Bob Bullard spent Monday morning in his corner office in the San Diego Federal Building, prior to taking his helicopter up to Los Angeles. The maroon-colored five-story building spread like a malignancy between the feet of soaring glass and steel office towers in downtown San Diego. Most people hated the grim prison-like appearance of the Federal Building, but Bullard loved it. Its forbidding appearance instilled a healthy dose of fear into those unfortunates commanded to enter it on official business.
In front of the main entrance foyer, in the middle of an enclosed quadrangle, was quite possibly the most hideous piece of public sculpture ever commissioned, anywhere or anytime. This was an angular black steel pinnacle, leaning over precariously, and tapering to a needle sharp point at the end of its fifty-foot length. Bullard liked to imagine screaming tax delinquents being thrown down and impaled on its brutally cruel tip, to slowly perish like insects stabbed by an entomologist's pin. (Of course, he kept these private thoughts strictly to himself.)
Today his staff had scheduled a half hour of "community outreach." This could often be turned into a profitable exercise in public relations, with photo opportunities showing the deeply concerned regional homeland security boss lending his ear to a stream of noteworthy whiners and malcontents. Artfully staged, these photo ops could perform the miracle of turning Bob Bullard into a kindhearted uncle, with a twinkle in his eye and a ready pat on the head for the kiddies.
This morning it was the turn of the local Muslim Sheiks, Imams and Muftis to moan and complain. Bullard's secretary buzzed them into his fifth-floor corner office at nine AM. He was amused to see the three of them wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb, including colorful dish towels draped over their heads, held in place with what looked like coiled fan belts. Together the three ran part of the Montclaire section of San Diego (known locally as Little Baghdad) as their personal fiefdom. Montclaire was situated atop a mesa surrounded by cliffs and canyons, a natural redoubt. The enclave, just on the eastern side of I-5, was home to the largest mosque and "Islamic cultural center" in California. Even years before the walls had gone up, Montclaire had proven to be a comfortable haven for a number of the 9-11 hijackers.
Several major San Diego surface streets ran through Montclaire, but except for these public roads, access into the enclave itself was strictly controlled. Licensed armed guards with full beards, wearing green military uniforms and checked Arafat-style kefiyah scarves, were stationed at the few unbarricaded streets leading into the "Muslim Quarter." These menacing guards were the only visible face that Montclaire showed to the outside world. Bullard often wondered why some of the thousands of Marines who called San Diego home didn't shoot them on sight while driving past, simply out of habit. This thought gave him a minor smile, and propelled him up out of his black leather executive chair as they entered his office.
"Good morning gentlemen, good morning. What can the Department of Homeland Security do for you today?" After a prolonged exchange of double-pumping handshakes, flowery greetings and one attempted cheek kissing (Bullard would have bitten off a nose or ear first) the Imams got down to business.
"Director Bullard, we have complained and complained to the mayor about the continuing anti-Muslim harassment, yet our complaints fall on deaf ears. So in desperation, we are coming to you for help."
"All right--fair enough. That's what I'm here for. So what's the problem?" Bullard returned to his executive chair, sat behind his desk and cracked his knuckles.
"The law clearly states that we may play the call to prayer of the Muezzin five times a day from our minarets. Yet we continue to have loud 'rock' music blasted into Montclaire when we do so! Even worse, our Muezzin's loudspeakers are fired upon on a daily basis. This is intolerable! You must see that the local police take their responsibilities seriously!" The other Imam's nodded their heads vigorously.
"I'm sorry about that, I really am. I'll do what I can. However, in all frankness, as long as you play that 'Allah Akbar' tape with the volume turned way up, folks might choose to send their own message back at you. It's still a free country, you know."
The transformation of Montclaire into "the Muslim Quarter" had been startlingly rapid, once the amplified loudspeaker broadcasting of the "call to prayer" had been approved by the city council. Non-Muslims began a mass-exodus from within audible range of the muezzin's cry, and property values plummeted. Newly arriving Muslim immigrants moved in to snap up the vacant homes at fire-sale prices. Other Muslims living scattered across Southern California moved to the enclave to avoid "religious persecution," and the process continued until the Montclaire mesa was virtually 100% Islamic. In ten years, the Muslim population of San Diego County had tripled to an estimated 300,000--most of whom lived in and around Montclaire.
"But what about the shootings?" asked the leader of the Imams. "Our minarets look like Swiss cheese!"
"Maybe if you turned down the volume on the call to prayer, maybe that would help? Or what if you turned the loudspeakers around, facing inside? So you could hear the prayer in Montclaire, but not all over San Diego?"
"Mr. Bullard, sir! We have our rights, under the First Amendment..."
"Yes, you do..."
"It is a hate crime to blast idolatrous, satanic music into Montclaire during the call to prayer! We insist that the perpetrators be pursued and charged. It is disgraceful, it is anti-Islamic bigotry, it is--"
"I'm sure it is. Now, while we're discussing Montclaire, I'd like to pass along a concern coming up from the mayor's office. He says they've been seeing a steady stream of folks showing up in San Diego emergency rooms without right hands. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" Bullard held up his own knobby right hand and wiggled his fingers.
"I don't see how this is any concern of yours! You know very well that we have an agreement with the city to observe Sharia Law within Montclaire. I'd like to point out that within our walls we have the lowest crime rate of any urban area in California."
"Sure, and you also have the highest rate of one-handed vagrants all around you."
"Director Bullard, we didn't come here today to suffer another assault on our faith! We came here to reach some understanding, not to suffer another Islamophobic attack."
"Oh Jesus...keep your turban on. Personally, I don't care how you take care of business inside of your own walls. But outside is another matter. Like when the local girls start getting gang-raped."
"That is a lie! A slander against all Muslims! I refuse to listen. And those harlots should not dress that way near Montclaire! What are decent Muslim boys to do, when they see those teenage girls half-dressed like charmutas, like whores?"
"Then stop complaining about your minarets getting shot up. It goes both ways. That's all I'm saying."
"Director Bullard, this is outrageous! You sound as if you are condoning these unprovoked attacks on Montclaire! You know what is happening in Detroit, and I'm certain that you would not want to see a similar situation here in San Diego."
Bullard rose to his full height and leaned forward across his desk, staring hard at the sheik. "Now listen here, Ali Baba, you're not in Detroit, and I'm not a liberal pussy like the Mayor and Governor back there. You throw up barricades and block traffic on the through-streets like they did in Detroit, and I'll bulldoze right through them. And while we're at it, we'll bulldoze all of your unapproved dead ends and cul-de-sacs, every last one of them. I'll run bulldozers through your walls, and leave Montclaire wide open! I'll have all of your security guards' gun permits revoked, and let the gangs back in! Trust me: you don't want that! You have a cozy little situation going on in Montclaire--but you're not fooling anybody. We haven't come down hard on you, but believe me, we can. So turn down the volume on your Allah Akbar, and stop chopping off hands, all right? And tell your boys to leave the infidel girls alone outside of your walls!"
Bullard paused, looking at each of them in turn, and quieted his tone before continuing. "That is, if you three want to keep on playing Grand Pooh-bahs with your own little harems... Oh yeah, I know all about your harems, and how young some of those girls are. Girls and boys, I should say. Now if you'll excuse me gentlemen, I've got other appointments."
That should hold them for a while, he thought as they spun in their robes and departed his office, sputtering and muttering and fuming in impotent rage.
After they were gone, Bullard's young chief of staff entered the office and sat on the black leather couch across from his mahogany desk. "That went well, boss. I think they know you mean business."
"Damn right I do," said the Homeland Security honcho. "We won't be having any of that Detroit bullshit in the Southwest Region. I'll burn Montclaire to the ground and bulldoze the ashes into the Pacific first."
"Sounds like they realize it now, if they didn't before."
"You know what they say about Arabs," said Bullard. "They're either at your throat, or at your feet."
"Yeah. Say, listen boss, you know that special list of yours, the, umm...folks who are presently incarcerated?"
"Sure, the scumbags I helped put away. What about it?"
"Well, you wanted me to inform you when any of them were released."
"Okay, so who was released?"
"Actually, nobody was released, exactly."
"Then what are you telling me this for?"
"One of them escaped."
"Escaped? Who? From where?"
"Umm...it would be a certain Ranya Bardiwell. A female prisoner."
"Bardiwell...Bardiwell...I remember that name. Go ahead, refresh my memory. Who is she, and why do I care about her?"
"She's from Virginia. She was involved in the Malvone affair."
Bullard leaned back in his leather chair, his fingers laced behind his thinning hair. "Oh yeah...Ranya Bardiwell. Now I remember. Hot little number. Brunette. We tried to pin the Virginia Attorney General's assassination on her boyfriend, but they both disappeared. When we finally grabbed her, she got put away under Article 14."
"Right. Conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. There was no solid evidence, so she just got three years of non-judicial preventive detention. When that stretch of NJPD was up, it was rolled over for another three."
"So, where'd she escape from?"
"Officially, she bolted from the Federal Prison Transit Center in Oklahoma City. You know, 'Air Con.' But actually, she escaped from an NJPD camp in western Oklahoma. All women, mostly Article 14s. And she killed an assistant warden on her way out."
"Hmm. Okay. All right. Shouldn't be a problem, but you never know. Keep an eye out for her, tickle your search engines, and check the traffic going into the Field Offices. If she surfaces, if you hear anything at all, let me know right away."
"Okay boss, will do. Now, your next appointment is with the California Director of the Border Patrol. He wants to know why you're ordering his men back off the line in the Campo sector again."
"Christ, whatever happened to just emailing? All right, send him in."
"Whoa...there's another one of those red X's," said Kalil. The giant X was painted on State Road 355 directly in front of an antler-decorated gateway arch, at the beginning of a long private driveway. The terrain was more forested and hilly now, and the ranch house, if any, was invisible from the road. "What do you think it means?"
"Probably means the land was stolen from the Mexicans," answered Derek. "Probably marks a 'land reform' area. Spanish land grant territory."
"That's some serious shit, then," said Kalil. "'X marks the spot' must be some kind of a warning."
"What did you think 'Tierra o Muerte' meant?" asked Ranya.
Derek said, "Man, that Governor Deleon, he's not messing around! Hey look, there's another sign! At least this one's in English."
This sign was also written in red paint, on a white sheet of plywood, attached to a pair of timber posts just off the shoulder of the road next to a barbed wire fence. Derek stopped in front of it and they all read it together, the girls crouched behind the front seats. While they paused, a black crew-cab pickup truck blasted past them from behind, crossing over to the oncoming lane, going at least one hundred miles an hour and quickly disappearing from sight.
The sloppily hand-lettered sign read: "Warning Gringo! You are trespassing on Land Grant Territory! This is stolen land! Do not attempt to buy any property on this Territory, it is stolen and your deed will be invalid! If you are occupying stolen Land Grant Territory, leave now! You have been warned!"
They were all quiet, reading the sign. Derek whistled softly and said, "Man, I'm glad I don't live on any stolen land around here. Sounds like the day of reckoning has come at last for the white cattle barons."
"Yeah," added Kalil, "And payback's a bitch. Come on, let's go."
"What's the next town?" asked Destiny. "Maybe they'll have cell phone coverage. I can't send these pictures; I can't get a signal at all. I don't understand why they don't have cell phone coverage out here. I mean, this is America, right?"
"Chulada. The next town is Chulada," replied Derek. "About two miles ahead." He had his road map, folded to the right section, lying on top of the center console between the front seats. "Doesn't look like much on the map."
State Road 355 ran through wildly beautiful country now, at times alongside flowing creeks choked with willows, oaks and cottonwoods, at times winding up and through the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, with its peaks on their left side. The van crested a rise where the roadway had been blasted out of live rock, leaving jagged granite walls fifty feet high on either side of them. After the top, the road dropped and turned suddenly to the west, and all at once they saw the roadblock, but too late.
Derek slammed on the brakes, coming to a sudden stop just in front of a row of 55-gallon drums. The steel barrels were painted red, and extended across the asphalt from the right shoulder to the yellow centerline. Another row of drums ran across the oncoming lane, but twenty feet further down. Any traffic in either direction would have to come to a complete stop, and weave slowly between the two barricades to continue on their way. The barrels might have been empty, filled with water, or filled with dirt or cement. There was no way to tell by their outward appearance.
Ranya was impressed by the setup. Empty barrels were a bluff, but highly mobile. Water-filled barrels would be too heavy to ram at full speed, yet could still be drained and easily moved around, as long as a water supply was available to refill them on site. Dirt or sand-filled barrels would mean a semi-permanent checkpoint. Vehicles that were parked on either shoulder prevented anyone from driving around the obstacles.
"What in the hell is this?" asked Derek. As if in answer, from behind both of the barricades of steel drums, more than a dozen men suddenly stood up in one movement. Armed men, weapons shouldered, aiming black rifles directly at the van's windshield from a range of twenty feet. Armed men wearing brown berets, and brown t-shirts.
One of them screamed, "¡Salga! Salga del carro! Salga ahora mismo! "
Ranya looked between Derek, the armed men, and Kalil. "They're saying to get out, right now." Sudden fear rose from her guts, nearly paralyzing her.
"Don't worry, it's just the New Mexico Milicia, it'll be cool. Remember, they're on our side," replied Derek. "I'll do the talking. Just chill, all right?" He kept his hands on the steering wheel as two pairs of the men moved around the sides of the nearest wall of barrels, their weapons still shouldered and pointed at the van's windows. The pairs advanced toward each side of the van, remaining a bit in front to avoid a crossfire while aiming at the driver and passenger. The rest of the Milicianos behind the barricade kept their rifles trained on the windshield.
"¿Estas loco, gringo? ¡Ya te dije salga! ¡Ahora--rapido!" The Milicia man shouting the demands kept his rifle aimed directly at Derek, through the open driver's side window, emphasizing his words by thrusting the muzzle forward. Ranya noticed his finger wrapped around the trigger, and she slowly shrank down and back in the van. She recognized the rifles, old M-16A1's, the original Viet Nam era Armalites with the smooth black plastic forward stocks. Each rifle was loaded with a long curved thirty round magazine.
"It's okay, amigos..." said Derek, calmly. "We're on your side. Really, we're coming to help. Umm...estamos...con...ustedes."
Kalil was frozen in his seat, but still whispered, "Derek, man, I think we better..."
"¡Silencio! ¡Callate! ¡Ciera tu boca, y salga--no voy a decirle otra vez!" This Miliciano continued to advance toward the driver, weapon shouldered, until his rifle's quivering muzzle was only a yard from Derek's face.
Derek spoke, slowly and quietly. "Listen, mi amigo...calm down, okay? Calm...down. Tranquilo. I've got a letter of introduction for Professor Robert Johnson, at the university--it explains everything." He slowly moved his right hand toward the center console, brushing aside the folded map, and began to open the hinged compartment on top.
Ranya was almost in the middle of the back of the van, kneeling, her hands on the foam mattress, when a burst of rifle fire exploded just a few feet from her. She saw most of Derek's head disappear in a red eruption and she fell prone, just as Lisa jumped to her feet screaming, "Don't shoot!" There was another burst of fire, and glass fragments rained down on Ranya's back. There were the sounds of the muzzle blasts, and the sounds of bullets pinging through van's sheet metal skin. There were men yelling and orders shouted, and after a few endless seconds, the full-automatic firing abruptly stopped.
The side door of the van was slam-rolled back and Ranya went limp, as many strong hands dragged her out and flung her on the ground. She buried her nose into the dirt, and felt a hot muzzle tip against the back of her neck, and another against her spine.
She was instantly filled with sorrow that she would never see her son, after coming so far. She saw Brad's face, and somehow she felt him beckoning her forward. She saw her father and mother, and a little girl with pigtails running through a sunny field to meet them with her arms held out.
But the expected flashing plunge into eternity didn't come. She still tasted the dirt of this good earth against her lips.
Gradually the ringing in her ears subsided, she heard the moaning and wailing of another girl, and then Ranya began to return to the present. Two college girls. Destiny and Lisa. She slowly turned her head to the side and saw them lying not far from her, a spreading lake of blood under their bodies.
"¡Hijo de la chingada, que maldita porqueria! ¡Que desastre! What a damned disaster! " spat out a voice in guttural foreign-sounding Spanish. "Who the hell told you to fire?"
"The big gringo was reaching for a gun in that box, Jefe! I had to shoot!"
"So, where's the gun, you idiot? Go ahead, check the box!"
Ranya's mind was now spinning at incalculable speed, sifting through the probabilities that added up to life or to death. Without consciously considering the risk or the alternatives, she said, "No hay fusil, Jefe. There is no gun. There is only a letter."
"What? Who speaks? One of the gringas speaks Spanish?"
"Sí, Jefe, I can speak it. The tall one was only reaching for a letter in the box. A letter explaining that we are revolucionarios, voluntarios, coming to join in the people's struggle."
"Is this true? Shit! Then why didn't the fool simply get out of the truck when he was told?"
"He didn't speak our idiom, Jefe. He was truly a fool."
"Get up. Get up. Help her up, you clowns!"
"Gracias Jefe. Gracias. "