Note: This story has been in my head for quite some time. It could be a novel, but I’m not sure. Enjoy!
Chapter 1 – New Mexico
Dusk crept into the New Mexico sky as a Jeep Wrangler barreled east on a dirt road. The Jeep kicked up a tall plume of dust, like a fuse racing to its detonation. The road snaked through Gila National Forest, and each jolt and bounce over a rut loosened a thick layer of mud from the vehicle, revealing the Jeep’s factory yellow paint.
Haseya Dale, a compact Navajo woman, sat behind the wheel, wearing a t-shirt and black Arc’teryx coat. Her shorts revealed powerful legs developed from a childhood spent climbing the walls of Canyon de Chelly. The Jeep’s soft top was off, and the wind whipped her long, dark hair into an undulating dance. Haseya anticipated each curve and rut in a road that would prevent a rational driver from exceeding fifteen mph. She leaned on the accelerator, and the speedometer edged above sixty. As the Jeep fishtailed around the first hairpin turn in a series of switchbacks, her face projected the serenity of a lifetime of disappointments the way the north walls of a canyon surrendered the thought of ever feeling the sun’s heat.
After the switchbacks the road straightened, and the Jeep climbed toward a ridge overlooking the forest. Up in the sky, a golden eagle soared a quarter mile ahead of the Jeep, leading the way. The eagle ascended, then stalled.
At the ridge Haseya let off the gas and steered to the side of the road to avoid the ruts. She applied the clutch and brake, and the Jeep lumbered to a halt. She popped the Jeep into neutral and nervously squeezed the gearshift. The eagle circled higher. Haseya’s face softened as she admired the power of the bird as it rose out of dusk’s shadow into the sunlight.
The bird circled back towards the Jeep, then turned and set a course toward a canyon off the road a few miles.
Buckling her seatbelt, Haseya spun the wheel to the left, hit the gas, and popped the clutch. The Jeep lurched forward and bounced off the road. Easier off road than on road, for now, Haseya thought as she veered around a boulder and a tree. She guessed an hour of daylight remained.
In the distance, Dos Lobos Mesa loomed over the landscape. The ancestral Puebloans who once lived there constructed numerous structures and carved elaborate petroglyphs in the area. The mesa provided the essentials: safety, game for hunting, and a large creek. Around 1130 CE, these Puebloan people moved, primarily due to severe drought; many of their belongings remained.
For centuries scavengers looted the structures atop the mesa until all that remained were fragments of a culture’s story. The Antiquities Act of 1906 provided relief, though this was seen as installing security guards at a bank after thieves have already absconded with all the treasures from the vault.
Amidst a national forest, with the natural defenses of the mesa and jagged canyons, federal agencies stored and stashed government treasures and assets. This continued at many protected sites all over the Southwest for the next 100 years. The bureaucrats in the Beltway never imagined these lands to be habitable, nor dreamt these secret desert caches would be discovered or disturbed.
The Navajo Nation had a different plan, and as it purchased land and restored its territory, the Feds realized many of their desert vaults would eventually be exposed. Agencies scrambled to retrieve a hundred years of collectibles and state secrets. The Antiquities Act of 1906 added a set of teeth to the Feds bite by protecting cultural and sacred sites and enacting punishment on looters and vandals; the Feds used these sites as cover and hid matters of national security near these protected sites.
An abundance of federal secrets lay just out of sight at Haseya’s destination: Bruja Canyon. There were other treasures hidden in the mystical landscapes of the Southwest— – items and locations that did not belong to the government and were mostly known to native peoples, including some of the oldest inhabited sites in the Southwest. These treasures were the reason Haseya volunteered to monitor and protect these lands and her culture.
The eagle dove toward a stand of trees in the distance. Haseya looked up and saw two black Suburbans parked near the trees. Access to Bruja Canyon required an arduous trek over jagged rocks. Haseya made a beeline to the vehicles; she wanted an up-close-and-personal meeting with these people.
A mile away, two square-headed men dressed in black, wearing headsets, and wielding M27s, stood at the canyon’s edge, twenty yards from the tree line. The tools of the trade—knives, pistols, magazines, flash grenades—hung from their vests and belts. Jagged rocks lined the rim, leading to a precipitous drop into the narrow canyon. Thirty feet wide at the surface, it was two hundred feet to the canyon floor. Centuries of flash flooding had carved out a cavernous great room at the bottom of the canyon. The walls drew together toward the surface, making the canyon a spectacular sunroof.
Crack!A branch snapped, and both men gripped their rifles. A white-tailed deer with a twelve-point rack trotted out from the trees and looked at the two men. The soldiers grinned. The stockier guard, Allen, raised his rifle and drew a bead on the animal.
The second guard, Cates, laughed and shook his head. “I should be hunting right now instead of guarding a bunch of rocks.”
“Yeah, what are we doing here?” Allen replied. Cates shrugged.
The deer surveyed the two guards, cocked its head, and darted away, following the downhill tree line as the sound of movement—branches cracking, birds taking flight—cascaded in the distance toward the canyon. The two men instinctively took up defensive positions a dozen yards apart. Allen hurdled a snarl of belay ropes near a makeshift pulley arm and knelt behind a rock outcropping. He scanned the tree line, looking for the source of the noise; Cates surveyed the landscape across the canyon to the mesa in the distance behind them.
“We’ve got company on the ground,” Allen announced into his headset.
“Company? Is this a goddamn movie? Tell me what you see,” a gruff voice replied.
“Nothing yet, Doc. Lots of movement in the trees.”
Cates spotted an object in the sky and raised his barrel. Through his scope it looked like a black dot sitting in the air.
“I’ve got something. Up in the air. Six o’clock.”
“I shouldn’t have left you two alone up there. What do you see, Cates?” replied Doc.
“Not sure. Too far away. Could be a big ol’ eagle waiting for some dinner.”
Doc chuckled. “Okay, you two, don’t wet your pants. We’ll be up in a few minutes to hold your hands.”
Cates and Allen were accustomed to the insults Doc hurled at them. His educational nonprofit paid top dollar for security and technical operations; his denigrations were a small price to pay. The two men scanned the surrounding terrain. Allen knew they were being watched, but the forest was quiet.
The Jeep slowed to a halt near the Suburbans. Haseya studied the two vehicles and shook her head.Surburbans. So obvious. The Feds would be better served to drive Subarus, she thought as she hopped out of her Jeep and retrieved her knife from the backseat.
She gained satisfaction from knifing the front tires of each Suburban—ploof ploof ploof ploof—and watching their front ends sink and bow toward the trees. She snapped pictures of the license plates and vehicle ID numbers with her phone. She secured the phone in an Otter Box case and started running toward the canyon.
She stopped and contemplated the circumstances, then ran back to the Jeep. She shouldered her composite bow, grabbed the quiver, and raced back toward the canyon. Her stout body was capable of speed as well as strength. The eagle circled above her, guiding her toward the target.
“Coming up!” yelled Doc from the canyon floor. His words echoed up and down the canyon.
Allen maintained watch on the tree line. Cates shouldered his rifle and peered over the edge into the canyon. Two hundred feet below him, two men ascended the narrow slit canyon. Doc and Kottwitz were tall and lithe; their exposed arms displayed the sinew and fiber of fitness addicts. They floated up the canyon walls in a poetic assault on verticality. With deliberate moves, the men found the rhythm of the rocks, balanced, set themselves, and bounded up higher. A rope hung from each man’s climbing harness and fell down to a black crate on the canyon floor. Mountain goats would have trouble with this, Cates thought as he grew dizzy watching the pair climb the canyon walls.
Doc summited. Cates extended his hand.
“Get away from me with that shit,” Doc said, and waved him off. Muscular and with a bristly mop of shock white hair, Shane “Doc” Dockter stood just over six feet tall. He would be classified as being in excellent shape at any age, much less his late 50s. He was the muscle for Alenson Innovation & Support, and he led small teams on projects throughout the world. He unclipped the ropes on his harness as Kottwitz arrived at the top.
“You’re getting slower.” Doc said
“Took it easy in case I had catch your sorry ass,” Kottwitz replied as he unclipped his ropes. Younger and taller, Kottwitz was chiseled in the mold of Doc, but with darker hair.
“Horseshit. No slacking. You’re a better climber than I am.”
“Now that’shorseshit. No one’s a better freestyler than you,” Kottwitz offered. “And I suppose you just wanted to hear me say that.” Doc smiled.
“All right, you daisies, let’s get this thing up here,” Doc barked at Cates and Allen.
Allen joined them. Cates pulled out a pair of gloves.
Doc shot Cates a look. “What are those?”
“They’re gloves. I’m putting ’em on,” Cates replied.
Doc shook his head. “A man with gloves is half a man,” he said, and threaded the ropes into the dual heads of the pulley arm. Kottwitz snorted and laughed.
Cates adjusted his gloves, and with two men on each rope they pulled out the slack and began to haul up the crate. Their arms bulged against the weight.
“Jesus, what’s in there?” said Allen, keeping an eye on the tree line.
“Don’t worry about that,” said Doc. “Just pull. If something happens to this payload, there will be no payday. Might be a severe penalty, though.”
“Like what?” Cates asked.
Doc shot Cates a look that emphasized the discussion had ended.
Haseya sprinted through the trees toward the canyon. The eagle swooped down and landed on a rock a few yards in front of her. The bird extended its wings and shrieked once. She stopped and looked past it. In the distance she spotted four men pulling on ropes at the canyon’s edge. She understood the bird’s instructions and continued quietly. The bird launched back into the air.
The crate swayed ten feet below the canyon’s edge. All four men heaved, their biceps flexing and arms shaking.
“Come on, daisies. Pull!” Doc yelled.
The crate’s occupant awoke and thrashed about inside, causing the container to sway and smash into the canyon walls.
“This thing’s alive? Why didn’t you tranquilize it?” Cates asked.
“We did. How do you think we got it in the crate?” Doc said and laughed. “Let’s just hope it doesn’t get out or we’ll all be goners.”
With one final pull they hefted the crate up onto the canyon rim. The crate tipped on its side, temporarily quieting the beast. The men heard the low growl from within the crate; whatever was inside was ready to attack.
“We’re carrying this all the way to the vehicles?” Allen said.
“The asset isn’t going with us,” Doc replied. He pulled out an ignition switch and pushed it with his thumb. A loud explosion erupted in the canyon and echoed. Dust blasted up from below.
“What the hell was that?” Cates asked.
“Had to seal the vault,” Kottwitz said.
Doc pulled out a cell phone, entered his password, and opened an app. Kottwitz hopped over to a flat slab of rock about fifteen feet in diameter.
“Gentlemen, we need to move the crate right here,” Kottwitz said. He pointed to the ground at his feet, redirecting Cates and Allen. “We’re losing daylight.”
Crack!Another branch snapped, and a second white-tailed deer scattered out onto the rocks. Whatever was in the crate began to howl. The deer bounded across the rocks, then followed the path of the first deer.
“A deer?” Kottwitz laughed and shook his head. “Is that what you two were afraid of?”
Doc tapped instructions into his phone while the others righted the crate and carried it to the slab. The crate shook and lurched from side to side.
“C’mon, keep it steady,” chided Kottwitz, who carried one end while Cates and Allen hoisted the other.
They lowered the crate into place, and Kottwitz removed a tranquilizer gun from his holster. He knelt at one end of the crate and opened a peephole next to a large emblazoned QR code. He pointed the tranq into the peephole and fired. The beast inside lunged and jumped, violently rocking the crate. Cates and Allen threw their body weight against it to keep it from tipping.
“This stuff works pretty quickly,” Kottwitz said with a chuckle. He held up the gun for effect. “Without good drugs, we’d be dead and this thing would be running around killing everything. And I mean everything.”
Suddenly an eagle swooped down and snatched the tranq gun from Kottwitz’s hand.
“What the hell?”
All three men watched as the bird swooped down into the canyon with the gun.
“Shoot that thing!”
Allen and Cates ran to the edge of the canyon and raised their rifles. Cates got off a short volley before the bird disappeared in the recess of the canyon.
“Are you kidding me?” Kottwitz chuckled as he walked up and looked over the canyon rim.
Doc looked around and saw the dark object in the sky. He tapped twice on the app, and lights flashed on the drone.
“All right, daisies, transport is on the way.”
Kottwitz looked up and saw the drone. “I love that thing,” he said.
“Enough with the love talk. We’re not out of the woods yet, sweetheart,” replied Doc. “And it’d be nice if you had a second traq gun.”
Kottwitz motioned towards the tree line. “I have one back at the vehicles.” Then he pointed at the crate. “See, that thing’s already out cold. The hard part’s over.”
“Drop your weapons!” a voice yelled from the trees. Bow drawn, Haseya stood up behind a rock.
The four men turned toward her. Cates and Allen aimed their rifles in her direction.
“I said drop your weapons!” she commanded.
Doc caught sight of Haseya and raised his hands. “Miss, we are not here to hurt you, nor did we touch or remove anything belonging to your people.”
Allen and Cates separated and crept toward Haseya.
“I’m afraid we can’t do that,” Doc said and added in Navajo. “We will go in peace, if you let us pass.”
Haseya replied in Navajo. “Then we’re at an impasse.”
Doc returned to English. “It looks that way,” he said and shrugged. “Take her out.”
Allen dropped to a prone position and fired a short burst at her. Haseya ducked and rolled a few yards away. Cates sprinted toward her location. Kottwitz took cover behind the crate and watched the action. Doc knelt behind a small outcropping of rocks.
“I don’t see her!” yelled Allen.
Haseya popped up and fired a shot at Cates, who ran toward her. He ducked, and the arrow passed by him.
“She’s right…!” Kottwitz yelled.
Fffffffftttt!Kottwitz’s sentence was cut short by an arrow penetrating his eye socket. He dropped to his knees.
“Aaaagh! Medic. I need a medic!”
Doc unholstered his GLOCK and ran toward Kottwitz.
“Man down!” Doc yelled. “Kottwitz, get down!”
Haseya moved quickly from rock to rock. Cates and Allen fired indiscriminately into the trees.
Kottwitz staggered to his feet in shock. “I can’t, I can’t… see,” he mumbled.
Doc slipped as he leapt to grab Kottwitz, who tripped and stumbled over the edge. His body landed on the canyon floor with a SLAMand created a sickening echo. Cates and Allen flinched at the sound. Doc glanced up to locate the drone, then pointed his GLOCK at the trees.
“Well, that’s a shit sandwich. What have you dipshits been doing up here!?! We need to get this thing outta here! It’s getting dark! Find her!” Doc yelled.
The drone arrived and hovered into place several meters over the crate. Doc tapped a command into his phone, and the drone descended. Allen looked up at the drone, which was the size of a small compact car.
“Jesus, that thing’s huge.” Allen said, then fired indiscriminately into the trees as Cates loaded another clip.
The eagle raced up to attack the drone as it descended. It clawed at the drone’s body, then attempted to claw the rotors, which slashed its body and talons. Feathers spit out from the rotor as the eagle disengaged and flew away. An arrow shot out of the trees and hit a rotor. The drone stabilized and continued descending.
Cates fired at the eagle.
“Do me a favor and don’t hit the drone, you shittard! Get her!” Doc shouted.
“Don’t worry, sunshine, I won’t,” Cates replied. “Do you see her?”
A third arrow knifed through the air and planted itself firmly in the chest plate of Allen’s body armor. He ducked behind a rock, dropped his rifle, and strained to remove the arrow from his armor.
“Quit screwing around!” Cates yelled at him.
“I’m not screwing around. It’s stuck in my chest plate!” Allen barked in response.
“If you’re not dead, I could use your rifle up here!”
“Fine,” Allen replied, and picked up his rifle. He stood to face the unseen enemy with an arrow protruding from his body armor.
“Spray those trees,” Doc ordered. Cates and Allen unleashed a volley that stripped the foliage and cut down the smaller trees.
The drone lowered and hovered a few feet over the crate. Another arrow hit a rotor and skittered away.
“Cover me!” yelled Doc.
Cates and Allen sprayed the trees with another volley as Doc ran to the crate. Cates flipped a switch on the scope light atop his rifle, and a beam of bright light cut through the dusk and panned around the trees. Allen continued randomly firing short bursts.
Doc knelt behind the crate. He glanced up and surveyed the drone’s condition—no apparent damage from the eagle attack or the arrows. He holstered his pistol, grabbed two straps, and secured them with a spring-loaded shackling bolt to two matching cargo rings on the drone.
“Light it up again!” he commanded Cates and Allen. The two men fired into the trees. Doc crawled around the crate, exposing himself to hostile fire. He secured the second set of straps, then scanned the QR code. He tapped his phone with his thumb, then unholstered his GLOCK.
The drone ascended, straining with the weight of the cargo. Doc scrambled to find cover. He scrambled behind a boulder and took one last look up and watched the drone self-correct its equilibrium and move away from the canyon.
Doc breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, he thought, Now I just have to deal with this crazy woman. He peered over the boulder and look for the woman. He was prepared to fire at her when the eagle swooped up from the canyon and attacked the drone’s cargo straps.
“AAIIIIIIIEEEEE,” chirped Haseya.
“Jesus Christ,” Doc muttered. He drew a bead on the eagle. He fired one shot before the bird flew behind the crate. He held his fire, waiting for the bird to reappear. The eagle swooped around the drone and Doc extended his arm straight up and aimed. Haseya saw her shot and took it. Ffffftt! An arrow pierced Doc’s hand and knocked the pistol from his grip. He looked out into the trees and saw Haseya barrel roll behind a tree.
“There!” Doc yelled, and pointed at the tree with the arrow stuck through his hand. Cates and Allen opened fire on the tree. Haseya retreated behind a boulder. Doc pulled the arrow all the way through his hand and grimaced as he flexed it. He examined the jagged stone-cut arrowhead.
“Jesus, that’s old school. I shoulda brought my quarterstaff,” he said. Without turning to Cates and Allen he yelled, “You’re on your own, daisies.”
He ran to the canyon edge, clipped onto a belay, and rappelled into the canyon.
“Where the hell is that chicken shit going?” Cates yelled to Allen.
“I have no idea, but I think it’s the right idea.” Allen responded.
Doc landed on the canyon floor and removed his climbing gear. He lifted Kottwitz’s body, threw him over his shoulder in a firemen’s carry, and marched down the canyon floor as the last remnants of sunset faded to black.
Allen ran over to the ropes to attempt a hasty retreat. He wrapped a rope around himself for a makeshift belay. Haseya rose up and shot an arrow into his crotch. Allen doubled over.
“No Kevlar there, huh?” Haseya barked from the trees.
Cates ducked behind an outcropping of rocks. “What do you want?!?” he screamed.
The eagle dove in and pounced on Cates, slashing at his face with its talons. Cates stood to escape the bird’s attack.
Haseya drew and released an arrow that traveled into Cates’ neck. He staggered and turned towards the Navajo woman.
“Fly,” she said as she strung another arrow.
Cates fell over backward into the canyon. SLAM!
Haseya ran to the edge of the canyon and peered into its depths. She couldn’t see any movement in the dark. Shadows and objects were one.
She donned a hiker’s headlamp and switched it on. The light shone on Allen’s face. In a fetal position, with one arrow extruding from his chest armor and one lodged firmly in his crotch, Allen muttered in pain. He squinted as her headlamp shined into his eyes.
“I can’t believe I got hit by a woman.”
“Yeah, a woman. A Navajo woman,” she replied.
She kicked his rifle into the canyon, set down her bow, and gripped each of his ankles in her hands.
“What are you doing?”
She bent her knees and assumed a powerlifter’s squat position.
“I can’t let you stay here,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“I think I’ll be fine. Really,” Allen replied.
In one athletic movement, Haseya thrust her hips back and lifted. With a powerful swing she pitched Allen over the edge of the cliff into the canyon. SLAM!
Haseya looked up. She could see the lights of the drone flying quickly to the east. The eagle landed nearby and squawked loudly. Its talons had been badly damaged by the drone’s rotors, and it hobbled and flapped around.
She shouldered her bow and searched the rocks for the arrow Doc had removed. She found it and returned it to her quiver. Then she gently picked up the eagle, cradling the large bird.
“You were brave today, Eagle. Very brave.”
Her headlamp cast swaying shadows as she entered the trees. She looked back one last time at the drone. I wonder where that beast is going, she thought, disappearing into the trees.
Chapter 2 – Tucson
Noone parallel parked themself into Bushrod Sinclair’s free time like his best friend, Jeb. Bushrod had no siblings. He considered Jeb Carter a brother; they had known each other since kindergarten. Lifelong friends share defeats and victories. Bushrod assuaged Jeb throughout his four failed and very expensive marriages. In contrast to Jeb’s string of nuptials, Bushrod had managed to remain single for all fifty-one years of his uneventful life. He regaled friends with his philosophy that if you don’t get married and you don’t have kids, you will look younger than those who married and had children in their 20s.
Jeb’s life was the opposite. Fresh out of law school a charming Turkish gangster in the southern Arizona copper scene hired him to fix his college-aged son’s DUI. Jeb secured the son’s innocence with a brilliant probable cause defense that catapulted him into a lifetime of shady snowbird clients and enormous wealth.
Bushrod managed two condominiums his parents had acquired and passed on to him. He lived in a third condo, and with the meager income from the rentals he managed to stay above water. His mother and father, Nell and Walter, spent a lifetime in the Sonoran Desert teaching English and science at Tucson Junior High. From an early age, Bushrod had a feisty stomach and avoided any outdoor activity where no restroom facilities existed. His parents, avid hikers, came to think of Bushrod as someone else’s child who was switched at birth with a child who loved the outdoors.
Their relationship was a formality, and parents and son shared little in common, aside from simple act of reading. His parents read nonfiction while Bushrod preferred the collected works of Asimov and Le Guin.
Though his parents immersed themselves in every element of the desert and knew most of what there was to know about southern Arizona’s flora and fauna, Bushrod considered himself a city dweller. Tucson was his city. He loved living there, actively followed the local live music scene, and used every excuse he could muster to avoid leaving. Jeb had his bags packed and raced to Tucson International Airport every Friday with his sights set on exotic destinations—Thailand, Capri, Seychelles, and if he had extra free time, then Paris, Milan, Shanghai, or some other fashionable world capital.
This weekend, along with his girlfriend of the month, Millie, Jeb had jetted off to Cyprus for a two-week vacation. As per their agreement, Bushrod looked after Jeb’s house when his friend was off globetrotting. He thought of Jeb’s house as a castle, and the eight-bedroom, seven-thousand-square-foot residence at the base of the Catalina Mountains unnerved him. He rarely slept through the night at Jeb’s; the sound effects of the house creaking and cracking as it expanded and contracted unnerved him. Though he had grown accustomed to the noises, he often awoke after a particularly loud pop or crack, walking room to room to suss out the strange sounds.
“No one should own a house this big,” he often lectured Jeb. Jeb would laugh and point toward the Catalina Mountains. “That view is gold,” he would say.
To avoid the first world guilt associated with house-sitting his friend’s castle, Bushrod took it as a moral obligation to liberate Jeb’s Ferrari 488 Spider from the confines of the garage and cruise the streets of Tucson.
Jeb and Millie departed early Friday. Bushrod dropped the lovebirds off at the airport. His return trip to pick up breakfast burritos from his favorite food truck on Tucson’s south side ended when he received a frantic call from his tenant, Peg Kinsler. Peg’s toilet had backed up, and as her mobility was limited, this was an emergency. Working toilets were near and dear to Bushrod’s heart, so he turned and headed to his rental properties.
He spent the better part of the morning supervising the repair of a backed up sewer. Afterward he showered at home, not wanting to risk spreading the sewer de Sinclairfragrance all over his best friend’s house. He stuffed a few shorts, t-shirts, underwear, and toiletries into a duffel bag and drove up to Jeb’s house in his black 2000 Nissan XTERRA. Before leaving the house, he donned his Bose noise-canceling headphones with the cable and quarter-inch plug draped over his shoulders.
He arrived at Jeb’s house and entered the code for the entry gate. The gates opened, and he drove up the cobblestone drive to the house. He parked in the circular driveway, and before he walked to the archway that led to the front door he examined the duct tape holding his right headlight in place. Need some new tape, he thought.
He entered the house and threw his duffel bag in his favorite guest room. He poured a Guinness and walked out onto the expansive patio with expansive view of Tucson. The sewer repairs had suppressed his appetite, but he savored the beer and reveled in the greenery of the Sonorran Desert after a heavy month of monsoons. September was green for a change. He looked at his watch; it was a few minutes after one o’clock. Bushrod’s imagined his foot on a gas pedal. There was a Ferrari in the garage and he needed to drive it.
Potholes abound in the Tucson, affectionately known as the Old Puebloby locals. Memorization of divots, ruts, and canyons in Tucson roads was a must for drivers, but as many Tucsonans were elderly snowbirds lacking their once-keen memories, the learning curve was steep. Bushrod surmised the voicemail and inboxes of local elected officials were replete with complaints and grievances highlighting the overall shortcomings of Tucson roads.
Bushrod detested activism, and rather than calling his city or county representatives, he simply named potholes that had offended him after Confederate generals and slalomed around them on his travels down the major thoroughfares. By sheer irony, Stonewall Jackson was on Grant Avenue, others included General Forrest, who resided on 4thAvenue, and Bushrod designated a special crater near the corner of River and Oracle as General Lee.
Bushrod dropped the top and raced down Oracle Road to his favorite section of driving: Roller Coaster Road. The road lived up to its moniker. The Ferrari gripped the road, and Bushrod reveled in its ridges, curves, and twists. A smile broke across his face as he spun a doughnut and raced back up the road. A near-miss with a Tucson PD patrol car deterred him from a third trip. He gunned the engine back up Oracle and over to Ina then headed west. He turned onto Camino de Oeste. This section of town was coveted as a holiday destination for locals to view Christmas decorations. Thousands streamed into the neighborhoods to survey the holiday lights and admire a somewhat tired decorative spirit. Bushrod didn’t care about the seasonal appeal of “Disney Lane,” but he, like most Tucson gourmands, coveted a savory secret spot—Toni-Mo’s Tacos, a small catering truck parked on the side of Massingale Road and Camino de Oeste.
Bushrod giggled every time he drove past Massingale Road. Who names a street Massingale, he thought every time he drove by, but a trip to Toni-Mo’s Tacos was worth the rough ride on a questionably named street to eat a perfect breakfast burrito. On the outside, Toni-Mo’s Tacos appeared to be an average catering truck. The food, though, was heavenly, and those in-the-know arrived at all hours of the day to order some of Tucson’s finest food and sit on ratty picnic tables or at an old plastic table with matching sad chairs for some quality eats.
Bushrod parked the Ferrari and sidestepped several mud puddles on his way to order. Specialty cars were not unusual at Toni-Mo’s and few people gave the Ferrari a look. Thanks to the timing of a mid-afternoon lunch, only a half-dozen people stood in line. He stepped up and ordered the Psycho, a savory burrito stuffed with a few wild peppers that could set a person’s mouth on fire, along with a Dr. Pepper.
Toni, a young, muscular woman, took his order with a smile. She didn’t speak English. For all his years in Tucson, Bushrod had never bothered to pick up enough Spanish for conversation; he could order beer, find the bathroom, and say please and thank you. Toni handed him a bottle of Dr. Pepper.
Bushrod sat at a decrepit and wilting table and waited for his burrito. He caught a few people staring at his headphones as he nervously fidgeted with the cord and sipped his soda. Toni waved and Bushrod hopped up, nearly knocking over the plastic table and his drink, and retrieved his burrito. He returned to his table and, with plastic utensils in hand, dove into the most delicious breakfast burrito in Tucson. He wouldn’t have been surprised if flames shot out of his mouth and the four horsemen of the apocalypse erupted out of it. He sipped Dr. Pepper and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
As he finished eating, he saw two vehicles park. He ran to the truck and quickly ordered a second burrito before the patrons lined up.
“Más?” Toni inquired. Bushrod nodded and paid.
More cars arrived. Bushrod carried the second breakfast burrito to the car. Behind the wheel he peeled back the aluminum foil and smelled the egg, bacon, jalapeños, and the mystery purple-colored peppers. He could see the cheddar holding it all together. The foil was hot, and he transferred the burrito from one hand to the other so he wouldn’t burn them. Bushrod’s mouth watered, but he just sat and sniffed—until he noticed people sitting at plastic tables staring at him. With that, he started the car and departed.
Bushrod turned down Camino de Oeste and was taking a big bite of burrito when he saw an enormous pothole a few yards in front of the vehicle. He swerved to avoid the divot, which he instantly named General Pickett. His defensive maneuver steered the Ferrari onto the shoulder of the road, launching the breakfast burrito from his hand and onto the passenger seat floor. The Ferrari bounced through a large mud puddle, and a spray of foul water arced into the air; residual muddy water landed inside the open vehicle. Bushrod regained control and stopped the car in the middle of the southbound lane. “Damn you, General Pickett,” he muttered.
Bushrod hopped out of the car and examined the passenger side. Mud covered most of the front right panel. Drivers blared their horns in protest of his parking as they passed him. He popped the passenger door and retrieved the burrito. He scooped and scraped the pieces into the foil, then stood by the car and downed them. He pondered how to clean the Ferrari.
Haseya swept the floor of her porch and tidied the furniture. Her guests would arrive tonight, and she wanted her perfect streak of five-star ratings to continue. Her house sat on fifty acres a few miles down US-180 from Alma. This was a gig economy, and Haseya had multiple irons in multiple fires: she waitressed, worked at a local ranch, and rented out her house and guesthouse on Airbnb. A half-finished rug was mounted in a loom in the corner of her living room.
The eagle was recovering with her friends Lorraine and Jae-Lyn in Gallup. The eagle would heal, but the damage from the previous night’s battle was intense. Haseya intended to return to the site in a week or so. Too much activity there now, she assumed. Her phone buzzed with a notification, and an email from her colleague Alonzo caught her attention.
Upon returning home from Bruja Canyon, Haseya emailed Alonzo the photos of the Suburbans. Overnight he had traced the vehicles to nonprofit located in Tucson: Alenson Innovation & Support. His email provided the address and background information on the organization.
She replied and asked Alonzo if he would visit the canyon and inspect the site in a week. Her guests were due to arrive at 3 p.m. Once she checked them in and made sure their needs were met, she was going to drive to Tucson and scout out Alenson Innovation & Support.
Ten minutes later, Bushrod pulled the Ferrari into Darien’s Detailing not far from General Lee’s namesake divot.
He parked in the first of three lines and exited the car wearing his headphones. More than anything in the world, Bushrod feared deafness. “People listen to too much damn loud music,” he would say to Jeb. Jeb would nod and turn up the volume. Bushrod spent his youth sneaking into Tucson clubs and bars listening to punk, ska, and any type of music, so long as it was loud; he habitually wore his headphones out in public. Now that most NBA players wore Beats by Dre or other types of headphones, Bushrod didn’t look quite so odd. And casual observers failed to notice his headphones weren’t actually plugged into anything.
Bushrod handed the keys to the attendant along with a plethora of wadded and wilting dollar bills before entering the lounge. Bushrod had minimal spare cash, but seeing as how he had soiled his friend’s clean car, he was going to throw every last piece of what he had at this particular problem.
The attendant whistled loudly at his supervisor. It’s everyday noise like that whistle that causes people to go deaf, Bushrod thought as the door into the waiting room closed behind him. The supervisor hustled down to the Ferrari and joined Samar and others in their admiration and appreciation of the luxury car. They waited until Bushrod had disappeared inside the building to move in for a closer inspection.
Bushrod’s shuffled into the lobby, scored a fresh bag of popcorn from the popcorn machine; Darien’s Detailing made the best popcorn of any car wash in Tucson. He looked around the lobby. Several humans vacantly poked and swiped at their phones. He only needed a cell phone in case of emergencies at his properties, and his Motorola V3 RAZR served him well. He pitched a handful of popcorn into his mouth and walked outside to the patio.
The Arizona heat was intense. Bushrod found a seat and table under an umbrella. He loathed people’s need to stare at their phones. Thosepeople dressed and looked like professionalsto Bushrod, and he preferred his attire—shorts, KEEN sandals, and number forty-eight U of A football jersey—to their snobbery.
In the afternoon light, the Catalina Mountains stood tall over the Old Pueblo, cutting a jagged edge into the blue sky. He tossed another handful of popcorn into his mouth and smiled. For a morning that began with an early trip to the airport followed by an emergency sewer repair, the day was taking a peaceful turn.
Bushrod couldn’t hear the collision through his headphones, but he watched the black Suburban nail General Lee’s namesake pothole. Yep, General Lee will catch the unaware every time, he thought. The impact jolted the Suburban and catapulted the man driving into the car’s ceiling. When he landed back in the seat, the man was unconscious. His vehicle rolled forward into a red Toyota Camry, the last car in a long line of vehicles waiting at the red light at Oracle. Crunch!The impact launched the Camry into the rear bumper of a white Ford Taurus, which lurched forward and solidly tapped an SUV.
“Son of a bitch,” Bushrod mumbled.
He dropped the popcorn on the table and walked toward the accident.
He could see the Suburban driver’s torso slumped forward on the steering wheel. The unconscious man’s foot was still on the accelerator. The Suburban bulled forward and extended the chain reaction collision.
Bushroddodged traffic like Frogger, making his way to the accident on the northbound side. He arrived and looked inside the tinted windows.
Bushrod grabbed the door handle. It was locked.
Bushrod didn’t see the teenage girl launch out of the Camry and shout, “What the hell is going on?”
His headphones and the internal sound of his own heart rate increasing prevented her words from reaching Bushrod’s ears until she punched him.
Startled, Bushrod turned defensively towards the girl, who retreated two steps and clenched her fists.
“Is this your car?”
The girl looked angry. “Take your headphones off!” she said.
“No way,” Bushrod replied. “It’s too loud out here. We’ve got to at least get this vehicle stopped,” He motioned to the unconscious man.
The teenage girl looked over. “Oh my God. Is he dead?”
The Suburban continued to bull its way forward, adding more cars to the collision list. Bushrod pounded on the windows. Drivers were hollering back at Bushrod and the girl. He wasn’t sure what to do, but limiting the damage seemed like a good idea.
“Put your parking brake on,” he told the girl. She followed his instructions.
Bushrod looked around. People exited the car wash, stood outside, and watched. All the professionals thankful not to be involved in the accident were amused by the situation and took glee in snapping photos of the predicament. Bushrod could be with them, safe and indifferent, but he was drawn to aid others like a moth to a flame.
How do I get into these situations?Bushrod thought. The girl secured her parking brake and got out of her car; for the moment the Suburban was stopped. Leaning against the window, Bushrod thought he could feel the car shaking and twitching. Not the regular motion of a vehicle, but something else. He peered inside. The driver was unconscious or dead, but something inside the vehicle was clearly alive.
Bushrod peered through the windows into the back of the vehicle and saw a black cargo crate. He placed both hands on the Suburban’s body and felt the vehicle shake and shudder.
“What the hell is going on?” the girl yelled, loudly enough that Bushrod heard her. He looked from the vehicle to her. Bushrod broke his own rule and peeled back the headphones from his ears. He placed an ear to the vehicle window. A distinct, low-pitched growl emanated from whatever was inside the crate.
“Can you hear that?” he asked the girl.
She nodded. “Sounds like my cat when she’s pissed off,” she said.
The rear tires of the Suburban began to spin and smoke. Bushrod knew action was required. He secured his headphones to his ears, cocked his arm, and punched repeatedly at the driver’s side window until it finally shattered. The girl jumped to avoid the glass shards.
“Sorry about that,” Bushrod quipped, pleased that he had annoyed her.
He reached in, fumbled with the electric locks, and opened the door. After an awkward struggle to pull the man off the steering wheel, he pulled the man’s feet off the accelerator and shifted the Suburban into park.
He could feel the entire vehicle shaking, and with a quick glance to the back he saw the sides of the crate bulging. Whatever is in that crate wants out, Bushrod thought.
Bushrod examined the driver. He was in his forties, dressed entirely in black, and had graying hair. Bushrod could see blue creeping into the man’s face
“Hey, dude, are you okay?”
No response. He turned to the girl.
“Do you know CPR?”
The girl inspected her shoes and clothes for glass shards.
“Yeah, we had to learn that in health class,” she replied.
Bushrod grabbed the man by his arms and struggled to pull him from the car, a graceless task made harder by the man’s physical size. He was over seven feet tall, and Bushrod pegged his weight at well over 300 pounds. Bushrod extracted the man and started to lower the man to the ground.
“Careful!” yelled the girl. “There’s glass there.”
Bushrod looked down, saw the glass, and adjusted the angle of descent. The man’s weight was too much, and they toppled onto the asphalt together. Bushrod felt the radiant heat of the street burn his legs. The girl grabbed one of the giant’s arms, bent her knees into a squat, and raised the man’s torso enough for Bushrod to slide free.
“Thanks,” he said, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to suffocate or burn to death. That asphalt’s hot.”
“You’re welcome,” she said and looked down at the man. “I’ll do compressions, but I ain’t breathing into that guy’s mouth.”
Bushrod gave her a thumbs-up and ran to the rear of the Suburban.
The girl began compressions and looked up to see the car wash parking lot full of spectators. She looked down the line of the damaged vehicles to the other drivers in the collision.
“Could one of you assholes get over here and help me?” she said.
Drivers avoided her gaze and hopped back in their cars. The light at Oracle and River had turned green, and traffic began to move.
“Great,” she said.
Bushrod opened the rear of the Suburban. As he did, the animal in the crate broke free and jumped into Bushrod, knocking him to the ground. The beast lost its footing and scrambled to right itself.
Bushrod got up on one knee and caught his breath. He thought it must be a dog; the thing had powerful long legs attached to a wiry body. It turned to look at him, and Bushrod was certain its face was human. He could see its irises still adjusting to the bright light after the darkness of the crate. The dog blinked repeatedly.
“What are you?” Bushrod said. He had seen a dog like this before, but he couldn’t remember the name of the breed. He watched the powerfully built animal drift out into traffic. The dog looked north toward the Catalinas as traffic darted around it.
“Oh, doggy, that’s a bad idea,” Bushrod said. He looked up the street and saw a large truck barreling toward the dog.
Waving wildly, Bushrod stepped in the path of the truck. The driver looked up from his cell phone to see a crazy-looking man in headphones flailing his arms and hit the brakes. Bushrod leapt and pushed the dog toward the median as the truck skidded to a halt. The truck’s bumper slammed into Bushrod, throwing him twenty feet down the road. His headphones skittered across the pavement and shattered upon hitting the curb.
Bushrod squirmed in pain. He studied the animal upside-down. A pharaoh hound, he thought. The dog’s coat shone a brilliant golden red in the sunlight. Muscles bulged on its legs and torso. Might be the strongest dog I’ve ever seen, Bushrod thought.
His vision blurred, he thought he sensed admiration in the dog’s eyes.
“Thank you,” the dog said with an odd and guttural voice.
“You’re welcome,” Bushrod said, watching the dog jump the median and run south down Oracle before a million little stars twinkled in his periphery. He blacked out.