Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so I will endure, with a heart within me patient of affliction.
—The Odyssey, Chapter V
“I must find a fifty-year-old man,” Flores said in English to the slender, red-haired tourist. “He’s six feet tall, with brown eyes and straight black hair. He was probably with two or three port workers. Have you seen him?”
“I’ve been in the water all morning,” said the tourist, standing barefoot on wet sand beside his yellow kayak, his eyes fixed on his double-bladed paddle. “Maybe someone in the lodge can help you.”
The lodge employees had not seen the fifty-year-old man either. Nor had the village fishermen, the Russians smoking cigars on the golf course, the taxi drivers back at the airport, the churchgoers in Sonsonate, nor any of the others Flores had quizzed in his quest to find Gilberto Calderon, the union leader. Still, Flores persisted. At the equipment rental shop on the main street, he asked to see the owner: a Floridian named Francisco Nevaras, who’d run the place as far back as Flores could remember.
“He’s busy,” yawned the teenaged clerk. The frayed sleeves of his wetsuit dripped a small puddle on the wooden counter by the register.
Flores grinned. “I only need him for one minute,” he said, loud enough so anyone in the shop could hear. Nevaras emerged from a back room, wearing shorts and sandals. Flores posed his question. “Do you have a photo of this man?” replied Nevaras. Flores shook his head. Nevaras walked away.
The port of Acajutla had seemed like the likeliest place to find Calderon; it was, after all, where the Praest longshoremen worked all day—and it was the longshoremen Calderon hoped to unionize. But it wasn’t just a worker’s wharf: There was a strip of high-end restaurants nearby, where the Texaco executives and Praest magnates and wealthy Russians lunched. Perhaps Calderon feted the port workers with appetizers of lemony ceviche and creamy-broth mariscada.
Yet there’d been no trace of Calderon at the restaurant strip or anywhere else. And now it seemed as if Calderon had avoided the coast altogether—that Acajutla was hardly the hotbed of his labor-relations efforts. It was just a port, as it had always been.
Returning to the highway, Flores sped northeast toward San Salvador. Vetiver hedges lined the road on both sides. Soon the hedges gave way to midsized cypress trees with densely clustered leaves of dark green.
“I will find Calderon and kill him,” Flores had promised Oscar Cardoza, a government employee in the Ministry of Public Security & Justice. The clean-shaven Cardoza wore silk ties and bragged about buying $200 shoes for his wife at the new Nine West on Boulevard del Hipodromo. Flores chuckled. He was amused that Cardoza was accepted as a legitimate white-collar professional. They had fled to Los Angeles together in their teens, escaping the civil war. They had survived their gang initiation beatings on the same night in MacArthur Park, each losing multiple teeth. The next day, both got their official chest tattoos, the calligraphic MS and the stenciled 13.
“Kill Calderon,” Cardoza said, “and we will get you an easy job in the U.S. In Boston. In a restaurant owned by a friend of ARENA. Nichols is his name. His family has millions in Praest stock. We’ll get you a passport. A visa. A Massachusetts driver license. Everything, Lázaro. We’ll move your family to a big house in Escalon, and pay for them to visit you in Boston twice a year. We won’t tax your remittances either.” Cardoza’s shiny shoes were up on his desk, next to his rotary phone.
“Sounds like a job for Fonsito,” said Flores. Alfonso had been their MS-13 clique leader.
“I’ve seen you kill, Lazito. I know you can do this.”
“I don’t want to leave my family.”
“Believe me, Lázaro, I asked about that. But my bosses are scared to leave a trail. The Teamsters know we want Calderon dead. Everyone knows how much money we’d lose if Praest has to deal with a union. When Calderon dies, people are going to notice. If your whole family vanishes, people will ask questions. If it’s just you—no one will suspect. And that’s because you haven’t held a gun since our Los Angeles days.”
Flores rose. “No, thank you,” he said.
“Sit down, Laz,” said Cardoza.
Flores sat. “I have no choice in this?”
“You could agree now, and we’ll have Idalia and Hector and your parents in Escalon next week,” said Cardoza. “Or you could agree after a few nights behind bars in La Esperanza. I’m sorry it has to be this way. But my career is on the line here.”
Cardoza showed him—but did not let him keep—a few photographs of Calderon. “A limo outside will take you to the airport Alamo rental,” said Cardoza. “There’s a Sentra—red, I think—waiting for you. There’s a Glock in the glove compartment too, just like old times. After you kill Calderon, put the gun in the trunk and return the car to the airport. Nichols has people at the airport, and they’ll alert him when the Sentra rolls in. Then you and Nichols will fly to Boston in his private jet.” Cardoza pushed his phone toward Flores and handed him the receiver. “Call Idalia and explain,” he said. “If she protests, I’m happy to speak to her.”
Flores approached the Metropolitan Cathedral. The hand-painted tiles of its façade were the work of Fernando Llort, a favorite of Idalia’s. Of course, Llort had not literally painted the façade; he’d designed it, and over the course of one year a group of hired hands had executed the mural according to his schemes. At the time of the painting, Flores was working one block away in Plaza Barrios, building the city’s first art museum.
Two young men stood near him. Both wore jeans and tucked-in white t-shirts. One was slender with a wispy mustache. He looked about eighteen. The other looked a few years older. He had a full mustache of dark brown. A small belly sagged over his belt buckle, threatening to untuck the t-shirt. It was as if behind the shirt there was not an actual stomach but a sack of beads.
“Gentlemen,” said Flores, “have you seen a fifty-year-old man, with brown eyes and black hair? He’s six feet tall. He might have been with a few port workers.”
The one with the belly laughed. “It may be that we share a quest,” he said. “A missing union leader, is it? And he has dark features?” He laughed again. “You’re not the only explorer in the sea, my friend. We seek Calderon too.”
“Why do you seek him?” Flores asked.
“For money. Why else?” said the belly.
“I wish you luck in your quest,” said Flores. He walked away from the cathedral.
“Hey, Flores—have you heard of Francisco Nevaras?” shouted the skinny one.
Flores stopped and turned around. “No,” he said.
“He owns the equipment rental shop in Acajutla,” said the belly. “He also owns the golf course—that’s where both of us work. And he’s offered $250,000 for Calderon’s head. He has ARENA connections too—how else do you think he’s run that shop for so long? Flores, we are not greedy men. If an accomplished gunman could help us, we would split Francisco’s generous bounty with him.”
“I can help you, but how can you help me?” asked Flores.
“We know where he is,” said the skinny one.
According to the belly, Calderon had spent the last three nights in the southeast part of El Salvador, at his mother’s house in Usulután. “Ernesto grew up near there,” added the belly, referring to his younger partner.
“Ah, Ernesto,” said Flores, extending his hand. “I’m old enough to be your father. Did your father fight?”
“He died with the guerillas in Las Lajas,” said Ernesto. “He helped blow up the Cuscatlán. You were in Los Angeles, yes?”
“Yes. That’s how I know Cardoza. I was only 13. And what about you?” asked Flores, turning to the belly.
“Call me Toño,” said the belly. “But with respect, Flores, we should tell these stories another time. The longer we delay, the greater the chances Calderon will leave Usulután for another location.”
Flores nodded. He offered his car keys to Ernesto. “You know the way better than I do,” he said.
“We’ll take our own car,” said Toño. “You can follow.”
“Gentlemen, we’re taking my car, and Ernesto is driving,” said Flores. “Otherwise, you’ll have to find another assassin. That shouldn’t be a problem, if there are many explorers in the sea.”
Daylight was fading by the time they approached the bridge. Ernesto tried clicking on the headlights but he started the windshield wipers instead. Toño laughed. “Now you see, Flores, why neither of us trusts ourselves with a gun.”
From the backseat Flores saw a sign for an inn, the Hospedaje Modelo. “How is the food there?” he asked.
“So-so,” said Ernesto. “Do we have time to stop? We still have sixty kilometers to go.”
“I have to piss,” said Flores. “And some coffee would be nice.”
“We should keep driving,” said Toño. “Even a ten-minute delay could be costly.”
“This won’t take long,” said Flores. “It’s better to stop now. When we reach Usulután, we won’t have the chance.”
There were long rectangular windows at the rear of the empty inn lobby. To the left, the lobby opened to a restaurant with a bar counter. Flores ordered coffee and slid his menu over to Toño, who ordered plantains. The mustachioed bartender, dressed in a plain white t-shirt tucked into black jeans, nodded and walked toward the kitchen.
“How did you find me in San Salvador?” asked Flores, after returning from the bathroom.
“There’s a tracking device under your car,” said Toño. “I installed it while you were at the golf course.”
“Well, my friends, we must remove it,” said Flores.
In the gravel parking lot, they were the only three people. Ernesto kept his hands in his empty pockets. Toño lay on his back beneath the Sentra, probing the underside for the tracking device. “Got it,” he said. He slid out slowly, his backside rasping the ground. He dusted himself with his left hand—his right hand engulfed the small black device. “Give it to me,” said Flores.
“First we need to call Nevaras,” said Toño.
“Sure,” sighed Flores.
Toño spoke loudly into his phone: “Yes, we’re with Flores. We’re halfway there, at the river. Our car? It’s still in the city.”
As they drove over the bridge, Flores tossed the black tracking device out the window of the backseat and into the Lempa River. He was wide awake from the coffee, but he wondered if stopping at the inn had been a mistake. The bartender could describe their faces, as could a few patrons.
The bridge was bright, with arcing lampposts on both sides. At nightfall, the markets would be closed. Families would be dining at home. Idalia. Little Hector. His parents. All four under the impression that he, Lázaro, had to move to Boston for business purposes. Only little Hector unaware that the business was killing a good man who’d crossed an evil government. They would want to know about his new deal with Nevaras. But whether he could trust Nevaras or his two henchmen was another matter.
In the dark, they sped toward Sixth Avenue, where Toño and Ernesto said that Calderon’s mother resided. A park with unoccupied white benches flew by on the right. City hall and a church flew by on the left. Lampposts lit the unmarked road. In the rearview, they saw the church’s plain-white façade and three telephone wires suspended directly over city hall.
They drove past a few groups of young men, huddled together on the corner, walking to the center of town. “They don’t have families yet,” said Flores.
“How do you know?” said Ernesto.
“Because they can cruise the streets at night,” said Flores. “You guys will see when you’re older. There are things you do now that you won’t do anymore.”
They reached Sixth Avenue in five minutes, but finding house No. 19 was difficult, since there were no lampposts on the residential street. Moving slowly through the neighborhood, the vehicle seemed heavier, as if burdened by the true motive of their trespass. Ernesto parked and closed his eyes. Flores shut his eyes too, recalling the photographs of Calderon: six feet tall, brown eyes, black hair. In his Glock there were seventeen nine-millimeter bullets.
The sidewalk was gum-stained and narrow. “It feels good to have pavement beneath my feet, after all that driving,” said Ernesto.
“Let’s whisper from now on,” said Toño.
Flores walked behind them. He wondered, once more, if there would be witnesses to their presence: watchful eyes, leering from lighted windows. For all he knew, another set of ARENA operatives was following him, the same way Toño and Ernesto did.
Maybe Toño, while removing the first tracking device, had covertly planted another one beneath.
Ernesto rang the bell at house No. 19. Toño and Lázaro were standing behind him. A stooped, gray-haired woman opened the door. She wore a blouse of faded yellow with a frayed collar. “Are you here to see Gilberto?” she asked. From behind her came the scent of grilled chicken.
“Yes, thank you,” said Ernesto. “We work at the port, in Acajutla.”
“Berto!” she shouted. She invited them inside.
In the living room, Flores saw Calderon for the first time. It was unmistakably the fifty-year-old dark-featured man in the photos. Wearing khakis and a dress shirt, Calderon stood tall beside his slouched mother, as if to justify every inch of his stated six-foot stature. “Hold on, three of the workers are here,” he said into his cell phone, extending a hand to Ernesto, then Toño, then Lázaro. “Good evening, brothers,” whispered Calderon. He held up one finger, indicating that his phone conversation would soon be finished.
Flores blasted Calderon three times in the head. The mother screamed, and Flores silenced her with two quick shots to the chest. She fell beside Calderon, who was face-down and motionless on the reddening carpet. Flores grabbed Calderon’s phone, which had landed inches from his bleeding head, and sprinted to the door. Ernesto and Toño followed.
When they reached the car, Flores insisted on driving. Ernesto handed him the keys. Toño thanked God when the car started.
They were quiet on their way back to San Salvador. As they crossed the bridge again, Flores tossed Calderon’s phone into the Lempa.
“So what happens now?” said Flores.
“Don’t worry. Francisco’s word is good,” said Toño.
“But what about the corpses?” said Flores. “What will happen to them?”
“My guess is that their neighbors, hearing the gunfire, will call the police,” said Toño. “If not the neighbors, then maybe it will be a group of port workers stopping by to visit. Calderon clearly was expecting a house call.”
“Did you close the door behind you when you left?” said Flores.
“No,” said Ernesto.
“Well, it’ll probably be okay,” said Flores.
“The only thing I’m really worried about is the person Calderon was on the phone with,” said Toño. “He or she might alert authorities. And we can’t rule out that it was an authority, on the phone with him. Someone like your boy Cardoza, politically covering his bases. So he can later say, ‘I was on the phone with Calderon. We were negotiating in good faith.’”
“Can you call Nevaras, and ask him what do to?” said Flores. “Cardoza is expecting me to bring this car to the airport, so I can meet Nichols and fly to Boston.”
Toño pushed a button on his phone and handed it to Flores. “Toño, is it done?” said Nevaras.
“This is Flores.”
“Is it done?”
“Yes. Can you meet us at the airport and explain everything to Nichols?”
“Sure. I’m on my way. I’ll have the money too. And Lázaro?”
“Thank you. I know this wasn’t easy for many reasons.”
In the brightly lit airport parking lot they sat in the car, waiting for Nevaras and Nichols. Unbidden, the smell of Calderon’s house after the shooting returned to Flores. It was blood and smoke and sulfur, mixed with Mother Calderon’s grilled chicken. He wondered how Idalia would react to the news that he had earned one-third of a $250,000 bounty.
Then he saw the headlights. The car was the same limousine that had brought him to the airport, following his meeting with Cardoza. He got out of the Sentra, gently shutting the door. Toño and Ernesto followed. One of the limo’s tinted rear windows rolled down. The first bullet hit him above the groin. He staggered, dropping to one knee. The echo of gunfire filled the lot. It hammered his eardrums, all the more after the second shot, which hit his groin directly. Blood seeped through his pants. Cardoza stepped out of the limo. Weakly, Flores pulled the Glock from his pocket. Cardoza kicked the weapon away. The Glock skittered across the cement, toward Toño’s crumpled, motionless body. A few yards away, Ernesto lay facedown, bloody and gasping. Flores placed his palm on his crotch and tried staunching the flow of blood.
“You shot us,” he said.
“I didn’t want to,” said Cardoza. “But once Nevaras found out, Nichols panicked.”
Flores fell to his side. Would Cardoza—or Nevaras—or someone still pay for Idalia, Hector, and his parents to move to Escalon? Would his family somehow learn what had happened to him? He felt woozy, dry-mouthed. His crotch was hot, leaky, and then cold in an instant. “Church—chicken—money—Idalia,” he stammered, moments before darkness overtook him.