It takes four days for Sailor to travel to New Mexico by bus. He arrives broke, sweaty, and ready to get what’s his. It’s the annual Fiesta, and the locals burn an effigy of Zozobra so that their troubles follow the mythical character into the fire. But for former senator Willis Douglass, trouble is just beginning. Sailor was Willis’s personal secretary when his wife died in an apparent robbery-gone-wrong. Only Sailor knows it was Willis who ordered her murder, and he’s agreed to keep his mouth shut in exchange for a little bit of cash. On Sailor’s tail is a cop who wants the senator for more than a payoff. As Fiesta rages on, these three men will circle one another in a dance of death, as they chase truth, money, and revenge.
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Ride the Pink Horse
By Dorothy B. Hughes
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1973 Dorothy B. Hughes
All rights reserved.
He came in on the five o'clock bus. He was well to the back and he didn't hurry. He remained seated there, his eyes alone moving while the other passengers churned front. His eyes moving and without seeming to move, through the windows on the right where he was seated, across the aisle through the left-hand windows. He saw no one he knew, no one who even looked as if he came from the city.
A hick town. He didn't like hick towns. He uncramped his legs, slid out into the aisle soon enough to seem to be one of the surge without being of it. Only someone who was aware, as he was, would know he was alone, separate. The hayseeds he'd traveled with out of Kansas City across the plains into mountain land didn't know. The yokels sagging on the concrete loading slab in back of this dump station didn't know. It was habit that shoved his right hand into his coat pocket as he stepped off the bus. Not nervousness. He had no nerves; caution yes, but no nerves.
There was no one he knew. He went around the bus to the rear where an officious bastard in a khaki-drab coverall was pulling baggage out of the compartment, dumping it on the concrete. The sheep stood like sheep waiting.
He didn't. He walked over to the heap and yanked out his old valise. The officious bastard started sputtering. The bastard was a greaser, a spic; he needed his face shoved in. Sailor pulled his claim check out of his left-hand pocket, shoved it into the bastard's coverall pocket. This wasn't the time or place to push in a guy's face. He didn't want to land in the hoosegow, hick towns were sometimes tough. Particularly on strangers. Besides he didn't want his approach telegraphed. He was to be a surprise, a little surprise package for the Sen.
His mouth twitched as he walked away. Time enough to take care of officious bastards after he'd taken care of the Sen. His mouth wasn't twitching as he moved heavy-heeled into the grimy bus station.
His valise was too heavy. It pulled down his left hand and shoulder. His right hand, habitual, was in his right pocket. There wasn't need for it.
The small station was littered with papers, smelling of people who didn't wash. But there weren't many people, only a few on the dirty benches. On one bench, two Indian women. They had broad flat faces, and their hair was cut like on Dutch dolls, banged to their polished black eyes, squared just above their ear lobes. The women billowed fat under calico, blue and nigger-pink and green, a different color for every skirt and petticoat. One squaw had over her head a purple shawl bordered in bright pink flowers. The other's shawl was orange and green like a Halloween pumpkin. The women looked cheap and sweaty but they wore a mint of jewelry, silver earrings and heavy chains of silver and turquoise, a lot of chains and massive bracelets, lots of big silver and turquoise bracelets on their broad brown wrists. They looked like something out of a circus but he didn't snicker. Something about them kept him from wanting to snicker. They were the first Indians he'd ever seen.
On another bench there was a woman all in rusty black from her shawl to her shoes, the kind of shoes nuns wear. She was as fat as the Indians but she was a spic. There was a little runt of a spic guy with her, in overalls and a shabby dark gray jacket, a greasy hat pulled down over his ears. A mess of little girls was with them, lined upon the bench in their cheap patent-leather slippers and cheap straw hats, their starched clean print dresses. They were all spics but they might have been Indians as well. He knew all the black silent eyes watched him as he hard-heeled to the desk.
He asked, 'Where's a hotel?'
The fellow behind the desk was any fellow behind a desk in a bus station. He saw too many people to care about any, tired, harassed even in this hick dump. 'Inca on the corner. Cabeza de Vaca around the corner.'
Sailor nodded, his nod meant thanks. He was chary of words.
The fellow said, 'You won't get a room.'
He jerked his head around. Suspicious. 'Why not?'
'Fiesta,' the fellow said. Then he was busy with the phone ringing and the sheep starting in through the rear doors.
Sailor slid on outside. He didn't want gab with the ticket agent anyway. He'd find a room. The Inca was a dump. One of those corner hotels with a lobby the size of a dime, a big green fern taking up most the space. Good enough till he found the Sen, after that he'd be moving to a real hotel.
No rooms. He accepted it because the old man behind the desk wasn't insulting. He was an old gentleman; he regretted it but there were no rooms.
From the corner you could see the sign Cabeza de Vaca Hotel. It hung over the sidewalk, a big sign, and Sailor cut across the narrow street and started towards it. This was a big hotel, an old one. There was a porch, with armchairs, most of them filled with cackling old men in faded brown panamas. As he passed they looked at him as if he were a stranger. But without interest, only porch curiosity.
The lobby was big and cool and shabby old. Dark. Not a bad place to hole up while he was doing business with the Sen.
The fellow behind the desk was immaculate in gabardine, an expensive handwoven tie. The kind of a handsome clerk you'd expect at The Stevens, not in a shabby old hotel in a hick town. There were no rooms.
The hotel was big enough to hold everyone who'd be coming to a hick town the end of summer.
He got a little tough. 'What's the idea?'
The clerk gave a surprise titter. 'It's Fiesta.'
The clerk tittered again. 'Fiesta—' he began. He picked up a pink handbill from the desk. ' tells you about it.'
He took the sheet only because it was pushed into his hand. Took it and thrust it in his left-hand pocket. The clerk wasn't laughing now. He was arranging his tie. 'You won't find any rooms during Fiesta—' he began but his voice trickled away in the direction of a pretty girl with hair that curled like a baby's.
Sailor went out again to the sidewalk. The bag was heavier than before. He was hot in the late sunset afternoon; he was sticky and bus-soiled, crumpled. He didn't believe there were no rooms to be had. If he were shined up, he could get a room quick enough in the Cabeza de Vaca. He ought to punch that fancy clerk right in the nose. But how was he going to get clean without a room?
He lugged the bag back to the corner and followed the street past The Inca towards town. There'd be other hotels. Or a motor court. He turned right at the top of the street, turned to the tinkling sound of music and people. Turned with a city-dweller's instinct toward the heart of town.
A half block, past J. C. Penney's, a grocery store, a drug store and he stood on the village square. He stopped there, against the glass front of the drug store, and he set down his valise.
This was what the clerk had been talking about. This was Fiesta. Overhead were strings of colored lights. In the center of the square was a small green park, trees and benches and a bandstand draped in red-and-orange bunting. A low cement wall ran around the park with entrances at each corner. Entrances hung with grotesque papier maché standards. In the street that circled the park were thatched booths, smelling of food, the acrid smell of chile; stacked with cases of pop, decorated with gimcracks, cheap canes topped with celluloid dolls wiggling feathers, and cheap sticks with flimsy yellow birds floating from them, balloons on brittle wooden sticks. This was Fiesta: a run-down carnival.
He picked up his valise again, he'd seen a hotel sign halfway up the street. This one shouldn't turn him down. It was next door to a pool hall. There were no armchairs rocking on a porch, no ferns in the lobby. The bulky clerk was in shirtsleeves. A pinball machine jerked and clattered, almost drowning out his words.
Sailor jutted out his chin. 'What's the matter? Don't I look like I got the price of a room? Listen here—' He was reaching for his roll but he didn't.
The bulky guy said, 'This is Fiesta. You didn't expect to blow in and get a room during Fiesta, did you? Even us, we got reservations months ahead for Fiesta.'
'What's this Fiesta stuff?'
'You mean you came to town right now without knowing it was Fiesta?' The big guy didn't snicker, he just looked as if he were seeing a sight. 'Every year for two hundred and thirty-four years there's been a Fiesta here. Account of—'
'Skip it,' he said. He would read about it off the pink handbill in his spare time. He didn't care about Fiesta, he was here on business; the sooner it was over the better. 'Where am I going to sleep tonight?'
The guy shook his head. 'You better go on to Albuquerque. There's nothing in town.' He saw by Sailor's scowl that was no good. 'If you got a reason you got to be here, I don't know. You might try the Chamber of Commerce. Maybe they got a private room listed.' Doubt plucked at his heavy chin.
The Chamber of Commerce. And some wise guy wanting to know who you were and where from and what you doing in our dump. He wasn't having any. He reached for the valise and then he tipped his hat over to the other side of his head. 'How about me leaving the bag here for a little? Maybe I can clean up my business and go on to Albuquerque.' He gave it the pronunciation he'd heard on the bus, Albukirk. He knew his business would take longer than that but if he could get rid of the weight he was tugging, he could look around for a place to stay.
The big guy said, 'Sure.' Friendly enough. 'I won't be responsible for it but you can leave it.' He wasn't interested. 'Put it behind the counter. I'm on duty till nine. You'll be back before nine?'
'Sure.' He pushed the bag around behind the counter. The lock was good. The guy wasn't curious anyway. 'Sure,' he said and he went outside into the pale pink dusk.
He stood there for a moment getting his bearings. This side the square shops. The left side more shops, nothing fancy, nothing like Michigan Boulevard, more like Clark Street. Except for the corner, a fancy shoe store all glass. Right side of the square was the good side, ticket office, a white bank, better shops. And across was a long low, dun-colored building set back from a covered walk. Took up the whole block. It might be a hotel, no sign, but worth looking into.
That was all of the town. The four sides and in the center the park, the village green, all gaudied up and tinkling music. Not many people walking around, a few.
He turned and strode on up the street to the corner. Across, cat-a-corner, was a real hotel, a big one. Not that it looked like one; it was a dun-colored, plastered mass, 'dobe, the wise guys on the bus called it, with terraces and walls, like an old Spanish hacienda. He knew it was the hotel; he'd remembered La Fonda from the signboards coming in, La Fonda, the Harvey House. He stepped across the narrow street, passing the hotel's corner shop slowly. Rich stuff in the windows. Mex and Spanish and Indian. He knew without anyone telling him that the dark hideous wooden statue, the tarnished silver beads flung across the base, were loot, out of some old palace.
He walked more slowly. La Fonda was class; from the outside he knew that. He wasn't class. He was soiled and smelly, he looked like he'd just come off a four-day bus trip. His money was as good as anybody's. He might pretend he'd motored across the country, mention his Cad just casually.
He didn't turn in at the arch. He started to but there were two babes coming down the walk, two babes that had just been washed and ironed in white linen. They didn't have anything more on their minds than lying around getting that golden glow on their skin. He didn't want to pass them; he didn't want to watch them look down their noses at this bum. He walked on, passing the garden wall, a high wall to keep out the muck but let them hear the gashing laughter, the tinkling ice of the elect behind the wall. On past drab brick, the barren, gravel playground of a parochial school. End of the block. A cathedral across. Gray-brown stone and squat towers. A cathedral blocking the way.
He turned on his heel and walked back, past the school, the garden wall, into the hotel. He didn't give a damn whom he passed or who looked up or down their noses. This was a hotel.
It didn't look like a hotel; it was more like a Spanish hacienda inside than it was out. Cool, dark and rich, a high, timbered ceiling, soft leather couches and chairs. There were oil paintings on the walls, Indian and Spanish. French doors opened to a patio, a splash of pale light with gaudy umbrellas, bright swings carelessly placed around a tiled fountain. The fountain banked with red geraniums.
This was where the Sen would be staying. This was for rich blood, for the sleek and the clean, for the names on the society page, the boxes at the opera, the clubhouse at the track. Not for him.
He was truculent because he was ashamed to ask for a room here. The clerk was just somebody in a dark suit and thin hair. Courteous but firm. There were no rooms. This was Fiesta. Everything had been reserved months ago.
He took another look around the lobby, not a big lobby like the Palmer House, you could lose this one in one corner of the Palmer House, but it seemed spacious. It wasn't noisy but it was gay, there was movement, and from the bar the usual bar racket. He could use a cold beer but as his tongue thirsted he turned on his heel and walked out of the hotel. Walked hurriedly away.
He didn't want to bump into the Sen yet. The Sen looking at him as if he were dirt. He'd pick his own meeting place, nothing accidental. After he was cleaned up, bathed and pressed.
He went out and crossed to the ticket-office corner. There was still the big building across the square. He walked towards it past the little white bank and the shops but when he crossed to the building he saw what it was, a museum. It came like a door slammed in his face and he was angered. There had to be a place to stay in this dump. Against the walls of the old museum was a frieze of Indians, a frieze a block long. They sat there on the wide walk, women and children and suckling babies, all in calico and shawls and black, bobbed hair, the women's bulbous breasts and worn brown wrists jeweled with silver and turquoise. Spread before them on the walks were their wares, bows and arrows and painted drums, beaded doodads, clay birds and vases and ash trays. Behind them, safe from pawing souvenir collectors and curio hagglers were the good things: heavy woven rugs, strands of turquoise, massive silver belts. He'd known it all along: Fiesta was any cheap carnival. Having Indians hawking the junk didn't make it any different.
And then he realized. They weren't hawking the stuff; they were as silent as if they didn't know he was standing there. But they knew. Their black eyes, even the kids' black eyes slanted like Chinks, were watching him. Not with curiosity, not even with particular interest. They looked at him as if he were some kind of a specimen they hadn't seen before. There was no expression on their brown faces. It gave him a queer feeling, as if he, not the Indians, were something strange.
He stood there, helpless anger knotting his nerves. Monotonously cursing the Sen, the dirty, double-crossing, lying, whoring Senator Willis Douglass. It was the Sen's fault he was in this God-forsaken town and no place to rest his feet. He hadn't wanted to come here. He'd wanted it less and less as the bus traveled further across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn't get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn't ever get out of. Because no matter how you tried, no matter how far you traveled, you'd always be stopped by the rigid mountains. He didn't like it at all when they moved into this town, his destination. Because this was the center of the trap; it was a long way back to civilization in any direction. The only thing to do was get out quick.
As he stood there he heard again the tinkling music. He turned as if he wanted to find where it came from, as if that were important. As if he hadn't been routed by the guard of silent Indians. A small merry-go-round was in the corner of the park, motionless at this hour. Two spics were sitting there, playing a violin and a guitar. Playing for themselves; there were no customers. For all its gala disarray the park was deserted.
Excerpted from Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes. Copyright © 1973 Dorothy B. Hughes. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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