Allana Martin's sixth color-filled mystery, set in a remote spot on the Mexican-American border, opens with an unexpected and terrible blow for trading-post owner Texana Jones. Her husband, Clay, a popular veterinarian with patients on both sides of the (almost dry) Rio Grande, has been arrested for the murder of the river master, the official in charge of allocating the region's scan water supply under the terms of the binational agreement. Now Clay is in jail awaiting trial in a Mexican court.
Having lived all her life on the fringe of Mexico, Texana is anything but naive about their harsh legal system - where there is no such thing as bail, habeas corpus, probation, or early release. The fate of the accused is not in the hands of a jury, but the hands of a single judge, a judge who may be fair, or who may have self-interests that will sway the verdict. And, unfortunately, the latter is more likely.
Determined to find incontrovertible evidence of Clay's innocence that even the most venial judge would not dare to overlook, she delves into the river master's background - at no small risk. Whoever is behind all this is determined to hold on to the spoils of the effort. Texana must use all her senses, her ingenuity, and her courage to free her blameless husband from the coils of the Mexican judicial snare and the enemy behind it.
Martin's firm hold on the unusual lives of the people who live - and try to make a living against many odds - in the small area where these stories are set pulls readers into a world they never knew. The strength and reality of Texana Jones's extraordinary common sense and human understanding convince her readers that she's their friend, one whose adventures they share.
About the Author
Allana Martin lives in Marfa, Texas, with her husband. Her first novel, Death of a Healing Woman, won the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award. She is a former journalism teacher.
Read an Excerpt
Death of the River Master
By Allana Martin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Allana Martin
All rights reserved.
Friday, April 12
If you don't hurry, Texana," my husband called from the other room, the bridge will be closed by the time we get there."
I held the neck of the red knit top wide and pulled it over my head, stepped into the matching skirt, and zipped up.
"It's only five-forty," I said, running a brush through my gray-streaked black hair.
"And we have a ninety-minute drive in front of us," Clay said, coming into the bedroom, jingling the pickup keys in his hand.
Tall and slim, he wore a neutral linen jacket over a pale blue open-necked shirt and brown slacks. He'd polished his best pair of calfskin boots until they gleamed. His close-cropped white hair emphasizes his tan skin and green eyes.
"You look handsome," I told him.
It isn't often that we get to dress up. We practically live in work shirts and jeans. I own Texana's Trading Post, where we also live, near the end of Ranch Road 170, which runs forty-eight miles from Presidio, Texas, on the Rio Grande, northwest to Polvo, a tiny community two miles beyond my place. Forty feet behind the trading post is Clay's veterinary clinic, serving all of Presidio County, since he's the only veterinarian in the county's nearly four thousand square miles of huge ranches. Everything here is miles from nowhere.
I grabbed my jacket from the bed and slipped it on. Summer's heat had arrived in March, but the desert nights remain cold well into May. As we walked through the great room of our private quarters in the rear of the trading post, Jefe barked, thinking she was going outside with us. Jefe is a long-haired, cinnamon-colored Chihuahua we inherited from a neighbor now serving time at a federal penitentiary near Dallas for drug smuggling.
Our other and older pet is Phobe. The bobcat had been barely grown when we got her from a family with four small boys. She'd been named inadvertently by the young mother, who'd remarked to her husband, within the hearing of the boys, "Get rid of it. I'm phobic about having a wild animal in the house." Her youngest son had picked up on only a part of one word, hugging the baby bobcat and saying, "Phobe, Phobe, kitty is Phobe."
Now the full-grown, twenty-pound bobcat stared up at us, her great round eyes scornful because we were going out. Phobe thinks it's her right to participate in all our activities. I stooped to stroke her head, but that didn't lessen her resentment at what she considered our desertion as we left.
Clay drove my '99 white Ford supercab rather than put more miles on his dented green Chevrolet pickup, which gets rough use serving the big outlying ranches that make up eighty percent of his veterinary practice. We were going to Ojinaga for dinner with our friends Mario and Olivia Berrera.
The early evening sunlight diffused the ever-present dust into a golden haze, softening the brown-and-dun landscape. The Chihuahuan desert has two seasons, winter and summer. Spring's only herald is the south wind that hurls itself against the sierras, bringing with it the summer's heat.
Our end of the river road is a landscape of rock scree and thorny plants, offset by the narrow greenbelt of mesquites and swaying salt cedars on the brushy riverside.
This landscape changes at Presidio, which sits at the junction of Mexico's Rio Conchos and the boundary we share, the Rio Grande. The surrounding river plains had been farmland since before the Spaniards arrived in 1534. They still would be, except for the prolonged drought. The Rio Grande, shared by Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Mexico, is drained by heavy agricultural, municipal, and industrial use. It arrives at El Paso already diminished. The malquiladora industry of Juarez and El Paso's thirst uses up the rest. Not for nothing is our section of the river — from El Paso to Presidio — known as "The Forgotten River." No river at all would be more accurate.
Presidio hugs the wide bed of the once great river, a cluster of one-story buildings. It has more streets unpaved than paved, a few brick homes, many more built of cement block, and a population of five thousand. Most of the businesses sit along O'Reilly Street, which is dominated by Santa Teresa Church. The fenced Border Patrol compound and the school system provide most of the jobs.
We followed the pavement to the port-of-entry bridge, the only legal crossing for four hundred and fifty miles, though there are plenty of illegal ones. With the river now only a memory, any point is a crossing.
Like Presidio, Ojinaga is low-built and colored by alkali dust blowing in from the desert. The town of forty thousand sprawls over a low hill and runs out into the desert. Ojinaga's physicians were once experts in gunshot wounds. They regularly treated victims of the territorial wars among rival narcotraficantes who drove the streets with their gunmen waving semiautomatic weapons. The drug trade still flourishes, but the men behind it have learned to go more quietly. Random gunfire still happens, but more often it is the bribe, not the bullet, that persuades. It helps that the drug cartels have much of the army, the federales, and the judiciales on their payroll. This is the reality of life in la frontera.
Ojinaga and Presidio are separated by a bridge, but united by a culture. Border Spanish is our language; citizens on both sides of the river likely have aunts and uncles, cousins, or sweethearts on the other; both towns celebrate the Fourth of July and Mexico's independence day, the Sixteenth of September. Many families in Ojinaga, using the addresses of relatives, send their children to school in Presidio. Most people shop for groceries, clothes, furniture, and appliances in Presidio and visit the doctor, dentist, and druggist in Ojinaga. Strangers to the borderland often ask who we are. "Fronterizos," we answer. We live in a world apart, where everyone treats everyone else as an equal and the mode of life is set by the heat of the desert and the crosscurrents of the politics of two countries.
Clay drove slowly down Avenida Libre Commercio toward the far side of town. The streets were busy, people gossiping in doorways, teenage girls congregating like bright parrots, boys standing in bunches, doing more staring than talking. The preventivos, traffic cops, were on the busiest street corners to yell down stop-sign and red-light violators. Uniformed and equipped at their own expense, few had cars, though I noticed two bicycles parked at the curb.
Our destination was Cuchara's Restaurante, famed for its seafood, which is driven in weekly from Tampico by an auto hauler who owns the wrecking yard that takes up most of the block around the corner and across the street from the restaurant. He hauls out stolen cars and trucks, returning with the seafood, which he keeps in a freezer compartment fitted into the back of his rig's cab.
Like all Chuchara's regulars, we bypassed the parking lot for street parking. The lot is paved with chopped strips of asphalt roofing, which not only softens in the heat of the day and sticks to your shoes, but also contains some of the original roofing nails. The man who lives across the street makes a living repairing the punctured tires of new customers. We found a parking space around the corner near the end of the block and walked back. All along the street Texas license plates outnumbered the orange-and-black Chihuahua State plates.
"I hope we can get a table," Clay said, as he pushed open the bright purple door of the restaurant.CHAPTER 2
Beyond the purple door, the interior of Cuchara's is equally colorful. The long narrow room has twenty-foot ceilings painted midnight-blue with golden stars. Ceramic cherubs in mock gold leaf hang in the corners. The walls are covered in murals depicting Ojinaga's history, from the arrival of Cabeza de Vaca to the invasion by Pancho Villa's revolutionary forces on Christmas Day in 1913, which sent much of the population fleeing across the river to Presidio, thus beginning the cross-border family ties of the two communities.
The restaurant was crowded. Our friends the Berreras beckoned to us from a table near the center of the room. Mario, a gray-bearded man with the beginning of a paunch, stood to greet us, kissing my cheek and giving Clay a two-armed hug with much back-patting.
Mario has been our dentist for fifteen years. His wife Olivia owns the bakery on the plaza. Our relationship with them shifted into friendship after Clay saved the life of their chow dog. Emperor Ching's kidneys were slowly failing and Clay arranged for a transplant. Unable to bring the dog into the country legally in time to save him, Clay and my friend Pete Rosales carried the sick animal across the river on the footbridge Pete had built so that he could walk across, even when the river flowed. I met them on the other side and we drove from there to a private landing strip, where a local rancher flew Clay and Ching in his private jet to Davis, California. There, in an operating room at the University of California campus, Ching got a new kidney from a donor dog. Six days later, Clay and a recovering Ching made the return journey.
"We just launched the bottle of tequila," Mario said to us, speaking over the noise of the jukebox that played old 45 rpm records from its place by the kitchen door. Mario poured the golden liquid from the tall bottle into small, double-handled shot glasses and passed them to us. A bowl in the center of the table was filled with fried tortilla strips, glistening with residual grease. I ate one so the tequila wouldn't land on an empty stomach.
We didn't need menus. Cuchara's seafood night has only one specialty, that being the choice of the chef and owner. Mando Jimenez is very loyal to his regular customers and comes out of the kitchen to greet people, sometimes sitting down at a table to gossip. He wears a big smile and an apron that doesn't bear looking at. Mando believes in good conversation as well as good food and encourages lingering over meals.
"I was afraid we were going to be sitting in the dark," Olivia said. "That windstorm last week took down a power line. The electricity came back on this morning."
"Too bad the wind didn't blow in any rain," Clay said.
"Gracias de Dios that I'm not in a business that depends on the weather and the water supply," Olivia said, touching the gold cross at her neck.
"The water situation is dire," Mario said.
"Zanjiv Mehendru understood that," Olivia said. "He was a good friend to Mexico."
Clay shot me a look that said, "Too good a friend," but we stayed away from the touchy subject of whether the late head of the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission had been right to side with Mexico over its refusal to honor its treaty with the United States. Mexico refused to release water from reservoirs in Chihuahua State into the Rio Conchos, which enters the Rio Grande just above Presidio. Mehendru's public comments about Mexico having the greater need had so angered local growers that they'd scathingly referred to him as the River Master, a nickname that had stuck.
"What's the latest on the murder investigation?" Clay asked.
"Six weeks since Mehendru was shot and still no arrest," Olivia said. "You know the policía called in the judiciales," Mario said, pouring another round of drinks. "According to La Voz de Ojinaga, the judiciales have questioned over one hundred people. The authorities are becoming embarrassed. Mehendru wasn't just anyone. Televisa did a Twenty-Four Horas segment on him just a few months ago."
"Have you heard," Olivia said, "that he had a common-law wife living here?"
"Mercedes Solar. The Presidio International mentioned her in the story about the murder," I said. "It seems that she and Mr. Mehendru showed up at the courthouse in Marfa one day last November and signed a declaration of informal marriage."
"I never heard of such a thing," Olivia said.
"Neither had the county clerk. According to the paper, Mehendru had to tell her the page reference in the Texas Family Code. He was right, of course. That's what so many people found irritating about him. He was always right."
"Like with the Marfa golf course," Clay said.
"What about it?" Mario asked, splashing tequila into our glasses once more.
"Last year," Clay said, "when the levels in Marfa's city wells dropped nearly ten feet, the city council passed an ordinance restricting lawn watering. In a couple of weeks, when the wells dropped another two feet, the council banned watering. Then a bunch of kids went up to the municipal golf course one night to do a little beer drinking. They were sitting on a blanket in the middle of the third green when the sprinklers came on and soaked them. Turned out the city was watering the golf course three nights a week. At the next council meeting most of the town showed up to complain. The members told the crowd that the greens were being maintained with treated sewage water, not water from the city wells. Zanjiv Mehendru didn't live in Marfa, but he reads about all this in the newspaper and the very next night he slips onto the golf course, checks out the system, and finds the water is being pumped straight from the wells. The next day, he calls the newspaper. The council had to issue a public apology."
Mario laughed and poured another round of tequila.
"This was a good thing Commissioner Mehendru did," Olivia said, "publishing the truth."
"He was known for it," Clay said, raising his glass.
Conversation stopped as a skinny waiter carrying two large trays arrived at our table.
"Mando's outdone himself," I said, tasting the small red snapper stuffed with crabmeat seasoned with garlic and onions.
As we ate, we touched on other border topics: the manufacturing plant that would be coming to the Presidio Industrial Park, which meant jobs for Ojinaguenses; the Cross-Border Nature Preserve Project, a planned seven-hundred-thousand-acre conservation area being funded by a private company in Chihuahua; the Ojinaga narcotraficante wanted in the United States and kidnapped by the judiciales, who transported him across the river, handcuffed him to a tree, and made an anonymous telephone call to the Presidio County Sheriff's Office giving the location. Popular opinion in Ojinaga held that the state police had been paid by a rival drug smuggler.
Mario signaled the waiter, who came with the tray to remove the empty plates. He was taking our dessert orders when six hard-eyed men in dark uniforms, shiny badges pinned front and center on their baseball-style caps, walked in.
They stopped at the front and stood surveying the room. An old man, whose job it was to sit by the jukebox and make change, reached down and unplugged it. Conversation, service, and eating stopped. The six men wound their way between the close tables like a thick-bodied snake and stopped at our table. One, a big man with eyes so dark the pupils didn't show, placed a hand on Clay's shoulder.
"You have some identification, señor?" he asked.
"Yes," Clay said, reaching for his wallet.
Before he could remove his driver's license, the man grabbed the wallet from his hand, glanced at Clay's driver's license, and grunted. The wallet vanished into his pocket.
"We have an order for your arrest," he said coldly.
"I don't understand," Clay said.
"He doesn't understand. Show him."
Two of the others moved in, yanked Clay to his feet, and handcuffed him. The tables between us and the door emptied as diners scrambled out of the way.
"This is preposterous," Mario said, getting to his feet.
The two policemen spun Clay around and marched him toward the door, kicking chairs aside and toppling tables as they went. I moved to follow them, but Mario held me back.
"There's nothing you can do. They won't let you talk to him," Mario said hopelessly.
"Listen to him," said an anonymous voice from another table.
"We have to try," Olivia said, getting up to come with me as I shook off Mario's hand and headed after my husband.CHAPTER 3
Olivia and I reached the narrow sidewalk in front of the restaurant in time to see the judiciales shove Clay into a Jetta van. He glanced back and saw me.
"Call Lisa Wharton," he shouted over his shoulder.
The judiciales climbed in, slammed the doors, and the van sped away.
"Wharton. Is that your abrogado?" Olivia asked.
"Lisa's not a lawyer. She's a small animal vet in the next county over from us," I said. "Clay's worried about his practice."
"He'd do better to worry about himself," Mario said.
"Do you know any abrogados here?" Olivia said.
I shook my head.
"We'll go see Enrique," Mario said. "Give me a minute to go back inside and pay." He left us. Olivia asked where I was parked.
"Around the corner."
"You can follow us to Enrique's house," she said.
That's when I remembered that Clay had the keys.
I left Olivia to wait for Mario alone, telling her I'd meet them at my pickup. I rounded the corner and crossed the street to the wrecking yard. It was getting dark and the street had no lights, but I could see well enough to make my way through the rows of rusting vehicles to the squat, tin-roofed building at the back with its solitary lighted window.
A few feet from the door, I called out, "Hola, señor."
Excerpted from Death of the River Master by Allana Martin. Copyright © 2003 Allana Martin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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