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To escape the awful life she has descended into, Luz plans carefully. She takes only the clothes on her back, a Colt .45, and all the money in her husband’s safe. The corpses in the hallway weren’t part of her plan. Luz needs to find the daughter she left behind years earlier, but she knows she may die trying. Her husband is El Principe , a key player in a high-powered drug cartel, a business he runs with the same violence he has used to keep Luz his perfect, obedient wife. With the pace and relentless force of a Scorsese film, ANGEL BABY is the newest masterpiece from one of the most ambitious and talented crime novelists at work today.
For Kim Turner,
who loves the lonely places.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.
The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?”
And Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
We are constantly on trial.
It’s a way to be free.
—Smog, “River Guard”
LUZ DIDN’T THINK THINGS THROUGH THE FIRST TIME SHE TRIED to get away. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. One night Rolando beat her so badly that she peed blood, and the next morning, as soon as he and his bodyguards left the house, she limped downstairs and out the front door, across the yard, and through the gate in the high concrete fence that surrounded the property.
Barefoot and wearing only panties and a black silk robe, she stumbled down the street, trying to hail a taxi. The drivers slowed and stared, but none would stop. Tears of frustration blurred her vision. She tripped and fell but got quickly back to her feet. Scraped knees and skinned palms wouldn’t keep her from Isabel’s third birthday party. She was determined to be there, no matter what. She’d appear at the front door with a giant pink cake and an armful of gifts and, oh, wouldn’t Isabel be surprised to see her?
Maria, the housekeeper, stuck her head out of the gate and shouted for her to stop. Luz tried to run, but the pills that got her through the day back then made her feel like she was slogging through mud. Maria caught up to her before she reached the corner and grabbed her by the hair. Luz fought back, kicking and clawing, but then El Toro, the house guard, was there too.
“Help me,” Luz called to a man on a bicycle. “Please,” to a woman pushing a stroller, but they, like the taxi drivers, ignored her. This was Tijuana, see, and if you valued your life and the lives of your family, you minded your own business. El Toro and Maria dragged her back to the house. They locked her in her room and laughed at her vows to get even.
Rolando killed her dog when they told him that she’d run away. He stormed into the bedroom and yanked Pepito from her arms, placed the heel of his boot on the toy poodle’s head, and crushed its skull. Then he forced Luz to the floor, twisted her arms up behind her back, and raped her there on the white shag carpet.
“Why do you make me do these things?” he screamed at her when he finished. “Why do you make me hate myself?”
It will be different this time. In the year since she last made a run for it, Luz has been putting together a plan, and now, finally, she’s ready. Isabel turns four next Tuesday, and Mommy will be there to watch her blow out the candles on her birthday cake, or Mommy will die trying.
She pretends to be asleep when Rolando comes out of the bathroom. He squeezes her foot through the sheet.
“Hey, Sleepy, time for breakfast.”
“Mmmmm,” Luz says. “Give me a minute.”
He’s dressed for business in a dark suit, white shirt, and shiny black cowboy boots. Luz has consulted the calendar on his desk and committed today’s schedule to memory: An 11 a.m. meeting at Las Rocas Resort with Mr. Volkers from San Diego to talk about opening another KFC franchise. Lunch at the same place with Alvarez, his attorney, then on to Ensenada to see Flaco. Though it says on the calendar that they’ll be discussing horses, the real topic will be a shipment of heroin from Apatzingán. Luz has been listening closely to her husband over the last year and has learned all of his nicknames and code words. So Flaco and the dope, and afterward dinner with the whore he keeps down there. This means he won’t be home until at least nine.
When he goes downstairs, Luz crawls out of bed and walks into the bathroom to wash her face. The room still reeks of his shit. She brushes her long black hair until it shines, lifting it off the back of her neck to glance at the words tattooed there, Angel Baby. She convinced Rolando to let her get the tattoo by telling him it was her pet name for him. In reality, it’s the title of a song she used to sing to Isabel during the year they had together. She’s been careful never to let Rolando find out about the little girl because she knows he’d use anything she loved as a weapon against her or a chain to bind her more tightly to him.
Wrapping herself in a white robe, she leaves the bedroom. Her footsteps echo in the two-story foyer as she walks down the marble staircase. On the street Rolando is known as El Príncipe, the Prince, and this is his palace. A four-thousand-square-foot house with five bedrooms, six bathrooms, faux granite and gold leaf everywhere, leather and stainless steel. Everything is expensive but nothing goes with anything else. Rolando decorated by pointing at pictures in magazines. A fake Picasso hangs above a scorpion made of rusted iron. A $10,000 couch from Milan sits between two La-Z-Boy recliners with massage motors and heated cushions. And the house itself is so poorly constructed, new cracks appear in the walls every day. It’s a stucco-and-laminate fantasy that won’t last much longer than Rolando does.
He stands and pulls out a chair for her when she enters the dining room. Such a gentleman this morning. It’s because she let him fuck her last night and even went to the trouble of thrashing and moaning as if she were enjoying it. She wants him to think everything is perfect between the two of them when he leaves today. She fumbles with her napkin, yawns, and looks somewhat confused about exactly where she is, playing the stoned princess to the hilt. It’s an act she’s perfected in the six months since she managed to wean herself off the pills, the Xanax and Valium, Vicodin and Oxycontin, that used to keep her from adding up her sins and hanging herself in the shower.
She threw away the dope because she needed a clear head to plan her escape and because she didn’t want to be strung out when she finally got free, but she’s kept Rolando thinking that she’s using. He’d become suspicious if he discovered she’d stopped, and besides, he likes her high. It makes him feel superior.
He returns to his chair across the table from her, and she smiles and asks in a sleepy baby voice when he’s going to take her shopping for the shoes she showed him on TV the other night.
“Shoes?” he says. “You think I have time to think about shoes?”
She plays the game, scrunching her face into a pout and whining, “But you said, Papi. You said I could have them.”
“You know you did. But when?”
“How about when we fly to Acapulco this weekend?”
“Acapulco!” Luz exclaims and claps her hands.
It wasn’t easy quitting the drugs. In fact, to this day there are moments like this when her mind and body beg for the distance they provided. When this happens, she conjures the face of her daughter and prays to it as fervently as a primitive supplicating the only star in a pitch-black sky.
Maria bustles in from the kitchen carrying a platter of pan dulce and a bowl of fruit salad.
“Good morning, señora,” she says to Luz, sweet as can be. They’ve made peace since Luz tried to walk away, or at least Maria thinks they have. Luz has done her best to convince the housekeeper that she barely remembers that day, but she still can’t tell if she’s bought it. The woman is hard to read.
Maria lifts the carafe from the table and fills Luz’s cup with coffee. The sleeve of her blouse slides up to reveal a scar on her arm. It’s from an injury she got in prison, where she did time for fencing stolen goods. She was the mother of one of Rolando’s boyhood friends, a kid named Gato who was killed early in Rolando’s rise. Gato made Rolando swear he’d take care of his mother if anything happened to him, and Rolando kept the promise by hiring the woman to oversee his household.
“Do you need anything else, señora?” Maria asks Luz.
“No, gracias,” Luz replies.
“No, Maria. Gracias,” Rolando says.
The woman returns to the kitchen, and Rolando spoons fruit salad onto a plate and hands the plate to Luz. One of the parrots he keeps caged in the living room squawks, “My name is Gladiator! My name is Gladiator!”
“Where are you going, all dressed up?” Luz says.
“To fight a bull, what do you think,” Rolando says, then bites into a pastry.
Luz pokes at her fruit. Her stomach is tight with anticipation and worry, but she manages to swallow a piece of pineapple, makes sure Rolando sees her eating.
“And you?” he says with food in his mouth, the fucking pig. “Let me guess: a massage? A manicure?”
“Both,” Luz says with a laugh. “Why not?”
“It’s a good life, no?”
“A good life,” Luz says, the words burning her tongue. She reaches across the table and takes one of Rolando’s hands in both of hers.
Rolando lifts a red rose from the vase on the table and slips it into her hair above her ear. He smiles and starts to say something tender, but then his phone rings, and his eyes go ice-cold. The human thing is all an act. He can turn it on and off like that. What he is inside is a monster, a shark, something soulless and ravenous. He stands and walks out of the room, barks “Qué?” into the phone.
El Toro, the guard who helped drag Luz back last year, lumbers in and grabs a sugary concha off the plate of pastries. Luz can feel the man’s contempt for her, the boss’s dope-fiend whore of a wife, has always felt it.
“Tell El Príncipe the car is ready,” he says before walking back to the kitchen.
Luz passes the message on to Rolando when he finishes the call. He kisses her on the forehead and leaves without another word. She watches from the window as he climbs into the Escalade with Ozzy and Esteban. El Toro opens the heavy iron gate and gives a quick wave as the truck drives out.
And, so, it’s time.
Her first stop is the bedroom, where she turns on the television and crawls between the sheets again like she does every morning. Today, though, her fists are clenched and sweaty, her legs tensed to run.
At 10:15 there’s a knock at the door.
“Yes,” she croaks, making her voice froggy.
Maria pokes her head in. “Any laundry, señora?”
Luz motions to the bathroom without looking away from the TV and ignores Maria as she walks in and empties the hamper into a plastic bag and walks out again. She begins counting to thirty after the housekeeper closes the door but only gets to ten before she can’t stand it anymore and pops out of bed.
She has fifteen minutes to make her escape. She knows Maria’s and El Toro’s schedules as well as she knows Rolando’s: Maria will be in the laundry room at the back of the house, and El Toro sneaks off to the garage every day from 10 to 10:30 to watch a soap opera on a little TV he keeps out there.
She dresses quickly in jeans, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes. No makeup, no jewelry. A fleece jacket and a pink baseball cap, nothing more, go into a zebra-striped backpack, something a child would carry to school. She’s traveling fast and light. Anything else she needs she can pick up when she reaches the U.S. Heart pounding, she opens the door and checks the hall, then quietly descends the stairs. A radio plays in the room where Maria is sorting clothes, the DJ telling a dirty joke.
When she reaches the ground floor, she hurries to Rolando’s office and slips inside. On the walls are shelves of books the man has never read, the heads of animals somebody else shot, and paintings of sailing ships and knights in armor bought in bulk by a decorator. The only personal addition is a large framed photograph of a dark-haired woman lying nude on a bed, legs spread wide. Rolando likes to tell people that it reminds him of Luz.
As soon as the door closes behind her, Luz relaxes a bit. She’s been in here on numerous dry runs during the past few months, and now it’s only a matter of following her plan. She goes to the big wooden desk and picks up the letter opener, a German World War II dagger with a swastika engraved on the handle, and uses it to pry open the lock on the top drawer. Inside is a fluorescent green Post-it with the name Angelina and a phone number scrawled on it. Angelina is the name Rolando’s mother gave to a daughter who died more than twenty years ago, the one the whole family now reveres as a stillborn saint, and the number, entered backward, is the combination to the wall safe, which is hidden behind a painting of a wolf hunt: men with fur hats riding in sleds, rifles, bloody snow.
Luz sets the painting on the floor and punches the numbers into the safe’s keypad. The lock clicks, and the safe swings open. Inside are stacks and stacks of rubber-banded U.S. currency, hundreds and twenties, and a shiny silver gun, Rolando’s custom-engraved, silver-plated Colt .45. Snakes twine around skulls on the barrel, and an image of Santa Muerte is carved in ivory on the grip. Luz transfers the money, all of it, to the backpack and lays the gun on top. Bowing her head, she murmurs a childhood prayer, and God’s name is still on her lips as she grabs the pack, stands, and opens the office door.
“You dropped this, señora,” Maria says, holding out the rose that Rolando stuck in Luz’s hair at breakfast. “Out here, in the hallway.”
El Toro stands behind the woman, a mean grin on his ugly face. He’s looking forward to hurting her. Both of them are. And then Rolando will finish the job.
Luz backs up and reaches into the pack for the .45. Rolando taught her how to use it on the house’s basement firing range. At first he had to force her, because she couldn’t stand the sound and the thump in her chest when the gun went off, but over the past year, thinking it was a skill that might come in handy during her escape, she’s practiced whenever she could and become a pretty decent shot.
She racks the slide and points the .45 with both hands, doesn’t flinch at the BOOM BOOM BOOM when she squeezes the trigger. Maria flies backward into El Toro, a jagged black hole under her left eye, a bloody volcano erupting out of the back of her head. The other two rounds hit El Toro in the chest and throat. He and the housekeeper go down together, tangled in death.
The horror of what she’s just done paralyzes Luz for an instant, like an icy hand suddenly gripping her neck. When she can move again, she drops the gun into the backpack and steps over the bodies, being careful not to look down at them. There’s only one thought in her head: Isabel. When the big front door doesn’t open on the first try, she panics and jerks the knob a few times before realizing that the deadbolt is engaged. A second later she’s on the porch. Four seconds later she’s out the gate and on the street. Ten seconds later she’s gone, another scrap swept up in the noisy, stinking whirl of the city.
MALONE STEPS OUT OF HIS MOTEL ROOM, AND THE SUN SURPRISES him like an unexpected slap in the face. He wobbles a bit, then sets off for the OXXO store down the road to buy something to take the edge off.
On the hill above the motel is the dog track, Agua Caliente. Malone has Freddy put him up out here so he can walk to the races while killing time before a run. Better than being downtown, where some whore always manages to slip her hand into his pocket. At least this way he might get lucky and make a little money instead of spending every last dollar on pussy, coke, and shitty tequila that comes out of a Patrón bottle but damn sure isn’t Patrón.
Traffic is heavy on Paseo de los Héroes. Trucks coughing up clouds of exhaust, cars with blaring radios, scooters buzzing like angry insects. If Malone stuck out his hand, he could touch the river of rattling steel. One step and he’d be swallowed up by it and torn to shreds before he knew what hit him.
It’s that kind of morning. He arrived in Tijuana last night, took the trolley down, and started drinking without dinner at a soccer bar across the street from the motel. When the joint closed and they threw him out, he somehow made it back to his room, saw his true face in the mirror, began to weep, passed out, and woke up in hell.
A buzzer sounds when he enters the convenience store. Neatly shelved cans of tuna and beans and menudo show off their labels beneath fluorescent lights that are reflected in the freshly waxed floor. There’s a whole rack of instant noodles, a whole aisle of potato chips. Microwave burritos and cheeseburgers, a soft drink dispenser. It’s almost exactly like a 7-Eleven or AMPM in the States. Too much like one.
Malone walks to the cooler for a six-pack of Tecate and a quart of Gatorade. The girl at the register smiles briefly before ringing up his purchases. She’s wearing a red and yellow uniform, and her hair is pulled back into a tight bun. Very professional. She tells him how much he owes in Spanish, then English.
Malone is dressed like a typical gabacho, in knee-length Bermuda shorts, a tourist T-shirt from Cabo San Lucas, and flip-flops. It’s his way of blending in. Every third American down here looks exactly like him. The scraggly blond hair, the sunglasses. A surfer who’s somewhat off course. He glances at a digital clock on the wall: 10:31 a.m.
“Is that the real time?” he asks the girl.
“Sí, yes,” she replies.
The little restaurant next door is painted a soothing shade of pale blue. It specializes in seafood—cocktails, soups, ceviche. Malone sits at a plastic table under a tin awning and orders three fish tacos and a shrimp cocktail. He opens the Gatorade and drinks half of it in a gulp, then pops a beer and sucks that down too.
By the time the old woman in the frilly apron brings his food, he’s doing okay. He opens another beer and digs in. The cocktail is served in a tall Styrofoam cup. Malone pours ketchup and Tapatío into it and mixes everything with the shrimp and chunks of tomato and avocado.
A skinny brown stray with sad eyes and enormous teats watches him eat. He tosses the dog a saltine. The traffic still bucks and roars, and the cell phone store next door is blasting banda at tooth-rattling volume, but it doesn’t feel like the end of the world anymore, just another day, no harder, no easier.
Malone walks back to the motel when he finishes. It’s a two-story cinderblock bunker with bars on the windows. Looks like a hot pink prison. He always gets a room on the second floor in case there’s an earthquake, envisions himself riding the building down if it collapses. The mattress sags, the TV only gets three channels, all in Spanish, and the air conditioner gives off a smell like mildewed towels. Stay drunk, though, and you don’t even notice.
He sets the beers on the dresser and goes into the bathroom to take a shower. The water temperature veers back and forth between lukewarm and scalding hot every thirty seconds, keeping him on his toes. He cuts his chin shaving, presses toilet paper to the wound. Another beer and he’ll be ready for the walk up the hill to the track. He stares out the window while sipping, watches a VW bug try to make a U-turn, everyone ignoring the driver’s frantic hand signals.
The boys bring the dogs for the third race onto the track and parade them past the grandstand. Malone moves to the rail to check them out. There’s no reason to, really. He doesn’t know squat about greyhounds, what signs to look for that one will run any faster than another. He normally makes his bets based on some combination of name and odds. This race he has his eye on Prometheus, going off at 8 to 1. Who the fuck would name a dog Prometheus? That alone is enough to pique his interest.
He walks back into the Hippodrome to place his wager. Most of the seats in the grandstand are empty. A few old Mexican men chattering in the shade, a couple of day-trippers down from San Diego. The clerk at the betting window takes his money and slides him his ticket without interrupting her cell phone conversation. Ten bucks on Prometheus to win.
His morning buzz is wearing off, so he stops at the bar for a rum and Coke, drinks it standing there, listening to the electronic chortles of the casino’s slot machines bounce around in the rafters of the grandstand. Walking this tightrope gets mighty old. Sober, he can’t stand himself, and drunk it’s even worse. That’s when he thinks about jumping off a bridge or getting hold of a gun.
The bartender, an old man with dyed black hair and mustache, is shuffling a deck of cards. He smiles at Malone and fans the deck, facedown.
“Pick one,” he says.
Malone finishes his drink and sets the plastic glass on the bar. “The race is about to start,” he says over his shoulder as he walks away.
He’s at the rail again when the dogs come out of their boxes. They run past, chasing the lure, a scrap of fur attached to the end of a pole. Prometheus is out of it before the pack reaches the first turn. Malone crumples his ticket and drops it to the ground. His phone rings.
“You winning?” Freddy says.
“What do you think?” Malone replies.
“Some people here need a ride,” Freddy says. “Come on over.”
Malone’s anxiety kicks in during the cab ride to Freddy’s house. The only thing that gets his blood pumping anymore is making these runs, but he also swears he’s going to have a heart attack every time.
He met Freddy one rotten night in a bar in National City, a bar he shouldn’t have been in. Freddy pegged him right off the bat as a bad machine and said he had a job that would be perfect for him. Malone’s bank account was about to bottom out, so he couldn’t afford to be choosy. Ever since then he’s come to TJ once or twice a month to drive a load of illegals across the border into the U.S. Pollos, Freddy calls them. Chickens.
It’s nothing fancy: You stack them in the trunk of a car, head to the crossing at San Ysidro or Otay Mesa, answer the inspector’s questions without stuttering, and say thank you when he passes you through. And the odds are excellent that he will pass you through. With sixty thousand to seventy thousand vehicles crossing every day, the inspectors can only be so thorough. Put a halfway respectable-looking white man behind the wheel, and it’s practically a sure thing.
If you do get sent to secondary and asked to open the trunk? Again, the odds are in your favor. All those cars and trucks coming across, and only about three hundred people a year are actually prosecuted for bringing in illegals. Malone has never been caught, but he knows someone who has. The border cops sent the load back over the border and cut the driver loose in a couple of hours. They aren’t going to waste their time trying to hold back the ocean.
Once on the U.S. side, Malone off-loads the pollos at a drop house, gets rid of the car, and goes home to his place in Imperial Beach. At $500 a head, it’s the easiest money he’s ever made.
The cabbie shifts into low and grinds up a steep, rutted dirt road leading to a hilltop neighborhood of rambling cinderblock and stucco houses all crowned with bare rebar, the first hopeful step toward second floors. Freddy’s house is the nicest on the street, with a two-car garage, lime green paint job, and tile roof.
Freddy is standing on the porch, yelling into his phone, when the cab pulls up. Whoever he’s talking to is a pinche pendejo and can kiss his fucking culo.
“Are you hungry?” he calls out as Malone is paying the driver. “My mom is making chicken.”
Malone tells him nah, he’s fine, had a big breakfast. Last time he took Freddy up on the offer of a meal prepared by his mother, some kind of goat stew, he was chained to the toilet for a week. Even now the thought of it makes his stomach flip.
He walks up the driveway past a couple of flunkies with buckets and rags who are washing an old Crown Victoria. Freddy bops around, pointing out spots they missed. He’s short and wiry and weighs the same as he did when he used to box in club matches all over town. His hair and goatee are going gray, but there’s still a fighter’s bounce in his step, a disquieting quickness to his movements.
“Check out your ride,” he says to Malone.
“I got it at auction, real cheap.”
A pack of children are playing in the yard, some kicking a soccer ball, others reciting sing-songy chants and rhythmically clapping their hands. There are always children around: Freddy’s sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, even a few grandkids. Malone can’t keep them straight, and they only add to his nervousness. Whenever one of them takes a tumble or starts to cry, he has to stop himself from running over and scooping her up, and every wail stiffens his spine and tightens his throat.
- On Sale
- May 14, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Mulholland Books