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Excerpt from
The Prince of Juárez
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


BOOK I

1.

"Mysterious" was Hunt's name for me when we first met, but I'm not. With me there's no mystery at all: What you see is what you get. I grew up in an early nineteenth-century white-columned house in Tennessee and exercised race horses to help pay my college bills after I'd grown too tall even to think of becoming a jockey. Later, I moved to the Southwest for the heat. Between working shifts as an RN at a hospital in El Paso, Texas and my community work across the river in Juárez, Mexico I had no personal life to speak of when I met Hunter Holloway at the bar of Café Central, between Franklin Plaza and the Westin Plaza Hotel, on a hot desert evening in April. I showed him my Southern belle smile when he offered to buy me a drink and went back to pretending to watch the evening news on the TV at the end of the bar. He was in again, rather drunk, a couple of nights later and the following week approached me at La Florida over in Juárez, without ever succeeding in buying me that drink he seemed to think I needed so badly. Afterward I didn't see him again for four or five weeks, when I looked in on my newest patient on the floor one Monday morning and recognized a familiar face staring at me from the white pillow. The chart identified him as Mr. Hunter H. Holloway, recovering from a gunshot wound to the upper left arm, slight concussion, and contusions to the forehead. With his bandaged head and the arm in a sling he looked dashing and romantic, in a corny kind of way. The confident look in his dark brown, almost black eyes told me he knew it, too.

"It took me a few seconds to recognize you with your hair up," Hunter Holloway said. "But you didn't have me fooled for long."

Some men will go to any length to get to know a woman. I gave him a level stare over the top of the clipboard.

"What happened to you?" I asked. "You didn't wind up getting shot just by going to church yesterday morning."

He tossed back the look like a ball he expected me to catch but his expression was stoic rather than playful.

"I got caught in crossfire last night between the Border Patrol and Mexican smugglers across the river. The agent I was with went down--for good, I understand."

There'd been a radio report that morning about a fatal shootout in the Doniphan Park area west of downtown on the Rio Grande in which someone famous got hurt, but I hadn't recognized the name. Tragedy in any form, whether Shakespeare or a highway accident, never has appealed to me: I must be the only person I know who never saw the movie Titanic. And it was the officer who'd ended up dead, anyway.

"So you're with the Border Patrol?" I inquired. Somehow, I never would have identified this man as a cop.

"I'm a novelist, getting material for a book. You know, I feel a little at a disadvantage in this situation. You know my name, while I have no idea who you are."

"I'm Miranda," I said, setting the clipboard on a chair. "I need to check your blood pressure now."

He offered his arm considerately.

"And do you have a last name, Miranda?"

"I do," I said, "but you don't need to know it. One-twenty-one over eighty. And now your temperature, please."

I was filling in the chart when the name rang a bell finally. Hunter Holloway, the best-selling spy or detective novelist--something--whose books I hadn't read on account of having no time for leisure reading and not caring for violence, anyway. Now it had caught up with him, I supposed he'd know how to make good use of the experience to write an even bigger and better-selling violent book.

"You have a slight fever this morning," I said. "I can give you a Tylenol now, but we'll need to keep track of that."

"Tylenol can't help anything," he said decidedly. "The bullet wound didn't cause the fever. The high cheekbones, pinned-up hair, and sea-colored eyes of a mysterious lady with no last name who won't allow me to buy her a glass of white wine in Café Central or La Florida is responsible for that."

I pressed my lips together and turned to leave, holding the clipboard against my chest.

"I never read any of your books, Mr. Holloway," I told him, "but if you're as talented a writer as you are a flatterer, I must really be missing something."

He shook his head vigorously--a big man, bearish and strong-looking, with tousled brown hair sticking up in points above the bandage, a brown mustache, dark brown eyes, red full mouth, and a skin fine and white as a woman's where it hadn't been exposed to the desert wind and sun. Forty-eight years old according to the admission papers.

"I never flatter women, if by flattery you mean telling them lies about themselves. In fiction, you have to flatter the reader in order to tell him the truth. With a woman, the only way to flatter her is to tell her the truth--or nothing at all."

"It must be convenient having life reduced to a formula," I told him. "I'll get the Tylenol and we'll see if we can't bring your temperature down to normal by lunch time."

"You attribute nearly miraculous powers to this Tylenol stuff, don't you? What I could really use instead is a chilled Tanqueray martini straight up, with two olives. How about it, Miranda?"

"This is a hospital, not a cocktail lounge. In addition to which, you're not allowed alcohol with this particular medication. Or didn't the doctor tell you? I know he did, because I heard him myself."

Hunter Holloway glowered like a child that's been refused the remainder of a two-pound box of chocolates.

"Doctors don't know everything."

"They do after the nurses have told them the rest of what it is they need to know," I said.

When I came on duty next morning he had a copy of his latest book, signed, to give me. I tried to refuse the gift, saying it was an honor I couldn't accept, but he insisted the personal inscription on the flyleaf meant a wasted copy otherwise. The inscription read: "To Miranda, with gratitude from her patient and friend, Hunter Holloway," and below this, in quotation marks, "'I love to lose myself in a mystery.'" The book, titled Arms of Islam, was the size of a small suitcase; the jacket painting showed what looked like Bedouin tribesmen in flowing robes, with long knives on their belts and tubular rifles on their shoulders, loading an airplane while beyond the desert airstrip a line of camels stands tethered in moonlight.

"Thank you very much," I said, irked, "but I'm really not mysterious."

"Miranda telling me she isn't mysterious is like nature denying she isn't red in tooth and claw," Hunt Holloway said. "Were you ever married, by the way?"

"Once. Very briefly."

"And a very long time ago?"

"Yes. It wasn't my cup of tea."

"And that's all you have to say about being married?"

"That's all I have to say about it."

"You see?" he asked triumphantly, showing his white teeth in a laugh. "I told you you were mysterious, and now I've proved it!"

"You haven't proved anything at all," I told him, "except that I'm better at not answering personal questions than you are at asking them. It's time for me to change your dressing and move along now. I have other patients on the floor to visit besides you."

"How about my fever?" Hunt Holloway asked. "I have a raging one this morning; I can feel it. What are you going to do for that, Miranda?"

"Not a thing," I said, starting to unwrap the bandage from his arm, "except to let it burn itself out this time. You can have another Tylenol if you want it, though."

I went off duty at four, drove home, took a short nap, showered, and put on one of the several silk work dresses I'd bought at the Dillard's in the Sunland Park Mall, with a dab of perfume. Rostov had said he'd send a car to meet me at Café Central, so I took a taxi down there instead of my own vehicle. There was time for a glass of wine before the driver came looking for me and, with Hunter Holloway safely sidelined in the hospital, I was able actually to enjoy it for once. The driver was a dark little man, more Indian looking than Spanish, who said his name was Benito--after Benito Juárez, the Zapotec revolutionary general who became president of Mexico, of course. The white Mercedes limousine had chilled champagne in a bucket in the back seat and a box of dark Havana cigarettes (a hint from Rostov, who'd felt he knew me well enough already to let me know women who didn't smoke made him nervous). We were caught for a few minutes at the bridge on the American side in the last of the commuter traffic back to Mexico, before the Mexican border guard recognized the car and waved us through ahead of the rest. In Chamizal Park they were just lowering the Mexican flag as big as a football field the Americans had made such a fuss about a few years before, and scarves of violet and purple smog above the city suggested the odors of leaded petrol and burning rubber and plastic the air conditioning couldn't quite filter out. Benito drove through the park toward the Avenida 16 de Septiembre, then turned off in the direction of the better neighborhoods. Tarahumara women holding a child in their arms and with others clinging to their greasy skirts begged at every streetlight and sent the older children running with bowls and open hands into the waiting traffic. They did not approach the Mercedes with its dark-tinted windows, and I was corking what remained of the champagne--which was most of it, I'd only wanted a taste--when I saw something else: two men in dark jackets and light pants running toward us with automatic rifles under their arms, stumbling among the Indian kids as they tried to get the guns up. I slipped the Smith & Wesson Airlite Ti .38 from my evening purse and shot the closer one in the chest through the curved window glass just as the light changed and the Mercedes slid forward smoothly ahead of a spatter of gunfire like a handful of pebbles tossed after the car. We'd gone another couple of blocks when Benito pushed the communicating window back and grinned at me.

"Bueno," he said. "You shoot good, for a woman."

I shoot well for anybody, as a matter of fact, in addition to speaking better Spanish than Benito did to boot. Only I really hadn't wanted anyone to know it, yet.

 

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