About three years of my life had been spent like that. From the day Lilly told me goodbye, until the day I woke up in the alley that runs down the back of West Broad, behind the Chinese restaurant. The back of my head had been lumped up with something, maybe the wall of the Chinese restaurant, or maybe by someone.
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I buried the Mexican just after sundown. I can’t say much about the sort of man he was in life, but I can say he was a strong man in death.
The Moon has led my way and I’m on my way across the desert through Mexico of all places. What did they say, hide in plain sight? There I’m going to be. Already passed the border, and once I find a little border town I’ll find a small town to buy gasoline enough so I can reach South America.
I’ve played the events of the last week over and over in my head as I’ve driven. It still makes no sense to me at all. They say shit happens, we’ll sometimes it does, and I tell myself that’s exactly what happened here. Some shit decided to happen and I just happened to be there.
Is that a good way to look at it? An accurate analysis of the situation, as we used to say in group a few years back? Maybe, but I can’t help thinking that sometimes I must be part of making that shit happen because I find myself right in the middle of it too often.
Last Saturday night everything was fine in my world. Maybe a little boring, but whose world isn’t at least a little boring, right? Tonight I am burying one man and trying to count the people that wound up dead in the last week and I have to admit I lost track. Was it ten? More?
I am bone weary. I know what that means exactly now. I need sleep but I can’t stop for sleep, and even though I need it I doubt my brain would shut down long enough for me to get it. I just got to keep driving…
LAST SATURDAY EVENING
It was early. I had nothing better to do so I took a walk downtown just to take a look at the buildings. Thinking, as I walked, how just a few short years ago I had spent almost all of my time down there. Chasing a high, drunk or both. And sometimes a third thing: Taking a little comfort with the ladies. It all came back to me as I walked the streets.
About three years of my life had been spent like that. From the day Lilly told me goodbye, until the day I woke up in the alley that runs down the back of West Broad, behind the Chinese restaurant. The back of my head had been lumped up with something, maybe the wall of the Chinese restaurant, or maybe by someone.
Someone, I had decided as I began to blink the cobwebs away and felt carefully with my fingers. A lump only, no blood. Probably a closed fist…
Two feet away from me was a dead rat. A big dead rat, and a few even larger rats were breakfasting on him. And, suddenly, just like that, I was done. That gave me a clear message about the world. And I heard it.
Of course that didn’t mean I got off Scot free. There were many little things I’d done during my long slide, and it took time to fix those things. Rehab, jail for some bad checks I couldn’t remember. Bad teeth, health, bad ideas, depression, suicide, and finally a night where I felt strong enough to take a walk through the worst of my nightmares and see if I was truly over the drugs, the life, and the weaknesses that had led me there in the first place.
So that’s how I came to be there last Saturday evening. Getting my feet wet. Seeing how strong I was… Or wasn’t. And it turns out I was strong enough for the temptation of the streets but not for the bad habits I had picked up there. And that’s what got me… I cannot believe it has been only a week since all this started.
I had walked by the mouth of the alley twice and both times I saw the old Ford sitting there in the deep shadows… Heard the soft murmur of its engine running: Some guy and some girl, I thought or some guy with some guy… or boy who knows what. It was downtown. Shit like that happened all the time. They didn’t call this area the meat market for nothing, but I thought after the second time that this guy must be trying to set a record. He’d been there for fifteen minutes by my watch, not that it was my business, all the same fifteen minutes is a long time for a trick. Or to shoot up. Fifteen minutes could bring a cop. In the street world it was just too long for almost anything. In fifteen minutes you could get your thing on, your drug of choice, your sex of choice, cop that stolen watch, and be a half mile away and have forgotten all about that last little space of time. So why was this guy still there?
And that was the street part of me that was not gone. The street part of me that was still looking for trouble. And I found it…
The third time by, which was just a few minutes later, I was too curious. My evening had bought me some excitement. The drugs: I could see the flow all over the avenue. Easy to see if you knew what to look for. The ladies were calling too. I knew what that was about. I didn’t look at them like they were whores or something less than human. It was a line I couldn’t draw, had confused many times so I came back fast to see what this was. That Ford was calling.
I had stopped at the mouth of the alley. Same Ford. An old one; like a classic. Nice shape to. Maybe somewhere in the sixties, but I wasn’t good with cars like that. I only knew old, classic, nice looking.
Nobody around. Of course that didn’t mean there was no one in the car. I hesitated for only a second, and then walked quietly down the alley, staying in the shadows as I went.
As I stole silently up the driver’s side of the car I found the Mexican slumped over behind the wheel. Blood dripping down the side of his head. What looked like a 45 on the seat beside him. Another guy was slumped over into the floorboards on the passenger side: That one was dead for sure. A large, bloodless hole on one side of his chest. An even larger hole behind that shoulder I saw when I reached over to move him.
And why are you still here, a little voice in my head whispered. Why are you touching him? What are you doing? But I pushed those warning voices away and continued to look.
There was blood and gore all over the seat on that side. The coppery stench of blood was thick and nauseating. Something else mixed in with it, tugging at my brain: Blood and… Fear? Something. That was when the Mexican spoke in all that silence and nearly made me jump out of my skin.
“Don’t call the cops!” and… “No Policia.” His head came away from wheel. He shook it and drops of blood went flying. I felt a drop hit my face, but I was still too stunned to move.
“Hey! … You hear me, blanquito? Habla English? … No Policia?” He muttered under his breath “Dios Christos,” he focused his eyes on me once more. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I thought you were dead,” I managed. I should’ve run. I chose to talk.
“Yeah… I get that a lot, but I ain’t dead.” He picked up the 45 from the seat and before I knew it, it was in my face. “Come around the side, blanquito. Get Lopez out of the car.” He waved the pistol and I moved.
Lopez pretty much helped himself out of the car. When I opened the door he spilled out into the alley leaving a mess on the seat and a large smear of blood on the seat back and the door panel as he went.
“Good… Good,” the Mexican said. “Now get in the fuckin’ car… No… No… This side. Come back around to this side. I can’t drive no car, blanquito… Dios!” He waved the gun once more and I moved. Racing around the hood of the car to the door.
The Mexican did a fair job of getting himself over into the passenger seat. I was glad it was him sitting in Lopez’s blood and not me although I had been about to sit in it. I slid into the driver’s seat.
“You got some kind of car… Truck… Something like that?” The Mexican asked.
I didn’t have a vehicle, but my grandfather had, had a truck. It was sitting in the garage in back of my house on Logan street. That house had also been my grandfather’s. They were the only two things, the house and the truck that had survived those three years on the streets.
“Sort of?” He looked around “Get this car moving. That’s the first thing… You got a place?… Close by? How does anybody sort of own a fuckin’ car anyway?”
“Yeah, I got a place” I said. I was afraid to answer, but more afraid of not answering fast enough.
“Let’s get there, Amigo.” He slumped back against the seat. I shifted into drive, worried I might drive over Lopez as I went and drove us out of the alley.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Never mind, blanquito… Just drive the fuckin’ car.”
The house was dark. I had thought to leave a light on, but somehow I had forgotten. I drove the Ford right into the garage pulled the garage door back down and helped the Mexican out. He looked over at my grandfather’s truck.
“That your sort of truck? Looks fine to me, man. Doesn’t it run?”
The thing is it did run. I had been working on it here and there. I like to tinker with things. And I had a lot of spare time to fill when I quit drugging so I had turned it to the truck.
It was an old truck, but I had in the back of my mind to fix it up and drive it. So I had started with an oil change and then installed a new headlight on the driver’s side, that sort of stuff, when I had time.
I nodded. “No plates though.”
The Mexican nodded. “Don’t worry about that… Got gas in it?”
“Some… Enough to get you away.”
“Ha, amigo.” He laughed and then clutched the side of his head where the blood still drizzled and spilled down the side of his face, spat some blood from his mouth, and looked back at me. “Us,” he said. “Us.”
I saw an amazing thing as he spoke. The Mexican had a small blue hole just above the stream of blood. A hole from a bullet In his head. The blood just pulsed out of it as I watched. I wondered how he could even be alive.
I switched the plates to the truck and left the Ford sitting in the garage. I unloaded four big suitcases from the trunk of the Ford into the bed of the pickup truck. The Mexican shoved two machine pistols under the front seat and stuffed a second pistol into his waistband. He had me stretch a tarp over the bed of the pickup and tie it off and we were on the road. Heading into the night on the Arizona back roads.
Out Of The Desert
The name of the place was Tonopah Arizona. I had eased the truck up onto I10, the tires bouncing over the broken asphalt.
“Not a big city… A town from the looks of it. Phoenix is close: Ten, fifteen miles maybe I can’t really tell from the map,” I said. A gas station loomed out of the early morning gray and I wheeled the truck under the roof that covered the pumps. I shut off the motor and we both listened to the tick of the cooling motor for a few seconds.
“Coffee would be real nice, amigo,” the Mexican said. “No way do we want to go into Phoenix… Too dangerous.” He yawned and then covered his mouth and laughed. “Jesus… Morning breath.” The wound in his head had stopped bleeding; a thin crust of blood covered the hole and making it look like just an ordinary scab to me. It made me wonder if I had been wrong after all if it really had been no more than a flesh wound. The Mexican stepped from the truck.
I opened my door and settled my feet onto the pavement. It wasn’t just old pavement, I thought as I looked it over, it was gray, like it was completely washed out, used up. There was no black left in it. the Mexican stood slightly in front of the truck, his gun in one hand. The other hand was reaching for the machine pistol which was just coming free of his shoulder. I shrugged the machine pistol the Mexican had given me from my own shoulder and into my hand before I really saw what had alarmed him: Three men stepped out of the shadows of the open garage bay.
They were kids, I saw. Or at least not much more than kids. They walked slowly forward.
The Mexican raised the rifle and pointed it at the lead kid. “That’s it right there,” he said.
He didn’t scream it, softly spoke it, I thought later, but the kid stopped in his tracks.
“You just walk into someone’s place like this? Guns ready?” The kid asked. He waited for one of us to answer, but I had no intention of talking and the Mexican stayed silent.
“What’s with the fuckin’ guns?” The kid asked when it became obvious that neither of us intended to speak.
“Ours weren’t aimed at you until you aimed yours at us,” I said. I hoped I sounded as cool as the Mexican had.
“Bullshit,” one of the other kids said. “You had it in your hands when I looked at you. That’s why I got mine ready.”
“I don’t want to kill anyone today,” the Mexican said. I looked at him quickly. You could tell just how serious he was. Maybe the kids didn’t see that look in his eyes, but they should be able to piece it together from the blood spattered shirt and jeans the Mexican wore.
“It really don’t matter to me, you know? Dead or alive? This world sucks either way. You just don’t have to feel it when you’re dead.” The third kid said. His eyes were blood shot. We had interrupted him while he was sleeping it seemed; or he was using meth. He had that look. Eyes twitchy, skin gray. He kept rubbing at his eyes, I saw.
“I think you’re right. Can’t matter if you’re dead, puto” the Mexican said.
“Pretty funny… What did you just call me? … So you know a little Spanish, big fuckin’ deal,” the kid responded.
“I’m Mexican, so.”
“Big fuckin’ deal… Mexico’s that way,” he jerked one thumb toward the desert at his back.
The Mexican leaned forward and spat on the ground.
The kid squinted hard and then spoke again. “Okay… Okay, a couple of very bad asses, but look… It’s our town. We ain’t the only ones here. You shoot there will be twenty more here in seconds. Then everybody dies.”
The one in the back, the one with the sleepy eyes, stiffed a yawn and reflexively raised one hand to his mouth as his eyes slipped shut for a split second. The Mexican shot the lead kid in that split second, I had the second guy a moment later. The third kid opened his eyes to a changed situation.
“Just give me a reason,” the Mexican said. “Any reason.” The kid released the rifle he held and it dropped from his hands to the pavement. He spun and looked off toward a rag tag collection of trailers that lined a dirt road in back of the station. “Johnny!” he screamed. He turned back to Billy and the Mexican. “Don’t shoot me… I ain’t done nothin’ at all…” The Mexican shot him.
A second later the truck roared to life and I spun the wheel hard heading out into the desert that bordered the road.
The Mexican bounced around the cab and smacked his head hard enough on the windshield to star the glass when the truck left the pavement at better than fifty miles an hour and hit the hard packed dirt that ran alongside I10. He swore in Spanish, but finally got his balance, swept one hand across his forehead, looked at the fresh blood and cursed again. Behind us three trucks had launched off the pavement and were running hard to catch us.
“Fuck me,” I said. I pushed the pedal to the floor there was nothing else for it. The glass in the back window starred a second later as the Mexican rammed the wire machine pistol stock into it. Another hit and the glass fell out into the pickup bed area. He raised the machine pistol and began to fire back at the trucks. A second later a hole punched through the windshield to my left. I sucked a deep breath and mashed the pedal harder into the floorboard feeling the old truck skate across the hardscrabble of the desert as we flew beside the highway.
“We have to get north, the other side of the highway, blanquito. If they squeeze us south we’ll be in the goddamn desert,” the Mexican yelled above the scream of the engine.
“There’s cars up there,” I yelled back. “On the highway!”
“There are bullets down here and they’re gaining on us,” the Mexican yelled back. “They’ll just drop off the highway soon and get us.”
“Better sit down,” I yelled.
“Just do it! Dios!” He continued to fire out the back window.
I turned the wheel hard right and the truck lurched hard to the left, threatening to roll over as the center of gravity changed. It nearly did roll before it hit the edge of the pavement, broke over, and then became airborne. It came within ten feet of a fast moving, sun bleached car full of wide eyed kids and then it plunged off the other side of the highway so smoothly that I couldn’t believe it had actually landed. I skimmed past the edge of an old, wrecked truck, abandoned years ago as I fought for control of the wheel: I missed it by mere inches. I heard the scream of rubber up on the highway as the car locked up its brakes just before the tires bit into the hard scrabble and I once again mashed the pedal to the floor.
“Nearly broke my neck slamming it into the ceiling,” the Mexican yelled. He fell silent. “I…” He started, but an explosion from the highway stopped his words.
“Hit that fucking truck,” I screamed. “Has to be.”
“Keep it floored, Amigo. Keep it floored ’cause there was three trucks up there.” He stayed where he was, staring out the back window, knees driven into the seat top. My eyes strayed to the rear view mirror, empty and then snapped back to the road. I watched the hard packed earth fly by.
“Roads coming up… Like dirt roads,” I said. I had no sooner said it than the truck hit the slight rise and flew across it.
“Back roads, looks like,” the Mexican said.” He was trying his best to read a map as the truck bounced and tilted. One hand clutching the seat back held him in a somewhat stable position as he looked at the roads. “Looks like all dirt roads, back roads and then it falls away to nothing. Just keep it pointed at the mountains in the distance.” He turned completely around and sat down with the map in his lap. “Must have hit the truck or each other. Whatever it was I don’t think they feel like coming after us again… I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking letting my guard down like that.”
I said nothing; the Mexican went back to reading the map.
“Start breaking left, blanquito. There’s a river… No; maybe some sort of waterway not a river, too straight. It ends and then picks up again a few miles later. We can get through and into the desert from there.” He looked at the map for a few more minutes, “Maybe twenty miles or so. Just run right by I10 and we should be good.” He turned and peeked over the back seat once more. “We’re leaving a lot of dust.”
I looked over at him. The head wound was seeping again, and a new cut welled blood just above one eyebrow. Probably when he hit the roof.
“We gotta figure this out too. I mean, we’re going backwards, back to where we came,” the Mexican said.
“I could loop out deep and then swing back,” I said.
“Yeah, except in this desert you can see dust for miles… The dust is the problem.” He leaned over and looked at the gas gauge. “Less than a half tank,” He frowned.
“We’ve got gas in the back,” I threw in.
“I’m thinking this, amigo: We hit that water way or an out building; has to be something around here. We stop and kill the day, and then tonight we run across the desert to the other side of Phoenix… I got to meet someone there.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I agreed.
“Okay, so take the next road that crosses, slow down to keep the dust down and let’s start looking for a place to hide out for the day… We’ve got enough gas in the back we can get a long way before we need to find a station if we don’t burn it up running in circles and backtracking.”
I slowed the truck and began heading to the right, east.
“One of those towers will do… High voltage lines? Something like that, but that will hide us if we drive right up to it,” the Mexican said.
We drove to a tower in the distance on a dirt service road that circled it and continued to the north: I had my doubts, but I pulled the truck up close to the tower and shut it down. The silence held for a few moments, I rubbed at my eyes with a thumb and forefinger, “Jesus, I’m shot.”
The Mexican laughed and then began to choke. He rolled down the window and spat a mouthful of blood onto the dry sand. “Poor choice of words,” he said. He chuckled once more and then closed his eyes and sagged against the door.
I swallowed hard, leaned against my own door, and watched the dust thicken as it settled onto the battered hood of the old truck.
Back On The Road
I awakened just after sundown. The desert was already turning cold, the sweat from the day drying on my face and giving me chills. The Mexican sat stoically, smoking, flipping the ashes out the open window. The head wound had stopped again, and the new gash over the eyebrow had crusted over. I shivered once more as I started the truck and drove out onto the service road. Funny place, the desert; boiling hot all day long yet extremely cold at night. I drove as he gave me directions.
We stopped just before dawn at a gas station in the middle of a small desert town on the other side of Phoenix. The Mexican directed me past the dimly lit islands and over to the side of the station and the shadowy side lot.
I saw that there was a big hound sleeping in an open bay doorway on one side of the garage. On the other side a thin man with long, greasy-black hair was turning wrenches on an old Plymouth. He glanced up, nodded and I nodded back as we pulled around the side of the station and parked in the shadows.
There were payphones bolted to the side wall just past the Men’s room door. An oddity in almost any city, but apparently rural desert towns were an exception. A young girl with black hair, her back to us, was talking. She glanced around, her eyes wide as we pulled in, then she turned away and continued talking.
I had thought that payphones were a thing of the past, but I had also thought gas stations were a thing of the past too come to think of it.
“Get the chica off that phone,” the Mexican told me. He waved his gun from the seat and I opened the door and stepped out quickly.
She was waiting on me. “Fuck you, blanco, this is my fuckin’ phone.” Her face was unreadable, dark mahogany in the sparse light on the side of the station. I turned back to the car but the Mexican was watching me. He waved the gun and shook his head.
“Listen,” I tried again.
“I’m talking to my boyfriend,” She said in a angry whisper. “What? … Some asshole, some blanco,” she told the phone.
I reached out and took the phone, held it to my ear. Nothing but the wha, wha, wha of a broken connection. I took the phone and hung it up.
She turned on me, but whatever she intended to say flew away when she spotted the Mexican sitting in the open doorway of the car with the gun pointing at her. She clenched her jaw shut and stepped away into the shadows at the back of the lot.
I helped the Mexican to the phone. “Muchacho, you watch that bitch… See where she goes… What she does,” he ran about six dollars worth of change into the phone and then he just stood there, leaned against the wall, panting hard for what seemed like ten minutes. Blood dripped on his shoes: Impossibly loud in the silence; I backed up and watched the girl who was hanging in the shadows of the back lot.
He finally began to speak in a stream of Spanish so heavily accented and fast that I could make no sense of anything he said. Not even the gist of it, and I was usually pretty good when it came to Spanish. I heard a lot of it in my life on the streets and it was best to know what was being said, what might be coming your way. Play dumb like you don’t understand and they would usually spill all kinds of information.
The girl walked up and stood next to me as if waiting for permission to speak. I looked at her. Young, but not as young as I had thought she was at first glance. She was probably somewhere south of thirty, but maybe only a little south. There were hard lines around her eyes, slight pouches under them. Her skin, in the sodium lights of the lot, was a soft brown that seemed flawless and made her look so much younger at that first glance. Either way she was beautiful. My eyes fell to her breasts and just as quickly rose back up, but she had caught me. A smile rested on her mouth. She leaned in close.
“What’s up with your friend?” She asked.
I laughed. “Really? That’s what you want to know? He ain’t my friend. He’d as soon kill me as you. So you should get the fuck gone, disappear. Know what I mean?”
The Mexican coughed and then went into a brief choking spell before he recovered. He sprayed blood from his mouth and then resumed talking. Blood from the bullet wound in his lower chest was smeared all over the wall he was leaning against.
“I need some help,” she said.
“I ain’t the one you need it from: I meant what I said; he ain’t my friend and he’d kill me as soon as you.”
The Mexican glanced over. The girl stayed silent for a few moments. “Kat,” she said at last.
“Billy,” I allowed, ”but this ain’t the time…”
“Well when is the time? I’m stuck here, I need a ride. That creep-fuck in the garage wants me to…” She stopped abruptly. I shook my head and paid attention to the Mexican who kept cutting his eyes to me. Pissed off, I was sure, because the girl was hanging so close. I stayed silent.
“Well where are you from? Here?” I asked.
“Alabama,” she said.
I shook my head. She was a long way from home or hope of home.
The Mexican’s conversation was winding down. I could tell because he spoke less and less. He finally went on a long coughing spasm, spat a few more quick streams of Spanish into the phone and then just dropped the handset. He came staggering off the wall and back to the truck. I rushed to help him back in, the girl right at my side.
He was breathing hard. “We got to kill some time: Find a place.” He looked at the girl. “What the fuck is it you want, manita?” He showed her the 45 just in case she hadn’t seen it.
She turned and looked to the back of the lot, motioning with one hand as she did, and spat out a stream of Spanish that was lost on me. At the end I caught the gist of it, she was asking for a ride. I expected the Mexican to tell her no, maybe even shoot her: The guy had a bullet hole in his head and he was walking around. What could you expect from a guy like that?
When she finished she planted her feet firmly and locked eyes with him, occasionally turning to include me in her stare down.
“Okay, okay, manita. You are a little… What the fuck is it,” he turned to me smiling, ”Loca? …”
“Crazy,” the girl said, but she laughed.
“Yeah, you got that right, manita, loca, big crazy… Alabama loca… You think I’m out here playing games in the middle of the night? These mens… Compadres, they want to kill me.“ He raised the gun. “Maybe you too.”
She said nothing, but the smile left her face.
“Okay,” he waved her up into the truck to the middle of the seat. “You travel on our time… Means you stay where we stay when we stay… We move along you move along,” he shrugged. “You get where you get when you get there. No special stuff, manita. You want to get out, you get out.” He turned to me. “Kat… Loca… Means she is crazy… she’s from Mexico by way of Mississippi by way of Alabama,” he shook his head, but stopped and held it briefly.
She smiled slightly and nodded her head.
I was appalled. I never expected that, but I just nodded myself, like anyone had to ask my permission. I was tempted to clean off the wall, pick up the handset and put it back on the phone. Someone might see that, but instead I helped him into the truck and then wheeled out of the parking lot.
The Mexican passed Kat the dirty, creased map. “Make yourself useful, chica, find us a place to kill a few hours.”
The moon was fully up. The desert seemed almost as if it were lit with streetlights to me. I found a dirt road and followed it to a concrete building that was part of a complex of buildings in the middle of nowhere. The place didn’t look like it had much going for it. A collection of buildings in the desert. A few trucks sitting around. Company trucks of some sort, painted the same colors, but no name on them. I passed through the complex slowly on the dirt road that fed it. No guard, no cameras, no fencing, nothing.
“Spooky,” Kat said from beside me. Her voice startled me. I glanced over, the Mexican was sleeping or maybe dead. How long could you live with a bullet hole in your head? As if he had read my mind the Mexican opened the eye that faced me and winked. I looked away quickly; back to the complex taking a longer, harder look. I turned around and drove through it more slowly. Nothing again.
I stared out into the night. The moon was moving past the halfway point, there wouldn’t be much of the night left. I looked over at the Mexican where he sat, head back, breathing slowly. At some point the bleeding had stopped again. I looked back around at the buildings. Maybe ten, unless I had miscounted. A dozen trucks and cars sat around buildings. A large building that was probably a garage, or at least appeared to be. Doors down. A side door, closed. I drove slowly, circling the building. A back door, also closed. Maybe, I thought, the back door would be the best way inside.
I pulled back out front of the building, shifted the truck into park and left it running. The door was fifteen feet away. I waited a second and then leaned across to the Mexican.
“Hey, man… Hey, man I got to go… You hear me?” Nothing. His breathing didn’t change and it scared me. I took his machine pistol and handed it to Kat. Kat sighed, fingered the safety on it to make sure it was off, and then we stepped from the truck.
The door chuffed closed behind us nearly silently. Silence; or at least it seemed silent for a moment. The desert wind reached my ears, just a soft rising and falling of sighs as it slipped around the buildings. Nothing else. I made myself search the entire area once more with my eyes and then we walked to the door, took one more look back at the old truck, turned the knob and stepped inside the building.
I stood in the darkness and listened to the wind slip around the metal building. Kat bumped up against me. I could smell her in the darkness: Some light perfume and I began to let my mind wander, but snapped it back quickly. My hand skittered along the wall and found the light switch. Kat batted my hand away before I could turn it on though.
“Jesus… Someone will see it maybe.”
Old habits die hard, I told myself. I forced my heart to slow down and then I pulled a deep breath: Once I had my shit together again I looked around the area, my eyes now used to the lack of light.
The building was much more than a garage. There was a garage area to pull trucks into. One sat inside now, two large rolls of fencing in the back and dozens of long steel fence posts. I stepped forward toward a glassed in room just past the truck. A lunchroom of sorts, or a break room. Vending machines lined the walls and three tables sat in the middle of the room with plastic chairs scattered about them. Empty.
Off to the left a steel door separated another area. I was beginning to panic about the Mexican. We had been gone a long time, but I forced myself to twist the knob on the door. It led to a hallway. A small office, bathrooms, and the door that lead outside. I walked to the door and locked it, Kat trailing behind me. Her hand suddenly reached out and grabbed my shirt back. She gasped loudly as she dragged me to a stop. There was a glass wall that looked into the office and my eye caught something I had missed as I had walked past. There was a chair that had been pulled over to a window that looked out on the desert. A man sat in that chair, head cocked back, sleeping. I sucked a deeper breath.
I took one small step into the room, not sure what my intentions were, when Kat slipped by me, machine pistol in her hand and walked right up to the chair. The guard never moved as she flicked the safety off and fired twice into the back of his head at point blank range. I was so shocked that I froze. Time spun out, probably less than a second, but it seemed like hours. I could hear heavy breathing in the closed in room and I assumed it was me. I fought to slow it down for a few moments before I realized it was the guard. Heavy tortured breaths. He pulled one more and then let it out slowly. His chest stilled, mouth sagged open as his body relaxed and he sagged back into the chair as he had been once more.
“Got to get him out of here,” Kat said. She seemed so calm, and it made good sense. I grabbed the armrest closest to me and together we dragged the chair from the office and out into the garage. We rolled it up to the doors and looked them over. Electric, but they could be manually raised and closed with a set of pull chains that hung beside them. Probably a nod toward electricity that might not always be available in the desert. I pulled on the chains that dropped from the ceiling and the door went up easily, squeaking as it went. We pushed the chair out across the cracked pavement and left it in back of one of the other buildings. The truck rumbled close by, the motor turning over smoothly. I could see the Mexican, head back against the seat back. A minute later we drove the truck into the garage and then worked the chains, lowering the door down once more.
We were on the road long before sunup. The Mexican was paranoid that the workers would be showing up before sunrise. I drove the truck with the fencing and posts in the back and Kat drove the old truck. We left it abandoned in a dry wash a few miles away. With any luck it would never be discovered. Just another weathered junker sinking into the sand.
We made another small gas station just after daybreak and waited in the truck as the Mexican made a phone call. He was back in just a few minutes.
“A little town… Somewhere up ahead,” he was looking the map over. “We get there and spend the daylight there. We go back to the other gas station tonight.”
I nodded. What else could I do. Kat said nothing, but Kat was good at saying nothing. It made me wonder when she had ever found the time to say or do anything to get herself into the jam she was in. We were somewhere far south of Arizona, most probably in Mexico, the country and the few people we saw had that look.
I was less than a mile from the town limits when I saw the road block. I bought the truck to a screeching halt, more than a half mile away at the crest of a slight rise, nearly as soon as it had come into sight. I could see better than a half dozen heavily armed men standing along the sides of two stripped out desert trucks pulled crosswise nose to nose blocking the road. The men had immediately snapped to attention when they spotted the truck and were now staring in our direction. One of the men had quickly jumped into one of the parked trucks, and I assumed, after seeing him speaking into a hand held microphone, had probably radioed someone about them. Not good at all, I thought.
“I know these,” the Mexican said, “see that red pickup off the shoulder?”
I nodded my head.
“The ones that ambushed me earlier tonight… I recognize it. Somehow they have followed me… Only was two of them then, looks like they found company,” he cursed and then spat blood out the window.
I forced my heartbeat to slow down so I could think clearly. At first I had been positive that the men would get in the trucks and come screaming down the road after us. They hadn’t, and in fact they seemed to be watching us to see what we were going to do. “I’m open to suggestions,” I said.
“First thing, Billy,” Kat replied, “is to get the hell off the road: If they did radio someone they’re probably on the way. I saw a dirt road that cuts off to the right about a half mile back, might be smart for us to get down that so we can think this thing out, before we’re forced to fight it out right here.”
“That group will kill us,” the Mexican agreed. “Back it up and go, blanquito.”
“How far?” I asked as I punched the gas and squeezed the wheel of the truck. I bounced the truck down off the road, and the rear tires threw up rooster tails of dirt and grass as it slewed around and came back up onto the road. The tires spun momentarily dislodging the sand, then they found their purchase and propelled us back down the road and away from the road block. Behind us we could hear the low pop of rifle fire from the direction of the road block.
“Half mile, no more,” Kat said.
We were no more than a hundred feet down the road, when a pair of headlights appeared in the lane ahead of us, a beat up sedan moving toward us. A blonde haired man leaned out the driver’s side window holding what looked to be a sawed off shotgun.
“Shit,” I muttered, “What the fuck?”
“Got it,” I heard from the Mexican. I heard the wind suddenly rushing into the truck interior and I realized that the Mexican had opened the window just before I heard the loud chattering of one of the machine pistols.
The blonde haired man fired the shotgun at the same time the Mexican began to fire. I saw the flash from the gun, and heard a rattle from the front of the truck that sounded like hundreds of stones hitting the front bumper.
The machine pistol continued to chatter from the passenger side seat, and I watched as dozens of holes appeared in the body of the old sedan, almost in a straight line along the driver’s side. The front driver side tire blew out, and the car veered sharply toward our lane.
“Hold on!” I yelled as I spun the wheel and we left the road. The truck bounced when it dropped from the road and entered the ditch, but I kept it under control and without letting up on the gas angled it back toward the highway just as the car began to flip into the ditch a few feet away. I knew it would be close. Very close, I amended: A line of trees flew by on the passenger side of the truck, scant inches from the glass, and then the truck lurched once more as it left the ditch and rocketed back up onto the highway. The two vehicles missed by only inches and I had found myself looking into the lifeless eyes of the blonde haired man, hanging loosely out of the window for just an instant before the car was by us and rolling into the ditch.
I got the truck back up onto the road and floored it. When I came to the dirt road I almost blew right by it, but I managed to slow down enough to slide into the entrance somewhat under control. The tires screamed and the smell of rubber burning was strong inside the truck. I barreled through the first curve at better than fifty miles an hour. Once I was around it, and hidden from the road I slowed down. I rounded two more curves before I stopped the truck, and turned around facing back toward the main road.
Thick, choking dust from the dirt road raftered up into the air. No way are they going to sneak up on me, I thought as I watched the road and strained to listen. A few seconds later I heard the high whine of a vehicle on the highway, but it didn’t slow down and the high pitched whine of the motor dwindled away to silence in a few seconds as it continued onward, apparently looking for us on the highway.
“Must not have seen the dust we kicked up,” I said.
“Or pretended not to see it.” Kat said. When she spoke we heard a muffled explosion in the distance. “Think that was that car?”
“Could’ve been,” the Mexican said.
Kat was studying the Mexican’s map once more. “It’s a good thing we didn’t break off to the left,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“River,” she stated calmly, “about a mile or so in the opposite direction, we would have been trapped if we’d gone that way. It looks like we got open land ahead here: At least it looks that way it’s hard to tell.”
I looked back along the dirt road. Thick dust still hung above it. “There’s no way they missed us,” I said, “unless they’re blind. They had to see that dust hanging in the air, and if we keep going we’re going to kick up even more, and they’ll be able to follow it right to us.”
“I think you are right, amigo, but what else can we do?” the Mexican asked.
“Turn around and go back,” I said. I held up my hand to silence the outburst that erupted at the suggestion. “Listen; if we sit here they’re going to come back, probably with more men. If we head back to the road block now we have the advantage. I would bet the sound we heard of a passing car was one of the trucks. If so that leaves only one, and far fewer men to contend with back there. If we wait the odds will only get worse… See?”
“He is right, I think,” Kat said, “I don’t want to die any more than any of us do. Sitting here isn’t going to help us at all, going back before they have a chance to regroup might.”
“Only thing to do,” the Mexican sighed, “if I gotta die I’d rather die fighting.” He reached under the seat, felt around, pulled the last pistol out and handed it to Kat. “Don’t shoot me, chica.” He turned to me. “And don’t think this means you are running this deal, blanquito… You either, chica.”
I nodded. “So?” I asked.
“We go back,” Kat said decisively. She thumbed the safety off the pistol. The Mexican grunted a short “Yeah” which we could both tell he was not enthusiastic about.
I dropped the truck back into drive and began to move down the dirt road, gaining momentum as I neared the highway. I slowed and turned onto the highway after looking in both directions and seeing nothing. Ahead, approximately where the car had wrecked we could see greasy black smoke billowing into the hot, still air.
“Could be some of them there too,” Kat said, as she stared toward the greasy smoke in the distance. “If so I’ll be ready for ’em.” I nodded my head and brought the truck up to speed slowly to hide the whine of the motor, which would hopefully allow us to take the road block or whoever might be at the burning car by surprise.
As we neared the burning car I could see one of the stripped out desert trucks off to the side of the road, along with the red pickup that the Mexican had pointed out to me. “Looks like it,” I said calmly, as I leaned back into the seat to give Kat a clear shot through the driver’s side window.
The young, blonde haired kid from the car was a lifeless lump on the side of the road along with two other crumpled forms that I assumed must also had been in the car. A group of three men stood over the bodies. They heard the approaching truck and suddenly jumped for cover as we roared by. Kat’s pistol chattered briefly directly in front of my face and the tires of the red pickup exploded loudly. I pressed the gas pedal as close to the floor as it would go as we passed and almost simultaneously heard the sound of breaking glass from the rear of the truck, along with a steady, plunk, plunk, plunk, as bullets slammed into the tailgate. A sudden cry of pain came from Kat a split second later as several small crystals of glass flew forward striking the dashboard and the back of my head.
“What happened?” I shouted. “You okay?” I was trying to look her over and drive at the same time
“Got her,” the Mexican shouted above the roar of the engine. A second later, “Chica don’t look so good, Billy.” It sounded like, Cheeka doan luke so good, Beelee.
“Shit,” I muttered as I tried to press the gas pedal further into the floorboard. “Shit.”
The intersection where the road block had been appeared in front of us a few seconds later. Whatever had gone by us on the highway had not been the second truck. It still sat across the road, blocking the right hand lane. The left hand lane was blocked by the second truck and four men, who were not armed with shotguns I noticed as we neared, but some sort of machine pistols similar to the ones we carried. I was just about to slam on the brakes and try to turn around once more when a quick glance in the mirror showed the other truck coming up behind us. What the hell, I thought, these guy’s must think they’re playing some sort of fucking game with us. Aloud I said. “We’re screwed they’re in front of us and behind us…”
“Here,” the Mexican shoved the second machine pistol at me.
I took it and nodded grimly. ”Fuck it, we’re going through. Hold on.” I leaned partway out the window and began firing as I drove right at the road block.
The Mexican pushed Kat down flat on the seat top. He turned, leaned out the blown out rear window facing the car behind us and began firing.
Two of the four at the roadblock dropped immediately, but the other two were returning fire even as they ran for the cover of the right side truck and I could feel and hear the bullets slamming into the truck both front and rear.
I looked up at the rear view mirror and watched the truck behind us suddenly swerve and then flip. The Mexican let out a scream of triumph as he turned back to the front, and began to fire at the roadblock ahead of us. The side of the truck began to take on a chewed-appearance within seconds as both machine pistols were trained on it. Still the men behind it returned fire.
We were now less than a hundred feet from the roadblock I saw.
“Sit down!” I yelled, “Now!” I aimed the truck toward the truck nose on the right, just close enough so that I could clip the front end of it as we went past. The two men behind it realized what I intended to do too late.
The heavy work truck hit the front of the other truck harder than I expected, so hard in fact that it sent it spinning into the ditch like a toy. My rib cage collided with the steering wheel hard, but I rebounded just as quickly. The Mexican sat stiff legged, one arm jammed into the steel dashboard on that side, the other wrapped protectively around Kat where she lay half on and half off the front seat, partly spilled into the floorboards. The Airbag let go, a chunk of thick plastic hit my forehead, and then my entire sight line turned white.
The collision with the corner of the one truck and the full front fender of the other truck ripped the front fender from our truck along with most of the passenger door, but our truck was heavier by far and it passed through; scattering both of the other trucks like toys. I saw the Mexican lower himself toward the seat, folded over Kat protectively and I felt a few splinters of glass embed themselves in my cheek before I squeezed my eyes shut to protect them. The bag billowed and I thrust one hand pushing away and down so I could see.
I felt the heavy bumper of the truck torn half off in the collision let go and I opened my eyes to see it shoot up a shower of sparks as we bounced over it leaving it behind in the road. I kept the gas pedal jammed to the floor boards even though steam was beginning to pour from the front of the truck and the motor was starting to wheeze ominously.
A heavy vibration ran through the truck and as it gained more speed the vibration became a heavy shuddering that threatened to shake the truck to pieces. Two miles down the road I spotted a used truck dealership and slid the dying truck to a stop in the cracked asphalt parking lot.
“OUT!” I shouted as I quickly jumped from the truck and ran around to the passenger side. The Mexican tumbled out the window Kat in his arms and we carried her between us; struggling to reach the small doors of the office. Chained, I saw: The place was closed. I turned and fired a short burst at the aluminum and glass doors without slowing, and they shattered into a million crystals. I kicked a remaining sharp edge of glass out of the frame and we hurried inside with Kat.
I stared back out at the small parking lot expecting to see the remaining truck come screaming in, or some other truck if the one behind us had truly wrecked. I didn’t think either truck at the roadblock would be moving anytime soon.
“The suitcases,” the Mexican said turning toward the doors, “no way am I leaving them in the truck.” He was moving pretty good for a man with holes in his head and his chest.
I nodded. “I guess that other car will be along any minute. Why don’t you wait with Kat, I’ll get it,” I told him.
“I got it,” the Mexican said. As he nodded, blood once again dribbled from his forehead.
“Dude… You have a fucking hole in your head,” I told him.
“It’s not a hole… Grazed me.” He replied quickly.
My mouth fell open. I forced it shut after a second. What happened when you made the guy realize that he really did have a hole in his head? He died probably.
“Okay… Grazed… Still it’s bleeding a lot… Take care of the girl… I’ll get the suitcases before that truck comes, be right back.”
“I don’t think so,” the Mexican replied icily, “it flipped. I blew out the front tires, and I’m pretty damn sure the driver was dead at that point.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t question what he said at all. “I’ll go … See what you can do for Kat?” He nodded his head as I turned and ran back out of the showroom toward the truck where it sat still smoking.
The truck was totaled.
The metal grill-work was gone along with the bumper, and I could see now why the Mexican had jumped through the window when we stopped instead of opening the door. The door was crushed shut. Along with that both of the front tires were rapidly going flat. Probably from running over the bumper, a bullet would have blown them out immediately. A huge puddle of oil was spreading from under the truck, and green anti-freeze dripped from what was left of the radiator.
I climbed into the rear of the truck and grabbed two of the suitcases; heavy and ran for the showroom. I threw them inside, watched them slide across the wooden floor and then ran back to the truck for the other two: As I was making the second trip back to the showroom I wished I had thought to pull the truck out of sight. The steam still rising in the air from the hood area would serve as a beacon if there were others. And I was pretty sure there were. I was remembering the sound of a vehicle screaming by on the highway when we had been hiding on the dirt road. There had to be at least one more of them.
I reached the relative safety of the small office and set down the suitcases. The Mexican stood and slowly shook his head as I approached. I looked down and saw that Kat’s shirt had been cut away. One large hole had punched through her upper shoulder leaving a blue-black, bloodless hole. Her eyes blinked rapidly as I knelt beside her.
“Hey,” I said. She looked at me, pulled another breath and then her eyes slipped shut. She had a small smile on her face as if she knew some secret that I could only guess at.
I froze for a moment and then reached down and shook her shoulders.
“She’s okay, Billy,” The Mexican said. “I gave her something… We need to get her somewhere where I can stitch her up… Or you. Listen, I don’t want to sound hard or as if I don’t care, but right now, unless we want to just give up and die, we need to get ourselves in gear. If it wasn’t one of the trucks that blew by us while we were on that dirt road, and we know it wasn’t that red pickup… someone is still out there, and once they get their shit together they’ll come back for us, amigo. And there has to be some locals of some sort around here, eventually one of them is gonna show up. Federales… Maybe locals… What you need to do Billy is get us another truck so we can get back across the border and make that meeting… Put this behind us,” the Mexican said.
I looked around the showroom. “I don’t see any here, which means I’m going to have to go back outside to find one. Which means,” I looked at the Mexican, “I need you to keep watch in front; I’m going out the back door.”
I walked over to a small plywood board to one side of the double doors, and began to search through the key-tags that hung from it. “Hey, take a quick look out front and tell me whether you see a light green Ram out there, about ten years old or so,” I continued to search through the keys as he looked.
“Si, out by the road,” he replied.
“How about a two-tone red and white Chevy?”
“No veda nada… No, not out here.”
“Good,” I said as I dropped the remaining keys in a heap by the board. I had kept two sets out, apparently there were two green Ram’s, another out back somewhere along with a tu-tone Chevy that had possibilities. “Okay I’m going to get it,” I said as I turned and walked down a hallway in the direction of the back of the building, I turned back. “Kat?” I asked.
“She’s safe, amigo… Go, I’ll keep watch on her.”
I turned and walked down the hallway through a set of double steel doors and into a small garage area. I searched the garage quickly, but no red and white Chevy or green Ram resided in the shadowy interior. I walked to a set of double steel doors set into the back of the garage, pressed the bar handle, and stepped out into the back lot.
I found the Ram first directly behind the rear of the garage checked the stock numbers and after determining which set of keys went to it opened the door and got in. A low chiming greeted me as I opened the door. The Ram was one of the upper level models; it was also not four wheel drive. The tires were not much more than passenger tires and when I turned on the ignition to check the gas gauge the needle stopped just above empty.
“Fuck,” I said to myself. “this one isn’t going to do us a hell-of-a-lot-of good.”
I found the other truck farther back in the lot. It was a low end model; built more with a hunter or some other type of sportsman in mind and much better suited to our needs. Plain stark vinyl interior and the gas gauge leveled out at half when I checked it. Not great, but a lot better than the other truck and we didn’t have the time to pick and choose.
“This is her,” I told myself. I started the truck and drove out of the back lot toward the front of the dealership.
I had been tensed, expecting to hear the chatter of machine pistols while I was out back, and when I drove by the glass encased showroom and saw the Mexican crouched by the side of a car on the showroom floor I breathed a sigh of relief. I just caught his waving hands out of the corner of my eye before two men jumped out from behind one of the trucks in the front row and opened fire on me.
Too late, I thought as I realized I had left the machine pistol lying on the front seat instead of keeping it in my right hand where it should have been. I could hear the sound of a machine pistol behind me as the Mexican opened up. I did what I could. I aimed the truck at the two men; levered the door-handle and prepared to jump just as the windshield hit by several of the rounds fired by the two men was blown inward: My world faded to black.
I came awake with sunlight streaming in through the windshield of the wrecked truck. I looked around at the ditch but there was nothing to see in any direction. I was somewhere in Mexico, but where, I wondered. I thought back to what I could remember.
The drive into the town in the early morning had seemed uneventful right up until the attack had come. Afterward I had berated myself, cursed myself for not taking all of it more seriously, but I knew that the truth was that none of us had. None of us had and now I was the only one left. The only one left and I was alone because of that decision.
One second it had been silent; birds whistling from the trees and the next a roaring fireball had erupted from the two gunmen. The truck had lifted into the air engulfed with flame, and had come back down a split second later a twisted, shattered wreck. The roof ripped open crudely as if a giant can opener had done the job: Glass gone, body twisted. Blackened shapes, still moving, clearly seen through the flames.
I had hit the brakes, somehow convinced I had driven over something in the road. The Mexican, maybe Kat and that had distracted me further. As I had lifted my eyes I had seen the men squatting beside another truck, run forward toward the car dealership office. The truck had bounced back down, all but destroyed, and meandered across the road where it had rolled down into the ditch. That was all I had, probably all there was until now.
How long ago had that been, I wondered as I pushed my way from the steering wheel and the crumpled remains of a scorched airbag. The door levered open, a miracle, I thought, and I went to step down to the ground and fell instead. My hand clutched at the seat as I fell sideways and the strap of the machine pistol that was there came with me as I went.
A truck burned nearby. I puzzled over that, I couldn’t remember the truck at all, as I passed it I could feel the heat from the fire. I froze for what seemed like a long time trying to orient myself, make sense of what I last remembered, and what I now saw. Time did nothing to sort it out. It still made no sense. All I knew for sure was that time was disappearing and the locals, Federales or whatever there might be around these parts would be here soon. Pain had flared everywhere and the black curtain had threatened to descend once more.
I looked up, the moon was high in the sky, bloated, bright silver.
I moved slower, and while it had been close I had managed to fight past the first pain when I had moved.
My left leg was bad. Not broken, but cut badly, maybe sprung. I used part of my shirt to wrap my leg as I let my head clear. That was when the Mexican had staggered up to me dragging Kat. He said something, but I had no real comprehension of his words. I blinked and he was gone, and that was when I realized he had never been there at all.
My head was worse. Pain inside every time I tried to move too fast. It felt like liquid sloshing around inside my head, my brain shifting with it, slamming into the bone cage of my skull, and I wondered if it were true: If my brain really was sloshing around in a sea of blood, slamming into the bone cage that was my skull or just something my mind provided in explanation of the pain. As I sat the pain eased enough for me to stand. Standing helped to ease it even more and I began to search.
What was left was hard to understand at first. Pieces. An arm here, a leg there, bones blackened in the wreckage. A pool of blood where someone had lain. No other blood anywhere, and more than enough pieces and bones to make me sick. The office was empty. There was a small puddle of blood near the steel doors put I refused to believe that meant anything at all. I carefully walked the back lot, nothing. I may have gone on until I ended up in a Mexican prison cell if I had not suddenly remembered where I was and what my situation was. I had limped back into the office. Took the set of keys for the Red and White Chevy pickup and headed out back to find it. I had found the truck and yanked the door open, when I found myself doubled up and vomiting on the broken asphalt.
Vomiting had pulled the pain back full force and I found myself curled into a ball of pain once again. I forced myself up into the truck, started it and drove to the back door. A few moments later I had wrestled the black bags into the truck and was diving from the lot. I passed a small group of villagers a few hundred feet past the car lot and idled to a stop.
“Habla English?” I tried. “Habla?” I was rusty, no doubt. Was it Habla or Hablo? I couldn’t get my brain to work it seemed.
“Si,” an old woman said with a heavy accent.
“Man?… Amigo? Chica? My friends, a girl and a man? Did you see them?”
A young girl, maybe ten spoke up instead. “They took them…” She turned and pointed down the road. The old woman spoke and the child waited. “Sonora… A little place outside of Sonora. Mother thinks they will kill them or they are dead already: If they live they will ransom them. She says, Vamoose, la Federales will be here soon.”
I nodded. It was enough to know, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it now. Right now I needed to get somewhere and fix myself up. I nodded once more, and the black cloud that had been drifting closer to me descended completely and I slipped over the edge into the darkness.
The room was dark. The walls were adobe, or something made to look like adobe. I reached out one hand and touched the wall. Adobe. Smooth, cool to the touch. The little girls face suddenly appeared from the darkness. She had apparently been lying next to the bed.
“Why are you sleeping there,” I asked her. It was a wonder that I thought to whisper, and it was probably only due to my lack of water that I had.
“You are sleeping in my bed,” she whispered back.
My head was better, but my leg seemed worse. I had no idea how I had gotten here. I tried to move, to sit up and she stopped me. I got far enough up to see that my leg was heavily bandaged up past the knee. A second later I had passed out once more, sunken down into the black hole that seemed to draw me.
I looked down at the car’s interior. Key’s hung from the switch. I didn’t have a lot of hope, but I twisted the key and the starter began to turn over: Slow, barely there, but then it picked up speed in a rush and the car stuttered to life, coughed, nearly quit, and then smoothed out and began to warm up.
The car had come from cash I had found in one of the bags. Mary, that was the little girl, had an uncle who had purchased the car and delivered it to me early that morning. I had given her some cash, but her grandmother had made her give it back. In the end that was probably for the best. I was out of whatever was going on, but all four of the bags held a great deal of cash. I had no doubt that someone would come looking for it. No sense sending up alarms by giving a poor family what amounted to a fortune. Neighbors would know: Friends; there would be no hiding it.
The muffler was loud, one side of the windshield was a stared mess, but the gas gauge stood at three quarters of a tank. I shifted the car into first and pulled from the side of the road bumping over the cracked and tilted pavement as I went.
The driving was slow going, but four hours later I reached the outskirts of Phoenix. Was I really this close to home the last few days and nights? How much time had slipped by, I wondered, but I had no answers.
When I reached Logan street I pulled into the garage and shut the door..
The old Ford sat where we had left it, blood and gore baked a deep marron to black in the heat of the garage.
The leg was bad, swollen against the pants material, the rags that had been wrapped around it had stopped the blood flow, but had done nothing for infection. I sat in a kitchen chair, peeled the rags away now, taking a good part of my skin with it and looked the wound over.
Something had punched a deep hole into my leg. The area that had pulled away was oozing puss now the skin around it red and swollen. I had taken a bottle of peroxide from the bathroom, some antibiotic creme, iodine and some bandage; all of it old, but still, I hoped, useful. I scrounged up a fast meal while I worked up the nerve to work on the leg. I probably wouldn’t feel like eating afterwards.
I had no fever, and I counted that as a good thing. I finished some crackers and three bottles of cheap beer before I limped off to find what I still needed. In an old box in my grandmothers bedroom I found a small knitting needle. The point was sharp. It was wide enough to allow me to push it in to get to the abscess I was sure was there. I carried it back to the kitchen then decided maybe something more than the beer to help with the pain might help: I searched, but there was nothing stronger than the beer.
The drug store nearby probably had some pain pills I could get without a prescription, but I would have to get dressed, chance driving the little car, or worse yet the old Ford, and that was too much risk. Maybe later, I decided. I had an old prescription for antibiotics I had filled and never used. The doctor had given me enough samples to see me through, and so I had never taken the prescription. It had sat in the medicine cabinet for a few months, but I was sure that it would still be okay. Besides, it would have to be; it was all that I had. Reluctantly I limped back to the kitchen and sat on the floor with my back against the cabinets as I arranged the items I needed around me.
The peroxide came first. I poured half the bottle over the wound. It bubbled and then ran across the worn kitchen floor as it dripped from my leg. There was some pain, but the bubbling and foam that appeared told me what I had already guessed, the infection was bad.
I spun the top off the iodine, spilled a little into the dimple of the puncture wound and then inserted the knitting needle into the bottle and left it to soak in the iodine. I was reasonably sure it would disinfect it. The pain was intense when the iodine hit the raw wound, but it abated after a few moments. I picked up the needle, but just touching the wound with it sent shock waves of pain up my leg.
I stopped, stretched backwards against the cabinets bracing myself firmly. My breathing was hard and fast, tears had squirted from my eyes and stained my dirty cheeks as they rolled away to my jaw line. Sweat had instantly broke out on my brow: I couldn’t stop at a mere touch; I had to shove the needle down far enough to be sure I punctured the abscess so it would drain. I steeled myself, took a deep breath, centered the needle over the dimple and drove it down into my leg before I could think any more about it. The pain came fast, but my mind shut down just as quickly.
I had awakened hours later; the sunlight lower through the front windows. The leg was draining freely, fresh blood now, but I could see that the poison had also drained. My head felt better, my stomach more settled. I took my time and grimaced only slightly as I poured first the remaining peroxide into the wound and then the balance of the iodine. Both hurt, but the pain was nothing like it had been. Antibiotic cream and some bandage and I was finished. I sat staring down at my hands. Dirt, blood, who knew what else. I made my feet and limped off to my bedroom. A few moments later I closed my eyes where I was stretched out on the bed. The blackness finally closing in completely.
A few days of rest had made a huge difference in how I felt and my leg had responded as I had hoped it would. It was still stiff, something was wrong in the knee, maybe, but I could walk and the more I walked the better I felt. I sat in a chair on my front porch now, drinking hot coffee: Morning was coming on: It was still early, the neighborhood was a crazy place at night, but during the daylight hours you would never know just how dangerous it could be after dark.
I had believed I would never see my own house on Logan Street again. It was both amazing and unbelievable at the same time. Like I was simply waiting for the other shoe to drop. Something was still going to happen. Just that uneasiness in you after something really bad happens to you. I guess you might not know about that if nothing really bad has ever happened to you.
A little work and I had managed to clean up the Ford: All while I was doing it I had no idea why I was doing it. I had driven it to the drug store, picked up more supplies and even managed to get the antibiotics prescription refilled. It had, had a refill and it had been good for ninety days. I had just made that deadline. The grocery store. There was a cord of wood that had been stacked outside the back steps that led down into the basement forever. I couldn’t remember how many years. I had never used the wood stove after the new heating system had been put in, but in the old days my grandfather had heated the entire house with it. I had promised myself that someday I would yank it out. I was glad I had never gotten around to it.
I had taken another dose of antibiotics, along with three aspirin, and had fallen asleep in my own bed and slept for… I don’t know how long, but time didn’t really matter a great deal anymore. I had slept a long time. I didn’t know how long a period and I didn’t care. I only cared that I had awakened with the headache gone, the swelling in my leg lessened, and the redness mostly gone when I redressed the wounds, and it had been Wednesday morning. That seemed unbelievable to me, but it was true. I had taken another dose of the antibiotics, skipped the aspirin, and restocked the wood stove before I ate a breakfast of canned meat and toast made on the top of the glowing wood stove.
I had been sitting there trying to figure out what to do. Something, maybe while I had slept, had worked its way into my brain and it would not leave. What if, my thoughts had asked, What if Kat was not dead? What if she had survived? Wouldn’t they have wanted to keep her alive? And the Mexican?
It troubled me because how could I know it? I had been badly injured, I had looked around, but right now in the clear light of a day removed by a few days of rest I couldn’t be sure what I had seen. What I had looked at. How well I had searched. Whether she was there, gone, dead, alive. There was no way to know, except… Well, except to go back and find out, my mind supplied.
I sat there sipping at the hot coffee looking for reasons to ignore the thought that had just seemed to drop in on me, but I could not. I had four bags full of money and who knew what all: I still had not completely checked them over, yet I had to go back. I had to be sure. And it wasn’t just about Kat, maybe she was gone, maybe she wasn’t, but what about the Mexican? They had probably ignored me because I had appeared dead. I must have appeared dead. Hell, I had been halfway to dead. They must have checked the truck, thought I was dead and left me. Didn’t that mean that the other two were alive? Wouldn’t they be? Wouldn’t they have left them if they had been dead? What good to them would they have been?
I sighed, leaned forward, and the legs of the chair came back down to the floorboards of the porch. There was nothing for it and no reason to put it off. There was nothing here. This life was dead. Dead as dog shit, as they used to say. What had happened had completely changed me. I didn’t belong here anymore. But going could get me killed, I thought.
“It could get you killed,” I said aloud. And it could, I agreed with myself, with my own thoughts, but that made no difference either. I stood drained the cup and set it down empty on the rail. A half hour later I was winding through the stalled traffic heading out of Phoenix toward Mexico.
I sat quietly in the dark, my weapons gathered around me. I had gathered them from their own arsenals and they hadn’t even missed them. They, the people running this section of the small town in the Sonora, might think they had their shit together, but they were nothing but amateurs. They were brave because they did not expect anyone to attack them. They believed that they had bribed the right politicians and police and the townspeople were thoroughly frightened of them. Who could touch them? So they had taken no precautions at all. They took no care with what they did or how they did it. They posted guards who whiled away their guard duty playing cards and drinking.
I had looked the weapons over several times. Thought out my plans more than a dozen times: There was nothing left, but to do it.
I had seen enough to know what was going on here. The entire territory had been divided by different gangs. I had watched for the last two days and nights. Walking boldly where I wished to in the daylight, sticking to the hard shadows through the night. I couldn’t ask for a better picture. At night the small village lit up, the soldiers walked the streets. Whores that worked for the gangs plied their trade: Drunken fights erupted.
The village lights gave the outlaws a false sense of security at night. I had worked my way in and seen everything I needed to see, and then made my way back out in the gray light of morning that first day. Since then I had slipped easily back and forth across their lines as if they didn’t exist.
I had started with the wreck. It sat where I had left it, on the outskirts of the city, resting in the ditch. I had walked by on the road with some locals on their way into the outlaw village and looked it over as we passed. The car lot itself had been full of workers, but no police or Federales had been there.
Nightfall had paid dividends. I had followed a returning group on foot with prisoners and slipped right back into their protected area along with them. From there I had simply followed those they had bought in as they were pulled and shoved along the streets to a small hovel of run down shacks that bordered a huge open dumping area.
The shacks were guarded, but again they were guarded to make sure no one escaped, not to keep people from slipping in. And even that was slip shod. It had been late today before I had seen her, and I had wept freely as they had dragged her from the buildings front door along with the Mexican and a few others I didn’t recognize. Apparently they kidnapped anyone along the roads that lead through Sonora. The ransom business paid well in some cases. In other cases where ransom could not be obtained, life was cheap. They could sell those they could not ransom, work the others to death in the desert heat.
I had shuddered to think of what they might have been through over the last few days before I had made my escape and then finally decided to come back. It was too much to take in, and so I had to shut it down and follow them as they were dragged through the hard packed streets, barefoot, to another building and turned over to armed men there.
My mind had screamed at me, Do something! Do something right now! But my common sense had fought it down. That would be suicide. It would benefit no one. It would surely get me killed and probably them too if they realized that I had come here to free them.
They had not been long at the building, those that had bought them had stood around talking. Low tones, subdued, it seems they were none too happy about their own circumstances. It had been on the way back, after they had brought them back out and were headed back to their prison that I had overheard their conversation.
The Mexican was alive because they suspected that he had connections and that those connections would pay for his release. So far he had failed to contact them, but they had beaten him several times. Most likely they would kill him soon if he didn’t reach them.
Kat was a different story. She had been brought over to be looked over by a rival gang who might purchase her as part of some trade. From the sounds of the conversation they had liked what they had seen. The deal would go down tomorrow if they decided to go with it: If I intended to get them out alive it would have to be tonight.
It had not taken long to gather what I needed. I had found weapons of every kind. Rifles, pistols, knives, hand grenades even. I had stolen them and bought them to the open dump in back of the ramshackle housing where I had been hiding and watching the prison. There was nothing left to do.
The dump was the perfect place to wait out nightfall. The smell of fresh garbage loads as they were dumped had made me sure at first that I would not be able to stay there, but the same things that nearly drove me out kept everyone else away and several hours into my wait I realized I could no longer smell the putrid mounds of garbage.
A few minutes before as I sat watching the guard had changed. The night shift consisted of only two guards and they were already sharing a joint together out back of the buildings. I heard their low voices and laughter as I worked my way through the twisting mounds of garbage, bringing only what I needed, and around to the front of the house.
I hesitated at the front door. I was fairly certain there was no one inside, but I couldn’t be positive. Anyone could have slipped in while I was out in the dump and unable to see the front of the house. I closed my eyes for a moment, shifted the pistol in my hand slightly and then reached down and turned the knob.
The door swung open to a dark interior. Cold, no heat… No sounds. I stepped inside.
It had almost gone without a hitch. It had taken me a few minutes for my eyes to adjust, but once they had I had set off through the house. I thought back on it as I bent my weight to the shovel I was using, digging more out of the bottom of the shallow grave…
As I had searched my ears had begun to tell me things too: They were upstairs; I could hear minute creaks as body weight shifted on the floors above me. I could hear weeping from somewhere above me too. The sound made a sob catch in my throat before I choked it back and headed for the stairs.
The Mexican had been out in the open, tied to a post for the railing. I had caught him in the process of trying to fight his way free. His mouth was gagged, but he immediately stopped his struggles when I came into view at the top of the stairs. I bent forward carefully, the step creaking loudly and cut the bonds on his wrists. A second later I was passing The Mexican a pistol as he worked to free his jaw up. I passed him a canteen, and The Mexican sipped carefully, his lips blistered and cut, before he handed it back. His voice was scratchy, rusted.
“Kill the ones out there?” The Mexican asked in his whisper croak. His eyes were hard.
I shook my head. “They’re getting high… Won’t be a problem… Where is Kat?”
The Mexican motioned with his head and we started down the hallway. He stopped in front of a door. “One of the guards went in a little while ago… Probably… Probably…” He shook his head.
I whispered, “We’ll go on three, fast, but don’t let the door make a lot of noise. Try to stab him, not shoot… Don’t want to alert those others.” I held the Mexican’s eyes until he nodded.
I turned the knob slowly and counted down quickly. My shoulder hit the door, but it didn’t give completely, just flexed, cracked loudly, and then sprang back at us. I cursed under my breath.
“Take it down, take it fuckin’ down,” the Mexican whisper croaked.”
The door splintered and finally opened. The guard inside was waiting, a gun in one hand, the form of a nude female beside him, a vague shape tied to a chair across the room. A hand rose and pulled the gun down. The gun went off as we were tackling the man, and then everything went bad fast.
I drew my knife across his throat to cut off a scream that had begun, but I knew it was too late. The Mexican scrambled up and made his way to the chair and began untying the woman there. I bent, pushed the man aside and saw Kat. She moved quickly and I pulled her to her feet. We were out the door seconds later, all armed with the pistols I had bought, scrambling down the stairs two at a time. The front door burst in as we hit the bottom of the stairs and the two men that burst through never stood a chance. We shoot them point blank and then ran over the top of them as they were still falling and spilled out into the night.
The whole area was on alert. The guards were out, dogs running everywhere, I saw. The dogs were no problem. It wasn’t like the movies, the dogs didn’t know who they were looking for. We managed to make it three blocks north, nearly out, before I realized that the other girl the Mexican had grabbed had been hit. She stumbled, he pulled her to her feet, but she stumbled again and when I looked back I saw the blood that covered her entire side and soaked her leg. There was no time, I bent and took her over my shoulder, hearing her cry out in pain as I did, feeling my leg scream out as well; threatening to buckle, but there had been no other option. We had made the open desert a few moments later and had, had to stop while we planned our next move.
There were too many of them. Dozens searching, but they were not trained to do it. Most of them had never hunted, didn’t know how to watch or even what to look for. I had lain the girl, Amber I found out later, on the ground and Kat had pulled her into her arms and held her, both crying silently. Behind us, several blocks back at the house where they had been held the grenades I had rigged to a timer finally went off. The men scattered, ran, started to regroup and then began to run through the streets back to where they had been. I picked up Amber again and ran through the darkness, sticking to the deepest shadows for the next half mile until we were well beyond the city and the gangs that were out looking for us.
The Mexican and I collapsed onto the ground and Kat held Amber as she died. Dawn had not been far away so we had taken refuge in a nearby barn and waited the day away. No one had come near. We had rested up during that time and when it was dark once more we had left the shelter and brought Amber with us…
Now I bent to the shovel once again. We had all taken turns and the hole was nearly done. I took a deep breath, stepped away from the hole and the others nodded. A second later we were lowering Amber into the hole.
She was dressed in the same blood soaked clothing we had taken her from the house in just a short time before: Her face pasty white and smeared with dried blood, but peaceful nonetheless. A half hour later we were moving again, staying to the fields as we went and away from the dirt road that meandered through the countryside. We had a half mile to travel, a short distance, I had thought when I had hidden the old Ford I had driven here in, but a long walk now that we knew they might be anywhere looking for us. We finished up the trip a short time later and made our way to the falling down garage next to a flattened diner where I had hidden the truck.
We had traveled through the long night with virtually nothing. No water. No food, a couple of coats and that was it. The truck was a welcome sight with its cache of food and water, and we had spent the next hour just sitting quietly, eating, replenishing our fluids, not talking.
“You were dead,” Kat said at last. “The guy went over, kicked you in the head, was going to shoot you in the head, but he decided not to because you were dead.” Her eyes were bright, tears perched on the lids ready to fall. They fell as The Mexican spoke.
“I couldn’t do anything, Billy. Nothing.”
I caught my own emotions. They had been right on my sleeve for days, it seemed. I took a minute and composed myself.
“Alive. I was alive. I came to and thought all of you had died. I was in bad shape, bleeding, leg messed up… I thought you were dead.” I stopped, gained my composure once more and then started again. “ Later, back in Phoenix, I couldn’t remember if I looked well enough: If I remembered it right, If I made sure you were dead, but I decided I didn’t. I didn’t and it ate at me.” My throat tightened up and I had to stop. “So I came back,” I said at last.
Kat came to him and hugged him. “Thank you,” she said. “I am glad you did.”
The Mexican nodded and we all fell silent once more. Kat wiped at her eyes and then stood and walked away. “Sorry… They were about to trade us… Amber…” She choked. “Amber and me.” The tears nearly overtook her once more, but she fought them back.
“Okay… So we go back to Phoenix again… I have my house set up. We go back and decide what’s next.” He looked down at his leg. Blood had seeped through the bandages. “Leg’s shot,” I said by way of explanation. The silence held for a second.
“I should look at that,” Kat said.
“Later,” I agreed. I looked at the Mexican. “Ready.”
“Yeah. Yeah I am.”
“Okay, let’s get going. I want to be as far away from this fucking place as I can be by daylight tomorrow.” A few minutes later we were running a fast as we dared in the moonlight, heading back toward Phoenix.
I sat on my front steps and quietly stared over Linden street. The Mexican had made a few phone calls and set up a new meet to conclude whatever deal he had been meaning to conclude. We were nearly a week to the day late, but he was determined to conclude it and no amount of argument from me could dissuade him. In the next few hours we would leave and head back to the garage where we had met Kat and conclude the deal.
His head wound looked ominous to me. Swollen. Discolored and angry red at the edges of the entry wound and oozing puss. I had caught him looking it over in the mirror, but he had refused to discuss it. How could you live like that I asked myself for the hundredth time. You couldn’t, I acknowledged. You couldn’t.
“Hey,” Kat from beside him. I had been slipping deeper into thought again.
“You were drifting away,” She said, as if she had read my thoughts.
She did that a lot lately, caught me, or I drifted a lot lately, maybe both. “I was… I was thinking about all of it. I think we should go with him and then light out on our own once it’s over,” I raised my eyes to hers. We hadn’t spoken of the change in our relationship but we were spending the nights together. It had simply happened and I didn’t want to lose that.
“As legit as anything in this world,” she shrugged. She looked around the street and other houses. “Can’t stay here… I know you know that.”
“I know.” I looked at her and waited for her acknowledging nod.
“We can head to Alabama… I know the coast pretty well… We can be there in a few days,” Kat added.
“Anybody join this conversation?” The Mexican asked as he walked out of the house and sat down next to Billy. Billy Laughed.
“Join in. We were talking about Alabama… After,” Kat said.
“Ah… It’s a no-brainer though, isn’t it?” The Mexican asked.
“We think so,” Billy agreed. His face was pensive.
“Got concerns, amigo?” The Mexican asked.
“Same old stuff. Really it’s all about whether you are coming with us or not,” Billy said.
The Mexican nodded. “I think so… I’ve been thinking about it too,” he sighed.
Kat raised her eyebrows.
“The finality of it all. I mean finishing this is a matter of honor… Not to these scum… These putas, but to me,” The Mexican said after a lengthy pause.
Billy nodded. “I get it. It’s the same for me. That’s what we were just talking about. So,” Billy brushed his hands against his, jeans and then stood from the step. He flexed his leg. Stiff but pain free. It needed exercise to work it out. “I guess we should go get a truck and get moving.”
Kat and The Mexican stood with him. “Where you think for a decent truck?” The Mexican asked.
“Probably check out on the strip. There are a few custom shops out there, about a dozen car dealerships and a few truck dealerships. I’d like to find something setup for off road. Save us some time screwing around… Probably save road time too. Those places are used to cash deals. It won’t raise eyebrows.”
“Makes sense,” The Mexican agreed.
Billy reached over and retrieved his rifle from where it rested against the porch post. He slung it over his shoulder and shrugged once to make it comfortable. “We,” he stared into the open doorway into the house and then stopped. “We don’t need anything here. We were running low all the way around, about time to resupply.” He took two quick steps to the door, tugged at the handle and began to close it. He stopped with the door still partway open and laughed uneasily. “Guess it doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. Kat smiled, a small, sad smile and she shrugged and turned away.
“Not really,” The Mexican agreed.
Billy released the door handle, turned and stepped down off the porch. He turned and looked at the house once they were a few hundred feet away. He walked backwards, taking it in for the last time. He turned and caught up to Kat and The Mexican. He didn’t look back again.
The Gas Station Again
We almost made it in one piece. We stopped at a little diner just over the border to wait out the afternoon. The place looked mostly deserted, empty at least of bad guys. A half dozen vehicles scattered across the lot. A worn out church bus, parked to one side with a dozen villagers gathered around it. Flies buzzing, the sun beating down hotly and a few scrawny chickens pecking at the hard pan of the parking lot.
We had all three climbed out of the truck to stretch our legs after looking around, but all three of us had not been so complacent as to leave our weapons behind and it was good we had brought them with us as just as we crossed through the glass front doors into the cool interior of the small diner they had opened up on us from the direction of the bus. We scattered in different directions. I turned as I jumped sideways through the storm of flying glass and saw the old church bus lurch forward, back around and then head for the diner at a crawl, the driver ducking down behind the wheel and then stealing looks over the top of it occasionally to adjust course. I shut everything else out, focused on the spot on the steering wheel rim where I had seen him and then squeezed off a shot when he popped back up. He went down; I was sure I hit him but there was not time to wonder.
As the truck lumbered toward us we opened up on it in an effort to stop it. I rolled, re-gained my feet, and opened up on two men running alongside it and trying to use it for cover. We had the advantage. The diner was cool and dark inside, the parking lot was bright sunshine and we had no trouble seeing the men in it. They were both dead before the bus rolled over them, dragging one of the men with it as it suddenly turned hard right and skimmed past the front doors; the driver bouncing lifelessly behind the wheel, and then headed back toward the road and crashed into the ditch on the opposite side, a long red smear marked its trail across the road.
I turned to look back for the Mexican, but he was already stepping through the shattered glass and stepping around the long countertop he had apparently been behind: Limping I saw; an alarming amount of blood seeping from one leg, staining that leg of his pants nearly red. I became aware of a stinging sensation on the side of my cheek, and just as I raised my hand to touch my face the Mexican spoke up.
“Let me see,” he said, pushing my hand away from my face, “Amigo, you got hit.”
I thought at first that it had been the flying glass from the front windows, but he quickly crushed that train of thought when he said. “Looks like one of the rounds that took out the windows got you, Billy. It’s gonna scar, but you’ll live.” He sounded calm as he spoke.
I raised my eyebrows, “You okay?”
“Took one in the leg, I think,” he replied.
The entire right pant leg was shredded as well as being soaked with blood, and as he carefully pulled the material away from his leg to get a better look, I could see the torn flesh beneath. I remember thinking, It didn’t look good. I had him lean on me as we hurriedly headed for one of the booths at the front of the diner. I brushed the glass away from the cheap vinyl set top and eased the Mexican down on it. I pulled out a small pocket knife, and quickly cut away the remainder of the pants leg.
The wound was bad, I could see, but thankfully it didn’t look life threatening. With all the blood I had been convinced I would find that one of the large arteries of the leg had been nicked or even severed. That wasn’t the case however and the flow of blood was already beginning to slow. I folded the pant leg into a small square, and held it over the wound to further slow the bleeding. “Billy,” he said, “I got a first aid kit in the suitcase. Stitch it up. Green one… Bolsillo… Side pocket… Zippered.”
“Going,” I said. I sprinted across the parking lot, looking everywhere at once, I saw nothing at all, but, I reminded myself, we had seen nothing at all when we had driven in here. I grabbed the green suitcase and opened the side flap like he told me and pulled out a flat leather wrapped package from inside. I kept my eyes searching outside as I came back, but I saw nothing. The only sound was of the bus which was still running in the ditch across the road. I opened the first aid kit, knelt and the Mexican took a container of dental floss and threaded the curved needle.
“You’ll have to do it,” he said.
I nodded, took the needle and began stitching as best I could: A rough job, but the Mexican said nothing as I did it. I clipped the ends with a pair of fingernail clippers that were in the kit.
“Dios,” he said as I finished, but a small smile appeared over the tight set of his teeth.
I smiled back, surprised that either of us could, but a glance over at the crumpled form of Kat’s body quickly wiped away the smile She was pushed up against the back of the counter. Even from here I could see that her head looked strangely misshapen. I began to rise, on auto pilot I guess and the Mexican caught my forearm and pulled me back down.
“Don’t,” the Mexican said. “It isn’t pretty. They got her immediately… Nothing we can do for her…”
I swallowed hard several times, fighting back tears. “I’m getting another truck,” I said as I turned and walked over to the front doors. “Stands to reason they know what we are driving.”
Three of the vehicles in the lot were trucks. I found a set of keys in an old sun faded GMC. This truck was old and stripped down with a bare interior, and nearly bald tires. It turned right over though and I thanked God mentally for being in ranch country where most trucks were like this, got in and a few minutes later we were idling our way back across the lot. The Mexican was quiet, resting against the passenger door. “How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Not bad, but I am about to feel much better, amigo,” he said, raising a small pint of whiskey. He took a deep sip and then offered it to me. I took a pretty good hit and the heat that burned its way into my belly seemed to straighten my head out quickly. I handed the bottle back and he made it disappear inside his jacket.
I eased up onto the roadway. It was clear in both directions. My eyes swept over the drying smear of blood across the road, that was now drawing flies, and I shuddered involuntarily. I turned right and found a small campground a few miles back down the road, just outside of the town.
The place was deserted so I drove down into the dirt parking area and parked by what was advertised as a lake but looked more like a swampy pond. The roof line of a rusted Chevy Impala rose just above the foul smelling water. It was near dawn. The sun a red line on the horizon. I wore no watch, but the Mexican kept track of time on his.
The Mexican was bad off, coughing and spitting blood out of the window every few minutes. But he said nothing. Never complained.
We sat and watched the sunrise, listening as the birds woke in the trees and began to call back and forth to each other. Finally he looked at his wrist one last time, just as morning was coming on full, and told me to drive to the gas station.
Along The Border
I had thought the place would be crowded with cops; gunmen, something, but I was wrong. The hound dog still slept in the open garage bay doorway, and the thin man with the greasy-black hair was now wrenching on an old Chevy. The hanging phone handset had been replaced, the blood cleaned away except on the wall where it had dried to a maroon smear. Untouched.
“Check that fuckin’ phone… Make sure it works,” the Mexican said. I got out and checked for a dial tone, nodded at the Mexican, just hung it back on the hook and it immediately rang in my hand.
“Well answer the thing… Dios,” the Mexican spat. He went into a coughing spasm. I picked up the phone, and an unintelligible string of Spanish launched itself into my ear. I held it away. “For you,” I said.
He groaned and levered himself from the truck, stumbled, and then made his way to the pay phone. He took the gun with him. He spoke calmly into the phone for a short time. No rushed spate of Spanish this time, but a low murmur that I could not make any more sense of than I had the rushed torrent. After a time he took the headset from his ear, pressed it against his chest and spoke to me in a near whisper.
“Take this fuckin’ gun, amigo.” He handed me the gun that was all splattered with gore and he pulled a second one, equally messy, from his coat pocket. “Watch our backs, blanquito” he told me. Thankfully when the gun hit my palm I automatically thumbed off the safety.
As I stood there, feeling how solid the weight of that gun was in my hand. How calming that could be, I heard the suck of rubber against the asphalt, the way it will when the road is really hot; the way it will get sometimes in the desert. And the morning was hot, the road hotter still.
The car slowed and pulled into the station. I saw none of that but only perceived it from what my ears told me. A short conversation in Spanish between someone in the car and probably the thin man with the greasy-black hair wrenching on the Chevy, and I knew that someone would be coming around the side of the gas station in a matter of seconds.
The Mexican heard the same things. He hung up the phone and put one finger to his lips, lurched his way back over to the truck and leaned against the front of the grill for support. His gun pointed over the hood. Not knowing what else to do I slipped back behind the passenger door and followed suit.
“We should be good… Don’t just start killing… But you be ready ’cause you never know, muchacho.”
Three of them came around the corner. Two men I hadn’t seen, and the greasy-haired thin man. He stopped short when he saw the guns aimed at him.
“Dios Mio,” he stuttered.
“Vamos,” the Mexican said. The greasy-haired thin man slipped backwards and then disappeared around the corner. The other two, hard eyed older men, stood their ground. No weapons in their hands. Silence held for what seemed a long while.
“Well, you got it,” one of the oldsters asked. It came with such a thick accent that I had to take the time to figure out what he’d said… “Chew gat et?”
The conversation switched to a quick flurry of Spanish then. That went back and forth between the two men and the Mexican for a few minutes and then silence came back so hard I could hear a bird calling in the distance: The sound of a big rig on the highway, and that was a few miles away. One of the oldsters nodded, turned, and walked away. He came back around the corner of the building a few minutes later with two large duffel bags and tossed them on the ground between us. They slid a couple of feet towards us and then stopped in front of the truck.
“Get them bags, amigo,” the Mexican told me.
I looked at him like he was crazy. But of course he was crazy and there was nothing I could do except come around the hood; pistol in one hand and my eyes on those two older men.
I stopped by the hood when I suddenly realized that I had a problem. I could not pick up both duffel bags without putting the gun away. I debated briefly, stuffed the gun into the waistband of my pants and picked up the bags.
“In the cab,” the Mexican said. I Levered the door of the cab open and set them inside. “Get them suitcases.”
The two men came forward and lifted out the suitcases from the bed of the truck. The Mexican and the two others stared at each other for a few moments, then the oldsters walked away. I watched them turn the corner and they were gone.
I started to get back into the truck when the Mexican wagged his head and put one finger to his lips. I pulled my gun back out, scared to death. It was maybe a second after I got the gun back in my hand that the two came back around the corner, looking to take us out.
I shot first. Unintended: Pure reaction; the gun was in my hand and happened to be pointed in that direction and I fired out of reflex. One of the oldsters heads exploded. Something tugged at my collar and then the Mexican dropped the other guy. A second… Less than a second and it was over. The silence didn’t come again, this time there were sounds in the silence. The hound dog up and baying. Excited voices in Spanish somewhere close by.
“Now we go,” the Mexican said. “Now we go, amigo.”
I needed no coaching I was in the truck and backing out of the gas station fast. The rear tires hopping and screeching on the pavement. A black Caddy sat on the tarmac, just past the pumps, engine idling. The doors hung open.
“Stop!… Stop!” The Mexican yelled. “Get them bags back!”
I stalled the truck; stopping without pushing the clutch in, ran to the Caddy and got the bags along with two others from the back seat. I threw them all into the back of the truck and I had started back to the driver side when the Mexican shot.
I didn’t think I just hit the ground and I didn’t come back up until the Mexican began cursing at me to get back in the truck. I looked back at the gas station when I did. The man with the greasy-black hair lay sprawled in the open stall. A shot gun off to one side. The hound dog stood stiffly, head in the air, howling. Blood ran from the man’s body toward a floor drain. Voices raised in Spanish, loud; somewhere close by. And the Mexican yelling at me. I threw myself into the cab, got the truck started and got out of there fast. And here I am now running across the desert heading to Mexico.
The rest of this time has been fast driving. I kept expecting the cops at any moment, but they never showed up. I didn’t even know the Mexican had been shot again until later on when I realized he was coughing up less blood and sounded as though we were drowning instead. I could not even say when it was that he died, but sometime late afternoon if I had to guess. He had not spoken in some time and when I looked over at him his lips had turned gray.
When I pulled him out to bury him in a little dry wash off the highway I saw a new hole in the upper part of his chest. Right through the shirt and into the lung on that side, I guessed. Two chest shots, and a head shot, and he had still been going. I couldn’t see how he had lived so I wasn’t surprised that he had died.
He died well. As well as can be expected considering it’s dead after all. He didn’t cry or beg, or curse. He just died: Slipped away.
More than a week of hell with this man and I didn’t even know his name. There had to be some sort of irony in there, didn’t there?
I thought about the girl, Kat, what had she been doing out in the border towns all alone? No answers. No answers for any of it.
After I buried the Mexican I checked the suitcases and duffel bags. After all, they were mine now and I wanted to know what everybody was in such a hurry to die for.
The duffel bags were no surprise. They were stuffed full of money and guns. They were big duffel bags. They held a lot: An awful lot.
Two of the suitcases were surprises. I thought drugs, what else do people get killed for? But, no.
Of the others, one held more money, clothes and passports. I.D. That sort of stuff. All with the Mexican’s picture. It was the other two suitcases that shocked me. One contained the body of a dead dog. Shot full of holes and stuffed in there.
The other held the head and hands of someone I was sure was wishing he had them back. The last two suitcases did contain drugs. More than I’d ever seen in one place before. cocaine. Neat little bricks of it. Had to be a few million dollars right there, And maybe easy money too, I found myself thinking. Then I thought of the girl again, Kat and I shuddered. She was dead because of it. So was the Mexican, but the Mexican had been in it. She and I hadn’t.
I took out the money and added it to the duffel bags. I buried the cocaine and the dog along with the Mexican. I had no idea what the suitcases were all about. I still don’t and I don’t want to know. I do know there was a fortune in cocaine and I did not want to tempt myself with it.
I got the truck cleaned up at one of those self car washes on the Mexican side of the border, turned off the highway with a full tank of gas a few miles up the road from there, and I’m running in the moonlight. I’ve got the Mexican’s map. I hope to find a road before I run out of gas. I figure I’ll work my way down deep into Mexico as far as I can go. I don’t know from there, there hasn’t been time to think about where…
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