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Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
My rust-shot Land Cruiser, the Iron Pig, swayed within its lane on Highway 191. It was rocked side to side by gusts of wind barreling down off the high plateau of the Red Desert. Balls of uprooted sage the size of beer kegs rolled across the asphalt amid slithering snakes of sand. Out of respect for the wind and the tumbleweeds and the writhing grit, I held the needle at just below the seventy-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. But even though the highway was clear of all other traffic, the massive grille of a Chevy Suburban rode hard on my old truck's bumper. Its windows were darkly tinted and antennae bristled from its roof.
I glanced in the rearview mirror and my knuckles whitened where they gripped the wheel. Another gust hit and for the hundredth time I considered stomping on the brake.
No, Ant. You've got to play nice. For Roberto's sake.
But I needed to vent.
"You guys are real sly, real inconspicuous, using a truck like that. Nobody would ever suspect it belongs to the FBI."
I said it loud enough to be heard over the howl blasting through the wide-open windows.
A moment passed, then a voice called out from the seat be-hind me.
"You sound jealous, Burns. You need to understand that the taxpayers wouldn't approve of us spending too much time waiting for tow trucks, which is something I expect you do quite often in this piece of shit."
Her voice was clipped and sharp, and the curse word she uttered had come out strange. I'd only met her five hours earlier, in a hotel suite in Salt Lake City, but I suspected that Mary Chang didn't use even the mildest profanity lightly. She'd seemed nice enough then, but a little rigid. Tense, formal, and maybe nervous. The long, mostly mute drive hadn't loosened her up much. It hadn't exactly relaxed me either.
I looked at her in the rearview mirror. She was huddled against the side door directly behind me. Her small hands clasped her ears, trying to either cut the noise of the wind and the tires or hold back her jet-black hair. Her eyes, which even in the still air of the hotel suite had been narrow and hooded, were now nothing but slits.
Hearing our voices, my wolf-dog jerked her head back into the truck. She twisted around to stare curiously at the woman seated beside her. One of Mungo's lips had been curled inward by the wind, exposing a row of long teeth. The effect was goofy rather than menacing. She canted her head as if trying to understand our exchange. A ribbon of drool fluttered out of her mouth and pasted itself across the FBI agent's white silk blouse. In the mirror I watched Mary grimace, wrinkling her nose as she looked down at her shirt. I had to hold back a smile.
After a moment the beast turned again, dusted the agent with her tail, and swung her head back out the window.
I didn't like federal agents. Not even young, pretty ones. They tended to treat local cops with either condescension or disdain. Mary's silence and aloof, serious expression for most of the ride reinforced this belief. They also stole our best cases and never shared the credit. Bigfooting, it was called. I knew generalizations were small-minded, but it was a prejudice that right then--after five hours of being tailgated by her jerk of a partner in that black behemoth--I was having trouble conquering.
I couldn't see him through the tinted windshield just yards off my bumper, but I carried a vivid image of him from that morning. Tom Cochran was a red-faced man with red hair that was carefully styled into a sort of pompadour. When we'd been introduced in Salt Lake, he'd let my hand hang empty in the air between us for a three-count before shaking it.
"You're the guy they call QuickDraw, right?" he'd asked, using the nickname the way it was intended--as an insult. The scowl he gave me was one I suspected he practiced each morning in the mirror while he moussed his hair. But I knew he'd come around once I got myself into a better mood. Being likable is a part of my job, even though it takes more and more effort as the years go by.
"Can't we turn on the AC?"
It was almost a plea, but I wasn't yet ready to be nice.
"Nope. Roberto hates air-conditioning."
I nodded my head at the man riding shotgun next to me. Roberto was slumped in the reclined passenger seat, apparently asleep. Flaps of dark hair whipped across his face and obscured his features. His arms were folded loosely on his chest. Around his throat was a braided leather cord with a turquoise stone set in its center.
"He is in custody," Mary pointed out.
Which was technically true, even though she'd taken off his handcuffs in Salt Lake as a kind of good-faith gesture. But I didn't care. I found her eyes in the mirror.
"He's also my brother. And he's doing you guys one hell of a favor."
A movement at the periphery of my vision caused me to look his way again. Roberto wasn't asleep after all; his thumb twitched erect for a second before lying back onto his fist.
"Don't forget we're doing him one, too," the FBI agent said.
Outside was a desert landscape of red earth and sagebrush, corduroyed with dry gullies. The sun was baking the ground. Waves of heat drifted upward like clear smoke on the blacktop ahead. I reached for the CD player--the only obvious modification to the old truck other than the oversized tires and the front-mounted electric winch--and cranked up the disk Roberto had given me.
It wasn't at all what I'd expected. The music was weird and disturbing. As a kid he'd liked hard rock and punk. The Dead Kennedys. Suicidal Tendencies. Even, in milder moods, The Clash, and, later, Red Hot Chili Peppers. But this was some sort of opera. The plastic case said Jose Cura. Puccini Arias. A man sang in a tenor that sounded dark and thick, his voice carrying what seemed to me like an undercurrent of suppressed rage. It made me wonder what my brother was on these days.
The music began to match the landscape as the miles passed. It concentrated the intensity of the heat and the sun and the wind, and gave it an almost liquid sensation. As if the world had melted into mercury and the colors of the sky and the red desert were reflections on its surface.
What is he on these days?
At first it was only adrenaline, an addiction we both inherited from a father who spent every moment of his generous military leave dragging his sons up mountains. Then, as a young teenager, Roberto began to experiment with pot and hash and soloing--rock climbing without a rope. Psychedelics and ever higher ropeless ascents followed. And then it was cocaine, at about the time the climbing magazines made his big-wall solos famous. He dabbled with everything, and perfected what he claimed was the ultimate way to take the amp of adrenaline and push it through the roof: speedballs, an injected combination of cocaine and heroin. Judging from the music, I guessed that these days he'd backed down to just the horse.
Roberto suddenly lunged forward in his seat.
"Ant! Check it out! That Sentinel Rocks over there?"
He pointed out the window to where some jumbled granite boulders wavered on a distant ridge. I turned down the music and tried to bring the shimmering escarpment into focus.
"Yeah, 'Berto. I'm pretty sure. Dad took us there a couple of times when we were kids."
"Pull over, che. I need to get some air under my feet." Roberto twisted around to look at the federal agent. "You mind?"
In the mirror I saw her jump, alarmed at the speed with which he moved. Maybe that was why she seemed so nervous. She was scared of him. I was a little bit, too.
"Sorry. No stopping. We're on a tight schedule."
Roberto pushed his sunglasses up onto his forehead and showed her his strange blue eyes. They matched the turquoise, but were totally out of place against his brown skin and black hair. He smiled at her.
"C'mon, now. I'd be a much happier rat if you'd cut me a little slack."
She wasn't able to hold his gaze.
Looking away, out the window, she said, "Mr. Burns, we have a job to do. This isn't a rock-climbing vacation."
A blast of wind punched through the truck, and I had to wrestle with the manual steering. Roberto remained twisted around in his seat, the half-mocking smile still on his mouth. His voice, slightly slurred with a Spanish accent, was soft and soothing.
"Listen. Your job's to nail Jesoes Hidalgo, and it requires me risking my neck, not you guys. I'm the one he's going to come after when he finds out someone's been talking about him. And you people have kept me in a box for like two weeks. So c'mon, I need a break. Just one hour. A little climb. Please? Pretty, pretty please?"
Mary Chang continued to squint out into the wind. She shook her head again with her hands still clasped around it. Not in negation this time, but slower, as if in pain. Then she dropped one hand to look at her watch. Letting out a sigh, and maybe another curse, she dropped the other hand and reached for the purse at her feet. She came up with a cell phone.
"We're going to turn off and stop for a bit," she shouted into the phone. She listened for a minute, frowning, before saying, "No. We're stopping for one hour. Just do it. No, Tom, you listen. I'm in charge here. We're stopping."
She didn't look at Roberto when he grinned even broader and said, "Gracias, guapa." He turned back to the sight of the distant rocks through the windshield.
"Thanks," I added, feeling guilty for having vented on her earlier.
The Suburban flashed its lights and honked its horn when I wheeled the Pig off the highway even though it was obvious I wasn't going to stop. A wave of red dust billowed out from my undercarriage and swept over the truck behind me. No more gleaming wax job for the Feds--there wasn't a car wash within a hundred miles. The Suburban fell back. We bounced and switchbacked for a mile and a half up a dirt double-track toward the base of a leaning sandstone tower, which stood on the ridge like a drunken sentry guarding a mighty herd of chaparral.
Parking in the shade of the rock's overhanging wall, suddenly the heat and the wind and the noise were all but gone. The air here was almost cool in the deep shadow. The ground was littered with crumpled cans and broken glass. Black smoke from old campfires stained the stone rising up over us.
Cheyenne had probably once huddled here in the fall, waiting for the buffalo to come south. Basque sheepherders would have taken advantage of this sheltered spot once the buffalo and Indians had all been conveniently slaughtered. Now, judging from the litter of green glass, beer cans modified into crank pipes, condom wrappers, and cigarette butts, it was only used by teenagers from the ranches north of Rock Springs who came here to party. I knew a lot about such parties--I'd often joined them, undercover, as a special agent with Wyoming's Division of Criminal Investigation. Back in the days before my face was front-page news.
Roberto hopped out of the truck and began rooting through the crates of climbing gear I kept in the back. He dragged out harnesses, carabiners, and a rope while I let the wolf-dog out of the backseat. Mungo gratefully crouched and watered the dry earth, then danced over to my brother's side. She was fascinated by him. She pranced around him like he was a strange, handsome dog or a wolf himself.
"That's the ugliest mutt I've ever seen," Roberto said, not unkindly, as the now very dusty Suburban skidded to a halt behind us. When Mungo leapt away from it, he added, "Skittish, too, not like that monster Oso. That fucker would have charged, then torn off the bumper."
Mungo wasn't pretty. She was bony-spined and her heavy gray coat hung from her frame like secondhand clothes. Her usual attitude was cringing; tail tucked between her legs and head held low whenever anyone paid any attention to her. Lately, though, she'd been showing a little more backbone. It was something that had started after she nipped a man she thought was threatening me, and tasted blood for the first time. But she still wasn't anything like Oso. He'd been a hulking brute with a surprisingly soft, squishy heart until a suspect in a murder investigation blew apart his muzzle with a hollow-point bullet. My fiancee rescued Mungo from a wildlife refuge that was about to be shut down and have its animals destroyed. Rebecca had thought this craven creature could replace the beast I'd lost last fall.
"What do you think you're doing?" Tom Cochran yelled at us through a rapidly descending window.
Mungo jumped again, backing away from the truck and the voice.
"Well? What do you think you're doing? We don't have time for this!" he yelled again.
I decided that I definitely wasn't in the mood to start being nice. But I was pleased to see that, even backing away, Mungo had squinted her yellow eyes and raised her lips. It wasn't much of a snarl, though--it was more like a nervous grin.
"Taking a break, asshole," Roberto answered us all. Then to Mungo, in a lower voice and while bending to stroke her bristling fur, "Hey, it's okay, girl. Ignore him. Dry air up here's messing with his hairdo."
"What did you call me?"
Tom threw the door open and leapt out of the Suburban. He was wearing new jeans and pointy boots with riding heels. Going cowboy, like so many did when they visited my state. He'd taken off the dress shirt and sport coat he had been wearing in Salt Lake and was now clad in a white T-shirt that was a couple of sizes too small. The taut material allowed him to display his pale, puffy biceps. He held his arms out from his sides a little farther than he needed to, even though he was wearing one of the Bureau's new 10 mms and a pair of handcuffs on his hip.
Mungo's eyes twitched toward me. Her clenched teeth were exposed now. I was tempted to nod, just to see what she'd do, but shook my head and showed her my palm. Then I flicked my fingers at her. Quick as a rabbit, she spun and leapt into the brush.