CHAPTER FOUR—A Holly in the Desert
Parked at one of the few locations in the area high enough to pick up internet, Hepcy began researching MySpace. There was no real way to measure how many people still used the nearly extinct social network, because old members never deactivated their accounts; they simply stopped visiting the site. The more she read, the more Hepcy realized MySpace was ripe for criminal enterprise.
Since it was no longer a blip on social radar, government agencies didn’t monitor it like they watched Facebook and Twitter. Worse, MySpace developed before most internet safeguards and by the time better internet security was available, the site was obsolete. Without firewalls, the abandoned accounts were easily hacked, so a person with any information technology skills could stow away in an account and move through the network completely anonymously for years. Though it was a ghost town, the communication pathways were still available on the social platform. She clicked to open an account and began building a profile so she could monitor the traffic of Daisy Lopez and Bad Moon Rising.
“Charlie 230, what’s your 20?” The volume of the voice on the radio startled her.
“I’m near the pump jack. What’s up?”
“You got anything working?”
“Negative, sir. Do you need me on something?”
“I need you to head over to the checkpoint for a pat down and an escort.”
“10-4.” She sighed as she climbed into the Explorer. There were only two women assigned to the station, and they frequently worked the same shift. If neither she nor Flowers was present, the Border Patrol called Customs or they tapped into the local law enforcement agencies for support. Considering how necessary women were, she was confounded that the female agents didn’t get more respect.
At the checkpoint, Hepcy pulled behind two marked Border Patrol Chargers and put a sunshade in the windshield of the Ford Explorer she shared with an agent on the opposite shift. She walked toward the trailer and was greeted by a canine handler, Agent August. “Well, well, if it isn’t Agent Zug. That Mini of yours damn near ran me off the road the other day.”
“Ha-ha!” Hepcy laughed as she gave him a fist bump. “Ladybug has her own mind, brother. I told you to stay out of her lane. How can you be afraid of a Mini Cooper anyway, driving around in that big ass F250?”
“You had to be doing eighty,” August scolded.
“She rarely does less.” Hepcy winked at him. “Where’s Flowers?”
“She’s inside running checks on the subject.”
“What subject? What’s up with this chick?” What was so important that Johnson felt compelled to pull an agent out of the field?
“I don’t know. I am over there checking a bus, and I see Vasquez pull her out of the driver’s seat and handcuff her. She’s got a warrant or something,” August said. “She’s covered in lesions.”
“Like a leper?” Hepcy had sudden insight why Johnson had called her out.
“There are sores all over her arms,” August pantomimed with his hands. “There’s hardly any skin on them.”
“Ughh.” She shuddered. “No one wants to pat down a nasty junkie, so let’s call in the Zug.”
August watched her jog up the steps to the trailer where Vasquez and Flowers were bent over a computer screen inside. Flowers looked up when Hepcy walked in the door. “What’s she wanted for?” Hepcy asked by way of greeting.
“Someone tipped off ICE that she is trafficking people through west Texas.”
“No shit?” Hepcy leaned over Vasquez, squinting her eyes at the monitor. “What’s her name?”
“Graciela Tapia.” Flores turned to give Hepcy a half hug and air kiss. “What was all that, Hep?” Flowers whispered near her ear.
“All that flirting with Dave August.” She switched to a silly falsetto voice. “You’d best just stay out of my lane, Agent August,” Flowers mocked, tilting her head and batting her eyelashes.
“Whatever, freak.” Hepcy swatted at Flowers. “I don’t flirt—my car does. I can’t help that Ladybug is a slut.” Flowers snorted a laugh as she reached for gloves. Hepcy was tugging on a small pair of rubber gloves. Tight gloves made her fingertips more sensitive, easier to detect anomalies concealed inside clothing. Tighter gloves were also easier to penetrate. Flowers grabbed a pair of medium rubber gloves from a dispenser on the wall. No accidental penetration for her. “Hey Kat, how long have you been here now?”
Flowers paused, flexing her fingers inside the gloves to check the fit. “I transferred from Buffalo almost a year ago. Why?”
“Do you trust the agents here?” Hepcy asked.
“I am from New York. I don’t trust nobody.”
Hepcy considered Flower’s statement, recalling a childhood memory of digging food out of a dumpster in the back alleys of Los Angeles. Maybe her instinct for self-preservation made her paranoid. No. No. Something’s wrong.
“Let’s knock this out.” Flowers opened the steel door of the holding cell and followed Hepcy in. Graciela was in her late 20’s, big-boned, with long, thick hair drawn into a messy bun. She wore camouflage sweatpants despite the oppressive heat, and a hot pink t-shirt. Her sandals were strapped over wool socks. Hepcy removed the cuffs and told the woman to stand facing the wall with her hands on the cinder blocks above her head. She nudged the inside of the ankle with her combat boot.
“Spread your feet.” Graciela separated her feet.
“Wider,” Hepcy snapped. The woman widened her stance.
“Have you ever been in trouble?” Hepcy loved interviews the way she loved target practice. She waited for someone to toss her a clay pigeon so she could shoot it down. They key to both sports was to stay just a little ahead of the target.
“I’m on probation,” the woman said. “I got arrested last year for shoplifting at Walmart.”
Hepcy squeezed several sections of the woman’s thick hair, seeking drug paraphernalia.
“Do you have any needles in here, anything sharp that can hurt me?” Hepcy asked, removing an elastic band and bobby pins.
“I don’t have none of that stuff.”
“Why are you wearing sweats and wool socks? It’s hotter than ass out there.” Hepcy systematically checked each inch of the elastic waistband and turned the pants pockets inside out, ensuring nothing was concealed.
“Because my staph infection,” said the woman. “It makes my skin sensitive to sun.”
“Staph infection?” Hepcy rolled her eyes. “Looks like meth abuse to me.” Hepcy turned to look at Flowers who shook her head no.
“I don’t use meth.” Graciela turned towards the agents.
“Sure you don’t.” Hepcy grabbed one arm scabbed arm and twisted it to show Flowers a forearm so pitted there was more scab than skin. Flowers grimaced. Hepcy noted more lesions on her upper arms. “Gracie, why are you here today?
“I was driving to Midland to see about a job.” Graciela pulled her arm from Hepcy and began scratching her other arm.
“Put your hands back up on that wall!” Flowers barked, crossing the cell in two steps.
“Sorry.” Graciela put her palms back on the bricks. “I was just itching.”
“Let me rephrase the question. How did you end up in this cell? Why are you wanted?” Hepcy squatted down, twisting the seams of the sweats of the inner thigh, feeling for needles, handcuff keys, cutting instruments.
“I ain’t wanted to my knowledge. I just got probation from the shoplifting.”
“What kind of job are you looking for?” Hepcy wanted to know.
“Driver for my friend’s business.”
“What kind of business?”
“He fixes the big trucks for the oilfield workers. Sometimes they need parts fast from San Angelo or Abilene, so he needs a driver,” Graciela explained.
Hepcy nodded. That’s good cover for human trafficking, moving between all those remote Texas towns. She made a mental note to find out what agent had issued the warrant.
“That sounds like a good opportunity for you,” said Hepcy. “A good job is the foundation for a good life.”
“I hope so, ma’am.” She turned to look at Hepcy, her shy smile showing a missing tooth. Something about her smile... Hepcy couldn’t quite pinpoint the recognition. “I gotta have a steady income to get my kids back.”
She has kids? A knot began forming in Hepcy’s stomach. “How old are your children?
There was Graciela’s smile again, shy, eager, pleasing. “My son is about to be fifteen, and my girls are thirteen, twelve and eight.”
“Jesus, you have a fifteen-year-old?” It stunned Hepcy every single time.
“Yes, ma’am. I been having babies since I was twelve years old.”
“Where’s your mom?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. I haven’t seen her in years.”
“And your dad?” Hepcy studied Graciela’s face. She had lovely high cheekbones, mocha eyes, full lips. Just a few short years ago, she had been beautiful.
“He’s dead, ma’am.” She spoke without emotion, holding eye contact with Hepcy. Graciela was desperate to be seen, to make a human connection by any means she could.
“I’m sorry. Sounds like you have been traveling a tough road.” Hepcy hated cases like this. She knew she would be sending this girl to jail today. Probably back to jail. This girl had been born into a shit life, just like Hepcy. But Graciela had tenderness that Hepcy lacked. Openness. A need to be loved. Her desire to please made her easy prey.
Hepcy pulled the pants of the sweats above each knee to inspect the socks. It had been a while since Graciela had shaved her legs. Hepcy doubted the deterioration of the skin allowed her to use a razor. “Sit on that bench there and give me your right foot.”
Graciela sat on the concrete bench and held up her right foot. As Hepcy bent to grab it, she glanced at the thick wool socks and debated putting on a second layer of gloves. She gently pulled down the sock, patches of Graciela’s skin peeling off with it. Pus oozed out of the leg sores. Flowers gagged, and Hepcy turned her head, afraid to breathe.
“Can you prop open the door?” Hepcy asked Flowers. Flowers opened the cell door wide and stood in the doorway, preferring the musty smell of the old trailer to the rank air in the cell. Spreading Graciela’s bare toes wide with her gloved fingers, Hepcy cleared her throat to draw Flower’s attention to the needle marks between the toes. Flowers nodded.
Graciela was silently sobbing, tugging at Hepcy’s heart. This woman never had a chance. All that Hepcy could hope for now was that Graciela would stay locked up long enough to prevent her from making any more children. She handed back the socks. “We’re done here. I need to go and scrub myself with a wire brush.”
Outside the cell, Hepcy took a minute to look at what Flores had pulled up about Graciela on the computer. The warrant had been issued by an ICE agent named Marcus Castillo in Laredo. She typed a quick email. “This subject was intercepted at our checkpoint today. Her itinerary will have her crossing often though our AOR. Could you please tell me the specifics about why she is wanted?”
August was waiting for Hepcy at the bottom of the trailer steps. “What did she say?” he asked.
“Same as everybody around here,” she said, brushing past him. “She got handed a shitty life.” She stopped and turned back to look at him. “Why are you working the checkpoint today? I thought Rodriguez was here.”
August shrugged. “He told the supervisor he wanted to check something out with Munoz. You know how those two are.”
Hepcy nodded and opened the door to her vehicle. “Agent August, tell Johnson I’ll be in the field if he needs me to kill a spider later.”
A few hours later, Hepcy was driving when an unfamiliar voice beckoned her.
“Charlie 230, what’s your 20?”
Hepcy looked around at the desolate landscape. Waist high brush dotted the rocky ground as far as the eye could see. To her left ran the river, but the floor dropped so sharply here that she couldn’t see the banks from the highway. To her right, the desert continued its steady elevation, ascending gradually for miles, creating a supremely uninteresting horizon. Not one landmark offered a clue to her location. Good thing I stopped at the station to use an actual, flushable toilet.
“Highway 19 about fifteen mikes west of the station.” She spoke into the radio microphone of the Explorer. “Whatcha got?”
“Can you rally with us at the Eagle?”
“10-4. Tell Charlie 91 that I can be there in three mikes.”
When Hepcy saw the massive crack on the left that dropped into Eagle Point Canyon, she pulled off the highway and drove towards the riverbank. As soon as she crested the hill, she saw three border patrol trucks on the back of the hillside. Hepcy pulled up behind Rodriguez’s canine unit and stepped out of her vehicle. She approached a rookie named Sandia who was waiting for her.
“Whatcha got, friend?”
Sandia stepped forward and offered his hand. “Hey, ma’am. We intercepted a group with four men and a couple of juveniles. Mister Johnson asked if you could help with the little girl.” Sandia pointed down the hill to Agent Rodriguez and Supervisor Johnson, who was holding a crying girl who was not yet school aged. Two slightly older boys sat in the dirt near them.
“You know I’m walking into some bullshit when Johnson is afraid to call me himself,” Hepcy muttered. “Are they related?” Why are these young kids traveling in a group with no women? This smells all wrong.
“I don’t rightly know, ma’am. Agent Munoz did the interviews. My Spanish isn’t that great. Munoz and I were working our way down the sensor list. This was the only area left where Diaz hadn’t shown me the locations.” Sandia turned and pointed towards the river. “The group crossed over on that left bank. Munoz said they should have hit a sensor. He called sector to find if we had missed it.”
“Was there a sensor hit?” She checked her radio. “I didn’t hear jack on the radio.”
“Nothing.” Sandia shook his head. “I jumped up and down on those sensors for ten minutes, but sector never got a hit.”
“So you were coming over just to learn where the sensors were, there was no hit, and you got lucky and showed up when the group was crossing?” How did both sensors stop working at once? They’re not linked like Christmas lights.
“They had already crossed, ma’am. They were hanging out by the water, waiting for their ride to pick them up. They didn’t run when they saw us walking down.” They didn’t run?
“Who was supposed to pick them up?” The riverbank was more than a half mile off the highway. It was level, drivable terrain, but there was no road and the area was monitored by cameras. Any vehicle besides a Border Patrol truck driving down there would draw immediate suspicion.
“They didn’t know. They just said they were supposed to wait for her here.”
“That’s all they said? Did they say what she would be driving?”
Hepcy walked down towards Supervisor Johnson who was bouncing the girl on his hip and cooing, but the child wouldn’t have it. She clutched his sleeve and looked towards the river, wailing pitifully. “Nice artifact you picked up,” Hepcy said, nodding towards the girl. “Where is the mother?”
“She’s unaccompanied.” Rodriguez took a few steps toward Hepcy.
“Why aren’t you at the checkpoint, Rod? Scared to leave your boyfriend Munoz, or what?” Hepcy held out her right hand.
“Wrath vomited earlier so I kenneled him until the vet is available.” Rodriguez gave her hand a hearty shake. “August had to cover the checkpoint.”
“How can this kid be unaccompanied?” Hepcy demanded, turning to look at Johnson. “She’s not forty pounds.”
Johnson was patting the little girl’s back, still unable to pacify her. “She was traveling with a Hondo who claims to be her uncle, but she turns away from him when he tries to pick her up.”
“Are there any documents?” Hepcy asked.
“He has a Mexican birth certificate of a girl aged four years and two months.”
“Four years old.” A Honduran man with a Mexican child who refuses to be near him. This stinks more and more. “Where’s this guy at?”
“Munoz put him in the truck.” Johnson pointed to the training van.
“Did he bring the little boys also?”
“They were carrying their own docs.” Rodriguez shuffled through some birth certificates. “They claim their parents are living here, working chicken farms in Arkansas.”
“Are they related to each other?”
“The birth certificates are for two brothers.” Rodriguez handed her the stack of documents. “Take a look.”
Hepcy rifled through the papers.
“How did Hondurans end up with a Mexican baby girl? Who is claiming to be the uncle?”
“Carlos Jesus Sanchez.” He leaned forward and flicked one of the certificates. “He’s only twenty-one.”
Hepcy walked over to Sandia’s truck and looked through the small rear window. Three of the dirty young men warily eyeballed Hepcy. The fourth had fallen asleep. Hepcy didn’t think any of them was twenty-five yet, but they were sun worn and work hardened. “Which one is he?”
“Why, Zug?” Johnson exasperated. “They’ve been apprehended. What are you going to do? Punch them in the balls until one confesses?”
Hepcy threw back her head in uproarious laughter. “Holy shit, Mister Johnson. You finally get me!” She laughed so hard that Rodriguez started laughing, too. Johnson finally gave in to a gentle chuckle. The mirth of the three agents stunned the crying child. She stopped sobbing as she studied them. The little girl’s eyes came to rest on Hepcy. The late afternoon sun reflected on Hepcy’s bronze freckled cheeks, steel blue eyes, and tousled copper hair. She was a vision of shimmering metals and the child was captivated.
“So why am I here?” Hepcy asked Johnson.
“We were hoping you could assist with this girl.” He averted her probing glare.
Hepcy sighed audibly. “What’s the problem here, sir? You have six kids. Munoz has two. This is your area of expertise, not mine. Why did you call me?”
“We couldn’t get her to calm down.” Johnson glanced down at the little girl who was still quietly gazing at Hepcy. “But she stopped crying as soon as you showed up.”
“It’s my secret woman power.” Hepcy reached out and squeezed the toe of the little girl’s tennis shoe. “I cast ovarian spells at will.”
Johnson tried to hand her to Hepcy, but the female agent recoiled. “Just set her on the ground.”
Johnson gently stood the little girl on her feet, but remained leaning over her, adjusting her jacket. Irritated, Hepcy pushed him aside and squatted down next to the little girl. She fished in her cargo pocket and came up with an old cough drop. The little girl tentatively took the cough drop from Hepcy and put it in the pocket of her jean jacket, never breaking eye contact. Hepcy looked around, spotting a pretty white stone. She picked up the pebble and handed it to the girl. The girl smiled shyly, accepting the stone.
“What name was on her birth certificate?” Hepcy asked.
Hepcy smiled at the girl. ”Buenos tardes, Holly. Cómo estás?"
"Bien,” the girl said softly. She put the stone in her pocket.
"Todos está bien?” Hepcy asked. The girl nodded.
Hepcy put her knees on the desert floor and leaned back, sitting on her heels. Now, she was the same height as the girl, and they could talk eye-to-eye.
"Que mas trae in sus bosillas?” Hepcy wanted the girl to show her the contents of her pockets. Holly put her hand in her pocket and pulled out the stone, the cough drop, and a foil gum wrapper. Hepcy took off her cap and set it upside down in the dirt. She threw the keys to the Ford Explorer in the cap. Hepcy went through her own pockets and took out the security card that gave her access to the border patrol compound. She threw that in the cap, adding a pen and a small memo book from her shirt pocket. Understanding the game, the little girl put the stone, the cough drop, and the foil in the cap.
"Alguno mas?” asked Hepcy.
The little girl put her hand in the other jacket pocket. She pulled out a food receipt, half of a cookie wrapped in plastic, and a red knotted rosary prayer bracelet. She deposited the items in the hat. Hepcy picked up the bracelet.
"Dónde obtuvo esto?”
"De mi abuela."
“From your Grandma?” Hepcy repeated. ”Dónde esta su abuelita?”
“En su casa.”
“In her house?” repeated Hepcy. “Dónde vive ella?” She wondered where Holly’s grandmother lived. “Allá in Mexico?” Holly looked blankly at Hepcy. “Dónde esta su mama?” Holly cast her eyes to the ground and answered so quietly Hepcy had to strain to hear her.
Hepcy looked up at Johnson. “She said her mother is dead.”
“Where is her father?” asked Johnson.
"Y su padre? Dónde es su papí?”
"Mató a mi mamá,” Holly whispered.
“What did she say?” asked Johnson.
“I think she said her father killed her mother.” Hepcy was permanently etched with decades of memories of children who suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of their parents, but her outrage flamed anew every time she heard about something a child witnessed. Rodriguez approached Holly and she began to quiver, easing towards Hepcy. He quickly squatted down next to Hepcy and whispered to Holly, who was clutching Hepcy’s pant leg. Holly nodded and whispered back. Rodriguez continued to whisper and Holly, still trembling, whispered back. Rodriguez stood up.
“Yes. She said her father was angry and he killed her mother with a knife.”
“Damn. No wonder she’s terrified of men.” Hepcy held out her hand, palm up. Holly put her hand in Hepcy’s. Hepcy tied the red prayer bracelet around Holly’s wrist. “Que mas trae?” Hepcy asked. Holly reached into the pocket of her little pants and pulled out a candy wrapper, a Mexican coin, and a pink napkin.
“What is all that stuff?” asked Rodriguez.
“She is picking up mementos from her journey,” said Hepcy. “She’s trying to hold onto the places she passed through. Everything is unfamiliar and scary; she wants to ground herself.”
“You are good with children,” Johnson observed.
“I understand discarded children. I survived most of my life as a rootless commodity, passed between strangers trying to make a buck.” One by one, Hepcy handed the items back to Holly and Holly slipped them in her pockets. When they were finished with the little game, Hepcy asked, “What are we going to do with her?”
“We have to find a facility for her until we sort out her family situation,” Johnson said. “Dispatch is contacting the Mexican consulate.”
“Where is she staying tonight?”
“At the station, I guess,” Johnson told her. “I don’t know where. We’re not allowed to put unaccompanied children in the cells. We can’t leave her in the processing room because of the juvenile boys. I called the bridge, but Customs is overflowing with Central Americans seeking refuge.”
“And the Uvalde station?”
“We are not going to get her processed in time to transport. Anyway, they have eighteen juveniles awaiting shelter.”
Where the hell are all these kids going? “Can I take her to my place to sleep, if I keep detention logs and all that?”
“I like where your heart is,” Johnson said, “but she has to be kept in a Homeland Security facility until we determine proper placement. That’s to protect us as well as her.”
“Alright, I’ll take her back to the station. Set her up in the sup’s office.” Hepcy stood and held her hand out towards Holly. Holly took her hand and walked with Hepcy to the Explorer.
By the end of the night, when the other agents were cleaning up their duty trucks and filling in their time sheets, Hepcy was settled in the corner of the processing room with Holly. She had wrapped Holly in a wool blanket and was sitting on a wooden bench, swaying back and forth to pacify her to sleep. Supervisor Johnson came in.
“Chavez wants to see you.”
“Are you serious?” Hepcy stood up, still holding Holly. She gathered the blanket in folds as she walked down the hall and stood in the doorway.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
Chavez looked up from his computer.
“You are at ten hours today so far.”
“I’m not trying to score overtime,” Hepcy answered. “I’m just trying to do right by this kid. She’s traumatized and she cries every time I put her down. I can’t leave her alone in this station full of stinking men.”
Chavez pointed to the corner of the office where he had put a pillow and blanket on a black leather executive chair. “That’s a comfortable chair. We’re working with Child Protective Services to obtain emergency services. You can stay six hours, no more than that. But this office is yours.”
“Thank you, sir.” Hepcy picked up the pillow and sat down in the oversized swivel chair. She tucked the pillow up under Holly’s head and began to slowly rock. Chavez turned off the overhead light and left on a small desk lamp. He adjusted the radio to quiet music. On his way out, he stopped in the doorway and looked at Hepcy.
“You never wanted a baby?”
“The last thing I need is a shitting little squawk box.”
“You are very motherly.” He noted her arms wrapped around Holly.
“I don’t have a nurturing bone in my body.” Hepcy raised her eyes to connect with Chavez, her mouth set in the firm, disapproving scowl of a nun who had witnessed too much suffering. “I’m not able to have children, and I believe that’s by design. I wouldn’t be an appropriate parent.”
“But you are so innately protective.”
Is it so weird, a woman not wanting children?
“Protective yes,” Hepcy affirmed. “I’ll cut off the balls off any man I catch jacking with a little kid.” Her words were sharp and bizarre in an otherwise serene picture. If Chavez was taken aback, he didn’t show it.
“I’ll be back before seven and you better be gone.”
“I will be, sir. Thanks for the quiet space.” Her dusty boots pressed the floor as she flexed and relaxed her feet to rock the chair. She weighs almost nothing. This is the most powerful country in the world, and we can’t protect the most delicate of our species. Humans have no natural predators, but we eat our own young. She contemplated the role of Homeland Security as first line of defense for the United States. The border was so long and there were just not enough people dedicated to patrol the seemingly endless miles. How many Hollys are lost out there?
Hepcy drifted off to sleep before Holly did. It was not a fitful dozing, but a content slumber. She didn’t wake to see Agent August’s big frame filling the doorway. For almost an hour, he watched the two girls bathed in the soft lamplight. Holly’s hair was a tangled, sweaty mess and she was sucking her thumb. Hepcy had removed her gun belt for comfort and placed it on the desk. The irony that he missed, however, was Hepcy still wearing her body armor, leaving a protective barrier between her heart and Holly’s.