The water from the faucet was running clear (it was brown last night), so I washed up. Then I walked around the apartment, trying to look at all the things that had aroused my curiosity the night before, but that I hadn’t dared stare at in front of Sara. Although the place was in need of paint and new carpet, it was clean and everything seemed to have its own special spot. There were shelves with framed family photographs, all arranged just so. There were candles and oil lamps on the shelves and tables, since even in the city, one couldn’t expect electricity all the time. A row of solar lanterns sat in a windowsill to charge, and there were Indian blankets and pictures hanging on the walls. The pictures were of bright, colorful swaths of paint that didn’t mean much of themselves, but looked exactly right next to the Indian blankets. One bookcase held an entire row of books and I read the titles with interest.
One thing I didn’t find was a stove or fireplace. This was odd, because the room was warm. I finally tracked the source of the heat to a metal thing that looked sort of like an accordion. I wasn’t clear on what made it warm, but at least I now understood what was warming the apartment.
Finally I sat on the lumpy sofa to read my Last of the Mohicans book. When Sara got up an hour later, I tried not to show my impatience, but I suppose she must have guessed I was anxious to get to the hospital and check on Ishkin.
“I don’t have any coffee here,” she apologized, “But the hospital coffee is free to nurses, and if we go together, I can get you a cup. It’s not very good, but it’s strong.”
We went to the hospital, got our coffee, and she went with me to Ishkin’s room to show me what kinds of things had to be done. “After today I can’t be here when you do any of this, or they’ll think I’m on duty and you’ll get charged for it.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t need help.”
“There’s another thing.” She paused and looked at the floor before continuing. “I don’t want to seem unfriendly, but we’re going to have to find you a place to stay.”
For a moment I wondered if she had caught me snooping or if I had committed some breach of city etiquette.
“It’s not personal,” she said. “It’s just that it’s a rent violation. I can have a guest once in awhile, but if they think I’m letting someone live with me, I could get kicked out.”
“Why should they care?” I asked. “If you pay your rent, what does it matter?”
“The dormitories are subsidized,” Sara explained. “The hospital pays part of the expense so we can live there cheap. If we start taking other people in, they’ll be subsidizing them, too.”
That made sense. Even in small towns, I had seen buildings full to overflowing with squatters. The hospital people wanted to keep their place nice, and they couldn’t do it by letting every refugee who came to town live there. “I understand,” I said. “Can you recommend someplace? I need to find a stable for my horses, too.”
“I’ve never had a horse, but ask Vince. He’ll take care of everything.”
By now it was time to feed Ishkin his breakfast, so we went to the cafeteria, Sara introduced me to the person who made the patient meal trays, and we went back up the stairs. Ishkin’s medicines seemed to be helping, at least as far as his throat was concerned, because he swallowed most of his food instead of spilling it onto himself. After he ate, Sara showed me the correct way to give him a sponge bath.
Afterward, Sara said she had some errands to take care of, and I had an errand in mind as well, so we parted ways. I went out into the city streets and headed toward where I knew the train tracks to be. Once there, I asked directions to the depot. As I walked along, I tried to enjoy all the morning activity. There were street vendors, beggars, and children doing performances or offering to shine your shoes or carry your packages for a coin or two. Soldiers walked past in strange uniforms of a type I had never seen before. Ordinary people of every description crowded the sidewalks, on their way to jobs or on errands. From time to time a car would drive past, slowly so as not to run over the bicycle rickshaws and burros in the streets. A woman in a white dress and red cape, and with a cross around her neck, screeched an apocalyptic message from a street corner. A man played a guitar for small change outside a bricked-up building. Dogs fought over garbage outside shop doors. The smells of manure from the passing horses and donkeys in the street mingled with the scent and smoke of grilling meats in the vendor stalls.
By the time I came within sight of the train station, I was exhausted and ready for another cup of coffee. Instead, I began reading the shop signs more carefully. There was no reason to believe that what I looked for would be here, but it seemed the most likely place. Finally my persistence was rewarded. On a building just half a block from the depot was a sign that said Esquivel Communications: Messages Sent, Received, Delivered.
The man behind the counter seemed pleasant enough. “Can you get a message to Castaño?” I asked.
“I’ll send a message anywhere, Miss.”
“But can you guarantee it will get there? To Castaño, I mean? You know where it is, right? There’s no big town nearby.”
“I’ll get your message through.” He pulled out a pen and paper. “Who’s it to, and what do you want it to say?”
“What will it cost?”
“Depends on how you want it sent. You can do ground, radio, heliograph, or best available. That’s the one I recommend. The message will go over the radio via ham operator where we’ve got one, by helio where we have stations for that, and where those don’t exist, we’ll write it down and put it on train or even send a rider on a mule, if we have to.”
“That sounds expensive,” I said. “Do you know if Castaño has a ham? Maybe we can just do this by radio.”
The man seemed skeptical at first, but finally said that yes, there was a ham in that town, but he wasn’t on the air all the time. “I might get the message through today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.”
“How much to try today?”
He quoted me a price, and I wrote out the message, using the Unitas code words I had learned during my days as a messenger. Translated, it was a simple request for a local contact for antibiotics and opium.
“And who’s this going out to?” the man asked.
I thought I saw the expression on the man’s face change slightly, but no way was I giving Robert’s real name. He remained as pleasant as before as he took my money and gave me a receipt with a message pickup number on it. “Now, remember, this could take awhile. The guy in Castaño isn’t reliable.”
I told the man I understood, and would be back the next day to see if there was a return message.
I went back into the city, hoping I had done the right thing. I had to get medicine for Ishkin somehow, and I wasn’t sure how lucrative this venture with Vince was going to be. If Robert didn’t hate me by now, he would help. It crossed my mind to go back to the communications place and send another message, this time by ground, telling Robert everything I felt about him and why now just wasn’t the right time for us. Robert was smart. If I could find the right words, he would understand why I didn't go to him at Christmas like I promised.
But I wasn’t ready yet to come up with all the right words, and by now I was hungry and needed to find Vince. I pulled the map he had given me out of my pocket, got my bearings, and started walking. I stopped along the way and bought some grilled goat meat and potatoes on a stick, and finally came to this place, which didn’t look promising:
I went around to the back, as Vince had instructed, knocked and pushed aside one of the boards covering what used to be a door.
Inside was dark and smoky, and before I could get my bearings, someone shoved me against a wall and pressed the blade of a knife against my throat. Vince had warned me that the place was guarded, but this was more than I had bargained for. I lifted my head a little higher and tried to pitch my voice low so I would sound confident. “There’s no need for this. I’m here to see Vince. He told me to come today. I’m a friend of his sister, Sara.”
The guard wasn’t convinced and asked a lot of questions. While he was doing this, another guard wandered over. The one holding the knife heard him and said over his shoulder, “That you, Ozone? Tell Vince some chick is here to see him.”
The one called Ozone smiled as if to suggest that my guard was mostly bluff. This reassured me a little, and a few minutes later, Ozone returned out of the shadows, this time with Vince.
“Come on, Speedball,” Vince said. “No need to go rottie on the girl.”
“She could be an infiltrator." The guard lowered his knife and took a step back.
“Yeah, and I could be El Duque.” Vince grinned at me and gave a little jerk of his head. “Come to my office and let’s talk.”
Vince’s office was a windowless room with a cracked tile floor and paint peeling in strips from the walls. It was lit by several oil lamps that smoked badly and smelled of old cooking grease, but the furniture was serviceable, so while Vince sat down behind the desk, I took a chair opposite and gave him what credentials I dared. The last thing I wanted was for word to get back to my friends in Unitas that I was involved with a drug-runner, so I was as vague as Vince let me get away with, and I think he sensed there was a lot I wasn’t saying. Given his line of work, I guess he understood. I’m sure everyone in this business has a past they’d rather not advertise.
Finally he said I could serve as a guard and lookout for a few days, and if I did well and got along with the team, we would take things from there.
“Do you know a place I can stable my horses?,” I asked. “And someplace I can sleep, too?”
“You got horses?” He smiled that same childlike smile that had so surprised me last night. “That could come in handy.”
“Only I ride Flecha, but I might be able to let you use the other one if you’ve got a rider who knows what they’re doing.”
Vince nodded and stood up. “I know an ostelery where they owe us a favor. I’ll send Ozone with you to take care of that. And you can sleep here, if you like. There’s plenty of room.” He led me into a large open space littered with bedrolls, cushions, sagging sofas and wads of old chair stuffing. “Lots of my folks sleep here because it’s safe.”
A dark-haired girl had been lounging on a mattress, playing with a dirty kitten, and she looked up at me and seemed displeased about something, but all she said was, “Hey, Vince,” and turned back to her kitten.
Me and the guard they called Ozone went to get my horses from the hospital, and it was nice to ride again. Ozone sat Ishkin's horse pretty well for a city boy, and seemed happy to answer all my questions and point out the local landmarks. “See those bullet holes over there? That was from an election riot two years ago. And that bakery on the corner—see how nice it is? That’s because it’s El Duque’s favorite.”
“Who is this El Duque everyone talks about?” I asked.
That led to a whole other conversation that lasted until we had gotten the horses stabled and fed, but for all Ozone’s rambling, the story was simple enough. El Duque was the current town strongman, supposedly brought to power in a free election, but really by intimidation of opponents and shady ballot counting. If the citizens had been smart, they would’ve brought in Unitas to oversee the elections. We would’ve made sure it was done fairly.
As we walked back to headquarters, I asked Ozone if there was anything I needed to know about the people I would be working with. Were there any difficult personalities, anyone I needed to watch out for?
“Well, you already met Speedball. He’s crazy. Not a bad person, just quick to go off on a person and only later ask if it was the right thing to do.”
“I can handle that. Anyone else?”
He made a face. “Gitana. She’s the only other girl in our group, and she’s got it bad for Vince. Don’t let her think you like him, or she’ll cut your throat in your sleep.”
So that was why the girl with the kitten gave me such a mean look. I would have to be careful.
When we got back the building, I found a spot in the common room where I could spread my blankets and set out my bags. I couldn’t stay long, because I had to get over to the hospital to help Ishkin. I promised Vince I would be back within the hour, and when I returned, I was just in time for a planning meeting.
Vince introduced me to the group, and outlined tonight’s project, which seems to be a pretty standard handoff and delivery of goods. My job will be to stand lookout, so I don't suppose I'll get paid very much. I just hope everything goes well and it doesn’t take all night. I have to be back at the hospital in the morning to pay for more treatment and bathe and feed Ishkin.
Got to go now. It looks like everyone is about ready.
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