After Irene’s disappearance, Valeria walked a different street every day back from her high school, posting Irene’s photo on walls and light poles until she spotted one that said: Ni una menos! Not one less. Join us for a march against femicide in Mexico City. She took out her phone and took a photo, ensuring she had a close-up that included the email address.
The next evening, she walked into an Arts Cafe in downtown Pachuca. Bright lights and colors made the cafe cozy despite the old, colonial building's stone walls and high ceilings. Women of all ages conversed, sipped coffee, and nibbled on cookies.
“Hola!” greeted a pretty girl with purple hair. She smiled and offered her a clipboard to sign in. “Write your email if you want to be on our list.”
Valeria filled out the sheet when a piercing whistle almost made her drop the pen. The room grew silent, and a woman jumped on a chair.
“Thank you all for being here. We didn’t expect so many, and we’re thrilled to have you show up today. You will meet the committee members when we break into small groups, but first, let’s have a moment of silence for all the women who have been victims of femicide.”
Valeria bowed her head. Maybe she should leave. Irene wasn’t dead, just missing.
“And another minute for las desaparecidas.”
The words hit Valeria like a truck. Her lungs emptied in a whoosh, and the room spun. She leaned into the wall, willing herself to calm down. Irene was one of them. She had disappeared too.
“We will be breaking up into work groups to prepare for our march to Mexico City. As you plan, keep our purpose in mind: To bring awareness about femicide to our community. The world must know that ten women are killed in Mexico daily. Around the world, fifty thousand were killed by an intimate partner or family member last year.”
Tears blurred her vision as Valeria searched for the exit. She dashed outside and breathed in the cool air. Someone touched her on the shoulder. She turned to see the girl who had greeted her. She was breathless, her plump cheeks red from running.
“I’ve seen you in school. I’m Ana.” She held out her hand.
Valeria peered closely at her face. There was something familiar about her. Suddenly, an image on the web about a mother murdered by her husband popped into her mind. “You’re the one—
“Yeah. I’m the famous one.” She made air quotes over the word famous. “My father murdered my mother. I’m sorry about your sister.”
Valeria looked away and bit her lip. “We’re going to find her. She’s just missing.”
“I know you will! You don’t have to do it alone.”
“Irene isn’t dead!” Valeria hurried away, but Ana followed.
“Did the police help you? We are also fighting to make them accountable.”
Valeria stopped, paused, then turned around. “Do you do anything besides protest?”
Valeria shrugged. “I don’t know! Maybe try to change the fucked up system?”
Ana sighed. Her eyes shone under the street lights.
It was unfair of Valeria to expect anyone to change the system. “How about providing safe rides to women who work late in Huasca and El Chico?”
Ana smiled. “See? We need someone like you. Join us.”
“Alone we are powerless but together…” Ana pointed at the cafe.
“What if I find my sister?”
“We need all of us.”
Valeria returned her gaze. They may not accomplish anything but Ana was right; at least she wouldn’t be alone. Her few friends were busy with their lives, and her mother refused to speak about gender violence.
Ana held out her hand, and Valeria took it. Together they went back into the café, where Valeria joined a sign painting committee and listened to stories about femicide and police impunity. When she got home, she shaved her head and told her mother she wouldn’t grow her hair back until they found her sister.
Valeria used her anger to fuel her activism. She spoke about femicide and gender violence at every opportunity, in school papers, during recess, and on any occasion. Her detailed descriptions of violence drove people away until she found unsuspecting persons on the bus or on the volleyball court and launched into her speech. At home, she hounded her mother, reciting stats and numbers of women dead and missing in Mexico and worldwide and how it was worse for trans women. She thrived on energy, but there was a pain in her left side, below her heart, that wouldn’t go away. As if her unexperienced grief had morphed into a malignant oily mass clinging to her left ribs.
Valeria now drove through downtown Pachuca’s maze toward the city's edge. They started up the sierra in the afternoon storm, leaving the agaves and nopales for steep boulders surrounded by Montezuma and oyamel pines. The old, narrow road to El Mineral del Chico hugged the rocky mountain, with steep drops to the rocks below. It was a dangerous drive, known for deadly accidents, but it was faster than crossing town to get to the new highway. She wiped her sweaty palms on her torn jeans, her hands shaking. She wasn’t used to driving in the rain either. She glanced at her mother. Why was she so quiet?
Her mother was a strong woman, overcoming extreme poverty, a life of hard work, and losing her husband to cancer, but Irene’s disappearance changed her. Valeria gripped harder to keep her hand from shaking. It changed all of them. It was like discovering a black hole in your closet that attracted and destroyed everyone. And no one cared! If it weren’t for her mother and the people of the center, she would have no faith left in humanity. Irene was dead; they all knew it but pretended because it was easier than having to accept that there was nothing they could do.
Valeria pushed the memories away and concentrated on driving, slowly taking the curves. Don’t look down; look ahead, she thought as she avoided the steep drops down the rocky mountainside.
“We are almost at the turn. It’s the road before the town.”
The rain turned into a drizzle. Hotel and restaurant billboards lined the road nailed to the white pines. A waterfall poured down the mountain on one side of the road, engorged by the recent rains. Victoria gasped and pointed to a sign. It was a photo of Irene from school. Her dark hair fell over her navy sweater and the white collar contrasted against her brown skin. She smiled shyly.
“What did it say?”
Victoria turned around, looking at the sign. “It said the town wants her back alive—
Her voice cracked, and Valeria looked ahead. She swallowed, blinking the tears back. They stared at the road in silence.
Victoria pointed. “Turn here.”
Valeria turned into a wooded dirt road that snaked past ejidos, common land. Disgust filled her mouth. Luca, a foreigner, had probably bought the land illegally. The house loomed behind a grove of pine trees. She’d never met him, but she hated him. She parked between Julia’s car and a sedan she did not recognize. The front door of the cabin-style home hung open, and screams rang out. Was that Irene? Was she being attacked? Fire surged through Valeria, and she dashed into the house.
A man bent over the large staircase, dragging a woman by the foot. She was trying to twist away from him, clawing the stairs. Cold disappointment flooded Valeria when she saw the blond hair. Stupid to think it was Irene!
Victoria came up behind her and raised the metal cane she used to lock the car’s steering wheel, bringing it down with a thump on the man’s upper back. He fell, and when he tried to get up, Valeria jumped on him. He bucked underneath her; she couldn’t hold on for long.
“Watch out! He has a gun!” said Victoria as she landed a blow on the back of his head. He went limp, and Julia crawled from under him, sobbing hysterically. Valeria flipped the man over. It was the chief of police that had helped look for Irene.
Julia scrambled partway up the stairs like a crab.
Valeria stared at her mother. Who was this angry monster? “What the fuck?”
Victoria dropped the cane and looked at Julia. “Tell me! Where’s my niña? Did he do anything to Irene?”
But Julia was hyperventilating and pointing at Norberto. Victoria kneeled in front of her and held her shoulders. “Tell me! He can’t hurt you anymore. Tell me.” She waited, then began to shake her, yelling. “Tell me!”
Victoria looked up sharply, still holding Julia’s shoulders. There was something different in her eyes. Valeria shuddered.
“Stop, Mami; she can’t speak. Let her catch her breath. What is going on?” Valeria stood up and surveyed the stairway. She tucked her shaking hands under her armpits to avoid joining Julia’s hysterics. Her mother had just killed a man! Maybe this was a nightmare; she would wake up with Irene in the bed next to her. She squeezed her eyes three times and shook her head.
Valeria helped Julia up. She swayed and dug her fingers into Valeria’s arm. Her lip was swollen and bloody. “Make sure he’s dead! He tried to kill me!”
“He’s dead, I swear.” Valeria put an arm around Julia’s shoulder. The center’s training on how to help victims of trauma came flooding back. She took deep breaths. “You're safe now. Tell us what happened.”
“He knew! He knew Luca killed Irene and made a video. He was going to kill me too.”
“Luca killed Irene?” Something released inside of her. Like a river’s raging waters unleashed all at once, relief at finally knowing what happened to Irene and a wave of intense pain washed over her. She glared at Julia to avoid looking at her mother.
Julia nodded. She shook, still huffing.
Victoria stood up. Expressionless. Her face was cold; as if she already knew. “Show me the video.”
“I don’t think you should see it. It is horrific and—”
“Show me!” bellowed Victoria.
Valeria got in between them. “Mami, please, you don’t have to see that. It will scar you—
But Victoria walked around her and went up to the main bedroom, and Valeria and Julia followed. Julia pointed to the tablet on the unmade bed and sat in an armchair. Valeria picked it up, but her knees couldn’t hold her up. She collapsed on the floor at her mother’s feet.
Victoria sat on the floor next to her and took the device. “Show me how to watch it, then make us some tea. I don’t want you to see this.”
“Mami, I have seen so many tortured and murdered bodies since I joined the advocacy group. You shouldn’t watch it.”
“I brought her into the world; I have a right to see how she left it. You may have seen many murdered women, but you don’t want the last memory of your sister to be this. This is the only way I can be—
Her voice cracked, but Victoria’s face didn’t change, as if she was wearing a stone mask. “I wasn’t with her when she was suffering and dying; I will be with her now. Make us some tea. Señora Julia, go clean yourself up.”
Valeria left to make tea. She was two people, one that boiled water and searched for chamomile while caring for her mother; another howling in anger and pain as images of Irene flashed on and off. “I’m so sorry, Irene. I love you. I hope you didn’t suffer too much.” Oh my God! How would they go on?
She brought the tea to her mother. Victoria was staring ahead; a void had swallowed her light, leaving her an empty shell. They looked at the tablet on the bed like a poisonous snake.
Victoria cleared her throat. “Can you check to see if there are more videos?”
Valeria nodded, picked up the tablet, and clicked on the video folder. There were three more. She fast-forwarded through them but still saw enough to make her gag. Norberto, Luca, and two other men she didn’t know had tortured at least three other women. “There is a folder here with three more videos. All of them have a man or men torturing and killing women.”
Julia walked out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. “Can someone get me my yoga bag from my car so I can change?”
When Valeria returned, her mother and Julia stood with the king-sized bed between them. Flushed and glaring at each other.
“We need to call the police, and your mother refuses!”
Victoria put her hands on her hips. “No police.”
Valeria handed her the bag. “I agree.”
“But we can’t let Luca get away with it, and you killed the chief of police! We can call the Federales or Mexico City police.”
Valeria glared at her, not caring anymore that Julia was also a victim. “How do you know they aren’t in it too? Do you want to see the other videos? There are at least two more men involved.”
Valeria picked up the tablet and offered it to Julia, who backed away with her hands in front of her.
“I saw them!”
Victoria took the tablet and shoved it into her hands as Julia pressed her back against the bathroom door. “How much did you know? Did you know he was doing this?”
“Of course not! How can you even say that? Norberto was going to kill me too!”
“Did you suspect anything?”
“No! We just met in August when classes started. We only saw each other when the kids were with their father.”
Valeria’s mind was whirling. “So nobody knows who he is or where he came from?”
“I guess. He moved here from Italy less than a year ago.”
“Does he have any family in Mexico or close friends?”
“I don’t think so. Norberto was the only one and many acquaintances from the university.”
Valeria walked to the window and looked over the craggy, steep hillsides blanketed in dark green pines with monstrous boulders peaking among them like islands in a roiling black-green ocean. Femicide was rampant in Mexico, the home being the most dangerous place for women. But Irene’s murderers were serial killers. Maybe they could stop them with the help of the center?
Victoria sat on the bed and rubbed her face with her hands. “Did you recognize the place where he was torturing Irene?”
Julia, now free, took out black yoga pants and moved into the bathroom, leaving the door open. “I think it’s in the detached garage next to the house.” She walked out of the bathroom in yoga pants and an aqua shirt, dark from the drops that fell from her blond ponytail. “We need to call someone in authority. Maybe the governor?”
Victoria sighed. “The Chief of police was involved in this. Do you think he was the only one? Governors murder their wives and get away with it too.
Valeria nodded and glared at Julia. “What policeman can you trust if the chief is crooked? Norberto tried to kill you, an upper-class woman. What the fuck do you think they’re going to do to us now that we know?”
Julia glanced from Valeria to Victoria, then slumped her shoulders. “I won’t say anything if you leave me out of this.”
Valeria watched her give in. She softened her tone. “Señora Julia, the police are not going to help us. Women are nothing to them; we are expendable; yes, even you, Señora.
Victoria nodded. “We cannot trust them to help when they want to cover it up.”
“I won’t have anything to do with your plans.”
Victoria stood up and looked Julia in the eye. “I just watched my daughter tortured and murdered. It's taking every effort I can muster to hold myself together, to not throw myself off those cliffs,” she said, glancing out the window. “Please, let me take care of him and find my daughter’s body—
A sob escaped Valeria, and she bit her hand, blinking tears away.
“Let me find and bury her and then take care of the others involved. For Irene’s sake.”
Julia wiped a tear from her eye. “What do you want me to do?”
Valeria picked up Luca’s half-packed bag and handed it to Julia. “Just stick to the story: You called Norberto to tell him about Luca’s accident and never heard back. We'll roll the car over the last cliff. With luck, it will be weeks before it’s discovered. The good policeman who met his end driving too quickly over the curves…”
“But I can’t go back and pretend nothing—”
“My mother just saved your fucking life!”
“You’re the one who asked Irene to work for Luca. You owe us. You owe her. You will pretend,” said Victoria. “You will do it for Irene and me.”