Authors: Todd Borg
Paco Ipar awoke to the night fear.
His throat hurt. It was hard to swallow. Harder to breathe. His heart thumped as it did when he was younger and he came out of a nightmare, yelling, soaked in sweat. It should have been different now that Paco was ten years old.
It had been years since Paco was afraid of the dark. He was too old and too tough for the night fear.
Paco stared up at the ceiling of the van, remembering where he was.
They’d left home in the middle of the night. He remembered the glowing numbers on the dashboard clock turning from 2:59 to 3:00 as he watched. Paco had slid into his sleeping bag on the van floor and had gone to sleep.
It felt like he’d been asleep for a long time when he first awoke. He looked out as they drove by the empty farmers’ market parking lot in South Lake Tahoe, lit by yellow streetlights. The lot was empty. There’d be no more tables and tents until next summer.
Then Paco dozed off again.
Awoke just now. Afraid.
It was still dark. The dashboard glow silhouetted Cassie, Paco’s foster mom, up in the driver’s seat. She turned the wheel fast to the left, then jerked it to the right. The van bounced on uneven ground. She braked hard, came to a quick stop, swore.
Cassie never swore.
Paco lifted his head. “Cassie?” he called out.
“Stay quiet, honey,” she said in a harsh whisper. “And stay down. Don’t let them see you!”
She punched in the headlight switch and turned off the engine, leaving the key in the ignition.
“I mean it, Paco,” she whispered. “Stay where you are.” She opened the door and got out, slamming it behind her.
Paco sat up, his sleeping bag gathered around his chest. He rolled onto his knees and rose up just enough to peek out the van windows.
Off to the side of the van was a rocky cliff where two flat walls of rock stood at an angle that formed a corner. To Paco, it looked as if Cassie had parked inside a big box. Closer to the cliff and facing the same direction as the van, there was a big pickup truck with a topper. Its lights shone on the vertical rock. Both of the pickup’s doors were open. Between the truck and the van, two men stood near the driver’s door. They were huge. Like in a comic book. Facing them, her face lit by the reflected headlights, was Paco’s foster mom.
One man was pointing his finger at Cassie. His hand moved up and down like he was pounding a hammer right in front of her face. His finger almost touched her nose. He shouted, but Paco couldn’t make out the words.
He couldn’t quite see her face, but Paco could tell that she was frightened by the way she flinched. She gestured with both of her hands out, palms up, pleading.
The man slapped her face!
Paco slid out of his sleeping bag. He could run over and punch the man. Kick him. Maybe he could make the man stop.
Cassie had told Paco not to let them see him. But they were hurting her. Time to break her rules.
Paco reached for the side door, then had a thought.
Cassie’s purse was still between the front seats. He reached into it and pulled out her cell phone. He couldn’t call 911. She’d made that very clear. She didn’t have the right papers for Paco. She said that they lived under the radar. She told Paco that any contact with the government could get him sent back to Mexico.
But he could call that man she’d talked about, the private cop. Paco looked back out the window.
Again, the man struck his foster mom! Harder.
She stumbled back.
Paco nearly cried out. He put the phone in his pocket. There wasn’t time to call now. He had to go help her.
He would run up from behind. Surprise them.
Paco reached up and slid the inside light switch to full-off, then opened the side door quietly, and stepped out. The night air was very cold. Mountain air.
Paco slowly shut the van slider. He ran silently through the dark, over to the cliff, and came up behind the pickup.
Paco looked out from behind the truck.
One of the men pulled out a gun! There was a crackling sound. A blue light.
Cassie fell. Her scream ripped through the night.
Paco ducked back behind the pickup. What could he do against a gun? He couldn’t breathe, he was so terrified.
Paco looked out again. The man was still outside of the headlight beams. He lowered the gun to Cassie and fired again, another blue flash in the night.
Paco stared as Cassie writhed and jerked on the ground.
One of the men turned back to the pickup.
Paco jumped back behind the pickup’s tailgate.
They might have seen him!
He had to run. One side was the cliff. On the other side, the van and the dark forest. If Paco ran to the van or the woods, the men would see him. Paco was a fast runner. But he knew the men would shoot him.
He crouched down in the dark. Waiting. With Cassie dead, they’d drive away. Never see him crouching behind the pickup.
“I’ll check her van,” said one of the men. “Maybe the kid is hiding in there. You take care of the woman.”
Paco looked at the van and realized that when the man walked over to it, he’d be able to see Paco behind their pickup. Paco was trapped against the cliff. There was no escape.
He climbed up on the rear bumper of the pickup. Turned the latch on the topper gate. It swung up and open.
Paco stepped over the tailgate into the pickup bed, careful not to make a sound. He pulled the topper gate shut behind him. He looked out through the smoked windows of the topper. Saw movement. A flashlight beam. The dark windows of the pickup topper made the light look dim yellow.
The man looked through the van, came back to the pickup, and stayed nearby waiting for the other man to return.
Paco waited a long time, maybe fifteen minutes or more. He cried silent tears, one hand clamped over his mouth so they couldn’t hear his whimpers, the other wrapped around his body, trying to clamp down on his violent shivers.
The second man came back. Paco could hear him panting. The two men said something, mumbled words.
One got in the van and started the engine. The other got in the pickup. It rocked as the man slammed the door. The engine started. The van drove away. The pickup followed with Paco hiding in the pickup’s bed.
Terrified, Paco had no idea of how far or where they had gone when the pickup stopped, the passenger door opened, the pickup rocked again. The door shut and the pickup raced off with Paco still hiding inside the topper.
The voice on my phone was young. Terrified. A boy, I thought. Frightened to the point that his voice trembled.
I’d gotten up before dawn to do some bookkeeping and get some bills into the mail before heading down the mountain to meet Street Casey. She’d been to a bug conference at Sac State, and their closing dinner went late the previous evening. So Street stayed overnight at the Hyatt. I decided to drive down and join her for a nice breakfast and then take her to visit the Crocker Art Museum to see their new modern addition.
I’d just poured my second cup of coffee and was writing out my third check when the phone jangled on the kitchen counter. I looked at the clock as I answered the phone. 6:30 a.m.
When the boy cried out for help, I said, “Who is this?”
“What’s wrong, Paco?”
“Come get me!” The boy’s voice was a shouted whisper, taut with fear. Behind Paco’s voice was background noise, a dull roar that sounded like machinery. Or a windstorm.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know. In a pickup. In the back. I opened the back door and climbed inside.”
“The pickup has a topper?” I said. “Can you climb back out? Or is the topper gate locked?”
“It’s not locked. But the pickup is going fast.”
“If you go to the front of the pickup bed and pound on the wall, the driver might be able to hear you. If he hears you pound, he’ll stop.”
“I don’t want them to hear me. They’ll kill me.”
“Why do you think that?”
“They shot Cassie.”
“My foster mom.”
My heart made a heavy beat.
“Is there a window? Can you see outside? What do you see?”
“The windows are dark. I can’t see anything.” His voice quivered.
“Is the hatch unlocked? You could jump out when they stop. Jump out and run away.”
“We’re going faster.”
“Paco, what is your last name?”
“Paco, I want you to hold on while I see if I can find out where you are. Give me a minute. Don’t hang up!” I set the phone on the counter.
I pulled open the front door of my cabin and ran outside into the cold, rainy, dark November morning. My Harlequin Great Dane Spot bounded at my side. I jerked open the door of my Jeep. The interior light doesn’t work, so I reached in and felt along the top of the dash. Found the cell. Raced back, flipping it open as I ran back into the light of my cabin.
Once in the door, I hit the button to turn the phone on. The keypad lit up and the phone began the slow process of coming alive.
I grabbed the other phone off the counter. “Are you still there, Paco?”
“Yeah.” His voice was meeker. More fear. It sounded like he was crying.
“Good. Don’t go away. Don’t hang up. I’m getting help. I’ll be right back.”
The cell phone finished booting up. I dialed Diamond Martinez.
“Sergeant, I’ve got a kid on my land line. Paco Ipar. Says he’s hiding in the back of a pickup that is currently in motion. He’s using a cell phone. Says the men driving the pickup shot his foster mom.”
“You believe him?” Diamond said.
“Maybe. Where are we with tracing cell phones? Cell towers, or GPS, or whatever.”
“In the movies, good. But in real life, when time is critical? Not good. We can skip the court order requirement with emergencies. But they still need three cell towers to pick up the signal before they can triangulate it. As for GPS, the satellite connections are often blocked by the mountains.”
“You’re saying you can’t trace the kid who called my land line and then get his location off his cell phone’s GPS,” I said.
“Sí. Not soon, anyway. The best thing is to get as much information from the caller as possible.”
“I’m going to put my cell phone close to my land line earpiece so you can hear this kid,” I said to Diamond. I held the two phones together and spoke. “Are you still there, Paco?”
“Paco, what is your cell phone number?”
“I don’t know! It’s Cassie’s phone.”
“Paco, how old are you?”
“Where do you live?”
The boy was silent for a moment. The roar of wind and road in the background was like pressure over the phone. I felt the tension of fear, the strain of the boy’s terror.
“I live on a farm,” he said. “In the valley.”
“What is the closest town?”
“Stockton. We live an hour away.”
“Which direction is your farm from Stockton?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there a smaller town?”
“Sort of. Mostly, there’s just farms.”
“Is the pickup you’re in near your farm?”
“No. It’s in the mountains. There were tall trees. And it’s cold. Not like where we live.”
“What school do you go to?” I asked.
“The elementary school.”
“What’s the name of the school?”
“Aggie’s Green?” I repeated to make sure I had it correct.
“Where’s the school?”
“Over by McDonald’s. A long way. I ride the bus.”
“How did you know to call me?” I asked.
“I looked in Cassie’s phone. She said I’m supposed to call you if something happens. She says we can’t ever call the cops. I don’t want to go to Mexico.”
“Paco, you called my land line. If something happens, I want you to be able to call me back on my cell phone. Does Cassie’s phone have my cell number?”
“I’ll look.” Paco didn’t speak for a moment. “I don’t think so. It just has your name and one number,” he said. “The one I called.”
“Let me give you my cell. Can you memorize it? Or write it down somehow?”
“I can put it in her phone.”
I gave him the number in segments. Area code. Prefix. Last four. I repeated it three times. “Call my cell, first, okay? I’ll be out on the road, looking for you.”
“Okay,” he said. His tone didn’t give me confidence that he’d gotten it correct. But he was too scared to project confidence about anything. I hoped that he was like most kids and that working with electronics was second nature for him.