Even though she’d been paddling across this calm part of the Rio Grande to Mexico for the past several weeks, Amanda Martin waited, holding her breath, listening for sounds other than the tinkling of the river.
The nose of the canoe collided with the shore, and she checked the depth of the river with her paddle, convincing herself the murky water wouldn’t fill her rain boots.
She pulled the boat into tall, bamboo-like weeds to camouflage it, the blades of leaves grasping her bare shoulders like the fingers of the dead. Despite the triple digit heat, goosebumps erupted on her arms.
Amanda emerged and waded through sandy gravel lining the floor of the small canyon. The permanent shadow of the walls made her feel like she was ensconced in a womb, birthing her from the relative safety of far south Texas to the cartel-ruled northern Mexico. Unlike her actual birth and childhood, she was not the dutiful daughter who followed her parents’ rules without question.
In this life, she was an orphan.
Forced on her journey alone.
Sunlight and heat welcomed her into Mexico. A man stood next to an old pickup, puffing on a cigarette. They exchanged no words; she pulled a faded, worn map from the back pocket of her shorts, pointed at a lone town sitting south of a field of black X’s and handed him several crumpled pesos.
He nodded and tossed the stub of his cigarette.
She hopped in the back of his truck, the sun-scorched metal scalding the back of her legs as she settled between an old woman with cataract-glazed eyes and a young couple, the girl clutching her pregnant belly and breathing through her mouth. Her eyes darted around the packed truck bed, looking to make contact with anyone who seemed perplexed by an American woman sneaking into an area where most people fled, but the lack of acknowledgment made her feel like a ghost.
“The haystack is getting smaller, Josh,” Amanda murmured to the rumpled map in her hands before tilting her face to the sun.
The gentle rocking of the old junker relaxed her as the tires dipped and rose on the rutted out dirt road like a ship meeting the waves at sea. Down, left, up. Right, up, down.
Sleep was a luxury she could no longer afford, but with the heat, the rocking, the exhaustion, her eyelids made the impulse buy.
The pickup lurched to a stop, jolting her awake. The young couple climbed over her. Everyone scooted around, spreading out and claiming more space before the driver shot forward again.
They went further south. Away from the river, the landscape quickly dried out under the harsh sun. Meager farms fought the encroaching desert. A snaggletoothed windmill stood sentry over an abandoned farmhouse. Buzzards circled off in the desert and a few on the ground fought over a lump of clothes. Amanda tried to rip her eyes away from the savage scenery, but they were frozen, watching as scavengers devoured the last of someone’s brother, sister, father, child.
Would my family find me in a similar state?
The truck rumbled by a grove of graves. Crude crosses constructed with sticks and string, the last testaments of someone’s demise at the hand of the man who was the unofficial ruler of this part of Mexico.
She’d slipped in and out of this territory many times. Each successful trip home was one step closer to getting caught. It was a risk worth taking to clear her name, and make Josh face the consequences for the crimes he’d framed her for.
A knock on the back glass of the truck jolted her upright.
“Gringa, I pick you up. One hour, okay?” The driver leaned out his open window.
She didn’t know his name and he didn’t know hers. In an area ruled by drug cartels, anonymity sheltered everyone.
“Muchas gracias.” Amanda hopped down, her sweaty feet sliding inside her rubber boots. Tennis shoes would’ve been so much more practical.
With my luck I’d pick up one of those flesh-eating bacteria and waste away before finding Josh’s sorry ass.
The town was small. Population seemed to be even smaller.
Three young boys ran past her, a soccer ball bouncing between them and a skinny dog yelping in delight. It was easy to find her first stop. The gray-green bricks of the town’s Catholic Church stood out against the rust-brown landscape.
Outside in the town, she was vulnerable, but crossing the threshold of the church she felt the safety of a lost child found by another mother. The panic was still there, but at a lower volume that allowed her to think.
The air inside was markedly cooler, but a warm embrace wrapped around her as soon as she crossed herself. Incense tickled her nose. A soft rustling echoed through the cathedral.
The priest must be preparing for Mass.
She dropped pesos in the offering box, the clanging ricocheting off the walls. Kneeling in front of the candles, Amanda cleared her mind of all thoughts except the memory.
Josh had been avoiding her, and this time she’d catch him cheating. His office was empty. The heavy wooden desk sat devoid of its usual stacks of files and papers, except for a lone manila folder.
She flipped it open and her eyes grazed the boarding pass to El Paso. She squinted, wishing she had a few moments to flip through the rest of the folder before her boyfriend appeared in his doorway, and began his escape from the SEC.
Her memory skipped ahead, to the image of Liz lying dead on the floor. But, her eyes never escaped that visual, as if it were a mental flogging for her part in Josh’s crimes, assaulting her.
A year after parking outside a private investigator’s office in El Paso, Amanda returned to that night so often, scanning her brain for another detail from her last night in Chicago that would lead her to her ex.
She hadn’t expected it to take so long to find him. Hadn’t expected to use the last of her stolen money to sneak into Mexico. Hadn’t expected thorns to pierce her heart every time she thought of David, the man she’d fallen in love with during a two-month stop in the small town of Phoenix, Texas.
Like the Biblical Jonah, she could only run from the whale for so long. David had thrown her overboard so it was time to face her true purpose.
Turning both Josh and herself in.
Amanda brushed the tears from her cheeks before bowing her head, her lips moved along with her silent prayer.
Please God, forgive me of my sins. Grant me strength to continue this mission. Give me wisdom and guidance to find him. Show me patience as I try to right all of my wrongs. I don’t deserve your protection, but please watch over me. And, David …
She gnawed on her lower lip. There was so much more she wanted to say, but words would weaken what was in her heart. She mumbled through her prayer a second time, but the feeling of someone staring at her pierced her shoulder blades and her eyes flew open.
“Amen,” she gasped, crossing herself and hurrying down the aisle and out of the church. Amanda headed for her second stop; the town bar.
The few Spanish phrases she’d learned proved useful, but it was difficult to pick up more than a couple of words in each conversation. For all she knew, Josh could’ve been found weeks ago, if her language skills were stronger.
“Hola, como esta?” she called to a man wiping down the bar. “Habla Ingles?”
The man glared his answer.
Damn, why can’t this just be easy?
She pulled the picture of Josh from her pocket. It was getting soft around the edges and the paper was wavy from near-constant sweat. She cleared her throat, going over the words in her head before embarrassing herself. “Estoy buscando a este hombre.” Amanda slid the picture across the bar, but the man turned his back on her and busied himself with something that didn’t involve talking to an American woman with bad pronunciation.
She tapped her finger on the bar, loud enough to remind him she was there but also to tick off a minute. “Señor, por favor, el es mi novio,” she said, picking her way through the words. She didn’t know how to say ‘scum-sucking ex-boyfriend’ in Spanish, so she just settled on his previous title.
The bartender walked away and didn’t return.
Amanda fumbled through the same exchange with a group of men clustered around a mechanic’s shop.
These men actually took the time to listen to her and look at the picture, but their shaking heads indicated that she’d likely put another black X over this town.
A blast of cool air from a rotating fan greeted her when she entered the supermercado. She paused at the open door of a cooler, holding her long hair off her neck, letting the sweat dry in chilling relief. A welcomed shiver rocked her body and she grabbed a bottle of mineral water and stood in line with a few pesos in hand.
A pretty young woman smiled shyly at her under long dark lashes when it was her turn to check out.
“Hola, como esta?” Amanda asked.
“Bien,” the girl answered. “Y tu?”
Hot, thirsty, frustrated, exhausted. Lonely.
She unveiled one of her well-practiced-win-them-over smiles normally saved for grouchy investors or cynical media. “Bien.” She pulled the picture of Josh out and held it out to her. “Mi novio. ¿Él está aquí?”
The young woman froze and sucked in a sharp breath before her gaze began flitting around the small market.
“You know him. Por favor.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “Ayuadame.”
The woman dropped change in Amanda’s hands and leaned forward. “You must not ask about him. Not here, not anywhere.” Her English was heavily accented.
She grabbed the girl’s wrist, refusing to let go of the only lead for Josh. “Is he here? Have you seen him? Where can I find him?”
“He works for Señor Vargas. You will not find.”
Her heart sped up. Josh was real, alive, close.
“No, please you don’t understand. I have to find him,” Amanda’s throat burned with desperate sobs. “Where can I find Vargas? Please anything.”
The girl’s skin went cold in her grasp. “Go. Now.” She jerked her wrist back and her eyes darted toward a woman approaching the checkout.
The cashier ended the conversation, but Amanda refused to move.
An older woman nudged her out of the way and carried on her transaction.
More questions stacked up on her tongue, waiting for a weak spot in the wall the girl constructed between them, but a tap on her shoulder made her jump.
“You were not waiting.” Her driver stood before her, puffing on a fresh cigarette. “You do not want to be here after dark, gringa.”
The back of the truck was empty during her early evening ride back. Amanda stretched her legs; her feet grew cold in the boots even though the heat of the day lingered.
The name Vargas wasn’t new to Amanda, and it was the only lead that connected Josh with El Paso. As one of her ex’s private clients, she knew nothing about him other than he was a VIP investor. Fear and elation curled around each other and settled in her stomach. The cashier’s reaction should steer her away, but finally, after weeks of marking X’s over Mexican villages, she circled the town she just visited with weary satisfaction.
Here. He’s here.
She relished her victory with two stabs and a slash of her pen, adding a smiley face in the circle.
The sun hung low by the time her ride bumped along the dirt road back at the river. Her chauffeur leaned out of the window when she jumped out.
“I’ll be back in two days,” he called.
“I’ll be here. Muchas gracias.” Amanda couldn’t hide her excitement, as much as she tried to lower her voice and slow her words, her body betrayed her. It was high on hope, a drug she hadn’t had a hit of in a very long time.
The girl might not have wanted to talk to her today, but she knew the power of pleasant persistence. She hadn’t traveled this far and lose everything—including David—to let Josh slip through her fingers again.
He was hers.
It didn’t matter who stood between them. They’d either get out of her way or get knocked down.
She jogged back through the dark canyon, shadows so thick that she reached out in front of her to avoid running head first into a rock.
On the other side, the gray twilight of evening settled over the calm river like a cool blanket. Her canoe waited where she’d left it. A quick check to make sure nothing with fangs, pinchers or poison stowed away, and Amanda pushed off the bank to paddle the fifteen strokes directly across the river.
Eager to be back on U.S. soil with enough light to secure the boat in her Bronco, she hopped out a moment too soon and water rushed into her boots. Her shoulders tensed, she could feel tiny bacteria invading her pores. “Crap,” she mumbled, inhaling deeply to calm her nerves.
With a hold on the canoe, she tugged it up the shore. At the sound of a click, she held her breath and paused, squinting into the near darkness.
The only sound she heard was the lapping of the river. She took two more steps.
Three other clicks assaulted the air and bright lights battered her eyes.
“U.S. Border Patrol. Put your hands up.”
The bow landed on her foot, causing a tidal wave of river water to splash her leg. Amanda shielded her eyes to try to see beyond the blinding light, but the command echoed.
“Both hands up. Now.”