Read The Death Box Online

Authors: J. A. Kerley

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Thrillers, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Fiction, #General

The Death Box

To James Lewinski,

Who showed me Prufrock

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Also by J.A. Kerley

Copyright

About the Publisher

1

The stench of rotting flesh filled the box like black fog. Death surrounded Amili Zelaya, the floor a patchwork of clothing bearing the decomposing bodies of seventeen human beings. Amili was alive, barely, staring into the shadowed dark of a shipping container the size of a semi-trailer. Besides the reek of death, there was bone-deep heat and graveyard silence save for waves breaking against a hull far below.

You’re lucky
, the smiling man in Honduras had said before closing the door,
ten days and you’ll be in Los Estados Unitos, the United States, think of that
. Amili had thought of it, grinning at Lucia Belen in the last flash of sunlight before the box slammed shut. They’d crouched in the dark thinking their luck was boundless: They were going to America.

“Lucia,” Amili rasped. “Please don’t leave me now.”

Lucia’s hand lay motionless in Amili’s fingers. Then, for the span of a second, the fingers twitched. “Fight for life, Lucia,” Amili whispered, her parched tongue so swollen it barely moved. Lucia was from Amili’s village. They’d grown up together – born in the same week eighteen years ago – ragged but happy. Only when fragments of the outside world intruded did they realize the desperate poverty strangling everyone in the village.

“Fight for life,” Amili repeated, drifting into unconsciousness. Sometime later Amili’s mind registered the deep notes of ship horns. The roar and rattle of machinery. Something had changed.

“The ship has stopped, Lucia,” Amili rasped, holes from popped rivets allowing light to outline the inside of the module, one of thousands on the deck of the container ship bound for Miami, Florida. The illegal human cargo had been repeatedly warned to stay quiet through the journey.

If you reveal yourselves you will be thrown in a gringo prison, raped, beaten … men, women, children, it makes no difference. Never make a sound, understand?

Eventually they’d feel the ship stop and the box would be offloaded and driven to a hidden location where they’d receive papers, work assignments, places to live. They had only to perform six months of house-keeping, yard work or light factory labor to relieve the debt of their travel. After that, they owned their lives. A dream beyond belief.

“It must be Miami, Lucia,” Amili said. “Stay with me.”

But their drinking water had leaked away early in the voyage, a split opening in the side of the huge plastic drum, water washing across the floor of the container, pouring out through the seams. No one worried much about the loss, fearing only that escaping liquid would attract attention and they’d be put in chains to await prison. The ship had been traveling through fierce storms, rainwater dripping into the module from above like a dozen mountain springs. Water was everywhere.

This had been many days back. Before the ship had lumbered into searing summer heat. The rusty water in the bottom of the module was swiftly consumed. For days they ached for water, the inside of the container like an oven. Teresa Maldone prayed until her voice burned away. Pablo Entero drank from the urine pail. Maria Poblana banged on the walls of the box until wrestled to the floor.

She was the first to die.

Amili Zelaya had initially claimed a sitting area by a small hole in the container, hoping to peek out and watch for America. An older and larger woman named Postan Rendoza had bullied Amili away, cursing and slapping her to a far corner by the toilet bucket.

But the module was slightly lower in Amili’s square meter of squatting room. Rainwater had pooled in the depressed corner, dampening the underside of Amili’s ragged yellow dress.

When the heat came, Amili’s secret oasis held water even as others tongued the metal floor for the remaining rain. When no one was looking Amili slipped the hem of her dress to her mouth and squeezed life over her tongue, brown, rusty water sullied by sloshings from the toilet bucket, but enough to keep her insides from shriveling.

Postan Rendoza’s bullying had spared Amili’s life. And the life of Lucia, with whom Amili had shared her hidden water.

Rendoza had been the eighth to die.

Three days ago, the hidden cache had disappeared. By then, four were left alive, and by yesterday it was only Amili and Lucia. Amili felt guilt that she had watched the others perish from lack of water. But she had made her decision early, when she saw past tomorrow and tomorrow that water would be a life-and-death problem. Had she shared there would be no one alive in the steaming container: there was barely enough for one, much less two.

It was a hard decision and terrible to keep through screams and moans and prayers, but decisions were Amili’s job: Every morning before leaving for the coffee plantation Amili’s mother would gather five wide-eyed and barefoot children into the main room of their mud-brick home, point at Amili and say, “Amili is the oldest and the one who makes the good decisions.”

A good decision, Amili knew, was for tomorrow, not today. When the foreign dentistas came, it was Amili who cajoled her terrified siblings into getting their teeth fixed and learning how to care for them, so their mouths did not become empty holes. When the drunken, lizard-eyed Federale gave thirteen-year-old Pablo money to walk into the woods, Amili had followed to see the Federale showing Pablo his man thing. Though the man had official power it had been Amili’s decision to throw a big stone at him, the blood pouring from his face as he chased Amili down and beat her until she could not stand.

But he’d been revealed in the village and could never return.

Good decisions, Amili learned, came from the head and not the heart. The heart dealt with the moment. A decision had to be made for tomorrow and the tomorrow after that, all the way to the horizon. It could seem harsh, but decisions made from a soft heart often went wrong. One always had to look at what decisions did for the tomorrows.

Her hardest decision had come one month ago, when Miguel Tolandoro drove into the village in a truck as bright as silver, scattering dust and chickens. His belly was big and heavy and when he held it in his hands and shook it, he told of how much food there was in America. “
Everywhere you look
,” he told the astonished faces, “
there is food
.” Tolandoro’s smiling mouth told shining tales about how one brave person could lift a family from the dirt. He had spoken directly to Amili, holding her hands and looking into her eyes.

“You have been learning English, Amili Zelaya. You speak it well. Why?”

“I suppose I am good in school, Señor Tolandoro.”

“I’ve also heard of your prowess with the mathematics and studies in accounting. Perhaps you yearn for another future, no?”

“I have thought that … maybe in a few years. When my family can—”

“Do it today, Amili. Start the flow of munificence to your family. Or do they not need money?”

Amili was frightened of the US, of its distance and strange customs. But her head saw the tomorrows and tomorrows and knew the only escape from barren lives came with money. Amili swallowed hard and told the smiling man she would make the trip.

“I work six months to pay off the travel?”

“You’ll still have much to send home, sweet Amili.”

“What if I am unhappy there?”

“Say the word and you’ll come back to your village.”

“How many times does that happen?”

“I’ve never seen anyone return.”

Amili startled to a tremendous banging. After a distant scream of machines and the rattle of cables the container began to lift. The metal box seemed to sway in the wind and then drop. Another fierce slam from below as the module jolted violently to a standstill. Amili realized the container had been moved to a truck.

“Hang on, Lucia. Soon we’ll be safe and we can—” Amili held her tongue as she heard dockworkers speaking English outside.

“Is this the one, Joleo?”

“Lock it down fast. We’ve got two minutes before Customs comes by this section.”

Amili felt motion and heard the grinding of gears. She drifted into unconsciousness again, awakened by a shiver in the container. The movement had stopped.

“Lucia?”

Amili patted for her friend’s hand, squeezed it. The squeeze returned, almost imperceptible. “Hang on, Lucia. Soon we’ll have the
agua
. And our freedom.”

Amili heard gringo voices from outside.

“I hate this part, opening the shit-stinking containers. They ought to make the monkeys not eat for a couple days before they get packed up.”

“Come on, Ivy. How about you work instead of complaining?”

“I smell it from fifty feet away. Get ready to herd them to the Quonset hut.”

Light poured into the box, so bright it stole Amili’s vision. She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Okay, monkeys, welcome to the fuckin’ U S of – Jesus … The smell … I think I’m gonna puke. Come here, Joleo … something’s bad wrong.”

“I smelled that in Iraq. It’s death. Orzibel’s on his way. He’ll know what to do.”

Amili tried to move her head from the floor but it weighed a thousand kilos. She put her effort into moving her hand, lifting …

“I saw one move. Back in the corner. Go get it.”

“It stinks to hell in there, Joleo. And I ain’t gonna walk over all those—”

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