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Sounds Of Silence
By Elizabeth White
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Elizabeth White
All right reserved.
Eli Carmichael was doing the Chicken Dance in a Mexican orphanage when God got his attention.
Encircled by children, he spun around with little Dulce Garcia clinging to his back. Despite two noisy floor fans, sweat was dripping off his nose and his T-shirt stuck to his chest. It was about 10:00 a.m. on this Cinco de Mayo morning, and impressive drafts of sunshine poured through the open windows onto the concrete floor. Had to be around a hundred and twelve degrees in here.
Even courting heat exhaustion, Eli knew what he'd seen: a mop of long black hair and two big dark eyes peeking around the doorway of the half wall between the dining hall and the chapel. As an experienced Border Patrol agent, he was used to noticing details. Furtive movements. Odd sounds and smells.
Eli blinked when he came around again. The little girl had disappeared.
The children dissolved in giggles as Dulce pointed over Eli's shoulder at his younger brother Owen, who was in the kitchen flirting with the pretty young house-mother, Bernadette Malone, better known as Benny.
"O-wen! O-wen! O-wen!" the children chanted, clapping and stomping in unison. Eli grinned, set Dulce down and headed toward the kitchen.
"You've got to be kidding." But Owen good-naturedly allowed himself to be dragged into the game. As the children held hands and skipped, Eli watched his brother execute a barely recognizable Macarena.
"Who's that little girl hiding back in the chapel?" Reaching around Benny, who was drying dishes in front of the sink, he snagged a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.
"What little girl?"
"About this high." Eli measured at his waist. "Long black hair and big brown eyes."
Benny gave him an amused look. "You just described every girl in the room."
"I didn't get a good look at her. She ducked when she caught me looking at her."
Benny turned to count the children. "Ten," she finished aloud. "They're all right there, Eli."
"I guess I was mistaken." But he knew he wasn't. Something fearful in those eyes made him ease back into the dining hall.
Skirting his brother and the circle of children, Eli slipped down the side of the Quonsetlike building. He ducked below the chest-high partition, beyond which rows of old-fashioned wooden theater seats faced a homemade lectern.
There was not much to steal here at Los Niños de Cristos Orphanage, but Eli didn't like the fact that Benny and the children were vulnerable to intruders. Like many areas along the border, the crowded colony around the orphanage lacked sanitation, clean water and law enforcement. It was full of unsupervised children whose parents worked in the American-owned factories on the outskirts of the city. Teenaged boys ran in packs, stealing anything that wasn't tied down.
The children's singing and the roar of the fans covered any noise his sneakers might have made as he approached. At the doorway of the partition, Eli quickly stepped around the wall.
She cowered under the folding table against the wall, both hands covering her face, knees drawn up under her chin. Honey-colored forearms were mottled with bruises, one knee gashed open. Dried blood ran down that leg into a blue flowered tennis shoe. The other foot was bare, the toes scraped and the sole black with dirt.
He'd seen it a hundred times and never got used to it. Eli shut his eyes to get himself together before he acted.
Lord, give me Your strength and wisdom. This little one's Yours. Help me not to scare her.
He got down on one knee. Except for a rhythmic shuddering, she didn't move. He waited, taking in more details. She wore a pair of baggy purple gym shorts with a pink halter top. A string of multicolored plastic beads encircled one skinny wrist. Her fingers were delicate, perfectly formed. She was small, about the size of Eli's five-year-old neighbor, Danilo Valenzuela.
The boy's mother, Isabel, would melt if she saw this one.
After a moment of watching the little girl, his heart splintering into painful shards, Eli reached out a cautious hand. Ready to grab her when she bolted, he touched her bare foot.
As expected, the hands came down, but the expression on that flowerlike face struck him like a fist in the stomach. The eyes were fearless, narrowed in challenge, leaving Eli measured and found wanting. The tender mouth squared to reveal a set of clenched white baby teeth, missing the two upper front ones.
Which told him she was around seven years old. He had no idea what he expected her to do, but it certainly wasn't to reach behind her and flick open a pearl-handled switchblade knife.
Eli froze. "Hey, sweetie, I'm Eli," he said hoarsely in Spanish. "I'm not gonna hurt you. What's your name?"
She continued to stare at him with fierce concentration, right in the eyes.
He smiled and dropped his gaze to the knife. There was dried blood on it. "Where'd you get that, baby? You need to give it to me before you cut yourself."
Her knuckles whitened. He could hear her breath hissing between her teeth.
"Is that how you hurt your knee?" He turned his hand palm-up. "Come on..."
The knife shook in her fist. Eli looked up to find dark eyes, the color of sunflower centers, focused on his mouth. Her lips began to tremble.
"Thank You, Jesus," Eli whispered when he felt the heavy coolness of the knife handle in his palm. "What's your name?" he asked again.
She shrugged and knuckled her eyes.
Helpless, he looked around. If he went to get Benny, his little housebreaker might vanish. Absently he closed the knife and stuck it in the pocket of his jeans. He was on his own.
"We're playing a game over there." He tipped his head in the direction of the children's laughter. "Wanna play?"
Big Eyes shook her head. But she leaned toward Eli. "Okay, then we'll just watch." He extended his hand again, curling the fingers upward. "Come on."
There was a long pause. To Eli's relief, she laid her dirty little hand in his and let him help her out from under the table. She craned her neck looking up at him, and he smiled, but her expression remained serious.
Isabel Valenzuela knew trouble when she saw it coming.
It had knocked on her door with alarming regularity since the day her son made his noisy entrance into the world. Five trips to the Del Rio Hospital ER and a standing appointment with the kindergarten teacher at Bethany Christian school had left her with no illusions about her parenting skills.
And when Eli Carmichael walked around the side of her house in full Border Patrol uniform at ten o'clock on a Monday morning, she knew she was in for it.
Mean Green. Big Trouble. "Hey, Isabel, where's Danilo?" Eli braced both hands on the endpost of the clothesline as if he had all day.
"He's in school." She continued to peg tiny spider-web-design briefs on the line. "What's he done now?"
Eli gave her one of his slow grins, and Isabel suddenly wished she'd done more than twist her hair into a knot and stick a pencil in it this morning. Which was ridiculous. This was just Eli.
"He hasn't done anything," Eli said. "That I know of. I just need you to come with me to the station." When Isabel's eyes widened, he added hastily, "I need a favor. Nothing to do with Danilo."
She frowned. As one of her late husband's colleagues, Eli had for over a year taken it upon himself to help her and Danilo whenever they needed a man's hand. He lived in an apartment down the street, and he was single, unattached and apparently lonely. So she'd humored him, letting him mow her grass and take Danilo fishing. Occasionally she baked him a plate of brownies in return.
That was it. Had he suddenly decided to change the game plan?
"Come with you to the station," she repeated, stalling. "I'm pretty busy." She kicked a bare foot at the wicker basket full of clothes.
"I'll help." Before Isabel could protest, he'd grabbed a couple of clothespins out of the cloth bag hanging on the line and reached into the basket.
Isabel worked beside Eli in silence for a full minute before she couldn't stand it any longer. "So what do you need me at the station for?" She hadn't been there since a week after Rico died, when she'd gone to pick up the stuff from his desk and locker.
Eli stopped whistling and looked at her over the top of a pale blue sheet. It was just about the color of his eyes. "I'm gonna let you take a look for yourself." He leaned in to sniff the sheet. "This smell reminds me of my grandma's house. She always let me hang clothes with her."
"Bleach," Isabel said. "I wondered why a single man would be so good at this."
"See, you never know about people," he said obscurely. "You had any bites on the house lately?"
He was talking about the For Sale sign in her front yard. Isabel beamed at him. "The agent called this morning. She's bringing a couple by this afternoon. Sounds promising."
Eli pursed his lips. "Oh."
"I really need to sell," Isabel reminded him. "I want to get settled in San Antonio before Danilo starts first grade. Wouldn't be good to move him in the middle of the school year."
"Yeah, I know." He still didn't sound particularly happy. "Maybe you should consider staying here."
"Eli, we've been over this. My parents are dying to have us back in San'tone. Danilo's their only grandson.
Besides —" she pinned a washcloth with vicious energy " — the memories in this house are getting to me. Everywhere I look I see..." She hid behind the sheet, embarrassed to inflict such personal angst on a guy who was, after all, just a neighbor. It had been a year and a half since Rico died. Time to move on.
Excerpted from Sounds Of Silence by Elizabeth White Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth White. Excerpted by permission.
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