Burying the Past
Copyright© 2019 by Lumpy
Sonora Desert, Arizona, Near the Border
Simon Lawson sat on the edge of the Border Patrol pickup, his feet planted inside the bed of the truck, and looked over the barren landscape. A soft breeze caused the small shrubs that littered the rocky ground to sway gently, signalling the beginning of the temperature dip that happened most nights.
Simon heaved a sigh as he thought about the rookies he’d talked to over the years, most of whom came from bigger cities in other parts of the country. They were always surprised that a place that was so hot in the middle of the day could cool off so much when the sun went down. Simon had grown up in the southern part of Arizona, only a few hours’ drive from where he currently sat watching the quickly darkening horizon. He’d explained to them how much warmth all that concrete absorbed. How, in the dry air, there wasn’t water vapor to trap the boiling heat they’d experienced during the day, letting it all vent back up into space.
Of course, some of them didn’t believe him, his country twang making the explanation seem like something he made up. They couldn’t disagree with the effect however, once they’d experienced the blistering hundred-degree temperatures during the middle of the day drop by fifty degrees overnight.
He gave himself a chuckle as he thought about Tony, the newest rookie who’d just finished the training course and was shadowing more experienced officers, learning how things worked on the border. Not that anyone was out with him now.
Simon’s partner had gotten used to him coming out to this stretch of desert a couple of times a week as the sun went down. A few months back a couple of families had gotten abandoned by the coyote that had shepherded them across the border, dropping them in the middle of a desert with a single dirty milk jug of water. Simon had been the one to stumble across the bodies on one of his patrols.
It wasn’t the first he’d seen. Occasionally the Rio Grande would bulge under heavy rains and people trying to swim it wouldn’t be ready for the surprisingly strong currents and eddies or for the plants that could tangle them up. While not a weekly occurrence, it was something a lot of the guys working the border or in one of the boats would come across. It was easier, although not easy, to deal with those deaths. Those bodies seemed almost alien, with damage from the water and animals making them seem not quite like the people they’d once been.
This had been different. He must have found them not long after the last of immigrants had passed away, before the animals had found them. He thought of the mother, her skin taking on an almost scaly texture caused by extreme dehydration. Maybe she’d been sick before they started out or maybe she’d given all the water to her kids, drinking nothing herself. From there he couldn’t keep his mind from moving to the kids. Once their mom had dropped, the heat getting the best of her, they’d just sat there. Tears using up the little water they still had even faster, until they’d slumped to the ground next to her.
Simon could remember their tiny faces, the little pink backpack with the bright cartoon character in the center, like a relic of another place.
When some people on social media or old school classmates who now lived out on one of the coasts found out what he did, they railed about cruelty and injustice. Asked how he could look into the faces of people trying to find a better life or to escape the violence of their home country, and just turn them back or put them in jail. He always just said they didn’t really understand.
It wasn’t that he was unsympathetic. He’d met these people face to face. Sure there was the occasional scumbag, but most of the people he’d caught trying to cross weren’t bad people, just desperate. He’d talked to enough of them to hear the stories about how bad things were back where they came from.
There was another side of the crossings that most people, even the well-meaning ones, didn’t understand. He’d also seen the other horror stories. Women who’d been snatched up, forced to work as prostitutes. Although calling these girls ‘women’ was a stretch since they were mostly teenagers, or some even younger. Children, a lot whom were forced to make the crossing alone, were easy targets for these monsters. Then there were the people he found beaten to within an inch of their lives. People who were seen by Coyotes as an easy extra couple of bucks, and that didn’t count what the drug smugglers did. Some people were handed over to smugglers to work as mules, a risky proposition in and of itself, or were just murdered for seeing something they shouldn’t have.
Then there were the people just swallowed up by the desert. Bones that ranchers or border patrol agents would find months or sometimes years later.
It was his sympathy that had him out at night, staring into the dark looking for the smallest sign of movement. They might hate it when he picked them up and got them shipped back across the border. People who didn’t know better might call him a monster for doing it. What Simon knew was that if he could keep anyone else from seeing a small body lying face down in the rock and sand, from seeing a man after the buzzards had gotten to him, then he’d take the hate.
Simon stood and stretched before leaning against the truck. The sun had gone down all the way now, making the standard binoculars he’d been using all but worthless as the endless horizon seeming like a mass of black. He lowered the glasses, letting them hang down around his neck as he stared into the night, and sighed.
He’d paused before getting the light-enhancing pair which would color the desert in a pale green almost daylight and let him watch for movement without having to turn on his truck lights, giving away his presence. Ever since 9-11, there’d been money for the border patrol and Congress kept upping their budgets, using ICE and CBP as a prop to show how much they loved their country and how much the other side hated it. Not that Simon minded. As long as they were able to hire more guys, pay for stuff like night optics and run drones over the mountainous parts of the border that were just too damned hard for humans to patrol, Simon didn’t care how much of a prop he was. It made his life easier and helped him do his job, and that’s all that really mattered.
He waited to change binoculars though. He liked being out here, all by himself, feeling the cool breeze wipe away the last heat of the day and listen to the animals coming out of their hides, looking for dinner. This was the America that most people never saw. No billboards, no street lights, no Starbucks, no all-night diners. Of course, he’d see plenty of that as he drove back to drop off his patrol vehicle and pick up his personal vehicle. Right now though, he could just enjoy nature.
Heaving one more sigh and he turned around to reach into the box at his feet where the rest of his equipment was stored, and that’s when he felt it. It wasn’t anything tangible, just that feeling you get when you know there’s another person right behind you.
His head whipped around, eyes widening as he looked into the face of a bearded man who’d come out of nowhere. His brain started struggling with how the man had gotten so close to him without Simon hearing anything, or even feeling the truck shift as the man had climbed up on it. His hand started to drop to the holster at his side as the knife slid into his throat, a coppery metallic smell filling Simon’s nose even as he began to choke on his own blood.
As darkness overtook him, the thought that someone would find him like he found that family passed through his mind, and then everything went black.
“This isn’t yours,” Loretta Whitaker said, her voice rising in frustration more than anger.
“I just wanted to be seeing what it looked like. You can keep it. It is ugly color, anyway.”
“That’s not the... “ Whitaker started to reply before being cut off by a slamming door.
Taylor leaned his head back, squeezing his eyes shut, knowing what was going to happen next.
“You need to do something,” Whitaker said in an annoyed, but no longer yelling, tone.
“I’ll talk to her.”
“This needs to stop. I know she’s been through a lot, but she needs to start learning to respect other people’s property.”
Taylor sighed and stood up. It had been six months since Kara had come to live with them and this was a somewhat regular occurrence by now. Taylor couldn’t blame Whitaker for her frustration. The first two months had been very rough. Kara was prone to outbreaks of screaming, a complete defiance of any kind of structure or order, and was constantly trying to pick fights.
Things had started getting better, even Whitaker would admit to that, some of the time at least.
Kara still had quirks. She did not want to be touched, ever. No hugs, no handshakes, no contact at all if she could avoid it. She still woke up with pretty violent nightmares. Still, a lot of the anger had started to recede. They’d even recently been able to shift from three times a week therapy to just once a week, her shrink saying she was making excellent progress.
Even though the fights were down to just once or twice a week it was still tough on Whitaker, who was almost always the target. She’d been amazingly patient, not holding a grudge against the teenager and not staying mad for that long after each fight ended. It was putting a strain on their relationship.
“I’m not mad,” she said, letting out a long breath. “Just try and get her to stay out of our room. Okay?”
Taylor stopped in front of her, his arms snaking around her middle.
“I’m sorry this has been so tough on you,” he said for the hundredth time.
“I know, and it’s getting better. I just ... I’m trying not to take it personally, because of everything she...”
“She doesn’t hate you, you know that, right? She just doesn’t have all the tools you or I have for dealing with conflict.”
“I see you talked to her doctor again,” Whitaker said with a smile, knowing that wasn’t a phrase Taylor would normally have used.
“She reminded me of something.”
“What was that?”
“That not every outburst is about her past trauma. She reminded me that, besides everything else, we also took in a teenage girl. She said we should expect some push back, that it was healthy.”
“God,” Whitaker said, pulling out of Taylor’s embrace, putting her hands on her hips, and looking at the ceiling. “If I was even a tenth this bad, I really feel for my parents. I should call my mom and apologize.”
“I’d say ‘I’m sure you weren’t,’ but we both know that would be a lie,” Taylor said with a smile.
Whitaker rolled her eyes and headed towards their room, “Just go talk to her and do your thing. Otherwise, you get to live with two pissed off women.”
He heard a snort come from Whitaker’s direction as he headed to the other bedroom in their apartment, glad to see she at least had her sense of humor intact.
“Kara,” Taylor said, knocking on her door. “Can I come in?”
There was a pause, then the door opened, the girl’s red hair flapping as she turned and stomped back to sit on her bed.
“She sent you to yell at me, yes?”
“It’s not like that and you know it.”
“Mne prishlos’ imet’ delo,” Kara started to say before Taylor put up a hand.
“In English, please. Your tutor asked us to keep you using it at home as much as possible, for practice.”
“Fine,” she said, her lower lip going out in a pout. “I deal with bitches before, blaming anything that went missing...”
“I thought you admitted to taking it?”
“How are you being blamed for something going missing if you admitted to taking it?”
“Whatever,” she said, the pout becoming more pronounced.
“Early on, you demanded we stay out of your room unless invited.”
“So, we’ve done that, right?”
“Don’t you think if we’ve agreed to stay out of your stuff, and out of your room, that you should do the same thing for us?”
“I just wanted to find different color lipstick. I didn’t like any I have.”
“Did you try asking her if you could look through and borrow something?”
There was a long pause.
Taylor let out a sigh. His personality wasn’t really cut out for being the calm, rational one. If anything Whitaker should be the one to do this, she was much better suited for calm, dispassionate reasoning. He’d always been the shoot first and ask questions later kind of person. And yet, he was the only one, aside from Kara’s shrink and Mary Jane, the girl who’d been held captive with her the previous winter, that Kara could deal with on any kind of rational basis.
They’d already gone through three tutors because of it. Thank goodness Suzette Caldwell, Mary Jane’s still very thankful and very rich mother had felt the need to pay for both the tutors and the psychiatrists for Kara, in return for Kara’s help in freeing her daughter.
“Then why are you mad? Because she got mad or because she called you out?”
“I don’t ... I don’t want lecture.”
“I get that. You’ve been on your own for a long time, and you don’t need anyone telling you what you should or shouldn’t be doing, right?”
“Right,” she said, her face taking on a determined expression.
“So, what lecture did she give you? Was it the ‘You need to be more responsible’ one? Or maybe the ‘You should respect other people’s property’ one? Just let me know which lecture she gave you, and I’ll go talk to her and make sure she understands what to avoid. Ok?”
“Problem?” Taylor asked, raising an eyebrow.
“She didn’t say things like that.”
“So what did she say? I can’t go and talk to Loretta and fix this if I don’t know what happened.”
“She said she didn’t want me taking her things.”
“Huh. Ok. I mean, I’ve heard you say that before, like that time you misplaced one of your books and thought she took it. That’s a lecture?”
“It wasn’t words she said, it was how she say it.”
“She screamed at you?”
“She said it really mean?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Doing what,” Taylor said innocently. “I’m just trying to understand what happened.”
“You know what you’re doing,” Kara said, dropping back into Russian. “You’re trying to get me all confused. You know exactly what I mean and why I’m pissed.”
“I do,” Taylor said in the same language. “However, I think why you think you’re angry isn’t why you’re actually angry.”
“Okay smart man, why am I angry?”
“Because you want to establish dominance, and she’s a tough nut to crack. It’s what you learned, dealing with the other girls ... before. You didn’t have control of your life, so the parts you could control, you each wanted to be on top. It’s what you know, and you haven’t convinced yourself yet that you don’t have to do that here. Also, let’s go back to English, please.”
She made a Phfff sound and said in English, “Shows what you know.”
“Ok, maybe I don’t. I’m not a shrink, hell, that was all BS anyways. Maybe it’s something you should think about though. I want you to consider something.”
“She’s welcomed you into our home. Not just welcomed, but she’s really tried to let you make it feel like your home. When you wanted to paint this room, she got it ok’d by the landlord, right?”
“When you said you missed food from home, she learned to make several dishes you said you liked, right?”
“They weren’t great, but yeah.”
“She’s trying. You can see that, right?”
“So maybe cut her some slack. This hasn’t been easy for her, either. Maybe it’s not as big of a change as you’ve had to deal with, and maybe she doesn’t have as much baggage to deal with, but it’s still been tough on her, too. But she’s trying, ‘cause she wants all the things you want for yourself.”
“She never says anything to me.”
“Have you told her that you actually like her, too?”
“No ... I don’t...”
“Come on, I’ve seen you doing little things around here to help out when you think no one’s looking. I’ve seen you around her, when you’re not angry. You like her, a little bit.”
“She’s ok,” Kara said but didn’t make eye contact.
“And have you told her you think she’s ok. That you like living here with us?”
“You know, you two are more alike than you think. Maybe that’s why you’re butting heads with her so much. You’re both very proud, and don’t want anyone to think you can’t do everything all by yourself.”
“And you’re not too proud?”
“Hell no. I’m constantly asking people for help getting out of my screw-ups.”
A small burble of laughter escaped Kara’s throat in spite of herself, belying the angry exterior she’d been trying to maintain.
“You have that right. You are mess.”
“You better believe it. So, are we done with all the yelling and slamming doors?”
Kara let out an exaggerated sigh and said, “Yes, I’m done.”
“Great. I was about to talk Loretta into sitting down and streaming a movie. Wanna join us?”
“Fine, but I don’t want to watch any of her silly crying girl movies,” she said, brushing past Taylor.
‘Great,’ Taylor thought, ‘something else they can fight about.’
He headed out of Kara’s room, closing the door behind him and crossed to the room he shared with Whitaker, knocking softly on it as he opened the door.
“Hey babe, we...”
Taylor stopped abruptly as Whitaker held a finger up to her lips, the other hand cradling her cell phone against her ear.
“Got it. Give us thirty minutes.”
She snapped the phone closed and turned to Taylor.
“Problems?” he asked at her expression.
“Yeah, Joe wants us to come up to a meeting at his office that’s going on right now.”
Joe was Joe Solomon, Whitaker’s boss and a man that had very little use or patience for Taylor, who he saw as some kind of amateur interloper who regularly stuck his nose into bureau cases.
“Yes, us. He was very specific he actually needed you in the meeting.”
“Joe’s calling me in on a job?” Taylor asked, his tone rising in disbelief.
“I don’t know if it’s a job, he just said something was going down, and he wanted to see you in his office ASAP.”
“Shit. What’d I do to piss him off now?”
“I don’t know if you did anything, but it sounded serious. We need to get going.”
“Fine. Man, I just got Kara off her rampage, now I gotta tell her movie night’s off.”
Hoover Building, Washington D.C.
Kara actually took the news fairly well. Taylor had been putting off jobs till their new situation evened out, but the few times he’d had to go out for work, she’d always taken it well. So they’d ordered some pizza and left money behind for Kara.
The first few months Taylor’d been worried about leaving Kara at the apartment by herself and was always hovering around until she’d complained to her doctor, who’d pointed out to Taylor the value of letting the girl experience some independence. She’d pointed out that Kara’s whole life or at least the bulk of it since she’d been sold into the sex trade, her every action was controlled by others. Part of the healing process was letting Kara make her own decisions, and be trusted with doing things on her own.
By now, Taylor and Whitaker had found enough excuses to get out of the house and leave Kara to her own devices that he wasn’t even worried about her back at the apartment by herself. Well, not much anyway.
The importance of the meeting started to really set in when they walked into the lobby, and an agent was waiting by the desk for them, visitors’ badge in hand for Taylor. Most of the time he almost always had to wait a long time before he got a visitor’s badge and escort to go where he needed to go. He was pretty sure Solomon had given directions to keep him waiting extra as some form of petty retribution for the several times he’d shown up the bureau on cases they’d whiffed on.
They were hustled up to Solomon’s office, which had four other men in suits in it, all gathered around a small round table off to one side of the office. Taylor recognized two of them, and Solomon of course. Between cases that he’d been passed under the table or just coming to visit Whitaker, Taylor’d had a chance to meet a lot of the agents that worked for Solomon, although not all of them. Still, it was getting to the point that seeing someone he didn’t recognize meant he was either from another office or another agency. And Taylor didn’t recognize the other man in the office.
“Good, you’re both here. Dean, this is Agent Whitaker and Mr. Taylor, the man I was telling you about.”
The man shook both of their hands as Whitaker looked at her boss, “What’s up, Joe?”
“This is Dean Crawford from Homeland. They needed some assistance on a case, and it turns out John’s the man they need to talk to.”
“Someone missing?” Taylor asked.
It seemed the logical assumption, since for the last couple of years he’d worked private missing person cases, most of which had been passed to him from Law Enforcement agencies when they’d come up dry or had to drop the case for various reasons.
Joe, however, just half rolled his eyes, catching himself and stopping before he finished and said, “No.”
“Do you know this man?” Crawford asked, holding up a photo.
Taylor’s heart all but stopped as he looked at the man in the picture. He realized he was holding his breath, and let it out, but tried to remain as calm as possible. Although in a room full of investigators, his reaction couldn’t have been any more clear than if he’d just answered the man.
“What’s this about?”
“I just need an answer to the question.”
“Yeah, I get that. Look, Joe’s probably filled you in on how much of a massive pain in the ass I am. I know you guys like asking questions, and giving nothing away. It’s your schtick. Before I answer, I’m gonna need some context as to what I’m looking at.”
The man looked over at Solomon, who sighed and nodded once.
“Fine. Twenty-two days ago, a border patrol agent in Arizona was murdered. His throat was slit. He was in the middle of nowhere, and his killer never stepped in front of Simon’s patrol vehicle, so there wasn’t anything to catch on the truck’s dashcam. We scoured video from every public-facing camera in a fifty-mile area, down to ATM cameras and gas stations. This was snapped by a traffic cam that was monitoring a test of a solar stoplight signal some Silicon Valley group was testing in a small town about twenty miles north of where the officer was murdered. He pinged in our system as a possible match to a person of interest in our records, but the picture we have on file for this person was extremely blurry, and we weren’t able to make a positive ID. The software only gave us a seventy percent match.”
“So you needed to find the only person you guys know of that’s met the man face to face?”
“So you’re saying this is him?”
Taylor stopped for a minute, staring at the picture. Not so much to decide if this was the man, since he knew without a shadow of a doubt who the man in the picture was, but to make up his mind what he wanted to do about it.
Normally, Taylor wasn’t so indecisive. His training in the Army had drilled into him that second-guessing your decisions only got people dead. You had to keep an open mind to changes as tactical situations evolved of course, but you could sit and worry if you made the right decisions. Or between two decisions, indecisive on which was the best option. If they were so close you couldn’t pick between them, then just choose one and go for it.
This wasn’t a situation anyone could be trained for. The man in that picture had kept him in chains, or at least behind a locked door, and had beaten him nearly every day for three years. When he’d escaped ... thanks as much to blind luck as any training, if he was being honest, Taylor thought he’d never see the man again.
Now here was a picture of the man, straight out of Taylor’s more frequent nightmares.
“Yes, that’s Waleed Qasim.”
“Have you ever been tortured, Agent Crawford?”
“Umm ... no,” he said, his eyes flicking to Solomon.
“You forget a lot of things after years of constant torture. Sometimes, in the middle of it, you don’t even remember your own name. Trust me, though, the one thing you never forget is the guy responsible for your torture. So yes, I am positive that the man in that picture is Waleed Qasim.”
“Ok. Thanks for your help.”
“I want in,” Taylor said, turning to Solomon.
“Not a chance in hell.”
“Look, this man is a crafty bastard. He’s not like your run of the mill fundamentalist. He’s not one of these kids talked into blowing himself up or radicalized over the internet. He’s the guy who does the radicalizing. If he’s here in this country, it’s for a reason. You’re not going to have an easy time finding him. He knows how to go to ground. Hell, after all these years of chasing him, you’ve only got the one crap ass photo. No one on our side knows this guy better than me. You’re going to need me if you want to find him before he does whatever it is he’s here to do.”
“John, I get why you want this guy, I really do,” Joe said, and managed to sound only a little condescending when he said it. “We have strict policies that people personally involved with the subject of an investigation cannot be involved with it. We have that policy for a good reason. Even if I could overlook the fact that you’re not an agent and have no business being involved with any federal cases, I’m not going to taint our investigation by bringing someone so close to this man in on the case. We appreciate you coming in and identifying him for us, now let us do our job and find him.”
“Listen,” Taylor started to say until he felt Whitaker’s hand on his elbow. He looked over at her and could tell what she was thinking by her expression.
She’d always been a ‘by the book’ kind of person, and she was very good with bureau politics. The look she gave him he recognized as being her ‘not here’ look. Taylor took a deep breath, turned, and walked out of the room. He heard Whitaker behind him making nice over his abrupt departure and waited for the elevator. She caught up just as the doors opened, and they both stepped on.
“You’re not done with this, are you?” she asked as the doors closed.
“You bet your ass I’m not!”