Padre Presciliano Pacheco talked softly to the young girl at the graveside, showing by his body language and tone of voice that he posed no threat. Tom and Elias watched from afar, doing their best not to look intimidating.
Elias looked around at the setting sun, and whistled at how beautiful the countryside was that they were seeing. "Nothing is more lonely and more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairie when the lengthening shadows have at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset fills the west."
Tom nodded. "I've always especially loved the prairie, and appreciated a sunset on the plains. Who said that?" referring to his quote.
"That was the great American naturalist, Teddy Roosevelt." Tom snorted at this, thinking of TR's reputation as a big game hunter, but Elias was engrossed in the moment, and paid no heed. "'There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country,' he said."
"Well he had a way with words in describing the American wild, that's for sure."
"It is an incalculable pleasure to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder book of nature."
Tom took a moment to scan the shadowy horizon, trying to soak in the wild beauty of their surroundings. "Is that what you aspired to be?" he asked Elias. "Some sort of fighting naturalist?"
Elias kept looking to the sky, the first star just starting to twinkle. "No man leads a hardier or more adventurous life than that of the collecting naturalist whose quest takes him to the uttermost parts of the earth. If he has eyes to see he will have many a tale to tell of true stories of adventure in strange lands.' I don't know if that's what I aspired to do, or if it just turned out that way." He started unscrewing the lid to his flask.
"Well you certainly have some weird tales to tell, that's for sure."
They looked over to see the padre and the orphan girl walking side-by-side back to the truck.
"Well your instincts were right," Pacheco said to Tom. "Her name's Rebecca, she's lost everyone she had in this world, save one aunt who lives in the United States, pobrecita. So when I told her your offer to help her find her way across the border, she accepted. Just make sure that she gets through safely, you hear me? Poor thing has been through enough. She could qualify for refugee status on the other side, if she gets the opportunity to tell her story."
So their little band of migrants and downtrodden creatures had grown by one.
It was dark once they arrived in the border town of Nogales and pulled up to the clubhouse where Tom was supposed to meet the gang who ran people through the tunnels under the border. The priest dropped them off after giving them his blessing, and then drove off into the night. Tom knocked on the big steel door, and armed guards opened and ushered them in.
They soon found themselves face-to-face with a gang of heavily armed goons and a moustached man behind a table, contentedly smoking a cigar in a padded office chair. Tom sighed. This was getting to be old hat.
"What do you want, Americans?" he demanded.
"We want to cross la línea through the tunnels."
"And who are jew?" the boss asked in english. "How do I know you're not a rotten cop?"
"We got your contact information because we really just want to get across the border. Look at us," Tom waved in the direction of Claudeth, Maira, Daniel, Siomara and Rebecca. "Do we look like cops?"
"Well, if you're not cops, then you won't mind if we search you."
"We're not giving up our weapons," said Elias, firmly.
"Disarm them!" the boss commanded, as four goons converged on Tom and Elias.
They both sprang into action. Tom adopted the Shaolin Kung Fu Horse stance, blocking one goon in his tracks and then employed Praying Mantis Fist on another, delivering a devastating blow that sent the goon flying backwards across the room.
Elias had his .44 Magnum and Walther P99 out, quick as a flash, and pointed his guns in the other two goons faces. Tom leaped up from the Shaolin Forward stance to cartwheel over the table and pin the boss's head with his fist, while his other hand wielded a dirk.
"Nice moves," Elias said in an aside to Tom.
"Thanks. The kidnappers in Sinaloa liked to watch Kung Fu movies."
An uncomfortable silence hung over the room, as a few moments ticked by giving the boss time to recover from his shock, he started to chuckle in rumbling peals of laughter.
"Ha, ha! Tranquilo, my friend. Let's calm ourselves and talk this over as men." Tom released his hold and allowed the boss to stand up. He smiled broadly at them as he brushed himself off and straightened his jacket. "I think we can do business together. How many of you are there?" The other goons lowered their weapons and relaxed.
"Seven in all. But we'll pay for everyone."
"That'll cost you $3,000 a piece, amigo."
Tom threw an envelope on the table. "Here's twenty grand. Do we have a deal?"
The boss waved his finger at him. "You see? I knew that I liked you. Let's have a drink, and we'll talk about if you deserve that discount or not."
As they arrived at the hidden entrance to the tunnel, Tom was so excited to at being at the threshold of entering the U.S. that he was almost giddy. Not that he didn't like Mexico, but being there illegally was substantially worse than being illegal in the U.S. And he was just entering the country illegally. Once he was there, everything would go back to normal. Or at least that is what he was hoping.
As they entered the inky black tunnel, they were deafened by the eerie silence that was barely broken by the scurrying of rats. Their coyote led the way, with a group of five joining their seven, Tom felt like they had become a real caravan, venturing through the subsurface passageway.
Suddenly they stumbled into a section that was flooded with sludgy water. Someone tripped and yelled as they splashed around, prompting threatening commands for silence.
"Everyone hold hands so that nobody falls," the coyote ordered, and all linked hands obediently. By now the water was up to their knees.
"But it smells like dead animals," complained Claudeth, as they sloshed along.
"And dead people," Rebecca added.
They walked for what seemed like miles, and gradually the tunnel got narrower. One of the coyotes lit up his flashlight, and shone it around like he was looking for something. Finally, he focused on the craggy walls. "¡Aquí! Mire." He lit up a crudely drawn yellow line that was spread across the ceiling and down the wall that indicated the division between Mexico and the United States.
The band of illegal migrants, now hiding from border patrols of a different nation, continued their way further through the subterranean world holding hands until they reached a dry point. There the coyotes offered each of them a change of clothes to help them blend in with their new surroundings in the U.S.
Tom felt the coarse fabric of the shirt he was handed. "Not bad for $3,000 bucks," he remarked to Elias. They eventually made their way to a side tunnel that led to a manhole cover on the surface. The coyotes shooed the pollos, as they called them, out of the tunnel to exit to the darkness outside.
Tom sensed a border patrol nearby and hushed everyone to keep quiet, and as the spotlight came into view, he ushered the group to move ahead and stay out of the stalking beam of light.
The shadows can play tricks on your mind after hours of shining your spotlight through the bitter gloom of the Arizona desert. For border patrol agent Gus Sykes, it was a cat and mouse game against the triple threat of drug smuggling, illegal aliens and violent gangs, with all the concomitant brutality that is integral when you're fighting a war.
Gus's radio croaked to life, "Looks like we have movement at P2."
"I hear you. I'm on my way." The wheels on Gus's jeep spun in the sand until they found traction and he drove off, to assist where a group of migrants had been spotted lurking in the thick gloom.
He pulled up to his number two, Robert, who was standing with a group of men with their guns drawn. "You think you've spotted a batch of illegals?"
"We did, we've just momentarily lost them, that's all."
Gus took a drag from his cigarette, "Seeing all of you with your guns out, I thought that your hair must really be on fire, but maybe you just lost your wits, yeah?"
Robert frowned at this dig, and kept his spotlight scouring the shadowy dunes. "I saw one just for a moment, but they must be wearing their carpet slippers because there ain't no tracks in the sand." Robert rolled his cigarette that was hanging out of his mouth, as he tipped back his cowboy hat. His eyes strained with the will of the hunter through the encompassing murk. "There! I see one! And there's another one!" His gun was raised.
"Well you got a quick hand there, Rob," said Gus with satisfaction. They looked along the beam of light to see the little group running, about twenty meters ahead. "I felt them throw a rock, the varmints! Shoot first, boys!" Gus smoothly drew his rifle that had a quick-pull trigger.
Robert looked through the scope of his rifle as he put Claudeth in the crosshairs. "All you kids with the pumped up kicks, you'd better run, better run, outrun my gun.
"Run, run, faster than my bullet." His finger tightened around the trigger.
Gus heard something to his right that sounded like a groan, as one of the spotlights went out.
"We need light here! What're you doing?" shouted Gus. A shadowy figure flew past his head, causing him to instinctively duck. Something soft hit Robert in the face just as he fired, causing him to miss his target.
"What the-?" he held up a camouflaged backpack. As he put it down to shine his light on Gus, a fist came out of the darkness that smashed his face like an iron bar. His light lit up the terrifying sight of a face masked as a Mexican wrestler. With terrifying speed, the figure from the nightmarish darkness put his arm in a hold, and then delivered a crushing blow to the base of his skull, knocking him unconscious. The masked man then faced Gus, who foolishly tried to draw his pistol. Fast as Gus was, Tom was faster, who disarmed him and struck him in the jaw, knocking him out in the blink of an eye.
Seeing that the lights were no longer following them, Elias led their little band of migrants back towards the trucks while Tom finished dealing with the team of border patrol officers. Elias packed them into Gus's jeep and they sped off, as Tom stayed back to cover their escape. "Sorry," he said to the last man remaining, as he punched him in the back of the head.
The guests at the exclusive formal foundation dinner mingled in polite conversation, as veiled power plays and cloaked alliances and threats were exchanged amongst the veneered elite and powerful. Harold Osborne took a pause from a conversation with an oil magnate and an executive for one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the U.K. to send a text message to Vitaly. Harold was struggling to disguise his anxiety for the operation that his number two was currently tasked with bringing to a conclusion: the capture or otherwise neutralization of Tom Jones and Elias Wirtham.
Markus Vitaly texted back: "Situation under control. Am here at Mexican border. No signs yet, but have heard of an altercation with Border Patrol. Going to investigate."
Harold texted back to be sure to be kept updated, and then started texting one of his other lieutenants. "Send in the asset," was the ambiguous message.
Elias drove over the sand dunes as fast as he dared in the little jeep he had stolen from the Border Patrol. They approached a craggy, mountain range that seemed to rise right out of the sand. As they entered the pass between the rocky cliffs, Elias put all his senses on high alert. They were in a vulnerable position, with almost no space to manoeuvre.
As he negotiated the jeep through the rocky pass, he felt a wave of relief as he saw blue sky as they approached the way out. But that relief turned to panic as he had to slam on the brakes. A big pickup blocked the exit, and three ranchers with rifles took aim at their vehicle.
"Get down!" screamed Elias, getting everyone to duck as he threw the jeep into reverse. Shattering glass, the sounds of gunshots and bullets ricocheting off the steel of the jeep were almost drowned out by the screams of terror of its occupants. Elias attempted to negotiate the mountain pass in reverse, while keeping his head down, but backed into a rock wall, bringing the jeep to a halt. They were sitting ducks, so Elias took out a handkerchief and waved it out the window in surrender. Two of the ranchers came forward, guns vigilantly pointed at Elias, as they dragged the ragtag group of migrants out of the vehicle.
"And who are you?" called the fat rancher from behind the pickup. "Some sort of a coyote?"
Elias kept his hands up as he was lined up with Claudeth, Maira, Daniel, and Siomara while they were padded down and disarmed. "Not really," Elias replied. "Just a fellow American out for a drive with some friends."
As they were saying this, one of the ranchers got a little rough with Siomara, and when Maira stepped forward to protest, the rancher backhanded her across the face. Both Daniel and Elias advanced to intervene in this brutish assault, yet were restrained by the ranchers, one who clubbed Elias to the ground, while the other, the same one who handed down maltreatment to the girls, was waiting for Daniel. He easily overpowered him, and began punching and beating him with excessive force. The girls cried out in distress at seeing this cruelty, but all of this action served it's purpose: to distract the ranchers from checking that everyone had in fact gotten out of the jeep.
Rebecca, putting the jeep into gear, and while never having driven before but had observed intently bus drivers a thousand times, hit the gas and drove the jeep with reckless abandon into the pickup, totalling the jeep and knocking the front end of the bigger truck sliding sideways two meters. As the fat rancher boss was hiding on the other side of the pickup, he was hit with a massive wallop, struck by his own truck and sent reeling backwards.
Elias capitalized off of this surprising development, relieving his tormentor of his weapon and rifle butting him with one movement. He cocked the rifle and, pointing it swiftly at the other, he proceeded to shoot the cowboy hat off of his head, freezing the rancher in his tracks.
"If it makes you feel any better, partner, I was aiming for your kneecap," smirked Elias to the rancher, who looked like he needed a clean pair of shorts.
They tied up the two younger ranchers with restraints that they found in the Border Patrol jeep, and then went to check on the fat boss, who was just recovering from his little bump and getting back to his feet, when Elias rifle butted him in the gut, and then knocked him out with a blow to the head.
After congratulating each other on their success, with special thanks going to little Rebecca, the ragtag and bobtail crew was shooed into the rancher's pickup, as Elias gunned the engine, leaving them in a cloud of dust.
Tom drove the jeep that he had relieved from the border patrol along a dusty dirt road that wound it's way amongst the brush of the great Sonoran desert in Arizona. He was surrounded by tall cacti, with majestic buttes and mesas adorning the skyline, more impressive than any grand temples or architecture contrived by humans. It formed a dry, harsh landscape, but one with distinctive beauty and grandeur, that demanded one to respect it's power and abide by it's rules if one was to survive there.
Tom was a little distracted by the scenery, when he came around a bend in the road and a rise of earth, brush and rocks to find a checkpoint of some pylons and a menacing group of four men with guns. The brush and rocks were so rough and were raised to both sides of the road, that there was no possibility of turning off and avoiding coming to a stop, which Tom dutifully did and tried to act normal.
"Anything I can do for you boys?" Tom asked, doing his best to sound as American as possible.
The four were all dressed differently and of varying shapes and sizes. The one in the lead was a muscular, redheaded man, wearing a black hoodie and baseball cap. He had an arrogant and flushed face, and had many tattoos creeping up the side of his neck and wrists, endeavouring to see the light of day out from under his sweater. The second was dressed as you would expect of a hunter; in camouflage from head to toe, with the exception of an assault rifle hanging from around his neck, indicating that his prey of choice was humankind. He was a large, fatter man; white with a bushy beard around his neck. The third was a woman, shorter, chubby and blonde; with a camo-coloured cap and a white T-shirt that read 'M.A.D. - Minutemen American Defense." The fourth was a chubby man with a shaved head, and Tom swore he could see a Nazi armband poking out from under his shirtsleeve. Tom could see their vehicle parked a short distance away, a large Chevy Suburban decorated with patriotic symbols, as well as a sticker that read, 'Liberals Suck,' and 'No Trespassing' written in English and translated in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.
The lead man spat some tobackie onto the ground. "You ain't no Border Patrol," he growled, raising his rifle at Tom. "Get out of that jeep, right now, and keep your hands where I can see 'em, or it'll be the last thing you'll ever do."
"Okay," Tom complied, slowly stepping out of the jeep, over a bush of stinging nettles and onto the road. "You folks mind telling me what this is about."
"We got word that some Border Patrol agents had been jumped by a dirty band of criminal foreign nationals, and then we find you driving one of the stolen jeeps. How do you pretend to explain that?"
"Oh, I've got my reasons," Tom's muscles tensed. "And may I ask, just what the hell are you guys supposed to be?"
"Why we're the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, protecting the U.S. border ever since our Muslim president decided it would be fine to allow all kinds of illegals and undesirables cross our frontier that is now more dangerous than the frontier of Afghanistan. But that is not America. In my U.S. of A, we have the right to bear arms and defend ourselves, and that is precisely what we are doing." He looked keenly at Tom as he spoke, and then turned to the big bearded man. "Jep," said he, "don't you find it awfully suspicious, a young white man, out here driving through the brush alone, in a stolen federal jeep?"
"This is no joke, J.T." said the other, "cut the blather and let's deal with this traitor." He caressed his rifle.
"And with whom do I have the pleasure of acquaintance?" Tom asked. "JT is it?"
"I be J.T. Ready, founder of the Minutemen and the U.S. Border Guard. I'm a marine, a patriot and a recovering Mormon. And today, I'm your worst nightmare, my son."
"If you feel I'm some sort of a threat," said Tom, "rest assured that I am neither an illegal immigrant nor am I with a militia; but a peaceful American citizen, owing no man and fearing no man."
"I suppose you feel you're entitled to the same rights as we are," replied the neo-Nazi, "But if I may make so bold as to ask, what business does this honest American have in helping a dirty horde of illegals into my country? And how does he honestly come by a Border Patrol vehicle? Things are changing here at the border. We have it locked, loaded and ready to stop every filthy migrant we encounter, and I'm the one in charge. I don't take orders from your pale pink president, and I have an army of zealous soldiers at my back."
"I've heard of your border militias," said Tom, not hiding his contempt, "and that many would call you domestic terrorists."
Ready stared at Tom, trying to figure what his game was. "Well," said he, at last, "you got balls, I'll give you that. And perhaps on another day I would have just handed you over to the federal police. But today you had the misfortune of being netted by 'Operation Sovereignty,' and we're going to have to dispatch you ourselves. Right, Jep?" And he turned again to look at the bearded redneck.
But just as he turned there came the sound of an impact on J.T. Ready's chest, knocking him to the ground, followed by the report of a rifle.
"I'm hit! O sweet Jesus, they shot me!" he cried, several times over.
Tom ducked for cover, as the hunter dragged Ready behind some brush cover, while he scanned the horizon for the shooter. The woman came running over and clasped his hands. Now the wounded man looked from one to another with scared eyes, and there was a change in his voice, that cut to ones heart, whatever side you were on.
"Oh, I'm bleeding like a freaking pig!" He tried to open his clothes as if to look for the wound but his fingers slipped on the fabric. He looked back at his companions in desperation. "Oh, I am dead! Look to yourselves, dammit! I'm done for!" With that he heaved a great and painful sigh, his head rolled on his shoulder, and he passed away.
The man who looked the hunter never said a word, but his face was hard and as white as the dead man's; the woman broke into a loud wailing as tears streamed down her face; and Tom, for his part, stood staring at the lot of them, in tense anticipation of when they would turn their hostility on him. The chubby neo-Nazi was hiding by the truck and firing random shots into the hills, hoping to hit the elusive sniper.
At last the hunter laid down the dead man in his blood upon the road, and got to his feet with a kind of stagger.
Tom, who had been genuinely shocked at this turn of events, finally regained his senses and realized that the time to escape was now or never. Jumping back into his jeep, he ducked his head as he pulled the shift into reverse and hit the accelerator. Shots smashed through the windshield as the hunter keenly tried to fulfil his original wish of killing him.
Tom backed up in a wildly jaunty line until he eventually attempted to turn the vehicle around. As he momentarily exposed the broad side of the jeep to his attackers, one bullet came shearing through the door and nicked Tom's leg. Cursing, Tom grabbed a jacket and used it as padding against the flow of oozing blood. Managing to put the jeep in gear, Tom hit the gas again, putting substantially more distance between himself and the Minutemen Defense Corps.
As Tom drove around a rocky bluff, looking for another dirt road that would take him in the desired direction, he almost drove into the big pickup that Elias was driving. Elias hit the brakes, allowing the injured Tom to hobble into the back, thereupon Elias earnestly drove for their lives.
After they had driven a while, and felt like they had put some distance between themselves and their enemies, Elias stopped the truck and allowed Tom to climb up inside the cab. "I ran into a pretty tight spot back there."
"So did we," said Elias, mighty gravely. "We got out by the skin of our teeth and a buttload of luck. How's your leg?"
Tom grimaced in pain. "It's awfully stiff, but I think the bleeding's stopped. We might have more company soon, as an American hillbilly lies in his blood on the road."
"And it wasn't you that shot him?" asked Elias.
"I thought it was you!" said a prickly Tom. "Now we're going to have all the cops up our ass, and somehow we have to get all the way up to New York undetected."
"I know, it's a conundrum, but not the toughest one we've faced by far." Elias did his best to placate Tom's frayed nerves.
"But just blasting your way through situations is not very smart now, is it? What was the body count on your altercation? You managed to steal a pretty nice truck, so I'm guessing you shot up some influential people. Now, we may as well just send the kids out there to die in the desert and we can go surrender ourselves to the local Sheriff, because we're all as good as dead!" Tom continued clutching his wounded leg.
Elias was silent for a little while, then he said, "Did you ever hear the tale of the Man and the Elves?"
"No, nor do I feel in the mood to hear it now."
"I'm going to tell you anyway. Trust me, you'll feel better afterwards. The man, as the story goes, was cast upon a rock in the sea, where it appears that the Elves were in the custom to come and rest as they went the British Isles on their way to Ireland. The name of this rock is called the Skerryvore, and it lies just off the coast of Scotland. Well, according to the tale, the man cried so sore, if he could just see his little child before he died, that at long last the Elven king took pity on him and sent the wee child with a great Eagle who laid it down beside the man in a bag where the man lay asleep. So when he woke up, there was this strange bag beside him and something inside of it was moving. Well, it seems that he was one of these nervous types who always has to think the worst of things; and for greater security, he stuck his dirk throughout the bag before he opened it, only to find his poor child dead."
"Well that's a grim little story. If you were trying to cheer me up, you'd have done better to give me your flask."
"You just got me thinking, is all, that you and the man are very much alike."
"Thank you. I'll know to count on you when I feel like absolute garbage that you'll be able to make me feel even worse. Do you mean to say that you didn't shoot that guy back there?"
"I'll tell you first of all, because I can see you're awfully worked up, as one friend to another, that if I was going to kill someone, I'm not going to do it in my own country when I'm trying to repatriate myself. And second, do you see any high-powered rifles in here?"
"Alright," Tom said, "You got some logic there. It just surprises me that there's someone else out there who just happened to want to kill that neo-Nazi."
"Doesn't surprise me," Elias said matter-of-factly.
"Well, I guess it was more the timing of the matter that surprised me. And it got me out of a tight spot, let me tell you."
They drove for miles, and as the sun began it's downward descent, with the promise of another glorious desert sunset, they perceived the sound of a helicopter overhead.
"Aw nuts!" Tom bellowed. "It's the Border Patrol, without a doubt. They'll be on us before we get to the next town."
Darkness began to enshroud them, and just when the two of them were fighting sleep, a loud thump on the roof of the truck violently shook them from any lethargy that they had been feeling.
"What the hell was that?!" shouted Elias.
A throaty screeching noise soon answered their question, followed by screams that came from the back. "Una moskitón!" was one of the only things that Tom could comprehend, but that was plenty.
"It's Eddie Brock!" he shouted.
"Who?" demanded Elias, trying to keep the truck under control.
"He's a spider chimera!" Elias didn't wait for Tom to explain further. He drew his Magnum pistol and began firing through the ceiling of the truck. Unnatural screams came from the darkness outside as Elias slammed on the brakes, sending their occupants in the back of the truck tumbling forward and Brock went flying off the front.
Tom opened the door. "Get out of here, now! And don't look back!"
As the door slammed shut, Elias fought against every fibre of his being in his desire to defend his friend. But as he looked back at their other charges that they had acquired, he opted to put a safe distance between them, and then planned on doubling back by himself to see if he could help Tom.
Tom rushed at the spider chimera with all his might, forgetting about his wounded leg. He came in swinging, but Eddie Brock was ready for him. Tom punched, kicked and jumped, all with terrifying speed and power, but every blow and stance was countered by the stronger, technologically and genetically more advanced chimera, and Tom knew that he was losing.
"You're incredibly sick, Brock," Tom tried to reason with the remaining humanity he had left. "Your condition has advanced and you desperately need medical attention."
"Sick? Me?" Brock snarled. "I am superior to you in every way. There is no man on earth who enjoys the same potency that I deliver. And look at you. You would look down on me if you dared, but you cannot pretend to be my equal in strength and stamina. In the end, you lose!"
Tom could jump higher than Brock, but basically he had nowhere to run. So as he stayed to fight, Brock slowly gained the mastery over Tom, which culminated in a painful bite on Tom's shoulder, with venom coursing through his body.
Tom screamed in pain and rolled on the ground, and Brock paused to relish his victory before he delivered the coup de grâce. Suddenly, a spotlight shone full in Brock's face, blinding and stupefying him, triggering a reflex that forced him to scurry back to the shadows. A big truck rolled up to Tom, and a Russian accent commanded, "Get in!"