RS Perry’s Over The Line second of the Jim Johnson Novels
Copyright © RS Perry 2013 All Rights Reserved Published by Penelope Ltd
A brightly colored gecko scurried across a whitewashed adobe wall. Pedro followed it, moving only his eyes, not wanting to make a sound. His brother, three sisters, mother, father, and cousins were crowded around their deep- grained wood dining table. The upper ridges of the barren table were smoothed to satin by years of oil, plates, and hands. Pedro clutched his older sister Maria with both arms as he watched the gecko. His big brown eyes followed the green gecko as it moved slowly across the wall. Neither Pedro nor the gecko knew why the family was gathered; neither cared. Pedro was a child and infinitely more intelligent than the gecko but neither had had a choice. The gecko was there because of some indefinable primal urge to be there rather than somewhere else. Pedro had been told to be there and to be still. He obeyed.
‘You are being stupid, Miguel. You have not thought with your head, only your penis,’ said his cousin as he slammed his fist on the table.
Pedro jumped, the gecko jumped.
‘You will watch what you say while in my house, Roberto. Your language offends the women as it should,’ said Don Pablo sternly.
‘You talk of civilities when you should be trying to save your-
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self before it is too late,’ said Roberto. ‘Madre Dios, you are without brains. I come here to warn you only because you are family. They will kill you. Miguel must get away, disappear, vanish, and then perhaps they will let the rest of you live.’
‘You should be ashamed,’ said the don. ‘You should not work for such men.’
‘We should all stay poor or be priests or pretend the world is a good place? It is not so. It has not been so for a long time,’ said Roberto, knowing he was getting nowhere with Don Pablo.
The don was a good man and a good father and he believed others were also good. He often said that everyone has some good in them. But he didn’t know or understand the people Roberto worked for. He would never understand what Roberto was risking his life and livelihood to try to tell him.
Roberto stood and looked around slowly at his brother’s family, his cousins and aunt. ‘I have warned you; there is nothing else I can do. Miguel will never be with El Padrino’s daughter. The boss will never allow his daughter to be with a Mexican, let alone a lowly Yaqui descendant.’
No one except the don dared to say anything to Roberto. He was their cousin, their family. He was also a feared member of the Siastra drug cartel where he was known as Roberto La Cuchillo, The Blade. His family had never seen the things he had done but they had heard of them.
Pedro continued to watch the gecko. He wondered if he could make the little lizard a pet to keep his old yellow mutt company. He called his dog Rojizo, because he was covered in red, dusty soil much of the time. As the years went by, Rojizo spent more time sleeping, sprawled on the warm earth, than he did playing. Everyone said Rojizo, the rust-colored dog, came from north of their village,
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just over the border. Pedro couldn’t remember. He had been just a baby when Rojizo came to live at his home. But no one really knew how the dog had arrived in Tubutama, their village. It didn’t matter, he was here and Pedro loved him.
Najma stood quietly a hundred yards west of the small adobe house. She was content, as there was no danger for her here. Only the scent of brush and warm earth touched her senses. The danger was for those inside the house—Miguel, Don Pablo, and their family. The danger was what would happen to them in the next few hours.
The five cartel men she had brought with her waited silently in a shallow arroyo, fifty yards behind her. Behind them, a ribbon of yellow cottonwood trees snaked away into the darkening night.
The gunmen had no remorse for the pain they had inflicted on others or would inflict tonight. Whether they were natural psycho- paths or whether time had blunted their feelings did not matter, they were heartless killers. Men-boys with sterile futures. They belonged to their cartel. Emotion rarely had a place in their thinking. Death was an everyday part of their existence. But then, there was this woman, Najma. If they ever felt anything, it was fear for her. She had the devil in her. El diablo es temido por todos. ‘The devil is feared by everybody,’ they would say. They remained still and silent, as she had ordered.
The small adobe house sat alone outside the village. Close enough to walk the dusty road into town but out of sight and sound from others. Perfect from Najma’s point of view. No one would hear the family’s screams. She walked back to the men and felt their nervousness, maybe even fear, as she approached. It pleased her. All of them were tougher, harder, and certainly stronger than she was.
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Why would such men fear her? She knew the answer: she always found a way to make it personal. She sensed her victims’ weakness- es and took not just their lives but their pride, their self-worth, and their humanity. Killing someone was easy. Taking away everything was not. These men killed, it was their job. But Najma killed for the power it gave her. If death came too quickly, she felt deprived of the control she had over others’ lives. She wanted to see into the minds of her victims and watch the struggle between their hope and pain. They never seemed to understand that she was not like them. Her victims had compassion and believed, as Don Pablo did, that there was some good in everyone. But Najma knew they were only her puppets, onstage until they had played their parts.
‘Take your positions now,’ she ordered. Three of the men walked off into the darkness. They would use their cell phones to alert her if anyone approached. Najma speed-dialed the other two men. Their phones stayed silent but lit up as the call was received. She had instructed them to hold their phones in sight. Her phone was set to vibrate. She wanted her hands free. Communication could have been done in many ways but Najma always had her own way. The men didn’t question her, they obeyed, just as Pedro did inside his home.
She watched them go and then she walked toward the house, followed by the two remaining men. The old family dog, Pedro’s Rojizo, was slow to sense the intruders. He lumbered up on his old joints to defend his territory, to do his duty for his family. But before he managed a warning growl or bark, Najma shot him in his old, dusty, red-yellow head with her small, silenced 22-caliber carbine.
Najma felt as one with the little 22 nestled snuggly into her shoulder. She even liked the little rotary clip that fit flush in front of the trigger. However, the small carbine looked like no other gun,
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with the breech encased in a bulbous, custom-molded plastic polymer that reached all the way to the end of the silencer. The plastic covering made the breach silent although the low velocity sub-sonic bullets were quiet enough without the addition of the silencer on the barrel. The lightweight gun had everything she wanted. It was quiet and the small bullets injured but without much shock. Carefully placed bullets gave her the control she wanted. A large caliber was not only impossible to silence but also hard not to kill with. She wanted damage without causing shock and death until she was ready.
Thousands of yellow aspen leaves floated and swirled to the ground in the November breeze. The warm weather and the rare lack of October wind and rain had left the
tiny leaves clinging to their branches where they would normally have fallen much earlier in the season. A few of the yellow leaves drifted to where Jim sat on the six-sided deck he had built five years earlier. Suspended on tall posts in a small grove of quaking aspens, it floated among the tree trunks and leaves like a tree house. He had interrupted building on his house to construct a series of decks and stone planters that descended twenty feet into the grove of trees and wild roses. He then cantilevered the deck with some support posts into the trees.
A hundred yards farther down the canyon, a river of yellow aspens trailed for nearly a mile, following Wolf Creek to the valley below. The yellow of the trees was the same as the yellow in the far south of Arizona where Heather was camped with JT, and farther south still, in the arroyo, where Najma had ap- proached Don Pedro’s house.
An artesian well gushed from the ground just below the house watering the trees surrounding the deck before going under-
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ground and then rising again on top of a bed of green clay giving life to the ribbon of yellow trees, which snaked down to the valley below.
He sat alone, thinking and remembering. Over the past ten years, the deck had been a favored spot to have coffee and lunch with Duane and Craig. They had often sat here between bucking hay, feeding animals, and building fences. Duane and Craig had been hired to work on the ranch but they quickly became more than employees, they were friends. They were good people, as were their families. The leaves twinkled in the sun, greenish leaves clung to their branches while ripe yellow leaves drifted down. Old leaves, dead brown leaves, rustled and shifted on the ground around the tree trunks.
Jim felt a connection to the aging leaves still clinging to their trees. His friends Duane, Brush, JT, and the general still held fast to life, although they, too, were perhaps not as green as they had once been. But knowing that Craig would not sit with them again added a melancholy note to the rustling sound of brown leaves settling under the wild roses.
Jim looked up and to his right at the house and its large win- dow wall. The house was not big but the sixteen-foot-high windows, made of dozens of three-foot wide by eight-foot tall panes stacked two high, provided a spectacular view west to the North Cascade Mountains. The view from the house and the tree- house deck were the same, except quaking aspens framed the deck’s view while the house stood clear with only mountains and sky around it.
It was one of the few times that he had the ranch, and its solitude, to himself. His mind drifted to past times when he had first stayed here in the small homesteader’s cabin that was just visible
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lower down the canyon along the edge of the trees. He had once stayed there in the dead of winter in subzero temperatures with only a small woodstove. The isolation in the canyon crusted over with snow under blue skies had been a wonderfully serene time. The beauty and peace of that stay never left him. Neither had the old planked outhouse behind the cabin. In the freezing tempera- tures it made for a chilling adventure when he needed to use it.
It was the first winter after he had purchased the 1200-acre ranch. He didn’t know it at the time, but the aspen grove he was looking at was one of the largest in eastern Washington State. He heard a soft high-pitched whistle mixed with caws and turned to look back up toward the head of the canyon and Wolf Mountain. The hills a few hundred yards behind the house rose steeply. Soaring high upon the wind was a bald eagle, with several crows flicking in and out, pestering it. The eagle seemed to accept the crows’ harassment and paid no more attention than a bear did to honeybees.
He thought about Heather and JT in Arizona on their special project. He wished he could have gone with them. Today he seemed to wish a lot of things. He watched a lone inky-black cloud on the horizon. It was the cloud’s singularity that drew his attention. He watched it change shapes as it drifted lazily along in front of a dimming, gray-blue, twilight sky.
Jim thought back to when his friend and old graduate mentor, Simon, had discovered the inky-black fungal clumps that Heather and JT were now collecting. He and Simon had been looking at desert-varnished rocks with a hand lens when they noticed hundreds of small black dots speckling the surface, especially visible on smooth, white quartz rocks when the little bundles of black balls crowded into tiny fractures. Geologists hadn’t
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documented them before. They weren’t interested in the outside of rocks: they wanted to break them open and see the fresh inner crystals.
It was some time later that JT’s microbiology department at the University of Washington started to show a real interest in the black microcolonial fungus, or ‘blackberries’ as they had been affectionately nicknamed and which Heather still liked to call them. As part of JT’s budding interest in astrobiology they had been irradiating bacteria to see which might survive in space the longest. Most of the bacteria could be killed in a few hours. On a whim one day a graduate student had said, ‘Let’s see how long the desert fungus, MCF, will last in the radiation chamber.’ After two weeks it was still thriving. They couldn’t kill it.
Jim allowed his thoughts to roam between the ranch views, old times with Duane and Craig, the Arizona desert, and Heather, now out in the desert collecting MCF with JT. But the pleasant memories stopped abruptly as his mind floated back to Vietnam. To the village where the two little girls had been killed with their mother. Their eyes still haunted him. But the memory dissolved as a coyote sauntered forty feet in front of him, across the knoll in front of the house.
He stretched back, putting his feet up on an empty chair, contented again, sipping a gin and tonic, his and Heather’s favorite drink, lulled by the peace and serenity. Duane had taken Betty Lou, his wife and sometime ranch employee, to visit their granddaughter in Bend, Oregon. They had a new thirty-three-foot RV, and had been looking for an excuse to try it out.
With Heather and Duane gone, the ranch felt as lonely as it did peaceful. The fall chores had mostly been finished before they left. It was all the more lonely as Craig had always been here
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on the rare occasions when Duane was away. Jim thought of one of Heather’s favorite places, Horseshoe Basin on the Canadian border. The basin would now be snowed in for the winter. The subalpine firs would be spires of green projecting from the vast fields of glistening snow. They had never been to the basin in the winter but it must be beautiful, he thought. Perhaps sometime they could go.
Memories of the basin brought back the grizzly discovery of Craig’s body in the gravesite near its edge. The Pasayten Killers had rolled through the basin and ruthlessly killed Craig, Whitie, and three horse packers. Najma had tortured Craig before killing him. With sudden realization, Jim thought Craig would not be here this winter to plow the roads with his old blue Jeep CJ-5. The ranch would not be the same without him.
Loretta, Craig’s wife, had not yet been able to accept Craig’s murder. She barely communicated, even with her best friends, Betty Lou and Duane. However, a teenage boy, Ben, the only survivor of the Pasayten killings, had assumed the role of her protector. He did the chores and lived in a small room in the barn. For Ben, it had become his home. He was happy living there, needed and appreciated.
Jim took another sip of his drink as the sun settled behind the top of Oval Mountain, the tallest peak in his view. His pleasure, enhanced by the gin and tonic and the knowledge that Heather was safe and happy, was marred only by his thoughts of the terrorist that had gotten away—Najma. She was out there somewhere, waiting for him. He felt her presence now just as he had at the campfire two months ago in Horseshoe Basin.
The terrorist plot against Seattle had failed. However, it was all too obvious, Jim thought, just how vulnerable people were to
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attack. Not only in the US but throughout the world. The solutions were not guns and strength but finding ways for people to live in peace. The government’s solution—his government and employer—was to make rules, restricting people’s freedom. To invade and conquer: it didn’t help. He knew his job was essential because there were evil people in the world that needed to be stopped, just as there were good people that needed to be protected.
While he might wish for a peaceful world, one thing would never allow it to happen: the people he and Brush, his friend and partner, faced did not want peace; they wanted power. There were many times when a hazy depression settled over him, as he realized that the adversaries he and Brush went after were no worse than many of the politicians in the so-called civilized governments, including his own. A small plume of dust a half- mile away interrupted his wandering thoughts. It would take several minutes for the approaching vehicle to crest the small rise above the long flat stretch of road they called the speedway. When it finally appeared, the vehicle took Jim by surprise: it was a blue Jeep, Craig’s Jeep.
When it got closer, Jim could see two heads through the Jeep’s window, but couldn’t tell yet who was inside. He waved anyway. Whoever they were, he would know soon enough.
‘Jim, hey. How you doing?’ shouted Ben as he waved at Jim through the trees.
‘Nice to see you, Ben,’ Jim called back. No one called him ‘young Ben’ anymore. He was a grown-up now, first taking responsibility for Loretta and now here he was driving Craig’s Jeep. Ben smiled at Jim as he walked up; he liked plain Ben
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better than he liked young Ben. Even more of a surprise, it was Debbie and not Loretta trailing along behind Ben.
The pair walked between the aspen grove and the house, dropped down three stone steps and a wooden step before reaching the deck. Jim stood and gave Debbie a hug and clasped Ben’s shoulder.
‘If there were three things I didn’t expect today, it was to see a blue Jeep, you, Ben, and you, Debbie. Quite a nice surprise three times over,’ said Jim.
‘Loretta said I should have Craig’s Jeep,’ Ben explained proudly. ‘I’m going to get the plow on soon and I’ll plow out at the house and… if you’ll let me, plow the roads here?’
Jim studied Ben for a second. He was proud of the boy and happy to see him in good spirits, especially after what he had witnessed in the basin. Maybe the young were better equipped to get on with life after such harsh events. Maybe Ben just buried it better than many adults he knew.
‘The Jeep suits you, Ben, it has character. I’m glad Loretta gave it to you, and I’m sure Craig would have wanted you to have it. You’re welcome to plow here. Glad to have you do it. If you have time and would like to work up here with Duane some, I’d be glad to have you do that, too. You know how Duane hates to work alone. It would be good for him.’
A big grin appeared on Ben’s face. Not only did he want to, but being asked to work on the ranch was a sign that he was respected and wanted. His parents hadn’t had much interest in him. Then he became friends with Craig. Now he had Loretta, who depended on him, a home, and a job. He knew that Jim and Heather were really particular about who they allowed to work around the animals on the ranch. He felt proud.
RS Perry’s Over The Line second of the Jim Johnson Novels
Copyright © RS Perry 2013 All Rights Reserved Published by Penelope Ltd