Dawson stepped down from the driver’s side of the van, Muller walked around to meet him laughing, ricocheting off the van. Muller joined in the overdone laughter, both of them finger-pointing about who cut the fart. They threw in a few distracting theatrical fore-and-aft bends with a lot of hand movement. I wasn’t buying.
“Hands where I can see ‘em, the fart act is spare. Muller, you can pull the party store contacts when the dust settles.” He frowned, went slope-shouldered hangdog.
Dawson beamed me a game show host smile. “Hey, pilot, you wake up alone or what?”
“Let’s cut the shit. Whoever you are, who the fuck you belong to?”
I waited what I felt appropriate for a ‘busted, gather thy bullshit’ stall, brought the pistol to bear sighted on Dawson’s forehead. He froze.
“That bitch is cocked.”
“Said one two-dollar whore about another. I asked a question.”
Muller, who had yet to say a word, shot Dawson a look. “We’re done.” Muller went on in a nasal monotone. “He’s Secret Service. I’m Treasury.”
“Good thing I didn’t shoot you both when you got out of the van.”
“Now that,” Dawson said, “would be a shit pile of paperwork for somebody. Care to know why?”
“Fuck that, Dawson,” Muller moaned. “He doesn’t care. He’s gonna kill us like he killed Wheeler, and then he’ll do the Polak and the woman when they get here and fly off into the sunset with Ng’s money.” The man sounded like Eeyore of the Treasury.
“I didn’t kill Wheeler. ‘The woman’ is who got me into this circus.” I raised my chin an inch in their direction. “Storytime.”
“I’ll go first.” It was Dawson’s turn to check Muller. “Don’t sweat it, Muller. His jacket said he only kills immediate threats or assholes that piss him off. I don’t think your fart routine pushed us over the edge.” Dawson turned back to me saying,
“For years somebody’s been flying money out of the country for Ng’s cartel. His loss rate is less than 1%. The average is forty, forty-five percent because we tag most of them at least once a year. A high percentage of that loss is down to inexperienced, disposable pilots.”
“Pictures of your crew on the news pulling cellophane-wrapped cash out of Laguna Madre a couple times a year with an upside-down plane in the background is job security?”
“Yeah,” Dawson rolled his neck, pulled on the t-shirt stuck to his chest. “But Ng, he’s got an honest to God pilot, if not an airforce, that’s invisible.”
“I see a lot of agencies in that, none Secret Service.”
“National security. Border politics have a room temperature flashpoint. Depending on the day, either side of the aisle can use the borders to bank political capital. Borders are nothing but lines on a map to Ng.” He was sweating like a dirt farmer. “It’s not front-page news, but it’s in too many agency and committee reports. Where I’m from Ng is an untouchable border running terrorist who’s beyond the daily finger-pointing. Everyone in Washington has the same intel, but no one can leverage it without setting their own pants on fire. And uncontrollable shit like Ng mocking the border, maybe leaking, maybe making headlines, makes everyone who wants to get re-elected nervous.” He knocked a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose with a knuckle, careful and obvious with his hands, looked me in the eye. “I know you understand me when I say I’ve got way bigger guns pointed at me than yours.”
I understood. In fact, that was the first hint of anything that sounded like bankable truth I’d heard.
“So, Pilot,” Dawson flashed the game how host smile again, “since we’re all hanging out here in the wind without a net in deniability fuckedville together, you wouldn’t want to lower your weapon, would you?”
“No. But I feel your pain. Muller?”
“More of the same,” he droned. “When we knew for sure Ng’s accountant was a dead man walking, we needed to be inside, see what he planned to do with the code and try to get our hands on it. I drew the short straw.” He sighed, slow and deep. “Then the Mexican split tail… We never saw her coming. She fucked everything up.”
Dawson snorted. “You should have left the chiropractor out of it.”
“That wasn’t me,” Muller flashed, suddenly alive. “Blame that on Wheeler or the fuckin’ Polak.” Muller caught his breath, held up his hand. “I can’t take another second of these goddamn things.” He bent, plucked out his contacts, flicked them off his fingers, stayed down a fraction too long, came up pulling the slide on a pocket-size automatic. I put a round through the center of his neck, right below his Adam’s apple. He gawked, shimmied from bottom to top, dropped like a bag of cement.
Everything went back to hot and still for a long minute.
“Now that,” Dawson wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, “was a hell of a shot. And you,” he pursed his lips, pushed the lump of Muller with his foot. “That was fucking stupid.”
Dawson helped me load Muller in the back of the van, pulled a couple of cold bottles of water from a styrofoam cooler before we shut the lift gate. We went back, sat on the barrier. Dawson took a deep pull on his water, wiped his lips.
“I never thought he was Treasury, or anything legit. The money the Mexican chick keeps waving under our noses is counterfeit.”
“That it is.”
“Good for you. Muller didn’t know.”
“You’d think a Treasury agent would’ve noticed. But it’s good counterfeit.”
“That it is,” he echoed, tapped my water bottle with his.
I chugged the entire contents of my water. “FYI, the ‘Mexican chick’ is from Orange County.”
“Orange County? Had me fooled.”
“I think that’s her job.”
“Jesus.” He chuckled, way back in his throat, drained his water. “Who’s she working for?”
“You ever see that Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest?”
“You’re saying you don’t know?”
“If it matters, she lights up a little when you’re in the picture. A tell like that around anyone more observant than this crew could get her killed.”
“For a year I thought it had.” I pointed my empty bottle at the van. “Is there more water in there?”
“Yeah,” Dawson slid off the barricade, turned, squinted at the sun. “We should get it now before Muller starts to cook.”
Dawson’s holstered weapon was on the van’s console. I picked it up, he grabbed the cooler, walked back and set it on the barrier. I handed him the holstered Smith and Wesson .40. A real cop gun. He looked sheepish.
“Got careless role-playing this one. Straight I work in a shoulder rig, but it’s too fucking hot to wear a jacket and none of the others were crazy to carry.”
“Shoulder holsters scream cop. So does this point forty. It can’t be issue, you’re supposed to be a con.”
“Usman’s got a small flight case full of supposedly clean handguns.”
“Moreno said you took target practice this morning. He any good?”
“Usman? Fuck no. All the finesse of a hand grenade.” He laughed, belted his holster on his left side, butt forward in a cross draw position. “But what he shoots, that’s all he needs. He hit a scrawny tree trunk at close to a hundred yards with that grenade launcher.”
“Camp Lejeune. Quantico. Qualifying, nothing special. Not,” he nodded toward the van, “like your ‘lights out’ drop.”
“Plenty of downtime at Bagram. I spent it burning rounds with soldiers who knew how. Like you said, nothing special.”
“No bars or medals, maybe. But that was sharpshooter work.”
“Was it?” The dust trailing behind a white dually pickup signaled the not too distant arrival of Usman and Moreno. “What’s your story when they ask about Muller?”
“The truth, Pilot.” He checked his pistol for a chambered round, slid it back into his holster. “He got stupid, he got dead.”
“He’s dead?” Moreno raised one eyebrow, turned, pointed at the van. “In there?”
“Baking,” Dawson said. “We pulled the cooler before he got too ripe.”
Moreno’s eyebrow came down. “With the money? Paro, tell me you—”
“Nope, still in there. I have a plan for Woody’s crew. Dawson, put the key in the ignition.” I grabbed Usman by the back of his neck. “You, set the alarm.”
“I give you da code one time. You set it.”
“Fine. Climb in the back with Muller and I’ll give it a go.” I loosened my grip, he shrugged away.
“I should do it, I tink. Your fucking psycho memory maybe not so good.”
“You tink?” I raised the bedcover on the white pickup, started opening flight cases until I found the automatic rifles, grabbed one, pulled a grenade launcher out of its case and shouldered it. Moreno, the only one of us not sweating, her white capris and pale lavender sleeveless top still crisp, put her hand on my arm.
“I’ll go sit in that field of red sorghum and wait. You take this truck back a half-mile down the road behind my Cub. Get off the road if you can. Look like you belong. Behind a gas well or something.
“They haven’t bothered you up to now.”
“Ahora es diferente.”
“Not so different. Unless one of them has figured out who you really are.”
“Not a chance. But I would prefer to be armed.”
I flipped open the boxy case of handguns, pulled it to the edge of the bed.
“Si.” She stepped up on the tire, leaned over, picked up a few, dropped them back, finally settled on a small Ruger 9mm. She checked the clip, popped it back in, slipped it in the waistband of her shorts, behind her back.
“Dawson’s Secret Service,” I offered. “Probably shoots like a cop.”
“I have seen. Clusters of three.” She smiled. “When the requirement is one, well-chosen.”
She walked to the driver’s side door, opened it, said, “I’m still driving.” She got no argument, climbed up, drove them around the van, and back down the road.
I had just gotten situated in the sorghum patch when Tavius’s maroon Lincoln, missing glass and full of bullet holes, skidded sideways and banged to a crunchy stop against the road roller. He stumbled out, one leg bloody, fell back against his car. I heard motorcycles stop down to idle not far away.
Madre de Dios…
I cradled the AR in my right arm. With my left I half carried, half dragged Tavius back into the sorghum. I dropped him, ripped his left pants leg open. He had a through and through on the outside of his thigh. No veins, no bone.
“I’m shot, motherfucker.” He tilted his head back, clenched his teeth when I cinched a strip of his jeans around his upper thigh. “How lucky is that?”
I ripped his t-shirt down the front, rolled a thin strip, and plugged the hole.
“Not bleed to death lucky. I heard bikes. What happened?”
“The old fucker…”
“That one. First blockade in Oklahoma. He shows around midnight in a flatbed with lift arm, a crew and some Jersey Barriers like what you got here. Told me no car sideways in the road, even a cop car would be any deterrent to what was coming. He had them drop barriers across 15, told me to beat it if I wanted to keep breathin’.”
“Wondered where he was off to last night. Looks like you didn’t beat it hard enough.”
“Funny. I drove down 283 to what passes for civilization out here, pulled into a Chevrolet dealer’s lot. Caught three hours of z’s before I turned up here.”
Stop moanin’ and keep talkin’.”
“I’d cleared the Braums dairy and two bikes fly out from either side the road.” He glared down at me while I used a piece of broken drip irrigation pipe to tighten the improvised tourniquet. “Goddam, Paro, you are some kind of sadistic motherfucker.”
“You’re not dying but we need to get you outta here.”
“Unless you just fucked it up.” I handed him my bottle of water. He dumped it over his head, shook it off like a wet dog.
“Good to know a brother you can count on.”
Two skinny, sunburned bikers in unbuttoned, sleeves cut off flannel shirts over wife beaters, jeans and heavy boots rode up on full dress Harley road bikes. They stopped, dismounted, each shouldered an assault rifle and walked around Tavius’ car, poking the rifles through windows, popped the trunk. After a short eternity they started our direction, stopped at the edge of the road.
“It’s the nigger’s game we go in the patch after him. Fact he could have us sighted in rat now.”
The other one scuffed the ground with his boot. “He did he’d a been on us a-ready an we’d be bleedin’ with him.” He pointed his rifle at some blood on the white dust. “No vehicle, no way to get nowhere. He’s gonna die out here.”
“I’m wonderin’ why here?”
“Plannin’ to meet somebody? Could be some somebodies was waitin’ on him an us.”
We need to let ’em know this road’s blocked like the last one?”
“Naw. That van we saw to the other side when we come rollin’ up needs checkin’ out first.” He spit, shouldered his rifle. “Our nigger’s good as dead or he’d a let us know he weren’t.” They both snickered, backed away together until they were on the far side of the road roller.
Tavius tugged my sleeve. “A true brother would go shoot the one called me a nigger.”
“That would be both of them. No need.”
“You tellin’ me a card carryin’ Oreo can afford to endorse racism?”
I torqued the tourniquet on his thigh. He choked on a scream that would have vanished in the blast. The ground rolled us up like we were riding a wave, dropped us, smacked us on its way up to level as if the Jolly Green Giant had shaken the field like a dirty rug. We huddled, heads covered. It took a minute for the debris to stop falling. We uncovered to counterfeit bills overhead that floated and fluttered, a flock of flat, drunk birds. We stood up together, his arm around my shoulder.
“Fuck me, Oreo,” he gave me an iron man squeeze. “You did have a plan.” He lifted his head skyward at the sound of an approaching helicopter. “What you got in mind for that?”