by Nikki Everts
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Finally, more than an hour late, they arrived at the designated pick-up point, an old adobe house sitting between two enormous cacti. Three young men were sitting in unmatched wooden chairs and smoking on the porch; the tile roof, supported by two poles, extended to provide shade. They all stood up when the cars approached, hands quickly moving to grasp large guns resting against the wall.
As Louise cut the motor, Marjorie confided, “I’m worried.”
“No reason to be,” Louise lied. They probably wouldn’t get to the border before dark, and they’d always gone through during daylight. Marjorie handed Louise the briefcase she had been guarding on her lap.
They waited until the dust settled before getting out of the cars. By then the three men had relaxed their guard, recognizing the women. The heat pressed down on them, and Louise, carrying the briefcase, stumbled as she made her way to the house. One of the young men trotted over to take her arm, while the other two tossed down their cigarettes and followed them into the small adobe dwelling.
It was dark inside after the intense light of the desert, but Louise could make out a table and several chairs as well as a number of boxes stacked against the wall. The three young men stood beside the boxes, guns slung across their backs, waiting.
As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, Louise noticed an old, stooped woman seated in far corner of the room. She approached them, smiling a toothless grin of greeting.
“Hola, Madre Delores,” said Louise, and the ancient dame, all dressed in black, clasped her hand, nodded in acknowledgement and gestured that they should sit at the table. Once the four women were settled, Madre Delores eased herself into the fifth chair, caught Louise’s eye and rubbed her fingers together.
Louise handed over the manila envelope and held her breath. The young men stopped chatting. Elsie squeezed her hands together in her lap to keep them still, the knuckles pale with anxiety. Marjorie leant forward; sweat dripped down her round cheeks and wetted the table below. Even Pauline had stopped ogling the young men to watch, nervously, as Madre Delores pulled out and counted the U.S. dollars.
At last Madre Delores, looked up, smiled and nodded. Louise took a deep breath and coughed with the effort; they’d passed the first gauntlet. Now it was her turn. She withdrew an inventory list from the briefcase and stood. Checking it against the contents of the boxes was only a formality; after all, what could they do if the boxes were shorted? This had never happened, but there was always a first time.
The young man who had helped Louise into the house pulled down the first carton and opened it for her. Louise’s fingers felt like lead sausages as she fumbled through each box. Were there more boxes than usual or was the heat affecting her mind? Finally, she turned and nodded to Madre Delores. Yes, it all added up. Louise hobbled back to the table and collapsed into the chair, weak with relief.
Madre Delores pocketed the wad of US dollars and spoke to the men, who began carting boxes out to the cars. Then she disappeared into the back room, returning with a tray of food.
“Gracias,” said Louise, as Madre Delores doled out what appeared to be a cold soup of some sort. It was chunky, tepid and spicy, not Louise’s favorite combination of food elements, but she soldiered on to finish it out of respect for Madre Delores. Only Pauline declined, pushing the bowl away while shaking her head and smiling apologetically at the old woman.
“Are you going to eat that?” asked Marjorie.
“No, I’m not really hungry. It’s my nerves, you know,” said Pauline.
Never one to stand on etiquette, Marjorie reached over, took Pauline’s soup, and polished it off. Madre Delores beamed at her.
Louise divided her time between checking her watch and keeping an eye on the men as they worked. Through the open door she could see them take off the inside panels of the car doors and then pack the vials and bottles from the boxes into the exposed spaces, stuffing newspaper between them so they wouldn’t rattle. Not all of the contents fit inside the doors this time, so the men stowed the extra beneath the spare tires.
Louise paid only scant attention to her cohorts’ table talk.
“Well, I think the short one is quite good-looking, don’t you? Although he could lose the moustache,” declared Pauline.
“Well, I honestly don’t care if he’s bald and bearded, I just wish they’d all hurry the hell up!” said Marjorie.
“Gracias por la sopa,” said Elsie to Madre Delores, who nodded and smiled. “¿Esos son tus hijos?” asked Elsie.
The old lady smiled and nodded again. Turning to Marjorie, Elsie whispered, “Ah highly suspect that our Madre Delores is deaf.”
“It’s called ‘hearing impaired’ these days,” corrected Marjorie.
It was late afternoon when the men tightened the last screws on the last door panel.
Louise stood up; her knees ached from sitting so long. “Time to leave,” she announced, trying to keep concern out of her voice. Still, it took another twenty minutes before everyone had relieved themselves.
Only Pauline had refused to use the outhouse, preferring to squat behind the adobe house. “It’s those awful spiders in there,” she confided to Louise with a shiver and a nod to the ramshackle little building, “I’d never be able to relax enough to go.”
* * *
It was dusk when they reached the border at Tijuana. They always lined up in different queues; the Chevy with Pauline and Elsie was ahead of them to her left. Louise’s heart sank. They were too late; the guards had brought out the drug-sniffing dog.
Sure enough, the feisty little Jack Russell terrier started yipping when Pauline and Elsie drove up to the border guard’s kiosk. Louise strained to hear the conversation without seeming to.
“Evening, ladies,” the border patrol guard said. He was tall and lean, all of 30 with close-cropped dark hair.
Pauline rolled down her window, smiled and said, “Why, hello, officer.”
“I have to ask you if you are carrying any controlled substances, ma’am.”
“Pardon me?” asked Pauline, cupping her hand around her ear, bracelets jingling.
Louise held her breath, as the officer repeated his question.
“Why, yes, officer, I am,” replied Pauline, batting her long eye-lashes at him.
Louise couldn’t believe her ears. Marjorie gasped, grabbed her arm and hissed, “Didn’t she hear what he asked her?”
Louise shrugged helplessly and shushed her. Their line was moving, and she had to drive forward.
She heard the startled officer ask, “What sort of controlled substances are you bringing into the USA?”
At this, Pauline opened her purse and started pulling out all her prescriptions and rattling them off, “Ativan for my anxiety, Hydrochlorothiazide for my blood pressure, Lipitor for my cholesterol, Asacol for my colitis...”
Louise couldn’t hear the rest of the list as it was now their turn to pass through the border. Marjorie had her eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Thankfully, the Jack Russell was too busy with Pauline and Elsie to notice them as they pulled into the border kiosk.
“We’re both American citizens,” Louise responded to the guard’s question as she handed him their fake passports. She hoped her quivery voice would be written off to age and not nervousness.
“The duration and purpose of your visit?” queried the guard.
“Just two days, sir, sightseeing,” Louise smiled and kept her eyes glued on the guard’s hands while he glanced at both their faces, comparing them to the photos in their falsified documents. She was careful to avoid looking into his eyes; years as a middle school teacher had taught her that eye contact was the best way to smoke out a liar.
“And have you anything to declare?”
“Oh yes, sir, we’ve bought a few things — souvenirs for the grandchildren.” Here she looked towards the back seat where two shopping bags boasted an array of colourful items — a donkey piñata peeked over the top of one.
“Please open your trunk.”
“Of course,” Louise stifled a gasp as she reached down to pull the lever opening the trunk. She felt Marjorie twitch beside her.
It seemed to take forever for the guard to finish checking the trunk, hand them their “passports” and wave them through.
Profiling be praised, thought Louise: once again grey hair and wrinkles had helped to cloak their illegal activities with the invisibility of age. It was largely why they had been sought out for this job.
* * *
As soon as they had cleared the border, Marjorie whined softly, “What do we do now?”
“We follow procedures — remember our contingency plan? We drive to the first rest center, pull off and wait.”
“What if they don’t show up?”
“We wait for an hour then call number four.”
Marjorie huffed, “That damned Pauline and her big mouth. Poor Elsie, she must be terrified.” A sudden thought drained the colour from her usually florid complexion. “What if they rat us out? I’ll never live it down; that demented ex-husband of mine and his floozy of a wife will lord it over me with my kid and grandkids. Honestly, Louise, it’ll kill me.”
“They wouldn’t,” asserted Louise, trying to focus on getting back onto Highway 5 North. She was concentrating hard to stop the shaking that had started once the immediate danger of discovery had passed.
An hour and a half later, they pulled into the Aliso Creek Rest Stop, the first one on the way back to Los Angeles. Louise got out; she was stiff all over. It was fully dark now, but heat still pulsed up from the asphalt.
“I need an ice cream,” Marjorie announced. “Want one?” she offered hefting her body out of the car.
“No, thanks,” replied Louise, watching the road.
Marjorie shrugged, “Your loss,” and waddled off in the direction of the rest stop’s building.
Marjorie returned, looking renewed and crunching the last remnants of a Chapman’s Caramel Ice Cream Cone from the frozen food vending machine. She joined Louise who was seated at a picnic table staring off into the headlights rushing along Highway 5.
A car pulled off, and slowly drove towards them, parking in the spot beside the Civic. Louise peered at it closely, then jumped up, groaning slightly because of her knees, and said, “That’s them!”
Pauline and Elsie emerged, stretched and waved to Louise and Marjorie as they hobbled and limped over to greet them.
“What on earth happened?” queried Louise after hugging both women.
Elsie couldn’t stop laughing, “Pauline was amazin’! She’s got a regular corn-you-cope-ee-a of drugs in that there suitcase she calls a purse! Ya’ll shoulda seen the stunned look on that poor young man’s face! He finally, gave up and let us go. He thought the dog was smellin’ her prescription drugs!”
“I’m sure it was my feminine beauty and charm that won him over,” said Pauline, smiling coquettishly and patting her hair.
“Let’s get out of here, before he changes his mind and finds out the passports are phoney,” said Marjorie. So they drove on north at just under the speed limit.
* * *
The next day, the four women reconnoitred at Elsie’s house. She had a two-car garage where their booty could be safely unloaded by Bea’s nephew, Howie.
“I’m sorry to lose you all,” he said.
“After yesterday’s near-miss, we’re glad to be out of it,” said Louise. The others just nodded. They were sitting in Elsie’s dining room. Her husband was out playing cards with his cronies that afternoon, so they had the house to themselves. The curtains were closed and the table was piled high with the “controlled substances” the four women had successfully smuggled in from Mexico. Howie repacked the contraband prescription drugs into several sports equipment bags and toted them all to his car.
Before leaving he turned and said, “I hope you know how grateful we are. The people who use our street clinic can’t afford these drugs and, without your help, well, some of them would be dead, and others a whole lot sicker.”
Marjorie shrugged, Pauline preened, and Elsie smiled. Louise said, just a bit wistfully, “You are very welcome.”
Copyright © 2020 by Nikki Everts