Nidia and I didn’t talk much. I cruised the radio dial for any kind of American music. Once or twice, I thought I spotted a car about a half-mile behind us; I saw it on lower switchbacks in the highway, when I glanced in the rearview or out the window. Ahead, in a steep mountain face, the dark opening of a tunnel yawned before the Impala. I slowed down and edged the car to the right side of the road in case of oncoming traffic, and I reached down to flick on the headlights. They flashed off what looked like a low wall of dark metal in front of us, a wall that resolved into a stalled car, sideway, blocking the road.
“Jesus!” I hit the brakes so hard that Nidia’s body snapped against the restraint of her seat belt and the shapeless knitting project bounced off the glove box and onto the floor. We skidded to a stop.
“Sorry,” I said to Nidia, touching her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Then I noticed headlights behind us. It was the car I’d caught glimpses of in the rearview. Unlike us, they didn’t have to brake hard or skid to a stop. They rolled up behind us to a smooth stop. It looked a lot like planning.
There was also a strong similarity in the make and color of the two cars, front and back. The driver of the car behind us had stopped in a diagonal position, so that we were effectively hemmed in. I did not like this.
“Que pasa?” Nidia said, frightened into her native language.
“I don’t know,” I said. I reached down and hit the electronic controIs, locking all four doors at once. Now, in front of us and behind, men were emerging from the cars. White men, well-built, with guns.
“Que pasa?” Nidia said again. “Que pasa?”
“Calmate,” I said, although I wasn’t at all sure that calming down was appropriate.
The men spread out around us in a circle. Seven white men in rural Mexico. This didn’t make any sense.
Nidia had her hands to her face. “El padre,” she whispered.
I reached under the seat and wrenched the Airweight free of it tape, but for the moment, I kept it out of the men’s line of sight. I didn’t want to start the shooting. I was far too outgunned.
five rounds is all most civilians will ever need. If you can’t shoot your way
out of something with five rounds, you can’t shoot your way out of it at all. It had sounded good at
Nidia,” I said calmly, “take off your seat belt and get on the floor, low as you can.”
She was staring at the gun in my hands. She didn’t move.
I reached over and unclicked her seat belt. “Down!” I said. “Ahora!”
She slid down, whispering what I assumed were prayers.
My mind was working pretty well in that cool, empty space where fear should have been and wasn’t. This had to be a case of mistaken identity.
One of the men approached. He gestured for me to roll down my window.
Carefully, still keeping the gun out of sight, I rolled down my window to a gap of about two inches and said, “We’re not carrying anything of value. No drugs, and no money.”
He stepped closer, close enough now to see the gun in my hands, but it didn’t seem to worry him. He said, “We want her.”
Nidia? “Why?” I said.
He said, “Not your problem.”
He was surveying me with what almost looked like friendly curiosity. He said, “Please just put the gun down and unlock the doors. My friend over there will take Miss Hernandez gently out of the car and your role in this will all be over.”
I understood that I was not going to shoot our way out of this, not with five rounds, probably not with three times that, had I been better armed. But the Impala was still in drive. If I hit the gas and smashed straight into the back end of the sedan in front of us, maybe I could just bull our way out.
Three problems: One, they could start shooting. Two, even if they didn’t, Nidia was on the floor without a seat belt and could get banged up pretty badly. Three, two of them were standing right in front of the car.
Of course, it was better for Nidia to get banged up than shot. As for the guys in front of the car, could I live with myself if they died of their injuries? Yes, I could, if it was Nidia’s life and mine against theirs.
I inhaled as though steadying my nerves and said to the guy outside the car, “Okay, just let me explain to her. Her English isn’t very good.”
Turning to Nidia, I spoke in Spanish, telling her, Brace yourself.Then, crouching low behind the steering wheel, I stepped hard on the gas pedal. The Impala’s engine roared in response. The last thing I heard was gunfire.