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About the Author
Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning Latina news editor, writer and digital storyteller. An American citizen from birth, she grew up in Guatemala during the armed internal conflict and moved to the United States when she was 15. Her news stories have been published at The Guardian US, Philly.com, Public Radio International’s Global Voices, NBC10/Telemundo62, Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia Magazine, City and State PA, and Al Día News, among others. Her short fiction has been published by Tor.com, Strange Horizons and Uncanny, GUD, and Crossed Genres magazines. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter. Read more at www.sabrinavourvoulias.com, and follow her on Twitter @followthelede. Kathleen Alcalá is an award-winning author of six books of fiction and non-fiction, including Deepest Roots and Spirits of the Ordinary. She received her second Artist Trust Fellowship in 2008, and was honored by the national Latino writers group, Con Tinta, at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in 2014. Kathleen has been both a student and instructor in the Clarion West Science Fiction Workshop. Until recently, Kathleen was a fiction instructor at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island. She now lectures for Antioch University, and an instructor at the Bainbridge Artisan Resouce Network .
Read an Excerpt
Ledes are opening words, leading is the space between lines, and leads are the embryonic matter of stories. Newspaper jargon is gleefully perverse. That line of text on the front page that serves as a teaser for a story inside is a refer — which would seem straight enough if it weren't pronounced "reefer." Double trucks have nothing whatever to do with vehicles, and a slug isn't a bullet. Maybe it's this habit that gets us into trouble outside the newsroom.
I'm at church.
I don't go, but I know every inch of Holy Innocents. I used to be an altar boy here. When the neighborhood was Irish. When my mother had hoped we'd end up in some glorious Catholic heaven together.
The same priest's still here. Father Tom has become a friend even if we more often meet at pubs than in any hallowed structure. Though, come to think of it, some pubs should be considered hallowed.
The pews around me are full of inks. It's been a year since my story about the national identity tattoos gave me a brief but honeyed taste of journalistic notoriety, and by now, pre-ink days seem as remote and fantastic as a fairy tale.
There aren't many churches where inks can go to hear Mass celebrated in their languages since the English-only ordinances passed. Father Tom is fortunate enough to have a congregant with one of the rare authorized exemptions, so he taps her to do the readings in Spanish at the seven p.m. daily and the noon Sundays when most of the Latino inks make a point of attending. I wonder if she's the iron-haired, older woman sitting close to the altar or the tiny, younger one sitting closer to the door to the sacristy.
After Mass Father Tom stands on the front steps greeting the inks trailing out of his church. Next to him stands his translator — the younger of the two women that had lectored — as well as another twenty-something woman.
The priest's translator may be full ink or part ink, but she's assimilated ink. The other woman likes aping our stereotype of fresher ink. Her hair is peeled back tight and high, her shirt is unrepentantly snug, and she's wearing the biggest hoop earrings I've ever seen.
As I walk by her to go talk to Father Tom, I hear her whispering to the translator in Spanish. I glance down at her wrist. Black tattoo: temporary worker. They never get language exemptions. Between the illicit talk and her notquite-church-wear, I like her already.
I try to listen in on the whispered alternate conversation. I don't get to practice speaking, but I've never lost my ear for the language.
"Let's go find Peña Morena," says the flashy one.
"I don't do illegal," the translator says.
The other snorts. "Not illegal. Say 'unauthorized,' instead."
They both start laughing
Pre-ink — in fairy tale days — peñas had been coffeehouses that served up unrefined but decent food and music. Since then, the peñas have become something else altogether. Reputedly run by gangs and rife with illegal activity, they move from one unused space to another week to week. No one knows how many there are. No one I know has ever been to one.
"It's good to see you here," Father Tom says to me.
I grin at him. "I'll go anywhere for a story. There is a story, right? This better not be some lame evangelization ploy because, you know, I'm beyond redemption."
The priest gives me a rueful smile, then turns to interrupt the women. "Mari, Nely, I want you to meet Finn."
The translator, Mari, gives me a cautious smile; Nely, something altogether bolder.
"Finn's a reporter with the Hastings Gazette," Father Tom says. "I told him you'd tell him about the rumors you've been hearing at work. And about your theory that people are being dumped across the border."
Mari's inhale is audible.
"I'm one of the last inks left at Hipco, Father," she says, dropping her eyes. "I have to be careful about disclosing anything."
HPCO. Hastings Population Control Office. She'd be a local inside source. Nice.
I glance down at her wrist. Peeking out from under the long-sleeved shirt is the tip of a periwinkle blue tattoo. A citizen. Good. More credible.
Her features are as petite as the rest of her. Her skin is a warm brown, and her hair is a darker version of the same. It makes her a study in graded shades, easy for the eye to slide over. But when she picks her eyes off the floor and finally looks directly at me, I'm struck and pinned.
Her eyes are dark amber but turn blacker the longer you look into them. Like looking into a well and seeing, so deep you disbelieve it, the movement of water. They are the eyes of a creature from myth, eons old and here on loan only.
"I'm extremely careful with my sources," I say after a moment. "Nobody would ever be able to trace a word back to you."
She looks from me to Father Tom and back again.
Nely's laugh catches us off-guard. "Well, by all means, let's talk about this on the church steps, where anyone can hear us," she says in completely unaccented English. "I propose we remove this vee-e-ry interesting conversation somewhere more appropriate. A peña, say?"
Father Tom winces. He's lost many of the community's young men to the so-called subterranean inks — the maras, brotherhoods, and mafias — gangs big and small and in between. No way he's going where he'll pad their coffers.
"Shame," Nely says, grabbing Mari's arm with both her own. "'Cause that's where we're headed. See ya."
"I'll come with you," I say.
She studies me. I don't see a shred of respect in her very pretty, but perfectly ordinary, eyes. "¿De veras, güero? ¿Y cómo nos vas a entender cuando hablemos, eh? Porque allí nadie, pero nadie, habla inglés."
Mari stifles a laugh.
Güero — blond — I'm not, but I am a white boy, which is what Nely means when she calls me that.
"I'll understand you just fine," I answer in Spanish.
A mix of expressions race across Nely's face. Mostly surprise, but a bit of guilt, too.
I love it.
After an hour of wandering the streets surrounding Holy Innocents, the three of us find an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe chalked on a sidewalk near the subway entrance. Nely gives a whoop, then sprints ahead of us down the steps.
I'd forgotten that "Morena" is what the Mexicans call Guadalupe, and so a peña under her guardianship — even a temporary one — would be signed by her visage. As soon as we see it, Mari slows down to a crawl.
"I've never been to a peña," she says.
Father Tom has warned me about how controlled she is. How you can see her physically rein in any impulse that might lead to an infraction or a regular mistake, for that matter. He says it is undoubtedly why she has risen as high as she has in the Hipco hierarchy. It's probably also why she's still a Catholic in good standing. Though, of course, Father Tom would never agree with that particular assessment.
"Me, neither," I say, to assure her I'm a good guy.
But then, because I'm mostly a truthful sort of guy, I add, "I'm looking forward to it."
She gives me a look I find completely puzzling. It's those damn eyes that confuse me. And usually I'm so good at reading people. Women, especially.
"I'm not going to give you any insider stuff, you know," she says, very matter-of-fact.
"So I'll just drink, then. Soak up the atmosphere."
Nely is far down the right-hand corridor that, if followed to its end, would open to the subway station. Suddenly, she disappears, seemingly into the tiled wall, then pokes her head back out and motions us to follow.
"We don't have to go in there," I say to Mari after our pace slows to within a hair of a standstill.
It nearly kills me to say it. I'm curious about the peña and don't think I'll get another chance to experience one. But news trumps feature, as Melinda says. And Mari, as a source, would be a pipeline to news.
"You don't know Nely. If I don't go in, she'll hunt me down and shave my head." Even though she's joking, mid-sentence her voice quavers.
I'm going to tell you something: I have absolutely no fear. Never have. Cassie likes to tell people about my first skydive from 10,000 feet. I was ten. We were at the resort in the Dominican Republic where my father walked out on us and where we rode out the next two years of uncertainty with our mother. I harangued the skydiving instructor so frequently he finally strapped on the double harness and let me step off the plane. I jumped every weekend after that and never knew a second's hesitation.
But I recognize fear in my sources.
"What, you think I'm not going to look out for you?" It's a risky tack. She might think I mean it personally, not professionally, and take all kinds of offense. But as I look down at her — I've got to have at least a foot and a half on her — I wonder whether I can make such a clear distinction. I pretty much feel protective of all people — not just my sources. Maybe it has to do with towering or being solid among the wispy, I don't know.
"I'm not as you imagine me," she says.
The response draws me up short. But she doesn't appear to be offended and starts walking down the corridor again.
The shallow alcove where Nely stands ends in a fire door with a yellow light flashing above.
"You sure this is it?" Mari asks.
"No. But that's the point of the shifting locations, isn't it? Seems like what Toño described to me, though," Nely says, distracted. "We just have to figure how to get in." She tries the door, but it doesn't budge. Then she looks around for some overlooked catch, lever, or keypad. Finally, she knocks on it.
When nothing happens, she turns to Mari.
It's interesting. I've been thinking of Nely as the leader of this duo. But she defers to the smaller woman in a way that makes me think I've misread the dynamic.
Mari frowns at Nely, then closes her eyes.
"Try it now," she says after a minute. "The porter's looking back this way, and where the eye goes, the ear follows."
Nely pounds on the door with the flat of her hand, and soon enough the yellow light stops flashing. The door lists open as if it was never closed.
When I turn to look at Mari, she shrugs. "Trick from childhood."
There is another metal door ahead with a massive hasp and what looks to be an expensive combination padlock hanging on it. I see a shadow loose itself from the wall and begin to walk toward us. It's a big shadow. Built like a bouncer.
"Non fecit taliter?" the man says. There's an interrogatory lilt at the end of the phrase, making it a question.
"What the hell?" Nely's voice is barely a whisper, but in this place it carries.
"Password," I hear Mari whisper back. "Toño didn't tell you anything about this?"
It's a tidy system, I think. If we had gotten here by mistake rather than intention, there'd be nothing illegal to report. The phrase is in Latin, a dead language that doesn't violate the language bans, and there's almost no way anyone would chance on the right combination of words to say in response.
Witness Mari and Nely.
"Omni nationi," I finally say to the bouncer.
He sweeps past us and blocks our view while he fiddles with the lock. I hear the click of tumblers falling in place. When the door opens, it is to light, the smell of charcoal, and a babble of Spanish.
As soon as we're through, Nely turns to me, hands on her hips. "What the fuck?"
I can't help grinning at her. "Last line of Psalm 147. 'God has not done this for other nations.' Allegedly what one of the popes said about the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico."
She doesn't say anything, just turns and stalks toward a makeshift bar set up in one corner of the dingy, grey utility room that houses the peña this week. I like watching her go. And not because she's leaving.
"How did you know?" Mari asks.
"I used to be a good Catholic boy. Used to be Catholic. Used to be good." I'm grinning again. More so after I see her roll her eyes.
"Father Tom warned me you like to pretend to be wicked."
"He lies a lot — for a priest."
Her laugh is young. It reminds me that, despite her eyes, she's only a twenty-something Catholic girl. And an ink, to boot. Which makes her very unlike the women I'm used to keeping company with.
Except I'm not keeping company with her, I remind myself. I'm cultivating her as a source.
"I'm hungry," I say, looking around. "Let's go find some food."
There's a tin washtub on legs being used as a makeshift grill at one end of the room, filling the air with smoke and the smell of shrimp searing in a brick red sauce. Next to that is a garbage can filled with tamales and several industrial-sized jars with juice.
Despite the drab space that contains it, the peña is a riot of color: party dresses, oilcloth, cowboy boots in shades nature never intended. In the corner opposite the bar, a really old man is inking a child's wrist. He's working manually with a small mallet and needles stuck to the end of a wooden measure. He dips a needle into an ink bottle — he's got black and green, ancient and crusted like hepatitis in a jar — then taps it under the skin. The child squawks.
"My turn to ask how you did it," I say as we make our way over to the food tables.
"What?" she yells. I know there's a guitarist playing — I can see him — but I can't hear him over the din of kids with their parents and grandparents, young singles and couples at the bar and folding tables, all eating, drinking, and chattering.
"The thing with the bouncer or porter or whatever. Like you saw him even though he was behind the door. How'd you do it?" I ask, bending close to her, so I don't have to shout.
"Oh. That," she says. "I told you already."
She gives me a half-mysterious, half-shy smile. It's endearing. Pretty, too.
"So, you're like psychic or something?" "Something."
"Okay, see if I care. Keep your secrets."
She raises her eyebrows.
"Except the ones about Hipco."
She matches my grin.
We end up at a recently vacated table near the tattooist, and although she swears she doesn't want anything to drink, I come back from the bar with six shots of tequila.
Her eyes go round when I slide three shots her way.
"You're kidding, right? You have noticed I'm a tad smaller than you?"
"Yes, you're wee," I say, then laugh when she wrinkles her nose at the word.
"So ... besides the rampant language violations, the price gouging, and the tattoo forging, there are at least a dozen drug and gun deals going down. Any other illegal activity I'm missing?" I ask.
"Well, if the city council has its way, we'll all be in violation of the 10 p.m. curfew they're voting in. All of us with tattoos, that is."
I'm not sure when I get it out, but suddenly my reporter's notebook is in my hand. Melinda derides reporters who take digital notes the same way she does people who can't drive standard, so I'm badass at both scrawl and clutch.
"Tomorrow morning in open session. It's a formality, though. The enforcement wing of pop control has been on alert since this morning. And there's more stuff rumored to be coming down soon: public transit restrictions, gated neighborhoods."
"I overheard my boss saying Morrow is the only councilperson who still has some misgivings."
I drum my fingers while I think. "Maybe I can ambush her before they go into session. That way I can file before anyone else. I think I have her home address somewhere."
"There you go," she says.
"How can you stand working there?"
"I'm tougher than I look?"
I laugh, but I know it isn't funny.
In the silence that follows we look anywhere but at each other. My eyes end up at the bar, on Nely. She's flirting with the tender, whose shirt has just enough open collar to show some figural ink and what appears to be the end of a hellacious scar.
He glances over at me. His eyes are intelligent, appraising. He runs his fingers over a perfectly dark and sharp-edged goatee before he rests his chin on his hand and turns back to Nely. I wonder why it's always a soul patch, chin strap, or goatee with the gangs, never a full beard.
"What's the deal with them?" It's an excuse to get Mari talking to me again.
"That's Toño. His gang runs this peña. She likes him and, I think, kind of toys with the idea of joining his gang."
"Really?" I look at him more closely. He's probably a foot shorter than me, but I wouldn't want to mess with him. "He's ... intimidating."
"Hardly. I've been told I look like a teddy bear."
"From where, the Land of the Giants?"
I lean in to her. "Okay, so that's Nely and Toño's story. What's yours?"
"I believe I already gave you a story. At least I thought I saw you taking notes."
"The other one."
"About the border dumps? It's still speculation on my part. A pattern I've noticed as I track the GPS readouts from the pop control implants in temporary workers. That's all."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ink"
Copyright © 2012 Sabrina Vourvoulias.
Excerpted by permission of Rosarium Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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