Published by: Mulholland Books
Release Date: March 8, 2018
Buy the Book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Amazon Audio, Barnes & Noble Audio
Valentine Pescatore doesn’t always follow the rules, but his skills are prized by those who know him as a relentless investigator. When the former Border Patrol agent is recruited by an old flame—now a top official at Homeland Security—to look into the massacre of a group of migrant women, he is told to keep his movements covert. But what first appears to be just another case of violence in the smuggling underworld is soon revealed to be a crime with much greater repercussions.
Meanwhile, Leo Méndez, a Mexican journalist forced into exile by death threats, ventures into the labyrinths of power in Washington and New York as he pursues a story about corporate corruption. The two cases converge, and the volatile young American and the wary Mexican intellectual join forces to track down a witness with an explosive secret.
As their hunt leads from bullet-scarred slums to boardrooms, Pescatore and Méndez unravel a conspiracy that reaches around the world. They discover that the lines between mafias and corporations—between mobsters and tycoons—have blurred, not just overseas, but in the United States.
“Rotella is as good at setting up action scenes as he is at springing them (which is saying something: the shootouts are terrific). The crisp dialogue feeds the sculpted plot and vice versa. There is nary a wasted moment in the book or one in which Rotella isn't in complete command. The entertaining combo of Pescatore and Méndez is icing on the cake. Rotella's latest is a tense, gritty thriller—perfectly seedy when it needs to be and near-perfect in its overall execution.”
― Kirkus, Starred Review (Kirkus List of Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2018)
“Rotella writes convincingly about the realities and mechanics of investigative journalism, and his detailed action scenes add just enough mayhem to keep thriller readers on the edge of their seats.”
― Publishers Weekly
“What a setup! It’s heartrending, violent, and intriguing…[a] crackerjack plot…. hang on for the revelation and the mighty clash at the end.”
“Gritty dialog rings convincingly with authenticity as Rotella playfully inspects multiple layers of meaning inherent in dialects, news stories, and eyewitness accounts. For fans of tough crime fiction in the tradition of T. Jefferson Parker.”
― Library Journal, Xpress Starred Review
“Rotella is a virtuoso of action-writing, which is no small distinction given how easy such writing is to bungle, and that alone makes Rip Crew a fantastic read. But this author is also a fine observer of small details, with an extremely sensitive ear for narrative tension, and his attention to rounding and fleshing out even his minor characters never lags and is never heavy-handed…[T]he whole thing is pulled off with such unblinking conviction that readers will find it completely irresistible.”
―Open Letters Monthly
“Rip Crew is a taut, tense international thriller, filled with complex characters and gritty dialogue. Utterly riveting.”
― Alafair Burke, New York Times bestselling author of THE WIFE
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Valentine Pescatore encountered the Beast while hunting a smuggler of humans.
The Pakal-Na neighborhood was about fifty miles northwest of the line where Guatemalan jungle flowed into Mexican jungle. Hundreds of migrants filled the shack town surrounding the freight yards. Most of them were Central Americans. Their presence on Mexican soil made them illegal. But no one in law enforcement seemed to be around or interested.
Pescatore trudged through trash and weeds. The jungle heat made it feel like wading in a swamp. He was sweating and unshaven, and he had a hangover. His short curls were appropriate for Washington, but down here he worried about looking like a cop. Imitating a migrant beggar he'd seen on a roadside, he removed his black T-shirt and draped it over his head like a kaffiyeh. His bantam muscular frame had acquired a few scars over the years. His crucifix necklace fashioned from braided black thread was a talisman purchased long ago from a street vendor in Tijuana. He wore scuffed hiking boots and jeans. Hopefully, his look evoked manual labor, street life, jail time. He didn't need to play this role for days, just hours. Just long enough to get within striking distance of the smuggler known as Chiclet.
Emerging from an alley, Pescatore beheld the Beast, a rusty behemoth at rest. The freight train had stopped in Palenque en route to Vera Cruz. Migrants swarmed the train like flies on a buffalo. They pulled at door handles. They peered between slats. They climbed ladders affixed to boxcars. A few men had staked out rooftops. They withstood the afternoon sun in caps, hats, sunglasses, and bandannas.
Corporate names on the boxcars—Cemex, Pemex, Ferromex—competed with gang graffiti: Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street. In addition to fearing rape, robbery, extortion, and abduction, the illicit riders had to worry about falling off, getting run over, losing limbs. For those who survived the trek across Mexico, another task awaited: sneaking into the United States. A rough crossing that had gotten rougher since Pescatore had left the U.S. Border Patrol.
It was Pescatore's first time at the line between Mexico and Guatemala. The mission had stirred old instincts and dormant emotions from his years in the Patrol. But he was in the private sector now. He had come to Palenque in the state of Chiapas as a contract investigator for the Department of Homeland Security. It was a sensitive, off-the-books assignment. Not officially an undercover operation. Right now, however, he was doing his best—strange as it felt—to impersonate an illegal immigrant.
Feeling self-conscious about his bare-chested piratical getup, he passed a basketball court where migrants dozed on the blacktop, their backpacks and laundry hanging on the chain-link fence. He walked through a low-slung corridor of houses and shops painted in peeling blues, greens, and yellows. Migrants crouched by the tracks, drank water, talked on cell phones, and eyed signs offering the use of toilets and showers for a fee.
Pescatore approached a grocery stand. Flanked by a cobbler's hut and a bike-repair shop, the open-air cubicle did brisk business. It seemed like a good place to start. A sign proclaimed ALMACÉN DOÑA ALMA. The proprietress barely fit among her wares. She had chubby cheeks and black braids and wore a frilly white blouse with floral designs.
Pescatore bought a bottle of water. He leaned on the counter.
"Oiga, señora, please," he said. "I'm looking for a guy named Chiclet."
He spoke softly, politely, like a gentleman hard-ass, and faked a Cuban accent. A lot of Cubans came through here. Pescatore had talked that morning to a genial muscleman from Bayamo named Nelson. Nelson had followed a well-traveled route via Ecuador. After working in Quito for a while, he had headed north, knowing he had a shot at refugee status if he could just present himself to border inspectors at a port of entry in Texas.
The accents Pescatore could best imitate by virtue of his ethnicity and experience—Argentine and Mexican—were not relevant. But he could pull off Cuban. He tried to mimic the sugary cadences of Nelson from Bayamo and Isabel Puente's cousin Dionisio from Miami, a car salesman who said oiga and oye a lot.
"Oiga, they call him Chiclet," he said, glancing around. "Honduran. He's a guide. Helps people go north. Please, señora. Can you give me a hand?"
Doña Alma studied him. Beads of sweat glistened on her high forehead. He wondered if she was Maya. Her earrings were silver crucifixes. Maybe the TJ jailbird cross on his chest would score points with her.
Finally, she said: "No sabría decirle."
The wariest response possible. Worse than "I don't know." It literally meant "I wouldn't know what to tell you." It really meant "I'm not going to say anything about anything, and your questions frighten me, so please go away forever."
Or not. Doña Alma did an interesting thing. Her eyes widened and did a slow shift to the right. Her gaze fixed itself on a point over his left shoulder, paused, then lowered demurely.
"No sabría decirle," she repeated.
Once again, her eyes traced the same parabola. Her look lingered on the spot beyond his shoulder. A hint of a grin flickered across her face.
"Oiga, no problem, señora," he said, raising his voice for the benefit of anyone in earshot. "Thanks much just the same. God bless you."
He turned casually, swigging water. Doña Alma had eyeballed a boxlike structure near a curve in the tracks. Getting closer, he saw it was a diner called Delicias Hondureñas. The faded walls were painted blue and white, the Honduran national colors. The corrugated metal roof was off-kilter, like a carelessly worn hat. People congregated on the front patio around white plastic tables and a Honduran flag on a pole. Honduras was drowning in dysfunction. It had one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Hondurans were becoming soldiers in Mexican cartels. Joints like Delicias Hondureñas were popping up in places like Palenque.
A bald, shirtless guy lounged at an outdoor table. Three tattoo-covered hoodlums drank beer at an adjacent table. They looked like mareros—members of the maras, the Central American street gangs born in the United States and bred into transnational killing machines. A dozen migrants hovered in clumps of two and three, supplicants waiting at a respectful distance from the gatekeepers of their future.
Pescatore joined the migrants. He leaned against a tree and gulped water.
God, is it hot. God, am I hungover.
Two teenagers were the center of attention. They stood in front of the shirtless man. Pescatore concluded that his nickname was La Rana (the Frog) when, in an indolent voice, he said, "La Rana decides who rides. As of now, you're not going anywhere."
The boy told La Rana that his name was Oscar. He was about sixteen. His fashionable red high-tops struck Pescatore as a bad wardrobe choice for the trek, like a sign proclaiming ROB ME. Oscar had a peak wet-combed into his hair. He wore designer jeans and a striped polo shirt. His build suggested that he'd done some weight lifting but he hadn't filled out yet. His sister was long-legged and doe-eyed. Her hair hung down over a pink backpack decorated with images of the Powerpuff Girls. She stayed behind her brother.
Oscar's diction, lack of tattoos, and frequent mentions of God led Pescatore to think he was an evangelical Christian. The boy explained that his parents had already paid the entire fee, cash money, door to door, from San Salvador to Las Vegas. Nobody had mentioned a supplemental charge in Palenque.
"Well, they should have," La Rana said. "Two spots on La Bestia will cost you five hundred apiece. Babysitting snot-nosed kids on top of that train is a pain in the ass. Cops all over. Hey, muñeca, how old are you?"
The girl peered out from behind her brother.
"Fourteen." Her voice was barely audible.
La Rana considered her. His fists clenched the short towel around his neck. His physique was indeed froglike: round belly and shoulders, stumpy legs below baggy cutoffs.
"What's your name?"
"Don't be shy, let me get a look at you. What grade are you in?"
"Ninth," she said in that wisp of a voice. As if fearing the answer was insufficient, she added, "I didn't finish, because we left."
"Ay, what a shame, you didn't finish. Don't worry, we've got a lot of teachers around here. We can teach you all kinds of things."
Chuckles from the mareros. Nelvita took refuge behind Oscar, who mopped his forehead with his arm.
Look at these scumbags, Pescatore thought. Smacking their lips over a fourteen-year-old.
La Rana told Oscar to come back with cash. Or some other form of payment. The teenagers sidled off, looking lost, whispering heatedly. Pescatore could imagine their story. The parents had migrated to Las Vegas, probably leaving the kids in the care of grandparents. The parents had stayed in touch via Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook. They had earned enough for smuggling fees to try to reunite the family, but Oscar and Nelvita's relatively decent upbringing had not been the best preparation for the journey.
Those two are going to get eaten alive, he thought.
He forced them out of his mind. He scanned the people around him. No one was clamoring for the next audience with La Rana.
Pescatore took another gulp of water. He removed the shirt-headdress. He poured the rest of the bottle over his head, pasted his hair back with his hand, and pulled the shirt down over his torso. Undercover or not, he intended to show these thugs some dignity. He entered the patio of Delicias Hondureñas with a jaunty walk—what Cubans call tumbao.
"What's up, brother?" he said.
La Rana's beady eyes did, in fact, remind him of a frog's.
"Oye, I'm with the Eagles," Pescatore continued. "My name is Dionisio. I was told to ask for Chiclet."
Nelson from Bayamo had explained the drill. At each stage of the migrants' journey, smugglers provided them with a new code name and contact. Upon arriving in Palenque, Nelson's group of migrants had been told to call themselves the Eagles and meet Chiclet.
"Cubano," La Rana grumbled.
Cubans were regarded as pushy and crafty. Still, they tended to have relatives in the U.S. with deep pockets. They weren't first-class cargo like Indians, Africans, or Nepalese, but Cubans were good value.
"That's right, chico," Pescatore replied. "And proud of it."
"Where are you going?"
La Rana dried his pate with the towel. He asked questions about the trip from Cuba. Pescatore described an odyssey through Ecuador, Colombia, the tropical wilds of the Darién Gap. His answers appeared to be satisfactory.
"Come back later," La Rana said. "Seven o'clock."
"Oye, will Chiclet take care of me then?"
La Rana repeated the words "Seven o'clock" and told him to scram.
Pescatore killed time. He bought another bottle of water. He walked through the freight yards and the shantytown. He sat on a crate on a hill with a view.
The shadows lengthened. The groups around the train grew. He took deep breaths.
The Guatemalan border was like a return to the battlefield, a flashback to the Line in San Diego. Working in the Patrol had overwhelmed him. He had felt too much sympathy for the migrants, too much hatred for the criminals. It had messed with his head.
At about six thirty, two men approached the diner below. The shorter one had a pile of black hair and wore a guayabera-type shirt. Even from a distance, he looked very much like Chiclet. La Rana accompanied them inside.
Pescatore called Porthos. They settled on a plan.
At seven, Pescatore crossed himself and raised his crucifix to his lips. He walked down the hill. His gun was with Porthos, who had been reluctant about this improvised undercover gambit. Isabel would not have approved either. But Isabel was counting on him.
The setting sun shone off the metal roof of Delicias Hondureñas. He squinted. The outdoor tables were empty. There was a mural on the wall: a figure in a poncho, the face shrouded by a wide-brimmed hat with a black band. Painted below was the word Catracho, a nickname for Hondurans. He hadn't noticed the mural earlier.
He reached for the handle of the screen door. Time slowed down. He thought about the places he had been during the past months: Buenos Aires, Paris, Washington, San Diego, Tapachula. Travel had left him in a daze, always alert, always weary. So many miles covered to reach this remote corner of the world, this destination that seemed somehow inevitable—a den of cutthroats in Pakal-Na, Palenque, Mexico.
There were a dozen tables in the dim interior. A freezer whirred. Rotor fans spun. Flies dive-bombed plates.
La Rana wore an orange T-shirt now, but his fists still clenched the towel around his neck.
"Right on time, eh? Wait here."
La Rana passed a table occupied by the hoodlum trio—still drinking beer—and muttered with two men at a table in the back. He returned to fetch Pescatore.
The one sitting by the wall was definitely Chiclet, aka Héctor Talavera. The pompadour confirmed it. Like in the mug shot: A prodigious head of high-maintenance hair. A castle of hair. Combed in swirls and levels. String-thin sideburns extended along the jaw to the chin.
No doubt about it, Pescatore thought. I got you.
The face showed damage and dissipation, especially in the flat nose. Protuberant teeth chomped gum—probably the origin of the nickname. The gum-chewing worked the sinews of a short trunk of a neck encircled by gold chains. Chiclet tilted his head back against the wall. His bloodshot eyes focused on Pescatore from the depths of a hostile stupor.
"Buenas tardes, Señor Chiclet." Pescatore tempered his bouncy manner with deference. "I am Dionisio. From Bayamo. A pleasure to meet you."
He extended his hand. Chiclet's face twisted as if Pescatore had offered him a stool sample. Chiclet let the hand hang.
"Sit," La Rana growled, poking Pescatore in the ribs.
The table held three cell phones and a bottle of rum. Chiclet's tablemate was a long-armed bruiser whose straw hat recalled the Catracho mural.
Pescatore was just starting to speak when music blared: the ringtone of a phone on the table. A bachata guitar riff, then the falsetto croon of Romeo Santos: "Sooo nasty!"
Chiclet picked up the phone. His end of the conversation consisted of profanities and monosyllables. He swigged from the bottle.
While Chiclet talked, Pescatore scoped him. Rolex, gold bracelet, a wad of cash swelling a pocket of the pale blue shirt. Smells came off the man in waves: sweat, cologne, hair gel, cheap rum, chewing gum.
La Rana walked past the counter to a bathroom in back. Chiclet finished the call. Pescatore explained his situation, his hopes of reaching Chicago. Chiclet listened, drank, fiddled with his phones, and avoided eye contact. Pescatore realized that the smuggler wasn't capable of having a civil conversation with him. Chiclet saw him as human freight, merchandise, a commodity to be bought and sold, shipped from here to there after extracting maximum profit.
"Fucking Cubans," Chiclet said. "Why don't you take a boat to Miami instead of coming all the way here to break our balls?"
"The sharks, hermano. I'd rather take my chances on dry land."
"The sharks." Chiclet swigged from the bottle. "Not enough sharks to eat all the putos in Cuba. Mucho puto in Cuba, no?"
"Compared to where?" Pescatore heard himself retort. "Honduras?"
His accent had wavered. His mask had slipped. Not that he really cared. He'd had about enough of this humiliating little dance.
Chiclet's jaws worked the gum harder. In his line of business, people didn't talk back. They obeyed orders, kissed ass, begged and pleaded. The sudden impudence had put him on guard.
Pescatore planted his feet, ready to move.
He's gonna curse me out and slap me around, he thought, or tell me I've got cojones and offer me a drink.