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By Tricia Fields
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Tricia Fields
All rights reserved.
Chief Josie Gray sighted down the rifle scope at two black sedans prowling the empty streets of Piedra Labrada. She was posted atop a fifty-foot-high watchtower, looking across the Rio Grande into a two-block area of squalid bars. For forty-five minutes, Josie had listened to gunfire coming from inside the Garra del Tigre, one of the five bars on the strip, but there had been no movement until the sedans came into view. The watchtower, used jointly by Border Patrol and local police, stood on the U.S. side of the river, just a quarter mile from downtown Piedra. From her vantage point, Josie could see an access road that followed the Rio, then a half dozen blocks of factories fanning out from the collection of bars situated directly south of the tower. She lowered her rifle, slowly scanning the area for a reaction to the cars. Something was about to open up.
The sedans rolled to a stop in the middle of the empty street in front of the Tigre. Although the occupants' identities were concealed behind black tinted windows, Josie was certain the cars belonged to either Medrano or La Bestia. The Medrano cartel was a family-run drug operation that had terrorized northern Mexico into submission. La Bestia was a newly formed cartel with enough money and firepower to pose a threat to Medrano: a death sentence for anyone caught in between.
Garra del Tigre's front door hung from its hinges, the wood splintered with bullets. The inside of the club appeared dark and still, but she knew the gunmen maneuvered at night with the ease of cockroaches.
Josie rubbed her neck and rolled her shoulders, trying to ease some of the tension from them. She could feel blood humming through her veins, the tingling of nerve endings on her scalp: Her body was on alert. She was thin, with arm muscles strong enough to surprise a full-grown man if the occasion called for it, and was above average height for a woman. At thirty-three years old, she knew she was attractive, but lately she felt that side of her served little purpose.
Heat lightning snaked across the night sky, and she caught a glimpse of the blue and white jeep patrolling River Road below her with its headlights off. She pulled her cell phone out of her uniform shirt pocket and called the driver, fellow officer Otto Podowski. She disliked leaving him on the ground with no backup, but they were the only officers on duty that night.
Otto answered on the first ring. "Anything?"
"Two sedans just pulled up in front of the Tigre. They're watching. This has to be a battle between the cartels. Any movement on our side?"
"Not a soul in sight."
"You see cars pushing across the river? Don't be a hero. Get out of their way."
"Backup on the way yet?"
"Are you kidding?" She and Otto made up two-thirds of the Artemis Police Department. The three-person police force should have been enough for a border town with a population of 2,500. But given the current violence across the border, she needed at least triple that number of officers. Without constant vigilance by police agencies, the violence would spread like wildfire through the Southwest.
One block south of the nightclubs, Josie watched two uniformed Piedra police officers approach the east side of the strip, on foot with guns drawn.
"Jesus, there's two cops ready to run right into the middle of it. They're walking up the side street. They can't see the cars yet."
Josie hung up on Otto and tried the Piedra Labrada police dispatch but received the same busy signal she'd heard for the past two hours. She called her local dispatcher, Lou Hagerty. Lou was a fifty-year-old chain-smoker with a voice like gravel, but no one handled stress better than she did.
"I can't get through to dispatch in Piedra," Josie said. She could feel the panic in her throat as she watched the officers approach the corner of the building. Then the panic turned to dread. She grabbed her binoculars off the deck railing and focused them with one hand.
"Every phone line in Mexico must have been slashed. I can't even get through to the gas station," Lou said.
Josie focused on the officer who stood almost a foot taller than the other man, and recognized Lorenzo Marín. She had worked with him frequently on cross-border issues. He was a good-natured officer, with a million stories to tell and a loud, high-pitched laugh that could get even the most cynical cop to smile. He had a wife and twin boys at home. It was all she could do to keep from screaming his name, but her voice would never carry.
Josie quickly summed up the gunfire and officer location. "You find a way to get through to someone. Let them know Marín's walking into an ambush."
She hung up and found Marín in her cell phone contacts. She had to warn him. The sedans were almost certainly carrying gunmen, cartel members who would not hesitate to shoot a police officer.
Marín didn't answer, his phone probably silenced. At the corner of the bar, he and the shorter officer stopped and leaned their backs against the side of the building. She could barely see their outline in the shadows. Her stomach clenched as she watched the passenger-side doors of both sedans open and four men exit, each holding automatic weapons. They hunkered low behind the cover of the cars and faced the Tigre.
Josie watched Marín walk cautiously around the front of the building, now in full view of the gunmen crouching behind the sedans. The gunman closest to Marín slowly raised his head above the rear of the sedan and brought his gun up, aiming toward the cop, who was now pressed against the front of the nightclub, his gaze on the front door. Josie heard the shots first, then watched as Marín's body jerked, hit the wall of the nightclub, and slid down the cement wall, where bullets continued to riddle his body. She screamed and grabbed the deck railing to keep from falling to her knees. The second officer remained around the corner of the building, edging around to open fire on the sedan. The four gunmen disappeared into the cars within seconds, and the sedans rolled off, heading away from the Rio into a darkened residential neighborhood, where Josie lost sight of them. She watched the other officer crouch over Marín, who now slumped against the building, his legs splayed out on the sidewalk.
Her ears buzzed in the sudden silence. Stunned, she watched the other officer lean his head down to Marín's chest and check his neck for a pulse. Three cars exited the alley behind the nightclub, making their escape before reinforcements could ever arrive.
* * *
Josie repeatedly dialed the Piedra Police Department until finally reaching a dispatcher through sheer luck. She reported an officer down, and within minutes the ambulance arrived. Josie watched as Marín's lifeless body was loaded into the ambulance. They were treating him like he had a chance, but she had little hope.
She leaned her rifle against the deck railing and forced her breathing to return to normal. She rubbed at the knots in her neck and felt the tension pulling the muscles in her back and shoulders. Thirty-three years old, and she wondered if the dark circles under her eyes would ever fade.
She unbuttoned her uniform shirt and lifted the bulletproof vest and her T-shirt away from her chest, sighing in relief as the air touched her skin. She unclipped her shoulder-length brown hair and finger-combed it back into place. It was four o'clock in the morning. Her body felt numb; her thoughts flatlined.
Josie pushed open the rickety wooden door into the boxy room at the center of the watchtower's platform and found the water bottle in her backpack. She drained the contents and searched her cell phone for Sergio Pando's phone number. A single father who obsessed over his teenage daughter's safety, he was her closest contact on the Mexican police force. His wife had been killed, a bystander to a car bomb explosion when Benita was just a baby. It had nearly destroyed him.
Josie finally made contact with him. "What's happening over there?"
"Josie, it is insanity. We've lost all control. Benita? She's in the cellar, scared out of her mind." Sergio's English was excellent, but his accent was thick, slowing his speech.
"Is she home by herself?" Josie asked.
He sighed heavily and took a moment to respond. "You know where I am? Posted on the International Bridge. As if anyone in their right mind would want into this city right now."
"The gunfire has let up." Josie realized how inadequate it sounded. How do you talk to a man whose city is dying?
"For how long?" Sergio's voice was bitter and tired. "All those government soldiers going to save the villages? Where are they? The Federales are so outmanned, we can't keep up. It's a joke."
"I requested Border Patrol and DPS all night. It's no good. Dispatch has been nonstop."
Sergio made a dismissive sound. "The landlines are down, probably destroyed like the rest of the city."
"Border Patrol is monitoring scanner traffic. They set up defensive positions at the main points. They're preparing for a mass crossing."
"They aren't stupid. The cartels won't cross tonight." Sergio's voice caught. "Thirteen people murdered. One police officer in critical condition. It's territory and drug routes. Always what it comes to."
Josie listened in silence as Sergio went on, listing one horrible act after another. She stared down at the river and wondered how long before the chaos spilled over the banks and into the U.S.
After Sergio calmed somewhat, Josie called Otto, dialing his cell phone to keep the radio frequency clear. "Where are you?" she asked.
"Intersection of River Road and Scratchgravel."
"Nothing. It's too quiet now."
"Everything's shut down," she said. She raised her binoculars again and scanned the city, almost deserted at an hour when third-shift and first-shift workers should have been passing in the streets. An underground system of communication, neighbor to neighbor, spread information throughout the city when trouble started. Lights went out; windows and doors shut. Piedra Labrada went into lockdown.
The radio on Josie's belt hissed. Lou Hagerty said, "Forty-two twenty-two, location check."
"Rio watchtower," Josie replied.
"Mayor Moss requests all units to the Trauma Center, stat."
* * *
Josie hooked her backpack over her arms and took the wooden stairs that zigzagged down the fifty-foot descent as quickly as she could. Lou had not been provided any details, and Josie dreaded to find out what lay ahead. She shoved her department-issued jeep into four-wheel drive and sped toward the center of town via a dried-up arroyo that also served as a county road. The smell of baked earth and desert scrub blew in through her open window.
The radio forecaster said the overcast sky held no hope for rain and little chance of lowering the record-breaking temperatures. Looking in her rearview mirror Josie noticed the wall of dust she stirred up, and ran her tongue across her lips, tasting the layer of fine sand that coated her skin. The heat had the locals wishing for the monsoon season, but it would be dangerous when it hit. The ground was so hard and dry, the water would wash down arroyos like this one to the Rio, flooding everything in its path.
* * *
The Artemis Trauma Center was located south of the center of town, near a neighborhood of small cinder block homes. As she pulled up, Josie saw the mayor's white pickup truck enter the empty lot, dingy under the charcoal-colored sky. He parked in front of the center's entryway, climbed out of the truck, and approached Josie like a drill sergeant. He was a short stocky man with an underbite like a bulldog's.
"An ER surgeon from El Paso is on his way. He was already on call in Marfa, so he should be here within a half hour. Two scrub nurses should be here any minute. They'll start setting up for surgery." Moss's voice was clipped and too loud for the silent parking lot.
"What's going on?" Josie felt her face flush in irritation.
He pointed toward the door. "Let's get inside. We shouldn't be out here."
Josie grabbed his shoulder as he turned from her. "Has someone been shot?"
He glared at her and turned back toward the building, forcing Josie to follow behind him.
* * *
The Trauma Center was a one-story brick rectangle with a glass front door and green awning above it. The building housed the town's Health Department and a one-room surgical unit that had been paid for with a Homeland Security grant the previous year. Artemis supported one family doctor and now a trauma unit, thanks to the drug cartels pushing north.
Using a key from a silver ring with at least a hundred other labeled keys, Moss unlocked the door and pushed it open, flipping on the entry lights to the left of the door, obviously familiar with the building. For the past ten years, he had micromanaged every agency in town, down to the bid orders for paper towels and toilet paper. He ran Artemis like a city manager, at times using authority he did not officially have. Moss and the city council appointed the chief of police, and he had the authority to fire Josie: a fact Moss was not above reminding her. Running unopposed gave him the type of unchallenged power that Josie worried was not in the best interest of the city.
Moss turned on a second set of lights, and fluorescent bulbs lit up the white waiting room, revealing two rows of blue plastic chairs linked together by a metal rail. Low coffee tables on either side of the chairs were littered with various tattered magazines. The room smelled of bleach and Pine-Sol.
Josie pointed ahead to a dimly lit hallway where they could talk in a more protected space, away from the glass entryway and two windows in the waiting room.
Moss leaned against the wall in the hallway and rubbed the stubble on his face. Usually impeccably dressed, he wore a wrinkled shirt that looked as if he had picked it off the floor on the way out of his house.
"I got a call from the Federales. The Medrano ranch is under attack. Five to eight gunmen from La Bestia went there after the gunfight in Piedra. They shot three front men for Medrano, as well as the old man himself. He's in critical condition." He paused, looked away from her. "The ambulance is headed our way."
Josie leaned her head against the wall. She had been warned it would happen eventually. "Wasn't he shot in Piedra Labrada?" she asked.
Moss nodded. "I had no choice. He's got dual citizenship. The Federales said La Bestia already has men surrounding the hospital in Ojinaga. There's not a hospital in Mexico safe enough to take him. The Federales are certain La Bestia's set to finish the job."
"So we let them finish the job here? Let our doctors and nurses be killed?" She stopped and forced herself to slow down, lower her voice. "Do you have any idea how many innocent people that man has killed in Mexico?"
Moss took a step forward and pointed a finger toward her chest. "He owns a cattle ranch in West Texas the size of our town! Until our suspicions are confirmed, we treat this man like the U.S. citizen he is. We offer him protection and medical care like we do any other citizen."
Josie laughed in disbelief. "I can't cross the border to help a fellow law officer, but we allow criminals to cross the border for medical care? How screwed up is that?"
"You don't like the rules? Write your congressman."
Josie bit back a sarcastic barb. "I've called Border Patrol and Department of Public Safety for assistance countless times tonight. They're swamped. We'll get no help here. Have you called the sheriff yet for backup?"
"I got the call from Mexico and called dispatch. I called our Trauma Center team leader to round up the ER staff and drove here," Moss said.
"Call the sheriff. Tell him we need every man he can find to surround this building." Josie paused and listened as she heard an ambulance siren approaching the center's side entrance. "Otto's en route. I'll have him start setting up the perimeter for backup. I'll work with the surgical team. You have any contacts you can tap for extra help?"
The mayor flipped open his cell phone to begin making calls while Josie met the ambulance.
The two attendants opened the back door of the ambulance and unloaded Hector Medrano, founder of the Medrano cartel. His chest and abdomen were shredded, and blood leaked through the bandages. His large square face was also bloodied and smeared with black dirt. He was as large in life as he appeared in the frequent newspaper and Internet articles that featured his crime sprees. Josie noticed the two Mexican attendants keeping a wary eye on the unconscious patient, stepping back from the gurney as soon as it was rolled into the operating room. Even with his approaching death, Josie could feel the evil that surrounded the man.
Within minutes, the two ER nurses had arrived. Vie Blessings parked and got out of her car, talking on a cell phone, already dressed in blue scrubs. She was a busty forty-year-old woman with spiked hair and vibrant makeup and jewelry. She commanded attention and got it. A younger nurse whom Josie didn't recognize got out of the passenger seat of the car; she looked pale and terrified and stayed behind Vie's back.
Excerpted from The Territory by Tricia Fields. Copyright © 2011 Tricia Fields. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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