Armstrong idled his bike at the Nuevo Durango crossing. A stream of cars, trucks, and foot traffic was heading north. Customs inspectors scrutinized such traffic as they could without creating a backlog that would take days to clear and hoped the rest was legitimate. Only one person was led away in handcuffs while Armstrong waited. He had discarded his distinctive Texas flag shirt and leather pants for less dramatic garb. His guns had been concealed below false panels in his saddlebags. Sweat beaded on his brow as he approached the US-Mexico crossing. The US customs agent waved him through, while noting his license plate on a form to flag his bike for a very severe search upon return. The Mexican inspectors barely glanced at the gringo on a bike.
Once across the Rio Grande, Armstrong gunned his bike for the offices of La Prensa Libre. He had done his homework, this was the city's one and only newspaper and had run a special on the over two dozen American citizens missing in Nuevo Durango. Armstrong's Spanish was good enough to read it and he meant to meet the article's author, one M. Perez.
He roared past rows of posters blazoned with luchadores glaring from behind masks. At the front door of La Prensa he argued with a very nervous concierge until that man gave way before the eccentric gringo who was not apparently armed.
"I just want to talk to M. Perez. The guy that wrote this article, OK amigo?"
Moments later a young woman appeared at the door. "Nice secretary," thought Armstrong. She was dressed in slacks and a top that showed her generous curves. Long black hair and brown eyes framed a face that suggested a determined spirit.
"I'm Maria Perez, can I help you?" she asked in English.
"Why yes," Armstrong stuttered. "I need some help. I'm trying to find out about a missing American."
Her face grew grave. "I doubt I could help. Things are very complex now. You'd better head back to the Texas side."
"Please," his voice was gentle but firm. "My friend's cousin went missing a few days ago. Her family is very worried."
"I'm sorry. Don't you understand how things are here? There are several hundred unsolved murders and disappearances of women in this state over the last five years. One more is just..."
"Just one more? Not to the people who love her. Her name is Sophie Rodriguez." Armstrong held out her picture.
Maria's eyes widened in shock. "Come inside, quick!"
They sat at her desk and conversed in English. "I was supposed to meet Sophie and my best friend Juana Molina that night. I worked late getting the paper out though. We've been short-handed since..." Her voice faltered. "The shooting."
"Our editor was gunned down outside the front door. Men in black masks with submachine guns shot him. Since then three other reporters have quit. All we do now is run a tally of deaths and disappearances.
"Our last police chief took office promising to clean up the drug gangs. They killed him six hours later. The Archbishop of the diocese was shot by drug-dealers who mistook him for a gang boss.
"Nuevo Durango has always lived on trade across the border, but now people are just leaving for the north. Every day there are newcomers though. Desperate people from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador heading north. They are easy prey for the coyotes who smuggle them across. The coyotes take all they have and often dump them in the desert, but it is a desert in Texas."
"Jeez, drug-running, people-smuggling. You have a big mess down here."
"It's a mess that goes to feed your messes! Who buys all those smuggled drugs? North Americans. Why do employers want illegals across the border? To pick fruit and build cheap tract housing. You get the goods, we get the death." Maria sighed. "We need to clean house. But we have to control the house first.
"Even when the government makes an effort at control, it can go terribly wrong. A few years back the army sent in special commandos to clean up the problem. The drug dealers bought them out in a month. They are called by their army call sign, 'Los Zeros'. They are led by a guy known as Comandante Scorpion. With their military tactics they went from mercenaries to bosses. Nuevo Durango is ruled by fear, and Los Zeros are fear itself."
As the sun sank in the direction of the Sierra Madres, Armstrong and Maria went to "Club Meridien", the last place Sophie and Juana had been seen. Maria hesitantly accepted Armstrong's offer to ride behind him on his bike.
"Aren't you worried about accidents?" she asked.
"I'm worried about 'on-purposes'," he answered.
It was early and few customers were to be seen. Armstrong had his hickory walking stick, his knife and guns were stowed in his saddlebags.
"You don't need that to walk," Maria observed. "You aren't going to hit someone are you? Because if you think..."
"Do I look like that kind of guy?" Armstrong smiled.
They went to the bartender. A generous tip preceded questions about Sophie and Juana. To the proffered pictures of the young women, the bartender only shook his head. But Armstrong noted that his eyes were less adamant in their denial.
They retreated to a corner booth to consider their options and down a Tecate. Two young men began to stare at the table. Armstrong noted their expensive suits, gold jewelry, carefully slicked up hair, and the smirks on their faces. Maria whispered to Armstrong, "I know that guy on the left, he's called Sanchez. He's a people smuggler." Sanchez and his partner approached.
"Hey why are you wasting time with this gringo? Why don't you get with some real men." Sanchez smiled.
"Beat it, creep." Maria's tone was ice.
"Come on mamacita, don't you want to party?"
"I'm on a job, cabrone. Get lost."
"Looking for those girls, eh? That's some bad news, you'd better leave it alone, or you might not be seen anymore either."
Armstrong broke into the conversation in Spanish. "Do you creeps know something?"
"Nothing I'd tell you, maricone. Gringos get hurt around here." Sanchez shaped his hand into a pistol. "Bang-bang. Adios gringo."
Then the other reached for Maria. "But its buenos dias for you, babe!" His face twisted into a leer.
Armstrong's hickory stick leapt up and smashed that leer into a froth of blood and broken teeth. Sanchez went for his gun, but Maria's Tecate splashed his eyes. A split second of distraction was all Armstrong needed and he was out of the booth and Sanchez was crushed under the triple attack of the left elbow, a stick to the belly, and a savage snap-kick. Armstrong took Maria by the elbow and they hustled to the door.
The night air was sticky and hot. Maria stepped from the curb towards Armstrong's bike. She stepped back immediately as a black SUV with darkened windows screeched to a halt a foot away. Four men, clad alike in black t-shirts, fatigue pants, boots and balaclavas leapt out. Armstrong noted their Heckler-Koch sub-machine guns were matching black too.
"You didn't mention that valet parking comes with a machine gun around here." Armstrong raised his hands, but kept his grip on the hickory stick.
"Sorry, I thought I did." Maria kept her voice level. "You guys are quick. If you wanted us dead we'd be dead, so what do you want?"
One of the gunmen gestured with the muzzle of his H-K. "Get in."
Just then Armstrong saw two giant hands emerge from the dark behind the gunmen. They were attached to the biggest man he had ever seen. The giant stood six foot eight, encased in spandex the color of blued steel. A mask in gunmetal gray, mounted by a pattern of a crown, covered his face. Armstrong watched in amazement as the massive luchadore grabbed a gunman by the head and lifted him bodily into the air to smash him down with crushing force on a second gunman.
The remaining gunman turned and gaped at the awesome sight. Armstrong wasted not a millisecond. The hickory stick flew out and flicked the muzzle of the H-K up just as a stream of bullets emerged. Armstrong followed it with a bruising smash the gunman's face.
While Maria ducked the spray of bullets, Armstrong leapt to the roof of the SUV. The driver's head emerged and the hickory stick connected with it. The luchadore had seized a gunman and was driving him into the pavement with a ferocious pile driver atomico. Even as he watched another rose up just enough to aim his gun and send a burst into the luchadore's broad back.
Armstrong leapt from the roof of the SUV a fraction too late. The luchadore was smashed flat even as Armstrong pummeled his foe to the ground. The gunman struggled out from under Armstrong. Desperately he tried to keep the gunman from bringing his H-K to bear. Then the gunman was whisked away. The luchadore was on his feet again. He threw the gunman bodily through a window of the SUV in a welter of blood and broken glass. Armstrong whirled just as the gunman he had dropped earlier rose again. A thrust of the hickory stick broke his jaw, and a front-side double kick combination finished him.
There was a snarl from the SUV and the driver emerged again, an automatic pistol in his hand leveled at Armstrong and the luchadore. Maria silently stepped up behind the driver. Something flashed and crackled in her hand and the man collapsed like a puppet with his strings cut.
Maria held out a taser. "It works better than Mace, if you can get close."
The luchadore swayed on his feet. Gingerly he pulled up his spandex to reveal the kevlar beneath. "Madre de Dios! That hurts!" He turned to Armstrong and Maria. "We'd better get going. Come on!"
"Just a minute." Maria knelt by one of the gunman. She grabbed an object that had dropped from his cargo pocket. The luchadore led them into a van.
"I'll follow on my bike, if you don't mind."
Maria hesitated, Armstrong surmised that she was not ready to get in a van with a strange and violent wrestler. She shrugged, "It's bound to be safer in the van than riding behind a crazy man on a motorcycle."
Soon they were tearing along a dirt road to an area of featureless scrub. A swift turn took them down a dirt track. The van halted at a tumbledown shack at the base of a rocky hill. Piles of discarded ore and broken rocks littered the area. The luchadore leapt out and pulled open a door that once had been used to admit ore cars. The van and motorcycle rolled forward and stopped inside the shack. The luchadore produced an electric lantern and led them down a series of rickety ladders and wooden staircases to a tunnel.
Armstrong brought up the rear, his sadlebags slung over his shoulder. A clump of dirt fell on him. "Hey, when's the last time someone inspected these support timbers? Are you sure they are safe? Is it hot in here? I'd like to go out and get a glass or water."
"1917. No. Not really. I have a water dispenser down here." The luchadore arrived at a steel door. He ushered Armstrong and Maria into a cavernous space. A generator started and the room was flooded with light. Spartan furnishings were offset by numerous wrestling posters and exercise equipment. A sewing machine and stocks of spandex complemented an ample supply of costumes for wear in the ring.
"Welcome to my kingdom. I am known as El Rey Ferreo, the Iron King."
"You live here?" Maria stared in amazement. "We could do quite a feature in La Prensa's 'Home & Garden' section. How about, 'The Wrestler who calls a cave home'? Lots of stuff on the difficulty of obtaining housing."
"No! This is my secret headquarters! You... journalista! Anyway, it was lucky for you I had been trailing those thugs."
"Why were you following them?" asked Maria.
"I have vowed to use my powers not for mere amusement, but for the betterment of Mexico!" El Rey drew himself up to his full height. "We must restore justice to la patria. Now tell me, why do Los Zeros want you dead?"
Together Armstrong and Maria told their tale. El Rey listened with interest.
"So you too fight crime, Senor Armstrong? Wearing those clothes?"
"The last time I put on my costume, the criminals questioned my, errr, manhood."
"Regrettable. Let's see your outfit."
Maria arched her eyebrow. "A fashion show. I'm beginning to wonder about both of you."
Armstrong pulled his fighting gear from his saddlebag and dressed behind a curtain. El Rey studied him in his Texas flag shirt, sunglasses, boots, and leather pants. "Those glasses will never do. Here, try this. I took it off the Tejas Terror in a lights out cage match in San Antonio. The loser had to un-mask." He held out a mask.
Armstrong donned it. It fit closely over his face, but was supple enough to move with it, nor did it interfere with sight or breathing. Its pattern was that of the Lone Star flag of Texas. "I like it."
"If you boys are done playing dress up, maybe we could try to do something to help Juana and Sophie." Maria pulled out the object she had retrieved from the club.
"What did you find?" asked EL Rey.
"It is a cell phone. Maybe I can find some phone numbers that might implicate some of Los Zeros. Or maybe it's useless." She stood up abruptly. "I should go."
El Rey led her and Armstrong up the mineshaft. Along the way Armstrong paused. "Hey, you know our names. But we don't know yours."
"Perhaps it is better that way." El Rey's face remained enigmatic behind his mask.
As they stood by the van the cell phone Maria had taken began to chime "La Cucaracha".
"Appropriate," was all Armstrong said. The other two stared at him. Without a sound Maria flicked the phone open. She held it back from her ear, so El Rey and Armstrong could listen in.
"Where are you, cabrone?" a sinister voice hissed. "Eh, it does not matter. Be at the old tortilleria to meet El Culebra at 11:30. He's coming in a white SUV. Make sure he has the stuff. Get going, pronto!"
Armstrong pulled the mask over his face. "It's 10:50 now. We'll have to hurry if the Regulator is going to be there to meet El Culebra!"
"And so will El Rey Ferreo!"
"You will get yourselves killed!" Maria's voice rang with exasperation. "How will that help Juana and Sophie? We've got to think."
"Your better at thinking than me," Armstrong said. "I'm not much good at anything except acting."
"Senorita Perez, this is what we do best. You can help us by gathering information in a... safer way. Or at least as safe as you can be in Nuevo Durango."
They climbed into the van. A swing into town saw Maria safely into her home. Then El Rey put his massive foot to the accelerator.
"Quick El Rey, to the tortilleria!" the Regulator cried.
"We haven't a moment to lose if we are to defeat the nefarious schemes of Los Zeros!"
Passersby might well have wondered at the deranged laughter emanating from a white van speeding out of Nuevo Durango.
At precisely 11:30 p.m. Central Time, a white SUV pulled up by the semi-ruinous wall that surrounded the defunct tortilleria. The vehicle cut its headlights and sat idling. A shadowy form glided from the darkness and reached for the vehicle's exhaust pipe. Suddenly it began to idle very roughly, popping and rocking. A man in a white suit and generous amounts of gold jewelry stepped out and began cursing in Colombian-accented Spanish.
From the wall of the tortilleria a massive form leapt to land on the Colombian with crushing force.
"Welcome to Mexico!" El Rey performed an exquisitely painful backdrop-suplex on the hapless drug-runner.
From the passenger side another man leapt out, MAC-10 submachine gun in hand. He raised it to deal with EL Rey and did not see the Regulator's hickory stick as it swung in a vicious arc toward the base of his skull. Even as the thug collapsed, the Regulator swarmed over him into the SUV. The man in the back had his hand inside his sharkskin jacket. Suddenly his mirror-sunglasses held the reflection of two cavernous .357 muzzles.
"Take you hand out very slow, El Culebra, or I will blast you apart like a speedball hitting a cokehead's brain."
"There is no need for violence, amigo. I am willing to negotiate." El Culebra smiled. "You are not from an organization that wishes me dead, or you would have shot me."
The Regulator waved El Culebra out of the car and took his CZ 9-mm. El Rey had the others lined up against the wall and El Culebra joined them, hands in the air. The SUV's headlights illuminated them.
"Where is it?" the Regulator demanded.
"Look for yourself." El Culebra replied.
El Rey opened the back of the SUV. A metallic suitcase sat in plain view. He clicked it open and emitted a grunt of surprise. "Caramba! With this you could make it snow in August!"
The Regulator swung his guns toward the drug-runners. "First of all, you should take the sock I shoved in your vehicle's exhaust out because it is annoying to other motorists to hear your noisy engine.
"Second, tell Los Zeros we have their dope. They can get it back when we get back what we want, Juana Molina and Sophie Rodriguez. The Regulator and El Rey Ferreo have spoken!"
The two crime fighters backed away into the dark. El Culebra stared until their shadowy forms turned their backs.
"Stuff a sock in this!" he snarled as he drew a snub-nose .38 from the small of his back. The .38 boomed and a .357 exploded. El Culebra's pistol went spinning away. Blood poured from where it had taken his trigger finger.
"El Culebra chose that. Choose more wisely and take our message to Los Zeros!"
In the van El Rey broke the silence, saying, "You are quite a marksman. It was very generous to simply shoot his gun away instead of killing El Culebra."
"I guess," the Regulator said. "I was aiming for his head."
They returned to El Rey's secret headquarters to await Los Zeros' response. In the meantime they lifted weights, read wrestling magazines, and argued the relative merits of Team Mayhem and Super-Monsignor.
The answer was not long in coming. The Regulator's cell phone rang. It was Maria.
"You are insane, did I tell you that?"
"Yep, I recollect you did."
"Word is on the street that the guys who stole El Culebra's cocaine can have their meeting. All they have to do is call a certain phone number." Maria recited the phone number. "Comandante Scorpion himself will arrange a meeting."
"No, that's suicide. These guys don't fool around; you've been lucky so far. Your luck won't last."
"Maria, take it easy. El Rey and I have got a plan."
"Just please be careful."
"We will." He closed the connection.
Moments later, the Regulator and El Rey had called the special phone number.
"Speak," said a sinister, hissing voice that the Regulator recognized.
"This is the guys that stole your dope."
"Technically not mine. I hadn't taken delivery from the Colombian Cartel. Normally we ship free-on-board, but your action took place in my domain so I take an interest."
"Do you have the women? Are they alive and unharmed?"
"I can have them when I wish."
"That doesn't really answer my question. How do I know you are even telling the truth?"
"You don't, but I could ask the same of you. Let us meet and settle it face to face."
The negotiations were brief and effective. The meeting was set for midday on a barren stretch of road that offered little cover to either side. El Rey's van pulled up just as a black SUV approaching from the opposite direction slowed to a halt.
Three armed men in black fatigues and balaclavas emerged and approached El Rey and the Regulator. In the lead was a short, stocky man with piercing brown eyes. His men stood a respectful distance behind, H-K submachine guns at the ready.
"So, you are the men who have dared to challenge Los Zeros. I am Comandante Scorpion."
"You know who we are and what we want," El Rey said. "Give us the women you are holding."
"I do not know who you are or what you want. I do not say that of many men. Most wear their desires on their sleeves, but you are different. It makes you dangerous, but only so much. You must stay ahead of, how do the gringos say, 'the learning curve'. On the crest, a man can see very far. Slide down below, and you may sink without a trace, forever."
"Is that some Mexican army motivational speech?" the Regulator asked.
"No, in my world survival is motivation enough."
"Ya basta!" El Rey growled. "Give us the prisoners!"
"Do you think it is that simple, my friend? We have just begun negotiations. The learning curve is sweeping forward. Who will stay on top remains to be seen. Adios." The gangsters returned to their SUV and swirled away in a cloud of dust.
"I have a bad feeling. We need to find Maria." The Regulator pulled out his cell phone. A dozen increasingly frantic calls that reached nothing but voice mail and wild ride into the center of Nuevo Durango followed. El Rey and the Regulator pulled up at La Prensa. The building was empty, save for the old concierge.
"The men in black masks, they came and took Senorita Perez. Everyone else left, they are too scared. I called the police, but they will just go through the motions. They took Senorita Maria, but they left something else." The old man pointed at a bag, about the size of a basketball, which sat in the middle of the floor by itself.
El Rey approached and gingerly reached for the bag. The Regulator peered over his shoulder as he opened it. To the end of his days, Watt Armstrong regretted looking in that bag, for looking back at him were the dull, dead eyes of El Culebra.
"I guess maybe they had a disagreement about the free-on-board clause."
Sirens wailed down the street. El Rey and the Regulator hurried to the van. Over the sound of the sirens came another sound. Motorcycle engines, many of them. El Rey squealed away from the La Prensa office and jammed on his brake just as suddenly. From a side street a police car screeched to a halt, as a dozen Americans on motorcycles roared past. At their head was a familiar figure encased in leather except for a cast on his right arm.
"If that don't beat all," the Regulator said. "Satan's Reich is taking a Mexican vacation too."
They followed the bikers at a cautious distance. But when they came to the turn off for a rural road, El Rey veered away.
"What's the matter?" the Regulator asked. "Did they spot us?"
"No, but they will if we keep on this route." El Rey executed a quick turn off the main road onto a dirt track. "I know a back way." They climbed over the hilly terrain in a cloud of dust. Less than an hour's driving brought them to a rutted lane near a rambling hacienda atop a low hill. A brick wall topped with broken tequila bottles surrounded the dwelling. El Rey wheeled back onto a larger dirt road. The tracks of many motorcycles showed plainly on the dusty surface and veered directly to the hacienda's gate.
"I thought so," El Rey exclaimed. "I have long suspected that Los Zeros used this place as a hideout.
"But can you be sure?" the Regulator asked.
Just then the gate of the hacienda swung open. A pickup truck roared out cutting off El Rey's van. The Regulator glanced at the open gate. A masked man with a submachine gun was pushing it closed. Beyond him was a row of American-made motorcycles.
"That's interesting," El Rey muttered.
"What, the hoodlum with a gun or that guy's lousy driving?"
"I recognize the guy in the truck. It is Sanchez, one of the most notorious coyotes around here."
"We've met. I didn't like him."
"I doubt you know the half of it. He smuggles people across the border, but they often end up slaving in sweatshops that he owns in North America. Last month his men abandoned a truck full of his 'cargo'. A dozen people suffocated in the back of the truck before it was found. He's also rumored to be involved in white slavery."
"How do you now it's him?"
"I saw his face. And I recognize his truck." El Rey pointed at the distinctive design that balanced Our Lady of Guadalupe with a cartoon character relieving himself on a well-known car manufacturer's logo.
"I think Satan's Reich and Los Zeros may have gone into people smuggling." The Regulator gave a hyena laugh. "We need to get in there, soon!"
They returned to the hidden mine shaft to plan their assault. Feverishly they discussed and discarded alternatives. In time that was brief by the clock, but agonizingly slow for the men involved, they made a plan.
The Regulator sighed, "Well, it's a gamble at best."
"That's all we have. It will have to do."
The Regulator studied El Rey for a moment. "We could get killed doing this. Are you ready for that?"
"I have to be ready all the time."
"How did you get started in a crazy business like this?"
El Rey sat for a moment. "In the ring I was a hero. Every Saturday night I was the champion. El Rey Ferreo, the Iron King. But come Monday, I was just a big sweaty guy in spandex. All around me the world crumbled in chaos: crime, poverty, oppression. I could no longer pretend to be a hero, I had to live it or go mad." He let out a deep breath. "You?"
The Regulator shrugged. "I've got nothing worth doing in regular life. Fighting crime is all I'm good for. It's an old family tradition."
El Rey stood up. "You'd better get your disguise on. We need to move out as soon as possible." El Rey adjusted his kevlar armor. "We have a very ugly battle ahead. It's going to be bowling shoe ugly."
The Regulator © Dave Hardy. HTML © Tim Hartin.
Web Design by Paratime Design