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The world's leading Mystery magazine

Black Mask

El Aleman
by Hector Acosta

I wait for my food while Francisco tells me of El Aleman.

“They found him about a month and a half ago,” Francisco says, shifting on the stool he’s sitting on. “Chingado, Diego, you couldn’t have picked a better spot?”

We’re sitting at the counter of a small taquería near one of the many entrances of Central de Abasto, one of, if not the largest indoor market in the world. The market is so large it almost resembles a small city in many ways, and even has its own independent police force, led by no other than the man sitting next to me grousing about the stools.

“He’s still alive?” I ask, picking up a tortilla chip and dipping it into the complimentary bowl of salsa. The chips are store bought, but the salsa is good, with a nice hint of garlic that lingers on my tongue afterwards.

“He is,” Francisco says, reaching for a chip. “They got him over in Mexico City, hooked up to a bunch of machines and waiting to see if he wakes up.”

El Aleman. He was big news for a while, as you’d imagine the discovery of a medio muerto gringo found in the outskirts of Mexico City would be. Especially when the guy turned out to be some sort of minor celebrity, something about him having a big following online thanks to all the videos he posted of places he visited. Far as I knew, they hadn’t found the person or persons responsible for the beating. Which, I assumed, was why Francisco had invited me out for breakfast.

“Here, look at this,” Francisco says, sliding me his phone. The screen features a young, good-looking blond guy staring directly at the camera. He has blue eyes and just the slightest hint of fuzz around his face, and superimposed above his head are the words EL ALEMAN. “His mother says this is the last video he sent her. Based on the date, it’s three days before he was found.”

“We’re here in Central de Abasto,” El Aleman speaks into the camera, not a trace of a German accent on him. “Supposedly the biggest market in the world. Let me tell you, even though I’m barely at the entrance of it, I believe it.” He pans the camera around, stopping at a small butcher shop with long ropes of chorizo hanging above the counter.

It’s strange to see hallways and people I pass every day on the screen. Friends and vendors are made into nothing more than scenery as El Aleman continues with his lesson. “This market has been around since Aztec times, and rumor is that Cortez himself witnessed a human sacrifice somewhere here,” El Aleman goes on, mixing facts, things he likely read on Wikipedia, and stuff he’s making up on the fly. “The other thing Central de Abasto is known for are the diableros. You see them all over the place.” El Aleman’s camera moves to show a man running through the hall, dragging a dolly stacked with crates behind him. “They bring merchandise from one end of the market to the other, and it’s said to be the hardest job here. This is why I’m here. And this is why you all follow me. I could have come here to do a quick video on the market, just the same mierda others post, but that’s not why you come to El Aleman, right? I bring you the Mexico no one else can. Cut through all the touristy stuff and show how the real people live.” He stops and pans the camera up, so that the screen is filled with the entrance to a warehouse I recognize. “And work.”

The video ends abruptly, just as our breakfast plates are placed in front of us. Francisco ordered the huevos with chorizo, his plate featuring a mountain of reddish scrambled eggs with two folded flour tortillas on the side. I went with los chilaquiles this place is famous for. The sunny-side egg sitting atop the bed of soggy, fried tortilla chips calls to me.

“His mom sent me the video. She’s positive he came back to Abasto like he said he would, and someone here did it.”

“How did she find you?”

He shrugged, grabbing the bottle of catsup and tipping it over his plate until a layer the bright red stuff was over his eggs. “She has money,” he says, as if those three words explained it all. And in a sense it does.

My fork splits the eggs easily, flooding the chips with bright, yellow yolk. The mixture of the tortilla chips, green salsa, and yolk is as good as I imagined it was going to be, and for a moment it’s hard to focus on anything but the taste. “I guess she must if she came all the way from Germany.”

Francisco laughs. “Ni siquiera. They’re from Los Estados Unidos. Somewhere called Long Island. That guy,” he points to El Aleman’s face on his phone screen, “his real name is Lucas. His mom says he started going by El Aleman ’cause that’s what everyone in the Mexican neighborhood he was staying at called him.”

“What’s she like?”

Ripping a tortilla in half, Francisco shrugs. “I’ve only spoken with her over the phone a couple of times, but my impression is that she’s putting all her attention on this”—he motions to the phone again—“to have something to do and not think about whether her son will make it or not.”

“And you? You think there’s something to her theory?”

Francisco is quiet for a second. “The guy had five broken ribs, his face beaten almost to the point where his own mother couldn’t recognize him, and he was missing a finger.”


Francisco holds up his hand and draws in four of his fingers. “That last bit isn’t publicized. His mom told me, and I confirmed it with the hospital.”

I consider this. “For someone to have done that to the kid tells me he was involved in something really bad.”

“Bad enough I should know about it if it happened here.”

“Then why talk to me? Why not use your people?” I ask.

Sighing, Francisco places a couple of bills on the counter, enough to pay for both of us. “Because, Diego, I don’t have enough people or time to look into this. Besides,” he taps the phone screen and tucks it back in his pocket, “you saw where he ended up. They’re not going to talk to me.”

Pilfering one of his tortillas, I use it to soak up the remaining yolk and salsa on my plate. Francisco has already left his stool and is stretching with a groan. I glance at him, finding myself wishing I didn’t owe the man as many favors as I do.

“Keep me updated, yeah?” Francisco says, nodding to the girl who comes to collect our plates as he puts a couple of bills on the counter.

“¿Algo más?” she asks me.

Shaking my head, I rise from my own stool and set out in the direction of the diablero warehouse.

*   *   *

The shouts from the diableros bounce off the walls, filling in the space between the stacks of crates taking up most of the warehouse’s floor. There’s a steady stream of diableros coming and going with their dollies, ready to load and unload their product. It’s the dollies, or more specifically, their horn-shaped handles, that give the men who keep Central de Abasto running their moniker. I step aside just as a diablero speeds past me, the dolly he drags loaded with boxes of lush, red tomatoes.

I move farther into the warehouse, nodding to a few people I know until I’m at the open cargo bay, where trucks wait to be filled with the produce they’ll transport all across the country. It’s there I find Abelino.

He’s short, even for a Mexican, his small frame densely packed with muscle which he shows off via a tight, flashy shirt and jeans. He stands atop a crate and directs the surge of diableros around him. “¡Muévense!” he shouts, pointing to a trailer. “That one needs to be out in ten minutes.” In the same breath, he redirects a diablero who was going in the wrong direction and tells another the trailer they’re waiting for is running late.

Beside him stands another man I don’t recognize holding a clipboard. Even with Abelino standing on a crate, the man is still taller, mostly on account of his pompadour. The haircut almost casts its own shadow, styled so each black, greased strand seems to have been fixed in place by design. The sides of his head are shaved, giving the pompadour more impact, black flames exploding out of the man’s scalp. Every so often, Abelino turns to him and tells him something, which the guy then writes on his clipboard.

“¿Qué tal, Abelino?” I ask when I reach him.

Spitting out the pink gum he’d been chewing, he looks in my direction and says, “Igual que siempre. I have two trucks that should have been loaded an hour ago, one that brought me rotting limones, and a bunch of diableros who won’t listen to me.”

Abelino is the warehouse’s supervisor, a job he’s held for over ten years. Without him, the market would go into chaos within hours. I’ve known him since we were both kids, he the son of a vendor who brought him here to help on the busy days and me a dumb-ass chamaco who ran away from my middle-class family in Mexico City because I didn’t like the man my mom remarried.

“I need to ask you a couple of questions.”

His eyes narrow. “Did Francisco send you? He’s been on my ass for the last month, and you can tell him I’m tired of it.”

I raise my hand up in an attempt to interrupt him. “Cálmate,” I say, “I’m here on a job.”

“You’re always on a job,” he mutters, popping another chiclet into his mouth. Checking his watch, he turns to Pompadour and tells him, “There’s a big load coming in at eleven. Make sure we got at least three guys ready for it.” To me he says, “Come on, let’s talk in my office.”

His office is by the very back of the warehouse, a room with one window, a couple of file cabinets, and a desk and two chairs. Paperwork is piled high on the desk and, like some fungus, has spread to the top of the cabinets and even to one of the chairs. I sit on the empty chair, my feet pushing away some loose leaves of paper from one side of the room to the other.

“Busy, huh?

Abelino sits behind his desk and grunts. “The loads are coming in nonstop, and you know how those pinche vendors can be. You’re one minute late or missing one apple from a crate and they throw a fit.” Shaking his head, he unwraps another chiclet and pops it into his mouth. “I’m so desperate for diableros I’d probably hire even you.” He looks me up and down. Would do you good, you could even lose some weight out of it.”

A jab I ignore. Not the first time someone has gone for the easy joke, and it won’t be the last time either. If a couple of fat jokes means I get to eat what I like, it’s a good trade-off.

“Who’s the guy with the hair?” I ask.

“Humberto. Found out the guy can actually write and do math, which is more than ninety-nine percent of the people here, so he’s helping me out. Fuck, don’t tell me you’re here because of something he did.”

I shake my head. “I’m here because of El Aleman.”

He frowns. “¿Quién?”

I pass him my phone and he watches the video in silence, Lucas’s voice filling the room. At the end of the video, Abelino unpeels another chiclet but doesn’t immediately pop it into his mouth. “Shit, you’re telling me ese gringo is the same one they found a few weeks ago?”

I nod.

“Never even put it together, not that I’ve been keeping track of the whole thing. I mean, it happened in Mexico City, right?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out. So you do remember him?”

He tosses the chiclets between hands. “Yeah, and he was wrong, you know.”


“The whole ‘showing you the Mexico no one ever does!’” Abelino says in a high-pitched, mocking tone. “You know how many people we get telling us they want to shoot something for the Internet or write an article about what it’s like to be a diablero for a day?”

“You let them work?”

“If they want to and are willing to pay me for that privilege, who am I to say no to them?”

“You should start a business—‘Abelino’s Authentic Diablero Experience.’”

Abelino grins. “That’s not a bad idea, Diego.”

“Who did you assign El Aleman to?”

Leaning into his chair, he studies me for a second. “Are you that hard up for money, Mechas?” he asks, using an old nickname I haven’t heard since childhood. “What do you think is going to happen if you do find something? I can tell you—nada bueno.”

I thought about that too. I tell Abelino what I ended up telling myself to continue forward with this thing. “The mom is ready to call the news, the U.S embassy, and anyone else who will listen about how her innocent son was swallowed up by this lawless market. If that happens, that gets Francisco involved, or worse, los federales. You think that’s going to make things easier for you, or anyone else here? You know me, Abelino. I’m not going to do something that makes things worse for Abasto.”

He’s silent again, popping the third chiclet into his mouth. After some loud chewing he says, “Pretty sure I assigned him to Nacho.”

I search my memories. “He’s an old-timer, right?”

“Yeah, some say he’s been here from the start. Good guy, but I’ll warn you now, loves to talk.”

“I’ve dealt with worse. Any particular reason you assigned El Aleman to him?”

“Yeah, cause Nacho takes them without bitching at me. Most of them out there hate the people with cameras. They slow them down and always want to stop and film something that catches their eyes. But Nacho loves that type of thing. Plus, he has one of the easiest routes. The vendors all know him and don’t really care if he’s a little late with their orders.”

I nod. “Thanks, Abelino.”

Already he’s replacing the gum wad he’s been chewing with new pieces. “Just don’t make trouble for us, okay, Mechas?”

*   *   *

I visit four different vendors before catching up to Nacho.

I find him in front of a stall that’s selling vegetables, using a long, coarse rope to tie a crate to his dolly, the muscles in his toned, skinny arms bulging as he fixes the crate into place. His thinning white hair is kept neatly combed to the side, reminding me of the way my mother used to part mine for picture day when I was young. Like most diableros, he’s wearing a long black apron over his jeans and shirt, and once done with the crate, he stuffs what’s left of the rope into one of the apron’s pockets, producing a small notepad and pencil from another pocket and writing something down.

“¡Claro que me acuerdo!” he tells me when I ask him if he remembers El Aleman. “He spent a day with me a couple of weeks ago,” he says, putting the notepad back in his pocket.

“What did you think of him?”

Shrugging, Nacho adjusts the straps on the gloves he wears and picks up the diablito. “I guess he was okay,” he says, his eyes looking straight ahead as he pulls the cart through the market’s crowd. Most people know to step aside for him, but if they don’t, his sharp whistle alerts them to get out of the way. “Not much different from all the others,” he says, shouting to a couple taking a selfie to move out of the way.

“Abelino told me he gets at least one of them a week.”

“He only gets the ones who go to the warehouse. But you see them all the time out in the hallways, especially on the weekend. He motions with his head to the left. “Cómo esa.”

I glance to where he’s looking and spot the girl in the shorts with the selfie stick. She seems completely ignorant to the ojo malos people throw her way as she barrels through the crowd, waving her hands as if she were a poli directing traffic in Mexico City.

“I bet you she’s going to stop some diablero mid route and bug him to answer some questions or pose for her,” Nacho says as we take a left and enter a bodega. The place is bigger than most stores we’ve visited and packed with fruits and vegetables. The left wall is completely covered with rows of watermelons, and I stay as far away from it as possible, a vision of one wrong move sending the whole thing tumbling down quickly playing in my head. Propping the diablito up, Nacho wipes the sweat off his forehead with his hand and leans back until his back cracks. “¿Por qué todas las preguntas?” he asks.

I give him a condensed version of what I told Abelino.

“Shit, that was him, huh?” Nacho asks with a shake of his head. “He didn’t deserve that.” Glancing to the back of the bodega where a man sits behind the counter reading a newspaper, Nacho shouts, “¡Oye, Tavo, ya llegué!”

“Te veo, te veo,” the man mutters, closing the newspaper with a long, drawn-out sigh. Stepping out from behind the counter, he moves with a slight limp, favoring his left leg.

“Diego, this is Gustavo,” Nacho says by way of introduction. “You remember that gringo who was with me a month or so ago? Turns out he’s the same one they found over in El D.F.,” Nacho tells him, his voice brimming with the glee of someone who’s discovered he’s now tangentially related to something sordid.

We shake hands, Gustavo looking me up and down and assessing me in a way I’m familiar with. Most people don’t think much of me upon first glance. Might be my beard, which, unlike Gustavo’s, probably needs a bit of trimming, my shirt, which I know has at least one stain, or the forty pounds or so I probably should lose.

“And what, you think someone from here had something to do with the beating?” Gustavo asks, walking over to Nacho and helping him unload his diablito.

I shrug, though the motion is lost to both men, who are more focused on getting the cart unloaded. “Just covering all the bases. This was one of the last places he seemed to have visited.”

Gustavo grunts, and I can’t tell if it’s a reaction to my words or to him lifting the last crate out of the cart and setting it on the floor. “If the guy acted the same elsewhere as he did here, he deserved what he got.”

“What did he do?” I ask.

“Be a pain in the ass, that’s what he did. Waving around that phone of his and pointing it at every customer, like they were part of some zoo. And his questions! Asking people if they were worried about the cartel, if they had family members who were caught in border violence.” Gustavo’s face became redder as he talked about El Aleman, until Nacho stepped forward and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder.

“I don’t think he meant anything by those questions,” Nacho says. “He just had this idea of what Mexico was like and was determined to get that on his stupid phone.”

“You should talk to Enrique,” Gustavo says suddenly and turns to Nacho. “Didn’t you tell me that guy was ready to get in a fight with him?”

Nacho nods.

“Enrique?” I ask.

“He runs an electronics store on the south side of the market,” Nacho tells me.

“And why did he get so mad at El Aleman?”

Nacho shrugs. “I don’t know. Enrique came to me during my lunch on the day El Aleman was here and asked me if he was mine.” He snorts at this. “Like I’m his babysitter or something.”

I don’t interrupt and tell him that according to Abelino, that’s exactly what he’s supposed to be.

“He didn’t tell me why he was so worked up,” Nacho continues, “but did say that if El Aleman ever tried to go near his store, he would beat the shit out of him.”

*   *   *

Enrique’s store is a tribute to the obsolete.

It’s located on the north side of the market, close to one of the entrance gates. It’s prime real estate, with waves of people going past it on their way in and out of the market. A myriad of old electronics, videogames, cell phones, and other chucherías lay spread on a couple of tables outside of the small, cluttered store. Most of them were in bad shape, with missing buttons, cracked screens, or missing cords.

I look through the contents of the table and wait for Enrique to finish up with a customer.

“¿Comó que veinte, carnal?” Enrique asks, standing behind a glass counter. He looks to be in his thirties or forties, with thick black glasses, pencil-thin moustache, and a bald head that shines under the fluorescent lights of the store. Picking up the camcorder the customer brought to the counter, he turns it around in his hands and says, “I can’t let it go for less than forty.”

“Twenty-five,” the customer, an older man who keeps scratching his right arm, says. “Come on, Enrique, the thing probably doesn’t even work.”

“It’s a Sony! Those last a lifetime. Plus look, see,” Enrique pops open the cassette slot. “I’m even throwing in a free cassette with it. Thirty-five.”

The back and forth is familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in Abasto. No price is ever truly set in stone, with both the customers and vendors knowing that if someone isn’t happy with the price, they can usually walk a couple stalls over and find someone else selling the exact same product and try their haggling with them.

At the end, the two men agree on thirty-five, but only if Enrique throws in an old VHS copy of a Cantiflas movie.

“All those work, by the way. And if you need a SIM card I got them for cheap too, and phone cards as well,” Enrique tells me after he’s done ringing up the camcorder.

Picking up a flip phone that doesn’t appear capable of flipping open, I’m dubious about his claim. Looking around the table littered with cell phones, I wonder how many conversations they transmitted, how many events they captured in their cracked lenses. Setting the phone down next to a more modern-looking one with a faded sticker of a green gummy bear mounting a red gummy bear, I walk into Enrique’s store.

The inside of Enrique’s is a lot more organized than the tables I’d been perusing. One of the store’s walls is dedicated to MP3 players, CD players, and the like. A small shelf by the back has a bunch of DVDs, another one VHS tapes. To my right there are multiple video-game consoles lining the shelf, and walking past them I flash back to my childhood, sitting cross-legged in my room and trying to rescue a princess.

“¿Cómo le puedo ayudar?” Enrique asks.

“My name is Diego Reyes,” I say. “I wanted to ask you some questions about someone who was in your store awhile back.”

Behind his glasses Enrique’s eyes narrowed. “You’re Francisco’s compinche, aren’t you?”

Not the first time that accusation has been thrown at me. Shaking my head, I say, “I don’t work for Francisco.”

Turning his back to me, Enrique walks over to a counter by the back of the store and grabs something. When he turns around, he’s holding a gun in his left hand, and for a moment I freeze. Then I realize the gun is one of those airsoft ones that are popular with kids. “That’s not what I heard,” Enrique says, setting the gun down on the counter along with a small toolbox.

“I’m trying to find out what happened to this guy,” I say and pull out my phone, showing him a picture of El Aleman. “I was told you and he had some kind of fight.”

Enrique doesn’t even glance at the picture, his attention on the gun as he reaches into the toolbox and takes out a screwdriver. “He’s the gringo everyone is talking about, right? The one they found dead over in El D.F?”

“He’s still alive,” I correct him. “And how did you know it was the same guy?”

He looks up. “Word is out you’re asking questions about him. Figured it wasn’t long before you came looking for me.”

Should have figured. Gossip spreads through Abasto quicker than any cold.

“Nacho told me you came to him and said if you ever saw El Aleman again you would beat the shit out of him.”



“I told Nacho that if I ever saw ese puto again, I’d take one of these,” he points to the gun he’s working on, “and stick it up his culo and pull the trigger until my finger fell off.”

“You can understand why that would make me want to ask you some questions, then.”

Using the screwdriver to loosen the screws on the pistol, he opens it up and carefully puts the top part of it aside. “I didn’t kill him. Or hurt him, or whatever. The guy pissed me off, yeah, but that’s it.”

“What did he do that had you threatening to make him a new hole?”

Sighing, Enrique looks up. “You’re just going to keep bothering me until I tell you aren’t you?”

“Better me than Francisco,” I say with a smile.

Staring at me, he pushes up his glasses. “Me trato de robar.”

I blink. “He tried to rob you?”

“He came around lunchtime. I noticed him right away, first because there weren’t any other customers around, and also because I’d been hoping to close and get something to eat. He spends a long time looking around the store, and every time I ask him if he’s looking for something or needs help he just shakes his head. I give up on him and am about to ask him to leave so I can close when an actual customer walks in to buy a Nintendo for her son. I spend the next few minutes helping that one out, and I’m ringing her up when I happen to glance up and see your guy over by those tables.” He stops and points to the tables outside, the same ones I’d been looking through just a few minutes ago.

“I’ve done this long enough to know when someone’s about to try to shoplift, and that guy had all the signs. Hands in pockets, he kept looking around and was glued to one spot. So I keep my eye on him, and just when I’m handing the customer her new console, sure enough, I see him slipping a phone into his pocket.”

“He stole a phone?”

Enrique snorts. “Tried to. But I caught him con las manos en la masa.”

“What did you do?” I ask, trying to imagine the scenario being laid out to me by Enrique.

“¿Qué crees qúe hice?” Enriques asks. “I went over to him and demanded he give me back the phone and get the hell out before I called la poli on him. Of course, he’s all apologies and Sorry, mister, sorry,” Enrique tells me, putting on an American accent for me. “Even offered to pay for the phone.”

“And you took his money?”

Enrique looks at me like I’m new to this world. “¡Claro!” he says. “Money is money. But I made sure to charge him four times as much as the phone cost.”

I’m trying to figure out why El Aleman would have bought a second phone and ask, “Do you remember the type of phone he bought?”

Enrique points to my phone. “An older model of that one. I asked him if he wanted a charger to go with it and he said no.”

“Anything else?”

Glancing up from the gun he has dismantled, Enrique pushes his glasses back up to his face and says, “Maybe. But all your questions are making it hard for me to concentrate on my work here.” Motioning to the gun, he adds, “And that costs me money in the end.”

Far as pitches for bribes go, it’s a bit clumsy, especially his last line, but I get it. Enrique wants a mordida. Reaching into my front pocket where I keep my wallet, I put a couple of bills on the counter, which I hope Francisco will reimburse me for.

“You’re not the first to come ask about him. Day after the whole thing with the cell phone, someone else came and was asking if he’d been here.”

A small jolt runs through me. “Who?”

Enrique glances back down to the bills I put on the counter and stays quiet. Catching on, I sigh and add a couple more.

Snatching them all up, he says, “I don’t know, but I can tell you one thing about him.”


“Guy had this really dumb pompadour.”

*   *   *

The Oaxaca cheese in my birria tacos is starting to congeal, a result of my ignoring the plate in front of me as I watch El Aleman’s video for what feels like the hundredth time.

After leaving Enrique, I decided to get some lunch and settled on Tacos Utopía, a small taquería on the south end of the market, tucked between a bodega that sold cloth at wholesale prices and a farmacia. The taquería was a popular place for diableros to go, thanks to their prices and sizable portions, and they claimed to have the best birria tacos in the market.

Pausing the video on my phone, I pick up one of the golden, pan-fried tacos from my plate and dunk half of it into the cup of consomé it came with. Even cold, the taco is indeed as good as I’d heard, the flavors of the tender, braised goat meat mingling alongside the cheese, cilantro, and hint of lime, sheltered by the crispiness of the tortilla. Wiping away the broth dribbling down my chin. I glance back down to the image of El Aleman on my phone again.

He’s grinning as he points the camera to himself, looking like the eighteen-year-old he is. I think back to the questions Gustavo said El Aleman asked his customers, about the cartel and living with violence, clearly trying to solder a narrative to the image he already had of Mexico. Annoying and racist, yes, but enough for him to lose a finger for it? No estaba seguro.

Playing with the progress bar on the video, I move the videos forward and backward seconds at a time, just as I try to move forward and backward in El Aleman’s time in Abasto. He arrived here a day after filming this video, as confirmed both by the date stamp on the video itself and what Abelino told me that morning. He’s following Nacho around by eleven, and they are together till at least six, as that’s when Nacho’s shift ends. Somewhere during that time, he has an argument with Enrique and buys a second phone. He goes missing on Sunday, and Humberto stops by Enrique’s to ask about him. On Tuesday, his body is found miles from Abasto.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024 El Aleman by Hector Acosta

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