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LUKE DRISCOLL fought down a clutch of nausea as his boots thudded along the dusty moonlit path. Even with the desert's cooling night breezes, the landscape around him reeked like an outhouse.
Little wonder. The place was a virtual garbage dump. His flashlight illuminated an arid terrain littered with bottles, cans, trash bags, soiled disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, discarded clothes, ripped backpacks, even used toilet paper and human feces.
But it was the sight of a syringe with an exposed needle near his boot that disgusted Luke the most. The Coyotes and drug runners shot their veins full of stimulants, staying high to endure the torturous journeys. Their human cargo got no such chemical help.
Out of the moonlit shadows a figure wearing a U.S. Border Patrol uniform emerged and flicked a flashlight up into Luke's face as he strode toward him.
Luke squinted at the glare as he fished his badge out of the hip pocket of his jeans and flipped open the cover. "Luke Driscoll."
The light flashed off the badge, then the guard aimed the cone at the ground. "Nobody said anything about you being a Texas Ranger."
"More like former." There was no former, truth be told. In Luke's mind, once a Ranger, always one. But these days Luke kept his badge in his pocket instead of pinned to his shirt for all the world to see. He no longer covered the span of a couple of Texas-sized counties the way most Rangers did. These days he worked indoors with the hard-bitten crew of the Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team out of Austin, where, he imagined, it had been quietly arranged for the powers-that-be to keep an eye on him. Long-Arm Luke had become Loose Cannon Luke after his wife and daughter were killed.
"Chuck Medina." The border guard extended his hand and the two men shook. "I'm in charge of this case, at least for now." The youngish agent, who looked part Hispanic, studied Luke's face in the off-glow of his flashlight.
"Driscoll? Where have I heard that name before?"
"Beats me." Luke kept his expression impassive and his tone a careful neutral. He had long cultivated the habit of sidestepping his history. "Thanks for meeting me."
"No problem. But I'm confused. What does the OAG want with this?"
"Nothing." And Luke was glad of it. He preferred to work alone. While the Office of the Attorney General would tackle most anything—murder, money-laundering, child porn—they would never step on local law enforce-ment's toes. And Luke had a feeling some pretty big toes were going to get stepped on in this deal. He had already delved into one murder that appeared to be part of some linked criminal transactions. "This one's my personal deal."
"Personal?" Medina studied him so closely that Luke decided he'd better throw the kid off the scent.
"I'm sort of like a cold-case investigator." He made his involvement sound detached, remote. "We think this murder is related to some old trouble up north." He started walking toward the crime scene tape stretched between two mesquite bushes.
The guard kept pace with him. "Whereabouts up north?"
"The Hill Country." Luke had already made two trips down the winding back country roads to Five Points, Texas, a town that was beginning to devil his mind for a lot of reasons.
"How'd you get wind of this?" the guard asked as Luke raised the stretchy yellow tape to duck under.
"A couple of brothers came to me." Luke had been surprised but gratified when the Morales boys had talked to him. He supposed the fallout from his history wasn't all bad. "The young woman you guys found out here in this dung heap—" he straightened and surveyed the area "—was their sister."
Medina shook his head. "Oh man."
Far back in the mesquite bushes, they came to a shallow depression, freshly dug in the hard-packed desert. "The guy buried her?"
"Yeah. In a shallow grave. Very shallow. Almost like he didn't care if she got found. I guess even if she was, he knew he'd never get caught. The Coyotes aren't scared of us."
Luke's own words, recently spoken to a most feminine woman with a somewhat unfeminine name—Frankie— echoed in his mind now.
These are very dangerous men, ma'am, he had warned the hauntingly beautiful brunette.
He shook off the distraction—the weird sense of enchantment—that overcame him every time his thoughts strayed to this Frankie woman. Right now he didn't have time to dwell on unbidden feelings.
He panned his flashlight over the area, which was unnaturally clean, stripped of all debris. "I see you boys got everything."
"Every last little bobby pin. A freaking waste of time."
"Ah, now," Luke drawled, "I've never found catching a killer a waste of time."
Medina grunted. Luke figured he knew what the guy was thinking: if these illegal aliens wanted to break the law and trust their lives to Coyote-types, they got what they paid for. After an uncomfortable silence, in which the two men adjusted to the likelihood that they stood on different sides of the issue, Luke said, "Tell me about the victim."
The guard shrugged. "One more pretty Mexican girl on the run."
Maria's brothers had told him, tearfully, that their sister was pretty. And the Texas State Police officers Luke had talked to before he came out here had confirmed that, indeed, the victim had a pretty face—what was left of it. Sixty-five stab wounds. Coyotes—rightly named—were no better than mad dogs, vicious animals that devoured the innocent.
When the local sheriff had shown up at a humanitarian compound called the Light at Five Points looking for Maria's brothers, Luke was already there talking to Justin Kilgore, the man who ran the relief organization and—this interested Luke more than it should have—Frankie McBride's brother-in-law. Kilgore said the Morales boys— the same Morales boys, it turned out, who had originally come to Luke with a bizarre story about some Mayan carvings—had disappeared.
The brothers would never come out of hiding, Kilgore told the cops, even to claim their sister's body. Luke knew that was right. And he suspected whoever had killed the sister did it for exactly that reason—to draw the brothers out.
Luke had convinced the Moraleses to tell him about Maria, about their home town in Jalisco, about their family history, but he couldn't convince them to come down here to the border, though they had begged him to. Luke was the only Anglo they trusted, they said. Luke intended to keep that trust.
The crime scene tape, looking defeated as it sagged in the sand, was about all that was left to indicate a murder had occurred here yesterday. Maria's body, after a routine autopsy, would be sent back to Mexico, back to her aging, widowed mother. The men who killed her were long gone too, possibly to Mexico as well.
Maria Morales's murder would lie unsolved, lost in a morass of paperwork and legalities. Of no more consequence than the litter on this desert. Something ugly, something to wash your hands of. Waste. But for reasons all his own, Luke wouldn't rest until he'd hunted down the dog who killed this girl. Nor would he rest until he had an answer to the ultimate question in this whole deal. Why? "The girl we took in for questioning described the killer. Turns out he's a known Coyote in his early twenties." The guard dug something out of his flak jacket. "We mooched this picture off the Houston police. The guy operates over that way as well."
They were standing just inside the border, on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, south-southwest of San Antonio, far, far away from the Houston side of Texas.
"Busy hombre," Luke muttered.
"Yeah." The Federal handed Luke a grainy black-and-white photo that had obviously been downloaded off the Internet. "According to our sources, the guy has relatives on both sides of the state, and in Arizona, and as far south as Chiapas. He could be anywhere between here and Central America."
Luke lifted his flashlight and examined the picture. A young Hispanic man with a buzz haircut and a smudge of mustache shadowing his upper lip looked out with a cold, reptilian gaze that would halt the blood of an ordinary person.
Luke studied the heavy-set face as dispassionately as a geologist studying a rock. It was a skill—the reading of faces. This particular one would have set Luke's instincts to strumming even if the guy hadn't been an alleged murderer, even if Luke hadn't seen this face before—in person.
Izek Texcoyo. Known in the border underworld as Tex. The cynical mouth that refused to smile, the dark scar that rose from the corner of that unsmiling mouth clear to one eye, as familiar to Luke as his own trim goatee and crow's feet.
The young man was surprisingly handsome despite his disfigurement. "Can I get a copy of this?"
"Keep that. Here's another." He dug around in the jacket. "You know, it's a damn shame. The more the illegals come, the more the Coyotes prey on them." The guard explained what Luke already knew. "Sometimes it's like we're spittin' on a fire. They're like roaches, you know? Scuttling across in the night. But we have to try, right?"
"You in your way, me in mine," Luke said. He had heard another agent compare crossers to ants. If you smashed one, twenty more took his place. He gave the skinny guard a pitiless glance, but he couldn't find it in his heart to judge him too harshly. So young. Seemed like they all were. Luke himself was only forty-three and yet he always felt like an old geezer in the subterranean world of the border.
Whether it was the crossers or the patrol or the Coyotes, the people down here seemed like scared children caught up in a dangerous game. This one was no exception, no older than your average college student, doing the best that he could. Patrolling miles and miles of impossibly vast terrain, vainly rounding up illegals that flooded across in numbers that staggered the imagination.
Medina finally produced a paper and handed it over. Carrying around obscene photos in his flak vest.
It was a body. A female form, half-dressed in a ripped T-shirt. "Did she have any personal effects on her besides the T-shirt?" Luke asked as he looked at it.
The border guard gave him an annoyed squint. "You're kiddin', right?"
The Coyote who killed her had, of course, robbed her blind as well.
"The brothers believe she was wearing a vest with Huichol beadwork. It had great...sentimental value. She was also supposedly carrying an object in her backpack. Did anybody find said backpack, or perhaps a chunk of carved stone in the vicinity?"
Luke suspected there was more to this chunk of rock and this vest than sentimental value. The Morales brothers were withholding something here, but they would eventually come straight with him or find themselves hugging jail bars.
"No backpack," the kid said. "No carving. But I know exactly the kind of thing you're talking about. Occasionally we'll hear tell of crossers smuggling over artifacts. Mayan stuff, mostly. My guess is they sell them in El Norte for a fortune. And a beaded vest?" The guard eyed Luke sarcastically. "These crossers wear rags. And knock-offs of Nikes when they can get 'em."
Indeed. No one in their right mind would wear precious ceremonial garb for this journey. Crossers snaked along in unbroken lines over dusty, well-beaten paths like this one, hacking through the underbrush, scooting on their backsides down canyon floors, crawling along muddy arroyo bottoms.