Four flashlights flooded Chuck’s face and body. He immediately raised his hands and stepped further away from Pedro’s and Mirabella’s hiding spot.
“Who the fuck are you?” asked the burliest of the Border Dogs. “You American?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I was on vacation with my family and they attacked me while I was out getting supplies at the pharmacy.”
The lead Border Dog trained the butt of his rifle at Chuck’s forehead and moved toward him. Chuck back-peddled slowly but steadily, creating more distance from Pedro and Mirabella. With the intensity of the flashlights obscuring his eyesight, he couldn’t see beyond the four attackers, but he knew from the slight rustle of the shrub and the subtle flash of dark movement that they had escaped into the tunnel.
“What’s your name, sir?” the Border Dog, whose name, Trent, conveniently adorned the right breast of his jacket, just above the pocket.
“Charles,” he said, trying to blend truth with a backstory that he was making up on the fly.
“What are you doing here with all these spics and wetbacks?”
“There was a big group,” Chuck trembled as he worked to construct his story. “They were escaping. I slipped into the group and figured I could come here and notify the authorities. Please, I need to get back to my family.”
Trent tightened his gaze and lowered his weapon. He circled Chuck and rubbed his hand across his mouth. The other three Border Dogs lowered their guns and walked back to the tunnel. Chuck could see them stretch a string of wires across the mouth and then down into the hole.
“You got any ID? Charlie?” asked Trent, dripping sarcasm.
“No,” Chuck said. “My wallet was stolen.”
“What the hell happened to your face?”
“When I was mugged,” he said. “They punched me.”
“I see,” said Trent, continuing to circle Chuck like a carnivorous animal stalking his dinner. “What hotel were you staying in?”
“We were in the Casa del Sol in Reynosa,” Chuck replied, sticking to details he knew rather than concocting a phantom hotel and creating flaws in his story.
“You were on a family vacation in Reynosa?” Trent asked. “At some hotel nobody’s ever heard of?”
Sweat poured down Chuck’s face and he struggled to keep his story straight.
“I’m in the furniture business and there are some amazing woodworkers in the region,” he explained. “I was combining a business trip with a family vacation.”
Trent called back to his crew asking if they were set to blow the tunnel. They replied that they needed to climb down into the tube to make sure the river water would wash it out completely.
“You got a last name? Charlie?” Trent asked. “And where are you from?”
Chuck gave a fake last name, “Davidson” and claimed to be from Victory, the only other town he knew well enough to describe.
“Chuck Davidson, from Victory, Texas,” he said with a sneer. “On vacation in Reynosa while also buying furniture from the locals. You get attacked. You lose your wallet. And, then you decide to leave your family behind and cross the border under a tunnel with a bunch of pollos.”
Chuck froze. He couldn’t speak. His mind could barely keep track of the backstory he had created for himself.
“Now how do you think all that sounds?” Trent asked, digging a hand gun out of a shoulder holster. “You know what I think?”
Chuck shook his head in abject fear.
“I think you’re a tacohead who just happens to speak good English.”
“No, I’ve got a wife and three daughters, please.”
One of the other Border Dogs called to Trent to inform him that the explosives were all set and they were ready to destroy the tunnel. Trent turned to Chuck and laughed, heartily.
“I like you Charlie Davidson from Victory, Texas,” he said. “We’re gonna have a little fun with you. How fast do you think you can get through the tunnel back to Reynosa?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Chuck stammered. “It took some time to get through it. Like 15 minutes.”
“I’ll give you five.”
Delando stood within view of the hotel with the drone hovering over Mirabella’s house. In the dark, he could maneuver the four-square inch flying device low enough to see that the house was empty and the police had wasted the trip to the outskirts. He could also see, from his vantage point, the police emerge from the hotel empty-handed. The large Mexican with the bloody face appeared at the scene and had to be restrained by the police force as he seemed to threaten to kill the hotel owner.
Simultaneously, Delando maneuvered the drone so close to the officers at the home, he could pick-up much of their radio conversation with the officers at the hotel. He heard them acknowledge that the home remained empty. He could see the big Mexican on the phone and heard him give an order to burn down the house. Within minutes, Mirabella’s modest home including the bed Chuck and Pedro had made, the posters of famous Mexican baseball players and the collection of brown and orange carved animals all lit the sky at the edge of town with bright orange and red flames.
Delando watched the scene on the drone and observed the fracas at the hotel and couldn’t help wondering what unimaginable trouble Chuck could have caused in the month he spent in Reynosa.
And then he heard the clue he needed. The large Mexican with the wild beard and the blood-stained face ordered the police to converge on the tunnel.
Having intently listened to the Brazilian refugees discuss the whereabouts of the tunnel, Delando navigated the drone to the river and along the bend until he located the site of the dig.
“Going to location pinpointed by drone,” he texted Etan. “May need back-up. ETA?”
“Two hours,” Etan replied.
“Way too long,” Delando texted back. “Oversee operation in Tijuana as planned. I’ll run solo here.”
“Good luck boss.”
Delando pocketed his phone and ran north toward the Rio Grande and the tunnel to America.
Chuck looked at Trent and the three other Border Dogs, who had gathered the bodies and thrown them into the expanse at the bottom of the tunnel. He froze and opened his mouth to either ask for clarification or beg for mercy. But Trent, looking at his watch, laughed again.
“You just lost 30 seconds standing there shitting your pants Señor Davidson,” he said. “I’d get moving if I were you. That Rio Grande gets pretty angry when we blow a hole in the riverbed and the water rushes in to collapse the tunnel.”
Chuck sprinted toward the tunnel, fully expecting a bullet in the back at any second. He heard Trent give a count down.
“Four minutes Charlie,” he said, his voice fading as Chuck stumbled over a ridge and down a sandy slope toward the mouth.
“Three dude. Better get through to the other side fast before you drown.”
Chuck landed on a soft, spongy mass of dead and dying bodies. And clamored through the tube. He could just barely hear the call in the distance warning him that he had two minutes left.
His stomach heaved and his arms felt like they would give out at any moment. But he continued to crawl, moving one hand in front of the other and flailing his legs as fast as he could make them go.
He never heard Trent call out the one-minute warning. He had burrowed too far under the river by then. His mental clock told him he had to emerge from the tube within the next few seconds to give himself time to stand and run upright further into the Mexican side of the tunnel.
He squirted out of the tube and felt himself run diagonally upward. He could see the light of the opening 100-feet ahead when the bomb blasts filled the cavern and echoed through his head like thunder. He felt a rush or air and debris shooting from the tube. The ceiling behind him fell and he could hear the sound of rushing water. With only a few feet left, running uphill toward the entrance, the structural integrity of the walls around him gave way and he could feel a literal ton of sand and dirt enclose him in a dark grave.
The light ahead of him extinguished and he felt the cool pressure of the sandy terrain freeze his muscles in place. He couldn’t move, see or breathe. Only a dozen feet from the exit, he had failed to escape. He couldn’t be helped. He’d die like all the other migrants in a nameless grave a quarter mile from the US border.
Chuck strained to inhale in his sandy grave. By wiggling his body, he managed to move his right hand toward his face and clear the dust and dirt from his nose. He could feel wetness in the sand, especially in his toes and ankles. He strained to move his legs in a swimming motion, but they could barely flex a few inches before meeting the full constriction of the sediment around him.
As if a dream, he heard voices, excited and in Spanish. He felt a touch on his right wrist and then another on his left. Just before blacking out, he felt his body move, tugged from his arms with four pairs of hands gripping his wrists and biceps.
“Halar,” he heard Pedro’s distinctive 15-year old voice.
The wetness at his toes subsided. He felt the mud and stone scrape his chest and legs as his body involuntarily maneuvered from his hole. He felt warm air and his chest automatically heaved. The rush of oxygen into his nearly depleted lungs caused his stomach to ache and lurch in nausea.
Miguel and Octavio wiped the grime from his face as Mirabella filled two bucket from the river and doused Chuck with them.
Chuck gasped to fill his lungs and struggled to open his eyes. The water helped clear the mud, but the irritation blurred his vision.
He could hear the sirens in the distance, closing quickly.
“Policía,” he heard Miguel say. “Vamonos.”
But there was no time to escape. Two police vehicles arrived at the same time, followed by Riko Grande’s white van. Riko and his two thugs, the ones Chuck had seen at the tunnel the week before - the same ones that had partaken in Mirabella’s unwilling services - emerged from the vehicles, with their guns pointing at Mirabella, Pedro, Octavio and Miguel.
The police raised Chuck to his feet. But Riko barked something at them in Spanish and they dropped him onto his knees.
Riko Grande slammed the door to his truck and walked toward Chuck’s limp body.
“Mía,” he said.
Chuck couldn’t see it coming, but the kick to the side of his head dropped him face-first into the packed dirt road. The police glanced at each other as Riko dug through the back of his truck for the same bloody shovel that Pedro had used to knock him unconscious at the store.
Dark-red blood caked his face. The flow from his nose had colored his black beard maroon and rust-hued. He shook his head, indicating that he wanted the police to leave.
“Vete,” he commanded. “Eso mío.”
The police holstered their guns. Riko’s men trained their firearms on Mirabella and Pedro, who huddled on one side of the collapsed tunnel entrance and Miguel and Octavio who stood with their hands up on the other.
“Voy a matarlo,” Riko said, moving toward Chuck.
Even Chuck could translate Riko’s Spanish sentence roughly to “I’m going to kill him.”
Delando watched the two police vehicles and the large white van pass him on the road as he sprinted toward the location of the tunnel. After passing him, he drew his weapon and ran even faster behind the three vehicles. He had heard the Border Dogs’ gunshots north of the river about 20 minutes earlier through the drone microphone. Then he heard the explosion of the tunnel with his own ears as he approached the last stretch of the dirt road.
Expecting trouble, he veered off the street and snaked through the woods. Despite the darkness, he followed the sound of the tense voices and Spanish swearing ahead. As he approached, he watched the police stash their firearms, enter their emergency vehicles and leave the scene.
Still too far to rely on a shot through the woods, he padded back to the dirt road. He skirted the side near the ditch and slowed his pace to maintain some sense of surprise. Despite his caution, he moved with urgency. He could see the one gunmen pointing his Glock at the hotel employees and the other at the mother and son that he did not recognize.
He watched Riko saunter slowly toward Chuck, who strained to conduct a pushup to his knees.
He had one chance. But he’d have to hit all three assailants in rapid succession. He decided he had to drop Chuck’s attacker first and then hope to hit each of the gunmen a half-second apart with accurate snipes if he intended to save all five of the people he deemed to be in trouble.
Riko raised the shovel to bury it into the back of Chuck’s head and Delando pulled the trigger. Three quick shots accompanied two flicks of his wrist and Riko and both his men fell dead to the ground in less than a second and a half.