The house on El Gato Street appeared empty, save for a lone beat-up van in the weed-choked driveway and a pickup truck parked on the dead lawn behind the house. Photojournalist Siobhan Walsh had been watching the place for two hours, taking photos and zooming in to analyze every detail. She’d seen something inside. Movement behind the thick drapes.
Patience was her strength, and she would sit in the neighbor’s house as long as it took to get proof that her friends—two sisters who were practically family—were here.
Siobhan adjusted the zoom lens to focus on the van. Again. She’d already taken a series of pictures. The filthy Texas license plate was near impossible to read, but she used the technology built into her state-of-the-art camera to expose the numbers. She already had them memorized, but if she was right—and the van belonged to human traffickers—the number would lead nowhere.
She would follow up nonetheless.
Siobhan had good instincts, but there were times when she had to go against her gut in order to do the right thing. More often than not, she came out of such a situation not only unscathed, but with the result she wanted. Kane Rogan had once told her she was a cat on the last of nine lives. She scoffed. Some things were worth the risk. Of all people, Kane should understand.
Finding Marisol and Ana was definitely worth the risk.
It wasn’t as if she were going to confront the bullies who were holding the young women; she needed evidence. Pictures. She would expose the bastards for the world to see, while giving law enforcement information they needed in order to do their job. She’d been burned in the past when she turned over unverifiable information to local cops. It took them too long to mount an investigation—they wouldn’t act solely on her word that a crime had occurred. They wanted proof. By the time they had actionable evidence, the traffickers had moved out, taking the girls with them.
Or worse, the girls had been sold or killed.
Siobhan couldn’t take the chance that this particular enterprise would shut down overnight, not when it was the closest she’d come to finding the sisters. She’d take photographs of every person and car coming and going from the house, then she’d walk away. She’d have to, no matter how hard it would be to leave.
Unless she saw them with her own eyes. Then she would call 911 and say anything to bring in the police.
I’m not the idiot you think I am, Kane Rogan.
Siobhan stood and stretched. Two hours and her joints were creaking from sitting still for so long. She rolled her neck and lamented that she couldn’t break herself from the imaginary conversations she had with Kane. It had started years ago, almost from when she’d first met him, but the habit had grown worse since she’d left him in that hospital room three months ago.
I didn’t leave you, Kane; you kicked me out.
She had contacts other than Kane Rogan. He wouldn’t jump through hoops to help; he wouldn’t think this was his problem. He didn’t work cases in the United States; he much preferred the dark underbelly of Mexico where he didn’t have to play at being a diplomat, where life was cheap, where he could kill a cartel leader and walk away unscathed. Kane Rogan was perfectly willing to save a kidnapped American being held for ransom by a two-bit cop in the middle of Nowhere, Mexico, but he’d damn well make sure you knew how stupid you were while he saved your ass.
Siobhan sat back down and looked again through her camera lens. She was losing light. In an hour it would be dark, and she wouldn’t be able to see much of anything.
The small, broken-down houses were set far apart, most rented by migrant workers or longtime residents who couldn’t afford much. No air-conditioning in the hot summers; faulty heat in the cold winters. Dismantled cars cluttered dirt yards; metal and other large items that most would call junk—most of it was junk, Siobhan thought—littered the area. Refrigerators with and without doors, some chained and bolted. But the house across the street was cleaner than the others; it was not in as sorry a state of disrepair.
There was activity every day—when Father Sebastian first talked to Mrs. Hernandez, she’d said there were many people coming and going, men and women of all races, many of them pregnant. If Father hadn’t spoken at Mass about the baby left at the rectory, Mrs. Hernandez probably wouldn’t have even approached him. But Siobhan convinced him to release the information. Mrs. Hernandez was the only one who stepped forward. The only one who was willing to help, even though Siobhan saw fear and guilt in the eyes of others.
Father Sebastian had wanted to come with Siobhan tonight, but she wasn’t going to risk an old priest with arthritis so severe he could barely stand upright.
Right now, this was her only lead other than the baby herself. Father had called her Elizabeth, and the nurses in Laredo had kept the name. Siobhan couldn’t wait to return to the hospital and see her again. She’d promised Elizabeth that she would find her mother. There was no doubt in her mind that either Marisol or Ana had given birth to that small, beautiful child.
She stared out the window. Nothing had changed, except it had grown darker.
She needed something.
Please, God. Don’t let me leave with nothing.
Mrs. Hernandez came into the bedroom where Siobhan was sitting in the semi-dark, waiting for someone to exit the house across the street.
“Enrique will be home soon,” the woman said. “Please, you need to go.”
Mrs. Hernandez had been nervous from the moment Father Sebastian had convinced her to let Siobhan in, and those nerves had steadily increased. But she’d been the one who called Father when the van arrived two hours ago. She wanted to help, but she was scared.
Siobhan had faced people like Mrs. Hernandez many times.
“Ten more minutes, por favor.” What would ten minutes do that the last two hours could not?
“No more, no more,” Mrs. Hernandez said, a catch in her voice. She walked out.
Of course the woman was fearful—that’s what these bastards did. They scared people into silence. Good people, who recognized evil, didn’t want to face it down. They didn’t want to be hurt. Close the doors, shut the blinds; if they couldn’t see the bogeyman, the bogeyman couldn’t see them.
A false and dangerous sense of security.
She’d already searched property records. The property across the street was owned by a business in San Antonio that was most surely a front. That would be her next step—tracing the business. Even if she found Marisol and Ana …
When. Even when you find them …
… she would track down these people and expose them. Her camera had never let her down.
Siobhan tried to put Mrs. Hernandez out of her mind and once again turned her attention across the road. There were no streetlights anywhere she could see; if she couldn’t get a good photo of someone in the next thirty minutes, she’d have to leave even if Mrs. Hernandez didn’t kick her out first. She could only do so much without a flash.
A car was coming down the broken street, headlights on in the dusk. At first Siobhan feared it was Mr. Hernandez, but the black Escalade pulled into the driveway across the roadway.
An Escalade certainly didn’t fit into this neighborhood. The vehicle practically screamed Illegal activity here!
Siobhan zoomed in and clicked several photos of the license plate, then zoomed out and kept shooting as two people emerged from the Escalade: a man in the driver’s seat and a woman in the passenger seat. The man looked like hired help: broad, physically fit, Caucasian, well dressed. Far too well dressed for this neighborhood. The woman was older, wore makeup and a sleek pantsuit. A glitter of jewelry caught Siobhan’s eye, but she was too far away and the lighting too poor for her to make out much detail. The camera, however, would catch it all and she’d go through the images carefully. A black sedan drove up and stopped in front of the house. No one emerged.
The man and woman walked to the back of the house and disappeared from her view. Movement behind the upstairs window caught Siobhan’s eye. She aimed her camera at the house and watched the scene through her telephoto lens: upstairs and downstairs and all around. She silently took pictures, her camera purring in her hands. She wasn’t looking for an artistic shot, she wasn’t framing an image or trying to capture the best lighting. But her skill was natural, born out of the love of film and years of experience, from the moment her father gave her a nearly indestructible point-and-shoot camera when she was five. Now her camera did most of the work. Four thousand dollars—between the camera and the lens she’d chosen for this stealth mission—was a lot of money, but it was worth it. The camera captured license plates. Profiles. Gestures. Clothing and shoes and jewelry and the way people parted their hair. Still, she’d inspect every detail later, because her eye could see things the soulless camera could not.
Then the front door opened. Two goons whom Siobhan suspected had come with the van earlier, before Mrs. Hernandez called, followed by the well-dressed man. The three of them stood on the brown grass, as if waiting.
The curtain moved again and caught Siobhan’s eye. She was shooting before the camera focused. She caught a glimpse of a face, female, then it was gone and she prayed her camera had caught her image, that she could bring out the detail on her computer.
It could be Marisol or Ana. It could be …
Two of the men began to argue in front of the house, but Siobhan couldn’t hear what they said—words lost in space, only the occasional angry curse coming through.
The door opened again and the well-dressed woman came out; this woman was not scared. She was in charge, an older, marginally attractive Hispanic woman with a sleek bun and round cheeks. The men avoided her gaze. She was admonishing them for something—perhaps the argument they were having in public. She raised her hand and another, much younger, woman came out. She was very young, rail-thin, and pale—nearly as pale as Siobhan—with short, dirty-blond hair. She carried a bundle in her arms—a bundle in a white blanket. Siobhan kept taking pictures, but she was distracted by the young girl who was clearly carrying a baby.
Her heart skipped a beat. This couldn’t be Baby Elizabeth. She was safe in Laredo, an hour away. The nurse promised to call Siobhan if anyone came to claim the baby. One of the advantages of having a mother who’d been a nurse was that Siobhan knew the lingo, knew how to get them to help her.
Another baby? Mrs. Hernandez told Father Sebastian she’d seen “many” pregnant women; when pushed, she’d said she’d seen three or four different women, all pregnant. There was no sign that this was a sanctuary for single mothers who needed a helping hand.
Yet it could be.
You really believe that, Siobhan? That these people are helping pregnant women? You’re not that stupid.
“Get out of my head, Kane,” she muttered.
The blonde climbed into the Escalade with the two goons. The older woman walked to the sedan and the driver emerged, opened the rear door for her; she slipped in. The man she’d arrived with walked around to the passenger side, and almost immediately they drove off. A fourth man Siobhan hadn’t seen before came out of the back of the house, opened the driver’s door of the Escalade, and drove off with the goons, girl, and baby.
That left the beat-up van at the house, but six adults and the girl had left. There couldn’t be anyone else inside, could there be?
Siobhan flipped rapidly back through the digital photos until she found the series she’d taken of the window. She vaguely heard a rattling truck on the road and glanced up, but didn’t see anything. She focused again on her camera.
A woman’s face was clear. She wasn’t Marisol or Ana, but she could have been their cousin. Young, not more than twenty. Beautiful, with the same exquisite, almost exotic features. Whiter than most Mexicans, with thick silky hair and almond-shaped eyes. She was definitely from the same region as the de la Rosa sisters.
And she had been crying.
The bedroom door burst open again. “You must go. Now. Enrique is home. Now, now!”
Siobhan quickly packed up her equipment and put her backpack on her back. “Thank you.”
A door opened and closed in the house.
Mrs. Hernandez put her hands to her mouth. She ran out and Siobhan followed. Maybe she could explain to Mr. Hernandez the importance of her work, that she was trying to help …
He stared at Siobhan, angry and worried, the same fear and worry that had been on his wife’s face.
“Who is this?” the man said in rapid Spanish.
“No one,” the woman said. “A friend of Father Sebastian’s.”
“You’re lying to me.” He glared at Siobhan. “Do you know what you do?” In rapid Spanish he said to his wife, “I told you not to say anything, do nothing!” He turned to Siobhan and in broken English said, “You take advantage, this old woman.”
“No, señor, I’m leaving now. I’m sorry.”
“And will you be here when they come for us in the night? When they shoot us in our sleep? When my wife cries as they hurt her? Where will you be? Where will God be?”
He was as scared as he was angry. Siobhan understood him; she understood the fear that made good people look the other way.
Maybe Kane was right and she ran tilting at windmills, ignorant, getting herself and others in trouble; but if not her, who? If she didn’t fight to help those who were abused and dying, what right did she have to call herself a daughter of God? Kane didn’t believe; she didn’t know if he ever had. But she did. She had a calling, she knew it as clear as day, and she would never turn her back on those who through no fault of their own were brutalized by evil people.
Siobhan said in Spanish, “God bless you both.”
“Pray for us,” Mrs. Hernandez said. “If they find out, we will be punished.”
“Just go,” Mr. Hernandez said, the veins in his neck enlarged from his barely controlled anger. “Go and never come back.”
“You will be in my prayers every night,” she whispered. She left through the back door.
They slammed it behind her.
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