Mirabella sat at the kitchen table and explained to Pedro that she’d be working for Riko Grande at the hardware store on the night shift. As Pedro relayed the story to Chuck, she said she’d be cleaning the floors and bathrooms, stocking shelves and counting the money. She instructed him to spend his evenings learning English with Chuck so he could make good grades in school and one day conduct business in the United States legally.
She left each night after making dinner for the three of them and returned well after Pedro and Chuck retired for the evening. Pedro argued with Mirabella every night as she left, telling her to make peace with Mr. Casteneda and take back her old job.
He asked her what caused the rift between them, but she would only answer that it was a personal matter that she would not discuss with him.
“What the hell,” Pedro complained to Chuck as the bus pulled away from their home. “Mr. Casteneda loves mi mami. He gives her the job and lets her run the store for free. We keep all the profits. It don’t make no sense when he tells her she can’t work there no more.”
Chuck gave away no knowledge of any interactions between Mr. Casteneda and Pedro’s mother, claiming his inability to understand the language inhibited him from knowing what transpired between them.
“She brings home this fancy, expensive food,” Pedro railed. “Last night we had the Chilean sea bass. We don’t have no money. We owe Riko Grande a big debt. But she can buy this nice food. And, she can’t find no other job, so she has to work for Mr. Grande?”
“She just wants the best for you,” Chuck said.
“It don’t add up,” Pedro continued. “I think Mr. Grande must have some leverage over Mr. Casteneda. He must owe the hardware store some money or something.”
“I’m sure your mother will figure it out.”
“Hell no,” Pedro said. “We’re going to see Mr. Casteneda and find out why he fired mi mami.”
Chuck tried to dissuade Pedro from getting involved in his mother’s business, but he threatened to confront Mr. Casteneda alone if Chuck didn’t help him. So, Chuck agreed to bus to town with him, hoping to diffuse Pedro’s discovery of the real role he suspected his mother played on Riko Grande’s behalf.
The bus rolled to the stop across the street. The dust gently floated into the evening sky. Pedro entered first, followed by Chuck. But there were no seats available. The entire bus was packed with dirty, weary people. They looked emaciated and spoke all different dialects of Spanish and Portuguese.
“The migrants; they are finally here,” Pedro whispered. “They said they were coming here on the news. They come thousands of miles from Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Belize and even Brazil. They wait for señor Grande to finish the tunnel and then they all rush the American border hoping to get lucky and not get shot or killed.”
Chuck studied the crowd. Many of their clothes draped in tatters over their bodies. Few had working shoes or even footwear at all. They sat, freakishly quiet in their bench seats, as if too weary to expend the energy to converse. Several of the children coughed and stared at him with giant, sad eyes.
“They risk their entire lives to come here in hopes of a better life in America,” Pedro said.
“Jesus Christ,” Chuck muttered.
“Most of them probably die trying to escape,” Pedro said. “But if they stay where they came from they all will die for sure. They have only the choice of probable death over certain death.”
Chuck couldn’t speak, looking at the sight of the ashen, skeletal crowd around him.
“You get desperate enough,” Pedro continued. “You reach a point where you’d do anything to keep your family together and safe, no?
“Sí,” said Chuck.
As the bus approached the edge of the town, it passed endless lines of zombie-like migrants. Their brown and grey rags reflected the scant moonlight, making them appear as ghosts along the gutters, drifting in the wind to the center of town.
By the time the bus approached the square by the hotel across the way from the hardware store, it had to stop and let out all the passengers. The roads simply became impassable with so many slow, slogging bodies in the way.
Everywhere Chuck looked, a sea of decrepit people crowded the city block. They kept to themselves and didn’t bother anyone around them. But they occupied every available space in the square causing Chuck and Pedro to step over sleeping bodies and around families huddled on blankets and cardboard boxes.
He also observed local neighbors opening their doors to let migrants into their homes. Several elderly ladies wandered the crowd handing out bread and bottles of water. A man with a hose connected to a faucet in his back yard offered makeshift showers for the dirtiest children. Several other residents used towels to dry the children after they received their hose down.
The mariachi band from the other night wandered the square playing their music and several migrants rose from the ground to dance in their wake.
Chuck couldn’t help smiling at the strange juxtaposition of extreme misfortune and pure, joyous celebration of life.
“Latin American culture at its best,” he thought to himself. “They even dance when they have nothing left. This isn’t the hellhole people in America make it out to be.”
In a different situation, he told himself, he could actually imagine himself living peacefully in beautiful Reynosa.
Pedro snaked his way to the hotel with Chuck close behind. Before they entered, Chuck took Pedro under the arm and stopped his forward progress.
“Listen,” he said. “No matter what Mr. Casteneda tells you, remember that your mother’s a good person and she loves you very much.”
Pedro nodded inattentively, focused on his destination and entered the lobby of the Casa del Sol. Miguel worked the desk. The gift shop remained locked and dark. Migrants crowded the lobby, filling every open space. Octavio’s head bobbed across the kitchen where the sizzle of ground beef and the steam from the grill filled the air.
“Ah, señor Chuck,” Miguel said, reaching into a drawer and pulling out a roll of Mexican Pesos. “El dinero viene de tu esposa.”
“Dinero? Money?” Chuck asked, taking it and stashing it in his chest pocket. “Ah, right, I nearly forgot; from my wife.”
“Si, de tu esposa,” said Miguel, whose carefree smile faded quickly at the sight of Pedro skulking through the lobby.
Pedro pushed Chuck aside and spoke in rapid Spanish to Miguel. They seemed to argue. Chuck couldn’t make out the content of the conversation. Finally, Miguel knocked on the office door and Mr. Casteneda emerged. The tension in the Spanish dialog grew sharply between them. Chuck could make out the few Spanish swear words he could understand. Pedro grew belligerent and Miguel stepped toward him in a reflective move to protect his father. Octavio came to the desk and Chuck stepped closer to Pedro to intervene if needed.
“English,” he said. “Speak in English, so I can understand what you’re saying.”
“He say he didn’t fire mi madre,” Pedro translated. “He said she quit because she wanted to go work for Riko Grande at the store. But, I know that’s a lie. She didn’t quit. He fired her.”
“I gave her a choice,” said Mr. Casteneda. “If she wanted to work here, she couldn’t go work for Riko Grande also. She made her choice.”
Chuck took Pedro by the elbow again and tried to lead him out of the hotel. They bumped into a family of migrants laying on the floor next to the check-in desk. Chuck dreaded a fight as there was barely enough room to maneuver. He yanked Pedro harder and snapped at him.
“We have to leave here,” he said. “Leave your mother alone. Let it drop. She’s doing what she needs to do to support your family.”
“This is bullshit,” Pedro snapped back. “We have to go to the hardware store and talk to Riko Grande.”
Pedro sliced through a crowd of migrants blocking the exit to the hotel and worked his way into the square.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Chuck said, following closely behind.
Soon after leaving the hotel, Chuck lost sight of Pedro. Between the throng of people standing, sitting, and laying across the road, he couldn’t keep his eyes trained on the back of Pedro’s head. Chuck decided to forget about Pedro and beat him to the store. He had to warn Mirabella about Pedro’s presence and give her whatever chance he could to protect him from her truth. He didn’t know exactly what her arrangement with Riko had been, but he saw her in the red dress at the hotel and in the white van and he had a better than certain idea of the nature of work she performed for him. He knew she would not want Pedro to find out her secret.
Despite the goodwill of the Mexican people around him, Chuck pushed through the crowd like an entitled American. He could see the neon sign down the road and determined to find a faster route than Pedro to get there.
He arrived at the darkened store. The front doors rattled, but did not open, locked. He peered through the glass doorway and saw a light in an office across the showroom floor. He considered breaking down the door. But he thought better of that plan given the broad view from the street, with migrants all around. He walked to the more discrete back of the store and found a small basement window that was already cracked. Pushing aside the broken glass, he reached in, unclasped the lock and opened the window enough to shimmy through. He wandered through the dark basement, stumbling over boxes on the floor and bumping shelving units before finding the stairs and slowly creeping up toward the showroom floor.
He could hear a menacing voice, laughing. He listened for Mirabella or Pedro, but did not register their voices. He crossed the store and approached the office, suddenly realizing that he broke into the building with no plan for what to say or do when or if he ran into either Riko Grande or Mirabella. His sole motivation had been to reach Mirabella before Pedro, but he hadn’t contemplated what to say in the moment.
He backpedaled and looked for a way out. In the dark, he stumbled over a spade that rested against a rack of shovels and knocked it over making a loud crashing sound.
The lights flicked and the big, bearded Mexican thug emerged from the office with a sneer.
“¿Quién está ahí?” he shouted before training his dark eyes on Chuck.
“Hola,” he said, warbling a badly framed follow-up sentence in broken Spanish. “Yo trabajar por tu.”
“¿Que?” Riko said, moving swiftly toward him. “¿Quién diablos eres?”
In the low light, Riko failed to recognize Chuck at first. Chuck stuttered, mumbling nonsensical Spanish. He could see the dawning in Riko’s face.
“You’re the American,” he said with a twisted smile that belied more amusement than annoyance. “You come back for another beating?”
Chuck glanced at the shovel that remained on the floor by his feet. The big Mexican scratched his beard and nodded his head. He raised his hands like a boxer and stepped forward. Chuck lunged for the shovel, but Riko’s fist beat him and caught him square in the eye. Laid flat again, Chuck felt the swelling in his forehead where the purple and yellow bruises from his original beating had just disappeared.
As he stared at the dim, loosely focused lighting overhead, he felt Riko grip him by the hair and hoist him to his feet. Chuck stared at Riko’s right fist cocked behind his head. But, as he flinched for impact, instead of his face feeling pain, his ears ached from Mirabella’s high-pitched shriek.
Riko dropped Chuck to his knees and turned toward the petite beauty in the red dress that had emerged from his office. Chuck braced himself on his hands and knees and tried to shutter the cobwebs from his semi-conscious head. He saw Riko grab Mirabella and thrust her face and chest over the check-out counter of the store. With one muscular hand, he held her down by the back of her neck, while he hiked up her dress with his other hand. Chuck’s vision blurred. He could see the curve of Mirabella’s exposed buttocks as Riko pulled down her black panties. He watched the scene play out only 30 feet away, but the effects of the blow to his face weakened his legs and he struggled to stand, instead attempting to crawl forward.
He could hear Mirabella whimper and the distinctive buzz of the fly from his jeans whizzing down to free his manhood.
He heard her call him “cabrón” and his pat response calling her “puta.”
“It’s go-time,” said Senator Boni Sanchez, from the back of her limo as Stephanie and the three girls clamored into the spacious back seats. “Where’s your lawyer?”
“He’s not able to make it,” Stephanie replied. “He stepped down. He feels we’re in good hands with you, Mr. Rojas and the lawyers from ALIAS Legal.”
“Too bad,” she said, motioning for her driver to pull away. “Nice guy. And smart too.”
The car sped down the suburban roads of Pleasanton and made its way to the interstate.
“We’ll simply drive in circles around San Antonio until Mr. Rojas reaches the hotel,” she instructed. “At 8pm, you’ll call and speak with Chuck. Keep him on the line long enough for Mr. Rojas to find him. Let him know that he’ll be leaving immediately for the holding office in Tijuana. He has the transport arranged and will accompany him door-to-door.”
“How did he get into Mexico?” Emily asked.
“He’s not there yet,” the Senator replied. “He was a member of the special forces from his home country before coming here. He’s quite capable, I assure you.”
A computer monitor rotated from the ceiling of the car. What looked like a Google Earth view showed hills and trees around a wide river.
“The images are from a tiny drone flying over Mr. Roja’s head as he crosses the river in Mexico,” Senator Sanchez explained. “We’ll be able to watch him cross and work his way to the hotel. He believes the entire operation will take no more than one hour. Once he escorts Chuck to his transport, he’ll ride with him. It’ll take them several days to reach Tijuana. I’ll drop you off at your home and you can track the car along the border road until it gets there. From there, Mr. Rojas will leave Chuck at the holding center and the ALIAS Legal team will facilitate moving his name up the lottery list for consideration. Are you set for your flight to San Diego?”
“Yes,” Stephanie replied. “Thank you for the use of your private NetJets account. I couldn’t have afforded a last-minute commercial flight.”
“No worries,” the Senator smiled with a wink. “Just remember who’s truly working to help the people of southwestern Texas at election time.”
Emily spotted movement on the screen and pointed out the lean, muscular frame of Delando Rojas dressed in an all-black tight-fitting water suit and a breathing apparatus strapped across the lower part of his face. He waded into the water under cover of an overgrown desert willow tree. For a few seconds, his head could be seen protruding from the water along the elevated sand and mud bank. And then, he disappeared.
“As long as Chuck gets to the hotel on time,” Senator Sanchez said. “This should be a piece of cake.”
With his head spinning and kneeling on the floor of Riko Grande’s hardware store, Chuck lifted one leg and forced his weight on it, but his knee gave out and he fell to his back. He had an upside-down view of Riko moving in on Mirabella, who wriggled unsuccessfully to escape the iron clutch on the back of her neck, forcing her to bend over the side of the check-out counter.
Before Riko had the chance to penetrate his victim, a loud crash filled the store. Chuck torqued his neck to see that Pedro had punched a brick through the front door and charged across the aisle at Riko. Still porting the solid red block and screaming in Spanish, he raised his weapon to swing at his mother’s tormentor, but Riko dodged him and shoved him to the ground.
Young and wiry, Pedro scrambled to his feet and faced the big Mexican who had ten inches and a hundred pounds on the 15-year-old. Chuck managed to get back to his feet and stood shaky, but upright.
Riko stood tall, dropped his hands and laughed.
“This boy and this puta madre come here to my store and make a mess,” he said to Chuck as Pedro moved to stand between Riko and his mother. “You and the boy break into my store. You damage the glass. I could shoot you both dead and nobody get in trouble.”
“Let them go,” Chuck said from his knees. “They haven’t done anything to deserve this.”
“They owe me 40,000 pesos from their daddy, who run out with my money to America,” Riko continued. “They lucky I don’t send the police to take away that little shithole house of theirs. I could do that you know? Until they pay me my money, I own that place. I could go burn it down tonight and they could not stop me. In fact, I just might do that.”
“Come mi mierda,” Pedro said, with his hands extended to shield his mother.
“You pay me my money,” he said. “I let you go. We’re even and your mother don’t have to lay down for me or my workers no more.”
With that comment, Pedro charged Riko, but the big man simply threw a wicked jab that landed between the eyes and floored the boy.
Mirabella screamed and lunged herself at him, but he subdued her with as much ease, knocking her into a rack of hammers and screwdrivers as well. Chuck shook off his dizziness, rose to his feet and faced Riko with his hands out to the side.
“If this is just about the money,” he said. “If I had the money to pay you, would you consider their debt resolved and let them go?”
“It takes many nights to make 40,000 pesos,” said Riko. “Puta’s worth only one hundred in a night.”
Chuck took the wad of Mexican money out of his pocket and held it in front of his face. Riko blinked in surprise and stepped forward. Chuck flinched, not sure if Riko would accept the payment and honor the agreement or simply take it and finish beating him anyway. The seconds ticked mercilessly. Then Riko sneered, lunged like a wild bear and swiped the money with his left hand while raising his right to deliver another blow to Chuck’s face.
He never made contact, instead falling to the ground at the sound of a heavy iron spade connecting with the back of his head. Pedro stood over him as he rolled on the ground moaning in pain. Riko clumsily rose to his knees. But Pedro raised the shovel high above his head and sent it hurling down to the top of the big man’s crown once again. The crushing blow floored him and left him motionless with blood trickling steadily from his ear and nose.
“¿Está muerto?” Mirabella asked, as Pedro cast aside the shovel.
“Bueno,” he replied.