Jaymie Zarlin searches for a lost cargo more precious than drugs, diamonds, or gold . . .
A panga boat lands on a Santa Barbara beach in the night. Drugs are quickly offloaded, but drugs are not all this boat carried. When Chucha Robledo arrives to collect her baby girl, she finds the boat is emptysave for a tiny silver medallion. Desperate and fearing the worst, she goes to the only person in town she can trust to find her little girl.
P.I. Jaymie Zarlin's brother died while in police custody, and she knows all too well the pain that comes from the unexplained loss of a loved one. She promises to help Chuchaonly to find herself plunged into an underworld of deceit, misery, and perversion.
As Jaymie dives deep into the abyss of human trafficking, the local police department pressures her to drop the case. She soon finds herself alone, tracking the most dangerous of criminals. As she struggles to help Chucha, the case brings her closer to uncovering the truth about her own brother's death. In this riveting mystery about loss and love, Jaymie will be forced to choose: what can be jettisoned and what precious cargo mustat all costsbe saved?
About the Author
Karen Keskinen was born in Salinas, California. She has also lived in Californias San Joaquin Valley and in Wellington, New Zealand. She now resides in Santa Barbara where she is a full-time writer. She is the author of Blood Orange and Black Current.
Read an Excerpt
By Karen Keskinen
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Karen Keskinen
All rights reserved.
The morning was pure and bright, as only a morning in the first weeks of spring can be. I biked to my downtown office, skimming through the streets like a bird. It was a poem of a morning, lilting, full of promise.
I pulled my Schwinn up in front of the bungalow court at 101 West Mission. As I straddled the bike and doubled the band on my ponytail, I studied the sign that read, among other things, SANTABARBARA INVESTIGATION AGENCY. Something large, an owl or a gull, had splattered the board. I was in such a magnanimous mood that I felt honored: mine was the only business on the board that nature had thus anointed.
But as I wheeled my bike into the courtyard, somehow themorning's promise soured. I don't believe in premonitions, so I can't tell you what it was that altered the mood. Maybe it was just too quiet. No tiny frogs chirped in the old concrete fountain my office manager, Gabi Gutierrez, had resurrected. Nothing scuttled in the leaf litter or chattered from the flower bracts of the giant bird of paradise.
I cabled my bike to the wrought iron banister and climbed the three steps. Pulling open the screen door, I let it bang against my back as I shoved the key into the stiff lock of the main door. Inside, all was dark and still.
I left the solid door open to let in the fresh morning air, drew up the blinds and lifted the window sashes. It was still early and Deadbeat, my neighbor's parrot, had yet to take charge of his outdoor perch. The African Grey was indoors, no doubt scheming under a tablecloth.
I walked through to the kitchenette and raised the blind looking out to the concrete block wall at the back. I noticed that the hot pink bougainvillea, which had been attacked last fall by an invasion of bougainvillea loopers, was making a bid for survival. As were we all.
I was about to fill the coffee carafe at the sink when I heard the screen door squeal open, then close.
'Um ... Hello? Anybody here?'
I set down the carafe and turned to peer into the office. The figure of a curvaceous woman filled the doorway. I say filled the doorway because she stood well over six feet tall. I'm no shorty myself, and she towered over me. Her face was in shadow, and the morning sun shone all around her like a white-gold aura.
I'd had my own aura done once. It had proved to be purple and black.
'Hi. Come on in.' I walked back into the office and stretched out a hand. 'Jaymie Zarlin.'
The lady's four-inch heels struck the old oak floor like hammers driving in nails as she stepped forward to greet me.
She extended her own hand, as a countess might. But when I took it into mine, I felt a small shock of recognition. In spite of its limpness, the hand was large and strong. I looked into her face, and at that moment, I knew that she knew that I knew. She tilted up her chin as if to say, so what.
'I'm Jesús María Robledo.' She tried to smile. 'They call me Chucha.' Her low voice was silk-soft.
I found it hard not to stare. Who wouldn't? Chucha was gorgeous, dark and exotic, with fine aquiline features and long black hair. Her nose was arched, and she looked like an Aztec queen. In spite of the cool February air, she wore a white peasant blouse cut low enough to display a good four inches of cleavage. Her black pencil skirt could have been spray painted on.
When I realized I was staring, I looked away. But Chucha was no doubt used to being stared at and didn't seem to care. Besides, it was plain she had something serious on her mind.
'Please sit down.' I indicated the couch, walked over and shut the front door, then took for myself what my office manager called 'the hot seat.'
I watched as Chucha arranged herself on the couch, hiked her blouse up and her skirt down. Then she fixed me with her goldbrown eyes. 'I don't know how to say this. It's so hard. And ...' She swallowed and stopped.
'Lots of clients feel that way in the beginning. Don't worry, you won't be telling me anything I haven't heard before.'
Her eyes welled with tears, but this time she managed a smile. 'I'm not so sure about that.'
I wasn't so sure myself. 'Start anywhere, Chucha. You don't need a beginning.'
She nodded and rubbed a knuckle along her chin. It was a masculine gesture, unconscious. 'Maybe – maybe I'll start with this.'
She unsnapped the clasp on her handbag, reached in and withdrew a ziplock bag. She stared at it for a moment. Then, meeting my gaze, she leaned forward and handed it to me.
I unzipped the bag and withdrew a white cotton handkerchief that had been folded over several times. I pressed the handkerchief with my fingertips: something was wrapped in the cloth. For some reason, now the room seemed very still.
I unfolded the handkerchief: a small silver cross nestled in the fabric. The edges of the cross were filigreed, and in the middle, running down the center of the cross, four letters were etched: MACB.
'You'll have to explain, Chucha. I can see it's a cross made for a child. But what does it mean?'
'I don't have a clue.' When she shook her head, her long black hair fell forward and obscured her face. 'I found it this morning. I found it in ...'
Then Chucha began to cry. She tried to hold it in, but her shoulders shook with long racking sobs.
I got up and went over to sit beside her on the couch. I took her hand, and she drew a ragged breath. The woman was trying to get ahold of herself.
'Sorry,' she muttered.
'Don't be.' I got up, went over to the desk and picked up the Kleenex box. I handed her the box and she pressed a tissue to her eyes.
'I can see it's hard to talk about, Chucha. You've had quite a shock. Take your time.'
'I've had a shock, yes. But not because —' Chucha sat up straight and flicked her hair behind her shoulders with both hands. 'Not because I found that cross. I've never seen it before. It's because I didn't find —' She bit her bottom lip.
I perched on the corner of the desk and waited. I could see Chucha had something she needed to say, something that was almost too disturbing to put into words. But even so, it had to be said.
'Ms Zarlin, I'm telling you this because I know you find missing people. I heard about you, people say you won't go to the police. Is – is that right?'
'Call me Jaymie. And no, I won't tell the cops.' A knot had formed in the pit of my stomach. I told myself to be cool, not to commit. Chucha was reeling me in fast, and so far I had no idea what all this was about.
'All right.' She knitted her long, elegant fingers together. 'What I didn't find was what was supposed to be there, in the boat: my baby, my little girl. Now do you see?'
The knot in my stomach pulled tight. This person had a kid? Chucha was right: this wasn't something I'd encountered before.
'I'm beginning to see. You had an arrangement, right? To pick up your daughter in a boat. Where?'
'On the beach below More Mesa, last night.'
'More Mesa.' I nodded, but kept my expression neutral. 'I understand the police confiscated a panga boat down there this morning.' I'd read that on Edhat. Roger the Scanner Guy had reported it first thing.
Chucha leaned forward, holding my gaze with her own. 'Yes. That was the boat. They phoned me at 3:30 a.m. and said my Rosie was waiting there for me, no problem. Just like I'd paid for.'
'I see.' So this lady did have a daughter. I hoped I was covering my surprise, but she shot me a hard look.
'It happens, OK? I'm human. I get lonely sometimes.'
'Be patient with me, Chucha. I'm trying to understand.'
'Sorry. I know you are. I – I'm going crazy.' Chucha got to her feet and paced down the room. Her long legs covered the distance in three or four strides.
'I have to trust you, I know that. So here is what happened. I went to visit my family in Mexico. And there was a girl, Leticia ... She got pregnant. The baby was mine.' Chucha halted in frontof me.
'I named her Rosamar. Rosie for short. Leticia, she didn't care what I called her. After Rosie was born I would always send money, every two weeks. Then one of my cousins, she called me. She told me Leticia was spending the money on herself and her new asshole boyfriend. Rosie, she was crying all the time. She was too skinny, and she was always dirty, you know? Leticia never gave her a bath.'
'So you decided to bring her here.'
'Of course.' She set a hand on her hip. 'Wouldn't you?'
'Yes. Yes, I would. But maybe I'd go and get her myself.'
'Maybe you would, since you're not a tranny like me.' Chucha sniffed. 'Oh, and no papers either, even though I came here when I was five. I'm not exactly the kind they give visas to. And believe me, border patrol don't look the other way if I try to cross in a car.'
'I'm learning. So, what did you arrange? You had her kidnapped, right?'
'Yes, I had to! Leticia loved getting the money every two weeks, understand? She was mean to Rosie, but no way was she going to let her go.'
'How did you work it?'
'My cousin has a friend who knows somebody, a guy whosmuggles marijuana into California. The guy said he'd grab Rosie and bring her north in his boat. He said it was safe, he'd done the trip to Santa Barbara two times already. He would call me and tell me when I should go to the beach.'
'The beach at More Mesa.'
'Yes, that's the one he wanted to land on. The one under the cliffs, past Hope Ranch. The one with the really steep path down.'
'So, you paid for your daughter to be brought north in a panga boat.' I tried hard not to sound judgmental. 'And the pangero is a marijuana smuggler.'
'Yes, I know. It sounds crazy! But the guy in charge, the one I talked to on the phone? My cousin's friend said he has kids, he's not a bad man. And he sounded OK. He told me he would take good care of Rosie. I paid him half. He was gonna meet me when the boat landed, and then I'd pay the other half.'
There was one thing I was already sure of: a much bigger game was in play. The guy Chucha had dealt with wouldn't have been the one in charge of the smuggling operation, not by a long shot. Most likely he was just someone who saw a chance to make a buck on the side.
'So when you got there, the beach was deserted. You must have had a terrible shock.'
'Yes! The boat was there, but it was empty. I used my phone for a flashlight, I looked all over the boat, to see if I could find anything, anything that belonged to my baby.'
I looked down at the cross in my hand. 'You found this instead.'
'It was down in a crack. I noticed it because my light shined off it. Maybe one of the guys on the boat lost it, you know? He could have been carrying it to think of his own daughter.' She dropped down on the couch and put her head in her hands. 'I don't know. I guess I hoped that cross might be a clue.'
'Chucha, you've phoned your cousin, right? And the pangero. Have you made contact with him?'
'I called the guy right away. What a surprise, his number don't work anymore! I called my cousin, and she called her friend, and they both tried to find him. My cousin, she's still trying. The name he gave us? It's not his real name, we know that now.' She looked up at me. 'I've been so stupid. It's all my own fault.'
I looked out the side window. I felt cornered, pinned down by what Chucha was asking me to do. I needed to somehow convey my sympathy without implying I'd take on the case. Because I already had a good idea of what had gone wrong.
The most likely explanation – that the child died in the course of the passage and her body was thrown overboard like yesterday's trash – was the last thing in the world a mother would want to hear.
'I very much hope you find your daughter.' I folded the handkerchief around the cross and held it out to her. 'I'm sorry, Chucha. But there's not much I can do.'
'No.' Chucha held up a hand. 'You keep that. Somebody might come looking for it one day.' She frowned. 'What you just said, that you can't do much? I'm sorry, it just isn't true.'
I placed the folded handkerchief on the corner of the desk, got to my feet, and walked over to the window. The woman from the office next door was fastening Deadbeat's tethered leg to his perch.
'Jaymie, here's my problem,' Chucha said to my back. 'If you won't help me, who will?'
Late that afternoon I was fluffing up a stack of papers on the kitchen table when I heard the front office door open, then close.
'Miss Jaymie, I'm glad you're still here! My third house today, it took so, so long. Mrs Gustafson, she left all the dirty —' Gabi Gutierrez, my office manager, partner, and sometimes wise auntie, stepped into the kitchenette and halted.
'Uh-oh. I am reading your face. What is wrong?'
I pushed back my chair and got to my feet. 'So, a big day for Sparkleberry, huh? How about una cerveza.'
'Yes, that would be nice. I am going to stretch out on the couch, then maybe you will answer my question. Are any of those homemade tortilla chips left?'
'Sorry.' I closed the fridge door with an elbow and walked back into the main room, holding a pale ale in each hand. 'Those chips were my lunch.'
Gabi took off her sneakers and swung her legs up on the couch. 'I am so tired. But it's a good tired, you know?'
I offered her a bottle. 'This should perk you up.'
'Hmm. I like Mexican beer better. Bohemia, that's my favorite.'
'No problem, I'll drink it.' I withdrew my hand.
'Very funny, Miss Jaymie.' She accepted the beer, twisted off the cap, and took a long sip. 'I deserve this, you know?'
'Yeah, I know what you mean. Me too.' I dropped down in Gabi's desk chair. The desk had once been my own, but that had changed the day Gabriela Rufina Martinez Gutierrez salsa-ed in through the door.
Damn, the beer tasted good. I shut my eyes for a moment and listened to the everyday sounds: the rumble of going-home traffic out on Mission, and under it, the chatter of birds gossiping in the courtyard. The late afternoon sun flowed, like a river of gold, through the open front door.
'Miss Jaymie, I am looking at you and you know what I think? I think maybe you should go get a haircut. Your hair is such a nice color, dark brown and a little bit red, but that ponytail, it don't look so good. You are thirty-eight years old, it's time to get rid of the ponytail. Miss Jaymie? I am sorry but that's what I think.'
I opened my eyes and set down my bottle on Gabi's blotter. 'I had a visitor this morning. Her name is Chucha Robledo.'
'Chucha Robledo ...' Gabi set her own bottle on the floor and began to unwind her yards-long purple and pink crocheted scarf. 'I think maybe I know who she is. Is she the girl that's a man?'
I wasn't surprised Gabi knew about Chucha. My office manager was related to half the population of Santa Barbara. The other half she seemed to know all about, too.
'Yep. She's the one.'
'I see her in my neighborhood, you know? On Haley. She kind of, how do you say it? Stands out.' Gabi folded her scarf and placed it on the arm of the couch. 'Lots of people know who Chucha is. I think she does makeup, for weddings and quinceañeras.'
'I liked her. She seems like a nice person.'
'Yes, I think maybe she is. Some people are mean to her, though, even some women. I think maybe people who are not ...'
'Positively positive?' I said this just to tease. Positively Positive was Gabi's favorite self-help book. She'd recently purchased the workbook, too, and the office was positively oozing with good intentions these days. I never thought I'd say it, but there were times I positively yearned for Gabi's sharp tongue to return.
'Please don't laugh.' She leaned forward and began to unlace her florescent pink sneakers. 'Some people are afraid of anything different, know what I mean?'
'I know what you mean.' I got to my feet and walked to the open doorway. A hummingbird flashed rubies and emeralds as it plied a patch of white-flowered sage.
'Like maybe your eyes, Miss Jaymie. The way one is blue and the other one is a little bit green. You are pretty, but some people, they might get bothered by that.' Gabi sat back and folded her hands on her stomach. 'Now tell me what Chucha said. And start at the beginning. We are investigators, so please don't leave even the little things out.'
Excerpted from Dragon Fruit by Karen Keskinen. Copyright © 2016 Karen Keskinen. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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