Y ahora veo,
Veo la verdad--
feo y frío y solo
Ya lo veo,
Veo las mentiras
las palabras de un corazón frío
And I see now,
I see the truth--
ugly and cold and alone
I see now,
I see the lies
the words from heart cold as stone
“No,” Ruiz said flatly. “Absolutely not.”
Imelda crossed her arms. “He’s not going to get away into some cushy cell!”
“And I’m not going to spend eternity in a place that doesn’t pay attention to the rule of law. You want some kind of medieval magical vengeance, not justice.” He went around his desk and sat down, then looked at Héctor. “Talk sense.”
“I don’t know that I prefer your way,” Héctor said. “This isn’t the land of the living and there are things here that don’t make sense the same way.”
“Really? Because I’ve been here for two years and I haven’t seen a sign of anything above the law, except for the whims the living. Do you really want the world to work on their whims?”
“I don’t think it’s a question of wanting it or not.” Héctor, who had been leaning against the wall of Ruiz’s office and occasionally pacing (he was still full of wild energy), sat down and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “It’s just the way it works. It’s like saying that you don’t want to live in a world where people fall if you drop them off a high place.”
“In that case, it won’t matter what we do. If we’re going to count on fate or whatever else you think judges here, then no matter what the trial says, he’ll end up where you want him.” Ruiz rubbed his head wearily. “Meanwhile, I intend to hold to what I believe, which is that we should live in a world ruled by laws, not by popularity contests. I spent most of my adult life fighting for that, and I do not accept that the universe deems the law irrelevant.”
“But shouldn’t the law give a worse punishment than you’d get if the law left you alone?” Imelda asked.
“Doña, I spent the last ten years of my career in the living world trying drug lords. They liked to take ‘justice’ into their own hands, and believe me, their prices were higher for people who broke their laws than I could ever impose on people who broke mine. Torture, murder… other things. And so we are clear, these aren’t merely the same kinds of people to whom you want to send your enemy. In many cases, they are quite literally the same people, controlled only by those lawmen whose own crimes were odious enough to take them there.”
“De la Cruz will fit right in,” Imelda muttered, but looked at least a little bit chagrined.
Héctor shifted uneasily in his chair. “Do they still… do you know anything about…?”
“About whether or not they still torture and kill one another in Odiados?” Ruiz shrugged. “Well, it’s a bit late for killing, and torture is difficult, but I don’t imagine it’s easy to be happy when you think the next person next door may stab you with your own ribs.” He sighed. “All right, when something egregious happens, I try them, just as I’m trying de la Cruz. I’ve been there. It isn’t what you think. Maybe once or twice a year, it’s something more than needling each other, engaging in petty cruelties, and that’s usually between people who had hated one another in life and carried it down there with them like grave goods.” He sighed and looked out the window. “That is not the real punishment of Odiados, despite the stories that fly around. The real punishment is that people like that… they don’t…”
“Love?” Héctor guessed.
“I don’t know that they feel anything, not really. Not even rage. In life, I once saw a defendant walk out of a courtroom and shoot a witness. His face never changed. They have no joy. They don’t even have real pain. They are in constant… nothingness. Bragging endlessly about their crimes and greedy for anything that strikes their fancy, but essentially empty shells. All of the people around them who might have once given them meaning are far out of reach. There’s no chance of changing because they have no reason to change. It’s a cold place, however hot they believe their tempers to be. They have what they call fun, but it’s a joyless kind of fun, a cruel fun, always at someone else’s expense. Each one of them firmly believes that he or she is the only one who matters… maybe the only one who is truly real. Which means that none of them matter to anyone but themselves.” He looked up. “It is a profoundly horrible place, Doña.”
“If that’s all it is,” Héctor said, “then I think Ernesto’s been there for a long time without knowing it. I think he may have always been there, in his heart.”
Ruiz gave him a narrow look, then shook his head sharply, sat up straight, and opened the folder containing Imelda’s statement, which she would give tomorrow. “I am not here to discuss philosophy or morality. I’m here to make a legal case, which, given our evidence, is open and shut. The only reason I’ve put up as many witnesses as I have is to make sure that de la Cruz can’t hide behind his fame. Now, you started out by saying that you knew something was wrong when you were unable to cross the marigold bridge…?”
And so he returned to the law. The trial had officially been going on for four days. The family was forbidden to speak of it at home, much to Héctor’s relief. Victoria and Rosita had each testified that the video they’d shot was accurate to the events as they occurred. Coco had testified about Miguel’s change in the land of the living. Ernesto’s guards had testified about the cenote, and about having thrown other hapless guests into it if they said something impertinent, or tried to steal from the ofrenda room. Every detail had been verified several times. By the time Héctor told his story tomorrow afternoon, they would know about everything except the visit to Cheech, and the how Miguel had shouted with joy when he learned that Héctor was his great-great-grandfather. Neither of those things mattered to them.
But those were the things that Héctor kept coming back to. All of this business with Ernesto—it had to be done, but it wasn’t the important part. Imelda wanted revenge (Ruiz wasn’t wrong about that), and Ruiz wanted to grandstand about the majesty of the law. But for Héctor, everything that mattered was already real. He had his family back. He had his music back. He could even reach the land of the living in dreams if he really needed to, and there was a good possibility that the picture Coco had saved would let him make the crossing this year (he did still have misgivings about the fact that it would have to be taped together, that it was a damaged photograph; he didn’t think he’d completely believe it would work until he actually crossed the bridge). Miguel had done something in the land of the living, he’d proven something, and now the memories of the living would keep Héctor going for years. (In fact, he was almost frightened that he would last longer than his family, which he didn’t want.)
This business of making Ernesto pay for his crimes… he supposed it was important for there to be justice. But he didn’t personally care all that much. Ernesto had already lost what mattered to him—his reputation—and he had never bothered to created anything else that mattered.
Except that he had fished Héctor out of the gutter when they were children. He’d defended Héctor in fights. He had started their career. He had loved Héctor’s songs. Those things were true, weren’t they?
Sure. He loved the songs so much that he killed you for them. He fished you out of the gutter because he knew you could double the amount of money he was making playing boring old standards. He started his career and you got pulled along until it was inconvenient. And didn’t he start most of the fights that got you in trouble?
But Héctor still took no pleasure in the idea of Ernesto being eternally punished. He recognized it as just. But what he wanted was to change what had happened, not to punish it. He wanted Ernesto to have been a real friend, a real brother. He wanted to have not been murdered, and his songs to have not been stolen at all. He wanted to raise his daughter and hold his grandchildren and love his wife as a husband should love his wife. He wanted his hair to turn white.
And that was beyond the magic or the law of this place. Nothing that happened to Ernesto now would change anything that had already happened, and somehow, spending all of his time on this (he’d had to leave the music in the play to Eduardo until the trial ended, and Ruiz thought it beneath the dignity of a crime victim to sing in the plaza every week) just served to remind him of that. If there was one thing Héctor knew, it was the theater, and all of this was theater. He and Imelda were sitting in a rehearsal now, and the big show was tomorrow. And everyone would go home feeling that they’d learned a valuable lesson about not murdering your best friend, and Héctor would still have died at age twenty-one and never seen his daughter grow up.
Until the trial, he felt like he’d been doing well at letting it go. He had the play, he had his family, he was even getting recognition for his music. He’d been the one to tell Imelda to let it go. But all of this talk about what sort of punishment should fall on Ernesto… he just wanted to storm off and scream “What does it matter?”
But maybe he was growing up at last after all, because he didn’t storm off. He didn’t scream or curse. He just let Imelda and Ruiz go through her testimony for the next morning, and then sat there while Ruiz walked him through his own. When he finished, he shook his head. “Let me warn you about one thing, Héctor: You have a spotty history with the truth, and the defense will try to impugn your testimony by bringing up every lie you’ve ever told. So if there’s anything de la Cruz may have known about your time on the road about which you may have gilded the truth a bit, I suggest you come clean before you’re forced to.”
“I don’t mean to me. I don’t care.”
It took Héctor a minute to sort out what he was implying, then he glanced at Imelda, who was keeping her face unnaturally calm.
“Fine,” he said. “I confess. I tore the sleeve of the jacket you embroidered for me, and I stitched it up pretty badly.”
The expression became a slight smile.
“Also, I gave Coco candy during Lent.”
“And I lost the engagement ring I meant to give you. That’s why I didn’t have one that night.”
“Very cute,” Ruiz said. “It’s on your head if there’s anything serious. Like I said, I don’t care. What happened in your life is nothing but character references.”
This trial wasn’t about the distant past. That was in the land of the living where it belonged. This was about punishing Ernesto for what he’d done to Miguel.
And if it wasn’t going to change Ernesto or convince him to never again try to murder a living child in the land of the dead, then what difference did that make?
It was very late when they finished, and Imelda drove them back in the shop’s delivery truck, which was the family’s only vehicle. It had apparently appeared down here when the family replaced it the mid-1990s. She usually had Pepita to take her any distance, but they’d both agreed, given Ruiz’s letter-of-the-law leanings, that it would be better to send Pepita back to the living family for a while. “Elena will remember her,” Imelda had said, “and Miguel will be able to tell her that Pepita is my alebrije’s name, too. They’ll look after her.” But she did know how to drive the truck, which was more than Héctor could say. He’d never had any reason to learn. Cars and trucks had existed when he died, and he’d ridden in them once or twice, but they’d still been a novelty. He’d traveled long distances by train, and short distances by foot. Undoubtedly, if he’d gone home, he’d probably have spent a good deal of time walking Imelda’s shoe orders to their owners.
At any rate, the truck was an old junker, and it took her a few tries to make it start, but once she got it putting along, she said, “Héctor, you’re angry.”
“Not at me. Not even at Ruiz.”
“I’m not angry. I wish I were. It looks more productive.”
She paused at the end of the tunnel that would let them out into the old city, tapping her finger bones on the wheel. “You were always afraid to get angry. Even when we fought, you didn’t get angry.”
“I was bigger than you.” He looked out as the truck started moving again, pulling up onto one of the few cobbled streets that allowed vehicles. It would be a roundabout route to get back to the shop. “I sometimes saw men get angry at women. They’d start hitting. I knew women in Olvidados who ended up there because of men like that. I was bigger than you,” he said again.
“When I first figured it out, I lost my temper. You heard the guards. I was trying to pull him apart.”
“And who could blame you?”
“I can blame me. I can especially blame me for doing it in front of Miguel. That’s nothing a child should have seen.”
“It was a fight, Héctor, and if there was anything uneven about it, it was on de la Cruz’s side. He was a lot bigger than you, and not ill… at least not then.” She managed not to sound happy about this, given the circumstances, but she hadn’t been able to hide a certain amount of gloating in the courtroom when she’d seen Ernesto rubbing at sore bones and turning away food. He clearly had a bad case of memory poisoning now. But she didn’t dwell on it. “So you found out he killed you, and it made you angry. It’s all right to be angry about it. Swallowing it up like you do… that’s not healthy.”
“Is it healthy to scream about it?” He sighed. “I just want to go back to forgetting about it. I want to stop thinking about it.”
She gave him a sideways glance, then put a deliberate tease in her voice. “Well then, I’ll have to distract you tonight.”
After a moment, he laughed, then reached over and took her free hand, at least until she had to put it back on the wheel to turn onto the side street beside the shop.
“Héctor… is there anything that Ernesto will bring up when he tries to call you a liar?”
He thought about it. “I went to parties with him, Imelda. Some of them weren’t very reputable. I didn’t do anything there, but I didn’t leave, either. There were fancy girls around. I spent time talking to them sometimes, when they weren’t… otherwise occupied. I didn’t…”
“I know that, Héctor.”
“That’s really the worst I can think of.”
“All right ,then.”
They sat up with the family until the small hours of the morning, playing cards and catching up on gossip, reading anything in the paper that didn’t relate to them (though Coco left aside an article for when Héctor was feeling up to it; a recent arrival had reported on everything that had been found in Ernesto’s house). When everyone had gone to bed, Imelda found many ways to keep him distracted.
He felt better in the morning, and when they arrived at the court, the dark mood was entirely gone. Ernesto was sitting in the defendant’s chair as usual, looking uncomfortable. His hair had lost most of its processing, and his bones had gone a sick color in many places. It wasn’t the gold of impending disappearance. It looked like he was under one of those ugly new fluorescent lights, and it was creating harsh, greenish shadows in every hollow of his body.
There were a few others here. A reporter from Más Alla, who’d been covering all along. A few older judges trying to learn the new rules. A young native girl with twin trenzas, wearing a red top and a black skirt that for some reason made Héctor think of the war, who was there for no reason Héctor could immediately see. And then there were always a few fans. Early on, they’d been Ernesto’s fans. Now, they were mostly from Héctor’s regular audience at the plaza.
Ruiz called Imelda to testify in front of the panel of judges. They were all old men, and none of them seemed to like this new style of hearing. They kept referring to the written statement during testimony and forgetting to give the defender time to cross-examine witnesses, causing Ernesto’s lawyer, a dour-looking woman named Delgado, to have developed a habit of nearly jumping out of her seat every time Ruiz turned his back and headed back to the table.
So Ruiz had barely finished going over how Miguel had come to be separated from the family to seek out Ernesto—he was probably just ducking back for more notes—when she leapt up and ran halfway to the chair where Imelda was sitting and said, “And tell me, Señora Rivera, what exactly were your conditions for your great-great-grandson’s return to the world of the living?”
Imelda frowned. “I told him that I didn’t want him to play music.”
“We’ve heard testimony from the clerk. Your words were, ‘You go home my way, or no way.’ Is that correct?”
“In other words, you would have allowed the boy to die here if he didn’t uphold your reputation.”
“Which is exactly what my client is on trial for.”
“Objection!” Ruiz said. “This isn’t relevant to the case against Señor de la Cruz. A hundred people could have tried to kill Miguel Rivera and it would have no bearing on whether or not de la Cruz did. Counsel is just trying to muddy the waters.”
“I didn’t try to kill Miguel!” Imelda protested. “That’s insane.”
“You would have kept him here by forcing him to agree to terms you knew he would not agree to in order to leave.”
“I didn’t throw him off a building!”
“I fail to see the distinction between methods.”
“Did you have children, Señora?”
Delgado smiled faintly, obviously pleased with the direction this was going, which made Héctor uneasy. “No. No, I never had the pleasure.”
“Sometimes, you have to teach them right from wrong, and a lot of times, they don’t like it much. No, you can’t have dessert until you’ve eaten something healthy, and if you don’t eat something healthy, you don’t get something sweet.”
“Something sweet. Like being allowed to continue living, as long as you accept that you can’t play a guitar.”
“That’s not what I meant!” Imelda looked at Ruiz. “What does this have to do with anything?”
“Nothing, and I ask for it to be stricken. Now, I believe this is still my witness.”
Delgado went back to her chair, smirking.
Ruiz stepped up. “Had Miguel failed to obtain the blessing a he chose, would you have relented before sunrise, Señora?”
“Yes. I would have been fuming about it, but if Miguel had continued to be stubborn and willful, I wouldn’t have allowed it to cost his life. I just didn’t want him to make a mistake that I believed would cost him in the end. I was wrong, but I did believe it.”
“Very well. So, once you realized he had left with your estranged husband…”
“I saw him leave with someone. I didn’t recognize Héctor at first. If I had, I would have looked more closely at the stage in the plaza.”
“Of course. You chose to summon an alebrije rather than guards to follow the boy because you did not, at the time, believe he was in danger from other inhabitants of the land of the dead? Despite the fact that, as you put it in your statement, ‘I always knew de la Cruz was a madman.’”
“I had no idea he was looking for de la Cruz. I assumed he was looking for Héctor.” She grimaced. “It never occurred to me that anyone would ever think I’d stoop low enough to have a child with someone like that.” She jerked her chin at Ernesto. “If I’d thought he was headed for that tower, I’d have had every officer on this side of the bridge looking. But I didn’t. Even angry with Héctor, I knew he wouldn’t hurt Miguel. I thought searching as a family would be sufficient. And it was. We found him.”
Ruiz led her back to the basic narrative, bringing her through the search, and to finding Héctor and Miguel at the bottom of the cenote, unable to escape. He kept talking before Delgado could interrupt to make comments about vigilantism at the Spectacular, even bringing it up himself enough to dismiss it.
“You went to retrieve a photograph, which was not stolen, but borrowed, and you entered through legal means via your husband’s friendship with the set designer. Had de la Cruz simply given you the photograph, there would have been no violent repercussions at all, is that accurate?”
In one bit they’d rehearsed for a while last night, Imelda gave a self-deprecating chuckle and said, “Well, I may have still be tempted to go for my chancla.”
This got fond laughter from a few people in the gallery, and left Delgado without a hook.
Héctor watched Ernesto during most of it. He barely responded. He didn’t look depressed or upset, let alone guilty. He just seemed bored as Imelda related their violent duet on stage, and his subsequent attack on Miguel.
The judges called a recess after Imelda’s testimony, and Héctor stood up to stretch out a little bit. He would have liked very much to be outside, but there really wasn’t an “outside” here, per se. He glanced over at the defense table. Ernesto was looking back at him this time. He turned away when he saw Héctor looking.
Out in the hallway, Ruiz was congratulating Imelda on not going off-script even when tempted. Héctor went down the hall a bit, to a little alcove. He had some paper with him and thought he might try to get a new song written down. Nothing came to him. He looked up and saw a few of the fans from the gallery (and the girl in red and black) talking to each other in hushed tones further down. He considered joining them to see what they had come for, but decided it would be a bad idea to that right before testifying.
Instead, he went back to the courtroom and sat down at the prosecutor’s table.
“Are you as bored a I am?” Ernesto asked from across the aisle. Héctor didn’t answer. He was bored, but he know how this conversation had always ended up on the other side of the bridge. Ernesto shrugged. “We could grab the guitars and do a concert. That would make the papers.”
Against his will, Héctor felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “I’m not playing with you anymore, Ernesto.”
“Think about it. The trial is third page, best chance. If we went out in the hall right now and did the old act, on the other hand…”
Héctor sighed. “If you wanted a friend, maybe you shouldn’t have poisoned the only one you actually had.”
“You’re still holding onto that, are you, old friend?”
“You literally stole my life, my family, my life’s work, and a hundred years of my afterlife, so yes. And then you tried to murder Miguel rather than letting him make things right.”
“What do you want me to do now?”
“I can’t think of anything I want from you.”
“Oh, come on. There must be something I can do to get you to call off the dogs. I could cover for you while you sneak off.”
“Why am I even listening to you?” Héctor frowned. “And I can’t sneak off. I start testifying in five minutes. And after that, you do. Are you going to tell the truth?”
“That was the plan.”
Ernesto snorted. “Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
Héctor tensed up a little bit, but Ruiz had warned him that the defense would try this.
Ruiz called him up to the chair a few minutes later. He told the story as plainly as he could, fighting every impulse of a life in the arts to give things a twist here and there to keep the judges on the edges of their seats. Delgado did try to trip him up, and certainly called him on every lie he’d told that night (particularly lies to the legal authorities, referenced with pious glances up at the judges). She managed a small hit when she questioned why he had allowed Miguel to go fleeing into the night after the concert, when he had known the destination—in fact, Héctor had given in to a fit of pique for a few minutes before trying to catch up with him at the mansion—but it was a very small hit. She tried to impugn his character by sharing Ernesto’s road stories, but she apparently had not chosen to outright lie, and the road stories did nothing but make Ernesto himself seem worse. Once it came to hearing Miguel’s scream as he fell into the cenote, and his tears at losing his idol as well as his life, there was no defense to be had for Ernesto. Added to the tape from the Spectacular, Héctor couldn’t imagine what Ernesto would say in his own defense.
“Señor de la Cruz,” Ruiz said, as soon as he’d gotten Ernesto in the chair. “Given what we have seen and heard, I will give you the opportunity to simply confess. I doubt you’ll take it, but I will give you the opportunity.” Ernesto didn’t respond. Ruiz shook his head. “So, what possible explanation do you have for throwing the child Miguel Rivera Saavedra into the constructed cenote on your property, and then later casting him from the roof of the Sunrise Stadium?”
“What would you have done?” Ernesto asked. “What would any of you have done? I think we know what Señora Rivera would have done. She’s shown it over and over.”
“Move to strike,” Ruiz said, and one of the judges gave a lazy wave in the direction of the clerk.
“All I’m saying,” Ernesto said, “is that I was acting in self-defense. Héctor had convinced the child that I stole my music—”
“A point which has been subsequently proven,” Ruiz interrupted.
“—and committed murder—”
“Also subsequently proven.”
“—and there was real reason to believe that my afterlife was in danger. The water in the cenote was deep. There was no reason to believe that Miguel would have suffered final death. Or are we now considering banishment to the land we all share to be equivalent to murder?”
“Given that we share it due to death,” Ruiz said blandly, “I believe that is the general idea. Go on.”
“I believed, at that point, that Miguel was my own descendant. I assumed he would come to his senses before sunrise, but before I could check on him, the Rivera family had removed him from my property.”
“As happens when you illegally imprison someone.”
Ernesto bristled. “At most, had the boy died, I would have taken eighty years from his life in the land of the living and brought it here. The story he meant to spread—and has spread—may cost me centuries, and lead to a final death!”
“You’re an entertainer, Señor de la Cruz. I hardly think you had centuries to look forward to.”
“This is the age of movies. My image, my face, my voice… my memory will last as long as anyone watches me on a screen. And since they keep changing formats to more permanent forms, that could be an eternity.”
“Then I hope you’ll enjoy eternity in a cell,” Ruiz said coldly. “Because you attempted to commit murder—for the second time—in order to keep your secrets.”
Delgado tried to save face after this, getting Ernesto to talk about various charities he’d donated to, and how generous he was to Miguel before trying to kill him, but there was nothing he could say.
The testimony ended the active part of the trial, leaving it in the judges’ hands to deliberate.
Héctor did his best to try and forget. He went back to rehearsals, which were going well. He played in the plaza. He played cards with Coco, and started to teach her the guitar, as he’d always wanted to. She had a knack for it, if not to Miguel’s level. He played catch with Dante, who nearly always missed the balls he tossed into the air, but was wildly grateful for the attention.
It took the judges a week to hand down a guilty verdict.
Three days later, Ernesto escaped.