HOLLYWOOD—Candelaria stared at Don Ignacio, his white hair gleaming, as he walked around the perimeter of the basement room. She wondered what provincial dance the old man was remembering—what glittering eyes and swaying hips enthralled him as he sought to replace his own problem with a good memory. Ignacio’s son in Los Angeles wasn’t responding to the coyote’s increasingly harsh demands for payment. That was a problem. Ignacio would not be released from the safe house until the debt was paid in full.

“Don Ignacio. Listen,” she said.

“I don’t hear anything,” he said.

“That’s just it,” she mouthed, “Nothing.”

The soundtrack of banda wasn’t thumping upstairs, the operatic sports announcer wasn’t bellowing out, “Gooooooooooooal!!!” from the TV set. Except for an occasional light footfall on the floorboards over the heads of the huddled migrants, utter silence met her ears.

Candelaria surveyed those lying down in silent lethargy after the latest round of ramen and Coca-Cola. One Olmec-faced youth was listening to music, wires in his ears. Candelaria stood from the filthy frayed mattress, and groped with her hands for her pair of torn bloody shoes. In the drywall behind her head, she noted 17 fingernail indentations, minute grooves, marking her 17 days in the basement awaiting word from her brother. He wasn’t responding to the coyotes’ demands; she couldn’t reach him at all.

Candelaria found one shoe. After the trek on foot across the desert, the blood from her cracked, blistered feet had dried, making the leather stiff and impossible to tie. She found the second shoe, and it took practically her last ounce of energy to pull on and tie. She stood and mounted the first stair. It let out a creak loud as a rifle shot in the quietude.

One of the women, a Honduran, was startled. “Don’t go up there,” she pleaded. “The door has an alarm. They catch you, those men will beat you or worse.”

Candelaria kept moving up the stairs, one after the other. The lady blubbered and she prayed, “Don’t, don’t!”

Candelaria stared at the door and debated whether to open it. It might indeed have an alarm. She twisted it, the knob yielded to her touch. Breathless, Don Ignacio watched. He saw Candelaria disappear into a cloud of light at the top of the stairs.

Then, after a few seconds, fierce sounds of growling, punctuated by high-pitched barking, invaded the basement room from above. For a second Don Ignacio stood rooted in place. Then he bounded up the stairs with surprisingenergy for a man his age. In his rush, he bumped the Honduran lady kneeling. At the top of the stairs he came into the biggest, whitest kitchen he had ever seen. It wasn’t a kitchen, it was a department store.

Ignacio tracked the sound of fierce growling to a living room. It wasn’t a living room, it was a cathedral with teardrop chandeliers and an immense fireplace. It had enough lavish ornamentation to put Michelangelo to shame. In front of the fireplace, Don Ignacio made out a blur of movement, gleaming deadly sharp canine teeth and Candelaria’s legs kicking. The black dog’s teeth tore at her clothes and its jaws lunged at her neck. Don Ignacio tried to wrench the neck of the dog. The young Salvadoran woman screamed and pushed ineptly against the dog with her fists. Don Ignacio grabbed a fireplace shovel and struck the side of the Doberman’s large head. Once, twice the shovel clanged. The dog staggered and fell to the buff-colored shag.

“Vamonos,” said Don Ignacio. “Let’s beat it.”

Candelaria trembled. She ran her fingers along where the dogs’ fangs had drawn blood in the soft neck flesh. Red fluid came off on her fingertips. Don Ignacio went to a French window. He turned the handle, didn’t work. He tried three others.

“This dog is going to wake up soon,” he warned. “It’s got an appetizer and it’ll be back for the main meal.”

The doors and windows were all secured. Outside, beyond a picture glass window beckoned a rose garden, the flowers dripping dew diamonds. He took a vase from a coffee table and hurled it; the glass shattered. Outside lay freedom.

“What are you waiting for?” Ignacio snapped. Candelaria looked dumbly. “Did you leave your papers?”

His arm hurried her along.

“And all those people in the basement?”

“Let’s beat it while we’ve got a chance.”

(to be continued)

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Hollywood humorist Grady grew up in the heart of Steinbeck Country on the Central California coast. More Bombeck than Steinbeck, Grady Miller has been compared to T.C. Boyle, Joel Stein, and Voltaire. He briefly attended Columbia University in New York and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, but discovered literature instead, in T.C. Boyle’s fiction writing workshop at USC. In addition to A Very Grady Christmas, he has written the humorous diet book, Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet and the popular humor collection, Late Bloomer (both on Amazon) and its follow-up, Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood. (https://amzn.to/3bGBLB8) His humor column, Miller Time, appears weekly in The Canyon News (www.canyon-news.com)