The amount of light in the cell never varied. There was no way for Ranya to know the time of day or night except by checking her digital watch. When she heard the footsteps on the cement floor outside, she quickly checked the time: just after nine AM, on Tuesday. When she heard the key in her lock, she stood and slipped on her black hood. Rough hands on each shoulder once again guided her by the same path as the day before. Once again the hood was snatched off, and she was made to sit on the stool in front of the tribunal.
This time, the three judges from yesterday were joined by a fourth, sitting at the left end of the table next to the Jefe. He was the youngest of them, she guessed in his mid to late thirties. He was clean-shaven, and had wavy brown hair extending over his ears and the collar of his camouflage utility shirt. Unlike the Jefe, he wore his brown beret while seated at the table. It had a coin-sized silver medallion depicting a stylized bird of prey pinned to the front. He was a handsome man, with high cheekbones, and a straight nose and square chin. He was already staring at her when the hood was removed. He had bright hazel eyes similar to her own, and she returned his gaze.
After a few moments, she broke their eye contact and examined the items that had been arranged on the table. She saw her folding knife, and Destiny's Nikon camera. She saw her 9mm Glock, still disassembled. The parts were all in a clear plastic bag.
The woman spoke first. "Come here, Ranya Bardiwell."
She stood and did as she was told.
"Show me your hands." Ranya leaned across the narrow table. Once again, her callused palms were given a careful examination. "Well, you do have the hands of a field worker. That is undeniable. Now, do you recognize this pistol? We found it in your pack, very carefully concealed. Where did you get it?"
Ranya didn't hesitate in answering. "From the house of the assistant warden of the camp for political prisoners. Before I escaped."
"Before you killed her, you mean. Before you killed the woman in her house."
The four judges on the tribunal looked at one another. The man in civilian clothes scribbled in his notebook.
The Jefe spoke. "Please assemble the pistol for us."
Again, she did as she was told, efficiently mating the slide and barrel and plastic pistol grip receiver, as they scrutinized her level of expertise. Then after laying the Glock down on the table, she stepped back, and stood at a relaxed version of the position of attention, with her hands at her sides. She stared at the black and red banner on the wall above the tribunal. ¡Socialismo o Muerte! It almost seemed as if they were offering her a choice. Perhaps they were.
The woman picked up the pistol and then said, "Ranya Bardiwell, we have checked your story through our police channels. We believe that you did escape from the gringo federales. We know that this pistol belonged to Starr Linssen, a federal officer, whom you killed. We know that the federales killed your father, who was a gun dealer, and that later you were arrested on charges of domestic terrorism. All of that doesn't concern us.
"What concerns us is what we must do with you now. We have many, many volunteers already. We don't need you, and believe me, we will not simply release you. We could return you to the gringo federales for the sake of diplomacy with Washington. Or we could have you shot here and now, simply to close the book on yesterday's fiasco once and for all. So why should we keep you? What can you do for us?" She stared up at Ranya over her half-glasses.
In her cell, Ranya had thought long and hard about the comments the Jefe had made on their ride to Albuquerque. "Gringo cowboy snipers" had massacred a busload of Milicianos only yesterday. (And she knew who the snipers were, a fact she was not about to share.) She had heard that "gringo cowboys" were shooting cell phone tower transmitters to hinder Milicia communications. The Jefe himself traveled in an unmarked civilian truck, and only dared to put the identifying red cloth on the dashboard when close to his own checkpoint. It was evident to her that these leaders were concerned about the Milicia's deficiency in weapons training, and were fearful of the "gringo cowboys" who still out-gunned them. Knowing all of this, she had prepared several lines of argument.
Ranya began, "Your rifles are in terrible condition, and your Milicianos don't know anything more than how to pull the trigger. I doubt they could hit a house at one hundred meters. They are clowns with rifles--payasos. I can make them real marksmen."
She had their full attention.
"Look at that soldier by the door, how he holds his rifle like a loaf of bread under his arm. Look at him, he is aiming at all of us, and his finger is on the trigger! Even so we may be safe, because his rifle is probably so dirty inside that it will not fire. I can show you."
The Jefe was flushed with embarrassment, but the younger officer wearing the brown beret with the silver pin was laughing. He said, "Soldier, step forward and give her your rifle. Unloaded, please."
The Miliciano who had been standing by the door had been holding it casually in the crook of his right arm, leveled horizontally. The stocky Mayan-faced soldier straightened the rifle up while extracting the magazine, which he placed in a pouch on his web belt. He marched across the room and thrust it violently at Ranya, while giving her a vicious look. She was ready, and grabbed the rifle as he pushed it at her. She then turned her back on him dismissively, and faced the tribunal.
She remembered some AR-15 tricks she had learned many years before, growing up at Freedom Arms in Virginia. Back in those days, semi-automatic versions of the military M-16 had been legal to own. How long could that type of ingrained "muscle memory" last, she wondered?
Ranya held the black M-16 rifle vertically in front of her, and then pulled the charging handle rearward; checking that there was no chambered round. (She noted the weapon's empty chamber with keen interest. If it was Milicia SOP to carry their rifles with empty chambers, she might gain critical seconds when the time came to escape.) Then she swung the rifle behind her back and held it horizontally in both hands, the barrel pointing to her left. Next came the tricky part, which she had mastered years before as a teenager in her father's gun shop.
By feel, she found the rear cross pin, slid it out with her fingernails, and dropped the lower half of the rifle down to the vertical, hinged on the still-inserted front cross pin. She pulled back the charging handle and removed the ten-inch long bolt carrier assembly with her right hand, brought it around to her front, and snapped it toward them.
"Look at it, it's filthy. The bolt should pop out of the bolt carrier when I do that, but it's so caked with carbon that it can't move. This rifle will jam after one or two magazines, if it fires at all. Somebody needs to teach your Milicianos to keep their rifles clean, so that they will always fire. And somebody needs to teach them to shoot accurately, or the gringo cowboys will continue to kill them with ease, like yesterday on the bus. That is what I can do for you." She brought the L-shaped half-disassembled rifle back in front of her, and reassembled it in a few seconds, snapping it back into line while keeping eye contact with the young officer.
Once again she held the rifle vertically, and then she surprised even herself by doing a quick drill team routine with loud stock slaps and spins, moving the M-16 smartly from shoulder to shoulder. She remembered the Viet Nam veterans who had taught her these fancy rifle tricks back in Virginia at Freedom Arms, and she silently thanked them. It had amused the old soldiers to see the teen swing and spin the familiar rifle like a drill instructor on a parade ground, and she had basked in their approval. She had never dreamed that their drill team routines were still waiting dormant inside her, until this M-16 had been in her hands, in front of the tribunal.
The four Milicia leaders stared at her. The young one with the longish hair and the beret was smiling broadly.
Camarada Inez said to the guard, "Take her back to her cell." Ranya tossed him his rifle with both hands when he was a few feet away, and he almost dropped it. He was still red-faced as he reloaded his magazine. Another Miliciano handed her the black hood, and Ranya accepted it casually. She made and held eye contact with the young Milicia officer as she slipped the cloth over her face. Then she was marched from the room, but this time without the indignity of handcuffs.
The four Revolutionary Council advisors argued her fate. There were a total of seven appointed members of the clandestine Consejo Revolucionario, all of whom were picked by Vicegobernador Felix Magon for their ideological pedigree and personal loyalty. Today's tribunal was composed of the members who were locally available. The woman called Inez said, "Well, strictly from an ethno-geopolitical standpoint, she's acceptable. She's a Palestinian Arab...I mean, she's not Indo-Hispanic, but...she is from another oppressed racial group. At least she's not an Anglo, so that's in her favor, even if her credentials as a sincere Marxist are in doubt."
The mustachioed note-keeper with the receding hairline said, "I think at least we should ask el Gobernador's office if they want to send her back to the gringo federales in Oklahoma. We could turn her in at the Federal Building, here in Albuquerque. Deleon's state government would gain favor with Washington, and this in turn would reflect well on the professionalism of the Milicia de Nuevo Mexico. As you mentioned Comrade Inez, this would be the diplomatic thing to do."
The woman said, "But then the story of what happened yesterday at Chulada will be known to the gringos, and many questions will be asked about the missing students. I think Bardiwell should simply be disappeared, with the other four. Or...perhaps used as a rifle instructor, if that benefits us."
"These M-16's are too delicate anyway," said the Jefe. "They are a ladies' rifle. We only need to ask our Chinese friends, and they would begin to send thousands of Kalashnikovs next week. Now, that's a rifle that doesn't need to be cleaned. That's a real man's rifle!"
The female comrade cleared her throat at these sexist remarks. "You miss the point, Carlos. We must use weapons obtained locally, gringo weapons, if we are to maintain our appearance as 'indigenous' New Mexico Milicia fighters. The minute our troops were seen carrying foreign weapons, our honeymoon with Washington would be over. They would no longer turn a blind eye to us, if we were to openly carry foreign weapons. And then they might even begin to question where 'advisors' such as you come from."
"Well, most of the troops won't accept shooting lessons from a woman," el Jefe stated flatly. "They are very macho, and it would insult their manhood to have to learn from a female how to shoot their own rifles. This attitude may be primitive and reactionary, but it is reality. Frankly, many of them are little more than criminales, pistoleros who have joined the Milicia for the promise of citizenship and free land. They won't like it at all, to have a gringa as their rifle instructor. It will cause unnecessary friction."
The younger officer said, "Well, I can use her right away. So far, we have been given 2,000 rifles from the National Guard armory, but most of them are mierde, worn out crap with crooked barrels. I need to find one hundred good rifles from that mountain of junk, and I need to find them as soon as possible! The Falcon Battalion is providing security next week at the Vedado Ranch, and we have damn few riflemen who can shoot as well as they should. I think this Bardiwell can find the best rifles quickly, and make them ready in time. My Falcons will listen to her, if I tell them to. So I can certainly use her, if none of you want her."
"Ah yes, the dashing 'Che' Ramos can use the pretty young lady," said the bearded Jefe, mocking him. "Yes, I'm very certain that you can use her very well."
The young officer ignored the intended meaning of the Jefe's remark and replied, "My Falcons are not too proud to learn from an expert: man or woman. And after your Milicianos did so well in battle yesterday, I'm sure they need no lessons! How many were killed on the bus, eighteen, twenty? And how many gringo snipers did your troops catch after that epic battle? None! Only four gringo students from Michigan. Bravo, Comandante 'El Condor, ' bravo!" The young officer slowly clapped his hands several times.
The bearded Jefe stabbed out his cigar in an ashtray, then pointed a gnarled finger at the one he had called 'Che.' "First of all, they weren't my Milicianos--they were not under my operational command. Now, if I was given actual command of the 5th Battalion, that would be another matter! And second, let me tell you that a real battalion has many more than one hundred men, despite that pretty silver chicken on your beret--"
"All right, enough!" The older woman in the middle stopped their growing argument with a two-handed slap on the table. "Comandante Ramos can take this Ranya Bardiwell to find the best rifles, and instruct the Batallon Halcon in marksmanship. I have decided, and it is finished."
But the Jefe was not quite finished. "No, Camarada Inez, that is not enough! I demand at least a loyalty test! A prueba, a proof. It is my right to demand this, before a stranger is brought into our group. It is my right! We have all been tested in one way or another, and I demand it of this Ranya Bardiwell."
The woman turned and looked at the Jefe, and then she asked, "What kind of a test?"