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REVENGE OF THE DOG TEAM
By WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE J. A. JOHNSTONE
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2009 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNight and the desert.
Nevada is mostly badlands, arid, sunbaked flats ribbed by jagged mountain ranges. Located in the central part of the state, the Black Sand Desert is one of the baddest of the bad. By day a bleak inferno, by night it's even more dangerous, a place shunned by honest citizens. Avoided by law enforcement except when absolutely necessary, and then the authorities come well armed.
A good place to do dirty business: gunrunning, dope and people smuggling. On this night in June, a deal was going down, the kind that's best done in the hours of darkness, far from the haunts of men.
Choey Maldonado was taking delivery of a quartet of female sex slaves.
They couldn't even be called whores, because that term implies a certain amount of remuneration, no matter how minimal, and sometimes even a degree of choice. Aspects that were absent in the case of this unhappy foursome.
The meeting place was a flat west of the Tres Hermanos, the Three Brothers mountain range. So named because the triple peaks, standing in single file running north-south, resembled with their rounded tops and hunched shoulders a trio of cowled monks, monastery brothers-or so they had seemed to the conquistadors who firstpenetrated these lands five hundred years earlier, in search of fabled cities of gold.
They found no cities, no gold. A number of silver veins and lodes were scattered among the hills, but they eluded the invaders. The indigenous native tribes had had their own name for the triple-peaked landmark, but what it was is unknown, since nobody had bothered to record it before the locals were exterminated by the conquerors.
A canyon mouth opened in the western slope between the middle peak and the southernmost; through many a twisty turn, the passage wound its way through the rocky mass clear to the other, eastern side. On the west, opposite the pass, the flat was studded with boulders, some house-sized, others the size of cars. Cactus clumps filled in some of the empty spaces. An old dirt trail snaked through the rocks, running roughly parallel to the hills. To the south, it stretched all the way across the border, deep into Mexico.
In the lee of a rocky knob as big as a church, a campfire was burning. Nearby stood an old beat-up pickup truck and a mammoth, late-model SUV. The pickup was the delivery vehicle. The SUV was receiving the consignment.
Two men, Esteban and Bronco, belonged to the truck. The SUV yielded three men: Choey Maldonado, Fierro, and Gomez. The women were named Lina, Amparo, Carmen, and Marisol. Carmen, the oldest, was twenty; the youngest, Amparo, was fifteen.
The men were all armed with handguns. That was a matter of course. They would no more have gone about unarmed in this wasteland by day or night than they would have gone about without wearing a pair of pants.
There was a sawed-off shotgun in the cab of the pickup truck and an assault rifle in the SUV, but those were reserved for any unanticipated problems on the road, not for the meeting at hand. Heavy firepower was not required for tonight's venture. This was a friendly meeting, a routine business deal. This land belonged to Clan Maldonado, affirmed not by title or certificate but by force of arms.
Esteban and Bronco were coyotes, people smugglers. Esteban had a pompadour hairstyle and a pointy goatee; Bronco was flat-faced, thick-featured, squat-bodied. Their boss was a longtime Maldonado family associate. This was merely the latest of a series of exchanges that had gone down dozens of times without a hitch.
So simple was it that clan chieftain Rio Maldonado had sent younger brother Choey to handle it, figuring that not even "the kid" could screw it up. Still, as insurance, he'd sent along Fierro, a trusted lieutenant and a professional gun. Gomez was the driver. Between the two of them, they could probably keep Choey from doing anything stupid.
Choey, twenty-one, had a slender frame, but too much booze and soft living had already left its mark with a puffy face, soft belly, and flabby limbs. A shiny, chrome-plated semiautomatic pistol was wedged into the top of a pair of too-tight jeans. His untucked shirt was worn bunched up at one hip, the better to show off his fancy gun.
Fierro was middle-aged, lean, his face as gaunt and hollow-cheeked as the hand-carved wooden image of some martyred patron saint of a pueblo church. Gomez was fleshy, moon-faced, and pear-shaped. Fierro handled the money; Choey couldn't be relied on not to try to divert a few bills into his pocket. Fierro handed the bill roll to Esteban.
Esteban went over by the fire and started counting the cash, several hundred dollars in well-used twenties. Not a lot of money for four young women, an outsider might think, but in these parts, fresh flesh was cheap. The supply of girls looking to cross north over the border was inexhaustible, and for the fresh, good-looking ones who fell into the grip of the coyotes, it was a buyer's market.
Choey bridled, said, "What's the matter, don't you trust us? The Maldonado never shorted anybody." His tone was offensive.
Esteban ignored it. He knew Choey. He said, "Sure, I trust you. It's just that Max, he don't trust me." Max Alacran was his boss. Esteban spoke without losing track of the count.
Fierro sidled up alongside Choey, ready to intervene in case he did something stupid. "It's business, Choey." He tried to keep his voice flat, level, but into it crept a hint of a sigh. Playing nursemaid to an overgrown juvenile was part of the job, but it was wearying.
Gomez knew better how to defuse the situation. Waddling into the firelight with a bottle of tequila they'd been passing around, he raised it to his lips and took a swig from it.
That caught Choey's attention. "Hey," he said, "save some of that for me, you pig." He grabbed the bottle, fastened it to his mouth, and upended it.
Esteban finished counting and caught Fierro's eye. Fierro replied with the slightest of nods. Esteban pocketed the cash. The deal was done.
When Choey took hold of the bottle, it was more than half full. When he unfastened his mouth from it, little more than a swallow or two remained. It was not the first bottle he'd taken the lion's share from on tonight's venture. His face was flushed, his eyes glittered. His wet-lipped mouth gaped slackly open.
Esteban and Bronco were already crossing to the truck. "All right, you're done here," Choey called after them. "You can go."
The coyotes knew how to deal with Choey, not even bothering to ignore him. Bronco got behind the wheel of the pickup and started it up. Esteban stood at the passenger side, hand on the opened door. Nodding to Fierro, he gave him a quick two-finger salute before climbing into the cab.
The truck made a K-turn, nosed south on the dirt road, and drove away, trailed by a feathery plume of dust. Only the parking lights were on, shedding a fuzzy, feeble glow on the path ahead. That, the starlight, and the beams of a half-moon that had only recently risen above the mountains to the east would provide the only illumination needed or desired by the coyotes as they made their way back to home base. Out here, headlights would stand out like a neon sign.
Gomez reached tentatively for the bottle in Choey's hand to possess himself of a final taste. All that did was focus Choey's attention on it. He drained the dregs and threw the empty bottle in the direction of the pickup truck, already well out of reach. Choey swayed, taking a wide-legged stance to better maintain his balance. Fierro indicated the SUV with a tilt of his head, said, "Might as well get going."
"What's the rush?" Choey said. He turned toward the women, wobbling a bit as he did so.
They stood in a clump, huddled together. Heads bowed, eyes downcast. It had been a long, hard trip north; they'd been brutalized and assaulted virtually nonstop by their transporters pretty much from the start of the illegal crossing. They'd been passed along by several sets of captors before falling into the hands of Alacran's captors. They held no illusions about their immediate and future prospects.
Choey said, "Let's take a better look at what we've got. Get those bitches over here, into the light."
Fierro's tight-lipped mouth turned down at the corners, but he said nothing, just stood off to one side with his arms folded across his chest. He knew that if he pointed out that Rio was waiting for them back at the rancho, Choey would delay their departure all the longer, just out of spite. So he kept his mouth shut and let Gomez play the flunky. That was part of the fat man's job.
Gomez herded the females in closer to the fire. "This way, girls, don't be shy," he said, chuckling lewdly. He lined the women up so they stood shoulder to shoulder between the fire and the boulder in whose lee it was sheltered.
The fire was built from pieces of deadwood, twigs and broken branches and such gathered from the nearby brush and stunted dwarf trees dotting the area. Thin gray wisps of smoke were aromatic, smelling of mesquite and dry sage.
The women wore T-shirts or sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers. The desert night air was cool, chilly, but it was warm where they stood, with the fire's warmth radiating off the tilted plane of the rock face behind them. Even so, they shivered.
Choey lurched toward them. The nearest was Lina. She stood unbowed, staring straight ahead into the darkness beyond the crackling flames. Long straight black hair hung down on either side of her oval face. She kept her expression blank, but her eyes were wide and dark. Her breasts were high and full against a lime-colored T-shirt.
Choey, swaying, gripped her shoulder in one hand to steady himself. The other hand squeezed and groped her through the shirt, not gently. Lina squirmed, breathing hard through clenched teeth, biting her lip at one point to keep from crying out at the rough handling. All the while, she kept staring over his shoulder into space.
When he let go of her, she choked back a shuddering sob. Choey took a step back, grinning. He caught sight of Gomez, frowned, and said, "More tequila!"
"It's all gone," Gomez said.
"Like hell! Don't give me that. I know you, you drunken pig, you're sure to have an extra bottle or two stashed away somewhere."
Gomez assumed what he thought was an expression of heartfelt sincerity; he looked like he'd just been caught stealing from the church poor box. He began, "Choey, I swear to you that that was the last of it-"
Choey rested his hand on the chrome-plated pistol sticking out of the top of his belt at his hip. "Make it quick before I put a hot round into that fat ass of yours!"
"Maybe there's one left in the SUV. I'll take a look," Gomez said, scuttling away toward the vehicle. Without hesitation, he went to the passenger-side door, opening it. The dome light went on, throwing a tilted yellow square of brightness out the side of the cab and across the gritty, charcoal-gray sands.
Gomez bent over, leaning forward from the waist and sticking out a rear as wide and round as a garbage can lid as he pawed urgently under the passenger seat.
Choey said, "What a target, I can't miss!"
"Wait, wait!" Gomez straightened up and turned around, holding a bottle by its long neck. "I found one!"
"Big surprise," Choey said.
Gomez hurried to him, masses and mounds of flesh all a-jiggle. He had less than a dozen paces to cross, but by the time he reached Choey, he was panting and heaving like he'd just finished running a marathon.
Choey snatched the bottle away from him, saying, "Give me that before you drop it, you fat fool."
Gomez was too out of breath to speak. Choey uncapped the bottle and tossed the cap away. He lifted it to his lips and drank deep, making significant inroads into its contents.
His bleary gaze fell on Amparo. She was slight, girlish, with a sharp-featured birdlike face. Her eyes bulged like a pair of black olives, her lips were compressed into a thin white line, and her pointy chin trembled.
Her fear was palpable, and Choey seemed to expand physically under its impact. He stood there for a moment, savoring it, while the cowering girl shrank from his nearness. Groggily noticing the bottle in his hand, he looked for someplace to put it. Gomez had caught enough of his breath to volunteer, "I'll hold it for you-"
"Keep your filthy paws off it or I'll shoot them off," Choey said. He set the bottle down on a rocky outcropping.
He reached for Amparo. "There's not enough of you to make a meal out of-" He grabbed a fistful of her shirt and pulled, tearing it away down the front and baring her chest. "A scrawny chicken!" he cried, laughing.
He grappled his hands onto her breasts, one in each hand, pulling and twisting them. Squealing, she sank to her knees, her fluttering hands feebly trying to fend him off.
Fierro said, "Rio paid for her, she belongs to him-"
"Shut up," Choey said, not looking up from what he was doing. His hands worked harder, more viciously, Amparo's shrieks shrilling. She clawed at his face, and suddenly it was Choey's turn to howl. His grip broke, and she sank in a heap at his feet, the rock face behind her propping her up into a half-sitting position.
Choey half turned toward the fire, revealing a set of four bloody furrows that Amparo had clawed into his cheek. An expression of wonderment showed on his face as he gingerly, almost delicately raised a hand to touch the afflicted area. He held his hand to the firelight, ruby droplets of blood beading his fingertips as he fought to focus his gaze on them. A shadow flickered across his face.
Roaring, he turned back toward the girl, thrusting his arms down and grabbing her neck in both hands. He jerked her to her feet and held her up in the air, throttling her. His expression was maniacal. Noises escaped from him as he strangled her.
The only other time Fierro had heard noises even remotely like that, they had come from a man who was burning to death in a house on fire.
Amparo's small sneakered feet thrashed in empty air as Choey held her at arm's length, wringing her neck. Something snapped and her feet stopped kicking.
Gomez stood there open-mouthed, motionless, staring stupidly. Cursing under his breath, Fierro started forward.
Marisol, standing to one side of Amparo, picked up a softball-sized rock and slammed it against the side of Choey's head. It made a wet, chunking sound.
This time, Fierro cursed out loud. In a lightning-like flash, he could see his entire life before him if a fatal blow had indeed struck down Choey Maldonado, whose brother Rio had charged Fierro to protect Choey at all costs. A flash was all that was needed, for what would remain of Fierro's life was sure to be short and unpleasant.
Choey was still on his feet. Amparo had fallen from his suddenly slackened grip. Marisol, a study in grim determination, raised her arm to deliver another blow with the rock.
One thing Fierro didn't have to think about was gunplay. That was his stock in trade. In one smooth blur of motion, he drew his holstered sidearm and, firing from the hip, triggered three quick blasts into Marisol's middle. Any one of the shots would have been fatal; the three of them nearly cut her in half.
She went down without so much as a whimper. Choey, still standing, started screaming. From the way he was carrying on, it seemed like he was the one who'd been shot. He looked like a crazy man, eyes bulging like they were going to pop out of their sockets.
Fierro knew better. He was a dead shot and when he fired at something, he hit it. He knew his shots had all gone true. Choey was being hysterical, that was all. Fierro found his shrieks deeply reassuring, since it meant he wasn't dead or unconscious.
Choey fell silent, his open mouth gazing. His eyes came back into focus. He shook his head, as if to clear it. He looked around the scene. Fierro, Gomez, Lina, and Carmen all stood frozen in place, like images from a still photograph.
Marisol lay sprawled on her back, face upturned. Amparo lay in a huddle on her side, head twisted at an angle no living person could attain.
Choey's face convulsed, features scrunching up. He looked like he was going to burst into tears. Instead, he started laughing. Howls of mirth escaped him, belly laughs that doubled him up. Big gusts of laughter that were almost as hysterical as his screams a moment before.
That broke the spell. Gomez went to him, gripping him by the arm to help keep him up on his feet. "You okay? Choey, you okay?" said Gomez, who looked like he was going to be sick.
Excerpted from REVENGE OF THE DOG TEAM by WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE J. A. JOHNSTONE Copyright © 2009 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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