SATURDAY, 25 MAY
Luis Ojeda scanned his binoculars along the rusty sixteen-foot fence to the dirt road’s visible ends. Nothing. A dead floodlight at the curve over the arroyo left a patch of twilight in the line of artificial day. The lights on either side leached all color from the night.
The patrol was late. He’d been out here face-down in the dirt for over an hour, waiting for the right time. These desert mountains turned cold after sunset, even this late in a nasty-hot May. He was prepared for it. Army field jackets and winter-weight ACU trousers like he wore now got him through January in the ‘Stan all those years ago. He could wait all night. Usually, the travelers couldn’t.
He glanced downslope over his shoulder. Five brown faces stared back at him, their eyes glowing orange in the floodlights’ glare. This run’s travelers. Each wore a backpack holding everything they could bring with them from their old life to their new one.
The young mother lay at the group’s left edge. Her dark anime eyes stared at him from under a road-weary hoodie. Her little girl—four, maybe five tops—pressed her face into her mom’s shoulder, the woman’s hand wound through her tangled black hair. Luis usually tried not to bring kids this young, but they had nobody else anymore, and when Luis looked into the girl’s eyes he saw his daughter at that age, scared, sad and trusting. So here they were.
Back to the binoculars. Dust shimmered in the floods to the west, then a whip antenna, then a tan cinder block on wheels crawled up the rise. The BRV-O’s six-cylinder diesel clattered off the rocks around them. It swung around the dogleg over the arroyo, chunked along at around fifteen, then trundled east.
Two men heaved out. Tan utilities, helmets with no covers, desert boots: contractors. Mierda. They strolled back the way they’d come, M4s slung across their chests, hands resting on the grips. One lit a cigarette. They stopped at the edge of the pool of dark to look up the pole.
The one not smoking leaned into the radio handset on his shoulder. Then he turned to look straight at Luis.
Luis became a rock. The guard was probably half-blind from the light; Luis doubted the guy could see him in the semi-dark, even if he knew someone was out here. Chances were the gringo was going to take a leak. Then the guard’s hand went for the tactical goggles hanging around his neck.
As the guard seated the goggles over his face, Luis went flat. As long as he didn’t move, his infrared-suppressing long johns and balaclava would defeat the goggles’ thermal vision and make him fade into the petrified sand dune under him.
The travelers didn’t have that gear. Luis peered back into the dark. All five travelers should be shielded by the ridge, but “should” didn’t mean shit if the guard caught the bright-green return of a warm human body on his scope. If he did, they’d all find out at 2900 feet per second.
The area around them hushed, letting the little sounds fade forward. The breeze rattled the creosote and pushed pebbles around. Luis could hear the contractors’ voices—an off note in the wind—the shush of rubber boot soles on gravel, his heart going crazy, his sweat plopping on the sand.
Fucking contractors. Border Patrol agents had a code, they were civilized, they had to be nice and usually were. These contractor assholes shot people for fun, the way he had in the ‘Stan before Bel reformed his sorry, angry ass. A month ago, these idiotas were probably losing hearts and minds in the Sudan with every full magazine. Now they were doing the same thing here.
A whimper. Luis cranked his head back to check the kid. She squirmed, a little dark bundle rocking against a dark background. The mom forced her daughter’s face tighter against her shoulder. Her big, terrified eyes found Luis.
Chill, he told himself. Be the rock. The travelers could smell fear. If he was calm, they’d be calm; if he stressed, they’d scatter like sheep. He tried to smile back at the mom, hard as it was to do with crosshairs on them all.
Boots scuffed gravel at his ten o’clock, then at nine. Voices mumbled a few yards off. Somewhere out there, the sound of a huge mosquito buzzed the border. Had they called in a drone? If they had, game over. Dirt lodged in Luis’ nose and mouth, ants crawled on his right hand, something sharp dug into his hip. Twenty-plus years after Afghanistan and here he was in the same shit, just with different players. Be the rock.
A laugh. Then the night exploded.
The first bursts were recon-by-fire, looking for what came bouncing out of the dark. Disciplined soldiers know to hunker down and wait it out, but the travelers weren’t soldiers, and they weren’t disciplined. Two of the men broke and ran the instant bullets sprayed off the ridge top. Luis yelled “Get down!” but it was too late. He jerked his face back into the sand at the next burst, but not before he saw a runner throw up his hands and fall face-first.
The little girl started screaming. Her mother’s eyes went all white and she tried to stuff her sleeve into the kid’s mouth, but the girl wouldn’t stop shrieking. Bullets churned the dirt in front of them.
¡Mierda! ¡Chingado! “Don’t do it!” Luis hissed to her. “Stay there!” His voice sounded like he’d huffed helium. He didn’t care if he drew fire as long as that pretty young mom with that sweet little girl kept her head down—
The woman bolted.
He screamed “No!” and before he could think, he was charging toward her. More shots. Dirt kicked up around his feet. A line of bullets tore across the woman’s back, each one marked by a splat of blood. She let out a little “Ah!” and went down hard.
A burning-hot something slammed into his back, knocked him ass-over-heels down the slope and hijo de perra, it hurt. He spit out the sand he’d eaten and rolled onto his back. A bloody hole in his chest on his right side, a weird noise when he breathed, pain when he did anything.
Luis tried to catch the breath running away from him, but it was hard and it hurt and he wanted to just lie there. Little sharp spikes of fear stabbed at him. The gunshot echoes faded away into the breeze. Those animals up there would come out to see what they’d shot. If they found him they’d arrest him, or maybe just shoot him again. Or they’d call in a gunship drone and kill anything bright green. Any way this went down, he’d never see his wife or son or home again. That thought hurt worse than being shot.
He wrenched his head to his right. The mother and her child lay roughly twenty feet away, two dark, still shapes against the sand. You cabrones, he fumed. You killed a baby.
Or had he killed her by bringing her here? Get away. Think later.
The oldest traveler—slight, late fifties, his hair mostly gone to silver—took Luis’ hand in both of his. He had dark smears on his face and upper arm. “Mister? We go.”
Go? Luis could hardly breathe. He waved toward the lights and fence. “You go. Keep heading south. Mexico’s that way, you can still make it. Go down the arroyo, through the culvert. Understand?”
The old man nodded. The floodlights glimmered in his eyes as he looked toward the two dark shapes just upslope. He’d protected and comforted them even though they weren’t blood.
“I’m sorry,” Luis said.
The old man nodded again and shook Luis’ hand hard. “As-salaam alaykum.”
Then he was gone.
Luis managed to get two magnesium flares out of his pack. They might blind the guards long enough for him to get over the next rise and for the old Arab to make it down the arroyo to safety. Just before he popped the first flare, his eyes snagged on the mom and her daughter. So small, so dark, so still. Another bad picture to add to his collection.
This used to make sense. This used to feel worthwhile. He used to be able to tell himself it was worth the risk to stand up to the locos who’d wrecked his country and caused all this—risk to himself, to his family, to the travelers. But the camps filled and spread. It was all so futile, not worth that little girl’s death, or his own.
If you let me live, he told the sky, I’ll stop. I’m done.
The U.S. ranks 103rd in the 2032 Corruption Perception Index, one below Madagascar and far below all its OECD peers. Gross underfunding of government at all levels, elimination of public-sector pensions, and widespread contracting of public services to unscrupulous private firms, has led to an epidemic of corruption reminiscent of Russia under the late Vladimir Putin.
-- “Release of the 2032 CPI,” Transparency International
FRIDAY, 30 APRIL
TWO YEARS LATER
TWO YEARS LATER
Luis opened Coast Conversions’ front office at six-thirty to give the techs time to set up for the day’s work. One of them—Tyler— already waited outside, as usual. He was one of two who lived in a former self-storage place three blocks away. “Where’s Earnes?” Luis asked.
“Angels Stadium. The free clinic.” Tyler limped through the door, stowed his pistol behind the counter, then passed into the shop and started turning on lights and compressors. Fluorescents glinted off shiny SUVs and luxury sedans at each station, waiting for their armor and ballistic glass.
Luis began to ready the front office for what he hoped would be the morning rush. A full shop and one man down. Great. Earnes could be waiting in line all day to get into that Doctors Without Borders clinic. Luis would have to ding him a day’s pay, too, something he hated to do.
That was the downside of managing this place: having to knock heads without being able to hand out rewards. The upside? Routine. Safety. Some thought “same shit, different day” was a curse. For Luis, it meant not having to cross deserts or climb mountains. Not being chased or shot at. Not having people’s lives in his hands—and fumbling them.
He leaned against the doorway, watched Tyler make his rounds through the work stations. “How’re you doing? Leg okay?”
Tyler left half a leg in Yemen. All five of Luis’ techs were vets; they had good work habits, and it was the only way to get guys with mechanical and metalworking skills now that most community colleges were closed and the unions were long gone. Luis made it a point to hire guys out of flops or Ryantowns. A down payment on karma? He hoped he’d never find out.
The strip lights cast shadows on Tyler’s hollow eyes and cheeks. He worked full-time and still didn’t eat enough. Like everywhere else, the pay here was shit even for Luis, and he was the manager, but Xiao, the owner, wouldn’t cough up a cent more.
The door chime’s synthetic bing-bong broke Luis out of his thoughts. He called out “Not open yet” before he looked back over his shoulder. A cop swaggered to the counter. Mierda.
The cop—Schertzer, unfortunately a monthly regular—leaned an elbow on the blue laminate countertop, chewed on his gum. “How’s it hanging, Ojeda?”
“You’re two days early,” Luis growled as he stalked to the counter.
Schertzer shrugged. “So call a fucking cop. You got it?”
It wasn’t like this steroid-square cucaracha was a real policeman, just one of the contractors the city pretended was a police force. Dark-blue utilities, black tac vest, jump boots: all Luis saw was a school-crossing guard with a gun.
“Yeah.” Luis opened the lockbox with his key, pulled out a white envelope, and slapped it into Schertzer’s outstretched hand. La mordida, El Norte style. “Now get out.”
The cop waggled the envelope to get the feel of it. Apparently satisfied, he shoved it into the patch pocket on his right thigh. “The widows and orphans appreciate your money, Ojeda.” He smirked, then turned toward the doors and waved over his shoulder. “A-dios.” He stopped with his hand on the push bar, looked back. “By the way, a road crew’s coming through in a couple days. They’ll want their cut, too.”
“They’re finally going to pave the street?”
The cop shook his head, bottling up a laugh. “Shit, no. They’ll get their taste, you know how it goes. That’s why I’m early, make sure we get what’s coming to us. See you soon.”
Luis watched Schertzer ooze off to the right, no doubt to collect his bite from the other garages and workshops along this light-industrial strip off Newport Boulevard. He’d bled money into these pendejos for years. He’d run across people like Schertzer in Mexico and the ‘Stan, but it burned his gut to see them in this county. It was easier for the kids; they weren’t old enough to remember when cops and fire marshals and road crews weren’t all on the take.
He sighed. That was old-timer talk. “There goes the lowest bidder,” he said to himself.
Luis glanced up from taking a customer’s payment to catch Ray’s face outside the window. Ray raised his hand; Luis nodded to him.
The customer—a big-busted Newport Beach trophy blonde in tiny clothes—paid up and wiggled off with her bodyguard to claim her husband’s newly up-armored Range Rover. Ray turned to watch her go, then let out a long breath through pursed lips as he ambled through the front doors. He was a big, square outline against the morning sun. His thumbs hooked in the pockets of fashionably tight, white churidar slacks, their calves stacked just so over expensive new designer boots. Just like he’d stepped out of a vidboard ad, if those models had faces that looked more Aztec than conquistador. A long way from his old caballero style.
Ray gave Luis his crooked smile. “Hey, hermano. All your customers look like that?”
“Enough do.” He shook Ray’s hand, which felt like a brake drum. “Oye, compa. Long time. How’s it going?”
Ray rocked his hand side-to-side. “About normal. How’s Bel?”
Luis shrugged. “Fine. The usual.”
“Nacho hanging in?”
Nacho—Luis’ son Ignacio—was a Marine on his first deployment to Sudan. “Yeah, he’s okay. The stories he tells me, it’s like what we did in the ‘Stan.”
“Never ends, does it?” Ray’s dark dataspecs scanned the office’s lights and corners. The gray that used to be in his hair was gone now. “Have any bug problems in here lately?”
“Stopped getting it swept two years ago.” They weren’t talking about the six- or eight-legged kind. Luis used to have to worry about those things; no more, thank God. He peered closer at the corners of Ray’s nose and mouth. “Are you taking tighteners?”
“A couple months now, yeah. Like it?” Ray turned his face to let the strip lights flash off his shiny, smoother skin. “You could do with some too, hermano.”
First he’d lost his tattoos, now this. “Can’t afford them. Besides, I like looking like a grownup.”
Ray shrugged. “Look, the boss wanted me to talk to you. He’s got a job for you.”
Luis put up his hands. “Save it. I’m out, remember?”
“I know, I know. He told me to ask, so I’m asking.” Ray leaned in, laid a hand on Luis’ shoulder. “This job, it’s a special one, you know? Some good coin. Check it out.” He tapped the phone pod on his left ear.
A few moments later, the store slate peeped. Luis brought up the email, then the attached picture. A studio portrait: a dark-haired man and woman, two cute kids, nice clothes, healthy-looking. The guy could almost pass for Latino, but the woman had the sharp features of a high-caste Arab. After fifteen seconds, the picture dissolved into empty black, literally blown to bits.
“Which one?” Luis asked. “The guy or gal?”
“All four. Told you it was special.”
That was strange. Back when he was in that business, Luis moved a lot of older people and young women, since the young men were usually dead or in a camp. Still, not even the money got his interest. “No way. Besides, I thought you guys had some new kid doing that.”
“Federico? Yeah.” Ray planted his hands on the counter. “We did until he got dead a couple nights ago.” He leaned forward and dropped his volume. “The boss is pretty hot to move these people. He’ll make it worth your—”
“I said no.” Luis heard the heat in his own voice, backed off. “Even if I survive it, Bel will kill me.”
Ray smiled and straightened up. “Yeah, and probably me too right after.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Look, this puts me in a bind, you know? He asked for you specifically. Tavo trusts you. You maybe have some bargaining room here. At least say you’ll think about it.”
“Bargain? With a cartel sub-boss? Are you crazy?”
Luis noticed a gray Ford Santana parked across the street, screaming “surveillance.” Cops following Ray? Or were they after Luis because of Ray? Either way, he wasn’t going through all that again. He needed to care for his parents, help provide for his family. He’d already sacrificed enough for a lost cause.
“I’m not thinking about this. No. Do I need to spell that?”
Ray sighed, shook his head. “Tavo’s gonna be pissed.” He stuck out his hand. “Come down to the bar sometime. I never see you anymore. Salma misses you, too.”
And Luis missed them. But every time he went to visit Ray and his long-time girlfriend, Bel’s temperature dropped thirty degrees and Luis got frostbite. “Sure, compa,” he said as he shook Ray’s hand. “Soon.”
About the Author:
Lance Charnes has been an Air Force intelligence officer, information technology manager, computer-game artist, set designer, Jeopardy! contestant, and now an emergency management specialist. He’s had training in architectural rendering, terrorist incident response and maritime archaeology, but not all at the same time. Lance tweets (@lcharnes) on shipwrecks, scuba diving, archaeology and art crime.
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