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THE NEW DESTROYER: GUARDIAN ANGEL (Chapter 1)
Rob Scott stared up at the cold night stars, scattered like sparkling grains of sand above the vast New Mexico desert, and for the first time in his thirty-three years of life fully appreciated the sheer, mind-numbing boredom of the vastness of creation.
The light of those stars had taken millions of years to reach Rob Scott's upturned face and he felt as if he had been waiting out in the desert all that time. Of course, he had not been in New Mexico for millions of yearsonly five hot days and four long nightsbut the desert had a way of warping one's sense of time.
To while away the incredible tedium of the late night hours, Rob thought about counting the stars. But he had tried that the previous night and had lost count as they slowly slipped behind the horizon and the desert morning bleached them from the sky.
He had brought his iPod with him and could have listened to his favorite Springsteen music, but on this night, the last of his life, he was too bored even for that.
Maybe the sky was too clear, too unobstructed. Back home in Minneapolis it was impossible to see the sky from horizon to horizon. Here though, with the great panoply of creation spread out before him, Rob, for the first time in his life, was able to see not only himself, but his planet earth, in contrast with the vastness of the universe. The desert had a way of doing that too and for the first time in his life Rob realized that he was just an insignificant speck standing on yet another insignificant speck.
"You guys ever wonder why we're here?" Rob asked.
His brief moment of introspection was lost on his companions and there was a grunt at his elbow. "Somebody's gotta keep half the population of Mexico from sneaking in here. Government sure as hell isn't interested."
The man who spoke was seated before a small computer monitor. His face was bathed in a soft green glow.
There was only one other man standing out there in the desert with Rob Scott, but he knew that five miles distant in either direction was another three-man group. Another three were stationed five miles beyond that, and so on, thirty-three men snaking out fifty miles across the desert. Stationed all along that fifty-mile stretch, straight as the crow flies, was various equipment: sound and motion detectors, as well as night vision cameras on tripods. Nothing moved in the desert without someone in that fifty-mile stretch knowing about it.
All the men were members of the Civilian Border Patrol, all unpaid volunteers, all of whom had signed up to track the movement of illegal aliens across the border.
So far that week, along their little fifty-mile strip, the CBP had spotted one hundred and forty-seven illegals sneaking in from Mexico.
Rob and the rest of the CBP could do nothing to stop them. They could only relay the information to authorities and hope that the lawbreakers were picked up by the Feds somewhere along the line. But out of the one hundred and forty-seven spotted by Rob's cohorts only two had been apprehended and were awaiting repatriation. For Rob, it was a disheartening statistic. It was as if, back in Washington, D.C., nobody in the government really cared.
But, dammit, Washington might not care but out in the heartland, real Americans did. These days there were a bunch of groups doing the same work as the CBP. You couldn't swing a dead rattlesnake without slapping some volunteer in the back of the head. Rob's group was one of the better financed, backed by the resources of Worthington International, Inc. But despite the generous financial backing they received in the form of food, supplies and equipment, even the CBP's track record was dismal.
Two catches in five days. Spot, report, and then be ignored.
Rob knew that even the two they had helped apprehend would simply be returned to the Mexican side of the border. And then they would attempt the crossing again, and next time would more than likely succeed. After all, with five hundred thousand illegals estimated to be sneaking into the country annually, the odds were in their favor.
Rob had taken some vacation time from his insurance agency to help out with the CBP. That was how committed he was to the cause. And, truth be told, he had thought that catching illegals would be exciting. He knew it was important. Instead, after less than a week in the desert, he found it every bit as tedious and unfulfilling as his work behind a desk back in Minneapolis.
A throat cleared nearby. When Rob glanced down from contemplating the heavens, he saw that the man at the monitor had shifted forward on his little folding stool. His finger, cast in an eerie green glow, tapped the screen.
"Beaners at ten o'clock," the man said softly and giggled.
The Civilian Border Patrol had members as old as seventy-eight and as young as nineteen. In its ranks were whites, blacks, and even some people of Mexican ancestry. With a group so diverse there were bound to be a few racist idiots, but thankfully they were few and far between.
Most of the CBP volunteers were men legitimately concerned about the nation's porous borders. For those like Rob Scott it had nothing to do with cheap labor or lost jobs. It was not a coincidence that these groups had formed after 9/11. Rob had an image of two burning buildings forever emblazoned in his memory.
Rob Scott was worried about whoor whatmight someday sneak across the Mexican border into the U.S.
On the monitor screen, three...four...no, five bright blobs were making their way toward Rob's camp. The monitors picked up the heat cast by warm bodies in the chill desert night. The group on the screen moved tightly together.
"Wish I had my M16 here," the man at the screen said, giggling again, and then sighed wistfully. "Look at 'em cluster. I could kack those wetbacks easy before they got within a hundred miles of the nearest welfare office."
"Shut up, Eric," Rob said and reached for the camp walkie-talkie.
They had strict instructions not to approach, not to impede. If the illegals came within five feet of them, Rob and the others were to step aside and let them pass, like doormen politely ushering the lawbreakers into a nation that had set out the good china dinnerware in anticipation of their arrival.
Rob was not without compassion. He certainly didn't blame these men and women for trying to sneak into the United States. A vacation trip to Mexico back in his college days had left him stunned at the poverty that existed just off America's back porch. It was only the luck of the draw that had placed him at birth on this side of the border, and Rob was thankful every day for it. But none of that made a wrong thing right and none of it erased Rob's security concerns.
Rob was about to report the sighting when something strange happened. The blobs on the screen stopped moving.
Rob lowered the walkie-talkie. "What's happening?" he asked. "Why have they stopped?"
The man named Eric shrugged. "Beats me. If they were bending over I'd say they were picking lettuce. Maybe one of them just plopped out another baby." The broad smile on Eric's face lasted only a few brief seconds.
There was a bright flash on the monitor screen. A split second later, the monitor erupted in a burst of sparks and flying shards of glass. Rob heard the report of the first gunshot only after the bullet had passed through the monitor and into the grinning face of Eric Bozeman Collins.
Eric was flung backward off his stool, a gaping hole where his nose had been. Rob Scott could barely see him. His vision was blurred by a splash of brilliant white, the result of the monitor flash. Blinking away stars, still in shock, Rob was only startled to action by the second shot.
The gunshot cracked like thunder in the clear desert night.
Rob threw himself to the ground. The walkie-talkie fell out of his hand and slid away in the dirt.
"What are they...they're shooting at us!" Rob cried to the third member of their small group.
His vision was clearing. He saw that the third mana produce manager from a Wyoming grocery storehad dropped to the ground as well. Rob crawled over to him.
"What are we going to do?"
The man didn't answer. Frantically, Rob shook the man's shoulder. His hand came back damp and sticky.
The second shot had been clean as well. A bull's-eye dead center in the man's heart.
Rob heard voices nearby. Hushed, but closing in.
He took in a hiss of breath. Night vision goggles. The CBP had them. These strangers who came out of the night and hunted unarmed, apparently for sport, must have had similar equipment. That's how they had found Rob's CBP camp, that's why the only two shots they had fired had managed to find their intended targets. Which meant that they could more than likely see Rob as well.
The equipment was partially blocking him from the gang that was somewhere out there. Maybe, he thought hopefully, they could not fire off a third clean shot.
There was a chance. Rob made a best guess where the men must be by now and, keeping the tents between him and his invisible stalkers, he began crawling on all fours in the opposite direction. As he crawled, his hand landed on a small, square object.
The walkie-talkie. He snatched it up, stuffing it in the pocket of his fatigue jacket.
His eyes were clear now. Starlight illuminated the ground an ethereal blue.
Fifteen yards along, the sand thinned and his hands started to scrape across rock. A dark strip stretched out in either direction before him. Rob tumbled over the edge of the old dried-out riverbed. Rocks and sand slid with him to the bottom. His feet went out from under him and he hit hard on his side, smashing his elbow on a sharp boulder. He nearly cried out in pain but swallowed the sound.
Scrambling upright, he pressed his back hard against the dead river bank. With shaking hands he fumbled the walkie-talkie from his pocket. He had barely brought it to his face when he heard a noise up above. The scuffing of someone's foot.
Pausing, holding his breath, hand clenched white around the walkie-talkie, Rob listened intently.
The desert breeze had stilled. Far in the distance, a lone coyote howled at the heavens. No other sound.
Maybe it was his imagination. Maybe these maniacswhoever they werehad skulked off into the night. Rob heard no one talking, and there had been no gunshots as he crawled away. Maybe the nightmare had passed him by.
The vans that had brought them all out here had deposited men and cargo along the fifty-mile stretch. Rob knew that the vans were parked at a camp miles away and men drove the circuit daily, passing out food and water and cleaning and checking equipment. His two partners were dead, but maybe when the vans arrived in the morning they would find Rob Scott safe and sound. And he would get in one of them, steal it if he had to, and drive the hell out of this frightening, lonely place that forced a man to contemplate his own life and then on a whim and with a sniper's bullet, cruelly ended it.
Still no sound. The killers had left.
Rob brought the walkie-talkie back to his lips.
"Hello! Hello!" he whispered frantically. "Someone out there's shooting at us. I think they're gone now. But Eric and Phil are dead. My God, they're dead. I mean, they just came up out of nowhere and shot them dead. Someone...you'd better get the police here." He suddenly realized they would not know who he was, and remembered the protocol for reporting in. It seemed ridiculous now. Civilians playing at being soldiers. "This is Rob Scott, at checkpoint four. Please, you've...just send help, please."
He took his finger off the button. The box in his hand immediately squawked to life. Someone had been talking back while he was pleading for help.
"...donde esta el bastardo..."
Rob threw the walkie-talkie as if it were a scorpion. It cracked on a rock.
Above his head, a sharp sound. A human grunt. Rob knew that this time he was not mistaken.
On all fours once more he began a desperate crawl down the dried-up riverbed.
Behind him, a second grunt became a shout. Words were called out in Spanish. Someone laughed.
At his back, Rob heard boots scraping and rocks falling.
They were in the arroyo with him. No hiding any longer. They knew where he was.
Rob scrambled to his feet and began sprinting. His toe caught a rock and he went down on his face. A sharp stone gashed his chin, slicing to bone. He clambered back to his feet and resumed his mad dash for life.
The bullet that took him off his feet a moment later did not hurt as much as he feared it would. It was like a hard punch to the shoulder that lifted him up and spun him around.
And then he was down once more, slamming to his back onto the dust and rock of the dead river.
And there were the stars above him once more. But the universe no longer seemed like a cold, vast nothingness. Somehow that sea of infinite blackness and those same twinkling little lights that had so recently forced unwelcome and dispiriting introspection upon Rob Scott now seemed warm and inviting, welcoming him home.
When the shadow fell over him, blocking the stars, he scarcely registered it.
There was a man in a uniform. The man had Mexican features. But such terrestrial matters held little interest for Rob Scott any longer. And when the rifle aimed at his forehead, Rob did not see an empty blackness in the barrel that was darker than the New Mexico desert sky.
And then there was a flash, like the first burst of Creation itself, and Rob Scott knew nothing more.
Mitch Lansing was steering his big RV down the long stretch of unmarked blacktop and trying to tune out his wife's incessant squawking.
"We're lost," insisted Dottie Lansing from the passenger seat. She was half hidden behind a map of New Mexico. The map was rolled out on her lap, bent up over the dashboard and wrapped around on both sides of her, blocking all but Dottie's pudgy fingers and kneecaps. She rattled the map. "I hate this. So big. Why do they make these things so darned big?" she complained.
From somewhere under the unfurled map, Dottie's toy Pekinese yipped incessantly, its barking like an ice pick in Mitch's ear.
Mitch had bought the map back in Omaha, back when he still thought it would be a good idea to spend his retirement traveling the country with his wife. Maybe it would not have been so bad, maybe he could even have stood Pookie's barking, if Dottie did not seem to insist that unity, togetherness and family values demanded that if he were going to drive, she would have to be the navigator. The problem with that was that Dottie could not read a map.
She couldn't even read the map that came on the puzzle-page children's placemat at the diner back down the road. At breakfast a few dozen miles back, before she had gotten them lost again, Dottie had grabbed a pencil and tried to solve the map puzzle on the placemat but was unable to find Yogi Bear safe passage to his cave. Instead, Dottie's pencil had led Yogi straight into an alligator pit, and now Dottie's real-life map skills had led them to an abandoned stretch of highway out in the middle of nowhere.
"I'm going to turn around," Mitch intoned. "Don't say a word."
As Mitch slowed the RV, Dottie wadded up the map. She was sure that there was a conspiracy to make all maps impossible to refold along the original lines, and so when she was done with one, it was about an inch thick and could never be opened flat again.
"What's that, dear?" Dottie asked as she attempted to jam the map into the overflowing glove compartment. She was looking out the broad windshield.
Mitch had spotted the vans before his wife. There was no way to miss them. In the bland expanse of the New Mexico desert, bisected by the lonely, two-lane strip of asphalt, the pair of vans parked at the shoulder of the road were a godsend to a couple of lost, elderly tourists.
"Maybe they can get us back to the interstate," Mitch said. He pulled the RV behind the second van.
When Dottie opened the door, Pookie bounded out into the hot sand. Mitch was glad to stretch his legs.
There were men around the vans. Mitch and Dottie had seen them as they drove closer. But these men didn't seem bothered by the new arrivals. In fact, they must have been on some sort of morning siesta, because they didn't move at all, even when Mitch called to them. They just sat in the shade of the vans, a dozen of them in all, heads bent over their chests.
For some reason, Pookie stayed back near the RV. That was odd. Usually Mitch had to keep his wife's dog from nipping the fingers of anyone who made the mistake of trying to pet it. But for once, Pookie didn't yip, didn't snap. Oddly, the annoying little dog stayed in the shadow of the RV's wheel. A low growl rose from its throat.
"Excuse me," Mitch said, stopping above the nearest seated man. "We must have taken a wrong turn back there. Can you aim us back toward 285?"
The man did not answer. None of them did. There were a lot of flies buzzing around the area. Mitch waved at them with his hands. Pookie growled again, and for the first time, Mitch thought something might be wrong.
Tentatively, he reached down to touch the man's shoulder. And then, what with Dottie screaming and Pookie running back inside the RV and barking like mad from his perch on the dashboard, Mitch wasn't quite sure exactly what happened next.
He remembered taking out his cell phone. He remembered that distinctly, because he thought he'd broken it the first time he dropped it from his shaking hands. He remembered the flashing lights of the state cruiser; then more lights. He remembered an ambulance, and someone injecting something into the arm of his hysterical wife. He remembered the police being very interested in some words that had been spray-painted across the sides of the two vans. The words were green, and stood out in sharp contrast to the white vans.
Mostly, though, he remembered the hole in the dead man's forehead; remembered those awful glassy eyes staring vacantly into space. When the body fell onto the road, the man's hat had fallen off, revealing a gaping wound in the back of the head. The flies had gotten into the mottled hair and blood.
The sale of the Lansings' RV"barely used, motivated sellers"would be a little-noted back page ad in the auto section of their Omaha home paper. But the deaths of Rob Scott and eleven more Civilian Border Patrol volunteers would become national news and precipitate a political crisis unlike any the United States had seen since 1836.
The first reports out of New Mexico were police chatter, which soon filtered up to the FBI and Homeland Security. As the reports split off and multiplied, zipping from agency to agency, no one detected the detour they took to a corner office in an ivy-covered brick building in Rye, New York, on the shore of Long Island Sound.
A pair of glasses was directed at the data as it flowed across a computer screen. Behind spotless lenses, sharp gray eyes read the report with frowning concern.
Dr. Harold W. Smith, director of CURE, America's most secret crime fighting agency, had an unerring ability to recognize the beginnings of a crisis. And he knew he was looking at one right now.
He read the report again, making certain he had not gotten anything wrong. Of course, he hadn't. It was more of a hope than a belief that he could have been mistaken.
The border issue had become a tense one in recent years. And even though Smith kept himself totally free of political opinion, he knew the politicians had done with the issue what politicians generally do: Instead of solving the problem, they had tried to milk it for every last ounce of Election Day benefit they could squeeze from it. And now a dozen men, a dozen members of a well-meaning volunteer border patrol group, had been killed.
And Smith knew, deep in his soul, that it was not going to stop with those deaths. The killers had not been satisfied with just killing. Like artists, they had signed their work.
The words that had been painted on the sides of the vans read, "¡Viva Mexico! ¡Viva Santa Anna!"
Smith leaned back in his chair.
The words were a taunt; that much was certain. That Santa Anna, the nineteenth-century Mexican general, was mentioned at all might just have been someone's idea of a sick joke. Nevertheless, stopping it now before it mushroomed out of control...that was the kind of work that CURE had been created to do.
But how? How could he do it this time?
The two men he had trusted for years to solve such matters had not been much help in recent months. One spent most of his time ripping ringing phones out of walls and ignoring telegrams. As for the other, Smith wasn't even sure where he was.
And now America needed him. More than ever.
THE NEW DESTROYER: GUARDIAN ANGEL Copyright © 2007 by Warren Murphy