This is limited time sneak peak for free subscribers of Riptide, my third Sam McRae mystery.
Once I’d escaped from the dark confines of the plant, I ripped the mask off and gulped air.
“Jesus.” I leaned over at the waist and planted a hand on each knee, trying to regain my bearings.
I could feel Amber approach from behind.
“That was … even worse than I imagined.”
“Yeah. It is kind of gross.”
I took a last deep breath and managed to straighten up. “I’m sorry. I feel like such a …” I struggled to say the word. The one I had in mind was “wuss.”
“Don’t worry about it. Honestly. You aren’t the only one to react this way.”
She nodded. “I’ve brought other aspiring legal interns here. They come with the best of intentions and lots of glowing hopes of doing the right thing.”
“I’ll bet.” I thought of my own initiation into the world of the public defender so many years ago. What a bright-eyed naïve little person I’d been, even after spending part of a hard childhood in Bed-Stuy.
She grinned. “Hey, you made it to the electric stunner. Some can’t even make it through the door.”
Her warmth and support emboldened me. I managed a smile. “I guess that makes me a Rambo by comparison.”
Despite her assurances, I was rethinking the visit. Desperation had prompted it, but I wasn’t sure how much I could gain from it. However, while I was there, I asked Amber if I could speak to one or two of the workers.
As Manuel wandered by, Amber caught his attention and communicated my thoughts. She spoke much better Spanish than I, though she still stumbled over a few words now and then. Manuel nodded and hustled off.
“He’s going to look for a couple of workers,” she said. “I can probably translate most of what they say.”
* * *
A short brown-skinned woman with luminous dark eyes and raven hair approached me cautiously—the way a wild stallion might approach a horse trainer. Manuel had a hand on her shoulder. It almost looked like he was herding her toward me.
Manuel introduced the woman as Conchita Ruiz and launched into rapid Spanish patter. “He’s telling her your name and that you’re not a cop or immigration,” Amber explained.
I nodded. Conchita’s face relaxed, but only a little.
“Hola, Conchita,” I said, trying to sound friendly. “Where are you from? What country?”
I waited while Amber translated. Conchita responded with a few quick words that flew by me, but I picked up the word “Honduras.”
“She says hello, it’s nice to meet you, and she’s from Honduras,” Amber said.
I nodded and smiled. Well, at least I understood one word.
“Conchita, how did you get here?”
Amber translated my question. Conchita’s face froze. For a moment, I thought she’d bolt.
Amber said a few more words in a reassuring tone. Conchita seemed somewhat, if not entirely, appeased. She spit out a whole slew of words I had no hope of understanding. Amber nodded, interrupting now and then, as if for clarification. When they’d finished their exchange, Amber turned to me.
“She says she came here by train, paid for by relatives. I asked which connecting bus line brought her here, because you know there aren’t any train stations on the Eastern Shore. She claimed she couldn’t remember.” Amber paused and added. “Frankly, I think she’s lying. If I had to guess, she was probably brought here in the back of a panel truck. With a whole lot of other immigrant workers.”
“So, she’s probably illegal.”
Amber looked somber. “I’d put money on it.”
This came under the heading of interesting information. If Billy Ray were in charge of hiring plant workers, he’d have to know many of them were illegal immigrants. Possibly even arranged for them to be brought in.
Which raised another interesting question. Could Billy Ray’s murder pertain to that? Or could it pertain to other illegal activities his friends engaged in? Like the “pot-free” Dwayne Sutterman and Curtis Little? After all, workers weren’t the only things that got illegally smuggled across the border. This could merit some additional research on my part.
* * *
After trying to squeeze a bit more information from Conchita and a couple of other workers and getting little for my efforts, Amber drove me back to my car.
“Even if you’re not with INS, they’re afraid of strangers,” she said.
“Who can blame them?” I understood their lack of trust for any authority, especially around here. I felt it down to my bones.
Amber pulled her car up beside mine, threw it into “park” and sighed. “These people.” She shook her head. “They’re underpaid and work in the worst sort of conditions. Yet, they’re afraid to complain for obvious reasons. It’s a vicious cycle.”
She gazed at me. “Has any of this helped?”
“If nothing else, it’s given me food for thought.”
She looked quizzical. “How so?”
“Nothing solid. Just random thoughts at this point.”
“What do you think you’ll do?”
I paused before answering. I wasn’t sure how much to share. And why was she asking?
“I’ll just keep looking around and talking to people.” A suitably vague answer that seemed to satisfy her.
“Well, if there’s anything else I can do for you, feel free to call,” Amber said. She pulled a card and a pen from her shoulder bag. “Here’s my cell number. You can reach me on it anytime.”
* * *
As I drove away, my thoughts returned to Curtis Little. Who was the Spanish-speaking woman who answered his door?
Curtis was supposed to be Billy Ray’s closest friend. Perhaps he’d worked as an unofficial recruiter for Bower Farms. Could he also be working with Dwayne Sutterman, smuggling drugs from south of the border along with farm workers?
If Curtis and Billy Ray had a falling out, it could have jeopardized their illegal activities. These things happened all the time. One bad guy would turn against the other. The possibility of blackmail or extortion was ever present in such relationships. So much for honor among thieves.
These scenarios were only possibilities, but ones I needed to explore.
* * *
I ran by Curtis’s trailer again, but no one answered my knock. It was getting late and I was tired. I decided to call it a day.
As I left the trailer park, I heard an old car cough to life. I turned onto the highway and headed for Ocean City as a beat-up green Chevy lumbered onto the road behind me.
Dusk was setting in and headlights were snapping on. The Chevy’s headlights shone at odd angles, making the car look walleyed. It made no move to overtake me. Nor did it lose distance. It stayed roughly three car lengths behind me.
As I hit the traffic waiting at the Route 50 drawbridge, I saw the car was still back there. The darkened windows allowed no view inside.
“Coincidence?” I muttered. “Probably.” Lots of people took Route 50 into town everyday. Even so, my heart hammered.
Traffic started moving. After we’d crossed the bridge, I turned right and glanced in the rear view mirror. The green Chevy followed.
I hung a quick left down a side street. An impulsive move, but a good test. At first, I thought I’d lost him. “Silly,” I said, shaking my head. Then, the car appeared in my mirror again.
When I reached the highway, I hung another left, then immediately pulled into a parking lot and tucked the car in behind a building with a high fence shielding it from the side road. I waited and watched, hoping they wouldn’t catch on.
The Chevy passed by the entrance I’d taken. They had no clue what I’d done. Either that or I was imagining things.
I realized I was holding my breath and exhaled with relief. I took a moment to close my eyes and relax my shoulders, which were grazing my earlobes.