The sun rising above the Sierra Madres glared in Mark Madison’s eyes, despite his costly designer sunglasses, as if to punish him for daring to emerge before it reached the high point of its day. It reminded him of the receptionist at Madison Engineering Corporation, who welcomed him for a rare early morning appointment with cheer-veiled sarcasm. “Good morning, Mr. Madison,” she said but meant, That’s what you get for staying out on the town when the rest of us working stiffs have to get up early to make a living.
Mark’s lips pulled into a righteous grimace as he gripped the wheel of his rental car. He did a lot more than those nine-to-fivers thought—especially Blaine—and they’d realize it now that he was temporarily on leave.
“Three strikes and you’re out,” Blaine said after Mark’s most recent DUI hearing. “You’ve got to pull your life together, Mark. I’m tired of bailing you out of trouble and making excuses for you to Mother.” Mouth thinned with disapproval, he handed over Mark’s license. “If you are pulled over for anything unrelated to the project, kiss this good-bye, because you won’t need it where you’ll wind up. As it is, your performance in Mexico will determine whether you have a job when you return.”
Blaine’s condescension had fanned the fires of Mark’s shame into rebellion. “I never asked you to make excuses for me. I never asked for you to bail me out of this DUI either. I’m my own man, whether you believe it or not.”
At least Mark was as much a man as he could be, with a big brother who filled their ambitious father’s shoes to the brim and a baby sister who had earned a doctorate in marine archeology before her twenty-sixth birthday. With ambition and brains taken, all that was left for Mark to claim was charm.
Blaine ran his fingers through the silver salting his dark hair at the temples. “When are you going to get it through that thick head of yours that I’m trying to help you aspire to something beyond liver failure?”
Mark bristled. “I’m a social drinker.”
“You’re becoming more than that, Mark.”
“I can quit anytime.”
Blaine drilled him with a challenging look. “Want to bet?”
Mark knew he was being suckered in, but for some reason he bit. “Name the stakes.”
“If you keep the hacienda project on target and stay sober while you’re doing it, I’ll step down from our on-site management and let you take it over. There’s nothing I’d rather do than stay in-house and let you do the traveling.”
Mark practically salivated. He never minded the work, but hated being confined to the office, filling in the pieces of projects that Blaine had already designed. He envied his brother’s travel. What a waste for someone like Blaine to see the world, when he was just as happy to stay in the box with his wife and kids.
Only a fool wouldn’t jump at this. “You got yourself a deal, bro.”
“I can’t watch you, Mark, but God will know if you value honor more than a good time.” Blaine had been on a God kick since he’d met Caroline. And while it made Mark a little uncomfortable sometimes, he had to admit his older brother seemed a lot happier now. And when Blaine was happy, Mark’s life was easier.
So Mark got a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. Blaine and his church had used their pull to get Mark’s jail time shifted to community service at some remote mission in Mexico—practically elevating Blaine to godly status in their mother’s eyes. Blaine had saved Mark from ruin once again.
As though living in a nice neighborhood and having a wife and 2.5 kids was all there was to aspire to in life, Mark thought, gearing down the sweet sports car as the incline became more steep. Not that he didn’t like Blaine’s wife and kids. What was not to like? Caroline loved everybody. Mark belonged to a mutual admiration society with his teen nieces, Karen and Annie. And he supposed the newest member of the Madison family, little Berto, made the perfect point-five of the national family average.
Family was nice, but that wasn’t “living” in Mark’s estimation. That was squeezing into a box of conformity and pulling down the lid, when there was a world to see and experiences to try before a man got too old to enjoy them. Then, maybe, he’d settle for life in the box.
As a busload of tourists passed him, two young ladies, their long blond hair tossed by the breeze, waved at him. Mark beeped the horn of the Jaguar XK8 convertible that he’d leased in Acapulco and flashed them a dazzling smile. He gunned the engine and soared around the bus, affording the girls, who’d hastily switched sides, a rakish wink. Blaine would have a hissy fit if he knew that Mark had switched his ticket destination from Mexico City to Acapulco, much less that he’d leased a car more suitable to his lifestyle in lieu of taking the bus.
“Well worth the trip,” Mark said in a wistful tone, wishing he was still there, sipping a frozen drink—regrettably without the alcohol he’d promised to abstain from—and watching the leggy beach beauties strut their stuff against the sun-splashed blue of Acapulco Bay. Instead he was headed over the season-parched Sierra Madres to do penance in a one-donkey village.
As the distance between his sports car and a truck bulging with produce closed, Mark eased up on the accelerator. The truck groaned and shifted gears as it took the steep incline, its faded plank rails wobbling with the strain of its load. Glancing past the bend to the left, Mark spied Mexican women and children in a ravine cut by time into the worn mountains. It was dry and rocky for the most part, except for remnants of a river running through it. The children played in the water while their mothers washed clothes at its edge in the same manner as their ancestors.
Licking his dry lips, Mark reached for the bottled water in the walnut-and-leather-trimmed console as the truck ahead finally breached the crest and leveled off. To his increasing annoyance, it slowed even more, brake lights glowing. Mark impatiently took a swig of water and nosed around the vehicle. Seeing his way clear, he shot forward, when something in the periphery of his vision caught his eye—something moving out from under the truck. By the time Mark realized it was one of the lumbering vehicle’s back tires, it was too late.
The tire shot into the backside of the Jaguar, sending it fishtailing perilously close to the edge of the road, and dropped down into the ravine. Like a teetering giant, the braking truck skidded on its remaining tires across the road toward the ledge, the bare axle gnashing at the pavement in a trail of sparks. Mark gunned the engine of the Jag, streaking out of the truck’s path and swerving back into the right lane. The truck ground to a stop at the cliff’s edge, but Mark’s overcompensation gave way to a teeth-jarring ride, reducing the Jag’s high-performance features to those of the donkey cart sitting by a roadside stand, now dead ahead of him. Braking all the way on loose gravel and dirt, Mark not only upended the vegetable-laden cart, but took out the stand’s canopy as well. Staring in disbelief, Mark watched the dust settle over the hood of the now stalled Jag.
Draped over it was a collapsed corner of a blue construction tarp. The other three corners, still supported by poles, provided shelter from the sun for a rustic roadside fruit stand. From the shouts of “Ay de mí,” barking, and braying emanating from the underside, it was inhabited by Mexicans, dogs, and a disgruntled donkey.
Leery of his sensory report, Mark fingered his throbbing forehead just as a wet, cool sensation spread between his legs. He quickly uprighted the water bottle emptying in his lap and noticed an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables scattered on the floor of the car, evidently relocated from the capsized cart.
Just as he registered that things couldn’t get worse, the air bag released.
Can things get any worse? Corinne Diaz wondered as she worked her way through the crowd of the village zócalo. Not that Mexicalli was that large. Its few cobbled streets snaked their way through a cluster of homes and businesses growing from the lake on which the town had been built. Crisscrossing the streets at whatever angles the landscape would allow, occasional dirt and stone alleys led to orchards or gardens that fringed the settlement landward.
But all of Mexicalli seemed to have turned out for the Cinco de Mayo fiesta, along with their relatives from across the lake or up the mountain. And Corinne was searching the square for a pint-sized French soldier who was only seven—a very proud seven.
“Ay de mí, Señorita Corina, that boy ’Tonio makes no good.”
Corinne stopped, waiting for her portly housekeeper to catch up. If the steep winding streets of the town were a challenge to Corinne’s lungs, poor Soledad was puffing like a tuba player.
“Soledad, why don’t you sit here in the square and keep an eye out for Antonio?”
Corinne unclipped the cell phone from the scarlet sash of her embroidered red and green skirt. Everyone sported the colors of the Mexican flag in honor of the day.
“Here,” she said, handing the phone to the older woman. “Call the school if you find Antonio, and tell him to wait here until the rest of the cast finds him.”
The orphans from Hogar de los Niños were scheduled to put on a play reenacting the 1862 Battle of Puebla, where a few Mexican militia under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin turned back French troops sent by Napoleon to occupy the country.
Antonio was playing the part of a general of the French army. The young boy was so impressed with his red, white, and blue uniform of crepe paper, with its gold foil epaulets, that Corinne suspected him of coming into the village prematurely to show it off.
“No, no, no.” Soledad shoved the phone back at her. “I will catch the culprit by his ear and drag him back to the escuela. I don’t comprehend this equipment much.”
Touch-Tone hadn’t quite taken over some of the more remote villages. Buttons were for clothes, not equipment, which was Soledad’s word for anything she didn’t understand. She only knew her heavy, black teléfono.
“It’s like the computer,” Corinne explained. “You just push ocho and the call button. Then it’s just like your teléfono, no?”
Soledad arched half of the continuous black hedge of brow that separated her dark gaze from a low, copper-bronze forehead. She marveled at Corinne’s wireless laptop, mostly for the photo albums stored in it, but marveling was as close to equipment as the Indio woman cared to get.
“My teléfono serves me well enough,” she replied.
As frustrating as this general attitude was, it was also part of the village’s charm.
With a sigh, Corinne reattached the cell phone to her sash. “Bueno,” she conceded. “But if you see Antonio, just keep him here.”
She didn’t want Soledad to have to climb the hill to the orphanage at the outskirts of the village. It was supposed to be her day off, but nothing went down in Mexicalli without Soledad’s knowledge. Despite the lack of a phone in every home, news blanketed the town rather than spread through it. Who needed telephone lines when a network of neighboring clotheslines was far more efficient?
“Feed him a churrito from the butcher’s stand. I’ll gather the rest of the troops at the school as soon as they’ve finished their dinner, and bring them over for the show.”
“Do not fret so. ’Tonio will show himself when the fun begins.” Soledad reached up to tuck behind Corinne’s ear a loose strand of dark hair that had escaped her upsweep. In addition to being cook and housekeeper at the orphanage, Soledad had also assumed the role of Corinne’s dueña. A proper young lady did not live unchaperoned.
“I wonder that you have one hair left on your head. You are the nurse; you are the teacher; you are the nanny.”
“Administrators wear many hats.” Corinne wore those hats and many more as assistant to the priest who ran the orphanage. This morning, it had been that of janitor. Would the little ones ever learn to put the paper in the designated receptable, rather than in the toilet, which was not designed to accomodate paper products? “Besides, I love what I’m doing.”
And she loved Mexicalli. Corinne scanned the shaded plaza once more for the errant commander de jour. The butcher, the baker, even the candlestick maker had set up makeshift booths on the plaza for the event. Along the adjacent side of the square were a number of Indios selling handmade crafts from petates, or woven mats of split palm. The Cantina Roja, Mexicalli’s only eat-in restaurant, bar, and gathering place, had moved its tables across the cobbled street so that guests might partake of its food and drink and have a front-row seat for the festivities. Even now, a visiting group of mariachis from the village on the other side of the lake were tuning their instruments near the stage.
“If I were your mama, I would say you should be making your own babies, not chasing after someone else’s. It isn’t like you need the money, no?”
Corinne turned, a wistful smile settling on her lips. “No, Soledad. I’ve been very blessed. Although if the ladies at the orphanage where I was left as a niña had not chased after me and found me a good home, it might have been very different. I might be begging on the streets of Mexico City or worse. Now, maybe I can make a difference in another orphan’s life.”
It was a God thing, of that Corinne was certain. The search for her biological mother had begun at Cuernavaca, where Corinne had been adopted at the age of two. From there, Corinne and her parents traced María Sanchez to Mexicalli, which at the time had no orphanage. There the trail ended. As for Corinne’s birth father, he’d been recorded as an American artist, John Smith—probably not his real name. Since Corinne had blue eyes and a lighter complexion than the cocoa or copper tones of María’s people, the chances were good that he’d been fair.
The search was initiated not out of Corinne’s longing to find her roots, but because of a tumor found during an annual physical. It was benign, but it led to a precautionary quest for her biological parents’ medical histories. Unfortunately, María Sanchez was a popular name, and “John Smith” could have been any of the numerous Bohemian artists who came and went through the region.
So instead of finding the parents who’d given her up twenty-seven years ago, Corinne had found what her life might have been like had she not been adopted and raised by loving parents. And Mexicalli itself was a charming village, seemingly frozen in time. It felt like home, a part of her she hadn’t known existed. The place and the people, especially the orphans, so enchanted her that she felt led to give back some of the blessings she’d received.
“Aha,” Soledad exclaimed, drawing Corinne from her reflection. The housekeeper pointed across the zócalo to where a crepe-paper-bedecked runaway bowed in front of Mexicalli’s wealthy patroness, Doña Violeta. The setting sunlight crept under the jacaranda trees and glanced off the foil epaulets on Antonio’s shoulders as he wielded his wooden sword against an invisible opponent.
“Better we hurry before he annoys Doña Violeta, and she ceases to help Hogar de los Niños forever. That one can be eccentric.”
Eccentric was an understatement for an eighty-three-year-old woman who rode around town in an upholstered donkey cart. Her burro always wore a straw hat with a band to match its mistress’s somber dress. The color of the day was navy blue.
Corinne stayed the housekeeper with her hand. “I’ll take care of Antonio. You enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”
“Pues,” Soledad said, easing back down on the park bench without much protest. “Perhaps I should untire myself.”
Smiling at the woman’s unique grasp of English, Corinne set out through the picnicking clusters of family and friends gathered around the stage under the shade of the jacaranda trees. Her full skirt swished about her calves as she passed by so many familiar faces. Mexicalli was a small town, so even if Corinne did not know all their names, she had seen or dealt with most of the villagers in the two months since her arrival.
She reached the opposite side of the plaza, where Antonio was regaling Doña Violeta with the importance of his role. It had now advanced in rank from general to none other than Archduke Maximillian himself.
“I am second only to the great Napoleon, who could have conquered even the conquistadores,” the boy boasted, assuming a proud stance, hand on the hilt of his wooden sword.
At that moment a thunderous clap erupted from the edge of the plaza where the road entered the city at its southern tip. The high-strung Antonio fumbled his sword. Doña Violeta clutched her purse to her chest as though it had been her heart that made the noise.
Corinne looked in the direction of the noise, where a rusty yellow livestock truck belched gray exhaust and hiccuped to a squeaky stop.
With the entire population of the zócalo watching, Captain Nolla—Mexicalli’s only policeman—and mayor Rafael Quintana swaggered over to the truck as its passengers streamed out of the cab like clowns from a Volkswagen Beetle. But Corinne’s attention was sidetracked by a lone figure that hopped down from the company of grunting swine in the back of the vehicle.