The Investigator · Preview Chapters
Backside of an old brick-and-stucco building on the edge of downtown Tallahassee, Florida, ten o'clock on a muggy evening in early September, a couple weeks before the autumn equinox. The cleaning crew had left, rattling their equipment carts and trash bins across the blacktop to their vans. A few people remained in the building; two cars sat in the parking lot, and there were lighted offices on the second and third floors.
A young woman with crystalline blue eyes and a short brown ponytail sat behind a ragged boxwood hedge, her back against the building's concrete foundation, a rucksack between her knees. Dressed in black jeans, a black long-sleeved blouse, with a reversible red-black jacket, black-side out, she was no more than an undifferentiated dark lump behind the hedge. She could turn the jacket to the red side, if needed, so she wouldn't appear so obviously camouflaged for the night. A noisome mosquito buzzed her face, looking for an opening; to her left, a vent pooped vaguely fecal odors out of the building.
Piece by piece, one distraction at a time, the young woman cleared her mind; no more odors, no more bugs. She'd hunted for food as a child and she'd learned that a predator created a vibration that other animals could sense. She'd been in every sense a predator, but if she'd put her back against a tree and cleared her mind, the vibration would fade, she'd become part of the landscape, and the prey animals would go back to whatever they were doing before she arrived. She'd had rabbits hop within six feet of her, unalarmed before they died.
Now, with an empty mind, she'd gone from being a lump, to invisible.
The woman was wearing one thin leather glove, and the fingers of that hand were wrapped in hundred-pound test monofilament fishing line. The other end of the transparent line was tied to the loop handle of the building's back door. She waited patiently, unmoving, in the dappled moonlight that filtered through the Chickasaw plum trees on the edge the parking lot.
At ten minutes after ten, the lights went out in the third-floor office and the young woman brought her mind back to the world, shouldered her pack and took a switchblade from her hip pocket. Two minutes after that, a middle-aged woman carrying a heavy lawyer's briefcase pushed through the back door, looked both ways, then scurried out to a compact BMW. The building's door, on an automatic door-closer hinge, swung shut behind her. As it was about to lock, the young woman put pressure on the fishing line, and held it. The door appeared to be closed, but hadn't latched.
When the departing BMW turned the corner, the young woman eased out from behind the hedge, listening, watching, keeping a steady pressure on the fishing line. She walked to the door, pulled it open, blocked it for a second with a foot, and used the blade to cut the fishing line off the door handle.
She slipped inside, balling the fishing line in her gloved hand, pressed the back of the knife blade against her leg to close it, dropped it in her pocket. Adrenaline beginning to kick in, heart rate picking up.
The target office had been vacant since six o'clock. The young woman turned left, to the fire stairs and ran rapidly upwards on silent, soft-cushioned athletic soles. At the fifth and top floor, she listened for a moment behind the fire door, then opened the door and checked the hallway. The only light came from street-side windows. She hurried down the hall to 504, removed her jacket and took the battery-powered lock-rake from her pack.
She couldn't use the rake on the outer door, because that door had a good security lock, and she would have been standing beneath a light where she couldn't be sure she was unobserved.
This lock was not very good there was nothing obviously valuable inside except some well-used office equipment. She wrapped the rake in her jacket and pulled the trigger. The pick made a chattering noise, muffled by the jacket. The young woman kept pressure on the rake, felt the lock begin to give, and then turn. She pushed the door open and stepped inside, closed the door, and sat on the floor, listening.
She heard nothing but the creaks and cracks of an aging building, and the low hum of the air conditioning. Satisfied that she was alone, and hadn't raised an alarm, she opened the pack, took out a headlamp and pulled the elastic bands over her head, centering the light on her forehead. She'd already set it on the lowest power, but she didn't need it yet. She stood and looked around, threw the fishing line in an empty waste basket.
There was enough light from the office equipments' power LEDs that she could make out a dozen metal desks with standard office chairs, a computer with each desk. Lots of paper on the desks, cardboard boxes stacked in one corner, three cork boards marching down the interior walls, hung with notices, posters, the odd cartoon. She walked down to the left end of the room, to a private office with a closed door. The door was locked, but the rake opened it and she went inside.
Another messy space, more stacks of paper. A big faux-walnut desk, a long library-style table, five metal filing cabinets, a metal side-table against the desk, holding a Dell computer and keyboard. The windows were covered with Venetian blinds, partly open. She closed them, then walked across the room, a thin nylon carpet underfoot, sat in the office chair behind the desk, turned on the headlamp and pulled out the desk's unused typing tray. There, written on a piece of notepaper taped to the tray, she found the password for the computer, as her informant had promised.
She brought the computer up and began opening files.
The young woman left the building at six-thirty in the morning, now wearing her jacket red-side out, the dawn light filtering through the plum trees as she walked beneath them. Her rental car was a half-block away. She put the backpack in the trunk and transferred the lock-rake, switchblade and a short steel crowbar, which she hadn't needed, to a Fed-Ex box already labeled and paid for. The pack still held the file folder of printer paper that she'd taken out of the office. She drove carefully to a Fed-Ex curb-side station and dropped in the box of burglary tools. It would arrive back at her Arlington, Virginia apartment in three days, when she would be there to accept it.
That done, she drove back to the DoubleTree hotel where she was staying, put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door, changed into yoga pants and a tank top, put on a sleeping mask, and crawled into bed.
That afternoon, she parked a block from Annette Hart's house, and waited. At five-thirty, Roscoe Anthem pulled up to the curb. He honked once and Hart trotted out of the house, smiling, piled into the car, gave Anthem a peck on the cheek and they rolled out to I-10, then three-and-half hours west to Mobile, Alabama.
Because while you can sin in Tallahassee, in many different ways, it was much more fun where the casinos were bigger and your friends were less likely to see you rollin' them bones.
The blue-eyed young woman stayed with them all the way, well back, always behind other cars, shifting lanes from time to time. And she was with them in the casino, at the craps tables, at the blackjack tables, at the slots, always behind a screen of other patrons, talking on her cell phone and pushing the camera button.
Only to be interrupted by a nerdy young card player who eased up behind her to touch her hip, and whisper, "You know what? You really overclock my processor."
Made her laugh, but she blew him off anyway.
Monday morning, the Washington D.C. office of Senator Christopher Colles (R-Florida), door closed. Colles and his much-hated executive assistant, Claudia Welp, perched on visitor's chairs, looking across a coffee table at the young woman. Welp pitched her voice down: "Wait: you broke into the office?"
"It wasn't exactly a break-in, since it's Senator Colles' office and you told me to go there and retrieve some of his information," the young woman said.
"I didn't mean for you to break in, for God's sakes," Welp said. "I sent you down there to talk to that secretary."
"But to get to the heart of the matter, did you find anything?" Colles asked.
"Yes. The information you got from Messalina Brown is correct," the young woman said. "Anthem and Hart have stolen about three hundred and forty thousand dollars in campaign funds. I believe they've blown most of it in a casino in Mobile, Alabama. In their defense, they're having a really good time."
Welp: "Even so, I'm not sure that justifies breaking into..."
"Shut up, Welp," Colles said. "How'd they do it?"
"I wrote a full report yesterday, after I got back to D.C. I've attached the relevant documents and a couple of photographs of the happy couple at Harrah's Gulf Coast Casino on Friday night. It's here." She took a file out of her backpack and passed it to Colles.
Welp: "Even if it proves to be true, you've far transgressed..."
"Doesn't matter what you believe," Letty Davenport interrupted. "I quit. You guys bore the crap outa me."
Letty worked in what its denizens called the bullpen, an open room of low-ranking senatorial assistants and researchers, each with his or her own desk and filing cabinet, surrounded by a hip-high fabric cubical wall. Most of the staffers were either recent Ivy League graduates or smart state-school grads, getting close to power.
As a graduate of a heavyweight West Coast university, with a master's degree in something useful, combined with her cool reserve and the way she dressed, Letty was different. She was smart, hard-nosed and hard-bodied, lean, muscled like a dancer, who occasionally displayed a sharp, dry wit.
The young women in the bullpen noticed that her clothes carried fashionable labels, while tending toward the dark and functional, if not quite military. Her jewelry was sparse, but notable, and always gold. One of the Ivy Leaguers excessively admired a chain bracelet set with a single, unfaceted green stone, and asked if she could try it on.
Letty was amenable. After the other woman had tried and returned the bracelet, and Letty had gone, a friend asked the Ivy Leaguer, "Well, what did you find out?"
"Honest to God," the Ivy Leaguer said. "That stone is a raw fucking uncut emerald, like Belperron used. We could mug her, sell the bracelet and buy a Benz. Maybe two Benzes."
"You could mug her. I've seen her working out, so I'll pass on that."
When Letty finished briefing Colles and Welp on the Tallahassee situation, she left them studying the purloined spreadsheets, dropped her letter of resignation on Welp's desk two weeks' notice and walked down to the bullpen. An hour later, Welp called and said, "Get up here. Senator Colles wants to speak with you."
When she walked back into the senator's reception area, Colles, Welp and a legislative assistant named Leslie Born were huddled in a nook under a portrait of Colles shaking hands with the elder George Bush. They were arguing about something in low but angry tones; maybe the missing money. Colles saw Letty and snapped, "Get in my office. I'll be there in a minute."
Letty went into Colles' private office and sprawled sideways in one of the comfortable leather club chairs, her legs draped over a well-padded arm. And why not? What was he going to do, fire her?
Colles came in five minutes later, slammed his door. "I apologize for snapping at you out there," he said.
"You should. You were pretty goddamn impolite," Letty said, dropping her feet to the floor.
"You're right, I was. Because you're not the problem. Let me tell you, sweet-pea: Don't ever get yourself elected to the Senate," Colles said, as he settled behind his desk. He was a tall man, big whitened teeth, ruddy face, carefully groomed gray hair. "There are more numb-nuts around here than in the Florida state legislature, which, believe me, was a whole passel of numb-nuts."
"What do you want?" Letty asked.
Colles smiled at the abruptness. "We bore you. Okay. We bore me, most of the time. I used to be this really, really rich real-estate developer down in Palm Beach County. Pretty young women, like you, would insist that I pat them on the ass and I was happy to do it. If I patted anyone on the ass in this place, my face would be on CNN at eight, nine and ten o'clock, looking like a troll who lives under a bridge and eats children."
"You could probably get away with patting Welp on the ass," Letty suggested.
Colles faked a shudder. "Welp is very good at many things, including spreadsheets and firing people. As a sex object, she... huh. I was about to say something that could incorrectly be interpreted as sexist. Anyway, I got your letter of resignation. I put it in the shredder."
"I still quit," Letty said, sitting forward. "I don't hold it against you, Senator Colles. You're not a bad guy, for a Republican. I'm in the wrong spot. I realized that a month ago and decided to give it another month before I resigned. The month is up."
"What? Tallahassee scared you?"
"Tallahassee was the best assignment I've had since I've been here," she said. "If it was all Tallahassees, I might have decided to stick around."
"Now we're getting someplace," Colles said. He did a 360-degree twirl in his office chair, and when he came back around, he said, "The Tallahassee thing was... impressive. If you'd been caught by the Tallahassee cops, I might have had to fire you. But you weren't. I can use somebody with your talents."
"Doing what? Burglaries?"
"As chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Operations Committee, I've made it my business to oversee DHS operations. There are a couple of dozen of what I think of as mission-critical problems that they have to deal with, at any given time. I'm very often unhappy with the results."
"Shut up for a minute, I'm talking," Colles said. "DHS investigators deal with all kinds of problems, security problems, some of them serious. Like, why can't we protect our nuclear power plants from intruders? We had a guy down in Florida walk into... never mind. Anyway, these guys, these investigators, basically do paperwork and interviews. Too often, paperwork and interviews don't get the job done. When there's a problem, the local bureaucrats cover up and lie. They're very good at that. That might even be their primary skill-set."
"Now," Colles said. "Have you been here long enough to know what a department's Inspector General does?"
"More or less."
"An Inspector General basically inquires into a department's failures," Colles said. He steepled his fingers, and began to sound like a particularly boring econ lecturer. "They may look into complaints from whistle-blowers or, if it gets in the news, they can look at obvious fuck-ups. Like why Puerto Rico never got its Hurricane Maria aid from FEMA, outside some rolls of paper towels. They can also examine situations where a necessary investigation simply doesn't produce... the needed results. We know there's a problem, but the DHS investigators come up dry. Or, they hang the wrong people, the bureaucratically approved scapegoats."
"That's unhelpful," Letty said. She restlessly twisted a gold ring. She was bored, she wanted to move.
"It is. Of course, it's fairly routine in governmental matters. People get hurt all the time, I can't help that," Colles said. "My concern is, the big problems don't get solved. I've personally spoken with several of these DHS investigators, about their investigations. Actually, I didn't just speak to them, I interrogated them in classified sub-committee meetings. They are serious, concerned people for the most part.
"What they aren't, too often, is real good investigators," Colles continued. "Or, let me say, researchers. They go somewhere with a list of questions, and ask the questions, and record the answers, but they don't poke around. They don't sneak. They don't break into offices. What would really help over there is a smart researcher, somebody who knew about money and finance and crowbars and lock picks and so on. You do. You have a master's degree in economics and a bunch of courses in finance, and graduated with distinction from one of the best universities in the country. Which is why I hired you."
"And because my dad asked you for a favor," Letty said. She was paying attention now: she could smell an offer on the way.
"He didn't press me on it. He really didn't. Lucas said, 'I want to draw your attention to an opportunity.' I looked into it, and here you are," Colles said. "If you were only what your college transcript recorded, I'd probably let you go now. But you're more than that, aren't you?"
Letty shrugged. "Spit it out. The offer, whatever it is."
Colles laughed this time. "I can get you a little tiny office, a closet, really, downstairs. It has a safe, but no window. I think the last guy was put in there because of body-odor issues. I can also get you a government ID from the Homeland Security IG's office. You wouldn't be working for the IG, though. You'd still be working for me, as a liaison with Homeland. You'd go places with an investigator, but we'd call you a 'researcher.' You may sometimes need to do the kind of research you did in Tallahassee."
"That could be dangerous," Letty said. "I could get hurt. Tallahassee was simple. Even then, if I'd run into the wrong cop..."
"There could be some... dangers, I guess. The IG's investigators, the special agents, can carry sidearms for personal protection. I made some inquiries, the blunt-force definition of 'inquiries,' and the IG's office has agreed that they could issue you a carry permit. Of course, you'd have to demonstrate proficiency before you'd get the permit. I know about your background, from talking to your father, so I'm sure you'd be okay. I know you've thought about the Army, or the CIA, but I can promise you, you'd be as bored in either place as you are in this office. Those are the most ossified bureaucracies in the world. The job I'm talking about, I can almost guarantee won't bore you."
"I..." Did he say a carry permit?
"I'll stick you out in the wind," Colles added.
"I've already resigned," Letty said.
"And I put the letter through the shredder," Colles said. "You want to quit, you'll have to send me another one. You shouldn't do that. Try this new arrangement. I think it could work out for both of us."
She nibbled on her lower lip, then said, "I'll give it another month, Senator Colles. We can talk again, then."
"Listen, call me Chris," Colles said. "When we're in private, anyway. You're a pretty woman. Makes me feel almost human again, talking to you."
"If I get my gun and you pat me on the ass, I'll shoot you," Letty said.
"Relax, honey," Colles said. "We're making friends here."
With the change in her assignment, neither Colles or Welp had anything more for her to do that day, except give her the key to the basement closet she'd use as an office. She went down to check it out, and while it was bigger than an ordinary closet, it wasn't bigger than, say, a luxury California closet. The concrete walls were painted a vague pearl-like color, in paint that had begun to flake. The room contained a metal government desk that might have been left over from World War II, a two-drawer locking file cabinet with keys in the top drawer, a broken-down three-wheel chair that squeaked when she pushed it, and a safe buried in a concrete wall. The safe stood open, with nothing in it but a sheet of paper that contained the combination for the old-fashioned mechanical dial. The room did smell faintly of body odor, so Colles may have been correct about the previous occupant.
A busy Sunday would clean it up, she decided. A bucket full of water, a mop, sponges and some all-surface cleaner. She'd bring in a desk lamp and a cart for her computer, perhaps an imitation oriental carpet for the concrete floor, a powerful LED light for the overhead fixture. She could get a new chair from Office Depot. She would need a coat tree, or a way to sink coat hooks into the concrete wall.
It would do, for now.
When she finished her survey of her new office, she rode the Metro under the Potomac to Arlington. The day had started out gloomy and cool, and by the time she got home, a light mist had moved in, just enough to freshen her face as she walked to her apartment complex.
She changed into a sports bra and briefs, pulled on a tissue-weight rain suit with a hood, and went for a four-mile run on Four Mile Run Trail. Halfway along, she diverted into a wooded park, walked to a silent, isolated depression in the trees. She often visited the place on her daily runs, and sat down on a flagstone.
There was noise, of course; there was always noise around the capital trucks, cars, trains, planes, endless chatter from people going about their politics. The woods muffled the sounds and blended them, homogenized them, and when she closed her eyes, the odors were natural, rural, earthy and wet. In five minutes her workday had slipped away, the personalities, the paperwork, the social tensions. In another five, she was a child again, with only one imperative: stay alive.
Another five, even that was gone. She sat for twenty minutes, unmoving, until a drip of water, falling off a leaf, tagged her nose and brought her back to the world. She sighed and stood up, brushed off the seat of her pants and made her way back through the trees. She'd never decided what she was when she came out of the trees and back to life. Not exactly relaxed, not exactly focused, not exactly clear-minded, or emptied, or any of the other yoga catch-words.
Where she had gone, there was nothing at all.
She was a piece of the rock, a piece of a tree, a ripple in the creek.
There, but not Letty.
Two days later:
The DHS agent was a sunburned over-muscled hulk who dressed in khaki-colored canvas shirts and cargo pants and boots, even in the warm Virginia summer, topped with a camo baseball hat with a black-and-white American flag on the front panel. He had close-cut dark hair, green eyes, a two-day stubble, a thick neck and rough sun-burned hands. He yanked open the Range Rover's door and climbed in, as Letty got in the passenger side.
He looked over at her, pre-exasperated, as he put the truck in gear. "I don't know what I did to deserve this, but I'll tell you what, sweetheart," he said, in a mild Louisiana accent, "I didn't sign up to train office chicks how to shoot a gun. No offense."
His name was John Kaiser and he was a forty-seven-year-old ex-Army master sergeant and a veteran of the oil wars. He slapped reflective-gold blade-style sunglasses over his eyes, like a shutter coming down.
Letty sat primly in the passenger seat, knees together, an old-fashioned tan leather briefcase by her feet, a practical black purse in her lap. She weas wearing black jeans and a dark gray sweatshirt, with the sleeves pulled up. She said, mildly enough, "I thought you signed up to do anything Senator Colles asked you to do."
"Colles isn't my boss: Jamie Wiggler is." Wiggler was the Homeland Security Inspector General. "I signed up to do security. This isn't security."
They left her apartment complex and drove west out of Arlington, mostly in silence, except that Letty took two calls on her cell phone, listened carefully, and then said, "All right. I can do that," and hung up. After the second call, she took a red Moleskine notebook out of her purse and made a note.
"Do what?" Kaiser asked after a while.
She said, "What Senator Colles asked me to do."
Kaiser shook his head and looked out the window at a convenience store, where a line of locals sat smoking on a concrete curb outside the restrooms. He said again, "This is bullshit. I'm supposed to be doing serious stuff."
"Chris isn't punishing you," Letty said. "You're not doing much right now. Wiggler told me you're back from North Carolina, waiting for another assignment. He thought you could run me through the range. If you didn't like it, you should have told him so. I could have gone with somebody else."
"It's Chris? You're calling Senator Colles, Chris?" he asked.
"He told me to," she said.
He glanced at her: "Sure. You guys must be really close."
She was blunt: "Close enough to get your ass fired if you're suggesting that Colles and I are sleeping together."
"I wasn't suggesting that," he muttered, rapidly backing off.
"Try harder not to suggest it," she said; her tone did everything but smear blood on the windshield.
Long, long, long silence, except for the off-road wheels buzzing on the blacktop.
The shooting range was out in the Virginia countryside, in a low, unpainted concrete-block building, the back of the building dug into a hillside. They got out, Letty carrying her briefcase, her purse over her shoulder. Kaiser led the way to the building, politely held the steel door for her, and they went inside to a narrow room that stretched across the width of the building. The place was the exact opposite of chic: concrete floor, unpainted walls, shelves of shooting accessories on the outer floor, with two locked racks of rifles and shotguns, mostly black.
he wall behind a glass counter had wide thick windows that looked out on a ten-station shooting range. Three men were on the firing line, their shots audible, but muffled, like distant backfires. Shelves of ammo sat below the windows, and the glass counter case was filled with revolvers and semi-auto handguns. The air smelled of gunpowder, Rem Oil and concrete dust, not at all unpleasant; a candidate for male cologne.
A thin man, maybe 60, stood behind the counter, ropey muscles, hunched over a newspaper. He was wearing a Rolling Stones "Tongue" T-shirt and an oil-spotted MAGA hat. As they walked in, he folded the paper and said, "Special K. How's they hangin', man?"
Letty: "Special K?"
Kaiser ignored her and said to the gun range man, "Gotta do some training." He gestured between the counter man and Letty. "Letty Davenport Carl Walls. Carl owns this place."
Walls said, "You're a regular cutie. You got a gun?"
After a second, Letty asked, "You talking to me or Special K?"
Walls snorted, and said, "All right. Well, let's get you set up. We have guns for rent, or if you're thinking about buying..."
"I'm all set," Letty said. She lifted the briefcase.
Walls: "You got ear and eye protection?"
"Then you're good to go," Walls said. "Since you're training, I'll go out there with you, put you on the far end where you can talk, shuffle some folks down away from you."
Kaiser said to Letty, "I didn't know you had a gun with you."
"You didn't ask," Letty said. "Now you know."
Walls picked up the edge, looked between them: "You guys ain't close friends, huh?"
"We met an hour ago," Kaiser said.
Letty: "It's not looking promising."
Walls shifted his shooters into booths one, three and five, and put Letty and Kaiser in the ten booth. He clipped a target onto a shooting frame and cranked it fifteen yards down range. As he did that, Letty was digging in her briefcase and Kaiser said, "Wait, wait, wait. Before you start messin' with a gun, I want to know that you know what you're doing."
I know what I'm doing," she said. She took out a gray canvas sheath, unzipped it, and extracted a black pistol with a low optical sight.
Kaiser asked, "What the fuck is that?"
Walls said, "I believe it's a Staccato XC. Never seen one in person. It's not stock..."
Letty popped the empty magazine out of the pistol, jacked the chamber open, and turned it to show Kaiser that it was empty. "I had it custom regripped because my hands are small. My dad suggested the checkered cherry wood, because it's pretty. Trigger was already perfect."
"I like a pretty gun," Walls said. "Your dad does guns?"
"He's a U.S. Marshal. He tracked down that cannibal guy out in Vegas. He shot the 1919 killer in Georgia."
Walls said, "Damn."
Kaiser said nothing, but took an ugly tan Sig from his range bag, ejected an empty magazine, took a loaded magazine from the bag and slapped it home. To Letty, he said, "If you're sure you know what you're doing with your pretty gun..."
Letty said, "Hang on a minute."
She put the gun on the range shelf, with a loaded magazine next to it, picked up her purse, extracted a rubber band and a wallet, took all the currency out of the wallet, wrapped the rubber band around it and then dropped the bundle at the tips of Kaiser's steel-toed boots.
"That's a thousand dollars, fresh out of the ATM," she said, standing too close to him, right in his face. "Five shots, three seconds, cold pistols. Mr. Walls scores it."
Kaiser turned from Letty to Walls and back to Letty, and said, "I spent eight years with Delta. I've pumped out fifty thousand rounds."
"A thousand dollars or shut the fuck up," Letty said.
Kaiser again looked at Walls who grinned and shrugged. "I wouldn't bet her. If she said that gun was gonna jump up and spit in your ear, I believe you'd wind up with an ear full of spit."
The big man stooped, picked up the money and handed it back to Letty. "No bet. I can't afford it on my salary, even if you can. Carl can score it. Five rounds, three seconds."
Letty put on her shooting glasses and electronic earmuffs as Walls set up a timer. She kept her hand at her side until Walls asked "Ready?" and she said, "Ready," and then the timer beeped!
She brought the pistol up and bapbapbapbapbap, her elbows and shoulders absorbing the recoil, getting her back on target after each shot.
They pulled the target and Kaiser said, "Huh," and Carl said, "I'd call that as two and a half inches. Could have been two and a quarter, if it hadn't been for that little flier. Right on three seconds. Not bad for a cold pistol. Lot better'n a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."
Kaiser: "I can beat that."
"Then you should have bet the money," Letty said. "Though I wouldn't want to put any extra stress on you. Losing to a chick? Could throw some shade on the Delta rep."
"Nice. Two minutes on the range and she's talking trash," Walls said with a happy grin. "I like it, I really do." He ran out a new target and when the timer went Beep! Kaiser fired his five rounds, bapbapbapbapbap. When they pulled the target in, Walls said, "This is gonna be close."
Kaiser: "C'mon, man. I beat her. She had that flier."
"But your group's a tad looser," Walls said. They laid the targets on top of each other and Walls shook his head. "I can't call it. Wait, I can call it. It's a tie."
"This is bullshit," Kaiser said. "Like, this rim right here..." He pressed a thumbnail into one of his shots that overlapped one of Letty's.
Letty said, "I'll admit it's not bad shooting, even for four seconds."
Walls laughed and clapped her on the back with a heavy hand, like she was a guy, making her half-smile, half-grimace, and said, "I wasn't gonna say nothin', though it wasn't a whole four. Three-point-five to be exact."
"Fuck both of you," Kaiser said. He might have suppressed a grin.
Letty slipped a hand in her jeans pocket and pulled out a thin, compact Sig 938. "You got a carry gun on your belt. You want to go again?"
"I got a carry gun, but it's not a toy," Kaiser said. He reached under his shirt, which he'd worn loose. He produced a pistol smaller than either of the bigger guns they'd been shooting, but larger than Letty's carry gun; still an ugly desert tan. "Three shots at seven yards, one and a half seconds."
They spent an hour shooting, burning up ammo, trading pistols, Letty winning some, Kaiser some others, at seven, ten, fifteen and twenty-five yards. Walls got his own gun, an accurized Kimber .45, but he was older and past it, and wasn't competitive. A couple of the other shooters came over to watch, and one jumped in, but he wasn't competitive, either.
On the way out, Walls said, "You're not a terrible-bad shot, little lady. Come back any time."
"I will, Mr. Walls."
"You can call me Carl," Walls said.
She nodded. "And you can call me Letty."
In the truck, Kaiser squirmed around in the driver's seat, getting his butt settled in, then said, "I'd kill for that fuckin' Staccato."
"You could sell your Rolex and Range Rover and buy several," Letty said.
"Can't do that," Kaiser grunted. "When you're Delta, you spend a lot of time in combat zones. Good pay and no income tax. If you're careful, when you get out, you've got a nice bankroll. The first things you gotta buy are a Range Rover and a Rolex. Couldn't hold my head up with the boys, if I didn't."
"What if you're not careful?"
"It's a Prius and an Apple watch."
"I didn't realize that," Letty said.
"I got a personal question, if you don't mind," Kaiser said. "I know why I'm good with guns. It was my job. It's still my job, to a certain extent. I don't love guns. They're like hammers. Tools. But why are you a shooter? You a gun freak?"
Letty shrugged. "I grew up with guns and I needed them. Most people don't. All these high capacity guns flashed by the nutcakes? They're a disaster. If I had my way, there'd be no guns but single-shot hunting rifles and single-shot shotguns. You could do all the target shooting you want with those. You could hunt to your heart's content. Of course, you'd actually have to learn how to hunt or how to hit a target, and most of those dimwits don't want to be bothered. They want to play with guns because they can't get laid, is my opinion."
"So it's women's fault."
"Got me there," Letty said.
Kaiser laughed, then said, "Still, you don't believe in high-capacity weapons, but you..."
"I don't believe in them, but that's not where we're at, is it? There are more guns in this country than there are people, so it doesn't matter what I believe. I will not be the victim of some lunatic."
"Okay." Kaiser sat staring through the windshield, then said, "Listen. About this morning. I apologize. I was an asshole. You're the best female shooter I've ever seen. But I can tell you something, Ms. Davenport: punching paper is a lot different than shooting real live people."
As he put the Range Rover in gear, Letty said. "I know. I've shot three people. Killed two of them. The other one was a cop. I shot him four times, two different occasions. Little .22-short, that was the problem. No punch. He always wore this heavy canvas winter coat. Never did kill him, not for want of trying. Though my dad and another cop did. None of it bothered me much."
Kaiser let the truck coast in a shallow circle across the parking lot. "You're serious?"
"Yes," she said. "If you have your doubts, it's all on the Internet. You could look it up."
She listened, heard her mother's voice and a male rumbling, then the voices went up and her mother began screaming RUN LETTY! and Letty turned and stepped across the room and picked up her rifle, which was unloaded because her mother made her swear to keep it unloaded in the house, and she fumbled in the pocket of her trapping parka for a box of shells and then heard a crash of breaking glass and a RUN LETTY! and she broke the gun open and there was a sudden tremendous BOOM and the sounds of fighting stopped...
She looked wildly around the room, flipped the old turn lock on the door, grabbed the steel-legged kitchen chair at the foot of her bed and without thinking about it, hurled it through the bedroom window. There were two layers of glass, the regular window and the storm, but the chair was heavy and went through. Running footsteps on the stairs, like some kind of Halloween movie and Letty threw her parka over the windowsill to protect herself from broken glass, and still hanging onto the rifle, went out the window.
She hung onto the coat with her left hand and dropped, pulling it after her; the coat snagged on glass and maybe a nail, ripped, held her up for just a second, then everything fell. She landed awkwardly, in a clump of prairie grass, felt her ankle twist, a lancing pain, and hobbled two steps sideways, clutching the parka in the cold, and saw a silhouette at the window and she ran, and there was a noise like a close-in lightning strike and something plucked at her hair and she kept hobbling away and there was another boom and her side was on fire, and then she was around the corner of the house and into the dark.
Hurt, she thought. She touched her side and realized she was bleeding under her arm, and her ankle screamed in pain and something was wrong with her left hand. She touched the hand to her face, and found it bleeding; she'd gashed it on the window glass, she guessed, but she kept going, half-hopping, half-hobbling. Cold, she thought. She pinned the rifle between her legs and pulled the parka on. She had no hat or mittens but she pulled the hood up and began to run as best she could, and her left hand just wasn't working right...
She was only a hundred feet from the house when she realized she wasn't alone in the yard. There was a squirt of light and then she heard movement, a crunching on the snow. He was coming after her, whoever he was, and he had a crappy, weak flashlight to help him.
Shells. As she hobbled along, she dug in her coat pocket, and found a .22 shell., but her hand wasn't working and she dropped it. Lost in the dark. Dug out another one with the other hand, broke the rifle, got the shell in, snapped it shut. A squirt of light and then the man called, "Letty. You might as well stop. I can see you."
That was horseshit, she thought. She could barely tell where he was and he had the partly lit house behind him. She was moving as fast as he was, because he was having trouble following her footprints through the grass that stuck up through the shallow snow that's what he was using the flashlight for and there was nothing behind her but darkness. If he kept coming, though... she had to do something. She didn't know how badly she was hurt. Had to find someplace to go.
His silhouette lurched in and out of focus in front of the house and she remembered something that Bud, her trapper friend, had told her about bow-hunting for deer. If a deer was moving a little too quickly for a good shot, you could whistle, or grunt, and the deer would stop to listen. That's when you let the arrow go.
She turned, got a sense of where the man's silhouette was, leveled the rifle and called, "Who are you?"
He stopped like a deer and she shot him.
Kaiser dropped Letty at her apartment, with her briefcase and purse. After a microwave risotto, she watched the top of the news on CNN at seven o'clock, then cleared off her kitchen table, got her gun-cleaning equipment from a closet and cleaned and lubricated the Staccato and the Sig 938. When she was sure they were right, she returned to the closet and took out her Colt .45 Gold cup and Walther PPQ and checked them. Back to the closet for a Daniel Defense AR-10-style semi-automatic rifle.
Her father called her a shooting prodigy. Now she spent an hour pulling pieces off her guns, making sure they were functioning perfectly: a form of meditation, working with your tools. She needed an outdoor range, she thought. She hadn't fired the rifle since she'd been in Washington too busy, with no time to visit rifle ranges.
The thought occurred to her, then, that with her promised new license, and the military ranges scattered around Washington, perhaps she'd have access?
She'd have to ask.
She'd put the guns away and was on her couch watching the end of the fourteenth season of "Supernatural" when her father called. "Did you quit?" he asked.
"I tried, but Colles talked me out of it. Said he'd find me something more interesting to do," Letty said.
"Any idea what that would be?" Lucas Davenport asked.
"Not exactly. It's with the DHS. He says he'll get me a government ID that will let me carry."
Silence for five seconds. "Ah, jeez, Letty. You sure about this? Is he going to get you into trouble?"
"I hope so, but I don't know. I'll have to see what he's talking about," Letty said.
"You be careful, young lady," Lucas said. "You get in too deep, I'll have to ground you."
"Like that's gonna happen."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah... How's mom?"
When she got off the phone, Letty went back to "Supernatural." She was thinking about moving on to the fifteenth season when Colles called.
"I got a job for you," he said. "You're gonna need a straw hat."
Jane Jael Hawkes walked out of her house ten minutes before one o'clock in the afternoon, carrying her backpack which contained two bottles of water, her wallet and her 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol. The day was hot 100F but not unnaturally so for El Paso, Texas. Rand Low was at the curb in his Ford F150 crew cab and she popped the passenger door and climbed in.
Max Sawyer and Terry Duran were sitting in the back and said "Hey," and Low asked, "You up for this?"
Hawkes was a stocky, hard-faced woman with muscle in her arms and shoulders, originally developed during her teen years in an after-school job lifting batteries in an AutoZone store, and later in U.S. Army gyms. At thirty-four, she had a heavily sun-freckled face and brown hair, cut short; and for all that, she attracted certain kinds of outdoorsy men. She had intelligent eyes, an engaging smile when she used it, and an intensity that fired her face and body and the way she walked.
Low put the truck in gear and they headed out to I-10 on the way to Midland, Texas, four and a half hours away.
Sawyer said, "You didn't really have to come."
Hawkes: "Yes, I did. I made the call, so I go."
She'd made the call to murder a man and woman she'd never met, or even seen.
The U.S. Army hadn't been what Hawkes thought it would be. When she signed up, she was thinking Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria; armored-up combat patrols on dusty mountain roads or desert tracks where you could see forever. She was thinking adventure, she was thinking movies: 13 Hours, Jarhead, Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty.
Instead, she got Fort Polk, Louisiana, bureaucracy and bugs, working in a job that, in civilian life, would have been called a "gopher." She was supposed to be a 46Q, a public affairs specialist, but she was a gopher. She did take some Army courses that taught her how to use Microsoft programs like Word, PowerPoint and Excel. She studied hard, because those programs, she thought, would be useful in the civilian world, would get her good jobs, would let her move up in the world. She was wrong about that. You could earn all the Microsoft certifications in the world and still wind up making nine dollars an hour.
Out on I-10, Low put the cruise control at ninety miles an hour and Hawkes told him to back it off to eighty-five. "You get a DPS trooper with an itch and he stops us, we'll be on record as heading out toward Midland."
"You're the worst goddamn backseat driver in the world," Low said, but he backed off to eighty-five.
Hawkes' father had been a white-trash loafer, hard drinker and sometime over-the-road truck driver out of Houston. Her mother worked occasionally as a house-cleaner and a window-washer for rich people as she tried to take care of her seven children. She took them to church some Sundays and read to them from the Bible some nights, which Hawkes found stultifying and often incomprehensible. The Army, Hawkes thought, was one way out of that life, if you couldn't afford community college. She was wrong about that; some things, that you were born with, you can never escape. She was white trash.
Duran, from the back seat, said, "Let's get some tunes going. What do you got on Sirius?"
They settled on Outlaw Country and got on down the highway, talking off and on about country music. "You know what Sirius needs?" Duran asked. "A Texas music station."
As he spoke, James McMurtry came up on the radio with "We Can't Make It Here." They all shut up to listen, and when McMurtry finished, Hawkes said, "Our theme song. That's our fuckin' theme song, guys."
At Fort Polk, Hawkes met other walking examples of white, black and Hispanic trash. She had seven hasty sexual relationships over her four-year enlistment, men she left behind by her own choice; they would have chosen to stay with her, but she had other plans.
Besides her spare-time sexual adventures and computer-education efforts, Hawkes used her quiet time in the Army to read American history, trying to find out why her life was like it was. Some of her reading was reality-based, some of it more peculiar.
The book that hit her the hardest was called "White Trash: The 400-year History of Class in America." She recognized her parents in that book, she recognized herself. She recognized that she had little real chance in life, not because of anything she'd done, or not done, but simply because of the culture she'd been born into, the kind of language she spoke and the way she spoke her words. She wore out that book, and bought another copy, and went to other books trying to find a cultural escape hatch.
There weren't any.
Hawkes was honorably discharged from the Army as a Specialist E4 and took advantage of the Forever GI Bill to enroll at the University of Texas El Paso, working parttime in a Fleet & Ranch store, once again lifting batteries. She quit university after two years, when a grad student explained to her that the job market for a woman with a BA degree in history was non-existent.
Nobody had told her that.
After dropping out, she went fulltime at Fleet & Ranch, started by pushing carts of cut lumber around the concrete floor until her back was on fire, but over four years she worked her way up to Assistant Manager. She should have been the manager, but got sideswiped by a well-spoken bilingual weasel with a necktie, four years younger than she was, and male, with a degree in business.
She'd had no chance.
She continued reading history of the peculiar sort, threading her way through the online world of social media. As somebody stuck to the bottom of the employment ranks, she couldn't help noticing that while climbing through those ranks was difficult enough, holding your spot at the bottom was getting harder all the time, because more "bottom" kept arriving. Plenty of bottom to do the work at nine dollars an hour, if you decided to quit. Didn't take a genius to push a cart of two-by-fours. She was a robot, one that happened to be living and breathing. Sooner, rather than later, a real robot would be doing her job.
Headed southeast out of El Paso, I-10 tracked the agricultural land a mile or so to the south, the ribbon of green fed by the Rio Grande. Fifty miles out of town, the highway jogged to the east, away from the river, and into harder, drier country, running between heavily eroded low red mountains, past isolated small towns until they got to I-20 and turned north, toward the oil patch.
In the back seat, Sawyer was running an off-and-on monologue about guns: "Anyway, I was in this place up in Wichita Falls, Henry's, and I seen this interesting piece, gray synthetic stock, detachable magazine, so I go over to take a closer look, and holy shit! It was one of the original Steyr Scouts designed by Jeff Cooper, you know, the guy who wrote for Guns & Ammo. Bolt action, .308, and it's still mounted with the long eye-relief scope that came with the rifle, and they got the original case with all the case candy..."
Duran said, "I don't shoot me no bolt actions..."
Hawkes said, "I read this article said that the more guns a man's got, the shorter his dick is gonna be."
Duran: "So you're saying Max here is a half-incher?"
Sawyer, a short man with thick blond hair, and eyes so pale they were almost white, smiled: "Okay, boys, let's get 'em out... You, too, Janey. "
"Fuck you, Max."
Then there was Rand Low, who was driving, another piece of white trash.
Sawyer said, "Hey Rand, what do you call four Mexicans in quicksand?'
"I dunno, what?"
"That sucks," Low said, but he laughed anyway.
Duran said, "I don't get it."
Low had turned his head toward the back seat as he laughed, and Hawkes slapped her hand on the dashboard and barked, "Watch it!"
Low snapped his head back around and hit the brakes, hard. They all rocked forward as he came to a stop at the end of a traffic pileup. They spent fifteen minutes edging up to three DPS cruisers and two wreckers, all with their lightbars flashing blue and red light out into the afternoon. At the front of the line, they found a crowd of cops and relevant civilians standing in the ditch, where a tractor-trailer lay on its side. The left side of a manufactured house, still strapped to the trailer, was crumbled like an aluminum can.
A thin frightened-looking man in a white T-shirt, jeans and a bush hat was waving his arms around as he talked to a cop; the driver, Hawkes thought.
Low said, "There's a good 'ol boy gonna need a new job."
As a young man, Rand Low had looked... Texan. Large, rawboned, he was permanently angry. He was born in Odessa, Texas, where his father worked as a short-order cook and his mother was a waitress. His parents wanted him to learn a trade. They thought the Army might train him in heavy equipment operation, because heavy equipment operators made good money in the oil patch. But the Army recruiter had conned him and he landed in the infantry, carrying a rifle. He saw distant combat he could hear it, but not see it and got away uninjured, angered by the restraint imposed on the troops by their officers.
Afghanistan? They could knock it down in a month, he told anyone who'd listen and enlisted people listened, nodding if only the Army would turn them loose. The officers said that was crazy talk. You should see the chaplain, they told him. He worried them and they suggested that he find another line of work and finally insisted that he do that. They'd be happy to give him an honorable discharge at the end of his enlistment, but if he stayed on... well then, maybe not.
His anger grew in the Army and he carried it out to civilian life in the West Texas oil fields.
If a shopper should back out of a parking space while Rand Low was coming down the supermarket lane, block him for a half-second, you'd hear from him, a bearded, red-faced man in a rage at the audacity of some unlucky woman who occupied the lane ahead of him. Rand Low was coming through and he didn't have that half-second to waste.
"Get the fuck out of the way, bitch, you fuckin'..."
Pounding on the steering wheel of his pickup, leaning on the horn. Hitting on the bottle of Lone Star, or Pearl, in the cupholder.
Low was somewhat tough. Not crazy tough, but maybe eighty-five percent on the male tough-ometer, what you'd get after two tours in Afghanistan.
One Monday night, at a drive-in burger place in Odessa, Texas, he did his screaming-and-horn act with a woman who rolled down her window to give him the finger. He slammed his Chevy pickup into 'park' and jumped out and went running after her and smacked the trunk of her car with an open hand, hard.
She'd stopped and as he was about to go around to the driver's side window to explain the error of her ways, the woman's boyfriend or possibly her pet gorilla, could have been either got out of the passenger side of the car, grabbed Low by the neck, dragged him to his pickup, and beat his head against the truck's fender hard enough to dent it and put Low in the hospital for eight days with a concussion and a shattered nose, which was never quite right after that.
Low had learned from that lesson; learned he wasn't jack shit.
He'd gotten out of the hospital with a bill for $47,000, which he had no way to pay, because he had no money and no insurance. His jobs were sporadic enough, and Low was elusive enough, that the hospital eventually wrote off the loss and stopped pursuing him.
But the experience had increased his already volcanic rage with his world. Then he met Jane Jael Hawkes in a military bar in El Paso, where she worked nights, after her day shift at Fleet & Ranch.
When she was twenty-nine, Hawkes had used her Army computer skills and her reading of American history to start her own website, ResistUS. She chose the name because of the slight pun at the end: US for United States, and US for... us. The view was to the political right and pushed further to the right over the years. One of her Army lovers had been black and two had been Hispanic, so she hadn't started with any particular problem with other races. And she never really developed a problem with them she had a problem with immigrants, the people that she, and her trashy friends, had to compete against.
She spun her economic theories out on ResistUS, operating under her middle name, Jael, which she pronounced "Jail," because her mother had fished the name out of the Bible, and she'd pronounced it that way. Jael made no appearances, made no speeches, remained an articulate, mysterious woman known only to people who prowled the hallways of the rightwing darknet. She harvested email addresses of border folks, militia people, sent them anonymous links to her website.
She attracted followers, many ex-military, mostly male, but with women as well, all embittered by the lives they were leading. Living in apartments no bigger than cells, or in decaying trailer homes, trying to decide whether to pay the heating bill or the electric bill or to actually buy a steak this month.
Good Americans, hooking up with the woman at ResistUS, and calling themselves Jael-Birds.
"You're a smart guy," she'd told Low, over rum Cokes. "You think you're here by mistake? Hauling pipe for some rich fuckin' oil company? You think BP gives a wide shit about you? We're the modern slaves. Sure, they tell us we're free people, but free to do what? Earn forty grand a year breakin' your fuckin' back? Can you afford a house? Fuck no. Or if you can, it's a shack..."
He listened, because she spoke his language. Over a period of a month weeks, including a several nights in her bedroom, she explained to Low that his rage was the righteous wrath of the men and women who'd had their lives stolen through the collusion of a gutless sell-out American government and big business.
"Why are you sitting here drinking beer every night?" she asked. "Why is the only thing you know about, what you see on television? Or on the mainstream media that's bought and sold by elitists who are stealing our country? We built America, people like us. Why are we pissed on by all those TV people you see on CNN and MSNBC and Fox who make fun of us every chance they get? The people they fly over? The Rust Belt? The Bible Belt? The only time they can see us is when somebody overdoses on Oxycontin and they put up a picture of some asshole passed out in the street. For them, that's us. Why should anybody make fun of us because we eat at Olive Garden and not some fruity fish-and-steak place in New York City?"
She'd lean into it: "Ask yourself what they'd do without the food we raise and the oil we pump? What'd they do, if they didn't have that? You think they got feedlots in Manhattan? Oil wells?"
Hawkes learned a curious thing about Low, who had little interest in intellectual matters, in history or economics. He could talk. Feed him the words and he could turn them into rage. And he told her something else, one night sitting at the bar:
"You can bullshit all you want, Janie. Bullshit until you drop dead. Nobody'll really give a flying fuck until you do something. Get out there."
"Do what? Get a bunch of guns and go shoot up stop signs, like those fuckin' gun nuts?"
"They're only gun nuts because they don't know what else to be," Low said. "You tell them, but you don't show them. They read all that shit on ResistUS and then what? I'll tell you what. They go watch the football game on ESPN."
She thought about that: how to convert words to action.
She was aware of the militias operating in the El Paso area, because the members hooked up to her ResistUS site. They flew "Don't Tread on Me" flags and Confederate battle flags and wore camo and carried AR15s and drove Jeeps and bought all that geardo military crap that she'd thought was crap even when she was in the military.
She didn't want that; but she did want something else.
"Here's what we're going to do," she told Low. "We're going start a militia, but it'll be a real one. Our own fuckin' Army. None of this playing with guns shit."
Low had the intensity and anger and military background needed to pull people in. He had the right experience, he even had the right appearance. He just didn't know what to say but she could help him with that.
They began to collect members from her ResistUS base and the other local militias. People with military experience and the right kind of enthusiasm. With Low leading, and, tentatively at first, they began to patrol the US border east of El Paso. They found and held illegals for the Border Patrol. Some of the patrolmen began to talk to them about favored crossing points, places where they could use extra eyes.
Hawkes called it "The Land Division," and designed a flag for them, a triangular green mountain on a blue field. The nascent force was asked to standardize vehicles four-wheelers, either Jeeps or pickups, for those who could afford them. American trucks F150s, Rangers, Silverados, Sierras, Colorados. Everybody had guns, of course, twenty different makes of .223 AR15s or 7.65x39mm AK47s. They trained, under Hawkes' eyes and Low's direction. They did firing exercises in the barren mountains east of El Paso and north of I-10.
They had cookouts, brats and beer.
Romances sprang up among the troops.
Four men sifted out of the collection of veterans and enthusiasts who called themselves Jael-birds, the hardest of the hard-core. In addition to Low, they were Max Sawyer, their armorer and gun enthusiast; Terrill T. Duran, the oldest of the group, a former Air Force sergeant, who had done ten years in a Texas prison for bank robbery and had met Low who was serving a short stretch for driving a stolen car. And Victor Crain, a recovered meth freak and sometime car thief, who, like Low, had spent time in Afghanistan and who, everyone agreed, was a little nuts. In a good way. He'd been the one to introduce Low to the stolen car business, but hadn't been arrested when Low was.
The Land Division had been patrolling the border for a year, holding their cookouts and guerilla training and live-fire exercises out in the desert, when the thing they'd been edging up to, actually occurred.
Low and the other three men, in two pickups, were patrolling near Fort Hancock, Texas, when they came across two illegals walking parallel to I-10, headed northwest toward El Paso. The illegals, dirty from their travels, carrying backpacks slung over T-shirts, both wearing ballcaps, one wearing sunglasses, looked over their shoulders as the trucks caught up with them.
"What do you think?" Low asked.
Sawyer, who was riding shotgun, said, "I'm good with it."
Low got on his cell phone, called Crain, who was riding shotgun in the second pickup. "What do you think? What we been talking about?"
"Haven't seen anyone for an hour," Crain said.
Duran, driving the second pickup, said, "I say go for it."
Sawyer said, "I'm with Terry."
The two trucks caught up to the illegals, stopped. The illegals had tried to keep walking, while half-turned to keep an eye on the gringos in the pickups. The four militiamen got out, all with their AKs.
Low took a last look around, then, "Do it."
The illegals were buried in an untracked piece of desert, deep in the soft sand.
The four men didn't talk about it, they all told each other, but somehow, other members of the militia knew, or suspected. A week after the shooting, Hawkes cornered Low and asked him directly.
Low said, "We had to draw a line and we did."
"You murdered two people?" She was appalled... and maybe awe-struck.
"We didn't murder them," Low said. "We killed them. There's a difference. They were criminals committing a crime. We were defending the United States of America."
Hawkes was rocked... and she nodded, and sent along.
The next time she saw Low, she hooked him by his shirt placket, pulled him close and said, "Here's your mistake: two wetbacks aren't a problem. It's a million wetbacks that are the problem."
Low blinked, and said, "That's a line I can use."
That night, at a campfire meeting, Low said to the circle of their most devoted troops, "Listen, folks, I know some of you heard rumors and I'm not going to talk about them. What I do want to say, is, it's not two wetbacks that are the problem. It's a million of them. Picking them up one at a time is like picking fleas off a dog, when what you need is flea powder that'll get all of them."
"How are we gonna do that?" a man named David asked him.
Hawkes stood up. "We keep patrolling, but patrolling isn't enough, Dave. Patrolling is training. It's tough, it takes dedication, and it weeds out the weak. Like Rand said, though, turning around two wetbacks won't make a difference."
"What are we going to do, then, invade Mexico?"
Everybody laughed except Hawkes. "I have to think on it," she said. "Right now, we've got you folks fifteen or sixteen solid people. You are the core of what we need to do. We need to expand this core. Get people who understand our problem. Then somehow, we've got to ignite a national fire, people who believe like we do."
"How you gonna do that?"
"I don't know," she said. "Rand and I wanted you to know that we're working on it, but it's going to take time. You all stay loyal and true, keep patrolling, train newcomers and pick out the ones who truly believe. The ones who'll become the bigger core. I'll give you this personal pledge: Rand and I will find a way to ignite the fire, or by God, we'll die trying."
A week later, Low stopped over at Hawkes' house with a militia girlfriend, and sitting at her kitchen table, drinking beer, Hawkes told them, "I read this book about President Lyndon Johnson."
"Yeah?" Low had a hard time keeping up with her reading. He wasn't reader, himself.
"When Johnson started out in Congress, he got a lot of power right away. You know how?"
"You tell me," Low said.
"He took over the committee that raised reelection funds for other congressmen. Before he did that, nobody bothered to raise money for other people, everybody did it for themselves. Johnson raised the big bucks and passed it out to people who'd boost him higher in the Congress. It worked. Like he was only a congressman for a couple of terms and he was one of the most powerful people up there. What does that tell you?"
Low had to think about it for a while, then said, "Well..."
"Money," Hawkes said. "If you're going to get some real power, you need some real money. We need to figure something out. We need money. Lots of it."
Time passed, months. The patrols continued. Then a man named Roscoe Winks, an oil wildcatter, so he said, wandered into the Ironsides bar where she worked parttime. He was taking a break from the oil patch, he said, a little vacation in the El Paso area. Did she know where a man might find a little... uh... action? He didn't mean a poker game.
He was a sorry excuse for an oil man, she thought, but they got to talking, and though they at first talked in circles, they eventually got serious. Winks, like Hawkes, was in a perennial financial bind, but Winks had an idea of how he might get out of it, if he had some qualified help, people with some guts. How they might steal themselves some oil, and make some real money. Though they'd need twenty thousand dollars to get organized.
She told him to come back: she'd think of something.
She told Low and Sawyer about Winks.
Low asked, "How much are we talking about?"
"Winks says our end could be a million bucks a year. He could give it to us in cash. He's got that all worked out. The money would be clean."
Low: "Terry knows an easy bank up in Lawton, Oklahoma. He knows how we could knock it over, no problem. We been talking about it. Don't know how much we'd get, but it'd be enough to cover Winks."
Hawkes took the next step, looked at Low and nodded.
Duran was right: Low and Duran went into the bank on a payday Friday morning, Sawyer drove the stolen car. They got $47,000. Seed money, for the good of the USA. They burned the stolen car in a pasture outside Lawton and were back in El Paso by midnight.
"You know who started this way, with a bank robbery?" Hawkes asked, thumbing through the pile of cash on her kitchen table. "Stalin started this way."
Low and Duran looked at each other, then back at Hawkes. Low asked, "Who?"
Winks had a broken-down tank truck. The money from the bank robbery rehabbed the truck's diesel engine and the transmission, gave the tractor unit a fresh coat of fire-engine red paint, bought some decent recaps for it. A thousand bucks spent on a sandblaster cleaned up the tank. Red paint and careful drawing by one of the militiamen converted the truck into a replica of the vehicles run by the biggest oil-service company in the Permian Basin.
A truck nobody would notice.
And they built themselves a pig. The pig cost eight thousand dollars, created in a machine shop in Waxahachie, Texas, to specifications created by Roscoe Winks.
Somewhat to Hawkes' surprise, Winks' scheme actually worked small sips of oil from the major oil companies turned into hundreds of thousands of dollars over the two years they were working at it.
Hawkes, with serious money coming in, quit her day job at Fleet & Ranch to spend fulltime organizing. She'd been right about the money. The proto-populist groups scattered around the Midwest and Northwest loved the idea of paid-for travel by air, rather than bus or pickup. Money to cover meals and rental cars, even decent motels, instead of the ratholes or back bedrooms they usually had to put up with.
Low became a celebrity among them, a tough guy, who showed up at meetings with gun-toting bodyguards in off-road equipped pickups, some with fuckin' snorkels. And a woman, who stood behind him, her face half-covered by a bandana, who called herself Jael.
Low did the speeches, Hawkes did the thinking and the backroom negotiations.
"We need to galvanize people who think like us," she told her conferees. "We need myth-makers. We need an Alamo. We don't need a bunch of fuckin' crazies running through the Capitol. We need an Alamo that people can be proud of, instead of hiding out like a bunch of chickens."
Nods and questions. Whispered answers. Envelopes full of cash changed hands. They got organized.
More money went to the militia hard-core in El Paso. Those who couldn't afford solid pickups, got new ones, and new weapons to go with them, standardized nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistols and ARs and AKs as long guns.
At the end of August, two years after they started stealing oil, they had a target and they had a D-Day. They had their symbol of resistance, their Alamo, though they were the only ones who knew it at the time.
Then, almost at the last minute:
An oil company exec named Boxie Blackburn called Roscoe Winks, to see if he knew anything about some missing oil. Winks panicked and called Hawkes.
"We're right there," Hawkes told Low, later that evening. "We're at the Alamo, but we're gonna have to disappear afterwards. We need that money. We can't get along without it. We spent too much on... other stuff, and we still have to pay for the stuff from Bliss."
She never spoke the name of the stuff from Bliss. Bliss was a U.S. Army fort in El Paso. The stuff from Bliss would cost a ton.
"Five more runs," Low said. "We'll tell Winks we want all the money from the last five runs, and we want it now, up front, or he could get hurt but tell him he can have the truck, the pig, the idea, and he can get his own gang together."
"Kind of like extortion," Hawkes said.
"More than that," Low said. "When Winks gives us the money... we're gonna have to get rid of him."
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Hawkes said.
"We're at the bridge," Low insisted. "The caravan is on its way. We know what they're going to do. It's now or never, Janie. We get rid of the Blackburns, we keep the runs going until we move... then Winks. The fact is, Winks could give us up. He'd do it, too, if he thought it'd save own ass."
Hawkes licked her lower lip.
And nodded again.
Low watched Boxie Blackburn over a half-dozen weekdays, learning his routine. Although he was a manager, Blackburn was out in the field every day, usually making it home at six o'clock after a late-day stop at his office. He'd be at home for an hour or so, probably cleaning up, and between six-thirty and seven, he'd be out the door with his wife, twice to the Midland Country Club, other times to steak houses.
"He's got a high-end F150, a Limited," Duran said. "His wife drives a BMW X3. Vic knows a guy who can move them across the border overnight, no questions asked. We'd get ten grand."
"Which is beside the point," Hawkes said.
"I know, but... might as well take it," Duran said. "Money is money."
After a gas-and-snacks stop on I-20, they made it into Midland at 5:40 on a hot blue-sky afternoon that would have been insufferable if not for the truck's air conditioning. They pulled into an empty church parking lot on Midland Drive, a block from Cardinal Lane, and waited.
At six o'clock, Hawkes said, "If he doesn't make it home soon, I'm gonna give up. I'm getting kind of screwed up here."
"Well, he will make it home at six," Low said, "Because, there he is. Everybody: gloves."
A dark blue F150 went by on Midland Drive and Low put his truck in gear and followed. In the backseat, Sawyer pulled a Beretta out of a pouch he'd pushed under Low's seat. Duran had his Glock wrapped in a jacket between them, and he took it out and checked it, jacked a shell into the chamber. Sawyer said, "Don't wave that fuckin' thing in my face."
"Getting a little tense there, Maxie?" Duran asked.
"Just not professional," Sawyer said. "Put your gloves on."
Low had turned down Cardinal Lane, a block behind Blackburn's truck. They went past the kind of white board fences that horse people build, the men in the back seat hunched forward to watch as Blackburn slowed, turned into his driveway, waited as a garage door rolled up.
Low said, quietly, "Here we go, boys and girls. Max, stay behind me until I get to him..."
"I know, I know..."
Low said, "Janie, you just sit. We'll call you if we need you."
Duran: "Rand, where's the tape?"
"Under my feet, I'll bring it," Low said. "Everybody ready?"
Low swung the truck into Blackburn's driveway, and Hawkes said, "Oh, my Lord, oh my..."
Blackburn was getting out of his truck, shut the door and then stopped to look at them, the garage door still open. He didn't recognize them, but Low said, "Hey, Boxie!"
Blackburn, Texas-polite, said, "Can I help you folks?"
Low had been walking toward Blackburn, with Sawyer a step behind, and as they came up to him, Low stepped aside, as though doing a two-step, and Sawyer stepped past him and pressed his heavy black Beretta into Blackburn's belly.
Low, working from a script written in Hawkes' kitchen said, "Yeah. You can help us. You're a rich guy and we need us some money. We need us some jewelry. Get in the house. You don't fight us, you don't get hurt."
Blackburn was stunned, and scared, staring down at the gun. "I don't have much, I got some, go away, don't hurt anyone..."
"Get in the house, motherfucker," Sawyer said. He was also working from the script. He added, "Nobody can see us here."
Blackburn, thinking about his wife inside: "Man, don't..."
"Get in the house," Low said, letting some anger out, some crazy. "Get the fuck in the house."
Blackburn led them through the interior garage door into the house, where his wife called: "Boxie? Is that you?"
Hawkes sat in the truck as the men all went inside the house. She cupped her hands over her cheeks and eyes, rocked back and forth in the truck. The men were in there killing them, killing the husband and wife who she'd never met, about whom she knew almost nothing except that the husband had made a phone call to Roscoe Winks, panicking him.
Three minutes passed, five minutes. Nothing moving in the garage. Hawkes mumbled, "Fuck it," and got out of the truck, walked through the garage, opened the door and saw what looked like two cocoons on the floor, Blackburn and his wife, wrapped in gray duct tape.
She said, "Oh, no..." and at the sound of a woman's voice, the wife rolled to her side, her eyes on Hawkes, pleading. The men had plastered a strip of tape across her mouth.
Duran asked, "Max? Bags?"
"Yup." Sawyer took two transparent plastic bags out of his hip pocket, knelt next to Boxie Blackburn and pulled one of the bags over his head, and taped it at his neck. Blackburn began to roll and kick.
Sawyer moved to Blackburn's wife, whose name Hawkes didn't know, and pulled a bag over her head, and Hawkes turned way: "Oh, God. Oh, Jesus."
"You don't have to watch. Go back out to the truck."
"I made the call. I watch," Hawkes said, and she turned back to the dying couple. Boxie Blackburn went first, trembling violently as his brain died. When the woman died, Hawkes went to the kitchen sink and vomited up everything she'd eaten that day. When she'd finished retching, she washed her face, dried it on her shirt sleeve, and said, "Let's finish it. You all know what to do. Max, get the thermostat..."