FICTION

Chronohydrocarbonologist

A murder in reverse

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Published July, 2007 in The Dos Passos Review

Encircled in the light of the streetlamp, four stories below you, John C. Carter, American Doctor of Economics, lies face down in a pool of blood. The blood around his head has formed an odd-shaped pool, like the dialogue bubble in a comic strip. You should go, really, but you can’t stop staring. You unwait an hour, forty minutes, twenty minutes, watching as the blood seeps, ever so slightly, back into the wound in his neck. Soon he will come back to life. There. You see his body stiffen. He blinks for the last time, then for the penultimate time. His chest heaves and you know his heart has started beating again. Beside him a dry walkway is being revealed as the puddle drains into him.

Around you the darkness grows softer as the sun prepares to unset, filling the western horizon with an orange glow. Out on Lake Maracaibo oil tankers begin to appear in the half-light, returning from points in the Caribbean. They sit low in the water, their bellies full of crude as they slide through the shipping lanes, swallowing their wakes. On the far shore you can just make out the famous “forests” of oil rigs, neatly spaced on the water like trees in an orchard. In this light they look like mechanical monsters encroaching on the city—an invading army from some science fiction serial.

Soon a fiery sunset envelops the sky. The streetlamp above Carter goes out, then hums for a while like a locust. Down on Cinco de Julio the nation’s armada of dilapidated Dodge Darts and Ford Mavericks are turning off their headlights, rolling backwards down the street, pausing then jerking in an impossible ballet of near-misses.

At first you had thought you were not so different, Carter and you, the banks’ brightest stars. You were the best economists of a new generation. One domestic, one imported. You were to be a team. Together you were going to reverse the clock and get the country back on track.

But now, as you look at him, you recall a certain uneasiness you had from the first. Meeting him at the airport, drenched with sweat, wearing his ridiculous Panama hat, and spouting off about free floats, convergence, and the Big Mac index. There was a pretentiousness to his bowties and braces and his slicked back hair, his initialed white Oxfords and his wire-framed glasses. You could tell he thought he had it all figured out. At first you let it slide because you had seen it before. He was full of that braggadocio that comes from a long history of success in academia untempered by the nagging failure of implementing those same theories in the field. Carter, of course, had been reared in the classical school, on Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Great thinkers, but thinkers whose theories had been perverted by modernists, twisted by the same economists who had created the neutron bomb of Third World development policy, a place where monetary, fiscal, and trade policies were always sacrificed to the greater God of free trade, where the key to economic success was simple: remake your country, your culture, your economy like ours.

Within weeks there was no denying it. Carter was a tourist, a faker; here only to advance his career. When this assignment was over, whether he failed or not, he would fly north to one of the world’s technological superpowers, to the superhighways, to the gated communities, to homes with high-speed internet access, to a place where he could take walks at night on quiet streets, to one of the countries that bought the cheap raw materials of your country, then refined, processed and re-engineered them so that they could be sold back to you as finished consumer goods—DVD players, plastics, car parts, and latex condoms—in what had become a perpetual cycle of economic dependency. There, safe in his suzerainty, Carter’s future would be brighter each year, in a nation where per capita income was always on the rise, where savings accounts grew immune to inflation, in a place where there was still a correlation between effort and reward. Carter’s mother would never be carjacked, his sister never mugged for a bracelet, and the copper moldings on his mailbox would never be stolen for scrap. But you will never know a life such as his—not in your home country anyway—no matter how much you work or how much you do. All that Carter was handed, you can never know. It was pre-ordained. Carter’s birthright, but not yours.

Your gaze returns to him there, lying on the cement. He now has the strength to bring his right hand up over the wound. The blood is flowing faster now—it squirms through his fingers, drives under his palm, slips along the skin of his skull, racing back into his body.

The last rays of daylight crest the nearby building and spread across the sidewalk.

Carter convulses: a violent undulation like he has been jolted with electricity, then he is still, perhaps thinking, trying to fathom. A moment later he is suddenly up as if yanked by a wire. He is untripping, teetering on one leg like a figure skater. Then both feet are under him and he is twisting around. It is a dizzy, lost moment—he is reaching, hoping, surviving, and slipping away—his eyes darting everywhere. He makes a backward groan, and as he spins around his eyes pass over the face of the building and you think that he might actually see you here standing at the open window.

His hand is still pressed to his collar as if massaging a kink in his neck but you know it is not enough. He knows it, too. He must. The blood is leaping from the ground and arching to his neck in steady packets. The sound of it leaves your ear. It is like the soft trickling of raindrops.

From the construction site across the street a man is returning—his legs reaching back in powerful strides. He is a hired killer, a sicario, and he is naked except for a pair of burlap brown pants tied to his waist by a piece of rope. The pants come to tattered ends just above lean calves that are flexing and balling with inexorable purpose. It is a preternatural scene. The speed. The fluidity. His black hair pulled toward his objective. He is rewinding quickly on your fellow economist, the working of his sweat-glossed arms and shoulder blades like the churning pistons of a locomotive.

There is a machete in his hand with a fragment of white cloth snagged on the tip—it is a piece of Carter’s shirt collar.

As the killer rushes toward him, Carter’s briefcase rights itself on the pavement and hops into his hand. His other hand comes away from the wound and he seems to correct himself—regain control. He seems startled, yet at the same time unaware of the fat globules of blood that are being sucked into the hole in his neck.

The killer, now just feet away, extends the machete forward like a man leading a charge—the follow-through of his forehand stroke. The whole thing: the taut deltoid, the biceps, the forearm, the hand, and the machete are like a wing, a great taloned wing.

You blink. The machete flashes in the sun. The white fragment of cloth is suddenly gone. All the blood is gone. The wound is sealed.

All motion stops. Traffic stops. For some reason you are suddenly filled with doubt. You hear your father’s voice saying the same words that have been echoed by millions of your countrymen—by political analysts, economists, and financiers alike. Words that speak to a nostalgia felt by rich and poor and everyone in between. Venezuela must return to its glorious past, to the boom years. But now, in this frozen moment it occurs to you, now that everything is out of your control, that perhaps that past never really existed. It had all been an illusion. A myth. Like the ideas of the great economists, it had been twisted and perverted over time. Rewritten to suit the needs of the living. An Arthurian legend to inspire the masses.

But you push that doubt aside. You are an economist—the most stubborn mix of scientist and philosopher. And it is because of the uncertainty of your philosophy that you can hold on to the belief that you can turn back the clock. Now that you have done this thing, this absolutely necessary thing, the change has begun. Right now, all over the globe, products are being unpurchased, money is changing hands, and millions of commodities—crates of Tupperware, shelves of paint, stacks of computers, aisles of videocassettes, jugs of Tide—are being pulled from shelves, boxed up, and returned north for disassembly, meltdown, and defabrication. They will soon arrive again on these shores, brought by oil tankers that will unpump their hulls. Out on oil rigs deep in the jungle roughnecks will inject these liquefied products back into the skin of the earth.

You look down. Carter is again whole and oblivious, and the killer is behind him, fading quickly into the shadows. Carter walks backwards toward the entrance of the building and moves up the steps in a jerky, machine-like motion, throwing his shoulders against gravity, then the front door opens and swallows him up.

Two minutes. A minute. The elevator chimes and Carter backs out, toe to heel, toe to heel, (presses a button) toe to heel. Your eyes meet. Inverted words—sounding like things underwater—come into your mouth, then into his. He smiles, then the door of the business suite opens and he is gone.

Stop.

Play.

The door of the business suite opens and Carter steps out. He smiles when he sees you. “Don’t work too late, Alfonso.”

“I won’t,” you say.

The press of a button, a chime. He steps into the elevator and is gone.

You look out the window, waiting for him to appear below you.

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