The Last Dawn by Joe Gannon takes place during a vicious civil war in El Salvador in 1989 and follows Captain Ajax Montoya as he tries to save the brother of a lost love who has disappeared amidst the chaos (Available January 26, 2016).
It is time to die…
1989. It’s been three years since Captain Ajax Montoya cleared the smoke and blood from his last case―and what a three years. The old world order is coming down along with the Berlin Wall, and the Soviet “Evil Empire” is being born to the ash heap of history by its once captive people.
But in a psychiatric hospital in Managua, a near catatonic Ajax missed all that. In 1986, Ajax freed his only remaining friend from a psychotic killer. But his ‘methods’ were such that he was imprisoned in a nut-house for his pains. And for three years his world stood still.
But ghosts don’t know time nor read headlines. So when one of the many phantoms from Ajax’s bloody past shows up, he is rescued from his personal nightmare only to be plunged from one hell into another.
El Salvador in 1989 is in a civil war so vicious, they say even the Grim Reaper needs an escort. But when the parents of Ajax’s old love beg him to go there and save their son―as he did not save their daughter―Ajax is on the next plane.
And he’s not alone. Gladys Darío―the lieutenant whose rescue cost Ajax his freedom and his mind―has been stewing in Miami for three years, and she is ready to back his play, even if it costs her own life.
Now all they have to do is parachute into the hottest war in the Americas and find that one needle of a missing person in a haystack of the disappeared.
El Salvador, October 1989
Maybe it was a sign of the times. Maybe it was the end times. Kiki didn’t know. The major often spoke of it—the end of history—but he was a very advanced man, always thinking about the big picture. Kiki did a job at a time, partied afterward, then waited for the next one. His was a near-perfect world—he had money, pussy, and impunity. Kiki adjusted the headphones on his new Walkman and rolled the volume knob to its end. When he pressed play he could feel the wheels engage the cassette as the tape turned. Guitars and cymbals crashing in harmony, then the sirens and drums. Kiki waited until his head bobbed in rhythm, until he felt his purpose align with the music. He held his bat, El Grillo, slung low over his belly and waited for the licks he loved to finger best. It was a gift from the major, not a baseball bat, but an English cricket, grillo. The major insisted it was a better tool, easier on the bones, but tougher on the muscles. Kiki liked it as it made a much better guitar, the flat business side made for excellent strumming while his fingers flew over the pretend frets. Still, it bothered Kiki to no end. Nineteen eighty-nine was almost over and Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood was stuck at #79 for album of the year.
He tucked his lower lip under his teeth and wailed all the more on El Grillo. Fucking gringos! he shouted in his mind to be heard over the title track. What did they know! They’re up north in all their millions, with all their millions buying who? Billy Joel? Paul McCartney? Queen! Fucking Queen! QUEEN?!?! Kiki felt the helplessness stir—everyone in El Salvador could buy five Mötley Crüe’s and it was nothing compared to the endless rivers of indolent Americans who never stopped shopping. And their dollars decided the fate of the world. And they would give it all to Freddie Mercury.
Maybe the major was right. Maybe the Americans really were a dead end. Like a monkey too far out on a weak branch in the Tree of Evolution, they have nowhere to go but down. The major talked to Kiki and the others like that, sometimes. No one was ever quite sure what he meant, and no one ever cared that much to ask. Or dared. The major talked, they listened, the money flowed, the war ran on. Mötley Crüe sang “Rat-tailed Jimmy is a secondhand hood.”
Kiki looked over the boy on the table—weirdly white, even for a gringo. Gangly like a stick, with the silliest orange hair Kiki had ever seen on an actual human. He grasped the cricket bat by the neck and left the guitar licks to Mick Mars.
Managua, Nicaragua, November 1, 1989
The catatonic and the psychopath were playing cards again.
“The queen of hearts is the greatest whore of all.” The psychopath ran his grubby, chubby finger lightly over the queen’s face. “Her color is the puta’s color,” he explained for the umpteenth time. “Her heart is scarlet, her pudenda crimson. You must never let either touch you when you cleanse them. They must be placed in white rum and stored on the altar of Ometepe.”
* * *
The catatonic, as was customary, said nothing. He sat perfectly still. His eyes fixed on the middle distance, palms flat, elbows locked, he held his entire body suspended an inch off his yellow plastic chair. Not a wobble in his muscles betrayed the slightest exertion. He had been so suspended, an inch above existence, for one hundred and eighty-nine days. His life was diminished to heartbeats and eye blinks. One hundred and eighty-nine beats—and blink. Tomorrow it would be one hundred and ninety.
* * *
“She is the strongest of all the succubae,” the psychopath lectured, his eyes roving over the pitiful ward to fall upon their young Spanish doctora. “That is why she must be defused first. She is the greatest danger to us.”
The psychopath knew the overworked doctora and her underpaid staff at the Nicaraguan Psychiatric Hospital thought it a good idea that he and the catatonic socialized together. There wasn’t much else for them to do. The hospital was as bare of equipment and treatment, as unadorned in all things as its very name. It was known as Kilometro Cinco for the wobbly mileage marker on the Southern Highway, which marked its place five kilometers from central Managua.
Like so much since 1979 when the Revo had erupted into life from the loins of an unstoppable popular insurrection led by the Sandinista Front, Kilometro Cinco had begun as an admirable idea, a bold step even, a compassionate policy by the Sandinista government to actually treat the mentally ill, rather than merely house them. Or imprison them as the Ogre had done for forty years before he was overthrown. Despite the good intentions—and here the psychopath knew that when the doctora thought of this she would pause and sigh, as if the emotional reality was as exhausting, NO! More exhausting than the physical reality—the policy had withered and died from a lack of everything. Every-fucking-thing! He’d heard her say it before. Shout it. Every-fucking-thing! This crazy country lacks everyfuckingthing!
She had come, she’d told him in her succubus voice, two years ago from a state-of-the-art mental hospital in Barcelona thinking she’d do her part in solidarity with the scruffy Sandinista Davids in their heroic brawl with the American Goliath to the north.
Instead, she’d become just another whore to be cleansed. A black-haired, black-eyed Catalonian whore.
“Stupid, arrogant bitch!” The psychopath leaned in close and whispered it to his friend.
The arrival of the catatonic over a year ago had been a great blessing. Proof, if more was needed, that the psychopath was chosen for greatness. That from his persecution would come redemption, salvation. He crossed one nicotine-yellowed finger over another, made an inverse sign of the cross, and intoned his secret appeal to Ometepe: El dios de la Sangre, te amo, te adoro. Les agradezco por tu Bendiciones.God of Blood, I love, you, I adore you. I thank you for your Blessings.
“And I have been blessed, by friends. First the young doctora saved me from persecution in that hellish prison. I heard her walking the hallways of the penitentiary, asking after those with signs of mental illness. Can you imagine my joy? All it took on my part was some small genital mutilation to get her attention, and what was that compared to what the other prisoners were doing to me? The chosen Son of Ometepe? Raping the rapist, violating the violator! Where was the logic in that? But would they listen? Could those dark-skinned morons fathom the difference? So the doctora visited me in the prison clinic and I convinced her to save me by convincing her to convince me that I wasn’t a killer who raped, but a rapist who killed out of shame!”
Chemical castration had been her answer. And then a transfer to Kilometro Cinco.
Dios de la sangre, dios del odio, te amo! God of blood, god of hate, I love you!
And then his friend had arrived, the catatonic.
“Ajax Montoya. The great man. Hero of the revolution! It was you, a lowly captain of police, who began my persecution.” And it was. Montoya had found him out, he was still not sure how, and had arrested him while he was cleansing the capital of whores as surely as the rebels had cleansed it of the Ogre’s National Guard.
“It was you who paraded me in front of the press, all those photographers.”
That’s when they’d given him his new name: El Gordo Sangroso. The Bloody Fat Man. Always his weight, his heaviness. Since he’d been a boy they’d mocked and persecuted him.
“Even my own mother!”
The pain of the memory, even now, No, Mami! I love you! I’m sorry. Please, Mami, I’ll change!
But then that night, the night of delivery as a teenager when Ometepe had first come to him. Ometepe had explained that it was not he, Chepe Huembes, and his massive girth that was a blight on the land, but the whores, the idolaters who worshipped the faggot Jesus. That his mother, too, was a great whore had been such a relief. It was not, Ometepe showed him, that she did not love him. She was a succubus, jealous of his power, greedy for his soul. And when he’d cleansed her first his pain had stopped.
Chepe lit an Alas cigarette, exhaled smoke like a memory. “What a time that was, yes, Ajax? The late seventies? The insurrection was everywhere, remember? Street battles, aerial bombardments, mayhem. No one noticed the body of one cleansed whore on the street, and no one ever thought to look for those I buried—they’d gone off to join the Revo!”
And then, that glorious day, July 19, 1979. The Ogre and his army fled, the Sandinistas poured into the capital, and the people poured into the streets. Everyone cheering and partying! Chepe Huembes among them. Everyone hugging. Hugging! Women hugging him amidst the delirious multitudes. He was no longer a grotesque—the Revo had freed him too!
“I became a patriot that day. I adopted the rojinegra”—the red and black flag of the Sandinista Front—“as my own. From that day on I vowed only to cleanse counterrevolutionaries, only the whores who’d given their poisoned pudenda to the Ogre’s officers. Yes…” The psychopath’s chest rose and fell at the memory, his pulse quickened maddeningly at the body memory. He had to control himself, the doctora had some power to know his thoughts when he gave in to them too much. “Yes. Chepe Huembes fell upon them like the revolutionary socialist I’d become. I carried a black banner to bind them with, and mixed it with the red of their blood. Rojinegra!”
He’d shouted it too loud, again. Too proud.
That was how his idolatry had angered Ometepe. A god’s anger is a terrible thing—like an earthquake, the consequence of the sluggish, even listless movements of unseen plates, but when it broke it could break the world! Even now a shudder ran through Chepe like the tremblers which habitually shook Managua. The god of blood—rightfully! He said so even now, rightfully!—had chosen to cleanse Chepe Huembes with a long trail of tears. Banishment from His favor. Ometepe had put Ajax Montoya on his trail. Ometepe had given Ajax the knowledge to hunt him down, capture and imprison him.
That had begun his true punishment, cleansing. The raping of the rapist. But he had borne it, and borne it well, as all good sons bear their fathers’ just opprobrium. Until that sacred day, that holy moment, when he’d heard the doctora coming through the cell block, asking after inmates who showed signs of mental illness.
The black-haired, black-eyed doctora.
The psychopath turned over another card, the queen of clubs. “La Negra!” The psychopath’s eyes rolled ever so slightly up, he craned his neck back ever so slightly as his chin waddle wiggled in anticipation.
* * *
For one hundred and eighty-six days the psychopath’s droning had been a comfort to the catatonic. The megalomania of the man produced almost identical narratives day in and day out. But three days before he had switched tenses, from the future perfect to the simple present. And the catatonic knew the time had come. He watched the psychopath’s ecstatic quivering. Those three chins shimmying. It was a thick neck, true, housing as it did windpipe, voice box, and carotid artery. But it made the catatonic think of glass vessels packed in pudding.
Gladys Darío was running for her life. She was trapped in a tunnel made of sand. An earthquake was rocking the shifting burrow, a great undulating wave raced toward her. She had to save the child. But it wouldn’t run, it was too frightened, frozen with panic. The undulation sped toward her, the waves in the sand, she knew, were a great serpent rising to the surface. She had no choice, if the child wouldn’t move she’d have to do it, knowing it would end badly. As the undulation reached her feet she lifted the child by its neck, felt the bones crack, and hurled it out of the way.
She awoke, looking into the eyes of her mother.
“Mija! You’re awake now.”
Gladys had finally moved into her own place a year before, but she still spent the weekends with her mother, if only to keep herself from realizing what she was missing in Miami.
“Was it the child? The snake?”
“I’m fine, Mami. What time is it?”
“Middle of the night, like always.”
“Sorry I woke you.”
“You didn’t. The phone did. It’s for you.”
“Who is it?”
* * *
Gladys held her breath. It’d been a long time since she answered to that.
“Who is this?”
“Horacio de la Vega. How are you, my dear Gladys?”
“Sinvergüenza.” The shameless old bastard. “Why are you calling, after all this time?”
“There’s a mission, of course.”
“What! All I want from you is to tell me where Ajax is.”
“That’s the mission.”
Gladys’s heart did a circus somersault. She had spent months trying to get Horacio—anyone!—to take her calls, tell her anything about Ajax, and all she’d gotten were busy signals and phone machines. That’d been two years ago, when she’d stopped trying, had given up hope.
“Are you there, Lieutenant?”
“I’m not. Am I? A lieutenant?”
“No, but old habits … you know.”
“Then what do you want?”
“You will come to Managua. Briefly, I hasten to add, briefly.”
“I’ve been trying to get back for three years, you wouldn’t give me a passport.”
“I? I have little control over our consulate in Miami, whatever problems you’ve had…”
“Shut the fuck up, you miserable traitor. You fucking…”
The line went dead.
“No! No, no, no!”
What had she done! This was the first line she’d had on Ajax since she’d woken up on the medevac. It was what kept her from sleeping, from letting go, from starting over. She reached for the packet of moist towelettes she kept by the bed. She’d just ripped it open when the phone rang again.
“You will mind how you speak to me, chica.”
“What do you want and how do I get there?”
“The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has an office in Miami. You will find they will issue you temporary travel documents. Go there as soon as they open. You will then go to the TACA Airlines counter at gate eighteen for a six p.m. flight. Arrive two hours early. You will meet my guests, get their story, and accompany them to Managua.”
“Who are these guests?”
There was a pause and meditative grunt from the other end. “They are the ghosts of Christmas past.”
Copyright © 2016 Joe Gannon.
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Joe Gannon, writer and spoken word artist, was a freelance journalist in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, The Toronto Globe and Mail, and the San Francisco Examiner. He spent three years in the army, graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and did his MFA at Pine Manor College. After a stint teaching high school in Abu Dhabi, he is now working on his next novel.