excerpt three


Part One

Joe Pike: fourteen days after they were taken


     Dennis Orlato

     Their job was to get rid of the bodies.
     Twenty-two miles west of the Salton Sea, one hundred sixty-two miles east of Los Angeles, yellow dust rooster-tailed behind them as the Escalade raced across the twilight desert. The sound system boomed so they could hear bad music over the eighty-mile-per-hour wind, what with the windows down to blow out the stink.
     Dennis Orlato, who was driving, punched off the music as he checked the GPS.
     Pedro Ruiz, the man in the passenger seat, shifted the 12-gauge shotgun, fingering the barrel like a second dick.
     "What you doin'? Give it back."
     Ruiz, who was a Colombian with a badly fixed cleft lip, liked narcocorridos--songs that romanticized the lives of drug dealers and Latin-American guerrillas. Orlato was a sixth generation Mexican-American from Bakersfield, and thought the songs were stupid.
     Orlato said, "I'm looking for the turn. We miss it, we'll be here all night."
     In the back seat, Khalil Haddad leaned forward. Haddad was a thin, dark Yemeni drug runner who had been hauling khat into Mexico before the cartels shut him down. Now, he worked for the Syrian like Orlato and Ruiz. Orlato was certain Haddad talked shit about him to the Syrian, Arab to Arab, so Orlato hated the little bastard.
     Haddad said, "A kilometer, less than two. You can’t miss it.”
     When they reached the turn, Orlato zeroed the odometer, and drove another two-point-six miles to the head of a narrow sandy road, then stopped again to search the land ahead. Three crumbling rock walls sprouted from the brush less than a mile in the distance, and were all that remained of an abandoned supply shed built for bauxite miners before the turn of the century. Orlato and Ruiz opened their doors, and climbed onto their seats to scan the coppery gloom with binoculars.
     The surrounding desert was flat for miles, broken only by rocks and scrub too low to conceal a vehicle. The sandy road before them showed only their tire tracks, made three days earlier, and no footprints. Seeing this, Orlato dropped back behind the wheel. No other cars, trucks, motorcycles, people, or ATVs had passed on this road.
     "It's good. We go."
     Two minutes later, they pulled up beside the walls, and went to work. It was a nasty and dangerous job, there at the edge of the evening hour, best done quickly before the light was lost. They stripped off their shirts and guns, then pulled on gloves as Haddad threw open the back door. The two women and man were the last of a group from India, pollos who had been on their way to the Pacific Northwest, brought up through Mexico from Brazil and Central America, only to be kidnapped and held for ransom as they crossed the border into the US. Each had been shot in the back of the head when their families stopped paying ransom. The three bodies were now wrapped in plastic, and smelled of sour gas. Orlato pulled them from beneath the carpet remnants that covered them, and let the bodies drop. Ruiz and Haddad each dragged a body to a jagged cut in the wash behind the ruins, and Orlato dragged the last. Counting these three, they had deposited eleven bodies here during the past nine days. Their work here west of the Salton Sea was done.
     As Orlato dragged the last body, Ruiz pointed down into the cut.
     "Look at this shit. What you want to do?"
     An animal had gotten down among the bodies and torn open the plastic. A man's hand now reached through the split.
     Orlato said, "Get the chlorine."
     "Shit, we put a hundred pounds of chlorine in there already, and it didn't help. Let's get the fuck out of here."
     Powdered chlorine as fine and white as confectioner’s sugar was supposed to keep the coyotes away. Everyone knew the bodies would be found, but the longer it took the better. Their operation was strictly short-term. They set up fast, moved often, and kept moving until they had milked or killed the last of the pollos.
     But coyotes would spread the bones, and if a dog brought a human bone home, the police and federal authorities would swarm over the desert.
     Orlato glared at Ruiz.
     "Get the chlorine, you lazy fuck. Maybe you didn't put enough last time."
      When Ruiz skulked away for the chlorine, Orlato scanned the horizon for approaching vehicles. He was searching the sky for helicopters when Haddad unzipped his pants.
     "What’re you doing?"
     "Taking a piss."
     "Don't piss on them bodies. The police could get your DNA."
     "What do they have now, a piss detector?"
     Haddad unleashed a rope that hit the plastic as loudly as tearing cloth. Orlato wanted to shove the slack-jaw bastard into the cut with the piss-soaked bodies, but instead turned to see if Ruiz was coming. As he turned, something hit him between the eyes, and three more strikes rained after the first so quickly he threw up his arms to cover his face even as his legs were swept from beneath him. He slammed onto his back, and his solar plexus exploded as he was struck again, then struck on his left temple, snapping his head to the side.
     Shock and awe. A sudden, violent attack of such furious intensity Orlato had not seen the man or men who attacked him, or even understood what was happening. Orlato’s head buzzed as if swarmed with wasps, and his ears screamed with a high-pitched hum. Now, drifting in a sleep-world, he felt hands on his body. Someone groped his legs, waist, and groin; rolled him over, then rolled him again. Orlato’s head cleared, but he offered no resistance.
     A low male voice.
     “Look at me.”
     Orlato opened his eyes, and saw a tall, muscular Anglo, dark from the sun, wearing a sleeveless gray sweatshirt and jeans. He had short hair, dark glasses, and blurry tattoos on the outer rounds of his shoulders. Orlato squinted to clear his vision. Scarlet arrows. A black revolver floated at his side.
     Orlato showed open palms.
     A man spoke behind him.
     “You’re gonna wish we were policia.”
     Orlato saw that a man with spikey blond hair had Haddad pinned to the ground. The blond man held an American M4 battle rifle. He tipped the rifle toward the bodies.
     “You kill these people?”
     Orlato had personally murdered four of the eleven, Ruiz two, and Haddad the rest, but now Orlato shook his head.
     “We only bring the bodies. We don't kill no one."
     The blond man showed teeth like a shark, then lifted Haddad’s bloody head by his hair, and said something in Arabic. This surprised Orlato, who had met few people who spoke it besides Arabs. In that moment, Orlato knew these two men were not the police. He assumed they were bajadores--predators who preyed on other criminals.
     "You want the car? The keys are in my pocket. You want money? I can get you money.”
     The tall man said, “Up.”
     Orlato struggled to his feet, careful in how he moved. He remembered being searched, but had left his pistol in the Escalade, and now could not remember if the man found the 5-inch knife hidden at the small of his back.
     When Orlato was standing, the tall man touched the center of his own forehead.
     "Anglo. This tall. He was taken."
     Orlato felt a stitch in his belly. He knew who the tall man described, but shook his head, lying as he had lied about killing the pollos.
     "I don't know who you are talkin' about."
     The man’s pistol snapped up so fast Orlato did not have time to react. The gun rocked his head sideways and unhinged his knees, but the man caught him.
     “Elvis Cole.”
     The blonde man shouted from his perch on Haddad, red-faced and furious.
     “Where is he? What did you do with him?”
     Orlato’s head cleared, but he feigned being hurt worse than he was, staggering and blinking. If he fell into the man, he might be able to draw the blade, or he might grab the gun.
     "I did nothing. I don't know what you’re talkin' about."
     The pistol snapped again, and the blond man shouted louder.
     “Lying fuck! The Escalade was at the house. You bastards know. You work for the Syrian.”
     He jerked Haddad’s face from the dirt and pointed at Orlato. Haddad’s eyes bulged like a dog being crushed, and he chattered Arabic.
     The blond man shouted to his friend.
     “He knows where they took him! He knows who has him.”
     The tall man’s pistol suddenly appeared in front of Orlato’s face, locked dead center between his eyes. The flat copper snouts of its bullets slept in their cylinder crypts.
     “Elvis Cole. Where is he?”
     The tall man thumbed back the hammer.
     "Ten seconds. Where is he?"
     The blond man screamed, livid with rage.
     “Think we’re bluffing, you will die. What did you do with him?”
     Orlato abruptly realized he had only one chance. He had something they wanted, and that gave him power. Power was time, and time was life. He showed both palms, the knife now forgotten.
     "Yes! Yes, they have him."
     Haddad barked in Arabic, but Orlato didn’t understand and did not care. The blond man pushed Haddad’s face into the dirt, and barked back. The tall man ignored them.
     "Eight seconds."
     "Trade, me for him. The Syrian will trade."
     "I don’t negotiate.”
     The blond man shouted.
     “Tell us and live!”
     "A trade! By morning he will be dead!"
     “Five seconds.”
     Orlato screamed.
     "A phone call. I talk to the Syrian, we will work out a trade, and you will have this man. I swear it. I swear!”
     The tall man hesitated, and Orlato felt a whisper of hope. The man they wanted was probably already dead, but if they let him call the Syrian, these men would not survive until morning. Orlato spoke quickly, bartering for his life.
     "The Syrian will trade for me. I’m married to his sister. You will get your friend. I promise.”
     The tall man glanced at his friend. No other part of him moved. The gun didn’t move. Just the head, turning and locking in place with the precision of a machine.
     The blonde man lifted Haddad’s head.
     “He’s full of shit. This bastard knows.”
     The tall man’s head swiveled back to Orlato.
     "Three seconds. Where is he?"
     Orlato felt a rush of fear, but still didn't believe they would kill him. They would not risk losing their friend.
     "He cannot help. None of them can. I am the only way you can get your friend back."
     The tall man said, “One second.”
     Orlato reached for the knife, but by then it was too late.
     Dennis Orlato’s last thought before he reached for the knife was one of fearful admiration. He thought:
     “This man means it.”
     Orlato registered a brilliant, blinding flash, and was dead.

© 2012 by Robert Crais 

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