Riverview Estates had no river and no view, and the small patch of dirt surrounding each of the West Texas mobile home park’s forty pads could not easily be mistaken for an estate. I once had it all—big house, big car, big office, and big debt to maintain the lifestyle—and I had been lucky to drive away with my Glock, my license, and the clothes on my back when Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, where I had been vice president of investigations for one of the largest firms of its kind in Dallas, had been shuttered by authorities after the owner had been indicted for tax evasion and other accounting anomalies. With nothing better to do because affiliation with my former employer was job-search poison, I spent my mornings sitting in a folding chair in front of my six-year-old Ford F-150 in the dirt yard outside my grandmother’s mobile home at Riverview Estates drinking Lone Star and watching my neighbors queue up for their ride to work.
Many of them were illegals—Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, Panamanian, and others from south of the Rio Grande who came to America seeking a better life and instead wound up in West Texas working twelve-hour shifts for subsistence pay at Chicken Junction’s meat processing plant and who lived four or more to a bedroom, sleeping in shifts. The other residents of Riverview Estates complained bitterly about their new neighbors even as they were bought out and their single-family single-wides were turned into communal housing that brought the park owner greater revenue as sardine-can dormitories than renting the pads on which they were situated ever had.
An old school bus with Quarryville I.S.D. still faintly visible on the side stopped at the end of the drive to collect my neighbors and soon disappeared in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. An hour later, the bus returned to disgorge plant employees coming off shift, including Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.
Though she still rented space in one of the communal residences three doors down from mine, Sofia walked directly from the bus to the empty folding chair at my side and dropped into it. I handed her a beer from the cooler between the chairs and asked, “Rough night?”
As she opened it, she said, “Aren’t they all?”
We had met one evening at the Dumpsters, Sofia dropping off a trash bag before queuing up for the evening bus while I made room in my place for more empty beer cans. Then, as she did that morning, she wore steel-toed work boots, faded jeans, a man’s denim work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a blue bandanna that held her shoulder-length black hair away from her face. The evening we met, my hair was as long as hers. I had not cut it since moving into my grandmother’s mobile home, had not shaved in several days, and had not showered in two because I had stopped caring about my place in society.
“Good evening,” I said that night, making polite conversation.
Sofia hesitated so long I wondered if she spoke English. Then she smiled. “It is, isn’t it?”
She walked away before I could respond, and she told me later she hesitated because I was the first norteamericano at Riverview Estates to greet her with anything other than a racial epithet or other form of verbal abuse.
By the time we finished our beer, the other bus riders had disappeared into their respective residences and the school bus had returned to the meat processing plant where it would remain until the next shift change. Sofia took my hand and led me into my grandmother’s mobile home. She removed the bandanna from her hair and let it fall unfettered to her shoulders. She smelled of offal, but that didn’t stop me. I pulled her into my arms, kissed her deeply, and began unbuttoning her denim work shirt. She pulled away and held the shirt closed with one hand. She pressed the other hand against my chest. “I need to shower first.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Though I still wore my hair long, I bathed and shaved every morning before Sofia returned from the plant. I stripped, slipped into bed, and listened to her through the thin walls as she sang an unfamiliar tune barely audible above the sound of the shower. Soon she turned off the water and I heard her moving about the bathroom. Then she stepped into the bedroom and dropped the white bath towel with which she’d covered herself.
My gaze followed the towel to the floor and then traveled back up the length of her body—long legs, slender hips, firm breasts—her skin the color of honey and speckled with water droplets. Her towel-dried but still damp black hair framed her oval face, and her hazel eyes were deep pools beneath long black lashes and thick eyebrows never plucked. She wore only a small, gold, heart-shaped locket on a thin gold chain, a gift from her mother she never removed. She joined me in the bed, and her full lips found mine.
Afterward, as she lay in my arms, we talked. That is, Sofia talked because I had little to say about my evening spent drinking beer and watching boxing with Red Barker, manager of Riverview Estates. She told me about Juanita, who dreamed of moving north to Minnesota where her brother worked as a short order cook; about Carlos, who sent nearly every penny he earned back to his parents in Xalapa; and about Skeeter, the supervisor who treated Sofia and her co-workers as if they were no better than the hundreds of cattle they butchered and processed each shift. I wasn’t paying attention because I’d heard much of it before.
Then something I’d not previously heard caught my attention.
“Three women have disappeared since I started working at the plant,” Sofia said. She had worked there for three months before we met, and we had been together almost six. “Nobody knows what happened to them and nobody cares. They just got replaced.”
I mumbled something non-committal, certain that employee turnover at the meat processing plant was greater than three every ten months if the ever-changing faces queued up for the bus twice a day was any indication.
Sofia turned, snuggled against my side, and soon drifted to sleep. When I felt certain I would not wake her, I slipped out of bed, pulled the sheet over her, and dressed. After I ensured the drapes allowed no stray daylight into the room, I closed the door behind me. Some mornings we prepared breakfast together, eating eggs scrambled with chorizo and served on warm flour tortillas, but that morning I was on my own and ate stale Rice Chex downed with a fresh bottle of Lone Star.
Then I went outside, folded up the chairs, and moved the cooler against the concrete steps. As a child visiting my mother’s mother, I had roamed the rolling hills around Riverview Estates, running through the prickly pear, juniper, and mesquite while playing Army and Cowboys and Indians with the children who lived in the mobile home park. I had climbed the one live oak still clinging to the edge of the property, and I had explored the vehicles—two Ramblers and a Chrysler—abandoned in the wash.
The children I had known then had all moved on, one way or another, but their homes had not. Several, much like my grandmother’s, had been there since the park opened and were clearly showing signs of age. Only one—the park manager’s residence—was less than twenty years old. As her only grandchild, I’d inherited my grandmother’s single-wide and all the plastic-covered furniture and doily cozies inside, when she passed away several months after I’d lost my home to repossession and my debts had been discharged through bankruptcy. Her death also meant I received a small but steady income from shares in a family oil trust I inherited because my mother had preceded her into the grave.
“You busy?” I turned to see Red standing behind me, holding his battered gray toolbox. “I got a problem over to the washhouse. Thought I might get you to give me a hand.”
I glanced back at my grandmother’s mobile home. Sofia would be asleep for several hours, I owed Red for snaking my sewer line a few weeks earlier, and I really had nothing better to do than keep him company. He had been manager of Riverview Estates since before the first home was drug into the park, and he had been my grandmother’s closest friend—perhaps even her lover—during the last few years of her life. I handed him a beer from the cooler, took the toolbox from his hand, and walked with him to the washhouse on the far side of the park.
“Just took possession of the Swanson place,” he said as we walked. “The family wanted out from under it the moment old man Swanson died, and they took the first offer. The family already cleared out everything they want, so I just need to give it the once over before we look to fill it.”
“More employees for the plant?”
“Long as the plant keeps employing illegals, they’re going to need a place to sleep,” he said. “Nobody in town wants anything to do with them, so where else they going to go?”
I didn’t have an answer for Red, so I said nothing.
We had reached the washhouse by then. I helped Red pull one of the washing machines away from the wall so he could determine why it had abruptly stopped while agitating a load of Mrs. Medeiros’s unmentionables.
* * *
Even though Sofia still paid her share of the rent for one of the sardine-can dormitories, she rarely returned to it. Instead, she spent most of her time away from the meat processing plant with me in my grandmother’s mobile home. She packed away the doilies, fifty-state shot glass collection, and photo gallery of long-dead relatives, and she rearranged the furniture to take better advantage of the afternoon and early evening sun. Though we did not always have breakfast together, we never missed dinner. We ate around six, finishing just before she had to queue up for the bus ride to the plant for her eight o’clock shift.
One day, after she found my holstered Glock and my laminated private investigator’s license in my underwear drawer, she asked about it and asked why I did not work. I told her.
“Did you do these bad things?”
I shook my head. “That I was an officer of the corporation is enough to taint my name. No one will hire me.”
“You can start over, yes?” she asked.
“Maybe someday,” I said. “Not today.”
She tilted her head to the side and examined my face. “Are you happy, Cade?”
“Are you happy with me?”
I realized what she was asking, so I pulled her into my arms. I stared deep into her eyes, brushed a long lock of black hair away from her face, and kissed her. “Of course,” I said between kisses. “Yes. You’re the best thing in my life.”
Then one morning, she did not return.
I watched as more than three dozen weary people filed off the bus, and I did not become concerned until the bus drove away. Sofia had never missed the bus. In English and broken Spanish I asked the few bus riders who had not yet disappeared into their homes if they had seen her. They remembered her riding with them to work the previous evening, and a few remembered clocking in with her, but none knew what happened after that.
“Where is she?” I demanded. “Why didn’t she get on the bus?”
Suddenly, none of them understood me.
“No hablo inglés,” they said as they shook their heads and hurried to distance themselves from me.
I walked to the mobile home Sofia ostensibly shared with seven other women, three of whom worked her same shift. I knocked on the door until one of them finally opened it as far as a safety chain would allow. “Where’s Sofia?”
She backed away from the door, and I heard them consulting with one another before a different woman came to stare at me through the gap. “Sofia’s not here.”
“I know that,” I said. “She wasn’t on the bus this morning. Where is she?”
“You aren’t the only gringo who likes Mexican girls. Maybe you do not satisfy her, Mr. Wilcox. Maybe she found someone else.”
The women behind her giggled as she closed the door.
As I returned to my grandmother’s home, I pulled my cellphone from my pocket. I called the meat processing plant and asked the woman who answered if I could speak to Sophia Maria Montoya Delgado.
She said, “I’m sorry, sir, employees are not allowed to take personal calls on company time.”
“Sofia’s off shift,” I said. “She would have clocked out at eight.”
“Then she’s already gone home.”
“Well, she isn’t home,” I said, my voice rising in frustration. “I want to know if she’s still there.”
“Employees are not allowed to remain on the property after they clock out,” said the woman. “Therefore, she’s not here.”
“What happens to employees who miss the bus?”
“Sir, if Ms. Delgado missed the bus, then she likely is in for a long walk home,” she said. “Thank you for calling.”
She disconnected the call before I could ask another question.
I went inside, took my truck keys from the kitchen drawer, and then moved the folding chairs and cooler out of the way. Soon I was driving toward the meat processing plant. I took the most direct route, a road that skirted the northwest corner of Chicken Junction, and I drove all the way to the plant’s main gate without seeing anyone walking along the side of the road. The guard stationed at the gate was even less helpful than the woman on the phone.
I returned home, driving slower than before so that I could look down each intersecting road and stopping at the one convenience store along the route to see if Sofia had, perhaps, stopped there. She hadn’t.
After parking my pickup in its spot beside my grandmother’s mobile home, I climbed out and checked the cooler beside the porch. The beer inside was still cold, so I opened one and sat on the concrete steps.
“Something wrong?” Red asked from behind me. When I turned, he continued. “You tore out of here like a bat out of hell.”
“Sofia didn’t come home this morning.”
He helped himself to a beer from the cooler and sat on the step beside me. “That’s what got you all het up?”
“She’s never missed the bus.”
“First time for everything.”
“One of the women she lives with implied that she’d gone off with someone else.”
“You think that’s a possibility?”
I shook my head.
“Then it’s likely you’ll hear from her soon.” Red slapped my knee. “In the meantime, I got something to take your mind off your worries. There’s a problem with the plumbing at the Swanson place and fixing it’s more than a two-handed job.”
I stared at the Riverview Estates entrance and the road beyond, and saw no one approaching from either direction. I finished my beer and stood. “Let’s get your toolbox.”
* * *
Old Man Swanson’s mobile home had more than a plumbing problem, and Red kept me busy all day helping him prepare it for rental. I returned home near dinnertime, showered, and stood in the kitchen wearing nothing but my boxer briefs and an undershirt while I stood before the open refrigerator. I had not eaten dinner alone in more than five months, and I did not know what I should prepare.
I finally settled on corn tortillas wrapped around leftover carnitas Sofia had prepared the previous weekend. As I sat at the kitchen table eating, I watched the door, expecting her to rush in at any moment. She had less than an hour before she had to queue up for the bus, and she had never missed work.
After I finished eating, I sat at the table nursing a Lone Star until I heard the bus come and go. I nursed another beer and waited until eight-thirty before I called the meat processing plant. A different woman answered, and I asked, “Is Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado working this evening?”
“I’m sorry, sir, we can’t put calls through to employees.”
“I’m not asking to talk to her,” I said. “I just need to know if she’s clocked in for her shift.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I can’t provide that information.”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“Thank you for calling,” the woman replied. Then she disconnected the call.
I left my phone on the kitchen table, walked to the bedroom, and went through Sofia’s things. She did not have much. At one end of the closet hung a pair of jeans, a pair of black dress slacks, four men’s denim work shirts, two frilly white blouses, and a lightweight jacket. I checked all of the pockets and found them empty. At the bottom of the closet were a pair of sandals and a pair of low-heeled black pumps. In her one dresser drawer were a white soft-cup bra, a half-dozen pairs of white cotton underwear, four pairs of heavy woolen boot socks, and four blue bandannas. In the bathroom, in addition to her toiletries, I found her make-up bag filled with assorted eye shadows and lipsticks, and a small jewelry box containing five pairs of earrings, three necklaces, two bracelets, and two keys—a door key and a padlock key. Anything else Sofia owned would be in the mobile home three doors down, and the roommates she no longer stayed with were unlikely to let me in to examine her things.
I spent a restless night. Though I did not often sleep with Sofia due to our opposing schedules, I missed her lingering presence in our bed, the way she left the covers cast aside when she arose late each afternoon, the peculiar arrangement of the down pillows that she often wrapped around her head, and the faint scent of her perfume and her sweat that clung to the bed linens.
The next morning I waited until my neighbors boarded the bus at seventy-thirty on their way to the plant for the eight o’clock shift. The employees who clocked out at eight would not return until eight-thirty, so I had one uninterrupted hour to visit the mobile home three doors down. I used the door key I’d found in Sofia’s jewelry box to let myself in. The sparsely furnished living room contained a couch, a recliner, and a console television, all of which appeared to have belonged to the previous owner. The kitchen table and matching chairs were made of chrome and yellow Formica. I passed through both rooms and down the hall to the bedrooms. Each bedroom contained two twin beds and four padlocked footlockers, none of them labeled. I tried the padlock key on each footlocker in turn, finally opening the fifth one.
Inside I found more clothing and a bundle of letters written in Spanish. A quick glance revealed they had all come from the same woman in Puerto Vallarta, and my limited ability to read Spanish—which allowed me to order from the menu at Taco Bell and little else—led me to believe that woman was her mother.
I put everything back as I had found it and slipped out.
Red caught me closing the door as I stepped onto the concrete steps. “Sofia ain’t back yet?”
I shook my head. “She didn’t run off, though. She left her things behind.”
“I thought she’d moved in with you,” Red said, nodding toward the mobile home I had just exited.
“Not quite,” I said. “She left a few things here.”
By then, more than twenty-four hours had passed since Sofia was due to return home and more than thirty-six hours had passed since I had last seen her.
I drove into town, past the locally owned businesses lining Main Street, past the town’s only bank, and past the limestone castle that was home to the meat processing plant’s owner. I found the police department occupying half of a building that also contained the city’s administrative offices. To the officer behind the counter, a man near as old as Red, I said, “I’d like to report a missing person.”
He looked me over, taking in my long hair, black T-shirt, and blue jeans before he pulled a form from a stack of forms. “Who?”
“Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.”
“When did you last see her?”
“Getting on the bus to work yesterday morning.”
“And where was that?”
He put down his pen. “Are you trying to report a missing wetback?”
I had not heard anyone use that term in years. When I didn’t respond in the negative, he glared at me and tore the form in half. “They ain’t missing if they ain’t supposed to be here in the first place.”
* * *
I returned to the meat processing plant and was refused entrance by the same guard who had turned me away the previous day. I visited the town’s emergency care clinic, Catholic church, and several other places known to serve Chicken Junction’s growing Hispanic community, finding few people who admitted to knowing Sofia and none who had seen her since our Saturday visit to the grocery store and to Dairy Queen. I drove the bus route between Riverview Estates and the plant, and then I drove alternate routes, exploring possible shortcuts someone on foot might have taken.
Tired and frustrated by the time I returned home early that evening, I stood at the bus stop and questioned every one of the night-shifters when they queued up for their ride to work. They could not escape my attention but my badgering gained me little information. They all remembered riding to work with Sofia two evenings earlier, the same few remembered clocking in with her, and one remembered walking with her until Skeeter Henderson pulled Sofia aside. None remembered seeing her since then, not on the line nor during dinner break nor at the bus stop for the trip home at the end of their shift.
I even tried to question the bus driver, but he would have none of it. Red saw what was happening, and when I started to climb into the bus after all the plant’s employees had boarded, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “Let these people get to work.”
The bus driver snapped the door shut.
“These people won’t tell you anything if they think you’re going to cause problems for them,” Red told me.
The bus roared away, leaving behind a cloud of dust and diesel fumes.
Red still had a firm grip on my arm, and he pulled me out of the noxious cloud toward his mobile home. Once inside, he calmed me down with a cold beer, and I told him about my experience at the police station.
“You’re not likely to get any cooperation from the locals. Most of them resent people like your Sofia,” he said. “And you for sure won’t get any cooperation from her people, either, if you treat them like you did a few minutes ago.”
“So, what do I do?”
“You find another approach,” he said. “Have you talked to her supervisor?”
I shook my head. Until a few minutes earlier, I had known him only as Skeeter. “Do you have a telephone directory?”
He did, and I flipped it open. The listing for people with the last name of Henderson was two pages long, and it didn’t include anyone who had given up their landline. None of them were named Skeeter.
I no longer had access to the databases I had used as vice president of Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, but I still had connections. I called Studebaker Johnson, a private investigator working out of Waco to whom I had subcontracted work a half-dozen times over the years. He answered on the third ring. After a few minutes spent reminiscing about the past and glossing over the downward spiral that had taken me from Dallas to Riverview Estates. I told him I was looking for any man named Henderson, nicknamed Skeeter, first name unknown, who resided within an hour’s drive of Chicken Junction.
Stu called back a few minutes later. “I have one—Samuel ‘Skeeter’ Henderson on Huaco Road.”
He gave me Skeeter’s street address and a quick bio. “The subject is a forty-two-year-old Caucasian male, six feet tall, two hundred and forty pounds. He’s a single, never married, high school graduate who rents his home, has one DWI conviction, and his credit cards are maxed out. He has a concealed carry permit.”
“—was eight years ago, too far back to cause problems getting the permit.”
I thanked Stu.
“Anytime, Cade,” he said.
Red had been listening to me, and when I ended the conversation with Stu, he asked, “What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to take a look at Skeeter’s place while he’s at work.”
I finished my beer, used Google Maps to pinpoint the location of Skeeter’s rental home, and then drove through town, past the limestone castle, and several miles out Huaco Road to a string of aluminum-sided ranch houses that were in no better condition than the mobile homes at Riverview Estates. I parked on a side road and approached Skeeter’s home from the back. The wooden doors of the detached single-car garage stood open, revealing a disorganized collection of junk that prevented the garage’s use for its intended purpose. The inside of the house, what I could see of it through the windows, was in no better condition. Most importantly, no dogs announced my presence.
After I returned home, I cleaned and loaded my Glock, and then spent another restless night missing Sofia. I had been aggressively single while working at Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, never certain if the women I dated were interested in me or if they were interested in my money and the status of my position. I hadn’t cared, because I used them just as I thought they used me, exchanging one salad-eating, Pilates-addicted bottle-blonde for the next until I could no longer remember their names and called them all “Honey” and “Sweetie” and “Babe” as if I were using terms of endearment and not displaying my own disinterest in their individual personalities.
Sofia had changed all that.
After meeting at the Dumpster, we found other ways to accidentally cross paths until I finally stopped drinking alone every morning and took a cooler full of beer and pair of folding chairs into the front yard so that I could wave to Sofia when she stepped off the bus. She returned my wave, greeting me some days with “Buenos dias” and other days with “Good morning” until one day she broke away from her roommates and came to sit in the chair beside mine. We talked for several minutes before she excused herself and went home to sleep.
This continued for almost two weeks. Then one evening she appeared at my door dressed for work and carrying a grocery sack filled with food. She said, “You’re not eating.”
She pushed past me into the kitchen and began going through the cabinets until she had what she needed to prepare chiles rellenos with rice and beans. She had to rush to make it to the bus on time, leaving me to clean up afterward.
We had dinner together every evening after that, and before long, we were as good as living together. I still did not know what she had seen in me, but she made me want to be a better person. She taught me to stop dwelling in the past and to live for the future, whatever it might bring.
I woke early the next morning, slipped my private investigator’s license and concealed carry permit into my wallet, strapped on my shoulder holster, and then pulled on a leather vest to cover it. Nervous because I had not done any investigating more confrontational than a sharply worded email following my promotion to vice president, I used the toilet a third time.
When I flushed, wastewater backed up into the tub. I didn’t have time to deal with it, so I left it and headed outside. I was unlocking my truck when Red caught my attention.
“Going to talk to Skeeter this morning?”
I told him I was. Then I told him about the wastewater in my tub.
“I’ll take a look at it a little later,” he said. Then he winked. “Right now, I’m on my way to breakfast with Mrs. Medeiros.”
I left him, drove through a town that had yet to fully awaken, and out Huaco Road again. I parked on the same side road and again approached Skeeter’s home from the back. I was sitting in his kitchen when he arrived home around eight-thirty, surprising him with my presence.
“Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?” he demanded as he reached behind his back.
I raised the Glock from my lap. “Two fingers,” I said, motioning toward a chair I had placed on the far side of the room. “Remove your sidearm with two fingers, place it gently on the floor, and kick it in my direction. Then take a seat in that chair.”
Skeeter hesitated, perhaps considering his options, and then did what I asked. After a Glock that was a kissing cousin of the one in my hand slid across the floor toward me, he sat. Sunlight from the window shone brightly on the side of his face, revealing a thin scar on his right cheek. The scar brought back a memory long forgotten and I asked about it.
“You break into my house, point a gun at me, and that’s what you ask?” He waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he continued. “When I was ten, me and another kid were playing in some abandoned cars in the wash behind the mobile home park where I lived. I fell, cut my face on a Chrysler. My mother rushed me to the doctor. Thought I was going to lose my eye, but I didn’t. The kid wasn’t from around here and he disappeared before I came home from the hospital.”
“You’re Little Sammy?”
His eyes narrowed. “Do I know you?” he asked. “Nobody’s called me that in years. These days, my friends call me Skeeter.”
I didn’t correct him, but I was the kid he’d been with, and we hadn’t been playing. He had been bullying me, and I had pushed him onto the Chrysler. “Okay, Skeeter, I want to know what happened to Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado. She didn’t come home from work a couple of days ago, and you’re the last person anyone saw her talking to.”
“So, you’re the guy who’s been calling the plant and asking about her all over town?”
Word traveled fast. I nodded.
“I sent her upstairs,” Skeeter said. “She didn’t return to finish her shift, and I haven’t seen her since.”
“Why’d you send her upstairs? What’s upstairs?”
“She was a looker, that one. Little heavy on the eyebrows, if you ask me, but an ass to make a grown man cry. That’s what the boss likes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Every three months or so, he lets the shift supervisors know he needs a new assistant.”
“What’re you supposed to do?”
“Pick out the lookers, send their names upstairs. If he calls one of ours up, there’s a five-hundred-dollar cash bonus slipped into our locker. Sofia’s my second. The first one was almost two years ago.”
Sofia had mentioned three women missing during the ten months she’d been working at the plant, but Skeeter was telling me there might have been others, at least four a year since— “How long has this been going on?”
“I’ve been a supervisor almost eight years,” Skeeter said. “It started before I was ever promoted.”
“What happens to the women after they get sent upstairs?”
Skeeter shrugged. “Employees—especially the illegals—come and go all the time. Some quit without notice and never bother picking up their last paychecks, so I never asked.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
“Curiosity kills,” Skeeter said. “This is a company town. Everybody relies on the plant one way or another, so you go along to get along. Nobody cares about a few illegals. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been.”
I stared hard at Skeeter for a full minute, but I had no more questions to ask and he had nothing to add. I picked up the Glock he had kicked across the floor to me. “I’m taking this with me,” I said, “but I’ll leave it someplace where you can find it later.”
* * *
Chicken Junction was awake when I drove back through town, and I realized how insular the town really was. Other than the Dairy Queen and a few service stations, no other national businesses had established a foothold. Walmart, H-E-B, and Whataburger, all nearly as ubiquitous in Texas as Dairy Queen, had no local presence. I was out the other side of town and almost home when I was passed by a fire engine with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
I caught up to it when I reached Riverview Estates and saw my grandmother’s mobile home ablaze. The park entrance was crowded with the fire engine, two police vehicles, and two pick-up trucks belonging to neighbors who had been unable to get through to their homes. I parked on the roadside just beyond the entrance and walked in. The neighbor on one side of my grandmother’s blazing mobile home was spraying his with a garden hose, and several dozen park residents, clumped together by primary language were milling about watching the firefighters unspool hoses too late to save my home. While the firefighters brought the blaze under control and local police kept the spectators well back from the scene, I searched for Red.
None of my neighbors had seen him.
Then one of the firefighters came out of the charred and half-melted aluminum husk of my grandmother’s home and announced to the others, “We got a body.”
I saw one of the police officers smile, but it was fleeting and I doubt anyone else noticed. I edged closer, remaining as inconspicuous as possible until I was close enough to the officer to overhear his conversation when he used his cellphone. He said, “It’s done. He won’t be asking any more questions.”
A moment later he added, “Of course it was him. Who else could have been in there?”
I backed away, knowing Red had been snaking the sewer line inside my grandmother’s mobile home when it went up in flames. As soon as I reached my truck, I drove away, leaving Riverview Estates and Chicken Junction in my rearview mirror. I didn’t stop until I reached Quarryville, and I sat at a picnic table outside a smokehouse that had once been a Conoco station, picking at a lunch plate of chopped brisket and potato salad.
When Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations closed, my house repossessed, and most of my possessions lost prior to bankruptcy proceedings that cleaned out the last of my savings and investments, I thought I’d lost everything. I was wrong. What I lost were possessions. Replaceable things. People were not replaceable.
I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Not then. Not there.
After finishing lunch, I looked for a place to hole up, and a horse-faced woman rented me the far-end unit at Quarryville’s six-room motel. The room was nothing special and had last been decorated in the 1960s. Unsure if the primary color was orange or tangerine, I avoided looking at it by staring out the window at the only vehicle in the parking lot. Mine.
After a few minutes, I called Stu Johnson.
“You must be working again,” he said.
“This is something personal,” I told Stu. Then I told him what information I needed.
“I’ll see what I can get.”
While waiting for his return call, I explored Quarryville. There wasn’t much to the town, but I did find a pawnshop, where I purchased a thin pair of leather gloves and an inexpensive gun cleaning kit. Back in the motel room, I stripped, cleaned, and reloaded the Glock I had taken from Skeeter. I had just finished when my phone rang.
“What do you have for me, Stu?”
“Just like you figured,” he said. “Directly or indirectly, the Potter family owns that town. A family trust owns the meat processing plant, the bank, and the mortgage company. Through various subsidiaries it controls most of the rental property in and around town, as well as two of the largest cattle ranches supplying beef to the plant. The patriarch, H. F. Potter, just turned ninety and no longer takes an active role in decision-making, as best I can tell. His son Crawford runs things and has for many years. Crawford had some problems when he was younger, transferred twice from prestigious Texas universities, and finally graduated from a diploma mill. The family spent good money to make Crawford’s problems disappear, but the Potters weren’t the big fish in a little pond at Rice and Baylor like they are in Chicken Junction.”
“So what happened?”
“I might be able to get specifics if I had more time,” Stu said, “but there were allegedly several incidents involving inappropriate conduct with co-eds.”
“What are we talking about? Stalking? Assault? Rape?”
“Yes. Probably. Campus police didn’t get involved back in the day unless things were seriously out of hand. Hell, most rapes went unreported, and the few that were, were blamed on the women. Men like that don’t change, especially men who feel empowered by money and social position.”
They became the kind of men who trolled their workforce for new assistants.
“Crawford is a fifty-five-year-old Caucasian male, five feet seven inches tall, weighing in at a buck ninety. He’s never married. Other than allegations of inappropriate behavior from his college days, there are no blemishes on his record.”
“That’s what happens when you own the police force.”
“Do you want me to dig deeper?”
“I think that’s enough on him,” I said. “What did you find out about the castle?”
“I’m not certain it qualifies as a castle.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Only pictures. The two-story, eight-bedroom Potter Mansion, designed in the Romanesque Revival style, was the first limestone building in the county when it was constructed in 1871. The home has been renovated several times since, but there is no record of any significant changes to the original floor plans. I’m emailing them to you as we speak.”
“There’s one other thing,” Stu said. “Have you surveilled the house?”
“I gave it the once over on Google Street View. There are bars on one of the bedroom windows. What’s in that room that’s so important people need to be kept out?”
“Or kept in,” I said. “Which bedroom?”
“Second floor, northwest corner.”
I thanked him for all the information and ended the call. Then I settled in to wait until nightfall.
* * *
I drove several times around the Potter Mansion, saw no security of any kind because a man who thinks he controls everything doesn’t think he needs it. Crawford’s arrogance would be his undoing, and I decided to take the direct approach. I parked at the curb, walked up to the porch, rang the bell, and waited until a man fitting Crawford Potter’s description answered. “You Mr. Potter?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a dead man walking.” I revealed Skeeter’s Glock, showed Crawford the business end, and pushed past him.
“You must be Mr. Wilcox,” he said. He remained poised as if he thought he was in control of the situation. Maybe he was. “I think someone’s going to get fired for this.”
“Take me upstairs, to the bedroom in the northwest corner.”
“If you insist.” He led me up the sweeping staircase and to the bedroom. A combination lock secured the door.
I motioned with the gun. “Open it.”
“I think you’ll be disappointed,” Crawford said, but he spun the dial on the combination lock until it unlocked. Then he unhooked the lock and pushed the door open.
He stepped into the room and switched on the light.
No one rushed into my arms, screamed for help, or greeted me in any way, because there was no one in the room. Except for the lock on the door and the bars on the windows, nothing seemed out of place until I saw the marks on each of the canopy bed posts where restraints of some kind had worn groves into the polished wood.
“What were you expecting, Mr. Wilcox? A harem of Mexican girls?”
A glint of reflected light caught my eye, and I saw Sofia’s locket under the edge of the bed, the chain broken.
I returned my attention to Crawford. “Where’s Sofia?”
“Your Sofia was a good-looking woman, a real firecracker in bed.” Crawford’s eyes twinkled and his mouth twisted into a grin I may never forget. “Did you really think she’d still be here after you started asking questions?”
“Where is she?” I repeated.
The smile twisted further. “Do you have any idea how much meat gets processed at the plant? Do you think anyone notices a little extra now and then?”
My stomach turned over, and I shot him. I didn’t think twice, just squeezed the trigger until the clip was empty. Then I dropped Skeeter’s Glock, picked up the locket, and hurried toward the stairs.
“Crawford?” I heard an old man yelling. Crawford’s ninety-year-old father was somewhere in the house. “Crawford, what’s all that noise?”
I drew my Glock from the shoulder holster, thinking his father may have phoned the police, and it led the way down the stairs and across the foyer.
“Crawford, answer me!”
I eased out the front door, pulled it closed behind me, and was in my truck rolling out of town before the first patrol car responded.
I drove from the Potter Mansion to Riverview Estates. I used Sofia’s key to enter the mobile home she had shared with seven other illegal immigrants, none of whom were as beautiful as her. The four day shifters present when I bulled my way in all woke and began screaming at me in Spanish. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were calling me, but I understood the attitude. I ignored them, marched down the hall, and opened Sofia’s locker. I grabbed the letters from her mother, returned to my truck, and headed toward El Paso, intending to cross into Juarez.
As I drove, I phoned Studebaker Johnson. I didn’t tell him what I had done, but I did tell him what I had learned. Texas Rangers, Immigration, the FBI, the USDA, and other state and national agencies would all be interested, and I knew he could use his connections to direct their attention to the meatpacking plant and the surrounding town.
When I finished, I told Stu he might never hear from me again, and he wished me good luck. When we finished, I turned my phone off and threw it out the window so I could not be tracked.
I had a long drive ahead of me, all the way to Puerto Vallarta. I had to return the locket and tell Mrs. Delgado that her daughter was too beautiful to live.
I wouldn’t cry until I did.
Michael Bracken (www.CrimeFictionWriter.com) is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories. His crime fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and he has edited several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods.