S&T Chapter Two: And Found.

Theo took a deep breath of the chilly air as he looked up at the predawn sky. This was the best part of his day. No one else was awake yet, he could let his mind wander, let his guard down for a little while. It would be probably turn into a warm spring day once the sun was up but right now he could feel the last echoes of winter seeping through his old barn coat.

He automatically found the Big Dipper and traced it to the…North Star, Polaris. But around here that one was called the “slave star.” He didn’t have a clue why. Maybe because it never moved?

Still looking up, he automatically stepped around the junk pile in the yard. There wasn’t a hint of cloud in the sky this morning and he could faintly make out the Milky Way. At least until the flood lights around the property came on, dazzling him.

Behind him, the screen-door thwaped.

“Why you out here creeping around?” His brother, Junior, grumbled as he pulled the collar of his coat up.

Theo pointed up. “Looking up at the magnificent stars the Good Lord gave us.”

“Tain’t natural, stars in the morning,” Junior grumbled as they walked to the barn. “I’m gonna win the lottery and then sleep all day long.”

It was a familiar refrain for Junior. He could be unpredictable this early in the morning, generally the safest policy was to agree to whatever he said. The cows were already making a fuss, knowing their voices meant feeding time. The two of them didn’t say much more, saving their breath for throwing down hay from the loft and dragging it to the cattle pen. Once the day warmed, Brother Elmer, Junior’s father, would turn them out into the pasture.

Theo grabbed a pail and scooped from the bin of chicken feed as Junior went to slop the hogs. Theo stepped into the fenced area in front of the coop. There was a muffled burble as the rooster heard him but they wouldn’t really wake up until it was light. Then it was back into the barn to fill the horse feeders. Junior walked over and handed Theo a flat bottomed shovel and they began mucking out the stalls.

By the time they had finished, the sky was bright over the eastern ridge and Theo could hear the cattle bellowing on the farm next door. The back screen-door thwaped again and Elmer Crabtree came out, buckling on the usual holster around his more than ample gut. He didn’t say anything to Theo or Junior, just began inspecting the barn and all the animals. It had been a long time since he’d found anything to complain about, but Brother Elmer was a man of deeply ingrained habits.

“Sister Mildred has breakfast on the stove” he announced when he was finished. “Git ye’selves on right quick.”

“Blessed Day, Da’,” Junior said as he came down from the loft.

“Blessed Day to you, boy. Get along and get your food, I don’t want you boys late to school again, y’hear?”

Theo followed Junior inside and they washed up before sitting down at the table. There was a folded paper next to Theo’s bowl of grits, the weekly food bill. He glanced at it before shoving it in his pocket. Brother Elmer had started charging Theo as soon as he’d been able to make a little extra money helping out at other farms. None of them paid him much and the bill seemed to always work out to a little more than Theo had saved. But, Brother Elmer didn’t seem to mind, he just added the remainder to next week’s bill, along with a little extra to “make up for all the trouble.” Theo wasn’t sure what the total was anymore, he didn’t much want to know how far in the hole he was or how he’d pay it off when school ended.

“Brother Hiram pays me tomorrow, I’ll pay you then, Brother Elmer.”

Elmer belched and scratched his chest. “See that you do, you’re eating us out of house and home.”

~~~~

Junior was going on about something or other as they drove into town but Junior was fairly easy to deal with. He’d inherited his father’s body and his mother’s brains and neither were anything to write home about. All Theo had to do to was make an occasional noise like he was paying attention. Junior was a couple years older but they were in the same classes. He was self-involved enough to assume everyone should be fascinated by whatever came out of his mouth, but he was usually harmless.

Until the topic of Julie Greer came up anyway. The wrong word, or even the wrong look, would turn him resentful and furious. Theo had already had a black eye on one occasion, and his teeth loosened on another, when he’d spoken carelessly about Julie. She was a year older than him and oversaw her father’s farm, where Theo did most of his outside work. That meant she was his boss in the afternoons, something that irritated Junior to no end, every time he dropped Theo off on the way home from school. Not for the chores of course, for some imagined chance to be near the love of his life.

Theo had told Junior over and over, in as many ways as he could imagine, he wasn’t remotely interested in Julie. He wasn’t interested in any of the young women in the little hamlet of Watson’s Hole. Theo had been around farmers and their families his whole life, he knew there had to be more to life than the endless cycle of planting, complaining about the weather, followed by the harvest and slaughter. If he ended up stepping out with Julie, or any of the rest of them, he’d be trapped here for the rest of his life. He wanted to see the world he’d glimpsed in the occasional National Geographic and his textbooks. So far, he’d never been further than the edge of the tiny town.

The problem with Junior was really his parents, along with most of the congregation. Brother Elmer and his wife, along with Brother Hiram and his wife, talked like him and Julie were already engaged. He was only sixteen and he didn’t want to be engaged to anyone. But try telling that to Junior when he’d gotten a head of steam up over women at the church discussing Theo and Julie. 

By the time they’d gotten to school, Junior was already simmering over something or other. Theo had no idea what it was, but it didn’t help matters when the blonde haired, blue eyed Julie saw them come in the school and headed straight for him.

“Hey Junior, hey Theo,” she said. “Theo, don’t plan on laying around during break next week, my pa says that the tobacco plants are ready to go in the field. He’s hiring some of them greasers to help.”

Junior had smiled at Julie but he turned a baleful eye toward Theo as she spoke. Theo suddenly had an moment of inspiration.

“I found out yesterday that this guy here ain’t doing nothing over break, your pa ought to hire him too.”

Julie looked at Junior. “That so?”

He puffed out his chest. “Well, yes. But it wouldn’t be properly Christian to take money for helpin’ a neighbor. I’ll come for free.”

Julie smiled at him. “Aren’t you a doll? If you won’t take money, mebbe I’ll make you up a pie.”

Theo didn’t think it was possible, but Junior puffed up even more. He snuck off to his locker while the two of them talked about what kind of pie Junior liked best.

~~~~

“C’mon, sit up for God’s sake!”

He gave her another minute but the old woman didn’t even twitch. Hands shaking, Lyle dialed the phone. His fingers were huge and clumsy as he fumbled around, trying to push the three little buttons.

There was an immediate answer. “911, where’s the emergency?”

“Uh, hello? I’m at Crestwood Heights Apartments. There’s this lady, she’s older. Well, uhm, she’s slumped over her table and she’s not moving. Her head is down and…”

“Okay, where is she, sir?”

“Across the courtyard, I mean our apartments face each other. I can see her through her window and her head is on the table. I usually see her in the morning but I didn’t see her this morning. And I don’t think she’s asleep and…”

“Sir, take a deep breath. I need you to slow down a little bit, okay? How long has it been since she moved?”

“I don’t know! I noticed her over there when I got home, uhm, ten minutes I think? She usually has her curtains closed but…”

“Okay sir, just stay calm for me. Help is on the way.”

~~~~

An ambulance followed the police car into the apartment parking lot. The apartments were in a quiet neighborhood and they’d left the sirens off. Still, the flashing lights soon drew a crowd. The police officers were out of their car first, a young looking rookie and a middle aged sergeant. The paramedics were next, fussing with getting the rolling stretcher out of the back. The two police officers looked at each other and the veteran rolled his eyes and nodded toward the building lobby where a heavy bald man was waiting. The pair headed that way, the paramedics could catch up. 

The manager was nervous and visibly sweating as they followed into the building.

“I never had this happen before,” the man blurted out in the elevator. “I called the owners.”

“That’s fine, sir,” the sergeant said soothingly. “What’s the tenants name?”

“Oh, uhm, Barbara Louis.”

The sergeant nodded. “You know if anyone else lives there? Or anyone that visits often?”

“She lived alone and I never noticed any visitors. But I don’t pay a lot of attention to that unless they’re loud or late with rent. She was polite but kept herself to herself.”

They got out and headed down the hallway. The manager pointed at the door of apartment 302 and fumbled with his ring of keys.

“Just stay back here for the moment, okay?” the sergeant said while the junior officer knocked on the door.

“Police, Ms. Louis, everything okay?”

He knocked again but there wasn’t an answer. The sergeant motioned for the manager to unlock the door. The fat man stood back while the two officers called out again as they stepped inside. The TV was on in the living room as they looked around.

She was sprawled at a small round table in the kitchen. Her head was down, her sightless eyes staring into the kitchen and her arms hung down, hands almost touching the floor. The sergeant knew it was pointless but he felt for a pulse. Nothing. There was a bowl of cereal that had been knocked to the floor and neither it, nor the woman was ripe. She’d passed this morning, the sergeant figured.

“Andy, have a look around. Remember to take notes,” he told his rookie and pulled out his own small notepad.

The paramedics finally made an appearance and the sergeant watched as they checked her pulse. They looked at the sergeant and he nodded. She was carefully sat up and then moved to the stretcher.

“See anything strange?” the sergeant asked. They were a long way from pathologists but it never hurt to ask. 

One of them shrugged. “Nope. Just looks old, y’know?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“Lots of meds in the bathroom, sarge,” Andy called. “Some is for high blood pressure.”

“Okay, be there in a second.” The sergeant called back. He went to the door where the manager was waiting. “Sir, do you know if she had any family or friends?”

“I checked before you got here, she didn’t have anyone else listed on her lease.”

“Okay, we’ll take a look in here. Andy, check for anything that might list a next of kin.”

The sergeant was an eighteen year veteran. He’d done enough welfare calls to figure that they wouldn’t get far with this one. There wasn’t much personality to the place, not even pictures of family, just some generic looking art. Whoever she’d been, she’d lived simply and quietly and it seemed that she’d died the same way.

“What did manager say her name was?” Andy called from the living room.

“Barbra Louis.”

“Then who is Genevieve Rosseau? Or Karen Wilson?”

The sergeant walked into the living room where Andy had been looking through the desk drawers.

“What are you talking about?”

“There’s a bunch of passports here, sarge. Looks like the same woman but they all have different names.”

“You yanking my chain?”

Andy held up a stack of little books in different colors. The sergeant was relieved to see that he was wearing latex gloves.

The sergeant sighed. “Remember what I said about nothing ever being simple? Leave those on top of the desk and write all this down. Good find but don’t touch anything else. I’m gonna call the lieutenant.”

~~~~

An hour later, a cheerful looking bald man in a rumpled gray suit got off the elevator and tapped on the door of 302. A young patrol officer opened the door.

“Can I help you, sir?”

The man held up his ID. “Don’t think we’ve met before, Special Agent Fred Bates.”

The young man suddenly stood straighter, almost at attention.

“Yessir! The Lieutenant is in the living room.”

Bate smiled and nodded at the kid as he walked in. Looking around, it wasn’t memorable. Generic but comfortable. A thin man in a rumpled suit, and in need of a haircut, was talking to the sergeant in the living room when the agent walked in. 

“Well, howdy Detective Nance. And how’s it going Mike?”

The sergeant and lieutenant gave him friendly nods.

“Howdy yourself, Agent Bates,” Nance said. “I figured we’d be seeing someone pretty quick on this.”

“That many fake passports is the most interesting thing to come through in months. And in Waxahachie of all places.  Get anywhere on her identity yet?”

“Nada. There’s a driver’s license that matches the name on the lease and her car registration but that’s where it ends. The techs are checking the rest of the place out now.”

The agent looked through the eight passports, now each sealed in its own bag. “Wow, these are really nice work. Check out the wear and creasing on them. They kinda look beat up? That’s professional work, pretty pricey. Now, if you look at the edges…”

He was showing the sergeant and detective the finer points of counterfeit passports quality when an evidence tech came out of the bedroom.

“Detective, I think you’d better come take a look.”

Bates raised his eyebrows and followed Nance to the bedroom. There was a piece of drywall on the floor and the tech was shining a flashlight in the hole. “It fell out of the wall when I moved a picture. There’s a couple metal cases stashed in there.”

Nance glanced at Bates. “You think your guys are gonna take this over?”

“I’d imagine that someone is arguing about that right now. Let’s at least see what Mr. Martinez found before one of us gets kicked out of here.”

There were two cases and the evidence tech pulled them out and put them on the bed. 

“Well, she wasn’t planning to get her deposit back tearing up the place like that,” Detective Nance said. “Let’s start with the biggest.”

The tech examined the box carefully before opening it, while another photographed it. Lifting the lid revealed a layer of black foam. On top of it was another set of identification cards held together with a rubber band.

“Christ, how many names did she need?” Nance said.

Agent Bates pulled on gloves and picked up the little bundle. He slid the passport out and handed the rest to the detective.

“Huh. It looks like we can add Nina Jenkins to the list.”

“Same name on the rest of these,” Nance said.

The FBI agent nodded. “I’ll bet we’re looking at our mystery woman’s real IDs then. What else is in there?”

The evidence tech carefully lifted the thin sheet of foam, revealing a collection of firearms. Bates whistled.

“Nice stuff.”

“I don’t even know what that is,” Nance said.

“The assault rifle there is called a Steyr AUG,” Agent Bates said. “Pretty pricey, not too common. I’ve never seen one of them in the field.”

“What do you make of those things next to the pistols?”

Martinez half lifted one with the end of a pen. “Looks like silencers.”

Nance rubbed his face. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Bates peered at the black cylinder and nodded. “Sure enough. Good quality too, all this stuff is. The pistol there is a Remington R1, very chic. Ms. Barbra Louis is turning out to be a fascinating woman. Okay Mr. Martinez, what do we have behind door number two?”

The technicians went through the same process with the other case. This time, all three of them whistled as the lid was opened.

Bates squatted down, examining the stacks of bills closely. “This looks like a lot of cash. And a laptop, how… convenient.”

“Always on a goddamned Friday.” Nance said. “My kid’s got a game tonight too.”

“Looks like there’s more underneath the laptop,” Martinez said.

“Wait,” Bates snapped. “I’ve got a bad feeing here. Let’s go stand somewhere else.”

Bates left the room without saying anything else. Nance followed him, waving for the technician and police officers to come along. Bates was standing in the hallway waiting for them.

Nance looked at him curiously. “What’s wrong?”

Bates began ticking points off on his fingers. “She’s got high end, professional looking hardware. She’s got a lot of cash stashed with it. Her apartment is generic, no trace of personality. I think we’ve got a high-level critter here. But why would she do something stupid like leaving those passports where they could be found? Mr. Martinez’s powers of observation aside, those cases weren’t hidden very well.”

“Maybe she got sloppy,” Nance said.

“Could be. Or we could be looking at bait. I’d strongly recommend that both those cases need to be inspected by EOD before they’re moved, or even touched.”

They all looked up as an elderly woman peeked her head out of her apartment door.

“In fact, it might not be a bad idea to get everyone out of here.”

“Better safe than confetti,” Nance said. “Mike, you two start getting everyone out. I’ll send in help.”

The sergeant and patrolman began knocking on doors as Bates and Nance headed for the elevator.

“Pretty sure those passports mean this is going to be your baby,” Nance said. “Sorry about your weekend.”

“Nah, I haven’t had one of those in years now. Enjoy your son’s game.”

Two hours later Detective Nance was sitting next to his wife at a Little League game. His youngest was on strike two when he got a text from Bates: Disposal found four pounds of semtex wrapped in ball bearings, trigger on the laptop. You owe me a beer.

FNance deleted the text and put his arm around his wife. She smiled and leaned against him. They watched as Jacob swung wildly at a pitch and struck out.

Pretty sure I owe you a goddamned keg, Nance thought.

~~~~

It was midmorning of the next day in northwestern New Mexico. In a cramped windowless room, a man was just sitting down with his second cup of coffee when one of his people came in.

“Hey, I just forwarded a urgent heads-up from one of our friendly Feds. They found Nina Jenkins dead.”

The Nina Jenkins? Wow, any idea who retired her?. W

“Wasn’t us. There’s an autopsy scheduled but our guy said it looked like natural causes. And he included a list of other names she might have used.”

Jeff turned around and opened a browser. “Natural causes, who goes and dies of natural causes? Like hearing the devil broke his neck on the stairs. Let’s start running those other names.”

Twenty minutes later he was walking quickly to the Big Office, hands shaking slightly. The Boss’s assistant, Lily, was at her desk waiting for him.

“Hi Jeff, it’ll be a few minutes until she’s free[jb1] . I don’t think you’ve met our distinguished guest Ulan before?”

“I’ve heard the name certainly. Nice to meet you, sir.”

“Hello Jeff. Lily says you found something urgent?”

Jeff looked at Lily who nodded fractionally.

“Uh, yes sir. Nina Jenkins was found dead in Waxahachie.”

“Ah! The death of a traitor is a joy to all. But what is Waxahachie? That is an animal[jb2] ?”

Lily smiled. “It’s a place in Texas, Ulan. Was there more, Jeff?”

“Jenkins had a bunch of identities set up but only the cover she was living under had been used….” he trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

“That’s still not enough to bring you down here,” Lily said.

“Yeah, no. Look, maybe it’s classified as Need-to-Know but I evacuated from the Bright Mirror R&D with the Boss so I”ve heard what happened. I’ll need more time to check forensic data but…”

“Jeff, spit it out.”

He took a deep breath. “Nina Jenkins had an cover identity as Barbra Louis. There’s enough traces that I think we can track down the kid. I brought what I have so far.”

“The kid?” Ulan rumbled in his deep voice.

He blinked as Lily held up a hand for him to be quiet. She picked up the phone and pushed a button. “Hi. There’s something she needs to hear abo…no, Mirjam. She needs to hear this right now.”

Jeff was pale now. “Mirjam is in there too?”

Lily raised an eyebrow. “Where else would she be? Just don’t make any sudden moves and you’ll be fine.”

~~~~

Thirty-eight hours later and seven hundred kilometers to the southeast, Marisol Gutierrez followed the rest of the migrants, jumping down from the back of the panel truck. The only light was a dim red glow from a light held by one of the coyotes.

“Border is that way,” he told them, bored. “Go west when you’re past the fence. West only, North and east is a big road, lots of Border Patrol. Small roads to the west, no towns.”

Marisol made sure her water supply, formerly two bleach bottles, were tied down tightly before heading for the fence. Once she’d climbed the homemade ladder up and over, she looked around. The only light was a dim glow to the east, probably the freeway lights around Langtry. A middle-aged woman was having trouble with the last rungs and Marisol helped her down. The ladder immediately slid back up and disappeared as the coyotes pulled it back over the fence.

The woman thanked her and Marisol nodded and smiled before starting to walk away.

“You’re going the wrong way,” the woman said. “We’re to go this way.”

“I’m meeting someone,” Marisol said. “Go with God.”

“Good luck,” the woman called, before turning to follow the others.

Marisol took a several deep breaths before she began jogging to the northeast. After twenty minutes, she began to see the glow of headlights crawling across the night. She stopped beside some medium sized rocks and drank as much water as she could out of one the water containers and dumped out the rest. Cutting open the side, Marisol pulled out a sealed package that had been taped to the bottom of the bottle. Repeating the process with the other bottle revealed another sealed box.

By the time she got to shoulder of the road, Marisol was wearing a silk shirt and had a hijab wrapped around her neck, with new British papers in her pocket. Everything else had been buried near the rocks. Along with the new identity, she had a small cellophane envelope in her shirt pocket. As she walked down the shoulder of the road, she saw the glow of headlights from beyond the next rise. Marisol opened the little envelope. She dipped her fingers into the envelope and took a deep breath before wiping her fingers, now coated in habanero oil, under each eye with and under her nose.

“Shit!” she yelped, waving her hands in front of her watering eyes. Whoever dreamed up this bullshit plan up had some explaining to do. She waved her hands in front of her eyes and continued down the road. The glow of the headlights became a white SUV with a green stripe on the fender. Marisol made sure the hijab was over her head and opened several buttons of her shirt.

The brake-lights of the SUV came on as it passed her and the driver made a U-turn and pulled over, pinning her in the headlights. She’d been trying to breathe through her mouth but as she made her scared face, she sniffed through her nose. She almost gagged and her nose began running profusely. Behind the headlights, she could see both doors opening.

Two men walked in front of the headlights, approaching her slowly.

“Broder Patrol,” one of them announced in Spanish. “Do you have identification?”

“What are you saying? Doesn’t anyone speak English in this bloody country?” Marisol replied in a strong West London accent.

The agents looked at each other. This wasn’t one they’d heard before.

“Ma’am, where are you coming from?” one of them asked in English.

“Oh, thank God! Charlie just abandoned me here and bloody drove off!”

“Who did, ma’am?” the other one asked, looking at her semi-exposed cleavage.

“I thought he was nice, he seemed nice on the internet when we met. But then I flew all this way to meet him. But he didn’t look like his picture and wanted me to do…things. Awful things. When I refused he said he was taking me to the airport but left me out here instead!” Marisol quavered.

She tried to wipe the tears away from her red eyes as she began to sob. Both men winced as snot dripped from her nose. Another long line of it dripped over her upper lip. Marisol used the back of her arm to wipe it away but ended up smearing it all over her cheek.

“Uh, do you need a kleenex?” one of the men asked.

“Thank you, that would be very kind.”

She sniffed, pulling another streamer back up into her nostril. Both men visibly flinched. Marisol would have laughed if she could. These two had been ready to arrest her but now they weren’t sure whether to hit on her or hose her off.

“Ma’am, who left you?” the other agent asked. 

“His name is Charlie Jones, we met on the internet. He works at the Laughlin base and I came all this way to visit him and then he…” Marisol buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

The other agent returned and handed her a wad of paper napkins. She wiped her face and thanked him, not having to fake any gratitude.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but what kind of things did he ask you to do? Were you hurt?”

“I didn’t recognize any of the…things he was showing me. Except the little saddle. That’s when I told him he wasn’t to lay a finger on me.”

The agents looked at each other, fighting back smiles.

“What’s your name?”

“Thank you. I’m Atiya Hakim. I’m English.”

“Do you have identification Atiya?”

“My passport, some credit cards. Can you help me?”

“Sure we can, can I take a look at your passport?”

Two hours later they were dropping her off at a hotel near the tiny Del Rio airport. Marisol traded numbers with them both and promised to keep in touch before going inside to get a room.

Too bad Atiya is disappearing, she thought. That driver was cute.

Still, she wasgoing to have a word with whoever did travel arrangements. They owed her first class after this crap.

~~~~

In Juarez, a vicious looking thug waited on the sidewalk in front of a bodega. Everyone around him looked away except for the unfortunate few that had to hurry past him with quickly muttered apologies. He ignored them, ignored everything around him except the traffic in the street. Finally, an El Dorado painted a metallic orange- flake pulled to the curb. The thug firmly pushed a passing man out of his way and went to the side of the car. After trading a couple of sentences that everyone was careful not to hear, he climbed in and the car pulled out with a screech of tires.

“Nice ride,” the thug said in English. “Name’s Jonesy.”

“Call me Ishmael.”

Jonesy rolled his eyes and the other man laughed. It was a tired old joke among his colleagues.   

“This the car we’re taking to the border?”

“Nah mate, got a clean donk waiting in a garage, you’ll be home before a sparrow farts.”

Jones looked at the obviously Hispanic driver. “Sydney? Seriously?”

The other man grinned. “Yeah, parents moved there right after I was born. Got recruited by Arclight Southern. Sounds like someone up the ladder is well and truly farting sparks over something.”

Jonesy snorted. “Obviously. We got pulled off in the middle of a job with no warning.”

“Definitely a rush job from up top then. Guess we’ll be headed wherever you came from. Nice place?”

Jonesy watched Juarez go past outside the passenger window. “Not too bad. But most of my team is still in place.”

The driver whistled. “They split your crew? Phew, that’s evil juju man. Sounds like your ops section got ahold of the loco weed.”

Jonesy nodded gloomily. 

~~~~

After school, Theo waited in the truck while Junior, ever the social butterfly, goofed around with his friends. When he finally got in the truck, Junior ignored Theo, who enjoyed the rare silence. Finally, Junior parked at the intersection where he usually stopped briefly to drop Theo off for work.

“Hold up,” he said as Theo started to get out.

“What’s up?”

 Theo’s body was tense and he kept his hand on the door handle. He watched Junior’s face but didn’t see any of the signs that Junior was about to explode. Still, he stayed ready to jump. Junior outweighed him by a hundred pounds, at least, and working the farm meant there was decent muscle under all that fat. The last time they’d gotten into it, Theo had barely been able to walk for a week. And being black and blue wasn’t any excuse to miss chores at home, or at work. 

“Why’d you do that?” Junior asked. “This morning I mean. When you told her she oughta hire me.”

Theo shrugged slightly. “You’re sweet on her, right? I figure you two actually talking is gonna be easier out on the field. She’s always got Sophie and Elizabeth around her at school but I doubt they’ll be out there setting seedlings.”

Junior finally looked at him. “What about you being sweet on her?”

Theo sighed. “How many times I gotta tell you? I ain’t sweet on her. That’s just other people talkin’.”

Theo watched Junior, still not seeing any rage. Just confusion.

“That mean you’re gonna help me now?”

Theo nodded. “Much as I can without putting myself forward. You know what happens when someone tells Brother Elmer I been doing that.”

“Yeah, but you been good lately. Daddy ain’t beat you but once this year.”

Theo shrugged again. “Learned my lesson. I gotta get going Junior, tractor’s gotta get fixed before I can turn over the field.”

“Go on then,” Junior said, putting the truck in gear.

Theo opened the door and hopped out.

“Hey, Brother Runt,” Junior said before Theo closed the door. “I ain’t saying I need your help but thanks.”

Theo nodded, surprised. That was the first thank you he’d ever heard. But Junior still spun his tires as he pulled away, kicking up a cloud of dust around Theo. He wiped his face as he began walking toward the distant barn.

~~~~

Forty-six miles to the northeast, Marisol was getting out of a beat up taxi at an even more decrepit looking motel. The parking lot was full of beat up trucks mostly but there were a few sedans here and there. A bunch of kids were playing on the balcony on the second floor, watched over by a couple old women. Two old school buses, sloppily painted white, were in the lot, dropping off a large crowd of migrant workers. Marisol headed for the office as they headed for their rooms, greeted by the shouts of the children.

Marisol stepped into the office, dark after the bright afternoon sun.

“Ain’t got no rooms available,” a man called from the back.

“My cousin has a room here, I don’t know which one.”

“What name?” the manager said, shuffling out from the back room.

“Emiliana Garza.”

He nodded. “Yeah, got here yesterday. Two-eighteen, stairs around back.”

Marisol nodded and walked down the parking lot. There were a lot of curious looks, especially from the groups of young men. A few called out remarks in Spanish that would land them on the wrong side of a sexual harassment charge at most jobs. For a moment she wished she’d worn something sleeveless, the muscles and tattoos on her arms usually bought a little bit of quick respect. But they were playing spy so Marisol just laughed and called back insults that were more teasing than angry. Laughter followed her around the edge of the building as she climbed the stairs.

She tapped on the door of two-eighteen, calling out for Emiliana to let her in. The curtains twitched as someone looked out and then she heard the sounds of the door unlocking. Inside, Jonesy and another man were sitting with their backs against the headboard, throwing cards at a hat on the dresser. The woman that opened the door  had long dark hair that draped over one shoulder. Her skin was nearly the same color as Marisol’s but the shape of her nose and slight epicanthic folds around her eyes showed more of a Pacific Island heritage.

“Kawehi!” Marisol whisper-shouted.

The two women hugged tightly.

“How’ve you been?” Kawehi asked.

Marisol grinned at her “Got a promotion chief sergeant. How about you?”

“Good to see they’re finally appreciating you! I got bumped up as well. You can call me Lieutenant Moana.”

Marisol put an arm over Kawehi’s shoulder. “Damn, I thought I might have finally caught up.”

“With me? Please,” the other woman said and they both laughed. “Meet my Warden, Nate Jackson.”

The man beside Jonesy got up and shook hands with Marisol. “Good to finally meet the legendary Marisol Gutierrez. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“She made everything up but the dirty stuff,” Marisol said. “Hiya Jonesy.”

“Hey boss. How was your trip?”

“Unbelievable, I came over with illegal migrants in the middle of Texas. Whatever this little adventure is about, our timeline in Oaxaca is screwed.”

Kawehi looked a little embarrassed. “Actually, your whole op is on pause while Nolan’s gang gets down there. The rest of your team will hand things over and start working their way up here.”

“What the fuck are they thinking?” Marisol snapped, fury blooming behind her eyes. “We spent fucking weeks getting everything ready.”

“Nope, time to relax, boss” Jonesy said as he hopped off the bed. “Have a drink and catch your breath.”

He offered her a bottle and she had a swallow and then another. It was rum, a very welcome change from the raw pulque they’d been drinking. She held the bottle out to Kawehi who shook her head.

“That was out of line, I apologize,” Marisol said. “We’ve been in the field for almost nine weeks now.”

She pulled off her long sleeved shirt revealing a form fitting vest covered in pockets. She unzipped that halfway and sat against the headboard. Jonesy put the cap on the bottle and sat next to her.

“Then I’ll apologize first,” Kawehi said, pulling the one chair in the room over. She sat down, putting her feet up on the bed. “You’re both here because of me.”

“How’s that?” Marisol asked, taking a bottle of water that Jonesy offered her.

“I asked for both of you, specifically.”

Marisol looked surprised. “And they said okay? We were in the middle of something big.”

“I know Mari and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t need you. As for letting us, well, the Project tends to give Commonwealth agents whatever they need.”

“If only to get us the hell off Earth as quickly as possible,” Nate said.

Kawehi gave him an exasperated glance and he shrugged slightly. Marisol noticed the exchange and, despite her irritation, found herself liking the guy a little bit.

“Anyway,” Kawehi said. “I know the broad outline of what you were trying to accomplish but this is bigger. The request came from the Big Leather Chair herself but since we’re back home, there’s obviously a lot of interest coming from the Commonwealth upper management. So I needed the two best students I ever had.”

“You were always blowing sunshine up my ass,” Marisol grumbled.

“Whoa, what? I didn’t know anything that interesting was going on,” Jonesy said.

Marisol elbowed him in the ribs while Kawehi gave him a withering look. Nate just laughed.

“What’s the real reason?” Marisol asked.

Kawehi grinned at her. “Because the three of us can pass as Latinos.”

“That sounds a little closer to the truth,” Jonesy said. “And we are Latino, thank you very much.”

“Shut up, Jonesy,” Marisol said. “What’s the new game, Kay?”  

“It’s a snatch and it needs to be done fast. Yesterday if possible. So the three of us are going to do initial recon. When  the rest of your crew shows up in a few days we’ll be able to roll on the op.”

“Kay, that’s way too fast,” Marisol said. “Remember, we’ve already been in the field for three months. People are worn out and snatches need a lot of prep and planning. What’s so important it can’t wait for a prepped team?”

Kawehi smiled. “This is the part you’re gonna love…”

~~~~

Nate was sitting in the middle of the floor meditating when the door to the motel room opened. Kawehi sagged into the room and flopped down on the bed. Marisol was behind her and immediately began pulling off her work shirt. Jonesy came in a minute later and rummaged in the cooler.

“Don’t stink up those sheets,” Nate said to Kawehi as he unfolded himself from the lotus position.

“You are a beast,” Kawehi said, eyes closed. “I haven’t worked that hard in a long time.”

“Even I’ll admit that was a long day,” Marisol said, shrugging of her vest. “Would you like the shower first, Kay?”

“So you don’t stink up the sheets?” Nate added.

Kawehi sat up with a small groan. “I was wrong, you’re both a beast and a bastard.”

“You hear the way she talks to me?” Nate said to Jonesy.

“It’s that legendary Warden bond,” Jonesy said, opening a beer.

Kawehi went and got in the shower. She closed her eyes, leaning on the wall and let the hot water run down over the sore muscles in her back. The door opened and closed but Kawehi didn’t open her eyes. Something very cold pressed against her arm and she jumped.

“Doctor’s orders,” Marisol said from the other side of the curtain.

“Ooh, shower beer.” Kawehi took the cold bottle of beer and sighed happily.

When she came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, Jonesy was the only one in the room. Kawehi sat against the headboard next to him.

“Where did they go?”

“To buy pizza because I won the bet.”

“What bet?”

Jonesy looked smug. “I bet the boss I’d find the kid first.”

“What? There weren’t any gringos around except that blonde girl.”

“You didn’t see the other group planting in the back field. There was a kid with black hair and blue eyes. And I mean really blue eyes.”

“Really? What did he look like?”

“I don’t know Emma but I’ve seen pictures. Definitely the same eyes. And there was a big bubba looking kid with him, keeping an eye on him I think. Gotta be him.”

Kawehi sat up. “Are you ‘sending an email’ sure?”

Jonesy handed Kawehi her tablet. “It’s him.”

A few minutes later, an innocuous email went out. It was in Spanish and talked about the working conditions and the pay. In New Mexico, Jeff was about to turn things over to his deputy and get some sleep. They stopped talking as his computer chimed. Jeff immediately sat down and opened it.

“What’s up?” the deputy asked.

“They found him. Let’s get those call-outs to her crew.”

Another message went out, a tweet this time. Watchers saw it and immediately more messages went out . The format varied, SMS, email, tweets, and brief phone calls to wrong numbers. 

~~~~

This new hotel was a lot nicer than the last one, Kawehi decided as she finally turned off the shower. They’d gone up a few rungs on the accommodations to ensure that they wouldn’t accidently run into their former co-workers. The sixty-five miles between the two places had probably been enough but Marisol was still irritated so she’d spent more money than she was supposed to. It was just the three of them until the rest of Marisol’s strike team arrived. Jonesy was still with the migrant workers. He’d protested but he was the only one of them that knew what the target looked like and the team needed to keep eyes on him.

When she saw the new room, Kawehi was tempted to send him a picture but decided not to rub it in too much. The rest of the team would be here soon and once they’d snatched the kid the worst of it would be over. The only thing after that was a long, relaxing road trip out west. 

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