Managua, July 2, 1986
Captain Ajax Montoya had a pain in the ass.
As he drove along the carretera playing Russian roulette with the potholes in the decaying city's streets, it occurred to Ajax that life since he had come down from the mountains was a series of pains in the ass. A chain, a sequence, a succession. He had an abundance of them, a plethora, an actual cornucopia of them. How doth my ass ache?—he could shout out the goddamned window of his broke-ass car if the window worked—Let me count the goddamned ways.
The shrapnel lodged in his tailbone where a mortar round had sown it was the first, original, and perpetual pain, always with him like a schizophrenic conscience that can't stop muttering to itself. That pain was aggravated this morning, like warm breath over hot coals, by the chrome-plated Python holstered down the small of his back. But the aggravation put him in the right frame of mind to deal with the cigarette smugglers. And those sons of bitches had better hope he found them before he smoked his last butt.
He'd had been up for five straight nights reading his thesaurus and smoking one Marlboro Red after another. It was all he had left now—now, nowadays, at the present time, currently. He'd been stone-cold, cold-turkey sober for five days. And that was maybe the biggest pain in the ass he'd had since he was last sober. Four years ago, almost to the day. His impulsive sobriety was accompanied, not surprisingly, by an inability to sleep or to fight off that parched inner voice—demon, fiend!—constantly begging, demanding, imploring Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme just the one drink! Which was why he had taken up reading the goddamned thesaurus all night long in the first place.
He'd begun by reading the dictionary as an antidote—a remedy, a tonic—to that shrill, sleepless voice, but had discovered that he preferred the thesaurus. The dictionary, Ajax found, with its multiple, even contradictory meanings only disoriented him like these Managua streets, which lacked not only identifying street signs, but names, and so could only be navigated by landmarks, many of which no longer stood, and so were only known to lifelong residents, one of which he wasn't.
The thesaurus—alternately, conversely, on the other hand, with its long lists of alphabetized synonyms ready to roll off the tongue—the thesaurus seemed more a poem to be recited. He had learned long ago in the mountains that he didn't have to understand a poem to be soothed by it.
Ajax had endured some memorable pains in the ass up in the mountains during the long years of the insurrection: gunshots, jungle rot, malnutrition, malaria. To say nothing of the spies and traitors who had to be endured before they could be found out and executed. Then there had been the loneliness—loneliness as immense and unbroken as the sierra itself. And the boredom, which in the early years had only occasionally been interrupted by bloody, thrilling firefights with the Ogre's Guardia Nacional—and he'd really not cared if he was shooting or being shot at. Then there had been the hours of mind-numbing indoctrination they'd had to absorb and discuss to help forge the New Socialist Men they were supposed to become, in the Worldwide Revolution they were supposed to be part of, even though they'd mostly lived like mice in Cat City.
He'd joined the Frente Sandinista in 1969 when he was only eighteen. That was in what would charitably be called the Sandinistas' quixotic phase as they faced off against the longest-ruling dictator and the biggest army in all of Latin America. Ajax had fought alongside them for the next ten ghastly years until the impossible had happened that impossible day in July 1979. Forty-three years of despised, dynastic tyranny fell in a matter of months, and the cruelest army in Central America collapsed into nothingness. General Somoza, the ageless Ogre, was overthrown!
Yet during all those hellish years, no matter how hard the march, how short the rations, how endless the rain, how well-armed the enemy, not once—not once in ten years—had Ajax ever doubted himself, his compañeros, or that he would see Victory or Death. Meaning, no matter what, he had always known what was what. Which was why it troubled him—vexed him, frightened him—that on his third day of sobriety he had begun to lose his mind.
Now, at thirty-six, Life—La Gran Puta of all Putas—presented him with the ultimate dilemma, irony, paradox: remain a drunk and lose his soul, or keep his temperance but lose his mind.
He hit another pothole and the shock shot a needle into his coccyx. Shit-eating fucking sons of bitches! This pothole Russian roulette was worse now, in the rainy season. The ruts, plentiful as splinters in the Risen Carpenter's ass, were full of water from last night's tormenta, so he couldn't tell which was a puddle or a pool. His rattletrap Lada magnified the hurt. Its suspensionless frame telegraphed through its springless seat directly to his ass every jolt, pothole, fissure, and bump of the weary city's exhausted streets.
And he had those streets mostly to himself.
The Soviet tanker bringing the month's fuel shipment was late, again. The gas had dried up yesterday. No oil meant no buses, no buses meant few workers, and few workers meant almost no sidewalk vendors or street hawkers. Why bother? Managua could still seem an alien place to Ajax. He hadn't come home to Nicaragua until he was nineteen, and had never set foot in Managua before the revolution had triumphed in '79. He was thirty by then. He'd had seven years to put the city on like a glove, like a skin. Let it in. But he still felt a stranger in it. It was a city of almost a million souls in a country of four million, yet the city center was empty not only of citizens but even of buildings. The terrible earthquake of '72 had toppled a critical mass of the homes and businesses that made the city the city. Much had never been rebuilt—despite the world's generous response—because General Somoza, the last of the Ogres of that name, had hoarded the donations like bones to make his bread. So now Ajax passed through neighborhoods of tidy homes, a hotel or a restaurant, but then block after endless block of empty lots, framed by snaggle-toothed walls overgrown with weeds, where young boys now tended cows.
The horizon, too, as he sped toward the cigarette smugglers, was empty. For a full 360 degrees only four points stood more than a story above his head. The Government House and the InterContinental Hotel in the dead center of "downtown," were paired in perfect symmetry with the twin cones of Momotombo and Momotombito—the two volcanoes on the far side of Lake Managua that waited patiently like unexploded ordinance. Ajax wiggled his ass, looking for some relief as he pushed the accelerator—and counted the usual six seconds until his Lada actually sped up.
Earthquakes and volcanoes, it sometimes seemed, were two of the few assets his piss-poor country had in abundance. The only stable things in Nicaragua were the stars, and they were too far away to be of any help. He fished a cigarette out of his last pack. He had to get to the smugglers. Instead, he got the radio call he'd been waiting two days for.
"Ajax, Ajax, Ajax. Copy?"
"Copy, Darío. Go"
"We got him, Ajax. Positive ID."
"Barrio Jorge Dimitriov."
"Any sign of the priest?"
"Neither dead nor alive."
Fifteen minutes later, Ajax squatted inside one shack, observing another about twenty yards away. He pulled the .357 magnum from its hand-tooled holster and slowly rolled the Python's chrome cylinder over his open palm. With the hammer half-cocked it turned smoothly. He could feel the chambers silently clicking as they rolled past the barrel, like tumblers falling in a big lock. It helped him to think, always had.
The people in Jorge Dimitriov were among the poorest of the poor—barrio kids, farmers displaced by the war in the northern mountains, and decommissioned soldiers. This was why the soldier Ajax had been searching for took refuge there. You could hardly call it hiding, Ajax thought. The shack he was in was as locked down as a wooden hut could be, its flimsy shutters sealed tight, with wisps of incense smoke curling from cracks in the mismatched slats. The soldier inside must be burning piles of it: smoke signals calling Ajax to him.
"Smells like a priest's whorehouse, doesn't it?"
He turned to see his new partner, Lieutenant Gladys Darío, only twenty, crouching next to him. Gladys had missed much of the battle against the Ogre and so sometimes overcompensated with foul-mouthed blasphemy.
"There aren't any whorehouses in Nicaragua, Lieutenant. Don't you read Barricada?"
"Oh, right, sorry, Captain."
New to the homicide squad, and fresh out of a Cuban police academy, Gladys favored clean, crisp uniforms and was an eager Sandinista believer of the stripe Ajax increasingly found a pain in the ass. But she had two great assets: she was a dead shot, which, while not really necessary to the job, was a trait Ajax admired in anyone, and she actually believed being partnered with the "great Ajax Montoya" was a blessing. Ajax figured she had really pissed someone off, or was spying on him. The latter possibility was one reason he'd agreed to sober up. An old friend had warned him that the Frente—the Sandinista Front, both as ruling party and government—had overlooked all the missed assignments, no-shows, and glassy-eyed insubordination it was going to. If the Frente wanted to make a move on him, Ajax had vowed, they could do it for any reason they liked. But not because he was drunk on the job—or insane.
Still, he liked Gladys. She had close-cropped hair—kind of butch, he thought—but an unlined face that made him feel good when she smiled, even if she was taking notes.
She wasn't smiling now.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Seguridad is here."
Ajax shot up off his haunches and looked out the door. A squad of Russian-trained sharpshooters from State Security took up concealed positions around the soldier's refuge. He froze Gladys in an accusation: "How did they know?"
"We got orders at formation this morning. You weren't there. The major said to notify State Security when we found him."
"The major is a moron."
"The perpetrator was from the Seventeenth Light Hunter Battalion. They're a MINT unit."
The Ministry of the Interior, the MINT, was an octopus with a tentacle in too many tamales, including State Security and its own combat units fighting the Contra.
"Gladys, his name is Fortunado Gavilan." Ajax returned the Python to its holster and handed the rig over to her, ivory handle first. "Don't ever involve State Security in our business again."
She looked at the gun. "Captain, are you crazy?"
He regarded her for a moment. Did she know his history with State Security? Did she sense his confusion from the hallucinations he'd been having? Or had he told her and forgotten?
"I won't need the piece, Gladys, he's done killing."
She seemed to straighten up into a formal pose. "Captain, regulations say no officer is allowed to enter the presence of a dangerous suspect without protection."
"Jesus, you sound like a condom ad from the Health Ministry."
He shoved the Python into her hands.
"Ajax, please, he killed his girlfriend. The priest could already be dead, too."
"Gladys, he's shell-shocked. This is not an arrest. It's a rescue. Give me the wire." Ajax felt a burst of adrenaline flutter his heart and turn his stomach. My God, how long had it been? "Just sit still until I bring them out."
Ajax stepped out of the shack. He signaled the sharpshooters, who lowered their rifles. He stole around the back of the soldier's hut. He slid the wire inside the shuttered window, turned the simple wood latch, and slipped soundlessly inside.
He crouched on the floor and covered his shut eyes for a count of five to help them adjust. Opened them in the darkness. The musky incense clogged his nose, so he had to smother a cough. He was in the back of a two-room shack. He made out a few shapes: two simple cots, a packing-crate table, a woman's plastic brush and comb. On the wall was a scrap-wood shelf, holding only a prized bottle of imported Jergens hand cream, looking a saint in its niche.
The hut felt empty. He stood, took a step further inside. The window he'd come through was framed by a halo of sunshine. A few panes of smoky light seemed to hang on invisible wires where the sun bled down from the roof. Ajax moved soundlessly into the other room. The door was barricaded. Piles of incense smoldered on the dirt floor. This room seemed empty, but he could sense, if not see the soldier.
"You came in so quietly I thought you were an angel."
The soldier materialized out of a corner, as if passing through the wall from outside. Ajax stumbled backward and went down over a table flat onto his back. Fortunado Gavilan stood over him. He was dressed in camouflage pants, bare-chested, a bottle of rum in one hand, an AK-47 in the other. He pointed it at Ajax. "You aren't. Are you?"
Ajax cleared his throat, struggled to control his voice. It had been a long time since police work had involved Ajax in real danger, and madness was the most dangerous of all. "No compa, I'm no angel. Just a soldier like you."
The soldier leaned toward Ajax, studying him in the gloom. Ajax looked up at a dark, miserable, mestizo face. Close-cropped black hair and heavy brows. He'd seen the face many times before. An old man's exhausted visage on a very young man's body, the pitiful, pitiless look of the combat soldier.
"Sorry about the smell." He bent down to blow on the embers of incense. "Did you see any crows outside?"
The soldier trudged on leaden legs to one of the cots and sat heavily, knocking over an empty bottle of rum. There was a pile of them at his feet. He laid the AK across his lap and raised the bottle as though to drink. Instead, he poured rum over his head and shoulders. Massaged it thoroughly into his arms. He bathed himself again. He didn't even flinch when it cascaded into his eyes.
"Sorry about the smell. The priest said the incense would help. But it does no good. That's how they find me, see? The crows. By the smell. That carrion smell." He opened another bottle of rum, doused himself. "I can't get that smell out."
Ajax got up, drifted to the cot, squatted on his haunches in front of the soldier, inches from the rifle. "I can't smell anything but the incense. A friend says it's making the whole barrio smell like a priest's whorehouse."
The soldier smiled, almost chuckled. "You better watch that. God will get mad." He rubbed his eyes, but only one hand at a time, the other resting on the rifle. "I need to sleep. But that's when they come. My friends. The crows." His head drooped then snapped up. "Do you think God sees everything? Everything everyone does? I mean there must be millions of people in the world, right?"
"No. He doesn't see. He's too busy."
"That's what I told my novia. My girl. That's why He sends the crows!" The soldier dropped his head to his chest. He seemed asleep, but his thumbs made small circles on the stock of the AK. "Can ghosts hurt you? I mean can they get mad at you? Even if maybe it's not your fault?" He raised his eyes to Ajax's. "I mean, they were already dead. It was the only way to get them in the same hole. I was gonna bury them. I wanted to, but I lost them in the river. My friends understand that, right?"
Ajax understood the soldier was reliving the torture he'd been put through; he'd read the boy's file. There had been dismemberment, body parts carried on the soldier's back. He touched the soldier for the first time, patting his knee. "Your friends understand everything. And they forgive you. Besides, the dead don't have the same worries as us. Once they're dead, their concerns from life disappear."
"Yeah. Yeah. I hope so."
Fortunado's head dropped, then snapped up again, a look of alarm overcoming his tortured features.
"Shhh." He raised fingers to his lips. The AK was finally free of his grip, Ajax's hand still on his knee. "Listen. Do you hear?" His eyes roved over the soot-dark ceiling. "Did you see any crows outside?"
His hands dropped to the AK again. "When I escaped the Contra—you heard of Comandante Krill? Real shit-eater. But it was the crows that helped me escape. They led me to the river. I would never have found it. That's how I got back."
"God and Nature are with the Revo, hombre."
"No! Then they turned on me. Shouting, ‘He's here! He's here!' That's how the ghosts found me. Them fucking crows reported to God and God said, ‘Punish Him! Punish the coward! Punish the traitor!'" The soldier beat his head with his fists, the moan of an animal in agony rising out of him until Ajax feared it would spook Gladys into rushing the barricaded door. The soldier scratched at his scalp, leaving long red welts. Ajax grabbed his wrists, wrestled his hands down, the rifle no longer his main worry.
"Stop it! Stop it! Look at me!"
But the soldier tore his hands away, attacked his scalp again as if he would rip open his head and tear out his mind. "Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Get out! Get out, get out, get out!"
Ajax recoiled at the soldier's torment but fought to wrestle his hands away from his head. Fortunado fought him, his eyes roaming madly over the darkened ceiling.
"Get out! Leave me alone! I was trying to help them. Help!"
Ajax took an accidental head butt to the nose. The pain, as always, made him stronger and he grappled with the soldier's hands.
"Compa, God doesn't punish soldiers. Look at me! Look at me. Hombre! Corporal Gavilan look at me!"
Ajax pinioned his hands. The soldier calmed himself, or just gave up. But Ajax could see up close now the black eyes swimming in blood-red pools. The cracked lips and hard-caked spit at the corners of his mouth—Ajax had been told by the psychologist—were symptoms of the dehydration that accompanies sleep deprivation.
Ajax released the soldier's wrists and slowly laid his hands on his cheeks. "Compañero. You did no wrong." Ajax rubbed the soldier's head, massaged his temples. "Compa, your friends have already forgiven you. You've got to forgive yourself, man. God does not punish soldiers." He raised the boy's head to look into his eyes. "That's what officers are for, right?"
The soldier's eyes stopped swimming. They finally looked into Ajax's eyes. He let out what seemed a wail of pain, but was really a high-pitched laugh. He dropped his hands back to the AK. "You're funny."
Fortunado doused himself again with rum. This time Ajax saw him wince as it poured over the new scratches in the boy's scalp.
"You want a cigarette?"
Ajax shook a Red loose from his pack.
"Marl-burros! My favorite."
Ajax lit his Zippo with one hand. His other twitched to seize the rifle. Instead he lit himself one, too.
They smoked for a while.
Then Ajax made his first try. "You know I found a great place for you to get some sleep. Good chow, too. Lots of free beer." Instantly he knew it was a mistake. The soldier sat up alertly, peered over Ajax's shoulder into a corner of the room. Listened intently to something. Someone? When his eyes returned to Ajax, they were full of suspicion. The soldier crushed out the cigarette, leaned close, put a hand behind Ajax's neck and forced their foreheads together.
"Are you a ghost talker? Do you see them? Speak to them?"
"No, compa. I told you."
Fortunado's eyes turned back to the corner. He listened. Ajax knew they were not alone. He reached slowly for the AK, but the soldier suddenly held it tight and gripped Ajax's neck.
"He says you're a liar. He says you talk to him and he talks to you. He says you're a snake and you brought the crows with you!"
Ajax pushed back, grinding their foreheads together, his neck muscles straining. He laid a hand on the AK. "Well, he's a cock-sucking, motherfucking, bitching, bastard, son of the Great Whore, shit-eating liar." Ajax poured all of his heart and soul through his eyes into the soldier's bloodshot windows, desperate to reach some final thread of a man. "And so is his mother."
The soldier flicked a look into the corner and back to Ajax. He released a stale, stinking breath into Ajax's face. "I don't like him either. He's always making trouble. Telling me things. Making my friends angry." He loosened his grip on Ajax's neck and the AK.
"That's right compa. He brought the crows. Look at him. You know he did. Let's leave that sick fuck here." Ajax slid the AK onto his own lap. "Let's just go. You need to sleep. I'll stand guard over you. No ghosts. No crows."
"You swear it?"
He raised his right hand. "Te lo juro."
The soldier picked up the destroyed cigarette, assessed its salvagability. "Got any more?"
"I should get in uniform."
"I'll get you some water."
The soldier fumbled for his clothes. Ajax stood, took a breath and turned, half expecting to see someone standing in the corner. For a weird moment he knew there would be, but … but what? That would be crazy. He slung the AK over his shoulder, spotted a gourd water jug on a table in the corner, and tried to pour some into a scarred plastic cup. His hands shook too much. As quietly as he could, he panted to catch his breath. His heart raced and his stomach churned. He poured a cup of water, gulped it down then poured one for the soldier. It was then he noticed a bulging pile of wet rags and newspapers heaped under the table. Damn. He looked over his shoulder, lifted the rags with his boot. Underneath he could just make out a head, gray hair matted with blood. The priest's rosary still gripped in his hand. Pobre padre. The kid might be battle crazed, but the bishop and the antigovernment press would have a field day with this. His poor girlfriend would be forgotten.
"How do I look?"
The soldier had on his fatigue jumper and bush hat.
"You look like a soldier."
"Got another Marl-burro?"
Ajax shook out a Red, lit it, tucked the pack into the soldier's breast pocket, buttoned it.
"You keep them. I'll get more."
"You buy them on the black market?"
"Well. Let's say I get them from the black market."
Ajax gave him the jug of water. He drank it down in great gulps and poured the rest over his head. He took a long drag and slowly blew a trail of smoke to the ceiling, seeming to notice something in the dark. He looked Ajax in the eye, gently touched the red-and-black Policía Sandinista insignia on his shoulder and whispered, "Ajax. I know why you're here. I know what I did."
Ajax knew it was now or never. He took the soldier by the arm and quickly kicked away the barricade from the door.
"Come on, Fortunado. It'll be all right. Te lo juro."
He stood with the soldier in the doorway. The sunlight blinded him but the soldier hardly blinked at all. Ajax eyeballed Gladys and saw her check her Bulgarian-made watch. He was not sure how long he'd been in there. Gladys turned toward the sharpshooters, now mustered in a line, and said something that made them snap their rifles to the ready. She turned to Ajax and touched her wrists together. Chica's got a thing for standard operating procedure, he thought, but he was damned if he'd handcuff someone already so caged. He adjusted the soldier's AK over his shoulder to show her he had it under control. He signaled Gladys to be at ease. She and the sharpshooters obeyed.
Ajax shaded his eyes, an old habit. Reconnoiter before moving from shade to light. Then he stepped fully outside with his arm around the soldier's shoulder. Slowly they walked out. Gladys frowned when the soldier took a drag on the Red. Ajax nodded at her and walked steadily on. They had cleared out the neighboring houses and the barrio was very quiet. He heard the soldier take another drag, and exhale as quietly as … as quietly as …
He was distracted for a moment, a sound, something. Something changed. The noise didn't register. The soldier stopped, looked up, plucked the Marlboro from his mouth and ground it out. Then Ajax heard it again—a single crow caw. He turned to the soldier, wanted the soldier to look at him one last time. Later, he was sure he could've fixed it if the kid had looked at him. He tried to throw a bear hug on Fortunado, pull him down. But the moment had passed and all Ajax got was a punch—a pile driver to his solar plexus. He dropped like a stone to the dirt.
"Listo!" Gladys yelled.
Ajax heard rifle butts snap to shoulders and saw the soldier's legs pump toward Gladys. And although the breath was knocked out of him, he knew what was happening. The soldier had not gotten himself dressed, but armed. He was drawing the pistol he'd secreted under his jumper and swinging it up at Gladys. He knew that the soldier was not giving himself up, but facing his tormentors one last time. The rifles went off like a single shot. Like a firing squad might. And at that sound a crow leapt out of a tree. Circled once. And was gone.
Ajax writhed in the dirt, suffocating. Drowning. The soldier's fist had created a vacuum in his lungs. Stranded on hands and knees, he could only heave as if trying to vomit air. Boots rushed around. But all was silence, except the blood pounding in his head. And then hands rolled him onto his back. The sun blinded him, caused a small explosion in his lungs, which suddenly filled with air.
"Ajax are you all right? Are you shot?"
He shoved Gladys's hands away. Looked around with swimming eyes and saw the soldier sprawled on his back. He rolled onto hands and knees, crawled to the boy, swatting at the robots' legs. "Get away, you fucking asesinos!" Assassins! "Don't touch him!"
Fortunado's arms were flung akimbo. Holes in his chest pooled blood. The sharpshooters would be proud of such a tight grouping. Ajax put a hand over the one hole in the soldier's forehead, to cover the goo that had blossomed there. His face was in repose. His eyes were open, and to Ajax's amazement they were no longer bloodshot. Yes, that's what had alerted him. The soldier's eyes had cleared. He patted the boy's chest affectionately. Felt the little box, and retrieved the bloodstained pack of Reds. A neat hole was drilled between the M and O, like a carnival trick shot. The package now spelled M ORO.
Then he heard the cawing of crows. He saw them in the tree. The last thing Fortunado Gavilan had seen. He snatched up the soldier's AK from the dirt. For the first time in years, the blood rage returned. He opened fire on them.
Copyright © 2014 by Joe Gannon