His eyes were closed, but his mouth hung open as though crying for help. He had dark, curly hair and scaly skin the color of the earth. He was in his teens.
Cory Hidalgo, an ER nurse, was only a few years younger than this poor soul when she herself immigrated to this country. Same brown skin and black hair, a similar faith in the American Dream, except he was dead and she was of no help.
She almost closed his mouth, but changed her mind. She would leave him this way for the supervising physician. Even with her surgical mask on, the odor of sweat and filth from the body clung to her nostrils.
Only God knew how long this boy and dozens of migrants like him had been trapped in a windowless tractor-trailer before it broke down on the highway. Had he struggled? Had it taken minutes or hours for his organs to get baked in the moving inferno?
Murder. This was more vicious than any shooting or stabbing death she’d ever seen. Indeed, those cases were rare for a small Texas hospital located in the lonely stretch between Laredo and San Antonio.
“What’s happening here?” Dr. Blanco burst into the triage room.
Cory stepped back to give the doctor some space. “We have a DOA. No name or age or address. He was one of dozens found dead inside an abandoned rig. There were others who survived.” She grabbed the clipboard with the form for the death registry. “The paramedics followed resuscitation protocol for forty-five minutes to no avail. This is for you to sign whenever you’re ready, Dr. Blanco.”
The doctor was responsible for declaring a patient dead. She preferred to be called Rita, but Cory always addressed her as Dr. Blanco, given the twenty-year difference in their ages. Cory was no taller than a teen at five-foot-one, but at least, she was the same height as Dr. Blanco.
“I wonder if he’s an organ donor.” The doctor checked the man’s mouth for breathing before closing it gently. “What else did the paramedics say?”
“They said the rig was left on the side of I-35, about twenty-five miles outside of Encinal.” Cory pulled her cardigan tight against the arctic air conditioning. She never liked cold weather or winter or snow. She was a tropical girl at heart, born in the Philippines but raised in the States from the age of ten.
Dr. Blanco checked for a heartbeat and examined the man’s pupils. “Were they migrants?”
“Yes. The truck had gone through a checkpoint in Encinal without any problems. The driver must have picked up the migrants after passing through the checkpoint. Either that or a corrupt Border Patrol agent allowed it to enter the U.S. with the migrants inside.”
Dr. Blanco signed the form to confirm the patient’s death.
“Coming through,” yelled Jonah, a physician’s assistant with the build of a nightclub bouncer. He was pushing a gurney with a young, brown-skinned man on it. The patient’s fetal position, pained moaning, and overpowering body odor reminded Cory of a trapped animal.
Cory and Dr. Blanco moved to the side as Jonah positioned the gurney in the middle of the room. The night shift was supposed to get two ER nurses to assist the emergency physician, but not with the current staff shortage. Cory and Dr. Blanco were lucky to have Jonah at all.
“More patients are en route, all of them suffering from hyperthermia.” Jonah handed Dr. Blanco a form. “This is from the paramedics. They have zero information about this patient’s identification and medical history.”
Cory grabbed a temperature gun from the counter and aimed it at the patient’s forehead. “What’s your name?”
The man only made grunting noises. The paramedics had already unbuttoned his shirt and loosened his belt. His ankles were swollen, his bare feet dirty.
Cory clucked her tongue. “His temperature’s one-hundred-three.”
Dr. Blanco switched gloves before attending to the newly arrived patient. “He’s going to need IV, but give him water now,” she ordered. “Jonah, we’ve lost the other patient. Can you take him to the mortuary, please?”
Cory filled a plastic cup with water from the sink. Jonah pushed the DOA’s stretcher out the door.
The second patient, too weak to sit up or drink water, remained supine. Cory gave him water using a dropper while Dr. Blanco checked on his heartbeat with a stethoscope.
“¿Cuál es tu nombre? ¿Puedes escucharme?” Dr. Blanco asked simple questions but got nothing. To Cory, she said, “We need to immerse him in cold water to get his temperature down fast. Get some ice on the way to the birthing room. Fill the tub with water.”
“I’m on it.” Cory sprinted out of the room and onto the hallway. She found a pitcher in the breakroom and filled it with ice from the ice machine. The clock on the wall showed it was 10:03.
Less than an hour ago, she and Nancy, the ED clerk, had thought this was a slow summer night. Only six patients had been admitted and discharged since their shift began at four in the afternoon. All easy cases. Mercifully, nobody had COVID-19.
Cory ran to the birthing room with the pitcher. Certified nurse-midwives and their patients used this room. It was empty tonight. She dumped the ice in the tub and started filling it with water.
The tub was almost full when Jonah arrived with the patient. “Antonio, this is Cory,” he told the young man. “She’s going to give you an ice bath to bring your temperature down.”
Cory turned off the tub’s faucet. “You know his name?”
Jonah parked the gurney parallel to the tub. “He seems to be in and out of consciousness, but he was talking just a minute ago.”
The patient’s breath was labored. Cory grabbed a pair of trauma shears from a drawer. “I’m going to cut your pants, okay?” She didn’t wait for his response.
Jonah snatched another pair of scissors to cut Antonio’s shirt.
The ripe smell of urine smacked Cory as she yanked off the cut jeans. The poor man must have wet his pants a while back; his clothes, like his skin, were dry.
Cory and Jonah stripped the patient down to his boxers before Jonah lifted him from the wheeled stretcher and lowered him into the tub.
Antonio yelped, eyes shot open, but he didn’t resist.
Jonah’s squawking two-way radio startled Cory. He stepped outside the room to answer the call.
Cory knelt by the birthing tub to check Antonio’s temperature again. Still high. “Just a little longer, okay?”
He mumbled, although in Spanish, which Cory didn’t understand.
She took a face towel from the closet and wet it in the sink. When she returned to the patient’s side, she said, “You can call me Corazon, if you like.” Perhaps it would be easier for Antonio to remember her Christian name, which meant heart in Spanish. “I was named after a president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino. My parents loved her.” She pressed the damp cloth on his forehead.
“Corazon,” murmured Antonio.
“That’s right.” She smiled, pleased that he understood her, though he still seemed dazed.
Jonah came back and stood in the doorway. “That was Nancy calling. Another ambulance will be here in ten.” He pulled the gurney toward the door. “You won’t believe what the paramedics told me earlier.”
“What did they say?” Cory got up.
“There were sixty-two migrants in the rig, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala. Half of them were…” He mouthed “dead.”
“Oh, God.” Cory approached him.
Jonah shook his head in dismay. “Apparently, the bodies were literally on top of each other. Can you imagine death by heat? I mean, it was one-hundred degrees outside all day today. That truck was like a furnace.”
“It’s murder.” Cory glanced down at the wet towel in her hands, trying to shake off the image of bodies piled high. “Whoever smuggled these people is a murderer. The criminal is out free while his victims were fried alive.” She was a naturalized U.S. citizen by sheer luck. In the forked road of destiny, her family happened upon the right path. Her mother, a nurse like her, immigrated to this country with a special status. Cory and the rest of the family followed a year later.
Jonah ticked his chin toward Antonio. “Are you okay here with him? I need to run.”
“I got this. You can take the gurney with you.” She pointed at the wheelchair in the corner. “I’ll use that to take him to the ER.”
Jonah left with the gurney. Cory went to the sink and wet the towel anew.
“Where’s my money?”
Cory glanced over her shoulder.
“Do you know where my money is?” Antonio’s eyes were glazed. “Don’t let anybody touch my money…Don’t let anybody take it…I worked hard for it…”
The perfect English, as though he was American, surprised her. He seemed to be in a trance, perhaps hallucinating. Heatstroke could alter a person’s state of mind. She wrung the towel in haste and returned to the tub.
“Nobody’s taking anything from you.” She applied the compress to his forehead. “So, you do speak English. Do you know the name of the person who almost killed you?”
He reversed back to moaning, his eyelids fluttering.
“Stay awake. I can’t carry you.” She patted his cheeks. Facial growth covered his jaws, which made her wonder how long the migrants had been traveling.
She grabbed a bathrobe and a bath towel from the closet, then moved the wheelchair beside the tub, “Antonio, it’s time to go to the ER.” She coaxed him into a sitting position.
He gripped the sides of the tub. Yes, he was lucid now, and he definitely understood English.
Cory got up and extended her hand. “Take my hand and I’ll pull you up.”
He followed her instruction. He was shivering, his arms blooming in goosebumps.
Cory clutched his hand even as she wrapped the towel around his shoulders with her other hand. “Very good. Now get out of the tub, one foot at a time.”
When he was safely out of the tub, Cory wrapped him with the bathrobe.
Amanda, a nurse from the maternity ward, entered the room with what looked like bunched-up tarps. “More patients have arrived. Dr. Blanco wants you to prepare the tub for another person. Plus I have a couple of inflatable tubs.” She set the bundle on the floor. “Dr. Blanco wants you to fill these with water.”
“Okay.” Cory guided the patient’s arms into the sleeves of the bathrobe. She glanced at the other nurse. “I’m glad the maternity ward can spare you.”
“Everyone who’s not working in the ICU has been mobilized,” answered Amanda. “You want me to take him to the ER?”
“Yes, please.” Cory helped Antonio get into the wheelchair. His eyes widened like someone who just realized where he was. He murmured in Spanish.
“Antonio’s a little dazed because of heatstroke,” Cory told Amanda. “But he understands and speaks English.”
Amanda gave her a thumbs-up and wheeled the patient out of the room.
For the next hour and the next, Cory and the rest of the staff worked without a pause. They got another DOA, plus nine men and women burning up from heat exhaustion. All had been turned away by area hospitals that were already full to capacity.
The birthing tub and two inflatable tubs weren’t enough, so they used body bags. Cory lined up the bags in the ED’s hallway. She and Amanda filled each bag with ice, while Jonah and four nurses lifted the patients and placed them inside the bags. They closed the zippers up to the waist, just enough to prevent the ice from leaking. The migrants’ groans and cries reverberated throughout the first floor.
At midnight, the hospital’s overnight ER crew consisting of one doctor and one nurse arrived. Cory and the night staff stayed.
By the time she left the hospital at four in the morning, an orange glow had draped the horizon, promising another sizzling day. She drove home without remembering how she got to her driveway, barely awake after working for twelve hours straight. And yet the mystery of Antonio lingered in the backroom of her mind. Extreme heat dilated the blood vessels, hence his body fluid moved down to his ankles. The other migrants had swollen hands or feet as well. That much Cory could explain, but not Antonio’s American accent.
A nightmare jolted her awake at three in the afternoon. In her dream, an army of faceless zombies chased her down a labyrinth of streets in a ghost town until she hit a dead end. The sea of empty faces surged toward her like a wave when a familiar figure broke through the crowd with a growl. It was Antonio.
By four o’clock, she was back in the hospital for another night shift. All ten migrants had survived. They were recuperating in the observation ward, which was part of the Emergency Department. That was how she found herself checking on Antonio a couple of hours into her shift. She proceeded to the ward with her iPad. To her surprise, a Border Patrol agent was sitting on a folding chair by the door.
“ER nurse.” She pointed at her ID hanging from the lanyard around her neck, in case her scrubs weren’t enough to prove that she was a staffer.
“No problem.” The man stood up, towering over her. There was another chair across from him, but no other guard in sight.
“I thought Border Patrol guarded the…well, border?” She hadn’t meant to sound sarcastic. Too late.
“Yes, ma’am. But we also apprehend undocumented immigrants within one-hundred miles of land and coastal borders.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and rocked back on his heels. “This, right here, is thirty-seven miles from the border. Well within our jurisdiction.”
He wore an olive-green uniform, similar to military fatigues. On the right side of his short-sleeved shirt, the name R. Dolan had been embroidered. The left side displayed a patch bearing a coat of arms and marked with: CBP Border Patrol Agent.
“Are you going to arrest my patients today?” she asked.
“Just trying to make sure nobody escapes. They need to be processed. After processing, everything will be up to ICE.”
Her gaze fell on the gun tucked in his belt holster, clearly an exception to the rule; the hospital banned weapons of any kind. She gave him a wooden smile before entering the ward.
Inside, Antonio was not only sitting upright on a bed but also wearing a surgical mask. Was he afraid of catching COVID-19? He was watching the muted TV mounted on the wall.
Cory approached him. “Hello. Remember me?”
“Corazon.” He squared his shoulders—alive and well, far from the zombie in her nightmare.
“That’s right. You look a lot better.” She lifted the blanket to check on his swollen ankles. He was wearing pajama bottoms underneath the hospital gown. His ankles looked normal, but now they were restrained with ankle cuffs. Her anger flared unexpectedly. Was this really necessary?
She glanced at the other patients. They were asleep except for one, a middle-aged woman occupying bed number four. She was supine, but her eyes were fastened on Antonio before moving to Cory. A bed sheet covered her legs. Cory assumed that she, too, wore ankle cuffs.
Cory scrolled down her iPad’s screen and found the information for bed number one, which Antonio was occupying. Still no last name. Age: twenty-six. Domicile: Chihuahua, Mexico. “What’s your last name, Antonio? I need to add it in your form.”
He responded in Spanish, but didn’t reveal his surname.
“Will you speak in English, please? I know you can.”
He continued to speak in Spanish. Why was he pretending not to speak English? She should be irritated, but instead, unease rose inside her. It didn’t help that her troubling dream had just flashed in her mind.
She inspected the IV attached to his left arm and the amount of dextrose and electrolyte content entering his body. His chart showed normal vital signs. “Glad to see everything’s in order.”
Antonio fired away in Spanish. All Cory understood were the words baño and zapatos. In Tagalog, they meant bathroom and shoes, respectively. The Filipino language was rooted in Spanish, thanks to three-hundred-seventy years of colonization. And yet Cory could neither understand nor speak Spanish. Perhaps he was asking for a pair of shoes so he could go to the restroom.
She offered him a pair of disposable slippers, but he declined. It must mean he wanted his own shoes. “All right. I’ll see what I can do.” From her iPad, she read the notes left by the day crew. The migrants’ belongings were in storage.
She stowed her iPad in a closet and maneuvered one of the wheelchairs lined up against the wall. She pushed it toward Antonio, but the mumbling of the woman in bed number four stopped her in her tracks.
“Do you speak English, ma’am?” Cory asked.
She appeared as weak as second-brewed tea. Could she be hallucinating? “Antonio needs to go to the restroom. But I’ll be right back,” she assured her.
She detached Antonio’s catheter and helped him into the wheelchair. He continued speaking in Spanish, pointing at his bare feet.
“I know, I know. We’re going to storage to get your shoes.”
At the door, a brown-skinned agent now accompanied Dolan, who was white. The embroidered name on the man’s shirt read J. Iglesias. He, too, was armed.
“Agent Iglesias, do you speak Spanish?” asked Cory.
When the agent nodded, Cory turned her face toward Antonio. “Why don’t you tell Agent Iglesias whatever it was you were trying to tell me?”
But Antonio only gazed at his bare feet.
How odd. What was wrong? The poor man must be intimidated by the Border Patrol. Cory waved a hand to indicate whatever. “I’m taking him to the restroom, then to storage to get his shoes,” she told the agents.
“Happy to escort you, Miss…” Iglesias leaned forward to read Cory’s ID. “Miss Hidalgo.”
A phone trilled. “Gotta take this.” Dolan whipped out the phone from his pocket.
Cory proceeded to the restroom next door. Iglesias was about to open the door for her when Antonio spoke in Spanish. Iglesias responded also in Spanish, leaving Cory out.
She bugged her eyes out at the agent. “What did he say?”
Iglesias smirked. “The dude refuses to go to the bathroom without his shoes. He says it’s in the storage room. Which way?”
She pursed her lips. “The restroom has all kinds of germs. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask for shoes.” Except Antonio could have worn the disposable slippers—why had he declined?
Her suspicion was growing, but she couldn’t quite spell out what she suspected Antonio of. She pushed the chair down the hallway, Iglesias on her heels.
At half past six in the evening, the comings and goings in the hospital had petered out. The last of the visitors were streaming out of the in-patient wing.
The storage room was two floors down, so Cory and the two men rode the elevator. Iglesias questioned Antonio in Spanish, but the patient only stared and stared at his lap.
The knob of suspicion Cory had felt earlier nudged her again, not only because she didn’t understand Spanish but because of Antonio’s silence. She knew he’d recovered from heatstroke, judging by his normal vitals. So why was he refusing to answer when questioned? She could only attribute it to fear of authorities.
When the elevator door opened, Cory pushed Antonio’s chair out, Iglesias behind them. Their destination was at the end of the long corridor, past the out-patient ward, which was empty at night.
Iglesias jogged to overtake them. He blocked the room with the sign Storage. “I can’t let the tango enter. Can’t risk him escaping through a window or something. Nurse Hidalgo, how about you get his shoes?”
Cory raised her eyebrow. “His name is Antonio, not Tango.”
“It just means target.” He grinned, baring little teeth. He was only a couple of inches taller than Cory, but his compact, muscular build projected power. “Sorry. I forgot that I’m not talking to law enforcement.”
“Okay.” She opened the door with the key card also hanging from her lanyard. “See that?”
They all looked inside. The windowless room, only slightly bigger than a closet, was crammed with brown boxes and milk crates, backpacks and plastic bags, boots and sneakers, umbrellas and old crutches. It was the equivalent of a junk drawer.
She folded her arms across her chest. “It will take me forever to find anything in there. Let Antonio find his own shoes. Please uncuff him.”
Iglesias shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
“You have to uncuff him.”
“No can do.”
“Please uncuff him.”
The nurse and the agent went like that a few more times, until Antonio himself intervened in Spanish.
Whatever he’d said worked because Iglesias knelt down to remove Antonio’s ankle cuffs. “Okay, dude. You win. Just because I don’t want you to piss in your pants.”
Cory anticipated helping Antonio get his bearings, but his agility surprised her. He slinked out of the wheelchair and dived into the pile. He squatted as he sorted out odds and ends.
Iglesias hovered like a storm cloud.
Cory watched them from a few feet away with an insistent tug of anxiety. A trip to the storage room had never been this stressful.
At last, Antonio found his shoes.
Iglesias snatched them from his hands. “Let me take a look.”
Antonio remained in a squat. His eyes shone, alert.
“What are you looking for?” Cory’s question came out tentative. It seemed ridiculous for Iglesias to inspect a pair of sneakers, and yet she herself was worried about what the agent might find there. A razor or a knife? Drugs? Cash?
Don’t let anybody touch my money. Antonio’s nonsensical chatter last night came back to her. Was there any truth to it?
Iglesias thrust the shoes into Cory’s face. “What do you make of this?”
It was a logo consisting of three letters: YZY. The sleek, brown shoes were not brand new, but they weren’t well-worn either.
Cory shrugged. “I’m not familiar with the brand.”
“I’ve seen it before…I just can’t remember where.” Iglesias dropped the shoes on the floor. “You can put them on. Chop-chop.”
Iglesias stepped outside the room. Antonio plopped on the floor, then scooted on his ass to get just outside the door, away from the pile of junk. He picked up the sneakers and put them on. Right foot, then left foot. He fumbled with the laces.
The agent’s stance was intimidating—his feet wide apart, his hands on his hips. The very presence of Iglesias and Antonio in the same space saturated the air with tension. Cory found herself holding her breath. She just wanted to return to the observation ward.
An alarm bell went off. “Attention, hospital personnel! We have a Code Black,” Nancy’s voice on the intercom boomed. “All hospital personnel, please follow Code Black procedures!”
Cory’s heart skipped. Code Black meant a security problem, like a bomb threat or a hostage taking or patient kidnapping. She locked eyes with Iglesias.
He touched his gun, as though by instinct. “What does Code Black—”
Antonio bolted to his feet and stumbled into a run, toward the elevator.
“Hey!” Iglesias sprinted off like a halfback.
The corridor led to the elevator, but Antonio might head for the stairwell. His no-accent English, his ramblings about money, his persistent silence. Everything fell into place.
She grabbed the ankle cuffs and darted after the men.
Iglesias was catching up. He jumped Antonio and toppled him down. He pinned him face down with his entire body.
“I got the cuffs!” yelled Cory.
Antonio was flailing underneath the weight of the agent. “Get the zip ties in my right pocket,” Iglesias barked. “This bastard is not a migrant. He’s the perp.”
“He spoke perfect English about his money. I should have known better.” Cory dropped the ankle cuffs, her body fizzing with adrenaline. She bent down, pulled out the ties from Iglesias’s pocket, and slapped them on the floor beside him.
“The shoes. They gave him away.” Iglesias lifted his torso just enough to grab Antonio’s arms and positioned them palm to palm behind his back. The agent expertly slipped the ties into Antonio’s wrists. He straddled Antonio as he tightened the restraints. “I knew I’ve seen that logo before. It just came back to me. They’re Kanye’s shoes—Y-Z-Y for Yeezy.”
“Kanye? Like Kanye West the rapper?” Cory’s head whirled.
“A-K-A Ye. That’s the one.” Iglesias got off Antonio and knelt down as he shackled Antonio’s legs with the cuffs. “This bastard is definitely not a migrant. Only loaded human traffickers can afford a pair of shoes worth six hundred bucks.”
The elevator dinged. Out came Dolan with his gun aimed at Antonio.
“Everything’s under control,” shouted Iglesias.
“I requested the Code Black after talking to the Supe.” Dolan slid the firearm into his holster. “His first call was to alert me that they found a bag of cash buried near the spot where the rig broke down. Then he called again saying one of the migrants recovering in Encinal ratted out Antonio de Armas as the smuggler and rig driver.”
Iglesias rose and pulled Antonio up by his shoulders. “Are you Antonio de Armas?”
Antonio shook his head. The two agents and Cory surrounded him.
Dolan removed Antonio’s facial mask. He pulled his phone out from his pocket and tapped the screen. “Yep, this is Antonio de Armas. One of the migrants upstairs confirmed it as well.”
“Which migrant?” asked Cory. “A middle-aged woman?” Bed number four! So, she was trying to tell Cory earlier.
“A woman, yes.” Dolan raised his phone to show them an image. “Antonio’s commercial driver’s license. He’s a U.S. citizen, a resident of Brownsville, Texas. He delivers vehicle parts from Mexico when he’s not trafficking migrants.”
Cory couldn’t see the license well from where she stood, but she had no doubts. Antonio’s surgical mask wasn’t meant to protect him from COVID-19 infection, but to hide his face. Horrible pictures crowded her mind. A heap of bodies inside the sweltering rig. Antonio burying his ill-gotten money in the ground. Antonio clambering inside the tractor and blending in with the dehydrated and dead migrants.
“He could have just escaped. Why did he have to make a fool of us here in the hospital?” asked Cory.
“I’m guessing he was afraid he wouldn’t survive the heatwave in the middle of nowhere without calling for help.” Dolan was stroking his chin. “Also, he probably spent all his energy burying his money first instead of running away.”
The heatstroke had been real, but not as bad as he’d made it appear. Cory took a step forward to look Antonio in the eye. “You’re a murderer. You killed all those people.”
“Thirty-five people,” Iglesias corrected her. “He killed thirty-five migrants who paid him anywhere from ten to fifteen grand each. That’s the going rate.”
Antonio’s stern gaze revealed nothing, but his mouth curved, smug.
The two agents agreed that Dolan would stay put to guard the other migrants while Iglesias would deliver the suspect to the closest county jail where he would stay until he could be transferred to an ICE detention center.
Iglesias clapped his hands once. “Let’s go. I’m taking you to where you belong.”
Cory strode toward the elevator and pushed a button.
The agents flanked the criminal who inched forward in his ankle restraints. No more wheelchair. Maybe he never needed it to begin with. No wonder he’d insisted on collecting his shoes. He was planning to escape all along. Lucky his ruse was discovered before he could bust out.
She gazed down at his designer shoes. The symbol of his greed. The cause of his downfall.
The elevator door opened with a ding. The three men stepped inside, but Cory declined to join them. “I’ll use the stairs. I need to clear my head.”
Iglesias acknowledged her with a nod. “Thanks for your help.”
Dolan gave her a salute.
She forced a smile as she gave Antonio a final once-over. Her skin prickled just thinking how vulnerable he’d been in the tub last night. He could have drowned accidentally. A smartphone plugged in an electrical outlet could have fallen into the tub. He could have died a dozen ways, but it wouldn’t have brought back to life the thirty-five migrants.
The elevator door closed. May she never encounter another mass murderer ever again. She headed for the stairs. The long night shift stretched ahead of her.
Cindy Fazzi is a Filipino American writer and former Associated Press reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States. Her historical novel, My MacArthur, was published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2018. Her contemporary thriller, Multo, will be published by Agora, an imprint of Polis Books, in June 2023.