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CHAPTER ONE

“Just put your damn weight into it.”

“I am,” grunted the smaller man, one hand on the bumper, the other clutching the jeans sliding down his ass. “Jesus, you could have given us a head start and parked on the top of the hill, not the damn flat part.”

“Get on with it and quit your bitchin’. Push. Pushhhh.” The bigger man stretched his arms to their full length, putting all his weight into it, his turquoise cowboy boots digging into the earth for better traction, and was rewarded for his effort when the truck started to inch forward.

“It’s working,” the smaller man said.

“Shut up, keep pushing.”

They rolled the truck closer to the slope, giving it a solid send-off as it started down the hill of its own accord. The smaller man doubled over, hands on his knees, huffing into the night. The heavyset man kicked his shin before jumping behind the driver’s seat of the other truck.

“What the fu—” Rico shot him a dirty look, made his way over to the passenger seat and climbed up. “You don’t want to make sure it goes off?”

“It’ll go off,” he grunted, staring into the night. “There’s enough explosive in there to do a couple of trucks.” Shifting into reverse, he hit the gas.

“Still…”

“Rico, relajate. Look. It’s already on fire.”

Rico peered into the dusk and caught the flick of orange flame. “I like explosions,” he said, eyes lighting up. “We can watch it, right Miguel?”

“We have other things to do.” He shook his head and stomped on the gas. “You wanna hang out in the desert watching fireworks while the boss is waiting for an update? Cabron.” He did a tight turn, spitting dust and pebble into the surrounding cacti. Moments later, even the taillights were history. 


CHAPTER TWO





“C’mon Kris.”

Sandal Steeves kicked his feet off the end of the secluded pier. Over an hour had passed since he’d gotten off the damn chicken bus and his best friend’s boat was nowhere in sight. He banged his heels against the crumbling cement.

 His stomach rumbled. Why hadn’t he listened to his gut and gotten off in the little pueblo up the coast to grab a taco? Now it was too late, and he was stuck here - in the middle of nowhere - until Kris arrived.

 The sun had long set and still no running lights sparked the horizon. It was just like the time they were supposed to meet at Burning Man and Kris had left him standing on the side of the road for two hours in the mid-day desert sun. The only one burning that day had been him and he was seeing more than red by the time Kris pulled up. If he hadn’t arrived with two stunning, cheerful women in the back seat of his vintage Mustang convertible, he might have killed him.

As his gaze rested on the inky blackness of the Pacific, he took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. Then he did it again, hearing his trauma therapist’s voice in his head.

“Cool it, Dal.” He could wait. He was on vacation, he had time to kill.

He let out a sarcastic laugh. Vacation. When they told him he couldn’t go back to work right away, he thought he’d lose his mind. So far, staying busy was the only thing that kept the horrid images from flashing in his mind like a news reel on a never-ceasing loop. Even his sleep was restless and he often woke himself tossing and turning. Or worse, screaming.

 His therapist had suggested this little trip, but so far it was just causing him more stress.

Where the hell was Kris?

Behind him, someone yelled. Dal turned toward the road. The man who’d gotten off the bus with him in the middle of nowhere, to wait for someone to pick him up, yelled and waved his arms. A dark-colored SUV, no lights on, careened down the steep hill leading to the pier. The driver had lost control of the vehicle. The truck lurched from one side of the road to the other. It became clear, pretty fast, that the vehicle was going off the road all together.

Dal jumped up, muscles tensed, and peered through the darkness. The truck picked up speed, heading straight for the water. It bounced off a boulder, zigged left and smashed into a large palm tree. The sound of crunching metal and cracking wood scraped through the air. Leaving his bag on the pier, Dal raced toward the wreck. The farmer from the bus did the same.

Before they reached the truck, it burst into flames. The farmer backed away from the fire. Dal went straight in. He ripped his shirt off over his head, wrapped it around his hand and pulled the driver door open. Both men inside were unconscious and thrown forward with the impact. Blood ran from the driver’s head onto the steering wheel. Dal grabbed his shoulders and slid him out of the truck. It was hot as hell, flames licking at his hands, smoke tearing his eyes. He yanked the driver’s legs free, threw him over his shoulder and carried him beyond the heaviest smoke.

“Is he dead?” The farmer watched wide-eyed.

“Don’t know. Take him farther away, there’s another guy in there.” Dal passed him the man and turned back to the blaze without waiting to see if his instructions would be followed.

“Mister, no,” yelled the farmer. “The truck is going to blow.”

He was right. Too much gas had been spilled, the smoke was getting blacker and it was only a matter of time. Minutes, maybe even seconds. Still, he had to try. He’d be damned if anyone else was going to die on his watch.

Ducking his head against the smoke, he started back in. The farmer grabbed his arm and tried to drag Dal back.  

“It’s going to blow,” he yelled, pulling him back. “It’s too late.”

Dal wrenched his arm from him and turned back to the fire. The man grabbed at his shoulder, floundering for his arm in the smoke. It cleared long enough for Dal to make out his face. It was a mask of fear. And concern. Dal paused a second, then punched him in the nose as hard as he could. As he staggered backward, Dal turned and ran toward the truck.

Too late he heard the pop of tires exploding; the escape of air fanned the flames higher into the night air. He heard a large whoosh, a dull crack, and a burst of pressure against his chest as his body was thrown back by the blast. He hit the ground, hard, air knocked out of him. Struggling to get a breath, he rolled to his side. The truck driver’s body lay crumpled on the ground beside him. His eyes were glassy, head thrown back. An ugly, open gash almost severed his head from his neck. His baby blue ranchero shirt was black with blood.

Dal’s breath hitched in his throat, he lifted himself on one elbow, and wretched. Mucus and fluid from his stomach puddled on the rocky ground. He sensed someone standing above him. The man he’d punched leaned down to him, hands on his thighs. Jutting his chin toward the corpse, he put his fingers up to his lips and shook his head. Dal slipped into blackness.





CHAPTER THREE







“This guy’s still alive.” Dal heard the words from somewhere above him. He hoped to God they were talking about him. Fingers pressed against his neck, checking his pulse. “Yeah, he’s good.”

Dal coughed, the acrid taste of smoke burning his tongue. He tried to lift his head. It weighed a fucking ton.

“Whoa, easy there amigo,” came the disembodied voice.

Dal squeezed his eyes shut, then open again. Couldn’t see a damn thing. He’d heard about this - how the flash of the blast could cause temporary blindness. It was temporary, right? He reached out a hand toward the arm that held him down.

“I can’t see. It’s temporary, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” The hesitant response didn’t comfort him. “Tell you what, we’re gonna wrap you up and get you into town.” The man kept his hand on Dal’s shoulder. “Let’s get this guy to the hospital.”

“Hang on.” Footsteps crunched across the stones toward them and stopped beside him. He seemed so close Dal figured he could probably reach out and grab the man’s leg. “What the hell was this guy thinking, running into a burning truck?”

Dal grabbed his shin. “I’m a firefighter,” he croaked.

“What? What’s he trying to say, Beto?”

“Don’t know. He’s barely conscious.” Beto wedged his hands under his torso. “Amigo, we’re going to put you on the stretcher and get you into town.” Every nerve in Dal’s body screamed in protest as the two EMTs slid him onto the waiting stretcher.

“Sheesh, that’s an ugly flash burn,” he heard Beto’s friend say.

“Come on,” Beto said, “let’s get him on board. I don’t want to hang around here longer than necessary.”

“Yeah, freakin’ mess. The guy in the truck is a pile of dust and bones and this guy …” Dal figured he was talking about the man he’d pulled out. The poor bastard with the slit throat. He wanted to ask what happened to the guy who had helped him, but figured he was long gone.

“This is cartel shit for sure,” Beto said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” They pushed Dal into the bus and strapped the stretcher down. A sense of deja vu rushed over him. The driver navigated slowly over the rutted road, each bump bringing him painfully back to consciousness when he wanted only to sink into oblivion.

“We could move a little faster,” came the voice from the passenger seat.

“We’re going out of here with the lights off. We’ll make time once we hit the main road. Nobody sees us, we might get out of this alive.”