifty bucks a day. Maybe we should work his job if we need cash. That’s good money.’
‘In a third-world country.’
‘In any country. He’s no more than ten years old.’
‘What do you think he does with the money?’
We reached the steps where earlier we had seen the man with the gun. There was a man with a gun there now, but not the same man.
‘Different guy, same gun.’
‘Third world country, probably have to share the death. What’s he guarding?’ Bill said. ‘Looks like a house.’
‘It’s a hotel,’ I said.
I walked up to the hotel door. The man with the gun didn’t stop me so I carried on through and Bill followed me. Inside the hotel it was cool and I stood in the cool air and looked around. To my right was a corridor where the white walls and evenly spaced heavy wooden doors. To my left, the room opened out onto a terrace with a view over the whole bay and on the terrace, there was a party going on. A group of men and women evenly numbered and dressed in that expensive evening cocktail party drinks way that the rich slip into comfortably, were holding up glasses and talking and taking canapés from a circling maid. In unison, their faces turned to us. Not one of those faces was under eighty and most of the men had hard, tanned, creased faces, most of the women didn’t.
‘Young people! Hello.’
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Sorry. We were passing and saw the man with the gun, actually, we saw him this morning and I’ve been curious all day, so I thought I’d see what was going on and then we saw it was a hotel so we came in.’
‘Of course. Of course. Come in. Nothing. Do. I’m Francis.’
He moved away from the group and stepped towards us. He was tall and thin and hard-bodied and he was dressed in a garish Versace shirt, his sleeves billowed with gold and red. His trousers were made of white linen and they flapped around his thin legs like sheets in the breeze whenever he moved.
‘Do have a drink,’ he said. ‘And you,’ he said to Bill.
‘That’s very kind. What’s going on?’ I said.
‘Not at all. It’s my birthday. We’re celebrating. What would you like?’
‘Beer,’ he said. Another maid, who I had not noticed before, came out from a room behind us, carrying two cold bottles of Modelo Especial.
‘Here,’ he said and he took the beers from the woman and gave them to us.
‘Join us,’ he said. ‘Come and look. It’s spectacular. You’ve only seen it from the beach, haven’t you? Have a look from up here, from where we are, from the Gods.’ I followed him over to the low wall of the terrace and looked out across the bay.
‘Magnificent,’ I said.
‘How do you know we were on the beach, Francis?’ Said Bill.
‘Oh. We were watching you. Your hand,’ he pointed at Bill’s hand. ‘It intrigued us. We played a guessing game. I guessed Puerto Vallarta!’
Francis smiled at Bill and then looked down over the wall.
‘Down there,’ he said. We moved towards the wall next to Francis and looked down at a stone house built into the rocks, jutting out from it, like a saucer of water, was a swimming pool.
‘I don’t know what holds it up,’ he said. ‘Something hidden, I expect.’
‘Is this your place?’ I said.
‘No. I’m no hotelier. Not mine. Ten rooms. But if you want to stay here you have to book them all. So I did. You should try it.’
‘Love to, but we’re off to Acapulco tomorrow before we run out of money.
‘And what are you doing there?’ Said Francis.
‘See the divers.’
‘Of course. Oh but there’s so much more to Acapulco than the La Quebrada cliff divers. Much more. But they are definitely spectacular, however, ultimately disappointing. You find them by walking up, at night is best, a street, a tight suburban street. I found it oppressive, cars, high buildings, and then, suddenly, there you are. Like a breath of air almost. You could stumble over the cliff. There is very little in the way of guard rails or fence for such a popular spectacle. But you move forward and peer over and down and it’s like a ‘v’ has been cut into the rock. The waves come in and you can see the divers queuing and counting the waves. Timing them, I suppose. Waiting for their chance and then, like a knife, in they plunge. And there you are, and there the divers are and off they hop. One after the other. I counted. I think I got up to three. Three seconds. It’s a long time to be plummeting toward the water. I wonder what they think? A peculiar way to make a living. Perhaps they think that. There are other things to see. Rather good brothels, if that’s your thing. I’ve spent a bit of time there. Before.’
‘Of a kind.’
‘Maybe you could give us some other tips. Bars. Restaurants.’
‘Tips? Tips. Mmh. Avoid it, there are better places in Mexico, and don’t go wading in the water.’
‘Floaters?’ Said Bill.
‘Well. Yes. I was up to my waist, with a drink of course, and doing that sort of hoppy walking thing that one does in waist-high tidal water, like an astronaut. And I felt something bump my hip. Shark! I thought. I don’t know why I thought shark, I’ve never so much as seen a shark down here, but that’s what I thought, but it wasn’t a shark. It was a body.’
‘Indeed. He was floating face up and despite the injuries and the bloating, I recognised him as someone I knew. I didn’t know him well mind you, I’d met him the night before, outside a bar. One of those ghastly American ones. Senior Frog, I think. Anyway, chap had hit a woman and I stepped in and we argued and, I’ve had a bit of training, I left him in a gutter in town, alive I might add, or so I thought. I’d made my point, so I went back to my hotel. Went to bed. Next day, ouch, there he was. Quite the coincidence. I’d seen a dead man before, of course, but this was odd. I saw it as a sign. It didn’t disturb me, not that, I took it as an omen.’
‘Could have been an accident? After you left him?’ Bill said.
‘Thank you. No. It wasn’t an accident. Another beer?’
‘Where else have you been in Mexico?’ Francis said.
‘Puerto Vallarta,’ Bill said. ‘But you knew that.’
‘We guessed. Something in the papers. Some rum business there a few
days ago. Some chap got his throat cut. By a gringo no less!’ Francis said. ‘They’re still looking. There are a lot of gringos up there.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was crazy, police everywhere, stopping everyone who wasn’t local. So we came down here. It’s on our way anyway.’
Francis looked at Bill and I looked at Bill.
‘How did your guy get in the water?’ Bill said.
‘My guy? Oh, I don’t know. I did wonder if perhaps I’d killed him and sort of forgotten about it.’
‘You’re joking,’ I said.
‘Did he drown?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. No.’ Said Francis. He ordered a frozen margarita from one of the maids and when it arrived he put the glass to his lips and pulled back his lips and hissed as the icy green sludge washed against his teeth.
‘Now I’m back. Twenty years later and I’m back. But I’m rich now.
I’ve been threatened recently, local thug types, quite serious and so I have to have the guards. But they’re patsies, stoned or drunk, like the one you saw. He was probably asleep when you walked in. I really need someone more lethal to send a message. What did you do to your hand?’
‘I cut it. An accident. On a coconut.’
‘A coconut, in Puerto Vallarta?’
‘In Puerto Vallarta. Yes. A coconut. Correct Francis.’
‘I thought so. I told Maggie I thought so too. You look like the type.’
Bill’s bandaged hand had begun to weep out through the gauze.
‘Let me see,’ said Francis. Francis moved fast and took Bill’s cut hand and squeezed it so hard that blood streamed onto the adobe tile floor.
‘I thought so,’ said Francis. ‘I know who you are. Now, before you go, I want you to do something for me. I can pay you, cash.’