“I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit”
-Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
I graduated from a state university in Ohio with a degree in English and a restlessness to see the world, to have great adventures. Isn’t that what young people are supposed to do?
But the concrete options that lay before me were considerably more mundane.
On one hand, I could have gone to work in the family business: a small chain of modestly successful dry cleaning shops in Dayton. But I had no interest in the dry cleaning business. My father had dragooned me into service there during the summers of my teenage years; and I cringed at the memories of the chemical smells, the fussy customers, the monotony.
I might also have pursued a teaching career. But how could I teach before I had completed my full education, including its informal segues? How could I teach before I knew something of the world? (And besides: While I had a degree in English, I had neglected to acquire a teaching certificate as an undergrad.)
Or I could have opted for that timeless choice of the overly educated but essentially directionless: I could have gone to grad school.
But none of these narrow possibilities would have represented any real break with the life I had known thus far. They were all variations on familiar themes: school and work, school and work.
I decided, therefore, to go abroad. I knew that the world was hungry for the English language. I would go abroad as an English tutor.
It took only a few months for me to line up an opportunity through an international agency that specialized in such matters. It was decided that I would spend six months in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, in the mountains of north-central Mexico, where the Spanish had once mined silver.
I would live at the private estate of a man named Raul Garcia, a businessman in his mid-forties. Señor Garcia had four children between the ages of fourteen and nine. Their names, I was told, were Ana, Maria, Felipe, and Reinaldo. My task would be to give them private, intensive instruction in my own language.
I knew very little about what Mr. Garcia actually did as his occupation. My contact at the employment agency said that Mr. Garcia had “various business interests” in Mexico. I required no further explanation. This, after all, was to be an adventure.
Not long after that I boarded a flight that terminated in the airport in Zacatecas, the city that bore the same name as the state. Even from the window of the plane, I could see that it was a beautiful place. Zacatecas was nothing like the arid desert regions near the U.S. border. Nestled atop a high plateau and rimmed by the peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, the place struck me as vaguely European and Mediterranean.
I was met by a uniformed driver who worked for Raul Garcia. The driver was waiting for me just beyond the customs inspections section of the small airport, in the arrivals area. He carried a handwritten sign that bore my name. He was friendly enough, but he spoke little English. My high school and college Spanish was suitable for basic tasks, but I was still shy about using it. As a result, the driver and I had minimal communications. He directed me to a spacious black sedan that he had parked at the curb outside the main entrance of the airport. Without any discussion of the matter, he lifted my luggage and placed my bags into the trunk of the car.
We left the city as the late afternoon sun was waning, and drove up a twisting mountain road. The hilly, rocky scenery was timeless. I thought of Spanish conquistadors, Aztecs, and sixteenth-century silver mines.
We arrived at the estate of Raul Garcia just as late afternoon was fading into dusk.
The estate was surrounded by a high stone fence and a wrought iron gate. There were two security guards at the gate. Both men wore dark blazers that failed to conceal the semiautomatic pistols they carried.
I wasn’t particularly alarmed by this sight. Raul Garcia was obviously a wealthy man; and I knew that in Mexico the wealthy often employed private security forces out of sheer necessity.
One of the guards pushed a button on a metal panel mounted into the stone fence. The wrought iron gate slid open and the other guard waved the car through.
The main yard, or compound, of the Garcia estate was dotted with mountain pine trees, and yew trees, and trees that I could not identify: trees that draped moss and cast long shadows. And of course there were the yucca and agave plants that reminded me I was in Mexico. There were flowering shrubs; but I could not make out the colors of the blossoms in the failing light.
The main house was large and built in a classical Spanish style: Lots of curves and arches, a terra-cotta roof, and ornamental iron work. Along the front face of the house was a series of arches comprising a long arcade.
The main house was not the only structure in the compound: There were two guest houses off to one side, and several smaller buildings that were likely used for storage and utilities.
There was a circular turnaround at the end of the main driveway. The front door of the main house, large and fashioned from dark wood, hid a new world of possibilities. The sedan came to a stop here; and I stepped out of the vehicle.
The driver moved in front of me and pushed the front door open. Then he went behind the car to retrieve my bags.
I had been expecting Señor Garcia himself to greet me, and perhaps the entire family. I had imagined a warm scene in which the four children, the parents—and myself—became acquainted upon my arrival, exchanging greetings and personal information in a mixture of Spanish and English.
But the interior of the house was silent. The front door opened into a vast room with a high ceiling. From where I stood in the foyer I could see the interior balconies of the second floor.
“Señor Bonner?” I heard a distinctly female voice say.
She was wearing a black maid uniform with a white collar and a white apron. She was about my age—somewhere in her early twenties. Pretty, with long dark hair tied into a bun, and striking brown eyes. I was immediately drawn to her. I might have fallen for her in that very first instant.
“I’m Mark Bonner,” I said. “Call me Mark.”
She nodded. “Mark.” She gave me a smile, but that smile was subdued and brief. Something preoccupied her, though as yet I had no idea what. “My name is Marisol.”
“Pleased to meet you, Marisol.” A pause. “Are the Garcias here?” I asked.
“You will meet them tomorrow,” she said. Now I heard the driver bringing my bags inside. I turned to him and said, “Gracias.” He barely acknowledged my thanks with a nod, and departed.
“I will show you to your room,” she said. “En una de las casas de huespedes.”
In one of the guest houses…
I thought it a little strange, perhaps even a little rude, that I was to get no more of a reception on the night of my arrival. But I couldn’t say this.
“All right,” I said.
“¿Tiene usted hambre? I could have one of the cocineros make you something.” She finally realized that she had been speaking half in Spanish, half in English. This was to become our way of communicating.
“Está bien,” I said. “Entiendo.” It’s okay, I understand. “I’m not hungry and there’s no need to bother one of the cooks on my account.”
I said this latter in Spanish, getting some of the words wrong, I was sure, while successfully communicating the general idea. I had been traveling all day; my fatigue was finally catching up with me.
“Let’s go, then,” she said. “I’ll call the driver back to carry your bags.”
“There’s only two of them,” I said. “No need.” It had always been my habit to travel light.
I was to see no more of the main house—at least for that night. I followed Marisol out the front door, then along a stone walkway to one of the guesthouses, which had clearly been prepared for me. It was not a great distance; but it was far enough that I would not live in the constant view of the Garcia family.
The main walkway came to a fork: my guesthouse along one branching path, the other guesthouse down the opposite one.
“No—this one!” Marisol said, when my eagerness almost carried me down the wrong path.
The guesthouse was what you might expect: More Spanish architecture, but of a much plainer, miniaturized scale. Marisol opened the door of my dwelling and handed me the key.
“There is some food in the little refrigerator if you change your mind about being hungry,” she said. “Not much, but the cooks make a big breakfast.”
The cooks, I thought. What would it be like to live with a phalanx of servants at your beck and call?
Marisol paused on the threshold. She was not going to come inside. Well, what had I been expecting?
Despite my exhaustion and the unfamiliarity of the surroundings, I would have liked to have talked more to this Marisol. But I told myself, No need to rush. There will be plenty of time.
“All right, Marisol. Thank you. Good night.”
She left me with a nod and a “Buenas noches.”
Unbeknownst to her, I watched her return from just inside the half-open doorway. At the fork in the path, she paused, as if it were an involuntary motion, and looked in the direction of the other guesthouse.
Then she did the most curious thing—from my perspective at the time. She crossed herself, in the standard Roman Catholic way. Then she continued her walk back to the main house.
I slept like the proverbial dead. As is often the case when I am especially fatigued, I dreamt profusely and vividly.
I dreamed of Spanish conquistadors, resplendent in their gleaming armor, waging war against painted, half-naked Aztecs.
I was awakened by a series of knocks at the door of my guesthouse. I awakened, and I could tell from the strength of the sunlight filtering through the curtains that I had slept later than usual.
What was “usual” in this country? Later than I was accustomed to back in Ohio, I thought. But by any standard, I had slept late today.
I hurriedly threw on the clothes within nearest reach and answered the door.
I don’t believe that I had ever seen a photo of him, but I knew immediately that the man standing on the other side of the doorway was Raul Garcia. He was handsome and well-dressed. Although he was in early middle age, his black hair showed no traces of gray. His mustache was neatly trimmed. Raul Garcia was a bit shorter than my six-feet, two inches; but beneath his dress shirt and jacket was the body of a linebacker.
Not a man to be trifled with, I thought. I felt a sudden chill, which made no sense, really. I was here as his guest, and his expression was friendly.
“You must be Mark Bonner,” Garcia said. “Forgive me for failing to greet you last night.” His English was accented but precise. “My wife, Luciana, was ill last night, you see. It was—not a good time for us.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Garcia. I hope she’s okay.”
“She’ll be fine. You can breakfast in the house. The cooks will maintain a small buffet for everyone until late in the morning. They’ll make whatever you like. When you’re done, you can begin your first lesson for Reinaldo, Felipe, and Maria.”
I noticed that Garcia had mentioned only three of the children. I was certain that there were four—or there had been. And I had memorized their names.
“What about Ana?” I asked.
A shadow seemed to pass over Garcia’s face, and he said, “Ana is—away. You will be teaching only three of the children—at least for now. Anyway, Mr. Bonner, I wanted to say hello and to welcome you. The two of us will talk more—later.”
It might have been the perfect private tutoring gig, teaching English to three children of a rich man on an estate in the scenic mountains of north-central Mexico.
Given the mildness of the climate, I saw no reason not to conduct the children’s lessons outdoors, in the main compound. We worked beneath the shade of the yews and the evergreen trees. Bees darted and buzzed among the flowers that were everywhere. Raul Garcia, I thought, was a man who had an appreciation for beauty, a man of refined tastes.
We conducted the lessons in a mixture of the Spanish that I knew, and the English that the three children had already learned. The children were well-behaved and diligent, and we made what I took to be good progress.
But the children were morose. A secret hung over the household. Even the children knew about it; but I had no idea what it was. I told myself that I should mind my own business. I was here to do a job, that was all.
Marisol brought us lunch. After lunch, I talked to her sometimes. She told me about growing up in the adjacent state of Aguascalientes.
I had more or less decided on that first night that I liked Marisol, and she seemed to like me, as well.
But Marisol, like the children—like Raul Garcia himself—was affected by a miasma that was simultaneously undeniable and undefinable. Sometimes I would be talking to her, and she would suddenly grow quiet, and stare off in the distance—often in the direction of the guesthouse next to mine.
After that first exhausted night of sleep, I developed a peculiar and persistent case of insomnia. Most nights I would toss and turn; and I could never endure lying in bed if I wasn’t sleepy.
I developed the habit of going for long walks around the compound at night. Two security guards remained at the front gate at all hours of the night, and I learned that there were two more who constantly patrolled the outer perimeter of the stone fence. But inside the compound, all was peaceful. I never saw the guards, and the many trees and shrubs gave the impression that the estate was a large wooded park—which I suppose it was, in a sense.
By the end of my second week, I had only once ventured into town by taxi. The estate was more secluded than I had anticipated, and my life these six months, for better or for worse, was to be confined to the Garcia family. But at least Marisol was there, and by now she had given me real reason to hope. I was a young man, and I had no desire to live the life of a monk—even for six months.
I was walking one night, lost in questions about the Garcia family, thinking about them more than I wanted to. Where was the girl Ana? And why was her mother so withdrawn?
I had met Luciana Garcia only a few times. She showed me pro-forma politeness, but clearly she had little desire to interact. Luciana Garcia was a slender, regal-looking woman in her late thirties, and at Marisol’s age she must have been a beauty of epic proportions. She was tall for a woman of any nationality, and she had long dark hair with a trace of red.
Sometimes I saw Luciana sitting off by herself in a folding chair while I was teaching the three children. She never joined us, and I thought that strange: Wouldn’t a mother want to observe the teaching of her children by a foreigner—at least part of the time? It was as if Luciana were waiting for something. Whether that something was to be welcomed or dreaded, I could not have said.
During my walks I avoided the other guesthouse. In my mind I was starting to work out possible connections: Ana’s unexplained absence, the general malaise, Marisol’s fear of the guesthouse.
The most likely possibility was that the eldest daughter had taken ill some time ago. She had died—perhaps after a protracted stay in the guesthouse. The family had endured the funeral and bereavement in the weeks before I arrived.
This explanation was not wholly satisfactory, of course. Why would parents banish a sick child to a dwelling detached from the main house? And why did Garcia tell me that Ana was “away”? These inconsistencies cast my hypothesis into doubt.
Unless—Ana had caught some communicable disease, and the parents had feared the other children becoming infected. Unless—Raul Garcia was unable to face the reality of his daughter’s death, and so he simply told strangers that she was “away”.
These were dark matters to ponder, especially in the middle of the night in a foreign country. As I passed between two clumps of yucca trees, I reflected how welcome it would be now to encounter Marisol out for a walk. But the maid usually remained in her quarters inside the main house when she wasn’t on duty.
I was stopped in my walk, and my thoughts, by the distinctive odor of tobacco smoke. I looked in the direction of the smell and saw an ember glow in the darkness as a man-shaped shadow took a drag on a cigarette. There was not much light tonight: the moon was in its crescent phase. I squinted, and finally recognized the face of Raul Garcia.
“Buenas noches,” he said.
I returned the greeting in Spanish. Although I was by no means forbidden access to the open spaces of the estate compound, I felt that I should explain my presence here so late at night. In English I told him that I was suffering from insomnia.
“The same word in Spanish,” he said, nodding, “more or less. Insomnio.” Then he added, “Yo también.” Me, too.
It required no great leap of insight to conclude that Raul Garcia wished to be alone, especially if my speculations about Ana were even partly correct. I told him that I was feeling more tired now, and that I would return to my guesthouse. He did not appear overly preoccupied by my movements. He nodded absently when I told him. He was deep in thought about other matters. I left him standing there in the dim light of the crescent moon.
On the way back to my guesthouse, I met another member of the Garcia household—in a manner of speaking: Marisol. The maid was standing at the fork in the path between the two guesthouses, as if my earlier thoughts had summoned her.
She did not see me. She was looking in the direction of the other guesthouse, as if trying to make a decision. I saw her briefly make a fist and bite her knuckle in obvious torment.
“¡Brujas!” I heard her say. The Spanish word for ‘witches’.
I walked up to her, exercising some care not to startle her.
“¿Y por qué brujas?” I asked her. Why witches?
She wavered; and I knew what was going through her mind: She was trying to decide whether or not she could trust me. Although Raul Garcia would not have been able to see us from where I had left him, I was conscious of his presence. If there was a secret to tell, this was not the place.
“Let’s go into your little casa,” she said at length.
Need I say that getting Marisol into my guesthouse had been my goal ever since that first meeting? I wanted to do much more than talk. We had already talked plenty in the compound at lunchtime. I literally ached for her. But the mood of the situation, as well as Marisol’s demeanor, precluded any such possibility. We walked in silence down the remaining path to my dwelling, and I closed the door behind us.
I gestured for her to sit down in one of the central room’s two padded leather chairs.
“What is it?” I asked her. “Tell me.”
“Something to do with Ana.”
Of course it would have something to do with Ana, the eldest child whom I had never met. Now I would find out the truth.
“Is she—dead?” I preempted.
“Ana was like a hermanita to me,” Marisol said, not answering my question. I just now fully noticed that Marisol was not clad in her maid’s uniform: She was dressed in a pair of jeans and a blouse with a floral pattern. She looked breathtakingly pretty, but this wasn’t the time to tell her.
From the front right pocket of her jeans she withdrew a photo and handed it to me. It was Marisol and the fourteen year-old girl, Ana, standing in the compound with their arms linked. Marisol was smiling without restraint in the photo, without the weight of whatever now burdened her. I had never seen her smile like that. And Ana looked every bit as vivacious and radiant as Marisol. Though only fourteen, Ana already possessed the beauty of a young woman.
I handed back the photo. “What happened? Is Ana sick? Dead? Tell me.”
Marisol unnecessarily looked at my front door, which I had closed behind us. Whatever she was about to tell me, she did not want it to be overheard.
“Do you know, Mark, what Señor Garcia does for work—for money?”
“He’s a businessman,” I said simply. “Un hombre de negocios.”
She looked at me, the naive American that I was, and said, “Not a simple businessman.”
Marisol then proceeded to explain that Raul Garcia was a major figure in the narcotics cartel that controlled this region of Mexico. He was a drug trafficker, in other words, his superficial displays of urbanity notwithstanding.
He was also a killer. I knew about the drug cartels of Mexico, and the horrible things they did.
I sighed. I suppose I had suspected as much all along. I had willingly accepted the vague explanations regarding Garcia’s line of work. The truth was that while I had my suspicions, I hadn’t wanted to know the truth. A knowledge of an unwelcome truth would have ruined my grand, youthful adventure, which I had intended to be carefree and uncomplicated.
Well, now, it was evident, a complication was coming my way.
“Okay,” I said, cautiously. “So Raul Garcia is a drug trafficker. But what does that have to do with Ana?”
Marisol proceeded to tell me the rest of the story. She told me how the Mexican cartels brutalized their rivals, or anyone who opposed them. They had a particular fondness for mutilating their victims; beheading was one of their most common tactics.
I was already aware of this much in general terms. I thought: What kind of a man have I gotten myself involved with? I had been a naive American, who only sees what he wants to see beyond the borders of his own country.
One day not long ago members of a rival cartel had caught Ana Garcia, alone and vulnerable, in town. They might have kidnapped her for ransom; but apparently they wanted to send a message. They beheaded the girl, and under cover of darkness placed both halves of her violated corpse before the gates of the estate.
“That’s horrible,” I said, stating the obvious. “But what—” I knew there was more.
There was more. Garcia acted quickly. He summoned a surgeon from town, waking him in the middle of the night. The surgeon protested, expressing remorse but gently pointing out that if the girl was already dead, the best surgeon in the world could have done nothing for her.
But Garcia summoned someone else as well. There were old people in the nearby countryside—brujos and brujas—who still practiced the old Aztec arts of spiritualism and necromancy. It was said that some of these individuals knew how to revive the dead.
I could feel the skin across my entire body breaking out in goosebumps.
“Surely you don’t mean—” I began.
“I’ll show you,” she said. “Do you want to see?”
What the better half of me wanted was to say no, and to politely usher Marisol out of the guesthouse. Then the next morning I would find a reason to leave the Garcia estate immediately, to return to the boring tranquility of my native land.
But my other half was darkly curious. If what Marisol had said was true, well then—how could I not look, no matter what the risk?
“All right,” I said. “Show me.”
Then Marisol pulled a small, shiny object from the pocket of her jeans.
A key. She didn’t have to tell me that this was a key to the other guesthouse. Later Marisol would tell me that in a cabinet inside the main house, there were duplicate, and even triplicate, keys to most of the outbuildings and storage closets of the estate. Members of the staff were always losing them, so long ago the family had learned to keep spares. But Raul Garcia would have removed the key currently in Marisol’s possession had he remembered it. That much, no doubt, was an oversight on his part.
We left my guesthouse together. I hoped that Raul Garcia had returned to the main house after his own bout of insomnia. Then it struck me: Even if Marisol was mistaken or exaggerating in her account, the act of trespass that I was about to commit was vast, and from the perspective of a man like Raul Garcia, it would be unforgivable.
As we approached the front door of the other guesthouse, as I looked into its darkened windows, I wondered if I ought to renege. I couldn’t: I had committed myself now. And I couldn’t disappoint Marisol. I had made a commitment to her, as well.
She turned the key in the keyhole and pushed the door open. We stepped inside. I heard something acknowledge our presence with a low sigh, or perhaps a hiss. I was immediately aware of an overpowering smell, a miasma that surrounded me and permeated all my defenses.
“No lights,” Marisol said, gesturing toward the skylight.
This guesthouse had a skylight in its ceiling, which gave enough illumination for us to see. The moon, as I have said, was currently in its crescent phase; but the guesthouse was near one of the estate’s big security lights.
I could clearly see the outline of the figure in the chair. Female, diminutive. And I thought: Is that really Ana Garcia, the same girl in the photograph with Marisol? She couldn’t be. It didn’t seem possible. Her eyes were closed, and her skin was ashen—rather than the vibrant light brown it should have been.
The girl was wearing a skirt and a blouse. Based on the long-dried bloodstains, these were almost certainly the clothes that she had been wearing when she was abducted and murdered. Both of her hands were on the chair’s armrests. Dried blood on both hands.
“You can step closer,” Marisol said, “to get a better look.”
Now I could see the stitches around the base of the girl’s neck. The henchmen of the rival cartel had decapitated her, but the surgeon whom Raul Garcia had summoned had—
Put her back together again…?
Ana Garcia opened her eyes. She looked directly at me. A cold chill struck me in the center of my chest, froze my entire body for an instant. The slackened mouth tightened to a small smile.
I hadn’t known Ana Garcia in life, of course; but I knew full well that the intelligence behind those eyes wasn’t that of the girl in the photograph.
I flinched and stepped backward. Then I noticed that the girl was bound to the chair which held her. There were chains around her wrists and ankles. The Aztec priest had known that what he had created was no longer Ana Garcia. This was something else, something that needed to be restrained.
Marisol gently touched me on the shoulder. I nearly cried aloud.
“Come on,” the maid said, “We’re not supposed to be here.”
I needed no further prompting. I had seen enough—more than enough.
My teaching of the other three Garcia children, no doubt, suffered in the days after Marisol’s revelations. How could it have been otherwise?
Prior to that night, I had figured the Garcias to be a pleasant enough, if a bit eccentric, upper-class family. Now I had to live with the knowledge that my employer was a drug dealer.
But more than that, of course—the undead girl in the guesthouse adjacent to mine.
I supposed that there was little enough physical danger. After all, Ana had been there, in the next building over, for the entire time I had resided at the Garcia estate. She was restrained in her chair, and securely locked inside the walls of the guesthouse. But having seen her, I could not unsee her. Nor could I rid my mind of the few minutes I had spent in her midst.
I was therefore sleeping poorly. My insomnia was worse than ever, but I abandoned my prior habit of going for late-evening walks. I loathed the idea of running into Raul Garcia again. (After that night in the adjacent guesthouse, I avoided him as much as possible.)
And I wondered: How much did the rest of the household know?
Luciana, I figured, would know everything. But what about Maria, Reinaldo, and Felipe? Surely Raul Garcia would have spared the other three children the awareness of what their older sister had become.
I had thoughts of breaking my contract, of taking a taxi into town and boarding the next flight for the United States. Raul Garcia would have questions, of course; he might protest, fearing that it would be difficult to replace me on short notice. But in the end he would let me go.
The only obstacle to that plan was Marisol. Our romance was still in its early stages; but I didn’t want to leave her. At the same time, I knew that if anything was going to continue between us, we would both have to make a decision: I would have to remain in Mexico, or she would have to accompany me to the United States.
She had visited me twice in my guesthouse since that night. These visits were of a different nature. On these occasions, we did not go to the adjacent guesthouse; and we both tried to ignore what we had seen there.
She was getting dressed that second time, preparing to go back to her own quarters in the main house, when she started crying.
“What is it?” I asked, caressing her bare shoulder. I already knew, didn’t I?
“I can’t stay here,” she sobbed. “Not with,”— she gestured in the general direction of the building where Ana was restrained in her chair—“not with that.”
“I understand,” I said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t want to stay here any longer, either.”
“But I can’t leave her—Ana—like that,” Marisol said. “She is an,”—Marisol struggled for the right English word as she often did—“una abominación.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “An abomination.”
“Not Ana anymore. I need to leave here; but I can’t leave Ana like that.”
“No,” I said. “I suppose you can’t.”
She turned to me. “Will you help me?”
How could I refuse Marisol’s request, despite all the obvious danger involved? I could not have denied Marisol much of anything—not in my current state of infatuation with her. More than that, she was right: It would be wrong to leave Ana as the surgeon and the Aztec sorcerer had left her.
A concrete plan formed in my mind. “I’ll take care of it,” I said, “but I need you to get me some things.” I gave her a small list of items, all of which should have been stored somewhere on the estate, in areas that Marisol could enter more easily than me. “And I’ll need that spare key to the other guesthouse.”
Marisol worked quickly. She brought the items I requested the very next night: a small container of kerosene—this being a plastic bottle that would allow me to disperse the liquid over a wide area—and a box of matches.
As she left that night, she gave me her key. We had both nearly forgotten that last but all-important item.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you, Mark?” she asked.
“No,” I told her for at least the fourth time. This was a one-person job; and the extent of the danger it entailed was now fully dawning on me. There was nothing to be gained by putting us both at risk.
“Okay, then. Bien.”
I kissed her. I didn’t know—though I could reasonably have guessed—that this would be our final kiss, at least for a long time. One way or another, the mission that I was about to embark upon would put an end to the evenings in my quarters.
I waited several hours after Marisol departed. I wanted to wait long enough to be certain that the rest of the household would be asleep—especially Raul Garcia.
Finally the hour came when I could delay no more, when to wait any longer would put me unacceptably close to daybreak. I left my guesthouse with the key and matches in my pocket, with the bottle of accelerant tucked against my body.
Three minutes later, perhaps, I opened the door to the other guesthouse, stepped across the threshold, and closed the door behind me.
This time, Ana’s eyes were already open. The girl—or whatever was inside her—began to moan.
Taking the plastic squeeze bottle in both hands, I spread the kerosene around the room. I refused to look at the figure in the chair. I did not understand the forces at work here; but if they had brought Ana back from the dead, if they had assisted that surgeon in his hideous late-night operation, then they were far more powerful than I was. I had to deny them any leverage over me, any advantage.
Now the thing in the chair was cursing at me in words that I did not understand, in a low, guttural voice. At one point, the presence inside the shell of Ana Garcia growled.
I sprayed kerosene in the direction of the growl. I had only one opportunity here; I had to be thorough.
I lit the match, and threw both the matchbox and the plastic bottle into the rising, already crackling flames.
I hurried out. On the other side of the closed door, I remembered to use my shirt to clean any fingerprints from the doorknob. I did not think this would involve a professional forensic investigation. But I wanted to take no more risks than I already had—and I had taken a lot of them.
Then, as quickly as possible, I went back to my guesthouse. I could not flee tonight. Raul Garcia would draw the obvious conclusion and he would come after me. Even if I managed to make a flight out of Mexico tonight, I would not be safe from him in the United States.
I thoroughly washed my hands in the tiny bathroom of my guesthouse to remove any trace of the kerosene smell, just in case I was questioned tonight.
Then I realized that I had overlooked a crucial detail: The key to the now burning guesthouse was still in my pocket.
I dropped the key into the commode and watched it sink to the bottom of the bowl. I pulled the handle. To my relief, the key disappeared with the swirling water. I had no idea how sewer systems were configured in remote locations like this in Mexico. I would have to trust that the key wouldn’t turn up in a septic tank within the estate.
Finally I went to bed. I didn’t know if Raul Garcia would call the bomberos from the nearby city, or if he would fight the fire with the manpower that he had on the estate. If anyone from the outside came, he might have to explain the charred body that would be found in that chair, and the stitches on its neck. Not to mention the chains.
Contrary to my expectations, I managed to fall asleep. I awakened an hour later, and heard a commotion outside, in the direction of the other guesthouse. No one knocked on my door, and I did not step out of my dwelling. I did not get out of bed, in fact.
I never found out if Raul Garcia summoned the fire department, or if the nighttime security staff was forced to double as a firefighting team.
When I finally stepped outside in the morning, the air was filled with the smell of smoke. The other guesthouse was not quite burned to the ground, but the fire I started had completely gutted it. I had, indeed, been thorough.
My lessons with the three remaining children—like most other normal activities on the estate—were suspended in the wake of the fire.
As I was making my way to the main house that morning, a security guard met me halfway. He told me, politely but firmly, that I should return to my quarters. Someone would bring my breakfast. An hour later, someone did: an older woman who worked in the kitchen. Needless to say, I was desperate to see Marisol.
I was also terrified now that suspicion would fall on me, and that I would immediately break under questioning, and give myself away.
Around noontime a security guard finally came and escorted me to the main house. I was taken to a private study where Raul Garcia was waiting for me. Garcia was seated behind a desk. Two large, rough-looking men were seated on a divan on the far side of the room. Their sport coats and Italian shoes didn’t disguise the fact that they were violent characters.
Garcia’s expression was very grave, but I detected no anger directed at me. He motioned for me to sit in the chair opposite the desk. It was an antique armchair with leather upholstery—not unlike the one that Ana had been chained to.
Garcia asked me some obvious questions: Did I hear anything last night? Did I go for a walk, and if so, did I see anything?
I told him, with an even voice and without embellishment, that I had not gone for a walk last night, and I had heard nothing that could reasonably be connected to the fire. I was very sorry to learn what had happened.
Raul Garcia nodded. “This has been a bad thing. But it doesn’t have anything to do with you. Within a day or two, you can begin your lessons for the children again. Luciana and I have been very pleased with your tutoring.”
He gestured for me to go. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to get away with this. I had outwitted a Mexican drug lord.
Then I saw the situation from a different perspective: Raul Garcia had no reason to suspect his children’s American English tutor of burning down one of his guesthouses.
I was standing up when he stopped me, a final thought occurring to him.
“What about Marisol—the maid? Did you see her?” Garcia asked.
I had a split-second to make a decision. I might not be a prime suspect for the fire. But that was mostly because I had no perceivable motive. Raul Garcia was no fool. He hadn’t survived to his mid-forties in his line of work by failing to notice things.
“Yes,” I admitted. “Early in the evening. When she left, everything was fine. Listen, Mr. Garcia, I’m sorry about me and Marisol, but—”
Garcia smiled, but only for a brief moment. “Está bien, Mark. Do you think that I was never a young man, like you? I understand. You and Marisol are both young, and things like that sometimes happen among young people. It isn’t a crime. This is Mexico—not Saudi Arabia. But just to confirm, you say Marisol left your guesthouse early?”
“No later than nine o’clock,” I said.
Nevertheless, I didn’t want Marisol to be interrogated. Depending on how well she held up, that might spell disaster.
“Marisol may deny being with me,” I suggested. “She is very—traditional.”
“Since you have told me, there is no need to bring Marisol into this office for questioning. Thank you for your honesty, Mark. You may go now.”
I left then, not wanting to push my luck an inch further.
I was amazed at how reasonable he had been. When I stepped into that room, I had half-expected to be strong-armed, threatened. But I had been asked a few polite questions, my answers had been accepted, and now I was free to go.
That was all a veneer, I knew. The whole thing was a veneer. I thought of Ana, of what had been done to her. How many people had Raul Garcia ordered killed in a similar way? I could also not forget that Ana’s fate had merely been Garcia’s violence coming back to him.
I hated Raul Garcia in that moment; and I was more frightened of him than ever.
I resumed my English lessons the very next day, as it turned out. But I was a very distracted teacher. There were too many unanswered questions, and the situation might be worse than I imagined.
The smoldering ruins of the other guesthouse had been cordoned off.
I didn’t doubt that I had destroyed the abomination (to use Marisol’s word) that had been made of Ana.
I suspected that Raul Garcia had brought in trusted outsiders to dispose of what remained of the body. Perhaps Ana would now be reported missing. Surely the Garcia family would have to account for her whereabouts at some point?
I couldn’t ask any questions, though, because I wasn’t supposed to know the truth about Ana. So I pretended that the destruction of the guesthouse had no significance—an unexplained fire in an unoccupied, empty building.
I had not seen Marisol since the night of the fire. I wasn’t too alarmed the first day I failed to see her, but by the third day I had grown actively worried. Had Garcia reneged on his promise to forgo questioning her? Was Marisol’s body now lying in a shallow grave somewhere, mutilated beyond recognition by Garcia’s security men?
On the fourth day I received an answer—sort of. I was brought to Raul Garcia’s study again. This time a member of the household staff escorted me, and there were no burly security men in the room with us.
“I don’t know if you’re aware, Mark, but Marisol has left our employment.”
“Why?” I asked.
He must have detected the shock and disappointment in my face. No doubt I was completely transparent.
“She said that her father is sick, and her mother needs her help at home. I’m sorry, Mark; it doesn’t appear that she told you about her decision. I wouldn’t think too badly of her, if I were you. Her explanation about her father seemed sincere. And as for you—well, she probably didn’t want to get hurt. She probably decided that a romance with an American who was going to leave the country in a few months would only lead to dolor—to heartbreak for her.”
“Of course,” I said. Then I added, involuntarily: “So you just let her go?”
Raul Garcia laughed. He didn’t know that I knew what he really was. “Of course, Mark. What kind of a question is that? Household staff come and go all the time. Marisol was a good maid, but there are young girls who can work as maids all over Mexico.”
It was apparent to me that much of Garcia’s lightheartedness was forced. He would still be working to track down the parties responsible for the fire; but he was thinking in other directions—not in the direction of either his maid or his American tutor.
“Thank you for telling me,” I said.
He waved me out. “There are other young women in Mexico, Mark. Many others.”
Two days later I told Raul Garcia that I would have to return home. I told him only that it was a “family problem”.
“A lot of family problems of late,” Garcia said sourly. He was clearly disappointed in me. But this was a safe, normal level of disappointment. It wasn’t the sort of disappointment that could get me killed. He might have thought that I was lying; but he would have concluded that I was despondent over Marisol’s departure—not that I wanted to leave before his security team’s detailed investigation of the fire somehow led to me.
I had brought my cell phone and laptop to Mexico with me, so I could plausibly support my claim that I had received urgent communications from home. Would he ask for hard proof? I didn’t know. I hadn’t planned that far.
“All right, Mark,” he said. “We are sorry to lose you, but we will find another English tutor. I hope your—family problems—whatever they are, improve.”
I returned home. After weighing my remaining options, I decided to go to work with my father in the family dry cleaning business; and this is what I am doing still.
I have seen the world, and I am done with it. Although I am still young in terms of years, I cannot help feeling that in other ways, I am much, much older than I used to be.
After returning from Mexico, I continued to think about Marisol, though I knew that she was gone forever. I never expected to hear from her again.
Until I did. One day I received a postcard with a generic Mexican scene on the front—one of the great Aztec pyramids.
She must have sent me a postcard instead of a letter so that it would immediately get my attention, so I wouldn’t set it aside or discard it, assuming it to be junk mail.
Nor did I long ponder the question of how Marisol had found my address in Ohio. During our long conversations, during our few precious evenings in my guesthouse, I had told her many details of my life in America. Using the Internet, it would not have been difficult for her to find me.
The message on the postcard was simple:
“Thank you, Mark, for what you did—for Ana, and for me.”
There was no return address.
I understood from this that Marisol had no desire to hear back from me. She wanted to cut the cord completely. I briefly thought about searching for her and then abandoned the idea. There was something poisonous between us. It was not something of our making, but it would always be with us, nevertheless.
I did what I had to do—what I believed was right, as did Marisol. And as a result, a part of me will always remain inside the guesthouse adjacent to mine; and a part of me will always wonder about a woman in Mexico, who, under different circumstances, might have been more to me—and me to her.
It occurred to me that the older man had stolen the youth of both Marisol and me, even as his sins had resulted in the death of his daughter—and that state after death that was far worse.
Ana was now at peace. But as for Marisol and me, we would spend the rest of our lives trying to forget the abomination brought into this world by Raul Garcia.
This short story is included in the collection I Know George Washington: Five Dark Tales. Get it on Amazon.