Monday, 8:19 a.m.
Burton Minnow walked toward the front of his shop, ready to unlock the door and flip the sign in the window around so it announced to the world that Minnow Printing was open for business. Eight-thirty in the morning until six in the evening, Monday through Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday.
Burt knew he was probably losing some customers by being closed on Saturday, what with the way folks did business on the weekends these days. Heck, he could probably open on Sunday afternoon for a while and a few people would come in to get something printed. But he'd been keeping the same hours for nearly forty years, and he was just too old to change his routine. Saturdays were for sleeping late and working around the house; Sundays meant going to church and then coming home to have dinner with his wife Justine, followed by a long, lazy afternoon of reading the big Sunday paper from Tucson and watching a little football or baseball on TV, depending on which season it was. Shoot, a man couldn't beat a day like that. A little extra business that might not even materialize just wasn't worth giving it up.
Burt had a push broom in his left hand, keys in his right. A few minutes earlier, he had parked his car behind the shop, as usual, and come in through the back door to turn the lights on. After he unlocked the front door, he would sweep off the sidewalk in front of the shop. Little Tucson was an old community, old enough so that it had real sidewalks that ran for five blocks along both sides of Main Street, and along some of the cross streets, too. Each business owner who had space in the buildings along Main Street was responsible for sweeping off his or her section of the sidewalk. Burt took pride in keeping his part clean, just as he took pride in doing a good printing job for a reasonable price.
He slid the key into the lock and turned it. He had already disarmed the alarm when he came in the back. Little Tucson might look like a throwback to the fifties and sixties in some ways, but the people who lived here were aware that those days were long gone. All the businesses had alarms; some of them even had bars on the windows. The old-timers like Burt didn't like it, but they had to face facts. The world was more dangerous than it used to be.
The lock snapped back and Burt pocketed his keys and pushed the door open, expecting to step out onto the sidewalk and exchange waves with Ignacio Guiterrez, who was usually opening up the barber shop across the street about this time, and Louly Parker, who worked at Brannon Auto Parts in the next block, just across one of the side streets. Most days, Louly opened the auto parts store for Tom Brannon. Some folks might have speculated about a good-looking, young single woman working so closely with a married man, but not anybody who'd been around Little Tucson for very long. They all knew that Tom was still madly in love with his wife Bonnie, even after being married for thirty years, and Bonnie felt the same about him. They were almost like a couple of kids, frisking around the way they did, and Louly Parker, despite being twenty-five years old, tall, redheaded, and stacked, couldn't ever come between them even if she wanted to, which she didn't because she was a good church-going gal herself.
Burt didn't see Ignacio or Louly when he stepped out. The sidewalks up and down the street were pretty much deserted, in fact. Burt grunted. That was odd.
He stopped short, still clutching the broom, as movement to his left caught his eye. Turning in that direction, he saw two young Hispanic men, both around twenty years old, wearing dark T-shirts, baggy pants, and running shoes that probably cost more than Burt's first car. One of them held a can of spray paint, moving his hand back and forth so that the red paint formed an elaborate design on the big plate glass window in the front of Burt's shop. Burt hadn't opened the window blinds yet, so he hadn't seen what was going on.
“Good gravy!” he exclaimed involuntarily. “What are you boys doin'?”
They glanced at him, arrogant sneers on their faces, the tagger pausing for a second in his work before going back to it. The hiss of the paint leaving the can sounded loud in the hot, still, early morning air.
Burt took a step toward them, holding the broom with both hands now. “Do I know you boys?” he asked. “Are you from around here? You'd better quit that. It's already gonna be a chore cleanin' off all that paint.”
He didn't think he had ever seen the two young men before. Little Tucson didn't have a lot of people moving in, but naturally the population changed some over time. It had been a long time since Burt had been able to say honestly that he knew everybody in town. Maybe these boys just didn't realize that folks in Little Tucson didn't go in for this sort of foolish vandalism.
As they continued to ignore him and the one with the paint kept spraying it on the window, Burt shook the broom handle at them without thinking about what he was doing. “Stop that now!” he said. “I don't want to have to call the sheriff on you boys, but I will if I have to.”
The one who wasn't painting looked at Burt again and finally spoke. “Stick that broom up your ass,
Burt just stared at him for a couple of seconds, shocked by what the youngster had said to him. Then he lifted the broom and took a step closer, saying, “Why, youâ” He stopped before he used a racial slur. Even though he was mad, he wasn't going to do that.
The boy smiled and turned more toward Burt, pulling up the front of his T-shirt as he did so. Sticking up from the waistband of the baggy trousers was the butt of some sort of fancy pistol. Burt's eyes widened, and he knew suddenly that he had made a bad mistake. He had assumed that these boys were from around here and that he could handle them. Now he realized he was wrong.
Still smiling, the one with the gun pulled it out and fired three shots,
, into Burton Minnow's belly. Burt had been in a few fights when he was a young man, and it felt like a giant fist had punched him three times in the stomach. He dropped the broom and doubled over as he staggered backward a few steps. He was in front of the door to his shop when he collapsed. The worst pain he had ever known in his life engulfed him as he lay there with his blood leaking out onto the unswept sidewalk.
With a final flourish, the tagger finished his design on the window. The shooter stuck the gun back in the waistband of his trousers. They grinned at each other, and the expressions made it clear that gunning down an old man in broad daylight, on Little Tucson's Main Street, meant little or nothing to them. They weren't worried about it.
No one tried to stop them as they sauntered away, turned a corner, and disappeared. Behind them, Burt Minnow forced his eyes open, too numb from loss of blood and impending death to feel much of anything anymore. His lips moved, forming his wife's name. Somewhere nearby, footsteps pounded on the sidewalk, people coming to help at last, but too late.
Much too late.
Tuesday, 3:35 a.m.
Madison Wheeler shifted a little in bed, unsure of what had disturbed him. Maybe his wife Cindy was in the mood for some lovin'. She got that way sometimes in the middle of the night, Lord knew why, but Madison sure as hell wasn't gonna argue with her. A fella could sleep anytime.
But Cindy wasn't snuggled against his back, reaching over his hip to fish around inside his shorts. In fact, she seemed to be sound asleep, lying on her left side facing away from him.
Now that he had been pulled up out of slumber, he knew he would have a hard time dozing off again. And since he was awake anyway, might as well take a chance . . .
He rolled toward her and pressed his groin against her comfortably wide rump, slipping his hand around at the same time to cup her right breast through the thin fabric of her nightgown. She stirred and wiggled her butt against him, not in a sensuous way but just getting comfortable. It had an effect on him anyway.
“Madison?” she murmured sleepily. “That you?”
“Who else?” he asked.
“Oh . . . you never know. It's hard for a girl to keep track of all her lovers.”
They both chuckled. Madison rubbed his thumb over her hardening nipple. “You're a shameless woman.”
“And you're a horny ol' goat.”
She made a purring sound and twitched her butt again, but this time it was deliberate. Madison told himself he was a lucky man tonight. Sometimes Cindy told him to quit pawin' her and go back to sleep. To tell the truth, she probably said no more often than she said yes under these circumstances, which was understandable because they had two kids, a boy in high school and a girl in junior high, and their activities kept Cindy pretty busy on top of her part-time job at the Alomar Real Estate office in Little Tucson, so naturally she was tired and needed her sleep at night. But Madison worked hard, too, keeping their ranch running and at least semi-profitable, and he knew that sometimes a little middle-of-the-night nooky was just as refreshing as sleep. So he was willing to risk being told no because the times that Cindy
say yes were so good they made everything else worthwhile.
She rolled over toward him and kissed him. He pulled up her gown and rubbed her thigh. Lord, how this woman made him want her! Despite their banter, there had never been anybody else for either of them ever since they had gotten married seventeen years earlier and he had brought her out here to live on the ranch he inherited from his parents. Madison didn't know if there were really such things as matches made in heaven, but this one had sure been made somewhere good.
He was just about to slip a finger under her panties when a zooming roar shook the house and made them both exclaim in unison, “What the hell!”
Madison sat up and threw the sheet back. He swung his legs out of bed and stood up while Cindy sat up and pulled her gown back down. “What in the world was that?” she asked.
He reached for his blue jeans, which he had left draped over the chair beside the bed. “Sounded like an airplane, and it was flyin' mighty low. It must've flown over earlier, a little higher, because somethin' woke me up and I'll bet that was it.”
“You think it's having engine trouble?”
That engine had sounded fine to Madison, but he wasn't what you'd call an expert on such things. Some of his friends who owned ranches in the area had planes and swore they were invaluable for checking on the far reaches of their spreads, but Madison had never gone in for that, at least not yet.
“I don't know, but I'll go see,” he told his wife. He sat down on the edge of the bed to pull socks and boots on, then picked up the shirt he had left lying on the floor and shrugged into it.
“Be careful,” Cindy called after him as he headed for the door. She snapped on the bedside lamp. Madison waved without looking around as he left the bedroom.
The doors of the kids' rooms were open. The plane flying so low over the house must have spooked them, too. Justin asked from the door of his room, “What's goin' on, Dad?” while Danielle just looked worried.
“I don't know,” Madison replied to his son's question, “but I'm gonna find out. Make sure that plane didn't go down somewhere close by.”
“You want me to go with you?”
“No, just go back to bed. I don't expect this'll amount to much of anything. Plane's probably landed in Tucson by now.”
It was true that he didn't hear the engine anymore. The plane must have flown on . . .
Either that, or crashed.
He hadn't heard a crash, but he might not have with the house closed up and the air conditioners running. To ease his mind about itâand because he knew Cindy would worry if he didn'tâhe'd go and have a look around.
Stopping briefly in his den, he took an old lever-action Winchester out of the gun cabinet and loaded it from a box of cartridges he fished out of his desk drawer. The rifle was darn near an antique, but it worked just fine, was accurate over a good long distance, and had plenty of stopping power. Not that he expected to need a weapon. Anybody who had grown up on the range as he had, though, knew that you didn't go pokin' around at night without taking a gun along.
As he walked through the kitchen toward the back door, he jumped a little as something cold and wet prodded the back of his hand. Then he laughed quietly and said, “Dang it, Skeeter, you like to scared me out of a year's growth.”
In the dimness of the room he couldn't see the dog, but he knew Skeeter's stub of a tail would be wagging a mile a minute. Skeeter was part blue heeler and part something else, one of those dogs that's so ugly you can't help but love him. He padded after Madison as the rancher went on to the door and said, “You want to come with me and see about that plane?”
By way of answer, Skeeter dashed outside when Madison unlocked the door and opened it. The mutt bounded toward the pickup and ran around it, always eager to take a ride.
“Hold on,” Madison called to him. “I don't know if I'm goin' anywhere.”
With the rifle tucked under his left arm, he walked toward the barn and the old windmill beyond it. The blades turned lazily in the night breeze, but they weren't connected to anything anymore. A modern pump kept the corral tank filled. Madison hadn't been able to bring himself to tear down the old windmill, though. His granddaddy had built it, many years ago.
Besides, if you wanted a vantage point where you could see anything in this mostly flat valley between the Sierrita Mountains and the Baboquivari Range, you had to have something to climb up on. Madison leaned the Winchester against the base of the windmill and went up the ladder.
He clambered onto the platform at the top, beside the gently turning blades, and gazed around. It was a dark night, with plenty of stars but only a thin sliver of moon. He saw the cluster of lights ten miles to the east that marked the location of Little Tucson. There were other lights scattered around over the mostly dark countryside, and Madison knew most of them, knew which of his neighbors' ranches was marked by which light. Back when he and Cindy had first been married, when money was tight, they had climbed up here a lot of evenings and spent hours looking around and talking. That was cheaper entertainment than driving into town and going to the show.
So it wasn't any problem for Madison to pick out the lights that weren't supposed to be there. They were moving through his south pasture, maybe two miles from the house. Headlights, no doubt about it. Something
going on down there.
And with a surge of anger, he decided that he was going to see what it was. Nobody had a right to be driving around his place in the middle of the night.
He climbed down, picked up the rifle, and opened the pickup door. Skeeter jumped inside without being told and moved over on the seat to let Madison slide behind the wheel. “Thanks,” Madison said dryly. “I thought for a second there you planned on drivin'.”
He started the truck and drove away from the house, catching a glimpse in the side mirror of the back door opening and light from the kitchen spilling out. He saw Cindy's silhouette as she stood there watching him drive away and wondered if she'd wanted to tell him something. It could wait until he got back, he supposed.
A dirt track led down to the south pasture. The pickup bumped over it. Despite the darkness, Madison drove without lights. He knew every foot of this ground and didn't need them. For some reason, he thought it might be important not to announce his presence until he found out what was going on.
A cattle guard rattled under his wheels as he crossed into the big, fenced pasture. This wasn't fertile country; it took quite a few acres to grow enough grass to feed his stock. He irrigated as much as he could from the branch of the Santa Cruz River that ran through his property, but a fella could take only so much water without causing his neighbors to do without. Madison was the sort of man who believed in looking out for his neighbors just like he did for himself.
The headlights were only a couple of hundred yards away now. They had stopped moving but still burned, even though the vehicle they were attached to had halted. The twin cones of brilliance reached out and washed over an airplane, a Cessna Caravan turbo-prop. Madison wasn't sure how come that information had popped into his head so readily. It took him a second to remember that his friend and fellow rancher Warren Hendrix had one just like it. This wasn't Warren's plane, though.
Men trooped back and forth in the glow of the headlights, moving between the plane and the automobile. Madison was close enough to see that it was a van now. He put the pickup in neutral, cut the engine, and coasted to a stop in silence.
Madison was not by nature a profane man, but as he stared through the windshield of the pickup, he breathed, “Goddamn M-fifteens.”
Like everyone else in this part of the country, he had heard of
, the deadly gang composed mainly of El Salvadorans and Guatemalans that had moved into the area along the U.S./Mexico border and taken over nearly all the illegal activity. An outgrowth of earlier, similar gangs, they were the worst of the lot so far, hundreds of the most violent criminal lowlifes to ever draw breath. Thieves, murderers, bank robbers, drug dealers, smugglers of illegal aliens, they took full advantage of the porous borders between the countries and went wherever they wanted, doing as they pleased and taking whatever struck their fancy. Little Tucson and the area around it had been spared the worst of M-15's depredations so far, but Madison Wheeler thought that might be changing. Just the day before, two men suspected of being members of the gang had shot and killed poor old Burt Minnow, right on the sidewalk in front of his printing shop in town. Now, those were members of the gang walking around Madison's south pasture, he was fairly certain of that, and they were unloading a huge shipment of drugs from the plane that had landed there, bringing the poison up from below the border.
How dare they!
Fury filled Madison at the thought of these scum using
land this way. He picked up the rifle from the floorboard and then reached up to pop the bulb out of the dome light. When he opened the door, the light stayed dark. He slid out and Skeeter followed him, jumping to the ground. Leaving the pickup door open, Madison rested the Winchester's barrel on the sill of the rolled-down window. He reached into the cab and pulled the knob that turned on the headlights.
They blazed into life, stabbing out into the darkness and washing over both the plane and the van, as well as the men clustered around them. “Hold it!” Madison yelled as he levered a round into the chamber. “I'll shoot the first man who moves!”
He had the drop on them, sure enough. And at a range of fifty or sixty yards, he could carry out his threat. He was a fine shot with the old Winchester. Sure, they outnumbered him by at least ten to one, but he had the element of surprise on his side.
Still, maybe he should have called 911
, he thought as he glanced at the cell phone lying on the pickup seat. It was still within reach, but he was going to have to stretch to get it . . .
Suddenly, Skeeter growled furiously behind him.
Madison stiffened as a voice said in heavily-accented English, “I swear, sometimes I think you gringos are just too damn stupid to live. So, I kill you.”
Madison tried to turn, but he was only halfway around when flame tore a gaping hole in the night. The banging of a million hammers filled the air as bullets spewed from the muzzle of an automatic weapon and slammed into the side of the pickup. Some of the slugs had ripped through Madison's body first, flesh and bone and blood not even slowing them down on their high-velocity path. Madison's body came apart under the terrible onslaught of lead like a giant bag of blood bursting at the seams. He died so quickly that he didn't have time to feel anything, which was probably a blessing.
More automatic weapons opened up as the gunners who had been posted on guard in the low-lying brush of the pasture tried to shoot the dog. Skeeter scooted under the pickup, which was still being hosed down by the M-15 killers. One of the bullets found the gas tank, and the vehicle suddenly exploded in a giant ball of fire. The flames consumed what was left of Madison Wheeler's body, which had slumped back through the open door against the front seat. The gunners laughed uproariously and traded quips about the man and his dog being barbecued like goats. They walked leisurely toward the plane and the van, where the work of unloading the massive drug shipment had resumed.
In the brush, Skeeter crawled along on his belly, his canine brain torn between survival and hatred for the men who had killed his master and friend. He had popped out from under the other side of the pickup just in time to escape the explosion, although he hadn't gotten away unscathed. His hindquarters were burned, much of the short gray and black hair being singed off by the flames. His legs still worked, though, so he had been able to make it into the brush without being spotted. Instinct kept him low as he crawled away.