The Boiling Point of Placid Water

by Andrew Hughes

Professor José Mundo looked out the window of the El Calando hotel. He had been fixing his tie but his hands had begun sweating. He’d given up before he stained the fine pressed blue shirt.  

“José, come back,” said Carlos Guzman, the former Mayor of San Juan. “We’re not done.”  

José said nothing. He stared down at the plaza where the crowd had begun to amass. There were over a thousand protestors in the park already. 

“José,” said his wife, Carmen.  

José turned around. “Yes, sorry.”   

“Good, someone can get your attention,” said Guzman. He had three yellow legal pads before him. One contained José’s speech, the next Guzman’s notes, the third was blank, to be filled with today’s observations. “You need to be more animated when you’re up there. More gesticulation.”  

“José, your tie,” said Carmen. She began to wrangle the double Windsor, tugging until it hung perfectly to his silver belt buckle. Guzman had selected silver because it was an understated metal. Proud, yet humble. Silver could relate to the people in ways that gold could not.  

“Fast hands,” said Guzman. “Those hands need to be bullets, exclamation points! Rapid fire, bang, bang, bang, and as long as they feel each shot, you have the crowd. Then comes the reload. No motions, no gesticulation, only slow, passionate words. Those evil mother fuckers made a mess and they’re going to clean it up. But you’re not reloading a pistol. No, you’re tamping a fucking cannon and when it explodes. They. Will. Feel. It.”

“I don’t know Carlos,” said José. “They would respond better to you.”  

Guzman flipped the notebook shut. “Look at my face. I’m old. They need a new face, someone young to believe in.” 

“But this,” José said, motioning to the window. “They’ve started bringing signs that say Mundo for Mayor. That’s not what I want. I’m a professor, not a politician.”  

Carmen touched his face. “José. The office is how you make the difference. If you put pressure on Vazquez, he’ll listen.”  

“She’s right,” said Guzman. “If you make Vazquez feel like you’re gunning for his seat, he’ll have to listen.”  

Jose fought the urge to slide his hands into his pockets.

Carmen stroked his cheek. “You’re going to do great. And when this is all done, we can fix the step on the boat, and go see the reef.”

The door swung open and a woman looked in. “Senior Munro. It’s time.”  

Carmen kissed his neck. “Let’s go.”

“You’re gonna do great kid,” said Guzman.  

And he did.  

That afternoon, the rally to draw attention to the Shell Oil Spill off the coast of Puerto Rico drew two thousand protestors. By the end of José’s impassioned efforts, they were chanting for the fall of Mayor Vazquez and a responsible clean up of the reef. And the next day, José received a summons from the mayor’s office requesting a meeting. He accepted.  

XXX

“This is a bad idea,” said Guzman. They were dressed in their finest suits in the back of a limo.  

“Carlos, this is what we’ve been waiting for.” 

“José, he’s going to deny having any deals with Shell and you’re going to look like a colluder and bang, your public base is gone.”  

“We have documents proving the connection.”  

“Fuck your documents,” said Guzman.  

They pulled up to the building where a hundred protestors hoisted picket signs.  RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SPILL. SAVE PUERTO RICO’S COAST. NO MORE CORPORATIONS NO MORE CORRUPTION.

“And it begins,” said Guzman.  

They walked up the steps and the crowd swarmed them. José held up his hand and thanked them for their support as they made their way inside.  

“This is a fucking fiasco,” said Guzman.  

“Do not worry my friend,” José said with a wink. “I have tricks up my sleeve.”  

A tall, muscular man in a black suit approached them. “Senior Mundo, Senior Guzman, my name is Armando. Please follow me.”  

They followed Armando to a back elevator where the doors opened with a crisp slide. They took it to the seventh floor where Armando stopped them outside a conference room.

“Before we go in, I have to search you.”

“Search us?” said Guzman. “Are you fucking kidding me.”  

“It’s protocol.”

“No, that’s ridiculous. You–”

“Guzman, relax,” said José. He set down his briefcase and outstretched his arms. “By all means, do your job.”   

Armando patted them down and retrieved their cell phones. “I need to hold these until the end of the meeting.”

“Go ahead,” said José. 

They entered to find Vazquez and two lawyers sitting at an ornate conference table. The mayor outstretched his hands. “Please, sit down José, Carlos.”  

“Good morning, Mayor Vazquez,” José said, setting his briefcase down. Guzman took a seat, opened his briefcase, and withdrew a legal pad.  

“Would you like any coffee? Water? Rum?”

“No thank you,” said José. “We are not here to socialize. We are here to–”

“I know why you’re here José. You’re here to talk about the disaster we’re witnessing off the coast.”  

José was taken aback. “Yes,” he said. “That’s exactly why we’re here.”

“And I invited you to tell you that we’re doing everything we can to push the Shell Corporation to take responsibility for this travesty.”  

“That’s great,” said José. “But the citizens are out on the water everyday and they say nothing is being done. The spill continues to pollute the reef.”  

Vazquez twirled his hand, conjuring words like a spider spins a web. “This deal is in the works but the corporation is reluctant to respond. No one wants to claim responsibility for such a mess. This whole debacle may take months, even years, to clear up. But my legal team is ready to go to court in defense of our country.”  

“But what about our resources,” said José. “Why are our boats not out there right now doing what they can?”

“Our boats? Why would we donate any of our recourses to this project? What are you trying to imply, Senior Mundo?”  

“We all know what he’s implying,” said Guzman. 

Vazquez scoffed.  

“And we have documents that prove it,” said José. He opened his briefcase and withdrew a stack of papers.  

“Oh yes, we’ve seen those,” said Vazquez. “Those doctored papers distributing the blame. My team has found the originals.” He snapped his fingers and one of the lawyers pulled out a folder. “We’ve made you copies.”  

Guzman snatched the pages and began to pilfer through them. 

“No,” said José. “We know that you’re involved. That you are responsible. We know it!”  He slammed his briefcase shut and pointed his finger at Vazquez. “We know it and your fake papers will not change our minds.”  

Vazquez shook his head and scoffed. “You’re very green Senior Mundo.”  

“You’re involved and you will admit it.”  

Vazquez smirked. “You want me to admit it?”  

“José,” warned Guzman.

“Yes.”  

Vazquez glanced at the way José held his briefcase.  

“You want me to say Shell backed my campaign? Sure, they made donations. But that makes no difference.”  

José smiled. “That’s all we need.” He stood up and Guzman followed his lead, tossing the folder back at the lawyers. They started for the door when Vazquez spoke.  

“Leave the briefcase Senior Mundo.”

José turned back.  

“Leave the briefcase.”  

“What?”

Vazquez stood and when he did, Armando stepped into the room.  

“We both know what you’re doing,” said Vazquez. “You think you can implicate me with a recording? Leave the briefcase.”

José held it tighter.  

“702 Royale Court.” 

José eyes widened.  

“Leave the briefcase and get home Mundo.”  

“You evil fuck,” said Guzman.  

Vazquez shrugged and José let the briefcase fall.  

Armando escorted them to the elevator and during the descent José began to hyperventilate.  

“Our phones?” said Guzman.  

“I’ve been requested-”

“Our phones goddamn it!” 

Armando shrunk back, reached into his pocket, and handed them over.  As the doors slid open, José squeezed out and sprinted for the exit.  

He emerged from the building, pushed through the crowd, and started up the strip. Guzman ran after him.

“José!”

José stepped into the street, waving his arms at the limo. 

“José, what are you doing?”  

“Carlos, you don’t understand.”’

“What do you mean?” The limo pulled up and Jose fumbled for the handle. “You gave him the briefcase, he’s not coming after you.”  

“You don’t get it,” said José.

“702 Royale Court,” said Guzman. “What do I not get?”

“It wasn’t a recording. It was a live transmission to the Star.”  

Guzman’s face ran white. “Oh god.” He looked at the driver. “Two hundred if you can get there in ten minutes.” He pulled out both phones and tossed one to José. “Call Carmen.”

“Sir, there are other cars,” said the driver.

“Not on the sidewalk there aren’t!”

José dialed Carmen’s number and it began to ring. And ring. And ring. And he felt like crying when she answered.

“Carmen!”  

“José? How’d it go?”  

“Oh thank god,” he said, beginning to cry.  

“José, what’s going on?”  

“I want you to pack a bag and get in the back room. We’ll be there soon.”  

“A bag?”  

“Carmen listen to me!”

“José, hold on, there’s someone at the door.”  

“Carmen, no!”

“It’s a police officer.”

“Don’t open it!”

In the background he could hear pounding as she opened the door. “Officer, what’s going on? We’re–“ The call ended with a shriek.  

José kicked the seat-back and screamed.

The limo steered around traffic and onto the sidewalk. They were a mile from home when red and blue lights flashed behind them.

The driver swore.  

“Keep going,” said Guzman.  

“No sir, I cannot keep going.”  

“Goddamn it.” Guzman looked over his shoulder.  

“He has her,” said Jose. “Guzman, he has her.”  

“All right kid, here’s what we’re going to do.”  

The limo stopped.  

“I’m going to make a scene and you’re going to run. You get home and get Carmen.”  

“Carlos…”

“Go!”  

Guzman opened the door and frantically waved at the police officer. Ten seconds later, José dove out and sprinted down the cobblestone block. Behind him he heard yelling, shouting, and then twin gunshots. He dared not look back.  

He cut through an alley and his house appeared. There was a cop car out front. José ran down the walk and through the open door. Armando stood in his living room with two officers. Carmen lay on the carpet in the sunroom, hog tied with a gag stuffed in her mouth.  

“Ah, Senior Mundo,” said Armando.  

“Carmen,” José croaked.  

“She’s fine Senior Mundo.” He nodded to the two officers.  

“Sir, we’re going to need you to sit.”  

José swung, striking the officer on the nose.  

“Vazquez!” José yelled. “Carmen!”  

The other officer drew a Taser and squeezed the trigger.  

XXX

José woke in darkness. There was a bag on his head and the floor was gently rocking. He groaned and struggled against his restraints.  

“You’re up,” said Armando. “That’s good. It’s getting late.”  

The bag came back and José squinted, expecting a blinding light, but there was none. They were beneath a starless, cloudy night. He was in the belly of a little boat, his own boat, and in the far corner he could see Carmen, and above her, Armando.  

“Now remember,” Armando said. “This wasn’t my idea. If it was up to me, I would have let you run.”  

Armando picked up a pair of waterproof bags and two zip ties. He looked at José. “I really am sorry about this.”

José pulled against the restraints as Armando tried to slip the Ziploc bag over Carmen’s head. She shrieked and thrashed. 

Think, Jose urged himself. Your boat. We’re on your boat. Think. And he remembered. The loose floorboard that Carmen had cut her foot on. The one that she’d urged him to fix. Contracting his abdomen, Jose rolled backwards onto his shoulder and inched toward the rear of the ship. Up front, Carmen continued to squirm and Armando tried to calm her. When she wouldn’t lay still, he struck her twice with closed fists.  

Jose continued to crawl and finally, he found it, the jagged edge of hard plastic. He began to rub his his wrist restraints against it.  

Armando pulled the bag over Carmen’s head and José could see blood in her hair.  

“You see,” said Armando. “This way you’ll have a little air on your way down.”  

Jose felt a sharp pain in his wrist followed by a sudden wetness but continued to saw.  

Armando fastened the zip tie around the base of the bag. With a grunt, he lifted Carmen and tossed her overboard. He leaned over the rail and watched as she began to descend.

Three more strokes and the binds came free. José fumbled for something, anything, his hands wrapping around the base of the anchor.

“Your turn Senior Mundo,” said Armando.  

As he turned, José swung, bringing the anchor crashing down, splitting Armando’s skull and dropping him to the floorboard. He twitched twice and lay still.  

Carmen.  

With the anchor clutched in both hands, José leapt overboard.  

The water was cold and it shocked him to life, the wounds on his hands searing, but he held tight to the anchor as it pulled him deeper and deeper into the black. He scanned left and right, looking for her, but the visibility was nothing and his eyes stung from the salt, but he forced them open. After thirty seconds, he released the anchor and began to blindly grope, feeling for something, for anything, swinging his arms, his lungs pinching to the point of bursting, and then, he felt plastic. He grabbed hold and he felt hair and skin and with all his might he kicked for the surface.  

They broke twenty yards from the boat and José bit through the plastic bag. Carmen coughed and sputtered and he held her tight. 

“José?”

“I have you,” he said. “I have you.”

XXX

That night they sunk their boat and swam to shore. It was a long way but they had both grown up swimming in those waters. When they arrived, their skin ran black and sticky from the oil. They stood on the beach and looked out at the cresting waves until José took Carmen’s hand.  

“There’s work to be done,” he said.  

They spent that night on the beach, huddled in the coastal underbrush, and in the morning, they hitchhiked to the far side of the island where they stayed two weeks with a fellow protestor. Carmen spent most days in bed and did not speak often but José watched the news obsessively. Guzman’s body had been recovered but the San Juan Star never released the recording. He came to terms that it had been destroyed. In the first few days there were reports about him and Carmen, claiming that they had left the island on a boat bound for Miami.  

But still, the protests raged on, and on the fifteenth day, José borrowed a suit and took a taxi to the demonstration, ready to reclaim his podium.

— The End —

XXXX

Andrew has been writing and publishing short stories for the past decade. His stories have appeared in Cholla Needles, Dreamers, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. He currently lives in Arizona, working as a criminologist, and taking care of the world’s most adorable white husky.

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