The Greed by Scott Bergstrom is the second book in the Cruelty series—a high-stakes, action-packed YA thriller where Gwendolyn Bloom faces even greater danger from the men who hunt her (available February 6, 2018).
Gwendolyn Bloom is dead.
But even armed with a new passport and identity, the danger is far from over. Her father is safe … but Gwen still hasn’t untangled all his lies from the truth. Meanwhile, her enemies are closing in with a vengeance.
She found her father when he disappeared off the face of the earth―can she survive being on the other end of a manhunt?
Judita ignores the ghost of her reflection in the window—reflection is, in general, something to be avoided these days. She focuses instead on the figures four floors below her, a pair of lunch-hour lovers strolling along the Playa de los Pocitos, carrying their shoes as they walk barefoot in the sand. They pass an old man standing on the shore, who casts a fishing line through the air that catches the light and makes a silver arc, like a blade made of wire, before disappearing against the backdrop of water that’s brown as chocolate milk.
Judita’s bare arms, burnt from too much sun, prickle with the cold of air-conditioning set too low. It feels luxurious, and she eyes the white leather couch with the silk pillows and wonders what it would be like to take a nap there. She does not sleep much these days, and when she does, never well. But there’s no time for a nap anyway when there’s so much work to do.
There’s a party about to start. At the dining room table behind her—a heavy slab of dark wood, legs as thick as an elephant’s—a dozen china plates are surrounded by eight pieces of silverware each. Chafing dishes cover a sideboard, and the room smells of something foreign and delicious.
“There you are,” a woman calls out in English. Her eyes tell Judita she’s angry with her for stepping beyond the entryway where she was to wait, but the woman smiles anyway because she’s American and smiling is what Americans do, even when they’re angry. The work ID from a soft drink–bottling company dangles on a lanyard around the woman’s neck as she fishes through her purse. Her hand comes out with a pair of 500-peso notes, not quite enough to cover the bill, much less leave anything for a tip. “Your man shorted me on the salad. Do you understand, dear?”
Judita blinks at her. “Sorry,” she says with difficulty. “My English, only little.”
“Te olvidó ensalada,” the woman says with a grimace, as if the Spanish words hurt her teeth. “I have people here in two hours. So who gets salad and who doesn’t? Tell me, please. I’d really like to know.”
Judita tries to follow the logic of her statement, then shrugs.
The woman sighs as she hands Judita the money. “I won’t pay for something I didn’t get. There’s enough there to cover everything else.” She pinches the bridge of her nose and squeezes her eyes shut, the whole world today a torture.
Judita looks at the money, looks at the woman.
“Next time maybe you’ll check the order,” she says, and gestures toward the door. “Really, you people.”
* * *
Judita pedals her bicycle toward the Old Town along the boulevard that skirts the Río de la Plata. She’s faster now without the woman’s order from the restaurant hanging from the handlebars and striking her knees with every turn of the pedals. If she hurries, she’ll be back to the restaurant in thirty minutes. But it’s a hot February afternoon, the dead of summer, and the humidity is so thick she can see it. Better to go slow.
The traffic is heavy, but Judita is agile and practiced and weaves between the battered Fiats and new Geelys in bright orange and green that look to her like toy versions of real cars. A truck groans and lurches forward, coating Judita in a cough of black diesel smoke. She grabs hold of a handle on the back and rides for a time, coasting along beside the truck until she breaks free and heads north toward the Plaza Independencia.
It’s tourist season, and the Old Town is thick with pink skin and sandals and expensive cameras worn around necks. From the snatches of conversations she overhears as she blurs past them on her bicycle, it’s mostly Brits today, a soft, older crowd. They snap pictures of the local kids who mug for the cameras and then hold their hands out. It’s quaintness and poverty the tourists are looking for, and what luck finding it amid the charming buildings of the Old Town just a ten-minute walk from the pier. When a good ship is in port, the very boldest children can make maybe a hundred pesos a day.
To avoid the slow throngs ahead of her, Judita takes a left and cuts down a street so narrow she can touch the buildings on both sides if she stretches her arms out. In the heat of the day, the passage smells like piss and roasting meat.
Ahead of her, a woman with frizzy, pinned-up blond hair looks down at a pair of kids, ten or twelve years old. They’re hassling her, arguing with her in Spanish, while she replies in English. The knot they form blocks the narrow street, and Judita swings one leg over the back of the bicycle and coasts with the other foot still on the pedal.
The woman is clutching her purse tightly to her chest, but the boys are undeterred and wily. One of them reaches up and touches her earring, and when she swats his hand away, the other yanks the purse free. The pair dash down the alley in Judita’s direction as the woman’s scream bounces off the stone walls.
Judita steps down off the bicycle and, as the boy holding the purse is about to pass, extends her leg. The boy lands in a sprawl on the cobblestones, sending the purse flying. The other makes a move for it, but Judita’s reflexes are faster, and she snatches it up. The boys glare at her, and the one she tripped says something about a skinned knee and how she’d better watch her back. They take off down the alley and disappear around the corner.
The tourist woman is still paralyzed with shock as Judita holds out the purse to her, and it takes her a full ten seconds to understand it’s being returned. When she takes her purse back, she does so carefully, as if the thing were now toxic. “Thank you,” she says in English. Then, self-consciously, “Gracias.” In her expression, Judita can see a reflection of herself: stained T-shirt, skin coated in sweat and diesel grime. The woman opens the purse, takes out a 20-peso note, and hands it to her, taking care that their hands do not touch.
* * *
Judita pulls the bicycle through the back door and into the kitchen of the restaurant, leaning it against the wall next to the big refrigerator where the steaks and lamb and vegetables are kept—the very finest in all of Uruguay, or so Judita tells the tourists from the ships that dock just a few blocks away. Emmanuel, at the grill, gives Judita a look. He knows he shorted her on the salad, tomatoes and cucumbers being pricey this year, and he hopes she won’t bitch about it. But Judita won’t bitch, grateful as she is to have the job. Emmanuel is sleeping with Mariela, the owner, and his opinion of people matters.
Tying an apron around her waist, Judita starts through the kitchen doors to the floor, but Mariela stops her. Mariela is tall and thick and wears too much makeup and the customers find her terribly sexy. She brushes her red hair behind her ear and smiles the way she does. “You’re filthy,” she says. “Wash up first.”
Judita nods and hands Mariela the money from the delivery. Even though it comes up short, Mariela gives her back a handful of pesos anyway. “Americans,” she says. “Always teaching the world a lesson.”
In the little lavatory where the cooks sometimes go to smoke weed, Judita scrubs at her hands and arms and face with gritty powder soap and avoids looking in the little mirror until she has to. Her face is lean and hard—“unwelcoming” is the way she’s heard it put. Her brown eyes are drills that tend to make people look away. She has to practice her smile more, the other servers say, which will lead to better tips. In the absence of a brush, she combs her ink-black hair with her fingers and fastens it with a rubber band into a short ponytail. The ponytail keeps the hair out of her eyes so she can see. And Judita must see everything. Must stay constantly aware.
* * *
The restaurant is noisy and crowded with a ravenous, barbarous crowd of British tourists smacking their lips over the slabs of nearly raw beef and lamb and calling out, “Girl! More wine, por favor.”
Judita got this job because of her crude, utilitarian English. She keeps it because she’s fast and can balance the trays of food on one hand and doesn’t ever say no to Mariela or anyone else. She is always willing to swap shifts, or clean the vomit off the bathroom floor, or make the deliveries to the other side of town.
From four in the afternoon until one in the morning, she’s on her feet, sweating, moving quickly from the broiling kitchen to the too many tables she covers. There are propositions and ass grabs and spilled wine on her tattered sneakers, but Judita works at her smile and says no problem and takes it all until Mariela shoos the last drunken customers out the door and locks it behind them.
Everyone cleans up, swabbing the toilets, putting the chairs up on the tables, then gathers at the bar. A few light cigarettes while Gustavo the bartender pours glasses of leftover wine for everyone. Judita drains her glass quickly, and Gustavo pours her another, which she also drains quickly. In exhausted silence, they count out the night’s money, hoping the cash in their pockets works out to a little more than the total of the checks. They pool whatever’s left and Gustavo is entrusted to divide it equally among them—servers, busboys, cooks. There’s not all that much, usually. Maybe 200 pesos for each of them. Only the Americans ever tip big. It’s what they’re known for, and the servers fight over who gets their table. All the servers except Judita, who always graciously allows someone else to take the Americans.
After the money is counted, Mariela emerges from the kitchen with parcels of food. Everyone goes home with something, and for most of them, including Judita, it makes up the lion’s share of their diet. The orders that were sent back are the best because they’re mostly untouched. But no one is very picky. The half-eaten rice from table 10 and the almost-intact lamb chop from table 14 are bundled up in newspaper and carried home to waiting mouths. A woman with five children and a bedridden husband gets all the bones, which she boils for soup stock and sells at the market on Saturday mornings. As for the wine, the kind or vintage doesn’t matter. Everything left over goes into the pails kept behind Gustavo’s bar. Red mixes with white, Malbec mixes with Pinot. While the rest clean up, Gustavo funnels all the pails into the night’s empty bottles. Whole families, whole neighborhoods, get drunk this way.
Judita tucks a parcel of food and a few bottles of wine into her backpack. Her bus doesn’t come until 2:17, so she takes her time walking through what there is of nighttime Montevideo. Most of the city shuts down early, but this stretch, near the terminal from where her bus departs, only crawls out of bed at midnight. Bars and nightclubs and brothels are at their fullest and noisiest. The stink of weed hangs like a smelly ghost over the street. Judita doesn’t mind, though, so long as the city leaves her alone.
She makes her way down to Piedras and keeps her eyes low, her posture meek, just a girl heading home from work. Which is all Judita is, all she aspires to be. The British ship is evidently lingering in port until morning—a problem with the radio, she heard someone at the restaurant say—giving the more adventurous passengers a chance to experience a night of fun in naughty, libertine Uruguay. A loud argument erupts between groups of men, and Judita knows it will escalate into a fight before long. Someone else trips on the root of a tree jutting through the sidewalk and laughs with blood running down his chin. Judita ignores it all and adjusts her backpack, heavy with the night’s haul of food and wine.
“How old are you?” a voice calls out in English. Not drunk, not yet. Just loud.
Judita doesn’t reply. Perhaps the question isn’t meant for her, but it’s best to ignore it even if it is. Then she hears it again: “How old are you?” The man who says it—short-sleeved golf shirt tucked into khaki shorts over a bulging stomach—is too close for his question to be directed at anyone else. He starts walking beside Judita.
He’s nearing fifty, heavy through the middle, weirdly narrow in his face. Judita sees he’s carrying a camera, a good one. “Again say?” Judita asks in her uncertain English.
“I was asking your age,” he says. “Sixteen?”
A flash of something crosses Judita’s face for less than a second, as if a foul-smelling memory came to her. She smiles and hurries on. But the man stays at her side all the way to the corner where she has to wait as a bus groans past.
He steps closer. “I guessed it, didn’t I?” he says. “Sixteen.”
“Yes,” she lies. “What you want?”
“We could find a hotel, maybe, but I’m not a snob about it. Anywhere is fine. Two hundred pesos.”
She closes her eyes and breathes in deeply, pushing something down inside her. “Two hundred pesos for what?” she asks.
“You know. Keep each other company for a time.”
Easy money. Money Judita needs. She asks herself: How hard can it be? “Five hundred pesos,” she says.
She meets his eyes. “Show me.”
He lets out a nervous laugh as he glances around, then moves his hands to the fly of his shorts.
“No. Your money,” she says. “Half now.”
He pulls the wallet out of his back pocket and hands her a 100-peso note, wrinkled and dirty. But she also sees a fat sheaf of brightly colored British pounds. Crisp, new money. First World money. Pink and green and cream.
Judita tilts her head down the side street. “Come,” she says.
He follows her as she looks for someplace private.
“You’re pretty,” he says.
“Yes?” Judita says shyly. There’s a vacant lot between two buildings where piles of rubble from whatever stood here before were in the process of being hauled away. She steps from the sidewalk into dirt rutted with tracks, testing it with the toe of her sneaker to see if it’s mud. It’s not. “This way.”
“I was in Thailand last year,” the man says. “But the girls here are prettier, I think. At least you are.”
She turns and gives him a smile. A backhoe sits idly near the far side of the lot, like a sleeping monster, and she directs him to the space behind it, where it’s darker and out of sight from the street.
“You sure—you sure this is safe?” he asks. All shadow and stone here. Threats could be hiding anywhere.
“Oh, yes,” she says, coming up close to him, near enough to smell his nervousness. Blisters of sweat on the side of one soft cheek capture and magnify the ambient light. She removes the camera from around his neck and sets it on the backhoe’s track next to her backpack.
He makes a twitchy grin and unfastens his belt.
Judita drives her knee hard into his groin. The man pitches forward where she meets his chin with the butt of her hand and snaps his head back. Breath explodes from his mouth in a gasp as Judita’s free fist lands squarely in his kidney and he crumples to the ground.
She gives him a second to recover, expecting him to leap up, take a swing, but there’s no fight in this one, and instead he scrambles away from her on all fours in a manic crab walk. Even in the dark, Judita can see his wide, panicked eyes. She steps closer and he starts to say something, a plea, but he can’t find his words.
“Stand up,” Judita says.
“Take—take my camera,” he manages.
“I will,” Judita says. “Stand up.”
Slowly and with great effort, he does as he’s told.
“Fight me,” Judita says.
A flash of fresh terror lights up his face, but he takes a sloppy boxer’s stance, raising his arms into a defensive position, as if he’s remembering what he’s seen on TV. He’s never done this before, Judita guesses.
She drives a fist straight forward into his nose, the soft cartilage bending and crackling against her middle knuckle. He staggers backward and brings his hands to his face, just as the toe of Judita’s right sneaker lands hard on his left ear and sends him toppling onto the ground.
“I have pesos,” he shouts. “Pounds. British pounds.” He rolls over onto his back and pulls out his wallet. Judita snatches it from his hand. The sheaf of bills inside is pleasingly thick, and she pushes it into the pocket of her jeans. There’s more on him, though. She knows tourists never carry all they have in a wallet. There’s always a money belt or an emergency hundred in some sweaty crevice.
“The rest,” Judita says.
She swings her foot into his side, then reaches down and yanks his shirt up out of his shorts. Just a hairless, milk-colored stomach without a money belt. “The rest,” she repeats.
He struggles to reach his left foot and withdraws a folded 50-pound note from his sock. “All I have,” he says. “Really. All I have.”
The bill is wet but goes into Judita’s pocket with the rest anyway. She pins him down with one knee pressed into his bare stomach, then takes his camera from the track of the backhoe. The flash fires as she takes his picture, and on the screen a half second later, she sees the man’s face, a shining white moon of terror, creeks of blood running lazily from nose to mouth to chin. Her fingers work their way over the camera body until she finds the hatch for the memory card. “For you,” she says, dropping the card on his chest. “To remember your visit.”
Judita is gone a moment later, already out of the yard, already pushing the camera into her backpack with the food and the wine. She knows she can fence a nice Canon readily enough. Two thousand pesos, easy. His credit cards and especially his passport would have brought in even more, but that means he misses his boat tomorrow morning and Judita wants to make his exit as easy and free of police as possible. Not that she worries much about that—in the version he told the cops, she would become an entire knife-wielding gang of men. But Montevideo is a small town, and she doesn’t want to risk running into him. Running into people is one thing Judita does worry about.
Copyright © 2018 Scott Bergstrom.
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Scott Bergstrom is the author of the Cruelty YA thriller series, which includes The Cruelty and The Greed. He lives with his wife and daughters in Colorado.