Por que? Por que!? Why, why me, she thinks as the hulking figure advances toward her bed. I’m just trying to make a living, she thinks. I never wanted this, she thinks. I was good. I was pure. Now I am being punished for my sins. Sins I was ready to absolve!
She is alone in her room, a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling, the dust of cracked plaster on the floor though she sweeps regularly. Her bed takes up a third of the small room, though it is only a full-size mattress. Just enough for her and a client. Now she shrinks back into the furthest corner, clutching the yellowed sheet to cover her modesty and hide her terror. But her eyes give her away. She tells herself she is ready to fight, but her eyes say differently. They’ve already gone glassy. They say there is a fight or flight instinct in all creatures, but there is another. Resignation. When a gazelle finally sits for the lion. She looks up as the figure takes a step closer, the shadow cast by the dangling bulb across his broad shoulders encompassing her completely. Her eyes are frightened, but she is placid.
“Donde está? Where is he?”
No response. The monster waits, willing to give her a moment. In these situations he finds they usually only need a minute to retrieve their voice from the pits of their stomachs. Sometimes though, they do something stupid. He considers this.
The woman shakes her head, her long dark tresses falling across her face. She tosses them back again, shaking her head more defiantly now. She didn’t believe the stories before, but she believes in them now. “No,” she says. She is going to say more, but instead just repeats. “No.”
The dark figure straightens his shoulders and juts his enormous square jaw. Torture lost its fun years ago. Now it’s just time-consuming. He cracks the knuckles of his gigantic hand, mulling his next move.
“He’s not here! I swear! What have I to gain from lying?”
The figure looks up at the door, then looks across the small room to the kitchen, really just a counter with a sink and a hot plate. His heavy-lidded eyes sweep across to the wall to his right, the window behind him. He looks over her shoulder, the closet door in the wall behind her. He looks at her.
“No. Go ahead. Open it. Open it. He’s not there. You’ll see. I’m not lying.”
Two surging strides and he’s there. He tears the door clean off. It’s empty, but for some rumpled nightgowns and stiletto heels.
“See? He’s gone. He left—” Her voice catches. She just said something she shouldn’t have. He turns to her, looks into her eyes.
She spits. It hits his left breast, just below his shoulder. “Él prevalecerá. El Misterioso will prevail!”
So. He was here. No surprise. But, the monster thinks, can he just leave her like this? There are too many things to consider, and he can only think of one thing at a time. leans forward, retracts his best arm, the one that is shaped like a barrel, the fist like a sledgehammer. He drives his fist into her ribcage with all his might.
She barely makes a sound.
His name is Matón. He steps out into the dark alleyway, frowning at the blood spattered on his new plaid suit. He’s got flowers in his fist. Red ones, he doesn’t know the names and doesn’t care much. His employer would like them delivered by hand. Matón’s hand, he supposes, though he didn’t say.
He hears sirens in the distance, but he knows they are not for him. The sirens are the crickets of this city. They are the night music. He can’t sleep without them.
There is some extra commotion in the alleyway tonight. The rats are on the move. All in the same direction. Matón looks down the alley at where it bends to the left. A street lamp just out of sight casts a limp glow on the back face of the brick building right at the bend, and the fire escape looks to him like a hanging moss. From there he might be able to get a better perspective.
Something darts out of the shadows and scurries past him. A large rat, huddled in a shawl and trying to avoid eye contact. A new idea occurs to Matón.
He yanks the shawl from the back of the rat. It’s an Indian woman with her son or grandson. There’s no telling with these rats.
“Where you going in such a hurry?” asks Matón.He looks down at the pair. She is small and huddled, with a long gray braid and round face with sunken cheeks. She is old and missing many teeth. She may not even speak Spanish. The boy—her grandson, Matón decides—is pale, but not by nature. He is sickly. And he is deformed. He is missing his lower jaw, so that his mouth hangs perpetually open like a gaping overbite. His tongue wags eternally, occasionally pulling back into his throat for moisture. Matón recognizes the Sickness when he sees it. The deformities are different, but these rats, he thinks. They are all the same. They will lead me to El Misterioso.
The boy’s tongue lolls around and some noises come from his throat. He is trying to speak.
The old Indian pulls him close to her breast, but she knows she cannot run or fight. Again, he thinks, the resignation: he’s sick of it. But the woman now speaks.
“Please, my nieto is sick, we go to see El Misterioso. Please…”
Matón looks up, and sees in the shadows of the alleys other poor and decrepit rats scurrying toward some tenement just around the bend, where presumably El Misterioso is plying is ministrations. He crouches to meet the eyes of the Indian woman, and hands her the flowers he has been holding this whole time. The stems are long and scabrous, but the blooms themselves are a luscious red that seems radiant in the humid night.
“Give these to him.” She looks up at him, and he sees she is not afraid, that she has seen too much to be afraid. But she is confused. She hides it well. “They are for the one with the Atomic Suit. El Misterioso, the one with the power to heal. They are—” he thinks for a moment, “a thank you gift. You deliver them for me.”
Frightened, she nods in obedience and accepts the bouquet. She does not trust him, he can see that, but she will deliver them. This he knows. He tells her to tell him they are from Zapotextl. “You know this name?” he says. She nods slightly. “Good. Then you will do as I say. Now,” he stands to his full height, “Corra’. Run along.”
Matón watches as the rats scurry away. He has done his job well. He is not as stupid a beast as people think. His employer knows this, that is why he sent him. But it was a simpler errand than he expected, and now Matón must report back. He almost wishes someone would have put up a fight. He could have provoked it, or could go looking for one now—fights are easy to find, when you look, especially in this part of the City—but his employer would know, and he would fall out of favor with him. Matón prides himself on being the best at getting the job done. So it was an easy job—Matón accepts this, and decides that this is all right. It would have been trickier for someone else to pull off. But not Matón. He has just helped his employer get one step closer to El Misterioso. One step closer to capturing him and with him, the secret of the Atomic Suit.
A man in a white suit and fedora steps into the light. His neatly trimmed mustache hovers over an open mouth. “My dear girl,” he says, “What did they do to you?”
The man strides forward, scooping the battered woman into his arms. The woman, barely conscious, does not protest. The pooled blood has thickened into a soup on the mattress between her knees. She never knew blood thickened like that, she always thought it dried out like a scab. Several ribs are shattered, and it hurts her to breathe. One of her lungs is punctured and bleeding internally. Her mouth his crusted with blood that she has gurgled up—the kind that dries. The pain, dull and heavy, weighs on her.
The man cradles her, soothing her hair and whispering into her ear. It feels like a circus strongman lifting a truck with his bare hands. Not even his hands, his words. Not even his words, his presence. Later, she will recall this feeling. For now, she is content just to bask in the warm radiance of El Misterioso’s glowing white suit.
El Misterioso does what he can. He can’t stay long, he has other people to help. But the location of his originally scheduled visit to this particular barrio has been compromised, and now he has to find a new place to receive the ailing. El Misterioso whispers to this patient, tells her it is going to be okay, and he knows this is only a partial truth. She’ll heal, thanks to the Atomic Suit, but she won’t escape this life she is in. That she must figure out on her own. The one who did this to her has no more use for her and will be making no more visits, but there will be other men, equally depraved, who will take advantage of her. “I can heal you,” he whispers, “but I cannot save you.” He looks at the shabby room. The peeling paint and crumbling plaster, the empty cupboards. And then he sees it. The floor. Strewn with flower petals. Petals he recognizes.
He looks at the girl he is holding and now feels a tremendous weight transfer to his own shoulders. He is responsible for her condition. The one who did this was looking for him. The one who did this knows his secret.
One of them, anyway.