Read The Border Lords Online

Authors: T. Jefferson Parker

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General

The Border Lords (3 page)

BOOK: The Border Lords
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He peeked through the blinds and looked outside at Bly and Velasquez. The two agents were helping the Buenavista cops seal the scene against the public. The agents looked cooperative enough right now, but Hood knew that in just a few minutes they would seal the scene against the Buenavista cops and bad feelings would arise. That’s how it went down when the feds were in town.
Hood found another of the strange machine pistols in Ray’s bedroom. He stood in front of a bedroom window and let the strong morning sunlight illuminate the weapon. The stainless steel planes threw off the light like the facets of a gemstone. He unscrewed the noise suppressor and retracted the telescoping handles and set aside the curving fifty-round magazine. Now the gun looked very much like the ones that he had seen being packed for shipment at the Pace Arms factory in Costa Mesa. He read the engraving on the frame: LOVE 32. That was it. No serial numbers, no manufacturer grip marks, nothing else.
“Who names a gun ‘Love 32’?” Hood asked.
“Beats me, Charlie. But it’s a sweet carry. Easy to conceal and basic, like a Mac, but it’s got elegance. Reminds me of one of my kid’s Transformer toys.”
“Angel’s was on the kitchen counter but it’s not there now.”
“I’ll bet we can solve that one.”
Blowdown had suspected for some time that the
sicarios
in the Den were using these silenced weapons on their jobs—several witnesses had reported that the guns were all but silent. Hood held the Love 32 in his hand and turned it once again into the morning light. This was what Ozburn had gone undercover for. Risked his life for. A gun. Hood shook his head.
A moment later all four met in the side yard. The side-yard camera, hidden within a functioning motion-detector light, had been yanked from the wall and thrown to the ground. The wires dangled from the wall base. Velasquez swung open the door to the faux circuit breaker box. It was partially hidden by a riot of wisteria vine that had crept from its trellis to the eave of the house. The key was still in the control panel lid and Velasquez turned to his team with a woeful look.
“It’s been disabled,” he said. “System off. By someone who had a key.”
 
 
Within an hour
Blowdown was sequestered with Soriana and Mars back in the Buenavista field office war room. Hood told the story while Velasquez compiled video recordings of the last minute for each of the six monitors.
The videos from the first five cameras showed nothing unusual. But monitor six—trained along the side-yard wall of the Den—did register a quick disturbance.
Hood’s heart hovered, then fell.
“Oh, shit,” said Bly.
“Freeze it,” said Mars. “I can’t make it out.”
“No way I’m seeing this,” said Morris.
Velasquez backed up the video and froze a frame midway through the brief movement: Sean Ozburn reaching up to camera six, a smile on his face, and his hand about to close over the lens.
Hood watched in disbelief but his disbelief couldn’t change the truth.
There was Ozburn: tall and well muscled, with a head of long blond hair that reached his shoulders, a gunslinger’s mustache. He wore his usual biker clothes and boots and a black bandana. Arms tattooed—Mom, Seliah, the Stars and Stripes, a soaring eagle. In the foreshortened wide-angle image, a combat shotgun dangled from his free hand, down near the bottom of the screen, small as a toy. No doubt who it was: badass Sean, meth and gun specialist with Aryan Brotherhood connections, La Eme connections, friend of the North Baja Cartel.
Supervising agent Frank Soriana, a stocky and often jolly man, looked at the Blowdown team as if they had all, including himself, just been sentenced to death.
Mars, his morose subordinate, stared down at the cheap carpet.
Velasquez played out the rest of the video in slo-mo and the team watched Sean’s hand come up and cover the hidden camera; then the screen flashed bright white, followed by black.
He played it through in slow motion again.
“When’s the last time you talked to him?” asked Soriana.
“Six days ago,” said Hood.
“What about Seliah?”
“Two days ago. She wasn’t any more worried about Sean than usual.”
“Talk to her again. Tell her what’s happened. Tell her we need to find him.”
“Do that sooner than later,” said Mars, not looking up from the floor.
Hood dreaded it. Seliah Ozburn was a friend.
“Robert,” said Soriana. “Burn a video of Ozburn onto disc and another onto stick and delete every other copy. Every single one, including the master backup. I want the disc and the stick five minutes ago.”
Velasquez moved toward the main control panel.
Soriana turned his back to the team and took a call. He listened a moment. “Tell CNN and the
Union Tribune
those are baseless rumors. Tell the
L.A. Times
and CBS the same thing. I don’t care what Buenavista police told them.”
Back still turned, Soriana rang off and punched in a number from his contacts. “Chief Reyes? Frank Soriana, ATF. Hey, look, we’ve got a situation here with your men making noises about ATF and the shoot-out in Buenavista. Can you tell your guys to leave ATF out of it? We don’t need this, Gabe, not after last year. You hear me, don’t you?” There was a long silence; then Soriana said, “Thank you, Chief. We appreciate that a lot. Call me when you know what the heck happened out there, okay?”
He snapped his cell phone closed and turned back to them.
“Silence to the world, people. If this gets out, Sean’s a dead man and Blowdown is finished. But if we can keep a lid on it for a few days, Ozburn still has cover and we’re still in business. It’s our only chance.”
“Chance to what, sir?” asked Hood.
“To find his ass and arrest him. You with us or not on this one, Charlie?”
“I am us.”
“We don’t have all the information,” said Mars. “There’s more here than we’re seeing.”
“I’ve already seen enough,” said Soriana. “Find him. Tell me what you need to do the job. Do nothing else in this life until you find Sean. Dyman, Robert, get over to Ozburn’s cover house ASAP. Maybe you’ll find some clue as to what the hell got into him. Hood, Janet—talk to his wife. She’ll know more than she thinks she does.”
4
Seliah Ozburn climbed down
from the lifeguard stand at the Orange County Aquatics Center in Irvine and walked toward Hood and Bly. The open swim had just ended and the kids were splashing and laughing and climbing out.
She wore a big straw hat and sunglasses and a long-sleeved T-shirt against the sun. Over the last year and a half she and Hood had become friends and she was an affectionate woman, but today she offered no hug in greeting, and no handshake or smile.
“Is he still okay? Why are you here if he’s okay? You said he was fine.”
“He’s all right but there’s a problem, Seliah,” said Hood. “Can we talk?”
“I want some shade. There’s a few minutes before the next group.”
They sat facing one another in white resin chairs in a wedge of shade along the locker room wall. The fall afternoon was hot. Hood knew that Seliah lifeguarded year-round, and also taught swimming here at the complex, and was a senior summer lifeguard up in Laguna Beach. She’d been a freestyler in college, third in the Pan American Games her senior year. She was fit and beautiful.
Hood told her about the video of Sean and what they found at the safe house a few minutes later. She said nothing. He said the video was definitive and the neighbors’ descriptions fit Sean, right down to the tatts and the biker vest and a cut-down shotgun. She listened without interrupting, hat low, sunglasses on, unreadable.
“He wouldn’t do that. He’s a Christian. He protects his soul—doesn’t ignore it. He’s the most moral man I know and I do not accept this. Has he been framed?”
“We’re pretty sure he did it,” said Bly. “He’s right on camera, and there are witnesses who described him in some detail.”
“Did anyone see him murder anyone? Did anyone shoot video of
that
?”
“No, Seliah,” said Hood.
“Then I’ll wait for irrefutable evidence.”
“What you should do is prepare yourself for the worst,” said Hood.
“The worst is the cartels bag him and do to him what they did to Jimmy Holdstock. And if that happens to Sean, I’ll never forgive you or the holy trinity of ATF. Sean would, but I won’t.”
“That’s why we need to find him,” said Hood. “Pretty much right now.”
“You’ll arrest him.”
“We’ll give him every chance to explain.”
“Oh, shit on both of you. You’ve convicted him already. You’re supposed to be his friends.”
Seliah stood abruptly and her plastic chair tipped. Hood caught it with a finger and set it back upright. He had come to know Seliah as a calm and gentle person, even with a husband working under deep cover, and her anger now surprised him. She had always behaved as if her husband needed protection from his employers, an understandable stance among the spouses of people with dangerous jobs. But Hood had never seen her angry at ATF like she was now.
“We are your friends,” said Bly. “And friends don’t let friends commit triple murders.”
Seliah sat down again, then pulled off the hat. Her shiny white, straight hair fell to her shoulders, cut on a glamorous diagonal. She took off her sunglasses and hung her head, and Hood watched the tears run off her nose. Hood set a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off.
“When did you see him last?” asked Hood.
“It’s been two weeks,” she said, holding Hood’s gaze.
“You guys had no hall pass for that one.”
“None whatsoever. It wasn’t the first time. Those precious days kept us sane. Kept him alive.”
Hood wasn’t surprised. The UC agents were known for sneaking away sometimes—even from their handlers. “Where?”
“San Francisco.”
“When did you talk to him last?” Bly asked.
Seliah didn’t look up. “This morning.”
“Did he say where he was?”
“He didn’t
say
anything. He cancelled his cell service six days ago. Threw it away for all I know. It’s all e-mail now. He sounded tired but okay.”
Six days
, thought Hood. She should have told them about the cell phone.
“Do you know where he is?” asked Bly.
“He can’t tell me where he is because
I
can’t know. He can hint when he’ll be home. He can tell me he loves me but he can’t call me by name because
I
might become a target. You office jockeys have no idea how awful undercover work is for a married man. There’s a reason you prefer them single. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I just said. It’s . . . This is hard. So damned hard.”
“We understand,” said Bly.
Seliah lifted her face and looked at them, and Hood saw not hours but weeks of torment in her red-rimmed blue eyes. Her pupils were screwed down tight against the light. She was twenty-eight years old. She’d aged since he saw her last. That was what—two months ago, when Sean had stolen a few precious days with her at home and they had elected to share some hours with his Blowdown brethren? She slid the sunglasses back on and tugged the straw hat back into place. Even in the shade her platinum hair shone.
“I don’t love the sun anymore,” she said. “And I can’t stand the smell of chlorine. I’ve
lived
on sunshine and chlorine for twenty years and now . . . something’s changed in me. More important, though, something changed in Sean, too.”
“We want to know what it is,” said Hood. “We want to help him. He’s my friend, Seliah, and so are you.”
She stood, strong-legged and broad-shouldered. “Come to my house this evening at six. I’ll have some things to show you. Maybe you can make some sense out of them. I’ve tried and failed and now you’re telling me my husband is a murderer.”
5
At six ten Hood
and Bly sat in the Ozburns’ San Clemente living room. The home was up in the hills on the east side of the interstate. Hood looked down through the picture window at the terracotta rooftops of the city below, and the jut of pier, and the black Pacific stretching to the horizon, touched far out near its rim by the first orange sparkles of sunset.
Seliah brought in a laptop computer, moved a dog-eared paperback
Dracula
from the coffee table and set down the machine in its place. Then she went to the picture window and pulled the sunscreen down. The view vanished and a cool light radiated through the honeycombed cells of the blind.
When she turned to them her eyes were clear, and she looked to Hood like her old self. She wore a periwinkle shift and a matching barrette that held one plane of her hair away from her face. She had a lovely smile.
She sat on the couch between Hood and Bly and opened the laptop and squared it before her and logged on. A moment later she was in her e-mail program, scrolling down through the saved messages. Scores of them, scores more.
Fifteen months of life in there
, Hood thought. She stopped and moved the cursor down and highlighted one of them; then she sighed.
“Sean went undercover not long after Jimmy was kidnapped,” said Seliah. “What happened to Jimmy hit Sean hard.” She stood and walked to the blinded window and looked across the room to Hood and Bly.
“Six months undercover Sean started to suffer. He wasn’t able to come home as often. I think he was down in Mexico a lot. For an undercover U.S. agent, that’s like dipping your toes into the pools of hell. Right? His calls got fewer and he was less talkative. He was always tired because he was always scared. Who wouldn’t be?”
This didn’t track exactly with what Hood had experienced. Sean had called almost every day. He usually sounded evenhanded, cool, and often wickedly funny. But Hood had heard the pressure in Sean. He had sensed the wariness and the hard discipline that Ozburn used to maintain his cover and therefore his life. He was up on the high wire but he’d seemed balanced.
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