The "Jefe" was examining the Ruskin-Johnson letter, while they were being driven up State Road 355 to Interstate 40 on the way from Chulada to Albuquerque. They were sitting in the comfortable rear seat of the black crew-cab Ford pickup, which had sped past the doomed van an hour before. Ranya was handcuffed, but the cuffs were in front, and not too tight. At least she was still alive?
Three Milicianos were in the front seat, and four more sat in the cargo bed behind her, their loaded rifles carried in various casual positions, sometimes pointed at one another. All of them wore brown berets and brown t-shirts. The t-shirts were decorated on the front with the state logo, the red "Zia" tribal design from the New Mexico flag, the circle with four lines extending out to the top and bottom and left and right. In the center of the circle was a red star, apparently a new addition to the state symbol.
Some of them wore olive drab or camouflage utility pants, and some wore blue jeans. Some had boots on their feet, and others wore sneakers. Several of their faces hinted at Central and South American Indian origins. Their hair was worn in every length from shaven to shoulder-length. Some of the shaven-headed Milicianos had gang tattoos covering their arms and necks, and even their cheeks and foreheads. These seven troops all carried identical M-16A1 rifles, but the rest of their gear was a hodge-podge of various military cast-offs and civilian daypacks and belt pouches.
When Ranya had been pulled up from the ground, some of the men had lip-smacked lewd sounds at her while suggestively grabbing their groins, and she feared being gang-raped. After being patted down and searched, she had been shoved into the back seat of the pickup truck without any more than a few rough gropes through her jeans and her black t-shirt. Her knife, her compass, and her nylon wallet holding part of her cash as well as her recently acquired Texas driver's license had disappeared.
She wondered if Destiny was alive, and if she was, what was happening to her. The blond had been left crying on the ground at the scene of the attack. Derek and Kalil she knew were dead, and she was all but sure that Lisa was also dead by now, judging by the amount of blood she had seen pooling on the ground beneath her unmoving body. Ranya, although sprayed with blood, had not been injured beyond scrapes and bruises.
The Jefe was sitting across the seat from her, behind the driver. He was the oldest of the Milicianos, at least forty-five or fifty, with a short black Vandyke beard going gray on the sides, beginning at the creases of his mouth. Instead of a brown t-shirt for a uniform, he wore an old style woodland pattern camouflage utility blouse and trousers. Like his men, he wore the brown beret of the Milicia. Unlike his men, he wore a holstered pistol on a green web belt, and carried no rifle. He wore no other visible insignia of rank, but clearly he was an officer or leader, or as they called him, el Jefe--the Chief.
He slipped on reading glasses, and studied Derek's infamous bloodstained letter. "Tell me again what this word means. My English is not very good." He spoke to Ranya in deliberate Spanish, understanding that she was not completely fluent in his tongue.
"It means trusted, trustworthy," she answered in her more than adequate Spanish. "The famous socialist Professor Ruskin from the University of Michigan, he tells Professor Johnson that these four of his students are all trustworthy and valiant, that they believe in the armed revolution and the people's struggle. Professor Johnson should trust them, and use them in any way he can."
"Huh," he grunted. "But you're not on this list of four. Why not?"
"I met them only this morning. I was traveling by my thumb, hitchhiking. I met them in the gringo town of Mountainview, at breakfast. They offered to bring me to Albuquerque, to join the struggle."
"Well, we're going to see about that."
As they neared Interstate 40 at the town of Tijeras, the Jefe pulled a cell phone from his camouflage blouse pocket and punched several numbers. After a few attempts, he gave up in disgust. "The cowboys, they shoot the cellular telephone towers, and not only for sport, I think. ¡Pendejos! The mobiles work better closer to Burque, most of the time."
"Albuquerque. Same thing." The Jefe removed a walkie-talkie clipped to his web belt, and called ahead to the Milicia checkpoint before Tijeras, to make them aware of their imminent arrival. Finally, he tapped his driver on his shoulder, and the driver took a bright red rag and tossed it onto the dashboard against the windshield. A checkpoint recognition signal, Ranya guessed. A crude form of self-identification, to avoid accidental friendly fire shootings.
"Jefe, the other girl, the blond, was she hit by bullets? Did she live?"
"Stop asking too many questions--some things you don't want to know. Believe me, you don't want to know. But I will tell you that you have much luck that your name is not on this letter! Very much luck. Because these four on this letter, understand me very well, they were never seen, they never came here at all. They have disappeared, and you must forget them completely. That is the ugly reality of dirty war--sometimes accidents happen. Mistakes. Yes, pretty one, you have much luck that your name is not on this letter, or even now you would be with those four in hell."
"But why did your soldiers fire? Why were they so quick to fire? The students were not armed; they were only coming to join the revolution."
"Why did they fire? I'll tell you why. Because gringo cowboys killed almost twenty of our Milicianos, only three hours ago! Slaughtered them on a school bus, and some of them were practically only children. Gringo snipers shot them, just fifty miles northeast from here. Shot children, running for their lives! Then your green van-truck was seen, with a license from a distant Northern state, driven by two gringos--that is why they were very fast to shoot." He folded the fatal letter, slipped it into his breast pocket and sat pensively, looking out his window, away from her.
After a while, he spoke softly, still staring up at the mountains to his left. "You know, I have been in many wars, pretty one. Many wars...for most of my life. And in war...you either kill, or you are killed. There is no other way." He sighed loudly, and then he said, "Until now, I have not been killed."
A few minutes later she said, "Jefe?"
"No! I'm not your Jefe. You may call me...Carlos."
"Carlos? You're not from around here, are you? Your accent?"
He turned to face her, piercing her with the intensity of his obsidian eyes. "Do you mean I was not born as a Norte Americano, with the silver spoon of the gringo in my mouth? Or that I am not one of the insufferable 'Spanish' New Mexicans, who trace their blood back to the white-skinned Conquistadores? Well, that may be true, but I am an American now and forever more, believe me. I have a driver's license--in fact, I have three. I even voted three times for el Gobernador Deleon! So don't tell me I am not an American. I am three times an American, and what the hell are you? Nothing more than my prisoner."
They were waved through the Milicia checkpoint at Tijeras without stopping, and merged onto I-40 for the fast fifteen mile run west to Albuquerque.
Ranya was petrified when she saw the black hood. The Jefe asked for the cubierta when they approached the outskirts of Albuquerque, and the trooper in the right front seat pulled the cloth bag from the glove box and passed it back to him. The Jefe simply told her to put it on, and crouch low on the floor of the truck. She almost fainted when she slipped the dark sack over her head with her cuffed hands, thinking initially that it meant they were going to kill her. Her pulse raced as she began to breathe fast and shallow against the suffocating fabric. It soon occurred to her that if death was to be her fate, they had no reason to keep her from seeing the world around her until her final moment of life. No, she reasoned, hoods were to prevent prisoners from seeing their surroundings, prisoners who might possibly be released.
Unless the Jefe simply wanted to depersonalize her, to dehumanize her, prior to ordering her execution. She tried to banish this possibility from her mind, but could not.
She lay doubled up on the floor of the truck and tried to guess their speed, the turns they made, the traffic and city sounds but it made no sense. She had never been to Albuquerque and had no frame of reference. After ten or twenty minutes--she had no way to tell, exactly--the truck came to a final stop, and she was pulled from it. She could feel warm sunshine on her bare arms and hard pavement under her boots. She was led by a hand on her shoulder for a hundred or so steps and several turns, thrust forward, and heard a door close behind her.
A new voice said in harsh Spanish: "You may remove the cubierta. When you hear the key in the lock, you must put it back on. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand what I'm telling you, gringa?"
"Sí, lo entiendo. "
She removed the hood and found herself in a cinderblock cell, a narrow room only six feet deep and just a bit wider than the door. Some light seeped in from a mesh-covered air space over the door. There was no bed, cot, or blanket. There was a white plastic five-gallon bucket for a toilet, and a one-liter clear plastic bottle half-filled with water. There was nothing else in her cell. It was 2:25 PM according to her black plastic digital watch. They had not taken it when quickly searching her at the ambush site--evidently, it was too cheap in appearance for even a Miliciano to bother to steal.
The white bucket was clean and empty, so she turned it upside down by the door, and stood on it to look out of the ventilation hole. The opening was the size of one missing cinder block. It was covered on the outside with dusty wire mesh too fine to put her fingers through. Stretching on tiptoes, she had a limited view of the outside. She was looking out onto a narrow white-painted hallway, with a bare fluorescent light tube at the limit of her vision a few yards to her right. Across the hallway was another door, and next to it were more doors to the right and left as far as the rectangular vent permitted her to see, eight doors in all. Each door had a heavy steel hasp. Three were locked with padlocks and five where not. There was no sound or sign of any other prisoners on the hallway.
It was not a real jail, but she knew what it was. She had been in such places under other circumstances. She was a prisoner in a commercial mini-storage. The Milicias were using a private mini-storage business as a covert prison. It made sense. It was probably an easy matter for the new state government to close down a business on any number of pretexts, in order to commandeer it for their own purposes. Most of the mini-storages Ranya had visited were surrounded by their own high security fences or walls. Many were in fact built completely inside of a high surrounding wall, virtual fortresses, with power-operated high security gates. All types of closed panel trucks--bringing prisoners--could come and go without attracting outside attention. Interior alleys would wind between garage-sized units with metal roll-up vehicle doors. The smaller units were usually inside of a structure within the walled complex. There was no doubt in her mind: she was locked up in a mini-storage, a ready-made clandestine prison.
The entrance was not an actual prison cell door; it was crudely made of wood covered with a sheet of steel bolted on the inside. But how could she escape? Even if she could somehow remove the handcuffs and break through the door, an armed guard could be waiting just out of her sight. And she had been warned: if you try to escape, you will be killed. After what she had seen at the Chulada checkpoint ambush, she had no doubt about the sincerity of the threat.
Ranya stepped down from the bucket to consider her situation. It was doubtful the cell was meant for long-term occupancy. There was no bed, no cot, no blanket, nothing. After her secret arrest five years before, she had survived months of solitary confinement in the underground supermax "Tombs" in Illinois. Ranya knew about living in a small cell, although her five by eight foot cell in the Tombs had been a palace by comparison, with its cement bed, mattress, toilet and sink.
She tried pacing, but the room was too small. One, two, about face, turn. One, two, about face, turn. She remembered Brad's story of being crammed inside a small steel locker for hours at a time, a narrow box where he could neither stand up, nor sit down. The "hell box," he had called it. Well, if Brad could survive the hell box, she could survive being locked in a mini-storage unit, even one this small and stifling hot.
Poor Brad, dead and gone these five years... Now, only their unseen and unknown child still linked Brad to her in this world of the living. Their five year old son, now named Brian Garabanda, was somewhere in this city--perhaps only a few miles away. Did he even now feel her nearby presence? Could he somehow sense the physical closeness of his real mother? She had memorized his address; she could find and rescue him, but only if she was free.
But there was no way to get out, not yet. She would have to wait for events to unfold, events that were beyond her control. She sat on the upturned bucket, and sipped some water from the plastic bottle, weighing and considering the story she would have to tell, when the time came.
She didn't have long to wait, only an hour by the glowing face of her digital watch. She heard footsteps stopping outside her door, and she hurried to put on her black hood while the door was unlocked. She stood by the door, it opened, and she was hauled by both shoulders to the right and down the hallway, through a series of turns, out into sunlight, and into another shadowy room.
"Sientate. Sit down." The hood was pulled from her head. The two Milicianos who had led Ranya from her cell pushed her down onto a stool. She was in a bare room about twenty by twenty feet, in the middle of the space. She was facing a long table, the kind used in cafeterias, with folding legs at each end. On the wall behind the table was a sheet-sized red cloth banner, showing a black fist inside of an outlining black star. Above the fist was written ¡Socialismo O Muerte! Socialism or death.
Seated across the table were a woman and two men. The woman sat in the center. She was about fifty, with gray-streaked black hair drawn back in a bun, and narrow reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. She was wearing an austere dark green pants suit, with no frills or adornments. The man on the right was in his thirties, skinny with a receding hairline and a beak-like nose over a thin mustache. He was wearing a white and black checked short-sleeved shirt, open at the collar, and had a notebook in front of him. The man on the left was "Carlos," the Jefe from the black pickup truck, still wearing his camouflage uniform, with his brown beret on the table in front of him. He was puffing on a cigar, ignoring the woman's apparent discomfort.
The stern-faced woman began, with no exchange of pleasantries. "So. You say you were coming to join us, that you are a revolucionaria. Well, I don't believe you. I think that you are a spy. We shoot spies. Why shouldn't we shoot you?"
Ranya answered her without hesitation, operating on both instinct and anger. "I don't know if you shoot spies. Today I only saw your soldiers shoot unarmed students. Students who believed with all their hearts in the people's struggle!"
"How dare you! How dare you!" shrieked the woman, half standing, leaning on the table. "Enrique, don't write that down."
The Jefe turned to her and said, "But it is true, Camarada Inez. She tells only the truth. Our Milicianos did kill the gringo students today."
"But you were there, Carlos! You were there! Why was it not your own fault?"
"The Milicianos at the road block were not my own. It was only an accident of fate that I was there. This prisoner is alive before you now only because I took control. If it was up to your half-trained Milicianos, she would be just as dead as the others."
"Carlos--now is not the time! I insist that you stop this line of critique."
"Fine with me. But she is correct." The Jefe sat back and puffed on his cigar.
Ranya inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. By going on the counteroffensive, she had successfully derailed the comrade commissar's accusatory and threatening line of questioning.
"Let's start this again," said the woman, taking a deep breath and making an effort to appear calm and in control. "Who are you, where do you come from, and why did you come here?"
"My name is Ranya Bardiwell. I escaped from a United States federal camp for political prisoners last Friday. In Oklahoma. I came to New Mexico because I thought I would be safe here from the United States federales. I killed one of them in my escape, and they will kill me if they find me. That is why I am here."
The three stared at her, amazed at this frank revelation.
After a long pause, the man with the notebook asked, "How do you spell your name?"
"R-a-n-y-a, B-a-r-d-i-w-e-l-l." She pronounced the letters in the Spanish way. She was trying her best to use well-accented and grammatical Spanish throughout the questioning, attempting to bond with them at least on that linguistic level.
The woman in the middle asked, "Bardiwell--what kind of name is that? What national ethnic origin?"
"Yes, Arab. Lebanese-Palestinian Arab," Ranya lied, embellishing her biographical legend to best suit what she guessed to be her audience's prejudices--and outside of their ability to fact-check. Both of her parents were dead, and she had no known relatives in America. They would have to go to Lebanon to discover the truth.
The woman looked at Ranya in a new way. "Palestinian? Are you Muslim?"
"No, my family was Christian."
"I...I have no religion."
"I see." The woman seemed pleased at this. So this identification card here?" The woman held up a shiny driver's license, the one Ranya had been provided by Caylen Barlow at his ranch house.
"I stole it. When I was hitch-hiking across Texas."
After answering a few more questions, she was hooded again and returned to her mini-storage cell, but this time, her handcuffs were removed at the cell door.