Triple CrossingA Novel
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2011 Rotella, Sebastian
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780316105309
The customary disclaimer is correct: The characters and events herein are fictitious. Any similarities to anyone are coincidental. Et cetera.
Nonetheless, I am also a journalist. I have spent a long time covering Latin America and the borderlands. So for the benefit of those who know the turf, and also for those who are discovering it, I want to set the right tone.
This book is inspired by reality. But a novel gives you the liberty to change and blend, mix and match. Many details of the subcultures of policing and smuggling, of the topography and sociology of the borderlands, are grounded in the present. Others grow out of a past reality that has since evolved. And some aspects are purely “fictional.”
I hope the result fulfills the mission of a novel as described by the wise Mario Vargas Llosa: “to express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a concealed way, disguised as something it is not.”
FOG AT THE BORDER.
Border Patrol Agent Valentine Pescatore urged the green Jeep Wrangler through the shroud of mist on the southbound road. Hungover and sleepy, he slurped on a mug of convenience-store Coke. Carbonation burned behind his eyes. He braked into a curve, trailing a comet of dust. Jackrabbits scattered in his headlights.
Braking sent a twinge of pain through his ankle. He had blown it up months earlier while chasing a hightop-wearing Tijuana speedster through a canyon. He had intended to snare the hood of the punk’s sweatshirt and jerk him to a neck-wrenching stop, confirming his status as the fastest trainee in his unit.
But instead Pescatore went down, sprawling pathetically, clutching the ankle with both hands.
Border Patrol agents gathered around him in the darkness. Tejano accents twanged. Cigarettes flared. A cowboy-hatted silhouette squatted as if contemplating a prisoner or a corpse.
Hell, muchacho, time to nominate you for a Einstein award.
Was that a female tonk you were chasing, Valentine? Playing hard to get, eh?
Hey, you’re not gonna catch them all. Slow down. Foot speed don’t impress us anymore.
The voices in his memory gave way to the dispatcher’s voice on the radio, asking his position. Pescatore increased speed, rolling through the blackness of a field toward the foothills of the Tijuana River valley. With a guilty grimace, he pushed a CD into the dashboard player. Bass and cymbals blared: The song was a rap version of “Low Rider.”
Another night on the boulevard
And everybody’s low-ridin’.
The song had become his anthem, his overture when he headed out into the nightly battle theater of the absurd. He grinned behind the wheel, swaying, mouthing the words. He entered San Ysidro, the last sliver of San Diego before the Tijuana line. The Wrangler cruised past parking lots for tourists who crossed on foot into Mexico, past discount-clothing outlets for shoppers who drove up from Mexico. The area was a meeting point for raiteros (raite was Spanglish for “ride”) waiting to drive north the illegal immigrants who made it through the canyons. He saw figures crouched among rows of parked cars, but he didn’t slow down. There were already Border Patrol agents, uniformed and plainclothes, creeping on foot among the cars, waiting for smuggling vehicles to fill up before they pounced. No raite tonight, homes. Try again tomorrow.
The restricted federal area near the pedestrian border crossing to Tijuana was illuminated by stadium lights atop steel masts that ran along The Line toward the Pacific. Past the southeast corner of the lot where a Border Patrol van idled, a crew of teenagers—boys in Raiders jackets and low-slung baggy pants, girls in shorts and halter tops despite the chill—trooped through the pedestrian turnstile. The revolving gate made a melodic metallic clatter that reminded him of a calliope or steel drums. The youths were Tuesday-night partyers bound for what was left of the Avenida Revolución nightlife district, a casualty of the drug wars lined with shuttered bars and abandoned clubs. Farther east, a steel river of freeway traffic flowed into the Mexican customs station. Pescatore turned west and drove alongside the border fence. The rusting barrier had been assembled from metal landing mats once used for temporary air bases: military castoffs from the Vietnam era. A secondary line of fortification, a newer, taller fence made of see-through steel mesh, gleamed on his right.
Migrants perched atop the border fence on his left. They bided their time, suspended between nations. They peered down at him. Their breath steamed in the February night. This stretch was known as Memo Lane because rocks often rained down on Border Patrol vehicles, forcing agents to write incident memos.
Pescatore blinked and yawned. Back in high school, a wiseass English teacher had had fun with his name. It means “fisherman” in Italian. And there’s the biblical connotation: fisher of men. Which will it be, Mr. Pescatore? Fisherman or fisher of men? As it turned out, in a way the Jesuits would not have expected, Pescatore had become a fisher of men. And women and children. All you can catch. You couldn’t make a net big enough to hold them all. Catch catch catch. And throw them back.
The next song began with the baritone recorded voice that greeted callers to the phone lines of the U.S. immigration bureaucracy. Then came helicopter sounds, simulated Border Patrol radio traffic, a fast frenetic beat. A rapper ranted about oppression, Christopher Columbus, migrants on the move. The rapper got all excited accusing the Border Patrol of abuse, rape, murder and just about everything except drowning Mexican puppies.
Pescatore kind of liked the song; he liked to hate it. It reminded him of the ponytailed Viva La Raza militants who were the nemeses of every self-respecting PA. The ones who hid in the brush with video cameras waiting for you to break the rules, who whined about human rights when an agent defended himself against some drug addict or gang member coming at him out of a mob. The song reminded him of the Mexican Migra Asesina movies in which Snidely Whiplash–looking Border Patrol agents with machine guns mowed down migrants. Quite a twist on reality: Pescatore had more than once seen aliens, when caught between U.S. agents and Mexican police, run north to surrender.
The words crescendoed into the blast of a shotgun. Throwing his head back in sarcastic euphoria, Pescatore shouted out the refrain: “Runnin’!”
He switched off the music. He coaxed the Wrangler up an embankment, dust swirling. He rumbled into position at his workstation: the front line in the never-ending war of the American Foreign Legion, aka the U.S. Border Patrol: the Tijuana River levee.
The landscape never failed to give him the sensation that he had landed on a hostile planet. The levee slanted southeast into Mexican territory. Billows of fog had come to rest in the riverbed like grounded clouds. The migrants lining the concrete banks of the levee were wraiths in the fog. The levee was almost dry except for a stream trickling among tufts of vegetation in the center: a black brew of sewage, industrial toxins, runoff from mountain ranges of garbage in Tijuana shacktowns. Border vendors sold the migrants plastic garbage bags to pull over their shoes and legs before wading through the muck.
There were dozens of people on the Mexican side. Smoke from bonfires mingled with the haze of dust. The scene gave off an infernal glow: the flames, the stadium lights, the glimmer of the colonias speckling the hills of Tijuana.
The voice of Agent Arleigh Garrison, his supervisor, rumbled over the radio.
“Here we go, Valentine. You finally made it.”
Pescatore fumbled with his radio. “Yessir. Sorry I was late. I had the problem with my radio and everything.”
“Your problem was too many cervezas last night at the Hound Dog, son,” Garrison chuckled.
“Ready to catch some tonks? Ready to play? I plan on breaking my world record tonight, buddy.”
“Yessir.” Although he had cracked more than one head, Pescatore could not quite bring himself to call the aliens “tonks.”
“Come on over here. I wanna show you something.”
Pescatore pulled up alongside two Wranglers sitting side by side on the north riverbank. He got out to talk to Garrison and an agent named Dillard, a boyish and reedy cowpoke who was telling the supervisor: “Them old boys wouldn’t pull over, so I cut on my lights and sy-reen.”
And they all rag on me, Pescatore groused to himself, because supposedly I’m the one who talks funny. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window of a vehicle: Pescatore was twenty-five, bantam, built low to the ground with sturdy corded arms and legs, thick black curls. He had big wary eyes and flared nostrils. He liked to play with his appearance as if he were on undercover assignments. He cultivated mustaches that made him look like a Turk, a Hells Angel, a bandit. Back in Chicago before he joined The Patrol, he had on occasion grown out his hair like the Mexican soccer players in the parks near Taylor Street. But now he was close-cropped and clean-shaven. Trying to tone it down, play the role and, as Garrison would say, get with the program.
“There’s my buddy,” Garrison said. He engaged Pescatore in a palm-smacking, knuckle-crushing handshake and let it linger with Pescatore off-balance, as if he were going to yank him forward and shove him down the concrete embankment. “You need anything, Valentine? Coffee? Water? Oxygen? We wanna keep you awake. Don’t want you running that government vehicle into a tree.”
Pescatore rescued his hand from Garrison’s, which was encased in a black glove, and affected a sheepish look. “Oh man, you know I’m king of the road anytime. I haven’t been sleeping so good, that’s all.”
Pescatore hadn’t slept well for months, even after the drinking sessions at Garrison’s house or the gloomy mini-mall bars of San Ysidro, Imperial Beach and National City. After reading an article somewhere, he had decided that his affliction was caused by all the chases. The article had said the experience of a hot pursuit produced a cocktail of fear, rage and adrenaline that caused chemical changes in the physiology of a police officer. All Pescatore knew was that when he finally managed to doze off, he drifted into a zone between wakefulness and oblivion. The border seethed on the edge of his sleep. Haunting him. Disembodied faces surging up out of the riverbed at him. He would wake up, freaked out and exhausted, afternoon light streaming through the window, to see the green uniform draped across a chair. Ready for work.
“So you oversleep,” Garrison said. “You roll in around six for the five-to-one shift. You got your radio problem. You’re back at IB getting it replaced. Maybe hitting on that little Lupita works at the front desk. It’s eight-thirty and the shift is going by quick. Good thing you got me looking out for you, Valentine.”
“At least you work hard once you’re here. Not like some of these slugs.”
Garrison had put in ten years in the trenches of Imperial Beach. During the previous ten years, he had served in the U.S. Army Special Forces and worked as a security contractor in Latin America and as a self-described “white hunter” in Africa. He was six feet three. His back and shoulders were slabs stretching the green uniform. He wore his baseball-style uniform cap high over the rampart of a balding forehead.
Pescatore had once seen Garrison deliver a headbutt that dropped a prisoner to his knees. Talk about permanent chemical changes, Pescatore thought, assessing the gray-eyed sniper stare. What had a decade of chases done to Garrison?
Garrison turned in his muscle-bound way and pulled binoculars off his dashboard.
“Guess what,” he said. “Your boy Pulpo is back.”
“No way, Jack.” Pescatore took the binoculars. “I referred him to Prosecutions, they were gonna do him for illegal entry. He got lucky because he jumped in the back of the load van. The aliens wouldn’t give him up as the driver.”
“Well, he must’ve slipped through the system. Isn’t that a surprise.”
“What’re you gonna do if you catch that turd?” Garrison asked. The bulging gray eyes fastened on Pescatore.
Pescatore hesitated, then said: “I’m gonna fuck him up.”
He took refuge behind the binoculars. He pointed them at the crowd on the south riverbank near the spot where man-sized letters painted on the concrete declared in Spanish: NOT ILLEGAL ALIENS: INTERNATIONAL WORKERS. The migrants sat with hunched shoulders, a huddle of hoods, caps and backpacks. They were like spectators in an open-air amphitheater between the two cities, waiting for the action to start. The smuggler known as Pulpo paced in front of a group of migrants, holding court, gesticulating like an old-time Mexican politician, the flames of a bonfire dancing behind him. Pulpo: buff and bowlegged in overalls, a wire cutter or pliers protruding from a low pocket, a red bandanna wrapped around his head, Los Angeles County Jail–style.
“He’d cut your throat and laugh about it, then go home and tell his mother, so she could laugh about it too,” Garrison said, close to Pescatore’s ear.
Pulpo enjoyed messing with PAs whenever and however he could. The smuggler moved back and forth between Tijuana and San Diego with the ease of someone crossing a street. Pescatore had once seen Pulpo drop over the border fence in plain view of a Patrol sedan in Memo Lane. Pulpo had jogged alongside the fence, his jaunty stride taunting the agents. When the Patrol sedan screeched up to him, Pulpo turned, bounded onto the hood and catapulted himself off it like a trapeze artist. He caught the top of the fence and clambered back over, making an annoyed growling noise as two agents scrabbled at his ankles. From atop the fence he raised an arm in lazy triumph. And a bunch of lowlifes popped up to unleash a cascade of rocks and bricks that shattered the windshield of the sedan and sent a PA to the hospital.
Garrison’s cell phone rang. Pescatore kept looking through the binoculars while he listened to Garrison hold a monosyllabic conversation, mostly in Spanish. Garrison’s Spanish was fluid, though he had a serious gringo accent. Pescatore lowered the binoculars as Garrison clipped the phone back on his belt.
“My guy says it’s on for tomorrow,” Garrison said to Dillard, who nodded.
Garrison turned to Pescatore. “How about you?”
“Tomorrow’s tough for me, man.”
“Hmm.” Garrison stooped to produce a pack of Camels tucked into the top of a sock. He swiveled away from the ocean breeze, cupped and lit a cigarette. “So Valentine, ready to play the Game tonight? How much you betting? Dillard’s down for fifty dollars.”
“Oh man, you know I don’t want none a that action.” Pescatore quickly handed back the binoculars. “Plus I’m short on cash tonight.”
“Don’t worry, buddy, you can add it to what you owe me. Let’s get to it.”
During the next hour, Garrison led Pescatore, Dillard and another agent in a series of maneuvers intended to keep back the crowd on the levee, four vehicles arrayed against the oncoming forces of history and economics. Garrison was a scientist of The Line and an artist behind the wheel. He knew just how close to come to the fleeing aliens without hitting them, how fast to run at the fence before swerving. Lights flashing, the Wranglers sped back and forth and down into the riverbed, frantic figures scattering at their approach. The Wranglers stopped short and spun doughnuts, kicking up dust, herding back groups of migrants who whistled and jeered as they retreated.
Periodically the agents tumbled out to catch small groups—probes by Pulpo and his cronies to gauge the defenses. Pescatore and Garrison chased down a trio of runners in tall grass. Pescatore nabbed a teenager who twisted out of his shoes in the mud and stumbled a few yards barefoot. Nearby Garrison had the other two prone on the ground. He gave each of them a kick in the ribs; Pescatore winced at the impacts. Garrison’s roar made him sound eight feet tall.
“Pinche pollo mugroso hijo de la chingada no te muevas o te doy una madriza, joto! Don’t you run when I tell you to stop. Understand, pendejo?”
Garrison had explained his philosophy to Pescatore. You have to scream and yell and cuss at them like you’re going to tear their head off. That’s called command presence. That’s what they expect. That’s what the Mexican cops do. If you’re all quiet and polite, they’ll take you for a wussy, Valentine. A PA demands respect. And if they keep running from you, they just signed up for an ass-kicking. Thump ’em if they run.
Back behind the wheel of the Wrangler, Pescatore peeled away from the levee, pursuing a family into a maze of chain-link pens filled with construction machinery. The family of three held hands as they fled among cranes and bulldozers. They looked like the image on the yellow freeway signs that depicted a family of running migrants to alert drivers to the fact that the roads around here swarmed with frightened, exhausted pedestrians who got run over in gory and spectacular ways.
Unlike the girl in the freeway sign, though, the little girl he chased did not wear pigtails, but rather ribbons in her hair and a silver party dress with a jeans jacket over it. For Christ’s sake, Pescatore thought, put a coat on her. It’s cold. He cut the lights and sat for a moment by a storage shed. The family emerged, hurrying toward the blue neon of a supermarket in the distance.
He zoomed alongside them, lights flashing, and bellowed over his rooftop loudspeaker: “Parense ahí, parense ahí! Migración!”
They froze. Pescatore patted down the father, dumping the contents of his pockets on the hood: cigarettes, a lighter, a plastic Baggie holding weathered identification documents and wadded cash. The father grinned tentatively, lines crinkling a caramel-colored face with long sideburns. A well-groomed dude dressed more for Saturday night than slogging through canyons: cowboy boots, a purple Members Only jacket, gray slacks.
“Tired,” the man said in English.
His daughter whimpered in her mother’s arms. Pescatore felt bad about making so much noise. He could have whispered out of the window and they would have climbed aboard without a fuss.
“That’s OK, baby, don’t worry, everything’s under control,” Pescatore told the girl.
In Spanish, he asked how old the girl was. The mother said she was four. The mother’s trim body contrasted with a chubby face. She was decked out in designer jeans, a sweater, boots with some kind of embroidered design. She wore makeup, high corners painted onto her eyes. Her hair, like her daughter’s, was arranged with multicolored ribbons. It had been important to this family to dress up tonight. He wondered if it was an attempt at disguise or if they just wanted to look sharp for an expedition to El Otro Lado.
The mother whispered to the girl, who had the same round face and shiny black hair and eyes. The girl stared at Pescatore, spilling tears. She clutched a little red backpack decorated with faded images of cartoon characters.
“I’m one of the good guys,” Pescatore told her. “Hey, those the Dalmatians? Pongo and Perdita? Cruella De Vil? Woof woof.”
He was rewarded with a brief snuffling smile. He escorted them to the back of the Wrangler. He hoisted in the girl first, helped the mother with a carefully applied hand to her elbow.
Then came the moment Pescatore anticipated and dreaded. As the father got in, Pescatore intercepted him. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket without looking; he estimated it was about twelve dollars. He palmed it into the father’s hand down low.
The man looked from the cash to Pescatore, startled. He began to say something and moved his hand as if to return the money. Pescatore waved him off, tight-lipped.
“Take it, ándale.”
He drove them to a detention transport van. The couple exchanged brief words in the caged backseat. They sat stiffly. The girl leaned forward behind Pescatore on the other side of the steel grillwork. In a chirpy little voice, she sang “Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil…”
He hummed along with her. He thought about his insomnia. And about the money. At first, like many other agents, he had occasionally bought a meal or handed a couple of bucks to poignant cases who washed his way on the nightly torrent of misery. But after his trainee status ended, he started giving away money regularly. Every afternoon, he gathered up small bills and change. Although he told himself he wasn’t consciously setting it aside, he usually came up with about thirty dollars. He had tried at first to select the most deserving prisoners: ragged Central American women with babies, lone teenagers. But the arcane logic of selective charity wore him down. He stopped differentiating between hardship and despair. As long as they weren’t smugglers or scumbags, as long as they didn’t resist or disrespect him, he was likely to give them money.
While the prisoners transferred to the detention van, the father said something about how he had studied at a university in Puebla. There was a catch in his voice. In the shadows, Pescatore couldn’t tell whether the man was insulted or trying to thank him.
“De dónde es usted?” the man asked.
No matter how much he mimicked their intonation and expressions, they never pegged him for Mexican-American. They guessed everything else: Puerto Rican? Cubano? Argentino?
“I’m from Chicago,” Pescatore said, sliding the door shut. “Suerte.”
The rhythm picked up. The radio dispatchers called off motion-sensor hits and tips from citizens in measured tones, as if there were some logic or order to this business. “Group of nine crossing at Stewart’s Bridge… Group bushing up by the Gravel Pit… Five to eight in the backyards on Wardlow Street.”
The count became a cacophony as the night wore on. Garrison directed the PAs’ movements from a plateau by the Gravel Pit, where the infrared nightscope was operating. As reports of crossing groups intensified farther north, Garrison dispatched Pescatore to a housing subdivision about half a mile from The Line.
“I’m doing good, buddy,” he exulted over the radio. “Got eight already. On my way to my world record. Go help the horse patrol plug up that area by the Robin Hood Homes.”
At the main entrance to the subdivision, Pescatore met up with Vince Esparza, a horse patrol agent who had been his training officer. Pescatore stood on the running board of his Wrangler to shake hands with the horseman.
“Valentine,” Esparza said. “My favorite loose cannon.”
Esparza’s L.A. lilt always had a calming effect on Pescatore, even when Esparza was chewing him out. Esparza had a furry mustache and a solid gut beneath his bulky green jacket.
“How’s it going?” Esparza said. “You’re looking run-down and ragged tonight.”
“Yeah, well, you know. Garrison keeps us hopping.”
Esparza’s face got less jolly.
“That fucker. Hey, you hear about the sniper sightings at Brown Field? They’re sending out some guys from BORTAC with M-16s to ride shotgun.”
“Must be dopers, huh?”
“Ever since the holidays. I never saw anything like it. Snipers. Dope all over the place. Comandantes and politicians getting smoked in Mexico, left and right. And all these OTMs: Chinese and Brazilians and Somalians, people from places I never heard of.”
“We been breaking OTM records,” Pescatore said.
“I caught me a bunch of Bo-livians last night, for Christ’s sake. I was doing paperwork till three in the morning. Fuckin’ OTM Central.”
OTM meant “Other Than Mexican”: non-Mexican aliens who could not simply be sent back to Tijuana. The surge in OTMs had started around Christmas, a few months after a crisis had hit Mexico hard and generated action border-wide. Numbers were up in every category: apprehensions of Mexican and non-Mexican border-crossers; busts of coke, methamphetamine and marijuana loads; assaults, rockings and shootings. The onslaught had put the San Diego sector on the brink of reclaiming the title from the Tucson sector as the busiest in The Patrol.
OTM meant lawyers, interpreters, headaches, paperwork. An especially burned-out journeyman had once advised Pescatore to simply turn and flee if he caught an alien who spoke funny Spanish or none at all. But Esparza ran from nobody.
“You know some federales or somebody are making money off those Chinese in TJ,” Pescatore said. “Every Chinese alien pays fifty grand, right? That’s a lot for the polleros to spread around.”
Esparza controlled the horse with easy, powerful tugs of the reins, stroking its ears, letting it step in place. He took off his cowboy hat and wiped his forehead with a sleeve. He was thirty-five and had seven years on the job. With the revolving-door turnover of the Imperial Beach station, he was an old-timer. He leaned forward in the saddle and peered at Pescatore, who knew what was coming.
“Garrison got you guys playing that game again?” Esparza asked quietly.
“Yep.” Pescatore had one elbow propped on the roof of the vehicle and one on top of the open door. A moving cluster of lights flashed in the fog: a Patrol helicopter on the hunt. He heard the distant thump of rotors.
“Tell him you don’t play that shit.”
“Vince, he’s my supervisor.”
“Then switch to the day shift. You need to learn how to wake up in the morning anyway. That pendejo is gonna get indicted and bring you down with him.” Passing headlights illuminated the journeyman’s glare beneath the brim of the hat.
“For thumping aliens? No way. Garrison told me they been allegating him for years. Never laid a glove on him.”
“Not just thumping. The FBI and OIG got a big-time investigation going. He’s at the top of the list. He thinks he’s some big operator. Treats you young guys like pets, his little walking group, prowling around the canyons. Buying all the drinks. Pool parties at his house, chicks from TJ. You ever wonder where all that money comes from?”
Pescatore recalled the start of his training period, the scathing Conduct and Efficiency report Esparza had written up on him. Pescatore had been convinced that Esparza was on a personal mission to kick him out of The Patrol. Instead, the reports got better and his trainer had put in a good word for him at the end of his probation.
As if reading his mind, Esparza said: “Valentine, I told you a thousand times: You’re a borderline case. You could be a fine PA if you work at it. But Garrison is a criminal. He is a disgrace to The Patrol. He is bad news. Especially for a kid that’s easily led.”
Esparza’s tone was making Pescatore depressed. He managed a sickly laugh.
“I appreciate the concern, Vince. I’m gonna be OK.”
Pescatore ducked into the vehicle to respond to the radio; Garrison wanted him back on the levee. Esparza’s mouth turned down to match the corners of his mustache, the disappointed parent, the voice of doom on horseback.
“You take care, Valentine. Watch yourself.”
Midnight approached. Things were getting out of hand. Aliens sprouted out of the brush, flashed across roads, disappeared behind ridges. He captured some farmworkers from Oaxaca, short dignified campesinos who spoke to each other in an indigenous language and crouched automatically at the roadside, familiar with the drill. He watched, too captivated by the sight to give chase, as a group of illegal-alien musicians in charro attire hurried along a hilltop lugging instrument cases. Two of the mariachis carried the bass fiddle together, no doubt late for a gig.
Garrison kept him speeding back and forth, changing directions. The Wrangler shuddered across rough terrain, rattling as if it were going to break apart. A volley of rocks clattered on the roof. The throwers were nowhere to be seen in the fog; maybe the rocks threw themselves. Garrison yelled at the top of his lungs on the radio. Pescatore heard a plaintive chorus of voices in the background.
We’re in the hands of a lunatic, Pescatore told himself. Esparza was right. Something terrible is going to happen. He floored the accelerator, the Wrangler hurtling alongside the rusted-brown metal border fence.
Two silhouettes materialized in the dirt road in front of him. Dangerously close. Moving in terrified underwater slow motion, Pescatore tromped the brake. The Wrangler went into a long dirt-spraying skid. When it finally came to a stop, the two migrants cowered unhurt in the blaze of the headlights. They held their hands over their heads. They were women.
“No problem,” Pescatore whispered, clinging to the wheel. “Almost ran you over, killed you dead. No problem.”
He got out. The women shrank against the fence. Loopy with relief, he found himself affecting the jovial authoritative tone that good-ol’-boy Tejano journeymen used.
“Welcome to the United States, ladies. You are under arrest.”
They were apparently sisters, late teens or early twenties. Piles of curls around striking, Caribbean-looking faces. He shined his flashlight at the top of the fence, mindful of rock throwers, then back at the women. Taller than average, long-legged in tight jeans. Maybe Honduran, Venezuelan? They reminded him of a teenage girl he had once arrested in a load van, a pouty Venezuelan sporting sunglasses and platform heels that were completely inappropriate for border-crossing. OTMs for sure. A lot of forms to fill out, but he could get the hell off The Line for the rest of the shift. One of the women wore two sweaters under a cheap leather jacket. Her hands were still raised over her head. As gently as he could, he asked her where she was from.
“Veracruz,” she said, heavy-lidded eyes on the ground.
That part of Mexico could account for their looks, but a smuggler could have also coached them. Pescatore ushered them into the vehicle.
“Valentine.” Garrison’s voice on the radio startled him. “Where you at, buddy?”
“Got two OTMs. Gonna take ’em back to the station and start processing.”
“Negative. Need you here at my location. Hurry it up.”
The dirt road wound up and around a hill. Crickets buzzed in the darkness. The tires crunched over rocks. In a clearing at the top of the hill, Pescatore found Garrison, Dillard and an agent named Macías. They stood around a parked Wrangler in the middle of the clearing. They examined it with folded arms, like researchers in a laboratory. The Wrangler was illuminated by the headlights of other vehicles.
Pescatore glanced in his rearview mirror: The two women were transfixed by the scene, fear flaring in enormous eyes.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered.
The Wrangler in the middle of the clearing was crammed impossibly full of prisoners. Men were in the front seat, the caged backseat and the space behind it. They were stacked on one another’s laps. The mass of bodies wriggled behind the breath-steamed glass as if in an aquarium, a face visible here, a foot there. The captives pounded intermittently on the windows and roof, blows rocking the vehicle. There were complaints and curses.
The prisoners had become pieces in the Game. Garrison organized the Game now and then when he felt like gambling. The Game consisted of seeing how many prisoners could be stuffed into a vehicle during the course of a night.
Garrison welcomed Pescatore with another vigorous black-gloved handshake.
“I told you,” he declared. “I got twelve. Your two gives me fourteen. And then I collect, buddy.”
“My two?” Pescatore said, keeping his tone mild. “They’re OTMs, I gotta process them.”
“Hell with that. Where do they say they’re from?”
“Hey, take ’em at their word. Transfer your prisoners to my vehicle, Valentine.”
Pescatore beckoned his supervisor aside. Garrison grinned at his discomfort.
“Listen,” Pescatore hissed, “all due respect, you can’t put females in there.”
“It’s only till the end of the shift.”
“Still. It ain’t right.”
Valentine peered at Garrison in the shadows, trying to figure out if the supervisor really intended on going through with it or was just messing with him. Both scenarios pissed him off. Garrison looked down at him as if he were about to swat a bug.
“Valentine. These people break the law every day. They spit at you. They rock you. And it’s all a big joke to them. This is the worst punishment they’ll ever get. So don’t you wussy out on me now. Get with the program.”
Coming up next to Garrison, Dillard made an exasperated noise. “Come on, Valentine, nobody’s gonna hurt your girlfriends.”
“Who asked you?” Pescatore retorted. “Take a giant step back outta my face.”
“Fuck you.” Dillard’s thin lips tightened. “I don’t understand a word you say in the first place, you crazy Chicago asshole.”
Partly because he was getting angry and partly to stall Garrison, Pescatore decided to respond as ignorantly as possible. He stepped close to Dillard and cocked his head. He felt a buzzing sensation in his face and hands.
“You got a problem with the way I talk, you hayseed redneck punk bitch?”
Dillard’s face contorted. Pescatore blocked his shove, backpedaling. Dillard started after him and Pescatore crouched and slammed him with a gut punch. Garrison got between them. Dillard was flushed and wild, a hand on his belly.
“Now, Larry, you sure you can take Valentine?” Garrison chortled. “He’s not big, but he’s pretty mean.”
Garrison had a loglike arm extended at each of them, without urgency, like a referee about to resume the action. He’s not gonna stop us, Pescatore realized. He loves it: the brawling, those poor bastards in the vehicle, the crazy bullshit all night.
They were interrupted by a commotion. Suddenly the Wrangler disgorged its cargo, prisoners bolting in every direction. The agents spun around, yelling.
Pescatore focused on a man who crouched by a door, pulling aliens to freedom. A bowlegged man holding a pair of wire cutters, his head wrapped in a red bandanna. A man who had sneaked out of the bushes behind four PAs and sprung a vehicleful of prisoners.
Pescatore lunged forward, pushing someone aside. Pulpo reappeared, closer, grimacing with effort. The wire cutters came whipping around at Pescatore. He snapped aside his head, reducing the force of the blow, but it staggered him. The smuggler ran into the brush.
“I got him,” Pescatore said, unsheathing his baton.
Pescatore pounded through the brush and down a ravine. He ran at an incredible, exhilarating, foolish speed. His head and ankle throbbed. It’s all your fault, Valentine, he muttered, they got away and it’s all your fault. He ran faster, ripping through curtains of fog. He gripped the baton like a sprinter. He noticed liquid trickling down his forehead onto his face. He tasted it: blood.
“I got him,” he said into the radio clipped to his lapel.
At the bottom of the hill, the border fence loomed up out of the mist. Pulpo made for a spot where floodwaters had washed out dirt between two boulders and created a gap beneath the fence. Pulpo scuttled through the opening and disappeared. Pescatore dropped, rolled and came back up on the other side of the fence.
He saw Pulpo glance back over his shoulder in disbelief, then plunge into the traffic on Calle Internacional, the highway that paralleled the international boundary on the Tijuana side. An orange-and-brown station wagon–taxi, elaborate script decorating its side, swerved and fishtailed and almost flattened Pulpo. A bedraggled pink bus braked and honked, the croak of a prehistoric animal. Pulpo reached the center median, which was waist high and as wide as a sidewalk. He stumbled, but kept going as Pescatore closed the gap. A truck left Pescatore a lungful of pestilential exhaust.
A group of migrants trudging single file along the median stopped and stared at the agent and the smuggler pelting by.
“I got him,” Pescatore told them.
He found the looks on their faces pretty comical. What’s the matter? You never seen a U.S. Border Patrol agent chasing a Mexican through Tijuana before? See it and believe it, motherfuckers.
Pescatore realized full well that he had crossed The Line. He had broken the ultimate commandment. He was making a suicide charge into enemy territory. He wondered what Garrison would say. He wondered what Esparza would say. But he felt dizzy liberation, as if the combined effect of the knock on the head and the incursion into Mexico had transformed him. He was a speed machine. A force of justice. A green avenger. He didn’t care if he had to run all the way to Ensenada. He was going to catch him a tonk.
Pulpo fled down the middle of a residential street that went south from the Calle Internacional. It was a quiet, unevenly paved, anemically lit street in the Zona Norte area, dense with cooking smells. Rickety fences fronted low houses painted in orange, green and blue. There was a field in the distance, perhaps a schoolyard.
Halfway down the block, Pulpo threw Pescatore another frantic glance. He zigzagged and cut left onto the sidewalk, knocking aside a gate. Pescatore pursued him into a narrow dirt lot between stucco houses, through an obstacle course of junk: bicycle tires, car parts, a lean-to fashioned from the camper shell of a pickup truck propped up with bricks. There was a wooden one-story hut at the back of the lot.
Pescatore caught up to the smuggler just as he reached the open door. He jabbed with the baton, javelin-style, connecting with Pulpo’s back below the label of the overalls. It made a satisfying thud.
The blow carried them both through a curtain of beads hanging in the front entrance and into the hut. Pescatore jabbed again and Pulpo went down, yowling, into a mangy armchair. Pescatore raised the baton with both hands to strike. A lightbulb on a chain swung above their heads, spattering images as if through a strobe: a dank cramped living room of sorts, a shrine with a Virgin of Guadalupe statuette, candles, an incongruously new and large television. A radio chattered. The bead curtain clattered in the doorway. Pescatore and Pulpo gulped oxygen in loud gasps.
A tired-looking little woman in sweat clothes had stepped out of the shadows behind the armchair. On her hip she cradled a baby boy, who was bare-chested in miniature overalls. The woman’s mouth opened soundlessly. Pulpo had one thick leg splayed over an armrest, the bandanna skewed down, almost obscuring his eyes. They looked as if they were posing for a portrait: the Pulpo family at home.
Silver spots swam in front of Pescatore’s eyes. The baton, held high like an executioner’s axe, weighed a hundred pounds. He heard scratchy voices on his radio. Agents called his name. A search was in progress on the other side. In San Diego.
Pulpo’s narrow eyes were locked on Pescatore’s. The smuggler’s chest heaved. He remained in the armchair, cringing from the anticipated blow, a goofy incredulous expression smeared across his face. He looked younger up close; the facial hair was scraggly.
Pescatore lowered the baton. He had regained his breath somewhat.
His voice sounded pretty calm, given the circumstances. He enunciated carefully: “Ahora sé donde vives, hijo de la chingada.”
Now I know where you live, you son of a bitch.
Pulpo’s face rearranged into a mask of contempt.
“Bienvenido a tu casa,” he growled. The standard deferential greeting of a Mexican host: Welcome to your home.
Pescatore turned and ran.
As he sprinted with long chopping strides, wiping clumsily at the blood that was obscuring the vision in his left eye, Pescatore thought about the time when two PAs had tackled a belligerent drunk in the middle of the riverbed. During the struggle, the agents had rolled across the international boundary, a moment recorded, to their misfortune, by a Mexican news photographer. There were internal investigations, angry headlines in Tijuana, diplomatic protests. The agents got heavy suspensions; one resigned. And their invasion had gone a couple of yards. At most. If Pescatore got caught, nothing short of crucifixion would satisfy the Mexicans this time.
Dogs announced his flight back down the street, noisy escorts loping alongside. Horns blasted when he darted north through the traffic on Calle Internacional. The troop of migrants on the concrete median had not moved; a sun-darkened gnome in a straw hat shook his head at Pescatore. He heard a distant siren. Could the judiciales be coming for him already? The only way those bastards were getting his gun would be to pry it out of his cold dead hand.
The fence looked much taller from this angle. He could not find the hole through which he had gone south. There were no apparent handholds, no hint at how people scaled the barrier so fast every day. He spotted a junked refrigerator propped against the metal. He clambered onto it, tossing his baton and flashlight over the fence into the darkness. He heard hoots, insults and whistles behind him: The lynch mob was gathering. The top of the fence scraped skin off his hands, dug into his armpit. He heard a tearing sound as his uniform shirt ripped on the metal edge. A bottle hurled from behind shattered next to him, showering glass.
With a sob, he flopped over. He dangled one-handed for a few flesh-gouging seconds, then let go. He landed, sprawling face-first, in the United States of America.
Border Patrol vehicles converged on him in the darkness. A helicopter swooped, circling low, the wind and sound magnifying his headache. He rolled to his feet, started to his right, changed direction. A semicircle of flashlights, headlights and spotlights impaled him. An amplified, distorted voice barked at him.
Pescatore sagged back against the fence for a moment. Finally, he stepped forward, into the light. He raised his hands above his head.