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