Robert Gregory Browne

Down Among the Dead Men


Casa de la Muerte



They found the bodies in the desert, about twenty miles southwest of Tolentino.

Two Texas dirt bikers, father and son, had come down from El Paso to ride the dunes and discovered a dead woman lying in the scrub, her throat slit, her body half-drained of blood.

It didn’t stop there.

Vargas had to give the two men credit for calling the local policia rather than packing up their bikes and hightailing it back across the border. Most Americans thought of this part of Mexico as some lawless dirtwater hellhole full of corrupt huta who would toss you into jail at the slightest provocation. And taking ownership of a house full of corpses was always risky business for anyone, let alone a couple of gabachos.

But it seemed that the two had been genuinely concerned about doing the right thing, and Vargas admired that. Their willingness to walk him through the crime scene didn’t hurt, either.

The father, Jim Ainsworth, was a lean, sunbaked cowboy who reminded him of that guy from the Lord of the Rings movies. Viggo something. They met on a Friday afternoon at the Cafe Tacuba, a hole-in-the-wall just off the 45, where they shared a booth near a window that hadn’t been washed in a decade, if ever.

The accordion-laced songs of Julieta Venegas played quietly on a jukebox in the corner, an ancient, mule- faced waitress swaying to the beat as she dragged a damp rag across a tabletop.

They were just finishing their meal when Ainsworth said, “You still haven’t told me which one of the shit catchers you work for.”

Vargas raised his eyebrows. “Shit catchers?”

“Newspapers. That’s about all I use ’em for. Line my rabbit cages.”

There was a bit of a twinkle in Ainsworth’s eyes and Vargas wasn’t sure if this was a pointed jab or just a piss-poor joke.

“No paper,” he said.

Ainsworth frowned. “I thought you were a reporter?”

“Used to be. Now I’m freelance. I write books.”

That was stretching it a bit. Truth be told, this was Vargas’s first stab at writing long form and he wasn’t completely sure he had it in him. After fifteen years of turning in concise thousand-word stories to the Los Angeles Tribune — and the San Jose Reader before that-the idea of pumping out four or five hundred pages of who-what- where-when-and-why seemed like a slow, uphill trudge. This book would either make him or break him.

Ainsworth nodded as he scraped the last of his beans off his plate. Vargas had sprung for the meal, mentally counting every peso as he’d scanned the menu, wondering how much more spending he could get away with before his advance money was gone.

“I’ve never had much use for books, either,” Ainsworth said. “My wife, God bless her, used to go through about every half-baked paperback she could get her hands on, but I never saw much point to it.”

Vargas said nothing. He wasn’t interested in getting into a debate with this guy about the merits of literature.

“I’ve gotta admit,” Ainsworth went on, “I didn’t mind her reading the spicy ones.” He flashed a conspiratorial grin. “She was a helluva woman.”

“I’m sure she was,” Vargas said, smiling politely. Then he nodded to Ainsworth’s empty plate. “You want anything else?”

Ainsworth leaned back and sighed, rubbing his stomach. “I think that’ll about do her.”

Vargas gestured to the plate next to Ainsworth’s. Tacos and beans and Mexican rice that had barely been touched. The seat behind it was vacant.

“What about your son?”

“He’s never been much of an eater,” Ainsworth said. “He ever gets his ass back from the bano, I think we’re good to go.”


They drove out to the desert in Ainsworth’s F-150, a couple of dusty red dirt bikes chained to its bed. Ainsworth had taken one look at Vargas’s rusted ten-year-old Corolla and offered to drive.

“It’s these goddamn long legs,” he said. “I need all the room I can get. Besides, I don’t really want to leave these bikes out here.”

Vargas didn’t mind. He figured he’d save on gas, and Ainsworth had said the truck was air-conditioned, a luxury the Corolla hadn’t been blessed with. It was late October, but the Southwest was in the middle of a massive heat wave, and by the time Vargas had reached the cafe this afternoon he’d been drenched in sweat.

He rode up front with Ainsworth, while the son, Junior, sat in the extended cab behind them. Junior was a lean, twentyish version of his old man, but there was something seriously off about the guy. He spent a lot of time staring at nothing and spoke about as much as he ate. The few words he had said had been accompanied by a loopy half-there smile as if he were hooked up to an invisible morphine drip.

Ainsworth, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy talking.

“Me and Junior get down this way just about every couple weeks. Nice to get out of Paso, you know? Just load up the bikes, hop in the truck, and drive.”

“Why Chihuahua?” Vargas asked. “There’s plenty of desert up in Texas.”

Ainsworth shrugged. “Something about this place, I don’t know, everything’s slower down here. Everybody pretty much minding their own business. Never in a hurry to get in your way.” He paused. “Besides, you can’t beat the price of that sweet Mexican chocho. Right, Junior?”

“Chupamelo, mamacita,” Junior said.

The words, which roughly translated to “ suck it, baby,” surprised Vargas. Junior seemed too simpleminded and innocent for such a vulgarity, let alone in Spanish.

Ainsworth, however, chuckled, glancing at his son in his rearview mirror.

“Your mother was still alive, she’d wash that mouth out with industrial-strength Ajax.” He looked at Vargas. “You’ll have to pardon my boy’s manners.”

“I’ve heard worse,” Vargas told him.

“And I’ve probably said it. I gotta admit I haven’t been the best influence on the kid. Took him to his first whorehouse when he was fifteen. You shoulda seen how big his eyes got when he saw all them cute little bare- assed chiquitas lined up just for him. I swear to Christ it took him longer to make up his mind than it did to do the deed.”

“Slow draw, quick trigger,” Junior said. “That’s what Big Papa told me.”

Ainsworth summoned up a deep, lusty laugh this time.

“That I did, Son. That I did.”

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