The girl gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Her fingers were pale where knuckles stretched skin, her arms were thin as sticks. Bones -- not flesh -- defined her body. Toes on toes, her bare feet pressed the accelerator flush against the Honda's floorboard. Her head scarcely topped the dashboard, but she saw the narrow horizon of blacktop change suddenly to desert and barbed wire. Raising a wake of dust, the car hurtled headlong off the highway toward a fence. Gravel smacked the windshield.
As the fence loomed closer, the world careened past the moving car -- low trees, jutting rocks, rolling terrain. The child's chest heaved, but all sound of her breathing was smothered by a song blaring from the radio. The music rose tinnily above the rattle of loose metal and the high-pitched whine of hot engine.
The girl jerked the steering wheel to the left, straining her muscles, frantic when the vehicle didn't respond the way Paco had taught her it would. She was sure the car would crash and she would die in flames and twisted metal. For an instant, she imagined giving in to the black night. But she was a fighter, and so she focused the last reserves of her energy on steering the car. Finally, she felt the shudder of tires forced back onto the hard surface of the road.
Dim yellow headlamps filled the rearview mirror, and the child's heartbeat stuttered. It was el demonio, the demon -- with his dark hungry face. The lights glowed like the eyes of a crazy animal. A sudden memory jolted through her mind: fingernails scratching her neck just as Paco's strong arms pulled her from the demon's reach.
But there were no grown-ups with her now -- and no safe place. Just the yellow glowing eyes of her pursuer growing larger in the rearview mirror.
Blood smeared the girl's cheek and lip. Dried blood where she had slammed her cheek against metal, fresh blood where she bit her lip in fright. A deep blue-black bruise darkened the inside of her left thigh. Beneath the delicate chain and the silver medallion around her neck, the skin was red and scratched where the demon had torn at her with long cold fingers.
Suddenly, there was a new danger -- bright flashing lights in front of the Honda -- coming at her! These lights snaked across the road, blocking her path. The child was trapped. Her eyes opened wide, and panic stole her breath away.
What was it? A truck? A bridge? A train!
She swerved the Honda and hit the brakes again -- but too hard. The car went into a skid, across the road toward barbed wire and tracks. She couldn't escape the metal snout of the train engine.
A cry of terror escaped the child's mouth, just as a fat hunter's moon broke over the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. The moon's glow suffused the night sky. She whispered the first words of the prayer.
Our Mother, Nuestra Madre --
And then she squeezed her eyes shut as a solid wall of moving metal caught the front end of the Honda. The noise of rending metal and a shower of sparks raked the night as the train pushed the car fifty yards along the track.
The dark green Chevrolet Suburban slowed on U.S. 285 just south of Lamy, New Mexico, and Lorenzo Santos Portrillo tried to make sense of what he'd just witnessed: the Honda had collided with a train. He peered out into the moonlit desert, straining to locate the ruined car, to gauge the seriousness of the accident. What he saw was an illuminated mess of smoke and dust and twisted metal roughly a quarter mile away. Directly ahead, the stalled train blocked the road.
His eyes were invisible in the unlit interior of the vehicle. His even white teeth were clenched. The scent of citrus cologne clashed with the uncharacteristic tang of nervous sweat and blood. Despite his agitation, Lorenzo's physical movements remained tightly controlled, but his mind refused to harness information with its usual discipline. He'd seen a ghost tonight; at first he believed she'd returned from the grave to do him evil.
But her terror had persuaded him she was merely human.
Renzo eased his foot off the accelerator, letting the Suburban coast. He was focused on the flashing lights of the train, and he almost failed to register a car, hazard lights blinking, pulling off to the side of the road opposite the scene of the accident.
The warning message squeezed through to his consciousness: more people to deal with tonight. They were crossing the road, shining flashlights over the terrain as they approached the crash.
Was the girl alive or dead?
Lorenzo drove slowly. In the time it took the Suburban to cover the last eighth of a mile, a man -- lantern in hand -- swung himself down from the train and darted toward the wrecked Honda. The car had been crushed by the train's massive engine.
Lorenzo's gloved fingers grazed his steering wheel; the gloves were cheap leather throwaways. On his left wrist, the thick silver bracelet -- etched with the face of Serpent Skirt -- was smeared with Paco's blood.
The blood had a dull sheen visible even in the darkness of the car. He remembered to check his face in the rearview mirror. When he briefly snapped on the overhead light, he saw the droplet of blood above his lip. He wiped the stain away.
The Suburban vibrated as its right tires ate soft shoulder less than a hundred feet from the wreck. The beams of the car's headlights illuminated weeds and a downed barbed-wire fence. A discarded plastic bag, caught on a barb, shivered in the evening breeze like a stranded octopus.
Lorenzo put the Suburban in park, engine idling. As he pushed his arms into his suit jacket, he slid a .22 semiautomatic into the right pocket. His briefcase was on the floor of the passenger side. His suitcase and his golf clubs were in the trunk.
A harsh sigh escaped his lips. It would be dangerous to deal with multiple witnesses. Not that he couldn't do it. Two nights ago he had killed four men -- two of them trained bodyguards. But he needed all his wits, his resources -- he couldn't deny he'd been shaken by the discovery of the child. He took a breath, exhaled slowly, and stepped out of the car.
Moving across the rough terrain toward the wreck, he quickly reviewed the possible scenarios. He discarded most of them. It would be best to deal with this particular situation quietly.
He prepared his face: overlaying concern with compassion, he became the essence of the Good Samaritan. When he was close enough to the men gathered around the driver's side of the Honda, he called out. "Can I help? Should I call someone?"
He saw several heads turn his way before the beam of a flashlight blinded him. He turned his face from the light. A male voice was ordering members of the group: "Let me through, see if I get a pulse."
Renzo moved around the far side of the Honda. He gazed in one window, but the vehicle's interior appeared empty. No luggage, no sacks, no bundles. This wasn't the time or place to complete his search.
He heard men murmuring worriedly. Fragments of conversation floated on the cold night air.
"Just a kid..."
"...saw it happen..."
"...one minute this white Honda was on the road..."
"...why would a little girl be all alone out here..."
A minute passed, then two. Renzo's fingers slid over the grip of the semiautomatic. Covertly, he hefted its weight as he kept one ear on the conversation around him.
"Maybe she's illegal..."
"...called state police..."
His patience was waning. He stepped closer to the edge of the small group; shoulders parted to allow him a view. He stared impassively down at the child's inert body. Her head lolled back, and he saw that blood covered her eyes, her throat. One of her legs was twisted in a peculiar position. She looked dead.
Renzo thought each word as he pronounced it: "I know C.P.R. -- "
"So do I." This man was hunched over the child's body, his fingers pressing for a pulse. "C.P.R. won't help this little one. She's gone."
Relieved, Renzo made what he thought were appropriate noises of distress. After a moment, he turned and walked back to the car. He guided the Suburban in a wide U-turn across the broken white line and into the southbound lane.
As he drove, he reached for his cellular phone, paged his associate, and entered Code 77. Divine wrath. Translation: kill complete.
Moonlight cut across his eyes for an instant, and Lorenzo Santos Portrillo -- or Renzo as he was called by his few social contacts -- blinked. What haunted him was the knowledge that he had killed this child already, ten years ago.
The child thought she heard a voice like music filled with unbearable joy. She stared up into eyes as deep as the ocean...sunbeams darted from a cloak of green...and stars sparkled everywhere like poor people's diamonds.
She reached out to touch this beautiful vision --
But a loud voice boomed like thunder. The child felt a whipsaw of pain, and she choked, gasping for air. Something warm trailed across her temple; her left eye was lost in a pool of darkness. From her right eye, she noticed the angels hovering over her body. They were big -- surrounded by stars, yes -- but they stank of gasoline and burning rubber. She hadn't known angels would make so much noise. They chattered like chickens. Heaven must be a confusing place.
It was a foreign place where the sky quickly remade itself -- stars were washed away by white searing light only to be smothered out by thicker gray clouds. And then there was the screech of a huge bird -- a cat -- no, a siren.
Heaven? The child wouldn't be so easily fooled. This was no heaven. It was earth. She sighed, holding back tears. The shapes hovering over her were just people, not angels.
No one reaching out with loving arms...
At first the child heard fear in the strangers' voices. Then business. Then soft concern. Although she did not understand all the words they spoke, she knew that none of these was the demon.
She closed her good eye and let the soft sway of the world send her down into uneasy sleep. It came to her in a place of dreams that her friend Paco, el viejo Paco, must be badly hurt -- or maybe even dead. He had always been like her grandfather, and he had protected her, even on this trip. He had fallen protecting her. She did not cry, nor was she surprised by this abandonment. Death came around plenty.
The child raised her hand to grasp the silver medallion around her neck; her fingers closed around warm metal.
The harsh lights buoyed her toward consciousness just long enough so she could breathe the smell of medicine, hear the distant howl of more sirens, and feel the fleeting panic of loss.
At two-twenty A.M., the child was wheeled into the emergency room at St. Vincent's Hospital in Santa Fe. The triage nurse on duty spoke with the ambulance attendants, discovering only that the child had been thrown from a wrecked car. There were no other known occupants -- no driver to be found -- no victims except the girl. A train crew had witnessed the collision of automobile and iron horse.
One of the ambulance attendants pulled the nurse aside and handed her a plastic bag with the child's few possessions. "We got the call; first they told Dispatch the kid was dead," he said. "Frigging E.M.T. trainee and he couldn't even find a pulse. It's kind of a miracle she survived."
The nurse took a long look at the injured, semiconscious child. Hispanic. Preadolescent -- nine or ten years old. About eighty-five pounds, not small but scrawny. Wide forehead, high cheekbones, she'd be a knockout when she grew into that face. Bruises, old and new. Scratches on her hands and knees. A large bruise on her thigh. Scalp injury. Maybe there'd been abuse. Triage priority: serious, but not life-threatening.
The first rescue worker on the scene had thought she was dead...in an accident that bad, she should have died. The nurse knew the little one was this week's miracle.
The child was moved to Cubicle 5, where one of the emergency-room doctors began a physical examination. Bent over the gurney, hands working expertly: abrasion on the forehead, blood pooled in the left eye but originating from the scalp wound. No other obvious external injuries. There were still internal injuries to rule out. For that they would need cervical spine film and a CT scan.
The child felt hands on her face, her skin. Some emotion flickered into her consciousness -- fear, sorrow? Someone was tugging her back to the world -- she didn't want to wake up, and she didn't like the hurt or the butterflies of terror in her stomach. She went down like a rock through water.
One hour and forty-two minutes later, Dolores Martin, a social worker from New Mexico Children, Youth, and Family's Child Protective Services Division arrived at the hospital to deal with the unidentified child.
Ms. Martin, a woman in her midtwenties, had neglected to comb her hair, and her clothes looked slightly rumpled. She briefly interviewed E.R. staff and was informed that the child had regained consciousness. Seated on a stool next to the bed in Cube 5, the social worker spoke in English. "Hello, little one. You don't have to be frightened; I'm here to help you. Can you tell me your name?"
After several seconds of silence, the social worker repeated her short speech in Spanish. Then she touched the child's arm gently, and whispered, "Jita, estás sana y segura."
If the child felt safe and sound, she did not say so. Her velvety brown eyes slid away from the woman. Her sigh was almost inaudible. She turned her face to the wall. She wished Paco were with her, holding her hand in his rough fingers, smelling nicely of pencils, paper money, and tobacco. These people were a sea of green, and their voices were big and jumbled. She clutched the silver medallion. Pictures flashed through her head -- the hours of sleep and travel, noise and motion jarring her awake as the Honda was forced off the road, the demon's soft angry voice, Paco falling in his own blood.
Worst of all, the way the demon stared at her -- never once blinking -- as if he could kill her with his yellow eyes.
Without a sound, she bit through the skin on her knuckle.
Outside the curtained cubicle, Ms. Martin cornered the E.R. doctor, who was probably in his early thirties, with an athletic build and a brusque manner.
The doctor waved a chart and said, "Nothing abnormal showed up on the CT scan, and there was no evidence of spinal injuries on the film. She's mute because she has preexisting organic problems -- or because she's scared out of her wits." As he spoke, his manner softened, becoming a mixture of fatigue and sympathy. "We can admit her to Pediatrics for a day, or you can use your department's resources. It's up to you."
At about that time, a reporter from the New Mexican gathered a basic description of the accident for a short column in the next day's edition; he recognized an eye-catching headline when he saw one -- child driver survives crash with lamy train.
The officer who had written up the single-vehicle accident arrived at the hospital. Ms. Martin asked the stolid officer to take custody of the unidentified minor and transfer custodianship to C.P.S. with a forty-eight-hour hold.
Ms. Martin sighed. An unidentified child had run a car into a train on Highway 285. When that mute child was admitted to the hospital, no one claimed her.
As she pulled aside the curtain of Cube 5 to gaze at the child, her words were barely audible. "Oh, jita...let's hope the gods are traveling with you."
When she had signed off on the custody paperwork, the social worker checked her watch: 3:59 A.M. She decided to request an emergency preliminary psychological evaluation for the child.
Copyright © 998 by Sarah Lovett