An American Ghost Murder
The Texas sky deceived Steven Blackstone’s eyes. If he looked upward, as high as he could through the twin-engine airplane’s window, he got lost in the deep blue of twilight. The sky could be no other color, he thought. If he lowered his gaze to the horizon, however, the brilliant, fiery orange glow that reached out over the desert landscape took his mind somewhere far away from the tiny seat in the twin-engine airplane speeding him over the Rio Grande Valley. The sky could be no other color, he thought. Up and down his gaze shifted, and he could see no definite point at which the color of the sky changed. An honest, ice-cold blue; an honest, infernal orange. But where did the two meet? Which one was real? Steven Blackstone had a little time to ponder questions like these, to let his mind wander, but the biggest question of all, of course, was, “Why am I in Texas?”
In one sense, he knew. A man who went by the name of Johnny Conroy, and who said he looked after the interests of a Texas businessman named William Crawford, had walked into Blackstone’s one-room office in New York City at nine o’clock Eastern Time that morning; Blackstone had been told by Conroy that Mr. Crawford required his services. Blackstone asked why. Johnny Conroy told him it was because Mr. Crawford knew him. Blackstone asked how. Conroy threw an envelope containing forty thousand dollars and a plane ticket to San Antonio International Airport on his desk and told Blackstone that time was of the “utmost import.” The fact that Johnny Conroy, whoever he was, had just used the word “import,” instead of saying “there’s not much time,” “time is of the essence,” or “we’re wasting time,” piqued an uncomfortable curiosity in Blackstone. “Import” did not seem to go with Johnny Conroy’s character, whatever that character was. It didn’t sound right. In fact, nothing about Johnny Conroy, the “import,” the envelope, or William Crawford, sounded or seemed right. Maybe it was just the absence of information, but it all left Steven Blackstone with a bad taste in his mouth. The mounting stack of bills upon the same desk Johnny Conroy’s envelope had landed, however, was an even worse, and ongoing, taste in his mouth. Blackstone may have been the proprietor of his own private investigation firm, but it was a one-man firm, run by a man, one man, Blackstone, who was not a businessman like William Crawford, or even like his own father. Blackstone was not, in other words, a successful businessman. So Blackstone, who had seemed to have lost his taste for anything anymore but the lingering bad taste of debt, took the bait and told Johnny Conroy he’d be on the flight to San Antonio at three o’clock that afternoon. Blackstone had bills to pay.
He knew the place he was going to, and the name of the man who wanted him to go there. But “why” and “who” couldn’t escape his mind. As the twin-engine plane from San Antonio neared its destination—a municipal landing strip just outside Josefina, Texas on the Rio Grande River—he tried to shut his mind to everything except the contradictory Texas sky. Blue or orange, cold or hot, heaven or hell.
Blackstone finally learnt how to walk again as he reached the exit of Josefina’s municipal airport. He had spent most of the late afternoon into evening either in the air or in airports, and he was now utterly exhausted. A few steps outside the airport’s exit, the mystery of the sky he’d been thinking on was gone. Though there were stars in the sky, he felt covered in darkness.
“Over here, Blackstone,” said a familiar voice above an engine’s roar.
Blackstone walked towards the dark-colored sports utility vehicle’s lights. Johnny Conroy sat in the driver’s seat.
“Get in. Passenger side, back seat.”
Blackstone didn’t ask why. He walked around the vehicle, hoisted his carry-on into the backseat, then hoisted himself inside. He melted into the seat and stared vacantly out the windshield. Conroy put the SUV in gear and drove off with purpose. Blackstone knew Conroy knew exactly where they were going, and that they were going there directly. He also knew conversation with Johnny Conroy would be impossible, and that seeking to gain any further understanding behind Blackstone’s being there in the first place only more so. He closed his eyes and hoped the drive would be a smooth and lengthy one.
“Wake up, Blackstone.”
Blackstone’s eyes shot open, but he couldn’t tell if he was awake or dreaming. For the better part of the last few years Blackstone had felt this way. His life in New York, and the life that took him there, felt to him like day after day he was walking on an almost invisible line between dreams and reality. If he stared too long at that tiny line, it blurred, and the difference between “dream OR awake” disappeared, eventually transforming into days of “dream AND awake.” A failed marriage, too many failed business ventures to count, both played their part in making Steven Blackstone this way; these failures and the depression that developed from them. His addiction to pharmaceuticals to keep the depression away and help keep the lines in his life straight, to keep everything in his life on one side OR the other of these lines, played a large role, too. And like every other line in his life, the line between medicinal benefit and addiction became blurry. But he kept paying for his prescriptions, which led to the blurring or actual disappearance of still another line, that between pain and joy. But that didn’t bother Blackstone too much—it was a line he never really understood anyway.
After a few seconds in limbo, Blackstone decided that where he was, out on the border and in the backseat, was reality and not a dream. He looked to see Johnny Conroy holding the door open for him.
Blackstone followed him, the impossibly straight line of Conroy’s flashlight burning into the desolate black Texas night.****
“Is there any use in asking just where we’re going?”
“By the time I told you, we’d already be there,” replied Johnny Conroy, quietly, never averting his eyes from the ray of the flashlight ahead of him. They had walked for what Blackstone guessed to be over a mile, and just now he realized why they hadn’t taken the vehicle this far. The brush and rocky earth would have torn the undercarriage off anything short of a military tank.
It had been years since Blackstone had been in Texas. Many more since, as a boy, he had lived in the Rio Grande Valley. He really never lived there. His wealthy father had owned a few hundred acres with a house and some cows and horses. His father, when he got bored, liked to play cowboy every now and then, and so, every now and then, they would stay at the “ranch,” and Blackstone would be left to his own devices, which usually meant taking long walks in silence, taking in the landscape. His father never seemed to do anything there, and would only really talk to him when he said he had to run into town and take care of “some business.” Blackstone would walk for hours and wonder at the profound solitude one could achieve out in the middle of nowhere. And now, walking through the same terrain, many years older and after several seasons of burrowing himself in New York, the land struck the same wonder in him. He marveled that places like this still existed.
Like a well-behaved mule, Blackstone stopped.
“That’s where we got to get to,” said Johnny Conroy.
Blackstone followed the direction of the flashlight and saw a patch of flat land at the bottom of a ravine.
“Go in front of me, I’ll keep shining the light. Make sure you don’t slip. If you do, you won’t stop until you’re all the way at the bottom.” Johnny Conroy held out his hand like a maître d’ at a fine restaurant.
Though it was rather steep, Blackstone made the descent quickly and without much difficulty. When he had taken no more than one step on the flat bottom of the ravine, he saw Johnny Conroy, already up ahead of him, leading the way with the flashlight—again, just as at the airport, already there and already ready to go. They walked a couple more minutes until Johnny Conroy stopped.
“That’s what you’re here for.”
Blackstone peered into the pool of light created by the flashlight. At first he couldn’t tell what he was looking at. It looked like a small pile of rubbish, but then—when he noticed flies touching down and flying away from it—he was ready to guess, and his stomach turned just a bit, though his remaining lack of a certainty as to just what he was looking at kept it from turning much more.
“Take a deep breath, get it together, and take a closer look,” said Johnny Conroy, sensing Blackstone’s queasiness. “Go on, now.”
Blackstone moved toward the object in the light. He had to. What was he going to do? Run? Blackstone wasn’t a great private investigator—he wasn’t even a good one—but he knew the effort it took to bring him down here in the first place meant he couldn’t turn and run off into the unruly landscape shrouded in dark night. Blackstone walked closer, slowly, until his worst suspicions were confirmed..
Blackstone stood, his body shaking, trying to keep himself from convulsing, over a rotting human corpse.
“When your daddy went into the pill business, I told him he was a damn fool.”
Blackstone spun around, seeking out the source of the unfamiliar voice, but he found only darkness and the blinding beam of Johnny Conroy’s flashlight.
“I told him he had no idea what he was getting into, and that it probably wasn’t worth it anyway. I told him he should go into oil, just like everybody else. Just like me.”
Horse hooves. Blackstone caught their sound, regained what he could of his calm, and traced the voice to same place the sound of the clopping of the hooves was coming from. He still only saw darkness, but about eight feet above the sound of the hooves he was able to make out the glow of a cigarette. He glued his eyes to the cigarette’s glow, and watched it circle him.
“Back then, who knew that medicine was going to turn out to be such a racket? I guess your daddy knew something I didn’t. The bastard wouldn’t tell, that’s for sure. He sure did alright for himself. Hell, now the oil business is a mess and people who rode your father’s coattails are getting rich and richer. Pharmaceuticals, who the hell could have possibly known? Your daddy was a fine man, Steven.”
“Mr. Crawford?” The only thing Blackstone could think to say.
“You won’t remember me. I held you in my lap when you were a pup, and I was at your daddy’s funeral.”
“I wasn’t.” The only thing Blackstone could think to say.
“That’s what I thought. I wouldn’t have recognized you anyway…but that’s what I thought. We were friends since we were just two crazy rednecks in the service, stationed in the Philippines. He took his money and threw it into pill investments, I threw mine into the ground, just like shooting dice. We both came out winners. What do you think about that down there at your feet?”
Blackstone had momentarily forgotten that he was standing over a dead body.
“Why am I here?” asked Blackstone with whatever resolve he had left.
“Because you are a private investigator. Your daddy told me what you were up to. Told me all about you, as the years went by. We were about as close a friends as you can get by the time he died. God rest his soul.”
“The police should—“
“The police are public. The sheriff’s a public man, voting and all, although not all that on the level, if you know what I mean. You are a private investigator. Key word being private, if you can catch my drift.”
Blackstone finally felt fear creep in. Up to this point he maintained a certain numbness to the whole day. The painkillers he was now thoroughly dependent on helped out in a case like this. But now he was at the foot of death and darkness. And a mystery. People didn’t tend to die this far out from anywhere of natural causes. The little orange cigarette glowed high above him.
“Take a closer look at him. Look the place over. His throat’s been cut, you should know. It’s hard to tell now, the body being out here in the elements and all. He was a Mexican and his throat’s been cut. I need you to find out who did this to him.”
“I can’t do this, Mr. Crawford,” Blackstone said.
“You don’t have a choice, Blackstone,” said Johnny Conroy, whom Blackstone had forgotten about since the cigarette glow and the voice behind it had seized his attention.
“Hold it, Johnny, just shine the light,” said William Crawford. “I don’t want the sheriff out here, Steven, pure and simple. He’s in too many pockets. I just want to find out what happened here, that’s all. This ain’t all that uncommon out here, this kind of thing, but it happened on my land, and I want answers. All you have to do…is investigate. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Take in the scene here, ask a few questions around Josefina, discreetly of course, report back in a few days. That’s all.”
“But this is murder,” said Blackstone.
“And the goddamned thing happened on my land!” William Crawford’s horse jerked a little. Crawford soothed his horse with a soft voice, then resumed addressing Blackstone, “The forty thousand was to get you down here, you understand? That’s not your full payment. You do what I brought you down here to do, then report back at the end of this week, you’ll be on your way back to Yankee country with a hundred thousand more. It’s too damn late for me to be out like this. I’m too damned old. I’ll leave you youngsters now. Johnny, get him to the hotel in Josefina when he’s done. Blackstone, see you in a few days.”
William Crawford kicked the sides of his horse and began to ride off when Blackstone asked his question.
“Do you know who this body belonged to?” Blackstone’s voice sounded clear and authoritative and curiously fearless. William Crawford pulled the reigns of the horse, and sat in the saddle silently for a moment.
“You’re gonna have to find that out, too, son.”
With a click of his heels Crawford was gone into the night.
“Get to work,” said Johnny Conroy.
Blackstone, his numeorus faults honestly, objectively, and baldly considered, was still for all that not an anti-social asshole, but he knew he would never enjoy the company of Johnny Conroy. He generally didn’t like to use the word never, but in Johnny Conroy’s case, he didn’t mind.
Blackstone turned around and did just what Conroy had ordered him to do, he went to work. He followed basic on-the-scene protocols that he had gleaned from skulking around crime scenes in New York; at the same time, he tried not to think too much about the smell and general decay of the once-living creature beneath him. There was not much to discover, and if Crawford hadn’t told him that the dead man’s throat had been cut Blackstone never would have known, the body being so badly decomposed. Judging by the clothes that clad the body, he guessed he hadn’t been an old man at the time of death.
“The body should be moved.”
“Do what you gotta do out here,” replied Johnny Conroy.
“Well, it has to be moved soon, and buried.”
“That’s not what you are being paid for. How much longer do you have?”
“I am basically done, there’s not much to work with,” said Blackstone, with futility.
“Get completely done and let’s go.”
Blackstone looked over the body one more time. He searched the pockets of its clothes and found nothing. It was all he could do to keep from getting sick. Just as he was about to leave the body, something caught his eye. The forearm was sunburned, which struck Blackstone as odd. The corpse had a long-sleeved shirt on, which, Blackstone guessed, had been torn away by coyotes. The sleeve was still buttoned, though, so, after pulling the torn edge of the sleeve back a little bit, and seeing more sunburn, Blackstone guessed again, and came to the conclusion that the arm had been sunburned while the man was still alive. Johnny Conroy shifted the beam of the light at that moment, which gave Blackstone a view of the dead man’s back. There was a tattoo comprising words only—no design—which read, in English, “I Am My Mother’s Son.”
“Alright, I’m ready to go,” said Blackstone, keeping to himself the sunburn and the tattoo.
“I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon”, said Johnny Conroy as he sped down the dark road on the way to Josefina. “You’re to tell me where you plan to go and who you plan to question.”
“I have no idea who to question,” said Blackstone.
“Speak to the Mexicans,” replied Johnny Conroy.
“Well, tell me where the Mexican side of town is before you drop me off.”
Johnny Conroy held back a giggle, the only emotion he had shown the whole night.
“Josefina’s sort of a one-sided town.”
It had been a while since Blackstone had been down here.
Blackstone closed his mind to any more thought, and as he chased nothingness in his head his hand slipped into a crack in the back seat and caught hold of a small piece of paper. Blackstone was surprised; the rest of the interior of the SUV was spotless. Something inside him told him to hold on to it, whatever it was, and the same instinct told him not to let on to Johnny Conroy that he’d found it, whatever it was.****
Blackstone chewed down the rest of his cup of coffee, and politely demurred when the waitress immediately offered another refill. The hospitality of the staff of the café in which he was sitting, Marisella’s, made him feel as if the whole place existed only to please him. At this moment, it did. The only other patron, a Mexican man Blackstone guessed to be in his late forties, sat alone at a corner table by a window. He drank his coffee slowly. Blackstone pegged him as a man who drank coffee all day, every day: deep lines in his face, droopy eyes, and his overall bearing suggested fatigue from the moment he got out of bed. He was clad in Western wear, which, while not lavish, was worn in a way that suggested he didn’t work anywhere near a ranch: jeans faded, but not badly tattered, boots displaying the wear only of a lot of walking... The waitress went over to the man’s table and dutifully refilled his coffee cup. “Maybe he would be a good place to start,” Blackstone thought.
Blackstone had finished his breakfast about half an hour earlier, but had remained drinking coffee. He ate and drank robotically, with his left hand. All the while, in his right hand, and under the table, clutching the piece of paper he’d discovered in Johnny Conroy’s SUV. Cautiously looking down at it in intervals between coffee and eggs, he continued doing at breakfast what been doing the whole night before in his room of The Mission Hotel: reading it, over and over again. Reynolds Pharmacy, Rosario Cavazos, Twenty Tablets Amoxicillin, per Dr. Juan Garcia. No Refills. Not much to go on. The only thing to go on. And Johnny Conroy was right—the population of Josefina was predominately Hispanic; he would have only Hispanics to question. He had two names, and the name of a pharmacy, and a loner sitting and drinking coffee a few tables away. He tipped the waitress well, and then gathered up the pieces of himself that still made him believe he was a private investigator, pressed them together best he could, and walked over to the man’s table.
“Perdon, señor,” Blackstone mumbled. The man looked up at him with emotionless, droopy eyes. Blackstone struggled to find the question to ask in Spanish. “Yo soy…ah…tengo poquito questiones…”
“You can ask me in English, fella.”
Blackstone took a deep breath, in hopes that the red of embarrassment in his face would disappear before it grew into the rich scarlet that was the cause of so much childhood humiliation.
“What’s your question…or questions? Are you lost?” The man’s eyes now suggested genuine concern. Everything about this man seemed genuine.
“No. I am…I just need to ask a few questions.”
“Well, shoot,” said the man.
“Do you know a Dr. Juan Garcia?”
“Yeah, he’s dead. Died some years ago.”
Blackstone glanced, discreetly, down at the paper, and just now he recognized the yellowing of the prescription slip. The man noticed him looking at it.
“Well, alright. How about Reynolds Pharmacy?”
“Yeah, I know it.”
“Can you tell me where it is?”
“I can tell you where the dollar store is; that’s where Reynolds Pharmacy used to be. That’s a few stop signs down the road, to the east.” The man drank his coffee, his eyes still on Blackstone, waiting for another easy answer.
Blackstone froze. He held still, in hopes that his confidence would not leak out all over the café floor. That’s what he did in moments like these, moments that made him question his self-worth. He did nothing. Sometimes it was a gift, like when he tailed a cheating husband, or a deadbeat dad, and got too close. It was a basic survival tactic around volatile people whose backs were to the wall. It helped him disappear. It was not a gift, however—in fact it was a curse—when it came to his wife, now ex-wife. When talking needed to be done, he froze, and his wife, now ex-wife, though he could still see her, and her anger, would look to him as if she were underwater, and he could only hear muffled syllables.
Blackstone was not an emotional man. His emotions had been stunted from the time his father got him his very first prescription. Blackstone was thirty-four-years old, and had been taking a pill for this or a pill for that since the age of fourteen, when his mother died. A different colored pill for every occasion. Too much pain, a pill. Too much anxiety, a pill. Too much joy, a pill. And of course, many, many pills to sleep, and many, many pills to stay awake. Blackstone always felt as if he reacted to things a split second after the normal person, whatever the normal person was. It kept him calm, true, but he felt that someday the planet would launch him into space for not keeping up with its spin. It was an unpleasant thought, but he had a pill that could send that thought away—or at the very least, keep him from caring.
“Who’s the prescription for?” asked the man, bringing Blackstone back to the café.
“What?” Blackstone asked.
“The prescription you’re holding? Who’s it for?”
Blackstone held the prescription up as if he’d never tried to hide it. “It’s for a Rosario Cavazos.”
The man’s eyes shifted for a moment—long enough for Blackstone to take notice.
“Is she dead, too?” Asked Blackstone.
“No, she is very much alive. She’s crazy, off her rocker, but still taking in air.” The waitress came to refill the man’s coffee. Once more he kindly thanked her. She looked over at Blackstone, who smiled and shook his head.
“Do you know where she lives?”
“On the edge of town, on Vasquez Street. You can sit down, you know.”
Blackstone, after another trademark freeze, sat down, awkwardly. “I don’t suppose you know the exact address?”
“No,” said the man, “it’s a yellow house on the south side of the street on the last block of town.” It was an answer that sounded like it was uttered by a man who knew exactly where all of Josefina’s inhabitants lived.
“Alright then, you said Vasquez?” Blackstone started to rise from the table, just as awkwardly as he had sat down.
“Vasquez Street. You don’t want to confuse it with Vasquez Way, or Vasquez Drive. One’s really no different than the other, just the people who live on them.”
“Vasquez Street. Okay, got it. Well, sir, have a nice day.” Blackstone backed away from the table.
“You’re not going there alone, are you?”
Blackstone turned around.
The man, a tone of interest at last in his voice, said, “As you are, I mean. By yourself?”
“Is there a way I should go?”
“Yeah,” said the man, “not alone. It’s not the greatest part of town to be in for a white man in a suit.”
“I need to ask her some questions.”
The man looked down at his coffee, and for the first time released his grip on the cup. He kept looking at it, however. He said, “Now, mister…”
“Oh, my name is Steven Black—“
“No,” said the man, waving him off. “I’m not prying. You don’t have to give me your name. I’m just saying that you want to be careful, that’s all. This town don’t get a lot of visitors. That the hotel I’m guessing you are staying in stays open baffles me. The people in this town go from day to day, doing whatever it is that they do. A white man in a suit, visiting a crazy old Mexican lady, may cause the neighbors to be a bit suspicious. And then maybe a little angry. Some may feel like telling you that you don’t have any business being around here. Some may want to tell this to you in ways other than words. You understand? Now, like I said, I’m not prying, but I can’t see what kind of business you would want with that poor old lady. Now, I know you didn’t come here to ask her anything, specifically, judging by how you read off the name of the pharmacy and the doctor first—“
“I’m investigating a death of someone she may have known.”
Blackstone realized what he’d just said a split second after he said it. He could feel the spin of the earth now, and was fighting to stay aground. The man took a deep breath.
“Sit down,” the man said, reluctantly. Blackstone did so. “Investigating, huh? I’m guessing you’re not a professional, are you?”
“Actually, I am,” answered Blackstone. “I’m a private investigator, from New York. My name is Steven Blackstone.”
“I mean FBI,” said the man. “You aren’t from the government, are you?”
“No,” answered Blackstone.
“Well, that leaves me with a little faith in our government yet.”
Blackstone, had he not been one step behind the spin of the planet, might have taken offense at the man’s remark. He took a deep breath and said, “I’ve been hired to look into the death of a young man. All I have to go on is this old prescription slip.”
The man asked, “Whose death?”
“I don’t know,” said Blackstone. “I was hired yesterday morning. I’m sorry to bother you, sir. What’s your name?”
“Prajexides. Prajexides Ortiz.”
“Well, thank you Pra…uh…Pra—“
“Call me Pepe,” said the man, sparing Blackstone’s face from turning a deeper sheet of red.
Blackstone started talking. He told Pepe all the events from the morning before up to now. That a body had been found, murdered, on a man’s ranch. He did not give Crawford’s name. He colored the story a bit by telling Pepe he had been brought in for an investigation independent of the authorities. Pepe’s gaze let Blackstone know that his interest had been piqued, though he retained his air of nonchalance.
“You said you are investigating this outside of the law?”
“Independent of the law.” Blackstone answered .
“That would be the Sheriff’s Department, for this kind of case, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Blackstone.
“But the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t know you’re here?”
“No,” Blackstone his face growing redder with each additional word. “It isn’t against the law. Like I said, it’s not all that uncommon. The people who hired me want an investigation independent of the law, that’s all.”
“And you are going to do this by yourself?”
“It’s as clear as a bell to me now that I won’t be able to.” Blackstone looked at Pepe and raised a white flag of surrender. “I don’t suppose you want to go with me to talk to Rosario Cavazos?”
Pepe smiled and said, “I’ve got things to do.” He got up, left a tip for the waitress, and started toward the door of the café. Blackstone followed behind him. “Have a good day, darlin’,” he said to the waitress as he passed through the doorway.
“You too, sheriff.”
Blackstone froze in his tracks. Pepe turned and looked at him with a hint of a grin.****
“You’re a private eye, and the first person you decide to question is the sheriff,” Pepe said, unable to suppress some gentle laughter. He took his keys from his pocket and unlocked the door to his very shiny, very new pick-up truck.
“The body is still out there,” was the only thing Blackstone could think of to say.
“My guess is that it will stay out there, too. The buzzards and coyotes will take care of him, then its just a matter of bones.” Pepe got into his truck. “Want a ride back to The Mission?”
Blackstone forgot that he had walked some time before he reached the café that morning.
“You aren’t going to do anything about it?” Blackstone shouted over the roar of the engine.
Pepe paused and looked down in his lap. Something about his posture told Blackstone that some kind of war was raging in Pepe’s conscience, and perhaps had been for some time. Finally, the sheriff lifted his head and stared down the road. He seemed to stare even further down it as he began to address Blackstone. “Probably some illegal, got lost out there, fell down that ravine. Maybe it just looked like his throat was cut to whoever it was who found’em. Even if it wasn’t, a man’s got a right to protect his land.”
“You’re not even going to ask me whose land it is?” A tone of accusation had found Blackstone’s voice.
“Goddammit!” Pepe slammed the gear shift in park, cut off his engine and got out of the truck. “As a matter of fact, no, I am not! Now, to somebody who has no clue how things are run around here—“
“I’m from here!”
Pepe lifted his drooping eyes and, for once, didn’t look tired. “Oh, you are, are you?”
“I was raised outside of San Antonio and my father had a place not far from here.”
“Oh,” said Pepe, grinning. “So you know all about life on the border, I see. Your daddy wanted to play Old McDonald every summer and you learned all there is to know, didn’t you? Let me tell you something, Blackstone. You are not from right here, right now. And, since you’re not, no one’s going to have anything to do with you. It’s my day off, dammit, and I still have to go in and do paperwork! My job’s filled with enough bullshit to have to worry about the death of a damned foolish wetback!”
Blackstone froze, but not like one of his chronic freezes. He froze in awe of the sheriff. Awe over the fact, and Blackstone was sure it was a fact, that Pepe was just waiting to tear into somebody with what he had just said. However, being an elected lawman, he was unable to do anything except smile through his troubled position, or show no emotion. Pepe’s demeanor, before his rant, made perfect sense to Blackstone now. Blackstone had one thing left to say to the sheriff. “I’m fairly certain he was not an illegal.”
Pepe had defiantly walked to the driver’s side of his truck, but he himself froze after Blackstone spoke.
“Well, you don’t have any ID on him, do you? Try proving it before the body rots. Once that happens, he’s just a dead Mexican. And, then it won’t matter anyway.” Pepe climbed into his truck.
“I’m fairly certain he wasn’t a Mexican, either.”
“Shit,” said Pepe, clutching the steering wheel as if he wanted to crawl into it. He looked down the road again, the same way he had before. “You’re staying at The Mission, right? Not…with relatives?” The sarcasm in Pepe’s voice was intended for easy discernment.
“Yeah,” answered Blackstone.
“Be in your room come late afternoon. I’ll call by.”
The sheriff drove off, steering his pick-up in the direction of his gaze, which was fixed down the middle of the road in front of him, leaving Blackstone behind peering through dust.****
Blackstone glanced at his watch in the lobby of The Mission hotel. It read five minutes past noon. In a matter of seconds he was at the door of his room. He figured he would tell Johnny Conroy, when he called, that he had talked to a few local townsfolk here and there. He’d say that no one seemed to be missing anybody, or knew anybody who had heard of anyone gone missing. He picked up a few names of restaurants, bars, and so on, just in case Johnny Conroy dug deep. He turned the key in his door, turned the lock, and was no more than two steps into his room when he heard Johnny Conroy’s voice.
“I told you I would call at noon,” said Johnny Conroy, quietly. He was comfortably seated in a chair next to the window.
“It’s five minutes after twelve,” Blackstone replied.
“I told you I would call at noon,” Johnny Conroy repeated.
“Jesus, I’m a few minutes late. I was out asking people—“
Johnny Conroy stood up. Blackstone didn’t realize until then how big the man was. Just his motion stopped Blackstone in mid-sentence.
“Go into the darker parts of town. Go from café to café, bar to bar, and ask people if they have heard of anyone who has gone missing. Keep your suit on. Act…official.” Johnny Conroy start to leave.
“You seem to know what to do. Why was I even hired?” Blackstone asked as Johnny Conroy put his hand on the door.
“To ask questions.”
“Oh, because I thought I was hired to find out who murdered a man. At least that’s what I thought Mr. Crawford told me from his horse.”
Johnny Conroy took his hand off the door. He looked at Blackstone with a gentle grin. “You can’t do that without asking questions, now, can you? Go to public places and ask around, that’s easy enough to do.” He turned and opened the door, but before he left, he said, “Don’t talk to the sheriff again.” The door slammed automatically behind him.****
The clock struck four. Just as it had with three o’clock, two o’clock, and one o’clock. Blackstone witnessed the last three hours begin on the clock above the television on his hotel room wall. Of course, he wasn’t there to witness twelve o’clock, Johnny Conroy made sure he knew that. Nobody was ever on time when he was a kid in Texas, he thought. When somebody said they’d be somewhere at a certain time, they usually meant around that time. At least that’s what Blackstone remembered. And, that’s a habit Blackstone kept with him. He was always late, to meet clients, to meet friends, back when he had friends, or for dinners with his wife. His wife, ex-wife, ran an art gallery, and he would always remember the burning anger and disappointment in her eyes when he showed up late to an opening, which, of course, was always. He even turned in the divorce papers late. Being late was a bad habit, and he had had it for a long time, so, he thought, he must have learned it in Texas. He also thought, what kind of Texan is Johnny Conroy? Was he a robot, programmed for optimal promptness? At any rate, it was four o’clock, and time for Blackstone to pop a few more anti-anxiety pills. He was always on time for that. And always took just a little more than what was prescribed. He was now ready to wait.
He sank into his chair and settled in for the hour-long wait until five o’clock. Just after Johnny Conroy left he put in a call to the Sheriff’s department and requested to speak to Sheriff Ortiz, but was put straight through to voicemail. He didn’t bother to leave a message, it was, after all, Pepe’s day off. Blackstone was at a fork in the road; he didn’t know what to do, so he decided to do nothing. Part of him, a rather large part of him, hoped that Pepe wouldn’t show up like he said he would. Then there was a soft knock at the door. After Blackstone felt that hope escape, he made his way to the door. He opened it to find the sheriff.
“They know I talked to you.”
“I know,” Pepe replied.
Pepe took a look to the left and to the right, then gently pushed Blackstone inside the hotel room and shut the door. “Somebody wrote a message and put it under my windshield wiper. It said to stay away from the PI.”
Blackstone hadn’t yet told Pepe who’d hired him, so he approached the situation with caution. Maybe some part of him believed that he could actually function as a private investigator. “Did it say who wrote it?”
“From the people who look after your interests,” replied the sheriff, “is who it said it was from.” Pepe was equally careful with his words. “Now listen, you know who hired you, at least I think you do. I don’t want to know, you understand? I don’t care what kind of lawman you think I am. I don’t care. I’m just telling you that I can’t get involved, got it? A dead body that’s not meant to be found doesn’t need to be found. But when one gets found they kick up a whole lotta trouble, more trouble then when they still had a soul pushing them around. You just had to go off and say you think he was an American. What makes you think he was an American?”
“You mean a U.S. citizen?”
Blackstone took a breath and started to explain. “Well, for one, the way the he was dressed. Everything was a name brand, and he dressed to match. To me, that smells of money. Generally, if those name brands get handed down to somebody, they match less. People wear whatever they can wear. This guy…the clothes on the corpse didn’t suggest that.”
Pepe stared at him incredulously.
“My ex-wife bought my clothes for me,” Blackstone said, “She had style, I guess.”
“Alright,” Pepe said, “more importantly, why do you think he’s white?”
Blackstone took a deep breath. “He was sunburned.”
“The body was rotting in the damn desert!” Pepe exclaimed.
“His shirt was torn, one of the sleeves must have been torn off by buzzards or coyotes. His forearm was one of the few parts of him that wasn’t decomposed. Instead of a tanned arm there was evidence of sunburn. Like the way mine gets when I am out in the sun with no sunblock on. Now, I know that’s not a lot to go on, but don’t you think a Mexican fellow, who’s out in the middle of nowhere, would tan before he burns? You— do you sunburn, or do you tan on your arms?” Pepe didn’t answer. “There was a tattoo, in English, which read: “I Am My Mother’s Son.” In English, Pepe, not Spanish. If he was from across the water, don’t you think…look, I had a few minutes to look at a dead body in the desert in the middle of the night. So, I could be totally wrong. But there’s one other thing.”
“What’s that?” Pepe looked as though he would regret asking.
“Would somebody offer me one hundred and forty thousand dollars to investigate a dead illegal out in the middle of nowhere?”
Pepe sighed. He looked as if his worst suspicions had been confirmed. “If word comes out someone more than a dead illegal got found, and it comes out that I didn’t do anything about it, I’m screwed. If I go against someone who has a hundred and forty thousand dollars to throw at you to dick around down here, I’m really screwed. I don’t think we should talk here any more. To the right of the rear entrance of the hotel, two blocks down, is the corner of Central and Jeramilla Streets. When you see my truck at the intersection, walk up to the passenger side and get in. I’m going to leave now. I entered the back way and I have to double around the other side of the hotel. I parked my truck at the hardware store. When I leave you wait five minutes, then go to the intersection, Central and Jeramilla, and jump in when I get there. Five minutes. Don’t be late.”
The sheriff went to the door.
“Where are we going?”
The sheriff turned around. “To speak to Rosario Cavazos, of course.”
The sheriff left. Five minutes. Blackstone couldn’t be late this time.****
Sheriff Prajexides Ortiz was right. The house Rosario Cavazos lived in was definitely yellow. Bright yellow, the color of the sun. And with the sun looming closer to the horizon the little yellow house stood out from all the rest. The other houses were not devoid of color either—in fact, every house on the block was painted its own pastel shade. If it weren’t for the rusted cars, car parts, and remnants of cars long dead, the neighborhood would look pretty cheerful, as if it could be anywhere in a happy, content, yesteryear version of middle-class America. As if one were driving through a rainbow. But the blanket of rust and litter covering the block occluded its glow. A few people stood around on lawns here and there, eyeing Pepe’s truck cautiously. The yards they stood in were not necessarily barren, they were just places where green grass appeared unwelcome.
“Alright, let me do all the talking. Judging by this morning, your Spanish is liable to get us in trouble. She’s already crazy as it is,” said Pepe, getting out of the truck.
Pepe knocked on the door of the little, yellow house. A few moments later, Blackstone could hear very soft, sorrowful singing. Immediately after, the door opened.
Rosario Cavazos opened the door. She was a tiny, slightly plump old lady with white hair and deep lines on her face. She held a candle with one hand and was dressed in a dark purple Mexican dress. She also wore a black veil. She lifted the veil to reveal deep, sad, brown eyes. However, she smiled as she looked the sheriff and Blackstone over.
“Hola, señora,” said Pepe.
A few moments passed, Rosario staring silently at the sheriff and Blackstone, her face in between awe and something else, but a trace of a smile nonetheless visible upon it. Her eyes then shifted to a distant gaze, and she slowly started to shake her head.
“Si…oh, si…entren, hombres!” The lady screamed, over and over. Both Pepe and Blackstone stifled their impulse to jump. Rosario Cavazos left the door and walked back into the house, saying “entren, hombres, amigos” over and over. Pepe and Blackstone quickly glanced at each other and then followed her in.
The house was covered in religious décor. Paintings of Jesus and crucifixes hung everywhere, and candles, with stark images of saints and of the Lamb of God himself covered just about every place one could put a candle. They were all lit, giving the saints an even more sepulchral appearance. Rosario Cavazos sat in a tiny rocking chair that was almost too small for her and looked as if it were about to crumble, even as it faithfully rocked her back and forth. She gestured for Pepe and Blackstone to sit on a plastic-covered loveseat. Pepe and Blackstone sat down and Pepe began to question her.
Blackstone had given Pepe the prescription slip to show her, and it was Pepe only who, in a soothing, calm voice, talked to her. Although Blackstone couldn’t understand anything but a word here and there, he could tell by the old lady’s eyes and squeaking voice that her answers probably weren’t very useful. But Pepe continued talking, and eventually Blackstone gave up his illusion of control and left the interview to Pepe. His mind began to wander and, still seated, he began to looked around the house and notice décor different from the Christian icons that had immediately struck his eyes when he’d first entered the house. Sage hung on the wall. An intricate design, unknown to Blackstone, hung on the wall, made from what Blackstone guessed to be the polished bones of a small animal. Down the hallway he saw wooden masks hanging on the wall. Underneath all of the house’s Catholicism, there existed another, more ancient faith, and it seemed to Blackstone as this ancient faith held up the newer.
“Mijo! Oh, mijito!”
Blackstone jumped in his seat and looked back at the old lady and the sheriff. Pepe had given the old lady the prescription slip. She clutched it with both hands, as if it were alive, pulling her and pushing her this way and that, until finally the slip appeared to pull her up to her feet, all the while she kept saying, sometimes screaming, sometimes whispering, “mijito.” Tears poured out of her eyes. Pepe and Blackstone looked at each other, and for a moment both thought they should try to console her, but before either could act on that impulse, her behavior abruptly changed, as if,now, suddenly, she had something very important to do. Pepe and Blackstone stayed seated.
“El asesino de espiritu, el asesino de espiritu,” said Rosario Cavazos over and over, again, grabbing a bowl-like maze grinder in which she began to grind different herbs and leaves. Once ground, she sprinkled these herbs and leaves over a small bushel of sage before striking a match and setting it all ablaze.
She moved about the room with the burning sage, waving it about, crying out “mijito,” and “el asesino espiritu.” The prescription slip was the next thing she dropped into the fire. Blackstone stood up, but Pepe immediately grabbed Blackstone’s arm and stopped him from approaching Rosario.
“We need to go,” said Pepe, getting up.
“That’s our only piece of evidence,” Blackstone exclaimed in a whisper.
“Maybe not.” Pepe walked to the door.
Blackstone followed Pepe, but halfway to the door he stopped and turned around. Right behind him stood Rosario Cavazos, with tears in her eyes, but almost smiling. She started to stroke Blackstone’s cheek, whispering, “Tu blanco, tu blanco, mi mijo…blanco.”
Pepe turned around and slowly walked toward the old lady and Blackstone. He watched the scene for a bit. The old lady then went to Pepe, and stroked his face, “tu Mexicano, tu Mexicano, mi mijo…mexicano…es muerto. El asesino espiritu!”
Pepe grabbed Blackstone by the arm and they both backed away from Rosario and towards the door. Rosario Cavazos followed them to the door with the burning sage, her voice growing into more and more of a whisper, her expression becoming more and more unreal, she herself becoming a more and more horrific cartoon version of the old woman who had opened the door for them.
Rosario Cavazos’ voice stayed in both the sheriff’s and Blackstone’s ears—long after they hand driven away from that little yellow house.****
The fluorescent lights of the Sheriff’s Department’s file room in Josefina, Texas flickered unforgivably. Blackstone felt that if he stayed too much longer he’d drop to the floor and convulse. The pounding in his head felt like it would never go away. He didn’t want to take any pills, though. He needed to stay clear, so he breathed deeply, which mitigated at least the throbbing as the pain maintained its steady but slightly less intense assault. Pepe poured through files, as he had been doing ever since he turned on the demonic fluorescents, which had given everything a green hue, further adding to Blackstone’s nausea. They had walked to the sheriff’s department from behind a convenience store, where they left Pepe’s truck, believing that they were probably being followed. When they were across the street from the sheriff’s department, Pepe told Blackstone to walk around the back and that he would let him in. It was after six when they got there, so most of the staff had left for the day. The deputies on duty were making their rounds. Only the dispatcher was actually in the building. The deputies would return around seven. Pepe wanted to find what he was looking for before they arrived.
“Who exactly are you looking for?” asked Blackstone.
“I’ll let you know when I find him,” answered the sheriff, not bothering to look up from the file cabinet.
“The killer or the dead man?”
“Shh!” The sheriff barked.
“Don’t you think you need to tell me—“
Pepe looked up guickly, “Have you told me everything?” Blackstone gave up, the sheriff stuck his head back into the files. Blackstone rubbed his eyes, as if would rub his headache away. As he did so, the sad eyes of Rosario Cavazos, her hand stroking his face so gently, and her repetition of the word “blanco” over and over struck lightning in his mind, and he turned to Pepe.
“Mijo,” Blackstone whispered.
“That’s right,” Pepe mumbled.
“He’s white, or was white,” said Blackstone. “That’s what she was saying, right? She was saying it to me, but she wasn’t saying it about me, was she?”
“I think you’re right,” said Pepe.
“Then why was she screaming, ‘mijo’? Why was she screaming, ‘son’?”
“Here we go,” said Pepe. He pulled out a file and rushed to the small desk by the file cabinet. “This file has to be ten years old by now, but let’s see. Billy Davis. Twenty-three years old. Race: Other. Five feet, nine inches tall. Hair: Brown. Eyes: Blue. Did you see his eyes?
“His eyes were pecked out,” said Blackstone.
“They usually are,” said Pepe. “He was brought in on a trafficking wrap. Painkillers mainly, I remember. But he was also bringing in less offensive pharmaceuticals. I remember that, too.”
“Bringing them across and selling them,” Blackstone said to himself.
“All kinds, probably pretty profitable, too, seeing as most people down here can’t afford insurance. Selling to the many that can’t get help from the government.”
“Illegals,” Blackstone said, still to himself.
“Yep. People don’t mind hiring them for all sorts of jobs on this side of the river, don’t mind them doing the work that they would never do. Work them till they break down, but when they get hurt, well... Somebody comes down and tries to make a little money, help some people out in the process—they bust him and call him a criminal. Just like Billy Davis, aka…Billy Cavazos.”
“Cavazos?” Blackstone asked, now looking directly at the sheriff.
“Yeah.” He looked down at the file. “Tattoos: ‘I Am My Mother’s Son’ in English, Lower Back. Do you remember where that ravine was, where the body was?”
“Is it time for me to tell you who hired me?”
Pepe stared into Blackstone, growing angry. Just when he looked like he was about to punch a hole in the wall, he glanced back down at the file and read aloud, “Billy Davis, aka Billy Cavazos…aka Billy Crawford. Race: Other. Goddammit.”
Blackstone gazed at the fiery orange glow on the horizon. The Rio Grande river flowed out of the eternal riverhead of his window. He didn’t notice how close he was to the river the night before, when his quietly efficient chauffeur, Johnny Conroy, brought him into town. He turned his gaze upward, and found that same ice blue color he marveled at out of the plane window. He still could not find the transition of color in the sky, much less a definite point where it changed. Painful, fiery orange to soothing, endless blue twilight. “Perhaps the sky could only be the two colors at the same time,” Blackstone thought. Perhaps the sky is neither, and the colors are only an illusion, hiding the fact that there’s nothing further than what we see.
“The sides of the ravine are deep, right? A flat circular bed at the bottom, steep, crater like walls?” Pepe gaze reached out far beyond the horizon.
“From what I can remember, yes,” answered Blackstone.
“That’s Crawford’s place alright. I know how to get there another way. I’m sure we won’t be able to waltz through the front gate of Crawford’s place. He could shoot us and no one would ever know”
“Or Johnny Conroy will,” said Blackstone.
“The guy that came all the way to New York to get me. You’ve never heard of him?” Blackstone asked, glancing over at Pepe.
“No. He’s probably somebody who doesn’t get ‘heard of.’ Doesn’t matter, anyway. I know his type. He works in the ‘best interests’ of people like Crawford. And, Crawford, he’s just like the rest of his kind. They can’t keep the American side of the border white, so they buy all the land along the border. The color on top changes, but the land stays white.”
“That’s what’s happening down here?”
“Yeah, Crawford’s a big proponent of ‘the wall.’ He and the other super rich of the great state of Texas. The want a wall all around the border. There are certain types of Americans that just won’t let the idea of fortifying the damn country die for good.”
“Citizens of these here United States of America,” said Blackstone, with unveiled sarcasm.
“Americans,” the sheriff retorted.
“Well, it’s all America, right, Pepe? Past the river and all the way down—we’re all Americans, aren’t we?“
“Shit,” spat Pepe, “take a look across that river over there. How many people on that side and all the way down wake up every morning saying they’re proud to be an American? Lets get it straight, Blackstone, there’s only one America, and that runs north of the Rio Grand and stops short of Canada, and, okay, those other two states out there. And that’s it. America is a state of mind. An empire. It wants cheap labor, long hours, and doesn’t really care if you die or not…and it wants you to be happy because of it!” Pepe realized he was getting too emotional. He gripped the steering wheel in silence. After an uncomfortable moment Blackstone looked over at Pepe.
“I was being facetious,” admitted Blackstone.
“Yeah, I know,” replied Pepe, gazing through the windshield.
“What did old lady Cavazos mean by ‘asesino espiritu?’”
Pepe, calmer, replied, “Some old superstition, roughly translated to ‘ghost murderer.’”
“Yep, the old folks know more about it. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody your age who knows what it means.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a legend, basically, to explain why people turn up dead in the desert. Supposedly, due to one’s bad deeds, the ghost murderer comes to issue punishment to said person, takes their soul—kills it actually—so it won’t make it to heaven. What’s left is a living human body with no direction. A…zombie, kinda. Without a soul to guide them, they usually end up wandering about aimlessly in the wilderness until they die.” Pepe drifted off into silence until Blackstone could only hear his breathing for some time. Then, softly, Pepe resumed speaking. “My dad was a wetback, came over and worked on the land we’re going to. That’s why I know how to get to the ravine. Back then it was owned by another man, named Mr. Richardson. I never knew his first name. He was a different man, still hired wetbacks, so I guess that makes him a criminal, but…he was a different man. Seemed to understand what people went through to come here. Hundreds, sometimes over a thousand miles to work all day, everyday, and send every penny they made back to their families. Sometimes staying over here so long they forgot the faces of their wives, children. I don’t know how it came to be, but somehow I was born on this side of the border. My dad treated Mr. Richardson with reverence. I got lucky enough to be an American,” he glanced over at Blackstone, “a U.S citizen. I’m sure Mr. Richardson played a part in it. He looked old, like he was always old. He died. My dad, he left…said goodbye to me and just left. I guess there was no place for him anywhere anymore. ”
Blackstone saw the pain in Pepe’s face and changed the subject. “Do you think this Billy Davis is Rosario Cavazos’ son?”
“Yeah,” said Pepe, looking straight ahead. “When I was a teenager, I remember, it seemed one day she was pregnant, then one day it was like she never was. I never saw a baby. That happens around here from time to time. Besides, she cried like a mother who just lost a son. That happens around here from time to time, too.”
“Is this all leading up to what I think this is leading up to?” Blackstone asked in a way that made clear that he really didn’t want to know the answer.
“Billy…Crawford,” Pepe almost sang the name.
“William Crawford’s son,” said Blackstone, staring out into the distance almost as far as Pepe was.
“I’m fairly certain it is. The man’s been known to stray away from his…morals. Nice work, detective.” Pepe held his glance at Blackstone a little longer than usual.
“Why the hell was I even brought down here? Just seems like routine murder that nobody wants solved. Not even his own father.”
“I think the answer lies in that gas-guzzler behind us,” said Pepe, nervously. “We’re coming up to one of the gates of Crawford’s place. Let’s hope to hell that they turn in.”
Through the passenger mirror Blackstone could tell it was the same SUV he had been in the night before. And, even though the windows were very dark, he swore he saw Johnny Conroy grinning. His spying was interrupted by Pepe’s slight laugh.
Pepe held his laugh in, “That’s something that’s truly American, and on both sides of the border.”
“What?” Balckstone waited for an answer.
The SUV turned off at the gate.
“We’ll go around my way,” said Pepe, looking in the rearview mirror. “Let’s hope that body is still there. If it is…” Pepe stopped to fight another battle in himself. “I’ll radio in. And, then, the shit-storm really starts.”****
Blackstone kept his eyes straight ahead, following the rays of light emenating from the headlights of Pepe’s pickup truck. The rays of light shot up skyward every now and then, as Pepe and Blackstone were now no longer travelling on any type of road, instead running over brush and into crevices in the earth. The sheriff drove with confidence and Blackstone entrusted him with his safety and stared straight ahead. They had stopped talking after Pepe had popped an old, rusty back gate to get onto Crawford’s ranch. Blackstone took the time to drain his mind of any thoughts, as he had done so many times before when thinking became too difficult.
The truck slowed.
“Here it is,” said Pepe. He crept up to a ledge, then continued until the truck slanted downward, shining its light on the circular bottom of the same ravine where Blackstone had examined Billy Davis, aka Billy Cavazos, aka Billy Crawford the night before. “That’s where you were talking about, wasn’t it?”
“Looks like,” said Blackstone.
Pepe shut the truck off and killed the lights. “I’ll get my spot,” he said, then got out, opened his tool box, and pulled out a hand held-spotlight.
Blackstone got out of the truck at the same time, and while Pepe was getting the light he decided it was time to take a few pills. His headache had not gone away and he could no longer take the pain it gave him. Just after he gulped down the pills he saw Pepe looking at him. Though it was dark, he was sure Pepe was giving him the same passive look he had given him in the café that morning.
“I have a prescription for them,” said Blackstone, defensively.
“I’m sure you do,” said Pepe. “Let’s go.”
Blackstone followed Pepe down the steep edge of the ravine. After they made it down they thoroughly searched the bottom of the ravine. They found no body.
“Damn it,” said the sheriff, under his breath.
“It was here, right here, where we’re standing,” said Blackstone.
“I know,” said Pepe, “There’s another set of footprints, and hoof tracks. Was Crawford on his horse?”
“Yes. I barely saw him, but he was here.”
“And now there’s no trace of a body. And, no murder without a body.”
“He wasn’t killed here anyway.” Blackstone walked closer to Pepe. Whether they really were or not, the darkness gave him the impression they were being watched. “It was easy to tell. If they cut his throat out here, there would have been a lot more blood. Jesus, I should have gone straight to the police.”
“You did,” quipped Pepe.
“You know what I mean. I should have said fuck the money and gone to the cops.”
“They’d have found a way to stop you. They don’t let those things happen,” said Pepe, assuring him. “Chances are you would have ended up the missing body of a another murder.”
“Why was I even brought out here. You have any theories on that?”
“Yeah, I do,” answered Pepe. “My guess is that they wanted somebody totally unconnected to the whole damn thing. They wanted everything to stay a mystery to you, then send you into town with a mystery, asking folks about a murder, spreading the seed. The poor people in Josefina can’t defend themselves. What are they gonna do? Fill out a police report and write in “illegal alien” where it asks about nationality? Hell, even if they are a citizen, more than likely somebody in their household isn’t. And the law would be more interested in sending that innocent son-of-a-bitch back across the water than finding the goddamn murderer. It they hear by way of someone, someone in a suit, that a man they know was murdered…well, you learn how to get as small and insignificant as you can. It’s all about fear. Then Crawford would sit atop his horse, watch the fear swell as the body rotted away into nothing.”
“A bit elaborate, I’d say,”
“Well, men like Crawford can afford to be.”
Blackstone turned from Pepe’s spotlight and looked out over the sky. There was no moon, and he gazed at the countless stars. He felt the early affects of the pills he took, as if they were scraping out the tension from underneath his skin. Then, the feeling, the feeling he so depended on started from his toes and, like mercury, slithered upwards to the rest of his body. Nothing of the current moment went away, he was well aware of the danger, but the flow of the pills gave the danger buoyancy, and it floated to a bank in the back of his mind, and rested there. Blackstone looked higher and higher at the stars, until his head was straight up. After a moment, more stars appeared in his sight, until it seemed the entire sky was more stars then darkness, an intricate web, infinite. He thought, his head straight up, that the fiery orange glow and the deep blue of the twilight that he saw over the last two evenings did serve only to hide the night, the night as he was seeing it now. They protected the stars, the stars too vulnerable to a wakeful mind’s assault. Had every moment of his waking life had been an illusion, a sham? He wanted to be a friend to the beautiful stars. He wanted the stars and all their purity. His necked cramped a little, and he swallowed hard.
“Johnny Conroy killed him,” said Blackstone, still looking upward.
“Well, he was definitely in his SUV. We got that much clear,” said Pepe.
“Crawford wouldn’t just cover up for him. He wouldn’t go to this much trouble,” said Blackstone.
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Pepe.
“Crawford knew from the beginning,” Blackstone still gazed upward. “Why would he have his own son killed?”
Suddenly, a shot rang out in the air; the spotlight Pepe was holding exploded, and all at once everything dark.
“Goddammit!” Pepe screamed over and over.
Blackstone sped towards Pepe’s voice, but another spotlight stopped him in his tracks. Blackstone stared into the light, but he was aware of Pepe, near him, writhing in pain.
“Move and you die out here,” said Johnny Conroy, from behind the spotlight.
It was a different voice, but Blackstone knew who it was when he saw the glow of a cigarette above the clopping of horse hooves. Crawford did the same as he had the night before, circling around the light, staying just outside of it.
“Quite frankly, that boy was breaking a law. Attacking, Blackstone, everything your father worked for. This country has laws, Blackstone, and people like the sheriff there to make sure the people follow them out. How you doing down there, Pepe?”
Pepe writhed in pain, but shot a look of anger straight at Crawford.
“You’ll be alright, Pepe, don’t worry,” said Crawford.
“Then why not tell the law so they can arrest him? You had to—“
“He did it before,” said Crawford, interrupting Blackstone, “I sent him away, far away, and the little bastard makes his way back down here. Selling drugs to people. You know, Blackstone, you find a fawn in the wild, abandoned, and you make the mistake of feeding it, you will have to feed that ignorant animal every day of its life. You domesticate it with that first helping hand. It’ll always be at your door. You take it far away, dump it, it’ll always find its way back to your land.”
“He was your son.”
Crawford shot his rifle in the air, and this time Blackstone heard the echo ring out into infinity.
“He was…a mistake. It happens from time to time around here. That’s all, an…unwanted mistake. And I rectified my mistake.” Crawford cocked the rifle, loading another shell in its magazine.
“So you had Johnny Conroy kill your son?”
“Hell no,” said Crawford. He drew his horse into the light, allowing his face to be clearly seen by Blackstone. His hair was shiny gray underneath a pristine cowboy hat. Blackstone, staring right at him, thought that the lines on the man’s face must be as deep as the ravine he was standing in. “Johnny only held him down.”
Blackstone peered into Craford’s eyes—Crawford made sure he did. Crawford wanted Blackstone to see him for everything that he was: A man who got what he wanted, and who would do anything and everything in his power to get it. Crawford didn’t look excited, but calm, serenely holding his gun, atop his horse. Even the bloodthirsty grin was placid. Even the twisted morals that motivated Crawford. Calm. Even murder. Calm. Anyone in possession of so much calmness in these circumstances, Blackstone thought, is completely insane. Blackstone was also sure he would now be overtaken, rectified, by that same, calm, utterly horrible, insanity.
Its all so clean, efficient…” mumbled Blackstone, as he started backing away. “Like he was just business to take care of…” Blackstone could only laugh under his breath. “As if…there’s nothing horribly...insane about it at all.” Then, quite involuntary, Blackstone turned around, turned tail, and ran into the darkness. He felt the spotlight keep up with him, and then a bullet whizz by his ear.
“Keep your gun on the sheriff, Johnny! I got him,” Crawford shouted.
Pure instinct drove Blackstone into the darkness, but as he felt the incline of the ravine one thing popped into his mind: Pepe’s radio. He had to get to the radio, even if it meant death, which he was sure he would not escape now. He heard the hooves of Crawford’s horse behind him take on the incline, too. He was sure the horse would have a tougher time getting up the incline, and he was right. The hooves slowed a little. Blackstone waited for shots to ring out, but none came, and now he was crawling on his hands and knees. He was almost there. He felt it. He crawled and crawled and crawled and crawled and finally he could see the silhouette of Pepe’s truck. His hands and face were covered with dirt and sweat; he could almost touch the truck when he stumbled, and plummeted down the incline. He thought he would roll forever, but he knew he had stopped when he felt his nose bust on the hard bottom of the ravine. He could no longer see anything and the ringing in his ears was unrelenting, but he could still hear well enough to recognize the sound of horse hooves charging towards him. Blackstone, again by instinct alone, picked himself up and ran. There was no destination for him now. He just ran. The clopping of the hooves grew closer and closer, until they became something else—the footsteps of an unknown being, perhaps. Perhaps the footsteps of death itself. That was it—death had come to collect. Real death, for he was sure that the ghost murderer had taken his soul long ago. Rosario Cavazos’ burning sage could not save him, for his soul was already dead. Now there was only time to run around, wander in the desert, wait for the footsteps of death to overtake him. They were upon him now, almost on top of him—he could hear and feel the frothing and breathing of death. A lightening bolt hit the back of his head, the flash of its light flickered in his skull for a split second. Just before he lost consciousness, Blackstone heard death, stomping and snarling above him. But there was another sound, a comforting sound, before everything went black—the steady, ancient sound of water—the endless and patient flow of the Rio Grande far off in the distance.****
“He’s waking up.”
Blackstone lay somewhere between consciousness and elsewhere other than consciousness when he heard those words. His eyes were open, but he could see nothing.
Blackstone had had many dreams in his life, but never a dream that was only words and darkness. But he knew his eyes were open. Perhaps this wasn’t a dream?
“You’re gonna miss your flight.”
Flight. “If I’m dead,” he thought, “they wouldn’t have airplanes on the way to hell, would they?”
Slowly colors appeared, then undefined shapes. Then finally, the defined shapes of reality.
“Here you go, Blackstone,” said Johnny Conroy, as he threw an envelope, just as he had done in New York, into his lap.
Blackstone took a look around. He was in the backseat of Johnny Conroy’s SUV, next to Sheriff Prajexides Ortiz. Johnny Conroy was standing at Blackstone’s door, holding it open for him. William Crawford sat in the front-passenger seat, staring straight ahead. After Blackstone realized he was still alive, he looked inside the envelope. It contained a plane ticket and fifty thousand dollars in large bills. He laughed an internal laugh, and said, “I didn’t do what you asked me to do.”
“No, you didn’t,” said Crawford, still looking straight ahead, “but Johnny says people in Josefina are talking, quietly. They got a little fear in them. So, go ahead and consider the money as a return favor for keeping your mouth shut.”
Blackstone looked at Pepe, who was staring out of the window, into the distance, just as he had so many times the previous day.
“You wouldn’t kill me at an airport,” said Blackstone. He didn’t know why he said it, but it was the only thing he could think to say.
“Of course not,” replied Crawford. “We had no intention of killing you last night either. But, boy, you ran like you thought we were.”
“You can’t get away with murder,” said Blackstone.
“What are you talking about, boy, there’s been no murder,” said Crawford with a chuckle.
“No, you are not getting away with this! You killed—“
“There’s no body, Blackstone,” said Pepe, very quietly. He wouldn’t look at Blackstone.
“Pepe?” Blackstone looked over at Pepe, almost desperately.
“Pepe’s right, there’s no body,” said Crawford, “And in this country you got to have a body if you want to have a murder. That’s what habeus corpusmeans, doesn’t it? ‘You have the body,’ or some such? There’s no body, Blackstone. No body that’ll ever be found, anyway.”
“Pepe? You can’t let them do this.”
Pepe stared deeper out the window, deeper into whatever it was he was always staring into.
“There’s no body, Steven,” Pepe said, even quieter, with a trace of shame.
“Pepe’s had a rough night, too, Blackstone. We got to get his hand looked at.” Crawford finally turned around, but focused on Pepe. “But he’ll be alright, he’s a tough one. He’s a…good man. But like all men, he’s flawed; some men more than others, and, well, Pepe’s more than others. He’s crossed a few lines during his tenure as sheriff and if news of that were to come out in the open now, well, he’d be shacking up with all the people he put away. Turned an eye to truckload of this, turned an eye to a truckload of that, took a little cash here and there for all of it. But he’s a good man, Blackstone, that’s why we voted him into the position. He’s our sherrif. He may stray a bit here and there, but he’s basically reliable.”
Blackstone peered deeply into Pepe.
“There’s no body,” Pepe whispered one final time.
Blackstone got out of the vehicle. Johnny Conroy had all of his belongings from The Mission Hotel. As he began walking to the little airport outside of Josefina, Texas, with Johnny Conroy in tow, Crawford rolled his window down.
“Blackstone,” said Crawford, peacefully, through the window, “Don’t forget what that money’s for. And, don’t forget, we know where you live. We know everything about you, now, you hear?”
Blackstone made no gesture to Crawford, he only turned and walked deliberately towards the airport’s entrance, Johnny Conroy trailing behind.****
“Attention all passengers of Flight 235 from San Antonio to New York City, this is your final boarding call.”
Steven Blackstone heard the announcement, just as he heard first and second calls to board Flight 235, but he stayed seated. He stayed seated well after Flight 235 was in the air. After some time he hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, the envelope containing the fifty thousand dollars Crawford had given him to keep his mouth shut tucked neatly away.
“I need a car,” Blackstone said to the rental car attendant.
“Any requests?” Asked the attendant, with a smile.
“A nice one. A Honda,” said Blackstone.
Blackstone didn’t know how nice a Honda was. He didn’t drive much.
As he put miles on the Honda’s odometer on the interstates of Texas he kept thinking over and over that all he wanted to do was get away. Get away from the border, a line whose impossible task it is to keep both sides from blending into each other. Get away from the lunatic idea that a wall was going to help prevent the inevitable blending. Blackstone couldn’t speed away fast enough.
As he left Texas and then passed faster and faster through the smaller states, he came to the realization that the whole country was nothing but a bunch of lines. National lines, state lines, lines of cars on the highways, lines of cars waiting to get on the highways, to get off the highways. Lines on the highways themselves. Power lines along the highways. Lines at cash registers, lines at post offices, lines at movie theaters. People online and people offline. People, all over, in lines to get in, in lines to get out. More and more people, every day, falling in line.
He thought of Rosario Cavazos at that moment. Perhaps a ghost murderer that had collected the souls of all Americans, of America itself, and left the country and its people to wander aimlessly in the wilderness. The lines were getting deeper; on the land and in the peoples’ faces, and real death was following in the shadows. He thought these thoughts over and over and over again all the way into New Jersey, and only when he saw the tip of the Empire State Building in the distance did he finally stop his car.
“What the hell do I have to go back to?”
He started the car up, pointed it away from the Empire State Building, and drove on. He had no plan. He was simply going to drive. He was going to drive from one end of the country and back again until he spent every last cent of the fifty thousand dollars. And then, when he ran out of the fifty thousand, he would pay with his debit card, and drain the other forty thousand Crawford had given him. Fill up the tank, drain it, over and over. An oilman like Crawford would like that.
Blackstone would drive until he broke through lines that made up the illusion of America.
He’d watch his speeding, though. Although so much was illusory, the radar guns, the state troopers, and the speeding tickets were are all very real within the illusion. The pills were real inside of that illusion, too. The guilt of plowing into a family of five, killing them, while they were on vacation, and he was high, would be only too real inside of that illusion.
Perhaps he would give up the pills.
Blackstone drove and the lines of America blurred as his mind raced towards an answer. Suddenly, Blackstone stopped the car on the side of the road somewhere in America.
“I have to totally clear myself out,” he thought aloud on that road. Yes, he would have to clear himself out. Everything must go. “I have to start over,” he thought aloud, “from the beginning. No. No, that’s not it, can’t go back. I have to begin again. I have to find the new beginning. Everything must start anew.”
Blackstone felt a peace fall over him. He looked up into the night sky that hung over a state he didn’t know the name of because he didn’t know where he was anymore. Blackstone opened himself to the clear night, pure, with no illusion between himself and the stars.
Todd Pate is a fiction writer, playwright, and actor. His plays As Long a Time as a Long Time is in Longtimeland, Following Annie, and Bird's Eye View have received productions in New York. Raised in South Texas, he now lives in New York City.