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The following is a book excerpt from Gordon Chaplin’s novel about love, sibling relationships, and the dark side of paradise.
In the spring, Mark came home from the garage to find a Latino cop standing at the door of the La Jolla house. “Hi Mark,” the cop said in a casual tone. “I’m just a friend of the family. Frank’s the name.”
“Hi,” Mark said. “You’re Mexican, right?”
“US citizen,” the cop said. “Since five years old. Listen, your step-mom is a little worried about some things.”
“What things?” The cop’s badge read Gonzalez.
“Well, she’s afraid people are taking advantage of you”
“What are you talking about? How are people taking advantage of me?”
“I dunno. Maybe something that happened a while back? She said you wouldn’t mind if I took a look in your room. That okay?”
Mark stared. “I guess so. Sure.”
“Well, let’s take a look then, okay?” Gonzalez stood back and motioned him through the door.
Up in his room, Gonzalez went carelessly through his desk and bureau, whistling a tune from a Mexican corrido. Then he opened the closet door, reached way back on the shelf, and still whistling pulled down a medium-sized cardboard box. “Mind if I open this?”
“I’ve never seen that before. It must have been in there before I came.”
Gonzalez’s whistle changed to a long falling note when he opened the box. He reached in and pulled out a plastic bag of reddish weed. “About a pound, I’d say.” He opened it and sniffed. “Damn good Mexican red. Probably worth a couple thousand on the street.”
Mark shook his head to clear it. “Jesus. I told you I’ve never seen that before.”
“You mean Billy Martin didn’t ask you to drive down to Ensenada and pick this up? Ya que estás Mexicano?”
Billy Martin was a leather craftsman and older surfer who hung out with the Pumphouse Gang. “Billy Martin has never said a god-damn word to me.”
“But you know who he is, right?”
“Sure, I know who he is.”
“Did you know he was working with Sam Cook?” Cook was the smuggler Mark’s stepmother had read about, recently sentenced to ten years.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. It has nothing to do with me. But I know why that stuff was planted in my closet.”
The cop held up both hands. “Callete, mijo. Now stop right there. Can you prove it was planted?”
“Of course, I can’t.”
“Entonces, no me hagas tonterias.” Gonzalez smiled and drummed his fingers on the cardboard. “Look, we’re only trying to help you stay out of real trouble.”
The deal was, no charges would be filed if Mark went back to Mexico and never entered the US again.He headed back to Paraíso in an ancient Chevy pickup he’d rebuilt from the ground up, and a few months later he opened his garage. Clamato said he’d had quite a few novias over the years, all of them were gringasand all of them unhappy. “He likes to pull their wings off and watch them crawl,” Clamato said. “It’s part of his revenge on the world.”
“Wow. And how do you know all this?”
“I used to surf Windansea myself back in the fifties. I keep in touch. ‘Course, he doesn’t know that.” Clamato raised the jug and drank. “In Sanctuary? This guy Popeye? I don’t think old Bill just made him up. He’s the real thing.”
“You’re saying he’s like Marco? But Marco’s just a mechanic, no?”
“And Al Capone just owned a bar in Chicago.”
“You mean he’s—”
“And more, baby. People have died.”
Peter and Wendy—their mother chose the names—felt as close as twins, despite their difference in age. As teens, they fled their wealthy Philadelphia home in the family station wagon and headed for Mexico, only to be discovered sleeping in the car on the banks of the Mississippi, in Huck Finn country.
Now, many years later, estranged by an apparent betrayal as profound as their family’s dysfunction, the two live separate lives, Peter as an editor in New York, Wendy as an edgy sports photographer with a taste for risk. With a new book out and an invitation to Los Cabos, she drives the Mercedes inherited from their father to Baja California, finally completing the trip begun twenty years earlier.
But when the engine fails near a small town named Paraíso—Paradise—she lingers, exploring its underside in an affair with a dangerous man and, all too suddenly, becoming witness to a vicious crime. Meanwhile, in New York, Peter can’t help but think of Wendy. When, from his apartment in lower Manhattan, he watches the Twin Towers fall on a beautiful September day, he knows it’s time to leave his comfortable life, go find Wendy, and make peace with his long-lost sister. A noirish tale reminiscent of David Lynch and the Coen brothers, Paraíso traces the journey from a mother’s dark secret to a place where love, and even perfect love, is possible.