With High Desert Vengeance going live tomorrow, here’s another sneak peak. Things are starting to get tense in the aftermath of the massacre in Chapter 1.
Mario Gomez squinted in the sunlight. It was cool at the moment, but it still felt warm after Transnistria in the winter. He’d been home for a month, but most of that month had been spent watching over Sam Childress as he underwent multiple surgeries. His wounds had been bad, and he still wasn’t ever going to walk again.
He rarely showed it, but Mario worried about his comrade. He’d prayed every night for him, either for his recovery, or the strength to cope with whatever came next. It wasn’t something he talked about much. Mario Gomez wasn’t much of a talker.
He never had been. He had always been more comfortable watching, listening, and acting than talking. His tendency to silence had been a source of eternal aggravation to his gregarious younger sister, and his propensity for sudden, apparently impulsive action a matter of often grave concern to his more stolid, hard-working father. Only his mother, Cocheta, had really understood him, and even that was an often-unspoken understanding. She had been the only one who hadn’t objected when he’d joined the Marine Corps, simply telling him to keep their people’s honor intact.
His comfort with silence had been why he’d slipped away without telling the rest of his new comrades, the mercenaries who called themselves Brannigan’s Blackhearts when no one else was in earshot, without saying a word. Nor had he explained what had made him almost miss the Transnistrian job. His problems were his problems, not theirs.
He knew that his silence had separated him somewhat from the rest of the team, except maybe from Joe Flanagan, who was a quiet man, himself. But it was just his way, and he was too set in it to change.
It had been a long drive from the airport in Silver City, but he was almost to Lordsburg. Almost to the mortuary where the remains of his family were waiting.
Mario didn’t have many friends, but his father had had a few. Carl Sutherby had been the one to finally call him and tell him that he’d gotten back too late. The fact that it had taken Carl, a crusty old Vietnam vet and the proprietor of the one General Store in Animas, instead of the law, to call him didn’t speak well of the situation.
Of course, given what had happened just before he’d left for Colonel Brannigan’s place and Eastern Europe, there was nothing about this situation to like.
He drove in silence, his face blank and impassive but his fingers tapping on the steering wheel. The old Buick Skylark was dusty, and the paint beneath the dust was faded, but it had been his for years, mainly because his father hadn’t wanted to bother with it anymore. It wasn’t the best-running car, but it ran, and it was his.
So was the AR pistol currently tucked under an old, battered shemaugh next to his knee.
It was getting on toward evening as he pulled into Lordsburg. It was a wide-open, dusty town, with maybe a dozen trees in the entire, pancake-flat expanse of it, and hardly a building more than two stories tall. Considering that the entire population of Hidalgo County, of which Lordsburg was the county seat, was less than five thousand people, that shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Mario hated it. He always had. Not because of the usual hatred for small towns bred into those who grew up there; he’d grown up in the open desert, well south of Lordsburg. No, he hated the town for more personal reasons.
His first stop was the funeral home. Carl had told him that the bodies had been taken there. It must have been a long haul from the ranch, just north of the border, to Lordsburg, but Mr. Humphrey had done it. Probably grumbling about it all the time. The one time before that Mario had met Humphrey, he had truly seemed like the sort of man who preferred the company of the dead to the living.
He parked on the street in front of the sandy-colored stone building, and walked through the arched, old-fashioned plank door, making sure his CZ P-01 9mm was covered by his jacket. He was carrying legally, but he didn’t doubt that Humphrey might make an issue out of it, just because.
Humphrey wasn’t in the front. The reception desk was deserted. Somebody had to be there, though, since the door had been unlocked. Mario started toward the back.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” Apparently, Humphrey had not improved his manners much over the years.
“I’m Mario Gomez,” he said coldly, staring at the mortician. Humphrey was paler than seemed normal for New Mexico, slightly fat and going bald.
As for him, Mario knew what Humphrey saw. A dark-skinned, hawk-faced man, black-haired and black-eyed, who looked far more Apache, thanks to his mother, than he did Hispanic. Not that he expected Humphrey to be able to tell the difference.
“Oh, yeah,” Humphrey said brusquely. “Bad business. Come to make the funeral arrangements?”
“Among other things,” Mario replied. “Can I see them?”
Humphrey shook his head. “You don’t want to. Closed caskets, all around. They’d been in the desert for a while when they were found; pretty sure the coyotes got to ‘em. Not to mention the ants.”
Mario’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, the desert?” he asked. “They weren’t in the house?”
Humphrey seemed to realize that something was wrong. “No,” he said, sounding rather more human that normal. “You mean nobody told you?”
“I’ve been out of the country,” Mario explained, though he wasn’t going to get more detailed than that. Most people didn’t need to know that he’d been dodging Transnistrian militia, Russian Spetsnaz, and other, even more dangerous characters, in a country where Americans weren’t exactly welcome. And he could only imagine how Humphrey might react to that bit of knowledge.
Besides, it wasn’t like he was tempted to say any more to this fat, increasingly sweaty funeral home director than he absolutely had to.
“Oh,” Humphrey suddenly looked even more uncomfortable. “Um…I’m not sure if I’m the best one to tell you…”
Mario took a step closer. He didn’t intend it as a threat, but Humphrey’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “I get home to get a call that my family’s dead,” he said. “Talk.”
“It was hard to tell what happened, really,” Humphrey said hesitantly. “Between the exposure and the animals…”
“They didn’t just drop dead in the desert,” Mario said. “You know more than that.”
“And he’s not at liberty to say more than that,” a voice said. “It’s an open investigation, you know.”
The man coming through the door from the front of the funeral home was dressed in jeans and a light green collared shirt, but there was a star on his chest and a radio and pistol on his belt. Mario knew Sheriff Thomas. And the Sheriff knew him.
There was no love lost, there.
“Oh, it’s you,” Thomas said.
“Yeah,” Mario replied. “What happened?”
“Like I said, it’s an ongoing investigation,” Thomas answered. “We’ll let you know when we think you need to know anything.”
“Not good enough,” Mario said. “My family’s dead, and the best you can do is say, ‘we’ll be in touch?’”
“Now look here, young man,” Thomas blustered. “Don’t think I don’t know about that little altercation down by your folks’ place a couple months ago. And I know you’re just itching to jump to conclusions about what happened to your family. Don’t. You don’t know, so stay in your lane and let the law do its thing.”
Mario didn’t say anything, but just glared at Thomas coldly for a moment, his hand itching to reach for the P-01 under his jacket. But he didn’t. He swallowed his rage, turned to Humphrey, and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow to work out the details. Don’t think I can really concentrate right at the moment.” He brushed past Thomas and headed for the exit.
“I’m serious, Mario!” Thomas called after him. “Don’t do anything stupid! I’ll slap you in jail in a heartbeat!”
Mario ignored him, stalking out the front door and heading for his car. Sure enough, Thomas’ F-250, with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department logo plastered on the doors, was parked right behind his Skylark. Fuming, he threw himself behind the wheel and slammed the door.
He put his hands on the wheel, clenching his fingers around it until the knuckles turned pale. He didn’t have many friends around; most of his friends were from the Marine Corps, or the Blackhearts. And he still wasn’t ready to call them. Not yet.
In large part, he knew that that was because he was on the ragged edge of breaking down. He’d maintained his stony control all the way from Virginia to New Mexico, and all the way down to Lordsburg. But now that it was confirmed, that he knew that his mother, his father, and his siblings were dead, the crushing weight of horror and grief was starting to crash down on him. But he wouldn’t break. He couldn’t. Not at least until he knew what had happened.
And he sure as hell wouldn’t give that fat piece of shit Thomas the satisfaction of seeing him crack. Not after that.
Starting the car and throwing it in gear, he pulled away from the curb. Thomas had stepped out of the funeral home and was standing just outside the door, his hands on his hips, watching him go.
First things first. He needed a place to stay, and he didn’t think that the house was the best option. The fact that Humphrey had said that the bodies had been found out in the desert was a good sign that the house was a bad idea. If they’d been dumped out in the desert, it meant whoever had killed them had wanted the house for themselves. And he was pretty sure he knew who and why.
He’d almost been late to the Transnistria job because of that “little altercation” that Thomas had been referring to. Blows had been thrown. Guns had been drawn, but no shots fired. He suspected that whatever had happened had been because of that fight. He didn’t know who the little cabrones had been associated with, but they’d clearly been interested in the Gomez family and their place.
Given its proximity to the border, he suspected that somebody a lot higher up the food chain than those punks wanted the ranch as a crossing point.
Gomez was a man of few words, and that often made some people think he was simple. He was, in truth, anything but. He wasn’t a particularly studious man; he’d generally prefer to be out in the desert, hunting or tracking, rather than reading or watching the news. But he was an observer, and he absorbed far more than most people thought, simply by staying quiet and listening. He had a pretty accurate picture of the situation in northern Mexico at any given time.
He’d always felt that he needed to. His family was right on that line, and there was a hell of an irregular war going on south of the border. It was a matter of survival, not intellectual curiosity.
So, the house was out. Even if it was presently unoccupied, it was probably being watched, and he didn’t feel like making himself a target. There weren’t any close friends of his living in Lordsburg. A hotel it was, then.
Before reaching Wabash Street, where most of the hotels were, he pulled into the nearest “supermarket.” It wasn’t much, compared to other places, but it would have what he needed. He’d never been much for fancy tastes.
He locked the car as he got out, and started toward the supermarket. As he got closer to the doors, however, he started to see that the stop might have been a bit of a mistake.
There was a candy-apple red rice-burner of a Mazda sitting in the mostly-empty parking lot with the windows rolled down. And he recognized at least one of the cocky young men sitting inside it.
Any hopes that they wouldn’t recognize him were dashed as the doors opened and the four of them got out. They were typical gang trash, two with shaved heads, one with a high-and-tight, the last one long-haired, all in either wife-beaters or collared shirts with the top buttons fastened. And he was pretty sure they were all armed.
“Look here, homies,” the one called Xavier said. “Remember this maricòn? Guess he wasn’t so tough, after all, was he? Ran outta town, and then look what happened?” He swaggered up to get in Gomez’ way. “See what happens when you mess with the wrong people, puto? Now your family’s dead. Well, that hot little sister of yours is gonna wish she was dead soon, anyway.”
Something inside Gomez snapped. He saw red. Staring at the punk in front of him, he stopped dead. “What did you say, pendejo?”
“You heard me.” The four of them had surrounded him now, and the ringleader was getting right up in his face, bowing up, daring him to do something. “She’s his now. She’s hot enough I think he’ll keep her around for a while, but none of them last all that long. If she’s lucky, he’ll give her to the boys after he’s done.” He leered, licking his lips suggestively.
Gomez was seething, but he was planning at the same time. He’d been in enough fights—had survived enough fights—to know that his next move had to be very carefully timed, especially when there were four of them and he was surrounded.
The gang banger was now inches from his face, and produced a knife. It was a cheap switchblade, and if Gomez had been the one-liner type, he might have told the punk that the ‘80s had called, and wanted their street weapons back. “Now you’re all alone,” the punk said. “And we’re gonna teach you a little lesson ourselves.”
Gomez punched him in the throat.
He’d moved so fast that none of them had seen it coming. There’d been no posturing, no fighting stance. He’d gone from standing stock-still, prey surrounded by a pack of predators, to a striking snake faster than any of them had been able to think.
Something crunched under his fist as he tried to touch the gangbanger’s spine with his knuckles. The knife fell to the asphalt as the gangster staggered backward and fell on his ass, choking and gurgling, both hands going to his throat.
Gomez was already moving. His boot connected solidly with the gangster’s knee to his right, smashing it the wrong way with a sickening crack. That one similarly collapsed, though he was screaming like a damned soul.
By this time, he’d taken two long steps, getting himself out of the circle and rotating to face the other two, his P-01 coming out of its holster and leveling on the bridge of the third gangster’s nose. That one froze, his hand still inches away from either a pistol or a knife.
“Try it,” Gomez snarled.
Before anyone could move, red and blue lights were flashing in the parking lot, and Sheriff Thomas’ truck came barreling off the street to screech to a halt. The door slammed open and Thomas leaned out through the V, his own Smith & Wesson M&P leveled at Gomez. “Put the weapon down and put your hands on your head!” Thomas bellowed. “You’re under arrest!”
Gomez briefly considered fighting. These punks had come after him, and he was pretty sure they’d had something to do with the murder of his family. But he knew that it was only going to end one way. His face taut with rage and hatred, he slowly lowered the CZ pistol to the ground.
More lights were coming. The Sheriff had called for backup. The quiet, still-thinking part of his mind reflected that that was a lot of backup, really quick, for such a small department covering as large a territory as Hidalgo County. Leaving the pistol on the asphalt, Gomez stayed on his knees and kept his hands on his head, his fingers interlaced.
It was telling that, while he kept his pistol pointed in the general direction of all three of them, Thomas moved to him first. He was shoved down on the ground, the asphalt grinding against his cheek, as Thomas put a knee in his back and handcuffed him. More sirens were wailing, and another car came screeching into the parking lot, even as one of the gangsters tried to bolt. He stopped dead and almost fell flat on his face as the deputy all but leaped out of the car, his own sidearm pointed.
“I told you not to do anything stupid,” Thomas grunted as he jerked Gomez to his feet. “And I told you I’d throw you in jail if you did. I’m a man of my word.” He shoved Gomez toward the truck, as the converging deputies gathered up the gangsters and called the local ambulance for the two that Gomez had crippled.
He glanced over his shoulder as he was roughly pushed into the back of the Sheriff’s truck. The one he’d throat-punched was still alive, wheezing for air. So, he hadn’t completely crushed the punk’s windpipe. He was a little disappointed. The one whose knee he’d shattered was still rolling on the ground, screaming incoherently, oblivious to anything but the pain.
He didn’t bother to fight Thomas at all. Through the fury, through the red-hot, killing rage, he was keeping one thing in mind.
Thomas was legally obligated to give him one phone call. And he already knew who he was going to call.