San Café – Chapters 1-3

1 | UNO | 1

The shots seemed both near and distant, Capitán Enrique Hauptmann-Hall reflected. Like voices cackling in a far corner of the house while a man tried to sleep off a night of drinking with important clients in the company of elegant whores. Assuming he actually had heard shots. Could not the late afternoon rain pelting the highlands and the unnerving jungle gloom have distorted his senses? For five months rain had fallen. Now October—presaging the end of the rainy season—had begun, but the skies offered no hint of relief. How noble yet awful the sacrifices one made in a country like San Cristo—his country and that of his fathers—where wet and dry seasons marked the passage of time, and nature stubbornly maintained its power to disrupt and destroy.

Hauptmann-Hall signaled the sargento to halt the patrol, stilled his breathing and listened intently to the rain splattering the jungle canopy of oak and laurel. He had only to remain calm and observant. But how was a civilized man to make sense of such wild terrain even if it provided one of the finest coffee growing environments in the world and thus the lifeblood of the nation? Thirsting for oxygen at such a high altitude, he took a deep breath to clear his head. He had only to use his reason. What then did he know? He had heard—or thought he had heard—sharp noises. Suspicious noises. And he had seen—or thought he had seen—the sargento just steps ahead of him cock his head.

Seeking confirmation of his suspicions—or delusions—Hauptmann-Hall glanced at his distinguished American guest.

Bobby Gatling, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who had spent most of his thirty-year career in Special Forces, stood motionless. Taking his cue from Hauptmann-Hall, he held his Beretta in his right hand, his index finger poised along the gun’s barrel. Something had attracted the capitán’s attention. Had he missed it? True, this kind of work was a young man’s game, but given his experience tracking terrorists and enemy soldiers in jungles, deserts and mountainous terrain all over the world, there was no excuse for anything to get by him. On the other hand, the highlands, as he understood it, had experienced only small, random acts of violence over the past months. If anything should have drawn attention in this jungle, it was Bobby Gatling. At six-foot-five, he towered above the patrol’s soldiers, all indígenas—native Indians dark, short and stocky.

Hauptmann-Hall forced a smile. Perhaps he had acted in haste.

Bobby held his position a moment longer, swiveled his head then holstered his Beretta. Removing his green baseball cap, he brushed his right hand across his close-cropped, graying hair. Reflexively, he lowered his hand to his right ankle to which, as always, he’d strapped his KA-BAR fighting knife.

Hauptmann-Hall attempted to blink the moisture out of his eyes. He could not let the colonel’s presence unnerve him. General Gomez had called regarding the colonel’s visit the previous evening as Hauptmann-Hall prepared for bed in a village several kilometers from the brigade’s base. The sargento had procured a house for him—hardly worthy of a man of his stature but suitable given the conditions. The men would shelter in the local school grateful to have a roof—no matter how leaky—over their heads.

Bobby nodded at Hauptmann-Hall. This was the capitán’s show. He was only an observer doing a favor in return for a favor he might extract from General Gomez sometime in the future. He had contacted Gomez before arriving in San Cristo the day before and agreed to the general’s request that he accompany the patrol on its last day of a modest three-day field exercise—little more than a walk in the woods. As commander of San Cristo’s Highlands Brigade, Gomez could prove a valuable resource given the nature of Bobby’s mission. Regrettably, the task was taking its toll on his bad right knee, but the patrol would soon reach the finca—the coffee plantation where he and Hauptmann-Hall would spend the night. The next morning Bobby would compliment the general on what a formidable obstacle the Highlands Brigade posed to the budding but incompetent revolutionary movement seeking to turn nearby Azcalatl National Park into an autonomous political entity. The alliance having been firmed, Bobby would return to the capital, Ciudad San Cristo, to coordinate additional security arrangements for the major American corporation that had contracted with his employer, Crimmins-Idyll Associates, global provider of paramilitary and security services.

Hauptmann-Hall, despite the colonel’s seeming reassurance, raised his hand to his chest. An unknown malevolence seemed intent on sucking the air from his lungs. True, this was only a training exercise. Still, the risk of danger remained ever present in places such as this, even if the previous two days had proved uneventful.

Bobby gazed back at Hauptmann-Hall. “¿Hay problema?” he asked softly. Is there a problem?

Drawing upon his resolve, discipline and God-given station, which placed him above the men of the patrol—racial and social inferiors—Hauptmann-Hall willed his breathing to return to normal. He could not—would not—permit the jungle to light a fuse in the dark places of his imagination. Sín duda—without doubt—he had not heard shots at all. Most likely a tree—possibly several—had fallen elsewhere in or above the ravine. In the dank highlands all things rotted and became corrupt.

Hauptmann-Hall put aside his fear only to yield to exhaustion. His legs ached. His usual physical pursuits focused on golf with clients and horseback riding in the capital’s wooded park on Sunday afternoons. Surely the men also would be weary. “¡Sargento!” he called.

The sargento approached. “¿Señor?”

“The men. We should give them a rest.”

The sargento spread the patrol out in a circular defensive perimeter, each man within sight of the man to his left and to his right.

Hauptmann-Hall pulled down on his poncho to keep his backside dry and lowered himself to the ground. How long should the men remain here? Finca Jiménez with its large and welcoming main house stood somewhere on the ridge just above them. Twenty minutes pause seemed appropriate. Surely the colonel, who limped now and then, would welcome a short respite.

He set his unfamiliar M16 rifle—General Gomez declined to make newer M4s available—against a tree and reached into his small daypack. It contained his laptop and a satellite modem with which he hoped to follow the fútbol friendly in Montevideo between the Azcalatls, San Cristo’s national team, and Uruguay. A man who did not love fútbol—who did not appreciate the effort, discipline and teamwork required of any successful enterprise—was not a real man. As to the rest of his equipment, one of the men carried it. The sargento maintained possession of the patrol’s radio, rendered useless whenever they descended into a ravine.

Bobby withdrew a water bottle from the side of his own green daypack. “¿Está bien?” he called. Are you all right?

Hauptmann-Hall waved. All was now well indeed. What could possibly have alarmed him? Workers from the nearby finca tending the coffee trees? Perhaps. The spirits of the highlands so feared by the indígenas? Such nonsense! Sín duda, this altitude played cruel tricks on the minds of the savage and uneducated. Granted, the air was not as thin as atop Azcalatl, the nation’s last active volcano and holy to the indígenas. But here a man of refined blood—German, English, Italian and Spanish forebears all affirming his pedigree—might easily mistake the clamor and din of nature—red in tooth and claw as Tennyson, if he remembered correctly, described it—for a threat.

Enrique Hauptmann-Hall was, after all, an urban sophisticate. The scion of a prominent banking family, he maintained a web of business and social connections, which included General Gomez. Understandably, he knew little of the rainforest—a dripping sea of green in which a man’s boots drew sucking sounds from a drenched earth that fiercely contested his every step. What he did know—what he held as an article of faith—was that coffee, like the holy blood of Jesús, sustained San Cristo as a civilized nation. Cristanos, and the rest of the world for that matter, referred to their country as San Café for good reason.

He glanced again at the colonel, vigilant and yet at peace, then retreated into his poncho like a turtle into its shell. Closing his eyes, he directed his thoughts to the finca and the grand welcome that awaited him. Sín duda, the foreman and his workers were nearby, probably hunting deer or wild pigs. That would explain the shots—if he had heard shots. By the time the patrol deposited him at the finca, his hosts would have gutted their kill and placed it atop a roaring fire to provide Colonel Gatling and him with a hearty country dinner.

He deserved to celebrate. He had come through this field exercise quite well. Even heroically, given the weather. He ran a hand beneath him to make sure his poncho covered his backside, gently rocked back on his heels and sat.

A sudden chill sliced down Hauptmann-Hall’s spine. With darkness approaching, would it not be wiser to leave for the finca now? But no, he’d promised the men their rest. If he suffered in the wet, chilled to the bone, he would bear his affliction with grace as did Jesús, who had died for his sins and, evidencing the magnitude of the Lord’s love, for theirs. Leading a patrol of ten common soldiers represented his penance.

Enrique Hauptmann-Hall, after all, was not a professional military man. A court had perverted the law and sentenced him to a year of army service.

What offense had he committed? Why had his inquisitors dismissed the truth? In earlier, more stable times, the matter would never have gone before the court at all. But in recent years, undercurrents of discontent had arisen in San Cristo. Radical political winds whispered of treason across the nation. The Ministry of Justice lacked the courage to properly dismiss such an insignificant case. Really, no case at all. Thus three judges publicly mocked their allegiance to the fatherland by trying a member of the nation’s elite as if he were some worker in a processing plant or campesino in the fields, the kind of men who would welcome prison for its higher standard of living.

In this, the judges proved as spineless as San Cristo’s elderly president and as traitorous as the fractious National Assembly that played to the malevolent mob and flouted the interests of the upper class—patriots devoted to the nation’s wellbeing.

And all because a young indígena girl claimed that Señor Enrique Hauptmann-Hall had raped her. Raped! ¡Ultrajante! Outrageous!

Hauptmann-Hall’s lawyer presented the simple facts. The girl was young—fifteen—and a recent arrival from the countryside. Yes, she possessed a sweet nature. That was why Señor and Señora Hauptmann-Hall hired her as an au pair for their three-year-old daughter. Their priest had recommended her—a favor to the girl’s priest. How could they say no? And yes, she was capable with their daughter, although they had to teach her many things, such as how to cook something besides tortillas, rice and beans, and pupusas.

The girl, however, was not the innocent she seemed. She was pretty—very pretty—in a primitive sort of way. Dark skin. Long, black hair. Big, brown eyes. An almost slender nose that belied her Indian blood. And tetas! She practically forced him to stare at her breasts. What the judges refused to acknowledge was that the girl knew—yes, knew—how she stirred men’s blood. No man who was a man could help but desire such a beauty.

More to the point, the girl wanted him. Clearly! And why would she not? Señor Hauptmann-Hall was a handsome man with straw-colored hair and blue eyes, a sophisticated man, a virile man of wealth and power, a man who represented everything her people could never be. He had employed her for no more than a week before he discovered that her desire matched his own. And on that Sunday afternoon when she told her mistress that she felt ill and could not take their daughter to her little friend’s birthday party at the zoo while Señora Hauptmann-Hall would be visiting a dear friend…

Sín duda leftists exerted obscene pressure. They sought to sacrifice one of their betters to their primitive demigods. The judges convicted him. Yet they knew he had done nothing wrong. Thus his lawyer negotiated a yearlong interlude in the army to restore his honor. He would serve as a captain—a humble rank, but still sufficient for a man of his breeding and position. In doing so, he would endure a posting to the army base in the highlands near Lago Azcalatl, the ice-blue lake whose waters reflected the volcano towering above it. He would live apart from wife and daughter, dedicated to safeguarding the nation in a time of brewing turmoil.

And so the capitán rented a lakeside house in the town of Pueblo Azcalatl with a cook, a maid plagued by warts and too fat to draw his interest, and a gardener. He had a car, of course, but no chauffer as befitted a man leading a rugged life in the hinterlands.

Each day he put on his smartly tailored uniform and then telephoned business associates and friends from his patio. Evenings, he dined in restaurants filled with Americans—a community of blonde, tanned, sleek Californians drawn to the lake and volcano on journeys of a spiritual nature. Like him, those with resources favored the restaurant at the Hotel Lago Azcalatl for its upscale fusion of Cristano, French and Lebanese dishes. Truly, Jesús had taken pity on him.

God was merciful in other ways. Women flocked to him—a man of the world, who knew good wine and the ways of love. Of course, he received his wife and child for one weekend each month as permitted by the court. He had always been an exemplary husband and father. And he watched fútbol via satellite—all the fútbol he wished.

General Gomez understood, taking Hauptmann-Hall under his protective wing. They spent many evenings discussing politics, business, art and women.

Then Hauptmann-Hall grew troubled. What if some people—ignorant and mean-spirited—questioned his service to the fatherland? What if they protested to the newspapers or the television or the radio, all of which evaded government controls to spew out a steady stream of falsehoods? What if they blogged on the Internet? Would it not be prudent for the general to send him on a mission? A patrol? Just one so that Capitán Enrique Hauptmann-Hall could clearly display his courage?

The general balked. As a matter of conscience, he could not put Enrique at risk. Incidents took place in the highlands. Not often, but every now and then.

Hauptmann-Hall insisted. As a man of honor, he refused to cower in the face of potential danger.

General Gomez demurred.

Then a gang of indígenas robbed the Banco Colón in nearby Maquepaque. The local police and regional Seguridad Nacional investigated, but the thieves disappeared into the jungle. Adding insult to injury, one of the bank’s owners happened to be Hauptmann-Hall’s uncle. Worse, President Quijano compromised San Cristo’s sovereignty by permitting a heavily armed American paramilitary force employed by the same company for whom Colonel Gatling worked and paid for by Mobys Inc. to establish a camp near Maquepaque. They would threaten terrible violence to pacify the region as if the Highlands Brigade was nonexistent.

Several uneventful weeks after Hauptmann-Hall first broached the matter, he and the general chatted over beers on the landscaped patio at the Hotel Lago Azcalatl.

“It is time,” said Hauptmann-Hall.

“Time?” General Gomez asked quizzically.

“To go into the highlands. To search for the criminals.”

The general sipped from his Cerveza Azcalatl. “The police and Seguridad have not found them. The Americans have not found them. The Highlands Brigade… This is not our task.”

Hauptmann-Hall persisted, bombarding the general with a daily barrage of pleadings. A matter of honor, he insisted, could not be ignored.

The general devised the patrol.

Hauptmann-Hall embraced the opportunity.

“So there you have it,” Gomez concluded. “Two days in the field…”

“Three,” Hauptmann-Hall countered.

“Three days in the field,” Gomez assented. “But not nights. I am sure you will agree that no purpose can be served by camping in the mud like a savage.”

A rustling startled Hauptmann-Hall.

The sargento approached. “Señor, it is time.”

Hauptmann-Hall emitted a sigh akin to the soft hiss of a leaking tire.

The sargento roused the men.

Bobby stood and winced. The damp and chill had left his right knee stiff.

Hauptmann-Hall grabbed his M16.

The sargento led the patrol up the ravine. The trail rose steeply.

Hauptmann-Hall’s feet dragged against the undergrowth. He shuddered. The rain had ceased, but vapor rose from the ground like steam from a pan filled with overheated cooking oil. The stillness unnerved him. In this green hell of canopies and thickets, a man easily could get lost forever. Or be hidden away and never found. He slowed to let several of the men pass.

Bobby stayed respectfully in the rear.

The top of the ridge appeared. It revealed the road with its welcome macadam buckling but still serviceable.

A la derecha,” said the sargento.

Hauptmann-Hall filled his lungs with the cleaner, purer air of the road. Mission accomplished. To the right—almost due west in the direction of the sun’s quickening retreat—a half-kilometer stroll would take them to the finca.

“¡Adelante!” the sargento bellowed.

The patrol trudged forward.

Hauptmann-Hall hummed softly, although he could not identify the tune—perhaps something from his childhood. Soon he and the colonel would enjoy several beers followed by a hot dinner with hopefully a decent wine and most certainly excellent Cristano coffee. After retreating to his room, he would sit by the window and go online to review the highlights of the Azcalatls’ friendly with Uruguay. Then he would drift off into a good night’s sleep. A car would come in the morning while a truck picked up the men spending the night in the nearby workers’ quarters, which would be mostly empty until a horde of campesinos arrived for the January harvest.

In four more weeks he would return to the capital, his reputation and honor restored. The next day, the Pope would say mass at the National Cathedral on a stop unexpectedly added to his tour of Latin America. Hauptmann-Hall and his family would receive communion from the Holy Father as befitted their deep devotion to Holy Mother Church.

His spirit renewed, Hauptmann-Hall caught up to the sargento and matched him stride for stride. It would be most improper for anyone but an officer—the commanding officer—to be seen leading the patrol through the finca’s entryway.

The sargento dropped back.

Hauptmann-Hall passed through an entryway marked by piles of volcanic rocks. Iron posts supported an ironwork arc six feet above his head. Welded iron letters read, Bienvenidos a Finca Jiménez.

The patrol crossed a well-kept lawn in front of the main house with its pale-salmon stucco walls and red-tiled roof. When not in Ciudad San Cristo as he unfortunately was now, the owner lived there and entertained family and friends on holiday. The foreman occupied a small apartment in a semi-detached wing behind.

Hauptmann-Hall stopped and looked expectantly towards the front door.

A pronounced silence greeted him.

He shook his head, his tongue making a soft tsk-tsk. Had not General Gomez telephoned the foreman? How much was being asked of him? At a wedding in Cana, Jesús had fed an enormous crowd on just a few loaves of bread and two fishes. Or was he thinking of the feeding of the multitude after the death of one of his disciples? Or was it following the death of John the Baptist? Regardless, was it too much to expect that hungry patriots be welcomed with beer and pupusas?

Bobby laid his hand on Hauptmann-Hall’s shoulder. “El silencio,” he said. The silence. He nodded towards the sargento.

The sargento sent a cabo—a corporal—and three men to the rear of the house.

Bobby withdrew his Beretta.

Hauptmann-Hall held his breath. Was there no end to his trials? Had General Gomez conspired with Colonel Gatling to put him through one last ordeal in order to prove his mettle?

The sargento led Hauptmann-Hall to the front door.

Bobby remained in the front yard with the rest of the men.

Hauptmann-Hall gripped a large iron knocker and rapped it against the door.

The silence continued.

What would General Gomez or Colonel Gatling expect him to do now? Break the door down? Have the patrol storm the house? Empty their weapons only to destroy precious private property?

He started to knock again then withdrew his hand. Clearly, the foreman and his men had gone somewhere—to the workers village or more likely to Maquepaque to buy beer and fresh bread and perhaps sweets for dessert.

Overhead, dark clouds fused together. The last vestiges of daylight hovered on the border of night.

Very well, thought Hauptmann-Hall. A man—an officer—had to take the initiative. He turned the large iron doorknob, nudged open the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. He found a lamp and turned it on. The burst of electricity heartened him. The civilized comforts of a shower, a hot meal and a good night’s sleep would soon follow.

“¡Sargento!” cried a voice from behind the house.

Hauptmann-Hall recognized it as that of the cabo and stepped outside.

“¡Sargento!” the cabo called again.

The sargento and the men who had accompanied him jogged to the back of the house.

Bobby followed, his Beretta cocked.

Hauptmann-Hall, playing along with this unexpected but hardly intimidating piece of theater, approached. He stumbled to a halt.

Against a wall of what must have been the foreman’s apartment, three bodies lay crumpled like partially emptied sacks of coffee beans.

Hauptmann-Hall’s throat constricted as if gripped by a corpse’s hand.

The sargento squatted over one of the bodies and looked up at Colonel Gatling. “Perhaps an hour, señor. Maybe more. I am not sure.”

“Spread out!” Bobby ordered in Spanish.

The response constituted a sharp sound, like the cracking of a tree branch.

Bobby dropped to one knee. “Down!” he shouted.

The men dropped to knees and stomachs, their weapons aimed at the jungle that concealed anything or anyone from their vision.

Only Hauptmann-Hall, speechless and disoriented, remained standing. Then he raised his hand. Something warm and wet trickled down the right side of his neck. He glanced up to see if the rain had resumed.

The silence of the dead amplified the unseemly tranquility that enveloped the finca.

The sargento warily regained his feet.

The men did likewise.

“Stay down!” Bobby called.

The sargento looked towards his capitán and startled.

Hauptmann-Hall withdrew his hand. Blood covered his fingers and palm.

As he collapsed to his knees, strange, unfamiliar sounds assaulted his ears as if all the birds of the rainforest had burst into song. A crescendo rose, displaying a gusto and power he never imagined such fragile creatures to possess.

And was that Colonel Gatling leading the cabo and two of the men in a slow, deliberate advance towards the rainforest, their weapons firing into the shadows of night? But too late. Too late.

The sargento lay sprawled on the moist earth alongside four of the men as if the strange music had cast a spell upon them. But this spell took the form of bloody wounds—wounds like those of the men they had discovered. Wounds suggesting those born by Jesús himself on the cross.

Only as Hauptmann-Hall toppled forward did he realize that the roar that threatened to burst his eardrums had not been that of tanagers and buntings, orioles and warblers—the first arrivals from the States establishing their winter home.

Silence returned.

Now Hauptmann-Hall felt oddly detached from his body. Surely he was dead. But just as surely in just a moment—however a moment might be measured in celestial time—heaven would welcome him. There was, of course, the matter of last rites, but combat often made that impossible. Jesús understood this. Jesús understood all.

Hovering between death and everlasting life, Hauptmann-Hall found himself burdened with questions. Would his wife and daughter remember him? Would his family commission a statue to honor his heroism? Would Jesús truly forgive his sins—those sins, at least, of which all mortal men stand guilty in the eyes of God?

But if he was dead, why did he feel himself being turned onto his back? Why was he looking up into the face of the colonel? Or was he really looking into the eyes of Jesús? The sun having plunged into the distant sea, he could not be sure. He blinked twice, three times, and in doing so reasoned that he must still be alive.

He felt the pressure of the colonel’s hand on his neck. “Stay down,” the colonel urged. “You were lucky.”

The voice of the cabo rose then yielded to the squawk of a radio.

Yes, he was still alive.

A chorus of birdsong—true song—burst forth from among the trees.

In that moment, as if nature sought to provide the uplifting musical score in the defining scene of a film, Enrique Hauptmann-Hall underwent an epiphany as revealing as that experienced by Paul on the road to Damascus. Luck played no role here. Sín duda he had been touched by the hand of God.

In spite of protests by the colonel, who seemed to be tying off a bandage, and the large, wet stain that covered the front of his trousers, Hauptmann-Hall struggled to his feet. And why should he not? Jesús had performed a miracle, had saved him from death.

“Half an inch,” said Bobby. He shook his head. “Jesus Christ, I’m just trying to pay off my condo and my truck. I thought I was through with this.”

Hauptmann-Hall spat. Had the colonel seen too much of death? Nonsense. Enrique Hauptmann-Hall scorned death. God’s grace shielded him. Clearly, his entire life, including the episode with the harlot au pair, had led towards this moment. Jesús, through the intercession of the Virgin, had guided him towards danger then spared him. But the Lord did not simply will that he bring the bandits who had decimated the patrol and the men of the finca to justice, a task to which he would devote all his energy. His was a higher calling—a vocation—to defend the homeland against the greater evil that sought to destroy all that was good and pure. From this moment on Enrique Hauptmann-Hall would wage war against the enemies of San Cristo. None would find respite. Not even Satan.

2 | DOS | 2

The stretch Prius, its dollar-bill-green exterior matched to the spouting whale logo of the Mobys Foundation, pulled into the driveway of Whitman Scharq’s stucco-walled home painted the color of an enticing latte. Like all the multi-million-dollar residences perched on the hillside above China Beach in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood, it offered expansive vistas stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge—its orange-vermilion paint suggesting California’s setting sun—westward along the golden headlands of Marin County, the tidal waters of the Golden Gate flowing into San Francisco Bay and the endless blue Pacific flecked by wind-whipped whitecaps.

The driver—tall, lanky and tanned with blonde hair spilling over the collar of his green blazer—sprang out and opened the rear door.

Scharq, chair of Mobys Inc., the world’s largest purveyor of coffee, and head of the foundation, stepped forward.

His dinner guest, U.S. Representative Gusher Wells, a black Stetson perched on his head, emerged from the vehicle. Wells’ ruddy, lined face featured the long, straight nose and prominent jaw of the rodeo star he might have been had he not been raised in the wealthy San Antonio quasi-suburb of Terrell Hills, summered on Padre Island, starred on the golf team at Texas A&M and gone directly from law school to a prestigious Houston firm before the Republican party found him a congressional seat he could occupy until Judgment Day. He removed his sunglasses to reveal the penetrating bluebonnet-blue eyes of a man who revered straight talk and detested play-actors who were all hat and no cattle.

The driver smiled.

Ever the politician, Wells nodded in return. “We got some sick surfin’ on the Texas coast, you know.” He withdrew a business card from his pocket. “Call me whenever.”

The driver slipped behind the wheel and drove off.

Scharq extended his hand and studied his guest from head to toe. From the American-flag pin proudly displayed in the lapel of his dark blue suit coat to his black caiman-tail cowboy boots, Travis Bowie “Gusher” Wells fit every Hollywood casting director’s image of a powerful, twelve-term congressman from Texas. And those were the kind of public servants Whitman Scharq appreciated. “Gusher,” he said, “let me introduce you to our dinner companions.”

María Skavronsky, Mobys’ senior vice president for Latin America, accepted Wells’ hand. Short and petite—her figure aroused envy in women half her age—she flaunted an exotic beauty combining the heritage of her Cristano mother and Russian father.

Scharq gestured to a tall, dark man of military bearing. “And this is I.A. Khan.”

Major I.A. Khan, sir,” said the dark man. “Ph.D. Please do not confuse me with I.Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb, because mine, sir, is a doctorate in biochemistry!”

Scharq led his guests to an expansive redwood deck and extended his right arm towards the ocean where two container ships dotted the horizon. “You have not seen the sun set until you’ve seen it set here where the magnificent waters of the Pacific flow beneath these majestic, untamed cliffs into the Golden Gate and beneath the glorious bridge that bears its name.” He winked. “What do you think, Gusher? Should I appoint myself chief of corporate communications and give myself a raise? Our shareholders haven’t been in a very generous mood of late.”

“Myself,” said Wells, “I’m partial to the sun settin’ over a Texas oilfield. It’s so… so goddam American. And now that we got that out of the way, how ‘bout rustlin’ up some drinks before dinner?”

“Jolly well spoken,” commented Khan.

Wells searched María’s espresso-brown eyes. “Y’all ever seen a Texas sunset, Miss Skavronsky?”

“Well, I’m a California girl,” María offered. She rose up on her toes, hinting at the extensive training that had led to two seasons with a small modern-dance company between her undergrad years at Stanford and Harvard Law. “I was barely three when we came here from San Cristo.”

Scharq imagined himself lifting María like one of those well-muscled dancers she’d performed with. He was, after all, a big man—six-feet-one and two hundred thirty pounds. Like many big men, he despised smallness. Whitman Scharq dreamed big. Spent big. Ate and drank big. He also had very big things in mind, which with help from Gusher Wells would reverse some of the bad luck that had dogged him of late.

“I appreciate the invite,” said Wells. He slipped his sunglasses back on.

“I heard you were in town,” Scharq replied. “Although I can’t imagine what would bring a man like you to San Francisco.”

“I’d rather be back in Houston. Got us a golf tournament at the country club. But there’s lots on my plate. And talkin’ ‘bout plates, I don’t suppose y’all invited me to dinner just to be sociable, Whit. Not that I don’t count Mobys as a real friend.”

Scharq threw his right arm around the congressman’s shoulders. He considered offering a gentle hug. Down deep, he was an affectionate man belying the nickname jealous competitors and the vindictive media gave him—the Great Whit Scharq. But not wishing to be misunderstood by Wells, whose voting record reflected an unswerving devotion to family values, he lowered his arm. “Just thought you’d like to know I’m flying down to San Cristo in the morning. María and I.A. are coming with me. Important business.”

“As it happens, I’m headin’ down to Rio in a couple weeks,” said Wells. “Wish I could take the missus, but this is gov’mint business.”

“Rio’s quite a town,” said Scharq.

“Beats Ciudad San Cristo any day. The way I understand it, things seem to be a little dicey down in San Café.”

“Not to worry. María’s got people in place… Americans… to see that things go our way.”

Wells glanced at María. “So I hear.”

Scharq raised his face towards the sun hovering above the edge of the sea like a hang glider. Wells’ key role on the Energy and Commerce committee and heavy involvement in Latin American policy on the Foreign Affairs committee made him a valuable friend. Or foe. “And of course, Gusher, our business in San Cristo involves your business.”

Wells scratched the underside of his chin. “I was under the impression that y’all’s trip had somethin’ to do with a certain national park.”

Scharq’s shoulders bunched towards his neck. How had Wells found out? María wouldn’t have said anything. He glanced at Khan but dismissed him as a source. I.A. Khan knew which side his bread was buttered on.

Wells ran his right hand along his hat brim. “Y’all’re gonna score some points with our pal, President Quijano, and that’s fine as far as it goes. But let’s get down to the nut cuttin’. What’s y’all’s little jaunt down to San Cristo got to do with me? Bidness-wise.”

Scharq’s shoulders relaxed. Obviously Wells hadn’t gotten the full picture of what the trip was about. Quijano, of course, was part of the equation. In two days Scharq would present San Cristo’s elderly interim president with a ceremonial deed to a vast area of rainforest on Mount Azcalatl. The gift would double the size of San Cristo’s major national park and advance The Mobys Foundation’s global mission to protect the environment. For public relations purposes, the papers would be signed right after the grand opening of Mobys’ first store in Ciudad San Cristo. The transfer would, of course, depend on certain concessions by Quijano’s government in deference to Mobys as the largest landowner in San Cristo and master of a labyrinth of holding companies and dummy corporations the Quijano government could never hope to navigate. Wells’ support would provide an ace up Scharq’s well-tailored sleeve.

No one, after all, had more right to special consideration than Whitman Scharq. He had pioneered the espresso craze from a closet-size storefront in San Francisco’s Financial District. Now, as his ad folks put it, Mobys’ “If we’re not there there’s no there there” panache represented a key lifestyle choice for coffee lovers in ninety-nine countries. On October 31, San Cristo would take its honored place as nation number one hundred. True, the new store represented only a drop in the pot. Mobys’ operations, even after a modest restructuring, included 15,000 owned or licensed stores, kiosks and in-home dispensaries. If Scharq was proud of anything, it was soccer moms, stay-home dads and stuck-in-the-job-search unemployed of all demographics hustling a little extra cash by selling coffee out of their garages and living rooms.

Even more true-blue American, Mobys was an equal-opportunity opportunist. His people were brainstorming Yo Mobys! and ¡Mobys Aquí! handcarts for the nation’s ghettos and barrios—a bootstrap operation designed to reduce poverty while keeping America’s underclass awake and alert. Meanwhile, the company licensed an ever-expanding line of products bearing the Mobys logo—jewelry, school supplies, underwear, children’s toys, auto accessories and religious items for mega-church gift shops.

María’s cell phone rang. She glanced at Scharq then drifted towards the kitchen that opened onto the deck.

Scharq smiled in the subtle, unforced way in which couples communicate private feelings. The expression came naturally. He and María attended the same Catholic grade school as well as Lowell, San Francisco’s select public high school. After going their separate ways, they reconnected years later at the expense of Scharq’s second wife and María’s sole husband.

After the affair ended by mutual consent, María accepted a position at Mobys, troubleshooting throughout Central and South America. He had her to thank for helping the company exploit interests in land, processing and exporting to maintain an ample supply of coffee beans at below-market prices.

María returned, whispered into Scharq’s ear then held up a small tray with four glasses. “Bourbon, Congressman?”

“Hell, yeah! Fuel for body and soul.”

Scharq raised his glass. “Well put, Gusher. Your comment about fuel. Because that’s the business I want to talk to you about.”

Wells took a long, welcome sip. “So just what’s on y’all’s mind, Whit?” He chuckled, although his eyes—had they not been hidden by dark lenses—would have revealed little sense of mirth. “Y’all gonna take over San Cristo with your private army and make coffee into one of those crazy new biofuels?”

Scharq nodded.

Wells stared.

“Seriously, Gusher,” said Scharq, “you hit the nail right on the head. Or if you like, the ball square on the sweet spot.” He turned to Khan. “I.A., you tell Congressman Wells. It’s your baby.”

Khan sucked in a deep breath to counter the sudden touch of nausea occasionally brought on by his daily heart medication. It was only fitting that Whitman defer to him, a man who had earned a doctorate at Oxford and instructed fellow military officers at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Rawalpindi—a scientist honored extensively for his work on biological weapons before being forced to flee by a misunderstanding arising from his relationship with the wife of a senior officer. “Congressman, I am about to reveal how research at the Mobys Foundation will soon change the course of history.”

Wells transferred his stare to Khan. “The course of history?”

Khan stroked the dyed-black military mustache that betokened his exceptional virility. “I can tell you, sir, that a new discovery is about to lead to a dramatic reduction of global warming by orders of magnitude. Orders of magnitude, sir!”

“Bottom line,” Scharq cut in, “I.A. is brewing up the ultimate biofuel.”

Wells brought his right hand up to his hip like a gunfighter preparing to draw then hitched his pants up. “Whit, just what the fuck is this Paki talkin’ about?”

Khan clenched his jaw.

Scharq patted Khan on the cheek. “What I.A. is talking about, Gusher, is caffuel.”

“Caffuel?”

“A derivative of coffee blended with gasoline,” María answered. “Major Khan assures us that caffuel will deliver incredible fuel efficiency.”

“Beyond incredible, sir!” Khan interjected. “Caffuel will provide your average internal-combustion vehicle with well more than one hundred miles to the gallon in no more than a year. Two years perhaps. However, one hundred-fifty miles per gallon would not understate caffuel’s short-term potential.”

Wells leaned forward like a pine about to be upended by a Blue Norther. “And long term?”

“In five years,” said Khan, “and certainly no more than ten, one must anticipate two hundred-fifty miles per gallon! And why not three-fifty, sir?”

Wells’ jaw slackened. His mouth agape, he seemed to struggle for air. Then he straightened, clapped Scharq on the back and burst out laughing. “Goddam sumbitch, Whitman. You had me. You really had me.”

Scharq emitted an even bigger laugh not unlike a burst from a .50-caliber machine gun. “There are so many nuts out there, right Gusher?”

“Well, California’s the land of fruits and nuts, so y’all ought to know.” He raised his glass. “Damn if I didn’t almost spill this. I love oil as you know, but you can’t drink it.”

“Amen to that!” Scharq responded. “But Gusher, let’s be serious about alternate forms of energy. Take electric cars. I love the concept. Love it. But I have to ask, where will we get enough lithium for those batteries? Bolivia mines half of it, and how reliable do you think any lefty government’s going to be? And what about charging stations and battery swaps? How soon do you think we’ll see a network of those that Americans can count on? All this talk about moving away from gasoline… that’s all it’s been is talk. But America… the planet for God’s sake… needs something better now.”

The creases running from Wells’ nostrils down to the corners of his mouth deepened like cracks in a drought-stricken prairie. “So y’all are telling me that with caffuel, Americans’ll keep drivin’ but with a whole lot less gasoline in the tank. And then not fillin’ up much, either.” His chest puffed out like that of a Texas Longhorn getting ready to gore a rodeo clown too many steps from his protective barrel. “Over my dead body. The oil bidness is as American as pecan pie.”

“On the other hand, Mr. Congressman,” María interjected, “oil is killing the environment while caffuel is incredibly green.”

“In all humility,” Khan interjected, “caffuel will reduce CO2 emissions by up to eighty-eight-point-six percent while emitting water vapor scented with the faintest aroma of freshly roasted coffee.”

“You’ll choose a flavor at the pump,” added Scharq.

Wells’ face turned almost as white as the sheet his grandfather in the East Texas Piney Woods had worn as a member of the Klan. “Bullshit, you cocksuckin’, motherfuckin’ bastard-sumbitch,” he gushed, revealing the origins of his nickname. “And I don’t give a rat’s ass if there’s a woman present. Notice I said woman and not lady.” He prodded Scharq’s chest with a long finger. “Every real American knows, it’s oil or nothin’!”

María pressed a slender thumb on Wells’ wrist.

The congressman winced. His hand dropped to his side.

Scharq smiled broadly, baring perfect white teeth. “Get over it, Gusher. Do you know just how much the high price of gasoline sucks out of Americans’ purchasing power?”

Wells snorted like a Brahma bull in heat. “Fuck the American people! I represent the Great State of Texas!”

“Gusher, look at the big picture,” Scharq prodded. “With you behind us, Mobys can broaden its position in San Cristo and then the rest of Latin America. And then the rest of the world. We’ll own all the patents for caffuel and corner the market on beans. Which means America can finally tell the Arabs… and the Iranians, too… not to mention the Chinese… to go take a flying leap.”

Wells spat. “Let me tell you somethin’. If caffuel works like you say, y’all’re gonna piss off a whole lot of important folks from Houston to Midland to out El Paso way. Friends of mine with deep pockets. Re-election comes up every two years, you know.”

Scharq squeezed Wells’ elbow. “Aren’t I your friend? Don’t six-figure gifts to a super-PAC show a friend’s loyalty? Devotion even? Besides, it’s not like I’m asking Congress for legislation to give Mobys a billion dollars a year in tax credits and cash payments… two’s more realistic though three’s not out of the question… for not developing caffuel just to help keep oil prices up and your other friends happy.”

“And just who the fuck do y’all think you are?” sputtered Wells. “Jesse James?”

“Gusher, you know me. And I know you the way others don’t.”

Unseen, Wells’ eyes narrowed.

“Hypothetically,” said Scharq, “that billion or three per annum… That’s chump change compared to the tax breaks your oil pals are getting. Not to mention what corn growers used to get at the public teat. Still do, I suspect, because nobody knows how all that legislation really works. And don’t even talk to me about AIG and all those banks Washington bailed out…including other friends of yours… after the subprime mortgage mess. A grateful America’s going to owe a big debt of thanks to Mobys for developing caffuel, and you can share in the glory. As a champion of caffuel, you’ll be… well, almost as big a hero as Major Khan here.”

Khan beamed. He’d expended substantial energy in the effort to propel caffuel from abstract theory to potential reality with copious documentation to support his work should Washington or the media raise questions. Granted, more extensive testing of caffuel remained. He’d also have to deflect the usual professional backbiting. Scientists were as political as anyone else. But one principle he stood by. No one had the right to impede scientific progress. That included him, as well. If during the course of his work he had uncovered numerous questionable expenditures on the part of Mobys Foundation relating to caffuel development, deference to the greater good mandated his silence. His upcoming four-week working vacation in San Cristo would enable the caffuel project to move forward. If it also distanced him from a certain Quran-obsessed husband furious with the sexual attraction I.A. Khan held for more than a few of the Bay Area’s lovely but bored Pakistani housewives, so much the better.

Wells searched for another drink. “Y’all got balls, Whit. But y’all better listen up. Don’t fuck with the oil bidness. Do that, and y’all’re getting’ in way over y’all’s head. Just like messin’ around in a country like San Cristo where a man’s word ain’t worth a pile of cow shit, and they all hate America no matter how much we do for ‘em.”

Scharq looked at María. “Oh, I think we’ve got a pretty good take on what’s happening down there, Gusher. And that includes a lack of gratitude for American guidance. For example, María informed me when she brought out our drinks that one of President Quijano’s… and America’s… most vocal critics arrived in the United States yesterday. While we sit down to dinner, he intends to sell his message of hatred for America right across the Bay.”

Wells’ face reddened to a near match with the bridge beyond his shoulder. “Who?” he exploded. “And how the hell do you know?”

“We have our sources,” said María.

“I’m gonna have to lay some whup-ass on my staff,” said Wells. “They’re supposed to know shit like this.” He held his hands out, palms opened and facing each other, as if he were about to squeeze someone’s neck. “Call that limo guy of yours and tell him to come back. I got half a mind to go over there and kill the greasy sumbitch.”

Scharq pointed towards the house. “Let’s go inside for dinner, Gusher.” He led him inside. “Anyway, we both know there’s a free-speech clause in the Constitution. Even for foreigners. But if it’ll make you feel any better, I could have María dump the guy’s body in the Bay before we start dessert.”

“¡Trabajo del Diablo!” Jesús Garcia-Vega muttered as the black Escalade ascended higher into the Berkeley hills.

“¿Pardón, jefe?” asked Carlos, his trusted bodyguard, lifting an earpiece from his black iPod. From his shotgun seat up front, Carlos kept his one sighted eye—his left—on the road ahead. Over the years, he had demonstrated unshakable loyalty to his jefe. He would lay down his life for his jefe. All he asked was his weekly paycheck with an appropriate annual raise and an appreciative bonus at Christmas. A man with a family had responsibilities.

“Work of the Devil!” Garcia-Vega spat out in English as he observed the palatial homes lining the leafy street transformed to spun gold by the early-autumn California sunset. He endured visits to such degenerate places only to serve the people. These ostentatious homes belonged to blue-eyed white people who underpaid dark-eyed brown people to maintain them. In this way, America and San Cristo were no different. The wealthy, addicted to relentless over-consumption, deserved the disdain of those who understood the progressive, humane principles of Marx and Lenin, venerated the steel-willed efforts of Stalin and Mao, and sought to duplicate—and, God willing, surpass—the heroic stands of Fidel, Ché and Chávez.

“Right on!” agreed Lenny Birnbaum, the comrade who drove them and had arranged the evening’s fundraiser. A retired professor of anthropology at Berkeley, Birnbaum now lived off his generous pension with health benefits but nonetheless selflessly considered himself to be nothing more than a “working stiff.”

Readjusting the earpiece to his iPod, Carlos glanced at the Escalade’s navigation screen. “Just ahead, jefe.”

The Escalade slowed. Mercedes, BMWs and Lexus SUVs lined the narrow, winding street along with a small fleet of Priuses, more modest Toyotas and Hondas. Garcia-Vega’s two good eyes studied a vintage Vanagon displaying not one but two REAGAN SUCKS stickers among dozens, creating a comprehensive overview of late twentieth-century, liberal-American political expression. All was in order. The contributors had arrived, hungry for wine and cheese, beer and pupusas, and sage words sticking it to the man.

The Escalade halted at a massive wrought-iron gate flanked by high, cream-colored walls embedded with glass shards. Lower walls, thought Garcia-Vega, would have formed a sufficient barrier to indigenous Cristanos who maintained a stature, as well as a culture, closer to the earth. The architect, however, designed these to withstand taller, more rapacious men of European blood. Just inside the walls and soaring above them stood a second barrier of bamboo the green of unripe bananas. Above the bamboo towered oak trees dappled in light and shadow. Birds chirped from their branches. The wooded setting reminded Garcia-Vega of his boyhood home, except that his entire village could have found shelter in the house to which he’d been invited.

The gate swung open. The Escalade pulled forward into a cobblestone courtyard.

Carlos leaped from the vehicle even before it stopped, peered around to bring everything within his monocular view and opened Garcia-Vega’s door.

Birnbaum exited on the other side.

Garcia-Vega approached the house’s arched, custom-carved wooden front door.

Birnbaum dropped his arm around Garcia-Vega’s shoulder. “Like I said, the living and dining rooms can hold close to a hundred people. We can squeeze in a few dozen more on the deck.”

Garcia-Vega frowned. The owners’ wealth disturbed him. But then, they were major contributors—capitalists with sufficient social conscience to undermine capitalism. They fully supported his efforts to make San Cristo the world’s prime example of what humanity could achieve when all people were equal in every way. Years earlier, his passion for justice had compelled Garcia-Vega to found the Asociación Nacional de Tierras Indígenas—the National Association of Indigenous Lands. Over time, ANTI’s contributors enabled him to leave his frustrating post as San Cristo’s minister of housing for more important work on the people’s behalf.

The door opened, revealing a woman almost a head taller than Garcia-Vega. Short, white hair and turquoise eyelids set off her pronounced cheekbones and wrinkle-free skin. Dressed in a flowing shift woven from Senegalese cotton, silver bracelets on both wrists, she artfully concealed the passing of her sixtieth birthday several years earlier. The woman embraced Birnbaum then turned to Garcia-Vega and pressed her yoga-toned body against his.

Mucho gusto,” he whispered, fearing that he might stutter.

“Shall I call you jefe? Or would comrade be right?”

“Whatever you wish, señorita.”

Señora, thank you. Bettina Owens. Formerly Starbird. In another life.”

“Then please, Jesús. Simply Jesús.”

She studied his eyes. “It’s been señora for thirty-eight years now—not that Harvey and I really believe in such bourgeois ideas as marriage. And I must extend my regrets that Harvey is away on business. All week.”

Garcia-Vega followed his hostess into the entry. Its gleaming hardwood floor set off a rug of deep, rich reds woven by women in a remote Afghan village grateful for their two modest daily meals. On the wall to his right hung a large mirror framed in Philippine mahogany carved to resemble tree branches and finished with quasi-gold highlights.

He peered at his reflection. How fortunate, he thought, to have both eyes. His faithful Carlos—practically a brother since childhood—had lost his right eye when a group of boys attacked them with rocks and sticks. The bigger, burly Carlos fended off the attackers with his fists and accepted his wound without complaint. Of course, Carlos’ injured eye might have been saved had adequate medical assistance been available. Health care remained a dream in villages as remote as theirs.

The loss of an eye, however, had not freed Carlos from then-compulsory military service alongside Garcia-Vega. But this proved fortunate. A more enthusiastic and far better soldier, Carlos acquired many useful skills, later put to use in the employ of one of the government’s security agencies before joining the cause of the people. Garcia-Vega, better suited as a clerk in their undermanned infantry company, attempted to organize a soldiers’ union and spent eight months in a military prison for his efforts.

Satisfied, Garcia-Vega shifted the examination of his appearance to the army-replica jacket he wore every day in homage to Fidel and Chávez. Each year, a tailor in Miami made him half-a-dozen such jackets along with matching trousers. Shirts he could always buy off the rack. The uniforms represented a sound investment given how critical his appearance was to the movement.

With a final glance in the mirror, Garcia-Vega studied his hair. His stylist clipped it weekly to keep it short and suggest the image of a ferocious warrior for justice and dignity—ideals to which he had consecrated himself to the point at which he foreswore any long-term relationship with a woman. A night? A week? Sín duda. An affair of two or three months? Perhaps. But no longer. Jesús Garcia-Vega belonged to the people.

Of even greater importance, the cut avoided the embarrassment of his hair’s naturally medium-brown, slightly wavy character. He would otherwise require unending coloring and straightening to reinforce the image of his mostly indigenous heritage. His hair, hazel eyes disguised by contact lenses and skin too pale by at least one shade—if not two, he worried—continually threatened to reveal the bloodlines of the European seducer who abandoned his mother’s mother after viciously contaminating the family’s gene pool. No matter how often he spoke of the poverty of his rural childhood, of arduous days picking coffee berries and long nights resisting hunger as he studied the few worn textbooks available to him, his body threatened to betray him.

Birnbaum nudged Garcia-Vega into the kitchen.

Garcia-Vega inspected the European oak cabinets with hand-brushed glaze and crystal knobs, the island with a sink and gray-green, polished-concrete top, and the gleaming copper range hood. All suggested a recent remodel.

“Great crowd,” said Birnbaum, several grapes and a lump of Brie swelling his cheeks. “And our biggest donors are here.”

“So we are, as they say, good to go?”

“Just about. Let me get some more wine, then I’ll introduce you.”

Birnbaum’s remarks had been prepared for him. He would relate the degrading working conditions that killed Garcia-Vega’s father when their guest of honor was still a child. He would detail the appalling health conditions in the rainforest, the lack of educational opportunities, the patronizing missionaries who sent Garcia-Vega to their high school to destroy his cultural integrity, the army debacle—every detail that could elicit top dollar.

Naturally, Garcia-Vega took great pains that his speeches appear, as the American idiom went, off the cuff. He had labored long and hard with two university graduates in literature and the director of a small, politically active theater company in the capital to create several modular components for his speeches. These he combined in various ways depending on the occasion.

Birnbaum caressed a glass of Napa Valley chardonnay. “Okay then. Let’s liberate some ill-gotten capitalist cash.” He went into the living room.

Humming softly to prepare his voice, Garcia-Vega examined the twin Sub-Zero refrigerator/freezers on the wall opposite. They looked as if they could hold an entire steer. He could not help but wonder how much this kitchen cost with its two pizza ovens, custom ceramic backsplash tiles glazed with children’s and grandchildren’s names, full-height wine cabinet and flat-screen television framed into the wall. And might that be an all-natural Marmoleum floor on which he stood? How many children could he educate over the next year with the money Betty or Birdie… no it was Bettina… had spent on this kitchen? How did she feel waking up each morning and coming into such a kitchen for breakfast? How did it feel not to have a care in the world? How would he feel if such a kitchen were his?

Energized by the cause, Garcia-Vega entered the living room. Snippets of conversation about tennis clubs, brokers and au pairs assaulted his ears.

Birnbaum stretched his arms upward towards the huge wooden beams supporting the cathedral ceiling. “Camaradas.”

The room fell silent.

Garcia-Vega feigned attention while Birnbaum detailed his post-military scholarship to Texas A&M and “what a fascist environment that had to be for a man like our special guest.” He spoke of Garcia-Vega’s law studies at the University of San Cristo, his years as a community organizer followed by a seat in the national assembly, his elevation to minister of housing with opponents seeking to thwart him at every turn and his humble resolve to dedicate the rest of his life to the role of tireless revolutionary and willing martyr.

Waiting for Birnbaum to conclude, Garcia-Vega raised his shoulders almost to his ears then released them. The flight from San Cristo the day before and from Miami to San Francisco hours earlier had taken their toll in spite of his seat in business class—first class would have been unconscionably decadent. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm remained undaunted. He had news. Important news.

Shout-filled applause greeted him.

Garcia-Vega clasped his hands over his head, lowered them and brought his left index finger to his lips.

The commotion subsided.

Energized, Garcia-Vega began. This would not be one of Fidel’s daylong speeches or a marathon typical of Hugo Chávez. One could not do that in Berkeley for an audience of Americans attuned to sound bites. Nor was it necessary. He might offer them a quote from Teo Ballvé on Chavez’s socialism for the twenty-first century or something from Eduardo Galleano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, but these bourgeois academics and their camp followers had not come for that. They wanted to hear about real life as it was lived in the mud and muck of the bosque. As one who had endured such poverty forced upon him by the powerful—as the only man who could unite the native peoples of San Cristo with their brothers and sisters throughout Latin America—he would forego an intellectual approach and speak with all the passion and conviction only long and arduous rehearsals could achieve.

He told them how the indígenas from whom he sprang continued to be victimized by their European colonizers—now their political rulers who only pretended to be their countrymen. He informed them of the natural dignity—indeed superiority—of native peoples whose close and respectful relationship to the earth—nature gave them their gods, after all—represented humanity’s last hope for survival in this age of global warming. He decried the reactionary adherence to capitalism that led the United States—their own country—to oppress liberation movements in San Cristo and throughout Latin America. And he praised his hosts for their offering of particularly delicious food and wine in such a beautiful setting.

“Victory to the people!” he concluded.

Cries of “bravo” and “right on” ascended above hearty applause.

Again, Garcia-Vega touched a finger to his lips.

Again the crowd stilled.

Camaradas, there is more. The seeds of revolution have been planted in the parched soil of a nation thirsting for justice. I submit to you in all humility that only one man can bring peace to our suffering fatherland. Upon my return, I will immediately announce my candidacy for the presidency of the Republic of San Cristo. I pledge to you, the Quijano government will fall.”

3 | TRES | 3

Bobby walked westward on Avenida Plaza Azcalatl towards his appointment with Juan Suelo, deputy commander of the Seguridad Nacional. Several blocks ahead, the tree-lined Avenida formed the northern border of Plaza Azcalatl, the hub of Ciudad San Cristo, across from which workers rushed to complete a four-story building housing the country’s initial Mobys store. He’d visited the site in the morning at María Skoronsky’s suggestion and again that afternoon to monitor the security arrangements he’d coordinated with Juan.

Late-afternoon traffic crawled along the Avenida in both directions. Here and there a showroom-new SUV darted among grime-spattered delivery trucks, vintage Chevy Impala taxis and snaking lines of buses belching exhaust fumes into the soft, damp early evening air. Horns bleated like lost sheep. Radios and CD players, in a fit of mass nostalgia, blared out “La sirenita,” one of the Mexican rocker Rigo Tovar’s golden hits.

On guard for pickpockets with little regard for the clusters of police and Seguridad personnel at every corner, Bobby tried to keep pace with the mass of capitalistas, as residents of the city called themselves. They performed a series of massive yet intricate line dances, which took them in competing directions while enabling them to keep in step with the complex, erratic rhythm of the city. The going was anything but easy. Bobby’s knee still troubled him following his unanticipated and fateful excursion into the chilly highlands the previous day ending with a chopper ride back to General Gomez’ base and a late-night drive to the capital.

From time to time Bobby glanced at the shops and cafés, whose modest prosperity suffered the occasional betrayal of a ripped awning or a cracked window. He had left the city’s wealthy boutiques and restaurants behind after crossing Avenida Londres, where Mobys put him up in the Hotel Azcalatl Grande, the capital’s sole five-star hotel. María Skavronsky had just checked in along with Major Khan, who wished to learn more about Bobby’s time in Pakistan. Whitman Scharq would occupy the penthouse for the next four weeks, although he would be in and out of the country. The Azcalatl Grande would have been way out of Bobby’s price range if he’d been traveling on his own dime, and he found it a bit pretentious, but he wasn’t about to complain. His room was large, the bar downstairs stocked Pikesville Supreme, and the health club offered free weights, which he preferred to machines.

At the end of the block, Bobby reached the northeast corner of the rectangular plaza, centered in a grid that replaced the haphazard layout of the original colonial town following the last of several revolutions in the mid-eighteen hundreds. There, the capital’s largest thoroughfare, Bulevar Azcalatl, ran south from the Presidential Palace to the plaza and dead-ended. On the plaza’s south side, Bulevar 8 de Abril continued down to the National Assembly building, a classical structure with imposing columns. The broad boulevards and expansive plaza left the Presidential Palace and the National Assembly to face each other or, in terms of Cristano politics, face each other down.

The areas north and east of the central city—above and right as the locals called it—hosted upscale and middle-class condos, shops, restaurants and clubs. The elite often shopped and played there, but most lived in gated communities in the northern suburbs. Two blocks north of the plaza, the steel-and-concrete American embassy stood a short distance to the right of the Presidential Palace. Below and to the left—or south and west of Plaza Azcalatl—a jumble of apartments, shops and restaurants ran from humble to downtrodden. The National Cathedral fronted the plaza’s left side.

Bobby stopped at the corner of Avenida Colón to glance down the street at the new Mobys building. He’d arranged with Suelo to have at least one Seguridad agent posted on site around the clock and for police patrols to constantly pass by to help prevent the frequent protests from getting out of hand. They would also report lapses by the private security guards hired by the construction company. More often than not, “third world” and “first-class security” proved to be mutually exclusive terms.

Ready to move on, Bobby crossed the street among a swarm of Cristanos evidencing as much use for traffic lights as snowshoes. Reaching the sidewalk, he looked up. Strings of red, green and blue lights crisscrossed the huge plaza, the crowning work of a nineteenth-century German-Mexican landscape architect, who soon after became insolvent, robbed the city’s largest bank at gunpoint and bribed his way to Cuba. He died of syphilis in a Havana brothel twenty years later.

Beneath the lights, men and women strolled on cobbles glistening from the late-afternoon rainfall. All paths converged on the fountain of las tres señoritas. Legend had it that a thousand years earlier—or more, or less—invading Mayans—or Pipils, or Lencas—ravished and slew—or slew then ravished—three indigenous virgins of exceptional beauty and saintly character. The señoritas’ blood flowed freely into the baked earth of what was then a small village. In response, a broad-winged azcalatl descended from the heavens to weep over the site. The invaders hurled stones. Fire from the azcalatl’s beak melted the projectiles. Then the azcalatl assumed the shape of a giant phallus. Its tears fell like seed, raining down upon the blood of the martyrs. The entire area of what was now the plaza burst forth with springs of fresh water, rose bushes and banana trees.

Some versions of the legend mentioned coffee trees, although everyone knew that the European elite had introduced coffee in the late eighteen hundreds, long after the Mayans had been removed from history—or the ancient Pipils, or Lencas had lost power. Of course, even if that part of the legend was apocryphal, no one could deny the importance that coffee played in the Cristano economy. It was the Cristano economy.

Bobby skirted a large puddle shimmering with reflected light and approached the fountain. Around its stonework edge, young women sat on plastic ponchos, shopping bags or folded newspapers. Their shoulders covered with shawls or sweaters, they watched demurely as preening young men circled in twos and threes.

Stopping, Bobby flexed his right knee then reached into his pocket for his cell phone. He’d have just enough time to try to reach Bobby, Jr. again, although he’d left a voicemail just before leaving the hotel. While not a man to embrace guilt, Bobby had not only grown lonelier over the years but also remorseful. After the divorce from Sandi—who claimed he preferred life in the field to home, and not without cause—he saw little of his son and received only an occasional Christmas photo. Admittedly, he hadn’t put much effort into keeping in touch. For that matter, he’d long lost track of his second wife, LeeAnne, who lodged the same protest by hitting the road with a guitar playing insurance salesman seeking fame in Nashville. All he knew now was that Bobby, Jr. had graduated from North Carolina State, married his college sweetheart—whose name slipped Bobby’s mind—and moved clear across the country to California. Also that he would become a grandfather sometime in the winter.

He had, he considered, a great deal to atone for. And if not today, when?

Deciding against leaving another voicemail so soon after the last, Bobby headed to the plaza’s below-left corner where a ceiba tree stretched itself nearly one hundred feet aloft into the hovering darkness. Birds filled its huge, umbrella-like canopy, chirping a welcoming chorus to the approaching night.

Bobby paused. The ceiba, like the fountain, was the stuff of legend. When San Cristo achieved independence from Spain, the government of the new republic attempted to remove the fountain of las tres señoritas. Their Christian duty demanded that they obliterate any trace of the godless culture of the indigenous people who tilled their fields and cleaned their houses. Both indígenas and mestizos rose against them. A truce protected the fountain in perpetuity. But the lords of independent San Cristo insisted on their own monument. They planted the ceiba tree, whose canopy would symbolize the protective, fatherly rule of the oligarchy blessed by God and Holy Mother Church.

Bobby crossed the intersection and entered a café catty-corner from the plaza. Inside, perhaps two-dozen legislative assistants and female clerks were getting an early start on the evening.

He chose a table near the large windows offering a view of the National Cathedral. Its southern wall displayed gargoyles that might have graced the façade of Notre Dame. The ceiba stood in plain sight.

A heavyset waiter with a 1940s-style pencil mustache approached.

¿Tiene usted Pikesville rye?” Bobby asked.

The waiter shrugged. “No, señor. Lo siento.”

Bobby smiled. “Cerveza Azcalatl, por favor.” Beer would do fine. He was in someone else’s country and not about to embarrass his hosts. If he’d learned anything in thirty years of serving the USofA in some of the most remote locations on God’s good, green and not-so-green earth, he’d learned that.

Darkness quickly enveloped the city. The lights strung across the plaza suggested necklaces of glowing, multi-colored beads. Moonlight peered through the clouds. American rock music on the café’s sound system caught Bobby’s attention. He couldn’t place the song. His musical tastes ran in other directions. A two-year tour in the military attaché’s office in Moscow had introduced him to classic Russian composers like Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Kopylov along with Borodin, Mussorgsky and, even if it suggested a cliché, Tchaikovsky. For that matter, he’d also accumulated an eclectic selection of Middle Eastern music from Oum Kalthoum to more modern Lebanese singers like Najwa Karam and Maya Nasri. You could take the boy out of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and he just might find it impossible to go back.

“Bobby! Bobby!” a voice called. “¿Qué tal?”

Startled, Bobby jerked his head up. Then he stood, bent down and spread out his arms to share an abrazo with Juan Suelo, a former Cristano army officer of great promise he’d helped train at the School of the Americas years earlier.  “Juan, you could have slit my throat, and I wouldn’t have seen it coming!”

Suelo reached up and patted Bobby solidly on the back. His thick hands produced sounds like thunderclaps. He grunted.

“What’s the matter?” asked Bobby.

“Just my back. It goes in and out lately.” He motioned Bobby to sit. “Long time no see, huh?”

“You’re looking good, Juan. Doing good, too.”

“Maybe you better call me ‘sir.’ I outrank you now.”

Bobby saluted.

“I owe you, amigo. Drinks and dinner, they’re on me.”

Bobby held up both hands to protest any thought Suelo had of debt. He was proud that Suelo, honest, skilled and educated—the USofA had paid for his bachelor’s in European history and a master’s in management—had climbed to the rank of full colonel. That promotion represented no small feat for a short, squat indígena nicknamed el buldog in an officer corps dominated by European blood. Now, as deputy commander of the new Seguridad Nacional, Suelo was in the middle of reorganizing half-a-dozen inept military and civilian security agencies into one. Success could earn him a star. Then again, it would be easier for Suelo to change the security apparatus than his skin.

The waiter placed a bottle of Cerveza Azcalatl, a glass and American-style tortilla chips on the table. He turned to Suelo.

Suelo, dressed in civilian clothes, pointed to Bobby’s beer. “No glass.”

The waiter spun on his heels and hurried to the bar.

Bobby pushed the glass to the middle of the table. Drinking from the bottle would do fine.

“We’ll start catching up here,” said Suelo. “Then we’ll head to dinner. You hungry?”

“Does San Cristo grow coffee?” Bobby’d downed two slices of toast with coffee that morning but skipped lunch. The missed meal hadn’t been an oversight. Today was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews traditionally fasted. The fast began the night before at sundown when the patrol he’d accompanied had been unexpectedly attacked. He felt himself a fool for accepting General Gomez’ assurance that despite concerns in the capital, the bank robbery in Maquepaque had been a criminal one-off, that no would-be revolutionary would dare raise his head so close to San Cristo’s largest army base. But after the chopper flight back to Ciudad San Cristo, he had to get something on his stomach. Besides, he’d developed his own Yom Kippur ritual over the last few years by foregoing one meal, usually lunch. In this way he acknowledged the Jewish world his parents had abandoned after surviving the Holocaust—a willful erasure of history that left Bobby unaware of his heritage until his father revealed their secret on his deathbed. Maybe some year he’d pass on two meals then all three. For now, reading Jewish history and the Old Testament—no, he really should be calling it the Hebrew Bible—was the best he could do. And then there was the matter of atonement. Perhaps missing lunch might help him make amends in some small way for deserting Bobby, Jr. And now he add to that the attack on the patrol, which he felt strongly could have been averted if only he’d taken a more active role before they were fired on—although doing so was strictly forbidden by his contract. He served as a consultant to Mobys and nothing more.

”So look,” said Suelo. “There’s a little French place a block left of the bus station. You wouldn’t expect it in this part of town, but it’s good. Real good. Anyway, Carolina’s fine, the kids are great, and I’ll fill you in on the Pope’s visit when we eat.”

The waiter returned and gently placed Suelo’s beer on the table.

As if manipulated by a skilled illusionist, the bottle began to rattle on the polished wood. A low rumbling filled the café. Glasses and dishes clattered on the tables. Bottles clinked behind the bar. Then everything stilled.

Terremoto,” said Suelo.

Bobby glanced around. No one in the bar seemed particularly disturbed. Cristanos were more than familiar with earthquakes, and this temblor had been minor.

Suelo lifted his bottle “¡Salud!”

“¡Salud!” Bobby toasted in return.

“¡Salud and what the fuck! bellowed a third voice. A big man, not as tall as Bobby but even more heavily muscled, approached the table. His cropped red hair was shaved at the sides. His neck was linebacker-thick and encircled by a gold chain from which dangled a small, white ivory skull. He extended his hand. “Bobby fuckin’ Gatling! How’s the knee?”

Bobby accepted the hand, anticipating the grip that attempted to dominate his while concealing his annoyance. The crushing grip was high-school stuff. More important, someone again had approached him without his noticing. And the reference to his knee after all these years flat out pissed him off. He’d taken a round fired into the sky during a Kurdish celebration in northern Iraq. No purple heart for that. But he’d lived to tell the story. The Peshmerga colonel who’d accompanied him and stood at his side as they both took a pee break had taken a round in the head. But the knee only served as an excuse for the derision expressed by some of his peers, who resented his continuing questioning of the violence produced by American strategy in the Middle East and elsewhere. Combat zones and promotions generally went hand in hand.

The red-haired man sat. “So, Bobby, buy me a beer or what?”

Bobby glanced at the ivory skull. “Kill anyone interesting lately, Lewis?” He caught Suelo’s eye and looked back to the red-haired man. “Lewis Kennan, this is Juan Suelo.”

“Heard a lot about you, Colonel,” Kennan offered.

“Juan, Lewis Kennan. Used to be Major Kennan, U.S. Army and a proud member of Delta Force before Crimmins-Idyll recruited him.

Kennan extended his hand and smiled. “If Bobby revealed anything more, I’d have to kill him. And you.”

Suelo accepted a grip intended to send a message and returned a message of his own. “I’m sorry we didn’t meet when you first arrived, Major. I hope you’re enjoying Lake Azcalatl.”

¡Cerveza!” Kennan roared at a waiter three tables away. He turned back to Suelo. “Not here to vacation. Figure you know that. Spending most of my time out in the boonies. Chasing bank robbers. And revolutionaries. Same people probably. No hard feelings, us being outside your chain of command?”

Suelo betrayed no response. He had no choice but to acknowledge that the embryonic Seguridad Nacional wasn’t yet ready for prime time. Kennan’s force of American contractors, complete with helicopters, had arrived a month earlier to secure the area adjacent to Azcalatl National Park. The region was within General Gomez’ command, and although Gomez had plenty of men, he’d earned his post through political connections and never demonstrated anything near the level of leadership required to deal with more than the most amateurish of criminal acts. President Quijano’s signing the order bypassing the Cristano Army, the police and Seguridad hinted that a challenge of some magnitude might be brewing in the highlands. However, one had to be careful about describing the situation. The president’s office had strictly forbidden the use of the word “revolution.”

The waiter with the pencil mustache now turned down to reveal a frown of displeasure appeared with Kennan’s beer. The bottle hit the table with a sound resembling a shot from a small handgun.

Kennan’s cheeks flushed.

Suelo stared at Kennan’s ivory skull.

Kennan shrugged and held the skull away from his chest. The black shirt he wore loose over his slacks to conceal a Mark 23 pistol set the trinket off as if it rested in a jewelry display case. “Found it with a body in Central Africa. Can’t tell you where.”

“Africa?” Bobby asked. “Was that before or after the company pulled you out of Iraq?”

“Not sure that deserves an answer coming from the guy who held his dick while Moq’tar slipped away from America. Talk about a changing Middle East! I hear you were out of work until Allen Crimmins set you up with Mobys for the month. But I guess being a hands-off consultant beats looking for sea shells at the beach.”

“So, Major Kennan,” Suelo interjected, “it appears you know where to go for souvenirs.”

Kennan clenched his jaw then winked. “One of our guys back in Alexandria… the home office… offered me twenty-five hundred bucks for this skull. Twenty-five hundred! Not even a week’s pay. Make me an offer I can’t refuse or get the fuck out of my way.”

Bobby shook his head. “I don’t know, Lewis. It’s all profit, figuring you only paid for the chain. Maybe.”

Kennan grinned. “Package deal. Skull came on the chain.” He drained his beer. “What the fuck was I supposed to do? Post a found notice on Craig’s List? Sell it on EBay? Send the proceeds to the guy’s tribe? Never even found his fucking head. Not that we looked.” The grin morphed into a grimace. “Fuck all this bleeding-heart shit, Bobby. And fuck all these so-called innocent native people who don’t know anything but how to be victims.”

Suelo squeezed his bottle. The skin across his knuckles grew taut.

Bobby reached under the table and touched Suelo’s knee.

“My apologies,” said Kennan. “Seems like the natives in San Cristo also know how to rob banks and massacre working people. Not to mention the local troops.”

Suelo gripped the edge of the table. “We have troublemakers. Radical politicians and others who romanticize terrorist groups like the Zapatistas, FARC and Sendero Luminoso. We can deal with them.”

Kennan slammed his fists on the table. “Let me show you a trick.”

Suelo’s eyes widened with confusion.

Kennan laughed. “Got your attention, didn’t I?”

“Give us a break, Lewis,” said Bobby.

“One trick. Just one,” said Kennan. He withdrew a deck of playing cards from his shirt pocket.

Suelo scratched his head. “You learn this with Delta Force?”

Kennan smiled. “Got a magic set for my tenth birthday. Every kid wants to be a magician. Control other people. Never lost my fascination. Earned good money during college performing at parties and meetings. Still show my stuff when I’m home.”

Bobby raised his right index finger. “Just one.”

Kennan shuffled the deck, expanded it and held it out to Suelo.  “As we say, pick a card, any card.”

Suelo fingered a card.

“No. Take it out of the deck. Look at it. Show it to Bobby. Just don’t let me see it.”

Suelo removed the card.

“Alright. Put it back in the deck. Anywhere.”

Suelo followed Kennan’s instructions.

Kennan held the deck in both hands and squared it. Then he riffled it with his thumb. Finally, he placed it face down on the table.

“You gonna find my card, is that it?” Suelo asked.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

“Problem?” Suelo asked.

“Your card. It’s missing.”

“Missing?”

“Not in the deck. Vanished.”

“No way,” Suelo retorted. “I put it back in the deck. You saw. Bobby saw.”

“Twenty bucks says it’s gone.”

“Be careful, Juan,” Bobby advised. “And don’t play poker with this guy, either.”

Kennan waved his hand. “Give me a break. Do I look like the kind of guy who takes money from friends?” He held the deck out. “But your card’s still missing, Suelo. Check it out.”

Suelo turned the deck over and spread the cards face up across the table. “¡Cabrón!” Damn! “It’s not there.”

“Sure you’re looking in the right place?” Kennan asked. He reached his right hand towards Suelo.

As if a theater had been rigged with special effects to reinforce the trick’s big finish, one of the café’s windows shattered. Outside in the plaza, the near-severed canopy of the ceiba tree hung at a right angle from its trunk then toppled.

The three men rose to their feet.

“¿Terremoto?” asked Suelo.

“You wish,” Bobby answered. “Bomb!”

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