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 A Night on the Town
a short story by Noel K Hannan
illustrated by Rik Rawling

artwork by Rik Rawling

"El capitalismo convirta a Caracas en un inferno"
- graffiti on Caracas bus station

Miguel is trying so hard to impress her, he really is. He has greased his hair and brushed his teeth - twice, with the new American toothpaste that nanotechnically scours your mouth - and lightly rouged his cheeks. He is wearing his older brother's favourite outfit (Carlos would kill him if he came back from his school outward bound holiday on Margarita Island and found him wearing it) - nylon and leather parachutist's boots, baggy cotton pants and skinny-rib black T-shirt showing off his concave stomach and multicoloured Inca sunburst tattoo encircling his navel. He looks gorgeous, like a rich seventeen year old alone with a beautiful young woman in his family apartment in Nuevo Caracas should look. And still she is not impressed.

She sits in the moisture-slicked bay window, looking out over the firefly city as the sun is eaten by a storm sky, toying with a narcotic All-Day Sucker, her long brown legs dangling naked from the dramatic split in her halter-necked blood red ball gown. She does not even flinch as the slam thunder rocks the city. Maria is eighteen years old and a raven-haired Latin beauty. A year older than Miguel - it may as well be a hundred. She has made an art form of cynicism and world-weariness. The narcotic lollipop that Miguel bought her from a street vendor on their way here should be making her buzz. Instead, it appears to intensify her boredom.

Miguel is desperate. Maria is a goddess, her body curved and voluptuous. He very much wants to return to school on Monday and boast of his sexual adventures - which he will of course, even if he does not bed this impressively unimpressible siren. But the conditions are so right! His botanist parents away on a field trip in the rainforest - no school until Monday morning - a Saturday night city stretching and limbering thirty stories beneath them - his creditocard full and active (Praise Jesus!) and his father's brand-new red Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition waiting in the basement garage. They can go anywhere and do anything. God, what will it take to make this woman horny?

He slumps in the formocouch and watches her. She slips from the window sill with a bored sigh and is momentarily highlighted by sheet lightning as the storm breaks over Nuevo Caracas, wild photons dopplering her bare shoulders with jungle tiger patterns. She moves toward him with liquid grace, bare feet padding on thick carpet. She kneels at his feet and places her hands firmly on his splayed thighs. He stiffens.

"I need to eat," she breathes, running her tongue across her glossy lips. A faint whiff of lemon drifts from her breath, the scent of the narcotic.

"Take me to dinner," she insists, settling back on her haunches like a karate fighter awaiting a bout.

He swallows hard before answering her.

"What would you like to eat, Maria?"

Her dark eyes flare. The first sign of passion he has seen since he brought her here.

"Something special," she purrs. "Something unusual. Something exotic."

As she speaks her fingers trace the inside of his thighs. He feels the pressure of her sharp nails through the thin cotton pants.

"Take me somewhere different, Miguel." It is, he thinks, the first time she has spoken his name. She makes it sound like treacle being poured on velvet. Miguel. Miguel. Miguel.

So, he thinks, let's recap. Saturday night. Parents in the forest. Carlos on Margarita. Apartment free. City buzzing. Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition in garage, keycard in pocket. Money no problem. Beautiful, high-as-a-kite Maria Del Fuego in a thigh-split red cocktail dress on her knees - on her knees! - in front of him. There is, of course, as mad as it seems, only one serious course of action.

There are myths and legends that permeate Nuevo Caracas like no other city on Earth. In this place where the rainforest hugs the cyberscraper as it smothers the congested, disease-ridden barrio, the brujo or witch-doctor of the forest tribes is as respected as the Catholic priests who ply their trade from streetside booths, whispering Latin mantras from under smog masks and rain capes. There is a story that Miguel has heard many times and which he is frantically trying to recall the details of now. The story concerns a brujo in the southern part of the barrio that rings the cybercity. The brujo owns a restaurant situated in the abandoned ruin of a 19th century mission church, a tiny collection of crates and candles stuck in wax-encrusted wine bottles, huddled beneath corrugated plastic sheeting. In this "restaurant" the brujo weaves culinary magic that brings the affluent down from their crystal towers to run the gauntlet of muggers and lepers and beggars, of car thieves and body-part bootleggers and army deserters fleeing the war with Ecuador. The brujo accepts no money or creditocards - only trades for things he will find useful, or can trade on. What will Miguel give to him? The dish tonight - for there is only ever one dish on the menu, no choices - will be the mutopargo, an enormous multi-headed, many-finned mutant fish caught upstream in the poisoned Orinoco, where the chemical sprays that help the rainforest survive drain into the water. The fish are resilient and difficult to capture. When they are caught they often remain alive through days out of water as they are brought to the city. Miguel has heard that some are even still living as they arrive at the diner's table, to be eaten raw like Japanese sushi, a dozen eyes watching mournfully and fins flapping as the knife cuts home. Why would anyone want to partake of such a grotesque and cruel experience? Because the flesh of the mutopargo is the most delicious known to man. It is the food of the rainforest gods.

He stands and puffs out his shallow chest. She gets up and does the same - her plumage is much more impressive. She draws on her red spike heels and is taller than him by a head. He sucks in a breath.

"We will go to see the brujo," he tells her. Her eyes sparkle - she knows the story. He thrusts one hand into his pocket and closes his fist around the comforting keycard of the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition, and he knows now that he has her.

Nuevo Caracas, at night:

Black hardtop rolls by beneath the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition's fat tyres. The car corners like a tram and Miguel holds the tiny electronic steering wheel with one casual hand. His other caresses Maria's naked brown thigh, revealed by the split of the red dress. So smooth, so smooth. She does not complain, nor does she agree to his touch. Ambivalence comes naturally to her.

Nuevo Caracas, at night:

Half the population is nocturnal. As the sun sets and the thunder clouds sweeping in from the forest fast-darken the sky, these creatures scuttle from their daylight boltholes to play or work, whether that work be selling their bodies (or body parts) or preaching infernal Papist damnation to anyone who will listen. The air is thick and damp and heavy with acidic ozone. Not that it bothers Miguel and Maria - the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition is equipped with an aerospatial-grade air conditioning system that keeps humidity, temperature and pollution levels within the car to acceptable levels. It is, perhaps, a little chilly. Miguel's nipples are erect beneath his brother's T-shirt. As he turns the corner where the polizei are threatening streetdwellers with electric batons, he decides he will see if Maria is similarly affected.

Nuevo Caracas, at night:

The city is a living organism, mutant child of the rainforest, an amoeba split in two, the squalid barrio and the cyberscrapers, with the streets the neutral ground where beggars and bankers can be murdered or raped or hustled by armoured riot-ready polizei, without fear of prejudice. Nuevo Caracas is nothing if not democratic. Bolivar would be proud.

Nuevo Caracas, at night:

The landscape changes as Miguel begins his ascent into the domain of the barrio. The Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition's massively overpowered engine grumbles sulkily in its restraint mode under the sensuous haunch of the bonnet. Miguel's foot is barely touching the accelerator. He reluctantly forsakes Maria's delicate thigh and grips the wheel with both hands, begins to pay more attention to the road. If a barrio gang emerge from a side street armed with a battering ram made from old crane parts, he will stamp his foot and the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition will - stylishly - carry them from nought to sixty in four seconds. The veloured bucket seats press their flesh reassuringly, ready to catch them if the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition rears like a stallion making a mad dash for freedom.

"How much further?" Maria whines, shifting in her seat.

Miguel is loath to take his eyes from the road. Street lighting disappeared a few miles back and the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition's powerful headlights spear the dark tunnel of the way ahead, picking out figures moving to either side. They pass a solitary polizei-mobile, parked on a junction with its doors and windows sealed, a single red light glowing weakly on its roof, like the last gas station for a hundred miles. They flash by at speed, into the dead heart of the barrio.

The barrio, at night:

In Nuevo Caracas, money changes hands and business is the order of day and night, the pursuit and accumulation of wealth, whether the vast riches of the interbankers or the savings of the whore hoping to escape the streets. Here in the barrio, there is only one business - the business of day to day survival.

The barrio, at night:

The city is alive but the barrio is dead, its heart ripped out by corruption and greed and man's inhumanity to man. Here life has been made cheap. A child can be sold for a meal. A man can be killed for a bottle of beer. When people have nothing, they have nothing to lose.

The barrio, at night:

Victim of the city, the barrio lies crushed between the cyberscraper and the mountains, compressed by need for that most valuable of commodities, real estate. A thousand people living in the space for a hundred with no power except for that which they might generate through ingenuity or desperation. A thousand people with dead hearts and dead minds and dead lives. A dead city to mirror its neighbour, so very much alive.

"How much further?"

Miguel swallows hard and prepares to admit that he has no idea. The Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition has slowed to a crawl and is making its way along steep winding streets choked with debris and the detritus of life in the barrio. Suspicious eyes view him from behind heavy hessian drapes and the paint smeared windows of old trucks and buses that some of these people call home. He feels that if he stops moving, they will descend on the car like a plague of locusts and strip it of everything of value, including himself and Maria. In the barrio, everything has a value, including things that the city dwellers consider trash. That strange, sad thought terrifies Miguel.

The streets of the barrio are almost deserted, the thunder and lightning driving the people indoors to their shacks and shanties, to cling to their possessions in case the coming torrential rain tries to sweep them away. Miguel needs directions or they will circle this godforsaken place all night, and he knows Maria will not be impressed by that.

Instead, he thinks, she will be impressed by his nonchalance at stopping the car and asking one of the barrio residents for help. He has a small amount of currency in a billfold in his pocket, he knows that these people will want paying for information, and you cannot expect barrio dwellers to accept creditocards! He smiles at the thought as he parks the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition by a large black injection-molded dumpster where the blue glow of a television screen seeps from the edges of a filthy sheet slung over the propped lid. Maria turns to him, horror on her face.

"Don't worry," he says. "I just need to ask the way."

And he gets out of the car.

Miguel is a foolish, ill-informed, spoilt youth of the cyberscraper culture. He knows no more of the barrio than the wild stories of the brujo and his ilk. He does not know that there is no reasoning with the people of the barrio when you have something that they want, especially when you are dressed in your older brother's best clothes and have a beautiful woman by your side. Maria could have told him this, if she was not paralysed with fear. Her family are less affluent than Miguel's - they live in the borderlands where you can smell the barrio, not just imagine it as a dark horizon or a scattering of twinkling fires in the distance. Maria has arrived home to find barrio kids in her room, rifling through her underwear drawer. She thought Miguel knew all this. She trusted him. Now, he has turned off the engine of the car, unlocked the door, and got out.

Miguel does not want Maria to know how frightened he is. He feels very vulnerable in his smart borrowed clothes as he approaches the dumpster. The side of the plastic box is painted in psychedelic swirls of luminous paint, cryptic symbols and figures. One resembles the Inca sunburst tattoo on his bare stomach. He fingers the tattoo self-consciously. He doesn't know what the tattoo symbolises, he just thought it looked cool. What if it offends a follower of one of the barrio's myriad religions?

He gingerly lifts the hessian that obscures the dumpster's lid. A child is inside, sitting crosslegged on a carpeted floor, leaning forward with its face pressed up to a television screen, nose almost touching it. Miguel cannot tell at first if it is a boy or a girl. The inside of the dumpster is strung with cheap Christmas tree lights, thin wires leading from them and the television up to the makeshift power lines sagging from the building next door. The supply is dangerous and unreliable and every few seconds the television picture recedes to a dot and then springs back again, each time apparently changing channel. The child does not seem bothered by this unintelligible assault on its senses.

"... stay tuned stay tuned will you open the box or take the money buy the new CoCo-narcobar NOW it's full of flavour and can help prevent twenty types of cancer Ecuadorian paratroops landed today in northern sectors scandal hits new mining complex on the Orinoco delta stay tuned stay tuned stay tuned..."

Miguel stubs his foot against the dumpster and the child jumps up, an enormous hunting knife in its small hands. Miguel sees now that it is a boy, no more than ten years old, with raggedy clothes, copper hoop earrings and a dirty face. The boy does a double take at Miguel's clothes then waves the knife around in front of Miguel's nose. Miguel jumps back.

"What you want, clown man? You want my ass, huh? Not for sale, clown man. Go somewhere else! Unless you want to speak to my brother." The boy waves the knife again. Miguel presumes that this is his "brother".

"I'm not going to hurt you. I just want directions." Miguel holds up the palms of his hands in a placatory gesture. The boy's rodent eyes glance from empty hand to empty hand, and he relaxes slightly.

"I just want to watch my television, clown man. Why should I help you?"

Miguel keeps one hand outstretched and digs in the pocket of his brother's parachute pants with the other, bringing out the thick billfold. The boy's eyes light up like his television screen.

"What do you want to find in the barrio, then, clown man? Not much in the barrio to interest city types. Girls we got. You want girls, clown man?"

Miguel shakes his head and peels off several notes from the billfold. The boy licks his lips hungrily.

"The brujo, little man. We're looking for the restaurant of the brujo."

Standing up to his waist in the dumpster, the boy is a head above Miguel, and looks over his shoulder to the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition parked behind him. He can see Maria in the passenger seat. He reaches forward for the money but Miguel pulls it away and the boy almost topples over the plastic rim.

"Directions first. I'm in a hurry."

The boy clambers from the dumpster, his "brother" still in one hand. He wipes the other hand three times on his pant leg and offers it to Miguel, giving a slight bow as he does so. Miguel gingerly accepts the greeting.

"Bruno Del Santos El Rodriguez at your service," says the boy. "You want the restaurant of the brujo, and I am the man to show it you. But it is much too difficult to explain the way. I must come with you."

Miguel looks at the dirty boy and thinks of his beautiful car and the beautiful woman inside. He finds it difficult to imagine the two pictures in the same frame. But what are his choices? The boy has a big knife and information that he needs. He can only hope that Maria is not too appalled and that later he can clean any stains off the upholstery before his mother and father return.

"Okay," Miguel says. "But your brother stays here."

The Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition roars around the barrio's narrow streets with greater confidence as Bruno leans forward from the narrow ledge of the car's back seat and points left and right, giving Miguel precise but invariably dangerously late directions. They are climbing into the storm sky, the ground above them thinning in its concentration of shacks and slums as they near the summit of the barrio.

Bruno is enjoying himself. He has never been in a car like this one and his seat gives him a perfect view down the girl's impressive cleavage. She slaps his face when he tries to touch her. She then spends the rest of the journey pressed against the trim panel of the passenger door, trying to get away from his hands and his pungent odour. He gives up and attempts to play with the myriad gadgets and screens on the car's dashboard, which earns him an equal rebuff from Miguel. He wishes he had his brother with him, then he would show these two some respect.

"There, there it is!" Bruno points at a skeletal ruin silhouetted above them against the lightning-torn sky. Miguel peers through the car's windscreen and uses the image to navigate his way through the last of the barrio streets, empty of life up here. Several dogs scatter from something large and dark they were gnawing on an alleyway. Miguel sees the steep, narrow road that will take them up to the mission church, and decides that he will drive the Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition no further. He parks at the bottom of the hill and switches off the engine.

"Good job, city man, yes?" Bruno grins with yellow teeth and holds out his dirty palm. Miguel smiles at him and they all get out of the car. Miguel fiddles with the keycard until he arms the car's defence system. A blue light glows softly on the dashboard.

"Good job, you pay me now, yes?" Bruno is insistent, urging. Miguel smiles again and presses a single crisp note into the boy's hand. Bruno looks at the note with disgust and spits on the floor.

"You promised me more, city man. We had a deal. You pay up, or I fetch my brother."

Miguel leans forward and gives Bruno a fierce push, sending the boy sprawling into the dirt. The note flutters away and Bruno chases after it on all fours, grabbing it before it disappears into the trash piled in the gutters. He stands and screams an obscenity at Miguel and Maria. Miguel picks up a crushed can and throws it at the boy, who runs away, cursing them in vivid language. Maria laughs, and Miguel smiles. He was worried that the evening was not going as planned, but now she seems genuinely impressed with him. He really showed that barrio kid who was boss man, didn't he?

The old mission church stands out above them, an unfleshed corpse of a building, a relic of a colonial past. Miguel takes Maria's hand and together they walk up the narrow street. In the gaps between the ruins they can see the inky expanse of the valley they have left, the city caught between the rainforest and this hard, dangerous place. Nuevo Caracas is a crystal ship afloat in a black sea. It seems so far away at this moment.

As they near the old mission, they can see fairy lights and candles flicker in the shell of the church, teased by the storm wind. Sheet lightning periodically turns night to day.

Miguel begins to feel nervous. What if this is just a myth? They have risked their lives - and his father's car! - to come here. Maria is hungry and impatient, and he has chosen to take her to the ultimate restaurant, which may or not exist, to eat an exotic - and quite possibly poisonous - mutant fish! Miguel, you are mucho lobo!

Miguel guides Maria over the rubble-strewn courtyard. Big wooden gates lie forlorn to each side. Maria steps delicately and deliberately over the ground in her spike heels, allowing Miguel to steer her toward the softly illuminated plastic sheeting strung across the front of the mission. Maria stops and shrugs off Miguel's touch.

"There's nothing here!" she says petulantly. "This is no restaurant, it's just some barrio shack. Why have you brought me here, Miguel?"

"Come," says the brujo, stepping from the darkness, a slight figure in tapestry robes. "I've been expecting you."

Miguel and Maria freeze for a moment. The brujo is an old bearded man, not threatening in the least. Why should they be afraid of him? He smiles and beckons to them.

They follow the brujo without question. He sweeps aside the plastic sheeting and ushers them into his restaurant.

The interior is dark and smoky. Shadows chase shadows away from the glow of candles and lightning flashes. The restaurant is empty of customers. A dwarf waiter moves toward them with a glass pitcher of red wine.

The brujo shows them to their table - a packing crate covered by a cloth and marked with the logo of the Venezuelan Air Force, and two plastic picnic chairs. Maria graciously allows the brujo to pull the chair out for her before she gathers her dress around her and sits down. The brujo smiles toothlessly. The dwarf fills up their glasses with wine.

"You will, of course, be ordering our special," says the brujo, wringing his hands. It is a statement, not a question.

"Is it available?" asks Miguel coolly, raising an eyebrow.

"Of course!" says the brujo. "Otherwise, you would not be here."

The brujo and the dwarf disappear. Maria sips at her wine and looks around the restaurant, trying to see if they are really alone. Dark shapes flit around the periphery of her vision, but she sees no one. It is so hot in here, moisture rolling down the rippling plastic sheeting. A light sheen of sweat covers Maria's neck and shoulders, glistening in the candlelight.

Miguel's attention is fixed on Maria. He plays with the stem of his wine glass and tries to think of cool things he can say to her. Before he has a chance to deliver a stunning fusillade of compliments, the brujo returns, accompanied by the dwarf carrying a huge covered silver platter.

"Your mutopargo," says the brujo, and unveils the platter with a flourish.

The fish is still alive, shuffling ineffectively on the platter, surrounded by fruit and vegetables and Venezuelan cachapa, maize pancakes, and caraotas beans. It is a two headed specimen, the most common mutation, and the two heads flip nervously in different directions, saucer eyes attempting to take in all threats. Multiple fins drum a beat on the metal dish. The dwarf places the platter carefully on the packing crates then retreats with the brujo, bowing graciously.

Miguel and Maria and the mutopargo stare at each other for a long time in silence. The dwarf returns and gives them both sharp knives and forks.

"It's so beautiful," says Maria. "It's such a shame to kill it."

"Some people say it is already dead," says Miguel, testing the edge of the knife with his thumb. "It will have been out of the water for many days. It is just electricity, making the fins and the head move."

Maria wants to believe him but the mutopargo looks at her mournfully, both heads swivelling toward her, as if appealing for feminine mercy.

"But it is supposed to be so good to eat," says Miguel, and makes a deep incision into the fish's flank. The fish shrieks and shudders. Miguel recoils and drops his knife. Maria licks her lips and picks up her own knife. She makes a bold, more positive incision deep into the fish's side, cutting a swathe of white flesh. The mutopargo stops moving. Miguel watches, awestruck, as Maria slowly cuts the flesh on her plate and forks a piece into her mouth. She closes her eyes, chews and swallows.

"It is fantastic," she says. "It is the most fantastic thing I have ever tasted. Here, try some."

She cuts a swathe for him and he accepts it from her. He rolls his eyes as he tastes it for the first time.

"Excellent," he says. "More. More."

He takes over and carves and feeds her, and in between takes pieces for himself. The brujo watches from the shadows, satisfied. He catches Miguel's eye and winks, then taps his palm pointedly. What have you brought me in trade?

Miguel freezes. How could he have been so forgetful? He reaches into his pocket and takes out two things - his creditocard and the keycard to his father's Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition. The brujo accepts no cash. The Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition...... His father's Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition.....Is there no alternative? He looks across at the girl he has brought here. Surely not.....?

Maria Del Fuego looks even more beautiful with her eyes closed in the ecstasy of exquisite taste. When she does open her eyes to see why Miguel has not fed her another morsel, he sees a look in her eyes which was not there before, a look that says, Good work, Miguel. You've won. I want you.

He smiles and forks another mouthful of food into her mouth. In the end, the decision is not so hard, after all.

Carlos will kill him, of course, but it is a small price to pay for such a wonderful evening, and maybe when he tells Carlos of his fantastic adventure and how he made love to the beautiful Maria Del Fuego back at their apartment, he will forgive him. They are heading home through the barrio at speed, and he turns down the air conditioning as it is getting cold in the car. He is, after all, wearing just his best silk boxer shorts, with his creditocard tucked safely in the tiny condom pocket, just behind the condom. He smiles at the thought of the brujo dressed in Carlos' clothes, an old man in the guise of a superhip Nuevo Caracas kid. Maria giggles at his nakedness but her laugh has a saucy edge, tinged by red wine and sexual tension. Miguel fights the impending erection as best he can. That would be so uncool.

Word travels fast in this urban jungle. These people have no need of internet or phone. The Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition was tracked as it entered the barrio and allowed to pass through an elaborate series of gates and predetermined routes invisible to the eye of city dwellers. As Miguel climbed to the restaurant of the brujo, these gates and routes were closed behind him, and makeshift roadblocks sprung into place. On their way back down, Miguel and Maria are blissfully unaware that they are driving straight into a precisely prepared trap.

As they descend, Miguel begins to realise that they are not travelling the same route they took on the way in. The car slows to a crawl artwork by Rik Rawlingthrough streets that become tighter and narrower until he can barely manoeuvre the muscular vehicle. Belatedly, he knows he has taken one wrong turn too many. An old Cadillac, rusted and choked with foliage, blocks the road ahead. He looks into his rearview TV screen, preparing to reverse, and sees a party of figures appear out of the gloom. They are holding things in their hands, long things, sharp things. A sudden lightning flash illuminates them menacingly. Miguel utters a curse and guns the engine in a threatening manner, wheel-spinning and edging backwards, startling Maria who lets out a cry. The figures break ranks and Miguel prepares to get the hell out of there, but a dark shadow blocks the way. The bastards have towed a couple of wrecks in behind him, blocking his exit. He swears and thumps the steering wheel in frustration.

Maria has been watching the dim glow of the rearview screen. She stuffs a fist into her mouth and whimpers.

"What are we going to do, Miguel? What do they want?"

The Ford Machos "Matador" Special Edition will strike easily through either barricade but Miguel is worried about the paintwork on his father's brand new car. Emboldened by his encounter with Bruno the barrio boy and his successful negotiation of barter terms with the brujo, he decides to try and reason with them. Maria clutches her face as he gets out of the car.

Their faces are terrifying in the half-light. Ninety percent of barrio dwellers are Indian or mestizo, half-breeds. Their faces are painted in colourful chaos patterns. He suddenly remembers he is practically naked.

There are seven or eight of them. Behind them is a tractor attached by chains to the wrecks that were dragged to block Miguel's escape.

Miguel tries his best confident smile.

"Could you gentlemen please move your cars, and tell me the fastest way back to the city?"

The mob maintains a stony silence then one nudges and whispers something to another, and they all fall around laughing and cackling. Miguel joins in, slightly relieved, but completely in the dark as to the joke.

"Bad night to be lost in the barrio, caudillo," says one of the men. "Storm coming. Barrio real bad place to be caught a storm. All sorts of scum float to the surface."

Miguel laughs a nervous laugh. The barrio dweller calls him caudillo - it means strong man, or big man. It is, of course, meant sarcastically. Miguel realises he has made a terrible mistake. He starts to back away. The mob move forward.

"Pretty lady in car."

"Pretty dress."

"Know how to treat a lady, caudillo?"

"That why you wear no clothes? You been playing fiesta with the lady, caudillo?"

"We show you how to play fiesta with pretty lady."

Miguel dashes for the sanctuary of the car. He decides to break out of here and to hell with the paintwork. These are not barrio kids, these men are evil banditas who will beat him and rape him and leave him for dead. He places a hand on the door of his car, and his world explodes in blue fire.

Maria has slipped over into the driver's seat and armed the defences. The car's bodywork is now electrified and near-fatal to the touch of an intruder. The force of the shock has sent Miguel reeling into a nearby wall where he slams with bone-crunching force. He shakes stars from his eyes in time to see the barrio gang attempt a similar feat, undeterred by his own fate. They are propelled away from the car with all the sudden force of colliding magnets. Maria revs the engine and wheel spins out of the confines of the alleyway, careening off the sides of the cars blocking the route and taking most of the paint off the Ford Machos 'Matador' Special Edition's right flank.

Miguel staggers after her, his bare feet slipping and stubbing his toes in the trash-strewn alley. The barrio gang moan and wail in the alley behind him, the effects of the shock much greater on them with their metal weapons and studded clothes. If he is lucky, he can get away from them while they are still stunned.

Maria turns the car at an angle at the end of the road, preparing to make her escape into the wider street beyond. Miguel assumes she is waiting for him. He is wrong. The driver's side window slides down a few inches.

"It's been a lovely evening, Miguel," she says, blowing him a kiss. And she is gone, in a roar of overpowered American engine.

Miguel sinks to his knees in the middle of the alley. He has no car and no girl. He is lost and has no way of getting home. Maybe if he just waits here long enough, the barrio gang will recover and come and put him out of his misery. After all, what other choices does he have? How far is he going to get in a pair of boxer shorts?

"Hey, clown man, city man. Where's your lady, hey?"

Miguel winces. Bruno clambers from a nearby trash pile, dripping rubbish, his grin a yellow slash splitting his dirty face. He has his brother with him. He swaggers towards Miguel with the confidence of someone three times his age. It's easy to know when you've got the upper hand, even when you're ten years old.

"Want to know the way home, city man?"

"I have nothing to give you," Miguel says dejectedly. He is no longer even frightened of Bruno's blade. "I have nothing left."

Bruno closes one eye and peers at Miguel.

"Those are very nice shorts," Bruno says.

Well, thinks Miguel, as he stands on the brow of the hill with his city glistening like a teasing, out of reach jewel below him, at least things cannot get much worse. No car, no girl, no clothes. He may be naked but at least he knows his way back to Nuevo Caracas. If Bruno was telling the truth. He didn't like the way the boy laughed as he ran away waving Miguel's silk boxer shorts in the air like an enemy flag captured in battle.

The storm, when it breaks, is like a cool relief, rain washing his body and the streets, the sky venting its anger on Miguel's behalf, as if the rich of the city are wealthy enough to bribe nature, and the barrio must pay the price. Monday morning and some very awkward explanations are a lifetime away. It has been, Miguel thinks, a very interesting night on the town.

words © Noel K Hannan 1998, 1999.
illustrations © Rik Rawling 2000.

This story was first published in New Worlds (1998) and is reprinted in Noel's collection, Shenanigans (Pendragon Press, 2000; price £6.99; orders from PO Box 12, Maesteg, Mid Glamorgan, South Wales, CF34 0XG, UK).

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

  • Noel runs ANKH, an independent publisher of streetwise graphic fiction.
  • Find out about Noel's collection, Shenanigans, published by Pendragon Press.

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