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Father Stephen Stokes saw a police jeep parked in front of the tackle shop and felt a guilty knot in his gut, remembering that his business here in Mexico was illegal. Only technically illegal, Mario had promised, but Mario’s disregard for earthly law was legendary.
The desert heat had built mightily by noon, and Stephen regretted sleeping so long. It was after two when he finally left behind the stuccos and candy pastels of the fishing village and began struggling up into the baking sierra.
Every couple of hairpin turns, a cool turquoise wedge of the Sea of Cortez came into view, smaller each time. When the water vanished from sight for good, it seemed as though he’d lost touch with the only friendly face around. He would not see another until he reached the crumbling Spanish mission at the heart of Mario’s rural parish. No official-looking vehicles followed his tiny rented Daihatsu, but still he felt watched.
"Get yourself to L.A.," Mario had told him, "and take a charter flight to a place called San Marcos in south Baja. Find a boat and stay in it until you hook something larger than a triggerfish for dinner, then rent a car and come up the hill." But Stephen was anxious to see the unpublished scraps of colonial history that had pulled him nearly two thousand miles down the map, so he had decided to skip the fishing part of those instructions. And then there had been the police jeep – not just soldiers at a highway checkpoint, but actual police. There was no reason to think the jeep’s appearance had anything to do with him, but that rack of lights and the shrill, two-tone paint job had helped give him a quick shove out of town.
Now Mario’s "hill" had turned out to be a mountain range, and the unpaved road would not let him drive fast enough to feel a breeze or to outrun his own dust cloud. It took five hours to travel seventy miles.
He reached the MisiÃ³n Santa Cruz del Sur without much daylight to spare. Its front wall of gray and black volcanic rock stretched up as bleak as the side of a medieval fort, adorned only by two wind-eroded stone crosses. The stubby bell tower looked like a turret. Another tier of mountains rose beyond, but the road ended here, at the mission’s yawning arched doorway.
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