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Flowers for Cristina

When travelling abroad, they give you shots and warnings, tell you not to drink the water and be wary of pickpockets and scam artists,

but they don't tell you the greatest danger is what you bring with you: your heart.

Flowers for Cristina by Johnny Strike

I watched the port coming into view from the old freighter.
I was fresh out of college and on my first trip out of country. I was to look up an elderly uncle for certain members of the remaining family and to make sure that said uncle was okay. The “eccentric” Uncle Luigi had become an expat, deciding to live full-time in this small, tropical, Latin American island nation, cutting off all contact with his family. Several of the family became concerned enough to finance my trip.
        Once on the island I checked in to an inexpensive old hotel oozing with old world character. Still buzzed by travel I decided to go out and explore the steamy, exotic streets. Presently I came across a section of town heavy with the smell of rich earth, and heady with the perfume of flowers. The flower stalls were bleachers and each row presented a jumble of colors that climbed to the top tier. About midway up the stands of one of these was a girl of around my own age. She stopped me in my tracks. She was sitting and idly browsing through a magazine. She perhaps felt the intensity of my gaze since she looked at me pleasantly and curiously before putting the magazine aside. I took a couple of steps up, and wished her a good evening in a mix of English and Spanish. Without much of an expression she asked if I was an American, and was I interested in buying flowers. I said si and no gracias. I laughed and expected her to, but what followed was an uncomfortable moment of silence. Thankfully she spotted other potential customers, and left to help them. I loved the way her dark hair was pulled back. I imagined her letting it down while sitting atop me. I drank her in watching her wrap a dozen pink roses for an elderly couple.

        I found the flower girl so compelling I knew somehow I had to get to know her. After the sale she stayed at street level, sat on a wooden bench and was in the process of touching up the paint on her toenails when I came down and approached her again. “Did you change your mind?” she asked without looking up. I felt at odds, and thought that she must have a boyfriend, a husband, probably a child or more—most did—or maybe she despised gringos, or the looks of me. As I started to turn away, a loud electronic/disco number exploded from a sound system across the street, then was cranked even more and everything seemed to pulse with the bass. The girl jumped up and began dancing, unconcerned about anything else. She was lost in her own groovy world of the beat. Her hips moved back and forth and she made circles with her hands. I was spellbound and to my delight saw that she was motioning for me to join her. I could feel something melting inside and I didn’t hesitate. When the music stopped maybe five minutes later I took her hand, kissed it and she smiled.
        Three weeks later she moved in with me, and we began living a pleasing, exhilarating life full of romance and fun in an old furnished apartment overlooking the plaza. I did track down Uncle Luigi and we’ll get to that story soon enough. But first...

One night there was a knock on the door. We’d been toying with each other on the couch. I’d started to pull off her jeans, but the knock distracted us and persisted. Not expecting anyone, especially at that hour, although it might be the new, too friendly neighbor who was nervous, and spooked about the old building, claiming she was seeing glimpses of fantasmas, and hearing voices coming from within the walls. Cristina had comforted her on a few occasions, probably too many.
        I answered the door and found someone I’d never laid eyes on before. About six-foot-six, 250 pounds, wide shoulders wearing a tight black suit and a tight black V-neck T-shirt. He had a wide, cruel face, clean shaven except for long, thin, closely trimmed sideburns. He wore his receding greasy hair in a ponytail; a small diamond sparkled in his left earlobe. His deep-set eyes showed me a dark place, and before I could think about it anymore he said, “I’m here to see Cristina. I’m her cousin, Gallo.”
        Behind me Cristina said, “Let him in, Simon.” 
        Gallo stepped into the room silently, took a chair across from where Cristina was standing. He took a cigarette from a silver case that sparkled with a few more diamonds. He lit his cigarette with a matching lighter. Cristina almost never smoked although now was lighting one with a cheap Bic that had purple flowers on it. What was wrong with all this my concerned inner voice wondered. The two had barely acknowledged each other, and Cristina looked very nervous.
        “I didn’t know you had a relative named Gallo who doesn’t offer to shake the hand of his cousin’s fiancé, let alone embrace her or greet her in any way,” I said looking at Gallo who seemed bemused for a second, then found a mint or a pill in his jacket pocket and popped it into the hole between his fat lips.
        “Please, Simon, let me handle this,” Cristina pleaded.
        “Handle what? What’s this all about, darling?”
        “It’s family business,” she said a little too sharply. “Please. Give me some time alone with my cousin?” She looked at me with such seriousness that I succumbed, although still hesitant since my stun gun was in that room, in a drawer nearby. Gallo was, after all, like a menacing bull sitting there glaring at me.
        “Are you sure, honey?” I tried, throwing my own glare at Gallo, but found him looking at Cristina’s bare feet with an expression of disapproval.
        She crushed out her cigarette halfway, gave me the look, so I said okay and stepped out of the room. I went down the short hallway that now seemed longer. When I arrived in the small, high ceiling kitchen I took an Indian dagger off the wall, stuck it behind my belt in the back, under my loosely worn shirt. I stepped out of flip flops and began to creep back down the tile hallway. I knew enough Spanish to basically make out what was being said.
        “You said I’d never have to be involved,” I heard Cristina say. “The whole family promised ...”
        “When you decided to sleep with an American you voided that agreement. You must have realized that.”
        “I realized nothing. Are you insane? No one said a word...”
        “Too bad, cousin,” he interrupted. “... and now that grandpapa has spoken, you must this once deliver the package.”
        “But grandfather has something like dementia, and I-I’m scared. I’d screw it up somehow. I remember what happened to Carmen, and Pedro. It was horrible!”
        “Those were different times. There is no such animosity between the clans now.”
        “Why don’t you use a legit delivery service?”
        I could imagine Gallo’s ugly face smiling, then scowling. Nothing more was said and I had the crazy idea they were speaking in a sign language known only to the “clan.” Then, I heard the door opening. I looked around the corner just in time to see Cristina closing it, and locking it. Her shoulders were sagging. I spotted the large, all purpose notepad not where it was usually kept, but instead on the bar in-between the Deco clock and the black obsidian Aztec head.

        Cristina sensed me, turned, looking at me looking at the notepad.
        “It’s nothing, Simon, just an address. A family matter.”
        “You’re not doing anything of the sort. I heard. It’s dangerous criminal activity. Your family can go to hell!”
        We sat and talked intensely for another hour, sometimes agreeing, and other times completely at odds. Our conversation at first was ripe with emotion, but eventually fell into doldrums, then we spoke softly, Cristina’s head on my lap and then we didn’t speak at all.
        Later, on the balcony we started talking again. The buildings near the sea glistened under a nearly full moon. At one point off in the distance we spotted a fire and we ceased talking, watching it, then later its deep, dying embers. For a moment I lost track of who I was, where I was and I wondered who was this strange, beautiful girl looking at me hard in the gray morning light. When she looked away and began wringing her hands it all came back, and again I asserted that under no circumstances was she to be involved in her family's illegal activities. In the end she agreed, and in doing so she lied to me for the first and last time.
        The following week, on one particular night that felt unusually heavy, Cristina failed to show up after work. I knew something was wrong. As the hours passed I become convinced that she’d gone ahead with the delivery. In the wee hours I finally called the emergency number she’d provided when we’d first moved in together. I suspected it was her parents, and waited impatiently as it rang. Finally a male voice answered: “Como?” and then there was a cough, a clearing of the throat, and another “Como?” I identified myself in Spanish, English, Spanglish. The man only cursed. I figured it was the father and asked him if he understood me. He repeated that I was a “son-of-a-bitch,” and added a “vile enemy,” and a “capitalist pig,” and asked if I understood that. Then there was what sounded like a scuffle until a new voice came on, the mother no doubt, “Please, Mister Simon, please excuse my husband who behaves like a donkey.”
        “Mrs. Álvares, is Cristina there?”
        “N-no, we thought she was living with you.”
        “Yes, she was, is, but she didn’t come home last night. So she...”
        I heard what sounded like the phone being dropped, excited voices in the background, more swearing, noises, crying and then the connection was cut. Calling had only made my anxiousness bordering on panic more profound, and yet I called back again and again, only to hear a busy signal—one more evil indicator.
        At 10:20 A.M. I was still at the police station filling out paperwork that was stamped, stapled to other documents, and placed in a folder that was added to a pile of similar folders. A file was now “active” I was told by two different policemen, and their expressions implied that this would somehow lead to a solving of the case. After one policeman made a phone call in a small back room he reported that she was not in the main hospitals. With a burst of unwarranted optimism I decided that she would indeed return, in fact she was probably home by now, had just stayed over with a girlfriend after the delivery, because she thought I would be mad, dear girl. I was just being crazy, paranoid. I rushed out of the station to the dumbfounded expressions of the two policemen who’d been assisting me.
        I found the apartment empty. I called her family again. This time getting a child who screamed and then hung up. I looked out the window, down to the street where a hunched man wearing a large visor was selling lottery tickets. He was yelling something that sounded like murder. I turned away, and called the number again.
        “I fear she is a victim of violence, or possible kidnap,” the mother said in a distant, impersonal tone as though she’d taken a heavy sedative and was repeating what someone had written for her to say. I sputtered, and asked impossible questions, that went unanswered, and finally in a feverish state I hung up. I fought to hold off the panic, the overwhelming sadness and desperation that had returned and consumed me like some cruel, malignant demon, and now I would give up the false hope that she’d just turn up, even though it was only the second day. So, later, when I heard a key in the lock I was startled and excited all over again.
        The door swung open to the imposing figure of Gallo, dressed the same and smiling. I was filled with rage and stepped forward, only to be hit in the jaw by a fist I never saw coming. I fell back against a chair. Swiftly, I was thrown against a wall where my head banged a painting, knocking it askew. I didn’t know whether to hold my jaw or the back of my head. I was stunned yet still standing, albeit a bit shaky. It was only a few feet to the drawer that held my stun gun. Gallo was smiling, in a boxer’s pose, his head and shoulders slightly bobbing, then he looked past me in an odd distracted way, like there was somebody behind me. I realized the power of this man who seemed more the Minotaur of Greek mythology. I tried to convey that I didn’t want to fight. What I wanted was an advantage, an equalizer, my fucking stun gun.

        There was no reasoning or mercy with Gallo; his grin vanished and what remained was the look of an animal, no, a full-on psycho. And I had no plan. It had happened too quickly. Gallo blinked and came in for the kill. I twisted to one side like a matador, and instead of the impact and violence I was expecting, even accepting on some level, Gallo, the bull man crashed to the floor. I saw my moment and didn’t hesitate. I flew to the drawer and turned quickly with the Black Widow tight in my hand. I watched Gallo slowly starting to get up, but then crumple. There was a gory hole in the side of his head, and another in his back. I saw some spatter on the floor and wall, and felt a breeze coming from the open window. I went over to it, still shaken, and instinctively looked across the way to a higher rooftop where a man was waving. He was wearing a white suit and a Panama hat. He cradled a telescopic rifle in one arm. I didn’t know why, but I waved back. Then the man turned and disappeared behind a door that no doubt led to the stairway or elevator. When I turned back around I was again shocked: Gallo’s body was gone, the blood wiped and the front door was partially open.
        I was relieved, but where? Who? I fought the urge to rush out and see if I could discover something. Instead I collapsed onto the couch. Should I do anything? The phone rang. I approached it, looking at its black beetle body as though it was now a living thing. It continued to ring with a haranguing, provoking tone. Should I answer it? It could be Cristina, or the assassin in the white suit. I picked it up. It was police inspector Padilla requesting I come back to the station. He wouldn’t say anything else. I hung up and, fighting off dread, walked out of the apartment forgetting to lock the door, or to take a jacket.
I arrived at the police station in a cab I didn't remember getting into. Yet, there I was, paying the elderly cabbie, exiting the car in front of a building that could have been anything, until one looked up and saw the soot covered shield above the entrance. Inside, one was greeted with a set of iron gates and metal detectors. In the lobby I looked around helplessly, still fearing bad news, then felt someone take my arm: inspector Padilla, the man in charge, whom I had already met. He guided me down a back corridor, onto an elevator, and off again, then down another corridor that looked like the first one, into an office where his chubby secretary was applying eyeliner. She smiled guiltily, and snapped her mirror shut. Padilla grunted and we continued past her and into his private office.

        Cristina’s ID had been discovered in a garbage disposal site outside of the city along with a dozen other prostitutes, and “persons of the streets.” I asked feebly if I could see the body. Officer Padilla said it wasn’t a good idea, but handed me a manila envelope. He explained that the bodies were chopped up and mostly fed to packs of wild dogs. I barely understood what he was saying. Inside I found a set of utterly obscene Polaroid's. Almost nothing in the photos looked human anymore. I imagined they were from some war zone or even some alien hell planet, surely not here, not Cristina. Padilla put them back into the manila envelope. I began to weep.

The next couple of weeks were something of a blur. I tried to convince Padilla to investigate the Álvarez family. I told him all about cousin Gallo and the supposed delivery, even of Gallo’s assassination. Padilla only shook his head, advised me to forget about it, said it was too complicated, that there were new bodies every day, and that nobody could stop it. I argued with him, but eventually I saw that what the man said was true. A new government, a whole new system was what was needed, yet that too, after a short glory period would bow to the corruption that seemed part of the life blood that was this tiny republic.
        I had come to the island originally to find Uncle Luigi, who had visited there later in life, and decided to stay on. He had his pension and savings that allowed him to live there comfortably. Uncle Luigi loved the place: the prices, the weather, the women, the gambling, the brandy and cigars. He was now eighty-four. I’d found him living with a fat gray cat named Ernesto in a roomy apartment in a newer section overlooking a well-tended garden. I found him in fair health and good spirits, and he was pleased that I’d come. He was well attended to by Marta, a vivacious housekeeper half his age, who made him breakfast, cooked his dinner, made his coffee and ran some errands. I suspected, she provided other services too. This notion was confirmed over brandy one evening. Uncle Luigi said that although his sex life had passed, he still liked to look and touch. He nodded toward the kitchen where Marta was working, singing to herself. He winked and stroked Ernesto, and the fat cat purred, and rubbed its head on Uncle Luigi’s chest. I discovered that Uncle Luigi had worked through most of his savings gambling, although he had his pension that would provide for the apartment, employ Marta, allow him to smoke a cigar or two, eat well, and feed the cat until he turned one-hundred. I presented him the check from the family. He looked at it closely, smiled and put it aside, maybe already returning to the casinos in his mind.
        I had visited Uncle Luigi on a number of occasions, although eventually I became bored with the old man’s stories that he retold each time I visited, and almost verbatim. And then Cristina had moved in with me, and a whole new life blossomed. Now that was over and my loss turned into a hate for everything the island nation was. I visited Uncle Luigi one last time before making arrangements to leave for good. Marta cooked us fish in garlic, dark purple potatoes and a salad for lunch. The garlic stayed with me all day, and not in a good way. I remember leaving on the ferry. I remember exactly how heavy and gray the sky and the sea looked on that mournful and empty day.

Johnny Strike, is an American writer, mostly known as songwriter, guitarist and singer for the proto-punk band Crime based in San Francisco.Headpress published Strike's first novel in 2004, Ports of Hell, with a blurb by William S. Burroughs. Strike also interviewed Paul Bowles, Mohamed Choukri, Herbert Huncke and traveled, with extended stays in Morocco, Mexico, and Thailand where he set his fiction. His writing has appeared in Ambit magazine and Headpress Journal, and in 2008, with artist Richard Sala providing illustrations, Rudos and Rubes published his short story collection: A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above.