Jake flashed Radman a few times with the high beam lights from the Durango. The old green Thunderbird pulled over into the dirt shoulder and kicked up a cloud of dust. Radman had been driving on this road long enough to know that everyone on it at any given time of the day or night was most probably a Border Patrol Agent. Regardless of his comfort level with where he was going, he never went anywhere unarmed. This trip was no exception.
The dust began to dissipate. Radman lumbered out of the Thunderbird and walked back to greet Jake and crew as they approached him.
“I guess you guys heard the news too, huh?” Radman asked the trio.
“News? We didn’t get any news. We all got the same annoying bogus phone message though,” said Bax.
“Did you get a phone call too?” Jake asked him.
“Yep, I got the phone call too. Didn’t answer though. Listened to the voice mail. Figured I’d come down here when I felt the time was right,” he said.
“And right now’s the right time?” asked Bax. He tapped on the glass of his old fashioned wrist watch.
“Well, I figured now is a better time than having them come looking for me.”
“Oh great, another one. You don’t really think this is anything serious, do you?” Bax asked.
“I don’t see how you can’t think this is something serious. Politicians used the excuse for so long that government employees were costing the taxpayers more money than they were worth. They’ve been feeding the public the line that the government worker’s unions have been lobbying on behalf of poor performers and corrupt agents. Government privateers have been saying for years that they could hire private companies to do any government agency’s job cheaper and better than lazy government employees could and the public’s been buying it. What better government agency is there to start with than the Border Patrol? Just get rid of it and replace it completely. Tell the public what a good choice they made and that they were right all along. All they’d need to do is put some puff piece on TV about how good a job the government appointed contractor is doing to drum up some fake post-sale reinforcement. The entire population of the southwestern United States hates the Border Patrol anyway. You guys know that. They’ve been wanting us out of here for decades. Maybe they finally got the green light to disband us completely and those phone calls we got were our pink slips,” Radman said.
“Makes sense, Frank. But in a way that a psychiatrist might describe as a Jungian-style persecution complex,” said Sandy.
“Well, before you go committing me to a mental institution, hear me out here. Turns out the politicians have private ownership at some level in all the companies they award those government contracts to anyway. You all know that. The Vice President of the United States owns the company that sells us our uniforms. Has for years. Who’s to say that they haven’t just traded us in for a private security firm that they own?”
“You’re sounding like a paranoid old man, Frank. You got me a little concerned for your mental health, buddy,” said Bax as he snickered a little.
“Come on, Radman. There are some serious flaws in your idea. You’ve been listening to way too much late night AM radio when you should be getting your beauty sleep, pal. Can’t you hear yourself? You sound like one of those conspiracy theory cuckoos! I’ll admit that all of us receiving the same call around the same time is a little odd. But, it’s still nothing more than an automated call. This isn‘t the first time our employer has done something that makes no sense whatsoever. What’s the big deal?” said Jake.
“Well that is exactly what I intend to go in there and find out for myself. You guys are more than welcome to join me if you wish. I know you’re curious too. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here on the side of the road by the station talking to me in the middle of your weekend. The whole damn thing is just so fishy sounding, I gotta go see. I’m heading in there.”
Radman broke from the group and went back to his idling Thunderbird.
“Do you guys want to follow him? We can’t let the old nut go in there by himself, can we?” Jake said looking at Sandy. He gestured up the road towards the station.
“Let’s go with him,” she replied.
“Might as well go and get it over with,” Bax snorted.
All four of them returned to their vehicles and caravanned towards the front gates with Radman’s Thunderbird in the lead. They went around the bend in the road heading north and up the incline. When they made it to the gates Radman was the first to encounter the guards. As he pulled up to the gate, two armed men dressed in black exited from an impromptu guard shack set up on the left and approached his vehicle. One man walked around to the passenger side of the car and began probing the interior with a flashlight that was attached to the muzzle of an M4 rifle. Radman felt like he had just pulled into a Mexican style military checkpoint like the ones he had driven through a thousand times in Tijuana, Ensenada and Rosarito. Just inside the gates was a pair of black Humvees on either side of the driveway leading to the station’s main parking lot.
He could see through the fence into the lot. There were no Border Patrol vehicles in sight. In place of the usual green and white Jeeps, Dodge Rams and Tahoes were Humvees painted completely in matte black. Their dull black reflectionless surface seemed to completely absorb the yellow parking lot lights.
Jake, Sandy and Bax saw the same thing from the elevated interior of the Durango. None of the stuff they saw was there the day before and the stuff they did not see was. Some of the Humvees had circular turrets of some type mounted on their roofs. Sandbag barricades lined the corners of the perimeter fence along the bottom and concertina razor wire along the tops. The engraved stone U.S. Border Patrol monument near the security keypad that had been there for as long as any of them could remember was gone. In its place was a plastic banner that hung on the fence behind where the monument should have been that had the words Halcyon America with a matte black background and red lettering. Also in red was a bird logo that looked to Radman like a knock-off of the classic Hecho en Mexico logo.
Radman stared at the scene before him in absolute disbelief. The Border Patrol had made drastic policy changes in the past, but this was way beyond the imagination level that anyone on the Oversight Staff could ever even dream of by themselves. Oversight’s complete lack of anything similar to a sense of humor also ruled out the remote possibility of a very elaborate prank. His conspiracy theories were correct, he decided. The Border Patrol, at least as he knew it, was no longer. It had been replaced instead by some matte black aberration.
Radman was snapped to attention by a glassy metallic tapping on his rolled up driver’s side window. He turned towards the sound and saw the muzzle of an M4 rifle pointed at his face. Holding the weapon was a short indigenous looking man dressed in black fatigues, matte black helmet and a black tactical vest outfitted with ammo pouches, portable radio and other obscure field accessories that he thought he would probably never have a practical use for even if he remained on duty for the next two thousand years. On the right side of the rifle wielder’s chest was the same Halcyon logo that was on the banner and the same logo was on both shoulder patches. Nowhere on the guard’s uniform was there a name tag or any personal identification.
Jake and crew had observed everything from behind.
“What in the holy hell is this?” asked Bax more rhetorically than anything else. What they were seeing was apparent enough, but defied all logic.
“Bax, it looks like we might miss that appointment with the pub after all,” said Jake.
“No kidding,” came the reply from a gape-mouthed, disbelieving and ultimately disappointed Baxter.
There was a security camera on top of the guard shack which started panning, its remote operator scanning Radman’s vehicle. A phone rang inside the guard shack. Through the doorway, all four of them saw another guard inside the shack pick it up and put the handset to his ear. All the guards had the same dark complexion and exaggerated rhinion consistent with the indigenous people from places like Chiapas, Oaxaca, Yucatan, Guatemala and other Central American countries.
“What do you want? Why are you here?” the guard closest to Radman asked him. His thick accent made what he said barely understandable. If Radman had not been working with and for people who spoke like this for the past twenty years, he would have had no clue what the guard just said to him. He thought about trying to speak Spanish to the guard, but realized that the guard’s English was probably better than his Spanish. Marble-mouthed English would win out over butchered Spanish.
“What do I want? I work here, buddy. Worked here for twenty years. This is my station. What are you doing here? What’s this all about?” Radman said pointing to the guard shack, the Halcyon logo and beyond.
Radman got the impression that the guard interrogating him was the Halcyon equivalent of a lead agent or the supervisor.
“Shut off car and give me your Border Patrol ID. Slow! Let me see hands!” the lead guard ordered. Radman complied and pulled his badge and credentials out of his back pocket. He was careful not to expose the thirty-eight revolver on his right hip. The guard snatched the credentials, glanced back and forth between the ID and Radman, still holding the M4 rifle with his right hand steady on Radman.
The man in the guard shack hung up the phone with a hasty slam and ran out to the guard closest to Radman, handed him a piece of paper and stood by. The lead guard read the paper fast and handed it back to the courier guard. The courier accepted the paper, shoved it into his cargo pant pocket, and clumsily shouldered his M4. He fumbled a gloved hand all over the weapon trying to feel for the selector switch that takes it off of safety and readies it for fire. He found the switch and started twisting it in all directions until some urge unknowable to the exterior world was satisfied. He swung the weapon back and forth in exaggerated arcs between Radman and the Durango unable to decide which one he should be pointing at. Radman could hear his nervous breathing over the idling Durango behind them.
I wouldn’t have given that wacko a BB gun and they gave him an M4?! Radman thought as he kept his eye on the nervous guard’s movements.
“Why you not come last night when they call you?” the guard asked.
Before Radman could make up an explanation believable enough for a guy holding him at gunpoint, the guard snapped at him.
“Get out of car. Turn around!”
Feeling the pressure of having three assault rifles pointed at him, Radman could do little more than what he was told. He felt the muzzle of the M4 press into the small of his back. The guard on the passenger’s side had his M4 shouldered and pointed at Radman with the flashlight still burning away.
“What the hell is going on? This is insane,” said Bax.
“I don’t like this at all,” said Sandy.
“Well this is a bit more than we expected, I’d say,” said Jake. “Anybody got any ideas?”
“Jake, we need to do something. It looks like they’re getting ready to handcuff him,” said Sandy.
“Yeah and guess who’s getting cuffed next if we don’t make a move and move fast,” said Bax.
“Right. I get the idea.”
Radman heard the familiar hollow pop of a handcuff case being unsnapped and his mind immediately started to conjure plans for his escape. As he worked up the nerve to make a move, his attention was shattered by the abrupt and completely unexpected honking horn blaring out from the blue Durango idling behind the Thunderbird. All three guards looked as well. The nervous guard swung his M4 towards the Durango in a manner so aggressive and clumsy that he scraped the back of the lead guard’s helmet with the tip of the M4’s muzzle. The lead guard’s helmet was tipped down over his eyes form the contact. He adjusted his helmet, cast a glaring scowl back at his bumbling colleague, and then redirected his nasty glare at the Durango.
Jake released the horn and hung out the window completely ignoring the fact that the guards were pointing assault rifles at him and one of his coworkers.
“Hey what’s the holdup out here gentlemen? I gotta get in there. I gotta go to work, you know. They get real pissed when I’m late,” yelled Jake.
“Calmate gringo. We get to you next,” yelled the lead guard. He then proceeded to extract the cuffs from their case. He returned his full attention back on Radman.
The nervous guard’s weapon was still pointed at the Durango, but his head was twisted around and watching the lead guard try to wrench Radman’s hands behind his back with one hand and to put handcuffs on him while holding his rifle with the other hand. Jake slid back into the driver’s seat. He grabbed onto the top of the steering wheel and pulled himself forward in an attempt to adjust his position. His elbow made contact with the center of the steering wheel and set the vehicle’s horn off again, but this time in a brief staccato pulse of a few notes. Jake’s foot also slipped onto the accelerator making the truck’s engine emit a threatening roar and the vehicle to abruptly lurch forward.
The horn and engine noise alone were enough to startle the already skittish guard. Startled by the Durango, his twitchy finger squeezed down hard on the hair trigger of the M4. He emptied his weapon’s magazine before the idea emerged in his brain to release his death grip off the trigger.
Most of the rounds flew harmlessly off into the night sky, but the first few that exited the muzzle skipped off of the roof of the Durango, skimming the paint off its surface. The sound of both the weapon firing in their direction and the bullets scraping the roof were audible inside the Durango. Jake, Sandy and Bax instinctively ducked as low as their seats would allow. From his scrunched down position, Jake reached up for the gear shifter, put the Durango in drive and decided to use the SUV as a deadly weapon and mow the firing guards down.
The Durango roared into gear. Its rear tires bit hard into the asphalt, rocketed forward, and slammed into the rear of the Thunderbird. The Durango bulldozed the Thunderbird up against the station’s gates barricading them shut and pinning the guard wielding the flashlight between the gate and car. Every bone in the guard’s torso from the waist down was crushed and left him paralyzed. Every organ encased in his lower abdomen was mashed to pulp. It would only be a short matter of time before he bled to death internally.
Radman made his move. Taking advantage of the bedlam caused by the presumed rescue attempt, Radman spun around to face the guard and took a wild swing at his head with a right haymaker. The guard’s instinct was to put his left arm out for the block. Radman’s punch nailed the guard’s hand and sent the credentials the guard held flying through the air. He clamped down on the guard’s M4 and held it steady in his left armpit.
In a panic the guard pulled the trigger and fired off a volley of rounds. The violent movement of the bolt slamming back and forth easily tore through Radman’s old denim jacket and shredded the flesh on the inside of his upper arm. That only added to Radman’s adrenaline fueled rage as he wrenched the weapon from the guard with a violent twist of his entire body. He spun to face the guard and drove the heel of his palm down on the smaller man’s forehead and face knocking the black helmet off of his head and into the bushes off to the side of the road. The guard crumbled into unconsciousness after one strike. Radman fell onto the blacked out man and switched from pummeling with his palm, to elbow strikes and hammer fists to the face, delivered with the fury and reckless abandon of an enraged silverback gorilla.
Jake backed the Durango up and flipped it around in preparation for their escape from the area. Bax flung the back door open and yelled for Radman to jump in. Radman got up off of the unconscious Halcyon guard and stood up. He hesitated for a moment and scanned the ground for his lost credentials. He seemed confused. He turned to face the Durango and Sandy noticed that he was bleeding profusely from his left armpit and from where his right hand struck the brim of the guard’s helmet. His old, thread-bare denim jacket was soaked through with blood. His whole left side down to his jeans was bright red with leaking arterial blood.
Having no luck finding his missing credentials, Radman stood over and spat on the guard he had battered into unconsciousness. Bax screamed for Radman to get in the truck. Jake led the vehicle into a slow roll fully expecting Radman to come running and jump in.
Bax was getting ready to jump out and pull Radman in as he noticed him trying to pull the revolver from its holster with his bloody right hand. Radman winced with pain. The adrenaline that masked the pain of his broken wrist and shredded armpit was wearing off. He looked up again at Bax yelling to him, started to come to his senses and stumbled his way towards the Durango.
Bax was stretched out trying to help Radman jump in when another extended volley of M4 rounds blasted out from near the guard shack accompanied by the strobe effect of fully automatic muzzle flash at night. Radman was stitched up the back and dropped to the ground instantly, leaving behind a cloud of pink mist and disintegrated fabric illuminated by the Halcyon perimeter lights. The nervous guard stood behind him with a smoldering and empty M4. During the chaos he had managed to successfully reload and prep his weapon for fire. He clumsily began the reloading process again. His mental struggle to remember the sequence necessary for a successful reload was visibly apparent.
Petrified with shock, Bax’s initial reaction was to stare at Radman’s bullet riddled body as he rapidly bled out down the slight grade. More rounds slammed through the open rear passenger door sending plastic splinters and little blocks of shattered door window airborne. Debris was launched into the Durango’s front seat and scattered along the dash board.
Jake hammered the accelerator. The last Halcyon guard standing fired the remaining rounds in his M4’s magazine at the escaping Durango. This time he missed with every single round. By the time he fumbled yet another magazine into the weapon and racked a round into the chamber, the Durango was out of his sight.
Jake, Bax and Sandy were speechless as they went down the grade, rounded the curve and sped off down the road lit by dim moonlight. By the time the Durango hit the end of the straight away, more Halcyon personnel had poured out of the converted Border Patrol station and sprinted towards the front gates. They all carried long arms and were desperate for something to shoot at. But it would be a long while before they would be able to pry Radman’s wrecked Thunderbird from wedging the gates shut.
Even though they were off the road leading from the station, Jake did not ease up on the accelerator. He took a right at the end of the straight away onto a dirt road and headed south. As the Durango’s tires made contact with the dirt road, he hoped that the heir apparent to the Border Patrol were not as adept as their predecessors at sign cutting, although the most novice sign cutter would be able to cut fresh SUV tire sign even in the scant moonlight. The road did not appear to have been driven on recently by any off-roaders. Anyone looking for their tire sign on the dirt road would find it almost immediately and track them down. That is only if they bother to look. The fleeing trio hoped that the Halcyon guards at the gate were as dumb as they looked and would not even have the simple presence of mind to check the dirt roads for the sign. As a precautionary measure, Jake blacked out his headlights and drove by the moonlight.
They continued south through the twisting dirt truck trails at a fast pace and ended up on a paved road that led to a wooden bridge that crossed a large open sewer known locally as the Tijuana River. Jake stopped the Durango, killed the ignition and carefully looked and listened for any indication that they were being watched or followed. Once they were satisfied that there was no one in the area looking for them yet, Jake started the vehicle again and continued south over the little wooden bridge and into the mouth of Narco Canyon. Portions of the entryway into the canyon were thick with vegetation and provided ample cover. The air thickened as they entered the canyon and the Durango filled with the earthy smells of swamp, sage brush and of course raw sewage from the nearby Tijuana River.
Having worked in the area their entire careers, Jake, Baxter, and Sandy had the advantage over the Halcyon troopers, who they assumed were new to the area. They knew where all the seismic and infrared sensors were installed. They knew where the magnetic sensors were that detected only vehicle traffic. They knew the location of every single remote viewing camera hidden in the trees, as well as their range of motion detection and field of view. And after years of studying how illegal aliens could successfully navigate through the minefield of low and high technology devices deployed in the field, they had learned how to avoid them as well and would do so now. They would have no choice if they wanted to survive this ordeal. They knew that just as they had looked for aliens through those cameras during their tenure as Border Patrol Agents, so would the Halcyon troopers using the same exact equipment.
Jake parked the Durango in a grove thick with cane, pine and eucalyptus trees. All three of them grabbed branches filled with fresh pine needles, walked back a short distance to the mouth of the canyon and brushed out their tire tracks. They were well versed in the deceptive art of making a brush out not look at all like a brush out and in short order it was as if they had never passed into the canyon. That was another trick they had learned from their illegal alien counterparts over the years. As they worked their way back to the Durango, they dragged the pine needle branches behind them to brush out their footprints as well. They reached the vehicle, got inside, and gently pulled the doors closed making as little noise as possible.
“Now what?” asked Bax.
“Exactly. Now what? Good question,” responded Jake.
“Whatever we are going to do, we need to do it very soon. It probably will not be long before those murdering bastards start looking for us in the local vicinity,” said Sandy.
“You really think they’d bother looking for us down here?” asked Jake.
“Yes, I think they will and as soon as they are able. I do not think that it will be too long before they set out from the station to begin a general area search. At some point one of them is likely to find our tire tracks leaving the paved road and entering onto the dirt one whether they are actively searching for tire sign leaving the blacktop or not. Why would they not follow that? You moved a lot of dirt around back there,” said Sandy.
“Yeah. Did you see those guys back there? I mean get a good look at them? They looked like tonks. Just like little country bumpkins. Like Oaxacans or Chiapan indio tonks. I bet every one of ‘em is a sign cutting expert or at least an expert at brushing out their own sign. They’ll see our tracks and be all over us. I bet they got a whole army of them back there at the station just chomping at the bit to get out here and kill some more gringos,” Bax said.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if they really do have a whole army of them back there. Remember what that alien that we interviewed earlier told us?” asked Jake.
The question ultimately was rhetorical. Jake knew that both Bax and Sandy would not have forgotten that between then and the unbelievable events that transpired moments earlier, despite their respite at the bar. He acknowledged their lack of a response as a yes.
“Well, it looks like they now have their army in place,” said Jake. He knew that was overstating the obvious and given the circumstances he could not resist to insert some comment to fill the potentially thought-numbing approach of a moment of awkward silence.
Radman’s death was an event that did not have time to develop in their psyches yet. None of them were strangers to death. All three of them had experienced the accidental death of a colleague or discovered the varmint and weather riddled remains of unsuccessful attempts at illegal entry. But none of them had ever witnessed one of their own gunned down with outright malicious intent. The very concept was so foreign to them that even though they had all seen it with their own eyes, it still did not seem real and therefore it had not yet registered in their minds as an actual real event.
The fact that the Halcyon guard spent his remaining rounds trying to kill them as well did not seem real either. The mangled rear passenger door and detritus throughout the Durango was not testimony enough to them that they were now outlaws in the eyes of at least the law of Halcyon America, but they knew there was no turning back from this point.
“Listen to me you guys,” Jake said, “I don’t want what just happened to Radman back there to happen to us. There’ll be time later to grieve for Radman. At least I hope there will be. This Halcyon America, whatever it is, means business.”
“Halcyon America. I think that was the name of one of the security contractors hired by the federal government for the Middle East wars,” said Sandy.
“That’s where I heard that name from before!” said Bax. “Didn’t they lose their contract and get sued for millions for shooting up a bunch of unarmed civilians?”
“I believe so. They escaped criminal prosecution in international court due to a legal technicality.”
“Whatever, guys. Listen, we can go over the history lesson later. Right now at this very second we need to come up with a plan of action. We can talk about Halcyon and Radman and anything else later. Right now we need to make ourselves vanish into thin air,” said Jake.
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Alright. Drive out of here before they start setting up checkpoints and road blocks to block the on-ramps to the freeways,” said Sandy. “Drive north towards The Corridor to the East County. Use the freeway on-ramp north of the Montezuma Road Bridge. It is farthest from the station,” said Sandy.
“OK, what’s the rest of your plan?” asked Jake. He put the Durango in drive and moved slowly towards the road with the lights turned off.
“Do you remember Jim Popavich?”
“Uh, yeah. The guy who used to work here in Chivato, got sick of all the office politics and transferred to the Hendetulo station in East County, right?
“Yes, well, got sick of me is probably a little more accurate.”
“Oh yeah, you two were kind of dating for a while here and there, right?” Jake replied. He tried to act like his memory had just been jarred. Jake knew everything about Sandy and Jim’s relationship since he was friends with both of them at the time. He played the ignorance card to prove his disinterest. Plus, opening additional psychological wounds at the moment was something he was trying very hard to avoid.
“Right. Dating. Well, I think it would be best if we got as far away from here and to as remote a place as possible. East County may be our best option. Once we get on the road, I will try to contact Jim and find out what the situation is out there. He has a cabin in a remote mountainous area north of East County.”
“Sounds like a plan. Let’s go for it. Let’s get out of here ASAP!” said Bax. Jake pulled out of the mouth of Narco Canyon. They found the road to be as desolate as when they had entered. They proceeded north over the Montezuma Road Bridge, took the on-ramp onto The Corridor and headed east without seeing any Halcyon vehicles in front of, beside or behind them.
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