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
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 behind
"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
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
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
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 threecount
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
"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
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
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 José 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
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
In the mirror I saw Mary 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
"C'mon, now. I'd be a much happier rat if you'd cut me a little
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
"Listen. Your job's to nail Jesús 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
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
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
"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 fiancée 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
"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
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 for us all. Then
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 mm guns
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.
Roberto straightened up and looked right at Tom.
"A-S-S-H-O-L-E, if you can spell better than you listen. I called
you an asshole, asshole."
Tom stared back, his face growing redder beneath his mirrored
aviator's shades. The color of blood in his face merged with all
the freckles. He hesitated before stepping forward, long enough to
give Mary time to get out of the Pig and come between them. She
held up a hand in each direction.
"Cut it out, both of you."
"I've had enough of this," Tom said, looking at my brother but
talking to her. "Two weeks of this guy bullshitting and giving us
nothing but lip. Let's haul his junkie ass over to Colorado and see
how he likes those escape charges they have waiting for him."
I wondered if they were playing good cop/bad cop. With me, a cop,
and Roberto, who had been dealing with cops all his life, it would
be a silly game. Roberto apparently decided to bring this fact to
"Guess that means you don't want to catch the guy who sliced and
diced your buddy down in Mexicali."
And that jacked up the tension, as my brother knew it would.
He'd told me earlier that both the Feds in our little caravan had
worked with the narcotics agent whose death in Baja California two
months ago had been in all the papers.
The blood drained out of Tom's face as fast as it rose in
"You scumbag," Tom said in a lower, harsher voice. His fists were
balled and beginning to rise. "Don't you ever mention that
He stepped so close to Mary that he was looming over her. But I
noticed that he didn't try to step around her. Still, he was
playing with fire. They both were.
Roberto was smiling. Mocking.
"What, Mexicali? Or your dumb buddy who got himself cut up?"
"Stop it, 'Berto. Shut up," I said.
I'd been taking a perverse delight in the confrontation, but I
didn't want to hear a dead narcotics agent derided. Not even a
federal agent. Nor did I want my brother to blow his one chance at
Mary seemed to be thinking, as if considering just how much they
really needed Roberto and his information to do whatever they were
intending to do. I took one of my brother's arms and pulled him
back before he could do anything to hurt Mary's decision or further
squeeze Tom's trigger.
I was surprised that Roberto didn't resist. He let me lead him a
couple of feet closer to my truck.
Belatedly, Mary made her decision. She faced my brother and pointed
a finger at him.
"That's enough, Mr. Burns. We need you, but not enough to put up
with any abuse or provocation. If you don't want to cooperate, then
you'll be turned over to authorities in Colorado tonight."
She waited for my brother to say something. He didn't. She glanced
at her watch.
"All right then. You have one hour."
They must need him very badly, I thought.
Roberto maybe sensed it too, because he jerked his arm out of my
hand. Oh shit. He stepped forward, back up into Tom's face.
My brother wasn't as big as the FBI agent --- the top of his head
came even with Tom's freckled nose --- but there was an obvious
menace in Roberto that dwarfed the other man.
I tensed, readying myself to tackle him from behind. Things were on
the verge of really getting out of control. Roberto, when he
fought, battled like a Norse berserker.
"You're right," my brother said quietly. "I shouldn't have
mentioned that. Sorry, man."
Then he turned away and went back to sorting through the crates of
I stared at my brother's back. What's going on with him? I'd
never seen him back down. Not from anything. Not in his entire
life. He'd never cared about the consequences. Destraillado,
Mom called it. Unleashed. I looked at Tom and saw that his fists
were still clenched.
"He should be in handcuffs," he told his partner. "Hell, they both
should be in handcuffs. A lunatic and a renegade cop. I can't
fucking believe we have to deal with these people."
Noticing me watching him, he spat in the dirt.
"Bite me, Tom," I said.
"Cool it, all of you. That's enough."
Mary swatted at herself, attempting to dust Mungo's hair from her
skirt and blouse, and plucked at where the clothes were pasted by
sweat to her skin. Tom couldn't help but watch her, and I saw that
my brother, smiling again with his eyebrows raised slightly behind
his sunglasses, was doing the same. The disheveled hair and clothes
were undeniably sexy on her. They were such a contrast to her rigid
personality. Especially in this testosterone-charged
She must have felt the eyes, because she stopped touching herself
and walked stiffly in her heels to the rear of the Suburban. From a
cooler there she took out three bottles of water and passed them
around. It was a peacemaking gesture.
I joined my brother in examining the rock that was leaning over us.
There was a single crack splitting the overhanging wall of the
eighty-foot tower. It started out three inches wide at the bottom
then contracted to just an inch or so before it reached a cavelike
alcove near the top. Above that, the final few moves to the summit
were invisible as the sun was right behind it and the indirect
radiance made close scrutiny impossible.
"Which end you want?" Roberto asked, swinging the coiled rope in
"The sharp end."
"Okay, little bro. You lead."
The rope hit my chest. I unwrapped it from where it was tied around
itself and began carefully flaking it out on the ground, working
out the kinks. Roberto shimmied a harness over his brown canvas
pants and dragged off his shirt. The two federal agents watched us
as if we were performing some voodoo ritual.
I was pleased to notice that there weren't any scabby pinprick
tracks on the insides of Roberto's arms. It didn't mean much --- I
had known junkies who injected their thighs, scrotums, and even
between their toes to escape being marked --- but it was a positive
sign because my brother had never cared about detection.
He looked good, too. Fit and almost ridiculously strong, although
his normally dark skin seemed a little translucent from two weeks
confined indoors. He'd even cut his hair, which used to reach
halfway down his back. It was still tangled and dirty, but now it
only hung far enough to touch the slanting ridges of his
After shimmying into my own harness then tying in to one end of the
rope, I clipped a handful of cams and hexes onto a sling and put it
over my head and one shoulder. My climbing slippers were warm from
the sunlight that had been beating down on the truck. They were
tight enough to curl my toes but familiar as I squeezed my feet
into them and laced up.
I was aware of the Feds watching us, wondering how we were going to
climb a wall that overhung more than fifteen degrees and was marred
by only that single parallel-sided fissure. Reaching up, I placed
my right hand high into the cool crack and made a fist --- my
folded thumb against one side and the heel of my palm pressed
against the other. I placed my left hand just below it in the same
way. By clenching my fists and flexing the muscles in my hands, I
was able to lock them in. A jam, it's called. Weird, but it works.
I pulled up on the clenched fists and got a foot wedged in a couple
of feet farther down by turning it sideways then twisting it in
with my knee raised high.
I wriggled up this way, replacing fists and feet always higher, as
sweat ran over my skin and my breath grew ragged. The crack
narrowed until I was able to hang securely off a single jammed
fist. Then a cupped hand, and finally just my torqued fingertips
"Wow," I heard Mary say from below me. "Look at that."
It was the first real sign of life I'd heard from her. And I took
an embarrassed pleasure in bringing it out.
"It's not that hard," Tom said dismissively. "Takes practice, is
There's a trick to it."
"Then maybe you ought to go next, Tom."
I smiled to myself but didn't look down. I didn't hear if Tom made
Blood began to stain the yellowish stone because I hadn't bothered
to tape up. I was setting my jams far too quickly, showing off a
little for my brother and the Feds. Every ten feet or so I slotted
a mechanical camming device into the crack and clipped to it the
rope trailing from my harness. I could feel the slight weight on
the rope from Roberto's belay.
After ten minutes of grunting and panting I hauled myself over a
small ledge and into the hole eighty feet off the ground. In this
small alcove were two old bolts someone had long ago drilled into
the rock. They felt secure when I tried to shake them, so I clipped
a bight from my end of the rope into them.
"I'm off," I yelled down.
Roberto started climbing before I even had him on belay. I reeled
in the rope as fast as I could, my bloodied hands shoving the rope
through the belay tube and getting warm from the friction. I
couldn't see him when I craned my neck out over the edge, but I
could see the two federal agents in the shade below. They were
gaping upward with open mouths. Even Tom wasn't able to look
Mungo, too, was watching. Her long snout poked out of a spiny bush
behind the agents.
I couldn't see Roberto, but I was long familiar with the way he
climbed. Fast and smooth. My brother was elemental in a way, one
with the stone yet untouched by the forces of gravity. He sort of
graced his way up the rock without any of my less elegant grunting
and gasping and bleeding.
When he planted a palm on the ledge and mantled up on it, I saw
that he hadn't bothered to lace up his rock shoes. I clipped a
bight from his end of the rope into the bolts and said, "You're
"You're looking strong," he told me, punching my chest. "Still a
wiry little guy, but strong."
I felt the flush of a little brother's pride at the words.
"You're getting slow, 'Berto. Thought you would have been up here a
long time ago."
I don't think he heard me. He stood on the edge --- toes in space
--- and stared out at the desert landscape without expression. You
can see a long way in this state. A lot farther than you can from a
prison cell. I hoped he was realizing that.
We don't look that much alike. His face shows more of our mother's
mestizo heritage than mine. His cheekbones are higher, his nose
slightly hooked. But like me, he has our father's square Scots jaw.
Our eyes are the greatest difference between us. Mine are coffee
brown; his are a brilliant blue, the color you see looking down
into the deepest part of a crevasse. I also carry a long white scar
on my left cheek from a rockfall --- a reminder of my own
Roberto has no such scar.
His chest, shoulders, and back still held the taut slabs of prison
muscle from the time before his escape ten months earlier. Since
then he'd been on high peaks in South America, and the exertion and
deprivation had carved distinct lines through the bulk.
Honed was the word that best described him. He looked like
he'd been carved out of stone.
"How is it that you know this narco Hidalgo?" I asked him when he
slumped down beside me. It was the first time all day that we'd
"Dude used to think he was a mountaineer. I saved his shit on
Aconcagua 'bout ten years back." Then he shrugged. "After that, I
did some muling for him and his buddies. They call themselves the
I remembered the story, but I hadn't realized that the man Roberto
rescued was the notorious drug lord. Roberto had come across three
men dressed in designer mountain wear --- the kind of clothes made
for anything but mountain climbing. Puffy jackets by Ralph Lauren
and leather boots that had never been treated to repel snow and
water because it might ruin the finish. The three were in bad
shape, weak and suffering from cold, altitude, and hunger, near the
summit of the twenty-three-thousand-foot peak. Roberto tied them
all into a rope and more or less dragged them down. When I'd first
heard about it, he only described them as a trio of rich guys from
"You've met him, too," he added now, turning and grinning at
"Well, almost. Remember that time we were down in Baja . . ."
He reminded me of a trip we'd taken eight years ago, when I was in
grad school at Boulder. Dad and Mom were in Saudi Arabia,
the two of us on our own for Christmas break. It had been a cold
early winter, so we headed south when I picked him up from where he
was living in Durango. We drove the Pig all the way down to the Sea
of Cortés. For one week we kayaked and dove, sleeping on
deserted beaches, spearing fish to cook on yucca fires, mellowing
at night on Tecate and lime (me) and tequila and hashish (him). The
next week we climbed pristine desert walls in the Sierra
Roberto had heard about a particular one --- supposedly virgin,
unclimbed --- but never seen it. He knew how to get there, though,
and we cut through then retied a barbed-wire fence on the way. On
this particular wall --- a twelve-hundred-footer --- we'd been
caught by a freak rainstorm then darkness when we were high up on
it. The water sluicing down the wall made it impossible to finish
the climb and hike off, and we hadn't brought enough gear to rig
all the rappels necessary to bail. So we spent a long, wet night on
an edge not much wider than a bookshelf.
Waking up hadn't been pleasant --- it was a bullet striking the
rock near my head that brought me out of my shivering stupor.
Splinters of quartz had cut into one of my ears.
Two men and a battered Jeep were parked near my truck at the base
of the wall. One of the men was aiming up through a rifle's sight
for a second shot while the other was bent over like he might be
Roberto shouted down at them in Spanish --- words I didn't think at
the time would help our situation: "Motherfuckers! You shoot again
and I'll cut your throats!"
The one with the gun yelled, "You're trespassing. Our boss doesn't
like trespassers. Put them back on the ground, he told us."
"I'm invited, you dumb animals. Go tell him it's Roberto
Before I come down there and stick that rifle up your ass."
The men laughed some more and the one with the gun pointed it. But
there was an uncertainty in both their gestures. The rifle didn't
fire a second time.
"You really know the guy who owns this place?" I'd asked him
I frantically readied the soggy ropes for a sprint to the
The men got into the Jeep and drove away to check with their
"Sort of. You wouldn't like him." He laughed. "Trust me. We need to
get out of here, che. Fast."
And we did. Driving out a different way and over another
barbed-wire fence before the men returned.
"That was Hidalgo's land," Roberto said now. "His inland
estancia. He told me about that wall after I pulled him off
Aconcagua. Said I ought to come down sometime and give it a
"If you really knew him, then why were we in such a hurry to get
out of there? Why'd we drive over all those fences instead of just
going by the house?"
"I didn't want you to meet him, bro."
Now it gave me a small thrill, learning that eight years earlier
I'd come close to meeting one of the continent's most brutal drug
lords. A man believed responsible for hundreds of torture killings
--- his way of silencing those whom he suspected of disloyalty. His
method was not only to kill the suspected individual, but to also
kill every member of his family. Even close friends sometimes. It
was a method that assured no one would ever testify against him.
Simple and very effective. No one would sentence their entire
family to death no matter what kind of protection or reward they
And I felt a different sort of thrill, too, because my brother had
been protecting me from him even way back then.
Roberto sat forward, leaning over far enough so that between his
legs so that he could gaze down on the Feds, the wolf, and the two
trucks parked below.
"I'm surprised they let us do this," I told him.
"Didn't have no choice, che. Those two want Hidalgo bad.
They'll do whatever I want."
If they were dealing with my brother in the first place, it had to
be true. What I didn't understand was why he was dealing with them.
Putting himself in danger of more time in prison if things didn't
work out, and risking a bad, bad death if they did. And maybe for
not just him, although I didn't want to think about that. Not
"I still don't get why you're doing this, 'Berto."
He shrugged. "Things are changing. I can't explain it right
I didn't push him. I'd save it for later.
He glanced over his shoulder at me and then down again.
"Now watch this. I'm gonna freak 'em out."
He stood and reeled about thirty feet of slack from his
Next he made an overhand knot. I didn't realize right away what he
was doing because I was thinking about what he'd said, and trying
to guess the reason or reasons he was here.
What was going on with him? Why didn't he just stay in South
America, where Grandpa's compadres from the bad old days during
Argentina's Dirty War could protect him from extradition? Why
hadn't he knocked Tom Cochran's teeth down his throat? And why had
I didn't think I'd ever heard him apologize before. Not in
thirty-two years of knowing him.
The click of a carabiner's gate snapping shut startled me out of my
thoughts. He had clipped the knot to the bolts. He'd also unclipped
his own anchoring knot. He dropped the coil of slack rope next to
me on the ledge.
Finally I realized what he was about to do.
"Don't do it, 'Berto. You'll ruin my rope."
"You don't need a rope, Ant. You've got to learn to let go."
Then, with a scream of utter terror, he spread his bare arms and
jumped off the ledge.
Long seconds later the carabiners and knots slammed together with a
sound like a whipcrack as his weight hit the end of the rope. I
rechecked the bolts then leaned over to see the mouths below gaping
even wider. It was as if a flash-bang grenade had exploded over
their heads. Mary Chang was frozen in place and seemed to be
gasping for air. Tom was swearing loudly.
Swinging free above them, laughing silently, was my brother.
And he was just getting warmed up for really scaring the hell out
of all of us.
It was nine o'clock at night when we finally rolled through the
town of Potash and neared our destination. Like the epithet
QuickDraw, which had been slapped on me, the town's name was
supposed to be sardonic and dismissive.
A couple of decades ago this dry, dusty region had been stampeded
by surveyors, roughnecks, and the entrepreneurial leeches who
followed them. All were looking to make a fast buck and then get
out. Nearly all of them got out, but without the buck. Instead of
oil and gas under the rocky soil, what they found was a mineral
valuable only as a base component of fertilizer. Potash --- said
like you're spitting out a mouthful of the area's alkaline water
--- was what the town was designated by the few unfortunate souls
who stayed --- or were left --- behind.
There were a couple of boarded-up fast-food joints near where the
state highway veered off, and then a mostly deserted main street.
The buildings were all made of tan brick. Their sturdy construction
signified that, at one time at least, someone had had hopes for
this place. That hope appeared to be long dead. Many of the store
windows yawned wide and dark, like toothless old ghosts, and the
interiors were stocked with only trash and tumbleweeds. Thoroughly
graffitied boards covered others. Only a few retailers remained
intact and, perhaps, occasionally open for business --- three
pawnshops, a feed store, and a hardware merchant.
Both ends of the main street were bookended by a pair of
It was Friday night, and a lot of pickup trucks were crowded around
them. Outside of one bar on the south end of the street two
vaqueros were pissing on the hood of an old patrol car emblazoned
with the seal of the Potash Town Marshall. They barked and howled
at Mungo, whose head was in its usual position, hanging out the
"My kind of town," Roberto said.
"That doesn't surprise me," Mary Chang responded, in an almost
teasing tone that did surprise me. The fact that we would soon be
reaching the end of the road, along with the cooling effect of the
night, might finally draw her out of her shell.
She'd refused to join our conversations on the long drive north.
Refused, pretty much, to speak at all. Not that it was likely she
could've added much, since we mostly talked about Mom and Dad and
mountains. But I'd repeatedly tried to get her to tell me what the
plan was, what they wanted my brother for, other than to pick his
brain about Jesús Hidalgo. She'd kept saying later, later. So
I stopped asking and had gone mute myself.
I thought I was going to hate working for the Feds. Little did I
know just how much.
On the other side of Potash were sagging trailers on jacks with
tattered flags of laundry fluttering in the wind. Blue TV lights
flashed from behind the windows. Most every trailer --- despite the
apparent poverty --- was equipped with a satellite dish. We passed
the frames of cannibalized cars and appliances and then passed what
was officially marked as the town dump, the sign being the only
thing that distinguished it from the surrounding landscape. Finally
we were beyond civilization, such as it was in this part of the
state, and beginning to crunch and bump along a dirt road.
Like most nights in the state, the sky was crystal clear. The
everpresent wind off the plains swept it clean.
"Turn off your headlights, please, Agent Burns," Mary instructed
I flipped them off. The stars provided more than enough light for
driving at the crawling speed the condition of the road
Behind us, the Suburban's lights went out, too. Mary used a
penlight to study a map on her lap. She somehow managed to navigate
us through the maze of dirt roads that wound among rocky desert
Whenever we reached the top of a ridge, I would study the eastern
horizon for the starless voids that were made by the peaks of the
Wind River Range. The foothills to the peaks began only a few miles
from us, on the other side of the Roan River. The peaks themselves,
rising to just shy of thirteen thousand feet, jutted up six
thousand feet off the plain. Their shapes were familiar to me. In
the past I'd climbed most of the more vertical edges of shadow.
Maybe there would be a chance to get up there again, I thought.
Maybe with my brother.
I braked to a stop before a barbed-wire fence that was strung
across the road. Sandstone outcroppings stood on either side,
preventing me from driving around it.
"This is it, gentlemen. Our headquarters for the next couple of
Roberto turned and looked back at her. "I guess the Four Seasons
back there in Potash was all booked up."
I didn't say anything, but I was thinking that it looked like the
back entrance to a prison. Roberto was probably thinking it,
Mary got out of the backseat and tried to unhook one side of the
fence from where some iron spikes had been driven into the rock.
She struggled with it, trying to peel it back in order to clear the
road. I watched from behind the steering wheel as she put her
shoulder between the barbs on a vertical line of wire.
"Where are your manners, Ant? Girl's going to ruin her clothes,"
Roberto said, opening his door and stepping out. As if eight hours
of desert heat, blowing grit, and wolf hair hadn't ruined the
expensive-looking skirt and blouse already.
It was like Roberto to see the girl in her, a person Mary Chang
seemed to take pains to hide with her formal clothes and stilted
speech. And it was also like Roberto to open a fence for a female
federal agent who planned on putting him at great risk by acting on
whatever information he provided, and would probably like nothing
better than to drop him back in the cell she'd only temporarily
sprung him from.
Once they'd scraped the fence back, I pulled forward far enough so
that the Suburban could fit through, too. Roberto and Mary closed
the fence, reattaching it to the spikes, and climbed back in. After
another hundred feet, the dirt track entered into what resembled a
great pit or a crater.
It was surrounded on three and a half sides by steep slopes of
rock, sage, and chaparral. Stars low overhead threw dim shadows
from ribs of sandstone that poked out of the canted earth like the
bones of some fossilized monster. Against the crater's back wall
were some dark buildings. I realized then that Mary had planned it
this way --- that was why she'd allowed my brother the time to "get
a little air beneath his heels." Our arrival was meant to be veiled
by the night.
It was once a hunting camp but it had gone bankrupt a few years
earlier, Mary explained, elaborating on anything for the first
time. The bank that now owned it was unable to sell it so they were
willing to lease.
I knew that several years of drought in the region had driven the
elk into the mountains, and the only things left to shoot on the
alkaline hills were rattlesnakes and a few skinny antelope. Anyone
with money and sense would buy a place higher up in the pine
forests below the peaks.
"I arranged, through a dummy corporation, and then through a law
firm in Denver, to lease it for the fall," Mary went on. "The bank
thinks we're a B-movie company that's going to use it for a Western
set. Behind that hill" --- she indicated the sharp, spiny-looking
ridge behind the buildings --- "the land drops three hundred feet
to the Roan River. Jesús Hidalgo has been staying at a
property on the other side, only a half-mile upstream."
It was bizarre to think of him being so close. Of this legendary
bad guy, head of the Mexicali Mafia, being in my state at all. I'd
become a Wyoming cop to take down drug dealers, but never imagined
I'd get the chance to participate in taking down the drug dealer. I
didn't even mind that the Feds would surely take all the credit. If
everyone would just loosen up a little, this might even be
Mary added, "According to our intelligence, he's there right now
and intends to stay for a while."
Her words gave me a charge of anticipation, not unlike what I felt
when staring up at a virgin wall. But Mary again refused to give
any further information on how we might climb it.
In the starlight I could make out a large cabin that probably
served as the camp's dining room, kitchen, and lounge. Three
smaller cabins stood nearby. Off a little ways, against the edge of
the crater, there was the black shape of a barn that appeared to be
tilted a little to one side. The only trees were some stunted
junipers along the slopes and ridge and a few dehydrated
cottonwoods near the main cabin.
I started to park the Pig in front of the main cabin, when Mary
ordered me to drive to the barn.
"He has a plane," she said by way of explanation. "It flies up from
Mexico City or Mexicali every couple of weeks. We don't want to
take any chances."
I thought they were being overly cautious. But then I didn't yet
know their plan.
The two swinging doors leading into the partially collapsed barn
were open. The darkness beyond them resembled a black hole. Mary
got out again and shone her little flashlight's beam around the
interior. The narrow cone of light revealed a cracked and heaving
concrete floor, piles of rotting timber, and some corroded farm
I pulled to one side, letting the Suburban drive in first. When I
wanted to leave I didn't want to have to ask Tom to move his
Without being told, we were quiet as we got out of the trucks.
Doors were bumped shut with hips rather than slammed. Mungo stayed
so close to my side that she was leaning against my thigh.
Overhead, the barn's roof creaked and groaned in the wind. I
doubted that if the inevitable occurred it would do much damage to
my rusty iron truck. But it would sure play hell with the fancy
paint on the Suburban. The taxpayers, of course, would foot the
bill to keep the Feds looking sharp.
We walked as a group over packed dirt and through weeds to get to
the main cabin. Tom walked behind Roberto, staring hard at my
brother's back. Just three hours earlier he'd seen him come
screaming out of the sky. Now Tom acted as if he expected him to be
jerked back up into the air.
Mary knelt on the porch before the door and again used her
flashlight to work the combination on the padlock. The door
stuttered open. She shone the light inside.
"Welcome to our new home, gentlemen."
Sand was sprinkled liberally over the plank floor from where it had
blown in through chinks in the log walls. Spirals of dust floated
in the flashlight's beam. Mouse turds lay among the sand and dirt.
There was a kitchen area along one wall, with a stove and sink, and
two wooden picnic tables with benches that were the only furniture
in the large room. The interior doorway to an added-on bathroom was
open but a brief glimpse of what was beyond wasn't welcoming even
after hours on the road.
Following Mary and Tom inside, I swept my hand through cobwebs next
to the doorjamb, and felt a light switch.
"Don't," Mary said, turning suddenly and pointing the beam at my
hand. "The electricity's supposed to be on, but first I want to
cover the windows."
There was a retching sound from the kitchen wall. Tom had turned on
the tap and brown water was beginning to cough out of it.
"Water works," he reported. "At least I think it's water. Good
thing we brought our own to drink, but I'm not looking forward to
showering with this mud."
Roberto alone remained outside. After two weeks locked indoors I
understood that he had no desire for walls. Not that he ever really
did. I was like him in that way, more comfortable in a tent than in
a house. It probably had something to do with growing up as a
military brat, with a different house on a different base each
year. For him it was worse, the result of too many additional years
in prison. The closest thing to a permanent home either of us had
known was our grandfather's ranch on the Argentine altiplano.
After examining the lodge, I walked back out onto the porch and
found him sitting on a step. He was putting the finishing touches
on a hand-rolled cigarette, licking an edge of the paper. At least
I hoped it was a cigarette. He struck a match against the sole of a
motorcycle boot, and I was relieved a moment later when I smelled
some kind of scented tobacco. But I wasn't at all relieved by the
way his hands seemed to be shaking.
"You okay?" I asked him, not really sure what, if anything, was the
He smirked at me and blew smoke out of his nose.
After a minute, he asked, "Your girlfriend, that Rebecca, she still
packin'?" Meaning, I assumed, had she gotten the abortion that had
been an unspoken possibility for a while.
"Yeah. She's due in February, Tío 'Berto."
The smirk was now a genuine grin and I returned it. I knew he
didn't like Rebecca, or at least he knew she didn't like him, but
he seemed pleased. He looked down at his boots but didn't say
A little later Mary removed the padlocks from the doors of the
three smaller cabins. They were identical, empty but for metal cots
and bare, dusty mattresses. Roberto and I were told to share one,
which fit with my understanding of my role here --- to serve as my
brother's babysitter. Mary and Tom would each have their own.
I assisted the two federal agents in humping duffel bags, metal
suitcases, ice chests, and heavy rolls of black construction paper
from the Suburban into the main cabin. It wasn't because I was all
that eager to help, but because I was anxious to know just how
their task force planned to use my brother's information to take
down Jesús Hidalgo.
Mary armed herself with a bucket of bleach, took a deep breath, and
headed for the bathroom. Using rubber mallets, Tom and I hammered
sheets of tar paper over the windows and the places where we could
feel the wind blowing through the log walls. We worked in silence,
the two of us wordlessly agreeing that silence was probably the
only way not to antagonize each other. When we were done Mary
turned on the lights --- three bare bulbs hung from rafters --- and
revealed a room that looked a little cozier, if dirtier, than it
had in the dark. We swept the room and wiped the surfaces. As a
final touch a heavy blanket was hung over the front door.
Now, even at night, there would be no sign that anybody was using
the old hunting camp. We were going to be like
These are our operational rules, gentlemen," Mary announced.
She'd asked my brother to come in from the porch and then assembled
us around one of the picnic tables. The table's rough surface was
already cluttered with expanding files and a pair of laptop
computers. She was standing at the end as if to deliver a
"We aren't going to take any unnecessary chances here. Stay off the
ridges around the camp, and out of sight during the day if you hear
a plane overhead. We'll use only our encrypted satellite phone, and
you'll use it only with Tom or me monitoring. We don't want to risk
being overheard --- the bad guys have started using some pretty
advanced technology. They have radio scanners and some equipment
that can intercept both hard-line and cellular calls. The same goes
for e-mail once we get the computers set up. No one will leave the
property without checking with me first. Please don't use any
lights at night other than in this cabin. We're to be invisible
here. No one's to know this camp is occupied, especially not by
Her white blouse was streaked with dirt and her hair was half in
her face. I liked her better this way, dirty rather than clean. I
noticed that she didn't wear a wedding ring or jewelry of any kind.
She looked too young, too small, to be giving orders to the three
of us --- she couldn't be more than thirty years old and she
couldn't weigh much more than a hundred pounds. Yet her voice was
confident, and she was acting as if she were speaking to a packed
room of eager agents rather than just her resentful partner, a
semi-disgraced state cop, and a drug-addicted felon.
"Am I forgetting anything, gentlemen?"
"Keep your badges shined up and the toilet seat down?" Roberto
Mary's lips twitched into a tolerant smile. Tom remained
"Where's the rest of your team?" I asked.
She looked at Tom, then at me.
"This is it, Agent Burns. The four of us. If we had any more people
here, we would be too conspicuous. That's where we've failed in the
I knew something about the failures, despite not knowing much more
than the legends about Jesús Hidalgo. For ten years he'd been
responsible for a good portion of the almost thirty billion dollars
in narcotics coming into the States across the Mexican border each
year. For ten years the Feds had failed to get an indictment
against him, much less an arrest or conviction. There were Mexican
folk songs about Hidalgo, narcocorridos of polkas or waltzes, that
lionized his ability to make fools of the American
"So exactly what is it we're doing here that would be too
conspicuous with more people?"
I'd assumed, ever since the FBI requested my assistance a week
earlier, that my brother would simply be giving up information
about Hidalgo in return for the dismissal of the escape charges in
Colorado. And some time in a locked rehab facility, of course. My
job would be to help pull the information out of him and keep him
under control. My office and I hadn't known that Jesús Hidalgo
was even in my state, much less that the Feds would be taking my
brother and me to the vicinity. And I was surprised by the
equipment I'd helped lug into the main cabin --- it was
surveillance stuff, not just tape recorders and video cameras. Some
weapons, too, I guessed, were in those locked steel
"I'll get to that. But in short, we're going to arrest Hidalgo.
Right here in Wyoming."
"Well, you'd better have some more guys when it comes to
I laughed, not thinking she was serious. But she looked
"He's bound to have bodyguards, right? A lot of them, I bet."
Sicarios, they were called. A respectable drug lord never went
anywhere without at least a handful.
Mary nodded. "He does. And we will. But first let's get some things
out of the way."
She had planned this lecture out carefully, I realized, and knew
exactly how she wanted it done. She might as well have had cheat
notes in her hand.
"First, because for the next few weeks we'll be living in close
proximity, I want to tell you a little bit about me and Tom and
what our roles are here."
She told us that she had a law degree from American University and
a master's in criminal justice from John Jay. She went on to say
that she'd been with the Bureau for five years, and I figured that
they must have been prodigious ones, because she was really young
to be in charge of a case like this. Two years ago she had been
assigned to the Bureau's San Diego office for the purpose of
investigating the Baja cartels in conjunction with the DEA and the
Mexican Attorney General's Office. Her job now, she said, would be
to supervise our investigation as well as liaison with the
prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office.
All this, I thought as she spoke, was not to tell us anything about
her, but instead to formalize her. To let us know that she didn't
want Roberto or me to know anything about her other than her
professional résumé. A wall was being very deliberately
She indicated Tom, her partner, with a nod of her head. He was
listening to her with his arms folded across his chest.
"Tom has been with that same task force for five years. Prior to
that, he worked in El Paso and Juárez. There he worked to
secure indictments against Amado Carrillo-Fuentes, the head of the
Juárez cartel, who you may have heard of, and the men and
women he employed. Carrillo was known as the Lord of the Skies
because of the fleet of passenger jets he used to bring cocaine
into our country. Tom was also able to get indictments against
several of his lieu- tenants, two of whom were brought in the
backseat of his personal vehicle into the United States, where they
I'd heard about that. It had caused an international stink several
years ago when the two Mexican nationals were more or less
kidnapped from the streets of Juárez then driven across the
bridge to El Paso, where they were arrested, tried, convicted, and
jailed. The Mexican government had been furious. So had been many
American legislators. While Tom was completely lacking in social
graces, I had to admit that he had balls.
Mary continued: "Tom went to school at Rutgers in New Jersey and
spent two years with the New Jersey State Police, and another two
with the DEA, before joining the Bureau. Tom is going to be in
charge of the operational end of things."
No advanced educational degrees for Tom. He must not have any,
which didn't really mean anything anyway for a cop. Not when it
came to ability. But I guessed it was why Mary had been able to
countermand him and give Roberto and me time to stop and do a
little climbing. It also explained his slightly hostile attitude
toward Mary giving him orders. A law degree would go a long way in
a place like the Bureau. And it could create a lot of
I was suitably impressed, though, with his accomplishments in El
Paso and Juárez, which were almost as bad and dangerous a
posting as Tijuana or Mexicali. Clearly the guy was experienced.
And Carrillo had been a bad guy on nearly the same level as Hidalgo
before he had died: I'd read about him in The New York Times. The
two had been rivals for a couple of years, Carrillo heading the
Juárez cartel and Hidalgo the Mexicali Mafia. The narco from
Juárez --- worth billions of dollars, and made nervous by the
kidnapping and arrest of the two lieutenants --- had accidently
died while undergoing plastic surgery and liposuction in Mexico
City. But his face was a mass of ham-handed stitches --- it seemed
unlikely real doctors would have committed such butchery. It was
rumored that his enemy, Hidalgo, had been one of the masked
"surgeons." If Tom ever dropped his tough-guy act, I intended to
ask him about it.
Now Mary looked at my brother. I realized she was going to
introduce him, too. As if she and Tom hadn't already read
everything in his files, as if I weren't his brother. I wondered if
she had a file on Mungo.
"You never attended college, did you, Roberto?"
"Nope. I'm a little dumb," he answered, his slightly slurred voice
registering amusement at what was obviously a setup.
Mary delivered it. "But a graduate of the Colorado Bureau of
Prisons and the federal penitentiary all the same."
Roberto smiled for her and exhaled a polite laugh while I tried not
to roll my eyes.
She went on. "One conviction for manslaughter, three for felony
assault, two for disorderly conduct, one for assault on a peace
officer, and one federal conviction for the destruction of
communications equipment. Is that right?"
"Bastards shouldn't have taken so long to put in my phone."
Mary actually smiled at this. It was the first real smile I'd seen
break across her face. She had his file in her hand --- she picked
it up off the table while she was talking --- so she had to know
that it wasn't a joke. It really was the reason he'd taken a chain
saw to six miles of telephone poles.
Tom, of course, only snorted with contempt.
Then Mary made clear her reason for reciting Roberto's criminal
"Currently wanted for escape in Colorado, with nationwide warrants
out and extradition to be sought from all treaty nations. And a
Justice Department authorization to remove him from non-cooperating
nations by whatever means necessary."
In other words, they owned him as long as he cared about not having
to watch his back for the rest of his life.
Mary now looked at me, saying, "Over the last two weeks your
brother has been kind enough to provide us with some very useful
background on Hidalgo. He knows more about our target's methods of
operation than anyone we've yet been able to, uh, interview."
I wanted to say something, to object, but I didn't yet know what I
should be objecting to. I just had the feeling that she was trying
to sell me something with all this. Everything she said felt so
She started in on me before I could get anything out. Introducing
me to Roberto and Tom now, like we'd never met.
"Special Agent Antonio Burns of the Wyoming Bureau of Investigation
--- you prefer Anton, right?"
She had a file on me, too. It was a manila folder expanded to
nearly three inches wide from the morass of well-thumbed documents
within. Newspaper clippings as well, I could see. A fat rubber band
kept it from exploding in her hands. As she had with Roberto, she
now talked about me without referring to it other than to simply
hold it. Like she was holding my soul or something.
"Anton also has a master's in criminal justice, from the University
of Colorado. He has been a narcotics officer with the Wyoming
Division of Criminal Investigation for eight years, primarily
working undercover. He has been involved in some very colorful
"Colorful," Tom said, speaking slowly and deliberately. "If your
favorite color is red. I know all I want to know about you. I had
to work with assholes like you in Mexico."
Time seemed to stall. A silence that lasted several seconds dropped
over us. I could feel my brother's blue eyes on me, asking, What
you gonna do, Ant?
I leaned across the table. "What have you heard about me,
And I immediately wished I hadn't.
Tom leaned across, too, as if to meet my aggressive posture
head-on. He didn't hesitate this time, the way he had earlier when
he'd tried to put Roberto in his place. I had the feeling I didn't
make him nearly as nervous as my brother did.
"That two and a half years ago you killed three men in cold blood.
That they call you QuickDraw around here because you'd rather pull
a trigger than make arrests. That you've been investigated for ---
"Tom!" Mary said sharply. "We've been over this. The shooting was
ruled justifiable. Anton was exonerated --- "
"By his own office. A bunch of hick cowboys. No one with any real
investigative experience. We looked at their reports --- and they
were a total whitewash. Complete bullshit. They just took his word
I wondered how many times that night in Cheyenne was going to come
back to haunt me. At one point in my life I'd been ready to beat
the crap out of anyone who repeated the scornful nickname. It had
been invented by a newspaper columnist whose son I'd once arrested
for selling ecstasy. But now I felt very little. Not even the
righteous indignation I tried to put in my posture and gaze. Just
weariness. And the growing suspicion that for some reason the two
federal agents were putting on a show.
"Tom, we've been over it. Our superiors have been over it.
U.S. Attorney's been over it. It was decided that we could work
Agent Burns and his brother. Now, if you don't want to be a part of
this, just say so right now and we'll get someone else in here to
take your place."
Tom glared at her briefly then snorted.
"Not likely," he said. He didn't elaborate.
Instead he lit a Marlboro with a hard snap of a silver lighter and
blew the smoke in her direction. I'd been watching him smoke them
all day in the rearview mirror as he tailgated me, then watched him
flick them out into the desert.
I thought it was interesting that Mary didn't contradict his
statement. Surely there were hundreds, if not thousands, of agents
who would love to be in on taking down a guy the size of Jesús
Hidalgo. Who would love to avenge their murdered colleague. As much
as I disliked the uptight Feds, no one could accuse the individual
agents of ever being cowardly.
But Mary just fanned the smoke away. Her expression was neutral,
sphinxlike, but as she stared at Tom, I thought I could see a dark
spot of anger on each of her cheeks. Maybe he had stepped beyond
their script, if they had one, or taken it a little too far. I
wondered what was between them. What were they really up to,
playing this game.
"All right, then," Mary said, her coffee-brown eyes barely visible
between her heavy lids. "Tonight we'll finish unpacking the gear
and setting up a surveillance point on the ridge. Tomorrow we'll
start the surveillance. Tom, why don't you give us a briefing on
our location here."
With sharp, curt gestures intended to display his annoyance, he
unzipped a nylon briefcase and took out a large piece of paper.
Unfolded on the table, it proved to be a color photograph of the
area in the daylight. He spoke through the cigarette clenched in
"All right. Listen up. We had a satellite company out of Colorado
take a digital picture for us from four hundred and twenty-three
miles up. Here's where we're at, and here's Hidalgo's place. That
so-called town we drove through, Potash, is eight miles to the
Our little crater with its five buildings stood just to the west of
a wide red river. The buildings were little more than square-shaped
pinpricks. Roan River was shown as being maybe a quarter-inch wide,
which translated on the map to almost a hundred yards, just on the
other side of the hogback ridge behind us. On the other bank, a
little to the north, was a U-shaped building and two long
The U-shaped building, we were told through a haze of smoke, was
Hidalgo's residential compound on the bank of the river. It
consisted of a single sprawling house set around a turquoise
swimming pool --- an unusual luxury in Wyoming and something that
must be enormously expensive to heat and clean. The house and the
pool overlooked the river. The two long rectangles, farther away
from the reddish stripe of water and maybe a half-mile from the
house, were two trailers. These had once housed miners, but were
now inhabited by Hidalgo's bodyguards. The mine was nearby,
evidenced by an acre or more of broken stone that had been dragged
out of the earth.
Tom pointed out the silver roof of another trailer --- this one far
smaller --- that was nestled in some trees south of the whole
complex and alongside the only road that led into it. We were told
men with automatic weapons were almost certainly watching the road
twentyfour hours a day.
"What's he doing operating a mine here?" I asked.
"Laundering money, we think," Mary said. "Or setting it up so that
he can launder money. The mine has been abandoned for years, but we
have some satellite pictures that show him moving trucks and
machines into the mine. Things have been getting a little hot for
him in Mexico, too. There have been a lot of killings lately, and
the new government under Vicente Fox has once again sworn to
eradicate the past decades of corruption that have allowed the
cartels to flourish. They have even been making some noise about
shutting down the tourist hotels and pharmacies Hidalgo's been
using to legitimize his illicit proceeds."
That brought me to one of the questions that had been bugging me
"What the hell's he doing in Wyoming?"
"His old buddies down in Baja have been trying to knock him off,"
Tom said, looking at the map, not me. "The survivors of his wars
with Carrillo in Juárez and the Arellano-Felix brothers in
Tijuana have gotten sick of Hidalgo's thugs pushing them around and
taxing them. Plus the boys operating out of Sonora and Tamaulipas
think he's too greedy and too ambitious. Everyone's gunning for
each other. A couple of hundred have died this year already. Mostly
soldiers, but a few big boys and even some of Hidalgo's hired
judges and politicians. It's a war zone. So Hidalgo, no fool, has
come north to sit it out for a while. Until his hired guns can find
and finish taking out the last of the Arellanos and their politicos
in Baja. Then he'll finally have a secure hold there."
I'd read about the drug war in Baja, but thought it was pretty much
over. Hidalgo and his Mexicali Mafia had won against the
Arellano-Felixes, just as they'd partially dismantled the
Juárez cartel by taking out Amado Carrillo. Of the several
Arellano-Felix brothers who had operated out of Tijuana, one was
believed to be dead and one was in Mexican custody. They'd been put
in their respective places by Hidalgo and his legion of sicarios
and bribed Mexican justice officials.
The news of government corruption in Mexico was something that
didn't surprise me. Past presidents had been proven corrupt, as had
army generals and, recently, a former Attorney General himself. A
few years ago a top law-enforcement official testified to the
Mexican Congress that up to eighty percent of police officers,
prosecutors, and judges were in the employ of the cartels. The DEA
put the number at closer to ninety percent. Presidente Fox admitted
that the pervasive influence of dirty money had infected
law-enforcement organizations throughout the country. It was a
country where every time a new drug-fighting agency was created, it
was shut down within a year or two for rampant corruption. Mexico's
unofficial motto was Plata o plomo --- "Silver or lead" ---
as in You can take my money or you can eat a
spent much of my childhood on Grandfather's estancia in Argentina
and knew that Latin "government" was often merely a commodity,
something that was bought and sold. Politicos like my notorious
grandfather left office either rich or dead.
"But why here? Why Wyoming?"
Tom allowed himself a bitter chuckle and looked across at me.
"To enjoy our nation's constitutional protections, QuickDraw. Its
police and its laws. Formal procedures like arrest warrants and
Miranda rights, and cops who are straight, who execute warrants and
not their suspects. Most of the time, anyway," he said, giving me a
significant and nasty look. "Plus, this lovely state of yours has
no income tax. Maybe Hidalgo's thinking about applying for
residency. He should fit right in."
"Maybe we should tell Agent Burns a little bit more about
"I'd appreciate that," I snapped at Tom. God, the guy was a
Until a few weeks ago, when I'd learned from Roberto about his deal
with the Feds, I hadn't been entirely sure that Hidalgo wasn't just
another myth. Like the chupacabra, the goat-sucking demon that had
much of Latin America terrified a few years back.
Tom produced a single piece of white cardboard from his
He slapped it down on the table in front of me, over the map. It
was an enlargement of a passport photo. I could tell because of the
dark ridges where the stamp had been.
"This is the best one we have," Mary said. "With a little luck, in
the next couple of days we'll get something a lot better."
The photograph, grainy from the enlargement, portrayed a chubby,
dapper-looking man in a suit and tie. He was smiling easily at the
camera from beneath a Saddam Hussein--style mustache. His longish
hair was slicked back but not so much as to make him appear a
greaser. He was handsome, but plain. Nothing like what I expected,
not some red-eyed and dripping-fanged devil. But on closer
examination, I saw that his eyes were bright and hard. They stared
straight at the camera --- straight through it. The eyes gave me
the creeps. Although I'd done a hundred undercover investigations
against suspects whose photos I'd studied, I already felt more than
a little exposed.
"He's gotten fat," Roberto commented, glancing at the picture.
"Serves him right. Guy always ate like a pig. Eats those Twinkie
things --- Gansitos --- all day long."
"Tell me what you know about him," I said to Mary.
Mary closed her eyes for a moment, as if preparing for a
recitation. When she opened them she spoke quickly.
"From what our task force has pieced together over the years, and
from what, in the last two weeks, we've learned from your brother
"Which is suspect," Tom interjected. "To say the least."
Roberto only raised his eyebrows as he fingered the leather cord
around his neck.
Mary continued, "Jesús Ruiz Hidalgo-Paez, also known as
Doctor because of the chain of pharmacies he owns, was born in 1965
in Culiacán, the capital of the western state of Sinaloa. It
was and still is something of a bandit state, where many of the
citizens worship a thief who was hung there by the Mexican army in
I'd seen the medallions hanging from the necks of the transporters
we occasionally arrested as they drove through Wyoming on I-80. The
highway was the principal way Mexican narcotics were moved across
the border from the Southwest to the East Coast. Malverde, I
remembered, was the name of the mustachioed saint I'd seen depicted
in swinging gold. Supposedly he was some kind of Robin Hood, and in
recent years he'd been adopted as saint by the narcos.
"His family was what passes in Mexico for middle class, his father
being some kind of minor government functionary. When he was
seventeen, Hidalgo began working for a man named Rafael
Caro-Quintero, one of the country's earliest large-scale
traffickers. He's now in prison, by the way, in part for the murder
of a DEA agent, one of only two American cops the cartels have
I nodded. I'd heard about that. And I knew the second cop had been
their colleague, but I wasn't ready to talk about him yet. "About
fifteen years ago, right?"
Tom spoke before she could confirm my recollection.
"Quintero runs the prison. At least when he's not partying
back in Sinaloa, on parole. He keeps African lions there. He likes
to entertain his party guests by throwing suspected informants into
the pen with them."
Mary continued her recitation as if neither one of us had
"Hidalgo started out as a sort of minor bagman for Quintero. He
paid out the bribes to the local politicians and law enforcement.
He was apparently good at this, because soon Quintero was flying
him to Mexico City to make the payoffs there, too. After a while
Quintero discovered an additional job for his protégé; he
made Hidalgo his chief enforcer. Even when he was only twenty years
old, Hidalgo understood better than anyone the power of fear and
brutality. He capitalized on it, taking it to a level far beyond
anything Mexico had yet seen. He earned a very serious reputation.
And this made him even more popular and more effective as a bagman
in Mexico City."
Mary went on to explain how at the age of twenty-six, Hidalgo was
permitted to start his own trafficking operation provided he pay a
tax to Quintero's successor, his brother Miguel. This was at a time
when American law enforcement was finally shutting down the air
trafficking from Colombia via the Caribbean and had put a stop to
the Juárez cartel's fleet of 727s that flew as far north as
Manhattan. The method Hidalgo used was simpler. Young illegal
immigrants --- mostly just kids in their teens and early twenties
--- entering the U.S. anyway were paid anywhere from a hundred to a
thousand dollars to carry fifty-pound packs of cocaine with them.
With thousands of people crossing daily, all of them desperate for
a few dollars, he had no trouble finding eager recruits. And if
some were caught by La Migra --- the INS --- it was no problem for
Hidalgo. Profits were so enormous that he could afford to lose ten
loads for every one that got through. Later he upped the quantity
by loading trucks with cocaine and heroin, then bribing American
border guards to wave them through. The low-paid officers had a
hard time resisting a twenty-thousand-dollar payment for simply
waving a certain truck through. Especially when the alternative ---
for refusing the offer --- might be death.
Hidalgo was innovative in another way, too. Instead of working for
the Colombians, where nearly all cocaine comes from, Hidalgo bought
it from them directly. He had it transferred onto fishing vessels
and speedboats out near the Galápagos Islands then brought
north thirty-seven hundred miles into the Sea of Cortés. It
was trucked in to the border town of Mexicali, where it was cut and
processed and then smuggled through the desert.
His success angered the Tijuana cartel being run by the
Arellano-Felix brothers. They claimed all of Baja, and believed
that Hidalgo needed to pay them a tax, too. Hidalgo refused. Soon
he was also refusing to pay Quintero, his former mentor.
"Starting about ten years ago, the other cartels began using all
their pull with the government to get Hidalgo arrested," she said.
"There have been several attempts, but each time the judge who
signed the indictment was murdered within twenty-four hours. So the
established cartels began kidnapping Hidalgo's men in the hopes of
hijacking his operations. They tortured his lieutenants and other
flunkies but discovered only a single amazing fact: Hidalgo's men
wouldn't talk. Their loyalty to Hidalgo was fanatical. The reason
soon became apparent. If anyone was even suspected of talking, his
entire family would be killed. Everyone, from grandparents to
grandchildren to distant cousins. A whole extended family, wiped
I looked at my brother, wondering if he'd known about this when he
knew Hidalgo. Wondering, also, if it was such a good idea for him
to be talking about the narco.
"This true, 'Berto?"
"Yeah. Probably." He shrugged. "I heard the rumors, but never saw
anything like that. Jesús denied it when I asked him about it.
When I started to think maybe it might be true, I split."
Tom snorted again derisively. Disbelieving.
But I believed my brother. Roberto had always been passionately
intolerant of abuses against women, children, and dogs. It's what
had caused him to kill a man in a bar in Colorado, and thus earn a
manslaughter conviction. The man had stuck his hand up the dress of
a young woman Roberto was with. Once, with me at a sidewalk
café in Boulder many years ago, he'd broken the nose of a
Denver news anchor who'd slapped a woman. He'd only gotten a
misdemeanor assault charge out of that one.
"All I did was some guiding for him," Roberto continued. "You know,
taking mules --- the kids with backpacks --- through the desert in
Arizona and California. They were dying like flies from the heat
and lack of water. Plus they were getting ambushed by guys from
other cartels, and those gringo vigilante ranchers."
I could picture it: Roberto showing a bunch of hardscrabble kids
how to live off the land while avoiding all the desert's dangers,
not to mention the authorities. Leading them through the wilderness
like a manic messiah. He would have thought it was fun. For a
while, anyway. Until he learned just how vicious his employer could
"Hidalgo's signature, by the way," Mary said, getting us back on
track, "is a little something he borrowed from his colleagues in
Bogotá. There it's called the Colombian Necktie. The narcos
slit an informant's throat and pull the tongue out through the
wound. Only in Mexico it's called la corbata de Jesús,
after Hidalgo. The Colombians generally shoot their victims first.
Hidalgo likes for them to drown on their own blood."
She resumed her lecturing tone.
"Over the last ten years Jesús Hidalgo has become the leading
importer of Colombian cocaine into the United States. We, along
with the DEA, estimate that Hidalgo is responsible for something
like a quarter of what enters our country from the Southwest border
region. After more than twelve assassination attempts that we know
about, Hidalgo bought this property in Wyoming as a sort of safe
house." She pointed at a window freshly covered by tar paper at the
rear of the room. "Not in his own name, of course, but in the name
of one of his attorneys. As Tom said, he's protected here by all
the liberties and rules of our laws. Because of the layers and
layers of lieutenants he uses, their absolute loyalty, and the
simple genius with which he covers his tracks, we don't have enough
evidence to even get a search warrant, much less an
It was hard to believe that such a man could be living free and
safe here in Wyoming. In my state. A state where I was a drug
"You haven't been able to turn any of his employees, or get an
informant in there?" I asked.
"We had one who did get close," Mary said quietly. "A rookie agent.
Tom and I were very involved in supporting him. Hidalgo somehow
came to suspect him and had him killed. Two months ago in
"La corbata?" I asked.
This, I realized, was the dead FBI agent my brother had alluded to
on the road. The one I'd read about in the papers, but hadn't
really thought much about. The agent had probably been their
friend. Now he had a proximity to me, too. Now he was real. The
second American cop the cartels had dared to touch. It struck me
not just as murder, but as a war crime in the so-called War on
Drugs. It made me feel both sick and enraged to think of that being
done to anyone, especially a cop. And I realized why the FBI wanted
Hidalgo so badly that they were willing to put up with my
But I still didn't know why Roberto was putting up with them.
In a low voice, and for once without rancor, Tom added, "His mother
and stepfather were both killed in Newark six weeks ago. A home
invasion gone bad, the local police say. A sibling in Los Angeles
was found with his tongue on his chest last week. The two sisters
are with federal marshals right now, and they didn't even know
their brother was working drugs for us."
"As for traditional confidential informants, none of the smugglers
or dealers we've arrested has been willing to talk," Mary said. "No
matter what sort of concessions we offer. We've even tried offering
dismissal of all charges, a hefty reward, and a place in the
Witness Protection Program for them and their entire extended
families. Not a single one of them has been willing to take that
kind of a gamble."
This explained all the surveillance equipment I'd helped carry into
the lodge. They were going to try another way in.
"I know I'm just supposed to be your local connection," I said, not
mentioning the obvious other job of bird-dogging Roberto while they
pump him for information. "But what else can I do? What's the plan
"Your primary duty will be to set up and monitor various
clandestine drops in town," Mary said. "We understand that some of
Hidalgo's men go in almost every night, and you'll be better suited
for checking the drops than any of us will."
That was certainly true. Neither Mary, a young Chinese woman, nor a
New Jersey asshole/wannabe cowboy like Tom would be likely to pass
unnoticed in Potash. The town did have, though, a large and
itinerant Hispanic population. Because of my mixed blood and
languages, and because I'd spent most of my career working in
Wyoming under various covers, I was the logical choice.
"So you do have an informant?" I asked, surprised.
Mary looked at me and then away, the way someone does when they're
ashamed of something. She looked to where Roberto was bent over on
the bench, his back to us, as he massaged Mungo's lanky hips.
"We will soon," she said.
Excerpted from CROSSING THE LINE © Copyright 2005 by
Clinton McKinzie. Reprinted with permission by Dell, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.