August 11, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
I’m writing from Mexico City this time, and Coco isn’t with me. She’s home with Mamá. Papá and Papá Franco and Abel are here with me. We’re staying with my tutor, Carlos, and his wife, Tina.
There’s a court order to search de la Cruz’s house on Tuesday, because the studio doesn’t have the songbook, even though they said they did. I’m going with Calles on Monday on a tour—I hope nobody recognizes me from television!—to see if I see anything that looks like a place they need to look. I haven’t told him everything, but he knows there’s more to what I know than just guesses. I didn’t even tell Bridget, so I can’t figure out how he knows. Maybe Papá told him, but I don’t think so.
We aren’t allowed to be there when they’re actually searching. Even Calles had to pull strings with people he knows to be allowed there. But I wanted to be here to see what they find, and Papá said I could. Papá Franco and Abel wanted to come along in case anyone gave us trouble.
Carlos has a music job tomorrow, playing for someone’s fiftieth anniversary. He asked if I could join him, and the couple was happy to have me, so I get to play a real job. I wish I’d known earlier. I could have written a song especially for it. Fifty years is a long time to be married! I guess you and Papá Julio were married longer, so it probably doesn’t seem like that much to you, but it sure seems like a lot to me! They’re really nice people, anyway. Papá Franco and Mamá Elena have been married fifty years, too. Fifty-two soon. I’m going to surprise them with a song, I think. I’ll start with the cowboy boots. Hey, I’m writing songs about shoes! It’s a Rivera double!
I hope that next time I write, I’ll have Papá Héctor’s songbook with me. A lot could happen once we get it. Papá says to be prepared for not getting it at all—maybe de la Cruz copied everything and then destroyed it—but I think it’s there somewhere. He still thought Papá Héctor was his best friend. I think he kept it. And if he did, it proves everything.
Anyway, we’ll know soon.
Love to everyone,
Enrique had not expected to spend a day of this trip at a stranger’s anniversary party, but Miguel had first asked if he could see Carlos and his band perform and then been invited to play along, and one thing had led to another, and now Enrique, Papá, and Abel were sitting with Tina at a small table behind the stage, where she took requests and ran the machinery. “Lawyer and part time sound tech,” she muttered. “He needs a real sound tech.”
The crowd loved the music, which was there mostly for dancing. Miguel had sung one of Carlos’s songs, and the old couple had danced to it, and fawned over Miguel for a long time. The band also played rock and roll and folk music from the 1960s, when the couple had been dating. Miguel stayed in the background for the songs he didn’t know, but he was able to keep up after a morning’s worth of rehearsing. Between sets, the drummer was showing Miguel percussion notation. They all seemed to take him something of a mascot, and he was happily learning from all of them.
Abel, meanwhile, had been learning the sound board from Tina, and offered to take over for her while she went outside for a smoke. “Horrible habit,” she said. “Come out with me, Señor Rivera. I want to talk to you.” Enrique, leaving Papá in charge of making sure Miguel was all right, followed her.
The evening was warm and gentle, and the sun was setting in a soft haze of smog. They were on a balcony of the hotel, and Tina looked out over the city, lighting up a soon as she checked for a nearby ashtray. She was a pretty girl with light brown hair and green eyes, and today, she looked less like an up and coming lawyer than a high school girl at a dance.
“He’ll be all right, you know,” she said. “Miguel, I mean. Carlos would throw himself in front of a barreling train to keep him out of the kind of trouble kids usually get into in this business, and if that didn’t work, Denny Calles would go in shooting. And I don’t have the impression that your family would exactly take it lying down, either.”
“We wouldn’t.” Enrique sat down on the rail opposite her. “And he’s not likely to get into the kinds of trouble you’d think of, anyway. I wish the kids were who were likely to get into it had adults looking after them.”
“If they did, they wouldn’t be the sorts of kids likely to get into that trouble. It’s a catch-22.” She took a deep drag on her cigarette and blew it out, then said, apropos of nothing, “Are you going to sue the studio?”
“Copyright is long over, of course, but this would be wrongful death and theft of intellectual property. There’s a case to be made. It could be a much bigger payout than just a copyright suit.”
She sighed. “Don’t think of it that way. More… the only way there is left to punish someone for what happened. If de la Cruz killed your bisabuelo and stole his songs, so what? He’s gone. He’s beyond reach. But the studio built its whole brand on those movies, and the movies built their brand on those songs. The studio made insane amounts of money on the songs it claimed to have obtained from de la Cruz, but they never made any attempt to verify his ownership of them.”
“What could they have done, if no one challenged them?”
“That’s what they’ll argue,” she said. “That there was nothing to be done. That they were duped. Which would be easier to argue if they hadn’t spent the last several months obstructing Carlos on his thesis. That made me suspicious. Some of the documents Denny forced them to turn over last week were de la Cruz’s original contracts. They were the ones who insisted on not listing another songwriter. I doubt de la Cruz argued with them, but it was their stipulation. He presented them with documents supposedly signed by Héctor Rivera Esposito establishing de la Cruz’s ownership—“
“They actually had his name all these years?” Enrique asked.
“I doubt anyone had looked at de la Cruz’s contracts for a few decades, but yes, they obviously had an inkling early on that he hadn’t written his own songs. As to the contracts themselves, even a cursory evaluation of the handwriting would have shown them as a forgery.”
Enrique braced himself. “How much could we get? I don’t want to be crass, but I do want to pay Denny more than he asked for, given how much he’s done for us, and Miguel has a guitar teacher who is woefully underpricing his services.”
Tina gave a snort of laughter. “Denny thinks you walk on water and wants to give back what you’ve already paid. As to Carlos? Well, I personally would charge more, but I’m a heartless lawyer. Then again, Miguel gave him the last pieces of the puzzle for his thesis, and he’s got a book deal out of it. I think you’re square.” She took another drag and let it out. “You could get considerably more than a private investigator’s fee, or a music teacher’s. If we prove complicity in criminal activity, if we prove that the studio was aware of de la Cruz’s subterfuge… you could end up with the estate, since he left it to them. That would be everything. The house, the royalties, the incidental properties…”
“I don’t want the whole estate,” Enrique said.
“And who would you prefer to have it?”
“I don’t know.” He thought about it, wishing for a minute that he smoked, so he would have something to do while he was thinking. “What if we made it into a fund to help musicians who had their music stolen?”
“A legal fund?” Tina shrugged. “There’ve been worse ideas. The outright theft is actually pretty rare, though. Sometimes there’s an actual coincidence—more often than you’d think, actually—and it’s damned hard to prove it’s not. But because people can make a real stink about it, what most companies do is trap someone in a predatory contract that takes their rights for next to nothing.”
“That’s still theft.”
“Not technically. But, if a legal fund is something you’d like to think about, I know lawyers attached to the conservatory who’d probably help with it.” She smiled apologetically. “But you’ll probably want to keep enough to pay for Miguel’s musical education. And the others. Maybe they want college, too.”
“Would there be enough?” Enrique asked.
“Have you seen the house? By itself, it would pay for all of the children to be fully educated, with a slush fund to invest and make money for their children.”
Enrique sighed. “I think I’ll ask Miguel. He’ll know what Papá Héctor would have wanted.”
Tina smiled faintly. “What’s going on there, really? You talk like they know each other.”
“They do. And that’s all I’ll say.”
“You think a lawyer and a PhD student won’t believe you?”
“I think it’s Miguel’s to decide.”
Enrique sat with her while she finished her cigarette, and told her a little bit about Santa Cecilia. She told him about defending petty criminals, which didn’t pay well, which was why she had money on the brain. (“Between you and me, if Carlos’s grandparents hadn’t given us their house so they could go traveling, I think we’d be living in a broom closet at the Conservatory.”) He told her about the generations of shoemakers, which she obviously found alien, if quaint and sweet. She asked about her shoes. He told her they were fine for this kind event. In fact, he decided to make her a better pair for court as a thank you for letting the family impose on her life, but decided to keep it a surprise. He didn’t point out that her shoes betrayed the fact that she wasn’t paid much. She probably knew.
When they went back in, the last set was over, and, while Carlos took care of the financial part of the evening, collecting a check from the couple’s daughter and dividing up the tip jar, the family got the band’s equipment packed back into the drummer’s van. He drove off toward the center of town. Everyone else returned to Carlos’s place, where they had a late night supper together and then went to bed in whatever spots they could find.
Enrique awoke to the sound of guitars as the dawn was coming up. Miguel and Carlos were in the computer room, where Carlos usually did his remote lessons, playing a duet. It didn’t sound like one of Miguel’s, and it didn’t sound familiar, so Enrique guessed it was one of Carlos’s. The lyrics were about a wall, and people trying to speak and break it down even as it went up further and further and further.
Enrique pulled himself up and walked groggily to the door. Neither of them noticed him as they finished the tune. Miguel had brought his practice guitar, leaving Papá Héctor’s on the museum wall, and the two of them were sitting on stools and looking down at the music.
“Your sight reading is getting very good,” Carlos said. “Do you like it?”
“It’s nice. Kind of part ranchera, part American folk, right?”
“Yes. Kind of the point. It’s sort of a protest song.”
“I don’t know about politics.”
“Don’t bother until you’re older. It’s depressing.”
“Bridget was telling me some of it. She said it’s probably better if I don’t visit right now.”
“Visitors are probably fine. Musicians are probably fine. Anything else is a damned mess.” He leaned over the music, which was spread out on a low table. “Do you think the key change is too much?”
Miguel thought about it. “I don’t know. It makes a big moment, but maybe it would resolve better if you left it in G.”
“That’s what I was thinking while we were playing. I don’t think it needs the big moment. It’s not a show tune.”
Miguel grinned. “You’re taking a student’s advice?”
“I take all advice. I don’t always follow it. But you have good instincts.”
“Thanks.” The grin became a broad, genuine smile.
Enrique didn’t understand the music talk, but he did understand that Carlos was paying Miguel a great compliment, and that Miguel understood the magnitude of it.
He went and got cleaned up and dressed for the day. By the time he was finished, Miguel had put away his guitar and was helping Tina with breakfast. Abel shuffled in and started on some eggs and Papá was occupied with coffee. Carlos kissed Tina’s cheek, then got out plates, which Enrique helped him set out on any available surface.
About halfway through the process, Denny Calles showed up with donuts to add to the mix. “Hey, Romeo!” he called to Miguel. “You better do the celebrity thing.” He tossed over a pair of sunglasses. “Do you have something with a hood?”
“It’s too hot. And don’t call me that.”
Calles laughed and made a face. “You need to not be so recognizable. You’ve been on television talking about this, chamaco.”
“And you think no one will pay special attention if I walk around looking like it’s the middle of December?”
“Put the shades on.” Miguel did so, and Calles examined him. “We’ll slick your hair back. Hey, Carlos, do you have an extra earring?”
“My ear isn’t pierced,” Miguel said.
“I can take care of that.”
“No,” Enrique said. “Slick back his hair if you have to, but you’re not piercing anything.”
“No tattoos, either?” Calles asked.
“I could dress up as Frida Kahlo,” Miguel suggested.
“That would be completely inconspicuous,” Calles said. “Much smoother than a hoodie in August. And someday, you will explain the Frida fixation to me.”
“So what are we doing, exactly?” Papá asked, coming in with a plate. “Why are we taking the de la Cruz tour?”
“They’re shutting down for the official search tomorrow,” Calles said. “I’m going, along with some police who are working it as a cold case. But I want Miguel’s eyes on it first.”
“Miguel’s never been to de la Cruz’s mansion,” Papá said.
“No. Let’s say… I think he may see things I don’t. I think he may have seen things in the past that he hasn’t told me about.”
No one answered. They ate breakfast quickly and took two cars across town to catch the tour. Carlos, who was known to the tour guides and was considered a troublemaker, stayed home.
Miguel rode with Calles, and on the way, he used some kind of oil to grease his hair back, and had switched out a perfectly decent shirt for an oversized one with a rock band logo on it. He was wearing sunglasses. He still looked like Miguel, just in a costume, but Enrique supposed it was enough to keep someone from making the automatic assumption that he was the young mariachi singer who had appeared on a national news show.
If the neighborhood around the Conservatory had seemed forbidding to Enrique on the last trip, the roads leading toward de la Cruz’s mansion seemed completely prohibitive. He expected the police to come up at any moment to stop the truck trundling along these expensive lanes, with their well-tended parks and sculpture gardens and fine restaurants. Even within the neighborhood, the mansion was a stand-out, set back from the street behind a high wall, with a wrought iron gate. There was a hastily made parking lot behind a high wall, so the other rich people in the neighborhood wouldn’t be forced to see tourist cars or tour buses, and the morning tour was gathering at the gate. The grounds were so huge that there was a little electric cart to take people inside. It was painted white, with a Greek-looking design in gold on it.
Everyone paid normally, and no one mentioned anything about Papá Héctor. Abel was just looking around, dazzled. Papá grimaced as the cart pulled through the gate.
The grounds were finer than the city parks beyond them. There were cobbled pathways among ancient trees, a tall stone sculpture of de la Cruz from one of his more famous roles, well-tended gardens and ponds. There was even a small chapel, with a tiny flat area out front, which was where the cart pulled up to park, plugging in at a discretely hidden power station.
They got out.
“Why is there a chapel?” Papá asked quietly, when the tour guide started a little speech about how famous de la Cruz had been. “What kind of person steals songs, murders someone, and builds a chapel?”
“It was here when he bought it,” Tina explained. “This is an old villa. Back from the conquest. It belonged to some important military man. Which doesn’t make it any better, when I think about it, given the way the Conquest went.”
Miguel looked up the walk, where a vast staircase led through several patios to the grand entrance.
“It’s the same,” he whispered.
Calles looked at him sharply, but the tour guide had suddenly taken an interest in them, so they all painted blandly happy expressions on their faces.
She still looked suspicious, but clearly didn’t want to interrupt the tour. An American tourist asked in horrible Spanish if they were going to have to climb all the stairs. The guide answered in English, then went back and repeated herself in Spanish. “There’s an elevator. We will take that way up. We’ll be taking the stairs down, unless you have difficulties. If so, you can also take the elevator down.”
Miguel kept staring up at the stairs, toward the arched doorway at the top.
Enrique put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around so they could follow the group. Another inconspicuous door into a lower level, and the group took an elevator up to the main entrance.
The interior was even more opulent than the exterior. The rooms were trimmed in dark, carved wood, and hand-painted Spanish tiles. A fine grand piano sat in a sunlit alcove. The tour guides had roped it off with velvet ropes. On the music stand, a copy of “Remember Me” was sitting, waiting to be played… but had, of all things, a peacock quill beside it, as if de la Cruz just had written the thing—possibly in his own blood, since there was no ink in evidence—and it had come out looking like a professionally published piece of sheet music.
Miguel looked over his shoulder, then raised his hand.
“Yes?” the tour guide said.
“That’s not the door we saw, is it?”
“No. That leads to the grand hall. We’re two floors up now. We’ll work our way down to it.”
So they walked through the palatial upper floors, where de la Cruz’s music rooms were, and bedrooms. Tales were told of various actresses who might have “visited,” the guide said with a wink. There had been other guests as well. Politicians, artists, everyone who was anyone in the 1930s. There were older things as well, secret chambers that previous owners had used. De la Cruz had apparently found and restored some of them, and used them to display his various collections. He had a large collection of priceless art, much of it from Europe, though he also had a selection of native items that infuriated Enrique. They didn’t belong in some private collection. He’d also collected musical instruments.
“He only played the guitar and the piano,” the guide said, “but he took an interest in music, and you’ll find many ancient instruments here as well.” She pointed at them vaguely, apparently noticing that no one (except Miguel) seemed even slightly interested. She reached the end of the hall and opened an elaborately carved door. “And this is the ballroom,” she said, stepping in.
Enrique’s breath caught. The ballroom was a three-story affair, and they were standing on a balcony that surrounded it. Tall arches defined the room below, and from here, they seemed to form a series of rotundas, each with cut tin ceilings showing the same Greek motif that was on the bus.
Miguel was gaping. Calles leaned over. “What is it?”
“Ofrenda,” Miguel whispered. “It’s the ofrenda room.”
They went on with the tour, as the guide pointed out the sitting rooms off to the sides, where partygoers might retire from dancing to have cigars and bourbon. There was even a ladies’ fainting room.
They came down another level, where statues lined the balcony, looking down on the revelers with indulgence. These were mostly Greek and Roman gods (“There is Catholic statuary in the chapel,” the tour guide said, “but it was not seen as appropriate for entertainment”), though there were also more modernist pieces.
Instead of going down to floor level here, the guide led them off to one side through a door into another cavernous space. It only went up two levels, but it seemed huge.
“We above the main door now,” the guide said, looking at Miguel. “This is the main entrance hall. You can see the Spanish influence in the architecture here…”
She went on talking, not noticing that Miguel looked pale. He had taken off his sunglasses, because it was ridiculous to wear them in a room with no sun. He went to a stone railing that branched off into two staircases, and touched it with some degree of fear.
Enrique looked around. There was no immediate cause for fear—it was just a large room, with high windows. There were commissioned paintings from de la Cruz’s movies on the wall. Large statues formed part of the grand staircase that they were standing on.
“Are you all right, mijo?” Enrique whispered.
“It’s the same,” he said again. “People remember him here.”
The guide led them down. “There is a swimming pool under the floor at the far end,” she said, “but we haven’t kept it up. It’s a bit of a safety hazard. There’s a second pool in an underground room beneath the chapel as well. We don’t know which owner installed it, but that was apparently where de la Cruz’s wilder parties were held.”
“Where was it?” Miguel asked. “I mean, from here.”
The guide pointed off to one side, at the bottom of one of the staircases. “You see that passage? It was a servant’s passage once, going through a tunnel to the kitchen. It comes up near the chapel. Then there’s a secret door. It’s not on the tour. It’s not really safe for tours. But we’ll see the chapel!”
Miguel nodded, then told Carlos, “It will be there.”
There was no doubt in his voice, no hesitation at all.
They went on the rest of the tour, going through the tunnel (Miguel shuddered) and coming up back at the chapel, where they looked at classic Catholic statuary and the organ that de la Cruz had installed, though he wasn’t known to have had regular services here. After it was over, the tourists were given time to relax in the garden.
Miguel didn’t say any more on the grounds.
Enrique made sure to ride with him on the way back in Calles’s car. “All right. What was that?”
“The cenote,” Miguel said. “That’s where it would have been. Right under the chapel. There wasn’t a chapel there…”
“What are we talking about?” Calles asked.
“It’s part of what we’re not telling you,” Enrique said. “We will someday, but maybe it’s better if you don’t know right now.”
Calles frowned. “All right. But someday, when this is over, we will go to my office, have a drink, and get the whole story together.”
“It’s a promise,” Miguel said, to Enrique’s surprise. “But right now, that room, the one they said isn’t safe for tours. That’s where it’s going to be. Somewhere.”
They spent the afternoon back at Carlos’s place, talking about not much at all. Abel showed everyone the progress he’d made on a music video about Papá Héctor and Mamá Imelda. They seemed to come to life out of the photograph and dance among the other pictures, which woke up and came with them, dancing among the living members of the family. Carlos, who was apparently at least somewhat interested in music videos, liked it, and the two of them started trying to figure out how to remove the crackles and distortion from the old recording.
Calles left after supper, and Enrique took Miguel for a walk. He found a little park, not as grand as the ones around de la Cruz’s place, but relatively safe looking, and sat down on a bench. “All right. Truth.”
Miguel nodded, but was quiet for a long minute. “I told you that de la Cruz tried to make me stay. That Papá Héctor and I got trapped together?” Enrique nodded. “He threw us both into a cenote. It was, like an old Aztec thing with statues and things, like the ones in the mansion. Only it was real. Like… I bet we weren’t the first things that got thrown there.”
Enrique felt queasy, but kept his voice even. “You think he killed other people?”
“It’s not that way in the Land of the Dead. They’d just break and get out. It only would have been me dying. And then I’d have just been a skeleton and gotten up and walked away, probably. I don’t think it’s full of bodies down there. I mean, someone’s been there, right?”
“But I think it’s…” He shrugged helplessly. “I think it’s where he puts things he wants to hide but not throw away. Like ofrenda for secret things.”
It was a strange turn of phrase, but apt.
“Are you okay, Miguel? Really okay?”
He nodded. “I sang on those stairs,” he said. “I got up on the railing, and did a grito to get everyone’s attention, and then I sang ‘The World Is Mi Familia.’ Then I fell in the pool. That really is a hazard. I’m not surprised they keep it covered. Someone could get hurt.”
Enrique put an arm over Miguel’s shoulders, and led him back to Carlos’s home. Papá and Tina were having a long conversation about the possibility of a legal fund for musicians, and Carlos and Abel were working on a video concept for one of Carlos’s songs. Abel had his sketch-pad out. Miguel joined them, and Enrique settled down to read.
The next day was tense. Tina was back at work, and Carlos was in classes all day, so the Riveras just circled each other in the strange house, jumping on texts from Calles that came every half an hour or so.
“Nothing in galleries.”
“Bedroom searched. They aren’t eager to search the chapel.”
“Told them to look in party room. No one has a key.”
“Found old film reels from audition, dated 1921. May contain H.”
Shortly after lunch, Carlos sent a text that an obviously angry studio executive was coming with the key (“I threatened to use a battering ram”), and they were headed into the party room.
“It’ll be there,” Miguel whispered. “It will.”
The texts Calles sent over the next hour were cryptic (Calles told Enrique later that night that he hadn’t thought it was a good idea to reveal the particular sort of art collection they’d found there where children might be reading over someone’s shoulder), but finally, they’d opened up an alcove where they’d found, among other things, an old charro suit that would never have fit de la Cruz. It was a light, ashes-of-roses color popular in the ‘20s, and had a belt with two crossed guitars on the buckle. It had been carefully folded and put into a wooden box. There was also a wedding ring there, stuffed into one of the pockets. And underneath it, wrapped in brown paper, was an old journal, filled with handwritten music, each song attributed to Papá Héctor.
Calles sent a photo of it. There had been a lot of talk of ghosts in Enrique’s home of the last year, but that songbook, its image floating on a tiny screen, was the first time he really felt like he’d seen one.
Miguel held the phone to his heart and whispered, “We did it, Papá Héctor.”