The Cuban Girl

SHORT STORY | THE CUBAN GIRL

The wind is up from Mexico today but there's no fury in it. Not like there was when all hell broke lose in Ciudad Carmalita last night. Cold hearted harpy of a piss hole border town with no excuse for its existence except for hookers, junkies, thieves, drug dealers, cockfighters, and kiddy porn slave traders; that's what Carmalita is.

There's a stuck up bitch of a sun sitting up there in the sky acting superior, lording over the scorpions and snakes like it thinks it owns the place, baking everything in evil. A hundred in the shade and I'm still not sweating it's so dry. But I don't really give a shit about the weather. I only came here to find the Cuban girl, that's it. A basic snatch and grab, in and out, no fuss. You'd think I'd have known better after all the years I've spent doing this, but, then, I never said I was any good at it.

She's sitting alone in a shadowy tango bar called The Blue Flamingo on the Playa del Sol, stirring her margarita with a perfectly painted red fingernail. At least I think it's her. Even through a cloud of greasy black smoke I can tell her eyes are the color of Colombian coffee and she's got the blackest hair I've ever seen. Her smile reminds me of those old cartoon movie cowboys when the sun sparkles off their shiny white teeth, right before they ride off into the sunset with your cheating-slut of a soon-to-be
ex-girlfriend.

I've got no idea how she knows it's me, but when I walk towards her she gets up slowly from the table and stalks the far edges of the room like a nervous cat on a leash, prowling the darkness, looking for a way out. Snaking across the dance floor, she slithers in slow motion up the stairs and looks down on all of us, every man's eyes on her. I'm as ready as I'll ever be, but the light's bad and I'm thinking it may have been a seriously stupid mistake coming here alone like this, a mistake I never used to make before I decided to become a stumble down drunk who snatches people for a living.

She's standing on the landing in golden light so dim it barely flickers across the cool black shadows on her face. It’s hard to know what she's thinking, but it can't be good. Suddenly somebody fires a shot at the chandelier and the room goes black. Another shot rings out, but fortunately it sails high and wild, missing my ear by an inch. I don't plan on waiting around to see where the next shot lands and dive for the door.

Crap. I can't believe I let this happen. I know I'm losing my edge but this is ridiculous. I don’t even bother pulling out my piece. What's the use? I know she's gone. When someone lights a candle, the smoky light starts playing tricks on my eyes. I struggle to see where she went, but the blazing sun is glaring off the back window of the grimy black limo she just got into and I lose sight of it when it disappears around a corner into the ugly red face of the angry summer sun.

After I check my body for bullet holes and come up clean, I decide to follow another iffy lead I bought from the bartender and grab a cab to a men's club called the "Black Cat" out by White Diamond Bay. I'd been told there's a girl there by the name of Juanita Suarez who apparently deals poker in between whatever else she does there for next to nothing, and supposedly she knows where the Cuban girl might be hiding.

When I get to the bar where Juanita supposedly works, I find out quick how cheap talk really is. And when I start peeling off the fives and tens, damned if the talk doesn't turn to the Cuban girl. Trickle down economics, Mexican style. I don't know what it is she's supposed to have done or why her old man wants me to find her so bad. It's not my job to know. Like I said, it's my job to snatch her, call in the chopper, collect the cash, and bolt. Cut and dry. But it's slowly sinking into my tequila soaked brain that there's nothing cut and dry about this job. It's also beginning to make me wonder why I'm getting paid so much to nab an eighteen year old runaway kid with integrity issues. Juanita's a lot younger than the bartender lead me to believe; she's seventeen, maybe nineteen tops.

She's looking at me like she thinks I'm a toxic cloud obstructing her view of the Texas oil field trash stumbling in half smashed through the front door. She looks like the jumpy type and the last thing I want to do is spook her. She's a lot prettier up close. I see no reason to not just come right out with it: "There's talk around town that you might know where a Cuban girl named Angelina Cruz might be hanging out. There's a fin in it for you if you feel like sharing."

"I don't know you," Juanita says in flawless, unaccented English, "and I don’t know her. The only Cruz I know is working girl down at a bar called The Pink Virgin, that is, if that kinky, lapsed-Catholic kind of choir boy sex is you're cup of tea."

"Seems to me I haven't paid you anything yet and already you're screwing me. Why don’t you save us both some time and tell me where she is."

"Does this macho shit actually get you laid in Kansas, or Texas, or wherever it is you're from?"

I ignore her, watching her deal off the bottom of the deck. She's pretty good at it. "I'm betting you're lucky at cards," I tell her.

"Luck has nothing to do with the way I play cards," she says.

Somehow I don't doubt it. Juanita's hair is brown and her eyes are indigo blue but I swear she looks familiar. "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

"In your dreams maybe. Why, you a Fed?"

"Do I look like a Fed?"

'No, you look like a pedophile trolling a kindergarten playground for little girls. How would I know what a Fed looks like. Why do you think I asked?"

I'm trying to concentrate but it's impossible not to stare at her. She's awfully cute for a wise ass. "Listen," I tell her, "I’m looking for a woman…" but before I can even finish my sentence she starts giggling; "Isn't everybody?" she smirks, apparently astounded that anyone would bother saying something so hysterically obvious.

"Listen," I tell her, "this Cuban girl's young and she's got pretty brown eyes, dark brown hair, speaks fluent English and Spanish, cheats at cards, and except for the color of her hair and eyes, from what I've been told, looks exactly like you. You sure you don't know her?"

"I knew a woman like that once. She was a nun in Madrid, but I doubt she's the one you're looking for, unless you're as desperate for love as you look."

"Just let me know if you see her."

Looking me over like I've got the smallpox, she says, "Funny, you don't look like the kind of man that comes to a place like this looking for a date, what do you want her for anyway?"

"That doesn't concern you. Just let me know if you see her, ok?" I hand her a card with nothing but my cell phone number on it. She looks at it like she thinks it's been dipped in cat piss. "Are you sure you get results with women using that Dirty Harry approach? No flowers, no candy, not even a little glass of sarsaparilla before you pull out the big gun."

"Look, I've been told you know this girl. Apparently everybody in this Goddamned town knows her. Just let me know if you see her, you got that?

"Oh, I've got it alright, but if I figure you right, finding her will be the easy part, it'll be the catching her part that might get tricky."

"Anybody can get found."

"Not unless they want to be."

"Oh, she wants to be. It's not in her nature to stay on the run long. She's just a kid and she's a long ways from home."

"You spend a lot of time thinking about her, do you?" she asks, arching her eyebrow slyly.

"I dissected a frog in junior high once, I never thought that much about it."

"I have no clue what that means but it seems to me a man like you must spend more time with insects than frogs."

"Like now you mean?"

"That's a bit harsh, don’t you think? Men have gone to Hell for less."

"I never believed in Hell until I came to this place. Just let me know if you see her. I have to get some sleep. Hasta manana."

"Charmed I'm sure. Don't sleep too soundly, mi amour. I hear she never does."

I figure I may as well go to bed, I'm wasting my time here. I know the little hooker, or dealer, or whatever she is won't be giving me any information I can use tonight. I can see it in her eyes: witch's eyes, and it's not hard to tell that her bravado is masking something she's trying her best to hide but can't. She knows the Cuban girl. And she knows I know she does, but why make a scene? I decide to let her be for now. As long as they don't run out of tequila I'm in no hurry.

As I'm getting up to leave I notice an old Milagro Beanfield War type in blue, plastic flip flops and a white straw sombrero playing a cheap guitar in the corner. He never once looks up but I can tell he knows I'm a gringo because he starts singing an old folk song that I've never heard before in English:

All she ever wanted was a little place
to call her own and to buy some lace
for her Mother before she dies
What she came here for is really hard to tell
hiding out in this old hotel
all she ever does is cry...

I seriously doubt if this place can get any weirder. It looks like a 1940's, Hollywood movie lot, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Bogie and Ingrid Bergman walk by arm in arm any minute now. But it's not Casablanca, it's Mexico, and everybody seems to know I'm here. Like they've all got something to tell me but won't.

The moon's turned China White and I'm standing in the shadows in the back of the Mercado watching Juanita snuff out the last of the candles with the bony tips of her fag stained fingers. It's hard to follow her in the dark but I can't resist. Normally, I'm pretty good at it but my eyes aren't what they used to be and she gives me the slip. Just when I think I see her ducking into a tiny adobe doorway, somebody slams a baseball bat against my head and I hit the dirt in a nauseating swoon. I never saw that coming. I didn't know Mexicans even played baseball.

Fighting off a vicious headache, I struggle to me feet and fumble around looking for my gun and billfold, which to my amazement are still right where I put them last night. Which is kind of bizarre if you stop to think about it.

The wind suddenly picks up and presses me flat against the bricks on the street. My head is killing me and I know I can't stay here long. Somebody must really not want me to find the Cuban girl, which of course makes me want to find her even worse. It isn't even about the money anymore; it's personal.

After I take a half dozen aspirins and a shot of Cuervo, it comes to me that if I don't bring the Cuban girl back to Laredo in three days, I won't get paid. Ok, so I lied. Maybe I am a money grubbing slug, but I need the cash and I'm running out of time.

When I finally get up and stagger back into the Black Cat, the Mexican in the flip flops and floppy sombrero is still sitting in the corner, playing his guitar. I can tell he knows I'm here because he suddenly starts singing in English again;

And whenever she hears
the wind rise she fears
she might not swim the Pecos again
all she wanted to be
was just once to be free
as free as that Mexican Wind…

Jesus. What is it with that fucking song? It's like he's trying to tell me something. I pull his chair out from under him and break his guitar over the table. It gets his attention but he doesn't change expression. Turns out the old coot is blind. How was I supposed to know that? I thought blind people all wore sunglasses.

I apologize but my head's killing me and I'm still just as mad as when I came in. What is it with these people protecting a Cuban girl? It's not like she's a Mexican. Why would anybody care what I want with her. They're protecting her like she's one of their own and I want to know why. But I can tell that old geezer isn't going to tell me so I slip through a gang of pissed off drunks who are all giving me the evil eye and flag down a cab. I've got an idea and if I wanta see any cash at the end of this fiasco, I better hope it's a good one.

She's sitting right where I thought she'd be at the end of the bar in a whorehouse on the outskirts of Carmalita called La Chucha Allegre. I had to drop a hundred dollar bill on the old blind guy back at the Black Cat but he finally told me that her name's Rosalita and that she owns the dump: And that she knows the Cuban girl personally.

I sit down and order a bottle of what looks like hog piss. Not that I'd know. Rosalita comes over like she thinks we have an appointment. Maybe she's psychic. Everybody else around here seems to be, why not her? She looks exactly like the woman who took a pot shot at me at the Blue Flamingo last night only her hair's not black. She also looks a lot like the dealer Juanita, at the Black Cat, except for the fact that Rosalita's got emerald colored eyes with some kind of gold and violet flecks in the corners. It's gotta be impossible to find contact lenses that color, so I doubt it's Juanita. I'm still tempted to yank her wig off to make sure, but if I did, by the looks of her unsavory customers in the place, I doubt I'd make it to the street in one piece.

When Rosalita opens her pretty mouth, damned if her voice isn't familiar, but in my trashed condition, I don't know what to make of it. She could be anybody. I figure I better get right to the point before I pass out: "Lady, I don't have a lot of time to waste so don't try to bullshit me. I've been told you know where Angelina Cruz is. So where is she?"

"I've heard of her," she says sarcastically, "but even if I knew where she was, why would I tell a Fed."

"Jesus! What is it with this Fed shit. I'm not a Fed. I'm just a guy looking for a girl.

"Isn't everybody."

"Lady, I swear. I don’t know who writes your material around here but is everybody in this one horse shit hole a wise ass? I only want to talk to the girl."

"From what I hear, nobody wants to just TALK to a girl that pretty."

I lay a sweaty wad of fifties on the bar. "Well, I do, ok?"

"If you only want to talk to her, why did you come all the way down here from bum fuck Texas and pay me two hundred dollars to tell you where she is when a phone call would have cost you a dime, hmm?"

The snide little strumpet has a good point but I didn't come to this fungus infested sweat box for a debate. "Look," I tell her, "I have no idea how you know I'm from Texas, but I'll give you a hundred greenbacks if you tell me where the Cuban girl is... Right now!"

The smart mouthed little floozy has her hand out before I can finish the sentence.
"It's your funeral, cabrone. Aguilera's Cantina, four miles south of town. Six o'clock. Follow the signs. And don't be late. Thanks for the chat. And watch your back. I know she'll be watching hers."

Aguilera's is a place that would, even in the worse part of east LA, be a condemned rat factory, and people actually pay good money to play cards, drink, and get laid in this dump. I have no idea why I believe anything Rosalita told me but I've got no other leads right now, and in spite of the description the Cuban girl's twisted old fart of an old man gave me, I have no clue what she actually looks like, or whether she's even in Carmalita or not. You'd think the cheap bastard could afford to spring for a photo but he never did. For all I know she could be one of the women I've already met. I can't tell. I'm no bigot, but all the girls around here look the same to me. I've been stumbling around half drunk since I got to this one horse shit hole and I don't even trust my own eyes anymore. I can see, however; that I have no choice but to gamble on the premise that the Cuban girl will be here tonight like Rosalita told me she'd be. So what else can I do? I'm running out of time and leads.

Two can play this game, so I get all dressed up like a local chili farmer, jam the ludicrous white sombrero that the old blind bastard at the Black Cat charged me a thousand pesos for down over my eyes, and head for the bar. Once I tilt the damned hat back out of my eyes, I catch a peek at myself in the cracked mirror behind the bar. I look like Juan Valdez on crack. But nobody seems to notice me and even the pretty woman in the red dress playing cards looks right through me at first. The old blind coot told me her name's Maria but she looks more like Frida Kahlo, only without the bushy eyebrows.

The bar's nearly empty but it's still early. She's clearing the table of broken bottles and half empty glasses of stale beer, getting ready to deal her next game of Texas Hold Em. At six sharp, bowlegged, drunk, oil trash rounders, stinking of rotten whiskey and sweat begin lurching through the door like born again mackerel snappers searching for their weekly Jesus fix. The sun's going down fast like it's afraid not to, and the game begins.

I figure I better make my move before something goes haywire, but as usual, I'm too late. Everything goes to shit at once. Half a dozen gunshots suddenly explode out of nowhere and rip into the table, disintegrating it into a thousand burning splinters, splattering whiskey, blood, and glass all over the pretty dealer's flaming red dress. Apparently, one of the gamblers has been having a little problem with the way Maria's been dealing off the bottom of the deck, and having already lost most of his hard earned wages, he's fuming in a toxic stupor, and continues to let everyone know how he feels about losing his money to a Mexican whore card cheat by firing his rickety blunderbuss of an antique single action Colt .45 into the table, chips, cards, and money. There's shell fragments, broken glass, and sliced up cards everywhere, and believe me, Maria is none too happy about it. One round nearly rips the top of her dress off, and as the hammer slams down on the gambler's last cartridge, the bullet just narrowly misses hitting her in the face. The infuriated look in her eye reminds me of my ex-wife, a hot tempered woman who would cut your ear off for not listening to her bitch about a broken fingernail. I swear to God Rosalita hasn't moved an inch since the shooting started, but it's obvious she's had enough of the gambler's half-comical temper tantrum. As if in slow motion, she calmly takes a .44 caliber Smith and Wesson that's as big as she is out of her purse, aims it at the center of the gambler's chest, and pulls the trigger. The poor guy's so deep in shock all he can do is sneer defiantly at her, but he knows it's over. His Colt is empty and when he grabs his right hand, counts his fingers, and comes up three short, it dawns on him that something has gone terribly wrong. Sweet hot blood is rolling down his sleeve like a reckless creek, flowing over its banks and trickling across his shiny gold watch. As quiet as an old man getting ready to read the evening newspaper, he slumps down into his chair and stares at the blood leaking through a gaping hole in the front of his sweat stained white shirt. He looks across the table at Maria, but she's busy shuffling a new deck of cards, icily watching him, her still smoking .44 poking menacingly out of a bullet hole in her bulging black velvet purse. Glancing at himself in the mirror the gambler, in all his infinite wisdom, realizes that he's looking at a dead man, and all he can do about it watch Maria as she glares back at him like a bored cat watching a ball of yarn rolling across the table onto the floor.

Two Mexican's drift in from the kitchen as if on queue and unceremoniously haul the guy's sorry ass out the door and deposit him at the undertakers. He ain't gonna make it, trust me. As if someone had only cleared their throat momentarily stopping play, Maria looks over at me. "Care to play a few hands? Seems like we have a vacancy."

"Thanks," I tell her, "but I think I'll pass. Maybe next time."

You gotta be shitting me. I'm not playing cards with a double dealing homicidal card cheating psycho. And last time I checked my contract I didn't notice any clause in there about hazardous combat pay. I got a Saturday Night Special stuck in my pants but I've never fired it on a job, and even if I did know how to use the rusted up piece of crap, how stupid would I be if I put a hole in my pretty little pay check.

In spite of my suspicions, as it turns out, Maria's no Cuban. According to the bartender, she's a Panamanian whore/slash/dealer/slash junkie who came to Mexico to work at Aguilar's as a bar girl and eventually took up dealing cards when the other dealer croaked under mysterious circumstances. At least that's what the bartender tells me. Politics, whores and poker. What a concept. Who would have figured?

Which leaves me with two days to grab the Cuban girl and jump a chopper for the border. Unfortunately it seems to me that my only hope of finding Angelina Cruz in the two days I got left, is Maria, who says she knows her well, and for a dime bag of smack is going to roll over on her. Who says free trade doesn't work? And Maria's got a good motive to help me. She's a junkie for Christ sakes, and I've got bread. Lot's of it. Not to mention the fact that she just put a hole the size of Rhode Island into an American citizen and might wanta think about taking a long vacation out of the country until things blow over. So it looks like I've got myself a new partner. Like I don't have enough to worry about.

Even without makeup, Maria's a looker. Streaky golden hair, amber eyes. I mean, she's a real knockout, even though she can barely stand up on her own half the time. I may end up doing time, taking it up the poop shoot in a Mexican prison for twenty years, but I'll enjoy the hell out of getting there. It's nice having company on your way down the drain. Especially somebody as smoking hot as Maria.

After she gives me the straight scoop about where the Cuban girl is, I figure I'll ease her off the junk, but she doesn't know that yet, and I'm not telling her until she tells me what I need to know. I don't actually know where to find any smack anyway, but then, she doesn't know that either. I do, however, know about a Methadone clinic in El Paso so I wasn't exactly lying when I told her that I'd get her high if she told me where Angelina Cruz is. Which she does. And, lucky me, she promises to take me to her.

Unfortunately, in the morning, Maria's nodding on and off like a short circuiting neon sign and she's not too pleased about the fact that I don't have any smack on me. She's not going to make it unless she gets either hooked up or cleaned up soon and I obviously can't take her with me. She'd fall flat on her face by the time we hit the city limits. It's ripping my heart out, hearing her moan, but she won't stop. "You promised," she says, over and over. "You promised!"

I don't know what else to do so I give her the address and phone number of the Methadone clinic in El Paso and slap a couple damp hundreds in her palm for the trip. I even dial the number for her. You'd think I took a leak on her shoes the way she's looking at me. I hit the door but she won't stop whining, "You promised!" So I lied, but I ain't taking her with me.

Okay, here's what I got so far. I got a Mexican Tango dancer who may, or may not, have taken a pot shot at me in Carmalita; a hooker/card shark with a smart mouth and bad information; and a homicidal card cheat/slash/ junkie, all of whom could be triplets, and are most likely all lying their cute little asses off to me about where the Cuban girl is. Yeah, I know I'm getting lead around by the nose down the yellow brick road to ruin, but what can I do about it? I'm a drunk and I'm too hammered to know who to believe anymore. I do, however; know time's running out and I may as well kiss my fee goodbye if I can't figure out how to get some legitimate information about the Cuban girl out of this traveling circus of painted up trio of tarts in the next two days. I could probably find better information in a fortune cookie, but you gotta dance with who brung ya. And Maria's tip is all I've got.

As soon as I check into a rundown flop house in Dolores Hidalgo, I head down to the bar to find a woman. Ok, so I'm a pig and I want to sleep with somebody. I never said I was a saint. I got needs. I also need some better information. Everybody in this country seems to know Angelina Cruz so it shouldn't be all that hard to improve on what I've got so far.

I go to the bar where my ex, co-dependent doper partner Maria had told me that Angelina Cruz would be working. I knock back a shot of mescal and chase it with a warm Carta Blanca. The bar is dark and the dance floor's empty.  The old crone bartender must be pushing ninety and she's got at least one foot in the grave. No way she's Angelina. I should have known better than trying to pull a fast one on a junkie like Maria but I was thinking with my dick again, and it never occurred to me that she'd send me off on a wild goose chase.

I don't see the Cuban girl anywhere, but I'm just too bone weary to give a damn right now, and I need a drink worse than I need a lecture about my scruples. My pride's about the only thing keeping me upright and I don't even notice the girl who just slipped up beside me until she asks me if I want to dance.  I mutter under my breath, "Not hardly," but I do toss back the shot that she buys me.  Why wouldn't I? I'm a juice freak and I need a drink. She asks me again in one of those voices you notice, even in my condition, and when I turn to check her out, my eyes dilate and I have to shake myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. I haven't danced since junior high but once I get a good look at that porcelain perfect face and body of hers I know I'm going to dance, so we dance. Call me a racist, but I swear to God every beautiful woman I've met in Mexico so far is beginning to look exactly alike.

I've never seen anyone with such black hair or perfect skin.  If wild mustangs were human that’s what she’d be. even as I stumble around in the dark like a drunk giraffe on roller skates, I can see that her eyes are so innocently opaque that absolute pure evil could be hiding in there and no normal man alive could see it.  That's how secretive and mysterious she is. After staggering around the floor a few times, dancing to some pathetic, three piece mariachi band, we stop long enough to grab a quick drink, and then dance some more, and we don't say anything.

After a couple head spinning twirls around the floor, she takes my hand and leads me up the stairway into a dimly lit hotel room where she draws a bath. The steam bubbles up around her like a Yellowstone geyser and I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not making this shit up. The subject of money hasn't even come up and I don't even know her name. Like it makes a difference at this point.

The flickering golden light in the room shivers and the honey colored tallow drips down the stem of a candle and hisses against the warm, wet rim of the bathtub. Somebody must have put something in my drink because, even as drunk as I am, I'm usually a lot more wary about something this good happening this fast with a woman this pretty, and it takes me off guard when she slips up behind me, peels off my clothes and starts working the soapy lather up and down my crotch. But I'm too fucked up to care what she's up to and nearly pass out trying to remember what it feels like to be with a woman this gorgeous. Fortunately I have a long memory. I know better, but this girl is irresistible, and when she presses her wet bare breasts against me, there's no way I can stop the musky heat from flaming up between my legs. And when I feel myself getting hard, all I can do is shudder and pray I'm not dreaming.

I have no idea how I make it to my feet but I somehow manage to follow the scent of lavender soap and sage that trails off along behind her as she leads me towards the bed. She unhooks the straps of her white cotton dress and lets it soar off across the room like a sail across the bow of a ship, and I stare, mesmerized, as it floats in circles and shimmers softly down around her bare ankles.

As the breeze eases out through the open window, I stare down into the darkest blue eyes I've ever seen, but for the life of me all I can see in there is nothing. Warning bells are going off in my ear but I ignore them. She tastes like snow and sugar, and her perfect ivory breasts are full and firm against my hot skin, and her whole body is as white as egg shells. I couldn’t turn this runaway train around now even if I wanted to. Then suddenly she stops dead in her tracks and goes silent as a tomb.

My blood is boiling and I swear to God I think I'm going to have a stroke when she twists her mouth into an off kilter pretzel of a grin murmurs sarcastically, "I am constantly amazed at how ludicrously stupefied men look when they see a naked woman." And then, as I instinctively reach out to touch her breasts, she squeezes my dick like a vice and I freeze, powerless.

Somewhere deep inside the tequila soaked, prehistoric center of my brain my survival instincts finally kick in and I feel an aching sense of dread inching through her slowly tightening fingers. I know something's gone treacherously amiss but frankly I could care less. I'm getting laid and I just flat don't give a shit.

Suddenly I feel the icy tip of a gun nearly penetrating the skin just below my pelvic bone and it takes my breath away, stopping me cold.  Needless to say, when it finally dawns on me that this is no ordinary bar girl I'm dealing with, my hard-on heads south. Talking right out loud to myself, I can't help but stammer, “So this is how it ends, standing here in my birthday suit, robbed blind, shot in the head and left to bleed to death by a Godforsaken Mexican whore of all people. Doesn't that just take the cake?”

"What makes you think I'm a Mexican, you bigoted pig," she smirks, flashing me another wicked grin like the dangerous angel she is. Then she turns me around and has me lay face down on the featherbed and whispers coyly in my ear: "Duerme bien, corrida. I’ll see you on the other side. Hell ain’t that far from here." Whatever the fuck that means. The other side of what? I thought I was in Hell.

After she scoops up my pants, my money, and my rusty peashooter, she tosses the comment over her shoulder loosely like a lucky pinch of salt, "If I was you, I'd go home to Idaho or Iowa or where ever it is you people grow potatoes, and don't ever come back to Mexico. You won't last long down here. And, by the way, stop looking for me! You have no idea what you're dealing with."

The cool breeze shoots through the window like it knows I'm here and all I can do about it is lay here buck naked, dripping soapy water on the bedspread until she gets dressed and saunters off down the hallway like she's late for a Broadway opening. I just don't see how things around here could get any stranger.

I slip past the other guests in nothing but my boots, and when I get back to my room there's a note on the night stand that reads:

Buen viaja. It's been fun, but don't come back.

The note is signed,

Juanita
Rosalita
Maria
Angelina

Ok, so I'm not the smartest rock in the box, but I get it. Juanita, Maria, Rosalita, and Angelina Cruz are the same woman. Very freaking funny. Now I'm really pissed. I may have spent half my drunken excuse of a life as a private dick but I never said I was as good one. I can't even tell who's who anymore. Seems like every women I meet is the same damned person. But who's going to believe that shit back in Texas? All I know is that I've had about enough of this Twilight Zone bullshit and better sober fast, because I've only got two days left to pull my brains out of my pecker, tract down that psycho Cuban trollop, and collect my five grand fee. Unfortunately, the only lead I've got is the one I bought from the hotel operator for a hundred dollar bill that I had hidden in my boot. I had to spill my guts about the details of my predicament to get him to spill the beans, but I guess my bony white legs and limp dick must have convinced him to give me the sympathy vote. I'm sure the fact he was a bit light in the loafers probably didn't hurt my case any either. He also through in another little tidbit for free. He said the man who'd hired me to his find Angelina, Rosalita, Juanita, Maria, or whatever her fucking name is, isn't exactly the man I thought he was: "What's wrong with you, pendejo?" he says, poking me in the chest with an expertly polished pinky, "you got some kind of death wish? You don't know Angelina's old man. He's a big time sex peddler from Havana and he made a fortune putting her in those Jap kiddy porn flicks when she was a kid. He tried to move her up into adult films, but she freaked and lit out; and he wants her back. Everybody in town knows that. Where you from anyway, Texas?"

Positively uncanny.

Ok, so I didn't do my homework. Angelina's old man told me that he was a Cuban business man and that his daughter had been kidnapped and that he'd pay me five grand to find her. Clean and neat. I track people for a living and, regardless of how good the kid is at disguises and playing dress up, how hard can it be to find a beautiful, eighteen year old, blue eyed gringa dope fiend?

Harder than I thought as it turns out, but unfortunately, that's never stopped me before. I've still got a couple days left, and thanks to my new hotel operator buddy Tiny Tim, I now know where Angelina's mother lives.

I pull into San Miguel de Allende about midnight and tell the cabbie to wait. Standing on the curb in the heart of the El Centro district, I take a good look around. The place is a freaking hacienda. Iron balconies, fountains, flower boxes...a swimming pool. Kind of Charo-does-Beverly-Hills, only classier. The whole cast from Evita could live in there.

I knock but nobody's home, so I jimmy a window and scope the place out. First thing I see is a photograph on the piano of a very pretty middle aged woman standing next to an even prettier young girl. The girl doesn't look shit like Angelina, but what do I know? I'm apparently going blind and can't trust my own damned eyesight anymore. I gotta remember ask for a photo ID next time I meet somebody. I keep looking. In a book lined study I find a file cabinet, and once I pick the lock, I start digging.

Holy crap! There's ten years' worth of Angelina Cruz's medical records, a copy of six restraining orders against her step-father Jorge Cruz, half a dozen pages of police reports, a binder full of psychiatric notes and drug arrest records, an unsigned application to a mental institution, a recent copy of Angelina's positive pregnancy exam, and a knife in that thing. No matter how you look at this deal, it can not be good, but I sit down and keep reading anyway. If I hadn't seen Angelina's name all over the files I would have thought I broke into the Marquis de Sade's house by mistake. Jorge Cruz makes that old frog perv look like the frigging Pope. I can't believe all the twisted crap he's pulled. And on his own daughter for Christ sakes.

Suddenly I hear a car crunching through the gravel outside and switch the light off in the study. When I hear the sound of footsteps in the entry way the light in the study comes back on I about have a coronary. Then a woman's honey drenched voice oozes across the room: "Find anything interesting?"

Crap! The breathtaking gringa lady is the same woman standing next to the girl in the photograph that I found on the piano. They could be sisters, they look so much alike, only the older lady's got tiny crow's feet etched in the shadows beneath her blazing black eyes and a fuck-me-on-the-floor look plastered across her stunning face. She's Angelina's mother alright, I'm sure of it.

"Uh, I just stopped by to check your basement for rats and didn't find any," I tell her. "All clear."

Ok, so what was I supposed to say? I don't exactly work for CSI. I'm busted for Christ sake, and I've got no gun. I'm lucky I've got pants on.

"You must be the American gentleman my husband hired to find our daughter Angelina. I've been expecting you. Would you like a sherry? I'm having one. It's no bother."

If this broad gets any nicer I'm going to ask her to marry me. She just caught me breaking into her house, rustling through her personal files, and then offers me a drink. "Uh, okay," I tell her, sherry would be nice."

Yeah, right. Sherry's for fairies but I'm thirsty. She must be reading my mind.

"Unless you'd like a Scotch instead. Would scotch be good?"

Scotch, rum, tequila, rubbing alcohol, whatever. I'd probably drink lighter fluid if that's all she had. I take the Scotch and shut up. I can't wait to hear what she's got on her mind. This is better than General Hospital. I've got no idea what this weirdo wants with me.

"Angelina has always been a very troubled child," she says, looking around at the files that I've got strewn all over the table, "and as you can obviously see, her relationship with her father has not exactly been Father Knows Best, if you know what I mean?"

Oh, I know what she means alright, and if it's understatement she's aiming at, she just nailed it. We're getting along so well I half expect her to drag me into the bedroom, but she doesn't. Like I should be so lucky.

" As you can imagine Angelina is somewhat bitter about her childhood and about a year ago, the second she turned eighteen, she left home, angry, broke and pregnant. And we haven't seen her since. Don't misunderstand me Mr…?"

"Jones. Mr. Jones." Jesus, you think I'm going to give her my real name?

"Mr. Jones, please try to understand, I love my daughter very much, more than you could possibly know, and I would very much appreciate your NOT finding her. And gathering from what you've evidently read about my husband and daughter's, shall we say, unusual relationship, you can certainly understand why."

Reaching into a safe that's hidden behind what looks to me to be a Diego Rivera painting (like I'd know), she pulls out a neat stack of ten or so thousand dollar bills from a hand carved ivory box and hands them to me. "I hope this will be sufficient payment for your efforts. We need not speak of this again. Are we in agreement, Mr. Jones?"

Are you serious? Damned straight we're in agreement. That sick bastard Jorge offered me five grand to FIND the kid, and now his tarted up ditzo wife forks over ten G's NOT to find her; Is this heaven or what? It's like NAFTA on steroids. I love free trade. Makes me wish I'd gotten into the missing Cuban girl business years ago.

I take the money and the photo of Angelina she gives me, and almost curtsy before catching myself. When I kiss the back of her hand like Dave Letterman does after he chats up some cute actress chick, Angelina's charming, whacked out mother seems so happy about it, she blushes like a school girl. When I turn to go she walks up behind me, spins me around, and kisses me smack on the mouth, and slips her tongue half way down my throat. "If you're ever in San Miguel again," she purrs, "you know where I live." Licking her pretty pink lips, she brushes her hand against my zipper, and then spins on her heel and disappears. Good God I love Mexico. I make a point on my way out to make sure I don't lose her address. If I'd have known failure paid so well I would have given up trying to be a success years ago. Ten grand for NOT turning the kid over to her old man is a serious chunk of change. And that's on top of the five G's I get from the old man if I do find her. Do the math. I'm asking you, what's not to like about this country?

Unfortunately, I've got a serious dilemma. I already have the ten grand from Angelina's mother for not finding Angelina, but what's to stop me from collecting the other five grand the old perv's going to pay me for finding her? It could happen. After all, I owe that devious little floozy Angelina big time for that streaking incident back at the hotel in Dolores Hildalgo, and like I said before, it's personal now and I'll be damned if I'm going to forgive her for making me stomp all over that damned hotel, dripping all over the carpet on my way past a group of nuns to the reservations desk, wearing nothing but my cowboy boots and a deflated boner. On the other hand, I can't help but think about all that perverted sexual shit Jorge's been doing to Angelina since she'd been a kid, and it puts a serious damper on the warm and fuzzy feeling I have about collecting the five grand for dropping a dime on her. Not to mention what a sleazy scum ball I'd be for double crossing Angelina's nympho nut job of a mother, not that she's any prize, letting her poor freak of a smack happy knocked up borderline schizo daughter roam around all over Mexico by herself. Shit. Why does treachery and duplicity always have to be so complicated?

Ok, so maybe I'm going soft, but I'm thinking the smart thing for me to do right now would be to track Angelina down, cuff her, stuff her into the chopper, tell her she's going back to Houston, wait for her to snivel like a baby and beg me for forgiveness, and at the last minute, let her go. A little pay back would serve her right for walking off with my clothes and humiliating me like that in front of that fruitcake hotel operator in Dolores Hildalgo. And I'd still have the ten G's Angelina's mother gave me for not turning her over to the old man. Screw the money he's paying me to find her. It would be worth five grand to see her squirm before I let her go. And who knows, I might even get another sponge bath in the bargain.

It takes me a week, but I finally find Angelina, sitting on a bench at the Guadalajara Renfe station, waiting for a train. I check the photo. It's her alright. She's got a tiny brown suitcase at her feet and a black haired little rug rat sitting on her lap, fumbling around in her bra for a snack. Crap, I hope this doesn't mean what I think it means. I read the police reports and the psychiatric records about her father being a twisted psycho dirt bag and it makes me wonder, could that be his kid? Jesus. I hope I'm wrong but it wouldn't surprise me. I don’t know what to do. There's not a soul around anywhere and I know I could just nab her, drop her off at the chopper pad like her old man instructed me to do, take the money, and run. But I can't. It's going to cost me five G's, but I just can't do it.

When the train arrives, I don't do anything. I just watch her go. She must know I'm here, because, when she climbs aboard and finds her seat, she looks out the window and tosses me one of those little back-handed Homecoming Queen waves. I wave back. What else can I do? She's not my problem now. It looks to me like she's got enough of her own to worry about. I have no idea why, but I think I'm actually going to miss her.