WELCOME TO TIJUANA - J.B. CHRISTOPHER
“Stay there, goddammit.”
In his son’s upstairs bedroom, David Cuevas tried wiping the blood off the wall, floor, and door with a bath towel. His hands shook, but no matter how much he tried, the blood still coursed from the back of the man’s skull. His son, as he was told, hid under the bed, whimpered.
David shucked the balaclava off the dead man’s head and he could see where the bullet entered just under the chin and he froze – he recognized that face. Even in death, the eyes, almost peaceful, held a familiar look of contempt. He only knew his first name - Fernando. The security boss for Alberto Molina. He had been a reliable professional.
David saw a piece of paper tucked into the front of his vest with the date scribbled on the top. It caught his eye, seemed out of place in Fernando’s military dress.
Quickly, he turned the paper over.
A photograph of himself getting into his Honda taken with a telephoto lens. In the parking lot of the Real Del Mar Country Club. He had on a dark suit, no tie, white shirt open at the collar. A friendly smile. David held the photo of himself in his hand and wondered how many of these were floating around.
David didn’t waste any time. He wiped his hands against the bed sheets, grabbed his backpack and moved to the window. Sunlight lined the drawn window shades and was already filling the room. On the street below he saw a large white Suburban. Tinted windows. A row of high powered lights across the front cab. Passenger window lowered. A man stood in the street, another sat in the passenger seat, smoking. Like the dead gunman in the bedroom doorway, each wore baggy black cargo pants, an ear piece, and a light weight combat vest. One of the men waved oncoming cars to move around. And they did - without honking or looking. He carried a small machine gun secured with a nylon shoulder strap.
David didn’t move; he stared into the street wondering how’d they not hear the shot? He looked at the body again. A submachine gun beside the stiff, the barrel replaced with a fat silencer, still pointed at the bed. It didn’t make a sound when it ripped through the bed linens and pillows. Small white feathers dusted everything in the room. But his pistol? It roared when it went off in his hand.
He didn’t want to wait and find out if they heard it or not. He checked the revolver, the barrel still warm, and tucked it in his waistband. He glanced over the body one last time, not the first dead man he’d seen and surely, living in Tijuana, not the last.
The first time had been outside a convenience store when he heard a pop-pop-pop, like fireworks. Loud, but not uncommon. When he went outside, he found a crowd around a black Jeep Cherokee and saw a man slumped over the steering wheel, a woman passenger pressed against the dashboard. Blood splattered the windshield's interior. The dead man in the jeep, he found out the following day, was the new prosecuting attorney for the city. Young with a family. His next of kin, a nephew in National City, had to drive down to identify the body and collect the vehicle. Now, what was he going to do with a shot-up Cherokee, the interior still wet with blood? David thought that was strange. Tijuana wasn’t a place for such consideration. Everyone it seemed was living on borrowed time.
He whispered for his son, hugged him, and the two exited the house through the back.
They walked hand in hand down the alley behind their house until it reached Avenida Aventuras and took a footpath around the main gate and down a steep hillside. David flagged down a cab, told him to head to El Centro and the driver complained about the weekend tourist traffic. David said just get them close to the main drag and they would take the rest on foot.
Squinting in the sun as the taxi zipped along towards their destination, David considered his options. The airport. Molina’s men would be there and he knew who was coming in or out. Head south? David could return to Guadalajara or Mexico City. He had connections in both those cities. But Molina probably would know that, too. Besides, he would have to fly to get there or risk the long car drive. Bus station? Same problems as driving. But crossing the border provided real hope.
The Tijuana border crossing, the busiest land border in the world, has about 200,000 people crossing into the US each day with work permits. On a Friday, everyone was coming into Tijuana, not leaving. But getting there was the problem. It would be easy to pick them out on this side of the border. David said to himself this will never work.
“Who was that man?” asked Juan Carlos, David’s six year old son. He found the nerve to ask, his voice strained with fear.
David drew close to his son and whispered. “He was a bad man. But he’s gone now.” And David smiled. They were very close, and often David forgot that his son was just six.
“What did he want?” His mother died when Juan Carlos was two, leaving David to raise their only son. “What happened to him?”
“Me. They wanted to take me away. But that’s not going to happen.”
On the way to the city center, they passed an ambulance and a fire truck, sirens wailing. The taxi pulled over briefly and allowed the stream of rescue trucks to whip by.
The next day, David emerged from the motel Ticuan a few blocks from Avenida Revolución, to check things out. He wore a baseball cap, the brim pulled low over his face, sunglasses, and a baggy sweatshirt that he bought last night. They tried twice to cross yesterday and were met with Molina’s foot soldiers at every turn. He didn’t want to press his luck anymore and got a room for the night, paid in cash, and spent the night peeking out the window, or peering through the eyepiece in the door, the revolver always in hand.
He walked in circles near his motel, through the labyrinth of narrow streets, and didn’t see any sign of Molina. But that didn’t matter. He needed to avoid walking down Revolución at all costs. The gaudy strip of nightclubs, bars, discount pharmacies, back-alley whorehouses and restaurants was Molina’s turf. The barkers on the sidewalk, the traffic cops, the vendors selling Chanel bags, the tranny prostitutes, the yellow eyed beggars, even the street kids selling knock off Disney toys while sniffing glue, were all under the careful employ of the Molina family.
He thought they got lucky yesterday, making it to the border crossing and back. If Molina knew where he was, they’d be dead already.
Back at the motel, he called his cousin in Chula Vista from a payphone in the lobby. David dared not use his cellphone - Molina could access his call records at will. He told his cousin Isabella where he was and about his son, Juan Carlos. They would cross tonight and she would be waiting for them in a white Nissan Sentra. She told him she knew this was going to happen to him and cursed him.He returned to the room and found Juan Carlos awake, watching television. The two ate a breakfast of cold beans and rice, toast, scrambled eggs. David forgot the juice.
“What do we do now?”
“We wait until it gets dark.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to stay with Tia Isabella. She lives in San Diego across the border. Do you remember her?”
The boy didn’t say anything. His dark eyes swelled with tears. Of course, he remembered her. When they’d visit, she always took him to Sea World and Disneyland. She was a nurse at the Naval Hospital in San Diego and was very friendly and warm. She never had any children of her own and took a special liking to Juan Carlos.
“Are you still hungry?”
The boy shook his head.
“Listen, if something happens to me - stop crying - you have to listen to this. If something happens to me, you have to take this,” he showed the boy an envelope and continued, “you have to get to a phone and call Isabella. Her number is in here. There is also some money in there. Enough for cab fare to the border crossing. You tell them you have an American passport. Don’t talk to the Federales. Cross the border and talk to an American policeman. Got it?”
Tears were streaking down the boy’s round face. He wiped at them with his fingertips and looked up at his father, trying to show how strong he could be.
David moved to his side and together they watched cartoons until Juan Carlos fell asleep.
David would sit at corner table in the lobby bar at the Colonia in La Jolla, sipping at his rum and Coke, watching the ice melt, stirring it with a thin black straw.
Paloma would enter the bar, alone, in a black hip-hugging dress under a wide brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses. She held a small designer handbag which she placed on the seat beside her.
She would slip into a seat opposite David and purr, “May I join you?”
David would ask, “Are you alone?”
And Paloma would reply, “But I’m looking for company.”
Staring at the thin gold necklace with the crucifix between her breasts, he would say, “And who are you looking for?”
Her eyes, lined in heavy black mascara, would narrow. She would hesitate and say something like, “I’ve been looking for a good time.”
This was how it went down for nearly nine months. The hotels, always a high-end boutique in either La Jolla or Rancho Sante Fe, were paid in cash. Names used during check in, always fake.
After the first few weeks of this, David would look out the hotel window, naked, still sweaty from fucking, and would say something like, “I can’t believe we pulled this off.”
Paloma, grinning, feeling her heart beat like it hadn’t since she was a young woman, would say something like, “Alberto is half the man.” The bed sheets were pushed and twisted at the foot of the bed.
It seemed that Alberto was too busy, too distracted with running his empire to realize what he had. She always said she was shopping with friends in San Diego. He never seemed to notice or care. Alberto, pragmatic in all facets of his life, was a businessman first and foremost.
On his way across the border, he dropped Juan Carlos off with Isabella in Chula Vista, and kept heading north along the 5 freeway until he hit the La Jolla exit. The entire drive he kept on thinking what would happen if her husband found out about it. This would be the only time.
In the beginning, they would stay in their room, order room service and watch TV. But as time went on, they would spend time idling by the pool, charging drinks to the room, she would wear a skimpy two piece bathing suit and he would oil her back, working the lotion into her lower back, his hands lingering. For a woman who gave birth to twins, she looked good. Wide hips, thin waist, she could fill out a bikini and was not self-conscious about showing off her body. She said Alberto would never let her wear a bikini like this and he would tell her to put some clothes on and cover herself.
Alberto was not like any other mafiosi that ran the crime syndicates in the border town. Educated at Rice University in Texas, he had an MBA from University of Florida and ran his operation like a corporation. He shunned the public and hopped between the three various homes he owned across the Baja area. But the language his colleagues understood was violence. And it was a language he excelled in. The papers called him La Tombola – a childhood nickname that stuck.
Sunset. David had written two detailed letters, outlining what he knew about La Tombola and his syndicate and folded them neatly in two white envelopes he obtained from the clerk in the lobby. One was addressed to CNN in Atlanta, the other to La Marca in Madrid. He thought about e-mailing it from an internet café but couldn’t imagine sitting there, typing the e-mails, while Molina’s men circled around. In the Centro, there was no quiet, no solitude – not a spare corner of peace where he could sit and collect his thoughts.
Revolución brought a constant stream of chaos and action, set to the incessant beat of an always nearby bass line. He was surrounded by it and, with it, the undercurrent of danger and terror ushered by Molina.
Outside on the street, he moved quickly and tried to find a post office. Twice, he thought he saw someone take notice of him. He doubled back, ducked down an alley, and cut through a restaurant and returned back to the motel.
Juan Carlos said he was hungry.
David couldn’t take it anymore.
Sitting there, waiting for fate to decide.
David tucked the envelopes in his backpack, and said this was it. He checked the pistol and nodded to his son.
They weren’t even a full block from the motel, when he recognized the Suburban roaring down the street outside his motel – the same one that was parked outside his house. It stopped outside the lobby and three men jumped out.
David grabbed Juan Carlos by the hand and the two ran in the opposite direction for two blocks. David flagged down a taxi and told the driver to head to the border crossing. The man nodded and grinned.
Juan Carlos smiled.
David sat back in the narrow backseat. This was it. He opened his eyes and watched the signs for the upcoming border check point flip by. Could it be this easy? Via Oriente. Kids selling candy and stuffed animals. They were going the right way. And then he noticed a photo of himself, the same one he recovered from the gunman in his house, tucked on the dashboard, and his heart sank. It would not be this easy.
“We can get off here.”
“Senor, it’s just a bit further. Por favor.”
David pulled the pistol from his waist, and cocked the hammer and aimed it at the driver and repeated himself.
The car came to a sudden stop against the curb and David and Juan Carlos jumped out. Car horns shrieked, people yelled and swore at the cab. The driver mumbled something and shrugged his shoulders and sped off.
David didn’t stop running until Juan Carlos complained about his feet. They were in the Colonia Libertad district. A week earlier, seven Tijuana police officers were executed here. David didn’t like all the traffic on Avenue Pino Suarez. It would be way too easy for Molina’s men to casually pull up alongside them. They would never see them coming. They needed some place to hide until morning. But first they needed dinner.
David and Juan Carlos ate hamburgers and fries and drank Cokes and sat in a parking lot. There were three cars in the lot. The hamburgers were served from behind a narrow slot in a plexi-glass window in a food stand with only two people inside. One scribbled down orders, the other worked the grill and deep fryer. When the order was ready, the man tucked the order pad in his waistband and called out a number.
A truck pulled into the lot and David couldn’t make out the color. He slowly pulled out his pistol and kept it near his thigh. The truck turned – a black rig with chrome accents – and parked. A man and a woman slipped out and got in line for the hamburger stand.
Juan Carlos saw the fear in his father’s eyes. His young eyes fell on the revolver.
David didn’t say anything.
He finished his Coke and told Juan Carlos it was time to move on.
He knew they couldn’t cross the border at night. The cabbie would have called in their last known location and collected his other half of the deal. They would have to wait. He didn’t want to check into a motel – as his picture was certainly circulated through every clerk’s hand with a hundred dollar bill and a promise of more.
David needed to find a place to hide and sleep through the night.
The first place they checked out was an alley near the hamburger stand. The alley was sandwiched between two large squat brown colored buildings – a maquiladora where they made sweaters, the other an auto body shop. There was a small park at the far end and, from here, David could see the cars drive past the parking lot with the hamburger stand. There was a green metal dumpster that they could sleep against.
The second choice was a church. David had second thoughts about spending the night on the street with a small boy and hoped, at the last minute, to find a dive motel. The Our Lady of Mt. Carmel had an open door policy. David and Juan Carlos took a seat in a pew in the back, each made the sign of the cross before seating themselves.
Tijuana was more than a border town for Mexicans entering the US. It was the doorway between Latin America and the US. For thousands of Central and South Americans, Tijuana was the last stop before they slipped over into the States. Our Lady of Mt Carmel provided food, and at least a brief rest stop for many of the desperate travelers. David and Juan Carlos were no different.
David gazed at the crucifix that hung in the far end of the church and had a feeling that everything was going to be ok. He thought about calling Isabella but was still afraid of using his phone. What would he tell her anyway? You were right. She’s trouble. Where’s that going to get me? And now, I killed a gunman sent to kill me and all of Molina’s crew are looking for me. He remember Fernando’s face from the other morning – lifeless and waxen, his life draining out the back of his head. The way the entry hole puckered and discolored from the bullet tearing through the skin. Details came into his conscious and he prayed to God for forgiveness.
He was about to tell Juan Carlos to get going when he saw his son sleeping in the pew, his knees pulled close to his chest. David changed his mind and decided to rest here for a few hours. He began to pray, asking God to protect his son, staring above into the vaulted ceiling. He removed the pistol from his waistband and put it in the backpack then wrapped the backpack strap around his wrist and curled up against his son and joined him in sleep.
The van engine lurched to a stop, and the engine cut out. Two car doors slammed shut. Talking. Laughter. And then the noise of a car driving away until it was silent. David didn’t know what time it was, as the policemen took his cellphone and wrist watch.
They came in the early hours of morning, led by the priest. He remembered waking up to see the priest, his face expressionless, pointing at them. Two policemen stepped in and led them down the church steps to a waiting police van, windowless and unmarked. The boy climbed in first with his backpack, and then David, as he turned, was hit from behind.
When he awoke, he was in the van, with his son holding his hand. David opened the bag and found the pistol still inside. The back of his head ached and he touched at it with the tips of his fingers.
The van drove for hours and came to a stop. David had no idea where they were. He suspected they were in the Southlands, in the lawless frontera, and had every reason to be terrified.
He remembered when he first met Alberto Molina.
That morning, Alberto greeted David with a broad handshake and a smile, welcomed him to his mountaintop estate and said, “You’re the best English tutor, yes? I only want the best. I always get the best.” The man spoke fast.
David hesitated, unsure if it was a question, and then responded in the positive. “But of course, of course.”
“Excellent. My childrens, my sons, they are everything to me. I want them to have the best. The best education. The best future. The best. You have a son, yes?”
“Yes, I do. Juan Carlos.”
“Ah. Then we have something in common. You and I.”
He clapped David on the back, and said, “Tutor, I would like to introduce you to my wife, Paloma.” He never referred to David by his name, always by Tutor, almost affectionately. He would say it and smile, daring David to correct him. But David only smiled and nodded.
David only met Alberto on a half dozen occasions. In each instance, he was always polite and said, “Tutor, how are my childrens doing? I do not want them to have a cholo accent. Entiende?” And he would let loose with a loud laugh. David never saw gunmen crawling the grounds, or even patrolling the house. But he was sure the guns were not far away.
It was about the second month of him working for Alberto when Paloma slipped him a note. He hoped she would forget about it, that it was just an afternoon indiscretion from too much wine at the club. Something that she would soon regret. But she did not.
Alberto was always accompanied with a tall wiry man who wore mirrored sunglasses and had an earpiece. His face was ruined with acne and scars. Fernando. David killed him with a lucky shot that blew his brains out the top of his skull.
Five days ago, David received a text from Paloma that said simply – Tombola. She always referred to her husband as Alberto – she never used his moniker. David interpreted it as Tombola knows – get the hell out of Dodge. He bought a pistol – a heavy .357 Magnum with a plastic grip from a gun shop on the outskirts and kept it near him. He spent the following nights bouncing from motel to motel until finally getting the nerve to return to his house – a townhouse in an upscale community with Pacific views. He just needed to get in and out and grab a few personal items. He told Juan Carlos to get a few things from his bedroom and they were never coming back. But when David called for his son, there was no answer. Juan Carlos had slipped into his bed and fell asleep, holding a framed picture of his mother.
That night, David had slept against the far wall, beside the bed. His son had moved close to the edge, to be near his father, and eventually rolled off the bed. The two slept beside the bed on the floor.
At six that morning, Fernando kicked open the door with a silenced MP5 submachine gun and sprayed the bed.
David grabbed the .357 Magnum and pulled the trigger for the first time, firing a single shot, blindly towards the door. The shooting stopped. David pushed his son under the bed and jumped to his feet, aiming the pistol. Fernando was dead.
The heat in the van was unbearable. David considered shooting at the lock, but was afraid the bullet would ricochet inside the plated cabin. Juan Carlos sat in his underwear.
David sat there, a condemned man, awaiting his executioner.
Paloma had called him over a month ago and said she was through with Alberto, that this was it. That she wanted to live a normal life. The warring between the rival families and the police was washing the streets of Tijuana in blood. She couldn’t take it. She feared for their children. She said she was leaving him.
Days became weeks and she still stayed on.
Poolside in the Colonia in La Jolla – their favorite – David told her point blank what he was feeling, trying to keep it straight with her. He was waist deep in the pool, she was sitting along the edge of the pool, her eyeglasses pushed back on top of her head, resting on her elbows, a white hotel pool towel spread beneath her.
Composed, he told her that he loved her and he watched her face tighten, as though she was surprised, caught off-guard. He finished and watched the way the look on her face changed from an intimate lover to that of pity. He waited for her response. Her lips parted, but nothing came out. Her eyes took him in.
Flustered, she said, “What am I going to do? He’s their father.” She flashed her eyes at him, full of pain, and anguish. She had a lot on her mind, and she wanted to explain it better. She felt she owed it to him. She tried to smile, but he wasn’t buying it. She told him to relax, that everything was going to be ok.
“What about us? Does that mean anything?”
And she had laughed at him and said he was being emotional.
He had pulled himself up out of the pool and returned to their room without toweling off.
Sitting in the van, with his back against the door, he shook his head at how stupid he was. That fucking woman is why we’re here. But his son would not understand. David moved to his son’s side, brushed the hair from his brow and kissed him on his forehead. He removed the Magnum from the bag, checked the bullets, and made sure the safety was off. He raised it at the door and checked his aim. He laid down next to his son, with the pistol within reach.
He could still picture her posed along the bricked pool edge in her bikini. It was just a game to her. The clandestine meetings and texting, the late calls. He was just something to keep her busy while her husband did what he did. Maybe he knew all along.
Hours passed. And both David and Juan Carlos slept. David could hear his son’s labored breathing.
The sound of a car engine.
It cut out. Doors opened, closed. He thought he heard footsteps come closer. The glinting of metal on metal. A key inside the lock.
The heavy van doors squealed under their weight, and the light flooded the rear compartment, blinding David.
He fired at the opening, reflexes taking over. The report from the Magnum left his ears ringing. Juan Carlos, with his hands over his ears, screaming. David’s eyes focused and adjusted to the bright desert sun.
It was quiet. He didn’t hear anything. He neared the opened van doors. Slowly. Sliding on his bottom, with the pistol raised. A police car parked nearby, both doors closed. One leg on the bumper, he saw the bottom of a pair of worn boots. He inched forward, both legs on the rear bumper now, the rest of the body that they belonged to clearly in sight. Then he fired twice more and fell back inside the van, with three bullet holes in his chest. The pistol dropped from his hand, clattered against the metal flooring.
“Juan Carlos. Juan Carlos,” David whispered. “I got him.”
Juan Carlos touching his father’s hand, then touching at the blood that moved from the left corner of his father’s mouth, said nothing. If David could have opened his eyes completely, he would have seen his son pale with fright and his eyes swollen with tears.
“Listen to me. You must take the backpack. Take it. And you must cross the border and find my cousin – your Tia Isabella. She’ll be looking for you. Don’t listen to anyone else. She’s the only one you can trust. She’s in Chula Vista. All her information is in there. Do you understand? Do you remember what I told you?”
Juan Carlos cried, and kissed his father on the forehead as he did hours earlier.
“I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go by myself. I can’t.”
“You must.” David coughed up blood, and tried to sit up but could not. “Those men, they’re coming back to finish this. You have to leave. You must. I’ve told you enough. Don’t trust anyone. Not even the police. Understand? Get to the border. Tell them you got separated from your aunt. And use your English. You don’t have an accent. They’ll listen to you. And those envelopes. Give them to Isabella. She’ll know what to do.”
As Juan Carlos cried, he stared out from the back of the van, and could see the twisting dark metal wall stretching across the brown hillside. All he knew was in the van and he did not want to die.
BIO: In addition to contributing to online articles for technology and online marketing sites, Joseph recently had a short story accepted for publication at ShriekFreak Quarterly. By day, he is a principal and Technology Director for a web and video interactive agency in Portland, Oregon and enjoys helping clients tell their story for the web. By night, he is an aspiring crime fiction writer. When he is not busy managing work and writing, he can be found playing with his two young daughters. He writes under the pseudonym J.B. Christopher.