Luz loosened unresisting fingers from her shirt and planted a feather-light kiss on the baby's head. Tomas arched his back, stared open-mouthed into Luz's forfeit soul, and reached for his mother, who opened her arms to claim him. Luz continued up the aisle alone. She'd never taken this route from the airport into town. When Luz was little, the closest she got to an airplane was her father pretending to be one as he ran up mountain tracks with her on his back, both of them with their arms outstretched and careening side to side. Laughing. And when she and her mother were evacuated, it was from a postage-stamp mountain clearing. Both of them spattered with her father's blood but alone and mute in their shock, they'd clung together on the floor of the helicopter, its back gaping open, and watched their dizzying ascent as the pilot swerved to avoid incoming flack. Until their life in Guatemala disappeared and only darkness remained.
These sights and smells signaled home, though. Baskets of bananas, oranges, melons. Overripe and redolent in the humid air. Instant saliva created pressure at the back of her throat, a remembered taste of mango. Acrid charcoal smoke mixing with diesel exhaust. Roasting meat. Corn and peppers.
Vendors on every corner—fruit, of course, and other food, but also bootleg DVDs, knockoff watches, lottery tickets—each stand shaded with a tattered tarp lashed to streetlamps and store awnings. Dozens of tinny radios competing for attention. Balconies hung with laundry. Signs along the roads for the small shops: lavandería, joyería, carnicería, mechánico.
A man sprinted from the farmacia on the corner and hopped on. He paid the fare, pushed sunglasses to the top of his head. When he walked up the narrow aisle, however, his dark copper hair brushed the low school-bus ceiling, and the sunglasses slid back. Although he retrieved them with an athletic backhand catch before they hit the dirty floor, a blush spread over his pale cheeks. Hunching his shoulders in a vain attempt to make himself shorter, the man looked briefly at her. His jaw set in a determined frown told Luz he had a job to do. He wasn't a slumming American tourist taking the cheap bus into the city. This had to be her contact.
"Con permiso?" he asked when he got to her.
Luz checked for the newspaper—yes, tucked under his arm. Without speaking, she began to shift the heavy leather suitcase closer to her feet. It caught against a broken fitting on the seat in front of her. As Luz attempted to maneuver it, the man pushed from his side. The bus lurched away from the curb, the bag shifted, and the tall man toppled into the seat next to Luz. His nose squashed against her temple. She smelled spicy aftershave.
"Sorry," he said, ears scarlet, freckles standing out on his cheeks. In Luz's fantasies about her arrival, this contact was always a military man, taciturn. With a crew cut. A gun in a shoulder holster. A scar on his cheek. But this guy, with his freckles and the totally non-piratical gold hoop in his ear, was hardly older than she and looked like a strong wind would blow him all the way to the ocean. Luz smiled.
Whoever these friends of Richard were, she didn't care. They'd provided her plane ticket from Boston to Miami. The hotel in Miami where she'd memorized her new identity and practiced assembling the bomb. Luz had always considered her identity a fluid concept. This latest incarnation hadn't seemed more of a stretch than re-creating herself from a daughter of the revolution to, say, the daughter of a broken revolutionary, or from a lonely immigrant child to a smart-alecky teen. The bomb, though—for Luz, who had trouble programming her damn cellphone, that was a challenge. Speed and precision, her instructor said, were the keys. Luz could do speed 'or' precision, not both. Hurrying fingers never got Tab X precisely into Slot Y. And when she worked for accuracy, the timer always blared with a shrill, adrenalin-heightening jolt.
Luz spent a couple of long, nerve-wracked weeks before muscle memory took over. Once she passed their quizzes, she received her onward plane ticket, some cash, and keys to an apartment here in town. Now, this stranger would hand over the last details of her mission.
She didn't know how many were involved. Richard, whom she'd known all her life, her American life anyhow. With his bushy eyebrows and hair the reddish-orange of jocotes de marañón, with his staccato bursts of incomprehensible words, Luz had initially regarded Richard as a potentially scary woodland animal—not tooth-and-claw dangerous, but the sort of creature who might jump out at you in the dark. Countless hours spent trekking in the mountains with her father, however, had instilled in Luz an appreciation for watchful patience. Richard's brusque ways got things done in this strange place, yet he was gentle with her bewildered mother. Gradually, Luz stopped seeing Richard as an alien species, recognizing—even at the age of twelve—that she was the alien here.
Curiosity blossomed, and she adopted Richard as her totemic guide to this strange new world. Tracking animals, knowing which plants were good to eat, telling directions by stars and sun—those lessons from her father were precious but of relatively little use in downtown Portsmouth. It was Richard who showed her how to use a blender, chopsticks, the remote control. How to drive a car.