“Bring Me the Head of John Grisham” (Story)
What would you do for a million dollars?
Risk averse expatriate life insurance agent Bob Proctor has to steal back the head of famed American legal thriller author to claim a million dollar bounty from a retired Mexican drug lord.
He soon finds himself way out of his depth on the back roads of Mexico. Army snipers, wild dogs, gold Cadillacs, one-handed Narcos. The whole enchilada.
“Bring Me the Head of John Grisham” is a loco literary story. With enough twists to give you whiplash.
Can the timid Proctor become fearless?
‘I have no idea where this dirty little thriller came from. It just kept assaulting me until I wrote it down, wrote it out. I guess it’s all about courage. If you like stories that spin out of control down south of the border, you’ll love this one.’ Stefano Boscutti
‘Ruthless, contemporary take on Sam Peckinpah’s weird, horrifying film that somehow transcends its unlikely material.’ Gary Hughes
‘Riveting, snarling thriller with some brutal twists and turns.’ Garth Hableton
‘Absorbing, bizarrely spellbinding and strangely humorous.’ Alex Guerrero
‘Feels like Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Elmore Leonard got drunk and decided to write a short story.’ Matt Kelland
Rated NC-17 / ISBN 9780980712575 /9,000 words / 36 minutes of gritty reading pleasure / Buy Amazon / Buy Barnes & Noble / Buy Smashwords
‘The books of the future may not meet all the conventional criteria for literary value that we have today, or any of them.’ Time Magazine
BRING ME THE HEAD OF JOHN GRISHAM
Copyright 2011 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved ISBN 9780980712575
Discover new stories, screenplays, novels and more by Stefano Boscutti at boscutti.com
MEXICAN BACK ROAD
‘Please don’t look at me like that.’
JOHN GRISHAM’S head gives me one of those looks. It sits tilted upright in a metal bucket of salted ice, strapped in the passenger seat of a stolen police car. The one I’m driving down some crumpled dirt road. I’m heading into the desert country around Coahuila, away from La Pesca and a thousand bad decisions.
‘I’m almost certain I didn’t cut off your head. Mind you, not a hundred percent certain, because my memory’s a little fuddled. Statistically? Say, somewhere between sixty-three and sixty-seven percent. Maybe a little higher.’
I try to make sense of the creased road map. Everything is written in Spanish, and my Spanish is not good.
I straighten my filthy glasses and try to lean forward to switch on the air conditioning, but the seatbelt holds me back. I undo it, lean forward, and press the button twice. Nothing.
I wipe sweat off my brow with the back of my hand. My limp tie is pulled loose. My shirt and suit can’t remember the last time they saw a dry cleaner. My shoes are scuffed like my soul.
I’ve got a cigarette in my shirt pocket. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.
I’ve been drinking a lot of tequila. That’s where I heard the story about the million dollar reward for your head. I was drinking in a bar. Not sure about you, but to me that’s a lot of money. Yes sir, a lot of money. John Grisham’s mouth is level with the lip of the bucket. As the stolen police car rattles down the broken road, so does his head, from side-to-side, so it looks like he’s disagreeing with everything I say.
‘Locals say the best way to keep cool is to warm your body with a little tequila. I think it’s a myth. How can that possibly be true? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think you should believe everything you hear in a bar.’
I roll my eyes at John Grisham’s head.
‘All I know is it’s hot. It’s always hot.’
An old paperback of Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” lies on the dashboard, baking beneath the windscreen.
‘How about some music, John? Take your mind off the heat. Country? Classic Rock? What about the Eagles? I’m sure I can find “Hotel California” somewhere.’
There’s a mess of wires under the dash, as if someone had ripped them out and roughly twisted them together again.
I press the tuning button, and the radio scans through local stations, catching snatches of songs and voices and static and bad commercials, before fading out to nothing.
‘You died of a brain aneurysm, don’t you remember? You were staying in one of those private vacation apartments at La Quinta Huachinango, on the outskirts of town. You clutched the sides of your head. Thought you were having a migraine attack. Next second, you’re flat on the floor, deader than dead.’
‘What do you mean you didn’t know about the reward on your head? It was the talk of the town. Everyone knew about it.’
Juan told me about the reward when he bought me a drink in that bar. It was posted by Jose Cardenas Fuente. The one they call El Biblio, The Librarian. They say he has the largest private collection of crime books in Mexico. Used to be a drug kingpin, before he retired.
‘I have no idea why he wants your head, John. You’ll have to ask him.’
‘But if you hadn’t died, I’m pretty sure somebody would have killed you for it.’
Juan figured two heads would be better than one. Rosaria told me you’d been interred in the side of the cemetery. A shallow grave, nothing fancy. Not one of those domed mausoleums reserved for drug dealers and local politicians. We dug up your coffin and were just about to open the lid when, klang! Somebody smashed me in the back of the head with a shovel. I saw stars. I really did.
I touch the back of my head, middle-aged hair matted with dried blood. It still hurts.
When I woke up, I saw the coffin lid was open and your head sat in that bucket. Juan was next to me, dead. A handwritten note knifed into his chest. ‘This is going to happen to everybody who doesn’t understand, the message is for everybody.’
‘That’s not very good English, is it, John? It’s a transitive verb, right? Well, you’d know. You’re the writer.’
There were two other dead bodies there. Narcos riddled with bullets. Blood everywhere.
And a dead policeman. Did I mention the dead policeman?
I grabbed your head, jumped into the police car, and took off. I wasn’t going to wait around. Everybody steals everything here. It’s a way of life. They have more car thefts than burglaries here.
‘Anyway, John, I’m not really stealing it. I’m borrowing it.’
I take the cigarette out of my shirt pocket. It’s my last one.
John Grisham’s head keeps giving me that look.
Things are finally turning my way. We’re leaving the beautiful, unspoiled coast of Mexico, and the promise of both a vacation or retirement lifestyle that redefines paradise. We’re off to see El Biblio and claim what’s due.
‘No, we’re not driving to Ciudad Juarez. Do you think I’m crazy? The Juarez Cartel control that land.’
We’re heading to El Biblio’s hacienda outside the village of La Linda, up near the border. High up in Los Zetas country. Taking these back roads, so we don’t draw attention to ourselves.
It may take a little longer, but it’s less risky. I’m not sticking my neck out for anyone.
‘Lost? I’m not lost. I know exactly where we’re going.’
Something moves in the thin scrub. Might be wild dogs, fighting over whatever’s left of whatever they took down last night.
There’s not much scenery. Mesquite scrub everywhere. The occasional prickly pear. Some low-lying lechgila, mensuite, creosote.
‘I don’t know my way around here? Who does? And how can you even tell I’m lost? You can’t see over the dash.’
‘Oh, it’s a feeling. Really? You’ve got a feeling I’m lost?’
I rub my temple.
‘I’m not lost. I’m not confused. I’ve got a headache, that’s all. You could stop talking, that would be a good start.’
‘Weak? I’m not weak, just a little tired. How can you say that? Do you know anything about my daughter? Do you know anything about my life?’
GUST OF WIND
Lonely weeds and dry branches shiver.
‘I’m lost, and I never finish anything? Really, you think so? You know me?’
John Grisham’s head doesn’t say anything.
‘Really, you can tell by looking at me?’
I wind down the window, and dust and warm air rush in.
‘Then who am I getting the money for? Who’s the reward for?’
I cock my ear.
‘What? Sorry, I can’t hear you. Oh, you don’t know, John? You’re at a loss?’
I look out at the parched hills.
‘It’s for Kristen, my daughter. She’s an English major at Amherst. The million dollars is for her. She needs the right start in life.’
After everything I’ve done wrong, it’s time I did something right.
‘She deserves it. Everything she puts her mind to she achieves. She won the Armstrong Prize in her first year. She’s got her mind set on becoming a writer, an author.’
A million dollars means she won’t have to worry about money.
‘After the divorce, I wasn’t the world’s greatest dad. This way I can repay her for my mistakes.’
I smile at John Grisham’s head.
‘This way I can put your head to good use.’
I put the cigarette to my lips and pull out a Zippo lighter, flip open the lid, and strike once, twice, without sparking a flame.
Her mother left me, and then I kind of left myself.
I strike the lighter for a third time, and the rear window implodes. Showers the cabin with blasted glass.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” pours in from the car racing behind me. It’s not the original by The Clash. It’s a raucous Hispanic version by Los Fabulosos Cadillac, grumbling louder and louder as the car draws closer. Dust storms rise in its wake.
It’s a gold Cadillac, like Elvis Presley used to give away in the seventies. There’s a BORED NARCO behind the wheel and an ANNOYED NARCO leaning out the passenger window, handgun outstretched and about to fire again.
The gold Cadillac zooms up beside me, and the Narco’s gun levels with my head. I slam the brakes, slip and swerve, and stop on the embankment. The gold Cadillac slides to a stop on a wave of dust, the thumping Clash classic kicking on.
Wind carries away the wave.
I see the passenger door open, and the Annoyed Narco steps out. He cracks his neck and strides towards me, a palm-sized gold ornament of Judas Tadeo, Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes, dangling from a chain around his neck.
I furiously roll up the window, lock the door, snatch the key from the ignition. Narco shakes his head, disappointed, then lifts his gun and blasts two shots straight through the window. Glass explodes everywhere.
He slams his gun into the back of his pants, reaches in, and drags me out by my hair. Tosses me to the ground, and then reaches back into the car. He pulls out the bucket with John Grisham’s head, holds it up, smiles, and puts it on the bonnet.
He turns to look at me.
I scramble backward in the dirt and dust. He sees my wallet fall out. I reach for it, but he steps on my hand. He picks it up and thumbs it open.
He looks back at the driver in the gold Cadillac and shouts over the song.
‘El idiota no tiene dinero!’
He pulls a picture of my daughter out of the wallet. It was taken on her first day at college, all smiles and sunshine. He flicks the picture at me.
He pulls out my business card. Bob Proctor, Sales Consultant, Liberty Life Insurance, 301 Avenue E, San Antonio, Texas 78205. Telephone 210-250-3171. Fax 210-250-3105. For all your life insurance needs.
He flicks the card at me, lifts the bucket from the bonnet, pulls out his gun, and aims it at my head. A gust of dust tumbles behind him.
‘Quizás, deberías haber hecho un seguro de vida a tu nombre.’
FINGER ON TRIGGER
My life flashes before my eyes. Not all of it. Just the disappointing parts.
The marriage break-up. The lawyers. The divorce.
Liberty Life Insurance convinced me to come down here. To sell life insurance to a new real estate development, an upscale, gated community. On full commission, because then I could really make some money.
La Pesca is a town in Tamaulipas on the Gulf coast, about halfway between Matamoros and Tampico. Long, sandy beaches with a handful of palm trees. Single-story dwellings, small market that opens in the morning, open-air restaurant. There’re no tourists, no ATMs.
It was supposed to be paradise on Earth, full of rich Americans scared was built. Six bags of cement was all I ever saw. Figured I’d be the first one there, no competition, no risk. But after a year there was still nothing.
I spent all my money on fees and bribes. For what? For nothing?
My ex-wife told me I never took a chance on anything, never took a chance on life. Well, I’d show her. I’d make something of myself. Not for her, mind you. For Kristen, for my daughter. Her mother kept telling her what a loser I was.
That’s when I moved into sales.
I wanted to help my daughter, that’s all. And it led to Mexico and a year of broken dreams. And that led to too much tequila, which led to the bar and led to Juan, and led to the cemetery and that shallow grave, and then John Grisham’s head.
The sound of rotor blades thumping as dust swirls over the stolen police car. An army-green Medevac helicopter rises over the hill, spewing gravel and dust in its path. I can’t see a thing. The helicopter chops through the air, low and loud. A loudspeaker replays a recorded warning.
‘Usted está violando las leyes nacionales de inmigración! Puede ser arrestado y sometido a juicio! Usted está violando las leyes nacionales de inmigración! Puede ser arrestado y sometido a juicio!’
Dust clears, and the gold Cadillac is gone. So is John Grisham’s head. So is the stolen police car.
MEXICAN MEN, WOMEN and CHILDREN leap up from behind mesquite scrub, scattering for their lives.
The helicopter banks and sweeps back low. Its bay door thrusts open and MILITARY SNIPER in a harness leans out, leveling his assault rifle. He’s wearing an Army-green ski mask.
The military is getting out of hand in Mexico. This is how they try to stop the immigration problem. It’s their answer to everything.
Sniper opens fire on the people fleeing, squeezing off shot after shot.
This is a ruthless country. The weak do not survive.
Even retired drug lords are ruthless. Look at El Biblio. He hated the last John Grisham novel so much, he put a bounty on the author’s head. God knows what he’s going to do it. I don’t want to know.
El Biblio cut off his lieutenant’s fingers when he caught him reading “The Da Vinci Code”. Cut off each of the fingers on his right hand so he couldn’t turn the pages. Each one snipped off with a pair of pruning shears.
Did he cut off the thumb? Not sure. But this is a bad man. He used to control sixty-three percent of the methamphetamine trade in Northern Mexico, but now he’s semiretired on his hacienda. Tending to his roses and his books.
Imagine putting a million dollar bounty on John Grisham’s head so he’d never write again. I was lucky he was already dead. I wouldn’t want to be the man to kill John Grisham.
Although in this country, finding someone to kill somebody costs a lot less than a million dollars. You can have someone killed for thirty dollars and a bottle of tequila.
Or you can always call the military.
The helicopter heads to the horizon, its recorded warning waning with the distance.
I don’t want to think whether any of those poor Mexicans were hit. I can’t hear any moaning, so I guess no one is bleeding to death. Maybe they’re too scared to cry out. I would be.
I slip the photo of my daughter into my shirt pocket. Stand up and dust myself off.
I never finished college. I was one of those geeky young men studying mathematics. The beauty of numbers, the love of logic. I dropped out in my final year.
There’s not a lot of career scope for a mathematician. We were asked to work for the US Defense Advance Research Project Agency. They were funding research to optimize the efficiency of a military bulldozer, called the Grizzly Combat Mobility Vehicle. It was used in the Iraqi desert during Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraqi war.
It had a problem because it got damaged by sand rolling up the front. It was supposed to move at forty miles per hour, sweeping away barbed wire, pushing sand into trenches filled with Iraqi troops, burying them alive, then rolling back over the top to make sure they were dead.
But Iraqi sand is finer than American sand. It clogs the treads and gears. We were supposed to calculate optimal track bearings to improve efficiency.
I didn’t want to learn how to kill people more efficiently. I dropped out and got a job as an actuary at Liberty Life Insurance. I applied mathematical and statistical models to assess tables and premiums. To assess the risk profiles of insurance products.
A study by U.S. News included actuaries among the twenty-five best professions that will be in great demand in the future. Great demand, but terrible salary. Statistically, actuaries are among the lowest paid in the insurance industry.
It was my manager who suggested I move into sales. I thought I could finally make some money instead of just making ends meet. I wanted to help give Kristen a start in life. Taking out another student loan seemed reckless.
My manager told me coming down to Mexico was risk free, all upside.
I shield my eyes and look over the sun-blazed hills.
Mexico is the world’s biggest producer of methamphetamine. Mexican cartels and gangs control meth distribution in America. They also control the wholesale distribution of cocaine, as well as its transit from South America. All roads lead through Mexico.
The average price of methamphetamine jumped seventy-three percent in the last year. The price of cocaine rose by forty-four percent despite a decline in purity.
I take off my glasses and try and clean them with the hem of my jacket.
More narcos fighting for more money leaves the army and police vulnerable. The Sinaloa’s main rivals are the Zetas. They don’t mess around. They don’t take any prisoners.
The Zetas themselves were originally formed by army deserters from the Mexican Army Special Forces. They’re former elite soldiers, highly trained, highly ruthless. The other week, they hung up recruitment banners in border towns inviting current and former soldiers to join them.
I put my glasses back on, dirtier than before. I run my hand through my hair, brushing out slithers of broken glass.
I take a deep breath and start walking. There’s not a car anywhere, there’s not a bird in the sky.
Of course, I took out a life insurance policy on myself. I’m not stupid. Whatever happens to me, my daughter will be getting a million dollars. Even if it kills me.
RUSTED OUT FORD PICKUP
A battered Ford pickup rolls down the road and creaks to a stop beside me. A YOUNG MAN behind the wheel, his BROTHER beside him, and an OLD MAN pressed up against the passenger door. They look like field workers or ranch hands. Hard working people, honest people.
The old man points a crooked finger to the back of the pickup.
I nod, step on top of the rear tire, and clamber over the side. As I land, I almost put my foot through the rusted floor. A YOUNG BOY with a nasty hair lip is hunched under the rear window, looking at me.
He doesn’t say a word. Maybe he’s mute, maybe leprosy. He’s holding a machete in his tiny hand.
The pickup rolls along again. There’s a worn rope on the floor, bloodstained.
Probably from roping cattle.
The pickup picks up speed. I don’t want to grab the sides. I don’t want to cut myself. My last tetanus shot was nineteen months ago.
We swerve off the dirt road, over an embankment, and switchback down a desolate trail.
Must be a shortcut. These locals don’t need a map to know where they’re going.
I smile at the boy, who doesn’t smile back.
The low roof has collapsed in places. It’s a derelict place, most of the fencing gone.
The pickup slides to a stop. Doors creak open, and the men step out, smiling.
I clamber over the side, and as my feet touch the ground, the driver punches me hard in the stomach. I double over into the dirt, and he kicks me hard in the head. In a blur, he ties my hands behind my back with the bloodstained rope. Drags me to my feet and into the decrepit farmhouse.
Smashed window panes in crumbling frames. Strange Day-Glo gnomes painted on the walls. In one corner, there’s a shrine to Santa Muerte, the grim reaper, worshiped as a saint by Mexican criminals. Bizarre elf figurines are heaped in another corner.
I’m tossed onto the pile of concrete elves. The brother reaches down and rifles through my pockets. Retrieves my business card and the photo of my daughter. Turns to look at the driver.
‘Está demasiado flaca como para chingársela!’
He flicks the photo at me and inspects my business card. Shows it to the driver, who nods. Stands and turns to the boy.
‘Si no estamos de vuelta al anochecer, córtale la cabeza.’
Both men leave.
The old man shuffles towards me. He stares at my shoes, and then stoops down. Takes off one and then the other. He slips them onto his own feet and then walks out happy.
The metallic sound of a pickup’s door creaking open, slamming shut.
The pickup starts, revs, and drives off.
The boy spits on the blade, takes a black stone from his pocket, and starts sharpening the steel.
What do they think? Liberty Life Insurance has a kidnapping department they can just call to collect a ransom? Liberty Life Insurance is not going to pay kidnappers. It’s not in their interest.
They take out wholesale life insurance policies against all employees and agents. So when you die, the company collects.
I’m worth more to the company dead than alive.
These kidnappers will kill me. They will kill me and bury me where no one will ever find my body. No body, no life insurance pay out for Kristen. No million dollars.
I’m going to die on top of a mound of concrete elves.
I try to move my back into a comfortable position. The elves shift, and slither.
The sharpening sound stops halfway along the blade.
The boy is right in front of me. He lifts back his machete with a rattling sound.
And lashes out as a diamondback lunges for my neck. The blade swipes the air and slices off the snake’s head. It bounces once, twice, off the steel and onto the floor.
I pull my bare feet away from the snake’s head. Fangs drawn, black eyes still.
The boy lifts up the headless snake with the tip of his machete and carries it outside.
SHATTERED WINDOW FRAME
A jagged triangle of cracked glass wedged in the corner slices through the landscape.
The boy heads to a charred burn hole near the fence line and gathers bone dry leaves and scrub. He layers them into the black hole. Then picks up a broken fragment of mottled glass and focuses the falling sunlight into the scrub. Smoke rises, then flames crinkle as the small pile ignites. He drags over a rusted piece of mesh fencing and drops it over the flames, retrieves his machete, and balances the snake on the mesh above the pulsing heat.
He turns the snake over. The skin blisters and shrivels. The sun lowers.
He slices the snake’s skin long ways and eats the warm flesh.
The boy stands and looks down the road as the sun slips away. His blade catches the last ray of the day.
He turns in the twilight and walks towards the forsaken farmhouse.
I scramble back on the pile of concrete elves. The bloodied rope catches on an elf, and my hands slip free behind me.
The boy steps inside.
I know that if I pull my hands out, he will slice them off. He moves closer.
Maybe I can reason with him? Maybe I can make a run for it?
The boy tightens his grip on the machete as he moves closer. Crouches down and stares into my eyes.
Maybe he won’t kill me. Maybe he’s showing me who’s boss.
He creeps his machete into the air. I fight the urge to swing my hands to protect my face. What’s flesh and bone against tempered steel?
My heart is pounding in my ears. My shoulders are trembling.
He tilts his head and looks at the side of my neck. He crosses himself in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost. The machete swings back in a smooth arc, ready to swing forward again with all his force.
I knee him in the crotch with all my force. He gasps and crumbles forward, and I head butt him hard. He slumps to one side, unconscious. The machete clatters to the floor.
My heart throbs in my chest. I think I’m having a heart attack. A heart attack occurs somewhere in America every twenty-three seconds.
Breathe, breathe. Just breathe. I hack and gag, but don’t throw up.
I shake my hands free of the bloodied rope.
The boy’s body lies crumpled on the ground. Did I kill him? Should I kill him? Maybe I should crush his head with one of these elves.
I stagger to my feet and pick up the machete. Maybe I should cut off his head and put him out of his misery.
I nudge the young boy’s body with my foot. His chest rises and falls with hollow breaths. He’s alive.
I push the tip of the machete into his arm. It draws blood but no reaction. No movement.
I’m about to flee when I see the photo of my daughter on the ground. I pick it up and slip it into my shirt pocket, and then slip out.
I walk fast through the scrub, looking for the North Star in the night sky.
Rocks cut the soles of my feet but I have to keep moving.
I see a road up ahead that splits into two. I check over my shoulder, trip and stumble over something soft on the ground. It yelps. I spin around, machete poised.
It’s a SMALL GIRL huddled in the dirt, shaking in fear. Her FATHER hurries to protect her.
‘Por favor, por favor, no le haga daño. Por el amor de Cristo, por favor, no mate a mi hija.’
‘I don’t speak Spanish!’
I shake the machete.
‘No, no, por favor, Dios, no.’
‘Salve a mi niña. Máteme a mí, pero no a mi hija.’
‘Where are the police? Policia?’
I realize they are fleeing the country, running away. Probably heading to La Linda. No border guards, no checkpoints, no bribes, no coyotes. Walk straight into America, and a new life.
The girl is crying, the father is sobbing.
I lay down the machete.
‘I’m not going to kill anybody. I need to find the police? Where can I find the police? Policia?’
The father wipes away his tears and points to the high road.
‘Este camino lo lleva a Estados Unidos, a la libertad.’
The father points to the low road.
‘Este camino lo lleva a la policía.’
‘Thank you, gracias.’
I take the low road. The father takes the high road with his daughter.
DERELICT GAS STATION
I spot a police car in front of broken down bowsers. Hopefully I won’t have to bribe the policeman to help me.
I stop, adjust my glasses, and see the rear window is blown out. I creep in closer.
It’s the police car I stole. Voices hum from the run down gas station.
I open the driver’s door as quietly as I can. An interior light flickers on. John Grisham’s head looks glad to see me. I slide into the seat, take the key out of my pocket, slip it past a tangle of entwined wires and into the ignition. One turn, the engine coughs to life. Then gears crunch, and tires peel off.
Tough Narco and Annoyed Narco run out of the gas station. One clasps the copy of “Fahrenheit 451” he’s been reading, the other fires at the police car.
The red-blue-red strip of roof lights explode as the stolen police car flees down the road.
‘Hang on, John.’
I floor the accelerator and glance at John Grisham’s head.
‘Didn’t expect to see me again, did you? What are the odds, right?’
I break into a smile.
‘Do I know where I’m heading? Oh, I know where I’m heading. I’m going to see El Biblio, see about that reward.’
The stolen police car speeds through the night. Under a hundred thousand stars.
‘Really, you didn’t think I’d come back for you?’
I shake my head. Some people have no faith.
‘Why does El Biblio want your head? I have no idea. He must have his reason though. If he’s willing to pay a million dollars for it, he must have a really good reason.’
I thumb my temple. My headache is killing me.
‘I’d be flattered if I was you, John. I’d be flattered if someone wanted my head for a million dollars.’
I open the glove box and rummage through the paperwork.
‘You wouldn’t happen to have any Tylenol, would you?’
‘What’s that? Breathe? What does it look like I’m doing, John?’
I look down at John Grisham’s head.
‘Breathe deep? I should learn to breathe deep? It’ll help calm me down?’
I take a deep breath and look straight ahead.
‘Maybe I know what I’m doing, John. Have you considered that? Maybe I’ve got a plan.’
ENGINE COUGHS AND SPUTTERS
I look at the gas gauge. The needle sits below empty. The stolen police car sighs and rolls to a stop on the side of the road.
I know John Grisham is giving me that look without even looking at him.
‘Don’t look at me like that, John.’
I look out into the night.
‘No, I don’t think hitchhiking is a good idea. Well, John, it’s not the sixties anymore, is it? And we’re not in Napa Valley, are we?’
I close my eyes.
‘Let me think, John. Let me think.’
I snap my eyes open.
Maybe there’s some spare gas in the trunk.
I hit the trunk button on the dash, open the door, and step out. I stand and look up at the stars. God, there’s a lot of them. More than I’ve ever seen before.
I’m about to lift up the trunk lid when the thought strikes me. Maybe John Grisham’s headless body is inside.
I swallow and open the trunk. There’s nothing there.
No torso, no gas can, no medical kit. Not even a spare tire.
Damn. I lean against the police car and try to think about what to do next.
I take a really deep breath. Somewhere in the night, a wild dog growls.
STOLEN POLICE CAR UNDER A MILLION STARS
Music wafts down the road towards me. A grumbling blues classic clearing everything in its path.
Headlight eyes peer through the night as Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love’ rolls like thunder.
Forty-seven miles of barbed wire, cobra neckties, roadside houses made of rattlesnake hide and human skulls.
Three armor-plated, gold Cadillacs slither down the road.
Gold Cadillacs pull up around the stolen police car, trapping me in their cross lights. Doors open, and a crew of HARDENED NARCOS step out. They’re all armed with gold plated machine guns, pistols, assault rifles, and automatic weapons, most with intricately-carved designs on the handles and barrels.
All the guns in Mexico originate from America. Did you know that? It’s illegal to possess firearms in Mexico.
Narcos part to let VICENTE VIVENDE through. This is the man everyone calls El Teniente. He looks wiry and angry. He’s missing the fingers and thumb on his right hand. A gold De la Cour watch with skull motifs carved on its face is strapped to his wrist.
El Teniente hurries to the passenger-side window of the stolen police car. Looks in at the head of John Grisham, nods, and turns to the FIRST NARCO.
‘Mátalo. Vuélale los sesos.’
The First Narco blinks. El Teniente screams at him.
‘Kill him! Blow his fucking brains out!’
The First Narco shakes his head.
‘I am not going to waste a gold bullet on this fucking idiot. He is not even wearing shoes.’
‘Slash his throat. What do I care? Show some fucking initiative.’
The Narcos look away.
‘Jesus, do I have to do everything?’
El Teniente plunges his left hand into his leather jacket and whips out a gold-handled butcher knife. Snarls at the Narcos.
He bites the blade between his teeth, opens the passenger door, and grabs the bucket with John Grisham’s head. Hands the bucket to a Narco, pulls the butcher knife out of his mouth, and storms towards me.
‘Think you could escape with the head of John Grisham? Take it to El Biblio and claim your reward? Fuck you, you illiterate American. You do not even appreciate your own literary heroes.’
He points his knife at me.
‘El Biblio is an idiot. Grisham is a genius. “The Firm”. “The Rainmaker”. “The Testament”. Greed, materialism, sin, and redemption. The man is the master of the legal thriller. His pacing is miraculous.’
The Narcos nod and murmur in agreement. El Teniente crosses himself.
‘It is better than the bible.’
I want to tell him I find the work derivative and a little formulaic. But I tell him something else instead.
‘“The Confession” was brilliant, riveting, original.’
El Teniente lowers his butcher knife.
‘I am not going to cut you up. I have a better idea.’
He looks at my bare feet and shakes his head.
‘Trae la gasolina de la cajuela!’
A one-eyed Narco opens the trunk of the first gold Cadillac. Reaches in, pulls out a spare gas can. He carries it to El Teniente, who unscrews the lid and moves towards me, gas sloshing with each step.
Always pays to carry a spare gas can.
Dousing someone in petrol and setting them on fire is not the quickest way to kill them. Most people think you burn to death. You don’t. You feel the pain of the flames searing your skin, but that’s not what kills you. You pass out from carbon monoxide and choke to death. What kills you is the lack of oxygen. It’s like drowning in flames.
I’m still leaning against the car, petrified. El Teniente is right in my face. He cocks his head.
‘Why are you looking at me like that!? Get out of the fucking way!’
He pushes me aside, splashing gas onto my dirty feet. It stings bright.
El Teniente shakes his head as he pops the lid on the fuel tank, twists open the cap, and pours in the gas.
‘Maybe you should have carried some spare shoes.’
El Teniente drains the gas into the tank, throws the empty can at the one-eyed Narco, then lifts his butcher knife and points it at my head.
‘You are going to drive me to El Biblio with the head of John Grisham.’
I can’t believe my ears.
‘El Biblio thinks he can fuck with the greatest storyteller in America? I will tell him a story with my knife. I will cut off his hand. Then I will cut off his head.’
I open the driver’s door of the stolen police car and sit down. El Teniente opens the passenger door, picks up the bucket holding John Grisham’s head like it’s a holy relic, sits down, and carefully places it on his lap. He slowly closes the door with as little noise as possible.
I start the car and drive off.
I could speed off the road and plow into one of those tall pinabete trees.
‘Keep your eyes on the road.’
The front tire hits a pot hole. John Grisham’s head leaps up inside the ice bucket.
‘Do not get any crazy ideas. Drive straight to El Biblio. No messing about, no fucking about. If you think of crashing this car I will kill you. I will cut out your heart.’
I bite my bottom lip.
‘You do not talk much for an American. Good, good. I have to think.’
El Teniente has read every John Grisham novel twice. It’s impossible for him to pick a favorite.
‘After I kill El Biblio, I am taking John Grisham’s head and casting it in gold.’
I think I see John Grisham smiling.
Parts of what happened at the cemetery flicker into my memory. Burnt out candles, flowers scattered across the graves. Screams, gunshots, automatic fire. Narcos fleeing in gold Cadillacs.
I could veer off the road. Tilt the wheel and hit the embankment. Roll the car.
‘Do not even think about it. I will slash your throat before the car leaves the road.’
El Teniente looks out the window.
‘Drive. You will get your million dollars. I will get El Biblio. You will get what you want. I will get what I want.’
A new day spills over the hills.
I drive on.
The legal thriller, the crime thriller. They are metaphors for life. It’s like the monster stories we tell children. We all need stories to live. We need something to believe in.
El Teniente points with his butcher knife to a side road up ahead. I swing the stolen police car down the side road. Sunlight streams in.
TALL TREES LINE THE ROAD
Dead bodies hang by their necks from tall trees lining the road leading to El Biblio’s hacienda.
The iron gates are open. The words MATAR O NO MATAR are welded in metal over the gates.
El Teniente slips down low in the passenger seat as we pass underneath.
I park under a shade tree.
A shadow ripples over us as I brake the car under the low tree. El Teniente is scrunched down in the seat, below the window, so no one can see him.
He hands me the bucket with John Grisham’s head. Two OLDER BODYGUARDS stand near the courtyard.
‘Do what you have to do.’
I open the door and step out. My bare feet crunch in the gravel. In these parts, they believe the road to the next world isn’t easy, so they bury their dead with a pair of new shoes.
I take off my jacket and walk past a gleaming new Ford F-350 pickup truck. Bodyguards raise their hands into their jackets.
‘I have something for El Biblio.’
I lift the bucket to my shoulder. It looks like I’ve grown an extra head.
‘I have a present for him.’
They lower their hands and nod towards the courtyard where El Biblio is tending to the roses. One of the bodyguards calls out to him.
‘Tiene la cabeza de John Grisham.’
El Biblio looks up, and motions me to join him.
I head towards the courtyard. I look down at the shoes on one of the bodyguards. New loafers in soft black leather.
They head back to their posts under the wide verandah in front of the library, in the shade.
El Biblio waves me into the rose garden. His gray hair is brushed forward, his mustache a little long. There are old scars wrinkled around his neck.
He wears a black armband and air of sadness.
I breathe deep. The roses smell amazing.
‘Do you want to know the secret?’
El Biblio takes out his pruning shears and snaps off the stem of a rose.
‘Blood and bone. I make my own. Some of my labs I converted to processing fertilizer. What you get out of life is only as good as what you put into it, no.’
El Biblio carefully snaps off the stems of another nine roses.
‘Let us get out of the heat.’
El Biblio heads round to the back of the library. I follow with John Grisham’s head in the bucket.
‘What do you use to make the blood and bone?’
El Biblio doesn’t blink.
‘I cook them at a very high temperature for six, seven hours before I crush them into dust. It is a two-part process. Blood is coagulated and centrifuged, usually between one hundred and seventy-five, two hundred and thirty degrees. Meat and bone are hydrolized between two hundred and thirty degrees, three hundred degrees. It is thirsty work.’
El Biblio looks at his roses.
‘La vida te da cosas que son igual de buenas que lo tú pones en ella.’
El Biblio looks at me.
‘I am preparing for a wake and a funeral. They are bringing my dead son to me this afternoon.’
I don’t even know what to say.
‘My only hope is that he died well.’
El Biblio looks at the roses he’s holding.
‘Everything lives, everything dies, no? In my country, death is part of life. A misfortune, but also a liberation.’
El Biblio smiles at me.
‘To bad times, a good face.’
I look over the rose garden.
‘Your roses are remarkable.’
‘They smell beautiful, no.’
El Biblio picks up a small metal bucket and fills it with water. Then walks around the corner to the back door, opens it, and steps inside. I follow him in.
Row after row of dark, hand-carved, timber shelves, all stacked with books. Crystal vases overflowing with roses are on every surface. To one side sits a heavy leather-topped desk. A few feet away, a mirrored bar is loaded with every brand of tequila known to man.
El Biblio puts the armful of roses and the bucket down on the desk. He walks to the wide front door and turns the key on the large gold handle.
‘So we will not be disturbed, no?’
He picks up an empty crystal vase from a side table, fills it with water from the bucket, and slips in the roses. Gently arranges them.
There’s a noose of worn rope on the desk, next to a chunky, gold Montblanc fountain pen.
‘Do you read crime books?’
El Biblio sweeps his hand around the massive library. It’s like a cathedral dedicated to crime books. Wall-to-wall crime fiction, in no alphabetical order.
Scott Turow. Michael Connelly. Raymond Chandler. Dennis Lehane. James M. Cain. Robert Crais. Mario Puzo. Thomas Harris. Steve Hamilton. Eric Ambler. Ken Follett. Stephen Hunter. C. J. Box. Greg Iles. Len Deighton. Clinton McKinzie. Greg Rucka. Patricia Cornwell. Carl Hiassen. Dennis Lehane. Michael Connelly. Janet Evanovich. James Ellroy. Robert Ferrigno. John R. Maxim. Chris Ryan. John Sandford. Lawrence Block. Kinky Friedman. James Hall. Ross MacDonald. Robert B. Parker. Donald Westlake. James Sallis.
‘The last John Grisham book was a terrible disappointment. Falling on his old tricks, his old plots. Very disappointing, no?’
El Biblio sighs.
‘He used to be my favorite writer. I would read everything. I had my people in the printing plants. As soon as a new novel came off the press, it was delivered into my hands. But the last few have not been good, not good at all.’
‘I threw out every John Grisham book I had in disgust. Even two first editions. Tried to feed them to my pigs, but they wouldn’t bite. So I burnt them all.’
I spot three Elmore Leonard novels on display in a glass cabinet.
All three are first editions.
“The Big Bounce,” Fawcett, 1969. “Mr. Majestyk,” Dell, 1974. “Fifty-Two Pick-Up”, Delacorte Press, 1974.
Elmore Leonard began writing westerns first. Set “The Bounty Hunters” in Mexico. But after a while the market dried up, and he switched to crime.
Crime always pays.
His first job was in an advertising agency writing Chevrolet ads. Which drove him crazy. He could write truck ads, but couldn’t do convertibles at all. Couldn’t write cute.
‘You like Elmore Leonard, no?’
‘The Dickens of Detroit.’
I’ve never read an Elmore Leonard novel, but I’m not about to tell El Biblio that.
‘“Swag?” Or “Kill Shot?”’
El Biblio laughs. Pours two glasses of expensive tequila from a sunburst bottle.
‘Let us drink to literature.’
I take a sip. It tastes like incense. Really good incense. Soft and smoky.
Parts of what happened at the cemetery flicker into my memory. Screams, gunshots, automatic fire. Narcos fleeing in gold Cadillacs. El Teniente stabbing the note through Juan’s heart.
El Biblio uncaps the chunky, gold Montblanc fountain pen at the desk. Opens a checkbook.
‘Who do I make the million dollars out to?’
‘I prefer cash.’
‘So do I.’
El Biblio points to two canvas book bags near the glass cabinet.
‘There is a million dollars in each. Take whichever one you like.’
I put the bucket with John Grisham’s head on the desk.
‘What are you going to do with the head?’
‘What am I going to do with the head of John Grisham?’
I nod. El Biblio leans into the rose, inhales the sweet bouquet.
‘Turn it into fertilizer. Turn it into something good.’
I take a gulp of my tequila and head to the glass cabinet. As I reach down to pick up the money, I spot El Biblio’s reflection on the glass door. He’s stepping towards me, noose in hand, pulling it open.
‘How did you ever get the head?’
‘Thanks to your idiot son.’
El Biblio whips around, and El Teniente is standing on the desk, butcher knife in his left hand.
‘Juan led us right to the cemetery.’
‘You killed Juan, you killed my son!’
El Teniente wipes the blade of the butcher knife against his leather jacket.
‘Straight through the heart. And now I’m going to kill you.’
‘Bastardo, maldito. Di tus plegarias!’
El Biblio lashes out at El Teniente with the noose. El Teniente leaps off the desk and charges the older man. Slashes the air with his knife. El Biblio topples back onto a shelf of books. Paperbacks fly.
El Teniente kicks him in the stomach. Punches him in the side of the head. The older man topples. El Teniente kicks him again and again in the head. The older man sags. El Teniente steps on his chest and stomps his forearm, breaks the bone. Reaching down, he hacks off the right hand. Blood runs everywhere.
‘You cut off my fingers. I cut off your hand. And then I cut off your fucking head.’
El Biblio screams.
‘You killed my son!!’
El Teniente reaches back, ready to swoop the knife across El Biblio’s throat. El Biblio heaves him off. El Teniente lands like a cat, knife scattering in front of him. As he scrambles for it, the older man swings the noose over El Teniente’s head and draws back the rope. El Teniente clutches at the noose tightening around his neck.
‘You killed my only son.’
El Biblio knees him in the back, pulls back hard on the rope. El Teniente has the fingers of his left hand between his neck and the noose. El Biblio stomps on his left arm one, twice, until it breaks. Shattered bone cuts through the ligament, the muscle, the skin. El Teniente is gurgling and spitting, frothing at the mouth.
El Biblio pulls back on the rope with such force, it almost rips El Teniente’s head off. The gurgling falls silent as he falls out of consciousness and into death.
El Biblio is red faced, kneeling on the back of the dead man. He leans forward, loosens and pulls away the noose from the neck of the limp body. He is still panting when he turns to look at me.
‘You too will make good fertilizer.’
I pick up the bucket with John Grisham’s head and hurl it at El Biblio.
He ducks, and it sails over him, crashes into the desk. John Grisham’s head topples to the floor.
I turn and flee, but El Biblio flings the noose and snags my left arm. Pulls back and yanks me off my feet. Drags me across the floor to the desk. Grabs a bottle of tequila with his left hand, thumbs off the cork, pours most of it over the bloody stump where his right hand used to be, and guzzles what’s left. He smashes away the bottle’s bottom and wields the jagged edges.
‘Hora de morir.’
I throw a paperback as hard as I can at his head. The corner catches his left eye. He howls, blinded.
I scramble to my feet and grab the nearest bottle of tequila, bring it down on his head. Glass and tequila smash and splash.
El Biblio lunges at me with his broken bottle. I smash another bottle of tequila across his head. He slashes my left arm, cuts the rope and my skin. Blood and pain gush. I stumble back, slipping on John Grisham’s head. El Biblio grabs me by the scruff of my neck and hurls me face first over the desk, wiping out more bottles of tequila.
El Biblio rests his left hand on the desk to balance himself. I reach up with the chunky, gold Montblanc fountain pen, slam it through his hand. El Biblio screams in agony. Screams to his bodyguard.
I stagger to my feet. El Biblio is pinned to the desk like a fly, drenched in tequila. El Teniente’s dead body at his feet.
I drag my tie over my head, slip it over my left arm, and up past the bloody gash. Pulling tight to tourniquet the wound.
El Biblio wails.
‘Help me, you have to help me.’
I step over to the glass cabinet and take out a first edition of Elmore Leonard’s “The Big Bounce”. Turn the book over and see the author smiling back at me from the back cover. I smile and drop it on top of the million dollars in the canvas book bag.
‘You cannot get out of here alive. My bodyguards will kill you.’
I pick up the book bag of cash. It’s lighter than I thought it would be.
‘I will give you another million dollars.’
I pick up the second book bag of cash too.
‘No need, I can help myself.’
‘Ayúdame, chingado, ayúdame!’
‘Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.’
I head to the front door with a million dollars in each hand. I’m not really thinking about the money. I’m thinking about the bodyguards on the other side of the door.
I put down each bag of cash, unlock the door, and turn the handle.
A thought strikes me.
Fortune favors the bold.
I smile and open the door, expecting a fusillade of bullets. But only sunshine. Both bodyguards lie twisted on the ground, pools of blood around their heads. Their necks wildly slashed from ear to ear.
El Biblio sags to the ground into a pool of tequila, hand still spiked to the desk.
I reach into my shirt pocket and pull out the cigarette. Put the filter between my lips and take a deep breath. I spot John Grisham’s head.
He looks pleased.
I take out the Zippo, flip it open, and spark a flame. Bring it to the tip of the cigarette and drag the smoke deep. Then I exhale across the tip until it glows red hot.
Grinning, I flick my last cigarette into the pool of tequila. It whooshes into a ball of fire.
I grab a bag in each hand and step out as the fire rages behind me.
A new black loafer dangles off a bodyguard’s foot. I toe it off and slip in my own foot. Perfect fit. I slip on the other loafer and walk to the Ford F-350. The keys wait in the ignition.
In my head, I can hear Carl Perkins bop and boogie and twang through ‘Matchbox.’ And sing about being a long way from home, where everything is wrong, where the little dog shows the big dog how it’s done.
I’m not going to take the usual border crossing.
I’m going to drive a few miles past La Linda Bridge, where there’s a concrete roadway under an inch of water. It’s hard to see.
But it’s there if you know where to look.
Stefano Boscutti is a freelance creative director and award-winning writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
© Stefano Boscutti All Rights Reserved