I should have turned down the assignment. There was a little voice inside me telling me so, that I didn’t really have to take every writing assignment that Hugh gave me. But I’m a nice guy, and what’s more important, I appreciate a favor, which is what Hugh did for me when he let me on to the Post as a freelance writer.
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“Just give me a chance. I can write anything.”
“You bet! Obituaries, movie reviews, home and garden…you name it. I love to write, and I want to make a living doing what I love to do.”
Hugh sat there shuffling his papers, giving his hands something to do, and murmured, “I don’t know, I have a pretty full staff already.”
I could tell he was thinking about it, though, so I pushed it and begged and charmed my way into my first job as a freelance contributor. That was a fancy name for writing about anything and everything. I thought it was going to be glamorous and grand.
So, when Hugh asked me to go to Mexico and put an article together about local cuisines, I felt like I couldn’t say no. He needed to know that I could write about anything, and was willing to do it. How bad could it be? After all, I would get expenses paid, and this would be a great chance to visit my cousin, who had been immersed there for four years running. In fact, I would have to rely on her exclusively, since my command of Spanish was more like a weak request.
The touchdown in Vera Cruz was smooth, and when I got off of the plane, I was attacked by the heat as we walked to the terminal nearby. Cleo was waiting for me, just as she had promised, and soon we were aboard the bus that would bring us on to Coatepec, a small mountain town known mostly for its coffee. That’s when the trouble began. A few days later, I called Hugh.
“What’s up, Mel? How’s the food piece coming along?”
“Ah, well, it’s doing fine, but I got a lead on this story that is breaking here. It’s about this girl who got kidnapped. Her family is wealthy, and she was being held for ransom, but something went wrong and they found her dead. There’s nothing here in the papers about it, but everyone here is talking about it. I think it would make a great story for us…¨that was as far as I got with my gush of words before I got interrupted.
“How old is she?
“I don’t know”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know, but I can find out.”
“What the hell does it have to do with Mexican Cuisine?”
“Nothing I guess.”
“So, what have you found out about food, then?”
“Oh, well, I have learned that mole is very popular here; it’s a lot like curry, and there are several different types of it, and it is used as a flavouring sauce…”
“There is a dish called pozoli made with hominy, chicken, and beef, and it can either be red or green.”
“Alright then. That’s a start. Keep going.”
He hung up before I could say more about the kidnapped girl. She had been tied up when the police found her, and they believe she had choked to death trying to get free. When I first heard about it, people were saying through my interpreter Cleo that she was twelve. Later I heard that she was sixteen, and had been hanging out with a bad crowd. Finally, we met someone who knew someone that was familiar with the case, and found out the official story. She was actually eighteen, and was a “good” girl. It turned out that her boyfriend was in on the kidnapping, for the money. She came from a wealthy family, one who owned several paying properties. When the kidnappers contacted the family, they decided not to call the police, but to negotiate the ransom instead. Cleo said that if the family had contacted the police, she may have lived, because they usually catch them. It seems that when the police aren’t involved, the kidnappers are likely to kill the captive, to reduce the chance of getting caught. This time, however, the girl simply suffocated while trying to free herself. No ransom had been paid. And nothing was in the paper about any of this either.
I also learned of rumors that the governor of Veracruz had a deal with the narco-traffickers, and a lot of cocaine was flowing through the state. Gangsters. Corruption in high places. All the news that's fit to print.
A few days later, I gave Hugh another call. A very professional call.
“Hugh, I’ve got more, a lot more…”
“Christ! You’re not still tracing that kidnapping? I thought I told you to stick to the…”
“Story? I am! I have been learning about the art of cooking with peppers. There’s dozens of them. Did you know they dry jalapenos to make chipotle? Or that many peppers are used for flavoring instead of spicy taste? I expected the food to be hot and spicy down here, Hugh. But it really isn’t. Course, it has plenty of flavor. Oh, and the soups! You wouldn’t believe. Anyway, another week or two, and I should have plenty of material for the article.”
“Great! Great, Mel. Glad to hear it.” Hugh was back to his good natured self again. No feathers ruffled there after all.
“I just wanted to let you know how things are progressing here. I’ll see you when I get back to the states, alright?”
“Sure thing. Sure thing.”
I knew from the first call that Hugh wasn’t going to be interested in anything but home cooking Mexican style. That’s why I left his feathers unruffled. It wouldn’t matter if he knew what I had learned since then, about another attempted kidnapping in a different state, only this one involved a young kid. This time the kid got away; but there have been other cases, involving mostly girls, being sold on the black market in the Middle East. What kinds of people are involved in such crimes? Just desperate, poor, and hungry ones—there are plenty of them for recruitment. Cleo has a saying. “Anything’s possible in Mexico.” She always says that when I ask the “why” and the “how could they” questions.
So, in short, that is why I wish I had never taken the assignment. I could be back in the states right now doing an expose´ on the water treatment facility, or covering the local elections. Instead, I plan to complete my article on cuisine and resign. I’ve got a few thousand dollars saved, and if I’m careful, I can live here for several months. If I’m really careful, I can get enough hard information to write a book without getting arrested or killed. It’s not that I want to make a lot of money here, but there’s a story to be told about this place, and nobody is telling it. Not the Mexican newspapers, and not the American ones either. I don’t even feel like I owe Hugh anything at this point; just a resignation and a damned good food article.
"We sit here stranded though we're all doing our best to deny it." (Visions of Johanna) Bob Dylan