Father Jaime Arriaga
of the Church of Santo Tomás in Nogales was young and thin and had a twinkle in his eyes. Hood sat in his office. Arriaga’s English was as good as Hood’s Spanish and they alternated easily between the two.
He told Hood he’d watched a yellow airplane land on the dirt road that ran through the desert around the church. This was a curiosity. Arriaga had watched as a very tall man with long blond hair had come walking across the desert toward Santo Tomás. He was dressed like a motorcycle gangster. A black dog trotted along ahead of him.
When the man walked into his office, Arriaga saw that he had a machine gun of some kind slung over his shoulder. He introduced himself. He said he wanted to be baptized and he wanted his dog to be baptized also. Arriaga said that the man did not seem to mean disrespect to our Lord by having his dog baptized along with him.
“But you don’t just baptize someone into the Catholic Church,” said Hood. “Do you? Don’t they have to go through certain steps, learn certain things?”
“Yes,” said Father Arriaga. “But he brandished the machine gun instead.”
Father Arriaga laughed deeply. Tears of mirth rimmed his clear brown eyes. “I baptize a dog and you ask me to describe a gun! Oh, you have made my day a better one, Mr. Hood. I’m sorry. I mean no offense to you.”
Hood laughed, too. “None taken. His wife sent this to me.”
He set his smartphone on the priest’s desk. They watched the tiny screen as the miniaturized priest sprinkled water onto Sean Ozburn’s forehead and intoned the baptism with solemnity and feeling. Daisy sat beside her master, looking up. Sean had one of the Love 32s in his left hand, held loosely like an umbrella or a bundle of flowers for a loved one. The strap dangled almost to the floor.
. . .
in nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti . . .
When it was Daisy’s turn the priest’s voice became goodhumoredly dubious and he managed to get through the ritual. Daisy lapped the water from his hand, then off the pavered floor. The priest’s voice echoed in the empty church and the lapping of the dog was pronounced. A stained-glass window threw a burnished orange light that to Hood lent the proceeding a dignity he had not anticipated.
“When I saw the weapon I had decided that my fear of the gun was greater than my fear of blasphemy,” said Arriaga. “I am a man, and weak. But the Lord knows my heart and I know He will judge me with mercy and fairness. Please don’t ask me to describe what the dog was thinking.”
Hood smiled again and watched Sean Ozburn face the camera and speak.
“I, Sean Gravas, have seen all manner of good and evil. And I have seen things that are not good or evil, strange things without values we can assign. At the end of my understanding begins my understanding. At the end of my life begins my life. If every man and woman on earth would do one small good thing each day for someone else, the world would be better. This is my small good thing for today. Just as man is not less than God but only separate from Him, so is Daisy not less than me but separate and distinct from me.”
With this, Ozburn stepped closer to the camera and leaned down and put his face into the lens and growled. It was brief and wild. Then he smiled and reached out and took the camera and aimed it down at the altar boy who had been holding it, and Hood saw fear on the boy’s face.
Please leave us now
, said the priest. His voice was tremulous and thin and it seemed brittle coming from the tiny speaker in the empty church.
Leave this house to God and His children, Mr. Gravas.
Hood reclaimed his phone and slid it closed. He followed Arriaga down a hallway and into the vestibule, then into the chapel. They stood on the proscenium where the baptism had taken place. The basin was no longer there but the same warm light came through the stained-glass windows. He smelled incense and burnt candle wax and the smell of decades. Hood felt goodness surrounding him here, a notion that only good things were allowed within this tiny part of the world. He wondered if he was only imagining goodness.
“What did you talk about besides baptism?”
“He wanted to know if God communicates directly with some people.”
“What did you say?”
“I said that this is possible but rare. Mr. Gravas said he has felt the presence of something he cannot understand in his life. This something moves him to emotions and actions. He compared it to an ocean swell that invisibly moves toward land and when it hits the land becomes waves. He said he felt like the waves, propelled by an unknown swell. He suspected that the swell was God. Sean was uncertain about the baptism of the dog. He believed God wanted him to do it, but he wasn’t sure.”
Hood considered. He was never a churchgoer and he had never given much thought to God or the devil until fifteen months ago, when he’d met a man who claimed to
a mid-level devil. Mike Finnegan. Mike had talked knowledgeably about doing things he could not have done. He knew things about Blowdown personnel and cartel players that flabbergasted Hood. At times, observing Finnegan, Hood believed he was seeing something outside his experience. Later, of course, Mike had repudiated his devilish claims and chided Hood for even half believing him. And Hood had chided himself.
“So just how rare is it, that God talks directly to us?” he asked the priest.
“I honestly don’t know. He has never spoken one word to me. That I could actually hear, I mean. I do feel presences. I feel the presence of the Lord when I walk into this church. I have felt evil in certain men.”
The priest thought. “Perhaps. But I felt in him the presence of God, too.”
“That’s contradictory,” said Hood. “That’s unhelpful.”
“Good and evil are not always separate,” said Arriaga. “They are often together. They are parts of us—present, changing, unequal.”
“A doctor would say that Sean has delusions of grandeur,” he said.
“There are many ways to see a thing,” said the priest. “And many words to describe the seeing of it. Sean can hear God and perhaps even a devil inside him. A doctor can hear madness. Either way, Sean is a man driven by things he does not understand. His growl? There was something primitive in it. It was genuine and pure and true. I fear for him and for those around him. And, although his growl frightened little Israel, and although he forced me to commit a venial sin by baptizing his dog, Mr. Gravas was most generous to us.”
“Mr. Gravas offered five thousand American dollars to us. I very gratefully accepted. You cannot imagine what good five thousand dollars will do in this parish. We can help feed the hungry and clothe the poor. We can buy desks for the school. And textbooks. The roof needs patching and the parking lot needs a coat of slurry to keep down the dust. It would take us a year to get that in the collection plate. Our faithful are poor. For us, this is a small miracle.”
Hood listened, unsurprised. Sean and Seliah had always been generous—a sponsored child in Somalia, the ASPCA, Big Brothers—even with the beggars who would hit Hood and Ozburn up on the streets of Buenavista.
Arriaga sighed. “Let us pray for him. And for you to find him before any tragedy takes place.”
Arriaga prayed aloud. Hood closed his eyes and thought of the three assassins blown to smithereens two mornings ago by Ozburn; then he opened his eyes, barely, just enough to see the light coming through the stained-glass window and the dust motes rising up through this light, and the glow of the old oak pews and the floor pavers cracked and crumbling from years of faithful trample, and the tall wooden cross with pale Jesus hung in agony upon it.
From the shade of the church portico Arriaga pointed to where the plane had landed, and Hood traipsed off through a few hundred yards of hard flat desert to stand on the wide washboard road. He saw Sean’s prints and Daisy’s prints and the fat tire marks that
Ozburn circled three times,
then put down
at a strip two miles south of the fishing village of Puerto Nuevo. This tiny hamlet was just a few miles south of Tijuana, and the small runway that Ozburn now taxied away from was one of Carlos Herredia’s exploratory outposts within the territory of the Tijuana Cartel. Mateo had told him about it during one of their meetings. Later he had given Ozburn a key to the simple hangar and permission to use it at his own risk.
Ozburn left the plane at idle and climbed out and let Daisy free. She bounced about, delighted by terra firma. While he fished the hangar key from his jeans pocket, he watched a white Suburban trundle slowly along a not-quite-distant hillside, then come to a stop. He strapped the Love 32 over his right shoulder and tightened it flush to his body and put on his Chargers windbreaker. He talked to Daisy and glanced over at the Suburban often as he worked.
The hangar was metal, with large doors that slid on runners and echoed hollowly in the quiet evening. When the doors were open he got back into the plane and taxied in, then cut the engine and shut down the machine and climbed back out. There were no windows in the hangar but Herredia’s assemblers had cut small observation slits on all sides, covered by sliding panels. He pulled one open, looked out at the unmoved Suburban. He opened
luggage compartment and from his duffel he took his satellite phone and used this to call a taxi,
He looked out at the SUV again, then slid the cover shut. Then he hooked the heavy phone to his belt and slung the duffel over his shoulder.
Back outside he closed and locked the hangar doors, then stood in the eastern shade of the building where he could see the vehicle. It puzzled him. If it was a Herredia gunship, the men inside would know of Ozburn and let him be. It wasn’t like he was difficult to identify.
But if it was a Tijuana Cartel SUV, then as soon as those men realized that this blond gringo and his black dog were no friends of theirs, they would come forward with the intention of rubbing them off the face of the earth
As far as Ozburn could figure, there would be no better time or place to do that than here and now—evening shadows, miles from town. So he thought maybe it was Herredia’s people, checking in on their hard-earned property.
The taxi arrived and off they went. Halfway to town the Suburban came up behind them, lying back a hundred yards, and Ozburn saw it through the dusty taxicab window: late model, Baja plates, blacked-out windows, satellite antenna bristling from the roof. He sat back and patted Daisy’s head, the blue XXXL windbreaker easily covering his bulky torso, the Chargers’ lightning-bolt logo emblazoned across his chest.
By the time the taxi traded the highway for the rutted road into Puerto Nuevo, the Suburban was gone. Ozburn made the driver wait outside the Restaurant Chela. Tourists chose their lobsters from tanks outside each restaurant. Young Mexican boys and girls walked the streets selling gum and trinkets. An old woman carried a load of folded blankets over one shoulder, an avalanche of colors piled high. A young American couple walked hand in hand across the pitted street, the man slender and the woman curvaceous and curly-haired, both dressed beautifully and both lost to each other in ways that Ozburn recognized from his first years with Seliah, the kind of love that is much bigger than the two people involved, and in some way more fragile. After five minutes outside the restaurant the driver became nervous and asked that he be paid. Ozburn caught the man’s eyes in the rearview and growled at him softly. The driver nodded emphatically, then jumped out of the car and onto the wide, uneven sidewalk linking restaurant to restaurant, and disappeared around a corner.
Ozburn waited another five minutes, petting Daisy’s head. No Suburban. Five minutes more. He saw the cabbie peering at him from up the street. He dropped way too many bills into the driver’s seat, grabbed his duffel and got out. Daisy sprung after him and he strode up the narrow street, a large man with flowing blond hair and a Chargers windbreaker buttoned against the Pacific cool and a light-footed black dog in the lead.
He sat on the upstairs deck
of Josefina’s restaurant in Puerto Nuevo, Daisy at his feet. It was late and the street outside was nearly empty of the tourists.
The young couple he’d seen crossing the street earlier happened to share the deck with him. They spent most of the time looking into each other’s eyes, speaking softly, sipping their wine. Ozburn could see the woman’s face and she was flush with love. Her eyes shone and her earrings sparkled and her laughter rippled toward him like a stream.
Ozburn smiled; then her laughter was joined by the sounds of the restaurant owners back in the kitchen, and by a
on a distant radio, and the surge of the ocean against the rough rock shore, and even by the voice of a man that Ozburn could see on the street, nearly two blocks away, standing in a pay phone booth while he talked excitedly to someone about a car he was hoping to buy. Ozburn knew he shouldn’t be able to hear the man, but what was new? Usually it was at night that the sounds became unbearably loud, and this night was shaping up to be one of his worst. He closed his eyes briefly and the sounds converged toward melody.
He finished his dinner and some beers and was now enjoying a clear, bright tequila. The lovers touched their wineglasses with a sharp ping and the man set his hand on her leg.
, she said, to no one in the world but her lover, and Ozburn. The man in the phone booth swore and slammed down the receiver. Daisy ate her scraps loudly. The white Suburban wobbled up the street toward the restaurant, tires grating sharply on the gravel, fan belt screeching, the AC condenser groaning. The woman laughed like a stream again.
Ozburn leaned back from the light cast by the Josefina’s sign and watched the SUV pass. He ordered another tequila and his check. The lovers paid and left in an uproar of chair legs on tile, a draft of perfume, her laughter as they pounded down the wooden stairs. Ozburn leaned very slightly over the balcony rail and looked left, in the direction of the Suburban. The driver had U-turned and parked facing him, lights out. He sat back in the darkness. A moment later a second Suburban came toward him from his right. It was wine-colored in the faint light coming through the screen door of a cantina, where it parked. Dust rose into the headlights; then the headlights went out.