Home Baja Redemption

Baja Redemption

by Ben

Book I of The Guardians of Gaia Series

Jake Spinner’s life could not have spiraled any lower.  A former decorated Army ranger, Jake spends most of his days in a tequila-induced fog. Between bouts of binge drinking and episodes of severe PTSD, Spinner works as a fishing guide in a sleepy village in Baja, Mexico. When Jake’s partner Gustavo disappears along with his wife and son, Jake suspects that something terrible has befallen the family.  Spinner sets out to find his friends.

A group of researchers discover that whales and dolphins numbers are decreasing all along the Gulf of California. Joined by Emily Rosen, a feisty reporter from the New York Times, they discover that an illegal whaling operation is decimating the humpback and dolphin populations.

After Jake learns that his fishing partner and wife have been murdered, Spinner discovers the son, Macario in their old fishing camp. When Spinner learns that members of the Yakuza have been conscripting members of Gustavo’s coastal tribe to kill whales and capture dolphins, Spinner sets out after the whalers.

When Rosen and the researchers witness Spinner breaking up a dolphin drive in a remote cove, Emily is determined to  recruit Spinner. She thinks that he may hold the key to the whaling operation. Spinner is bent on revenge and wants nothing to do with a bunch of scientists and environmentalists. After a near death encounter with the whalers, Spinner is saved from certain death and reluctantly joins the band of misfits to bring down the murderous Japanese mafia. Highly outnumbered and outgunned, Spinner, Rosen and an unlikely assemblage of scientists, activists  and fishermen must come up with a plan to stop the upcoming dolphin drive without getting killed.

Excerpt:

PROLOGUE

The twenty-eight foot panga cut through the slate-gray water easily. The twin Yamaha 150s kept the bow up on plane as the boat and its six occupants sped toward the island. In the east, the January sky glowed in hues of red and pink, silhouetting the rugged mountains of the Baja Peninsula. Macario Silvano sat near the stern huddled against the cold breeze. Even in his slicker, the moist air and constant wind chilled him to the bone.

Macario was twenty, with a slender build and long black hair tucked under a watch cap. He looked across the seat at his father, Gustavo, who sat hunkered down, his sweatshirt hood pulled over a filthy baseball cap. His father’s grim face was lined and leathery, the result of a lifetime spent fishing on the ocean. His high cheekbones, common to members of their coastal tribe, gave him an almost skeletal appearance in the early morning light.

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The man in the bow who was holding a line to keep his balance suddenly raised a hand. The helmsman eased back on the throttle and the panga slowed. When the man in the bow motioned with four fingers and pointed ahead, the helmsman cut the motors and the boat began to drift.

Without a word, Macario, his father, and two other boatmen pulled long oars from the gunwales, attached them quickly and quietly to the cleats, and began to dip the paddles into the water. Their movements were synchronous and made no sound except for the occasional drip of water from the oars. The Japanese man standing in the panga’s bow dropped the safety line and picked up an ominous looking gun. A deadly harpoon with an explosive charge attached to the shaft now rested in his arms. Attached to the harpoon were a coiled cable and several large floats.

In the still of the pre-dawn air Macario heard a loud whoosh in the water ahead. It reminded him of a great set of bellows he had seen at the ironworks foundry in Tepic. A moment later he heard two more massive exhalations, then another, this one lower in volume.

The helmsman, a grubby man dressed in greasy coveralls, leaned forward and said to Macario. “Las ballenas están durmiendo.”

Macario cast a look at the boatman, who flashed a toothless smile. Then he looked toward the source of the exhalations. In the early morning light, Macario could see fifteen-foot plumes of atomized water forming clouds against the outline of the dark island. He counted four exhalations, three large spouts and a smaller one. He felt his gut twist in anticipation.

The panga closed on the sleeping whales. Macario sensed the tension emanating from his fellow villagers. Only the harpoon man and the helmsman were strangers. They had been sent from the company.

Two men, one Asian, one Mexican, had approached their village several months before. They offered a substantial amount of money for some specialty fishing activities. No questions were asked. The pay was good – more money than Gustavo and Macario could make in a year. Both father and son would be paid for each whale they brought in. The agreement had been simple. It was to be an all or nothing deal. Either the entire village signed on and swore an oath of secrecy, or the company would find someone else to do the work. Some of the men were to be recruited to work at the tip of South America in the waters off Chile. Some would man ships bound as far as Antarctica.

The business of whaling was booming in the southern hemisphere.

With the depletion of local fishing stocks, the fishermen’s ability to make a living had been severely curtailed. Gustavo had to go out farther and stay out longer just to feed his family. The remaining indios in the village faced the same dilemma. Many from the sleepy little seaside village had moved to larger cities, some further inland to try their hand at farming or ranching. When the tribal elders had approached Gustavo about signing on for this venture, he had been hesitant. He believed the killing of whales went against all of the traditions the tribe held dear. It was just plain bad luck. But hunger and the overpowering need to feed his family eclipsed any thoughts of honoring traditions.

Gustavo did not want his son involved in the venture. There was something sinister about the men who came to the village offering jobs and money. When he had shaken their hands, there was no warmth. Their hands had felt like cold, dead fish. When he looked into their eyes, he recoiled inwardly. Their eyes stared straight through him. Dead eyes.

The sound of the whales’ exhalations grew louder. A smaller spout, half the volume of its mother’s followed. Macario looked off to port and saw three large backs raising and sinking together. His heart began to race as the panga drew within thirty yards of the sleeping humpbacks. The rifleman in the bow held up a hand and signaled to stop rowing. The oarsmen pulled their paddles in and secured them quietly. The harpooner readied his rifle and pushed the butt of the gun firmly against his shoulder as he braced his feet for the recoil.

Gustavo grabbed his son by the arm and whispered, “Keep your hands in the panga, mijo.”   He made the sign of the cross and muttered a prayer in their native language. At the end, Macario heard his father apologize, “Lo siento, ballenas.”

The panga drew within striking distance. One of the whales surfaced and blew, covering the occupants of the panga in a fine spray. Macario remembered that the mist exhaled from the whale’s huge lungs smelled of fish, of brine, and of fathomless ocean.

Another whale surfaced. Midway through its exhalation, it snorted. Something was wrong.

Huge flukes lifted off the water and pounded the sea into foam. Macario heard the rifle’s report, then an explosion, followed by a high-pitched scream. The sound was so visceral that he thought he would vomit.

The coils of line whined; floats ripped over the side of the panga as the mortally wounded whale made a desperate run to free itself of the exploding lance. The sky glowed red in the east, casting flashes of crimson across the water. The water churned red as the great whale’s life force mixed with the sea. Macario’s nostrils were assaulted by the coppery smell of blood.

He looked across at his father. His father’s weathered face, caught in the first rays of light, was wet with tears.

The matriarch lay at the surface sleeping. More correctly, she was half-sleeping. Millions of years of evolution allowed her to shut down one hemisphere of her brain to allow for sleep, while keeping a watchful eye on the constantly changing ocean around her with the other.

She was a Pacific bottlenose dolphin, around thirty-five years old. Next to her was her six-month-old calf, a male who maintained close contact with her by leaning against her pectoral fin. This was her fifth calf and the second male. The first male had died shortly after birth, the victim of a vicious attack by a tiger shark. That was long ago when she was an inexperienced mother. Things were different now.

The mother was distinctive in her markings. Where a typical bottlenose was slate gray to black, she had a distinguishing mark on her forehead, just forward of her blowhole, that resembled a star pattern. Her new calf had inherited a similar physical trait. He had an array of four small white spots on his forehead resembling the four cardinal points on a compass, and a small white blaze on the dorsal aspect of his flukes that looked like a lightning bolt.

Nearby, eight other dolphins rested or slept. All females, they were all daughters, sisters and their offspring. Once they matured, males born into this maternal subgroup had formed alliances with one to two other males. One of the matriarch’s daughters, a three-year old adolescent, was the primary “auntie” for the newborn male. When the old female needed to feed, the auntie dolphin took over the duties of watching the young dolphin, having him accompany her in an echelon swimming formation, close by and just below her. The young dolphin was gregarious and inquisitive. His precociousness kept the adult dolphins on constant alert.

The lead female dolphin suddenly heard something in the deep blackness of the Sea of Cortez. The sea was always full of sounds, which differed from day to night – from the popping sounds of pistol shrimp on the nearby reef, to vocalizations from yellow striped grunts and croakers, to the deep sonorous sounds of her larger cousins, the great whales. But this was something distinctive. It was the sound made by the propeller of a ship. Once, further south, she had heard it before. Her calf, awakened by the deep thrumming noise of the twin screws, flipped his flukes in fear and nuzzled closer to his mother. Alerted, the rest of the pod faced toward the disturbance.

Several of the younger dolphins vocalized. They wanted to investigate. Sometimes they would ride the bow wake from larger ships. Judging by the vibration coming from the two giant propellers, this would be one pressure wave that would be fun to ride!

The sound of the ship grew louder, drowning out any other sounds in the ocean around the dolphin family. The female emitted a warning whistle and the younger dolphins held back.

Just then the female picked up a faint taste in the water brought to her mouth from the approaching ship. She opened it again to sample. Images danced through her mind as she attempted to separate the tastes on her tongue. Suddenly, her whole body tensed as recognition came to her. She had tasted the blood of her own kind, and in that blood she felt the presence of great suffering.

She issued three sharp whistles to the family. Together they turned and swam swiftly in the opposite direction until the sounds from the Death Ship had all but faded into the blackness.

CHAPTER ONE

La Paz, Baja del Sur, México

Alejandro Cabrillo sat at his desk looking at his computer screen. The satellite image before him showed a section of Lower Baja California. Small blinking dots were interspersed around the region, forming the semblance of a travel pattern. The dots represented humpback whales that had been tagged by his team and were now being monitored. Information was being streamed via satellite regarding migratory routes and travel patterns, gathering places and feeding sites.

The whales wintered in the southern Gulf near Loreto, drawn by the warmer waters of Mexico, to give birth and nurture their young. This population of humpbacks moved from southern waters near Puerto Vallarta, back and forth, unlike their cousins who ranged from the colder waters of Alaska to the birthing waters of Hawaii, a round trip of more than five thousand miles.

Alejandro sat back and stretched in his chair. Tall and slender, he ran his fingers though his jet-black hair. The angular features of his face were made more prominent by the heavy shadow of a day’s worth of beard growth. He leaned forward and squinted through his bifocals at the screen. He looked from the screen to the laminated pages sitting next to the computer.

“Where are you, Number Seven?” Alejandro asked. “You should be with Five, Six and Eight.”

He scrolled to another page of data, this one showing times and locations when the satellites last picked up the traveling humpbacks. Number Seven’s last position was reported over a week ago, fifty miles south.

He leaned back in his chair, still staring at the icons on the screen.  It wasn’t uncommon for the transmitters to be sloughed off or break down over time. The whales, because they were extremely tactile animals, were constantly in contact with one another. Although the science of tracking the huge cetaceans had made great strides, the equipment was still subject to the rigors of salt water, currents and animal movement.

Alejandro had become the director of the Instituto de Mamíferos Marinos three years ago. He had moved his wife and young daughter here from Mazatlán after finishing his Ph.D. in Mexico City. His chief duties were to oversee projects pertaining to whale and dolphin populations in the lower Gulf of California.  He supervised four research scientists in the small center in La Paz, and worked with graduate students from the United States and Canada on projects that helped to fund the institute.

Alejandro answered directly to the Department of Fisheries in Mexico City. Grant money was tight. Nearly all of the available government resources were being channeled into the ongoing and unwinnable “War on Drugs.” Alejandro had come to depend on the soft monies coming in from institutions outside of Mexico. Fortunately, universities from all over the world wanted to send their enthusiastic students to study the rich waters of the Gulf of California, bringing grant money with them.

A knock on the door brought him out of his reverie. Without looking up, Alejandro said, “Yes?”

The door opened and Luisa, the department secretary and office manager, poked her head in. She was about the same age as Alejandro, slightly overweight, but attractively dressed in a flattering print dress. She wore her hair to her shoulders and had a ready smile.

“Alejandro, the Minister of Fisheries is on the phone and would like to speak to you,” Luisa said. “He’s on line two.”

A small knot formed in Alejandro’s stomach. Chief Minister Alfonso Figueroa was a force to be reckoned with. From a wealthy family in Sinaloa, it was well known that he had aspired to climb the political ladder. A consummate politician, he would slap you on the back and inquire after your family, but under that veneer of congeniality Alejandro suspected that he could be ruthless in his desire to advance his own agenda. Alejandro’s predecessor had fallen prey to the machinations of Figueroa a little over three years ago.

Alejandro picked up the phone. “Hello Minister! To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?”

“Just checking in on your progress, Alejandro. How are you handling the crush of paperwork since you became director?”

Alejandro laughed. “It’s really not that much different than pursuing my Ph.D.  The volume is about the same. Only the content is different.”

“How go the projects in the Lower Gulf,” The Minister queried.

Uh-oh, here it comes, thought Alejandro. Slash and burn to the projects direct from Mexico City. “Um, fine,” he said. “Our joint project tracking the traveling patterns of the humpbacks is revealing some promising data.”

There was a short, but very distinct pause. “When can you send me your preliminary findings,” Figuero asked. “We need this information to determine funding allocation for the next fiscal year.”

“I should be able to give you viable data at the end of this season – which is in about two to three months.”

“Two to three months?” Figueroa said light-heartedly, yet Alejandro heard the undertone. “We need to get all the budget information to the Ministry of Fisheries by the end of the month.”

Alejandro did not dare mention the several lost signals that had occurred in the past few weeks.

“I’ll put together a brief and have it in your office by the end of the week,” Alejandro said.  “Please remember, sir, it’s only a preliminary brief.”

“Very good, Director Cabrillo,” said Figueroa, resuming his fatherly tone. “I also beg a small favor of you, Alejandro. Next week my assistant Felipe Muñoz will be in La Paz . He is meeting a contingent of Japanese officials, from both the fisheries ministry and the private sector. They wish to see the Institute and would like to hear about your work there. I already told them you would be happy to show them around.”

Alejandro flushed. I’m a scientist, not a tour guide. Besides, representatives from the Japanese Department of Fisheries had classically not been at the forefront for conservation of most whale species.

Alejandro sighed. “That would be fine, Minister.”

“Good. I’ll have Felipe call you and finalize arrangements. I’m looking forward to seeing that report.” Figueroa signed off.

Alejandro stared at the receiver as if he were looking at a viper in his personal space. “Madre de Dios,” he murmured.

Luisa opened the door and stepped in. Alejandro suspected that she had been listening in on the conversation from the other side of the door.

“Get ready, Luisa, We’re going to be entertaining Japanese dignitaries,” Alejandro said tiredly. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Maybe they’re coming here for the whale meat tacos,” said Luisa.

Alejandro smiled. “It seems odd that they would be interested in an institution that promotes conservation of marine mammals. Maybe they’ve seen the light.”

Luisa laughed. “In your dreams. I watched Whale Wars. They don’t quit.”

“There was a time, about twenty years ago, when Japanese trawlers were sneaking up into the Gulf and taking everything they could get their harpoons and nets in and on. Whales, swordfish, dolphins, mantas, turtles, tuna. I heard they were even killing sea lions.”

“To eat?” Luisa said incredulously.

“I guess. They think we in the west are muy locos. We eat cows and pigs. What’s the difference, they say. One’s on the land, another is bigger and swims in the sea.”

Alejandro’s cell phone rang. He retrieved it and saw that the name on the phone said “Sandy W.”

“Bueno. Hola, Sandy. ¿Qué pasa?”

Sandy Wainwright, marine biologist, was the other principal researcher on the humpback study. She had been on the project for nearly a year. Alejandro liked working with this dedicated and brilliant field biologist.

“Alejandro,” Sandy said, through a connection that crackled with static. “We have a problem. We located Number D-7. Valentine. Washed up on Isla Ratón. Dead.”

“You’re sure it’s Valentine?” Alejandro said, his chest feeling like it was encased in a vise.

“It’s Valentine,” Sandy said, her voice tight. “We matched her flukes.”

“Was the transmitter still working?”

“No. Transmitter’s gone,” Sandy said. “Some local fishermen found her earlier today and called it in to us.”

“Any idea about the cause of death?”

Sandy’s voice caught. “Someone shot her, Alex. There’s a harpoon shaft in her back.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

Sandy Wainright was having a hard time keeping it together. She looked at the broken shaft sticking out of the back of the young humpback whale and felt the bile rising in her throat. She choked back tears and stepped away from the dead whale, leaving the two Mexican fishermen and her research assistant Paulita Jiménez staring after her.

The whale had already begun to decompose. The sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh left to bake in the semi-tropical sun made her want to retch. Bloated and laying on its left side, the abdominal contents were spread across the rocks like yards of gray rope. Bite marks on the underside and near the head indicated that night predators had been coming here to feed for several days. Nearby on the rocky embankment, half a dozen black vultures watched warily as the newcomers walked around the kill.

Normally, Sandy would have been somewhat philosophical about this. After all, we are all recyclable, she would tell her marine biology students. But this was different. As far as she was concerned, this whale was murdered. Brutally shot with an exploding harpoon and left to die a horrible death.

Sandy moved toward the whale’s diminutive dorsal fin. She crouched down on one knee and felt along the opposite side until she found what she was looking for. She twisted her fingers and produced a portion of the sensor that had been attached to Number Seven’s dorsal fin thirteen months ago. She wiped the tears from her eyes on the long sleeve of her cotton shirt.

She stood. She was nearly five-foot ten with long brown hair, which she kept tied in a ponytail or stuffed up underneath a faded Seattle Mariners cap. Her long legs were muscular and tanned from doing strenuous fieldwork in the sun. She looked over at Paulita.

“Paula, can you get some photos of the flukes? We’ll need those for the record.”

Paulita sniffed and nodded. She spoke in Spanish to the two fishermen who helped her lift the nine-foot flukes. The fishermen strained under the enormous weight. She produced a digital SLR camera from her backpack and shot several pictures, first of the ventral side, then of the dorsal aspect of the flukes. Humpback whale flukes could be used to identify individual whales throughout their lives from the patterns of white and black coloration and the scarring, nicks and scratches on their underside.

After taking some final measurements of the deceased whale, Sandy and Paulita climbed into their sixteen-foot Zodiac. The inflatable had a rigid hull and a center console and was powered by a 150 horsepower four stroke Honda motor. The seats folded out for sleeping when the two researchers had to be out for several days.

After thanking the fishermen, Sandy and Paulita pushed the boat out and fired up the motor. They began heading southward down the coast while the two Mexican fishermen turned their panga toward the north to their fishing camp.

Neither woman spoke much for most of the trip back to their base camp at Isla Santa Cruz. The campsite served as a good field station. From here, it was easier to catch up to the three groups of humpbacks who plied these waters during the winter season.

They arrived in camp just as the sun was sinking in the west behind the mountains in a wash of peach and red colors. Sandy hardly noticed the sunset. They cleaned equipment and set about making dinner. Finally she spoke.

“Who would do such a thing?” Her words, as they left her lips, carried such an immense sadness and rage that Paulita thought her face would crack.

“When I asked the pangueros,” Paulita said, taking the small cook pot from the Coleman burner, “they said they didn’t know of anyone whaling in these waters.”

“Did you believe them?” Sandy asked.

“I don’t know,” Paulita said. “One of them got nervous when I started asking questions. He kept looking to the other one. I think they know something, but don’t want to talk about it.”

“Alejandro won’t let this rest,” Sandy said, her voice taking on a hard edge. “I won’t let this rest.”

“Be careful, hermana. I saw something else in their eyes. It was only a brief flash, like a sudden change in a wave.”

Sandy looked directly at Paulita. “What? What did you see, Paula?”

“Fear,” said Paulita, meeting Sandy’s gaze. “They were afraid.”

“What would scare a panguero out here?” Sandy asked. “Those guys need to have nerves of steel.”

“Whatever it is that’s out there, they’re scared,” said Paulita. “Scared enough to lie about it.”

“I’m going to call Alejandro in the morning. See if we can arrange to have that whale towed back to the Institute in La Paz and have a necropsy performed,” Sandy said.

 

CHAPTER THREE

Emily Rosen’s desk could best be described as something between a post -apocalyptic smorgasbord and the bottom of the recycling bin at the end of the month in Washington D.C. Two-day old pizza crusts that looked like they were about to take on a life of their own were intermingled with just about every color and size scrap of paper strewn across the desktop.

The desk was merely a reflection of its owner. Emily Rosen was a petite, dark- haired reporter at the New York Times. She wasn’t into health food or into women’s high fashion. She was all about the story.

She covered the political scene in New York City, and had been at her present post for five years. As a native New Yorker, she loved nothing better than tunneling into the dark underbelly of the politics of the Big Apple. This had earned her the respect of many readers who followed her weekly column, and the ire of many local government officials, who discovered that she had somehow managed to uncover some of their unsavory dealings in their attempts to rise to the top.

Many of the rich and powerful had her on a watch list. Most in City Hall just thought of her as a major pain in the ass.

She strode into the Department on the third floor of the Times, dressed in her usual attire: baggy cargo pants tucked into black combat boots, a black silk shirt under a black frock coat, reminiscent of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Her ensemble was topped off with a black beret that was pulled down low over her forehead. The thirty- year old reporter wore black-rimmed glasses and almost no makeup.

A group of her colleagues stood at one of the overhead television monitors located on one of the office walls. At her desk, Rosen shuffled through several paper scraps, muttering to herself. Finally she located the one she was looking for, held it up and said, “Ha!”

One of the reporters at the television looked up and saw her.

“Hey, Rosen,” he said. “Seen the news lately?”

Emily was examining the dried pizza crust. She set it back on the desk and shrugged. Then she went back to sorting through the disaster on her desk. Finally,  she walked over to the group of reporters.

“Hey guys, what’s up?”

One of the reporters, a paunchy redhead named Jarvis, looked over at Rosen and made a face. “Jesus, Rosen. Nice outfit. When are we going to get a look at your legs?”

Rosen peered over the top of her glasses at Jarvis. “Jarvis, have you had a vasectomy?”

Jarvis looked at her dully. “No. Why?”

“You should really consider it. The planet’s gene pool would thank you for it.”

Several reporters sniggered. Jarvis’ face went crimson.

“Dyke,” Jarvis said.

“Whatever,” said Emily.

“Look!” said one of the other reporters, a tall blonde woman in black slacks and white shirt. “It’s Rosen.”

The scene on the television was near the City Courthouse. Several large and not too friendly-looking bodyguards were escorting a man dressed in a business suit down the steps. Several reporters were crowding around with microphones. Suddenly, Emily Rosen was standing in front of the man in the suit.

“Senator Donado, can you tell me about your association with Salvatore Mischetta? What about the purported mob ties and the laundering scheme linked to those emails?”

“No comment. I am a respected state senator. I am not, and have never been tied to any crime syndicate. Get her out of my face!” the senator snarled.

A bodyguard took one of his bear-sized hands and covered Rosen’s face with it, then pushed her aside like some bothersome insect. She went down in a heap on the steps.

The next portion of audio was bleeped out, due to some very colorful vernacular coming from Rosen.

“Do you eat with that mouth?” Jarvis asked, a sneer forming on his lips.

A man appeared at the entrance to one of the offices on the other side of the newsroom. “Rosen! My office. Now!”

The banter stopped among the group gathered at the television. All eyes turned toward Emily Rosen. Most of them weren’t sympathetic. Emily shrugged, grabbed her satchel from her desk and strode toward the editor-in-chief’s office.

Charles Dickerson stood leaning over his desk, veins popping in his neck and forearms, glaring at her.

“Close the door,” Dickerson said. He was a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and wire-rimmed glasses. The thing Rosen always noticed about him was that his face took on a nearly crimson color whenever she was around him. His jacket was off, his shirtsleeves were rolled up, and he looked like he had just bitten down on something vile.

Emily closed the door behind her – not that the door would prevent Dickerson’s rage from being heard outside.

“What the fuck was that all about?” Dickerson gestured toward the television screen on the wall of his office. “I told you to back off from Donado!”

“Sir, you don’t know how close I am to busting his balls,” Rosen said. “He’s running scared right now with those emails.”

“You’re busting my balls, Rosen. You can’t confront a state senator until you have all the facts. The emails are purely conjecture.”

“Sir, they are not conjecture. My source –.”

“What source? Who is this source?”

Emily bit her lip, looked off into some unknown distance, then returned her gaze to Dickerson. “I can’t say, sir.”

“You can’t go around harassing a public figure,” Dickerson said. “Maybe at the Enquirer, but not here.”

“Dammit, Charlie. You know he’s dirty as well as I do. All we have to do is line up the dots.”

“That’s for the Attorney General to figure out, not you,” Dickerson said. “You report the news once it’s broken. That’s your job, Rosen.”

Dickerson sighed deeply then stared at Emily. “You’re too close to this story. I’m pulling you.”

“What? I’m close to breaking this one wide open!”

“You’re off the story. Jarvis can pick it up from here.”

“Jarvis is a douche bag – uh, sir.”

“You’re off and that’s final. You’re lucky I don’t pink slip you right now. I’m reassigning you. To Baja, Mexico.”

“Mexico? What for?”

“We need a feature article for the Sunday travel section on the effects of cartel activity on tourism. We want a slant that implies it’s actually safe to travel in Mexico again.”

“This is bullshit, Charlie. I’m not a travel writer.”

“You don’t have to take the assignment, Rosen. You can walk right out that door and we’ll get you an escort out of the building if you don’t want to do your job.”

She stared at Dickerson. He met her gaze with a stony countenance. The chief editor reached into his desk drawer, retrieved two travel vouchers, and slid them across his desk. “You leave tomorrow.”

Emily looked at the door for a long moment, then stepped forward and took the vouchers. She turned to leave.

“And clean up your desk,” Dickerson said after her. “Before the health department closes us down.”

She went back to her desk, swept the sticky notes into her satchel and tossed the old pizza crusts into the trash. Marilyn, the blonde reporter in black slacks, came over.

“What happened?” she asked Emily in a hushed tone.

“They got to Dickerson,” Rosen said, tossing more trash into the receptacle.

“Who? Who got to Dickerson?”

“The senator’s people. He knows I’m close. Now they’re assigning Jarvis. He couldn’t find his pecker in a lit room.”

Emily slung the paper-laden satchel over her shoulder. “I’ve been reassigned.”

“Where to now?” asked Marilyn.

“Mexico,” replied Rosen coldly.

“Hey, I wouldn’t mind an assignment in Mexico,” Marilyn said, brightening up.

Emily Rosen stared at her, shook her head, and walked toward the elevator.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Jake Spinner was sleeping off a mescal drunk. He was curled in a fetal position exactly in the same spot where he had passed out the night before – on the sandy floor in the storage shack of El Pulpo Morado, a seaside cantina in the sleepy little fishing village of San Jacinto. If Jake had been conscious, he would have been able to hear the gentle lapping of waves against the golden shore, but he was tangled in a net hammock, which he had pulled from the posts when he got cold during the night.

A middle-aged Mexican woman carrying a bag of groceries from the village mercado stepped into the closet and stared down at the human wreckage. She shook her head scornfully.

Ay, pendejo,” she muttered under her breath.

She thought the man passed out on the ground might have been handsome at one time. He was tall and rugged looking.  He had once been very fit, but had gone to seed now. He was dressed in a pair of cotton shorts with a worn print Hawaiian shirt that hadn’t been changed in days.

She stared at the scar that crossed his left cheek. It was thin and white, highlighted by a deep tan and several weeks of beard growth. His unruly dark hair was tinged with gray and dusted with specks of sand.

The woman leaned in to shake him awake, then recoiled at the smell.

“¡Cochino!” she said disgustedly. She nudged him with her foot. “Señor Jake, wake up!”

At first, the inert form did not move. She nudged him harder. For her efforts, she was rewarded with a loud and explosive snort.

“Wake up, you crazy gringo!” the woman snapped. Spinner rolled away from her.

The next nudge with her foot sent the wind rushing from Jake’s lungs. She stepped back quickly as the American rolled and sat up, surprisingly fast for his size and level of inebriation. Wrapped in the hammock, he resembled a hairless, prostrate sea lion that had been trapped in a ghost net.

Spinner looked at the woman, his eyes red and unfocused. “What?” He squinted at her, and then tried to open his eyes. “Aw, shit,” he said.

“You owe me 120 pesos, borracho,” the woman said, holding out her free hand. “For the groceries. And another 100 for straightening up your place.”

“Juanita, it’s too goddamn early for you to be yammering at me about dinero,” Jake said, his voice harsh and gravelly after a long round of alcohol and cigarettes.

“It’s almost twelve o’clock,” Juanita said heatedly. “And that is twelve o’clock in the daytime.”

Spinner peered at her. “No way. What day?”

“Tuesday,” Juanita said.

“Are you sure?” Jake scratched his beard and then scratched his balls. “Last time I checked it was Friday.”

Juanita made an exasperated sound. “Pendejo.” She held out her hand. “Dinero! Ahora!” she demanded.

Jake fished into the pocket of his shorts for his wallet, not an easy task considering that he was still wrapped in the hammock. When he finally did produce the wallet, Juanita snatched it from his hand and fished out several colorful bills. She tucked the bills inside her blouse and tossed the wallet at Spinner, then turned to leave. At the door, she looked back scornfully.

“You are lucky that you bring many fish back to the village. Otherwise, I think the people would have drowned you at sea a long time ago.”

Juanita turned and disappeared into the brilliant light. For a brief and unbalanced moment, Jake thought she appeared angelic in her departure. That visage quickly faded as a searing pain arced across his forehead and back to the rear of his skull, replacing the brief ethereal image.

After a series of contortions that made all of his joints pop and creak painfully, he freed himself from the entangling hammock and emerged from the supply closet into the main room of El Pulpo. The cantina was virtually empty, except for Maximiliano, the young bartender, and a sunburned Italian couple sitting at a table over near one of the large open windows. A cool breeze was blowing in off the Sea of Cortez, carrying with it the sweet smell of ocean.

The young Italian couple, upon seeing the apparition that emerged from the liquor closet, stared for a moment, slack-jawed. When Jake nodded at them, they quickly turned away. He stumbled up to the bar, barely able to maintain an upright position.

The bartender, a lanky twenty-one year old with long hair tied back and earrings, looked at Jake, but did not approach him.

“Max, mi amigo,” Jake said. “How about a bit of the hair of the dog that bit me?” He reached for his wallet and frowned when he realized that Juanita had taken the last of his cash.

“Son of a bitch,” Jake said. He forced a smile. “Hey, how ‘bout it, Max? I pick up my check from the government a week from Thursday.”

Max shook his head slowly. “Sorry, Señor Jake,” the bartender said. “El Jefe says no more credit for you.”

“I can have some fresh yellowtail for the kitchen tomorrow.”

El Jefe says no more fish for tequila.”

“Ungrateful bastard,” Jake snarled.

 

Later that afternoon, Jake sat in the shade of a small cantina facing the village square. Today was market day and many of the villagers were crowded into the square, sitting at canopied booths, selling everything from colorful cloth to cheap jewelry to chocolate covered grasshoppers. He was nursing a hangover with a Bloody Mary.

He had moved down here seven years ago for the fishing after his marriage had nosedived and his ex had taken just about everything except for his check from the VA. Maybe it was the PTSD. Maybe Jake hadn’t gotten enough love from his mother and father when he was a kid. Maybe he was simply a world-class asshole. She had said she couldn’t live with him anymore and moved out.

His pension wasn’t much, but enough to keep him in a boat for fishing, a cheap place to live and enough left over for food and drink. These days, more was dedicated to the latter.

Jake spied a familiar figure across the square stepping into a booth where a young, slick-looking man was hawking knock-off jewelry and gangsta-type bling. Jake had known Macario since he was about thirteen. He had become friends with Gustavo, Macario’s father, after he had hired them as fishing guides. They were from the Cochimí tribe, and their village was a couple hours north of San Jacinto. The native people of this part of Baja had a longstanding reputation as seafarers, and Gustavo Silvano knew these waters like no one else.

There had been years of tension between the Mexican government and the Cochimís. Treated like second-class citizens, most of the villagers lived in poverty. Since fishing had been restricted due to the falling fish stocks, their ability to earn a living had been curtailed even more.

Jake stood, finished the last of his Bloody Mary and ambled across the square to the booth where Macario was looking at the trays on the tables. As he stepped into the booth, he saw Macario pull a wad of pesos from his front pocket and peel off several to pay for a gaudy looking necklace, the type that gang bangers would wear in East L.A.

Jake sidled up next to him. “Fishing must be real good these days,” Jake said in Spanish, as he picked up an ornate silver bracelet and examined it.

Macario spun quickly, stuffing the money back into his pants pocket. “Oh, Señor Jake. How are you doing?”

“Apparently, not as well as you, kid.” Jake said, not looking directly at him.

“Papá and I had a couple of good weeks. Americans came up from La Paz and wanted to go out. They paid us well.”

“What were you fishing for?”

“Mahi-mahi mostly. Twice we got into schools of crevalle jacks.”

“Hmm,” Jake mused. “Whereabouts did you go?”

Macario fidgeted. “Near Isla Tortuga. Did some deep water trolling up north.”

Jake looked at Macario, who met his gaze and then looked away suddenly. His tribe did not make regular eye contact. In their culture it was considered rude. But Macario’s quickly averted gaze spoke volumes. The kid was lying through his teeth.

“How’s your dad these days?” Jake said, with a brief hint of a smile.

“He’s good,” said Macario. “Busy with the charters.”

“You tell him I said hello,” said Jake. “Tell him it’s time for the three of us to go fishing again.”

Jake’s mind flashed briefly on the wad of cash in Macario’s pocket. It was going to be a long dry week until that government check came in, but he dismissed the idea of asking Macario for a loan until next week. His pride prevented him from borrowing from his friend’s son. But there was something else. Wherever he got this money, one thing was for certain. Macario didn’t come by this much cash from taking gringo fishing-tourists for a joyride in the Gulf.

Jake touched Macario’s shoulder, making the young indio meet his gaze. “You’re not getting into selling drugs, are you, son?” Jake said. “That’s some mean shit and you’ll end up headless hanging from a streetlamp.”

Macario pulled back. “No Señor Jake. I swear! No drugs. It’s from fishing!”

Jake relaxed his grip, then half smiled. “Okay, kid. No worries. Just wanted to make sure you’re safe.”

Macario looked very uncomfortable, his eyes darting around the booth. “No problem,” he said. “Look, I gotta go. Mis compadres are waiting for me.”

“Tell your dad to call me,” Jake said, making the universal sign for a telephone with his hand and placing it to his ear.

“I will,” said Macario. “See you, Jake.”

The young man turned on his heel and left the booth quickly.

Jake watched him disappear into the crowd of villagers milling around the square.

“You gonna buy that bracelet, hombre?” said the kid standing behind the tables.

Jake tossed the bracelet back and the kid nearly dropped it. “I already have one just like it,” he said.

As he walked toward his bungalow, Jake felt something he had not felt for a long time. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up and his gut had tightened. Somewhere nearby, the shit was about to hit the fan.

 

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