Berman wrapped his arms around his
girlfriend, Krista Morales, and
watched his breath fog in the cold
desert air. Twenty minutes after
midnight, fourteen miles south of
Rancho Mirage in the otherwise
impenetrable darkness of the
Anza-Borrego Desert, Jack and Krista
were lit in the harsh purple glare
of the lights that blossomed from
Danny Trehorn’s truck, Jack so much
in love with this girl his heart
beat with hers.
Trehorn gunned his engine.
“You guys comin’ or what?”
Krista snuggled deeper into
“Let’s stay a little
longer. Just us. Not them. I want to
tell you something.”
Jack called to his friend.
“Mañana, dude. We’re gonna
“We roll early, bro. See
you at nine.”
“See us at noon.”
“Pussy! We’ll wake your ass
Trehorn dropped back into
his truck, and spun a one-eighty
back toward town, Ride of the
Valkyries blaring on his sound
system. Chuck Lautner and Deli Blake
tucked Chuck’s ancient Land Cruiser
in tight behind Trehorn, their
headlamps flashing over Jack’s
Mustang, which was parked up the old
county road where the ground was
more even. They had come out to show
Krista a drug smuggler’s airplane
that had crashed in 1972 because
Krista wanted to see it.
Jack grew colder as their
tail lights receded, and the desert
grew darker. A thin crescent moon
and cloudy star field gave them
enough light to see, but little
Jack said, “Dark.”
She didn’t answer.
Jack said, “Cold.”
He snuggled closer,
spooning into her back, both of them
staring at nothing. Jack wondered
what she was seeing.
Krista had been pensive all
night even though she had pushed
them to come, and now her wanting to
tell him something felt ominous.
Jack had the sick feeling she was
pregnant or dumping him. Krista was
two months from graduating summa cum
laude at Loyola Marymount in Los
Angeles, and had taken a job in D.C.
Jack had dropped out of USC.
Jack nuzzled into her hair.
“Are we okay?”
She pushed away far enough
to study him, then smiled.
“There have never been two
people better than us. I am totally
in love with you.”
“You had me worried.”
“Thanks for getting Danny
to bring us out here. I don’t think
“It’s a long drive if
you’ve seen it a million times. He
stopped coming out here in high
According to Trehorn,
the twin-engine Cessna 310 had
crashed while bringing in a load of
coke at night during a sandstorm. A
local drug dealer named Greek
Cisneros cleared enough cactus and
rocks to fashion a landing strip in the
middle of the desert twenty miles
outside Palm Springs, and used the
airplane to bring cocaine and
marijuana up from Mexico, almost
always at night when the outline of
the runway was marked by burning
tubs of gasoline. On the night of
the crash, the right wingtip hooked
into the ground, the landing gear
collapsed, and the left wing snapped
off outside the left engine. Fuel
pouring from the ruptured fuel tanks
ignited, enveloping the airplane in
flames. The engines and instruments
had long ago been salvaged for
parts, but the broken airframe
remained where it died, rusting,
corroded, and covered with
generations of overlapping graffiti
and spray- painted initials: LJ+DF,
eat me, PSHS#1.
Krista took his hand, and
tugged him toward the plane.
“Come with me. I want to
show you something.”
“Can’t you tell me about it
in the car? I’m cold.”
“No, not in the car. This
Jack followed her along the
fuselage to the tail, wondering what
she wanted to show him about this
stupid airplane, but instead she led
him onto the overgrown remains of
the runway. She stared into the
darkness that masked the desert. Her
smart, black eyes shined like jewels
filled with star- light. Jack
touched her hair.
They had known each other
for one year, two months, and
sixteen days. They had been
there-and-back, inside-out, bottom-to-top in love for five months,
three weeks, and eleven days. He
hadn’t told her the truth about
himself until after she declared her
love. If he had secrets then, she
had secrets now.
Krista took his hand in
both of hers, giving him the
serious, all-business eyes.
“This place is special to
Jack had no idea what she
was talking about.
“A drug runner’s airstrip?”
“This place, right here
between the mountains, it’s a place
by people coming from the south, for all the same reasons the
drug dealers put their landing strip
here. When my mother was seven,
coyotes brought her up through the
desert from the south. Mom and her
sister and two cousins. A man with a
hearse was waiting here at this
airplane to drive them into town.”
Krista laughed, but her
laugh was unsure.
“I never knew. She only
told me a couple of weeks ago.”
“I don’t care.”
“Hey. I’m giving you
momentous family history, and you
“I mean that she’s
illegal—undocumented. Who gives a
Krista tipped back to
look up at him, then suddenly
grabbed his ears and kissed him.
“Undocumented, but you
don’t have to go all PC.”
Krista’s mother had
described a twelve-day trip on foot,
in cars, and in a
truck where it got so hot that an
old man died. The last leg of their
journey had been in a covered pickup
truck at night past the Salton Sea
and across a sixteen-mile stretch of
desert to the old crash site. The
man with the hearse had driven them
to a supermarket parking lot at the
eastern edge of Coachella, where her
uncle was waiting.
She looked south into the
darkness as if she could see her
“I wouldn’t be here if she
hadn’t come through this place. She
wouldn’t have met my dad. I wouldn’t
have met you. I wouldn’t exist.”
Krista looked up, and her
face was all summa-cum-laude
“Can you imagine what her
journey must have been like? I’m her
kid, and I can’t even begin.”
She was starting to say
more when Jack heard a far-off
squeal. He stood taller, listening,
but didn’t say anything until he
heard it again.
“You hear it?”
Krista turned as the faint
sound of a muffled engine reached
them, and two lurching shapes
appeared in the dim starlight. Jack
studied them for a moment, and
realized they were lightless trucks
crawling toward them across the
desert. Jack felt a stab of fear,
and whispered frantically into her
“This sucks, man. Let’s get
out of here.”
“No, no, no—I want to see.
“They could be drug
runners. We don’t want to be here.”
She pulled him to the far
side of the airplane, where they
settled into a low depression
between the cactus.
A large box truck emerged
from the dark like a ship appearing
out of a fog. It rumbled onto the
overgrown landing strip, and stopped
less than thirty yards away. No
brake lights flared when it stopped.
Jack tried to make himself even
smaller, and wished he had pulled
A moment later, the cab
creaked open, and two men climbed
out. The driver walked a few yards
in front of the truck, then studied
a glowing hand-held device. This
deep in the desert, Jack thought it
was probably a GPS.
While the driver studied
his GPS, the passenger went to the
back of the truck and pushed the box
door open with a loud clatter. The
man said something in Spanish, then
Jack heard soft voices as silhouette
people climbed from the truck.
Jack whispered, “What are
“Shh. This is amazing.”
“They gotta be illegals.”
Krista shifted position,
and Jack cringed with a fresh burst
of fear. She was taking pictures
with her cell phone.
“Stop. They’ll see us.”
“No one can see.”
The people emerging stayed
near the truck as if they were
confused. So many people appeared
Jack did not see how they had all
fit inside. As many as thirty people
stood uneasily in the brush,
speaking in low murmurs with alien
accents that Jack strained to
“That isn’t Spanish. What
are they speaking, Chinese?”
Krista lowered her phone
and strained to listen, too.
“A few Spanish speakers,
but most of them sound Asian.
Something else, too. Is that
The man who opened the
truck returned to the driver, and
spoke clearly in Spanish. Jack
figured these two were the
coyotes—guides who were hired to
sneak people illegally into the U.S.
He leaned closer to Krista, who was
fluent in Spanish.
“What did he say?
“‘Where in hell are they?
Those bastards are supposed to be
The driver mumbled
something neither Jack nor Krista
understood, then visibly jumped when
three sets of headlights topped by
roll-bar lamps snapped on a hundred
yards behind the box truck, lighting
the desert between in stark relief.
Three off-road trucks roared
forward, bouncing high on their
oversized tires. The two coyotes
shouted, and a scrambled chatter
rose from the milling people. The
driver ran into the desert, and his
partner ran back to their truck. He
emerged with a shotgun, and ran
after his friend even as two of the
incoming pickups skidded in a loose
circle around the box truck, kicking
up murky clouds of dust. The third
chased after the fleeing men, and
gunfire flashed in the dark. The
crowd broke in every direction, some
crying, some screaming, some
scrambling back into the box truck
as if they could hide.
Jack pulled Krista
backward, then jumped up and ran.
“Run! C’mon, run!”
He ran hard toward his
Mustang, then realized Krista wasn’t
with him. Men with clubs and
shotguns jumped from the pickups to
chase down fleeing people. Krista
was still between the cactus, taking
Jack started to shout for
her, but stopped himself, not
wanting to draw attention. He and
Krista were outside the light, and
hidden by darkness. He risked a
sharp hiss instead.
She shook her head, telling
him she was fine, and resumed taking
pictures. Jack ran back to her, and
grabbed her arm. Hard.
“All right. Okay—”
They started to rise as
four Asian women came around the
plane’s tail and ran past less than
ten yards away.
A man with a shotgun came
around the tail after them, shouting
in Spanish, and Jack wondered if
these poor women could even
understand what he said. Then the
man stopped, and stood absolutely
still as if he were a cardboard
cutout against the night sky.
Jack held his breath, and
prayed. He wondered why the man was
standing so still, then saw the man
was wearing night-vision goggles.
The man was looking at
There in the starlit desert
landscape where no one could hear
the shots, the man lifted his
shotgun, and aimed at Jack Berman.
© 2012 by Robert Crais