Read an excerpt of this upcoming release.
Forsaken by the light, I sought comfort in the shadows.
Lost there, I became one with the darkness.
Tom killed time by searching the night sky for constellations. He’d found the kite-shaped Bootes, the herdsman, with Arcturus at the tip of its tail. The point of the stargazing ritual was twofold—to avoid the temptation for idle chitchat and to ignore the stench from where he and his buddy hunkered down and waited for their contacts.
“They’re late,” Trey said. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head.
“I know.” Tom didn’t want to think about what that meant. Instead, he focused on his surroundings. He loved the Sonoran Desert at night in the spring. The air was crisp and the fragrance of blooming cacti and wild scrub filled the air with a sweetness that burned off in the heat of the day. He’d smelled it from the ridge above where they’d parked.
He sniffed the air now for the scent of cholla, ocotillo, and brittlebush from above the silt of the gully wash. Nothing. Nature’s perfume was outdone by the strong tar odor of the creosote that grew thick along the steep walls. It mixed with the stink coming from the narrow tunnel entrance a few feet away. The reek of testosterone-laced sweat, urine and corn tortillas—the one food staple the smugglers always carried with them.
“We’ll give it fifteen more minutes then…”
A shuffle of noise from within the shaft interrupted him and he could see the bob and weave of a flashlight coming their way. A minute later, the light went out and a man stopped outside the entrance to let his eyes adjust to the black of the open desert. He made a sharp, staccato whistle—peeeewit!
In the light of the moon, Tom could see Salazar was empty handed. Considering they were there to pick up their usual two duffle bag delivery, Tom was confused, and more than a bit concerned.
“Where are the bags?” Tom asked, as the man approached.
“No bags,” said Salazar. “Change of cargo.”
“No one said anything about a change,” said Trey.
Salazar squared his shoulders. “And you are not in charge, gringo.”
Tom wanted to avoid a confrontation. Given any other situation, he doubted anyone would be brave or stupid enough to mouth off to Trey VanZant. In the six years he’d known Trey, including their tour in Iraq, Tom had never seen anyone take on his muscle bound army buddy. He also knew the Mexicans weren’t the kind to be pushed around.
“What’s this new cargo?”
Salazar whistled through his teeth again and they heard footsteps move toward them.
Tom felt Trey reach for his sidearm and quickly put a hand out for him to stand down. “Hold up.”
The two men watched in shock as a mob of small shadowed figures shuffled into the open with another man behind, herding them forward. He kept poking them with his rifle barrel, wielding it like a cattle prod.
As they got close, Tom could see the shadows were six young women. Just girls, really. The youngest had to be around fourteen. They were cinched together with rope at their wrists. They looked scared and a couple of them were sobbing quietly.
“What the hell is this?” Trey asked.
“This is your new product. Take them to the same man. He knows they are coming.”
“That’s a heck of a lot more than we know,” said Tom. “No one told us about this.”
“What difference does it make what you are given? Your job is to make delivery, not ask questions,” he said in broken English.
This was all very disturbing to Tom. They’d only ever moved drugs for the Mexicans, or raw chemicals bound for the North for some super lab operation. They’d never had to transport people. Even then, at the worst, he would have expected illegals that had paid for transport out of the country. However, this was something far different. This had to be sex trade activity.
“We aren’t going to participate in sex trafficking.”
“We both work for Sinaloa long time, yes?”
“Why you make trouble now?”
“This isn’t drugs, it’s people.”
“No different. Get paid for drugs, get paid for girls.”
Tom struggled to find a response the smuggler could understand. He wasn’t naive enough to think himself innocent in what he did just because he was a middleman. However, he wasn’t personally forcing anyone to stick a needle in their arm either. This wasn’t just a whole new ballgame, it wasn’t even the same sport. How could this man put the same value on dope as he did the lives of these girls?
“El Cocinero gives you a job. He pays. It’s no matter what he says you deliver, you do it.”
Tom knew about the man running the show in their little corner of the smuggling world. El Cocinero was a viscous, no neck monster. That was the vibe Tom got from meeting him for all of five minutes. He wasn’t someone you wanted to cross. His mind raced through ideas on how to finesse he way out of this exchange.
Trey moved forward aggressively. “Fuck you, Sal. We don’t do sex trade!”
So much for finesse. Tom held Trey back with a hand on his friend’s chest as he put his other hand up to stop Salazar from taking action. He could see the smuggler gripping a pistol in his hand.
“Wait. The problem is we aren’t equipped to take the girls with us. We’re in a pickup truck, for fuck sake. There’s no room for these girls.”
“That’s right, with Tom and I in front, the back cab will only hold four, not six. We’re not going to risk putting them in the truck bed. That’s just begging for the cops to pull us over.”
Salazar stared at them, assessing the situation. “Okay. From now on we bring only four.” The big man turned, raised his arm, and fired the pistol twice.
Two of the girls dropped. The weight on the rope pulled the other four to the ground, piling on top of the dead, and were either too shocked to react or kept screaming until Salazar shouted for them to stop. He bent down and sliced through the rope with a knife. He began kicking the remaining girls, yelling at them to get up. They huddled together, shaking, blubbering.
They all watched as a leg on one of the dead girls started to twitch, flopping against the sand. It hit Tom then that she wasn’t dead at all and watched in horror as Salazar sauntered over, grabbed the girl by the hair, and slit her throat to finish the job. The leg went still. It was all Tom could do to not throw up right there on the spot. He looked over at Trey, whose face had gone white.
“Now there are four. No more problem,” Salazar said. But this had been more than a lesson in simple math. It was a warning not to question him ever again.
He tossed a bank bag on the ground at Tom’s feet. It was the payment for transport, the same type of bag he’d received before. When he didn’t move to pick it up, Salazar asked.
Tom blinked at him.
“You got your empty?” Salazar asked again.
Tom snapped out of it. He pulled an empty bank bag out of his pocket and handed it to Salazar, then bent down and picked up the money.
“You sure you don’t have a bigger car, more seats? For next time?”
Tom shook his head.
“We will keep delivery to four. Sometimes we bring drugs or chemicals, sometimes not. Now you know, so no problem.”
They were dismissed. Salazar nodded to his helper and the two of them dragged the dead out into the Arizona desert. Tom guessed they would either bury them nearby or take them further into the dunes to let the wildlife and scorching sun take care of the remains.