“A Side Street In New Mexico” … Jenell Kesler
A cold wind was blowing across the prairie as the two strangers from the east stepped through the door. All eyes turned with the breaking of the cafe’s silence, by a heavy door closing out the winter winds. With equal strides, as if rehearsed a thousand times, the two moved across the floor, faces hidden by wide brims, taking seats, backs to the wall, faces eyeing the all but empty streets. A waitress, too young for this place and too old to find work elsewhere took their orders with a knowing smile; a smile that vanished imperceptibly as she noticed the 45 automatics each of the strangers was carrying in neatly hidden shoulder holsters. Heavily embossed boots slid across the floor as the two stretched out their legs to release the cold that had caused them to seek sanctuary in this small, rundown, yet familiar cafe on the town’s square.
One of the strangers removed a hat and slid a hand through long hair in one continuous motion, revealing to the other patrons that she was a women; and when she shook off her long duster displaying her 45, with it’s pearl grips, all in the room returned, or pretended to, to their own business. But, “What was their business…,” that was the question each was asking the other with their eyes. Food arrived and the two strangers ate with great ease, surveying all that was around them. A nod from one indicated to the other that there was a shotgun just above and to the left of the cash register, behind a set of books that had obviously never been opened. The 12 gauge had probably never been fired either, at least not by the cook and owner of the establishment. All of this was of no concern to the strangers as they paid their fare, wrapped themselves in their heavy coats and stepped into the street; leaving everyone to ask, yet knowing in their hearts that the devil’s messengers had just sat among them.
For the second time that morning, the heavy door opened to once again chill the patrons of the cafe. The taller of the two strangers starred down the customers with a 45 at eye level. The owner had been reading a Russian newspaper at the bar as the door opened. The wind had flipped an edge of the paper just enough to reveal the Bretta 9MM beneath it. Without hesitation the woman, in the heavily tooled boots, let loose with a fully automatic MP5 equipped with an eight inch silencer. She carried it as if it were a normal accessory … for her, it was. Only the cracking of wood could be heard as bullets ripped apart the bar and the Russian who once stood behind it; leaving only shredded newspaper to fall like snow over the untouched Bretta. In one quick motion she was over the bar, gripped the second and smaller of the books from behind the cash register. She laughed to herself seeing the shotgun, remembering her thoughts about it; it definitely would never be fired again, at least not by this joker. For the third time that morning the heavy door closed out the desert’s chilling winds, but what doors would open now, now that the messengers had gotten what they had come for.
The two stepped into a silver jeep as calmly as if they had just finished breakfast, which in reality was not that far from the truth. They drove down I-25 in silence for about thirty five minutes, the passenger thumbing through the book they had just retrieved. “Nothing out of the Ordinary,” she thought, just the kind of book one might purchase at a flea market as a household decoration; fifty-seven pages and another twelve pages of maps, all written in a mixture of English and Anglo-Mexican. Thinking it wouldn’t be hard to decipher, she tossed it on the back seat, which was now covered with bundles in assorted denominations of American and Euro Currency, weapons, loaded clips and now this small eight by five inch leather bound book on top of them all.
The silence of the ride was broken by the work “Fuck” as the jeep turned onto Route 40 and one of the woman’s boots thumped onto the dashboard.
“Look at that…”, she rubbed the scratch that ran across the toe of her boot with her finger, checking to see if it was really a scratch or just a scuff.
“We’re not stopping to buy you new boots”, said her partner. “It takes six months for those things to arrive, and God knows where we’ll be in six months”.
“God’s got nothing to do with it” she said, “and it’s not like we can’t afford them.”
There was something about the number six that grabbed her attention. She snatched the book from the back seat and turned to the index, there it was. There were sixty pages listed in the index, plus sixteen pages of maps, yet the book had only fifty-seven pages, and twelve pages of maps. She scanned the binding of the book carefully, she was right, three written pages and four pages of maps had been removed; now this was interesting.
These two had been together for nearly ten years now. They met and first worked together under the direction of their Uncle Langley, out of Virginia; but had been cut loose for being, shall we say, just a bit too eager and efficient for that branch of the Family. Now they roamed the planet, “Guns For Hire,” “Seekers Of Fortune,” working without question for whomever paid the bills.
The silver jeep wheeled off Route 40, a truck stop would provide them fuel and a place to talk; lost in the plain sight of dozens of other tourists and truckers talking too much and too loud, pouring over their own maps while eating warm meals. The jeep came to a halt, the two stepped out and closed the doors in one easy motion, motions that had worked together so efficiently in the past, motions that had saved their lives countless times. They walked into the restaurant taking the corner booth. The small leather bound book sat on the table before them, between their meals, perfect placement, perfect order.
“Why would the Russian risk his life for this book if he knew pages were missing?”
“Maybe he didn’t know.”
“That’s a possibility, but then he would have had an idea who could have removed them.”
Smiling with self satisfaction, “If they really were removed.” Again, one voice, two speakers.
A swift and razor sharp blade was pulled from the top of the now infamous scratched boot. Both scanned the room and sliced the front and rear binding of the book’s cover. Two of the four missing map pages were quietly hiding behind the leather coverings.
“What do you make of that,” she said slipping the knife back into the top of her boot.
“Looks like we were both right,” returned her partner.
“Seems as if our boy knew the pages had been removed. He had two of them, and a third party, whom he knows, or is in cahoots with, has the others.”
“Yep, that’s just the way I would figure it,” she said rubbing the toe of her boot again.
“Well if that’s the case, we’ve got to go back for the other pages. Looks like you’ll be getting those new boots after all.”
It was almost two o’clock as they slid into the most comfortable seats in the club room of the most exclusive boot shop in town, just to the end of Marcy Street.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like coming back, especially when we walked away so gracefully.”
“I know what you’re saying, but this is the job.”
“No, the job was to get the fucking book, hand it over, get our cash and step into the wind. It’s not up to us to figure out what happened to some missing pages. This is cutting into our overhead.”
“Hey, you never know what may come out of this.”
“I don’t want anything else, I just want what I signed on for.”
“You,” laughing, “You want all you can get and more. Look at us we’re buying you new boots aren’t we?”
The manager stepped into the room, boots in one hand and the woman’s knife in the other. “I believe this belongs to you. I can buff out this scratch if you’d like.”
“She won’t be happy with anything less than new boots,” her partner said trying to cover a laugh.
After the selecting and the measuring and the transaction were finished, they asked if they might have use of the room for thirty minutes or so; this was of course followed by a C Note in the managers breast pocket. They opened the book and looked it over from top to bottom. Both agreed that there was only one person who could have made this book, made it to look like it looked, made it for the purpose it was intended; and this person could be manipulated…for a price.
The shop where the book had been constructed was just around the corner from the cafe. As they made their way across town, they saw the police finishing up their investigation, an investigation that would lead nowhere. They stepped inside the shop, the walls were covered with second edition Curtis prints, excellent first edition counterfeits and some fine out of print publications on Native Americans. Without looking up from his work, the owner said “Caught your handy work this morning, it caused me to miss breakfast. What are you going to do about that?”
“Well, if you’re that hungry we can settle this quickly, either way, we are going to settle this,” sliding the book across the desk. “Ya, that’s my work, not cheap either.”
“You want to buy it back?”
“Why would I,” said the owner who had not yet looked up from his work.
“Well, if you don’t want to buy it back, I think we are in need of a refund.”
“What makes you think so,” said the owner pushing his glasses back and looking them straight in the eye.
“Seems there’s a few pages missing.”
“Four to be exact,” returning to his work, “but you’ve found two of them, so that leaves two. What’d you have in mind?”
“Look, we know there is no way you would have created this piece of work without keeping a copy or at least a record for yourself.”
“You’re right there, can’t deny it. Having that copy is the only reason I’m alive and here to talk with you.”
“So perhaps we can support each other, say as one small business person to another,” draping her duster over the back of the chair. Then she took a ten milligram valium out of her vest pocket and crushed it between her teeth.
“What you’re after is bigger than the Russian, bigger then your sponsor, bigger even than you or I could ever dream, that’s why I’ve kept my mouth shut. But I like to talk, and this has gotten way out of hand, it’s all coming apart at the seams. Best thing I can think of doing is fucking them all, making it look clean and leave things right where they are.”
“That’s an interesting proposition. We don’t get paid, you get to stay alive, and whatever it is that’s buried out there in the desert just stays there.” They both took seats feeling the need for a long and detailed explanation.
“There’s one thing you’re leaving out,” said the owner leaning back in his chair. “After your show this morning the powers that be know you’re involved. I know you can’t just walk away now … we need to pull this off together or no one goes home for dinner.”
The owner of the shop pulled his chair a little closer to the desk and leaned back in it, finding that comfortable spot. “If this were a Tony Hillerman book I’d be pulling a bottle out of my drawer and offering the two of you a drink just about now. But since it isn’t, and I keep my whiskey in the decanter over there, why don’t one of you grab it and three glasses; we can talk about what we do, and what we don’t know.”
Once again those heavily embossed boots moved across the wide planked floor, returning with the decanter and two glasses. “None for me,” she said “I’m just fine with my V.”
“Indeed you are,” replayed the owner, “Indeed you are.”
“What I do want to know,” she said, settling back in her seat, “Who’s the Russian?”
“The Russian, he’s no one. Well that’s not exactly correct, he accidentally put this whole thing in motion. Seems he was a mole, put here some twenty-five or thirty years ago. More American now than you or I for that matter. Anyway, he didn’t have any real assignment, seems his Handler was killed in a car accident of some questionable nature, and he just figured he’d keep his head down, snoop and do his job the best he could. He spent most of his time rummaging though the Historical Military Archives in Washington, developed a passion for U.S. History. He turned up some interesting items from time to time, nothing important, it’s just, you know, not being an American, he could look at the records with clear eyes. Saw the truth behind many of the legends. To make a long story short, he’s the one who had me make up that book of yours. He knew he was on to something, but didn’t know how to go about it; he hadn’t done a thing in the fifteen years since he’d had me make that book. He just went and got himself a job, bought the cafe, and did a pretty good business alright.”
“So he wasn’t aware that you hadn’t given him a complete book?”
“Oh, he knew it, bugged the hell out of him for awhile, but what was he gonna’ do. After awhile he just figured he knew where the rest of the map was if he ever needed it. After all, in my haste I gave him the wrong book. Neither of us could do anything without the other, we needed each other’s pieces to complete the picture, so to speak. The copy you’re holding was supposed to be mine, the complete book. The other two pages of maps are over there on the wall, overly priced and nicely framed. And as time passed, and passed again, truth be told we actually sort of became friends in a manner of speaking. Left this whole map business to lay where it was laying. Now what I need to know from you is, who hired the two of you to get that book, and how’d that person get on to what the Russian had discovered?”
The Messengers looked at each other and nodded as one … they had not been paid enough.
Everyone sat quietly for a moment, then the shop owner took a sip of his whiskey and returned to his work. The woman moved to the window first, and looked out at the setting sun; her partner moved in beside her. They spoke in muffled voices, but mostly with their eyes. As quickly as a rabbit can turn on the run, her partner had a 45 cocked, and pressed against the owners forehead.
“I want that book rebound. I want the two maps put back in the binding. I want it to look just like it looked when we found it, and I want it done now.” She loved these little scenes, but she was deadly serious.
“Alright, alright, it’s not worth dying over,” said the owner, “But it’s gonna’ take all night.”
His words trailed off behind her, she was already out the door, gathering something from the back seat of the silver Jeep. She returned and took the two maps off the wall saying, “I’m purchasing these,” and tossed two bundles of five thousand dollars each on the desk. The owner, put them in the top drawer and returned to his work without bothering to count them.
As he worked she asked him again what he knew about the book. “Just like I told you the first time,” he said, “fifty-seven pages of text, twelve pages of maps, two hidden in the bindings, and those two that you’re now holding.”
“Look at the Index Page, Page One,” she said, leveling her 45 at the center of his chest.
The owner flipped open the book and scanned the index, “Jesus Christ,” he said, “I’m really starting to slip, if I missed that. Where are the other three pages of text?”
“That’s what I want to know, where are they,” she said.
“I haven’t a clue, never even realized they were supposed to be there.” He said it in a manner that could only mean he was genuinely surprised.
“Uh huh,” was all she said as she once again pulled the blade from the top of her boot. “Tell me this she said, resting her boot on the edge of his desk, would you get this scratch buffed out, or would you just buy a new pair of boots?”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Now he was totally confused. Her partner laughed out loud, slapped her on the shoulder and told her to get on with it. She sliced the backing paper from the frames of the two maps, and there, there inside were the three missing pages of text.
The owner just stared in disbelief. “I didn’t put those there, I’ve never seen them before, let’s have a Look See.”
“No, we won’t have a Look See, just wrap these up like they are and finish your work. It’s my guess that the Russian put them there. Where better to hid the key to the puzzle than right under your over priced nose.”
“Damn Russian,” he muttered taking another drink.
It was dawn, they were just off Route 40, a small run down, abandoned ranch, with an overgrown airstrip, mostly used by drug dealers now and then. But today a Cessna 150 was parked at the end of the strip, at least to most people it appeared to be a Cessna, then most people would have missed the after market modifications that had been done to this plane. A twenty thousand dollar plane that was now heavily armed and capable of speeds and maneuvers most pilots only dreamed of.
The messengers met a very military looking man carrying an aluminum briefcase. “You have my merchandise,” he said without hesitation. “Right here,” her partner handed him the book, he put the briefcase down in front of them, thumbed through the pages and ran his hands over the binding, then turned to walk back to the plane.
“We weren’t paid enough,” she said over his shoulder.
“You were paid the contract’s price,” he replayed without missing a step.
“We’ve a gift for you, took us a long time to figure it out, you’re going to want it,” she said, watching him stop in his tracks.
“What would that be?”
“The Key to the puzzle, we figured it out, you will too, but by then you will have taken off in that nifty plane of yours and we, we’ll be somewhere, anywhere, long gone.”
“And I suppose this is going to cost me,” he barked.
“Not more than you can afford, a little cash and a short explanation,” she said in calm voice, knowing she held all of the cards.
He walked to the plane and returned with an over stuffed envelope. He handed it to her and she handed him the two framed maps, now wrapped in brown paper.
“Everything you need is in there. Now, just out of curiosity, what’s this really all about.”
He smiled at them both, knowing he had been outplayed, and knowing that you don’t fuck with the likes of these two. He began by saying, “The Russian stumbled on information, that would rewrite history, that sort of thing just can not be permitted to happen; at least not in this situation. Everything is going to be put back the way in was, sort of, and sort of not. This can not be allowed to happen again.”
“Makes sense to me,” she said. “By the way, what do you think of these boots?”, calling over his shoulder for the second time.
He slid into the seat of his Cessna, but before closing the door said, “I’d get that scratch buffed out.”
“Definitely new boots,” she said to her partner, as they watched the Cessna catch the morning thermals and wing west.