Acclaimed author William Hjortsberg returns this spring with Mañana, a stylish thrill ride through 1960s Mexico and the dark recesses of the human heart. Mañana hits shelves May 12, but you can get a sneak peak below!
All Tod remembers when he wakes up next to a dead prostitute is that he had his first shot of heroin the night before. He and his wife, Linda, were partying with their new neighbors, a trio of jewelry store robbers. Now the place is empty, stripped clean except for Tod’s blood-stained hunting knife. Did he kill the woman, or was he left behind as the fall guy?
Convinced his junkie friends abducted Linda to keep her from talking to the police, Tod buys a gun and prepares to do whatever it takes to get his wife back.
Read the excerpt below, then download the ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Around nine thirty, I packed everything away. After paying the manager ten pesos for another night, I drove into town, bought a newspaper, and parked down the block from the Hotel Oriental where I could keep an eye on the entrance. My watch said ten fifteen. I thought of Doc snoring off his hangover inside, and settled down to wait with the local rag, lulled by the growl and grumble of big long-distance buses on their way back and forth from the terminal.
The front page of El Occidental had the usual stuff about Guadalajara politics, articles about leftist student protests in Berlin and the widening FBI search for Eric Starvo Galt, suspected assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. At the bottom of the front page, a small box advised expats that today was the final deadline for filing tax returns in the United States.
I found it on page three. A short column under the head Homicida Junto al Mar, dateline Barra de Navidad, Jalisco. The body of an unknown foreign woman, possibly North American, had been found several days after death. The Federales described it as a murder although no weapon had been found. That was it. Maybe a hundred words. They didn’t know her name. No mention of a cut throat. I read somewhere the police liked leaving certain details of the crime out of their public statements so they could distinguish false nutcase confessions from the real thing.
Around eleven, I got a beer and three tortillas out of the cooler. I sliced an avocado in half with the Randall and spread the creamy fruit onto the tortillas, adding a couple splashes of salsa picante for instant tacos. After eating, I took my anti-biótico. At noon, I popped another cerveza. Frankie’s prints had to be on file someplace. I wondered how hard the Mexican fuzz would look to find them.
Doc finally limped into the sunlight around one thirty, shaded by a stingy-brim straw hat. He was dressed more casually than the night before, sporting a seersucker jacket over a T-shirt and chinos. He started off down the street. I stepped out of the van, adjusting my belt so the sheathed Randall hung at the base of my spine. The untucked Hawaiian shirt covered it fine. I locked Bitter Lemon and strolled after Doc.
He walked west on Estadio past the Hotel Canadá. A sign painted on the side of the Canadá boasted rooms for fifteen pesos. Doc headed straight for the Terminal de Autobuses at the end of the block. Freestanding six-foot letters on the roof spelled out the name of the seven-story concrete-and-brick building. Even a junky could spot it. I followed him into the bustling bus station lobby. Was Doc getting out of town? He had no luggage. No way he’d leave his new sharkskin suit behind.
Doc wove between passengers waiting with their suitcases and walked into the dining room, heading for the second-class side. I stood in the entrance watching as he found a table and placed his hat carefully on the seat beside him. A trio of waiters looked on. “Buenos días, Doc,” I said, straddling a chair opposite the old man.
“Whatdaya say, kid?” He blinked through his green-tinted plastic tortoiseshell shades. “Figured you’d be turning up sooner or later.”
“You knew it’d be sooner. The guy at the front desk tipped you off.”
“Yeah. Wonderful what fifty pesos a week can buy around here.” Doc fumbled a trembling hand inside his jacket. I reached back under my shirt, unsnapping the keeper strap on the Randall. Doc pulled out a crumpled pack of Faros and I relaxed. “How about I buy you lunch?” I said, turning my chair around so it faced the table.
“That’s a white man’s offer I never say no to.” Doc lit a cigarette and shook out the match as the white-jacketed waiter silently appeared. We glanced at our mimeographed gringo friendly menus. Doc ordered fried eggs, unable to make the waiter understand what he meant about “over easy.” I went for the liver with bacon. Together both meals came to a buck fifty. Two beers added another four bits to the tally.
I stared at Doc, watching him smoke and tremble. Maybe he just needed a fix. I began doubting my instincts. Doc’s beady eyes darted back-and-forth behind his sunglasses like frantic rats trapped in fish bowls. The man acted nervous as a tomcat at the dog pound …
“Tell me where to find them.”
“How the hell should I know. They’ve got the car, that much I’m sure of.”
The stupid gangster mobile meant nothing to me. “Okay, Doc,” I snarled. “Who did it?”
“Don’t be stupid. I’m talking about Frankie.”
Doc scratched his cheek. “You don’t know who killed her?”
“Did I? Was it me?” Doc chuckled. “Had a little blackout, eh, kid?” His laughter exploded into hoarse coughing.
“Maybe it was you,” I said when his spasm ended, regretting any show of emotion. Doc saw that as a weakness. “Fuck off!” he said. “You don’t know shit. If you was to guess the killer, who’d you pick?”
“Shank,” I said. The waiter arrived at that moment carrying our plates. He set them before us with brisk silent efficiency.
“Pretty sharp for a patsy.” Doc sneered at me once the waiter left. He must have felt in the driver’s seat. “Maybe you wouldn’t be such a smart-ass if your wife was hanging out with Shank. He’d sure show her some new tricks.”
I wanted to reach across the table and punch the old man but held my anger in check. Right now I needed his help. Keeping cool was my best bet. “You’re saying Shank killed Frankie?”
“I ain’t sayin’ nothing of the kind. You take me for a rat? I was maybe suggesting it might have been you killed her. Since you’re so ready to lay it off on Shank.”
“I didn’t kill anybody,” I said.
“Killing means nothing to Shank. Less than blowing his nose. Know how he come to get that handle?”
I said I didn’t have a clue.
“Just a fish doing his first bit at some nowhere pen in Florida. Probably should of been in high school. Shank gave up on that education shit in eighth grade. Some old chicken plucker spotted him right off. Wants him for his bitch. Beats the crap outta him in the yard under cover of a crowd. Says it’ll be worse next time unless they meet up in the showers. Shank makes the date. When he shows, he’s got a shiv stashed up his keister. Long thin shank made from a screwdriver he swiped from the furniture shop.
“The plucker tells him to bend over. Shank says, ‘Let me make it easy for you,’ and soaps up his ass, slipping out the shiv while Big Daddy’s getting his hard-on ready. Stuck that jocker so many times he looked like chop suey. Cons called him Shank ever since.”
“If the shank fits,” I quipped.
Doc ignored me. “The man’s dead inside,” he growled. “No heart. No soul. No fucking loyalty.”
I said nothing, leaning forward to show I was listening. Doc clammed up all of a sudden, poking at his eggs.
“I take it they’re all still in Guad?” I said.
“Shank for sure,” Doc said. “I keep close tabs on him. Pay a guy at his hotel to call every time he goes in or out.”
“How does he do that when you’ve got no phone?”
“There’s one down at the desk.” Doc looked at me like I was clueless.
“Maybe Shank’s paying that guy to keep him posted about your comings and goings.”
Doc smiled at the thought. “Shank’s a stone killer,” he said. “And a crook and a double-crosser. But, one thing he’s not. He’s not sneaky.”
“What about Linda and Nick?”
“They’re together someplace with the car. Maybe still here in town. That fuckin’ Firebird’s half mine. I helped snatch it. Shank, he gave the car over to Nick. Says I’ll get my share. Same deal with the watches. Shit! He keeps all the goods and I’m supposed to trust him?”
“Show me where he lives,” I said.
Doc took off his green shades and stared at me with bloodshot eyes. “‘You are not evil when you seek gain for yourself.’” He was quoting Gibran again.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Listen, kid, nothing’s free in any world I ever lived in. Lemme tell you a little story. Couple guys stick up a jewelry store in Beverly Hills. They get away with a dozen watches. The best. Quality goods. Worth a grand or two each, maybe more. So, they’re on the lam and hard up for bread. They sell a couple for three hundred bucks apiece to keep old man wolf from the door. The other guy says he’ll take charge of the loot. Sell the watches off one at a time. Get better prices. Can you believe that shit? Tell me he’s not about to screw his partner.”
I shrugged. “What’d you expect? An unrigged deck?”
“Here’s what you got to do for me, kid. You got to back me up when I ask for my fair share. That is to say, if you want a get together with Shank.”
“What do you mean, back you up?”
“You know. Be there for me.” Doc made an expansive gesture with his hands. “Who am I kidding? You ain’t got the balls for it.”
“I’m not afraid of Shank,” I lied.
“You fucking well better be. He could kill you with a ballpoint pen.” Doc scooped into his egg yolk with a folded tortilla. “Held between his teeth! We go up against Shank, you better come heavy.”
“Bring a piece.”
“A piece of what?” I tried to lighten things up with a joke, but Doc didn’t get it.
“A gun, dummy,” he grumbled. “A pistola. Trente ocho.”
“Treinta y ocho,” I corrected. “Whatever.” “I’ve got a gun,” I said.
“Perfect.” Doc grinned. “Maybe we’re in business. Got it with you?”
“How long before you can get it?”
I thought that one over. “Most of the afternoon,” I said.
“It’ll have to be tomorrow then,” Doc said. “This is a daytime thing. I wouldn’t want to try and pull it off at night. Shank’d be wise to us if we came after dark.”
“I’ll be ready tomorrow.”
“Meet me here at noon.”
“Okay.” I got up, placing a banknote veinte and a ten-peso cartwheel by my plate. “Hasta mañana.”
I left Doc half-thinking the whole deal with Shank might be a con giving the old man time to slip away. Figured I had to trust him. No other choice. I knew it was risky but I needed Doc to get to Shank. Maybe he lied about not knowing Nick’s whereabouts. I’d find out tomorrow when we met up with Shank. Lots to do in between.
At a window marked información, I said I was a cazador, a hunter, and asked for the address of a reputable sporting goods store. The man told me of a place called La Casa del Cazador on the Calle Francisco I. Madero near the corner of Ocho de Julio. The name struck me as too cute to be true. I took a chance and drove over, following Independencia up to Madero and turning left. I had trouble finding a place to park and circled the area until I lucked out and pulled in behind a departing pickup truck a block and a half away from the shop.
La Casa del Cazador turned out to be much smaller than I anticipated. A long painted signboard mounted over the door had the name in faded gilt letters. Displayed behind dusty multipaned show windows flanking the entrance, an odd assortment of duck decoys, poorly mounted pheasants, and various animal skulls suggested a natural history display in a small town museum. A bell tinkled above my head as I entered.
I expected something along the lines of a seedy Mexican pawnshop. Instead, I encountered an elegant old-fashioned establishment with dark wood-paneled walls, beveled mirrors, and a long glass showcase perched on graceful curving legs. It reminded me of the gun room on the seventh floor of Abercrombie & Fitch. A miniature version of the magical place where my dad took me a couple times on those rare occasions when we ventured above 14th Street.
La Casa del Cazador possessed the same atmosphere of polite respectability, inviting gentlemen to come and indulge their love for the trappings and weaponry of blood sport. In place of the stuffed herds of Cape buffalo and kudu overpopulating the gun room, a single mule deer mount hung on the back wall. Abercrombie’s platoon of safari-suited salesmen was reduced to a single pewter-haired gentleman wearing a vest and sleeve garters. His blue suit jacket hung over the back of a chair by a desk in the corner. He stood beside a wall rack of shotguns and sporting rifles, regarding me with solemn indifference as I made my way around the shop admiring the arsenal on display.
In place of the splendid Purdey, Boss, and Churchill shotguns for sale at Abercrombie & Fitch, a number of handsome moderately priced Spanish and Italian double-barrels—AYA, Rizzini, Franchi, and Casa J—stood in a gleaming row along the back wall. The proprietor watched me, maintaining a serene detachment until I was only feet away. “¿En qué puedo servirle?” His Spanish held a hint of lisping Castillian. He wanted to know how he could be of service.
“Una caja de cartuchos para una escopeta, por favor,” I replied, asking for a box of shotgun shells.
“¿Qué caliber de tubo?”
“Doce. Perdigónes doble-cero.” I specified twelve-gauge double-ought buckshot.
“Ah, muy fuerte,” he observed, placing a box of Aguila cartridges on the countertop.
I didn’t care how strong he thought they were and wasn’t interested in Mexican ammunition. Grappling for a way of saying this politely, the best I came up with was, “¿Tiene Federal o Remington? ¿Winchester, quizás?”
The proprietor frowned, setting a carton of Federals next to the Aguilas. “Es igual,” he said, “pero los otros están mas caro.”
The price didn’t matter to me. I was afraid shells manufactured in Mexico might misfire. “Los Federales son buenos,” I said. “¿Cuánto cuesta?”
He told me the amount, sternly pointing out those of the Estados Unidos cost almost twice that of the ammo manufactured by CDM. I said it was okay. With a new tone of arch disapproval, the gun shop proprietor asked what sort of game I planned on hunting.
Caught off-balance, I glanced about evasively. Spotting the mounted buck, I blurted, “Venado.”
“¿Como este?” the man asked. “No es la temporada.”
“Claro,” I said, knowing full well it wasn’t hunting season. “Me falta practicar.” I wanted to be more explicit but couldn’t remember the word for marksmanship. To change the subject, I paid with one of my silver Olympic coins.
The proprietor picked the twenty-five-peso piece up off the counter. “Sí,” he said. “La puntería es importante.” He placed extra emphasis in supplying my forgotten word.
I didn’t say anything, watching the man wrap the box of twelve-gauge shells in brown paper and string like some drab Christmas present. Not knowing if legal documents were required for shotguns in Mexico, I harbored a nagging fear he was going to ask to see my firearm license. Panic gripped me. I wanted to be out of the shop as fast as possible.
“Gracias,” I said, grabbing my package and heading for the door.
“Happy hunting,” he called after me in perfect English.
Back in the van, I stared at the small square package sitting on the seat beside me. What the hell difference did it make who made the fucking shotgun shells? I wasn’t going to shoot anybody. Why even bother loading the thing? Somehow it made a difference. If I went up against Shank with an empty weapon, he’d know. My eyes would give me away. There are degrees of fear. Shank had a predator’s instinct for sensing his opponent’s terror. A loaded gun provided insurance against his deadly stare.
I had work to do and needed a quiet spot to get it done. Leafing through my cheap city guide, I came across the perfect destination and drove out of town past the airport on González Gallo. I took Highway 35 eight or nine miles toward Chapala before turning left onto a gravel road, heading for Juanacatlán Falls. The guidebook called it the “largest waterfall in Mexico.” I followed signs pointing the way toward el salto.
I had no interest in sightseeing and didn’t plan on going all the way to the falls. My goal was privacy. I rattled along, checking out the surrounding landscape. After a couple miles, I spotted an isolated grove of trees set well back from the road across an open stretch of rocky scrub. I eased Bitter Lemon over the rough terrain, pulling in among the madroñas. Not a house in sight. No livestock grazing nearby. I had the place to myself.
My first task made me nervous. Test-firing the Reilly might prove dangerous. Proper procedure meant securing the shotgun in a vise and pulling the triggers from a safe distance with a length of stout cord. I didn’t have a vise. The weapon was useless if it didn’t shoot. Better to risk blowing my head off today than guarantee Shank an upper hand tomorrow. I tugged the old side-by-side out from under the sleeping platform.
People do stupid things because they don’t foresee the consequences. Ignorance overcame my apprehension. I stuffed a couple shells into the shotgun. What the hell. I thumbed back the side hammers and swung the double barrel to my right shoulder, aiming up over my head. The gun had hair triggers. Kicked like going for a field goal. The stab wound in my left shoulder winced with sympathetic phantom pain at the recoil. The Reilly’s breech held tight despite its age. No one around but me to hear the reports, loud as twin thunderclaps.
Ears ringing, I extracted the spent shells. The old smoke pole passed the test even if its bird-hunting days were over. One thing sure, no way in hell Doc and I could get the drop on Shank if we walked in with me carrying a big scattergun. I got out my toolbox and readied a work platform in the van, flipping back the covered foam rubber section cut to fit a hinged plywood storage hatch.
Popping off the Reilly’s forearm, I opened the action and removed the barrels from the hinge pin in the receiver. I set the stock aside, snapping the forearm back in place. About two inches above it, I wound a strip of black cloth friction tape around the barrels. Wrapping a towel over the breech, I secured the barrels to the edge of the plywood with a pair of wood clamps.
I took my hacksaw from the toolbox. Using the outer edge of the friction tape as a guide, I cut carefully through both barrels. This proved much easier than anticipated. I smoothed the rough edges around the cut with a mill file and finished the job with a piece of sixty-grade emery cloth. The end result wasn’t perfect but good enough for what I had in mind.
I didn’t protect the butt end of the stock before clamping it to the plywood. Fitting the hacksaw with a wood blade, I made a cut following the curve of the checkered pistol grip from a point behind the top tang. The old walnut turned out much tougher to saw than steel. I took my time and felt pleased with the results, rounding off the edges with a wood rasp. It looked pretty good, the pistol grip shaped like an old-fashioned handgun. I wrapped the grip with friction tape. Didn’t want to drop the sawed-off when my palms dampened with fear.
Shortened barrels back in place, the heavy weapon balanced nicely when I aimed it. Overall, the piece looked about eighteen inches long. No derringer but still easy to conceal. For some reason, I wanted the gun to be clean. I put away my tools and pulled a small rag soaked in white gas through each barrel on a piece of string before going over the Reilly with 3-in-One oil. Bundling the weapon in a towel, I stashed it beneath my sleeping pillow.
I had a war surplus trenching shovel among my gear. The blade folded over and slipped into a canvas holster. Linda paid two bucks for it at an army navy store south of Market. We used it to dig latrines when camping off road. I tightened the threaded sleeve holding the blade upright and dug a small hole about right for a crapper. Into it, I dropped the severed barrels, the fine walnut stock and two spent shotgun shells. A couple quick shovelfuls refilled the miniature latrine. I tamped the earth down, scuffed the surface with my sneaker, and was on my way.
I torched a fat one on the drive back to Guad, the last dorf in my little tin box. It grew dark when I cruised through the outskirts of town. I had a local Mexican rock-and-roll station playing on the car radio and pulled over to listen to a bluesy new Beatles song, just released a couple weeks ago. I gleaned that and the title, “Lady Madonna,” from the frenzied staccato of the dj’s machine-gun Spanish. It was a good song, featuring Paul’s rollicking Fats Domino–style piano. A tenor-sax jazz solo at the end sent me into dope-fueled memories.