The Lord of Opium
1 THE OASIS
Matt woke in darkness to the sound of something moving past him. The air stirred slightly with the smell of warm, musky fur. The boy jumped to his feet, but the sleeping bag entangled him and he fell. His hands collided with sharp thorns. He flailed around for a rock, a knife, any sort of weapon.
Something huffed. The musky odor became stronger. Matt’s hand felt a metal bar, and for an instant he didn’t know what it was. Then he realized it was a flashlight and turned it on.
The beam illuminated a large, doglike face at the other end of the sleeping bag. The boy’s heart almost stopped. He remembered, long ago, a note Tam Lin had written him about the hazards of this place: Ratlesnakes heer. Saw bare under tree.
This was definitely a bare. Matt had only seen them on TV, where they did amusing tricks and begged for treats. The bear’s eyes glinted as it contemplated the treat holding the
flashlight. Matt tried to remember what to do. Look bigger? Play dead? Run?
The flashlight! It was a special one used by the Farm Patrol. One button was for ordinary use, the other shone with ten times the brightness of the sun. Flashed into the eyes of an Illegal, it would blind the person for at least half an hour. Matt jammed his thumb on the second button, and the bear’s face turned perfectly white. The animal screamed. It hurled itself away, falling over bushes, moaning with terror, breaking branches as it fled.
Matt struggled to his feet. Where was he? Why was he alone? After a minute he remembered to switch the beam off to save the battery. Darkness enveloped him, and for a few minutes he was as blind as the bear. He sat down again, shivering. Gradually, the night settled back into a normal pattern, and he realized that he was at the oasis. He cradled the flashlight. Tam Lin had given it to him, to protect him from animals when he was camping. You don’t need a gun, lad, the bodyguard had said. You don’t want to kill a poor beastie that’s only walking through its backyard. You’re the one who’s trespassing. Matt could hear Tam Lin’s warm Scottish voice in his mind. The man loved animals and knew a lot about them, even though he’d been poorly educated.
Matt found the campfire he’d banked the night before and blew the coals into life. The flaring light made him feel better. In all the years of camping here, he’d never seen a bear, though there had been many raccoons, chipmunks, and coyotes. A skunk had once burrowed into Matt’s sleeping bag in the middle of the night to steal a candy bar. Tam Lin had burned the sleeping bag and scolded the boy for foolishness. Leave food about and you might as well put a sign on yourself saying “Eat me.” Matt had been scrubbed head to toe with tomato juice when they got back to the hacienda.
Matt heaped the fire with dry wood from the supply Tam Lin had always maintained. He could see the familiar outlines of an old cabin and a collapsed grapevine.
Tam Lin wasn’t with him. He would never come here again. He was lying in a tomb beneath the mountain with El Patrón and all of El Patrón’s family and friends, if you could say the old drug lord had friends. The funeral, three months before, had been attended by fifty bodyguards dressed in black suits, with guns hidden under their arms and strapped to their legs. The floor of the tomb had been covered with drifts of gold coins. The bodyguards had filled their pockets with gold, probably thinking their fortunes were made, but that was before they drank the poisoned wine. Now they would lie at their master’s feet for all eternity, to guard him at whatever fiestas were conducted by the dead. Matt drew the sleeping bag around himself, trembling with grief and nerves.
He would not sleep again. To distract himself, he looked for the constellations Tam Lin had shown him. It was early spring, and Orion the Hunter was still in the sky. Heed the stars of his belt, said Tam Lin. Where they set is true west. Remember that, lad. You never know when you’ll need it. They had been roasting hot dogs over a fire and drinking cider from a bottle Tam Lin had cooled by submerging it in the lake.
What a grand existence it must be, mused the bodyguard, turning his battered face to the sky, to roam the heavens like Orion with his faithful dogs at heel. The dogs, Sirius and Procyon, were two of the brightest stars in the summer sky. Pinning Orion’s tunic to his shoulder was ruby-red Betelgeuse. As fine a jewel as you’ll find anywhere, Tam Lin had declared.
Matt hoped Tam Lin was roaming now in whatever afterlife he inhabited. The dead in Aztlán came home once a year to
celebrate the Day of the Dead with their relatives. They must be somewhere the rest of the time, Matt reasoned. Why shouldn’t they do what made them happiest on earth, and why shouldn’t Tam Lin?
Matt found Polaris, around which the other stars circled, and the Scorpion Star (but that was so easy even an eejit could do it). The Scorpion Star was always in the south and, like Polaris, never moved. Its real name was Alacrán. Matt was proud of this, for it was his name too. The Alacráns were so important, they could lay claim to an actual star.
Matt didn’t think he could fall asleep again, and so he was surprised when he woke up in the sleeping bag just before dawn. A breeze was stirring, and a pale rosy border outlined the eastern mountains. Gray-green juniper trees darkened valleys high up in the rocks, and the oasis was dull silver under a gray sky. A crow called, making Matt jump at the sudden noise.
After breakfast and a short, sharp swim in the lake, Matt hiked along the trail to the boulder that blocked the entrance to the valley. In this rock, if you looked at just the right angle, was a shadow that turned out to be a smooth, round opening like the hole in a donut. Beyond was a steep path covered with dry pebbles that slid beneath your feet. The air changed from the fresh breeze of the mountain to something slightly sweet, with a hint of corruption. The scent of opium poppies.