Skull Duggery

Aaron Elkins


Teotitlan del Valle,

Oaxaca, Mexico

Not for nothing had Flaviano Sandoval been the village police chief for almost six months now. For one thing, he had learned to recognize trouble when he saw it. And this man sitting across the desk from him, oh, he was trouble, all right. Definitely not a local-Sandoval knew everybody who lived in Teotitlan (everybody knew everybody who lived in Teotitlan)-and for sure not a turista come to shop for weavings or to stay at the Hacienda Encantada up the hill. So what else could he be? Only trouble.

And trouble was something Flaviano Sandoval was averse to, by disposition and by constitution. If ever there was a man not cut out to be a police chief, it was Flaviano Sandoval. Small, soft-bodied, and sharp-featured (some might say rodent-faced), he had little ability and no great desire to project a command presence. He was fretful, easily intimidated, and prone to nervous stomach upsets. It had never been his aim to be a police chief. It had never been his desire to be a police chief. His desire was to one day be mayor of Teotitlan. But traditions were traditions, and before one could be considered for that esteemed post, one had to prove one’s civic merits in a long-established progression of service positions. For two years he had served as chairman of the school board, for a year before that, as the administrator of the municipal marketplace. In six more months, God willing, he would have finished this grueling, nerve-racking tenure as chief of police with mind and body whole, and would move on to become the executive officer of the village council. And one year after that-again, God willing-he would be elected as alcalde, from which the step to mayor was virtually assured.

But for now he was still the jefe de policia, and trouble was the last thing he wanted. The man had been spotted an hour earlier, at about five P.M., slogging up the steep, cobbled street toward the resort, and his looks had set off alarm bells: a jail bird’s face, heavy-jawed and sleepy-eyed, with a drooping Emiliano Zapata mustache and a dirty, graying ponytail hanging down in back from under a tattered campesino ’s hat, and with leathery, pockmarked skin as creased and pouched as an old valise that’s sat out on top of the bus too many times. Blue- green tattoos-lizards? snakes?-twisted up the sides of his neck from the grimy collar of his denim jacket. Pompeo, the senior of Sandoval’s two policemen, had stopped him to talk to him. When he found that the man had no identification, had a total of six pesos on him, and had a story that didn’t add up, he’d brought him in to see the jefe.

That had spoiled the jefe ’s day right there. Pompeo was a good sergeant. Unlike Sandoval, he’d been born to be a cop. He loved the work and he was big and fierce-looking enough to be intimidating in a way that Sandoval never could. (If truth be told, Sandoval was a little afraid of him himself.) Pompeo had been there for a decade, so he knew the ropes and he’d been the main reason that Sandoval had thought he could cope with the chief’s position at all. If Pompeo took care of the street situations-the traffic run-ins, the occasional quarrelsome drunk-Sandoval, who had taken a month-long correspondence course in public administration, after all, could surely handle the administrative matters. Also, Sandoval had given himself a reasonable command of English, of great use to a local police chief on summer weekends, when the place was lousy with tourists.

The one fly in the ointment was that Pompeo sometimes-now, for instance-took his job too seriously. Why had he stopped the man in the first place? Had he been hurting anyone, threatening anyone? No, he was just walking peaceably up the hill, and what was the law against that? Probably he was heading up past the Hacienda Encantada and out of town entirely. The dirt road wound through the dry hills all the way to San Lucas Tepitipac. That was probably where he was going. If Pompeo had just let him continue on his way, he would not be a problem. Or at least he’d be somebody else’s problem, which was just as good.

But here the man was, sitting right in front of him. Pompeo, as conscientious as ever, had made his official report of the detention, and unless the chief wanted to tear it up and erase it from the log, he was stuck with it. But this Sandoval would not do. Despite his many and varied self-acknowledged deficiencies, he was a man who was faithful to the regulations and to his responsibilities, as he understood them to be.

Besides, what if Pompeo found out?

So far the stranger had told Sandoval that his name was Manuel Garcia (a likely story; if there was a more common, less traceable name in Mexico, Sandoval would have liked to know what it was), that he was from the village of Santiago Matatlan, and that he was on his way to Oaxaca to look for work, but the second-class bus that he’d thought would take him to the city didn’t go there after all, and had dropped him off in Teotitlan to catch a bus that did.

Pompeo was right. None of it added up. Sandoval didn’t like the man’s story, and he certainly didn’t like the man. It wasn’t that this Garcia was belligerent exactly, but he wasn’t what you’d call cooperative either, and there was an indefinable air of sleepy menace about him. Sandoval was ill at ease being in the same room with him. Ask a question and Garcia would answer, but at his leisure, with a weary, downward curl on his lips, and sometimes even a sigh, as if he’d been through this a hundred times before, and his patience was being sorely tried, and would you mind getting on with it so he could go on his way, since you were just going through the motions, and there was nothing you could do to him. Surly, that’s what he was. Contemptuous. He’d dealt with the police before, Sandoval had no doubt about that. Probably he’d been in prison-that face, those tattoos-maybe even in the United States.

“Ever been north of the border?” Sandoval asked.

“No.” That was the way most of his answers had been. One or two words, or three at most.

“Ever been in prison?”

“No, not me.” He yawned and gestured with his chin at the coffeepot on the burner. “How about a cup of that coffee, Chief?”

“Help yourself,” said Sandoval. “The cups are on the sink.” He watched Garcia get up to pour himself a cupful. He wasn’t a particularly big man, but he was bull-necked and thick-chested, and he carried his arms a little away from himself in that showy way that serious weight lifters have. More evidence of US jail time, Sandoval thought. That was one of the truly crazy things about the Yanqui prisons: weight lifting rooms. Why in the world would you want to give your bad guys bigger muscles?

Garcia sat down with his coffee, which had been on the burner for eight hours now. (Coffee-making was the responsibility of the junior officer, Pepe, who could not be dissuaded from the notion, taught to him by his mother, that the longer coffee sat, the more tasty and restorative the brew. It had been all Sandoval could do to get him not to boil it for five minutes.) Garcia took a sip of the tarry stuff and made a face, but had another swallow anyway. Two were enough, however, even for a tough guy like him. He set the cup on the desk and leaned back with another sigh, an audible, resigned sigh, to see what Sandoval’s next pointless question would be. He scratched listlessly at his chin. It had been four or five days since he’d shaved, and stiff, silvery bristles glistened on his jaw.

It was clear that the man thought he wasn’t dealing with a real cop here. Well, that was true enough. Sandoval knew only too well that he wasn’t a real cop. All the same, he wasn’t without resources. The village had sent him to Mexico City for a week-long training program. And as part of that program, he had undergone a full day’s instruction, complete with role playing, on techniques of interrogation. He had learned a few things there. He had learned that one doesn’t lay all one’s cards on the table up front, oh no. One baits a trap and then gently, subtly, helps the interrogee fall into it.

He steepled his fingers at his chin and smiled in a friendly, relaxed manner, although his heart was thumping away. “I understand,” he said casually, “that the bus driver let you off here and told you you could catch a bus to Oaxaca in the morning? Is that correct?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, that’s very interesting. It’s true there is a bus from here to Oaxaca, but if I remember correctly, the

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