It was a silent kill, no blood, and when the corpse's bowels spilled, the killer sat it down on the toilet by the chord around its throat like a marionette, then closed the stall door behind him.
Colonel Rafael Gomez looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter, then at the direction his adjutant had gone. A plane taxied by the airport cafe's window.
The waitress motioned toward his cup. He shook his head grimly and covered the cup's mouth.
"May I ask, General," the stocky Gomez had said after he'd received his new orders, "why I am replacing Colonel Varga in Baja?"
"These are troubled times, Rafael," the General answered, choosing his words carefully. "The PRI is not what it once was, the drug lords are corrupting our people on every level, way beyond innocent mordido. We have enemies on both the right and the left, and..." the General leaned forward, "Varga has become politically -- incorrect for his post. He is not your concern, the Third Marines will prove enough to keep you busy. They are very loyal to Varga, I am told."
Gomez checked his watch again. What could be taking Santana so long? He only went to take a piss.
"'Scuse me, Officer."
Gomez turned slowly toward the man talking at him in twangy English.
"Can you give me directions to Hussong's Cantina? I couldn't be more lost if'n I was a tick on a whale."
"You will have to forgive me," Gomez answered in slow English. "But I do not know the area myself."
"A cop what don't know his own town?" The gringo snorted.
"I am not a police officer, sir. I am a Colonel in the Mexican Marine Corps."
"Huh?" The Texan looked the uniformed officer up and down. "We let you have one of those?"
"Que?" Gomez asked.
"The U.S. I mean, what you need an army for?"
The officer's carefully manicured mustache twitched.
"I am a Marine, but we also have an Army and a Navy, and an Air Force, just like a real country."
The satire seemed lost on the American, who laughed and snorted through his nose.
"Don't that beat all. Well, I guess you gotta have guys in uniform f'r parades and the like, right?"
Gomez rose abruptly.
"You will excuse me. I must check on my adjutant."
"In the t’rlet?"
The American snorted.
Gomez clenched and unclenched his fists as he marched toward the bathrooms.
The gringo took the Colonel's stool at the counter.
"A coffee, por favor," he said in Spanish without a trace of an accent.
The Colonel charged into the bathroom, barely able to resist a scream. It had taken every ounce of control for him not to throttle the arrogant bastard.
Gomez's rage blinded him to the man behind the door until just before the garrot with an attache plastic bag slipped suddenly over his head and around his neck. In Colonel Gomez's case, with an abrupt and powerful jerk that snapped his spine, death was surprisingly quick and quiet.
"Oh, Rudy! Fantastico!" Maria cried out as she twisted and plunged on the young man's shaft. "I'm coming again!"
Rudy lifted her off the bed and rested her on the low bureau, then from his standing position re-doubled his rhythm as the girl screamed and writhed.
In the mirror Rudy could see the other girl, Juanita, sitting in a chair, spent. Rudy knew he couldn't approach her again without hurting her. Maria's nails sank into Rudy's back as the man exploded into her.
The circular fan above them swirled the muggy air in the room, giving no real relief. Maria slumped back against the bureau's cool mirror as she struggled to control her breath.
"You are too much man even for both of us, el Jefe," Juanita gasped.
"You two inspire me to be very much the man," Rudy answered politely. He held his hand out. Steady enough, he told himself. Although one more round would have made it even better, neither of the prostitutes were in any shape for that. The young man sighed with resignation. This simply had to be good enough.
Freshly showered, Rudy adjusted his hat as he walked out the door of the room.
At the bottom of the flight of stairs, the bleach-blonde madam waited for him.
"Are you relieved, el Jefe?" she asked with a leer. Rudy smiled sheepishly and nodded.
"I have your mordido, el Jefe, as well as my appreciation for your protection."
The madam offered Rudy a small wad of bills. Rudy took it and counted.
"There is not much here, Madam. Somehow I have displeased you?"
"El Jefe! You are the best Chief of Police we have ever had in this town, perhaps the best Policeman in all of Baja! But as usual I deducted your visits. I even give you a discount," She leered again, "for volume."
"I am most appreciative," he said as he fingered the bills. It was getting worse. He wondered if there was a doctor who could help him, maybe saltpeter, something!
"You know, el Jefe, your problem is, you nibble on these little fish, these chicks with no flesh. You need many of them to sate your hunger."
"Si," he said absently. The hefty madam leaned into him and wrapped an arm around his muscled waist.
"What you need is to try a mother hen, a meal with some meat on the bone, and glut yourself."
Rudy's pants began to shrink, his hands shook. It was another thirty minutes before he got out of the Blue Star, and he had to leave all of his mordido behind.
Rudy marched, relieved but broke, out to his Blazer. Now he only had enough money to pay his two officers. He himself would have to live off his paltry salary until next week. Rudy Rios sighed and grimly searched for his Blazer's keys.
Officer Ruiz's voice started crying out over the radio as soon as the engine started.
"Chief Rios, where have you been? Rodriguez has slashed up the Huerto girl with a straight-razor!"
"Shit," Rudy said out loud in English, then into the microphone, "Where are you?"
"In front of La Tarantula. Rodriguez is inside with his bodyguards. Teresita is bleeding badly."
"Find Doctor Peters."
"He's here, el Jefe."
"I'll be there in five minutes."
Ernesto ran up to Rudy's Blazer as the Chief pulled up in front of La Tarantula on the single dusty road of Puertito Cove that led to the ancient dock.
"Inside, Rudy. He's still there."
"You stay here, Ernesto. Where's Felipe?"
"He went out to check on those missing cows. Shouldn't I go in with you?"
"No. If you got hurt, your mother would kill me, and in public you gotta call me Chief," Rudy scolded, "even if you are my favorite cousin.
Rudy's boots scuffed the sawdust on the wood floor of the cantina as he pushed the swinging doors open, unsnapping the thumb break on his Colt 1911 .45.
Nobody moved. Motes of dirt swirled in the ebbing sunlight filtering through behind him. The place smelled of dry leather and spilt cerveza.
Doc Peters knelt on the floor with old man Huerto. Peters held a cloth to a small woman's throat. Her clothes glinted wet crimson, her face was a mask of slash marks.
At the bar, a tourista in a blue jean miniskirt and a fancy camera around her neck gaped white-faced at the girl on the floor.
Rodriguez stood at the bar with his four bodyguards. Not a single one a Mexican, Rudy thought.
The smuggler looked up with a drunken smirk. Rudy shook his head.
"You stupid man."
"She expects me to do something about her being pregnant, Rudy. A man shouldn't have to worry about the whores he lays."
"Whore!" Old man Huerto struggled to his feet, his face twisted with rage. "You told her that you loved her, that you would marry her!"
"Rudy, If I don't get her to a hospital soon, she's gonna die," Doc Peters said in English. "She's lost too much blood for me to handle myself."
Rudy glanced at the doctor, then turned hard eyes back to the smuggler.
"It will take me too long to drive her to anywhere, Rodriguez. Where is your plane? You must fly her now or face murder charges."
"But she'll bleed on my new upholstery. She's a dog, Rudy, a badly bred dog at that. Baja is a land of mongrels. I own the bitch. I own you all." Rodriguez swept a hand across the silent patrons. He pointed a finger at Rios. "I own you. For me your mordido isn't even a nibble, its a kiss, a taste, but even so I'm your biggest bite. I've paid for you over and over."
"You fly her or I seize your plane and throw you in jail, Rodriguez."
"You got proof I did anything, el Jefe?"
Rios' lips rippled.
"This isn't the States, you stupid shit. Here, you are guilty until proven innocent."
"I have to prove that I am innocent, yes?"
Rodriguez slid down the bar, a foot closer to Rudy. The tourista retreated behind the cop. The bodyguards spread out behind their boss. Rodriguez called back to them.
"Chewey, Manny, Coli, Bam-Bam. It was self-defense'r something. Right?
"The bitch attacked him," Bam-Bam, the hulking Columbian Indian whispered.
"Rudy!" Price cursed.
"The plane," Rios intoned.
"Anyone here see different?"
Price looked to Rudy, Old Man Huerto seemed lost for a moment. No one said anything. Rudy gritted his teeth.
"The plane, Rodriguez. Now."
Rodriguez looked down at the sprawled body close to his feet, then turned back to his bodyguards.
"This town gets old, boys. Why don't we fly over to Ensenada. Hey, Doc, you wanna come? Bring your date."
The bodyguards laughed. Rodriguez nodded at his own joke.
"Yeah, bring the puto, we'll pass her around on the way."
Old man Huerto picked up a drink and threw it on Rodriguez.
Rudy watched the smuggler's face jerk with shock, then turn deadly focused eyes on the little man as Rodriquez's lips twisted with rage.
"You father of whores!"
The smuggler's hand went for the SIG 357 under his light jacket, his bodyguards aping him.
Rudy cleared his holster and fired two shots off his hip, hitting Rodriguez low in the abdomen and groin. He pointed at Bam-Bam with a thrust as if his Colt was a sixth finger, pulling the trigger twice. Bam-Bam screamed with surprise as a fat slug smacked into the giant Indian's chest.
For the first time Rudy found his sights and Coli appeared in them as the Bolivian brought his weapon to bear, too late. His Uzi stitched holes in the roof as he spun like a top to the ground, one .45 in the heart. Chewey's slow draw made him the next target. His chest exploded in gaping red. Manny nearly flung his gun up and bounded back onto a table that collapsed under his weight, Rudy following him down in the notches of his sights.
A flash from behind made Rios spin around into a kneeling crouch. There'd been six flashes, but the seventh was the first one Rudy saw.
His sight picture notched into the center of the tourista's camera lens. The girl dropped her camera, her terrified face appeared in its place.
Rudy jerked his gun up.
"Forgive me, senorita," he said in English with an uncharacteristic accent. "The strobe."
The crowd had moved like some surreal animal stuck in a tar pit. It had jerked and jumped with the reports of the weapons, then whipped and staggered as the smoke swirled and rose. Mouths gaped, the acrid smell of burned gunpowder stung nostrils. As the report of the guns died off, a cry went up.
"Muy, Macho, el Jefe!"
"Nobody owns our Rudy!"
"Five of them!"
She was an exceptionally beautiful gringa, flaxen hair, large firm breasts, good legs, great shape. Rudy smiled his impish smile. She smiled back with a gasp.
"Rudy!" Doc Price bellowed.
Colonel Varga wore his dress uniform, starched and pressed to a razor's edge.
"You understand the threat, Senor Wong. The government in Mexico City, even as it loses more and more control of the cities and towns, grows closer to Castro and that upstart from Venezuela. Communistas will seize all we've worked for, what you and your people have worked for. We must face the problem now, before it is too late."
"Would you like more tea, Colonel?" Wong lifted the pot.
Dudley, sitting next to the Colonel in the restaurant's booth, nodded with a smile as the Oriental motioned at his cup.
"Senor Wong," Varga pressed, "can I count on you?"
"But Colonel, you have not said what you intend to do. I am but a poor restaurateur."
The Colonel glanced at Lord Dudley, who silently sipped his brew.
"All I ask, Wong, is that when the forces of stability begin to move, you will see it for what it is, a strong hand for peace."
Wong looked at Varga, his face an inscrutable mask.
"We are a long way from Mexico City, Colonel."
"Precisely. Too far for those limpid pansies to be telling us how to live here."
The old Chinese man paused with a grimace, then spoke.
"The Chinese community has been here in Baja for at least a hundred years, Colonel. Still, we are not considered Mexicans, like the Jews, and Russians, we are not allowed citizenship. We are not trusted." Wong folded his hands. "We cannot, and would not, do anything to attract hatred or hard feelings. We are already under suspicion.”
"If you would consider what we've said, though," Dudley said with a smile, "we would be honored."
"Of course, and though I don't wish to appear rude, there are some pressing details of my business I must attend to. Please do stay, though, and enjoy my hospitality." Wong rose.
"Thank you for your time, Senor."
Varga turned to Dudley as soon as the old man had disappeared into the kitchen.
"Slant-eyed foreign shit," he hissed. "If his yellow-skinned mob gets in our way, my men will sweep them into the garbage where they belong."
"Careful, Colonel. I know you do not mean that," the Englishman countered, then said in English. "The walls could have ears. Let's go for a walk."
Dudley paid the bill, the little Oriental girl bowing low as she returned the tray with his change.
The two men sauntered out onto the neon-lit street of Tijuana.
"It's not good enough to destroy the Tong, Colonel," Dudley said as they turned north. "They control both legal and illegal trade from the Orient. Without their help we won't last a month."
"We don't have time to coddle these devils, Lord Dudley. Intercepting my replacement was a temporary solution. I have to call my General tomorrow to tell him Gomez did not arrive."
"Colonel, the first contingent of Major Cruthers' men arrives tomorrow. I have to tell the Major whether it's a green light or no. The way things are going, we may have to abandon the project."
"Abandon it?" Varga scoffed. "We've already killed a Marine Colonel and his adjutant!"
"My men were very thorough, the bodies will never be found."
"But you promised me Baja!"
A small boy ran down the dark street.
"Extra! Extra! Shoot-out in Baja! Policia goes face to face with drug lord! Read all about it! Pictures!"
The child braked to a halt in front of the two men. "Paper, Senors?"
The Colonel scowled down the street and ignored the child as he pushed by, but Dudley handed over an American quarter and took the single page edition of La ABC.
"We must move now, or all is lost," Varga growled as the taller man caught up with him.
The Englishman angled the paper toward an overhead light outside the door of a disco.
"God, Colonel, look at this!"
The Colonel took the paper, Dudley peered over his shoulder. Seven photos from behind a stocky policeman played like a newsreel. The first one was of five men pulling weapons from under their coats, the next photo showed the young policeman drawing his weapon, the rest featured one of the five men getting shot, their shocked expressions and last moments on earth frozen on film. The massive headline read: "Four Seconds at La Tarantula." Underneath the head was the bar: "One man stands alone to defend his people."
"Rudolfo Rios, Chief of Police at Puertito Cove ...drug smuggler, bodyguards," Varga squinted at the copy. "Smuggler slashed a girl with a straight razor, then was going to shoot her grandfather as the old man tried to defend her honor! Rios arrived in the nick of time! Mother of God!"
"Photos by Allyson Wells," Dudley added.
Two young men walked past the Colonel and Dudley.
"Muy macho!" one said as he shook his copy of the paper. A crowd formed under the light, many with their own copies of La ABC.
"A hero, a real hero," one girl said.
The two conspirators looked at each other and smiled.