She crossed northwest of Sonoyta, just south of Ajo, in the Organ Pipe National Monument. Carli Echeverria was on the first leg of what would be a two-leg journey. After she made this drop, she’d make another run further north. To Tucson or Phoenix or Gila Bend.
She looked over her shoulder, the rear window of the Nissan pickup pressed right up against her seat. The truck’s bed was just long enough for three small dog kennels. The first kennel, nearest the tailgate, held two dogs. The two kennels behind it were stuffed with blankets.
Behind those blankets were people.
Carli tried to fit five or six people in the two kennels with each load. Today, she had seven thanks to a couple of children making the run.
After she picked the group up at a gas station in Sonoyta, they walked west toward the crossing point. The Nissan was tucked behind a collection of organ pipe that rose ten feet into the blue, desert sky. In her experience, getting to America was the easy part. Once there, she needed help. She relied on an old C.B. radio in the Nissan’s cab. If a lookout spotted Border Patrol, Carli would know. And she would adjust.
They were on Highway 86 heading toward Three Points when Carli passed the spotter tower. Two weeks ago, the radio crackled just before she came across that same spotter tower. The lookout told her to hook a left and head further north down the dirt roads. A temporary checkpoint had been set up that day, and if not for the lookout, Carli would have been sent to secondary inspection. She would have been forced to sit while a dog sniffs up and down her truck, and they would have found her load.
Not today. The highway was empty, quiet.
Carli flipped down the Nissan’s visor and let a pair of aviator-style sunglasses fall into her hand. She put them on and pulled her white cowboy hat lower across her forehead. She watched the heat dance in waves across the recently paved highway.
She wasn’t supposed to be there. Not in that moment. Not in that life. She was supposed to be better than her mother. And maybe she was. She was out here doing something while her mother was locked up. Or in the back bedroom of a one-room trailer with her legs in the air.
She shouldn’t complain. The money was more than she’d ever make anywhere else. Even if she had gone to school—and goddamn, it seemed they gave scholarships away to Mexican girls just for checking the box that said “Latino”— she would never make the kind of money she was making now. Over time, she’d learned to convince herself what she did was just an adventure in the desert as she helped people to freedom.
But it was hard to maintain that fantasy anytime she came across the charred body of a crosser who had succumbed to the heat.
Most coyotes didn’t last more than a year. They needed quick money and got out when they had it. Or they stuck around too long and got caught. Carli, though, had made more runs in her time than every other runner in the crew combined. Yet, she could feel the weight of it lately. The ghost of the person she didn’t want to be was riding shotgun, and it was begging for the steering wheel.
She watched the saguaros and barrel cactus slip past her on either side. She thought about the people she helped cross. They didn’t all make it, but everyone paid. Getting to America was never free.
Carli kicked her boots together, letting her left heel run just above her right ankle. A reminder of the .22 tucked just inside her boot.
She’d only had to use it once. Couple months back, a group tried to run on her as soon as they crossed into Arizona. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Carli rounded up this particular group, but one of the men tried to run again. She didn’t have a choice.
After she put a round in his left triceps, the rest of the group fell in line. She caught hell when she dropped him at the stash house with a piece of his own shirt tied around the wound. She didn’t get paid at all on that run, which was bullshit. She’d delivered every one of them. Even if that big dumb fuck had a hole in his arm, he was alive.
It was shit like that. Made Carli wonder if she could keep this up. You see so many things before your brain decides it can’t see them anymore. The real world was out there, waiting if she wanted it.
She tapped the steering wheel and laughed, imagining what her responses might be now to job interview questions in the real world.
“Tell us about a time you overcame a challenge.”
“Well, I had to shoot a man just to make sure I got a job done.”
“So you’re committed to your work then?”
The smile faded as the thought slipped away. It was only going to get worse. There was a time when she thought she could control her life. Now, with every new job, every fight she had to have just to get paid, every horny old man trying to fuck little girls, it became clearer that the life controlled her.
She tilted the rearview mirror toward her face. A few strands of black hair escaped the hat and dangled near her eyebrow. She was surprised by the wrinkles around her brown eyes.
Carli shoved the mirror away and watched hints of a town spring up along the highway. A gas station. A small shopping plaza. Oases in the desert. The town barely existed.
She turned down a dirt road and watched the dog kennels bounce as the truck fought the dips and divots. Eroded sand, baked under triple-digit heat, was hardly an excuse for a road. She passed a house every mile or so. Mobile homes parked on acres of land. Custom homes built decades ago. Constant reminders that Three Points was somewhere people chose to live.
She parked the Nissan in a cleared lot south of what was meant to be a guest house. The main house was thirty yards to the north with an attached garage and a paved driveway—despite the nearest paved road being five or six miles back.
She got everyone out of the dog kennels and led them to the guest house. She knew it’d be empty. A conveyor belt of order governed her life. One group cycled from the main house to a car or truck for the final run north. The group in the guest house moved to the main house to make room for the newbies.
Carli unlocked the back door and led them in. The windows were barred. The front and back doors had multiple deadbolts. In the living room, she waited.
In the beginning, she laughed at the reactions. She didn’t understand what they had expected when they agreed to let someone smuggle them into a foreign country. She used to feel powerful as these people saw their new home. Trash in every corner. Piss stains on the floors and walls. Shit swept into a single corner of the house. Now, she looked away.
After leaving the group in the guest house, locking them in as she left, Carli backed the Nissan up the driveway toward the main house. The conveyor belt never stopped.
The main house wasn’t much better than the guest house. The drywall had holes throughout—either from immigrants trying to punch their way out or an enforcer who just didn’t have the patience to watch another woman or child cry. As best Carli could tell, the benefit of being moved into the main house was the bucket. Like the guest house, there wasn’t any running water, but there was a five-gallon bucket in the living room.
Leopoldo Ruiz ran the house. He was also second-in-command of the crew that worked with the cartel to smuggle people across the border. Carli considered herself more of an independent contractor, but she guessed Leo was technically her boss.
She walked past the empty living room. Leo didn’t keep anyone in there anymore. Too much shit to clean up. Too big a space. He stuffed them all in the back two spare bedrooms. Carli made her way down the hall past the kitchen, toward the bedrooms.
When she found him in one of the rooms, Leo was running his fingers through a teenage girl’s hair. The girl, like the rest of those in the room, was clad in just her underwear. A sweat-stained pair of panties and a tattered bra.
The girl closed her eyes and turned her head as Leo whispered in her ear. Everyone else in the room pretended not to notice.
“Having fun?” Carli asked, standing in the doorway.
Leo jerked his head away from the girl and looked at Carli. “Si, siempre.”
“Esa es tu novia?” Carli said.
Leo pushed the girl away, and she huddled near the rest of the group. “Why you got to fuck up my mojo, Carli?” He stood and patted Carli on the shoulder as he passed by into the hallway.
Carli followed him into the living room. “They ready?”
“Ready as they will be,” Leo said. “As if my hospitality wasn’t good enough for them.” He spit on the floor, a mixture of tobacco and saliva that joined the other stains on the bare concrete.
“Send them out then.”
Carli locked the two dog kennels in the bed of the Nissan. She slid the third one—the one with the dogs—back toward the tailgate, concealing her load as much as possible. The dogs barked until Carli slammed her fist down on top of the kennel. She looked into the two kennels full of people and did a quick count.
“Fucking Leo,” she muttered, looking back at the main house.
Her boots clicked against the cracked cement driveway on her way back into the house. She scanned the property one more time before entering. No tracks nearby. No movement. Just empty, brown, dusty desert. The neighbors weren’t much of a problem because of the distance, but she didn’t want some kids on four-wheelers romping through here and catching a glimpse of something they shouldn’t see.
Inside the house, Carli yelled for Leo. He didn’t respond. She shook her head as she went down the hallway. He wasn’t in either of the two spare bedrooms, so she stepped into the master. Leo was straddling the teenage girl. Her bra was flipped up near her throat, and Leo was staring at her breasts. He touched her stomach. Then her cheek. The girl squirmed, but she didn’t scream.
“Jesus Christ, Leo,” Carli said. “I need a full load.”
Leo laughed. “You don’t need shit.”
“She paid, right?”
“Sure. Her family wired the money a couple days ago.” Leo squeezed the girl’s cheeks until she cried out, kissed her on the lips. “But fucking look at her. Qué bonita.”
Carli’s face felt hot. Her hand began to shake. “I need her. I’ve got to make the final drop.”
Leo shook his head. “You’re not getting it. This one’s worth more. More than what her family already paid. The way I see it, I’ve got two options that’ll make us some extra cash. We rent her out—you know these old white fucks around here will pay for her. Or, we ransom her. Tell her family she’s going to be fucked six ways from Sunday if they don’t pay extra. A beauty tax. What d’ya think?”
She watched Leo licking the girl’s ear and wondered how she’d been able to put up with this shit for so long. It wasn’t just Leo, and it wasn’t just the girl. Carli was a professional. She wanted things done right and on time. Leo fucking this girl was not part of the plan.
Leo winked and told Carli to get the fuck out, but Carli stood in the doorway. She should leave. She should make her run north, but her face was getting hotter. If Leo made more money off the girl, it didn’t mean more in Carli’s pocket. Just Leo’s. In fact, her cut at the final drop would be less. She’d let shit like that slide too often.
She felt the sweat on her forehead. Her hand trembled noticeably now. Turn around, she thought. Go. But she didn’t.
“Leo, I’m serious. I need the girl for this run.”
Leo stood and squared himself in front of Carli. “You don’t fucking tell me what you need, bitch. I tell you what I need. I need you to get the fuck out of here unless you want this to turn into a three-way.”
Carli thought about hitting him, but she stepped toward the girl instead. Leo shoved her in the chest, and Carli stumbled then tripped and fell to the floor. She was up in a second. The heat from her face moved to her eyes, and everything went white for a second. She backed up a step, bent over, pulled the .22 from her ankle holster, and pointed it at Leo. He took a step back, but Carli was already firing.
The first bullet hit Leo in the shoulder and he fell near the girl. The second sailed high. Leo tried to slide backward away from Carli. He held both hands in front of his face. Carli stepped across the room, but she felt like she wasn’t doing it. She felt like she was watching herself. Like she was hovering outside her body, unable to stop what was about to happen.
Carli pointed the .22 at Leo’s forehead and pulled the trigger one more time.
She blinked away the white heat as the gunshots echoed in her ears. When the ringing subsided, she holstered her gun and turned. The girl had folded herself into a ball in the corner. Carli looked back at Leo.
“Fuck,” she said then punched the floor.
She could run, but the girl was there. Terrified. “Esta bien,” Carli said. “Estás seguro.”
She helped the girl to her feet and asked her name.
“Mitra,” the girl replied.
Carli pointed at the girl’s upturned bra. “Pon eso de nuevo.”
They left the room together. The girl didn’t say anything, but she stood close to Carli. The run was over. Carli couldn’t take them all to the final drop. Word would get out. Someone would be waiting for her if she went north.
“Dónde está la ropa?” Carli asked.
Mitra pointed toward a bathroom set off from the living room. Carli followed her and found the group’s clothes thrown in a bathtub that was black with mold. She helped Mitra get dressed and gather the clothes then pointed her out the front door.
In the driveway, Carli hesitated when she got to the dog kennels. She could leave them there. Maybe that’d soften the blow. No, she thought. No amount of goodwill now would change the end game.
She unlatched the dog kennels with people inside. Five immigrants climbed out, confused. Two women and three men. Carli helped them down from the truck. Mitra passed out the clothing, and they all dressed.
“No puedo tomar,” Carli said.
Carli remembered the group in the guest house. She ran to the guest house and threw open each lock. She led the group she had just dropped off back out of the house.
“Todos ustedes tienen que ir por su cuenta.”
No one moved.
Sal de aquí,” she yelled.
After another moment of silent looks between each other, the group started to move. They began a trek toward the open desert, away from the main road. Carli grabbed Mitra by the elbow and held her back.
“Quédate conmig,” Carli said.
There was money in the stash house but not enough. Carli didn’t think there would ever be enough money to keep her alive after what she did. She lifted her hat, pushed her hair back, and closed her eyes. Behind closed lids, she saw Leo bleeding on the floor. She opened her eyes and pushed Mitra toward the main house again. Money bought a lot of things. If it couldn’t buy her life, it could extend it.
Back inside the house, Carli led Mitra to the middle of the living room and told her to stay put. She went to the refrigerator and pulled open the door. The light inside had probably been out for years. There was a box of baking soda on the top shelf. Other than that, the entire thing was seemingly empty. Except the bottom drawer. It was covered with black electrical tape. As if keeping someone from seeing into the drawer was enough to keep the person from opening it. Nice, Leo, Carli thought.
Carli pulled the drawer open and found three large envelopes. She ripped them open one at a time and lined her pockets. She stuffed as much cash into her pants as she could, but there was still a lot left over.
She called over her shoulder for Mitra. She told the girl she wouldn’t hurt her if she helped. When Mitra came over, Carli began handing over stacks of cash. She pointed to the pockets of Mitra’s jeans, and the girl began stuffing. When all the money had been emptied from the envelopes, Carli walked Mitra back out front.
When they returned to the driveway outside the house, the rest of the group had vanished. If they were nearby, they had become invisible. Silent. Carli smiled. She could disappear, too. For a while, at least.
She couldn’t run, so she thought about the next best thing. A safe place to hide.
She looked at the Nissan. She’d have to leave it here. Too many people in her crew and in the cartel knew it. She might have to steal a car. Or maybe she’d let her hair fall down her back, let her hips sway a little more, and walk along the highway with her thumb out. Whatever she did, she’d make it, and Mitra was coming with. Leo’s beauty tax plan wasn’t half-bad, after all.
Carli pulled her hat low, watching the sun sink behind Kitt Peak. She took Mitra by the arm, and they walked. She was going home.