To all the kindly souls who have asked (usually gently, as if inquiring about a sickly family member) about the status of FIRE OF THE PROPHET, my latest thriller... ...well, my long-suffering agent Kimberley Cameron has the m/s out in submission. Fearing to jinx the process, I've either not responded to the phone text-msgs or e-mails, or I've keyed in the equivalent of a text-mumble and moved the conversation on to the weather. I apologize, but I fear either angering the Publishing Gods or insulting the random warlock here. Suffice it to say the process continues with the blinding speed of any message-in-a-bottle... and I'll try to make up for my superstitious silence when I have news. *** Nonetheless, if only to prove that the flippin' m/s actually exists (even I have had my doubts, and I have it stored on my hard drive), I'm (perhaps foolishly) posting the "prologue" chapter here, below... and Kimberley, if somebody doesn't buy this freakin' book soon, my demons may force me to post the whole thing, chapter-by-chapter, a la Chas. Dickens, in serialized form. Stop me before it is too late!! ****
D-Day Minus 14
Sonoran Desert, Mexico
• • •
They had waited until dark, twenty-six of them crowded into a dirt-floor building that –judging by the stains and smells and bitter dust that rose in clouds with every movement-- might once have housed poultry.
When night finally came, they had been herded into two rust-dappled pickup trucks. They drove northwest for almost three hours along unpaved roads that became increasingly washboarded and gouged with potholes.
The dark-haired young woman had been invited to sit in the cab, an apparently favored position reserved for those who caught the eye of the jefé, the top man among the trio of coyotés who made their living from the constant river of Mexicans waiting to cross into the United States.
She had demurred at first, not wishing to draw attention to herself among the rest of her group. When it had become obvious that her refusal was having the opposite effect, she had climbed into the cab of the battered Ford truck, swinging the knapsack onto the floor of the cab. It had landed with a dull thump, surprisingly heavy for its size.
“Sientese aqui,” the driver had said, motioning her to the middle of the bench seat between him. He had grinned at her in a way she recognized, and only with reluctance had she complied. She made the trip in stony silence, wedged between the two coyotés and for once thankful for her petite stature. Her bag lay between her feet, atop the transmission hump.
Shortly after midnight, the group had disembarked from the trucks. Along with their meager possessions, most of it contained in flimsy plastic supermarket bags, each person carried a plastic gallon milk jug as a makeshift canteen. There had been only one difficulty, when a stout woman had insisted she would not abandon a rope-bound bundle that was almost as large as she.
The argument had been settled abruptly when the jefé had snatched a large-bladed knife from his side pocket. He snapped the knife open in the same movement and slashed through the hemp bindings, laughing hugely as the contents tumbled to the ground.
No one had stepped forward– except for a girl, barely into her teens and fresh with the delicate loveliness of budding youth. The dark-haired woman had watched, keeping her features outwardly impassive, as the girl bent to help the sobbing woman select a few items from the jumble. But other eyes had watched too, these in sidelong appraisal.
The group set off on foot under a moonless sky for what they had been told was a five-kilometer trek to the border. As she walked, the dark-haired woman flexed her shoulders, trying without success to settle the backpack into a position that approximated comfort.
The air was dry and not yet fully cooled from the kiln-like temperatures of the day. The soil beneath her feet was a mixture of sand and crumbling rock, populated by venomous scorpions, poisonous centipedes and the not-infrequent sidewinder rattlesnake.
It did not matter. It was a desert, and as such not unlike any other desert-- including the one where she had been born. If it also evoked fear-- well, did not the Book teach that fear was itself the grandfather of wisdom? The wise survived in such a harsh environment only by a constant awareness of the omnipresent dangers.
She had known that the coyoté they called Pablo had been watching her closely; he had said nothing, but his body attitude had made clear his interest in her. As they had neared the border crossing, she had seen him speak to his two companions, an undertone in which she could not discern the words. But all three men had glanced in her direction, and Jorge, the tall one, had flashed her a wide smile in which his eyes played no part.
She shivered, involuntarily, and tried to convince herself the night was growing cooler. Then, hoping to make it appear casual, she had moved closer to the main group -- tried to blend in, to become one of them.
But her fellow travelers had pulled away. Each rebuffed her attempts at conversation in monosyllabic murmurs; none would meet her eyes. As surely an antelope herd senses which of their number has been selected by the cold yellow eyes of the cougar, a primordial survival instinct had signaled which of their number had been singled out as prey.
And so they trudged over the last of Mexico in an ominous silence, born of the awareness that violence walked with them, waiting.
The crossing itself was anticlimactic. The border here was marked by what once had been a triple strand of barbed wire. Now it was a drooping tangle, hanging wearily from the crooked wooden post to which it was stapled as if aware of the futile task to which it had been assigned. One by one, the group stepped over the half-buried fence onto American soil trampled hard by countless other footsteps.
“Más rápida!” the jefé coyoté hissed, impatient with the bottleneck of those who picked their way too slowly over the gritty hardpan. “Vaya, maricones!” Pablo moved through the ragged line, cuffing one middle-aged man harshly before grasping the man’s shirt and thrusting him staggering down the trail.
Soon they were in open country, an arid land marked by scruffy low brush and the occasional looming silhouette of a wide-embracing saguaro cactus. They trudged steadily under the star-specked sky, their route marked by the pale green luminescence of the lightstick one of their guides had tucked into his hip pocket. Again and again, she shifted the straps of her pack, uncomfortably aware of how deeply they cut her shoulders with each step forward.
Time blurred, then faded entirely as she picked her way across the uneven surface. Footsore and weary, her attention drifted.
She had no idea when Pablo had made his approach. All she knew was that he was suddenly there, his pace matching hers in unwanted syncopation. Before she could move away, he took her wrist in a powerful grasp and pulled her from the line. As he did, she heard a thin scream from further down the column.
There, the other two coyotés had flanked the young girl she had noticed earlier. They stood on either side, each holding an arm of the small struggling figure as they dragged her away into the darkness.
“It is time, corazón,” the voice at her ear whispered, soft as a secret lover.
For a moment she resisted, thrashing, her heels digging into the sand. From the corner of her eye, she saw a dark shadow sweeping toward her face; pinwheels of light flashed as the blow landed alongside her cheek—once, then again. She tripped, almost falling before the implacable grasp on her wrist hauled her upright.
She allowed herself to be led away, stumbling, into the night.
They stopped after perhaps twenty paces, and she felt herself being turned. She stiffened at the touch of a hand between her legs, moving upward and roughly cupping her through her jeans.
“Listen, woman. Do you hear?”
From close by in the darkness, there was a sudden screaming, mingled with laughter from deep voices. She could hear the sounds of struggle and the ripping of cloth, and words that she could not discern as language. There was another cry, this one thin and despairing; then only the dull, steady rhythm of flesh thudding against flesh punctuated by low grunts and exhalations.
There came a hoarse, wailing cry, unmistakably female; a moment later, a low guttural groan, indisputably male. For a moment, all was quiet. Then, wet slapping noises began again, as the second coyoté took the place of the first.
The jefé coyoté pulled her close, his lower hand clamping painfully on her.
“It can be like that, little one,” Pablo said. “Or not. It is your choice.” He waited a count. “Very well, then.”
A blow, this one from a closed fist, smashed into her stomach and doubled her over. The backpack was wrestled away from her, and as if from a distance she heard Pablo grunt with surprise at the weight of it. There was a solid thud as he dropped it aside; at the same instant, she felt herself thrust downward onto the desert floor.
As she lay, trying desperately to pull air into her lungs, she felt hands work busily at her waist. There was a tugging, followed by the sensation of cool night air on suddenly bared flesh from waist to ankle.
She felt herself rolled onto her stomach, and her hips roughly lifted from behind. Something hard and fleshy bumped against the back of her upper thigh, moved higher…
“Wait,” she managed to say, her words muffled against the gritty sand. With difficulty, she twisted her head to look back at the man kneeling behind her. She smiled weakly, trembling at the effort, and forced herself to look into the eyes of her attacker. “I can make it better for you. Much better.”
She reached back under herself, stretching her arm until her fingertips fluttered against the coyoté’s rigidity. She stroked its length, a gentle teasing at first that brought a sharp intake of air from the object of her ministrations. Then she grasped the erect member fully, her palm moving with purpose over the sensitive flesh.
“I want to feel you deep in me,” she murmured. “Allow me to put you inside. Por favor.”
Her attacker undulated slightly at her words and touch, and his hips strained forward. He firmly grasped the twin mounds of her proffered bottom, and his eyes closed in pleasure and anticipation…
The pain was paralyzing, a crushing white-hot agony.
It froze his features in a bug-eyed, open-mouth grimace; his head flew backward, the tendons in his neck straining almost to the breaking point. It locked his scream deep in his throat, stillborn.
He scarcely registered the woman as she twisted from beneath him. Then the hand that still clamped in iron grip around his testicles wrenched savagely to the side, and he fell hard to the ground with an audible thud. Eyes squeezed shut, he was teetering on the brink of unconsciousness when the terrible grasp released him. His knees drew up almost to his chin, the indescribable anguish only minutely lessened.
Pablo was dimly aware of someone kneeling beside him, tugging at the trousers around his ankles. It did not matter; nothing did, aside from the universe of agony into which he had plunged.
After a moment, there was touch of a hand, strangely gentle, on his forehead. It smoothed back his forelock. Fingers twined in his hair and shook him playfully.
“Pablo?” The voice was soothing, almost friendly. “Open your eyes, Pablo. Por favor. For just a moment.”
Despite the pain, he did.
She was still naked below the waist, and her pubic patch was a dark sooty shadow above her bared thighs. But it was not the woman who now, suddenly, drew his full attention.
It was the knife she held, its blade ground to a razor edge along its five-inch length. He had just recognized it as his own when its new owner leaned toward him.
And --almost tenderly— drew it deeply and expertly across his throat, from one ear to the other.
• • •
“Finish, por Dios,” the coyoté called Diego laughed, and kicked lightly at the pistoning buttock of his companion. “I desire one more time with our tender young chicken.”
Jorge said nothing, his attention otherwise occupied. Beneath him, the girl now struggled only fitfully—an unsatisfying response indeed, he told himself, annoyed. The sauce is in the resistance, and this one has none left.
Above him, he again heard Diego laugh—an unwelcome distraction that, oddly, turned in mid-chortle to a ragged, wet cough. There was the stutter-step of scuffling feet, followed by a noise like a heavy sack of millet falling to the miller’s floor.
Jorge had only begun to process this odd sequence when he felt his hair pulled back violently. There was a sudden rasping noise, like a stick scratching on sandpaper; a split-second later a line flared red-hot beneath his chin, tracing its sting across the width of his neck.
Released, the coyoté’s head fell forward; under him, the girl’s struggles were suddenly no longer feeble. She bucked, twisting out from his bulk and pushing his torso away with surprising ease. She scrambled away, crabwise, her eyes wide with horror.
Jorge rolled to his back, astonished at the sudden weightless sensation spreading throughout his body. The thick fountain from his severed throat pulsed high, black in the light of the stars above. With each beat, it fell back upon itself more weakly.
Jorge had one moment of dreadful awareness, his last ever, before the darkness closed around him forever.
• • •
The blue-and-red Mars lights painted madcap dancing patterns on the knot of vehicles, most of them Chevy Surburbans emblazoned with U.S. BORDER PATROL along each side. A smaller SUV, this one a Ford Explorer that had been new far too many miles ago, was parked at an angle, its headlights pointed at a knot of men and women who squatted on the desert soil.
“I still don’t know why the whole bunch of ‘em didn’t just keep goin’,” a man in faded denim and a sweat-stained Stetson said. “Hell, Bisbee’s right down the damn road. Get past there, you guys don’t hardly even try to catch any of ‘em. That’s what some folks call an ‘open border,’ huh?”
His companion, a short man wearing a Border Patrol uniform marked with sergeant’s chevrons, grunted with irritation.
“God’s sake-- don’t get started on that again, Orrie,” he said. “Point is, maybe these here decided that three dead men might’a brung them a lot more trouble than a little illegal immigration would have.”
“Yeah, I guess. Scared Patty all to hell when they started banging on the front door. I came damn close to unloading with the twelve-gauge. Tell you what, Joey-- if the man hadn’t had near-enough English so’s I knew what was what, might have been some more bodies laying around.”
“That little girl got raped, Orrie. Son of a bitch. These damn coyotes are pure evil, things they do to these people.”
“Yeah. Damn shame.” The rancher spat, then rubbed it out with a worn boot. “Don’t slow the flood down none, though.”
Sergeant Joseph Terrell shrugged; federal immigration policy was set at a far higher level than he occupied, a fact he had come to accept. In the past year, more than a million of what were now called “undocumented persons” had been caught in Arizona alone, trying to cross from Mexico to the United States. Official estimates, considered by many experts as sadly understated, placed that figure at less than one- third of those who actually made it undetected. Along the stretch Terrell patrolled, it was not unusual to find dozens of points where the drag –a ten-foot wide swath of softened earth paralleling the border—was pocked with footprints of groups that ranged in size up to a hundred, heading north during the night.
Well, can’t blame people for that, Terrell thought. Guy makes maybe three hundred bucks a year south of the border can make that much a week here, recession or not. Most of ‘em ain’t bad people, neither—work their asses off doing things I wouldn’t touch for a million bucks.
From the corona of light, a deputy straightened and waved Terrell over. The Border Patrolman inhaled deeply, blew it out in a single sibilant sigh.
“Guess it’s time t’see if we can figure out what happened here. Come along if you want, Orrie.”
The rancher shook his head. “There’s things I don’t wanna hear, Joey. Not if I want to sleep at night.”
At the knot, the deputy pointed to a strong-looking man with skin darkened by long hours under a merciless sun.
“Nobody’s in charge, but he’s as much crew boss as this bunch has,” the deputy said. “He knows we’re going to send ‘em all back to Mexico. Guess he figures that’s a bargain, considering the situation. ‘Sides, they’ll all be back in the USA day after tomorrow, anyway.”
Terrell did not rise to the bait. “Ask him what happened tonight.”
There followed a rapid-fire exchange of Spanish.
“He says there was another woman got taken off too—by the one they knew as Pablo. He’s the big son of a bitch we found off by himself, pants ‘round one ankle. His head was damn near cut off.”
Terrell grimaced. “So there’s probably a dead woman laying out there somewhere, too.” He sighed. “Okay. Most of these people are from the same pueblo. Ask him what he knows about her.”
Again, the sing-song of Spanish, this time ending in a rising inflection. The dark-skinned man answered at length.
“He says she was a stranger, not part of his bunch,” the deputy translated. “Doesn’t know her name. She was probably in her early-twenties, he says. Short, maybe five-two. Good figure, muy guapa. Sounds like an attractive senorita, Joey.”
“Didn’t do her any good, not this time. What else did he tell you?”
“Says she was dressed ‘de la cuidad.’ City clothes. Guess that means she wasn’t comin’ up here looking for a job picking lettuce.”
“Does he at least know what part of Mexico she came from?”
The deputy spoke again to the migrant, who answered with animation and at length. When he turned back to Terrell, his face wore a puzzled expression.
“What was that all about?” Terrell demanded.
“Guy was apologizing. Said he thought we already knew.”
“Knew what, for God’s sake?”
“That the woman wasn’t Mexican. Says she spoke okay Spanish, but with an accent. He seems pretty sure the lady was an American.”
- ∞ -