Three votive candles burned in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There was no one else in the living room to see the tiny flames shiver in the draft as Luz de Maria Alba Mora shut the front door.
In the cheap reproduction painting, prominently displayed in a wrought iron easel on top of a weathered wood cabinet, the Virgin wore a green robe decorated with stars just like when She’d appeared to San Juan Diego in 1531. The picture was draped with rosaries, silk flowers, and a black ribbon marking the day 13 years ago when Luz’s father and grandfather had been struck by a bus and the world had changed forever.
“I’m home,” Luz called. She put down the backpack containing her sketchpad and the pay-as-you-go Amigo cell phone that was just for emergencies.
“In here.” Luz’s mother’s voice filtered through the doorless archway to the kitchen.
Luz peeled off the sweatshirt she wore over a tee shirt and jeans then found her mother behind the ironing board. More than a dozen crisp men’s dress shirts hung on a clothes rack wedged between the board and the scrubbed pine kitchen table.
“Hola, niña.” Maria Mora was a small, plump woman with tired eyes, a ruddy complexion, and short permed hair. She set the iron on its heel as Luz stretched across the board so the two women could exchange kisses. “Was the bus ride all right? Did anyone bother you?”
“Nobody bothered me, Mama,” Luz said. She’d learned how to take care of herself long ago but her mother asked the same question every time she came home. “Everything was fine and the bus even got in a little earlier than usual.”
“Good, good,” Maria said and took up the iron again. Her brown polyester dress was as old as the kitchen’s chipped yellow and blue tiles. “The children are still at school and your sister’s at the church for the ladies craft afternoon.”
“Poor Father Santiago,” Luz said. She turned on the single cold water tap, found the bar of naptha soap, and washed her face and hands, getting rid of the stink of diesel fuel, worn vinyl, and unwashed passengers. “I don’t know how he stands all their chatter.”
“They’re planning the oferta for the Day of the Dead,” Maria said.
“Every woman there is going to have a different plan,” Luz said with a wry smile.
Luz dug her pay envelope out of the front pocket of her jeans where it had been safe from the pickpockets that roam bus stations. She opened the jar kept on the counter for household money. Only a few pesos left this week. Working as a muchacha planta–a live-in housemaid–earned Luz time off every other weekend and Wednesday afternoons and paid 5000 pesos a month. It was good money but it was never quite enough.
“You keep some to do your hair,” Maria said, lifting her chin at the jar even as she kept the iron moving over the cotton shirt on the board. “You should have done it the last time you were home.”
“I know,” Luz said. “But the weekends go by so fast.” Like so many women of mestizo heritage–the mix of conquering Spanish and defeated indio that made up the majority of café-skinned Mexicans–Luz wore her hair long and permed with bangs curved into a bubble over dark brown eyes. But the perm and the bangs had grown out and lately her head was just a mass of hairpins trying to keep everything in place.
“We have to go to the mercado, too,” Maria said. “The girls need new shoes. Those two grow out of everything.”
Luz put 300 pesos for a new perm in her jeans pocket, dropped the rest of the money in the jar, and opened the cupboard to find an aspirin. The four hour bus ride from Mexico City to the small town of Soledad de Doblado on the outskirts of Veracruz was a huge descent in elevation and she had the usual headache. Of course, everyone had headaches in October when the summer rains gave way to the dry season and sinus pressure fluctuated like crazy. She washed down the aspirin with water from the garrafon, the big bottled water dispenser on the counter, and looked at her mother. “I saw the candles,” she said leadingly.
Maria pressed the shirt cuffs, the last step in a professional ironing job. “We got some good news.”
“Really?” Luz raised her eyebrows. “What sort of good news?”
Maria smiled. “You can wait,” she said. “We’ll sit and have some coffee and then I’ll tell you all about it.”
“I’ll keep ironing while you make the coffee,” Luz offered. The dry cleaner’s bag at her mother’s feet was still half full; she’d obviously gotten a late start on the 40 shirts she ironed daily for 2 pesos each. Luz took the finished shirt from her mother, hung it on the big rack, flipped a plastic shroud over it and stapled the dry cleaner’s coupon to the plastic.
Puffing with exertion, Maria squeezed herself out of the corner between the rack and the ironing board. Luz swiveled her hips and slipped easily into the tight space. Rather than Maria’s soft stockiness, Luz had inherited her late father’s height and lithe build, along with his high cheekbones and wide mouth. She spread a new shirt over the board.
“I’ll make coffee with milk the way you like it.” Maria filled the coffee maker’s glass carafe with water from the dispenser.
Luz felt her headache lift as her mother bustled around the small kitchen, heating milk in a battered saucepan and finding the right glasses for café veracruzana. Obviously a celebration was at hand. Maybe Juan Pablo had won Student of the Quarter again.
The coffeemaker gave a final gurgle as Luz finished her third shirt. She unplugged the iron and sat at the table across from her mother. Maria set a glass of coffee and hot milk in front of her and Luz sipped appreciatively.
“Your sister is pregnant,” Maria said and put three heaping spoonfuls of sugar in her own glass.
Luz nearly choked on her coffee. “Lupe?”
“You only have one sister,” Maria said.
“She can’t be pregnant,” Luz sputtered. “She’s a widow with two small daughters.”
Along with Luz, Lupe had left school when their father died but had been too shy to work as a muchacha. She’d married young and been widowed a few years later. Still shy, she crocheted placemats and bowl covers for the tourists at the handicrafts mercado.
“She’s pregnant,” Maria said. “I said I’d tell you before she got home.”
“Is she sure?” Luz searched for other possibilities. “Maybe she’s got the flu. Ate something that upset her stomach.”
“She’s sure,” Maria replied. “She’s already been to the clinic. They made her buy some vitamins.”
Luz blinked. “That’s why there wasn’t anything in the money jar.”
Maria nodded. “The vitamins cost almost 200 pesos.”
Self-pity hit hard as Luz stared into her glass of café veracruzana. Lupe was pregnant and soon there would be another mouth to feed and Lupe had two beautiful children already and Luz would never have any.
“I lit the candles,” Maria continued. “For her to stay healthy. Twenty-six is old to be having babies.”
And 29 is ancient. Tears pricked the back of Luz’s eyes as she wrestled with feelings she thought she’d crushed long ago. She’d never married and never had a child in a country where the majority of girls of her social class were mothers before their eighteenth birthday, married or not. “Madre de Dios,” Luz said harshly. “This was your good news?”
“Babies are always good news, Luz.”
“This is not the right time,” Luz said. “Juan Pablo graduates from school this year. How are we going to send him to college with all the costs for a baby?”
“You know there’s no money for college, Luz.” Maria’s voice was flat. “There never was. Your brother will get a job.”
“No,” Luz snapped, although she knew her mother was right. College cost a fortune, but it was one of Luz’s dreams that Juan Pablo would go. He was brilliant. “We haven’t scrimped and saved to put him through Colegio Santa Catalina just so he can end up working on the docks in Veracruz.”
“He’ll be all right,” Maria said.
“And I want Martina and Sophia to go to Santa Catalina,” Luz said stubbornly. “That neighborhood school isn’t teaching them anything.”
“The tuition for Santa Catalina is 1800 pesos a month,” Maria said. “Double for two. We can’t afford to send them and you know it. They can stay where they are for 400 pesos a month. When Juan Pablo graduates and we’re not paying his tuition things will be easier.”
“There’s no room in this house for any more people,” Luz went on, unable to stop herself. Maria’s bedroom was off the living room. Two other bedrooms and the only bathroom were upstairs. When she came home Luz slept on the floor in the room she’d shared with her sister when they were girls, but which was now used by Lupe and her daughters. “We’re cramped enough as it is.”
“Luz de Maria.” Maria banged her spoon on the table. “What do you expect your sister to do? Get herself cut up by some back street butcher?”
Her mother’s words stung. Luz slumped in her chair. Abortions were forbidden by the Catholic Church. And illegal in Mexico. “Of course not,” she mumbled. “Does Juan Pablo know?”
“Yes. She told us both last week when she came back from the clinic.”
“And Martina and Sophia?” Luz drank some more coffee. An unhappy acceptance settled into her bones. “How is she going to tell the girls they’ll be getting a new brother or sister?”
“She said heaven was sending them a new baby.”
“Madre de Dios,” Luz swore softly. “Heaven had nothing to do with this. Who’s the father?”
“She won’t say.”
“What do you mean, she won’t say?” Luz looked at her mother in irritated surprise. “Somebody has to provide for this baby, not just Lupe.” And me.
“She won’t say,” Maria repeated.
“Did you ask?” Luz asked, appalled that her mother was willing to let Lupe keep such a secret. “Make her say.”
Maria shook her head. “She doesn’t want to.”
The front door creaked. There was a rush of childish chatter and then Lupe and her daughters came into the kitchen. The little girls squealed with delight to see Tía Luz and Luz’s heart gave another lurch of self pity as she hugged and kissed both of them. Martina and Sophia were 5- and 7-year-old miniatures of Lupe, short and solid and sweet tempered. They wore their school uniforms; navy jumpers and white blouses. After they climbed all over their aunt, Lupe made them go upstairs and change. They did as they were told without argument, leaving the three women alone in the kitchen.
“Mama?” Lupe’s soft brown eyes flickered with nerves.
Maria nodded and poured another glass of coffee and hot milk.
“She told me,” Luz said as guilt churned her stomach into slurry. She hugged her sister. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, just fine.” Lupe smiled timidly. She took after Maria and was smaller and plumper than Luz. Her hair was short and permed and she wore a plain polyester skirt and blouse. She sat down with her glass and added sugar. “They do this quick little test now at the clinic.”
“When are you due?” Luz asked. She went behind the ironing board again and attacked another shirt.
“May,” Lupe said happily. “We can have the baptism before Juan Pablo’s graduation.”
“Won’t that be nice,” Maria said, watching Luz.
“Nice,” Luz agreed, calculating swiftly. She couldn’t recall anything significant happening in August. “Early May or late May?”
“May tenth.” Lupe smiled. “Maybe it will be a boy this time.”
And what will his name be? Mexicans took the names of both parents’ fathers. Luz’s own name was the combination of Alba, her paternal grandfather’s name, and Mora, the name of her mother’s father. The paternal name always came first and was always used, although some more progressive Mexicans were dropping the everyday use of the second name. Luz’s employer Señora Vega used both names, and added the name of her husband’s father as well, preceded by “de,” something usually only done by upper class people.
“Who’s the father, Lupe?” Luz asked.
Her question was met with silence.
It was truly the first time she could remember that Lupe had hidden anything from her and Luz was suddenly frightened. She slammed down the iron, ran around the table, and grabbed Lupe by the shoulders. “Did he rape you?”
“No, Luz.” Lupe shook her head. “He’s . . . it’s . . . it’s good.”
“So you have a boyfriend?” Luz asked in surprise.
“It’s nice, but it’s not like that.” Lupe squirmed out of Luz’s grasp. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“Why won’t you tell us, Lupe?” Luz pressed.
“Luz,” Maria said warningly.
“He should know first,” Lupe said.
“Look, Lupe.” Luz folded her arms, determined to find out what horny macho had done this to her sister. “You can’t–.”
“I knew you wouldn’t be happy about this, Luz,” Lupe cut in, her voice still soft and timid. “That’s why I asked Mama to tell you. You’re the one with the important job. You can draw and paint and remember what you read and make decisions. Juan Pablo’s smart and good at everything. But being a mother is what I’m good at.” She held up her hands in a gesture of supplication. “I’ve wanted another baby for so long, Luz.”
Luz stared at her sister. She hadn’t realized that Lupe wanted anything. Since her husband’s death Lupe had seemed content with her daughters and her needlework. And Luz had her own lost dreams to cry over.
Lupe gazed back; untroubled, at peace.
“I’m glad for you,” Luz managed. She bent again and hugged Lupe.
“You’re the best sister in the world, Luz.” Lupe hugged back hard.
“Hardly.” Luz closed her eyes and felt unutterably sad.
Lupe sniffed and broke the hug. “Wouldn’t trade you for another brother.”
The old joke broke the tension. Luz turned back to the ironing board. Lupe got out her crochet basket and lifted out a piece of half-finished lace.
“If the new baby is a boy,” Luz said, determined to sound cheerful. “Juan Pablo can teach him how to play fútbol and chase girls.” She finished the shirt and handed it to Maria who slipped it into a plastic shroud and attached the coupon.
The three women fell into the familiar comfort of each other’s company while they worked. They talked about Juan Pablo, on whom they all doted, and Luz described the latest happenings in her employer’s house. There was Marisol the cook to talk about, plus Hector the chauffeur, Raul the old gardener, and of course Rosa, the harebrained other maid with whom Luz shared an attic bedroom. Señor Vega and his latest girlfriend always provided good grist for the story mill, as did Señora Vega and the society events she attended and the unbelievable clothes she wore to them. Luz talked, too, about the three Vega children who all went to the bilingual Colegio Americano, the most expensive school in Mexico City.
It was her twice-monthly unfolding of the drama of the Vega household, those people who lived in that other world. Luz usually made it sound like a telenovela, but this time she knew her voice was a little flat.
“The next step is to follow the money,” said Eduardo “Eddo” Cortez Castillo.
“That’s quite some story, Eduardo.” Across the table, César Bernal Paz gave his head a bemused shake as if collusion betweenMexico’s Minister of Public Security and the elusive leader of the country’s most notorious drug cartel was a remote and amusing concept.
“There’s enough evidence for a warrant.” Eddo felt his scalp prickle under the brown hair he kept as short as a general’s.
“Really,” Bernal Paz said absently. He sliced into the arrachera steak on his plate and put a morsel into his mouth.
Eddo reached inside his Brooks Brothers suit jacket, took out a folded document from the inner pocket, and placed it on the starched tablecloth between the two place settings.
Bernal Paz eyed the heavy ivory paper and embossed black border. “Secreto, eh?”
The two men were in a private corner of arguably the most exclusive restaurant inMexico City. The Sanborn’s restaurant on the top of the historic Casa de Azulejos near the huge Zocalo square was the lunchtime bastion of Mexico’s power elite. The staff was unfailingly discreet, the atmosphere was dim and elegant, and more deals and careers were made and broken there than in the president’s office in Los Pinos.
“The warrant is for the central bank to report all of Hugo’s financial transactions for the past year, including money transferred out of the country,” Eddo said quietly.
Bernal Paz blinked in astonishment, his steak momentarily forgotten. “No. No.” He hastily wiped his lips with his napkin. “Honestly, Eduardo. I can see now why you’ve been telling me all this. But as senior governor, I cannot let the central bank become involved in some petty rivalry between you and your superior.”
“This is not personal, Don César,” Eddo said in all truth. “I hold Hugo de la Madrid Acosta in very high regard. I hope this investigation proves to be nothing. But we need the truth.”
“Yes, of course.” Bernal Paz raised white eyebrows. He was an aristocratic man who clung to the elegant manners and rigid societal rules of those few who controlled the country’s money and had complete faith in their right to do so. He wore a fitted Italian pinstripe suit and a discreet designer tie with matching pocket square. “But you have to see it from my point of view. You are investigating your own minister. Very awkward.”
“The warrant is signed by Judge Arturo Romero,” Eddo said. The problem was that the warrant was Secret. Only a handful of people knew of its existence. Mexico’s legal system was so arcane that if Bernal Paz refused to comply there wasn’t anybody who had the knowledge and legal authority to compel him, including the president.
“You know him. Not just for this.” Bernal Paz made it a statement, not a question.
“My professor in law school.”
“Yes. I recall your father saying that.” The older man leaned back in his overstuffed chair. “I suppose now you’ll tell me that if Judge Romero wins the presidency you’re in the administration.”
Eddo raised his wine glass in a mock toast. “Attorney General.”
“Will you be the youngest?”
“I’m already past 40.” Eddo said. “Probably not.”
Bernal Paz smiled back magnanimously. “I lose track of the years, Eduardo. To me, you’ll always be a boy playing fútbol. Running like the wind with the eyes of an angel.” He wagged a finger at Eddo. “You should be on television.”
Eddo nodded his acceptance of the compliment even as he indicated the document on the table. “Arturo asked that you personally oversee the warrant.”
“And when he gets to be president Judge Romero will remember warmly those who were his friends before the election?” Before Eddo could reply, Bernal Paz reached out with a forefinger and slid the warrant toward Eddo’s plate of salmon. “But Romero might not even get the party nomination now that Lorena’s decided to run.”
Eddo suppressed a grimace. Mexico’s First Lady Lorena Lopez de Betancourt had tried very hard to upstage her husband ever since Fernando Betancourt had been elected president. Her latest antic was to announce that she wanted to be president when her husband’s term expired.
“You don’t think she’ll get the nomination?” Bernal Paz polished off his steak. The older man’s relief that they were no longer talking about the warrant was palpable.
“She has no financial backing.” Eddo slid the warrant back to Bernal Paz’s side of the table. “Can you get me the information within two weeks?”
“Really, Eduardo.” Bernal Paz sounded like a stern schoolmaster speaking to a wayward pupil. “The central bank cannot be involved in dirty politics.”
“Ministers of the government cannot be permitted to join the cartels.” Eddo kept his voice low, although the effort was nearly killing him. He wanted to jump up and shout, make Bernal Paz see how critical it was that they have the banking records, squeeze the old man by the throat until the numbers popped out of his ears.
“All the evidence you have so far is circumstantial.” Bernal Paz made a dismissive gesture with his fork. “The land his son supposedly bought from El Toro–.”
“Reynoldo de la Madrid is 14 years old, Don César,” Eddo interrupted. The sale of a large tract of desert land from a man using cartel boss El Toro’s Christian name to one Reynoldo de la Madrid had been recorded by the town clerk of Anahuac, a small town south of Nuevo Laredo, and reported by a local cop. “Some teenager in the most expensive private Catholic school in the country, with bodyguards around him even at the Santa Fe shopping mall, is not making his own deals with cartels.”
“Eduardo, you don’t understand.” Bernal Paz pursed his lips and pushed the warrant back across the table. “I would like the central bank to help, but getting this type of information is very difficult. It cannot be done and that is final.”
“It’s all on computers,” he countered. “No doubt you have a good systems administrator who can get it done.”
Bernal Paz frowned. “Listen to me, Eduardo. Hugo is a powerful man. If he finds out he’ll bring down the bank.
“The bank is an institution,” Eddo pointed out. “It will survive.
Bernal Paz shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “No. You ask too much.”
“So we’re too afraid to save our country?” Eddo pressed, leaning forward. “What will you leave your grandchildren? A country that’s just a playground of violence for the cartels?”
“Eduardito, that’s enough,” Bernal Paz scolded.
The childhood nickname was a warning sign and Eddo knew it was time to give Bernal Paz some space. He sat back in his chair and signaled to the waitress. She deftly removed their plates and brought coffee.
“My father always said if I needed anything I should come to you,” Eddo said after awhile. He poured some cream into his coffee and stirred it. “That’s why he always kept the Marca Cortez money in the Banco de ViejaPuebla.”
“Marca Cortez and Banco de Vieja Puebla go back together for more than 200 years.” Bernal Paz loaded his coffee with sugar and looked at Eddo meaningfully. “This is what matters in Mexico. Family. History. Tradition. Not your silly secret warrants.”
The words were thick with significance. Eddo didn’t reply but again let the silence draw out, watching the older man sit impassively across the table, reproof etched on his patrician features. Bernal Paz’s refusal to conduct the bank investigation had nothing to do with his fear for the central bank or even, really, of Hugo de la Madrid Acosta. No, it was Eddo’s insolence in growing up and attaining a position of power over not only his elders but hispeers in Mexico’s highest social class, the criollos who could still claim a pure Spanish bloodline. Tradition meant preserving the social order and Eddo was threatening to upset it. What he was doing simply wasn’t done by one of their own.
“Marca Cortez values the relationship with Banco de Vieja Puebla, of course.” Eddo sipped some coffee. The caffeine hit his stomach and set it alight. “I still sit on the board of directors and Uncle Bernardo and I speak frequently.”
“And Octavio oversees Marca Cortez’s financial interests just the way I did when I headed the bank.”
Eddo carefully centered his cup in its saucer. “I’m just a little concerned that Octavio might be, ah, how shall I say . . . distracted.”
Bernal Paz frowned, the white eyebrows dipping toward his nose.
“Three months ago a certain Senorita Vida Sandoval Arnez bore Octavio fine twin boys,” Eddo continued softly. “They live in a fine new house in Cuernavaca that Octavio bought at a cost of three times his annual salary from the bank. He’s a frequent visitor. Of course, it must be heartbreaking to be away from Elena and the children so much. And his duties at the bank.”
Tension hung in the air, stretched by silence. “How do you know this?” Bernal Paz finally asked.
“Octavio’s private life is between him and Elena,” Eddo replied. “But a bank with a distracted director is not a safe place for Marca Cortez.”
To the old man’s credit he didn’t flinch. They both knew that if Eddo recommended it, his uncle Bernardo Cortez, Marca Cortez’s chairman, would move the company’s money elsewhere. Banco de Vieja Puebla would collapse and the Bernal family fortunes along with it.
A muscle in Bernal Paz’s jaw bunched. “How long have you been director of the Ministry of Public Security’s Office of Special Investigations?”
“Over four years,” Eddo said. “I was the first official sworn in after the election.”
“Four years.” Bernal Paz’s voice trembled with anger. “In all that time you’ve been concealed. Lurking in the shadows. Oh, you’ve caught some people and made a few statements. But even when you were seeing that blonde television woman no one knew who you were.”
Eddo nodded once in acknowledgment. For the year they’d dated he’d managed to stay on the periphery of Elsa’s fame. She’d hated his reserve and avoidance of the limelight right up to the day they’d agreed to go their separate ways.
“This is not what your father wanted for you.” Bernal Paz jabbed a finger into the air at Eddo. “You were a disappointment. He wanted you to take over Marca Cortez. To be its lifeblood the way he was. Instead you run off to that fancy norteamericano college. Let Romero fill your head with crazy ideas in law school and then you threw away all that education by joining up with the police. You were with scum and you’ve become just the same.” Spittle flew from a corner of his mouth. “Never marrying, never carrying on the Cortez name. You wipe your feet on tradition, Eduardito. And now this. You’re the man who lifts skirts to see the shit underneath.”
Eddo pushed the warrant back to Bernal Paz’s side of the table. “Two weeks. Whatever you find send to the office at Marca Cortez.”
Bernal Paz snatched up the warrant and stuffed it into the inside pocket of his superbly tailored suit jacket, his face tight with suppressed fury. “I do this only because when I pray for the repose of your father’s soul I can say that when his son asked for help and invoked his name I gave him the help he asked for.”
Bernal Paz pushed out his chair and stood. The man was older, more frail than when he’d entered the restaurant two hours before. Eddo stood up, too, and at that moment their status and power were equal.
“Mark my words, Eduardito.” Bernal Paz’s voice was so low Eddo had to strain to hear. “Hugo de la Madrid Acosta is a powerful man. He’ll learn of this investigation and when he does, you’re a dead man. A dead man.”
Eddo met Bernal Paz’s eyes. “Maybe I already am.”
“Two weeks,” Bernal Paz spat. “And you will not be welcome in my house again.”
The old man stalked out of the restaurant, acknowledging no one although he probably knew most of the patrons.
Eddo sat down. A wave of nausea hit him and he had to lift his chin and gulp air to prevent the searing bile from coming up.
The waitress in her elaborate pleated paper gown smiled at him inquiringly as she lifted away the remains of the meal. “A postre, señor? I could show you the dessert tray.”
“No, thank you,” Eddo said hoarsely. A sugar rush was the last thing he ever needed. “A brandy, please.”
The waitress brought a balloon glass and Eddo sipped the brandy, listening to the hum of unspoken deals and the slick murmur of political wheels being greased. The nausea passed, leaving his body churning with tension and residual adrenaline. The exchange with Bernal Paz had been a hell of a way to end the week, especially given his lack of sleep. He was dealing with the pressure of the investigation with his usual prescription of running and working out, but it was turning him into a chronic insomniac.
At least tomorrow was Saturday, the day when he’d go to La Marquesa, the big area of scrubby parkland between Mexico Cityand Toluca. He’d played fútbol there every Saturday since his earliest police days.
That’s when he’d run and run until he was nothing more than two feet and a pair of lungs, until he coughed blood and stank of sweat and forgot for an hour or two everything that he was and what he had to do and the people who’d get hurt along the way.
Risk. Power. Corruption, Cartels. And Relationships.
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I'm author Carmen Amato. I write romantic thrillers and the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat. More