The West 48th Street Cargo.
THE SECOND IN THE GILL NELSON DETECTIVE SERIES, AFTER “ THE CASE OF THE MISSING LEFT FEET”.
Lieutenant Gill Nelson flicked his tired eyes up at the squad room clock.
It was 11.32 pm on the 20th December, the streets were feet deep in snow, and everything was rimed with ice.
The weather news predicted a temperature of -25 in the C scale overnight and the Hudson River, backlit from the City lights, was now just a thin oily black ribbon wriggling through the middle of frozen ice. A gale from the Arctic corralled the snow into right angles and propelled it down the Manhattan thoroughfares, making giant snowmen of the buildings. Christmas lights garlanded the storefronts and flashed off the colour spectrum in the nearly empty streets, and as long as you weren't out there, it was magical.
Most sensible people had by now, holed up in their apartments or houses, turned up the thermostat, and bolted the door.
No such luck for Nelson. He had been landed with the graveyard shift after his team had been caught up on an important case the other side of the precinct and he needed to be available. The squad room had an ethereal feel as the City had instituted a power saving exercise and after nine at night, half the light fittings were switched off in the building. Even the heating had been turned down a notch. Shadows filled the edges of the squad room, and pools of yellow light formed every few paces to make a pathway through. Just three detectives, each wrapped against the chill, dotted the room after picking a pod under a light source in which to work.
He sat in his glass corner office with a mug of coffee, his desk lamp on and picked up the slim file brown marked "Urgent" that had been placed on his desk earlier and kicked back to read it.
He rubbed his face and felt twenty odd hours of growth as he opened the cover and stared at the first page.
It was a Detailed Incident Report with the bare details noted in a series of boxes under the appropriate headings. Male/Female, age, ethnicity, height, weight, etc.
Half of the boxes were still to be filled once the Medical Examiner had sent his report.
Clipped to it was a sheaf of 10 x 8's colour photographs.
Gill sat up in a rush and felt a pulse of nausea rising to his gullet as he stared at the appalling images.
They were of two girls lying half across each other in on a snow-covered sidewalk, slumped against a warehouse wall under Pier 88, just by the Manhattan ship terminal on the Hudson. He estimated them to be about twelve to fourteen years old, although that had still to be established. Just children.
Probably Latino, he thought, and they were dressed like sex trade workers. Skintight sheath dresses on malnourished, skeletal bodies that didn’t reach down far enough and stiletto heeled shoes that were high enough to induce vertigo.
No coats, no protection against the savage elements . Their faces were caked in gaudy makeup with cheap dangly earrings almost touching their shoulders. Arms and legs for both girls were akimbo in unnatural positions, probably broken. The two pair of eyes were wide open and looking up at the stars on this snowy freezing night, but didn’t see anything.
Gill thought they had probably been tortured.
Their throats were cut across the windpipe, with the rims of the wounds thick with coagulated maroon blood. The heads flopped back as far as their neck vertebrae would allow, like the lid on a kitchen waste bin.
They had been dumped, like so much garbage, but without the trash bag.
Three or four inches of snow laid in the creases of their bodies and on their heads and a dusting on the sharper planes. The skin was mottled nuances of blue.
Gill’s sister was married to Puerto Rican, and he had a niece about the girl's age who favoured her father's looks. At a quick glance, she could have been one of them. Nausea gave way to a rising, churning anger at the utter contempt for young vulnerable lives.
Gill turned back to the report pages, read the sketchy notes twice and then picked up the phone.
This was going to be a long cold and snowy night.
One hundred and five miles west on Route 9 from Buenos Aries on the flat lands above and parallel to the Parana River is the inland port of San Pedro. A poor and dis-enchanted town of people struggling to make a living from the riverside docks and local lumber from the world renowned Parana Pine forests extending away from the edge of the housing line. Ships plied their trade from the well-dredged river and on out into the Atlantic, via the Rio De la Plata and heading mainly north along the Brazilian coast on into the Caribbean Sea and then Miami and eventually New York.
Just a hundred and five miles but it might as well be a million, as that would be the difference in the living standards and hope engendered by the distance. From the sleek glass and silver towers of the capital to cobbled homes concocted of bolted corrugated steel sheets, plastic tarps and pine wood. Instead of smooth blacktop and white kerbing think potholed and worn dusty tracks. Replacing quality clothing and gold-rimmed sunglasses of the big city were torn polyester soccer shirts and the ubiquitous jeans. Feet often went unshod or covered with cheap plastic trainers or sandals. Women wear cheap cotton vests or scruffy blouses and nylon running pants. The one thing that unites the areas is drugs. Only in San Pedro, they don’t hide their dependency. Wasted, emaciated and mentally destroyed individuals slink around cheap bars and sit propped against the hovels in the sun waiting for who knows what because salvation is not available. There is a no horizon to scan for hope, just daily drudgery.
Locally known as “Villa miseria” or shanty towns they cling precariously onto each other on unclaimed land and the riverbank. Sanitation is non-existent, shelter can be a canvas awning strung to a tree; bodily refuse is disposed of by way of a bucket and washing water is derived from the odd standpipe dotted around or for the less fussy, the river.
In one of these habitations live the family, Luna.
The father, Alexis, a self-employed carpenter selling his skills wherever there is an opportunity . Fixing a house, repairing some dockside equipment or making some rudimentary cupboards for someone with a little money. That’s when he is not the worse for a little tequila, which is often the case. His wife, Paz, as well as looking after the family, makes lace tablecloths and headscarves to sell in the Villas market areas. It helped to supplement the meagre wage that her husband left her with after he has visited the bars, to care for their six children.
Alexis, although a drunk, and therefore sometimes unpleasant, wasn’t stupid. The frustrations of merely existing and providing for his large family occasionally proved too much. But he had learned to survive and to make the most of any opportunity that presented itself.
One of Alexis’s more regular customers was Marcos Lopez’s dockside warehouse on Benito Correa street, just off Cecilia Grierson Road, a weed-strewn turning leading down to the river and the dock basin utility.
Across the front of the rust-pocked corrugated structure was the legend “ Lopez Lumber” in three feet high letters except for the letter “m”, which was missing, just leaving the rusting bolts which held it in situ as a marker.
His premises were partly hidden behind discarded rusting cranes, and a stand of trees, next to a sandy track. Alexis was aware, as was the rest of the town that Marcos Lopez apart from shipping the famous Parana Pine lumber also dabbled in other unknown more perilous interests. While working in his warehouse, Alexis often noticed the local chief of police having a drink in his rather comfortably furnished office. Indeed, he had just finished these last few weeks a beautiful hardwood double pedestal desk which took up a third of the office space. Bizarrely leather armchairs and expensive rugs adorned the otherwise rudimentary corner of the building. Senor Lopez was also known as “Jefe” or The Boss, and it was known that his connections led to dark corners and that nobody asked questions.
Ten days earlier, Alexis had arrived at the Lopez warehouse to do the final waxing of the the desk drawers and to set the inlay into the desktop after the special hand tooled kid leather had arrived from Buenos Aries and delivered to Lopez’s account at the port office.
He ambled through the building to the far end circumnavigating the gangs of men trucking out lumber on steel-wheeled trolleys and fork lift trucks.
Steel chains rolled through whining pulleys placed high on gantries and shouted instructions filled the warehouse. Samba music echoed around the building from a speaker somewhere. The pervading smell was of pine from the bundles of sawn timber stacked from floor to ceiling.
Alexis knocked on the door of the dry lined office construction.
He noticed Lopez sitting behind his new desk, with Felix, his gangmaster and Victor, another close associate sitting on chairs opposite.
“Come in” called out Lopez brusquely.
Lopez, was in his early forties, stood just shy of 5’ 7, pulled around 150 pounds and had tight curly black hair which covered his ears and made his head look like a football and redolent of the seventies. His dark eyes were hooded, and the slits revealed restless untrusting capricious lenses. A short tight beard with a few strands of grey ran his jaw line and around his mouth. A vicious, jagged white scar bisected his right eyebrow and wove an inch further across his forehead.
“Morning, Mr Lopez,” said Alexis, rather humbly and nodding a deferential head.
“I am busy, Alexis. What do you want ? He said brusquely, his hands outstretched.
“I am sorry but you wanted me to fit the leather on the desk, and I hear the draws to the desk are a little tight, no?
“Piss off little man, can you not see we are busy”? said Lopez’s gang master, Felix.
A brooding hulk of a man who Alexis had seen beat a worker to a pulp for daring to answer back.
“Okay, okay…yeah, I want it fixed.” Lopez said countermanding his two colleagues and indicating with a jerk of his head to head out of the office.
“Come on ,I’ll leave you to it, and we will speak outside. How long you going to be ?
“Just a few minutes Mr Lopez, maybe fifteen ”
Lopez grunted and turned away.
The three men went from the office, and Alexis saw them walk out through the end of the warehouse in animated discussion and down to the dockside where a ship had berthed.
Alexis put his tool bag on the floor and took out the tub of carnauba wax, a small pot of beeswax, a miniature bottle of machine oil, a tin of adhesive and a batten of wood to stretch the leather. The roll of leather he had picked up from the port office on the way in.
Starting with the draws first, he mixed the two waxes and oil thoroughly and then, a drawer at a time, carefully applied the mixture to the running tracks. After ten minutes and now satisfied that they ran smoothly, he turned his attention to the desk and the leather inlay.
Before he could begin, he needed to remove the computer and the pens and paper that were spread across the desktop. He put the writing tools and paper on the floor, and in so doing managed to knock the ‘mouse’. The screen flickered into life from its slumber, and it filled with a list of images of women and girls and boys. Alongside each image was a description and in the right-hand margin a price. He recognised these as being Argentine, locals even. Their ages varied from twelve to sixteen at his best guess.
Alexis stood transfixed. He looked around him quickly, his eyes flicking left to right. Had he been seen?
Convincing himself that nobody was watching, he surreptitiously looked closer while pretending to work on the leather.
He noticed the names alongside each photo.
One of which sent spasms of fear through his body. But what did all this mean?
He took out his battered second-hand Nokia phone and pretended to check for messages; while doing this, he pressed “camera” and moved the cell towards the screen and captured the screenshot.
“So, what have we here, Alexis,” said Lopez, breezing in through the door unexpectedly.
Alexis stood up from wiping the last of the slight wrinkles out of the leather and smiled.
“Ah, that is perfect my friend,” Lopez said as he ran a hand across the fine finish and sat behind the desk beaming at the trio in front of him.
“ I will just put your things back on the desk for you Mr Lopez” Alexis mumbled as he picked up the pens and papers.
“ No, no..that’s fine. Leave me to do that. You can go.”
“Pay him fifty dollars, Felix.”
Felix took out a roll of money peeled off some notes and tossed them at Alexis, most of them wafting to the floor from where he retrieved them before shuffling out of the warehouse.
He walked far enough away to be away from prying and inquisitive eyes before getting out his cell and looking at the screenshots he had made.
He shook with worry and fear.
Then he made a call.
Lisa and Tom Adams hail from East Greenbush, just outside Albany in Upper New York State and the year before they both entered that condition of nirvana otherwise known as retirement. Tom had worked as a supervisor for the US postal service and Lisa managed the mortgage section of a local bank. They had acquired a regular smart chalet type house in a comfortable suburb,a compact car, and led an undemanding but satisfying life, save for the fact that they were heartbreakingly unblessed with children. Over the years they had tried IVF treatment on a number of occasions which had bitten deeply into their life savings. With each succeeding failure and two ectopic hiatus’s, Lisa lost a little life force, and Tom felt that a deep depression was now starting to take a hand. He felt inadequate and helpless.
They had tried adopting but a relatively minor misdemeanour by Tom when an adolescent had given him a criminal record which in turn disqualified them from having a child from normal adoption agencies.
So, with their 40th anniversary looming and Tom now desperate not only for himself but more for Lisa, started making enquiries of a more oblique nature.
He had overheard in the cafeteria sometime back a colleague talk in whispers about an agency which specialised in introducing foreign children who had been orphaned by war or death of their parents to American couples. There was, of course, a fee involved but Tom was anxious to give Lisa the child she yearned for and their remaining years to be complete as a family.
Tom sought out the staff member and after a few phone calls to his old office finally was given a number to contact him on. After a few minutes reminiscing, Tom outlined his thoughts. At first, his former colleague was cagey and explained that the “agency” wasn’t exactly legitimate and that it would be difficult to arrange a meeting and he didn’t want any part of it. Tom poured his heart out explaining Lisa’s desolation at being childless and finally was told that a phone call would be made to see if something could be arranged. It was also made extremely clear to him that complete discretion was paramount as the principals of the “agency” were not people to mess with. It was also stated that the cost could be in the area of $20,000. The colleague took a phone number and told him to wait to be contacted and not to ring him again. If he didn’t hear anything, it meant nothing could be done.
A week later, as Tom and Lisa returned home from a walk after breakfast, the phone rang. Lisa answered it and with a frown passed the handset to Tom saying. “ There’s a man asking for you, sounds odd.”
“Hello, Tom Adams here.”
“ I believe you were talking to an associate of mine about buying a new car,” said the deep,gravelly latino voice.
“ Ahm, a car ?” Tom said, unsure of the suggestion and watching Lisa move from the kitchen and into the den. He turned away into the passageway.
“ Yes, a not a newish model maybe ten or twelve-year-old. And you would like a pale colour, maybe white. Am I right or am I making a mistake, senor?” The voice was like someone gargling with gravel after smoking a twenty pack.
“Ahm, no, no…thats exactly right,” Tom said quickly, his mind tumbling like the levers in a lock.
“And you know the cost of such a model, senor”?
“Yes, that was explained.”
“Ok, then. We must meet to discuss this further. Just off the I-90 is a Comfort Inn”. It's just a couple of miles from you.
“Yes, yes I know it,” said Tom, becoming nervous. This was unknown territory for him. This wasn’t supervising mail distribution.
“Just off the reception area is a coffee shop. Pick a table at the back, away from people. I will be there at eleven.You have plenty of time to get there.”
“How will I know you?”
The pause lasted for a count of five, then, menacingly.
“ Don’t worry, you will recognise me , senor.”
Then he hung up.
Lisa came back into the kitchen as Tom returned the phone to its base.
“Who was that, hun?” She asked,with a frown.
“Oh, do you remember that old mower in the garage I put up for sale on the church noticeboard. The guy was ringing about it. He’s thinking it over and will let me know.”
He answered lightly as he walked out of the kitchen.
Lisa looked at him disappear and knew he was lying, which was extremely unusual for her husband. She decided in that instant , and she wasn’t sure why not to pursue the matter.
Tom was full of doubt and wondered if he had unleashed an uncontrollable tiger. Uncertain, fearful and out of his depth.
Just desperation and love of his wife drove him on. He had told Lisa that he needed to go to a local Home Depot for some parts for the mower he intended to sell.
He pulled his old Chevy Malibu into space in the corner of the lot at ten fifty-five. It was less than half full, and Tom guessed the typical client was a traveller or salesman and by eleven am was off and away courtesy of the on-ramp of the I-90 just a couple of hundred yards due west.
The short walk to the reception door in the bright clear sunlight seemed like a trudge to the death cell. It was a bright, dry day but an icy winter wind cut around his head, and he shivered. Mainly through anxiety.
He passed through the automatic glass doors and turned right, following the sounds and smells of the cafeteria. The room was floor to ceiling glass and glancing around he tried to pinpoint who might be his contact. Again, traffic was light, and the few booths and centre tables that were taken were occupied by two or more people and didn’t fit the image that Tom was expecting.
“Do you want to be seated, sir ?” Asked the short friendly waitress, arriving at his elbow from nowhere as he stood at the maitre-D's desk and bringing him back to the minute.
“Ah, yes, please. Is it okay if I sit at the back there” he said pointing to a four-seat booth in the farthest corner?
“Sure, I’ll bring you coffee.”
He took off his thick jacket and placed it on the seat next to him. He sat with his back to the glass wall and could see everything in front of him including the door into the cafeteria. The waitress came with a mug and a flask of coffee and gave him a fill.
“Would you like some pie? Freshly made, cherry today” She said chirpily.
“No, no thanks,” Tom said, pulling a false grin.
“Okay, honey” she replied with a grin and skipped between tables back to the kitchen.
Without looking obvious, he scanned each table. Everyone was just interested in themselves, either talking or reading a paper or pre-occupied with a laptop or phone.
Sipping his coffee, he watched, through a line of poplar trees, the sun glinting off the traffic on the freeway, away to the left. After a while, he looked at his watch; it read eleven fifteen.
Tables changed as people came and went. The kitchen clanged and hissed over shouted short orders and plated food. Tom grew anxious. It seemed as if he was caught up in a whirlpool sucking him down. A few beads of sweat detached themselves from the spiky, damp ends of his hairline and congregated at the nape of his neck, forming a runnel which he felt meander down his spine.
Perhaps the guy had changed his mind, and Tom admitted to himself that there was an element of relief. He decided to give him five more minutes.
Then a boy about fifteen, looking somewhat suspicious and dressed in jeans and a sad, distressed brown leather jacket appeared in the doorway and looked around assessing. He eyes settled on Tom, and he made his way down the aisle slipping into the bench opposite him. He didn’t stop taking in everything that was going on around. His eyes flicking left and right.
His hair was to his shoulder and lank and greasy. Tom noticed his nails were bitten to the quick and he wrung his clammy fingers.
He flicked furtive, nervous peeks around him and, finally seemingly satisfied, spoke.
“You the guy looking to buy a ten-year-old model?” The words leeching from the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, yes I am. I’m sorry, but you don’t sound like the man I spoke to on the phone”.Tom said, his brow creased in the query.
“I’m not. Just checking you were on your own. We have been watching you. Stay here, and he will be in in a minute.” He said, and with that got up from the seat and walked out, still with his radar beam rotating.
Tom followed him with his eyes and saw him walk across the parking lot to a black Chevy Suburban with tinted windows parked on the edge of the lot and get in.
A few seconds later a short, stocky Latino sporting wraparound sunglasses, and a baseball cap with “Dodgers” wrote on the front emerged from the truck. He wore a black polo neck sweater, black jeans and cowboy boots. The dude retraced the boy's steps using a choppy arrogant walk back into the cafeteria, ending at Toms table.
He dropped into the seat opposite Tom and leant forward. “So it all seems safe, Mr Adams. You realise I have to be careful and so will you. You do understand Mr Adams” he said, staring into Tom’s eyes without a blink. The message, subliminal but unmistakeable.
“Of course, yes, of course. How will all this work, I mean…and how do you know my name and..?” he said, quite loudly, shocked and confused.
“Shush, quiet,” the Latino looked around, but nobody had appeared to take any notice. Listen to me” the Latino said “Your colleague gave me all your details; without that, I can’t give you what you wish. I now know everything about you and your wife. Your income, where you bank, your relatives, everything. I have exactly the model you wish, except perhaps for the age. It will be a girl, and she is sixteen.”
He sat up and reached inside his leather jacket and pulled out a photograph, sliding it across the table under a paper serviette he plucked from the dispenser on the table.
“This is her.”
Tom stared down at the beautiful, brown-eyed girl smiling into the camera and thought how much Lisa would love her for a daughter.
“ She would be fine, is she an orphan, what’s her background, what’s her name…what happens next,”? Tom asked, anxiously, keen to know more about her.
“Whoa, Mr Adams, one thing at a time. The first thing is the fee; then we can make arrangements.
“Yes, yes of course.”
“You bring half, ten thousand dollars in cash to a place of my choosing, senor and we settle the balance on delivery.”
“When would, ah. delivery be made.?
“In about a week.”
Tom sipped his coffee, trying to keep in control “ I need to confirm this with my wife, you understand. Can I keep the photograph?” He looked at the man in front of him, but he could only see his own distorted reflection in the man's sunglasses.
“Yes, but don’t show it to anyone else or the deal will be off. I shall know. I will ring you tomorrow so be ready.”
“What do I call you?”
A small smile slowly spread across the man's face.
“You can call me Carlos.”
Nelson rang through to Zabrofski’s cell, and it went straight to voicemail. Knowing him and Pianza were on a stakeout with the newbie of the team, Marsha Green, and maybe needed to be silent, he decided to text them about the crime scene on 48th Street and for them to meet him there. He added a truncated note giving the outline of the homicide.
Driving out of the precinct underground garage onto 8th Avenue in his Crown Vic with his blue lights on the front and rear strobing the white crystalline streets he found only the central wheel channels navigable where previous vehicles had passed. Just a few slug-like snow topped buses and the odd car was traipsing around in the ever-worsening conditions. His wipers just cleared enough snow each pass to safely see his way forward. Hanging a right onto the top of West 48th, he found it more difficult as there were no channels to follow. The side street was just a snowy blanket and the visibility close to a whiteout. Slowly he crunched his way to the end and could see the rotating lights of four vehicles just short of the corner of 12th Avenue.
Two were police cruisers, one the ME’s truck and the other, his team's car.
A canvas shelter had been erected over the bodies and the snow cleared from the immediate area. The canvas shelter was pitched against a FedEx warehouse he noticed as he moved to the kerb and wrapping his scarf and overcoat around him, moved to the group huddled by the open front of the temporary cover.
They were all foot stamping and hugging themselves to keep the blood flowing and stop the elements turning them into snowmen.
As he approached them, Zabrofski came out of the canvas shelter. “ Boss, the forensic team, has just left, and the ME’s guy is just bagging them up for transfer to the morgue.”
Nelson nodded to Pianza and Green. “ Sorry guy’s about this, but its got to be done,” he said looking up at the weather and the flurry of snow. In seconds he was covered.
“Yeah, not Miami is it,? said Dino Pianza, his curly hair now looking like a white halo.
Marsha Green, her head covered in beret had her chin down deep in her mock fur collar but smiled. “ You would be too hot in Miami, Pianza”. She shouted as the gale robbed her speech.
Marsha joined the team after the tragedy that was the killing of Detective Shelly Brook when engaged on a recent case and who had been the matriarch of the unit. Marsha, who had been seconded from the Robbery Squad, was black, forty-two years old, five foot six and athletically slim. Her hair was cut to almost to a marine buzz cut style. Her devotion to the job had led to a divorce and with the help of her mother, juggled the demands placed on her with bringing up a little girl.
“How is it going over on 36th, ?” Nelson asked Marsha.
“It’s a no-show at the minute, left the borrowed uniforms in suits to watch.”
The lieutenant nodded, pursing his lips.
“So, let’s go have a look.”. he said, ducking under the flap and standing next to
McVey, the veteran Scottish ME, rugged up in a thick parka. Two attendants stood behind him, both in balaclavas and woollen gloves.
“Hi, Mac, what do we have?”.
The M.E rose from his haunches and dragged on the smoke that hung from his lips. They were virtually beaten to death before their throats being cut I would say,” he said, in a raspy lilt, and nodding at the mounds on the floor,the smoke streaming from his nostrils like steam in the super-cooled air.
Nelson looked down and reprised the images he saw in the photos, only now the snow had been brushed off, and they were laid out flat.
“What was the cause of death”?
“I would say from what little I can see at the moment that they were drugged, beaten about their body and sustained severe head injuries, they could have been dead by the time their throats were cut but I need to get them on the table to confirm all this”. He indicated the wounds with a gloved hand as he spoke.
“How long they been dead, Mac “
“Mm,.the cold speeds the effect up of rigour and it's plenty cold enough right now, but I would judge by the lividity, between two to three hours.”
Nelson looked at his watch, and it read 12.38.
“So, between about 9 pm and 10 pm.”
“Well, that’s not gospel laddie, but approximately, yes.”
The canvas shelter billowed and shook at its restraints, the material making whiplash sounds as the wind gusted and whistled. Both men rocked on their feet.
“ Thanks, Mac, when will I hear from you?.” Gill shouting above the blow as it stripped the words from the air and deposited them into the maelstrom.
“ I’ll be taking to my bed as soon as I’ve tidied things up here and seen them safely on their way,” he said nodding at the prostrate bodies. “ But I will make an early start and give you a ring when I have done the preliminaries,” he said, moving back out into the storm and pulling the hood up over his tartan cap; the nearly finished cigarette still hanging from his lips as he leant into the wind and walked towards his truck.
Nelson smiled and shook his head.
The M.E ‘s attendants started their work, and Nelson moved out to the trio of detectives stood in the elements and indicated for them to get into his car.
He turned on the engine and set the thermostat and blower to the maximum and gave them a run down on the little McVey could confirm.
Looking at the clock on the dashboard, Nelson noted the green digital numbers had jut clicked over to 00.54.
“Okay, guy’s there’s nothing more to be done tonight, so let's all go home and reconvene at eight at the precinct. The priority in the morning is to check on CCTV in the area within a mile of the crossroads behind us. Split the area between you.”
The team nodded and unconsciously peered from the windows up to the nearby buildings and possible camera locations.
“Ah, boss, before you came I noticed on one of the girls a red and yellow rubber wristband, you know like all the charities sell,” said Zabrofski.
“Well, I rubbed the ice away from it and read the message.”
“It read, San Pedro Carnaval, November 2015.”
Alexis was trying to reach Miguel Osino. Ten days before he had paid the port manager a thousand dollars to get his daughter Mia to New York. She was to be hidden on board the “Cielo Mar.” leaving the next day, and the captain promised he would take great care of her. The price was to include the passage and accommodation in New York for a month. It was promised that Mia would be cared for by a “mother” in a hostel, along with other girls, until they had found work.
His hands trembled as the images on the computer flashed across his consciousness.
The cell rang out.
He then rang Mia’s cell phone. They had last heard from her the day after she left. They had tried to contact her many times but realised they were at sea.
Their second eldest of his six children is the sixteen-year-old Mia Pilar Luna.
It was her picture he had seen on Lopez’s computer with a price adjacent.
A pretty girl with soft large brown eyes a few shades darker than her caramel skin. Her black hair falls to her shoulders and cut at the front to her eye line. She is taller than is usual for a girl of her age and could pass for twenty.
She had finished what passed for schooling and unable to find employment in a town where three out of five are out of work. Her father pressed her to walk the market asking vendors if they want help, but they struggled themselves and waved her away. Mia had tried the dock offices and asked if there were a vacancy for a clerk or a receptionist, but again, she was dismissed summarily. The families perilous financial situation was creating stress and resentment between Paz and Alexis, and he was coming home drunk more often and beating his wife when she asked for more money.
So, he thought the answer would be to scrape, borrow and beg for money to send Mia to New York. There, he was sure; she would get very well paid work which would enable her to send money back home to repay the debts, help with the family budget and have a great life herself. In time, Alexis could see her with her looks being an actress or a model and seeing her picture on the television. And in time, she would send for the family to join her.
This was the fantasy world Alexis had let himself be transported to. A world where, through ignorance and too much television he was sure she would live the American dream. Well, his version of it.
Paz, when Alexis at first suggested the idea, was angry and dared him to send her away over her dead body. But the weeks grew long, the girl more depressed and the family poorer. One day when Alexis was out working, and Mia and Paz were talking about the unhappy situation; her mother felt that maybe she should at least give her the choice of moving away. At first, Mia was uncertain, but her mother said for her to think about it for a day or so after explaining what her father had in mind. Paz told Alexis that evening what the two of them had discussed.The parents didn’t raise the subject further.
One supper time a few days hence and after more rebuttals in looking for work, Mia said she had thought a lot about the chance of a new life and asked if she could make the trip. Saying it would be best for everyone in the long run. She had seemingly brightened and begun to look forward to the trip with enthusiasm.
The money was raised, and just after midnight four days later, Alexis put her in the care of Senor Osino and the captain of the ship, on the dockside, with her case in hand and tears streaming from her eyes. He gave her one last hug and reminded her to keep the battered cell phone he had bought her charged.
That was ten days ago, and now the journey home to Paz was full of trepidation and fear. What could he say, even he wasn’t sure what was happening. He paused a while at the roadside bar and was tempted to stop for some tequila, but he couldn’t even face that. He felt sick and helpless, and the sensible voice in his head said that getting drunk would only exacerbate matters.
When he entered their home, Paz was preparing the evening meal. She looked up at him as he slunk down into a chair, looking into the middle distance with a despairing face. A face she had seen a million times, often tequila induced.
“What is the matter Alexis, are you missing our Mia?” she said with a soft, caring smile. “You know, I think we have done the right thing. I have been thinking about it, imagine how happy she will be soon. I just wished we could make contact with her.” She said dejectedly.
He didn’t answer. He Just stared.
Paz moved from the kitchen table and turned on the small TV that stood on a sideboard. A game show was on that she often watched with big cash prizes that she dreamt of winning. After a few minutes, the program finished, and the american channel featured CNN news. It opened with a story about the forthcoming presidential elections and then switched to a story about the current harsh weather on the American eastern seaboard, and two young girls found dead in the snow by the docks in New York.
Paz said rhetorically to the sulking Alexis. “ What a terrible thing, who could that to two young girls. What is happening to this world?”
Alexis turned his eyes towards the screen.
The program then ran a piece of film of the crime scene, the snow and the desolate conditions over which a commentary ran explaining the circumstances.
Then the newscaster asked for the viewers help. The girls didn’t have anything by way of identification on them, just the skimpy clothes they were found in, so could any member of the public recognise either girl. They then showed two cleaned up photographs of their faces.
For long seconds both Paz and Alexis just stared, wide-eyed, non-believing at the screen.
Then in aching slow motion, Paz and her husband, turned to each other and their anguished comprehending eyes met.