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Wolf DeVoon

Tough Guy

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Long shadows crept across the valley. Big yawn. I flexed a few muscles and carefully arched my back against the trunk. Sitting in a tree sucks, no matter how nicely trimmed and dressed with a machete. Oh well. Another half hour and I can wrestle everything down, walk over to the quad and go home empty-handed again. Danny and I have been doing this every Wednesday, waiting for the beer truck to wallow over Quebrada Bridge. Danny has it worse than me. He was draped in camo under the bridge like a troll. If they came up the dry gulch, which we expected, Danny would be a sitting duck if they saw him and started shooting. I was 30 yards away with a carbine, supposedly backing him up, which was total bullshit and we both knew it. He put me in a safe position. I could sweep the road but couldn't see under the bridge. The gulch was a long black pit.

No use arguing with him. Dan's hard as iron. Ex-cop, ex-MP, cheerfully silent and inscrutible like a brick wall. Volunteered to risk his life for $50 an hour that the Civic Association is reluctantly paying to do something about armed robberies on this stretch of road, mostly commercial trucks who carry cash, but also two carloads of tourists who got held up at gunpoint last month. The cops patrolled this stretch at sundown for a while, then somebody shot one of them dead, picked him off a slow motorbike. No more patrols.

Another big yawn rattled my shoulders, trying to stifle it.

I got up early this morning to answer the phone. A girl at the beach called to tell me that Andre was back in town. Made some coffee and drank a cup, dunked a roll in it for breakfast, then strapped on my steel asp and headed for the beach mad as hell. I drove that stupid fucking junkie out of town yesterday, gave him money for a room and something to eat, and told him emphatically to stay put until I got in touch with the consulate to ship him home. Seventeen years old and stoned every day, on the run from a father who beat him and blackened both of his eyes, he was persona non grata in Cristo for breaking into cars, panhandling the tourists and talking shit to the Great and the Good, who long ago formed the mistaken idea that anything to do with Russians was my personal responsibilty and I was supposed to fix it, free of charge.

Tabby was waiting for me at Olga's. Very strange chick, maybe 30 years old. I met her for the first time in one of the comfy old suites above the Iguana Restaurant, smoking pot with a vacationing grower from Michigan, a guy we ultimately had to throw out for being such an asshole. Maybe Tab was sleeping with him to get high. Couldn't blame her if she was. He had a big bag of big green buds. I smoked a lot of pot that year. Everybody did. It was one of those golden dry seasons when the beach was dotted with strong bronze surfers, pale stockbrokers and airhead supermodels from New York, trading big smiles in skimpy attire with live music and seafood at the resorts every night, drinking and smoking and laughing and nuzzling til dawn.

Tabitha was a mystery I never bothered to unravel. She spoke with a whistle, like an old guy with false teeth. Not bad looking, buxom, thick brown hair that she kept behind her ears and spilled over soft muscular shoulders. A little plush around the middle. Not my type, but she kept popping up wherever I went, always asking if I knew anyone who could give her a job. She wanted to stay. So I took her to Rick and she handled board rentals and sold trinkets for a while. Then to Olga's for the wet season, serving beer and washing dishes. She was shacked up in one of the squatter ranchos, a dirty palm leaf hut full of mosquitos. No running water. I didn't like it, but Tabby was pretty stubborn and got her wish to stay more or less permanently. Illegal of course. There were plenty of expat beach bums who came on three-month visas and never went home. When the Immigration Police made a desultory and predictable sweep at the end of the tourist season, they ran for the hills or hid out in somebody's closet, unless the bum in question wore out his welcome and was dutifully tossed to the Migration goons.

Like this asshole. Tabby lifted an eyebrow and pointed at him with her nose. He was slumped over a table in the sun with a half dozen empty brown bottles, two of which were horizontal in a puddle of buzzing flies.

I flicked the asp open and strode over to his table. Andre must have heard me crunching gravel and looked up. "Tex..." he mumbled stupidly, "I couldn't stay there, so I came back."

I ordered him to get up, and when he opened his mouth to spew another paragraph of bullshit excuses I wapped him on the thigh and the top of his head for good measure. We marched over to my car and I shoved him in the back seat. He had enough sense to keep his mouth shut while we drove to the Rural Guard shack in town. "Lock him up and keep him here until the bus comes," I growled at the dope on duty and threw a $20 bill on the desk. The Consul agreed to pick up Poor Little Lost Andre on the other end and fly him home to his mother in Moscow. She was worried; he belonged in school. Once in while these comic soap operas turn out halfway right, but I had more important things to do today, like getting shot at.

Bang - THWAP - a chunk of bark hit my head, another loud bang stung my upper arm and I jumped for the ground, a disorganized, flailing leap of eleven feet with a rifle in my hand that ended in a hard bellyflop that smashed the wind out of me and broke my glasses, which is all I remember.

I woke up with Danny ripping my shirt apart and pulling my pants down. "Are you hurt anywhere?" he asked angrily. I said I was hurt everywhere. He picked me up in a fireman's carry and started running. "Put me down!" I tried to shout. He was bouncing my guts, making everything hurt a hell of a lot worse. So I smacked him in the kidneys, to no effect. He kept running.

We got to the hillside where the quads were hidden and he flopped me down on the ground, out of breath and gleaming with sweat like a racehorse. "Can you drive?" he panted. I nodded and pulled myself up fumbling a key in my hand. Danny opened my rifle case and slammed it shut. "Follow me!" he yelled as he gunned his machine, heading straight up a rough jungle path over the hills to the beach. I began to get the idea we were in trouble and had to be elsewhere pronto.

We raced across wet sand with the tide coming in. In an hour our tracks would be gone. At Rock Point, Danny stopped, ran and threw his Sig-Sauer and Steve's .45 in water that was too dangerous to surf or swim. He waved me in the direction of town, like a stern traffic cop at the scene of a car wreck, then spun around and went the other way. That was the last I saw of him. A week later, they called me to pick up his quad, one of four in the company fleet. It was parked upside down in the river near Tres Gauchos, about twenty miles away, out of gas.

I watched Danny disappear into the jungle and sort of melted slowly into a pile of sore bones and trembling flesh across the steering bar of a red hot machine that was starting to sputter. It took a long time to find the reserve tank knob. I burned my hand on the engine with a wrong guess.

In town I decided I needed a drink and pulled into the little lot at the front of The Dice Bar. It took a long time to stand up and throw my bad leg over the saddle, switch the motor off. I could barely walk, just limped through the wide front arch. It was Happy Hour, fifteen or sixteen lazy drinkers and loud music. I stumbled against a table and made it to the empty end of the bar near the back wall. Tony grabbed the Dewars and poured a drink for me. I asked for more ice and fished a couple cubes out of the glass with my left hand and pressed them against the rip in my sleeve near the shoulder.

"You okay, Tex? You look like shit," he worried. Unless my eyes were playing tricks on me in the dim light, the bar owner was sweating and shaking. Tony was the one who looked like shit tonight.

"Never mind me. What's up with you?"

His hands twisted a bar rag as he leaned over to talk privately, like it was an emergency. "Jesus, Tex, I gotta have a gun. Can you get me one? There was three guys in here a little while ago. Never saw 'em before. They were casing the joint, and I gotta stay open til 2. It's a game night."

I nodded and unbuckled the fanny pack around my waist, laid it on the bar, fumbled with the zipper, got my cuffs out and put them in a back pocket. "It's single action," I explained. "You have to cock it every time. Loaded with .22 magnum. Do yourself a favor and get some .22 shorts. Kicks like hell unless you hold the barrel down with your other hand. Can you remember that?"

Tony nodded. "Yeah. Thank you. How much?"

"Nothing. If anyone asks, I was in here about 4 o'clock and had lunch."

I drove through town in second gear somewhat inaccurately and made it home, got off and started to fumble with the gate latch. My wife came running across the patio in that cute way girls have of tiptoeing at top speed. I got back on the quad and she opened the gate, then latched it shut behind me.

"What happened?" she wanted to know. I let her help me inside, into a bedroom, into bed, where she took off my clothes. There was a little cry of anguish when she saw the deep red groove on my upper arm. I vetoed the doctor idea and asked for crema blanca. "Just treat it like a burn," I mumbled and then blacked out, safe and snug behind a perimeter wall and cameras, with a partner who was better and faster with a long .38 than I was.

I think I slept a night and a day and another night before I hobbled around a little and sat on the couch a while to eat soup and a sandwich. The next day I felt good enough to putt putt putt downtown for a newspaper. The crowd at the grocery store froze and gave me a wide berth at the checkout. The store owner asked politely if there was anything Mr. Tex needed. I gave him a buck for the English language paper and opened it.

It was there, page one. Four dead, all of them known to the cops, two out on bond pending trial for robbery. A beer truck driver saw bodies in a field near Quebrada Bridge, called 911 and got detained for questioning because the cops found a 9mm pistol in his cab that "may have been recently fired and reloaded." He was booked for resisting arrest.

And there was another police item, continued on page 8 with a photo of a rental car in a ditch near the new suspension bridge that put the ferries out of business. Friends said that Tabitha Oberlin was on her way to see a baby doctor in the capital. She was five months pregnant. They shot out her tires and stole her belongings, leaving her for dead. But she wasn't dead yet. Broken vertebrae bounced in a Red Cross ambulance eight or nine hours to a government hospital where she died from infection after surgery.

It still makes me sick whenever I think about it.

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