The man we had been hired to protect that night, the official spokesman for the AZTECHS Corporation, billed himself as Z-2 (as in Montezuma-2). His face was identical to that of the stone head, and speculation held that he'd had some work done, that the AI had gotten hold of some poor bastard lost in the desert and given him a new face, new everything. Whoever he had been, he was a superstar now, and I broke out the limo for him, an old refurbished black Rolls with so much armor, Godzilla couldn't have dented it with a hammer.
We drove south into the desert and after slightly more than an hour came in sight of the head. With its glowing eyes and partially eroded features and massive stoic gloom, it had a bewitched air, as if it were in some terrible way alive, condemned to inhabit this wasteland of sage and scorpions and organ-pipe cactus, to stare blindly into forever, displaying but not seeing the images of the things it once had loved. Lupe went off to pose beside the head, and I dialed back the roof of the limo and sat gazing at the stars. They were so bright, the desert sand looked blue in their light, and the low sage-covered hills stood out in sharp relief against the sky. I wasn't nervous, but I was working on nervous, imagining everything that could go wrong when you were dealing with vicious bastards like the Carbonells. The old cartels had been seriously violent, but the Carbonells, along with the Guzman family, and the recently united youth gangs, who went by the name Los de Abajo
they had taken viciousness to a new level. Mass murder, in their view, should be certified as an Olympic sport. I'd been surprised when the Carbonells had agreed to let Lupe shoot the negotiation, but now I recognized that exposing their criminal activities on a show with an international viewing audience was a validation of their power. They didn't care who knew what they were doing. Try and stop us was their attitude. We're a law unto ourselves.
Sammy, who had followed the Rolls in an armored personnel carrier, established a perimeter and stood watch, stubby AR-20s at the ready, all four men wearing desert camo and plastic armor, carrying light packs. I'd worked with Crespo's team before. Fetisov had pale blond hair, a Russian icon tattooed on his back. Dennard, like Crespo, was a big time pitfighter, an Afro-American with Egyptian hieroglyphs tattooed on his lips and eyelids. Morely had been a sniper and there were dozens of tiny blue humanoid shapes tattooed on his chest, the record of his kills in Honduras and Guatemala. I hadn't yet seen Childers' body art, but I supposed it would be a self-advertisement similar to Moreley's, a few dozen souls rendered into exclamation points or black roses. But they all sported the basic Sammy lookbuzzcut, staring, heavily muscled, grim. Months before, I'd visited Crespo at his home, the Green Rat Compound. High stone walls topped with all manner of security devices, enclosing an old hotel, three stories of green stucco and a dusty courtyard where fighters trained day and night. It was a weird combination of prison, barracks, dojo, and monastery. Sammy hated musicany kind of music drove him up the wallsand so the only thing you heard were enraged shouts from the courtyard and chanted strength mantras. Bulked-up men of every description sat in solitary cells and refined their drugged focus; others lifted weights and toughened their limbs by striking a variety of rigid objects. Walking through the place, I felt like a baby deer in a lion cage. I guess it would be accurate to say that Sammy addicts were the rodeo clowns of the junkie universe, the baddest, most functional and most trustworthy of their kind.
At twenty to one, Dennard gave the alert. I climbed out of the limo and looked to where he was pointing. Off to the left of the head, some forty yards away, was a rise sentried by organ-pipe cactus. A rider on horseback appeared to be watching us from atop it, and soon he was joined by two more riders. Their silhouettes black as absences against the stars. Something about the way they moved astride their mounts tweaked my neck hairs. They remained on the crest for a minute or so, then wheeled their horses and rode out of sight. Shortly thereafter, Z-2, wearing a pale gray suit and matching shirt, came walking toward us from behind the rise, walking with a confident step. He passed Sammy by without acknowledgment and addressed himself to Lupe, whoflushed and excitedhad run over to stand beside me. "Señorita Bernal," he said. "Encantada." He turned to me and said, "I trust there have been no changes, Señor Poe."
"None," I told him. "We'll have you at Ramiro's house by three, After that
" I shrugged. "Who can say?"
"No one but God," he said, and smiled. "But God is watching us tonight. You can be sure of that."
As we drove toward El Rayo, Z-2 sat in a backwards-facing seat, Lupe beside him, with Frankie clinging upside-down to the roof, shooting the interview, such as it was. The spokesman answered every question with polite demurrals and a Jesus-loves-you smile. Whereas the stone head projected a feeling of gloom, its human twin had about him an aura of unflappable serenity. It was a nice way to befor him, anywaybut I doubted that Ramiro Carbonell would be impressed. Z-2's answers grew increasingly nonresponsive. My anxieties had kicked in, and his beatific evasion was beginning to piss me off.
"Hey," I said, interrupting Lupe mid-question and addressing the spokesman. "What do people call you, man? Like when you're havin' a drink with friends, they go, 'Pass the beer nuts, Zee Two?' Or you gotta nickname?"
Frankie whirred, likely adjusting his lens to include me in the shot.
"Zee," the spokesman said, unperturbed. "You may call me Zee."
"Zee. Okay. So what's your story, Zee? Who were you 'fore you landed this gig?"
"I am who I am," he said.
sure. That clears things up. 'Cause, see, I was thinkin' you were not who you were."
Zee's smile was an emblem of infinite patience. "Would you ask a gourd filled with new wine how it was to be filled with dirty water?"
"I wouldn't ask a gourd shit," I said. "That'd be stupid."
Zee spread his hands as if to say I had made his point.
"But you ain't no fuckin' gourd," I said.
"Let me ask you this, Señor Poe
since you resist my analogy. How did you feel when you were an infant and soiled your diaper?"
"I don't remember. But I imagine it felt like shit."
Zee crossed his legs, smoothed the crease of his trousers. "I might be able to remember who I was, to work it out logically, but that would have little meaning. Will it satisfy you if I say I was no one?"
"Might if you tell me who you are now."
"Language has its limits," he said. "When it comes to expressing the inexpressiblethe idea of God, the concept of infinitymathematics is more useful."
"You tellin' me you think you're God?"
Zee's smile widened. "Are you always so literal-minded, Señor Poe?"
"Only when he's bein' a dick!" Lupe tucked her legs up beneath her butt and frowned at me. "You gonna keep bein' a dick, Eddie? Or you gon' let me do my interview?"
I didn't know if she was performing or not. Her fans loved our little spatsthey fleshed out our relationship for the simple-minded. But I wasn't in the mood to play.
"Y'know," I said to Zee, "Ramiro's gonna love your ass. Say what you want about him, say he's insane, ruthless, a fuckin' sadist
the man's a sucker for that sound-of-one-hand-clappin' bullshit you been spreadin'. Two of you gon' get along fine."
"I have put substantial proposals before Señor Carbonell," Zee said. "We have a great many topics of mutual interest to discuss. If this were not the case, we wouldn't be meeting."
"Let's hope so," I said. "Otherwise it's gon' be a short night."
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