"Hard to believe this is Bill King’s first published novel. He is a truly gifted story teller and I am looking forward to the further adventures of Pete Cortez." — Amazon Reviewer
Somewhere Along the Rio Grande
In Texas, decisions made in haste often come back to bite you in the butt. Hard.
A little more than an hour had passed since their deadly encounter with a group of unsuspecting Mexican drug smugglers along a remote stretch of the Rio Grande. Dawn was fast approaching and visibility was improving by the minute, as the first glimpses of the morning sun began to peek over the horizon.
Chucho and his two young henchmen were straddling their dusty, stolen dirt bikes, still breathing heavily, their faces caked with mud from the mixture of trail dust and sweat. The exhilaration of the past hour had not yet fully worn off. They had zigged and zagged down dirt trails and gravel roads bounding the river, managing to put some ten or fifteen miles between themselves and the site of the incident, which would now almost certainly be swarming with Border Patrol agents. A vehicle burning out of control at night, even in a remote area like that, tends to attract attention.
Chucho signaled for them to pull over next to a stand of mesquite trees. He had noticed a plume of smoke coming from a fire down toward the river and could now detect the unmistakable aroma of burned wood. The little man with the crooked nose leaned his dirt bike up against a tree and motioned for the other two to do the same.
“Looks like we might have some gabachos out for a little campout,” said Chucho, his off-center smile revealing a sizeable gap between his two front teeth. “Maybe we can make one last quick score before we call it a night.”
Not that they needed any more money. They were carrying two backpacks stuffed with the cash they had taken from some now-dead drug smugglers an hour earlier. For him, though, the thrill of the score was the true reward. It gave his life meaning.
“Come on, Chucho, the sun is almost up,” pleaded Miguelito, a skinny kid who couldn’t have been more than fifteen. “My grandmother is going to kill me if I’m late again.”
“First, we need to check out the campsite,” said Chucho, who was standing in front of a tree relieving himself. “After that, you’ll be home in thirty minutes…forty at the most. Now, follow my lead and, for once in your life, try to be silent, just in case we run into somebody who is not as friendly as us.”
* * * * *
Pete Cortez was dozing off, the tranquil rhythm of the nearby river’s moving waters soothing his nerves as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He was slumped down in a faded nylon and aluminum chair, the kind you can buy at just about any sporting goods store. Over time, the fierce Texas sun had bleached out most of the chair’s original maroon color to the point where the once white Texas A&M logo now practically blended in with the rest of the chair.
His long legs were outstretched in front of him, his left leg crossed over his right at the ankles, his well-worn boots wet and muddy from having stepped into the water several times to untangle his fishing line. A tattered nylon carrying bag hung over the chair’s back to keep it from blowing away.
Not that it would. The air was deathly still.
It was just before dawn and he had spent the past three hours doing some night fishing, although fishing was probably an overly generous description of what he was engaged in. He hadn’t caught anything. In fact, he’d only had a few nibbles, or at least they could have been nibbles. It was also possible his line might have been snagged by a random piece of debris making its way downstream from Laredo.
He had a lot on his mind lately. Things were not going well in his professional life, with the very real possibility that, for the second time since graduating from college a dozen years earlier, he might be making a major career change. This time, it wouldn’t be by his choice. He had a personality flaw he couldn’t shake, a severe case of what nowadays folks call opposition defiant disorder, an ironic situation given his choice of jobs. He was always trying to fit his round-hole personality into square-hole professions.
He rubbed the palm of his left hand across the stubble on his unshaven face. He had needed to take some time away from his high-pressure job, time to consider his future…or what was left of it, anyway. He was thirty-three, unmarried and feeling as if life was soaring past him like a meteor hurtling across the night sky. He felt rootless, untethered, a man without a place he could truly call home.
The recent rainfall had given life to a remarkable variety of native plant life along the Rio Grande, adding to the majestic beauty that was just now coming into view as the sun began its gradual ascent. Soon, the warmth of the morning sun would bring out the fragrance of the springtime plant life. By June, those exotic smells would be gone for the season, having fallen victim to the hot sun and infrequent rains.
Green would soon turn to brown, as it had for centuries.
The rains had also brought to life what seemed to be a billion mosquitoes that were beginning to stir as they prepared for their early morning feeding. His free hand slapped his right arm, nailing one of the fat little predators and leaving a blotch of blood smeared along the meaty portion of his forearm.
He reached down and grabbed for the nearly empty thermos of hot buttered rum laying sideways on the ground beside him. He poured the last of its contents into a black Yeti mug and took a hearty swig. Normally he wasn’t much of a drinker but this morning it just felt right.
His trancelike musing was interrupted by the muffled sound of several dirt bikes approaching in the distance behind him. He had always had good hearing, even if his listening skills sometimes needed work.
Cortez stood up and turned around to look, stretching his arms and legs to help restart his circulation. The well-worn heels on his muddy cowboy boots added a couple of extra inches to his height. His Army physicals had always listed him at six-two but his last work physical in Houston a couple of months earlier recorded him at six-one.
Terrific, he had thought at the time. With everything else going on, I’m also shrinking.
Three men suddenly appeared from behind a small grove of mesquite trees about fifty feet away. The morning sun was just breaking over the horizon and Cortez could see them reasonably well. They continued walking toward him, their gait reflecting absolute confidence. They stopped about ten feet from Cortez.
“Oye, gabacho, what are you doing here on my land?” asked Chucho, his smile highlighted by the wide gap between his front teeth. He spoke in heavily accented English.
“Just doing a little fishin’,” Cortez replied in a thick Texas drawl that was really just an affectation he had picked up while in college in order to better fit in. He had attended private international schools while growing up overseas, where his father had been an American petroleum engineer working for Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company.
His steely blue eyes, a legacy from his mother’s side of the gene pool, quickly scanned the three men, one by one, his head not moving. Probably coyotajes, he thought. Two of them, the younger ones, looked like kids. Both had their hands on their hips, most likely so they could more quickly draw the pistols that were undoubtedly tucked in the back of their trousers.
“A friend of mine owns a cabin about a mile or so from here,” said Cortez, gesturing off in the distance behind the trio with the flimsy fishing rod he still held in his left hand. A bead of sweat from his forehead dripped onto his thick eyeglasses.
One of them, a skinny little kid who appeared to be still in his mid-teens, was clearly agitated and spoke anxiously in Spanish to the little man with the parrot beak nose.
“Let’s just kill this stupid gabacho and get going,” he pleaded. “I need to get home, Chucho. It’s Sunday morning and I have to take my grandmother to church.”
“Calm yourself, little one,” Chucho replied, almost fatherly, in Spanish. He looked over at the older of the two, whose face was pockmarked from a short lifetime of poor nutrition and God only knows what else. “Okay, here’s the plan. Paco, you can keep his watch and any jewelry. Miguelito, you can have his wallet—buy your abuela a nice present—then I’ll shoot him, and we can all go home so you can get to church on time.”
Cortez’s face remained expressionless, not giving them any reason to suspect that he understood every word they had said. However, knowing Spanish would not solve his larger problem. His weapon, along with his FBI credentials, was on the ground beside his chair, tucked inside a green canvas Cabela’s tackle bag, together with an assortment of fishing lures and weights and other angling paraphernalia.
Even though the bag was only a few feet away, he doubted he could outrun a bullet, which would surely be on its way at any sign of sudden movement on his part. His only other option was the old Fairbairn-Sykes dagger he kept sheathed on his left forearm, hidden from view underneath his long-sleeve khaki fishing shirt. His grandfather had given it to him years ago, a souvenir from the old man’s days with the OSS during World War Two.
One seven-inch knife against three pistols wasn’t very good odds, no matter how sharp the blade was.
Miguelito, the schoolboy, had already drawn his weapon—an FN-57 pistol, by the look of it. He remained back about ten paces, keeping his gun pointed at Cortez, while Paco casually sauntered toward him before stopping, face-to-face, less than a foot away from the FBI agent. The pockmarked man reeked of sweat and dirt, the same raunchy smell Cortez’s gym bag usually took on after spending a hot afternoon locked inside his parked pickup truck.
“Put down the fishing pole, cabrón, and hand me your watch,” he said in lightly accented English, with a slight hint of a drawl. Could be an American, Cortez thought, or at least someone who had grown up in this country.
Paco reached for Cortez’s left wrist.
His eyes fixed on the schoolboy’s weapon ten feet away, Cortez shifted ever-so-slightly to his left so that he could use Paco’s body as a shield. Before the young Mexican could react, Cortez had unsheathed the old OSS dagger hidden under his left shirt sleeve and, in the blink of an eye, sliced the man’s juggler vein, sending blood squirting from his neck like a ruptured pressurized pipe.
In the instant before Paco’s dead body could collapse to the ground, Miguelito began wildly firing his weapon. Fortunately for Cortez, the boy reflexively tried to shoot around Paco’s already dead body rather than through it, causing him to miss and allowing the FBI agent the split second he needed to snatch the FN-57 from Paco’s waistband.
He fired two shots at the schoolboy, the first hitting him in the stomach, the second his shoulder.
Cortez quickly shifted his focus to the third man, the one they had called Chucho. Rather than join the fight, though, the short, stocky man was running away at a full sprint into the distance, past the mesquite trees, and quickly disappeared from sight. Moments later, Cortez heard the high-pitched whine from the revving engine of one of the dirt bikes.
He looked down at Miguelito, the schoolboy, who was rasping and sobbing.
“Ayúdame,” he said, gasping for breath, the look on his face reflecting the fact that he knew death was only moments away. “Please help me.”
* * * * *
Just South of the Rio Grande
Graciela Montoya cradled her oversized coffee cup with both hands as she took a sip of her vanilla latte, a morning ritual she had adopted during her student days in California.
She was seated at the head of a long, ornately carved wooden table in the formal dining room. The crisply starched white linen tablecloth and sterling silver flatware were in stark juxtaposition with the casual appearance of the five young people seated around the table who, like her, were dressed in jeans and tee shirts.
The leafy branches of the old oak trees on the east side of the hacienda filtered the morning sun, which cast a soft ray of light through the tall windows that bracketed both sides of a dark walnut Spanish colonial hutch. A forty-inch flat screen television rested on the sideboard against the east wall, where it was protected from the sun’s glare.
It was Sunday morning and the TV was tuned to the Laredo Univision channel’s morning news, providing little more than background noise for the group of twenty-somethings enjoying their breakfast before reporting to work. Graciela’s attention, though, was focused on the gold-colored iPad propped up in front of her half-empty plate.
Ernesto, the night shift leader at the Bunker, had delivered it to her bedroom suite on the second floor of the Rancho’s main house a little more than an hour earlier. On it, she was watching a video of a cross-border smuggling operation gone wrong, one that had taken place around four o’clock that morning. She had watched it three times already, hoping to glean something, anything, that might give her an idea of who might have been behind it.
At first glance, there appeared to be nothing remarkable about the scene, especially not nowadays. Unremarkable, that is, until the SUV on the American side of the border—the one she had just watched being loaded with contraband—suddenly burst into a ball of flames moments after five men had climbed inside and the vehicle began pulling away.
Then, maybe ten seconds later, another two men appeared from out of nowhere, straddling dirt bikes, illuminated by the burning vehicle. They nonchalantly shot the two surviving men as they huddled on the ground, then took off with two duffle bags strapped to their backs, each of which most likely contained cash...a lot of it.
“Animales,” Graciela muttered to herself, picking up her fruit knife and peeling the rind from an orange. She looked worried.
Her companions at the table were the four members of the Bunker’s oncoming relief shift—two women and two men. They were caught up in an animated conversation about a local soccer match as they finished their breakfast of fresh fruit and chilaquiles before heading downstairs to work. They paid little attention to the television, which was reporting on the past week’s violence along the Texas-Mexico border.
Univision Laredo interrupted their report with late-breaking news about a run-in between several Mexican nationals and an American fisherman that left two of the Mexicans dead. A third unidentified individual had escaped. The fisherman, whose name was being withheld, was reported to be an off-duty law enforcement official. He was unharmed.
“What’s the matter, Graciela?” one of the young women asked, reaching over and lightly touching her on the arm. The young woman had not been paying attention to the television, but she could tell by the look on Graciela’s face that something was troubling her.
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about…probably just a couple of coyotajes caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she replied half-heartedly. She was concerned that any violent incident in proximity to The Rancho might bring unwanted attention to their activities. “There’s so much gratuitous violence these days.”
But Graciela had to worry about such things because she was responsible for all operations at Rancho Buena Fortuna. At twenty-six, she was only a few years older than the cadre of men and women who now worked for her. However, unlike them, she had the advantage of a Stanford education.
Not that she had been born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father was a gardener, her mother a maid. Both were longtime domestic servants for a wealthy but childless Monterrey attorney and his wife, who had doted on Graciela from the day she was born. It was through their kindness and generosity that the girl was able to attend the best private schools in Monterrey while growing up.
She was extremely bright, an excellent student, and so when the time came, the couple arranged for her to travel to the United States to attend Stanford as an engineering student.
That set into motion a series of events that no one, except perhaps the kindly old attorney, ever could have imagined.
Contrary to its name, Rancho Buena Fortuna was neither a ranch nor a farm, at least not anymore. Originally established as a family getaway more than a century ago by a wealthy industrialist from Monterrey, it was now serving its highest and best use as a surreptitious crossing point into the United States.
Graciela had been working at The Rancho for the past fifteen months. For the first three, the place had been overseen by a violent thug by the name of Chucho. He was an enforcer for the previous owner and was a good ten years older than Graciela. His talents and disposition were ideal for the border region’s traditional commerce, which concentrated on drug smuggling and human trafficking.
Their relationship was a rivalry between the old order and the new. She was the future and he was the past, although he did not fully appreciate at the time that the die had already been cast…and that he had come up snake eyes.
Then, just over a year ago, the Rancho changed ownership. Its former owner, a Mexican Federal Policeman known as El Coronel, had summoned Chucho without warning to his home down in Monterrey to inform him of the change. He was also instructed to stay clear of the Rancho. Forever. No further explanation. Just stay away.
El Coronel had a soft spot for Chucho, whom he had taken under his wing as a young boy. The policeman had plans for Chucho so, to soften the blow to his ego, he sent him north to Dallas to learn the ins and outs of the American trafficking business from one of his colleagues. By relocating him four hundred miles to the north, the policeman also hoped to prevent him from doing anything stupid during the transition period.
Ownership of the property was not the only thing that changed.
The new owners of the Rancho would no longer focus on drugs and human trafficking. Instead, their goals were strategic. They wanted to carve their own niche by focusing on providing logistical support for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
It wasn’t that they abhorred drugs and human trafficking. After all, that was precisely where their original wealth had come from. Instead, they saw the Rancho as a new product line for them, one with even higher margins and a very specialized clientele.
Besides, the chaos their actions would create would make it easier to carry out their other criminal enterprises in the U.S. with less risk and fewer interruptions.
The other people who lived and worked at the Rancho knew nothing about Graciela’s past, other than that she was a Mexican girl who had attended some fancy university in the United States. They liked her. A lot. She was taller than most of them and on the pretty side, with dark hair and green eyes, and full of life.
Except for a few of the older employees, they also knew very little about Chucho, who was already gone by the time most of them had been hired. Still, they knew him by reputation and were glad he was no longer around.
Those few who knew him best, however, doubted that he would remain banished forever.
* * * * *
The new nerve center of Rancho Buena Fortuna was The Bunker, which was designed to orchestrate a highly secure, under-the-radar border crossing and staging area for surreptitious assaults into the United States.
It had been conceived by two criminal plutocrats—one Mexican, the other French—over a quiet dinner in Rio de Janeiro just eighteen months earlier. The concept was to offer their considerable logistical infrastructure and expertise to global terrorist organizations…a 3PL for political zealots.
Through a series of dummy corporations, the new owner of the Rancho—a wealthy Monterrey attorney—had also secretly acquired seven-hundred-and-fifty acres of land on the American side, just across the river from the Rancho. It was large enough to meet their needs, while small enough to not attract unwanted attention.
He had turned to a bright young woman, Graciela Montoya, fresh out of graduate school, to turn his vision into a reality. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, she was being groomed for this responsibility since early childhood, when that same Monterrey attorney and his wife generously offered to pay for her schooling. Since they were childless, they had chosen Graciela to carry on their legacy.
Family ties gave added strength to business relationships.
Construction of the massive underground complex began almost immediately thereafter, with Graciela—an engineer by training—managing the process, which was made simpler by the remoteness of the area. Most of the original heavy excavation work was done between the hours of dusk and dawn, by four 26-ton bulldozers that were hidden inside a dilapidated wooden barn on the Texas side during the day.
The excavation and construction work were hidden from prying eyes from above by an extensive array of camouflage netting, which had been stolen from the Mexican army. They even maintained an armed security force of forty men deployed throughout the entire twenty-acre project area to prevent any outsiders from stumbling onto the site.
The complex consisted of a series of underground buildings, most of which were on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Once the concrete for the subsurface buildings and tunnels had cured, Graciela buried the entire complex underground, with the Bunker on the Mexican side and the storage and living buildings on the U.S. side.
Afterwards, she erected a couple of outbuildings on the surface above them to hide any trace of the major construction project that lay beneath. These were farm buildings that one would typically find on a ranch, along with a circular corral like you’d see in any western movie.
The underground facilities on both sides of the Rio Grande were connected by the main tunnel that extended underneath the river from a long rectangular outbuilding on the Rancho side to an old barn on the American side, a distance of roughly five kilometers.
The entire project took less than ten months to build, although outfitting the underground operational rooms was still ongoing.
* * * * *
“Oye, niños, it is time to get going,” said Graciela, placing her crisp, white linen napkin neatly on her plate. She grasped the edge of the table in front of her with both hands and pushed back her chair, rising to her feet.
The others quickly followed her lead. One of the men snatched a banana and an orange and stuffed them into the front pouch of his baggy green hoodie for later.
They walked across the kitchen and stopped in front of a solid oak door, just to the left of a massive, stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerator. The man in the green hoodie grabbed for the doorknob and opened the door, revealing the old construction stairs that led down into the basement.
“When are they going to replace these stairs, Graciela?” he asked. “Every time we walk up and down them, I’m afraid they’re going to collapse.”
“Be patient. It’s not really at the top of the priority list,” she said. “We’ll probably get to it in the next week or so.”
Once downstairs, they walked across the large open room to a freight elevator, which took them down another thirty feet below ground. It was dank and smelled musty.
“Remind me to have a heater installed down here,” said Graciela, briskly rubbing her cold arms as they stepped out of the freight elevator and into an open lobby area. “Well, at least the tunnel lights seem to work.”
A fifty-meter walk down a tunnel took them to a heavy steel door securing the entrance to the Bunker. As far as tunnels went, this one was almost opulent, not like a dirt tunnel that a prisoner or soldier would dig by hand or with a shovel. This tunnel was well lit and encased in reinforced concrete. The corridor was roughly ten feet high and ten feet wide to accommodate the wide array of equipment they moved in and out. It still had a look and feel of newness.
Graciela entered the combination code into the square digital pad box located to the right of the heavy steel door. This led into the Bunker, a name they had bestowed upon it in recognition of the room’s stark, bare appearance. When they entered, the members of the previous day’s crew all turned their focus towards them.
Similar in age and appearance to the incoming shift, they had been down there for the past twelve hours and were eagerly looking forward to some fresh air, breakfast and much needed sleep.
“Okay, everyone, gather around while Ernesto fills us in on last night’s events,” said Graciela, eager to get on with things. Ernesto was the leader of the outgoing shift. “Begin with the exploding car, please.”
* * * * *
Order your copy now on AMAZON
Two criminal oligarchs—one Mexican, the other French—secretly join forces to make their extensive logistics and distribution networks available to global terrorists ... with terrifying consequences!
Sign up to hear from me about my upcoming novels.