Fields of Wrath (Luis Chavez Book 1)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 Mark Wheaton
All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
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ISBN-13: 9781503949966
ISBN-10: 1503949966

Cover design by Marc Cohen

For Lauren

PART I

I

The ocean came to him first. A breeze swept over the hills and cooled his skin. It arrived next as a taste, salt agitating his tongue and blistered lips. His water supply was long spent. Then it came as a sound, the tide crashing somewhere to the west. He didn’t have far to go now.

Fifteen minutes later and he was looking at it, the undulating, black waters of the Pacific stretching to the horizon, where it met the cloudless field of stars.

It hadn’t been so many years since the last time he’d trekked through unfamiliar territory to reach the sea. Like now, he’d done so to leave one life behind and begin another. He prayed he wouldn’t have to do it again.

He moved to the edge of the ridge. The beach was a good eighty feet down at an incline that might as well have been ninety degrees. There was a highway between the cliff base and the beach. The headlights of the occasional passing vehicle were the first signs of civilization he’d seen for hours. He wondered if he’d have the energy to dash across the unlit road but then saw the narrow tunnel that ran under the highway.

He just had to get down the cliff.

With his feet cut, bleeding, and blistered, he knew he couldn’t do it upright. Lowering himself onto his knees, he took a deep breath and started scaling down backwards. His hands grasped for every rock and root as he kept as little weight as possible on dubious toeholds. Any misstep could be fatal.

The sound of the ocean grew as he descended. It felt as if he were lowering himself straight into the water. He imagined finding a boat and sailing away, never to return.

When he finally reached the bottom, tears filled his eyes. His knees had taken the brunt of the damage, blood trickling down his shins from half a dozen nicks. But it was over.

He hurried into the tunnel. The walls and ceiling were impressively tagged for such an isolated location. He tried to read a few of the highly stylized scribblings, but in the dim light they were as unintelligible as hieroglyphs.

Local poseurs,
he mused.
Not a lot of hard-core gangsters out in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

He emerged from the tunnel to find the beach’s parking lot was roped off by a heavy chain. A sign hanging from it read, “Refugio Canyon State Beach—Open Daily, Sunrise to Sunset. Violators Will Be Fined.”

He checked his watch. It was five minutes until two. However unlikely, he’d made it with time to spare.

He stepped over the chain. The narrow strip of sand, bracketed on both sides by piles of boulders, wasn’t much to look at. The break of the water suggested it wouldn’t be much good for surfing, swimming, or fishing, and it was too far from LA for day-trippers, making it strangely romantic. He imagined bringing Odilia here when things calmed down. Annie had warned them that they’d probably be confined for the first few months at least, but maybe they could steal away for just an afternoon.

He considered kicking off his shoes and stepping in but knew the salt would burn in his wounds. He’d driven down to the cliffs at Point Mugu once with his sister and her son. He’d heard you could see migrating whales out in the ocean from there. They’d stood for hours convincing each other that every rise and cresting wave was a humpback, an orca, or a shark.

He’d see them again soon, too. There would be a long, difficult conversation. But then they’d be all right. Or so he hoped.

He was suddenly engulfed in light. A car emerged from the narrow tunnel and paused at the chain. It was a cab.

“Uh . . . Santiago Higuera?” The cabdriver sounded surprised. Prepaid fare or not, it didn’t seem like he thought anyone would actually be in this spot at the appointed time.

Santiago jogged over. The driver was Indian or Pakistani, maybe in his fifties. By the way the cabbie eyed him, Santiago knew he must look pretty bad.

“I have an address in Morningside Park,” the driver said as Santiago half climbed, half collapsed across the backseat. “Four thirty-one and a half, South Fourth.”

“Sounds good,” Santiago said breathlessly. “Can we just go?”

Catching a sidelong glance from the driver, Santiago wiped the fear from his face.

Annie Whittaker’s watch said it was 2:50, her laptop 2:52. Either was bad news.

“He’s probably still in the cab,” she said into the phone.

“You don’t sound confident.”

“Two forty-five was our best guess, barring traffic,” she said. “We knew there could be other variables.”

“My guy’s already been by the house twice. Knocked on the gate and the front door. I don’t think we can get away with sending him back many more times. You don’t have any way of communicating with him?”

“I don’t,” she said, fighting back panic. “But this was your suggestion, remember?”

“Annie, I know how hard you’ve worked on this. It’s just as important to this office
and
me. But I told you from the beginning, if we don’t handle this right, we can lose everything. We’ll do our part, but I need your assurance that there won’t be any surprises on your end.”

Annie inhaled. “Have your guy circle back in half an hour. That’s all I ask.”

Santiago said nothing on the drive into the city. The driver nodded to the satellite radio on the dashboard.

“You want to listen to the game?”

Santiago had no idea what game the man was speaking about and gave a noncommittal shrug. He turned back to the window and peered at passing cars. He didn’t think they’d been followed but couldn’t help himself. The driver left the radio off.

The cab exited the highway. The address was in South Central, which Santiago knew was off-limits for some cabdrivers. This one didn’t seem to mind. They reached Crenshaw and pulled off the main street. The GPS guided them into a residential neighborhood. When they reached Fourth, the driver slowed. Santiago scanned the curbside numbers for 432.

“This is it,” he announced.

Santiago hopped out and waved to the driver.

“Gracias!”

Santiago felt the driver’s eyes on him as he jogged up the driveway, eschewing the front door for a gate leading to the backyard. He remembered the instructions and reached over to unhook the latch. It was just within reach. He pushed the gate open and slipped inside. Only when he closed the gate did the cab pull away.

He went to the side door and put his hand on the knob. It was unlocked and turned with the slightest pressure. He entered, resisted the urge to turn on a light, and waited by the window to see if any other cars would appear.

The man had been stuck in the same position for hours. There was no wind or moon, the only scent that of the nearby hackberry and jacaranda trees. The houses within his zone of fire all shared the same silhouette, the only difference in floor plan being whether the garage was on the left side of the house or right. Beyond that, the roofs, brick color, lawn, and token sapling thrust into each front lawn were the same.

He aimed his scope into the other houses, hoping again for some kind of peep show. The best he could do was a middle-aged housewife watching television in a terry-cloth robe. He waited for it to open a little or ride up, but it never did.

Shit.

He checked his watch. Ten past three. He turned the scope back to the only house with lights ablaze in every room of the first floor. The woman there was still pacing. He sighted down the barrel, held his thumb over the safety release, and waited.

There was almost no furniture in the house on South Fourth. A bed was in the bedroom, a sofa and easy chair in the living room, a refrigerator in the kitchen, but that was it. If not for the fresh towels in the bathroom, it would’ve looked like a time-share, albeit in an unlikely location.

Santiago searched the kitchen cabinets for food but found only disposable cups and plates. A few plastic forks, chopsticks, packets of soy sauce, and a pile of takeout menus sat in the drawer. He finally found a packet of microwavable popcorn and tossed it in the microwave. When only half the bag had popped, he took it out, tore it open, and shoveled a few dozen kernels into his mouth without caring that they burned his tongue.

Temporarily sated, he went to take a shower.

The past week had been mad. He hadn’t been able to relax since Annie, the legal aide, told him their plan was a go. He’d have preferred she waited until hours before rather than days. Less time to overthink. Fewer opportunities to fuck up.

As the dirt and grime sluiced down and away from his body, he finally relaxed. He wouldn’t be staying long, but it’d be nice while it lasted. He had no idea what the next few days would be like, to say nothing of the next few months. It would all be different now. For him, for his family, and hopefully for many more.

Including Odilia. God, when she was finally in his arms, it would be paradise.

He heard a noise from the other room.

“I’m in the shower!” he called in Spanish.

As he squirted a dollop of shampoo into his hand, the door burst open.

“Hey, what . . . ?”

Before he could finish, two men in the uniforms of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department—one white, one Hispanic—yanked him out. He kicked and flailed, but two swift elbows to the temple and he was out like a light.

Annie’s heart leapt when she saw the number from the LA district attorney’s office on her caller ID.

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