B y B r i a n A n d r e w L a i r d
Note: Let's see: A Tucson-based writer named Nate Bowman, addicted to savage journeys into terror and hell, committed to red wine and good books and chasing down the Big Story--someone a bit like Charles Bowden, you might say. And a Tucson-based photographer named John Vyking, Bowman's constant companion, bringing along a keen eye for detail and a keen sense of survival, a character strangely reminiscent of the real-world Jack Dykinga. The two lope out into the desert to find the next sizzling cover story for a Tucson alternative paper called The Weekly, which brings to mind a Tucson alternative paper called--well, you catch the drift.
It's not often that the Naked Pueblo figures in a roman à clef (and less often that we get to use that fifty-dollar term), still less often that one comes along as true to hardboiled convention and yet as original as Brian Laird's new eco-fueled mystery novel Bowman's Line (St. Martin's Press, $20.95), which gets the modern Sonoran Desert ambiance down to a handful of essentials: guns, computer chips, corruption, and heat, buckets of heat.
This excerpt from Bowman's Line gives a taste of 30-year-old Laird's take on Tucson, a squinty world populated by, as the author puts it, "guys who have given up, whose only answer is to walk away." Read it, buy the book and settle down for a dusty ride on the dark side.
IT HAD been dark, and a scramble up to the tinajas dangerous. But they had been scrambling for their lives. They were dehydrated, demoralized, devoured by the heat. A couple of hours before, Bowman had crawled out from under the branches of the low bush where he'd been sleeping--a fitful, half-conscious sleep that provided no rest, no relief, allowed only for a half-aware kind of endurance.
They had not been prepared for it. In all the trips through Sonora that they had made on foot or in vehicles, they had not encountered heat like this. This was a heat beyond heat. Heat that penetrated deep inside the skin until it seemed to overtake and possess, and Bowman had felt no longer himself, but lost and only a part of the heat, the heat everywhere and the man himself just a shimmering wave of heat shifting above the lava, ash, and sand.
The photographer had lain on his back, mostly shaded by the brush. His face was pale and dry, his mouth open in a wretched, silent scream--a mime imitating death. Bowman detected no movement until he walked near; then he saw the chest moving slowly up and down, the nostrils flaring with each breath.
He'd nudged the photographer with his foot.
"Huhn, what the hell?" The photographer blinked groggily.
"Time to get up, Romeo," Bowman said in a raspy voice.
"Wish you'd let me go just a few more minutes. I was having a hell of a dream." And that, thought Bowman, sums up John Vyking--purebred desert rat, world-class photographer, fearless and talented--the kind of man who would crack jokes on the road to his own funeral.
"If we don't make it to the tinajas and find some water, you'll get to sleep the sleep of the just--the just plain dead," Bowman said.
The photographer nodded. They both understood. The wisecracks were a sign that both believed the situation had become perilous.
Usually, communication between them was strictly functional: Does this route go over that rise, or do we stick to the valley ? How much food is left? How far to the trail's head? It was one of the reasons they worked so well together. Neither liked small talk. Each left the other alone, to do his job.
The barbed comments, they knew, were cover for something quite different inside. They were scared.
Bowman had one canteen left, the photographer two. Early that morning, with the sun already beating him nearly senseless, Bowman had tripped and fallen flat on a jagged mesquite root. One canteen had swung between him and the sharp stick, preventing the root from puncturing the soft, vital flesh of his belly.
As he rose, the canteen began to leak--half of his most precious resource disappearing into the hungry desert sand. He'd called for Vyking and then held the canteen high above his head, drinking half of its contents before passing it to his partner. Watching the photographer drink, Bowman had joked that it might have been better if he'd punctured himself with the stick. "I don't have any blood left anyway."
They'd chuckled grimly at that, but even then, the two men had known that things were getting perilous. The heat was worse than they had thought it would be. At least a hundred and twenty-five degrees on the sandy ground in the wash, maybe hotter.
Forty miles to the south, there was a highway. Could they make it that far? They talked it over and agreed they probably couldn't. Instead, they had kept on north, but by mid-afternoon, with less than a gallon of water left, it had become clear that they were in trouble.
They had dropped their backpacks, tucked them under a paloverde by the arroyo, the deadweight of food, clothing, and camera equipment useless to them now.
The tinajas lay a few miles ahead. They would sleep through the hottest part of the afternoon, then go there. At the tinajas they would fill all three canteens, rest until night cooled the oven around them, then head south, a forty-mile forced march to the potholed Mexican highway.
They had crawled into the sparse shade and fallen to fitful sleep.
Now, with the sun setting, they rose and split what was left of the water, emptying the canteen.
"Got to get moving," Vyking said.
"No time like right now."
"And if we get out of here, there won't be again. Walk the Camino del Diablo in summer, you said, a great adventure, a great story." The photographer scowled. "Never again."
They both laughed a little.
"I like your company--your charm, your wit."
"North," Bowman said, pointing.
"Better get there before nightfall. It'll be harder to find in the dark."
"Just a second." Vyking pulled a camera and a flash unit from his pack, slung them over one shoulder. It was one of his habits. It was, in fact, his prime directive, his First Commandment: Thou Shalt Carry Camera Equipment. He pulled the two canteens over his shoulder as well.
"Time for some Tinajas Tecate," he said, and they walked north.
THE TWO MEN scrambled up the last few feet of volcanic rock in the moonless night.
This, they figured, was their last chance. All the lower pools had been empty, as dry as any sand. They'd paused to rest for the final climb, leaning back against the hard, craggy slope. Panting dryly, Bowman looked out over the desert, an emptiness of darkening scrub.
Then, silently, they picked their way to the top.
Nothing. The last of the tinajas was as dry as the others--a hot stone pit stained with pale lines of sediment.
For a moment, Bowman felt himself clutched in the hard claws of panic. His heart began to pound. He closed his eyes, looked inside, took stock of himself. Stay in control, he told himself. Just keep it together. You're not dead yet.
He squeezed the panic away, and felt his pounding heart begin to slow.
"Nate." The photographer was a few feet above him, looking down at the dark desert basin on the far side of the hill. "Nate, I'll be damned if there's not someone down there."
Bowman turned slowly and climbed up the rock. He stared out over the black and empty landscape. Now he saw it too. At the bottom of the slope, half-hidden in an escarpment, beams of light played on the hillside.
Bowman started over the edge, set to scramble down after help. The photographer grabbed his shoulder, pulled him back.
Bowman turned on Vyking, ready to protest, but then he saw the look, the pursed lips, the finger held up for quiet, and he understood. There were very few people who wandered this area of the borderlands, especially at night, and most of them wouldn't welcome uninvited guests.
They followed the ridge down a rough slope and around an outcropping of mottled black rock. They had dropped the canteens back at the tinajas, and the photographer carried the camera and flash slung behind him, around his neck and one shoulder.
Past the outcropping, the slope played off in two directions; a sharp drop to the western floor of the desert, and to the east, a gentle slope twisting back to a shallow canyon that disappeared beneath the far side of the mountain.
Vyking led as they descended the slope, picking their way carefully, slowly, over the rocky ground. They approached the lip of the canyon, and the photographer pointed across the ridge. They climbed the rise and moved out toward the rim of the shallow canyon.
From their perch, Bowman could see the thin, clear strip of sand running crossways through the canyon below them, a jeep trail that twisted off into the blackness to the southeast.
Near the edge, he looked down into the shallow canyon. Just below them--how far? Two hundred, two hundred and fifty feet? Bowman couldn't judge for certain in the darkness, but here the rocks opened up and the canyon widened.
He and the photographer were in line with the spot where they had stood atop of the tinajas, and when they crept up to the rim, crouching low, they had a clear view of the flashlight beams swinging across the canyon floor.
Men moved about down there at a clipped, serious pace. The flashlights played mostly on one vehicle. Bowman could make it out clearly. A longbed truck with wide, dual rear wheels. The truck apparently had come up the trail from the southeast, and it was parked where the road ended at a cleft in the earth.
To the north, the canyon opened up and the ground smoothed out. A long, bulky vehicle sat on the flat land beyond the opening, and the men hauled load after load to the truck from the...what? Bowman couldn't quite make it out. He shielded his eyes, crossing his hands beneath them, palms down, like a man balancing an invisible pair of binoculars on his fingertips, and blocked out the flashlight beams. Now he could see it. A light aircraft. Twin engine. Propeller.
If there had been any doubt that he and the photographer were observing a smuggling operation, Bowman felt sure it was eliminated.
Two people stood by the plane. One had dark hair cut short. The other was taller and bald. They did not help the mules unload the cargo.
Just beyond the flashlight beams, one of the mules stumbled and fell. A light swung his way, revealing the dropped load. The bag had split open, and some of its contents poured out on the dirt.
Under the flashlight beam the white substance shone in sharp contrast to the blackness all around. Someone shouted orders in Spanish.
"He's telling them to pick it up," the photographer whispered. The mules moved quickly, scooping up little white chunks by the handful and pouring them into the bag. A light, hot breeze shifted through the brush, lifting the dry scent to Bowman's nose. He felt a tingling in the membranes. The accompanying urge to sneeze seized him.
The photographer looked at Bowman and saw his scrunched-up face pulling back for the burst of lung air. Vyking reached out and clipped Bowman's nose between finger and thumb and squeezed hard. Hard enough to hurt. When he pulled his hand away, Bowman relaxed.
He rubbed his nose gently and gave the photographer a reproachful look, but Vyking had already turned his attention back to the canyon floor. He eased his camera around his shoulder and tucked it firmly up to his right eye.
Bowman winced as the photographer's finger squeezed down on the shutter release, expecting the telltale snapping noise and the whir of an electric motor. Instead, the shutter flipped with the softest of clicks, like a hitched breath, and the photographer pulled the camera from his cheek to carefully wind the frame forward by hand.
As they crouched there, Vyking snapped off a dozen more shots in the hushed night, then rewound and removed the film cartridge, replacing it with another. Bowman's gaze returned to the scene below, and he wondered how the photographer could get a decent exposure from the wavering beams of the flashlights.
Vyking touched Bowman's shoulder to get his attention and indicated with a nod to move back from the edge. For the second time that night, the photographer pressed a finger to his pursed lips. This time Bowman nodded, understanding. The two men retreated from the canyon edge.
THEY STEPPED CAREFULLY into the darkness, following the ridge back in the direction from which they had come. A few hundred feet up the embankment, the photographer pushed Bowman behind a large outcropping of volcanic rock. They whispered to each other in the dark.
"Fucking mules," Vyking said.
"Probably don't want any company," Bowman rasped.
"They'd eat us for an early breakfast. A light breakfast at that," he added with a weary grin.
"How can you get photos in that light?"
"Very sensitive film, sixty-four hundred, and slow shutter speed. It's all in holding the thing steady enough. But I got it. Good pictures of the mules and the truck, even got the markings on the plane."
"And the noise?"
"The silence, then. I kept expecting the clack of a shutter closing."
"It has a setting that muffles the noise, holds the mirror up. That's what makes all the noise, the mirror flapping up."
"What now?" Bowman asked.
"Hell, I don't know."
The dilemma was clear. No water at the tinajas. None left in their canteens. Both believed it would not be possible to cross the desert to the highway from here. Not in their exhausted, dehydrated condition.
But there was simply no way to get help from the people below. Bowman and Vyking would be under suspicion just by their presence here.
Bowman imagined trying to explain what they were doing out here--walking an ancient desert trail, retracing the jornadas of so many before them--jornadas de los muertos.
To Bowman, it suddenly seemed preposterous. Who would do such a thing? How would it sound to a drug smuggler, to someone living in a state of constant paranoia, on the fringe of society? It would sound like a lie, and not even a very good one. He could imagine the response. Sure. Sure, señor. Of course you are walking El Camino del Diablo. We all are, que no? But this story you are working on, perhaps it is really about something else. Perhaps it is about the, what, the export business en la frontera? Or perhaps there is no story. Perhaps you are not a journalist, but this is only, how do you say...your cover? It is common for many agents of your Drug Enforcement Agency to say they are journalists. But they are not. I think you are not.
It would be a nightmare, and it would end with their death, their bodies left in the desert, maybe never to be found.
"What do you say we wait until they go?" Vyking finally suggested. "See if they leave anything behind."
"I can't think of anything better. Unless you'd consider marching down there and confiscating their airplane."
"We wait," the photographer said.
And that's when he made his mistake.
It was the photographer's only miscue, the first Bowman had seen him make. In all their travels together it had always been the photographer who was competent and careful, and Bowman who crashed headlong into the fray.
"I'm going to shoot another roll," Vyking had whispered as he reloaded the camera. He fumbled a little, trying to get the film to catch in the spindle. As he bent over, the flash unit swung clunkily in front of him, further mucking up the situation. He grunted and shoved the flash back out of the way.
Finally, camera loaded, they both moved carefully back down the ridge to their observation point. Bowman hung back, and as the photographer crawled out to the ridge, Bowman whispered roughly to him in the darkness.
"Watch the rocks," he said.
"What?" The photographer asked, and as he turned back toward Bowman, the flash unit swung around again and struck the camera in his hands.
The bright, white flash of light closely approximated a silent nuclear explosion. At least it did for Bowman and the photographer, their eyes fully adjusted to the dark, and now instantly, if temporarily, blinded. It left them both with fluctuating green after-images bathing their vision.
For the men in the distance, it was both signal flare and target beacon.
There were shouts from below in both Spanish and English.
Bowman dropped to the ground, rubbing his eyes and backing away from the edge. The photographer stayed on his feet, scrambling backward over the scrub.
The snap of distant gunfire erupted, and a flashlight beam swung across the hillside, weakened by distance and scarcely illuminating anything.
Then more shouts, a single, high-pitched voice rising in Spanish above the others, and the gunfire ceased.
Bowman's eyes adjusted quickly, and he and Vyking scrambled up the slope, heading for the safety of the large outcropping of rock.
He no longer felt the effects of dehydration and fatigue. Adrenaline coursed through his body as he made the panicked dash. This was what it was like, he realized, to fear as a child does. To fear the unknown. To fear death.
He ducked his head and charged up the slope, lungs pumping harsh blasts of hot air. The photographer was a few steps behind, moving a little slower, his short legs working against him, covering less ground.
The rock was just ahead. Bowman could see its jagged outline silhouetted against the incredibly bright stars of the Sonoran sky.
There was a flash in his peripheral vision. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw the beam of a hand-operated spotlight, mounted to a truck, sweeping the hillside.
Then he was at the outcropping. He took one last great stride and burst around the corner. Behind him, the beam froze, locked on the spot where he had topped the rise. Bowman tumbled to the ground, looking back.
For a blazing, white-hot second, the scene stood still. The brilliant light. The crags of the rock, lit as clear as day where the light hit them, every shadow in sharp contrast. The soft whiteness beyond. And the photographer, in perfect silhouette, lunging forward.
Then Vyking was jerking in a mindless dance, to the sound of gunfire in the distance.
He fell forward and slid limply down the hillside. Bowman moved to him, knelt at his side. The photographer's breath was a sickening wet rattle.
Bowman's breath came in great panicked gulps. He thought he was going to throw up. Hands trembling, he gently turned Vyking over.
The photographer gagged and coughed, and blood spewed out of his mouth like rusty water from a garden hose.
"Damn!" Bowman panted. "Goddamnit, John, goddamnit!"
The photographer clucked his jaw up and down, trying to form words.
"Oh shit, John. Shit, it's bad," Bowman said.
The photographer worked his again and finally rasped out a word with great effort.
"Film." Then he closed his eyes, breathing out heavily, finally.
The searchlight swept back and forth across the ridge above them, and Bowman heard men scrambling up the other side, shouting to each other in Spanish.
Bowman searched Vyking's shirt pockets and located the stubby plastic cylinder. Vyking's chest was motionless, the body lifeless beneath Bowman's hands.
Again the light swept over the jagged crest of the slope. The shouts were closer. And another noise. A growing whine in the background
Bowman turned, his mind a blur, terrified and defenseless, looking madly down the western slope. It was the dead of night, and he could see almost nothing there. He stood, and for the first time, he noticed his knee, split open and bleeding where he had fallen.
The noise grew louder, a low-pitched, steady scream. Bowman hunched down, ducking the assault of the piercing sound.
Then the airplane rose above the ridge, and it banked hard, heading north and east, its lights flashing.
Bowman heard the mules working their way up the hillside, and saw the flashlights growing brighter. He tucked the film into the pocket of his jeans and crashed down the steep slope into the night...like a man starved for darkness.
Brian Laird will sign Bowman's Line from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at The Book Mark, 5001 E. Speedway. For more information call 881-6350.
Illustrations by Bettina
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