Tijuana greeted me with a hot hand. Entering the city at midday felt like walking into a furnace. Everywhere, for as far as I could see, were old American cars and kids dressed in rags. A few streetwalkers stood next to street hawkers. Between them walked Americans, some in uniform and some in civilian suits. The Americans talked loudly and walked even louder. I did my best to blend in. My ugly face helped, as the senoritas did not say a word to me. I was left alone as I made my way to the Policia Municipal station.

A tall officer with a thick, black mustache and knee-high boots greeted me at the door. I tried my limited Spanish until he cut me off.

“What are you here for, and who do you want to see?” he said in decent English.

“I’m a private investigator from Los Angeles. Looking for information about a missing person. An American woman.”

“Lots of American women go missing down here. We need more specifics.” The Mexican officer gave me a hateful glare. I could tell that he was not overly fond of Yanquis. I leveled with him anyway.

“She was last seen on-camera. A film shoot that went bad at a villa. Peeper Pictures…”

The officer’s eyes got a few inches bigger. He moved from behind the desk and walked me down a hallway that smelled like a million unwashed bodies. He stopped and opened an unmarked door. On the other side was another officer, except this one had a lot more gold on his uniform and a full beard. He also had a cigar in his mouth. The two men exchanged several sentences in Spanish. When they were done, I was told to sit down.

“You are interested in the Rancho Diablo case?” The superior officer poured me a glass of water and pushed it across the desk.

“I guess I am. The only problem is that I have never heard of Rancho Diablo.”

“What you described to my officer here sounds a lot like Rancho Diablo. We found it last year. Several business owners along Federal 1 came to us complaining about an American-run mansion near the coast. A few of the businessmen just wanted to vent about how the Americans weren’t patronizing their cantinas. They wanted us to…shall we say…encourage the Americans to interact more with the locals. We did not do this. However, other businessmen spoke about strange noises and smells that always occurred after dark. One fellow, Javier Morales, who operates an independent taxi service, gave us pretty damning information.”

“What kind of information?” I asked.

“Young- and good-looking women taking his cabs to the villa and then never coming back. To be honest with you, such a complaint would normally matter little to us. But you see, this Morales also said that his cabs would occasionally take men from the villa. Sometimes these men forced the drivers to unlock their trunks. Inside, they would put large canvas bags. Human-sized bags, if you understand me.”

“I do,” I nodded and took my final sip of water.

“We investigated. Sadly, someone must have tipped the owners off.” The officer opened a drawer and handed me several large photographs. The pictures showed the charred walls of the villa. The place had been thoroughly torched. “Still,” the officer continued, “we did find some things.”

New photographs were handed over. These were harder to comprehend. Most of the pictures showed small black bowls, almost shaped like cauldrons, in the middle of charred floors. The final photo in the bunch included a shot of a partially burnt wall that included the familiar image of the Peeper Pictures owl.

“This is the place,” I said. “What are these?” I pointed to the black bowls.

“Those…those are not good. Brujas use such things.” I asked him to clarify. He said: “Witches. They are for grinding up bones and herbs for potions. We found so many in that place, almost as if it were a factory. Some of them contained blood.”

“Animal or human?”

“Both,” he said.

“Have you done any follow-up investigations?” I asked.

“We tried, but we have nothing to go on. Even all this,” here he pointed to the pictures, “is not enough to open a real investigation. You understand?”

“Sure. Mind if I take a crack at it?”

The two Mexican officers glanced at each other before exchanging more words in Spanish. “You want to visit Rancho Diablo?” I nodded my head. “Be our guest. Sergeant Padilla will escort you.”

“Fine by me.”

The sergeant drove a black Ford down Federal Highway 1. I kept quiet and watched the Pacific roll on outside of my window. Eventually, after we caught the last glimpses of the city, Padilla turned left up a winding dirt road that reminded me of home. The road meandered like a snake until it eventually crested a hill. On top of the hill was Rancho Diablo, or rather what was left of it.

“She is all yours,” Padilla said. He made no move to go inside. Instead, he leaned against the driver-side door and struck up a smoke. It was a signal—if I wanted to explore Rancho Diablo, I would do it all by my lonesome. I made the signal for “okay” with my hand. Padilla smiled and gave me one right back.

The smell of smoke was so powerful that I had to pinch my nose when I entered the villa. The hollowed-out guts of the structure made me gag. There really was not much left to see beyond burnt brick. The cauldrons had been cleared out. The only thing that remained was the Peeper Pictures logo. It was still there and still somewhat white. I stared at it for a long time. I started talking to myself. I asked myself questions. Does the owl mean something in black magic? Was Mr. Art involved with witches? The questions seemed ridiculous. Then again, the 8mm film did show a man in a hood killing Sharon Silverwood, or at least a woman I believed to be Sharon Silverwood. Could she have been a sacrifice?

The sound of an approaching car interrupted my thoughts. I moved towards what had once been a window and looked out into the blazing afternoon sun. Sergeant Padilla still stood next to his black Ford. However, a new black Ford arrived. This one also belonged to the Policía Municipal. Two men got out. Both wore plain clothes and had Thompson submachine guns in their hands. They exchanged words with Padilla, who reached into the car and pulled out a revolver. All three men began walking towards me. Here, at last, was the trouble that Lee had promised me.

Matar al gringo!” One of the men shouted. The others joined in with laughter. One of the Thompson gunners let rip with a series of ill-placed shots. After that, the bullets came in thick and heavy. I dove behind the remnants of a wall and tried to wait things out. When the rounds started slicing through and cutting close to my nose, I began crawling my way through the villa. The chalky dust from the adobe coated my lungs, while some unseen shards cut up my hands. I was a coughing and bleeding mess when I finally found a small cutaway. I went prone. After the shooting stopped, I heard Padilla. He sounded close.

“It is time to come out now, Yanqui. You really have no other option.”

I kept quiet and waited for his footfalls to get closer. When they did, I reached out and grabbed his ankle. The Mexican gasped when I managed to pull him down and grab his privates. With one hand holding firm, I used my other to grab his wrist. There, in the darkness, I felt the cold steel of the gun. He tried to wrestle his way out. That was a mistake. I used my knee to pin his shooting arm to the hot adobe. Then, as I felt him squirm underneath me, I head butted him. The blow made me dizzy, but it knocked Padilla out. I reached for his revolver. I used the blunt end to smash the sergeant’s nose flat. I kept hitting until I heard the two other officers approach. I opened the cylinder and saw that all six shots were still left. I thanked Padilla for being so kind.

A shadow waltz occurred inside of Rancho Diablo—I shadowed the two Tommy gun cops, while they did their best to sneak up on me. The cat-and-mouse act lasted until I caught one of them from behind. The Mexican officer gasped hot and sour breath as I pushed a .38 round through his chest. My shot was true and sure, and the man was dead when he hit the adobe dust. The surviving officer let rip with more .45 slugs. My execution of his brother-officer meant that he knew where to find me. And given my generally bad luck, one of the .45s found me. In fact, more than one found me. Blood poured out of my shoulder, hands, and feet. My mitts were ruby red gloves when I picked up the dead officer’s Tommy gun. It hurt to hold, so I wasted no time in firing blindly. That drew the still-living officer’s attention. When he walked into my impromptu trap, I blew out his brown eyes with two shots from Padilla’s revolver. What followed was a preternatural quiet that I did not like.

In that quiet, I realized the enormity of the situation. Three dead Mexican cops and me, a gringo, with a smoking .38. It looked bad because it was bad. The whole ordeal caused me to sweat. I also forgot all about Sharon Silverwood and Peeper Pictures. I focused on running instead. One of the police cars was still running (they hadn’t expected a time-consuming job), so I took it and drove back to the city. The radio squawked the whole time, but it was all Spanish, so I paid it no mind. My body ached too much to care, anyway. I felt woozy. I needed a doctor, but I couldn’t stop anywhere in Tijuana for fear of being captured by Mexican cops. Angry Mexican cops who would take me down to some filthy hole and kill me for plugging their friends. I was in a jam and feeling foggy in the head, so I just kept driving. I drove that black Ford until I came within sight of the border. It was there that I dumped the car. I parked the Ford on some street in Playas de Tijuana. A bunch of hockers and well-dressed men passed by without saying a single word to me. Nobody glanced my way. Blood was not their concern, so nothing stopped me as I limped my way to the border. The Pacific kept me company until I reached the footbridge into California. There, a lean Border Patrol officer with a Texas accent tried to say something to me. More than likely, he asked me about why I was so bloody. I may have mumbled something in response. I cannot say for sure. The nurses later told me that I passed out right there, with one half of my body in Mexico and the other in California.


For all installments of “Dig Two Graves,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3
  4. Part 4