Billy Wittenberg

Author headshot for Billy Wittenberg
A Murder on the Border formed in my mind over the course of nearly ten years. It filled my dreams, haunted my steps on the treadmill, and robbed my attention during meetings at work. Finally, in 2018, I decided I would write the story, if only to get it out of my head. Although I had always been interested in creative writing, I never pursued it. Knowing nothing of how to write a novel, I enrolled in online classes and wrote in whatever spare time I could find before work and on the weekends.

In April of 2020, I was laid off from my job as a Structural Designer in Houston due to the effects of the pandemic. This had the unintended benefit of granting me the time I needed to complete the book. Given the freedom to write unfettered, I worked at an almost fever pitch for two full months and finalized the manuscript in June 2020, just in time to submit to the Page Turner awards.

The heroine of A Murder on the Border, Maria, is based loosely on my mother. Both were born to impoverished families in Mexico, both spent time living in a catholic orphanage, and both immigrated to Texas where they became single mothers and illegal immigrants. Many of the anecdotes and plot points in the book were inspired by the stories she told me over the years. Thankfully, their stories diverge when it comes to the gangster ex-boyfriend, Victor, who comes looking for Maria. I added that bit.

I'm currently working as an internet marketer and querying the manuscript. My mother is in her 80's and lives in my home with my wife, two children, and two dogs. She is currently reading a copy of A Murder on the Border that I printed for her. She tells me she doesn't like Victor very much.
Award Category Finalist
Award Submission Title
A Murder on the Border
Logline
A pregnant orphan flees her violent boyfriend, who becomes obsessed with finding her and reclaiming his son.
My Submission
Here is an excerpt from the book. Maria is working on a farm harvesting corn alongside her new boyfriend, Kiki. They are leaving work one day when they are confronted by armed officers.

A Murder on the Border, excerpt from Chapter 18 -

Wispy clouds glowed pink and orange as dusk settled on the farm. Mosquitos returned to feeding, and the drone of cicadas filled the air. At 5 pm the workers stopped picking corn, gathered their belongings, and retreated to the barn. Before she joined them, Maria washed her face and scrubbed her hands under the water faucet. Red and purple bruises mottled the meat of her forearm. But the incident with Hernandez seemed a distant memory. Now all she cared about was getting back to Boy.

She turned the faucet over to the next person in line and continued to the barn, where she found Kiki and Ofelia talking. They had come to an understanding after some prodding from Maria. He promised not to mention the farm workers' union at work while Ofelia agreed to keep the peace off of it. Since then they had formed an ersatz family, riding the bus together to and from work.

Maria joined them and soon they and the rest of the workers streamed out of the farm to begin their journeys home. It surprised her to see Jock fall in behind the crowd and follow them to the entry gate. He whistled contentedly as he walked with his hands in his pockets. She thought no more of it until they reached the mouth of the driveway.

“Dios mío,” Ofelia gasped and halted in front of Maria. “Los rinches.”

Kiki stopped also and reached for Maria’s hand. She could not see what caught their attention, so she released Kiki’s grip and stepped around Ofelia. Several feet away, standing in front of the gathering crowd, were four lawmen wearing white cowboy hats, black jackets, and long black ties. Holstered pistols sat on their hips, and they eyed the workers through mirrored sunglasses. Behind them, two police cruisers sat parked perpendicular to the driveway, blocking the entrance. Maria heard a metallic clang and looked behind her. Jock had swung the iron gate shut and propped one foot on the bottom bar. He rested an elbow over the top bar and watched them in silence.

“C’mon ‘round here,” said one lawman, waving the back of the crowd to come closer. “Let me see ya.” He was older than the others, with silver hair and spectacles. He placed a lit cigar in his mouth and folded his arms over his round belly. His sagging jowls crinkled as he shifted the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.

Ofelia stepped forward slowly, muttering a prayer and clutching her cross pendant. Kiki gulped and stood rigid, making Maria afraid he might run. To where? They should do as the officers said. She reached for his hand and urged him forward. He glanced at her and back at the police and licked his lips. But another tug on his hand convinced him to follow her lead. They trailed the rest of the crowd as everyone lined up in front of the lawmen.

“Mm-hm, tha’s righ,” the man said through his clenched cigar. When all the workers were still, he scissored the cigar between his index and middle fingers and removed it from his mouth. “First off, y’all aren’t in trouble. Alrigh’? We’re not here to arrest anyone. I jus’ wanna have a friendly conversation. Alrigh’?” He waved and punched the air as he spoke, with the cigar trailing ashes along the way.

One of the other lawmen translated his words into Spanish. The workers listened and nodded. Ofelia shifted audibly and muttered thanks to God. Even Kiki’s grip loosened in Maria’s hand.

“Alrigh’,” the older officer said and sucked on the cigar. He exhaled a plume of acrid smoke that made a woman in front of him cough. “Ya’ll can call me Captain Talley. Or just sir. Your choice. These are my men,” he said, pointing to the lawmen standing next to him. “That’s Charlie ovah there. The one speaki’ ehspahnyol is Antonio. We call him Tony.” Each man nodded in turn. “This one here we call Chief on account of his Indian features.”

What Indian features? The man was pale white with short brown hair and towered over everyone else.

“The reason I’m here is on account of an incident that occurred this afternoon. I don’t think y’all need remindin’ what the incident was,” he said and paused to look the crowd over. “Anyway, Jock and I go back a long ways. We played ball together at Weslaco High. Been friends all our life. He’s good people.”

As Tony translated Chief Talley’s words, the workers all glanced at Jock standing at the gate behind them. Jock nodded once but said nothing.

“So, he called me a little bit ago and asked me to come have words with y’all. He don’t want any more unhappy folks like that other fella. That fella said some unkind things. Mean things. Now, don’t get me wrong, we got the 1st amen’ment here. You can say whatever you wan’. But jus’ so y’all know, that doesn’t include on private property.” Chief Talley squinted and frowned. “Jock gives y’all steady work and pays good ol’ American dollars. All y’all gotta do is work hard. Tha’s not bad, is it? It’s better than what you got back home, isn’ it?” He sucked on the cigar for a long moment as Tony translated. The woman in front of him stepped aside before he spewed another toxic cloud.

Maria nodded once but stopped when she noticed Kiki looking at her. He sympathized with the strikers. Even worked with them. He probably didn’t like what Captain Talley was saying.

“And if you wanna start trouble and go on strike, well…” his voice trailed off as he shook his head. “This civil rights business… that’s the doggondest thing I ever heard of. Colored folk sitting down on the job, refusin’ to work for an honest day’s pay. Psh,” he exhaled with a sour face. “Look, if any y’all wanna strike,” he said and stepped aside with one arm motioning towards the highway, “go on ahead. I won’ stop you. Go strike all you want. But if you do, don’t come back. Because Jock don’t want you. Find work somewhere else.” He put the cigar in his mouth and waited.

Maria felt a tug on her hand. Kiki was looking at her with narrowed eyes. He nodded towards the road and tugged on her hand again. He wanted to leave. The thought chilled Maria’s blood. She shook her head and frowned. She needed this job. Boy needed this job. If the empty highway was their only option, then they had no options. She pulled on his hand and he glared at her. His ears reddened and he snorted and for a moment Maria thought he might leave. Her heart quickened at the thought. He was her constant defender. One of the few men she had ever known that she could truly depend on. She didn’t just want him in her life, she needed him. She tugged on his hand once more and stared into his eyes. He released her hand and Maria’s heart sank. But instead of walking away, he closed his eyes and sighed. He stepped back towards her and wrapped one arm around her shoulder. She clutched his hand and exhaled.

“Nobody?” Captain Talley continued. “Good. Tha’s the right choice. Cause people talk roun’ here. Word gets out you one of them strikers… well, you might have a hard time findin’ another job.”

He pulled back his jacket and rested his right hand on his holster. A silver badge with a star in the center hung on his breast pocket. Maria squinted at the text surrounding the star. The top read ‘Dept. of Public Safety’ and the bottom read ‘Texas Rangers’.

“I’m real happy to hear y’all are good people too,” he continued. “Y’all are good, hard-working people who don’t like to cause trouble. Very happy,” he said while he sucked down the last of his dying cigar. He turned and blew out its final cloud toward the same woman who took the first blast of smoke. She winced and coughed and waved her hand in front of her face. “Cause I’ll tell ya, jus’ between us, if any of those strikers give me a hard time, if they dare lay a hand on my deputies,” he flicked the cigar to the pavement and smashed it under his boot, “I’ll shoot them quick as I’d step on a cockroach,” he said and drummed his fingers on his pistol’s handle.

Maria wrapped her arm around Kiki and held him tight. She didn’t want him to follow that path. Ever.

“Y’all go home now. Have a good night’s sleep.” The Ranger captain stepped aside and waved his deputies to do the same. “Come back bright and early tomorrow mornin’.”

Maria didn’t wait for Tony’s translation. She pulled on Kiki’s hand and walked forward. She nodded at Ofelia to join them. Together they eased past Captain Talley. The man reeked of tobacco and sweat. He looked her in the eyes and tipped his hat.

“G’night miss.”

The crowd quickly dispersed as they got the translated news. A few rode past Maria on bicycles while others followed her on foot to the bus stop. Before they escaped earshot, she heard one last statement from Captain Talley.

“If y’all know any strikers, tell ‘em what I said!”

Comments

Suzanne Smart Sat, 09/19/2020 - 15:09

Billy, it’s so apparent why this was fighting to be created! Its haunting, ethereal aura is very mature (having fermented for 10 years, no doubt)! The very best wishes to you for the next stage.