Reynoldo Ramirez, moderately prosperous by the standards of his time and place, imagined himself beyond surprise. He observed the world through calm brown eyes set wide apart in a calm brown face--an Aztec face, an Indian face, a peasant's face, a gangster's face, for he was all of them--and nothing of his considerable bulk suggested a capacity for astonishment; or foolishness, for that matter; or mercy. He felt he'd seen most things by now: he'd killed men in fights with knives or fists; he'd been shot twice, stabbed four times; he'd had three wives and eleven children, seven of whom still lived; he'd spent six years in three prisons; and he looked forward at forty-four to a tranquil future, as befitted the owner of El Palacio, a bar and brothel on the Calle de Buenos Aires in the northern Mexican city of Nogales, on the Arizona border.
Yet, by the Virgin and Her glory, Reynoldo Ramirez was astounded.
A feeling that the simple rhythms of the world had been profoundly upset crept through him as he sat with his closest associate, the ever-smiling Oscar Meza, at their usual Number 1 table well back from the bar at El Palacio. Yet he allowed no sign of concern to disturb the surface of his face as he regarded the man who now stood before him.
The man was American. Or again, was he? He stood in blue jeans, impatiently, his face sealed off behind sunglasses. He looked immensely muscular. He was tan and hawk-nosed. And he had something quite foreign to the usual pawing, grabbing, yakking, farting gringo: he had dignity, which Ramirez prized most in this world, having worked so assiduously to fashion his own.
"Why not just walk up the street and go through the gate?" asked Oscar Meza in English. It was Oscar's job to handle this sort of negotiation. "A simple matter. It's done ten thousand times a day. Then you are there, eh? In wonderful America. Why trouble us with illegal proposals?" Oscar turned to smile at Ramirez.
"Why not just answer my question?" said the American--or the maybe-American.
The maybe-American was tall too, and his hair was blondish, light from the bright sun; and though Ramirez could not see them, he gauged the eyes, from the skin coloring, to be blue.
Yellow hair and blue eyes: what could be more American?
"It's a dangerous trip," said Oscar, "this trip you propose. It would cost much money."
"I have money."
"You are a rich man? Why, I wonder, would a rich man--"
"Just talk the business."
Stung, Oscar recoiled. He had merely been sociable. Oscar always tried to be sociable.
"All right then. Three hundred U.S., cash. No credit cards--" Oscar turned, pleased with his joke, and smiled at Reynoldo. "Two hundred now. Then one hundred tomorrow morning when you are in Los Estados safe and sound."
"A boy said it would be one hundred."
"Boys lie," said Oscar Meza. "It's a rule. When I was a boy I lied. All the time, about everything." He laughed again. "Forget what this boy said."
No flicker crossed the maybe-American's face.
"I think you are not happy," said Oscar Meza. "We want you to be happy. Sit down. Look, have a drink, get a woman--there are some pretty ones here and not too expensive, although you say you are a rich man. Think it over. You must learn to relax. We want you to be happy. We can work something out."
Behind his glasses the man remained impassive.
"I want a guarantee."
"Life is too short for guarantees," Oscar said. "Maybe we ought to make it four hundred, five hundred, a thousand? All this talking is making me weary. I cannot guarantee what I cannot control and I cannot control fate."
"A guarantee," said the man.
"I said, no guarantees. Don't you hear so good, mister?"
Ramirez at last spoke.
"Once every twenty nights out, they get you, mister. That's a law. You may go thirty-eight nights clean, then they get you twice. Or they may get you twice, then you go thirty-eight. But one out of twenty. I can't control it. God himself, the Holy Father, He cannot control it. It's the law."
Oscar said, "You listen good, mister. It's the true law."
"Send this stupid man away," the man said to Ramirez. "He makes me want to hurt him."
"I'll hurt you,
mister," Oscar said. "I'll cut you up damn quick."
"No," Ramirez said. "Go away, Oscar. Get me another Carta Blanca."
Oscar scurried off.
"He's a stupid man," said Ramirez. "But useful in certain things. Now. Say your case."
"You go a special way. There's a special way you can go. High, in the mountains. The direction from here is west. A road to a mine which is old and no longer used gets you there. Is this not right?"
The maybe-American spoke an almost-English. It was passable but fractured. Even Ramirez could pick out the occasional discordant phrase.
Ramirez looked at him coldly.
"You go this route," the man continued. "Once, maybe twice a year, depending. Depending on what? Depending on the moon, which must be down. And depending on the drugs, which you take across to the Huerra family in Mexico City for delivery to certain American groups. You are paid five thousand American dollars each trip. And the last time the Huerras gave you some extra because it went so nice. And I hear it said you don't give one dollar to the priests of your church, because you are a greedy man."
Ramirez stared at him. He had known such a moment would one day come. A stranger, with information enough to kill him or own him forever. It could only mean the Huerras were done with him and had sold him out, or that the police had finally--
"The last run was January sixteenth," the man said. "And the next one will be tonight, moon or no moon, and that's the true law."
Ramirez fought his own breathing.
"Who sent you?"
"Nobody sent me."
"How do you know all this?"
"I have friends."
"Very important. Very knowledgeable in certain areas."
"You should have come to me and explained. You are a special man. I can see this now."
The man said nothing.
"You better watch yourself, though. Somebody might put a bullet in your head."
"Sure, okay, somebody might. And then somebody might come looking for him
and put a bullet in his
Ramirez struggled to take stock. The man had not had anything to drink, he was not talking wildly, he was not a crazy man. He had much coolness, much presence. He was a man Ramirez could respect. You wouldn't fool him too easily. He wouldn't make mistakes. He would make others make the mistakes.
"All right," Ramirez said. "But it will cost you more. The distance is a factor, the increased risk, the danger to my way of doing business. This is no easy thing--it's not running illegals into Los Estados. You want to go the guaranteed way, you got to pay for it. Or go someplace else, to some man who'll cut your throat in the desert."
"Nobody cuts my throat. How much?"
"A thousand. Half now, half later."
"You are a thief as well as anything else."
"I am a man of business. Come on, damn you, pay up or go someplace else. I'm done with talking."
"As God wills it." He handed over the money, counting out the bills.
"Out back, at eleven. Beyond the sewer there's a small shop called La Argentina. Wait behind it in the yard with the trucks. A van will come. You'll be in Arizona tomorrow. Pay the man in America, or he'll give you to the Border Patrol."
The man nodded.
"If nothing goes wrong," he said.
"Nothing will go wrong. I'll drive the damned truck myself."
The man nodded again, and then turned and left.
"A gringo pig," he said. "I'd like to cut him up."
Ramirez would have liked to have seen Oscar try to cut the man up. But he said nothing. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief scented with persimmon, took a sip from the new glass of Carta Blanca Oscar had brought him, and looked about.
"Did you notice?" he said to Oscar. "Even the whores left him alone."
But now at least he thought he knew why, and he guessed that tonight the man would have with him enough cocaine for all the noses in America.
Excerpted from The Second Saladin by Stephen Hunter. Copyright © 1998 by Stephen Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.