Out today from Restless Books is the "colorful, virtuosic"Four Hands by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Spies, hit men, terrorists, drug dealers, and real-life characters (Harry Houdini and Leon Trotsky among them) all populate this intricate political thriller from an international crime master the LA Times calls "a storyteller of real genius."Read the first chapter below and download the newly designed eBook today!
Chapter One: Stan in Parral
July 19, 1923, around five-thirty in the afternoon, a man made his way across the international bridge that separated El Paso (Texas) from Juarez (Chihuahua). It was hot. Four carts transporting barbed wire into Mexico had filled the air with dust. From his office, the Mexican customs officer absently contemplated the skinny man, dressed in gray, wearing a black derby and carrying a shabby leather bag, who was approaching him. He didn’t find the man important in the least and went back to submerge himself in the book of poems by Ruben Dario that he was reading conscientiously. He was trying to memorize a poem so that he could recite it later, sprawled out on cushions with a French whore he frequented who liked such things.
The gawky man, who seemed to be walking on clouds of cotton, reached the Mexican customs officer’s desk and deposited his bag on the counter gently, as if not wanting to get mixed up in anyone’s life, perhaps not even his own. The customs officer lifted his head, filled with images of acanthus flowers and brilliantly feathered birds, and carefully observed the gringo. He recognized the face. Someone who crossed the border frequently? A merchant? No, that wasn’t it. An extremely pale face, ears wide apart, a mouth that begged a smile that never came, small flustered eyes. It all made you want to protect him, made you want to invite him to recite poetry in a duet with you.
The skinny gringo paid no attention to the Mexican official who was sizing him up. The official switched to his professional mode and opened the man’s bag: eight bottles of Dutch gin meticulously packed, nothing else. Not even a pair of socks or underwear. This crazy low-life gringo was planning to piss himself away. He ought to send the no-good back to his own turf. But he couldn’t quite work up a nationalist rage. The gringo was a lovelorn guy just like himself, he decided, another fool driven crazy by his old lady. And he felt a vast, bursting solidarity growing inside him. He closed the bag and made his white chalk mark, the signal to let the traveler pass freely.
Suitcase in hand, the gringo entered Mexico, without having uttered a single word. The customs official saw him fading away through the dusty streets of Juarez, and as the Mexican went back to immerse himself in his book, he remembered why the face of the skinny, big-eared man was familiar. Even his name popped into his head: Stan Laurel, the guy in the movies that played the Trinidad Theatre, the comedian. The customs man followed Stan with his eyes and lost him around a corner.
Stan roamed around the city erratically, until he stumbled upon the entrance to the train station.
“Where to?” the ticket seller asked.
“Just south, pal?” Stan shrugged.
“You like Parral, buddy?” Stan shrugged again.
“The train for Parral leaves at eight tonight and arrives at seven in the morning. It’s a freight with two passenger cars.”
An instant later, suitcase in hand, Stan plopped onto a green metal bench outside the Juarez train station, and he sat there, looking at the storage bins and the street vendors, and occasionally looking into himself.
He came up with several quite evident truths. Things with Mae couldn’t continue this way. They were destroying each other. Doing it calmly, as though in this business of mutual destruction neither one was in the slightest hurry. They hurt each other and poked each other’s open wounds with anything—a toothpick, a fork, a kitchen knife-depending on the time and their moods; there were moments now when they didn’t do it furiously, but with simple curiosity, as if testing the limits of suffering, the limits of boredom. Mae had her reasons. She thought he was throwing her overboard, casting her aside to pursue his career. Twenty-five films playing the same role in a single year. After they’d spent so many mornings waking up, fleeing from hotel clerks demanding payment, stomachs as empty as the theaters where they played, sad drunken binges. And now each to his and her own luck. But that wasn’t it. John was right. She was a character actress, not a comedian, and he couldn’t keep pulling her down his path, she had to find her own or they were both going to drown, end up back on the same vaudeville tours in the lost towns of the Midwest.
Stan cries. He doesn’t know whether it’s the dust in the air or Mae Dahlberg, this woman with whom he is and is not in love, the singer, dancer, circus trapeze artist, the Australian he married four years ago in New York.
On July 20, 1923, at seven-thirty in the morning, Stan Laurel crossed Juarez Plaza in Parral and entered the Neptune Hotel. For two pesos he got a room that normally went for 1.20. He went in: a bed with a metal headboard, a tiny desk against the window, a striped rug on the floor. He put his bag on the desk and opened it.
The sun streamed through the window. He took out the bottles of Bois and arranged them in a straight line. He opened the first one. Below the window a man kept wiping sweat from his face with a red rag. It was a strange gesture, more a signal. Stan lifted the bottle to his lips and in a single swig drank a quarter of its contents. He tossed his head, cleared his throat. The sun glinting off metal a hundred yards away distracted him. He looked carefully. Gabino Barreda Street, which ran in front of the hotel, ended with two houses set against the river. The reflection had come from there. A gun? Several guns. There were armed men in the windows of the houses. What was going on?
A Dodge car with seven men passed the front door of the hotel. The nine soldiers under cover behind the doors and windows of Numbers 7 and 9, Gabino Barreda Street, saw the signal by the man with the red rag. They were armed with 30-30 and 30-40 rifles, Winchester automatics and .45 pistols. Once the car was twenty yards from the pair of houses, doors and windows swung open and a shower of bullets began to rain down. The first discharge of explosives destroyed the windshield and instantly killed Rosalio, who’d been hanging on to the outside of the car, about to jump. He fell to the road. The shots flung Colonel Trillo, who was sitting by the driver, against the window. His body contorted horribly, his hands reached for the floor. The soldiers kept firing. The driver, wounded by multiple bullets, shot out of the car like a shuttlecock and the Dodge exploded against a tree a few yards from the houses where the gunfire originated.
When the soldiers’ rifles were empty, they continued firing with pistols. The response from the backseat of the car was timid. One of the men shooting from the houses fell dead, sliding out a window. Two passengers ran out of the car, trying to flee under a hailstorm of bullets. They were both wounded; one would die a week later, the other would Jose his arm.
In less than a minute, two hundred bullets had been fired at the Dodge car with Chihuahua plates. Suddenly, silence. Nobody moved inside the car. Three of the soldiers approached and fired their automatics over the inert bodies. The assassins slowly unmasked, got their horses out of the stalls and mounted. A man approached them and shelled out three hundred pesos a head. They left Parral at a trot, peacefully.
From the window Stan watched them leave, his eyes wide open and red. He couldn’t move. One of his hands tried to grasp the neck of the bottle.
A boy ran toward the car and looked at the corpses. “They killed Pancho Villa!” he screamed.
The scream broke Stan’s trance and he managed to lift the gin to his lips. He emptied the bottle. It was 8:02 in the morning, July 20, 1923.