Diego 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 morehopper car. 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 Michigan.

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 act.

“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.

Return to Tracking the Beast page