“I hear you. Beirut and Sarajevo don’t have anything on Middle of Nowhere, Arizona.”
The agent stopped on the rugged path in front of me. I meant to push that button; just maybe not as hard as I actually did. I could almost see his quills bristle underneath his uniform. He took one deep breath, then another. When he finally turned around to face me, he was calm and composed. Not impulsive. Not emotional. His hands were open at his sides, not clenched. Randall might have been a man capable of violence, but he was not, by nature, a violent man.
Trust me. I know all about violent men. That’s my job.
“Now seems like a good time to clear up a few common misconceptions,” Randall said. “The media portray us as a kind of Gestapo; racist thugs in green cruising the desert, abusing the illegals, and then dumping them across the border. Here’s a little peek behind the emerald curtain…There are three hundred seventy-six miles of border in Arizona alone. We at Ajo Station are responsible for sixty-four of those, thirty-six of which are completely unfenced and indefensible wilderness areas. We have more than seven thousand of a total of forty-five thousand square miles of desert to patrol, including Organ Pipe National Monument, the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range, and the entire Tohono O’odham Reservation. This whole section of the state was designated a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the Department of Justice. We estimate an average of three thousand undocumented aliens cross through here every day and we pick up maybe a third of them. That’s a thousand arrests a day. Over the course of a year, that’s more than twice the size of the Allied army that took Normandy on D-Day. That alone qualifies as an invading force.”
I studied his facial expressions and mannerisms through the course of his tirade. That’s kind of my thing. Some people are born with the ability to sing or run fast or throw hard. Me? I was born with a hypersensitive BS meter. The mouth may be capable of deception, but the body is not. For someone trained to detect even the smallest lie, the body is an open book. Micromomentary facial expressions, nervous tendencies, eye movements, voice inflections, speech patterns, diaphoresis. Maybe I can’t precisely read them all, but I can definitely tell when they’re at odds with the words. I’m the guy you don’t invite over for a friendly game of poker or ask to be your wingman at the bar. I catch all the signals. The problem is that there are people out there who don’t give off normal signals like the rest of us. They’re called sociopaths, and so completely do they believe their own lies, the all-encompassing web of deception they weave around their daily lives, that even when they lie, for all intents and purposes, they’re telling the truth. There’s no little cricket chirping in the backs of their skulls to let them know what they’re doing is wrong. Their reality is fluid. It’s whatever they determine it to be from one moment to the next. And they fascinate the hell out of me.
Randall’s face was still red and he was breathing hard, but he appeared to have gotten it out of his system. I had learned everything I needed to from him. Every investigation begins with a seemingly infinite number of suspects. The first person who needs to be crossed off the list is always the person who discovered the crime, which, in this case, was simple enough. I could have done without the lecture, though. At least out here under the blazing sun. Lesson learned. Next time I confront someone, I’ll do so indoors with the AC blasting. Don’t let anyone tell you I can’t adapt.
“Sorry.” I held up my hands in mock surrender. “I tend to lack diplomacy when I’m on the verge of being cooked alive.”
Randall stared me down for a few seconds, then nodded and mounted the path once more. His posture and the tension in his shoulders suggested that he was suitably placated for the time being, but I wasn’t likely to garner that invitation to dinner I’d been angling for. I supposed I’d survive. After all, I hadn’t been entirely forthcoming with him from the start. I find it’s always best to hold back every last bit of information you can, should you later need something with which to barter. And when it comes to capital, information is king. It also doesn’t hurt to let people think they know more than you do. That way their responses remain unguarded.
Which was why I didn’t tell Randall that I’d been thoroughly briefed on the situation on the way down here. Best to let him keep the upper hand as long as possible. Or at least let him think he had the upper hand. Anything he inadvertently betrayed would only add to what I already knew, and this was definitely a world apart from the one in which I lived.
Down here, drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs, run just about everything. They’ve organized all of the smuggling. Everything from cash to drugs and guns to illegals. Heck, they control immigration better than we do. They have whole networks of human smugglers called coyotes, and their pollero minions, bringing load after load of UDAs across the border every day, charging two to five grand a head and then abandoning their clients in the middle of the desert at the first sign of La Migra, the Border Patrol. They have foreign nationals actually paying for the right to carry fifty-pound bales of marijuana across forty miles of the harshest terrain on earth and more lining up for the chance. There are more than twenty different gangs, often working in conjunction, moving that merchandise in the city of Phoenix alone. They, in turn, bought weapons that they shipped back across the border with the remaining profits to arm the growing narco-insurgency, which already had both the man- and firepower to roll right over the border onto American soil and lay claim to a network of highways that reached into the heart of every city in the country.
While the chief function of the Border Patrol was still to round up and deport UDAs, every time an agent approached a group of migrants in the desert, he ran the risk of being gunned down or overwhelmed by superior numbers. There was no way of knowing whether the agents were walking up on a party of dehydrated illegals dying from the heat and in desperate need of BORSTAR aid, or a pack of bandits whose haul of weed and methamphetamines was stashed off in the mesquites until the guns appeared in their hands. Even the innocents whose lives were saved by the CBP agents wouldn’t rat out their coyote guides because they knew that once they were healthy enough to be bussed back to Nogales or Sasabe, they just needed to save up the money to hire a new coyote to take another crack at the American dream. And if they couldn’t find a way to earn the money, there was always a DTO willing to let them risk their lives hauling drugs bound for our schools.
Needless to say, finding human remains out here wasn’t an entirely unusual experience. Between centuries of pioneers and migrants and bandits, the Sonoran was positively littered with bones. What made this situation unique, and thus necessitated the presence of someone like me, was the nature of the crime. They needed me specifically because this whole area was situated on a political and racial landmine. We were within the borders of the United States and yet on sovereign Tohono O’odham land, and the media were just licking their chops at the prospect of the powers that be tripping over their own largely ineffective policies. If details somehow managed to leak to the press, here I was, a minority of O’odham descent, a federal agent essentially investigating other more publicly loathed federal agents, and I had a face the cameras absolutely loved. That I was exceptional at my job didn’t really factor into the equation.
By the time Randall finally stopped walking, I was starting to think those vultures might have been prescient. I was drowning in my own sweat, yet, at the same time, I was thirstier than I’d ever been in my life. My lungs were made of paper sacks and my skin felt like tanned leather. There were so many cactus needles in my socks that I winced with every step and my shirtsleeves were damp with blood from the stinging lacerations inflicted by the cruel hooks of the mesquite branches. I was seriously debating how thirsty I would have to get before I went for Randall’s throat and sucked his blood, when he turned around and, with a flourish, gestured toward the base of the stratified red rock escarpment, which rose from the crest of the mountain into the cloudless sky.