“Gomez!” Red Face shouted. His voice went off like a shot. He gestured for me to have a look around at 299. Gomez stood in the doorway, middle fifties, tall, dark skinned, looking dignified, but slightly stooped. His mouth and eyes were two wide stripes of dull gray duct tape. His hands appeared to be tied at his back. Behind Gomez stood another man wearing a red bandana.
“Take ’im out. Bag him up,” Red Face ordered. “Watch this,” he said to me. He was having fun. Two of the men who had earlier raced up from the tree line stood by Gomez. “This is what happens to traitors,” Red Face said.
Gomez a traitor? I didn’t get it. Was Red Face a cutout for the labs, one of their enforcers? Or something else? Maybe Gomez wasn’t the man he pretended to be. He and I never trusted one another.
A fat man wearing a palmetto cowboy hat browned over with dust took out a clear plastic shopping bag from his jeans and slipped it over the potter’s head. Gomez began twisting violently and making mooing sounds. Fatty used a string of cable ties to circle Gomez’s neck and seal the bag. I saw the thin plastic collapse against the old man’s face as he sucked for air. They were suffocating him. Fatty took out a second plastic bag and a second tie. No room for errors. Or air to breathe. Gomez flung his shoulders left and right. “Don’t let him fall,” Red Face shouted.
I was staring at Gomez. How long before he suffocated?
The situation had morphed. The car jacking had become an interrogation followed by an accusation. Now, the charges had escalated from roughed-up to execution. That’s when reality struck. I felt flushed. They were out to kill the man. Gomez had three or four minutes before hypoxia starved his brain cells. I couldn’t let this go on, but I didn’t see a way out. I feared Khafji, the sequel.
The slender Indian, who had been standing behind Gomez in the doorway, loped over to Red Face. He held a cardboard mailing box. “The old man didn’t want to let go of this box when we knocked on his girlfriend’s door this morning.”
This was the box I had come for. The SD card was hidden inside its corrugations.
Skinny went on. “The old fart seemed to treat it like it was something precious. I thought you should have a look, Sakhima.”
Sakhima? That was Red Face’s name? He pulled the box open and raised his eyebrows. Slowly removing one small clay pot about the size of a Christmas tree ornament, he rolled it around his hand for one long minute. I counted the time for Gomez. What about that pot interested Read Face so much? The pot was wonderfully etched, black-on-black. Did he think the images were a kind of code?
“This yours?” Red Face asked, looking into my eyes. I looked away at Gomez. “This is the reason you came shopping to Yovipo Po?” he continued, eyes narrowed in disbelief.
“I wanted to meet the artist. Just as I told you. Let Gomez go. He’s done nothing wrong.” I had counted to thirty-five. A minute and thirty-five seconds had passed since the plastic bags were put over the old man’s head. The desperate gasping noises he made scratched through the driving winds.
Red Face took the little pot and dropped it on the ground. It bounced and rolled over. “Here,” he said, “someday you can tell your friends on the Hill you visited Gomez the Potter.” He handed me the empty box. The old man’s stamp was on the lid, along with his logo of an open hand with a circle in the center of the palm. His signature was next to it, large and looping, a confident, big-ego slab of a script.
A second minute had passed, and Gomez still put up a fight. I tried to see the color on the old man’s face through the plastic. His movements had gone from agitated to flailing. He was struggling for his life. Two big men, then three, fought to keep him from getting loose.
“Come on,” I said. “Let Gomez go.” I’d lost track of time. A woman leaned out the door of 299 and screamed, “Stop!Bastards. Leave him alone.” The mistress. I hadn’t seen her before. Unlike the local women who were dark, strong and squat, she was dark, willowy and blonde.
“This is gonna end badly,” I told him. The mistress returned to the house and a moment later appeared in the doorway with a pump action shotgun.
Red Face laughed. Then he looked me up and down, “What happened to your face? I been wondering.” At first I didn’t understand. He grabbed my chin and jerked my head, checking both cheeks, staring for an instant at the round, pink, dime-sized scars healing on either side. “Nasty looking scars, man. They match.”
“I had a hunting accident.”
The truth was even stranger. A killer shot me through the cheeks about a month after The Detonation. It was a signature warning shot called a through-and-through, a T-a-T for short. My T-a-T was the assassin’s trademark.
The mistress stood there with her shotgun held steady, her head swiveling. Her long black dress riffling in the wind.
“That’s called a T-a-T” That’s sick, dude. Right through your face, fuck. You should see a doctor, and he can put in dimples. You look like Jennifer Garner, you know?” He laughed then grew angry.
“Stop staring at me like you do, ass-wipe.”
“You want me to turn around? Look the other way?”
“You think you can stare at me like some ghost doctor.”
Ghost doctor. “What?” I remembered a line from a profile the Post did on my committee. I happened to be in it. There was just a line of characterization about me, his aide with “probing eyes.” Probably it explained why I had luck with women, and the reason I upset Red Face. My eyes were an off-natural blue, like M&Ms, only larger.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to stop.” He suddenly slapped me. “Don’t stare!”
I rolled with the blow, but I was hurt. His hand was rough and meaty. The clout left the sensation of gravel thrown hard from a short distance. Stepping to the side, Red Face conjured an insult. Pointing, he told me my Amazon stone-washed jeans were “Cheap shit.” My ears rang. He grabbed me by the arm, pulling me toward Gomez. “Why do you need so many lies, Homes? You’re my spy, right?”
All I saw was Gomez. He was down, making honking noises that came from inside his chest. Life was running out of him.
I pleaded. “Leave the old shit alone for Christ’s sake. He’s got nothing to do with me.”
“So, like,” Red Face paused, “you’re not denying you spy with Gomez. You are a spy. That’s what Gomez said.” He sucked his cheeks in. “You’re driving a Mercedes 250? It cost you like what, fifty-thousand? That’s some serious damage, bro.” He sneered. “Get it washed, by the way. It looks like shit. Who the fuck are you, man?”
I nodded. I didn’t need to get slapped twice.
Gomez had sagged into his captors’ arms barely able to struggle. I lost track of time. Soon it would be forever. A long blow of dusty wind shuddered the white TV radar dishes atop the pueblo houses. Red Face kept up his rant. My stomach growled. “You got all this crisp new money, a thousand cash in your wallet. Sweet. Life can’t be too bad. You gonna bring me money regular if I let Gomez up?.” He held up my driver’s license.
“Let the old man breathe, and I’ll give you the story.”
“I already got the story. You came up to the Pueblo to meet this old medicine man. That’s what you tol’ me. I want a thousand a week, or we take him.”
“Wow. Done? No shit. So you need a job but you can lay down a stack a week. Yeah, I like you. We’re gonna be real close.” He was cold.
“We got a deal. Leave him alone.”
“Spy and spy. Why should I let you fly?” He wiggled his head as if he were singing the words to a song.
“I told you. The money, and the whole story.”
“I got the story stupid. You’re Edder and he’s Edder.”
Gomez was down on the ground, on his back, rolling; no one held him down. I exploded. “He’s a fuckin’ potter; you idiot.”
Red Face stopped. “I think there’s something you need to say to me.” He was as serious as the smacking June sun, as serious as a plastic bag over the old potter’s head. He pointed his rifle at my heart. It was near enough for me to grab the barrel.
“You’ve got more plastic bags. Just give him a chance to breath, so we can talk this through.”
What did they have on the old potter that would cost him his life? My life? My mind spun like a weathervane trying to escape the wind. “Let Gomez go. I promised you the money. One phone call. You set the terms.” That was my last offer. The rifle barrel was within my grasp, and I was about to grab it.
The door at 299 banged open and the potter’s mistress stepped out shouldering a pump action shotgun. She fired a stream of shot into the air. Boom!
“Let him go or I will kill you all.”
Red Face looked at me, his lips pinched. She’s got three shots left I figure. She think she’s gonna get away with this?”
“I’ll shoot you first, you skinny red-faced ho.”
Red Face made a gesture under his chin with his hand, the sign for “cut.” I looked at the gun as Red Face turned to his men. Gomez was lying on his back, almost still as they began pulling the bags from his face. When it was off, I heard him trying to suck air through his nose. The tape kept him from opening his mouth. Before I could say a word, Red Face was issuing commands. “Get the tape off his mouth.” The old man looked green, not dead green, but the cyanic blue-green of the oxygen starved. His captor reached down and yanked the duct tape roughly from his mouth, then his eyes. Pieces of flesh tore. Gomez rolled on the ground, gasping and bleeding from one eyebrow and his mouth. He groaned. His left eye had swelled. There was a mouse above his right. A trickle of blood ran from his ear. He’d been beaten. He must have given me up. He had no choice. But why had these guys gone after Gomez?
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