Heat

Mark Jacobs Click to read more...

jacobsMark Jacobs has published 95 stories in commercial and literary magazines, including The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review and Southern Humanities Review.  He has stories forthcoming in Playboy and several other magazines.  His books include Forty Wolves, A Handful of Kings and Stone Cowboy. Check out his website at http://www.markjacobsauthor.com/

The first test of Filadelfio Vera’s resolve came on a hot day. From the instant he climbed into the Jeep he did not stop sweating. All morning long, rivulets ran down his legs and collected in his socks. They ran down his back, pooling at his belt. By chance, it was also the day that the world rankings for corrupt countries came out. Paraguayans were used to seeing their country classified with the lowest of the low. This time, because of his new job, the news had special meaning for Filo. He was a recruit in the national police, and he intended to stay clean. The problem was the dirt. To get from where you stood to where you wanted to stand, you had to take steps. That was logical. But any place you put your foot down, it came up filthy.

Thanks to a whim of his mother’s, Filadelfio was the only person in Paraguay named after a Mennonite colony in the Chaco Desert. Christmas had fallen midway through Milagros’ pregnancy, and the glass of clericó her uncle served her was sweet. She drank the wine, nibbled the fruit, and announced that the child growing inside her would pay homage to the industrious farmers who had made the desert bloom. To those who knew Filo growing up, the unusual name marked him out. His mother had willed him to be different, and he was.

Sergeant Duarte, in charge of the police station at Salto, had seventeen years on the force. He carried his experience like body fat and moved slowly, breathing ostentatiously through his beak. Duarte complained of allergies, and a lack of respect from his lover now she was turning nineteen. Sending them out on patrol, he patted the hood of the Jeep with a horny hand. “Keep your eyes open.”

Even Filo, greenest of the four on board, knew that meant they should turn a blind eye. If they arrested someone who enjoyed police protection, the wrath of the sergeant would fall on their heads.

They drove into the sun, joking about making a sensational arrest. They were young, lean, and full of talk. Mostly what they talked about was the contraband flowing across the Paraná into Brazil, or vice versa, depending on the article in question. Filo listened. Before taking the job he had thought it through and decided he would not worry about consumer goods. Nobody could stop the flow of whiskey and DVDs and Hello Kitty purses, and where was the harm? Drugs were something else. So were weapons. How could you call yourself a policeman and not concern yourself with serious matters affecting the well being of the nation?

Black was black, and white was white. That was his father’s answer to any hard question that came up. Hilario was deaf and dumb, born that way. He made bricks, working alone in a silence Filo grew to understand as a kind of private island no enemy boat could approach. At home, when Hilario had something important to say, he wrote it with chalk on a blackboard the Belgian missionary had procured for him years ago. The law he laid down on slate never varied. Black was black, and white was white. His father’s son, his mother’s son, Filo did not fail to absorb the lesson.

The other cops ribbed him without mercy. An earnestness he had not learned to hide brought it out in them. After a half hour of aimless driving they dropped him at a brushy thicket alongside the big green river. Behind the wheel, Gomez squinted, pointing with his cigarette. “See that tree? If it moves, arrest it.”

It was funny so everybody laughed, Filo included. Gomez had a year and a half in the service and knew how things worked. Filo watched them drive off. He watched the red dust settle in the road. Then he found a place in the shade, leaned his rifle against the tree he was supposed to arrest, and relaxed. He didn’t mind working alone. The solitude gave him time to think about Maia, and the baby on its way. His mother had cried when he told her the girl was pregnant, not because she disliked Maia – she was fond of her – but because it portended the end of her son’s ambition. Filo was realistic enough to know she was likely right.

Still, no matter what the future brought, he intended to hang onto his good habits. In school, the teachers had used Filo to show how talented they were. He could memorize anything. Once, when he was twelve, a supervisor from the education ministry came to the school for a graduation ceremony. She was a formidable truck of a woman with a dictator’s voice. The director of the school had made Filo memorize the capital cities of the fifty North American states, an easy assignment, really. The woman from the ministry understood that his talent had nothing to do with the teachers. She put their noses out of joint by hauling him into the director’s office, slamming the door in their faces. She took a seat behind the desk and looked at him for a long little while, absently tugging at the strap of her brassiere in a way that distracted him. Apart from the tremble of flesh what he remembered, at this distance, was her advice. You have something special, boy. When you figure out what it is, don’t sell it cheap.

Well, failing to learn what it was, or what it was good for, he had sold cheap.

For the discipline of it, standing under the tree he ran through the names of the capitals of all the departments in Paraguay, and then the major rivers of Canada. That worked one level of his mind. On another level, he felt an agreeable sexual stir thinking about Maia. Since they had learned she was pregnant, she had gotten into the habit of lying in bed on her back at night, legs spread, guiding his hand across her belly tracing the imagined outline of their child. That was a nice thing to think about, but he shook it off. He was working.

He roused himself and strolled down to the edge of the river where dragonflies with nervous wings made erratic turns in the thick air. Ten meters out, a fish jumped twice, flashing pale green. This was supposed to be a regular launching spot for boats crossing to Brazil. In full daylight he did not expect to see anything brazen but wondered what he would do if a boat came in, loaded with perfume and football jerseys. He wasn’t sure. He went back to the tree and sat crosslegged in the grass with his back against the trunk.

Butterflies collected where sap ran, fluttering drunk. A jet black beetle with antlers climbed a stalk, causing it to bend just a little. Out in the road, a khaki cow shuffled by with a board collar hanging broken from its neck. Filo felt funny. He became aware of the breathing of giant lungs, a regular and reassuring sound. He was resting on an invisible tray, offered up to the owner of the lungs. Somewhere a colossal cup collected all the tears that had been cried since the beginning of time.

He took the feeling of jubilant wholeness that came over him not as a sign but as a hint. Could it be he was meant, after all, to be a policeman? What happened next reinforced the hint. He heard labored breathing and got quietly to his feet, as startled when he saw him as the kid he surprised. The kid was carrying a sack over his shoulder, struggling with the awkward weight of it. When he saw Filo’s uniform he dropped the sack and took off running.

Filo’s mistake was stopping to look inside the sack just long enough to see tightly packed bricks of marijuana. The kid was barefoot and knew where he was going, and those few seconds gave him a head start. Filo grabbed his rifle and lit out after him; cops did not leave their weapons behind. The kid followed a grown-over path through brush along the river for half a kilometer. When he made a sudden move toward the road Filo lunged, getting a hand on his shoulder and yanking. They went down in a tangle though Filo was careful to keep the rifle out of harm’s way, as he had been trained to do.

In the fray, notwithstanding the heel to the groin he took, he thought, I love this. I love enforcing the law. It was exhilarating. But fear gave his opponent the strength of desperation, and he wriggled free and ran again. Filo’s groin was tender where he had been kicked, and he could no longer keep up. You didn’t shoot a kid in the back for transporting a few kilos of marijuana, so he watched him disappear before going back to claim the sack.

When Gomez and the others came by to pick him up, they were puzzled what to do with the marijuana. Filo asserted himself. Black was black, and white was white. He insisted they take it back with them. They rode back to Salto in an uneasy silence, not sure what to expect from their boss. But Duarte only muttered when he learned what Filo had done. He cursed sideways saying,

“It’s evidence. Lock it in the storeroom.”

Filo carried the sack inside, deposited it on a shelf, and snapped the padlock shut on the door to the storeroom at the back of the station. When he turned around, there was Duarte telling him he had a lot to learn about the job.

“Sí, mi sargento,” Filo agreed. It was true. He had a lot to learn.

Perhaps it was chance that took him and Maia near the police station on their evening walk, perhaps not. Filo had read that pregnant women should stay in shape, it made the birth easier. Regardless, it was pleasant to stroll the sandy streets as the sun was going down, feeling sweet relief as the heat of the day drained away and the evening reached a civilized temperature. They walked every night.

The station was an adobe building painted blue, with a bar of dark red running around the base. In front stood a hitching rail nobody used anymore. The windows were barred. Not just those of the two tiny cells but all of them, which Filo found emblematic. The bars reinforced the sense of menace the station projected, daring citizens to imagine what it would be like to find themselves on the inside looking out.

It was getting dark. Bats were hunting bugs across the violet velvet air. Approaching the station Filo took Maia by the arm and shushed her. She had been telling him about one of those television shows where famous people danced in a contest and then talked about how they felt. The new policeman and his wife stood there in the dusk watching Sergeant Duarte come out the front door of the station carrying the sack of marijuana that Filo had impounded. He looked up and down the street out of habit but did not see them. He threw the sack in the back seat of his car, a Brazilian VW, and drove off.

“He told me I have a lot to learn about being a policeman,” Filo told Maia.

“And, are you learning?”

He leaned close, smelled his wife’s scent of unnamable flowers, and kissed her on the cheek. “Yes, my love. I am learning.”

***

They were spending too much time talking about money, a subject that exasperated Filo. Maia understood the system. She knew that, sooner rather than later, he would be offered the chance to supplement the pittance he earned each month. The longer he stayed on the force, the greater the opportunities that would come his way. It was reasonable to think a man in his position might someday have the wherewithal to purchase a car, build a house, properly educate his children. Maia wanted all of those things, as well she should. But she also understood the man she had married. She would not pressure him to do violence to what she called his Filadelfio principles. The money talk was a kind of compulsion, but it served to remind them who they were not.

The heat of December impressed itself on Salto, embedded itself in every animate creature, every inanimate object. Look up the street, you saw waves shimmering like bright snakes. The heat hugged you close, it kissed you with poison lips. You sweated through your shower. Ice floes clogged your daydreams, carrying penguins expelling chilled air as they barked for help. If you went to the Paraná you could practically see it evaporating, invisible sheets of water rising from the surface of the river into the saturated atmosphere. Filo and Maia slept with the windows open, a fan blasting to keep off the mosquitoes. She slept poorly, waking to guide his hand with hers across the unmapped continent of her swelling belly.

The sky had been overcast all day the evening that Duarte sent Filo’s squad out on patrol with an order you could take two ways. It wasn’t true that the webwork of gray clouds kept the air any cooler, but it was useful to pretend it did.

“Do your duty,” Sergeant Duarte said. “Don’t come back empty handed.”

It was guns. Filo knew it in his gut, and he was right. Gomez drove the jeep to the same spot on the river where they had left him the first time. Filo recognized the tree where he had rested, remembered the exhilaration he had felt, chasing the kid who got away. Gomez switched off the engine, but for a moment nobody moved. Filo perceived a kind of solemnity in the squad, arising from a feeling of purpose. They were playing their part in a ritual they did not completely grasp. Gomez broke the spell, telling them to get moving. In a few minutes the sun would go down. The night bugs were already testing their voices.

They went single file south along the river bank, moving quietly under the cover of high trees with drooping fronds, dense bushes with fat, thick bodies that got fatter and thicker as the light waned. After twenty minutes’ walking, they picked up the sound of business. Boxes were being stacked, men were blowing spent air from their lungs and cursing in low voices. Metal on metal, metal on Mother Earth. But before they saw what they had come to see, a guard with a Kalashnikov stood blocking their way on the path.

He had a gold tooth and a hard face. He had muscles and tattoos. He wore no shirt, just a leather vest that gave him the look of a movie cowboy. Filo knew what pathology meant and recognized that this guy had been hired by bosses because he lacked empathy with his fellow man.

“What do you sons of bitches want?”

Gomez knew what to do. This was not the first time he had led a squad into a tricky situation. He had thought through his lines. “What’s going on, back there behind you?”

“Whatever it is, it’s none of your goddamn business.”

“We’re the police,” said Gomez, warming to his role, liking it; liking, even, going up against a man in a vest with a world-famous weapon. “Our business is whatever we say it is.”

They were speaking in Guaraní, but the guy with the Kalashnikov had a Brazilian accent. That made it come out like clown talk, and Filo couldn’t help smiling.

“What’s so funny?”

Filo shook his head. No sense making things worse. He made an effort to eradicate the smile, and it went away.

“We’re going to have to inspect those boxes of yours,” Gomez said, reaching for irony but not quite achieving it.

“What boxes?”

“The ones your friends are tossing around.” He pointed. “Back there. Who knows, they might contain contraband, and we’d have to arrest you.”

“Who sent you?”

Gomez could not answer him with Sergeant Duarte’s name. That was not how the thing was done. Black was black, thought Filo reflexively, and white was white. He understood that nothing would happen until Gomez and the guard with the gold tooth were tired of feeling each other out. It was a chest-thumping exercise, sure, but that was only part of it. The rest had to do, obscurely but surely, with money. It ended ten minutes later with the delivery of an envelope to Gomez. The envelope was grubby. Trudging back toward the jeep in the gathered gloom, the policemen were disappointed not to have had a glimpse of the cargo being readied to cross the river. Filo, too. But his disappointment was doubled because he had to admit to himself that he had failed to do the right thing.

Of course he had the whole drive back to Salto, watching the cones of the headlights bore jumpy holes in the darkness, to think about how to make up for it. At the station, Gomez went into Duarte’s office with the sergeant and came out five minutes later with money in pale blue envelopes for everyone in the squad. Filo refused to take his.

“What do you mean, you don’t want it?” Gomez said. He had one restless eye, which was of a lighter color than the other and moved independently. The eye aggravated Filo. “You earned it.”

Filo shook his head, said it again. “Ndai potái.”

Gomez shrugged. Filo saw him wondering whether he should share out Filo’s cut to the rest of the squad, or take it back to the sergeant. Being cautious, he disappeared again into Duarte’s office. Filo wanted to keep it simple, keep it clean. He felt dirty. Anyway the shift was over. He went out the door and walked home and showered. That night, for the first time, he felt the baby’s tiny kick.

That was not the end of the matter, nor did he expect it would be. The next day, Duarte asked him if he knew how to drive. Filo told him he didn’t.

“Then you’re going to learn.”

He grabbed Filo by the arm and dragged him out of the station. It did not take long. Filo was good with mechanical things and in fifteen minutes he was comfortably working the clutch and the gear shift of the official vehicle. He liked it. Driving gave him a sense of control he was not accustomed to experiencing. He followed the directions his sergeant gave him and wound up parked in front of a small pink house on the outskirts of Salto. The house was notable for its tidy aspect. The front yard was free of weeds. The shutters were freshly painted. They went around the side of the house to the back patio where they found a beautiful woman sweeping up leaves.

“Nanci,” said Duarte, “This is Filadelfio Vera. He is a policeman, like me.”

Nanci stopped sweeping and smiled at Filo. She was as dazzling a woman as he had ever seen. Long dark hair a little wild, a tall body with prominent breasts and shapely arms, skin the color of copper, a face you might see stamped on an ancient coin. A queen’s face. She pointed them to plastic chairs under the shade of a grapefruit tree, and Filo marveled how a woman as young and perfect as she was could find an ugly man like Duarte acceptable. She served them tereré in a polished cowhorn on which the figure of a bull was carved. The straw through which they drank the tea was genuine silver, not aluminum. It had to be a present from Duarte.

“Here’s the problem,” said the sergeant, sucking loudly on the straw, then handing her the cowhorn.

She turned a face of vicious innocence on him. “Where?”

“Vera is like that saint, what’s his name? The animals loved him. Birds landed on his shoulder.”

“Francis of Assisi.”

“That’s the one. I keep telling Vera there’s no place for a saint in a police station. What we need are realists.”

Nanci nodded thoughtfully. “I see. You think he ought to be more like you. Interdict marijuana and resell it. Shake down businessmen. Fuck a woman who isn’t his wife and tell her lies she might possibly believe for a certain period of time. Go on telling the same lies after she stops believing them.”

Duarte shrugged. “I never had a son, you know.”

“What about me?” said Filo. “Don’t I get to say anything?”

Nanci handed him the tereré. “Nobody’s stopping you.”

“I never wanted to be a policeman.”

She asked him, “What did you want to be?”

Filo thought for a moment, wanting not so much to be truthful as accurate. “I thought I might have my own television show.”

Duarte snorted but managed to ask him, “What kind of show?”

“Like a quiz show. We would invite guests, qualified and intelligent guests, to ask me questions.”

Nanci saw where he was headed. “They would ask very hard questions, but you would know the answers.”

“I can memorize anything.”

She shook her head. “It wouldn’t work.”

“How come?”

“Nobody watching the show at home would believe that one man knew all those answers.”

“But I would know,” he insisted. “That’s the thing. I would always know.”

“She’s right,” Duarte added in a flat voice that put an end to the discussion. “It wouldn’t work.”

It was the first time in Filo’s experience that he had gone through a conversation that had nothing to do with the words coming out of the mouths of the people having it. He understood he was being warned, and that Duarte believed he was acting in Filo’s best interest. The next time they went out on patrol, Duarte ordered Gomez to let Filo drive. Gomez didn’t much like that but saluted and handed Filo the key. All the way to the river Filo had the sensation of being watched by Gomez’s independent eye.

***

It was a philosophical question, the kind of thing Filo found stimulating. If a given place on the planet – say, Salto, in Paraguay – started off very hot, what did it mean to get hotter? He craved a philosophical answer but none came. All he had were examples. A lizard on a brick at three in the afternoon begging for mercy. Sunburnt ants. The breath going into your lungs hotter than the air you expelled. The stifled songs of birds. Start paying attention and heat was like God, part of everything, source and destination, the main idea and the fire burning it out.

Approaching Christmas, the heavy odor of coco flowers sweetened the scorched air, and the woman next door mixed  a pitcher of clericó. Tasting it, Filo thought about his mother and took the bus out of town to Campo Florido. He arrived at siesta time when both his parents were asleep in leather hammocks out back under the shade of stumpy trees. His father was a light sleeper and sat up the instant Filo put his foot down. They spoke in shorthand sign language, and Filo got an answer to the question he did not quite know how to pose. Black was black, his father’s arthritic brown hands slashed, and white was white.

The baby kept growing in Maia’s womb, a vow unto itself. Filo bought a child-care book and read it aloud to his wife, trying to distract her from the heat which was making her pregnancy a trial. Once, they visited Filo’s schoolfriend Paquito and the woman he was living with. Idoya wanted a car. That was fine, it was a normal desire. But she wanted it so badly she was pushing Paquito to take a job with one of the contraband kings. Filo wanted his friend to say no, nothing could induce him to take the job, but only mush came out of Paquito’s mouth. All the way home Filo fretted, and by some mysterious troubling connection he felt responsible that night when Maia shook him awake in terrible pain.

“The baby is dying,” she gasped.

He did what he could to soothe her, which was nothing. Her tears convinced him to go out and find a pharmacy. Since he’d known her, Maia had not cried once. Afraid, he trotted through the sandy streets toward a place whose owner he thought he might be able to roust out of bed. His anxiety spiked when he saw the Jeep, and Sergeant Duarte behind the wheel.

“Get in,” Duarte ordered him.

Filo sputtered, dreading delay. But Duarte did the right thing, and the owner of the pharmacy jumped out of bed when he realized it was the police banging on his door. He listened to Filo’s description of the pain and offered a bottle of orange liquid free of charge, a courtesy to the sergeant. Back at Filo’s, Duarte himself gave Maia two spoonsful of the medicine, speaking in a calm voice of authority that quickly drained the panic from her.

“It was gas,” he said. “I recognized the signs. My wife, you haven’t met her but you will, Soledad suffered from gas with all three of ours.”

“I feel stupid,” said Maia.

“Nothing to feel stupid about. A mother’s instinct to protect her child is a sacred impulse. It comes from God.”

Maia struggled to connect the image of Duarte she had from Filo with the solicitous man at her bedside. She frowned at Filo; later, she would demand an explanation. But Filo knew what his wife could not see. Duarte’s patience and good humor might be real, but they were real the way a magician’s hat was. There was no hurry, there was all the hurry in the world. The sergeant had not been out driving around Salto in the middle of the night to avoid the sun. Filo had to hand it to him, though. Maia never guessed he was zinging Filo with telepathic darts all the time he was there: urgent, urgent; urgent.

The darkness was beginning to blanch by the time they headed out of town.

“You ready to be a father, Vera?”

“I think so, sir.”

“It never stops. You have to provide, and go on providing, until they lower you into your grave.”

“I know that, sir.”

“You like being a policeman, that’s obvious. Turn left. You’re about to get a chance to enforce the law.”

They were heading north and west, away from the river, toward a settlement where Brazilians had bought up most of the land, crowding out the Paraguayans. Brasiguayos, they called them. They worked real hard. In the ten minutes it took to get there Filo figured out that his chance to enforce the law was going to look a lot like a shakedown. Duarte ordered him to park a hundred and fifty meters out from a two-story brick warehouse under a half-finished tinglado roof. As they sat there, red pooled luxuriously across the east sky and a smell emerged from the earth of something sweet and vegetable, like a secret you’d never guess.

“I want to understand this,” Filo said.

“Fair enough, son. That’s fair enough. See those brick walls? They are sheltering a mountain of cocaine. The cocaine belongs to a man with a spider in his pocket.”

“Meaning he won’t share.”

“His name is Frutos. I’ve given him plenty of chances. He always comes up short.”

“So what do we do?”

“Go in with guns drawn and a sincere attitude. Confiscate the drugs. Arrest the peons. Later, I’ll twist Frutos’ arm and we’ll come to an understanding. Can you handle this, Vera?”

Maybe they were doing it for the wrong reason, but they were about to accomplish a good thing, an important thing. Filo had some sense of the damage all that cocaine could do, up and down the chain. The producers, the dealers, those who thrust the powder up their nose. It was like shit. Anybody who touched it came away rank.

“I can handle it, mi sargento. Don’t worry, I can handle it.”

In the act, it was not much of a challenge. Inside the warehouse they startled three humble men sitting on camp stools eating boiled mandioca sticks and gossiping. Duarte was right about one thing. There was a mountain of cocaine. Frutos, whoever he was, ran an industrial operation. Massive mounds of sacks rose toward the open ceiling on pallets arranged in perfect rows, with just enough space between them for a man with a gun to pass. The sacks were thick, hard black plastic, packed so tightly Filo figured it must be done by machine. The place had the feel of a cathedral built in homage to the Devil.

“Stand up,” Duarte ordered the men. “Hands on your heads. Do something stupid and we’ll ventilate your innards.”

He meant it. They knew he meant it. It was easy. That was all there was to it. But as the men stood there with their hands on their heads like chickens about to be trussed, a fumbling sound came from behind the pallets, and something fell to the dirt floor with a flat thud. A door squeaked.

“Get him,” Duarte told Filo. “I don’t want the son of a bitch getting to Frutos before I do.”

Filo ran between two rows of pallets, holding his rifle close to his body. In the soft dark he stum-bled once but recovered and kept going. He raced out the back door, across a field, and into woods that were the only place a man could hide. Chasing him, Filo was happy. Maybe he hadn’t earned the sense of virtue pumping through him like fresh blood, but there it was. He would have a child. Boy or girl didn’t matter, it would be the child to whom he would someday describe the chase, the red morning, the Devil’s drugs, the dismay on the faces of the three chumps left to guard the evil treasure. What had been a hint was now prophecy. He was meant to be a policeman.

The sky was lightening at its own pace. Ahead of Filo a branch snapped, and he heard a cry of pain. He had to go a couple hundred meters farther before he could make out the figure lying on the ground. There was something wrong about what he saw, but not until he came close did he see what it was. The figure belonged to a woman, and she was sobbing.

“Stand up,” he ordered her.

“I can’t. I fell in a hole. My ankle broke.”

Was it a trick? He didn’t think so. She was old enough to be his mother, from the slumped shape of her, and the gravel in her voice. Her hair was tied back, her elbows were scuffed, her forearms were torn bloody by the prickers she had run through. He did not know what to do.

“What’s your name?”

“Pocha.”

“Where were you running, Pocha?”

She sat up but did not stand up, her ankle truly broken. She had the somber face of a person who expected events to go against her. “I don’t want to go to prison.”

“That’s not up to me.”

His answer made no sense to her. She asked him, “If I am in prison, who will feed the birds?”

It was Filo’s turn not to understand. It took a while, but he got the story out of her. Her boy Alejandro had a mental problem. His brain did not work the way adult brains were supposed to work. He needed looking after, she needed money, and there was no father around. That was why she wound up working in a warehouse full of drugs. It seemed Alejandro had a consuming passion. He fed wild birds. He had cultivated a special place, near a low spot of ground where the creek pooled, to which the birds came in expectation of the corn and grain he put out. That was fine, it kept him out of trouble. However, the boy was afraid of the woods he had to pass through to get to his special place, which meant Pocha had to lead him there by the hand every day.

“Stop crying,” Filo ordered her, and she did.

He marveled at the authority of the uniform.

From the distance he heard Sergeant Duarte calling his name.

“Sí, mi sargento. Everything is under control,” he called back. “I am learning how to be a policeman. I am learning it my way, not your way. I do not care for your way of being a policeman. This woman requires my help.”

Okay, that last part he only thought, he didn’t actually come out and holler. The day might come when he would say it, though. Maybe even holler it.

“Try to stand,” he said to Pocha.

He had to set his rifle down to manage it, but he made a pretty good crutch of his body. It was an embrace of necessity. The woman smelled of sweat and desperation.

“Don’t take me to prison,” she said, too bluntly for it to be a whine. “Take me home.”

“Where do you live?”

She pointed in the direction she had been escaping to when she fell.

Duarte was calling again, more impatiently this time. Filo reassured him that everything was under control. He looked forward to a day when he could come out and say the rest out loud, not just in the privacy of his complicated mind. “This woman is not a criminal. You are the criminal, mi sargento. You’re the bad guy in this movie. I am fulfilling my duty to protect her from men like you.”

He would have to come back for his rifle. “How far?” he said to Pocha.

“Not far at all.”

They went slowly through the woods, Pocha hobbling, Filo stiff as the crutch he had to be. For better or worse, his conviction did not fade as they went, it only deepened. He was meant to be a policeman, just not the kind of policeman the sergeant had become. As white morning light engulfed and transformed the woods into a place they could negotiate, he felt the day’s heat rising up to claim him. In a while, odds were, he would wear it like skin.

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