No More Waiting to Die (Part 3)

Chapter Thirty-five

The Scent of Ammonia


It was his lungs that were the concern but when one is addicted and dying it can be dismissed as a small matter. Hell, even the Dane had a bad cough. But the abuse had been severe, just the two of them locking themselves in his room in Mariscal and freebasing. They had both evolved in their technique and intake and the quality of coke was as good as it gets, so it was inevitable that the Dane would up the ante, pushing the envelope just to keep the stakes high.

Noble had been apartment hunting and took a break at the café in Plaza Foch, enjoying the thick black coffee and the people walking by under the baking sun. Reading didn’t stick and people watching was never his thing so he thought he would write something. He felt an urge to give something back to the Dane for his friendship and camaraderie, many images sifting through his mind until one stuck, a hooker who had sat in the corner of the Black Door Brothel and smoked. It was his type of thing, the imagery and scent, the sin and setting, so being a musician Noble/Reno tried his hand at a song, something he had always wondered if he possessed what it took to make a rhyme. And so he wrote under the midday sun…


Noble enjoyed the release of getting the words out of his jumbled head, doubting he would ever show it to the Dane. Maybe he would leave it with his papers to give to him after he was dust for the daffodils. What was interesting was the moment he put down his pen and lit a cigarette he spotted the Dane crossing the street. Having been in Ecuador for almost five months he could see the tourists from the long-term residents by dress, shoes and the way they walked, so the Dane stood out for his height, his understated clothes and his hair that looked all white-blonde in the sun. He raised his arm and somehow he spotted him. That was how it all started, the downward spiral.

“Majeera just left. What a pain in the ass.” Took a seat, lit a smoke and asked what he was doing.

“Not much. Crappy book. Don’t feel like reading. You?” The glimmer in the light blue-iceberg eyes said everything. “Sure, let’s do it,” said Noble, mischief thick, Reno emerging from the afternoon mist. The Dane bitched about his hostel and the grief they were giving him for having so many women at his place.

“And on top of that they won’t give me a light bulb!” That was where he was going: to the hardware store.

Life-altering events can happen doing some mundane chore to such a store, and one never sees it when it happens.


“Is that ammonia?” Crowded shelves, disorganized and light bulbs cheap, the Dane had spotted a bottle of ammonia, the devil’s equivalent to baking soda to make crack. The woman behind the counter, who had noticeably pulled down her cleavage for the foreigners, placed the bottle on the counter. The Dane, in typical fashion, broke open the seal and smelled it.

“I can’t smell anything.”

“Here,” said Noble/Reno. “Let me-“

“Oh fuck!” He only meant to squeeze the metal bottle a little but it dented and spurted up pure ammonia into the Dane’s nose. Always clean shaven, he now had an ammonia moustache, droplets dripping off his nose. Reno tried to suppress his laughter but couldn’t, the Dane wavering between surprise, anger and laughter, finally shaking his head and smiling, then focusing on the large bosom behind the counter.

Noble/Reno had only heard that it was another method to freebase. It wasn’t until later when he spoke to Carlos the Columbian that he learned that mixing cocaine with baking soda was crack but cocaine mixed with ammonia was freebase. Big difference. Baking soda isn’t poisonous.

The Dane haggled and flirted until he had his ammonia and light bulb, making the call to his connection as soon as they stepped outside the feneteria.

“I’ve been looking for this for a long time,” he said. “This is what the boys use at the clubhouse.” Walking quickly like a kid about to get his first bicycle, Noble/Reno struggled to keep up. The only thing he knew about ammonia was it was the ingredient that had almost killed Richard Pryor when he was busy freebasing.

With the drugs secured, as well as cigarettes, two lighters, a yogurt wrapper for its tin foil lid and as well as a medium soft drink for the pipe he would make, Noble/Reno bought some sweet buns and chips, the only things the Dane ever ate, and the only things he had an appetite for. Entering the hostel, Noble took a backseat and Reno stepped forward not expecting much other than a good one-on-one time with the Dane who thirsted to remove himself from his funk from his night with Majeera. Sunny and mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, thoughts of sightseeing or of doing chores flitted briefly through his mind but as soon as they were gone Reno felt the anticipated thrill of learning from the master.

The Dane was always very particular about his environment. The curtains were drawn enough for complete privacy but enough for the sun to shine in, the door locked, the beds tidied and his clothes folded but piled in a mess out of the way. All his tools were spread before him in order: the spoon cleaned immaculately, a small matchbox for the ashes, tissue, water bottle, electrical tape for the foil for the top of the plastic pipe, a cigarette already lit to burn the hole in the side of the soft drink bottle, ashtray emptied and centered on the table, television on to drown out the deep voices of robust discussion. As he had done before, the pipe was flawless – a jailbird who could make anything out of ordinary items.

“I might as well give this to you now.” Pulled out the ten napkins it had taken to get the song right.

“What? I have tissue.”

“I wanted to thank you for being such a good friend.”

“Ah,” hand waving it away, slight uneasiness in his bearing.

“Listen Dane Man, you just keep doing your little engineering thing there and I’ll read it. I can’t write worth tiddly but I do wonder if you will catch where this song comes from.”

“You wrote a song?”

“No, I can’t write songs but I wanted to give you something other than a pack of cigarettes, so I came up with this.” He waved again but this time nodding, eyes focused on the items of utility at his fingertips.

“Be gentle. It’s-. No, you tell me if you know where this took place.”


“It’s called the Smokey Peach.”

A grin so crooked and skin so dry,

Pain so deep I saw and cried,

‘You play?’ she said with glimmering guile,

‘I do,’ I said, ‘with poise and style.’

Mischief appeared, she grabbed my joint,

Hand now coiled to touch my point,

‘A stick like yours is rare for me,

A form so hard it buckles my knees.’

Her eyes alive like flames of fire,

She beamed and stroked and breathed desire,

She pulled her sleeve and proved it true,

A pie she was with a peach tattoo.

I snickered and tickled enjoying my sin,

I knew her gist as she spoke again:

‘A rogue you are, my alpha with spark,

But mischief is mine to leave my mark.’

Knowing its yield was higher than most,

Breaking rules but not to boast.

Laughing with ease and using my tact,

‘I’m good,’ I said ‘and not a hack.’

Her eyes aflame with spears of fire,

She steamed and stoked and seethed desire,

She lifted her shirt and showed her boobs,

A peach she was with nipple tattoos.

Her hands ablaze with heat now dire,

She screamed and soaked my tool of fire,

She flashed her skirt when I called,

A patch she had with peach all bald.

A peach you are and not a pooch,

Creamy and warm and with hooch to boot,

A keeper and breeder, a catch to snatch,

My own sweet peach with no one to match.

Her eyes still smoking with flames now dry,

She beamed and kicked and muted her cry,

She pulled her wig and showed to teach,

A head so bare in the shape of a peach.

Expert at pranks and tricks to lure,

Philosopher and saint, sinner and doer,

Mischief is his, his guide, her God,

Breaking down walls with only a nod.

“Sorry, I was laughing after the second verse. Never heard anything like that before!”

“So you’re saying it’s original.”

“Sure, that’s it. And I know where you got that from. It was that chick in the corner of the brothel, the one who was always smoking.”

“Yep, that was the most important thing – that you could see who it was. A bit crass but what the hell. It was fun to pen. It was too hot to read today.”

“You wrote that today?”

“Just finished the last few lines when I saw you. Strange coincidence.”

“We can work with it, but stop your jabbering and let’s dig in here.”

A new level of care and interest dominated the Dane’s focus as he mixed the coke with ammonia, added water and then burned the spoon with fire, crackling in a higher pitch than was normal. He held the lighter much lower knowing the flammability of ammonia, afraid of the spoon’s contents bursting into an inferno. Calmly, the white power turned into oil, the water evaporated and left a hard chunk of crack that looked like a pulled molar. He had to hold it in his hand and say “See?”

“Good technique with the tech.”

“The only thing I’m not sure about is the mix,” he said.

“Not the same as bicarbonado?”

“I think it’s more. But this is pure. This will be different. I checked every pharmacia in this city but never thought of a hardware store. But this is really pure.” As usual he packed a very large chunk on the bed of ash in the bowl of the pipe and handed it to Reno.

“A gentleman,” said Reno, “but why don’t you take the first hit. It’s me you’re with. You take the maiden voyage.” It was just the response that had made Reno his undisputed wingman, most of the time accepting the first pipe with respect.

“Okay, make sure you keep the flame on it until I pull away.”

“Yeah, yeah.” So in an exaggerated motion the Dane exhaled, loosened his shoulders, smiled like Loki and held the pipe as if it were the elixir to everlasting life. Steady with the flame he patiently sucked the crack, turning it back into a crackling liquid intermixing with the ash, taking puffs deep into his lungs, never wavering his gaze from the behavior of the flame and bowl. Born with Hindenburg lungs! When he pulled away he opened his eyes wide and was about to speak but Reno held his hand up and shook his head.

“I have the floor. You close those eyes and keep the bugger in.” Reno loved his free reign of speaking with this unique man from Denmark. And that was what he did: leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears until he exhaled. Reno knew the drill, that he never took a second hit from the pipe because he got it all on the first try.


“Smells different.”

“That-“ He stopped to witness the complete lack of smoke that came out of his dungenous lungs.

“Yeah, pack me one.” Reno never dared to tamper with the goodies when the Dane was in the driver’s seat. His system was so exact, the ashes and small flakes of crack going into a separate matchbox for perusal later, the pipe bowl scoured and scarped clean, a fresh ash placed carefully and packed down lightly and evenly and then the large rock.


“Yeah, yeah.” The laughter was immense.


“Yeah, you were saying.” He waved his hand. He knew words would only blunt the experience.


“I know man. Ready? No Mickey Mouse with the feugo.”

“You might-“

“Hit it Dane Man!” And so that was when Reno took his first hit of freebased crack. It tasted different, purer but also the chemical in the ammonia was intoxicating, like ether maybe, his heart jumping from fifty to one-fifty in five seconds flat, sweat covering his face, his forehead beading and relaxed, his eyes opened as if for the first time in 48 years. Didn’t dare to speak as he went to the other bed, leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, arms now like feathers, floppy, covering his ears gently so he could hear his nervous system go into overload just like the roar of the ocean in a seashell.

The exhale was watched intently, every detail seen and checked. When Reno spoke his voice sounded distant.


“Is different.”

“Wow. It’s-“ A swirl of epitomes usurped sober thoughts, a whirlwind of ground-breaking insights overwhelmed the sloppiness of his tongue, now numbed along with his lips.

“Nothing came out.” This was his language to be a proud teacher, the Dane disliking those who inhaled and exhaled the medicine like it were a cigarette.


“I know.”

“My heart is-“

“We should have picked up some Valium.” Reno put his hand to his chest and was alarmed at its pace, thinking he was hallucinating. Instead he wiped the sweat from his face after a drip off the tip of his nose. Reno took off his sweater and long-sleeved shirt, sweat already soaked through his t-shirt.

“The rock tastes so pure.” They both moved around their tongues tasting the pure distilled essence of the cocoa leaf. “But the ammonia is more like a chemical.” The Dane, happy with his new concoction, said he’d alter the mix, but instead of less he poured more into the spoon, which made the rock like splintered crystal. They smoked another one and sat there stunned, minds racing, sunlight reflecting the sweat shimmering on the skin, eyes unable to express the profundities streaming through too fast for the tongue, now uncoordinated.

The procedure was repeated with the same finesse and eye for detail but the next was even stronger, having more ammonia in the rock. Words from the poem about the Black Lily raced through Reno’s mind but he didn’t want to open a can of worms that would take too long to explain, but the Dane gushed like a waterfall, speaking of his dozen girlfriends and his frustration with finding one who gave him his freedom to do what he wanted.

“They do give you your freedom though. I mean they know you have a woman in every port.”

“But it’s the little things. Like Majeera this morning asking for money for a pedicure.” This Warren Beatty of Quito had had so many women it was tough to gauge what exactly he wanted.

“Find one who has money who wants you for your genes. You need to have some kids man.” Then it came out, the story of an affair with a married women in Denmark who had a daughter nine months later, the child with the same coloring as the Dane, and unlike the woman’s husband. They watched the child grow and after several years knew with certainty it was his so they promised to keep it their secret.

“Well then you’ve covered that base.”

“I’ve told you before. I will never give up one minute of my freedom after paying my dues in prison. No way. So agreed to take care of her and everything is fine there.”

“Will you ever tell her?”

He thought about it for a moment. “Maybe, when she’s a lot older.”

“How old is she now?”

“About eight or nine. I just can’t do what my brother Lars is doing. The job. The routine. The mortgage. I’m the opposite of him. Mind you I understand why he chose that life. Growing up we didn’t have any structure. My mother being an alcoholic was always bringing guys back from the bar where she waitressed. For years.” The Dane spilled, the fights and the stealing cars and the bikers and the fist fight with his father and his drunkenness with Schnapps at the Christmas table every Christmas, the scenes he caused, the anger he felt, the life of crime he chose, the six-year sentence, the guns and the drugs. Everything. Then his repentance after leaving prison, his seven years of sobriety, his success at business, his love he never married, his relapse four years ago and his decision to leave Denmark to get to the best drugs in the world. A confession, an eruption of honesty like a stream busting through a damn built of balsa wood, confiding in earnest to get it right, not leaving out any detail but not justifying, just getting the causes and effects straight both for him and for Reno.

Both their shirts were soaked, eyes sharp, listening to every word, never wavering in personal thoughts out of respect and with the knowledge the Dane would know. More pipes and the room filled up with ammonia crack smoke ‘til the sun had set and Kate the Brit came over.

“No, I don’t want any but I wanted to see you,” she said. “And you too Noble.”

“Why?” they asked.

“Callum is having his birthday tonight and you both should be there.” The timing could not have been worse, yet Callum was one of the Dane’s best friends who would never organize a birthday for himself. Scottish, dour, smart, dry sense of humor and an accomplished geologist who spent two weeks every month in mining camps looking and drilling for copper and gold, their presence was mandatory. And Kate was not the kind who took no for an answer. The flow could not be recovered, the confession now inhibited, Kate determined to remain and snort her own supply but refusing the pipe, there was a loss, profound, the unloading of the gunny sack now over and done. And once the lines started Kate couldn’t shut up, soon becoming hysterical because of the ammonia smoke build up, complaining of a racing heart and the over-powering smell of ammonia, turning gray in the face, sweating, shaking her head and complaining of the lack of fresh air. So he and the Dane finished what they had cooked, destroyed the pipe and cleaned up their nest of narcotic sin and left for the crowded Irish bar that only served to overwhelm and overstimulate the beautiful human flow that they both had had for a brief moment in time. It was the last and only time Reno ever did freebase crack cooked with ammonia because later that night he thought he was going to expire from a heart attack. It was the last time he and the Dane had a good one-on-one until they went north to San José de Mina to ride horses at a hacienda owned by one of the Dane’s girlfriends.

Chapter Thirty-six

At the Mouth of the Amazon


Finding ones niche enhances the power of creation, the environment nurturing necessary nutrients, the sun and spring water for everlasting life and the spark of hope that ignites the will. Friends don’t grade or grind or judge, their own little corner exposed and shared with trust, brothers of similar priorities and fellow participants in the Great Pilgrimage. The sun aflutter of a childhood memory, a reliving and enlivening of what still can be, an aggregate Feng Shui enhances without imposing, productivity increases without fuss, love is rampant like a loitering odor, a flower in perpetual bloom. God taking note and opening doors, the exploits and artful execution witnessed, mastership manifest and manifold, the right niche exposing natural talent that cannot be erased. These ideas ruffled through Noble’s mind as he walked down the old cobblestone streets of Guapalo.

Noble was tired of living in one room in a hostel with thin walls and a shared bathroom. He knew that the thicker oxygen of the coastal lowlands would tarnish his lungs and turn them into rust so Quito was the best place for him. And so began his apartment search in earnest. It was somehow symmetrical that he was now in Guapalo, the bohemian colony on a cliff where artists and writers lived. He found a little café called Café d’Artes where he relaxed his swollen feet and hands and lungs and throat and eased his aching bones. The view was stunning, volcanoes lined along the horizon, one snow-peaked and the others defining a ridge of rock, clouds obscuring as proof of extreme Andean elevation. Looking north along the green valley, it was the mouth of the Amazon camouflaged in wispy streaks of cloud, and a stream that broke ground leading to the Continental Divide of the Oriente. An old monastery was built onto a magnificent church at the base of the valley, one of the oldest and most stunning of all of Quito’s unmatchable churches, beside the Spanish Embassy surrounded by homes built hundreds of years ago. With the passing of time square concrete homes dotted the cliff at impossible angles. A view to revere, with the sun leaping up from behind the treed walls of rock to the east, the valley vast and open, whispering unrecorded history in a jungle that stirred with wildlife. The river marked a line on the map in the middle part of the world with boundaries dotted by scribbles of selfish men. Only minutes south of the equator, it felt safe here in volcano alley, the plateau a fortress safe from the watchful eyes of the jackboot of authority. It was God’s own nature reserve for hummingbirds and for all things orchid, flowers and foliage intertwined in slow embrace – an Eden of scents and flavored air.

Noble walked down the narrow street towards the church, passing ancient relics of a time past, carriage ways bricked into solid walls, worn by rain and wind. It was here that the first Europeans began a journey across South America back in 1541. So the story goes, Francisco de Orellana went east to look for much needed food for Pizarro’s troops but when he discovered the lush jungles lining the riverbanks he dropped his assignment and followed the river looking for gold. Orellana was obsessed with finding el Dorado and so he and his men traveled the length of the Amazon, which he named after the legendary female warriors of Greece – the Amazona. This was because numerous times women warriors from villages that lined the river attacked him. He lost over half of his 216 men during the journey and took him over eight months to reach the Atlantic Ocean. And it all began here at the church, the lip of Quito and the beginning point to the Amazon River: the river road to the Atlantic.

If he wanted to go to Brazil he would start his campaign here in Guapalo.

He stood in front of Orellana’s statue and was amazed to see that the man had one eye – a patch covering the right. He thought if a Spaniard with one eye could do it nearly 500 years ago wearing heavy armor, a skirt and boots past his knees, then maybe there was a way through the dense foliage to the other side of the world for someone like Noble. It would entail many scars, and many bites. But as life should be! Be brave young lad for destiny awaits! It was a bold stroke, and stands along as one of the greatest adventures in the era of colonization of the New World.

Back up to the main street where the cafes were he bumped into Pedro, the guy he first met when he arrived in Quito.

“Hey, is that you?” His head still shaved except for the tail at the back, shorter and chubbier than he remembered.

“My God, is that Pedro? Is that your name?”

“No way dude! I didn’t recognize you. I mean I did but you’ve lost so much weight.”

“Yeah, I have. Trying my best to eat as much as I can.”

“That would be nice!” Noble could smell the alcohol on him. It was early afternoon.

“I called you once after we first met, but I think you said you were going to Montanita.”

“Good memory man! Yeah, I ended up going to Canoa. Good to get out of Quito sometimes you know, to chill, relax on the beach, scope some babes. You know how it is.” His California upbringing was very much on display.

“So I guess you live down here?” He never saw his place the first day.

“I live right there dude, right behind that wall. Small place but cheap.”

“That’s actually why I’m down here. I’m looking for an apartment.”

“Cool man. This is a great spot to live. It’s safe and it’s quiet and it’s cheap. Have you checked out the cafés up there? One of them my aunt owns. I work in there some times when she needs me. I grew up here. See that hill over there with the trees still on the side? My family owns that. One thing about Guapalo though man is that it’s a small community so everybody knows your business.”

“That shouldn’t affect me I don’t think.”

“It affects everyone dude!” Pedro was unsteady on his feet, the fumes emitting from his pores.

“So do you know of any places for rent right now?” His hand went to his baldhead and he massaged the bone protruding somewhat from his skull, likely emphasized from years of rubbing it.

“Yeah, I do. Did you see the one up there across from the café?”

“Yes, though I was hoping for something a little farther away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Guapalo.”

“Huh, that’s funny dude. No, but there might be one down there past the volleyball court. I used to live over there. It was a good spot but I had to move.”

“I’ve got to get out of the hostel man. It’s driving me crazy. Too claustrophobic.”

“I know what you mean dude.”

“Do you have time now to show where that place is down there?” He pointed past the volleyball court where there was a small side street that looked too narrow to have any car traffic.

“Um, sure but there is one thing I have to do first. Say, do you have a cigarette?” Noble, knowing the worth of nicotine offered him two. Pedro’s attitude softened a little.

“How much do you think the rent is down there?”

“Don’t know man, maybe a hundred? A hundred and fifty? Around there. Not too much, especially compared to Mariscal!” Noble lit his cigarette and had one himself.

“What are the chances of seeing you here? Strange isn’t it?”

“No man. I totally remember you. That was during the three days when those poor bastards died from the contraband booze. That was heavy.” Noble was nodding.

“No drinking for three days. Twenty-nine dead?”

“They say it was hundreds, but they didn’t report it. That stuff is good and real cheap.”

“Smells like gasoline.”

“Ever tried it?”

“No, actually, I haven’t.” A glimmer in his eye.

“Want to try some? I have some in my place.”

“Sure, why not? Like to try things to see what they’re like, you know?”

“I hear you dude. I hear you on that one. Come on.” Pedro led him down a narrow walk to a ten-foot-by-ten-foot room with black mould on the bare cement walls.

“Nice pad. Very comfy.”

“It’s a little small but the rent is only fifty bucks a month. Fuck, I still haven’t paid this month’s rent yet. Been spending my cash on crack. That’s another good thing about Guapalo, my dealer is right across the street!” Noble suddenly recollected that that was where they had gone his first day nearly six months ago.

“Yes, that is handy.” Pedro pulled out a plastic water bottle filled with what smelled like fuel.

“It’s pretty strong bro. So don’t freak out or anything. I like it though.” He took a healthy swig with a dramatic flourish. “Ahh. Burns going down though.” He handed it to Noble. The smell almost made him wretch. He took a small swig also followed by a dramatic flourish. Gag reflex on maximum for a moment.

“That should be illegal!” Kept it down and knew it would be the last time.

“It is dude!” Pedro thought that was funny, though Noble suspected he was laughing at his flush cheeks and his moment of peril of upchucking.

Harsh.” Reno took a moment to let his mouth cool. “Moonshine.”

“Totally! But I can get this stuff down here in Guapalo from a guy down the street, a whole liter for two-fifty or sometimes two twenty-five.”

“Two dollars and twenty-five cents?” He nodded.

“It’s strong and it lasts. But don’t drink too much or it will bite you in the ass!” Pedro helped himself to another swig and then put it away.

“Want another ciggy?” Pedro took one and they went outside to the street, Noble moving towards the volleyball court.

“Yeah, okay I’ll show you where there might be one. It’s the same landlady I had that’s all. I guess it’s okay if I see her.” Past unresolved business.

An old woman with two teeth greeted them kindly, speaking in indecipherable Spanish. She nodded and then led them upstairs to a thirty-foot balcony and a private apartment, snug but with a bathroom and kitchen. Noble started to laugh when he saw it.

“I guess there isn’t a fridge or stove?”

“Ah no problem bro, I know where to get some stuff really cheap. At the Mercado Negro – the black market. You know where it is?”

“I’ve heard of it but never been able to find it.”

‘It’s hard to find, that’s why!” Laughter and fumes of diesel.

“And the rent here is?” Pedro engaged the landlady.

“A hundred. Pretty decent for a hundred bro. Great view. And private. I know where you could pick up a table and chairs and a bed. No probs.” Noble struggled not to break out laughing. He would have paid four hundred a month just for the view. It was magical and totally private, a source of never-ending inspiration and awe. He didn’t even want to think about it. He knew he wanted to inhabit this spot. It was if he had seen the view before in a dream.

Downstairs at the small general store the landlady operated, he paid the first two month’s rent, giving her cash. She appeared overwhelmed at all the money. Noble said he would move in tomorrow.

“She’ll clean it up today she said,” Pedro translated. “And dude, if you want we can go to the market. If I buy them they’ll give me cheaper prices because I’m not a gringo. Come on, I’ll show you. But let me do the talking. You keep walking as if you’re not with me. Cool?” It was a great deal. They grabbed a table and chairs, blankets and a hotplate. Pedro insisted on giving him his spare mattress because he wanted to clear out his second room. In an hour he was all set up. Dumping them off at the apartment, he and Pedro settled down with beer and food and bought some crack from his dealer. It was good crack but extremely expensive for the amount. Noble knew he could cook all he wanted in his new apartment. Couldn’t wait to have his private Idaho with the million-dollar vista.

Chapter Thirty-seven

Broken and Renewed


Part of wisdom is knowing that you cannot change someone despite how much you want to change or help them. It is painful but just ensuring they know you have their back can be enough that might help them over time. These were Noble’s thoughts after he hung up the phone, surprised to hear his brother’s voice calling from the airport in Houston.

He would have just enough time to pick up some goodies, catch a taxi to the airport and have a room made up for him before he arrived from the States. He had actually bought a ticket for Quito and was arriving in four hours. It was typical Rex that he hadn’t given him any forewarning but that was okay because if he were completely honest, he needed his brother now. And he wanted to finally relate to him as he was now. Reno would be in charge with this one because Noble was too petty, too immature and weak and picky to let the rough edges of past injustices rile him. Noble was afraid and terrified of the bully Rex, but Reno couldn’t wait to slap him around a bit, talk man-to-man, and hear his voice and say the things he wanted to say. He had had time to relax and decompress from the regular partying with the Dane, having the chance to suntan on his private balcony and read some books that he needed to read.

But Noble was left behind after calling his connection Ricardo, bringing a cold six-pack of beer in his bag, his leather draped over his thinned shoulders, his cowboy boots giving him an extra inch, his beard full and hair long. But even Reno hadn’t expected the shock of seeing his brother walk out from baggage claim into the scrum of Quito’s international airport.

Hair passed his shoulders, scarred and worn leather covering his biker vest, slouch of the shoulders and pocked skin, Noble thought the man was a bum and surprised he would be allowed through customs but it was the way he walked that caused him to shout “Brother!” Reno insisted on quaffing two quick beers in the taxi on the way to the airport so inhibitions had been waved for the long-overdue meeting of brothers.

Rex walked directly to him, face tense, eyes opened wide, searching the man before him, not seeing Noble but rather his doppelgänger.

“Aaron, holy shit man!” The hand scarred and blistered pounced on his arthritic shadow of a hand.

“I’m so damn happy you’re here.” Reno took the bag from him, put in down and embraced him, the first in their adult lives. The smokes and booze emitting from him, Rex noting the same. There was a brief tear and shuddering of his solar plexus, a cry that died as soon as it was born, but in that moment countless scars and apologies were exchanged and accepted. All in a brief moment of the embrace.

“Let’s get the puck outta here and let me show you this town.” The obvious pain he had in lifting Rex’s bag made the elder brother grab it from him, only a nod without eye contact. The bluster had gone out of his sails so Reno stepped it up. The thin rake of a man carved from wood and taller employed his best swagger, thirsting badly for a cold beer.

“Taxi! Plaza Foch por favor, mi hermano es aqui para Americano! Fiesta tiempo senor. Etiendes?”

“Si señor.”

“Quanto es?”

“Quatro dineros.”

“Ocho dollars señor. Cerveza en route, si?” The driver nodded, knowing the tip would be big.

In the back seat they both sighed, Rex put his hand on his shoulder.

“Damn you’re thin.”

“Smoke?” Marlborough red was taken, his own zippo spark the fuego. “Wait. Keep your window up, and give me your hand.” Pure Dane Man manifesting in Reno. “Like this.” He straightened the back on the hand, lifting the thumb high to create a safe repository for a small mound of the best coke in Ecuador. “A sample. Time is precious. Get to it biker brother!”

Then he reached in and took out two large Pilsners, cracking each open with his lighter.

“No messing around.”

“Damn right. You flew here and I’m going to show you a good time.” Rex looked warily at the taxi driver but Reno shook his head.

Todos bien hombre?”

Si. Bueno. Bueno.” Reno offered him a cigarette that was taken with urgency. “No rapido senor. Mi hermano queires Quito porque es bonita!” Drunk with relief, opportunity and a good buzz, Noble let Reno run the show, his heart not wanting time to tick by. He grabbed his brother’s hand again and gave him a larger amount.

“That’s what we call a small Mount Fuji.” Rex looked at the amount and was nervous losing some of it in the crosswind, paranoid of cops and onlookers and the fear of Ecuador’s equivalent of Homeland Security. “No worries. We’re cool in here. Trust me. But don’t fuck around man!” Rex, boggled but hearing language he understood, followed suit with a large hit, leaving half of it on his nose. Reno, savoring the moment looked at him with courage and irony etched in his face, lines seen for the first time by the brother who had spent his life cutting him down for sport.

“This is good shit. Can’t feel my lips.”

“Here, this is for you. It’s virgin and I cut it for you. Don’t let anyone else use it. I have mine. It’s poor etiquette otherwise.” He handed him a short angled straw. “Don’t use the bills. And don’t ask me why.”

“Hah! Damn right brother! Damn right. Here, a toast to you and your new God Damn life here!”

“May it last as long as possible!” They drank as they skimmed over potholes, teeth hitting the glass, foam covering their hands, both lowering the bottle below the back side of the front seats. A secret grin of mischief. Their first moment of crime shared, not a word, only the thrill of comradery and sin in this Andean South American gem of a country.

“You wanna try something new? Try this.” Reno handed him his pipe packed with yellowish base on a bed of tobacco.”

“What the fuck?”

“It’s a derivative of the candy, called ‘base.’ Poor man’s crack. Tastes like nothing you’ve ever had. Just like a hash pipe. You should be good at that.” Laughter at the same instant, the flush of booze gaining speed, the glee of coke opening the doors to an endorphin rush without borders. “And use this lighter. Your Zippo will be too sloppy.”

“Listen to you man. You’d fit right into the clubhouse!” His huge hand grabbed the back of his neck, brotherly abandon never expressed now manifest on the bumpy roads of Amazonas Avenue in the heart of the Andes. Rex smoked the pipe, crinkled his face, lines deeper then Reno’s, the exhale straight at the taxi driver.

Excusé señor,” said Reno, rolling down his window quickly, the driver waving his hand and chuckling. “Mi hermano es pocito loco. Or, todo loco!”

Si, si.”

“Blow the smoke not in this man’s face bro. Uncool.” It happened, just like that. A change in hierarchy, of empirical knowledge, of a courage to speak directly without personal insult, as instruction, the Dane’s way applied with poise. It was a nod of respect from the biker that meant everything to Noble, frozen and amazed at Reno’s swagger and fearlessness.

“Now that’s a new one for me. Call that bugger base?”

“You’ll see. The boys smoke it on the sidewalk and cops walk by and look the other way. Reeks too so they know. Cops only bust the blacks here.”

“How it should be.”

“Listen, it’s dangerous here so just be cool and follow my lead. It’s nothing like the States, unless you’re in Spanish Haarlem.”

“Yes sir!”

“I didn’t think you would come, King Man.” New nickname coined.

“I am the King. You remember that little brother.”

“With respect.” He offered his hand, green knuckles, reptile skin, bones knotted but he kept it there unafraid of ridicule. The handshake gave Rex what he wanted, that respect that all bikers demand and get, even from a younger, smart-ass brother.

“Let’s go to a Dutch bar. Great patio, Gets the sun about now.”

“Dutch are good people.”

“You got that right, but first let’s get to my apartment and drop off your bag. And I’ll show the real stuff.” He regarded his younger brother, holding his eyes on him, taking in the new man beside him.

“Jesus Aaron.” And that was all he said.


The rough cobblestones, the graffiti, the Spanish embassy nestled beside the cathedral in the valley needed no promotion. Window down, thick perfumed air blew his long hair back, half grin perked by the thrill brewing in his gut, saddened and proud to finally have a brother with some balls – with his own personality.

“Okay, let’s make some crack.” The hesitation by Rex surprised him. “Basically, as you know, baking soda and the candy with water like this.” Settled right down, beers fresh, bags in the corner, private balcony drenched with Andes sun, hand holding the spoon without nerves.

“We got guys who bake the stuff. We just smoke it!”

“Because it’s purer down here, as pure as it gets, the baking soda distills the impurities and the crackle of the rock is pretty damn crisp.”

“Pretty damn crisp is it? You shoulda got this damn disease thirty years ago.” Noble allowed his bottom lip to quiver but Reno shook his head to keep the boy at bay.

“What the fuck are ya gonna do?”

“Well bloody said. You know what you need dude, you need a new God damn name. Give me some time. I’ll get one for ya.” Reno pointed with his finger, cigarette dangling from his lips, motioning to the finer points of what makes a good rock. “

“Take it right down to the oil, if not the rock is crumbly and not as potent and tasty. Prefer it to pack a good punch. See?” The molar-shaped rock placed on his table.

“That’s it? From that Mount Fuji?”

“Yields are higher with good shit. And this is the best.” He told him about Paul from the SAS and the bomb from the light bulb and getting the nod from his dealer. “You smoke out of a stem pipe?”

“Yeah, the glass pipe.”

“None here that I can find, so this is what we do.” Carefully the cleaned pipe was loaded with ash, then he cracked a big rock in two and handed it to him gently. “Smoke this puppy but take it cool man. Just nurse the rock down to oil, let it seep into the ash and then keep sucking as long as there’s smoke. But keep the bugger in your lungs. The object is to have no smoke in your exhale.”


“Not with high quality tech like this.”

Tech. Good one.” Rex, now serious, smoked the wooden pipe, taking his time, a natural maestro, in the genes. Just as he was about to speak up went Reno’s hand.

“Don’t talk! This is my casa and so you hold those goodies in until you turn green.” The Dane’s presence felt, a sly grin fictitious but there. When he did exhale, hardly a smidgen of smoke.

“Well isn’t that-“

“Tastes good eh?”

“Wow my head!”

“Have a seat. Take a load off. Kick off your boots, rip off your shirt, suck on a beer and let me throw on some tunes. You’re on vacation. And here.” He handed Rex a map. “Think about where you want to ride when we rent some six-fifties.”


“Yep. Cops ride ‘em. Easy to find here. Best bike for the terrain. Seriously Rex, take a load off and relax. International flights are anything but relaxing.”

“Even after a dozen drinks.”

“What’d you get from those Banditos? A doctorate in drinking?”

“And you? A doctorate in making crunt?” The glimmer of the eyes, the same ocean blue, locked and laughed, the word hanging there brilliant without any need of explanation.

The shirts came off, new tattoos etched and inked telling a story of his life, never seen by Noble/Reno before. They sat with their heads back letting the UV rays burn and singe and evaporate worry and past beefs as if a shallow puddle fighting a losing battle with the power of the sun along zero latitude. It was only when he got up for another round of beers that Rex asked about it.

“I have the illness in my lungs, which you can see by the bruising, and in my stomach and of course my arms are fucked. Look at my elbows.” The fluid trapped in skin like an elephant’s. “It might be in my kidneys, in fact I’m pretty sure it is. My piss is almost orange. Because it’s the old dead muscle cells being expelled. All that tissue turns to collagen. Like my face. I don’t know if you want to touch my face but you can feel how hard it is here along my cheek.” To his utter amazement the brawny biker sat up and gently ran his nicotine-stained fingers along his cheek, just enough to feel the hard matter hidden by derma.

“Shit, that’s heavy. You in pain?” Noble had an answer ready but Reno took a swig to consider his reply.

“Not pain. Stiff maybe, some days.” He was in a lot of pain but that was for him. That was his. And no one else’s burden. “Lungs are bad though. But hey. I’m not going to die today! Cheers man.” And that was as close to the bone as they got about the fatal illness that would take his little brother before his time.

He told him about Francisco de Orellano and crossing the continent from the church below them, his one eye, the female warriors and naming the river the Amazon, idle chatter of life here in Ecuador and the Dane who was now deep into cooking crack with ammonia, all as if the previous 48 years had never been littered with petty resentments, both aware of the profound loss of those squandered years.

Neither of them had ever really had a brother.

“How long are you in town for?”

“Nine days. I leave next weekend.”

“Okay, that’s groovy.” He sighed and for the first time felt true enjoyment hanging out with his brother Rex. “About the tech, just be careful with the straw I gave you. Don’t cut the inside of your nose. It’s not cut with the crap that eats away at your membrane so you can be liberal with your intake. If you have too much you’ll feel it here.” He drew his finger across his throat. “It can be tricky because of its purity. It won’t sting when you snort it. Just saying to give you a head’s up. So enjoy. Damn I’m happy you’re here!”

“Me too Reno. Me too.” He stopped and took his seat beside him.


“Because you always talked about some guy named Reno when you were a kid as if he was Billy the Kid. Suits you. Reno. Wasn’t he a follower of Kit Carson or something? I can’t remember but yeah, that’s what I’ll call you. You mind?” The beer and the coke and his company all crescendoed leaving him peaking and freaked out but comforted at the inexplicable symmetry of the moment.

Chapter Thirty-eight

Seizing the Moment


Sometimes a moment in time is all you have, a pre-cognitive understanding that what is in front of you will never happen again and can last forever if played well. This was Reno’s thought just before he asked his brother the one question that would define their visit.

“You tired old boy?”

“Hell no, bro. I got it in my genes. No, tired isn’t part of my vocab, you know what I mean? We ride for days sometimes and just snort some crystal or pop an upper. I’m good Reno. Bring it on!”

 “Right then, then you get your big boy pants on and let’s hit the town. I know what you want and I’m going to show it to you so we have a memory. We’re going to make the best of this so don’t be shy.” Laughter echoed off the cathedral, the landlady was sure to have caught the thunder.

“Don’t be shy! I was about to say that to you.” Reno went to his bedside table and took out all his instruments and supplies and tools.

“Right. You liked the base?”

“Tasty base, sure man. I dig it. Have a high tolerance. So you don’t worry about me kid.” The word dangled just briefly. “I can take care of myself Reno.”

“Groovy. So I’m stocked on tech. You have your supply. If I were you I’d bring it all. And here, take these two bags of base. And this matchbox. Pour some into the matchbox for easy filling of this.” He handed Rex his old pipe. “This is now yours. Functional but the metal gets hot on the lips. That’s why I switched to the wood pipe.”

“Got it señor.”

“Our game plan is open so whatever you want to do we can do it.”


“The only thing I want to do is stop off at a store where I want to give you a gift.” He lifted his jeans a bit to reveal the unique design, custom-fit leather boots. “No, don’t say it. They’re super cheap but they measure your feet and you can pick any type of design. They’ll last you a lifetime. It’s close to the pub and Rafael is a cool guy. Change your socks if you have to. I am.”


“There are certain pubs where you can do a line in the can and some you shouldn’t. I’ll letcha know, but otherwise if you want a hit just go out to the street into a doorway and do your business. Cops usually don’t bust foreigners but employ some tact, get me?”

“Gotcha Reno Man!”

“As far as I know there aren’t any Angels or Banditos here so your patch should be a good conversation piece. I know a few guys who would be interested to talk shop about your club.” Nodding, Rex took out a baggie and awkwardly unraveled the tape holding the spout tight.

“I have an extra clip.” He removed a metal clip from some papers and gave it to him. “Once you open a baggie, twist it shut and pinch it with this. It’s the best tool. And take this, A hairpin is the best tool for a clogged pipe. It’s made of steel these things.”

“It’s going to-“

“No, not unless you put it all in one of these.” He took an empty package of Marlboroughs and handed it to him. “Tough to find tobacco pouches here so that’s the next best thing.”

“That beast you have is serious.”

“It is. The other thing while we’re going over the house rules is the Nigerians. If they ask for a smoke give them one, but never give them money. Just trust me on that.”

“I’m not one to hand out smokes to homeless blacks bro.”

“I respect that, and it’s your call. So take my words as you wish.” Surveying the instruments and bags of dope on the table, Reno spoke thus: “Let’s load up a bit more and then split. I’ll cook a bit of crunt and put it in your matchbox. But try not to bend it. Keep in your breast pocket. I’ll tell ya, nothing beats a quick hit from the crunt pipe.” The laughter was slow, then built, then was manhandled to a mischievous plateau, each laugh a mirror of the other’s.

“Thanks Reno. You’ve become a good man. And I mean that. This is all good form dude.”

“I know it is. But you’re my brother. And I haven’t been much of a brother for a hell of a long time. But let’s not go there. We have now and that’s what I’m going to master. Capiche?”


“And whatever you do, don’t tilt your machine. That’s really bad form here, and dangerous as hell. And I’m not physically strong enough to handle you, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

“And you?”

“No, no. Don’t worry about me.”

“You know what? I don’t think I will.”

“And keep your goodies to yourself. Some guys frown on it, like a few of the chaps we’ll see at the first bar. Old timers a bit. Rum and bourbon and beer and nicotine are their medicines.” With that, Reno cooked one whole two-gram baggie and split it both ways.

“Now that’s a friggin pipe!” Rex, happy, mellow, relaxed and now his true brother.

“If you have coke in your nose or wherever, the code word is ‘soccer.’”

“So if you have some schnay on the tip of your nose or in your moustache, I just say ‘soccer?’”

Perfecto. Now we can go.” Reno called his regular taxi man and they left for a night on the town in Mariscal.


“Alberto, this is my brother. Mi hermano, Rex. Hoy aqui en Quito. Motorcycleta hombre el grande.” Alberto the taxi driver, loyal and honest and happy to be part of a small group of wealthy expat partiers, turned as he drove to give him respect, and even managed to shake his hand.

“You know this scallywag do ya?”

Nosotros amigos mi hermano,” he replied for Alberto, whose English varied depending on his mood.

Mucho gusto,” he said.

En Espanol, his nombre es Rein. Or King. En Latino.” Alberto nodded, but was scared of the big man with long hair and tough façade. Reno packed one last pipe before hitting the Corner Pub, knowing it would be difficult to get away with any tech on the premises.

“You’re the man Reno.” This time Rex blew the acrid blue smoke out the window. “Damn that taste. Makes me want some more.”

“I know exactly what you mean, so let’s do it.” When he slapped his thigh it hurt, the pain piercing, unbuffered by muscle or meat. Employing the same etiquette as the Dane, the big first pipe went to Rex. His reaction was amazement. Yes, Rex thought to himself, the little boy Noble has gone. Thank God!

“Well said,” he replied, to the words unspoken. “Finish up. We’re almost there.”

“To Reno and the King Man,” he said, clinking bottles. Rex’s beer disappeared in the same manner as the brewer in Canoa. Reno persevered in a few hits, able to get it all down before Amazonas and Calama.

Mejor fiesta esta naches Alberto.”

Si. Bueno. Barracho you telephono, okay?”

No problemo hombre. See you later.”

Toné had bought his own table for the patio, longer and higher than any other where he sat sprawled in front of his seven-year old rum, bottle of Coke, bottle of water and imported Dutch tobacco.

“My friend, this is my brother Rex. Calls himself the King.” Head shiny and bald, clean shaven and massive in his ripped Harley Davison jacket, Toné immediately saw the Bandito patch.

“Well he must call himself that for a reason.” Together the mass of flesh in their handshake could have caused an earthquake in China. “You a drinker?” They both laughed from the gut, heads turned from crowded tables, two huge men lining each other up. “Well then take a seat.” Toné tapped the window behind him with his glass, his style of ordering.

“What do ya ride? Little Boy?” Toné looked at Reno.

“Did you tell him?”

“He didn’t tell me shit.”

“The new chrome with the longer handlebars.”

“Cops stop him on the street just to check out his bike. Don’t even ask him for papers.”

“It’s a good bike. Popular with the boys at the club.”

“You a-“ Rex opened his outer jacket and showed a badge. “Heard they’re great cruisers.”

“One of the best.”

“You like rum?”

“If it isn’t the cheap shit.”

“Noble! How’d you know this man speaks my language?” Reno was all smiles. “This is rum. Not the five-year, the seven-year.”

“How much for a bottle?”

The massive hand waved through the air as if a mosquito was there.

“A fifty-fiver,” said Reno. And then pointed at the number on the bottle.

“Have any idea what that number means bro?” He picked it up as he light his cigarette, squinting through the smoke.

“This is bottle 284 for the year.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about your brother? He obviously got all the brains.” The laughter bellowed as the fresh glasses arrived, Toné only pouring his own. Unwritten etiquette never to dictate another man’s mixture.

“This is a sweet piece. Why the fuck haven’t you hit 300? Too busy being a pussy?” Toné’s laughter caused him to cough.

“Getting soft in my old age.”

“Bugger that.” Motorcycles, rum, women in Quito, boots, his bald head; all of it went under the chopping block, nothing left sacred, nothing said without bluster, one-upping ‘til the laughter was a blur of lions roaring. Reno enjoyed every moment of it, fielding Frank and Bill from the bookstore and others who wanted to see this man who went toe-to-toe with Toné, in his element, in his cups and on his throne. Even Leo came out chest out, chin up, hair slicked back, looking every bit the Special Forces vet, scars still pink from his stint in Africa. Another hand from a separate gene pool, the pressure in the grip bone-crushing to anyone with osteoporosis.

“Heard you run a good ship here Leo. Loyal clientele. Important shit that is.” Never had Reno seen Leo appear smaller than another man, but he was scoping out this new breed of biker, the hidden sibling of the man who was thin and wispy in comparison, always scrunched over scribbling in his journal.

“Good bunch here.”

“You sell any bourbon? Don’t want to drink the Dutchman’s stash all night. He’s gotta get to 300 on his own.”

“Damn right he does. We got bets on it.”

“I can see you have Jimmy but what about Stewart’s?”

“I think we have one bottle left.”

“It’s mine then. Bring her out and pour yourself one. Can’t work all God Damn night. That’s why you hire women!” Three booming guttural eruptions, tremendous explosions of relief and respect, the fourth not as loud but reverberating much longer than the big men.

“I think I will.” With two bottles on the table, eight hundred pounds between the three of them, plus the leathered Reno, women hovered like moths to light, giggling and drinking more from the laughter that didn’t stop, masters at their own brand of humor, dialects different, perspective the same. They were the masters and it wasn’t their problem others couldn’t keep up or take it on the chin. The humor was hard, cutting, sharp but without personal malice, an art form raised to a level that enthralled the eavesdropping onlookers and old men wishing they still had the thunderous mettle that commanded attention and attracted women like a pheromone by sound.

“I want to say something to you fellas. This here Reno, my brother, and me have been estranged for too long but today and tomorrow and until we’re six-feet under we’re brothers, blood fucking brothers. Here’s to Reno.” It was the best damn thing Noble had ever heard.

“Noble? What is that, your nickname?”

“He was Reno as a kid but it went dormant somewhere along the line. Maybe I was too tough on the guy but with an alcoholic mother and a father who fucked off, we were all pissed off. But I knew he had it in him. Reno. That’s his name now. Reno Noble. Damn good man.” It might have been the most meaningful moment of his life, eyes piercing, nods solemn, each knowing his heart was good, weaker than theirs but equal in tenor and purpose. He drank down the bourbon, leaned back and let the wetness of his eyes be seen by each. They all knew he was sick and addicted, one even knew he was dying. Toné nodded with earnest sincerity, Leo grabbed his shoulder and kept it there and Rex had never looker prouder.

Chapter Thirty-nine

A Recent Past Discovered


Little acts of kindness when a man is in need can have a ripple effect still in play weeks and months after the moment of compassion. It is born from a human understanding that all have pain and that some who ask for help have overcome their pride and squashed their ego for the sake of easing the omnipresent sting of injustice and underhanded guile from the herd of evildoers who are reckless and insensitive in defining moments of another man’s life. This was Reno’s thought when they strolled to the bank machine after leaving the Corner Pub after midnight.

“I see what you mean about dark corners and danger on the streets,” said Rex. Gangs of Ecuadorian youths loitered close to the three bank machines lined up under lights, guarded by security guard with an M16 over his shoulder. Noble/Reno had become accustomed to the sight.

“Just be cool man.” Reno could feel it. It was the end of the month and most were waiting for cheques on the first. Addictions were in the red. A huge wad of bills went into his pocket, but his composure was nonchalant, showing no fear as the Dane had taught him.

A skinny black man approached, Rex put out his hand to push him away.

“Cigarette?” he asked.

“No, fuck off,” said Rex. Reno pushed his brother aside.

Si hombre. Frios esta naches, no?” The skinny man rubbed his hands together, scared of Rex, shivering in his t-shirt, looking miserable.

Si Fria.”

“Ah! Fria! Estupido!” They shared a laugh when Reno pointed at his own head. “Para ti hombre. No, dos.” He gave the man two cigarettes and lit one.

Gracias.” Clusters of scars deeply etched in his cheeks and forehead, thin and addicted, he bowed and patted Reno on the shoulder.

“Don’t,” was all he said to Rex, posture stiff, ego stifled. “Loosey gooesy baby. Get that saunter back, and keep that damn chin of yours down. Lose the haughty. We’re walking down Calama and this is where the boys are. Stay cool. It’s the end of the month and most are jonesing for a fix.”


“I asked you to trust me. So please Rex. Let it go and put faith in your little brother.” Handed him a cigarette to distract his aggressive posture. “Don’t use your God damn Zippo either.” He stopped, angry, but some Ecuadorians saw him and began to gather around him, causing Rex to catch up with the slouch shouldered, open jacketed, nonchalant Reno, head straight ahead, eyes checking for danger, sucking on his cigarette.

“Where do you go from here?!?” yelled a drunken Ecuadorian, coming close to Reno. The hand went out and smile materialized, looking the Ecuadorian right in the eye.

Exacto!” he said back, close enough to pat him on the shoulder.

“Where do you go from here?!” Reno kept walking without looking back, hand up again and half-turned.

“Well said hombre!” Encounter felled, loiterers now without interest, comments in Spanish at the big man swaggering on their turf. Reno didn’t wait or look back. Then Carlos the Columbian appeared.

“Noble! Hombre! Mucho Tiempo man!” Stoned and with some dangerous dudes, their embrace was symbolic, hug and handshake and a cigarette offered after Rex had caught up.

“Living in Guapalo ahora, neuvo apartmento” he answered, keeping things light. “Mi hermano. Rex. This is Carlos. Cool guy from Columbia.” Uneasy handshake, Carlos’s red eyes paranoid and nervous, glancing to his posse.

“Careful tonight Noble. Peligroso. Hombres are how do you say?”

“Restless. A little chippy!” The way he said it, the enunciation slightly comic, diffused the tension, Carlos slapping him on the shoulder, dragging from his smoke.

“Chippy! Bueno!”

Mi hermano y mi vamos to Pacha para cerveza. Con vosotros?”

No. Aqui.”

“Todos bien?”

“Todos bien.” Shook hands and they went their separate ways. Again Reno didn’t look back for his brother, but he caught up with long strides and kept quiet.

“It’s a long story,” he said. “Here.” Reno stopped under a palm tree, casually smoked and looked around, finding a buffer of space between Carlos’s boys and blacks on the street corner. “Let’s relax and have a pipe. You’re freaking me out.”

“How do you-“

“Because I’ve lived here for six months and I have earned respect.” He cleaned his pipe casually. “Crunt or base?”

“Ah. Crunt you cracker.”

“Good call. Listen, I’m going to talk while I do my thing here, keeping my eyes to myself, not bothering anyone with stares. Rex!”

“For fuck sakes.”

“Stay cool bro. I want you to diffuse your posture. Just like me, like you were punched in the stomach, not too much but enough. Look at me or the cracks on the sidewalk. You’re a new Rotweiller on another dog’s turf. Body language is everything. Besides, Carlos has got my back. Here. Smoke it like molasses.”

“Don’t make any fucking sense to me.”

“You know exactly what I mean. Don’t play games with me. Smoke the fucker!” Rex was smart enough to use the Bic lighter for the fuego. “Much better bro. Do you realize how big you are? The three of you tonight really did take the cake. Bloody hell, I wish I had a camera.


“Keep it in. And yes, you should. Go riding with Toné. He’s got two bikes. I can’t handle one ‘cause of my hands. But you should man. He’s not usually so…so forthcoming.” The exhale was void of smoke, Reno snatching the pipe from him, quickly packing a pipe for himself, no fanfare, posture mute. Then he started to walk, Rex getting the hang of it, eyes glazed now tempered by the cocoa leaf.


“A few more blocks but trust me. Pacha is where we want to be. And that’s the last time I’m going to say those two words, got me?”

“Okay Reno, I think I’m getting you now. I see the game.”

“Remember. When they attack they do it in fours or more. Us together we’ll be all right.” Just then Max stepped out from the gang of blacks on the corner.

“Yo! Hombre!”

“Max man! I thought you took off to South Africa.” Seldom had anyone ever earned as much respect as Max. Son of a king, he sized up Rex with eyes cold as steel.

“Nah, not like this. You know?” He had been living on the street since a fight with Jamal.

“Fuck man, I hear you on that one. Royal dignity.” They embraced, his leather jacket finest quality, his snake skin boots polished and white with light brown. A player. Eyes on Rex. “This is my brother from the States, Rex. Brother, meet a son of a real king.” Both of them sized each other up, hands kept at bay, posture not budging for anyone.

“You got one hell of a brother here King. One hell of a guy. Noble’s part of the family so don’t you worry. I got his ass.” Handshake light, the knuckle bump awkward.

“You still out on the-“

“Yeah, but I got it covered. You got my number. Call me.” Reno offered Max a cigarette but just one, pride of a prince can be explosive. He had seen it before with a man irate enough to spend ten minutes insulting him over a three-dollar debt until Max sat down beside him and in a voice smooth as peanut butter threatened to have him killed.

“I will man. Good to see you. Stay cool man. And stay away from that pipe of yours.” Exuding cool, backing up in half steps as if allowing the brothers to pass, but the pipe comment melted his armor.

“We’re due y’know.”

“Next time.” A block from Pacha, Rex spoke.

“Prince, my ass.”

“His father was one of three kings in Nigeria but was run out of the country by one of the warlords, so now he lives in a compound in South Africa exclusively for displaced royalty. Never have I met a man with more cool. One night at Finn’s he had the pool table for two hours, hustling every cocky bugger, sharing a hidden grin with me every time he’d purposely miss, double the bet and then clean the table. Max defines what cool is, man.”

They jumped the line-up and Reno shook hands with the bouncer, no words, only a nod. A hand went up and the doorman grudgingly let Rex in, after Reno shook his hand. It was too loud for words.

Again Reno didn’t hesitate, walking to the bar where the bartender cracked open two large Pilsners and got his dollar tip. Rex, still awkward, sauntered and squinted in the flurry of multi-colored light beams shooting out of an overzealous moonball.

“Follow me.” Rex followed him into a washroom utterly disgusting, layers of piss and toilet paper and graffiti, not safe enough to touch anything. Reno went into a stall and closed the door after Rex stepped in.

“This is-“

“I know but it’s a wise move. You’ll see. Hand please.” Rex eagerly stretched out his hand with the proper tilt, receiving a rather large Mount Fuji, Reno taking one himself. “This is the last stop before we go upstairs to the VIP section.” Reno took another big hit, Rex put out his hand like a dog expecting a treat.

“Soccer?” Rex had forgotten the code word. “You have a little in the left nostril. Soccer?”

“You have a bit in your right.” Both brothers picked and cleaned until each passed the soccer rule.

The upstairs was roped off but Reno removed the rope, stepped through and then replaced it. Halfway up the stairs they passed a US Marine in formal uniform.

“Hope you boys get half price drinks up here,” Reno only turning back when he heard the boots stop.

“Wish we did.”

“Looking crisp dude.” The Marine saluted Reno, Rex stood slack-jawed at his younger brother’s approach to all.

“Noble! You drunken hooligan!” It was Jon Hill, engineer and successful businessman who had a taste for the White Lady and good taste in music, a good man, young but wise in the ways of the world. Shared similar politics, many a word said off the record.

“When are you off to China? Two weeks?”

“About that.” He introduced Rex to the group, which included David, major concert promoter and dedicated fan of Ozzy Osbourne. With beers and the Marines looking formal and stiff, Reno told Rex of David’s recent exploits.

“Aerosmith was here and Deep Purple, and next year it’s who? Roger Waters and Supertramp?”

“There’s something about your memory Noble that fails to make me lose faith in the future of humanity.” Lazy eye from injury, big like Rex, a musician and owner of the biggest music store in Quito.

“Hey, I remember because they’re all good acts. Except maybe Deep Purple.” The reaction was instantaneous.

“No man!” they both said, moving closer to him as if they were going to kneecap him.

“Hey, I like The Who. Get Pete Townshend here and then maybe I soften up on The Purple.” It wasn’t worth their breath to expound on the excellence and staying power of Deep Purple but as they recognized similar musical taste, David saw the Banditos patch on Rex’s vest. He glanced at Reno who nodded.

“Can I ask?” pointing at his patch.

“Houston chapter. Clubhouse president. You ride?”

“I have a bike but…but I crashed it and the steering is not right. Not straight.”

“Might need to tighten the steering column, or change your forks. Happens man. Bikes are dangerous. Spills are part of the game.” A shyness or sensitivity in David was the artist in him, that quality that gave him meekness which others felt safe around, ideal for attracting bands to make Quito a haven for classic rock. He didn’t have the bluster but he knew how to close a deal.

“The garage I go to fixed it but it’s still not correcto.”

“David owns a huge music store just over here past the park. Very close to where we are now.”

“You play?”


“What do you play?”

“I play everything. I love music. And I love to ride.”

“Well David, sounds like you and me are cut from the same cloth.”

“You listen to Sabbath at your clubhouse, Purple and Metallica? Megadeath?”

“All of those and the Stones too. Some guys like their Johnny Cash but when I’m partying I throw on early Sabbath. Tough to beat Ozzy.”

“I know Ozzy.” Rex had a runny nose but Reno was torn whether or not to give him a ‘soccer.’

“Tell him about the true story behind the bat on stage. I’m going to check out the soccer scores.” The wink follow-up confirmed a subtle wipe clearing the said area of debris, giving Reno the chance to chat with Paulina who was giving him the eye from the corner.

Chapter Forty

Pinned and Threatened By Fate


Good hearts recognize good hearts, so when one good turn has been done it is likely it will be reciprocated. The how and when must be in the hands of Fate. These were Reno’s thoughts when he bumped into Alex – the skinny man he had given cigarettes to at the bank machine earlier.

The Marines had RTB and most of the party goers had called it a night except for the filthy few who persevered into the morning sun, sunglasses wisely packed in a hidden pocket for the extreme shock to the irises from a long stretch of nocturnal sin, many seasoned partiers handy with a handkerchief or otherwise nursing a steady nasal drip. David had taken a liking to Rex, having agreed to invite him to his store so that he could have a look at his motorcycle’s alignment, and also to perhaps have an impromptu jam in the multi-storied store that acted as a magnet for the cool, the hip and diehard musicians.

The policia had come and gone, kicking out those on the first floor but ignoring the VIPs upstairs, chatting about Ozzy biting bats or flirting with an invitation to become Paulina’s roommate. Perhaps a cluster of six stood in the light smoking and figuring out the next destination when he saw the man he had given cigarettes to beside the bank machine near the Corner Pub earlier in the evening. He embraced Reno, shaking his hand and immediately introducing him to his four friends, one of whom he knew as a mugger. The scars highlighted by the piercing horizontal sun, David the musician spoke with Alex as if on good terms.

“This hombre tenges mi una cigarillo antes naches,” he said, eyes bloodshot, hands jittery but happy to have seen Reno again. He shrugged and offered him another one, trying not to wonder how his fortune had changed so quickly. Rex was busy chatting up Paulina, who sported a mini-skirt that must have broken several bylaws.

“Do you know David?”

“We’re amigos,” Alex answered, David confirming with a nod.

“And what about these characters here.” The robber was young and clean cut, a Polo shirt clean and pressed, eyes shady trying to conceal guilt.

“They’re my friends.”

“They’re your friends,” he repeated.


“I know this man here. Que nombre?”

“José.” Reno held his look making sure he knew he remembered an attempted mugging gone wrong, and withholding any mention of the event not to sully his reputation in front of David. Reno offered his hand with the unspoken understanding that José would never mug or attack him or his friends in the future. He was relieved and appeared contrite and thankful.

“I want to give you something,” said Alex, energized by Mother Nature and her herbs. “I make.” He took out perhaps thirty woven friendship bracelets and asked him to choose one, David translating.

“This one I like.”

“Yes, yes it’s good.” Alex tied it on expertly, burned the ends and said: “You keep this on and think of me, your amigo, okay.” It was absolutely beautiful, original and tightly woven blue.

“I promise I will Alex,” asking David to translate. The look of relief in Alex’s eyes was immense, a sadness battered into him through hardship and misery on the streets, a mother AWOL and survival scars as living proof of his toughness. Reno removed his sunglasses to look at him straight in the eye, a Dane move that was appreciated.

“So where’s the party?”

Alex spoke in rapid Spanish to David, she spoke thus:

“There’s a place called Fiona’s about four blocks up. Should be open for business.”

David bailed out but Paulina, Rex and Alex and his tall friend with glasses walked the four blocks to Fiona’s, a restaurant-turned-after-hours bar for the select few who knew about it, one of the Dane’s hang-outs Reno had never been to. On the way Alex rolled a joint, eagerly sharing it despite the taxis racing down the street and workers getting an early jump on the day in their freshly washed shirts and ties. Nigerian groups sat stoned watching them pass, Paulina, having been a beauty queen, knowing how to show off her assets.

“Yo Noble One! Yo!” Sunglasses obscuring, a tall thin figure approached sporting the pimp roll, rhythm in his stride like a rapper. Reno passed the joint to Alex.

“Jamal, man. Passed your bedtime, no?”

“No money for taxi last night. Where you been bro?” Always the handshake and bump Nigerian hug. He told him about Guapalo and his apartment, pointing to Rex ahead of them.

“You put on weight. What’d you do? Give up the pipe?”

“Nah nigger. You know I can’t do that shit. Been writing songs though. We gotta hang out man.”

“You’re right man.

“You seen the Dane? He’s fucked man. The niggah’s wasting away cracking himself up.”

“He’s on a date tonight but I hear you. Ammonia.”

“Stay away from that shit.”

“Wanna do a quick pipe?”

“Am I a niggah or what? Spark that shit up.”

“Follow me a bit.” Casual, street smart, sincere, always smoking and forever hungry, Jamal was one of the few he trusted fully, established after a night of reading the Old Testament together about the importance of selecting a good wife.

“All right Big Man, suck on that.” Dane style, big, well-constructed first pipe to the guest. It was the technique that made Reno laugh. Didn’t even stop, just turned his body a bit and flicked his lighter and sucked hard a few times, the pipe disappearing in a labyrinth of dark tentacles, smoke slightly billowing from within his hand.

“This-“ Hand up, policeman ensuring good cracking technique.

“Maybe next week or the next we’ll get some goodies and read the Good Book again. Besides, I want to hear your new pieces.” The exhale perfect, shiver of uninhibited pleasure, a man who truly loved his pipe.

“Where’d you get this niggah?”

“I cooked it large fella. Listen, keep walking but I gotta catch up so I don’t lose them.” They each had another and promised to call each other.

Around the corner Alex was waiting for him.

“You been to Fi’s before?”

“No.” Gave him a look like nothing ruffles this man from America.

“It’s there.” Pointing there was nothing but doors and levels and closed signs. “Come on.” A special knock, a huge bouncer with a beret and polished boots opened the door, knowing Alex but giving Reno the once over.

Hombre.” A nod. Nothing more. He walked into a packed bar, music, the smell of weed and crack in the air, half black and half Ecuadorian, Rex sticking out like a turd in a punch bowl. The party continued, pipes were smoked and the beret-wearing security guard soon saw Reno was a man with respect. He said yes to a cold beer, which he hid behind the door. More pipes were smoked, the base a hit with a few of the boys.


In due course the bar shut and Rex and Reno and Paulina ended up at a bar called Flags watching an old video of Pink Floyd The Wall in Berlin. Cranked up and spilling beer, a few gringos had joined them including Antonio from Argentina, Alex and his friend still with them. Alex was happy to set them up with his weed dealer, a purchase that ended up being a great score of high-quality “creepy” weed. Rejuvenation through joints and pipes and lines and beer, soon the crowd dispersed and the brothers were aimlessly walking towards the Irish Bar when they heard a live band playing on the second floor of what looked like an apartment building squeezed between two stores.

“Sounds like a live band, man. Want to hit it?”

“No, it’s a private club,” said Alex, who followed a few steps behind. “But I know. Wait here.” Rex was buoyed by thoughts of squeezing Paulina’s sore muscles and helping her move some furniture so he was in good spirits.

“You’re right Ringo. That crunt is on a different level than the American shit. My head is clear, no headache or impending hangover. But man, do I ever wanna another hit of that base!”

“Well let’s find a grungy hole to sequester and cool off, pipe a few, and work on our platform.”

“You sound just like one of the brothers. His name is Studebaker. Call him Stuey.”

“Must be a damn cool guy.”

Antonio, dishevelled and drunk didn’t ask but demanded the pipe.

“No,” said Reno. Rex looked at him and nodded. You’ve finally taken the turn bro. For the record, I’m shit proud of you. Don’t you ever forget that.” Rex didn’t want Antonio around but his drunken state precluded him from realizing he wasn’t wanted.

Alex returned, in an excited state. He had had a few pipes of base but never begged or had more than his share.

“You can go in but you must buy beer.”

“That’s a tough one,” said Rex, grin of mischief deeply ingrained.

“It’s an anti neo-nazi concert.” They looked at each other, and then saw the regalia: jackboots, bomber jackets, shaved heads, red laces. Hard to tell if they were for or against the fascists. Rex led the way, hair flowing like a Viking, sweat stinking so people gave him wide berth, firm in tone but lacking the Spanish words. Reno bought the beer but the bartender eyed Antonio with suspicion.

One of the bands was warming up, people drinking sips of beer, many looking at the two tall gringos sitting in the middle of the room not caring one bit they were gringos. Sitting with an artist of crafts, a man kept laughing at Rex and Reno as if they didn’t know what was coming. He gave each of them earrings for their chicas from a board he guarded against the wall pinned by his legs. Happy and drunk.

The club was spray painted brick walls, punk, rustic, tables dented and chairs lopsided, a fraternity of paying members unknown and unseen to tourists who walked the streets. Noble felt the fear in his gut that they could be attacked if things got heated just for being white, but Reno relished it, chest out and trying to emit an anti-neo-nazi vibe. But it was Antonio who caused the problems. The bartender, a short man with eyebrows slicing his forehead in two, approached slowly, arms crossed, watched by some members. Standing right in front of Antonio he pointed and said: “Mi no gusta tu. I do not like you man.” Stepped closer. At the same moment both Rex and Reno walked around, lifted Antonio out of his chair and escorted him out of the club, remaining there to make sure he didn’t sneak back in. The bartender, a man of few words and serious intent, nodded and gave them a free round of beer. That was when the music started.

Rex had found his flow, diminishing his size not out of fear but for respect, a foreigner on another’s turf, a visiting Bandito to Holland or Belgium, a point of grace that was important yet subtle. So he was able to skirt to the can, smoke his pipe, eyes ablaze and happy to be there, savoring what would surely be a story to tell his brothers back at the clubhouse in Texas. The jacket came off and the tattoos were shown, creating some corners of distrust and some of interest. Right from the first note his head was banging, arms whirling, foot stomping, urging the lead singer to throw himself into it, digging the vibe, an instrument himself, the drummer without skins to bang, a head-banger of many years and seasoned concert goer.

Reno was convinced that he single-handedly increased beer sales by fifty percent.

Since they were in the middle table, clusters of people and skinhead girls watched the mammoth gringo throw himself into the music, each beat a sacred stroke to the god of music, Bacchus across the ethers and through time, an ambassador to all humanity regardless of skin colour or creed. Without any swastikas or jackboots, neither of them could rightfully be seen as incognito neo-nazis, so there was an awkward transition for many who arrived, wondering if the tall gringos were closet neo-nazis posing as anti, maybe even spying for the government or from their home base in Blumenthau, Brazil. But the skeptics got their chance to test their mettle and vent their anger when halfway through the first set the slam-dancing started. It took Rex two strides to get in the middle, throwing his hair around like a hammerball, sweaty strands assaulting the clean-cut anti-neo-nazis, throwing them into a frenzy, soon discovering nothing could bowl over this mass of muscle like a tree trunk, playing as a good sport for the odd elbow to test his tolerance. But that was child’s play compared to the second band.

The lead singer, looking very much like a neo-nazi, screamed his punk anti-gringo lyrics straight at Reno sitting alone and then at the big Viking playing punching bag for his groupies bouncing off like toys. Reno did get up and threw himself into the scrum, each slam bruising his shattering body, hair cleanly shorn to not stick out except for his height, an elbow squaring him on the cheekbone and then the ear, soon handing out pokes himself that threw him overboard into manic laughter. Soon his body was a ball of pain so each contact numbed and fueled more slamming like a pinball machine. He could hear Rex laughing too, an ecstatic release of worry and gravity and pressing issues, a moment of muted violence yet safe in the mosh pit womb, the players having tested the bounds and having accepted the brothers into their club. No offsides though the lead singer did everything in his power to get those fucking gringos off the floor of hurt, the boys giving a good effort but none willing to undertake the cheap shot or shattered glass that would change the course of the evening. It was their continual laughter that must have dulled the meanness brewing in their hearts if there ever was any, because the more they laughed, the more the other slammers laughed and the more pissed off the singer became. It wasn’t until he took a boot heel on the top of the foot that Reno limped out, ostensibly to take a piss but in reality to smoke a pipe and buy more beer. The foot would be purple and swollen in hours.


They stayed ‘til the end, enduring a screeching female band that just couldn’t hit a right note, their shrill anger taken by Reno as simply not sexy, or worse, a disgrace to music, but Rex stood up and banged his head until the yoke had spilled over into the albumin of his brains, ending up a soggy mess, someone who none of the muggers would touch.

The brothers took their nightcap at Finn McCool’s, meeting many of the regulars including the Dane, who was relieved to see Reno and happy to meet his brother. The scene at the pub in contrast to the bands was lame, too mellow even playing some stick against a few of the Nigerians. The Dane had enough sense to see the two brothers waning, tired of the social intercourse that drained effort and energy that could be put to better use, so they left the bar and squeezed into the Dane’s room and cooked their pipes for hours, talking at a clip as if the Dane was the third brother that provided the bridge between them long-sought and never found, yet once found not required. Almost immediately they spoke of their time in prison, fascinating how they could both see something in the eyes or perhaps the shoulders of their attitude towards authority as an absolute, both eager to compare notes on how the drugs were sold, distributed, how money was saved and how drugs could be consumed without the knowledge and recourse of the guards. That was when Reno learned that Rex had refused an alliance with the Aryan Brotherhood to survive his time inside. The Dane had refused that ilk too and they exchanged their opinions, both knowing that one needed to make critical decisions to survive the prison system no matter what one’s true beliefs were. Reno’s thoughts drifted to his time at the African Club and these clubs and divisions and beefs of creed and politics seemed so artificial and unimportant, which left only the heart being the determiner of those who were good and those who were not. And he was thankful to now know that his own brother, his own blood, did have a good heart, though tattooed and dressed in the regalia of the biker. They partied for the rest of the week, coming together like never before. It filled Noble’s heart to know he had someone in the world who loved him. It meant everything to him, and he was sad when Rex flew back to Texas the following week.

Chapter Forty-one

Twice as Much in Half the Time


When the end is near, variables disappear and only certain things are important. Those who you go to when in need are your true friends. This was running through Reno Noble’s mind when he relaxed with coffee and eggs on the patio of Toné’s place on Christmas Day.

Moocho, the Dutchman’s poodle, barked at people passing by beyond the fence, ferocious, doing what poodles do best: bark.

Toné was drunk but still beat him at chess. He took things like that seriously, but Reno Noble was perhaps a little flippant for his taste. But still all four games were close.

No matter how many times he told himself, he would never tell anyone about his illness, not to be brave but to remove any question of pity from others. Best if they just don’t know. But there is a good argument to confess it all: religion. One of the strengths of Christianity is the concept of confessing your sins. Many odd things have likely been confessed on deathbeds of relatively no importance except for the man dying. Certain things must be verbally said in words to alleviate guilt or shame from sin.

 In Noble’s case, he felt he needed to tell someone about his disease, not only to vent but to have someone become his legal next of kin if he were to expire here in the Andes. The entire notion of slowly dying was against everything he had come to believe in. Noble had thought about someone to tell just in case he had to and the only person he trusted completely was the Dutchman. No addictions and solid objectivity, if he had to he would spill to Toné.

It was a depressing thought spending Christmas Day at the hostel with strangers, the thin walls and the mess in the bathroom, so after the scrambled eggs and coffee when the rum and coke started and chess was revisited, the Dutchman and the Texan settled in for ten hours of games. Jap dropped by, sober and showered and shaven and shared some Christmas cheer but left soon after, leaving Toné and Noble to a whole day of chess and dominoes. Casual conversation, no presents, no tree, no screaming kids, no feuding siblings, no pouting relatives, just two middle-aged Quito expatriates playing board games on the backyard patio and a rambunctious poodle.

“Listen, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.” A quick glance in the eye.

“What? That you now know you can’t play chess worth a damn?” Didn’t even skip a beat.

“I haven’t come to terms with that one yet, but this other item could be significant.” The Dutch brain all over the board.

“Are you going to tell me or are you going to wait long enough so you forget?” Logical mind, visual thinking, world’s best lily expert and creator of the black lily.

“We’ve talked about dying before. In fact we’ve talked about a lot of things, so I think I have an idea of how you’d respond to this question.” Eyes still intent on Noble’s two attacking rooks.

“And the question is?” The hand in a pleading motion.

“In your noble effort to lessen Dutch taxes by smoking hard, what if you were to, God forbid, have an…incident…that forced you into needing to rely on life support? Would you prefer to hang on for as long as you can or would have someone you’ve designated to pull the plug? Euthanasia is illegal so when it comes to this choice, where would you veer?” The Dutchman now stroking his chin.

“Now if I get what you’re saying, which I think I do, then you know what the answer would be. If I can’t live free then I won’t live in some half-cocked vegetable state, bed sores and hygiene issues. No, I’d fly into the…the…what do you called it? Stairwell to heaven? Or hell? I don’t know, whatever it is.” Solid eye contact and then the hand again.

“I’ve had some unexpected news about my hands.”


“It’s a little more serious than arthritis.”

“I thought as much.”

“It’s fatal and there’s no cure.” Finally the attention it warranted.

“Well then, it’s Christmas every day for you then!” They raised their glasses and drank.

“I would like to ask you if you could be my legal guardian in case I fall ill and am unable to make my own decisions about this question. I thought you were the only one in this loony bin who had any sense.” Firm nod, both in agreement he was the only person who had sense and yes he would undertake the responsibility of guardian.

“Knowing you, you’ll likely bite it crossing the street.” Again the ironic grin. “But,” he held up his huge finger in the air, “I’m not going to feel pity for you.”

“I’m so happy you just said that. That’s what I wanted to hear.” Toné squared his massive frame at Noble.

I won’t feel any pity for you.”

“Thanks man. You know, I haven’t told anyone I have this thing except Rex; you’re the first.” Toné leaned back in amazement.

“Not your mother? Or sister?”

“My mother didn’t really listen, and my sister never picks up her phone. My father thought I was exaggerating. Only my brother cares. But he’s busy in Texas with his club and whatnot and I thought I needed someone here close to where I am. We’re pretty isolated here in the mountains in South America you know.”

“Some of us thought you might be addicted to coke, you know, because you’re so thin, but this explains it. This explains everything about you.”

“I must seem a bit odd.”

“A bit?”

“Your move cowboy.”

“I’m not a cowboy. I’m a florist, or technically: a horticulturist. And a damn fine one too. And of course I’m a biker, but not a cowboy. Do I have a cowboy hat on?”


“Well then.” An opening to be seized.

“You know what you are?”

“Yes, I do. But you’re going to tell me aren’t you.”

“You’re among the best horticulturists in the world making very decent coin, and the inventor of the impossible black lily that as far as I understand has been eluding mankind for centuries. And you’re a damn fine gamesman and a mighty fine drinker, and likely a decent biker, who helped build the world’s coolest bar.”

“Anything else?”

“I think that’s about it.”

“Lousy husband. That’s why I’m a bachelor and my wife now lives in my house.”

“Overrated.” A thoughtful nod.

“Don’t worry about anything,” he said, leaning back and speaking to Noble in the Dane’s pose of squared shoulders and steady eye contact. “If it happens then I’ll be there. Take that worry from your mind completely, okay?”

“Thanks Toné. It means a lot to me. I needed to ask someone and you’re the one.” A wave of the hand.

“So what happens with this thing with your hands? Just gets worse? Like a pretzel?”

“I wish. No, basically my cells are being overrun by collagen, otherwise known as scar tissue. It eats away at you and shuts down your organs one by one until you suffocate or have heart failure or drop dead, but not before you turn into a bruised banana.”

“How long do you have?”

“They doctors said I have a thirty-percent chance of living past the next five years because my case is rather advanced and systemic. I think I’ll be cake in less than a year. Sometimes I can feel the disease spreading and smell the stench of death. That’s what bothers me: this slow death thing.”

“Think it would be better if you were hit by a car and didn’t know?”

“Well that’s what I’ve been thinking about. In a way it’s been great to know rather than just having it all ripped from underneath you without warning.”

“That’s a good way of thinking of it.”

“It gives you a chance to do some things right before you die.”

“Like a bucket list?”

“Mine are like bucket lists of the soul.”

“Yeah, you’ve changed a hell of a lot since I first saw you. A hell of a lot. Look at you now, your hair for one is better.” Deadpan.

“So it’s been interesting to see what changes I wanted to make when I was first told the news.”

“And when was that?”

“Six months ago.”

“What are you, forty-five or so?”

“That’s about right.”

“So then you would have lived to ninety, a little less than me. Of course.” More deadpan, but it felt good to have humor back in play. No long faces or heavy scenes of fake emotion.

“Never thought of it that way.”

“See? It’s good to get it off your chest.”

“I feel a bit…lighter.”

“You should. You have no more worries now. Just increase your smoking and it will all work itself out.”

“I was thinking along very similar lines as that.” Twinkle in the eye. Wondered if Toné was thinking of the White Lady.

“So you better pack some good living in before you turn into a cookie, or whatever you called it.” Cookie, exactly.

“Trying my best.”

“You need to live twice as hard in half the time.”

“Think I can do it?”

“I have faith in you.”

“At least someone does.”

“And I’d tell that sister of yours. Sometimes these things can be harder on others than yourself.”

“I think I might.”

“If there is something I could say, I would tell you to remember that others have gone through this. Try not to get scared. It will work out as it should.”

“According to Fate you mean?”

“Fate. Destiny. Whatever you call it.”

“Wonder about controlled fate. When you make decisions that affect where you go these are not predetermined but chosen in a manner that reflects how well you know your own character. The more you know the better choices you’re going to make to take you to where you ought to go. Make ignorant choices and it’s going to stunt you progress along your path.”

“Jesus, you sound like a philosopher. You even have a beard – or something close to a beard. Why you going to spend your golden years with that mop on your face?”

“Because I can and because it’s natural.”

“Natural? So is nose hair.”

They played on in silence for some time until the entire front row of the Dutchman’s forces had been destroyed by the effective use of his two rooks. The checkmate was sweet but Noble felt guilty because he knew how much the Dutchman loved to win.

Chapter Forty-two

The Pledge


Narcotics reach a crescendo and then wane to a level of novelty that is not worth the price or destruction of health but many fail to step back to see when that point is reached. With the Dane it had always been physical, a physiological reaction that pumped his muscles and made him robust, but with Noble/Reno it had always been mental – a spiritual uplifting to new insights and corner pieces of wisdom that helped him see life as balanced and beautiful rather than skewered and out of whack. So when New Year’s Eve came by he thought of Paul and wondered if he was free. After months the answer was simple: “Sure Noble, come right on over. But bring a bottle.”

It felt like he was coming home, a calm oasis from the craziness of Mariscal and the pub scene that sucked wallets dry and grew rank with petty politics he had no interest in. But he would be lying if he said he wasn’t crestfallen when he saw Antonio there, thin, dishevelled and half-crazed with hunger, the question mark of why they were friends still not addressed.

“Damn glad you called Mr. Noble. ‘Been too long.” Face ragged and lined but eyes bright and intelligent.

“Lost your number when I leant out my telephone to a friend of mine but I never got it back,” said Noble. “And I can’t remember who used it! But then I had an eureka of sorts recently, searching some old papers where I found your number where I first wrote it down. So here I am.” Antonio perked off his chair.

“I have your telephono!” he said. Noble’s hands flew in the air.

“It was you! In fact I think I remember. Man! Thank God.” Antonio the scammer had nicked his phone!

“Well then give it back to him,” Paul enjoying the direct approach.

“I have many numbers in there I need.” Then Antonio stroked his chin and spoke to Paul in Spanish.

“What? Now you say you don’t have it?” Another rapid exchange in Spanish, then yelling. Antonio looked like he had been living on the streets for a week. Noble sat down, placed the bottle in Paul’s hand and pulled out his baggie of coke and snorted a line. He was there to relax and chat, not argue and become emotional. After all this could be his last New Year’s Eve.

Paul took his cue and sat back on the couch, poured drinks and raised his glass.

“To integrity and intelligence, none of which Antonio has.” They drank.

“And to the wayseers. Fantastic manifesto.”

“Okay, yes. To the two-percent, if you remember.”

“I do indeed.”

“Ah! Intelligence is like a soft pillow.” Paul studied his face. “Want to go outside?”

“My thoughts exactly.” Antonio sat pouting, heaving forth bad vibes, suicidal emissions and depression.

They settled on some chairs overlooking a main tunnel through the heart of Quito. As if Paul were a lost brother with no bad history, Reno spread a few lines on the table and snorted another one.

“Please. It’s good tech. I’ve been calling Ricardo often.”

“Yes, he’s told me. Though not tattle telling. A good man. Just mentions the odd time you talk.”

“So I hear you’re teaching.”

“Love it. Gone from making bombs to teaching little kids English. Found my calling. Strange that they even pay me.”

“That is a true calling. Way to go Paul. Total nice one.” The anisette burned the raw barroom throat like antiseptic, singeing the bacteria and cooling it down, a medicine that soaked into the tissue.

“How are you doing?” The eyes could see the sickness but to open that topic would be to sully the pure comfort he needed.

“Have a decent apartmento in Guapalo but I’m not eating enough. Kitchen bites. Hot plate busted. Eating crap. And smoking my pipe too much but am finding solace in the valley of de Orellana.”

“And your hands?”

“I’ve been diagnosed finally and am taking medication. Much better. And am relieved I finally know what it is.” A purposeful combination of words, which he knew Paul would not overstep. Good breeding never leaves a man.

“That’s good. Better to know the truth than suffocate in vaguery.”

“Do you mind me asking why Antonio is here? Is everything cool?” He threw up his hands. “We better have another snort!” Which he did, expert, crisp and now residue. “Problem with his woman.”

“Ahh, yes. One night he told me all about it. Scared the shit out of me actually. Guy’s suffering.”

“Why was it scary?”

“You’re such a non-fiction guy I’ll give you the non-fiction, with respect to the Argentinian.”

“Trust me, he doesn’t deserve respect.”

“I think I know what you mean.”

“Perhaps not entirely.”

“So I bump into him one night and the guy’s in pain. T-shirt, five degrees outside, jonesing for his fix, needy, the whole bit, and I’m pretty tired of the pub scene at this point so we grab a bottle and go to my hostel. I’m thinking he just needs to talk to somebody so I play psychologist. Everything is fine, tells me about how she left him with their two kids and disappeared. Cries. Emotes, thinking it’s all good. Grieve. Get it out of your system, which he does, but then he says to me: ‘you know my wife?’”

“’No, of course not,’ I say, thinking it’s a blip of some kind.”

“’Where is my wife?’ he asks. I drink my schnapps and shrug my shoulders, and then it happens. ‘You fucked my wife!’ Tears of not sadness but of rage in his eyes. I stand up, place my drink on the table and say: I don’t know your wife. Never met her,’ and try to change the subject but he loses it. For the first time in my life I witness a break from reality. He becomes convinced I’m somehow involved. Being irrational, I take the bottle and suggest we go out to the pub. And I leave. He follows because I have the booze, but ever since then I’ve regarded him as unstable. Flawed. On the verge of rage. On the edge of madness and dangerous.”

“Couldn’t have put it better myself.” They drink and then Noble packs his pipe and offers it to Paul.

“I feel for him but I cannot put myself into that kind of danger,” said Noble/Reno.

“That’s Ricardo’s stuff isn’t it? Best in Quito.” Licked his lips. “All right, so you know most of it so I’ll tell you why he’s here. You’re not a stupid guy so maybe we can both help him out. He asked me to kill his wife.” Noble’s reaction was as if he had just heard the neighbor’s cat meow.

“I see.”

“He has a restraining order on him now as of three days ago. She’s here in Quito and he went over there and there was a scene so now he can’t go within 300 meters of her or his kids.”

“So clipping her would be the dumbest thing he could do. He has the motive and would be the primary suspect. Besides, it’s bad form.” Paul didn’t expect his ribcage to convulse the way it did, laughter exploding like a light bulb bomb, spilling his drink on the balcony floor but careful enough to direct his outburst away from the White Lady on the table.

“Agreed, it would be bad form, especially at this point in time as you say. So I know some people who could get the job done but it’s expensive and he doesn’t have any bread but I told him to come here to talk it through, sort of like what you tried to do that night.”

“And have you spoken about it?”

“He’s insistent. But I think he just needs to play it through, come to his own conclusions that it’s the dumbest thing he could do. But it worries me is that he’s suicidal. He keeps pointing his imaginary gun at his head. That’s his answer to the aftermath.”

Loose cannon el grande.” Again the laughter, a dam bursting, the pressure released, finally a mind of wit equal to his own. Reno now in play, handed Paul a perfectly packed pipe of yellow base.

“You read my mind. Get off the crack. This is better. Not as strong but more…more fun.”

“You know something Paul, I appreciate those words. Always be Frank with me, all right Frank?” Smoke billowed and burned the hairs in his nostrils, coughing followed.

“That’s cruel.”

“Plenty more where that came from.” Packed another pipe but not without cleaning it with his trusted hairpin.

“Hairpin. The man has learned the art of pipe cleaning.”

“Very effective instrument.”

“A man is only as good as his tools.”

“Makes me think of those desert booties you guys always wore when you were…on leave from your regiment.”

“Rubber soul, leather instep, durable, light. Fantastic little hush puppies.” The packed pipe a work of art, steady in Paul’s hand, considered, angled, fire placed sensibly and at an angle and then executed with grace.

“So then you’re engaged in an act of altruism tonight?”

“There’s a word you don’t hear every day, but yes. You could say that. Or an act of benevolence. The guy has a history. Comes from a good family, just sort of fucked up and now it’s going from bad to worse.”

“Maybe he just wants attention?”

“I thought of that, but there’s something more in play I think.”

“I think he needs more time, get away from here and her and his kids and bake on the beach somewhere and meet new people, and then approach it with a clear mind.” Reno pensively reflected. “But there’s still that snapping mechanism, that sloppy state, the itchy trigger finger with a twitch that makes him like a live bomb.”

“Hey, don’t forget you’re talking to a bomb expert. And I think you’re right on the money there.”

“So what do we do?”

“We play out the fantasy of the kill and then see if it scares him or allays his emotions.”

“His emotional turbulence.”

“Come to his emotional rescue.”

“Hand please.” Knowing exactly what was coming, Paul’s hand spread out like an eagle in flight, Reno finding a valley between the thumb and wrist where he deposited a substantial Mount Fuji. In a sweeping motion it disappeared in a violent intake. “Ciggy?”

“You’re quite the host,” said Paul.

“Man, I’m happy to be here. It’s always good to talk with you man.” A confession of his illness was on the tip of his tongue but it didn’t get the impetus to jump free.

“Bloody great you called Noble. Good show.”

“Say things like jolly good show and someone will think you’re British military, and an officer to boot.”

“Can never escape that you know. I swear I think they put a microchip in me. They know my every move.”

“Well you haven’t crossed the line with me, though some of the alleged forays you’ve had do appeal to my sense of adventure.”

“What’s strange about that is that they are alive in my mind all the time, vibrant energies with quanta yet remain sealed. That’s strange.”

“Write a book.”

“That would be the worst thing I could do.”

“What I mean is give it form, write it long hand in some cheap crappy journal, smoke the pipe and get it off your chest. Then burn it.” He sipped and refilled and then walked to a flower patch.

“See these morning glories. Mix these up with some sugar and water and you have a very potent narcotic.”

“Any cactus around? Wouldn’t mind mixing a San Pedro.”

“Easy that. Just boil for twelve hours and drink it. But these seeds here could bring you to the other side.”


“Depends on how much you take and your shaman.”

“Same species of plant? Similar genus?”

“Not every day you have someone come to your house and discuss genii and species. You a Darwin fan?”

“Heavy books his pieces, though what was interesting about his life was when he asked to be dropped off at the southern part of cowboy country in Argentina near Patagonia so he takes a horse across the plains and is bitten by some insect that starts with a “C” and his health is shattered for the rest of his life. Never worked a day after his Beagle hit. Inheriting that mansion and money he was able to have eight kids and work on his two meisterstückes for the next sixty years.”

“Yes, his Beagle hit.”

“When are you going to grow a Darwinian beard?”

“Yours has come in nicely. Viking look I’d say.”

“You have the natural resource base to sport a Viking onion.”

“When I was in Bosnia I had some good growth.”

“Incognito. Full regalia. Wool pullover like Kashmir Valley.”

“Kit is crucial. Bruno, one of our crew, let it go and it was like a black weed, maybe five times faster or even ten compared with us. Guy slept with his M15 cradled in his arms. But what a man to have in your corner when the shit goes down.”

“Those roaming militias just pulled rank wherever they went, villages totalled. What’s that guy’s name Zilic? Never found him.”

“Well we know where the bugger is but when he plays ball he’s off limits to mercenaries or bounty hunters. The money they embezzled during the Milosevic years still boggles any rational mind.”

“How many millions does one need? Why not a solid monthly?”

“I suppose it depends on how many families you’ve destroyed. But some of it was really beautiful country, especially in Croatia on the Caspian, west coast.”

“Might have to put it on my list.”

“More travel still on the books?”

“Not done here yet. Kinda feel it’s all downhill when you leave Quito.”

“That’s why they call it the Patrimonio de Humanidad.”

“The father of humanity?”

“Close enough.” Antonio came out to the yard and sighed.

“Antonio, have a drink and take a load off. It’s New Year’s Eve.” His eyes red, sad, pained, bloodshot, drooping, lined, caused Noble to stand up and give him a hug. “It’s been a tough year for us all. Trust me on that.” And he started to cry. Paul snorted and packed a pipe, and then put his hand on Antonio’s shoulder.

“He’s right. Have a drink and put your feet up and let’s relax.”


The booze helped Antonio relax, both Paul and Reno’s best efforts pried a smile from him and soon some animated laughter but once around that corner the dark clouds replaced the sun in his eyes, a battered puppy, lost, weakened and in need of help. It took them some time to bring it up but when he started talking about his wife there was hatred that startled them because of its intensity and severity and open declaration of desiring her death. Reno knew he had to play a simple, soft card, keeping his voice low and keeping in mind the possibility of a psychotic break.

“If you clipped her the policia will know it was you.” Paul translated some words but his English had improved noticeably. “You’re setting yourself up.” Antonio’s hand formed a pistol and he shot himself in the temple. “Don’t do that man. You’ve done that before. You go straight to purgatory.” Antonio, always interested in Reno’s words, looked to Paul but the translation was abridged, Reno getting a slight shake of the head from the SAS man.

“Okay Antonio, let’s do it. I hire my guy, we kill the mother of your children, the police know it was you, I’m covered as are my guys. But what then? You kill yourself, but what about your mother? Your sister and father? Don’t you think retaliation might be involved with your familia?” He shook his head violently, as if John Speck’s ear bug had crawled deep into his audio canal.


“Antonio. Yes! And what if you can’t get the money. Ten thousand is a lot of bread.”

“I can get.”

“What about your children? To grow up without a madre?”

Difficile mon ami.” Reno slipping into another language unintentionally.

“My babies.” The tears came, Paul busied himself with constructing a bomb out of Reno’s pipe loaded with base. Reno topped up his Anisette and then offered him a cigarette. The thought crossed his mind how this man was trying to destroy life when all he wanted was to preserve life.

“We care about you Antonio.” He put his hand on his right shoulder. “We are your amigos so we don’t want you to make an emotional decision right now.” Cried harder, Paul smoked and sucked and then cleaned, pouring Reno’s base into the pipe forgetting about how badly Reno wanted a hit. “It’s good to cry. Get the gunk out. They say you need one year to grieve. And it hasn’t been a year yet.” I’ve only had six months, he thought to himself.

“You finished with that pipe yet bomber maestro?”

“Oh shit.” His mind far away on past ops, intricacies of the kill, the smell, the aftermath, the guilt and the images that still lived somewhere in the netherworld of his mind. Reno packed a huge pipe for the man from Argentina.

“All righty Tony, you suck on this and give us a smile. Keep your pecker up. Stiff upper lip. Chin up man!” No reaction from Antonio but Paul, who was getting a tad tight, perked. Like candy to a hungry child, Antonio relished the pipe, then looked at Paul through the smoke and asked for the translation. He was confused. Reno leaned forward and pointed at his droopy moustache. “Aqui. Aqui neccessites mustacio. Muy importante hombre!” Hand flailing in a dramatic fashion, the clown letting loose, entertainment as distraction. It worked. He rubbed his bare upper lip and let his head hang. “Muy importante para todos hombres en todos mundo man! Tu pocito chico no tenges mustacio grande, si?” Hodgepodge Spanish for comic relief. “Et tu!” he went on, looking at Paul. “I thought the Fu Man Chu was required kit for the stiff upper lip.”

“I had my share, but you gotta have some guts to pull off a good one.”

Muy veridad. Veridad indeed señor.” He raised his glass in a flush of drunken fun, knowing the dynamite was still lit and the wick was still burning. They drank and Reno snatched the pipe from Antonio. “Quieres más?” Eyes droopy and now drunk, focus blurred, thunderclouds still brimming with torrential rain. “Just para ti, el grande pipa, si?”

“And where do I fit in here Mister Texas?”

“Chop liver monsieur. Choppy sticklets.” Finger raised. “How do you say ‘There are other fish in the ocean?’ Differente pescadoes en la mer.” This should not have been said, having had Antonio on the fence to forgetting. Paul stepped in, grabbed his arm firmly.

“Once they take you, you cannot take your life. Entiendes? You will rot, suck cock and get fucked for years. Is that what you want your life to become? And think of the shame you would bring to your mother.” Head fell, hands covering the battered eyes, the pipe went to Paul.

“But I can’t live. I want to die. I want to pull the gun and blow my head away. But first my wife. That’s how it should be.”

“Whoever said life was fair?” Reno’s fist smashed against the table, spilling the overflowing ashtray, then he walked inside to the couch and sat down. How can man want to take a life when all he has in the world is life? What had this woman done to injure this man so deeply? Ironies beset all men but the greatest is the conundrum of suicide. And murder.

The Argentinian sobbed on the balcony, head cradled, hair a curtain from an unjustified shame.

Then Paul appeared inside, putting his hand on his right shoulder.

“What was that all about? Is everything all right with you?” A deep breath, rattling with mucous and phlegm and bacteria and collagen and blood and dead cells. Only at the end of the breath did the flowers flush out the stench of decay.

“I’m dying Paul. I’m fucking dying. And all I want is life and all he wants is death.” In the silence a thousand animals sighed and breathed and moaned and burped. “My hands, if you remember. They are a symptom of an illness that is untreatable and fatal. My muscles are turning into collagen, my lungs are shot. I’m already coughing up blood.” Paul kept his hand on his shoulder, squeezed just a little and bowed his head, his reflection seen off the railing shining under the full moon. “I was going to tell you but didn’t want to disturb the flow.”

“You’re amazing. You didn’t want to disturb the flow. But that’s thing about you Aaron. That empathy is what makes you different from all the other fucks out there.”

“Yeah, well maybe it was that that brought this on.”

“Isn’t there a way to fix it?” Voice gentle, hand holding firm.

“It’s too late. It’s systemic. It’s in my heart and kidneys too. Pissing orange. My body is melting away. And that’s what scares me. The decay. Being an invalid. Getting pity. People treating me differently. Falling apart so all can gawk.”

“How long have you known?”

“A month before I arrived here.”

“Would you rather get snuffed by some missile or know?” Noble turned to face him, keeping his head down.

“That’s the question, isn’t it? I’ve thought about it a lot. And I think I’d rather know, have some time to make some changes and make things right.” The hand went to his chin and lifted slowly.

“I agree with you. Maybe you have tasted real life these last six that most never have.” He waited until Noble looked at him in the eye. “Yes?”

“Yeah man, you’re right.”

“All the best die young. But you’re what fifty? Each of us has our time, that’s all I know about death. Everything. Nothing you can do. Hear me?”

“I hear you and I agree with you. I’m just a little sad tonight, that’s all. Last New Year’s Eve and all that. But I’m not lying when I say I wanted to be here.” He hugged Noble like a father, arms like pipes, suffocating, as if squeezing the sickness out. And then it came. Silent sobbing, contractions mimicking hysterical laughter, fluttering of the torso, the universal expression to man’s mortality, unashamed and direct, looking at death in the face, seeing the end in sight, thankful for this release, relieving snowballing tragedy growing from fear and the darkness of the unknown. Then it was out, a sigh extinguishing the bitter sadness, tears now desalting down the hardened cheeks, a lead weight lifted and now only fun and mischief to fill the time.

“Thanks Paul. Thank you.”

“You promise me you’ll ride this wave out to the end with your chin up. You promise?” Firm. Authoritative and reassuring, a sage demanding a vow that was what he needed to see him through to the end. This man had seen death before.

“I promise I will.” Hand on his shoulder, two arms outstretched touching each other’s soul, poignant, rich, everlasting, a memory of untainted truth and honesty. “I promise old man, now that wave starts now, no?” The slap hurt but Noble didn’t show it, rather Reno slapped hard back.

“God damn it! I love the backbone. Be proud of yourself Aaron. Now let’s hit that damn bottle and call up our man for some more! And let’s tell this motherfucker to grow up!”

“My exact thoughts. Let’s bodycheck the fucker!” Laughter is the purest sound in the world, unfiltered and uncensored, both emitting a celebration of knowing, even if tiny, but solid, a truth, an irony, a pinch of little boy, but it is the celebration of understanding of an incongruity and its relation to the vast profundity of life’s fragile nature that makes the laughter harder, purer, chiseled as if a diamond, glittering and timeless.

The hand slapped the shoulders and the roar kept pace with the eyes that saw wetness in both.

Bodycheck,” he mumbled. “Gotta remember that one.”

Paul brought in his laptop with speakers and gave Noble carte blanche of choice to play whatever he wanted, and swapped stories each taking turns and listening intently as if it were their last day of life on earth, ignoring Antonio’s whimpering, at times Paul snapping at him in Spanish telling him to grow up and be a man. He was sent out for more booze and cigarettes, each trying to outdo each other as to who paid, Antonio confused at the sudden change of situation, pouting as he left for the store but bringing back all the supplies they needed for an uninterrupted exchange, regrets voiced and achievements embellished, soon tragedies simmering the mood and then once Antonio was kicked out the war stories were told in whispers, just enough to explain and justify and paint a canvas but details excluded for the sake of dignity and honor to a pledge made long ago. For Reno Noble a glimpse at a life he could have had but had walked past the open door that had beckoned him forth, a path he had always wanted to follow but thought too many others wanted to take the same trail. The mutual outpouring of life’s skirmishes and joys was a tutorial of non-fiction, a sharing of scars and loves lost, of dreams unsought, creating a mosaic before them both of what life truly was, clouded now revealed, resented and now revered, feared and now embraced.

Chapter Forty-three

Slandering Hamlet


One of the fallouts of being a direct and just man, who speaks up when one should correct and inform others when they were offside, was that people – namely shunned acquaintances – would badmouth the Dane in a number of different slights. Symmetrical good looks, the result of fluke of birth and geography, were resented in the subtlest ways. Noble would find himself silent when Reno would be outraged, attacking with sharp questions not to accuse or ever be personal but to inform and reveal, so as to instruct and enlighten them of their mistake. The badmouthing was the bane of the Dane: the shipwreck and carnage of emotion in his wake for going forth, the aftermath strewn with rubble and the cutting edge to words that together could never be proven as slander. The more the person loved the Dane the more severe the indirect negativity and false invention of blame – a sense of a resentful child left out of the inner circle they truly wanted to be part of.

What was so interesting to Noble was that these were the people that the Dane spoke of in an unflattering way, youngerlings who never quite made the grade, peoples blighted by immaturity and a lack of seeing who they truly were. It was as if he could see their potential without themselves seeing it. And his words screamed for them to center themselves and become who he saw they were. His beauty was such that those not included into his confidence bitched like jealous girlfriends, starting out with praise but soon turned to speculative and inventive mistruth and antagonistic revisionism. For Noble it showed two things: the immaturity and ignorance of the individual, and how it reflected their own underdeveloped person. How the Dane’s words to Noble spoke of a suggestion for improvement to his own shortcomings, and how they were selected by him to indicate and point the way without the rawness of being hurtful or destructive, despite the direct method being his preference. Never being personal and always having a point, the Dane’s choice of discussion about another would be with the indirect intention of informing Noble of aspects of himself that could be improved. And what happened was that the Dane would see slight improvements and a sharpening in Noble’s piece that would show the Dane that his indirect comments were being read in the correct manner. Ironically, these points of person were never discussed in any way that would acknowledge this form of lecturing.

Once Noble spoke up and took issue with the indirect slight by an acquaintance of the Dane’s, they would see that they were talking to someone who had his confidence and understood the concept of loyalty, who had been accepted into his inner circle and who had become a friend. For the Dane there was only an admission of how exceptional he was and how there were certain aspects of his life that no one could know and that no one deserved to know about. Almost always it ended with the mutual recognition of his exceptionality. Yes, the Danes were special people. They were a bit different.

But Noble knew why the Dane guarded his time and person; space. After having spent most of his twenties behind bars in Copenhagen, he would never forgive himself or the law for taking that chunk of his life away, so that every day he would strive to take as much as he could, with no authority or individual telling him what to do. It was a disguised bitterness that manifest in his firmness and directness, and his need for addressing the incongruities of a situation, not to hurt or humiliate, but to put on the table and see. Just as he had said that being too kind was a weakness on the street, Noble knew that it was his way of saying put your doppelgänger forward and smarten up. The Dane could see the mini Reno edging to the surface, in fact peeking around corners and nudging himself into the picture. The Dane was a man who knew his doppelgänger was more trustworthy in the game of hard knocks despite the fact that he might have to sacrifice the empathy in his heart. Noble could see that sometimes he had a wooden heart, not broken but made of wood, because it didn’t feel. Even a broken heart could feel, but sometimes his heart was completely absent of emotion.

He called it his inner policeman. When he said that to Noble he thought it was perfect.

But in the same breath he spoke proudly of being an Upper Man. It was nothing elitist, it had everything to do about having his best self forward – the one who had the most dignity and was righteous and just. He fret that others did not employ and trust their Upper Man lying dormant and undiscovered, perhaps only sometimes in brief glimpses surfacing and noticed by the Dane but unnoticed by the doppelgänger’s other self. Nothing ever personal or antagonistic but always pertinent and valid; he was the master executor of objectivity from the perspective of the able Viking. Could he be blamed? Was he not truly a competent Viking? Noble thought so. And the more he hung out with the Dane, the more he could sense the growth and fortification of Reno. And the more that happened, the less fractured he felt as a human being. Through the Dane, Noble was discovering the strength and wisdom of the human instinct.

All the Dane’s thrusts stemmed from the universal blueprint of human instinct.

The Dane was the embodiment of the Upper Man.

What Noble brought to the party for the Dane was how to remove the inner policeman. Sometimes he hung on too tight, and watched with a grin at how Noble/Reno could suddenly control a situation – and people – through absolute trust in his strengths, letting no doubt or fear of judgment get in the way. When you’re dying it’s easier to pluck the copper out. It might be one of the reasons why they spent so much time together, other than their mutual passion for the cocoa leaf.

The Dane wanted Noble to evolve, highlighting the times when Reno showed expertise and Noble stumbled like a fifth grader. Times spent talking over the crack pipe were spent talking about those things that mattered, those things that needed attention and improvement, spoken of in sweeping terms, never being specific. If they ever did verge on the personal, they both saw it as an offside. There was etiquette to it all after all.

When it became really intense, after the sixth or eighth gram of tech, Noble wanted to confess his secret and confide in him that he was dying. But every time he stopped and censored because he couldn’t allow any pity to enter his friendship with the Dane. The more the cocoa leaf stimulated the natural electrical synapses in his brain and his heart blooded, he could not slip into the confession. It was his secret with God. It was his ace in the hole. There was no way he was going to let God’s curse surface to anyone he knew. Only his doctor, his family, two friends and God knew about it. And that was going to stay that way. If they wanted any hint they would see him hardening and his hands turning into claws with reptile skin.

Whoever said it was impossible to find and open new doors and grow at 48? If old age was the harvest of a philosopher’s life, then the last five years of a 48-year old’s life can be packed with everything: full hamburger and all condiments, except hot peppers. The Dane was a 45-year old 65-year old while Noble was a 48-year old 18-year old in terms of Aristotelean character years.

Noble could never thank the Dane enough for lighting the path before him.

Despite being three years younger, the Dane looked older and knew more about the ebb and flow of life. Anyone who supplied drugs to the Hell’s Angels and then competed with the Hell’s Angels in drug dealing territory had to know how not the fear. And this, to Noble, was the trick.

His rubbing-off manifest itself one night after the bar when Noble was walking back to his hostel. Four guys swarmed him, one taking a short fishing knife – a curved short number sharp as a scalpel used to gut fish – to his liver, threatening to slice him open. Instead of giving up, he yelled back and struggled, making the mugger press the sharpened knife hard against his stomach. Even when he took the knife and pressed it right against his jugular he still kicked and cursed them, looking them straight in the eyes man-to-man. The muggers were only able to take a few papers from his pockets, missing his big fold of bills in his front pocket, and missing his bag of drugs in his breast pocket. As they fled, Noble/Reno chased after them instead of running the other way. Only with no fear could Noble/Reno survive a mugging at four o’clock in the morning. That was what the Dane had given him: the ability not to feel fear. For a man who had been riddled by fear his entire life, that moment of overcoming defined what he had become. It would be a moment that he would remember in his afterlife.

Noble never appreciated how addicted the Dane was until he himself became an addict. Actual physical dependence or extreme preference was different than being a recreational user. And the big difference there was that neither of them needed to go to work. The Dane smoked like he was going to die of Scleroderma himself. Maybe he saw that in Noble?

But a lot of people can love you and mock you when not invited into your inner circle. They resent you for just being strong. And having that power that comes from being centered and knowing your character. It was important that Noble had a good friend in South America. He knew that a friend was someone you would call if ever in trouble, which knocked everyone except for the Dane. Nothing could ever faze the Dane. He had seen it all. He was the kind of guy who would pick you up from jail and only ask if you wanted to go for a pint. He was stern and firm but he never was the judgmental lecturing superior. As long as you looked at him right in the eye when he spoke and showed him without words in your eyes that you heard and understood what he said then there was no more discussion. Noble knew why he was so earnest and looked at you right in the eye when he spoke.

Even when he smoked his pipe he was purposeful and earnest. He never let the oiled crack sit for a few minutes and turn white. He would rather scoop it with the bottom tip of a lighter when the oil was still transparent to ensure it was as pure as it could be. Hard rock, tasting as strong and bitter as pure coke could be, free of lactose and ether and all the other impurities that caused headaches or other undesired side effects. He would rather get a small pure rock from the powdered coke than more that was semi-cooked and tasting of baking soda. Noble came to know this only when he mastered the art of making crack on his balcony in Guapalo. And during these long days and weeks spent on his balcony smoking his pipe in peace, he had lost touch with the Dane, who was spending all his time with his girlfriend and with his bottle of ammonia.


Noble dropped by Finn McCool’s after a long time away. Winston the dealer, well-dressed, embraced Noble like a long-lost brother, smile like cotton in the dark.

“Noble!” laughter as if someone was pulling it out of him without his control. Almost a musical sound. “I knew I would see you one of these days.” Dirty Lacoste sweater, yellow and orange with green stripes. Told him about the Dane paying him back finally.

“Your friend keeps calling me but I don’t pick up. He only paid me after I told him he was going to get knifed.”

“I told you he’d pay you.”

“Yeah but, listen to me. Your friend is a scammer. I still don’t know why you are friends with that animal! Brings you down man. I’m telling you. I won’t deal with him again. Made a lot of people angry. Owed me money for weeks and he owed other guys who were in the hole, and these guys won’t hesitate to clip the guy.” Nigerian and connected, international network, one of the boys; a dangerous man.

“At least he paid.”

“I’m telling you. Don’t be surprised if he’s roughed up and taken down. He’s messin’ with the wrong guys. These guys kill for sport you know? I’m telling you because you’re my friend.” A connected dealer wearing an expensive, high-quality sweater dirty around the collar. Incongruous. A deceiving book cover.

“I need to see him,” said Noble.

“I saw him walking the street and ignored him. Looked white as a ghost. Lines on his face like an old man.” Motioned with his hand downwards on his cheeks. Noble needed to find him. “He’s fucking up badly, you hear me?”

“I have to call him. I called tonight but his phone was off.”

“Nah, leave him be. More trouble than what he’s worth.” No idea of the value of the Dane. Boggled the mind. But concern sprouted again for the man from Denmark.

“How are you for tech?” Face leaned forward eyes wide, whites contrasting against his dark skin. Greetings first, then the welfare of Noble’s never-ending consumption of pipe tech.

“Weed?” Might be an idea.


“Okay, I call my guy.” He slipped a twenty into his hand.

“I trust you. Better be good though or I’ll chop off your tess-ti-klees.” The laughter bellowed from somewhere in his ribcage. A warm wind of music as Winston left through the red doors to make a call.

Nathan the new doorman lunged from his seat inside the doors.

Too mas tiempo mi amigo. Mas tiempo.” Shoulders massive, clean cut in tight shirt. Finding his niche.

“Si Nathan. Com’estas? Todo bien?” His bulk had grown. Picture of health; felt like a rake against his amino-acid-padded frame. Showed a smile that shocked. Very sincere. Truly happy to see Noble again. Remembered the beer he bought him when his shoulders were slouched, and ignored at the bar after hours. Tremendous gratitude. Sipped slowly beside Noble talking up some big-breasted women. Slapped his shoulder. Puffed up with muscle fiber. Slight envy.

“You inclined to treat me to a pint?” Winston bending through the doors. “I called my guy. All cool.”

“Why not?” Turned to Nathan. “Time for a cerveza. Good to see you Nathan. Really good to see you hombre.” Held his look to make sure he understood.

Winston followed him into the bar. Saw Mark the Irishman first. Casual as if they had seen each other last night.

“Hey Noble, thought you’d gone.”

“Nah, been hanging at my apartment, writing a bit.” Wondered if he was going to comment on his hunched shoulders hidden under the leather.

“Where’d you finally find one?”

Guapalo. Great view.” Full nod. Bohemian, good fit. The Irishman knew Reno well.

Jazz the executive indifferent and drunk, just a nod. Kate always the academic, blushed because of her tendency to backstab others when they’re absent. Her colored cheeks revealed her backhanded words said behind his back thinking he had left.

“Where have you been?” Eyes searching, guilt evident. Memories of the last time they saw each other, eighteen hours of talking in his room on a coke binge and then back to Finn’s. Kate screaming in a frenzy at the end of the night. Wild abandon, screeching like he had never heard before.

“Working. New apartment. Settling in.”

“Did you say Guapalo?” Chin down, face contorted with discombobulation. Noticed his hands. “Your hands,” she said. “The skin is like a reptile’s.” The gall of some. But kept cool like a Danish cucumber, Reno taking the reigns.

“Kate do you remember the last time we saw each other out there when you were getting into the taxi? Do you remember what you said?” She nodded. “Good, I’m glad you remember.” Enough said.

Joshua the waiter unabashedly hugged him, eyes wide open, comforted by a fellow soul, realizing that he had not been abandoned.

“Pappy!” Mohawk thinner, more earrings. Chubbier. Must have felt his skin and bones under the motorcycle jacket.

“Really good to see you Joshua. Glad you’re here. Todos bien?”

“Oh my God! It’s been like sooo long.” An emotion tinged his cheek, a powerful emotion he didn’t want to play with.

“You look good bitch,” said Noble. Laughter. Their secret word.

“Totally bitch!” Slap on the leather shoulder. “Have you seen-“

“No. Not for a while. Called him tonight, no answer. Guys phone is always off.”

“Hmm.” Shook his head in concern.

“I know.” The only one who truly cared.

Jose the bartender deposited the beers on the counter.

“Look who’s here!” The handshake, the teeth electrified. Head moving almost musically.

“I didn’t think I’d see you man.”

“We didn’t know where you were.” A pang of guilt. The only one worth telling of his hiatus.

“Haven’t been in Mariscal since Christmas, since we had that-“

“Yeah.” Recollection showed with a grin.

“Good tech that was.”

“You!” Pointed his finger. Mischievous laughter.

Kevin, drunk, bald, dead arm dangling, stumbled past.

“I’m practically neighbors with this guy,” he said, pointing to Kevin, too drunk to take notice of him. Eyes half closed.

“I don’t think he knows,” said Kate, rolling her eyes.

Karl greeted him, and then took him by the shoulder to a dark corner.

“Listen, you have a tab still.” Christ. This guy was anal.

“I paid it. Paid Isaac a month-and-a-half ago. Ask him.”

“There’s no record of you paying.” Bent over like a headmaster scolding a student.

“Trust me, I came in just to pay just after January. Bumped into Ivan and had two pints before we left. Is he back yet?” Confused, he shook his head.

“Still in Panama.” He put his hand on his shoulder, still not convinced.

“Have you seen the Dane?” Noble asked.

“Not when he’d remember.” Smart lip. That resentment from being excluded. “Has tuberculosis.” Rolled his eyes. “What’d you expect?” Shrugged his shoulders. “He’s fucked.” Every bit the Small Man, in bed early, never over-imbibing, the awkward child storing away his acorns for a rainy day. A grown man still a boy held hostage by the little-boy fascist, lacking in the true knowledge of qualia. An observer who never left the stands. But Noble was aware that the Dane had not paid his bar tab that was more than a few thousand. Because of this, Noble wouldn’t get riled. Wanted to state the difference between bronchitis and tuberculosis. Let him have his kicks. Whatever turns your cranky man, thought Reno.

 “Ask Isaac or Ivan. They’ll both remember. But who cares? It’s only thirteen bucks.” Noble shoved a twenty into Karl’s breast pocket.

“I’ll ask them,” bluster and puffed gait deflated. Noble felt pity. Strange when he thought about it, a man who had all the bells and whistles who was missing the middle part. With no immediate beef Karl floundered, hands suddenly looking for a place to be, the schoolboy in a six-foot-five Celtic apparatus. A man offended at others’ ability to have fun and laugh from the gut. He wondered what Karl would do if he was told he had Scleroderma and was slapped in the face with a bill for ten more months to live, decaying, suffocating with lungs of lead, heart beating slower, skin greening to a pale pallor, hands clawed, face swollen with collagen, mucous boil in his lung cavity. Muscles in the esophagus weak and stiff, threatening to choke on every morsel of food. Back crooked like a pretzel, neck unbendable, arms like a chimpanzee, eyelids stiff with rigormortis, shoulders all bone, penis unused and non-functional, knees like broken toffee, body the color of a bruised banana. Aging at the speed of sound. Intestines unworkable, kidneys excreting urine thick with dead cells, evidence of systemic destruction. An old man at forty and wrestler of an unbeatable opponent. Would he have grace? Would he stand up and be counted? Could he look at his foe in the eye? Or would he seek pity?

Or keep it as his secret and not be afraid?

Odd that Noble had been just like him six months before.

“Happy birthday Noble.” Bear hug. How did he ever remember? Genuinely missed by Stuart the Scot.

From unknown and unnoticed and a life where no one missed him, to a family greeting by the Finn Regulars – a tribe of misplaced non-conformists in Huxley’s Greenland. A colony who had tested their mettle and had seen the fullness of Noble’s person. Some inspired and some offended, some thankful for a voice of sanity in a scrum that always hummed with opinions through skewered eyes on a world wading in a soup of solipsism. Noble a ray of light, objective and clean, compassionate and understanding with moxie and style, a voice of reason from a pit of darkness. A pillar of originality who had passion for what mattered, and the one who always spoke truth. And the only one without guile.

“The Scots are the best in the world but all the Scots are dead,” he said to Stuart.

“Not yet.”

“You good, man?” Eyes lazy but full of zeal. Lots of life lived. “I mean, you happy, tonight?” The chin went up, the meaning now clear.

“Oh yeah. Master of my buzz.” Laughter. Didn’t matter he had brought four rocks from his apartment in an empty matchbox. Tried to get outside to smoke a pipe.

Thought about the earthquake and the Smoky Peach. Then Karl asked him to DJ for a while. He had taken control of the DJ booth many times before and had created a crescendo of drinkers within the Irish Pub’s walls with his eclectic choice of songs.

“Sure man,” he replied. He slipped into the DJ booth in the far corner and started playing his rock tunes, seeing tangibly the patrons begin to speak more robustly and drink at a higher rate.

“And here,” said Karl, “record your selections by saving them into this file. Name them ‘Texas Noble,’”

“Roger that.” Karl, somewhat ashamed from his earlier assault against Noble, brought him a beer on the house. He watched his friends party from the corner, happy to sit back and witness the magic he was creating with some music. It was a far cry from what he had been doing back in Texas a year ago. Getting sick had been the catalyst for him to become who he was after spending a lifetime eschewing the task.

José genuinely shocked, happy to break a rule and smoke a joint in the back after Karl had left. That was when he saw Diego. He hadn’t seen him since the hot springs along the Andean continental divide.

“I have no place to stay tonight.” Sat shrunken in a seat in the dark corner. Didn’t recognize him. Hair short, shoulders slouched. Swagger part of another ethos. He explained what happened to his strained utopia. “I haven’t seen you but did you hear what happened to me?” Eyes like a battered hush puppy.


“My wife asked me to leave her for a week but then I went back and everything was good. Four weeks later I was outside in the back picking fruit. You know, near the patio? It’s pretty big.”

“It is.”

“And the police show up. So this cop is there and I say: ‘What are you doing on my property?’

“’Are you Diego?’ he says to me. My wife had gone upstairs, messed up her hair, scratched herself on the neck and then called the cops.”


“She wanted me out so that’s what she did. Spent the night in jail, spent eight-hundred bucks on a lawyer but it’s not over yet.” The mysterious rich disc jockey had figured a way of kicking the man she didn’t love out of his mansion estate. “I’d go and surf in Costa Rica and live off my income from my hostel but I have to stay in the country for the court case.”

“That is so uncool, man.”

“It’s true. She has my two children.” Voice soft. Trauma from injustice. “So I’ve been sleeping on friend’s couches now for four weeks and am looking for an apartment.” He didn’t even have a beer to drink so Noble bought him one and they sat quietly in the corner. So quickly can a utopia change from luxury and security to criminality and homelessness.

Chapter Forty-four

Stealing Time


When truly facing the abyss through unplanned Acts of God, you find your true friends. When pushed from one’s spell of inertia, one finds many overlooked gems surrounding you waiting for your attention. The push is a slap in the face. This was his thought when relaxing on his balcony sipping tea.

The comment by Karl lingered with him. The last time he had seen the Dane he said he had almost had a heart attack from freebasing with ammonia. And he had looked frail and pale. Noble had been relaxing in his new apartment in Guapalo and hadn’t been able to get through on his telephone until he received a call from the Dane.

“Don’t you ever put on your phone man?” The Dane on the offensive right off the bat.

“Look who’s talking.”

“They don’t let me talk on my mobile here.” There was some noise in the background.

“And where might that be?”

“Ach. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” Noble could see in his mind’s eye the hand sweeping wide in the air.

“Are you still in town?” Never wise to be direct with the Dane Man.


“Well then let’s get together and have a pint or what-have-you.”

“Good, I was hoping you’d be in. But first I need you to help me with something.” His voice lowered. “I went to a doctor for my chest, you know, bronchitis, and he sent me here to the hospital but it sucks. I need to leave.”

“Yeah, I bet it’s stuffy. So I why don’t you?”

“I need a diversion.” Many things passed through his mind.

“What hospital?”

Metropolitano, up near the police headquarters.”

“I can find it. When do you need me?”

“No reason to put it off.” Tone of mischief.

“Give me an hour and I’ll be there.” The Dane gave him his room number and building and told him to wear a hat and sunglasses because there were cameras.

Before he left Noble cooked a number of rocks and put them in a matchbox to greet the Dane in style. Sunglasses and beret were marshaled for the excursion and the taxi ride took twenty minutes. To loosen up Noble swigged from a mickey of schnapps. He was looking forward to partying with the Dane and getting back into the swing of things after the caper was over.

It wasn’t difficult to find him in the cardio wing, but Noble didn’t recognize him at first. His hair was pure white and his skin was lined and folded around the mouth. His neck was like a pencil and his chest was concave.

“I knew you would be here,” he said when he saw Noble. “You were the only one I thought of calling.” The Dane looked the other way in unacknowledged embarrassment.

“So how are you doing man?” Compassion eschewed but nonetheless welcomed in his heart.

“Lungs are burnt to a crisp they say. But I can still breathe. They might have found something wrong with my kidneys too. So they have me all wired up here to make sure I don’t fall off into the other world.” The Dane slipped out of bed with his denims and socks already on under his medical smock.

“Aren’t they feeding you in here?”

“No, they aren’t. That’s another reason.” He gently removed the tape from his IV and then pulled out the long needle that went into his vein. “I hate these things. No more!”

“I hear you,” said Noble, looking over his shoulder. “So what’s the plan?”

“That short fat nurse will be coming in here any minute, so you need to go to the nurses’ station and ask them something, like directions or if they have a patient here by the name of Carlos or whatever. Just keep them tied up there. And make sure you get the short fat one. She’s like a Bull Terrier.”

“Okay man, I can do that. How long should I tie her up? A couple minutes?”

“About that.” Blood dripped from his arm. “Can you watch from the door? Make sure it’s clear.” Noble stepped to the door and peered around the corner.

“Clear,” he said. He surveyed the room and took a swig of schnapps.

“Fuck! Where is my sweater?” The Dane, like a marionette of himself fifty pounds thinner, looked in a small closet and under his bed. “Damn! Nothing stays here in this damn country!” He coughed, a deep rattling sound. A dungeon of phlegm.

“Here, wear this. It’s cold outside. And I’ll meet you in front of the cop station by the front gate.” Noble gave him his leather jacket.

“Cop station. You’re too much. Okay, ready?” He tiptoed out of his room and went directly for the stairwell looking back at Noble asking the nurses where the Rheumatology department was. He mentioned he had scleroderma and needed some medical attention but had come to the cardio department by mistake. Using his most painful Spanish, both nurses tried to follow what he was saying. By the time they understood him the Dane was downstairs walking out the front doors. Noble even kept his sunglasses on the whole time.

When he approached the Dane standing on the street he looked like an old man. All his clothes hung off him as if he were a skeleton. But when he saw Noble his eyes lit up into the fiery icebergs of before.

“Let’s go man!” He grabbed Noble’s arm and they went to the taxi stand and left the scene of the crime.

Inside the cab he handed the Dane the schnapps and then a Marlborough.

“You know how long it’s been since I’ve had a cigarette?” With the schnapps bottle in one hand and the Marlborough in the other, the Dane burst out laughing, like nothing Noble had ever seen before; a laughter with a fuck you tinge and a middle finger to all that was safe and practical. But it ended with violent coughing and a mouth full of phlegm that he casually dropped at the base of his feet without the driver seeing. Noble looked out the window but had seen its bloody hue. Noble would not ask anything about his lungs out of respect for the Dane’s privacy.

“Two weeks in that bloody hospital is two weeks too long! God! What a terrible experience.” Then he squared his skinny shoulders and looked at Noble. “I’d rather be out here having fun than lying in there and watching the clock. God awful! Bunch of walking dead in there. Not my way to fade away like that.”

“Must be the Viking in you.”

“Exactly. I think you’re right. Danish people just go in and get their meds and leave. They don’t sit around and stick needles in you with every meal.” The thought of tuberculosis crossed Noble’s mind when the Dane handed back the schnapps, but he was dying himself so he didn’t bother wiping it.

“So then you’re free! Where would you like to go?” The Dane hit him with all his power on the left shoulder.

“I can’t thank you enough for that. I needed that extra bit of safety ‘cause if they had caught me they would have put a guard at my door. Didn’t bother paying my bill though I have a good idea it was a couple thousand. No way, that money can go into a trip and some tech.” Again the slap on the shoulder, a sense of camaraderie effusing Noble.

“Speaking of which.” He pulled out the matchbox and his pipe. From the look on his face there wasn’t one thing in the world that the Dane would have liked more at that moment. He handed Noble his cigarette and took the pipe and tech, and then spoke to the driver in his flawed Spanish. Somehow he managed to get permission to smoke the pipe in the cab.

“Did you make these?”

“My technique has evolved, even more than yours.” Provoking comments always caused a stir.

“No. Nothing beats my technique. Trust me.”

“Then giver a try, Mr. Technique.” He ashed the cigarette into the bowl and then placed a rock and lit it. His lung capacity was a fraction of what it had been only a month before so he let the bowl smoke, enjoying the thick white cloud and the unmatchable smell. He shook his head as he exhaled.

“It’s good to be out. It was like prison in there, and you know what I think about that.” Again the direct looked, squared shoulders.

“Never again,” he replied.

“Exactly. Never going to have my freedom taken away again. Already paid my dues with that one.” The Dane put his hand on Noble’s shoulder, tilted his head and smiled, showing the missing molars from a previous incident. Cheeks emaciated and gray.

“’Meet me in front of the cop station’ he says. Only you Noble. Only you.” The smile was there even as he smoked the pipe. If there was ever something Noble had done in his life that he was sure had made someone happy, this certainly was it.

The Dane wanted to check out Noble’s new apartment in Guapalo so they grabbed some beer and other supplies and spent the afternoon on his balcony. As if blessed by the Sun God, it was cloudless and they could see the snowy peak of Cotopachi in the distance, pure in the equatorial sun. Timeless.

“This is great. Got to love this balcony.”

“I’ll never know why I stayed in that hostel for so long.” A rooster crowed like a rusted squeezebox as the sun passed just overhead throwing heat onto his face. Birds chirped in victory, a chorus of survivors for at least one more day, some missing a feather, some missing an eye, and some with a broken heart.

“I know why. Because you hadn’t found the right apartment. For such little rent you scored with this place.” He kept leaning his head back and letting the sun warm his neck and upper chest. The chips were eaten but the Danishes were left for Noble. For months they had been planning to be roommates but had never made the move or found a good enough place.

“You can stay here if you want, until you find a place.”

“Thanks but I’m going to stay with my woman,” he replied. “My bank in Denmark has frozen my account so I can’t get to my money. Something about unpaid income taxes. Bastards.”

“Can you do anything about it?”

“Not really. I suppose I should call someone there and fix it.” He focused on the pipe he had constructed out of a plastic bottle, always sure to fully clean the bowl after each hit, unlike Noble who smoked two or three hits before scraping out the liquefied ash.

“See, I told you. My technique has evolved.” He held in his breath and nodded just a bit.

“It has but it’s not better than mine,” said the Dane, exhaling. Very stern, always objective and never shy to speak it.

“Maybe not better but in the same ballpark.”

“In the same ballpark. That’s a good one.” He was happy to see the Dane unwind and enjoy his afternoon on his balcony, his first guest besides Rex at his new place.

“That’s where Orellana left for the Atlantic,” said Noble, pointing.

“I know, and the guy only had one eye! You can see his eye patch on his statue down there at the church.”

“One eye. Two years traveling the Amazon to be the first European to cross South America.” Noble shook his head.

“Lost over half his men.” The thought took them both away to far reaches on their imaginations.

“And then he returned here only to die a few years later.” The mention of death fell flat. It crossed Noble’s mind that perhaps the Dane had been ill all along, and that his earnest foray into engaging all aspects of life was his way of trying to defy death, that by engaging without fear ushered him into the full fabric of being, which gave him a new power that had been lying dormant and ignored in his character.

“Oh, listen. I’m going to my girlfriend’s uncle’s hacienda in the country this weekend. Why don’t you come with us? It will be relaxing and we can bring some of this tech.” The question was asked facing the beginning of the Amazon River in the valley below the balcony but the Dane’s shoulders squared Noble for the answer.

“This weekend?” Noble scratched his beard. “And where would her uncle’s place be?”

“It would be in San José de Mina, near Ibarra in the north.” His icebergs shining in the overhead sun. “Come on man! Be my wingman. It’ll be fun. We can ride horses and play the guitar. We can play the Smokey Peach for Christ’s sake!” It was impossible to decline the offer to those fiery blue eyes surrounded by wrinkles of emotion. The Dane was weak. Sick. In need. But not aware of how sick he had become. The ammonia was poisoning him. But Reno couldn’t bring it up. Instead he grieved inwardly, realizing that he had never really had a friend like before. And in that moment Noble knew for the first time what it was like to truly care for someone other than himself.

Chapter Forty-five

On the Old Contraband Trail


Over and beyond the strewn wreckage of life’s victims and naysayers, one has the inner power to spin his perspective on life, not to fool or trick but to encourage and overlook the inherent sadness and tragedy that is central to life’s journey. Finite time and the mortal nature of life should not deter but rather inspire, not to belligerence and ugliness but to discover and express the hitherto unseen poet within, capable of identifying beauty and creating art both for oneself and for all to enjoy. These were Noble’s thoughts as he arrived at the hacienda in San Jose de Mina in the mountains north of Quito with the Dane and his girlfriend Alexandra.

The horse was all muscle and not used to anyone on his back, especially a thin waif like Noble. He was blown away by the sheer power of it, the huge mass it carried. The grace and strength of such a beast. Alexandra’s cousin, Chagra Huasi, was helpful pointing out the basics but it didn’t prepare Noble for what transpired.

As soon as he was on him Noble knew he wasn’t wanted. He had never asked Chagra Huasi how many riders had ridden him. The horse backed up and swung its long neck around and started to gallop. Once moving fast it changed course and sped and twisted its body and heaved its backend trying to shove him off with momentum. Noble was almost forty-five degrees off his saddle, clinging to the reigns for a lifeline. A number of times he was sure he was going to land in a clump of chewed-up grass or on a fencepost. A few times the horse took him rubbing right along the barbwire fence. His legs sprang upwards, his ass on the saddle’s edge. He was off the saddle when the horse jumped the stream where the high banks were. At any moment he could have fallen off easily, but his hand was like a vice. At one point he wondered how he must look, head whipping around, biting his tongue, ripping the skin on his hand, straining his back and lungs. Pulling the reigns only made the horse angrier so it would try to yank them out of his hands. He was only able to hold on because the leather straps of the reigns were looped. Skin on his inner leg rubbed raw from an incongruity in the saddle, grinding through each layer of skin, he clung on for his life.

He didn’t want to return too early to the paddock and the comments and be taken away from this animal, who he felt was communicating with him – telling him he wasn’t going to give him a lift and that he had to earn his respect. 

“Try and buck me off Whitey!” The scream felt good, and let go a flood of adrenaline. Upon hearing the scream of joy, the white horse cantered then trotted, sweating as much as Noble. By pulling gently on one reign he came under control. The bit must bend its teeth or push against bone. Having temporary control, he directed Whitey to the fence where the Dane watched from under his sunglasses. Alexandra said she only wanted to ride the subdued mare and the Dane was standing there amazed at what he had just witnessed. The horse rubbed its bloodied ankles from the onslaught of flies feasting on the warm red elixir exposed through his leg fur. Noble patted Whitey on the neck, then more gently and the soothing sounds. Still resisting, he had not earned Whitey’s respect yet.

“I’ll take him out one more time,” he said, spent with weakness.

Un momento.” Chagra adjusted the stirrups for his longer legs. Now, with better leverage with his legs he was able to control the beast with his legs and arms, learning the fine line between too much pull and not enough. Whitey twisted and ducked, galloping over uneven spots to jump the widest part of the stream, twisting just before the jump, a final thrust with the back legs that almost whiplashed him.

“Try one more time!” he screamed, finding his hoot from his long-buried cowboy instinct never used. His muddy veins swelled in last-ditch juices to add spark to his tank, man versus beast, an ancient war. No one had told him one had to break a horse in order to ride it.

Sounded like deadly hazing to him.

Kit Carson and Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett and George Custer and the single feather that Crazy Horse wore all jumbled through his mind, images created by his own power to see, too travel out of his pain, immersed in conjured emotion. Then Whitey stumbled when he ran over the uneven part, scampering into a trot and moving onto the soft flat part. He loosened the reigns and spoke: “Easy does it Whitey. You’ve tweaked an ankle. Slow down.” He assumed horses liked to be patted on the shoulder blade just as dogs do. It worked. Ears went back, loosened its neck and began to carry itself in a way that lessened the G-Force when he turned direction. They cantered around in balance for a few minutes for the first time, partners now to take an adventure.


After the horseback riding, Noble and the Dane were relaxing on the balcony lying in respective hammocks.

“So you can see how my life changed after I left boarding school when I was thirteen,” he said, after giving Noble a summary of the events that defined his life after leaving school when he was young. The drug dealing, the women, his three stepfathers, his drug taking, his skirmishes with the Hell’s Angels, his time in prison, his sobriety, his businesses, his retirement, his travels and falling off the wagon.

“I used to resent my brother Lars for taking such an easy route through life with his white picket fence and secure job and marriage but now I can see why he chose that way of life. It was a natural choice when you think about it because we didn’t have that sort of life growing up. We had the opposite. My mother was always bringing home men from the bar where she worked and they were heavy drinkers most of them because my mother was an alcoholic.” The Dane looked down the valley at the town of San Jose de Mina and mulled over his life and his relationship with his brother Lars.

“Why don’t you call Lars? You know, just to chat. Let him know you’re okay with his life choices and all that.” The Dane slowly nodded.

“No need. But it’s something to think about. Maybe one of these days. When my birthday comes or something. But still, I think you know me well enough to know that for me the half-climbed mountain is not enough.” Noble laughed. “We have lived such different lives that it’s hard for Lars to understand me. What do you say in English, a gulf between us?”

“Yeah, a gulf.”

“So he has his life, nice and safe with a regular routine and secure job but I have free time and have done things he’d have no idea about. But you’re right. I’ll give him a call one of these days.” The haze of smoke matched the color on his face, spurned a cough that was as ugly as his own. Despite the Dane’s lung infection and kidney turbulence Noble had always believed he would recover, his life force being too strong to succumb to gravity’s nagging pull, but in the iceberg eyes he sensed a release of that hold, a cessation of that fight.

“Freebasing with the ammonia is killing you,” he ventured, fearing he was overstepping.

“I’m going to give it up for a while to recover, throw out that bottle of ammonia I have,” he replied. “And I might even ask Alex to marry me. She’s a good partner. And I like it here in Ecuador.”

“Nice one man. Take a break, recover. And if you pop the question, I will be your best man!” The news gave him hope, like rays of sun piercing through persistent cloud cover. The Dane left to be with his women as they had just finished a pipe, constructed and smoked unseen by the window overlooking the horses.

Now alone with his heart tweaked with an emotion that bled and lingered with him in the hammock, the cadence of death’s rattle sullied him with visions of the Dane drowning in the blood saturating his lungs, so he took out his pencil and scrawled in his journal knowing that the Dane might beat him to the grave:

The boy stumbled with optimism, physical feats hitherto unseen, reinforced dreams without limit and paths open for him to take. Youth rich with love and nurturing, oxygen through sport and book and friend, spurned by imagination each day to new heights brought higher and higher. The golden boy and a life unstained, easy and padded so mischief erupted, first in small batches done with laughter then bigger exploits done with amazement. Correctness executed and targets hit, discipline hammered from all sides, soon gave way to variation flirting with paths of danger. All light and no darkness cannot earn respect, classmates and peers watching, in time the light became dimmed. Tapes strong and inertia great, the path was kept and trodden, though winds and rain prodded forays across the line. The boy within bored by ease, the emerging doppelgänger demanded and acquiesced, led to true adventure unsanctioned. Old dreams lofty and attainable now sullied by forbidden fruit, lured to previous unknown trails leading over mountains into the clouds. Solid practicality and proven worth and sureness of ability faded in the glare of the thrill, pulling towards an outlaw ethic. Normalcy and tradition and respectability so long coveted and expected slowly passed by out of reach, never to return. Vastness of possibility dizzied, lack of comradeship troubled, but the pungent perfume of originality urged forth the best within. Hunger and thirst first experienced, drove home his mortality causing him to look back at the security that could have been. Far off countries and languages foreign, customs backwards in cultures old, pressed for new heights every day, tickling thrill long sought. Adaptation paramount realized, survivability the wealth gained, stretching of new frontiers coming from within. Farther from the norm and from friends and neighborhood, the mind stretched past the pale, in time different through size and vision. Variety inviting colors and smells unknown, peoples and nations before unstudied, broadening his universal humanity and strengthening his goodness of heart. An old value system negated by the ontology of the globe, beliefs earned through empiricism based on the bedrock of man. Boy to man and illusion to truth, the less-journeyed path yielded a harvest of meaning, enlarging the souls and giving power. In the eye of wisdom can be seen, speech like that of a sage, style bespoke non-conformity and language potential fulfilled. Time utilized and cultures tasted and love gained, a life truly lived, the core of self-fortified at the cost of roots and security, a mountain climbed by few. Old classmates and friends in awe, an intuitive respect for courage applied and hidden envy mutes the tongue. Their easy path now regretted and wealth and security an illusion in the face of a man proven and tested, he is more of a man than they ever will be, the truth between them left unspoken. In the quiet moments of night memories enrich, relived and replayed with emotion and clarity, while regret and stress muddle the other, the man still a boy who never pressed to bring out and discover. Life once live can never be returned, the ache of foolishness raw in the flesh, but the authentic man of earnéd truth is soothed by choices made, like a balm. The moment of death the same for both, each with issue and memories, but one a painted canvas colored from the world, the other penciled with a parochial hand. One face smooth and unlined, and the other scarred and wrinkled, both equally endowed with the toolbox to achieve, one’s life bounded and unaffecting, and the other’s a ripple effect inspiring countless individuals across all borders adding light from which humanity feeds.

It rambled out but it felt good to get it off his mind. He added the words “For the Dane in the event of my death,” at the end of it. He knew Toné would know who he meant.


“Are those trails reachable?” He registered his enthusiasm.

Si. Not far. Half an hour. Want to go?” His hand stung and his legs were still shaky but there was no way he was going to say no.


“Now?” Chagra Huasi thought for a moment. “Okay. Let’s go. Vamos!” The Dane looked at him with bloodshot eyes hunched over, not making any attempt to hide his pain.

“You show that stallion whose boss,” said the Dane.

“That’s my plan of attack Vikingo.”

“Don’t let him kick you around.”

“I think I’ve proved worthy of his little test.”

“Could be different out of his safety zone inside the fence.”

“Well then it’s time to become a cowboy, like my ancestors. Or like General George Armstrong Custer.”

“If you find an old cache then don’t forget to bring it back.” For the first time in his eyes he knew that Noble was gravely ill, giving him a manly nod as to taking every opportunity that arose. It was pity that neither of them wanted. “That’s the right word? Cache?”

“Nice one. Another one of those French words that English borrowed.” The clouds moved swiftly down the mountains covering their heads, the palm trees shrouded in the yard, a coppery cough coming upon him. Noble had grown to hate the taste, and this time was careless to leave some red spittle around the side of his mouth. He knew he didn’t have the same urge to go forth with such a diseased body, hands gnarled, body void of muscle, skin scaly and rough and whitish, cheekbones sharpened like two pencils.

“We have it in Danish too.” The Dane put out is hand. “You’ve come a long way my friend.” When they shook hands both of them leaned into each other for support, the closest they would ever come to acknowledging each other’s frailty, two proud men unwilling to admit defeat. It was the Dane’s eyebrows that were different. Instead of firm and purposeful and employed to hammer home earnest communication without guile, they were relaxed, docile, non-existent, as if the game was over, their efforts to overcome now marked as successful, and damn right impressive. Noble’s glance was brief, just as the Dane’s glance had been brief, confirming the blood ringing the edge of his mouth. He looked as if he was in possession of a secret that they both shared and no one else on earth could ever know, as if it was a goodbye until they met again at a better party, one that never ended with mead served by valiant Valkyrie, and distant ancestors unknown. It was pride they both let out unmentioned, a pride of doing well under the circumstances, not throughout life but when it counted most: at the end. Noble felt an overwhelming urge to give him a hug, like brothers would, but let the moment pass because it could remain unsaid, the emotion pungent and the moment poignant. Behind the blue icebergs there was a letting go and knowledge of their own mortality and acceptance that there was nothing else they could do to fight it. It wasn’t fear Noble could detect, rather it was a profound sadness that all the fun would end, that there were still more pints to be had and more muggings to stop and more words to exchange and more laughs to let fly. The tragedy of finite time flickered behind the curtains to his soul, the same affliction Noble had tried to conquer during his post-diagnosis life. Yes, said Noble to himself when looking into those eyes, it is the lack of time that hurts the most, unused time, once so abundant now the elixir slipping through fingers like a dying oak. Just as they were both becoming who they were, mastering what life had to offer them, time was being snatched away leaving them with nothing but a vague sense of an afterlife. They had done as much as they could but now the forces of life were affecting what they had had for nearly fifty years.

“I’ll be sure to bring back that cache so we can check out the old tech.” The use of the word cracked the sadness in his eyes into mirth. The Dane, in his weakness, stumbled forward after they let go of each other’s hands.

“Keep an eye open. Never know what you’ll find along an old contraband trail.” For a moment Noble wanted to tell Chagra Huasi that he would prefer to ride with the Dane but he knew he wouldn’t allow it. Maybe tomorrow, he thought.

They took the horses out of the field and onto the gravel road where they rode past haciendas and ferns across the cut of the mountain, the valley opening up to them as if in a dream. The real South America, the old contraband trail the outlaws took, that Kit Carson would have taken on his faithful steed.

So this is what it’s like, after all these years. This is what a horse smells like. This is how you sweat when you ride. These are the pains you get when you sit in a saddle. This is what they’ve been talking about in all those books. A peace washed over him that he had connected the threads – that it had somehow come full circle and he had reached the Mississippi. Cattle close on the fields startled Whitey causing the horse to break into a gallop up a steep incline, Noble barely able to grab the pummel, the mare casual as if on Valium.

“He bucks up sometimes.” Chagra looked worried.

“It’s groovy. I think we’ve found our flow.” Chagra launched into questions about starting a Bed & Breakfast at the hacienda and how he should learn English. Noble encouraged him, especially when he said next on his list was a sauna and Jacuzzi for riders to relax with a beer in the clouds and mend their scrapes and bruises.

“You have the perfect location for that.” He took a deep breath and tasted the copper hue. “This is what travelers want. Not some mainstream-run-of-the-mill tourist trap. This.” He used his free hand to gesture. He tried to take a deep breath. How he wanted to live now that he had found this! He wished he had just a few more months to ride and explore through the old trails of history. Now he understood Errol Flynn’s wish to cowboy and wear a holster all day.

Dogs barked where a cluster of children played. Suddenly a small pig darted at the horse’s feet honking like it was mad. Whitey jumped to avoid stepping on it and flew forward at an angle that whipped Noble clean off the saddle all in one reflex action. His clawed hands reached forward to break his fall but his legs carried around so he crashed on the back of his neck, cracking the vertebrae like a branch. A strange warmth passed through his body like a wave of dopamine that mended the pain. His head pointed up to the sky, dirt falling down his cheek, mud cold against his neck. He could hear himself breathe, his muscles soon contracting in a last effort to draw air in. His lips rumbled when the intake came that sounded similar to a horse, a sound made by another part of his body that he could not feel. In this quiet moment between life and death he saw a hummingbird hovering a few feet in front of him.

“Horseback,” he said in a whisper, to him and God, to his ancestor spirits who all watched as a brethren graduated back into the Spirit World where they could all compare notes at the Great Hacienda in the Sky. Noble could begin to see himself as if out of his body looking down, a lightness in his stomach as if overcame by light. The energy radiating outwards was joy and relief, the total release of all, the cathartic upheaval of slipping into a formless dimension that hummed like a symphony and was soft to the touch. As he had been given in life, he could not use his previous senses. The only connecting thread to existence was an awareness through time but not space, an infinite point in duration yet filled with quanta of colors and smells and sounds of laughter, the murmuring of optimism and the unwavering belief that life will exist forever. Knowledge of the infinite, not in comprehension but of its existence, an awareness of a labyrinth of wormholes and corridors each with a destination for the next stage of evolution.

The hummingbird flew up into the sky.

Like the reoccurring dream he had as a child, the granite rectangle with sharp edges and wear shot straight upward, steaming for a hundred-and-sixty miles through the ozone until gravity’s strappings were freed, rifling into the weightlessness of black space. The first moments were not of this earth.



About the Author

Peter Higgins was born in Vancouver but grew up in Toronto, graduating from Queen’s University in 1990 and then with a master’s degree from the University of Hong Kong in 2004. Mr. Higgins worked as a professional writer in Taiwan, the Philippines and Hong Kong for ten years before he returned to Canada to write. He currently lives with his family on Manitoulin Island, Ontario Canada.