LOST, FOUND, AND LOST.
Violet was sheltered protectively by Juan and Cindy as they stood along the plaza watching the dancers. She wanted to be home. She wanted to be a little girl again and dance happily on the plaza. Would Balthazaar even want her again now that she had been so defiled? Her fingers idly caressed the small silver medallion dangling from her neck. The Virgin Mary. She whispered to herself.
"Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of..." Her plea for intercession was interrupted by some scuffle in the crowd. Her eyes turned toward the sounds and the shoving.
"Balthazaar?!" She saw a glimpse of his eyes and his outreached hand. "Balthazaar!" She began walking hurriedly through the crowd. And suddenly, unbelievably, she was in his arms. "Oh Balthazaar," she sobbed, burying her face in his chest. His hand caressed her head briefly, then...
"Hurry Violet," he said, grabbing her hand. He led her back through the crowd. She ran along behind him clinging to his hand as they ran up the street toward his car.
"Get in," he said. They embraced again in the front seat. There was the sound of a sharp metallic click behind them.
"Don't move," a man's voice said. "Start the car." Violet glanced over her shoulder nervously. It was one them.
"I don't have the stones," she blurted out.
"I don't care," he replied. He tapped his gun on the side of Balthazaar's head.
"Drive." Balthazaar pulled away from the curb.
"Look," he said, glancing into the rear-view mirror. "You've got the money. We don't know what became of the stones."
"Shut up," the man replied. "Turn left here." They turned into an alley. "Pull up behind that truck," he said. "Now get out."
"What do you want with us?" Balthazaar said. The man smacked his pistol roughly against Balthazaar's temple.
"Get out of the fucking car." The back doors of the truck swung open. "Get in." A second man pulled them on in, pushing them to the floor.
"Tie them up and blind-fold them," he said. They closed and locked the back door of the truck and then torched Balthazaar's car.
Graciano sat on a bench along the boardwalk looking out at the harbor. His eyes carefully scanned the boats anchored there. He told himself that these men were likely gone by now. And perhaps Violet with them. Or perhaps they dumped Violet here in the city somewhere. And perhaps the Sweet Jane was lurking somewhere just out of sight. He walked on down to the water looking for a fishing boat to rent. He found a small outboard. Not a boat one would take onto the deep sea, but ideal for fishing close along the coast line. He purchased some fishing gear and bait then turned the boat out of the harbor. If The Sweet Jane was anywhere near Vera Cruz, he would find her. He scanned the curving coastline headed north. Palms, palmettos, and grasses. Little piers here and there and beyond them, well-worn beach houses or local shacks not yet bought off. He thought about Violet his darling daughter. And Josephina. Back then he thought he was doing the right thing leaving them to fight for the freedom of Latinos to live without fear in their homelands. To live free of power hungry dictators, or pirates disguised as revolutionaries. How many had he killed along the way? And where had it got him? It all came to a head as he rounded a point, and there sat The Sweet Jane. It sat tied off at a rickety pier, and back in a palmetto grove he could glimpse a humble beach house on stilts. Why would someone with a small yacht be here of all places? He cut the motor, and pulled out his fishing gear and took a seat.
The old hotel, once a grand structure, now seemed a bit in disrepair. Like some woman fallen from grace, or an old movie star whose pancake make-up was cracking in the wrinkles of her face. But upon walking into the large and ornate lobby, it still had a by-gone charm and even a sense of pride in its shabbiness.
Ricardo and Josephina sat on one of the plush brown cowhide couches looking about at the people coming and going. They were waiting for Graciano to appear. He had said he would meet them there, and the desk clerk told them he had arrived, but was not in his room.
"Will you be happy to see him again?" Ricardo asked.
"You are my lover now," she answered obliquely. "He is Violet's father. I will always care about him. We have to tell him what has happened. I am most worried about that."
"That he would think us reckless?" Ricardo asked.
"Worse," Josephina said. "He would think us selfish."
"Yes," Ricardo replied. "And that we were. How I wish we could turn back time."
"And Graciano would laugh and sneer at such a futile way of thinking," Josephina said. "He would be focused on the future, now that done is done. He would think it not a time for self pity."
Ricardo had never met the man. But he knew of his renown as a freedom fighter. People would boast of having fought with him, or of knowing someone who was at his side at one coup or another. He was legendary for insisting he was only human, but everyone considered him as though a god. A redeemer.
Graciano was mostly expressionless when he saw them. But he gave Josephina a warm hug sensing her sadness. And he hugged Ricardo as well, as though they were old friends. He led them up the stairs to his room.
The bed was cluttered with newspapers, maps, and written notes. He scooped them up and set them aside. Not as a courtesy so much, but as though it would be better for them not to know too much about his current enterprises. It was a familiar scene to Josephina. Graciano's secrets; his dealings in the shadowy world of smuggled weapons. They sat down around a small table.
"I have found The Sweet Jane," he said flatly. "It originated in Venezuela. It had been bought there, or perhaps pirated off the coast."
"How did you find this out?" Josephina asked.
"I have my ways," he replied. "And now I need to know just what the fuck has happened." Josephina grimaced and wrung her hands.
"Graciano, I am so sorry. So sorry."
"Is she dead?" Graciano asked.
"We are not sure," Ricardo answered. "We are hoping she is here somewhere in this city."
"Out with it then," Graciano said. "I need to know everything that has transpired. Everything."
"You will hate me," Josephina sobbed.
"I will never hate you," Graciano replied. "Tell me now. Time is precious when a life is in jeopardy." Josephina began blurting out the story amidst sobs. The silly idea. To find a way to live a better life by making a deal. It was mostly wine talking at the time, but then it got serious. Graciano reached across the table and took her hand.
"Josephina. You are talking in circles, yet telling me little."
"I have a friend in South Africa," Ricardo said. "He told me he could get some diamonds to us, and we could take them north and make a lot of money. He had his own profit figured in. All we had to do was to receive the stones, and take them to the next place. Across the border."
"To the states?" Graciano said. Ricardo nodded.
"The plan was to cross the Rio in Texas. The border patrol there is not looking for stones. They are busy with drug traffic, and coyotes moving illegals."
"Laredo?" Graciano asked.
"How did you know?"
"Don't ask," Graciano replied. "And Violet? How did she play in?"
"She wanted to be the liaison," Josephina answered. "She wanted to be the one to meet with the intermediaries. She convinced us she could do it." Graciano broke into a sudden burst of laughter that took Ricardo and Josephina by surprise.
"Oh, Violet!" he laughed. "She always had some romance with danger, even as a little girl."
"She grew to be like you, Graciano," Josephina said. Graciano nodded.
"Yes, perhaps. But for the wrong reasons. I must shoulder some of this blame. I was not there to guide her to the things that really matter. To teach her what it is that is worth fighting for." Josephina began to cry again.
"I am so sorry Graciano. I have let you down."
"Dry your eyes Josephina. What we must do is focus now. When all is said and done, there will be time for laughing or crying perhaps. But now, we must act to find Violet, or if she is dead, exact revenge."
In the beach house, Balthazaar and Violet sat on the floor, hands tied behind their backs and gagged with adhesive tape. Both were wide-eyed with fear. They glanced furtively at one another and at the men pacing the room. Sometimes, the men screamed at them, sometimes they talked quietly among themselves.
A man they called Yosue put his face down and stared at Violet. His lips barely moved.
"Such pretty eyes," he said quietly. "Where are the stones?" Violet shook her head from side to side and whined in anguish. There was no way to say anything. There was no way to move her lips. His breath smelled like licorice. Jaibar moved over her and pulled the tape away as Yosue stepped back. He cupped her face softly in his hands.
"You don't have to die," he whispered. Violet pleaded with her eyes.
"The stones are safe," she said weakly. Jaibar caressed her, running his fingers through her hair.
"Good," he whispered. "So, they are safe. It's simple isn't it, Violet? When you tell the truth, your troubles melt away. So, now we need to go get them."
"I don't remember the number," Violet cried.
"What number?" Jaibar asked, still caressing her bruised face.
"It's...something...5," Violet said, her head beginning to spin.
"Something 5?" Jaibar repeated, standing up and looking at her.
Adan, who had stood back watching, approached Balthazaar.
"Perhaps you can help her remember?" he said, through gritted teeth.
"I don't know about the number," Balthazaar stammered.
"Maybe it is a number you knew once, but have forgotten?" Adan said, as he turned to look at Jaibar. "How many times have I paced the house, Jaibar, looking for the keys to my Maserati?"
"Too many times," Jaibar answered. Adan stared into Balthazaar's eyes.
"But, somehow, I always find my keys, and am on my way. So, what is the number, Balthazaar?"
Balthazaar shook his head. He glanced to Violet. He knew nothing of a number. Adan looked at his watch.
"It's getting late." He put his hands on Balthazaar's shoulders. He smiled kindly down at him. "Balthazaar, my friend. It is so easy. It is just a number. I forget things all the time myself. But in the urgency of the moment, I miraculously remember. So now, here is the urgency. The urgency you find yourself in." He pulled a knife from his pocket, and opened it. He ran his thumb across the blade. "One is about to have his balls cut off, and there is no anesthesia. The blood pools onto the floor. One gets faint. And the last thing one sees is his lover being force-fed warm testicles. In an urgent moment such as that, one remembers things long forgotten." Adan turned to Yosue and Jaibar. "Pull his pants down."
"It's three!" Violet screamed frantically. "The number is three!"
to be continued.....