All three froze and stared at me with wide eyes. The man reached behind him and cautiously drew the girl out of the direct line of fire.
I slowly lowered my pistol and slid my finger off of the trigger.
A curious expression crossed the man’s face, one I read as a series of conflicting emotions in rapid succession: fear, confusion, acceptance, gratitude. And then he and his family were gone.
Neither of us had known the other party was there. I could have gunned them all down and no one would ever have known.
“They don’t understand how far the journey is,” Antone said. “They’re led to believe that it’s just an afternoon hike after they’re dropped off at the border. Little do they know it ends up being closer to four days across the sweltering desert. The coyotes keep their money and consign them to their fates.”
I imagined the look of surprise on some poor migrant’s face as he or she rounded the corner into the deep shade of the canyon only to find death waiting with a glimmering blade.
“They mostly travel at night,” Antone said. “The smart ones, anyway. When the sun goes down and it’s cooler. And they’re impossible to track through these mountains after dark, even if you know these hills like the back of your hand.”
I turned in a complete circle, but didn’t see what I had thought I would. The canyon walls had to be at least twenty-five feet tall. A jump from that height was an unnecessary risk, and someone crouching up there would be clearly silhouetted against the sky. The killer would be better concealed down here in the shadows.
I found where he had waited about thirty feet deeper into the canyon, on the far side of the bottleneck. It had been easy enough once I located the nearly invisible scratch lines where the unsub had swept away his tracks. Interestingly, he had dragged the victim’s body deeper into the canyon, in the opposite direction of the trailhead. I lost the brush marks under a riot of migrant footprints within a few feet.
“What’s farther up there?”
“More of the same. What you’re really asking, though, is how did he get the body out of here?”
I nodded and switched on my penlight, but it did little to combat the advancing darkness. Without a full battery of spotlights, we wouldn’t be finding, let alone following, any tracks tonight.
“Coyote is the master of deception. If anyone knew his tricks, he would undoubtedly find his paw in a snare.”
I stared up at the moon as it took form in the sky.
I’d been approaching this from the wrong angle.
The smiley faces.
The canine paw.
Our unsub fancied himself a trickster. There was undoubtedly even deception involved in the creation of that illusion. If I was right, there was nothing even remotely amusing about the message he was attempting to deliver. Nothing at all. And we would only learn more about him when he chose to reveal it, when he completed the design he had started, despite the fact that every single one of us knew what the design would look like when it was completed.
Or did we?
Somewhere in the distance a coyote yipped and bayed at the same moon.
“I’m done here,” I said, and struck off back toward the car.
I was already formulating my report—which I would deliver via private videoconference directly to my Special Agent-in-Charge, Thomas Nielsen, when I reached my pool vehicle—as I walked down the trail toward the chief’s car. My SAC was a good guy, as far as agents in his position went, but he was a lot more politically motivated than most. I don’t know whose chair he had set his sights on; all I knew was that he didn’t intend to remain in his for long. Denver wasn’t New York or Los Angeles or Houston, but it wasn’t a backwoods posting either. Nearly the entire front range of the Rocky Mountains fell under our jurisdiction. Phoenix could have made a legitimate argument for this being their case since it was in their backyard, but Nielsen would never have allowed it. In this case, I was his golden ticket. If my face ended up on the evening news, you could wager a vital organ that Nielsen’s would be right there beside mine. He had pulled out all the stops on this one. He had a native—albeit half-breed—O’odham with an excellent track record working a high profile case with the full tactical support of a dozen federal agencies and the backing of the brain trust back at Quantico.
I’d never worked directly with Behavioral before. They’d profiled a few unsubs for task forces I was a part of in the past, but I’d never really brushed shoulders with them. If I even got to now. It was a distinct possibility that Nielsen would usurp that role, too. I was curious to see how they worked, though. My formal training was minimal, at least compared to most of the profilers with their multiple doctorates. The majority of what I’ve learned has been in the field. I have a B.S. in Cognitive and Developmental Psychology from the University of Denver, but rather than pursuing a doctorate, I had elected to join the FBI. Or, as I like to say, I was seduced by the dark side. I wasn’t the kind of guy who could tolerate being cooped up in an office, nor was I the kind to spend my weekends in seminars or lectures.
And it turned out I really enjoyed carrying a gun and a shield.
Field work was even more fun than I had initially thought it would be. I loved the hunt. I lived for the chase. It was a game played on an open field with no rules and only our opposing wits as our allies. The only problem was the stakes involved. The longer we played this game, the more people died. And that, in my mind, was an unacceptable outcome. The time had come to put an end to this game.
Unfortunately, unless I got lucky, someone else was going to have to die first.
If they hadn’t already.
Again, I was happy enough to let Antone take the lead. The visibility was decent since the moon was nearly full, but I figured there was no harm in letting the chief pick the way down the trail for me. If he went down, I’d know where not to step. I didn’t own enough suits to sacrifice a decent pair of slacks like these.
The chief stopped dead on the path in front of me. Before I could ask why, I smelled it, too.
We had company.
The faint aroma of cigarette smoke. Hand-rolled, not domestic. Sweet. I could see the faint glow of a cherry downhill as the smoker took a drag, momentarily casting an orange glare over the Ford pickup truck against which he leaned.
Antone shook his head and started down the path again, his momentary burden noticeably lifted. He glanced back over his shoulder as we neared, a crooked grin on his face. Again, it was an expression I couldn’t quite decipher, but I was starting to establish a baseline.
There were actually two men waiting for us when we arrived. They’d parked right behind the chief’s cruiser, canted upward on the slight slope. The taller of the two dropped his butt, ground it into the dirt, and stepped away from the pickup. He was tall and slender and clad nearly entirely in faded denim, from his well-worn jacket to his open shirt and his jeans. The leather of his boots had paled to the color of dust and he wore the brim of his Stetson low, hiding his face in shadows.