A Crisis of Conscience – latest edit – by Robert Solem & James Tilley

Chapter One

“This is Ajo station calling Alpha four-seven-five.  Agent Bowers, please respond.”

“Go for Alpha four-seven-five.”

“We have a situation at Crater Range.  We have received a nine-one-one report from Pima County Dispatch.  Two hikers report finding an injured female Hispanic in the company of two other Hispanics trying to provide first-aid.  Apparently, huddled under a ledge.  We have the GPS coordinates.  Are you available to respond?” 

“Ajo Station, my partner Agent Hardcastle and I will respond.  Give me the coordinates.  A Crater Range ETA should be approximately thirty minutes.  Four-seven-five out.”

“Well, Hardcastle, since the injured party is female, protocol mandates I stay with her.  She may need to be coptered out, but the medics can make that decision.  You get to deal with the male illegals, if that’s what they are.”

“Yeah, lucky me.  But if they are illegals, likely her companions will be hoofing it back to the border.”

“Likely you’re right.  That leaves the so-called hikers.  At least I hope they’re sticking around to keep an eye on her.” 

Mandy Bowers and Martin Hardcastle, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Tucson Sector, were currently working out of the Ajo Border Patrol Station. The Ajo Station area of responsibility encompasses eight thousand square miles of vast desert, including portions of the Organ Pipe National Monument, the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Department of Defense Barry Goldwater Range.

Bowers and Hardcastle were experienced in tracking drug and human traffickers.  They operated an older Dodge Ram 2500 that had seen its better days from driving across the bumpy roads and terrain of the desert.  Bowers, a senior agent supervisor, was a tough female who had paid her dues in a predominantly male law enforcement environment.  Both were proficient in Spanish, but Hardcastle could never quite get the grammar.

When a group of suspected illegals was spotted by helicopter or MSC radar, agents on the ground were notified to intercept and detain.  Most illegals were too scared to offer more than token resistance, but their coyotes or guides sometimes pulled guns or knives and fought back.  However, by the time a party of illegals was as deep into the Arizona desert as the injured Hispanic’s current location, they were usually on their own.  Their guides would be long gone back to the Mexican side of the border awaiting the next group to be smuggled across.

Most of these illegals were seeking work and a better life, but a not insignificant number offered more risk and danger to law enforcement.  These were the human mules carrying narcotics to supply the insatiable thirst of addicts for that next high.  These carriers, the lowest and most expendable rung on the drug cartel depth chart, were less predictable.

The least hazardous scenario for the border patrol, one that avoided direct confrontation, was advance notice to the mules that agents were nearby and closing in.  These warnings were signaled from the cartel’s own spotters, some hundred and fifty strong, parked on mountain lookouts in the southern Arizona terrain.  The mule’s best option was to abandon his pack and hotfoot it back to the border.  The lost drugs were chalked up as part of the expense of doing business and figured into the street price to consumers.  The downside for border patrol agents was the missed opportunity to make a legal and productive arrest.  

The walkie-talkie burped.  A message from Ajo Station.  “Just got an update.  The gringos are staying with the injured Chiquita.  Apparently, she got bit by a rattler.  No word on how bad.  With help on the way, her companions have fled south, presumably for the border.  Not carrying narcotics, she maintains, but that may be bullshit.  So, approach with caution.”

“Ten-four. These civilians have more cojones than sense staying with her, but I’m glad for that,” Hardcastle opined.

“Yeah, wonder what their story is?” Bowers responded.  “They obviously have ignored the posted signs along State Route 85.  But a lucky break for us.  Be even better if they are innocent as advertised.”

“Well, we’ll soon find out.  Almost there.”

They exited their vehicle on the opposite side of Crater Range.  Hardcastle took cover from a hidden crevice in the rocks while Bowers approached.  Her call as the senior agent, she likely chose herself for the approach because the suspect was female.  The two hikers were sitting in the mid-morning sun, exuding casual in loose cotton trousers and long-sleeved shirts.  These guys gave off the vibes of desert veterans more concerned with harmful rays than comfort. 

“Hi.  You from border patrol?”

“I’m Agent Bowers and this is my partner Agent Hardcastle.”

Hardcastle stepped out from his cover.  Although the agents would go with overt friendliness, they would be on the alert for any suspicious moves by either of the pair.  However, they did request that the pair wait for a search and rescue team that would arrive shortly.  Would they mind being interviewed?

The agents’ first objective would be seeing to the injured woman and checking for the possibility of abandoned contraband.  Tracking down the other two illegals would likely be a task for the helicopter or for other agents on three-wheel ATV’s or horseback.

Bowers attended to the woman while keeping an eye on the pair, quickly discovering that she had suffered a rattler bite on her thigh.  She was woozy and in danger of losing consciousness because the location of the bite had not allowed for a tourniquet.

Bowers asked her in Spanish what had caused the snake to bite, as typically snakes will slither away and bite only if attacked.  She explained that she had tripped and had landed almost on the snake, sunning itself on a rock.  One of her companions had attempted to suck out the poison, but they did not have a snake bite kit.  The two gringos had walked in on them and had called 911.  Other than the bite, she had some superficial cuts and scrapes but was otherwise uninjured.

With Hardcastle guarding the scene, Bowers ran back to their vehicle for her snakebite kit.  She cleaned around the bite and used the kit’s pump suction device on it.  But given the site of the bite, Bowers knew that her patient would need antivenom and be airlifted to a hospital to ensure her survival.  She called for a medivac unit, instructing them to bring a broad-spectrum antivenom.  From her training she was aware that the Arizona desert was home to almost a dozen species of rattlers.

Meanwhile, Hardcastle searched the area for evidence of the woman’s companions.  He followed two pairs of footprints that pointed south for approximately a hundred feet to where they descended into an arroyo.  A good eight feet deep with steep sides, it offered concealment to desert trekkers more interested in avoiding exposure than in easy, unimpeded walking.

He found a backpack in the arroyo hidden in some mesquite bushes a hundred yards to the south.  Inside were some bricks of marijuana and several bags of brownish powder which Hardcastle recognized as heroin.

He returned to the formation, where he found Bowers comforting the woman and encouraging her to remain calm.  Bowers had her cushioned sitting up to keep her heart above the bite.  The two hikers were still glued to a sitting position, sharing small talk seemingly oblivious to being in a veritable war zone under cartel control.  What the hell were they doing there, anyway?

Ten minutes later, a medivac helicopter set down.  Two first responders with air-lift supplies emerged and hurried to their victim.  Bowers moved away to give them working room and walked over to where Hardcastle had engaged the hikers.

The hikers asked about the backpack, phrasing their interest as idle curiosity.  Hardcastle said sorry, but he was not able to disclose the contents as he himself was not authorized to inspect the pack prior to it being officially processed.  This minor deception was per protocol of not disclosing border patrol business to civilians unless circumstances mandated.

The hikers offered that they had hiked in this area over the last couple of years.  It wasn’t uncommon to see illegals in the area during a hike, and they were always on alert because the area was a well-known drug smuggling corridor.  The hikers came across the woman and two males.  The one in charge, a good-looking Hispanic obviously panic-stricken pleaded with them to summon help.  After they called 911 and were ensured of a response, the two Hispanics headed south.

Because the injured person was female, Bowers would have to remain with her as she was transported out of the area.  It was common practice for female Border Patrol Agents to be paired with female illegals while they were under guard.  Agent Bowers, the medivac crew and the injured woman were coptered to the Regional Hospital in Buckeye, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix fifteen miles west on I-10.

Hardcastle broke away from the incident scene and began tracking the two male illegals on foot.  He radioed for assistance for an agent on ATV, as his SUV was useless in the uneven desert terrain.  By then the illegals had at least an hour lead on any pursuit so Hardcastle would have to make up some serious time.

After twenty minutes on foot, Hardcastle finally connected with Alpha 264, Border Patrol Agent Jason Rodriguez who was operating an ATV 4X4.  Meanwhile, Hardcastle had tracked footprints indicating the males were continuing to head south towards the Mexican Border.  If they were successful in reaching the border, they would be free to regroup and return another day. 

Hardcastle jumped on the back of Rodriguez’s ATV and they sped south.  With the border in sight and tantalizingly close, the illegals could hear the engine of the ATV, and realized they could not outrun it on foot.

One of the illegals, armed with rifle and handgun, could not afford to be captured.  Reluctantly, he opted for an ambush.  He handed his gun to his companion and pointed them to higher terrain.  When the ATV closed in, the illegal with the rifle fired a shot that hit Rodriguez, who lost control causing the ATV to crash.  Both illegals continued to fire from their positions, but with both agents hugging the ground they were no longer easy targets.

Hardcastle, an expert marksman with combat experience, took up a crouched position behind the wrecked ATV.  This afforded him the necessary cover to return fire.  Hardcastle was carrying the standard Border Patrol issued firearm a 40 S&W caliber H & K P2000 double action pistol that contained twelve rounds of ammunition, plus one in the chamber.  He also had two additional clips of twelve rounds each.  In a firefight, however, this was minimal firepower.  He would need to conserve ammunition until backup arrived.  Hardcastle radioed to Ajo Station, messaging agents under fire, one seriously wounded.

The illegal with the rifle broke cover, probably seeking a better shot.  Not a prudent course of action against an adversary of Hardcastle’s skill.  He was able to take a bead on the illegal from about twenty-five yards, firing in double taps.  With the fourth shot the illegal dropped and rolled down a small hill with the rifle dislodging along the way.  Hardcastle could tell the illegal was not moving and focused his fire upon the second illegal crouched behind a large outcropping of rocks.

Hardcastle approached the illegal, yelling “Abajo, abajo.”  Hardcastle was ready to shoot if the illegal disobeyed his command, but the man wisely chose to hit the ground and allow his wrists to be handcuffed behind his back.  Hardcastle prodded him over to the ATV so he could check on the status of Rodriguez.

Hardcastle saw that Rodriguez had taken a potentially lethal rifle shot in his thigh that had grazed the femur artery.  He was in danger of bleeding out if Hardcastle didn’t act quickly.  While keeping an eye on his captive, he first went over to check on the illegal with the rifle.  Found that the deceased target had taken two lethal bullets, one through the chest and the other through the neck.

Hardcastle double-timed it back to Rodriguez.  The other illegal had not moved.  Told him in Spanish to remain motionless or he’d be muerto like his companion.  Hardcastle pulled a tourniquet from the ATV first-aid box.  He placed it above Rodriguez’s thigh wound and applied pressure at the wound site. 

About this time, a team of agents arrived and relieved Hardcastle.  The surviving illegal was transported to the Ajo Station for processing and interrogating.  He was fingerprinted and his fingerprints run through Homeland Security’s Treasury Enforcement Communication System (TECS) used by Customs and Border Security (CBS) for primary and secondary processing.  TECS is a potent information sharing platform and is the principal system used by CBS for screening and determining admissibility status of arriving persons.

The system allows agents to access a diverse number of records and databases relevant to the anti-terrorism and law enforcement mission of CBS.  It also serves as a data repository that supports law enforcement in any number of areas.

The deceased illegal was also finger printed and his prints sent with the rescue team to Ajo Station.  His identity turned out to be a shocker.  He was none other than one Pedro Jimenez, born in Chihuahua, and the younger brother of Angel Jimenez, boss of the Penasco cartel.

The identity sent off alarm bells in the drug enforcement arm of Homeland Security.  Why would this high-level guy be risking a desert encroachment into US territory?  If it was for a meet with another cartel honcho, the usual transit would be in the reverse direction.  The U.S. based cartel member would travel to Mexico.  Agent speculation favored an arranged meeting with a U.S. citizen, possibly military.

The surviving male illegal was identified by TECS as Oscar Diaz.  He had been deported once previously and had spent time in the US prison system for drug smuggling.  He was visibly nervous, pacing the holding cell, no doubt aware he was looking at serious time for his involvement in the attempted murder of a federal agent.  The injured female was confirmed by TECS to be his sister, as she had disclosed to Bowers.

Because the incident involved firearms, the Phoenix Field Office of Homeland Security was notified and immediately dispatched a team of agents to the Ajo Station.  Among the responders was a skilled interrogator, Agent Carlos Garcia of Homeland Security Investigations, as a critical first step in determining what happened and why was interrogating the surviving illegal.

Diaz was brought to an interview room equipped with a two-way mirror behind which was seated a team of attentive agents.  Given the status of the dead illegal, any obtainable information from the survivor could prove valuable.

Agent Garcia entered the room and saw that Diaz was looking scared, not at all portraying the tough guy pose that some detainees showed.

“Hola senor, mi nombre es Agent Carlos Garcia.  Y usted, por favor?”

While the interview was conducted in Spanish, much of the remainder is here translated into English.

The illegal did not answer.  He looked down and slowly shook his head back and forth, perhaps pretending not to understand what was being asked.

The interrogator tried another tack.  “Have you been treated well?”

He nodded his head as a “yes.”  Then added, “I was offered a bottled water or a Pepsi.”  He paused briefly, then added, “But not a cerveza.”

“No cerveza for now.  We prefer you to keep a clear head when talking to us.  First question.  Do you understand why you’re here?”

“No se, senor,” he replied with a shrug.  “I’m a simple farmer.  The land is worn out, and my last crops failed.  I am here looking for work.” 

“I can understand, but then tell me why we found a backpack containing marijuana and almost a kilo of brown heroin among your things?” 

“I know nothing about this.  The drugs were not mine.  I met the other two on my journey.  I do not know them.  I was carrying the pack for the senorita.  She was loco from the sun, so I offered to carry it.”

“Well, that may be true.  But the senorita, your sister…”

“My sister?”  Diaz made a show of surprise, but one hardly convincing to the trained interviewer.

“Yes, your sister, not a woman you happened to encounter like you first told us.”

Diaz looked down, defeated.  A simple man caught in a lie.

“Please don’t lie to us.  That will only make your situation worse.  The deceased man lives in a mansion on a hillside above your village.  His brother is well-known.  It would be very helpful to your situation if you could tell us more about him.”

Diaz looked visibly shaken as he was not an accomplished liar, only useful for transporting contraband if he was not caught.  His previous detainment had cost him a year of freedom and subsequent deportation.

“If you answer our questions truthfully, you will not only help yourself, but also your sister.  You don’t want bad things to happen to her, do you?”

Diaz shook his head, finally saying, “I will tell you what I know, but you must protect us.  I can tell you things that will earn us a death sentence from the cartel.”

“First, tell me why you fired at us instead of surrendering.”

“Pedro said we had no choice because he could not allow himself to be captured.  I don’t think he meant to wound your man.  He wanted to stop your men from following us so that we could get across the border.  We were so close.”

Following his capitulation, Diaz proved to be a forthcoming witness.  The interview yielded information about the deceased cartel member and a hint of why he was risking a covert border crossing.  “The capo bragged he was meeting a bigshot military guy in the cartel’s pocket, but I don’t remember the exact name.  It started with Major.”  As he said this, Diaz flapped his arms followed by a forward zoom motion with his right.

Hmm.  Likely his rank, the interrogator surmised.  And the arm flapping, was that maybe his way of saying this guy was Air Force?  If so, what was his relation to the cartel?  Is he in their pocket?

Clearly, the incident at Crater Rocks raised questions beyond the usual interdiction.  A transcript of the interview was immediately circulated among the brass of the Tucson Sector.  The brass suspected this was bigger than Air Force grunts smuggling a few grams of coke in their travel bags. 

Chapter Two

Tuesday morning.  Special Agent in Charge, John Tice, was at work in his special operations office located within the Tucson Air Force Base.  He had his own private if cramped office space.  At six-three and 210 pounds, John was a big man with an expansive personality that made him feel cramped in this undersized playpen.  Not only was his desk a challenge, but his oversized frame never sat comfortably in the undersized government issue swivel desk chair.

During a productive twenty-year military career, Tice had served as an enlisted Special Agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI).  He served initially as an investigator of general crimes involving military personnel and then as an undercover agent.  Seven years in, he was promoted to undercover program manager and Senior Enlisted Supervisor.

In that twenty years, he worked numerous large-scale drug operations both in the US and overseas.  Following retirement from the military, his superior military record, attested to by a rack of medals and decorations, landed him a coveted position as an AFOSI Civilian Special Agent.

After 9/11 many of the military AFOSI agents were subject to deployment overseas and to numerous changes of station.  Tice himself had been reassigned eight times during his military career.  In contrast, AFOSI civilian agents enjoyed greater geographic stability, with the added benefit to AFOSI of fostering continuity at local detachments.  A win-win for Tice as well, being able to settle down as a civilian agent in the Tucson area. 

His full title was Special Agent in Charge of the Southern Arizona Region for Department of Defense and Air Force Operations. Quite a mouthful, he had chuckled, when first hearing it.  Nonetheless, he took seriously his mandate to supervise the planning and conducting of investigations related to criminal violations of federal laws and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

He brought to his work exceptional knowledge of criminal investigative techniques, rules of criminal procedures, laws, and precedent court decisions concerning the admissibility of evidence, constitutional rights, search and seizure, and all related issues in the conduct of the investigations undertaken by or assigned to his office.

The six agents that reported to him, per his Agent in Charge status, had full confidence in his leadership.  These were junior enlisted Special Agents, so no private offices for them.  Their several shared desks were like peas in a pod and barrier free.  But they did not consider this cozy arrangement a hardship as the bulk of their working hours were spent in the field.

By eleven, Tice was finishing up the morning paperwork.  He’d scanned the routine stuff and digested several weightier reports and supporting materials.  He’d responded to these with memos to the principals, giving his suggestions and perspective.  Though not always welcome to the recipients, he regarded the providing of candid responses as his sworn duty to his oath of office.

He had also logged in progress checks on the several ongoing covert operations assigned to his office.  His two best agents were engaged in a sting operation at Davis Monthan and were thoroughly enjoying the cat and mouse maneuvers that went with it.  Mornings like this, he sometimes wished he was still in the field. 

Among the routine documents was a briefing about an incident in the desert south of Ajo involving border patrol agents.  A border patrol unit had come under fire from two illegals.  One agent had been seriously wounded.  The shooter was mortally wounded in return fire.  The second illegal had been arrested and was in custody.  Tice noted that the briefing had been time-stamped nineteen hundred hours and dated yesterday.  Probably happened earlier in the day, Tice figured.

From long experience Tice perceived there was more to the incident than what the briefing disclosed.  Otherwise it might not have deserved mention, given the sheer numbers of daily encounters between law enforcement and illegals.  Likely a follow-up investigation was in progress.  Further details would no doubt be released on a strictly need to know basis.

His last piece of morning business concerned Ronnie Taggart, another first-rate agent; but Taggart was apparently weak on driving skills.  He had been at fault in a rear-ender while shadowing a van suspected in stealing government property.  In his concentration on not losing the van, he had failed to anticipate a Ford Escort that cut in front of him as both were approaching a traffic light.  The Escort had abruptly braked for the light when it turned yellow and Taggert had failed to stop in time.  Damage had been minor, but the tail was blown.

Technically Taggart was at fault, although an argument could be made that nine drivers in ten would have sailed through the yellow light, the tenth being a timid senior citizen who never drove faster than five miles per hour under the limit.

It was Taggart’s second accident in three months.  Regulations mandated that Taggart receive a reprimand and be required to take a mandatory defensive driving course.  The reprimand would go on his service record.

Tice felt that having to give this agent a reprimand was unfair, considering what a follow-up on the incident had uncovered.  He contacted the Region Two AFOSI commander, Colonel Goddard.  They exchanged brief pleasantries until Tice brought up the matter of the reprimand.  The Colonel refused to buckle.  Second incident in three months, plus crashing into civilians made for bad press.

“I suppose you’re referring to the one three months back.  He owned that.  But I’m almost certain this latest accident was not his fault.”

“How was rear-ending a vehicle stopped at a traffic light not his fault?”

“The pair in the Escort were not innocent citizens,” Tice countered.  “We ran the plates and the owner of the Escort is a known acquaintance of the van owner.”

“I’d say a real friend of the van owner if he’d sacrifice his Escort,” the Colonel quipped.

“I’m serious here.  Not that anyone could prove a deliberate attempt to interfere with our surveillance but come on.  I know it’s not my call, but maybe you could reconsider and allow me to overlook issuing a reprimand.”

“My hands are tied and so are yours.  You know the regs.”

Tice continued, “You could cite special circumstances.  Issuing a reprimand in this instance is not exactly a morale booster.” 

“You’ll just have to work around it.  My decision stands.”

At least, Tice had tried.  He hated to see a member of his team treated unfairly; but unless the order was unlawful or contrary to regulations, he was honor-bound to respect it.  He would have to find another way to make it up to his agent.

He had a few minutes of contemplation time before meeting his daughter, Mandy Bowers, for lunch.  She was in the Ajo sector of border security.  With her sense of duty and tenacity, she was the kind of daughter any father would be proud of.

Upon graduation from high school, she had signed up to become an officer in the US Army in the green to gold program.  It’s a rigorous program in which the recruit first goes through basic and then to Officer Candidates School (OCS).  Bowers completed Basic with honors but was placed into an OCS Platoon with instructors that were Special Forces Captains who weren’t convinced females should be Army officers.  Out of twenty women only two completed OCS.  The rest were injured on runs and in field training.

Despite an iron will, Mandy could not overcome the physical challenge.  She was forced to run with an eighty-pound backpack that proved too much for her smallish hundred-and-ten-pound frame.  The ordeal seriously injured her back, and she had to leave the Army.

Tice had watched and worried when she fell into a deep depression over the crushing of her dreams for a career as an officer in the military.  After numerous supportive fatherly pep-talks Mandy began to rehabilitate herself physically and emotionally.  She met and married a handsome Border Patrol agent assigned to the Tucson Sector.

Drawn to his career, she applied for a position with the Border Patrol.  She was accepted and sent to the Border Patrol Academy for its nineteen weeks training program, which she completed with honors, no easy feat as the Academy has one of the most challenging curriculums in federal law enforcement.

The physical conditioning she’d undergone in OCS prepared her for success in meeting the demanding physical training requirements of the academy.  Her marks in firearm proficiency astounded her instructors.  No need to disclose that her father had nurtured and honed his daughter’s skills in weaponry since childhood.  In the classroom, her superior intelligence and concentration skills rewarded her with top grades in immigration and criminal law.

A working proficiency in Spanish focusing on border-patrol specific tasks is required of all agents, as over ninety percent of the one million undocumented aliens apprehended each year speak only that language.  Mandy had studied Spanish since grade school and was president of the Spanish Club in high school.  She had no problem picking up the additional technical terminology required of Border Patrol agents.

Upon completion of her academy training, Mandy was assigned to one of the border patrol’s most rigorous postings, the Ajo Arizona Border Patrol station where she still served.

It was a great career decision, but regarding her marriage, not so much.  The two worked different stations separated by some 120 miles.  Furthermore, Mandy’s job performance outshone that of her husband.  Maybe he was jealous of her rapid advancement, or maybe it was the distance factor, but she caught him in an affair.  It was a betrayal she couldn’t forgive.  They divorced, but she kept his surname because it was easier from a career standpoint.

In that morning’s printed briefing the names of the border patrol agents had been withheld.  Tice couldn’t help wondering if Mandy had been involved.  He got up from his desk, locked the office door and started for the Denny’s on East Twenty-second, a safe choice for a father and daughter with divergent restaurant preferences.

Tice treasured a lunch with his daughter.  It was not often that she circled back through Tucson from her station in Ajo.  It was usually for meetings with administrative personnel stationed at Tucson Sector headquarters adjacent to the base. 

Tice was keen to ask Mandy about the shooting in the desert.  He would approach it gingerly as agents are trained to be circumspect about cases with sensitive information, even with family members.  A safe start was asking for an update on work-related concerns that she had previously shared with him.  Mandy had felt comfortable venting to her dad the instances of workplace hostility she faced almost daily from some quarters.

To his query, she replied, “Same old, same old.  What I’ve come to expect when almost all the players are male.” 

“Still, you’ve done really well for yourself.  I’m a proud papa.”

“Two-edge sword, dad.  I keep hearing about guys grouching that I get preferred treatment and promotions because of the new gender requirements.  I worry about not being taken seriously by these guys.  Could prove dangerous if I have to worry about them not having my back when the chips are down.” 

“I suppose the divorce didn’t help the situation either.” 

“Yeah, it’s made the sex stuff worse.  They see me as an available female on the hunt.  Last week I had to file another EEOC complaint for sexual harassment.  I’ll spare you the details.”

“Unfortunately, goes with the territory of being a good-looking female.  Always guys around sniffing to get in your pants.  Sorry to be crude about it.”

“I’ll take the compliment and overlook the crudity.  You know that’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated, your directness.  Treating me like a competent adult and not like a fragile flower.” 

With that, Tice mentioned the briefing and inquired if maybe she was involved.

“Yes, Dad, I was there.  It went down near Crater Rock.  Two desert rats came across an injured female illegal.  She’d been bitten by a rattler and was one sick kid when I got there.  I had her Medivacked to Gila Bend.  Her two companions had dropped their packs and taken off south.  Nate and I got the call to engage and detain.  I stayed with the female while Nate went hunting.  I wasn’t at the shoot-out, if that’s what you’re referring to.  Nate called for backup.  Agent Rodriguez responded, and the pair rode off south after the illegals, Nate on the back of Rodriguez’s ATV.  He could have stood down, but you know Nate.”

Tice did know Nate, and what he knew he liked.  Two years younger than Mandy, Nate Hardcastle was the junior agent of the pair.  She had introduced him to her dad on an off-duty day when the pair had driven to Tucson to troll the Sonora Desert Museum.  But not a date, she made clear to dad, just sharing a common interest.  The three had also shared dinner during which the two males had bonded, Tice seeing in Nate a younger version of himself.

Mandy continued, “He got a minor flesh wound, but Rodriguez wasn’t so lucky.  Both will probably receive commendations, Agent Rodriguez for certain.  Nate should too.  If it wasn’t for him, Rodriguez wouldn’t have made it.”

Tice had nailed it.  There was a lot more to the incident than what the briefing had disclosed.  No mention of Crater Rock or the female illegal.  In appreciation of his daughter’s candor, he expressed his thanks and insisted on springing for her lunch, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.  Usually they went Dutch treat, her terms, not his. 

“Dad!”

“No. This time I insist.  I count myself lucky to have a daughter who shares with her dad.  I figured there was more to it than what was in this morning’s briefing.”

At that time, both Mandy and Tice were ignorant of the dead illegal’s identity.  Being a field agent, Mandy had not been informed, as it was strictly need-to-know.  Nor had the identity appeared in the circulated daily briefing, although a few hours later, Tice would hear more about the Jimenez brothers.   

Tice changed the subject.  “You kinda like him, Nate,” he encouraged.

“Yeah, dad, I admit, I kinda do.  But don’t go matchmaking on me.”

“He’d certainly be an improvement over the previous one.”

“Enough dad,” but she said it with a smile. “Change of subject.  How are things with brother Jack?  I worry about him.”

Tice had expected the question.  She had to ask even knowing it was a painful subject for her father.  While he composed his answer, she added, “I know you told me to keep out of it and have no contact with him.  Not even mention to any of the guys that I have a brother.  Okay, I understand why.  I get it, the career stuff.  But I can’t help being concerned.”

He also knew she wanted a straight answer.  “No use sugar-coating it, he’s struggling.  Still using on the sly despite what he tells me.  So far, he’s managed to fool his counselor, but not me, although I haven’t let on.  I’d like to double-tap his supplier.  No, forget I said that.”

“I can pretend, but dad, I feel the same way sometimes.”

When Tice returned to his office, his daughter’s inquiry about Jack triggered the mental turmoil he tried to keep at bay during work hours.  Tice was a worried man, juggling his personal nightmare of dealing with his opioid-addicted son with career demands.

A few years younger than Mandy, Jack Tice had chosen health sciences as his major at the University of Arizona.  He was also on a football scholarship.  Tice himself had played middle linebacker at Washington State.  Young Tice was not blessed with his dad’s height and weight but possessed greater quickness.  As a sophomore, he’d been elevated to first string defensive end.

The addiction was maybe not Jack’s fault, Tice admitted, but mid-season of his junior year Jack had sustained a career-ending injury.  The aftermath was what tore Tice to the core.  Jack had become addicted on pain killers, specifically oxycontin.  It became an addiction he had not been able to kick, and it took over his life.  In the end, the psychological damage of his injury had been greater than the physical.

Jack had dropped out of college but remained in Tucson, and held a series of part-time entry level jobs, typically at fast food establishments.  His paychecks were hardly adequate for basic expenses, let alone adequate to support his addiction.  He got in trouble with local law enforcement for petty robbery, breaking and entering, stealing merchandise off delivery trucks and other misdemeanors.

Witnessing his son’s struggles was the second soul-crushing episode in Tice’s life.  Almost a decade earlier he had watched his beautiful and vivacious wife wither before his eyes from an aggressive cancer that began in her ovaries, resisting the best efforts of medical science until it claimed her.

As a federal agent, Tice had to tread carefully with local law enforcement.  He couldn’t be caught asking special favors for his son.   Tice did know several Tucson police officers who had encounters with his son.  Out of sympathy they occasionally informed him when Jack was under suspicion, maybe as a heads-up for Tice to administer some tough love.  Twice he’d stood by when they put his son in jail.  There followed court-mandated rehab programs.  Then Jack would return to the street where the cycle would repeat itself.

Tice had also paid big bucks for two expensive recovery programs beyond the public programs mandated by the judicial system.  But despite his father’s tireless efforts, Jack hadn’t beaten the statistics that indicate a recidivism rate of over sixty percent for opioid addiction.  

For years, Tice had been caught between protecting his son and maintaining his professional integrity.  His current obsession was to learn how and from whom his son was getting the drugs.  Tice knew he couldn’t get directly involved and overtly pursue a case to track down his son’s supplier.  In fact, it could be risky if his son’s habit got to the ears of certain of his fellow agents.

If his son’s addiction and problems with the law became common knowledge around the office, he himself could be viewed as a security risk, vulnerable to blackmail, a prime target for foreign agents seeking damaging information.

He held a position where even the appearance of compromising circumstances could harm his career.  He was within two years of fifty-seven, the mandatory retirement age for an agent, and was looking forward to a clean break with full pension and credentials for a third career, maybe in security work.  But he loved his son.  No way would he disown or desert him.

He had confided in Vance Lattimore, a long-time friend outside government service, and a friend who would never betray his confidence.  Vance had suggested he should hire a private investigator, one who could be entrusted to be discrete but effective.

A few days later Vance called with a recommendation.  He advised his friend not to dismiss it just because the guy is not your ordinary PI.  He mulled over what Vance had said about him.  A former Special Forces Marine, same outfit Vance had served in, but a few years older. 

Maybe he’d give this Jerry Hunter a call.

Twenty minutes after Tice returned from his lunch date, an incoming outside line on his office phone lit up, interrupting his reveries about his son.  A multi-line behemoth of Secure Telephone Equipment (STE), this encrypted communications system crowded his limited workspace, taking up the best real estate on his government-issue desk.  The beast thwarted his natural inclination to spread out and keep separate the several cases and sundry paperwork vying for his attention.

The call was from the Ajo station requesting his presence at an interagency meeting of Senior Special Agents representing the Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Border Patrol.  The meeting would be held at the station, so Tice would need to be patched through for a tele-conference.

“Check your e-mail.  I’m sending you a roster.”

His mail alert dinged.  He perused the list, weighing the agency and rank of each of the invited attendees.  These were heavyweights.  Made him wonder why he was among them.  Must be the meeting would involve law-enforcement personnel whose transgressions merited some serious investigation, he speculated.  Had the call for a meeting possibly arisen from the same incident that his daughter had described at lunch?  

He’d have to call his son’s drug counselor to cancel their three o’clock meeting and reschedule.  Reflecting on the alphabet soup of agencies whose honchos had been invited to the meeting, he couldn’t very well call back and ask them to re-schedule.

He felt whip-sawed by the craziness of it all.  He, a warrior in the war on drugs, with a son who was a casualty of that same war.  It brought home the grim reality that the scourge was not limited to faceless strangers.  But if he was to be there for his son, he had to keep his own career on track, squeaky clean and no slip-ups.

During the ensuing conference call, John was a silent participant for most of the meeting.  He was on the line to listen and absorb rather than to contribute.  The meeting focused, as he had suspected, on the incident at Crater Rock.

The dead illegal turned out to be a figure of some importance, none other than Pedro Jimenez, younger brother of cartel boss Angel Jimenez.  Even the normally unflappable Tice was stunned by this revelation.  As a result, this incident had raised serious questions and had triggered an in-depth investigation.

The surviving illegal male, Oscar Diaz, had been transported to the Ajo Station for processing and interviewing.  Under questioning by a skilled interrogator, he had disclosed that Jimenez bragged that he would be meeting a bigshot military guy in the cartel’s pocket.  Jimenez was contemptuous of the guy.  Couldn’t remember the name but said it started with Major, while simultaneously flapping his arms, as if to say the dude was Air Force.

Now Tice realized why he had been invited to this meeting. If a crime or allegation had any level of US Air Force or Department of Defense connection and was within Tice’s geographic area of responsibility, his office would be tapped as the primary investigative agency.  The search for the corrupt officer would be assigned to Tice’s shop.

That expectation was confirmed before the conclusion of the meeting.  The ranking officer addressed Tice by name and requested that he prepare the paperwork for an investigation into the troubling allegations made by this Oscar Diaz.  Added that he’d send Tice the Diaz interview notes by encrypted email for a starter.  Tice read in this offer the urgency these higher-ups felt about the investigation.

Tice said he’d get to the assignment immediately.

After signing off, Tice went into a mental state he called mind-doodling.  He let his mind meander over the day’s events.  He free-wheeled ideas of how he might mount an investigation into a currently unknown Air Force turncoat.

Enough procrastinating.  Before he left for the day, he’d put in that call to Jerry Hunter and take his measure.  Tice dialed the cell number for Jerry Hunter given him by Vance.  It went to voice.  Tice left a brief message, giving Jerry his private cell number rather than an office number.  Rumor had it that certain random OSI numbers were being monitored. 

Tice was about to leave his office when Jerry called back a quarter hour later.  Tice introduced himself and said he’d been referred to Hunter by a mutual acquaintance.  Could he ask a few questions about Jerry’s credentials as a private investigator?  Not a problem with Jerry, who by this time was curious why a special agent of a military investigative agency was interested in his PI background.

After disclosing that he was licensed and affiliated with a modest firm based in Tucson Estates, he decided on the direct approach, the enchilada without the sauce.

“We’re not your typical PI firm.  We don’t advertise or solicit cases.  To be honest, we’re all retired guys who got into the PI game sort of by accident.  Basically, we’re four hang-loose Harley-riding semi-misfits who embrace our early sixties as the new forties, the prime of life.”

The sort of by accident was a minor fib, but that was the official line when asked by strangers.

“Our head honcho is a guy named Gus Engstrom, a former small-town cop.  His last posting was with the Port Angeles PD up in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.   Started the agency as a means of keeping himself out of mischief.”  Another minor fib.

“The others are Jimmy Tate, retired insurance agent, and big Al Winslow, former college b-ball stand-out.  We’re a close-knit bunch and work our cases as a team.  Mostly anyway.”

Is this fellow serious or is he putting me on, Tice wondered.  And where have I heard that name Engstrom?

“Could you give me an idea of the kinds of cases your firm has taken on.”

“Well, earlier this spring we helped clear a guy of a murder charge.  Our investigation helped unmask the real killer.  Did I just say that?”

This Jerry has a sense of humor, Tice noted.

“Oh, and a year previously, we went underground at a health care facility and exposed some heavy-duty Medicare fraud as well as a murder for hire enterprise.”

“Was the name of that facility Shady Acres?” Tice asked.  

“The same.”

“So that was you guys.”  Tice was aware that it had been a major coup for the FBI Phoenix office. 

It came to him.  He asked, “Isn’t Engstrom the name of the agent who heads up the Phoenix FBI office?”

“Yeah, he’s Gus’s kid brother, but Gus doesn’t hold that against him.  The FBI connection.”

“Huh?” Tice couldn’t help it.

“Don’t take that seriously.  The two brothers are close, although Gus does occasionally have to bail out his brother.”

Obviously, they were not your conventional PIs.  But were these the right guys to handle the confidentiality demands of a delicate clandestine assignment?  He sure didn’t want the FBI to catch wind of his son’s opioid addiction issues, nor his own off-the-books pursuit of his son’s purveyors of ruin.  On the other hand, these guys might not be orthodox, but it would appear they got results.

“Just a hypothetical.  If you guys were to take on a case that required absolute confidentiality, would you, and your man Gus in particular, be able to keep it hush-hush from the FBI Engstrom?”

“No problem.  Wouldn’t be the first time.  We often keep secrets from his bro, for example, in the interest of plausible deniability.”

Tice suppressed his reservations about the FBI connection and decided to ask for a meeting with the firm.  Tice was a man of action and didn’t like timid, risk averse pencil-pushers.  These were his kind of guys.  He’d consider rolling the dice with these dudes.

He asked Jerry to convey his interest in retaining them.  Have them set a time, any evening after, say seven, and get back to him.  He’d make himself available.

“We happen to be holding our monthly corporate meeting tomorrow evening.  Since we’ve already been looking forward to our summer escape from Tucson’s triple digits there won’t be much business.  Drop by our office about eight and meet the team.  I’ll give you directions.”

“You sure I won’t be intruding?”

“Naw.  The guys will be delighted to meet an Air Force Special Investigator.  We’ve done some undercover ourselves, so it will be interesting to meet with a real pro.”

Tice let out an audible chuckle.  No suppressing it.  “Okay.  You’re on.  Will see you tomorrow evening about eight.”

Time to head home for an early night.  Tomorrow morning he’d have to turn his attention from dealing with his son’s issues to planning a campaign to catch an alleged cartel collaborator.  It had become a too-frequent problem in the war on drugs.  The lure of easy money had enticed too many otherwise reasonably decent servicemen to buy into the cartels’ shit.

Tice lived alone in a modest three-bedroom house in Rita Ranch, located about eight miles southeast of his Air Force Base office.  He had picked this area both because of its proximity and because Rita Ranch was home to many military personnel, both retired and active duty.  He parked his Chevy Malibu in the carport.  Left it unlocked on the assumption that if it was stolen and recovered, he would not be left with a broken window.  In his neighborhood, the few thefts were committed by joyriding teens.

He walked over to his mailbox to check his mail.  His box contained only two charity solicitations and a flyer.  Nothing that urged immediate attention.

He noted some weeds sprouting from the warming weather of spring and propelled upward by a recent day of showers.  He’d have to tend to these before he got a letter from the Homeowners Association courtesy of their weed-Nazi.

He looked around before opening his front door.  After entering, he pressed the security disarm button.  Did a check for anything out of place.  All good.   

Chapter Three

All his adult years Tice had adhered to an early to bed and early to rise maxim as the key to a productive life.  After a light dinner of a salad and a tuna melt, he listened to his favorite contemporary jazz station while rehearsing next morning’s work of preparing the project initiation documents.

Nine forty-five, he prepared to hit the sack.  The first step was grinding the beans, filling the cavity of his Mr. Coffee with water, enough for two generous cups, and setting it to begin brewing a quarter hour before his alarm jingled.  Not grinding the beans was not an option.  He’d put up with enough burnt and bitter swill and cheap instants in various postings over the years.

Some years ago, he’d wait until morning to grind the beans, fill the cavity, and set Mr. Coffee gurgling during his morning splash and shave.  Now he wanted that first morning cup instantly available upon waking.

Many of his fellow agents experienced bouts of darkness, beset by personal demons because of what they had witnessed through the years on the job.  Tice was not immune.  His demons were amped by his son’s drug addiction.  Increasingly he had difficulty falling asleep at night as these demons tended to surface when his head hit the pillow.  Moderate sleep deprivation at the front end was putting his early-to-rise adage under siege, making it harder to bounce into wakefulness at the back end.  The ready cup of joe shortened the duration between initial verticality and that first life-affirming sip.

Notwithstanding, he managed to be seated in his office by seven-thirty, his usual arrival time, give or take five minutes.  Typically, a good half-hour before his junior AFOSI associates began showing their faces.  Not a hidden message to his staff, but simply because he preferred being a morning person.  If one of his team was there when he arrived, Tice suspected he was feeling guilty about something.

Unlike some supervisors, Tice was not as concerned about punctuality as about sound investigative judgment and adherence to best practices leavened with field smarts.  Nor did he believe in micromanagement.  The priority was getting the job done.

On this morning Tice was eager to wade through the administrative minutia so he could get to the meat of the day.  He immediately settled into the daily obligatory reading of Headquarters and Regional briefings that had shown up overnight in his in-basket.  He forced his mind to absorb and evaluate each with respect to importance and relevance to his office.  He composed written responses where expected.  He also noted while working his in-basket that the requested Diaz transcript had arrived overnight.

By shortly after nine, he had completed these tasks.  He considered the critical task ahead.  As a supervisory agent, he had years of experience in putting together the paperwork to initiate an investigation.  Even routine assignments were not without their roadblocks.  OSI was kin to governmental agencies everywhere.  Its picky monitoring of budgets for daily expenditures like supplies, equipment and gas.  Its bureaucratic hoops in the agency approval process.  Its obsessive oversight of case investigations after approval.

But this one had the added complication of investigating a disloyal and possibly traitorous officer.  He anticipated the hoops could be miles more stringent than investigating a lowly enlisted member for misdemeanor offenses.  Tice would be under the gun to initiate and pursue the investigation strictly by the book. 

As he contemplated the paperwork phase of the assignment, Tice feared that a lengthy approval process might lie ahead.  It was common knowledge that officers and enlisted personnel were often treated differently.  Typically, if OSI brought a successful case on an officer, at the end he or she would be allowed to resign their commission.  If essentially the same case was run on an enlisted member, the upshot was typically a court martial resulting in a felony conviction that would hound the offender throughout life.

This favoritism irritated Tice’s sense of justice.  It went against his core belief that Lady Justice should always wear her blindfold, the scales equally balanced.  Tice had pledged himself to set an example of an impartial and just Special Agent no matter the political roadblocks placed in front of him.

From these thoughts, his mind drifted to his son’s opioid addiction.  His upcoming meeting with Jerry Hunter and his fellow PIs not only departed from, but in fact upped the stakes of his previous interventions.  These had not freed his son from the grip of this terrible addiction, but at least he had kept his son alive despite worst-case scenarios haunting his mind.  Not all fathers were as successful and too many ended up raining tears at a funeral.

Tice stifled these thoughts to concentrate on the tasks at hand.  He picked up the Diaz transcript from his inbox and scanned it as a means of focusing his attention to what was known and what remained to be learned.  Next, he went about accessing the forms located on OSI’s Investigative Information Management System.

This system had been upgraded through the years, finally emerging as an outstanding investigative tool.  When Tice first started, he labored over a manual typewriter through the entire document.  Now it was simply a matter of filling in the blanks with the appropriate information.

The first blanks covered Title Block information.  Items like subject’s name, DOB, SSN, address, height, weight, hair and eye color, information required, for example, to initiate an investigation involving surveillance.  However, this present case concerned an unknown subject.

Seeing these items jogged his mindset.  Tice had been charged with pursuing a developmental investigation, not a subject investigation, or at least not yet.  In place of these introductory items, Tice elected to write an initial narrative describing the genesis of his assignment.  His operations plan would then proceed to confidential sources and other intelligence-provided information, as well as necessary support and law enforcement coordination.

Tice knew that to get official approval to go after an alleged dirty Air Force officer he had to be spot on in this initial summary of facts.  Tice had no doubt that if this subject existed, he was an officer with the rank of Major.  If Diaz were concocting a fiction, his use of the term Major might be a military rank pulled from his imagination.  However, if Diaz was telling the truth, then Major, not something like sergeant, had to be what he heard from Jimenez.  Ergo, the unknown subject was an officer, not an enlisted man.

He mulled over how to craft his opening statement.  After a few minutes of concerted thought, he began writing.  His statement read to the effect that three individuals, two males and one female, had crossed the border attempting to smuggle Mexican brown hidden in marijuana packs.

The female had fallen victim to a rattlesnake.  The interdiction was pursuant to a 911 call for help from a pair of desert hikers, after which the males had shed their backpacks and fled for the border.

Despite the head start and the treacherous terrain, two border patrol agents had pursued and engaged the male illegals, resulting in the death of one of the illegals and the wounding of one of the agents.  The dead illegal was later identified as Pedro Jimenez, brother of the Penasco Cartel jefe.

The identity of the dead illegal was an unexpected shocker suggesting this was no ordinary drug smuggling episode.  Under interrogation the surviving illegal disclosed that his traveling companion was headed for a meeting with a high-level military officer with the rank of Major, likely Air Force and connected with the Barry Goldwater Bombing range.

Upon completing this statement, Tice paused to consider how the investigation should proceed toward its objective of identifying the allegedly corrupt officer.  A first step was to compile an exhaustive roster of all military with a connection to the Barry Goldwater Range, a land area covering thousands of square miles.

Keeping the investigation under wraps was essential because he did not know how far up the chain of command the alleged subject might sit.  At the least, Tice could gain access to manpower and duty rosters without showing his hand to the hierarchy at the range.

Tice would have his team quietly sift through this target roster to learn who in the group was already in trouble with the law or had significant financial troubles that might lure them to work for the cartels.  The more Tice could ferret out from these basics, the better his position to move the investigation forward.

As a concurrent next step, Tice studied the Diaz transcript to prepare for his own in-person debriefing of the surviving illegal, posing questions that other law enforcement agencies might have overlooked asking.  In Tice’s initial scan through the transcript, Diaz’s concern for his sister caught his eye.  Tice would also want to interview her, but he decided not to include that as an explicit action step in the document.

For Project Objective he wrote:  Search out by means of a process of elimination the alleged US military figure, probably an Air Force officer with the rank of Major, scheduled to meet with a high-level member of the Penasco Cartel, or otherwise determine that such a person is a fictional creation of the apprehended illegal, one Oscar Diaz.

If the alleged person is found to exist, determine the reason for their mutual interest in holding a face to face meeting.

Determine if this meeting was for the purpose of or might result in criminal activity, and if so, identify the nature of the activity.

Determine the possible involvement of other personnel, military and non-military in the alleged meeting.

He continued with the paperwork, working up a head of steam, now on autopilot as he had been down this road countless times previously.

Manpower: a team including but not limited to an electronic tracking specialist, a financial analyst, and trained experts in surveillance. 

Equipment: electronic bugs or other means of intercepting of possible suspects emails, phone records, surveillance gear.

Tice put together some working assumptions about the target.  This person almost certainly was already colluding and rendering some form of assistance to the Penasco cartel.  Tice saw no other plausible reason why the cartel would undertake such a meeting.

Pool of suspects.  The target logically is an officer stationed in some capacity within the Ajo or Gila Bend area as this according to the informant was the destination of Pedro Jimenez.  

At present this pool consists of persons, military and non-military with a primary or secondary office at the Gila Bend Air Force Station.  He added the caveat of there being no guarantee this pool would capture all potential suspects.

Tice realized that legal considerations would dictate what means and tools he could implement, and those that would be off-limits, at least unless and until higher authorities gave an official okay.  There was often a yawning gap between what he’d like to do and what the law allowed.  Tice had learned to live with it.

After completing the forms, Tice left a voice message for Jane Valens, an expert in tracking financial transactions, to put her on notice.  Tice was assuming that the cartel would be paying this officer for services rendered.

As soon as his team produced a solid candidate for the corrupt officer, Tice would cite National Security issues per the Electronic Surveillance Manual of Procedures, as de facto authorization to initiate immediate electronic surveillance.  Time being of the essence, the investigation could not waste a good week or so waiting for standard bureaucratic approval.  But only if the identification was otherwise rock solid.

Next, Tice transmitted copies to each member of the committee for consideration and approval.  He included a caution to not to share this document outside the committee, as the target could be anyone in the military hierarchy.  That being the case, even the existence of these project-initiating documents should not be disclosed to any persons outside current and trusted agents assigned to the project.

This work had occupied the greater part of his morning.  In an uncharacteristic move, he took the rest of the day off.  He treated himself to a gourmet lunch in an upscale downtown restaurant.  He came home depleted of energy but in an optimistic state of mind.  After a light dinner, he tuned into a contemporary jazz audio channel on cable while he dressed for his meeting with the PIs.

Chapter Four

The quartet of PIs that Jerry was about to drop on Tice were in their lair, the adult playpen that doubled as their PI office.  Their retirement gigs as part-time PIs had been thrust upon them through no fault of their own by the younger brother of Gus Engstrom.  This brother who happened to be the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Phoenix office, as Jerry had told Tice, had arm-twisted his retired cop brother into undertaking an undercover assignment.  The PI license was added as a crutch if things got dicey.  Not wanting to hog the fun, Gus brought in his three friends, Jerry, plus big Al Winslow and the fearless but unpretentious Jimmy Tate, to help work the case.  Thus, Engstrom and Associates, Confidential Investigations, was born.

The four were gathered around an impressive cherry-wood racetrack-shaped table, the jewel of their corporate conference room.  They were conducting their scheduled monthly meeting of the corporation, the fourth of the current fiscal year.  These meetings were mandated per their LLC articles of incorporation.

The limited liability corporation had been formed the previous autumn as a reporting umbrella for IRS purposes.  Otherwise, they would not have bothered.  Most of their PI work had been pro-bono, but the previous November they had snagged a pair of well-to-do clients who insisted on being billed.  First time for everything.

Gus Engstrom, their designated board president, called the meeting to order.  Al Winslow then offered their first order of business.  He wanted ideas on where to go on his upcoming honeymoon.  His impending marriage to the delectable Teresa Alvarez was looming.  He wanted it to be a special destination.

Al was a former Arizona State basketball star.  A muscular six-five in his playing days, he’d been a formidable power forward with stats that got him a year of pro-ball with the Pistons—admittedly a so-so year for him, and he’d been cut in training before his second year.  He certainly wasn’t broken up about leaving Detroit.  His stint of pro-ball had been in the years before the big money, so he retired gracefully to be the basketball coach and teach English at his old Prescott Arizona high school.

He was no Paul Newman in the looks department, and combined with an acerbic wit and quirky humor, the others at first had been mystified how the hell he’d won the heart of the somewhat younger, luscious Teresa. 

“Help me out with this, guys.”  He’d rejected all their earlier suggestions as too banal or too much of a cliché.  “I know you can do better.”

“So says the man of two previous trips to the altar,” Jerry replied.

“Let me ask again, what’s wrong with a Caribbean cruise?” Gus said.  “Teresa can show off her curves in a bikini.  You can sit back in your deck lounger and enjoy the show.”

Al emitted a groan.  “Yeah, along with the other passengers.  I prefer a private showing, dickheads.  Besides, Tessie is the poster child for seasickness.”

“You could bring along some Dramamine,” Gus offered.  And got a squinty-eyed frown in return.

“What’s wrong with a nice sandy beach at a secluded resort?  No Dramamine required,” Jerry said.

Another groan from Al.

Gus breathed a sigh.  He was tired of this game and broke in, “With all due respect, we need to table this topic in favor of more serious business.  Jerry, you’re up.”

“I got a call from a friend of a friend yesterday, a really interesting call.  Not your routine inquiry about our services, not that we get many of those.” 

“Nothing like keeping us in suspense,” Gus said.

“Ready for it?  The call was from an agent in the Air Force investigation service.  The acronym is AFOSI.  It’s the air force counterpart of NCIS of TV fame.  His name is John Tice.  He wants a meet with us.  Since I figured we wouldn’t have much corporate business tonight, well except for Al’s burning issue, I told him to drop over about eight.  Any problem with that?”

“Not from this quarter,” Gus said, but you should have given the others a shout earlier.”

“I was busy last night.  Slipped my mind after I got the okay from you.  Besides I knew the guys wouldn’t mind.”

“I have no problem with it.  Maybe he can give us some pointers,” Jimmy said.

“Or maybe he wants some pointers on how to deal with border security,” Al said.

“Right,” Jerry replied.  “That must be it.  Come on, Al, get real.  No, fellows, it’s a personal issue.  One he wants to keep confidential.  When I cited some past cases as a way of establishing our creds, he made your connection to Jason,” Jerry said with a nod toward Gus.  “You see, he was concerned we might be inclined to share his issue with your FBI bro.”

“And he didn’t hang up?” Al said.

“Maybe thought about it, but he liked my answer about our closed-mouth confidentiality policy and wants a meet anyway.  I say we treat him to our standard no-cost initial consult.”

Jerry got affirmative grunts from the other three.  It was five minutes to eight.

“Any other business before we meet our prospective client?” Gus said.

“Have you given any thought to our summer bonus?” Al asked.

“In your dreams.”

***

Tice knew the Kinney Road entrance of Tucson Estates from spotting it on occasional drives to the Desert Museum or to Old Tucson.  He also knew it to be an adult-only community of manufactured homes.  Knew that it had its own golf course, although Tice didn’t play.  Never found the time to learn and wasn’t that interested in any case.

He found the PI office from Jerry’s directions.  Didn’t need the GPS.  Found it in the one-block mini-mall of small restaurants and shops that catered to locals, chiefly residents of Tucson Estates.  Exactly as Jerry described, the PIs were located two doors down from Brat’s Bar and Grill.

Seated with the other PIs in their conference room, Jerry spotted a guy through the front window that had to be Tice.  He was exiting his Chevy Malibu across from the office.  Jerry greeted him at the entrance. 

“You must be John Tice.”

“The same.”

“Well, let me introduce you around.  They’re waiting in our conference room.”

John stepped inside.  “This is quite a layout you’ve got.  Wish my crew had this much office space.”

“Well, it’s not all office.  Like I said, we’re strictly part-timers.”

“I see now.  The pool table, exercise equipment.  Hey, and a wet bar and a fridge.”

“Yup.  Our very own man-cave where we spend way too much time hanging out, or so our significant others tell us.”

Jerry escorted Tice to the conference room and introduced him to the others.  Jerry gave each a plug along with the name.  Gus Engstrom, our fearless leader and former law enforcement heavyweight, giving Gus a wink as he uttered this blatant exaggeration.  Al Winslow, our former college basketball star.  Played for Arizona State.  Jimmy Tate, the current tennis as well as eight-ball champion of Tucson Estates, and don’t challenge him to a foot race.

At five-eight, or as he liked to say, five-eight-and-a-half, Jimmy’s good nature made him universally liked.  At six foot three, Tice was a full inch taller than both Gus and Jerry and matched them in exuding fitness.  Only Big Al bested him in the height department. 

The guys liked the look of him.  They took their seats, insisting that John occupy the head of the table. 

Gus opened.  “Jerry tells us that you might want to retain our services, but you wanted to meet our team in person before disclosing the particulars.  He did say your assignment demanded strict confidentiality.  Anyway, we’re intrigued to say the least.”

“Jerry assured me on the phone that keeping secrets is not a problem.  Told me that extended even to non-disclosure to your FBI brother.”  Tice looked Gus in the eye and added, “I need to be a hundred percent certain on that score.”

“You’ve got it,” Gus replied

“Unless you have in mind to shoot some poor sucker in front of the federal building,” Al said

Tice beat back a chuckle.  “Okay.  No homicides.  At least for now.”

“That’s reassuring,” Jerry said.

“After you hear my situation, you might appreciate my saying for now.  What I want you to do, I can’t do for myself.  That’s because of my position with the Office of Special Investigations and because the focus of this investigation is my son’s opioid addiction, a circumstance that leaves me naked to all kinds of complications.”

“Opioid addiction.  Sorry to hear that.  Must be tough.”

“Yeah it is.  But he’s a good kid.  Well, no longer a kid.  And he’s worth saving.  Cut to the chase, I want to retain you to search out and identify my son’s supplier.  Following that, I may turn the information over to local law enforcement.  I know you might say, what good will that do, my son will just hook up with another dealer.”

“That is a thought that comes to mind,” Jerry said.  “So, what happens when we smoke out the dude other than you notifying the locals.”

“You’re right.  There’s more.  Finding a way to take this scumbag off the streets, even if it’s temporary, is only part of it.  Not only for my son, but I also want him off the street before this asshole learns my identity.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Gus said.

“To say it would not be good for my career is a gross understatement.  But what I really want is a better understanding of where my son is at.  He’s my son and I want him to be whole and with a good future.  He says he’s not using.  Says he’s kicking the opioid monkey, his words.  Says he’s getting clean, but I don’t believe it.”

“You sure he’s still using?”

“Okay, lately his urine samples have tested negative.  But the kid is street smart.  I’ll lay odds he has a way to beat it.  Plus, his parole officer is in my estimation a real dimwit, or maybe being paid to look the other way.  And don’t let me get started on his court-appointed counselor, his so-called therapist.

“It’s my business, what I do for a living, to know the signs.  So, what I’m looking for is specific information.  Only way I see to level the playing field when it comes to a heart to heart with my son.  Then, find a way to get him back in a treatment program that maybe this time can do him some good.”

“I know you’re a dad and all, but….”

Tice broke in.  “But can the kid be saved?  And my answer is you should have known him before the opioids took control of his life.  He was an amazing kid, a son any father would be proud of.  Not only his athletic ability, but his commitment to making this a better world.  On top of football, he found time for community projects and managed an A-minus grade average.  I’d like to have steered him toward law enforcement, but he was aiming for a career in medical research.  Long story.”

Tice drew a used tissue from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes.  “Sorry guys.”  He was flashing on his late wife and her battle with cancer.  The timing of that battle, his son’s first year at the University of Arizona, was the deciding influence on his son’s choice of career.

“We won’t tell your men,” Jerry said.  Then added, “Seriously, I know the importance of being strong in front of your troops.”

“You understand then.”

“So, we’re agreed,” Gus said.  “What happens here, stays here.  Anything else we need to know?”

“Naturally, I want to know as much as possible about the dealer.  Info I can pass on if I can interest law enforcement to act.  They typically don’t want to put much effort into a small-potatoes operation unless it’s part of a mission to take down some major players.  So, the more you can give me about the scope of his operation, associates, client base, where he gets his product.  Anyway, that’s what I’m after.  Oh, and if he has any dealings with the scumbags south of the border.”

“You’re referring to the cartels, right?” Gus said.

“Having to sniff around the cartels will cost you extra.  Combat pay.”

“Don’t listen to Al.  He relishes a little danger.  In fact, a cartel connection might get you a discount,” Jerry said.

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Brings me to the question.  What do you guys charge?”

“That’s a thorny one.  We don’t have much experience with paying clients.  Last one wanted to pay us way too much.  But he had big bucks, and we didn’t want him to feel bad.”

“What Jerry is trying to say is we have no idea what to charge and kinda leave that up to the client.  Several of whom were family, so pro-bono seemed about right in those cases,” Gus said.  “Taking down a few bad guys has been frosting on the cake.”

“You know it,” Jerry said.  “Plus, we’ve met some really interesting fellows.  For example, a world-class lawyer who happens to live here in the Estates.  Retired here, according to him, to get away from the big-bucks clientele whose hides he used to save from a federal vacation.  Jimmy here found him and brought him to us, as they share a mutual passion for the stick.”

“Just in time, too.  My buds were about to try finding an ambulance-chaser on the Internet to take the case of Rose’s younger sister who’d been framed for dealing coke.  After hearing us out, he took the case pro-bono.”

Jerry added, “It also outed him to the Tucson Estates community.  Jimmy knew his secret about him being The Teddy Miller, the courtroom legend, but no one else around here did.”

“That Teddy Miller!  I’ve read one of his books.  Had no idea he lived around here.”

“He’s also helped us out with a couple of other cases, always pro-bono.  But only if he’s convinced in his gut of their innocence.  Part of the deal,” Jerry said.

“We made him an honorable Merry Marauder but so far he’s passed on buying a Harley.”

“He drives an older Buick Century.  We figure it’s part of his cover.”

“Hell of a story, but unfortunately my son’s not totally an innocent.  But a victim, for sure.  By the way, who is Rose?”

“Oh, that’s Gus’ sweetie.  Hang with us, when she’s not waitressing or bartending at Brat’s two doors up, and you’ll meet her,” Jerry said.

“The unattached male population of Tucson Estates, those still with a heartbeat, went into mourning when he snagged her,” Al said.

“Anyway, regarding your initial question, our perspective is a bit different.  Since we’re adequately fixed financially, we mainly see our PI enterprise as a way to keep retirement from being boring,” Jerry said.

“Well, we’ve laid it out for you, warts and all,” Gus said.  “What’s your pleasure?”

“Bottom line for us, we’d like to climb aboard.  Sounds like our kind of challenge,” Jerry added.

This vetting session sure wasn’t what Tice had expected.  In the end, he also trusted his gut.  “All right.  I’ll roll the dice with you guys, or should I say, let’s taxi down this runway.”

“Great.  Love the analogy,” Jerry said.

“Next step: we hold a skull session,” Gus said.  “Tomorrow morning early.” 

Got a works for me, and an I’ll be here, although from Big Al, a what do you mean by early?

“Eight sharp is what I mean, Al.  We have a client who is counting on us.   Bring your mugs along with some ideas on how we can locate this dealer.  I’ll stop by the donut shop on my way in to ease the pain.”

He turned to Tice, “We’ll work out a plan of action and run it by you.  I’m sure there’s a lot more background we’ll be needing.”

“A recent photo would be nice.”

“Leave it to Al,” Jerry said, shaking his head.

“He’s right.  I’ll get you some photos.  Unfortunately, I don’t have an address for Jack.”

Not even Tice knew where his currently closed-mouth son lived.  The only time Tice could be sure of an address was when it was courtesy of Maricopa County.

They all shook hands with their new client, and Tice walked out into the evening warmth.  Standing by his car door, he took a moment’s pause before pressing the unlock button on his keys.  Well, he’d given them the go-ahead, but was it the right decision?  Yeah, it was, he decided, but a lot was riding on this.

Tucson Estates sits on a plateau several hundred feet higher in altitude and several miles to the southwest of the Tucson city limits.  As Tice descended the plateau on Ajo Way, he was again plagued with doubts about retaining these unconventional PIs, these self-styled Merry Marauders.  Not that he didn’t like these guys.  In fact, they might well be the best persons for the job.

It was the assignment itself, the tracking down of Jack’s dealer, that was bothering him.  In his career, he’d always been a stickler for rules and procedures, for doing things the right way.  Even embarking on this hunt in this manner was outside his comfort zone.  By retaining the PIs, he was heading into uncharted territory.  It felt almost like going rogue.

Tice pushed these thoughts aside.  He directed his focus on the splendid sight of a full moon ascending above Mount Lemmon.  Embraced as a respite, the beauty of the moment.

 Moon in the Sky

Arriving back at his desk the next morning, he found his optimism rewarded.  His inbox contained written approval and permission to proceed.  Less than two days since the Tuesday afternoon conference call and one day since he’d submitted the project initiation documents.  A response-time almost unique in his experience.  For more routine assignments, approval could be delayed weeks because of nitpicking or procrastination at higher levels.

They must badly want this guy, providing he exists.  He spent much of the day planning and working through the details of the investigation.

What Tice needed for this mission, in addition to his regular team, was a top-grade snooper.  A computer expert who could sift through records outside the regular files.  He sent for Sybil Craig, one of the best electronic snoopers, male or female, in the business.  She was an OSI forensic and analytical specialist for Region Two, which was headquartered at Langley in Virginia.

Sybil had top-secret clearance and could access analytic computer bases nation-wide, including the powerful EPIC system.  The El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) provides tactical, operational and strategic intelligence to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies on a national scale.  EPIC’s focus is the Western Hemisphere, with emphasis on the Southwest border and a mission to deter threats and protect the United States.  Sybil would be used when the search narrowed down to a handful of suspects.

He arranged to meet her over lunch at the local Denny’s to fill her in.  Having her appear at his office could raise questions he was not yet ready to answer.  It was not wise to unnecessarily feed the rumor mill while the hunt was underway.

Tomorrow he’d assign his agents to begin working through the universe of suspects, eliminating those who were clean and tagging those who warranted closer scrutiny.

At four-thirty his cell beeped.  It was Jerry.  They’d developed a plan for tracking down the dealer.  Could he meet, say seventy-thirty.  They wanted to run it by him and get his okay.  Great, he’d be there.

Chapter Five

It was the morning after their initial meeting with Tice.  A few minutes before eight, the Engstrom team was already assembled around the Boardroom conference table.  After consulting his freshly brewed mug, Gus panned the faces of his team.  Noted Al’s faux yawn, his way of protesting the early meeting hour.  Saw Jerry give him a slap on the back and a rise and shine, amigo.  Typical Al and Jerry dance.  At least Jimmy had on his game face, ready to listen.

“Let’s get going.  For starters, any inspired thoughts on how we track down Jack’s dealer?”

Gus’ question was greeted by a sea of blank faces.  Despite Gus’ parting admonition the previous evening, neither the intervening twelve hours nor that initial jolt of caffeine had yielded any inspired nuggets.

“Any thoughts at all?”

“Tice sure seems like one hell of a guy, but I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes,” Jerry said.

“Yeah, his son’s addiction is obviously killing him.” Gus said.  “Some guys might have given up on their kid, but not this fellow.  Plus, I got a feeling he’s going it alone.  Maybe divorced, you suppose?”

“He didn’t mention a wife,” Jerry said.  “And being military and involved in drug enforcement, no way can he go to his superiors for support, or even share with the men under his command.”  Jerry the former Marine understood the serious potential for career damage.  “It’s why he had to come to us, and his concern for secrecy.  Can you imagine the stress?”

“Agreed then, we have to help our new friend,” Gus said.  “But be warned, he’s an imposing figure, and I don’t mean just because he’s tall enough to go eyeball to eyeball with Al.  I get the sense he’s a man of action who expects results.  So, we’d better produce.”

The sticky question was still how, as the silence that followed was making clear.  Gus gave it another fifteen seconds before saying, “Okay then, no donuts to go with your coffees until one of you can give me something to work with.”

Aroused from his semi-comatose state, first by Jerry and now by the unnerving prospect of a donut-less future, Al delivered a characteristic Al observation.  “Here we are looking forward to a summer of fun and relaxation with our gorgeous sweeties but instead find ourselves with a sticky investigation on our plate.  How did we let this happen to us?”

“Come on, man, get serious.” Jerry scoffed.  “How often do we have the chance to help rescue a life in free-fall?”

“Sorry guys,” Al said.  “I’m feeling frustrated is all.”

“You’re not alone.  Well, I suppose we can do what gumshoes mainly do,” Gus said.  “Wear out some shoe leather banging on doors and asking questions.”

“Questions like?” Jerry left the thought hanging.

“I guess that’s another question,” Gus said.

Jimmy had sat in Buddha-like silence, caressing his cup of coffee as he listened.  The others knew he had no problem speaking up when he had something solid to offer.

“Jimmy, you appear deep in contemplation.  What’s your take on this?”

Jimmy looked back at Jerry, with the narrowing eyelid look, then at the other two in turn.  “You guys seem to be putting the proverbial cart before the horse.  Gus, you’d have us out pounding the pavement for leads before we even know the territory.  I suggest we first need to educate ourselves, and then develop a plan of action.”

“How’s that, Jimmy?”

“Well, Tice wants us to identify and presumably profile a guy who deals in illegal opioids and other illicit substances.  I say we begin by learning more about the opioid crisis, about opioid addiction, about the supply chain, both legal and illegal, about drug cartels, for that matter, before we pound the pavement looking for leads.”

“What you say makes sense,” Gus said.  “Any ideas on how we go about getting educated?”

“We can start with Google,” Jerry said.  “Try opioid crisis Tucson.  Something like that.” 

“Maybe Pima Community College offers a course.”

“Give it a rest, Al,” Jerry said.

To the casual observer, the frequent cutting exchanges between Al and Jerry might be taken wrong.  Those who knew them better soon realized these guys, all four of them, loved each other like battle-tested comrades in arms, which in a way they were.  Yet, each were distinct individuals, with differing but complementary personalities.

“Well, I for one hope Tice is right in thinking his son’s supplier is local and not connected to the cartels,” Jimmy said.

“I second that.  Things could get complicated if the dude that we’re after has a few cartel assassins in his pocket.”  Completing this observation, Gus looked over at Jerry and added, “However, it appears as if our Special Forces warrior would welcome this complication.”

“Assassins?  I think they’re call Sicarios,” Jerry said.  “And you’re right, I’d love to take out a few of those scum.”

“Well, time to go back to school,” Jimmy said.

“Let’s divvy up the work.  Al, you dive into the Internet.  Jimmy, you think about a plan to canvas the university district.”

“Yeah, I doubt Tice’s son gets his opioids from a Tre Six on a street corner in south Tucson.”

“Didn’t know you were a student of Tucson gang culture, Al,” Jerry said.

“My own flesh and blood keeps me informed.  You forget, I’m a native Arizonian.  The only one among you.”

“What does that have to do with the price of sagebrush?”

“Come on, you two.  Quit the sparring.  Jerry, why don’t you check back with Tice on what info he can give us about opioids and the supply network.  He must know a lot more than we do about the local drug scene.” 

“I’m on it, boss.  I’ll see what I can get from him without betraying the depth of our ignorance.”

“Good luck.  That will be a challenge.  Meantime, I’ll put in a call to Behrends.”

“You sure that’s wise?” Jerry said.  “Even if he’s your Tucson cop go-to buddy, you know what Tice said about keeping this business strictly under the radar.”

“Not to worry, I won’t betray any confidences.  I’ll put it that you guys are interested in general about the opioid scene from the local law enforcement perspective.  The topic came up in one of our bull sessions.  See what I can learn about some of the local players from him.  Without naming names, ask him how a fellow like Jack Tice would find a supplier when his access to legitimate prescriptions dries up.”

“Or we could try kidnapping an addict and bring him in for questioning.”

“Brilliant, Al,” Gus said, shaking his head.  “Okay, with apologies to Jimmy, let’s don’t spend too much time on this.  Even if we don’t learn much, I’m thinking this exercise could trigger some ideas.  Time being of the essence, we get it done today.  Meet back here at three-thirty, share what we’ve learned, and hash out a plan.”

The PIs worked their assignments for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon.  They were back at the agreed time in the conference room.

“Al, you lead off. What did you learn?”

“I did the Internet thing like you suggested and got stats on the opioid basics.”  Al then proceeded to reel off Arizona stats on numbers of addicts by age, followed by stats on overdoses, recidivism and death.     But ended by saying, “I don’t see where this info helps us.”  

“For once, I agree with Al,” Jerry said.  “Let’s start with what Tice wanted.  Simple.  Find and ID his son’s supplier and gather information about him.  It’s enough to know that there are addicts out there who want his product, Tice’s son being one of them.”

“Jerry, did you even have that follow-up talk with Tice about supply chains?”

“No, because Al is right.  Until we come up with a plan for identifying the one person Tice is concerned with, all the other stuff is window dressing.  We don’t need to be experts on addiction.  We need to be experts on tracking down an unknown subject.  That’s what PIs do.  Uncover stuff.”

“I realize finding the dude who’s supplying Jack with the oxy’s will be a challenge since we don’t know what he looks like, let alone have a name,” Gus said.

“Too bad Tice didn’t have a name for us.”

“Yeah, too bad.  If he had a name, he wouldn’t need us,” Jerry said.

“Hey guys, quit your sparing,” Gus said.  “I wasn’t able to get through to Behrends, either.  He was in some high-level conference with the Tucson PD brass.  Jimmy, no offense, but we did waste the good part of a day chasing our tails.”

“Sorry guys.  But we weren’t getting any bright ideas this morning.”

“Well, Jimmy, your turn.”

“I can see that I had more fun than you guys.  It was a nice day for a ride, so I mounted up and rode the streets around the campus.  Got lots of looks from the coeds.”

”Probably was the Harley they were looking at.”

“Thanks, Al.  But you’re probably right.”

If it had been Al saying that to Jerry, he wouldn’t have gotten off so easily.  Jimmy was no marshmallow, but he was not one for verbal sparring.  Left that to Al and Jerry, although he did enjoy the show.  And he also enjoyed telling a good story, with a penchant for the long version.  In return, the guys all loved a good Jimmy story.

“Getting back to this afternoon, I did see lots of bikes, but they all had pedals.  The kids look so damn young.   I trolled University Boulevard that has all those shops and bars where the students hang out.  Pretty much your typical university neighborhood.  Anyway, during my ride I came up with an idea, which I’d like to share.”

“With you into the long version, that might take a while,” Jerry said.

“Let the man speak,” Gus said.  It was his role to come to Jimmy’s defense whenever Al or Jerry got testy with their amigo.

“No problem, Jerry.  I’ll keep it under a half hour.  I was looking at the students and thinking what if I was able to spot Jack, the U district being his stomping grounds.”

Gus realized where Jimmy was going.  “Tice did say he’d round up some more photos of his son for us.”

“Now you’re getting it.  Guys, it’s not rocket science.  Who is the one person who can identify the supplier?” 

“Shit, you mean, son Jack,” Jerry said.

“Yup.  He’s the one person for whom we have a name and for whom we have a recent photo.  Like Gus said, I’m sure we can get more from Tice himself.  So how do we find the supplier?” Jimmy asked again.

“Locate Jack and follow him around until he meets with his connection,” Jerry said.

“Yeah, we surveil him,” Gus said.  “We start by finding him and then follow him until eventually he meets up with his main man.”

“Surveil him how?” Al asked.

“The term is surveil-in-place,” Gus said.

“I get it.  Like that street corner in Paris or maybe Manhattan, where if you stand there long enough, everyone you know will pass by.”

“Right, dick head,” Gus said.  “We monitor a location that he’s likely to frequent until we spot him.  We can ask Tice if son Jack had a favorite U-district hang-out.  We find spots where he’ll likely pass by.  We each insinuate ourselves into these likely places, which sure beats tedious legwork.”

“What if he makes us?  Remember Tice’s warning.  We can’t allow Jack to find out that his supplier is the target of an investigation.  Jack thinks he’s got his dad fooled,” Al said.

“It helps that there’s four of us,” Gus said.  “We can rotate the initial surveil until he’s found, then work a two or three-person surveillance until he leads us to his supplier.”

Once having thought it out, the approach seemed obvious.

“Jerry, you get back to Tice and run our plan by him.  Get his okay before we initiate and engage.”

“What if Tice senior objects to this plan?” Al said.

“Don’t see why he would.  I’ll give him a call now and invite him back.  We could use more specifics from him now that we have a plan, thanks to Jimmy.”

“Good.  Make the call.  Have him back this evening if he’s available.  Okay with you?”

Gus looked at each of his crew in turn.  There were no objections. 

It was barely four-thirty.  Jerry got through to Tice on his cell.  Naturally, Tice was as eager to get his hires on the scent as they were eager to be on it.  He asked if seven-thirty would work.  It would.  As they all lived within a few blocks of the office, the PIs would have a good three hours to enjoy a leisurely dinner with their sweeties.  If the surveil should become labor intensive, spending some advance quality time would smooth feathers on the domestic front. 

Gus gave Rose a lingering goodbye kiss that promised something more intimate when he returned from the meeting with Tice.  He’d shared the basics of their new investigation with her.  Not a betrayal as Rose had earned her own PI license.

It was just after seven-fifteen.  The others might be a few minutes late, but Gus wanted to make sure at least one body was in attendance when Tice arrived.  A good thing.  He arrived two minutes later.

Tice greeted Gus with a question.  “Do you hail from Washington State?”

When he got a yes, Tice said, “Hope you don’t mind, but I did some background on you.”

“Not a problem for me.  I’d probably do the same in your shoes.”

“Learned you were a cop.  That you put in thirty years in a couple of towns on the Olympic Peninsula.”

“Yup, I was your garden-variety small-town cop.”

“According to my sources, you were a damn fine one.”

“I did my best, so that’s nice to hear.”

“Incidentally, Spokane was my hometown until I left for college.  By chance, are you related to Arnie Engstrom, the former District Attorney for Grant County?  The Engstrom name has a familiar ring for me beyond just your FBI brother.”

“He’s our dad.  The reason, I suppose, we both pursued careers in law enforcement.”

“Small world.  Is he still alive?”

“No.  He passed away over twenty years ago.  Too damn young, but our mom is still with us, a lively eighty-five.”

“Well, that’s a blessing at least.  You probably went to high school in Moses Lake.”

“Busted.”

“They were a football power.  Used to regularly kick our butts.  You play?”

“Outside linebacker.”

“Figures.  Your dad wasn’t the only Engstrom name rattling around in my head.  You were something of a legend, or nemesis.”

“I wasn’t bad.  My turn.  I’ll bet you played b-ball for Spokane High.  They were a perennial power in that sport.”

“Yup.  You got me there.  I wasn’t bad either.”

“Say, do you remember the year that tiny Fife High School won the state championship.”

Tice did.  He’d been in the sixth grade.  “Bet you played in that championship, didn’t you?”

When Gus nodded, Tice said, “That was an amazing upset, your school being much larger and with its reputation as a perennial power.  Must be a bitter-sweet memory.”

“You got that right.  My assignment was to key on their tight end.  Try to keep him from beating us.  I was somewhat successful, but in the final minute he scored the winning touchdown, dragging several of our players into the end zone.  Do you remember who that was?”

“Vaguely.  The all-state tight end who won the game for them.  Don’t recall the name though.”

“Give you a hint.  His initials are JH.”

“Jerry Hunter?  You can’t be serious.”

“The same.  How we met up after forty years makes a good story.  He could have had his pick of college programs.  Later, would have gone pro.  But he enlisted in the Marines instead.  A family tradition with him, plus several of his classmates joined as a group.”

At that moment Jimmy arrived, precisely at seven-twenty-nine, punctuality being a Jimmy trademark.

“Let’s talk later,” Tice said.  Their brief exchange had turned into a bonding session.  

The other two PIs ambled in together two minutes later.  They all retired to the conference room minus their usual libations.  Maybe later.  They were here for serious business.

Tice led off.  “I’m pleased to be back here so soon, as it suggests you are taking my assignment seriously.  What is it you want from me?  Jerry said you had come up with a plan but didn’t go into details.”

“Just being cautious,” Jerry said.

“Our office has been bugged before, so now it gets swept at least weekly.  Overkill probably, but you can’t be too careful these days,” Gus said.  “Anyway, we like our client communications eyeball to eyeball.  Jimmy, it was your idea that sparked the plan, so you take the floor.”

Jimmy said that his idea was simple, really.  Monitor locations in Jack’s usual haunts, presumably the university district, until he was spotted, and then tail him until he contacted his opioid connection.

“So, what you’re talking about is surveillance,” Tice said.

“Right.  That’s how Gus put it.  Said the first step was surveillance in place, and then regular surveillance until the dealer was identified.  I ran an insurance agency, so I’m new to the PI game.”

“But he’s a quick study.  Once we know who the dealer is, we have resources to get a comprehensive bio on him,” Gus added.

“I’d say it’s a sound plan.  There’s four of you, so you should be able to handle the surveil-in-place.  I suspect you’d like some additional description of your target and some likely locations for your initial surveil.  I don’t have an address for him.  For a time, I’m pretty sure he was sleeping rough.  Too proud or pig-headed to let me know.”

“That has to be hard,” Jerry said.

“I know.  It tears you up inside.  Okay, back to business.  A good area to start is along University Boulevard west of the campus.  He loved hanging out there back in his student days.”

“What you’re saying, it’s a comfort zone for him.  A place he’d feel safe.”

“Exactly.  Addicts like familiar ground unless it puts them at risk.”

The five of them talked for another half-hour enabling the PIs to build a profile.

“What’s your surveillance experience?” Tice asked at one point.

“We’re not bad on that score.  I personally have a fair amount of experience as a rural cop.  Jerry here tracked a few Charlies as Special Forces Recon in Nam.”

“How about recently, say, in your PI cases.”

It was not in Gus to be evasive.  But their PI cases to date hadn’t involved surveillance in the conventional PI sense.  Undercover work, yes, and some knocking of heads, including a lethal ambush or two, but not surveillance.  On the other hand, he didn’t want to expose glaring deficiencies in their tradecraft.  He chose a middle ground.

“We’re a little rusty in this area.  The recent past, anyway.”

“I’m sure you guys are a quick study.  I’ll send you some material as a refresher.  You might find it helpful.”

As Tice was getting ready to take his leave, Gus’ Rose walked through the front door.

“I would have been here earlier, but Hildy called.  Hi, I’m Rose, Rose Thomas,” she said, addressing Tice.

Tice did a double take at this unexpected meeting of this attractive woman with the infectious smile.  He guessed mid-forties, but he would have been wrong by about ten years.

Tice recovered nicely and extended his hand.  “John Tice.  I’ve hired these guys to do some PI work for me.”

He stopped and looked at her, as if waiting for an explanation of her presence.  Jerry came to the rescue.  “Rose is Gus’ better half, a much better half.  They’re not legally hitched, but Rose has her PI license and possibly could help with the surveillance.  She’s proved herself a competent operative.”  Jerry had flashed on the rescue of Rose’s younger sister from Hellhole Canyon.

“It still amazes me how Gus managed to snag this gorgeous example of womanhood, especially with me still available,” Al added.

“Jealous, Al?  I can’t wait until I tell Tessie you’ve got a thing about Rose,” Jerry said.

All fiction, of course, on both parties.  Al had never given Rose a tumble, even before Gus entered the Merry Marauder’s world less than three years previously.  He was too busy with other interests; that is, until Teresa Alvarez caught his eye.  Jerry would never spread malicious gossip in Tessie’s ear.  Both were genuinely glad for Gus.

“Don’t mind these guys,” Gus said, giving Rose a hug.

“I guess that concludes our business for this evening.  A pleasure to have met you Rose.”

It had been a productive day.  He’d received the official go-ahead for the investigation, he’d met with Sybil Craig and got her onboard, and his PIs had developed a workable plan for identifying Jack’s dealer.  He walked out into the pleasantly warm Tucson evening, in harmony with his surroundings and optimistic about life, feelings that had eluded him for far too long.

Chapter Six

Facing east on a gently sloping desert hillside, the Penasco estate is an impressive sight.  An eight-foot stone wall surrounds the four acres of this meticulously maintained compound.  To discourage unwanted visitors, jagged glass shards jut from its top.  The back wall runs along the ridgetop of this hillside.

A three-story tower juts from the highest elevation along this wall and commands a three-sixty view extending to the east well beyond the nearby village of San Javier, which lies a short distance from the base of the hill.  To the west there is only barren desert that extends to a distant mountain range.  This tower is manned by two sentries armed with Tikka T3 Scout long range rifles, one of whom continuously scans the landscape for threats and the other who monitors electronic detection devices sprinkled around the compound.

The main entrance to the compound is a wrought iron gate with a sentry box.  Inside the gate, assuming one can secure admittance, stands a two-story hacienda of white stucco, a luxurious residence in the Spanish Colonial style, some ninety feet across and almost twice that in depth.  On the ground floor, cut from the outer adobe wall, is a series of ornate arches that access a covered eight-foot walkway. 

Above the walkway is a second story balcony patio thirty feet in depth, a roof garden for gracious outdoor dining.  Behind the patio are several guest bedrooms, each with private bath, effectively isolating them from a quick exit should the guest be bent on treachery.  The second floor also features a game room and a lounge with wet bar.

This imposing structure wears an elegant sombrero of bright red ceramic tile.  Not only decorative, it is durable and long-lasting with a lifespan of seventy-five years or more, suggesting the cartel must be visioning itself as an organization for the ages.  Wishful and delusional perhaps, given the abbreviated lifespan of the typical cartel member.  At any rate, longer than the lifespan of the average drug baron. 

Recessed some five feet to the rear of the covered walk is a massive pair of front doors of iron wood decorated with ornate carvings of rustic scenes.  These open into an expansive courtyard that extends some hundred and sixty feet to the desert.  A covered walkway borders each side of this courtyard offering access to rooms of varying functionality, both business and pleasure.

The master bedroom is located on the first floor at the back, strategically situated for quick access to the desert in the event of hostilities.

At night, brilliant flood lighting plays on the building and a front lawn of low water desert vegetation.  The whole effect is one of ostentatious wealth set within an impregnable fortress.

On this afternoon, only a few hours after the shoot-out that took the life of Pedro Jimenez, the Junta Directiva or Executive Committee of the Penasco Cartel was assembled in the larger of the hacienda’s two conference rooms.  Angel Jimenez commanded the head of an oval-shaped conference table of cherry wood.  A man of powerful build and lethal tendencies in a five-eleven frame, he ruled with an iron hand.  His chair with its backing of ornamented teak, an intricate carving of Angel’s totem, Coyote the trickster, that matched his personality.

Under review was his plan to expand the cartel’s reach into the Tucson market.  Angel called on one of his underlings, Ricardo Garcia, to report.  Garcia was a hired technician and not of the inner circle.  He manned a bank of advanced electronic monitoring equipment.  His job was monitoring sources of information, both open and covert, about border activities that might impact the cartel.

He did not relish delivering his latest news, as it concerned an unfortunate setback to Angel’s expansion plan.  He stuck to the bare outlines in telling of lost merchandise and a brief gunfight.

“Oscar Diaz was captured, but there is no news about your brother,” he said, ending his report.  He was worried that a bullet might be his reward if he said more.  He knew of a previous messenger who had been paid with a bullet to the head for bringing news that was not to Angel’s liking.

“When did this happen?”

“This morning, only a few hours ago.”

“How do we know this?”

“I am monitoring communications coming from Los Estados Unidos.”

He left it at that.  His monitoring skills, his ways and means of monitoring communications from north of the border, had given him some leverage with the cartel bosses.  These would not keep him safe if he disclosed Pedro’s death to Angel.

Garcia made use of several devices.  He scooped up local Arizona news by an app that he had downloaded to his computer tablet.  Because feeds from the Feds were encrypted, he was unable to get military radio chatter.  He had partially solved that roadblock by obtaining a handheld radio from a greedy Air Force sergeant in the Penascos’ pay.

However, in the present case, his answer was deliberate misdirection.  The news of Pedro’s unfortunate death had been conveyed to him via his satellite receiver, the call made by a Penasco lookout who had observed the incident from seven miles away with his powerful binoculars.

Much of Southern Arizona from the border to I-8 and west of the Tohono O’odham Reservation is a mountainous desert wasteland with few inhabitants that are not US military personnel or border patrol.  The rest is surrendered to Mexican sentries, estimated to be over a hundred individuals stationed for weeks at a time as lookouts on mountain tops.  These spies for the drug and human traffickers are chiefly in the pay of the Sonora and Sinaloa cartels, but the Penascos also controlled a lookout on a mountain adjacent their usual corridor north.

This lookout had been reluctant to call Angel directly with the news.  He’d called his good amigo Ricardo Garcia instead and for the same reason that Garcia was withholding this information from the volatile jefe.

“Why were Diaz and Pedro intercepted?  I pay mucho dinero that such a thing should not happen.”  It was a rhetorical question for which Angel did not expect an answer.

Knowing he had to keep the fate of Angel’s brother to himself, Garcia’s plan was to flee the hacienda on some pretext before Angel learned the truth.  However, no one at the hacienda even knew that Diaz’s sister had accompanied the pair, and certainly not about the snake bite that triggered the interdiction.  For reasons of their own, Pedro had secretly induced her to accompany him on the journey even though she had refused to carry product.

One member of the inner circle spoke up.  “Diaz could already be spilling his guts about Pedro’s intention to meet with the gringo officer.”

“Maybe they will deport the chingado, and we will have our fun with him then.  No?”

“For sure, Senor Jimenez.” 

“But nothing on my brother?”

“There was an exchange of bullets and an agent was wounded.  This attack on an agent is the source of their leverage on Diaz,” Gomez said.

“Pedro is very capable.  He has the cunning of the coyote.  He must have escaped, otherwise their chatter would have bragged on it.  Likely he is hiding in the desert and will find a way to cross back,” Angel said, not willing to express the unthinkable.   

“So, about Diaz, we need to get to him.  Shut his boca permanently,” another of the inner circle advised.

“Please excuse me.  I must return to my post,” Garcia said at that point.

The jefe nodded his permission.  Garcia bowed, took two steps backward and turning walked with measured steps, unhurried, from the residence.

Garcia did not return to his post but headed toward San Javier.  Rather than take the roadway, he followed an arroyo that meandered downhill to the village.  To avoid being sighted by the sentries, he clung to the side of the arroyo until it dead-ended at the village  His luck held.  He emerged from the arroyo and kept to the shadows until he reached the carretera than passed through the village.  He immediately spotted an ancient bus just entering the village from the north.  He hailed it and climbed aboard, finding it crowded, standing room only, with peasants and their cargo.  That was just fine with him.

The vehicle rumbled on south and then east to its junction with Mexico 15D.  He was on his way to the state of Michoacan, his birthplace where he had family and friends, well beyond the reach of a minor cartel.

The committee returned to considering how to respond to this setback.  Over the next two hours, Angel’s mood grew increasingly dark.  Pedro, Pedro, mi hermano, where are you?  But he held in his fear, not giving it voice.  He had to hold out hope and maintain a confident front for his men.

Some minutes later Angel’s cell chimed Malaguena.  He answered. 

“Hola, Senor Penasco.”  Angel knew the voice well. The caller was the jefe of the rival and more powerful Sonora Cartel.  Addressing Angel as Penasco was a subtle slam at this disparity.  “This is your amigo calling from Guaymas.  I am here for some fishing.  Fishing for the big blue fin.  I would invite you my friend, but you know how it is.”  Angel knew deep sea fishing was a favorite pastime of this jefe.

“I have sad news.  My informant at the Ajo station has just relayed a most disturbing event that took place a few kilometers north of the border this morning.  Two gringos murdered one of our countrymen and took another prisoner who surrendered like a dog.  The dead man was identified by the survivor as your brother Pedro.  I am most sorry for your loss.  How foolish for him to wander north of the border without adequate protection.”

At these words, Jimenez emitted a howl like a wounded coyote and crossed himself.  “Mi hermano, mi hermano.  He was so dear to me.  I should never have sent him, but he was so determined to prove himself.”  Privately, this younger sibling was not quite as dear to the jefe as his howls proclaimed.

Some hours later the compound received further confirmation that Pedro Jimenez was the Mexican national killed in the shoot-out.  This news came from an informant in the Gila Bend coroner’s office who had picked up gossip from workers at the nearby morgue.

“Brave hombre, he’d rather die than be captured.  He is a hero.  We should celebrate him.”  Words spoken by Angel’s chief lieutenant.  Words that expressed the general sentiment of the Penasco junta.

“I do not much feel like celebrating,” Angel moaned.  “I have no appetite for supper either.  I will retire to my bedroom and mourn privately.  And think on what has happened.  Ponder why he had to die, a martyr to our grand plans, and how we must respond.  Let us assemble tomorrow morning, a las nueve.”

However, Angel did not emerge from his bed chambers until almost ten.  He toyed with a breakfast of huevos rancheros prepared by his private chef.  After some minutes he summoned his men to the main conference room.

“I have been considering why and how this killing could have happened.  This was no accidental encounter.  It must have been a deliberate ambush by the gringos.  They had advance knowledge that my brother was on a most important mission.  I have concluded that we have been betrayed by that puta Major Bennington,” which he pronounced Beyningtone.

“But why would this Bennington throw away the opportunity to make himself rich?” one of his audience asked.

“Maybe he was exposed.  Gave us up as a way of saving his skin.  If so, he is a coward, a traitor.  You work for the Penascos, you take your lumps like a man.”

“Perhaps he did not give us up to his superiors.  Maybe he’s thrown in with another cartel,” said another.

“The Sonora’s or the Sinaloa’s, Tu pensas?” offered a third.

Quien sabe.  They both want us dead.  There is no reasoning with them. The Sinaloa’s killed Manuel our pasador, who only went to meet and reason with them.  Someday I will revenge his death.  But the reason for Bennington’s betrayal is not important.  Our Major Bennington is a dead man.”

Whatever the motive, Angel was now convinced that he had misjudged the treachery of the man, never suspecting that he was being set up by this Bennington.

“What about the mechanic?  Our Ojos?” asked another.

“You mean Smith,” which Angel pronounced Smeeth, blending its utterance with a sneer. 

“Is he not in hiding?”

“We find him too,” Angel said.  “In fact, we kill him first.  That son of a puta Bennington will not sleep well when he learns of Senor Smith’s death.”

After the Sonora’s gloating phone call, Jimenez had passed much of the night in a state of rage, shaking his fist at the heavens, vowing vengeance.  Jimenez’s first inclination had been to target Bennington.  On further consideration, a simple bullet or the swift work of a machete, maybe preceded by some righteous torture, hardly seemed adequate punishment for the crime, for the loss of his beloved brother.  No, Bennington had to suffer mentally as well as physically.

The cartel was well acquainted with Smith.  He was their main contact for securing safe passage for their product.  He was their eyes and ears on the ground, the one who was their conduit to information on the movements of border security personnel.  Angel’s men would target Smith first, his death openly advertised as the work of the cartel.  His death would inspire panic in the gringo scum.

Angel also knew that Bennington had a son, as it was the business of the cartel to know the familial relationships of their gringo associates.  Angel might even target him before moving on to Bennington.  Torture the mind of their traitor further before delivering the final stroke.  He gloated over the image of personally wielding the machete that severed the gringo’s worthless head from his body.

The jefe considered the means of achieving Smith’s death with his inner circle.  They considered sending two of their members.  But there were no takers for such a mission.  The men sitting with Angel were not cowards, but none of them relished meeting a similar fate to what had befallen Pedro.

A sorry lot.  It was not the first time such a thought had passed through Angel’s mind.  Someday he would cull the herd.  Find better replacements, but for now he had more pressing concerns.

He had lured two primo Sicario’s, professional assassins, from the Chihuahua Cartel. They were on another assignment for Angel but would be returning in several days.  He wanted the killing of Smith done by experts.  This time the journey north would be conducted with appropriate stealth, no death in the desert.  They would travel maybe by boat or maybe enter through the Tijuana portal with false papers.  They would make their way to the vicinity of the Gila Bend Air Force base and surveil Smith.  Set him up for the kill.    

When the pair returned, he would give them explicit instructions.

Chapter Seven

Major Stuart Bennington was at his desk at the Gila Bend Annex of the Tucson Air Force Base.  Gila Bend is responsible for operating the two-million-acre Barry Goldwater range and Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field.  The range and its surrounding areas offer preferred cartel corridors for the movement of product and human cargo from the border to distribution centers throughout the US.  The corrupt Major enjoyed an executive level position in the military oversight of this prime real estate, a position of potentially immense benefit to his other employer, the Penasco Cartel.

It was afternoon and an unseasonably hot sun of late April had pushed the southern Arizona desert temperature ten degrees above average into the mid-nineties, challenging the building’s inadequate air conditioning.  He was wearing the regulation Army Combat Uniform.  He had removed the jacket, exposing a greenish brown undershirt.  It was wet with perspiration despite his morning shower and the liberal application of a roll-on perspirant.  It was not only the heat that was fueling the wetness, nor the thirty extra pounds that he carried on his out-of-shape body.

For much of the morning and through lunch, his mind had wandered from Air Force business.  Like Tice, who a morning earlier had been preparing the paperwork to initiate a search that would lead to this same turncoat, Bennington’s thoughts had often drifted to his son.  Unlike Tice, his concern was hardly of a protective or benevolent nature.

For the last two days, he had been dialing a burner phone expecting the call to be picked up by a trusted agent with the authority to negotiate on behalf of Angel Jimenez and the Penasco Cartel.  The voice was to confirm a meeting in nearby Ajo and provide Bennington with an address.

Bennington had continued to leave messages that soon escalated to heated bellows of why aren’t you answering my calls and where the hell are you.  By turns angry and worried, Bennington was becoming emotionally unhinged over the silence at the other end.  This morning he’d left the damn burner on his bedside table.  He knew he shouldn’t, but to hell with it, he picked up his desk phone and dialed the safe house number.

Two days earlier, he had picked up gossip at the Ajo Station commissary about a high-level cartel figure losing a lethal encounter with the Border Patrol.  As a paid purveyor of information to the Penasco Cartel, gossip was mother’s milk to this side job.  His position as a range supervisor mandated that he tour the military and law enforcement out-stations of southwest Arizona.  An ideal job requirement for an officer in the cartel’s pocket. 

Could the dead illegal be the cartel’s emissary?  On that earlier morning, hearing the gossip, it was a wisp of a thought in passing met with a no, that can’t be.  Now, it had assumed the status of a plausible explanation for his failure to make contact.

Bennington had no way of knowing for certain.  The circle of high-level officers and agents who were busy pondering the implications of the Oscar Diaz testimony were attached to agencies outside his purview.  But if the body in the desert belonged to the cartel, that would seriously compromise his plans.

The drug cartels south of the border depend on collaborators, bought and paid for, to feed them timely intelligence and arrange safe passage for their product.  Human greed is the lubricant that keeps their businesses running efficiently.  Some of these accomplices are illegals living in the US, some are US citizens of Hispanic descent, some are tribal Native Americans living on reservations in border states, but many are US citizens with gringo names like Bennington and Smith. 

Major Stuart Bennington had been an easy mark for a fledgling cartel in northern Sonora wanting to expand the size and scope of its distribution network of drugs and human cargo.  He’d had it with his Air Force career.  He was not on a career path to get into the senior field grade officer ranks because of poor fitness and performance reports.

He had given up all hope of further promotion.  The thought gnawed at him.  Retiring as a major was a real embarrassment in the officer corps, especially for a graduate of the Academy.  He had also been in debt up to his ears.  His ex was continually hounding him for spousal support for herself plus child support for their daughter Leslie, now age fifteen.  He’d be on the hook for the kid almost another three years, and who knows how long for the ex.

That last pregnancy had been an attempt to repair a marriage on the rocks.  It had chugged along, lurching back and forth like a coach car on a bad stretch of track.  They had pulled the emergency cord when the youngest entered first grade.

Cartels are always on the lookout for military grade personnel they can turn.  The Penasco Cartel learned about Bennington from an informant who picked up on his frequent bitching at a local watering hole.  They primed him for his informant role by paying him handsomely for a small favor of the look-the-other-way variety.  Supposedly, a minor one-off indiscretion.  Hah!  Once compromised, the rest was easy.  Welcome to the cartel world of carrot and stick, of money and threat of exposure, or worse.  In Bennington’s case, the stick aspect was hardly an issue.  After that first taste of easy money, he was all in.

A month later, he had approached his old high school teammate, Sergeant Danny Smith.  They’d played interior lineman and middle linebacker respectively in their hometown of Wichita, Kansas.  The dad was an executive in Wichita’s aerospace industry and politically connected.  Smith’s family resided on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.

Nonetheless, they’d been buddies—maybe a bit of slumming on Stuart’s part—drank three-two beer together, got into minor scrapes, watched each other’s backs.  After high school, Stuart got an appointment to the Air Force Academy.  Danny drifted, but a year later enlisted in the Air Force, accepted because of his superior mechanical aptitude.

They lost touch; that is, until they found themselves posted to the same Air Force base.  Even then, Bennington an officer and Smith an enlisted man, given military protocol, might not have re-connected as mates.  Well, except that the divorced Bennington and the surly loner Smith had no other male friends, and by that time neither one gave a damn about protocol.

Smith was an E-6 Technical Sergeant.  His specialty was the installation, maintenance, and repair of radio frequency transmission systems, electronic hardware that included line-of-sight, wireless, wideband, ground based satellites, and encryption transmission devices.

Deployment at Gila Bend gave him free movement throughout the southwest Arizona desert from I-8 to the border, principally the vast Barry M Goldwater bombing range.  His office was a maintenance shop located at the southwest corner of the Gila Bend base.  He was more likely to be found in the field, which is why the cartel had labeled him Los Ojos, the eyes.  He was the ideal complement to Bennington, the guy with more of an overview of policy initiatives and current targets of investigation.

Now Bennington was planning on bringing a third player, his son, into the operation.  After the divorce, Bennington’s ex had decided that raising two offspring was more than she wanted to cope with.  She took Leslie.  Daddy got son Lance.  Well, most fathers only get visiting rights.

Raising Lance had been a pain in the nether regions.  A handful almost from birth, the terrible twos had morphed into the awful threes and the destructive fours even before he entered kindergarten.  He was the class troublemaker throughout grade school.

Small-boned and underweight, the boy had inherited his mother’s genes.   In his teen years, the sociopath in him emerged.  His cunning, manipulative persona had given his Air Force dad fits, but now daddy was putting in motion a plan to make that nature work for him. 

His son’s edge was a near-genius mind.  He had effortlessly scored in the top ten percent grade-wise of his high school class.  He’d been accepted to several top schools as early as seventeen, but he decided to stay close to home and attend the University of Arizona.  His natural aptitude was science, and he was drawn to chemistry.  At twenty-one, he was already in his first year of grad school.

Lance liked nice clothes, shoes, the latest I-phone, compensations for a less than robust physique.  In high school these had remained a wish list, as his dad in those pre-cartel days, after paying alimony and child support for the youngest, had precious little left.  It made for a strained and volatile father-son relationship.

In college, Lance’s aptitude for chemistry had provided the avenue to satisfy these material yearnings.  A facility for and working knowledge of chemistry held some immediate benefits for an enterprising lad not wanting to wait for graduation and employment with a high-tech firm     to enjoy the fruits of his knowledge.  He’d concocted his first batch of Ecstasy while only a sophomore.

The manufacture was the easy part.  Finding customers and making sales was more daunting.  He’d heard the stories about novice and even experienced streetwise dealers being set up for a sting.  Sometimes by competitors, sometimes by the narcs.  The former might only entail loss of revenue or loss of product and maybe a beat-down.  The latter could result in a years-long enforced vacation in a confined space.  

He’d kept his new vocation a secret from his father.  Likewise, his dad had kept from him his arrangement with the Penasco Cartel.  But dad began to suspect something when he saw his son sporting designer clothes and the latest I-phone, retailing for close to a thousand.  And some months later a sporty Mazda Miata, not new but in mint condition.  Bennington senior figured the new ride had to set Lance back a good five figures.  Where the hell did he get that kind of money! 

Could Lance somehow be mixed up in the narcotics business?  Not that Bennington would be terribly upset, but he did want to know.  Asking outright, his son would probably deny it.

Lance had moved out of the dorms now that he was a grad student.  He shared a large house near the campus.  One of those old wood frame houses that had been broken up into three living units, each with a generous living/dining area, a separate kitchen, an adequate bedroom, and a private bathroom with a walk-in shower.

Lance’s unit had a separate outside door located at the side.  Bennington senior decided to pay a Friday night visit some months previously when he figured rightly that its residents, including Lance, would be partying elsewhere.  Stuart knew his way around locks and this one was a piece of cake.

Once inside, he did a quick tour of the unit.  Checked the bedroom.  His son was not much in the housekeeping department.  Several pairs of shoes on the floor.  A shirt draped over the arm of a recliner.  The unmade bed a jumble of loose bedding and stray garments.  Bennington returned to the living room.  In a recessed workspace at one end, he noted the pricey electronics, high-end computer, 4k big screen TV, and a high-end sound system.

The computer had place of honor in an obviously expensive L-shaped desk.  Bennington noted three drawers on one arm.  He went searching.  In the middle drawer Bennington found a ledger with a series of initials, dates, and dollar amounts, followed by what appeared to be a three-digit code.

He also found some product in the form of several kinds of pills housed in baggies.  Most were unfamiliar to him.  He wasn’t positive but he thought the white ones might be oxy, a tablet with which he was more familiar.  He put a sample of each in his pocket.  He also spotted a dusting of white powder.  Could be coke, he thought.  His son was sloppy, leaving loose product around.

These pills did not prove his son was a supplier.  Could be future stash of a big-time user, but he didn’t really believe that.  He heard the front door of the building.  The other two units were on the second floor, but he didn’t want to take any chances.  He exited by Lance’s private door.  

He was not familiar with synthetic tablets, wouldn’t know Ecstasy from Epson salts.  But his guy on the ground, his old high school chum, Smith did.  Smith gave him the street-smart version.  Touched on its uses as a date persuader, although not as potent as a roofie.  But the clincher was Smith’s letting drop how it was produced.  Not harvested, like marijuana or poppies, not derived from Cocoa leaves, but rather synthesized in a laboratory.  An easy process for a bright chem student not concerned about the legal niceties. 

There had been adequate product in the baggie to supply any number of interesting Friday night parties.

Talking the situation over with Smith, he couldn’t exactly confront his son and order him to cease his operation.  The kettle calling the pot black.  It was Smith, the greedy shit, who surfaced the idea.  If you can’t beat them, join them, he said by way of introducing his scheme. 

“Do you have a way of communicating directly with the Jefe, Angel Jimenez?”

Bennington didn’t.  Previous communications had been through an intermediary in the cartel’s hierarchy.  Largely initiated via a communication that a shipment would be coming through on such and such date.  Useful information for ensuring success expected by return message.

“Okay, we’ll figure out a way,” Smith said.  “Here’s my idea.  The cartel is always searching for expanding their distribution network.  We link up your son with a member of the cartel, one with authority to broker a deal.  From what you’ve told me about Lance, with adequate assurances and the prospect of some real money, he’ll go for it.”

At the next information drop, Bennington added a passage requesting a face-to-face meeting with a player with authority to negotiate about an opportunity of mutual benefit.

The return reply basically said no gracias.  Cartel bosses are a suspicious lot, bordering on paranoid.  Their survival depends on trusting no one. 

Bennington was not deterred.  His next message was more specific.  He knew a student, didn’t say it was his son, who was dealing strictly as a local, no cartel ties, to his college network.  If the cartel was interested in doing business with this local, Bennington would make contact and sound out the student.

Once the cartel indicated interest, it was a done deal.  Lance would have to go along.  But Stuart knew that wouldn’t be a problem.  Lance would think it a cool arrangement.  So, three weeks later when Bennington senior laid out the proposition to his son, Lance in turn confessed he’d had ideas along the same line but hadn’t known how to contact a cartel without bringing a heap of shit down on his head.   

Bennington was right about it being a done deal from the Penascos’ perspective.  They hadn’t waited for Bennington to get a go-ahead from the student.  The next exchange said for Bennington to expect a meeting of a ranking member of the Directiva at a secure location in Ajo.  The date specified was the day after the incident in the desert.

Bennington was told not to bring the student.  The arrangement was for him to call a certain number on a burner phone on the date previously specified, at which time he’d be given the address in the Ajo area.  They would work out the details orally as to product deliverables, profit percentages, expectations of confidentiality, but no paper trail.  Bennington would then convey these to the student as his new business reality.

Now it was two days beyond the meeting date.  A half hour later, he again called the safehouse number, this time in a panic on his office phone, and with the same result.

What about Smith?  Better keep him in the dark for now.  If Smith called wondering why he hadn’t heard anything, Bennington would shrug it off.  Say nothing about a corpse in the desert.  Say you learn to expect these things.  He had to assume the cartel would eventually make contact.  If the dead illegal was from the Penascos, the cartel leadership couldn’t blame him, Bennington, could they?  

He had not been told the identity of the cartel’s agent.  Although Bennington figured the messenger would be a member of Angel’s inner circle, he never suspected it would be the younger brother Pedro.

Chapter Eight

Special Agent John Tice had been at his desk since seven-fifteen, an early start on opening day when shortly he’d be pushing the start button on the investigation.  He’d fueled himself with an extra cup of coffee.  During the night, trying to get the sheep to jump, he had again second guessed his choice of investigators.

As much as he liked these guys, their plan basically came down to some skilled surveillance, the stock in trade of most professional investigators.  But his PIs had confessed that this was an area where they lacked recent on-the-job experience.  Before he left their office, he’d promised them some technical literature on current surveillance techniques.

His biggest fear was they’d get made, if not by his son, then more likely by the dealer, assuming his PIs got that far.  Detecting a tail was an essential survival skill for those who dealt in illegal narcotics and hallucinogens.

Perhaps he should take their plan, pay them for it, and farm it out to more experienced PIs.  Not that Gus, the head of their enterprise with thirty years as a cop, wasn’t experienced in law enforcement.  The others, Jimmy and Al, lacked law enforcement training in their careers as insurance agent and high school teacher respectively.  Well, Jerry was former Special Forces, so that was close.  They’d all been practicing PIs for over a year, but only as part-timers by their own admission.

If he did cancel on them, he’d be faced with starting over, searching out an investigator whom he could trust.  He knew that PIs in theory were supposed to protect confidentiality.  But in practice they might see an opportunity to sell his secret to a party who would find the information not only useful, but possibly lucrative.  

And that was the crux.  They may lack the full skill set of your full-time PI with years of experience, but what these guys had was integrity.  No doubt, they cut corners and employed creative methods, but they would never sell out a client or betray a trust for personal gain.  He could feel that about them.

On the commute from his house that morning, he’d dropped by his go-to currier service and had the promised materials on surveillance sent to their office.  Later that morning, he would receive a text message on his private cell from Gus, telling him that it had arrived intact.  Gus’ text added that he’d given it a look-over and felt it would be useful to the guys.

He flashed on Gus and their brief exchange.  The dude was maybe five or six years older, but they were a lot alike.  A kindred spirit except in the offspring department.  As much as his kids, the younger one especially, were a source of heartache, he wouldn’t trade them for the world.   

More so after the death of his wife.  He’d taken over the roles of both parents.  In the almost ten years since he had suffered with her through her year-long battle with ovarian cancer, thoughts of re-marriage had been foreign to him.  He’d had several casual affairs, but he’d never brought a woman into the house.  The main reason why those affairs were not only casual but brief as well.  And there was no one at present, not with his worry over his son’s addiction on top of his stressful job.

Now nearing eight, he’d completed the morning’s busy work. He’d have to shelve these thoughts and turn his attention to the launch.  This was no routine assignment, not your everyday looking into shortages and petty theft, or figuring out which enlisted man on a weekend bender started the bar fight. 

The initial task for his team would be obtaining a roster of all the officers with the rank of Major posted within the Tucson AFB Area of Responsibility, which covered a geographical area from Sierra Vista and the Fort Huachuca Military Reservation, southeast of Tucson, north to Chandler, south to the border, and west to Yuma, a big chunk of Arizona.

If it turned out that the suspect officer was not to be found among them, his team would then move on to all two hundred military personnel assigned to the Gila Bend station.  Then, god forbid, all military personal in the Tucson AFB area of responsibility.  He hoped they’d find the dirty major somewhere in that first cut.

He entered the workroom where his team was now waiting for the opening bell.  Surveying the expectant faces of his young but competent junior agents, he was energized by their eagerness to get started on this newest assignment.  He began with his usual cautionary statement.  This investigation, like all assignments to his unit, would be conducted by the book exactly as it was laid out in the initiating documents.

He smiled to himself at the thought that sometimes his agents got, how to put it, creative and had to be gently reigned in.  He then set out the contours and expectations of the main assignment.  He was counting on them to step up for what might prove a tedious first phase, one that confined them to this room, for agents who would rather be in the field. 

“Your first job will be to comb through the personnel records that have been delivered to us.  These are the fifty or so files in the most likely pool of potential suspects.  Your job will be to flag any name whose file contains information in their performance report that might suggest a susceptibility to a cartel’s inducements, for example, a gambling problem or several DUI’s or issues with authority.  Now this is privileged, confidential information, so once you process and don’t flag a file, you immediately forget it exists.  If none in this first pool pans out, we can then move to alternative suspect pools.

“The dead illegal was headed for the Gila Bend area, but that is the usual route for Penasco mules.  The officer might well be stationed at Gila Bend, but our initial target will be all officers with the rank of major stationed in the entirety of the Tucson Air Force base and its extensive area of responsibility.  Many in this initial pool are senior pilots and squadron or deputy squadron commanders.  There could be about fifty candidates for the title of scumbag of the year.” 

His guys had a brief laugh at this way of putting it.  Tice was known for his droll humor.

“This is a priority assignment.  I realize it’s already Friday.  You may be drawing some overtime on this one, so don’t make any unbreakable weekend plans.  Let’s get started.  As always your hard work is appreciated.”

While his team worked on the records, Tice laid the groundwork for taking another look at Diaz, the surviving illegal.  No time like the present.  Already four days had elapsed since the illegal was captured, although the bureaucracy had chugged along nicely.  Warp speed for them.  Now the question was how to get access to the prisoner.

He checked for his current location and learned that Diaz was being held at the Federal Correctional Institute in Florence, located about an hour north of Tucson.  He was being held pending his answering to the official Complaint stemming from his incursion onto US soil.  It cited his transporting of an illegal substance and his part in the wounding of an agent of the Border Patrol.  However, these charges made no mention of Pedro Jimenez or a bent military officer.

The key person to contact would be the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) prosecuting the Diaz case.  Tice placed a call to Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Jacobs from the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Arizona.  AUSA Jacobs was familiar with the Diaz case, although as yet not about an alleged meeting between his deceased traveling companion, a high-level cartel figure, and an Air Force major.

Tice knew that full disclosure to the United States Attorney’s Office was the prudent approach if you valued your career.  You don’thide anything from the attorneys.  Not the least because it could cause the prosecution exculpatory issues downline as the case progressed.  Therefore, he told Jacobs that he had been assigned a follow-up investigation into the deceased companion’s reason for undertaking such a hazardous journey and that it likely involved a meeting with a corrupt Air Force officer.

Diaz had spilled this nugget at his initial briefing to agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).  The objective of the current investigation was to identify this officer, if he existed.  The purpose for requesting a follow-up interview with Diaz was to probe for additional details while assessing the truthfulness of his initial testimony.

He asked the AUSA if such an interview was possible.  AUSA Jacobs agreed that to further the investigation he would be willing to set up a free talk with Diaz that would include his Federal Defender Counsel, representatives from HIS and DEA, and Tice himself.

Free talks are done when a defendant has information that could potentially assist his/her case and the information discussed cannot be used against the defendant.  This carrot should help persuade Diaz to be a forthcoming witness who might offer further information about the alleged meeting between the deceased Jimenez and an Air Force officer.

Now he’d have to wait for Jacobs’ return call.  After thanking Jacobs, it was time to check on how his team was coming with the initial pool of records.  Tice opened the office door he had closed for his call to Jacobs and entered the bullpen.  His agents appeared to be diligently working through the material, but Tice could sense that their hearts were not fully in this work. 

While they were conversant with all aspects, the whole investigative toolkit, of an AFOSI investigation, his AFOSI enlisted guys preferred being in the field, nosing around, asking questions about suspicious behavior, that might point to a person of interest.  The kind of field work that got their juices flowing.  That phase of the investigation would come later.

He rescinded his earlier weekend call to duty.  Told them to use the time to recharge their batteries and come in fresh on Monday.

The return call from AUSA Jacobs came in later that afternoon.  The free talk was set up for Monday at the US Attorney’s Office in Tucson.  Tice understood the reason for the Tucson venue.  Prisoners are routinely transported for court hearings.  It would be safer to interview Diaz away from the prison under the guise of a routine court hearing.

Tice would have liked to interview Diaz in private, but the USAO would be running the show.  He had no option but to abide by their rules.  He could ask, but they had the final say on where and how the interview would be conducted.

Tice saw the upcoming interview with the illegal to be a critical step in the investigation.  He needed that in-person feel for the veracity of this Oscar Diaz’s story.  Monday couldn’t come fast enough.

***

Being transported to Tucson by the United States Marshal Service and not given a reason, and furthermore being put in leg chains, Diaz was scared.  That was obvious from the body language.  Tice asked permission for the guards to remove the leg shackles and the handcuffs.  He wanted Diaz to feel comfortable.  AUSA Jacobs assented to this request as he did not consider Diaz a physical or flight threat.

The interview was conducted at the Tucson United States Attorney’s office in their conference room.  Its long table had seating for up to twelve persons, but this free talk left several of those empty.  Seated toward one end of the table were the subject, Oscar Diaz, with his defense attorney next to him, then AUSA Jacobs, the several agency reps that AUSA Jacobs had previously enumerated, plus an interpreter, as not all present were fluent in Spanish.

Tice seated himself across from Diaz and laid in front of him his legal memo pad.  On it, he would be taking copious notes of the interview that would later be incorporated into the official case file.  Jacobs began by laying out the parameters of the free talk to Diaz and his defense attorney.  Diaz would be told that anything he said could not be used against him in court, the stark difference from a standard interrogation. 

AUSA Jacobs then turned the interview over to Tice who addressed Diaz in fluent Spanish, which is here translated.  “Senor Diaz, my name is John Tice.  Are you being treated well?”

A slight frown escaped from Jacobs’ lips at that opening question. 

Freed of his restraints, Diaz had visibly relaxed.  “Si, no complaints,”

Jacobs breathed a sigh of relief at the no complaints.

“Now I want to walk you through your journey north from the time you left your village until you were detained by the Border Patrol agents.”

He began a series of questions to elicit the who, what, when, where, and why of that journey.  As he went along, he matched present answers to a copy of the written account of Garcia’s initial interview, which he had marked up for ease of reference.  The accounts matched reasonably well, but not word for word, evidence that Diaz was not parroting a canned rendition.  Tice was satisfied that Diaz was telling the truth as he had lived it.

“Can you tell us more about this journey north, other than what you’ve already shared?”

“No senor, but I think it was an important matter, the way Senor Jimenez was bragging about this meeting.  But I think that was more for my sister’s ears.”

“Interesting you say that.  Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”

“I am afraid for my sister Rosita.”

“I assure you that she is being treated well.”

“That is not why I am afraid.  I don’t think she was supposed to be with us.  It was Senor Jimenez who persuaded her.  His brother the jefe did not know about this.  I am afraid she could be in danger if she is deported back to our village.  Her injury is the reason we were caught.”

“What was Jimenez’s interest in her?”

“What do you think?  The usual interest of a young and powerful man who looks upon a woman as beautiful as my sister.  All the men in our village are attracted by her beauty and her modest manner.”

“I understand.  We will protect her.”

“Gracias amigo.  You are simpatico.  I wish I could help you further.”

This poor peasant had been given no real choice but to do what the cartel required of him.  However, the legal consequences for Diaz were now in the hands of the US attorneys. 

The drive back to his office was not a long journey, as the Diaz interview had been held in Tucson.  While he drove, he pondered his next move.  What precisely had Diaz meant by the usual interest?  Had more happened on the journey with Jimenez and Rosita beyond simply the bragging in her brother’s presence?  Maybe she had returned his advances and there had been, how to put it, pillow talk.  He would make Rosita his next interview.

He entered his office and closed the door.  He wanted that interview with Rosita as soon as possible.  She was not charged with any crime other than misdemeanor unlawful entry.  Damn, he had not asked Oscar her age.  If she were a minor, the circumstances of setting up and conducting an interview would be more complicated.  Pray, she’s at least eighteen.

He called AUSA Jacobs.  They had gotten along okay, as Tice had not been demanding, but instead was properly deferential.  The attorneys were sensitive to how the military felt about them.  Many of the latter were somewhat contemptuous, and an attorney tended to stonewall in return. 

Jacobs personally answered his call.  Tice took that as a good sign.  Often callers they wanted to avoid got the out-of-the-office or not-available treatment by their gatekeepers.  He asked for the favor.  Could you inquire of your prisoner the age of his sister Rosita?  Would be very helpful for me to know.

Jacobs got back to Tice a few minutes before three.  Nineteen.  Old enough to know her mind.  She had not tried to pass as a minor in hopes of better treatment.

Next, he considered how to get access to her.  Who did he know or who should he call at the Tucson Detention Center?  He remembered from the transcript of the initial Diaz interview that an HSI agent, Carlos Garcia, had conducted that initial interview.  An interview in which the sister had figured.

Perhaps this agent could facilitate a meeting with Rosita.  He called the HSI number for the Tucson sector, identified himself, and was patched into Garcia’s extension.  He was in a meeting.  Tice left a message to please call back.  It concerned a detainee, Rosita Diaz, who was a person of interest in an ongoing AFOSI investigation.

Garcia returned his call a half hour later.  Yes, he was tracking her case pursuant to her brother’s testimony.  He had interviewed her briefly after it was determined she was not carrying any illegal substance or other contraband.  She was currently a detainee at the Tucson Detention Center.

Agent Garcia was the new breed who believed in inter-agency cooperation and saw turf wars as unproductive and not conducive to national security.  When Tice indicated his interest in interviewing her as soon as feasible, he offered his assistance.  He knew his way around the Center as he was often called upon to interview detainees at the facility.  He arranged for the two to meet at the facility reception desk at nine the next morning.  

Rosita was brought to an interview room where Tice, with Garcia as a witness, could have privacy.  She was healing from the snake bite and appeared to be in robust health.  Her demeanor was shy but not frightened.  As with her brother Oscar Diaz, he spoke to Rosita in fluent Spanish, which is here translated.

“Rosita, my name is John Tice.  I am an agent with the Air Force Office of SpecialInvestigations.  I recently spoke with your brother.  He is in good spirits and is being well treated.  He confided to me that he is more worried about you than about himself.  You are fortunate to have such a caring brother.”

Rosita seemed both encouraged and re-assured that this man was not there to harm or mistreat her.

“Gracias, Senor.  He is a good man, is my brother Oscar.  He does not wish to carry the drugs across the border, but he has no choice.”

Just as Tice thought.  He believed her.

“I refused to carry the drugs.”

“How did you manage that?”

“I have, had, how should I say, certain powers of persuasion over Pedro, Senor Jimenez.”  At these words, she teared up.  “Yes, Senor Garcia informed me of his death.  I know Pedro wouldn’t have wanted to harm your agents.  I sincerely believe he only meant to frighten them so he could escape back to our village.  As a Jimenez, he couldn’t allow himself to be captured.”

Tice winced at her words. “I am truly sorry for your loss,” he said.

“Pedro was a good person, not like his cruel brother, the jefe.” No, not like the monster who raped me when I was not yet sixteen, the memory still vivid.  “But he was sometimes too eager to please this brother, again because he had no choice.”

“Did he tell you things about why he was traveling across the border?  Things that he told only to you.”

At these words, Rosita visibly blushed.   

“Yes, senor.  Please understand, I still have feelings for him, feeling that were mutual.”

“I understand.  Did he tell you who he was going to meet?”

“Yes, Senor Tice.  But the name I do not exactly remember.  It was a gringo name.  All I remember is that it started with b.”

In Spanish the letter b is pronounced bey, with the b soft, more like the letter v with which it is often confused by the untrained ear.  In any case, Tice figured, b was more likely than v for the first letter of a surname.  This was useful information that could narrow down the pool of subjects.

He asked a few more questions and ended the interview.  He thanked Rosita and wished her well.  He also expressed his appreciation to Garcia for his assistance.  He made a mental note to put a good word in his file.

He would have his team look more closely at officers whose name started with the capital letter B.  He was leaving the Detention Center when his cell’s ringtone sounded.  It was Gus telling him they had completed the investigation and had solid information on Jack’s dealer.  Come on over this evening if you can make it.  Tice said he’d be there about seven.  The office, right?  They sure worked fast.       

Chapter Nine

Surveillance is the go-to tool in the private investigator’s bag of tricks.  Following a wayward spouse to get info on an assignation.  Trailing the transgressing couple to a motel to establish a trysting ground and maybe get some incriminating photos.  Insurance underwriters use PIs to surveil and expose malingerers, or persons who are faking their injuries.

Notwithstanding, the Engstrom PIs had not had occasion to use or practice surveillance in their several cases.  Their stock in trade had been undercover work, posing for example as two aging salesmen, or Jerry posing as an ex-con to penetrate the inner workings of a con operation, or the whole team posing as a country rock group to rescue a maiden in distress.

They held an impromptu meet about ten the morning after that second meeting with Tice.  Gus had called each of them after breakfast and suggested they get started.  They were up for it, even excited now that Tice had blessed their surveillance plan.  Even Al didn’t grumble.

Back in the conference room, Gus surveyed his team.  The others, over the months, had noted his transformation to genuine leadership.  Less than two years previously when he founded Engstrom and Associates at the urging of his FBI bro, his posture addressing his troops had been tentative, unsure, seemingly groping for the right words.  Now honed and matured with practice, his was no longer the demeanor of a retired beat cop, the recipient at daily briefings and the like, but not the one addressing his troops.

“It goes without saying, this is unlike any of our cases to date.  Our client is a person who two days ago was unknown to us.  Previous clients have all been family or friends or at least neighbors.  Second, he is hurting, caught between the burdens of his job and its expectations written and unwritten and a son who is in deep trouble.  It’s tearing him up inside.  I feel for him, we all do, and we don’t want to let him down.  Though I’m sure we all feel a bit inadequate because the way we’ve decided to approach this investigation is uncharted territory for us.

“But let’s get started.  The article on surveillance that Tice promised us arrived earlier this morning and prompted my calls to you guys.  It’s not overly long so I made a copy for each of you.  At least it will give you a refresher on the essentials of the several types of surveillance.  Read it between now and lunch.  Bone up.”

“Will there be a test?” 

“Only for you, Al.”  Gus said, then paused, waiting for at least an appreciative chuckle from the others.  When none was forthcoming, continued, “Okay, not funny.  That’s all I have for now.  We meet here right after lunch, one o’clock sharp.  I want us to map out a plan that addresses specifics of who does what and what our fallback positions should be if brown stuff happens.  I want us on the hunt by tomorrow morning.” 

The guys were all back at the clubhouse by one.  While they slurped down a cup of Keurig-brewed coffee each, they traded feedback on the reading assignment.  For Gus, former small-town cop, and Jerry, former Marine, the manual on surveillance was a refresher.  For Jimmy and Al whose ideas of surveillance were gleaned from TV or the movies, essentially about a guy trailing a dude without getting spotted, it was new ground.

“Adopting Jimmy’s brainchild, we will begin our search for Jack’s connection by first finding Jack himself.  We do this by staking out an area he is known to frequent, at least according to our man Tice.  Now, what does the article you were assigned tell us about surveillance in place?”

“Playing the prof with us, huh.”

“Right Al, so be a sport and tell the class what our biggest challenge will be.”

“Blending in,” came the prompt answer from Jerry before Al could attempt a response.  He knew about that kind of challenge from his Special Services Recon training.

Jimmy was next.  “Only common sense.  You gotta have a reason for being there other than waiting for your mark to show his face.  You can’t stand around some street corner for hours without raising suspicion.”

‘Yeah, and we gotta pee occasionally,” Al said.  “Maybe we should pick one spot and rotate.”

“That’s one approach.  We all onboard with that?” Gus said.

“How about starting at the station where his parole officer hangs out?  Catch him when he comes to check in.”

“Sorry Jimmy.  He may not be scheduled to check in for a week or two.  We could be there for days on end if the check-in is, say, once a month.”

“Okay, scratch that,” Jimmy said.

“How do we stay in the same spot even a short time without calling attention to ourselves?  We don’t exactly fit the image of your average student.”

“I have to agree with Jerry.  Being older than your average student is a distinct disadvantage,” Gus said.

“Sure.  A student can hold down a table at a local coffee spot with a cellphone and a laptop for hours.  Nobody gives him or her a second thought,” Jimmy said.

“If she’s a hot coed there will be plenty of second thoughts,” Al broke in.

“But not the kind that questions her being there, dick head,” Jerry said.    “Afraid hanging out hour by hour won’t work for us.  Okay, maybe Jimmy could pass for an aging grad student, but that’s still a stretch.”

Once again Jimmy came through.  After acknowledging that passing for an over-the-hill grad student was a stretch, Jimmy said, “I got an idea.  Instead of one person hanging around a street corner or sitting hour after hour at one of those U-district restaurants, maybe two of us sitting a table would be less out of place.  Like two professors having a long lunch or a morning or afternoon break.  Jerry, you and Al could pull it off.”

“Good thinking.  I like this couples idea,” Gus said.

“You and Rose could hold down a spot as well,” Jimmy added.  “Maybe play tourists.”

“Yeah, I really like it,” Gus said.  “I’m sure Rose will like it too.”

“Say we’re doing this couples thing,” Jerry said.  “Say we do spot Jack walking along University Boulevard.  How do we handle it?”

“Okay, say it’s you and Al,” Gus said.  “You’ll both get up from your table.  Shake hands.  The two of you will take off in opposite directions.  Jerry, since you have more undercover experience, you’ll dog Jack.”

“I got a better idea for me,” Al said.  “I read this morning that a two-person surveillance where the guys alternate is less likely to be spotted.  So instead of taking off in the opposite direction, I cross the street and walk parallel, then call you,” indicating Gus, “to join the fun.”

“What do I do with Rose?”

“Say your goodbye’s.  She could head for a local watering hole.  Maybe picks up a prof.”

“Al, you’re just a fountain for spewing great ideas.”

“Well, it’s a thought.  But I’m still not clear.  Why are we following him and how long do we follow him for?”

Gus answered, “Al has a point.  My thinking is that we follow him until he leads us to his current place of residence.  When we know where he lives, we can stake it out and pick up the surveillance until he meets up with the dealer.”

“Although it might be kind of a drawn-out process,” Jimmy said.  “I’m beginning to think my idea of starting with Jack is not so great after all.”

“It could get long-drawn out, like you say.  But it may be the best we have.  Better than if we start by gathering intel on all the street dealers.  And then what, track them all until one meets up with Jack?  We can’t just go up to each one and ask if they have a customer named Jack.  Plus, we call too much attention to ourselves.  Bottom line.  We give the Jimmy approach at least a try.”

The other three nodded their agreement. 

“Let’s recap.  We’ve got two couples, each staked out at different locales.  There’s me and Rose and Jerry and Al.  That leaves you, Jimmy.”

“I could be a rover and wander the avenue.”

“That would work since you resemble a student more than us four.  Then it’s agreed.  We start the surveillance as two couples and a rover.  We engage in casual conversation while keeping an eye out for the target.  I’ll give Rose a shout.  She’s got the day off from Brat’s.”

“You want us to start today?  I thought you said tomorrow morning,” Al protested.

“We’ve got a workable plan and it’s still early afternoon.  The sooner we get started the sooner we find him.”

“Again, what’s the plan after we make him?” Al asked.

“We surveil him until he leads us to his apartment, or until he scores.  If we locate his digs, we can take turns dogging him until he leads us to his dealer.  Get pics of the dealer, and at that point, enlist Rocky.”

”What if he meets up with his connection only once a week?”

“Don’t think so, Al.  I’m sure it’s more often than that.  Tice says he’s a heavy user and is hand-to-mouth cash-wise.  I’d say he’s likely to need a hit, maybe as often as every other day.”

“What if we see him commit a crime, a B and E?  Huh, Gus.”  Al loved to pose hypotheticals.

“We ignore it, but if the cops show up, we keep out of their way.  Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.  Well, are we good?  Have we covered all the bases?”

“Like the generals say,” put in Jerry, “you can have a great battle plan, but it goes out the window as soon as the first shot is fired.”

“I take that as sort of a maybe.  Let’s roll.”

They piled into Jerry’s venerable Nissan Altima, picked up Rose, and headed toward the university.  Down Ajo to I-19 that after a mile merged into I-10.  Then a quick three miles to the Speedway exit and east a long mile that brought them a discreet half-mile from the border of the sprawling University of Arizona campus.  Jerry landed them in a reasonably priced parking garage.

Before they exited the car, Gus pulled out his laptop and brought up Bing maps.  Zeroed in on University Boulevard, an avenue of stores and eating and drinking establishments that cater to the student population.  Gus picked out several of these restaurants and clicked on street view to assess the surveillance potential of each.  The two couples each made their selection.  These were on opposite sides of the avenue and a long block apart.

“Let’s give this a max of two hours, no make that one and a half hours for our initial stint.  Then we meet, let’s see, four-thirty sharp back at the car.  Unless of course, lightning strikes.  Then get on your cell and alert the others.  Better yet, alert Jimmy and he alerts the other couple.”

They split up and hoofed it to their chosen surveilling grounds.  The middle-aged couple, Gus and Rose Engstrom, Rose an Engstrom at least for that afternoon, had zeroed in on a split-level bistro.  A dozen outdoor tables on the upper level, as seen on the Bing map’s street view, offered first-rate surveillance viewing.

They mounted the half-dozen steps and selected the one of four vacant tables that offered the best view of the near and far sidewalks.  They chatted about how much fun they were having on this nostalgic return to their alma mater.  They made it up as they went along, punctuated by short silences for gazing toward the street.  Regarding their surveillance acumen, they performed like naturals, veterans at this game, never allowing their attention to stray from the true object of their attentions.

The two professors, Dr. Winslow and Dr. Hunter, had selected an establishment touting both standard American and Middle Eastern fare, falafel and such.  Its attractive feature was a large outdoor patio in front of the recessed building.  A walkway leading from the public sidewalk to the restaurant building split the patio.  There were maybe twenty tables, ten on a side, scattered evenly throughout.  Al and Jerry took seats at a smaller table about a third of the way back and close to the walkway.  It being late afternoon, classes over, Al ordered a Heineken and Jerry a Stella, both eschewing their preferences for south of the border brews in the interest of professorial authenticity.

Al had come up with an apt topic for professorial discussion that could occupy the time.  After his one year in the NBA, Al had been a high school teacher of English Lit in addition to serving as the school’s basketball coach.  A favorite exercise was introducing his young minds to Shakespeare, via Julius Caesar naturally.  He had become something of a Shakespeare buff in the process.

As for Jerry, his encyclopedic mind also extended to Shakespeare and in some depth.  Al suggested they stage a mock debate around the question of Shakespeare’s authorship.  Did Shakespeare, the country lad with little Latin and less Greek write the immortal plays or could these only have sprung from the extraordinary mind of a gentlemen of noble birth and considerable learning?

Taking the latter position, Al championed Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true author of the plays and sonnets.  He cited de Vere’s reputation as a poet, his classical education, his knowledge of court life, and his extensive travels through France and Italy.  The historical Shakespeare never traveled outside the British Isles.

Jerry countered, maintaining that Shakespeare as in-house playwright for the Globe Theatre had available abundant source material for the plots and characters of his plays.  He cited Holinshed’s Chronicles for the history plays.

Al said that he was simply a front man for the actual playwright, de Vere, who had to remain anonymous.  In those times authors belonging to the aristocracy could not take credit for writing plays for the public, or they’d face the disapproval of their peers.

Jerry cried rubbish.  Fellow playwrights and critics openly acknowledged    the actual man during his lifetime.  These men of the theatre no doubt drank many a tankard of ale together at the Mermaid Tavern to tell stories, swap gossip, and discuss the finer points of their art.  Genius and creative imagination can spring from the most plebian of soils.  Only a culture snob would think otherwise.

While one or the other would mount an argument urging his position while flaying his opponent’s argument, his table mate would gaze somewhat disdainfully toward the street, artfully hiding his intense focus on the flow of pedestrians.

Meanwhile, Jimmy donned a student backpack weighted with some books and a laptop.  He browsed shops, made a few small purchases, and scrutinized the passersby.

The allotted hour and a half passed, but neither pair, nor the team’s rover, caught sight of their prey.  At four-thirty they re-assembled at the parking garage.

Seven-thirty that evening, the five held an after-dinner autopsy of their surveillance experience.  They agreed this surveilling business was great fun despite not snaring their prey.  If Jack ventured onto the avenue, they were confident their present approach would put eyeballs on the target. 

“We’ll give it another two days anyway.  After that we can tweak our methodology.”

“My vote says go with our same two couples, but change the surveillance venues,” Jerry said.  “By the way Al, do you really buy that garbage about the Earl of Oxford being the author of Shakespeare’s plays?”

“What’s this about Shakespeare’s plays?” Jimmy asked.

“Al has this off-the-wall idea that it was another dude, an aristocrat, that was the anonymous author of the plays.”

“Gotcha.  I don’t buy it any more than you do.  I took that side because I figured you wouldn’t have heard of an Earl of Oxford.  I should have realized that you who knows something about everything would also be a Shakespeare buff.”

“You sounded pretty convincing.”

“I studied the authorship controversy in some detail.  But we can pick a different subject for tomorrow.  Just so we keep it professorial.”

Gus asked if Rose was up for another round of playing tourist.  Rose said she’d call in a favor and get Maxine to sub for her.  When Gus offered to fund her a lost day of wages, she said she’d take it out in trade and followed with a grin.

“You’re in for it, Big Guy,” Jerry said.

Ignoring Jerry, Gus said, “Tomorrow we have the whole day, so I’ll bring up Bing maps again, and we can pick our restaurants.”

The two couples made their selections.  Gus and Rose again opted for a restaurant with an outside balcony of which there were several along the avenue.  The students apparently liked the elevation for monitoring activity, hailing friends and being seen.

Al and Jerry chose two ground floor eateries with sidewalk tables for their stations.  Sitting one for an hour and then one hour at a second two blocks way, they decided would call less attention than sitting one for a full two hours.  They agreed on a nine o’clock departure and two-hour watches.

Like the afternoon before, the morning did not yield a sighting.  Gus and Rose had checked Trip Advisor, learning that their establishment served breakfast until eleven.  In fact, was known for its gourmet breakfasts.  They were able to log a full hour and a half over eggs benedict for Rose and huevos rancheros for Gus followed by pastries and more coffee.  They ate leisurely, savoring every bite, with long pauses to take in the passing sidewalk-level scene.

The other pair lingered over coffee and Danish as two profs in Business Administration, which had been Jerry’s major that prepared him for his post-Marine career in human resources.  Jerry led Al into brainstorming with him about a personality inventory he was developing.  After an hour, they paid their bill and walked east toward the campus.  On the way, they arrived at the second establishment and repeated their performance.

Shortly before noon, the five rendezvoused at the car, which was parked in a four-hour zone.  Despite the increased sidewalk traffic of the weekend, Jack had not shown.  They were not as upbeat as the evening before.  After Jerry fed the meter, they walked to a nearby Denny’s for a lunch break.  Gus and Rose pleading diets to the waitress, ordered dinner salads.  The other three ordered two burgers and a chicken sandwich.

“Let’s switch restaurants,” Gus said.  “Rose and I will take the afternoon at that patio where you guys did your Shakespeare bit yesterday afternoon.”

“Ever consider that Jack is a night person,” Al said.

“Where did that come from?” Jerry said.  “We’re still focused on this afternoon.”

“Hey, that’s a possibility,” Jimmy said in Al’s defense.  “If we don’t strike gold this afternoon, let’s plan a night vigil.  Saturday night brings out the animals.  Things could get lively.”

After they departed Denny’s, Gus and Rose headed for the same patio where Al and Jerry had argued Shakespeare’s authorship.  They chose a table a third of the way in and close to the center walkway.  After they were seated Rose said she had a hunch this afternoon would be different.

Rose and Gus ordered Margaritas with salsa and chips. They settled into their role of playing tourists on a nostalgia return to their alma mater.  This time Gus thought to bring his camera, a Canon Rebel T7 Digital. He took a few photos of their surroundings and then laid the camera on the table.

A few minutes after three, Rose spotted Jack entering the courtyard.  She recognized him instantly from Tice’s photo.  He was with another fellow, a skinny sort with a confident air, who steered Jack to a table near the entrance and close to the walkway.

Tourists with camera.  They took pictures of each other and a couple of the courtyard, but not of Jack’s table.  Rose leaned in and in a whisper asked Gus why he wasn’t snapping any in Jack’s direction.

“You’ll see in a minute.  Let’s go but be casual about it.”

Gus is nothing if not bold.  On their way to the patio entrance, the couple stopped at Jack’s table.  Gus held out the camera toward Jack’s tablemate, saying, “Sorry to intrude, but we’d really appreciate if you’d take a picture of the two of us.”

The target hesitated, as if formulating an objection, a plausible reason why he couldn’t accommodate this request.    

Gus noted the hesitation.  Doubled down and assumed acquiescence.  “We’d like the restaurant in the background,” he said while thrusting the camera at Jack’s companion, virtually placing it in his hands.

The ploy worked.  The skinny fellow took the camera.  Gus and Rose stepped back in line with the building.  Gus said to just press the button on the top.  The guy checked its location, pointed and pressed.  Mission accomplished.

“Thanks a million, guys.  The landscape’s changed from forty years ago but being here sure brings back memories.  Have a good one.”

The guy nodded without speaking.  He didn’t seem all that happy about the interruption.

It was a long shot, or maybe not so much a long shot, but Jack’s companion might be the dealer.  In any case, Gus was careful not to smudge the prints left by the reluctant photographer.

After they exited, Gus called Jimmy, who at that moment was a short block away.  Gus spoke, “Target sighted.  Jack is possibly with his dealer.  We’re not in a position to surveil, so tailing Jack falls to you.”

Jimmy entered the courtyard and took a seat close to the restaurant on the opposite side from the pair.  He ordered a latte and took out a five by eight notebook.  He began writing whatever came into his head in order to appear intent on his work and oblivious to his surroundings.  But not completely oblivious.  Looked like Jack and companion had ordered a plate of nachos to share, washed down with a Coke or maybe a Pepsi. 

After a half hour, another fellow, age twenty or so, entered the patio and joined them.  He was about Jimmy’s height, but at least thirty pounds overweight, with a pudgy face and glasses.  From Jimmy’s vantage, he looked anxious, in a hurry.  Jimmy had a side-view of the dude and could see his leg doing a staccato with the ground.  He slid some bills over to Jack’s companion, who in turn nodded to Jack.

Jimmy could hardly believe what he saw next.  Jack pulled a baggie from the side pocket of his cargo shorts and slid it over to the fellow.  Jimmy figured that this third guy was a customer, but what was Jack’s role in the transaction?  Or more to the point, Jack’s relationship with the dealer?  Likely not simply a customer.  Well, well.

The third dude left, and the pair finished off their nachos and soft drinks.  They continued to talk a few minutes, in voices much too low for Jimmy to catch any of it.  Then Jack waved down a passing waitress.  She brought the damages, and Jack’s buddy paid in cash.  After she left, Jack pulled two bills and laid them on the table, presumably a tip, and the pair left.

When they reached the sidewalk, Jimmy got up to follow, leaving a ten to cover the latte plus a generous tip.  He followed the pair at a distance.  They were talking animatedly seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.  Jimmy kept a half block distance.  Several blocks on, the pair turned into a side street.  As Jimmy walked past, he saw Jack walk down some stairs next to an older apartment building.  His companion continued down the street.

Jimmy made a field decision to break off the surveil at this point and not tail the dealer.  Now that the fellow was alone, he likely would be more aware of his surroundings.  The possibility of giving the game away at this juncture was too risky.  He called Gus and said he was returning to the car with some unsettling news about Jack.

On the drive back to Tucson Estates, Jimmy related the two takeaways from his surveil.  He had discovered the location of Jack’s apartment, a statement met with a chorus of good job and way to go.  His expression turned grim as he related his witnessing Jack passing a baggie to a customer right after the alleged customer passed a wad of bills to Lance.  The others were as stunned hearing of Jack’s role in the transaction as Jimmy was when it went down.

After the team returned to the office, Gus said, “It’s time we contact Rocky.”

It had to be handled delicately.  Rocky’s firm had taken assignments for the Phoenix FBI office and had become a trusted and close friend of Gus’ brother.  Client confidentiality demanded that Rocky not learn the identity of their client, at least for the time being.  Tice had made it clear that if his search got to the wrong ears, he and his career could be seriously compromised.

Gus put in the call.  Didn’t use video conferencing, just the office dumb phone.  Being Saturday, the call rang through to Rocky’s home.

“How come you’re bothering me on a weekend?”

“Didn’t realize that.  Seeing as how every day is a weekend for us.”

“Okay guys.  What’s so important it couldn’t wait for office hours.”

“We snared a new client.  Jerry’s fault, and just when I was looking forward to a peaceful May preparing for our Pacific Northwest summer.”

“Must be why you are calling.  The new client I mean.  Am I right?”

“Well yes, and we need your help.  This client has a need for certain private information on a sketchy individual.  We have some prints we’d like you to run.”

“Sure.  Just send them to me.”

“Might be difficult to do.  They’re on my camera.”

“Attach the file and email it to me.”

“No, I mean literally on my camera, on the box.  I handed the mark my camera to take a picture of Rose and me.  He was reluctant, but he complied.  Long story.”

“Okay.  Get it to me somehow.  Tell you what, I’ll take a run down to Tucson tomorrow.  I’ll swing by, lift the stranger’s prints and ask Doug to come into the annex and run them.  I have yours on file for elimination purposes.  Then, I’ll have my guys get the particulars on the dude.”

That was the Rocky that Gus knew.  The founder and CEO of arguably the premier private investigative agency in Arizona, Rocky Maestras was both sponsor and mentor to Engstrom Confidential Investigations.  When Jason Engstrom persuaded Gus to go undercover for him, he also persuaded Gus to take out a PI license to give him legitimacy in case he was outed.

Having a sponsor was an Arizona statute requirement since Gus was a recent transplant from Washington State.  Once Rocky had taken the fledgling enterprise under his wing, he became a valued mentor and resource and eventually a close friend.

“Also, our client has to remain in the shadows.  No sharing any of this with my bro.”

“Not a problem.  Won’t be the first time.”  Rocky emitted a chuckle.

“Not much more we can do at this end until Rocky gets back to us,” Gus said while placing the receiver back in its cradle.

“You sure?” Al said.  “I’m really into this surveillance stuff.  And we still haven’t traced the dealer to his digs.”

“That can come later.  We can take a time out until Rocky gets back to us,” Gus said, looking at the other four.

“How about a Sunday ride up Mount Lemmon?” Jerry suggested.

“Sounds good.  Forecast for tomorrow is in the mid-nineties.”

Jimmy and Al agreed.

The last time they rode up Mount Lemmon, it had been the four guys the previous fall.  Now Rose wanted to be included as well.  No excuses.  Which meant that Jerry would ask Hildy, Al would ask Teresa, and Jimmy would ask Renee, whom he hadn’t even met six months earlier.

Jimmy was one of those increasingly rare souls to have married his high school sweetheart, the one woman he loved and loved wholeheartedly for almost forty years until she was tragically taken from him by a virulent superbug three years earlier.

Almost with her last breath, his beloved wife said he should not be alone.  She exhorted him to move on and find a new companion.  Her life had been blessed, she told him.  For many years, he had made her the happiest woman in the world.  He should find another partner in due course, and make her, well, the second happiest.  She said these words with the gentle humor, even in the face of death, that made her so dear to him.

Despite these selfless words, it had taken Jimmy almost three years to heal to a point where he could daydream a little about another woman without the sharp pang that said he was betraying his dear wife’s memory.

A few months previously, he’d finally felt ready to pursue romance.  The universe heard and two delightful women, Dixie and Renee, popped into his life.  To his astonishment both were open, make that more than open in the case of Dixie, to his overtures.  Over a pitcher of beer at Brat’s, he’d asked the guys for help with his dilemma.

From Al he got the classic Al solution, “Go out with both.  Make them compete.”  To which Jerry had replied, “I don’t think that’s what Jimmy wants to hear.”

“Well, which is it to be?  Naked experience or sweet innocence,” Gus had said.

In the end, sweet innocence personified by winsome Renee, like Jimmy a widow, not the scarlet divorcee, won Jimmy’s heart.

Just after ten that Sunday morning, Rocky came by as promised for the camera.  The four Harley’s left at ten-thirty as the day was heating up.  Instead of going I-10, they passed up the interchange and continued on Ajo Way to Palo Verde which morphed into South Alvernon Way.  North on Alvernon three miles, then a right turn into Grant Road and after another three miles a left onto Tanque Verde Road.  They rode Tanque Verde to the Catalina Highway.  They made the turn left onto this highway and headed northeast toward this imposing backdrop of rugged peaks and steep canyons that tower over the Tucson landscape.

After a few miles of gradual rise, the road began its serious assent from Tucson’s half mile altitude into higher elevations.  It was the ultimate in motorcycle runs.  A winding two-laner with numerous switchbacks.  They felt that sense of oneness with the terrain, their bikes providing an ideal vantage of the changing landscape.  The guys allowed themselves occasional peeks at the desert floor receding below them.  A view on which their sweeties could give their eyes free rein.  Not quite fair, but the Merry Marauders were experienced safety-conscious bikers.     

Saguaro, mesquite and Cholla gave way to stands of oak, juniper, and pinion pine.  As on that previous ride, the normally composed, unflappable Gus was again mesmerized by it all as the roadway ascended into the upper canyons.  For a day, he was back in real trees, pines and oaks, back to a landscape more like his Pacific Northwest.

At 8000 feet, nestled in an enclosed valley east of the Mount Lemmon summit, and well hidden from desert eyes, is the mountain village of Summerhaven.  Its rustic cabins and business establishments that reminded Gus of Snoqualmie Summit in the Cascades bear little resemblance to the adobe architecture of the desert.

The temperature had plunged to a relatively chilly seventy-five degrees.  They pulled their Harley’s into the parking area in front of the Sawmill Run Restaurant.  They climbed the steps into the restaurant, took in the Alpine theme décor, and asked for seating on the outdoor patio.

The wait staff obligingly pulled two tables together.  They mostly ordered burgers and fries, some with cheese, some with cheese plus bacon, several with chipotle flavored mayo.  Hildy ordered a cobb salad.  While waiting for their orders, they engaged in small talk until Al broke in, saying, “Hey Jerry, the girls should get treated to your lecture on sky islands.” 

“Don’t get him started,” Hildy said.

“Sky islands?  Sounds interesting,” Rose said.  Teresa and Renee nodded in agreement.

“Okay, make it short,” Hildy said.

Thus, encouraged, Jerry, the amateur naturalist of the group, began his well-rehearsed introduction.  “Here we are in this refuge of natural air conditioning, high up in the Catalina Mountains where we can experience one of the ecological wonders of the world, the sky islands of Arizona.  Being this near the summit of Mount Lemmon is like taking an instant two-thousand-mile trip north.”

It was too much for Al. “He sounded just like that yesterday when we played professor.”

Thus chastised, Jerry dropped the stilted affect.  “Okay, here’s the basic.  A sky island is an isolated mountain range surrounded by land, typically desert, that is much lower in altitude.  The way I like to think of it, the Rocky Mountains or the Alps are continents, and this Catalina range where we’re sitting is like one of the Hawaiian Islands or Fiji.”

“Or Iceland if you want cool,” Al said.  “That’s how you put it last time.”

“Let him finish,” Teresa said.

“Yeah, listen to your sweetie, Al.  Although I can’t believe you remembered the Iceland reference.  I guess I should be flattered.  Anyway, think of a sky island as a layering of several distinct climates.  Our ride up took us into the sky, from scrub desert to alpine forest, and it was like traveling a thousand, maybe two thousand, miles north.  That’s it in a nutshell.  The guys have heard this before.”

“In excruciating detail.” Al added, the former high school English teacher who loved big words as much as Jerry, and which left Gus scratching his head.

“Well, time to give their ears a rest,” Jerry said.  A good stopping place as their orders had arrived.

“Thank you, Jerry.  That was fascinating,” Rose said.  A sentiment echoed by Teresa and Renee, the two newest members of the tribe.

It was a fine afternoon.  A reminder of why they felt their corner of the world was special.  By four they had returned to their Tucson Estates community, and found that, yes, the temp had topped out at over ninety Fahrenheit by three degrees.  But a dry heat that was more comfortable than, say, the East Coast at eighty.

Monday evening, Gus received the promised call from Rocky.  “I got an ID for you.  The guy’s name is Lance Bennington.  He’s a grad student in the U’s chemistry department.  He’s an army brat.  His dad is Major Stuart Bennington stationed at Gila Bend.

“No actual criminal record.  But this morning I had one of my operatives nose around.  Word is he’s a small-time dealer.  Being a chem major, he makes his own product.  Ecstasy mainly, but also a homegrown version of oxy.  Vets his clients and to date has managed to fly under the law-enforcement radar, or at least avoid arrest.”

Their final task was to write the report for Tice.  A team effort that occupied the following morning.  They composed a straight-forward narrative of their investigation.  Only one issue was debated, the Jack and Lance relationship.  It appeared to be more complicated than client to dealer.  More like partners.  They decided to leave that possibility out of the written report.  But Tice would have to be informed.

Chapter Ten

The guys were in their lair waiting for their client’s arrival.  They were feeling pretty good.  Felt they’d done a workmanlike job with the report, one that covered all the bases, well, except one.  The writing had been a team affair, the five sleuths assembled around the conference table

The others had contributed the raw material, the flow of ideas.  First an outline and then the filling in.  Al, the retired teacher of English and basketball coach at his former small-town high school, had translated the best of their ideas into phrases and sentences and entered these into his laptop.  They had a working draft by twelve-thirty when they broke for lunch.

Al took his laptop home.  After a BLT with Teresa, the two polished the seven-page manuscript until it sparkled.  He printed out copies for the others, while Teresa called the team to get back to the office.  Rehearsal time.  The others were re-assembled by three-thirty for a final read-through.  Not a word, not a comma, got changed.  Al mimed a hat-duff, Teresa gave him a playful punch on the arm, and Gus called Tice to come get his report.  He said he would be there about seven.

Tice arrived a few minutes early, obviously pleased and eager to hear what the fellows had found out.  They ushered their client into the boardroom and seated him at the head of the table.  Offered him a libation, which he declined.  Gus handed him the report, suggested he read it through, after which they would be open for questions.

He sat in that conference room chair, silently reading it, nodding here and there.  The five PIs, Rose there as well, sat quietly at the other end of the table, containing themselves, as he read.  It was not a long report, a mere seven pages.  Would he be pleased with the results?  Would it cover what he wanted?

The first part of the report covered the execution of their plan for locating Jack.  How they had decided on a strategy of surveillance in place and passed it by Tice four evenings previously.  How they refined this strategy and hit upon the ploy of using couples, two professors and a husband and wife on a nostalgic return to their old alma mater, as a way of blending into a student environment.  How they chose their surveillance posts using Bing maps.  How they got lucky, Gus and Rose spotting Jack and a companion entering the patio restaurant where the couple were having a late lunch enjoying an afternoon.

They were too far away to pick up their conversation, but at one point they did hear Jack call him Lance.  Tice chuckled when he read how Gus then acquired the fingerprints of Jack’s table mate, playing out a hunch that this guy might be their target, Jack’s dealer.

The hunch had panned out.  The remainder of the report focused on the dealer.  Tice frowned slightly when the report related how Maestras Investigations was brought into play to develop the profile of Jack’s mystery companion.  At that point, Tice wanted to ask about this firm but thought better of it.  He’d save his concerns for question time.  He resumed his reading.

Tice arrived at the paragraph about Rocky’s shop confirming the fingerprints belonged to a chem grad student who was suspected of manufacturing and dealing in date-rape tablets and opioid narcotics.  Midway in the paragraph, he came to the sentence that held the name of that dealer.

Tice stopped abruptly, rose, almost levitating from his chair.  “Lance Bennington.  Are you fellows positive about the name?”

“Positive, as in absolutely positive,” Jerry said.

“That name mean something to you?” Gus asked.

Tice took a deep breath to compose himself and gather his thoughts.  The name not only started with the letter B, but he recognized it as one of the fifty in the roster of Air Force majors.

“No.  The name sounded familiar is all, but I can’t place it,” Tice said.

He continued reading, his gut in turmoil about the possibility that the dealer’s dad was the corrupt major.  Lance was currently a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Arizona.  No brushes with the law.  At least, none so far.  He’d managed to fly under the radar.

Tice read that Lance dealt strictly with students and persons he could vet.  Small time, a real amateur, but a smart amateur.  Netted just enough profit to buy himself the stuff to go with his image as a cool dude.  Not overly greedy, but his ride was one boss car.  He apparently didn’t date much.  That conclusion came from his credit card use.  No big tabs for clubs or high-priced restaurants or female gifts.

Then Tice came to the passage that said Lance was the son of an Air Force Major out of Tucson AFB, currently stationed at Gila Bend.  Confirmed.  Lance Bennington’s dad had to be the corrupt Major.  But by this time Tice had control of his churning gut.  He finished the report, turned over the final page, laid it on the others, and looked up.

“Any questions,” Gus asked.

Yes, he had questions.  “Tell me more about this PI firm you used to confirm the dealer’s identity and get all this information on him.”

Jerry answered, “When Gus took out his PI license and established his own agency, he had to affiliate with an established agency.  Arizona requires it for an out of state guy.  Gus’ brother hooked him up with Maestras Investigations.”

“You mean the FBI brother, Jason Engstrom.”

“Well yes, but don’t worry, we didn’t give away any details about the case or about our client.”

“Didn’t think you would.”

“Even if Rocky did know the details, which he doesn’t, he’d keep it confidential.”

“Rocky?”

“Rocky Maestras, the principle.  He’s our mentor.  Actually, Engstrom Investigations is an affiliate of his firm.”

It came to him, the connection.  Tice knew the name and reputation of Maestras, Confidential Investigations.  Knew it as arguably the best PI firm in Arizona.  He had considered an inquiry.  But it was based in Phoenix and he wanted local talent.  Now apparently, he’d hired the firm by proxy after all.

Jerry saw the slight frown.  Mistook it for further concern about confidentiality.  “We absolutely did not mention your son Jack to him.  But I can tell you, once Rocky has a name his operatives can unearth a mountain of background.  Not simply the basic stuff like Soc, credit rating, school records, places the subject has lived.  His operatives can unearth the deep stuff, like the bio in our report, using sources that local law enforcement can only dream about.”

Now that Tice had the information that he’d hired these guys to uncover, plus the unexpected bombshell, it was time to shake hands and leave.  Try to get some decent sleep and now that he had a name, complete the investigation into the corrupt officer.

“Well done, fellows.  I certainly can’t quarrel with this work product.”

“Speaking for the others, we really got into this assignment and are pleased that you approve our work,” Gus said.  However, before you leave, there’s something else we should mention about your son.  It wasn’t in the report.  After Rose and I left with the camera, I buzzed Jimmy’s cell and told our designated rover to make tracks for the restaurant and pick up the surveil of our target.  Jimmy, tell our client what you observed.”

“This is not easy to relate.  Call it a loose end for now.  Shortly after I sat down, a third party entered the patio.  He turned out to be an actual customer.  This guy slipped Lance some cash and, in turn, Jack slipped him a baggie that he lifted from a side pocket on his cargo shorts.”

“It’s not conclusive,” Gus said, “but that little scenario could be interpreted that Jack might be more than a customer, that he might be working for or with Lance.”

Tice looked like a man devasted, on the verge of emotional collapse.  He looked down and muttered, “Not that.  Son, not that,” while shaking his head slowly.  But there it was, the evidence that his son was more than just a user but could be in partnership with his dealer.  It tore him up.

“Like Gus said, not in itself conclusive, but we thought you should know.”

Regaining his composure, Tice said, “I appreciate that you didn’t put what you saw in the report.” 

“Yeah, we figured you wouldn’t want a paper trail that suggests your son is more than an addict,” Jerry said.

“This was not a happy moment for me, believe it,” Jimmy said.

The two current threads of his life, his professional and his private life, had suddenly smacked into each other.  The man he was pursuing, a scumbag in the pay of the cartels, had a son with a small-time drug enterprise, and possibly in partnership with his own son.

Tice managed to say, “You’ve certainly earned your fee and more, although the more was not exactly welcome news.  But that’s not on you.”

“Yeah, not great news for you, but now at least you’ll know what you are dealing with,” Jerry said.

“If we can help out in the future just let us know,” Gus added.

“Sounds like you think that with the report you are finished working this case.”

“I guess that’s what we figured and that you’d take it from here.”

“Bear with me, Gus.  I might have some follow-up work for your team.  Let me digest this report—its implications—and I’ll get back to you.  We can talk about what comes next.”

On the drive back to his house, Tice reflected on the Bennington father and son connection and speculated on the Jack and Lance connection.  Tice wasn’t a drinker because if he was, he’d probably be going on a bender over the can of worms the PIs discoveries had opened.

In the morning, he would put Sybil and Jane to work developing a profile of Stuart Bennington.  He would put his team on surveillance duty.  Not if but when he got the scum in custody, he would do an interview Tice style.  Scare the piss out of him without appearing to do so.  Get him to open up about his relationship with the Penasco Cartel.  Hopefully get at why the Penasco Cartel had sent a high-level player north for a meet.

Probably not right off and it might require a second interrogation but find out what this scoundrel knew about both his own son Lance and about Jack.  But pursuing this second line, Tice had to be careful.  How would Tice know about Lance?  And how much did the dad know about his own son?  Tice would have to handle this objective without giving away how these background facts had been uncovered.

Chapter Eleven

Tice sat alone in his private office and looked out at the empty desks of his six junior agents.  It was not yet eight o’clock of the morning after he had received the PIs unsettling report.  Worse, an oral addendum to that report that suggested his son Jack was complicit in this dealer’s narcotics operation beyond being simply a repeat customer.

That night, sleep had eluded a busy and conflicted mind obsessing on the addendum.  As a loving father he was deeply worried about his son.  As an agent of law enforcement in a leadership position, he was torn between his obligations as a father and the dictates of the law.  Unable to resolve that conundrum, he’d finally drifted into a coma-like sleep.  On waking, he gulped an extra cup of coffee and steeled himself to function on a day that called for decisive action.

At ten after eight, he entered the warren of his junior agents.  “Listen up.  For your next assignment, I’m sending you into the field to conduct a surveillance of an Air Force Major, one Stuart Bennington, who is stationed at the Gila Bend wing of Tucson Air Force Base.”

Without going into details, he said the major was suspected of colluding with a Sonora drug cartel.  Said it was a solid lead.  He paired off his six agents into three two-agent teams.  For the next three days they were tasked with around the clock two-agent per shift surveils on Bennington.

“Go pick up your gear and head for Gila Bend.  Dismissed.”  These orders were music to his agents’ ears.

After they left, he called Gus Engstrom.  “I have a follow-up assignment for the team.  I want you to search out the exact nature of the relationship between my son and Lance Bennington.  Jack’s actual involvement with Lance.  Maybe your guy Jimmy spied a one-off, a customer doing a small favor for his dealer, or maybe there’s more.”

“You got it,” Gus said.

He next called Sybil Craig.  Tice informed her where the investigation now stood.  She said she’d get right on it.  Nothing got Sybil’s juices flowing like getting the goods on high-level scoundrels.  She went to work tracking down info on a Major Stuart Bennington and his possible relationship with the Penasco Cartel.

Later that morning, she got back to him with a thumbnail sketch of the cartel.  The Penascos were dismissed by larger and more well-known competitors as a mere cartelito.  Not one of the big players in the drug scene.  But the Penascos were a cartel on the rise with a growing reputation for aggressive and ruthless methods.  She was still working on a Bennington connection.

If as anticipated the surveillance produced the basis for an arrest, Tice was determined to pull from Bennington everything he knew about the Penascos and how they operated.  In the war against the drug and human trafficking that infested the southern border, creditable and timely intelligence was an invaluable weapon.

By nine-thirty, his agents were on the road in a government issue Chevy Suburban.  Two hours and one hundred twenty miles later, they were checked into a decent Gila Bend motel that had a military contract.

The first pair up wasted no time.  They checked out the F-150 surveillance vehicle that Tice had waiting for them, chosen to further their personas as two hang-loose good ol’ boys in western casual dress.  They drove to the base and parked in a concealed position from which to monitor the building that housed Bennington’s office.

Just in time.  Five minutes later they spied Bennington exiting the building and watched as he climbed into a Ford Explorer with government plates.  They tailed his vehicle to a local restaurant.  The two agents parked and followed him in.  Several minutes later Bennington was joined by a man wearing an enlisted man’s uniform.  When he entered, Bennington had called out hey Smith, over here, while motioning with his hand.

About midway during their meal, they got into a heated argument.  Smith clenched and unclenched his right fist.  Bennington periodically accentuated his words with jabs of his index finger.  They were decidedly unhappy about something.

Finishing their lunch, Bennington and the enlisted man each threw down some bills and left without waiting for the check.  Apparently, they were regulars.

Not wanting to lose their prey, the two agents had already called for their check.  Seeing Bennington and his companion leaving, the agents threw down a twenty percent tip each and rose to follow.

Foster followed outside while Taggart put down a twenty and a five and told the cashier to put the change in a countertop box for a local charity.  He exited to the sidewalk and saw that Foster was dogging Bennington, who was walking by himself down Pima Street, Gila Bend’s main drag.  Taggart surveyed the area and spotted Smith a third of the way down the restaurant’s parking lot.

He sauntered through the lot catching Smith as he was climbing into a late model Corvette.  Taggart turned his head to peg the license just as Smith glanced back.

“Sharp ride,” Taggart said as they exchanged thumbs-up.

Before Taggart reached the far end of the lot, he heard a squeal of tires as Smith peeled from the lot.  He got a second look at an easy to remember vanity plate.  Taggart pulled his cell and called Tice.

“Heads up,” he said.  “Our target has a buddy named Smith, enlisted.  The two of them got into a heated argument over lunch.  Drives a Corvette with a plate that reads BITEME.”

Message delivered. Taggart rang off.  He crossed to the opposite side of Pima Street and hustled to catch up and continue the surveillance.

That evening, Tice called Sybil with two further assignments.  The first was using her contacts to retrieve the call log for Bennington’s office phone.  He wanted her to trace the numbers and locate the physical address of those calls.  The second was to dig up a profile of an enlisted man.  “The name is Smith,” he said.

“Likely a lot of Smith’s,” she responded.

“See if you can find a Smith who owns a Corvette with an Arizona vanity plate reading BITEME.  Can you believe this guy!  Check for a connection to Bennington.”

The following morning, Sybil called back.  “First off, Bennington’s office log did not contain any suspicious incoming calls, but it did show the phone number of two calls made by Bennington to a possible cartel safe house.”

As later learned, these were the desperation calls made by Bennington when the cartel phone contact didn’t materialize.  Using his office phone because he’d left his cell back at his house proved to be a major slip.

“Second, I’ve got interesting news for you on Smith, first name Dick.  He and Bennington went to the same high school.  In fact, they were football teammates.”

Tice looked up Dick Smith’s rank and posting.  Technical Sergeant: Radar repairman.  So, he is a field guy.  Services installations in and around the Barry Goldwater Range.  That got Tice’s own radar blinking.  It made sense, the brains of the scheme would need a second player, an accomplice on the ground.  As soon as he had Bennington in the oven, he’d have Smith detained for some serious questioning.  In the meantime, he’d keep the lowdown on Smith to himself.

That second morning, Tice’s agents caught Bennington leaving his residence at seven-forty.  Bennington checked in at his office and then went roaming, out talking to people.  Some of these conversations apparently had to do with briefings from men under his command as deputy officer in charge of the Gila Bend wing.

These contacts were legitimate and explainable.  But he was also observed talking to border patrol and ICE agents in and around Ajo.  Possibly these were simply idle chatter, but more likely he was digging for info useful to the cartel.

On that second day, Tice had these agents queried about their encounters with Bennington.  He wanted to know why they would talk to this guy, answer his offhanded questions about their operations and dish a little gossip.  “Hey, the guy is a Major.  Seems to be interested in what we’re doing and keeping on top of things.”

This got Tice to thinking: The major is vacuuming up intel.  Wonder how and when he disposes of the dirt.  He gave his team instructions to be watchful for how this exchange was carried out.

On the third and final surveillance day, his team observed Bennington passing what looked like a cassette tape to a short stocky fellow, obviously Hispanic.  Turned out Bennington didn’t rely on fancy electronic transmission, unless you called a mini-cassette tape electronic.  Tice found that interesting, a cassette tape was not something you could intercept over the airwaves.

The team would have been interested but not surprised to learn the tape’s fate.  The cassette made its way south and was picked up by the cartel’s communications guy, Ricardo Garcia’s replacement, in under six hours.  No matter, the surveil team had created a nice movie of the handoff, almost Hollywood grade.

In the meantime, Angel Jimenez continued to receive and acknowledge messaging from Bennington as if nothing were wrong.  As if there wasn’t a trio of killers headed toward Gila Bend to take out Bennington’s buddy Smith.

It had been a productive three days.  Tice was now ready to prepare and submit a probable cause affidavit pursuant to a search warrant for Bennington’s residence and vehicle.  He wanted the search warrant in hand before detaining Bennington so he could use anything found in the search during his initial interrogation of Bennington.  Before calling it a day, he contacted AUSA Stephen Jacobs at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson to set a meet.

Time being of the essence, the following morning Tice worked hand in glove with Jacobs fine tuning the affidavit.  They wrote it to cover Bennington’s checking account, the one that received his military paychecks.  Later that morning, they presented it to Federal Magistrate Dean Alder.  After about an hour of discussion the Magistrate signed the warrant. 

That accomplished, Tice’s next call was to Jane Valens, a call she had been expecting.  She was eager to play her part in bringing this scumbag to justice.  The judge has signed the subpoena granting access to his bank accounts, he told her.  Now go find something we can use.

Next, he checked out a Chevy Blazer from the motor pool and drove to Gila Bend.  Met up with his team and expressed his congratulations for a job well done.  Told them that now they would begin planning the main event, the detention of the bent Major.  Tice laid out some parameters.  He stressed that the detention be as covert as possible, no witnesses so as not to burn Bennington and compromise his possible use as a double agent or informer downline.  Also, the search of his residence would be conducted as quietly as possible.  No official vehicles parked in front or team of agents pounding the front door.

For the next several hours into the early evening his agents brainstormed and hammered out a workable plan.  No plan is ever foolproof, but they built in a couple of fallback maneuvers in case the twin priorities of secrecy and surprise were in danger of being compromised.

Their work session was interrupted by a call from Agent Valens.  Jane had turned up some interesting background on Bennington that meshed with details about his finances.

“Our subject had a messy divorce some years ago.  His checking account shows that he is still paying through the nose for alimony and child support.”

“I also researched his background and read that his parents were politically connected Wichita Kansas upper crust.  Probably the reason he got that appointment to the Academy.”

“So why was there no sizable inheritance to fall back on?” Tice asked.

“His parents lost most of their retirement nest egg in the two-thousand eight recession, which wasn’t all that large due to a lavish lifestyle.  Then they died in a car crash before the market came back.  The house was under-water, so our Major didn’t benefit from that either.  His inheritance was under six figures, and he managed to spend that trying to give his spouse the lifestyle she apparently thought she deserved.  When he ran through that, she divorced him anyway.”

“Seems our guy is the poster-boy for poor choices compounded by bad luck,”  Tice said.

“Despite all that,” Valens continued, “his checking account no longer reflects an impoverished ex-husband.  It shows periodic cash infusions of two to four thousand dollars each month, in addition to his direct deposit military paychecks.”

“Good work, Jane.”

“My hunch is our Bennington is receiving cash payments under the table for whatever clandestine services he is providing, which he then deposits.  If you are correct, these payments originate with the Penasco Cartel.”

The following morning the takedown team of Taggart and Foster picked up Bennington’s trail at his house.  Hovering in the vicinity was a Suburban with four agents, a back-up team that would shadow the primary pursuers in the F-150.  The takedown team would continue their surveillance, all day if necessary, until the right opportunity presented itself.  They would want Bennington on foot, perhaps at a stop-off at a convenience or grocery store.

That morning, no opportunity presented itself.  Bennington drove straight from his house to the base.  They were not about to execute a covert arrest in the base parking lot.  For reasons unknown, this was not a morning for roving.  He emerged at noon and drove straight to the same restaurant where he’d met up with Smith on that first day.  The team parked down the block.  They did not enter the restaurant but did a quick walk-by and saw that he was dining alone.

After his lunch, Bennington drove straight back to the base and parked in his reserved spot.  He eased his bulk from the Ford Explorer.  He looked around briefly as he entered the administration building but otherwise appeared unaware that OSI agents were on his tail.

The truck stayed parked until Bennington re-appeared at ten minutes before two.  “Could be he’s headed for some law-enforcement hangout for another session of gossip-mongering,” Taggart offered.  When Bennington’s auto pulled out, the OSI agents traded their static surveil for a loose surveil of the moving vehicle.  They put themselves on the lookout for that inconspicuous detainment.   

On his drive through town, Bennington stopped at a Circle K convenience store.  The two agents smelled opportunity.  Always concerned about cartel counter surveillance, the team needed to make their move in a way that wouldn’t spook the civilian community.

Foster pulled to the curb a quarter block from the store.  Taggart did an environment assessment and saw few civilians and no military personnel in the immediate vicinity, likely because it was mid-afternoon and well prior to rush hour.  Taggart radioed Tice, who was waiting at his Gila Bend motel.  Tice radioed back his okay, told them to instruct the back-up Suburban to assume position, and wished them luck.  He hurried out to the Blazer and made ready to join the party.

For the take-down, Taggart and Foster had changed their dress to military uniforms.  Tice reasoned that it would not look out of place for a military member in uniform to walk up to another military member in uniform and have a conversation.  To preserve that image, Tice had ordered no cuffs unless the subject attempted to escape.

The team waited as Bennington came out from the store carrying a cup of coffee and a small bag.  Agent Fowler alighted from the driver’s side and quickly approached the store.  After saluting the Major, he produced his badge and credentials stating he was an AFOSI Special Agent.

The team was under instructions not to let Bennington back in his car where he might have access to a weapon or an opportunity to destroy evidence.  By this time the Suburban had rolled up, effectively covering Fowler with four other agents.  By now, Bennington’s eyes were darting back and forth between Fowler and the Suburban.

Fowler lowered and hardened his voice.  He told Bennington to focus and pay attention.  “You need to remain calm and follow my instructions.  We have a search warrant for your car and your house.  Please hand over the keys to your automobile.”  He said it as a command, not a request.  Bennington ignored his words and stared back at him.

Fowler needed to get Bennington and the vehicle quietly out of the area.  A Chevy Blazer drove up beside Bennington.  Tice exited from the driver’s side in time to hear Foster asking for the keys followed by Bennington’s stony non-compliance.  Tice took charge and quickly patted Bennington down.  He felt a set of keys in Bennington’s left front pocket

“The keys to the Explorer.  Now!” Tice said.

Bennington reached into his pocket and handed over the keys to Tice, who handed them over to Fowler with instructions to drive Bennington’s vehicle to the sheriff’s impound lot.  Tice deposited Bennington in the back seat of the Blazer, directed Taggart to take the front passenger seat, and the trio drove away. 

Tice had arranged to use the sheriff’s Gila Bend substation.  In under ten minutes Bennington was deposited into a secure interrogation room.  Tice gave it another ten minutes before entering the room.  He looked his subject over with a proprietary air before handing Bennington a copy of the search warrant.  The warrant described Bennington’s residence as a modest three-bedroom, two-bath single family stucco residence with a two-car garage.

After Bennington had examined the document, Tice asked him for the key to his residence.  Bennington muttered something and showed no sign of complying.

“Would you rather us kick down your door?  I can also hint to my team not to be terribly careful with your furnishings.”

Bennington fished into his right front pants pocket and tossed his house key toward Taggart, who deftly caught it, depriving Bennington of the small pleasure of watching Taggart fish for it.  Tice narrowed his eyes to hide his relief that Bennington had at least complied.  He really didn’t want his agents kicking in the door and possibly alerting the wrong parties.  He told Taggart to go execute the search warrant.

The investigation leading to Bennington’s arrest had been a by-the-book exercise with a good outcome.  The investigation had also produced the name of a likely co-conspirator just as Tice had suspected.  

Chapter Twelve

Tice held off beginning his formal interrogation of Bennington until he had received at least preliminary feedback from the agents who were conducting the search of Bennington’s house.  About an hour after Bennington had been installed in the interview room, Tice received the call from Agent Taggart.  The team had already found a stash of cash, some gold coins, a fake passport, and several months of recent bank statements inside the house.

A search of Bennington’s government issue Ford Explorer had turned up a burner phone.  The call record contained a couple of Mexican phone numbers including the Ajo number of a suspected cartel safe house.  It was the same number found on Bennington’s office phone.  Calling a safe house from his office was a careless move, suggesting to Tice that Bennington was stressed-out about something involving his cartel employer.

Tice was now ready to interrogate Bennington.  Although by now late afternoon, he decided to strike while the proverbial iron was hot and not wait for the morning, thereby giving their corrupt major added time to fabricate a plausible defense.  Tice would be working his subject like a skilled surgeon, peeling away the layers of flesh to expose the malignancy hidden beneath.

The interrogation room was a twelve-foot square with a small desk and four chairs bolted to the floor.  Tice’s chair was situated directly in front of Bennington.  A second chair was positioned to the left of the principal’s chair, as military protocol dictates a second person be present, especially when the person to be interrogated is of officer rank.

A four-by-four one-way mirror equipped with an intercom system was situated on the wall behind Tice’s seat.  Several other agents representing agencies involved in border security were stationed behind this one-way mirror from where they could monitor the show.

Tice entered the interrogation room carrying multiple accordion folders with visible outside labels that had Bennington’s name written in bold.  Behind him, a deputy wheeled in a cart loaded with cases of DVD’s and blown up 8X10 photographs.  Tice was weaving the illusion of possessing an abundance of incriminating information against Bennington, the work product of a prolonged and exhaustive investigation.

After the deputy left, Special Agent Lisa Johnson entered and at Tice’s signal took her seat while Tice for the moment remained standing.  Agent Johnson was a mid-twenties five-three package of striking womanhood.  Per Tice’s urging she had traded her Air Force uniform for a stylish skirt and blouse of conservative cut, but one that revealed a tantalizing hint of well-defined cleavage.  With an otherwise slim, athletic body and Hollywood-grade face, she could pass for Jennifer Lawrence’s twin sister.

Ostensibly, her function was as a note-taker of the suspect’s reactions, mannerisms, and tells, behaviors that could not be captured by the audio tape of the interrogation.  Tice was also counting on her to be a source of distraction to aid in keeping the Major mentally off-balance.

There never was a question from the top brass, the decision makers that had appointed Tice to lead the investigation, that he was the man to conduct the initial interrogation of the subject his team had flushed out.  His reputation as perhaps the most skilled interrogator in the Region was built on hundreds of successful interrogations and legal rock-solid confessions.

Much of that reputation had been built on his practiced and skillful use of the Reid Technique, a nine-step approach to questioning suspects.  Developed in the 1950s by John E. Reid, a former Chicago police officer, it represents the opposite of the rubber hose approach.  Its strength is in developing a collaborative relationship with the suspect while retaining overall control of the interrogation.  The technique moves the interrogation from initial denial toward incremental admissions of involvement in the crime.  Ideally, it leads the suspect to a full confession of his crime, but even if that objective falls short, the technique can yield useful information.

Tice advised Bennington of his rights, reading from Article 31 of the Universal Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  He also advised Bennington that this interview was being recorded.  Bennington thought for a minute, gazed at the plethora of what he believed was documentary evidence against him, and decided for the present to waive his rights to a lawyer, wanting to see what Tice had to say.

As a seasoned officer, Bennington was not about to give up information, but he wanted to know what the government had against him.  Bennington suspected that the OSI agent seated across from him had served as an enlisted man and was civilian military despite his impressive title.  As a field grade officer, Bennington thought he could get the upper hand and intimidate this lower grade military figure, a civilian at that, during the interview.

For his part, Tice moved directly to the first step.  He advised Bennington that this was no fishing expedition, but that he was sitting here because of solid evidence that he had been collaborating with a drug cartel, specifically the Penasco Cartel based in Sonora.

“You have been providing their soldiers with intel that facilitates moving their contraband through southern Arizona.  At this time, would you like to explain your reasons for entering into this arrangement?”

Bennington glared at Tice in defiance.

“I take your silence as not wanting to respond at this time.  But perhaps you are trying to protect others, or that you are in fear of this cartel.  At some point, you might want to mention these in order to help your case.”

“What case?  I’ve never heard of this Penasco Cartel.”

“Okay.  Let’s move on to some basics about your background,” Tice said, wanting to avoid further denials from Bennington in keeping with the dictates of the Reid Technique.

These were non-threatening questions that gave Bennington a chance to brag about himself.  It was also a way for Tice to project sincerity in keeping with Reid’s fifth tenet.  How long had Bennington been in the Air Force?  Where had he been stationed?  What were his duties, his commands?  Tice avoided questions about his family life and children, knowing these were sensitive areas going to motive that asked prematurely would serve no purpose. 

After a few of these background questions, Bennington interrupted to ask Tice where he had been to college.  It was a bald-face attempt to find leverage for intimidation to shift the locus of control.  Tice, the seasoned agent, ignored the interruption.

Without missing a beat, Tice picked up a deck of ordinary playing cards from the cart, his creative addition to the Reid Technique, which in any case he viewed as a guide, not a directive.  Among a select group of fellow interrogators, he had earned the nickname, 52 card master.

Having completed his run of break-the-ice questions, Tice thumbed through the deck, saying, “I like to work with a deck of 52 cards, a complete deck including all sixteen face cards, all Aces, Kings, Queens and Jacks.  To know that you are being truthful to me in this interview, along with my questions, I will throw out a couple of cards, maybe an Ace, a King or maybe a two or a three.  Know that I possess the whole deck.  Know that in throwing out only a few cards at a time, be assured that I already know everything.”  Tice was proving better at the intimidation game than Bennington.

Tice then threw down the Jack of Spades and cordially asked Bennington how his son was doing.  When Bennington sat stone-faced, Tice answered for him, saying, “Your son Lance sends his regards and says to tell you he’s doing well.”  Tice watched for Bennington’s reaction and after a moment, added, “Make that doing very well.”

Bennington still did not reply, but Tice caught a brief look of alarm.  He waited a beat of ten seconds, a long ten seconds during which he looked into Bennington’s eyes while Bennington grew increasingly pale.  Tice then went straight into his next line of questioning.  “But enough about your son.  As I stated at the onset, I am more interested in the specifics of your relationship with the Penasco cartel.”

“Like I said, never heard of them,” Bennington responded quickly, too quickly.

“I can’t understand why you’d say that, since you serve in an Air Force detachment that oversees drug interdiction and liaisons with Homeland Security.  They may be a small player in the overall cartel universe, but you would at least be aware of their existence.  Are you still maintaining you’ve never heard of this Penasco Cartel?”

But the reference to Lance had its desired effect of putting Bennington off balance.  Apparently wanting to appear composed and in control, he ventured a reply, intending to qualify his previous denial.  “Well, let me just correct the record.  Okay, I’ve heard of them, that they exist and that they’re in a power struggle with the Sinaloa’s.  What I meant was, I have no personal knowledge of them.  I wouldn’t know a Penasco soldier if I passed him on the street.”

Now Tice had an opening he could pursue.  “I find that last puzzling, Major Bennington.”

Tice continued this line while simultaneously throwing out two more cards from the deck.  “The reason you’re sitting in this interview room and not at your desk is our records of extensive communication over quite a few months between you and known cartel members.  For example, recent calls to a house in Ajo and other communications with various persons employed by this cartel.  Can you tell me the purpose of these communications?”  As Tice said this, he patted the stack of manila folders on the table.

Bennington ignored this latest question and threw out a typical guilty suspect’s denial.  “Someone must have been using my email.  Forging my identity.”

“So, you acknowledge that these communications could have come from your office, your private line.  Who do you suppose this person is?”

The Major now appeared increasingly uncomfortable.  No doubt cursing himself over that last statement.  “Well I can’t help you there,” he sputtered.

Major Bennington here’s another card on the table.  Turning to your financials, if it’s not you, you sure have a generous benefactor.  He or she uses your email, maybe other equipment, then allows you to keep the money that the cartel deposits into your bank account.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I assume that’s what’s happening based on a series of monthly cash deposits to your checking account.”

“What payments?”

“The monthly two grand or so deposits.”

Bennington thought to himself.  Shit.  How did they get ahold of my checking account?  How do I explain those cash deposits?  He finally decided to stonewall.

Tice saw Bennington drop his eye contact, cross his arms in a defensive posture, while tapping his feet on the ground.  Throughout, Tice had maintained steady eye contact with Bennington, aware that the key to the inner man is through the eyes and nonverbal communication.  A deceptive person will drop his eye contact when confronted with an incriminating question or statement.

“I’m not making this up.  Here’s another card, Major Bennington,” he said, throwing down the King of Diamonds.  “AFOSI has been recording your movements for some time since you were identified as a person of interest.  The other day you got in a heated argument with an enlisted man.”  Tice chose not to use Smith’s name.  “What was that about?”

Bennington again adopted a pose of stony silence.  Tice waited.  After a beat of fifteen seconds, Bennington uttered under his breath, “This is all bullshit.”

Hearing this expletive, Tice pounded the table with his fist, glared at Bennington and declared, “Major Bennington, there is no excuse for your continuing lies and deceptions.  At the Air Force Academy, you were trained to be an Officer and a Gentleman.  You are expected to know right from wrong.  Your collaboration with this vicious cartel exposes you as a traitor to these principles and a turncoat to your fellow officers.”

Bennington sank back in his chair, stunned.  He had not anticipated such a forceful indictment by a person of inferior rank.

Keeping a steady eye on his subject, Tice modulated his voice and continued.  “Let’s move on.  Can you tell me about your numerous conversations with military and law enforcement personnel not under your direct command?  Incidentally, we also have video of you passing information to a cartel associate.”  Tice threw down an eight and a three of clubs.

“Nothing earth shaking, though.”  This last was a guess, based on a hunch about the heated lunch exchange with Smith, maybe upset over Smith’s poverty of useful information.  “The cartel must not be happy when you don’t come through with quality stuff.”

The momentary shock on Bennington’s face told Tice he’d hit pay-dirt.  By sleights such as the card schtick and by gestures such as casually patting the stack of marked folders or DVD’s, or by an occasional mention of something his agents had observed during their three-day surveillance, Tice had now convinced Bennington that his team had been surveilling him for months and knew all his secrets.

At that point, Bennington looked like he was about to cave, but managed to pull himself together.  Although Bennington wanted to know everything AFOSI had against him, he was on the edge of asking for an attorney.  He was weighing his human desire to know what he was up against versus terminating the interview.

Tice realized this and moved to the seventh step in the Reid technique, posing two alternative interpretations of Bennington’s transgression, one more socially acceptable than the other.  The purpose was to provide a subject with an out, a way of thinking better about his actions and himself, a way of making his criminal activity not look so bad.

Tice reminded Bennington that he was working with a full deck of 52 cards.  “You and I both know,” Tice said, “that you have a relationship with the cartels.  I also feel that you are not a greedy man.  In fact, you were forced into a relationship with the cartels by your greedy ex-wife.  Problem is, once in, you discover you can’t just get out.”

Despite Tice dangling this less damaging way of viewing his offences, Bennington didn’t cave.  He was not about to admit a relationship with the Penasco Cartel.  But Tice could see that he’d started to crack.

He had one more card to play.  Throwing down the Ace of Spades, he said, “Tell me the purpose of the meeting you have, well had, scheduled with a ranking member of the Penasco Cartel.”

Bennington blanched.  His pasty complexion went even more pale.  “What meeting,” he stuttered.

“The meeting with Pedro Jimenez.”

Tice went silent, waiting for an answer.  None was forthcoming.  This now very frightened man had been pushed too far.  The interrogation abruptly ended when Bennington, citing Article 31, demanded access to counsel.  He’d had enough of Tice.  Bennington wanted the Area Defense Counsel providing a buffer at any future interrogations.

If the charge facing the Major had been of the minor felony variety, Tice was confident that he’d now be spilling his gut.  But a possible charge of treason?  Tice knew that was a stretch.  There hadn’t been a confession on this go-round, but the scumbag had been softened up for a follow-up interrogation.

For his part, Bennington would be desperately searching for some way to mitigate the charges he might be facing before he’d admit to anything further.  Maybe give up Smith and shift the blame.

Tice had parting words.  “Bennington, your butt belongs to me and you know it.”

Chapter Thirteen

Tice left the interrogation room emotionally drained from going toe-to-toe with this arrogant scumbag.  He accepted the hearty good jobs from his fellow agents, given despite his failure to secure an outright confession.  He excused himself, left the station and climbed back into the Blazer.  He gave himself a few minutes to decompress and recharge before heading back to the Gila Bend base.  Despite his usual post-interrogation letdown, Tice had another piece of unfinished business before he could consider returning to Tucson.

He requested an empty office with a secure computer.  No problem, the duty officer had orders to extend him every courtesy.  He fired up the computer, put in the necessary access codes, and brought up Richard Smith’s Air Force file for a closer look.  Reviewed what he already knew—that he was stationed at Gila Bend like Stuart Bennington and that he was AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) 2E67S.  Serviced communication cable and Antenna systems.   

There was one Article 15 for a DUI.  The name is familiar, thought Tice.  Smith had run into trouble over that DUI.  Tice’s AFOSI guys had been the agents that caught him.

Maybe not a good posting for a soldier with a spotty record, given the security problems and sensitive military hardware at the Barry Goldwater range.  Well, he hadn’t learned his lesson to keep his nose out of trouble.  From booze to traitor.

Tice dug further and learned that Smith’s specialty was servicing ground sensors.  Tice saw it as a technical skill that aligned well with cartel business.  He could provide valuable instructions to cartel mules weaving their way through the southern Arizona desert. 

He checked further.  Smith could also put these sensors out of service for temporary periods.  Not exactly in his job description related to servicing the sensors.  On a hunch, Tice queried whether records were kept on the status of sensors in the desert south of Ajo.  What he learned corroborated Smith as working with the cartel.

It was time to bring Smith in for some serious questioning.  See if he could squeeze out a useful morsel or two for his next go-around with Bennington.  No need for an arrest warrant for Smith at this point.  Just bring him in for a friendly chat.  By virtue of Smith being military, Tice had the authority to snatch him up for questioning because his body belonged to Uncle Sam.

Tice wanted no slip-ups in executing the detainment.  Mindful of the adage about wanting something done right, he was determined to carry out the snatch in person.  And do it before any rumors about Bennington got to Smith’s ears.  Fortunately, the arrest of Major Bennington had been kept under wraps and Bennington’s phones had been confiscated.  Because his was a national security case, he’d also been denied his one phone call, which could well have been used to alert Smith rather than to contact legal counsel. 

Tice called Agent Foster who’d done a workmanlike job in the arrest of Bennington.  The kid was impressive, and Tice was glad he’d had him in Gila Bend for the Bennington take-down.

“Any chance you staying over another night?  Permission to say no if you have Saturday plans, but I’d like you along tomorrow when I detain Bennington’s buddy Dick Smith for questioning about his relationship with the Major.”

“No problem.  What time tomorrow?”

“I’ll pick you up at nine in the Blazer.  We can head for his place of work, the maintenance shop at the Bombing Range.  Maybe catch him there if he has weekend duty.  Read him his Article 31 rights.  Put him in a cell and let him cool his heals to soften him up.”

Tice returned to his temporary quarters for another night at the local Best Western.  It sure beat an Air Force barracks bunk, one of the perks of his supervisory position and his civilian status.  Experienced a momentary twinge of regret at not having a cuddly female to share the inviting king-size bed.

Tice picked up Foster as agreed and headed southwest for the Goldwater Range.  The maintenance pool supervisor informed Tice that Smith had left mid-morning the day before pleading illness.  He’d left in a hurry and didn’t look particularly ill, the supervisor noted.  Furthermore, Smith hadn’t bothered to call in with an update.  Tice wondered why the sup hadn’t checked further but kept the thought to himself.  Tice got Smith’s home address and requested the supervisor not to contact him.

Unlike Bennington’s three bedroom detached, Smith called home a modest apartment on Gila Bend’s west side.  Tice did not have a search warrant for Smith’s residence.  He told Foster they’d have to play it cagey.  Do a drive-by of the complex.  Figure out a way to lure him into the open.  Maybe enlist the help of the manager, if there was one. 

Tice was confident that Smith had not learned of Bennington’s arrest, which in any case had been carried out less than twenty-four hours earlier and several hours after Smith had fled his workplace.  Tice called the Sheriff’s department to inform that they were proceeding for purposes of detaining a drug trafficker and gave dispatch the address. 

“A sheriff detail is already there,” came the puzzling reply.

A few minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of Smith’s place of residence, unit 106 in a complex of sixteen one-and-two-bedroom units in each of several buildings. They were greeted by a scene of sheriff vehicles, an ambulance, and a deputy sheriff standing guard at the entrance to the parking lot.

Tice parked the Blazer on the road outside the lot.  Tice and Foster approached the officer, showed their credentials.  Tice then asked the obvious question, “What the hell is going on?”

The deputy said they were processing a murder scene and asked what their business was.

“We’re here to detain a Gila Bend Air Force enlisted man for questioning on a security issue.  Name is Richard Smith.”

“Smith, huh.  Hate to tell you, your person of interest is the murder victim.  Didn’t know he was military.  Just a minute.”  The officer walked over to one of the sheriff’s vehicles.

Tice wondered why the locals had made no attempt to contact OSI.  Wonder if the deputy had been lying when he acted surprised to learn the victim was military.

The guard returned with a message.  “Looks like you were right about him being military.  The guy in charge, that’s Lieutenant Otto, has already called it in to the base.  He suggests you might want to call the base commander.”

“Yup.  That will be my next call,” Tice replied.  “Tell me, how did you learn of the incident?”

“Nine-one-one call.  Came in a little over an hour ago.” 

“Okay, thanks.”

Protocol would have Gila Bend call OSI, but not necessarily Tice, as the Gila Bend brass were not in the loop regarding the Bennington affair and certainly not regarding Smith’s involvement.

Tice and Foster walked away, out of earshot of the guard.

“While I check in with the base commander, you go find the apartment manager.  See what he has to say.”

“Will do.”  Foster set off to find the manager.

Tice called the base, asked for Colonel Murphy.  Got the deputy commander, a Lieutenant Colonel Hapstead, instead.  Told Tice that Murphy wouldn’t be in on the weekend.  Tice said his call was to inform the base that Sergeant Richard Smith had been found murdered in his apartment and that the sheriff’s office and the Maricopa County forensic team were currently working the murder scene.

“Yeah, they already called it in.”

“Good to know.”

“How did you happened to be at the scene?  I was about to inform OSI when you called.” 

“To answer your question, we were not called in.  Our arrival was coincidental.  We came here to detain Sergeant Smith in another matter.” 

“What matter?”

“I am not at liberty to say.”

“What’s that you said?  Not at Liberty?  I demand to know what’s going on.”

“With all due respect, I cannot comply with your request.”

“Can’t comply?  Do you know who I am?”

“May I remind you that I am not under your command.  I am the Tucson base OSI in charge and will be taking joint jurisdiction of the crime scene.”

“I’ll have you up for insubordination.”

Tice knew he was bluffing.  Time to end this.  “I’m sorry sir, this is a national security matter and that’s all I can disclose at this time.”  Tice ended the call.  No way would he disclose protected information about the Bennington case to an officer of whatever rank outside the loop of the need-to-know.

In the meantime, Foster was having a more friendly conversation with the building manager.  Foster showed his badge.  “Could you fill me in about the victim, Richard Smith.”

The manager was a cooperative sort, eager to help.  “That’s right.  Dick Smith,” he responded.  “I wasn’t surprised.  If I had to pick a guy in this complex to be offed, he’d be right up there.  Drinks a lot.  Gets into arguments.  He didn’t have a lot of friends around here.”

“Who called in the cops?”

“Next door neighbor.  Thought he’d heard a ruckus in Smith’s apartment about midnight.  The walls are a little thin—forget I said that—but that wasn’t unusual.  Smith occasionally brought back a woman, a pick-up from the bars, and things sometimes got a bit noisy, although our neighbor thought last night sounded different.”

“When did he confirm this difference?” 

“This morning, instead of going directly to his car, this neighbor—out of curiosity, I suppose—doubled back around the side of the building and looked in the window.  Saw the body.  Called nine-one-one.”

“Thanks for your time.  We may be getting back to you for an official statement.”

Tice spotted Foster leaving the sup’s office.  Walked over and said, “Apparently, Gila Bend was about to inform OSI.  I saved them the trouble of trying to contact me.”  Tice chuckled at the thought.

“Well, time I approached the sheriff’s man at the scene.  You stay in the background behind the lot but prepared to back me up if I signal.  Hope that won’t be necessary.”

Tice was still on edge from his heated exchange with Lieutenant Colonel Hapstead.  Too bad he hadn’t reached the Full Bird Colonel Patrick Murphy, the base commander.  He knew Colonel Murphy as a straight shooter who would have understood boundaries.  Kind of felt for him, being saddled with this duo of subordinates, one a likely traitor, the other a self-important hothead.   Tice had often seen that with second-in-command types who thought they should be the boss. 

Tice then walked back to the guard.  He had noted previously that the name badge read Deputy Mike Collins.

“Deputy Collins, could you direct me to Lieutenant William Otto?”  After ending the call to base, Tice had queried his I-phone for the name of the person in charge of Maricopa’s Gila Bend station.

“Billy?  Sure, he’s the tall dude standing next to that Jeep Cherokee.  The one talking with Deputy Smothers.”

Collins pointed to the vehicle closest to the building entrance.  Tice strode over, all smiles for the time being.

“Lieutenant Otto, a word, if I might.”  Tice said, showing his badge.

“Well, well, the feds are here.  Wondered when you’d show up to muck around in my crime scene.”  But the dig was accompanied by a smile.

“Like the bad news bears, here we are.  I’m here because we have an interest in the deceased.  Didn’t know he was deceased, however, until just a few minutes ago.  Anyway, we have a joint interest and mutual jurisdiction in this matter.  I’m sure your team is more than competent to process the scene and gather the forensics.” 

“You bet they are.  We’ll send you a report when we’re done.”

“Sorry.  I can’t wait that long.  I need immediate access.”

“Just kidding.  I’ll take you myself to the crime scene.  In fact, I’d be glad to turn over jurisdiction to you as soon as I clear it with Sheriff Martinez up in Phoenix.  Maricopa is a big-ass county and we’ve got plenty on our plate.”

Tice and Otto went inside the complex and down the hall to Smith’s unit.

“My forensic team will bring you up to speed.  Meantime, I’ll put in a call to Phoenix.”

Tice walked over to speak with the team of forensic specialists.  He wanted to assess where their heads were at.  After speaking with the team leader, he determined they were professionals interested in doing their job.

A thorough examination of a death scene is critically important.  Except to protect fragile evidence from potential destruction, a team should not feel rushed in the processing of the murder scene, and okay with spending hours with the deceased in the room if necessary.

Over the next half hour, Tice grew increasingly confident that this team met that standard.  These guys were forthcoming about what they had recorded and where they were with the forensics.  The team leader was an affable woman, Tice judged late forties, pleasantly plump and dressed in appropriate crime scene wear.  She returned a forthright handshake from Tice, introduced herself as Lydia Yates and offered a rundown of their findings starting with time of arrival at the crime scene exactly fifty-seven minutes earlier.  She’d recorded the time.

They were using the zone method of search for identifying and collecting items of evidentiary value.  Their work product was succinct but comprehensive notes describing what each recorder observed with his senses and unearthed through his training.

These notes included which doors and windows were open or shut, locked or unlocked and the type of locking mechanism.  Suspected entry and exit points.  Which lights, appliances, televisions, alarm clocks etc. were turned on or off, unplugged or not working.  Anything that appeared to have been altered or out of place.

The notes included a crime scene sketch to scale depicting the location of the body.  How the body was positioned.  They had documented the signs of a struggle.  There were plenty.  The body had been savagely mutilated, with evidence of torture.  The victim’s hands chopped off and positioned next to the body.  They’d cataloged physical and trace evidence close to and under Smith’s body.  Hairs, fibers, serological and biological evidence, blood spatter.

“What was the time of death?” Tice asked.

“Sometime around midnight last night, but the body wasn’t discovered until this morning.”

Estimated time of death had been established based on postmortem lividity (Livor Mortis), postmortem rigidity (Rigor Mortis), and liver temperature or postmortem cooling (Algor Mortis).

When the immediate forensics were completed, medical personal would wrap the body in a sheet before placing in a body bag for transporting.  The victim’s hands would be placed separately in paper bags.

The weapon was a machete.  Like the severed hands, it was left next to the body.  There was no evidence that a firearm had been in play.  The team had turned out two guns in Smith’s bedroom, but no evidence they’d been recently fired.

“The killer must have been in a hurry to leave the machete behind,” Lydia said.

Tice had a different explanation that he kept to himself.  It was a cartel killing and the murder weapon was deliberately left behind.  Its purpose was to send a message.

Their unit photographer had video-taped the crime scene, a digital camera using the overlapping and progressive methods.

Obvious to Tice that they’d worked the scene by-the-book.  They were adhering to the four precepts of crime scene analytics: observe, record, collect, preserve.

Regarding this last, Tice had concern for any items or documents related to communication.  These would include personal computers, telephone answering machines, cell phones, especially of the burner variety, and written documents such as notepads or other writings.  The team had not found a diary, but they had found a crude day planner containing mostly scribbles.

Tice would need to secure and deliver this critical evidence to Bennington’s prosecution team.  Lydia obligingly collected this for him.

Lydia’s notes in progress also covered who reported the death and how it was reported.  This being the neighbor and the 911 call. 

“Billy bragged to us that he’d been prepared to kick in the door but found instead that it was unlocked.  Typical alpha machismo, even though he could have asked for a master key from the manager,” she said.  “Don’t get me wrong.  He’s the best.  Just can’t pass up an opportunity to make a joke is all.”

The team had not yet been able to address a basic.  When was the last time the victim had been seen alive and what was he doing at the time?  But Tice had a good guess.  At the maintenance shed seen by Smith’s boss and asking to leave on account of illness.

Bottom line:  The forensics pointed to a cartel killing with a machete the primary weapon.  Smith had been tortured as well.  The forensic team was obviously shrewd enough to assess the scene as a cartel killing but was unable to determine either the specific cartel or the motive.

Otto returned with the news that Phoenix was on board with turning over jurisdiction to OSI.  “It’s your baby now,” he said.

Tice turned to the crew and praised their workmanlike job.  Asked if they’d finish the preliminaries before they left.  Said that he would now alert the Regional Forensic Specialists.  Said that protocol required they be called in to conduct a formal, in-depth investigation.  Added that they may have to come from out of state, so the crime scene will have to remain secured until their arrival.

Tice would eventually review the whole report and be expected to sign off on its validity.  But for now, he had everything he needed.  Most importantly, he had all critical communication devices and documents in his possession.

On the ride back, Tice and Foster chewed over the killing of Smith.  Why would the cartel suddenly turn on gringos who are in their pay?  But if for some reason, they are bent on revenge or payback, then a possible attempt on Bennington’s life was likely thwarted by his timely arrest.

“Wonder which outcome Bennington would have preferred?” Foster said.

“Whichever, he’s ours now,” Tice said.  “But we should inform the guards that their prisoner may well be a cartel target.”

He still didn’t have a reason why Jimenez would send his brother to meet with this Air Force Major.  It had to be more than simply a re-check of secure conduits for the cartel’s drugs. 

The Major had now lawyered up.  Hearing about Smith’s brutal murder at the hands of the cartel might loosen his tongue.  Tice decided that another run at Bennington was in order.  Arriving back at his motel, he ignored his body’s screams of fatigue.  Placed a voice mail on the Area Counsel’s phone to get the ball rolling for a second Barrington interrogation.  “This is a priority request.  Monday if possible,” it said. 

Tice then opted for a hot shower.  After toweling off, he found the unit’s comfortable king-size inviting him.  The grind of the past week was beginning to take its toll, but afternoon napping was not in his DNA.  Instead, he descended into a corner easy chair and picked up his current read from a favorite author, Michael Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth.  DNA aside, ten minutes into Bosch, he nodded off, the book slipping from his hands.

He woke abruptly twenty minutes later to the buzzing of his I-phone.  The Area Counsel had stopped by his office for some catch-up paperwork and had listened to Tice’s message.  He promised to set it up for Monday.  Probably the afternoon.

The twenty minutes and the return call had done wonders to refresh him.  Nor did it interfere with his later solid night’s sleep.  After a well-deserved relaxing Sunday, he’d be ready for round two with the Major. 

Chapter Fourteen

Monday morning the counsel called and told Tice he’d got the second interrogation scheduled for one that afternoon.  He had also contacted Agent Johnson and got her on board.  Tice skipped lunch and arrived shortly after noon to prepare.  Morpheus had rewarded Tice’s tenacious labors of the last five days with two consecutive deep and restful eight hours.  An infrequent but on these nights a welcome visitor.

Bennington had been transferred to the brig at the Gila Bend base.  The interrogation room was somewhat larger than the cozy room at the Sheriff’s Office, although the configuration, including the one-way with sound transmission, was similar.  Tice was seated and ready by five of one, with Special Agent Johnson again seated next to him.

At five after, a warning knock on the door and Bennington was led in by two guards, followed by Frank Fillibright, J.D., from the Circuit Defense Council, the mouthpiece assigned to him after he pulled the Article 31 three days previously.  A long minute later, he was once again sitting, his legs chained to the floor, across from Tice.  He glared at his adversary, and then emitted a knowing grin as if he, not Tice, were in control.

The lawyer gave his standard admonition to the two parties.  Bennington looked prepared to maintain his cool and follow his lawyer’s counsel.  But on this occasion, Tice’s intent was to deliver a verbal body slam that would shake Bennington from any pretense about maintaining his innocence. 

“I’m not here to ask more questions if that’s what you were expecting.  I’m here to bring you the latest news about a friend of yours.  It’s not a question so no answer is expected.  This fellow was your high school teammate on the gridiron.  The same fellow with whom you had a heated argument during lunch the other day.  The fellow, an enlisted man, who was to us a person of interest as a spy for the Penasco Cartel.  He’s the same scum you denied any knowledge of.”

Throughout, Bennington gazed here and there into space, as if what Tice was saying had nothing to do with him.

“Well, my team did some digging and we came up with enough evidence of his misdeeds to detain him for questioning.  Seat him down for a heart-to-heart chat.  Long story short, he wasn’t at his place of work, the range maintenance shop.  Well, understandable, it being Saturday.  So, I and a fellow agent drove to his apartment, his apartment in Gila Bend.  You must know it.”

“Never been there.  Never met this fellow Smith,” Bennington said and resumed his air of indifference.

“We had no search warrant, but we thought he might speak to us voluntarily.  Well, wouldn’t you know it.  Just our luck, we found that your friend had been murdered.  Been tortured first, it looked like.  Gruesome, his hands hacked off.  The apparent weapon was left at the scene.  A machete.”

While Tice was reciting these last details, Bennington began looking more and more agitated.  His pasty, mottled complexion, now augmented with   several day’s growth made even Tice queasy.  His lawyer had coughed a few times suggesting his intention to interrupt.  But Tice had ignored both Bennington’s sudden distress and the lawyer’s feints and continued plowing through his recitation.  Tice deliberately paused after machete, letting that menacing word hang in the air and its connotations time to sink in.

The lawyer finally got out an objection.  “What is your point?  How does this relate to the charges against my client?”

“My point, my first point at any rate, should gladden your client’s heart.  We know he couldn’t have committed the murder of his friend, as time of death was while he was a guest here.  No, the murder went down about midnight Friday.  Forensics has pieced together the evidence.

“This evidence determined that the torture and murder had to be the work of cartel hit men.  They were efficient and quiet about it, too.  A neighbor heard some noise, some raised voices.  No gunshots.  They used knives to cut him up and like I mentioned a machete to finish the job.  Well, we just wanted your client to know what happened to his friend.”

An agitated Fillibright broke in.  “I don’t get the purpose of this interview.  He could have received this news by other means.  I could have delivered this information to my client.  Do you have any actual substantive questions to ask my client?”

“Yes, I’m getting to that.  What I can’t figure out, and here is where we’d like your client’s help, is why they’d want to murder Sergeant Smith if he was on their payroll, just as we suspect you are,” Tice said shifting his eyes and attention back to Bennington.  “Must be payback for something they didn’t like. Well, if as you say you’re not involved with them, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

The lawyer broke in.  “I don’t see the relevance of this story of yours.  I think we’re done here.”

“Afraid not.  I have the right to bring information pursuant to subject matter of possible interest to your client, as the two were well acquainted in spite of what he maintains.  We’re not done until I say we’re done.”

“He’s here to answer questions, not listen to fairytales,” Fillibright snapped back.

Tice ignored the lawyer.  “I do have a question for you.  Major, do you know if Smith has family in the area?”

“You don’t have to answer,” Fillibright countered.  “I think it’s time this tale-bearing session was over.”

But by this time Bennington was a thoroughly cowed specimen, hardly listening to his lawyer, no longer able to maintain his feigned indifference.  He whispered out an answer.  “No family.”

“So, you don’t know of anyone.  Well, that’s a relief, because these cartels are monsters.  They not only torture and murder the target, but family members as well.”

At this point, Bennington lost it.  “It’s my boy.  You’ve got to protect my son.”

His lawyer broke in, “Be quiet.  Don’t say anything.”

“But he’s in danger.”

“Why would your son be in danger?”  Tice asked.

“The cartel knows about him.  Knows where he lives.” 

Asking these questions, Tice had to subdue his own increasing mental turmoil.  Bennington had obviously told the cartel enough to make his son Lance a target.  What Bennington and the others didn’t know was that son Lance had an associate who might also become a target.  Tice’s own son Jack.

This was information that Bennington, or anyone else, must not learn.  For Bennington it could prove a powerful weapon against his captor.  Get him a sweet deal to keep his mouth shut.  For Tice’s superiors it could be reason for Tice’s exit and early retirement.  But for Tice, it was worse, the knowing that his own son could be in grave danger.  It was a vicious punch in the solar plexus.

Bennington had now pleaded for help from Tice to safeguard his son.  Tice had to play it cagey.  Had to show just enough sympathy for Bennington’s fears for Lance as a kid in trouble without softening his stance toward the father. 

“If your son Lance is in danger, we can protect him.  However, he’s only in danger if the cartel knows about him and how to find him.  Why should the cartel know about him?”

“They wanted details about my family before I would work with them.”

Bennington had to come up with some excuse without giving away his son’s dealer status.  “You see, another set of payments go to an account set up in my son’s name.  In the cartel world, the two thousand a month in my checking account is chump change.  But Lance doesn’t know where the money comes from.” 

“Doesn’t he know about your cartel connection?”

“I didn’t say that.  Like I said, he doesn’t know its cartel money.  Maybe thinks it could be a retirement fund that I’m hiding from my ex.  He helps because he thinks she screwed me over.”

Tice knew this was all a lie.  But for the moment, he had to pretend to swallow it.

“That would be a solid reason for his being on the cartel’s radar.  Not that I care about your sorry ass, but assuming your kid is an innocent in this drama, potential collateral damage, maybe I can persuade the government to get him protection.  Witness protection, say, in exchange for his testifying about your involvement with the cartel.  You do realize, he’ll find out about the cartel connection.  We can’t hide that.” 

Bennington slumped in his chair.  Did a fair imitation of a guy whose son’s image of him will be shattered.  “God, I’m so sorry he has to learn this about his old man.”

“You did it to yourself.  Tell me, where does he live?”

“In Tucson, the university district.  He’s a grad student at the university.”

“I’ll send my agents to learn about him.  Assuming he checks out, we can set up protection for him.  That’s the way it works.”

Bennington now realized he’d fallen into a trap.  If Lance knew he was being watched, he could clean up his act.  Play the role of the industrious student.  But if the surveillance was secret, then Lance’s narcotics side business could be exposed.

The dilemma for Bennington, come clean or continue the charade and hope Lance figured out something was wrong when the meeting with the cartel didn’t materialize.  He also read Tice’s assuming he checks out as meaning assuming he’s clean.  He would go with the latter to preserve the reputation of his son.

For his part, Tice had no intention of allowing an official investigation anywhere near Lance.  An OSI investigation that shined a light on Lance’s narcotics operation would catch young Jack in the glare.  No way could he allow that.  He had to shield his son and by extension protect his own career.  Tice felt himself starting down a slippery slope. 

“I need to be excused to make a call.  I will resume this interview shortly.”

He returned.  He hadn’t made any call, but deception is allowed when interrogating a suspect, although in this instance deception extended to the prosecution and his fellow agents.

“I spoke with my team.  They will be sending agents to Tucson to conduct a background check of your son.  I’m having them assemble an in-depth profile.  Should be completed within two or three days.  I signaled it as a priority, a preliminary measure for securing protection for your son.”  In other words, I’ve taken care of following up this loose end so you observers behind the one-way don’t need to bother.

Bennington figured the best course was to maintain silence on the true purpose of the Jimenez journey.  The fate of his son was in this agent’s hands.  He an officer had been bested and humiliated by a former enlisted man, now a mere civilian.  Rising bile in his stomach was bringing on a nasty episode of esophageal reflux.

On the drive back to Tucson, Tice’s thoughts returned to that central question that had been nagging at him.  What was the true purpose of the meeting that had been thwarted by Pedro Jimenez’s death in the desert?  Bennington wouldn’t spill, and Smith, if he’d known, was dead.  Tice reasoned that it had to be something of great benefit to both parties to warrant the risk. 

Could it be something involving the son Lance?  Now that the PIs had been able to unearth Lance’s operation, he knew there was no cartel connection.  Anyway, not yet.  What if the not yet was the key?  What if forging a relationship between the cartel and Lance’s fledgling operation was the purpose of a meeting for which the jefe’s brother had risked the journey north?

But his more immediate concern was son Jack who was likely in danger as well.  Tice would have to arrange protection for the two young men on his own, outside OSI scrutiny and the chain of command. 

For the many years since Jack’s football injury, Tice had maintained a scrupulous separation between dealing with his son’s addiction problems and his professional life.  In this second interrogation, Tice had trod a narrow path, engineering Bennington’s capitulation through fears for his son’s life while keeping the interrogation away from any damning   revelations about that life.  Tice had played on a father’s hope that his son would be protected, but that, Tice had implied, could only happen if the son was not cast in the same mold as the father.

The official record of this second interrogation would disclose only that Bennington had a son in graduate school who was potential collateral damage in a cartel’s thirst for revenge.  Within the military hierarchy, only Tice knew the son’s true colors, and by extension that of his own son.  But that secret came with a price.  Thanks to his pivotal role in the Bennington investigation, Tice was increasingly aware of compromising the ethical mandates of his position to protect his own son.

A protection detail required recruiting a team outside official circles and one that would keep his secret.  A team that was not worried about the niceties of military procedure.  Ideally, the civilian equivalent of a deep state black-ops crew, one that could be disavowed if it all went to shit. 

Which is why, when he returned to his house, his first call was to Jerry Hunter.  Engstrom Investigations, colloquially known as the Merry Marauders, a hang-loose collection of aging semi-misfits in the private investigative world, but they’d proven their worth by ferreting out the essential data on Jack’s dealer and by extension on what Tice was up against.  Sadly, more than Tice had bargained for.

What’s more, Tice had begun establishing a genuine bond with these guys.  They shared themselves as well as their work.  He reflected on how Gus had told him the small-world tale of how he and Jerry had crossed paths in Tombstone.  Recognized each other after some forty years and but one previous encounter.

}Jerry, can you arrange another meeting with the PIs?  Tonight, if possible.  This is urgent or I wouldn’t push it.”

Jerry was in the clubhouse with the guys and said he’d put the request to the others and get back to him right away.  Added that the guys had some answers for him about that little job he’d handed them a few days earlier.  “Your calling saved us a call.”

Jerry’s request led to a chorus of comments from the others. Wonder what he wants now?  Could be some more follow-up on his son.  Maybe wants us to kidnap the kid and get him into a rehab program.  But they liked the guy and so gave their unanimous shout in favor of a meet that night. 

Jerry got back to Tice.  “We’re free tonight,” he said.  It was strictly against policy to disclose details of an ongoing investigation to civilians, but Tice felt he had no choice.  The guys had to know the circumstances and what was at stake before being asked to risk their lives for a pair of fellows whom they had never met.

Chapter Fifteen

Tice drove to the now familiar office, parked, opened the office door, and walked inside.  Got warmly greeted by the four Marauders—he had a hard time thinking of them as PIs.  Partly, it was the office that more resembled an adult romper room.  There was another fellow he hadn’t previously met, younger, standing next to Big Al.  Not nearly as tall but the resemblance was there.

“Hope you don’t mind the addition to your welcoming committee,” Gus said.  “He’s the central figure in the assignment you handed off to Jerry the other morning.”

Tice looked him over.  Took in the open, guileless face.  Not exactly soft, but not the muscular specimen of his dad and the others.  On the plus side, there was no evidence of deception in his manner.  Always Tice’s first test.

“My little flesh and blood,” Al said.  “Also named Al, but we all call him Junior.  He tolerates us.”

Tice offered his hand and they exchanged a warm handshake, then asked, “Where’s Jimmy?”

“He’s on a two-week Caribbean cruise with his new bride.  You were lucky to get him for that initial assignment,” Jerry said.  

“Well it’s your nickel,” Gus said.  “You want our story first?” 

“Given what I’ll be asking of you, might be good to hear the bad news first.”

“May not be as bad as you are imagining as your worst nightmare.  The one where you learn your son is a full-fledged partner in this Lance’s operation,” Jerry said.  “As you now know or have come to regret, we like the long version, rather than a dry one-page summary.  Which is why we invited Junior to this party to tell you his part.  Gus, take it away.”

“After your call, I got the team back here for a ten o’clock meeting to discuss how to carry out your follow-up assignment.  We all felt kind of bad that we found out things about Jack that gave you heartburn.”

Al broke in.  “That was a true Gus understatement.  More like a heart attack, learning your kid might be dealing as well as using.”

“We never saw a guy more devastated,” Jerry added.  “We almost wished we’d left out that addendum to the report.  But you had to know.  Right?  Hopefully, it gives you a chance to do something about it before you see Jack arrested for more than misdemeanor possession.  It’s hardly news that dealing in controlled substances takes your son’s activities to the next level.”

“But what Jimmy observed wasn’t exactly proof that Jack is dealing,” Gus said.  “Maybe he misinterpreted Jack’s role in the transaction.”

“But maybe not.  From what he saw they were a bit too cozy.  You don’t see customers handing another customer some product while his dealer nonchalantly pockets the money and looks on,” Jerry said.

“Still circumstantial,” Gus said.  “Jack wasn’t handling the cash.  Furthermore, we don’t really know what was in the package.  Maybe Jack didn’t know either.  To do your assignment justice, we needed some solid evidence.  Which takes us to Junior’s role in this drama.”

About time, but he didn’t say it aloud.  Instead, Tice said, “I’m all ears.”

“I guess the guys decided—I wasn’t there—that proof would be if one of us succeeded in making a buy from Jack.  Approach him and get him to agree to sell a hit of something.  And then follow through with cash changing hands, his hands.”

“But it couldn’t be one of us that makes the approach,” Jerry said.  “First off, part of our deal with you is we personally avoid any face-to-face with Jack.  Second, none of us looks anything like his, or Lance’s, usual customers.  He might smell a sting.  Figure we could be cops.  Which is when we came up with enlisting Junior.”

“Not the first time,” Al said.  “They’ve put my boy in harm’s way before.  But they decided that he’d be perfect.  Maybe we should have run it by you, but you had other fish to fry.  Plus, my boy’s creds are impeccable.  A genius with computers who we figured could pose as an aging geek seeking some help with his love life.”

“Not to change the subject, but Al says you’ve been kicked up to management.  He’s a proud papa,” Gus said.

“No big deal.  I’m doing systems design, but I do have a team working with me.”

Gus gave him a look, saying, “Quit being so modest.”

“Okay, a team working for me,” Junior corrected.

Junior was soaking in his dad’s appreciation of his talents.  It had not always been that way, especially after he’d been arrested for hacking some prominent main frames.  But that was water under the bridge and a long time ago.

“Happy?  Well, back to my story.  I was told my job was to score a buy from a guy named Jack Tice.  See how he operates.  They said I should try scoring some Ecstasy.  What if I get busted?  They said their client, meaning you, would give me cover.

“Next, I asked how I’d find your Jack.  They said they had an address.  Basement apartment.  Jimmy had followed him from the courtyard.  They drove me to the metro.  With backpack and in student attire, I rode to the University Boulevard and got off at the Tyndall Street stop, a couple of blocks from Jack’s digs.” 

“Take a rest, Junior.  I got this next part,” Gus said.  “We had one of Rocky’s men surveil Jack’s patterns for a couple of days before we put Junior on the metro.  Your son is a creature of habit, apparently.  He leaves his place and goes to a local coffee house with wi-fi.  Okay, back to you, Junior.”

“They figured the hard part would be working that initial encounter with Jack.  It had to seem natural, not contrived, or Jack might get suspicious.  I asked them for advice, but their ideas were kind of lame.  Sorry fellows.

“Jerry mentioned about Jack being on Facebook.  Maybe you could try friending him, he suggested.  Well, I did check his profile.  Found out he doesn’t post, but he uses Facebook as a way of holding onto a connection with his old college teammates.  I see that as a positive sign that he hasn’t surrendered totally to his addiction.

“Finally, I decided to just approach him.  I sat at the table next to him and started chatting him up.  I told him I was a grad student in computer science.  Showed an interest in his laptop.  He asked me some questions about hacking, my specialty, which I fielded, adding a little insider stuff.

“Having broken the ice, I laid my cards on the table.  Confessed he’d been pointed out as a follow who might be able to help me out.  I had this big date coming up.  A hottie I’d been cultivating, and I needed something to close the deal.  Jack mulled over my plea.  Finally, he said, his exact words or close, I’d like to help you out, but no can do.  I pulled a long face, which worked.  But maybe I know someone who can, he said.  No promises.  Told me to meet him same time, next morning.”

The guys noted that Tice was hanging on every word.  The no can do an encouraging sign, and well, the someone who can not unexpected.  Still, the big question was how Jack fitted in with this someone, presumably Lance. 

“I showed up same time, same place.  Jack was waiting at his favorite table.  He handed me a note, said here’s the address for the party, and turned back to his laptop.  I took this last as a signal to not engage further.  I went to the counter, got an Americano tall, and sat myself in a corner booth.  Read the note, which said to meet at this patio restaurant on University Boulevard at two-thirty.  From how it had been described to me, it was the same establishment where Jack and Lance were first spotted.  Their place of business.

“I got there a few minutes early.  They were twenty minutes late.  Maybe a way of sweating me.  Typical narco bullshit, but I didn’t let it bother me.  Lance sat down across from me, followed by Jack on the side seat.  Lance asked why I wanted the Love Drug.  I gave him a story about this female I’d been lusting after for a couple of months.  She’d finally said yes to a party I’d been invited to.  I told Lance I needed some E to clinch the deal.

“He looked me over and then said something to the effect that I didn’t look like the type who needed the extra help.  I figured he was testing me.  Yeah, right. I know my limitations, I replied back.”

“Smooth,” Jerry commented.

“The patio was deserted, no mid-afternoon customers.  Next thing I know, Lance lights a doobie and hands it over.  What could I do?  I took a righteous hit, said damn good shit, which it was.  Had to be another test.  An undercover narc probably would have figured out how to turn down the offer or at least avoided inhaling.”

When Tice did a neck jerk at this last bit, Al interrupted.  “I’m quite aware my kid smokes a little weed.  Techies have to get their inspiration from somewhere.  Okay, back to you.”

“I handed back the doobie to Lance, and Jack got up to leave.  See you tomorrow, he said.  You know when and where.  As soon as he was out of sight, Lance asked for fifty bucks.  Pretty stiff for a few tabs of Molly, I said.  First time customer was his excuse.  Overhead for setting up a new account.  You want the lovin’?  Just hand over the fifty.  So, I did, and he got up to leave.  I asked him, where’s the product?  Jack will take care of you, he said.  I watched him walk back out to University Avenue.

“Easy come, easy go, I thought.  But this morning at the coffee shop, a few minutes after I sat down at his table, Jack slips me a manila folder   with a thanks for lending me the report.

“There was no one near us, so I asked him in a low voice how come he’d left before I handed over the cash to Lance.  He said that he had a session with his counselor and he’d better be on time.  Lance understands, he said, and then added, plus, I don’t handle the cash.”

“In the cartel world,” Tice said, “it’s typical for the cash and the product to be handled separately despite what you see on TV.  Sorry, continue.”

So, what’s your part? I asked.  What do you get out of it?  Maybe a finder’s fee at least?  Huh, hardly, he answered back.  Then I got his story about how he’s in pain all the time.  Old football injury.  Only way he managed was with oxy’s, but now he said it was a different kind of pain.  I can’t get through a day without them, or I’d go off the rails, he confessed.  I do these favors for Lance, and he keeps me supplied at no cost.”

“Are you saying that Jack told you he doesn’t profit monetarily?  That he’s not an actual partner, not really a dealer?” Tice said.

“That’s how I read it.  Then he said, virtually his exact words, I can’t believe I’m sharing this stuff with a stranger, but you seem like a stand-up dude.  Let me ask, have you done E before, or any of this designer shit?  No, I answered, which is the truth, but I quickly added that she’s worth it.  Said it to stay in character.  To which he replied, take it from me, Allen, no woman is.  I know it’s not my place to preach, but my advice, for what it’s worth, once you close the deal with this chick, make it a one-time thing.  Stay away from that shit.  Stick to weed.” 

The relief Tice felt at hearing these words from Jack, second hand though they were, was palpable, visible to the others.

“You look like a man who’s tossed the monkey back into the bush,” Jerry said.

“You know it.  This makes me feel a lot better about the next assignment I’d like you to undertake for me.”

“I figured we wouldn’t get off this easy.  Now that Junior has told his tale, you’ve got the floor.  But just so you know, we don’t do murder for hire,” Jerry said.

“But if some scumbag happens to end up collateral damage while we’re working a case, well, c’est la vie.”

“Yup, depend on Al to tell it like it is.”

Despite his experience with risky, possibly lethal undercover operations, the normally cool, controlled Tice was nervous about what he was about to share.  But this was his son whose life was at stake.  He had no real choice but to take the plunge.  He began with a caution that what he was about to tell them was top secret information.  It was no exaggeration that he was breaking the law, felony style. 

“What you guys learned about my son Jack’s involvement with this small-time dealer, Lance Bennington, was deeply disturbing to me.  This was not simply because it involved my son, but because the target of a case I’m working on is a Major Stuart Bennington with ties to a Mexican cartel. 

His audience displayed raised eyebrows of incredulity at the name Bennington.

“No relation to a Lance Bennington, I presume,” Al said.

“Don’t be obtuse, Al.  Of course, they’re related.  Bennington isn’t that common a name,” Jerry said.

“Yes, they’re related.  Lance Bennington is this Major’s son.  This Air Force officer is now in custody, but there is more to the story.  Bennington had an associate, a partner in crime.  He was the guy on the ground who was Bennington’s eyes regarding border patrol and DEA operations.  This info got passed on to Bennington and then transmitted to the cartel.  Greatly improved their odds of product getting through.

“At the time we first suspected Bennington, we didn’t know about him.  We put a surveil on Bennington that on day one turned up an old high-school friend, a Sergeant Dick Smith.  They had quite an argument over lunch.  I had my computer wizard Sybil Craig do a background on him, and what she turned up led me to think a friendly chat was in order.   

“But first, we had to deal with Bennington.  After a three-day surveillance, we had enough to arrest Bennington and to obtain a search warrant on his property.  Right after the arrest, I got my first crack at interrogating this scumbag.

“By that time, thanks to you guys, I had the low-down on son Lance.  I used it to shake him up in that first interrogation.  I felt he was about to spill his guts.  Might have if it had been a lesser charge, but he wisely demanded a lawyer and that was that for the time being.

“My next move was to pick up Smith for questioning while working on a search warrant for his current residence.  I stayed over at Gila Bend, and next morning, I and one of my junior agents went to his place of work, the base maintenance shop.  His supervisor said that Smith hadn’t showed and hadn’t called in.  One thought was that Smith had somehow gotten wind of Bennington’s arrest, figured the MP’s wouldn’t be far behind, and had taken off. 

“We were not prepared for what we did find.  A dead Smith, badly tortured.  Finished off with a machete left at the scene.  A killing that had all the markings of a cartel hit.”

That got the PIs attention, with expletives like no shit and the hell you say.

“They were pissed off about something,” Al ventured.

“Definitely something,” Tice said, picking up the thread.  “But why would the cartel hit a valued confederate?  Made no sense at first.  I called an FBI profiler, an acquaintance I’d once met at a Homeland meeting, who has made a study of cartel bosses.  He knew something about Angel Jimenez.  What he had to tell me began to make sense of the Smith killing.

“His diagnosis was straightforward.  Jimenez is a paranoid manic depressive, given to violent mood swings.  He followed with a rhetorical question that asked how would a guy with this diagnosis react to the death of his kid brother at the hands of the border patrol?  It’s no stretch that he’d see it as a betrayal by his gringo confederates.  Anyway, that’s how the profiler read it.  He’d want revenge.  Our profiler knew of a previous horrific incident.  Angel had killed the entire family of one of his enforcers, simply on the suspicion that he had gone over to a rival cartel.”

“I hope he never gets pissed off at us.”

“Al, you do have a way of making it personal,” Jerry said.  “Sorry for the interruption.  Al can’t help himself.” 

“No problem.  I got a couple of mouths in my crew.  I tolerate them because they happen to be damn good agents.  Back to my story.  This afternoon, I had a second talk with Bennington using Smith’s murder as my leverage.  Would the cartel, this Angel, know if Smith had family?  His answer was a barely audible yesThat’s a relief, I said, because these cartels will murder the whole family.

“When the implication hit, it was the trigger that finally opened him up.  Got him to drop the wrongly accused good guy posture.  He blubbered out about Lance being in grave danger and begged me to protect his son.  I asked him why his son would be in danger and he said because the cartel demanded details about his family before he could work for them.

“It took every ounce of control I could muster not to pull a Bennington and break down in front of my audience behind the one-way.  What went for Lance, no doubt went for anyone working with or for Lance, and that’s my son Jack.  No way could I go to my bosses with what I know about Lance and particularly about my son.  I had to play it cagey, duck and weave.

“I signaled to Bennington to keep his mouth shut about Lance’s day job as a narcotic’s trafficker.  Said to him that protection might be possible, but only if Lance was a serious, squeaky clean student, enabling me to maintain the pretense that I was unaware of his side vocation.  The task force must never learn what I know about Lance and by extension about my son’s involvement with him.  It’s the cross I bear.”

“We are good at keeping secrets,” Gus said.  “At least, those that deserve to be kept.”

“I believe you guys.  Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.  I stifled my inner turmoil and somehow managed to get through the winding down of the interrogation.  But inside, I was a real mess realizing that Lance wasn’t the only life at risk.” 

“What do you want from us?” Gus asked.  “Obviously, you wouldn’t have spilled your guts if you were only looking for a friendly ear to vent.”

“I need protection for my son.  I want him removed from the cartel’s reach.”

“And I take it, you see this reach coming from Penasco assassins,” Gus said.

“Could get messy,” Jerry said.

“I have a private safehouse with a panic room,” Tice said.

“That could prove useful,” Gus said.  “How secure is it?”

Tice assumed he meant the panic room, not the house itself, briefly described its features.

“I leased the house some months ago.  I got it with Jack in mind, but with no clear plan of how I’d use it but installed the room just in case.  Bennington did give me his son’s Tucson address.  Another thing that makes me positive he knows all about his son’s narcotics activities.” 

Jerry broke in.  “I’ve been puzzled why the brother of the cartel jefe would risk a journey through a highly patrolled Arizona desert for a meeting with this Bennington.  Doesn’t make sense it would be for routine chit-chit.  Rather something new and big, like expanding their distribution network, gaining new markets and new conduits.  For example, an alliance with an ambitious up and comer like Bennington’s son.” 

Tice thought it interesting how Jerry had come up with the same plausible explanation that had crossed his mind.  Jerry would make one hell of an agent.

“That thought occurred to me as well,” Tice said.  “Maybe my notion isn’t all that crazy.”

“In fact,” Jerry said, “it adds a new motive, a chilling one, to the revenge scenario.  If the cartel eliminates Lance and any associates, their soldates can walk in and scoop up the sales territory that Lance has cultivated.”

“We’re guessing you’d like us to have some small part in this protection detail,” Gus said.  “Find the two boys and quietly kidnap them.  Stow them in the safehouse you mentioned, out of reach of the cartel goons.” 

“That’s pretty much my idea.”

“You’ll have to provide us the address of your safehouse, one safe from not only cartel’s eyes but also those of your compatriots.”

“Sounds like you’re considering this assignment.”

“Yeah, sounds like our kind of challenge.” Gus said.  “But it will be just me and Jerry.”

“That’s right.  Hate to miss the party but my fiancé and I are headed out of town early tomorrow.  We’re looking at a fall wedding, by the way, so expect an invitation.”

“It would be an honor,” Tice said.

“Okay,” Gus said.  “Give me Lance’s address and the address of the safehouse.  We already know Jack’s.  Leave the details to us.  We’ll alert you when it’s done.”

Chapter Sixteen

For several minutes after Tice left, the PIs were uncharacteristically silent.  It was sinking in.  What the hell had they just agreed to? Committed themselves to?  There had been some scary episodes in past investigations, but somehow the risk posed by these cartel thugs was, for sheer menace and cruelty, a different order of magnitude.

“We’d better get going, like tomorrow morning.  Hit their addresses and extract Jack and Lance from the cartel’s reach,” Gus said.

“Should be a piece of cake,” Jerry said, making light of the task ahead.  “Might have to tie them up if they resist, but that’s about the extent of it.” 

“Let’s hope you’re right about the piece of cake part.”  But Jerry could not have been more wrong.

The drive in Gus’ king-cab truck from Tucson Estates to University Avenue was a twelve-mile, under thirty-minute piece of cake, the last piece of cake of the morning.

Jack was not at his basement apartment.  “Let’s try his favorite coffee bar.”

“Maybe retrieve Lance next, then search for Jack,” Jerry suggested.

“No.  Jack first.  Down deep, I don’t think Tice gives a shit what happens to Lance,” Gus said.

“Not true.  The guy cares.  Just that Jack is the priority, so forget my suggestion.”

“Yeah, and forget I said that about Tice.  Anyway, let’s go find Jack.  Junior said the shop was less than two blocks from here.”

They walked back to University Boulevard.  “Which way?” Jerry said.

“Toward the campus.”

The pair turned left, crossed the street.  Found A Better Bean at the next intersection.  They walked in and gave the premises a quick look around.  No Jack.

“At least we have an address for Lance’s apartment.  Maybe Jack will be there, or Lance will know where he is.  Once we secure Lance, we get to ask the questions and he gets to answer them.”  Jerry mimed a gun, finger on the trigger.

Gus chuckled, said, “Hope we get there in time.”

To get to Lance’s converted apartment house, Gus and Jerry had to backtrack west along University Boulevard, noting the building numbers.  After three blocks, they jogged one block north, then west again, finding the house middle of the block on the north side.

They’d been told about the private entrance on the side.  They walked down a cement walk and were about to knock on his door when they heard a commotion inside.  Two thugs sent from Phoenix by the Penasco Cartel had a welcoming party in full swing.

***

The Penasco inner circle knew that Bennington had a son named Lance well before the dad approached them about doing business with this same son.  It was the business of the cartel to know such details about their gringo associates.  They’d pried from him the names of family before putting him on their payroll.  They had done a once-over of Lance’s operation even before Bennington made his approach about a working relationship with that operation.

When Bennington approached with his veiled suggestion of a mutually beneficial opportunity, the cartel’s secretario, a position much like a mafia consigliore, undertook a closer look at Lance’s operation.  Checked out his client base and his marketing, analyzing its good and bad features, scoping out how they would run Lance and make his operation more productive.

Bennington had thought he was in control of the collaboration.  It was the other way around, a takeover as part of their expansion plans.  The Penascos would be the ones to pull the strings and dictate the contours of the distribution network.  The cartel had risked sending the younger Jimenez to nail down the specifics.

The two Bennington’s would be handsomely paid for their labors, but the Penascos would run the show.  At least that was the plan until Pedro Jimenez was slain in the desert. 

In the jefe’s mind, the cartel had miscalculated.  They had underestimated the treachery of the man.  Bennington had been caught and turned or perhaps he’d been a double agent all along.  Angel was convinced that Bennington had disclosed information about Pedro Jimenez’ impending journey north.  The ambush in the desert was cold-blooded murder and Angel vowed revenge.  That the truth was far different never penetrated Angel’s tortured mind.

The gloating phone call from the Sonora Cartel’s jefe thrust Angel into a night of rage, shaking his fist at the heavens, vowing vengeance.  By morning he had created a scenario of revenge in his head.  Bennington had to suffer mentally before he suffered physically.

Angel focused on Smith, Bennington’s eyes and ears on the ground, as his first target.  His assassins would leave mementos of their work that openly advertised his death as the work of the cartel.  Bennington would suffer the torments of the damned, knowing his turn would come.

The sleepless night had so unhinged him that Angel managed only a cup of coffee and left untouched the abundant breakfast prepared by his private chef.  The jefe assembled his inner circle and began sounding off.  He boasted that his initial inclination was to cross the border himself, confront Smith and then Bennington in person.  It was empty posturing and his compatriots knew this.   

“Certainly, Senor Jimenez, you’d want to make the kill in person.  Deliver the killing blow, eyeball to eyeball, letting Smith know why he had to die.  Spit on his corpse.  Then, go into hiding.  Lie in wait for the other traitor.  But we cannot risk your making this a personal mission.  Boss, without you we are nothing.”

Despite the overblown flattery of this speech, Jimenez was pleased.  “You are correct my secretario.  Reluctantly I must summon the two assassins that I lured away from the Chihuahua cartel.”

Some days later, Angel received word of Smith’s death from the assassins, but that Bennington was in custody.  This last news did not surprise him, nor did it disappoint him.  It fit his conviction that Bennington had given up his brother Pedro in exchange for leniency.  He’d move on to his next target, Bennington’s son Lance and any members of his operation.  Save the father for later.  Given a cartel’s resources, no one was beyond reach.

In considering how to reach Lance, Angel rejected using his personal assassins.  Their impeccable execution of Smith had delighted him in its viciousness but having them stalk a student on a college campus would be too visible.  Instead, he picked his cartel affiliate in Phoenix, a local gang known as Los Rojos, for this assignment.

Los Rojos were battle-tested in turf wars with a rival gang that distributed for the Sinaloa Cartel.  Wanting some of the narcotics action for itself, Los Rojos had aligned with the upstart Penasco Cartel as its local street-level distributor.  The gang members were eager to prove their loyalty.

Jimenez contacted Carlos Ortega, boss of Los Rojos.  He required some wetwork from the gang.  Ortega was delighted to have this assignment from the cartel boss himself.  He handpicked a pair of very nasty specimens.  Jaime Ortega, Carlos’ nephew, who went by the moniker El Hueso (“Bones” in gringo talk) and Jesus (Chuy) Cruz.  Ortega messaged back that he would be sending two of his most capable soldates to Tucson.

Over the burner, Jimenez gave further instructions.  “You can play with this pussy Lance but be nice.  Cut his balls but leave his dick.”  Jimenez was feeling merciful.  “The word on the calle is that Lance has an associate, a former client, recently recruited for the sales end.  His name is Juan.  Jack in gringo talk.  When you find him, do him the same.”

The two thugs were rolling down I-10 in Carlos Ortega’s Cadillac Escalade.  He had lent them the luxury vehicle for this operation.  It was a motivation thing.  Be a loyal soldier, follow orders, bring in cash, and you can someday own one of these.  They were in a good mood, smoked some weed, told jokes.  Stopped at the McDonald’s off I-10 south of Casa Grande for a couple of Big Mac’s each.  They were enjoying this.

These dudes were not big in the planning department.  No way would Carlos trust them to freelance the operation.  He gave them detailed instructions.  A plan of action.  He had not only the location of Lance’s apartment but the floor plan as well.

They knocked on his door.  “Yo, Lance.  Dos amigos from the cartel.  Abierto por favor.”

Lance figured this pair had been sent by the Penascos to work out their business relationship.  He had not heard from his father, the arrest being strictly under wraps.  He supposed his dad was up to his eyeballs in Air Force business, and they communicated seldom anyway, so silence was not unusual.  Figured, his dad had sent on these envoys.  Lance took it as a vote of confidence.

Instead of responding to his hospitality overtures, they began using him as a punching bag.  Calling him names.  At first, he couldn’t believe what was happening.  Must be a test of his toughness, his fitness to be a stand-up cartel soldier.  It finally sunk in that this meeting was not benign when they started demanding information about his partner, about Jack.  He resisted briefly, very briefly, if anything he had less internal fortitude than his dad.  Said okay, he knew Jack and gave them his address.  The two thugs signaled their contempt that he’d sell out his associate so easily by stepping up the beating.

“Enough,” Chuy said.  “We want him conscious when he feels the blade,” referring to the machete that would brand his demise as the work of the cartel.

At that moment the front door flew open, courtesy of a kick to its mid-section with all two hundred ten pounds of Gus behind it.  Admittedly, not solid core, plus held to the door frame by two paltry hinges.  Okay for a bedroom door but a sorry excuse for an outside entrance door.  The door installed by the property owner because Lance wanted his private entrance and was willing to pay for it, but not all that much.

The PIs saw a bloody Lance tied to a chair, one of his tormentors taunting him and beating him senseless while the other was reaching behind the chair for what looked like a long knife.

Sensing these intruders, Chuy re-focused and reached his arm behind his back for the Glock lodged under his belt.  His timing was hampered by his butt-length t-shirt with Los Rojos in red letters emblazoned on the front.  By the time, he’d succeeded in extracting the weapon from his clothing, Jerry had barreled into him, left elbow out.

The gun discharged, the bullet lodging itself in the ceiling, as Chuy went down.  Had the other graduate students who resided in the house not been in class, the gunshot might have brought about a 911 call.

Jerry drew his left arm to the thug’s throat and with his right smashed three rapid blows into Chuy’s homely pock-marked face.  Still conscious, Chuy tried bucking him off.  Bad decision.  He should have gone quiet instead.  Jerry responded with a straight down blow into Chuy’s gut just below the breastbone, gravity augmenting muscle.

Meantime Gus had grabbed the skinny punk El Hueso around the waist and began squeezing.  Released him a few seconds before any ribs began cracking.  Jerry and Gus each rolled their vanquished thugs on their stomachs and secured their hands with plastic zip ties.  Warned them, try getting up and we’ll seriously hurt you.

Lance’s head was lolling, his eyes glassy.  Gus unwrapped the rope binding Lance to the chair.  Jerry went to the kitchen, drew a glass of water, found some ice cubes in the fridge’s freezer compartment, tossed half the water on Lance, and commanded him to drink the rest.

A revived Lance said, “Who the hell are you guys?  Not that I don’t appreciate your help, but what are you doing here?”

Best not to say too much, they figured, like letting out they were sent by Jack’s dad, a federal agent who had arrested Lance’s dad.  No, leave the dads out of it for now.

“It was your buddy Jack.  Lucky for you he saw the two dudes arrive at your apartment.  Knew you were in trouble.  We know Jack from his football days.”

This whopper would not have passed the smell test if Lance hadn’t still been in Lala-land.  “Yeah, okay,” he muttered.

“Hang in there,” Gus said.  “We’ll get you to some place safe.”

Questioning the two thugs would be a waste of time.  They used the rope from the chair to tie them up.

Gus got his FBI brother Jason on his cell.  “What do you know about Los Rojos?”

Jason had the answer in his memory bank.  As the FBI agent in charge of the Phoenix office he was well-acquainted with the narcotic-dealing street gangs working Phoenix.  Los Rojos was a minor player suspected of moving product for the Penasco Cartel.  Current law enforcement strategy was monitor and contain.  The DEA had too much on their plate to do much beyond that.  Added that most members of the gang had long rap sheets. 

“Why do you want to know?”

“It’s a case we’re working on.  Thanks for the info.  If we learn stuff, we’ll reciprocate.”

Next, Gus called Tice.  We’ve got a situation, he told Tice.  Gus gave him the thumbnail account of the morning’s adventure.  The cartel had shown up at Lance’s place before the pair could move the kids to the safehouse.  The jefe had sent a pair of losers recruited out of Phoenix.  Pathetic second stringers that the PIs had easily put out of action.

Gus said they were now securely tied back to back, groaning and nursing their wounds.  They also had under wraps a freaked-out Lance, barely able to answer questions and possibly in need of medical attention.  Gus said he’d work up a cover to explain their presence without exposing Tice’s OSI affiliation. 

“What about Jack?  Where’s my son?” Tice said when Gus finished his recital.

“Before we went after Lance, we checked at his favorite coffee bar, the Better Bean.  Wasn’t there.  We thought he might be at Lance’s.  Good thing we made that our next stop or Lance would have been history.”

“Yeah, I appreciate that.  What next?”

“We find Jack.  That’s what you hired us to do.  We explain the situation to him and hustle him and Lance to your safehouse.” 

“What about the thugs?”

“For sure, we can’t get the locals involved.  They’d have too many questions.  They might start looking at Lance and eventually Jack.  Maybe arrest the pair, along with these Rojos punks.  Maybe even take a run at us concerning our part in the fun.  We’re PIs with licenses, but not cops.”

“Sounds like you don’t have any good options.”

“There is an alternative.  We send these bozos back to Phoenix.  They won’t look a gift horse in the mouth and sure as hell won’t go to the cops.”

“But that won’t be the end of it.”

“Likely not.  That’s why we need that safehouse.”

“Well, good hunting.”

Lance had no idea where Jack might be beyond an address for his basement apartment and his morning coffee-house routine.  The guys already had those.

“Here’s the deal, Lance,” Gus said.  “We sit these goons in their fancy ride, the Escalade parked down the block.  Must be theirs.  Too rich for a student.  Anyway, that’s what the key fob says.  Watch them to make sure they drive away.  You can stay here, or you can decide to leave.”

“Which we strongly advise against,” Jerry warned.

“We’ll be back after we find Jack with a better alternative for you,” Gus said.  “Anyway, your choice.”

The PIs escorted Bones and Chuy to their ride, freed their wrists, and watched them drive away.  They went back and positioned near the apartment for ten minutes in case these mugs decided on a re-run.  They left Lance at work trying to re-attach his front door hinges to the frame.

The thugs didn’t show.  Relieved, Gus and Jerry turned their attention to the search for Jack.  Advised Lance to stay put.

“Where to first?” Gus asked.

“I suppose we can check back at his apartment.  If he’s still not there, stake it out,” Jerry suggested.

“First, let’s try that coffee place again.  It’s not yet eleven o’clock.  Gees, what a morning.” 

They returned to A Better Bean and checked through the window.  There sat Jack in his usual window table with his laptop and a coffee.  That was easy.  They got out and entered the coffee house.  The pair walked over and sat down, Gus opposite and Jerry on the aisle side after dragging over an empty chair. 

Jack watched this spectacle, frowning but saying nothing, apparently waiting for one of them to speak first.

“We’re friends of your dad,” Gus said.

“By the way, where’ve you been?” Jerry said.  “We looked in less than an hour ago.”

“Sitting right here since about nine-thirty.  Well, except for a pee break.”

Gus slapped his forehead.  Looked at Jerry.  “Some detectives we are.”

“What do you mean detectives?  I thought you said you were friends of my dad.  Are you telling me my dad put a couple of dicks on my tail?”

“I suppose that’s a polite way of putting it,” Jerry said.  “We’re both private dicks, not law enforcement.” 

“But your dad did send us.  Long story,” Gus said.

Jack got up to leave, saying, “My dad doesn’t own me.  Go back and tell him I’m fine and don’t need any babysitters.”

“It’s not that simple,” Jerry replied.  “We need to talk elsewhere, and you need to come with us.  That is, if you want to continue breathing.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“Just what I said.  There are some vicious dudes after you.  Their preferred weapon is a machete.”  Gus and Jerry got up, as if to leave.

“Hey wait.  Stop.  Is this for real?”  He looked up at them, searching their faces.

“Yeah, for real,” Jerry said.

Resistance gave way to subdued acquiescence.  He rose to follow, asked, “Does Lance know about this?”

“Short answer, yes,” Gus said.  “When we didn’t see you, we took off for your buddy Lance’s digs.  Good thing too.  A couple of thugs sent by the cartel were working him over.  Pretty sure they planned to kill him.  And you next.  We’re taking the two of you to a safehouse.  We’ll fill you in when we get there.”

They returned to the apartment and stowed a waiting Lance beside Jack in the rear seat of the truck and drove to the safehouse.  It was a two-bedroom one-story rambler in a block of similar homes, a working-class neighborhood.

Somewhat larger than other homes on the block, it had both a conventional living room and a family room with a 60-inch TV and sound system.  It originally had three bedrooms, but the space had been converted into a panic room with thick, multi-layer walls that could stand up to penetrating armor.

The four piled from the truck.  Jerry took Lance up the walk while Gus held Jack by the truck for a brief whisper.  “Does Lance know that your dad is a federal agent with the Air Force.”

“No way.  If I spilled that, he’d probably have cut me off.”

“Good decision.  And cutting you off is the least of it.  Continue to keep it to yourself.”

Once settled in the house, Gus and Jerry took turns explaining to Lance and Jack the threat against them.  Jerry amended the lame football acquaintances of Jack with the more plausible PIs working for Jack’s dad explanation.

Parts of the story were off limits and didn’t leave their lips.  They avoided any mention of Lance’s dad, particularly of his being in custody.  They spun it instead that the Penasco Cartel wanted the kids killed so this cartel could take over Lance’s territory.  The PIs kept it vague in the telling.  Framed it as a classic cartel double-cross to eliminate the corporate founders. 

Lance initially tried playing dumb.  Made some gestures aimed at Jack for him to dummy up also.  “What do you mean, take over my territory?  What territory?  I’m a serious graduate chem student.  No way would I deal in anything illegal.”

“Yup, says the dude who deals happy pills and date rape goodies to your fellow students so you can afford the better things in life.”

“What have you guys been smoking?”

“Don’t give us your who me? act.  Remember Allan, the computer nerd you sold Ecstasy to?  He works with us.  Just be glad we’re not narco law enforcement, DEA agent types.  We’re actually here to protect your butts, at least for now.”   

Lance decided on silence, admitting nothing, but no denials either.  He figured they must not know about his dad or they would have said something.  Lance figured that the deal his dad was making with the cartel must have gone sour.  Maybe his dad was in trouble too.  But he didn’t dare ask. 

“Are you going to turn us in?” Jack asked.  Lance glared at him, the question being as good as a confirmation of what these gumshoes were alleging.

“No.  Our agreement with your dad is to keep you and your friend safe until this cartel thing blows over.  After that, we’re out of it and you are on your own.”

“You guys work for Jack’s dad?”

“Yeah, we approached him when we came across this cartel intel while working another case.  Fortunately for you guys, Jack’s dad is a smart businessman with deep pockets, or he couldn’t have afforded us.”

Gus immediately had cause to regret his characterization of Jack’s dad.

“Your dad owns a business?  Makes big money?” Lance said.  “Jack, you told me he was a manufacturer’s rep for machine tools.”

Jack had come up with that cover because he figured Lance would never supply him with drugs if he knew his dad was drug enforcement.  Well-to-do businessman was better cover than AFOSI agent.  He could work with that.  “Sorry I misled you.  But I didn’t want you thinking he was a big shot.”

“Yeah, okay.  I get it.”

“Now we can’t stay here twenty-four seven, but we will keep in touch with Jack’s dad.  This is a secure location.  Plus, a non-descript house in a working-class neighborhood won’t bring undue attention.  Jack’s dad will be by shortly.” 

***

Late that same Tuesday afternoon, Carlos Ortega, boss of Los Rojos, reported back to Angel.  He’d rather have kept silent about the screwup, but he had no choice.  Fessing up and taking ones lumps up front was the preferred alternative to having Angel learn about it later.

As Carlos expected, his news was met with an angry eruption from a thoroughly pissed Angel.  He spewed every Mexican slang word referring to body parts, positions, and relationships in his colorful vocabulary.  Contemptuous of them.  Said it was the last time he’d trust a couple of amateurs.  Eventually he calmed down but suggested that Carlos might recruit some hombres with bigger cojones.

Angel called in some pros from his part of the world to do the job right. 

Chapter Seventeen

After learning of the gang-bangers’ humiliating screw-up in Tucson’s university district, Angel immediately summoned the pair of assassins that had dealt with Smith.  Confessed he should have called on them in the first place.  Lamented by way of apology that these amateur gringos with Mexican surnames weren’t up to the job.  Sad what happens to transplanted Mexicanos north of the border.  They go soft.

He outlined the new assignment.  He gave his assassins photos of Lance and Jack that his secretario had taken during the Bennington vetting process.  They were to set out for the border that night.  Before they left, they were given quick makeovers complete with student backpacks to fit in as Latino students, the Tucson terrain being different from that around Gila Bend where Smith had met his violent end.  This replacement pair vowed not to fail their jefe.

Angel arranged for them to cross the border under cover of darkness hidden in a produce truck, destination the Tucson market.  By Wednesday morning, the morning after the kids had been stashed in the safehouse, the pair were trolling the university district.  Their first stop was checking Lance’s last known location, his apartment one block north of University Avenue, the site of Jaime’s and Chuy’s beat-down by the PIs.

Even with their scrubbed look, they were careful to avoid encounters with law enforcement, campus or city.  Once they opened their mouths, their cover as students likely would be blown.  Miguel had decent English with no more of an accent than the average Tucson first generation Hispanic.  But they would lack convincing answers to questions like their college majors or the identity of the University of Arizona mascot.

Miguel noted the damaged front door.  He didn’t have to pick the lock.  Just shoved it open and broke in.  Finding Lance’s apartment dark and empty, they next went around the corner to Jack’s basement apartment.  Miguel worked his magic on the outside lock.  They did a search of the studio interior and found it dark and empty.  They reported back to Angel by burner cell that neither target was at his respective digs.

After a flurry of colorful curse words, Angel told them to sit on the apartments for the next twenty-four hours, hoping that one or the other would return.  Neither assassin thought that was good strategy, as it would allow a further head start if their quarry was on the run, but they were not about to argue with their jefe. 

Miguel returned to Lance’s apartment and left Hector to sit Jack’s studio.  Late that afternoon, a bored Miguel searched the cupboards, found a liter-size bottle of quality tequila, drank a third of it, and pondered life.  About ten that night Hector showed up wanting company.  They shared the remaining nectar.  By midnight both were snoring away in a tequila-fueled sleep having convinced themselves that their two targets were stashed away somewhere else.

Their return call to Angel the next morning once again found a thoroughly pissed jefe.  The assassins reported that Lance and Jack had both apparently gone to ground.  Angel cursed his decision of not sending his trustworthy assassins initially.  Obviously, the foiled attack had spooked Lance and sent him and his partner into hiding.

After calming down, he ordered his two Sicarios to stick around Tucson, ask around quietly, while he worked the problem.  Someone must know where they were holed up.  Someone who could be persuaded to spill if enough cash changed hands.  He sent out feelers, but in this instance got nothing back for his seed money.

The pair passed themselves off as Mexican law enforcement in pursuit of a suspect and questioned the complex’s two other tenants.  These guys knew vaguely that Lance dealt in controlled substances, which made the query by two undercover types seem reasonable.  Miguel, the assassin with the better English, did the talking.  One said he’d spotted Lance picking up some things and left in a Ford pick-up driven by an older dude.

When?   Tuesday, day before yesterday, was his answer.  “The same day that Angel summoned us,” Hector muttered under his breath to Miguel.

While waiting for Angel to call back, they spent the night in a cartel safehouse located behind a carniceria in South Tucson.  The next morning, they continued their trolling of the university district in hopes of a sighting. 

***

Much of Jack’s recent behavior toward his dad had been motivated out of the shame of failure, of not measuring up to his dad’s standards, which manifested as a stubborn disregard of all overtures of help.  For years, he had lived in survival mode communicating with his dad as little as possible.  A slave of his opioid addiction.

With the PIs showing up with news about the attack on Lance, followed by their being escorted, a polite term, to a safehouse, his carefully crafted daily routines, had been thrown off center.  His tenuous emotional equilibrium had gone tilt at the idea of being targeted by cartel assassins.

As soon as the PIs left, he plopped himself on the family room sofa, grabbed the TV remote, and channel surfed until he found suitable diversion in a National Graphic episode on Alaska’s bush people.  He half-hoped his dad would be too busy to stop by.

A few hours after the PIs left the safehouse, Tice arrived carrying in several bags of groceries.  Passing the family room on the way to the kitchen, he caught Jack’s eye, and said by way of greeting, “Hello son, a little help with these?”

Jack made no move to rise, mustering only a desultory wave.  After a moment, Tice shrugged and continued to the kitchen.  He set the bags on the kitchen countertop, saying they could deal with these later.  He had some important guidelines for the two of them.

Rather than make an issue of his son’s rudeness, Tice summoned Lance into the room.  The gist of his message was that the danger posed by the cartel was real.  The cartel would be sending the A team to find and attempt to kill the two of them.  He cautioned the pair to stay strictly inside the house and to keep the curtains closed.

When Lance left saying he wanted to continue stowing his things in the spare bedroom, Tice pulled up a chair for a private word with his son.  He asked what Jack had told Lance about him.

Same question Gus asked.  What aren’t they telling me?  Jack mumbled that he’d never said anything about his dad being a government agent.  Dad said that was good thinking.  Emphasized it was vital that Lance be kept in the dark about Tice’s Air Force connection.

“Come on, Dad, he doesn’t even know my last name.  I don’t know his either.  That’s the way it works on the streets.  The less we know, the less we can reveal if we get jammed up.”   

Tice was relieved to learn that.  No point in telling Jack that he knew Lance’s surname. 

“Well, that’s a relief to hear.  But I need you to pay attention.  These guys I hired to protect you have no connection to the military or to anyone in my chain of command.  And from what I know, they are good at keeping secrets.  I’m counting on you to keep a closed mouth as well.  Your life, or at least your future, may depend upon it.” 

“Why are you being so melodramatic?” 

“There’s a lot at stake here, beyond my being a federal agent.  I’d tell you more if I could.  For now, be aware that Lance’s dad is an officer in the Air Force.  Technically, he outranks me.  If he learns who his son’s friend has for a dad, there could be serious repercussions.”

So that’s it, or at least part of it.  But why serious repercussions?  Lance’s dad was in the same boat at his own dad.  And being an officer, has even more to lose.  What else isn’t he telling me?  But Jack intuited this was not the time for questions and said instead, “Thanks for the heads up, dad.  Don’t worry about me.”

Tice left a few minutes after four saying he’d probably not be able to check in for a few days.  Said that he was swarmed under by paperwork and meetings.  Well, he could hardly babysit them twenty-four/seven.  He was counting on them to keep safe.

He came away with a sense that Jack was too upset to even think about straying outside.  The bulk of his time would be spent cocooning with the sofa.  Not the worst way to handle his enforced confinement, Tice reasoned.  About Lance, he was less confident.

Lance had smuggled in some contraband in his backpack.  An hour after Tice left, he moved Jack’s feet off the sofa and sat down.  He’d brought some oxy tabs for Jack to keep him from crashing.  Not that he gave a shit about Jack’s wellbeing, but he damn sure didn’t want to be around an addict in the throes of withdrawal.

After handing a dozen tabs to Jack, he set out a line of coke on the coffee table.  Snorted the line and started bitching about his situation.  Having to stay cooped up, a virtual prisoner for who knows how long.  He was losing revenue.  His customers would probably go elsewhere.  

Jack had never seen him do cocaine.  They’d shared the occasional doobie, but he had assumed Lance stayed away from his own product.

“Are you sure that’s smart?” Jack said.  “What if the bad guys should show up?”

“Damn straight it’s smart.  If the bad guys do show up, it’ll give me that extra edge.  This time they won’t know what hit them.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”  Snorting some blow was, Jake supposed, a way of getting his current roommate’s game back.  Plus, Jack wasn’t about to argue with his supplier. 

Lance picked up the TV remote and turned on the news.  One way to short-circuit further niggling about a little coke.  Caught the local news team mid-broadcast covering the usual, a bad car accident, a home invasion.

After a break for commercials, the anchor broke to his reporter in Nogales who reported on a bloody ambush of a caravan of three vehicles east of Rocky Point, a popular tourist destination.  Three US citizens in addition to five Mexican nationals had been brutally slain.  Several kids had escaped by hiding in a ravine.  Evidence pointed to the upstart Penasco cartel.  Mexican Federales were investigating but no motive had been determined.

“Shit, man.  Likely the same fuckers that are after our butts.” Lance muttered.

Jack said nothing.

The news item underscored, as if further proof was needed, the brutality of the cartels and how they dealt with their adversaries.  Not something Lance wanted to be reminded of.  He changed the channel.  Added that he was not happy being in a confined space with no place to run.

He lit on reruns of Criminal Minds, which they binge watched until ten when Lance abruptly rose without uttering a single word and stalked off to his bedroom.  Jack fell asleep watching more reruns.  Turned off the TV when he woke up at seven-thirty.  He went into the kitchen and brewed a pot of coffee.

Later that morning, Lance emerged from his room and tottered barefoot to the kitchen.  He spotted the pot of Mr. Coffee already brewed.  Poured himself a mug and found it still drinkable.  Went into the family room and saw Jack curled into the sofa, a two-thirds empty mug on the coffee table.  Lance went into the living room and settled himself into a well-stuffed and well-worn La-Z-Boy.  His mind settled itself into another attempt to think through his situation and make sense of it. 

Jack’s dad only mention of a motive behind the gangbangers’ attack was it being an attempt to take over Lance’s narcotic’s operation, his territory and customer base.  But then why had this cartel sent a team to kill him and Jack?  Wouldn’t they want Lance to continue as a front man?  Didn’t make sense.

No, things were not ringing true with Jack’s story about why these two gangbangers showed up.  Jack had been useful but maybe he was becoming a liability.  But the deal about his dad was puzzling.  Other than the offhanded mention of his sales rep job, Jack had been closed mouth about his dad.  Now apparently, even that version of his job wasn’t true.

Well, he hadn’t quite bought that initial story from Jack about his dad being a manufacturer’s rep.  The way Gus had told it, Jack senior was a heavy hitter.  Had his own lucrative business.  The dad had already learned about Lance’s operation, and not from Jack.

Lance figured that the dad’s company probably did business in Mexico and Latin America.  And was big into corporate security, which is where the safehouse came from.  Also, likely the source about a cartel targeting him and Jack.  Anyway, something to do with security or protection.  Wondered if Jack senior was Mob connected. 

Did Jack or his dad know about Bennington senior, his own dad?  That his dad was associated with a fledgling cartel located in Sonora?  His dad had pushed the idea of adding Lance’s small operation to their marketing horizons, but Lance hadn’t resisted.  Was this attack even related to the proposed deal?  Maybe a rival cartel heard about the impeding alliance and decided to pre-empt their arrangement.  Barge in on the pickings.  

Lance was feeling increasingly jumpy.  He got up from the chair and wandered back into the kitchen, grazed the fridge out of habit before realizing that it was not his apartment’s fridge.  Jack’s dad had concentrated on staples and basics, mainly frozen meals, eggs, breakfast cereals.  No interesting snackies in the near-term for him. 

Lance didn’t fully appreciate why he had to stay cooped up in this house.  He was missing sales.  His regulars would be wondering where he was.  Maybe he could sneak out for a few hours, troll his usual spots, check out his apartment, and return before he was missed.

The standard procedure was for his clients to drop by Jack’s table at A Better Bean.  Jack would hand them a slip of paper with where and when to meet up with Lance.  The meeting spot rotated among several venues, one being that outdoor restaurant where the PIs had made them.

Wondered again who Jack’s dad really is.  People on the street avoided using last names.  He didn’t know Jack’s surname, and Jack didn’t know his.  First names only, or maybe monikers like Bones or Animal.  Jack’s dad had volunteered only that he went by John and that Jack was John Junior.  Since Lance wasn’t about to give out his own surname, he couldn’t very well ask the dad for his.

After that first evening when Lance tossed Jack a vial of oxy’s to keep the demons away, they hardly spoke to each other.   All the next day Jack continued to hug the sofa while Lance wandered and paced around the house like a caged lion.  Mid-morning, he asked Jack how he was doing and got a grunt in return.  The rest of the day neither one spoke to the other. 

The second full day was pretty much a repeat of the day before.  About eleven, Jack abandoned the sofa to find something to eat.  He fried two eggs and slathered a piece of toast with peanut butter and raspberry jam.  When Lance wandered in, he asked Lance if he was hungry but got a negative headshake in response.  He ate standing up, placed his empty plate in the sink, and returned to the sofa.  Lance resumed his pacing routine.

Jack checked out the TV.  Found that it had Netflix and Amazon Prime.  He browsed Amazon, zeroed in on the new season of Jack Ryan and began binge watching.  Something to occupy the time.  Lance wandered in during the third episode and sat down to watch.  Neither one spoke.  At the end of the fourth episode, Lance apparently had enough.  Pushed himself from the room’s easy chair, plush but not a recliner, and headed to the kitchen.

If Jack was beginning to find the confinement burdensome, Lance found it several notches more so.  Wondered how long they’d be stuck there.  For it to stretch into weeks would be intolerable.  John senior had said during his Come to Jesus speech that these cartels have a long memory.  What signs was Jack’s dad looking for, to give the all clear.  He hadn’t specified.

He fixed a sandwich and went to his bedroom to eat it.  The bedroom had a small desk and chair.  The desk had a letter holder and some scratch paper, and several ballpoints in a pull-out drawer, but nothing interesting like a laptop.  Lance took a sheet of paper and began idly doodling, letting his mind wander.

Lance’s suspicious side began to assert itself.  He began to smell a double-cross.  He had long been aware that Jack’s dad wanted his son free of his opioid addiction.  He knew of Jack’s history with previous treatment programs.

Normally Lance was a sound sleeper, but that third night in the house, he lay awake playing on these suspicions.  He concluded that this whole assassin scenario was an elaborate hoax to destroy his operation and scare Jack into finally becoming serious about getting this opioid monkey off his back. 

The gangbanger attack and the subsequent rescue had been staged by a quartet of stuntmen, which meant there were no assassins after him.  The beatdown was payback from the dad for being Jack’s supplier.

Lance had not really bought the idea that the Penasco cartel would turn on his dad.  He was too valuable to them, especially with him arranging to have son Lance brought into their distribution network.  It did bother him that his dad had not been in contact recently, but infrequent contact was nothing new.  No news was good news, he figured.  He chose to believe the alliance with the Penascos was still in play.

The clincher: Jack and his dad had no knowledge about the Bennington’s pending alliance with the Penasco cartel.  The two gangbangers had said only that they were from the cartel.  He had assumed they meant the Penasco cartel.  John’s later story was of an unspecified cartel wanting to take over his territory, likely a fabrication.  Not knowing what he knew, they figured he would not question the assassin story.

He was being duped, Jack probably as well.  The dad was pulling the strings.  Lance did not relish the potential endgame.  Jack so cowed he’d finally get serious about a treatment program.  Off he’d go with his dad.  But then what about him, Lance.  Would they just deposit him back at his apartment, or would he continue to be their prisoner, or would he become a coyote’s meal in the desert?  Jack’s dad had an air of menace about him.  Maybe reflective of mob connections.

So why the hell was he playing along.  For one, he didn’t have an escape plan.  For now, he’d play it by ear.  The logical first step was to make a return to his university turf, do a reconnoiter, check on his customers if he was to salvage his business.  He might have to start over somewhere else, depending how much a threat Jack’s dad posed.

The next morning, he took his coffee to the living room and its comfortable recliner.   If he was to make a successful escape, he’d have to get past Jack.  He left the living room La-Z-Boy and looked in on Jack.  Saw him deep into a morning snooze.

Jack had also suffered a night of insomnia.  He’d tried watching TV.  In the past, the TV had been a reliable soporific.  No dice, he hadn’t fallen asleep until it started getting light.  He’d gone for a pee, probably about six, then returning had fallen into a deep sleep that would last until almost noon.    

Lance wrote out a note for Jack and left it on the kitchen counter.  He’d been cooped up long enough.  Lance had finally argued himself into a visit back to the university to check in with his clientele.  It was mid-morning.

With Jack soundly in la-la land, Lance crept past the family room entryway thru the kitchen to the front door.  Opened it a few inches at a time, listening for any giveaway creaks.  Until he had an opening just wide enough to slide through. 

The house was in the middle of the block. He walked to the corner, read the street signs.   He’d paid little attention on that ride to the house after his rescue.  He could be almost anywhere in Tucson.  The signs said Sage and Park.  From the look of the neighborhood, Lance guessed his location was south of the university in the direction of Tucson Air Force Base.  Park merged into Euclid which ran by University Avenue, a few blocks from his apartment.  Probably a four-mile hoof.  He began a brisk walk north on Park, crossed Irvington, then Ajo, and under I-10, his paranoid side constantly checking for suspicious characters. 

He’d head for A Better Bean and check for customers.  He’d be more careful about the apartment.  You never knew who might be watching.

In the kitchen, where Jack had gone to fix himself some lunch, he had not encountered Lance.  He had not taken his plate to the dining room but had returned to his sofa to eat.  He figured Lance was around somewhere, maybe in his room or in the bathroom off his bedroom.  About two and no Lance, he’d done a search and spotted the note.

Jack called Tice.  “Dad, we have a situation.  Lance is missing.”

In turn, Tice called Gus, who happened to be hanging out with Jerry at the clubhouse.  The two PIs went to their respective homes and grabbed their gear for a potential overnight.  They met back and were on their way to the safehouse.  If Gus was still a cop, he’d have the flashers on, barreling down Ajo at ninety.   He limited the truck to ten miles above the posted fifty-five, which on that stretch descending into the Tucson basin kept him abreast the main flow of traffic. 

They parked down the street from the house and came in the back way in case the house was under surveillance from unfriendly observers. 

“Bring us up to date,” Gus said to Tice, who’d arrived ten minutes earlier.

“Lance, the fool, snuck out.  He got past Jack who was asleep in front of the TV.”

“I should have been more alert,” Jack said.  “I’ve been worried he might pull a stunt like this.  He’s been antsy ever since we got stashed here.”

“Not your fault,” his dad said.

“Maybe not.  I had a bad bout of insomnia last night.  I finally fell asleep sometime early morning and didn’t wake up until noon.  But I didn’t realize he was gone until a couple of hours later.  I didn’t see him in the kitchen, and I missed his note that he left on the dining room table.”

“Not your fault, son,” Tice said again.

“But I can’t help feeling bad.  I know it’s pathetic, but he’s my only real friend.  It wasn’t until about two that I sensed something was wrong.  The house was too silent.  I went looking and that’s when I saw the note.  It said that he went out to check on some things, but he’d be back by this evening.”

“Do you think he was being straight about returning?”

“I don’t know, dad.”

“The question now,” Tice said.  “Should we wait or go searching?”

“Probably should start a search.  He could have left any time before noon.  Ten?  Eleven?  Possibly as early as nine.  I’ll go,” Jerry said.  “You two stay here and watch after Jack.”

Tice and Gus each gave a thumbs up and a go find him by way of encouragement.

***

Earlier, Lance had found a customer at the usual table in A Better Bean, except the customer had expected to find Jack, not Lance.

“Where’s Jack?” he asked.

“Had other stuff to do.  How can I help?”

“Will he have time to tutor me for an upcoming calculus exam?”  That was code for Roofies.  Had he said psychology exam, that would have been code for Ecstasy.

“I’m meeting him for a late lunch.  I’ll check with him about his schedule.  Meet me over at the Time Out about five.”  It was a Lance favorite for enjoying a happy hour brew.

Lance waited another hour and a second Americano, but no other customer showed.  Well, he’d have to stop by his apartment to get his customer’s order and besides he wanted to check his email and retrieve his burner phone, which he’d left behind in the confusion.   He’d been away three full days since the rescue and maybe his dad had tried to contact him about the meeting.

He left A Better Bean and started toward his apartment.  It was ten after one by the coffeehouse clock.  Turning the corner to his street, he spotted two Hispanics checking the outside.  They were in typical student garb, but he didn’t recognize them as customers.

They spotted him.  Yelled at him in Spanish to wait up.   Espere!  Said they heard he could score them some blow.  Since the attack, Lance didn’t trust them.  Figured them for another pair of actors hired by Jack’s dad.  They’d likely haul him back to the safehouse.  Put a scare in him.

He didn’t want to be dragged back to the safehouse by some paid help.  He hadn’t yet decided if he’d even return.  Maybe it was a good time to disappear, forget the cartel alliance, surface and start over elsewhere.  Maybe the Pacific Northwest.

He took off and they took off after him.  He hid behind a dumpster, deciding to give it a quarter hour.  They found him ten minutes later and escorted him back to his apartment.

“Okay, okay.  Let me get some stuff before you take me back to that damn prison Jack calls a safehouse.”  Lance wanted to get his hands on his burner phone.

The two assassins looked at him with puzzled expressions.  “What safehouse?”

“So that’s the way you want to play it.”  His last words before they began beating the crap out of him.

But not his final words, those being the address of this alleged safehouse right before Miguel showed the machete.

***

Jerry tried Lance’s favorite coffeehouse first.  The barista said he’d been in.  Left about one.  Jerry had missed him by two hours.  The apartment was next.  He parked and walked around the side.  The damaged door was partially open.  He went inside and promptly called Gus.

“You find him?” Gus asked.

“I found him back at his apartment.  The door was unlocked.  I found him inside.  But I was too late.  He is a very dead Lance.”

“What now?”

“I’ll return and we can hatch a plan.”

Back at the safehouse, the three assembled for a summit without Jack.  Hearing about Lance, he had broken down, openly sobbing.  They stowed him in the panic room.  He protested, saying he was alright and wanted to be part of the discussion, but they were firm.  There was stuff to be said and decisions to be made that he shouldn’t hear, at least yet.

Tice began with a brief mia culpa.  “I hate to see any kid Lance’s age, regardless of what he’s done, end up that way.  I promised his dad I’d keep him safe, and I failed.”

“I can sympathize.  The sick feeling when you can’t keep a promise like that,” Jerry said.  “It was obvious he’d been tortured.  I called nine-one-one, gave them the address and took off.  I didn’t want to waste time with the local cops.  It might get awkward.”

“They might find your DNA or fingerprints.”

“Not likely.  I pushed in the door with my foot.  Lance’s mutilated body was in plain sight, and I didn’t touch anything.  Our real worry should be that his killers were pros sent by the cartel.  It’s likely Lance gave up the safehouse before he was executed.”

“Why not move Jack to another venue?” Tice asked.  “You guys must know a place.”

“If these goons are looking for Jack, it’s best we get the confrontation behind us and sooner rather than later,” Jerry said.

“And on our turf,” Jerry added. 

“There’s that,” Gus said.

“What about it?  You ready to take on two bad-ass assassins?” Jerry said.

“Yo, Sundance.”

Tice had to return to his office.  He arranged for Jack’s protection squad to house sit for the next day or two.   He’d check in every couple of hours.  If these goons had the address, they could expect a visit soon, maybe during the night. 

“What do we do with Jack if they show up?” Gus said.

“We should keep him stowed in the panic room,” Jerry said.  “Remember Tice bragged that it was not only soundproof, but gun proof to anything short of a howitzer.”

They settled in.  Watching TV was out.  They had to be alert for unfamiliar sounds.  Time to stay alert and monitor their surroundings.  They set up their surveillance equipment, which Gus carried in his truck.  He went out and retrieved a video and a sound monitor.  They set up the video to shadow the sidewalk and street in both directions.  They installed the sound monitor to pick up sounds like footsteps within two hundred feet.

Their early warning system in place, they passed the time playing gin-rummy. 

“Penny a point?”

“Okay, but you’ll have to carry me until my dole comes in.” 

“Oh, right.”

Jerry’s remark was hardly a declaration of poverty, but rather an acknowledgment of Gus’ marked superiority in cards, all games except poker. 

It was a quiet afternoon.  Jerry was right.  Angel’s gentlemen callers refrained from making their appearance until an hour after midnight.  They parked their borrowed car down the block and came on foot.

“Footsteps,” Gus said.  The pair turned their eyes to the video.  It caught the pair of assassins walking down the sidewalk as if they were two guys coming home from a night out at a local tavern.  The watchdogs were not fooled.

At the property line, they scanned the street, finding it dark and empty.  Miguel split off where a border of low water bushes met the sidewalk.  He slouched down and headed for the back of the safehouse.  Given the brazen approach by the assassins, they didn’t appear to be expecting serious opposition.  

“How do we handle this?” Gus said, deferring to Jerry, the military tactician.

“Which mug do you want, Mr. Front or Mr. Back?”

“I’ll go with Mr. Front.  Wonder how they plan to gain entrance?  Pick the locks or a cruder approach like break a window?”

If they could get these goons to surrender, take them alive, the plan was to turn the assassins over to Tice’s team as illegals engaged in a cartel murder plot.  Jack would conveniently disappear, along with Gus and Jerry.  The connection between Tice senior and Jack was not known to Angel and certainly not to the assassins.

Local law enforcement would be kept out of it.  Tice would sell it to the brass as an unfortunate outcome of his efforts to protect Lance Bennington after his father’s anguished plea during the second interrogation.  Tice had tried and failed because Lance had not followed instructions.

But it didn’t turn out that way.  Gus would be forced to kill the guy entering from the front; Jerry, the thug entering from the rear.

Gus heard a tinkle of glass.  Not one of glass shattering.  The assassin apparently had one of those glass cutters to etch a round hole in the window, then reach through and work the window lock.  He heard the window quietly raising, inch by inch. Then an almost silent footstep as the thug placed his left foot on the living room carpet.  He eased himself through.

Gus stepped out from behind the partition.  Pointed his Sig Sauer at the assassin.  “On the floor motherfucker.”

Instead the assassin Hector pulled a knife from his belt and charged at Gus.  The Sig popped twice.  Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, asshole.    But the Sicario was wearing a vest, apparently expecting some resistance.  He staggered but kept coming.  He was almost on Gus charging with knife underhanded, figuring a panicked shooter would miss, but Gus didn’t miss.  The bullet went through Hector’s forehead.

Miguel met a similar fate.  He had heard Gus’ shout followed by two gunshots, then followed a few moments later by a third.  When he hesitated, Jerry yelled, “Levanta las manos.”

But the assassin would rather die than be captured.  He pulled his knife and charged.  Jerry had also heard the sequence of gunshots, which tipped him to the vest.  He aimed for the head and caught Miguel in the throat, followed by a second to his forehead.  Game over.

Both assailants had only knives as weapons.  The PIs figured they didn’t want to be caught carrying a firearm.  Also figured the assassins assumed the element of surprise and hadn’t counted on the video surveillance.  Or more likely thought that only their target would be at the safehouse.  They had miscalculated.  As a result, Gus and Jerry had the bodies of two dead assassins to deal with.

They called Tice.  Caught him in a waking cycle of a disturbed sleep over worry about his son.  Broken sleep had been his curse since he learned that his son was a target of the cartel.  Gus informed him that the assassins had shown up, as he predicted.  Seemed to be barely listening before voicing his only concern:  was his son safe?  Yes, but now they had two dead assassins to deal with.  That woke him up.  A decidedly unwelcome development.  “Shit, that’s not good.”

“Look on the bright side, John.  They can’t return to Sonora and report to the cartel.  For all the jefe knows, both Lance and Jack are dead.  When the assassins fail to return it will sow confusion in the enemy camp.”

“I’ll figure out something.  This has to be kept between the three of us.  Try to get some sleep.  One of you, whoever is less squeamish, can sleep on Lance’s bed.  The other in Jack’s bedroom.  Let him keep in the panic room for now.  I’ll be over in the morning.” 

Chapter Eighteen

Tice showed up at the safehouse at seven a.m. sharp.  Knocked.  Gus got the door.  “Gus, you look like hell,” Tice greeted.

“Good to see you too,” Gus responded as Jerry walked in from one of the bedrooms.

“Have a seat,” Jerry said, “while we pour coffee down us.”

“Good plan.  Where’s my son?”

“He’s safe but pretty shaken up.  He’s still in the panic room.  Said he wouldn’t come out until you got here.”

“Does he know I’m here?”

“Not yet.  Like you said, those walls are soundproof both ways.”

“Okay, I’ll go see him after we talk.  I’d like to figure out things with you guys first.  But a sincere thank you for keeping him safe.  Okay, cut to the chase, I hear you have some bodies to show me.”

“Jerry, you’re good with the play by play,” Gus said.   

Tice listened to Jerry’s account of the confrontation.  For his part, Jerry downplayed the heroics.  Kept to the specifics of how they set up a video surveillance of the area and surprised the killers.  Gus added his assurance that the sound of their gunfire had not gone beyond the four walls of the safehouse.  At any rate, there had been no nine-one-one call from a neighbor and no law enforcement response.

When they finished, Tice said, “It looks to me that we have two issues ahead of us.  What to do with the bodies and what to do about my son.” 

Jerry said, “We went into the panic room after it was over.  He’s still upset that Lance got killed.  He’s scared but trying not to show it.”

“Jerry’s right about the scared part.  He wouldn’t leave the panic room.  Slept on the cot in there.”  

“Do you guys think he’s finally ready to take rehab seriously?  That he’ll do the work?  Not look for another Lance?”

“That’s your call, but that’s a lot more likely than three days ago.  Whatever you and Jack decide, we should get him situated somewhere else as soon as possible.”

“Gus is right.  It won’t take long for your cartel boss to figure his assassins screwed up.  And from what you say, he’s not the type to throw in the towel.”

“Yeah, I get it.  This safehouse is no longer safe.  Plus, I don’t have another handy.  I’m not the CIA.  This house will go quietly on the market.  Should I advertise that it features a panic room?”

“Maybe a good selling point in today’s world,” Gus chuckled.

“Good thought.  But let’s get back to our dead assassins.  We need to take care of this, so I can work on getting my boy into a treatment program.  Gus, can we use your truck to transport the bodies?”

“Are you thinking we deliver them to some remote site in the desert?”

“Exactly.  And I have just the place in mind.”

Tice was familiar with how the Border Patrol worked west of Tucson.  He knew the BP was focused mainly on people and vehicle headed toward Tucson through the check point at Three Points on the Ajo Highway (AZ-86).  They took less interest in vehicles headed west.

“I don’t think it’s wise for me to go with you.  I know it’s a lot to ask, but I can’t afford to be seen in your company.  Raises too many questions.”

“Understood.  We can handle it.”

“Okay, I’ll give you directions.”

Jerry brought up Bing maps, so Tice could reference it as he talked.  He advised they take the bodies out AZ-86, but only as far as the junction with AZ-286, which is before the BP checkpoint.  They should make a left and drive south towards the border.

“When you arrive at the north border of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge—should be a sign—go back a mile or so and then go off-road until you find a good dumping spot.  Forget shallow graves, as the process of digging might leave trace for a crime scene crew.  Best to dump them into an arroyo and ring the coyote dinner bell.  Okay, go make it Like it never happened.”

“Yeah, like the Servpro slogan.”

Tice felt no obligation to inform the local authorities of the killing of these two illegals.  He would gladly help find them a resting place that would not be discovered, or if discovered would look like a cartel hit.  After all, these weren’t American citizens. So why put resources into a serious investigation?

Gus and Jerry set out mid-day.  They put the canvas-covered bodies in the truck bed and covered them with building materials, lumber, tools, bags of cement.  At Three Points, Gus turned left and headed south on 286.  They drove to the wildlife refuge and backtracked a mile.  They had not seen a Border Patrol presence the entire drive, and precious few other vehicles, all heading the other way.  Maybe because it was a Saturday.  Maybe these few vehicles were transporting illegals, but that was not their concern.

This area was away from the main route taken by illegals carrying drugs or hoping to find employment.  It lay east of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and well east of the Goldwater Air Force range.  They turned into the desert.  Gus shifted into four-wheel drive and carefully dodged all boulders having the heft to knock out a drive train.  A mile in, they stopped at the edge of an arroyo that effectively stopped further incursion into the desert.

Jerry looked it over and told Gus he felt it offered an ideal dumping ground.  “This spot shouldn’t see any traffic, either illegals or Homeland, over at least the next week or ten days while the desert does its work.”

They lifted the two bodies from the truck bed and rolled them into the arroyo.  The disposal operation had turned out to be a piece of cake.

Back in Tucson they reported mission accomplished to Tice, who then turned his efforts to dealing with Jack’s future.  Tice connected with a premier opioid rehab center that had a place for Jack.  The facility agreed to an immediate weekend admission.  For the first time in his son’s long struggle, Tice was optimistic, watching an upbeat Jack stride through the facility’s doors.

Nonetheless, Tice had to confront the unnerving prospect that the cartel and its jefe, the unhinged Angel Jimenez, could still reach his son.  The facility was not a fortress.  Security was adequate for a treatment center, which is to say adequate for keeping out negative elements like good-time friends who might undermine the program.

But keeping a resident safe from a team of determined cartel assassins, another story.  The facility could be penetrated, and the target taken out.  Had the facility known that its new patient had a target on his back, his admission might have been denied.

Monday morning, the morning after Jack was settled at the facility, Tice awoke to absolute clarity about the path he must follow.  Until Angel Jimenez was destroyed, his own son Jack would never be safe.  And achieving this objective required a preemptive strike on the devil’s own turf.

Sitting in his office surrounded by the trappings of his position and authority, he was struck by the realization that he was embarking on a path abhorrent to all he stood for.  His career had always been adherence to established procedure and following the rule of law.  That was the way his ethical compass had always pointed.  What his father had instilled in him.  What he’d instilled in his son until the damn opioids had ensnared him in its powerful grip.

Follow procedure and adhere to what was allowed legally.  Be creative and proactive, but always within the law.  He’d accepted that it was a battle with one hand tied behind him, as with all law enforcement.  He’d never imagined it would come to this, but now he realized it was a path preordained from the moment he had entered the digits of Jerry Hunter’s cell into his own.

Now, it was about protecting his son, saving him from a fate he did not deserve.  If the evidence from the Smith and the Lance crime scenes were a preview, then torture, as an appetizer for these monsters, would precede a violent death.  The rules of procedure and the law versus his son, the scales no longer balanced.  Henceforth, his actions must not be guided by absolute moral standards, but by the circumstances that were placed in front of him.  He would chop off the head of the snake.  There had to be no equivocating.  All in or pass.

For once he’d be playing by their rules, which meant no rules, except plan meticulously, execute fearlessly, survive.  But even survival was not paramount.  No wife to make a widow.  He was the widow, his spouse and partner lost to an enemy as cruel as the adversary he’d be facing.

No, he could not think like that.  His son had a long road ahead of him, and Tice needed to be there for him on this journey.  Moreover, his daughter whom he’d supported and mentored through her own struggles as a female wanting a law enforcement career, should not be deprived of his continuing support.

That night his dreams were invaded by a phantasmagoria of self-images.  He was variously a wretched prisoner in a dank dungeon awaiting execution, a holy crusader entering Jerusalem, but a Jerusalem in the guise of a Mexican village, in the thrall of a cause greater than himself.  Like the Medieval Crusader, Richard the Lion-Hearted, who gave up crown and kingdom  for a holy quest.  He awoke in a cold sweat to a dream fantasy of him in the dress of a cartel Sicario on horseback charging across the Sonoran Desert. 

The meaning of this waking image was crystal clear.  He was trading in his ethics, his code of law, and assuming the mantle of the cartels.  He was plunging into a personal dark night of the soul and heaven help him.

He climbed from his bed, still groggy, and managed his way to his kitchen.  He turned on his Mr. Coffee and sat himself in his favorite La-Z-Boy while it brewed.  He drifted off and woke up an hour later.  Returned to his kitchen, hoping his coffee was still drinkable.  Poured a half inch in the bottom of his cup and tasted it.  Lacked that fresh taste, but not bad.  Figured he’d needed that extra hour to pull himself together.

He dressed and instead of driving straight to his office, he drove to breakfast alone at his favorite Denny’s, the one near the base.  In this safe, familiar environment, he reviewed the logic of his resolve, weighing the consequences of doing nothing against taking up the sword of action.  The stakes for Jack were too high.  He recommitted himself.

Having the time off would not be an issue.  Tice had copious vacation time coming.  In fact, he was in a use it or lose it juncture regarding accumulated vacation days.  With the scumbag major in custody, his fate was now the business of military justice.  Tice’s superiors had also been urging him to take time off, to take some of that accumulated vacation time.  He’d earned it.  That afternoon, he put in for that vacation time, effective immediately.

He had to get real about another aspect of this mission.  The dream of going it alone, somehow infiltrating the cartel’s fortress and facing his enemy in mortal combat, was rash, likely doomed to failure, or as the kids would say, off the wall.  So, the question became who could he trust to share this exploit?  Was it even possible to find such allies? 

On the contrary, there were those who might see this undertaking as a lawless enterprise, and sell him out to his superiors, and he end up court-marshalled and disgraced.  However romantically such a cause might be portrayed in the media, the stuff of a Hollywood movie, going rogue would not be looked at sympathetically by the brass, the authorities, or by the bureaucrats, the pencil pushers.   

Enlisting his own AFOSI team was out, although several among them might embrace such a crusade.  They’d expressed frustration at the legal constraints.  Had gone so far as to fantasize a raid into Mexico to confront the cartel on their home turf.  The Federales be damned.  Many were corrupt in any case.  But no, they had careers and some of them had dependents.  He could not ask that kind of sacrifice of these men.  He had to go outside the ranks, off the reservation, to find his fellow warriors.

But if going it alone was suicidal, who would he recruit?  Who would he dare approach, a comrade in arms who would neither betray nor scoff?  After many moments of indecision, he entered Jerry Hunter’s cell number into his own burner phone.

Jerry answered with a “Yo Tice,” followed by “How goes it with son Jack?  We’ve been eager for an update.”

“I got him in a treatment program, but that’s not why I’m calling.”

Tice outlined what he was planning, and after Jerry remarked about maybe Tice was losing his marbles, outlined the why of it.  At which Jerry relented, allowing that he couldn’t fault Tice’s reasoning about the continued danger to Jack posed by a madman like this Angel. 

“Well, if you are dead set on this, count me in.  And likely Gus as well.  I’ll be meeting him later.  The three of us can meet at the clubhouse and brainstorm.”

Tice had pegged these guys spot on.  They’d rise to a challenge.  Likely see it as a logical extension of their assignment to protect his son. 

Jerry got back to Tice that afternoon.  “Gus says he’s on board.  Come over this evening, say about seven-thirty, to our lair.”

Tice showed up at seven-twenty.  Entering, Jerry handed him a bottle of Corona, ice cold.  Tice saw that both Gus and Jerry had bottles in hand.  They decided to adjourn to the conference room, a more appropriate setting than the backroom table meant for idle chit-chat.

Seated, Jerry opened.  “Gus wonders if you’d trust us bringing in someone from the outside.  Neither of us two Marauders have much on the ground experience traveling in Mexico.  A google map only goes so far.  We should have someone with experienced eyes on the ground and one who can also pass as a native.”

Tice said he’d certainly consider it.

“Thought you might,” Jerry said.  “Us three going it alone has a romantic ring about it but is not exactly practical.  Our parent firm, to remind you. is Maestras Investigation.  Rocky, the guy who got the lowdown on Lance, hates the cartels.  Gus proposes asking to borrow one of his agents, a Hispanic named Manuel Lopez.  Goes by Manny.  Born in Mexico but is now an American citizen.  Okay, sympathizes with the illegals, those wanting jobs and a better life, but hates the cartels.  He had a brother in the police who was killed by the cartels because he wasn’t open to a bribe.”

“My concern is keeping this affair below the radar,” Tice said.

“Don’t worry on that score.” Gus assured him.  “Rocky and his men are totally trustworthy when it comes to client confidentiality.  They’ll certainly keep a closed mouth when it comes to my FBI brother.”

“Okay, make your inquiries.”

“Good.  He’d be a real asset.  Speaks Mexican with a Sonoran accent.  Which brings me to an idea,” Gus said.

“I’m certainly open to good ideas.”

“You need cover, not only in keeping your plans below the radar, but also afterwards.  If we succeed in taking down Angel, after the fact your intelligence people will want to know who done it.  My thinking, let’s leave evidence pointing to the killing as plausibly the work of a rival cartel.”

“I like the way you think, Gus.  Could we do it and make it convincing?”

“Yeah, I think we could.  Anyway, it’s worth brainstorming about.  I’ll call Rocky.  Like I said, he hates the cartels as much as you do.”

“Talking about Rocky’s agent brought another person to mind.  We need someone who knows San Javier and can help with setting up the kill.” 

“You think you know someone like that?” Jerry said.

“You two will probably say I’m nuts, but I have a woman in mind, a tough cookie named Rosita Diaz.”

“Wasn’t she the girl traveling north with the other two illegals?” Jerry said.  “The one who got bitten by the rattler?  Yup, you probably have gone off the deep end.”

“No, wait, hear me out.  It’s a bit more complicated.  Rosita hates Angel with a passion.  Her brother shared this during my interrogation of him.  I’m not thinking of her as traveling with us.  At any rate, she is due for deportation while her application for asylum is being processed.”

“Why do you think she would work with us?”

“Maybe she won’t, but I think it’s worth approaching her.  Like I said, she clearly harbors a deep hatred of this cartel boss.  I think she was sweet on the brother.  She maintained he was the opposite of Angel and was essentially forced into doing his brother’s bidding.  So bottom line, she blames Angel for his death.”

“If you can recruit her and I can bring Manny aboard, that makes a team of five, each with a distinct skill set to contribute,” Gus said.

“Sounds good,” Tice said.

“Okay then,” Gus said.  “Let’s finalize the team and then deal with the other issues, like how we get across the border, what we can smuggle in, and how we engineer the kill.”

“And how we get back across, assuming we aren’t feeding the buzzards,” Jerry said.

“That to.”

Gus called Rocky at his home.  He first offered some negatives that Gus rebutted, then gave his wholehearted approval.  He said to give him until next morning to dialogue with Manny, after which he’d get back with an answer.

The next morning also, Tice drove to the Tucson Detention Center.  Homeland Security had decided not to charge Rosita with a crime, viewing her as an unwilling participant in the journey north and in consideration of her forthright testimony that helped identify the bent major.  But she was an illegal and targeted for return to Mexico while her application for asylum was under review.

Tice had to be careful both in presenting what he wanted from her and in making sure that his proposition did not reach the wrong ears.

“I have a few questions for you.  Does the cartel know it was you who accompanied Angel’s brother on his journey north?”

“I’m not sure, but probably not.  I told my family that I was taking a trip to Hermosillo to visit a friend who lives there.  My brother insisted because Angel would have been upset if he knew the truth.  If he learned of a woman, Angel would assume that she was a puta his brother had picked up.”

“From what you’re saying, it’s unlikely he’d know we might be working together.”

“Working together?”

“Maybe.  If you agree.”

Rosita broke into a wide smile.  “I’d like that, whatever it is.”

Tice continued with the vetting.  “Where do you plan to go when you are deported?”

“I will return to San Javier as if I am returning from my visit to Hermosillo.  It is important for my story that I cross back at Nogales, not Lukeville or El Paso.” 

“You think you will be safe in your home for now?”

“Me espere.  I hope so.”

“This next question is most delicate.  You’ve said you have this deep hatred for Angel.  How deep?  Enough to want to see him dead.  Enough to help secure that death?”

Rosita was momentarily silent.  Wanting something and helping to bring it about were not the same.  But yes, if she did desire his death, she should want to help.

“Si.  Absolutamente, Senior Tice.  Not only for revenge, but also to protect my brother.  If Angel learns that he has informed against the cartel, this monster will somehow secure my brother’s death.”

“Before I say more, I want your pledge that you will not reveal to anyone what I am about to tell you.  It involves our plans to remove Angel permanently from your life and the life of your brother.”

“I swear on the Virgin.” 

Tice outlined his plans to cross the border with a team of tough hombres to take out Angel on his own turf.  Set it up so that a rival cartel would take the blame.  Told her they were recruiting an agent who could impersonate a native of her village, even a cartel soldier.

“Let me clarify.  This is not a government sanctioned operation.  Our bosses would not allow, let alone approve such a mission.  Like you, I am doing this to protect a family member, my son.  He has been marked for death by Angel.”

“We have a common bond, then, Senor Tice.”

“Indeed, we do.  The plan will be to wait a few days after you cross back to Sonora.  My team will make its way to San Javier.  We will require a secure hide-out for us and a means of communication between us.  I don’t think cell phones are a good idea.  In fact, best we don’t communicate until we arrive in San Javier.  We have not yet determined how Angel will meet his death.”

“I am to be deported tomorrow.  I will not fight this deportation.  I will tell my attorney that I’m wanting to see my parents and siblings.  I have not shared my situation with them.  I will tell him I need to return and reassure them that I am safe, and then I am yours for this fight.”

“Now as to our means of communication,” Tice said.

“I have already considered this,” Rosita said.  “On the highway leading into San Javier from the east is a shrine to Philomena, Patron Saint of Infants, in memory of my youngest sister.  She died before her sixth month.  I will hide my communications in the shrine, and you should do the same.”

That evening, Tice met back with the team.  “Good news.  I have secured Rosita as our inside contact on Angel and his movements.”

By then, Rocky’s man Manny was also there, an eager and able recruit to the team.

Tice said, “One idea is to cross over at the less busy Lukeville border.  But I don’t like it.  Rosita’s village is on the highway that heads southeast from Lukeville.  I like approaching the village from the opposite direction, which dictates crossing at Nogales.  The route south from Nogales is Mexico’s 15D which meets up with Mexico 2 at Santa Ana, seventy-five miles south of Nogales.  At Santa Ana we take the highway northwest, thus approaching San Javier from the opposite direction, if cartel scouts are watching.”

“That decided,” Jerry said, “how do we execute the kill?” 

“I spoke with Rocky and he will arrange peasant clothing and weapons for us as well as an undercover vehicle,” Gus said.  “I’m thinking maybe we intercept at an intersection or on a rural road.  But Rosita said she would work at arranging a take-down site.”

There would be no project initiation document of the type that preceded the hunt for Bennington.  No official paperwork.  In fact. no documents of any kind.  Tice was going off the reservation.

Chapter Nineteen

The next morning, the day after his meeting with Rosita, Tice drove to the Detention Center.  He managed a brief conversation while she was waiting to board the Nogales bus with a dozen other deportees.  She said to give her six days to lay the groundwork before they show up in San Javier.

The team used those days to assemble their equipment and supplies and make final decisions about vehicles and exit strategies.  Rocky arranged for an operative stationed in Mexico to meet up south of the border and supply the team with ordnance that might not survive a border inspection and with an undercover vehicle sporting Sonora plates to be exchanged for Gus’ Ford Explorer, his other Ford.

Before he departed on this secret undertaking that could end in his death, he felt compelled to pay an in-person visit to his daughter.  There was no time to wait for one of her periodic runs through Tucson.  Asking her to come for a special visit might send the wrong message.  As much as he would want to confide in her, demanding absolute secrecy would impose an unconscionable burden.  He decided on a round-trip drive to her border patrol station near Ajo, an easy one-day jaunt.  He phoned to make sure she could meet, but framed the trip as mainly for official Air Force business. 

They met at a local Ajo restaurant, late morning before the lunch rush.  After the usual small talk about how her life was going, he mentioned that a recent assignment—any mention of Bennington still off-limits even to his daughter—had come to a successful conclusion.  His superiors had advised him to take some deserved vacation time.  He’d decided to go deep sea fishing with some friends.

“You’ll probably think I’m a crepe-hanging alarmist for bringing this up.  But if something should happen to me, I need your assurance that you will look after Jack.”

“I was going to ask, how is he?”

“I’ve got some great news.  He’s in a rehab program and this time he appears genuinely motivated to take control of his life and rid himself of the opioids.  You should get in contact.”

“That’s so good to hear.  And I guess what you’re saying is I’m now free to have contact with him.  No more career worries on that score.  I’ll call and offer my support.  Of course, I’ll be there for him if something should happen to you.  Hah, no way that’s going to happen.”

***

Six mornings after Rosita’s pre-board meeting with Tice, the team assembled for the incursion into Mexico.  Tice had researched the Nogales border crossing and had decided on mid-morning Wednesday, which fit with Rosita’s schedule.  Mid-morning might be less busy than earlier, but the border agents would be less fresh after the morning rush, especially if there was a back-up.

Tice suggested he cross on foot separately from the others.  He’d rather not have his AFOSI mug associated with the PIs.  He proposed to walk across and meet up with the team at a cantina in Nogales favored by gringos.  He’d tell the border agents he was meeting up with friends arriving in Nogales later.  Purpose of visit?  Pleasure, not business.  Tice said he’d drive his own car to the Arizona side and park it in a long-term lot.

The drive time to Nogales was an hour, give or take.  There were no border patrol checkpoints for southbound travelers.  These could become an issue on the return, providing they didn’t find it necessary to go to Plan B, or worst case, leave their mission-failure corpses on Mexican soil.

Arriving at Nogales, Tice drove his Malibu to a parking lot with both day and long-term parking.  The lot was used mostly by persons on a day visit to the Sonora side.  Some were there for the inexpensive dental work, others for shopping.  These day visitors walked across or took commercial vehicles for that purpose.  Tice lost himself in the anonymity of this throng and crossed without incident.

The others drove across in the Ford.  Gus now possessed an Arizona enhanced driver’s license in addition to his passport.  They crossed as three happy-go-lucky middle-aged adolescents bent on some Mexican-flavored good times.  Their first stop was to retrieve Tice.

Finding Tice was not a problem.  Jerry knew the cantina in question and directed Gus to a seedy tavern a half-mile into Nogales.  This tavern, favored by gringos bent on some mild mayhem, posed the first challenge to a smooth unfolding of the journey south.

While Gus stayed as the driver, Manny and Jerry entered the cantina where they found Tice involved in a heated argument with two drunk Air Force mechanics from Tucson Air base.  On a Wednesday yet, when they should be at the base.

Go figure the odds, some months back the pair had been busted by Tice’s men for assaulting a fellow enlistee.  They wanted to know what Tice was doing there and were not asking in a friendly way.  In return, Tice asked what they were doing drinking in Nogales on a weekday.  Escalating from there, Tice could see that they were working themselves up to some payback.

Jerry put his arm around Tice’s shoulder, saying “We gotta go, the others will be waiting.”

When one of the mechanics put his hand on Jerry’s shoulder to restrain their leaving, about one second later he found himself in considerable pain on the sawdust laden floor.  Jerry looked off the other guy with an unspoken you ready to join your buddy?  He wisely backed away, muttering another time.

The episode was ignored by the Mexican bartender.  An everyday occurrence and not his problem.  But not for Tice.  He worried that this incident might betray him later but kept those misgivings to himself.  Obviously, the guys weren’t worried.  The dust-up if anything had energized them.

They bantered about it until some ten miles past Nogales they found the secluded meet-up spot with Rocky’s Mexican agent.  He introduced himself as Renaldo, possibly not his given name, but suitable for undercover.  He had a Dodge Caravan, a nine-year-old beast that had seen better days, waiting for them.  He took possession of Gus’ Explorer in return.

The team stowed the promised weaponry, two Glocks, both a bit rusty appearing but in mechanically perfect condition, a break-barrel model rifle favored for black ops missions, a Sig Sauer 320XF for Gus, the same model as his own pistol, plus a machete and a taser.  Notwithstanding their ambivalence about carrying around devices that shoot bullets in Mexico, they felt the advantages outweighed the risk.

Nearing the junction of Mexican highways 15D and 2 at Santa Ana, they pulled off and changed into the native clothing the agent had also procured for them.  If they had had the luxury of a full-length mirror, they would have seen themselves passable as Mexican peasantry, at least if not inspected too closely.  Jerry and Gus briefly practiced getting into character, adopting the swagger of two bad-ass cartel soldiers.  Part of their charade to advance the fiction that the hit would be the work of a rival cartel.  Tice admired the inventiveness and authenticity displayed by the two PIs. 

If they were stopped for any reason, Manny’s native sounding and Sonora-nuanced Spanish would do the talking.  Good thing.  The policia stopped them a few miles past their turn onto Highway 2.  He was suspicious why they appeared to be back-tracking onto Mexico 2, a route that would take them back toward the border, and not continuing south on Mexico 15D.  Manny played it brilliantly, slipping them a judicious bribe, not too much, not too little, to win them the Spanish equivalent of Have a good day and drive safely.

They passed through Pitiquito and the larger twin towns of Heroica Caborca and Lazaro Cardenas.  They had traveled a hundred kilometers almost due west.  Rosita’s village was another twenty kilometers farther on.  Now highway 2 turned to the northwest for the final 150-kilometer leg to the border at Lukeville. The tension of the travelers increased; pulses quickened.  The good-natured joshing fell off, the team lapsing into a silence of hyper-vigilance. 

After twenty kilometers, they sighted the outlines of a typical Mexican village.  “Keep your eyes on the lookout for the shrine,” Tice said.  Its location was another reason for approaching San Javier from the southeast.  

With maybe a long block to go, they spotted the roadside shrine that Rosita’s family had erected in memory of her infant sister.  Gus fought the urge to stop. 

A later hurdle would be a return to the shrine, but under cover of darkness.  A job for one person only and best on foot.  Manny said he’d do the return.  If questioned, he could pass for a local.  Assuming he found the hoped-for message from Rosita, one that found her still committed to their enterprise, he would leave a message informing her of their arrival.

Entering the town, they were greeted by a block of connected adobe one-story dwellings on each side of the highway.  These appeared reasonably well kept and lived in.  Instead of throngs of people, they saw but one lone figure walking on the raised sidewalk in their direction.  Closer in, they saw he was an older man, somewhat bent in posture and dressed in the typical heat-reflecting white trousers and shirt and a sombrero.  As they drove past, he looked their way but did not otherwise acknowledge them.

They decided to chance a drive through, weighing the benefit of obtaining a feel for the environs against the added exposure of a daylight appearance.  The village felt deserted in the mid-day heat of late May.

“Siesta time,” remarked Jerry. 

“Mad dogs and Englishmen,” Rocky’s man Manny added, referencing the famous Noel Coward song.

“Go out in the midday sun,” Tice interjected, completing the famous quote.

“Yup, Joe Cocker, nineteen seventy-one.  One of my favorites,” Gus said.

“Actually,” Jerry broke in, “they’re referring to a song by Noel Coward, although the expression goes back to when England ruled India, the Raj.   You can find it in Rudyard Kipling.”

“He’s the Marauder’s Renaissance man,” Manny said.  “Or so I hear from Rocky.”

“Yeah, ask him about Arizona’s micro-climates and be prepared to duck.” Gus said. 

“Focus guys,” Tice said.  “If we’re risking this drive-through, we need to soak up the landscape.”

They took in humble adobe structures, mostly one story with only a couple of two-story structures.  Interspersed with private houses were small businesses and little restaurants with open-air tables recessed under corrugated roofing or canvas awning.  On the sidewalks out front, these advertised comida completa for a bargain peso equivalent of four or so bucks U.S.  The businesses were professional offices of dentists and lawyers, a laundry, a corner Farmacia, a used furniture store, but no Starbucks or McDonalds in sight. 

Toward the center, the town extended out some three blocks on each side.  At the very center on the left was the church, or iglesia, modest by Mexican standards, that harbored the spiritual life of the town.  Tice wondered if Angel or his men attended mass there.

They noted the cement sidewalks raised almost two feet from street-level, with steps at the corners, built to be above the rushing waters that flooded the street during the brief torrential rains of the late summer monsoon season.  Dry and dusty the other months.  They drove the length of the town, about one and a half miles.

Even at a leisurely fifteen mph, they were soon reaching the other end of the village.  Their google map had revealed a network of streets to the east around the town, the side away from the cartel’s hacienda, which lay within sighting distance to the southwest.

They didn’t want to drive back through on the main drag, further risking the wrong kind of attention.  Gus took a right on a side street, unpaved, dusty.  It ended after three blocks.  They turned back on a road running parallel to the highway.  Unlike the main highway, vacant lots were interspersed with the adobe dwellings, many having a neglected look about them.  Some of the lots had evidence of construction started, but now abandoned.  A wall, pieces of wood or cement blocks, mounds of dirt as if the ground was being prepared.

Before reaching the end of this return street, Gus made a left and pulled into a vacant lot and parked.  It was level with no signs of construction materials like long nails strewn around that might puncture a tire.  For these last few blocks, they had not seen any human activity, kids playing or adults busy with some project.

“Before we start aimlessly driving around, let’s attend to some essential business, which is finding a place to hide out.  A couple hundred yards before entering the town, and just before the shrine, we passed a group of three weathered ramshackle adobe buildings maybe two football fields away on our right.” 

“I saw them too.  They looked abandoned,” Jerry said.

“I’m trying to remember if I saw them.  My attention was on the town coming up,” Manny said.

The agent who misses little, Tice had also seen them, wondered about them briefly, but decided not to add his two cents worth to the present discussion.

“Well, I think these buildings deserve being checked out,” Gus said.  “However, I did not see a road leading to these structures.  Maybe we’ll find one from the southeast corner of the town.  Close to where we are now.”

They did find some old tire ruts with desert vegetation closing in from both sides.  A passable track, if just barely, for the Caravan, but instead of following it, Gus pulled over and turned off the ignition.

“I don’t like the idea of us parking our car by those buildings.  Too visible, if we decide to hunker down in them.  A couple of us should walk over first.  See if these buildings will work.”

“I’ll go,” Jerry said, “and Manny, you go with me.  Gus should stay with the vehicle.”  Again, Tice kept quiet, happy for now to be left out of the decision process.

The pair returned twenty minutes later.  “Looks perfect for what we want.  The buildings look like the remnants of a small farm, abandoned years ago.”

“We should try to get over there without being seen.”

“Where do we deposit the car if you are against driving there?” Jerry asked.

“Good question, for which I don’t have a good answer.”

“Well, I think we should risk driving over,” Jerry said.  “It still appears to be siesta time.  Plus, from what I saw the buildings offer good cover both from the highway and the town’s eyes.  Nothing but desert in the other direction.”

“Plus, it saves us hoofing over our supplies,” Manny offered.

“Okay, I relent.  Hop back in, and I’ll see if I can navigate this sorry track without grounding us.”

“That wasn’t so bad,” Manny commented when Gus had maneuvered the car into a protected gap between two of the buildings.  The four settled into the one building that had served as the main house.  Looters or scavengers had plundered all furnishings except a scarred, broken-down table, some stools and a pair of old wicker-bottom chairs. 

There was also a portable cupboard in the kitchen area that had not found a new home.  No remnants of food, cans or otherwise, on the shelves.  Only some dust-laden plates and cups, decidedly not worth sparing precious water over.

The four found sitting on the dirt floor against the wall more comfortable than managing the chairs.  Three sat at a time while a fourth did look-out duty, limited to half hour watches in deference to the hot sun.  Mainly, they waited in silence.  Why attempt to engage in some serious planning until they made contact with Rosita?  The hours dragged on.

About five-thirty, Tice offered to put together a potluck of sorts from their meager food supplies.  They would be counting on Rosita to expand their menu if the project was a go.  Without Rosita, Tice was less certain of their ability to come up with a workable alternative now that they were here at ground zero.  Return and regroup might be their only option.

Tice brought out paper-wrapped cold cuts of ham, smoked turkey, and both Swiss and cheddar cheese for making sandwiches, mustard but no mayo because of the heat, a container of baked beans, plus several individual size bags of Fritos and chips.  He produced a stack of paper plates, napkins, and plastic cutlery. 

“No microwave in this motel, so you’ll have to eat your sandwiches and beans cold,” he quipped. 

They pulled stools and chairs to the table.  Even in late spring, the sun departs early by northern standards.  The individual lights from the dwellings of San Javier gradually winked out.  Without the artificial glow of a major city, almost pitch dark descended inside the compound.  They couldn’t risk artificial light, no flashlights, not even a match.  At Gus’ urging, Jerry dug into his repertoire and entertained the others with snippets from his colorful biography.

About ten-thirty, Gus decided that it was both sufficiently dark—only a small scattering of lights dotted the village—and sufficiently quiet for a visit to the shrine.  Earlier, the team had decided that the job was best handled by Manny.  He was in peasant garb and if stopped or sighted could be convincing as a local, maybe visiting from a nearby town.

He left the enclosure and hiked the half mile to the shrine.  Finding Rosita’s message took an additional five minutes.  She had hidden it well, and he had not risked a flashlight for penetrating the night’s darkness.  But a meticulous search turned up a torn piece of notepaper concealed between the scalp and flowing hairpiece of the shrine’s porcelain statue of Saint Philomena.

In the dim light of the stars and quarter moon, he could not make out the contents other than To Agent Tice in large letters.  He pocketed it and returned to their hideout.  Tice risked his flashlight and read the message to the others, translating it from the Spanish.  It confirmed her incident-free arrival back to her native village.  It said she awaited their arrival and expressed her continued readiness to work with the team.  At least, the mission was still a go.

She would come early each morning in hopes of finding news of their arrival.  Tice penned a return message and entrusted it to Manny for another speedy round trip to the shrine.  His message suggested they meet soon, that coming day if possible.  Asked her to leave instructions as to time and place and they’d risk retrieving her response sometime mid-morning.

That task accomplished, they threw out their sleeping mats, each keeping a blanket handy.  It can drop forty degrees in the desert from daytime heat.  Throughout the night, they did not neglect posting a look-out, rotating half-hour watches, which boiled down to watching for any suspicious lights headed their way.   

Chapter Twenty

After Tice’s visit, Rosita faced her deportation with renewed resolve and determination.  Back in her native village of San Javier she would be within reach of her enemies, but now they would be the hunted as well.

Rosita Diaz was processed through the Nogales border crossing.  She was processed in relative anonymity with a dozen other deportees.  Her cover required that her reappearance in the village seem as if she were returning from Hermosillo, rather than from a detention facility in Arizona.

Once over the border, she made her way to the central bus terminal.  She located a second-class bus with the destination Hermosillo and climbed aboard with the other passengers without first entering the terminal.  For her, second-class bus transportation offered certain key advantages over its more upscale brethren despite its being the lowest class of land transport in terms of comfort, behind the Executive class and first class.

One obvious advantage was blending in with the less affluent.  But a more important consideration was the option of purchasing her ticket upon boarding, an option not available to upscale riders of the other bus classes.  They were constrained to purchasing from a ticket window at the station or on the Internet.  Purchase on boarding offered Rosita one less chance of being remembered.

Second class with its frequent, often unscheduled stops was a snail’s progress compared to a luxury Executive non-stop.  Hermosillo was a mere 170 miles from Nogales, little over three hours by auto, but over twice that by second class bus.  She arrived about six and after inquiring of a local, found a modest family-owned hotel or pension, pronounced in Spanish as three syllables with accent on the final on.  Itgets its generic name from the retired pensioners who are the staple customers.

She paid cash.  Went out for a modest supper at an outdoor establishment chosen because of the inviting aromas from the grill.  The next morning, she boarded the second-class bus headed back to Nogales.  She alighted at Santa Ana, a less taxing 100 miles north situated at the junction of Mexico 15D and Mexico 2.       

An hour later, she boarded a second-class bus that made its way northwesterly to Sonoyta, the town across the border from Lukeville Arizona.  Refreshed from her sound sleep at the pension, she took in the Sonoran landscape, for the most part an unforgiving harsh desert, but for her it was home.  The bus passed by a few villages, the resident Mexicans dressed in loose white trousers and long-sleeved shirts to protect them from the sun’s burning rays.

Past Pitiquito and Herioca Caborca, familiar landscape, now feeling both the eagerness of return and the apprehension about the undertaking that lay ahead.  Upon alighting from the bus, she made straight for the modest house of her parents and basked in the warmth of their welcome home.  After a shared meal, she excused herself and walked, tears flowing, the two dusty blocks to the house that her lover Pedro had secured for her.

She resumed her usual routines.  Plus, a new one.  She brought a bouquet of flowers to the shrine in memory of her infant sister.  Born when her sainted mother was past forty, an unexpected birth and a life cut short by infant death syndrome.  Rosita also said a prayer for her brother being held in Arizona for drug trafficking.

She hoped his cooperation would get him a reduced sentence and leniency   She was careful around her family and friends not to reveal her own part in the trip north.  She had sworn her mom, the only family who knew the truth, to silence.

In the morning she returned to get her three younger siblings, two girls and a boy. ready for school.  The village had a half-day program six days a week in a modest school building.  The children arrived on time and dressed in blue and white uniforms.  They were attentive, well-mannered students who respected their teacher, a palpable difference from the raucous behavior and impertinence of American kids.  They were the future hope of Mexico.       

Rosita returned to her regular employment, clerking at the Farmacia.  Someday she hoped to study to be a licensed pharmacist.  That second evening back, she went with several girlfriends to a local nightclub where even on a Saturday night, women could feel comfortable, in contrast to the several village cantinas where women were fair game.  

She was pursuing her usual lifestyle in full visibility, waiting for the fly to come to the spider.  She would use Angel’s obsession with her to entrap this arrogant, repulsive cartel boss.

As she anticipated, she had been spotted at the club.  The next morning an envoy from Angel showed up at her house with greetings from his boss.  She was invited to his hacienda.  Show up at eight that evening, he commanded.  She declined, citing Angel’s past behavior toward her.

She sent the envoy back with a return message that dangled a possible change of heart if his approach showed a gentler, more respectful side.  Deliberately, she avoided specifics in her refusal.  She was playing a dangerous game, but the stakes were high.

That afternoon, the envoy returned.  Would she come to his hacienda for lunch tomorrowYes, if for lunch and conversation only.

The next morning, she found a note in Angel’s hand promising to show her the respect owed to the most beautiful woman of his humble village and the jewel of Sonora.

Photo of Woman in Orange Top and Blue Denim Jeans Kneeling on Green Plants Posing

At the lunch, the menu showed off the choicest culinary delights of his kitchen staff.  His hands kept respectfully to themselves while his conversation cleverly laid the groundwork for a future seduction.  He casually introduced his younger brother’s ambush in the desert.  She had to pretend not knowing of Pedro’s death.  When Angel told her, she showed sorrow, but not overmuch.  Remarked that must be why she had not seen him after her return from Hermosillo.

Angel said he knew of her affection for his brother.  He was truly grieving over Pedro’s untimely death but also asserted that Pedro had died a martyr to the cartel.

“But do not mourn for him as a lover,” Angel urged.  “He brought a puta north with him.  I do not know what happened to her.”  He thought that by telling Rosita this, she would fall into his arms and transfer her love to him.  As she knew the truth, the thought disgusted her.

But the thirst for vengeance outweighed her revulsion and did not deter her from her plans for him, nor the shameless use of her body as the means of his destruction.  She let him have his way but left his bed before he awoke in the morning.  Women can render men novices in the art of treachery.

At dawn, Rosita emerged from the hacienda.  She set out for the team’s secret communication site, her family’s roadside shrine, hoping but not expecting to learn her team had arrived.  Why had she told Tice six days?  She was more than disappointed.  It meant that she had to return to this monster’s bed for at least another night.  The second morning visit was the same, no message. 

On the third morning, she found the note that Manny had placed at the shrine during the night.  Reading it, she smiled to herself.  So that was the van that had been observed by several of her girlfriends passing through the village the day before.  Wondered if unfriendly eyes had also spotted the carload of strangers and speculated where they came from.  She hoped the drive-through wasn’t a mistake. 

She left a note saying she was still committed to their plans for Angel and requested to meet with the team.  She drew a rough map showing the location of her house.  She asked that their meeting wait until night and that they approach with caution.

Chapter Twenty-One

Manny found Rosita’s second message to the team on his mid-morning visit to the shrine.

“Good news,” he said, bursting into their hideout.  “She’s up for a meeting tonight at her house, but not before dark and it says to make sure you’re not seen arriving.  The directions are here in her note.”

He handed her message to Tice, who read and passed it around for each to study.  Having digested this news, the four settled back for the long wait, three sitting with backs resting against the wall while a fourth took his turn at lookout.

“Damn, this waiting is not easy,” Gus remarked after a full hour of virtual group silence.

“She’s being cautious,” Tice answered back.  “We just have to tough it out until dark.”  Tice had considerable experience waiting in place, as was the case with Jerry, the Recon Special Forces veteran. 

“Now that we know we have Rosita on our team, I suppose we can brainstorm some take-down scenarios.  A way to pass the time,” Jerry said.

“I see our principal challenge as isolating Angel for the kill.  We’ll be relying on your Rosita for setting him up,” Gus said, looking sideways at Tice who was sitting next to him.  “I hope she’s up to the challenge.”

“If anyone is, she is,” Tice said.  “I’ve said it before.  She’s a tough cookie, and we know she made it back.  As for the take-down, I’m still thinking maybe we have Rosita track his vehicle movements and intercept this piece of garbage at an intersection or on a rural road.”

“He’s sure to have his bodyguards with him.  Certain to be a firefight,” Manny said from the doorway.  He’d overheard them when coming off his watch.

“That’s why we have Jerry,” Gus said.  “Our ace in the hole.”

About one-thirty during his second turn as look-out, Manny saw a figure walking up the arroyo toward the compound, scanning the landscape.  He targeted the figure through the binoculars and made out the figure as a youngish looking woman.

Hot-footing it back inside, he said, “We’ve got company walking toward us.  Female, and doesn’t look to be sneaky about it.”

“I wonder if she knows we’re here, or just a villager out for a walk,” Jerry said. 

“You’re kidding, right?” Tice said.  “An early afternoon stroll in the hot sun?  The natives here have more sense than that.”

“Yeah, I’m kidding.  I’m thinking Rosita.  Hoping anyway.”

Tice went outside and came back in a minute later.  “It’s definitely Rosita.”  He went back out and signaled to her.

When she entered their abode, she handed Tice a container of spicy Mexican tamales.  She then explained her visit.  She used Spanish, here translated for the reader, as her immediate audience had no difficulty understanding her.

“I only have a few minutes.  I work at a local farmacia.  Hot days like this, we often close for a couple of hours and then open again about three or three-thirty.  We use closing to shelve our new inventory.  I told the owner I had an errand but would be right back.  Your message told me where to find you.”  Then, addressing Tice, she added, “Also, I was curious to see your hideout and meet your friends.”

Tice introduced her to the other three. 

“You hombres look to be pretty authentic Mexicanos, especially you,” she said, indicating Manny. 

“That’s because I was born in Agua Prieto across the border from Douglas.  But I went to New Mexico State on a student visa.  Majored in criminology.”

“He graduated summa cum laude, whatever that means,” Gus said.  “Or so his boss Rocky told me.”

“He got spotted by Maestras Investigations, that’s Rocky’s PI firm,” Jerry chimed in. “Got hired and Rocky sponsored his application for citizenship.  But when it comes to the music and the mujeres, he’s still a hundred percent Mexican.”

“Good to get to know who I’m working with, but what I have to tell you is important and couldn’t wait until tonight.  I risked this meeting because tonight might be the opportunity to do the job you’re here for.”

That got the team’s attention.

“Angel bragged to me this morning that he had arranged a drinking contest with our town’s Chief of Police, a big man, muy gordo, who has the reputation of being able to out-drink every man in the State of Sonora.”

Her words sparked looks of puzzlement.  Tice said what the others were thinking, “You were with Angel?”

“Yes.”  The admission brought a look of sadness, almost shame.  As she continued her story, they saw her tearing up.  “He sent a messenger to my door the second morning after I arrived back in San Javier.”

“The house on your map?  Where you live with your family?”

“I do not live with my family.  The house was given to me by Pedro, Angel’s brother.”

So, they had been lovers, Tice mused.

She continued, her story one of icy determination and courage, not an easy tell.  She said that Angel had bought her absence as a visit to a friend in Hermosillo. 

“I knew because the messenger asked how I liked Hermosillo while extending an invitation to dinner at Angel’s hacienda that same evening.  The pig phrased it as a command.  I refused initially.  I would not appear to be won so easily.  I would make my enemy work.  It is not a pretty story, but my body is simply a vessel, a tool, for achieving justice for my Pedro and vengeance for myself.”

The team sat mesmerized by these words and the depth of determination they showed.

“I went to his hacienda for lunch the following afternoon.  The memory is painful to me.  The monster knew of my love for Pedro.  Angel feigned sadness that his brother had been killed journeying north and declared that he was avenging his brother’s death.  But do not mourn for him, this sadistic bastard said.  He brought a puta north with him.  He thought by telling me this, I would fall into his arms and transfer my love to him.  The thought disgusted me, but vengeance outweighs any squeamish concerns.  I’ll say only that in exchange for my body I won his confidences.”

Her voice had gradually assumed a determined timber.  Tice sensed that the telling had itself become therapeutic for Rosita.

“Back to the drinking contest.  Angel will arrive at the cantina at six.  I am not sure when the drinking will begin.  Angel bragged that if he won, the Chief would get off the fence and be on his payroll.”

This was not news to Tice or Manny, both of whom knew of the complicated, often symbiotic relationship between Mexican law enforcement and the cartels.  The policia walk a thin line between enforcement and collaboration.

She gave them the location of the cantina where the contest would be held.  “This cantina, it is very primitive.  The toilet is outside.  Angel may need to use it at some point.”

She laid out some considerations.  Angel will always have security around him.  Two or three bodyguards.  As for the Chief, she offered that he is no friend of Angel.

“He does not like the cartels, but he is powerless to arrest them and bring them to justice.  So, when you spring your attack, I do not think he will try to stop you or come to Angel’s defense.  It will only be Angel’s bodyguards that you will have to worry about.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” muttered Gus.

“If you are ready, you should act now.  The longer you wait, the more likely you will be exposed.  By the way, your drive through our village didn’t go unnoticed.”

Tice quickly assured her that there would be no more drives through town.  If they were successful tonight, there would be no need.  He felt it was well-hidden between the other two buildings.

“Es verdad, Senor Tice.  I didn’t see your vehicle until I was inside the compound.  But you must be careful.  This Angel is a tenacious devil if he suspects there are enemies in his village.  The success of our mission is now in your hands.  I pray for your success to the very depths of my being.”

As a group, they affirmed their commitment.  Jerry spoke up and in his adequate, gringo accented Spanish informed Rosita of their decision that a machete would be their weapon of choice.  Hearing this, Rosita experienced a sickness in the pit of her stomach.  Killing by machete was a too-common weapon of the cartel.  Brutal and sadistic.

Jerry explained that this choice of weapon was part of their ruse to suggest the assassination was the work of a rival cartel.  Although she understood the logic, she asked which member of the team had the stomach for this vicious killing.  She did not get a direct answer but was told that the machete would be used only on his corpse, and not on any of his soldiers who might become collateral damage.

“Perhaps best I don’t know who.  Pero, una pregunta mas, tienen amigos un plan salida?”

“She means do we have an exit plan,” Tice said.  “Damn good question.  What about it?  Do we tell her what we hope happens after we take the scumbag out?”

Rosita’s English was rudimentary, but she sensed their concerns.  She said, “You do have a plan, but you think it’s best for me if you do not share it.  I understand, for my protection as well, amigos.”

It sounded all too easy.  Angel would be ripe for the kill, too boracho to defend himself.  But nothing is ever simple, as the team was about to find out.

* * *

Angel had heard rumors of some men in town.  Although he thought it unlikely that they posed a danger, his paranoid disposition demanded that he check it out.  If these unknown hombres posed a threat, possibly his Rosita, despite her enthusiasm in his bed, could be the link.  He was suspicious of any woman who could so easily transfer her affections.

It was simply good business to test her loyalty.  In his experience no woman can be fully trusted.  What had she been up to leaving his bed before he awoke?  That evening he had asked her why she was gone from his bed so early.  She explained that she had to get her younger siblings breakfasted and ready for school and then ready herself for her job in the Farmacia?  He had simply grunted and shrugged his shoulders, as if accepting her words.

He alerted his kitchen staff, his early risers, to note the time she left that next morning.  Just as he feared, their reported time was well before her young kin would be welcoming the new day.  That afternoon, his spies told him about seeing a car of strangers, possibly men from a rival cartel.  Were they known to Rosita?  Could Rosita be setting him up?

That evening he insists that she have breakfast with him in the morning.  She tells him she will join him for breakfast as soon as her siblings are readied for school.  He pretends to believe this lie.  It does not matter.  He will soon learn if she is abandoning his bed to cause him mischief or worse.

At breakfast he tells her about challenging Carlos Sanchez to a drinking contest   Rosita knows Sanchez as the town’s Chief of Police.  The contest will be held at a cartel friendly bar on the outskirts of the village.  He is meeting the Chief at six.  He does not tell her that he may not be there.  That he may send a double in his place.

When she leaves for her job, he has a man follow her.  Observes her early afternoon visit to the abandoned trio of buildings southeast of their village.  He does not follow but reports back to Angel.  An idle walk or an assignation, maybe with a rival, or maybe something involving the strangers his spies have heard rumors about.  The afternoon report from Ramon appears to confirm his suspicions.

At five, Rosita leaves the Farmacia and walks toward her house.  At the door, Ramon appears from around the side and hails her.  His appearance knots her stomach, but she returns his greeting, forcing a smile.  Tells him she’s glad he came by because she has a message for Angel.  She regrets she cannot meet him this night.

“But he insists,” Ramon says, as a second messenger appears and the two grab her arms.  She struggles briefly.  They assure her they mean no harm, but their jefe absolutely insists.  Realizing she has no choice, she allows them to escort her to the hacienda.

On their arrival, Angel greets her effusively.  He tells her he is detaining her for her safety.  He tells her that his soldiers have learned of some dangerous men in town.  But he is prepared.

“I do not believe for one second that you would betray me, but if these men should somehow learn of the drinking contest and show up at the cantina, I am planning a surprise for them.”

His unctuous words do not fool Rosita.  How could she believe she could best this ruthless drug lord?  Her brave comrades were heading into a trap.  They would be ambushed and slaughtered and her hopes for revenge die with them.

“Well, we will soon learn if you have been playing the Delilah, plotting my death while you warm my bed.”

An hour passes.  Angel’s cell phone chimes.  He listens.  His cruel mouth breaks into a chilling smile.

“Bueno.  Take these traitors to the desert and let the vultures make a meal of them.”  

Chapter Twenty-Two

At three forty-five, Tice tells the others it is time to move out.  He wants the team in position well before Angel will arrive at the cantina.  With nothing else to do, they have been hashing over strategy in a general way all afternoon since Rosita left.  But they have yet to see the venue.  Until they can take in and assess the actual killing ground, all their planning is tentative.

“Do we move the SUV, or leave it here,” Jerry asks.

“Leave it here.  I’d rather not have the Caravan associated with the killing,” Tice says.

“Guess that means we have to get there on foot.  Why the hell did the cantina have to be all the way on the other side of town?”

“Be glad it is,” Tice says, “and we’d better take the long way around.  Keep away from the town and out of sight.”

Although Gus and Jerry would likely have preferred to march down the main drag in plain sight.

They check their weaponry, Gus his coveted Sig Sauer 9mm, Tice had left his own Sig Sauer service piece back in Tucson and is carrying the refurbished Glock supplied by Rocky’s Mexican agent.  Manny and Tice each put on bullet-proof vests.  Gus and Jerry decline.  They will go with loose clothing and sunscreen.

“When we get to the cantina, we will only speak in Spanish.  We don’t want to spoil the impression we are from a rival cartel, from Sinaloa or Sonora.  Gus and Jerry, you two say as little as possible.”

By five of, they emerge from their hideout into the hot afternoon sun, the temp not yet having budged from its earlier one-hundred degree high.  Manny and Tice are sweating in their protective gear.  Seeing Gus and Jerry in loose-fitting garb, both wondering if the trade-off is worth it. 

Tice had marked out a route that gave the party a quarter mile buffer from the closest row of adobe houses.  But there is no marked trail to follow.  They hoof it through scrub, avoid cactus, especially the treacherous cholla with its painful penetrating spines that jump out at you and stick their barbed needles into your hide.  Sometimes extraction requires a plier, and they aren’t carrying a toolbox. 

They walk single file in silence, Manny leading the way.  He has desert rat in his genes, much as Gus has sail-boater in his.

It is a trek of less than two miles, but it is slow going.  And they have to keep a sharp watch for stray witnesses.

By five, they come over a gentle upslope and find themselves looking down at the main highway that runs northwest to the Lukeville border crossing.  Across the highway is the cantina owned by a cartel-friendly boss.  Tice estimates the distance at about two hundred yards to the roadway and another seventy-five to the cantina.

“Let’s hold up here.  Squat down so we won’t be too visible.” 

“Look at that place,” Jerry says.  “It’s like a tavern out of the old west.  Are those swinging doors like you see in the old westerns?”

“Looks like it,” Tice says.  “Okay, ideas on where we set up.”

“Maybe we could hide behind that rock pile half-way between the highway and the cantina,” Gus suggests.

“Manny, what do you see through your nocs?”

“I’m taking a closer look at that oval-shaped rock pile Gus mentioned.  It’s actually an elevated desert garden about two feet above the rest of the lot and held in place by Gus’ rocks.  But I think we’d be better off hunkering down in the arroyo that runs along the other side of the highway from here.  Keeps us well hidden from the cantina, but still supplies good vantage.  You see it?”

The others look closer, acknowledging it.

“Our first hurdle is making it across the highway without being spotted,” Tice says, “but I like Manny’s idea.”

“You guys go for it,” Jerry says.  “Meantime, I’ll go check out the surrounding terrain.”

“Okay be me.”

Over a deliberate, cautious fifteen minutes, the others work their way down the descent, across the highway, to the arroyo.  There is little traffic and they crouch, frozen in place, for the several cars that pass and hope no one takes any notice.  They establish positions and wait for Angel’s arrival.

A Cadillac Escalade rumbles across the wood plank bridge that leads into the cantina’s lot.  Two figures emerge from the car, a well-fed figure six feet or close, broad shouldered, who moves like a man in fit shape despite carrying well over two hundred pounds.  From the driver’s side, a much younger, leaner man walks head down behind the first figure whom the team assumes to be Angel.  This bodyguard carries his holstered weapon openly.  Angel has on a sport coat despite the heat; and if he is carrying, it is a concealed carry.

“Interesting,” observes Manny, “he has only one bodyguard with him.”

They watch the pair enter through the swinging doors.  They sit in place thinking about their next move.  After five minutes, Manny suggests they chance a look inside the cantina.  He offers.

Tice isn’t sure that’s a smart idea, but Gus and Jerry agree with Manny, who adds in his defense that Angel has no way of making Manny as anybody other that a local with a thirst.

Less than ten minutes later, he re-emerges and reports back.  “I ordered a cerveza and didn’t linger over it.  Told the bartender, I needed a cold one before facing my spouse.  Scoped out the place, nodded and left. Angel was standing at the far end of the bar with his bodyguard.  I didn’t spot anyone who looked like the Chief of Police.  No one in uniform, anyway.”

“Maybe the Chief is playing it smart and has decided not to show,” Gus says.

“Yeah, right, has to be it.  There were two customers into their cups at a table in the far corner.  Otherwise the place is deserted.”

“What do you guys think,” Tice says.  “Do we wait for him to come out for a piss, like Rosita suggested.  Or storm the bar now and take out the pair.  Forget the machete and be done with it.”

“Or we could haul his worthless body out and work him over with the machete in the courtyard.”

“Nothing like a little blood lust, hey Gus,” Manny said.  “So, the issue is still do we charge the cantina, or do we wait?  Your call John.”

Tice is weighing the two approaches, his experienced mind rapidly assessing pros and cons of each before deciding.  “The longer we wait, the more customers who could show up.  We know the target is inside.  Let’s go get this piece of shit.”

When the three approach the cantina, a trio of rifle-bearing men, previously concealed on the flat roof, rise behind the parapet.  They appear to be squatting on one knee.  They are bringing up their rifles.

Gus yells, “Rifles on the roof pointing our way.”

The three crab-scramble toward Gus’ rock pile for cover.

“Hope they’re terrible shots,” he mutters. 

“Has to be Angel’s men,” Tice says as three shots sound.

“A fucking setup,” Manny says.

Two bullets head toward Gus, one of which grazes his shirt, a third kicks up dust in front of Tice.  The three make it to the rocks and squat behind them.

“Yeah, lousy shots and they don’t even have automatic weapons,” Gus whispers.  “Not much of a cartel.  Can’t even afford AK’s.”

Not true and fortunately for the three, the ambushers had left their Tikka Scouts behind and opted for easier to carry but less deadly hunting rifles.  They fire another round, but these just hit the cactus garden atop the rock perimeter.  At these shots, the two men, Angel and his bodyguard, come through the swinging doors from the bar, guns drawn.

“Maybe lousy shots, but we’re pinned down,” Manny observes.  “If they get reinforcements from behind, we’re screwed.”

Just then one of the marksmen from the roof raises his head above the parapet to get a better line.  But as he is readying for that third shot, he falls backward and his rifle pitches from the roof.  A second soldier stands up, aiming with his rifle toward where Gus had raised his head for a peek over his rock cover.  Big mistake.  He gets off a shot, but a second later he pitches backward.

Unaware of what is happening above them, the two men from the bar advance toward the rock  and begin firing their guns.  The three intruders risk exposure and fire back.  The big man who Manny recognized as Angel takes a lethal hit.  His presumed bodyguard is hit in his thigh.  Goes to the ground, grabbing it.

There are no more shots coming from the roof.  While the three were returning fire at Angel and his companion, a bullet took off the head of the third cartel soldier on the roof.  Angel had underestimated the suspect strangers, starting with thinking they numbered three, not four.  He hadn’t counted on Jerry stationed as a snipper a quarter mile on a slightly elevated line-of-site to the cantina.   

Gus and Manny suffer a couple of nuisance wounds, Gus an eighth-inch flesh wound from the bodyguard.  It has grazed his non-shooting arm.   Rocky’s man is hit in the chest, but no damage done to other than his pride.  He’s awfully glad he’d put up with the discomfort of the vest.

The big man is obviously dead, lying front side up, eyes open in that telltale vacant stare.  Tice looks him over, pulls open his coat and shirt to look for something.  He yells out, “This hombre is not Angel.  There’s no tattoo of the Angel of Death on his chest.”

Gus is keeping watch over the wounded soldier.  Manny is watching the cantina entrance.  When the bartender exits to find out what’s going on,    he gestures him back in and follows.  Manny stares him down and adds in his fluent Spanish to get back behind the bar.  Tells the bartender they are from Sinaloa taking care of business.  “If you make a call to warn Angel, you and your family will be executed.  It will not be pretty, my friend.  Entiende?”

Manny returns and takes over from Gus.  The bodyguard’s wound is hardly life-threatening.  No artery or bone was hit, but he is calling for a doctor. 

“You help us, we might get you a doctor.  Otherwise we put another bullet through you and leave you to the coyotes.” 

The man’s cell buzzes.  Manny grabs it, realizing he can’t allow the soldier to answer it.  Puts the cell to his ear.  The voice at the other end addresses Felipe and wants an update.  Felipe must be the wounded soldier’s name, Manny figures.

The voice is commanding in its timbre. Manny’s instincts say it must be Angel.  Manny answers in his fluent Sonoran Spanish that the ambush was successful.  He asks what the men should do with the bodies.  He recites back to the others Angel’s order to take the corpses into the desert and let the vultures have them.

“We will do as you command.”  He rings off, the fewer words the better.  Hopes he was convincing.  While he is talking, Jerry has arrived from sniper duty.

So now the question: where is Angel and where is Rosita?

“What should we do with this one,” Manny says, pointing to the wounded cartel soldier.  “He could be a useful source of information.” 

“Hey Felipe.  You want to live?” Jerry says.  “Tell us where Angel and Rosita are hiding.  Now!”

Felipe shrugs and says, “Quien sabe.”

Jerry smashes Felipe in the head with the butt of his rifle, but not with such force as to render him unconscious.  Felipe grins at him.  Jerry readies for another.

Just then, Felipe’s cell buzzes again.  Angel’s voice booms out. “Dump the others but bring the head of Senor Tice to me at the hacienda.”

“Lo haré, mi jefe,” I’ll make it happen, Manny answers, and terminates the call.  “The hacienda.  There’s your answer, Jerry.”

“Your lucky day,” Jerry says.  “You might get to live.” 

“Who are you hombres?” Felipe asks.  Apparently, Angel didn’t bring his men into the loop about maybe the strangers being from Tucson.  Or maybe he isn’t sure.  Manny uses the opportunity to pretend they are from a rival cartel, doesn’t specify which.  They will let him live so this unlucky soldier can spread the deception.

Tice calls for the team to advance on the hacienda as soon as the cantina is secured.  From the cantina yard, they can see it on the hill to the left.  Tice fears that Angel will soon learn the fate of his ambush.  He will not be fooled for long.

“Gus, you and Manny go inside and tie up the bartender and the two customers.  Bring the bodyguard in with you.”

The customers are no longer at a back table.  Tice finds them hiding in a back room, sharing a bottle of tequila.  Gus brings in the bartender and the wounded soldier.  Tice locates a storage closet and finds a coil of three-eighth-inch rope.  Brings it in.

“Guess we won’t have to shoot them after all,” Gus quips.  The prisoners don’t find that funny.  “At least if they stay quiet and don’t try to get away.”

One of the customers says, “Hey amigo, you sound like a gringo.”

Oops, Gus realizes.

Manny says, “Yeah, he’s our gringo spy.  Wants to be a proud Mexican like us.”

They tie each of the four to separate chairs and gag them.

“You dudes aren’t cartel.  No cartel would leave us alive,” the same customer who challenged Gus says.

Not a smart move, Manny puts his gun to the unlucky guy’s temple and fires.  The others don’t need further convincing.  The pair leaves through the swinging doors.       

“Where are the bodies?” Manny asks.

“We’ve been dragging them around back.  We can’t afford to have some customers arrive and wonder what happened here.  You see that wrought-iron door on the outside to the left?  One of you, swing it around and see if you can lock it.  But we need to hurry.”

Gus muscles it the hundred eighty degrees to where it joins up with the opposite side, covering the swinging doors, but there is no padlock.  No one in their right mind would burglarize a cartel bar.  

“Great.  Last thing.  Gus, that sign that says Abierto.  Turn it around.”

Gus takes it from the nail holding it and turns it around.  Now it says Cerrado.

“What about the blood?”  Manny asks.

“Right, the blood.  We scratch over the main puddles with our boots.  A few minor spots will hardly be noticed.  Like before, we stay way right of the road and give it a wide berth.  We should approach the hacienda from the back.  According to the aerial photos, there is a huge courtyard with arms on each side, but open to the back.”

Manny speaks up.  “I don’t like it.  Angel has lookouts posted on the second story balcony.  We’re sure to be spotted.  I think we should march on the hacienda like conquering heroes returning for our reward.  Rub some dirt on our faces, a little blood.  Only four of us returning because one of theirs bought it.  Swipe the bandanas and the sombreros from the bodies in back to make it a little more real.  Hope they’re not paying close attention until it’s too late.”

“Okay, we’ll go with that.”

As the two debate, Gus and Jerry have been scratching the dirt.

“Looks good to go.”

They circle around back, grab the bandanas, and exchange their own head covering for the sombreros.  They tie the bandanas around their necks as they follow a well-worn path that leads from the cantina around back of the outer row of houses and to the private road that runs from the village to the hacienda.  They prance a bit and playfully slap at each other, playing the role of victorious cartel warriors.

They reach the under-balcony of the hacienda without being challenged. A meek-looking Mexican opens the ornate carved wood door to welcome them.

“Amigos.”  Then he realizes his mistake.  These men are not familiar to him.  Jerry, the martial arts expert, gets him in a sleeper-hold before he has time to sound an alarm.  This fellow may only be a member of the domestic house staff, but they can’t take chances.  They drag him to a deserted room that appears to be a parlor for welcoming guests.

Jerry slaps him awake.  “How many are here, right now.”

“The jefe and his bodyguard Ramon.  The others have left.  I am only a lowly servant.  All the cartel members left to ambush the strangers.  I thought you were them returning.  The others here are hired workers in the kitchen.  We have nothing to do with the cartel.”

What he says is likely the truth because it is consistent with what Rosita told Tice when he recruited her, about Angel liking his privacy.

“Where are the sentries, the ones stationed on the balcony?”

“They also left for the cantina.”

Must have been the guys on the cantina roof.  And we were worried about being spotted.

“Bueno, where is the jefe?  We want him.  Will the house staff interfere?”

“No senor, the staff will want no part of this business.  There is no love lost between them and the tyrannical Angel who treats us like dirt.  The jefe is alone in his conference room drinking tequila.  Ramon is guarding the senorita.  I do not know where they are.”

“The conference room, where is it,” Manny asks, and the servant tells him.

“Maybe when this business is completed, you come work for us.”

They escort him to a coat closet off the hall and lock him in.  “It is for your protection,” Manny whispers.

With Rosita hidden and being guarded somewhere in the hacienda, they must take Angel without gunfire.  Tice enters the conference room and stares down the long table at Angel at the far end.  The other three have fanned out along the sides and take up positions just behind Angel. 

“Ah, the strangers.  You have come to negotiate?  Which cartel do I have the honor of welcoming?”

Tice was expecting almost anything, a grab for his gun, a plea for his life, but not this display of cool.

“I fear you mistake us.  I am here on behalf of my son whom you ruthlessly hunt.”

At that moment, Jerry the Recon warrior, moving on cat’s feet, has reached Angel’s blind side.  He takes his treasured Gurkha knife that he brought back from Nam and slits Angel’s throat.

Jerry lowers Angel’s dead body to the floor.  Says, “We should find Tice a machete.”  And then adds, “He must have been tired of learning that his assassins and bodyguards always turn up dead.”

Gus gives his buddy a slap on the back.  “A real shame.” 

Tice and Manny exchange looks that says just what we’ve learned to expect from you guys.

“Let’s don’t celebrate yet.  We have to rescue Rosita.”

“Just joking.  It’s like doctors in the operating room.  A way of relieving the tension.” 

A curious member of the kitchen staff appears from the back.  He surveys the scene and smiles.

“Amigo, do you know where they are keeping the senorita?”

He tells them.  “She is hidden in the wine cellar, but she in unharmed, I think.  The coward Ramon just now has fled and would not dare to harm her for fear he would be hunted down.”  The kitchen helper retreats toward his kitchen.

“He must have realized what was going down.  Figured we are from a rival cartel and has taken off,” Tice says.

“We sure can hope that’s the case.  Fits nicely with our cover,” Manny says.  “The wine cellar must be close to the kitchen.  Let’s go find it.”

They trail after the kitchen guy who has reached the courtyard and is heading toward the kitchen.  They catch up and ask him to show them the wine cellar.

The kitchen fellow seems pleased to take them.  “I’m the sous-chef,” he tells them and beams.  They find the door padlocked.  The padlock is one of those that can withstand a bullet, according to the commercials, but the hasp is not.

“Do you suppose Ramon provided her with a corkscrew?” Jerry says.

“Would have been the courteous thing to do,” Gus says back.

“Are you guys ever serious?”

Jerry gives Tice the innocent who me  look.

Gus has seen that look before, two years back when Jerry was challenged at a corrupt health care facility for encroaching where he shouldn’t.

The obliging sous-chef brings them a large screwdriver that Tice uses to pry off the hasp.

Rosita is inside, shivering from the precise fifty-seven-degree temperature of the cellar.  But she is beside herself with grateful hugs to see them.

Tice returns to the conference room where he beheads Angel and hacks off his hands with a machete that Manny has found for him.  The mission complete, they hurry down the hill in the last fingers of twilight.

Back at the village in Rosita’s modest house, they say their goodbye’s.  It is now dark when they leave for the return on foot to their hideout.  In the very early morning, they will embark on their exit plan. 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Fearing a reprisal from the cartel, Tice offered to take Rosita with them.  She declined.  With Angel gone, she hoped the remnants of his cartel would leave San Javier to find employment elsewhere.  Maybe honest employment, although that was a stretch.

Having left their hideout at first light, by sunrise they were several miles east of San Javier, with the added comfort of finding themselves the only traffic.  Just past Pitiquito, Manny had Gus make a right turn off highway 2 onto a gravel road that headed them in a generally southeast direction. 

This shortcut avoided a second encounter with the patrol officer who had stopped them previously.  If he had received any news about the bloodbath in San Javier, Manny might not have been able to talk him out of an arrest even with a much larger bribe.

The gravel deteriorated to hard packed dirt with some bone-jarring ruts.

It was a hundred-mile crawl, as the dawn turned into mid-morning heat.  The Dodge’s air conditioning was minimal.  It could have used a servicing, but given its age, hardly worth the expense.  

Average speed of 20 miles per hour.  But they reached 15D without seeing another vehicle.  Got onto 15D at a point only 75 miles to Hermosillo.  From there Guaymas was only another 85 miles and two hours away.  They arrived in Guaymas mid-afternoon.  Manny got his contact, Rocky’s operative on Mexican soil, on his cell. 

He gave them a place to rendezvous.  The bar in a popular beach resort.  He gave them directions, which Manny followed on his smartphone.

Their first piece of business was swapping rides.  Agent Renaldo took the Dodge, and returned the Ford Explorer to Gus  

He had beach front reservations for them.  Their cover was four middle-aged dudes out for some fun and fishing on the long Memorial Day weekend.  Wasn’t hard to get into character after the stress of the previous several days.

The following Monday, Memorial Day, less than a week after they had crossed into Mexico at Nogales, they crossed back.  Same Ford Explorer, they were asked a minimum of questions.  Yup, they’d had a great vacation, a welcome break from sundry girlfriends and significant others.   More or less behaved themselves.  Maybe drank too much tequila.   Hope to do it again next year.

Tice picked up his Chevy Malibu from the long-term lot.  A few hours later he was sitting in his La-Z-Boy.  The contrasting aloneness from the previous week’s pace felt almost unsettling.  In the morning he would call his superiors, let them know he had returned from his brief vacation.  Had done a lot of thinking and wanted to conference with them.

He couldn’t see himself returning to his former life.  He had done what he had to do, but it had cost him.  Not particularly in a monetary sense, although Rocky’s bill wasn’t exactly chump change.  A high four figures, but he got the senior discount.  Or so Rocky put it, but actually because of his being with the PIs.  Well, it had been worth every penny. 

The PIs themselves didn’t charge him nearly enough.  There’s wasn’t really a business, more a hobby to keep their retirement interesting.  They had enough income, particularly Gus with his pensions and his nest-egg to supply him more funds than he could decently spend.  Tice had treated them to charter fishing, and all the Mexican platters and tequila in Guaymas they could consume.  The least he could do.

After they got off the clock for protecting John Junior, they refused further cash compensation.  The Mexican adventure and taking out scum like Angel and his cartel had been too much fun to warrant cash as well.  Consider it their contribution to the war on drugs.

No, the cost was to his self-image as a man who lived by principles, by a code that he’d had to toss overboard.  But in exchange he’d served a higher good, a higher justice, inherent in the bonds and obligations of being a father and all that should mean. 

He couldn’t countenance a return to his office in the bullpen, back to his stewardship of his AFOSI team.   He could no longer be their leader, provide the requisite moral leadership within the constraints and rules of their military service.  That was it.  He’d entered a foreign country and killed more than one of their citizens in cold blood.  How could he advise and discipline his men, demand they stay within the constraints of their sworn code of conduct and investigative procedure after what he’d done.

The experience had changed him, maybe fundamentally, maybe in a profound sense that would never allow him to go back to the straitjacket of his law enforcement career with the Air Force.

And the worst, or maybe the best part, he didn’t want to.  The experience of hunting this monster of humanity, of besting him, and ridding the world of this human excrement, had energized him, instilled a sense of accomplishment as great as any he’d experienced after a successful AFOSI mission.  He felt more alive than he had in years.  At odd moments, it filled him with a potency of righteousness, that was almost scary.

So, what now?   The most obvious move.   He would resign his position and retire from his civilian position within the Air Force.  From a career standpoint, it was timely.  He had gotten recognition for his role in tracking down a corrupt officer, and his skillful interrogation that had finally produced a confession.  He would be retiring at a peak moment, at the top of his game. 

And he would never be called to answer for, never even be suspected of the mysterious murder of a cartel boss that happened to be the corrupt Major’s employer.  But now with that behind him, how would he spend his retirement hours and days and weeks, let alone the months and years.

In the short-term, worries about the desert years of retirement occupied the back burner.  The paperwork of separation from the service and the farewell round of parties and goodbyes to his team kept him busy.  They at least pretended to be devastated.

His son and daughter also occupied his thoughts.  He took being a supportive, protective father very seriously.  Too seriously some might say.  But he’d finally forged a great relationship with his daughter that balanced interest and caring with not being overly intrusive.

Maybe with time, he could achieve that with his son.  And now he had time to give full attention to this goal.  One unintended but positive consequence of his son’s brush with death was his renewed commitment to getting himself well and drug free.

Parenting, however, was not a full-time endeavor.  His kids were not teenagers living at home.  He realized that in a few weeks after the hoopla of transitioning to official retirement had died down, his calendar and to-do list would be approaching empty.  Thoughts of what to do with himself surfaced.  Just over a week from the day of his return from Mexico, he took out his cell and entered Jerry’s number.

“Yo Tice, how’s it hanging, or should I say semper fi,” came the greeting.

“Hey, dude, I was Air Force.  Remember?”

“Seems you performed more like a Marine down in San Javier.  Anyway, an honorary Marine.”

“I’ll accept that.  So, what’s up with you guys?”

“Pretty quiet around here.  Getting hot and our domestic hotties are chomping at the bit to head north.  Did I mention, that’s how we spend our summers, Gus and Rose on their sailboat exploring the waters of British Columbia and me and Hildy in our RV hanging out in the Rockies.”

“Sounds like a great summer plan.”

“Our other two Marauders, the ones that helped with tracking down your son’s dealer, have already left.  They’re both newlyweds and having found their perfect late-life companions are on extended honeymoons.  But I’m glad you called.  After every case, we hold a celebration at the office.  Now that you’ve called, I’m officially scheduling it for next Saturday.”

“I can make that.  I look forward to seeing the team again.  Will Manny be there?”

“Yup, he sure will.  Rosita is still in Mexico.  Wish she could celebrate with us, but it does look like her asylum will get approved.  In the meantime, our Mexican operative is watching over her to keep her safe.  We will have one other celebrity guest, Rocky Maestras, who as you know is the founder and CEO of Maestras Investigations.  That title sounds awfully formal, but he’s the most approachable, down-to-earth guy you’d ever want to meet.  Cut to the chase, he heard about your retirement, and he has a proposition for you.”

John Tice felt a stirring, an excitement, akin to coming across a surprise oasis in a parched desert.  To his core, he knew this was no mirage.  He was already looking forward to hearing more.