She said, “I intend to save at least two teenage girls from a life of prostitution and sexual slavery.” It was a startling, unexpected thing to hear on such a beautiful spring day.
The day started as expected. Joshua Bell and I finished a custom barbecue smoker and grill commissioned by the Scamp Boat Company. Intended for use on the professional barbecue cook-off circuit, the cooking machine was a thing of beauty. Luckily, the customer agreed it did not have to look like a bass boat.
It stretched over twelve feet long and six feet wide. I’d finished it with an attention-getting brass steam whistle. Polished brass letters spelled “Scamp” in an arch bookended by etched brass replicas of the company’s logo, a playful puppy, forepaws on the ground, tail curved over a raised rump. I’d gone for a circus calliope look.
I did not want to hear about somebody’s problem with prostitution and sexual slavery. With what Scamp Boats paid me, I could pay Joshua’s salary for the rest of the year, buy myself a couple of new and expensive fishing rods, fill my boat’s fuel tanks and still have a respectful sum left in the bank. When my responsibilities slowed in the fall, I intended to leave the shop in Joshua’s care, pay him extra to watch over the rentals I managed, let Harry Faulks take over any legal matters I couldn’t finish in time, and, then, I would take a meandering journey down the Intracoastal Waterway to the Florida Keys. I planned to spend Christmas in Key West craziness, drinking mojitos and enjoying spicy Cuban cuisine.
So far I only had one trial scheduled, an argument over travel restrictions the other side sought to impose on my client, the father of three children. I did not want any other involved case. I intended to be careful and not take any case that might interfere with my plans to disappear for a while at the end of the year.
That day, a Saturday, started gloriously free of responsibilities. Joshua and I finished early before the workshop heated up. I thought it might be a good day to go fishing.
Joshua, whistling softly, applied a steel brush to the last of the weld slag while I stood back to admire our handiwork. A car crunched to a stop on the driveway just outside the open doors to the shop. Doors slammed. Preacher came around the edge of the door and into the shop in the company of three others, strangers to me.
They made an interesting group. Preacher is large, well over my six feet and an inch, beefy, but coordinated enough to be a skilled surfer and an amiable competitor at volleyball games on the beach. I never saw Preacher in anything other than loud Hawaiian style shirts, well-worn jeans or shorts, and leather sandals.
With sun-bleached hair pulled into a long ponytail and his always available sunglasses, Preacher looks like an aging surfer. He is a genuine minister of sorts. He arrived on the coast a few years earlier and set up a church in an abandoned convenience store on the bay side of the Blue Water Highway on Follets Island. He ministers to an ever-changing congregation of the fringe who gravitate to the coast. He sought me out early on to handle legal issues arising with members of his congregation.
I like Preacher. He’s well off-center and that makes him interesting. Besides, any minister who reschedules Sunday morning services if there is good surfing available is my kind of minister.
Two of his companions, a man and a woman, looked as though they belonged together. The man, wiry with close-cropped dark hair, wore a black t-shirt fitted tight over what could have been a middleweight boxer’s body. The dark edges of a tattoo appeared beneath the sleeve of his shirt.
The woman, who stayed close to his side, also dressed in no-nonsense black. Her dark hair was only a little longer than his. Their lace-up boots added to their combat-ready appearance. The man glanced around the shop, looked at his similarly clad partner, and gave a subtle shake of his head. Tight-lipped, neither appeared pleased with what they saw.
The third stranger looked out of place by sheer normality. She’d pulled her dark hair into a ponytail. She wore starched khaki Capri pants, a white short-sleeved blouse, and crisp white tennis shoes. She carried a large, flat handbag. Her intelligent, wary, blue-gray eyes looked at me as I walked toward the group. She had a pleasant, if somewhat nervous, smile.
Preacher’s companions did not look like they’d come to buy a grill or hire a fishing guide. That left only one thing. I picked the nicely dressed dark-haired beauty as the one with a legal problem. In that group, she was the misfit, and the misfits usually have the legal problem. She didn’t look like one of Preacher’s usual projects. He often brings by some member of his congregation for legal attention, drug possession or unpaid child support or this or that. I usually take on Preacher’s people projects for free as my contribution to his good works and out of some sense of obligation as an attorney.
“Brother Sam, we need your counsel.”
Preacher talks like that.
“Let’s go up to the house.”
I led them out of the acrid, hot metal atmosphere of the shop into the fresh air outside. Leaning against their car was a girl. I guessed thirteen or fourteen years old. Her short, bleached blonde, shaggy hair had dark roots of her natural hair color. She leaned against their car with her arms crossed in front of her chest. Diminutive and shrinking into herself, she moved only her eyes. She watched us, unblinking with a fearful intensity. After one brief glance at all of us, she focused on the nicely dressed woman and did not look away from her. The woman directed a smile and nod at the girl.
I revised my speculation about who needed legal counsel. It would be the girl. She would be caught in some sad custody battle or she would need to escape some terrible home life or she would have done something that brought her to the attention of legal authorities. There are rarely good answers for the children. In the legal arena, children need crusaders. I am not a crusader. I would refer the problem to someone who practiced in whatever area she needed and do my best to talk that lawyer into doing what needed doing for free or for as low a price as possible.
The five of us crossed the yard and went up the steps to my screened in porch. The girl did not move from where she leaned against the car. With a gesture, I invited them to choose from the chairs on the porch, and said, “I’m having coffee. Anybody else? Iced tea? Dr Pepper?” I directed the last offer to Preacher. He consumes a lot of Dr Pepper. He nodded yes.
The normal looking dark-haired woman said, “Coffee would be good.”
“No, I’m fine.” That was the man in black. The woman in black said nothing.
I returned with the drinks, sipped my coffee, and looked expectantly at Preacher.
“Sam, this is Sister Mary Elizabeth Kincaid.”
The normal looking lady set her coffee cup down and put her hand out. I leaned forward to shake it. She took a deep breath and started to say something, but the man spoke first, “What are you exactly?”
He was rude. In my lawyer role, I expected rude people coming for help. A client’s rudeness arose from insecurity, fear, or anger because of their circumstances. I’ve learned to deflect the rudeness, hear their story, and dispassionately do what I can to help. Having just deposited a sizable check from Scamp Boats, I could indulge in a lower tolerance for rudeness.
“Like the sign says, I build grills and smokers.” I pointed at the steel sign hung from a post by the driveway. They couldn’t have missed it as they drove in. Joshua made it for me as a Christmas gift the year before. My name and anachronistic appellation, “Samuel Locke, Esquire,” is arched in brass plated six-inch tall letters at the top. Joshua often called me squire. It amused him.
The profile of a speckled trout curved beneath my name on the sign. Two rows of four-inch tall letters spelled out “Custom Barbecue Smokers and Grills” beneath my name. Below that it said “Fishing Guide.” Hanging at the bottom, in two-inch letters, it said “Lawyering.”
The unfriendly lady made a sound of disapproval. Mary Elizabeth Kincaid gave both of her companions a sharper look than expected from such a gentle-looking lady. Preacher spoke, ignoring them completely. “Sam, we need your expertise.”
“What’s going on?”
Mary Elizabeth spoke up. “Mr. Locke, I intend to save two girls from a life of prostitution and sexual slavery. Preacher thinks you can help.”
If Preacher started a conversation about sexual slavery and prostitution, I would not have been terribly surprised. Not much Preacher said surprised me, but the declaration came from his companion, the coolly attractive Mary Elizabeth Kincaid. She looked like she should be sipping her coffee at a country club, talking about her child’s latest swim meet or soccer game, not sitting on my porch in the company of an eccentric like Preacher telling a beach bum like me she intended to save girls from the clutches of sexual slavery.
I leaned back in my chair absorbing what she’d said. I looked at Preacher. He sat serenely with hands clasped across his belly saying nothing. The other two looked at me, scowling. I turned back to Mary Elizabeth.
“Ms. Kincaid … ”
“Mary Elizabeth, please.”
I nodded. “Mary Elizabeth, what are you talking about?”
“Just what I said. Out of the thousands of girls coerced into prostitution every year, I intend to save at least two. I need to pick the brain of somebody who knows the coast. We could use a boat. Preacher speaks highly of you. He told me you are a good man with a good boat.”
She smiled. Although enormously self-contained, half-formed tears glistened in her eyes suggesting a crack in her calm demeanor.
The lady in black tentatively reached toward her and spoke for the first time, “Mary Elizabeth … ”
Mary Elizabeth jerked away from the hand reaching toward her. “No. I know you think it was a mistake to come down here. I know you think this whole thing is a mistake. I know you think there’s nothing I can do. I know. I know. I know. Okay?”
“We all want to do something. We always do. It’s just that it really would be best to take this one to the authorities.”
“No. I tried that. You know what would happen. I cannot walk away from this one. I have to try to do this one right. You don’t have to stay. Go back. I have to try.”
The man in black remained quiet. Arms crossed, he looked toward the bay glistening beyond the grass flats. A muscle tensed at the base of his jaw. The emotional atmosphere crackled. On the outside looking in, I didn’t like the shape of things, but she had captured my curiosity.
“Could I at least get your names?”
The man turned from the window. “Jason Edwards.” We nodded at each other.
“Patricia Carr.” She actually leaned toward me and held out her hand for a short, firm handshake.
The atmosphere remained leaden with emotion. I asked Mary Elizabeth, “Would you be more comfortable speaking in private?”
She glanced at her companions. “No. It will be okay.”
Jason Edwards looked at her for a moment and nodded. Patricia Carr reached toward her touching her arm and smiling. “It will. You just know … ”
“Yes, I know. But we won’t know for sure, will we? Not until we try.”
I really needed to catch up. “Okay, it doesn’t hurt to talk. Somebody tell me what’s going on.”
Mary Elizabeth looked at her companions with a do not interrupt me look and turned back to me. “Mr. Locke … ”
“Sam.” She smiled. She waved a hand toward her friends and continued. “We work in Chicago with The Beacon, an organization assisting children who are with homeless families or who are alone on the streets for one reason or another. In December, one of our street kids brought a girl to The Beacon. The girl’s name is Mina. Mina Verenka.”
I looked out at the girl still leaning against the car in the drive. “Her?”
“Yes. Mina is sixteen. She showed up in the freezing cold with hardly any clothes and badly beaten. She wouldn’t talk. She wouldn’t cry. She let me bathe her and treat her abrasions. We checked her out at a clinic. We made sure she did not need a hospital for her injuries. We checked to make sure she was not pregnant and that she had not picked up some disease. She was compliant, but she would not talk much. She gave minimal answers to only basic questions.
“Eventually, she opened up to me.” She turned to look at the girl and took a deep breath. “They brought Mina to this country illegally from Ukraine. She thought she was going to work as a housekeeper or a nanny. Instead, her captors forced her to work as a prostitute. It took me a month of gaining her trust and working with her to learn that about her. No one else could connect with her.”
I looked at the girl outside again. She was too young, too tiny. Damn the animals of this world.
“Yes, I know. Hard to believe isn’t it?” Mary Elizabeth said, leaning toward me.
No way did I want a part of this ugliness. Somebody else should handle it. Someone else should hear Mary Elizabeth’s story, but there was no gracious way to stop her from telling me.
“Once she learned I draw, she opened up to me. Here, let me show you.”
She unzipped the bag she carried and pulled out a drawing pad, placing it on the table between us.
“One of the things I do at The Beacon is help the children communicate and express their feelings. I have degrees in psychology, and I draw. I use drawing to get the kids to communicate. Some children will draw something they cannot say.”
I nodded my understanding.
“I tried it with Mina, and she finally got excited. She draws and does so with considerable talent. Drawing is how I gained her trust and friendship. It’s how I learned her story. It created an affinity between us.”
She opened the drawing pad and turned it toward me. “This is how I started. I showed her where I grew up.”
The sketch was a two-story house, suburban America, unremarkable in any way. Mary Elizabeth turned the page to the next drawing. “She drew this.”
Though not as refined as Mary Elizabeth’s, Mina’s skill showed in the drawing of a bleak and ugly building. The building’s facade framed a collection of anonymous, dark windows.
Mary Elizabeth turned several pages, saying, “These are people we know. I drew my family and she drew hers. These are her parents, her brothers, and her twin sister Zoio. Her parents died in a bus crash. Mina and her brothers and sister lived with an uncle and aunt.” She pointed out another pair of portraits, the uncle and aunt.
Mina certainly could draw haunted eyes. The faces of the adults were gaunt, lined with weariness. Her twin had a small, sad smile, but she wasn’t happy. She looked as lost and haunted as the adults. The brothers looked sullen and angry.
I looked at the stark picture of the sister and back out at Mina. I had a feeling. “You said you intended to save two girls.”
“Yes.” She tapped the drawing with a finger. “They have her twin.”
I looked at the group on the porch with me. Mary Elizabeth watched me quietly, calmly reposed, but with a tightness around her mouth and eyes. Preacher sat still, his fingers interlaced, nothing moving except his eyes. He looked back and forth between Mary Elizabeth and me. Edwards stared out the window, his face etched in hard lines. Patricia Carr stared at me, pale with spots of pink high on each cheek. Outside, the girl had not moved from where she leaned against the car.
“Okay. Tell me the story.”
Mary Elizabeth turned to a drawing in the sketchpad and pushed it toward me. It was a picture of a man. He loomed tall and thin, standing in a doorway, wearing a full-length coat ending just below his knees. A hat shadowed his face. Mina had drawn his eyes deep in black hollows, rimmed in white, gleaming in the recessed darkness of his face. His were not sad eyes. His eyes were soulless. His were the feral eyes of a predator.
I looked at Mary Elizabeth. “That’s the man,” she said. “He’s the one who came to her home and paid her uncle. He explained how they would train Mina as a housemaid or a nanny. Mina’s family has a difficult struggle and her aunt and uncle didn’t ask many questions. The family wanted to believe what they heard.”
I glanced at Preacher. A tear rolled down his cheek. “Sam, that man and all those like him will spend eternity in hell. And the sooner they get started the better. You’ve not heard the worst of it.”
Mary Elizabeth nodded at Preacher with a small smile. She continued in a quiet voice. “They treated her okay for a while. They cleaned her up and gave her new clothes. A woman taught her to use make-up. Mina was fifteen. She thought that was wonderful. They told her she could earn the most money in the United States and started teaching her English. They told her that in America she would earn enough money to bring her entire family over to live. They told her she could visit Disneyland. After a couple of months of anticipation, it excited her to be coming to the States.”
Mary Elizabeth flipped the pages in the drawing pad to drawings of what looked like the interior of a small, cheap apartment. “These are drawings of where she lived for a while with several other girls after she left home.”
I held up a hand to stop her. “You keep talking about ‘they’ and how they bought her and how they did this and that. You are talking about an extensive criminal organization. You need the FBI. You need Interpol. Have you talked to the authorities at all?”
“Yes, but it does no good. Everybody knows there’s a problem, but it overwhelms. They don’t like to discuss it. I do not have enough information to get the police interested.”
“But you have a girl who was involved. Somebody who can give the police specific information.”
“First, I don’t think she could give them useful concrete information, at least not enough to help. She couldn’t even find the apartment from which she’d escaped in Chicago. We looked for it. I told them everything Mina could tell them. Second, I don’t think she should talk to the authorities.”
“The police would have no choice but to turn her over to child services. She might be deported.”
“Surely they wouldn’t deport anybody in her situation.”
“Oh yes, they would. It happens. International politics often make governments blind to harsh realities. She would become a playing piece. Do you remember the hoopla surrounding the boy from Cuba they sent back? Eventually, they’d send her back to the custody of the Ukraine government. I don’t think that’s the best solution. The social service agencies in Ukraine are overloaded. At best, once there, they’d send her home and that man in the hat and coat would find her again. Her entire family would be at risk.
“Sam, authorities know about the problem. Governments pass laws all the time. There are meetings at the United Nations. Scholars make speeches and write papers on the subject. People study the problem to death. Meanwhile, girls are bought and sold every day.” Her voice rose in pitch as she fought to control her emotions.
Mina had a lot of concrete information. She had drawings. I thought her story compelling enough to get the necessary attention. But maybe the girl would be swallowed in the process. I had no idea.
Mary Elizabeth closed the drawing pad. Her lips grew tight. The skin around her eyes went slack. She suddenly looked ten years older and very tired. Her voice cracked with emotion. Patricia put a hand on her shoulder. Edwards turned from the window.
“I know I cannot stop them. Perhaps no one can. It’s been going on for centuries. This one little part of it is personal to me. The big picture will swallow the girls I want to save if authorities get involved. These girls are nothing to the people who buy and sell them. In the end, they are nothing to the governments that might stop this travesty.
“I don’t expect to stop everything that’s going on. I will tell the authorities what I know and what I learn, but first, Mina will be safe. If possible, her sister will be safe. That’s something I can try to do.”
Obviously, Mary Elizabeth’s quest was personal. Her reluctance to involve authorities did not bother me. I appreciated her sense of futility about fixing the big picture and her desire to fix the personal part. I had no problem with her desire to work outside the strict boundaries of the law. I argued only because I believed whatever she planned was a lost cause. Fighting lost causes is noble but ends in tragedy and heartache. I stopped fighting lost causes some time ago. I prefer beer and barbecue to heartache. Selfishness or survival? I don’t know and I don’t care. I have no reason to analyze the whys of my preference.
Preacher continued to sit there like Buddha in a Hawaiian shirt, hands folded, saying nothing. I turned to him. “Preacher, you’re not saying much. That’s unusual for you.”
“She has a quiet power, Sam. I’m confident that once you’ve heard enough you will help. Probably more than you think you will.”
Out of respect for Mary Elizabeth, I didn’t articulate what I thought, but I made a sound. He smiled. I poured more coffee and turned back toward her.
“Look, why don’t you tell me exactly what you intend to do and what you think you need me to do.”
“Okay.” She leaned toward me. “After Mina opened up to me, I realized she had tremendous visual memory about her experience in getting to Chicago. She, along with five other girls, traveled on a cargo ship to the States. They actually cooked and did laundry on the ship. Free labor. They had little English, and nobody on the ship spoke their native language.
“After a long trip at sea, they put the girls on a small boat. They must have been some distance from shore. The girls had no idea where they were, but I’m sure the boat brought them somewhere along the Texas coast close to Galveston. They stayed some place next to the ocean that first night. The next night, they left in a van driven by a woman. They stopped one time in a big city where they took two of the girls out of the van. From the way Mina describes the timing and the city, I’m guessing that was Dallas.”
“How did you decide on Galveston?”
“Let me show you.” She turned the pages of the sketchpad. “As I said, Mina has an excellent visual memory. She was excited and very observant about what was happening. I got her to draw what she could remember about her trip. She drew this. She saw it that first night she traveled in the van.”
She turned the book toward me. I recognized it immediately. Mina had drawn a picture of General Sam Houston a hero of the Texas revolution and a two-term President of the Republic of Texas. The statue she’d drawn stands nearly ninety feet tall beside Interstate 45 north of Houston. Mile marker zero for the Interstate is in Galveston a couple of miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
The statue is solid white. At night, it rises out of the darkness of the surrounding forest, brightly lit by spotlights, gleaming like alabaster. It can startle an unwary motorist. To Mina, in a strange country traveling in the dark into the unknown, it would be a memorable sight.
Mina had not drawn many details of the statue, but she had the looming bulk of the piece, and she had the cane. The statue of Sam Houston leans on a cane. That’s what I recognized first.
Mary Elizabeth said, “It didn’t take me long to find a picture of that statue on the internet. Mina recognized the photograph.”
I nodded. “Have you been up to see it yet?”
“Yes. Mina confirmed it is the statue. That’s the highway they took on their way to Chicago.”
Preacher tapped a finger against the drawing. “Do you have doubts Brother Sam? I’ve never seen the statue.”
“No. I agree. It’s the statue. Okay. It looks like they took her up I-45 from Houston. I still can’t imagine what you plan to do about it without official help.”
“Sam, I don’t expect to stop the smuggling. I know I can’t do that. I do intend to get as much information as I can and put it in the hands of somebody official, but not until I try to save Zoio.”
“Tell me about her. How do you know she’s involved?”
“You cannot imagine the horror of Mina’s life in Chicago. She didn’t learn what they planned for her until she got there. They locked her in a room all alone. They told her there was no way she could get the work she’d been promised until she or her family paid what it cost to get her to the United States. She was powerless, beaten for the slightest reason. She had no refuge. The man in charge of her told her the debt for feeding and housing her increased daily. He told her at some point it would be cheaper to just kill her. Finally, at her most hopeless moment, he told her how she could make the money necessary to repay her debt.”
A breeze rustled across the flats, the air gentle and scented of salt and the sea. I started to hear the usually unnoticed sounds, the flip of a fish in the flats, the squawk of a gull. I knew there were unfortunate and terrible circumstances in the world. It angered me that Preacher brought this sincere, naive social worker and her sullen friends to my house. I didn’t see a thing she could do. I couldn’t imagine what she expected me to do.
“I can imagine what they did … ”
Preacher interrupted me in a quiet, sincere voice. “No, Sam. You cannot imagine the evil of these people. They auctioned off this child’s virginity.”
“You don’t know that.”
Mary Elizabeth said, “I do. I’ve heard her tell it. They stood her in a room in front of three men and made her strip for inspection. She lost her virginity to one of those men. That is one picture I cannot ask her to draw.”
“Okay, I can’t imagine the evil.” I was getting angrier at the intrusion in my life. “I also can’t imagine how you can do anything. What’s up with her sister?”
“Mina knew the man in charge of her as John. Just before she ran away from him, John told her he had good news. Her twin was coming to work with her. By that time, Mina had pretty much given up. She’d become very compliant. He must have thought he had total power. He told Mina she could help teach her sister what to do. He told her the two of them would have to pay off her sister’s debt, but they’d be able to earn even more money working as a team.
“Mina decided she could not let Zoio do what she’d had to do. She objected. He beat her. She continued to resist. He beat her unconscious. She waited for her chance. She’d never had the courage to try to escape. She knew the punishment for trying would be unimaginably bad. This country terrifies her. To her, it is a place of shame and horror. She’d lost all hope and had no will to try to escape before he told her about her sister. Mina could not live with the possibility of her sister suffering the same fate. Knowing the risk to her sister gave her strength and she ran. She didn’t know where she would go or what she would do, but she knew she had to try. One of our kids found her on the street and brought her to the Beacon.”
“How do you expect to save her sister?”
“Through connections of the Church, we were able to get a priest to go see Mina’s family in Ukraine. Someone had already approached the family and told them a glowing tale about Mina. They’d made a better financial arrangement for the sister than they did for Mina. By the time the priest got to the family, they’d bought and paid for Zoio. They took her from the home at the end of February. Based on what I know from Mina’s story, and if Zoio makes a similar trip, I think she’ll get to Galveston on a boat sometime this month or the first of next month.”
“But you have no idea exactly where do you?”
“She could already be here. Or once Mina ran, maybe her sister got sent to another country.”
“Maybe. I pray not. They are looking for Mina in Chicago. Somebody came by the Beacon. Luckily, the staff is trained to be careful, and nobody mentioned Mina.”
“You have contacts in Ukraine. Is there some way you can find out what ship her sister is on?”
“I’m trying, but it is incredibly dangerous to make inquiries about these things in Ukraine.”
I shook my head. “You don’t have many threads to hang on to, do you?”
“That’s why we’re here. Preacher said if anybody can help, you can.”
I looked at Preacher. Preacher said, “Show him what you have. Let’s see if he can help. Brother Sam, you might not even have to move from that chair to help us get one step closer to figuring out what to do.”
Mary Elizabeth clutched the sketchpad to her chest. “Mina drew a couple of pictures of the boat they put her in to come to shore. It was very loud and very fast. It had an open area where the driver sat and a place up front where he put the girls. She could see out a small round window.”
Preacher said, “Sounds to me like one of those offshore racing boats.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Could be. They’re certainly popular with smugglers. Can she describe the boat?”
“It was black. Or her impression of it was that it was solid black.”
“I wonder why they don’t just sneak them off the freighter when it’s in port. That seems like the safest thing.”
“I don’t know. I just know what happened with Mina. That’s all I have to go on.”
“It sounds like you have a network of people working on this. How many are down here to help you try to save Mina’s sister?”
“Just the three of you?”
“Patricia and Jason have to leave soon. There’s just Preacher and me.”
I looked at Preacher.
“And you, Sam,” he said. “We need your help.”
I stared at them. “Let me get this straight. International traffickers may be bringing in Mina’s sister. If so, you don’t know the name of the ship. You don’t know where or when the unknown ship will arrive. You need the Coast Guard and Immigration and the FBI and something like Interpol and you won’t call any of them.”
Mary Elizabeth’s tears broke free. Patricia Carr moved to put an arm around her and angrily stared at me.
Edwards actually nodded at me with approval and a slim smile. Gently, he said, “See Mary Elizabeth, he agrees. You really have to turn this over to somebody. You have Mina. Let the authorities work on saving Zoio and all the others.”
“No.” Mary Elizabeth’s reply was sharp and angry. “Maybe it’s impossible. If it is, then I have to question everything I’ve ever done in my life. If God sees fit to make me aware of what’s going on but gives me no power to intervene in this evil, then my dedication has been a joke.”
She began crying. I’d thought her tears were born of sadness, but they weren’t. They were tears of frustration and anger. The evil that would do this thing angered her. She was angry at God for letting it happen and frustrated at her inability to do something. There were complex motives involved in Mary Elizabeth’s passionate desire to correct some small result of the evil forced upon her.
Mary Elizabeth invoked God. I did not want to be involved in her desire to be an instrument of heavenly intervention. I did my best to not complicate my life with issues of such weight. But I did want to hear the next part of the story.
“What is it you have? What do you need me for?”
Mary Elizabeth turned to a page in her sketchpad but kept it clutched to her chest. “Remember, at first all Mina could do was look out one small window in the speedboat. She was anxious. She was scared and excited about a country she’d only heard about. She still thought everything was a new and grand opportunity. With that incredible mind of hers, she saw and remembered visual details of her journey.”
I nodded. I almost told her to call the small window a porthole, but that was only out of irritation at the futility of whatever she wanted to do.
“She remembers the trip in the small boat as being fast and noisy and rough. The girls had a hard time sitting on the cushions in the cabin. Mina wedged herself where she could see out. For the longest time, she saw nothing but darkness and spray bouncing off the window.” Mary Elizabeth smiled. “I think it was exhilarating for her the way a roller coaster ride is for a normal teenager. This is something that might get us close to where she came to shore.”
She pushed the sketchpad toward me. “She told me she thought they were going to crash. They were going fast and headed right toward a rock wall. It was dark, and she didn’t see it until they were right on top of it. Just when she thought they would all die, the boat made a sharp turn and passed through an opening in the wall.”
The drawing was almost abstract in its depiction of the darkness and waves rising into spray on what Mina and Mary Elizabeth called a rock wall.
Preacher said, “I told her if anyone could find such a place it would be you. The coast is your backyard.”
She looked at me expectantly. “I thought if there’s a place like this where he comes to shore I could watch for him. I’ll sit there every night if necessary.”
“And do what?”
“I don’t know.” Her frustration spilled over. “I need to see this place first. Will you help me find it?”
I shook my head at her simplistic plan.
“So, all you want right now is to see this place?” I tapped the drawing with a finger.
“Yes. Do you think you can you find it?”
“I know where it is.”
“I knew it, Sam. I knew it.” Preacher sat back in his chair triumphantly. “Where is it? How do we get there?”
“I can’t imagine that seeing it will help you. Not without a lot of help from the Coast Guard.”
“Exactly,” said Jason Edwards.
“Please.” Mary Elizabeth ignored everyone in the room but me.
“I need coffee.” I needed a moment alone. “Anybody else?” Everybody declined. I got up and went to the kitchen. There was a quiet, intense murmur of conversation from the porch.
I debated the possibilities. I could show them. It couldn’t hurt. I didn’t think showing her would increase Mary Elizabeth’s resolution to do something foolhardy. She was determined to do that no matter what. It didn’t mean I had to get involved any further.
I went back to the porch without having refilled my coffee cup.
“What do you have planned for the day?”
“Not a thing, Sam,” Preacher said. “Not a thing.”
I checked the time. It was not yet nine.
“I’ll show you this place. We’ll take my boat. It will save us a long walk. It’ll take us a while to get there. I’ll buy you lunch at Stingaree after we see it.”
Mary Elizabeth beamed. Jason Edwards looked at me like I’d betrayed him.
I would show them the place Mina had drawn. I’d show Mary Elizabeth how ridiculous it was to think you could stake it out and catch a smuggler. I had no illusion she could save the child Zoio by sitting on what she called a rock wall.
I kept my boat ten minutes away from my house in the marina at Sol de Mer, the community on the bay developed by my Uncle Harlan’s company. I owned a couple of rental properties there and managed several more for Harlan. I called the guys at the marina and asked them to get my boat ready.
Outside, Mary Elizabeth introduced me to Mina and told her I was going to take everybody to see the rock wall. Mina shook my hand weakly and said hello, the timbre of her voice rich with the consonants and vowels of her homeland. Her hand trembled. Her eyes stayed steady, looking intensely at my shoes.
I told Joshua to clean up the shop and take the rest of the day off. I took my Range Rover to the marina. Preacher’s group followed in their car. The Lonely Star is my thirty-eight-foot indulgence. Tied dockside, she glistened with water where they had sprayed off her overnight collection of cobwebs. She was plugged into shore power, and they’d turned on the air conditioner to cool the cabin.
“Nice,” Mary Elizabeth said as I helped her aboard. She helped the girl. Patricia Carr said nothing as she took my hand and stepped aboard. I went to the topside controls, switched to battery power, and flipped on the blowers. I disconnected and stored the power cable. Preacher and Edwards held her to the dock while I started the engines. They pushed us off and I turned tightly in the basin.
I left the marina’s channel and turned east. The length of West Bay stretched out in front of us. Between the Gulf of Mexico and us lay Galveston Island. East of Galveston Island was the Bolivar Peninsula. On Bolivar, Mina had entered hell.