Sweet Death (work in progress) chapter one

“This is Ajo station calling Alpha 475.  Agent Bowers, please respond.”

“Go for Alpha 475.”

“We have a situation at Crater Range.  We have received a 911 report from Pima County Dispatch.  Two hikers report finding a badly injured female Hispanic huddled under a ledge. Are you available to respond?” 

“Ajo Station, I will respond.  Show me being in route.  ETA 30 minutes with Alpha 359, Agent Martin Hardcastle.”

“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 hunters if that’s what they are.”

“Yeah, lucky me.  Not likely she was alone.  Either the so-called hikers are also illegals, or her companions are hoofing it back to the border.” 

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 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 the agent was the missed opportunity to make a legal and hopefully productive arrest.   

The walkie-talkie burped.  A message from Ajo Station.  “Just got an update.  The pair are staying with the injured Chiquita.  One is fluid in Spanish and has learned that she was with two amigos, purportedly making the journey to apply for asylum.  Not carrying narcotics, she maintains, but that’s likely bullshit.  So, approach with caution.”

“Ten-four. These guys have more cojones than sense staying with her,” 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 as 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?”

“In the flesh.  I’m Bowers and my partner is 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.  She had determined that the woman had a compound fracture of her lower fibula.  The bone had pierced the skin and her foot was at almost a right angle from the lower leg.  She was also suffering from a possible concussion from a head wound.

Obviously in great pain, she had managed to convey that she had fallen while she and her two companions, one being her brother, were scrambling from an arroyo.  Her brother had walked her to this resting place where they left her to get help.  Bowers did not buy this last bit.  They were more likely headed back to the border.  In any case, she required urgent medical care.  She also looked badly de-hydrated from a journey of at least several days.

Bowers radioed Ajo that the injured woman would require Medivac while Hardcastle searched the area for evidence of the other two.  He followed two pairs of footprints 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 the backpack in the arroyo hidden in some mesquite bushes a hundred yards to the south.  Inside were some bricks of marijuana and a bag of brownish white powder which Hardcastle recognized as heroin.  This baggie would not find its way into an agent’s private stash, although not all agents were as scrupulously honest as Hardcastle.

He returned to the formation, where he found Bowers comforting the woman.  The two hikers were still glued to a sitting position and sharing small talk seemingly oblivious to being in a veritable war zone under cartel control.  What the hell were they doing there, anyway?

The relief team arrived 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 hiker guys asked about the backpack, phrasing their interest as simply idle curiosity.  Hardcastle said sorry, but he was not able to disclose the contents as he himself had not inspected the pack prior to it being officially processed.  This minor deception was per protocol.  “Likely nothing earthshaking,” he added.

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 could see two males heading south in the distance.  They determined the woman was severely injured and contacted 911.

Because the injured person was female, Agent 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, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix fifteen miles west on I-10.

Agent 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 Agent 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, 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.  He could not maintain 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 and advised he was under fire.

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 that 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 his target had taken two lethal bullets, one through the chest and the other through the neck, putting him permanently out of action.

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 the TECS System 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 twice previously and had spent time in US prison for drug smuggling.  He was visibly nervous pacing in 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 the TECS system to be his sister, as she had disclosed to Bowers.

Because the incident involved firearms, Homeland Security in the Phoenix Field Office were notified.  A team of agents was dispatched to the Ajo Station.  These agents would conduct the formal and detailed investigation into the incident that led to wounding of a Border Patrol Agent and the death of the cartel figure.  Their objective was to determine the real and unfolding consequences of what occurred in the remote desert of southern Arizona.

Among the responders was a skilled interrogator.  Interrogating the surviving illegal was a critical first step in getting those answers.

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

The interrogator 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 Silvester.  Y usted, por favor?”

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

The illegal made no 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.  Did you know that she was carrying a kilo of heroin hidden on her person?”

Diaz feigned a look of surprise.

“Please don’t lie to us.  That will only make your situation worse.  The deceased man lives in a mansion a few miles from 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 as long as 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.”

Following his capitulation, Diaz proved to be a forthcoming and valuable witness. Concern for his sister, with the prospect of leniency and an agreement of protective custody and witness protection, were persuasive in eliciting this cooperation.

The interview yielded information about the deceased cartel member and a hint of why he was personally accompanying Diaz. “The capo mentioned a bigshot military guy in the cartel’s pocket, but I don’t remember the exact name.  It started with Major.”

Hmm.  Likely his rank, the interrogator surmised.  What was his relation to the cartel?  Is he really 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

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 Uniformed 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, Tice speculated.  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.”

Tice 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.

The favorite part of her academy experience was mastering the skills of driving the variety of border patrol vehicles over challenging terrain.  She relished extracting maximum performance from a four-wheel vehicle, maneuvering over treacherous ground like an agile lion on the scent.  She mastered the art of pursuit driving, night driving, skid control, and safe stops under emergency conditions.

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 about you, 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 and called nine-one-one.  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 injured female while Nate went hunting.  So 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 been a business major at Arizona State in Phoenix.  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 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, moved to 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.  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 John had stood by when they had 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 drug 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 intel.

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 just 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 cop.  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, last spring we helped clear a guy of a murder charge.  Our investigation helped unmask the actual killer.”

Jerry refrained from relating that part of the case involving the takedown of a domestic terrorist before he could blow up a Bureau of Land Management field office.

“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 PI’s.  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 kinds of guys.  He’d roll 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 happening to be holding our end of summer quarterly corporate meeting this evening.  Since we’ve been out playing all summer 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 about seven.”