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T. Jefferson Parker

Iron River

The third book in the Charlie Hood series, 2010

For Robert Ford Parker

There, then, he sat, holding that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick


The car hurtled west towing a swirl of black exhaust into the first light of day. It was old and low, with Baja plates and a loose muffler that dangled and sparked on the dips. The woman drove. She was silver-haired and flat-faced and though her eyes were open wide to gather the light, her face was still slack from sleep. Her husband sat heavily beside her, boots spread and hat low, nodding slowly through the rises and falls of the highway, a coffee cup riding on his thigh.

“Cansada,” she said. Tired. Then told him about a dream she had had the night before: an enormous wave made of white lilies, a blue sun, and a nice talk with Benito, thirty years dead, who told her to say hello to his father.

Cansado, he thought.

He looked out. It was desert as far as he could see or remember seeing. He worked on cars at the gas station in Bond’s Corner. She had motel rooms to clean in Buenavista.

She told him about another dream she had had, and her husband lifted the cup and sipped and set it back on his thigh and closed his eyes.

The sun rose behind them. The woman checked its progress in the rearview mirror. Something registered ahead and she dropped her gaze back through the windshield to a young coyote sitting just off the shoulder next to a paloverde. She had never seen a coyote sitting down. She wondered if all her maids would show up today or she would have to clean a block of rooms herself. The sore neck. The weak arm. She steered the car down a steep dip and lifted her eyes to the mirror again. What did a wave of white lilies mean? In her dream, Benito looked young and sweet, exactly as he had in life. Benito the Beautiful. She was crossing herself as she neared the rise and still looking back at the sun while thinking of him and when she looked ahead again, she saw that she had drifted far into the oncoming lane. When she topped the rise, the truck was barreling down on her, the grille shiny and looming and the windshield a sun-forged plate of armor. Her husband cursed and reached for the wheel, but she was still in her genuflection and his hand closed not on the wheel but on her wrist so that she could use only her half-crippled left hand to correct the course of the big heavy Mercury.

She swung the wheel to the right with all her strength. She felt the back end come around and the front end slide away and she clutched the wheel with both hands now, and her husband was thrown against her, and orbs of his coffee wobbled in space but he held the wheel, too, and the truck thundered by with a sucking howl. The sedan broke loose from the pull and spun twice quickly and she was so utterly dazed by the force that when she saw the man crouching on the right shoulder by his pickup, she had no idea which way to turn the wheel in order to miss him. Then it was too late anyway. She saw the long hood of the car sweep across him and she felt the sharp impact, but the Mercury kept spinning and when it finally ground sideways through the gravel to a stop, she had no idea how she had missed the pickup, or where the dead man had landed.

She threw the shift into park. They sat for a moment, breathing hard, hearts pounding, dust rising around them in the sudden silence. She looked west down the highway and saw nothing but road, and when she looked behind them she saw the pickup truck and the rise far behind it.

“Dios,” she whispered.

The man looked hard at his wife then pulled the keys from the ignition and tried to brush the coffee from his new jeans. He pushed open the door and stepped into the morning.

It took them a few minutes to find the dead man sprawled back in the desert on the white sand between clumps of yucca. He was a gringo. He was small. His face was covered in blood and his body was misshapen. He wore the same kind of clothes she saw at Wal-Mart. He had a watch but no rings.

“Don’t touch him, he’s alive,” said her husband.

The man’s breath whistled in and out, and a tooth moved in his broken mouth. Then for a long time nothing. Then he breathed again.

She crossed herself and knelt beside him. Her husband looked around them, then back at the sun just above the horizon now.

She asked God and Ignacio what to do with such a broken body. She said there was the hospital in Buenavista, famous doctors who treated important people.

“Go away,” whispered the dead man. He opened his eyes. They were blue beneath the blood. “Please.”

“You will die,” she said.

The man was silent for a long moment during which he did not breathe. Then another breath, this one deeper, followed by another. The tooth moved and the air whistled in and out.

The husband said they would be arrested and deported, so if this man wanted them to go away, then they would.

She looked up at him. “No. We drive to the hospital. We tell them where he is.”

“Tell them. Nothing,” whispered the gringo. His eyes looked malevolent, but the woman thought that any eyes would look that way in a face so ruined and bloody.

“We have a duty to God,” she said.

The gringo drew a long breath, then he raised his hand very slightly from the sand, and he pointed his index finger at her, then curled it toward himself.

She shuddered.

He curled the finger again, then lowered his hand back to the ground. He was watching her.

Maria Consalvo Reina Villalobos stared into the blue eyes. She looked at the broken, doll-like body. And she knew that if they were to leave the gringo here and drive away and not say one thing, then he would die and his blood would be on her hands twice-once for thinking of waves of lilies and her beloved son Benito, and once for not telling anyone that there was a man dying in the desert not ten miles from town.

She leaned in closer. She saw him watching her through the blood. His broken tooth whistled again. She sensed Ignacio hovering behind her. The little man said something that she couldn’t hear, so she leaned even closer.

“Señora y señor,” the gringo whispered. “In the name of Benito the Beautiful, tell them nothing.”

Maria Consalvo scrambled to her feet, hitting at herself as if she were being attacked by hornets. Ignacio stood tall and glared down at the gringo who called his dead son by name. He saw a boulder of quartz lying just beyond the yucca, a single boulder, as if dropped there for a purpose.

He took his wife by the arm and led her away. Ignacio knew that the man would probably be dead before the heat of afternoon, and certainly dead after it. He brought his wife to the passenger side of the Mercury and he opened the door for her and steadied her as she spilled into the cracked vinyl seat.

They were silent until Buenavista. As they entered the little border town, they agreed to say nothing to the authorities. They passed the zocalo and St. Cecilia’s church and the Rite Aid and the Denny’s. At the Ocotillo Lodge, Ignacio left the Mercury idling while he opened his wife’s door and kissed her formally before he drove off for Bond’s Corner. He had not opened her door or kissed her before work in twenty-four years.

Within five minutes Maria’s conscience prevailed and she called the Buenavista police station and told them about the man in the desert. She gave a good location based on the gringo’s pickup truck. She hung up when the deep-voiced policeman asked her name. She knew that voice: Gabriel Reyes, chief of Buenavista’s police force. Reyes ate breakfast alone at the Ocotillo on Thursdays, his uniform crisp, his face sad.



2011 - 2018