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The Golden Zone: Hunting a Hit Man in Mexico

We were hunting a man who was paid to kill people, he was bisexual. His preferred weapon was an Uzi submachine gun that left its victims nearly unidentifiable. He was employed by a powerful organization with a lot of money to spend and even more to...

We were hunting a man who got paid to kill people. He was bisexual, and his preferred weapon was an Uzi submachine gun that left its victims nearly unidentifiable. He was employed by a powerful organization with a lot of money to spend and even more to lose—and somehow, at age 23, I found myself in Denver in my beat-up Subaru, doing surveillance on the apartment of the killer's girlfriend, hoping he'd show up, hoping he wouldn't.

Her apartment was on the first floor of a complex on the edge of the city. Beyond it the plains stretched to the mountains, soft with smog, and every afternoon I'd park my car in the space facing her unit. Up in Boulder, my girlfriend had left me months earlier, and I lived in a motel room in the shadows of the Flatirons where I wrote fiction every morning, an act that was making me less a participant and more a witness, but if I had considered the risk I was now taking I would probably do it anyway. I was a young and reckless recorder of others, traits my boss must have seen immediately as fitting the kind of work he did on the side and sometimes needed help with: Christof and I worked together in a halfway house for convicted adult felons out of the Cañon City penitentiary, and he also owned a bounty-hunting business that specialized in going after people who'd done terrible things. This one had a $250,000 price on his head.

The man's girlfriend was ten years older than I was. She wore Nike sweat suits and kept her dark hair in a braid down her back. From where I parked every afternoon, I had a direct view of her profile as she sat on the couch and watched television. Sometimes she'd be reading something at the same time, a book or magazine in her lap, and every few seconds she'd glance up at the screen I couldn't see. Because of the time of day, I assumed she watched soap operas. She talked on the phone a lot, too, the cord a long one she pulled from the kitchen behind her. Every hour or so, she'd go back there and return with what looked like yogurt or a plate of crackers or a glass of something to sip. Most of the time she'd be watching TV, talking on the phone, and reading all at once. Sometimes she'd hang up, set the magazine down, and walk to the bathroom. I'd watch her turn on a bright fluorescent light, a red shower curtain hanging there, and then she'd close the door.

I'd stare and wait. It was something I was used to now. But it wasn't me waiting; it was the other me, Christof's associate with the fake name, that's what it felt like, as if I were watching myself the way I was now watching characters come and go on the page, a dangerous thing to do, for these were real people with real guns, people who would not tolerate being watched.

A half-moon glowed weakly over Olas Altas bay. I was leaning on a concrete seawall peering down into the pale darkness at rats on the beach. They were shadows of movement below, scurrying from the cracked shells of coconuts, an empty Pacífico bottle, a withered palm frond, and the carcasses of roosterfish and dorado that had been thrown off a boat when the sun still shone over Sinaloa and the Sierra Madres and this port of Old Mazatlán.

Christof stood beside me in his white linen suit. He was over six feet and 230 pounds and wore a straw cowboy hat tilted back on his head. In the darkness his handlebar moustache looked blacker than it was. He was reciting a Neruda poem in Spanish. The air smelled like dead fish and crumbling concrete and the sea.

It would have been easier if we'd found our killer in Denver, but the word from the US Marshals was that he'd been seen in Mazatlán, a place outside of their jurisdiction but not ours. The plan was to find him, then give the location to Christof's Mexican friends, who would capture him, tie him up, throw him on a boat, and sail up the coast to the waters off San Diego so the US Marshals and DEA could pick him up, that promised six-figure bounty so unreal to me I didn't even think about it. Now I was leaning on the seawall along Avenida del Mar in the moonlight, listening to Neruda and the scurry of rats and the lapping of the water along the sand. Christof and I had just come from a gay bar called Caballo Loco, a place our killer had been many times before. It was a small one-story building set in a hillside of mimosa and morning glory trees. Christof told me the Mazatlecos called them trees of the dead. If you drank from the waters near them, you'd go crazy. Maybe I was already crazy.

The bar was warm and dim, its window shutters open to the salt air. The floor and walls were tiled with brown porcelain, blue flowers, and vines painted along the edges, and a jukebox in the corner was playing Julio Iglesias, the room crowded with men, some standing at the bar, others sitting in twos at small wooden tables that held a burning lantern and their glasses of beer or jiggers of tequila or snifters of brandy. Some were smoking, others were kissing or holding hands, and I didn't like how a muscular man at the bar kept looking me up and down, his eyes lingering on my ass as Christof and I found a table and sat down.

Christof wore leather sandals, that white linen suit, and an open-collared silk shirt. In the low flickering light of the table, he looked healthy and gay. Which is what I was supposed to be, too—just a gay tourist with my boyfriend in a bar on the water. Again, the boundary was weakening between my imaginary world on the page and my real life, what I was doing in this bar in Sinaloa, simply allowing myself to drift into the skin of another, this time a gay man with a name that wasn't my own or even the one the federal and state agents knew me by. Just before we flew to Mazatlán, Christof had sent me to Denver to pick up the latest mug shots of our killer. I stood in an office on the 37th floor of a skyscraper overlooking downtown Denver and the plains. The agent was in his 50s and wore a pink shirt and gray tie, the handle of his gun an oiled walnut. He was standing behind a counter. He slid the sheet of photos over to me. "Be careful down there. These aren't nice people."

I thanked him and left. In the elevator I studied the killer's face. I'd seen his picture before, but these were clear close-ups, and it was like seeing the face of a cousin who'd died before you were born, the awakening sense of being connected somehow, sharing something you barely knew you had. He was 29 years old, half Italian, half Irish, a kid of the streets who had turned his rage into a job, and he was handsome in the way the mill-town brawlers I'd grown up with were handsome, something cut or chipped or broken off his face, this breaking worn as defiantly as a family name.

A shirtless teenage boy came to our table. He held an empty tray at his side, and Christof ordered a brandy for himself and a soda water for me. For this trip I wasn't drinking. It was a decision that had seemed to rise out of the Mexican earth soon after we'd landed. It hadn't been a long flight, but how could we have arrived so soon at a world so far from our own? We sat in the back of a white shuttle van, and I stared out at the glare of sun on scrub and mesquite among the low rolling hills. Off in the distance was a brown ridge, at its base a grove of thorn trees, Christof told me. Then he pointed out a tall strangler fig, and in its shadow a jackrabbit raised its nose and disappeared.

Then came the homes of the poor. Tiny shacks made from discarded or stolen street signs, sections of billboard advertising Carta Blanca or Coca-Cola, corrugated tin for the walls or half a roof, the other half open or covered by a ripped tarp or construction plastic or canvas. Beside one was a rusted-out Datsun pickup truck, two boys squatting in its shade in the dirt. They were barefoot and shirtless, their black hair dusty, and they were playing some kind of game at their feet with rocks or rusted bolts. Then we were in the narrow streets of Mazatlán, the stone and plaster walls of shops and houses, many with enclosed courtyards in the shade of coconut palms, flowers snaking along the tops of walls and spilling over: cardinal sage and spider lilly, pink trumpet and mala ratón. Again, words Christof gave me, and I was learning this about words: Once you knew the names of things, you saw them clearly for the first time.

The driver's window was down now. I could smell car exhaust and frying tortillas from the marketplace, El Mercado in the Centro Histórico. Even these words from a language I did not speak, they too had the power to make me more here in Mazatlán, and so when Christof asked whether I wanted a cold cerveza I heard myself saying, "No, I want to stay awake."

Now the moon was low, and Christof and I were walking away from the rats on the beach back to the hotel. We'd stayed at the Caballo Loco for that one drink, long enough to see our killer was not there. Two tables over sat the only other white man in the place. He was small with gray hair he'd combed to the side, his lavender button-down shirt pressed, his hand in the hand of a Mazatleco my age. He had long black hair cut unevenly, and he wore a dirty T-shirt, ripped jeans, and sandals. On the way out, Christof stopped and said hello to the American, who was drunk and began to talk openly about himself, as if our very presence demanded that he confess he was a retired professor from Minnesota here on vacation. The Mazatleco beside him wasn't smiling. He looked up at us as if we were interrupting him in his work.

Outside, we waited for our pulmonía, one of the open-topped taxis that ran day and night from Old Mazatlán to the Golden Zone. Christof said, "That young man with the professor."

"Yeah?"

"He probably has a wife and kids."

"And he's gay?"

"No, he's poor. He does what he has to do."

We stepped out of the pulmonía and into the Hotel Belmar, its plaster facade pink and white, its arched entrance open to the sea air. During a Carnival ball in 1944, the governor of Sinaloa was shot to death in the lobby. His murderer had used a .45-caliber pistol, its bullets still sunk in the tiled column after having passed through the governor's torso. Now, as I walked by that column, I stopped and looked again at those nickel-size holes. I pushed my fingertips into them, felt cool mortar and wood, a tiny fragment of lead; there was so much to know and to have known, so much to do and have done, and one life was just not enough to live it all.

The next morning I sat in the shade of a fan palm in the Mercado Pino Suárez. I was sipping hot coffee and watching Christof pass out gifts to Los Sordomudos, the deaf-mutes of Mazatlán. They were boys who lived in the street, the oldest maybe 18, the youngest nine or ten, and because Christof had been coming here for years and was fluent in sign language as well as Spanish, he'd befriended them, would bring them new Converse and Nike sneakers, T-shirts and shorts and socks. They were crowded around him in the morning sun, a dozen or more thin brown boys laughing and speaking with their hands and faces, two or three of them peering over Christof's shoulder to see what else he'd pull from his plastic trash bag. Christof was clearly happy doing this. He was sitting on a bench, his face shadowed beneath his straw cowboy hat, laughing, speaking slowly in Spanish for the lip readers, handing out box after box to boys whose feet may not even fit into shoes they were already pulling on without socks.

There was a breeze from the water. I could smell frying tortillas and coffee, dead fish and cigar smoke and sweet mala ratón. The marketplace was filled with men and women and kids, most of them working their vendor carts, one heavy with raw cuts of beef and pork on ice, others stacked with papayas, mangos, and bananas. From where I sat I watched a tall tourist buy a coconut from a Mazatleco, who then cut it in half and squeezed lime juice onto it and sprinkled it with salt and chili powder and handed it to him on a paper plate. There were carts of woven sombreros hanging on hooks, folded shawls striped orange and yellow and the dull red of sunset. There were beaded necklaces and crucifixes and carved figurines of Jesus next to a rack of black T-shirts with hot-pink lettering: Mazatlán. In the shade behind me, old men sat on a short stone wall talking and smoking cigars and spitting down at their feet. At their backs was a stand of banyan trees, their gray roots clawing up their own trunks like the ghosts of ancestors refusing to leave, and high in the branches was a parrot, its squawk lost in the voices below, the honking pulmonías in the street, a guitar strumming Spanish chords, and was that really an iguana walking languidly under the sun not far from my feet? Was Christof really showing the mutes photos of our killer? Yes, he was, for nobody paid attention to these homeless deaf boys, he told me. People said and did anything in front of them because they didn't see them as full human beings. But if you gave Los Sordomudos a day and a night and our man were still here, they'd know where.

Twelve hours later, we were in the back of a covered taxi driving down a rutted country road. The driver took it slowly, his car bouncing in and out of dips in the packed dirt, and Christof was drunk and singing a love song in Spanish. The driver ignored him. In the months I'd known Christof, I'd never seen him drunk. It seemed a strange thing to be, under the circumstances.

We had just eaten marlin tacos at an open-air restaurant in the Plaza Machado, and while Christof was drinking margaritas, I'd kept to soda water. My abstinence was beginning to feel like a pose of some kind, but there was an easy clarity that came with it, a constant alertness, and now that I knew we would be hunting our killer out in the country, I'd gotten nervous and wanted to stay as ready as I could. I told Christof I'd feel better if we had guns.

"Why?"

"Because he does, doesn't he?"

Christof narrowed his eyes at me, pursed his lips beneath his mustache. At another restaurant across the plaza, a mariachi band was moving from table to table, their black sombreros tilted way back on their heads as they played.

"Gun energy invites gun energy," he said.

"What?"

"I've been doing this a long time. I've never needed a gun."

"What if we see him at this place in the country?"

"We call my friend."

"Does he have guns?"

"Oh yes, many."

At the next table, an American woman laughed and leaned in closely to her date. She kept one finger on the rim of her wineglass, and she was speaking softly to him, smiling, and I heard myself say to Christof, "I'm curious what it's like."

"Qué?"

"To pay for it. To drive someplace and pay a stranger for it."

After dinner Christof hired a taxi. On the way out of Mazatlán, as we moved farther from the water and deeper into the side streets, there were the homes of the working poor, one-story, two-room shanties of bleached timber and cracked plaster, of scrap and stone behind fences of rusted wire or battered planks, fan palms leaning over them like sullen teenage boys. Some didn't have electricity or running water, and dogs lay in cool dirt near the stoops, and it was like being on my hometown streets again, everything pervaded by a gut-sick giddiness that only trouble could be found here. And then eight or nine young men were piling into the bed of a pickup truck, each of them carrying a rifle or shotgun or pistol. One had a red bandanna tied loosely around his throat. We could see them in the shine of the taxi's lights as they sped off, two or three glancing back at us like we were a half-forgotten memory, the wind blowing the hair around their young faces.

"The fuck is that about?"

Christof took in my question. He was in his white linen jacket again, and he turned and asked the driver something in Spanish. The answer was only two or three words.

"Sí, sí." Christof looked back at me. "Drugs. One gang going off to fight another."

Then we were driving through low, dry hills in the moonlight, moving in and out of ruts in the road. Christof was singing "Cucurrucucú Paloma." Somewhere behind us to the west, away from the tourist hotels of the Golden Zone, those boys could already be shooting at other boys, and if I'd been raised here with nothing, what could have kept me from doing the same thing? Was aiming your shotgun at another's chest and pulling the trigger that much different from punching and kicking him in the head?

Yes, I thought, and no, but they were on the same continuum you fall into after breaking through that part of yourself that once broken stays broken. What I'd known, though, felt small compared with how these boys were living and dying, and when the driver stopped in front of a half-abandoned motel in the darkness, I felt young and vulnerable and now too reckless for my own good, especially when the driver turned the taxi around and drove away, his headlights jerking up and down through our dust, which hadn't even settled yet.

We stood in front of a cinder-block compound. At the far corner, bugs flew at an exterior light shining onto weeds and a steel barrel cut in two. Beyond that lay the sign for this place, its letters too rusted to read. A soft blue light glowed on the other side of the open doorway. Freddy Fender was singing on the jukebox, and Christof and I stepped inside.

The blue light came from a neon sign for a tequila I hadn't heard of. It hung over the bar to our right, the bartender nodding at us as we came in, the stools empty. Scattered throughout the room were small folding tables and mismatched chairs, and it was so dark that at first I didn't see the women sitting along the wall, 12 or 13 of them. Some were smoking and talking under Freddy Fender's song, and when it ended I could hear their voices, the everyday sound of women chatting in a hair salon, and now more music began to play, something with more brass, the singer's Spanish tiredly festive.

Christof and I sat down at a table in the center of the empty room. A woman walked over in a loose T-shirt and jeans, and in the bar's blue light I could see she was older, in her 50s or 60s, her lipstick black in that blue. She was explaining something to us in Spanish.

"Sí, sí," Christof said to her. He nodded his head and said something else, and the woman turned and went to the bar. I asked him what she'd told him.

"The house rules."

I looked back at the women. Some were sitting, others standing. Most were in short skirts or tight dresses, and even in that blue shadow I could see the dark smear of their lipstick and eyeliner. Every one of them was staring back at us.

"What are the house rules?"

"We have to pick which one we want. It cuts down on infighting among the señoras and señoritas."

The older woman set a brandy in front of Christof and an iced drink in front of me. I told her gracias and sipped soda water and lime juice, and now I wasn't as curious as I'd been back in Mazatlán. Choosing one would be like picking a cut of meat from a vendor in El Mercado. Choosing one would not be choosing another. And how could I even be doing this? This would only help to enrich the son of a bitch they worked for; this could only help run the machine that exploited them. I wasn't even aroused at the thought of being with one of them; there was only my desire to know what it felt like to be doing this, to stand and walk through the blue darkness to a line of women against the wall, to move quickly for the one with short hair and a pretty face who smiled at me and dropped her cigarette onto the floor, stubbing it out with her high heel as she stood and took my hand and led me back to our table.

I'd done it before my adrenaline could back up on me, before I could think much more about it.

There was another woman beside Christof. She was plump, her shoulders bare, her cleavage pushing up out of her dress. She was speaking Spanish loudly over the music, her hand on his, and I hadn't seen him choose her. Later I would learn he'd told the older woman that only I was here for the girls, and so she'd sent another one to drink with him, to run up his tab with booze.

The woman I'd chosen was sitting close to me. She smelled like nicotine and lipstick, and she was speaking Spanish into my ear. She rested her hand on my thigh and sipped from a drink she'd ordered as soon as she sat down. The woman next to Christof was speaking more softly, smiling, Christof shaking his head and smiling back. He looked close to nodding off, and I remembered his girlfriend in Denver, a woman who owned a clothing shop that catered to the rich. Was he staying at this table because of her? Or was he hoping our killer would stumble in? Or was he morally opposed to what I was doing? Or was he just too drunk?

"Fuck and suck?" The woman squeezed my leg. I looked at her directly for the first time, saw that her front tooth was chipped and she was much older than I was—35 or 40.

"Fuck and suck, sí?"

"Sí."

We stood, and I followed her through the cigarette smoke of the other women I didn't look at. We stepped outside through an open doorway, ahead of us a long row of motel rooms, a red or white bulb glowing over half the doors. The tiles under my feet were loose, and off to the right was a rectangular hole in the ground, weeds sprouting up out of it like hair. At the end of the diving board someone had set a cane chair upside down, its four legs poking up at the stars, and on the other side were more rooms, their windows dark. A few of them were cracked or shattered.

She stopped and unlocked a door, and I followed her inside.

Christof had switched to Coke and wasn't as drunk now. On the cab ride back he was talking about our killer, how he may have been there earlier or would be there later or maybe Los Sordomudos had the wrong place. I nodded. The driver's face was lit from beneath by a battery-powered lamp on the seat beside him. There was a day of whisker growth along his chin and throat, a white stubble, and on the radio was a top-40 song from the States that made me think of polyester shirts and barrooms and waking up hungover beside a naked woman I did not know.

I'd learned nothing from doing what I'd just done. It felt no different from any other loveless act. There was the momentary sweetness of release, then a hollow emptiness, the body taking the soul to a place where there were only echoes. Everything that happened there I could have imagined. Not to have done so instead had diminished me somehow.

This driver was taking it faster than the first one, and we were bouncing in and out of the ruts in the road, the light of his headlamps jerking ahead of us. Off to my right lay a field of brush and mesquite under the moonlight, my shoulder pressing hard against the door.

Soon we were once again passing the homes of the poor. A new song was on the radio now, Christof quiet and pensive. I thought again of the young men my age in the bed of that pickup, and I pictured two or three of them lying dead under the moon, their blood leaking into the dust.

Over the one-story shacks and through the strangler fig branches came the white and yellow lights of the Golden Zone. Then we were in it, a wash of neon and palms, and off to our right was the moonlit expanse of Puerto Viejo bay. I began to feel afraid—the woman I'd just been with, the killer we were looking for, the deaf-mutes we'd publicly bribed with kindness to get information, Christof getting recklessly drunk—all of this began to feel like some cosmic debt I was going to have to pay, and soon.

I rolled down my window to the smells of dead fish and wet sand. Lined along the beaches were wooden fishing boats, many of them on plank frames with an axle and two bicycle wheels so the fishermen could pull them into the water without help.

Soon we were in the darker streets of Centro Histórico, the driver pulling up to the pink and white entrance of our hotel. Christof gave him what looked like many pesos, and the driver thanked him three times. Then Christof and I were passing through the lobby, among its massive potted palms and tiled columns. This time I ignored the one with the commemorative bullet holes, and I followed Christof down the long tiled corridor to our room. But something was different, a square of light where there shouldn't be, and it was coming from the left, the door to our room wide open, a sliver of wood from the casing lying across the threshold.

Christof stopped and stood still and held up his hand. Now was the time for a gun. Now was the time for a knife or a baseball bat or a tire iron. My tongue was thick in my mouth, and then I was stepping into the room behind him.

What little we'd brought to Mexico with us was scattered across the floor—shirts, shorts, underwear, a novel I'd been reading. Both mattresses had been upended, and one lay sideways across its frame, the sheet torn off. Christof moved quickly toward the bathroom, pushed open the door, and stepped in.

"We're alone."

I was staring at the pesos I'd left beside my notebook on the small desk. Christof had told me not to carry too much cash with me at one time, so I'd left it behind. I could hear him step out of the bathroom behind me. I pointed to my money. "Why didn't they take that?"

Christof's linen suit was wrinkled, and his eyes had a dark cast to them I'd never quite seen before. He lifted up what he was holding at his side. It was our killer's mug shot, the one I'd gotten from the US Marshals in Denver.

"This was on the toilet seat."

He didn't have to tell me what that meant. A warning was a warning. My legs became cold water, and I pulled the cane chair from under the desk and sat down. But I was looking at our open door, its casing splintered, and what would keep him from stepping inside with his weapon of choice and spraying us dead?

I swung the door shut and wedged the chair snug beneath the porcelain knob. Christof was gathering up clothes with cool efficiency. "Someone's told him about us. We'll have to leave in the morning."

Who? I wondered, but of course, why wouldn't a professional killer, someone always looking over his shoulder, have people he paid to look too? I stood there feeling young and stupid.

I squatted and began to pick up my scattered clothes and stuffed them into my backpack. I set the novel on the table beside my bed.

There was little sleep that night. We closed and bolted the shutters against the sea air, and now the air in the room had grown thick and close. Christof snored on his mattress a few feet away, and I could smell the tequila he'd drunk earlier, our sweat, the thin cotton of our sheets. Why wouldn't our killer decide just to get rid of us? We were in Mexico, beyond the protection of the law enforcers who'd sent us. My heart had become an electronic thumping behind my eyes, and while I had never done anything like this before, the black dread opening up in my chest and gut was nothing new.

I was the son of a single mother who, when we were kids, moved us from one rented house or apartment to another, one year three times, always for cheaper rent. I was the constant new boy who got beaten up in the schoolyard or the street simply because I was new. Then, at 14, I snapped and began to fight back with my fists and feet till that was all I ever seemed to do anymore. Then I was a grown man, writing daily, trying to become other people with words, an act of sustained empathy that had made it difficult for me to view people as good or bad. I could see only the gray, that dark tangle of human desire and motivation and hurt and action and apathy that make a life. And now I pictured that prostitute, who was probably the age of my own mother, the dim yellow bulb hanging over her head, how she'd said something to me in Spanish and pointed to a wooden bench against the wall, a place for me to leave my clothes, but underneath it was a pair of white baby's shoes. And after, she looked at me like she would never think of me even for one moment ever again.

Lying half naked in the boxed heat of that room at the Hotel Belmar, waiting for our killer and his submachine gun, my only weapon my fists, I kept asking myself why I'd come to Mexico. I knew it wasn't for the money—it was for this: to be tossed into the dark heart of danger and then to emerge stronger, bigger, and more fully myself.

But I already knew what it was to walk onto an asphalt lot crowded with running, shouting boys, many of whom would turn on me because I was new and did not belong there with them. I knew the violence that would follow, and while it was only insults and a slap or a punch and some kicks to the ribs and back, I knew the quiet afterward, the fear of more of the same. Years later, after knocking out the front teeth of a local thug, I knew the carload of young men who would cruise slowly by the gas station where I worked, the promise of revenge in their stubbled faces. And now this, the possibility of being not beaten up but shot to death. Strange how similar it all felt, how greater danger did not bring greater learning with it.

Deep in the night, sleep came against my better judgment and against my will. Then Christof was rousing me awake. He was already dressed, then so was I, and it was a long walk down that sunlit corridor, the hotel's windows open to the sea, the naked sense we were easy targets now.

On the shuttle ride out of the city, Christof and I were the only passengers. The windows were open and the driver was smoking a cigarette, its smoke blowing back into our faces, the scent of the flowers snaking along the stucco walls we passed, the dust rising up alongside us. Christof was back in his linen suit, and he sat quiet and hungover beside me, his eyes seemingly on the meeting with the federal agents, who would not be pleased.

But I didn't care about that. There was the drafty, light-skinned feeling that we were narrowly escaping something catastrophic. We drove deeper into the country, and I stared out at the shacks made from half-built concrete-block walls and billboards and sheets of tin. There was the rusted-out Datsun, the morning sun glinting off its cracked side mirror, and as we passed I turned in my seat to look for the two young boys who just yesterday had been squatting and playing in the dirt. There was only the Datsun and the shack, the frayed corner of a tarp hanging over the Coca-Cola sign that served as a wall. I turned back around in my seat. Christof asked me what I'd been looking at.

"Nothing."

But I thought of the boys in five or ten years armed in the back of a speeding pickup, their hair blowing back from their faces as they drove into lethal danger, not as an adventure or an experience but as a way of life that would be nasty, brutish, and short. I had told myself I'd come here for a job, but I began to feel like a thief, like a white bird of prey.

Up ahead was the small airport, the narrow control tower, a plane rising off the tarmac into the air. Soon we would be on one just like it, and I vowed I would not be coming back here, not like this, a tourist of other people's misery, a consumer of it.

When the driver pulled the shuttle van to the curb, I leaned forward and handed him all my pesos. He held it as if it might explode, his eyes careful and still. I told Christof to tell him to keep it.

"That's a month's pay. You may insult him with that."

"Tell him I mean no disrespect. Just, tell him that."

As I stepped out of the van and hauled my backpack onto my shoulder, the concrete sidewalk felt too bright and open and exposed. I hurried inside the terminal to wait for my boss and my translator, the glass door closing behind me, a desire rising within me to get back to the empty page, but this time with more faith that I might be able to find something true there without having lived it myself. I turned and began walking toward a line of men and women, some American, others Mexican or European, but I was looking for the face that had been left on the toilet of our hotel back in Old Mazatlán, a face I hoped never to see again, a face not so different from my own.