There was little to suggest that the building had once been a school. Its gray stone remains looked like an ancient man, half combed and barely buttoned, now flaking bit by bit into the grave. At one end of the main hallway a staircase had come undone, folding like an accordion, its handrails dangling into space. There was also a crumbling pile of debris in the stairwell itself, where a metal corrugation jutted upward at an absurd angle. From a distance it looked as though the north end of the school had been jammed against its neighboring mountain with such force that boulders and shale had become part of the architecture.
On the afternoon that the stranger came, twelve year old Mía was perching at her window, a dusky hiding place among broken rafters in the attic of the school. She leaned into the southernmost gable studying black-throated sparrows in the trees below. From there she could see the dry fountain in the plaza, the pathway to the gray-green valley floor, and the road that cut through the next range of mountains. She imagined that it was thousands of miles to the scattering of buildings in the distance, but her friend Quentin had told her no. That it wasn’t even a village, just another mining camp. But who could know? Quentin was five years older than Mía, seventeen and boastful, quick to dismiss daydreams and the romance of make-believe worlds.
And so who could not go climbing? The school was like a ruined castle from one of Grandmother Reina’s tales, now with a stranger coming from some place beyond the familiar mountains. Dogs were baying and romping in circles, announcing the man before he had reached the footbridge at the turn of the trail. He wore cowboy boots, jeans, and a corduroy jacket. In one hand he carried a briefcase, and on his head he sported a black Stetson hat. The man came picking his way over the unfamiliar route as if he expected the school at any moment to break loose from the earth and slide past him.
By the time the stranger reached the rock terrace in front of the building, there remained only Gabriel, the old drunk, sitting next to his broken wall and holding a bottle by the neck. The rest of the village seemed deserted. The cowboy took in his surroundings. Walked toward the figure slouched in the courtyard. Then squatted on the balls of his feet, speaking softly in a heavily accented Spanish. They talked for a few minutes in tones that would have been inaudible even if Mía had been standing nearby. Finally Gabriel made a small O with his mouth and pointed toward the main entrance to the school.
“Gra-see-us,” the man said.
Mía hurried down to the shadowy third floor of the school and then down again to the second floor and its abandoned classrooms. There, where the main halls intersected, two curving stairways, like gestures from a bygone era, rose up to a balcony which looked out on the rotunda below. From this open space Mía could hear the stranger approaching. Once in sight, he drew a notebook from his briefcase and consulted some papers.
The man cocked his head and listened, hearing only the pigeons that gathered in a shaft of light at the far end of one hall. He turned in the opposite direction and peered into a few of the vacant rooms, his boots echoing as he inspected the ruin of the still-beautiful building. There were blackboards with primitive chalk drawings and undecipherable writing, stacks of books in some of the hallways, rolls of butcher’s paper unfurled in certain rooms, and furniture: a teacher’s desk with no legs, a row of metal stools, a dented globe without its stand that someone had kicked into a corner.
Walking back into the rotunda, he surprised an old woman peeping from behind a door.
“Bonus dee-us,” he said. “Yo booze-kway-da . . . ,” he looked at one of his papers . . . “Amedeo Muñoz. ¿Esta aquí?” The woman slammed her door. The man pushed back his hat and looked at his watch. “Shit.” Then continued farther into the school. At the next intersection he flicked the light switches outside an office door. Nothing happened. Finally he simply called out, “¡Hola! Looking for Amedeo Muñoz! Señor Muñoz! Anybody here speak English?!”
Which was when he found Quentin.
The boy had a light complexion but also the strong facial features of northern Mexico, a mixture of European and Nahuatl ancestors. In his shoulders and arms were the first promises of manhood, but at seventeen he had not yet mastered the balance of his frame. He moved a bit awkwardly, like a man in a wrong-sized suit.
The two of them talked in a mixture of English and Spanish, Quentin keeping one hand on the knife in his pocket, the man referring frequently to a folder of papers. There was something important, he said, that needed to be signed. Legal papers from the north. Very important. Was Señor Muñoz in the building? Quentin nodded and pondered what to do. The man might be here to hurt Amedeo or to take one of the children. Maybe someone from the north was trying to move them all away from the school. Quentin thought and coughed and rubbed his eyebrows, reflecting on the bundle of sins he would be carrying into the next world if he drew the knife. And then he reached a decision.
On the back of one of the papers, he drew directions with the man’s pen. Then Quentin slipped into one of the vacant classrooms as the man walked through an unframed window and out into the warm September air. Moments later Quentin found Amedeo in the auditorium working at the base of a wet wall.
There was a gringo, Quentin said, bringing papers. Maybe forty or fifty papers, with writing on every page. They were in a folder, these papers, so that you could open it and turn the pages like a book. And the folder had been taken from a leather satchel with two straps and a handle. “It could be something bad,” Quentin said. “Or something good. Who would bring papers to the school and ask for you by name?”
Amedeo sat back on his heels and looked ahead as if inspecting a riddle. His face was weathered and dark. The hair and eyes were a lustrous shade of black, but the first touches of gray were appearing in the eyebrows and in the stubble of his face. The mouth and chin were wide and unreadable. In appearance he seemed to be in his mid-forties. In manner, he seemed older than the mountains. “Did he say what he wanted, this man?”
“Signing the papers,” Quentin replied. “He wants for you to sign. At least that is what he is saying.”
Before they could continue, a shadow stretched into one of the aisles of the auditorium and a deep voice filled most of the empty space. “You know, I guess I could have followed your map, son. Which I found to be a pretty good representation.” The man eased himself beneath the balcony and put his hand on one of the broken support columns as if testing its strength. “But, hell, I figured why waste my client’s valuable time when you were probably rabbiting right here yourself. Does that make sense to you? ‘Cause it makes sense to me.”
The stranger patted the column and walked away from the sagging overhang, stopping to look back at the front of the balcony. “And, you know what else? I’m working against a deadline here. So if it’s all the same to you I’d just like to get right to it, Mr. Muñoz and me I mean.” He turned back around and strolled down the aisle, glancing into each row and then back up at the balcony again as if he expected to be surprised. He did not hurry, but he kept one arm unnaturally still at his side while holding the briefcase loosely in his left hand.
The cowboy continued to the front of the auditorium where he paused for an admiring look at his surroundings, resting his free hand on the lip of the stage. “This looks like one of them New York City Broadway theatres, don’t it? Balcony like the front end of a lacquered sleigh. I can’t believe they put this kind of detail into schools anymore, the times being so bad and all. It’s a bygone age. Down here, I mean.”
The man patted the stage twice, just as he had patted the column, and then walked the rest of the way to Quentin and Amedeo, stopping some ten cautious feet away. “You know what else I find amazing? How easy it is to bring a handgun across the border. I find that amazing. It’s like all the attention is focused in the other direction, you know what I’m saying?”
Quentin withdrew his hand from the pocket with the knife.
“Good,” the stranger said. “I was hoping there wouldn’t be no language barrier. Now. Are you Señor Amedeo Muñoz-Navarro, and do you speak enough English for me to make you a very rich man?”
“What do you want?” Amedeo asked.
“Now see? We’re making progress already. Pretty soon we’re going to be best friends. So I reckon I ought to introduce myself.” He held up something that looked like an American driver’s license. “And then here’s my business card, which you might want to keep in case you find yourself in need of my services any time after today. Feel free to call.” The smaller card read “Gerald Manley, Private Investigations, 204 Parkway, Suite 3-A, San Antonio, Texas, Telephone BE-6642.”
“Señor Manley . . . what do you want?” Amedeo asked again.
The detective took a moment to study the banks of wooden seats around him, row after row, like a cemetery. The thought made him sad. He contemplated the slow trickle of water undulating from a dark patch on the wall, and he seemed to grow sadder still. The repair work reminded him of untenanted apartments and abandoned houses and the general misery of human existence. And the war of course. In ’44 and ’45 he had witnessed the bombing of whole cities throughout Japan, but never once had he walked through the shell of a building that had been shaken out of its gentility such as this one. The little stream flowed along a curving baseboard, across a stretch of floor, and into a shallow orchestra pit below the stage. Already it had formed a pool that shimmered in the half-light.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” Manley continued. “I come a long damn way and you folks got a hell of a stony staircase down the side of that mountain.” The man placed himself in one of the seats on the front row, settling the briefcase across his knees and closing his eyes for a second. When he opened them, he nodded in the direction of the orchestra pit. “You do recognize that you got water running out of your wall there, don’t you?”
When Amedeo did not speak, Manley thought a bit more, lifted the Stetson from his head, and wiped the inside with his handkerchief. “I mean, if you don’t mind my asking, what the hell’s going on here? You people look like you’re coming in from the Ice Age or something. You look like you collided with a glacier. Did we just not get the news up north?”
“There was an earthquake,” said Amedeo Muñoz. “Years ago. Things go wrong in an old building.”
“And you just now digging out?” the detective asked.
Amedeo shrugged. “The government does not know us. We have been digging out for some time.”
“Sorry to hear about that. I don’t mean to make light of another man’s misfortune.”
“Señor Manley. . . .”
“Yeah. Well. I think I might have scared somebody’s grandmaw back up yonder in the big hall. Didn’t mean to. And I hope you’ll let her know that.”
Finally Amedeo stood up, dropping the wrench he had been holding next to the tool bag where, instead of a clatter, it sent a hollow boom into the vast space. “Señor Manley,” he said, “I don’t mean to. . . .”
“Yeah. You’re right, I talk too much. I been told that, so I’m not going to take up much of your valuable time here. I just got a little something. . . something I wanted you to take a look at if you don’t mind.” Manley fished in the briefcase, keeping his calm eyes fixed on Amedeo. “I been working on a case for a client of mine up in California. Disappearance of an eight month old girl.” He drew forth a manila envelope, eight by fourteen inches, the flap already open at one end. “There you go! I knew it was down there somewhere. The problem being that all this took place a long time ago. Ten or twelve years ago to be exact. Kidnapping is what everybody thought at the time. You know, like the Lindbergh baby.” Without dropping his eyes or changing his expression, Manley handed the envelope to Amedeo Muñoz, who seemed surprised by its weight.
“Yeah,” the detective continued, “that’s the way that most people react. Go ahead, take her out.”
Amedeo lifted one end of the envelope and let a thin metal plate slide into his hand. It looked as if it had been crushed and then hammered flat a second time. There were dents on the back and a red-brown powder where rust was forming. When he turned it over, Amedeo could see that it was a California license plate with the abbreviation CAL and the year 1936 stamped in half-inch letters across the top center. Below were black numbers on a yellow background, 8W 31 29. The paint had been chipped away from much of the background, but the raised letters and numbers were easy to read. “1936,” Amedeo said.
“Twelve damn years ago. Can you believe that?”
“What does it mean?” asked Amedeo.
“Well now there you got me. I don’t have no idea at all. I’m just kind of making the rounds, village to village, asking folks if they might know anything about it. Cause you see, there’s this one little detail to the story. It’s interesting really, the kind of thing that gets in your mind and just won’t fall out. This very plate that you’re holding in your hand right now? It was mailed in a manila envelope like this one, about a month ago, from a town twenty-five miles west of here, name of Zalcupan. You know the town I’m talking about?”
Amedeo nodded. “I know Zalcupan, yes.”
“Not a lovely place, let me tell you. Anyhow, it was mailed from there, Zalcupan, to the home of my client. Whose eight month old baby daughter was the one that just happened to disappear. Back in 1936, as coincidence would have it. And this unlikely looking piece of tin that you are holding, Mr. Muñoz, was at one time affixed to the bumper of a 1935 Nash Ambassador 4-door sedan, also owned by my client. Crème colored. Beautiful car if you ask me, eight cylinders. I got a picture of it down in here somewheres. I mean, they didn’t make many of them, brother. You see what I’m getting at?”
“I’m afraid not.” Amedeo stooped once more and began to search through the tool bag as if looking for something particular.
“Well, I guess I’m not explaining this too good,” Manley went on. “Cause it aroused a real consuming interest in my client. The man who owned the car? His name is Cruz. Alejandro Cruz. And his wife of course. I mean you can probably imagine what the sudden appearance of a clue like this would do to a woman who had lost her only child.”
“Cruz?” Amedeo stopped rummaging in the bag, turned his head to one side long enough to think, and then shook his head once.
“Yeah, he’s a wealthy landowner, maybe you heard of him. Up along the Arosotape River, in California, between San Pedrillo and the mountains. Owns almond trees. Oranges. Cotton. Winter wheat. Horses. You name it. I mean, whoever thought there was money in almond trees? Anyhow, him and his wife, they seemed real interested in why somebody would mail them the license plate of a car that was stolen at exactly the same time that their baby daughter was stolen. I guess you can understand why.”
“Yes. I can. What do the police say?”
“Nothing.” After a pause, Manley leaned forward and lowered his voice as if sharing private information. “In fact, as far as I know, the police, the FBI, are unaware of anything I have just told you. I mean, the car was used in the kidnapping, but the car itself was never recovered. And there wasn’t any note or ransom demand in the mailer. She’s the one who actually got it in the mail, Señora Cruz was. No return address other than the postmark. No communication of any kind. Makes you wonder, don’t it? I guess that’s why I was called in. On account of I sort of specialize in missing persons.”
Amedeo held the other man’s eyes and showed a puzzled face. “It makes me sad for the family. But why do you come here?”
“Because I’m a detail kind of person, Amedeo. Do you mind if I call you that? I get paid to focus my attention on details, like the eight villages that’re within twenty, twenty-five miles of Zalcupan. I’m making a little stop in every one of them. Talking to the head man, a few of the folks in the plaza, seeing if they can tell me anything that might put my client’s mind at rest. Except, you all, you don’t have much of a plaza nowadays, do you?”
Amedeo shrugged again. “We are no more than two hundred and fifty people, maybe forty families in all, and we have very little. But we are not child stealers.”
“So I don’t reckon you got anything for me then? No information?”
“I am sorry,” said Muñoz.
“It’s a real mystery all right. I mean, why would anybody mail a junkyard license plate from one country to another country and then not even include a note? That’s what I keep asking myself.”
Amedeo made his face neutral and slightly lifted one shoulder.
The detective put the license plate back into its envelope and the envelope back into his briefcase. Amedeo turned his attention to the canvas tool bag once more. And Manley turned to leave. Quentin followed the stranger like a watchdog, pausing when Manley paused, taking in the panorama himself as Manley gave a parting scrutiny to the stage, the columns, the scrolled elegance of the woodwork. “They don’t make buildings like this anymore,” he said to Quentin. “No pride of craftsmanship in the modern world. I admire what he’s doing up here, I really do. Takes a whole different attitude.”
Quentin looked back toward Amedeo and then considered the possibility that the kneeling figure would have an attitude about anything. It was not a word that Quentin associated with men. And just as unexpected was Manley’s reaching out to shake the boy’s hand, a gesture, Quentin realized, that no one had ever offered him before. It made him feel tall and straight, as if the world had looked at him from a distance and nodded at last. “Just a word of advice,” Manley said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Sure,” said the boy.
“If you ever go to pull a knife on a man. . . .”
“Just do it. Don’t telegraph it. Just make it one smooth easy move. That way you don’t lose advantage. Remember that. Smooth and easy.”
A wave of humiliation swept over Quentin, and his face burned. He tried to drop Manley’s hand and back away, but the detective did not let go. Instead, the cowboy winked and patted Quentin’s shoulder with his free hand. “Don’t worry about it. You did the right thing. You just got to learn from Amedeo down there. Smooth and easy. Like when I told him I was going to make him a very rich man? Did you notice that he never once asked me how?”
On the afternoon that the man in the Stetson hat first visited them, Amedeo Muñoz fell behind in his repairs. Faraway thoughts clouded his mind. Even when the detective had been gone for hours, Amedeo was still preoccupied with the visit. Toward dusk, he helped Victor Pérez load firewood, but it wasn’t until he and Victor shoved their rickety wheelbarrow of wood up to the cooking terrace that the immediacy of food and family came back to him. Like all of the men, Amedeo enjoyed the communal meals that were a part of harvest season. When he and Victor arrived, there were a dozen female figures moving about in an open space devoted to a smoky, sputtering grill and two serving tables.
Unmarried and unaware of his limitations, young Victor waded into the hubbub with an armload of mesquite and a heart full of confidence. He offered to wed every woman on the terrace, to buy a herd of horses and a palatial hacienda in exchange for a single kiss. He wanted to make the old women young again he said, and to make the young women rich, especially Angelina and Sarita, the two prettiest of the teenage girls.
“I would marry you tomorrow, my amado Victor, but I am waiting for a man,” suggested an anonymous voice from the grill. The giggles did nothing to dampen his resolve. Victor meandered among his women, smiling, touching and caressing before his hand could be slapped away.
“You know,” offered another presence, “that when God punishes us, Victor, he gives us a child like you.”
Amedeo Muñoz felt himself relax a bit at the familiarity of the scene.
His daughter Mía materialized from within the group of women. She dusted her hands on her blouse and tugged at his shirt until he sat down. Then she threw herself into his lap. Amedeo made a satisfying oomph and kept still, wrists on his knees and eyes unfocused. After another minute he closed his eyes entirely and listened to the women whose quiet laughter comforted him. He felt the breathing of his daughter against his chest and imagined her heart beating next to his, their insistence upon each other for life.
“Do they really want Victor to go away?” Mía asked.
“No,” he whispered. “They love Victor.”
“Will they marry him?” Mía picked bits of dough from her fingers and then wiped her hands one at a time on his shirt.
“Paloma maybe. I think she looks at him sometimes when he does not know.”
“Did mama look at you when you were young?”
Amedeo opened one eye. “Ah! When I was young? Only a daughter can break a man with words. Who do you think is old, the man who lifts you to his shoulders with one arm?”
“Could you lift mama with. . . ”
One of the older women stepped away from the others and touched Mía on the cheek. With her right hand she brushed a strand of hair from Mía’s face. “Come along, child. You should help with the food.” At the end of her left arm was a stump where the hand had been severed by some calamity in her past. She patted Mía with the rounded end of her arm and guided her toward the table where the other women worked with chilies and tomatoes and beans. To Amedeo Muñoz she said, “We have to talk.”
“Hmm.” Amedeo did not at first stand up. “People who have to talk, they never bring good news.”
“And yet here you are, saying these same words for years, and still putting yourself at the center of every problem. Walk with me,” said Reina de la Vega, “and see if Gabriel has sense enough to come and eat.”
The woman’s eyes were dark and clear, marked by a depth that was more than the accumulation of years. Her hair, gray and black in equal measure, was pulled back behind her shoulders though not braided or tied. Her high cheekbones and copper skin suggested something more ancient than her sixty years, perhaps that her ancestors were those who had fought the conquistadores. Children of the village called her Abuelita, as did the men who respected her strength and the women who went to her when times were hard on their men. She wore silver bracelets on her right arm and a matching belt buckle at her waist. Bits of turquoise on a leather thong adorned her neck.
“What now?” Amedeo asked. “An electric refrigerating machine for your kitchen? Roll-up shades for every window? A new road up to the gates of Heaven, perhaps, one paved with silver and. . . ”
“Herrera and his family,” she interrupted. “They left this morning. And Malu Ibarra is talking to her man. She wants him to go where there is work.”
“No one told me.”
Reina made a contemptuous sound in the back of her throat. “No one wants to tell you. But the good people are leaving, Amedeo. It’s the stragglers and scavengers who keep showing up. More mouths to feed. More fighting and drinking. There is nothing to keep the good ones here. This used to be a village, eight or nine hundred people before the mountain crumbled. Now we are three hundred or fewer, little more than a dumping ground.”
“There are many good people still here,” said Muñoz. “I’m talking to one of them.”
Together they walked away from the chatter and the sizzle of the terrace, the woman steering Amedeo into the rear hall of the school and pointing upward. “We need water on the second floor. More electricity too. And a truck that doesn’t break down on every trip to the market. We need more than one man can provide.”
“There is more than one man here,” Amedeo said. “And everyone works hard.”
Reina held him by the shirt, just as the girl had done. “You know what I am saying.”
Muñoz stopped, looked up at the second floor, and sighed. “We are back to that, are we?”
“Things are getting worse,” she said. “Things that a man cannot build with his hands.”
Amedeo Muñoz said nothing, but rather set his mouth into a straight line and looked away from Abuelita, who continued in a rush of words.
“That girl is twelve years old and can barely read and write. Now she is the only child her age since Llosa and his wife left. What do you think will become of a child like that from a place like this?”
He knew he should not reply, but Amedeo could not keep silent. “I read to her every night, and sometimes she reads to me. Very well. She reads very well I think.”
“A whore or a peasant, Amedeo. That’s what such girls become.”
He turned a hard face to the woman and held her eyes. “I promise you. That will not happen.”
“You cannot promise what you cannot know,” she shot back.
“And so I should move on too? Take the girl and let the others fend for themselves? I think you know that I can’t leave.”
The woman wondered at such pronouncements. They came from his mouth as if he were king of a besieged realm, as if he had royal obligations that set him above others in the village; and now her own tone took on a sharpness as well. “You are a fool to think that we can live up here,” she said, “like cave dwellers in an abandoned school. You could get a job somewhere in the north. A good carpenter can always find work.”
“I had a job in the north,” he said. “Perhaps you forgot.”
“My name is Reina de la Vega, not Abuelita or Abuela or any other name. And I do not forget.” Muñoz finally realized that it was not worry he was seeing in her face but fear. It was a sickening fear that had not yet turned to panic but, still, had taken hold of her. He could hear it in her voice, now suddenly lowered to a rasping whisper. “What I am trying to tell you,” she said, “. . . is that he knows.” She pressed her lips together and looked away.
Amedeo kept his own words steady. “News travels fast.”
“I’m not talking about the man who came today. That was only his messenger. I’m talking about Alejandro Cruz. He knows you are here. And he knows the rest of us are here.”
“We can’t be sure of that.”
They were not friends, Amedeo and Reina de la Vega; and yet they were closer than many married couples, as if some searing forge had united them more effectively than love. At one time they had been strangers in the village, Reina organizing the women after the quake just as Amedeo had led the men. They were allies of necessity, coming closest to good feelings for each other in their mutual love for the girl. But they did not delve into the other’s motives. They cared mostly about their separate pasts and their differing visions of the future. It was only natural that they should disagree over the girl.
As in most matters, Reina gave Amedeo Muñoz no deference and continued to press her point. “So you want to gamble with all of our lives?”
Still Amedeo did not betray the worry that had clouded his afternoon. “If he knew. If. If he knew he would have sent more than one man. Now. Let us try to finish the day without a panic.”
They had walked through the hall as they talked and had made their way to the front terrace where a reclining form lay next to the crumbling stone wall. Amedeo squatted and shook the shoulder of the rumpled man. “Old friend, it is time to eat. Get up. Come with us. A fiesta. I promise.” The figure seemed as frail as a scarecrow. Amedeo bunched the man’s lapels into his fist and lifted him with one arm, steadying Gabriel with his free hand until the unshaven man was able to stand alone. Gabriel brushed at his long overcoat, leveled his shoulders, and sniffed. He was as thin as an undertaker, with the same sad eyes and economy of motion, yet he insisted to everyone that he was a happy man. Privileged to be alive.
Gabriel tilted himself in the direction of smoke and laughter. Moved forward without stumbling. Soon he could hear a woman’s voice calling to Victor, something about the wild ponies in the valley being more useful, and eating less. Gabriel smiled. Reina herself was here beside him. The air was sweet. And, yes, there was still a pleasant shape to her hips, although she had a tongue, Reina did, as tart as the beautiful Sarita. But what man could ask for more? It was the ending of a good day. Soon it would be time to sleep again. But first, a bite of food, and then later, a sip of something strong.