Chapter 14
Checking in with the Folks

Baimei (Ciruela), Xiaolin County, Hong Province

Ciruela was a small town like so many others. In fact, it could be called remarkable for being so dramatically unremarkable. There were no factories nor any significant agriculture in the outlying area. Whatever the original reason the town was founded, its current purpose didn't seem to extend beyond keeping itself alive in a state of neither abject poverty nor anything resembling prosperity.
There was only a single rail line running through the town, meaning that they had to alternate between eastbound and westbound trains. One passenger train and two or three freight trains were all that passed through town either way in a given day. Most times they would barely even slow down as they went by, to say nothing of actually stopping.
However, this day the eastbound passenger train did stop and out stepped the well-dressed bounty hunter Nestor Salas. He looked around briefly to take in his surroundings, then headed toward a little restaurant within sight of the tracks which had a sign that read 'La Ninfa' with a stylized logo depicting the eponymous nymph.
Because it was after the lunch hour, there were only a couple other customers finishing their meals and one old man at the bar, half-asleep listening to the radio. A waitress was wiping down the tables and noticed Nestor come in.
"Welcome," she said. "Take a seat wherever you like."
Nestor picked a table near the wall and sat so he could have an easy view of anyone coming and going. Even though he had little reason for concern, it was simple good sense to not leave your back to any windows or doors and keeping up good habits was good policy.
The waitress tucked her cleaning rag into the pocket of her apron, pulled out a notepad and went over to Nestor's table.
"What can I get for you to drink?" she asked.
"What beers do you have?" Nestor asked in turn.
"We have Corona Real, Cabeza de Vaca, Ziujat, Yinxing, and Tigre."
"I'll have a glass of Cabeza," Nestor replied. "Leave the bottle."
"Yes, sir. I'll be right back with your beer and a menu."
It was not long before the waitress returned with the beer and the menu. Either this restaurant lacked the means for laminating the menus or the owners simply didn't care. Either was plausible.
"I'll give you a minute to look over it," the waitress said. "Let me know when you're ready."
"Thank you," Nestor said with a polite nod of his head.
He had never been out this far east, but Nestor saw a number of familiar items on the menu. Was it just that they were that common or was there someone from around his part of Shanzhong responsible for the food?
He raised his hand to get the waitress' attention. When she came over, she asked him, "Have you made up your mind?"
"I'll have the puerco pibil," Nestor said.
"Will that be all?"
"And I'd like to speak to Señor and Señora Rodrigues."
The waitress looked at him uncertainly.
"I, um, I'll tell them."
She went to the kitchen and it was no short while until she showed up again. It was longer still, as his puerco pibil was being served, that a middle-aged couple presented themselves. Mr. Rodrigues still had a lean look about him, much like the ID photo of his son that used for the wanted posters, while Mrs. Rodrigues had rounded out as most women her age did, especially when they cooked for a living and their food was anything worthwhile.
"Good afternoon," Nestor said with a tip of his hat.
"What's this about?" Mr. Rodrigues asked.
Nestor gestured to the seats opposite to him.
"Please, sit down," he said.
The two looked at each other and it was Mrs. Rodrigues who made the first move by taking a seat. Her husband followed somewhat more reluctantly, eyeing Nestor suspiciously.
"I'd like to ask some questions about the two of you," Nestor said, "and about Juan."
"Who?" Mrs. Rodrigues asked.
"Juan, your son."
Mrs. Rodrigues shook her head.
"No one calls him Juan. He always hated that. He wanted to be called Batista. His delinquent friends, I think they'd call him Bat or Tito."
"Delinquents... Did Batista used to get into trouble often?"
"When was he not in trouble?" Mrs. Rodrigues said with a sigh. "Ran away from home the first time when he was eight. Came and went like some half-wild dog after that. It's a wonder he didn't try to run when they conscripted him. I guess he became a mercenary after that. That's what he said, at least. In eight years, only one letter. Most boys at least write home once a month, send a little of that money to take care of their families instead of wasting it all on liquor and loose women."
"Isabel," Mr. Rodrigues reproached her.
Mrs. Rodrigues gave him an annoyed look but said nothing further. There was a lot of information you could get out of an angry woman if properly directed, but her husband would be running interference, so that angle couldn't be exploited to the fullest.
"I'm afraid Batista's in quite a bit of trouble," Nestor said. "I'd like to help him, but I'm going to need your help for that."
"We haven't seen our son in eight years," Mr. Rodrigues said. "What help do you expect us to be?"
"According to my information, he seems to be moving east. I thought he might be coming here."
"I doubt that," Mr. Rodrigues replied. "Mercs do get leave, as far as I know, and he's never come back before. I don't see why he would now, no matter what trouble he's in."
"Is there anyone else between here and Shannanxi where he might go?" Nestor asked. "One of those friends you mentioned, perhaps?"
"Well, there's Jorge," Mrs. Rodrigues said.
The warning from Mr. Rodrigues went unheeded. Though he was being cautious, Mrs. Rodrigues was proving to be conveniently loose-lipped.
"Jorge?" Nestor asked.
"My brother Jorge," Mrs. Rodrigues said. "He runs a tinker shop out west in San Miguel."
"Which San Miguel? Which county?"
"Oh, what was it? Dashan? Daman?"
"Dayan?" Nestor suggested.
"Yes, I think that's it. I don't know why I have such a hard time remembering it. We grew up in Chewwan."
Qiuyuan, she meant, most likely. No wonder there were so many familiar items on the menu.
"Oh, really?" Nestor said. "I'm from Pushan myself."
Finding common ground with the subject was a classic tactic, but he was actually telling the truth for once.
"Then we were practically next-door neighbors," Mrs. Rodrigues said. "Our hometown wasn't 30 kilometers from the border."
It was a rather broad definition of next-door neighbors, but Nestor simply smiled politely and nodded.
"So I have to ask," he said. "How does a Qiuyuan girl end up out here in Hong Province?"
Mrs. Rodrigues glanced to her husband and replied, "You're looking at him. He and my brother were conscripts during the Idinga campaign of '76. Flaco came home with him after the campaign and stayed with us a while. We got married the next year, Batista was born and we moved back here once he was demobilized."
"And what happened to your brother?"
"He joined the Regulars for, what, eight years was it? It seemed like he was going to serve out his thirty, but then he married that Garcia girl and moved out west. I think he had some buddies to help him with the shop when he started it. Maybe one of them started it and he picked it up. I don't remember."
"Do you think Batista would go to your brother for help?"
"Oh, he did sort of look up to Jorge when he was a boy, but I don't know if he's still holding a grudge over that Garcia girl. Honestly..."
Nestor arched an eyebrow.
"An uncle and his nephew fighting over the same woman? Sounds like a radionovela."
"Doesn't it, though?" Mrs. Rodrigues said. "So foolish..."
Mr. Rodrigues, having heard his fill, got up from the table and said, "I think that's enough for one day, Isabel. We need to get back to the kitchen. There's a lot of cleaning up to do before suppertime."
"But, cariño," Mrs. Rodrigues objected, "this man says he wants to help Batista."
"I'm sure he does," Mr. Rodrigues replied scornfully. To Nestor, he said, "The meal's on the house if you go on your way and stop pokin' into our family's affairs."
Knowing that he had used up his welcome, Nestor took a drink of his beer, dabbed his mouth with the napkin, then pulled out a card and a 20-tael piece.
Sliding the money and the card over to Mrs. Rodrigues, he said, "If Batista does come here or if you happen to hear from him, call this number. I really do want to help him if I can."
The card was for the Santa Florinda Halfway House, but the number connected to the guild headquarters. People could be duped into giving up their friends and family if they thought they were helping. You couldn't use the trick too often, though. It was a hand worth playing for a 100-dan bounty. Mr. Rodrigues was too suspicious to consider it, but his wife would probably fall for it.
He got up from his chair, leaving the plate of puerco pibil half-eaten and the glass of beer half-drunk. It could be seen as an insult, but with the hospitality withdrawn, it was better to pull out.
He tipped his hat once more to Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigues, saying, "I hope to hear from you soon. Thank you for the meal and have a nice day."
With that, he exited the restaurant. It would be some time before the next passenger train came through. It might be better to rent a horse or even a car if one could be had to go to a town with better train service. He wanted to get to Dayan as quickly as possible, just in case his quarry decided to pay a visit to dear old Tío Jorge.