Lupercio stood on his back patio and watched the tumbleweeds shiver against the chain-link fence. Beyond the fence a dirt devil augured across the desert floor then spun itself out. The sun hung red and wavering and his outdoor thermometer read 104 degrees. It was good to be home.
Adelanto lay around him, a struggling city in the desert north of L.A. It was poor and dirty but had just enough Latin Americans to make Lupercio more or less invisible. There was hardly a window in the city that wasn’t protected by iron, and although some of it was decoratively wrought, the rest was the straight vertical bars of jail cells around the world. Up until a few years ago the police were running a casino and a brothel, the streets flowed with drugs, and the civic leaders were pocketing public money as fast as they could grab it. In this it was like the El Salvador of Lupercio’s youth.
But Lupercio knew the true difference between the norte and the centro, because nowhere in Adelanto or anywhere else in the Estado Unidos did freshly murdered bodies appear each morning as they did at Puerta del Diablo-unexplained and uninvestigated. Piles of them, thrown from the verdant heights above-decapitated, dismembered, hacked, beaten, burned. News would spread through the village each morning, how many new bodies were found “on top.” When his brother disappeared, Lupercio had climbed over the piled bodies at the Devil’s Door many mornings, turning over the fresh ones on top in search of him. When his father disappeared, Lupercio had done it again.
And he had found them.
Thousands of times Lupercio had driven by the sign welcoming drivers on Highway 395. It said: “Welcome to Adelanto: City of Unlimited Possibilities.”
He understood what the sign meant but he saw another side to the words. When you came from San Salvador and your youth was death squads and the disappeared and mysterious piles of bodies at Puerta del Diablo, or El Play'on, or bodies in the jungle or on the roadside or in the barrancas-you didn’t want to live in a city of unlimited possibilities.
Lupercio turned and went inside to the small living room. An air conditioner labored from one window and a large oscillating fan sent intermittent gales throughout the room. The TV was turned down low to an L.A. news broadcast. He’d learned English from American TV and newspapers and he liked the news.
The twins-Lucia and Serena-sat side by side on the sofa, identical faces with identical expressions locked onto the television screen. They were strong girls and pretty, and Lupercio had long seen a forcefulness in them that made him respect them. He had used them for increasingly important, work-related errands and found them capable. They understood that his work was serious. They never asked questions and they never complained. They were seventeen years old now and they both had B averages at the high school. Lucia played soccer and Serena was in the theater club.
Lupercio had taken up with their mother, Consuelo Encarnaci'on, while being on the run from his onetime partners in MS-13. Ten years ago. Practically a stranger to him, she had cursed two assassins out of her kitchen one night while Lupercio hid in a cabinet with the pots and pans, and in a corner of Lupercio’s heart this had made him hers forever.
He came back to that kitchen in Los Angeles one year later-one year after the murder of his wife and family-and asked Consuelo to marry him. She had lost her husband to gastrointestinal infection in San Salvador. Nearly destitute, she had brought her young children through Mexico then up the Devil’s Highway into Arizona, where two of the older men in their group had died of sun and madness and where her shoes had decomposed in the heat and her feet had been lanced with cholla spines that ten years later still occasionally emerged from her flesh during the cool baths she loved to take in her Adelanto bathroom. Connie had become plump with American prosperity but had not lost the beauty of her face. She cleaned motel rooms and understood that when their little family needed money, her small, quiet husband would deliver it. He had given her everything but his name, because that would be a great risk for her. She trusted him in everything and asked him nothing.
“Serena, I need to have my hair cut,” he said. They spoke only English in the household because Lupercio thought that good English would give them all an advantage in this gringo world. Lupercio had made sure that his wife and daughters became legal residents, a blessing made possible by Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged El Salvador in 1998 and temporarily changed U.S. immigration policy. Later, they became citizens. Lupercio had remained a fugitive felon.
Serena got the electric clippers, comb and a bath towel, and Lucia brought a dinette chair into the living room.
Lupercio sat and Serena wrapped the towel around his neck. “It looks good, Dad. High and flat like you like it.”
“I want it very short now. So my head is almost round. Nothing flat. The world is not flat after all, Serena.”
The girl laughed and the clippers buzzed on. “Your mustache is sure coming in fast.”
When his haircut was done, Lupercio looked into the mirror that Serena held before him.
“Round as a football,” he said.
“You look more gentle,” she said. She laughed again and unwrapped the towel from his neck.
When Serena came back from putting away the cutting tools, Lupercio sat between them, a small man between strong, pretty girls. On the coffee table in front of him he moved aside a vase of the cut flowers Consuelo bought at outrageous prices from a curio shop along Highway 395. Then he put up his boots on the table and watched the news while enjoying the safe warmth of the girls on either side.
He could smell the bistec cooking in the kitchen.
Late that night Lupercio was still in front of the TV but his wife and stepdaughters had gone off to bed. He watched the late-night host interview his guests, then a segment called stupid pet tricks. When a housecat had jumped onto his master’s shoulder then stood on its hind legs and eaten a portion of anchovy stuck behind his master’s ear, Lupercio muted the television and wandered the house.
It was a familiar routine. First he went to the garage and sharpened his machete using a bench vise and a series of increasingly fine files. The metal was soft enough to take an edge beautifully. It took time to get all eighteen inches of blade but when Lupercio was finished the edge gleamed in the overhead fluorescents. He broke down and inspected the springs and levers inside the big handle to make sure they were working correctly. He hung the reassembled weapon on the pegboard wall along with the other yard tools.
Then he went into a spare room, where he lifted a section of the carpet in one corner and spun the combination lock open. First he brought out the revolver and set it aside. Then Lupercio braced himself on his knees, bent over and with two hands hefted the tangled mass from the safe below the floor. There were thirty watches-Rolex and Patek Philippe and Baume & Mercier and others-all studded with jewels and made of solid gold or platinum. There were fifty-two gold wedding rings, most engraved, some with diamonds, too. There were twenty-two engagement rings with diamonds ranging from slivers to one that weighed 1.55 carats and was worth close to thirteen thousand dollars if sold in a store. If sold to a black market buyer, it was worth maybe thirteen hundred. There were ruby earrings, sapphire necklaces, diamond bracelets, strings of pearls, even an envelope containing eight gold-filled molars that had been offered to him as payment by a desperate Salvadoran refugee.
Lupercio set this mass of treasure on the brown-and-cream swirled shag carpet. Although he knew exactly what was here, he separated the tangle and itemized it all again in the half light of the spare room. He loved the bold brightness of the diamonds and the rich blue glow of the sapphires and the happy red rubies. The pearls were his favorite because they were unrefined and simple. He thought the elaborate watches were funny. They had stopped running because they were either self-winding or battery operated. The stopped watches were worth over four hundred thousand dollars to a retailer, and about fifty thousand to a thief. The entire pile was worth just over seven hundred thousand dollars on the legal market and about one hundred thousand to Lupercio.
But he had no interest in selling any of it. It was for his wife and daughters when he died, though they had never seen so much as a glimmer of it. They knew about the safes, of course, but such was their respect for him that they had never touched them, just as he had ordered. The treasure would be theirs when the time was right. Consuelo would see to it.
He ran his fingers over the pieces then swept them gently together into a pile and pushed them back into the hole. He ran his fingers through the shag again to make sure he hadn’t left behind an earring backing or even a truant jewel, but there was nothing. He popped open the cylinder of the.38 and checked the loads, then set the gun on top of his booty. He locked the safe, set the carpet back in place and rose upright on his short, strong legs.
In the closet he knelt again and spun open the big safe. The smell hit him as it always did-slightly damp, slightly chemical, slightly sweet. The safe was almost full of United States hundred-dollar bills in stacks of one hundred each. The bills were nonsequential and not new. There were 156 bundles in here, totaling 1.56 million dollars. In the small space that had no cash lay a nine-millimeter Taurus. He didn’t touch a thing. He just nodded, closed the door and spun the dial. He had no interest in spending this money, either. More for his family.
Later, in the driveway, he washed and waxed the black ’79 Lincoln Continental he’d owned for twenty years. He used two new sponges to spread the automotive cleanser across the body, working in slow circular motions, feeling the contours of the body panels registering in his hands and arms. Then the chamois to dry, then the wheels and tires, the insides of the doors and trunk lid and the frame, the windows and the interior.
When he was finished waxing it he walked around it with a critical eye, brushing with his finger the small imperfections that an older car will develop.
Lupercio remembered that evening in December of 1979 when he was nineteen years old and finishing up his shift on the construction site of a new American hotel on the Salvadoran coast. He was stowing tools in the boss’s truck when a car came up the winding road toward them. It was new, black and shiny. He recognized it as a Lincoln Continental Town Car. The shimmering ocean reflected on the flank of the car, and the blaze of the setting sun crept along the hood. It stopped and out stepped a man in a tan suit and a woman wearing a white dress. They were norteamericanos. The man was heavy and poorly shaped and the woman was tiny and nervous. It had been six months since Lupercio had found his brother dead in the pile of bodies at Puerta del Diablo, and two weeks since he’d found his father in almost exactly the same place. And the hope that had fled from him now suddenly rushed back as he looked at that car. Not at the people, not at the ocean, not at the sunset-but the car.
At first he didn’t understand why. How could hope come from an automobile? But he couldn’t take his eyes off it. It was large and he sensed that it was very heavy. The sides were great black slabs of steel and the fenders were bladelike chrome. There were triple vertical vents behind the front wheel wells that looked to him like shark gills, and the chrome trim twinkled.
Then Lupercio realized that this car was not only beautiful and useful, but unkillable. He would never find it chopped into parts and dumped into a mountain of other parts. It would never bleed.
He walked over and humbly acknowledged the man and woman, then placed his hands behind his back in a gesture of subordination and walked around the car. Twice. He drank in the overall posture of this machine, its firm stance and its powerful body lines and the fit of the quarterpanels and brilliance of the black paint even in the falling light. He saw the little things, too-the simple elegance of the spoked wheels, the depth of the wells, and again, the splendid chrome. His heart fluttered when he saw the indentation down by the edge of the driver’s side door, a deep rounded pit that he first mistook for a bullet hole. But he saw that the body steel hadn’t been penetrated. The paint had not broken away. A rock, he thought, thrown by a peon or maybe just dislodged by a bus.
Eleven years later he found the car for sale on a lot in Azusa for fourteen hundred dollars. It had one hundred and ninety thousand miles on it. The orange painting on the windshield read: “EXTR A CLEAN.” Lupercio had placed his finger in the pit in the door, which looked exactly as he remembered it. He tried to reason how this car had gone from Salvador to the United States. He couldn’t. Just like the car’s effect on him all those years ago, its appearance here went beyond reason. It was a miracle.
Late that night he came back and stole it. The first thing he did was have the dent fixed. There was no way to tell that the door had ever been anything but perfect.
Two years later when he was becoming more prosperous Lupercio had actually purchased another such Lincoln-same year and model. It was a dark forest green. He had hoped to double his pride and his luck. But the second car carried no history and no magic at all, though it ran well and looked good. He gave it to Consuelo.
Lupercio had just pulled the Lincoln back into the garage when his cell phone rang. He saw from the call number that it was the call he’d been waiting for. El Toro.