looked over the dash of the new Ford Taurus, already littered with
PowerBar wrappers, thanks to his partner. The constantly shifting
sea of people spread out over the front of the migrant labor camp
for the Bailey Brothers main farm. Even with the good Tasco
binoculars he’d been using, he had a hard time telling one
man from another.
His partner probably had the same problem but would never admit it.
That’s what you could expect from a guy who was never in the
military. He had the “cover your mistakes”
The big, lumpy man in the passenger seat kept adjusting the
binoculars as if they might compensate for the fact that every man
between twenty-five and forty in the camp was about five-seven and
had dark hair.
His partner scanned the large compound on U.S. Highway 27 in
extreme western Palm Beach County and said, “Don’t see
him, Alex. What’d ya say we pack it in for
Alex Duarte looked out over the labor camp silently, then at the
afternoon sun. “Only been here three hours. Let’s give
it a few more.”
“A few more hours?” His partner, Chuck Stoddard, turned
his wide frame. “No way. I gotta pick up the kids at day care
by six. It’ll take an hour just to get back
Duarte shrugged. “I can grab this guy. Go ahead. I’ll
drop you back at your car.”
“Alone? Not a chance. The warrant’s for selling guns.
We should even have a few more guys with us now.”
Duarte let it slide. He’d found it didn’t pay to argue
about something you weren’t going to change. He looked at the
warrant again. It was for the arrest of Alberto Salez for
violations of criminal statute 18 USC 44§ 922. A federal
firearms statute. Duarte knew that it was probably bullshit like a
lot of their regulatory cases, but it wasn’t up to him. He
followed instructions. The whole thing looked simple to him. This
guy broke the law, he and his partner were given the warrant and
now they had to find him. An informant had told them Salez stayed
in one of the trailers at this shithole. Sometimes he just wished
Stoddard wasn’t whining about going home already. How could
you ever get ahead if you weren’t willing to put in a little
extra effort? That was the problem with most of the guys he worked
with: they didn’t want to get ahead. They were satisfied with
just being street agents.
After the long silence, Stoddard said, “Okay, we’ll
wait, but my wife is gonna be pissed.” He snatched his cell
phone off his hip and started mashing buttons.
Duarte blocked out his partner’s pleadings with his wife over
the fate of the kids. Instead of being drawn into the call, he
concentrated on the information sheet and small, profile mug shot
attached to the warrant.
He studied the black-and-white photo, trying to figure out
something that might single out Salez. Under section titled
“Scars/Marks/Tattoos,” Duarte noticed a comment:
“Lower left ear missing.” It would help up close, but
from this distance it didn’t seem to apply.
When Stoddard had put away his phone, Duarte said, “We need
to get a lot closer. See?” He held up the sheet and tapped a
finger on the ear information.
“How do you figure he lost part of his ear?”
Stoddard said, “But if we go into the camp and he’s not
there, we’ll never get another chance. Once he hears a couple
of ATF agents were looking for him, he’ll be on the next bus
to California.” Stoddard took another look through the
binoculars. “What if you went down, alone,
“What’d you mean ‘undercover’? I’d
never fit in. They’d pick me out in a second.”
Stoddard hesitated. “I mean, ah, they are your
Duarte was confused. What was his redneck partner talking
Stoddard added, “You know what I mean. Spanish.”
Duarte turned to him. “I doubt any of those little people
picking fruit are from Spain. And I was born in West Palm Beach. So
I don’t know what you mean.”
“I know you’re a . . . a little taller and dressed
nice. I just meant that they’d pick me right
Duarte said, “I can get down there and get a good look
without mixing in the crowd. I’ll call if I see
anything.” He opened the car door and slid out. He wore a
loose shirt over a T-shirt that showed a surfer on a Costa Rican
beach. Also under the loose shirt was a Glock model 22, .40 caliber
Stoddard started to get out too.
“You wait here. We’ll need the car if I see
“What’d you mean? Why’re you going down there if
you don’t think you can mix in?”
Duarte shut the door. He had faith his partner would figure out
what he was doing. He tromped off through the weeds in the vacant
lot next to the car. He could see the labor camp as it sunk away
from the built up highway, almost making it look like it was set up
in a valley instead of the Florida swamp.
Duarte crossed the highway a quarter of a mile from the entrance to
the camp and then turned back, ducking low into the brush along the
perimeter of the flat camp. He felt the stab of a Florida holly
bush in his neck as he dropped down to the ground and began to
crawl through the dirt. His faded jeans were a lot tighter than
fatigues, but he still felt more comfortable doing this kind of
activity than he would have trying to mix with the Central American
laborers. The heat was bearable. It was May, but no one from the
Northeast would consider the temperature
The camp itself had a dusty feel. The pathways and the single road
were lime and unpaved. The soil out here in the glades was black
and rich, but the sun dried the top layer in a matter of days,
which contributed to the haze. In the distance, a cane field fire
added a smell and a soft white dullness to the whole camp. Duarte
didn’t mind—in fact, he liked crawling around like this
more that his usual duties at the Federal Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms. At least he wasn’t looking at gun store
records or typing up a report.
He traveled down one row of brush then crossed over to another that
ran closer to the line of trailers where people seemed to be coming
from every few minutes. He found another row of brush turning right
and switched onto it like he was on the 1 and 9 subway in New York.
No one noticed his tall, thin frame slide through the mix of
Florida holly, weeds, ficus and areca palms. After a few minutes,
he realized there was a system to the brush and realized it was
used as a wind barrier around certain crops. He found a good
intersection and then settled in to look for Alberto Salez. From
his hiding place, he could clearly see in three directions.
It was comfortable in the shade of the brush. He had sat in worse
spots in Bosnia, watching Serbian tanks make their short and
usually unsuccessful assaults.
He looked down at the scar that ran along his left forearm and
thought about that unfortunate low crawl into barbed wire outside
Broka. He didn’t worry about barbed wire here. Of course he
hadn’t worried about it in Bosnia either, and now he had a
fourteen-inch scar that itched most nights while he lay awake. He
reached down and unclipped his Nextel cell phone and carefully
turned off all the rings and beeps, placing everything on vibrate.
Then he chirped his partner.
In a low whisper, he said, “Chuck, I’m in place, stand
“I’m looking with the binoculars. Where are
He kept his voice low even though no one was close and there was a
lot of noise from the traffic on the highway and salsa music
blaring from one of the trailers. “I’m directly south
of the office trailer with the two red flags.”
After a minute his phone shook, and he heard Stoddard say, “I
don’t see you.”
“Trust me, I’m there. I’ll call if I see
him.” Duarte had to admit, at least to himself, it was
satisfying to have Stoddard unable to see him. He hadn’t
forgotten all his training from Fort Leonard Wood or Bragg.
He watched the regular late-afternoon movements of the camp and
noticed that people knew what to do and seemed to do it without
complaint. No one had to yell orders and everyone was busy. After
just thirty minutes, Duarte figured he had seen most of the
camp’s workers. Then, just as he was contemplating heading
back to the car, Duarte heard a female’s shout drift across
the camp. He tuned in the direction of the angry voice and saw the
open door to the trailer at the rear of the residential area.
A well-dressed woman in a tan skirt shoved a man outside,
emphasizing the act with some sharp phrases in Spanish. He
didn’t know the exact words, but he caught the meaning well
After the woman had slammed the door, the man looked around, almost
as if he was daring anyone to have noticed the incident at all. In
fact, the people in the camp appeared far too busy to worry about a
minor argument between two adults. The man, dressed in a colorful
polo-type shirt and clean jeans, looked out of place. His clothes
didn’t belong to a working person. He strutted past some men
trudging back from a field. He wasn’t working; he was showing
off. Duarte had little use for show-offs, especially in front of
people like this. He waited as the man came closer. The problem was
that as he walked toward the row of old, beat-up parked cars near
the highway, his left ear was on the wrong side of Duarte. He
wouldn’t see it clearly as the men walked past. His right ear
was intact, with a giant, round gold hoop earring dangling from it.
The single, side view of Salez from the old arrest photo
didn’t really look like this guy. There was no bushy mustache
in the photo, and his skin looked rougher than in the photo that
was a few years old.
He waited as the man passed and Duarte could get a good look at
him. It was hard to tell from the photo. Then, just as the man
passed, Duarte called from the bushes: “Alberto.”
The man turned quickly, like someone used to being on guard. He
looked down the row of trailers and never even glanced in
It was enough. Duarte could clearly see the mangled ear. This was
their man. Duarte waited until the man continued his trek toward
the cars and then chirped up his partner. “Chuck, he’s
walking toward the highway near the row of vehicles. Come on down,
nice and easy.”
“On the way.”
Duarte stepped out of the bushes away from Salez. No one even
noticed as he stood up and brushed himself off; his army training
to always stay neat kicking in, despite his urge to chase after the
fugitive. He stepped out to the pathway and started walking
casually toward Salez, who was now looking at the rear tires of a
beat-up Ford Mustang.
Duarte knew to wait for his partner, but what was taking him so
Then Salez, still unaware of Duarte as he approached, stood up and
turned toward the driver’s-side door. Duarte picked up the
pace and closed in on the car as Salez lingered at the door. As he
broke into a run, Duarte pulled out a badge on a chain from
underneath his shirt and let it hang like a necklace down his
chest. He looked up but didn’t see Stoddard in the Taurus
yet. He surprised Salez while he was still standing next to the
car. “Alberto Salez?”
The man’s head snapped at the sound of his name. His eyes
darted to the badge, and he sprang to the front of the car and
paused, his eyes shifting to each side. Duarte slid to a stop at
the rear of the rusty Mustang. He hadn’t drawn his Glock, and
wasn’t the least bit out of breath. He just wanted to give
Chuck a chance to roll up and help corral this guy. He said to
Salez, “Don’t run.”
Duarte thought, that’s a good question.
Salez turned toward the road, then saw Chuck Stoddard in the ATF
Ford Taurus pulling onto the side of the roadway. The fugitive
looked back at Duarte, then toward the rear of the camp, and broke
into an all-out sprint away from the highway. He managed to slip
past Duarte’s lunge by using the trunk of his Mustang to
block him, and by keeping a good pace.
Duarte matched his effort, but was a good ways back, and not quite
as fast. The gun on his hip threw off his stride, but he preferred
it to trying to run with a pistol in his hand. He didn’t
really like the feel of any pistol in his hand.
He watched as Salez tore past all the trailers, attracting the
stares of the other residents. Duarte didn’t know whether the
fugitive was hoping for help or had an escape route. Either way,
Salez had company as Duarte chased him past a packing house with a
loading dock and then into a crop of tall corn. It wasn’t
hard to follow the man as he brushed cornstalk after cornstalk.
They came out into an open field, and he could see the fugitive
start to lose steam. Finally Duarte saw him duck into a long shed
with wide double doors. Duarte didn’t hesitate to burst into
the shed. The biggest problem was that, as he came in from the
fading sunlight, he had no night vision in the dark shed.
Duarte still hadn’t drawn his gun. He preferred his fists, or
even a good explosive, if he had to choose a weapon. He
didn’t pause by the door, where he was silhouetted by the
sunlight. He turned and ducked to the side, then crouched to get
what limited view he could of the shed. It was longer than he
thought, and there was only one door. He was in here with
Duarte eased next to a large riding mower and listened. He was
breathing a little hard from the run, but this was the kind of
stuff he liked. He even smiled slightly for the first time all day.
Then he sensed movement directly in front of him. He felt the
swoosh of a shovel as it crashed into the hood of the mower.
Duarte didn’t wait for a second swing. He sprang up in the
direction the shovel had come and threw his body into the smaller
Salez. The fugitive fell back to the other side of the shed,
bouncing off the flexible aluminum walls.
Duarte moved to the right, forcing Salez to move toward the door
and into the light. Now Duarte had a clear view of the dark man
holding a short shovel like a baseball bat. Duarte feinted toward
him, causing Salez to swing full force at him. After the blade of
the shovel had passed, Duarte sprang forward and landed an open
shuto strike across Salez’s face. The hard edge of
Duarte’s hand made the man drop the shovel and stumble back
until he regained his composure again. In a quick, smooth motion,
Duarte reached up and stuck his finger through the large hoop
earring and yanked as the man passed him. Salez pivoted and
screamed in pain, as Duarte delivered a roundhouse kick to his
ribs, followed by a left punch on his chin. He dropped straight to
the ground without another sound.
Duarte looked at his right hand and saw the hoop earring with a one
inch hunk of flesh dripping from it. He had solved the mystery of
the fugitive’s other missing ear.
Excerpted from FIELD OF FIRE © Copyright 2011 by James O.
Born. Reprinted with permission by Putnam. All rights