THE THIRD DEATH OF THE LITTLE CLAY DOG
by Kat Richardson
Team Seattle and the Denver Mob
Trouble radiated from the black figurine like some kind of dark neon at the Devil's own fairground. Not that I could actually see any such thing even in the Grey, but an electric prickling sensation zipped up my arms and down my spine when I touched it and that was close enough; I know human hair can't literally stand on end like a dog's, but I would have sworn mine was trying to.
Nanette Grover was still standing at the side of her desk, looking at me and the little statue. Her fanatically neat office flickered silver, smudged with red and orange and sad shades of green she would never see—the emotional and energetic leftovers of her clients still hanging in the Grey like smoke. A ghost or two lingered in the corners with sour, accusing faces and the odor of misery, muttering their cycles of frustration. They weren't interested in me, so I ignored them and put my attention back on Nan.
She was impeccable as always: her straightened, java-brown hair was smoothed into a perfect French twist, her stylish tweed skirt suit was unwrinkled even after she'd been behind her desk since five a.m., and her smooth, dark skin was highlighted by delicate makeup that didn't show a single crease. Even her energy corona was cool and constrained to a narrow bright line, except when she stepped onto the stage of the courtroom floor, where it alternated between hypnotic pall and legal scalpel. In spite of her beauty she had all the warmth of a copper pipe in the snow— which was part of her appeal as a litigator, but not as a human being. One of her opponents in court had referred to her as "the Queen of Nubia," and it wasn't hard imagining Nan on a war elephant chasing off Alexander the Great—even her allies found her intimidating. "Well?" she asked, the word leaving amber ripples in the air.
"Well what?" I responded, shrugging off the commanding effect of her voice.
"You're supposed to accept or reject the conditions."
"What happens if I say no?"
Her energy closed back down to an icy line. "Then I have instructions regarding the disposition of the item."
"What are those?"
"None of your business. Yes, or no, Harper."
"What was it the client wants done with this, again?" Nan sat down on the other side of the desk, the mistiness of the settling Grey giving her a deceptively soft appearance, and blinked once, long and slow—like some kind of reset—and explained again, with no heat or change of inflection from the first time. "A colleague of mine in Mexico City forwarded this item to me upon the death of his client. His client, Maria-Luz Arbildo, left you a bequest in her will, with conditions. Namely, to personally hand-carry the statuette—this little dog figurine—to Oaxaca City in Oaxaca state in Mexico, and place it on the grave of Hector Purecete on the night of November first and attend the grave as local tradition dictates until daybreak of November second. Additional specific instructions for the preparation of the grave will be provided. All this to be done in the first occurrence of November first following his client's death. Ms. Arbildo died earlier this month."
"The twentieth of October," I added. "A week ago."
"November first is the day after Halloween. Doesn't that seem strange to you?" I asked.
Nan's ice-smooth expression didn't change. "No."
"And I never met this woman, never heard of her, but she sends this thing all the way to Seattle so I can take it all the way back to Mexico—the far end of Mexico, I might add. Still not sounding kind of weird?"
"I don't question the conditions of clients."
"Is this sort of thing even legal?"
"Perfectly. If it flew in the face of public interest, then it would be illegal, but this does not. The conditions also do not require you to do anything illegal either here or there, nor to violate your professional ethics, nor take on unreasonable expenses—everything will be paid for by Ms. Arbildo's estate. If you choose to follow the conditions of Ms. Arbildo's bequest, you will receive the thirty thousand dollars, once the conditions have been completely and correctly met. Sum to be paid through this office."
I was raised in Los Angeles County, California, so I'm not totally ignorant of Mexican culture—just mostly. I knew the first of November was the Mexican equivalent of Halloween, but I didn't know the details. My experience as a Greywalker, however, makes me wary of any date on which the dead are said to go abroad among the living. I know that ghosts—and plenty of other creepy things—are around us all the time, it's just that most people don't see them. I do more than just see them; I live with them and I've discovered that days associated with the dead are usually worse than most people imagine—they're veritable Carnivales of the incorporeal, boiling pools of magical potential. So being asked to take a folk sculpture to a Mexican graveyard on the Day of the Dead sounded like a dangerous idea to me. Especially when the client is deceased.
On the other hand, I can at least see what's going on. As someone who lives half in and half out of the realm of ghosts, monsters, and magic, I stand a chance against whatever strange thing may rear its head in such a situation. And the money was attractive. The work I regularly did for Nan, investigating witnesses and filling in the details of her cases prior to trial, paid the majority of my bills, but it wasn't an extravagant living. Even with all the rest of my work added in, thirty thousand dollars was a major chunk of what I usually made in a year and it would only take about four days.
I looked back down at the statuette. It was a hollow clay figure of a dog, about a foot tall and long—give or take—and about four inches wide. The shape was simplified, not realistic, with stumpy legs and tail, a cone-shaped muzzle, and a couple of pinched clay points for ears. It had been painted with a gritty black paint and decorated with dots and lines of red and white that made rings around the limbs and a lightning bolt on the dog's side. It also had two white dots for eyes, but no sign of a mouth.
Peering at it, I could see the little clay dog had been cracked and repaired at some point, the casting hole in its belly covered up with an extra bit of clay and painted over with more of the black paint. A hint of Grey energy gleamed around the repair seam, but beyond that, I couldn't tell anything about what might be inside the dog. The statue itself had only a thin sheen of Grey clinging to its surface like old dirt, as if whatever magical thing it came from had withered long ago. There wasn't any indicative cloud of color or angry sparks around it as I'd seen with other magical objects, yet I was sure there was something more to it than met the eye.
I looked back up at Nan, who hadn't moved so much as an eyebrow. The silence in her office would have unnerved some people, but I found it pleasant in contrast to the incessant mutter and hum of the living Grey and its ghosts.
"What about the lawyer?" I asked.
"What about him?"
"Is he legit?"
Nan didn't crack either a smile or a frown. "Yes. His name is Guillermo Banda. He does a lot of maritime and international work."
I admit I had some reservations, but I was also a little intrigued by the mystery of it—I'm a sucker for mysteries—and the money was pretty good, so I shrugged and said, "All right, I'll take the thing to Mexico."
Nan waved to the small shipping carton from which she'd originally removed the dog at the start of our conversation. "You can put it back in its box while I get the papers ready. I'll need your signature on a receipt to prove that you picked it up and I have a copy of the instructions for you as well."
I nodded and wiggled the little clay dog back into the snowstorm of paper shred that had sprung from the box when Nan had opened it. We finished up quickly and I left with the papers in my pocket and the box full of probable trouble under my arm. The aluminum and glass tower that houses Nan's office has lousy cell reception, so I had to wait until I was just outside the lobby doors to make a call.
"King County Medical Examiner's office. May I help you?"
"I'd like to speak to Reuben Fishkiller, please," I replied. I was put on hold for a few moments while someone located the forensic lab technician for me. I'd met him during an investigation into the deaths of homeless people in Pioneer Square and Fish's connections to the local Salish Indians had certainly come in handy. But he'd been a bit upset when one of his ancestral legends tried to kill us and I hoped he wasn't still too freaked out to talk to me.
"This is Fish, what can I do for you?"
"Hi, Fish, it's Harper Blaine."
He paused. "Oh. Hi, Harper. You, uh… need something?"
"I do, if you're willing to do it for me."
"Does it have anything to do with monsters in the sewer this time? Or Salish holy ground? Because I really didn't enjoy the last time."
"No monsters, no Salish, no sewers. I promise. I just need an X-ray."
"We only X-ray the dead."
"This thing is inanimate, is that close enough?"
"What is it?" he asked. I could almost see him narrowing his eyes with suspicion.
"It's a clay statue of a dog."
"You're sure it's inanimate? Things act weird around you…."
"I promise it's just a hollow lump of baked clay, totally incapable of movement or pretty much anything else. I just want to know if there's anything inside it."
Fish sighed. "Okay…. I can take a look, but it'll have to be quick. Get here at lunchtime and I'll see what I can do."
I agreed to come while most of the staff was occupied with food, and thanked Fish before hanging up.
It would be just my luck to spark off an international incident and get arrested for drug smuggling if the dog had anything significant in its hollow innards. I hoped Fish and his X-ray machine would tell me if there was anything to fear. The easy-money aspect of the situation bothered me; I don't believe in harmless, eccentric benefactors. There was a sting of some kind in the little dog's tail—or belly—and I wanted to figure it out before I got hit by it.
I killed some time at the library before heading down to Pill Hill, where the major hospitals cluster like concrete trees. Fish met me at the front desk of the morgue and we walked back through the chilly chambers in the basement of Harborview to the X-ray room. His shaggy dark hair with premature streaks of white, hanging over his square face, still reminded me of a badger, but a more wary and grumpy badger than he'd been before. He'd become a bit nervous since our run-in with living myths, as if he, too, could now see the steam-billow shapes of the dead that wandered through the old hospital, or sense the tingling power that thrummed in the neon-bright lines of magical power that shot through the Grey.
"What have you got?" he asked as we pushed through the door to the X-ray machine and other lab paraphernalia.
I put the white cardboard box down on the machine's table and carefully removed the little dog statue. He started to reach for it, then stopped.
"You—um… it's OK to touch it without gloves, isn't it?"
"I think so. I've been handling it bare-handed all morning." I had supposed I'd know if there was anything toxic on the figure's surface, but there really wasn't any way that I would. I looked at the small black dog as I clutched it by its middle and hoped it wasn't dusted with anthrax or the like.
Fish paused to pull on a pair of purple gloves before he took the figurine from me. Then he scraped a bit of the black paint into a glass tube and repeated the scraping on the bottom of the dog's foot, where the mellow orange clay was bare of glaze or paint. The sheen of Grey on the sculpture's surface rippled and squirmed as he scraped, but it didn't flare or change color—either of which would have been bad signs. He added some chemicals to the tubes and put them aside in a large white machine.
"I'll run a couple of tests on those while we're at it," he said. He poked some buttons on the machine. Then he turned back to the X-ray table. "Now, let's look at this little guy…."
Altogether, Fish took three views of the dog. Since the morgue had updated to digital X-ray, we didn't have to wait for the pictures to be developed, but just viewed them on the computer screen behind the radiation barrier. There was indeed something inside the clay dog.
"What's that?" I asked, pointing to a bundle of faint lines that showed on every picture. It was in a different spot each time.
"Something loose in the hollow interior. Let's crank up the resolution…."
Fish poked a few keys and the image of the bundle got larger and more clear.
"Looks like hair or threads knotted together. Whatever it is, there's not much of it," Fish observed. "I could pull it out and examine it if you didn't mind reopening that hole in the dog's belly."
One condition of the bequest was that the dog statue be put on the grave intact by me and only me. I didn't think it would qualify as «intact» if part of its secret bundle were missing, not to mention the plug of clay in the figure's belly. And I didn't have much time to sit around in Seattle: it was already October twenty-eighth, the trip was going to be a long one, even by air, and I didn't know where in Oaxaca City Hector Purecete was buried. I wasn't fool enough to think there was only one cemetery in town, so I'd have to do some investigating in Oaxaca before I could complete the conditions of the bequest, as Nan insisted on calling them.
"I don't think it should be removed, unless you suppose it's something illegal," I said, frowning at the picture.
"That small? Nah, not likely to be anything drug-related, or human remains. Unless it's hair, like I said, in which case it probably got in there while the dog was being painted. It's too fine to be plant matter and there's not enough of it to be worth much if it's any other fiber. It's not dense enough to be metal strands, either. Without actually seeing it with my own eyes and running tests, my best guess is still human hair." Then he shrugged and added, "Or a few strands of some really long-haired animal's fur or tail. Maybe horse tail…"
Noises in the hallway and a sudden agitation among the ghosts indicated the post-lunch return of Fish's coworkers. We packed up the figurine and Fish led me back out, promising to call when he had the result of the tests on the clay and paint. I headed back to my office to clear off my schedule and check on the flights Nan had promised to book for me on behalf of the estate.
Only Nan's work had any specific deadlines on it, so it wasn't difficult to rearrange my meetings and appointments—I don't make that many anyhow. The biggest hurdle was finding someone to look alter my pet ferret while I was gone, and that was taken care of by tracking down Quinton and depositing the tube rat with him. I suspect Chaos prefers him over me, since he will happily carry her around with him all day in one deep pocket or another, while I usually have to leave her at home. Anyhow, she didn't look grieved to see me go, even if Quinton did.
We sat in the glass picnic shelter beside Ivar's Acres of Clams on the waterfront and talked while we ate our fish and chips. Chaos helped us with the chips and ignored the gulls screaming outside, even in the late-October chill, for their tithe of greasy fast food. Ivar Haglund may have loved those damned birds, but to me they were a nuisance worse than persistent spooks: ghosts don't poop on you.
"Oaxaca?" Quinton questioned. "Why?"
"Some nonsense with a bequest. There's a set of instructions— sorry: conditions—that have to be fulfilled."
"Like in one of those movies where you have to stay in the haunted house overnight or change your name to Gaggleplox?" he asked. "Those usually don't work out well—most of the cast ends up dead or the inheritance turns out to be a stash of counterfeit bills."
I made a face. "That's in the movies. This is just a job. Find the right grave, put the dog on it, and wait for daybreak."
"And in between is when all hell could break loose. Which seems pretty likely considering your talents."
"It's possible," I conceded, "but the money is pretty attractive and I don't get a sense of danger from the statue—just trouble."
He snorted. "Just trouble… And why did this woman pick you? Did you know her?"
I shook my head and pinched off a bit of fried potato for the ferret. "No. I didn't know her and I don't know why she picked me for this job. I assume she somehow knew what I can do, but how she knew, that's the big mystery. And why I agreed to go. Maybe there's some clue to be found about why this happened to me and not to every person who's ever had a near-death experience. There must be someone who knows more about all of this than I do, or the Danzigers do, or every vampire from here to Vancouver seems to." I felt a flush on my face that didn't come from the space heater overhead and realized I was getting angry. Not at Quinton, but at the shifty fate that had yanked the rug out from under me when I'd died only long enough to have my life wrenched into a shape beyond my control.
"But if it was this Arbildo woman, she's already dead," Quinton said.
"Then I'll hunt her down in the Grey." At least my change of life had come with useful skills. I was still figuring them out more than a year later, but I no longer hated and resented them.
My flight was set for 11:40 that evening with a five-hour layover in Dallas before I could fly on to Mexico City and from there to Oaxaca, but even with the delay, I'd still have a few hours once I got to Oaxaca City to find the records office and start looking for the grave of Hector Purecete.
I finished up my food and gave Chaos a final scratch around the ears. Quinton got a lot more than an ear scratch, which annoyed the ferret, judging by the way she kept pushing herself in between us and snagging our kisses for herself. Jealous little furball.
The trip was smooth. Right up to Mexico City, where they broke the dog. The customs agent was going through my bag when it happened. There was the box with the little clay dog inside. He held it up.
"Is this a gift?" he demanded in a crabby, tired voice. I'd have guessed he was near the end of his shift if it wasn't quite noon, but maybe he was aware in his own way of the cranky, dispirited, overexcited motion of the Grey as much as I was. The customs area was aroil in the flashes and clouds of hundreds of passengers' emotional energy giving shape and color to the loose power of the magical grid. It chafed and roared and twisted through the space around us like angry lions in a too-small cage. The sound of the Grey was a strong, steady hum with a sharp edge, like barbed wire under silk.
That sharpness was probably why my response was inappropriately flippant: "No. It's a dog," I said.
One really shouldn't joke with security people of any kind while they are on the job; most have had to leave their sense of humor in their locker with their civilian clothes. He raised his eyebrow and opened the box, rooting inside with his blue-gloved hand—every employee at airport security looks like they're about to play doctor in some very unpleasant way these days. He snorted in surprise and jerked his hand out with the figurine not quite gripped in his sweat-sticky glove. You'd have thought the little dog had bitten him from the way he moved. His hand yanked back, jerking upward a little as the statuette cleared the edge of the box. The black object moved up, popping out of his loose grip, and arced into the air, ripping a slice of glove with one pointed ear as it went. It was like slow-motion film, watching it rise from safety and crash to the hard linoleum beneath our feet.
As it hit the floor, it flashed a panic-bolt of silver white into the Grey. The little clay dog shattered, a tiny bundle of dark fibers bouncing onto the floor amid the terra-cotta shards. With a silvery gasp, the flash rushed back toward the broken figurine and coalesced into the ghost of a dog.
The ghost dog looked around, then looked at me, and whined piteously. It was a rangy, mongrel beast with the shape of a stunted greyhound and the coat of a shaggy pony. It sidled up to me and leaned against my legs and I felt its cold Grey shape press against me with its memory of weight.
The customs agent looked at the smashed figurine and bent to pick the tiny knot from the wreckage. "Eh?" he mumbled. "What is this?"
I shrugged. "Hair?" I guessed.
He looked at it, rubbed it between his fingers, sniffed it. Then he motioned to one of his coworkers, who walked over and rubbed a small cloth swab over the little bundle. He put the swab into a machine while the first man moved me and my bags to another table deeper inside the security zone. Someone else swept up the bits of clay and put them in a plastic bag. The dog stuck to me like a shy toddler.
"Nada," said the man with the machine. "Este es pelo."
They put a little of the clay dust from the broken figurine into the machine, but that also yielded "nada." The customs agent looked sad as he finished inspecting my bag and closed it up, handing it and the bag of shards back to me with what almost looked like a contrite bow, and an apology for breaking my dog.
"De nada," I replied. Then I asked for the knot of fluff back, which he thought was odd, but he dug into the trash and retrieved it for me anyhow. I dropped it into the bag of broken ceramic—it wasn’t intact anymore, but better to keep it all together, just in case, I thought.
He handed me a claim form to fill out if the dog had been insured, and I took it, even though I doubted the figurine was valuable. I was sure it was the ghost that was the important thing.
The spirits of Mexico hummed and roared. The ghost dog pasted itself to my heels and shadowed me around the halls of the Mexico City airport as I tried to find a place to put down my bags and make a phone call. Of course, the place I found was a bar.
I threw myself and my bags down and ordered a beer while I called Nan on my cell phone. Seattle being close to the other border, I'd had international calling added to my service long ago. Sometimes I wondered how I'd managed without a cell phone so long. Other times I wished I still had my pager. It took a few minutes to get connected to Nan.
"Hello, Nan. Mexican customs broke the dog."
"Is it reparable?"
"No. But I have a major part of it," I added, looking at the cowering ghost at my ankles.
"Where are you?"
"Mexico City airport."
"Banda is located there. He may have instructions for that contingency."
She gave me his number. I wrote it on my cocktail napkin, as is traditional in that sort of situation. "If I call this guy, I may miss my connection to Oaxaca," I warned her. "I'm already running tight because of the mess at customs."
"I'll have Cathy reschedule you to a later flight and call you back with the information. Is there anything else?"
"No. I'll let Cathy know if anything is still out of whack when she calls."
"Good. Stay in touch." And she was off the phone as fast as that.
I finished my Negra Modelo and called the number on the napkin. I felt itchy from annoyance and lack of sleep—I don't get more than a fitful doze on planes, since my long legs end up cramped and headrests are never in the right place for me. I always longed to upgrade to first class, but the PI business usually comes with a tourist-class budget.
Guillermo Banda answered his own phone. He spoke English like a New Yorker as soon as he heard how bad my Spanish was.
"Miss Blaine! You're here! This is excellent! How is the perrito? The little dog?"
"Customs broke it."
"Fuck! Pardon me. My client would be very upset to hear it. If she weren't dead."
"Which is why I'm here at all." Talking to this guy was like talking to Lou Costello, and I was afraid I might start laughing. "I do have part of the dog and I could take that up to Oaxaca, if you think that would be in the spirit intended."
"I don't know…." There were noises in the background and he muttered away from the receiver something about Puerto Vallarta, which was rejoined by a feminine giggle.
I tried to keep him on track. "Well, if you could tell me what it was your client had in mind with this condition, I'm sure we can figure out a way to satisfy the spirit, if not the letter, of her request."
"That I also don't know. Miss Arbildo wasn't very… forthcoming."
"How long had she been your client, Mr. Banda?"
"Oh, years! Years and years! But we never spoke. She came in to update her will last year and before that we'd only seen each other twice. I inherited her account from my partner, who died a few years back in a plane crash. Horrible."
"Did your firm do any work for her aside from the will?"
"Well, the specifics are confidential, but yes. We did a little background investigative work for her and for her father—mostly routine checks. We managed her estate—her father's estate—and of course we'd been doing work for his company for many years. We work primarily with international and maritime law and his company was involved in quite a bit of international shipping. Handling Miss Arbildo's will and so on was more in line of a… courtesy."
"I see. Do you have any idea what her relationship was to Hector Purecete? The guy on whose grave the dog was supposed to be put."
"None at all."
"Damn. I wish I knew what she expected. This is kind of a pain in the butt. You don't have any idea what her intentions were in the will instruction?"
"No. Like I said, the woman was very strange."
I sighed. "Maybe if I could see the will itself we could figure this out. May I come to your office?"
"Oh, no," he said. "You'd never get here and back before your flight."
"I've already called Nan to change it."
"No, no… you don't understand—the traffic. Here's what I'll do. I'll bring it to you at the airport, if you have time."
"I'll make the time." I told him where I was and that he- should bring as much of the paperwork as he bad. He said it would take him an hour to get to the bar and I said that was fine. After all, I was still waiting for Nan's secretary to call me back.
I was thinking about ordering food when the phone went off, showing me Nan's office number on the ID. It was Cathy with my flight change and some additional information.
"Nan's booked you into a guesthouse in Oaxaca City—it's one she's used before. The owner speaks English and can help you with the records search if you need it."
"Thanks. I only hope I'll get there before the offices close."
"I think you're going to have to rearrange your schedule. The earliest flight I could get you was five fifty. I'm sorry. But the provincial offices should be open Friday."
Terrific. My two days for research was now down to one. I'd have to hope I got what I wanted the first time or could work up some local contacts very fast. "I'll make it work," I said, then continued, "Umm… I talked to Banda…. Nan said he was reputable, but he seems a little… skittish. Is there anything I should know about him?"
"About Guillermo? I don't know much except that he's the biggest New York Yankees fan in Mexico. And I'm not even sure that's unusual."
"Yup. Baseball is big in Mexico City. A few years ago he had season tickets and flew up to watch the games—I swear that's why he took his international courses at Columbia; so he could go to Yankees games—he even tried to take Nan out to one, but she's not a sports fan. Don't get him started on any conversation about baseball or you'll miss your plane."
I said my good-byes and started thinking while I waited for Banda. It was after one o'clock already. I'd have to get lunch at the airport and see what I could do by phone. I'd miss the open hours in person today at whatever government office might have the burial records and I'd only have Friday to do records searches before the holiday weekend hit—if they didn't close early or not open at all. I'd have to get to that office first thing on the thirtieth if I was going to stand much chance of finding the right grave. I only hoped that whatever I could turn up about Hector Purecete in that time would help me get information from Maria-Luz Arbildo. If she showed up at his grave. Definitely no time for "Who's on First" discussions with Guillermo Banda that afternoon—I hoped he didn't look as much like Lou Costello as he sounded or I might lose it.
Fish called me before I could get anything done with directory assistance, saying there was not much to report on the scrapings he'd taken from the clay dog, except that the black paint was colored with crushed charcoal and volcanic sand, with just a touch of human blood. Not your average pottery glaze. No sign of dread diseases or drug residue. No unusual clay substrate, just plain terra-cotta. I mentioned that the dog had broken and dropped the bundle of hair out.
"So it is hair?" he asked.
"It looks like it. My Spanish is lousy, but I heard the inspector call it pelo—which I recognize from my shampoo bottle as the Spanish word for 'hair, " I replied, gazing into the plastic bag of shards. "Five or six strands here, dark brown and black, with a red thread holding them together."
"Two different kinds of hair?"
"Two different colors, but they have the same look and texture."
"Interesting. I wonder if the DNA matches the blood in the paint…. I'd love to take a look at it when you get back—if you're game."
"I don't know if I'll be able to bring it back. It might have to stay here," I added, glancing down again at the phantom hound. Once the knot of hair had come free, so had the dog, and I wasn't sure if it was the hair or the sculpture that had held the spirit in the clay shell, but I wanted to know more before I let any of the parts out of my hands.
The ghost dog leaned against me and seemed to doze. I envied it; the beer had made me feel more tired than ever. Resigned, I stuffed the bag of pottery bits into my purse and went back to fruitless phone calls for the next hour. Outside of Mexico City directory assistance, most of the people I talked to had no better English than I had Spanish—and my Spanish was embarrassingly poor. The dog stirred and I could feel its low growl as it pressed against my leg.
A man of medium height with short black hair stopped beside me and looked me over as I tried to make myself clear—without much success—to a clerk in a provincial office somewhere in Oaxaca. The man carried a leather briefcase. He wore a gray suit, had a bland, oval face made interesting only by a boxer's crooked nose and basset-hound eyes. He smelled of laundry starch. The aura around him jittered and jumped in flickers of vibrant orange and blue as his eyes moved over everything, evaluating, cataloging…. He seemed to have a hot-sauce stain on his tie, but it could have been part of the pattern.
His eyes flicked down toward my feet and he blinked, but I wasn't sure if he saw the ghost dog or if he just didn't like my boots. He turned his restless gaze back to me, waited until I hung up in frustration, and said, "You gotta be Harper Blaine."
He didn't look at all like Lou Costello, not even a Hispanic version. He didn't look like an international law practitioner with an advanced degree from Columbia, either. He looked like a guy who worked in an office eight to five, like an insurance adjuster or a midlevel manager in a very expensive suit.
"You must be Guillermo Banda," I replied.
"Willy. You can call me Willy." He hoisted himself onto the bar stool next to mine, keeping his feet away, as if I might kick him without warning.
Considering my ex-boyfriend was named Will, that particular first name didn't sound like a good idea. "I'd rather not," I said and wondered if he could see the ghost dog—he seemed a little wound up.
He shrugged. "I'm sorry if I offended you, Miss Blaine." He put the briefcase on the bar and snapped it open. It held a single manila folder and a business-size envelope. Banda picked up the folder. "These are the last three versions of Miss Arbildo's will. I don't have to show them to you, but since a will in probate is a public record here, just as it is in the U.S., you could get most of this information by searching the district probate records—"
I cut him off. "Mr. Banda, I'm not offended with you and I'm not trying to put your back up. I'm just at a loss to understand this. I don't know why I was named in your client's will—I've never met her or heard of her. I just want to understand what I'm doing. I don't want to be stuck with some creepy mystery for the rest of my life." I did not look at the dog, but I could feel it still rumbling and pressing to me. "The conditions say I'm to put the dog on the grave intact. What am I supposed to do, now that the statue is broken?"
He put the folder down in the case and picked up the envelope, offering it to me. "That's easy. You take the money and run. I'm sure Miss Arbildo won't even know. She inherited a truckload. Thirty thousand U.S. is a drop in the bucket."
I was sure she would mind. Very much. I shook my head and didn't touch the envelope. "I can't do that. Maybe if I knew why she wanted the dog put on Purecete's grave, I could agree, but I don't. What is with the dog?"
Banda laughed—a tired laugh but genuinely amused. "It's a tradition. A really old one. You don't see it around here much anymore—up in the mountains around Michoacan and Yunuen, maybe in Oaxaca, but even there it's dying out. It's from the Aztecs. They used to sacrifice a dog and burn the body on the funeral pyres because they believed the dog could lead the spirit of the dead to Mictlan. Now we just use a statue.
"See, the Mexican Land of the Dead is kind of like Dante's geography of Hell—it's got rings, only nicer. In the middle is Mictlan—where the dead live just like we do and from which they can someday be reborn. But it's a long way for a soul to go and there's a river you have to cross as well, so you need a guide: the dog, because tradition says dogs can always find the way home. Every year, the dead come back to visit us during el Dia de los Muertos. The really traditional people put a statue of a dog on the ofrenda—the offerings on the family altar—so their dead relatives don't get lost coming and going."
"OK, I get the dog, but why me? Why would your client want a perfect stranger from two thousand miles away to take the dog to Purecete's grave?"
Banda shrugged again and dropped the envelope back into the briefcase, glancing down. "I don't know. Before you ask, I don't know who Purecete was or what his connection was to Miss Arbildo, either. You want to see the will for yourself?" he asked, looking back up at me.
I nodded. He pulled a draft copy of the will from the folder and handed the long pages to me. He pointed as he talked.
"Sec how she left her money to all these charities? That was pretty much unchanged from the first version I ever saw—one Jimenez, my partner, drew up for her. You can tell she was kind of an oddball when you look at the list." He pulled out another version of the document. "In an earlier draft of this will, she'd designated Jimenez's grave as the recipient of the dog, as you can see. She did it right after he died and she was very upset with him. Then she changed her mind—out of the blue—and named Purecete. Just a few months ago, she marched into the office and she handed me this."
He fished a creased scrap of paper out of the file. It was the hard white of a cheap notepad, torn along one side to make a ragged square from a longer piece of paper. The handwriting was similar to the signature on the will, but more crabbed and wandering:
Seattle Wash USA
The letters were cramped up against the left edge, but became more expansive and arched as they moved to the right, as if she hadn't thought she'd have enough space when she started and tried to stretch the words out to fill the page as she finished each line. It looked odd.
"She just held it out to me and said 'this is the one' and I knew better than to argue with Maria-Luz. So I wrote you in." He offered me the collection of drafts. "Take a look, you can see she had pretty definite—if crazy—ideas about her money. The woman was kind of loopy."
I glanced at the will again, making mental notes of the recipients of her bequests. They were mostly church charities for the unfortunate, the homeless, the poor, the dispossessed. There were a few odd animal charities as well, such as support for retired racing greyhounds, a rabbit shelter, llama farms, and cure for retired circus elephants. None of them had conditions. And there were no individuals named other than me and Purecete.
"Didn't she have any family, or friends… employees even?" I asked.
Banda laughed and pretended he was coughing. "Miss Arbildo? No. She was the last of a literally dying breed—the Arbildo family died with her. And as I said, she was pretty strange and she wandered around a lot, didn't settle down much after a certain age, didn't make a lot of friends. She was kind of fond of Jimenez once—like I said, she put him in the will at one point—but about the time he died she was furious with him. She stormed into the office screaming about it: 'Why did he do it? Why, why? I almost thought that she would have dragged him back out of his grave and killed him if she could."
"What was she so mad about?"
"Well… his dying on her. She worked Jimenez pretty hard— he used to say if he died suddenly it would be her fault. His death shook her up. She was irrational. You know how some people get mad instead of grieving…."
I nodded; I was familiar with that phenomenon. Arbildo sounded like a difficult client, and I could understand not wanting to argue with—or console—one like her. But there was something incredibly strange about both the wills and Banda himself. I just couldn't pin down what was bugging me….
As I pondered the problem, under cover of checking the wills, the ghostly dog at my feet began whimpering and moving restively, then it got up and walked a few feet away from the bar, toward a column of thick mist that was forming in the Grey between the bar and the doorway. I adjusted my position on the bar stool so I could watch the dog and still seem to be reading the documents. The dog stopped near the smoky mass, then looked back at me with that pleading look dogs have. It looked at the ill-defined shape, whimpered, then glanced back to me.
The form that interested the dog was vaguely human in size and shape, but it had no features. There was no face, and after a few moments the dog turned and trotted back to me, whimpering and scratching at my legs with its cold, incorporeal paws. The specter drifted out the door. I didn't know what it was or where it was going, but the dog seemed to be urging me to follow it—or at least humor the dog's desire to do so. Banda would still be in Mexico City in a day or an hour, but whatever the ghost dog was after might not last another five minutes.
I wanted to ask him more about Arbildo, but I excused myself from Banda and said I'd be right back. Let him assume I needed the washroom, if he liked. I stood up and the dog darted out of the bar and into the main concourse. I hoped my luggage would be all right with the lawyer for the time it would take to chase the dog.
And it was fine, since the dog only got a few feet farther into the concourse before the shape seemed to fall apart and drift into the clutter of thousands of passengers' energy coronas moving through the silvery space of the air terminal. A few shapes had no living person within them, but most of those were simple repeating ghosts or fogs of happenstance and emotion left over from some altogether human interaction. The shadowy dog trotted back to me and pushed against my legs again.
Banda was looking impatiently at his watch when I returned to the bar.
"I can't stay longer. Have some clients to meet in twenty minutes and the traffic is getting bad. I have to go." He took a card from his inner jacket pocket and offered it to me. "If you have any more questions, call me. My cell phone number is on here. Good luck, Miss Blaine," he added, picking up his briefcase and heading for the door.
"Hey," I called. "Aren't there any other documents? And what am I supposed to do about the dog?"
"Any other documents in Miss Arbildo's file are none of your business, Miss Blaine. As to the dog, the check is right here—you could just turn right around with it in your hand and call this thing done, as far as I'm concerned. But if you feel you have to, take the broken bits up to Oaxaca and leave 'em. Stick 'em back together with superglue if you want."
"What about the grave? Where is it?"
"Damned if I know," he called back. "Pick one!"
He waved and ducked out before I could ask him anything more. It appeared that Guillermo Banda just wanted shut of Marie-Luz Arbildo and her nutty will and I was as convenient a way as any. I followed him a few paces out the door, saw him duck past the customs area, waving to the guards on the other side as he went past—old friends? Something odd was going on with Banda, but I wasn't entirely sure what. I did pause to wonder if the breaking of the dog was entirely an accident…. I shook off that thought and went back to my seat, the Grey dog scampering along in my wake.
I ordered some food and ate in a hurry before heading to the Mexicana Airlines desk to pick up my new boarding passes and check my luggage for the flight to Oaxaca. The phantom dog stuck to my side the whole time, casting glances around the room and sniffing for signs—of what I didn't know.
For just a moment as I boarded the little prop plane I wondered what to do with the dog before I remembered that no one hill me would even be aware of it. It huddled under my feet the whole hour we were in the air and again on the ride from the airport, which reminded me of the regional airports I'd grown up near in Los Angeles County with their pushcart stairs and windblown tarmac. A white van was standing at the curb outside, offering rides to downtown Oaxaca City, and the ghost dog and I shared the vehicle with a family of six and two couples who all seemed excited beyond my ability.
The van driver dropped each group off, leaving me at a tall, Spanish colonial building on the edge of the downtown core. As far as I could tell, the whole area was late Spanish colonial, though at that elevation, darkness had already fallen and it was hard to see details beyond the streetlamps. The road was layered thickly with silvery ghosts and loops of memory, playing like old movies in a two-dollar theater. I saw a discreet sign on the buttercup-colored plaster wall that indicated the carved wooden door before me led to my guesthouse. I pulled the bell handle as instructed and was greeted with a flood of light and the odors of spicy cooking as the door was opened wide. "Soy Harper Blaine—" I started.
"Oh! Miss Blaine! Si! Come in! You were bumped to a later flight?" the dark-haired woman in the doorway asked, snatching my bag indoors with one hand as she waved me in with the other. "We have dinner for you if you like it."
She turned her head and called for "Miguelito!" who proved to be a teenager as tall as a professional basketball player and as dramatically emo as a Cure album cover. "You are in manos de leon" she continued to me while pointing at my suitcase without shifting her gaze from my face. "My nephew will take your bag. You can wash and come back down to the sala for some food."
I was almost dizzy with exhaustion by then, but I know better than to argue with whirlwind women. I followed "little Miguel" up the tiled stairs and around an open gallery to a door with a painting of a magenta coxcomb flower on it. Miguelito unlocked the door for me and put the suitcase just inside before handing me my key and slouching off with an insouciant nod.
I glanced down over the railing before I went into the room. In the courtyard below I could see people gathered around a ceramic firepit that gleamed with heat, serving themselves from a nearby table laden with food. The cool mountain air settled gently from above through the open center of the building's roof, drifting down to meet the swirl of sparks and heat that rose from the gathering below.
I was so tired I didn't make it back down that night. I woke up in the morning on October thirtieth with one boot on and one off and the ghost dog running in and out through the closed door, whining. Someone was tapping on my door. Groggily, I stumbled to it and opened up.
Miguel-the-not-so-small was slouching there—clad in black jeans, black T-shirt, and black boots with his naturally dark hair hanging over his eyes—probably hoping I hadn't heard his timid tapping and he could lope off to whatever he'd rather do than wait on me. The energy around him was a dun-colored cloud shot with red lightning bolts of annoyance—or something short-tempered and pissy—while thin gold lines trailed off his fingertips in a way I'd never seen before. In the face of his determined gloom, I smiled at him with perverse malice, in spite of being still half asleep.
"Buenos dias, Miguel!" I chirped—fairy-tale princesses had nothing on me for chipper.
"Yeah, yeah… good morning to you, too." His accent was still pretty strong, but his English was clear. And abrasive. I could almost see the expletive deleted from that sentence still hanging in the air in all its F bomb glory. "Tia Mercedes said I'm sup-posed to show you around the city 'cause you have some kind of business thing…."
"Yup! Busy-ness. Busy, busy! Gotta find a grave."
He frowned at me. "Grave?" he asked, as if I surely didn't know what I'd just said.
"Yup. I have a mission to do something with a grave and I don't know where it is."
"No. On Sunday, November first."
"Oh." Was that disappointment? "Dia de los Muertos. Yeah."
"Is today special or something?" I asked as he started to turn away.
"Yeah. There's, like, a whole series of Days of the Dead. Todos Santos—November first—is just the big one the tourists are all crazy for. Today's, like, the day for the spirits that died by violence. Tia Mercedes doesn't celebrate that in the house—we have to go outside so the mad ghosts don't come in and mess stuff up." He shrugged and started to turn away, having lost all interest in me, now that I was no more interesting than the average tourist.
I grabbed his arm. "Hey, where y'going, Miguel?"
He huffed his hair out of his face and glared at me. "Call me Mickey."
"No." Like, duuuuh, I thought facetiously. Was I this snotty as a teenager?
"Mickey Mouse fan, then? Mickey Mantle?"
He snorted, and pulled his arm out of my grasp. "Tia Mercedes has breakfast downstairs in twenty minutes. Then we can go look for your grave. OK?"
I didn't miss the implication of whose grave, but I did ignore it. "OK. Be right down. Thank your aunt for me."
He skulked away as I retreated into my room. I took a very fast shower and threw on clean clothes.
I'd been given a room with its own bath, which I suspected was an unusual luxury in an antique house. And there was no denying the building—some wealthy man's town home originally, I'd have bet—was exactly as old as its style indicated. It didn't mimic Spanish colonial, it was Spanish colonial.
Downstairs the food was endless and lush: eggs scrambled with corn tortillas, green salsa, and cheese; fried plantains; grilled tomatoes; bread and sweet pastries only distantly related to the greasy churros found in American malls. Coffee, chocolate, and milk were all available as well as horchata and fruit juice. My hosts, the Villaflores family, felt that their guests during the holiday should be well fed before they faced a day of hiking up and down the mountainous elevations of Oaxaca City and its environs. Midday meal would be on our own, but dinner with the family was open to all, Mercedes informed me—she was the proprietress I'd met the previous night. I thought I'd have to find an excuse to dodge it or I stood a good chance of gaining five pounds before November second, hiking or no.
Miguel-call-me-Mickey was not so enthusiastic, picking at his food and jumping up the moment I was finished, telling his aunt we had to leave and get to the "palacio de gobiemo" that morning or we'd never get in before they closed. He sloped off to wait for me outside while I thanked Mercedes for breakfast.
She smiled. "Gracias. I hope you won't mind Miguelito too much—he is bored here. I don't know why he came at all—such an odd boy—but at least he can be some help to you. If he doesn't make you scream and leave him in a ditch by the road."
"Oh… I think we'll be OK," I replied, thinking there would be ample opportunities to knock a hole in Mickey's attitude if I wanted to. Angsty teens aren't much of a challenge after vampires and vengeful ghosts and monsters in the sewer.
Stepping through the door, the sound of the Grey really hit me. Where Mexico City had been a strong, steady song of steel and silk, Oaxaca was a wild roar. It sounded like the Battle of the Bands in which someone had forgotten to tell the musicians not to play all at once. Layers of contrasting melody and meter, song and noise flooded the mist-world and made the lines of energy around me spark and throb. Strata of time and memory seemed to juggle and flow, like Einstein's river. It was tiring just to stand in it.
Mickey lounged against the wall outside, smoking a noxious-smelling cigarillo and shifting his fake-sleepy gaze around the street like a hoodlum looking for a chump in a black-and-white film. I stood on the doorstep for a minute while he ignored me. Then I tapped his foot with mine to get his attention—OK, maybe a little more insistent than a tap, but not a full-on kick. He jerked upright and muttered a phrase under his breath even I knew was an insult.
"Hey, I thought you were in a hurry," I said. He grunted and threw down his smoke, grinding it out under his toe with more malice than the horrid thing deserved. "Yeah, right." A sentence that seemed to mean nothing when he said it. He gathered himself after a final glance around and turned his back to me, heading out into the street. "This way."
I wondered if his shoulders got tired carrying the weight of that chip.
I was there because of the holiday, yet I hadn't thought of some of the implications of its presence beyond the possibility of office closures and an increased presence of the dead. Once out on the street with Mickey, it became obvious that el Dia de los Muertos was a much bigger thing than Halloween and there was more to contend with, both living and dead, than bureaucrats on holiday. We walked down the wide, gray-bricked road, hemmed in by a mix of adobe and buildings of pale green stone, none newer than the late 1920s, many painted, like the Villaflores house, in rich shades of red, yellow, orange, or the native pale green. The bricked street boiled with ghostly traffic on foot, in cars, on horse-and donkey-back, even a group of ancient Spanish soldiers marching with pikes pointing at the sky.
I was startled to note that unlike the ghosts of Seattle, most of these looked like skeletons in clothing and not like the remembered shapes of live people. Skulls grinned and empty eye sockets gleamed with only the memory of eyes. They were completely aware of us, too, watching us as we went and seeming amused. It was unsettling to be observed through eyeless, unblinking sockets, and so much more closely than I was used to.
We scuffed through the legions of phantoms without talking for a while, to a huge central plaza. Miguel paused and pointed into it, saying in a bored voice, "That's our famous zocalo. Where the Federales shot all those teachers a couple of years ago. That was in front of the old palacio de gobierno, but it's a museum now. We'll have to go through the market to get to the new one—I hope you don't want to stop and go shopping," he added with a sneer. He didn't know me very well….
I rolled my eyes and ignored the jab—for now. "I'm not much of a shopper. I just need to find this guy's grave by November first."
"You know which cemetery?"
"Nope, just have a name and a date of death."
"Yeah, right. We'll go to the Registrar of Deaths." He said it with such relish I had to stifle a giggle. "We have to move it, though, 'cause they'll close early. Dia de los Muertos is a major holiday. It's like your Christmas, only with dead guys. The market's crazy full with old ladies like Tia Mercedes and all their kids doing the shopping for the ofrendas and all that. And tourists. And you want to get inside before the ghosts of the violently dead return." He gave me a sly glance from the corner of his eye to see if I'd bite, but I didn't.
"Then we'd better get going," was all I said.
We continued down the street to the market with the ghost dog tagging at our heels and the gold threads that dragged from Mickey's fingertips spinning out through the crowds of spirits that thronged the streets already crowded with the living. He seemed unaware of the vibrant threads spooling from his hands. I wished I knew what that shiny energy strand was all about, but I'd have to wait and see.
We threaded our way through the periphery of the market crowd and cut across the corner of the zocalo—partially «opened» by the ruthless removal of towering trees, the memories of which still threw phantom shade over the raised, central «kiosk» where the state band played on Tuesdays, according to a notice nearby.
I could see the memory of the original plaza like a projection over the new design, with huge, thick-trunked trees and Victorian iron benches set along the narrower, shadier paths, and the not-so-long-ago stench of tear gas floating on the warm breeze and an echo of screams. Shadows of the dead protesters glimmered over the memory of blood on the stones in front of the old government building. I could hear the shouts and the shots mingled with the scent of flowers and fresh, spiced bread from the market nearby. The combination made me queasy. No one in their right mind would want to linger there that night.
We turned from the market, the shops, and the cafes that lined the sun-baked zocalo and headed down to the government offices a few blocks away. We entered the usual bureaucratic maze of once-grand rooms chopped into offices and cubicles with flimsy, movable walls, repulsively out of place in the building that predated World War I.
The man behind the registrar's desk, however, fit in perfectly. He had a small mustache with waxed points and wore his shirt collar buttoned up tight under his conservative tie.
"Hi," I started, hoping I could manage to make myself understood in English. "I need to locate a grave…."
The clerk's nostrils pinched in annoyance and he shook his head. "No habla ingles, Senora."
I cast a glance at Mickey, who was leaning against a wall again. He shot me back a snotty look. This was going to be fun….
"Mickey, would you translate for me?" I asked.
With a sigh, the teenager heaved himself upright and ambled to the desk.
He made a gesture at the clerk, who gave him a look nearly as disdainful as the one Mickey had given me.
"La gringa busca un sepulcro," he said.
"La gringa"… well, at least I wasn't "puta" this time.
The clerk heaved a shrug and spat back something that I imagined was, "Yeah, aren't they all?"
There was a bit more wiseass chitchat before I put a restraining hand on Mickey's arm.
"Mickey. Just translate. Commentary isn't required."
He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right." Then he gave me a blank look.
"What?" I asked, feeling the ghost dog brush past me to lie down on the floor near the door. I didn't look down, just stared at Mickey. “So…? What am I supposed to translate?" Maybe I should have kicked him harder…. "Ask him if there's a form I need to fill out and what it will cost for him to find the information right now."
Mickey made with the rolling eyes again and looked back to the clerk, who was glaring at us, even though there was no one else waiting in his cubbyhole. Mickey seemed to be repeating my request, but this time in a slightly singsong, high-pitched voice. The man frowned at him. "Forma? Para que?"
"He says, 'A form for what? »
"Yeah… I figured that part out, Mickey. I need to know if there is a form I am required to fill out in order to find out where a certain person is buried here in Oaxaca. If so, I need that form and I wish to know what fee I have to pay to get that information immediately—while I stand here and wait. Now, you think you can be that specific with him, Mickey?"
He huffed and turned back to the clerk, parroting my request in his mocking voice.
The clerk was annoyed by it, too, but he grunted an affirmative and handed over a form and said something about pesos. "He says it'll cost a hundred dollars to do it right now."
"No, he didn't, Mickey. He said 'cinco cientos pesos. That's about fifty bucks. My Spanish sucks, not my math."
"Yeah, right." And the eye roll. I was getting too familiar with the routine already.
I filled in the form as best I could with Mickey's non-help and fished a thousand pesos from my wallet. I put it down with the form, saying, "Apesadumbrado," and jerking my head toward Mickey. Even as bad as it is, I can manage a few important words in Spanish: please, thank you, beer, toilet, keys, and sorry. A smile almost cracked the man's wooden face as he accepted the form and the overpayment, with an amused snort. "Momentito," he said, taking the form away behind a screen.
I sat down on one of his two cracked green vinyl-covered chairs to wait.
"He only goes back to the computer," Mickey groused. "He just wants to make it look important."
I shot him a quelling glance, but said nothing.
The phantom dog got up to chase a phantom cat around the room. I ignored their antics and so did almost everyone else, except a skeletal clerk, who tried to give the dog one of his finger bones to dissuade it from barking. The dog wasn't having anything to do with the clerk's finger and backed away, bristling, leaving the ghost cat free to dash out of the room to the relative safety of the hall.
The flesh-and-blood clerk, who looked nothing like his bony predecessor, returned with a sheet of paper. "Hmph," he coughed, then launched into a rattling discourse aimed somewhere in between me and Mickey, as if he couldn't decide which of us he was supposed to talk to—Mickey the brat or the illiterate gringa.
Finally the clerk let out an impressively heavy sigh, shrugged, and shoved the paper forward for one of us to take. "Buenos dias," he added, turning his back and stomping off to his sanctum in the hack.
Mickey grabbed the sheet and held it out to me after a second's perusal. "You're fucked. There are three graves for your guy."
"Three? Not for the same date."
I took the page and looked it over. And there were three grave sites given for Hector Purecete, all with the same death date in 1996. "That's gotta be wrong—it's not a common name, is it?"
"Great," I muttered. "I guess I'll have to go look at all of them and see what shakes loose."
I stood up and walked out of the government offices with Mickey and the dog trailing me.
We'd started back across the zocalo, passing closer to the site of the teachers' fatal protest than I liked, when Mickey finally decided to talk again.
"What do you want to find this guy's grave for anyway?" Mickey asked. "Some kind of creepy ritual or something?"
My turn to sigh. "No. I told you before, I just need to find it and leave something on it. On November first."
I stopped, burning in the high-altitude sun and the hot Grey energy of the massacre. "Mickey, is it just for me, or do you always have a bad attitude?"
He turned his head and muttered under his breath, starting to walk on. I snatched his arm and dragged him back to me, through a red blotch of remembered blood and pain. He flinched a little and tried to wrench himself out of my grip, spitting nasty Spanish words.
"Damn, that's a lot of endearing little nicknames you have for me. How 'bout we make this easier on both of us. You can just call me the GP—"
"Huh? The what?"
"The gringa puta. And I'll just call you brat-boy. It'll be so much easier, don't you think?"
He glowered at me and pulled against my hold. I let him go and sighed.
"Mickey, look: I appreciate the offer of help, but your attitude is just not flying with me. You can straighten up and stop acting like a punk, or I can do without you. What's it going to be?" My ghostly dog companion circled around us, growling as if to keep something unpleasant at bay.
Mickey seemed to consider my statement seriously, sidling into the sun and away from the crying red energy of the teachers' deaths. "OK… GP. We'll have to get to the panteones soon. It'll be a lot busier tomorrow. And you really don't want to be out tonight."
"You're serious about that ghosts of the violent dead thing?" He nodded. "You norteamericanos think el Dia de los Muertos is just a funny tradition—not real—but we don't. Not up here. This is the ghost country. We're not afraid of death—not like you. We live with it."
"You might be surprised…."
He ignored me. "But we don't do foolish things like stand where people were murdered on their day to return from Mictlan. That's just fucking stupid."
I nodded. "All right. Let's get someplace better then. Like the panteon—a panteon is a cemetery, right?"
"Yeah. It's actually pretty safe right now. But we should get the car. Those three aren't close to each other."
I was surprised at his change of attitude. He was still kind of surly, but at least he seemed to be helping me instead of making more work. We walked back to the house and Mickey borrowed his aunt's car—a dusty silver Chevy, which amused me.
I took the passenger seat and held the door open for a moment. The ghost dog stopped at the car's doorsill and sat on the ground, looking pathetic and thumping its stumpy tail, but wouldn't step up into the car.
Mickey looked at me. "Something wrong?"
"No… no, I'm fine." I closed the door and the dog vanished from view. We drove away without any sign of the phantom canine until we got out at the first panteon on the list.
The first stop was the municipal cemetery of San Miguel. We drove around a small carnival that was setting up in a courtyard in front and walked across drifts of flowers and greenery that had escaped from the bundles carried by a stream of people entering the panteon ahead of us. The dog trotted up, materializing out of the road dust and Grey mist to rub against my legs and bump its head against me impatiently until we walked through the cemetery gates. The dog ran ahead, into the crowd of animate skeletons and live humans who filled the graveyard.
Everyone was busy, the living and the dead, and I paused to stare. "There are… a lot of people here…," I said.
"Yeah. The graves have to be cleaned and decorated, the family ofrendas made, and the cooking has to be done before Todos Santos on November first. It's a Sunday this year, so they gotta be done today and tomorrow—or the Church might be offended. Most of these guys won't bring their feasts until after sundown on Sunday."
I glanced at him with a curious frown. "Feasts? In a graveyard?"
He snorted something that was almost a laugh. His tone still left a bit to be desired, however. "Yeah. I keep trying to tell you: it's like a party. El Dia de los Muertos is a cycle-of-life thing. We have all this stuff at home—the ofrendas and stuff—but we come to the panteon in the evening to party with the family ghosts. We know death, but we don't worship it or freak out about it. It's just… part of life. We aren't afraid of the old bony woman. Just look at the skeletons," Mickey added, pointing at a pair of children waving paper skeleton puppets at each other in an elaborate pantomime punctuated with much chattering and laughing.
The puppets had jointed legs and arms controlled with strings the children pulled with their fingers while clutching the sticks to which the paper skeletons were mounted. One was a musician with a guitar and a top hat, while the other was a girl singer with a fur stole and long skirt. The kids pranced ahead with their puppets. The ghosts of several other children tagged behind, giggling, as the impromptu cabaret act headed for the family plot. The group was herded along by an aging man carrying an elaborate ironwork cross under his arm and followed by a cold boil of silver and red energy—the imminence of those who died by violence, perhaps.
"Those guys are gonna clean the graves of their family and put that new cross up," Mickey lectured me; he was almost spitting. "They're not sad—they're happy. They work hard today. They remember the dead. 'Cause they know we're all gonna die. That's the big deal you norteamericanos don't get. You can't 'cheat' death. You just have to know it's there and remember. We all got a skeleton inside us."
The skeletons. As I looked around the panteon, I saw few ghosts of the type I was most familiar with—the memory manifestations of the dead. Nearly all the ghosts in this cemetery were skeletal with only the barest hint of faces or flesh, a few were purely bones, while a smaller handful had the shape of the living people they had once been. These were the only ghosts I saw that seemed distressed or confused, wandering among the raised graves as if desperate to find something they'd misplaced, blind to the throngs of living and dead around them.
I got it: the manifestations of the Grey depended upon the minds of those who shaped it. Here, where skeletons were the symbol of the dead, embraced, even beloved in all their bony glory as just another part of the cycle of life, most of the spirits of the dead looked like skeletons. In the U.S., where death was the end of life, most ghosts manifested with the memory-shape of their formerly living bodies. But they could have been anything, like the discorporate entities I'd met once or twice, manifesting as changing shapes, or inconclusive features on a mutable column of fog, or the roiling anger of the slaughtered.
The ghost dog trotted back from its peregrinations through the crowd and sat at my feet, tongue lolling, looking happy for. the first time since it had appeared. I almost reached to pat its head before I remembered that most people don't see ghosts. Even as comfortable with death as the Oaxaquenos were, I doubted they would understand my stooping to pet a spectral hound. Mickey would probably think I was crazy and say so. I didn't believe he'd suddenly decided to respect me; he just didn't want me to kick his ass. But he wasn't above a few more needling comments.
I cleared my throat. "Where do you think we'll find the grave? This is a big place…."
"Caretaker will have a list of the plots and tombs." He was pretty savvy about graveyards, but I supposed that wasn't unusual for the goth-inclined.
We pushed through the crowds to a large stone building with colonnades filled with niches on one side and open to a large courtyard on the other. The patio of the mausoleum was full of people walking or crawling on the paving stones to lay out pictures in mounds of colored sand: cavorting skeletons, Virgins of Guadalupe, flowers and crosses and skulls. Mickey called these "sand carpets." We found one of the caretakers assisting a sand painter, laying out a border of small bricks to keep the moist, colored sand from dribbling into the walkways. We picked our way closer, careful not to disturb the developing sand carpets. Mickey called out to the caretaker as we got near.
The woman looked up from her bricks and said something I couldn't follow. The caretaker was darker-skinned and had a more pronounced nose and cheekbones than Mickey—probably related to some local Indian group. Mickey replied in a language I knew wasn't Spanish. The kneeling woman stood and began to talk very fast. Mickey pointed to the paper we'd gotten from the Registrar of Births and Deaths. The woman frowned and pointed off across the cemetery, making motions with her hands to indicate turns. Mickey nodded and seemed to be thanking her, then turned and tugged me back into the mausoleum's colonnade.
"She says it's out in the edge, near the back fence, but she thinks this is wrong. The grave's been around a long time. You sure 1996 is right?" he added with a touch of sneering doubt at my brainpower.
Mickey shrugged so hard his eyes rolled. "All right. Let's go look at it."
We set out through the graveyard, trailed by the dog. Distracting myself from Mickey's volatility, I tried to imagine the scruffy mongrel as a skeleton. I didn't succeed, to my relief.
We found the grave under a pile of people who were busily scrubbing the headstone and stone fence clean of dirt with stiff-bristled brushes. As we watched the inscription came clear: Hector Purecete, died 1888. Not even close.
Mickey grunted and shot me a smug look. Oh, yeah… that showed me, all right.
He started to turn back, but before he could move away I waved to the oldest woman in the grave-cleaning group. She peered up at me and I tried to ask her if she knew of Maria-Luz's Hector Purecete, but her English was nonexistent. Groaning in disgust, Mickey stepped in.
After a rapid exchange, he held her off with a gesture and glanced back at me, his face creased with curiosity. "This is Senora Acoa. She says this is the only Hector Purecete she knows about. But she says a man came asking the same question a few years back. Senora Acoa couldn't help him, either. She says Hector, here, was a soldier. Sounds like a real pendajo. She's his, like, great-, great-, great-niece. She doesn't live here anymore and is going back to Coyoacan tomorrow, but she figured they should come and clean up Hector's grave every year. She didn't even know where he was buried until that guy showed up."
"Does she remember the man's name?" I asked, looking at the elderly woman who stood by her ancestor's grave.
Mickey translated for me and this time he was dead serious.
The elderly Senora Acoa replied in a streak of words I couldn't begin to follow, her voice wavering. Then she swayed, putting her hand to her chest. The energy around her shut down to a thin, white line that grew more and more translucent, then began to shift and rise away from her as a messy skein of gold and white light.
I started to jump between them, knowing that the old woman was dying right in front of us, overcome by heat and excitement, her mortality rising off her corporeal form. But Mickey kept talking, his tone going gentle and cajoling, as the gold strands at his fingertips waved and stroked at the old woman, calming her down, smoothing the rising knot of her soul back into its body, easing her back into herself. It was an eerie effect coming from such a determined jerk, and he didn't know he was doing it. Finally the old woman plumped herself down on the edge of the grave with a huff of breath, and fanned herself with her hands until one of her staring family handed her a paper fan shaped like a grinning skull. She cooled herself, catching her breath and settling her life back into her oblivious body as my reluctant assistant returned his attention to me. Nothing in his demeanor showed he knew what had just happened, any more than her family did. He didn't know he'd saved her life, or that he seemed to have some kind of power. He was just Mickey the jerk again.
"She wants to know why you want to know, but I told her you're doing a family a favor. I think she said the other guy's name was Jimenez. A lawyer maybe? She's kinda confused. And a little loco—she thought she had seen this Jimenez guy just today."
I gazed at the tired old woman who was still living in spite of everything. I blinked slowly, getting my thoughts back to the case. "Maybe she did. He died a few years ago in a plane crash," I said. "And yes, he was a lawyer." Hadn't Banda said he knew nothing about Purecete? But his partner had been to this grave….
Mickey's eyes flashed wider. The word that dropped from his mouth was unknown to me, but it was inflected just like "Cool!" He had no idea what was really cool here.
I wondered if Senora Acoa had actually seen Jimenez; maybe her proximity to death had made it possible—this was the day for the violently dead to return, and I couldn't imagine a death much more violent than his. "What else did she have to say?" I asked, trying not to stare too much at the old woman.
"Not much. She said Hector didn't have any kids, so there's only her and her family to look after his grave. She's worn out, but she's afraid her family will forget him after she dies. So she makes them come here every year so he doesn't die the third death."
"Excuse me. What's the third death?"
The lecturing tone was back as he explained. "The first death is the death of the body. The second is when they put us in the ground. Then we can go to Mictlan—the Land of the Dead—and, y'know, live among the dead. But we can come back for the Dia de los Muertos feast with our families, so long as they remember us. That's the third death—being forgotten. That's the real end, when we don't come back 'cause there's no one here for us. But we can be reborn once everyone forgets, so it's not so bad. That's the three deaths."
"How do you know all this stuff?" I asked. He shrugged. "It's tradition around here. I'm kind of into the death-magic thing. And my, like, great-uncle was supposed to be a black sorcerer or something. It's cool."
Typical goth fascination, though I suspected his went a little deeper and from a more personal angle, whether he understood that or not. To me, the life-magic «thing» he'd just done was a lot cooler.
We both looked at the family, who had returned to sprucing up the grave of Hector number one. We watched in silence a while. Then we turned away, letting them get on with their task as we headed back to the car with the ghostly dog in tow.
"You said Mexicans were not afraid of death," I said. I didn't want to ask him about what he'd done yet, that would only get us off our track, but I hadn't forgotten it.
"We aren't. But no one wants to be forgotten. That's why we have all these parties in the graveyard. We bring the dead all the stuff they loved in life so they can party with us, and that way we remember them like they really were. Not like a body in a casket. Or some saint. It's kind of funny: you're keeping the third death away, but you didn't even know Hector Pureccte."
"I'm not sure Maria-Luz did, either."
"She's the woman who wanted a dog laid on Hector Purecete's grave."
We were nearly back to the cemetery gates, deep in the twining, boiling mess of the carnival and the confluence of the living and the dead. Mickey wheeled and stared at me. "Not that dog!" he asked, pointing right at the canine phantom panting at my heels.
Startled, I turned and looked for another, corporeal dog, just in case. But there was no animal near enough to be the one he meant. I pointed at the ghost. "This one?"
Mickey nodded. "Yeah."
"Umm… this dog's already dead."
He peered at it and the ghost dog let its tongue loll out in a huge yawn. I could see right through its transparent, silver-mist skull to the ground below. Apparently Mickey could, too, because he jumped a little and then looked back to me.
"Fuck me! Where did it come from?"
"I'll tell you in the car on the way to the next cemetery."
We climbed back into the Chevy and again the dog refused to come in. We drove away, the dog vanishing into the misty Grey as we pulled out of the lot.
"How is it that you can see the dog?" I asked as he started the car.
"I just—I just can." He looked a little uncomfortable and hunched his shoulders. "Why are you taking it to this guy's grave?"
I told him about the dog statue—after all, there was no seal of secrecy or confidentiality on the bequest—how it had come to me and what had befallen it at customs. I told him about Maria-Luz Arbildo's odd last request that the statue containing the dog's spirit was to be placed on the grave for which we were searching on November first.
"Weird," he said as we wound onto a narrow road. "Why did she wait so long to give him the dog? He's been dead since
"She didn't seem to know where he was buried."
Mickey shook his head. "Weird," he repeated. "Hey, at least we've narrowed the search to just two graves. That Jimenez guy must have done the same thing… so why didn't he put the dog on Hector's grave?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. Miss Arbildo was still alive then, so I assume she wanted to do it, but didn't get around to it for some reason." But if she had known which grave to put it on, wouldn't she have given that information in the will? I guessed that Jimenez hadn't told her. But why not?
Mickey scowled. "That's messed up." But he didn't say any more and we reached the next panteon in silence. The dog greeted us at the gate to the cemetery of San Antonio and ran ahead, barking like a puppy chasing butterflies. Mickey watched it dash into the bustling crowds in the graveyard and shook his head.
"Maybe the dog knows where the grave is," he suggested, "but it runs so fast…."
"I'm not even going to try to follow it," I said. "If the grave is here, maybe we'll find the dog nearby when we get there."
The courtyard of Panteon San Antonio was filled with people building elaborate table displays.
"Competition ofrendas," Mickey explained. His sneer wasn't quite as pronounced now. "Each group makes an offering in a traditional style and they compete to see whose is the most authentic, or whatever. Home ofrendas are more plain, they usually have more food and personal stuff. This is mostly for the tourists." He pointed at one table where a pair of men were lashing tall, dusty green plants into a seven-foot-tall arch attached to the front legs. "That's sugarcane—it's traditional. Those guys are Purepeche Indians. See the little clay dog? That's really old school." He stared at me. "Hey… was your statue like that one?"
I glanced at the table and saw a small black figurine, much like the one I'd started off with. I walked closer and the men stopped work and stared at me. One of them said something I couldn't translate.
"He says, 'Can I help you? " Mickey supplied.
"Ask him about the dog," I replied, pointing to the small clay figure sitting on the table with a pile of other items waiting for its place. "Where did it come from? Are all the little dog statues the same?"
Mickey asked and translated his reply. "It's from Mita—that's a village near here. It's a traditional design."
"May I look at it?"
The man listened to Mickey, then shrugged and picked up the clay dog. He offered it to me with a half smile.
I smiled back and took the dog, turning it over and studying the rough shape and paint. It was the same shape, but the black glaze was very ordinary—I'd bet there was no blood or volcanic sand in this one's finish. The lines around the legs were the same, but there was no lightning bolt on this one. The hole in its belly was unpatched, open, and had a fine lip where the glaze had tried to drip around the rim. I handed the dog back to the man, who grinned at me, showing gapped teeth stained by tobacco and coffee. “Could you ask him if he ever met Maria-Luz or Hector Purecete?"
Both men frowned and shook their heads, apparently telling Mickey they'd never heard of either. We thanked them and headed off to find the caretaker and look for grave number two.
"That statue is almost identical to the one I had that broke," I said as we walked away. "But mine had a white lightning bolt on the side."
"A glyph to keep the spirit inside the dog. Someone worked magic on it."
"I guessed that, but how do you know?"
Mickey shrugged. "Like I said, magic is kind of interesting…."
Mickey seemed to have been studying more than he admitted. I decided to fish a bit. "I was thinking that the bit of hair that fell out was part of the magic, too."
Mickey shot a startled glance at me. "Hair? There was hair inside the dog?"
"Yeah, a little bundle of five or six strands tied with red thread. It looked like human hair, not animal."
"Tied with red thread? Inside the dog? With the lightning bolt?" He looked both excited and scared. "That's witchcraft."
I frowned at him. The only witch I knew was good, but Mickey was plainly not acquainted with the same sort of witch—and like a lot of young morons, he seemed to think it was kind of sexy.
"It's death magic," he explained. "The dark-side stuff."
"I thought you guys weren't into that death-worship thing."
"Not normal death, the cycle-of-life stuff. Death-cult stuff. It's black magic from the colonial days—half native magic, half Christian mysticism stuff. It's all about Santisima Muerte—Most Holy Death, the reaper of souls, Death triumphant over Man." Frightened reverence resounded in his tone and set his aura sparking red and gold. "Your Maria-Luz used black magic to hold the dog's spirit inside the statue. Trust me: I know this shit."
"It didn't feel like evil magic when it broke," I said.
He shrugged, pretending sudden disinterest he then undermined by saying, "I wonder why she wanted to put that thing on this guy's grave."
I didn't know, but I wanted to. If I knew who Hector Purecete was to Arbildo, maybe I could figure it out. But we'd have to find his grave first.
Once again we were directed to a grave and picked our way through the people who were cleaning and decorating throughout the cemetery. Here, the families and friends of the dead were making sandcastle coffins over the graves, mounding the wet sand up into caskets and even the archetypal long pentagon. Some were bordered with cement block or brick to retain the wet sand, others were freestanding. Other groups were just beginning the process of clearing off the weeds and grasses that had invaded the cemetery during the year, attacking the plants with hoes and hands and, in one case, a big knife, to get down to raw earth.
Panteon San Antonio bore no resemblance to the carefully manicured cemeteries of Seattle, with their endless lawns, or Victorian markers. This was a place of gritty brown earth, punctuated with riots of gold and purple flowers and green foliage. The plants and flowers were being arranged into patterns or pictures on the sand coffins, or lashed into little huts and ofrendas that would straddle the graves when finished. The scent of marigolds was thick and spicy on the air along with the smell of turned earth and green sap.
Once we had cut a path through the crowd, we found a short stone obelisk with a list of names carved on it. Hector Purecete's was there, but listed as one of a dozen men lost at sea in 1982. No grave, wrong date, wrong Hector. The Grey was thick as oatmeal and the ghost dog gamboled around the base of the stone, snapping at the marigold petals floating on the breeze. It glanced up at me and seemed to laugh, giving me a doggy smile.
Mickey glowered and the energy around him pinwheeled orange sparks that looked just like the flower petals. "That guy at the registrar's office just took the money and gave us a list of all the Hector Purecete graves he had," he groused. "He didn't even try to get the right one!"
"Yeah, because your attitude was just so endearing," I reminded him, but I was looking at the dog, which was now pawing around the base of the obelisk with incorporeal paws.
I crouched down to get a look at whatever had caught the dog's attention and saw a loop of blue energy protruding from the ground. Warily, I caught it on my fingers and pulled it up. It came like a long-rooted weed from a flower bed and popped out of the ground with a small crackle of electricity.
A skeletal man wearing a yellow fisherman's coat appeared where the blue bit of energy had left a hole in the ground. I had the impression that he was blinking, even though he had no eyelids or eyes to cover with them.
Mickey stared and jerked back half a step, but the skeleton man didn't notice. He let out a glad exclamation I heard in my head and bent down to ruffle the ghost dog's fur. "Iko! Look how big you got!" He wasn't really speaking English, but the words seemed to come clearly into my head.
The dog frisked around and whined in glee, taking slobbery licks at the skull in between joyous wiggles.
"Is that your dog?" I asked.
The skeleton in the slicker glanced at me. "He was the cook's dog, but we all liked him. He was just a puppy when the old Dulcia went down."
"So… was Hector Purecete the cook?"
"Hector? No. Hector was a deckhand. I suppose he must have saved Iko. Neither of them drowned."
"His name's on the memorial," I said.
The skeleton looked at the obelisk and laughed, clacking his teeth. "It's wrong. Martin Ramirez got off in Bermuda and was replaced by an American named Lofland. And see, there I am, but they spelled my name wrong," he added, pointing to the name Ernesto Sanchez. "It should say Santara, but my writing on the contract was so bad, they had to guess. No, they must have just taken the crew list from Senor Arbildo and assumed we all died."
"Arbildo?" I asked, surprised.
"Si, he owned the boat."
So there was a connection, but not a clear one…. "What became of Hector, then?"
The bony shoulders under the slicker shrugged. "I don't know. He must have been picked up by someone. He came and looked at the memorial once or twice and used to clean it up for us every year, but then he stopped and people began to forget about us. Most of the crew are gone now, since no one comes to remember us. I have a sister who is building the ofrenda right now at home. I can feel her thinking about me and I can go soon and see all my nieces and nephews…." He trailed off, his empty eye sockets directed just over my shoulder, as if he could really see them, just there, in the field of graves behind me.
"Ernesto," I said, hoping to recapture his attention just a little longer. "Hey, did Hector have a family? Was he married? Had kids?"
"Eh? Oh, Hector? No. He was our Don Juan—always charming the ladies—he couldn't make himself get married and settle down, he said. His family here was all gone. He said. I don't know. We were shipmates, and you know how sailors are with stories…." Now he was pulled away, drifting into the air like a dandelion puff and wafting toward the cemetery gates. "Goodbye, Iko," he called, without looking back. "Be a good dog…."
He vanished into the crowd of living and dead, heading for home, I supposed. I stood up, dusting off my knees and butt, thinking that the memorial must have been raised before anyone realized Hector wasn't dead, so it wasn't really wrong, just premature. I wondered how long he'd been "lost at sea" before he'd shown up again in Oaxaca….
Mickey was gaping at me, but I'm used to that. Most people give me strange looks when they catch me talking to ghosts. But Mickey had seen Ernesto, also, as well as the dog, Iko. "How long have you been seeing ghosts?" I asked.
He was too shaken to lie. "Me? I've always seen them, but only during Dia de los Muertos. You too?"
"No. I see them all the time. They aren't usually so helpful, though."
"He didn't seem very helpful…."
"He identified the dog and it seems like a safe bet Iko was rescued and raised by Purecete. But that doesn't really answer how Arbildo had the dog's spirit or why she put it in the statue."
I agreed and started for the car.
Mickey caught my arm. "Hey… how come you see ghosts? Mi madre says it's because my birthday is Todos Santos. Are you…?"
I shook my head, slipped his grasp, and kept walking for the car. I wasn't sure this was a good conversation. Or that I liked the sudden avid expression in Mickey's eyes. "C'mon! Tell me!" he yelled. "Please!"
"I'll tell you in the car. This isn't a good place for it," I conceded.
Mickey nearly dragged me back to the parking lot, flinging open the doors for both of us and sliding behind the wheel clumsily in his frenzy.
As soon as the doors were closed he turned to me again, but I shut him down with a look. "Start the car and drive. It's getting dark and I want to get inside before it's full night."
"I'll tell you as you drive. If you don't kill us."
He ground the car to life and drove like Mario Andretti to get us out of the parking lot.
"OK," I started. "I died. That's why I see ghosts."
"Died? No way!"
"Yeah, way. Don't ask why, 'cause I don't know. It just is what it is."
He muttered, prayers or curses, I didn't know. "You don't look dead."
"It was only two minutes. But it was enough. Trust me."
"But you didn't just talk to him. What were you doing? Magic?"
"No. I just… pull them out. If they want to talk, they do. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they try to kill me. Most of them are useless."
"Yeah. I see those, too! They don't really know we're here." I nodded. "Somehow she must have known…."
"Who? Knew what?"
"Maria-Luz Arbildo. She never met me, but she put me in her will to do this job. She must have known about me, but I don't know why or how or what she expected me to do. I hope I can figure it out before Todos Santos."
"She must have been a bruja" Mickey muttered. "Doing black magic and stuff. I'll bet she scryed you out somehow because of the ghost thing."
"Maybe," I conceded. "How would I know?"
"Umm… the Santisima Muerte magic goes backward. Y'know: right to left and down to up. Counterclockwise and stuff like that."
"But I never saw the woman do any magic," I reminded him. "I didn't know her."
Big-eyed, Mickey nodded and drove. But I could see his thoughts grinding and the gold strands from his fingertips wrapped the steering wheel like a frantic vine.
We approached the last grave on the list as the sun was beginning to paint its farewell on the slice of sky above Oaxaca's mountains. We'd taken a long drive into the hilly countryside to find the small panteon of San Felipe del Agua and then trudged through the crowds and the boiling Grey to discover an abandoned burial plot far in the back, under a stunted tree. Grass and weeds had grown over it undisturbed for years and no one was making an effort to clear it. I heaved a sigh of annoyance and got down on my knees to rip up the corn stalk-like growths obscuring the memorial stone. Mickey knelt down and helped brush the dirt aside, scraping the carving clear enough to read in the dimming light.
This time the list was right: Hector Purecete, born 1929, died 1996. Sixty-seven years old.
Mickey sat back on his heels and studied the filth-crusted memorial stone. "He's been forgotten here."
"Maria-Luz remembered him," I said. I didn't know with what emotion she recalled Hector, however, or what she'd been up to with the dog and its black-magic spirit bundle. I'd have to take a look and see if the red thread wound counterclockwise around it.
"That's an irony," I said, looking at the stone and thinking aloud. "The only person who seems to remember this guy is already dead and has been for years."
"You mean that other ghost? Ernesto? Yeah. And Iko."
I nodded. "Yeah, that's a problem. Iko seems like a nice dog, but who knows what will happen—if there really is black magic involved here? I was hoping to find Hector's family or someone who knew him or Maria-Luz. But the registrar will be closed tomorrow and it's not likely I'll find anyone who knew what their relationship was at this point."
"The ghosts know."
I rubbed my face, breathing in the scent of the broken grasses, the turned earth, and the spicy odor of the marigolds that had already been placed onto the grave decorations and ofrendas proliferating throughout the burial ground. I didn't enjoy interviewing ghosts, even when I knew where to find them. Obstinate, limited beings—when they qualified as beings at all—with axes to grind and personal quirks more annoying and unhelpful than a ward full of recovering heroin addicts. "Yeah, but how would I find the right ghosts?" I asked, tired and, I admit, disappointed. "This is going to suck. Purecete's grave wasn't even in Oaxaca proper but way out in this little mountain village."
Mickey jumped up, beaming in the sudden magenta flare of mountain sunset. "You can call them here! You know how and the ghosts will find you if you make the right offerings—it's the Day of the Dead! The living have forgotten this guy, but the dead haven't!"
I stared at him. "I'm not sure I'm following you…. The instructions just said to clean the grave and put the dog on it."
"Yeah, yeah. Clean the grave, but you should do the whole thing. Decorate, make an ofrenda. Put out food and drink and stuff—throw a party for old Hector Purecete, and the ghosts of his friends will show up for it! It's not just the living who come visiting the graveyard, you know. Tomorrow is for the angetitos—the little kids. We can make an ofrenda and bring it here for them. If he ever had any kids, or if his family ever had any that haven't died the third death, they'll come. Then on Sunday we can make the party for the rest of 'em—and Hector. I'll have to hang out with Tia Mercedes, but I can help you first and come back later. Tia's big on this stuff, she'll understand—she'll probably even cook extra food for you if we go shopping early enough."
I tried not to groan at the thought. "What about the dog?" I asked.
He frowned. "I'm not sure. Maybe if you don't bring the clay bits and hair, it won't matter, even if his ghost comes along."
The ghost dog had come back from a nose-guided tour of the graveyard to sit down beside me and pant through his doggy grin. He looked increasingly like a real dog and less like the remnant of one. I wondered what he'd be like come Sunday night.
I looked around and saw the deepening colors of the sky. Shadows writhed with the spirits of the violently dead waiting to emerge once darkness fell. I shuddered and hoped we wouldn't have to go past the zocalo tonight and its slaughtered teachers.
"Let's get out of here," I suggested.
Mickey jumped up and we nearly ran back to the car. Once in it, he chattered half in excitement and half in relief of terror, trying to persuade me his plan was solid. I would never have thought of throwing a party for ghosts. Mickey waxing enthusiastic over it was downright creepy to watch. He dodged silvery clots of horror as we barreled through the falling twilight.
Back in the guesthouse, normalcy reigned and most people would have no idea of the gruesome sights and sounds playing out in the night beyond the doors. Over dinner Mickey wheedled his aunt into agreeing to cook extra food for my ghost party. He finally let me go at the door of my room with a warning to be up early for our shopping trip. I hate shopping… especially in the morning. The surreal quality of the whole day left me dizzy and grateful to crawl into bed.
Bundled up against the chilly morning, we had to shed our coats by the time we were carrying home the third load of the stuff on which Mickey had insisted: colored paper and strings of paper banners; armfuls of flowers; incense cones; food; sweets; candles; tiny toys; papier-mache skeletons going about their daily business, including one lady called Catrina in an elaborate hat; and a set of combs and brushes for the dead to tidy themselves with, once they arrived for the party. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought he was enjoying himself, but of course Mickey managed to drag me thither and yon with disgusting amounts of energy, while still slouching, glowering, and shooting barbed comments, though almost none of them were now directed at me. I bought him a sugar skull with his name on it as a birthday present, getting a twisted, uncertain smile in return.
Iko followed us back and forth, barking and running through the stalls, playing with skeleton children and chasing skeleton rats. The odors of food and flowers and cones of copal incense waiting to be burned mingled with the odor of wet streets and warm bodies. Color rose in dust devils from the power grid of the Grey and spun off Mickey's shape like the golden spines of a religious icon. I felt light-headed and found it difficult to tell the Grey from the real, if not for the hard shapes of skulls and bones where I would normally expect flesh. More than once I excused myself to a specter after stepping on it and each time they nodded to me as any living person would. Mickey stared at me with a strange yearning expression that disappeared under the glower as soon as he noticed my attention.
I wasn't sure this crazy plan was going to work, but it was the best thing either of us had come up with. And frankly, it was nice to get out of the guesthouse before the smells of food overwhelmed me. Mercedes Villaflores and her daughters had been cooking since before dawn, starting with the pan de muerto— traditional loaves of bread that smelled of orange and spices and had dough bones crossed on top. By the time I'd gotten up, there'd already been half a dozen of them set on the patio counter to cool; excess seemed to run in the family.
After our shopping, Mickey dropped me off at the cemetery in San Felipe del Agua to clean the grave site, promising to come back with the ofrenda supplies later. Then he dashed back down the hill to join his family for their own work party. As I crossed the cemetery gate, Iko the ghost dog appeared and followed me to Hector Purecete's plot, making scent-led loops and discursions across the path as we went.
The morning was giving way to afternoon and in the thin air at fifty-five hundred feet, the sun warmed the graveyard and set the odors of earth and work, flowers and food toward the blue crown of the heavens above. Iko performed an inspection of the site and gave it his doggy approval as I rolled up my sleeves and began clearing weeds, hearing the chatter of others working at family plots, or setting up vendor booths in the square and street nearby. Some musicians started practicing in the distance, serenading our labors in fits and starts. After a while, the ghost dog hied off to hunt ghost rodents, leaving me alone with the weeds.
A while later, I paused to wipe the sweat off my face and found an old man in a wide-brimmed hat squatting at the edge of my efforts, grinning at me. I had to look hard through the thickened and colorful Grey to be sure he was no ghost, for he looked more like a vision than a man. But that might have been the elevation and my own sleep-deprived brain talking.
He held out a clear glass bottle. "Agua?"
I took the bottle gratefully, muttering my "gracias," and sipped the warm water. It tasted of deep rock wells.
"I never see a gringa working out here before," he said, watching me drink.
"Never been here before," I replied, pushing my clinging hair back and returning the bottle to him.
He put the bottle down, digging its bottom into the dirt I'd softened with my weeding at the edge of the grave. "You come for this man's angelitos?"
"I don't know if he had any. Did you know him?"
The dark-tanned old man shook his head. "No. I live here all my life and I never hear of him until they bury him here. And no one comes to this grave for a long time. Until you. Why?"
"A woman named Maria-Luz Arbildo died last week and she wanted me to come here and take care of the grave."
"Huh. But she never come here. I never see any woman here before."
"No. She didn't know where the grave was. I had to find it. You ever heard of her?” He narrowed his eyes and searched the ground for his memory, brushing pebbles and bits of weed away from the headstone. "No. Antonio Arbildo lived here, long time ago, but he moved away. Old man, then. He get rich, the whole family go to the D.F. — Distrito Federal, Mexico City," he explained with a nod. "I'm a little boy, then—so tall," he added, holding his hand up about two feet from the ground, and cackling. He shot an amused glance at me from the corner of his yellowed eyes. The ghost of Iko trotted back from his hunting and threw himself down in the dirt about two feet from the old man with a contented dog sigh. The old man made no comment.
I nodded. Another interesting connection, but not complete. "Are there Arbildos buried in this panteon? Maybe Maria-Luz?"
Again he shook his head, his gnarled stick fingers digging into the ground to pull a weed. "Not her. Some a long time ago, si. Not now." He pointed to a group of equally abandoned graves nearby. "There."
Hector Purecete had been buried within sight of the Arbildos of San Felipe, yet it seemed Maria-Luz had never found him on her trips to Oaxaca. But with the two false graves Mickey and I had found, maybe that wasn't so strange. Of course the Arbildos of San Felipe and those of Mexico City weren't necessarily the same family, but I doubted it.
I nodded to the old man and got up, unkinking my work-stiff knees and back, to go look at the graves of the Arbildos. The most recent had been buried in 1943. When I got back to Purecete's grave, the old man was gone, but his water bottle still stood in the soft earth between the gravestone and Iko's napping form sprawled in the dirt. I looked around for the man. A dozen hats identical to his bobbed in the field of graves, but I couldn't spot the old man under one. I took another sip of the water and went back to work, thinking Iko had it good.
By two o'clock I'd gotten the weeds cleaned up and the plot squared away. Some helpful live children helped me find stones to replace the missing border around the grave, begging, in return, for "mi calavera," which confused me until Mickey showed up.
He made a face at them and started digging into one of the boxes of ofrenda decorations. "They want these," he explained, dragging out a box of small sugar skulls, coffins, and lambs we'd purchased in the market that morning. "Like your trick or treat, but with skulls."
He handed me the box and snapped at the kids to go away as soon as they had their «calavera» in their sticky fists.
"Need to work, here!" he added to me, unfolding a small card table he'd snatched from the guesthouse. "Usually the ofrenda's at home, but yours will have to be here."
The ghost dog sat up and watched us work. We got a few odd looks from the humans, too, as we put up the decorations, but no one came to ask what we were doing. Mickey helped me bend long, slender poles into arches over the table and attach them to the legs. Then we put colored paper over it all and hung up the paper banners, which were decorated with punched silhouettes of skeletons dancing, riding bicycles, eating, and generally carrying on. We made patterns on the grave with the marigolds, magenta cockscomb flowers, and greenery, edging it all with white candles in tiny glass jars.
Mickey looked around. "You should go wash while I put out the food—and bring back water in the big bowl for the spirits to wash in, too.” I shrugged, not minding a pause to clean the dirt and sweat off my face and hands while Mickey took over—he had managed to avoid the really filthy work of weeding, edging, and shoring up the grave, after all. Iko dogged me to a standpipe where a few other people were washing up and filling containers with water for flowers or washing. The old man was standing near the water spigot and grinned at me as I approached.
"It is going well, your ofrenda?"
"I think so. Does it look OK?"
He glanced toward Purecete's grave. "Si. Is very nice for the angelitos—white is good."
"Mickey picked the color."
"Really?" the old guy said, raising his eyebrows. "Surely for him, red is more likely."
I turned to glance back at Mickey. He did have a lot of red in his aura….
"You mean Mickey?" I asked.
"Your amigo joven, si. So very angry…" He shook his head. I stared at the old man.
"What is it about Oaxaca? Is everyone around here tuned in to the freaky frequency?" I asked.
His laugh was like sandpaper. "Only you, pequena faisan. But, you are staying to see the angelitos?"
"Si," I answered, turning back to the immediate task, putting my hands under the cold water that streamed from the pipe, and then throwing several handfuls onto my sticky face. Iko stuck his muzzle into the water and tried to drink it, but I wasn't sure any was making it down his ghostly throat, no matter how fast his spectral tongue was going. "Maybe it's not so bad that Mickey's supposed to be home with his family tonight."
"Maybe." The old man nodded. "I also must go tonight, so I bid you buenas noches. Dress warm—the night takes the heat away. And give your amigo good wishes from Tio Munoz, eh?"
"I will, gracias" I replied, filling the washbowl for the spirits of dead children. My hands full, I nodded again to him and turned to head back to the plot, wondering what Mickey was up to.
"Buena suerte," the man said with a chuckle as I started off.
I turned my head to look back at him over my shoulder and saw him scratch Iko's head, smiling. I guess I wasn't even surprised. Then he turned and walked away, vanishing into the crowd with a golden glitter in his wake. I stood a moment staring after him, not sure what he was; nothing about him seemed ghostly, yet in the mess of the active Grey of Oaxaca, I hadn't noticed he had no aura. What was he? I frowned, holding the heavy bowl of water. Iko pawed at my knee and barked, prancing impatiently on the path.
I shook off my surprise and walked to rejoin Mickey.
While I'd been gone, Mickey had laid out a small feast of sweets, soda pop, and pan de muerto as well as some more substantial food—all provided by his aunt. Small plastic toys were scattered among the cockscomb flowers that we'd piled up around a stack of empty boxes at the back of the table and an arc of small teacups and saucers surrounded a dish for the copal incense. A dozen more white candles now stood on the boxes. It looked like an album cover for something gothic and creepy.
"Umm… yeah. These ghosts eat a lot…."
Mickey shrugged. "They eat the spirit of the food. My cousins say the food they leave behind has no calories." He barked a derisive laugh. He pointed to the end of the table. "Put the water, comb, and towel where the hot bottle is.” I saw a large vacuum flask where he pointed.
"Tia Mercedes made hot chocolate. You can put it on the ground till you need it," he said. "Pour some for the angelitos after you light the candles and the incense—they should come when they smell it. And there's a box under the ofrenda with some food and a blanket and stuff for you. Think you can make it?"
"It's not as cold as a stakeout during a Seattle winter."
He snorted. "Gonna be empty up here. Most people do this at home." Mickey gave me an assessing look that clearly found me a bit wanting.
"I think I can handle it," I said.
Yet another shrug as he started gathering up the excess supplies. "The angelitos come at four and stay until the morning. You'll have to do it all again tomorrow for the adults, too. I'll pick you up when the sun comes up."
"Hey, Mickey, Tio Munoz says Happy Birthday."
He jumped back from me. "What?"
"An old man near the water said I should tell you he sends his good wishes."
He stared at me. "Tio Munoz? Mierda! He's a legend in my family. He's a… a…"
"Ghost? Didn't look like a ghost___"
Mickey was shaking his head and gathering the excess stuff in a hurry. "No, no…. He's the one—you know: I said about my great-uncle? What's the word… a bad wizard."
He shook his head. "No…. Not a brujo. He's… a black sorcerer. Undead." He threw the last of the materials into a box and snatched it up against his chest, eyes wild—which was not what I'd have expected. "I'm going back to Tia Mercedes. You'll be fine, yeah?"
"Yeah…," I said, not sure why he was freaking so thoroughly, since his Tio Munoz wasn't any kind of undead I knew.
"Yeah, right. OK. I'll be back for you in the morning. Don't go talking to Tio Munoz! Don't believe what he says!"
Iko and I followed him with the rest of the boxes and loaded them into the Chevy under the weight of Mickey's red-and-orange brooding. Then we watched him drive away, leaving the ghost dog and me in the emptying panteon as the hour of dead children approached.
The last of the homeward-bound walked out of the gate—two small children in slightly rumpled clothes—strewing a path of marigold petals for the dead. I watched them lay the deep orange line down the road until they disappeared around a bend in a mood of strange solemnity. I walked back to the grave, Iko dancing before me all the way.
The ghost dog seemed more real than ever, if still a bit translucent. As the long shadow of the mountain began to steal the light, that became less apparent, but a new oddity began to show around him: a blue glow like marshlight that flickered over the dog shape and cast it into strange silhouette against the pockets of twilight forming in the cemetery as night crept forward.
I unfolded a camp stool from the box and set it aside, paused to put on my coat, and dug deeper for a box of kitchen matches. As the church bell began pealing four, I lit the candles and the copal, sending the sweet, musky scent into the cooling air. The breeze stirred the grasses near the fence to rattling. Smoke and Grey mingled, sparking with gold and white lights, and I could hear the Grey humming, the shapes of the mountains glowing in the silvery mist as great bulks of power.
Something splashed into the water bowl and I turned with a jerk to see nothing, no small shape lurking near the table end, as I’d half expected. I shivered as my skin prickled with a premonition of movement nearby. The darkness was still only a threat, but a presence seemed to gather with it, though nothing stepped forth. Yet.
I poured hot chocolate into one of the teacups and sat down to wait while afternoon advanced toward evening. The ghost dog lay down beside me and smiled with secret thoughts. We waited, swirled in the dizzying odors of the night and the sound of distant music from houses just out of sight, alone in the hush of sacred anticipation in the doorway to the Land of the Dead.
Something brushed past me, giggling. Iko barked and chased the formless whisper of laughter across the burial ground toward the iron gates. Then nothing. The ghost dog returned and threw himself down on the ground with a dog sigh. Candles smoked and the stream of incense swayed upward like a charmed cobra. The muttering emptiness of the cemetery held sway long past sunset, past the eight o'clock peal from the church tower.
I renewed the hot chocolate in the cup and sipped a little myself, finding it more bitter and spicy than American chocolate. It went better with the sandwich Mickey's aunt had packed for me than the coffee did, but I thought I'd better save it in case of tiny haunts. Maybe it was because I was thinking of it, but that was when a little cup of chocolate on the table rattled and I looked again at the ofrenda.
One of the cups was moving in its saucer, tilting forward and back. Tiny silver-mist hands clutched for it and missed again and again. I stood up and picked up the cup, saying, "Here, let me help you."
I held the cup low and filled it to the brim. Then I offered it down around my knees, holding it still until I felt something tug on it. I let myself slip all the way into the Grey, looking for whatever was pulling on the cup.
A skeleton child, barely as tall as the table, reached for the cup. Its bony, incorporeal hands met the porcelain, but couldn't grip. I tipped the cup and watched the steaming chocolate dribble onto the ground while the foggy skeleton seemed to nibble at the edge of the cup. It pushed the cup away and clacked its teeth in satisfaction.
The toys on the table moved. Smears of color hovered around the ofrenda, lined up in front of the other, empty, cups. I poured chocolate into all of them and watched shadows of the cups tilt and rise as spectral hands reached for the sweets. There was a burst of chatter—like radio static—and a dozen small skeletons dressed in the memories of their best clothes appeared around the table. They weren't as well formed as the adult ghosts I'd seen— as if they hadn't had time to get the knack of being alive before they were dead. None of the chatter was quite understandable to me—unlike the adult ghosts I'd talked to—coming through to my mind only in Spanish.
Iko jumped to his feet again and began trotting around the little ghosts, sniffing them, but he returned disgruntled and disappointed to my side and sat down with a huff of breath. Apparently none of the skeletal kids was familiar.
I felt small hands on my knees and plucking at my sleeves. I looked down and found two small skeletons dressed in cloudy white dresses looking back up at me with empty eye sockets.
I'm not much of a kid person, so I never know what to say or do when faced with children. I had no idea if the ghosts of children knew any more than they had when alive, but even children have information. I squatted down, feeling my bad knee pop.“No hablo espanol muy bien," I said, probably mangling what little I remembered from years living in Los Angeles. With my luck they didn't speak anything else, but sometimes ideas came through with ghosts, even when the language was foreign, as they had with the ghost of Ernesto Santara. "Ustedes habla ingles?"
They turned their skulls on their slender spines in unison: no. They didn't bother to talk at all, but, with a shiver, I knew they were twins then, and they wanted to know why I was in their graveyard. No one had come for them in a long time and they were lonely—was I a relative of theirs? How I knew these thoughts I couldn't begin to tell you.
I shook my head and pointed to Purecete's memorial stone. "I'm looking for him. And for Maria-Luz Carmen Arbildo. Maria-Lucy Hector."
Two skulls tilted in curiosity as if to say, "Why those two?" while a toy truck pushed its way across the dirt nearby guided by a misty skeletal boy.
"Umm…," I started, not sure how to explain. "Como Maria-Luz… umm… knows?" I stumbled through the language, tapping the side of my head and hoping the sign translated somehow.
The skulls consulted each other with a glance of unseen eyes. They turned back to me and spoke as one. The words pushed the concept into my head, naked and complete, but not in English.
"El es su padre."
Her father. Whose burial place she did not seem to know, whose name she did not have. "Oh," I breathed, the situation both more clear and less. Why the black-magic present, then? What was the nature of that paternity that she sent such a dubious gift?
The twin ghosts beckoned me to follow and they drifted to- ward the Arbildo plot. Leaving the chocolate and the ofrenda behind, I followed them and Iko followed me.
The graves of the Arbildos were crowded with tiny skeletons and strange, half-formed shapes of silvery energy thick as clay moving in some somber dance. The two skeletal girls floated through the weird party and stopped before a grave with an unusual double cross of gilded iron from which the gold had flaked until only shreds remained. "Nuestra madre nosotros."
This was the grave of Dulcia Maria-Carmen Ochoa Arbildo, wife of Antonio, and her two daughters, Carmen and Lucia, who had all died in April of 1936. The girls had been four years old. Dulcia had been twenty-five.
"Por que—" I started, but the ghosts of Carmen and Lucia pointed their bony fingers at the crowd of small spirits.
uVea: nuestros hermanos y hermanas."
I looked. Beside the grave huddled a knot of unformed shapes, the features of lives they never lived flickered and changed, fluid as water, over half faces the size of my fist. I'd seen this before; they were transient souls, in flux between one life and the next. Grave upon grave across the plot was littered with the reminders of children who had never been born, or died while still infants and toddlers. They were everywhere, generation after generation of the family's bad genetic luck and horrific accident. It seemed as if the Arbildos of San Felipe had been cursed.
Maybe, against all tradition, this was something the family preferred to forget. Hardly a wonder, then, if Antonio Arbildo had removed his family from this place as soon as he had the money to do so. Not too surprising if he had named a boat for his ill-fated wife, or that the boat had been lost with everyone aboard, except a single man and a dog.
A dark shape started to push the grid into some new form, struggling against the strength of the Grey's energy lines. Iko barked suddenly and the deep humming of the Grey hit a sour note. The ghosts flickered out with a collective gasp. The shape collapsed back into darkness and I was alone again in the graveyard.
I still didn't have all the pieces, but an idea was forming in my head. Dead children and a daughter by the wrong father… I returned to my camp stool and sat again beside Purecete's grave, pouring out the last of the chocolate and wondering if the ghosts would return. They didn't.
Dawn came up slowly in cold shades of blue, while I huddled, expectant and ultimately disappointed, in the empty panteon. It was still lit only by candles and drifted with copal smoke when Mickey arrived.
He avoided my glance and packed up the food and chocolate, the toys and gewgaws, in glowering silence. I let him. My body was too tired and my brain too full of strange threads weaving slowly and incompletely into a tapestry I didn't yet understand to want to add the frustration of cross-examining my volatile escort to the mix. I followed him back to the Chevy, hardly noticing that Iko had disappeared with the dawn and didn't follow us to the car this time.
Back at the guesthouse, I fell into bed and slept six hard hours. I was still a bit groggy when I turtled out of my bedroom and down to the empty sala about noon. The visitors had all gone out, most of the family was at church or in the kitchen. Mercedes Villaflores glanced out of the kitchen window and waved to me to come inside.
"Buenos dias! Did you enjoy your evening?" she asked, immediately putting a cup of coffee and a plate of food on the counter for me.
"Yes," I replied, not sure if «enjoy» was the right word, but certain I'd learned something, if I could shake it into clarity. "Where's Mickey—Miguel?" I sipped the coffee and felt it kick my system back up to speed. I looked for Iko, but didn't see him, and was just wondering about that when Mercedes replied.
"Oh, he's still asleep." She shrugged and returned to her stove, chatting over her shoulder. "Teenagers… You know."
Thinking about the missing ghost dog and Mickey made me think of the cemetery. "Mercedes… who's Tio Munoz?"
"Tio Munoz? Where did you hear of him?"
"Mickey mentioned him."
"Ah! That boy… he's such a trouble. Munoz is… the family bogeyman. You know: the crazy uncle your mama tells you will take you away in the night if you don't finish your supper. Totalmente loco en la cabeza," she added, knocking a knuckle against her temple, as if sounding a melon for ripeness. "He was accused of working black magic long ago, but he run up into the hills and disappeared. I think, if he is alive, he is no trouble to anyone, just a crazy old man. If not… maybe he'll come to dinner tonight, eh?"
She laughed; clearly she didn't feel the same horror as her nephew, but then… she wasn't fascinated with black magic, as Mickey was.
"Do you know anything about the Arbildo family that used to live in San Felipe del Agua?" I asked. She just shook her head.
I poked at my food and thought. I was seeing a picture that was not at all pretty. I wished I was sure what had turned Maria-Luz from sweet on Jimenez to sour. Why hadn't Jimenez told her where Purecete was buried? Was that the key? Or had she discovered something else?
I fished the little baggie of statue shards from my jacket pocket and stared at the bundle of hairs, tied with red thread, wound counterclockwise. The magic goes backward…. Like the writing on the paper. I could see the slip of notepaper clearly in my mind: the letters cramped on the left, expansive on the right, as if it had been written backward, running out of space…. She'd scryed me out through the Grey, talking to ghosts through a blackmagic connection, as Mickey had described. Death magic, blood magic… Had Maria-Luz sacrificed the dog…? No, Iko was dead long before she knew about me—possibly before I was a Greywalker—back when Jimenez died in a plane crash. Just how long had she had the statue waiting for the right grave? Why had she wanted to put Iko's spirit, wound in black magic, on Jimenez's grave?
Tio Munoz seemed more interested in Mickey than in me. But if he was—or had been—a black sorcerer, maybe he was interested in the black magic I was carrying in my pocket as well as his great-nephew. You can't count on much about black magic or bogeymen, though he didn't seem to approve of Mickey's personal darkness.
I needed to talk to Maria-Luz or Hector Purecete. I hoped one or both would show up once darkness fell at San Felipe del Agua.
Mickey scuffed into the kitchen looking morose and wan.
"We still on for tonight, Mickey?" I asked.
"Yeah. My little ghost party at the panteon, remember? You're going to help me with the setup, right?"
He looked relieved I hadn't said anything about Tio Munoz. "Yeah, right. Setup. Sure."
"What time do we need to head up the mountain? Four?"
"Dusk. Whatever. Tia Mercedes won't mind if I'm back late for the party here."
She said something in Spanish that sounded like she'd be happier the later he was.
"OK," he replied. "We can leave at four with the food and stuff."
"Cool. See you down here, then," I agreed, carrying my empty coffee cup to the sink and allowing Mickey to escape.
I walked down to the zocalo and found a cafe table to occupy while I made a phone call. The layers of spirits and magic were thicker and brighter than ever, surging like an ocean in the plaza and spilling into the streets leading to it. I dialed Quinton's pager and waited for him to call me back. Quinton was still paranoid about the possibility of being rediscovered by his ex-boss, so the easily tracked technology of cell phones was one he chose to do without.
About half an hour later, as I was working on a sunburn, he returned my call.
"Hey, yourself. Need a favor."
"I don't have Internet access here, so can you run some searches for me and get back with information before four p.m. here?"
"That's… two here. Yeah, I can do that. What are the search terms?"
"I need everything you can find on the death and bio of a Mexico City lawyer named Jimenez. Sorry I don't know the first name, but he was the partner of a guy named Guillermo Banda. Jimenez died in a plane crash a few years ago. Also anything on the Arbildo family that owned a ship or boat called the Dulcia that sunk in 1982, based out of Mexico. And look for any connections between Jimenez's firm and Arbildo—especially anything shady or questionable."
"Arbildo. That's the woman who left you the dog."
"Her family and her lawyer, yeah. There's something strange going on between them and, so far, death hasn't proved to be much of a barrier. I'm also wondering if Maria-Luz was adopted, but it's doubtful there'd be any record of that on the Internet."
"You never know. I'll see what I can get and call you back." I thanked Quinton and hung up before going out to walk around the zocalo and take a closer look at the Grey grid of Oaxaca. There were a lot of things about the way energy flowed here that were different from Seattle's grid and I didn't want to be surprised that night. I needed a little local practice with the power lines before I felt comfortable about my ability to deal with the potential conflicts that might be in store. I tried a variation of the ghost-pull that had brought up Ernesto Santara and got Iko, as I'd hoped. I was pretty sure I'd be able to banish him again, if I had to. I still had no idea what part he had been intended to play at Hector's grave.
Quinton called back and I took notes about the perfidy of lawyers; hard financial times; an unhappy schoolgirl with bad, black habits; and the sinking of insured boats, while leaning against an old church wall, cooled by the shade of the stones and the ice-water feeling of the rising tide of ghosts. The ghost dog panted at my feet, tongue lolling onto the bricks of the plaza.
A silvery skeleton dressed in a dark vest and trousers paused to pet the dog and raised his head to me. "Este ex tu perro?"
"Hang on," I told Quinton. "My dog? No," I replied to the skeleton man. "You know this dog? Uh… listed… uh…" I stumbled through the language as badly as ever, but the ghost seemed to know what I meant.
He shook his skull and clacked something I didn't catch, but the meaning seemed clear enough. It wasn't his dog, but it might have been Estancio Rivera's dog. I pointed at Iko. "Esta perro?"
The skeleton nodded his skull vigorously. "Si! Es Iko!" Iko rolled over in the spectral dust and offered his belly for rubbing.
I returned to my phone call while the skeleton man gave Iko some attention. "Is there any mention in those files of an Estancio Rivera?" I asked Quinton.
"Not that I've seen, but Rivera is about the most common name in Mexico after Garcia. This is in Oaxaca, right…?" I could hear his fingers speeding on a keyboard.
"Huh. This is kind of weird. A guy named Estancio Rivera disappeared from a Mexico City hotel room in 1981, presumed dead. Wallet, ID, and clothes were found, but not his money or the man. ID was from Oaxaca. He worked in a mezcal distillery and guess who owned it."
"Give the little lady a cigar!"
"Damn," I muttered. Did I have it? Was it that easy? Hector was the missing Estancio as well as Maria-Luz's real father. He'd vanished in Mexico City, where the Arbildos lived. Then changed his name and taken a post on an Arbildo ship that sunk…. He'd been «dead» twice before he died for good.
The skeleton ghost stood up, tipped his hat, and walked off after wishing me a "Buenas noches." I nodded at him and noticed the shadow of the church was nearly across the plaza now. The tower bells began tolling four.
"I have to run. Thanks for the help."
"No problem, but I would like to hear the story…."
"I'll take you to dinner when I get back and tell you the whole thing. Right now I have an appointment in a graveyard."
I shut off the phone and ran back toward the Villaflores guesthouse. Iko barked and ran along beside me. We skittered into the doorway together and straight into a glowering Mickey.
"Thought you'd ditched me."
"No," I panted. "Just lost track of time. You ready to go?"
He frowned at me, clearly teetering on a decision.
"Come on, Mickey. You didn't come up here just for the family celebration." I leaned in close to him and breathed my words into his ear. "You want the magic."
He bit his lip.
I wanted all the help I could get, and even if Mickey didn't know what he could do, he could still be useful if things went bad. And a plain «please» was not going to work with him.
He gave a sudden, hard nod. "I'm coming."
We grabbed our coats and boxes and bundled into the car as fast as possible. Iko sat and waited patiently, then vanished to meet us at the graveyard.
The sun was already gone by the time we reached the panteon at San Felipe del Agua. A procession by candlelight was wending to the cemetery, carried on a wave of music. We parked and joined the crowd that surged into the cemetery, Iko reappearing as before, just inside the gates.
The ofrenda and decorations were untouched and it took only a few minutes to put out the food and drink, trinkets, cigarettes, mezcal, and wash water, to light the candles and the copal. We both sat down to wait while the ghost dog circled the graves, sniffing.
The odors of food, flowers, incense, and alcohol floated into the air on mariachi music and the chatter of living humans while the Grey hummed like a generator nearing overload. The thin silver mist-world seemed to quake as the ghosts flooded out, eager, hungry, happy. They rushed into the gap between the worlds with a roar. I gasped at the explosive upheaval of the Grey and Mickey stared, crouching on his stool like an angular gargoyle.
"How many do you see?" I asked.
"Thousand…. More than ever. And there's… stuff. Like worms. Everywhere."
Everyone who can see it sees it differently, I guess. "Where's our man?" Mickey looked around, shivering. "Maybe… the dog?"
"Yeah, maybe it's time. Iko," I called, reaching down to pat the ground on top of the grave, sending up a sudden gust of marigold scent and the odor of earth. Iko ran onto the grave and sat down. Nothing changed.
Remembering the children and their chocolate, I put out my hand. "Hand me that mezcal, Mickey."
Quivering, Mickey picked up the bottle and slapped it into my outstretched hand. "You want a drink?"
"No. But I think Senor Purecete might—or Estancio Rivera, if he prefers." I twisted the bottle open and spilled an ounce or two onto the grave next to Iko. The ground seemed to swallow it, groaning and heaving a cloud of yellow and gold sparks into the air.
Someone crawled up from the grave.
He was probably a slim man in life, judging by the narrow-cut clothes his skeletal form wore in death. He had a jaunty hat on his skull and a scarf tied around the absent circumference of his neck. A shadow of flesh clung over the skeleton, giving it a blurry, out-of-focus look. Iko whined and wriggled at the ghost's feet, rolling in the dirt and showing his belly.
"Oh… Iko," the shade breathed, the words coming clear into my head. "Where is your mistress?" He scratched the dog as it quivered in delight.
"Not here yet," I offered. "But I think she'll show up soon."
Mickey glanced around and I followed his lead, but no one was paying us any particular attention. They were all busy and the sounds of the fiesta ramping up to last the whole night through drowned the oddness of any conversation we might have.
I held out the bottle and the ghost took it. "Gracias, Senora. It is a long time since I had a drink with a lovely lady." A spectral twin of the mezcal bottle rose to his mouth and he poured a long shot down his transparent throat.
"Ernesto said you were a lady's man," I said.
The ghost of Hector Perecete belched and lowered the bottle. "Ernesto? From the Dulcia? Poor fellow. Good-hearted, not so good-headed. I'm sorry about the crew. It was only me Arbildo wanted drowned."
"So it wasn't an accident that the boat sank when you were on it. Jimenez found a way to sink it for Arbildo. The insurance company wasn't sure, but they suspected it. You know they paid off, eventually, right?"
"Oh, si. It was an old boat. Kill two birds with one stone—heh. Or two problems with one hole in the hull. He didn't want her to know, or he'd have just had me cut to pieces in an alley in the Distrito."
"Leon Arbildo, you mean."
"Si," Hector replied, taking another gulp of ghostly mezcal. "Leon had a head for business."
"What was her name?"
"Leon Arbildo's wife. You met her at the mezcal distillery, didn't you?"
"Ohhhh… Consuela. No, we met at a party. She was very bored. So was I. But of different things." Hector drew closer to the table and looked it over, pausing to scratch Iko behind the ears and pat his sides roughly. "I imagined I was so very suave she fell at my feet, but I suppose it was truly that I was new and not like Leon." He laughed and his yellow teeth snapped together with a sound like castanets. "Youth is arrogant and full of folly." He put out a skeleton claw for the towel and water. Mickey and I watched him in silence as the ghost washed his nonexistent face and combed his memory of hair. Then the specter straightened his scarf and resettled the hat on his head before surveying the spread of food.
Mickey's eyes couldn't stretch any wider without the orbs falling out, I thought. "They never speak," he whispered. "I never hear them speak…."
"Get used to it," I muttered back. "Once they know you can hear them, they don't shut up."
The boy jerked his head toward me, drawing a breath that shook in his throat. He was more excited than the dog.
Hector—I couldn't think of him as Estancio after all this time—had torn off a hunk of phantom bread and sat on the edge of his grave, munching it. His teeth clicked and ground together. "I thought I would never taste pan de muerto again. It's very good."
"Mi—mi tin lo huzo," Mickey stammered, replying in Spanish, since he heard Hector in that language, just as I heard him in English.
Hector looked at him for the first time and the boy flinched back at the uncanny gaze from the ghost's empty eye sockets.
"Your aunt? You must thank her for me. My Carmencita—my little girl Leon called Maria-Luz—could not bring me food and drink for these many years. She was afraid the lawyers would discover her knowledge of me and of what they would do if she came here. I left my home to be with Consuela—her mother— and I hid myself as a long-dead man, Hector Purecete, who would not mind. At first I did it to be near Consuela and later, when they thought they'd killed me, to watch over my daughter."
Bones and wings rustled in the darkness and a sigh of unearthly wind brought another ghost to the party.
We all turned to look at the smaller spirit that had walked up to Hector Purecete's grave. She wouldn't have been very tall in life, but she had probably had her father's build. A gleaming, oil-black nimbus surrounded her, shivering off the white surface of her dress. The memory of her face was still strong, creating a translucent veil of phantom flesh and expression over the visible bones of her skull. So this was Maria-Luz Carmen Arbildo.
The dog jumped into the air and barked in joy, running to tangle under her feet.
The ghost woman laughed and patted the dog. Then she looked sharply at me. "You brought him. But what happened? He should not be loose already."
"The statue was broken at customs," I answered. "I think Guillermo Banda paid someone to do it."
"That bastard… I hate him. More than I ever hated Jimenez for what he did."
I opened my mouth to ask her how she'd known what Jimenez had done—though I thought I knew—but was cut off by a shriek of eldritch wind.
"Dare what? To tell the truth?" Maria-Luz screamed, turning to the latest arrival.
This skeleton ghost was dressed in a suit—possibly the one he'd died in—much like Banda's suit. I guessed this must be Jimenez since he'd come when named, and he was royally pissed about it.
"Bruja. Your father knew what you were up to. We followed you for your own good!"
"Liar!" she shouted, smacking him across his grinning, naked jaw with her bone-claw hand. "Leon Arbildo was not my father. That's why you followed me. That's why you spied on me and my real father. You said you were looking for him, but you weren't. You tried to hide him from me—you tried to take him from me when I was still a child. That's why you wrecked the boat, why you killed all those people. To get rid of my father!" So she had known about Jimenez, about Arbildo's sinking of the boat, and about the graves Jimenez had not reported to her. No wonder she'd been mad when he died.
"You don't know the truth, Luzita. The Dulcia sank because it was old."
Still more ghosts flooded toward our little huddle of misery, perhaps a dozen, all drenched in seawater. I spotted Ernesto Santara, but he didn't look at me. He kept his empty gaze on the ghost of Jimenez. He was no longer a pleasant haunt, but an angry one. The drowned crew moved toward the dead lawyer and Iko stalked along with them, hackles raised, teeth bared.
"My dog!" Maria luiz screamed at me. "Give me my dog!" I held up the bundle of hair and pot shards. "This?" I asked.
Maria-Luz lunged at me. Mickey leapt to his feet but I'd already pulled a bit of the Grey between us and the furious woman's shade recoiled with a screech.
"Mickey, keep her back," I said, in the calmest voice I could muster.
"Just like you kept Senora Acoa from dying. Just put out your hands and send that feeling toward Maria-Luz."
Jimenez was backing away, starting to fade, but I grabbed him, sinking my fingers into the stinging electrical fire of his ghostly form.
"No, no. You have to face the music, Counselor," I said.
Mickey was talking as fast as he could, crooning, and holding his hands between himself and Maria-Luz. The gold strings spun out from his fingertips, stroking over her, making her more solid, more alive-seeming. She began to cry.
Jimenez struggled in my grip. "Let me go, puta local"
I waved the bundle of Iko's figurine at him. "You want me to give this to her? You dodged this bullet before, but I can make sure it hits you this time." I was guessing, but I knew Maria-Luz had not meant any comfort for Jimenez when she'd tried to have Iko sent to him before. Iko jumped and snapped at him, snarling.
Jimenez froze and the crew gathered tight around him. I let him go so they could hold him prisoner themselves. They muttered to him and the sound raised the hair on my arms.
Mickey shot me a panicked look over his shoulder and I stepped closer to him. Maria-Luz was still standing in front of him, looking almost solid, while Hector hovered just behind her, clucking and making the soothing noises people murmur to upset children.
"It's all right, Mickey. You can stop."
"Ask Tio Munoz."
Mickey jerked his gaze back and forth, searching for the bogeyman. We were creating a ruckus. The other partiers in the cemetery were beginning to look our way with curiosity.
I sat down on my stool and tried to act like there was nothing at all strange at our feast of souls. I bobbed my head and let my feet tap in time with the brass and strings of the mariachis nearby. I motioned to Maria-Luz, who wafted closer. Jimenez was still petrified in the circle of dead sailors.
"All right," I started. "You tried to give the dog to Jimenez before, then you decided to give it to Hector, and then you gave it to me to give to Hector. Why?"
She hung her head. "At first, I was angry. Iko never liked those lawyers—"
"A good judge of character," Hector injected. "Iko was all I had after Papa—went away. And when Iko died, that was all I knew how to do, all I could think of to keep him for a little longer—to take me to Mictlan someday."
"Some people think this is a very bad kind of magic."
"It's not. It's just… the dark kind. The death magic. What is death but part of life? And my dog was dead. I had done bad things with the magic when I was angry at that… man who called himself my father," she spat, "but I never meant harm with keeping Iko. But I found out Jimenez had lied to me. He had never tried to find out what happened to my father. He spied on me and he took the information to Leon and they tried to kill my father a third time so he had to run here and hide. I was so angry when I found out what he had done, I wanted to punish him! I thought Iko would keep him from Mictlan. Keep him in limbo and torment, forgotten but never released to the third death, wandering the way he had done to the sailors on the Dulcia."
"Tell the rest, pequena," Hector urged.
She sobbed for a moment. Mickey sat next to me, wide-eyed and still, watching the ghostly woman weep until she raised her head and looked at him. "You understand the magic, you know how hard it is… to be good. It was so hard, but I thought I should do a better thing. I changed my will so Iko would go to my father, to help him find the road, and I gave all the money for the families of the sailors. Leon and the insurance company gave them nothing. I thought I could repair the wrong, even if the magic was a little… dark."
"But the will I saw doesn't give the money to the families of the Dulcia's crew."
"No." She hung her head, ashamed. "Banda changed it. I don't know why I thought he was different than Jimenez. They were both charming liars…."
"Banda forged your will."
She nodded. "He is my father's man, even after death. Just like that pig," she added, spitting in Jimenez's direction. Her spittle hissed and raised a red spark on the ground where it hit. Jimenez recoiled, but kept silent. Hector tapped her again and motioned her on. Maria-Luz sighed the smell of earth and copal. "The spirits told me of you. I was sick with the cancer that killed me, but they came when I called and they said you could fix the horrible mess of this. I believed them. I told Banda to give the dog to you. 1 thought you could solve my puzzle of the graves, find out what had happened and make it right. And my papa and Iko could be together again."
"So… this bit of junk controls Iko's soul…."
Maria-Luz and Hector nodded together.
I studied the bit of hair and thread. I glanced at Mickey.
"What do you think? Eternal torment for Jimenez? Or can we do something else with this?"
The boy was trembling. "Why are you asking me?" he demanded.
"Because you have the magic. And Maria-Luz doesn't anymore. She's dead, Mickey. She can't change the things she did."
"I don't have any magic! Just the ghosts! That's why I read up on the Santisima Muerte—so I could use the ghosts for magic," he finished in a harsh whisper.
"You already have the magic. You do. Look at your hands."
"They're just hands!"
"Look at them the way you look at the ghosts—sideways, through the worms and lights and crazy mist. Look softly."
He stared down at his gangling, oversized paws, flexing them slowly in and out of fists and turning his head side to side. Tears began to well and fall over his lower lids as he stared without blinking. "It's—there's something on my fingers…."
"Yeah. That's it. That glowy stuff. Real magic, brat-boy. Live magic."
He stared at me. "Do you—?"
I shook my head. "No. I don't have anything like that. I just see ghosts." That wasn't strictly true, but that wasn't the time for messy little details. "But I can tell you that's life magic, not death magic. If you die, it goes away. That's what's happened to Maria-Luz."
He glanced all around the panteon, taking note of the ghosts, the living, the dead… and Tio Munoz, who sat on the ground among the tombs of the Arbildos and smiled at us, glimmering with a golden sheen.
"What do you think?" I asked again. "Should we sic Iko on Jimenez for eternity? Poor old Iko, faithful unto death and beyond. I'm not sure he deserves an eternity spent snapping at the heels of this scum."
"No," the lawyer agreed, and was silenced again by the drowned crew that surrounded him.
Maria-Luz and Hector hung on the moment, watching Mickey.
"What… what about the other one? The guy who faked the will?"
"Banda," I supplied. "Yeah, he's a piece of work."
"You, Mickey. I can deliver the bomb, but only you can build it. Iko hates him. All you have to do is make the magic go the right way so it's alive. If the magic is tuned for Banda, Iko will seem to be alive to him, but he'll still be a ghost dog to everyone else."
I cut a glance at Maria-Luz. "Then all we have to do is tether Iko to Banda…."
She nodded. "I think… it can be done. If you rewind the thread just right."
"But what will happen to the dog? Will it… be…"
"Doomed to eat lawyer in hell?" I added.
Mickey nodded, but he was looking at Maria-Luz now.
"Wind the thread the other way, wind it to the life of the man," Maria-Luz whispered, beginning to fade. "Iko will come to me when his job is done. Or when you break your binding."
Was it so late… or so early that the night was ending already?
No, I could see it was still dark. But she was tiring, her energy fading after such an evening—her first and probably last return from the Land of the Dead. Only the sailors and Jimenez were as present as ever. Hector and his daughter had started to slide away.
"You'd better start before Maria-Luz is all gone, or you might lose the chance," I prompted Mickey.
"Try it. What's the worst that can happen? You let the dog go. Right?"
I handed Mickey the bag of Iko's shards. He took the bundle of hair out and began picking the red thread loose. He concentrated, pulling the thread loose, unwinding it with care.
Iko began to fade with a whimper.
"No, Iko," Hector called to the dog in a singsong voice, thin as steam. "No, perrito, stay. Good dog…."
"Think of the man," Maria-Luz whispered. "Think of him, Jimenez's partner, Banda, the lawyer, the thief, the fraud…." She pointed toward the thread, a stream of her knowledge flowing out of her skeletal fingertips, touching the boy and the bundle of hair.
Mickey rewound the red strand the other way, muttering under his breath. The gold threads from his fingers caught on the hairs in the bundle, caught in the twist of the thread and bound up, muttering with Mickey, singing magic, alive and golden and hot as the sun.
Hector and Maria-Luz stepped backward, back, back, fading as they went, until they were only a whisper and a shred of smoke on the air. Iko stopped whining.
A hush fell, as if all the spirits of San Felipe del Agua held their breath. Mickey tied off the string. "There. OK? You think?" he asked, holding it out. But there was no one left to see it but me and Tio Munoz.
The old man had come up on us without any warning or apparent movement.
"Muy bien!" he cackled.
Mickey started with surprise, jumping to his feet. The old man backed away, chuckling.
"Where did they all go?" Mickey asked, bewildered.
"Back where they came from, I'd guess. The sailors took Jimenez—I think he may be in for some trouble in the afterlife," I said.
"Good!" Mickey spat.
"And Maria-Luz and her father went… wherever."
"To Mictlan," Mickey corrected. "I think."
"Not so sure now?"
"I–I'm not sure about much…."
Well, that was a change. But I didn't comment. Instead I said, "I think we can go now, if you want to."
"I guess. We can leave the ofrenda. No one will steal from ghosts."
We started back through the crowds, the music and laughter jarring against the strangeness of the night. Mickey handed me the bag of clay pieces and the knotted bit of hair, magic, and string as we approached the gate.
I pointed at the gate, where the dog had appeared again, looking more like a real dog than ever. Mickey grinned and went to pat the little mongrel, carefully, as if he wasn't sure his hand could really touch it.
"Gracias, Senorita Blaine."
I turned, not at all surprised to find Tio Munoz behind me.
"For what?" I asked.
"For helping him find a better path. He was headed for bad things."
"I just do what the choreographer tells me. What are you going to do now?"
He laughed. "I think that is up to Miguel. What about you? You are finished here."
I nodded. "Yeah. Here. But there's one thing left in Mexico City."
Munoz shook his head. "Justice may be hard to serve with only the word of ghosts."
"That depends on which sort of justice you're talking about."
He seemed pleased by that and nodded his head. Then he turned and walked away into the night.
Mickey and Iko ran up to me, the dog grinning a satisfied doggy smile, not nearly as tentative as Mickey's.
We walked back to the Chevy and got in. This time, Iko jumped in and curled on the floorboards at my feet.
As we drove back down the hill, Mickey cleared his throat and glanced at me.
"Uh… so. What now?"
"Now, I'm done. I get to go home. By way of Mexico City. And Mr. Banda's office. Maria-Luz and Hector still have a little payback coming."
"And the guys from the Dukia."
I nodded. "I think I have a way to set things up as Maria-Luz wanted them. And I won't mind giving Banda a good scare."
"I low's it going In work?"
"I'll give the bundle to Banda, so he becomes the vessel—I can figure out how. Then he'll be stuck with Iko until he dies, or you let Iko go."
"Can I do that?"
"Yeah. You'll figure it out." I had.
He made a thoughtful frown and was silent for a while. Then he said, "I think I must have missed something. Why did they kill the sailors?"
"That was an accident, but it didn't matter to Arbildo and Jimenez that they died. The boat was old and the company was in a temporary financial crisis. So Arbildo decided to sink it—have a little accident at sea—and collect the insurance. The sailors were just in the way. Except for Hector. Who'd been having an affair with Arbildo's wife."
"Yeah, I got that. Maria-Luz was Hector's daughter, really."
"That's right. He followed her mother to Mexico City. I think Arbildo must have caught on and so Hector did his first disappearing act. He abandoned his real identity as Estancio Rivera and took on the name Hector Purecete, Senora Acoa's long-lost relative. Estancio was from Oaxaca—he worked in the mezcal distillery down the mountain—and he'd seen the name on the headstone in the Panteon San Miguel just like we did. He got a job with the Arbildo shipping company as Hector so he could still be near Consuela and their daughter. While he was at sea, Consuela died and she probably let his new identity slip as she was dying. So Arbildo decided to get rid of his wife's lover once and for all."
"But… Hector called his daughter Carmencita…."
"That was Maria-Luz's middle name: Carmen. They probably called her that so it was less likely they'd trip up in front of Leon Arbildo—but he knew."
Mickey continued to frown. "I'm still not sure I get it…."
"Arbildo sank his ship with the help of his trusty henchman Jimenez, and he didn't let on to anyone that Maria-Luz was not his daughter."
"Why didn't he just… have another kid?"
"Last night, I saw hundreds of dead kids in the cemetery. They were all Arbildo children. I'm not sure what the problem is, genetics, bad luck, a curse… but whatever it is, the Arbildos don't have healthy kids. They die young. Only one or two make it to carry on the family name. Consuela had four children, but only Maria-Luz made it past the age of three. Leon Arbildo didn't have any surviving brothers or sisters, or any other kids. He had to have Maria-Luz and she had to be his daughter, unequivocally.
"He was a very proud man—a jealous man, too," I continued. "And Catholic. The illegitimacy thing was not acceptable. He had Maria-Luz watched, the same way he'd had Consuela watched. She must have known she was watched and been resentful. She started doing black magic to hurt him—she got thrown out of school for it a couple of times. When she finally met Hector and found out he was her real father, that's when the hate started. But Arbildo got even: he died and he left the estate in the hands of the lawyers who'd helped him in the past."
"And they kept on watching her and manipulating her, right?"
"Yeah. And they kept right on doing all the same things they'd done for her father and not telling her they did it. They drove Hector into hiding, and when he died, Maria-Luz had nothing left but the dog and her hate. She started trying to find out about her real father, so she went to Oaxaca a lot, looking for his family or his grave or whatever she could get. She laid that false trail for us with the Registrar of Deaths to confuse her lawyers in case they were keeping track of her. We know Jimenez had tracked the graves, but so long as she didn't show up there, he'd never know she'd discovered the truth and he'd never be able to stop her plans for revenge."
"But she changed her mind!"
"Yeah, she did. Because she found out about the Dulcia. She decided justice was better than vengeance and, again, she left a puzzle for someone—me—to solve that would reveal the truth."
"She was devious, that Maria-Luz."
I smiled. "Yeah."
We pulled into the tiny covered carriageway of the guesthouse and I stumbled out of the car, suddenly exhausted.
Mickey caught my arm. "Hey… uh… you leaving soon? 'Cause I still got a lot of questions."
"Sorry, Mickey. I have to go tomorrow."
The church bells from the zocalo rang the quarter hour. I checked my watch; it was still early for Oaxaca on el Dia de los Muertos—only ten fifteen. But it felt like two a.m.
We walked up the stairs to my room, the house still quiet while everyone was at the cemetery. I stopped and studied Mickey as he waited for me to unlock my door. He was tired, but standing straighten His sullen look had changed into a thoughtful frown as he tried to understand what had happened and what might happen next.
"Hey," he said again. "Is Iko… going to… chew on the lawyer in hell?"
"I don't think so. When Banda dies, the dog gets to go free."
Mickey grinned. It was really a nice grin. I smiled back.
Then I stumbled into my room and fell onto the bed and into sleep.
In the morning, I returned to Mexico City with only a short pause to lay some plans and then say good-bye to Mickey and his aunt. Mickey was grinning again, though this time there may have been more malice in it than the night before.
It was pretty early, but I managed to call Banda's office and get an appointment through his secretary. If he skipped out on me, I would hunt him down.
But he didn't. He was there when I arrived, even if he seemed a little puzzled about my appearance in his office. With a dog.
He looked at the strange dog and frowned. "Did you pick up a stray in Oaxaca?"
"No. Don't you recognize this dog, Mr. Banda? A former client of yours was sure you would."
Iko began to growl like he had at the airport and stalked toward the desk. Banda stood up, looking nervous. "I think you should call off your dog."
"He's really not mine," I said, closing the door behind me. "If you take a good look at him, I think you might recognize him. He's Maria-Luz's dog. And Hector Purecete's. Who used to be Estancio Rivera. You know: the guy your partner tried to kill by sinking the Dulcia."
"I think you should be more careful what you say, Miss Blaine. That's slander." He didn't look at me, just at the dog. The dog his secretary hadn't noticed. Nor anyone else we passed on the street or at the airport.
"Truth is a complete defense, I'm told. And the insurance company was never that convinced it was an accident," I replied. "But you know that. Because you helped cover it up. And still are. Which is how a guy in a two-man office can afford to fly to New York to watch the Yankees all season, every season. Because you steal, and you blackmail, and you pay people off. Like you paid off the guy at customs to break the dog so I'd go home. Didn't you?"
He was backing up as Iko kept coming, inexorable as death.
"Don't know what you're talking about…."
"Oh, yeah, you do. And so do the federal investigators who drop in to chat with you once in a while, and the petty officials, and everyone else you pay off so they won't pull your license and throw you in jail to rot. There's a long list of your transgressions if you know where to look. Like I do."
"What the hell do you want, Miss Blaine? I'm sure we can settle up and go our ways. You and your dog," he added, as if he'd like to spit, but didn't dare. He was sweating and turning pale. "Will you be happy if I admit I paid to have the dog broken? Is that it?"
"No. I do like hearing you say so, but it's not enough. What will make me happy is if you were to suddenly remember Miss Arbildo's amended will. The one where she leaves everything to the families of the sailors who died on the Dulcia."
"There's no such will!"
"No, there wasn't! Just the ones I showed you. Whose word are you taking? Mine or some… informant living in the hills?"
I walked closer to him. Iko had backed him to the wall. "I am taking Maria-Luz's word for it. And in a few minutes, I'll take yours, because I think you'll want to make a clean breast of the whole thing."
"You're crazy! Just as crazy as she was."
I gave him a cold look. "Iko, rip his throat out."
The little dog let out a banshee howl and leapt for Banda's chest.
Banda screamed, and tried to cover his face and neck with his hands, falling over his desk chair as he flailed at the ghost dog.
The secretary pounded on the door, yelling.
I stuck my head out. "He fell. He's OK," I added, pointing to the thrashing man on the floor. "Or not." I shrugged.
The secretary stared at her boss, shrieking and writhing on the floor, and backed away muttering about the police and the doctors. I wasn't too worried. They wouldn't find a scratch on him.
Iko was biting savagely at Banda, who seemed to be feeling every snap of the little dog's incorporeal jaws. I have to hand it to Mickey and Maria-Luz: they did fine work. Iko was only «alive» to the man whose life he was tied to: Banda.
"Iko," I called. "Get off that piece of trash." I clapped my hands for the ghost dog's attention. "Iko!"
Reluctantly, the dog jumped to the ground and stood on stiff legs in front of the lawyer, growling. Banda dragged himself up the wall, panting and shaking. He stared at the apparition with horror.
"Wha—what… is that?"
"It's retribution, Mr. Banda. That is Iko. He was on board the Dulcia when it sank. But Hector Purecete saved him. I don't think there's ever been a dog in this world—or the next—who hates you the way this one does. And he's all yours."
I elbowed him sharply in the gut and he gasped. I pushed the bundle of hair into his mouth and shoved his jaw shut. Convulsively, he swallowed.
Then he gagged for a moment, staring at me, until he caught his breath again.
"Jesus. What was that?"
"It's Iko. It's the little bit of magic that was in the dog you were so scared of. And now it's yours. For the rest of your life. And maybe a little longer."
He ran for his washroom and tried to throw up, but there was nothing to toss. He shook and prayed and babbled for a moment as Iko circled him, hackles raised and teeth bared.
"Payback's a bitch, isn't it?"
He glared at me as a renewed pounding started on the door. I backed up and leaned against it. "You want to talk to these guys or do you want to get out of this mess?" I asked.
"I want to get the hell rid of you. And your damned dog!"
"Your damned dog, now, Banda. But I can tell you how to get rid of him. If you do what I want."
"I'll have you arrested," he growled, rubbing his throat as he staggered out of the washroom.
"Oh, come on. You know my lawyer. You think that's going to fly? And if you think you can arrange an accident for me like Jimenez did for Purecete, consider that you currently have a dead dog waiting for a word from me to start biting the living hell out of you. It won't kill you. But I'd bet you'll wish it would. Whoever is on the other side of this door is going to think you've gone insane when they see you rolling on the floor with an invisible dog. Because only you and I can see Iko."
If hate were a living thing it would have leapt for my throat from his eyes. "Saiga!" he shouted at the door. "Salga! Estoy bien!"
The knocking died away.
"What. Do you want?"
"Ms. Arbildo's real will. I want it registered and entered for probate, or whatever you need to do to execute it. Today."
"I don't have it," he spat. "It's gone. I burned it!"
"Then forge it. Like you forged the ones you showed me be- fore. The estate is to be divided among the families of the crew of the Dulcia."
"There is no estate to divide! Don't you get it, estupida gringa? It's all gone. The estate is bankrupt. The money is gone!"
"You told me Maria-Luz was loaded. That thirty thousand U.S. was a 'drop in the bucket. And it didn't disappear until you were the sole controller. So you can un-bankrupt it the same way you broke it in the first place, Banda. And if you don't, you won't just have an angry ghost dog on your ass. Because even you and your dead partner and your cheap secretary can't possibly have blown that much money, and certainly not without leaving a trail wide enough to march the Mexican army down. So, you still have it. Which means it can be returned to its rightful owners."
"Iko," I said.
He threw himself into his chair, saying, "No, no! Please." He snatched his keyboard and began to type.
I came and stood over his shoulder, watching, while Iko growled nonstop. I looked the finished document over.
"That's pretty good, Banda. I see you'll still be able to feather your own nest, if less regally than before," I added, glancing around his very nice office.
He muttered under his breath.
"Knock it off. You lost. Man up and live with it."
I hung around while he finished up, printed the forms, forged the signatures, and got warily to his feet, eyeing the threatening little hound that dogged him unceasingly. Stifling his fury, he led me on a long damned walk around downtown Mexico City to register the will and rescind the previous one.
Just outside of the courts building he stopped and turned back tome. “Satisfied?"
"Mostly. But I know you can walk right back in there and pull that paperwork by saying you were coerced. But this is the thing you need to remember, Banda: the dog is forever. And once I'm gone, you're not off the hook, because there is someone in Oaxaca who knows all about the will, the Dulcia, the dog, and all the rest."
"Another of your ghosts?"
I laughed. "Oh, no. A very real, solid, living person. I know you can find out who it is, but don't be hasty. Remember I said there was a way to get rid of the dog?"
"Yes," he snapped.
"That person knows how to set you free. But they won't if you screw over the survivors of the Dulcia's crew. And they can't if you decide to kill them. That person—and powerful friends—will be keeping an eye on you. If that person dies, or if that person chooses not to help you, you and Iko get to spend this life together, and the next one and the next one, until there is no one left on the planet who remembers you, or the dog. Until the third death."
He howled and threw himself at me. I just stepped back as Iko lunged.
I walked to the edge of the plaza and flagged a cab, ignoring the crowd that had gathered around the convulsing, screaming man on the ground. "Airport," I said, turning on my cell phone.
I waited for an answer to my call and finally someone picked up. "Villaflores…"
"Hey, brat-boy. It's the GP. It's done."
He laughed. "I'll be on the next flight. Don't want Iko to have to chew on that lawyer for too long."
"Yeah, poor, faithful Iko."
It's rare for Justice and Vengeance to stand in the same place, but I thought this time, maybe they would. At least for a while. Until the will was executed and Banda's embezzlements were restored to the proper owners. I hadn't told Banda the truth, but that wasn't bothering me too much. Whether he lived with Iko for a day or a lifetime, whether anyone remembered Banda or gave a damn in a year's time or thirty, there was at least one thing that made me smile: it would be a long time before the third death of the little clay dog.