The helicopter pilot said, "Watch out for laser lights, gentlemen. Look away quickly. And if we get any ground fire, I'm taking evasive action--so be ready."
Through the cabin windows of the sleek blue Eurocopter, Bob Bullard and his young chief of staff were surveying the sheets of flame and smoke still burning across South Central Los Angeles, after a week of what the media was calling "arson riots." This was Bullard's own executive helicopter, or more properly, the helicopter serving the Southwest Regional Director of the Department of Homeland Security. They had lifted off from the roof of the Los Angeles Federal Building in Westwood for a quick aerial survey of the firestorms raging through and across South Central, on their way back to San Diego.
Director Bullard, as a rule, never put his feet on the ground in LA County outside of federal property, and even then only when surrounded by a phalanx of heavily armed security men. The rest of Los Angeles was controlled by criminal organizations of such size and reach that it was impossible to determine where the gangs ended, and the city government began. The telegenic young mayor of Los Angeles was the nephew of one of the leaders of the Mexican Mafia. The police chief was a cousin of the gang's second in command, and so on and on.
After the Great Riots, after the last Anglos had fled, Los Angeles had been recreated socially and politically in the image of Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana combined. The sprawling city was virtually a foreign enclave within the USA. For federal agents, it was essentially a hostile "denied area." If they were identified on undercover assignments, they would be kidnapped and tortured to death, just as if they had been captured south of the old border. Federal agents who thrived and produced good results working in LA were assumed to be on the take.
In the new Los Angeles, it was easy to tell who the honest cops, politicians and reporters were: they were regularly found covered in blood, slumped over the steering wheels of bullet-ridden cars, machine-gunned to death by assassins who were never arrested. It was the chronic answer to the age-old Mexican question: "¿plata, o plomo? " The foolhardy brave ones who refused the dirty silver of corruption received hot lead instead.
For Bob Bullard, a "working visit to Los Angeles" in reality meant a stopover at the massive Federal Building, within the barricaded and fortified "Green Zone" on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, with his helicopter landing him safely on the rooftop helipad. He pitied the poor suckers who actually had to live down there in the city with the animals, as he streaked two thousand feet above them at 120 miles an hour.
His CSO asked, "The mayor wants to know how soon we're going to bring in the air tankers." James Holcomb was a nervous type, who was going prematurely bald at only 33 years old. This was probably from the stress of keeping up with the crushing workload the DHS regional director piled on him. Bullard considered Holcomb smart, efficient, power-hungry and a convincing enough liar to suit his purposes.
"Keep stalling him," said Bullard.
"What? Excuse me?"
"You heard me, Jim. Keep stalling him. He's not going to get any federal air assets."
"But...then the fire's going to burn all the way to--"
"All the way to where? Where's it going to go? They've got it contained inside of the 710 freeway on the west, and it won't get past the Los Angeles River on the east. So what's the problem?"
"What's the problem? The problem is hundreds of thousands of people live down there! You're talking about most of Compton, Watts, Huntington Park..."
"Exactly! Like I said, what's the problem?"
"Director...we can't...we have to...I mean..."
"Look Jim, you've got to see the big picture. Not just Los Angeles...the entire country. Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles are national lifelines. When they talk about 'critical infrastructure,' they're it. Together, they're the third biggest port in the world, for God's sake! The biggest port in America. And over half of the gas and oil in California comes out of those refineries down there--think of it, over half of this state's gas and oil! The federal government can't keep paying those damn gang bosses to keep the Alameda Corridor open, if they can't deliver. It's just not working. I mean, it would be another matter if they could actually keep the corridor safe and secure. Hell, the rails have been basically closed for most of the last month. Ships are backed up clear to Shanghai, and more factories are closing over there! We can't let it continue, Jim, and that comes from the top. I mean, the very top."
"You're talking about letting it burn?"
"Look, we didn't start these arson riots, they did. Those animals shoot at fire trucks, they shoot at police, they shoot at ambulances, so what do they expect? Then we're supposed to bring in air tankers from Colorado, to put out the fires they keep starting on each other's turf? Well, they've got their own fires in Colorado. So fuck 'em. Let it all burn! The best outcome is if it burns from the 110 to the 710 and the LA River. Let it all burn--then at least we can patrol the tracks and the pipelines, and keep the trains rolling and the oil flowing."
"But that's...that's five miles, from the 110 to the 710."
"Right. Five miles of hostile territory. Five miles of a no-go zone. Five miles where cops haven't been able to step foot in years, outside of armored vehicles. Five miles of animals who would cut your throat and rape your kids just for a laugh!"
"But the mayor, he's never going to agree to--"
"Jim...Jim, that's not our problem, it's his. So what? What can he do? They didn't vote for the President last time anyway, so who cares? Hey, they love Mexico so much down there, then let them ask the Mexican government to send air tankers."
"But I don't think Mexico has any air tankers."
"Director, seriously, they're still waiting for the air tankers, they're expecting to get them today or tomorrow."
"There's still forest fires burning in Colorado and Montana, right? And isn't that foam toxic to people? Just find a reason we can't drop foam on urban areas, all right? Hell, those animals would just shoot at the air tankers anyway, when they're down low making their runs. So screw 'em, let it burn, let it all burn, clear it way back--just keep those tracks and pipelines open. I want to see a free-fire-zone for at least a mile on both sides of the Alameda Corridor! I don't want to see one single shack still standing within rifle range of those railroad tracks. If this fire's going to do it for us, then fine. Let it burn. And maybe it'll teach the rest of those animals down there how to act like civilized freakin' human beings for a change!"
Ranya was led from the cell once again, but in a different direction. This time she was not made to wear a hood, but instead was handcuffed behind her back. Four Milicianos carrying M-16 rifles marched in two pairs in front and behind her. They escorted her from the building containing the smallest units, out onto the asphalt pavement beneath a brilliant blue sky. She blinked up at the sun, seeing it for the first time in 24 hours. On all sides she saw rollup storage garages; some open, some closed. They marched her around a corner and down a long alley toward a dead end, where closed garages on both sides of the lane terminated against a high cement wall. The top of a mountain was visible above the wall, and she guessed it was Sandia Peak, off to the east.
A man was already standing against the sunlit wall. He was blindfolded with a thin black rag. As they marched nearer, Ranya saw that he was not merely standing, but that he was bound somehow to the wall with his hands behind his back. A yard from his waist on either side there were thick steel rings bolted to the wall. She had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as the horrifying realization flooded in. She had failed to convince them. Instead of trying to promote herself as a mercenary rifle expert, she should have "spouted off Marxist gibberish," as Caylen Barlow had suggested back at his North Texas ranch. It had been a terrible blunder; it was her greatest and last mistake!
The unpainted cement wall around the man was riddled with chips and dings, pocked with bullet marks, and splotched with dark stains?
She recognized the man by his Afro haircut and chocolate skin tone. It was none other than Kalil, with blood-soaked battle dressings taped across his bare upper chest. His lips were split and his once-handsome nose was flattened. She had assumed that Kalil was as dead as Derek, but evidently, she was wrong. Now it seemed that she was off by only one day.
At the sound of their approach he began to curse and mutter in English. "Yeah, motherfuckers, real brave, ain't you? Beatin' up on a niggah, just like you was back in Alabama! That's all you jive Aztlan mothers is--nothin' but brown-skinned Ku Klux Klan! Call yo'self la raza, now I know what you really mean: you just a bunch of jive-ass la raza racist motherfuckers! Yeah, you real brave ain't you, with me chained to this damn wall!"
One of Ranya's escorts belted him across his face with the muzzle of his rifle, then butt-stroked him in the gut, and Kalil slumped forward and groaned, spitting out blood.
Two of the troops turned her around by the shoulders, and using a second pair of handcuffs, attached her wrists to the ringbolt on Kalil's left side. She saw a dozen more brown-bereted Milicianos appear, marching toward the dead end in single file, their M-16 rifles held haphazardly.
Another of her escorts pulled a black sash from the front cargo pocket of his utility trousers, and quickly tied it around Ranya's eyes, knotting it in the back. He had obviously done it before, she noted grimly.
There was no time for anything now but to prepare to meet God...if God did exist. She wished that she could think of something witty and cutting to shout at her firing squad, but instead random thoughts and faces flashed through her consciousness like a runaway slide show.
"Ready!" a voice shouted in Spanish. She heard a dozen M-16 bolts being charged and released, a chorus of rasping metallic clacks.
"Aim!" She tried to picture Brad's face. Her knees began to go rubbery, her gut turned to water, and she took in one last breath and held it, bracing herself for the blow, her ears already ringing.
"¡Fuego! " There was a mass detonation of rifle blasts. She felt no pain and wondered if she was already dead. Then she heard another chorus, of laughter and loud jeering. After a moment someone pulled off her mask, while another unlocked her handcuffs, both sets, freeing her hands. She clasped her arms around her chest, shaking, wobbling, and nearly collapsing. Her escorts pulled her away from the wall.
"Ah, well, I guess you're happy to be alive!"
"Ha! Look, she didn't even piss herself! Good for you, muchacha!"
"The peloton de ejecucion must be very bad shots--the entire execution squad missed!"
The Jefe appeared among the brown-shirted troops in his camouflage uniform.
Kalil yelled out in English, "Hey! Hey! Very damn funny! I'm laughing out loud here! Ha ha ha! Now turn me loose, motherfuckers! Turn me loose, you...!"
Then the Jefe did something totally unexpected. He took a rifle at random from one of the Milicianos, and said to Ranya, "Now, chica, let's see if it's so dirty that it won't fire." He yanked back the charging handle, ejecting a chambered live cartridge onto the asphalt, and let the handle fly forward, chambering another round from the magazine, holding the rifle so that she could be certain that it was loaded with live ammunition and fully functional.
They were standing thirty feet from the wall and Kalil, who continued in English to alternately shout abuse and plead for his life. The fifteen Milicianos slowly formed a wide half-circle around Ranya, away from the wall, their rifles nonchalantly trained toward her from their hips. The Jefe thrust the loaded rifle at her, and hissed, "Shoot that damned noisy ape. Shut him up! Kill him right now. Do it or we will chain you back beside him, and this time, I will not tell them to aim at the mountain! Do it now!"
She held the loaded rifle at port arms, across her chest at an angle, her right fingers wrapped tightly around the pistol grip, her left hand on the smooth black plastic fore stock. Ranya looked at the Jefe; he was staring intently at her with his coal-black eyes as he backed away from her. With her right thumb, she could feel that the safety was already pointing up, ready to fire single shots. She glanced at the semi-circle of Milicianos fanned out behind her. She looked at the blindfolded Kalil, still chained to the wall and loudly protesting. A dozen M-16 rifles were pointing in her direction. The Jefe had his pistol out, in his hand, twitching by his leg. His eyes burned her with their intensity.
She ruled out trying to reason with him--the Jefe was in deadly earnest, and the brown-shirted troops would obey him no matter what. Ranya quickly weighed her options as they all stared at her, in the dead-end alley thirty feet from Kalil on the wall. She could thumb the safety back to full auto, spin and shoot the Jefe, and maybe a few of the other Milicianos besides, before she was riddled with their bullets and killed.
The Jefe made a slight nod, and the fifteen rifle barrels slowly began to rise.
Talk was out. Running away was out. Shooting the Jefe and then being killed was out. Crying, begging or showing any form of feminine frailty was out.
Time was out.
She threw the black rifle to her shoulder, flicked back the safety while taking aim through the rear peep sight, and emptied the magazine in a single ripping three second burst. She saw her M-16's bullets shred Kalil from his belly to his throat as the front sight climbed his body on full auto, giving him at least a swift death.
Well, the radical anarchist had come to New Mexico to find a revolution.
And he had found it!
They were silent and still when her rifle went empty, and after a moment she lowered its barrel toward the ground. As the echoes of her shots died, she turned to the Jefe and said,
"In war, you either kill, or you are killed. And I am still alive!"
(This is only page 104 out of 539 in the printed book.)