© 2002 by Mercer & Hill
Remounting their horses, the women turned south toward Mexico. The late-afternoon sun was cruel and unforgiving, literally sucking the moisture from both horse and rider. Jake knew it wasn't a good idea to go on this time of day, especially now with the percussion of distant thunder closing in on them.
"We better stop a while and water the horses, let them cool down a bit." She stroked Soul's neck before slipping from the saddle, feeling the hot lather the horse had worked up.
Within minutes, the day turned sultry as scorching heat mixed with wet air. In spite of being shaded by the brimmed hat she wore, sweat glistened on Jake's tan face and ran into her eyes. Her shirt was drenched and clung to her body like a second skin. Pulling a bandanna from her back pocket, she removed her hat and wiped the inside of the brim. Wetting the cloth from the water bag, she rubbed the back of her neck and squeezed water down her shirt in between her breasts. She let out a blustering sigh of relief before tying the cool cloth around her throat. Studying the churning clouds as they released wispy grey rain that dissipated before it hit the ground, both riders watched the signs of the monsoon thunderstorm sweep toward them.
The first gust of wind ruffled Jake's hair as she pointed toward the west. "Monsoon clouds. It won't be long before the hammer strikes the anvil. We need to turn back and get out of the arroyo now." Disappointment shadowed her face. "Guess we won't find anything more out here after the rain hits."
Cara was no stranger to the perils of the late summer monsoon rains and knew Jake was right. A dry riverbed or gulch could transform into a torrent of raging water before you even saw it coming. She recalled reading about several experienced hikers losing their lives in the Grand Canyon when they were caught unexpectedly by a flash flood. The sky darkened ominously as storm clouds pushed closer, gathering strength. A streak of lightening flashed off to the west toward the Pajarito Mountains. It wouldn't be long now.
"You said this was the only body found in this arroyo?" Cara asked, still intently mindful of the skyline.
"Yes. The other two were deeper in the desert, southwest of here at California Gulch. It's right at the border, but they were on our side of the line. This entire area, from Pena Blanca on west to Sasabe is a known area for illegal crossings so we have every reason to suspect that they are somehow associated. I can't help but question how many more have there been that the desert or the animals claimed that we don't even know about. And what about on the other side of the line how many has he dumped there. I damn well know there has to be more."
"You are certain these murders are connected to the smugglers?" Cara's analytical mind was working overtime.
"As certain as I can be. This last one, and the fact that we were able to recover more evidence, pieced it together better. I believe the connection is there and the killer picks his victims from unsuspecting women who try to cross illegally."
Cara's eyes grew critical. "What was the scene like where the other two bodies were found?"
"More remote, in a flatter area than these rolling hillsits hotter, dryer. Nocturnal predator and scavenger activity is greater. By the time we found those girls, there wasnt enough left of them to make any sure determination as to the cause of death. They looked like roadkill." Jake hesitated then asked. "Have you ever seen what a pack of javelinas and a few starving coyotes can do to a body?" Her voice was barely audible. "Believe me, it is not a pretty sight. Everything was so badly decomposed or contaminated by scavengers that the DNA samples were useless." Jake's thoughts flashed back to the trial and the DNA evidence Cara so expertly had dismissed. She grew silent, withdrawn from the conversation and lost in thought. It bothered her, and Cara sensed it.
Not wanting to lose the developing rapport by treading on touchy ground, Cara took a sip of water, deliberately avoiding the term DNA. "Tell me what you think."
"So now you're interested in what I think," Jake countered in a voice that was sharp and testy like a stubborn child's.
Cara looked her straight in the eye. "Yes." She paused for another swallow of water. "I want to know what your gut instinct is telling you about this guy."
"Because that kid in jail is depending on you. The families of these girls are depending on you. Because I'm depending on you." With each word, the sense of urgency was clearly evident in her tone.
Although Jake thought Cara offered that last bit of information a little bit too readily, she also recognized the woman's sincerity. She hesitated for a moment, fanning her face with her hat. "I would like to think that you can trust me."
"That's good. I need to know if you trust me as well. I realize that might be difficult." Cara's voice had turned solemn.
Jake looked up at a tall cottonwood, pondering. What other choice did she have? "I trust you. But only because I have to," she replied frankly.
"Well that's honest," Cara acknowledged. "So. What do you think?"
"He's someone who blends in, able to travel back and forth across the border without drawing attention to himself. Possibly Hispanic or Mexican-American. Could be an American citizen. Then again, he might be a Mexican citizen who does a 'legal business' this side of the border."
Jake remounted and shifted in the saddle, gazing out at the desert landscape. "What do you see out there?"
Cara followed Jake's gaze, looking out at the unspoiled Sonoran desert. Everything was in its place. Even the clouds were amassing predictably. Cara understood what Jake was telling her. "I see what belongs here."
"Exactly. Our killer believes he is above suspicion. He knows this area as well as I do, and I grew up here so that's pretty damn well. He knows this desert, how its deceptive serenity can camouflage bodies along with any immediate trace evidence long enough for the elements and the scavengers to obliterate it altogether. Take this last one, for example. The monsoons are a week late. We should have been in the thick of it. Now almost a week after the discovery of the body, there's still no rain. We've been able to cover the scene with a fine-tooth comb before anything washed away. Mother Nature threw us a lucky break, and I plan to use it to catch this bastard. Nogales will not become another Juarez."
Listening to the conviction in Jake's voice as she continued her profile, Cara found herself admiring the feisty doctor.
"The actual figure of illegals crossing the two thousand mile border into the States each year would stagger your imagination. So far this year, we've had over a hundred deaths here in the Tucson Sector. Even the new sensors don't stop them from coming. There's an old wagon trail just south of here, the Camino del Diablo, the Devil's Highway. It parallels the international border and is a notorious crossing zone. Yet, even with a name like that, its reputation for being the death of so many, they still come like lemmings racing to their deaths. Especially this time of year, and so many die from heat exhaustion or dehydration. But a woman will seldom, if ever, brave the elements by herself. And it's most unlikely she would be left to die alone. That tells me that these women were targeted, separated somehow from the rest, beaten, brutalized, raped, and left for the desert to clean up. Our killer has sadistic inclinations, and I don't think he's your average coyote or pollero. And he's certainly not a simple sacadinero.
Cara unconsciously clenched her fingers into fists; the muscles in her jaw working as Jake spoke. "So we are dealing with an efficient killing machine that's hiding right under our noses. And he's been getting away with it too long."
"Or so he thinkswho knew the monsoons would be this late, allowing us to gather as much evidence as we have? Especially the DNA we recovered. He's made mistakes, Vittore; they all do no matter how clever and devious they think they are. I just have to find it. That one piece of evidence that will nail him. This time, it feels different.
"Jake, did you ever read Poe?"
"Poe, as in Edgar Allen, as in "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee?" Sure, but just whats that got to do with anything?"
"Right guy, wrong works. Seems Mr. Poe, the inventor of ratiocination, better known as the detective story, proposed in his book The Purloined Letter, that the best way to hide something is in plain sight.
Jake found herself listening to Cara's voice, and more to her surprise, enjoying it. I can't believe I am out here in the desert, with her, discussing literature and this case like we were old friends or something.
Jake was jolted out of deep thought by Soul's change in gate. He was limping, favoring his right.
"What's wrong with Soul?" Cara asked riding up to Jake.
"I don't know, must have picked up something in her shoe. We better pull up over there," Jake indicated, pointing to a clump of mesquite as she headed for one exceptionally large, canopied tree. She was watching her surroundings, carefully easing past the thorny reaches of the close-growing mesquite when she heard Stats familiar warning snort. Before she could turn around in the tight confines of the shrubs, Jake recognized the comical gruntings of the pig-like javelinas before she saw them. Cougars were common in the area so the javelinas were actually a welcomed sound. If there were javelinas, it was a safe bet there were no cougars. Stat didn't agree; he reared at the underbrush intruders into his otherwise peaceful world. Just as Jake had turned Soul toward her back trail, she saw Stat rush headlong into the thorny fingers of mesquite branches that were clawing and grabbing at both horse and rider.
"Just duck low and hang on, Cara," Jake shouted above the confusion and sound of breaking branches and the squeals of frightened little javelina piglets. Then Jake placed two fingers in her mouth and gave a shrill, two-toned warbling kind of whistle, to which Stat responded instantly and came to a dead stop. Cara jumped to the ground. Her first instinct was to check the horse for cuts or other injuries, an action that was not lost on the ever-observant Jake. As Jake neared, she could see blood running from Cara's left side. The mesquite thorns had done a good job of shredding her shirt and the skin underneath. Jake sprang from the saddle and rushed up to Cara.
"Are you alright? Damn, you look a mess."
Without looking up from her inspection of the horse, Cara grimaced as she spoke. "I'm fine, looks like Stat is too."
Jake walked slowly over to her horse so as not to spook him anymore than he was already and whispered low into his ear, "you okay boy?" Her tanned hands ran along his mane and neck. The horse had faired well with the exception of some minor scrapes.
"He's good, arent ya fella but" looking at the blood soaking through what was left of Cara's shirt, "you are another story. Here, let me see that cut," Jake ordered as she snatched off her bandana to wipe the blood away.
"Im fine stop fussing its just a few scratches."
"You know what, Vittore, I'll be the judge of that. So quit trying to impress me with the macho routine okay." She turned the lawyer around to get a closer look at the damage. Lifting the torn shirt, Jake could see the gash on the smooth skin below Cara's ribs. "Cara, I need to get you back to the clinic this is a fairly deep laceration. It may need a few stitches. When was your last tetanus shot?
"Oh no, youre not getting near me with a needle!" Cara retorted, with more than just a little fear in her voice.
"What? You dont mean to tell me that the great Cara Vittore, lawyer extraordinaire, is afraid of a little ole shot, do you?"
"Im not afraid of anything. Its just not necessary is all. Ill be fine."
"Right. Whatever you say. But whos the doctor here? And I say you need stitches and a tetanus shot. Mesquite cuts can get infected very quickly, Cara." Jake pressed the makeshift dressing into the wound to stop the bleeding, then tied her belt around it to keep it in place. "Come on, hot shot, lets get going."
Jake kept an eye on the threatening monsoon clouds. Jagged flashes of lightening and the rumbling thunder were bearing down on them. The sky was turning an eerie gold and gray. Even though it wasn't raining where they were, the water that was already falling in the mountains above them would soon make its way to them, transforming the dry arroyo into a raging river.
They were about a mile from the trailer with Jake leading the way and Cara trailing. Cara hadn't hurt much at first, probably due to the pain killing effects of an adrenaline rush, but now her body ached all over. The wounds from the thorny mesquite felt like razor cuts, and blood was oozing through the bandanna and running down her hip. Jake slowed her pace to let Stat come up alongside.
"We're going to ride up out of the arroyo the rest of the way," pointing to the mountains to the north. "Won't be long before the water comes."
Suddenly, a movement in the brush behind Cara caught Jake's eye. "Over your shoulder," came the controlled whisper. "Something, no someone, is hiding in the brush.
"I know, I spotted them just as you slowed up."
Jake eased the weapon she carried in the field from the holster at her waist and looked at Cara with intense eyes.
"Well, whoever it is they are not very good at it. A deaf person could hear 'em," Jake whispered.
"How do you want to do this, Jake?"
"You, stay put!" she hissed through her teeth as she heeled Soul and took off in a flurry of dust and flying dirt clods toward the brush before Cara could say a word.
"Damn, she is an irritating woman! ' Stay put.' I don't think so, lady."
Cara veered off in the opposite direction, riding hard to cut around the side where Jake would flush out the intruder. Just as she reached a clearing, a figure ran from the brush directly in front of Stat causing him to rear up, his forelegs flailing in an attempt to ward off the threat of danger. Cara expertly sat the horse, leaning into his neck while reining him down. His hooves landed inches away from the figure lying motionless on the ground. Vaulting from the saddle, she was just kneeling down beside the curled up form as Jake arrived.
"It's just a boy!" yelled Cara incredulously, bending down to see if he was hurt.
Jake crouched beside Cara, bewildered. She was too concerned for the child for her anger at Cara to register. "A boy is he alright?" she questioned as she reached to examine him.
"Please, do not hurt me, por favor." The boy, obviously Hispanic, was about eight or so. He held his arms protectively over his head. Dirty tatters of clothing hung loosely on his thin, shaking frame.
"Are you hurt? What are you doing out here? Are you alone? Jake questioned.
"Diablo! Diablo!" His frightened brown eyes darted back and forth between the two women.
"Easy easy. It's all right, we're not going to hurt you. Can you stand up? Do you understand me," Cara asked in a soothing voice, trying to calm the boy. The small, frightened figure cowered back, arms extended as if to ward off an evil monster that was about to devour him.
At the same time, both women were startled by the noise speeding toward them from behind and turned to see a man running at them frantically with a staff raised to strike. Before Jake could draw her weapon, one swift movement from Cara disarmed the intruder and a second had him pinned to the ground with her boot pressed against his throat. The boy flung himself at Cara, pounding his fists against her, screaming in a desperate attempt to protect the man on the ground.
"Father? This is your father?" Cara questioned, releasing her hold on the man's throat.
The crying boy ran into his father's arms. "Padre Padre."
"Miguel." The man cried as he hugged the child tightly. I'm here, do not cry, little one. I'm here. No one will harm you."
Cara and Jake stood silently watching the distraught father and son. After the boy had quieted down, Jake asked: "What are you doing out here, are you lost, how did you get here?"
The man eyes fell to the pistol at Jake's waist, then to the water bag on her saddle. Hesitantly he asked, "You are BP? You will send us back?"
Jake felt the first touch of cooling rain on her face. She understood the defeat in the man's sad eyes and regretted the answer to the question.
"The first thing we need to do is get you and your son to safety and medical attention. This wash will not be dry for long. Then we'll talk," Jake said as she untied the water bag, knelt down beside the boy, and motioned him to drink as the rain began to fall harder. Panic closed over the man's face.
"Señorita! There is danger here from the fast water?"
"This is a flash flood area. This whole wash, dry as it is now, can turn into a torrent of water in a matter of minutes. We'll be on high ground long before the water comes," Jake quickly said, trying to calm his fear.
"I must go! Please, señorita, take my boy. Please, please keep him safe," the man pleaded as trembling hands pushed the young child toward the two women. "Go with them, Miguel." There was an unmistakable sound of desperation in the man's voice as he turned and anxiously looked toward the direction he had come from. Rain was cascading down his face now, and he straightened his slumped shoulders. The strength of his voice contrasted with his frail and exhausted appearance as he declared, "I must hurry."
Cara, sensing the urgency in the man asked, "where are you going? Why are you so frightened?" She reached out and touched the man gently on his arm. "Let us help you . Please."
The man hesitated only a moment before answering. "My family, señorita, they are in the arroyo. They do not know the danger from the water! I told them to stay while I went to find Miguel. I need to go back. To help them to safety, please, señorita, let me go to them before the water comes!"
Cara looked at Jake who was already lifting the boy onto Soul. "You ride with Cara," she directed the man. We need to hurry!" She unclipped the cell phone from her belt and pushed the number for the Nogales Border Patrol.
"Eduardo, this is Jake. I am approximately two miles up the wash from the crime scene at Smuggler's Gulch. We have a man and his son with us, we're on horseback. His wife and " yelling back to the man, "how many, señor, how many are there?"
"Tres, señorita, tres, my wife and daughters."
"Three," Jake repeated to Eduardo. "He was separated from his wife and two children. We're on the way to find them before it turns into a river down here. Can you get a helicopter out to pick them up? It looks like they have been hiding out here a few days, probably all in need of medical attention.
"It's raining and blowing pretty hard, Jake. Visibility is near zero, and the winds are gusting to fifty, but we'll try. You say your two miles up Smuggler's Gulch? Headed south?"
"Yeah, that's where we're at right now, I don't know how far in his family is, but he's on foot so I'm hoping not too far."
"Okay, keep your phone on. If we can get a chopper up, we'll spot you and then go to look for them."
"They're illegals, Eduardo, so they might be hiding, especially from a BP helicopter."
"We need to find them, pronto it won't be long before you'll all be swimming. Jake, you know when to get out right?"
"Right, Eduardo. With a little luck we'll find them fast."
The rain was pelting the four riders now with a vengeance. The sky, dark and angry, verbalized its displeasure and power with flashes of lightening chased by long, earth-trembling rumbles.
"I don't know! I don't know!" the man cried, "this looks like the place, but I am not sure." Frantically, he called into the echoes of thunder, "Rosa! Rosa!" But only the rain splattering against dry rocks answered him.
Jake kept an anxious eye on the wash behind them. It won't be long. We need to get up out of the wash, damn where are they, where are they!
Cara pulled Stat up as if reading Jake's mind. "Take the boy and his father to higher ground, Jake. I can go faster by myself. Besides, your chopper should be here any minute now."
"Not on your life, Vittore, this is my responsibility, not yours. You take them and get to safety, I'll keep looking."
Silver gray eyes locked into equally determined brown ones that were unflinching. Come on, this is no time to decide you might actually like this woman, Jake thought, or is she just grandstanding. . . or nuts.
"We're wasting time here, Jake, don't argue." Just then, the howling wind and noise of helicopter blades whirred overhead. Matt's amplified voice emerged from the clamor.
"We have them! Get out of there, Jake, now!"
Eduardo and Matt looked desperately for a place where the riders could climb out of the wash, but the walls of the gulch were too steep and muddy. They circled to see how close the raging torrent of water was.
Eduardo's jaw dropped in disbelief. "Holy shit, it's almost on top of them, Matt."
"Goddamn! They're not going to make it!
Spinning the chopper around for a better look, Eduardo sighted a possibility. "Look, Matt, over there! See that trail, they can get a foothold on the rocks!"
The chopper hovered as Matt yelled into the mic, "Jake, fifty yards ahead to your right. Go! It's breathing down your neck!"
Jake shouted to Cara, her heart pounding out of her chest, as they rode frantically searching for a way out. "Ahead fifty yards." She tightened her arms around the small boy in front of her and spurred Soul into a gallop toward the trail. Cara followed with her passenger hanging on for dear life. Jake was half way up the trail when she heard the roar behind her. Just as she crested the top of the wash to safety, she heard Cara shouting, " grab something and hang on!"
Still holding tight to the boy, Jake turned in the saddle to follow the path of the searchlight. At the edge of the gully, she saw the boy's father. He was bobbing only inches above the floodwaters, clinging to an overhanging tree branch.
"God no, please no." Jake cried out desperately as her eyes blindly searched the raging black water for Cara and Stat. The piercing glare of the searchlight did little to illuminate the surrounding darkness that enveloped the landscape. Within minutes, the buffeting turbulence from the helicopter forced her to dismount as it landed on the plateau of the arroyo. Miguel was sobbing and calling for his father. Looking into the nothingness, agonizing helplessness and anguish engulfed her. Matt and Eduardo quickly tossed a line to the man and pulled him to safety. Tears brimmed his eyes while his words poured out in broken English. "Gracias, gracias señorita, God bless you. You and your friend, mi familia, you save them." Resting his hands over Jake's, the man's heartfelt words ripped through her like a knife. I. . .I. . .am sorry señorita, the lady, how you say, she was valerosa, brave." Then he was gone, rushing to his wife and children who were huddled outside the chopper. Jake was numbly aware of father, mother, and children reuniting in a tearful embrace. Turning back toward the shadows, her only conscious thought was that Cara was gone. This woman she had damned for so long had risked her life trying to help her and total strangers.
Matt plainly saw what was on Jake's mind as she wheeled toward him. "Now, Jake, it's ."
"Don't you 'now Jake, me,' Matt Peyson," she spat. Then her eyes watered and she pled, "Please, Matt, we need to find them. Maybe they made it. Can't we at least make a pass down the wash?"
Matt scanned Jake's tormented face. He'd seen her under imaginable, and some not so imaginable, circumstances but he'd never seen her as shaken as she was right now. He knew it was dangerous flying in this weather and that they should wait it out until it cleared a bit. But when did he ever have common sense where she was concerned. He never could refuse her anything. Besides, it was the right thing to do. Looking to Eduardo to make the call, Matt got a thumbs up from the pilot.
"There isn't enough room in the chopper for all of us," Matt apologized, motioning to the family huddled in the rain. "They're safe enough where they are, and they can hold Soul for you until BP gets a rescue team in here." Not wasting any more time, Matt and Eduardo hastily strung a canvas shelter to protect the family from the pelting rain while Jake tended her horse.
"Let's go!" Matt yelled, and he grabbed Jake's hand, pulling her into the chopper.
A brilliant shaft of light penetrated the night, darting across the water's blackness for any sign of horse or rider. Uprooted trees and debris were strewn everywhere, but there was no sign of Cara or Stat. Seeing Jake in the pale glow of the instrument panel, Matt knew he loved her and had since they were teenagers riding through the rolling Santa Cruz hills. Yet, he was helpless to comfort her now. She loved Stat, and losing him was going to be traumatic enough. Even worse, he could see in her eyes how she was berating herself for allowing Cara to be in harm's way.
"Nothing," Matt shouted wiping the rain from his face with his hand while hanging half way out of the helicopter. It's too damn dark, and this rain is coming down too hard to see past my nose. We gotta go, Jake. I'll check in with the rescue party, but in this weather I dunno, won't see much until daylight.
"No! Please! We have to keep looking. She might be hurt they might need help. Please, Matt, just a little longer."
Eduardo, who had been eyeing the fuel gage, called back to Matt. "We're running on fumes, Boss. Sorry, Jake, but we gotta go, now. Jake let out a defeated breath as Matt gave the order, "Take it home, Eduardo."
Jake stared out the window, silent tears streaming down her face like the rain running down the window of the chopper. She felt numb. The last twelve hours seemed surreal. Was it only this morning the anxiety and anger she felt toward Cara Vittore was all consuming? That anger had festered unreasonably for two years and tonight Vittore was gone and probably dead, because of her.
Why did I let her come with me, why! It's all my fault, a civilian for God's sake. Didn't I learn the last time, wasn't there enough pain and guilt. She moaned and covered her face with her hands. Oh Stat, I am so sorry.
When the chopper landed, Matt insisted on driving her home but she refused, needing to be alone. She took one of the BP trucks and drove out to her ranch at Rio Rico. All she wanted was to forget the ache and loss she felt in her heart for a woman whom she had hated but really didn't know. Painful memories were too close to the surface, memories she could not allow. Oblivious to the muddy, wet clothes she stumbled into bed, praying for sleep.
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