A Gia Santella Crime Thriller
By Kristi Belcamino
The girl shook her twin brother’s shoulder, but he didn’t stir.
She stared at his chest, trying to see whether it was rising and falling. A thin slice of streetlight streaming in the open tent flap barely penetrated the darkness. She inhaled sharply, fear spiking through her. The pungent smells of the tent overwhelmed her—dirty diapers and sweat and sour milk. Perspiration dripped down the girl’s cheek.
The girl pressed her ear to her brother’s chest, but the other sounds in the tent—the raggedy breathing and moans of the other children—were so loud she couldn’t hear anything.
A boy sleeping nearby murmured something nonsensical. The only word she could distinguish was an anguished “Papa!”
Nearby, a three-year-old boy had crawled off his mattress and was huddled in the bed next to his, shivering. His little body pressed close against a teenage boy who had only arrived yesterday. The toddler whimpered in his sleep. The teenager threw an arm around the boy, drawing him close.
Most of the other kids in the camp were boys. When they’d first arrived, she’d looked around the dozens of kids milling around the lunch line for other girls, but most were teenage boys. She was the only girl in their tent.
The girl pressed a hand to her brother’s forehead. She drew it back in horror. His forehead was as hot as a stove.
In desperation, she grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him violently. This time her jagged and torn fingernails dug into his shoulder through his thin, damp t-shirt. He moaned.
She nearly cried out with relief but stifled the noise, quickly looking behind her at the tent opening.
The guard would return on his rounds within the next five minutes or so. She took her brother’s hand.
“Pablo? You have to get up. We have to leave,” she whispered in Spanish. He didn’t stir. His hand was cold and his entire body shuddered. Another zip of terror shot through her. Valentina had pleaded with the guard earlier to take the boy to the medical station at the camp.
The guard had pretended not to speak Spanish, although she’d heard him speaking it the first day they arrived. How long had that been? Pablo had fallen ill that first day and had grown steadily worse. The second day she practically carried him over to a medical tent and the doctor there had poured some liquid medicine and forced Pablo to swallow it. Then the doctor had looked at her with sad eyes and sent her away. He hadn’t taken her brother’s temperature, looked in his throat or ears or eyes, or listened to his chest like her mother’s doctor back in Guatemala did the one time Valentina was sick.
That made today the third day they’d been in the detention camp.
As soon as they crossed the border at Tijuana, their tia—a friend of the family they’d been instructed to call “aunt”—grabbed their hands and led them to a main road. Tia Anita stood shading her eyes, praying out loud for a vehicle to come down the hot pavement. Valentina and Pablo could barely stand. Tia Anita had given them the last sip of her water that morning. Valentina had looked at the bottle and handed it to Pablo.
He’d seemed out of sorts, and she thought some water might help.
She was wrong. It had been the beginning of whatever illness now ailed him.
After standing by the side of the road for twenty minutes, Valentina heard the sound of a vehicle. Tia Anita told them to wait and stood in the middle of the road in front of the vehicle, making sure it stopped.
It was Border Patrol. Valentina sighed in relief. They would help. They would grant them asylum and help them reunite with their father in Salinas.
They’d made it.
But after they crawled in the car and gulped down water and some rectangles of strange food, Tia Anita began arguing with one of the men.
Valentina tugged on Anita’s shirt sleeve. “Que pasa?”
Anita shook her head in warning. But Valentina saw tears in the woman’s eyes.
Finally, they pulled up to a gate at a large fenced area. The driver spoke to the guard and the gate swung open. The fence was twice as tall as the vehicle. Valentina looked at Anita. But the woman stared straight ahead. They parked near a low building, and when they got out, Anita crouched down before her.
“Mija. They want you and Pablo to go to a place where the children sleep while they make sure you are supposed to be with me. Then we will be put back together to find your papa. Okay?”
“No!” Valentina stomped her foot. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“Lo siento,” Anita said, looking down as a man led her away.
Valentina started to chase after, but a woman in green pants and a green shirt took her arm. The woman smiled at her, but her eyes looked sad.
“Let’s go this way, sweetie.”
Pablo clutched Valentina’s hand, his face expressionless. Looking back, Valentina knew he must have already been very sick.
The woman took them into a small room and examined them. She asked who Anita was and where their parents were. Valentina told them her mother was very ill in Guatemala and needed medicine. Her father had come to work in California to get money for their mother’s medicine. But their mother had grown too ill to care for them, so Tia Anita agreed to bring them to their father to live.
The woman’s forehead scrunched together, and she chewed on her lip a little before speaking. “Is your father an American citizen?”
Suddenly Valentina felt much younger than her twelve years. “No se.” I don’t know.
“Where are you meeting him?”
Valentina swallowed and replied the same way. “No se.”
The woman exhaled loudly.
“Is this woman Anita really your aunt?”
Her voice was so sad that Valentina couldn’t lie to her. She shook her head.
The woman closed her eyes for a second. Then opened them. “Did she get paid to bring you here?”
Valentina felt tears prick her eyes. “No se.”
“Okay,” the woman said, standing. “We’ll try to find your father. Meanwhile, why don’t we find the tent you are assigned to.”
The first day Valentina had been grateful for the abundance of food and water offered to them, and that first night she slept until the sounds of the other children in the tent had woken her the next morning. Her brother was slower to wake, and Valentina realized he needed a doctor. When she told a guard, the man pointed to another smaller tent across the way that had a red cross on it.
Inside was where the sad-looking man gave Pablo a cup of medicine.
But on the second day when she tried to find the guard, a new man was there and told her to stay in the tent. He said it in such a mean voice that Valentina had cowered and returned inside.
Today was the third day. Pablo had been lying on the mattress in a deep sleep all day. At dinner, Valentina had begged every guard she could see for help, but nobody had listened. An hour ago, she decided the only hope to save her brother was to escape.
Somehow, she’d have to get them out of the guarded camp and find a doctor who would cure her brother. She thought of the tall fence and the guard shack at the gate. She wasn’t sure yet how she’d get over the fence, especially with Pablo so sick, but she had to try.
That’s when Pablo started making some strange sounds beside her. She leaned over. It sounded like he was choking.
“No!” she screamed it, not caring if it woke the other children, not caring if it summoned the guard. “No!” she screamed again.
Grabbing her brother by his shoulders she shook him violently, lifting him off the bed, but his head flopped to the side, motionless. His eyes were sightless in the thin stream of light pouring into the tent.
She gently laid him back on the mattress and placed her head on his chest, tears streaming down her cheeks soaking his shirt.
She didn’t even notice the children standing around her, looking sleepy and bewildered as the guards rushed into the tent, shining bright lanterns.
But it was too late.
The red glow of taillights illuminated the windshield. There was a seemingly endless stream of cars in front of us lumbering down Mission Street.
I couldn’t believe how trendy the Mission had become. Used to be you could zip over and grab a burrito with the locals. Now I had to jockey with white kids from the suburbs trying to navigate narrow city streets looking for a place to clog up traffic in their clumsy amateur attempts to parallel park.
Despite the invasion from the suburbs, the Mission was still the best place to find authentic, delicious Mexican food—even if you had to wait in line with tourists from every country under the sun and a bevy of rich people slumming from the East Bay.
I was mainly irritated because I couldn’t find a place to park my Jeep. Had it just been me, I would’ve taken my motorcycle, but James was with me. We needed the Jeep and its special accommodations. I wanted to park close to the restaurant so he didn’t have to navigate the crowds in his wheelchair, but I knew he’d be angry with me for thinking that. And the truth was, he did just fine on his own. It’d only been a few months since he’d been injured, but he already handled the wheelchair like a pro, even giving me a slight heart attack when he took it down some stairs once.
“There,” James said and pointed at a car a block away from the taqueria. I squinted and then noticed the backup lights flicker on.
I slammed on the brakes. The drivers behind me honked, and I was tempted to stick my finger out the window but smiled instead. It was a beautiful day. It was Saturday so we didn’t have to work, and I was with the man I loved about to fill my belly with the food I loved. The only food I craved more was Cuban. I’d been back from visiting Dante in Cuba for a month, but still hankered for some ropa vieja. Dante had been in Havana doing research for his new Cuban restaurant and promised that when he began testing out the recipes he’d drop some by for me and James. I couldn’t wait.
When the small white car pulled out, I slipped into the spot.
“Damn, girl, where’d you learn to parallel park?” James said, winking.
I shrugged. “Oh, some cop I know taught me.”
As soon as I said it I froze. James was no longer a cop. He never talked about it. Instead, he threw himself into his new business as a private investigator. He’d taken on a few clients since he’d left the hospital and rehab—mostly people he’d known as a cop. But his main case was bringing the corrupt cops in the San Francisco Police Department down. The ones responsible for him being in a wheelchair. When he stayed over at my loft, I’d often wake in the middle of the night and catch him at the kitchen table, scouring websites on his laptop—searching and researching and hunting—trying to connect the dots.
“There’s a paper trail somewhere. I just know it,” he’d say.
Someone in his department had given James up to one of the evilest men I’d ever met. Kraig King had been the national head of the country’s largest white supremacist group. He’d taken over our neighborhood once, preying on the homeless and stuffing their bodies in massive vats of acid to dissolve. After going into hiding when I went after him, he’d returned last year as part of an evil plan with a crooked doctor trying to find a cure for opiate addiction at the expense of young homeless women’s lives. That’s when we had our run-in, and King ended up dead.
But before that, King had arranged a hit on James at the hands of the dirty cops on the force. His plan had failed, but James had been shot and paralyzed.
We knew the Chief of Police was in on it, and my idea was just to take him out, but I knew James would never forgive me for that. He wanted the chief to go down publicly, and legally, and to rot in prison. Which wasn’t the worst idea ever.
While James dug up dirt on the chief, I tried to tamp down my blood thirst toward the crooked cop.
I waited on the sidewalk now for James to maneuver himself into his wheelchair. It took all my willpower to sit back and not help.
Having James—my big, strong, buff-cop boyfriend—disabled, had taught me a lot the past few months. Mainly that I was a control freak. But also, that it was possible to have screaming fights with a man I loved and then make up and stay together.
In the past, I would’ve ghosted at the first sign of conflict. Now I stuck around.
And it was worth it.
Most of our arguments stemmed from James learning how to navigate the world on his own as a disabled person and me allowing him to do it. On. His. Own.
It wasn’t easy.
I hated that he was vulnerable. It made me feel vulnerable for loving him.
But he told me if I was going to stay with him that I’d better back the fuck off.
It was one of the few times I’d heard James swear, so it made an impact. And became my mantra:
Back the fuck off, Santella.
Sometimes I’d have to remind myself. Like right now, when it took him ten minutes to get into his wheelchair. I stood on the sidewalk trying not to seem impatient and wishing I had a cigarette.
I’m pretty sure James knew that I snuck up to the roof to smoke every once in a while, because God knows I had to smell like an ashtray when I crawled back into bed, but he never said anything.
It was my one vice. I know that James was the one who’d lost the ability to walk, but it wasn’t a cakewalk for me, either. The adjustment was stressful.
Django was the only witness to my night-time weakness on the rooftop terrace. And he didn’t mind. He just sat at my feet and wagged his tail if I scratched behind his ears. Besides, I only snuck one on weekends. Otherwise it would interfere with my weekday workout in the morning.
Now, as James whipped his wheelchair in an expert spin 180 degrees to face me, a red-faced young man with a few beers under his belt stumbled out of the restaurant door and smacked into me. He practically knocked me over, and I whirled ready to swear at him but felt James’s hand on my arm.
“Let’s go, Gia.”
I sighed. “Fine.”
James was the only one in my life who’d ever managed to keep me on an even keel and instantly defuse my heated emotions. I smiled and squeezed his hand.
“I can smell the tortilla chips from here,” I said.
Later, after stuffing ourselves with shrimp tacos and fresh, warm, crispy chips dipped in salsa and guacamole, we were happy and full and ready to get naked together. We headed out onto the sidewalk with me holding the door as James navigated the small step in his wheelchair. He cupped my ass with his palm, and I smacked his hand away. “Later, Romeo.”
He laughed. He was playful and flirtatious after downing three beers. I’d skipped the booze. I’d been trying to cut back on my drinking. It made me slow and heavy-headed during my 5:00 a.m. Budo training.
The sun had set as we made our way toward the Jeep. Once we got there, I started toward the car to open the door for James but then stopped.
Back the fuck off, Santella. Let him do it on his own.
I was staring at my phone, trying to act like I wasn’t watching him struggle to lift himself up into the seat, so I didn’t notice the woman standing in the shadows of the store awning until she clutched at my sleeve.
“Mija. Por favor. My girl. She will die if they take her. Please take her. Please save her.”
The woman, wearing a ripped and filthy floral shirt, looked around, her eyes wild. She had dark bags under her eyes and a slight harelip. She froze, eyes trained on something behind me. A look of sheer terror appeared across her face. It was the word “save” that stopped me in my tracks.
I turned to see what she was looking at, what had struck such fear in her. At first I didn’t see them. The sidewalk was filled with pedestrians enjoying the warm night laughing and talking. People spoke Spanish and English and French, pushing baby strollers or holding hands. The only person who stood out at first was a man standing in front of the carniceria.
At first I thought she was looking at him. He stood still in the middle of the sidewalk staring at us. He was slight of frame—wiry—and wearing worn jeans and cowboy boots. But then I saw what must have frightened her—not far away from him two men stood side-by-side, eyes staring me down. Large white letters—POLICE and ICE—were emblazoned across their bulletproof vests.
“Me puedes ayudar?” Will you help me?
The woman thrust a little girl in a pink dress toward me. Before I could react, the woman turned and ran.
“Wait!” I yelled and started after her right as a crowd of people poured out of a nearby bar arm-in-arm and singing. I couldn’t get past the rowdy throng on the crowded sidewalk.
“Stop! Come back!” I yelled, standing on tiptoe to look for the woman’s dark head, but she’d already disappeared into the night.
I turned back. James met my eyes. His were wide and then he glanced over at the girl. She stood immobile next to my Jeep, her thin body shaking, holding a ripped and dirty plastic bag in front of her. Her eyes trained on something behind me.
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