New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample story from Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem
by Jonathan Woods

Incident in the Tropics

“That young man’s staring at me,” Marge says.

Ray Elrood, absent-mindedly perusing a set of female buttocks flouncing their way between two rows of plastic cafeteria tables, glances up at his spouse.

“Which young man?” he asks.

“Over there. In the soccer outfit.”

Ray follows the trajectory indicated by Marge’s nod. Across the aisle, a platoon of Latin youths are wolfing sandwiches and meat pies, slurping sweet drinks. They lounge provocatively; engage in macho shenanigans and repartee.

“They’re all wearing soccer uniforms,” he says. “Must be a local high school team stopping after the game.”

“It’s the one with the mustache. And the red bandanna.”

Ray picks out the young man Marge means.

He looks about sixteen, smooth-faced except for a fringe of hairs curving in a half-moon above his upper lip. The accoutrement of some 1940s bebop hipster. His hair is jet and wiry, cut close to his skull. He wears the same black-and-gold T-shirt and sweatpants as the rest of the team, augmented with a bright red bandanna tied around his neck in the manner of a romantic poet. Gesturing dramatically, he concludes telling two teammates some wild-ass tale of seduction. They vie with each other in dissing its veracity. A mock tussle breaks out.

“He’s not staring now.”

“Well, he was,” Marge says defensively.

“Ogling your tits, was he?”

“Don’t be crude.”

Ray scratches his chin. He’s not sure whether Marge expects him to do something about the stranger’s aggressive gaze. Perhaps slap him across the cheeks, demand satisfaction by dueling pistols at dawn. Ray’s inclination is to drop the entire matter without further ado.

“Maybe we should head back to the tour bus,” Ray says, glancing at his cheap plastic wristwatch. (“It is recommended,” reads the cruise line brochure, “that no jewelry or expensive watches be worn while touring ports of call.”)

“I need to use the bathroom,” Marge replies.

Gathering up her oversized purse, she glances around, at last heading off to a far corner of the cafeteria. She strides like an alpine hiker at the mall.

On this, the fourth day of a ten-day cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale, Ray and Marge and a dozen other adventuresome passengers are on a day tour to the capital of the Republic. The day is waning. Marge has a bladder infection.

As Marge disappears from view into the bano mujer, Ray pushes away the plate with its abandoned sandwich crusts and brushes his shirt for crumbs. What I need, he thinks, is an ice cream cone. He pushes up to a standing position, looks again at the youth with the bandanna and peach fuzz, then meanders toward the dessert counter. His dick keeps hoping for another glimpse of the provocative buns.

He wanders around, licking the mango swirl ice cream, but the owner of the outstanding booty is nowhere to be found. He sits down just as Marge comes up.

“Where’s the camera?” she demands, frowning at the ice cream cone.

“Half of this is yours,” Ray says, waving the hand holding it.

“With your spit all over it? Gross! Now, where’s the camera?”

Ray gives her a blank stare, his lips blow out a puff of air. Pffffff.

“You didn’t bring the camera,” he says, “because I wanted to take a picture of the bronze-horsed Hero of the Revolution and you said, quote, ‘Oh fuck! The camera’s sitting by my bed back on the ship,’ unquote.”

“I’m worried about you,” Marge says. “You’ve totally imagined that little scene. It figures you’d contract some unusual form of Alzheimer’s where you become delusional as opposed to brain dead.” She tries to put her hand on his forehead. He pulls back.

“When I went to the john, the camera was sitting on the table directly in front of me,” Marge says. “Now it’s gone.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t here,” Ray says. “I’m not that far gone.”

“You wish,” Marge says, “because you went to get ice cream and left the camera sitting here. And that hoodlum stole it.”

“What hoodlum?”

“The one sitting over there with the faggoty mustache and the scarf. He’s been eyeballing my Canon digital all afternoon.”

“Him? The one who was checking out your mangos?”

At that moment, a woman with a management badge pinned to her pale blue polo shirt walks by.

Marge, still standing, addresses her with ferocity: “Senora. My camera’s been stolen by that scumbag over there.” Her words boom across the room. Her nod identifies the hipster-poet soccer player as the perp. His name, embroidered across the left breast of his soccer shirt, is Angel.

Marge is of the school of gringo travelers who think speaking in loud aggressive tones will overcome the impenetrable barrier between American-ese and the local lingo.

When she singles him out, Angel bounds to his feet. Anger suffuses his face like cheap Burgundy on a tan shirt. He accuses Marge of lying. Demands an immediate apology. All in Spanish. He’s studied English in secondary school, but is too unsure of himself to speak it. His teammates crowd around, looking angry and nihilistic.

The coach pushes through the throng of testosterone.

“What the fuck’s going on here?” he asks in perfect English.

“That boy stole my camera.”

“Impossible. Why would a spoiled rich kid want to steal a camera from some fat gringa?

Blows are exchanged. Marge uses her bag like a shillelagh. Ray swoops his arm across her chest and drags her backward. The cafeteria manageress steps between Marge and the coach, who promptly slaps the manageress in the face. She slaps him back.

Before things get too rambunctious, some kind of policeman in a faded blue uniform with frayed shirt cuffs edges through the tide pool of emotion.

Mas tranquilo,” he urges, his hands raising and lowering.

Turning to Ray, Marge asks: “What’s he saying?”

“Something about tequila, I think.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“This whole thing doesn’t make any sense. It’s off the rails,” admonishes Ray. “Let’s just get on the van and get back to the ship.” He looks again at his watch. “If we leave now, we can still make the first sitting for dinner.”

“What about the camera?”

“Fuck the camera.”

“Of course you’d say that. You didn’t pay three hundred dollars for the latest model available only at the Vegas Electronics Show or online. As usual, you’ve got zero skin in the game.”

“What do you mean, no skin? If we stick around here we’re likely to have stilettos poked through our vital organs.”

“I always knew you had a yellow streak.”


He almost strikes her. Which is what she wants, so she can refuse him sex privileges back on the cruise ship. Relegate him to the couch in the sitting room of their suite. Even cut off his bar tab, which she pays for out of her mother’s estate. Ray is presently unemployed. He holds his temper in check, gripping his hands into fists as if crushing a pair of fat water roaches.

Out of nowhere, two more cops appear. These guys are the real thing. Radiating menace.

The crowd grows nervous, restive. The Marxist slackers and hangers-on at the back peel away, suddenly remembering important appointments elsewhere.

“What’s going on here?” the cop who looks like Ernie Kovacs in the movie version of Our Man in Havana says. Hard-billed Gestapo cap, algae-green fatigues with epaulets and a cluster of ribbons above one pocket. Shades. A large weapon in a flapped leather holster hangs at his waist.

This is Lieutenant Diablo Reiner.

“That young hooligan stole my camera,” answers Marge. She gestures again at the youth with the lip fringe and bandanna. “And that man…” she wishes she could eviscerate the coach with the blade-like edge of her French-nail manicure job, “attacked me.”

“She’s making it up,” the boy yells.

The other cop, in matching fatigues but without the fruit salad and wearing an Aussie snap-brim hat with one side turned up, backhands Angel in the mouth. Like in a comic strip, his head seems to fly in the opposite direction, then bounces back. Blood oozes from his split lip.

“How much is the camera worth?” Reiner asks.

“I paid three hundred dollars for it. U.S. dollars.”

The cop licks his lips. It’s a lot of money in a poor country contiguous to the Tropic of Cancer.

“And how do you know this person took it?”

“Because he’s been staring at it the entire time we’ve been here.”

Reiner looks sadly at the boy.

“Search him!”

The command is directed to both Sergeant Gomez in the outback headgear and the officer in the blue uniform, who’s with traffic control. The latter grasps the young man’s arms from behind while Gomez pats him down. A few coins and a condom in its foil wrapper are the only result.

“He must have passed it to a confederate,” Marge says. “It’s probably already for sale in the thieves market.”

“Don’t be making up shit,” hisses Ray.

Marge takes a deep breath.

“And he was ogling my breasts,” she says.

“Which must have been spectacular, senora, about thirty years ago.” The Lieutenant says this in Spanish. Some of the remaining riffraff snicker. Others just blink their eyes. “Ah ha. Not only a thief but a sex maniac too,” Reiner says in gringo-speak. “A bad hombre.

Before Marge can reply, their tour guide, a sassy full-breasted woman with a half-baked command of English, touches Ray’s arm. Startled, he jumps.

“We must leave now to ship.”

When he looks at her, Lieutenant Reiner’s eyes carry a death sentence. He clicks his heals. “Not so fast. We have serious accusations that must be resolved.”

“Their cruise liner departs at cinco y media. We have more than an hour’s drive ahead of us to get there in time.”

Reiner scowls at her.

“Get lost,” he says. “Vamanos.

Sergeant Gomez takes over, placing his hands on the tour guide’s shoulders and pushing her back into the scrum of teammates and onlookers. The rabble closes behind them like the high tide over the road to Mont-Saint-Michel.

“Wait a minute. We’ve…,” Marge begins.

Reiner places his finger on her lips. He shakes his head.

Silencio. Stop talking.” His words are like the back and forth of a straight razor across a leather strop. “You must give written statements about this incident,” the Lieutenant says. “For that we will go to my office.”

Ray’s in a panic. We’ve got to amscray out of here, he thinks.

“Forget the camera,” he bursts out. “If the kid stole it and you get it back, it’s yours, officer. A gift. But we’ve got to leave. Get back to the ship.”

For the first time Reiner focuses on Ray.

If…?” he inquires with sloth-like slowness. “If he stole it? There can be no doubt in such matters.”

“What I mean…,” Ray says. He’s not sure what he means. He just doesn’t want to be there any more, in that cafeteria, in the capital of the Republic on a late Tuesday afternoon in mid-May.

Seconds later the tour bus pulls out of the parking lot without them. A viscous lump of fear settles at the back of Ray’s throat.

“My name is Lieutenant Reiner of the Special Police,” Reiner says. “Sergeant Gomez is bringing the car.”

As if on cue, the motley assembly falls into tatters like smoke blown by a fan, revealing a black Lincoln Continental oozing to the curb in front of the glass cafeteria doors. Sergeant Gomez shambles out of the front passenger seat and opens the rear door.

Adalante,” the lieutenant says, pushing an ashen-complexioned Angel through the hushed throng.

Marge looks at Ray. Her lips are as compressed and pale as twin slices of white peach flesh. She puts a hand over them as if she’s about to burst into uncontrolled sobbing or vomit up her lunch. One of her beautifully manicured nails is chipped.

“Let’s go,” Ray says.

Soon they’re hunkered down in the vast leather-bound backseat of the Lincoln. It’s almost like prom night. Marge and Lieutenant Reiner sprawl on the couch-like banquette. Ray and the sergeant huddle on hard jump seats facing rearward. Between them, Angel flops on the floor on his stomach, a guppy out of water. A plastic restraint holds his wrists in the small of his back. The red bandanna is missing. Gomez’s boot resides in the crook of his neck.

The pungent tang of fresh poop fills the air, and Ray has the urge to check the bottom of his shoe. Then he realizes the soccer youth has shit himself. Ray’s own bowels gurgle like a drain clog on the move.

The car surges into traffic like some primeval cat prowling the chiaroscuro of the rain forest.

“You are enjoying your visit to our country?” Reiner asks. “Excluding, of course, this unfortunate incident of the camera.”

“Swell,” Ray says.

The conversation dies.

Waves of garlic and other more exotic spices emanate from Gomez. Despite the air-conditioning, the interior of the Lincoln is thick with sweat, stale tobacco, feces, and musk.

They pass through a business district, the sidewalks awash with pedestrians flitting in and out of the shops, bargaining vociferously with the street vendors. Then they turn and begin to climb a hill among more official-looking buildings. Acacia trees dazzle in full flame-yellow bloom. A blood-orange Poinciana explodes into view. Suddenly it begins to rain.

The headquarters of the secret police of the Republic is a squat frog-like building of green stone. On closer inspection, Ray realizes it’s constructed of cement blocks covered in mold. A pair of guards in camouflage gear and armed with machine guns snap to attention as Lieutenant Reiner steps from the car.

The five of them, Reiner, Gomez, Marge, Ray and the alleged thief, mount the steps. Angel stumbles as if he’s forgotten how to walk.

Inside, they climb ringing metal steps to the third floor. Gomez and two other cops, overwhelming Angel’s feeble resistance, manhandle him down a side corridor toward the back of the building.

Lieutenant Reiner’s office is a vast institutional gray space with windows on two sides. His desk is worn and unadorned. Marge collapses into a hard wooden chair in front of the desk, her hands covering her face. A larger-than-life-size photograph of the President of the Republic gazes down at her. The President’s eyes are as vacant as the Dead Sea.

Ray walks to one set of windows. They look out onto a soccer field where, despite the pelting rain, two teams of men race and pivot back and forth chasing a mud-caked ball.

“Nice view,” he says.

“Wasted when you’re overworked,” Reiner replies.

“I’ll bet,” Marge says.

A female secret police person enters the office through a side door. She doesn’t bother to knock. Drab olive short shorts and slim-fitted military blouse. Combat boots with socks. Ink-black hair tied in a bun, pierced by a pair of chopsticks. A tiny gold cross hangs like a fallen climber between the foothills of her Sierra Madre breasts.

“Ah. Irena,” Reiner says.

She carries a tray on which sit four cups of steaming espresso, a bottle of agua mineral con gas, and glasses, all of which she sets on the conference table.

Her bottomless brown eyes fixate on Reiner, then Ray. She gives nothing away.

“We’ll be taking statements,” Reiner says.

Irena collects a steno pad and pen from the credenza and sits sidesaddle at the end of the table, crossing her long bare legs. In a different venue, Ray would willingly tell her his life story; drop to his knees and perform cunnilingus.

Instead he throws himself into a chair at the table. Marge sits next to him. He pours them both a glass of water. She seems to be shaking. Small tremors every few seconds make her seem out of focus.

Reiner sits opposite them, with a clear view of Irena.

“Now then, Mrs. Elrood… ,” Lieutenant Reiner begins.

“What are they doing to that boy?” Marge demands in a rush. “You’ve got to let him go!” She bursts into tears.

Ray gives Reiner an apologetic eyebrow roll. He touches Marge’s shoulders. She shakes his hands away and starts digging in her carpetbag-sized purse, looking for a Kleenex.

At that moment Sergeant Gomez slips like a ghost into the room. He moves quickly to the Lieutenant, bends down and whispers.

The tip of Irena’s tongue slithers between her lips. Her body twists and grinds as she seeks a comfortable position in the military-issue straight-back chair.

Suddenly, Marge screams; slumps sideways in her chair.

Is she having a stroke? Ray wonders.

Reiner throws a glass of water in her face. Marge shudders, uses the tail of her blouse to wipe her face and sits up. One side of her white silk blouse is soaking wet and you can see the nipple like an aroused prune. When she removes her hand from her purse, she’s holding the missing Canon digital. She places it on the polished surface of the table. All eyes stare at the camera as if it holds the meaning of life and death.

“It was in my bag all along,” Marge offers apologetically. “I totally forgot I put it there. You can let the boy go. I was mistaken.”

“Even about the fact he undressed you with his eyes?” Reiner asks.

“I’ve got a very vivid imagination,” she replies.

Ray nods in support of this admission.

“Please. Just let the boy go,” Marge says.

Reiner: “I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”

“What do you mean?”

Es muerto.

In an excess of emotion, Ray grabs the camera and with all his strength throws it against the wall. It splinters into jagged bits of shrapnel.

Marge is sniffling softly, her teeth worrying her lower lip.

Ray looks at Irena, who is staring down at her boots as though they belong to someone else. Lieutenant Diablo Reiner’s voice interrupts: “But there is the matter of reparations…and justice for the family.”

The room turns ice cold. Looking at Reiner, Ray imagines black membranous wings unfolding.

Ray feels his nads shrivel.