Three girls in a car at night, on their way to the beach in Brooklyn. Two are Mexican, about nineteen or twenty, young and pretty—like a lot of Mexican girls you see in New York City. Straight black hair, soft faces, a sweet-eyed optimism not yet destroyed by labor. Dressed in identical blue service uniforms with corpserve patches on the breast, they are nestled in a Toyota two-door subcompact as it flies along the Belt Parkway. The rattling, uninsured car is fifteen years old, carries expired Georgia plates, and has a market value of $125. In New York City you can always buy a car like this and you can always sell one. Who cares about the paperwork? That’s for people who have big money to lose. These Mexican girls have no money. They work cleaning offices in Manhattan. Their day begins at seven p.m., so the hour now might be five in the morning, just before dawn. They go out afterward almost every night, a way of saying this work is not yet destroying us. A few minutes sitting in the car at the beach, then they’ll swing back to the house on Avenue U, where they live with nine other people. Why drive? The subway, it don’t go where we live. And the bus, it takes like forever. So the girls drive. Often they will smoke a little pot some boys gave them and giggle. Open the car’s cracked sunroof, let the smoke drift upward. They are enjoying their freedom, their few hard-won dollars, their provisional American identities. They smoke, maybe drink some too, listen to the radio. Giggling and sweet, but tough—tougher than American girls. In the country illegally. Each carrying some kind of fake green card that she bought for $150. They’ve made the journey and are not yet beaten down, not yet burdened with children and husbands. They have cookouts and volleyball in one of the Mexican sections of Marine Park. And they have guys, when they feel like it, know what to do to make their men feel bien. Sex yet another kind of labor. Their mothers back home don’t know—don’t know a lot. Be careful! they beg, Nueva York is dangerous for girls like you. But that’s wrong. Mexico is where girls get found in the desert, legs wide open, hair dragged with dirt, dead eyes already eaten out by bugs. New York City is big and safe and filled with rich, fat norteamericanos. Maybe the girls won’t even marry Mexican men. Why should they? They talk about the office guys. The tall ones who look so good in a suit. You want to do him, girl, I know you do. No, no, es muy gordo, too fat. They laugh. They see a lot of powerful people leaving their offices at the end of the day. Men and women in business clothes. Nice haircuts, good watches. White ladies who think they’s better than us. A corporate world so close they could reach out and touch it with their cherry-colored fingernails. Yet given the stratifications of American society, it is a world they are unlikely ever to know from within. They are like Nigerians in London, Turks in Paris, Koreans in Tokyo, Filipinos in Riyadh—outsiders in their new homelands. Their only advantages are their youth and willingness to suffer, but they will lose these advantages, as eventually they will lose everything, including their lives. Come to think of it, they will lose everything a lot sooner rather than later.
Tonight, in fact. Before the sun is up. Minutes from now.
The third girl in the car, sitting in the back, is older, and not really a girl anymore. She’s cute, slim, and Chinese. Yet fluent in English. She’s learned to speak a little Spanish, with a Mexican accent. She is the Mexican girls’ boss. They were afraid of her at first but now they like her, although they can barely speak English to one another, because of the accents. You speak Chenglish to us, they laugh. Her name is Jin Li, and they call her Miss Jin, which comes out MeezaJin. She’s very pretty, in that Chinese way. Slender, with a beautiful face. But so nerviosa! Always checking on everything. Telling people where to put the full trash bags for the service elevators. What’s she so worried about? They work hard, they do a good job. You need to relax, they finally told her. You ever go out? She shook her head and they could see she wanted to. So now, every week or so, she’ll go out with them. Keeps things friendly. MeezaJin is studying them, they know. She’s quiet, she watches everybody. They are outsiders in America but more at home than MeezaJin is, though she makes a lot of money and reads English. She even has a white boyfriend—or used to, they are not sure. MeezaJin doesn’t say much about herself—like she might be hiding something, like she might be some kind of criminal, girl, you know what I’m saying?
The work shift has come and gone, as it does each night. The offices need tidying and vacuuming. The trash cans need emptying. There’s precious little conversation between the girls and the office people—a few patronizing thank-yous, sometimes a perfunctory nodding of the head on the way out. Nobody pays much attention to the cleaning people in a corporation. Why should they? They’re cleaning people. Occasionally the girls encounter office workers eating pizza and pulling all-nighters. But for the most part all they see is just big-time corporate calm, the hushed rush of money moving through the wires and across the screens. And there is plenty of money, millions and billions, by the look of it. The marble lobby floor gets buffed at night. The elevators get wiped clean, even the steel-walled service elevators that the girls are required to use. The carpeting is washed. The vending company guy refills the free coffee machine with twenty-four kinds of coffee and tea. The Indian computer guys go through like mice, fixing firewalls, loading spam blockers, cleaning out viruses. Every activity is about money. A way to make more money. The windows are washed, the computers are new. Money. Being made in every office. You can almost smell it. The girls like being near the money. Doesn’t everyone?
To what degree do they realize that the trash they empty out of the offices each day is in fact the paper trail of deals, trends, ideas, conflicts, sensitive issues, and legal wars—some of which, set before other eyes, may have enormous value? The answer is that they have no actual awareness of this. They are only barely literate in Spanish and more or less illiterate in English. This is expectable. Indeed, it has been purposefully expected: they have been hired by MeezaJin for their distinct inability to read English, their unknowingness about the ornate structures of capital and power through which they lightly pass each night. Industrious as they are, their naïveté also has value. Much of New York City depends upon such people. The ones who know nothing. The city needs their labor, compliance, and fear. You could question these girls in a court of law. Exactly which proprietary documents were you removing, Miss Chavez? They could never answer.
Jin Li likes these Mexican girls, though. They work hard, they do not complain. She knows that they do not suspect her of anything other than an eagerness to exploit their labor. She knows too that the building services managers who contract with CorpServe, tough guys with keys and beepers and walkie-talkies, see in her a pretty Chinese girl whose English is not so good—she purposefully makes it worse when she speaks to them—and they think she will be a little cheaper. They are right, too. The Chinese are always a little cheaper, when they want to be. They figure out how to do it, how to undercut everyone else, and then they become indispensable. Jin Li’s customers are eager to exploit her eagerness to exploit others. People expect the Chinese to be brutal to their workers when they need to be, even in America, and most of the time they are not disappointed.
Tonight the two Mexican girls have worked hard stuffing blue plastic bags into the service elevator of a building near Fifty-first Street and Broadway, with Jin Li supervising. CorpServe is contracted for nine floors of the building: the sixteenth through nineteenth floors, commercial loan processing offices for a bank, and the twentieth through twenty-fourth floors, the national management offices of a small pharmaceutical company. Jin Li runs eight crews at different midtown Manhattan locations each night and floats among them. The office layouts are all roughly similar, with a service elevator that drops into a street-level truck bay where CorpServe’s immense mobile shredding vehicle is parked. There an older man in a blue uniform matching theirs tosses the bags into a sucking orifice that shreds them into confetti. This man is Chinese, like Jin Li, and at times she comes down to the truck bay with certain piles of bags, issues specific instructions to him, then watches to see that he complies. The roar of the shredders drowns out their speech. They both know that they are always being watched by ceiling-mounted security cameras, some of them remote-swiveling, and they also both know how easy it is to work around them. You just have to know the angles. The cameras can see the CorpServe truck but not into the truck. You can set aside a few bags marked by hand with a special inch-high Chinese character and the camera doesn’t know.
But that was hours past and now the night’s work is done and the girls laugh and listen to the Latino radio station and feel the salty mist off the water. The beach parking lot is usually empty at this hour. Nobody bothers the girls, but if someone does—some cracked-out motherfucker, some drunk-ass wannabe punk—they have pepper spray in their purses. Tonight they drink a little cheap jug wine in plastic cups, dance in their seats to the radio. The Mexican girls ask MeezaJin about her white boyfriend. I liked him! So macho for a white guy! What happened? one of the girls asks, wriggling in a seat patched with duct tape. Oh, you know . . . Jin Li laughs but is quick to look toward the water. It wasn’t going to work out. But she doesn’t elaborate, barely admits the real reason to herself. She was forced to end it. Listened to his phone messages asking her to call. Hated herself for not calling him back. What he did to her in bed—thinking about not getting that will just upset her. She’s had relationships with gweilos before—British, German, Italian. She likes them, much better than Chinese men, and this one was best of all. And maybe that’s why she’s here tonight, just to forget him.
Now Jin Li feels the wine in her bladder and slips out the passenger-side door to go pee in the sea grass. She has a bit of toilet paper folded in her purse with her and steps over the lip of the parking lot toward a dirt path that leads to a private spot. Private and disgusting. People hang out down there lighting up crack pipes or having sex, and so she is careful before she disappears into the grass. You have to watch out for broken bottles, used condoms, tampons, rotting chicken wings. The girls in the car can no longer see her, so she listens a moment—is anyone lurking down there in the grass? She hears nothing, though the wind is blowing now, rain in it. She braves the dark path and finds a place where she will squat down.
She is just pulling up her pink panties when she hears a low diesel vibration nearby. What is it? She walks halfway up the path and crouches in the grass below the parking lot. Two trucks are pulling into the lot, one a big pickup, tricked out with fog lights and custom chrome parts, and the other a huge commercial vehicle, big as a municipal garbage truck but shaped differently. It’s too dark to know what colors they are. The trucks brake to a sudden stop next to the little To-yota. The pickup sits directly behind the car, pinning it against the curb of the parking lot, and the other truck has slipped up on the driver’s side, an inch away, so tight the door can’t be opened. What are they doing? What do they want to do? Two burly men get out, one from each truck, and rush around to the unblocked side of the little car.
Standing in the weeds, the rain making her blink now, Jin Li can see that the two Mexican girls have rolled up the windows and are screaming inside their little car.
One of the men shatters the sunroof of the Toyota with a hammer, then keeps his foot on the front passenger door, in case the girls try to push it open. Meanwhile the second man hooks something on the back bumper of the car—a chain, she thinks—then starts a motor on the bigger truck. Moving quickly, he pulls a huge hose off a spool on the truck and drags it around to the broken sunroof. He shoves the nozzle of the hose downward into the car, releases a lever, and holds the thick hose as it sends its gurgling contents inside onto the girls. The hose bucks and kicks, the flow inside sloshy and heavy.
Behind the windows the screaming intensifies.
What should she do? The car is filling quickly, a line of dark stuff rising against the windows. The only way out is across the parking lot, where Jin Li will be seen. Behind her is the sharp sea grass and sand. Her cell phone is sitting in her apartment in Manhattan, charging. She never takes it to work, on purpose: cell phones give law enforcement
a perfect record of your movements. She has an untraceable walkie-talkie in her purse that she uses to call the other CorpServe crews. But its effective range is only about a mile, good enough for midtown Manhattan but no good in Brooklyn . . .
One of the girls is pushing on the driver’s door now, banging it against the big truck pulled up tight against the car. But the door will open only a crack, no more. Then a hand shoots out of the passenger window, wildly firing pepper spray. The man holding shut that door slaps the hand and the spray can flies to the pavement.
“Richie!” the taller man calls through the rain. “That’s enough!”
Jin Li fumbles in her purse for the walkie-talkie and clicks it on. Nothing but windy static. “Hello? Hello?” she tries in English. Nothing.
Now the lights of the car go on and the engine starts. The car lurches forward to the lip of the parking lot, jolting the truck behind it. But the chain on the bumper holds. The car’s back wheels spin violently, burning rubber, the smelly smoke drifting over the sea grass. Then the engine slows, as if in capitulation. Inside the car the girl’s foot is slack now. Something is oozing out of the passenger window, dripping down the glass.
“Richie, you fuck, let’s go!” the man screams.
The man holding the hose doesn’t move.
“Turn it off!”
The man named Richie pulls the lever and withdraws the nozzle. More stuff pours out lumpily from the broken sunroof. The car is full. He replaces the hose onto the truck, then unhooks the chain.
The little $125 car doesn’t move against the lip of the parking lot, even though its lights are still on and the engine putters. The taller man removes his boot from the front passenger door, jumping back as it opens just enough to release a torrent of ooze. Then he does a strange thing. He reaches around to lock the door and uses all his weight to slam it shut. Then he waits as Richie moves the bigger truck and does the same thing with the driver’s door.
He locked both doors, Jin Li thinks. Why?
“Get out of here!”
The bigger man hurries now to his pickup. The whole thing has taken perhaps six minutes. The big truck reverses in a half circle, then shoots forward out of the lot. The pickup truck backs more tightly, swings around, and follows the big truck. They drive without lights, fast.
In ten seconds they are gone.
Jin Li runs toward the car. The wet wind has shifted, and the smell has alerted her. She knows that smell from China, would know it anywhere. The public pit latrines in the smaller towns. The holes in the ground next to huge construction sites in Shanghai where the workers squat over cutout boards. The raw sewage spewing into the rivers. Yes, she knows this smell.
She hurries up to the car and pulls on the doors just to be sure they are locked. Does she see movement inside, a hand flailing through the dark liquid against the glass? She looks around for something to break the window and flies over to the edge of the lot, where she frantically scrabbles around in the grass, her hands raking through plastic bags, old newspapers, beer cans, anything but what she needs. Suddenly she finds a heavy chunk of asphalt. Too much time has gone by! Right? How could anyone—? She awkwardly carries the asphalt back to the car and after three tries breaks the front passenger window. Wet, thick muck streams out, spatters her, the smell horrific. Fecal gases. Fetid urine. She gags, bile burning her throat. She hits the safety glass again and again to make a hole large enough to reach through. Finally. She drops the asphalt and thrusts her arm into the cold, lumpy wetness and feels around for the door lock, the broken glass rasping against her wrist. She finds the lock, pops it up, pulls on the door—it flies open, a great thick black tongue of filth spewing out across the lot.
“Come on!” Jin Li shrieks in Chinese. The stench is sickening, burns her eyes. She reaches in and finds one of the girls. No movement! Too much time has gone by! Seven or eight or even nine minutes! She pulls an arm, and the body of the girl falls limply out to the pavement, covered in muck. Jin Li wipes at the girl’s face. Her mouth is filled, black hair tangled and wet with the stuff. She is not breathing. Jin Li rolls her over, clears the mouth, pushes on the back. Nothing! She runs to the other side of the car, breaks the glass there, soaking herself, opens that door, the sewage gurgling as it empties from the car. The girl is dead weight, slumped against the steering wheel, but Jin Li pulls her free and tries to get her breathing. She doesn’t respond. Jin Li is weeping in fear and frustration. Come on, come on! she says, pushing on the girl’s back, wiping the stuff out of her mouth. Nothing. Jin Li can’t even look at her eyes, which are mudded over with gunk. The girls were scared, they hyperventilated, they inhaled the wet muck deep into their lungs. As they lost consciousness, the stuff oozed down their throats, suffocating them. Same as being held underwater for long minutes. Now the girls both lie on their stomachs on the pavement, still as death while the tongue of filth spreads across the parking lot as the car empties, the rain faster now and forming rivulets that travel toward the storm drains at the end of the lot.
Jin Li hears a woman’s voice talking excitedly in Spanish, and she freezes. Who? She looks at the girls. But the girls appear to be—yes—dead, bodies already sinking softly into themselves. Yes, it’s true, she tells herself. Dead! Now comes Latino dance music. The radio is still on in the car and the muck has drained below the dashboard speakers. “Yo te voy a amar hasta el fin de tiempo!” wails a singer’s voice.
The first light of day is on the horizon, showing the rain gusting across the lot.
Jin Li understands now. Someone knows. Someone knows what she was doing. They saw her get into the car in Manhattan and followed. They wanted her.
She runs. Fleeing over the pavement, wet black hair streaming behind her, eyes wide, she runs for her life.
Excerpted from The Finder by Colin Harrison. Copyright © 2008 by Colin Harrison. Published in April 2008 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.