Follow the Sun Underground
by David Brookes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Ix stepped off the slow plane to Mérida Airport, brushing chicken feathers from the shoulder of his patchy jacket. Beads of sweat clung to the bristles of his jaw. The pilot was a friendly enough guy, even though Ix only remembered rudimentary Spanish, and pointed out the direction to the road. Ix took the route that went around the low buildings of the terminally grey airport, until he met his driver slouching with a cigarillo by his Jeep.
‘You know where I’m going?’ asked Ix, throwing his satchel in the back seat. The impact kicked up a smell of dust, cig smoke, burnt leather.
The driver nodded. He had been given his instructions, and recognised Ix from his photo in that book Ix had released about his approach to entrepreneurship. Ix had been embarrassed to learn that his assistant, Kate, routinely sent free copies of his book to certain contacts.
‘My case,’ said Ix, and gestured towards a heavy wooden box. The driver helped him get it into the trunk of the Saab, where it just fit, and then they took off in a wake of disturbed gravel.
Ix sat with his elbow against the car window, his chin on his fist. The view of outside alternated between small concrete houses, brown-fronted stores, splashes of green. With the window cracked he detected a smell to Mexico, not unpleasant, almost like an old, comfortable blanket. There was also, quite noticeably, sea salt in the air. For a place he’d always imagined to be so dry, this was a surprise; but Mexico was coast on two sides, right down to Panama, where he had first moved to escape the poverty of his family, and where he’d first met Julieta.
Staring through the grimy glass, the most prominent thought in a jumble of thoughts was: Why did it take this for me to come back?
* * *
It was a long drive to central Yucatán. When he arrived at his destination it had long turned dark, and the superstitious part of him thought, I can feel it. In the dark, we are in the World of the Spirits. But he said nothing to the driver, who had already been paid generously by Ix’s company, and nothing to the concierge in his chair outside the little hotel, whose wiry white beard caught the ashes from his black cigarette.
‘You are Ix,’ said the old concierge, matter-of-factly. ‘You have bought a room here.’
‘The whole top floor, actually.’
‘I suppose,’ started the man, swirling his fingers around in a circle, ‘that you will bring in all the construction companies, the decorators, the, whatchya-callem, Fung Shoe people? Make it all nice like your English hotels?’
‘I don’t intend to change a thing,’ said Ix. He unbuttoned his shirt collar, wishing he’d taken his assistant’s advice and worn a vest. But he hadn’t worn a vest since a friend jokingly called them “wife-beaters,” bringing back memories of Ix’s father, who he would quite happily forget at the cost of his entire self-made fortune.
‘That’s a big box,’ said the concierge, indicating the wooden case. ‘You could fit a body in there, no?’
‘I just like my peace and quiet. My people said your hotel was built with ceilings fireproofed to British standards. That means there won’t be any noise from downstairs?’
The concierge just shrugged.
‘I’ll let myself in, then,’ Ix said, unaccustomed to such lack of interest. With only a smile and a flick of the cigarette from the old man, Ix turned to go upstairs.
‘Wait. Look. See what I bought with your money, Señor Ix.’
Ix turned and smiled thinly at the concierge, who held up a small leather suitcase. It was of extremely high standard, black and gleaming, something Ix might have bought for his own use.
‘I will move out,’ said the old man. He spat on the floor. ‘I will not live under the same roof as the man who made his millions selling out his own people. And neither will my customers, when they hear about it. Maybe you will end up with the whole place to yourself, Señor.’
Ix ignored the elevator and took the stairs to the penthouse. If he ended up having to buy the entire crumbled, damp-smelling place, then all the better. He could bash in the dividing walls of the upper floor and make himself a proper apartment. But then, he intended to leave Mexico and never come back after he concluded his business. He’d chosen not to correct the old man on his nationality; Ix hadn’t held a Mexican passport for twenty years.
The apartment looked like a poorly-funded government office in Cuba. Rusted metal filing cabinets stood erect beside dead potted plants, their desiccated fronds trailing limply beside the cords of wall-mounted fans. The previous tenant had obviously used the place as an office and hadn’t cleared it out before leaving. Tall windows with narrow wooden shutters blocked almost all his view of the stars, and he was moving to open these when his mobile rang.
The caller was in his phone as ‘Assistant’. It was the landline from his Canary Wharf office. Six years ago, that had been how Julieta appeared on his screen, back when she used to arrange and cancel his meetings, put through his calls, choose the birthday gifts that she would send to his relatives on his behalf. That was before he married her and got a new assistant.
‘Hello,’ he answered, feeling how sweaty his cheekbone was against the cool screen of the Samsung.
‘Hello, sir. I’m just calling to check that you landed safely.’
‘Yes, thanks, Kate. Sorry I didn’t call earlier. I was late for the charter flight from Mexico City airport, and it was a long drive after that.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘The insurance company won’t give us any problem. The loss adjuster already said there’s no need to take a forensic look at the cause. He said it was clearly an accident caused by electrical wiring in the wall.’
‘There was no real damage to any other floor but ours, but they’ll probably have a third-party adjuster talk to the other occupiers after the weekend. And there’s a crew being sent on Tuesday to check for sure that there wasn’t any structural problem. The other organisations in the building are a bit pissed that they have to close for a week.’
‘Well, that’s business. If they want to work in that kind of office building, then it’s a risk they take, right? If there’s any interruption to their income then the insurance will cover that too.’
He had had some experience with insurance companies in 2007, when record rainfall flooded half of the UK. Their Oxford branch had been closed for months after the lobby was filled with nine inches of river water.
Kate was quiet for a moment. He was used to her taking a second to scribble down instructions or bring up some relevant information on her computer. She was only 23 but spoke fluent Spanish, and he needed a personal assistant who could keep up with his Mexico connections and fend off calls from his mother-in-law.
After a few seconds, Kate asked, ‘And how are you, sir?’
‘I’m fine. Thanks for calling. You probably won’t be able to reach me tomorrow.’
‘Okay. I’ll check in day after tomorrow.’
He didn’t bother replying, just hung up and looked around the dusty, abandoned-feeling room for a second before dropping his satchel on the narrow bed.
Sitting down beside it, he pulled out the bottle of tequila he’d bought duty-free, and swirled it around until he saw a grub curled up in the centre of the spiralling, murky fluid.
‘And I thought that was all a tall tale,’ he murmured to himself, and took four or five gulps.
* * *
The jaguar was asleep when he first saw it. It was on a branch in a shadowed niche at the side of its leafy enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo. Ix had been surprised by its stockiness, the solid, hunky meatiness of it. The animal wasn’t as slender and lithe as he’d imagined. Maybe he’d been picturing a cheetah when called up the retired zookeeper to make his enquiries. Cheetahs were wiry and nimble. This jaguar — its fur so dark you could barely see its rings on the one limb dangling below the branch in a shaft of moonlight — looked so innately powerful that Ix felt a primal surge of adrenaline fill his blood.
‘How old is it?’
The zookeeper looked over her shoulder. She had promised that the zoo would be empty at midnight — no staff, no security — because of the arrangements she had made. But she swallowed hard as though her throat were dry and didn’t speak.
Her name was Nicola and she was sixty-five, retired. Ix had only known her for twenty minutes but he liked the lines of her face and the way she was clearly muscled under her bulky, practical clothing. She’d been let go the year before after some breach of protocol, and it had taken Ix about an hour to find her contact details and convince her to give him a ‘private late-night tour.’
Despite the wad of cash he had handed to her beside her car, a beat-up Range Rover with license plates she had covered up with bin liner and packing tape, she looked at him as though she resented him, as though he had twisted her arm into doing something she didn’t want to do. It was the look Julieta used to give him whenever he used his influence to make the mountain come to him.
At the edge of the jaguar enclosure, Ix felt the taut, rubber-coated wire of the chain-link fence tremble as he grasped it. He wanted to get his face as close as possible to the animal on the other side. The fence hardly seemed a sufficient barrier against the beast, which was now stretching on the branch like a house cat, its long spine dipping gracefully as its rear end lifted, round ears pressed flat against its wide skull.
It wasn’t that the jaguar seemed huge. If Ix wore its skin like a suit, then it would be comically ill-fitting on the arms and legs. The shudder of fear that Ix sent radiating out from his chest and through the rattling fence was due to its weighty bulk. He was innately terrified of the way that slabs of muscle interacted smoothly when it leapt down from the branch and stalked a few yards to lap up water from an artificial stream. Ix didn’t want to be anywhere near it and, at the same time, he wanted it to bite his throat out.
Beside him, Nicola took off her heavy gloves and swung the rifle by its strap off her shoulder. The weapon looked flimsy, a collection of dull tubes clipped to a scope, nothing like the rifles Ix had paid to use at firing ranges in the U.S. She pulled out a narrow loading cylinder and slid in a dart.
‘You said I could do it,’ Ix reminded her.
‘I changed my mind,’ she said.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by David Brookes