Enforcer and drug dealer Fernando has seen better days. On his way home from work, some heavily-tattooed gangsters throw him in the back of a car and take him to an abandoned house, where they saw off his friend's head and feed the kid's fingers to...something. Their message is clear: this is their territory, now. But Fernando isn't put down that easily. Using the assistance of a Santeria priestess, an insane Puerto Rican pop sensation, a very human dog, and a Russian hitman, he'll build the courage (and firepower) he'll need to fight a gangbanger who's a bit more than human...
Gabino has made a name for himself with his bloody and exquisite prose that will slice you like a machete to the chest. You will find yourself powerless to offer him your heart after finishing his books. My Lord, every word is worth it. Get your dose of barrio noir that does not skimp on the horror. – V.Castro
"This is as good as it gets...a bad ass shot of the finest literarymezcal....and one damned intense, hellraising tale served up by a writerin full control of the throttle. Iglesias briliantly guides us on ahurtling, breathtaking tour of Austin's underbelly — and firmly cementshis stature in the top ranks of the most original noir novelists at work today. In a watered down world, Zero Saints is the real thing — ascary, howlingly funny, painfully aching window into that darkly savageworld north of the Mexican border."– Bill Minutaglio, author of Dallas 1963 and In Search of the Blues
"Call him the Barrio Palahniuk, a badass Henry Miller, Charles Willeford in Cholo-land—whatever the moniker, for my money Gabino Iglesias is one of the most fearless, original and riveting writers working today. If there's any justice on this hellhole of a planet, Zero Saints—an instant, wild-ass classic—should launch its author far from outlier status into the wet, palpitating heart of contemporary literature. This is a fierce, nasty, beautiful, sucker-punch of a novel. You'd be an idiot not to read it immediately."– Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight and I, Fatty
"ZERO SAINTS is a damn miracle. Gabino Iglesias' knockout novel manages to merge cinematic crime thrills—recalling the best of Thompson, Himes, and Lynch—with a scathing portrait of the psychogeographical effects of life along la frontera. Relentless in both its down-and-dirty action and emotional truth, ZERO SAINTS is a work of menace and magic and a beautiful prayer for our damaged souls."– Jeremy Robert Johnson, author of Skullcrack City
I didn't hear those pinches cabrones coming. They cracked my skull from behind. Probably expected me to drop like a sack of hammers, but the blow came with too much power and not enough finesse. You can't just whack someone on the head and expect them to go down for good. Some folks have really hard heads. Now I knew mine was, and I had my iPod to blame.
I stumbled and covered up in case there was more coming. No vino nada. That was it. Someone grunted in surprise or frustration, loud enough for me to hear it over the music in my ears. El cencerro de Roberto Roena es mágico.
One hand grabbed my neck and kept me down. Three other hands darted in and crawled over me like nervous cockroaches. They pulled my gun from my waistband, fished my cell phone and keys out of my right pocket, and yanked the earbuds out of my ears.
With my skull unplugged, I heard a car pull up beside me. It purred like a large cat. I twisted my head a bit.
Cholo rims reflecting the orange light of a nearby lamppost and six legs, two pairs in shorts and one stuffed in jeans. I wanted to break all of them.
The trunk opened and stayed low like a fat man doing pushups. They shoved me toward the back of the car with my head still down. I thought about taking a swing, trying to crack some huevos. That left two more, surely packing, plus whoever was in the car. Bad math.
The hinges of the trunk screamed like a fried egg under a spatula. The hands pushed me in hard. They slammed it shut.
My right knee cracked. White noise shot up to my brain. The trunk lid bounced back up with a groan that echoed my own. Hija de puta. I tried to curl into a fetal position. Not enough space to pull it off quickly. I hugged my knee and looked up, saw two guys for a second, their faces black masks in the scant light. One wore a white t-shirt. He leaned forward and tried again. With both hands.
It worked. Then, darkness. The car moved forward, but didn't burn rubber.
My heart buzzed. I sucked in huge gulps of warm air. There was not enough oxygen for me in that trunk. My chest couldn't expand properly. I was stuck, trapped, squeezed. Panic bit me. La mala muerte andaba cerca. These pinches mamones caught me slippin'. They had my piece. I was dead. Muerto y sin poder despedirme de mi vieja.
Then I remembered I was in Austin, not Mexico. Folks don't get their heads blown off in the streets in Austin. Bodies aren't hung from bridges or stuffed into suitcases and left on the side of the road. No one gets a box in the mail containing a severed head. Although most politicians deserve it, los narcos don't kidnap them while leaving the office and put two full mags in their brains. Nah, this is a nice, civilized town full of wannabe artists, students, and hipsters. The only thing people fear in this place is getting their tongues burned at their favorite coffee joint. Plus, los cabrones that jumped me were brown. If they wanted me dead, I'd be dead. No hitting or kidnapping bullshit. That's what los blancos do. Con nosotros, it's a bullet to the brain y buenas noches. This was different.
I reminded myself to breathe, pay attention, focus.
I took another breath. It felt like something.
I closed my eyes and started praying to la Santa Muerte, mi divina guardiana, for protection and guidance.
Señora Blanca, Señora Negra, a tus pies me postro para pedirte, para suplicarte, que hagas sentir tu fuerza, tu poder y tu omnipotencia contra los que intenten destruirme.
I felt better, calmer, more aware of everything. I kept going, the familiar words pouring from my mouth and dragging some of the fear out with them.
Señora te imploro seas mi escudo y mi resguardo contra el mal, que tu guadaña protectora corte lo obstáculos que se interpongan, que se abran las puertas cerradas y se muestren los caminos.
The scythe was with me, la santa y afilada guadaña. It would keep other sharp things away from my neck, shield me from bad intentions and danger. Mi Santa Muerte had done it many times before and would do it again now. I had nothing to fear.
Señora mía, no hay mal que tu no puedas vencer ni imposible que no se doble ante tu voluntad, a ella me entrego y espero tu benevolencia...
I could finally take my first real breath. The trunk smelled like an old, rotting sofa. Something hard and pointy was pushing against my lower back. I tried to move, to uncoil a bit, but my shoulders were stuck. The car stopped. Probably a red light. A moment later, the vehicle turned a hard left. I'd parked on the corner of I-35 and 3rd Street. We were going south on Red River.
I breathed again and listened. Something obnoxious was punishing the car's speakers with too much bass. Noise filled the trunk. The back of my head was on fire. A warm worm inched its way down my scalp. Sangre. In my crunched, sideways position, I couldn't touch and check, so I tried to forget about it. My knee was still screaming.
Why was I here?
Between the pain, the discomfort, and the circus music, my brain refused to function properly. I thought hard about the last few weeks, months, but no reasons came. I didn't owe any money. I was dealing from the door of The Jackalope, on 6th Street, and that was well within Zetas territory. To my knowledge, I hadn't banged anyone's girl.
It didn't take long.
The car kept going, turning left and right way too many times for me to keep track or try to guess our destination. A few minutes later, we slowed down, stopped. The driver jerked the parking brake. Engine and awful music died simultaneously. My chest wanted to implode, swallow me, help me disappear. Del polvo venimos y al polvo vamos, but the bitch is not being able to become polvo painlessly when you need it most. I was a wounded animal, waiting.
Nothing happened for about half a dozen eternities. Then the car rocked a tad. Doors opened and slammed shut in quick succession. They popped the trunk. It jumped a bit, as if sick of being pressed against me. El sentimiento era mutuo. Then the banshee screamed. It was dark, but a lamppost half a block away threw some of what it had to offer our way, bathing us in yellowish light. Three goons stood there side by side, looking down at me. I looked back. Vestimenta de tipo duro que escucha mucho hip hop. Lots of ink. Heads thrown back, necks spread like angry cobras. They wanted to look menacing and were pulling it off. Two held guns. The guy on the left aimed his at my face. A black thing. Blocky. Looked like a 9mm in the dark. Ready to spit death. He held it sideways, like every pendejo who's more worried about looking tough than hitting his target. The guy in the middle let his piece hang loosely by his side. He was the one rocking the jeans. Both cabrones looked comfortable with the situation. That made me uncomfortable.
Mr. Jeans brought his head down. His neck deflated. The shadows covering his face became ink. Tenia la cara cubierta de tatuajes. Seeing the tattoos was worse than spotting the guns or getting whacked in the head. The blackness covering his features sprouted ghostly tendrils that seeped into the night around us and made everything darker. Impossibly darker.
"Pa' fuera," said he said. His voice carried no inflection or emotion. He'd done this before.
I moved slowly, almost sat up. My knee wasn't cooperating much. I slid out of the trunk with the grace of a newborn giraffe. Mr. Jeans turned sideways to give me some maneuvering space and grabbed my arm. He leaned in like someone would at a bar filled with loud music, even though the street was quiet.
"Now we go in the house...y te quiero calladito, maricón," he said, squeezing my bicep, physically putting the accent on the last syllable of maricón.
He started walking briskly, pulling me along with him, ignoring my limp. I looked around. We were on a residential street. Small houses looking like shit. Dead front lawns. Peeling paint. Cracked sidewalk. Shitty cars. Yellow weeds and brown dirt where there should have been green. There was another goon sitting in the blue boat with the rusty trunk hinges. We were somewhere in East Austin.
One of the other guys closed the trunk behind us. I jumped. It felt like someone had stuck an icicle up my ass and poked my heart with it. Mr. Jeans grabbed me a little tighter, dug his bony fingers into my arm like an angry parent.
We walked up to a small, one-story house with fading blue paint on its walls and climbed two creaky wooden steps to a door. Mr. Jeans opened the door and walked in, pulling me into the dark behind him. The two monkeys followed. Someone flipped a switch. Se hizo la luz y se apagaron mi ojos.
Mr. Jeans let go of my arm. We stood in an empty living room. My three captors were looking at me, all red eyes, dilated pupils, and macho attitude. I blinked a few times, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light. I glanced around at darker places. Small kitchen to the right, door to the left, dark hallway straight ahead. I came back to the three cabrones looking at me like I'd banged their mom.
Mr. Jeans had the most ink covering his features. I couldn't make most of it out, a complicated mess of lines, signs, letters, numbers, and blotchy shit obviously done by a twitchy preso with a guitar string and more free time than skills. However, I could make out a 13 right above a hand making the devil horns on his neck and the letters MS covering a chunk of his forehead and left eye. Mara Salvatrucha. Fear gripped the back of my head so hard I stopped feeling the pain in my knee. La Salvatrucha le da pesadillas al Diablo. El Cartel de Sinaloa sometimes hires mareros to do the dirty work. I thought about my sister and felt death creeping up on me again. No me falles, Santa Muerte. I closed my eyes, pictured mi Santísima Muerte sitting on her altar at home, tried to feel her strength around me.
"We gonna go see Indio now. You no say nothing, hijueputa. You listen to him. I see you no pay attention… te haces el bravo, lo que sea, te meto una bala entre las cejas."
His English was fucking atrocious. My guess is he kept using it for the same reason all new immigrants keep at it: he wanted to blend in. With a face full of ink, buena suerte con eso, huevón.
He used the gun to signal toward the hallway. The only guy who hadn't shown me his gun was already heading that way. I followed him.
There was a door on the left at the end of the hallway, a thin line of light underneath it. Mr. No Gun opened the door, looked back, stood aside, nodded me in.
The room was small, the air thick with an acrid mix of weed smoke, sweat, and stale piss. Un tipo flaco sin camisa with coppery skin covered in tattoos stood next to a chair. He was holding a large knife with nasty teeth. Como el que usaba mi abuela para cortar el pan. His black pants were too short to be long and too long to be shorts. The shoes on his feet looked five sizes too big and they were vomiting their tongues like alley winos. He wore no socks. Surely that contributed to the smell in the room. His gun was tucked in the front. It had gold grips. I thought about grabbing the piece and shooting his huevos off and, for the first time in a long while, I almost laughed. Seeing the man in the chair stopped me.
His head was down, his arms and legs taped to the armrests and legs of the chair with duct tape. His hands had gone white from lack of circulation. Blood and saliva were mixing with the sweat that covered his chest and belly. They'd obviously worked him over for a while. He wore blue boxer shorts and nothing else. He'd pissed himself at some point. Next to the chair was a large white bucket. There was nothing else in the room. Los tipos no estaban ahí para quedarse. Mala señal.
Indio smiled, grabbed the dude on the chair by the hair and yanked back. A bloated, bruised version of Nestor Torres' face came up. The left side looked a tad rough, but the right one looked like he had tried to get a kiss from a moving freight train. His eyes were in another dimension, showing more white than anything else. Whatever they'd given him had him flying somewhere between unconsciousness and outer space. A silver leach of snot coated his upper lip. His mouth hung open, drooling a gooey combination of saliva and blood onto his chest. I couldn't spot any teeth in there. I was pregnant with fear, pero el pobre Nestor estaba peor que yo, ya estaba jodido.
"We asked little Nestor here to give your jefe a message," said Indio. "He asked us who the fuck we were to be sending messages. So we showed him. Creo que ya lo esta entendiendo. Now I want to show you."
Indio reached down and grabbed the index finger of Nestor's right hand. He pulled it, placed the knife near the knuckle, and used it as a saw. He threw his entire skinny body into it, lifting himself on tiptoes to apply pressure. Two moves was all it took. The cartilage didn't put up too much of a fight. Nestor tensed up a bit and scrunched up his face, but no sound came from his destroyed mouth. Indio held up the severed finger to make sure I got a good look at it and then threw it in the bucket. El dedo hit the inside of the bucket and then the bottom. Thud, thud. The two thuds were almost worse than the cutting. Then a loud crunch came from inside the bucket. It was followed by a second crunch.
Indio looked at me, pointed at my face with the bloody utensil. "Tell your jefe la Salvatrucha didn't come here to play. We want to run things downtown entre I-35 y Mopac, de la MLK hasta el río. El resto es suyo. Sus mierdas de vendedores se pueden quedar si quieren, pero trabajando para nosotros. He can have the east side y todo al norte de la universidad. We supply everything and take un poquito de lo que se embolsilla. If his supplier in Dallas tiene un problema con eso, we can fix it real quick. Is a good deal, no?"
What he was offering was preposterous. Guillermo would never give up downtown because more than half his business, at least the business that mattered, came from there. From musicians to workers and from college students to homeless junkies, downtown Austin is where folks go to get drugs. However, I wasn't about to tell crazy Indio with the huge knife what I thought. Besides not wanting him to get angry and turn the instrument on me, I was also sure that, if I dared speak, my voice would come out resembling the sound that would come out of a pigeon's throat right before a cat bites down on it. I kept my mouth shut and nodded.
"What, you're not gonna say anything? You gonna take mi mensaje al gordo de tu jefe just like that? If you do, he'll ignore it. Sabes por que? Because your jefe es un pendejo y los Zetas lo tiene cogido por los huevos. He likes easy money and hates risks. He's nothing but a fat cat that's used to being in the sofa all day long. Por eso el negocio no es mas grande en esta ciudad llena de dinero. If he knew how to run things, he'd be nadando en plata. We're different. We don't mind getting dirty. We know how to run things. We know… como convencer a las personas de que cooperen con nosotros, just like your friend Nestor here. Isn't that right, amigo?"
Indio reached down, grabbed Nestor's middle finger, and repeated the process. This time, the finger came off after a single, brutal stroke. There was almost no blood. A low, guttural growl came from Nestor's mouth. It was drowned in fluids and sounded like something from beyond the grave. Then his head came down again and he passed out, all his tensed muscles suddenly deflating. Indio threw the finger in the bucket again. Only one thud this time. Then came the crunch again.
"You think I'm fucking around, puto?" Indio grabbed Nestor's ring finger and once again applied the knife. He didn't even bother to throw the finger in the bucket before grabbing the pinky and cutting it off as well. Cartilage and pieces of bone dangled at the tip of Nestor's stumps like maggots.
My heart was trying to climb its way out of my chest. It was trapped in my throat. Indio took four steps and grabbed my face. I wanted to kill him, but was too scared to move, too terrified to utter a single word. If you talk to enough men about danger, you'll learn they always overcome their cowardice and triumph. Bullshit. Yo soy un cobarde que disfruta estar vivo y quiero seguir estándolo a toda costa. Keeping your mouth shut and nodding is a good way to stay alive.
"Ya te lo dije, cabrón, no estamos jugando." Indio's breath was as bad as his intentions. I wanted to move back, but my body was locked in place, my eyes bouncing from one of his dilated pupils to the other, waiting for la huesuda to pop out of them any second.
"You should go and talk to your jefe, tell him what you saw, and convince him to make this a smooth transition. Esa sería la opción inteligente. La segunda opción es ponerte bruto. You can go and try to warn him, get everyone riled up and coming for us. Esa sería una movida muy estúpida. We don't want to work too hard for this, chulo, but we will if we have to. We don't mind a little blood."
Indio let go of my face and turned around. His back was entirely covered with black ink: a naked woman, a devil with a smile on his face, a few guns, and a lot of random images I couldn't make out. Indio took two steps forward, reached the chair, and grabbed Nestor's hair. He yanked his head to the left and placed the bloody knife on his neck and looked back at me. His eyes looked dirty, wrong, like the ink on his face had somehow invaded his capillaries. He looked back at Nestor and started sawing at his neck like it was nothing.
Nestor tensed, hummed a high-pitched noise somewhere between a scream and a machine about to give out. Instead of spurts, Nestor's blood came out like a small, fast tide. It soon covered his left side with shiny darkness. Indio started talking gibberish.
"Ogún oko dara obaniché aguanile ichegún iré."
With each word, my core temperature dropped a few degrees. Nestor, thankfully, relaxed. He was gone. Indio kept cutting. When he hit the spinal cord, he let go of Nestor's hair and used that hand to smack the head. There was a loud crack. I closed my eyes, but still heard a few seconds of cutting and then the head hitting the ground.
"Abre los ojos, marica," said Indio. I obeyed.
Indio was pointing at me with the knife. He smiled and dropped the bloody blade on the floor.
"You go and talk to you boss. If I have to bring you here again, te voy a cortar la cabeza. I don't think you want to end up like your friend here, so make sure my message reaches el gordo."
Many bad experiences in Mexico had given me the ability to be in a moment but hover above it so that everything looked like it was happening to someone else. I was barely pulling that shit off this time around. My prayers became a jumble of words that trampled each other in the haste to get out and protect me.
Santa Muerte, protégeme.
That was all I could think about, the only prayer, an improvised mantra.
Santa Muerte, protégeme.
Santa Muerte, protégeme.
I kept repeating as if the words themselves could carry me away from that place, as if they could fly in like avenging angels, lift me by the arms, and fly me to a safe place.
Santa Muerte, protégeme. Por favor, te lo ruego.
One of the goons pulled me by the arm, mumbled something. Vámonos era una de las palabras. It sounded like the best idea anyone had ever had. This culero was no angel, but he was as good as one if he was taking me out of there. I turned without looking at Nestor again.
I shambled down the hall and out of the house.
They pushed me into the car and I kind of wished they'd stuffed me in the trunk again so I could pray in peace, say thank you, cry. Instead, I was squeezed between two guys, their body heat pressing against me like a solid object. The one on the left pulled out a red bandana from his pocket, tied it sloppily around my head. I kept my mouth shut. So did they. I did my best to hide in that silence.
The ride seemed to go on forever. When they removed the bandanna, we were parked behind my car. The guy on my right opened his door, slid out. I waited, fearing they'd shoot me in the back the second I stepped out.
"Pa' fuera, marica," he said.
Somehow those words gave me the strength to get out. The guy outside threw my keys and my phone near my car, lifted a finger, looked ready to say something. He said nothing. I got the message. He got back in the car and they drove away. I stood there, scared, thankful.
Nestor's ghost was gonna be hard to shake.
I walked up to my car, picked up the keys with a hand that shook like a palm tree in a hurricane. Then, a welcome touch of anger. Los hijos de puta nunca me devolvieron mi pistola y mi iPod.