1 T Karina Strauss approached the San Ysidro border crossing at a snail’s pace, her cargo van idling among a thousand other vehicles.
There were twenty-four lanes on the Tijuana side, a massive snarl of traffic that found order in the last hundred yards. Before the inspection booths were visible, the dividing lines were ignored. The more aggressive drivers made their own lanes, squeezing into narrow spaces and zigzagging across the chaos. Everyone else lurched forward in semiregular intervals while street vendors navigated the shifting aisles, selling everything from chicle and cold drinks to silver jewelry and colorful hammocks. Some of the peddlers were children whose shoulders barely cleared the hoods of the cars.
Kari let out a slow breath, removing her sweaty hands from the steering wheel. She’d turned off the air-conditioning and rolled down the windows in hopes that her van wouldn’t overheat. At just past noon, the summer sun was blazing. Her left shoulder, exposed by her sleeveless cotton top, felt burned.
As the crush of vehicles evened into single rows, Kari became aware of impatient drivers angling toward the right. Her lane seemed more backed up than the others—not a good sign. Some of the inspectors were very thorough, checking the contents of each and every car. Normally she appreciated their diligence.
Today she was desperate for lax security.
She put on her signal and tried to merge into the next lane, with no luck. A woman in a midsized sedan stole the spot, her radio blaring Juan Gabriel.
The space in front of Kari cleared and she was forced to move ahead in the same lane. Now there were only a few cars between her and the inspection booth. She met her startled reflection in the rearview mirror, swallowing dryly. Her heart slammed in her chest, beating too hard, too fast.
Stay calm, she told herself. Act cool.
The officer stationed at the booth ahead didn’t appear lax in any way. His dark blue uniform fit well. He had short black hair and a stern face. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the lenses of his authoritative sunglasses, but she’d bet they were brown.
Kari watched the officer walk around a dusty Oldsmobile, gesturing for the owner to open the trunk. His short-sleeved shirt stretched across his back as he leaned forward to glance into the trunk’s recesses. He looked strong, broad-shouldered, bronze-skinned. There was nothing unusual about him, other than an eye-pleasing physique, but she sensed that he was sharp and precise.
Sweat trickled between her breasts.
Too nervous to sit still, she unfastened the top buttons on her blouse, searching around the front seats of the van for a tissue to blot her perspiration.
The line crawled forward again. Damn!
She used the hem of her skirt to wipe her chest and left the buttons undone. Maybe she could entice the inspector to look down her shirt rather than inside her vehicle. Tapping the gas pedal, she eased the van closer.
She’d been waiting in traffic for over an hour and the final moments were the most intense. Blood pounded in her ears, her temple, her throat. She took a small sip of water and fiddled with the radio, trying to disguise her fear. Her pulse was racing, her hands trembling. She didn’t dare glance back into the cargo space.
At last, it was her turn. She pulled up to the inspection booth, which was underneath a shaded structure, and prayed for a wave-through.
“U.S.,” she murmured, handing him her passport. Most of the stamps marked her visits to Mexico. Others were from the Czech Republic, where she’d been born. She watched him handle her paperwork, fixating on the almost indiscernible grain of stubble along his jaw, the smoothness of his taut brown throat.
Officer A. Cortez, the name tag on his shirtfront read. He was Hispanic, but that didn’t relax her. There was no room for mixed sympathies in his profession.
“Anything to declare?” he asked.
She fumbled for her inventory list. His voice was low and even, no trace of an accent. He was also disturbingly handsome. As she passed him the handwritten account of the items in her van—well, most of the items—she remembered her gaping blouse. The flat expression on his face suggested that he’d noticed but wasn’t impressed.
“It’s all just stuff for my store,” she explained, flushing. “Zócalo, on E Street?”
His gaze dropped to the insignia on the side of her van. Authentic Arts and Crafts from Latin America. The accompanying image was whimsical, a dancing skeleton in a sombrero. In Mexico, even death was a fiesta.
“Please turn off the engine and step outside the vehicle.”
Her stomach dropped.
She switched off the ignition and removed the keys, curbing the urge to ask if she’d done something wrong. Better to stay mum. With numb fingers, she opened the driver’s-side door. The instant she climbed out, her rubber flip-flops soaked up the heat of the asphalt, and a warm breeze rippled through her calf-length skirt.
She followed Officer Cortez to the rear of the vehicle, her heart in her throat.
“Open the doors, please.”
Oh no. What could she do? Refusing to cooperate was not an option.
As she approached the double doors on shaky legs, her keys slid from her slippery grip, clattering to the pavement. She bent to pick them up, aware that her thin cotton skirt was clinging to her backside.
Cortez waited patiently, making no move to assist her.
Straightening, she unlocked the doors. Although her eyes had trouble adjusting to the dim interior, she could make out a few shadowy boxes and piles of textiles, her usual haul. She stepped aside, not allowing her gaze to linger.
Cortez glanced into the cargo space and then squinted down the line of cars, assessing the rows of vehicles. When he looked back at her, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, self-conscious. He touched the radio at his shoulder and spoke into it, engaging in a clipped conversation she couldn’t overhear.
Kari had to do something to distract him from the contents of her van. As he dropped his hand from the radio, she saw that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He had a lean, muscular build, and he was medium-tall, maybe six feet. Under different circumstances, she wouldn’t have to feign interest.
“This must be an exciting job,” she ventured, trying to sound fascinated.
He perused her cargo. “It has its moments.”
“Have you handled any big loads?”
That got his attention. He gave her a bald look, obviously wondering if she meant to be suggestive.
She smiled, fanning her cleavage with one hand. “Hot, isn’t it?”
Behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses, his eyes followed her movements. Although she’d dressed for comfort, not seduction, the outfit flattered her figure. Most men liked breasts, and hers were half-showing. Cortez was also fairly young, which worked in her favor. He might be an exemplary officer, but he wasn’t immune to the stuff.
To her disappointment, he tore his gaze from her chest and continued the routine inspection, a muscle in his jaw flexing.
Her mind whirred with ridiculous options, like pretending to faint on the hot blacktop. Then a loud noise stole Cortez’s attention. Several lanes over, a trio of intimidating-looking German shepherds were barking up a storm, straining at their leashes. Alerting officers of illegal cargo.
Officer Cortez stepped away from her vehicle. “Have a nice day, ma’am,” he said, handing back her paperwork. After calling for another uniformed man to cover his station, he walked toward the commotion in long strides.
Kari shut the back doors of the van, dizzy with relief. She went around to the driver’s side and got in, ears peeled for a shout to halt. Thankfully, it didn’t come. She turned on the engine and pulled forward, crossing the border into San Diego. Clear, organized roadways and a clean ocean breeze greeted her.
She stepped on the gas and inhaled deeply, letting the wind whip through her shoulder-length hair. Even after she’d gone a few miles, her heart wouldn’t stop racing. She didn’t dare glance back into the cargo space for fear she was being followed.
“Oh my God,” she said finally, letting out a nervous laugh. “That was close.”
Normally she went straight to her store, which was near Old Town, to unload the van. Today she drove to her quiet little house in Bonita. The tiny San Diego suburb was only a ten-minute trip from the San Ysidro port of entry. As soon as she came to a stop in her driveway, she scrambled into the cargo space, wading through cardboard boxes.
She tore open the largest box. “Maria?”
Her stowaway was hidden in a very cramped space, her slender limbs contorted in an uncomfortable position. As Kari lifted the top flaps of cardboard, Maria Santos moaned, insensible. Her eyes were closed and her head lolled to one side.
“Oh shit,” Kari said, grabbing her bottled water. The box must have been hot, stuffy, and intensely claustrophobic. She poured water on the young woman’s dark hair, trying to rouse her. Maria choked and sputtered, shaking her wet head. Kari put her arms around her slight body and heaved, pulling the woman from the box. Although Maria was slim, she weighed at least a hundred pounds and it wasn’t easy for Kari to get her out. When she was free, they lay together on the floor of the van, panting from exertion.
Excerpted from Caught in the Act by Jill Sorenson. Copyright © 2012 by Jill Sorenson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.