“Just making sure,” said Vega.
Bradley cut Theresa and Erik away and walked them back to their van. It was a big Econoline with the FOX News logo on the flank. “Vega’s wound a little tight tonight,” he said.
“A little?” asked Theresa.
“Get in and wait here. I need to get the script straight with my people. Then we’ll caravan to the house. Park . . .”
“I know, Bradley—we park three houses down, opposite side of the street, so we can see you coming out. Then traipse over and give you your fifteen minutes.”
“I hope it lasts longer than that,” said Bradley, smiling.
“Depends how good the footage is,” said Theresa.
“If you hear shots, stay in the van and keep down. Don’t just sit and gawk like tourists. There’s no telling what kind of firepower they’ve got.”
Theresa Brewer squeezed Bradley’s hand, then climbed into the passenger seat of the van.
Bradley joined the other deputies and caught Caroline’s hard glance. “Clovis, you and Klotz get a five-minute head start and the backyard,” he said. “It’s a corner house, so one of you can climb the fence on street side. No dog, but who knows what the neighbors might have back there. So be quiet, go slow, be careful. Caroline and I are going to knock and talk. Caroline will do the talking. We’re responding to a silent alarm in the neighborhood. We’re not threatening or suspicious. If they let us in, we’re golden. If they don’t, we smell dope being smoked, and we go in.”
“What makes you think they’ll open the door?” asked Clovis.
“They won’t know what to do. Two bored young uniforms checking out an alarm? One of them a hottie? A kidnapped kid stashed in the back somewhere? They’ll have to just hope we leave. Anyone runs out the back, put them down and keep ’em down.”
The front door was open
but the screen door was closed. When he stepped onto the porch Bradley smelled frying onions and meat and boiling potatoes. Far back in the house a stout woman stood in the yellow light of a kitchen. Bradley was to Vega’s left and he quietly popped the holster snap and rested his hand on the forty-caliber. He heard the leather squeak and felt the tapping of his own heart against his uniform shirt. He looked down at the screen door—old, bent, ajar. Caroline looked at him, her hand on her gun also, then rapped on the screen door with her knuckles, and the woman came down a short hallway toward them, both hands working a kitchen towel, shaking her head.
“No here. Nobody here.”
“We have a report of a prowler in this neighborhood,” said Vega. She said it again in Spanish. “Can we come in?”
“Nobody here.” She had high cheekbones and a flat nose and black eyes. Her teeth were very white. She wore a shapeless gray smock and her hair was bunched into a shiny black ponytail. She was barefoot.
She closed the door and locked it. Bradley heard her walk away.
Vega rapped again. And again. The latch slid and the woman swung open the door and the dish towel was still in one hand.
“Nobody is here.”
“There is a report of a prowler in this neighborhood,” said Vega. “A prowler in this location. Can we come in, please?”
.” Then the woman rattled off a paragraph in Spanish. Bradley got the gist:
There is nobody here I’m cooking my dinner I am from El Salvador I have a green card I work in a factory in the garment district I am skilled and legal. I make the high fashions. You can go away and I will be very much okay.
She closed the door in their faces again and locked it again. Bradley heard her move into the house.
“I wonder exactly who isn’t here,” said Bradley.
“I do, too.”
“I smell the yerba, very strong.”
“I smell it, too.”
“Next time she opens that door I’m going to get my foot inside.”
“I’ll ask her one more time if we can come in.”
“Be really careful, Caroline.”
Vega rapped on the door and waited, then rapped again. It was quiet for a long moment; then Bradley heard the muffled thud of feet on the floor. The latch slid and the door opened and Bradley opened the screen and placed his foot against the door frame.
“No here, please. No here. Legal. Fashion.”
“Do I have your permission to come in?” he asked.
“I smell marijuana. Do you smell it?”
“I smell marijuana,” said Vega.
“No marijuana. No here, nothing . . . You go. You go.”
Bradley eased his shoulder into the doorway and the woman backed up. Vega followed him in. The living room was small. To the right was a hallway leading back to the bedrooms and to the left was a dining room that opened to the kitchen by a pass-through and an open doorway. In the living room was a small brown sofa and a large TV cabinet with shelves of pottery and paper flowers and figurines carved of onyx and glass and wood. Bradley saw the dust on the glass figures and he saw the black stains inside the white clamshell inverted as an ashtray. He looked down the right hallway and saw that the bedroom doors were closed and there was no light coming around them. He stepped to the threshold of the dining room, and beyond the pass-through he saw the stove with the skillet heaped with onions and chilies cooking down, and the pot of peeled potatoes boiling, and the pan that held a pork roast recently removed from the oven, enough meat to feed several adults.
“You go!” She made as if to slap him with the dish towel but apparently realized the uselessness of it.
“Smells good,” he said, smiling. He drew his gun and moved quickly back into the living room so he could see down the hallway to the bedrooms.
“You go! No one!”
, lady? No one
The woman unleashed a string of curses and hit him with the dish towel very hard, and when the towel fell to the floor the potato peeler was planted high up into the left side of Bradley’s chest. The first gunman came not from the hallway but up into the pass-through from the kitchen where he had been crouching, and Bradley shot him in the middle and the man collapsed just as the second
came down the hallway with a machine pistol blazing, trying to control the muzzle rise with his left hand, and Caroline shot him twice and the man stopped but kept firing and the muzzle of his machine gun rose up spitting bullets into the wall, then the ceiling, then into his own face. The gunfire was deafening in the small home and the air filled quickly with smoke. When the machine gunner fell, a very small man sprung up from behind him swinging his pistol on Caroline, and Bradley shot him in the temple and the man pitched forward with his face to the floor tile and his gun still clutched in one hand. The woman came from the kitchen with a sawed-off shotgun, and Bradley took two steps and launched himself. Midair he dropped his gun. He clamped both hands to the shotgun and rammed her chest with his face like he used to as a linebacker and he felt her feet leave the floor and his airborne momentum carry them backward into the little kitchen where they crashed into the refrigerator and sank to the floor. He wrenched away the gun and dumped it into the dining room and stood over her with a boot on her wrist, panting. He wiggled the potato peeler very slightly to see how deep in it was. He’d driven it in farther when he tackled the woman, and now it hardly moved. The pain was breathtaking and the blood poured forth through the groove of the peeler as from a tiny bayonet. He thought of his wife, Erin, and vowed that he would not be forced to say good-bye to her by a potato peeler.
He backed off the woman and handcuffed her to the refrigerator door. Then he took up his autoloader and followed Caroline Vega as she burst into the first bedroom, then the next. There on the floor they found him, his mouth gagged and taped and his eyes looking up at them in terror and his hands bound behind him with plastic ties.
“Hi, Stevie,” said Bradley. “ ’Sup? You’re okay now, little man.”
They cut the cuffs and unwrapped the tape and Stevie Carrasco cried without making a sound.
Tough as Rocky
, thought Bradley.
“That’s bad, Bradley,” said Vega, inspecting the potato peeler. “It’s almost to the handle. Those sharp edges are cutting you up.”
“Feels like a cherry bomb went off in there. Let’s get him out of here.”
“You don’t move until I get paramedics.” She called dispatch for medics and the coroner team.
Bradley stood the boy up and he and Caroline Vega walked him onto the front porch. It took just a few seconds for Theresa Brewer and Erik to arrive, Erik already shooting away with the shoulder camera and Theresa stepping in with her microphone raised. Clovis and Klotz came from the backyard. Bradley hefted the boy up into the crook of his right arm and smiled at Theresa. When he looked down, there was more blood than he thought there was. He handed the boy over to Caroline and tried to understand Theresa Brewer’s question but it made no sense to him at all. He smiled at the camera again and sat down on the porch with his feet on the steps and sighed and listened to the approaching sirens. Theresa Brewer pressed the mike toward him, an uncertain expression on her face. He sensed the world letting go of him, and then it did.
Ozburn circled the landing strip
south of Puertecitos for his lucky third time, then tipped
into her descent. He looked out at her yellow wing afloat in the blue morning sky. Poetry in motion, he thought with a smile.
was a 1947 J3 Piper Cub and Oz had bought her nearly eight years ago, swept up every dollar he could find and borrowed the rest from his father. She’d run him $26,750, and he had felt guilty buying the gifts of flight and freedom for so little.
had been a pampered little princess of a plane. She still was. She was delightful and loyal and calm. She was a prop-start, and to Ozburn there was nothing like that transfer of power from his body to hers when he threw her prop and the engine buzzed to life. Like she was taking his energy and his passion, and would soon turn them into flight. Her modified, updated engine put out seventy-five wild horses, could cruise at eighty miles an hour for almost two hundred eighty miles on a tank. She could take off from a nickel and land on a dime.
Her tires bit the gravel and bounced twice, then settled as Ozburn eased the tail to the ground. Ozburn loved tail-draggers, as had his father and grandfather.
You fly these planes, they don’t fly you
, his father liked to say. Oz liked to see how quickly he could stop her, and, of course, how quickly he could get her into the air. He glanced down and smiled at the billowing tan cloud of dust rising alongside him. The
cactus that grew tall in this heat-blasted desert flashed past his windows in the evening light. The strip was a private runway owned by Carlos Herredia of the North Baja Cartel, nothing like the busy and clamorous
facility up in San Felipe.
He taxied to the end of the runway where a small metal building squatted in the dirt. He steered to the side of the building where the tie-downs waited; then he shut down the aircraft and climbed out. He breathed in the warm October air and walked around to the passenger door and let Daisy out.
She leaped down, a thin-bodied, long-legged dog, all black except for a white splash on her chest. She had the high, upright ears topped with short out-flaps common in border mongrels, which gave her a daft expression. The understanding between man and dog was deep and felt to Ozburn like something remembered. Lately, he felt that a lot, that he was remembering things—feelings, ideas, even physical sensations—that he had known and forgotten. For instance, he loved the dog unconditionally but wondered how she’d taste roasted, though he had no intention of cooking her. Where had that thought come from? Daisy bounced high around him as he tied down the plane. A car came toward them from the west, dragging a cloud of dust, Joe Leftwich at the wheel.
An hour later Ozburn sat on the patio of a small restaurant built into the cliffside overlooking the Gulf of California. Daisy lay at his feet. Across from him sat Mateo, dispatched by Carlos Herredia to collect answers from Sean Gravas, whose safe house in Buenavista had proven extremely unsafe. But Ozburn had come here for reasons of his own.
Mateo looked at Ozburn as if he were made of dog shit. One of his gunmen leaned against a new Suburban in the parking area outside; two more loitered near the big beer cooler that stood near the entrance to the indoor dining room and cantina.
Sean explained in good Spanish that, first of all, he wasn’t too happy about having his house shot up. He’d heard that there were brains in the kitchen and blood on the living room floor, and that was expensive stuff, that floor, real travertine for fuck’s sake. Sorry about the boys, he added. Mateo asked him why such a thing happened in his house, on his property, and didn’t happen somewhere else? Mateo spoke in a soft, accusatory rasp. Sean said it was pretty damned obvious why—someone had smelled out the safe house and sent better killers than Herredia’s
In spite of their fancy and expensive Love 32s, the victims were very young for killers, yes? The Gulf Cartel was probably behind it. Gulf Cartel killers are not boys but highly trained military deserters.
They want Buenavista because TJ is now too hot again. Same with Juarez. Buenavista is three hours from L.A. The Gulf men could have gotten a tip about the house from neighbors. They could have recognized a Herredia hit boy and tailed him home. They could have an informant inside your organization, yes? Maybe it was the conveniently missing Oscar.
Mateo listened, his face hard and blank. He had the chiseled ranchero features and wiry body of the mountain-dwelling Sinaloans, from whom the current crop of cartel heavyweights so often came. Mateo was somewhere in his late forties—old in his profession. At the mention of a leak within his North Baja Cartel, Mateo’s dark eyes took on a sleepy peacefulness that Sean recognized as pre-homicidal. Pride ran deep in these men, he thought. Savages all.