They walked into town on dirt roads, Ozburn dead-reckoning his way in. Daisy acted as scout. Ozburn had his old Marine Corps duffel slung over his shoulder, pretty much everything on earth he might need in the coming days.
At the motel he asked for a room upstairs in back, paid cash for one night. He walked across the mostly empty parking lot toward his room.
Just a couple of weeks from now the snowbirds will be packing in here
, Ozburn thought. He fondly remembered his mother and father, who had mounted many a family vacation in their Winnebago—four kids, six bikes, a dune buggy and always a dog or two. From Dallas, it was a long drive anywhere.
In the motel room he checked his cell messages and downloaded the e-mails to his laptop.
He read them, then wrote Seliah:
Sent: Friday, October 14, 2011 10:02 p.m.
To: Ozburn, Seliah
If I could touch you I would. If I could see you I would. If I could tell you where I am and what I’m doing—I WOULD. Be STRONG for me and we will be together soon. Six years ago when I promised better or worse, it was a statement of fact, too. There is no power on EARTH or HEAVEN or HELL that can keep me from you when OUR TIME comes. Have faith in me as I have faith in you.
PS. Daisy says hello.
PSS. Hi, Charlie—I assume you have Sel’s password now?
Ozburn paused, then sent the message. He knew the reference to Charlie was a breach of his cover story—if his North Baja Cartel “partners” were to get his laptop and read his outgoing mail, they might well wonder who the hell this Charlie was.
Over my dead body
, he thought.
And screw Herredia. Screw his North Baja Cartel. Yes, I will screw them royally.
He stripped down and turned on the shower. The sight of the water coming from the head brought a painful ache to his throat. Weird. He wondered if it was a delayed reaction to Mateo’s veiled threats and the gunman’s move to shoot Daisy. But neither of those things had bothered him at the time, and
what a nice growl or two I gave them
, he thought. He had been fighting the urge to growl for more than a week now, and tonight he’d just let it come.
He stepped under the stream of falling water but he couldn’t get the temperature right—first too hot, then too cold—then he realized it wasn’t the temperature that was annoying him. It was the water itself. It was formless and threatening and suffocating. Eager to fill and penetrate. He shut the water off and lathered and shampooed, then turned it back on only long enough to rinse off. He shuddered as he dried, watching the liquid circle and slurp down the drain, his throat muscles on the verge of cramping.
Last night the headache just about killed me
, he thought.
Now this. And Seliah going through the same shit I was, a couple of weeks back. What’s happening?
He got his vitamins and supplements out of the duffel and laid them out on the bathroom counter—packets of multiples, extra B complex, glucosamine and chondroitin, protein capsules, omega oils—all the things he’d sworn by since his diving days in college. He’d never really been sick a day in his life and he was pretty sure this was why. Now it seemed logical that these natural things would reduce the aching in his body and maybe even calm the frightening tangents of his mind. He counted out his usual dosage and choked them down with some tap water.
He lay down on the bed and thought of Seliah, and after an hour the neck pain went away. He dozed. He awoke ferociously thirsty and he was able to drink. It was the most satisfying and delicious drink he had ever had.
He tried to sleep but he couldn’t. He breathed deeply and dangled a hand off the bedside to stroke Daisy’s smooth black head.
Hood rose early
to call the rest of the Desert Flyers about Sean Ozburn and his missing Piper Cub. He’d struck out last night; then it had gotten late. Now he drank coffee while he woke up, and the morning news out of L.A. droned on from the kitchen TV. Standing out on his patio, he saw the sun climbing slowly over the distant mountains. Hood was a sunrise man and this part of the morning always made him thankful.
, a young Los Angeles deputy on his
patrol rescues a kidnapped boy and leaves
three men dead
in a Maywood shoot-out . . .”
Hood’s coffee cup stopped midway to his mouth. He went back inside and set down the cup and turned up the volume. The anchor-woman continued talking as Bradley Jones appeared on-screen, bloodied and dazed, walking out onto the porch of a house holding a boy.
“Last night around ten
two LASD patrol units responded to a silent alarm in unincorporated Maywood. Deputies Bradley Jones and Caroline Vega entered a residence and discovered a small boy, bound and gagged
men were killed and Deputy Jones was seriously wounded. It was Jones’s
as a deputy. Now, you can see in this video that he is bleeding profusely. That’s a
protruding from his chest. The deputy was attacked during the incident. An Amber Alert had been issued yesterday afternoon for the boy, and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department says he was kidnapped by narcotics traffickers who asked an undisclosed ransom. There is speculation that this little boy may have tripped that alarm
Here’s what the deputies had to say to FOX’s Theresa Brewer.”
Hood watched as Bradley talked to the reporter, handed the boy over to another LASD deputy, then sat down on the front porch and passed out. Then a fast-forward to Deputy Vega speaking to the reporter as she escorted the boy toward a cruiser. The news anchor went on to say that the dead men were yet to be identified and that Deputy Jones was in stable condition at County/USC Medical Center. The incident was being investigated by an LASD team.
Hood smiled and took up his coffee again. He laughed quietly. He shook his head. He had known Bradley since the boy was sixteen. Back then he was a brash, strong kid who looked like he needed a little guidance in life. Hood had encouraged him toward law enforcement. But Hood had also won the affections of Bradley’s mother, Suzanne, and Bradley had never forgiven him for that. Or for arresting her. Or for being there when she died.
Suzanne’s death had changed them both, but Bradley the most: He had sworn revenge on her young killer and taken it, Hood knew—though the murder remained unsolved. Bradley hadn’t even been eighteen at the time.
And he had
gone into law enforcement, as Hood had encouraged him.
Now, on his first patrol, three men dead and a boy saved and Bradley a bloodied hero.
A hero to some and a scourge to others
, thought Hood. So much like his famous ancestor, the outlaw Joaquin Murrieta. So much like his mother. Hood had loved her in spite of all that. And in spite of all this he bore a grudging admiration for the audacity, smarts and luck of her son.
He called a captain friend at LASD who said that Bradley had been released from County/USC.
Next he called more of the Desert Flyers and finally came up with George. George owned a “clean little landing strip” near Calexico, and Sean had asked him a couple of weeks ago if he could use it. George said yes because he liked Sean, and he liked the idea that the ATF might get some use out of his humble runway. Hood got three names and numbers from George, all DF members who owned private airstrips. All three told Hood they’d given Sean clearance—two, maybe three weeks ago. Hood had chosen the landing strip closest to Buenavista and hoped for luck.
Hood made the Calexico airstrip just before ten.
. No planes at all. But he found fresh aircraft tire tracks and the kibble slopped around the imprint of a bowl left in the runway sand and the boot and dog prints leading down the dirt road toward town.
Now he followed the boot prints toward Calexico. Daisy’s dainty prints were in the lead. The morning grew hot and by the time Hood came to the last of the tracks, he was standing on Cole Meadows Road looking south to the city.
The first motel he came to was the Mesa, where the manager recognized Hood’s photograph of Sean Ozburn without hesitation.
“You missed him by two hours,” said the manager. She was young and red-haired and reading a paperback vampire novel. When she had thoroughly examined Hood’s U.S. Marshal’s badge—a deputy was knighted a Federal Marshal when attached to a federal task force—she dug out a registration card. Hood recognized Ozburn’s writing: Sean Newman, with an Oceanside address and a 760 prefix. She offered to let Hood have the card and even see the room if he wanted. The maids had not been in yet.
Hood stood in the upstairs room and saw the unmade bed and the small white towel bunched on the bathroom counter and the clear plastic cup by the faucet and the blow-dryer hanging from the wall. The ice container sat on the bathroom floor with an inch of Daisy’s water still in it. The shower door was wet and there were small whiskers stuck along one latitude of the sink bowl. They looked like pepper.
“Did he do something?” asked the manager.
“We just want to talk to him.”
“On TV that means yes.”
“You’re right—on TV it does.”
“I didn’t charge him for the dog.”
“You’re sure he walked here? No car?”
“I watched him come out of the desert and across the parking lot.”
“You work some long hours, don’t you?”
“I don’t have much else to do. I just heard a car pull up. Close the door all the way when you leave, would you?”
Hood thanked her and watched her go, noting the older Chevy Astro Van parking in the shade by the motel office.
He studied the room and realized that looking for Sean wasn’t the same as looking for a stranger. He knew the man. Knew his opinions, his values, his humor, his habits. Or did he? The Ozburn he’d known for almost a year and a half wouldn’t have slaughtered three men without a clear reason. So, something was missing. A lot was missing.
, Hood thought: Sean’s clear reason. That he was embittered by his part in a seemingly unwinnable “war” on drugs and guns? Hard to believe. It had never bothered him before. Before what, though? Before going undercover and getting up close and personal with some very bad people. Before being yanked from his life and his wife and plunked down on a hostile planet. Before his nerves began to eat him alive and he found his crossroads on a volcano in Costa Rica and his salvation in a hard-drinking priest who led him back to his faith and his calling as an agent of the ATF. Thus setting the stage for the murders.
Sean had grown. Changed.
In many ways, Hood thought, this was the story of every undercover operation. The degrees of difficulty were variable, but they were rarely this extreme.
So why Ozburn? Hood knew him as tough and funny and typically non-philosophical about his job. It was his work and he believed in it and that was enough. You’re out at fifty-five—maybe travel or fix up the house or goof off with the grandkids. Sean wasn’t a seeker; he was quietly Christian. He was neither cynical nor subversive. He wasn’t overly proud of himself. He wasn’t driven by material goods or women not his wife or by alcohol or drugs. So why? Why murder the three?
It’s beginning to dawn on me why I’m here, not in this desert but on the PLANET . . . perform GOOD ACTS and DEFEAT the forces of EVIL. This is not a Biblical thing but a practical one . . .
Hood sat on the bed and looked around the room again. He wondered if Sean’s reasons might be less obvious. Maybe his reasons come from the fissures and faults hidden in his heart, the secrets kept even from himself, the seams not quite true. So that when the whole system was sunk to depth, it would come under such pressure that something might give.
If Ozburn had secrets, he was careful with them, Hood thought. He kept them for himself and for his wife.
. . . miss you so much sometimes I want to cut my heart OUT just to make it stop aching . . .
Which left him with Seliah and her anger at Blowdown and her puzzlement over her own husband.
And Ozburn’s family back in Texas, and his friends outside of work, if there were any.
And with four private airstrips Ozburn could fly in and out of whenever he wanted, though Hood knew that bold Sean could set his little plane down in a million unforeseeable places.
All four of the runways were located outside of municipal borders, which meant they were patrolled by county sheriffs, which meant that Hood as an LASD deputy might get some cooperation from his brethren in other Southern California counties. Might. He began with an acquaintance at Riverside SD.
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“Charlie Hood. I thought that was your twang-ass Bakersfield voice. How are you?”
Hood stood and started yapping while he took one last look around the room, then closed the door behind him.
By the time he made Buenavista he had arranged for three different sheriff’s departments to make occasional patrols of the four strips. He gave them a description and numbers for the Piper. With its classic Cub-yellow paint job and the name
painted beneath the fuselage, it would be hard to miss. The deputies couldn’t promise anything but they’d try. Hood thanked each and offered his help in return, anytime.
Find the plane
, he thought,
find the man
He had just pulled into the IHOP parking lot for lunch when Bly called. “At nine o’clock this morning, Sean had himself and his dog baptized by a Mexican priest in Nogales. Sean makes a speech about . . . Well, I don’t know what it’s about. He sent a video of the whole thing to Seliah. And some other weird videos, too. What in hell’s going on here, Charlie? What in hell?”