“Four men got out of the van,” Carmen told Detective Ruiz who looked like he spent more time across the street at the Gorditas Doña Tota knocking back sugary drinks than at the police station interviewing witnesses.
“What about the two cars?” he asked in a gentle tone, his eyes pitying her.
“I don’t think anyone got out of those but I’m not sure.”
The questioning room was windowless and stuffy. Carmen, whose long, straight dark hair was tied back in a high ponytail, felt lightheaded and nauseous. She was having trouble remembering. Her brown, abused-puppy eyes kept shifting back and forth. Ruiz had a pen in his hand and was writing everything she said down. “How old are you, Carmen?” He glanced at her developing breasts. “Eighteen?”
“What did the men look like?”
“They had black hoods on.”
“Did they say anything?”
“They wanted her to come with them.”
“Did she put up a fight?”
“At first . . . she kicked one of them in the stomach but then another grabbed me. She said, if they left me alone, she’d go with them.”
“The van’s make and model?”
Carmen was interested in boys and jewelry, not cars. “I couldn’t tell you.”
“What color was it?”
“Yellow. Like a banana.”
He grimaced as though he thought no vehicle in Michoacán should be painted such a color. “Continue.”
“They had guns.” She closed her eyes. Thinking about the men dragging her kicking-and-screaming mother into the van made her want to kill someone.
“Did you get the plate number?”
Shit, why hadn’t she? “No.”
He started drumming the pen against his legal pad. “It’s okay.”
“It happened so fast. I . . .” Her lower lip started quivering.
“Hey, it’s not your fault.”
She started crying. “What’s wrong with me? I should have gotten it.”
Ruiz dropped the pen and reached across the table for her hand and patted it. “Did your mother try losing the van?”
“She wasn’t completely sure it was following us. Or maybe she was. I don’t know.”
Just then, there was a knock on the door. “Hold on,” Detective Ruiz said. He struggled to his feet and lumbered over to it. Carmen’s Aunt Lucia, droopy-eyed and emaciated, stepped inside. She was dressed in a frill halter top and clinging denim cutoffs. Given her past problems with law enforcement—drug and prostitution arrests—she looked as though she feared Ruiz might cuff her.
“Detective Ruiz thinks it might be a ransom kidnapping,” Carmen said to her.
Lucia looked warily at Ruiz who nodded in agreement. She then turned to Carmen. “I’m so happy you’re okay, chica.” She hurried over and hugged her.
“A similar incident took place in Colima last week,” Ruiz explained. “The hostage was returned in a matter of days, though somewhat roughed up.”
“He wasn’t a mayor,” Lucia said.
“Yes, that is true.”
“And what about last month? What was done about that?”
What had happened then had been all over the news. A man in a clown costume had shot at Rosa while she was leaving a fundraiser for a town council candidate in Cheran.
Ruiz’s body stiffened. He looked as though he didn’t know what to say.
“He’s thinks she’s worth more alive than dead,” Carmen said.
Lucia and Carmen were silent for much of the way home. Seeing Lucia behind the wheel of her mother’s Silverado was unsettling. Her mother never let Lucia drive it because she feared she would bash it up like she did so many other vehicles. At a red light, Carmen checked behind them. The police car escorting them home was still there.
“I can’t play games with you,” Lucia said. “They asked me to, but . . .”
Carmen turned back around. “What?”
“I can’t. I shouldn’t.” Lucia started crying.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to see her again.”
“We won’t have the ransom money?”
“No.” Lucia punched the steering wheel. “This isn’t a ransom kidnapping!”
“How do you know?”
“Forget what that detective said. He knows better than to do anything about this. Did you know the police station was under grenade attack a few months ago?”
Carmen didn’t know. Why hadn’t anyone told her? The light turned green, and the police car behind them started beeping.
Carmen’s biology teacher Mr. Ernesto was instructing the class on natural selection but Carmen wasn’t paying attention; she was too busy looking over at her classmate Hugo, the tall, floppy-haired, broad-shouldered son of one of Michoacán’s most notorious narcotraffickers, and imagining herself asking him to speak with his father. Her mother wasn’t working against the cartel, at least not directly. She was just trying to keep the promises she’d made to her constituents, promises that, if fulfilled, might even benefit the cartel—an improved water supply, another street in and out of the town, a renovated firehouse.
But was she even still alive? Lucia had already given up on that possibility, but Carmen wasn’t quite ready to, and, if she were alive, Hugo’s father could surely arrange for her release. Her mother wouldn’t bother them in their narcomansions or raid their stash houses. She’d always—
“Miss Hierra,” Mr. Ernesto said.
Carmen looked up from her desk. “Yes.”
“Do you know where they arise?”
The entire class was staring at her. Since her mother’s abduction, her classmates had been treating her somewhat better. Before then, they’d either been jealous of her because her mother was the mayor or had sucked up to her on account of it. In fact, Carmen couldn’t point to one true friend among the group. She felt her face reddening. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said.”
“Where do random mutations arise?” Mr. Ernesto asked.
Carmen was doing well in biology and had gotten an almost perfect score on a recent test on photosynthesis but of late—and understandably so—had been finding it hard to concentrate. “I don’t know.”
She looked over at Hugo. His teeth were like sugar cubes, and he seemed to be enjoying watching her squirm.
“The genome,” Mr. Ernesto said, looking at her disapprovingly. “The white coat of a polar bear appeared due to a mutation in the genome. Bears in the Artic were brown until a mutation created an oddball white offspring. The offspring’s coat, however, turned out to be an advantage in all that snow. For instance, easier to sneak up on prey and pounce. So the white bear prospered at the expense of his peers and was able to pass his genes along. Thousands of years later, maybe millions, what animal rules the Artic?”
When Carmen got home from school, she tried forgetting about her classroom humiliation. She heated up some tamales, decorated them with rings of ketchup, and yelled, “Lucia!” But there was no response. At this hour, Lucia would usually be getting ready to go to the restaurant where she worked. (When she showed up at Café Julio—and there was never any guarantee that she would—she was one of their best waitresses.) Carmen finished the tamales and headed down the hallway. Maybe there was some news about her mother. When she got to Lucia’s bedroom door, she peeked through the keyhole. She could see Lucia passed out on her mattress, one slipper off, the other hanging from her toes, a splash of vomit on her Day of Dead T-shirt.
Carmen wandered down the hallway and into her pink-walled bedroom where a menagerie of stuffed animals had staked a claim to her canopy bed: Kerry the Koala, Johnnie the Rabbit, Wilbur the Elephant (she had about twenty of these squeezable things and had carefully chosen names for each one). But having recently turned sixteen, she was beginning to think that she’d outgrown them and that it was time to say goodbye, perhaps give them to some deserving child.
Carmen pushed the stuffed animals to the floor and crawled into bed, thinking about how, during the mayoral campaign, her mother had told journalists about Lucia’s drug and alcohol problems. Rosa told one reporter that, before entering treatment, Lucia used to shoot smack three times a day and had once overdosed but was saved when another junkie saw her convulsing on the floor of the drug den and shot her up with Narcon.
“Still no word on your mother,” Lucia said to Carmen. It was nighttime, and they were out on the patio, a chorus of bullfrogs in the nearby lake serenading them one croak at a time. Lucia, who was slumped in a cruddy old beach chair, had been boozing all day and was clutching a flask of rum like she was afraid someone might swipe it from her. “We should have tried harder to talk some sense into her, chica.”
Carmen, who had assumed most of the household responsibilities—Lucia was just too lazy to help—was sweeping up Lucia’s bottle caps and cigarette butts off the patio. “She wouldn’t have listened to us anyway.”
“She never took me seriously.” Lucia took a swig of rum. “I told her, if you’re not going take the cartel’s money, resign.”
“I think she wanted to get the school subsidy first.”
Lucia cocked her head. “New textbooks? Pencils . . . It wasn’t important. And, if she resigned, Marco Rodriguez, the puppet master of her corrupt little party, would have set her up down the road for a Chamber of Deputies seat.”
“She told me she wasn’t interested in the seat.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“If she resigned, she’d have let down her supporters.”
“No one expected her to stand up to the cartel. Listen to you.” Lucia snarled as though she thought she were talking to an idiot. “You sound just like her. If nothing else, learn from this experience. The only way your mother would’ve been able to finish what she started was if she’d cooperated and, God knows, we could’ve used the money.”
Lucia was right about that. Five years earlier, Carmen’s father Felipe had jumped with a noose around his neck from the river’s high bridge and their family had quickly fallen into debt. He’d been suffering from depression and the unexpected loss of his job at the automotive maquiladora where, for years, he’d been a foreman, had—at least according to the police—driven him to take his own life.
“But look at the problems you’ve had.” Carmen said.
“Way too many adults in this town have been addicted to one drug or another.”
“I brought them on myself.”
“Well then what about Uncle Salvador?”
“He’s happier in California.”
“His business wasn’t going to survive another year with the cartel breathing down his neck.”
Lucia unscrewed the flask. “Here,” she said, offering it to Carmen. “You’re old enough now.”
Carmen looked at it as if it were a dirty diaper. “If Mom could see you now, she’d kick you out of the house again.”
Lucia took a swig. “Marco Rodriguez is reaching out to the cartel.”
“What are you talking about?”
She pointed to Carmen and then herself. “To see if we’re in jeopardy.”
“Could be.” Lucia reached inside her windbreaker and pulled out her Glock. “The police are supposed to be keeping an eye on us, but I haven’t seen them around here in days. Have you?”
Carmen shook her head.
“So I’m keeping my friend as close as can be now. You should carry your father’s gun, chica. It’s still in the Nike shoebox. He never planned on going down without a fight. I told Rosa to carry it, but, whenever I opened my mouth, she grew deaf.”
“I don’t know.”
“If we’re in jeopardy, I’m not betting on Marco to convince the cartel to back off. That bodyguard he got for your mother was no bigger than an elf.”
Carmen had been cast in the school play, a production of the classic movie Macario, and though she’d initially been excited about playing the role of Marcario’s wife, the opportunity now seemed only a burden. When she got to the school’s auditorium, she went backstage and changed into her costume, the tattered poncho of a colonial-era peasant woman. She took a deep breath and stepped out onto the splintered stage. As the curtains parted, her nerves felt like tiny parasites gyrating beneath her skin. With the harsh stage lights pointed at her, she couldn’t see the audience, and it was as if she were looking into the murky waters of the lake near her home. She was sweating and stiff—not a natural actor, at all—but soon relaxed and dropped into the flow of the play. During the scene where, as Macario’s wife, she pretended to stuff a turkey for dinner, she glanced over at Hugo, who was playing Macario. He looked silly in a curly dark wig and fake mustache, and, for a moment, it was as if they were alone in the auditorium, and she imagined herself grown up and married to him. Living in a narcomansion, driving narcocars, raising narcobabies.
One day, Carmen arrived home from school to find a beagle in the living room. “Happy birthday!” Lucia yelled from her bedroom. Carmen dropped her knapsack on the floor. She was confused. Her birthday had been months ago. Lucia stepped into the living room, working a brush through her frizzy hair. “I saw this cutie pie in the pet shop window this morning so I figured, why not? You wanted one.”
“But Mom said, no.”
“She was too strict. When she returns, you can blame the dog on me.”
Carmen inched her way over to the tail-wagging dog.
“He’s a boy,” Lucia said. “I thought we needed a strong man around the house.”
“He’s beautiful, Lucia. Thank you.” Carmen crouched and started petting him.
“You’ve been taking such good care of the house, I have to believe you’ll do the same with the dog.”
Carmen was trying to decide on a name for it, when the doorbell rang. Lucia stuffed her brush into her jeans pocket and opened the door. Marco Rodriguez, bulgy-eyed and mustachioed, stepped inside.
“Any news on my sister?” Lucia asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “So why am I here? Well, there’s other news. The council approved the school subsidy.”
Lucia frowned. “So what? What do I care?”
Carmen looked up from the dog. “That’s great.”
“It validates all your mother’s efforts,” Marco said.
“I’d rather have my sister back, Mr. Rodriguez, and, if that pipsqueak bodyguard you got for her had done his job and been with them, they—”
“He‘ll never work in this town again. Rest assured of that.”
“It won’t bring my sister back.”
“The police are working very hard on finding her.”
Lucia raised her eyebrows. “Are they really? Ha! Well, I never hear a word from them and, when I telephone them, they don’t even give me the courtesy of a call back.”
“For now be very proud of Rosa.” Marco stepped over to Lucia, grabbed her by her slumped shoulders, and awkwardly kissed her cheek. He then started telling them about the new classrooms that could be built with the subsidy and the pay raises the teachers would receive. Noticing the beagle, he said, “What do we have here?” He crouched to get a better look.
Carmen thought he smelled like Lucia after a night of drinking. “His name is Aureo,” she said.
Ignoring Carmen, he looked up at Lucia. “I’m loathe to tell you this . . .”
“What?” Lucia said.
“I think you should know though.” He straightened himself, his knees creaking. There was a sprinkle of dandruff on his lapel and he brushed it away. “There’s a rumor going around.”
He paused as if he were already having second thoughts about mentioning it. “That Rosa orchestrated her abduction. I know, it’s crazy, but it’s what’s being said.”
“No one will believe that,” Carmen said.
“Now they’re attacking her character?” Lucia said.
“They’re saying she did it to garner sympathy, to gain support for her platform.”
“But she won the election easily.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Carmen said.
“Yes, yes,” Marco said. “I think it’s just the cartel’s way of deflecting blame.”
Carmen was eating lunch alone in the school cafeteria. Hugo, wearing a thick gold-braided necklace, was sitting with another boy at the table behind her. At one point, she overheard him say to the boy, “Liquid meth can be made to look like apple juice. You pour it in a water bottle, hold it like it’s your drink, and walk right through customs with your bag. I can get you to the border. You can get rich very quickly.”
Carmen picked up her slice of pizza and bit into it. Had these kids no other ambition but to use or smuggle drugs? She wanted to go to college and be a nurse like her mother had been before she’d made the stupid mistake of entering politics.
She remembered her father coming home from the maquiladora one day with a gash on his arm. “How did you hurt yourself?” she’d asked, but he wouldn’t say. He poured himself a glass of merlot and settled into the recliner in front of the TV. She went into the bathroom and returned with a gauze bandage, cotton balls, and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. She cleaned and wrapped his arm as he watched a news story about a matador being impaled with a bullhorn. Her father seemed in good spirits, and, when the news switched to a story about an alligator that had crawled into someone’s house, he laughed out loud.
Because he left no suicide note, immediately after his death, people began whispering that he’d been murdered. The cartel, after all, would sometimes hang their victims from the same bridge Felipe was found swinging from. But they would have had no reason to kill him. At the time, Rosa was still working for the cheapskate internist and had yet to enter politics. The cartel, however, didn’t always need a reason to kill.