“What more can you tell us about your girlfriend, Steve?” Comarella asked.
“What do you mean? What more do you need to know?”
“You told me her name is Ana Santiago, correct?” Becker asked.
“Correct,” Steve said, a defensive edge creeping into his voice for reasons that he himself did not yet understand.
“And she’s originally from Playa Escondida, Mexico, correct?”
“Does she have any siblings?”
“Two,” he said. She has an older brother, Abe, that’s the one she mentioned in the note,” he added, with a glance at Melissa, and a younger sister, Isabel.”
“Have you ever met her siblings? Or any member of her family?”
“No, we’d been meaning to pay them a visit, but hadn’t had the chance. We were both busy with work. She used to video chat with Isabel and I’d say hello when she did.”
“When was the last time she had a video chat with her sister?”
“In June, her parents were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They had a party and Ana called to find out how it went.”
“And she didn’t go home for that party? Didn’t that seem strange to you?”
“No, not really, our work is seasonal and June’s a busy month. She told me she couldn’t get the time off.”
“What does her father do, professionally?”
“Retired from what?” he persisted.
He stared back at the detective, his brow furrowed as though trying to recall. “I’m sure she must have told me. I just can’t think of it right now.” Steve had the uneasy feeling that the discussion had evolved from an interview into an interrogation.
Comarella hit the button on his computer again and a new photo appeared on the screen. It was the same photo of Ana that had been shown to Melissa the day before. In it, she was posing in front of a trellis of blooming roses. Her glossy, black hair hung in loose curls around her shoulders and her dark eyes were bright and happy as she smiled at the camera. “Your girlfriend’s full name is María Tatiana Aldana Santiago. Although she gave you her name as Ana Santiago, she is better known to her family and to the Mexican authorities as Tatiana Aldana.”
Comarella hit the button again and the next image to appear was that of a short, stocky man with sparse white hair and the face of a bulldog. His eyes, practically buried beneath a deeply lined expanse of brooding forehead, were sullen and black as coal. His cheeks were full and sagged around a bulbous, snout-like nose. Beneath it all, a pronounced under bite lent him the air of a predator more likely to attack than to acquiesce.
“This,” Comarella continued, “is Juan Manuel Aldana, known to one and all simply as Don Manuel. He is the head of the cartel known as La Dinastía and one of the most brutal killers in all of Mexico. Directly linked to dozens of murders and perhaps hundreds of disappearances, he’s made a long list of enemies during the course of his career.” He paused and looked directly at Steve. “He is also your girlfriend’s father.”
Something in the pit of Steve’s stomach froze into a knot. It occurred to him that had he been shown this picture before dating Ana, he never would have done so.
The slideshow advanced and a new picture filled the screen. “His son Abel, or Abe, Aldana graduated magna cum laude from the prestigious Universidad Nacional de México and serves as one of his father’s most trusted advisors on business and legal matters.” Steve stared at the picture on the screen, looking for any sign of a family resemblance between Ana and this man. Gratefully, there was none. The son was a younger, fitter version of the father, but his expression was no less fierce. Their resemblance, both in appearance and bearing, was unmistakable.
Steve buried his face in his hands for a moment and then peered over his fingertips at Comarella. “There has got to be some mistake,” he said again. “Ana would never be involved in a drug cartel. She looks nothing like this guy. You’ve got the wrong woman.”
Comarella sighed, making Steve feel like a cancer patient awaiting the doctor’s final prognosis. The agent pressed a button and a new photo filled the screen. For a moment, Steve felt as though he’d forgotten how to breathe. From the center of the photo, Don Manuel glared at him malevolently. It was the young woman to his right, however, that captured and held Steve’s gaze. He knew it was her, and yet he felt as though he were staring at a stranger. Ana was younger in the shot, perhaps eighteen or nineteen. She was dressed in a tight fitting, olive green t-shirt and camouflage pants, leaning against her father, her left arm wrapped around his back. In her right hand, propped against her right thigh, she held an AK-47 assault rifle. She was smiling proudly at the camera. As Steve struggled to recover from this latest blow to his once firm convictions, Melissa pointed to the man on the other side of Don Manuel.
“That’s him,” she said. Steve looked with confusion from her back to the screen. “The man standing next to Don Manuel, it’s him-the guy from the convenience store.”
Comarella and Becker exchanged a nod of recognition.