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More Triple Crossing by Sebastian Rotella

On August 10th, we’ll be publishing TRIPLE CROSSING by celebrated journalist and investigative reporter Sebastian Rotella. Continue reading the novel Michael Connelly calls “one of the most accomplished first novels I have ever read,” and which Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called “unflinching and provocative … a superb debut.”

Missed the first except? Read it here. Continue here. Then read this.

He was rewarded with a brief snuffling smile. He escorted them to the back of the Wrangler. He hoisted in the girl first, helped the mother with a carefully applied hand to her elbow.

Then came the moment Pescatore anticipated and dreaded. As the father got in, Pescatore intercepted him. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket without looking; he estimated it was about twelve dollars. He palmed it into the father’s hand down low.

The man looked from the cash to Pescatore, startled. He began to say something and moved his hand as if to return the money. Pescatore waved him off, tight-lipped.

 

“Take it, ándale.

He drove them to a detention transport van. The couple exchanged brief words in the caged backseat. They sat stiffly. The girl leaned forward behind Pescatore on the other side of the steel grillwork. In a chirpy little voice, she sang “Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil…”

He hummed along with her. He thought about his insomnia. And about the money. At first, like many other agents, he had occasionally bought a meal or handed a couple of bucks to poignant cases who washed his way on the nightly torrent of misery. But after his trainee status ended, he started giving away money regularly. Every afternoon, he gathered up small bills and change. Although he told himself he wasn’t consciously setting it aside, he usually came up with about thirty dollars. He had tried at first to select the most deserving prisoners: ragged Central American women with babies, lone teenagers. But the arcane logic of selective charity wore him down. He stopped differentiating between hardship and despair. As long as they weren’t smugglers or scumbags, as long as they didn’t resist or disrespect him, he was likely to give them money.

While the prisoners transferred to the detention van, the father said something about how he had studied at a university in Puebla. There was a catch in his voice. In the shadows, Pescatore couldn’t tell whether the man was insulted or trying to thank him.

De dónde es usted?” the man asked.

No matter how much he mimicked their intonation and expressions, they never pegged him for Mexican-American. They guessed everything else: Puerto Rican? Cubano? Argentino?

“I’m from Chicago,” Pescatore said, sliding the door shut. “Suerte.

The rhythm picked up. The radio dispatchers called off motion-sensor hits and tips from citizens in measured tones, as if there were some logic or order to this business. “Group of nine crossing at Stewart’s Bridge… Group bushing up by the Gravel Pit… Five to eight in the backyards on Wardlow Street.”

The count became a cacophony as the night wore on. Garrison directed the PAs’ movements from a plateau by the Gravel Pit, where the infrared nightscope was operating. As reports of crossing groups intensified farther north, Garrison dispatched Pescatore to a housing subdivision about half a mile from The Line.

“I’m doing good, buddy,” he exulted over the radio. “Got eight already. On my way to my world record. Go help the horse patrol plug up that area by the Robin Hood Homes.”

At the main entrance to the subdivision, Pescatore met up with Vince Esparza, a horse patrol agent who had been his training officer. Pescatore stood on the running board of his Wrangler to shake hands with the horseman.

“Valentine,” Esparza said. “My favorite loose cannon.”

Esparza’s L.A. lilt always had a calming effect on Pescatore, even when Esparza was chewing him out. Esparza had a furry mustache and a solid gut beneath his bulky green jacket.

“How’s it going?” Esparza said. “You’re looking run-down and ragged tonight.”

“Yeah, well, you know. Garrison keeps us hopping.”

Esparza’s face got less jolly.

“That fucker. Hey, you hear about the sniper sightings at Brown Field? They’re sending out some guys from BORTAC with M-16s to ride shotgun.”

“Must be dopers, huh?”

“Ever since the holidays. I never saw anything like it. Snipers. Dope all over the place. Comandantes and politicians getting smoked in Mexico, left and right. And all these OTMs: Chinese and Brazilians and Somalians, people from places I never heard of.”

“We been breaking OTM records,” Pescatore said.

“I caught me a bunch of Bo-livians last night, for Christ’s sake. I was doing paperwork till three in the morning. Fuckin’ OTM Central.”

OTM meant “Other Than Mexican”: non-Mexican aliens who could not simply be sent back to Tijuana. The surge in OTMs had started around Christmas, a few months after a crisis had hit Mexico hard and generated action border-wide. Numbers were up in every category: apprehensions of Mexican and non-Mexican border-crossers; busts of coke, methamphetamine and marijuana loads; assaults, rockings and shootings. The onslaught had put the San Diego sector on the brink of reclaiming the title from the Tucson sector as the busiest in The Patrol.

OTM meant lawyers, interpreters, headaches, paperwork. An especially burned-out journeyman had once advised Pescatore to simply turn and flee if he caught an alien who spoke funny Spanish or none at all. But Esparza ran from nobody.

“You know some federales or somebody are making money off those Chinese in TJ,” Pescatore said. “Every Chinese alien pays fifty grand, right? That’s a lot for the polleros to spread around.”

Esparza controlled the horse with easy, powerful tugs of the reins, stroking its ears, letting it step in place. He took off his cowboy hat and wiped his forehead with a sleeve. He was thirty-five and had seven years on the job. With the revolving-door turnover of the Imperial Beach station, he was an old-timer. He leaned forward in the saddle and peered at Pescatore, who knew what was coming.

“Garrison got you guys playing that game again?” Esparza asked quietly.

“Yep.” Pescatore had one elbow propped on the roof of the vehicle and one on top of the open door. A moving cluster of lights flashed in the fog: a Patrol helicopter on the hunt. He heard the distant thump of rotors.

“Tell him you don’t play that shit.”

“Vince, he’s my supervisor.”

“Then switch to the day shift. You need to learn how to wake up in the morning anyway. That pendejo is gonna get indicted and bring you down with him.” Passing headlights illuminated the journeyman’s glare beneath the brim of the hat.

“For thumping aliens? No way. Garrison told me they been allegating him for years. Never laid a glove on him.”

“Not just thumping. The FBI and OIG got a big-time investigation going. He’s at the top of the list. He thinks he’s some big operator. Treats you young guys like pets, his little walking group, prowling around the canyons. Buying all the drinks. Pool parties at his house, chicks from TJ. You ever wonder where all that money comes from?”

Pescatore recalled the start of his training period, the scathing Conduct and Efficiency report Esparza had written up on him. Pescatore had been convinced that Esparza was on a personal mission to kick him out of The Patrol. Instead, the reports got better and his trainer had put in a good word for him at the end of his probation.

As if reading his mind, Esparza said: “Valentine, I told you a thousand times: You’re a borderline case. You could be a fine PA if you work at it. But Garrison is a criminal. He is a disgrace to The Patrol. He is bad news. Especially for a kid that’s easily led.”

Esparza’s tone was making Pescatore depressed. He managed a sickly laugh.

“I appreciate the concern, Vince. I’m gonna be OK.”

Pescatore ducked into the vehicle to respond to the radio; Garrison wanted him back on the levee. Esparza’s mouth turned down to match the corners of his mustache, the disappointed parent, the voice of doom on horseback.

“You take care, Valentine. Watch yourself.”

“Alright then.”

Midnight approached. Things were getting out of hand. Aliens sprouted out of the brush, flashed across roads, disappeared behind ridges. He captured some farmworkers from Oaxaca, short dignified campesinos who spoke to each other in an indigenous language and crouched automatically at the roadside, familiar with the drill. He watched, too captivated by the sight to give chase, as a group of illegal-alien musicians in charro attire hurried along a hilltop lugging instrument cases. Two of the mariachis carried the bass fiddle together, no doubt late for a gig.

Garrison kept him speeding back and forth, changing directions. The Wrangler shuddered across rough terrain, rattling as if it were going to break apart. A volley of rocks clattered on the roof. The throwers were nowhere to be seen in the fog; maybe the rocks threw themselves. Garrison yelled at the top of his lungs on the radio. Pescatore heard a plaintive chorus of voices in the background.

We’re in the hands of a lunatic, Pescatore told himself. Esparza was right. Something terrible is going to happen. He floored the accelerator, the Wrangler hurtling alongside the rusted-brown metal border fence.

Two silhouettes materialized in the dirt road in front of him. Dangerously close. Moving in terrified underwater slow motion, Pescatore tromped the brake. The Wrangler went into a long dirt-spraying skid. When it finally came to a stop, the two migrants cowered unhurt in the blaze of the headlights. They held their hands over their heads. They were women.

“No problem,” Pescatore whispered, clinging to the wheel. “Almost ran you over, killed you dead. No problem.”

He got out. The women shrank against the fence. Loopy with relief, he found himself affecting the jovial authoritative tone that good-ol’-boy Tejano journeymen used.

“Welcome to the United States, ladies. You are under arrest.”

They were apparently sisters, late teens or early twenties. Piles of curls around striking, Caribbean-looking faces. He shined his flashlight at the top of the fence, mindful of rock throwers, then back at the women. Taller than average, long-legged in tight jeans. Maybe Honduran, Venezuelan? They reminded him of a teenage girl he had once arrested in a load van, a pouty Venezuelan sporting sunglasses and platform heels that were completely inappropriate for border-crossing. OTMs for sure. A lot of forms to fill out, but he could get the hell off The Line for the rest of the shift. One of the women wore two sweaters under a cheap leather jacket. Her hands were still raised over her head. As gently as he could, he asked her where she was from.

“Veracruz,” she said, heavy-lidded eyes on the ground.

That part of Mexico could account for their looks, but a smuggler could have also coached them. Pescatore ushered them into the vehicle.

“Valentine.” Garrison’s voice on the radio startled him. “Where you at, buddy?”

“Got two OTMs. Gonna take ’em back to the station and start processing.”

“Negative. Need you here at my location. Hurry it up.”

“Yessir.”

The dirt road wound up and around a hill. Crickets buzzed in the darkness. The tires crunched over rocks. In a clearing at the top of the hill, Pescatore found Garrison, Dillard and an agent named Macías. They stood around a parked Wrangler in the middle of the clearing. They examined it with folded arms, like researchers in a laboratory. The Wrangler was illuminated by the headlights of other vehicles.

Pescatore glanced in his rearview mirror: The two women were transfixed by the scene, fear flaring in enormous eyes.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered.

The Wrangler in the middle of the clearing was crammed impossibly full of prisoners. Men were in the front seat, the caged backseat and the space behind it. They were stacked on one another’s laps. The mass of bodies wriggled behind the breath-steamed glass as if in an aquarium, a face visible here, a foot there. The captives pounded intermittently on the windows and roof, blows rocking the vehicle. There were complaints and curses.

The prisoners had become pieces in the Game. Garrison organized the Game now and then when he felt like gambling. The Game consisted of seeing how many prisoners could be stuffed into a vehicle during the course of a night.

Garrison welcomed Pescatore with another vigorous black-gloved handshake.

“I told you,” he declared. “I got twelve. Your two gives me fourteen. And then I collect, buddy.”

“My two?” Pescatore said, keeping his tone mild. “They’re OTMs, I gotta process them.”

“Hell with that. Where do they say they’re from?”

“Veracruz. But—”

“Hey, take ’em at their word. Transfer your prisoners to my vehicle, Valentine.”

Pescatore beckoned his supervisor aside. Garrison grinned at his discomfort.

“Listen,” Pescatore hissed, “all due respect, you can’t put females in there.”

“It’s only till the end of the shift.”

“Still. It ain’t right.”

Valentine peered at Garrison in the shadows, trying to figure out if the supervisor really intended on going through with it or was just messing with him. Both scenarios pissed him off. Garrison looked down at him as if he were about to swat a bug.

“Valentine. These people break the law every day. They spit at you. They rock you. And it’s all a big joke to them. This is the worst punishment they’ll ever get. So don’t you wussy out on me now. Get with the program.”

Coming up next to Garrison, Dillard made an exasperated noise. “Come on, Valentine, nobody’s gonna hurt your girlfriends.”

“Who asked you?” Pescatore retorted. “Take a giant step back outta my face.”

“Fuck you.” Dillard’s thin lips tightened. “I don’t understand a word you say in the first place, you crazy Chicago asshole.”

Partly because he was getting angry and partly to stall Garrison, Pescatore decided to respond as ignorantly as possible. He stepped close to Dillard and cocked his head. He felt a buzzing sensation in his face and hands.

“You got a problem with the way I talk, you hayseed redneck punk bitch?”

Dillard’s face contorted. Pescatore blocked his shove, backpedaling. Dillard started after him and Pescatore crouched and slammed him with a gut punch. Garrison got between them. Dillard was flushed and wild, a hand on his belly.

“Now, Larry, you sure you can take Valentine?” Garrison chortled. “He’s not big, but he’s pretty mean.”

Garrison had a loglike arm extended at each of them, without urgency, like a referee about to resume the action. He’s not gonna stop us, Pescatore realized. He loves it: the brawling, those poor bastards in the vehicle, the crazy bullshit all night.

They were interrupted by a commotion. Suddenly the Wrangler disgorged its cargo, prisoners bolting in every direction. The agents spun around, yelling.

Pescatore focused on a man who crouched by a door, pulling aliens to freedom. A bowlegged man holding a pair of wire cutters, his head wrapped in a red bandanna. A man who had sneaked out of the bushes behind four PAs and sprung a vehicleful of prisoners.

Pulpo.

Pescatore lunged forward, pushing someone aside. Pulpo reappeared, closer, grimacing with effort. The wire cutters came whipping around at Pescatore. He snapped aside his head, reducing the force of the blow, but it staggered him. The smuggler ran into the brush.

“I got him,” Pescatore said, unsheathing his baton.

Pescatore pounded through the brush and down a ravine. He ran at an incredible, exhilarating, foolish speed. His head and ankle throbbed. It’s all your fault, Valentine, he muttered, they got away and it’s all your fault. He ran faster, ripping through curtains of fog. He gripped the baton like a sprinter. He noticed liquid trickling down his forehead onto his face. He tasted it: blood.

“I got him,” he said into the radio clipped to his lapel.

At the bottom of the hill, the border fence loomed up out of the mist. Pulpo made for a spot where floodwaters had washed out dirt between two boulders and created a gap beneath the fence. Pulpo scuttled through the opening and disappeared. Pescatore dropped, rolled and came back up on the other side of the fence.

He saw Pulpo glance back over his shoulder in disbelief, then plunge into the traffic on Calle Internacional, the highway that paralleled the international boundary on the Tijuana side. An orange-and-brown station wagon–taxi, elaborate script decorating its side, swerved and fishtailed and almost flattened Pulpo. A bedraggled pink bus braked and honked, the croak of a prehistoric animal. Pulpo reached the center median, which was waist high and as wide as a sidewalk. He stumbled, but kept going as Pescatore closed the gap. A truck left Pescatore a lungful of pestilential exhaust.

A group of migrants trudging single file along the median stopped and stared at the agent and the smuggler pelting by.

“I got him,” Pescatore told them.

He found the looks on their faces pretty comical. What’s the matter? You never seen a U.S. Border Patrol agent chasing a Mexican through Tijuana before? See it and believe it, motherfuckers.

Pescatore realized full well that he had crossed The Line. He had broken the ultimate commandment. He was making a suicide charge into enemy territory. He wondered what Garrison would say. He wondered what Esparza would say. But he felt dizzy liberation, as if the combined effect of the knock on the head and the incursion into Mexico had transformed him. He was a speed machine. A force of justice. A green avenger. He didn’t care if he had to run all the way to Ensenada. He was going to catch him a tonk.

Pulpo fled down the middle of a residential street that went south from the Calle Internacional. It was a quiet, unevenly paved, anemically lit street in the Zona Norte area, dense with cooking smells. Rickety fences fronted low houses painted in orange, green and blue. There was a field in the distance, perhaps a schoolyard.

Halfway down the block, Pulpo threw Pescatore another frantic glance. He zigzagged and cut left onto the sidewalk, knocking aside a gate. Pescatore pursued him into a narrow dirt lot between stucco houses, through an obstacle course of junk: bicycle tires, car parts, a lean-to fashioned from the camper shell of a pickup truck propped up with bricks. There was a wooden one-story hut at the back of the lot.

Pescatore caught up to the smuggler just as he reached the open door. He jabbed with the baton, javelin-style, connecting with Pulpo’s back below the label of the overalls. It made a satisfying thud.

The blow carried them both through a curtain of beads hanging in the front entrance and into the hut. Pescatore jabbed again and Pulpo went down, yowling, into a mangy armchair. Pescatore raised the baton with both hands to strike. A lightbulb on a chain swung above their heads, spattering images as if through a strobe: a dank cramped living room of sorts, a shrine with a Virgin of Guadalupe statuette, candles, an incongruously new and large television. A radio chattered. The bead curtain clattered in the doorway. Pescatore and Pulpo gulped oxygen in loud gasps.

A tired-looking little woman in sweat clothes had stepped out of the shadows behind the armchair. On her hip she cradled a baby boy, who was bare-chested in miniature overalls. The woman’s mouth opened soundlessly. Pulpo had one thick leg splayed over an armrest, the bandanna skewed down, almost obscuring his eyes. They looked as if they were posing for a portrait: the Pulpo family at home.

Silver spots swam in front of Pescatore’s eyes. The baton, held high like an executioner’s axe, weighed a hundred pounds. He heard scratchy voices on his radio. Agents called his name. A search was in progress on the other side. In San Diego.

Pulpo’s narrow eyes were locked on Pescatore’s. The smuggler’s chest heaved. He remained in the armchair, cringing from the anticipated blow, a goofy incredulous expression smeared across his face. He looked younger up close; the facial hair was scraggly.

Pescatore lowered the baton. He had regained his breath somewhat.

His voice sounded pretty calm, given the circumstances. He enunciated carefully: “Ahora sé donde vives, hijo de la chingada.

Now I know where you live, you son of a bitch.

Pulpo’s face rearranged into a mask of contempt.

Bienvenido a tu casa,” he growled. The standard deferential greeting of a Mexican host: Welcome to your home.

Pescatore turned and ran.

As he sprinted with long chopping strides, wiping clumsily at the blood that was obscuring the vision in his left eye, Pescatore thought about the time when two PAs had tackled a belligerent drunk in the middle of the riverbed. During the struggle, the agents had rolled across the international boundary, a moment recorded, to their misfortune, by a Mexican news photographer. There were internal investigations, angry headlines in Tijuana, diplomatic protests. The agents got heavy suspensions; one resigned. And their invasion had gone a couple of yards. At most. If Pescatore got caught, nothing short of crucifixion would satisfy the Mexicans this time.

Dogs announced his flight back down the street, noisy escorts loping alongside. Horns blasted when he darted north through the traffic on Calle Internacional. The troop of migrants on the concrete median had not moved; a sun-darkened gnome in a straw hat shook his head at Pescatore. He heard a distant siren. Could the judiciales be coming for him already? The only way those bastards were getting his gun would be to pry it out of his cold dead hand.

The fence looked much taller from this angle. He could not find the hole through which he had gone south. There were no apparent handholds, no hint at how people scaled the barrier so fast every day. He spotted a junked refrigerator propped against the metal. He clambered onto it, tossing his baton and flashlight over the fence into the darkness. He heard hoots, insults and whistles behind him: The lynch mob was gathering. The top of the fence scraped skin off his hands, dug into his armpit. He heard a tearing sound as his uniform shirt ripped on the metal edge. A bottle hurled from behind shattered next to him, showering glass.

With a sob, he flopped over. He dangled one-handed for a few flesh-gouging seconds, then let go. He landed, sprawling face-first, in the United States of America.

Border Patrol vehicles converged on him in the darkness. A helicopter swooped, circling low, the wind and sound magnifying his headache. He rolled to his feet, started to his right, changed direction. A semicircle of flashlights, headlights and spotlights impaled him. An amplified, distorted voice barked at him.

Pescatore sagged back against the fence for a moment. Finally, he stepped forward, into the light. He raised his hands above his head.

Sebastian Rotella is an author and award-winning reporter. He has covered international terrorism, organized crime, homeland security and immigration for Propublica and the Los Angeles Times where he servied as bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires and covered the Mexican border. He was a Pulitzer finalist in international reporting in 2006. He is the author of Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border (Norton), which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1998.

Mulholland Books will publish TRIPLE CROSSING in August 2011.