The Killing Ground
Brad Hanley removed his sunglasses and knelt closer, swooshing aside the horde of flies covering his dead undercover agent’s face. He stared solemnly at the lonely expanse of desert he stood in, surrounded by cactus and dusty brush. He shook his head glancing at Tyler Anhill, the Native American that had brought him here. “You deserved better, Dan.”
Tyler Anhill desperately needed a successful hunt. His Tucson car wash job had ended when the monsoon season started. School letting out, it sent a flood of high school students into the Tucson labor market to crowd out his opportunity for employment. He’d grown up on the reservation born to hardship. It was something he knew only too well. Only now, Anhill had a family to feed.
He’d come north from inside the Tohono O’odham Reservation into Kirkowian Pass, south of Phoenix, in search of a plump buck for the family freezer. Out of season, and against the law, his kids still needed to eat. He watched the deer move into the open at first light. It passed a clump of catclaw and paused to browse on the sparse grass there.
Not owning a rifle, he was confined to using his father’s ancient bow. Anhill worked his way silently, slowly along the wash, staying upwind of the six-point buck. Stealthily, knowing it would supply meat for his family and parents. He nocked his arrow, drew the bow taut, and held his breath to steady the shot.
He followed the deer’s silhouette, watching it draw nearer. He led the animal slightly to get a clean kill shot with a hit just behind the shoulder, penetrating its heart. It stepped clear of the Mesquite clump. Anhill let his breath out slowly, releasing the arrow. At that moment something startled the deer. Its head jerked skyward as it turned to run. The shaft sunk deep into its neck, and it bolted, sprinting away.
“Dammit,” Anhill cursed. Now he would have to trail the buck until it weakened, stopped, and died.
He walked to where the deer had turned in the small clearing to find an outstretched arm pointing to the morning sky. Its’ clawed hand held something shiny and black dangling from a lanyard in its twisted fingers. Horrified, he drew closer, peering at the contorted face of a man’s head and shoulder, jerked back, rising out of the dirt beside the arm. Anhill turned and vomited in the brush at the clearing’s edge.
The man’s face stared up, streaked with blood and red clay. His hair matted back by the thick, sticky mud of the soil it had burst from. Anhill gently poked at the hand holding the shiny black plastic piece. The object opened, revealing a gold symbol, name, and the letters: FBI. Anhill shrank back, whatever this was, instinct warned him to not get involved.
He should forget ever finding this grisly thing, and continue to track the buck’s trail. Walking, Anhill kept seeing the image of the man’s agonized face. The pain he saw there haunted him. After seeing the man’s name on his identification, Anhill knew relatives of agent Dan Ortiz would want to know his fate. He turned east and headed into Casa Grande to report his grisly discovery.
Eight in the morning, Lance Tallbear rolled over as the doorbell continued to ring. He pushed aside the pillow to fumble for his pants beside the bed. He rose to face the day, brushing back his thick black shoulder-length hair. Glancing at the mirror near his bed, he winced, seeing the bullet and knife scars that marred his burnished six-foot body. They reminded him how violent many days of his police work ended. He pulled on his shirt, grabbed his Stetson, and stepped from the bedroom. The first Saturday he’d had off in a month. Whoever knocked at the door better have a damn good reason for disturbing him.
Gingerly, he walked down the hallway, pulling on his pants, and crossed the living room in his bare feet to reach the door. He opened it with a quick, agitated pull. A man in a light gray suit stood there facing away from him, peering at Tallbear’s overgrown garden of weeds. There was something familiar about the man’s poise and manner. It clicked as the man turned and reached to pull off his sunglasses.
“It looks a little different since the last time I was here.” Brad Hanley said, “But I remember being pretty drunk at the time.”
Hanley had put on weight since Tallbear had last seen him. He looked to now top the scales at 225 pounds. His hair presented a sprinkle of gray at the temples, early for a man of thirty-five. Probably the result of too much anxiety over the promotion he’d heard the man received. Hanley appeared to be in much better shape than when they’d worked the Morgan case together two years earlier.
Tallbear sensed tenseness in Hanley’s voice. Somehow the pain he exuded was different from the last time they worked together. His friend didn’t carry the burden of guilt anymore that had almost destroyed his life. Hanley now carried a new one. He wondered if his shaman’s training and skills might once again be required.
“Hell, Brad, it’s been at least a year since I saw or heard from you,” Tallbear said, extending his hand. “Why don’t you come in?”
The Superstitions Mountain’s and missing plane. Thomas Kane, Kamorov, and all that happened still haunted Tallbear’s dreams some nights. The cost of the case, in personal pain and experience, eventually helped him focus his future. It helped him decide he’d chosen the right path for his life in becoming a police officer instead of a shaman for his people. That case propelled his advancement to detective.
“Don’t tell me you finally heard something about Kane or Kamorov?”
“Nothing on Kane. But we’ve heard rumors that Kamorov may be dead.”
Hanley took a seat at the kitchen counter, “This isn’t a social call, Lance,” Hanley said, “I need your help with a crime scene brought to my attention this morning.”
Hanley fidgeted in his seat, appearing nervous. Tallbear wondered if Hanley’s former drinking problems had returned. Or were new ones in the process of developing.
“Who is it?” A silky voice called out from the back bedroom.
“It’s the FBI,” Tallbear called back.
“Is that Sally Yazzie’s voice I hear?” Hanley said, craning his head to look into the bedroom.
“That’s on a need-to-know basis, Brad, and you don’t need to know. Give me a couple of minutes to finish getting dressed, and I’ll be right with you.” He needed to say goodbye to Yazzie and pull his boots on.
Hanley smiled and stood up, “I’ll wait in the car.”
Five minutes later, Tallbear exited his new modular home dressed in jeans and a long-sleeve plaid shirt topped off with his gray Stetson. He pulled on a windbreaker, adjusted his holster, and moved to the car’s passenger side.
“Your place appears to be in a lot better shape than I remember.” Hanley quipped. “It looks different not blown in half and burning like last time.”
“Guess it depends on your point of view,” Tallbear said. “If I remember correctly, the last time you were here, in your condition, you never saw any of my home from a standing position, much less before it blew up.”
Traveling in Hanley’s black Ford Explorer they started down the road. Tallbear could tell Hanley wrestled with his thoughts. The man needed to talk about something serious. For some reason, he was having difficulty bringing it up.
“I thought Irene Katz said you accepted a transfer to Texas to operate some new hush-hush FBI project.” Tallbear said, “So what brings you back here?”
“My current assignment brought me back,” Hanley said, “In fact, I’m taking you to a crime scene related to that project right now.” His voice lowered, his eyes glazing over as he looked into the distance.
“It’s something bad?” Tallbear said. The two of them had gone through enough that Tallbear felt sure he read pain in his friend’s face. “You’re trying to say is it’s something nasty—isn’t it?”
The seriousness of the problem flashed across Hanley’s face, etched deep in his forehead furrows. Five years younger than Tallbear, Hanley showed the wear and tear a mantle of FBI responsibility cost.
“It’s turning out to be the worst case I’ve ever had, Lance. At this point, I’m not quite sure which way to proceed.”
The morning, bright, clear and pleasant, suddenly grew darker. The puffy white clouds and the promise of a glorious day drifting over the western horizon faded. They proceeded in silence south toward Tucson. A soft breeze kept the morning air fresh instead of still and sticky. The first of June, the desert started to grow green with the monsoon season beginning a little early.
School had let out. The start of summer meant relaxation for all except those in law enforcement. When people played, they often became careless. The predators, seeking easy prey, always appeared in greater numbers. The increase in targets of opportunity only added to the law’s burden of protection. Also, rumors of the fence project expanding caused increased unrest all along the border. The push by law enforcement to capture both drugs and smugglers of people ramped up, leading to even more armed confrontations.
“Arizona’s on the hot-seat when it comes to both drugs and smuggling.” Hanley said, “We’re only a short distance behind Texas in the problems we face. Today alone, the cartels and gangs will bring in several tons of Marijuana, fifty keys of coke, heroin, and God knows how many pills.”
“I’m aware of the numbers, Brad. So, what does it have to do with you?”
“My assignment is heading up a special unit to curb the invasion of drugs and dealers along the border. But my job has expanded beyond drugs.” Hanley said. “These operations smuggle money, people, and anything else to turn a buck. Men, women, even small kids, are brought in to work as sex slaves. If you’ve been following the news, our new President has declared we’re going to stop them.”
Tallbear shifted sideways in his seat, “And I suppose you’re the one assigned to do that job.”
“Yeah, that’s about it,” Hanley said. “Along with The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Border Patrol, State Police, the DEA, ATF, and the Tohono O’odham Nation Police, and all the other local jurisdictions.”
“Isn’t the government just going to build a solid wall along the border to solve the problem?”
“That fence is nothing more than a pipe dream, or some bad drug trip, floating across the mind of a Washington politician,” Hanley said. “Most of that terrain is too rugged. It’s filled with arroyos and volcanic hills that pop straight up out of the desert floor. Not to mention, that almost a hundred miles of that border belong to the Tohono O’odham Nation.”
Hanley motioned at the countryside flashing by outside, “They claim a fence won’t ever cut their land and heritage. Part of their reservation extends past the U.S. border into Northern Mexico for about thirty miles. Many of ‘The People’ still live over there, and demand access to the United States side of their homeland.”
“Sounds like you’re in a no-win situation, friend.”
“Believe me, it’s more serious than you think. Wait until you’ve seen the crime site.” Hanley turned off the highway south of Tucson, onto a dirt track, heading deeper into Kirkowian Pass.
“A local Indian from the reservation came up here this morning. Illegally hunting deer and stumbled on the scene.” Hanley said. “Fortunately, he decided to report what he found and went into Casa Grande to put a call into the Phoenix office. They, in turn, called me.”
Hanley and Tallbear bounced down the dirt road with the smell of wet pine and scrub brush filling the air. Hanley turned onto a small plateau dotted with creosote shrubs and sparse clumps of bunchgrass, dotted with cactus and ocotillo. They passed several mesquite trees and clusters of catclaw, to stop near a vehicle identical to the one they drove. A stout, annoyed looking young Mexican, slightly shorter than Tallbear, leaned against the vehicle.
Tallbear stepped out of the vehicle, noting the area had recently undergone a hard rain. Puddles of water, still present, spread across many places of the plateau in his view. He began to question how much help he could help his friend. Stepping out, he put on his hat, “There’ll be limited tracks if the rain showers passed through during or shortly after the time of the crime.”
The Mexican agent waited patiently, leaning against the car, arms crossed.
“This is agent Raul Ortega,” Hanley said, waving as they passed the man.
Most people would describe Ortega as medium build and wiry. The man had deep brown eyes, a neatly trimmed mustache, and struck Tallbear as a man serious about his work. A man who appeared to truck no disorder. He instinctively liked him without ever hearing the man speak a word.
“Ortega, this is Sheriff, Lance Tallbear,” Hanley said, brushing by, heading deeper onto the plateau.
The two men looked at each other and followed Hanley.
They ducked under a Palo Verde tree and entered a small clearing. The area opened, and Tallbear found himself facing what could only be described as an astonishing scene. The outstretched arm of a man extended skyward. A couple of his fingers pointed toward the heavens, like a kid in a classroom begging for attention. Something black and shiny dangled from the lanyard in his hand, rustling in the morning breeze.
Tallbear approached the body, and the object it held. Moving closer, he could make out the features of a face staring upward, its’ mouth jammed open, frozen in a scream. The nostrils and mouth were both choked with mud. The man’s eyes, long since glazed over and clouded in death.
“I brought you here for a couple of reasons, Lance,” Hanley said. “The first one is, of course, to get your impressions of what you see.”
Tallbear strolled the area observing the remaining tracks. He paused beside a creosote bush to inspect some broken limbs and followed several dually tire marks around the site. Tipping back his Stetson, he waved Hanley over. “Not much is going to be learned from the tire tracks. The tread marks were mostly washed out during the first storm rolling through or shortly before the second set of showers arrived.”
Tallbear held out the piece of creosote bush, holding it for Hanley to smell. “These stems still have a strong smell of anise, indicating they’re fresh, probably broken sometime in the last 24 hours.”
Hanley’s brow wrinkled, “What about my agent?”
“He’s been dead a day or less. I’ll bet his body didn’t end up here until last night at the earliest. Out here, predation by insects and animals starts almost immediately.” Tallbear knelt, using a pencil to poke the item hanging on the lanyard held by the dead man. I’d say your man died hard— very hard.” Tallbear continued, “How come you haven’t had the forensics boys up here yet?”
“What makes you think we haven’t?” Ortega chimed in.
“Simple observation, there are no other tracks than the people who are present now,” Tallbear said. He pointed to the surrounding area, “No tape, signs of digging, or prints of any kind. Except for a deer that passed by early this morning.” he said, pointing to a deer’s track.
“Of course, your boots and Hanley’s shoe prints are here. Only one other man’s tracks are present. He wore a set of work-boots with a bad left heel. I’m going to assume those belong to the hunter who called Hanley. It also means your killer left before the last storm passed through.”
“I told you he was good,” Hanley said.
Ortega brushed off the comment, “I could have told you that much, Agent Hanley.”
Tallbear pulled his Bowie knife from his boot as he walked to a nearby clump of mesquite. He spread the branches, using the knife tip to point out a fresh cut deep inside the bush. “Your killer cut a branch from here to wipe and smudge his tracks and blur his identity. But using the length of his stride I’d estimate the man to be around six feet tall.”
Ortega huffed sarcastically. “You’re telling us he matches the same height as half the men in Arizona.”
“No. that’s an observation based on science.” He pointed around the area. “The important thing is that he took the branch he cut and used with him when he left to avoid leaving us any DNA. I’ll also bet he used gloves and avoided leaving any trace evidence on the body.”
Hanley scratched his temple. “You’re saying he knows our procedures and forensics.”
Tallbear leaned against the Explorer, brushed back his Stetson. Looking into Ortega’s eyes, “Tell me what else you see, Agent Ortega?”
“I see one of our men who was cruelly tortured and then buried alive!” Ortega spat out, his face flaming.
Tallbear stared intently at him, “Maybe you could tell me why the agent’s buried standing straight up in a circular hole.”
Hanley stepped forward, observing the hole’s outline. “He’s right.”
They could all make out a slightly concave roundness, three feet across, its outline surrounding the body. It appeared the agent had popped out of the ground, like a jack-in-the-box or a curious gopher.
“I hadn’t noticed the roundness,” Hanley said.
“Don’t you remember as a kid how you’d dig a hole,” Tallbear said. “It always took more dirt to refill it than you took out, especially to level it completely. Otherwise, it would leave a depression, one you sometimes didn’t even notice until the next time it rained”
Ortega straightened, “Yeah, so what are you saying?”
“Take a look around you, Agent Ortega.” Tallbear said, pointing to several circular spots visible between the plateau’s creosote brush and shrubs. Several round shallow puddles were visible.
“I don’t think you found a crime scene. I think you’ve discovered a killing ground.”