I recognize Montoya Dred by his painfully chalky skin, visible from the other side of the market as he reclines by a tiny folding table, chipped little espresso cup balanced on his egg-shaped belly, coffee splashing all over his flower-print shirt. When I say chalky, let me be clear: Dred's skin is ashy, like a fine dust has settled on him. Dull as marble, undercut only by the Niagara of sweat crashing down his face and neck. Soaked up by thinning mud-colored hair, looking like he's spent the day hiking in a rainforest, followed by a perpetual funk of fermenting milk and orange peels. Facial tics, nail biting, constant palsy in his hands, insomnia, scratching until his skin is raw--Pilkner's Condition, they call it. Damage to his thyroid. Ongoing nervequakes. Developed back in LA, when he strung himself out on supamedrin and thurgoprexin to stay awake for weeks at a stretch.
This was when he was Kelvin Black's war chief, of course, lean muscle swabbed in camouflage and body armor. These days, it's kind of difficult to imagine this palsied, stuttering ghost as the man who forced submission from a professional baby-killer like General Li Shen (affectionately known as 'Genocide Li' to the survivors of Taipei). The same man whose tactics are studied at West Point, King's War College, the Robb Institute. Montoya Dred: holy terror of southwest Los Angeles, reduced to a spastic hobo, fallen and lame--although (perhaps thankfully) not under his real name. 'Montoya Dred' was something Kelvin Black cooked up in the aftermath of a khat-and-gangrape binge, most likely atop the ruins of Universal Studios. The man who turned back five armies at Laguna Beach was born Baruch Melman, originally of Royal Oaks, Michigan.
How do I know?
He was one of the first expats I interviewed for my project. Eighteen months back, in a musty motel room, wallpaper peeling, shouting over the boom of transports leaving orbit from nearby Newark Liberty. In between flights, he told me he was consulting with a few different people. 'Little things,' he said, which I suppose was a polite way to say 'training death squads'. Since that interview, Melman has popped up in Hanzhou, Naxalstan, Brunei, Wahabi Arabia, Juarez and Iowa, always just ahead of some noteworthy crime against the species--and now he's here, which does not auger well for the Republic of Northern California.
Sometimes it feels as though this project of mine has made tracking these creatures my primary function. Meticulous records of even their most casual antics are shared and updated by a network of people you could characterize as a cult, I suppose, who determined from Melman's travel patterns and spending habits that he is never paid more than travel costs and a hot meal, and never stays in one place more than a few weeks. The price of his life, it seems, is to be indentured servant to the world's quiet kingmakers and their backroom bureaucracies. No trials for Baruch Melman. Much too valuable an asset as he is.
Seeing him here, sipping coffee with Cecilio Goncz, curdles something in my stomach. There's a fundamental wrongness to them taking coffee in the middle of a crowded market, children chasing each other around their ankles, families shopping, lovers laughing, kissing, holding hands...
Realistically, Goncz and Melman would slaughter the whole market between sips of their coffee, if need dictated. Yet here they are, politely slurping Guatemalan Antigua like they're functional, healthy members of the human tribe, discussing the weather, current events, energy prices on the Chicago Wind and Fuel Exchange...
I reach the table, find Mr Goncz in his trademark sunglasses, shirtless, body a mosaic of living tattoos, grinding together across a scarred, brown body starting to show the sag of age. Starched, creased khakis, held high on his waist by black suspenders. Vintage canvas trainers on his feet. Jesus bleeds perpetually from the cross on his chest, crown of thorns dragging furrows into his brow every time he shakes his head. Some people add audio to their animated body art, little generic screams radiating from their tortured Jesuses as they pass you on the street. Mr Goncz has thankfully foregone this feature. As livetattoos go, his is almost tasteful.
"Funny running into you like this, huh?" Goncz chuckles. "You know my man, Monty, I think."
"Don't be calling me fucking 'Monty'," Melman grumbles, "I God-damn told you, already."
Goncz replies in a mash of maybe eight languages. Whatever he says, Melman rolls his eyes, throws the rest of his coffee back, and stares absently at his fingernails, which I see have been chewed to bloody nubs.
"Take a seat," Mr Goncz offers. "Have some coffee. It's excellent."
"Don't be listening to prickfuck, over here," Melman warns. "The coffee tastes like it was made by boiling a pack of rat terriers."
"You'll like it," Mr Goncz says smoothly, pouring me a cup from a dented metal pot. "Trust me."
Melman laughter sounds like a mule choking.
I swish around the nicked cup. The coffee's thick as horse spit. I let it cool on the table, and casually ask Mr Melman what brings him to NoCal.
"Eh," he mutters, left cheek twitching like a butterfly with a pin through it. "You know. Little things. Consulting. The usual."
I think of last night's bombardment of the Far East End, and something tightens in my throat. How would I tag this story? What would it net me to air this pair out to the press? Allied Info would pay me a panda's weight in gold to publicize two of the century's greatest atrocity-makers in Oakland, operating in plain sight of the authorities. Goncz would gut me like a trout, of course, but I'd die a rich man, having done my civic duty outing him and his cohort. Because given the less than jovial basis of their relationship, I'd venture their coffee klatsch has nothing to do with catching up on old times. There are plans in the ether for NoCal.
And I genuinely wonder if any of us will survive them.