The Almighty Gringo (fiction)

As a five-year-old, I watched a Mexican hand on my father’s spread kill a stricken steer. The animal was shot twice in the head and what stuck with me was the buckling of its legs. I don’t think I understood what death was, but I knew—after that grotesque fall—some essential part of it was gone. I felt the same sensation the first time I saw the black and white footage of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan putting a bullet through the head of a Vietcong operative.
I can’t remember the first time I saw that footage, or the grainy photograph that’s become indelibly linked with it, but I know it went into a deep psychic recess (not blocked so much as filed without a name). The immediate and nauseous presence of it came back to me, two decades later, when I watched a man die. In those final seconds of a life I knew nothing of, there were two men—Lázaro and Rush. One had a gun, one did not, and the congress between them was like synchronized chaos.
It was a different kind of chaos—more personal and specific—than the one facing the General. Loan performed that ad hoc execution minutes after losing 34 of his soldiers. He told reporters, these guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me. Buddha was to be the agent of his absolution, a notion that’s always bothered me for its uncanny relationship with Lazaro’s end. There was integrity in the Mexican Mafioso’s defiance, and it was attended by a bitter, unwavering stare. In his persecutor I saw a gesture I can’t explain, something I can only describe as the manifestation of grace—the free and unmerited favor of God.
In those final moments, Rush’s mortal soul was bestowed with a consecrated dispensation, as if he had a license to kill with empyreal watermark, a Holy get-out-of-jail-free card. I watched Lázaro watch him—Rush was bearing down with the business end of an angry piece of steel—and something flashed in the gangster’s eyes; something revelational. The hard hues melted from his face and were replaced by a strain of shock that, strange as it sounds, looked beatific. As if he were meeting his maker and not his executioner. And yet, Rush is the least Holy of any man I’ve ever met.
I grew up on a ranch Southeast of San Diego, not far from the border. Two of the men who worked that ranch were Mexican. Tijuana and Mexicali were simpler places then and those men kept their families on the other side of la línea. Two of their sons, Arturo and Nero, became my best friends. Arturo’s sister Gracia was the most beautiful girl any of us had seen—and the most obstinate. She started kindergarten three years behind me and we eventually became high school sweethearts; we had about as much fun as any two border-jumping kids ever have. The year I left for college Gracia found out she was pregnant and our worlds fell into a tailspin.
After a couple of harrowing months we decided she should have an abortion. I drove her to Los Angeles and the deed was done; our parents never found out. The trauma born of the endeavor drove an unspoken divide between us, though. Strangely, it also engendered a fervent lifelong connection. I was there when she married—I even helped throw her husband’s American bachelor party—and I was in the hospital for the birth of her first child.
Sebastian, her husband, became a good friend. Gracia had a greater will than the two of us put together, and I think she decided early on we would be close—whether we liked it or not. I watched my new friend from afar—the quiet and dutiful son of a Tijuana taxi driver—as he worked through a stint in the Mexican military, and then entered the law program at the University of Baja California. He eventually took an intelligence position with the Mexican Army and I saw less and less of him; he spent months at a time in Mexico City and at Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House.
When I returned from an eight-year stint in Michigan—and took over duties at my father’s manufacturing plant—I started driving to Tijuana on Mondays, for breakfast with my old friends. Both men operated successful ranches in Baja California by that time. We generally met at Bob’s Big Boy in the Zona Rio and laughed away a couple hours before launching into the workweek. Nero had met and married a girl, in the early ‘80s, from a branch of the sprawling family that eventually became the Tijuana Cartel. He disappeared two years after I returned home, a mystery his friend refused to talk about. Arturo only told me that Nero had married himself into a world with unimaginable potential and short life expectancies—before suggesting that the only way I might see the man again was with a desert vehicle and a shovel.
I was in Bob’s Big Boy alone one Monday morning—Arturo never showed—when a large, clean-shaven Mexican man with a cowboy hat and boots sat down next to me at the counter. He looked at me and smiled with a nod, working a toothpick with his lips.
“Hola gringo,” he said in a deep baritone.
“Buenos días, vaquero.”
“You’re a whole world away from San Diego,” he said in clear English.
“Not all gringos are from San Diego,” I said with a smile.
“No Señor,” he said. “Pero tú, sí.” His words caught me off guard. Behind a glowing smile and a strong Tijuana accent he ordered a coffee and with a slow, sweeping glance absorbed every curve pertaining to the waitress behind the counter.
“How do you know where I live?”
“We have friends in common, gringo,” he rejoined without making eye contact.
“Oh yeah?”
“How’s Andy doing?” he asked.
“Andy?” I said, stalling.
I shook my head slowly and picked up the cup in front of me. “Coffee’s good today,” I said evenly. “Some days it’s weak. The thing with Mexicans, they think because we use a lot of water in our coffee, we don’t like it strong.”
“Soy amigo de un amigo,” he said without breaking his grin. “And that amigo thought it’d be good to let you know your buddy’s involved with a strange crowd.”
“Un amigo, cabrón—nada mas.” He shook his head and moved the toothpick around the perimeter of his toothy smile
“Andy’s a grown man,” I said evenly. “Grown men pick their own friends.”
“Just lettin’ you know, gringo,” he said. He dropped a dollar bill and a twenty-peso note next to his nearly full coffee, pushed himself up from the counter and nodded at the waitress with a smile. Grabbing another toothpick, he turned to look at me and the smile disappeared, “Que te vayas bien, gringo—que te vayas con Dios.”
That was the first I heard of Andy’s purported involvement with a group of wild Mexican brothers who were making a name for themselves in Baja California—a family that lived on both sides of the border. I knew Andy had taken on a job flying wealthy businessmen out of a South County airfield. Beyond that he never told his friends too much about his work—other than the fact it was one of the most lucrative gigs a helicopter pilot could hope for. A man has his private side and we all respected that. Andy didn’t talk too much about his work and nobody asked.
During the throes of the snowy, Stygian winter of 1985, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan told me that the notion of objective truth is the greatest misconception of our time—followed closely by a skewed understanding of God. There’s my version and there’s your version, he said, and somewhere in between lies that perverted whore of a mutually accepted understanding we call truth. He accomplished the line quietly, without breaking eye contact, and simultaneously—I’ll never forget with what great precision—he laid a .38 revolver on the table between us. The truth is, I’d been sleeping with his wife.
A day later I was in a U-Haul, heading for home—forever to remain 12-months and a dissertation short of a PhD. I took over my father’s modest manufacturing business and settled back into the easy ways of Southern California. It didn’t take long to re-establish the rest of my life here—one irrevocably caught up with a small band of middle-income, middle-aged men who call themselves the Magnificent Seven.
As with most things in life, the Magnificent Seven is a lie. For starters there are only six of us. And apart from Rush, none of us is very magnificent. Three of us are divorced (two have surviving children), and all of us have battled with drug and alcohol problems. There are four bankruptcies between us and we all find ourselves alone and working too hard. I was pondering the support we took from our strange camaraderie when the crisp, mechanical sound of a clip sliding into a Sig Sauer semi-automatic broke my reverie.
In front of me, five men were meticulously cleaning and lubing a small arsenal of high-powered handguns. It had been a long day at the plant and I was tired. My attention had flagged and I somehow ended up on that philosophy professor and his God question. I was thinking that maybe all of us, six billion souls, comprise but a micro-existence—a sub-cosmos in a larger world. And what if that over-world then is but a pin prick in an even grander scheme? Maybe this existence we know, this collective hunch we call reality, is merely a dream—and maybe it’s someone else’s dream altogether. Or maybe our universe is but a cell floating in the viscous fluid of a great giant, a mere particle in the knee fluid of some much larger organism … and so on and so on, infinitely. If that’s the case, the end of the world as we know it could come at any time—the result of a titanic misstep on an icy sidewalk. And if we’re just a minute detail in the complex workings of a larger plan, how could we begin to understand something infinitely greater than the grasping potential of our own limited perspective? Does an ant understand the concept of man if it can’t visually comprehend more than a falling shoe?
That mechanical click broke the spell and I looked up to see Babs sitting across from me. He wore the same white button-down he always wore on Thursday nights, his going out shirt, and he sat on the other side of an enormous, pitifully ugly piece of furniture. He pulled on the loading mechanism of his Sig and a .45 caliber bullet slid into the chamber. Rock Stone sat to his right and next to him was Tilly.
Leonard Tillman was somewhere near 50 and the oldest member of the group. It was his ugly, food-stained couch we were sitting on. A career General Contractor, a self-proclaimed jack of all trades and master of none, Tilly had been a desultory bachelor for the better part of the past eight years; signs of it permeated the house. It was nine years since his 16-year-old son (and only child), Robbie, died in a motorcycle accident.
Behind the sound of Bab’s clip sliding into place, four other well-oiled snaps called out in succession. The men working those guns were military vets—Babs and I were the exceptions. Tilly was an ex-Marine and had seen action in Grenada. Andy worked a helicopter cyclic through two hitches in the Army and he and Rock Stone lost their combat virginity in Somalia. Rush—seated on the other side of Andy—was an Army sniper in Panama and the first Gulf War. He was highly intelligent, pathological, and a voracious user of amphetamines. Andy said he was intensely loyal. Whatever the case, he was responsible for that strange meeting.
Rush owed his inclusion in the group—and probably any social foothold he had in Southern California—to Angus (Andy’s nickname), who was the closest thing to a ladies man in our hard-living, hard-loving crew. Andy’s given name had been abandoned by most of his friends by the time his army hitch ended. When he was twelve he was sent to a boy’s school outside of Modesto, where he was forced to wear a uniform that included knickers—hence the allusion to the Australian rock ‘n roller. He picked up Rush years earlier on a hot summer afternoon somewhere close to Death Valley—near the last known whereabouts of the Manson Family, as he described it.
Rush was the refractory spawn of a couple of junkie hell raisers who’d burned out before he was done potty training. His mom actually gave a shit, he once told me, but she wasn’t strong enough to endure. His childhood saw him through enough detention facilities and foster housing scenarios that by the time he passed the G.E.D. he was fully institutionalized. His case manager said it was only jail or the military waiting for him and that either way he was sure to fuck it up. So it was a surprise (but not a great one) that he took to the Army like a hand to a glove.
He moved quickly into a little-known unit attached to the 82nd Airborne. I’ve been told that if he hadn’t received an honorable discharge with Kill Crazy stamped on the back, he’d probably still be there now. I’ve also heard whisper of a rape or a Court Martial and that Rush was lucky to leave the Army having never seen the brig. Whatever the case, Andy picked him up on a hot and dusty afternoon in the desert and they became quick friends.
Rush carried only a knapsack that day with a change of jeans, two bottles of water and an eight ball of cocaine; and in those years, Andy was no stranger to local anesthetics. He was also quiet and gentle, which played ballast to Rush’s headlong intensity. In the cab of that old pick up they came to three quick conclusions: they were both Gulf War vets, Rush had no destination, and Andy had a pullout sofa. Within months Rush’s face was a common sight among the five men I was watching on that stained couch—and to the staff at the San Diego County Jail.
On a hot fall day, with the Santa Anna winds kicking up dust and the fire risk at maximum in East County, I crossed the border into Mexico to visit Gracia. After her father died, she spent more and more time with her mother on a ranch outside Mexicali. A small pack of yapping dogs greeted my truck a quarter mile out, and I can still picture Gracia exiting the front door in a curious, reserved posture; she’d aged as elegantly as her name. There was something about the way the hair fell in her face that took me back 20 years and for an instant I felt a pleasantly painful tinge in my chest. But it was effaced with the strange smile that spread across her face when she realized who’d come to visit.
We went inside and I talked with her mother, Pilar. The woman had aged since losing her husband. Gracia made coffee and we chatted about nothing and everything for almost an hour before Pilar excused herself for siesta.
“You’re here about your friend,” Gracia said as soon as we were alone.
“That’s not why you’re here?” she asked.
“I just—”
“The people he’s working for—they’re dangerous,” she said.
“So you sent that big ole Mexican cowboy?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. Her body language told me she wasn’t lying. I sat for some moments watching her look through a bare east-facing window at a vast expanse of scraggly wasteland.
“How do you know all of this?” I asked.
“Everybody here knows these people,” she said. “Do you understand what they do to those who cross them?”
“How do you know who the hell he’s working for? I don’t even know that.”
“Life is an open book on this side of la línea,” she said before pausing. She took a long, deep breathe. “I worry about you.”
“The way things work in this world, mi’jo, everybody is vulnerable.”
“But I’m not—”
“Look,” she said abruptly. “There’s,” she began and then stopped. “There’s rumor … that high level government people are involved with this family,” she said.
“On which side?”
I looked at her searchingly for a few moments and then back to my empty cup. Without a word she rose from her seat, moved to the kitchen and returned with a coffee pot. Refreshing my drink, she rested her free hand on mine.
“These are serious people,” she said.
Talk of this family had been bubbling up for years and was finally penetrating the border and moving into the American consciousness. Cocaine had never been my thing, but it flowed freely among the professionals I knew. I can remember the abundance of the stuff at many of Tilly’s boat parties. Andy told me it was the drug of choice of pilots, and Rock Stone always said the U.S. business world would lose ten percent of its production capacity without it.
I knew from conversations with Nero that in the 1980s the DEA had been successful—too successful—in shutting down Caribbean drug lines. Colombian narcos, meanwhile, may have been ruthless but they weren’t stupid; they sought the path of least resistance. All those beleaguered Caribbean import channels shifted west and age-old U.S.-Mexican smuggling routes bloomed like the desert after a hard rain. Meanwhile, the name of that little-known, middle class family of seven brothers and five sisters—with loose connections to Mexican crime bosses—began popping up around large shipments of marijuana.
“How high?” I asked.
“The wife of the Governor has a brother who is married to the oldest sister in this family,” she said. “The Chief of police of Tijuana is a cousin—along with half of his force.”
“It sounds like you need a new Chief,” I said quietly. “And a new Governor.”
I didn’t have to look to feel her smile.
“You hear my words but you don’t listen,” she said.
“I’m listening.”
“This is one family, in one Baja town—and they are connected to businesses and the government and the military and the police. No son meramente de Tijuana,” she said. “They are Tijuana.”
Rush sat next to Andy on Tilly’s hapless couch that night, which gives me solace. The two took comfort in each other (though it’s difficult to say what Rush actually felt), and given the ugliness that was only hours away, Andy deserved all the serenity he could get. The U.S. Army had adopted both men, a decade before (each had been orphaned in his own way) and the experience molded them; it lent them a strange bearing I could never put my finger on. The military had also introduced Andy to Rock Stone.
A fellow chopper pilot, Rock was seated on the other side of Andy that night. He was a lean, strapping man, almost 6-foot-3, with hard, clean looks. After his Army enlistment, he took a job flying oil workers to rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and then moved into law enforcement for a spell before eventually getting into boat insurance. When he heard Andy was in Southern California he pulled up stakes and made the move to San Diego (where there’s no shortage of expensive water toys). He met Tilly through the old beater sailboat the contractor lived on, part time, in San Diego harbor.
Rock introduced Andy and Tilly and the trio quickly became the celebrated Booze Crew. Along with Tilly’s comically dilapidated sailboat, they were notorious in ports from Los Angeles to Ensenada. Sharing the boat—and in the mayhem—was Ralph Babbington, Babs, Tilly’s right hand and a part-time inhabitant of the leaky vessel. Babs was seated on the other side of Tilly that night, which felt appropriate, and he repeatedly racked the slide on his gun, chambering a single round.
Along with graying salt-and-pepper hair, Babs had a diminutive beer belly and a heavy North Carolina drawl. He owned a small septic cleaning company and was working on his second bankruptcy. He’d wandered west almost two decades before, mired in despondency, with little money and no idea where he was heading. His background was in automobiles but somehow he ended up on one of Tilly’s construction crews.
Tilly was a bear of a man and the son of salt-of-the-earth Arkansas farmers. Though he was adept at small business ownership and understood the tenets of tolerance and political correctness, his southern roots and cowboy sensibilities stayed with him. He took quickly to Bab’s southern understandings and enthusiasm for hard work. Within months the two were good-time buddies and part-time roommates on the boat.
As I was given to understand from a rambling, late-night, whiskey-fueled conversation with Tilly, Babs had been on a junior NASCAR circuit in a small town in North Carolina before falling into his wandering path. He was a spotter in those days, the man who watches the track from the grandstands and communicates with the driver by radio. He was spotting for a hotshot driver, a 22-year old kid named Scooter McGee, in what was shaping up to be a top-three finish, when the lead car lost its way and initiated a mangled pile-up. McGee saw only a wall of smoke.
Babs called for him to go high and hit the gas, and the kid hit that wall—and the driver’s side of the number Five car—at better than 120 miles per hour. He died instantly, in a pile-up that resulted in one of the deadliest racing days in North Carolina history. Babs quit the team shortly after the funeral and let go of everything he owned. Within a week he was irretrievably drunk and moving recklessly to stay ahead of the pain. Who knows where he’d have ended up if not for the grounding of Tilly’s presence—and hard-knock, no-nonsense understanding of life’s trials.
As I watched him, Babs turned the gun on himself and snuck a peek down the dark barrel, into oblivion. The piece rested in his hand and I could sense him appreciating its clean ergonomic balance. Turning it over, he pulled again on the loading mechanism, taking pleasure in the sure working of the piece. “So why you?” he said absently.
Andy was busy wiping down the black steel of his own 9 mm handgun. He stopped in thought, brushed back a lock of brown hair on his forehead and looked up. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Don’t matter,” Rush chimed in. “It don’t fucking matter.”
“Hell,” Tilly said, his Arkansas drawl spilling out. “We’re just gowin’ down there to talk with them boys.”
“Lotta godamned guns for a simple conversation,” Babs said, staring at his own and pulling again on the loading mechanism. “Somebody liable to get hurt real bad in a conversation like that.”
I eventually saw the police report detailing the strange incident that catalyzed that war party—and it didn’t jibe exactly with Andy’s story (the perverted whore got lost somewhere between his version and the law’s). Weeks earlier he’d gone into the scrubby desert wasteland of East County San Diego with three associates of his employers on a night that was, as Tilly explained, dark as six foot up a mule’s ass. The men were to do some kind of work, Andy insisted he didn’t know what it entailed—though he knew it didn’t have anything to do with the company chopper. The police report was more illuminating.
Andy’s group was to meet a San Diego businessman for a money transfer, but the only thing waiting for him was a freshly dug grave. He had on his side, though, the one factor that counts for anything: he was lucky. Months earlier, federal agents tapped the phones of a man called Chuey—an associate of Andy’s boss—for the purposes of an unrelated investigation. They followed the planning of the murder, and a dozen officers from a joint task force were poised in the dark to take down the whole operation.
A copy of the transcript from the police report in Andy’s case mysteriously ended up on my porch, and in it Andy heatedly denied any knowledge of the contracted murder. Notes from the agent in charge never said he thought Andy was lying, but they didn’t say he was innocent, either.
“You weren’t supposed to help carry out a murder?” the agent asked.
“No,” Andy responded.
“Why were you there?”
“To help Chavo and the two Chueys.”
“To do what?”
“I don’t know,” Andy responded. “I don’t get paid to ask questions.”
“What do you get paid for?
“To fly a helicopter.”
“So you drove out to the middle of the desert with these three guys you didn’t . . . did you know those three guys?” The agent asked.
“Not well.”
“So you drove out to the middle of nowhere with three guys you didn’t know on a dark night—to do God knows what—and you weren’t curious about what was going to happen?”
“Sure I was curious.”
“But you had no idea there was going to be a murder?”
“You understand how that would be hard to believe?”
“It’s the truth.”
“Do you know what that means?”
“Do you?” Andy responded.
There’s a pause in the transcript and I imagine the interrogator lighting a cigarette.
“Why were there two graves dug out there?” he asked.
Andy didn’t answer the question. I figure he was too shocked to come up with anything. Shocked because there were two externals he was certain of. One was that the businessman was to occupy the first hole. And the second was that neither Chavo nor either of the two Chueys was to occupy the second. As soon as he was released from custody, he went to see Tilly.
Tilly told Rush, and it was Rush who called the Magnificent Seven together that night. He said that if the people who sent Andy into the desert—that wild family of Mexican brothers—wanted him dead, it wouldn’t stop till the deed was done. For his part, Andy didn’t say anything about the reason for their hostility. I don’t know exactly what he was feeling at the time, but I think he was scared … scared and confused.
Gracia talked about Sebastian that fall afternoon and the long periods he spent in Mexico City. She talked about the pain and embarrassment all of federal law enforcement felt when Mexico’s drug czar—one of Sebastian’s mentors during his time in the military—was discovered to be on the payroll of a major cartel.
“It sounds like you need a new drug czar, too,” I said nonchalantly.
The statement caught Gracia the wrong way and I watched a conflagration race across her countenance; it was like an answer to the tinge I’d felt in my chest an hour earlier. In that moment I remembered why we didn’t take permanently as a couple. In a deep place, I feared her Latin temper—or the ramifications of it. Maybe it was plain laziness. I think even then I knew I didn’t have the patience—or the mettle—to weather a lifetime of those storms.
“Listen to me, mi’jo,” she said seriously enough that I sat up straight and looked her in the eye. “This is one family. Do you know how many families, how many big and powerful families are making money from this trade? Do you know—” she stopped, looking for the words in English. “Do you know what would happen to our economy if this trade stopped?”
“How high?” I asked.
“Los Pinos,” she said quietly.
“Que sí,” she whispered.
I paused then, taken aback and something came to my mind. “The DEA—
She guffawed with the frustrated but semi-delighted laugh of a parent facing a child refusing to take hold of a lesson.
“De quien es ésta problema?” She asked me. “De quien? Dímelo. Dímelo por favor. Quiero oirte. Porque éste … éste pinche guerra no es nuestro. Ésta droga no es para los Mexicanos. Es un lio puro gringo. Y son mi gente que seguirá muriendo por su recreación y sus viernes de noche. Chingada. ¿No te das cuenta, do you? You don’t even understand what’s going on.”
I sat in the uncomfortable silence of a disagreeable realization. Neither of us said a word for several minutes.
“And on the U.S. side?”
“They say…” she stopped herself but I could tell there was more.
She started and then stopped again and we sat in silence.
“I have talked with many smart people here, people who are bien enchufado,” she said. “And there are things we know that….”
I realized she was stalling. I’d never seen her hesitate and it was charming.
“What is it?” I pushed. She stopped, looked at the back of her hands and smiled.
“Everybody,” she said, leaning in and taking my hand. “Everybody is saying—
“Gracia,” I said forcefully.
She moved silently in the rocking chair. I looked past her, out the window, at a small eddy of dust kicked up by the Santa Annas. My thoughts hung on the tiny particles swirling around that column of air. How many eons had they been at it? For how many millennia had they been baked by the sun, kicked up at random intervals by unseen influences, and compelled to ride the desert winds.
“Rumor is they have someone on the inside of this family,” she said evenly.
It would be almost five years, after that hot and dusty afternoon, before a leaked U.S. intelligence report mysteriously found its way to my mailbox (in the same manner that the police report from Andy’s case had). The fact it was a leaked report and in my possession wasn’t so unsettling—it had been made public sometime before—but rather the fact that somebody knew how pertinent the information it contained would be to my own story.
That report was the culmination of years of investigation by a number of U.S. government security agencies. It talked about that family south of the border, Andy’s shadowy employer, and called it a ‘significant criminal threat to the security of the United States.’ And just as sure as the day is long, there in the middle of that report were a few paragraphs about a mysterious U.S. agent who had likely gained the confidence of that family. To the amazement of the author of the report, it appeared that for the first time a gringo had effectively infiltrated a first-tier Mexican drug cartel.
When I think of them, I see them in black and white, in a still photograph my mind must have snapped surreptitiously—one that looks a lot like the chiaroscuro General Loan, just before he squeezed the trigger of immortality. It was Rush and Andy, next to Rock, and then came Babs, if memory serves. Tilly sat to his left, and he was the closest to me, though we were separated by an expanse of soiled couch. Looking back, Babs was right—we were carrying a lot of godamned lead for a simple conversation.
The plan that Thursday night was to drive to Club Christie in Ensenada and talk with the brothers that had threatened Andy’s life—to figure out what the hell was going on. When negotiating with these types of people, as Tilly pointed out, one goes to the table with serious underwriting. With that line still ringing in our ears, we left in two vehicles just after sundown—on a trip that began much as countless others we’d taken down the Baja peninsula. We stopped in Rosarito to pick up a twelve pack of Pacifico beer and made the outskirts of Ensenda before ten o’clock.
Club Christie was housed in a former canning factory, and dug out of the side of a hill next to the ocean. From the front, there was only a single above ground level, but the rear, which let out onto the water, rose three stories above the Pacific. Inside, the front entrance sat twenty feet above the main level of the club. That sunken central story was ringed with bars and largely occupied by a voluminous dance floor.
That night, the colossal space was dark and shot through with strobe lights and random colored glitters. Norteño music blasted from huge speakers in all directions. Six of us piled through the front door and stopped on a steel landing. Leaning over handrails, we looked down on the dance floor. Consumed by the vast openness, the moderate crowd looked sparse, but two men stood out—Lázaro and Ismael.
They were near the bottom of the stairs and surrounded by an entourage. It was dark, but I made them out immediately. Lázaro was dressed in a black button-down shirt and leather shoes, and he wore the type of jeans that cost more than a fancy Vegas hotel room. His face—more white than brown—bore the broad European characteristics that came with his Mexican blood. His hair, short on the sides and long in the back, was manipulated into a fashionably spiky coiffure and the hint of a second chin drooped under his large jaw.
The man stood just over six feet—several inches taller than his brother—but his presence projected more than those few inches would indicate. Something in his character boldly announced him. It wasn’t flamboyance, it wasn’t even brash. It was the siren of power and it was incontrovertible. He was the group’s enforcer and he was universally feared.
But money is power and control belongs to those with the PIN numbers. No one questioned the fact that Ismael was the shot caller, the veridical power in the family. He was the senior of the brothers by five years and the empire’s book man. He was clean cut and business looking—innocuous in comparison with his brother—with a thinner face, darker features and a businessman’s suit.
Our entrance—Baja is lamentably Americanized, but a group of six gringos still draws attention in Ensenada—was recognized as immediately as I was drawn to Lázaro and Ismael. The men in their entourage ran the gamut; some were serious and alert, others socialized with pretty girls behind the bar. They were all decked out in fancy blazers with impeccable western hats and expensive leather boots. They were contemporary Baja cowboys, to the last man, and they hung in a loose pack around their bosses. The core players in that group watched our entrance and launched into intense conversation. Yelling to be heard over the music, their eyes divided time between each other and us.
The man at the center of that frenetic conversation was El CH, who had grown up on the mean streets of America, but who looked more Mexican than either Lázaro or Ismael. He wore a mustache and had curly, black hair; his brown eyes looked darker for the contrast with his tawny skin. He was the right hand man of Lázaro and according to a DEA docket he’d grown up in the blighted Barrio Logan neighborhood of Southeast San Diego.
He’d been jumped into a gang, the 28th Street Rollers, at age 14 and by the time he was 25 had done a stretch for manslaughter in California’s penal system. He had a predilection for violence, a keen intuition, and was widely regarded as the only personality in the Mexican cartel world less stable than his boss. He’s been called both a cold-blooded killer and a highly trained, finely tuned mercenary (the perverted whore, I suppose, danced somewhere in between).
To believe either of the extremes, one need believe in absolutes and absolutes let directly onto that slippery metaphysical slope leading to God. I don’t believe in God—or at least I didn’t, before that night. There was something about the way El CH looked at us, and made us immediately for a threat, that tells me he knew as absolutely as the Crucifix hanging from his neck, and the two-foot cross tattooed on his back, that we weren’t normal gringos. Some part of his infallible intuition, a street-born sixth sense, called out to him when we came through the door.
He leaned to shout into Lázaro’s ear and Lázaro turned to his brother. Ismael left immediately, flanked by two bodyguards. That left six men, El CH and Lázaro. What we didn’t know at the time was that four of those six men were off-duty Baja cops.
Ismael’s departure grabbed Tilly’s attention and the big man began down the steps. “Come on, Robert,” he called over his shoulder, mistaking Rush’s name for the second time that evening. Things happened fast and before I could make sense of the situation we were all piling down those two flights of steep stairs. By the time I hit the first landing, Tilly was almost at ground level and he approached Lázaro’s entourage with the determination of his Arkansas cowboy roots.
At that point, I watched a string of absurdities unfold as crisply as clean linen. I couldn’t hear a thing above the blasting Mexican music and the flashing lights lent an air of surreality, but I clearly saw Tilly approach the Mexicans. He moved with resolution—a tenacity born of the attempt on his friend’s life and tempered with his no-nonsense work ethic. Rush was two paces behind him.
Babs and Angus were another couple of steps behind Rush; Rock Stone brought up the rear. El CH stepped in front of Lázaro, putting himself between the approaching gringos and the rest of his crew. It was then that Rock pulled a nine-millimeter from beneath his jacket. Strobe lights threw a million reflected darts off the cold steel surface of the instrument and my stomach dropped.
It was a mistake to pull the weapon and Rock likely did it out of nervousness. El CH saw it and threw back his long coat. A shotgun swung up, into position, in one short, graceful movement. I can still see the expression on every man’s face—every twitching of a cheek, every look of panic and shock . . . and in the case of CH, nothingness.
Tilly saw the jacket go back and his left hand went up in a defensive gesture, as if to block a stream of water from a squirt gun—or to say, no, that’s not what we meant … not what we meant at all—as his right hand went for the Sig Saur tucked into his waistband. The gun wasn’t even out of his belt when the shotgun discharged. His hand disintegrated to the wrist.
Simultaneously, Bab’s head jerked hard to the right. He was blinded in the left eye with blood and bone fragments from Tilly’s hand and he caught a load of grapeshot in the cheek. Tilly screamed, I can see it in slow motion, and his arm fell to his side. Before his shooting hand was leveled one of those off duty Baja cops put two nine-millimeter shots into his neck. Blood spat for yards in two directions. I’ll never forget seeing one of those Baja cops, decked out to beat the band and caught in the middle of a hail of bullets, trying awkwardly to wipe Tilly’s blood out of his eyes.
Tilly’s body fell straight to the floor. Panic broke out and patrons scattered. Several of those Baja cops squatted in defensive postures while going for guns under their blazers. Rush swung on them before they could find their weapons, and he put a .45 caliber fuck-you into the face of the man who shot Tilly. The man’s head buffeted violently back and his body fell like the stricken steer on my father’s spread. Rush took a bead on the man next to the slain cop and double-tapped into his heart. Before he moved his aim for the headshot, the man was on his way to the floor.
El CH unloaded the shotgun’s second chamber in Andy’s direction. The blast took off the better part of the lower jowl and peppered the pilot’s body with grapeshot. He fell to a fetal position and began wriggling, with his head in his hands. El CH grabbed Lázaro and pulled him in the direction of a hallway at the back of the club.
As chaos took over, two of the Baja cops posted up behind a wide pillar next to the bar and began shooting at Rush. Rock Stone shuffled to the left, in a flanking maneuver, and returned fire. Babs was on his knees next to Tilly, cradling the man’s head in his bloody arm; he looked old. I knew by the way he was rocking Tilly was already dead.
Suddenly the club seemed empty, except for the shootout between Rock Stone and those two Baja cops. I realized that part of Lázaro’s entourage had disappeared with the crowd and I bounded down the last flight of steel stairs in time to see Rush—in a no-shit Jesus Christ pose—walk obliviously through the middle of that gun battle. He moved magnetically in the direction of Lázaro.
The music died and I heard Angus gurgling through what was left of his mouth, forcing air through his mangled lips and shattered teeth, struggling not to drown on his own blood. One of the Baja cops took a bullet and began screeching. I worked my way behind Rock Stone and saw a growing blood stain on the back of his shirt. He was too amped on adrenaline to know he’d been shot clean through.
Rush turned a corner into a hallway at the back of the club and I knew I was going after him. On the trip down, as others chain smoked and nervously ran their hands through their hair, I thought about the possibility things might turn ugly and I made a decision: I was done running away from things in my life. I sprinted after Rush, waiting for a shot I was sure was going to rip into me, and made it to the hallway. I whipped around the corner in time to see Rush with his gun raised, looking through another doorway. He turned to me and smiled.
On the other side of that threshold Lázaro and El CH were jerking on the steel grating covering the room’s lone window. El CH turned before I arrived at Rush’s side and took two bullets to the chest. Lázaro, the feared enforcer, turned with a face full of disgust—with a look of defiance and revulsion that turned slowly into something I’ve never understood, something I originally took for astonishment.
“Hijo de la Chingada,” he uttered in a voice that was barely audible—it was shock imbued with reverence.
And then the deed was done. It was clean and irremediable and, as happened when I was five years old, I vomited. Seconds later, I squeezed my midriff—about three sizes too big—through a small window in that room and stole my way back to the SUV we’d arrived in. Three of the Magnificent Seven died that night and Rush disappeared, not to be seen again.
The event at Club Christie was described in Mexican newspapers as a shoot-out between the Tijuana Cartel and an American crime syndicate vying for power on both sides of the border. I was never mentioned, contacted or questioned. I’ve put it out of my mind, for the most part, save for occasional sleepless nights and the random documents that periodically turn up in my mailbox.
The last one was a recently de-classified report from the National Drug Intelligence Center in El Paso. The author of the report talked about Lázaro and the demise of the Cartel—a month after Lázaro’s death, Ismael was arrested by the Army in Mexico City. His three remaining brothers fell to Baja California authorities over the next two years. The author of the NDIC-El Paso report theorized it was the death of Lázaro that made it all possible—that authorities were so intimidated by his violent, pathological behavior, the family was considered off limits by all of Mexican law enforcement. His death, the report theorized, initiated the domino effect of arrests that brought the syndicate to its knees.
And now I think back to that leaked intelligence report claiming a top-tier U.S. security agency had done the unheard of—infiltrated an authentic Mexican cartel network with a gringo agent. I think of accidental Andy and shake my head; it doesn’t add up. Rush, meanwhile . . . how does one describe a man without a conscience? I also think back to Gracia and that late afternoon conversation.
“Rumor is, they have someone on the inside of this family,” she said.
“Who’s they?”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
“Well then it’s only a matter of time till the Cartel falls.”
“Aaayyy, mi’jo, you’ve always been a dreamer. You even thought we could remain lovers.”
“Sí,” she said, cutting me off.
“And why couldn’t we?”
“This is what we love about you.”
The dogs began yapping as a cloudburst dimmed the sun. Gracia was lost to the deep shadows of the old room and reduced to a voice in the darkness.
“There is so much to despise in the gringo psyche,” she continued absently, “but there are some things we love, and this is one of them. Your refusal to believe in the fundamentality of . . . how can I say?” She stopped, looking for the right words, and smiled. “It is this magical ability to deny reality and make your own rules. The rest of the world loves and hates you for it.”
I uncrossed my legs, crossed them in the other direction, and looked out the window as the sun came blazing back.
“You think I made you get an abortion.”
“You didn’t?”
“I told you I’d support whatever you did.”
“You told me you were going away—to study philosophy and conquer the world—and I might never see you again.”
“This is pointless.”
“This is reality.”
“It’s history,” I said.
“It’s forever,” she countered. “How can you not realize that?”
“What does it have to do with my friend and this agency you won’t even put a name on?”
“Nothing,” she said determinately. “And everything.”
“Having someone on the inside is a good first step.”
“Mi’jo … you can’t even see through your American arrogance, can you?”
“Enlighten me.”
“You really think your morals and ethics are superior, don’t you? That they’re above the rest of the planet. Didn’t they teach you in your fancy Michigan classrooms that money makes the world go round?”
“So, you’re—”
“You think they’re working against this family, don’t you? And you think because they’re American … just like you think you can force a girl of faith into an abortion and that you will come home on vacations and continue to be her lover … that they’re good and the rest of the people working with them are bad. This family is part of the power structure in my country and those people are part of the power in yours, and they will work together until this family gets too big and then it will be dismantled, piece by piece, until it has returned to where it came from—to that dust blowing in the wind. And you gringos will continue to buy your drugs without end, with the peace of mind that good Americans are at war with bad men in the south.
“What do you want from me? From us?”
“To wake up,” she said with a relieved smile, as if she’d been waiting a thousand years to say it. “To recognize reality. To admit that maybe there is a force in the universe holier than the almighty gringo.”


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