“A smiley face? Seems kind of like he’s sending a mixed message to me.”
“That? That’s not the message. That’s just him having a little fun at our expense. Thumbing his nose at us, if you will. We haven’t found the real message yet.”
“We had guys all over this place. There’s nothing else out here. We’d have found it if there was.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“I’m very good at what I do. I don’t miss anything.”
“The real message is with the bodies. When we find them, we’ll find the message this guy is going to great lengths to deliver.”
“What do you mean…bodies?”
“Come now, Agent Randall. Tell me you didn’t think this was his first?”
He looked over at the dried blood on the red rocks. I watched the comprehension dawn on his face as the color drained from it.
“Like you said, thousands of undocumented aliens come through here every week. There’s no record of who they are, where they come from, or where they’re going. For all intents and purposes, they don’t exist. There’s no one to immediately miss them and no one to go looking for them. Heck, how many Juan Does are sitting in the cooler at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office waiting to be ID’d. Most of these people don’t even have dental records. Do you really think he didn’t select them for that very reason? They’re the perfect choice of victim for a sociopath honing his craft. He’s just stepping up his game now, a game he wants to play with us.”
“So you’re saying—”
“You’ve got a hunter on the refuge, warden.” I clapped him on the shoulder and started back down the trail. “Somewhere out here in this forty-five thousand square miles of desert is a serial killer who’s been doing this for a long time now without anyone noticing.”
My memories of my parents are yellowed and faded by time. What were once full-length videos in my head are now scattered snippets. Most have become just lifeless photographs. Time is a thief that takes only what’s near and dear to us, the things to which we cling so tightly we assume they can never be pried from our grasp, and yet one day we open our hands to find them gone. We wonder how we allowed such a thing to happen and cling even tighter to the few precious memories that remain, memories we commit to our very being, to our unconscious mind where time can’t find them, even if we can only visit them in our dreams.
I never really knew my parents, at least not as a boy grows to know them. My spotted memories are captured inside the glimmering prism of youth, which tends to lend truth to lie and lie to truth. I remember my mother humming to me while she gently traced her fingertips around my eyes and I slowly drifted off to sleep. I remember her cutting the crusts off of my bread and wiping her hands on a dish towel. I remember waking to the sound of her laughter, and, ultimately, to the sound of her tears.
My father was a military man, through and through. He believed in his country. He believed in his ideals. He believed so deeply that when the Air Force demanded he up and move his family, he immediately asked “How far?” I was born at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and by the age of two had lived in three different states and three different countries. By third grade, I had attended five different schools, the last of which was in Kaiserslautern, or K-Town, Germany. I remember that clearly, because that’s where we’d been stationed when my father was shipped off to Iraq for Desert Storm, and that was where I was awakened by the sound of my mother crying the night she learned he had died.
My mother was never the same after that. Whatever memories I have of her after we moved to Colorado aren’t the kind I try too hard to recall. I know it was cancer that claimed her, but she had started to follow my father the moment the Scud missile obliterated the fuselage of his F-15. I choose not to believe it was because she loved me any less, just that he had been her reason for living and I was a manifestation of that love, not separate from it. By the time we committed her ashes to the sky with my father’s, I’d already been living with my maternal grandparents for nearly two years, the longest I had ever lived in any one place.
My grandfather had retired from the Air Force a full colonel in his early fifties in order to live the life his earlier sacrifices had afforded him. He had also been my father’s commanding officer when he inadvertently introduced him to the daughter he had hoped would never live the life of a military wife as her mother had. I know he loved my father, yet, at the same time, I’m sure he hated him for taking his daughter from this earth. He didn’t blame him, though. At least I don’t think so. My grandmother did for a while, but my presence helped her get past it, for to despise him was essentially to despise me, since I was half of him, and I wore the better part of that half on the outside. And she would have thrown herself in front of a truck before ever thinking such thoughts.
They weren’t my parents, nor did they pretend to be. Still, they devoted themselves to making me happy and helping me build a future. A future which, unfortunately, they had never been destined to share, but one for which I will eternally be in their debt.
My paternal grandparents were a different story. I could only assume that my father had parents. I mean, we all had to come from somewhere, right? He never spoke of them though, and when I asked about them his eyes would cloud up and he kind of vanished into a world inside himself. I figured if they were still alive, they’d try to track me down. I was their grandchild after all. By the time I was old enough to look for them, they had already passed. In fact, they weren’t buried far from where I was now. Assuming they were indeed the right Billman Hilarion and Wavalene Maria Walker. I pretty much stopped looking once I found their obituaries. There was really no point in attempting to learn any more about them considering they were dead to me long before they died, or, rather, they had never actually existed. Nor had this reservation, which apparently my father had left the moment he was able and never once looked back. Like my grandfather, ever the pilot, used to say, “The future’s on the horizon, not in your slipstream.”
I knew precious little about that half of my heritage. Truth be told, I had never really cared. Not because I didn’t get curious from time to time, but because for whatever reason it was my father’s cross to bear, one he had elected not to bequeath to me. Now here I was, sitting in my pool Crown Victoria outside the tribal police station on a street my father must have intimately known as a child, soaking up every last bit of the air conditioning before I again braved the god-awful heat.
The thermometer on the in-dash readout said it had dropped to a mere one-hundred-five and I could feel the warmth radiating from the closed window. The faded asphalt wavered as a primer-gray pickup materialized in the distance like a mirage. It blew past fast enough to rock my car on its suspension. I glanced at my rearview mirror and saw that the bed was brimming with dark-skinned men, women, and children, crammed one on top of the other.
I opened the mirror application on my iPhone and tilted it so I could perform a quick crust check of my nostrils. It wasn’t an actual mirror, obviously, but rather a forward-facing camera that was looking at you even as you were looking at it. I’d love to say I was above a certain level of vanity, but the way I saw it, you were the one who determined how other people would judge you. The last thing you wanted was to cede the upper hand before the first words came out of your mouth.