When the body of an unidentified young Hispanic woman is dredged from the Detroit River, the Wayne County coroner gives her photo to ex-police detective August Snow, insisting August ask around his native Mexicantown to see if anyone recognizes her. August’s good friend Elena, an advocate for undocumented immigrants, immediately pinpoints the girl as local teenager Isadora del Torres. It turns out Izzy isn’t the only young woman to have disappeared during an ICE raid only to turn up dead a few weeks later. Preyed upon by the law itself, the people of Mexicantown have no one to turn to but August. In a guns-blazing wild ride across Detroit, he will put his own life on the line to protect the community he loves.
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Her secret ingredient was nutmeg.
Not a lot—maybe half a teaspoon or less—but she got the same complex undercurrent effect that she would have with smoked East Indian paprika or authentic Mexican chili powder.
I was in my kitchen, slowly blending half a teaspoon of nutmeg into my homemade salsa—pureed tomatoes from
Honeycomb Market, blanched and coarse-chopped tomatoes, chopped jalapenos, minced yellow bell pepper, fresh dill, a quarter lemon, squeezed, garlic, sea salt and coarse ground black pepper. I also added just a bit of chopped cilantro.
While I diced, pureed and blended ingredients, I listened to an old CD of my father’s: John Lee Hooker and Santana’s classic “The Healer,” cranked to top volume on my stereo. Perfect music to accompany a rakishly handsome Blaxican as he made a poor imitation of his mother’s salsa. Courtesy of the potent aroma of the salsa and the music, I could feel my hips, my feet moving in the rhythm of a slow rhumba bolero.
And yes, cabrón.
I dance a mean rhumba bolero, thanks to my mother’s patient lessons and the decades of practice I’ve had at dozens of Mexican weddings, one Salvadoran/Colombian wedding anniversary and four quinceañeras.
I’d even given salsa and rhumba lessons at Camp Leatherneck and FOB Delhi Beirut in Afghanistan to guys who’d just gotten engaged to sweethearts anxiously waiting stateside. Go ahead. Ask former Marine Corporal Francis “Franco” Montoya (Seattle, Washington) or former Marine Sergeant Dwayne “Wee Man” Nixon (Memphis, Tennessee). Marine killing machines who will freely admit I’m the only guy they’ve ever loved dancing with.
It had been a week since I’d taken Tatina Stadmueller, my long-distance-kinda-maybe girlfriend, to Metro Airport for her flight home—back to Oslo, Norway. Back to begin her last year of Cultural Anthropology doctoral studies at the University of Oslo. I was still feeling buoyant from her visit. Like Paul blinded by righteousness and beauty.
The air in my house still carried her warm chocolate-and-pepper scent.
One thing I hadn’t intended Tatina to see during her time in Detroit was a black Chevy Suburban, windows blackedout, crawling down Markham Street at ungodly hours of the morning. Tatina had casually noted the SUV twice during her nighttime bathroom visits.
“Who are they?” she asked over breakfast one morning.
“Probably somebody coming home from a late shift somewhere.”
Of course, I knew better.
This is Mexicantown. The black Chevy Suburban with blacked out windows was ICE—US Immigration and Customs Enforcement police—trolling in the dark-heart hours, mapping potential “nests” and safe-houses of undocumented immigrants. Their official motto? “Protecting National Security and Upholding Public Safety.”
In Mexicantown, we have a different motto for ICE: Si es marrón, enciérrelo.
“If it’s brown, lock it down.”
“Please, Jesus lord,” Jimmy Radmon said as he entered through my front door. “Tell me I ain’t seein’ this.”
I was carefully ladling my now-completed salsa into six shiny, sterilized Ball fourteen-ounce storage jars. Celia Cruz had just finished her sexy take on “Oye Como Va.” Now I was doing a rhumba bolero to James Brown’s Hot Pants-Pt. 1.
“You need to learn the rhumba, Jimmy,” I said.
“What I need to learn that goofy stuff for?” Jimmy said, walking around me and retrieving an ice-cold bottle of water from my fridge. I kept bottled water in the fridge just for Jimmy and Carlos. They seemed never to be finished making little adjustments, improvements and additions to my house. I didn’t really mind, since most of these were invisible to me. One of their last improvements made my house a virtual Wi-Fi hotspot for the other houses on Markham Street. Not a bad thing since most neighborhoods in Detroit were Internet dead zones.
I found space in the fridge for four of the six jars of salsa and handed two to Jimmy. One for him, one for his loving landlords, my older neighbors Sylvia and Carmela.
“You should sell this stuff,” Jimmy said, scrutinizing the jars. “Octavio’s Genu-wine D-City Salsa. It’s good. Better than store-bought.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t think about it.
Satisfied with the success of my culinary mission, I grabbed a beer—a Batch Brewing Vienna Lager—and retired to the living room. Jimmy followed along, insisting on boring me with renovation status reports, material and equipment requests and subcontractor bids. We’d just flipped two houses—a detached brick three-bedroom to a young couple who’d moved here from Portland with their three-year-old girl, and a two-bedroom brick duplex to some English charitable foundation guy who insisted on wearing his hair in a man-bun and doing yoga on his front porch.
Then there were the inevitable local newspaper and magazine inquiries.
“This Renna Jacobs from the Free Press, man, she keep on calling me,” Jimmy said. “Wants to talk to you about bringin’ the ’hood back.”
“You didn’t give her my number, did you?” I said.
“No, on account I know you’d kill me.”
“Damn straight,” I said. “Probably by making you give up Cheetos and Gatorade and force-feeding you healthy food.”
“Seriously,” Jimmy insisted. “A little press be nice for the ’hood. And for me and Carlos. I mean, we all got to think outside the Markham Street box, Mr. Snow. One house left to reno and flip on the street—then what?”
Jimmy had just asked a question that I’d been avoiding for the past three months. I never intended for house renovations in the southwest Detroit neighborhood of Mexicantown to become my purpose in life. I just wanted my neighborhood—my street—back. Maybe homage to my beloved parents. Maybe reverence for a long-ago way of life that in this moment seemed to hold no more weight than spirits wandering far from their graves.
After being fired from the Detroit Police Department, the trial that followed and my twelve-million-dollar wrongful dismissal award, I’d wanted nothing more than to isolate my shattered self in a safe place. That had been the whole reason I’d renovated my childhood home on Markham Street in the first place, and then, by extension, the neighboring houses toward Mexicantown’s business thoroughfare, Vernor Avenue.
Markham Street—and August Octavio Snow—2.0.
Now, I had a couple good men depending on me for their livelihood.
And I had no answers for them.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
Jimmy gave me a sideways look that said he’d heard this from me before. “Yeah, well, either way,” Jimmy said, tearing a small portion of paper from his work notebook and handing the shred to me, “here’s that reporter’s number. A ‘neighborhood renaissance,’” Jimmy persisted. “That’s what this reporter lady calls what you done did around here. And, I mean, talkin’ to her might be a nice chance for you to do some reno on your reputation in this town, you know?”
I feared Jimmy had stepped over a line and into my personal minefield.
But this was Jimmy. A kid who was, by nature, innocent—maybe even naïve—and without a malicious bone in his rail-thin body.
“What reputation might that be, Jimmy?”
“‘Ex-cop who took twelve mil from raggedy-ass Detroit reinvests in raggedy-ass Detroit,’” Jimmy said. “Hometown hero stuff. You could make this work for you, Mr. Snow.”
“Like I said, Jimmy—”
“Yeah, I know,” Jimmy said. “‘I’ll think about it.’”