The tin-roofed two-story farmhouse had a screened-in veranda, which extended completely around the first floor. The private RV campground spread along the bottomland almost a mile away to the west. The sun was lost in gunmetal overcast across the creek, near setting. The dozens of trucks and campers were dark blocks silhouetted across the fading horizon.
A ceiling fan circled quietly above the polished pine dinner table, which was located just outside the kitchen on the side of the house facing the campground. Brass hurricane lamps suffused the screened-in porch with a soft golden glow. The dishes had mostly been cleared away after a dinner of steak, salad, and fresh corn. Four diners remained from the original group, including Caylen Barlow. His family had owned all of the land to the horizon for a century and a half.
Barlow sat in his wheelchair and stared intently at Ranya, while sipping bourbon from a heavy glass. He had a full head of snow-white hair, combed straight back, piercing blue eyes, and a face chapped red and deeply lined from a lifetime spent outside in all seasons. It was his house, the house he had grown up in, moved away from, and returned to in his later years. He was seated in his wheelchair at the head of the table opposite Ranya. Mark Fowler, the range master, sat on one side facing the screens and across the fields. Another man sat across the table from him, he was a middle-aged black man with a shaven head, wearing a red Western shirt with blue piping.
After devouring a plate-sized steak and all the trimmings, Ranya had told them her real name and her story, going all the way back to Virginia. To before her escape to Colombia, her return to America, and her betrayal. Before her baby had been born in prison, and was then stolen from her.
Before Brad Fallon.
Back to her father's murder, the week after the Stadium Massacre.
Back to the day her world had been turned upside down.
She didn't mention her sniper killing of Eric Sanderson. That secret had gone to the bottom of the Potomac with Brad, five years before. But she told them the rest.
Barlow said, "Come around here; let me see your hands."
Ranya got up, walked around the table behind Fowler, and extended her hands to the old man. He took them into his rough hands like a palm reader making an initial appraisal. He turned them over, stroked them, and fingered her calluses.
"Well," he said, "you certainly didn't just get these today. These are from field work, years of field work. I've never seen a government employee yet with hands like that. In fact, if you hadn't of had these calluses, you'd have torn your hands bloody today. What did you fire up there, 400 rounds?"
"At least," she replied, returning to her seat. "I lost count." She was wearing her khaki-colored nylon hiking pants with the legs zipped on, and a plain black t-shirt, which matched her dyed hair.
"Closer to 500," added Mark Fowler, beaming. "And she did pretty well, I'd say. She won a couple of pistols, a ton of ammo, and over nine thousand bucks. Those boys just had to keep trying again and again; they were regular gluttons for punishment! It purely kills 'em to get beat by a woman."
The black man in the fancy cowboy shirt raised his long neck beer bottle in toast to her and said, "You know what they say: 'your ego is not your amigo!' Those Tennessee boys just didn't know when to quit."
Ranya toasted him back, sipped her own beer and said, "I just sort of slipped into the zone. I was pretty much floating along after the first couple of steel plate matches. Mark kept me fed with fresh mags, and all I had to do was pull the trigger."
"Pull the trigger?" exclaimed the black man, snorting his beer. "Hell, you won everything from bowling pins on the table to long range metallic silhouette."
"I guess I had a good day, considering I haven't touched a gun in five years. But remember, I was raised in a gun shop with an indoor range. I mean, I was shooting against grown men since I was a little kid. I used to just shoot for free ammo; it was strictly for fun. I never won a pile of cash money like I did today! Not to mention the guns..." She took a pull off her own beer. "Pretty weird to see the new dollar bills though. There was no money at all in the camps. When did they switch over to blue money?"
"Blue bucks," said Mark Fowler. "They're new, just this year. All the old greenbacks had to be turned over in January. Everybody's bank accounts had a zero knocked off, just like that! Ten for one--and the prices are still going through the roof."
Barlow said, "You did well by yourself today, Miss Bardiwell. Very well. We're all impressed with your shooting skills, especially after not touching a gun for five years. I'll admit that had us all wondering about you, but our law enforcement sources confirm most of your story. A female prisoner did escape from a federal facility in Oklahoma yesterday. That's just gone out on the police wires."
The black man winked across the table at the mention of "law enforcement sources," but Mark Fowler kept a poker face.
The old man continued. "The police report says it was from the Federal Transit Center at Oklahoma City, but I suppose we can't expect them to blow the cover on your secret D-Camp. Your story holds up, what we can check of it. I'm real sorry about your father, and Mr. Fallon, and of course about what happened to your baby son."
Fowler said, "It just amazes me that I know Leo Swarovski personally, and that he told me years ago how he was tipped off about the ATF raid. It never made any sense, not until now. He never knew who tipped him off, or why. It's just the damnedest thing, and now it all fits, it fits right into your story. I suppose it's one of those 'six degrees of separation' things: me, Swarovski, your father, and you."
"So here we are now, Miss Bardiwell," said the white-haired Caylen Barlow. "We believe you. It's one hell of a story, but we believe you. We'll have a doctor carve that chip out of your shoulder tomorrow morning. That's no problem. In fact, we know some folks who would love to study it; we'll send it on to them. But I still don't understand what you want to do. Nobody in their right mind would drive straight through to Albuquerque from here. No gringos anyway. Say, how's your Spanish?"
"Pretty good. Mas que bastante; more than good enough. I had a lot of practice in the camps--I always figured it would come in handy, eventually. Like when we were in Colombia. I can't pass for a native speaker, but I speak 'Spanglish' about as well as millions of American Hispanics can. I'm not afraid to go into New Mexico, if that's what you mean. Mr. Barlow, I intend to find my son, no matter what it takes. I'll walk to Albuquerque, if I have to."
"I'll bet you would, too. Hmm..." Barlow looked at his two friends. "Mark, Sam...you wouldn't mind going inside for another round of beers, would you? I'd like to talk to Miss Bardiwell for a little while, please."
When they had left, he paused, stared up at the ceiling fan, and then quietly spoke. "I can get you a ride in. Not all the way to Albuquerque, but close. Close enough. Close enough to get past most of the checkpoints and roadblocks, at least all of the ones we know about. The permanent ones. We can get you close enough for you to rendezvous with somebody we trust, somebody who can drive you the rest of the way into the city."
"How will I get through the checkpoints? I don't have any ID."
"Not through the checkpoints. Over them. In an airplane, a light airplane. You're game to fly, aren't you? If you can ride motorcycles, a little hop in an airplane shouldn't be a problem, right?"
"Oh no, no problem! No problem at all."
"Okay then, it's settled. You'll take off tomorrow night, at dusk. We'll have until then to get you ready. There's some folks in the camp from near Albuquerque; they got thrown off their land. Got 'land reformed,' you might say. They can fill you in on what to expect in the city. If we're lucky, we'll get an address for your son. We still have some good law enforcement sources in New Mexico, but I don't know about finding an FBI agent's home address..."
"That's all I really need: an address for Special Agent Alexandro Garabanda."
"We'll do our best. And we might be able to find you an ID card. I'm not sure, I'll have to ask around, see what's available on short notice. Nothing that'll stand up for very long, mind you. Not if they scan your thumbprint or your eyes. From what we're hearing, there's not too much of that. Just something to get you past a regular Milicia checkpoint. If you're lucky, if they don't have a print scanner. If they scan your prints into the wireless network, well?after that, you'll be on your own."
"Mr. Barlow, that's all I could ask for. More than I could ask for! I don't know how to thank you?"
"Oh, it's not much. The smile on your face right now is all the thanks I need. The plane is going in anyway; you'll just be a straphanger. Since you're bound and determined to get to Albuquerque one way or the other, I figure it's only fair to give you a head start. After what you've been through for the last five years, I guess you're in line for a break. And I'll admit it: I've always been a sucker for a good-looking gal who can shoot! You remind me of...well, never mind that." He looked away from her, toward the last fading light, beyond the RV camp.
"Mr. Barlow, if I could, I'd like to do something for you in return, to repay you for--"
"Repay? No. No need. But...something in return? In return..." He cleared his throat, and took a drink. "Miss Bardiwell, for at least thirty years I've watched the politicians of both of our so-called political parties selling our country like a twenty peso whore in a Juarez alley. America's being carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey, and sold out by political prostitutes for their own personal gain. I've watched it happening for most of my life." He slowly shook his head.
"Ranya, I do wish you well in your quest to find your son, and I'll do what I can to help from here." He hesitated, and cleared his throat again. "Now maybe, just maybe there is something you might be able to do for me. You'll hear about this tomorrow, when you talk to my friends from New Mexico." He took another sip of bourbon. "The University there is a magnet for radicals from all over America and Latin America. UNM has become a center of the radical Hispanic movement. The 'Aztlan' movement. Have you heard of it?"
"Aztlan? Sure. All that la raza crap. The new homeland for the Hispanics, after they ethnically cleanse out all the gringos."
"That's it. Well, if you have any chance of blending in, it'll be with that crowd, with what they call the 'Voluntarios.' You look Latina enough, and you can habla the old Espanol, so if you can spout off Marxist gibberish, you'll be able pass muster."
"I went to UVA for three years--most of my professors were socialists. I can spout off Marxist gibberish all day long. I had to, to get decent grades."
"Good. You'll need to, if you want to pass yourself off as a new Voluntario. And if you're questioned, that'll be your best cover for coming to Albuquerque. So, if you do wind up at the university...well, one of the professors there, you might say he's a personal enemy of mine."
Barlow's eyes and lips narrowed. He finished his whiskey and clapped the glass down on the table. "Robert Johnson. He's a gringo transplant from up north, but he's 'gone native' you might say. He's a complete America hater, what we used to call a crypto-communist in the Cold War days. If you find yourself near the university, you might come across him. I understand he's advising the state government on 'land reform' policy.
"This Robert Johnson--this so-called professor of American history--he's helped to poison the minds of thousands of students over the years. And believe me, that's bad enough, but then he made it personal. Very personal. He turned my only granddaughter against America, against her own family, and against me. Robert Johnson was her 'guru' at UNM. Her guru...and even more than that. He pulled her in, and turned her into a real one-worlder, a socialist true-believer. I haven't seen or heard from her in a couple of years. Last I heard, she was down in Mexico with the Army of the Poor. Before that, she was in Venezuela, and before that, Cuba. This Robert Johnson--to me he's the worst kind of traitor. He poisons our children, and turns them against their own country."
Barlow paused, and stared directly at Ranya. "So if, and I only say if...if you happen to come across him...well, let's just say I wouldn't mind hearing that he came to a bad end. Wouldn't mind it at all." Barlow placed his elbows on the dinner table, rested his chin on his knuckles, and looked hard at Ranya. "No, I wouldn't mind it at all."
"Mr. Barlow, I'm just going to New Mexico to find my son. I--" He spread his hands and said, "It's all right, I understand. Forget I brought it up. It's only a personal family matter; it has nothing to do with you. Now if you're finished, Maria will take you upstairs and show you where you'll be staying tonight. You'll be sleeping in the girls' room. They've all grown up, and moved on."
Barlow made a mirthless chortle without smiling. "You know what's ironic? The last one who lived in that room was my own sweet granddaughter, before she went away to college. My granddaughter Jessica, the communist."