Puerto Escondido Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By Paul Grussendorf

Puerto Escondido: Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By Paul Grussendorf

Paul Grussendorf, author of Puerto Escondido, is an attorney representing refugees, a former Immigration Judge and consultant to the UN Refugee Agency.

His legal memoir is My Trials: Inside America’s Deportation Factories. Writing under the byline Jonathan Worlde, his neo-noir mystery novel Latex Monkey With Banana was winner of the Hollywood Discovery Award.

*****

I’m driving with the German guy, Mahler, in the passenger seat, heading south from Puerto Escondido toward Puerto Angel, in a Jeep Wrangler which is badly in need of a tune-up, with the Pacific on our right. It’s Mexico’s national holiday, Cinco de Mayo, and a sunny day. There are a lot of drunks driving the roads, those who’ve been up drinking all night.  We’re on a straightaway, moving uphill at eighty miles an hour.

Suddenly a pickup, coming toward us about a half mile up the road, makes a move to pass a sedan in front of it.  People are standing in the back of the pickup, clinging to a metal railing for balance. The truck is swaying dangerously because of the speed and the overload of human cargo.  The sedan isn’t slowing down to let the truck pass. I can see that the truck can’t overtake the car, and the car’s driver isn’t gonna budge, and there’s no place for me to pull over.  On our right is a sheer drop-off to the rocks far below. I figure that the truck driver will recognize his mistake and pull back in his lane so that we can pass safely.

There are a lot of drunks driving the roads, those who’ve been up drinking all night.  We’re on a straightaway, moving uphill at eighty miles an hour.

The distance between us is rapidly narrowing, but neither of the approaching vehicles slows down. I take my foot off the accelerator, alert now to the immediate danger.  The truck driver, still speeding neck and neck with the car, isn’t willing to give up the fight to overtake it. Doesn’t he see that our car is only seconds away and closing rapidly? He’s probably too drunk to even notice the peril that he’s putting us all in. The partying passengers in back are oblivious to the danger.  And there’s no place for me to go with the Jeep, to get out of the way. We continue to speed toward the two vehicles, and I wait for the truck driver to come to his senses and pull back into his lane.

With only a couple hundred feet between us now, the German, who has been day dreaming while gazing at the ocean, realizes what’s happening.  “Vorsicht!” he yells, but he doesn’t need to tell me to be careful.  The truck isn’t budging from my lane.  We’re seconds away from a head-on collision.

*****

I had met the German a few days earlier, in the little hotel in Puerto Angel, just where Ernst said I’d find him.  I checked-in late in the afternoon, after making the drive over the coastal mountains from the city of Oaxaca.  The drive wasn’t that bad — just don’t stay out on the road after dark, they say, or the bandidos will get you.  Puerto Angel is fifty miles south of Puerto Escondido.  A friend who used to  hang out in Puerto Escondido, thirty years ago, says that back then the town lived up to its romantic name, “the hidden port;” a little-known,  hard to access harbor with great surfing and fishing, and no place to stay except a few bungalows on the beach.  The town has fallen victim to strip malls and cheap hotels, and American college students who pollute the place with their loud music and stupid, drunken behavior.

The hotel in much quieter Puerto Angel was set on a hill, so that up on the roof-top restaurant you could look out over the little port and the ocean. From that vantage point, with a cold Tecate in my hand, that first afternoon, watching the sun sink into the ocean just beyond the fishing boats, there was no more beautiful place in the whole world. I wondered how long it would be until this charming town also fell to the marauding tourists from the north.

The German was sitting up there, in the open air, eating a meal of paella, and looking over the little town reflectively.  He looked a lot like the pictures of Gustav Mahler you see on album covers, with wire-rimmed glasses and a narrow face — that intellectual look.

*****

I don’t consider myself a criminal — I’m a professional.  What’s the difference?  A criminal kills for his own personal gain, often on the spur of the moment.  An opportunity presents itself to be exploited, and the criminal hits like a shark, leaving havoc in his wake.  The professional, on the other hand, provides a service.  Someone needs something to be done.  The service costs money, usually a lot of money, but the professional knows how to accomplish the task with expediency and efficiency. The customer is satisfied, and things are left neater than they were before. The world is more orderly when the task is accomplished.

Back in college I was a psych major, before I joined the Agency.  Upon graduation, when I did join, I was happy to be recruited into a walk of life where my curiosity about people and my urge to travel could be satisfied. In the Agency’s employ, I spent three years in Berlin, a dozen in different Central and South American countries, and another five in West Africa.

Now I draw a good retirement. My house is paid off, I’m divorced, my daughter’s in college, and I take on an occasional job, more for the opportunity to exercise my curious nature than for the money.  Of course, the one hundred grand for this job, tax free, will be a nice bonus — fifty grand up front, fifty upon completion.

Some people might say it’s a bit steep for this kind of work – sure, any joker could do the job for, say, ten grand.  But my specialty – my professional touch — is that it never looks like a hit.  I’m an accident specialist.  It’s important, to the people who engage my services, that there never be any suspicion of foul play – it’s always an accident that does in the dearly-departed. In the event there should be suspicion about the circumstances of the death, leading to an investigation, then the aggrieved lover or spouse, who contracts me, would surely be the number one suspect in the eyes of the law.

If the fatal event looks like a tragic accident – and when I’m on the case it always does –   there is no subsequent investigation. And the grieving spouse or family member usually collects the insurance, which makes their decision to engage my services a good deal. On my all-expenses paid trip to the splendid Pacific coast of southern Mexico, the German was my target.

*****

I struck up a conversation with Mahler that first afternoon.  He remarked how good my German was.  People always do. I never could manage to get the language down accent-free — that’s impossible to do when you learn a language as an adult — but I could at least sound like a northern European speaking German, rather than like some goofy bubble gum-chewing American.  They always stick out, they can’t learn to darken the vowels.

“Thanks, I lived in Germany for a few years, in Berlin.”

“Were you with the army?” A natural assumption.

“No, I was a professor at the University of Berlin, teaching American literature.  Edgar Allen Poe, Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne.”

“I like the American authors.”

“And I like the German realists.  Is this your first time in Mexico?”

“No, I have come to Mexico every year for the past five years.  I fell in love with the culture here and started taking language classes, and now I spend every vacation here.”

I knew that he worked as a physician in the historic city of Nuremburg.  He was planning to open a dive shop in Puerto Escondido and steal my client’s wife away, to live with her in his tropical paradise.  Ernst, my client, had learned about the scheme by doing some simple detection on his own.  The wife in question, or shall we say the prize, was a dazzling, leggy brunette from Hamburg. She used to be a failing German TV actress before marrying Ernst, a Krup executive, and retiring to join him in his Schloss, his castle, in Bavaria.

Ernst was ten years older than me, so I could sympathize with him, understand the anger evoked, when he learned that his lovely wife was planning to run off with a doctor/scuba diver ten years younger than me.  Ernst reasoned that once the surgeon suffered a tragic death, she would return to him, electing the gilded cage over — what, nothing? And that he would at least have her back in body if not in spirit. And at his age he would settle for her body.

*****

I like to get to know the subjects before I execute the contracts.  That’s a condition of my work.  I take pleasure in studying them.  Remember how Jeffrey Dahmer used to eat his victims’ hearts?  In a way, it’s like I get to digest the souls of my subjects.  I want to understand what’s motivating them, why they are doing whatever it is that finally drives my clients to seek out my service.  Surely they know they’re running a risk – running around with the boss’s wife, or their best friend’s husband, or forcing their partner out of the company.  In every case, I’ve learned, the offending party has taken some kind of initiative, or aggressive act or series of acts, that has finally caused my client to strike back by hiring me.

My clients are reacting to a situation where they’ve lost control, and I help them to regain it.  I like to study how that dynamic developed.  I want to understand the person who put it all in motion – who made the decision to throw the life of my client out of kilter, causing mental anguish and physical distress – before I play my role and put everything back in order.  I need to understand.

*****

            I buddied-up with Mahler that first afternoon.  He was going to Puerto Escondido the next day, which was Cinco de Mayo, to make inquiries about the future dive shop business.  I offered to drive him, telling him I knew the route well. I had played through different scenarios in advance, about how to do the job.  I could go diving with him – it would be all too easy to engineer a diving accident.  Or, I could help him take a tumble from a steep cliff onto boulders that were pounded by crashing surf. So many ways to die on that rugged coastline.

But I decided upon a method that would be almost effortless, and could take place under the cover of darkness.  We could have a few drinks in the evening at a beachside bar in Zipolte, on the way back to Puerto Angel from Puerto Escondido, and I could slip him a mickey.  Then, before he passed out, I get him to my car, drive the last few kilometers to the kill zone, by which time he’ll be unconscious, and lay him out on the road on a blind curve.

There are some pretty sharp curves on the drive back into Puerto Angel, and the way the locals go barreling around them, often with no headlights on,  it would be a sure thing — and a flawless execution, with no trace of the drug in his blood the next day in the event that an autopsy should be ordered.

We spent Cinco de Mayo in Puerto Escondido, visiting a few diving shops and restaurants that were for sale. Mahler looked at account books, asked about cash flow. He was mulling over his options.  He was anxious to find a location and get his business started. The ex-movie starlet wouldn’t make the transition until she saw evidence of firm commitment on his part. At the same time that he was scoping out his possibilities, I was studying the situation for my own purpose. I made my decision. On the drive up that day,  I’d spotted the ideal sharp curve where he would be found dead the next morning, after our night out.

*****

It’s on the drive back, that afternoon, that death stares me down, in the form of the drunken truck driver who insists on playing chicken with me, putting all of our lives in danger.

“Jesus, fica su madre!”  I shout, as the truck keeps coming in our path.  I know now, that when my time is come, those are likely the words I’ll utter, my last words.  You see, that was a dry run for when my time does come, and that’s what came out, spontaneously, as natural as pissing during a night of heavy drinking.  The truck, with its cargo of oblivious drunks in back, continues to sway from side to side as if it would plunge over the cliff.

Right at the last second, just as Mahler puts both feet up on the dash to brace for the impact, shouting “Scheisse!” I see that an apron of asphalt opens up on my right – a run-off ditch along the side of the road. I turn the wheel, pulling the car over onto the strip of asphalt that’s barely as wide as the Jeep’s body.

I guide with my peripheral vision,  keeping the car from plunging over the side onto the cliff face, clinging to the wheel with all my sweaty-handed might.  I see the truck go blasting by on my left. My eyes register snapshots of the face of the driver – big moustache, mouth agape with laughter, bloodshot eyes; and the drunken revelers in back, clinging to the sides of the truck, clutching beer bottles and singing.

When the truck passes, I pull the wheel to the left. Just as we’re back on the main road, the extra asphalt apron that had saved us is gone, as if some hidden hand had placed it there for us in our time of need.  I don’t believe in that stuff, nor am I a fatalist, but I’m glad for whatever cosmic black box has just saved our asses.

Mahler is quiet — just staring at the road — and we drive for a while in silence.  Finally he says, “You did good.”

I accept the complement.  I know I did. I hadn’t freaked out and done something stupid. I took us right to the edge – until the edge expanded to accommodate us — keeping us alive. I’m a professional.

*****

About five miles down the road, I pulled into a little cove. A palm-thatched cantina sat in the center of the prettiest little stretch of beach you could ever wish for.  We had a round of Tecates, served by a barefoot woman in her mid thirties – she was wearing cut-off’s and a baggy Padres T-shirt. Her skin was caramel brown. Her daughter, maybe five years old, made a game of bringing us chips and running back to hide behind the bar and watching us eat.

I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to enjoy the fact that we were still alive, and coincidentally on one of the loveliest spots on earth, while downing about a dozen beers. My senses were magnified in the afterglow of near-death. The sun playing off the waves, the sound of the waves pushing against the sand, the motorboats cutting across the horizon, the frigate birds throwing their shadows across the sand as they coursed the updraft high above our heads – and then the most beautiful goddamned sundown I’d ever had the pleasure of appreciating.

But while I wanted to just sit there and “love life” like some shameless hippy, letting the world speak to me, Mahler eventually opened up and started talking. He talked about his medical clinic back in Nuremburg, and his ex-wife, and soon he was telling me all about his romance with his starlet, and Ernst, about what an asshole Ernst was, and his plans to get together with the starlet in Puerto Escondido. He told me what I pretty much already knew about the relationship, except of course from his perspective rather than what I’d already learned from Ernst’s side.

From what I heard, I thought he was a fool to invest too much in the ex-movie star gold-digger, but since I planned on killing him within a few short hours, it didn’t seem worth the effort to give him any advice about love or the opposite sex, which, coming from me, wouldn’t have been worth a warm Tecate.

When the sun was down, the horizon still clung to the sun’s last rays. The young mother brought us another round of beers. She bent over our table to serve us, and my inquiring eye caught a full view of the lovely offerings inside her T-shirt. And right there I decided I’d rather do something else than kill a man that evening.  If I were a philosopher, I’d say that I was motivated to create a life rather than take one.

Of course, there was nothing stopping me from doing both – sure as hell wouldn’t have been the first time. I’ll spare all that stuff about how enjoyable the sex act can be, after you’ve seen a man’s head exploding like a watermelon through your scope sight, for another time. But the fact that her sexuality entered my consciousness right then, at the culmination of everything that had happened that afternoon, somehow nudged a primal urge in me, and I felt that being merciful toward Mahler was the right thing to do.

So when Mahler said, for the fifth time, except now he was slurring his speech, “I still can’t believe we didn’t die today,” I looked him in the eye, and said, coolly, “I was going to kill you tonight.”

He laughed.  “Come on, don’t be silly.”

“No, I mean it.  Your pal Ernst is paying me a hundred grand to make it look like an accident.”

At that he sat upright, suddenly alert. His eyes searched my clothing for a hidden gun. I chuckled.  “I know what you’re thinking. I don’t need a gun. The machete in the back seat of the jeep on the floor would do just fine. You have no idea how many men die down here, in drunken brawls, from a quick blow from a machete.”

He looked at my arms and hands, my shoulders, registering for the first time that I’m still fairly powerfully built, and then he looked at the Jeep, and I could see he had already pictured me bringing that machete down on his neck, like slaying an ox, and he was calculating how much of a head start he could get if he jumped up and started running right then.

I shook my head in the negative. “Don’t worry about the machete. I’d probably just snap your neck, after a couple more hours of drinking, and leave your body in the road.”

He sensed, in my voice and my body language, that I didn’t present a mortal threat to him after all.  “Then what made you change your mind?”

How could I explain to someone like Mahler, whose whole life and identity was about saving lives – the Hippocratic oath and all that – the reasons, the way the series of the afternoon’s events had all come together that had caused me to decide, only within the last few minutes, to spare his life? And that if it hadn’t been for that young woman, and her body’s proximity to mine, just a few moments ago, it could have all been different? But on this occasion – this one occasion, I assure you – that near miss with death on the road, followed by all of the wonders that nature had served up in the past hour, culminating with the woman, who with her pretty little girl was a stand-in for the mother goddess herself and her life force – shit, there I go sounding like some goddamned hippy again – I just couldn’t put all of that in words, not someone like me.

“Let’s just say that I like you!”

He found that very funny. He practically laughed his head off, and I joined in, while the little girl danced around our table, her laughter lending the joyous innocence of young life.

*****

            Mahler is still alive today.  . We’re partners.  Everything changed when he and I survived that near-collision .  We had stared down death together, and lived to talk about it and celebrate. Man, did we get drunk that night. The balmy breeze under the palms, the  warm waves surging at our naked feet, and the Salsa music coming from the cantina, just heightened our drunken joy — the recognition that we could appreciate the stars in a black tropical night one more time.  The experience had forged a bond between us that I couldn’t ignore.  It was as if my contract with Ernst had a special clause – the “escape from near death” clause – that had to be optioned under rare circumstances, such as what Mahler and I had just been through.

The evening and the drinking made us creative. We hatched our own plan right there.        It only takes a little bit of grease to get a death certificate and a bogus police report issued in certain tropical countries. A few days later, Mahler suffered a tragic diving accident all right, and his body was never recovered. But it was only for the eyes of Ernst, who, after seeing the convincing documents, came out to Mexico with the hot wife, to celebrate the occasion and to pay me the rest of the fee. After our own little celebration, I arranged another unfortunate accident with Ernst – a boating accident — when I took him out to fish for marlin. After he’d paid me, of course, with a nice tip thrown in.  But his untimely death was for real.

So Mahler included me in his diving operation.  I used some of Ernst’s cash for infrastructure, and now we’ve got a booming business: Gunther & Jesse’s Dive Shop.  Oh, the German starlet is long gone – her skin burned too easily in the tropic sun – but Mahler’s disappointment over that failed arrangement was short-lived.  A diving instructor in Puerto Escondido has got more than enough women willing to throw themselves at him.  Me, I enjoy the climate and the cheap beer.

Oh, and the young mother – Angelina is her name – that first night under the stars, after her daughter was asleep, was just the beginning. Now the daughter has a little brother, and we’re a family – I’m raising another generation, just like one of those Mexican dynasties in the soap operas on Univision.

If you ever need my services, just let me know. If it’s something that peaks my curiosity, then maybe we can make a deal. I’ve got good references, and I enjoy my work.  Just look me up in Puerto Escondido.

*****

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