Jericho never stayed in downtown Houston. It was too new, too clean, and too middle class for his tastes. Instead, he found himself taking his usual route along Interstate 10 West. In the past, the city had slowly petered out into rice fields before sprouting again, to lesser heights, to form the bedroom community of Katy. Those days were gone, the city furling its concrete rings tightly around the surrounding communities. Jericho kept driving. The West side of Katy looked as if it had been lopped off immediately following the mall. There were sprawling acres dotted with scrub wood. Nothing much large grew in the humid half-swamp, and the rice farmers had followed the sugar farmers to greener pastures as the liberalization of global trade rendered their craft less and less relevant. The next real town would be Sealy, known for its manufacture of military vehicles and for being the birth place of Eric Dickerson. It was little more than a wide spot in the highway, and one could look down the city streets and see cows pasturing not far away. But before one reached Sealy there was a smaller wide spot in the road, with a flea-infested discount motel that served as the local brothel, drug store, and rest stop for travel-weary pilgrims and desperados alike. Jericho turned off the highway, and pulled his wheezing rental into the lot. The front desk was atrociously 1970s pre-fab motel design, complete with plastic furniture and cigarette vending machine. A small and skinny man stood behind the yellowed formica counter, his back turned to Jericho, bony shoulder blades sticking out from his loose fitting and tattered wife-beater. A rather large Colt 1911 pistol with nickel finish and pearl grips stuck out from his waste band, contributing to the physics that conspired to remind Jericho that he needed to repair the dripping faucet at home. The man was of Mexican descent, and had a shaved head and earing which, combined with numerous tattoos, gave the man the air of a pirate. He turned to face Jericho, and a scruffy patch of fuzz on his chin and upper lip added to the image. He broke into a wide grin, and motioned toward Jericho in a way that conveyed something of a sense of shared kinship.
“Yo, J-man. Long time no see, homes.” His accent was that odd Texican blend of Hispanic lilt and forced street slang. Two of his teeth glittered gold, at once enhancing his street cred while simultaneously hiding the deleterious effects of crystal meth use.
Jericho smiled wearily. “Nemesio. How are you, man?”
Nemesio shrugged guardedly.”Oh, you know; mas o menos. You?”
“Meh.” Jericho blew air through his lips and ran his fingers through his hair.
“I hear you, bro.” Nemesio rejoined with a note of compassion that was perhaps a bit too sincere for the occasion. He reached under the counter and produced a bottle of Tres Cuatro Y Cinco like a new father proudly presenting his first-born infant. “This will help.”
The men stepped over to an ugly round table and sat down in ugly plastic chairs, and Nemesio pulled the plug out of the handmade crystal decanter with his teeth and took a long swig. He slid the bottle over to Jericho who caught it just as it caught on a sticky spot and started to tip. He took a deep draught, and sighed. Nemesio’s eyes narrowed, and he slipped into a kind of sing-song voice. He was known as a holy-man; a man who officiated on the Day of the Dead, and interceded to La Santa Meurta for the locals. He relished the role.
“You are here on business, my friend, but it is not business that worries you.”
“Well, you’re right about the business,” Jericho deflected. “I was hoping you could help me with some Kabalah stuff.”
Nemesio took a long slug of tequila. He had an odd way of drinking; instead of tilting the bottle up or his head back, he leaned his whole body back, tilting his chair on its back legs. The overall effect was supposed to look cool, but instead it came off like an SNL character mocking someone trying to be cool.
“Sure, you do, my friend. And what piece of treasure do you seek this time? More pagan gold? The lost diary of Cleopatra? Jason’s fleece?”
Jericho smirked. “That’s pretty rich from someone who prays to a corpse.”
“Don’t mock the holy dead, my friend.” Nemesio’s voice had a bit of an edge, and Jericho remembered that he was a mean drunk.
Jericho chuckled. “I’m just messing with you. Look, I was hoping you could help me out with a symbol.” He pulled a rumpled handkerchief from his back pocket, and a pen from his front pocket. Carefully, he scratched the shin enclosed in a triangle, and passed the fabric to Nemesio.
He looked at it through narrow eyes, like a shaman examining a holy relic, then shrugged. He grinned broadly, his gold teeth glinting in the fluorescent light. “Who can say, my friend. Come! You look wiped. Stay the night, and I will research in the morning.”
Jericho couldn’t really argue with that, so he followed Nemesio to the counter where he was handed an old fashioned metal key. The little circle of cardboard that hung from it had “21” written by hand with a blue ink pen. Jericho left the lobby, and slouched down the row of empty windows, as the setting sun pierced the horizon and danced like fire on the row of dingy brass door knobs. He found his room and opened the door a bit too hard, reminding him that he had consumed too much alcohol. He swung the door behind him, hoping that it locked automatically, and fell face-first into the bed. Sleep came fast and deep, and then gave way to sweaty and fitful dreams that felt like smoke, and guns, and danger, and sex, but Jericho could never remember what he had dreamed about.