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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Bad Country

A Novel

CB McKenzie

Minotaur Books


As instructed, the man stopped at a certain landmark in the desert, stripped and used the cheap folding knife to cut his dusty khakis and T-shirt into small pieces. He tossed his old clothes bit by bit into a hard wind, unpacked the plastic trash bag and re-dressed in new clothes. He squatted in the skeletal shade of a creosote bush, sliced his last apple and chewed and swallowed each piece slowly then sipped bleach-treated water from a recycled milk jug through the heat of the day. Near sundown he cut the jug into small pieces and threw them and the knife into a steep-sided arroyo, took his bearings and then tore his map into small bits and broadcast these as he walked north. When he neared the meeting place he hustled through slanting shadows and hid behind the large boulder so that he could espy in both directions the sparse traffic on Agua Seco Road. As he waited his eyes strayed toward a solitary cloud towed north by invisible forces. A call and response from a pair of falcons hunting late he took as a good omen.

During the night a vehicle stopped in the middle of the turn-out. Muffled by closed doors and raised windows, the music from the SUV sounded like something the waiting man might hear when he stood outside a cathedral. When the vehicle shut down it was as if a trapdoor had opened on the surface of the world and all extant sound fallen through it. When a door unlatched, the dome light in the cab of the SUV illuminated a passenger in the backseat as a dark face under a white hat. The figure that emerged on the driver's side had on a billed cap, dark glasses and a plastic coat that glimmered in the moonlight.

This is your ride, hombre. The command was a hoarse whisper aimed directly at the hiding place. Levántate. Into la luz.

The waiting man stepped into the glare of the headlights.

Tienes algo? the driver asked.

Nada, the man said. He spread his arms wide with his hands open. He had nothing but the new clothes on his back and the old boots on his feet, had no identification, no keys, weapons, cell phone or any paper with writing or numbers on it. He had no photographs of family, no money, no tattoos or identifiable scars, wore no jewelry and had never been arrested on either side of the border. He did not even know the name of his employer.

Eres Indio? the driver asked.

Si, soy Indio, the man said.

The man lowered his arms and waited for words that made more sense to him.

Has estado esperando mucho? the driver asked.

Si. Todo mi vida.

The bill of the driver's gimme cap tilted down and then up.

I have been waiting my whole life for this too, the driver said.

The back door of the SUV opened and the man moved out of the headlights and toward his ride.

Adonde va? he asked.

Trabajar, hombre, said the driver. We go to work now.

Rodeo and his dog drove over "Elm Street," which was but a collection of ruts and potholes, streambed cuts and corduroy stretches that led from the paved Agua Seco Ranch Road into a small dead end of southern Arizona called El Hoyo, The Hole.

Where the man and his dog lived was supposed to have been a full-service, upscale trailer park with concrete pads radiating like the segmented spokes of a big wagon wheel from the hub of an Activities Center, and wound through these spokes like a gourd vine a nine-hole golf course. But the investment venture had been mistimed and misplaced and so remained as only a concentric grid of blade-graded dirt roads marked at random intersections by unlikely green-and-white street signs now aimed into all compassed directions and bent by gravity to all angles of repose, mostly a collection of unpaid property taxes and dirt off the grid.

The old dog on the shotgun seat whined when he scented blood. Rodeo slowed as he approached the "gates" of his place, two jumbled piles of cinder block on either side of the dirt road with a sign advertising VISTA MONTANA ESTATES—AN ACTIVE LIFE COMMUNITY skewered on a splintered pole like a reminder note to do something later.

Cállate, Rodeo said.

The dog was quiet at his man's command.

* * *

The corpse was facedown in the dirt, his jeans-clad legs widespread, boot toes pointed back, arms outstretched like a small, misguided Superman buried in a dead-end earthly mission. The back of his red, white and blue shirt was blown into shreds. Hung up on a piece of rebar, a pristine white straw cowboy hat twirled slowly in a breeze.

Rodeo sat for a long moment with a boot vibrating on the clutch pad, then he shifted the truck into neutral and stomped on the emergency brake. When the dog started barking Rodeo reached below the bench seat, pulled the 9mm from its stash site, jacked a load into the Glock and stepped out of the truck.

A cottontail hopped around a pile of vent bricks and froze and twitched and stared at the man with the gun. Rodeo waved his pistol but the rabbit moved toward the dead man where it sat trembling in the pool of congealed blood. Rodeo reached back through the open window and pounded the truck's horn and the rabbit hopped away, his white paws tracing red across the desert. Vultures drifted overhead. Crows defined the margins of the crime scene by picking at spattered flesh and bone.

Rodeo reentered his vehicle, re-holstered his hideaway, calmed his dog, made a U-turn and headed back to the nearest place where cell phone reception was dependable.

* * *

Where you at, Garnet?

The voice of the Los Jarros County sheriff sounded in the cell phone like creek gravel sifted in a tin mining pan. Rodeo sat in the shade of the gas pumps island of Twin Arrows Trading Post, which establishment along with the handful of trailer houses scattered around it, passed as a village in a small county in Southern Arizona mostly uninhabited. He stared out the cracked windscreen of his truck at a sky that was bluewhite as an old blister.

I'm at the Store, Ray. Where you at?

I'm up to my ass in a crime scene right now over at the Boulder Turn-Out, so spare me the details if that's possible.

Dead man by my front gates, said Rodeo.

Well, that's a short story, said the sheriff. You know him?

I don't know him, Ray. He's a little man, probably Indio but probably not local. What have you got at the Boulder Turn-Out?

Some sort of death by misadventure, the sheriff said. And the body's been here a while, so it's tough for Doc Boxer to figure some theory out that will fit the evidence at hand.

What is the evidence, Ray?

Another dead Indian is the long and short of it.

What's the official theory about these dead Indians in Los Jarros County, Ray?

We are understaffed and official theory–short about Major Crimes in Los Jarros County Sheriff's Department recently, said the sheriff.

Rodeo said nothing.

You got some idea, Garnet? Official or otherwise?

State should send somebody down from Major Crimes Department to deal with my trouble out at the Estates, said Rodeo.

I doubt it's just your trouble, Garnet, said the lawman. And I'm still the sheriff of Los Jarros County, so I'll decide what needs to be done when I see what this new trouble is.

What do you want me to do, Ray?

You just sit tight at the Store, said the sheriff.

* * *

Hypothetical … Rodeo said. He was on the pay phone outside Twin Arrows Trading Post talking to his lawyer, Jarred Willis, who was in his well-appointed office in downtown Tucson.

I got my own shit to do, Chief, so put me out of my misery already.

You know where my place in El Hoyo is at, said Rodeo. You hid a Jaguar XJ with Texas plates in my storage shed last year, a vehicle that was later found in East Tucson with a dead cholo and his pit bull in the trunk.

That car was never registered in my name so don't get on one of your Indian warpaths or this will be a very short conversation, Tonto. The lawyer paused. So what's got up in your Hole out there most recently?

A dead man nearby the front gates of my place, said Rodeo. And The Hole's not someplace you get to be dead in usually unless it's by starvation or dehydration.

And these were not the case?

Death by shotgun would be my guess.

You didn't touch him?

No point, said Rodeo.

When was he killed, do you think?

When I was away on vacation this last week sometime.

How many times I got to tell you to call the cops first, Tonto? It just looks real bad when you call your lawyer first thing because modern law enforcement can track these cellular phone shit conversations like Pocahontas could track short white dick in deep dark woods.

This is a pay phone. Ray's on the way.

Well, if you're smart as all that, Chief, then you don't need a lawyer, do you?

I've often wondered about that myself, said Rodeo.

Rodeo's lawyer laughed really loud.

Well, play it straight as you usually do then, Chief. And remember Law Enforcement don't do Citizens favors, so don't admit nothing to Police and don't let them anywhere without a warrant and don't invoke your lawyer's name until you are firmly behind bars.

Good to know my lawyer's got my back like that.

Save the sarcasm for the rodeo clown you rode in on, cowboy, said Willis. And you got about thirty seconds left on your retainer to tell me if you been in any shit lately.

I did that thing in New Mexico a couple of months ago and then found a lost kid and a lost husband and did a bit of divorce snooping in the last several weeks. Rodeo paused for a moment. Then right before I went on vacation I served papers on several minor characters for A-2-Z Bailbonds, but no criminals. So it's been nothing major or personal for a while.

Then the dead man in your driveway's probably nothing major or personal, Tonto. So just stay out of trouble on this and let Law Enforcement do their business.

Can I call you if Law Enforcement hauls me in?

You're welcome to drop by my office in the Old Pueblo if you bring beers, said Willis. But you're too low-rent for me these days, Chief. And since this phone call took care of what was left of your retainer fee I'll just have to say hasta la vista to you as a client.

The lawyer hung up before the private investigator could.

Copyright © 2014 by CB McKenzie