By Rich Larson
Waiting outside El Tirano’s obsidian doors, Scipio looks down at the boy clinging to his blood-crusted hand. “¿Todo bien?” he asks.
Mateo nods, face slack and vacant. Everything is not all right, of course. His small shoulders are hunched, his chin tucked to chest, his eyes glassed over with shock, fear, exhaustion. Scipio’s knitted sweater all but swallows the boy’s skinny frame, but underneath it there are scars, rawpink and shiny, from what they did to him in the lab. Dry blood is flecked across his forehead from what Scipio did to them in return.
In the black mirror of the doors, Scipio sees his own reflection has fared little better. He looks like a monster, like the chupacabra of his mother’s stories. His sunken eyes are dark hollows and his black body glove is still spattered in gore.
“You’re home now,” he says. “Don’t be afraid.” He squeezes Mateo’s hand, but not tightly. The boy’s bones feel fragile as a bird’s.
The obsidian doors scrape open and El Tirano’s men spill out. Young bloods pumped full of testosterone and combat chemicals, bristling with blades and bioguns, faces painted to look like skulls. Scipio was one of them, once, but never exactly like them. Their eyes widen as they usher him and Mateo inside.
“Me cago en Dios,” one says. “We thought you weren’t coming back, comandante. There was no contact, we thought that…”
The doors clunk shut behind them, and El Tirano’s lieutenant, a man called Sol, finally holsters his gun. “Where are the others?” he demands. “You took seven of my men. Where are they now?”
“Dead,” Scipio says. “But Mateo is alive.”
Sol’s face twists with pain for a moment. He looks down at Mateo. “Gracias a Dios,” he says numbly. He crosses himself and the gesture carries, contagious. One man presses his lips to the Santa Muerte tattoo on his arm.
Scipio knows that later Sol will go to the tattoo room himself, sit under the needle-armed plastic squid and ask it for seven markings up his left side, no analgesics. Sol is a good lieutenant in many ways.
El Tirano’s newly appointed head physician arrives, case swinging from his hand, a stretcher scuttling after him. Mateo flinches at the sight and Scipio seizes on it.
“Later,” he says. “His father will want to see him.”
The physician hesitates, running a nervous tongue along chapped lips. “Is he injured at all? Are you?”
“Todo bien,” Scipio says. “¿Verdad?”
“Sí,” Mateo says, his voice flaked away to a whisper.
The physician looks unconvinced. Scipio chases purple blots in the corner of his vision. Realizes he is swaying on his feet. For too long he’s been fueled by nothing but amphetamines and adrenaline. Now his nerves are rubbed raw and his legs feel like they have been dipped in lead.
But he’s come this far already. He swore that he would deliver El Tirano’s son back to him. He will finish this job, as he finished all the others.
Scipio scoops Mateo into his arms, turning away from the physician. Few others would dare to touch El Tirano’s son in such a way, but Scipio has served Mateo’s father for decades, and when Mateo loops his skinny arms around his neck it’s the same way he did as a toddler. Scipio can feel the boy’s staccato heartbeat as he carries him through the corridors.
He knows his way to the bone room by rote, but the walk seems unreal this time, something from a dream. He moves slower and slower. Partly the fault of the body: lactic acid seething in his muscles, bone-deep aches in his limbs. Partly the fault of the mind, of the familiar shadows reminding him that Mateo was the only bright thing ever born in this place.
For another fleeting moment he imagines carrying the boy away. Taking him somewhere where he will be safe from his father’s enemies and also safe from his father. But Scipio knows no such place exists.
Sol and his men escort them through the vaulted entryway of the bone room. Time seems to slow, crawling now on hands and knees. The hall’s high ceiling was chewed away by an army of buildbots and replaced with plastiglass meant to let in the sunlight, but there is so little of it these days. Scipio sees only dark sky swirling overhead.
Below it, El Tirano’s throne spans most of the room. It is a skeleton, transported from the bombed-out husk of some building in Coahuila and reassembled here piece by piece. Its
enormous skull rests on the floor, festooned with flowers and paint, grinning with serrated teeth the size of machetes. Its spiny tail juts into the air, propped up by carbon struts. Pale corpses dangle from the length, some mutilated, others whole, all of them coated in a bacterial film to hold back their stench.
El Tirano sits in the center of the beast, where two ribs have been replaced by a black chair bolted to the spinal column and draped with bright red spidersilk. El Tirano is not a giant, as they say in the stories. He is a head shorter than Scipio, small-boned, wiry. An ancient neural implant clings to the back of his shaved skull like a spider—only his physicians understand how it works, how it converts El Tirano’s thoughts into electricity and stores them. His body is veined with cobalt tattoos and his modified eyes gleam like a cat’s when he sees his son.
Once El Tirano controlled the drug trade. Now that the government is gone, now that half the country has been laid to waste by natural disaster and orbital bombardment, he controls everything.
He makes a sound in his throat, and the bone room falls into perfect silence. His court is frozen in tableau.
There are the drug-dazed girls El Tirano calls his courtesans: handpicked from ruined cities and scattered pueblos for beauty now masked under muertos paint, faces powdered white, eyes swallowed in black circles, lips crisscrossed to evoke a mouth sewn shut. Here it is always the day of the dead. Scipio’s eyes go to one girl in particular.
There is the stumbling padre, robes stretched across a swollen belly, his skin doughy red and webbed with smashed capillaries. He railed once too often against El Tirano’s sins of indulgence, so El Tirano had him implanted with saccharomyces that make his stomach produce ethanol all on its own like a brewery. Scipio knows his liver will fail soon, and El Tirano has no plans to replace it.
There is El Tirano’s accountant, standing by the skeleton’s haunch, thin and somber and dressed all in black. The brim of his top-hat hides his eyes and he holds an antique screen and stylus in his pale hands. People say he was born on Cuba, one of those islands that sank beneath the sea so many years ago. Scipio never did ask.
“Mi hijo,” El Tirano says. “You’ve come back to me.” He swings down from his throne with languid grace and spreads his arms wide, beaming. “Vente, vente, Mateo.”
Scipio’s arms tremble as he sets the boy down. His fingers trail against Mateo’s bony shoulder, not quite willing to let go. Mateo looks up at him and murmurs a thanks. Then he’s gone, moving up the red pathway to his father, staggering, half-running. El Tirano sinks to his knees to welcome him, tears tracking down his dark face.
Scipio looks over their heads, back to the painted girls arrayed around the beast’s clawed feet. Most are watching the reunion, some still dancing on automatic, tracing sine curves in the air. One is watching Scipio, eyes narrowed as if she knows.
In a way, Nazaret is the reason for everything that has happened and is about to happen now.
Scipio and the Courtesan
Scipio has brought El Tirano a traitor’s head on ice in a battered orange cooler, so El Tirano has given him a courtesan in exchange. She is slouched by the door, picking at her artery-red nails, when he returns to his rooms.
“I think I was supposed to be waiting on the bed,” she says. “But nobody has an override for this lock. I suppose his little screen didn’t tell him that.”
Scipio looks at her. She might be a new girl; it’s difficult to tell. Their faces are all painted alike and they all dress in reds and blacks but mostly bare skin. This one has her dark hair piled up off her neck and secured with a glinting metal pin. Her paint-stitched lips have a contemptuous twist to them. Scipio wonders why El Tirano thought he would want her when he has never wanted any of the others. El Tirano knows he has no appetite for it.
“I like privacy,” Scipio says.
“Claro,” the courtesan says. “Or you wouldn’t stay all the way down here. I nearly got lost.”
Scipio puts his hand inside the genelock; it rasps like a cat’s tongue against his skin and chimes confirmation. Next he knuckles a short code into the keypad. The lock comes undone, click-clunk, and he pushes the door open.
He’s tired. His target was nearly to the ruins of the old border wall before he caught up to him, and Scipio dragged the fat man’s body through muddy marsh for two hours, through a cloud of carrion beetles drawn to the flesh smell, before he gave up, sat down, and sawed off just the head.
He wants nothing more than to send the girl away so he can rest. El Tirano must know this, too. Maybe this is one of his little jokes, like the one he played on the padre, or maybe there is some other reason for her to be here.
“Come in, but don’t speak,” Scipio says. “Please.”
The courtesan purses her mouth and mimes a sewing needle in the air. Her shoes click against the floor, making echoes as she follows him inside. Scipio shuts the door, points her toward a chair, and goes to wash.
There’s a fresh gas tank screwed into place and the water heats up quickly. He peels off his clothes and steps under the jet, letting it carve the congealed mud off his body. Dirty water rushes across the tiles to the drain. One of his toenails is coming off again, battered purple-blue, and he finds bruises blooming on his shin and his chest.
When he comes out, the courtesan is naked from the waist-up and kneeling on the bed. “¿Te apetece?” she asks in her throat.
“No mucho,” Scipio says. He goes to his cabinet and undoes another genelock. “Do you want anything?” he asks, pulling out a syringe and a small sealed jar.
“Whatever you want me to have,” she says. “Careful if you use a tranquilizer, though. I might shit.” She says it with a bland smile on her face, but Scipio’s stomach revolts at the image of her lying boneless on the bed, unable to move.
“I don’t keep tranquilizer.” He pauses. Something in her way of speaking prickles at his memory. “What’s your name?”
“Nazaret,” she says. “And you are El Cuervo, who can kill anybody.”
“You should be more scared of me, then,” Scipio says. He fills the syringe, slaps his arm to bring out the vein. The needle goes in like a whisper and warmth floods his body. All his aches dissolve.
“I should be,” she agrees. “I have a condition. I can’t be very scared or very angry or very anxious about anything. The physician says there’s a faulty loop in my brain. I can act scared, if you want.”
“Why would I want that?” Scipio asks.
“People want all sorts of things,” the courtesan says. “You, I don’t know. You don’t want girls, you don’t want boys. Someone said your huevos were ripped off by a dog when you were a child, but I can see that’s not true.” She smirks at him. “Maybe you only want corpses.”
Scipio has heard that rumor before. It circulates through the court every so often. The truth is that he hates corpses: in his sleep he sees hundreds of them, and they bury him alive.
“And you want to shit on my bed,” Scipio says.
“¡Qué asco!” she says scowling, and Scipio has heard enough.
“You hide your accent,” he says. “You’re from one of the northern villages.” He hesitates, hardly daring to believe it. “Parera, I think.”
Her eyes widen slightly in their coal-black pools. She nods.
Scipio has been with El Tirano so long that he nearly forgot his village was real. Now it all comes to him in a rush: the steep wedged paths up the mountain, the peeling yellow bridge, the cementerio with its many plague crosses, the tiny houses roofed with tin and the packed-dirt streets roamed by scrawny black dogs. He sinks to the bed. The drug and the memories mingle, swimming his veins, loosening his tongue.
“Do you know Calle Gongora?” he asks. “When I was a child, I lived on Calle Gongora. In the piso over the welding shop.”
“Hombre, claro,” she says, her painted lips sliding back off her teeth. “I lived on Bombona. We would have been almost neighbors.”
Now Scipio remembers the dusty square, fighting for a ball of bundled plastic in the games of barefooted football where he was always the quickest and the strongest. He remembers the crumbling stone stable, overgrown by creeping vines, where they could play if they were wary of snakes. He remembers the procession of plastic statues during Semana Santa, the chanting and wailing and guitars.
He even remembers the mother who carried him on her hip when he was small, who told him stories at night until a final outbreak of plague made her too sick to talk. When the plague took her away from him, his uncle took him away from Parera.
“Do the vines still bloom?” Scipio asks. “There is so little rain these days.”
The courtesan’s face shifts behind her mask of makeup. “Nothing blooms,” she says. “Parera is gone, or I wouldn’t be here.”
Scipio’s throat constricts. “The plague,” he says, thinking of all the crosses.
She shakes her head. “The tax,” she says. “Parera would not pay El Tirano’s tax, so his soldiers came in the early morning with machetes. They cut up the men. I saw one right outside my door when I woke up, slit like a pig, his tripas still steaming.” She stares at him. “After, they doused the houses in gasoline. Parera burned.”
Scipio says nothing. He shuts his eyes and sees the creeping vines around the old stone stable twisting and blackening. He sees the piso on Calle Gongora collapsing in on itself, swallowed in flames. Does El Tirano think this is a gift, giving him a memento of a village now burned to the ground? Or is it pure chance? Scipio never told him that his crow first flew from Parera.
He goes back to the cabinet and retrieves a tequila bottle, rubbing the dust from the cap with his thumb. He pours two glasses.
“To Parera,” he says. “Drink with me.” He gives a precise twist of his wrist and a single drop falls from the bottle onto the floor. Then he hands the courtesan her glass.
“Parera,” she echoes, but her eyes seem accusing. They drink and it burns all the way down Scipio’s throat. His own eyes smart with tears. He pours again, quickly, and slops some over the side. They drink again, and once more. It settles dense and hot in his stomach but his chest feels scooped out, empty.
“How long ago?” he asks.
“Two years,” she says.
“I didn’t know,” Scipio says. “I would have…” He trails off.
“You would have done nothing,” she says. “No te preocupes. Parera would have burned anyway. A puppeteer does not take the advice of his puppets. Not even his favorite puppet.” She makes her hand dance along the bed like a marionette. “And eventually, everything burns.”
They lie down on the bed. She squeezes his cock in her hand, moves her thumb in a questioning circle around the head. He shuts his eyes, and when he opens them she’s scooted backward, taking him in her mouth, cheeks hollow and eyes glazed. She looks like a skeleton devouring him. He shakes his head.
“Nothing?” she says, picking a hair off her tongue.
“Tell me what you remember about Calle Bombona,” he says.
She tells him about the neighbor who had an orange tree she used to steal from, about the afternoon stink when someone wasn’t watching their feet and stepped in a dog’s shit.
He tells her what he remembers about the stone stable and the vines, as if by telling her he can forget it, and she says it’s strange to think he was a child, once, that he didn’t descend from some dark cloud.
When the drink and the drug and memories have made him feel bloated, tender, he asks her what she looks like without the muertos makeup. She disappears, reappears dripping; he touches rippled scar tissue on her neck and her chin from where a burning splinter of wood flew and struck her. Her eyes are brighter without the black paint swallowing them. Her lips are unbound.
She snakes an arm around his chest and holds him like that. She murmurs into his ear until he falls asleep. In the morning she is gone, and he is El Cuervo again.