WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?


CHAPTER 07

I MAKE THE TURNING at exit 32. Dust clouds for a mile or so, and then the hidden track for Los Logos. The shantytown. Borderzone. A cloud of heat shimmering along the desert's edge.

I haven't been out this way since Jessica died.

On the edge of the village a young native boy is working the handle of a water pump, collecting a few drops of liquid in a tin can. He looks up at me as I drive past, shielding his eyes from the light. His face is without expression.

The sun hangs suspended, melting the sky.

The buildings along the narrow main street are made from wooden panels, coloured with stolen images: Shadow Blossom polish, Levi Stone's Essence of Sleep, Waverley's construction kits. Children are lolling in the dust, and old timers are slumped in the shade of the pickup truck. There is a sickness in town. The only sound comes from the darkness of one of the huts, a woman's voice singing a ballad of lost love. The tune is vaguely familiar. Sad, broken, lonely. They have travelled some strange distance, these people.

I park the car, then walk the old track that leads to the church. I'm soaked with sweat already. Some teenagers are standing around the doorway to the white, adobe building. They watch me pass. The splintered bell hangs silent in the tower.

All things in stillness.

Miguel is waiting for me in the small graveyard. He sits on a folding stool, in front of a simple wooden cross. His fingers work at the keys of a bandoneon. It's the same melody as the woman was singing, but this time with the lilting rhythm of a slow tango. He nods, a bare acknowledgement.

'Señor Webb.'

'Miguel, I'm sorry…'

'Come.'

We walk further into the desert. Hidden away in a small valley, lies the oasis. Around its treasured pool the tribe have cultivated a secret garden, filled with lush, fabulous plants, mutated fruits and strange animals. Miguel takes me through the gateway, into this theatre of creatures. It's been a long while since my last visit, and the place has grown even more tropical since then, more overpowering. The tribe use the garden as an illegal source of income, but in truth, I never could grasp the real meaning of this ceremonial landscape.

Despite the tangled nature of the garden, it takes Miguel but a few minutes to reach the central pagoda. There are bloodstains on the decking, and tiny mah-jong playing pieces lie scattered around.

'One character is missing, my friend. The green dragon tile.'

'Miguel, this is a police matter.'

He shakes his head, sadly, before leading me deeper into the maze. The animals sleep in their cages, weary from the heat. All the pathways seem to twist back upon themselves, close in, and then branch out in new directions. I feel lost, completely; I keep expecting to meet myself around the next corner.

Finally, we come to a cage set apart from the others, hidden by a screen of bamboo shoots. The first thing I notice is the gold medallion, hanging down from the bars. And then a breathing, a scratching sound. Shadows, tremblings; the rich, hot smell of animal presence. I remember Miguel's father showing me the birth of this creature; a pattern of fused dots on an old Macintosh, some pulpy matter in a test-tube, a series of ritual markings in the sand. Now, the leopard can barely raise its head, to look at me. There is a strange crackling sound, and a blue haze floats within the cage. Again, that old song can be heard, distant, out of tune. I can't tell where it's coming from.

'Do you see now, Señor Webb? Why we have asked you here?'

There is a flickering light at the edge of vision. Something else is moving in the cage, some pale figure. I have to look away once or twice, then back again, before the image catches itself on my retina. It's like watching an old film, only to have some stray signal keep on cutting in, a sudden switch of channels. Finally, the apparition reveals itself. The white catsuit, cut low at the front, with rhinestones gleaming on the belt, the lapels. Electromagnetic sparkle. A late period unveiling; fat and drugged up, tired from working the Las Vegas cabaret stages. Dyed black hair, bellbottom trousers, and that voice. The voice. And where the leopard once prowled, now there rises a man.

'What is this? An image fix?'

'Of a kind. My father got hold of it, black-market. It took the last of our money.'

'But they don't work on animals. I've never heard of that.'

'This is different, Señor Webb. A mutant strain. And it doesn't fade. It's been over a week now, since the morpheus drug was administered.'

'Morpheus?'

'Now, it seems, there are other people interested.' He cleans some material from the bars of the cage. 'Green silk.'

'I can't help you, Miguel. I don't do this anymore.'

'My friend, I remember when your wife was killed. Her body…'

'Please…'

Over the last year, I've been dreading this moment; but there are some debts that must always be paid.

Miguel rolls the threads of silk in his fingers. 'You must find my father's murderer. That is all.'

I can't drag myself away from the terrible image. Elvis Presley cowers in the corner of the hovel, his silver catsuit smeared with excrement.

The ghost has taken over my eyes.

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WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?