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Authors: Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Tags: #Modern fiction, #Thrillers, #Young women, #Novel, #Women narcotics dealers, #General, #Drug Traffic, #Fiction

The Queen of the South

BOOK: The Queen of the South
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Born in Cartagena, Spain, Arturo Perez-Reverte is the internationally acclaimed author of
The Flanders Panel, The Club Dumas, The Seville Communion, The Fencing Master
and
The Nautical Chart.
Translated into nineteen languages and published in thirty countries, his books have sold more than three million copies worldwide. In 2002 he was elected to the Spanish Royal Academy.

ALSO
BY
ARTURO
PEREZ-REVERTE

The Flanders Panel The Club Dumas The Seville Communion The Fencing Master The Nautical Chart

ARTURO PEREZ-REVERTE

Translated from Spanish by Andrew Hurley

First published 2004 by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York

This edition published 2004 by Picador an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London Nl 9RR Basingstoke and Oxford Associated companies throughout the world
www.panmacmillan.com

ISBN 0 330 41312 0

Copyright © 2002 Arturo Perez-Revertc English translation copyright © 2004 Andrew Hurley

Originally published in Spanish as
La Reina del Sur

The right of Arturo Perez-Reverte to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

135798642

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Mackays of Chatham plc, Chatham, Kent

To Elmer Mendoza, Julio Bemal, and Cesar "Batman" Guetnes. For the friendship. For the corrido.

The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die. She knew such certainty that she froze, the razor motionless, her

hair stuck to her face by the steam from the hot water that condensed in big drops on the tile walls.
R-r-rittg—r-r-ring.
She stayed very still, holding her breath as though immobility or silence might change the course of what had already happened,
R-r-ring—r-r-ring.
She was in the tub, shaving her right leg, soapy water up to her waist, and goosebumps erupted on her naked skin as if the cold-water tap had just gushed.
R-r-ring—r-r-ring.
Los Tigres del Norte were on the stereo in the bedroom, singing about Camelia la Tejana.
Smuggling and double-crossing
they were singing,
were in-se-par-able.
She'd always feared that songs like that were omens, and then suddenly they turned out to be a dark and menacing reality. Güero had scoffed, but the ringing telephone showed how wrong a man could be. How wrong and how dead.
R-r-ring—r-r- ring.
She put down the razor, slowly climbed out of the bathtub, and made her wet way into the bedroom, leaving a trail of watery footprints. The telephone was on the bed—small, black, and sinister. She looked at it without touching it.
R-r-ring—r-r-ring.
Terrified.
R-r-ring—r-r-ring.
The words to the song and the buzzing ring of the telephone mixed together, the ringing becoming part of the song.
Because smugglers,
Los Tigres sang,
are merciless men.
Güero had used the same words, laughing as only he laughed, while he stroked the back of her neck and tossed the phone into her lap. If this thing ever rings, it's because I'm dead. So run. As far and as fast as you can,
prietita
—my little dark-skinned one. And don't stop, because I won't be there anymore to help you. And if you get to wherever you're going alive, have a tequila in memory of me. For the good times,
mi chula.
For the good times ... That was how brave Güero Dávila was, and how irresponsible. The virtuoso of the Cessna. The king of the short runway, his friends called him, as did don Epifanio Vargas, his employer—because he was a man able to get a small plane, with its bricks of cocaine and bales of marijuana, off the ground in three hundred yards, a man able to skim the water on black nights, up and down the border, eluding the radar of the Federales and those vultures from the DEA. A man able, too, to live on the knife-edge, doing runs of his own behind his bosses' backs. And a man able, in the end, to lose.

The water dripping off her body made a puddle around her feet. The telephone kept ringing, and she knew there was no need to answer—what for, to confirm that Güero's luck had run out? But it's not easy to accept the fact that a simple telephone ring can instantly change the course of a life, so she finally picked up the phone and put it to her ear.

"They wasted Güero, Teresa."

She didn't recognize the voice. Güero had friends, and some of them were loyal, bound by the code that used to apply back when they'd transport pot and bundles of cocaine inside the tires of cars they drove across the bridge in El Paso—the bridge that linked the Americas in more ways than one. It might be any one of them: maybe Neto Rosas, or Ramiro Vazquez. She didn't recognize the voice and didn't fucking need to; the message was clear.
They wasted Güero,
the voice repeated.
They got him and his cousin both. Now it's his cousin's family's turn, and yours. So run. And don't stop running.

Then whoever it was hung up, and she looked down at her wet feet and realized that she was shivering from cold and fear, and she realized that whoever the caller was, he'd used the same words Güero had. She pictured the anonymous man sitting, nodding attentively, in a cloud of cigar smoke, amid the glasses of a cantina, Güero before him, smoking a joint, his legs crossed under the table the way he always sat, his pointed-toe snakeskin cowboy boots, his scarf around his neck under his shirt, the aviator jacket on the back of the chair, his blond hair cut short, his smile knife-sharp, self-assured.
You'll do this for me,
carnal,
if they clean my clock. You'll call and tell her to run and not stop running, because they'll want to waste her, too.

The panic hit without warning, and it was very different from the cold terror she'd been feeling up to now. Now it was a blast of confusion and madness that made her give a quick, hard scream and put her hands to her head. Her legs couldn't hold her, and she crumpled onto the bed, where she sat stock-still. She looked around: the white-and-gold crown moldings; the garish landscapes on the walls, with couples strolling at sunset; the porcelain figurines she'd collected over the years to fill the shelves, make a pretty, comfortable home. She knew this was not her home anymore, and that in a few minutes it would be a trap. She looked at herself in the big mirror on the dresser—naked, wet, her dark hair sticking to her face, and between the strands of hair her black eyes open wide, bulging in horror. Run, and don't stop, Güero and the voice on the phone had told her. So she started running.

1 .

I fell Off the cloud I was riding

I always thought that those narcocorridos about Mexican drug runners were just songs, and that
The Count of Monte Cristo
was just a novel. I mentioned this to Teresa Mendoza that last day, when (surrounded by bodyguards and police) she agreed to meet me in the house she was staying in at the time, in Colonia Chapultepec, in the town of Culiacan, state of Sinaloa, Mexico. I mentioned Edmond Dantes, asking if she'd read the novel, and she gave me a look so long and so silent that I feared our conversation would end right there. Then she turned toward the rain that was pittering against the windows, and I don't know whether it was something in the gray light from outside or an absentminded smile, but whatever it was, it left a strange, cruel shadow on her lips. "I don't read books," she said.

I knew she was lying, as no doubt she'd lied countless times over the last twelve years. But I didn't want to insist, so I changed the subject. I'd tracked

her across three continents for the last eight months, and her long journey out and back again was much more interesting to me than the books she'd read.

To say I was disappointed would not be quite accurate—reality often pales in comparison with legends. So in my profession the word "disappointment" is always relative—-reality and legend are just the raw materials of my work. The problem is that it's impossible to live for weeks and months obsessed with someone without creating for yourself a definite, and invariably inaccurate, idea of the subject in question—an idea that sets up housekeeping in your head with such strength and verisimilitude that after a while it's hard, maybe even unnecessary, to change its basic outline. We writers are privileged: readers take on our point of view with surprising ease. Which was why that rainy morning in Culiacan, I knew that the woman sitting before me would never be the real Teresa Mendoza, but another woman who was taking her place, and who was, at least in part, created by me. This was a woman whose history I had reconstructed piece by piece, incomplete and contradictory, from people who'd known her, hated her, and loved her.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

"I'm still lacking one episode of your life. The most important one."

"Hm. One 'episode.'"

"Right."

She'd picked up a pack of Faros from the table and was holding a plastic lighter, a cheap one, to a cigarette, after first making a gesture to stop the man sitting at the other end of the room, who was lumbering to his feet solicitously, left hand in his jacket pocket. He was an older guy, stout—even fat—with very black hair and a bushy Mexican moustache.

"The most important one?"

She put the cigarettes and the lighter back down on the table, perfectly symmetrically, without offering me one. Which didn't matter to me one way or the other, since I don't smoke. There were several other packs there, too, an ashtray, and a pistol.

"It must be," she added, "if you're here today. Must be
really
important."

I looked at the pistol. A SIG-Sauer. Swiss. Fifteen 9-millimeter cartridges per clip, in three neat staggered rows. And three full clips. The gold-colored tips of the bullets were as thick as acorns.

"Yes," I answered coolly. "Twelve years ago. Sinaloa."

Again the contemplative silence. She knew about me, because in her world, knowledge could be bought. And besides, three weeks earlier I'd sent her a copy of my unfinished piece. It was the bait. The letter of introduction so I could get what I needed and finish the story off.

"Why should I tell you about that?"

"Because I've gone to a lot of trouble over you."

She was looking at me through the cigarette smoke, her eyes slightly Mongolian, somehow, like the masks at the Templo Mayor. She got up and went over to the bar and came back with a bottle of Herradura Reposado and two small, narrow glasses, the ones the Mexicans call
caballitos,
"little horses." She was wearing comfortable dark linen pants, a black blouse, and sandals, and I noticed that she was wearing no diamonds, no stones of any kind, no gold chain around her neck, no watch—just a silver
semanario
on her right wrist, the seven silver bangles I'd learned she always wore. Two years earlier—the press clippings were in my room at the Hotel San Marcos— the Spanish society magazine
Hola!
had included her among the twenty most elegant women in Spain. At about the same time,
El Mundo
ran a story about the latest police investigation into her business dealings on the Costa del Sol and her links with drug traffickers. In the photo, published on page one, you could see her in a car with the windows rolled up partway, protected from reporters by several bodyguards in dark glasses. One of them was the heavyset guy with the moustache who was sitting at the other end of the room now, looking at me as though he weren't looking at me.

"A lot of trouble," she repeated pensively, pouring tequila into the glasses.

"Right."

She sipped at it, standing up, never taking her eyes off me. She was shorter than she looked in photos or on television, but her movements were still calm and self-assured—each gesture linked to the next naturally, as though there were no possibility of improvisation or doubt. Maybe she never has any doubts about anything anymore, I suddenly thought. At thirty-five, she was still vaguely attractive. Less, perhaps, than in recent photographs and others I'd seen here and there, kept by people who'd known her on the other side of the Atlantic. That included her profile in black-and-white on an old mugshot in police headquarters in Algeciras. And videotapes, too, jerky images that always ended with big gruff gorillas entering the frame to shove the lens aside. But in all of them she was indisputably Teresa, with the same distinguished appearance she presented now—wearing dark clothes and sunglasses, getting into expensive automobiles, stepping out onto a terrace in Marbella, sunbathing on the deck of a yacht as white as snow, blurred by the telephoto lens: it was the Queen of the South and her legend. The woman who appeared on the society pages the same week she turned up in the newspapers' police blotter.

But there was another photo whose existence I knew nothing about, and before I left that house, two hours later, Teresa Mendoza unexpectedly decided to show it to me: a snapshot wrinkled and falling apart, its pieces held together with tape crisscrossing the back. She laid it on the table with the full ashtray and the bottle of tequila of which she herself had drunk two-thirds and the SIG-Sauer with the three clips lying there like an omen—in fact, a fatalistic acceptance—of what was going to happen that night.

As for that last photo, it really was the oldest of all the photos ever taken of her, and it was just half a photo, because the whole left side was missing. You could see a man's arm in the sleeve of a leather aviator jacket over the shoulders of a thin, dark-skinned young woman with full black hair and big eyes. The young woman was in her early twenties, wearing very tight pants and an ugly denim jacket with a lambskin collar. She was facing the camera with an indecisive look about halfway down the road toward a smile, or maybe on the way back. Despite the vulgar, excessive makeup, the dark eyes had a look of innocence, or a vulnerability that accentuated the youthful-ness of the oval face, the eyes slightly upturned into almond-like points, the very precise mouth, the ancient, adulterated drops of indigenous blood manifesting themselves in the nose, the matte texture of the skin, the arrogance of the uplifted chin. The young woman in this picture was not beautiful, but she was striking, I thought. Her beauty was incomplete, or distant, as though it had been growing thinner and thinner, more and more diluted, down through the generations, until finally what was left were isolated traces of an ancient splendor. And then there was that serene—or perhaps simply trusting—fragility. Had I not been familiar with the person, that fragility would have made me feel tender toward her. I suppose. "I hardly recognize you."

BOOK: The Queen of the South
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