Read Andreo's Race Online

Authors: Pam Withers

Andreo's Race (17 page)

The hill is steeper than it looks. As I pump my bike pedals, my breath comes in gasps, even though I'm in super shape. Darkness is falling as fast as the rain. I had two choices back there: turn myself in to the police and get a free ride back to Cochabamba in a police cruiser, ready to face my parents' fury and rejection. Or wheel away at high speed. Without taking time to think it through, I panicked and did the second.

My parents should be less than halfway to Cochabamba by now; they should still be trying to catch up with Raul and me. Yet they somehow know we ditched the race entirely, and now they've handed our photos to the police.

Gritting my teeth, I pedal harder. I feel so guilty, muddled and torn that all I'm aware of is a need to clear my head. Biking in the rain is usually good for that.

I'm not really staying in Bolivia. That was just foolish talk. I shouldn't have blown Raul off like that, but he'll forgive me. Just needed some space and time.

Why am I biking up the hill toward the stupid shack?
I want to see if anyone's there. Maybe I'm clinging to the hope that Vanessa has nothing more to do with Vargas. Maybe I want to be a hero and free her if he is holding her there. Or maybe I want to witness the two of them captured by the police, tipped off by my phone call to Colque. Regardless, I'm just going to look from a distance, then speed back down the hill, turn myself in and make sure the police shut down Vargas's operation. It's getting too late to catch up with Raul by bike now, let alone with my adoptive parents.

Darkness has fully descended as I draw near the place. The rain batters the corrugated tin roof in a steady drumbeat. There's no Jeep parked outside, which means Tattoo Guy is off somewhere. The dead bolt is off; she hasn't been locked up here. But a light inside the shack silhouettes a lone figure. I edge closer, then look back down the road, expecting Police Chief Ferreira any moment. I tell myself not to go closer. But the light draws me forward until I'm feet from the barred window. I smile. It's Vanessa.

She is seated on a rough-hewn bench that serves as the shack's only seating. There's a steaming cup of tea on the box-table beside her. Her long, unbraided hair falls over her delicate shoulders. She's wearing a lacy blue sweater. Flashy sapphire earrings wink at me. They match the sturdy, blue man's hat she is knitting. She's bent studiously over her work, her long eyelashes blinking as her needles complete each stitch.

She's so beautiful I feel my breath catch. The soft light reveals a freshly cleaned kitchen and vase of marigolds on the table. There's no one else about. A gentle force moves me toward the door; I'm startled to find myself turning the doorknob.

“Mom,” I say quietly.

Her head jerks up. She drops her knitting. Surprise then fear flood her face. She rises.

“Andreo! What are you doing here? I don't know how you found me, but you have to leave this instant!”

“I just wanted to see you again,” I say, reluctantly snapping out of my dreamlike state. It's as if she has tossed ice water in my face.

“Get out!” she says in a shrill voice I never imagined she could have. “For your own safety, boy, run!”

Boy?
My face hardens and I pull the next words out of a cold place in my constricted heart. “So our entire meeting was fake, was it? Did Vargas tell you everything to say and do? You hugged me just to hide your face, didn't you?”

Her mouth comes unhinged in a less-than-attractive fashion. “If I say yes, will you go?” It sounds like a desperate plea. She moves her arms like she's trying to sweep me out the door.

“I'll go when you tell me the truth.” I plant my feet so firmly that nothing and no one can move them. “I know you're married to Hugo Vargas.”

Her face drains of color at this.

“We found the registry book at the Matrimonial Cave. And I know he has jumped bail and the police are closing in. So you're obviously on the run with him.”

She stumbles backward and lowers herself uneasily to the bench. “Ask your questions, Andreo. It's your funeral.” Her tone has gone cold. The hurt all but crushes me. Even so, I struggle to stay composed.

“Did Hugo tell you everything to say and do?”

“More or less.” Her voice wavers a little.

“Was any of it true?”

She hesitates. “Yes.”

“My birth father?”

“Marcelo Quispe, like I told you.” Her eyes hold mine steadily, revealing sadness for an instant. It's a matter-of-fact tone tinged with impatience, like we aren't talking about something of earth-shattering importance in my life.

“You have other children?”

“No.”

I preferred her earlier answer:
I've not been blessed that way. Which may be why I've thought of you so much over the years
.

“Who's the guy with the tattoos?”

“Jorge, our guard.”

“You work for Vargas.”

“Obviously.” Her chin lifts and her features convert to a defiant stare.

“You live in Cochabamba?”

“We did, but we're leaving tonight—leaving Bolivia.”

That's what
she
thinks. I wonder again what's taking the police so long. “Where's Vargas?”

Her hands twist in her lap. “Using the outhouse, outside.” That gets my attention. My body tenses and I move toward the door. But I have one more question.

“Who are Raul's parents?”

The opening door slams into my backside. A fat, mustached man in a dripping black raincoat walks in calmly and removes his fedora. He smiles genially and extends his hand. “Andreo Gutierrez. So nice to meet you again after all these years.”

I take a step back. He and I both know that his bulk easily prevents any escape. He smells of stale cigar smoke and time in an outhouse. My heart is racing, but I make a concerted effort to show no fear. Vanessa moves to stand beside him. The contrast between the fat, ugly man and striking, trim woman couldn't be starker. And now both are blocking my exit.

“You were my first, you know.” Vargas snakes a fleshy arm around my birth mother's waist. I watch her body relax. “Yes, you and Vanessa were a most special gift: the start of a very successful business and a most satisfying life.” He caresses Vanessa's hair; her responding smile makes me clench my teeth.

I feel blood running through my veins, as if the fantasy I've held on to for all these years is being pushed out by a spontaneous blood transfusion.

“Andreo, you're a foolish, foolish boy.” He wags his finger like a kindergarten teacher chastising a student. “Trying to pursue a woman who never indicated she wanted to be pursued. Snooping beyond any safe or sensible point. Abandoning your adoptive parents and the race you came for, according to one of my race-volunteer contacts,” he tsk-tsks me. “What were you hoping to accomplish this evening, anyway, may I ask?”

My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. He shakes his head dramatically and sighs. “This very moment, you could be nearing your finish line. Finishing your adventure race in a respectable time, with a respectable family. A family who paid a pretty penny to acquire you.” A cracked smile spreads across his jowly face.

“I didn't want to go through with our meeting,” Vanessa tells me quietly, apologetically. “I begged Hugo not to make me.… ”

“You begged not to meet your own son?”

She falls silent and stares at the floor.

“You sell human beings,” I say, drawing myself up and addressing both of them with the full strength of my voice. “You sell babies, forgetting that they grow up! They grow up wondering who their real parents are, why they were torn away and what they did wrong to make their parents reject them. Did you ever think of that? Do you care about anything but the money?” I don't wait for an answer. “You tell adoptive parents anything they want to hear, don't you? You work with
doctors all over to find teenage girls as desperate as you once were”—I jab my finger at Vanessa. “You tell them lies, anything to get their babies, anything to—”

“Andreo, Andreo,” comes Vargas's voice, exaggerating patience. “You're focused on only one side of this. What about the couples brokenhearted over their inability to have a family? Young men and women whose arms ache to hold a baby? People willing to pay anything, do anything, ignore all such questions and issues? We are matchmakers, Andreo. We take babies that birth mothers are unable to cope with and give childless couples joy. It's a joy we witness with every match, a happiness you can't even imagine.”

My birth mother is nodding, looking at me hopefully. I'm too stunned to reply.

“Yes, the children may grow up wondering at times,” Vargas continues, “but their lives are much, much richer for the transfer. They may wonder about the real story, but it's almost always a sad story. A tragic story. A story whose ending we can change.”

His eyes are bright. He's smiling like someone high on something. His hands are moving like an actor delivering Academy Award–winning lines. He's a zealot who actually believes he's some kind of do-gooder!

“Vanessa and I, we're proud of what we do. If you could see the looks on the faces of the couples who adopt, you'd understand. Your parents, they were my first clients. All they wanted was a child to love and care for. A
boy to raise with all the love and wisdom and resources they had. Have they done a good job, Andreo? I think so. I was there when you were handed over. The gratitude on their faces was—”

He stops, almost choked up. Vanessa squeezes his hand. The photo of my smiling parents holding me outside Vargas's office sixteen years ago forces itself upon me. But my silence lasts only a second.

“You're a criminal, the worst kind,” I bark, pulling all my courage together. “A black-market baby stealer. The records of all the babies you sold—if you even kept records—I suppose you think you can carry them out of the country with you, so none of us will ever be able to …”

Now Vargas is laughing. He walks across the room and pulls a suitcase out from under the bed: an expensive, red-leather suitcase with a strap around its middle secured by a heavy lock. He releases the lock and lifts out a yellow spiral notebook that itself has a lock. I realize that only Vanessa is now between me and the door, but there's no way I'm dashing out without at least trying to get that notebook. He lifts the tome and waves it at me as Vanessa's nervous eyes flit from him to me. “Yes, Andreo, it's going with me. Or maybe I'll burn it tonight. We were just trying to decide that.”

I lunge across the room and grab for it, but he easily pulls it out of my reach and, with a deft move of his right knee, knocks me to the floor. I scramble up and back
away from him toward Vanessa, toward the door.
Fine. I'll let the police take it
. It's time for me to get out while I can.

“You're both losers,” I say as a parting shot. This launches Vargas into a big belly laugh.

I stride toward the door and for a split second, I think they are going to let me go. But as I yank it open, there's Tattoo Man—Jorge—standing in the doorway, rain-soaked and scowling. One signal from Vargas and the guard's thick arms wrap around me, one of his elbows locking around my neck.

First I raise my hands to wrestle with the mass of muscle. Then I attempt to sink my teeth into an arm and kick as hard as I can. My nose scrunches up at the reek of beer and body odor. Jorge merely chuckles as he flops me chin-first onto the ground and holds me there with his boot like a cat playing with a mouse.

I'm still hoping desperately for the sound of a police siren. I left that message on Colque's phone an hour ago. Instead, I'm forced to listen as Vargas, Vanessa and Jorge talk in rapid-fire Spanish. I catch the words “posters” and “leave now.” Eventually, Vargas walks calmly to his and Vanessa's suitcase, drops the notebook into it and locks the case with a flourish. Jorge starts gathering tins of food from the cupboards and stuffing bottles of
chicha
into a shoulder bag with great care. Vanessa fills some bottles of water from the container on the counter while gazing sadly at the vase of marigolds, as if she hates to leave them behind.
She's more reluctant to
leave the flowers behind than to see the last of her only son
, I think bitterly.

Moments later, she nods her readiness at Vargas. Jorge sneers at me as he holds the door open for the couple.

“Don't worry, Andreo,” Vargas says. “Someone will find you by the time we've crossed the border. By the way, I am glad we placed you with a good family. I just wish they'd kept you in Canada.”

Vanessa gathers up her knitting. “Good-bye, Andreo,” she says softly, and pulls the door shut soundlessly. I jump at the sound of the dead bolt outside sliding into place.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

I try the door—locked solidly—and rattle the iron bars on the window. I search desperately for a hole or weakness somewhere, a possible way out. Nothing. Then I sink onto the bed and take some deep breaths to unchoke myself.

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