Authors: Marissa Garner
New York Boston
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To my husband, who has always been my rock.
The full moon shone like a spotlight on the barren landscape as Pedro and Maria raced with the others toward the fence.
“Faster, faster,” one of the guards hissed in Spanish.
Maria tripped on a rock and went down hard. Her heavy backpack, containing all her worldly possessions, pressed her into the sandy dirt.
Her boyfriend squatted beside her. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, Pedro. Just a scratch.”
Loco, the coyote they’d paid to transport them across the border, rushed past them. “If you are too slow, we will leave you behind,” he warned.
Pedro pulled Maria to her feet. She didn’t take time to brush the dirt from her clothes. He clutched her hand while they ran to catch up. Her leaden legs didn’t want to move another step, but she forced herself to keep going. She couldn’t fail him.
At the towering fence, one by one, they slipped through the hole cut in the wire. On the US side waited a large truck, idling loudly in the dark. The armed guards herded the twenty people inside and slammed the door.
Since Maria and Pedro were the last to climb aboard, they huddled on the floor at the rear. The clanking of a chain and the snap of a padlock filled Maria with fear.
“They’re locking us in. We won’t be able to get out if… if…”
Pedro smoothed her disheveled hair and touched her lips with a gentle kiss. “Relax. Everything is going to be okay.”
“I’m frightened. I did not know they would have guns.”
He hesitated. “They might need to scare off thieves.”
“But we have nothing of value.”
The truck suddenly lurched forward, gears grinding, and their conversation ended.
Bouncing over the rough terrain, the vehicle made slow progress. Pedro shifted Maria onto his lap to protect her from the jolts that knocked their heads against the metal walls and jarred their bones. She curled against his chest, closed her eyes, and prayed they would reach their destination safely.
An hour passed before the ride became less punishing. The wheels beneath them produced more of a hum than a crunch. Only then could she concentrate on relaxing her tensed muscles.
Without warning, the truck made a hard right turn. Several people and even more backpacks slid across the filthy floor, slamming into others on the opposite side. The vehicle jerked to a stop, and the engine died.
She sat up. “What’s happening?”
Similar murmured concerns filled the hot, confined space.
“I don’t know. We haven’t gone far enough to be in San Diego yet,” Pedro said.
Even in the dark, she could see his forehead crease with worry.
When the chain on the outside of the door rattled, he pushed her off his lap and leaped up, pulling her with him.
“Stay behind me,” he said, stepping in front.
Despite the heat, she trembled, and her heart pounded.
Why, oh why, did we decide to do this?
The door swung open. An armed guard stood on either side.
“Get out,” one ordered.
“Where are we going?” Pedro asked.
“Don’t ask questions. Just move.” He gestured impatiently with his gun.
Maria’s gaze followed the motion and spotted a semitrailer truck also parked on the side of the two-lane highway.
“Come on, come on,” the other guard shouted. “You want someone to see us? They’re always hunting for illegals.”
An older man came forward from deeper inside the truck and placed his hand on Pedro’s shoulder. “It’s all right, son. I’ve done this many times. This is just another leg of the journey.” He moved around Pedro and climbed out.
Pedro turned to her. “I don’t think we have a choice. We are at their mercy.”
She gulped. “There are many of us. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“We may outnumber them, but they have guns.”
“Get in or we’ll leave you here,” the first guard warned.
Pedro glared at him. Holding Maria’s hand, he helped her down and led her to the semi. Once again, they were the last ones inside. The double doors slammed with a foreboding clang.
They sat quickly when the engine roared to life. Moments later, the semi crawled forward, picking up speed gradually. A slight bump signaled the wheels had left the shoulder for the smoother highway. This truck was as dark as the smaller one, but at least there was more room even with dozens of boxes piled around the cavernous space. The hot, stale air smelled awful. Maria didn’t want to guess what had been the previous cargo.
“This part of the trip will take several hours,” the older man who’d spoken to Pedro told the group. “You should sleep.”
People began to rearrange the boxes to provide some privacy and possibly protection as they slept. Pedro used six boxes to create an area for them.
“Sleep? I am too scared to sleep,” she whispered.
“Try. You can lie on me so it will be softer.”
Despite her fears, her eyelids grew heavy as soon as she settled on top of his lean, wiry body.
She had no idea how long she’d been asleep when a loud noise woke her. The semi jerked to a stop. Pedro rolled her off and sat up. Others stirred also. Men’s voices filtered into the truck, and soon the doors opened.
The sky showed just a hint of dawn, and the cooler air smelled fresh. Maria breathed deeply. Relief flooded through her. It was Thursday morning, and they had survived the first night of their journey to a better life.
A guard stepped up to the opening. “Get moving. We’ve got to be out of here before daylight.”
Pedro helped Maria with her backpack and then shouldered his. They climbed from the truck and were surprised to see no signs of the city. They were still in the middle of nowhere, but two large vans were parked on the shoulder in front of the semi.
“All the women in the blue van, and the men in the white,” a guard shouted.
“What?” Pedro said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
“You heard me. Women in blue. Men in white.”
“No. We stay together.” His grip tightened.
“Look, this is for the women’s safety.”
“She’s safest with me.”
Several of the men in the group grumbled their agreement as they held their wives or girlfriends closer.
The armed man stomped over to Pedro and got in his face. “You don’t want her to get raped, do you?” He leered down at Maria. “A pretty one like that would be real popular.”
“No one’s going to touch her,” Pedro said through clenched teeth.
The man jerked his chin toward the group. “You don’t know these guys. And you can’t watch her every second. Trust me. She’s safer with the other women.”
Pedro narrowed his eyes and then turned with Maria toward the white van.
The guard grabbed his arm and spun him around. He aimed his gun at Pedro’s chest. “Don’t be stupid. Let her go.”
Maria gasped, her heart lodging in her throat. She surveyed the group and counted seven other armed guards. Quietly, they had encircled their twenty customers.
Her boyfriend’s head swiveled. He was sizing up the men, calculating the odds. He would do anything to protect her—even die. But if he died, she couldn’t go on without him. All their hard work to earn the money to make this trip would have been for nothing. Her dreams would die with him.
She drew a deep breath. “Pedro,” she said softly, “I will be fine. Don’t worry.”
“No. You stay with me. I will protect you.” His eyes held a hard look that startled her.
She cupped his cheek, tears welling in her eyes. “I know you would. But they will kill you. Then where would I be? Lost without you.”
“Time’s up. Say your good-byes,” the coyote shouted.
The men with guns began to forcibly separate the men from the women. One grabbed Maria’s arm and yanked her away.
Pedro raised his fists, but another man hit him in the head with a gun before he could land a punch.
Maria was dragged along the gravel shoulder and shoved into the blue van. As it pulled onto the highway, most of the eight women were crying. Through her tears, she watched from the rear window as two men carried her unconscious Pedro to the white van.
A terrifying thought blocked out everything else.
Will I ever see him again?
Special Agent Ben Alfren entered the lobby of the San Diego FBI office with a determined smile and a resolute step. He didn’t care that it was Friday morning and the weekend was coming, because he loved his job. Was there anything better than catching bad guys for a living? That sentiment was something his professors and classmates at Harvard hadn’t understood when he graduated with an MBA and took a government job with average pay instead of a private-sector position with an astronomical salary. Of course, most of them hadn’t known his bachelor’s degree from George Washington University was in criminal justice. His grin broadened at the memory and at the thought that they probably hadn’t loved the past five years of their careers as much as he had.
The phone rang just as he sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee.
“Ben, my office,” his boss said and hung up.
The man of few words had been a terrific mentor since Ben transferred from Washington, DC, two years ago. When he strolled into the office, Supervisory Special Agent Rex Kelley was stroking his chin and staring out the window.
“What’s up?” Ben asked.
“Just got the damnedest call from ICE.”
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement needs our help?”
Rex turned to him. “Yeah.” He shook his head, a puzzled expression on his face. “But it’s not the usual.”
“Okay, you’ve hooked me.”
His boss gestured toward a chair and took his seat behind the desk. “Helluva story. Five illegal aliens walked into the San Ysidro border crossing facility and turned themselves in.”
Ben frowned. “Are they political refugees seeking asylum or something?”
“They’re Mexican, and it’s not political. It’s definitely ‘or something.’ They claim to have information on a coyote who works for the Hermosillo cartel.”
“Great. We’ve been trying to nail Enrique Hermosillo for ages through his drug-money-laundering operation. This could be a break.”
“Maybe. But I doubt if they know much about the cartel kingpin.”
“If their info’s only about the coyote, then why is ICE calling us? They deal with human trafficking as much as the FBI.”
“The illegals demanded it,” Rex stated flatly.
“I gather they don’t trust ICE and are afraid our cops might be as corrupt as the Mexican police. Based on what they’ve seen on TV about the FBI, they must think we’re more likely to give them what they want in return.”
“To hunt for their kidnapped wives and girlfriends.”
* * *
The man in the gray hoodie was watching her. Amber Jollett couldn’t see his face, but he was the right height and build. Even from the opposite street corner, the intensity of his stare bored into her. She shivered despite the sunny morning.
Her focus never wavered as she slid behind two people. The man’s head turned with her movement.
The traffic light changed, and the crowd surged forward. Amber’s hand dug into her purse until it gripped reassuring metal. Weaving between bodies, she moved to the outside edge to put as much distance as possible between her and the man before the other pedestrians passed on the street. With each step, her heart beat faster.
Halfway across, the man reached up, pulled back the hood… and smiled. Straight black hair. Almond-shaped eyes. Asian features.
Amber’s knees went weak with relief.
Not him. Not this time.
A car horn blared. She jumped and spun around to find a taxi idling a few feet away, its driver gesturing impatiently for her to get out of the way. Waving an apology, she scurried across the street. She found a spot out of the pedestrian flow next to the corner of a building. She needed a moment to quiet her nerves.
She braced her hands on the knees of her pastel pink nurse’s scrubs, inhaled deep breaths, and released them slowly. Fear began to fade as calm returned.
Damn you, Jeremy Nelson. I want my life back.
Amber grimaced and closed her eyes. It was starting all over again. Two years had passed since she’d broken up with her obsessed boyfriend, but he continued to stalk her. Restraining orders and calls to law enforcement had proved useless. Now she alone was responsible for her safety. She’d lived in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego, for only two months. But two or three months was the amount of time it normally took for Jeremy to find her. From now on, she would have to be on constant alert. The worst part was imagining him wearing every hoodie, hiding in every shadow, or following in every vehicle. Usually, she didn’t wait for an actual sighting—that would be too late. No, she couldn’t hesitate. Once her instincts told her he was closing in, she had to move on. She cringed.
How much longer will I be hunted?
Amber straightened, squared her shoulders, and glanced at her watch.
She was late for work.
Minutes later, she bolted out of the elevator on the eighth floor of the downtown building containing the offices of the San Diego Surrogate Agency. Instead of turning the corner and racing for the employee entrance off another hallway, she headed straight across the lobby toward the clinic’s front door. In her peripheral vision, she noticed a couple huddled with a man in a corner. What caught her eye was the piece of blue paper he was gesturing with as he spoke. Her steps faltered as she took a closer look.
She sighed with frustration. Her specialty as a nurse in surrogate mother clinics was both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately, Jeremy knew her skills, and he’d used that information before to track her down. Someday, she would probably have to give up the work she loved and accept a general RN position. The job would still be gratifying simply because she enjoyed helping people, but there was just something so special about the gift of babies to people who couldn’t otherwise have them.
After grabbing a cup of coffee, she studied the assignment calendar posted on the wall in the employee lounge. Her first task of the day was an initial consultation with a Mr. and Mrs. Ranger. She smiled. In terms of satisfaction, initial consultations were second only to the meeting announcing the surrogate mother was pregnant with the potential parents’ baby. As she reviewed the rest of her day’s work, she noticed with surprise that Mrs. Swanson’s egg retrieval procedure had been canceled. Her gaze traveled over all the staff assignments for next week, and she spotted five more appointments crossed off, everything from consults to surrogate mother interviews to sperm donations. Scanning over future weeks, she couldn’t find when those services had been rescheduled, but she did see several more cancellations.
Now that she focused on it, there seemed to have been a lot of them lately.
With a shrug, she gulped down the rest of the coffee, popped a breath mint in her mouth, and hurried off to the small conference room for the meeting with the Rangers.
Her boss, Laura Eldridge, stopped her in the hallway just outside the door. “I need to speak with you for a minute after this consult.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
Laura pressed her lips into a straight line before answering. “We’ll talk then. Right now, let’s tell this couple all the marvelous things we can do for them.”
Amber couldn’t remember ever seeing such a serious expression on Laura’s face. The petite, slightly graying, fifty-year-old woman was the office “mother.” She loved everyone, and everyone reciprocated. Laura’s strength was bringing out the best in people. Amber knew she’d grown as a person as well as a nurse under her boss’s thoughtful guidance.
She followed Laura into the conference room and came face-to-face with the couple she’d seen in the elevator lobby earlier. After introductions, they all settled into the comfortable seating. Unlike most business conference rooms, this one didn’t include a large table surrounded by stiff, uncomfortable chairs. To encourage a more informal, relaxed atmosphere, the décor resembled a casual living room with armchairs, love seats, and couches. As Joe Ranger plopped onto a love seat beside his wife, Amber caught a glimpse of blue paper sticking out of his pants pocket.
First, Laura gave a sales presentation about the San Diego Surrogate Agency’s highly acclaimed services and its spotless reputation in the industry. She handed the couple a sheet of information on all the medical personnel and a list of previous clients as references. Then, she turned the meeting over to Amber, who as a specialized nurse could better describe the various medical procedures involved in surrogacy.
The couple fidgeted throughout both discussions and asked no questions. Only when Laura started to explain the financial aspects of the services did Mr. and Mrs. Ranger get involved.
“How can it possibly cost that much?” Joe Ranger asked. “We’re using our own sperm and eggs. It’s not like we’re buying your inventory.”
Laura blinked in surprise.
Amber knew clients were often unprepared for the fees, but their response was usually less accusatory.
“Mr. Ranger, I assure you that we never consider the precious life-creating eggs and sperm entrusted to us as ‘inventory.’ And using Mrs. Ranger’s eggs does require the egg retrieval procedure. All services considered, our fees are in line with industry standards across the country. As we never want financial restrictions to prevent people from realizing their dreams of a child, we offer numerous flexible payment plans.”
“How about discounts?” he pressed. His wife turned bright red.
“Discounts for what?”
“We’re young, healthy specimens. Shouldn’t take as much work.”
“I’ve never heard of any discounts being offered. But as I explained, you only pay for the services necessary for your particular situation. Some services you may not need. For example, if the first viable embryo transplant is successful, you’ll only be charged for one.”
He grunted his displeasure. “How much do you make on each deal?”
“Not enough to stay in business, Mr. Ranger. If we didn’t receive grants from various charitable foundations, we wouldn’t be able to cover our expenses. The doctors who own this company also have their own separate medical practices. They view this agency more as a humanitarian venture than a for-profit business.”
“Yeah, right. I bet they all drive Mercedes.”
Mrs. Ranger looked like she wanted to fall through the floor.
Amber admired Laura’s restraint. She would’ve told the guy to take a hike five minutes ago.
Her boss glanced at her watch before offering the couple a stilted smile. “If you don’t have any further questions, I’m due in another meeting shortly.”
Joe Ranger stood up. “No problem. We’re outta here.”
Without shaking hands or any parting pleasantries, he stomped out of the room, his wife following meekly behind.
“That went well,” Amber said.
Laura sighed. “I think he’s the rudest potential father I’ve ever met.” She shrugged. “Maybe he thinks we should do this for free.”
“Don’t let it get you down.” She placed a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Now what did you want to talk to me about?”
Laura’s expression went from sad to sadder. “You know what I told Mr. Ranger about the company’s financial structure is true. What you don’t know is that, due to recent cancellations, we’re in a… a financial bind. We’re looking at possible layoffs for the first time ever. The doctors hate the idea, but they’ve decided the only fair way to handle this is to use a last-in, first-out approach.”
Amber’s stomach knotted.
“Since you’re our newest employee, I’m afraid you’d be the first to go.”
* * *
Ben glanced around the table at the five Mexican men. Their forlorn expressions and haggard appearance spoke of a grueling ordeal. He couldn’t wait to hear their story, but first, he needed to gain their trust.
“Let’s take off the cuffs and get them some water,” he suggested to one of the two ICE agents in the room.
“Hell, they’re not going anywhere. They asked for this meeting.”
The agent reluctantly removed their restraints and then left the room to get the water.
“I’m FBI Special Agent Ben Alfren,” he said, reaching across the table to shake hands with each of them. “I don’t condone your coming into our country illegally, but I’m willing to listen to your story.”
“My name is Pedro Casas,” one said. “My English is not so good, but I speak the best.”
The man appeared to be in his late teens. Despite his youth, he exuded confidence. But Ben also detected a hint of panic in his eyes. Pedro had lost someone very dear to him, and he was desperate to get her back. This would definitely be the person to deal with, and not just because of his language skills.
“That’s great, Pedro.” Ben made eye contact with the other four. “Do you all
English? If not, I can get an interpreter.”
Each man nodded. One mumbled, “We are good.”
“All right. If you want to add anything to what Pedro tells us, just speak up, and he’ll translate for me.” He grinned and patted his chest. “
Comprendo muy poco de español
The Mexicans chuckled.
He turned his attention back to Pedro. “Start at the beginning.”
The young man told a harrowing tale of dealing with a ruthless coyote who used the nickname Loco and told everyone he worked for the vicious drug lord Enrique Hermosillo. Pedro described riding in a large truck, a semi, and a van. He explained how the armed guards had separated the men from the women, and how he’d been knocked out.
“What happened when you came to?” Ben asked.
“Came to what?”
“It means ‘woke up.’”
. I woke in the white van with the other men and the guards. They take us to a house to wait until night to go more north.”
“Where was the house?”
Pedro shrugged. “It was with a few others but not in a town.”
The ICE agent returned with five bottles of water and set them on the table. The Mexicans grabbed them immediately.
“Did you see a house number or a street name?” Ben asked.
Pedro frowned as he concentrated. “I do not remember.”
The others shook their heads.