Ω CHAPTER 1 – “LEAPER”
Raúl raised his hand to wipe away the beads of sweat that zigzagged down his temple. The last time he sweated this much he was 800 feet below daylight in a tunnel, mining for gold. That felt like 800 years ago. Today Raúl was mining for something just as precious: his granddaughter’s runaway frog.
An hour ago Raúl had lifted the lid of the terrarium for the daily feeding, and Leper had jumped on the opportunity to escape. Raúl knew if he didn’t find Leper before Alexa’s arrival this weekend he could count on a dark cloud descending on his granddaughter’s normally sunny outlook.
Alexa could handle most of life’s static with a shrug such as the time she discovered the wooden nameplate her grandfather had made for Leper and mounted above the amphibian’s terrarium. Approaching the tank, she squinted her eyes, tightened her lips into an “O”, and then allowed a smile to melt her expression. “Grandpa, you silly, it’s LEAPER, not LEPER!” Then she giggled, “A leper is a person with a disease that makes your skin fall off. A LEE-per jumps and catches air!”
Raúl’s concern over his spelling mistake faded as he watched his granddaughter launch into ballet leaps across his short kitchen. At 72 years old his grasp of the English language was as stubbornly reluctant as a cat taking a bath. Why would they put so many vowels into a word and then just ignore them by only pronouncing a couple?
Alexa scribbled the name LEAPER in capital letters on a napkin, and Raúl sounded it out slowly. “Lay-ah-pair?”
“No abuelo, lee-prrr,” Alexa corrected.
“Close enough.” Alexa surrendered by smiling and swatting the air downward with her hands as a gesture of dropping it. After all, frogs shed their skin regularly — not exactly like a leper, but close enough.
There would be no quick forgiveness from Alexa if he lost Leper today. Finished with mopping his brow, Raúl delicately lowered himself onto the kitchen floor into a position on his hands and knees. He shuffled forward to search the space where the linoleum met the cupboards. His hands only brushed against dried breadcrumbs and a paperclip that had gotten flicked into a corner. Raúl spun to his right and glanced up. Did the rascal frog jump up to the counter behind the phone? His arthritic knees whined and remained locked in their bent position, despite cursing them in Spanish. Maybe his rodillas didn’t speak Spanish, and that’s why they ignored him now that he needed to get up off the floor. He sighed while looking down and pleading to his knees, but another bead of sweat traveled down his nose and perched at the end of his nostrils, taunting him to sneeze, shake his head, or thrust his head up. Exasperated, he did all three at once, launching himself back into a rough sitting position on the kitchen floor.
“¡Maldita rana!” That blasted frog was going to be the death of him. Raúl closed his eyes and leaned back on his hands to let the cool surface chill down his flaming temper. With his breath at a slower cadence he knew what he had to do to find Alexa’s missing pet. It had been a long time since he had submerged himself into “el mundo oscuro”. The dark energy he harnessed so many years ago in Mexico’s gold mines still welled up on occasion in the form of a nightmare or a shudder-inducing daydream. At the back of his throat began a guttural rumble, as if a rusty gate to an ominous world was heaving open. Raúl’s closed eyelids fluttered while breath barely escaped his nose.
Although seated on the colorless floor, Raúl’s vision rose up so he could clearly see the counter and the phone positioned two inches from the wall. The insides of his closed eyelids clearly displayed a projected image of the phone with its buttons protruding, the handset cradled facedown, and the caller ID display vacant. As if hovering a foot above the phone Raúl saw a line of brilliant blue extend in a corkscrew from the handset, racing around the spiral corners of the extension cord. The blue glow extended into the body of the phone, backlighting each number one-by-one and searing the cord that connected to the wall jack. With the phone now throbbing cobalt blue, another hue began to distinguish itself. In the space between the phone and the wall was a growing bead of amber — first just the size of a watermelon seed, then increasing in size and changing shape. The amber object became more brilliant with each expelled growl in Raúl’s throat. Shimmering golden edges began to define themselves forming a low mound with two bumps toward one end. His growl became lessly gravelly and began to form a staccato sound like a cough. Then the cough softened into a laugh as Raúl sat forward, eyes flying open. “¡Aa ja!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “I see joo, lee-tull rat skull!”
The rascal frog pulsed in hiding behind the phone — a green color now that Raúl opened his eyes. Defying his age and rusty arthritic knees Raúl swiftly pulled himself up with a little assistance from a cupboard knob and the counter edge. His right hand formed a dome topped with gnarled knuckles. The hairy dome slid behind the phone, grazing the wall as it closed in on its target. In one blink the dome clamped over the obscured amphibian, and another dome scooped in to fuse with the other. The frog found himself encased in a dark, warm cage of Raúl’s hands. A second later Leper was deposited back into his mossy habitat where he scuttled under his damp driftwood, and his captor collapsed in exhaustion onto a vinyl kitchen chair.
Ω CHAPTER 2 – “A DODGY MISSION”
Alexa wiped off her dusty shoes as she entered the back door to her sunshine colored house on Ayers Ave. She had cut through the lemon orchard on her way home from school, which added about 400 yards, but saved her from the scrutiny of Old Lady Gerchin. As she lowered her backpack to the floor, she hit the playback button on the answering machine. A message from her mom greeted her, reciting six chores that needed completion, delivered with machine-gun flow and followed by a sing-song, “Thank you for getting those done before you go to your abuelo’s, cariña. ¡Besos!” Alexa sighed and started to shuffle down the narrow hallway while half-whispering her snarky answer to the machine, “Thank you for the organized list, mamá, but it needs to be submitted as a spreadsheet in order for the items to be considered for fulfillment. Dot xls or csv files will be sufficient.” With raised eyebrows and a waggle of her head she mimicked her mother’s closure of “¡Besos!” Had she been overheard by her mother, however, she’d have been data-mined and spread-sheeted at high volume, with a very ferocious interface.
Hearing muted whoops and shouts outside, Alexa pulled herself out of her defiant juvenile imitation to peek out of her room’s window. Her mouth hardened to a pinch at what she saw. Turning away from the window she booted her laptop and muttered at the screen, “Ugh, they are sooo immature!”
School dismissed at 3:30pm, at which time Mrs. Gerchin would shuffle onto her porch and sit at attention in a white wicker chair with a Hawaiian cushion, to await the procession of students unfortunate enough to have to walk past her house between 3:35 and 3:56pm. Every day of the school year was like open season for her. The students unlucky enough to walk past her house found themselves under the old lady’s watchful eye. If a kid’s toe accidently kicked a rock onto her lawn she would send forth a crackle-voiced tirade about how the lawnmower would throw that rock through her window. If a pant leg brushed against her overhanging heather shrubs, Mrs. Gerchin had some choice words about respecting other people’s plants. Despite the added distance to her commute home, Alexa found it was better to just steer clear of the “sour gherkin” and take the long route through the lemon grove.
Not all students heading down the sidewalk chose a path of avoidance — some opted to fight fire with fire. At least once a week a pack of boys would approach the combat zone, exchanging whispers that resulted in a shove of the elected “advance party”, a 13- or 14-year-old who would stumble forward to begin his attack strategy.
“Kyle, it’s all you, man!” one of the boys would urge at the freckle-nosed conscript chosen to assault Mrs. Gerchin’s sacred front yard. Kyle would jerk his baseball cap down low so it smashed his eyebrows and throw up his sweatshirt hood to create anonymity. The “sour gherkin” always backed up her threats with a claim that she was filming any and all activity that occurred on her property. While no one actually saw evidence of a camera concealed under the eaves of her porch, every passerby would give her shrubs a second glance in case she was videotaping from beneath the branches or leaves. The whimsical cement animal yard ornaments also got probing stares to see if Old Lady Gerchin had discreetly mounted a micro-camera on one of her stone squirrels.
On these weekly combat missions Kyle would carry out a variation on a common offensive strike: enter enemy territory, display feat of athleticism intended to intimidate opponent, proceed to cause minor damage to yard décor or plant installations, then split as fast as possible with minimum casualties.
Today, Kyle took his call of duty with a grunted “I got this”, and accelerated into an approach down the sidewalk. In one swift motion the hooded figure hurdled the boxwood, bounded over three stepping stones, stooped to tip over a cement-cast rabbit onto its side, and surged into getaway mode back over the boxwood to rejoin the group who had scurried up the sidewalk in a parallel surveillance. The praise and high-fives offered to the assailant by his military unit were drowned out by the barrage of shrieks and howls deployed from the porch. Mrs. Gerchin was not pleased. “I got you on camera, you punk! I’ll take this tape to your school and have you identified! You troublemakers will not get away with this!”
A block later, as the noise from the verbal bombardments decreased, Kyle retrieved his backpack from the shoulder of one of his accomplices and let out a satisfied sigh. He peeled off and bounded up a path toward a yellow house. “Laters, dudes!” he called out in a Nikki Minaj accent with a shot of surfer drawl.
“Awww, you gonna leave us for that blockhead?” his comrades protested. Kyle just offered them his two palms and a half grin of innocence. “What can I say, I’ve had enough thrills for one day!” Kyle reached the front door and knocked twice. Without waiting for an answer he turned to leap off the porch and plunge around the side of the house. Within eight strides he reached the cement pad of the back door. The curtains surrounding the top half of the door parted, revealing a bodiless head enshrouded in dark wavy hair. The door opened inward and Kyle stepped in without waiting for an invitation. “Hey Alexa, is the latest texture pack finished downloading yet?”
“Nope, just started. Minecraft had better hurry up. I’ve only got an hour before I have to go to my grandpa’s for the weekend.” She shut the door behind Kyle. “I downloaded a giant frogs mod. Big enough to put a saddle on and ride! Sick textures. Greenish brown spots…what’s in your hand, Kyle?!”
“Hmm? Ribbit. Oh, you mean this? Ribbit. Here, it’s for you. Ribbit,” he replied with a sheepish grin while extending out his hand that held a grey colored hunk of rock.
“Awww, it’s an adorable garden gnome frog! For me? Where’d you get it? Wait…” Alexa’s smile faded and her eyebrows retracted toward her nose. “You didn’t get this from where I think you got it…” She plucked the stony amphibian from his hand and shoved it into his sternum. “You take this back to her garden! She’s probably spitting nails right now.”
“I can’t take it back or she’ll have even more evidence on her surveillance cameras. Besides, I thought you liked frogs,” he said, as he received the cold lump back into his hands.
“I love frogs. Just not stolen ones, thank you very much.” Turning back to her laptop, Alexa sat down and opened a window that displayed the texture pack download progress bar. “It’s stuck at 34% completion.”
“Alright, let me log on to see if I can make it go faster on my account,” said Kyle as he bounced onto the edge of her bed.
Alexa sat back in her chair and folded her arms, staring at the motionless progress bar. “Lack-of-progress bar, more like,” she thought as she inhaled and closed her eyes. A few moments into her dark retreat she let out a low growl and tightened her jaw, but then caught her breath in surprise. Alexa sat stunned, feeling her face bathed in a brilliant prism of color despite her eyes still being shut. To get a better look at the source of the prism she quickly opened her eyes. Instead of being greeted with one of Kyle’s fancy flashlights or colored lasers, all she saw was the progress bar. This time though, it showed 100% completion.
Ω CHAPTER 3 – “TO MARKET, TO MARKET…”
“Well, it’s about time,” Alexa spat toward her now-behaving computer. “I was hoping to use some of the new additions on my Chinese feng shui house this weekend.” She and Kyle had been building their Minecraft block-structures for over two years now; defending their “worlds” from griefers (unwanted invaders), shearing sheep, mining for various ores, and building elaborate homes with supplies developed by other players and administrators. “I got a temporary data plan for my phone that I can use on the weekends that I go to my grandpa’s. He doesn’t have wi-fi.”
“How can a person live without wi-fi?” replied Kyle in a distracted voice. Then yelling at his monitor, “Are you kidding me! Someone raided my tool chest while I was at school! Now I don’t have any emeralds left!”
“My grandpa lives almost totally off the grid. He’s got solar panels on his roof, so he gets free electricity. He had a well dug, so he’s off city water. He does have a phone, though. Old fashioned landline. My mom demanded that since I visit every other weekend. Cell phone service is kinda lame up in the canyon where he lives.”
Alexa had spent many frustrating weekends trying to defend her compound from griefers, losing the internet connection at critical times. She finally discovered that if she sat under the oak tree on the hillside behind her grandfather’s cabin she could use her phone’s hotspot to connect. There was always a lag, and every keystroke seemed to take an eternity to react, but at least she wouldn’t sustain any damage from villains. Another benefit of her oaky hillside retreat was that she couldn’t be seen by her grandpa behind the trunk of the century-old tree. He always got on her case whenever she pulled out electronic devices. To bypass his contraband scan she used the diversion that she was going to look for avocados from the abandoned grove up the hill, an excuse that usually satisfied her grandfather even though they both knew very well when the green guacamole makers were not in season.
“He sounds like a total hermit. Does he ever see any humans, other than yourself?” Kyle continued with irked grunts and rapid-fire clicking of his mouse. His laptop’s trackpad was too slow and bumbling for gaming. A lot of Minecraft involved right and left clicks to access and activate tools. Most players with laptops resorted to plugging a mouse into the USB port and parking the mouse on a book.
“I’m not sure how often he leaves the canyon. There’s usually cereal, soup and store-bought tortillas in the pantry, though, so I guess he must go out.” Now that she thought about it, Alexa couldn’t remember the last time she and her grandfather drove the 20 miles into town together. It must have been a year ago that they hopped in the 1962 Ford pickup and went to Farmers Market. Grandpa had been on a mission to buy some “manzanas y platanos” for his “preciosa” after Alexa’s mom had accused Raúl of malnourishing her daughter. She thought that canned soup and tortillas weren’t sufficient for a growing 13-year-old girl. There had been a lot more to that fiery exchange between her mother and grandfather, but Alexa lost track once they veered off into rapid-fire Spanish. She got the gist, though. If grandpa didn’t step up his efforts in the kitchen, Alexa would not be permitted to visit him. Raúl readily offered to shop at the outdoor market where they sold everything from organic fruits and vegetables to steaming tamales and jarritos of orange soda.
That Saturday a year ago they had pulled into a parking spot next to a pristinely white Audi A5. Alexa took a moment after slamming the ancient rusty truck door to appraise the neighboring work of art. “Abuelo, what do you think of trading in caracól here for something a little more modern.” She accompanied her insult of her grandpa’s cherished truck with a wink and a half grin as she joined him in walking to the market booths.
Raul grunted as they approached the first booth stacked with giant, ripe strawberries. “That eez not a car. Eez a carga.” Alexa translated his automotive dismissal and responded, “Yeah, but that’s the kind of burden I’d like to drive!” Then she looked down at her grandfather as he engaged in their first market transaction.
“Geez, abuelo, you sure brought a lot of cash to a farmers market! Did the price of bananas go up?” Raúl thumbed through the small stack of $50’s jammed in his wallet.
“Joo never know! I was told by your mama that you have been eating mucho, and that I needed to be prepared,” he said with a smile.
“Ugh, she seriously said that?! She is sooo on my bad list right now!” but before she could continue her reaction of disgust, her attention was redirected to a table adorned with necklaces and bracelets.
“Aaa, la joyeria. Joo are getting distracted, mi preciosa,” said Raúl gently guiding Alexa past the jewelry table to another with apples displayed by variety. Three more booths later, Alexa and her grandfather headed back to the truck laden with bags that contained enough fruit for two weeks. “Abuelo, I’m only staying at your house for two days. Are you going to be able to eat all these fruits after I go?”
“Si, no problem,” he murmured while looking at his gas gauge as the truck rumbled in park. “Next, petrol,” he said as he backed out of the shady parking spot. “Say goodbye to the flashy princessa,” nodding in the direction of the Audi.
Alexa looked wistfully as the pearly car got smaller in the distance. At the gas station Alexa followed Raúl into the mini-mart to pay for the gas.
“Abuelo, why don’t you have a credit card to stick in the machine like everyone else? Now you have to wait behind that guy who’s buying a mountain of Doritos and beer.”
“Why would I want piece of plastic when I have cash?” he answered, but Alexa thought he was hiding something else. She didn’t probe the money topic any further and immersed herself in the rack of magazines near the cash register.
Kyle stopped clacking away at his keyboard, having driven out block-shaped marauders from his compound. “You got anything to eat? I’m starving. I traded Zog my turkey sandwich for his bag of chips. Not so fulfilling, I must say.”
“Yeah, there should be some leftover pizza in the fridge. Bring some for me too, would’ja?” Alexa continued mining for “redstone” deep below her dwelling. A few moments later she heard Kyle making a high-pitched grunt in the kitchen, but thought he might be trying to sing. Whenever he listened to Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” he would add his own explosive singing noises when he reached the part of the song with the “Oh!…Oh!” The song had been parodied numerous times on the internet with sheep, cannons, you name it. Alexa thought Kyle was just trying out his own future YouTube version of the song when she heard, “Crap! Hey, Alexa, get in here! This is NOT good!”
Alexa shoved her rolling chair back and stomped down the hallway, annoyed at being interrupted. Turning the corner into the kitchen, she stopped cold. Milk shimmered on most of the floor under the refrigerator, a broken bowl lay in the puddle with pieces of fruit strewn across the tiles. But what gave Alexa’s throat a dry, gritty feeling were the kitchen knives scattered throughout the kitchen, blood smeared on one of them.
“Wow, I guess I’ve got a few more chores than I thought,” Alexa spoke in a trembling voice.
Ω CHAPTER 4 – “THE INVESTIGATION TEAM”
“Mom’s not answering her phone. Call Zog and Tess and get them over here right now”, Alexa hoarsely whispered to Kyle. Why her first impulse was to summon the twins instead of the police was beyond her, but she was operating on autopilot at the moment. Zog and Tess could not be counted on to look presentable for a nice occasion, nor could they converse like humans with adults, but they had a way with summing up a situation with cold bluntness. Go to school play? “Nuh-uh. Posers.” Upgrade to iOS5? “Nope. Wait for the next version.” If anyone could make sense of the blood and knives in her kitchen, Alexa could count on the twins.
While waiting for the twins’ arrival Alexa slowly circled the perimeter of the kitchen, her eyes darting over the walls, counters and floor for any sign that this was merely the result of clumsiness. Dropping a carton of milk and leaving it on the floor was curious, but the upended fruit bowl and scattered knives told a different story altogether. Had her mom caught a robber taking a milk and cookie break? Or did her mom experience some post-40-year-old melt down and decide to try a live version of Fruit Ninja in the kitchen? She let her imagination drift into an image of her mother swiping at bananas, apples and glasses of milk with a 9” Wusthof as they sailed through the air. No, she sounded too calm on her nag message. Alexa’s search was interrupted with a whimpering sound coming from Kyle. She shot him a questioning look and he answered feebly. “Do you think I can still get the pizza out of the fridge?”
“You’re still thinking about your stomach at a time like this?!” her hands flew above her head. “That’s blood! And it’s not from rump roast!” Alexa glanced at her phone to see if her mom had returned her text. She inhaled and rolled her eyelids up toward the ceiling. Squeezing the sides of the phone in her palm she let a groan escape while letting her breath out. A vibration began to faintly build at her trachea and her vision dulled into a hazy rose color. Her head started to gently sway side to side in a thrall of pinkish rumbling.
“Hey, Alexa, are you passing out or just practicing some Hindu meditation?” Kyle said, peeling his attention away from the unattainable pizza. Before Alexa could respond, the twins burst through the back door and shouted into the house, breaking her groggy trance.
“We’re here to save you from a wrecked kitchen!” they cried in unison before rounding the corner to face their friends. “Oh, snap!” Zog exclaimed just as he was about to step in spilled milk. Tess slammed into her brother as he abruptly stopped and then peered around him. “Wow, Alexa, you really suck at cleaning,” Zog’s sister declared.
“Um, guys, we have a problem,” Alexa choked out, and the twins followed her gaze toward the knives strewn across the floor.
“You have a problem, you mean,” Zog retorted. “Whose blood is that?” peering closer at the cleaver smeared with dark red.
“Since mom is vegetarian, and I haven’t cooked in over a week, I’d say the source is yet to be determined.” Alexa flip flopped her phone over in her palm nervously. “My mom’s going to be really pissed.”
“Not if she’s the source of…” Zog’s comment got cut off by a whack on the back of his head from his sister. “Don’t be such a tool,” she reprimanded in a fierce whisper that everyone in the room could hear. She glanced up at Alexa and asked, “When is your mom supposed to be home?”
“She worked from home this morning but said she was going into the office around 3:00pm, and was going to stay a bit late for a conference call.” Alexa scrambled to remember the schedule her mother had spelled out yesterday. “Hey, she recorded her nag list for me on the answering machine. Let’s see what time she left that.”
As the four teenagers exited the kitchen and assembled around the hallway phone, Kyle chimed in, “Why doesn’t your mom just text you the daily chores?”
Alexa responded half-embarrassed that her mom liked the verbal approach over the written. “You know, she’s kind of a technology groundhog. Only pops up now and then to make sure she’s not too far behind the rest of the world. Texting is a very recently acquired skill for her.” Alexa pressed the caller ID button to display the time and date of her mother’s “nag message”. The digital display showed 2:50pm – just before she was due to leave the house for work.
“So, Alexa, you’ve got a tossed kitchen, a mom who’s unreachable, and Kyle here, who looks like he’s entering the zombie apocalypse of hunger,” assessed Zog, glancing longingly toward the kitchen.
Tess intercepted his impulse to raid the fridge with, “Zog, we’ve already tampered with the crime scene. Alexa, doesn’t your mom keep an emergency supply of cheese and crackers in the garage?”
“Who’s calling this a crime scene?” replied Zog. “Cheese and crackers sound good though. Lead the way, Tess.” Alexa watched her three friends head out the back door, and as soon as they were out of sight she retrieved her cell phone from the hallway stand and quickly pulled up a number at the top of her alphabetical contacts list.
“Abuelo? It’s me. I missed the bus to Ojai. Um, no. Nothing’s wrong. I’m not sure when the next bus is. I’ll call when I’m on my way, okay?”
As the old bearded man slowly hung up the handset on his end, it glowed an angry and pulsing orange hue. The last time he saw that throbbing light was 30 years ago when he pushed the mine shaft elevator button and shifted nervously in his boots that were filled with nuggets of gold. The return of that warning beacon sent a shiver down his spine.
Ω CHAPTER 5 – “IN PURSUIT”
Raúl scrambled out the door squeezing his truck keys in his hand until he realized he was hurting his palm. He shook out his dented hand and opened the squeaking truck door with his other, then tossed himself into the driver’s seat. ¡Despiértate, Caracol!” he growled at the ignition as the engine protested having to wake up. It finally spluttered in obedience and coughed its way down the driveway.
The dirt road leading away from Raúl’s cabin had as many potholes as his yard had gopher holes, so drivers had to take it slowly or suffer separation of the spine from the neck. The reality, though, was that the last driver other than Raúl to come up that road had come three years ago, and she had not been amused by the state of disrepair. Alexa’s mom had cursed the whole way about her Honda bottoming out and the repair bill she would be presenting to her father.
Raúl bounced down the road, checking his rear view mirror to see if any parts beneath the truck were dropping out from stress. He let his breath out in a hiss once he reached the paved road, then pressed the gas down firmly. ¡Vámonos! As much as he coaxed his shuddering Ford, it wouldn’t go any faster than 42mph. Normally “The Snail” was driven at a meditative 30mph, considering he was never in no hurry to get to the grocery store in town. The tortillas could wait. Today, however, Raúl wanted to awaken a little urgency in the old engine.
Disregarding the complaints coming from under the hood, Raúl urged Caracol down Highway 33. The cab shell rattled over the bed of the truck. He stared at his white knuckles gripping the wheel. If only he could go más rápido. As if on cue the ridges of his knuckles softened from a white to a yellow hue, and then strengthened into orange. The glow surrounding the top of his hand ignited the steering wheel in the same tone, then traveled down the column until it disappeared into the engine compartment. Within ten seconds the protesting truck calmed down. The shimmying stopped and the roaring engine ceased crying out in revolt. At the same time Raúl felt a small surge in speed and watched the speedometer needle inch to the right by another 15 mph. He continued applying pressure on the pedal and directing his gaze through his illuminated hands. At this rate he would be at his daughter’s house within 10 minutes.
Alive with vigor and speed, Caracol sped down the highway. The shell attached to the rim of the bed no longer rattled, and the wheels skimmed the surface of the smooth road. Raúl slowly dragged his gaze down to the speedometer and nodded in approval at the 70 mph displayed on the dash, but a flash in the rearview mirror drew his attention upward. What he saw dulled his optimism. “El poli,” he growled. The flashing red and blue lights behind him renewed his concentration. Raúl forced his eyes forward toward his hands which responded by flaring bright orange. A chain reaction ignited more speed from within the old vehicle and the needle on the dash nudged further to the right. 75…80…85…90. Raúl’s eyes pierced ahead and a grim smile spread across his mouth. 90 mph was the maximum display on the 1962 pickup’s speedometer, but he knew he was exceeding the display. The needle bounced repeatedly against the line as if trying to shove past the limit but jerking back from the thick barrier. Cops were not going to delay him today.
With a police car in pursuit of Caracol, Raúl decided to push the limits of the vintage truck one more time. Glancing in the rearview mirror to see the status of any traffic behind him he swung the wheel hard to the right, pulling the vehicle across two lanes, then slightly clipping the orange impact barrel of the exit off ramp. Glancing to make sure he had not torn anything important off Caracol with his wild tangent, he flew down the off ramp. Raúl spared another glance to his left to see if the police car was still in pursuit. Just as he had hoped, the flashing red and blue lights were on the other side of the freeway barrier, unable to complete the chase down the off ramp.
Raúl was within a mile of his daughter’s house now, and quickly did a mental inventory of the surrounding streets. His best guess was that he had two minutes to hide his truck and return to the residential streets on foot without being detected. “Óye, Caracol, what do you of hiding where we take our bottles and cans?” The recycling center, just a half mile from Luisa’s quaint neighborhood, was penned-in by pepper trees and a chain link fence. Typically Raúl wouldn’t park under those willowy giants because their foliage was messy and he would return from an errand with a truck bed full of little red berries and slender leaves. But today he welcomed the droppings and their shade.
Caracol bounced in through the recycling center’s front gate, kicking up dust by swinging to the right. Noticing the cloud rising behind him he slowed to a crawl on the dirt and drove onto a dried-grassy section. Gently turning the wheel, Raúl nosed the vehicle down into a ditch beneath the boughs of a drooping pepper tree. Its branches had not been trimmed and Raúl could hear small scratching noises on the paint outside. “Lo siento, cariña,” the driver apologized, “I’ll get you spa treatment when this is over.”
As he pulled the key from the ignition Raúl noticed the wheel and crankshaft had almost returned to their original black color. “Gracias,” he murmured as he slid out the door. He ran a quick scan of the facility with its giant bins labeled for collecting, newspaper, metals, clear glass, colored glass, and various types of plastic. There were no other cars inside the gated area, nor was there any noise from the street on the other side of the fence. Raúl picked up the pace once he passed through the gate, and settled into a jog. “Come on legs! I’m going to have to call you caracoles now too!” he teased to his muscles which started to protest at the effort. In case anyone was watching him, he swung a right hook and a left jab to look like he was just going down a boxer’s memory lane. Anyone who gave him a second glance would think he was an old man who just watched Rocky V and wanted to rekindle the fire within.
Three minutes later, after weaving a complicated pattern of rights and lefts through the shaded sidewalks, Raúl stumbled down a ditch and up the other side to enter a lemon grove. He had to wave his hand in front of him to knock down the spider webs that strung between the rows of citrus branches. It never paid to go too fast through the groves, otherwise you’d end up with a face full of spider debris. He could faintly see the backs of the houses as he paralleled them three rows deep within the orchard. Raúl slowed his pace down to a walk and tried to listen above his wheezing breath. Finally, he had to hold his breath for fifteen seconds so he could listen better. Hearing nothing out of the ordinary he cut through the rows toward the yellow house, tripped down the ditch that divided the houses from the grove and scrambled up the other side. Within four strides he was at the back door, reaching for the handle. He didn’t have a chance to open it though as it swung in abruptly, and a voice from the shaded inside croaked in surprise, “Abuelo! What are you doing here?!”
Ω CHAPTER 6 – “CONDUIT”
“Abuelo, are you okay? Did you blaze a new path through the lemon grove?” Alexa asked as she wiped dusty cobwebs from her grandfather’s shoulder.
“La vieja Gurchin…didn’t want to star in her spycam videos…” Raúl puffed. “My question is, are you alright?”
Alexa’s eyebrows raised as she spluttered, “What do you mean? Fine. Well…not exactly. Please, come inside.”
Raúl passed through the threshold and walked toward a cluster of teenagers blocking the hallway. “Hi Mr. Dorado,” said the spiky-haired girl, glancing at Alexa with a panicked look. Receiving a nod from the ponytailed brunette she continued, “Do you want to come into the living room? We can get you a coffee or tea.” With the suggestion of hospitality Tess shoved Kyle and her brother Zog toward the kitchen door with the intention of blocking the entrance from Raul’s view.
“A water is fine, gracias,” Raúl responded as he was escorted down the hallway by his granddaughter. He took a seat on a faded green couch with crocheted doilies on the worn armrests. “So, you missed bus?” directing his question at Alexa.
“Um, yeah, unexpected visit from Tess and Zog…well, actually, there’s something else,” Alexa advanced hesitantly. “I can’t reach mamá on the phone.”
“Is that abnormal? She always answer her phone?” Raúl’s eyebrows squeezed together to form a single caterpillar across his brow.
“She’s about as dependable as a metronome. That’s why it’s weird.” Alexa glanced over to watch a parade of three sets of arms and legs enter the room carrying a sloshing glass of water. Kyle set the glass down on the coffee table with a small look of triumph in a successful delivery, ignoring the splash and puddle that formed on the wood from the wobbly landing. Alexa scooped up the glass and repositioned it with coaster underneath, then swiped at the puddle with her sleeve. “But there’s something else, abuelo.” Raúl drank a few sips from the moist glass and gave his granddaughter an inquiring look.
“You see, the kitchen is sort of messy,” said Alexa uneasily. Her three friends looked at her like she was about to jump into a bath of ice water. She nodded at them reassuringly and continued. “Kyle went to get leftover pizza in the fridge…and found that the kitchen was a little disorganized.”
“What is wrong with a disorganized kitchen? We can’t all be as tidy as your mamá,” Raúl said dismissively.
“It’s not just disorganized. Come and see,” Alexa rose up out of her chair and headed back down the hallway with her grandfather following closely behind. She paused at the doorway and gestured for Raul to enter ahead of her. “See? It’s not like mamá to leave anything like this. The fruitbowl…and the knives…they’ve got…something on them.”
Raúl crouched down to get a closer look at the cleaver, paring and filet knives lying at different angles. He moved between each instrument and ignored the bananas and apples at his feet. “You say she is not answering her phone?”
“No, it rings straight to voicemail. Usually if she’s too busy to talk she at least picks up and tells me really fast that she’ll call back. If her phone is out of power it rings once and then cuts out. It’s not like her to let a call go. I’m getting a weird feeling about this.” Alexa cautiously moved around the island in the middle to where her grandfather now stood near the knife block that now only held three knives. He was peering closely at the wooden sheath.
“Is this usually a complete set? Are there any knives missing from the block?” Raúl pulled out a Bowie knife with an Aztec warrior’s head at the tip of the handle. He gave Alexa a questioning look.
“That’s mamá’s favorite but she doesn’t use it for vegetables, just carne. She says it cuts pork and beef better than the others,” Alexa shrugged.
Zog chimed in, “I don’t see why that wasn’t her weapon of choice in this fight. It looks like it could cut through a lot more than just rump roast!” Tessa quickly interjected, “Zog, you’re such a pill! There was no fight. It’s all just a big misunderstanding, I’m sure.”
Raúl returned the elaborate blade back into the block and then looked at Alexa directly. “May I have your phone?”
In handing her grandfather her mobile she felt a brief static vibration when her fingers made contact with his. He took the phone and looked at it blankly. Alexa quickly moved in closer and pushed a couple of buttons on the phone to make it light up and show a screen with the contact information for Luisa Dorado. Raúl nodded and turned his back on Alexa, moving a few steps away.
Neither the twins, nor Kyle and Alexa could see what he was doing in the corner of the kitchen but they all kept quiet and still, their eyes fixated on the old man’s back, ready to jump in and help him navigate this foreign technology if needed. What they did not see was an orange glow beginning to radiate around Raúl’s knuckles that penetrated the brushed metal casing of the device. Soon the entire phone and the hand that held it glowed with yellows and reds as well, swirling in intertwining threads. Raúl’s stooped shoulders enshrouded the small mass of furious light held close to his chest. After about thirty seconds he raised his head and looked at Alexa. “I believe your mamá is in trouble.”
Ω CHAPTER 7 – “EXODUS”
Luisa Dorado sat on a cold concrete floor, her hands bound behind her back with a scratchy rope. The rope was wrapped around a 2-inch pipe that felt rusty when she tried to rub the rope against it. She thought back to when she received her last tetanus shot, but couldn’t recall, and then scolded herself for caring about vaccinations, considering her current predicament. A bandana had been tied tightly around her head to cover her eyes, and her captors had done an impressive job of making sure she couldn’t nudge it off with her knees. She had managed to push it up just a half-inch on one side so she could peer out the lower right corner and get a distorted view of her surroundings. That half-inch view wasn’t much help. All she could make out was a cavernous, dark warehouse with a shadowy van parked near the far doorway. Luisa had attempted to call out, but the gag in her mouth made her shouts come out muffled and weak.
It felt like hours that she sat on the ground. At first she spent a lot of time struggling against the ropes that bound her, but all she could manage was exhaustion and rope-burn. Every time she heard voices enter the warehouse she thrashed and grunted, hoping to signal for help. After the third time, footsteps came up to her and a low voice barked at her, “¡Cállate!” She instantly froze at the familiarity of the voice.
Twenty five years ago in Sauceda de la Borda, Mexico, Luisa heard that voice regularly, and even back then there was never a kind word that came from the mouth that spoke. The dusty pueblo was populated by humorless people whose existence depended on what lay below the dry ground. As fruitful as the gold mines had become, the villagers were never able to show much for their efforts. At the end of the week the miners slogged home to their families with just enough money to make it through another week somewhat comfortably. The precious nuggets chiseled from deep below the wind-blown terrain never offered hope to the expectant residents of the town misnamed after a willow tree grove. There was not a single tree within sight of the hillside that was comprised of a church, houses, market, bar and a gold mine. Mesquite shrubs and adobe houses provided the only shade against the searing midday sun. One distinct voice could be heard coming from the window of a sprawling hacienda adjacent to the church. That voice had the roughness of a decade of cigarettes and mining dust, and the edge of someone who was never satisfied.
The 14-year-old always swung wide when walking past the hacienda of Ernesto Olveda. It was as though she feared that the insults which targeted the men inside the house would somehow get redirected toward her. She’d witnessed Señor Olveda unleash his powerful anger upon the miners when they came up empty handed one day. Her father’s shoulders drooped beneath the weight of Olveda’s curses and ferocious saliva which he spat from between his tar-yellowed teeth. Though it was dusk and the miners were famished for dinner, the tyrannical jéfe ordered them to turn back to the mine elevator and descend until they were able to return with a full day’s haul. The pueblo was subdued that night as wives and children bore the weight of worry. No one ate more than a few bites of tortilla for dinner in solidarity for the fathers, sons and brothers who had to go without while laboring in the sweltering tomb 200-feet below them.
It was a great relief to the wives and children the next morning when the smudged faces emerged from the mine entrance. Each man carried a small leather bag containing gold nuggets, weighing between an ounce and three ounces. They were subjected to the regular physical search to catch anyone foolhardy enough to stash a nugget beneath their belt or in a hidden pants pocket. At least once a month these thorough pat-downs exposed a thief, who tried to nestle a small rock of gold in his nostril or under his tongue. The deviant miner would be brutally beaten by Señor Olveda’s thugs and driven out of town along with his shamed family. This time, however, none of Raúl Dorado’s team had anything to hide. Even Raúl could not disguise a small look of triumph when he dropped the leather satchel onto the scales to be weighed. Despite the fact that he would never see any benefit from his exhaustive efforts something changed that night, and Luisa never again saw her father’s shoulders droop in defeat under the impact of Señor Olveda’s harsh threats.
Two months later Luisa experienced a night she would never forget. Her mother had sent her to the well in front of the church to fill the bucket with water before dinner. Sloshing the bucket back to their rundown house she heard the her mother’s voice release a hushed plea, and her father answer with an excited tone. Luisa paused just outside the door without going in and continued to listen. The exchange between her mother and father was heated — neither giving ground nor decreasing their intensity. She heard “¡Ladrón!” and “¡Escapamos!”
Finally the teenager could not contain her curiosity about her father being called a thief. Panic welled inside her as she burst through the door. Both her parents looked at her and shouted in Spanish, “Pack your things, we have to leave now!” That was the last time her parents ever agreed on anything, and the first time she did exactly as they told her.
The week that followed their exodus from Sauceda de la Borda was a swirl of shame, fear and exhausting arguments between her parents. The three of them were hidden in her aunt’s hot and stuffy shed in Zacatecas, a city about 15 miles from their former home. Luisa’s mother insisted they could not stay there much longer. They were endangering her sister’s family since it was only a matter of time before Señor Olveda’s thugs found them. Even though Zacatecas was a large city, word still spread quickly down the narrow streets. Luisa’s mother had grown cold toward her father as well, and peppered her arguments with accusations toward Raúl. Bad influence. Shame. Sinful. Those heated words just made Raúl even more resolved to go forward with his plan.
When Raúl first told his wife they needed to travel to El Norte to start a new life in America, she had scoffed at him, calling him “¡Idiota!” and “¡Imbécil!” Even when he described the fertile hills north of Los Angeles and how no one worked longer than nine hours in a day, she spat his words back at him. How could he know anything about America? Those stories he read in magazines were just childish fantasies. He was delusional. Their final argument ended abruptly when Luisa’s mother shouted at her father in Spanish, “I will never trust you again, dirty thief! You ruined our lives!”
Three weeks later Luisa and her father made it across the border by hiding in a large produce truck, hidden in a space beneath boxes of melons. Their trip north had been somber and the teenager barely spoke to her father. When she did it was distant but respectful. Simply answering a question, but never asking. She hoped her mother would be okay and would be able to build a new life in Guadalajara. The small leather bag of gold her father had left would go a long way in that large city, and she would have the anonymity needed for a fresh start amongst the million residents. Hopefully her pride would be overcome by the necessity to stay safe from Olveda’s wrath. The gold was dirty money but Raul’s wife also needed to stay alive.
The years they spent in Santa Paula were not simple, and there was always a distance between Luisa and Raúl. On her 18th birthday Luisa got a job at a retirement home serving in the dining room. Raúl retreated to the back hills of Ojai where he embedded himself into a hermit’s existence. Luisa’s reputation for patience and gentleness with the elderly was rewarded by being placed into a more influential role at the retirement home. Watching her interact in such a caring and heartfelt manner with the aging residents one would never know that Raúl was her flesh and blood. She only offered cool courtesy toward this elderly man.
Now, sitting on the cold concrete floor and being commanded to shut up by the man who had ripped her family apart, Luisa started to simmer angrily. The jéfe crouched down in front of her and he spoke again menacingly. “You have something I want.” Luisa’s simmer turned to a boil.