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Atticus Wynn and Rosemary Sanchez, newly engaged private investigators, have seen the dark and violent side of life. Nothing, though, has prepared them for an explosive murder investigation that threatens to tear their relationship apart as they struggle to solve a case that could leave them in prison or dead.
Atticus’s manipulative ex-girlfriend bursts back into their lives wielding a secret about Rosemary’s family that she exploits to force the couple into investigating the execution-style slaying of her lover. The case thrusts Atticus and Rosemary headlong into the world of human trafficking and drug smuggling, while rendering them pawns in Tijuana Cartel captain Armando Villanueva’s bloody bid to take over the cartel.
The Black Song Inside is a vivid crime thriller rife with murder and madness, melded with gallows humor and the heroism of two flawed and compelling protagonists who, if they can save themselves, may learn the nature of redemption and the ability to forgive.
BARTOLO AGUILAR SQUATTED beside a rutted dirt road in the Anza-Borrego Desert, two hours east of San Diego, and savored the emotional and spiritual insanity of the woman who was watching the dying girl spasming in the sand, gurgling and frothing, her bloodshot eyes rolled up in her head so that they looked like a pair of crimson moons.
Bartolo favored dawn in the desert for these birthings. Dusk would work, but there was nothing like the biting crispness of daybreak, the dark sky marbled with orange light, the desert awash in the smoldering winds sweeping off the mountains–like amniotic fluid, bathing all three of them in the warm righteousness of the womb: the unknowing convert, the sacrifice, and of course himself, the man of God.
That this dying birthing had been not the result of careful choice on his part, but rather a fortuitous order from his current employer, Armando Villanueva, made it no less sacred. The Tijuana Cartel captain hadn’t ordered the birthing nor was he aware of Bartolo’s faith; Villanueva just wanted a problem to disappear. He would be furious to discover Bartolo, on divine impulse alone, had brought the woman to witness. Villanueva didn’t understand that the will of the Lord came before worldly duties.
Bartolo had founded his own religion according to three words on an aged and scorched parchment he had carried every day since discovering it squirreled away in an ancient hut next to a jungle-shrouded temple, just before he and his comrades roped the shack’s occupant, a wizened shaman, to his cot and set the hut ablaze. Now, decades later, Bartolo Aguilar was the sole surviving member and self-anointed High Priest of the Church of the Aloned, and it was baptism time.
The dying girl was nothing as a person but everything as a sacrifice, a vessel whose perfect suffering could draw into the light that which hunkered in the shadows of the woman’s soul, of everyone’s soul. The girl wasn’t even worthy of being a floor scrubber in his congregation. She was just another throwaway who’d fooled herself into thinking that a high school dropout, who couldn’t even handle the pressures of the fast-food industry, could earn the respect of drug cartels by allowing herself to be exploited in perhaps the world’s highest-risk, lowest-reward job: drug mule “swallower”.
Her belly held twenty condoms filled with highest-grade heroin. Had she made it to the drop, they’d have given her laxatives and waited until she shit out fifty thousand dollars worth of product, and then paid her only five hundred. But one of those condoms had ruptured. Maybe her stomach acid had eaten through it. Maybe the guy who filled the condoms had been tripping on his own product and fucked up. Didn’t matter. Not to Bartolo. Not to the guy who loaded the condoms. Not to the man who ran the whole thing. Not even to the girl–now.
So the girl didn’t count. Was she Aloned? Certainly, but she had started near the bottom. Died at the bottom. A little tumble like that didn’t warrant membership. To sit in the pews in the Church of the Aloned, you must have tasted the dizzying heights of the exalted, been respected and admired, yet have cast it all away for the basest of reasons, which were, as far as Bartolo was concerned, the hidden truths of everything. Hidden that is, until Bartolo came striding into your life, clutched the nape of your neck, and forced you to stare long and deep into the mirror to see what you could do. Would do. Will do. Are doing. Have done.
The woman was in that most precarious of moments. She was doing nothing to help the girl. That the girl couldn’t be helped was both the least and most critical element.
“She’s dying,” the woman said again, her hands tucked under her armpits as if she were cold despite the ninety-degree desert morning, her feet shifting as if she had to urinate.
“A cock-sized hit of heroin will do that to you,” he said, his voice quiet but ragged, like the sound of saw cutting bone behind a closed door. He stood up, wiped his wet and grimy face with a black-and-white checkered bandanna, and adjusted his sweat-darkened cowboy hat.
“I only came with you because you said there was a way to help her. So what do we do? Why not take her to a hospital. We have to do something.”
“She’s got enough pure H in her now to kill a fucking rhino. There’s a drug you could give her that might counteract that, but I don’t have any. There’s nothing to do but wait until she dies, and then we cut the rest of the product out of her belly.”
“You don’t know that. You’re not a doctor.”
“You can always call 911.” He stepped back and leaned against his white pickup, thick arms crossed over his barrel chest, the old truck creaking with his added bulk.
“Like you’d let me.”
“Sure, I would. I wouldn’t stick around after, of course. You might as well, though. You use your cell phone, and they’ll know you were here anyway. When someone dies during the commission of a felony–your felony–that’s first-degree murder. You ready to ride the needle when it wasn’t even your fault? For a girl who’s going to die anyway?” He let that sit out there for a while.
It’d be easy to reel the woman in later. Give her a few news stories about mules who had survived. Hell, maybe it would be easier than that. The girl might survive the overdose, only to die of dehydration alone in the desert. If the woman saw that story, he would fucking own her. Perhaps she would be his first acolyte. It was time to branch out anyway. Why not start with a pretty woman like this one was? On the outside, anyway. Ugly inside now. A perfect match. The things they could do together. But first they needed to cherish this moment. Worship the girl’s birthing.
“Bullshit. You’d never let me call 911,” the woman said. “You’d be afraid that I’d . . .” She balled her fists and finally looked him in the eye. “That I’d tell them about you.”
He shook his head slowly, grinning when she looked away–probably unable to bear seeing her twin, miniature, distorted selves in his mirrored sunglasses. “I got ten guys,” he said, “All solid citizens, who’ll swear I was chasing tail with them down in Mexicali.”
“You still wouldn’t take the chance.”
“Bigger chance they’d do something to you. For a nothing like the girl, as long as it looks like what it is, they’ll sleepwalk through the motions, then head to the bar early for beers and baseball. That’s why we’re going to wait awhile after she dies to cut her open. So there’s no doubt it was the drug that killed her. But, for someone like you, they’ll break out all the CSI forensics shit to find you. Maybe try to make it go federal. Not worth the risk. Don’t pretend like you haven’t thought of that.”
She flinched. “Wha . . .what do you mean?”
“You see the girl is suffering; you know we aren’t going to do anything.” He patted the pistol in his waistband. “And you haven’t asked about this, because you know the difference. Now we can walk away from it, and only we know that we were ever here. If we put her out of her misery, that’s not manslaughter. It’s murder. No statute of limitations. The rest of your life waiting for the knock on the door. Let’s get it flopping around on the table. She’s going to die, and we ain’t gonna do shit about it.”
“You fuck! You fuck! You fuck! You lied when you told me there was something I could do for her just to get me out here, you twisted freak.”
“No, you’re doing something for her right now.” The priest’s voice deepened and thrummed as though he spoke in synchronicity with something dark and unseen; his westward gaze seemed to stretch beyond her, chasing the darkness around the rim of the world as it fled the rising sun. “You are bearing witness to her end. You are grieving for the loss of her. Is that not doing something for her? Would it be better to let her die out here alone and unmourned with no one to remember? Now, she will be remembered, won’t she? That is something I have given unto you for her. She will be as much in your thoughts as any child from your womb. She will have a mother who wakes screaming with the vision of her lost child still floating before her eyes in the darkness. What better homage to a dead child than a mother’s endless grief?”
The woman gaped at him. “What are you?”
The priest shook his head, his gaze returning to normal, his voice again seeming harsh and whispery and human. “Look, this is just one shit day. You put it behind you. You make up for it by doing good. What good can you do rotting in prison? What good will going to prison do for all the people who look up to you? Trying to do what would make you feel better would just be selfish on your part. You need to look at the bigger picture here. You’ve got to suck it up and do the hard thing.”
Bartolo stopped, luxuriating in the words he would say next, which even now seemed almost like a caress in his throat. A revelation. He now knew who should be his acolytes. Who knew the greatest height of human purpose? Mothers. How easily that purpose could be diverted? Perverted? Bent to the will of the Church of the Aloned? That had to be why the Lord had inspired him to bring the woman, so he would come to just that epiphany. Mothers would be the foundation of his church.
His body alive with zeal, words rolled out–not from him, but from the one true God using him as He should use his prophet–fashioning a lifeline that was a noose around the neck of her old self. “So the question is,” he said, “are you going to throw away a whole life and reputation, and all the goodwill you’ve built up, just so you can feel better? Think of your children.”
The woman collapsed into the sand, sobbing.
How he loved these rare moments when God spoke through him and blessed his desire to step free of the roles society forced him into–to speak the stark truth and watch the comprehension of it rip away the flimsy masks of humanity that society demands people wear.
In these quickening moments, when the convert was accepting the baptism, washing her old self away with the burning tears of the Aloned, he thought of the truth he’d first learned from the old map he’d carried next to his heart as a child soldier for the FARC rebels in the jungles of Colombia. The very same map he carried now.
After a day of dog-trotting through the jungle, or machine-gunning villagers, or dismembering refugees, or beating a man unconscious only to wake him up with a pail of fetid swamp water and start over, or being forced to hold girls down while older boys grunted and thrust atop them, he would sneak away with his penlight–careful to keep his tears, blood, and sweat off the yellowed and wrinkled parchment–and study the ancient map.
Those sessions, hunched in darkness, swarmed by mosquitoes and the cries of the damning and the damned, were when he founded the Church of the Aloned with the certainty that, like the prophets of old, the suffering he’d felt and inflicted had revealed to him searing truths of human instinct that were his burden and privilege to share.
The exquisite nautical and geographical details the long-dead cartographer had so painstakingly sketched held no appeal for him. What riveted him was what the man had scrawled on the other side of the line that marked the end of the known world: Beyond Here Be Monsters.
It was the child soldier Bartolo Aguilar, alone, his body wracked with sickness and exhaustion, his physical and spiritual suffering forging him into something new to the world, who realized the ancient cartographer had inserted an extra word that rendered the whole phrase backward.
Now, immersed in the languid heat of the coming day, ensorcelled by the brilliance of the orange-fingered dawn spreading across the lightening sky, Bartolo looked first at the dying girl, then the weeping woman, and finally, nodding, studied himself in the side mirror of his pickup, his face a blank shadow, his head haloed by the rising sun. Not Beyond Here Be Monsters, but simply Here Be Monsters.