Frank Cipriani’s house was what’s called Santa Fe style, a cross between 21st century Beverly Hills and 18th century Spanish America.
It had a flat roof and beige adobe bricks on the outside, Mexican tiles on the floors, and exposed piñon beams below a ceiling of latillas. Brazilian rugs, paintings and artifacts covered the floors and walls. “When I walk into your house, I feel like I’m in Rio or Sao Paolo,” Josh McClendon told his old friend and colleague. It was a classic, seemingly simple but in reality very expensive home.
Josh liked the look of Frank’s house but could never get comfortable there. Perhaps it was the hard Taos-style arm chairs with no cushions. Perhaps it was the weirdness of the spicy green chile wine that was the only alcohol Frank served.
The house and Frank, however, seemed a natural pairing, simultaneously real and fake. Frank’s Italian surname Cipriani was often mistaken for Brazilian or Portuguese. His powerful squat build and his olive skin, highlighted by large chunks of turquoise jewelry, reinforced the Latin impression, which Frank seldom discouraged.
Frank welcomed Josh with his usual warmth—an abrazo, a glass of green chile wine and a plate of biscochitos. “I’m glad you came,” Frank said as soon as Josh stepped in the doorway. “I was getting ready to call you. Something’s come up that I need to tell you about. Something urgent.”
Against the December chill, a piñon fire was blazing in the small fireplace. The adobe walls seemed to glow in light from the fire and several candles. It was classic Frank, who encouraged his friends to call him Franco. After 40 years of friendship, Josh still couldn’t separate the genuine from the fake in Frank’s personality.
Frank’s “something urgent” would have to wait. Josh, as was his way, stepped on his friend’s message. “Frank, whatever it is that’s on your mind, I’ve come to talk about Sandra Lopez.” Josh paused. “Or rather, about what happened to her. I’m struggling with this mystery. Yesterday, I found some of her clothes and boots nicely left in a pile in a small clearing in the Sandia Mountains. The clothes were in a highly visible spot just off La Luz Trail.”
“That’s the most popular hiking trail in the whole state,” Frank interjected.
“Yeah, so it’s reasonable to conclude her stuff was left there so it would be found.”
“You should take this information to the police,” Frank said. “Why come to me?
“I’ve a hunch you can help me.”
“If anyone would know anything about Sandra’s disappearance, it’d be you,” Frank said. “You are her boyfriend. I’m just, you know, your friend.”
“And her friend.”
“Of course, her friend, too. But I’ve known you longer and better.”
“Somehow, though, I get the sense you know something I don’t. Ever since we were in Brazil I’ve had the feeling that I’m kind of out of the loop and you aren’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s just a lot of little things that’ve been bothering me. At the time I didn’t think much about them, just let them slide, you know, but now I’m starting to put them together.”
“Remember when we finally caught up with the Brazilian gold miners working illegally on the indigenous reservation? You and she went off to talk to them and I stayed behind with the canoes and our equipment.”
“What of it? She was there to photograph them and I was the translator. We didn’t need a writer or a director at that point. And if you hadn’t stayed with our stuff, sure as anything it would’ve all disappeared into the jungle.”
“It made a lot of sense. That’s why I stayed. But I hadn’t counted on your being gone for two days.”
“I told you when we left I had no idea how long we’d be gone. And when I could, I sent a message back to you with one of the miners.”
“So at the time, I thought that everything’s OK. But later you acted strange and so did Sandra.”
“Distant. She didn’t talk to me much, and neither did you. We only talked about the movie and what we needed to do. Not how we felt about what we were doing, like we used to.”
“It’s natural we’d be preoccupied with the movie, the jungle, the gold mining.”
“But that was only the beginning. After we got back home, it got even stranger. Sandra moved out of my house without explaining why. And you completely disappeared.”
“I had to go back to Brazil. I told you that.”
“But you never said why. We’d just flown home when after two or three days you told me to finish editing the film by myself because you had to return to Sao Paolo. It made no sense to me at the time, and the more I’ve thought about it, the odder it all seems.”
“You’re making mountains out of molehills. I had to go back to Brazil. I got a summons from the president’s office. After all, I am also a Brazilian citizen and I can’t just ignore something like that.”
“I thought you were a U.S. citizen.”
“Both. I’m both. I thought I’d told you that.”
“Never. That’s not something I’d just absent-mindedly forget. It’s a big deal when we are making a movie about how the president is in cahoots with illegal gold miners. It’s a huge deal.”
Frank backtracked, abashed. “Sorry, Josh, I should’ve told you. You had a right to know. But I wanted us to go ahead with the film. I thought then and I still think it’s an important film. The world has a right to know what’s going on down there.”
“So what was so all-fired important that you had to race back to Brazil days after we’d just left the country and when we were just starting to edit the film?”
“Josh, I promised I would never discuss this—with you or anyone else. I gave the Brazilians my word and they promised me in return.”
“Promised you what?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Frank, we’ve known each other for 40 years. You’re my best friend. I’ve trusted you with my life. I’ve no secrets from you. You owe me something. Friends owe each other something. You can’t just all of a sudden change the terms of a lifelong friendship.”
Frank had nothing to say. He turned away from Josh. There were tears on his cheeks. His back still turned to Josh, his head lowered, he muttered, “I did it for you.”
“What do you mean? Did what for me?”
“Saved your life. And Sandra’s, too.” Frank walked away. He had no more to say.
“Frank, you’ve gotta explain. You can’t just leave it at that. It makes no sense. Save our lives from what? Why were our lives in danger? How did you save them?”
Angry at Josh’s persistence, Frank turned on him. “OK, Josh, you win! Here’s the story. You remember when Sandra and I left you to chase down the gold miners and interview them? Well, it turned our the chief of the miners was a cousin of the president’s wife, and he threatened us. He told us if Sandra didn’t stop filming him and didn’t destroy everything she’d already shot, he’d kill her.”
“Why just her? Why not you and me, too.”
“Like a lot of people he didn’t think a writer and an editor were worth spit. What mattered to him were pictures. It’s easy to dismiss words as lies. But pictures are another matter. I guess he didn’t know that pictures can lie as easily as words.”
“So what did you do?”
“We pretended to destroy our film. That stuff we threw away was all blank and we hid the real stuff. A bit of sleight of hand, and he fell for it. He wasn’t the smartest cookie around. But as we got ready to leave, he called us over one more time and said that if we told anybody—anybody at all, even you—he’d send his goons after Sandra. He said the president had thugs under diplomatic cover in the U.S., and he’d ask the president to order them to get her.”
“So you bowed to his threat and didn’t even tell me.”
“We kept the film. We made the documentary. We released it and told the world about the violence and cruelty and thuggery of the illegal gold miners. Do you call that bowing?”
“I see your point,” Josh conceded grudgingly, “but what happened to Sandra? Did they get her?”
“That’s why I flew back to Brazil and that’s why she disappeared. I gave his assistant all the money I could scrape together and he promised to let her live if she just, you know, disappeared, dropped off the face of the earth. He said he never wanted to hear about her again. And if he didn’t, he’d call off the goons.”
“And the pile of her clothes in the clearing in the Sandia Mountains?”
“That had nothing to do with the Brazilians. It was a message from her to you. You didn’t get it, but she was trying to tell you she was alive, and some day when all this blew over, she’d see you again.”
“And do you think she will?”
“Sandra told me to tell you something after you found out about all this. She said, ‘I’ve always walked alone. But it’s better with somebody you love.’”