Si tiro mis rosas en el mar
Y que parezcan olvidados
¿No volverán a mí, querida?
No importa cómo he pecado?
If I throw my roses in the sea
And scatter petals to the wind
Will they not come back to me
No matter how I've sinned?
Héctor knew as soon as he walked into the workshop that the family intended to hide it from him.
It wasn’t anything particular that they did. Oscar and Felipe were talking about a bone polishing machine, and Julio was easing Coco into the idea that she could take her body apart if she really needed to (she was still having a little difficulty not thinking of herself as fragile, which most people did). Victoria was doing detail work on a nice sandal. Rosita was taking an order from a timid looking man in glasses, and Imelda herself was attaching an upper to a sole… all perfectly normal.
Apparently, they forgot that Héctor talked to other people.
He’d spent the day in the arts district, as usual. The play was coming together well, and he and Frida had started a few tentative auditions last week. This morning, he had come into her studio to find her engrossed in Más Alla, whose front cover had a picture of… Héctor. It wasn’t a photograph taken here in the city. It was a hand-drawn version of him as a living man.
“Ah,” she said when she heard him come in. “There he is now. Aren’t you quite the story today? We best cancel auditions. There’ll be curiosity seekers.”
Héctor sighed. “What is it now? Did Ernesto announce that I took poison deliberately to avoid going home to Imelda or something?”
“No. But I expect that next week. Either that, or it was because of your unrequited love for him.” She rolled her eyes. “Honestly, I don’t know why they still interview him. Last week’s story was pathetic.”
“He’s still famous.” Héctor nodded at the paper. “And why am I famous today?”
“New arrival from the land of the living. Another reporter. He’d gone up north to do a story on those odiados who run drugs, and they killed him.”
“And that ended up with me on the front page?”
“Last week, he was on lighter fare. The funeral of an ancient mariachi singer whose body just turned up.”
“He recognized you when he saw a bit about the play. So he decided to write an exclusive article all about it.” She made a harsh “tssk” sound, and shook her head. “I read it, though personally I found the story of his own murder more riveting.” She’d tossed the paper over.
That had been five hours ago. Héctor hadn’t gotten any real work done. He’d read the article several times, trying to wrap his head around the idea of having been a circus freak for the last fifty years. He’d suspected something, given Miguel’s state in his dream, but the idea that he had been displayed like a stuffed doll, that his body had been cut open and…
That is not the story, he told himself firmly. The story is that Santa Cecilia blocked them from having one last bit of fun with you. The story is that your family brought you home. The story is not that ‘leaked documents suggest that the body was mishandled before mummification,’ or that ‘there was evidence of long term poisoning in the tissues.’
The story wasn’t that people had paid dimes to see him in Texas, or that they’d had their pictures taken with his corpse in Sonora. The story wasn’t that his body had been a lab toy for medical students in Juarez, named “The Old Man” and occasionally dressed in novelty hats for holidays. It wasn’t even that there was now rampant speculation about Ernesto’s motives (after all, who would kill for songs he could have bought?), or that a search had supposedly begun for other victims (Héctor was convinced he wouldn’t find any, but then, his judgments of Ernesto had possibly not been as clear-headed as other people’s). It wasn’t that a chorizo had been shoved violently into his throat, or what the reporter had decided the symbolism of that act was.
The story is that the musicians of Santa Cecilia played your songs in tribute. The story is that the reporters’ way into town was blocked, and that your family kept vigil with you, and Miguel was seen playing your guitar all night. The rest was just your body, and you weren’t with it by the time it happened, so let it go.
By the time he decided to stop pretending he was thinking about how to stage a Viking drinking song, he had mostly managed to absorb it, if not really accept it. There was a surreal sense to the day already, and seeing the family going about its usual workshop routines as if they didn’t know what had happened fit right in.
“So,” he said, sitting down on his little bench and picking up his guitar to play for them, just like he would on any other day, “any news?”
Imelda winced. “Ah…”
“I read it already,” he said.
A visible sigh of resignation went through the room, and Coco came over to him. “I’m sorry, Papá. It was in the papers when it happened! We should have seen it.”
“Yes, I remember how avidly your mother read news about circus sideshows.”
“We might have seen it,” Felipe said. “That’s all Oscar and I have been talking about all day. We really might have, but…”
“But why would you ever make the connection?” Héctor said. “You thought I was trying to make a fortune in New York. Turns out I was a big show business success after all.”
Imelda slammed her hammer down on the sole of the shoe she was working on. “Can we take de la Cruz’s bones apart, break them, and bury the pieces in different places? In locked boxes? Would that work?”
“Yes, but you don’t want to know what they’d do to you if you tried it.”
“Do you think they’ll find other bodies?” Victoria asked.
“I’m pretty sure I was special,” Héctor said.
“I think it depends on who got in his way and how,” Imelda said. “We know he threw Miguel off high places twice. And I seem to remember hearing that his father died in an ‘accident,’ which I distinctly heard him threaten.”
“You think he cheated on me with other victims?” Héctor asked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Don’t joke. Not about this.”
He sighed. “What else am I supposed to do about this?”
No one answered. They went back to work.
“When are you going to see him?” Coco asked quietly, as soon as no one was looking.
“What? I’m not going to see him again. That was a waste of time.”
“I want to go with you, when you do.”
“No, Coco. If I go, I’ll go alone. And I’m not going.”
He meant it. At least at the moment he said it.
Over the next week, he came to grips with a lot of it. The mummy, which he had a hard time identifying with the body he’d spent his mortal life thinking of as himself, was a freak of nature, an accident. A lucky one, in some ways, since in some magical way that he didn’t entirely understand, they’d been able to prove his identity. They’d even found out things he didn’t know, like where he’d come from, at least in a general sense. The dead reporter had intimated that people were stepping forward for testing to find out even more. It occurred to him that his parents might even be here somewhere, if the living found out who they were. He wasn’t sure he wanted to meet them.
The circus did what show business always did. It was embarrassing and humiliating, but if he was honest with himself, he might have paid a peso to see a mummy himself at one point in his life, without thinking twice about what it meant to the human being the mummy had once been. Show people were good at knowing what people would pay to see. Given some of what he’d seen them sell, a dead body posed as a bandido was probably not so bad. It wasn’t good, and the idea that his body had been stabbed and he was treated as a criminal was abhorrent, but he didn’t think it had been done maliciously on the part of the circus. He was an object by then.
It was what Ernesto had done right after his death that weighed on him more heavily. And right before it. That, more than anything else.
Imelda had suspected sequential poisoning, but it was something else entirely to know that it had been proven, that Ernesto had sat in hotel rooms with him, that they’d broken bread together and laughed together and talked about music, and during all of it, there had been grains of rat poison percolating through Héctor’s blood, and Ernesto had known about it. He’d looked him in the eye and laughed while he was committing murder.
That was what finally drew him back to the tower.
Only it wasn’t a tower anymore.
Frida had closed the studio curtains against the view that had once shown Ernesto’s home from the arts district, and Héctor had always approached from the other side. He played in the Plaza Música, but the stage faced away from the tower, and he’d avoided looking.
He didn’t know how long it had been shrinking, or if it had happened all at once or so gradually that no one really noticed, but now, Ernesto’s grand mansion atop an inaccessible tower was merely a large stone house at the top of a hill. The funicular that once made loops around it as it went up was gone; the only guard was an adobe wall with an iron gate, and the guard at the gate was looking inward instead of outward. When Héctor asked to be allowed in, again, he was granted access with near reverence.
The walls had been covered with vicious graffiti, calling Ernesto any number of vile names. Héctor was quite sure that, if skeletons had bodily waste, it would have been in evidence. The great staircase and many balconies, already falling into disrepair on his last visit, were gone, replaced by a chipped and uneven path through a sculpture garden. Some of his fine art was still there, but most of what was there was junk.
Héctor went to the door. The second guard let him in and pointed him down the hall. The house was still vast by Héctor’s standards, but it was noticeably smaller and sparser.
The ofrenda room was in an equivalent place from the entrance, so it wasn’t hard to find. It was still crammed to the ceiling with offerings, but the ceiling was lower. Ernesto’s little alebrijes tumbled out of the mess and started nipping at Héctor’s ankles. He wished that Dante and Pepita had come back. It would be good to have something more impressive. (That Dante was more impressive than these three was saying something, but it was true. And Dante, at least, had proven himself useful.)
Ernesto was sitting in a ragged chair in front of an unlit fireplace. He waved his hand at the door. “Come in, then,” he said. “And you three, out!” He threw a slipper at the alebrijes, and they ran for the cover of a tottering pile of boxes.
Héctor took a few tentative steps in. Ernesto indicted a second chair facing the fireplace. They wouldn’t be looking directly at each other, but that suited Héctor perfectly well.
“Is this what you wanted?” Ernesto asked.
“No. I would prefer you to be having a wonderful afterlife after not having poisoned me. I would have liked it better if you’d just bought my songs. We could have been singing together in the plaza again.”
“I hear you sometimes, when it’s quiet. You and… you and your wife.” He shook his head. Héctor watched him sideways. “I always told you, Héctor, she wasn’t serious about the business. A pretty voice. A dime a dozen. But she was never willing to make the sacrifices one needs to make to succeed in our business.”
“Neither was I, apparently.”
“She had your head completely twisted around. I always hoped you would come to my way of thinking.”
Héctor sighed. “When did you start poisoning me, Ernesto?”
He gave Héctor a scathing look. “You’ve following your press clippings, I see. Quite the star, aren’t you? Poor, hard-done by Héctor. You wouldn’t know talking to these people that a year ago, they all thought you were an unreliable con man who latched onto more stable people for anything you had.”
“Ernesto, if you don’t tell me, I’ll leave. And no one else has been to see you, have they? You don’t matter to anyone but the man you murdered.”
“Oh, which man? Now, they’re saying I may have killed dozens.”
“Certainly. And I ravished their bodies after they were dead. And then I ate them.”
Héctor knew he was being sarcastic, but was unsure if he was hiding anything under the sarcasm. “Did you kill your father?”
“Between us? Yes, I killed the bastard. I cracked the concrete on the rail on my balcony and got him to lean against it eight stories up. Are you happy?”
“No. Why hasn’t he ever called you on… never mind. You were an only child, and you never bothered remembering him afterward. Did he even last a day in Olvidados?”
“No idea. Both of my parents were gone when I got here, as far as I know.”
His indifference to this fact made Héctor sad. He’d actually liked Ernesto’s parents. His mother was a bit silly, but she always had sweets, and she’d loved his music. His father had occasionally had the nerve to call Ernesto out on his more egregious behaviors, which Héctor had never quite found the strength to do. He sighed. “So, when did you start poisoning me? Why? Was it just for fun? Did you get…?”
“Did I ravish your dead body after you died?” He laughed. “I’ve read those articles, too. Modern people making modern assumptions.”
“It wasn’t exactly unknown in 1921, Nesto. I seem to recall some running commentary on the subject from you.” Héctor shook his head. “But you and I shared quite a few cheap hotel rooms, in varying states of sobriety, and you outweighed me by fifty pounds. If you were going to ravish me, you’d have done it when you could see that it bothered me. I want to know why you actually killed me.”
“Because I couldn’t live without you. Because you irritated me. Because I enjoyed killing. Because –”
“Nesto, now. The truth. It’s just you and me. No one else is listening.”
Ernesto turned his chair around so that he was facing Héctor more directly. “You were in my way,” he said. “I had a career to get started.”
“So why not just split up the act? And when did you decide to poison me? How did you do it?”
“You really want to know? You want the details?”
“I’m not sure I want them, but I need them.”
“All right then. I’ll tell you.”
Héctor sat stiffly, his fingerbones digging into the arms of the chair, and Ernesto began to talk. He caressed his words, like he relished the chance to finally share everything.
“It was August,” he said. “It was August, and it was hot, and you really had eaten a bad chorizo…””
”You can’t come to the audition?”
“Not unless you want me throwing up on the producers.” Héctor shook his head. “And why are you going to this one? It’s touring company. They’d want us to be away for years.”
“The woman who owns it owns a movie studio.”
“Movies again… it’s a fad.”
Ernesto was frustrated with this, as he always was. Héctor’s vision was limited. He saw a wedding or a quinceañera as a great opportunity, instead of a second-rate gig. Oh, marvelous, play while Papá leads baby girl around in her new heeled shoes. Wonderful, play while drunken relatives reel around a dance floor. Ernesto saw bigger things. He saw shows, shared with the whole country. He saw his face projected forty feet high. He would be immortal.
But Héctor thought small. Maybe it was time to cut him loose. He was a liability. Let him go home to the shrew and the brat, if that’s as much as he was capable of considering.
But Ernesto didn’t really like touring alone, and the audiences loved Héctor’s songs, and Héctor had been very clear about who owned those songs. And he wouldn’t make even the most obvious concessions to reality.
Take the lullaby he wrote for the brat. Give it a good backing, a strong orchestra, and people around the world would dance to it. Other, lesser singers would sing it at weddings and quinceañeras. Maybe funerals, with the right arrangement. Ernesto had even tried one of his own arrangements on it, improving it exponentially, but Héctor had threatened to leave entirely if he ever did it again.
“It’s Coco’s! It’s not yours and it’s not even mine! You can’t have it!”
Because a four-year-old child should determine the course of her father’s career.
He shook it off. “Look, the audition is mostly to meet people.” This was a lie, of course, but if Héctor saw the money involved, he’d change his mind. It would buy a lot of dresses and ribbons and dolls and whatever else spoiled girls liked. He’d even have enough money left over to buy the shrew an extra set of trousers and maybe a whip to keep him in line. “We meet them, they remember us, and maybe, when they start making those sound movies they’re talking about, they bring us in to sing. Or maybe they’d hire you to write the things people play on the organ in the background.”
“I don’t even know how to write for the organ.”
“They’d fill in the arrangement. They actually hire arrangers for that sort of thing.” Ernesto wasn’t sure about this, but it didn’t matter. “Come on, Héctor. Pull yourself together.”
“If you want them to remember us for me getting sick all over them…”
“Oh, never mind. I’ll take the meeting myself.”
“I owe you one, amigo.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
And so Ernesto left Héctor at the hotel, muttering to himself as he went to the audition. He performed well. He knew that. But the woman who owned the company, a haughty old bitch, was only mildly impressed.
“I’m not seeing anything new,” she said.
“What would you like to see?” he asked, leaning over the guitar and giving her a wink.
It didn’t work then. (It would later. Women always eventually bent for him, which was why he sought out companies owned by women.) She just glared at him and said, “I want to see something new.”
Ernesto sighed. “Have you heard ‘Poco Loco’?”
“Many times. I’ve seen your show. Your collection is good, but it’s getting stale. You need to take time to write more songs. You’ve been on the road too long.”
“We have more songs. They’re just… not entirely complete yet.”
“Well, give me the incomplete version.”
Ernesto didn’t think about it. He just played the opening of his re-arranged version of “Remember Me.”
The woman, whose name he would not remember one year later, let alone a century later, sat forward eagerly. “Now, that has possibilities. What else do you have?”
Ernesto spent the afternoon fiddling his way through what half-finished songs he could remember from Héctor’s late night work sessions (he always holed himself away in the hotel rooms while Ernesto worked contacts, and was usually still up and playing when Ernesto got back). Nothing got quite the interest of “Remember Me,” but the woman liked all of them.
“Now, if I recall, you have a performing partner,” she said.
“He’s ill. Bad chorizo.”
“A shame. Bring him next time, with a full version of those last five songs. Then we can talk.”
Her secretary set up an appointment three days later.
Héctor, who was starting to feel better, didn’t want to go. “I’ve been thinking about it. It’s not right to audition for a company we can’t join.”
“We could, though. It’s good money.”
“I’m not staying on the road for years, Nesto. We’ve been away too long already. I’ll tell her that you’re a solo act.”
“She wants some of the new songs.”
Héctor frowned. “New songs?”
“Well, I sang… some of the ones you’ve been working on. The World Is My Family. Roses and the Sea. Candela, Candela. I just sang parts of them.”
“Those aren’t done, Ernesto.”
“And Remember Me.”
Héctor froze. “I told you no,” he said. “I’ve told you a dozen times.”
“Don’t be stupid! That song is a money song.”
“No. That makes thirteen. Are you going to go for twenty times? Fifty? It’s not changing.”
And Ernesto knew. He knew there was no deal without “Remember Me” at the very least. That meant that Héctor couldn’t go to the next meeting. He’d have to be sick again.
So he was.
The rat poison was easy enough to come by; the damned city was crawling with vermin. A few grains, covered up by the spiciest sauce Ernesto could find, and Héctor decided it was the sauce that made him sick. An ulcer, maybe, from the stress of being away from home.
That company deal fell through, but the woman had introduced Ernesto to a young man named Raul… something… and she had told him about the marvelous songs. Raul wanted to make records, like those fools who’d come through Santa Cecilia so long ago. But he wasn’t going to waste his time on gimmicks like finding the best singer in the town named for the patron saint of music – no, he was going to find someone who would be a star.
Héctor found himself ill for that meeting as well.
Raul’s fantasy wasn’t funded very well, and he wasn’t actually ready to start anything, but as it turned out he knew a man who was producing a play. Ernesto had never tried acting before, but there was singing in the play, so they wanted someone who knew music, and could maybe even contribute a new song. The songs had somehow become Ernesto’s; his partner wasn’t mentioned anymore. This show would benefit from a great ballad like “Remember Me.” Héctor’s stomach acted up again the day before.
Finally, the theater producer had introduced Ernesto to a woman named Delfina, who wanted to put him up for a part in a silent film. Since it wouldn’t involve the songs, and she didn’t know about them, Ernesto arranged for Héctor to have an audition as well. Maybe, if he just saw how accommodating these people were…
But Delfina took an immediate shine to Héctor, as did a young actress named Lupe, though actresses, Ernesto already knew, hardly counted in the scheme of things. The day after the audition, Delfina had called at the hotel and made a perfectly clear offer to Héctor, who had, out of sheer obstinance, pretended not to understand.
“Cut him loose,” Delfina had ordered.
“…would never cut you loose, of course,” Ernesto finished. “We were a team.”
“Is that what that crazy woman was talking about?” Héctor asked. “She wanted me to… I… I thought it was a business deal.”
“It was a business deal, you soft-headed idiot.” Ernesto sighed. “Really, Héctor. You’re very naïve.”
“So that’s why you started poisoning me. So I stayed out of your meetings.”
“And after you were rude to Delfina, she spread it around that I’d brought in someone uncooperative. So when I met with Bruno Abelard, the one who finally signed me, he said he only wanted me and the songs. I did want you to stay on as my songwriter…”
“Except that you’d mostly told all of these people that they were your songs.”
“I was going to pay you for them.”
“And for pretending they weren’t mine? And keeping up the charade with more of them?”
“Well, yes.” Ernesto shrugged. “I should have known you weren’t serious about just wanting to support your family. If you were, you’d have taken the money and gone home. No, you had to have everything. Your name, the money, and… and deciding which songs anyone had a right to hear. It was ridiculous. But you kept writing. I knew you’d been writing all those days you were cooped up. I kept trying to look at your songbook, but you kept shutting it away early. And then you decided to pack up for Santa Cecilia.”
“And you killed me.”
Another shrug. “The last few times you were sick, I’d hit on the tequila. You’d expect that to maybe make you feel a little ill. So I spiked one bottle and mixed most of the drinks with a clean one. But that last night? It was all the spiked stuff. You really can’t take your liquor.” He grinned.
Héctor didn’t return it. “All the remedies you brought. All the sitting up while I threw up in the chamberpot, and taking it out to get rid of. All the joking around about my stomach and my nerves. You’d been poisoning me for months.” Ernesto didn’t answer; he didn’t have to. He’d already confessed. “And it was for money.”
“And fame,” Ernesto said. “Don’t forget fame. But now, you have both, too.”
Héctor couldn’t think of what to say. He just sat quietly in the chair, looking sideways at his murderer, thinking about fame and money.
Ernesto began to laugh.