Among the Runes
Regis Sinclair woke up with mud on his cheek. He was lying face down on the bank of a river a few hundred yards upstream of a garishly decorated building attached to a foot bridge across the water. Sinclair lifted his aching head and looked around through eyes flaked with after-sleep crud. Wild parakeets in the trees. A sign that read "El Paradiso." A blazing hot sun overhead. Ah, yes, Mexico. The long-delayed trip with his fiancée Nicole Highsmith, whom he called Nicki to aggravate her wealthy parents. It was all coming back to him in painful snatches of a hangover delirium. But this was Mismaloya valley miles from their hotel in Puerto Vallarta. What on earth was he doing here?
On his knees Sinclair washed the mud off of his face. The water smelled of feces. Guaranteed case of Moctezuma's revenge or worse if he swallowed a drop of it. He wiped dry with his shirt tail and stood up on shaky legs. Thirty-one years old and his liver still hadn't learned how to handle the volume of booze he liked to drink. Naughty liver would simply have to try harder. No question of moderation or abstinence. Lead straight to the bughouse and that wouldn't be any fun at all.
Sinclair climbed the river bank and walked down the dirt road to the foot bridge. El Paradiso looked vaguely familiar to him. He seated himself at one of the outdoor tables and located his wallet in his right front pants pocket. Full of funny money, Mexican pesos. At least he hadn't been rolled. A waiter drifted up to his table and said, "Buenos dias."
"Do you speak English?"
"Thank God. My Spanish is practically non-existent. I'll have scrambled eggs—leave out the chilies, please—and toast and a Bloody Mary."
The waiter scribbled on his notepad.
"Wait. Make that coffee instead of a Bloody Mary."
Must try to clear my head with caffeine and remember the previous night. No good wandering around like an amnesiac. Alcoholic blackouts were quite unnerving. Never knew if one had made a fool of oneself by running amok. He had to devise a good story to pacify Nicki. Won't do to piss off the woman you intended to marry soon.
The coffee came first. As Sinclair was taking a long swallow, something touched his sandal-clad foot and he jumped, spilling the coffee down his shirt. He ducked under the table and saw a small furry animal tied to a nearby post. He jumped again, banging his head on the underside of the table.
"What in Aztec hell is that?" he bellowed, knocking over his chair.
"Tacon," the waiter said. "Raccoon."
Indeed, it looked like a raccoon with a long nose. The animal reached out a paw with curved black claws.
"What is he doing in a restaurant?" Sinclair asked the waiter.
"A pet, senor. He won't hurt you."
"He attacked my foot. What if he has rabies?"
"No rabies. He is harmless."
"I'd like to speak to the owner of this establishment."
"He is not here today, senor. I will move the coati if you wish."
"Never mind, just bring me another cup of coffee and my breakfast."
He kept one eye on the animal while he ate. The little bastard kept trying to touch Sinclair's foot again, choking himself on the rope around his neck. At the end of his tether like me. Sinclair tossed the last clump of egg to the coati and watched him gobble it hungrily. Another Mexican beggar. They were everywhere and now joined by furry animals. There had been no end to it since the day he arrived in this twisted country.
Over his second cup of coffee Sinclair finally recalled coming to El Paradiso the previous night with Duane Fowler, an old Air Force buddy he had run into at a bar in Puerto Vallarta. They had served together in Vietnam during the last year of the war. It was a shock to see Fowler's homely face staring back at him in the bar mirror. Put on a few pounds. Yeah, me too. Let's have a few drinks and swap lies about the bad old days. Mescal. Doesn't burn going down like tequila. Smooth, but deadly.
A wild ride in Fowler's rental car to Mismaloya bay. Watch the fucking road, Duane. You never could drive a stick shift. A quick swim to sober up a little. Must get back to Nicki before she thinks I've left the country. No phone at the beach to call her. John Houston filmed "Night of the Iguana" on those cliffs up there. No kidding. Let's have some beer to cool off. Iced bottles of Pacifico from the palapa huts. You wanna buy my seester, meester? Go away, kid. Head spinning as Fowler grinds gears going up the dirt road into Mismaloya valley. Are those real parakeets? I thought they only lived in cages. Crumbling shacks, poverty, people staring at gringos from sunken eyes. I'll drop a few pesos out the window to lessen their load. What the hell are you doing, Sinclair? You'll cause a riot. And then the tropical splendor of El Paradiso, an oasis in this sea of torture. Looks like a transplant from Waikiki. Do you have luaus here? No? In that case, bring us a bottle of your best mescal. We'll drink the night away, Duane.
Sinclair finished his coffee and paid the bill. In the parking area across the road he couldn't find Fowler's rental car. Abandoned like a cheap whore.
"I'll strangle the son of a bitch," he mumbled to himself. He went back to the restaurant and asked the waiter to use the phone.
"You don't have a telephone?"
"How can I get to Puerto Vallarta?"
"In the afternoon a bus comes to the main highway at the bay."
Sinclair started down the dirt road, cursing under his breath. At least it was downhill all the way. His back muscles ached from sleeping on the riverbank. When he tried to remember how he had ended up there, his mind filled with foggy images. A pretty senorita and a table full of rowdy Mexican men in El Paradiso. Angry words flying in Spanish and English. Fowler grabbing his arm and both of them running. Falling down in the darkness and running again. Shouts behind him, now alone. Where was Fowler? Lungs burning until he dropped. Must hide or I'll be torn to pieces by this Latino mob.
Reaching the bay, Sinclair discovered that the bus had left half an hour earlier. He caught a ride with an American tourist couple who were driving into Puerto Vallarta. Along the way he remembered a place that Fowler had described in fiendishly affectionate terms. Yelapa, a nearby hangout for young Americans that could only be reached by boat. Sinclair vowed to track down the snake and teach him a lesson. Tie him naked to a fire ant mound and pour honey over his balls—old Aztec remedy for treacherous behavior. You couldn't stay in this savage country for long without fantasizing about various forms of torture. The darkness of its history got into your blood like a fever.
Sinclair and Nicki had come to Puerto Vallarta after touring Mexico city and the nearby Aztec ruins. Nicki had a master's degree in anthropology that she had never used except in cocktail party conversation to impress her Ivy League college friends. Intelligent woman and liberated, too. Just ask her. Then she got it into her head to drag Sinclair along while she gathered new ammunition in Mexico. Fascinating culture she had always wanted to study up close. Sinclair knew it was useless to resist. He consoled himself with the thought that some tropical sun might help him forget the frigid Rhode Island winter.
The Mexican Riviera, a poor man's excuse for the Cote D'Azur. Sinclair's parents had taken him to the French Riviera when he was a teenager. Sneaking out at night for goblets of wine and a young mademoiselle named Brigette. Perhaps he was originally drawn to Nicole because she had a French first name like the sweet Brigette. But his fiancée's name had become a practical joke to him. French first name as an enticement, English last name for the harsh reality. Lily white skin, delicate blue veins to carry the blue blood, but a miser's heart when it came to putting out. A soul at war with itself. If only she could be more like a French trollop, go down on him once in awhile like a normal fiancée, then things would be jim dandy between them. Sitting on the fence of fear, a man could be persuaded to take the leap into marriage if he were treated to the occasional blowjob.
When they visited the Aztec ruins, Sinclair meant to say "the ruined among the ruins," but he was so drunk he slurred his words and it came out "the runes among the runes."
"Runes?" Nicki mused. "I believe that is a Viking term, darling."
"The runic tunic wars," Sinclair babbled. "I'll bet you didn't know the Vikings conquered Mexico. Sailed right down here from Iceland and slew the bloody Aztecs with their shiny swords. Routed the buggers, paved the way for the Spanish."
"You're stinking drunk," Nicki said. "Again."
"I beg your pardon."
"Why do you shame me, Regis? What have I done to deserve this kind of behavior?"
"Nag of a horse," he muttered. "I'm merely trying to enjoy myself in this wonderland of fetid archaeological digs."
"I want to go back to the hotel."
"If you insist, but I thought we were having a splendid time." The hotel in Mexico City that night, Nicki pouting in their room, Sinclair in the bar striking up a conversation with a Mexican businessman named Morales. He spoke perfect English and bought Sinclair several rounds of double brandies. Quickly turned into a drinking contest to see who could hold his liquor like a real man. Another one of those damned blackouts.
The next afternoon, when Nicki woke him, he realized he had somehow made it to bed in their room. Hair in his mouth, eyelids swollen like bee stings.
"The hotel manager is at the door," Nicki said. "What have you done this time?"
"Nothing. And stop shouting at me."
"I didn't raise my voice. You're hung over again."
If I can just get my legs to work. Damn things don't want to slip into these trousers for some odd reason. Get my bath robe instead. The hotel manager seemed agitated when Sinclair opened the door. "Pardon me, but Senor Morales has caused a disturbance," he said.
"Who the devil is Senor Morales?"
"He says you promised to meet him for lunch. He was quite angry when you didn't show up. He feels that you insulted him."
Sinclair scratched himself and turned to Nicki. "Do I know any Senor Morales?"
"You didn't return from the bar until three this morning."
"Yes, the bar. Now I remember."
"Senor Morales threatened to kick down your door," the manager said.
"Are you serious?" Sinclair asked.
"I had to stop him from coming to your room."
"Tell the macho swine I'll meet him outside in five minutes."
"You will not!" Nicki intervened.
She apologized to the manager and closed the door.
"The nerve of these half-breeds," Sinclair grumbled. "Need to be put in their place."
"Regis, you can't go on behaving like the ugly American. We'll be deported."
"Nothing ugly about it. Simply a matter of maintaining my dignity in this herd."
Nicki got a soda from the mini-bar. "Please don't start that again."
"It's true. Most people belong to the herd. I don't happen to be one of them."
"What have you done with your life to make you feel so superior? You haven't had a job in two years."
"Quite a remark from a rich girl who lives off of her daddy's money. Do you want me to throw up?"
"My father has been generous with you, too. He took you into his company when no one else would hire you."
Sinclair lifted the phone to order lunch from room service. "Sorry, I can't listen to this drivel on an empty stomach. Do you want anything?"
Sinclair ate his lunch on the room patio while Nicki smoked cigarettes and stared at the hurly-burly in the street below.
"Why haven't you ever told me about Vietnam?" she asked.
"Nothing to tell."
"I don't believe that. It might help if you could talk about it."
"Help you come to terms with it. I know it must have been a terrible experience."
"Whores, dope and non-stop drinking. Does that sound terrible to you?"
"I'm sure there was more to it than that."
"Oh, stop it. I'm not going to discuss bloodshed to titillate your sick imagination. Read a war novel or something."
In Puerto Vallarta Sinclair remembered this conversation on the elevator ride to their hotel room. He wouldn't have to invent a lie to explain his 24-hour absence to Nicki after all. If she wanted to know about his experience in Vietnam, he would introduce her to Duane Fowler, the man who had shared it with him. The homely face and sweaty palms, history in the flesh, so to speak. She would despise Fowler's vulgar personality, of course, but she would never ask Sinclair about Vietnam again. Shut her up for good on that topic, which is precisely what he wanted.
He couldn't tell her the truth anyway. She wouldn't understand any more than his parents had. His father left the room when he broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. Nasty scene, screaming at his mother as she stared at him terror-stricken. The son she gave birth to in agony was gone forever, replaced by this stranger with madness in his eyes.
No good remembering this shit, Sinclair told himself as he got out of the elevator and strolled down the hall to Room 603. Onward and upward. Never look back because something with fangs might be gaining on you.
Sinclair sucked on bottles of beer during the boat ride to Yelapa. Nicki took out her glasses and read the label on the bottle of seasickness medication he had taken before they departed.
"It says you're not supposed to drink alcohol with it."
"Nonsense. Gets the heart pumping."
"I don't understand why you had to take any pills. The ocean is calm today."
"Even the slightest pitch and I might do a technicolor yawn. I'd prefer to keep my breakfast down if you don't mind."
"I'm looking forward to meeting your friend, even if he did keep you out all night."
Sinclair grinned at her maliciously. "You'll love Duane. Very civilized fellow. Went to Harvard, I think."
"I'm surprised you never mentioned him before."
"I met a lot of men like him in Vietnam. All one big happy family."
"I'm glad you are finally able to talk about it. I feel closer to you."
Sinclair leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. Dirty trick to play on one's fiancée and he intended to enjoy every minute of it. Take her down a notch or two.
"Yelapa is an artist's colony?" she asked.
Sinclair recalled his friend's sordid description: drugs and booze, naked skanks offering blowjobs for a beer, orgies until dawn, no running water, the reek of body odor in the air—Fowler's kind of place for sure.
"That's what Duane said," he fibbed.
When the boat pulled up to the rickety dock, Nicki looked as stunned as he expected.
"Are you certain this is the right place?"
"Welcome to Yelapa," he smiled.
Tumble-down shacks, people wandering around in a daze, dead fish rotting on the beach. On disembarking Sinclair tripped and fell flat on his face. Goddamn medication. Dizzy spell as he dusted himself off. No concussion, I hope.
"Are you all right?"
"Fine. Let's see if we can find Duane in this metropolis."
Holding her hand for support, he made his way to a palapa hut that sold beer. Most likely spot to start the search for Fowler. He would have to come here for sustenance.
"A Pacifico, por favor. Do you want something to drink, Nicki?"
"This place is awful. Those people over there don't have any clothes on."
"Now, now, don't be puritanical. Simply God's creatures basking in their natural beauty."
Sinclair swigged his beer and looked at the old man behind the counter. A face like shriveled leather, two shards of teeth protruding from his lower lip. "Senor, do you know where I can find Duane Fowler?"
"Si." Pointing inland. "The house on the hill."
Feeling better now, he grabbed Nicki by the hand and led her up a flight of wooden stairs that creaked under their weight. She was strangely quiet and submissive in following him. Might be in shock, he thought gleefully. This is more like it.
Sinclair pounded on the door, which swung open to reveal Fowler with his pants down around his ankles and a woman on her knees performing fellatio.
"Oh, my God!" Nicki shrieked, turning away. Sinclair tossed his beer bottle at Fowler's head, but he ducked and it shattered against the wall. The woman ran out the back door while Fowler lifted his pants and attempted to smile.
"You miserable son of a bitch! You abandoned me in Mismaloya."
"Sorry about that," Fowler said. "I thought you were dead."
"So you just took off?"
"Hey, buddy, you were the one who started the fight with those Mexicans. You tried to kiss one guy's sister."
Sinclair turned to Nicki. "Don't listen to him. He's a born liar."
"Is this your fiancée?"
"Nicki, I want you to meet the asshole I spent several months with in Vietnam."
Fowler wiped one hand on his pants and reached out to shake with Nicki. She stared at his hand with her mouth open.
"You have anything to drink?" Sinclair inquired. "I wasted my beer on your worthless carcass."
"Have a seat. I got some raicilla today."
Fowler opened a cabinet door and took out a porcelain jug.
"Mexican moonshine. You'll love it." He poured two glasses about three fingers high. "You want some, Miss—"
"Highsmith. No thank you."
Sinclair took a seat at the table. "I should do a tap dance on your face."
"Stop bitching and drink up."
Sinclair lifted the glass to his nose. The cloudy liquid had a cheesy odor like stinking feet.
"Down the hatch," Fowler said, emptying his glass.
Sinclair held his nose and swallowed. Strange flavor in the back of his throat. Burning sensation in the gullet. Gurgling noise from his stomach. Then up it came, all over the floor.
"Good shit, huh?" Fowler laughed. "That usually happens the first time you try raicilla."
"Mother of Christ!" Sinclair said, spitting. "What is in that stuff?"
"Agave juice and some other things. You wanna smoke a joint?"
"No, he doesn't," Nicki chimed in. "I'd like to go back to Puerto Vallarta now, Regis."
"Can't until tomorrow morning," Fowler said. "Only one boat per day."
"You might as well relax, Nicki. We're stranded for the night."
"May I speak to you alone outside?"
"Your wish is my command. We'll be back in a few, Duane. See if you can rustle up something to eat."
"Take your time, look around."
On the beach Nicki folded her arms and gave Sinclair a disgusted look. "I suppose you think all of this is very funny."
"I can't imagine what you're talking about, darling."
"If you won't be serious, we can't have a conversation."
"You wanted to meet my comrade in arms from Vietnam. Well, that's him. I hope your curiosity is satisfied."
"You knew I didn't want to meet that disgusting creature."
"Did I? Come to think of it, you may be right, Nicki. I guess I knew who you wanted to meet. A pipe-smoking Harvard alumni who could entertain you with witty stories about the war. Sorry if Vietnam wasn't like the war your father fought in, baby."
"Please don't call me baby. You know how much I hate that."
"But you are a baby, you just don't realize it. You never grew up, Nicki. You've been sheltered in a money womb your whole life. You have no idea what reality is all about."
She slapped him hard on the face.
He didn't flinch. "You might be interested to know something about that disgusting creature, as you call him. Fowler saved my life in Vietnam. I wouldn't be standing here in front of you if it weren't for him."
Game, set and match. Leave her reeling with guilt, not wanting to play this kind of tennis game ever again. It was a despicable lie, of course. Fowler couldn't save himself, much less anyone else. But the truth has warts. Can't build a beautiful relationship on warts. Lying was the basis of marriage after all. I promise to love you forever when nobody knows what forever means. Just take it one day at a time and shore up the fractures with a plaster of lies. That's how it was done in the shadow-reality behind romance.
The rest of the day a blur of alcohol and mota smoke streaming from his nostrils. He managed to keep down three glasses of raicilla, but like Philip Marlowe's scotch whisky, it didn't do him any good. Where's your old lady? Haven't the foggiest, Duane. Maybe she went swimming and drowned. You should go find her, man. Lots of creeps around this place. Nonsense. Strong woman, hits like a man. Fend for herself by God. You have any more beer?
Passed out in the palapa hut, his teeth hurt when he woke up after dark. Opening beer bottles with one's teeth definitely wasn't good for the enamel. The place was empty, a wooden panel across the counter top. Where the hell was everyone? He looked at his wristwatch: ten thirty-five. Too early for things to be so dead. Orgies, my ass. Looks like they go to bed at sundown in Yelapa. Thank God Fowler was still awake in his den of sleaze. Needed a drink to soothe the shattered nerves.
"Have you seen Nicki?" he asked after opening a beer.
"My fiancée, you idiot."
"She went back to Vallarta."
"Excuse me? You said there was no boat until tomorrow morning."
"She hired some Mexican guy to take her in a small outboard."
"I smell a rat, Fowler."
"Okay, so I helped her a little."
"You treacherous bastard! That makes twice you've screwed me."
"Take it easy. She got really pissed off when she saw you with your arm around that whore."
"What are you talking about?"
Fowler laughed. "I knew you wouldn't remember. You were totally shit-faced, man."
"If I find out you're lying to me, I'll cut your goddamn throat and let the vultures pick your bones clean."
"I'm not lying."
"I mean it, Fowler."
"If you don't believe me, I'll take you to the whore tomorrow. She'll remember you for sure."
Sinclair finished two more beers and then made a bed for himself on the floor. Fowler was already asleep on a cot in one corner of the room, snoring like a chain saw. Screwed the pooch this time with Nicki. Not smart to play the lecher in front of one's fiancée. Wish I could remember the whore. Patch things up tomorrow at the hotel with love and kisses. Claim Fowler slipped some LSD into my beer. Not responsible for my actions. Hope Nicki hasn't flown the friendly skies back to Rhode Island.
In the middle of the night Sinclair was awakened by screams. Fowler was upright on the cot, frantically clawing at his face with both hands.
"What's the matter with you?"
"Fucking centipede bit me," Fowler muttered.
"It's only a nightmare. Go back to sleep."
"My face is on fire."
"Goddamn it, Fowler. You have the DTs."
"I'm telling you a centipede bit me," he insisted.
Sinclair stood up and grabbed his pillow. "I'm sleeping on the beach."
"I've seen centipedes in the house before."
"Lay off the booze for awhile."
The next morning Fowler ambled to the end of the dock where Sinclair was waiting for the boat. His face was swollen and discolored. He looked like the Elephant Man after losing a bar brawl.
"I told you," he rasped.
Sinclair couldn't look at him without cringing. "Jesus, you look awful. Shouldn't you see a doctor?"
"I think the worst is over. I'll kick back with a few beers to kill the pain."
When the boat arrived, they shook hands.
"By the way, thanks for telling me the house was full of poisonous centipedes before I went to sleep on the floor."
Fowler grinned painfully at him. "Anything for an old pal."
"If you're ever in Rhode Island, please don't look me up."
"Eat me, Sinclair."
Trying to get in the proper frame of mind to face Nicki, Sinclair kept remembering Fowler's grotesque face on the taxi ride from the harbor to the hotel. The fool was probably brain damaged by the insect venom. But how could one tell with a man like him? Didn't have a normal brain from birth. Always off on tangents in his own dream world. Some day soon the screaming meemies for certain. Too bad, he was a rather pleasant fellow to share a few drinks with on a lonely eve.
By the time he arrived at the hotel, Sinclair had decided not to apologize to Nicki. No crawling or begging for mercy. Too undignified for a future member of the ruling class. Act like nothing happened, that was the ticket. No bungling when the road to riches was splayed open like an oyster shell.
"Any phone calls for me?" Sinclair asked as he entered their hotel room.
"Regis, I think we should talk."
"How about mail? I'm expecting a very important letter."
"Please sit down."
"You should have waited for the big boat. Much smoother ride."
"I couldn't stay in that Godforsaken place another minute. But I want you to know I'm not angry with you any longer. I was until I talked to your friend."
"What did he tell you?"
"Duane said you lied about him saving your life."
"I warned you not to listen to him. He has forked tongue like a snake."
"He said you saved his life."
Another lie, but Sinclair was grateful to his wayward compatriot. Ah, what delightful webs we weave when we practice to deceive. This could easily melt the ice queen's defenses. Blow jobs or even up the butt. No demand was too outrageous for a war hero. Sinclair tried to hide the shiver of anticipation he felt.
"It was no big deal," he said as humbly as possible.
"I wish you had told me."
"I never thought of you in heroic terms. It makes me wonder if I have underestimated you."
Oh, yes, the glacier was calving, huge chunks sliding into a boiling sea. Might see some kinky action as soon as tonight.
"Sinclair, I'm frightened."
"Of what, dearest?"
"Of how I feel about you. You know I love you, but sometimes I think you're crazy."
"Don't be silly. I'm as sane as a judge." Judge not unless ye want to be judged by the goat dancer.
"But you do crazy things and it frightens me. Why do you drink so much and run away from me?"
"A man needs his little diversions."
"Is it me—something I've done to you?"
Tears welling up in her eyes. This wasn't sporting at all. No honest feelings allowed in this game.
"Don't get maudlin, Nicki."
"I admit I haven't been the best lover, but it's not my fault. I was raised to think of sex as dirty. You know how repressed my parents are. I doubt if they have made love in years. I don't want that sort of marriage with you."
Embarrassingly candid. I've never seen her like this before. What the hell is she trying to do to me?
"You haven't been unreasonable with me." Bleeding Christ, can't believe I said that. Losing my edge in the heat of the moment. It's those sad blue eyes beseeching me.
"I want you to love me like I love you."
He swept a strand of brown hair out of her exquisite face. "I do love you. Why are you so upset?"
"Let's get married as soon as we return to Rhode Island."
"If you like."
"Please don't say it that way."
"Flippantly, as if it doesn't matter to you."
"All right, we'll get married as soon as we return. I promise."
A sloppy kiss and then she wiped her eyes. "God, I must look a mess."
"I've never seen you look better."
"Let me fix my face and then we can go get something to eat. I feel like having champagne tonight."
"Why not? Make it a celebration."
Turned the tables on him, she did. Should have seen it coming. Women were such wily experts at this sort of thing. Break your heart into little pieces and make you forget about blowjobs. Couldn't be helped when all was said and done. Nature of the human beast, unfortunately.
"Sinclair," she called out from the bathroom. "We'll be happy, won't we, darling?"
He could already feel the rope tightening around his neck. A velvet noose, to be sure, but tied to a post nonetheless, like the coati at El Paradiso. A large house in a fashionable neighborhood, courtesy of daddy's fat wallet. Must keep work to an absolute minimum to avoid howling dementia. To the office no earlier than ten. A long lunch with his attractive young secretary and a secret hotel rendezvous with her from time to time. The men's club at four with beakers of scotch to wash away the cares of the day. Garden parties at home on weekends. No rugrats to bugger the good life. Old man Highsmith clutching his chest one day, keeling over purple-faced with legs wiggling in the air. A fabulous inheritance guaranteeing a future of luxury. The occasional goat dance in old age to keep the juices flowing.
"Of course we will, Nicki."
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