Thank you for your interest in reviewing a copy of my novel, A Murder on the Border
Please take a moment to read the blurb below to familiarize yourself with the story concept. Below the blurb is the opening chapter to the novel. A Murder on the Border is a 98k word, literary crime novel that studies immigration, violence against women, and the hardships migrant workers face in an effort to survive. All in the hope of giving their family a better quality of life.
If you're interested in reading more, contact me via the link at the bottom of the page to request access to the entire manuscript. If you have a novel of your own and are looking to Beta swap, let me know via the contact form and I'll reply as soon as I can.
I'm interested in receiving any feedback you offer. But I'm particularly interested in hearing from hispanic and Mexican-American readers regarding authenticity of the character, themes, and locations I've put a tremendous amount of effort into those areas, but I will always welcome your thoughts.
Again, thanks so much for taking time to review. All contributions are appreciated - Billy
Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Maria has dreamed of starting her own family. She's fallen for Victor, a man she believes to be her one true love. But when Victor turns out to be something else, something terrible, she must run to save herself and her unborn child.
A Murder On The Border is a story of love, deceit, and murder. It follows Maria on her path as she becomes an illegal immigrant and single mother in Texas. There, she finds new love and an unlikely family. But when Victor returns to take his lost child, Maria will have to fight to keep the only family she's ever known.
Today was a big day. Probably the biggest of Maria’s life. Nothing could be left to chance. She buckled her black sandals and stood from her bunk to check her look in the mirror. A vertical crack ran the length of the glass surface, splintering her reflection in unequal halves. She centered herself in the larger half and straightened her clothes. The mended hole in her blouse couldn’t be helped. Neither could the gray dinge of the white cotton. As long as the blouse was cleaned and pressed, they would understand. She tugged her straight black hair into a ponytail and knotted it with a frilled maroon tie that spread like a rose above the knot. She checked her look once more. Inhale. Exhale.
“Vamos,” she breathed, pushing herself to leave the safety of her room.
She stepped around her roommate, who assumed Maria’s place in front of the mirror, and headed into the hallway. The cramped room was one of ten that lined either side of the dormitory, and it was located furthest from the main hall. Her sandals click clacked on the tiled floor and mingled with the murmur of other children buttoning buttons and inspecting reflected images.
Wooden light fixtures descended from the high ceiling, though the dim bulbs did little to brighten the chamber. She passed flickering wall sconces and a faded tapestry of Mary and the baby Jesus. Years before, when she first arrived at Casa de La Morenita as a tearful child, Maria believed the infant’s gaze followed her as she walked. His bemused face even appeared in her dreams, watching her quietly. The image terrified her. Though broken of this fear, she kept her head down and hurried past.
Bare cinder blocks, aged bleak gray from years of candle flicker, covered the opposite side of the hall. She assumed her customary place and pressed her back against the wall.
Fluttering curtains and the beating blades of an overhead fan offered some relief from the oppressive summer heat. But it wasn’t only heat that had the first bead of sweat rolling down her back. Nervous anticipation contributed also. She wiped her damp palms on the back of her skirt, careful not to leave a wet spot they might notice.
Noisy children arrived in ones and twos and joined Maria against the wall, standing shoulder to shoulder and jostling for position. Similarly clad in white tops and black bottoms, the children fidgeted with last second uniform adjustments. Being the oldest, she towered over most of the children. The residents of Casa de La Morenita ranged from five to sixteen years of age, but no older. Never older.
At the squeak of rusty hinges, Maria arched her back and squared her shoulders. They had arrived.
Two black-clad nuns, covered in habits and headdresses, passed through the doorway at the end of the chamber. They assumed positions in front of the assembly and leveled them all with an icy stare.
“Silence!” barked Sister Isabel. Her command thundered through the hall as everyone hushed under her sweeping gaze.
Señora Leticia, the headmistress, stepped in front of the girl beside Maria. Her narrowed eyes flitted from the girl’s sandals to her blouse.
“Muy bien,” Señora Leticia said, nodding her approval of the girl’s uniform. “Kitchen.” Sister Isabel nodded and marked the assignment on her clipboard.
Maria tensed as La Señora’s gaze shifted to her.
“Señora,” Sister Isabel said, “Maria has requested a pass for this evening.”
“Has she?” Señora Leticia’s wrinkled lips pursed in thought. “What is the purpose of this pass?”
“I’m going out–” Maria began to speak.
“Maria has a suitor,” Sister Isabel interrupted.
Señora Leticia eyed Maria. “A suitor? And what are this suitor’s intentions?”
“He–” Maria began.
“I’m speaking to Sister Isabel!” Señora Leticia snapped. Maria cringed and nodded. La Señora did not suffer children speaking out of turn for long.
“I don’t know Señora, but he has been respectful and God fearing. He has joined us for Mass and has purchased food for our pantry. He is an older boy with a job.”
“Is he?” Señora Leticia lifted her brow and clasped her hands below her waist. She considered that response for a moment before turning to Maria with a curious gaze. “How old are you, child?”
“Sixteen, Señora,” she rasped through a parched throat.
“And when is your birthday?”
“In two months,” she said. “You understand what happens on your seventeenth birthday?”
“Sí, señora.” How could she not? Every orphan’s sixteenth birthday began a yearlong reminder of the day they would leave the only home they knew.
“Well, Ms. Benavidez, time is running out for you.” She drummed her bony fingers on the back of her opposite hand. “What is this young man’s name?”
“Victor Mata,” Maria said.
“Tell me Ms. Benavidez, do you love Victor?”
Heat sparked red inside Maria’s cheeks. Life in a Catholic orphanage dictated the nuns overseeing the children take an active role in parenting. Maria was used to daily inquisitions of her personal life. But this line of questioning, in front of everyone, and from the headmistress herself, felt cruel. Despite her surroundings, or perhaps because of them, Maria guarded her privacy. But la Señora awaited, her owl eyes narrowing with dwindling patience. When Maria spoke, the words came out low and quiet, like the honesty of a guilty child.
“What did you say? Speak up, child!”
“Sí, Señora!” Maria’s voice reverberated through the hall. Someone’s sly snigger granted Maria a momentary stay as la Señora searched for the insolent child. Finding no one to blame, she returned her attention to Maria.
“Ms. Benavidez, do you wish to marry Victor? To become Mrs. Victor Mata and to bear his children?”
Maria’s jaw slackened at the question. Why was this happening? Of all days. She stared into the headmistress’s eyes, not in search of an answer but for a reprieve. She found none in the woman’s blank gaze. Before the rapt attention of Maria’s curious housemates, she nodded.
“Muy bien,” Señora Leticia said, apparently satisfied with the response. “You have a chance before you to win this young man’s heart. He sounds like a fine Christian boy who can provide for you. Now tell me, will you honor and obey your husband?”
“Sí, Señora,” Maria said.
Señora Leticia took one step forward, her focus locked on Maria. “Do you understand? Really understand what that means?”
“Uh… I…” Maria searched for an acceptable response, but la Señora spoke first.
“Ephesians 5:22,” she said. “‘Wives, obey your husbands as you obey the Lord.’ Do you obey the Lord Maria?”
“Why?” Her lips pursed and her brow raised expectantly.
Maria stammered and thought of a response. Because he’s God, why else? Then a flash of inspiration.
“Because I love Him.”
“Correct! You love the Lord, and therefore you trust him. And because you trust him, you obey him.” She leaned forward, her sharp eyes twinkling. “You must prove to Victor that you love him so. Your devotion to him must be as it would to God.” Her thin lips curled as she allowed her words to sink in. Then she stood and nodded towards Sister Isabel. “Pass approved.”
Oppressive weight lifted from Maria’s chest, and fresh air filled her lungs.
Sister Isabel marked the decision on her paper as Señora Leticia returned her gaze to Maria. Her lips pursed as she examined Maria’s feet.
“And bathroom duty. Scuffed shoes.”
Maria looked down at her black sandals. A smudge, no larger than a thumbprint, stared back at her from the side of one shoe.
“We’ll get you married off, Ms. Benavidez. And just in time.” The nuns turned in unison and continued down the line.
Maria exhaled. It hadn’t been easy, but she had done her part. Tonight, she would see if Victor did his. So what if she had to clean the restroom with those hideous ancient commodes? No matter. She would scrub the toilets with a song in her heart. For tonight, she believed, was the night he would ask her to be his wife.
Sister Isabel cautioned Maria not to get her hopes too high. Most times men were simple creatures to read. But not when it came to marriage. She needed to keep her composure, remain a lady. Make him come to her. Maria had nodded, but practice was harder than understanding. Her steely resolve crumbled ten seconds after he stepped out of his cherry red Mustang.
He stood from the driver’s seat and fitted a white cowboy hat over light brown hair that fell to his shoulders like a hard rain. His button-down shirt hung on his wide shoulders as if displayed on a mannequin. He squinted against the setting sun as he turned towards Maria and smiled wide.
Maria glanced over her shoulder at the open windows and doors of the home. Confident everyone was safely seated for dinner, she raced past the wooden gate with a compressed squeal.
“Baby!” she said and dashed into his arms. “I missed you!” She pulled him close and planted her lips on his. Electric warmth charged her senses. It was still novel to her, this skin to skin contact, and she dissolved in its wake.
“Well, hello to you too,” Victor said. His stubbled chin tickled as he pulled away.
“I missed you so much.” Maria nuzzled his muscular chest and breathed deep, transported by his familiar cologne.
“Are you ready to go?”
She gazed into his green eyes and was lost. “Yes. Anywhere with you.” She climbed into the passenger seat while he reclaimed his place behind the steering wheel. “Where are we going?”
“It’s a secret.” Victor grinned and winked. “Do you trust me?” He turned the ignition, and the engine roared to life.
Maria settled into her seat and watched the orphanage glide past. With its flaking plaster and tin roof, the building had been home since she was six. She continued watching until it faded from view.
On most dates, Victor chatted and flirted with an easy bravado. But tonight, he stared ahead in gloomy silence. Maria assumed his business was causing him worry.
“Is everything OK, my love?” she said, stroking his forearm.
“Hm?” He glanced down as if surprised by her touch. He gave a half grin and relaxed his grip on the wheel. “I’m fine.”
“I’m sorry,” Maria said. “I can give you a rubdown later.”
“Yes. Later,” he said and focused on the road. Maria wished he would tell her what bothered him. But she would support him, regardless. Like a proper wife.
She drummed her fingers on her knees and turned her thoughts to another subject. “So, what should we name him?”
“What?” Confusion etched his face.
Maria stroked her belly and smiled. “Victor Jr. ¿Sí?”
“We don’t know it’s a boy.”
It wasn’t the missed periods or nausea or strange cravings for dirt that made Maria believe the child was a boy. It was the sense that somebody was with her at all times. Another soul inhabiting her own. And this soul had the same energy and vigor as his father.
“You’re sixteen and think you know everything,” Victor said.
“I may be young, but I know this.” She wrapped her arms around her stomach and squeezed. “He’s a boy.”
“We don’t know that.” He turned his gaze towards the road.
Maria’s fingers traced loving ovals on her belly. Only eight more months to go. 240 days. Come February she would hold him in her arms and look into his eyes. She imagined his chubby cheeks and tousled hair. Would he have her black hair or Victor’s light brown? No matter. He would be a beautiful baby, regardless.
Victor’s Mustang cruised through the desert until it slowed and stopped on the crushed pebble median.
“We’re here,” he said, his boots crunching hard gravel.
He stepped outside and waved for her to join him. Maria remained seated instead and searched the murky surroundings. Spindly yucca and spiny prickly pear carpeted the horizon. Maria sank into her seat, unwilling to leave the safety of the car. What restaurants were out here?
“What’s the matter?” he said, kneeling beside her door.
“Why are we here?”
“I told you, it’s a surprise.”
“In the desert?”
“Of course! Why else would I stop here?”
“My love, I’m starving. Can we please just go eat?”
“We will, I promise. After you see this. I found something incredible while hiking the other day[A16] . It’s not far. I’ll show it to you and then we’ll go eat.”
Hiking? Her hopes for a marriage proposal faded in a crush of disappointment. “Can’t you just tell me what it is? We’ll come back tomorrow.”
“You wouldn’t believe me. Come outside. Por favor,” he pleaded.
Victor clasped his hands together. If anyone else were asking, she would say no. But how could she refuse her future husband? La Señora’s words echoed in her head, ‘Your devotion to him must be as it would to God.’ Her resistance broke with a worried sigh as she reached for the door handle.
“OK. I’ll go.” She stepped outside and followed as he ascended the hill next to the car. “Are you sure you’ll be able to find our way back?”
“Of course. [A18] I was born in the desert,” he said without looking back.
Maria evaded a cactus and looked once more at the Mustang. Then she crested the ridge and disappeared into the darkness.
Moonlight illuminated Maria’s path as they weaved around scrabbly brush, taking care to avoid thorns and sharp-edged branches and leaves. A few found her regardless, raking her bare ankles and sandaled feet. Not wanting to bother Victor, she groaned and soldiered on. Victor traveled in silence, responding to her questions with curt grunts and 'Yeahs’. After several minutes of hiking, he halted at the top of a hill.
“We’re here,” he said.
Maria searched for landmarks, like ruins or a geographic oddity, but found only a twisted, withered oak next to a dried riverbed. “Is it that tree?”
“Yes. Go look.” He raised his arm in invitation.
Maria stepped forward but halted after a few paces and glanced back at Victor. “Are you coming?”
“I’m right behind you.”
Maria breathed deep and pushed forward, eager to dispense with the hike. She chose each footfall with care and wound her way to the base of the tree. Victor’s booted footsteps followed close behind.
Bark gray and dried to rot, the withered tree was a distant echo of its former self. Maria craned her neck and peered into the gnarled branches to discover the wonder that sparked Victor’s imagination. Instead, she found lines of marching ants munching on dead wood and fat black beetles fluttering their wings.
“Lo siento, Victor,” she apologized, irritated at herself for not spotting whatever it was that so interested him. “What am I supposed to see?”
The hard tap of metal on metal was her answer. She blinked in confusion at the alien sound and turned to see what caused it. A frightened gasp escaped her lips when she looked into the barrel of a silver Ruger. She spluttered once before the hammer strike sounded again.
“¡Chingado!” Victor yelled in frustration.
“Victor–” Maria coughed in a hoarse whisper. Her heart hammered, and her mind reeled at the bizarre scene before her. Her lover, the man she thought would propose marriage, had pointed a gun at her and squeezed the trigger. Twice. Impossible.
“Shut up!” Victor yelled. He pulled the pistol back and sneered when he spotted two bullets, one trapped behind the other, trapped in the ejection chamber.
Maria watched him inspect the gun. A spectator to her own murder. She swayed as adrenaline haze clouded her head. “Are you…” she said, glaring at Victor in senseless confusion. “You want to… Shoot me?”
Bathed in moonlight, Victor faced her and screamed. “This is your fault!”
“Everything was fine! Why did you get pregnant?” Spittle flew as he yelled.
“What? We… we’re starting a family.” Maria wrapped her arms around her flat belly, as if soft flesh and brittle bone could stop flying lead from ripping through her sapling fetus.
“I already have a family! A wife and a son! And a business to run! What makes you think I have time for an orphan girl and her hungry baby?”
Maria’s head swam, and her guts convulsed. She collapsed to her knees, bent forward, and dry heaved her empty bowels onto the cracked desert ground. A son? And a wife?
Victor cursed as he fought to clear the jammed pistol. He pulled the slide back and released it with no effect. “Don’t act like you didn’t know! ¡Estúpida! As long as we went to nice restaurants, and I treated you like a queen, you played along.”
Anger rose inside her. How could she know? Victor only ever talked about cars and his auto repair shop when they went on dates. And she never asked for gifts or fine dinners. She was happy enough being with him. They could have sat on a park bench all night for all she cared. She wiped her mouth, rocked back on her knees, and scowled.
“You want to kill me because I’m pregnant? This is your son!”
Victor stepped forward and delivered a vicious right hand to Maria’s nose and mouth. The crunching slap echoed through the valley as she spun and face-planted at the base of the tree.
“Shut up!” he roared. “You whore! That baby could be anybody’s!”
Maria curled into a ball and covered her stinging face. Coppery blood coated her lips. She winced and gritted desert sand. The nuns had spanked her a few times. Most were half-hearted efforts from Sister Isabel. But la Señora spanked her once with a wooden board. That had been the worst pain she ever felt. Until now. But instead of silencing her, the blow fed her fury. She glared up at him and spit a crimson wad onto the ground.
“You coward! You would rather kill me than tell your wife!”
Victor scoffed. “Who do you think wants you dead?”
“She wants…” Maria shook her head. “Your wife knows?”
“She knows all about you, estúpida. She knows you got pregnant on purpose.”
“Don’t play dumb! You knew I would dump you. You wanted to force me to leave my wife. ¡No soy estúpido!” he said, tapping the side of his head. He pressed the magazine eject, pulled the ammo clip from the handle, and tucked it into his pocket.
“That’s a lie! If you don’t want me, then I’ll leave! I don’t need you!”
“And where would you go? You’re a goddamn orphan.”
“America. I would go across the river to Laredo,” she said, speaking of the city sitting on the opposite banks of the Rio Grande River from Nuevo Laredo. “Other girls have done it.”
“It’s too late,” he said with a dismissive wave.
“So, she tells you to kill me and you do it?” Maria choked on a stream of tears.
Victor stopped working on the pistol and faced her. His anger melted into pained exasperation. “I have to live with her.” He shrugged. “It’s easier this way.”
The look said it all. Victor’s true essence laid bare. Her darkest moment; His mere irritation.
He cursed at the darkness obscuring his vision and turned to face the moonlight. There was a snap as the gun’s slide pulled back, followed by a sharp metallic ping. A gleaming brass cartridge pinwheeled into the air and tumbled out of sight.
In moments he would fire the pistol, and she would be dead. Her brains splattered across the cracked Mexican sand and her unborn son twisting feebly in her stomach for an oxygen supply ripped away. Her final moment to act. She spotted a large rock nearby, wrapped both hands around its jagged surface, and wrenched it from the packed earth. She rose to her feet and hefted the rock over her head.
Victor removed the ammo clip from his pocket and popped it into the handle. He pulled the slide back to chamber a fresh round.
Maria ran towards him, heedless of the brush and thorns. Her arms wobbled under the rock’s weight, but she remained focused on her target.
He turned to face her, and his eyes opened wide. The pistol raised and fired as the rock crashed into flesh and bone.
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