ON THE BURNT-OUT end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic's shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tires. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.
The young man entered a phone booth and wiped his face slick with the flat of his hand. His denim shirt was stiff with salt and open on his chest, his hair mowed into the scalp, GIÂ€‘style. He pulled an unlabeled pint bottle from the front of his jeans and unscrewed the cap. Down the right side of his face was a swollen pink scar that was as bright and shiny as plastic and looked pasted onto the skin rather than part of it. The mescal in the bottle was yellow and thick with threadworms that seemed to light against the sunset when he tipped the neck to his mouth. Inside the booth, he could feel his heart quickening and lines of sweat running down from his armpits into the waistband of his undershorts. His index finger trembled as he punched in the numbers on the phone's console.
"What's your emergency?" a woman dispatcher asked.
The rolling countryside was the color of a browned biscuit, stretching away endlessly, the monotony of rocks and creosote brush and grit and mesquite trees interrupted only by an occasional windmill rattling in the breeze.
"Last night there was some shooting here. A lot of it," he said. "I heard it in the dark and saw the flashes."
"By that old church. I think that's what happened. I was drinking. I saw it from down the road. It scared the doo-doo out of me."
There was a pause. "Are you drinking now, sir?"
"Not really. I mean, not much. Just a few hits of Mexican worm juice."
"Tell us where you are, and we'll send out a cruiser. Will you wait there for a cruiser to come out?"
"This doesn't have anything to do with me. A lot of wets go through here. There's oceans of trash down by the border. Dirty diapers and moldy clothes and rotted food and tennis shoes without strings in them. Why would they take the strings out of their tennis shoes?"
"Is this about illegals?"
"I said I heard somebody busting caps. That's all I'm reporting. Maybe I heard a tailgate drop. I'm sure I did. It clanked in the dark."
"Sir, where are you calling from?"
"The same place I heard all that shooting."
"Give me your name, please."
"What name they got for a guy so dumb he thinks doing the right thing is the right thing? Answer me that, please, ma'am."
He tried to slam down the receiver on the hook but missed. The phone receiver swung back and forth from the phone box as the young man with the welted pink scar on his face drove away, road dust sucking back through the glassless windows of his car.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER, at sunset, the sky turned to turquoise; then the strips of black cloud along the horizon were backlit by a red brilliance that was like the glow of a forge, as though the cooling of the day were about to be set into abeyance so the sun's heat could prevail through the night into the following dawn. Across the street from the abandoned filling station, a tall man in his seventies, wearing westerncut khakis and hand-tooled boots and an old-fashioned gun belt and a dove-colored Stetson, parked his truck in front of what appeared to be the shell of a Spanish mission. The roof had caved onto the floor, and the doors had been twisted off the hinges and carried inside and broken up and used for firewood by homeless people or teenage vandals. The only tree in the crossroads community was a giant willow; it shaded one side of the church and created a strange effect of shadow and red light on the stucco walls, as though a grass fire were approaching the structure and about to consume it.
In reality, the church had been built not by Spaniards or Mexicans but by an industrialist who had become the most hated man in America after his company security forces and members of the Colorado militia massacred eleven children and two women during a miners' strike in 1914. Later, the industrialist reinvented himself as a philanthropist and humanitarian and rehabilitated his family name by building churches around the country. But the miners did not get their union, and this particular church became a scorched cipher that few associate with the two women and eleven children who had tried to hide in a root cellar while the canvas tent above them rained ash and flame upon their heads.
The tall man was wearing a holstered blue-black white-handled revolver. Unconsciously, he removed his hat when he entered the church, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the deep shadows inside the walls. The oak flooring had been ripped up and hauled away by a contractor, and the dirt underneath was green and cool with lack of sunlight, packed down hard, humped in places, smelling of dampness and the feces of field mice. Scattered about the church's interior, glinting like gold teeth, were dozens of brass shell casings.
The tall man squatted down, his gunbelt creaking, his knees popping. He picked up a casing on the end of a ballpoint pen. It, like all the others, was .45-caliber. He cleared his throat softly and spat to one side, unable to avoid the odor that the wind had just kicked up outside. He rose to his feet and walked out the back door and gazed at a field that had been raked by a bulldozer's blade, the cinnamon-colored dirt scrolled and stenciled by the dozer's steel treads.
The tall man returned to his pickup truck and removed a leaf rake and a long-handled shovel from the bed. He walked into the field and sank the steel tip of the shovel blade with the weight of his leg and haunch and struck a rock, then reset the blade in a different spot and tried again. This time the blade went deep, all the way up to his boot sole, as though it were cutting through compacted coffee grounds rather than dirt. When he pulled the shovel free, an odor rose into his nostrils that made his throat close against the bilious surge in his stomach. He soaked a bandana from a canteen in his truck and wrapped it around the lower half of his face and knotted it behind his head. Then he walked slowly across the field, jabbing the inverted half of the rake handle into the ground. Every three or four feet, at the same depth, he felt a soft form of resistance, like a sack of feed whose burlap has rotted and split, the dry dirt rilling back into the hole each time he pulled the wood shaft from the surface. The breeze had died completely. The air was green with the sun's last light, the sky dissected by birds, the air stained by a growing stench that seemed to rise from his boots into his clothes. The tall man inverted the rake, careful not to touch the tip that he had pushed below the soil, and began scraping at a depression that a feral animal had already crosshatched with claw marks.
The tall man had many memories from his early life that he seldom shared with others. They involved images of snowy hills south of the Yalu River, and dead Chinese troops in quilted uniforms scattered randomly across the slopes, and FÂ€‘80 jets flying low out of the overcast sky, strafing the perimeter to push the Chinese mortar and automatic weapons teams back out of range. The wounds on the American dead piled in the backs of the six-bys looked like roses frozen inside snow.
In his sleep, the tall man still heard bugles blowing in the hills, echoing as coldly as brass ringing on stone.
The spidery tines of the rake pulled a lock of black hair free from the dirt. The tall man, whose name was Hackberry Holland, looked down into the depression. He touched the rake at the edges of the rounded shape he had uncovered. Then, because of either a lack of compaction around the figure or the fact that it lay on top of other bodies, the soil began to slide off the person's face and ears and neck and shoulders, down into a subterranean hole, exposing the waxy opalescence of a brow, the rictus that imitated surprise, one eye lidded, the other as bold as a child's marble, a ball of dirt clenched in the figure's palm.
She was thin-boned, a toy person, her black blouse a receptacle for heat and totally inappropriate for the climate. He guessed she was not over seventeen and that she had been alive when the dirt was pushed on top of her. She was also Asian, not Hispanic as he had expected.
For the next half hour, until the light had gone from the sky, he continued to rake and dig in the field that had obviously been scraped down to the hardpan by a dozer blade, then backfilled with the overburden and tamped down and graded as smoothly as if in preparation for construction of a home.
He went back to his truck and threw the rake and shovel in the bed, then lifted his handheld radio off the passenger seat. "Maydeen, this is Sheriff Holland," he said. "I'm behind the old church at Chapala Crossing. I've uncovered the burials of nine homicide victims so far, all female. Call the feds and also call both Brewster and Terrell counties and tell them we need their assistance."
"You're breaking up. Say again? Did I read you right? You said nine homicide — "
"We've got a mass murder. The victims are all Asian, some of them hardly more than children."
"The guy who made the nine-one-one, he called a second time."
"What'd he say?"
"I don't think he just happened by the church site. I think he's dripping with guilt."
"Did you get his name?"
"He said it was Pete. No last name. Why didn't you call in? I could have sent help. You're too goddamn old for this crap, Hack."
Because at a certain age, you finally accept and trust yourself and let go of the world, he thought. But in reply, all he said was "Maydeen, would you not use that kind of language over the air, please?"
PETE FLORES NEVER quite understood why the girl lived with him. Her hair was chestnut-colored, cut short and curled on the ends, her skin clear, her blue-green eyes deep-set, which gave them a mysterious quality that intrigued men and caused them to stare at her back long after she had walked past them. At the diner where she worked, she conducted herself with a level of grace that her customers, mostly longhaul truckers, sensed and respected and were protective of. She attended classes three nights a week at a junior college in the county seat, and the previous semester had published a short story in the college literary magazine. Her name was Vikki Gaddis, and she played a big-belly JÂ€‘200 Gibson that her father, a part-time country musician from Medicine Lodge, Kansas, had given her when she was twelve years old.
Her husky voice and accent were not acquired or feigned. On occasion, when she played her guitar and sang at the diner, her customers rose from their chairs and stools and applauded. She also performed sometimes at the nightclub next door, although the patrons were unsure how they should respond when she sang "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Keep on the Sunny Side of Life."
She was still asleep when Pete entered the paintless frame house they rented, one that sat inside the blue shadow of a hill when the sun rose above the horizon as hot and sultry as a broken egg yolk, the light streaking across the barren land. Pete's scalp and face were pulled tight with the beginnings of a hangover, the inside of his head still filled with the sounds of the highway bar he had been in. He washed his face in the sink, the water running cool out of a faucet that drew on an aluminum cistern elevated on stilts behind the house. The hill that blocked the sunrise, almost like an act of mercy, looked made of rust and cinders and was dotted with scrub brush and mesquite trees whose root systems could barely grow deep enough to find moisture. He knew Vikki would be up soon, that she had probably waited for him last night and slept fitfully, either knowing or not knowing where he was. He wanted to fix breakfast for her, as a form of contrition or in a pretense at normalcy. He filled the coffeepot with water, and the effect of both darkness and coolness it created inside the metal was somehow a temporary balm to the pounding heat inside his head.
He smeared margarine inside a skillet and took two eggs and a piece of sliced ham from the ice chest he and Vikki used as a refrigerator. He broke the eggs in the skillet and set the ham and a slice of sourdough bread beside them and let the skillet begin to heat on the propane stove. The smell of the breakfast he wanted to cook for Vikki rose into his face, and he rushed out the back door into the yard so he would not retch on his clothes.
He held on to the sides of a horse tank, his stomach empty now, his back shaking, a pressure band tightening across his scalp, his breath an insult to the air and the freshness of the morning. He thought he heard the thropping downdraft of gunships and the great clanking weight of an armored vehicle topping a rise, its treads dripping sand, a CD of Burn, Motherfucker, Burn screaming over the intercom. He stared into the distant wastes, but the only living things he saw were carrion birds floating high on the wind stream, turning in slow circles as the land heated and the smell of mortality rose into the sky.
He went back inside and rinsed his mouth, then scraped Vikki's breakfast onto a plate. The eggs were burned on the edges, the yolks broken and hard and stained with black grease. He sat in a chair and hung his head between his knees, the kitchen spinning around him. Through the partially opened door of the bedroom, through the blue light and the dust stirring in the breeze, he could see her head on the pillow, her eyes closed, her lips parted with her breathing. The poverty of the surroundings into which he had taken her made him ashamed. The cracks in the linoleum were ingrained with dirt, the mismatched furniture bought at Goodwill, the walls a sickly green. Everything he touched except Vikki Gaddis was somehow an extension of his own failure.
Her eyes opened. Pete sat up straight in the chair, trying to smile, his face stiff and unnatural with the effort.
"I was fixing you breakfast, but I made a mess of it," he said. "Where you been, hon?"
"You know, up yonder," he replied, gesturing in the direction of the highway. He waited for her to speak, but she didn't. "Why would people throw away their tennis shoes but take the shoestrings with them?" he asked.
"What are you talking about?"
"In the places where the wets go through, there's trash and garbage everywhere. They throw away their old tennis shoes, but they take out the strings first. Why do they do that?"
She was standing up now, pulling her jeans over her panties, looking down at her fingers as she buttoned her jeans over the flatness of her stomach.
"It's 'cause they don't own much else, isn't it?" he said in answer to his own question. "Them poor people don't own nothing but the word of the coyote that takes them across. That's a miserable fate for someone, isn't it?"
"What have you got into, Pete?"
He knitted his fingers together between his thighs and squeezed them so hard he could feel the blood stop in his veins. "A guy was gonna give me three hundred bucks to drive a truck to San Antone. He said not to worry about anything in the back. He gave me a hundred up front. He said it was just a few people who needed to get to their relatives' houses. I checked the guy out. He's not a mule. Mules don't use trucks to run dope, anyway."
"You checked him out? Who did you check him out with?" she said, looking at him, her hands letting go of her clothes.
"Guys I know, guys who hang around the bar."
Her face was empty, still creased from the pillow, as she walked to the stove and poured herself a cup of coffee. She was barefoot, her skin white against the dirtiness of the linoleum. He went into the bedroom and picked up her slippers from under the bed and brought them to her. He set them down by her feet and waited for her to put them on.
"There were some men here last night," she said.
"What?" The blood drained from his cheeks, making him seem younger than even his twenty years.
"Two of them came to the door. One stayed in the car. He never turned off the motor. The one who talked had funny eyes, like they didn't go together. Who is he?"
"What did he say?"
Pete hadn't answered her question. But her heart was racing, and she answered him anyway. "That y'all had a misunderstanding. That you ran off in the dark or something. That he owes you some money. He was grinning all the time he talked. I shook his hand. He put out his hand and I shook it."
"His head looks like it has plates in it, like there's a glitter in one eye and not the other?"
"That's the one. Who is he, Pete?"
"His name is Hugo. He was in the truck cab with me for a while. He had a Thompson in a canvas bag. The ammo pan was rattling, and he took it out and looked at it and put it back in the bag. He said, 'This sweetheart of a piece belongs to the most dangerous man in Texas.' "
"He had a what in a bag?"
"A World War Two submachine gun. We were stopped in the dark. He started talking on a two-way. Some guy said, 'Shut it down. Wipe the slate clean.' I got out to take a leak, then I climbed down in an irrigation ditch and kept going."
"He squeezed my hand hard, really hard. Wait, you ran away from what?"
"Hugo hurt your hand?"
"What did I just say? Are these people dope traffickers?"
"No, a lot worse. I've got into some real shit, Vikki," he replied. "I heard gunfire in the dark. I heard people screaming inside it. They were women, maybe some of them girls."
When she didn't answer, when her face went blank as though she were looking at someone she didn't know, he tried to examine her hand. But she went to the kitchen screen, her back to him, her arms folded across her chest, an unrelieved sadness in her eyes as she stared at the harshness of the light spreading across the landscape.
Copyright © 2009 by James Lee Burke