Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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4258 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

The Death of Chato

by David S. McCabe

The room was dark when they removed the stiff burlap sack off of his head. His skull throbbed and his mind swam in the pain caused by the blows he had received earlier that night. His right eye had swollen shut and he could feel the semi-coagulated blood sticky and thick, clinging to his hair. He felt nauseous. He hadn’t eaten anything before going out that evening. That was smart. Things were bad. If he was going to pull through this by some miracle, he had to have a clear head. He had to think things through. But where was he?

The building was not completely sealed; he could feel a warm breeze dance through the room, bringing with it the smell of smoke from burning eucalyptus intermingled with the unmistakable aroma of barbacoa slowly cooking from somewhere outside. His mind drifted back to the town he lived in as a young man. He recalled once again, the beautiful young waitress at La Candelaria. He would save the money he earned from working on his grandfather’s rancho and go there each week just so she would take his order and he could try to make her smile. Every week, he would order the same meal, barbacoa de cabeza with cilantro and onions, a side of black beans and hand made tortillas. On some nights, he would walk her home after work until these un-chaperoned escorts created a scandal and her father forbade her from seeing him again. That was so long ago. Before he left his grandfather’s rancho. Before he joined the military. Before he signed on with the Zetas and pledged his life to Cárdenas. Before he was brought to this place. Now, he longed for the cool wooden benches of La Candelaria. He could feel the room spin, his head felt heavy and he struggled to keep his chin from resting on his chest. He tried to remain focused. Even in the darkness, he could vaguely make out the rough texture of the walls surrounding him. They were comprised of broken brick, concrete and mortar. He looked up and could see tiny specks of starlight twinkling through random holes in the metal sheeting that served as the roof. Steel rods ran the length of the room like rafters. He noticed hanging from them were several pieces of rebar bent into “S” shapes. The floor was dark and slightly damp, bearing the odor of bleach and old blood. In the center of the room he saw a drain and he realized that he was in a slaughterhouse.

The steel handcuffs bit sharply into his wrists and bound him securely to the chair that he was sitting in. He could feel his hands swell and tingle as blood struggled to force its way into his extremities. He had been hired to kill Juan Carlos Salazar, the man known as El Cacique. Not only did he fail, but he had allowed himself to be captured. There is no way that this is going to end well, he thought to himself.

He heard a click and a light pierced through the shadowy darkness and shined directly on his face. He was blinded temporarily until his eyes adjusted to the new conditions. He squinted and saw directly across from him stood a small camcorder with a sort of flashlight attached to it resting on a tripod. There were five men in the room and all except for one were wearing military issue camouflage suits and black bandanas hiding their faces. He could hear footsteps crunching on the gravel outside giving testimony to the presence of others—possibly three or four. Beyond that he could hear the familiar sounds of livestock and solitude. He was far away from Tecate. He was far away from any hope for salvation.

The man without the mask he knew. He was Juan Carlos Salazar, but to the world he was known and feared by another name. El Cacique. He had been tracking him for two months in an attempt to cash in on the contract that Felix Cárdenas had placed on his head. He was unsuccessful and now he was going to pay for it with his life.

El Cacique approached the chair and stood only inches away from him. He was a tall and striking figure, reminiscent of a movie star from the golden age of Mexican cinema. He was dressed in a dark black suit with a blue silk shirt. His black hair was thick and wavy and showed glints of gray and blue in the dimly lit confines of the slaughterhouse. He looked at him for a long moment, studying his face as though he might recognize him from some past encounter. He drew deeply from his cigarillo and tossed the unused end of it to the ground where its red coals hissed and smoldered when it came into contact with the wet floor. He took from his coat pocket a pair of black leather gloves and one after the other slowly pulled them onto his ring-clad hands. His gaze returned to the man secured in the chair and his expression opened up with a broad, easy benediction and then as quickly as it appeared, the smile vanished from his face.

“¡El que se crea bien verga, lo mato a la chingada!” He drew back a gloved fist and let it loose, striking him in the face with such force, his chair fell backwards and he felt the back of his head strike the cold wet concrete floor.

Two masked men moved quickly to pull him up from the ground and set him upright once again.

“How much did Cárdenas offer you? How much is my life worth to you I wonder?” El Cacique asked as he rubbed his knuckles and slowly circled him.

Chato kept silent. He would not give him the satisfaction of giving any response to this interrogation.

El Cacique reached into his coat pocket and pulled from it the black rosary that was intended for him as a final gift from his rival and carefully placed it around Chato’s neck.

“I think that this was intended for me, but tonight, I return the gift to you, cabrón,” he said smiling.

He walked to the corner of the room and pulled a green canvas bag from somewhere in the shadows and then sat it on the ground in front of him.

“Surely you know that you are a dead man. Talking or not talking will not stand in the way of your meeting with God tonight...but it can have a great influence on how much you suffer on your way to see him.”

Chato sat silent, squinting slightly in the light.

With his back facing the man tied to the chair, El Cacique squatted down low and unzipped the canvas bag. He reached inside and removed something from within and rose to his feet. Chato could not see what he was holding, nor could he see El Cacique’s face, but he sensed his wicked smile.

“Pelón, I think that you should start the camera. We will want to remember this event, don’t you think?”

One of the masked men approached the tripod and peered through the eyepiece and began pressing buttons until a red light above the camera lens turned on. El Cacique approached the camera and began to speak and it soon became clear that this was not a message to the press, to the public or to some government office, he was speaking to a specific individual.

“You disappoint me, Patrón, and you bring shame upon yourself. Look at you; you sit in prison because your mind, like your belly, became soft. You became consumed by your own lust and your own greed and you made poor choices as a result. Your bad decisions hurt not only you, but your extended family as well.” He paced back and forth as he talked, which prompted one of the men to take a position at the tripod and began following his movement with the camera.

“The people in Northern Mexico suffer because many are greedy like you and think only of themselves and their own gain.” He waved his hand in the direction of the man still bound to the chair.

“You use your Zeta thugs to incite fear and submission from everyone just so you can ensure your own wealth. You and your kind grow fat like pigs while the people starve and risk their lives trying to go north across the deserts and you do not even consider them. Unlike you, I think of the people. I am a patriot.”

“Ok—that is enough. Stop the camera!” The man at the tripod pushed at a series of buttons and the red light turned off.

When he turned his back from the camera and once again faced Chato, he could now see what it was that El Cacique had taken from the bag. He approached him with a broad smile as the hay hook that he held in his right hand gleamed in the artificial light. As he drew closer, Chato could see that this hay hook had been modified to work beyond its original design. The inside curve had been ground and shaped until it formed a sharp knife-like edge.

Chato sat immobile and silent as El Cacique ran the pointed end of the hook across his forehead, gently brushing aside the damp, matted hair from his face.

“Now, I will ask you again, cabrón, how much did Cárdenas offer to pay you? Surely you must realize that it was not enough?”

Chato could feel the hook slide down the side of his head past his ear and along his neck where it came to rest on his jugular just above the ebony beads of the rosary.

“I could tear open your throat right now since you do not seem interested in using it to tell me what I want to know. Have you ever seen a man die with his throat split open, cabrón? Have you heard them struggle to suck in air with a hole in their neck?” He leaned in closely and whispered in his ear, “When they scream it doesn’t really sound like a scream at all. To the uninitiated, it would not be recognizable as a sound any human being would be capable of making, but you are a hired killer, aren’t you? Of course you know what I am talking about.”

Chato flinched slightly as the hook caught his collar and with a quick jerk of th>e wrist, El Cacique split his black shirt open from the neckline down to the waist. With his other hand, he grabbed the torn cloth and ripped it from Chato’s shoulders, leaving him secured to the chair, naked from the waist up.

El Cacique again circled Chato in the chair, running the curved end of the hook gently across his bare shoulders and down his arm leaving the point to rest upon the discolored patch of scarred flesh that marked his bicep.

“I see that your flesh is not marked with ink. So you do not belong to any of the gangas, eh? You are a free agent?”

Chato stared blankly in the direction of the camera.

“You know what I think, cabrón?” El Cacique hissed. “I do not think that you are a free agent at all. I think that Cárdenas owns you like a dog. I think that you are Cárdenas’ bitch and when he calls you to do something you roll over and piss on yourself—just like all of his other bitches.”

He spun on the heels of his shined black leather shoes and once again to the man stationed at the tripod. “Start the camera,” he commanded. “Cárdenas and the rest of his bitches will not want to miss this.”

The red light began to glow.

Chato twitched slightly as the sharpened hook bit into his chest and blood rose from his ruptured flesh. El Cacique smiled as he continued to work the metal into his brown, forgiving flesh, carefully carving the word: Puto.

He stepped back from the chair as if to examine Chato in the same manner an artist might admire his own work.

“Still you do not wish to talk to me, eh? Despite my appearances, cabrón, I am a sensitive man, and you are beginning to hurt my feelings. But I think that I understand you. You and I are both men of discipline. You and I are both soldiers, no?”

Chato’s eyes darted from the camera to El Cacique and then back again.

“Ah! You are a soldier...perhaps not in rank...not currently, but you were a soldier and now you work for Cárdenas. Now you are one of his Zetas, no?” He tossed the torn black shirt at Chato’s feet and his smile widened at Chato’s silence.

“Yes. You know it is true, you wear their uniform—the mysterious men in black.” He smiled.

El Cacique returned the hook once again to Chato’s flesh and made great sweeping gestures, which caused Chato to clench his teeth and gasp in pain. The man behind the tripod focused the camera on the letters carved across his abdomen: Zeta.

Blood pooled from his torn flesh and streaked down Chato’s torso and began to soak into the waistline of his black military issue pants.

“So tell me cabrón...where are you from? Where do you call home? Are you from Nuevo León? Chihuahua? Or perhaps Jalisco?”

Chato had begun to shiver. He knew that shock was beginning to settle upon him; he had to keep a clear head.

“Still you say nothing to me? I only ask you these things out of respect for your mother. Perhaps I will send her flowers along with my sympathies when she discovers that her son has gone to God. Or perhaps I will visit her offer my own tender consolations, eh?”

El Cacique reached once again into his canvas bag and removed from it a metal rod approximately six inches in length with a thin steel wire fastened to its center with a brass sleeve attached to the other end of the wire. At the center of the rod was a metal shank cut from a drill bit and welded into place at a ninety-degree angle forming a metallic “T.”

Although the object varied slightly from the more traditional design, Chato recognized it immediately—it was a type of garrote. He himself had used similar devices numerous times and was intimately familiar with how they worked and what the fate would be of those on whom it was used.

“I see that you are familiar with the garrote, eh cabrón? But perhaps you only know of its usefulness in the field and are unaware of its rich connection to the past that you will soon become a part of.”

He unraveled the cord to its full length of eighteen inches and pulled it tight.

“You see, the garrote has a long and proud history in dispatching wrongdoers. The mighty Romans used it to execute treasonous troublemakers. Even the Conquistadores recognized its usefulness. Francisco Pizarro used it in Peru to send the Incan emperor, Atahualpa, to meet his heathen gods. Now, I will continue the tradition and rid the people of Mexico of one more criminal and send you to your God for Him to pass judgment.”

“This garrote is one of my own design, cabrón. It does not simply strangle the life out of its frees their head from their shoulders.”

Chato’s one un-swollen eye widened slightly as El Cacique removed from the canvas bag a yellow and black cordless drill. He placed the welded shank into the keyless chuck and pulled the trigger. The drill whined and the chuck ratcheted closed tightly securing the garrote in place.

“Ah! I see that your fate frightens you somewhat. I imagine that your heart is beating a little faster, your pulse is quickening and your mind is racing trying to analyze your options. Perhaps you think even now that escape may be a possibility...but I tell you that escape is not possible. You will die here tonight, but do not worry cabrón—death will come for you quickly.”

He stepped behind Chato and looped the wire around his neck and slid the metal sleeve onto the center of the steel rod. Chato pivoted in his seat and strained against the handcuffs that bound him. El Cacique gently tapped the trigger on the drill causing the rod to spin quickly, twisting the wire tightly around Chato’s neck and causing it to bite fiercely into his throat. Chato realized the futility of struggling and once again became still.

“When I was a boy, my father would have me butcher our chickens so that my mother could make for us her mole in celebration of Mexican Independence Day. I would take the machete to the chicken’s neck and watch as the severed head lay on the ground with dust clinging to its bloodied collar and its eyes would stare up at me blinking repeatedly and its beak would open and close until finally it would lay still. I have always wondered if the chicken was still alive in those last moments or if it was just some kind of reflex. What do you think, cabrón? Did the chicken’s life end at the moment the machete disconnected its head from the body? Or did death come in those moments afterwards as the head lay on the ground gathering dust?”

Tears welled in Chato’s one un-inflamed eye as he struggled to breathe, staring silently at the camera.

“I have heard it said that the human brain remains in a state of consciousness for up to one and a half minutes after decapitation. Do you think that is true, cabrón?”

Chato remained silent.

“Still no opinion? Perhaps you are silent because you do not know? That is okay, you will know for certain very soon, but it is a shame that you will not be able to share with me the answer to this little mystery.”

Chato kicked at the ground and rocked frantically in a side-to-side motion in the chair. El Cacique secured the drill firmly in both hands and pulled up and back causing the wire to bite deeper into Chato’s neck and once again he became still. El Cacique breathed deeply, pressed a switch on the drill and once again tapped the trigger causing the rod to spin in a counter clockwise rotation releasing the tension in the garrote slightly and continued his one-sided conversation with the man in the chair.

“Do you like to read? I have read somewhere that in a heightened state of emotion such as elation or fear, that people are capable of speaking at the rate of one hundred and eighty words per minute. Isn’t that interesting? That is precisely three words per second!”

He tapped the trigger again loosening tension of the wire a little further allowing Chato to gulp air into his lungs. When he calmed down somewhat, El Cacique leaned down close to his ear and whispered.

“Now you will not be able to speak because your vocal chords will be severed...but still, I wonder what words will be going through your head? Will you recall some happy memory from your youth? Will your thoughts call out to your mother for comfort like a child with a scraped knee? Or in your last moments will you be confessing your sins to your God? Only you and the Lord will know for certain.”

Chato could hear El Cacique click through the gears on the drill.

“This drill has three settings. The first gives one the greatest amount of torque, thirty-five hundred RPM. You will realize how important this is in a moment. It would be unfortunate if I were to cut half way through your neck only to have the drill bind up, can you imagine?” His lips turned upward into broad smile.

He pushed a switch on the drill, and then once again tapped the trigger causing the rod to spin in a clockwise rotation. The wire wound quickly, tightening around Chato’s neck. He jerked and twitched against the bindings but remained secured to the chair.

El Cacique held the drill securely in both hands and tapped the trigger once again. Chato gasped as the wire began to cut into his skin and squeeze his larynx closed. He felt a heavy pressure on the back of his neck that grew in intensity each time the rod spun. He pressed his feet against the wet floor attempting to gain some traction with the thick rubber soles of his boots. The chair began to slowly slide backwards. El Cacique once again pulled up and back on the drill and pushed his right foot against the back leg of the chair, effectively stopping its movement and pulling on the trigger again, only this time, without letting up.

Chato heard a sickening pop from somewhere in his head and he saw a dark crimson stream squirt across the room splattering the camera and the man behind it. For a second, a mixture of blood and air poured into his lungs as he attempted to inhale. His lungs spasmed violently, rejecting the invading fluid. He began to writhe wildly in his chair and attempted to scream but the only sound that he issued forth was a peculiar, muted gurgle.

The rod continued to spin winding the wire tighter.

Chato felt strange. A calm washed over him and he felt light as though his consciousness had become separate from his body. He no longer felt the stinging lacerations that El Cacique had carved into his chest and abdomen. He could no longer feel the pain in his wrists from the handcuffs that had bitten into them. All at once, the room seemed to spin inward and for a brief moment, he felt a sense of vertigo overwhelm him and he closed his eyes in an attempt to ward off the nausea. He felt a dull thud as though something hard had struck the side of his head. He opened his eyes and saw a pair of black boots twitching and jerking wildly as if attempting to dance some grotesque jig to a rhythm unheard by him. He realized that he was staring at his own feet. He could still hear everything around him. However with each passing second, the noises in the room seemed to become increasingly distant. He tried to breath, but felt nothing.

The smell of barbacoa cooking slowly in a fire pit somewhere outside was still strong in his nostrils and sent his thoughts racing back to when he was fifteen years old on the night of his first kiss outside of La Candelaria.

I finished the entire plate of barbacoa de cabeza.

I was certain that you had given me an extra large portion that night.

I felt like my belly would burst wide open, I was so full!

I waited until your work was done and I offered to walk you home that night.

I know that I had walked you home many nights before...but this night was different.

I could tell by the way the moon filled the sky as though it shined only for us.

I could tell by the way you smiled at me...

I could tell by the way the barbacoa just dissolved in my mouth. I was clumsy in the way I offered you my hand, I let it swing loosely at my side and let it brush against yours.

You were braver than me...and you gently grasped my fingers. We walked on...with our fingers entwined like lovers.

Your hand was so warm and felt so familiar in mine.

We came to the bridge that crossed the river leading into town. We stopped half way across and watched as the moonlight shimmered on the waters below.

You told me how you wanted to one day paddle down this river in a canoe with a parasol shielding you from the sun and listen as your lover sang to you pretty songs like they showed in the movies.

I told you that I would take you down the river...And I would sing to you.

I pulled you close to me.

You pressed your lips to mine.

You laughed and said I tasted like cilantro and onions.

Red Wall Cavern, Photo by Cindy Sheppard
“Red Wall Cavern”
(Photograph by Cindy Sheppard)

El Cacique grabbed a handful of hair and picked up the head from the floor and studied the face for a moment, contemplating eyes so dull and black that it was hard to tell where the pupil ended and where the iris began. After a long silent moment, he spoke.

“You died honorably, cabrón. No begging, no bribe attempts. We are soldiers. Such actions do not become us.”

His words found Chato’s ears, but he could not make sense of them. A darkening gray veil began to spread across the room and the figures along with the voices that inhabited it began to fade away until they were consumed completely by darkness and silence.

—From the novel, Without Sin, Sunstone Press (April 2012)

SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

David S. McCabe

studied U.S. History at UC Riverside and received his Masters in Public Administration from Cal State San Bernardino. He has worked in public education for over twenty years serving his community as an elementary school teacher and later as a principal. He currently serves as school board trustee at the Nuview Union School District and works as a professor of education and the Coordinator of the Teacher Preparation Program at Pasadena City College.

David has written extensively and has spoken internationally on curriculum development, education policy and school-related issues. He has written two books: Toward a More Perfect Union: Creating Democratic Classroom Communities (Kendall Hunt, 2010) and Without Sin (Sunstone Press, 2012). He lives with his wife and son and a menagerie of animals on their small ranch in Southern California.


SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Cindy Sheppard

is an office manager at a public-works company, who enjoys traveling whenever she can arrange time off. Though she has been shooting photos for thirty years, especially to document her trips, she does not consider herself a photographer, saying that she only points the camera and clicks the buttons.

We are delighted to be the first to publish Ms. Sheppard’s visual perspective. Three of her recent images appear in this issue and are from a long-yearned-for rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, which she went on to celebrate her fiftieth birthday.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury