Arturo Perez-Reverte: Queen of the South

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Arturo Perez-Reverte Queen of the South
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    Queen of the South
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Arturo Perez-Reverte

Queen of the South

The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die. She knew such certainty that she froze, the razor motionless, her

hair stuck to her face by the steam from the hot water that condensed in big drops on the tile walls. R-r-rittg-r-r-ring. She stayed very still, holding her breath as though immobility or silence might change the course of what had already happened, R-r-ring-r-r-ring. She was in the tub, shaving her right leg, soapy water up to her waist, and goosebumps erupted on her naked skin as if the cold-water tap had just gushed. R-r-ring-r-r-ring. Los Tigres del Norte were on the stereo in the bedroom, singing about Camelia la Tejana. Smuggling and double-crossing they were singing, were in-se-par-able. She'd always feared that songs like that were omens, and then suddenly they turned out to be a dark and menacing reality. Guero had scoffed, but the ringing telephone showed how wrong a man could be. How wrong and how dead. R-r-ring-r-r- ring. She put down the razor, slowly climbed out of the bathtub, and made her wet way into the bedroom, leaving a trail of watery footprints. The telephone was on the bed-small, black, and sinister. She looked at it without touching it. R-r-ring-r-r-ring. Terrified. R-r-ring-r-r-ring. The words to the song and the buzzing ring of the telephone mixed together, the ringing becoming part of the song. Because smugglers, Los Tigres sang, are merciless men. Guero had used the same words, laughing as only he laughed, while he stroked the back of her neck and tossed the phone into her lap. If this thing ever rings, it's because I'm dead. So run. As far and as fast as you can, prietita-my little dark-skinned one. And don't stop, because I won't be there anymore to help you. And if you get to wherever you're going alive, have a tequila in memory of me. For the good times, mi chula. For the good times… That was how brave Guero Davila was, and how irresponsible. The virtuoso of the Cessna. The king of the short runway, his friends called him, as did don Epifanio Vargas, his employer-because he was a man able to get a small plane, with its bricks of cocaine and bales of marijuana, off the ground in three hundred yards, a man able to skim the water on black nights, up and down the border, eluding the radar of the Federales and those vultures from the DEA. A man able, too, to live on the knife-edge, doing runs of his own behind his bosses' backs. And a man able, in the end, to lose.

The water dripping off her body made a puddle around her feet. The telephone kept ringing, and she knew there was no need to answer-what for, to confirm that Guero's luck had run out? But it's not easy to accept the fact that a simple telephone ring can instantly change the course of a life, so she finally picked up the phone and put it to her ear.

"They wasted Guero, Teresa."

She didn't recognize the voice. Guero had friends, and some of them were loyal, bound by the code that used to apply back when they'd transport pot and bundles of cocaine inside the tires of cars they drove across the bridge in El Paso-the bridge that linked the Americas in more ways than one. It might be any one of them: maybe Neto Rosas, or Ramiro Vazquez. She didn't recognize the voice and didn't fucking need to; the message was clear. They wasted Guero, the voice repeated. They got him and his cousin both. Now it's his cousin's family's turn, and yours. So run. And don't stop running.

Then whoever it was hung up, and she looked down at her wet feet and realized that she was shivering from cold and fear, and she realized that whoever the caller was, he'd used the same words Guero had. She pictured the anonymous man sitting, nodding attentively, in a cloud of cigar smoke, amid the glasses of a cantina, Guero before him, smoking a joint, his legs crossed under the table the way he always sat, his pointed-toe snakeskin cowboy boots, his scarf around his neck under his shirt, the aviator jacket on the back of the chair, his blond hair cut short, his smile knife-sharp, self-assured. You'll do this for me, carnal, if they clean my clock. You'll call and tell her to run and not stop running, because they'll want to waste her, too.

The panic hit without warning, and it was very different from the cold terror she'd been feeling up to now. Now it was a blast of confusion and madness that made her give a quick, hard scream and put her hands to her head. Her legs couldn't hold her, and she crumpled onto the bed, where she sat stock-still. She looked around: the white-and-gold crown moldings; the garish landscapes on the walls, with couples strolling at sunset; the porcelain figurines she'd collected over the years to fill the shelves, make a pretty, comfortable home. She knew this was not her home anymore, and that in a few minutes it would be a trap. She looked at herself in the big mirror on the dresser-naked, wet, her dark hair sticking to her face, and between the strands of hair her black eyes open wide, bulging in horror. Run, and don't stop, Guero and the voice on the phone had told her. So she started running.


I fell Off the cloud I was riding

I always thought that those narcocorridos about Mexican drug runners were just songs, and that The Count of Monte Cristo was just a novel. I mentioned this to Teresa Mendoza that last day, when (surrounded by bodyguards and police) she agreed to meet me in the house she was staying in at the time, in Colonia Chapultepec, in the town of Culiacan, state of Sinaloa, Mexico. I mentioned Edmond Dantes, asking if she'd read the novel, and she gave me a look so long and so silent that I feared our conversation would end right there. Then she turned toward the rain that was pittering against the windows, and I don't know whether it was something in the gray light from outside or an absentminded smile, but whatever it was, it left a strange, cruel shadow on her lips. "I don't read books," she said.

I knew she was lying, as no doubt she'd lied countless times over the last twelve years. But I didn't want to insist, so I changed the subject. I'd tracked

her across three continents for the last eight months, and her long journey out and back again was much more interesting to me than the books she'd read.

To say I was disappointed would not be quite accurate-reality often pales in comparison with legends. So in my profession the word "disappointment" is always relative-reality and legend are just the raw materials of my work. The problem is that it's impossible to live for weeks and months obsessed with someone without creating for yourself a definite, and invariably inaccurate, idea of the subject in question-an idea that sets up housekeeping in your head with such strength and verisimilitude that after a while it's hard, maybe even unnecessary, to change its basic outline. We writers are privileged: readers take on our point of view with surprising ease. Which was why that rainy morning in Culiacan, I knew that the woman sitting before me would never be the real Teresa Mendoza, but another woman who was taking her place, and who was, at least in part, created by me. This was a woman whose history I had reconstructed piece by piece, incomplete and contradictory, from people who'd known her, hated her, and loved her.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

"I'm still lacking one episode of your life. The most important one."

"Hm. One 'episode.'"


She'd picked up a pack of Faros from the table and was holding a plastic lighter, a cheap one, to a cigarette, after first making a gesture to stop the man sitting at the other end of the room, who was lumbering to his feet solicitously, left hand in his jacket pocket. He was an older guy, stout-even fat-with very black hair and a bushy Mexican moustache.

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