First generation immigrant Javier Jimenez is on the cusp of a bright future. However, his younger brother Alex is being recruited by the local mara and soon finds himself facing a weapons charge. Once close, Alex and Javier now find themselves in stand offs at home. Mama pleads with Javier to have patience with Alex, put familia primero;.
Amidst the tensions at home, Javier finds respite among his high school friends, particularly Giovannie who has spent most of his adolescence relying on Javier for guidance and material support. After school, he works for his half-sister Betzaida who runs her own towing company.
It’s on a service call that Javier comes across a burner phone which soon becomes his keyhole view into a world he never knew existed. The owner of the phone and driver of the car is George Jones, a fixer with a long reach and an even longer lever. He sets in motion a seemingly range of unusual events which ultimately conspire to first ruin and then rebuild Javier’s neighborhood, Horseshoe Barrio – or simply the Shoe.
Javier’s struggles with Alex eventually turn physical. When Alex insults Mama, Javier slugs him. Alex gets his payback when he and his Blodgett Street associates ambush Javier one night. Javier eventually gets to the root of Alex’s nihilism: Alex has found evidence online which implicates himself in the death of their sister during the border crossing. Ultimately, Alex is shot, abandoned, and left for dead by his homies when the police arrive following a botched robbery. Javier helps Alex come to terms with his guilt.
As Jones enacts his version of urban renewal, people go suddenly missing. When one of them is Javier’s AP Economics teacher, he decides that he has to take action. The lynchpin to Jones’ plan is the imminent arrival of the LA to Vegas bullet train which will, unbeknownst yet to anyone, terminate in the Shoe. When Javier learns of this, he devises a long-shot plan to beat Jones at his own game. It’s a race against time though as both ICE and Jones have a dragnet out for Javier. He goes to ground.
In the climactic scene, Giovannie assumes Javier’s identity, is deported back to Guerrero, thus removing both nooses from Javier’s neck and allowing him to live his life without looking over his shoulder. Giovannie, though, is soon victim to the violence that forced Javier and his family to flee.
The story’s resolution fast forwards six months to first capture a short reunion of study hall, a remembrance of Giovannie, and a final scene with Javier’s family. Javier is back from UCLA for the weekend with Mama and Alex, who has completed his time in juvie, is back in school, and is now riding shotgun next to Betzaida.
The sun had just appeared over the rim of the mountains. The air was crisp and smelled of mesquite. Carlos got out of his truck and rode the boom lift thirty feet up to the viaduct. Six lengths of rail had been craned in yesterday, now neatly stacked on a set of four-by-fours. A final course of rebar had been laid lattice fashion on top of the first pour, and Carlos worked his way through the iron grid to check the ties that secured each rod. By noon, trucks with spinning barrels and snorkel pumps would deliver two hundred yards of concrete, an act of finality that always cost Carlos several nights of sleep.
When he was done, he walked to the unfinished edge of the deck and gazed out at the desert. The yuccas stood in the morning sun, their knobby arms up as if surrendering. The only movement, the only noise, came from the survey team a quarter mile ahead, taking measurements through their transits and hammering stakes. Their work could only be done in these morning hours. By ten a.m., the sun’s heat would refract the lasers used to determine the grade. For this stretch of six miles, centimeters mattered. There was a four-degree bend, which would add six thousand pounds of lateral load per square inch—the upper end of the design specs.
Carlos’ phone buzzed, and he pulled it out. It was a text from Raymond, the lead surveyor. He opened it to see an image of a tortoise craning its neck as if looking for the best path through the desert.
He hissed. Nothing could mean more trouble for this project than the sudden appearance of an endangered species. Desert tortoises were nearly extinct in this part of California; the Sierra Club would have an injunction by the end of the week. Their lawyers lived for this stuff, and the organization raised funds off the press, which this type of news would generate.
Carlos pulled out his walkie. “How many?”
A pause. “I count about twenty, twenty-five.”
Impossible. A team of fifteen Cal Berkley researchers had studied the area and determined that tortoises were not endemic to the area. No way this was happening. He kicked a soda can off the deck and watched it sail to the ground thirty feet below.
His head suddenly flooded with a list of delays, change orders, cost overruns. His crew would scatter, and the project would be badmouthed in the trades as unreliable – falton; it was the bane of every publicly funded project. Things were always stop-and-go, and for contractors, consistency was king. He felt the pressure on the back of his eyeballs start to build.
“We’ll need some video. Get a geotag on it and email it over.” He paused and told Raymond one more thing. “Tell your guys to go home. We gotta pull them off the job for now.”
The radio chirped again. “I got one more you need to see.”
Carlos opened the next text. It showed the flat underside of one of the tortoises, four legs helplessly splayed out. Along one edge, a small strip of aluminum had been riveted to it. The last picture was a closeup of the tag, showing a bar code and set of Chinese characters.
# # #
Tasha passed through the metal detector and retrieved her phone on the other side. She tapped the screen to open a text: Team took this an hour ago.
She knew the video was bad news before clicking on it. It was a clip showing a pod of tortoises ambling across the desert—the image needed no explanation.
In her six years as the Senator’s Chief of Staff, she’d had to learn ways to corral her temper – deep breaths, long drinks of water, long drinks of vodka – but today all she wanted to do was throw her phone across the capitol rotunda. The rail project was her ticket to Washington, with or without the Senator. If things went pear-shaped here in Sacramento, she’d be back running school board elections in Los Angeles.
She arrived in the back of the Senate chambers in time to catch the last legs of the reauthorization debate. Support was split for the bullet train, which was now so far over budget that it would require a fourth round of bonds. An eleventh-hour deal with a large off-shore hedge fund had given the project new life. The Chairman could either bring the reauthorization up for a vote now or tomorrow. Three hours ago, it would have been a layup for Tasha. She had already started looking at real estate in Georgetown.
When she walked into the chambers, she saw the vote count on the screen and the adjournment clock ticking down. The Chairman stood at the dais, gavel in hand, chatting with the Speaker over his shoulder. From the steps below, a senate page reached up and slid the Chairman a note. He read it and looked over the top of his glasses without moving his head. Tasha followed his line of sight. A lone figure stood silhouetted in a balcony doorway, his presence apparently the message. When Tasha looked back, the Chairman was already bringing his gavel down. The vote would be delayed until tomorrow at eight a.m.
It was September in Sacramento, deal-making season, buyers and sellers in a constant state of negotiation. Careers often turned on these deals, and Tasha felt hers slipping away. The Sierra Club was probably setting up the presser with their righteous refrains. She’d done her best to curry favor with the green slice of the electorate, keeping the Senator at or above 80% favorability. Coastal set asides, old-growth logging regulations. And this had come at considerable expense to the donor list, a hit she knew was worth the points he’d scored with the base.
All those years triangulating, positioning, counter-messaging, all the miles on the road, in the air, prepping, dodging, deflecting, all the hours briefing and debriefing, and for what? So that a thirty-second video could expose him as an environmental hypocrite? Tasha knew this was no accident. The Senator had been played.
# # #
George Jones drove his matte black Land Rover past the valet at Torento, one of the few spots in Sacramento that could still be relied upon for discretion. He self-parked and walked past the hostess to a corner booth where the Senator sat alone, hunched over a bowl of pasta. He saw Jones approach and dipped his head slightly to indicate where to sit. Jones ignored the Senator, instead pulling up a rattan chair from a neighboring table and spun it around.
“Your train is coming in,” said the Senator without looking up. “But I suspect you already knew this.” Jones watched him load the noodles on his fork. “Something about turtles.” The Senator finally looked up and let his fork drop on the bowl with a loud clatter. “I hear they’re on loan from a Zhang Zhao preserve. They must have cost you a small fortune.”
“They’re tortoises, not turtles, and I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Jones. A waiter arrived with a menu, and Jones waved him off.
The Senator pulled out his napkin and dried the sweat from his upper lip. “Turtles, tortoises. No one cares. All I know is they’re slow and there’s too many.” The Senator took a swallow of wine. “You have my ass in the air, and the vote is tomorrow.” He stabbed at something in the sauce. “Seems like your reputation is well earned, Mr. Jones. We’re prepared to reroute the line to Panorama City. Just know you’re the ghetto option.” The Senator folded the napkin, placed it back on the table, and looked Jones in the eyes. “And as we both know, bullet trains don’t stop in the ghetto.”
“Of course, it’s coming to the ghetto, Senator. There’s nowhere else to stick it.” The two men sat looking at each other, both knowing this would be their one and only meeting. “Ghetto for now, Senator.” Jones nodded at the Senator’s bowl of pasta. “But I’ll bet you another bowl of that alfredo you seem to love so much that in a year, you’ll be making offers on our condos before they’re even out of plan check.”
The Senator looked at Jones, measuring how much of what he’d just heard was the false bravado of a lucky man or the generous words of a prophet. “Have you seen Panorama City lately, Jones? Great town if you’re a pole dancer. They have a tent city the size of Rhode Island.”
“For a curious man, you ask the wrong questions.” Jones stood, spun the chair around, and returned it to the neighboring table. “Your work is done, Senator. Time for the ground game.”
When he got to his car, Jones pulled out his phone and spoke first in Mandarin before ending in English. “Call LA. I want updates every six hours.” Then he pulled out a second phone and punched in a text.
# # #
The man in the boat hadn’t had a bite and didn’t much care. He came for the solitude, the stars, and the sounds of the reservoir at four a.m. Most people fished during the day from the dam wall where it was wide enough to park their coolers and fold-out chairs. Van der Lipp Dam itself was the third largest in the western United States and the oldest by a decade. A sluice had been built at the base of the dam’s southern end, a fail-safe option for a uranium enrichment plant from the 1950s. The plant had long since been dismantled, though the sluice, which emptied into a dry lakebed in the San Fernando Valley, remained.
A vehicle approached, the light wash of high beams coming through the pine trees. The man in the boat had not seen anyone use the access road in his twenty-odd years of fishing the reservoir. It was a white panel van, and it very quickly turned, reversed itself, and backed up ten feet from the water’s edge. The rear door opened, and a team of five people climbed out, two of them dressed in wetsuits and hoisting scuba tanks from the back of the van. They worked without talking, testing the respirators, buckling their weight belts. In less than a minute, they were walking backwards into the water, each clutching something the size of a shoebox. Soon, the only evidence of either of them was a trail of bubbles rising to the surface.
The man then took out a pair of binoculars he kept for birdwatching and clocked two more men walk out onto the dam’s catwalk. The first man carried a coil of rope slung over his shoulder; the second wore a backpack and had on a climber’s harness. When they were about one hundred feet out on the dam, the first man sat down and tied himself onto a railing stanchion while the second man fed one end of the rope through a pair of carabineers, which he then clipped to the harness. He glanced over his shoulder, hopped backward off the wall, and was gone. The team worked noiselessly, their movements practiced and efficient. In twenty minutes, the divers surfaced and took off their flippers and tanks. Soon after, the man in the harness reappeared on top of the dam.
As they loaded up to leave, a fish took the man’s lure and pulled the rod off his lap, hitting the aluminum gunwale. A second bang then followed when the reel hit the bottom of the boat. The noise echoed across the lake. All five men stopped what they were doing and looked in the man’s direction, still hidden in the darkness. The man in the boat froze too and held his breath. Five seconds passed. Then ten. Finally, one of the five men from the white panel van reached for something in the front seat and disappeared into the woods. The other four climbed back in and drove down the access road.
Ten minutes into AP Economics, Javier knew the class was a wash. The teacher, amiable Mr. Patel, had wandered down memory lane, a diversion for which the class knew he needed little coaxing. Javier had chosen his seat against the windows not because it was next to Gio —they had similar last names and had been sitting next to each other since seventh grade—but because of its view. Two floors down and across Van Nuys Boulevard was Galpin Middle School, where his brother Alex was in eighth grade. From his seat, Javier could watch Alex during lunch and observe the version of his brother that emerged at school.
The lunch scene at Galpin hadn’t changed much since Javier went there four years earlier—popular kids all huddled together, oddballs off to the side standing like pillars. Two boys put each other in a headlock and spun around; a small crowd formed and someone threw a water bottle. On the field, a gordo shanked a kick off the side of his foot, hitting a girl in the head off the bounce. In three quick strides, she stood over him, ten inches taller and sixty pounds heavier, hammering the top of his head with an open palm like he was a tent stake.
Today, like every day, Alex sat perched atop a set of bleachers alongside the basketball court with three of his friends, a bag of chips passing between them, phones out, no one talking. Javier knew two of the other boys, Augusto and Beto, knew their families, knew there was nothing to worry about. Whenever Javier checked Alex’s phone in the evening at home, it showed only these three in the chat. Dumb memes and gamer videos.
But there were signs. During lunch, Alex had started hiking his left pants leg up, a throwback look that seemed to be working its way into fashion. He’d started sagging, leaving his hand-made Oaxacan belt, once his most coveted possession, at home. Nothing said “wannabe” more than the bright red of gym shorts peeking out above the waistline of his jeans.
Most concerning, though, were the regular visits of two boys who would arrive halfway through lunch, taking the bleachers two at a time, stepping over lunch trays on their way to the back row. The first boy always wore a pristine ball cap turned at a jaunty angle, a shiny decal still affixed to the bill. The other boy, hands shoved deep in his pockets, wore a black hoodie that hung off the crown of his head as if glued in place. Javier always expected it to fall down, wanted it to fall down.
Javier studied the body language, took note of the nonverbal message which was most of what counted. Ball Cap would plop down next to Alex, stick one hand in the bag of chips, and then drape the other arm over Alex’s shoulder, a telling combination of coercion and brotherhood that had grown over the first semester. Two months ago, Alex would have given the boy mostly shoulder, no eye contact. Now, in October, he’d starting nodding his chin when the two approached, bumped fists. Ball Cap was hype, the salesman; Hoodie was menace, the promise of violence. Javier held the most contempt for guys like Hoodie, follow-ons who kept the whole charade going. They had more choice in their lives than the Ball Caps of the world who couldn’t help but inspire the worst in others. Hoodies lacked imagination, and without them, Ball Caps were just gas.
The bell would ring, and Hoodie would scan the quad like a farmer looking for a good place to plant corn. He’d climb down the steps, a stylized pop-and-lock that gave him the appearance of old age. Then the coup de grace – waist level, out of view of the school cameras, Ball Cap flashed his hands with the fluid grace of an interpreter for the deaf: S -- R – V, the first letters of the three streets – Sepulveda, Roscoe, and Van Nuys - that bounded their neighborhood, Horseshoe Barrio, or just the Shoe.
There was no fourth street because the southern boundary of the Shoe was a lunar landscape called Frogtown, a 200-acre vacant lot in middle of east San Fernando Valley. Fifty years ago, when the Valley had been mostly farmland, the area had been a man-made lake. Seen from above even today, it resembled an enormous footprint minus the toes. On Google Maps, it was cryptically referred to as a hazard abatement area. The lake had long since dried up and was now a tent city for the Valley’s destitute. Both code and law enforcement took a hands-off approach, certain that a close look would trigger enough paperwork to keep everyone behind their desks for months.
Alex slow-walked to class. Another bad sign. Two years ago, as a sixth grader, Alex had stood on the blue line at 12:27, anxious to be the first to class when the bell rang at 12:28. He’d run down the hallways to his fourth-period class and slide the last ten feet like he was stealing second base. Today, he plodded to class like he was underwater.
“Itchy and Scratchy come by?” Raffa broke in.
Class was ending, Mr. Patel now returning to the mundane world of homework and Friday’s quiz. Raffa knew Javier had been watching Alex and the daily ritual. “He’s in eighth grade, big brother. They’re all stupid.” Raffa was zipping up his backpack. “Trust me. Jocelyn belongs in a cage.” Jocelyn was his sister. “I say put ’em all on an island, come back in a year. Whoever survives gets to go on to high school.”
Javier thought of smiling but couldn’t. “Kid’s a follower, and he’s angry about something.” He looked up and made a mental note of the homework on the whiteboard and the chapter covered by the quiz. “The homies sniff it out and work it.” He couldn’t shake the fact that it was Alex, not Beto or Augusto, who was the target.
The bell rang, and they stood to leave. Javier nudged Gio who had been staring at McRibbs, the skeleton parked in the corner, its head tilted toward the floor as if looking for something he dropped. AP Economics shared the room with AP Bio, the result of low-class enrollment. The cohort of AP kids, college-tracked since they were twelve, dwindled every year. Charters were always creaming off the highest achievers, leaving only a small core matriculating from East Valley High. Twelfth grade was the last beachhead for many of the barrio’s young adults, and a good number of them figured there wasn’t much for them on the other side. A big chunk had started driving forklifts, were pregnant, while others just turned to the streets.
Raffa was the first to stand and saluted Mr. Patel with a good-natured thumbs-up. Mr. Patel smiled back sheepishly, his lecture on interest rates having taken a backseat to his anecdote. Javier stood and looked down at Gio’s desk and saw why he’d been staring at the skeleton. He’d made a pencil sketch of the McRibbs’ jaw. The sketch floated on the paper, so real Javier found himself working his own, up and down, left and right, like he was popping his ears.
The three boys walked into the hallway traffic always a human dam release after fourth period. Raffa turned to Javier over his shoulder. “Relax. He’s gonna join a tagging crew, throw up his placa three times, get busted on the fourth when he shows up on a camera.” They wound down the stairwell and then outside to the quad. “Then Tamayo’s gonna turn the jets on his ass.”
Officer Tamayo was the school police officer who made it his life’s mission to put wayward boys like Alex back on the path their mothers all wanted them on.
“Then you’ll take him to Walmart to buy a set of white chones to replace the ones he wore to Tamayo’s office.”
One at a time, Tamayo would put Galpin’s bad kids into a room with a group of veteranos who’d lived the life, done the time, and now put the fear of God into boys like Alex. Their facial scars belied a history of violence, their jailhouse tats now blurred and illegible. Eight of them would put their chairs in a row, a firing squad for each of the Galpin bad apples.
See this paperclip? That’s what Papi will use to ink his initials on your neck, en tiendes? Then another would push in closer, an ugly, staring face. Dead eyes, none of the boys ever having been this close to a grown man with such gravitas, suddenly aware of something inside themselves, a spark of need to be seen if only by this stranger whose breath, so close now, whistles through his nose. One by one, their chairs scraping the floor, until it’s an OG semicircle. One of them—whichever one still had his prison swoll—would peel off his shirt to reveal a torso slabbed with muscle.
Gonna put salt in yo ass. Yo ass taste better with salt. Then riotous laughter, and Tamayo would get up and leave the room to take a call, and that’s when some of the boys would pee themselves.
Javier walked with Raffa and Gio to the main office where Raffa worked part-time answering phones, sorting mail, running notes to teachers, and translating for parents. Like Javier, he was on a glide path to college, his desk at home stacked with offers early in senior year. They had in fact both accrued enough credits to have graduated by now.
“Only double-hinged joint in the body, Javi.” Gio wiggled his jaw and smiled. “But mines mostly up and down, ya know. Kinda lost the…” He trailed off. He and Javier had been mistaken as brothers in fifth grade when they first met. Most teachers had to look at their necks to tell the two apart. Javier wore a gold Our Lady, though their hairstyles soon diverged. Gio now had a mop he’d trimmed himself with whatever scissors he could find, Javier always twos on the side and fives on top. In the pigmentocracy of the barrio, they were both slightly more on the mestizo end of things, their lips slightly fuller, their noses straight,
“You ever notice how skeletons all seem like they’re smiling?” Gio bared his teeth. A dentist could look in Gio’s mouth and see his daughter’s college tuition though he’d never once been in for even a teeth cleaning. It was, in fact, Javier who had taught him how to brush.
Gio looked at the ceiling. “Remember when Enrique pranked Ms. Cousins?” They both chuckled recalling when their friend Enrique had undone the pins and clips that attached the left hand of McRibbs and then used the disembodied hand to turn in a homework assignment.
“How come you never took art, Gio?”
Gio shrugged. “Dunno.” He smiled and shoved his hands in pockets and then wandered down the unlit section of the hallway past the main office, a no-man’s land that led to a stairwell with a pair of locked doors at the bottom. Kids went to vape there, some even peed when the bathrooms were locked. Halfway down the hall, Gio stopped in front of a display built into the wall, eternally lit by a pair of fluorescents tubes, trophies from generations ago, art projects from students now old enough to have kids of their own. He leaned in, apparently trying to read the inscription on a trophy.
Javier checked his phone, a text from his mother. She’d be pulling another double tonight. Javier knew his life in the Shoe should be close, his path up-and-out close at hand, but underneath all that promise lay Jenga blocks sticking out of the tower that he’d so carefully built. He couldn’t chase the sense that Alex, a born rule-follower, was beginning to slip the tethers of family and school.
# # #
The man in the boat lay face down now, hidden amongst the tule in the shallow water of the lake, two in the chest and one in the head. His boat lay at the bottom of the lake, also with three holes shot through it. The shooter had collected the six empty shells and then walked the eight miles back down the access road to the city street. He boarded the 154 bus which would take him to Panorama City where he’d meet up with the others. Someplace called Frogtown was about to become the newest body of water in Los Angeles.