1. Howl at the Moon
Three years after Parnell’s escape from the United States ...
Just before dawn, the jungle erupted in frenzied growls and agitated barks.
The clamorous racket brought Parnell out of a deep sleep. Howler monkeys rampaged through the treetops, bellowing deep-throated shrieks. The cacophony reminded him of hunting dogs hot on the scent.
Extremely bad karma.
He sat up in bed, fluffing the pillows with angry punches.
Elaine stirred beside him, yawning. She propped herself on an elbow, looked at him in the dim glow of the nightlight.
“They’re really bad tonight,” she said, her voice husky with sleep.
“Yeah,” he said. Damned monkeys! It’s an omen, and not a good one.
“What has them so worked up?”
She slid next to him, rubbed against him, her naked body warm, her skin soft. He felt her fingers tracing feathery patterns across his belly.
Her warm breath tickled his ear as she whispered, “Maybe it’s a chimp orgy.”
“They’re monkeys, Lainey. They have tails. Chimps don’t have tails.”
“Damnit, Derek!” She pulled away from him, retreating to her side of the bed. “I didn’t realize we were playing Jeopardy for Chrissakes!”
He sighed, in no mood for her petulance. This scenario had been playing out with more frequency lately, he rejecting her advances and Elaine going into her snappish, you-have-done-me-wrong act. It had become tiresome, irritating. Predictable.
His cell phone erupted, the locomotive air-horn ringtone urgent and demanding. Heart racing, he reached out blindly, hand fumbling across the nightstand, grabbed the phone and squinted at the caller ID.
“It’s Jenny,” he said, an uneasy feeling dropping into the pit of his stomach. No word from his daughter for several months and now a call at 4:30 in the morning? His anxiety gear clicked into overdrive.
“Hello, sweets,” he said. “Long time no hear. To what do I owe—?”
“Russell’s dead, Poppy. They shot him! Gunned him down! Oh my gawd, I’m so—”
“Slow down, sweetie,” he said, his heart hammering. “I can barely understand you. Is it safe to talk on this line?”
“Of course it’s safe. It’s my WITSEC phone. What’s wrong with you?”
“I, um . . . I’m still half asleep,” he said, trying to collect his wits. The howler monkey pandemonium wasn’t helping.
Russell Holt, Jennifer’s lover the past couple of years, dared to testify against a connected Las Vegas kingpin. He’d had to go into the witness protection program along with Jennifer shortly after the trial.
Jennifer said in his ear, “Sorry to call you at this ungodly hour but they’re after me, Daddy! I’m scared! Really freakin’ terrified!”
She’d called him Daddy. His twenty-two-year-old daughter rarely addressed him that way anymore. She usually called him Poppy now.
“Wait, slow down, Jenny,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Who are the ‘they’ you’re referring to?”
“The two assholes who made you run for your life.”
Parnell sat up on his side of the bed, planted his bare feet on the floor. His heartbeat thudded in his throat. “Dobkin and Miles?”
Parnell had lived the past few years fearing this kind of reprisal. John Dobkin and Blanton Miles had finally struck. In their trademark fashion, they bided their time before going after Russell Holt, a high-ranking ex-employee of Dobkin’s. Holt had testified against him in a grand jury trial, and Dobkin, using his money and connections, had skated clean away.
“When did this happen?”
“A week ago . . . maybe two. I don’t know. I’m so confused right now,” she said, her voice shaky. “I’ve been runnin’ around, thinkin’ what to do. Afraid. I didn’t want to call you because I knew how—”
“Tell me what happened,” he said. “Who shot Russell? Were you there?”
“Oh, was I ever! Russ and I were eating at an Italian restaurant. This big albino goon with spiked platinum hair and scary robot eyes approached our table and opened fire right in the middle of the dinner hour. Like something out of one of those freakin’ Godfather movies you enjoy . . .”
Big albino goon. His insides turned to ice. Had to be Lars. There weren’t many men who creeped Derek Parnell, but Lars certainly did, with his empty laser stare, huge side-of-beef body, and blinding-white fluorescent skin.
“. . . Russ never had a chance. I hightailed it out of there before the law arrived. I’m really scared! I can’t handle this alone anymore.”
“Where are you?”
“Hooked me a southbound on the run.”
“You’re riding the rails?”
“Best way to travel when the heat is on. Surely I don’t have to tell you that.”
Parnell listened for a beat. “Doesn’t sound like you’re on the move.”
“I’m not. I’m sittin’ in a switching yard waitin’ to be coupled to another teapot.”
She’s using hobo lingo? Jenny has never used hobo-speak.
“Where would I meet you?” he inquired. “That is, if I, in fact, make the trip,” he added, looking across the bed at a frowning Elaine.
“We could meet at one of the camps,” he heard her say.
“Camps? One of the hobo camps?”
Parnell felt things slipping away from him. “Sweetness, do you have any idea how dangerous it is for me to enter the U.S.? Don’t you know how unsafe it is for you to be in the States?”
“I do know that, yes. But I’m already in the U.S. That’s a big part of the problem.”
Jennifer’s words shocked him. “You’re not in Canada?”
He nearly dropped the phone. He thought she had more smarts than this. “What the hell are you thinking?”
“Please, I don’t need a lecture. I need you here with me . . .”
Parnell held the phone to his ear, listening to his frantic daughter. He watched Lainey run her hand through her shoulder-length hair, the patch covering her blind eye darkening the left side of her face. She didn’t look happy.
His Jenny had been so good for the past year, working under federal witness protection as an assistant manager in a Vancouver, British Columbia, florist shop as Rita Miller, the wife of James Miller (Russell Holt). She and Holt had been model WITSEC clients, playing their married roles quietly and to perfection. Parnell knew his daughter loved Holt and would never intentionally do anything to jeopardize his safety. He knew Jennifer could be spontaneous and headstrong, but he never dreamed she would do something this reckless. She had to be following Russell Holt’s lead.
Holt had done his best to bring down John Dobkin for his role in orchestrating the bombing of a fringe militia group’s munitions bunker in the Rocky Mountains. Forty-seven people had died there, nearly half of them innocent underage girls being held captive as part of a lucrative human sex-trafficking ring, managed and controlled by none other than John Dobkin. Jennifer had been part of that twisted harem, had been a sex slave for the Liberty Dog soldiers for seven long years. Those animals had done their damnedest to ruin her. Holt had been there, working undercover for four months before the big bang occurred.
“. . . You still there, Poppy?”
“Yeah, I am. But I’ve gotta say, I’m extremely disappointed in—”
“Don’t even go there,” she said. “I know we screwed up. I’m paying for it dearly. I lost my Russ and I need you here with me. Please come!”
“I, um . . . I just don’t know, Jenny,” he said, thinking about the long trip (3,000+ miles to Arizona). The FBI bounty on his head prevented him from flying; he was on all the no-fly lists. The feds would scope him in a heartbeat if he set foot on a commercial flight. But he could arrange for a private flight. His Costa Rican fishing buddy, Vance Toohey, had a friend in San Jose who was a flight instructor and owned a twin-prop plane. Vance always said his pilot friend could fly him wherever he wanted to go for the right price. He could fly into Mexico, avoiding the risky border crossings of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. He could then hook onto a freighter in the Mexico City Yards and ride the rails to the U.S. border. He wanted to go in the worst way. He had unfinished business to take care of. Still, all those miles. All that time. It would be a hard trip. And he had to consider Elaine’s reaction should he elect to leave her again . . .
He heard Jennifer in his ear. “Did I lose you, Poppy?”
“No, no . . . I’m still here.”
“Quit spacing out on me!”
“I’m, uh, I’m just—I guess I’m having a tough time processing all this, Jenny.”
“What is there to process? Russ was murdered. I’m all alone trying to dodge people who want me dead. I need you here. Please!”
The naked, desperate need in her voice got to him, threw a noose around his heart and strangled the shit out of it.
“Okay,” he heard himself say. “But it’ll take me a few days.”
The howler monkeys continued to rant outside, chaotic and feverish. He snuck a glance at Elaine, who glared at him through her good eye. Parnell knew her stance on returning to the States. Over my dead body she had said many times before. She had no use for the States anymore. Costa Rica was her adopted country now. Manzanillo was her home. This stilt house on the deserted stretch of Caribbean beach just north of the Panama border was Elaine Leibrandt’s little paradise. She saw it as her reward for the hell she had been through with Parnell in the recent past—riding the rails, barely escaping with their lives, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. Lainey felt she had earned this quiet life they enjoyed here. The resolute stare she gave him now said all that and more.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Parnell said, eyes still trained on Elaine. “Why don’t you come here? You haven’t been back since you left.”
“I can’t. The feds are tracking me. Can’t get out of the country right now. I can’t even return to Canada.”
He thought about that. “So tell me one thing,” he said evenly. “Why did you leave Vancouver? You were safe up there.”
“No, we weren’t. Look,” she said impatiently, “I’ll tell you everything when you get here. Please hurry!”
“Shit, Jenny,” he said, conflicted. “You’re really putting me in a difficult position here.”
“I’m sorry about that. I really am.”
Parnell shook his head in consternation. This was a mess on so many levels. “All right. Tell me where you want to meet. Which camp?” On the far side of the bed Elaine slumped her shoulders, shook her head in disgust.
Hearing the long-unspoken name of the Winslow, Arizona hobo camp trip off his daughter’s tongue surprised him. “Okay. It’ll take me a few days to get up there.”
“Oh, thank you, Daddy! I love you.”
“I love you, too, sweetness,” he said before disconnecting.
“So you’re going, then,” Elaine said, intruding on his dark thoughts. A statement, not a question.
He nodded. “I have to. It’s Jennifer.”
Silently, she rose from the bed and went to the closet, grabbed her robe from a hangar and put it on. She walked around the bed, never looking at him, never speaking, then exited the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
The monkey caterwaul rose to a frightening roar.
Definitely an omen. Very black karma, indeed.
What does it mean?
He considered the possibilities and felt a strong urge to howl along with them.
2. East of Nogales
From where he sat inside the covered hopper car, Parnell heard the loud hiss of air brakes, the metallic screech of wheels against steel rails. The train decelerated, then pulled to a dead stop.
Twenty-five hours from Mexico City riding this Ferromex grain hopper. And now this unscheduled stop.
Something’s wrong. This freighter should have been cleared for entry into the States.
He had to get a look.
He fought his way across the heap of livestock feed in which he was mired. Each movement through the barley and alfalfa pellets sucked him down with the pull of a quicksand bog. Swirling barley dust and a sauna-like heat made breathing difficult. Sweat dripped into his eyes and soaked his shirt. His legs screamed in pain as he tried to advance through the grainy quagmire. With great difficulty, he moved under a ceiling hatch and popped it open, cautiously stuck his head out and scanned the line of railcars hitched to the twin locomotives a hundred yards up the tracks.
He squinted against the blinding early afternoon sun, spying a group of uniformed men getting out of official government vehicles. Car doors slammed. Jumbled voices carried on the hot desert breeze.
A small parade of men approached the lead locomotive—U.S. Customs and Mexican Border Patrol agents. The conductor stepped down and turned to face his visitors. A second man, the engineer, followed. The knot of federales surrounded the two Ferromex trainmen. The body language of the authorities and the way everyone talked at once told Parnell there was confusion.
He wondered why U.S. Customs would be concerned about this nondescript freighter entering the States. The cargo consisted primarily of farm animal feed and fertilizer. This border crossing should be slam-dunk safe, being in the wide-open no-man’s land east of the official crossing point at Nogales. He counted a total of seven agents—Overkill.
What makes this train so special?
Border agencies had been crippled by budget cutbacks in this long-running Great Depression 2.0. Following the Wall Street Crash the payrolls of the American Border Patrol, INS, and Customs had been slashed considerably, and so it was surprising to see so many agents congregated in one place. Especially a place as desolate as this.
Two more cars approached from the American side, throwing up rooster tails of dust behind them—a U.S. Border Patrol cruiser followed by a Department of Homeland Security Chrysler.
Are they looking for me? Is that possible? Has someone ratted me out?
Impossible. No one knew he’d planned to enter the States by riding the rails through Mexico. The private pilot he’d paid to fly him from Costa Rica to Mexico only knew him by his alias (Samuel Cooper) and had no idea of his plans after dropping him off at the Mexico City airport. Vance Toohey, maybe? Now you’re really letting your paranoia get the best of you, Derek old boy. Your angler friend couldn’t care less what you are doing in Mexico.
The authorities moved down the line, ordering the train engineers to inspect every railcar. The trainmen grunted as they slid heavy steel doors and pulled open hatches and trapdoors on intermodal containers. Two inspectors followed along, scanning each interior with large flashlights.
Soon they would get to the covered hoppers. Surely they would inspect his railcar.
His mind raced. He could bury himself deep under the barley and alfalfa, but the hopper was a dry-heat sauna and he would run the very real risk of suffocating. In fact, the heat and dust and stink in the enclosed hopper car had become so overwhelming on the long haul from Mexico City he’d had to ride on the roof for long stretches.
Can’t hide on the roof now. Time to jump off this iron horse.
Parnell dropped back through the open hatch, arms and legs spread wide as if a snow angel to prevent sinking into the pile of animal feed. He retrieved his backpack and checked his gun, making sure he had a full clip, then struggled back up, poking his head out the opening.
Scanning the landscape: Snow-capped mountains to the west toward Nogales, rolling plains of arid desert dotted by giant saguaro cactus and scrub brush to the north and east. Minimal concealment.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. The feds would spot him in a second if he made a run for it. He’d be captured (or worse) before he made it fifty yards.
An idea came to him as he noticed the agents ignoring the undercarriages of the railcars. Safety regulations required that tanker cars hauling combustible fuels have a higher clearance and shield plates as precaution against explosions from rail sparks. As always, before catching this freighter, he’d scoped its configuration. Several tanker cars pulled up the rear.
He had his escape plan.
Time for some axle swinging.
He pulled himself up through the open hatch and slithered on his belly across the roof, dropping down on the far side of the train. He moved stealthily along the tracks to the second tanker in line, ensuring his backpack was secure and his gun strapped tight with the safety on. He then ducked underneath and pulled himself up into a network of steel braces supporting the mammoth cylinder above. He squeezed in under the thick steel endplate and nestled into a mesh of crisscrossed struts that supported his back and took the strain off his arms, careful not to touch or block the computerized sensors he knew would report any fault conditions immediately to the locomotive engineer.
Waiting, suspended, the curved floor of the tank inches above his face, the cool support bars digging into his calves and shoulders. Muffled voices, the squeak and clank of boxcar doors and container hatches opened and shut, the noxious creosote stench coming up from the tracks.
He waited, his discomfort increasing. Each minute spent jammed up in this precarious, claustrophobic position gave Elaine’s parting words more credibility:
“You’re fifty-two, Derek. A little long in the tooth for riding the rails. It’s been three years since you slept in railcars and ate roadkill. You can’t ignore your age. I think deep down you know there are young tigers out there who could eat you alive. Your survival skills are rusty. Too much of the good life here in Costa Rica, babe . . .”
Lainey had spoken the truth. He felt the toll of the years and miles in his arms and legs, the arthritic ache in his joints and back. Yes, he was older now. No denying that. But he was still strong enough and tough enough to do what had to be done. Jennifer needed him. Dangerous people wanted her dead. He had to help her. However, he also had mercenary reasons for making this risky trip—an opportunity to nail John Dobkin and Blanton Miles. Perhaps his last opportunity. And he’d get Lady Thor and Lars while he was at it.
Justice will be served. The four of them have eaten away at my soul the past three years. Oh how I’ll make them pay!
Lainey’s voice filled his head: “And in case you forgot, you are very much a wanted man, Derek. Once word gets out you are alive and back in the States, every two-bit loser will be stalking you for the reward money. I’m worried sick about this. I’ll miss you like crazy and think about you every minute you’re gone. But try as I might, I can’t go with you. I can’t go through that hell again, babe.”
She had ended her goodbye speech in convulsive tears, saying: “I pray the next time I see you I won’t be looking down at you in the bottom of a coffin.”
That had been when he left, three days ago. Everything she said to him was from her heart and it nearly broke him to have to walk out on her like that. Elaine loved him in spite of his restless nature. His hobo hotfoot had once again intruded on their relationship. They had been through so many tearful partings, but this one especially tore him apart. This time he wasn’t sure whether there would be a sweet reunion at the end of the trail. Parnell had never loved anyone as much as he loved Elaine Leibrandt.
He’d taken a bus to San Jose and the Toboas Bolanos Aeropuerto, where, through his fishing buddy, Vance Toohey, he’d arranged for a flight instructor to fly him to Mexico City. His fake identification got him through Mexican Customs. He’d then hiked to the Ferrovalle switching yards and broke into the Ferromex hopper car.
And now he was faced with this difficult border crossing.
He listened as the border agents got closer, their boots scuffing through the trackside gravel. The swirl of English and Spanish conversation increased in volume.
A tapping sound, a knocking against the tanker in front of him, each knock producing a sonar-like echo.
“Full?” one of the inspectors asked.
“What are these tankers hauling?”
“Liquido de hidrógeno.” Liquid hydrogen.
One of the Americans responded, “It’s here in the shipping manifest. Three DOT113 cryogenic liquid tankers. All full. Seventeen thousand pounds, pressurized to the standard twenty-five PSI.”
More shuffling feet. Four taps against the shell of his tanker, each followed by high-pitched watery echoes.
The engineer mumbled something indecipherable in Spanish, and one of the Americans said, “I ain’t crawlin’ under there.”
More garbled Spanish, then footfalls shuffling down the line.
He waited for what seemed an eternity, nestled in the steel ribs of the tanker’s undercarriage. Finally, doors slammed and car engines roared. Sand and gravel pinged the undersides of departing vehicles. The authorities were leaving.
He waited until the train began its hesitant resurrection—the metallic clanking of couplers pulling against one another, then shifting into a slow roll before he climbed out from under the tanker and jogged back to the grain hopper, scaling the ladder up the far sidewall where he couldn’t be seen. Once atop the roof, he stretched out, face down, keeping his body flat as the massive steel horse gained momentum. The roof burned his skin and the scorching desert wind whipped at him, but he much preferred this mode of travel to dropping back down into that hot, malodorous hopper.
Riding the rails, the sun baking his back, he pondered why the authorities had ripped this train apart.
Standard operating procedure or something else?
Suspected terrorist attack? Illegal immigration? Attempted drug cartel crossing?
Surely he alone wasn’t enough to get border agents from two countries out in force in one of the more isolated places in the Sonoran desert.
Five minutes later, he lifted his head to see the sign rush past:
Derek Parnell was back in the United States for the first time in three years.
Two hours to Tucson.
Wind whipped at his face. He squinted into the bright sky, wondering whether FBI and NSA satellites were tracking him.