Long past midnight, Carl Weston sat in a ditch in the Sonoran Desert with his finger on the trigger of his M-16, waiting for something to happen. Growing up, he’d always played army, dreamed about traveling around the world and taking on the bad guys — the black hats who ran dictatorships, invaded neighboring countries, or tried exterminating whole subsets of the human race. That was what soldiering was all about. Taking care of business. Carrying the big stick and dishing out justice.
The National Guard might not be the army, but he had a feeling the end result wasn’t much different. Turned out the world wasn’t made up of black hats and white hats, and the only way to tell who was on your side was looking at which way their guns were facing. Weston spent thirteen months in the desert in Iraq, and for the last three, he’d been part of a unit deployed to the Mexican border to back up the Border Patrol.
One fucking desert to another. Some of the guys he knew had been stationed in places like El Paso and San Diego. Weston would’ve killed for a little civilization. Instead, he got dirt and scrub, scorpions and snakes, land so ugly even the Texas Rangers had never spent that much time worrying about it.
Army or Guard, didn’t matter that much in the scheme of things. None of it was anything like he’d imagined as a kid. All just waiting around. If he’d earned a trip to Hell, he was living it. Never mind the heat, or the grit and desert dust in his hair and every fucking orifice . . . the boredom was Hell enough. It was all just so much waiting around.
Once upon a time, he’d have been excited about a detail like tonight. Border Patrol and the DEA were working together to take out a cocaine caravan, bouncing up from South America on the Mexican Trampoline. The traffickers were doing double duty — taking money from illegals to smuggle them across the border, and using them as mules, loading them up with coke to carry with them. Where the DEA got their intel was none of Weston’s business. He was just a grunt with a gun. But from the way the hours were ticking by, it didn’t look good. They hadn’t seen shit all night, and it had to be after two a.m.
South of the ditch, Weston couldn’t see anything but desert. Out there in the dark, less than half a mile off, locals had strung a barbed wire fence that ran for miles in either direction. The idea that this might deter illegals from crossing the border made him want to laugh and puke all at the same time. Yeah, Border Patrol units traversed this part of the invisible line between Mexico and the U.S. on a regular basis, but if you were committed enough to try crossing the border through the desert, you had a decent shot at making it. Border Patrol captured or turned back hordes of illegals every day, but plenty still slipped through.
And those were just the poor bastards who didn’t have transport, a bottle of water, or a spare sandwich. You had a little money and wanted to get some drugs across, all you needed was a ride to the border and a pair of wire-cutters. Came to it, you didn’t need the cutters, either. If you drove a little way, you’d find an opening.
The whole thing was a game. That was what bothered Weston the most. Over in Iraq, the other guys were full of hate and trying to take as many Americans out of action as possible. That was war. This whole business, sitting around in the ditch, was hide-and-fucking-seek.
He blinked, turned, and glanced at Brooksy. The guy hadn’t been in Iraq with Weston’s unit. He was brand new to the squad; eighteen years old and thinking this shit was war. Grim motherfucker, skinny as a crack whore, hair shaved down to bristle, and twitchy as hell. The squad leader — Ortiz — had made Weston the kid’s babysitter, which meant they were sharing the ditch tonight. Six other guys in the squad, but Brooksy had to be Weston’s responsibility. He wasn’t sure if Ortiz was punishing him or complimenting him, making him look after the kid.
“Shut up,” Weston said, voice low.
He held his M-16 at the ready and glanced around to see if anyone was picking up on their chatter. No sign of movement from the rest of the squad, never mind the Border Patrol grunts or the DEA crusaders.
“I gotta piss, man,” Brooksy said.
Weston’s nostrils flared. “Not in this ditch.”
“What do I do?”
“Hold it, dumbass.”
“And when I can’t?”
“You piss in this ditch, I swear to God I’ll shoot you.”
Brooksy’s eyes narrowed. He gripped his M-16 and scanned the desert in the direction of the border.
Weston rolled his eyes. He turned and looked north. In the moonlight, the black silhouettes of a dozen or so small buildings were visible. They were all single-story, slant-roof shacks, most of which had once been houses. One had been offices, one a gas station, and one a saloon. The tiny desert town had never had a name — though one clever prick had painted a sign and planted it at the south end of the cluster of shacks. It read WELCOME TO PARADISE.
From what Ortiz had told the squad, passed down from the DEA briefing, the place had been hopping back in the days when heroin production had been huge in Mexico — before they’d realized that their greatest asset wasn’t crops, but the border itself, and started putting all of their efforts into trafficking instead. There’d been a big operation going in this little shit-hole, but the DEA had compromised it then, and it had been abandoned ever since. The few people who’d actually tried to live there had long since wandered off.
“Seriously, man,” Brooksy began.
Weston laughed softly, reached out with his foot, and kicked the kid’s pack. “Drain your canteen and piss in it.”
“I’ll never get it clean, man. I’ll never be able to use it.”
That might be true. Weston gave him a hard look. “Go in the corner over there. Dig yourself a little hole, piss in it, then cover it up again. And you better hope the wind doesn’t shift.”
Brooksy nodded, propped his weapon against the side of the ditch, and went over to the corner. He used the heel of his boot to dig into the ground, then got down and deepened the hole with his hands. When he stood and unzipped, Weston laughed.
“Keep your head down, Brooks.”
The kid bent his head and his knees, half-crouched, and it was just about the most foolish-looking thing Weston had ever seen. For a few seconds, it seemed inevitable that Brooksy would stumble into his hand-dug latrine.
From out across the desert came the distant growl of an engine. Weston swung round, propped the barrel of his M-16 on the top of the ditch, and sighted into the darkness. The sound of the engine cut off abruptly. Maybe there had been more than one. Regardless, it had come from the other side of the border, and no way anyone was joyriding the Sonoran in the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s on,” he whispered.
Brooksy might have been a kid, but instead of losing his cool and flopping all over the place, he turned pro. Quietly, he sat backward on the floor of the ditch, used his boots to cover the hole he’d made with dirt, then lay back and zipped up. He was back at his post with his weapon up in a handful of seconds, eyes gleaming in the dark. All of the nervous energy that made him so twitchy had gone away. Weston nodded to him, then settled in to wait. Maybe the kid wouldn’t be a liability after all.
He imagined he could hear the twang of the barbed wire being cut, but at this distance, that might have been in his head. For long minutes they sat in the ditch, barely breathing. The other six members of the squad were broken into three two-man teams in different locations, but all on the obvious approach to the empty husks of Paradise.
At first, the rhythmic sound was so muffled that it could’ve been his own pulse in his ears. But when it grew louder, Weston knew the mules were on the move. Ortiz had told them the DEA expected a couple of dozen, but as the noise of running feet multiplied, it sounded like a hundred or more. The illegals would all have backpacks full of coke. They’d been warned some of them would be guards sent along to protect the coke — coyotes herding the mules — and those guys would be armed. Weston tried to do the math. If he figured twenty-five pounds of coke per mule — over ten kilos — at a hundred mules, they were talking about over a thousand kilos of cocaine.
How the DEA knew about the whole setup, he had no idea. That was their job. But obviously, the traffickers had to be pretty confident to risk that kind of product on a bunch of desperate Mexicans looking for a better life in the goddamn desert.
Shadows out on the desert began to resolve into running figures. They were coming, but after crossing through the hole they’d cut in the fence, they’d spread out. DEA and Border Patrol were set up in the ramshackle buildings of Paradise, hiding behind and inside them, just waiting. There were big black Humvees, and somewhere — not far off — a DEA chopper was waiting to be deployed.
Weston sighted down the barrel of his M-16. He almost felt bad for the mules. They didn’t stand a chance. They expected to show up in Paradise, get a meal and a blanket, and transport deeper into the U.S. But their ride wasn’t ever going to show up. The DEA had already taken care of that.
A night wind blew over the desert, and Weston shivered. During the day, the Sonoran was a frying pan. But at night, it could get cold as Hell.
He watched the tiny figures running closer, moving in and out of patches of moonlight. The night played tricks on the eyes. It was hard to track them closely from this distance. But the sounds of their running grew louder and pretty soon he motioned to Brooksy to duck down inside the ditch.
They slid down, their backs to the dirt wall. The mules started running by, some of them so close he could hear their labored breathing and their grunts of exertion. A voice snarled, let off a stream of abuse at one of the mules. Had to be one of the shipment’s guards. Weston forced himself to take his finger off the trigger to fight the urge to rise up from the ditch and blow a hole in the bastard’s skull.
He kept his own breathing steady. Their assignment was simple. Let the mules and the coyotes pass on by, then close ranks behind them so that when the shit hit the fan in Paradise, none of the coke fled back across the border.
Until the screaming started.
In the dark, he saw Brooksy glance at him, wondering who the fuck was screaming. There’d been no gunshots yet. Nobody was supposed to make a move until they got the go signal from the DEA, and that wasn’t intended to happen until all of the coke-carrying illegals and their guards had marched into Paradise, putting them between the DEA and Border Patrol on one side and the National Guard on the other to keep them from retreating. But to the south, toward the border, a grown man had started shrieking like someone had just cut his dick off. It sent a chill up Weston’s spine, and he wondered how the other guys would be taking it.
The sound of running footsteps slowed, became hesitant.
Voices barked, urging the illegals on. The guards couldn’t let the mules change their minds now. Whoever was hurt or dying out there, it didn’t concern the drug runners.
Then the screaming died abruptly, a second of silence followed, and several other voices started a chorus of screams. At least one of them had to be that of a child, badly injured or at least in terror.
“Damn,” Weston whispered.
Brooksy flinched and stared at him, almost like the kid was judging him for breaking silence. Punk could fuck off as far as Weston was concerned. You got to the point where the terrified, maybe dying screams of a child didn’t rip your heart out, you might as well eat a bullet right there.
The comm unit in his ear crackled. “Go. Word is go.”
Engines roared — the Humvees coming to life. Shouts began to arise in English. “Go, go, go, go!” over and over. Weston took one glance at Brooksy and saw that, indeed, the twitchy motherfucker had vanished, leaving one stone-cold bastard behind. No more babysitting for Weston.
“Go, go!” Brooksy chimed in.
They ran up out of the ditch, weapons up and ready. Instantly, Weston saw what had happened. The screams back there in the darkness of the border had made the flood of illegals hesitate. They’d slowed down. Some had maybe even started to turn back, going to check on friends or family members who were stragglers, worried that they were the source of the screams. Whatever it was, the DEA cowboys had gotten worried that they might lose part of their score — or they’d just gotten impatient, which was typical. Grunts like Weston were used to waiting around for the world to explode. From what Ortiz had said, DEA cowboys spent too much time in offices, doing paperwork, and got stir crazy enough that once they hit the field, they couldn’t wait for shit to go down.
The mules started shouting in Spanish. Weston didn’t have to be fluent to know what they were yelling: “Fuck. We’re fucked. Get the fuck out of here.” Pretty much a universal language.
The Mexicans started dropping the backpacks full of cocaine — mules couldn’t run very fast with kilos of blow strapped to their shoulders — and turning toward the border at full speed. One of the guards — they were better-dressed, healthier-looking, and didn’t carry any coke — started screaming at them, raised a 9mm, and put a bullet in the head of the nearest mule who’d dared to dump his drugs.
Weston stitched him with a few rounds from his M16, and the guy danced a little, spraying blood, and then sprawled onto the desert.
That didn’t accomplish anything except to start more shouting and make them run all the faster, like a starter pistol. Only about two-thirds of the hundred and fifty or so Mexicans had made their way past the ditches the National Guard squad had been waiting in, not even all the way into Paradise. Now they were fleeing.
“Stop right there!” Brooksy roared.
Like they were going to listen.
“Hustle!” Weston told him.
Brooksy fired a few rounds into the air, and they started running alongside the illegals, watching for more coyotes — more guns. Not one of them slowed down. They all figured to take their chances that it would be some other guy who got dropped. Ortiz and the other guys in the squad were on the other side of the stampede. If it was only the eight of them, they’d have had to let most of them go.
“Get the guards,” Weston said.
Brooksy nodded, and they started scanning the throng.
Then the Humvees tore past them, half a dozen of the roaring machines kicking up clouds of sun-blanched desert dust as they began to herd the stampede. Two vehicles reached the far end and cut in, blocking the way. Doors popped open, and DEA agents leaped out, jackets emblazoned with the bold yellow letters of their agency. Jeeps followed, loaded with Border Patrol.
The stampede slowed. The mules didn’t know what to do with themselves. The guards were fucked. Now it was just a matter of containing the herd and getting them all into custody. For a minute, it had looked like the operation might fall apart. But the DEA and the Border Patrol guys had moved fast.
“Look at you,” Brooksy said, eyes bright. “Taking that guy out. You had him fuckin’ dancing, man.”
Weston’s nostrils flared. “I did what had to be done. That shit isn’t fun for me.”
“Would be for me,” Brooksy replied, that skittery grin returning.
The comm in Weston’s ear clicked, and Ortiz came on, sounding like he’d climbed right inside his skull.
“Weston, come in.”
He adjusted the comm so the mouthpiece was in place. “This is Weston.”
“We’ve got plenty of runners, including at least a couple of coyotes. Take Brooks. Stop as many of the illegals still carrying as you can, but first priority are the guards. Do not let them back across the border. Improvise. You read me?”
But Weston was already moving. He grabbed Brooksy by the arm and started dragging him away from the cluster of DEA and Border Patrol officers who were closing ranks around the corralled mules.
“What the fuck?”
“Come on. We’re moving,” Weston said.
“Give me a minute.”
Brooks fell into step, and the two of them ran outside the circle of vehicles. A Border Patrol Jeep had slewed sideways in the dirt and sat there, engine still purring. An officer stood beside the open door, talking into a two-way radio. From somewhere far off, Weston could hear the distant staccato of helicopter blades.
“Drive!” Weston snapped.
He ran around the Jeep and pulled the door open at the same time Brooksy was climbing into the back. The Border Patrol officer stared into his vehicle at them.
“Get the fuck out of there. What do you think you’re doing?”
Weston leaned over and shot him a hard look. “We’ve got coyotes on the run, and orders to stop them. You want to explain fucking that up, or you want to drive?”
The officer hesitated, but only for a second.
“Fine,” he said as he slid into the driver’s seat. “But I want your names.”
He dropped the Jeep into gear and hit the gas, the tires spinning and spitting dirt behind them as they tore off across the desert. Brooksy clutched his M16 like he was bringing flowers to his mother.
“I’m Weston. This is Brooks.”
“Austin,” said the Border Patrol man. He drove past the last Humvee, and then they were in open desert, headlights illuminating the ground straight ahead, but somehow making the rest of the landscape around them even darker.
“That your first or last name?” Brooksy asked.
“We on a date?” Austin snapped.
He picked up the radio he’d tossed aside and got his boss on the line, told the guy he had two Guardsmen on board, and they were running down the last of the coyotes the cartel had sent to protect the coke. He had the accelerator pinned. The Jeep jittered in the ruts and bounced across the ground, closing the gap between Paradise and the Mexican border. They passed a bunch of backpacks full of cocaine that had been tossed aside in favor of getting the hell out of the U.S.
Austin’s boss told him to carry on, inter-agency cooperation, and some other bullshit that meant any pissing matches that were going to happen would take place above their pay grade. Let the DEA, Border Patrol, and the Guard work it out after the op was over and they jostled for credit or blame.
The first of the strays came in view up ahead. They should’ve rabbited in either direction, but they kept going in a straight line, which confused Weston until he remembered the fence. They went right or left, they’d never get back across the border before they were caught. The opening in the fence was dead ahead.
An old man stumbled. A younger guy collided with him from behind, managed to stay on his feet, grabbed the old man by a fistful of white hair and shoved him out of the way. The old guy fell in a tangle of arms and legs, probably breaking something — bones were brittle at that age. The one who’d tossed him aside had a 9mm in one hand and was shouting to some of the other mules. Two young women and a small boy were just ahead of him. He raised his gun and fired once like he was trying to get them moving faster.
Instead, they stopped short.
“What the fuck?” Austin barked.
But Weston understood. The young guy — one of the guards — ran between them and kept on running. He’d commanded them to stop or he’d shoot them, made them stand still, block the Jeep to buy him a few seconds.
It worked. Austin hit the brakes, swerved around them, then gunned it again.
“We want that guy,” Weston said. “Probably at least one more. But let’s do this the easy way. Go right past him.”
“What?” Brooksy snapped.
“Shut up.” Weston glared back at him, then turned to Austin. “Just do it.”
Austin held the wheel tightly, went around the guard. They caught a glimpse of his confused expression, and he seemed to slow down, wondering what the hell was going on. They passed maybe a dozen others, all mules, some of them still wearing their backpacks.
“There’s the fence,” Austin said.
The headlights picked up the hole that had been cut in the border fence instantly. They caught just a glimpse of a few Mexicans returning to their homeland through the opening.
“Block it with the Jeep,” Weston said.
“My thought exactly.” Austin actually smiled. He’d been uptight about working with them, but now he was on the hunt, doing the job he’d signed up for. Weston thought maybe he wasn’t an asshole after all.
The Jeep hurtled across the hard-packed earth. Brooksy let out a rebel yell.
Austin hit the brake and cut the wheel. The Jeep slewed badly to the left and skidded on the baked desert earth, bumped right up against the fence, and then was still. Austin killed the engine and had the door open instantly. Weston knew he shouldn’t even step across the border, which didn’t leave him many options. The window of the Jeep was open, but the door was almost up against the fence. He pushed himself out the window and climbed onto the rack on the Jeep’s roof.
Brooksy and Austin brandished their weapons at the exhausted, pitiful, starving people who had already had their worst night ever. Weston had nothing against the Mexicans. They were breaking a shitload of laws, bringing coke into the U.S., never mind crossing the border illegally. If he lived their lives, he’d do the same goddamn thing. But the coyotes worked for the scum who couriered the drugs into the States and were taking advantage of desperate people at the same time. He would’ve loved to get his hands on the bosses, the guys who actually hired the guards. But since that wasn’t going to happen — those guys weren’t running coke mules across the border themselves — he’d make do with the guards.
The one they’d passed — the one who’d shoved the old man — had slowed to a walk and now held up his 9mm, hands raised in surrender. The mules dropped to their knees in exhaustion, knowing it was all over, that they’d likely be shipped back home, where they’d try to cross the border again as soon as possible.
In the moonlight, Weston studied one of the mules. He had no backpack, but a lot of them had dropped the drugs while running. But this guy wore a decent shirt and, though he had stubble on his cheeks, he’d had a haircut recently.
“Better watch — ” he started to say.
The guy — a guard pretending to be a mule — pulled a pistol from the waistband of his pants and shot Austin in the face. The mules screamed, and the echo carried across the Sonoran desert. For an instant, Weston could do nothing but listen to those screams and the echo of the gunshot, and he remembered the other screams they’d heard, right before the whole op went off the rails. Out there in the darkness of the border . . . not far from here.
“Fuck!” Brooksy shouted.
He put three rounds in the cartel guard’s face and chest at close range. The back of the guy’s head exploded, spattering a teenaged girl beside him with blood and flecks of bone and brain matter. She screamed, closed her eyes tightly, and crumbled to the ground as though wondering when she’d wake up from this nightmare.
Weston trained his M-16 on the other guard. “Drop it.”
The coyote let the gun fall to the dirt. Brooksy rushed over and picked it up, stuck it inside his jacket, then smashed the guard in the face with the butt of his M-16. The guy went down hard and didn’t get up again. He was still breathing.
“Beautiful,” Brooksy whispered.
“You’re psycho, Brooks. We got a guy down, and this is beautiful?” Weston slid off the roof of the Jeep.
Brooksy sniffed. “Border Patrol, man. Sorry to see him go, but he ain’t one of ours.”
A chill ran through Weston.
Then the screams began again, from behind them this time — from beyond the border fence. Weston stepped to one side, trying to keep his weapon trained on the illegals even as he moved around the Jeep to get a look across the border.
Something thumped against the Jeep. He heard the chain link fence shake and a scrambling against the vehicle, and then a face came over the top.
“What the fuck?” Brooksy shouted.
A young guy, no more than twenty, crawled onto the roof of the Jeep. His face had been slashed, long wounds that pouted open, weeping blood. His eyes were wide with madness and fear — had to be crazy to try to cross the border by scaling a Border Patrol vehicle. But this guy wasn’t even seeing the Jeep, barely even seeing them.
“Stop right there!” Weston shouted. “Alto! Alto!”
The wounded man noticed the guns then. He stared at Weston, lower lip quavering in shock or terror, then glanced over his shoulder. With a low Spanish curse, he turned toward them again, brought his legs up beneath him, and tensed to lunge at them.
Weston pulled the trigger.
The dead man staggered backward and fell off the Jeep. He heard the body hit the ground on the other side, then he turned to Brooksy.
Brooksy nodded, training his weapon on the twelve or thirteen illegals they’d rounded up. He stood right beside Austin’s body, one boot sunken into parched soil made wet by the Border Patrol officer’s blood, but didn’t seem to notice.
The whole thing was fucked. Weston hesitated only a second and then went around the Jeep. The last thing he needed was an incursion into Mexican territory. But there was a space of about two feet between the Jeep and the fence. He hesitated a second and then slipped through that space to the opening in the fence. The corpse lay in the moonlight, and Weston saw that he’d suffered more wounds than the gashes in his face. The dead man had landed on his belly with his arms and legs splayed out. The back of his shirt had been torn to bloody ribbons, and it looked like the skin beneath it was just as badly damaged.
What the hell happened to this guy?
He remembered the other screams, the ones that had come from down here right before the op started going bad. Standing on the border, he looked out across the moonlit Sonoran. The Mexican side looked no different from the American side. It was all hellscape, no matter what country you were in. But the moonlight picked out dark forms crumpled on the ground. He counted at least six bodies out there, and there might have been more. One of them looked like only part of a person. If he’d had any thoughts that some of them still be alive, that banished them.
Something moved out there in the desert, a black silhouette that crouched like an animal, running from one body to the next. Weston stared at that strange, slender figure as it bent over a corpse. It moved its head in curious dips and sways like an animal, but walked on two feet. In that crouched position, it lifted a dead man from the ground with ease, as though the body weighed nothing. In the moonlight, Weston saw its head rear back and a long, thin tongue dart out. The sound that carried to him across that killing ground was the dry crack of bone, followed by a terrible, wet slap.
The thing had driven its tongue right through the dead man’s skull, and now it began to suck. The noise made him retch, but he forced himself not to vomit, not to look away from the horror unfolding out there on the desert. These people had to have been the source of the earlier screams. This thing had murdered them and now it was moving from body to body, feasting on the dead.
“Weston, what’s up?” Brooksy called from the other side of the Jeep.
The creature froze, cocked its head, listening. It thrust out its tongue, tasting the night air. Slowly, it turned to look right at Weston.
He couldn’t breathe. Long seconds passed while the thing stared at him. At last it turned away, dropped the body, and scurried across the desert to the next corpse to start the whole process again.
Weston raised his M-16 and sighted on the creature, but his finger paused on the trigger. If he missed it somehow, or if there were more of them, he would be endangering the civilians now in his care. They might be illegals, but they were still people and were his responsibility.
Silently, he slid once more between Jeep and fence and moved around the front of the vehicle. It felt like stepping between worlds. Brooksy looked up sharply. “Where you—?” he started.
Weston silenced him with a look and a raised hand. “Get them in the Jeep,” he whispered, gesturing to the Mexicans and then to the vehicle. He glanced again toward the other side of the border, and when he looked back, Brooksy had a dubious expression on his face, like he might challenge that order or take it upon himself to go see what they were running from.
“Go,” Weston whispered.
Brooksy must have heard the edge in his voice, then, for he started moving as quickly and quietly as he could. A fortyish guy tried talking to them in thickly-accented English, but Weston hushed him and gestured for him to get into the vehicle. The man did, and others followed. Quickly enough, the Jeep was full, leaving six illegals still on foot. The girl who’d nearly been killed by one of the cartel guards looked at him in confusion and fear, her face still dappled with drying blood.
“You drive,” Weston whispered to Brooks. “I’ll escort the others. Don’t rev it. No lights. Roll out quiet and dark.”
“What’s going on?” Brooksy asked, a little twitchy, but not smiling.
Weston shook his head. “Later. Just go.”
“What about Austin?” He pointed to the dead Border Patrol officer.
“We’ll come back,” Weston whispered.
Brooksy shrugged. He got behind the wheel of the Jeep, closed the door as quietly as possible, then fired up the engine. To Weston, it seemed the loudest thing he’d ever heard. But then it dropped to a purr, and he heard Brooksy put it into gear.
“Vamanos. Let’s go,” he said, using the barrel of his M-16 to gesture toward Paradise. He put a finger to his lips and shushed them. “Quietly.”
The Jeep pulled away from the opening in the fence and for a second, Weston was sure one or more of the Mexican men with him would bolt for the border. The girl wasn’t going anywhere, and he didn’t think the older woman would try to run it out. But the men . . .
He glanced back toward the bodies scattered on the desert and saw that slender silhouette again. It crouched by a corpse with its head cocked, and in the moonlight, he saw the glint of its eyes, watching the Jeep pull away.
His pulse raced and his finger twitched on the trigger. Weston forced himself not to run, instead urging the others on. They were focused on him, and he had to keep them from panicking. They all fell in step alongside the Jeep, which rolled slowly back toward the ghost town. The sound of helicopter rotors came from that direction. The headlights of Jeeps and Humvees had made a circle, like a wagon train preparing for attack. If they could just get back there, they would be safe.
Finally on the move, he snapped the mouth piece of his comm unit into place. “Weston for Squad Leader. Weston for Squad Leader.”
Seconds ticked by and he was about to radio again when he heard a pop on the line. “What the hell are you whispering for, Weston? It’s all over but the paperwork.”
“Maybe not, sir,”
“What happened? You didn’t catch the coyotes?”
“Got ’em, sergeant, but it’s a mess.” He glanced back, saw the thing — the scavenger — framed in the opening in the fence, standing in the very same spot he’d been in just a minute ago, watching them. Fear ran up the back of his neck and prickled his skin. “And there’s . . . there’s something else over here, sarge. We’re not alone.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Weston thought about that a second. He looked back again.
Only that gaping hole across the border remained, and beyond it the scattered dead. The creature had vanished.
It darted out of the night so swiftly that he barely had time to aim the M-16. The creature came from the left, a paint-stroke of fluid black across the moonlit landscape, grabbed hold of the Mexican at the front of their little march, and tore open his throat and abdomen in a single pass.
The screaming started.
Weston ran past the others, up to the front of the Jeep, and squeezed off a couple of rounds without a chance in Hell of hitting the thing. It blended too well with the desert and the dark.
“What the hell?” Brooksy roared from behind the wheel of the Jeep.
“Weston. Do you read? Are you under fire?” Ortiz barked in the comm in his ear.
“Under attack!” Weston snapped back. “Not under fire. That was me shooting.”
Ortiz asked half a dozen questions in as many seconds, but Weston wasn’t listening anymore. He pulled the comm from his ear and tossed it into the dirt. They were three or four hundred yards from the lights and vehicles and weapons of the DEA and the Border Patrol. Not far at all.
Not far, he told himself.
But those Mexicans hadn’t made it very far, back at the border. They’d been picked off one by one, the stragglers, killed quickly. The thing only slowed down to start its banquet when they were all dead and the screaming was over.
Weston swung the barrel of his M-16, searching the darkness all around, knowing the thing could come from anywhere. The Mexicans not inside the Jeep huddled nearby him. Afraid as they were, no way were they making a break for the border now.
“Damn it, Weston, what was that?” Brooksy asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, without sparing the other grunt a glance.
Brooksy gunned it. The Jeep’s engine roared, and the tires spit hard-baked earth and stones as the vehicle leaped forward.
“God damn it, no!” Weston yelled.
Two of the Mexican men started running after the Jeep, shouting. The others hesitated only a second before following. Weston yelled for them to stop, but they were beyond listening. Exhaustion, starvation, and despair had plagued them earlier — people who’d been taken advantage of by nearly everyone they’d encountered — but now fear drove them to madness.
Weston pursued them. The night loomed up on either side of him. He could feel the vulnerability of his unprotected back, but knew that they were all vulnerable. The darkness shifted. Every shadow, every depression in the desert floor, seemed about to coalesce and take shape and rush at him with its claws out.
The illegals were stretched out in a line, scattered in their pursuit of the Jeep. The thing came out of the night and killed the woman, punching a hole in her chest. Weston brought up his weapon and fired at it. Two bullets hit the woman as her corpse fell. The thing flinched, and he thought he’d winged it, but it rushed off into the dark again, merging with the night.
The taillights of the Jeep grew smaller.
Weston swore, catching up with the four survivors. The teenaged girl fell to her knees beside the dead woman, and Weston heard her saying “ Tía” over and over, and knew she had been the girl’s aunt.
They all clustered around the sobbing girl. Weston heard the Humvees revving. One of them pulled away from Paradise, headlights turning their way.
“We’ll be all right,” he said. “They’re coming.”
But his fingers felt frozen on his weapon. Ortiz would be coming to get them, maybe with inter-agency backup, but seconds counted. He swung the M-16 around, jerking at every sound — real or imagined — from the desert. The survivors stayed low, out of his way. Maybe they hoped the thing would come for him next.
One of the men had begun to cry with the girl.
When Weston saw it, at first he didn’t even know what he was looking at. The thing stood forty feet away, entirely motionless. On instinct, he raised the M-16 and squeezed the trigger. The thing darted aside, slipping through the darkness, too fast to hit. It stopped, studied him again, cocked its head, and gazed with a terrible intelligence. It thrust out that long, thin, snaking tongue and tasted the air with it.
“El Chupacabra,” one of the men whispered.
Engines roared and headlights splashed across them. A pair of Humvees arrived, one on either side of the group, bathing the Chupacabra in yellow light. It bolted instantly, heading for that gap in the border fence.
“Oh no you don’t,” Weston whispered.
Fast as it was, the thing was making a run for the fence in a straight line. He sighted on its back as Humvee doors popped open and DEA agents jumped out. Ortiz’s voice called out, so Weston knew his squad leader was with them.
Once again the creature paused, framed in that opening in the fence.
Weston squeezed the trigger.
An arm came up under the barrel, knocking the gun’s nose up, and the bullets fired into the desert sky.
Enraged, Weston spun on a man wearing a DEA jacket.
“Back off!” he snapped, shoving the man away. When he glanced back toward the fence, the creature had vanished once more, and he knew that the opportunity had passed. “What’s wrong with you? Did you see that thing? Do you have any idea what it just did? What you let get away?”
Ortiz had come up by then. The DEA agent grinned, and Weston wanted to break his face with the butt of his M-16. But the Squad Leader glared at him.
“Stand down, Weston.”
Weston glared at the DEA prick. “Tell me you saw that thing.”
“I didn’t see anything.” The grin remained. “And neither did you. We’ve got thousands of miles of border to worry about. If there’s something else that keeps them from trying to get across, then it’s doing us a favor.”
Behind Weston, the teenaged girl still sobbed over the corpse of her dead aunt. She’d wanted a new beginning, but instead she’d found an ending to so much of her life. All he could think about was that if the girl had been torn open by that thing out in the desert, this son of a bitch would have kept grinning.
Doing us a favor.
Weston looked at the grim, cautious expression on Ortiz’s face. The staff sergeant was silently warning him to keep his mouth shut. More than anything, that made him wonder. Was the grinning DEA man just happy the scavenger was out there in the desert, helping him to do his job, or had he and his people put the thing there in the first place? And if they had, were there others?
But he did not ask those questions.
“A Border Patrol officer — Austin — one of the coyotes shot him. He’s down by the fence, DOA,” he said.
“A tragedy,” said the grinning man. “Died in the firefight that cost the lives of a number of illegals as they attempted to enter the country carrying cartel cocaine. A hero of the border wars, this Austin. You were lucky to survive yourself.”
Weston slung his M-16 across his back. One last time he glanced at Ortiz. They already had their version of tonight’s op ready to go. If he tried telling it differently, who would listen?
Slowly, Weston nodded.
“Sir, yes, sir.”