For All Nails, pt. 67: Even Paranoids Have Enemies
June 15, 1973
Chapultapec, México Central
Robert Contreras was NOT a happy man. Oh, yeah, you could gussy that
up with adjectives, say the same thing using fancy metaphors. It
would make no difference. Robert Contreras was as unhappy as a rich
man in good health could be. Which was pretty freaking unhappy. He
rubbed his bare scalp and took another long swig at his beer and
watched the city swing by as the rooftop restaurant rolled through
another rotation. The lights of the slummier parts of the city of
Chapultapec spread out on the south side of Chapultepec Park.  The
even slummier town of Tacubaya spread out beyond that.
A year ago things had been different. Sure, he had business troubles,
his second-youngest daughter was a spoiled brat, and his latest wife
spent more time shopping in Europe than with him. But none of that
was really a _problem_. Business had been turning around. Sure, the
cost imported inputs had gone up and Pemex dragged out payments, but
his firm's exports to the Manitoba oil companies were booming. He
loved his daughter, and if he ever worried about her girlishness,
well, young Bobby's accomplishments were more than any father could
hope for, and his other children weren't turning out that badly
either. Plus he could always hope for the best from the baby. As for
the wife---well, the more time she spent in Switzerland, the more time
he had to f--k Susanna Ek's brains out on the living room sofa.
But that was a year ago. In retrospect, all the lío started when he'd
decided to run for president of the Chamber of Manufacturers. Oh, in
reality they'd started after that, when Contreras had opened his big
mouth and started soliciting funds for the Moctezuma campaign. All he
could say was that it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
The first sign of something going wrong had been the troubles with the
Customs inspectors in Monticello. Contreras hadn't thought twice
about that. Sure, the fishing had been a little more blatant than
Contreras had come to expect---kind of like using filet mignon to bait
catfish---but Customs was part of the War Department, and Mercator
often used positions in the War Department to reward cronies or co-opt
potential enemies. Not business-as-usual, but not insane either.
Contreras made the usual phone calls, and the hassles stopped.
Until he met Moctezuma in that hotel room, but a block or two from
this very building.
Ten days later federal police, acting under a presidential order,
picked up his brother Frank Contreras in Henrytown and held him for
two days of interrogation about alleged attempts to bribe Pemex
officials. Frank had indeed hired an agent to try to collect on the
money Pemex owed, but neither of them had authorized any bribes. Not
that bribery didn't run rampant at Petroleum of Mexico, just that no
one would be so foolish as to hire an _agent_ to pass one along. An
agent, after all, could just as easily threaten to go to the judiciary
as pass the bribe along, keeping the mordida for himself, and would
become an endless source of potential blackmail. The accusation just
didn't make any sense.
A few days later a story broke in the _Guadalajara Sol_ that
Contreras's company was involved in customs fraud and Bob had fled the
country. Considering as Bob was in San Francisco negotiating with
suppliers at that very moment, it wasn't hard to counteract the
stories, but they were strange. A few days later the attorney
general, a Rodríguez appointee named Sergio Ramírez, announced that he
had no evidence of fraud by either of the Contreras brothers or anyone
connected to them, and that was that. Sort of. His negotiations with
Pemex over its debts came to a complete halt, and his company was
forced to eat the loss.
Right after Moctezuma's election, Contreras got a mysterious phone
call from Fred Buchanan. Buchanan wasn't a full member of the Chamber
of Manufacturers, but his company was a huge customer and he was a
more than slightly influential businessman. He wanted to talk about
the campaign donations. "Bob, I gave at the office," he had said.
"So did you." When pressed, Fred had refused to say any more.
Three months after Moctezuma's inauguration, the first stories about
Susanna appeared in the tabloids. The affair wasn't exactly a
surprise to his wife, but the _public_ humiliation was too much.
After a tearful night, she had announced that she was divorcing him
and moving back to Manitoba. Worse yet, she was taking his youngest
daughter with her. [1a] Worse still, the _Affaire Ek_ embarrassed
President Moctezuma, who was asked in a press conference by an IPN
reporter: "What kind of message does such behavior from one of your
most prominent supporters say to the youth of Mexico?"
Moctezuma fended the attack off easily. This was Mexico---adulterous
conduct offended precisely three members of the Catholic Decency
League of Guadalajara, and perhaps a fourth repressed homosexual
evangelical from Jefferson. But the President stopped visiting
Chamber offices. Soon after, El Popo stopped returning Bob's phone
Not good. Major not good. But it got worse. In late 1972 Contreras
got a surprise visit from a greasy little Customs Service blanco from
Alaska named Rupert Gomberg. Oh, Gomberg didn't look greasy---it was
hard to look greasy with a shaved head---but he acted greasy. He
oozed into Contreras's Mexico City office attempting a "business
casual" look that just didn't work. The shirt was too starched, the
pants were too creased. He looked just like the active-reserve
military officer that he probably was.
"Why did you want to talk to me, Señor Gomberg?" asked Contreras.
With good Mexican directness, Gomberg replied, "You are aware that we
haven't discontinued our investigation of your company, Señor
Contreras." The "our" was telling.
Contreras leaned back in his chair. Standard strategy: the more
stressed he was, the more relaxed he tried to look. "Sí," he lied.
"Good, good. How's the family?" asked the little aristo with the pole
up his butt. Gomberg's expression could only be described as
"Fine," lied Contreras again. "I'll repeat: why are you here?"
"How are your friends, Señor Contreras?" Contreras just glared across
the hardwood desk. "We have many friends in common, you know. In the
War Department, in Pemex, in the federal prosecutor's office."
"Why … are … you … here?" repeated Contreras.
"Direct, eh? That's fine with me, Señor Contreras. I'm here to tell
you that he haven't been able to find any proof of smuggling or other
illegality in Monticello."
"Good. Leave." Contreras was in no mood for this.
"The problem is, Señor Contreras," Gomberg actually stifled a yawn,
"we've found so many clerical errors in your paperwork that it
wouldn't be hard for someone, uh, less enlightened than myself to find
evidence of criminality."
Contreras grit his teeth. "Y?"
"Y you've got a problem. Which we could make go away for a mere ...
one million dólares." Gomberg rubbed his nostril with his pinky.
One million dólares! Sure, one million dólares wasn't what it used to
be, but inflation was coming down fast and it was still a substantial
sum of money.  "For a _mitad_ of that amount, I could hire
someone to kill you," lied Contreras for the third time in two
The lie did, however, have the desired effect on Gomberg, who suddenly
seemed very alert about what Contreras was saying. The pinky left the
nose and stayed away. "Listen, Gomberg," continued Contreras, "I
don't know who you think you are, but I know this game. I _invented_
this game. So escúchame _very_ carefully." He leaned forward, his
hands on his desk. "You're in a non-combat branch of the War
Department. Moonlighting is standard in non-combat branches of the
War Department. You say you have friends in Pemex. Put it together.
_I_ will hire _you_ as a consultant y give you a commission for _two_
million dólares if you can get Pemex to release the 400 million
dólares they owe me. Me explico?"
"I don't know ..."
"Wrong answer! You have five seconds. Take it or leave it."
Gomberg stared. The pinky returned to the nose. "Fine. Fine. I can
"Good. Now leave." Gomberg left, and Contreras fumed. What did that
little shit think he was trying to accomplish? Contreras had offered
the counter-bribe not because he was afraid of Rupert Gomberg, but
because any chance at recovering his 400 million dólares was worth it.
A month passed. His legal problems multiplied. Nothing serious,
nothing real, mostly stuff that any solvent businessman in Mexico had
done, and most of which would no longer be necessary once the 69th
Congress finished its legislative session.  Then Gomberg
returned, far less arrogant. "I can't help you," he said.
"Why no?" 
"You have powerful enemies in Pemex. The senior managers are
convinced that you were are the source of the information that got
Director Olson arrested by the California state authorities for fraud
in 1971." Gomberg rubbed his nose. The pinky was no longer
involved. "I want to help you, but I just can't."
_What you mean_, thought Contreras, _is that you want my money but
can't get it._ He dismissed Gomberg like the pawn he was and then
made the call he should have made a long time ago.
"Could you please put me through to Colonel Malvaez, please? Tell him
Bob Contreras is on the line." He was on the line, in more ways than
one. "Yes, I'll wait."
"Bob!" Franklin Malvaez was currently Subsecretary of Commerce in
Moctezuma's administration. That put him as far up on the food chain
as you could get without needing Congressional confirmation, not
including the Secretary of State. He also retained all of his old
contacts over in the parallel bureaucracy in the War Department. No
man was more connected. "I haven't heard from you for a while,
"Things have been busy."
"So I've heard. I'm sorry about Marie, for what it's worth. I never
did see what you saw in her, anyway."
"Burnt ships, Coronel, burnt ships. Ni modo."
You could practically hear Malvaez nod. "Ni modo. Well, what brings
Contreras made a brief smacking noise with his mouth. "Do I really
have to say? You read the papers."
"Yeah, I do. Customs again?"
"That's the worst part, yes, but they're also hauling me over the
coals for tax evasion and hiding unregistered assets. Someone doesn't
like me, y I've been having trouble getting people in the
Administration to listen. Which has me very encabronado, considering
how much money I put into El Popo's campaign."
Malvaez did that magic thing again, nodding over the phone. "I can
understand that. You should be encabronado. I'll see what I can find
out." The two had become friends of a sort over the decades, but
their relationship remained fundamentally businesslike. That was the
way both of them liked it.
Two weeks went by. The legal problems piled up. Then Contreras got a
call from Malvaez telling him that he didn't want to talk over the
phone, and they should meet at the rotating restaurant on top of the
Mexico Center building the following evening. So here he was,
ordering martinis and waiting for the Coronel to show up.
By the time Malvaez showed, looking almost the same as he had when
they first met sixteen years ago, the view from the bar showed the
wealthy suburbs of Chapultapec Hills and Huixquilucan, with the lights
of offices and condos of even more distant Santa Fé a vague glowing
blur through the smog. Colonel Malvaez was tall, lean, and impeccably
dressed. He looked almost Italian. It was a Hispano sense of style
that was ever more rare. He sidled up to Contreras at the bar.
"Vodka. Straight," he said to the bartender. "Hello, Bob."
"Hey, Frank. Why the cloak and dagger routine?"
"No cloak and dagger routine. I just wanted to tell you this in
person." His vodka arrived, Malvaez took a huge gulp. "You're on
"Cómo?" asked Contreras.
"You're on your own. No one in the Administration will help you.
They're not _after_ you, but they won't help you." He took another
swig of his vodka.
"Why not?" asked Contreras.
"No one in the _Administration_ is after you," replied Malvaez.
"Someone in the _War Department_ is after you."
"The War Department?" Contreras felt a sinking sensation in the pit
of his stomach.
"Yeah. Look, I talked to the federal chief prosecutor. He pulled out
a three-inch thick file on you," Malvaez gestured with his thumb and
forefinger to show just how thick it was, "and poosed it down on the
desk."  Malvaez's palm struck the counter for emphasis. "He then
said that some people in the War Department considered you an 'enemy
of the system' and that you should get out of the oil business and go
retire to Cuba, or some such."
"Are you serious?" Contreras was shocked.
Malvaez took a third swig of vodka and motioned for the bartender to
bring another glass, although his first wasn't quite finished. "I
exaggerate for dramatic effect, but that was the gist of it. The
point is that the chief prosecutor told me that the War Department had
a hard-on for you. He then told me that the word had come down from
the Castle not to waste time or political capital in trying to defend
you from the people at War." 
"I'm on my own against _Mercator_?"
Malvaez polished off his first vodka just as the second arrived. "Not
completely. The prosecutor did tell me that they would protect you
against anything blatantly illegal. I got the impression, in fact,
that he was hoping the War Department would try to make you disappear
or break your legs or some such, give them some leverage to use
against the boys in beige. But I also got the impression that as long
as Mercator's people were staying within the letter of the law they
wouldn't do a damn thing to help you."
"Why not, though. I mean, why?" Contreras was being less than
eloquent, but Malvaez understood what he was trying to say. Malvaez
motioned for a third vodka, for Contreras.
"Have a drink. You really don't get it, do you?" Contreras shook his
head. "C'mon, Bob, you can't be that naïve! You know what's going
on, don't you?"
Contreras shrugged. "Well, I know that Moctezuma's been fairly
aggressive, but he hasn't done anything that he didn't say he would
during the campaign, and I figured ..."
Malvaez cut him off. "That if Mercator didn't want it to happen he
wouldn't let it. You thought wrong, Bob. Moctezuma has been heading
off on his own practically since the day Mercator gave him the dedazo.
He suckered you and a bunch of other businessmen who thought they
were more sophisticated than they were to give a him financial
independence from the Progressive Party machine. Now Mercator is
trying to undercut that independence, and he's picked you as an
"Why me in particular?" Malvaez just raised an eyebrow. Contreras
got it. "Right. The Chamber presidency, the privatization speeches.
I'm public. I'm naïve, but not stupid."
Malvaez shrugged. "You’re not even really naïve. Or you were,
but in a strange sort of way: You failed to realize that the
Constitution _does_ mean something. Enough to give Moctezuma power
against Mercator, but not enough to protect you against the
Contreras thought to himself. "Are you sure about that?"
"Oh, Jesus, Bob, are you going to fight this? Go to Cuba. Keep your
money and your mistress."
"Why?" Contreras gulped his vodka. "You said I'm protected against a
hit squad or anything like that. I can afford good lawyers. Why not
fight it? I'm not just going to roll over and die, Frank."
"No, no you wouldn't, would you." Frank thought for a second. "Okay,
listen to me. I won't argue with you, I know you too well. But be
careful. If you want to fight this in the courts, go ahead, but be
aware that most of the Administration is going to be passive. The
Customs Service and big chunks of the parallel bureaucracy are going
to come after you. And while the courts are _mostly_ neutral, the
lawyers are not, and mostly does not mean all. So be careful about
your venue. I'd suggest California or Chiapas, maybe Guadalajara.
NOT the Capital District, and preferably not Jefferson, Santander, or
México Central. And be _very_ careful about who runs your defense:
no lawyer wants to be blacklisted by the War Department. Avoid our
pet firm like the plague."
Strangely, Contreras was beginning to feel relieved. Malvaez's advice
registered, but his first response was a non sequitur: "Thank you,
Frank. Thanks. I mean that."
"For putting my mind at ease."
Malvaez looked confused. "How did I do that?"
Contreras laughed. "I now know I'm not paranoid. Well, I am, but
someone really is out to get me." He laughed again. "Now all I need
is a lawyer I can trust."
 Roughly the location of Colonia Escandón in OTL's Mexico City.
[1a] Robert has four children to three different women that he knows
about. Bobby Jr. was born in 1944 to Robert's first wife. That
marriage didn't survive Robert's wartime service. They divorced
formally in 1951, but had barely seen each other in years. Robert
remarried in 1956, and had two children, born in 1957 and 1959. (Like
many Mexican marriages during the 1950s, the bride had a significant
but temporary "weight problem" at the wedding.) In the late 1960s
Robert spent some time travelling to Manitoba, building an export
market for his machine tools. There he met his third wife, Marie
Stapleton. They eloped in 1969, and married in 1970, when his
youngest daughter was born. Robert retains joint custody of both
children from his second marriage.
 Cross-timeline purchasing power parity calculations are difficult
and fraught with peril, but call it around US$75,000, roughly the
annual salary of a mid-ranking customs official.
 The salutary work of the 69th Congress consists of the Tax Reform
Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Electoral Tribunal Amendment. The
less salutary work consists of the Tariff Revision Act, which is about
to destroy the economies of Cuba, Guatemala, and New Granada. Hey,
the USM has three states which produce coffee, two which produce
sugar, one which produces cut flowers, four which produce oil, and,
well, ten which are major mineral producers. (Poor little Yucatán
being the odd man out. It makes sisal, but in the FANTL Philippine
manila fiber was never allowed into the Mexican market to compete and
the industry is doing fine.) That's a lotta Senate votes, and no
small number of Assembly districts. Add in the remains of the Chiapan
textile industry, under threat from cheap Guatemalan labor, and you
have a political no-brainer. Mercator is highly displeased, seeing
Moctezuma throw away Mexico's carefully created geopolitical influence
in the nation's former colonies for domestic political advantage.
 Not a typo.
 "Poosed" is another ATL Mexicanism. Think of it as meaning "to
place down forcefully." The OTL "plonked" probably captures the idea.
 "The Castle" refers to Chapultepec Castle, the President's