CHAPTER 1: Polly Allen
Midwinter in the Mexico highlands. Darkness comes early, devouring the fragile light of afternoon, chilling the air. The pueblo’s citizens call in their children and close their doors. Soon the vast lake beside them reflects only black night and the myriad lights, like diamonds afloat in eternity, that are the now-hidden life of the village. The elegant lake reflects light as well from the distant, opposite shore, of other villages withdrawn. Also hidden in darkness is the crown of mountains that surrounds and has sheltered the majestic lake since its primeval origins.
Into such a dark night the intrepid Polly Allen drove her Ford Escort through the narrow cobblestone streets of the village called Ajijic, in those same highlands, beside this same lake. She held back a smile. She had been holding it back all day, for she knew she must not indulge herself in the least congratulation, not until the prize was firmly in her pocket. But so close it was.
Beside her sat petite Greta Farnsworth, fourteen-year-old daughter of a recent acquaintance and the only translator Polly thought she could trust in the crucial encounter ahead. Greta sat straight in the seat and knew by the sullen severity of her new employer to keep silent. When Polly stopped beneath a street lamp to study the directions she’d scribbled on an envelope in haste that morning, Greta leaned and looked as unobtrusively as possible to see what Polly read. Greta had been told yet no details of their mission, though she expected nothing out of the ordinary, or memorable. The twenty dollars that would be her fee she would spend in Puerto Vallarta next week when her parents took her there. Greta wore a loose red and white striped tee shirt and levis and white athletic shoes. Straight blond hair, pulled back, hung in a ponytail to her shoulders. Polly Allen, a fifty year old divorcee and expatriate, was short but large, and she seemed uncomfortably wedged between steering wheel and seat. Her blouse, canary yellow and full in the sleeves, hung loosely over her waist and upon the dark blue, heavily-pleated skirt that covered stout hips and stocky thighs. Her hair was black and straight and covered her ears. For tonight she’d chosen eyeglass frames of tortoise shell rather than the bright colorful assortment of frames she usually wore.
She peered closer at the scribbles on the envelope. Finally she said, “Ah!”, then refolded and tucked the envelope into her blouse pocket. She backed away from the streetlamp, the only one in view, and drove ahead again slowly along Calle Rivera, parallel to the lakeshore that was no more than a hundred meters away.
She repeated the house number to herself silently, though she was unsure if any such number would be upon the house. The house was said to be dark green, but every house appeared dark and of indistinguishable color. Senor Cuevas said, all else failing, she would know it by the candle in the front window. That she could count on. It should be somewhere in the next two blocks, on the right. The Escort ambled ahead at five miles an hour as Polly squinted at the dark housefronts.
As she did so she said to her innocent companion, “When I find the house, we’ll be speaking with an old Mexican, Greta. This conversation isn’t anything complicated. You’re to translate immediately to me what he says so I can answer him. And you’ll translate what I say to you, in Spanish back to him. Nothing hard. Soon after that conversation, if he gives me what I’m after, I’m going to meet two other men, and most of that conversation will be in English. However—in that second meeting, if either of those men talk Spanish to each other, I want you to translate their conversation to me immediately, regardless of how rude it may seem to you at the time. You understand?”
Greta spoke softly but certainly. “Yes.” She did understand; more than Polly assumed. For innocent though she may be, Greta could even so detect the mystery in Polly’s words. Hints of deception. This might not be the boring, ordinary little job she’d imagined. She stared ahead, even as she sensed her heart beat with this unexpected excitement.
At last Polly saw the little candle in the window, in a house set back from the street. Her eyes brightened; she took a deep breath. She parked, the only car on all this dark street. Greta followed closely behind Polly as they climbed a brief dirt incline from the cobblestones to a level of hardpack whereupon stood the house, candle in window, perhaps thirty paces from the street. As they approached the house, Polly called out. “O-la! Senor Cuevas! O-la!”
Moments later a little man appeared from the side of the house carrying a kerosene lantern, which illuminated the simple smile upon his face. The old man was small and slender as a child, shorter even than Polly’s five foot three, and not half her bulk. He offered each one in turn his leathered farmer’s hand. He was no longer young, but who could say his age: gaunt of face, dark indio, dressed in grimy pants, a shirt of uncertain color patched and repatched, dark hair uncombed, huaraches: portrait of the ancient peon.
He spoke a few words and indicated the house. They followed him and his lantern glow as it shifted over the ground, over concrete brick walls, around the corner and upon a blue tarp covering the doorway, which Senor Cuevas drew back so they might enter. Polly’s courteous smile was rigid; she would betray no distaste or dismay at these primitive conditions.
Though she saw it was preposterous to call it a house. Concrete bricks stacked by some miracle to form the walls of rooms, obviously not a cup of mortar to it. Castoff sheets of tin for roof laid across the walls overhead, only a few inches between her head and the tin. Floors were hardpack dirt. Old wooden boxes were tables, covered in bright cloth. The one easy chair and one sofa both sagged and were of no distinguishable color or pattern. Many pictures were on the walls, half without frames, most cut from magazines; some were children’s drawings. Two kerosene lamps burned on the biggest table, and four candles in jar lids fluttered on the box table beside the sofa. She saw no sink in the kitchen, but only a makeshift platform with basins upon it. Beside that a rusted gas stove connected to a tall cylinder of propane propped against it. A doorway draped with a brown blanket led elsewhere, to sleeping quarters, to what else Polly refused to imagine. Would there be a bathroom, plumbing? Maybe, maybe not. She knew from her initial conversation with Senor Cuevas a week ago that he and his senora’s four children lived here; one child’s wife and their two children; and a bedridden uncle.
Senor Cuevas offered her the favored stuffed chair against the long wall. A penumbra of dust and filth seemed to rise and float where he touched it. Polly indicated that one of the two white plastic chairs by the door would be sufficient, and she sat there before he could say otherwise. Greta sat in the chair beside her employer. Confused that his visitors would refuse the best he had to offer, Senor Cuevas sat in the favored chair himself. He asked if he could serve them limonada, made from his own fresh limes. Greta translated.
Polly shuddered imagining that she might drink something prepared in that kitchen. Still, she forced a grateful smile and said No, she had just come from dinner. Polly studied his face a moment, saw this little man uncertain of his visitors. In that instant, however, she smelled something that was incongruous in this squalor—perfume. She sniffed again. It was there; then maybe it wasn’t.
The paradox bothered her only a moment, however, and she returned her attention to business. Polly spoke to Greta, though her eyes still remained on the old peasant. “Tell Senor Cuevas that I’ve looked at his property. Tell him that I like it very, very much, that I’m certain I can sell it for him, and quickly. As soon as we sign the contract. All the terms are exactly as we agreed on when I spoke to him the last time.” Greta spoke all this in Spanish. Polly removed from her purse the aforesaid contract and held it up for the landowner to see.
Senor Cuevas leaned forward in his chair, as if the better to see Polly and her document. Yet it was more than that, for he seemed to be searching her face for something she had not told him, something that troubled him. Polly, however, misunderstood him, interpreting that he was merely making a thoughtful, sentimental hesitation before taking this monumental step of selling a property his family had owned for more than a century.
As she allowed him this little wistful farewell, her mind wandered and in doing so she also scented again the pungent perfume, seemingly adrift in the air near her, and the paradox again teased, for who in this household of peasants would wear such sophisticated fragrance? It seemed to be part of the very chair she sat in. It was so familiar, she could almost say its name.
At last, his searching curiosity still unsatisfied, Senor Cuevas spoke several sentences, all imbued with the puzzlement that remained on his face, and which in translation would misdeceive Polly of her incorrect assessment of his hesitation. Greta listened politely, then reconstructed Senor Cuevas’ sentences to Polly, even as Greta was thinking that this might not be good news to Polly. Or¬—who knew?—maybe someone had meant to save Polly the trip, and she’d be grateful.
Greta translated. “He says he is confused. Only a few hours ago someone else came with this contract and Senor Cuevas signed it. They said they were your friends.”
Suddenly all these ugly pieces fit together. “Goddamn Jade East!” cursed Polly, naming the mystery fragrance; also then naming the conniving bastard who had no doubt contaminated this peasant’s hovel with its reek—“Goddamn Ramon!” And also naming the bastard’s inseparable other, who would also have been present, the leading wheeler-dealer, “And goddamn Alfred!”
Polly tried for hospitality’s sake to restrain her erupting rage, so that she also might get confirmation from this stupid farmer. “You mean to say that two men—one of them an American, one of them a younger, sweet-faced, charming Mexican, both of them fancy dressers—came here tonight, and gave you a contract to sign, giving exclusive rights to sell your goddamn eight-five acres?”
Trembling, Greta re-asked the question in Spanish, leaving out the swear word. The old man, seeing how this news so angered this senora, was now himself frightened, and he reverted to a cowering shyness that was natural to him. Feebly, he spoke and Greta translated. “Yes, yes, Senora. An americano and a mexicano. They said they worked with you. Senor Cuevas asked if he was wrong to do that?”
For all the fury that screamed inside her, Polly would not waste any of it on this old pathetic man. Alfred and Ramon loomed in her mind now like two cold moons, and she turned a silent fury on them both: utterly departed from the here and now, she cussed them and cursed them in every form that she knew. She let her rage flog them. But silently. And oh so unfulfilling.
Greta and Senor Cuevas watched her face with alarm as it tensed and glared, unable either one to comprehend what passed behind that tortured façade of Polly Allen. For those silent moments she was a blind fury, and she saw neither peasant nor Greta nor anything in that room, only the deceitful cold moons of Alfred and Ramon. It was a smoking cauldron of poison she poured over them. She wanted to stomp and strangle; her hands quivered with it.
Yet the first wave of this silent, terrible fury must quickly pass: the war must be carried on, and she must be ready. The next battle had already begun. Therefore she must let this seething anger quiet and retreat and simmer deep inside her. Though it would assuredly not be forgotten: it would be the fire and brimstone fueling her vengeance on these two scoundrels. Devils, not partners. When Polly once again returned to the here and now, her eyes still smoldered. But now she knew what she would do. She would assault Alfred and Ramon. They would not withstand her.
Finally fully back in the here and now, Polly recognized again the old peasant. Bitter but biding her time, Polly spoke to the old man the words that galled her. “Yes, it was wrong of him to sign that contract. That was not my contract. Those men had no right.” Because the agony within was too much to speak more than that, she turned to Greta and spoke abruptly. “That’s it. I’m taking you home. There won’t be any more translating.”
Stunned, but beginning to realize that she must indeed be in the midst of the very mystery she’d hoped for, Greta Farnsworth could say no more than, “OK, Mizz Allen. I hope it’s nothing too bad.”
Because it was the spiked heel that spurred the fury she must ride into the coming battle, Polly spoke the crude numbers. “This property’s selling for two million dollars. I’m supposed to get ten percent of that. So yes, it’s bad.”
Polly packed up quickly, ready to go. She would skip the farewell etiquette. Polly went to the blue tarped doorway and pushed her way through it and went outside. Though embarrassed at the sudden and unsocial departure, Greta stayed close behind her.
Senor Cuevas followed them outside with his lantern and walked behind them across the hardpack to the little incline that led them down to the parked Escort, but he could not keep up with them, and his shifting arc of light lagged behind them as well.
Polly and Greta found the Escort, and they got in. Polly started up her car and made a sharp U-turn and drove rudely away: leaving the old man at streetside, in the depths of night, holding his lantern high and looking into that darkness after something fast: disappearing.