Lotta and Andy made a habit of checking in occasionally with all the rangers in Lotta's study areas, just to get to know them and let them know where Lotta and Andy would be researching.
Tom Douglass, the Tamarisk Grove Campground ranger has a natural ear for identifying animals by their calls and his wife keeps a great journal of everything they hear and see.
"Lotta! Andy! Nice to see you and this must be Danny getting very tall." Marcia looked like she had been asleep but was happy to let them in. "Tom's out on patrol but he should be in soon. Is there a problem?"
"I'm not sure but it looked strange so we thought Tom should hear about it." They filled Marcia in over some ice-cold cider.
"The dark empty stretches of Highway 78 to Brawley invite illegal activities some. There's some drug running and of course the border-crossers." Marcia said. "By the way another hay truck went down in Sentenac."
"That's where Tom spent the afternoon. What a mess."
Tom came in a few minutes later from a nightly campground check. "Lotta and Andy, I know what brings you out here so late, but you don't usually wait until the middle of the night to socialize with us. How's it going, Danny?" He shook Danny's hand.
Tom continued without waiting for a response, "Has Marcia shown you our latest sightings? The bird migrations have been great with even some Goldfinches singing in the trees around Butterfield Ranch and the owls are nesting as usual in the Tamarisk Trees. The young ones are falling out of the trees, also as usual, and crawling back up using their beaks. Crazy little guys, they're so cute at this stage. We've been hearing the Treefrogs calling and seeing lots of tadpoles in the pools on both creeks," he said talking fast.
Like many people who spend time alone in empty spaces Tom talked a lot when there was someone around to listen.
It was great to hear about the baby owls and the frogs but Marcia came to the rescue, "Tommy, you better be quiet for a minute and hear what they have to say."
"We saw a couple of vans that just didn't look right, Tom." Lotta said.
"I think it's the same guys who mugged the guy we found," Danny was certain.
"Well it could be, but more likely it's another group," Tom replied.
As Danny and Andy related what they had seen Tom became very serious. He radioed in a report to headquarters and then turned back to the group.
"Years ago the rangers here could turn a blind eye to the border crossers. They would cross the border just a mile and a half south of the Park boundary then walk the 60 mile length of the park through Coyote Canyon in the north up to the farming communities of Anza and Hemet. After all, they were just coming to work the jobs not very many people up here wanted for not much money."
"In recent years we think smugglers have taken over the routes and even forced some of the non-criminal crossers to do their nasty work."
Tom looked suddenly tired as he related this. Like most of the rangers in this park he was someone who really liked his job. Some rangers worked years in other parks until there was an opening and they were hired here. Smuggling is not what these beautiful wild places were preserved for.
"Here's the license number we got. It isn't complete but I did get some pictures. We can download them to your computer," Danny said.
Tom wanted to see Danny's telescope and they spent some time viewing out on the porch before starting the drive back to the cabin.
All the way home, Danny and Andy were quiet and they slept late the next day. Fortunately, Anna, Brandon and Jamie got a late start too. Danny and Andy spent the morning lazing around the cabin giving Fina nutritious treats and waiting for the new group to arrive.
Mid-afternoon the Vargas' showed up.
"Jamie! I have the scope set up come and see it." Danny was obviously delighted with Jamie's interest in the telescope or maybe it was a convenient excuse they were both using to spend time together without everyone else tagging along.
Anna and Brandon went for a hike so Andy had time to catch up on the online news and her email sitting in the shade under the huge oak trees. Every time an article came out about the mugged man it mentioned the feathers. Those feathers bothered her. They hadn't looked like chickens or turkeys. What were they from? Who was 'Jorgè' and how would they ever find him? And, would they find him in time!
Sunday afternoon Tony called. Danny answered and put it on speaker so everyone could listen.
Tony said Father Timothy had mentioned the mugged man after his sermon. "Right after mass, Julie Peña came up to him and told him about her brother, Richard, who has been missing all week. I met Julie at the last fundraiser. Apparently Richard has been trying to get a green card for a while but got frustrated and she's afraid he may have done something stupid.
And listen to this: Richard's son, Jorgè, lives with her here in the States and he's been missing all week, too. Father Timothy called me and we'll go with her to the hospital this evening."
"Have you let the police know yet?" Danny was excited. Here at last was a link to the missing Jorgè and he did not sound like one of the bad guys. It did sound like there was something seriously wrong.
"Actually, Father Timothy is going to handle it. He has plenty of contacts in law enforcement and will go with the family when they visit the hospital."
"Let us know what happens, Tony. If it is her brother, ask Julie why he would have feathers on him. And ask her where she thinks Jorgè might be." Andy was thrilled at this new development.
"I'll call you as soon as I know more," Tony said and hung up.
Late afternoon, when Ben arrived with Steve Andy was a little embarrassed about how excited she felt to see Ben again. Fortunately, there were other distractions.
"They were green parrot feathers! Looks like our victim was in the bird smuggling business." Steve was brimming with news. "The crime lab says they were recently on the parrots which means he probably handled them that evening before his friends decided to dump him in the desert."
"I knew those feathers were important!" Andy said.
"There was a special on TV about tropical parrots and how people stuff them into small containers to get them over the border." Jamie said. "Pet shops are suppose to have papers on all of their birds for sale so these illegal birds are often sold over the Internet now."
"I'll bet those guys we saw in Sentenac last night were the parrot smugglers!" Everyone stood around Danny's computer looking at the smuggler photos he'd taken.
"What were you doing out watching bandits?" Ben asked. Everyone wanted to hear the story of the night out.
"I'm starving. How about if we tell this on the way to dinner?" Andy suggested. They all piled into the Vargas' van and headed for Sunrise Lodge and Julian apple pie for dessert with plenty of cold apple cider. The Lodge was recently rebuilt after a huge fire burned much of the San Diego backcountry.
"One van was dark colored maybe blue or green and the other was light colored. Danny got most of the license number of one of them and some pictures of the smugglers as well." The story kept everyone entertained through dinner.
Over dessert Danny remembered the conversation about the Net. "Hey, I could call my friend Jin Wang and tell him to search for parrot sale sites. He could do it. He's always bragging that he can find anything on the Net."
"You mean Jin with the gum problem?" Jamie laughed.
"Hey! He's cool. Chewing gum just fills the spaces when he's concentrating." Danny defended.
"Jin is great." Jamie agreed, "only he has this thing about chewing gum all the time!"
"There are people who think it's strange to like slimy snakes," Danny grinned teasing Jamie.
"Snakes are not slimy. Their skin is very dry, except the water snakes. But then most snakes can swim." Jamie retorted.
"If he comes up with sites on the net that look suspicious tell him to contact Sheriff Sadler at this number." Steve handed Danny a card. "The hunt for these guys is a combined effort of the sheriff, park rangers and Customs but I know Sheriff Sadler. He'll be willing to look at all leads."
"Tell Mr. Wang to look for rare or exotic birds."
The evening was taken up with dinner at the Lodge and then astronomy but Ben and Andy managed a walk together when everyone else was out using the telescope.
"What made you decide on UC San Diego for college?" Andy wondered noticing for the first time that Ben was very tall.
"I did a two week special science camp at UCSD and liked it here," Ben replied holding Andy's hand. " Steve Vargas got me the internship at the hospital for this summer." "What about you, Andy? Have you always lived around here?"
"San Diego is definitely home. When I was ten I came to live with Aunt Lotta in San Diego. Now I go to River Valley High where she teaches a couple of classes."
The forest was wildly beautiful in the night with a warm wind coming up from the desert. They could have walked for hours just listening to each others' stories blend with the night sounds but Ben had to leave in order to be at the hospital early the next day.
The first date was over and they both began to relax about this beginning relationship.
"Good night, Ben"
"Let's get together again soon, Andy"
Andy and Danny and Jamie decided to sleep out on the screened porch with the cats and Fina that night. Andy was mostly wakeful until past one when her natural sleep cycle cut in. Some time later she awoke to a sudden shriek that seemed like part of a dream.
Fina let out a low growl and the cats nudged onto the sleeping bags.
"Wow! That was neat!" Jamie whispered. "I thought at first that I was dreaming."
"I did too. It could be a mountain lion on the prowl," Andy suggested quietly and laid awake listening to the night sounds.
After that they all slept soundly until the chattering Jays burst through their dreams around nine. Anna Vargas informed everyone that Brandon wanted to go to Lake Cuyamaca for some kayaking. Danny, Jamie and Andy opted to stay at the cabin.
Danny and Jamie went out to try to get some more photos so Andy jumped into the shower. Half way through she had to run to the phone.
It was Tony and she was excited. "It, I mean, your mystery man is for sure Julie Peña's brother and there's more to the story."
Tony was even more excited than her usual hyper self. "Julie thinks Jorgè could be at her Mother's place out in Potrero - where ever that is."
"Tony, you're such a city person. You ought to get out in the county more. I mean we are surrounded by natural beauty like that huge natural carpet covering the hills outside the city called the chaparral and you don't ever get out to see it," Andy couldn't resist cutting in, grinning.
"Who has time to see, what did you call it – shopping corral?"
"Chaparral! You know, hawks and coyotes and mountain lilac in the spring."
"Whatever you say. Just when I think I'll get some time to play, someone like you calls and tosses a grenade into my life." She didn't sound unhappy about it. She is a born problem solver, which makes her a great social worker.
"Anyway, Julie says the last time she was out to see her mom there were big crates on the property and she thought there were weird sounds, maybe bird calls coming out of them. Which goes along with the police report of bird feathers."
Tony continued," Her mom called last weekend to say some men, including Julie's other brother, came and loaded the birds into a van and drove off. She said she thought she could see Richard sitting in a big van asleep."
Jorgé was not at her mom's or at Julie's place at that time and she hasn't been able to get through to her mom since. Apparently, there was some kind of storm and the phones are not working out there."
There was some discussion going on in the background and it distracted Tony for a minute. When she came back on the line Andy said, "Tony, Danny and I were out Friday night in the desert and we saw two vans pull up and exchange some boxes."
Andy told her what they'd seen and what Steve had said about the feathers being from parrots.
"That would be a big coincidence if the vans were the same if you ask me." Tony was skeptical.
"You are probably right. Where was Julie's Mom while all this weird stuff was going on?" Andy asked.
"Julie doesn't know where she is now but Maria Peña has lots of friends out there so she could be staying with someone else or she might be at her place. It's hard to tell with the phones down. This doesn't seem to get us much closer to Jorgè."
"Tony, what are we suppose to do with all this?" Andy was getting worried. The story was getting bigger and more dangerous by the hour.
"Well, we have to protect Julie and her mom. Jorgè could be deported in a minute if the Border Petrol finds him first and believes that he is somehow involved with illegal activities because he's here on a student visa. That would mess up his education.
"Jorgè lives with Julie to go to school and he's a good student. He wants to be an engineer. He's applied for permanent legal resident status but it's still pending." Tony was obviously as baffled as the rest of them about the direction to take. But there were people in danger here.
The smugglers knew that Maria Peña could identify them. Right now it was a mystery where she was but Julie's mom's home was the obvious first place the smugglers would look and that put both of them in jeopardy.
Where was Jorgè? Was he alive?
"If there is a connection with these guys and the vans we saw in Anza-Borrego the rangers down there may be able to help us. After all, Richard Peña was found in the park. They have some jurisdiction in the case. I'll call Tom Douglass and ask him about it," Andy was reaching.
There were just too many unknowns right now. What was needed was an immigration lawyer. "Tony, Lotta's brother Sam might know someone who could help us with the legal end for Jorgè. But, while we look into this we need to find a safe place where Julie, and her mom and Jorgè too, can go - if we can find him."
"I have that one partially covered. Julie is here. I didn't have any connection to her until yesterday so there's no way Juan Peña, that's Richard's brother, can know where she is."
"You can't possibly have room for all these people in your little studio apartment." Andy was surprised.
Tony hesitated, "Well, I've moved."
"When did you move from North Park?" Andy asked. "I didn't think you would ever give up that funky little apartment on Highland Ave."
"We all grow up and need more room," Tony said with a smile. "Now I live in the land of manicured lawns and unblemished sidewalks - Poway. The house is owned by Kenny. He's into computers. I guess I forgot to tell you when all this excitement came up. We're having a wedding reception soon. A very small reception unless my Mom decides to get crazy and invite the relatives."
"Tony, congratulations! But, are you sure you want the Peña's in your house right now?"
"It should work out great. Kenny won't mind.
"Did I mention that Kenny is into computers? He has a room full of computer equipment at home and works there most of the time." Tony sounded very satisfied with herself. She has always been a person with a big heart.
"What about Julie's mom?" Andy was still worried. "Why don't you find out some directions to her house and we could see if she is there?"
Tony put down the phone and there was rapid Spanish in the background. Tony came from a close family. Her mom was an outgoing, ready to help and ready to party lady with unlimited energy for every project that comes along, which is where Tony got her personality and her Irish red hair. Her dad was a quiet second generation Mexican American carpenter who happily let her mom run the show as long as she left him to his woodworking tools in the garage and let him speak Spanish to the kids.
Tony came back on the line, "It's somewhere off Highway 94 just east of a place called Dog Patch? I can't believe it. Is there really a place named that?"
"There is but it's sort of a local name. You probably won't see it on any maps. Lotta has a friend who lives right near there. She's a reporter for the backcountry papers and just the person who might be interested enough to help us if it meant running down an interesting article for the paper. I'll get Lotta to call her. What's the Grandmother's name?"
"Maria Lopez Peña." Tony waited while Andy wrote it down.
"Get this, she raises goats. Julie sort of knows how to get there but doesn't know the names of the streets because she always rides with someone else when they go out to her mom's so she won't be much help.
"Andy, I have to go. Kenny just got home and I need to explain all this to him."
"I hope he isn't too angry about being invaded."
"He comes from a big family and is used to a zillion people dropping in to stay for awhile at odd times. Besides he owes me one. I just put up with his cousin, the cousin's wife and their two kids for three weeks while they were moving out here from Arizona and getting settled"
"Thanks, Tony, I'll let you know what happens and tell Ken I think he's getting a good deal."
Ben called a few minutes later. He had some free time and wondered if they could come into town for lunch tomorrow, Tuesday.
"The Vargas' are leaving in the morning so it'll be just the three of us," Andy responded.
"That's fine. I'll have about 2 hours free."
Since you have the time we could all go to the Space Theater in Balboa Park. Have you been there? We could pick up some sandwiches on the way."
"Andy, I had a good time last night," he paused. "And, if you are going to find any more bodies in the cactus, ask me along first, okay?"
"I'll try to keep the homicides to the bare minimum." Andy laughed and so did Ben.
©Copyright - Ann Wellhouse 2015