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Read by Sebastian Rotella
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Valentine Pescatore, the globetrotting former Border Patrol agent, finds himself back on American soil investigating the merciless killing of a group of women in a motel room. At first, the crime seems to be a straightforward case of gangsters battling for territory. Soon, however, the motive is revealed to be much deeper and more sinister: a single witness who knows too much is being hunted, at any cost.
From an author who has been praised for his “pounding action scenes [and] ferocious prose style” (Marilyn Stasio, NYTBR), Rip Crew races at breakneck speed as Pescatore finds himself face-to-face with his most terrifying assignment yet.
"There ain't no clean way to make a hundred million bucks," Ohls said. "Maybe the head man thinks his hands are clean but somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut from under them and had to sell out for nickels, decent people lost their jobs, stocks got rigged on the market, proxies got bought up like a pennyweight of old gold, and the five per centers and the big law firms got paid hundred-grand fees for beating some law the people wanted but the rich guys didn't, on account of it cut into their profits. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It's the system. Maybe it's the best we can get, but it still ain't any Ivory Soap deal."
—Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
"Hunger is a powerful thing."
—"Border Patrol Push Diverts Flow,"
Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1994
Valentine Pescatore encountered the Beast while hunting a smuggler of humans.
The Pakal-Na neighborhood was about fifty miles northwest of the line where Guatemalan jungle flowed into Mexican jungle. Hundreds of migrants filled the shack town surrounding the freight yards. Most of them were Central Americans. Their presence on Mexican soil made them illegal. But no one in law enforcement seemed to be around or interested.
Pescatore trudged through trash and weeds. The jungle heat made it feel like wading in a swamp. He was sweating and unshaven, and he had a hangover. His short curls were appropriate for Washington, but down here he worried about looking like a cop. Imitating a migrant beggar he'd seen on a roadside, he removed his black T-shirt and draped it over his head like a kaffiyeh. His bantam muscular frame had acquired a few scars over the years. His crucifix necklace fashioned from braided black thread was a talisman purchased long ago from a street vendor in Tijuana. He wore scuffed hiking boots and jeans. Hopefully, his look evoked manual labor, street life, jail time. He didn't need to play this role for days, just hours. Just long enough to get within striking distance of the smuggler known as Chiclet.
Emerging from an alley, Pescatore beheld the Beast, a rusty behemoth at rest. The freight train had stopped in Palenque en route to Vera Cruz. Migrants swarmed the train like flies on a buffalo. They pulled at door handles. They peered between slats. They climbed ladders affixed to boxcars. A few men had staked out rooftops. They withstood the afternoon sun in caps, hats, sunglasses, and bandannas.
Corporate names on the boxcars—Cemex, Pemex, Ferromex—competed with gang graffiti: Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street. In addition to fearing rape, robbery, extortion, and abduction, the illicit riders had to worry about falling off, getting run over, losing limbs. For those who survived the trek across Mexico, another task awaited: sneaking into the United States. A rough crossing that had gotten rougher since Pescatore had left the U.S. Border Patrol.
It was Pescatore's first time at the line between Mexico and Guatemala. The mission had stirred old instincts and dormant emotions from his years in the Patrol. But he was in the private sector now. He had come to Palenque in the state of Chiapas as a contract investigator for the Department of Homeland Security. It was a sensitive, off-the-books assignment. Not officially an undercover operation. Right now, however, he was doing his best—strange as it felt—to impersonate an illegal immigrant.
Feeling self-conscious about his bare-chested piratical getup, he passed a basketball court where migrants dozed on the blacktop, their backpacks and laundry hanging on the chain-link fence. He walked through a low-slung corridor of houses and shops painted in peeling blues, greens, and yellows. Migrants crouched by the tracks, drank water, talked on cell phones, and eyed signs offering the use of toilets and showers for a fee.
Pescatore approached a grocery stand. Flanked by a cobbler's hut and a bike-repair shop, the open-air cubicle did brisk business. It seemed like a good place to start. A sign proclaimed ALMACÉN DOÑA ALMA. The proprietress barely fit among her wares. She had chubby cheeks and black braids and wore a frilly white blouse with floral designs.
Pescatore bought a bottle of water. He leaned on the counter.
"Oiga, señora, please," he said. "I'm looking for a guy named Chiclet."
He spoke softly, politely, like a gentleman hard-ass, and faked a Cuban accent. A lot of Cubans came through here. Pescatore had talked that morning to a genial muscleman from Bayamo named Nelson. Nelson had followed a well-traveled route via Ecuador. After working in Quito for a while, he had headed north, knowing he had a shot at refugee status if he could just present himself to border inspectors at a port of entry in Texas.
The accents Pescatore could best imitate by virtue of his ethnicity and experience—Argentine and Mexican—were not relevant. But he could pull off Cuban. He tried to mimic the sugary cadences of Nelson from Bayamo and Isabel Puente's cousin Dionisio from Miami, a car salesman who said oiga and oye a lot.
"Oiga, they call him Chiclet," he said, glancing around. "Honduran. He's a guide. Helps people go north. Please, señora. Can you give me a hand?"
Doña Alma studied him. Beads of sweat glistened on her high forehead. He wondered if she was Maya. Her earrings were silver crucifixes. Maybe the TJ jailbird cross on his chest would score points with her.
Finally, she said: "No sabría decirle."
The wariest response possible. Worse than "I don't know." It literally meant "I wouldn't know what to tell you." It really meant "I'm not going to say anything about anything, and your questions frighten me, so please go away forever."
Or not. Doña Alma did an interesting thing. Her eyes widened and did a slow shift to the right. Her gaze fixed itself on a point over his left shoulder, paused, then lowered demurely.
"No sabría decirle," she repeated.
Once again, her eyes traced the same parabola. Her look lingered on the spot beyond his shoulder. A hint of a grin flickered across her face.
"Oiga, no problem, señora," he said, raising his voice for the benefit of anyone in earshot. "Thanks much just the same. God bless you."
He turned casually, swigging water. Doña Alma had eyeballed a boxlike structure near a curve in the tracks. Getting closer, he saw it was a diner called Delicias Hondureñas. The faded walls were painted blue and white, the Honduran national colors. The corrugated metal roof was off-kilter, like a carelessly worn hat. People congregated on the front patio around white plastic tables and a Honduran flag on a pole. Honduras was drowning in dysfunction. It had one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Hondurans were becoming soldiers in Mexican cartels. Joints like Delicias Hondureñas were popping up in places like Palenque.
A bald, shirtless guy lounged at an outdoor table. Three tattoo-covered hoodlums drank beer at an adjacent table. They looked like mareros—members of the maras, the Central American street gangs born in the United States and bred into transnational killing machines. A dozen migrants hovered in clumps of two and three, supplicants waiting at a respectful distance from the gatekeepers of their future.
Pescatore joined the migrants. He leaned against a tree and gulped water.
God, is it hot. God, am I hungover.
Two teenagers were the center of attention. They stood in front of the shirtless man. Pescatore concluded that his nickname was La Rana (the Frog) when, in an indolent voice, he said, "La Rana decides who rides. As of now, you're not going anywhere."
The boy told La Rana that his name was Oscar. He was about sixteen. His fashionable red high-tops struck Pescatore as a bad wardrobe choice for the trek, like a sign proclaiming ROB ME. Oscar had a peak wet-combed into his hair. He wore designer jeans and a striped polo shirt. His build suggested that he'd done some weight lifting but he hadn't filled out yet. His sister was long-legged and doe-eyed. Her hair hung down over a pink backpack decorated with images of the Powerpuff Girls. She stayed behind her brother.
Oscar's diction, lack of tattoos, and frequent mentions of God led Pescatore to think he was an evangelical Christian. The boy explained that his parents had already paid the entire fee, cash money, door to door, from San Salvador to Las Vegas. Nobody had mentioned a supplemental charge in Palenque.
"Well, they should have," La Rana said. "Two spots on La Bestia will cost you five hundred apiece. Babysitting snot-nosed kids on top of that train is a pain in the ass. Cops all over. Hey, muñeca, how old are you?"
The girl peered out from behind her brother.
"Fourteen." Her voice was barely audible.
La Rana considered her. His fists clenched the short towel around his neck. His physique was indeed froglike: round belly and shoulders, stumpy legs below baggy cutoffs.
"What's your name?"
"Don't be shy, let me get a look at you. What grade are you in?"
"Ninth," she said in that wisp of a voice. As if fearing the answer was insufficient, she added, "I didn't finish, because we left."
"Ay, what a shame, you didn't finish. Don't worry, we've got a lot of teachers around here. We can teach you all kinds of things."
Chuckles from the mareros. Nelvita took refuge behind Oscar, who mopped his forehead with his arm.
Look at these scumbags, Pescatore thought. Smacking their lips over a fourteen-year-old.
La Rana told Oscar to come back with cash. Or some other form of payment. The teenagers sidled off, looking lost, whispering heatedly. Pescatore could imagine their story. The parents had migrated to Las Vegas, probably leaving the kids in the care of grandparents. The parents had stayed in touch via Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook. They had earned enough for smuggling fees to try to reunite the family, but Oscar and Nelvita's relatively decent upbringing had not been the best preparation for the journey.
Those two are going to get eaten alive, he thought.
He forced them out of his mind. He scanned the people around him. No one was clamoring for the next audience with La Rana.
Pescatore took another gulp of water. He removed the shirt-headdress. He poured the rest of the bottle over his head, pasted his hair back with his hand, and pulled the shirt down over his torso. Undercover or not, he intended to show these thugs some dignity. He entered the patio of Delicias Hondureñas with a jaunty walk—what Cubans call tumbao.
"What's up, brother?" he said.
La Rana's beady eyes did, in fact, remind him of a frog's.
"Oye, I'm with the Eagles," Pescatore continued. "My name is Dionisio. I was told to ask for Chiclet."
Nelson from Bayamo had explained the drill. At each stage of the migrants' journey, smugglers provided them with a new code name and contact. Upon arriving in Palenque, Nelson's group of migrants had been told to call themselves the Eagles and meet Chiclet.
"Cubano," La Rana grumbled.
Cubans were regarded as pushy and crafty. Still, they tended to have relatives in the U.S. with deep pockets. They weren't first-class cargo like Indians, Africans, or Nepalese, but Cubans were good value.
"That's right, chico," Pescatore replied. "And proud of it."
"Where are you going?"
La Rana dried his pate with the towel. He asked questions about the trip from Cuba. Pescatore described an odyssey through Ecuador, Colombia, the tropical wilds of the Darién Gap. His answers appeared to be satisfactory.
"Come back later," La Rana said. "Seven o'clock."
"Oye, will Chiclet take care of me then?"
La Rana repeated the words "Seven o'clock" and told him to scram.
Pescatore killed time. He bought another bottle of water. He walked through the freight yards and the shantytown. He sat on a crate on a hill with a view.
The shadows lengthened. The groups around the train grew. He took deep breaths.
The Guatemalan border was like a return to the battlefield, a flashback to the Line in San Diego. Working in the Patrol had overwhelmed him. He had felt too much sympathy for the migrants, too much hatred for the criminals. It had messed with his head.
At about six thirty, two men approached the diner below. The shorter one had a pile of black hair and wore a guayabera-type shirt. Even from a distance, he looked very much like Chiclet. La Rana accompanied them inside.
Pescatore called Porthos. They settled on a plan.
At seven, Pescatore crossed himself and raised his crucifix to his lips. He walked down the hill. His gun was with Porthos, who had been reluctant about this improvised undercover gambit. Isabel would not have approved either. But Isabel was counting on him.
The setting sun shone off the metal roof of Delicias Hondureñas. He squinted. The outdoor tables were empty. There was a mural on the wall: a figure in a poncho, the face shrouded by a wide-brimmed hat with a black band. Painted below was the word Catracho, a nickname for Hondurans. He hadn't noticed the mural earlier.
He reached for the handle of the screen door. Time slowed down. He thought about the places he had been during the past months: Buenos Aires, Paris, Washington, San Diego, Tapachula. Travel had left him in a daze, always alert, always weary. So many miles covered to reach this remote corner of the world, this destination that seemed somehow inevitable—a den of cutthroats in Pakal-Na, Palenque, Mexico.
There were a dozen tables in the dim interior. A freezer whirred. Rotor fans spun. Flies dive-bombed plates.
La Rana wore an orange T-shirt now, but his fists still clenched the towel around his neck.
"Right on time, eh? Wait here."
La Rana passed a table occupied by the hoodlum trio—still drinking beer—and muttered with two men at a table in the back. He returned to fetch Pescatore.
The one sitting by the wall was definitely Chiclet, aka Héctor Talavera. The pompadour confirmed it. Like in the mug shot: A prodigious head of high-maintenance hair. A castle of hair. Combed in swirls and levels. String-thin sideburns extended along the jaw to the chin.
No doubt about it, Pescatore thought. I got you.
The face showed damage and dissipation, especially in the flat nose. Protuberant teeth chomped gum—probably the origin of the nickname. The gum-chewing worked the sinews of a short trunk of a neck encircled by gold chains. Chiclet tilted his head back against the wall. His bloodshot eyes focused on Pescatore from the depths of a hostile stupor.
"Buenas tardes, Señor Chiclet." Pescatore tempered his bouncy manner with deference. "I am Dionisio. From Bayamo. A pleasure to meet you."
He extended his hand. Chiclet's face twisted as if Pescatore had offered him a stool sample. Chiclet let the hand hang.
"Sit," La Rana growled, poking Pescatore in the ribs.
The table held three cell phones and a bottle of rum. Chiclet's tablemate was a long-armed bruiser whose straw hat recalled the Catracho mural.
Pescatore was just starting to speak when music blared: the ringtone of a phone on the table. A bachata guitar riff, then the falsetto croon of Romeo Santos: "Sooo nasty!"
Chiclet picked up the phone. His end of the conversation consisted of profanities and monosyllables. He swigged from the bottle.
While Chiclet talked, Pescatore scoped him. Rolex, gold bracelet, a wad of cash swelling a pocket of the pale blue shirt. Smells came off the man in waves: sweat, cologne, hair gel, cheap rum, chewing gum.
La Rana walked past the counter to a bathroom in back. Chiclet finished the call. Pescatore explained his situation, his hopes of reaching Chicago. Chiclet listened, drank, fiddled with his phones, and avoided eye contact. Pescatore realized that the smuggler wasn't capable of having a civil conversation with him. Chiclet saw him as human freight, merchandise, a commodity to be bought and sold, shipped from here to there after extracting maximum profit.
"Fucking Cubans," Chiclet said. "Why don't you take a boat to Miami instead of coming all the way here to break our balls?"
"The sharks, hermano. I'd rather take my chances on dry land."
"The sharks." Chiclet swigged from the bottle. "Not enough sharks to eat all the putos in Cuba. Mucho puto in Cuba, no?"
"Compared to where?" Pescatore heard himself retort. "Honduras?"
His accent had wavered. His mask had slipped. Not that he really cared. He'd had about enough of this humiliating little dance.
Chiclet's jaws worked the gum harder. In his line of business, people didn't talk back. They obeyed orders, kissed ass, begged and pleaded. The sudden impudence had put him on guard.
Pescatore planted his feet, ready to move.
He's gonna curse me out and slap me around, he thought, or tell me I've got cojones and offer me a drink.
He never got a chance to find out. The door opened. Two men entered, silhouetted against the evening light. Pescatore gave thanks and praise. He felt a jolt of the confidence that had enabled him to stroll unarmed into Gangsterland. It came from having two of the baddest cops in Mexico as backup. Ex-cops, really, but he wouldn't have traded them for Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok.
Porthos was the muscle. Serious wingspan, and an excess forty pounds that made him even more imposing. Athos was four inches shorter and pushing sixty, but his marksman's stare emanated menace. Both men wore baseball caps and camouflage vests. They gripped the guns in their belts but did not draw.
"¿Que onda?" Chiclet growled. "Those cabrones are judiciales."
Pescatore didn't waste time. With all the command presence he could muster, he declared, "Absolutely correct. They are judiciales, and so am I. And you are under arrest, Héctor Talavera. Stand up, turn around, and put your hands behind your back. Right now."
Frozen in disbelief, the smugglers and the mareros looked back and forth between Pescatore and the newcomers. Pescatore slid to his feet, producing a pair of handcuffs from a pocket. He grabbed Chiclet by the arm and pulled him up. To his surprise, the smuggler complied, rising like a sleepwalker.
This is gonna work, Pescatore thought. Smooth as silk. Easy as pie.
The first cuff had clicked onto the first wrist when he heard a toilet flush. In a kind of slow-motion delayed reaction, he turned to see La Rana emerge from the bathroom. La Rana took in the scene. His mouth and eyes opened wide. Before Pescatore could order him not to do anything stupid, he did something stupid.
La Rana charged, his legs pumping, his bald head lowering. Reluctant to release his captive, Pescatore managed at the last moment to duck and pivot, minimizing the impact. The tackle took him down and overturned a table. As they grappled on the floor, he heard a brawl break loose. Shouts, curses, bodies colliding, furniture crashing.
Pescatore was in better shape than La Rana. The urge to hit someone had been building in him for days. It didn't take him long to roll on top of his assailant and punch him senseless. He gave La Rana an extra shot between the eyes. From his crouch, he saw Porthos doing damage with windmill arms, blows resonating, men dropping. He saw Chiclet contorted over a table, the handcuffs dangling from his wrist. The smuggler had the barrel of a pistol in his ear. Athos had pinned Chiclet's head to the table with the pistol and appeared intent on driving the barrel into the ear and through the skull into the wood below.
Athos looked up. When he spoke, his voice was loud enough to cut through the racket but calm given the circumstances.
"Everyone settle down! Or I blow this monkey's brains out."
Chiclet shrieked at his men to obey. Gradually, the commotion came to a stop. Pescatore scrambled to finish handcuffing Chiclet and retrieve the phones. Pescatore, Athos, and Porthos rushed the prisoner outside and into a black Suburban. Their driver sped along unpaved lanes. The vehicle banged over potholes and rocks, raising dust in its wake.
Sitting on the prisoner's right, Pescatore frisked him. He breathed through his mouth to ward off the smells. Porthos pulled a burlap sack over Chiclet's head. The Suburban bounced onto a main road.
Pescatore gripped Chiclet's arm. The pulse hammered against his fingertips, echoing his own heartbeat. Beneath the burlap, the captive made a kind of humming sound—between a moan and a sigh.
Fifteen minutes later, the two-lane road had brought them to the outskirts of town. Migrants hiked on the shoulder of the road. Pescatore stared through the orange glow of dusk in his window.
"Wait a minute!" He lunged forward and grabbed the driver. "Pull over! Pull over here, please."
The driver hit the brakes. Pescatore reached into Chiclet's breast pocket and removed the wad of bills. The prisoner remained inert. Pescatore lifted the shirt and rifled through the fanny pack he had found while frisking him. Another roll of cash, mostly U.S. dollars.
"What are you doing?" Athos demanded.
"Forgive me, Comandante, I'll be right back." Pescatore poked Chiclet. "Mr. Talavera, I'm confiscating these funds for official business."
He got out and sprinted down the road. An evening breeze ruffled bushes and palm trees. His foot speed had been useful in the Patrol. When he thought back, he remembered the chases most of all. Night after night of running all out, full tilt, hell-bent.
A bus stop took shape in the dusk. Oscar stood in front of the hutlike wooden shelter. Nelvita sat inside. Oscar had a duffel bag over his shoulder, and he held his sister's pink backpack as well. He gestured, apparently imploring her to get up. She huddled on the bench.
"Excuse me, Oscar." Pescatore spoke his usual Spanish inflected by Buenos Aires, Tijuana, and Chicago. "I need to talk to you."
The teenager whirled. He backed up, positioning himself in front of his sister, and confronted the latest specter in the horror movie that his life had become: a disheveled madman with a strange accent who had come tearing out of the shadows and addressed him by name.
"Who are you?" Oscar demanded. "What do you want?"
Hands on knees, Pescatore panted. After the hangover, the fight, and the sprint, he was winded. Oscar inserted his hand into the duffel bag. Maybe he carried a knife or a club, showing he had a little street sense after all.
"Sorry to startle you." Pescatore straightened. "I was at the Honduran place today in Pakal-Na. That's how I know your name."
Oscar stared at him. A truck rumbled by. Pescatore glanced back at the lights of the Suburban waiting down the road.
"Where are you from?" Oscar asked. "Are you a, uh, guide?"
Pescatore advanced cautiously into the bus shelter. He looked around before extending the pile of cash to Oscar. There was blood on Pescatore's knuckles—a souvenir of the capture. He tried to avoid staining the bills.
"Take this," he said.
Oscar didn't move. Nelvita stood up, pushing her hair back. Her eyes were riveted on the money.
"Seriously, take it," Pescatore said. "About six thousand dollars. If I were you, I'd go home to El Salvador. Use it for college. Start a business. What you're planning to do is against American law, and I don't like it. But if you really want to go north, call your parents. Tell them you've got cash. You could fly to Sonora, or take a bus. They could send someone for you. You have options now."
He placed his free hand on Oscar's shoulder and offered the cash again. The youth accepted it, head down.
"Whatever you do," Pescatore whispered, "promise me you won't let that girl near that goddamn train."
Oscar called him "señor," asked God to bless him, stammered his thanks.
"You're welcome. Now get off the street quick."
Pescatore ran back to the Suburban, propelled by pure exhilaration. He slid into his seat.
The vehicle swung onto the road. Athos turned. In a low voice, he asked, "What was all that, muchacho?"
Pescatore remembered a phrase he had heard Leo Méndez use.
"Redistribution of wealth."
The motel was outside of town. Pescatore had rented three rooms and the presidential suite, whose only conceivable qualification for that designation was its size. Porthos installed Chiclet in an upright chair. Athos and Pescatore pored through the prisoner's wallet, cell phones, and pocket litter.
Porthos removed the sack from Chiclet's head. The smuggler blinked. His pompadour was a mess. Shudders racked him. His lips moved without sound. The sneer had evaporated. His eyes darted among his captors.
Chiclet surely imagined that a roster of time-honored torments awaited him. Beatings. Cigarette burns. Head-dunking in the bathtub. Carbonated liquid sprayed up the nose. Electric shocks to strategic anatomical areas.
- "Rip Crew is a taut, tense international thriller, filled with complex characters and gritty dialogue. Utterly riveting."—Alafair Burke, New York Times bestselling author of The Wife
- "This latest installment in a series including Triple Crossing and The Convert's Song is about as tightly woven and rock-solid as international thrillers get. Rotella is as good at setting up action scenes as he is at springing them (which is saying something: the shootouts are terrific). The crisp dialogue feeds the sculpted plot and vice versa. There is nary a wasted moment in the book or one in which Rotella isn't in complete command. . . . Rotella's latest is a tense, gritty thriller-perfectly seedy when it needs to be and near-perfect in its overall execution."—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
- "Gritty dialog rings convincingly with authenticity as Rotella playfully inspects multiple layers of meaning inherent in dialects, news stories, and eyewitness accounts. For fans of tough crime fiction in the tradition of T. Jefferson Parker."—Library Journal (starred)
- "What a setup! It's heartrending, violent, and intriguing...readers will hang on for the revelation and the mighty clash at the end."—Don Crinklaw, Booklist
- "Rotella writes convincingly about the realities and mechanics of investigative journalism, and his detailed action scenes add just enough mayhem to keep thriller readers on the edge of their seats."—Publishers Weekly
- "Gritty dialog rings convincingly with authenticity as Rotella playfully inspects multiple layers of meaning inherent in dialects, news stories, and eyewitness accounts. For fans of tough crime fiction in the tradition of T. Jefferson Parker."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Mar 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 8 pages
- Hachette Audio