A Charlie Hood Novel
The audacious white-hot new novel from T. Jefferson Parker that redefines the landscape of the thriller and shatters every expectation you ever had about the good guys and the bad...
When Benjamin Armenta, leader of the powerful Gulf Cartel, kidnaps songwriter Erin McKenna, his demands are as unique as the jungle fortress in which Erin is imprisoned. She’s ordered to compose a narcocorrido, a folk ballad that will romanticize Armenta as one of the greatest desperadoes in Mexican history. Allowed to wander the hallways of the castle with only a guitar and a mysterious old priest to keep her company, Erin must produce the loveliest song these men have ever heard. Or she’ll be skinned alive.
As Erin’s music wafts through the jungle, it serves as a siren call to the two men who love her: lawman Charlie Hood and Erin’s outlaw husband, Bradley Jones. They have the power to rescue her, but their long-simmering rivalry could very well compromise Erin’s deliverance and cause the ending of a life-and-death ballad to be rewritten in blood.
The black van rolled across the barnyard in the rain and stopped beneath an enormous oak tree. It was a large vehicle but under the canopy it was poorly visible, a dark shape within greater darkness. From it the men spilled and advanced quietly to a stable where they paused, then to the flank of the barn, then in single file to the ranch house where they pooled in the overhang of the deck.
Upstairs a young man watched through a window as he buttoned on his jeans. He saw the dull glint of the van under the tree and men snaking through the night. He counted ten of them. He looked back across the bedroom at his security monitors but they told him that the gate had not been breached and none of the doors or windows of the outbuildings had been disturbed. No warning indicators, no audio alerts. Yet this. The dogs were kenneled for the storm. The rain belted the roof and he saw the silver lines of it slanting outside the windows and he understood that he might die here tonight but she did not have to. He was twenty-one years old.
He went to her and put a hand over her mouth and rocked her upward from sleep as he whispered. Men are here.
Men with guns. We only have seconds, Erin. Get up now. Please.
How can this happen?
They beat the security. Up. Hurry. We have our plan.
She let out a small cry and held his hand tight and pulled herself up and out of bed. In the near darkness he put his arm around her and walked her across the suite and down a hallway and into another room lit by a faint nightlight. Her shoulders were white and her hair was red. Outside the wind hit the walls and the rain raked down upon the world. He let go of her and slid open the door of a walk-in closet and threw a hidden switch. The interior pivoted away with a motorized hum and was replaced by an alcove with a leather recliner and a fire extinguisher and a small refrigerator and a rack of weapons along one wall.
He kissed her and pressed a hand against her middle and felt the slight warm bulge through her nightgown.
I love you, Erin.
I love you, Bradley. Is this a nightmare? Why us? I hear things downstairs.
I’ll handle it. You wait here and I’ll come to you by moonlight. Like in your song. This is a promise. Hurry.
He guided her by the hand into the alcove. She sat on the recliner and he kissed her and pushed the switch and they held hands and gazes until Erin glided away and was gone. Bradley pulled the silenced machine pistol from the upper shelf and slung it over his shoulder then took another and pushed off the safety and trotted back out into the hallway.
He heard feet on the stairs. He backed away from the balustrade and when the first man came up and looked from under the brim of his helmet Bradley shot him and he arched back down into the stairwell. Another followed and Bradley shot him also but three more boiled up hydralike, shoulders hunched and faces down, and Bradley sprayed them but they surged toward him while he loosed his last few rounds and raised the second gun.
They knocked him over just before he could fire and pinned his arms to the floor. More men piled on. He expected their knives but he could barely move beneath their weight. He could smell their bodies and their breath and the gunpowder in the air and he could feel the hard ballistic armor that crushed down on him and none of his clawing or tearing or biting could damage that armor or the men inside it.
They grunted and cursed in Spanish and they kept their voices low and they had not fired a shot. He felt his lungs being squeezed empty and still the men were piling on, heavier and heavier upon him until the last spark of his breath flickered and he could not catch it. Bradley thrashed and grunted against them. He entered the darkness cursing them and he heard their voices above his own— profanities and nervous laughter.
He awoke and opened his eyes and saw nothing but black. He was on his back and tried to sit up but hit his head on something just a few inches from his face. He touched it with his hands: fabric over metal. There was a smell he knew. His knees were bent and he tried to straighten them but the space was too small. When he tried to raise them they too hit the low ceiling and Bradley felt the panic gathering in his body. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Breath, sweet breath. Calm. The panic sat and waited. Bradley had always suffered in close places— in sleeping bags and crowded elevators and below decks— as had his mother and their ancestors deep into history.
He reached out and felt the curve of his enclosure and the smallness of the space. He heard one of the terriers yapping. I’m in the barn, he thought. His fingers found a plastic crate and when he got a hand into it he felt the familiar air compressor with its power cord wrapped snug around the bottom, and the spray can of tire treatment that smelled of cherry, and the rubber blade of the window wiper. The Cyclone, he thought: I’m in the trunk of my old Cyclone, in the barn. Nineteen seventy, no trunk release. No inside trunk release.
The panic launched and Bradley shoved the crate away and braced both hands on the lid and pushed mightily but it did not give. He wriggled over onto his front side and got his knees under him and he drove his back up into the top. He gnashed his teeth and growled deep in his throat and he felt the muscles of his thighs and groin flaring but the lid was unmoved. He turned over breathing fast and hard, strangling on the closeness. Sweat ran off his face and neck and he felt it accumulating in the cleft below his larynx. He wondered how much oxygen was left. He heard voices from above him. He tried to calm his heart and listen to them but he could not.
The panic came again and he chopped at the ceiling with both elbows but the ceiling did not give. He flipped over again and again drove his back against the lid but the trunk was Detroit-built and it gave not even the smallest sign of coming open. So he pushed up on his young strong arms, arms that could easily press his own weight and more, but they were no match for the steel.
Bradley flipped over onto his back again and screamed the scream of the living and he knew that if he screamed loud enough the sound would rip a hole through the metal and he would be able to reach an arm through.
And the lid lifted. He sat up and looked into the faces of men and the barrels of their guns. Most wore helmets or bandanas or balaclavas. Beyond them he saw the lights and rafters of his barn. Some of the men poked at him with their barrels. Erin stood not ten feet away, one large armored man holding each of her arms, her nightgown torn and her feet bare and her eyes wild. Beyond her, along the far side, was the kennel and behind the chain link the twelve dogs paced or stood or sat and the terrier kept barking.
He gathered himself to climb out but a gun butt hit him square in the forehead and he dropped back into place in the trunk and looked dizzily at the man who had hit him.
“Excuse me, Deputy Jones. My name is Heriberto. You are now living because I have been asked to be merciful to you.” He was tall and wide, his face below the eyes hidden by a bandana. His voice was soft and lilting. Bradley noted his new white athletic shoes, jeans, and the Mexican Army-issue armored vest and helmet.
Bradley nodded faintly and looked again at Erin. He didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious and it was his belief that she had not been beaten or raped. He wondered how they had breached his security and discovered the hidden room so easily. He tried to climb out again but the gun butt corrected him as before. He saw the tears running down her face but he tried to stare at her in a way that imparted calm and strength. He felt the blood running from his scalp and down his lips and off his chin.
“You’re going to be all right, Erin. I promise you that you will be all right.”
“Deputy Jones, this is not a certainty,” said Heriberto. “We are here to take your wife. You will see her again if you end your protection of Carlos Herredia and the North Baja Cartel in Los Angeles. And if you stop arresting the Gulf Cartel’s Salvadoran friends. And if you offer one million dollars to Benjamin Armenta as an apology for the trouble you have caused and the money you have cost him. These are to be your labors, gringo Hercules. We give you ten days to complete them and your esposa will be released without harm. If you fail, Deputy Jones, then Saturnino will skin her alive. He is the enforcer ultimo and this one of his methods. All of the lovely white skin. Off. Sí, mi amigos?”
The men remained silent and did not look directly at Erin. She tried to break away but the men yanked her back and her hair flashed red in the tube lights of the barn. Beyond them the big sliding door was open and Bradley could see the rain lightly falling outside. It was an unusual monsoonal storm from the southeast, brief and warm, but Bradley was trembling cold and bloodied. His ears rang badly. He wiped some blood off his face and looked at his wife.
“You have the wrong man, you sonsofbitches,” she said. “He’s a sheriff’s deputy for the County of Los Angeles. He was second in his class at the academy. He’s been awarded for bravery. Get off our property.”
Heriberto looked at her. His expression was incomplete because of the bandana but his eyes crinkled with amusement. He opened both hands and gestured at the spacious barn with its Porsche Cayenne and the lovingly restored seventies’ Cyclone and Erin’s new Toureg hybrid turbo, and the tarped and trailered Boston Whaler and the gleaming quad runners and the John Deere and the profusion tools and sporting gear. He nodded toward the big house and spread his hands in a gesture of inclusion, which included Erin. He laughed quietly and so did the men.
“All of this and a secret room with a motor? Why not a private jet? This is what the one-year policeman in los Yuniates earns? But the beginning pay is not forty-thousand dollars per year. All this? Where does all this come from, roja?”
“You’ve got the wrong guy, Heriberto,” said Bradley. “I am not who you think I am.”
Heriberto stared at him. “Tell your lies to the fools in your life. To your wife and your department.”
“I do not lie to my wife.”
Erin looked at Bradley with angry confusion. He saw the doubt on her face and, feeling judged by the one person he truly believed in, the doubt hit him harder than the gun butt. He gauged his chances of lunging out of the car and getting to her without being beaten or shot. But then what? He saw the movement of the gunmen toward him and held still.
“Erin,” he said. “I’ll take care of this. I’ll give them what they want. I’ll give them twice of what they ask, whether it’s in my power or not. You’ll be free again. You’ll see this home again and raise your children here and we’ll walk that meadow in the spring and be in love.”
She looked back at him through her tangle of hair but said nothing.
“If you fail us, Deputy Jones, we will send you her skin, rolled up in a small box,” said Heriberto. “We will be in touch with you. Many details are to be coming. The Gulf Cartel will crush your master Carlos Herredia like a small dog. This is only the beginning. You tell him Benjamin Armenta says hello.”
The two men pulled Erin toward the barn door just as four others stepped forward and pinned Bradley to the trunk bottom with their gun barrels. He looked up at their motley disguises and clothes and their vests with the military numbers stenciled in white. A moment later he heard a vehicle pull up outside the barn and one by one the gunmen backed away and disappeared.
He sat up and wiped blood from his face. Through the barn door he saw that the rain had ended and he heard Erin shout out to him: “Come to me by moonlight, sugar!/Let the moon be your guide!” These were words to a song she was writing and she’d been singing them in slightly varying melodies for the last week now. “I love you, Bradley!”
Love or loved? He sprang out of the trunk and ran to the door and saw the van heading down the dirt road toward the gate. He ran to the workbench, got the .357 Magnum revolver from a drawer, then to the all-terrain vehicles waiting side-by-side at the far end of the barn, gassed as always, keys in their ignitions. He chose the best one and jammed the gun into the holster strapped under the dash while turning the key.
He bounced through the barn and shot out the door, up on his hands and feet, head held low. Shirtless he shivered as he cut through the cool wind and found the road and gunned the quad runner through its gears. I will not fail you. He saw the taillights of the van as it cleared a rise then he saw nothing but the pocked road.
Seconds later he was nearly upon the van. It was loaded heavily and the back tires slipped and spun in the fresh mud. The gate was not far away. He slid out the revolver and guided the whining quad with one hand and he raised the pistol and sighted down it. The van, big and easily hit, bounced along ahead of him but to fire was only folly and he knew they had beaten him this time. He backed off the accelerator and touched the brake and swung the ATV into a sideways slide that threw mud in a big rooster tail and finally brought it to a stop. He shivered with cold and his eyes filled with tears and blood as he watched the van leave his property not through the gate but through a large hole cut in the chain-link fence.Praise for The Border Lords:
"Parker again demonstrates his mastery of the genre."
"T. Jefferson Parker's propulsive but pitch-perfect works of social realism continue to chip away at the traditional boundaries between...genre and literary fiction."
-The Los Angeles Times
"Parker's skill at weaving this cruel and tender border tale? Magical."
-The San Diego Union-Tribune
"Three-time Edgar Award winner Parker has created a memorable character in Charlie Hood, who remains a beacon of restrained hope in a world of despair and dark deeds."
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