groaned under the night sky as he muscled the bundle across the roof of
the railroad car and dragged it to an open hatch. Climbing up the
vertical steel ladder with the package strapped to his back had
strained his legs and wearied his arms and hands.
For an hour he had suspected what was in the reeking package, wrapped
in newspapers and bound with clothesline, but he didn’t really want to
know. All he was sure of was that the thing weighed less than a hundred
pounds and that he was being paid ten times that in dollars for a
simple job of work.
When the jefe needed Diego, he
would phone, and Diego would drive his ancient Corolla up the
interstate highway from Detroit four hours north to the Mackinac
Bridge, then west on a two-lane road into the pine and hemlock forest
for four and a half hours more. At the end of the journey he would meet
the jefe after nightfall at a rutted dirt road that crossed a rusty railroad track in the forest. The jefe
always spoke in a quiet voice, almost a whisper, although there seemed to be no need for silence in the lonely deep woods of western Upper
Each time Diego would lift a bundle from the jefe’s van and carry it
down a rocky trail on one side of the tracks past scores and scores of
railroad cars. Then he’d hump it up the ladder of an empty hopper car
the jefe had chosen and finally dump it through a hatch. Diego had done
the job three times before and had been paid immediately in cash,
together with a soft warning not to tell anyone what he had done or
where he had been.
Today’s job was the last, Diego had told the jefe.
Nothing personal, he said. He was just tired of working in the cold
north country and wanted to move back to Chihuahua where it was warm
all year. The truth was that Diego was nervous. For months he had been
able to tell himself he didn’t care about what he was doing, but now
the implications of his acts were slowly corroding his conscience.
Maybe the police would never know, but God would. As soon as this job
was over, Diego would make his confession to the priest, do his
penance, and go home to Mexico.
“No problem,” the jefe had said in a surprisingly kindly voice, patting him on the back. “You’ve done a good job for me and there’ll be a bonus.”
Just a couple of years ago he had met the jefe—medium
height, thickset and balding, unlike his own tall, lean, muscular and
black-haired frame—at a day labor shape-up just outside a Home Depot
near Ann Arbor. In the parking lot dozens of poorly clad workers,
almost all of them undocumented Latinos like Diego, gathered in the
chill early each morning, hoping contractors would hire them for a few
dollars an hour under the table.
Immediately Diego had agreed to the jefe’s
proposal. Easy money. Two or three times a year there’d be a thousand
dollars for a day’s drive, then fifteen minutes’ labor humping a
package on his back down a short path, then up the side of a rail car
and finally dropping it into the car. If it worked out there might be
other jobs like it, the jefe said.
“What’s in the package?” Diego had asked the first time.
“Nothing you need to know,” the jefe said. “Better you don’t. We could get busted and it would go easier for you if you can say you didn’t know.”
Drugs, Diego thought. Of course. After the first job he had decided
that old railroad cars in the woods are a peculiar way to hide and move
dope, but for that kind of money he wasn’t going to push the question.
There wasn’t much risk of discovery, anyway. The job site was so deep
in the wilderness that few if any police would be around. Maybe the jefe knew what he was doing. It was all the same to Diego.
Each time Diego and the jefe
had met far from Ann Arbor just outside the same deserted and rusty
railroad track where the van was parked on an access road screened by
trees from the highway nearby. The man had instructed Diego to drive
his Corolla through the moonlight the last couple of miles with his
headlights out and brake lamps disconnected.
Though night had fallen, there was no need for lanterns. Those would
have tipped off night watchers to the intruders’ presence. Not that
there were any curious eyes about. The jefe had
said everything had been checked out and no railroad bulls prowled the
rails. Starshine through the cloudless sky softly outlined the
tree-shrouded tracks and the cars that sat upon them like a line of
shadowy dominoes. Soon the moon would rise and the view would be nearly
as clear as day, but with deep shadows to hide within. The boss carried
a small penlight with a red lens, pointing it down the trail by the
tracks. The path was brushy and stony and difficult to negotiate on
foot. For a while Diego wished he had a wheelbarrow to carry the
bundle, but soon realized that the trail was too rough for that.
Each time, at the jefe’s
instruction Diego had reached into the back of the van and hauled out
the bundle, grasping it by the clothesline. As before, it smelled
strangely sweet and cloying, as if it had been soaked in cheap woman’s
perfume, the kind sold door to door by traveling saleswomen trying to
augment their husbands’ wages.
“That’ll throw off the dogs,” the man had said. No doubt the
eye-watering scent would confuse drug-sniffing hounds, Diego thought.
As before, he’d need a long shower to wash off the stink.
He shouldered the shapeless bundle over his back and followed the jefe
down the long line of parked hopper cars, a few minutes later stopping
at the fourth car from the end of a coupled cut of nine.
Wordlessly the man handed him a worn pair of cheap cotton work gloves
with nubbled rubber palms, as he had done on the previous occasions.
That was smart, Diego thought. They wouldn’t leave prints. Narcs
wouldn’t be able to prove their presence unless they caught them in the
“This car,” the man said. “Go on up and I’ll follow you.”
There was enough light for Diego to read the lettering on the car.
“UNION PACIFIC,” it said. This was a different one. The others in the
previous jobs had been emblazoned “BURLINGTON NORTHERN” or “WISCONSIN
CENTRAL” in faded letters partly covered by murals of graffiti. Enough
rust stained the edges of the car to tell him it was not new, and the
legend “BLT 8-87” confirmed that impression. Fine gray powder stuck to
the steel here and there. The car had last been used to haul cement.
Climbing the first few rungs of the tall vertical steel ladder wasn’t
so hard, but the dead weight on his shoulder had Diego, a strong man,
panting the last three feet. On previous jobs he had used a block and
tackle strapped around a hatch to hoist packages weighing more than a
hundred pounds, and he wished the boss had brought that equipment
along. He stopped to rest after pulling the bundle onto the roof. The jefe clambered up after him.
“Okay, open that hatch,” the man said, handing Diego a battered
three-foot length of two-by-four. With the wooden baulk the Mexican
hammered open the steel dogs that fastened the heavy hatch. The noise
was loud enough so that for a few minutes the two men waited quietly,
listening intently and searching through the night for sudden beams
from flashlights. There was no response.
The jefe nodded. “Okay, Diego. Do it.”
Diego dragged the bundle to the lip of the hatch and with a firm shove
dropped it into the void. A short but sharp clang rose from the steel
of the hopper bottom twelve feet below.
That’s not dope, Diego thought. That would have been a thud. That’s something else. And I think I know what it is.
“That did sound funny,” the man said, as if echoing Diego’s dismay.
“Better take a look down there and make sure everything’s okay.”
The jefe handed Diego the penlight. “Go on, have a look.”
Reluctantly Diego took the penlight and pointed it into the dusty
interior of the car, leaning into the open hatch to see better.
“Don’t see nothing,” he said. “Wait a minute. Paper broke open. Something leak.”
As cold metal suddenly pressed into the back of his neck, Diego
realized the truth, and with that epiphany his world exploded in a
flash of brilliant white.
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