When San Diego newsman Ray Myers stumbles upon massacred migrants in the Ocotillo desert, he discovers babies had been with the group. Babies nowhere around.
The reporter has a front page story, a rare exclusive. But that’s not enough for Myers. Compelled by haunts of his long ago wartime past to right a wrong, he embarks on leads that propel him into the ruthless underworld of human trafficking, where his only source to the infants and his sole ticket to live may come from the compassion of one of the smuggler.
It’s with an ensemble of sometimes savage, often humorous and romantic characters that nuance crime, true love and mayhem as Myers treks, wounded, through Ensenada’s seamy streets and into the mountainous hinterland where an ancient Indian tribe saves his life and helps in his search.
Here are a couple of chapters featuring two oddly alike characters (hint: both outside the law and both desperate), Maggie Frazier and Madelene Schaefer, to acquaint you with the flavor of character in the story.
Maggie stood before the dresser mirror turning her lips dark with a shade of smear called Night Redemption. Her hand trembled applying it. Over her shoulder a reddish hue off Ensenada's lights ignited the edges of black sky, burning hellishly through the hotel room's French doors. The night was balmy and warm-blooded and she felt it calling her, like Dracula.
She smoothed mascara into the hollow below her eyes. She paused and took a moment to imagine the desperate people who had occupied this room before her, women gazing at the same glow through these flung-open doors. She imagined some 1930s gangster's moll making herself up before stepping outside into a hail of bullets. It was a room with a barrelful of dark stories, hard-luck people running for their lives from a world that didn't understand them and didn't care.
Not me, she thought.
She had to act; she couldn't sit by any longer and do nothing. But she felt sinful making herself over for the malice that lured her out into the vibrant city night.
A teary blur caused her to miss her eyelid and rake mascara instead up onto her eyebrow. She flustered. She dabbed her eyes with a fold of toilet paper, blinked several times to clear her vision, then quickly went on to finish the face.
She dressed in a sweet-girl-white Mexican blouse that fell just over the beltline of her tight rhinestone jeans. She put on heels to make herself taller than the men she knew would come on to her soon as she stepped into Hussong's Cantina. She wanted them to make their play; her power worked off the desires of men.
She screwed the lipstick shut and slipped the cylinder into her pants pocket, then strapped the fanny pack she'd bought around her waist. The .38 snub nose fit snug inside it. She slid the pouch around to her backside. Its weight tugged at the thin strap against her stomach but she'd get used to it soon enough. She then slipped on a colorful red-and-white serape that hung low in the front and back.
Standing tall now before the mirror, Maggie took a stance, her feet apart, planted. She showed the mirror a hard face.
"Don't beg, you sorry piece of … " she said through contorting lips. She practiced with the gun, drawing and aiming it at an imaginary figure in front of her then returning the weapon to the rawhide fanny pack.
She practiced until she could get it out without the barrel tip snagging on the satchel's zippered corner. Confidence to pull the trigger was a different matter, but all she had to do was remind herself that he was the coward who ordered her murdered, that he cared no more about those babies than he would dolls on a store shelf, just how much he could get for them.
"Say your prayers, you are fucking dead, Mr. Swabb."
She meant it.
She stuffed a few twenties into her pocket along with a length of folded toilet tissue. She positioned her purse behind the mirror and knee-shoved the dresser against the wall to trap it there. She wasn't worried if she couldn't get back to the room; the bulk of the money, more than seventy thousand of it, was safe in a Pai Pai bank called Margarita's Hospicio Trust. She shut the French doors, turned off the overhead fan and lights and locked the door behind her.
The desk clerk snapped to when he saw her. Lust rose in his eyes as if he was seeing a tender concubine of the Great One, all primed and ready for the taking. But she wasn't giving; she stared him down with the silent message that she was off limits, and so was her room.
On the street she breathed in the city, ready for it. She felt strong, even anxious.
She walked in the direction of Hussong's on now familiar back streets, north on Gastelum, passing El Dorado, turning east on Ruiz. Journeying alone through these dark passages, provocatively dressed, only enhanced her sense of self. She now felt close to the city, as though she belonged to it. She didn't need Bubba at her side.
Across the next street was Hussong's with it's faded neon.
She held the serape together stepping between federale guards, two stone-faced gargoyles brandishing retrograded U.S. Army M-16s, their weapons at the ready. She noted their eyes feeding on her as she entered the hall.
The place was smoky and clammy and loud. A sullen Mariachi group corkscrewed around tables, swaying their bulky instruments dangerously close to the heads of patron, playing to a crowd that couldn't hear them over itself. Most of the customers were locals and most of those were the Don Juans. Maggie could easily tell the pretty boys by their embroidered, dark polyester attire and imitation crocodile boots with elevated soles. They wore shirts opened to the navel, just above big medallion belt buckles that matched the medallions hanging around their necks. Dozens of ten-gallon Stetsons bobbed around the room like thimbles on an agitated sea. Maggie thought of bantam roosters, the way they strutted.
There was no delay in her getting noticed, a drag on her cigarette, the look in her eye. She tossed her hair and struck a curvy pose, then stepped down into the din. Her audience had formed as fast as that drag on the cigarette and a way was cut for her, like waters parting. She walked the short gauntlet to the L bar expecting some groping or maybe even being tossed in the air and moved along like a rock idol. For a moment the place stood eerily quiet, even the music died, but only until she threw back the first proffered tequila shooter, followed daringly by another.
The four instruments broke into a blustery vaquero rendition of Herb Alpert horns. A sound impossible to produce on a guitarrón, sour notes gone unnoticed in here.
She would have seen Ray because of his height, and maybe Bubba, but not Swabb, who was about the size of most of these bantams. It was him, Swabb, she wanted and nobody else.
Maggie didn't see any other Americans.
"Another," she called.
The husky one who bought her the shooters nestled up to her and drew a trick smile out of his Stetson meant to tell her he knew exactly how to handle a woman like her. His parting lips revealed a tiny diamond in the middle of a front tooth. Charming, Maggie thought, and then wondered if she had said it.
When he spoke all potential evaporated, like the bitter tequila shooters she threw back.
"My beautiful lady." He had the Omar Sharif accent. "I see you once again. You have no man? It is all right because now Juan Castillo is here, eh?"
His roaming eyes were opaque. He seemed to float before her.
"Don Juan?" she heard herself say in a giggly voice. "Thanks for the drink, José, now beat it."
Undaunted, the Mexican moved closer as though she'd said, Come get me. He showed her the big Chiclets leer, eyes rendering the deepest yearning for her. He said in a devilish singsong, "You dance for me, my lady, huh? My wild American woman."
A sea of men now surrounded her. A fast and odd sensation had drifted over Maggie, over her eyes and senses, like fog off water. Racking sounds from a trumpet bellowed out some melody that imbued her with musical wine. She was, she now thought, she was the wild American woman.
Diamond Tooth raked Corona bottles off a table with one sweep of his hand, then in dramatic fashion offered the platform to Maggie.
"Dance, Wild One! Show me how you do it—for me, my lovely. For all!"
She stepped out of her heels and out of herself. Her clouded eyes followed his lead to the tabletop and there she saw him, Count Dracula, extending a hand to take her.
Madelene felt the pain as she stretched to hang the baby's mobile. Quick and sharp, low stomach. She thought she'd had similar pain yesterday morning, a touch of nausea afterwards. She thought she might get nauseous again now but scoffed at herself and went on about the job. The idea of having morning sickness was preposterous, for Madelene Schaefer could not bear children. How strange the power of the mind, she thought.
She had already drilled the 3/8th-inch hole in the ceiling after rolling the baby's bed aside to avoid falling dust, and now she inserted a toggle bolt with a florid gold hook, twisted and twisted until both arms burned and it was tightened down. Then she hung the mobile. Once hung she separated the strings then blew the strings of pyrite seagulls to assess—and approve—its delicate motions and soft sounds.
Madelene heard the vacuum cleaner as it swept from a distant bedroom into the hallway. She called out, "Villi, come here, please."
Mrs. Ruvalcaba heard the summons all right; it was loud and clear. But the housekeeper was in no mood this morning for the mistress' little whims. She grinned wickedly and continued with her vacuuming. She would work her way down there soon enough. It had taken forever to get through the border this morning, which meant she would be two or three hours late getting home tonight and would miss the episode of "Al Diablo con Los Guapos."
She sashayed down the long hallway with the apparatus churning a path in a carpet thick enough to sleep on, refusing to answer a second summon. When finally she got to the master bedroom, she switched off the growling motor and grinned at the lily-white woman she deemed too thin to be healthy. Her boss stood there in a fluff-ball nightgown when it was noon, looking like a vampire. Villi's unwilling grin, upon seeing her, suddenly turned upside down.
"You call, Mis-iz?" she said, trying in her faulty frontier English to emulate the haughty tone of an ancient American soap opera heroine now the passion of Tijuana television.
Madelene smiled pleasantly. "I want you to be absolutely certain the baby's room is spotless … Do you know what I found?"
Villarmini Ruvalcaba leaned against the doorjamb, tapping her fingers on the handle of the vacuum cleaner, noticing with disapproval the useless string-thing hanging from the ceiling. And the mess on the carpet underneath it. She held the frown, not amused with these games the mistress played. "No, Mis-iz. What you find?"
"Dust," said Madelene.
"Dust? Where you see dust?" The housekeeper acted offended. "Don't you worry. I will have that baby's room muy limpio … Today maybe is the day, huh? That baby gonna have one good life here. You go down and Villi make you up some lunch."
"Yes. I could eat a horse … Isn't it a lovely day?"
The housekeeper watched her skinny mistress roll the crib bed back in place. She didn't offer to help nor vacuum up the drywall dust. She leaned off the doorjamb shaking her head at her boss' unseemly comments. "A horse? I don't know. How about you have some chorizo y huevos? You know how good it is I make."
The vacuum cleaner took off on its own back down the hallway, Villi just hanging on to it.
Madelene changed into a silky pink blouse-and-pants outfit, mauve slippers, and a pinkish afghan; it would be chilly in the enclosed patio where she regularly took her lunch. She pampered her shoulder-length coriander hair, slowly stroking it with a bubble brush as though the world had stopped to wait on her. The stomach unpleasantness had passed. Only gas. Surely from that awful dressing she put on her salad last night.
After hearing from Sylvia, she had thought of nothing but the baby, given to electric moments of fantasizing her strange new role as "mother." She pictured the child on her arm, its adorable fingers clenched to hers like tiny C clamps. Madelene let her heart run as it would.
But she had been on pins and needles these past few days. Sylvia had said "very soon now." Very soon, she knew, meant any time. The phone rang and she would start. She had lost sleep the past three nights. She knew she was being too hard on the help. She adored the housekeeper even if she was acting up lately. Mrs. Ruvalcaba had been with her off and on for ten years, no more, and though she was as candid and utilitarian as they came, having little humor or patience, she had bore five babies; Villi knew a thing or two about babies.
She was trying to keep her emotions in check, because, as her agent had warned, in this fragile and shady business there are no absolutes. Buying a baby on the black market was risky business for anyone. Double that for a convicted felon.
It was a burdensome irony that Madelene's criminal past was part of the reason she had to conspire in another crime now if she expected to adopt a child. Madelene could actually do hard time if she were caught. The thought of prison set off in her a chilling mix of fear and turmoil. Was it worth the chance? She'd weighed the question and knew decisively that, yes, it was worth it. So worth it to have a child she could raise and call her own. "Mom," how sweet the sound.
On a whim, one day not so long ago she blurted, "Villi, why don't I adopt a baby?" Villi smiled, and there had been no turning back.
She had tried several adoption agencies at first. The people were cordial and supportive until the first mention of "a prior." Then, in subtle ways, things turned. E-mails and calls were not returned, sympathy turned to doubtfulness. In the end all but one agency rejected Madelene's application.
The Adoption Center of California offered her a twelve-year-old male with muscular dystrophy. The agency suggested it would help if Madelene converted to Catholicism, the boy's religion. They also required thirty-five thousand dollars for "reserve funds" toward the child's outpatient therapy for the coming year. It forced a decision no one with a conscience would ever want to make, a damned if you do, damned if you don't double bind that could only lead to guilt because she had to decline. The agency assumed correctly that she wouldn't take the offer, and that was fine with the for-profit company, which stood to lose its handsome federal welfare revenues if the orphan were adopted. As long as the child remained in a foster home sponsored by the agency, it would receive its monthly check, footed by taxpayers.
Call it another irony, one serendipitously positive, that at the same agency Madelene met a nice person who took her aside with some advice: "When you get fed up fighting these self-righteous godheads, put an ad in the personals and on Craigslist. You'll get your baby, promise."
Sylvia Fischer was among those who contacted her through the personal ad she placed in the newspaper. Madelene liked the woman from the get-go. Her mild voice, her girl-like laugh. She was a straight-talker, questioning Madelene about the prior conviction without prejudging her. (That sit-in thing she and some of her Stanford friends did at Berkeley back in young Maddy Wayne's impetuous college days had escalated into a firebombing in the Political Science building, for which she had been wrongly arrested but still convicted and sentenced by a decidedly unsympathetic judge.)
Sylvia grilled her with psychological-testing questions to see, as the baby merchant put it, if she was "the abuser type," making it clear she would not work for anyone who had even a latent potential to abuse a child. That's the only reason Sylvia wanted to know about her felony. Madelene appreciated the kind of person who scrutinized so carefully someone she might sell a baby to. Sylvia was also motherless and appeared to be around the same age as Madelene, maybe a year or two older. She could empathize.
By their third meeting, Madelene had no qualms at all about forking over twenty thousand in cash to get the process rolling, opting for a Caucasian baby from Russia or another Eastern bloc country. The sex wouldn't make that much difference, although she preferred a girl. That had been less than a month ago, hardly enough time to get ready. Then Sylvia called and the baby was coming, ready or not. Madelene gleaned it would not be from Russia, however, not that quickly. It didn't matter to her.
The pungent scent of chorizo filtered into Madelene's bathroom as she stood bent toward the mirror finishing her minimal morning makeup. Villi could cook faster than any short-order wizard and of course much better, the only caveat being Madelene's inflexible prohibition of lard in the Windnmar house. That was a problem Mrs. Ruvalcaba could easily solve by simply using more sausage.
Preened and ready for the day, Madelene journeyed along the hallway to the glassed-in patio. The patio overlooked a kidney-shaped pool one level down. Beyond that, well down the mountainside, lazed the Pacific Ocean, which today was invisible under a lingering marine cloud, a common occurrence in the hills of La Jolla.
The phone rang and Madelene shrieked. Still in the hallway, she picked up her pace, shouting, "I'll get it, Villi!"
But Mrs. Ruvalcaba had it before the second ring. By the time Madelene got to the kitchen, the maid had finished with the caller.
Madelene glared in disbelief. "You hung up! … Who was it, Villi?"
"Baby sales," she sniffed. "We no want."
"What!" Madelene cuffed her small white hands against her hips. She was now irate. "How dare you decide what we—what I want without asking me first. Maybe it was her."
"No, Mis-iz, it was not her." Mrs. Ruvalcaba knew about Sylvia, but she did not have to trust the person who was supposed to bring her mistress a baby. Just like that, bring her a baby. The mother of five was suspicious of anyone who would promise such a thing.
"From now on, Villi," Madelene said sternly, jabbing a finger, "I will take the phone calls when I'm here."
The maid hissed.
"I mean it—What's that smell?"
"Santa Maria!" Villi leaped to the stove. "You make me burn the tortillas. You see what happens when you come too soon, I still cooking. Huh?"
Madelene left, throwing the kitchen's swinging door behind her. She went into her study and busied herself at the computer, chewing a cuticle as she waited for the computer to check her mail. She was hoping for word from Sylvia. Nothing, but that was not necessarily bad. She had said she would call her by phone when the time came.
A few minutes later she heard Mrs. Ruvalcaba's call. "You food is ready."
Madelene came back to the marble and glass room. Before she took her seat the phone rang.
"Don't you dare touch that phone," she called into the kitchen, seeing the housekeeper scowl from the doorway.
Madelene took the call in the study. She answered nervously, her voice warbling like a bird's song, "Hello? This is Madelene Schaefer."
"Hi, there. It's me, Sylvia," Maggie Frazier said.
Madelene's heart leaped to her throat.
"Good news. Your daughter is waiting for you to come get her."
Madelene managed to hold herself together listening to the particulars. She carefully cradled the phone and then she collapsed and vomited on the beige carpet.