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The Road Home (Coco): Chapter Eighteen - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
The Road Home (Coco): Chapter Eighteen

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen





Chapter Eighteen


Descansé de la batalla
Unos momentos de paz
Pero veo y tengo pavor
Debo cruzar el campo,
Navega el mar de sangre
Y escucho el tambor.

I had a rest from battle
A few sweet moments' peace
But the fight is still to come
The end's across the field,
Beyond the bloody sea
And I hear the battle drum.


In the four months since Imelda had sent him back to work, Héctor had felt normal, even with the visit to Ernesto and the small nuclear explosion that had been Imelda’s fury when she found out about it. (“This man literally murdered you, and you sat alone in a room with him? You might never have come home! Again!”) The visit had been disturbing, but not surprising, and there had been something comforting about having a fight on equal terms with Imelda and coming out on the other side of it without any lasting damage. He’d apologized for scaring her, but not for the visit itself. She accepted that he had the right to make his own decisions (“even stupid ones”), but reserved the right to call him on it when he’d done something so foolish. He realized it was foolish to accuse her of treating him like a child—the two of them had always taken care of one another and worried over one another, and she was his wife and he owed her some responsibility—and she realized that he really did need answers about what had happened so long ago. So they fought, they made up, and they had breakfast with the family the next morning and went on with things.

The show was coming together. Frida had created a false flesh for the Valhalla scenes that would look realistic from about the fifth row back, though it was a bit disturbing up close. Héctor had been her test subject for the first few tries, and he now had a collection of increasingly realistic faces, which he’d hung up in the music room with funny paper hats over them until the family had protested. Now, he just had one hanging in a room that had appeared to one side of the music room, which they all agreed was his “den.” He’d put the final form on one day and looked into a mirror. It seemed very strange after all these years.

The auditions had started, and the orchestra was already practicing. Héctor and Imelda had demonstrated the songs for Frida, Gustavo, and a few other backers, all of whom were quite keen to cast them as Inga and Timoteo. They still gave him pained looks when he talked about casting someone else. Frida’s husband, Diego (Héctor wasn’t sure how that worked, really, since he had three other wives; marriage seemed complicated enough with just one), was painting the backgrounds. He wanted them to express some kind of class struggle between the well-to-do Valkyrie of Valhalla and the poor skeletons of Mictlan, but Héctor didn’t think the audience would even notice, since it wasn’t what the play was about. He wasn’t even sure the Valkyrie were well-to-do.

He had never really tried writing songs for a drama before this, and he found that he enjoyed it a lot. It was much more satisfying than the silly sketches he and Ernesto had used to join essentially unrelated songs. He’d gone to the library with Felipe several times and acquainted himself with the language of musical theater. There had always been music in theater, but this genre had really flourished in the decades following Héctor’s death, and now, he wished he’d discovered it earlier. He didn’t think it was his calling, exactly, but it was nice to learn a whole new style, and nice to be working with other artists full time. It was good to be a real musician again.

The family was falling into a routine that gave him a kind of strength he didn’t remember ever knowing, even in the golden early days, because now he wasn’t scrambling to keep a roof over their heads and knowing that he was falling behind. Newspapers, meals, singing in the workshop, sometimes singing around the fire. Going to the plaza with Imelda and singing the old songs, the new ones, and sometimes previewing something from the show.

He had forgotten over the years the sheer joy his marriage had once brought him, as well. the memories he had were like the fading smells of a garden in winter… pleasant, but not vivid. Now being with Imelda again almost overwhelmed him with how alive he felt, which, given their circumstances, seemed strange. But singing together and laughing, and even fighting with her from time to time when their personalities and priorities clashed… it was like being in a lightning storm, the energy just arcing through him. And, while nothing was quite as physically satisfying as it had been when they had bodies, they had found ways to love each other. Sometimes, they just ended up laughing at each other over failed attempts, but that led to reminiscences about being young and utterly without guidance in the world, teaching each other how to make one another happy. There had been a few fumbles then, too, as Héctor recalled.

That nagging sense of being an ill-behaved boy who’d stayed out too late and gotten lost—the sense he’d had of himself often over the last several decades—was falling away. He felt like, at last, he was the man he wanted to be.

Naturally, it didn’t last.

“No, no, no!” Frida shouted, storming up to the stage. Héctor stopped playing his guitar and waited for whatever the change was going to be. “It’s more like this!” She stood in front of the small group of dancers auditioning for the chorus and made a sort of grand gesture with her arm.

The dancers smiled indulgently. Frida had never had much of a chance to dance as a living woman, because her body had always worked against her. She’d even lost a leg late in her life. Now, she danced at every opportunity… but she wasn’t particularly good at it. Still, she was beloved in the world of the arts, and all of the artists around her let her go about the business of being Frida. The choreographer, a woman who called herself Nellie (Héctor had the impression that it wasn’t her birth name), just nodded and pretended to take inspiration from the display, directing the dancers to do exactly what they’d been doing, with a slightly larger arm movement involved. She nodded to Héctor, and he started playing again.

He was only halfway through the audition piece when the door to the orchestra pit opened, and Imelda came through.

He stopped playing immediately and waved his hand to cut the piece short. It wasn’t that Imelda was there. She often came if her work for the day was finished, and enjoyed the other musicians as much as he did. It was the look on her face, like a heavy burden had dropped down on her.

“Frida!” Héctor called. “Cut for the day.”

She nodded and started to collect the dancers’ résumés. Héctor set his guitar down and followed Imelda to the cavernous space under the stage. A few of the props and sets that Frida and Diego were designing were already scattered around, and Imelda guided him back to a snowy set with a half-finished arc that would be a window from Valhalla to Mictlan.

“What is it?” he asked.

“The department of Law Enforcement dropped by. They’re going to go ahead with de la Cruz’s trial.”

“Oh.”

“The date is set. Next month. They don’t know how long it will last. It probably depends on how much he decides to grandstand. We’ll all need to give statements about the spectacular—Frida, too—but you’re the only one who can talk about what happened at his mansion. About the cenote.”

Héctor sighed and felt the burden settle onto his shoulders as well, though sharing it didn’t seem to make it any lighter on Imelda. Murder had come back into their life.

“It’ll be over… after,” he tried.

“I know.”

It didn’t help.

“What do we need to do now?”

“The prosecutor needs to talk to you. I can go to the office with you, but I can’t be there for the conversation, at least the first one. He needs to take everyone’s statements.”

“Okay.”

“That’s this afternoon. We need to head over there.”

“I don’t even know where real law enforcement is. I’ve only ever dealt with Family Reunions. They dragged me in every year when I tried to cross the bridge. I never did anything else illegal, and it was never on a tour.”

“There’s a car waiting. They came to the shop first, and I insisted on coming along before I’d tell them where you were.”

Héctor smiled and closed his eyes, just letting himself love her for a minute, then took a deep breath—was it really a deep breath, or did his ribcage just expand by some kind of body memory?—and let her lead him out the backstage door.

The woman at the wheel of the car wasn’t in a uniform. She identified herself as a prosecutor’s assistant, Natalia, and then said she was sorry to hear about Héctor’s murder, and that “Remember Me” was her favorite song of all time. Héctor thanked her.

She drove them through a maze of streets, some cobbled and quaint, which led downward, toward Olvidados, though it didn’t seem to pass it. There was water, and then a tunnel, and they started coming up through newer neighborhoods, finally zigzagging up a modern road to a nondescript building with white walls that seemed to be slightly bowed, the top just a bit narrower than the base. It looked like a lopped off obelisk that someone had pressed giant spoons into.

Natalia escorted them inside, and took them up on a metal elevator to a hallway lit by an obnoxious kind of blue light, then finally into an office that looked like every other office Héctor could see lining the hallway. A dark-haired man in a gray suit looked up sharply from a pile of manila folders. “Good,” he said. “You brought both of them. Sit down. Natalia, bring coffee.”

Natalia disappeared before Héctor could decline a cup.

The man stood up and came around the desk, an open folder in his hand. “I’m Fede Ruiz,” he said. “I’m prosecuting your… please sit down, this will take a while.” He had just looked up and seemed surprised that they hadn’t immediately obeyed. As soon as Héctor and Imelda were sitting, he opened the folder again. “Now, as I see it, it should be clear. There’s video evidence of the attempt on the life of the living child Miguel Rivera. It’s quite lucky for him that he’s not here to testify on the subject.”

“So why should it take a while?” Imelda asked, incredulous. “There’s a tape, and thousands of witnesses.”

“De la Cruz will say that they didn’t see what they thought they saw.” Ruiz shrugged. “It happened on a stage. He will undoubtedly say that he thought he was performing a scene, and didn’t realize there were no safety measures. His defender has already brought that up.”

“No one would believe that,” Héctor said.

“No. So his second line of defense was that he was driven temporarily mad by the efforts of a greedy ex-partner to mislead a living child into spreading misinformation on the other side of the bridge. That, in essence, you tried to kill him by using your great-great-grandson to destroy his memory.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Revenge,” Imelda suggested. “Is that it? Héctor is meant to have been getting revenge for his murder?”

“For the stolen songs.” Ruiz sat on the edge of his desk and set the folder down. “His defender is not stipulating the old murder. But he will stipulate the theft.”

“I’m surprised Ernesto admits even that much,” Héctor said.

“He may not, but I know that’s the defense his lawyer is planning. I think it’s de la Cruz who is pushing the ridiculous story about a staged show.”

“Tell an audacious lie first and hope that people will think the less audacious lie is true,” Héctor said. “That’s how he does it.”

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think he has much of a chance, but he may waste a lot of the court’s time grandstanding on the subject.”

Héctor looked out the window. He guessed from the view that he was about halfway up the building. He didn’t recognize anything. “Can you even get to this place if you’re not invited?” he asked.

“Why would anyone want to?” Ruiz asked. “Even those of us who work here only come because we’re passionate to get justice. And even we’re not here full time.”

“So, do we give our statements now? Who is the judge?” Imelda asked.

“It doesn’t work like that anymore. It’ll be an actual trial. Direct examination of witnesses. It’s all very transparent. The old judges don’t like it. They think it calls their actions into question.”

“When did all of this happen?”

“In the living world. It’s still shifting around. Maybe it shifts again before any of this happens. Who knows? But people had finally had it with poor people being railroaded into jail for stealing pesos while rich men could get away with… well, murder.” Ruiz made a dismissive motion with his hand. “I know both ways. And I will carefully take your statements and have them ready to present to a closed court and a judge, just in case. But I think you will do better under the new system, to tell the truth. It’s usually not true, because the police and judges and lawyers could work together better before. But in your case? De la Cruz is wealthy and famous and good at influencing people. He’s the sort who could have easily convinced a judge to see things his way and dismiss the case. I think a transparent trial will be better for everyone, even if he does decide to grandstand, so I’ll argue for the reformed system.”

Héctor, who hadn’t paid any attention to criminal matters because he had never had any plans to be involved in them, wasn’t sure what to think. “So what happens?”

“There will be a judge. There will be reporters—“

“Reporters?” Imelda repeated.

“Open courts are fairer courts,” Ruiz said patiently. “In theory.”

“Wonderful.”

Ruiz rubbed his head. “I will present my case. I will ask you questions. De la Cruz’s defender will ask you questions.”

“Ernesto will be there?” Héctor asked.

“Yes. He’ll be there. And after I’ve presented your side—the official side, I will point out; I’m not representing you, I’m representing the law—then the other side will present a defense. Same way.”

“I don’t like the idea of him being there,” Imelda said.

There was obviously nothing to be done about that, as Ruiz didn’t say a word. Héctor leaned forward. “What happens afterward? What if he’s guilty?”

If?” Imelda repeated.

Héctor smiled. “If he’s found guilty.”

“There’s a jail cell,” Ruiz said. “There’s only so much we can do. He’s already dead. But we can at least evict him from that house of his and make his afterlife a bit less pleasant.”

“For how long?”

“In the living world, it’s for life.” Ruiz shrugged again, unconcerned. “Here? It’s as long as he’s remembered, and given his fame, that could be a long time.”

“What about Odiados?” Héctor asked.

“I deal in the laws of this world, not the magic,” Ruiz said. “I can send him to jail. Only living memory can send him to Odiados.”

“What if he goes to jail here and the living change their memories later?” Imelda asked. “Will he be in a comfortable cell where he can’t end up being repeatedly dined on by some cannibal conquistador?”

“Doña, please let me remind you that you are speaking to an officer of the court.”

“Well, I didn’t say I was going to it.”

Ruiz gave Imelda a suspicious look, but apparently decided to let it go. “The answer is that, yes, if we imprison him, he will not be free to walk the streets that would lead him to Odiados.”

“Then maybe the living should take care of it,” Imelda said.

“As I mentioned, I am not your representative. I’m the representative of the law.”

“Does Ernesto know this?” Héctor asked. “If he did, he’s likely to turn himself in. He said as much when I visited him with Coco.”

“It’s possible. I’ll see to it that his lawyer knows.” Ruiz looked back and forth between them. “Now, Señora Rivera, would you be willing to give your statement about what happened last year to Natalia while I speak to your husband?”

Imelda nodded warily, and Ruiz pressed a button on his desk, which apparently summoned Natalia, as she opened the door and came in.

“There’s no coffee?” Ruiz asked.

“I’m your legal assistant, not your waitress.” She smiled. “We’ve been over this.”

He grimaced, then said, “Fine. Take Señora Rivera’s statement, if you would be so kind.”

“That would fall into my job description.” She nodded briefly to Héctor, then gestured to Imelda and her out toward another office.

“Your wife needs to watch her temper,” Ruiz said. “I can lock her in a cell as easily as I can lock de la Cruz in one.”

“She talks. She doesn’t act on it.” This was a lie, but only a small one. “What do you need to know?”

“I want you to tell me, in your own words, everything that happened on Día de Muertos. I’ll record you, and transcribe it later.” He pulled reel-to-reel tape recorder from a drawer in his desk.

Héctor tried to decide where to start. Finally, he said, “I tried get across the bridge. I always tried—“

“By subterfuge?”

“I had to. There was no photo. I tried dressing as Frida Kahlo. I was helping Ceci Lopez with the costumes, and I borrowed one…”

The story took longer than he thought it would, because the memories seemed to come back in a rush, in complete detail, including details that Ruiz simply didn’t care about, like Cheech’s death, or singing in the plaza with Miguel. He was moderately interested in the argument, but only because it had precipitated Miguel’s decision to seek out Ernesto on his own.

“And at this time, the boy did not realize that you were his ancestor?”

“Neither of us did. He hadn’t shown me the photo, and all he saw in it was the guitar that Ernesto had been using for years. Of course he assumed that the man in the photograph was Ernesto.”

“No one in your family had so much as mentioned your name to him?”

“They thought I abandoned them.”

Ruiz glared at the recorder for a while, then said, “I wish I could get him for your murder. In the old system, I might have been able to sneak it in to influence the judge, but…” He shook his head. “Well, it might not have mattered. Your wife didn’t correct this impression?”

“She didn’t realize he’d never heard my name, and he didn’t say Ernesto’s. She assumed he was looking for me and he assumed she knew who he was really looking for.”

In point of fact, Imelda had been mortified when she realized what Miguel had thought. The idea that he’d been looking for Héctor was bad enough during that night, thinking he was seeking the runaway husband that she’d sought to erase. But the idea that he’d thought she’d been intimate with de la Cruz in any manner had a matter of great shame. (“And it would have been before I knew the truth. Even at my worst possible assumptions about you, I’d have rather been your wife than his.”)

But he didn’t say this. It was private, and not relevant to the case.

Ruiz just gave the explanation a blank look. “Very well. But he told de la Cruz that they were related?”

“Yes.”

“And de la Cruz believed it?”

“As far as I know. Ernesto had… he was… there were women. He probably assumed Miguel was descended from one of them. I know I did. When he first said it, I thought of about a dozen possibilities. Or more. Why? What difference does it make? Isn’t it worse if he thought that?”

“Yes. That’s the point. If he still believed it when he threw the boy from the stadium…”

“Well, he definitely believed it when he threw him into the cenote.”

“Yes. How did that happen?”

Héctor braced himself and told the story, as far as possible without his voice shaking, about what had happened in Ernesto’s mansion.

“And you still hadn’t realized the truth?”

“I hadn’t talked out loud about Coco and Imelda for years. I didn’t feel like I had a right to… to ask for sympathy. So I hadn’t told Miguel why I wanted to go back. Things would have been different if I had. Maybe I’d have found a petal and blessed him before any of that could happen.”

“In which case, neither you nor your wife would have found out the truth.”

“And Miguel wouldn’t have been thrown from the stadium. Or down the cenote.”

“Something de la Cruz could use to suggest that you were manipulating the situation to get to him and ruin him.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“And yet, not beyond what we’ve seen from him.” Ruiz rubbed his head again, as if he had a headache from all of this. “Fine. So you came to believe that he poisoned you after seeing the movie clip.”

“It was the same thing he said to me!”

“And it’s borne out with the news from the land of the living, but with evidence you didn’t have at the time. You proceeded to attack him?”

“I’d just found out he killed me. He called for security and had them throw me into the cenote.”

“That was his order?”

“Well… he said to take care of me, and that’s what they did.”

“Hmm.”

“What?”

“Well… if his order was to ‘take care’ of you, then it’s possible that he’ll say security acted on their own.”

“The security guards won’t back him.”

This seemed to surprise Ruiz. “Are you sure?”

“I’ve spoken to them twice now. They regret it and want to see Ernesto punished.”

“Or they want to make sure he takes the blame for their actions. They really should be charged.”

Héctor sat back, dumbfounded. “They did what he told them. They’ll say so. But probably not, if you charge them.”

“It might compel them…”

“They trust me.”

Now, it was Ruiz who looked dumbfounded. “They threw you into a sinkhole, and you think they trust you not to ask me to press charges?”

“They’re sorry. They’re not good at being sorry, but they are.”

“I think you’re crazy, but I’ll talk to them. I won’t charge them unless they start acting like they won’t talk. When was the boy thrown?”

“Only minutes later. I’d scattered—my bones, they used to come apart very easily—”

“I know what scattering is.”

“Yes, well, I’d scattered, and it took a few minutes to pull myself together in a place where all the water was eddying. I heard Miguel scream before I was back together, and then I heard him start to cry. I went as fast as I could, but I was still weak.”

“Why were you hurrying?”

“He was crying.”

“You thought he was the descendant of the man who murdered you at the time.”

“He was crying,” Héctor repeated. “He was a twelve-year-old child, and he was crying. And we’d spent several hours together. And I liked him. He was a good kid, and a great musician.”

“All right.”

“Then we had a talk, and I mentioned Coco’s name. And that’s when we figured everything out, and then Imelda rescued us. After that, we went to the Spectacular, because Miguel wanted to get my photo back for the ofrenda.”

Miguel wanted it. Are you sure it wasn’t you who wanted it?”

“Of course I did. But he was the one who insisted. And he asked Imelda for help. I should have put a stop to it, though. It was too dangerous. Obviously.”

“Yes, well, we have footage to prove that.”

“Is that enough?”

“I think so. I don’t think anyone will watch that tape and see a man who was so distraught that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, which is the only thing de la Cruz could realistically try. The alebrije attack might confuse the issue, but at least there’s no sign of anyone in your family ordering it.”

“Of course not. We weren’t even thinking about him right then. We just wanted to get Miguel back home. Pepita had her own priorities.” Héctor stopped talking, and decided, just to be safe, to send Pepita to the land of the living for a little while. He’d never heard of an alebrije being put down for defending its charges, but he disliked too many of the places this conversation had gone.

“I can see you don’t like me,” Ruiz said. “And that’s all right. I don’t care about you one way or the other. But I will put de la Cruz away. There will be no more hiding behind fame and money. I hope you’re prepared for a few eventful months, Señor Rivera, because I very seriously doubt that Ernesto de la Cruz will go down quietly."

For that, Héctor had no argument.
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Comments
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 20th, 2018 04:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Leave it to Diego Rivera to attempt injecting some kind of class struggle and nationalistic ferver (with Euro-critical undertones) into the story.
When I saw that he was present as well, I wondered if he and Frida got along or kept things professional at best.

Ah, so Odiados doesn't just swallow you up the damned where they are. They actually have to actively wander there.

“They trust me.”
Never change, Hector. *sincerity mode* Though he's still smart enough to have the contingency with Pepita.
And I can see how his earnestness clashes with Ruiz's consummate professionalism.

From the way the two judicial system is described, I can imagine how the old way can feel tempting not only for the privileged.

---FFR
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2018 05:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad I decided to look up how Mexican trials work. There was a major reform announced in 2006. Before then, everyone had access to the judge, who just basically decided things based on documents. The adversarial system is actually just starting to come online.

I'll also be fudging legal details, because my points of view... well, let's say, I'm going into cozy-mystery mode for a while, and will be outright ignoring investigative procedure so that that I can keep the living Riveras on scene to report it. This is where I get in a tangle, I guess.

ETA: On Frida and Diego, it looks like their marriage between their reconciliation and her death was marginally better, but I doubt it's anything like Hector's notion of a marriage.

Edited at 2018-08-20 07:02 pm (UTC)
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