Down Mexico Way

Down Mexico Way

Preview

*Chapter One through Chapter Three

DOWN MEXICO WAY

(from the Dimensions Series)

Chapter One

The Meeting

Maybe it was just as well. It was only a hundred and sixty acres compared to other Texas spreads, now many owned by corporations. But all of her childhood was wrapped around the buildings, fences, hills, and trees; and even when away, she could see each clear as day, what the trees would look like in autumn with their burnish red oak leaves, what the air would smell like in spring with the honeysuckle wrapped around all the fence posts.

         She paused at the door as she saw an old black pickup barrel across the pasture road. She supposed it must be Mark Landis, the real estate man that she hadn’t met yet. But his vehicle didn’t match the cost of the firm’s name or reputation. She guessed that teaching at a women’s college back east gave her a distorted perception that a lawyer with a concentration in real estate from Landis & Landis would not want to feel the hot wind and hang an arm out the lowered cab window.

         As the pickup came closer, she frowned. The man behind the wheel wore a cowboy hat and his arm lay swathed in a blue plaid western shirt. The black pickup slammed to a stop, the dust lifted and danced in the sun.

         Joseph Manning?

         The rush of a Senior Prom memory spilled into her thoughts. Then the flickering lights at the dance where he asked her to marry him in front of all the class, knowing it was only a joke between these two friends. Then the shock of his entry into the Army and then to Afghanistan.

         She smiled in recognition as he opened the gate to the white picket fence.

         “How good to see you! How did you know I was here?”

         He didn’t smile. He walked up the stone path. His voice came harsh with no friendship, “Why didn’t you call for entrance to this property. It’s under surveillance.”

         Well, let’s see,” she frowned in confusion, “how was I suppose to call you, Joe? It’s been over ten years since you decided to save America. How was I to know you were even in the area?”

         Joseph’s eyes filled with recognition. He stepped back and frowned heavily, “Little Ava? Is that you?”

         “Yes, Joe. It’s me.” She laughed and stepped toward him a pace. Then she threw her arms around his neck in a hug. “You didn’t recognize me! And who was I going to call, your Mom?”

         “No,” he paused and looked down. He looked back at her sharply as though her absence betrayed a trust. “She died last spring. You could have tried to call old friends to see.”

         “I’m so sorry, Joe. I didn’t know. I guess I could have done that. I didn’t even know that you were back from the Middle East or from all those assignments that I heard you accepted. I also heard you got some sort of medals, bronze star, silver star. Anyway, Daddy was just gushing over the telephone about your combat medals.”

         “Bronze Star would be the combat medal.” Joseph frowned harder. “It’s good to see you. And it’s true. I didn’t recognize you, Ava. You look like a woman now, not a little girl. I guess I won’t be calling you ‘little Ava’ anymore.”

         “But how did you know I was here even if you didn’t recognize me?”

         “There is surveillance.”

         “Oh, you don’t mean it.”

         “Yes, and we’ve picked up activity on film at night. We’ve managed to clear them out by helicopters. But, I come out here daily to check on all those old antiques of your parents. You know that there’s a rumor that you’re selling the farm.”

         It was Ava’s turn to frown, now. “My goodness, I don’t think that I’ve spoken to anyone about that. In fact, I haven’t seen any of our old friends. I . . .”

         “Sam’s new real estate agency in El Paso.”

         “Oh, your little brother, Sam. Yes, I called several real estate agents, but I don’t think I spoke to Sam. How is he?”

         “He thinks he went into the wrong business. It’s hard to make a profit selling land with unsolved murders.”

         Ava frowned as she nodded. She noticed the old sparkle never reached Joseph’s eyes.

         He looked at her left hand. “You mean no special gentleman has proposed yet.”

         Oh, yes, my special gentleman did,” she looked at Joseph with a teasing gleam in her eye, “but then he ran off to war and loved guns better than babies,” she shrugged lightly.

         Joseph barely broke a smile as he stated, “Well that stupid guy. I hope he didn’t get killed over there.”

         “Oh no,” Ava played along, “in fact he brought back medals. Many medals worth more than all the wives and babies in the world.”

         Joseph looked skeptical and didn’t respond to her comment. “Well, Ava, I’m now assigned as an investigator here. Actually, it’s what the military is setting up for national defense.”

         “What?”

         “It has something to do with the unsolved murders  – your parents being two in the group.”

         Ava felt the light tenor of the conversation open a hole in her heart. She felt empty. “I should have been here. I might have been able to save them.”

         “If you had been here, I’m certain you would have been buried with them.”

         “What do you know?”

         “At this point, border land is being sold. The new owners don’t want to be bothered with anyone on their property. It seems that soon the place of your parents’ murders will belong to someone else.”

         “No one has told me any of this,” she frowned. “And if I don’t sell? Are you close?”

         “Little questioner, Ava!” He shook his head. “You were always buzzing around the classroom with your questions. That’s why you passed through two grades in one year for two years in a row. And that’s why you graduated with my class when you should have been way behind me. But as I remember, some of the questions you asked, you really never needed to know.”

         “Oh no you don’t, Joe. My questions mattered to me. I wanted to make certain that you chose the right girl.”

         “Well, if you find her, call me, Ava, but right now I’ve got work to do.”

         “Do you have a lead?” Ava prompted again.

         “No, and it’s not looking very good. You can’t stay out here, either. These murders are unsolved. This property is considered a place where the murderers will return.”

         “It’s been two years!”

         “I have a hunch that the reason your parents were murdered is that someone needed more land beside the border. Do you understand now. This area is not safe. Arizona has put up with this for years. But it looks like Texas is coming under the threat.”

         “They aren’t bringing drugs across the border, Joe. The people coming over the border are poor and helpless.”

         “Not too helpless if they murdered your parents.”

         The honk of a horn brought Ava’s eyes to the sound, “My real estate agent.” She announced as she eyed the man in the red Mercedes. The sound of a helicopter chopped the air overhead. She looked back at Joseph. “Your surveillance team?” When he didn’t respond, she said, “Come on, let’s talk to Mr. Landis.”

         “You mean my brother’s competition.”

         Ava grabbed his arm and pulled him with her, “Come on, you might want to get pointers for your brother.”

         Ava pulled Joseph with her, knowing she couldn’t budge him if he didn’t want to go. The lawyer stepped out of his car.

         “Hi,” Ava called from the picket fence.

         The lawyer paused and frowned, “You didn’t tell me you were married.”

         Ava’s blue eyes grew wide and her black tapered brows lifted as she smiled up at Joseph. “This is a very good friend of mine. He is here to make certain I don’t make any mistakes.”

         “Is that so.” The lawyer eyed the tall cowboy. “It’s good to meet you, Miss Meadows.” Mark Landis extended his hand.

         “Thank you.”

         Mark focused on Ava and ignored Joseph. “My client will gift you with more than the current rate for land in this area.” The lawyers eyes never left Ava’s. “The expense is already settled in my client’s mind. Now, all that is needed is for you, Miss Meadows, to sign this contract I have prepared.” He paused and pulled a slip of paper from his briefcase. “Here is the cashier’s check already issued by the bank.”

         Ava’s eyes widened as she counted the zeros. Her hand shook as she lifted it to examine the check further. Joseph clasped her other hand in his and addressed the lawyer.

         “You’ll have to let her lawyer look at the contract first.”

         The lawyer’s eyes remained on Ava and he continued to ignore Joseph. “What do you think, Miss Meadows? You could pay off your mortgage, your car, or whatever. You could take a trip to Europe.” Ava’s eyes narrowed on the lawyer. These expenses were all the reasons why she wanted to sell the property.

         “I’ve been to Europe.” Joseph said. “It lacks a lot compared to Texas. And she needs the contract reviewed by her lawyer.

         “But surely, Joe, can you believe that it’s for this much money?”

         “Yes, I can. An easy entry from Mexico to Texas would definitely be worth a little more money.”

         The real estate lawyer laughed, “Surely Sir, you don’t believe that. With the proposed building of a wall and the security systems. Surely not. All my client wants is a retreat on the Rio Grande.”

         “I haven’t seen a wall, yet. It looks like a lot of people that are buying up the land after unsolved murders don’t want a wall, now.”

         Joseph’s eyes never left the lawyer as he spoke to Ava, “It’s your parents’ life we’re concerned with, Ava.”

         The lawyer waited as Ava lowered the check and continued to frown at it in silence. She finally shook her head and spoke, “I’m sorry, I do need my lawyer to review the contract.

         The lawyer heaved a sigh and placed the check back into his briefcase. “I always wonder about friends who don’t allow their friends to gain a good profit, Miss Meadows. I always think that these friends are not real friends at all.”

         Ava pulled from Joseph’s grasp and reached for the lawyer’s hand, “I will have this reviewed in at least three days and get back with you on this property.”

         The lawyer’s eyebrows lifted. “My client has a pending offer elsewhere today. He has already instructed me that if you refuse his generous offer, then he will have no need to pay you for this property. We will dispose of the cashier’s check.”

         Ava felt her heart sink. She couldn’t maintain the taxes on both this border property and her own house in North Carolina. She looked at Joseph with a frown for him to give her some way of escape from this decision. He looked back at her like this was a challenge that he expected her to meet.

         “It was your parents that got murdered, Ava. It’s time to find out who killed them.”

         Mark Landis said no further words but silently stepped off the porch.

         “May I call you later?”

         “Only if you intend to sell, Miss Meadows. And again, it may be too late if my client follows through with what he has said.” He slammed the door to his Mercedes, the engine purred and the gravel spewed as he turned the car around and sped down the pasture road.”

         The low flying helicopter reappeared overhead and Ava gasped as Joseph clasped her hand again and jerked her toward the house.

         “Joe, what are you doing!”

         A bullet hit the dirt where Joseph had stood. Ava understood. She started running with him as she turned her head to see the chopper’s cab opened and a sniper focusing. Joseph lifted a plank from the porch floor. Ava frowned in confusion as Joseph pulled a large weapon from its hiding place.

         “Get in the house!”

         Ava frowned at the command and froze in place

         Joseph pushed open the door and shoved her inside. He jumped off the porch and Ava watched through the window as he turned away so that she saw only his profile. The huge barreled weapon looked many times larger than a rifle. He placed it to rest over his shoulder. Whatever the weapon was, it held a large cartridge that Joseph aimed and released. It blasted and hurled a huge bomb toward the craft as rapidly as the explosion from its rear rushed in an opposite direction. The thrust of the weapon’s exhaust would have toppled the wall she stood behind if he hadn’t turned the back exhaust of the weapon away from the house. The chopper blew into flames and crashed into the nearby sandy field. Black smoke rose high overhead.

         Ava shakily opened the door, “I’ll get my cell phone so we can call the Sheriff.”

         “No need,” Joseph said. He pulled out his walkie-talkie and gave instructions as he watched the blaze in the field. He eyed it for anyone who might escape.

         “Joe, I do really need to take that check and leave, don’t I?”

         He looked down at her, “No Ava. What this helicopter means is that we’re going to investigate Landis and Landis.”

         “Joe, you don’t mean it.”

         “Yes, I mean it.”

         “Then I’m in on this investigation.”

         “No, you have to get back east to that women’s college.”

         “No, I don’t. I took a sabbatical. You know, flora and fauna, that’s my interests. I’m to study south Texas vegetation. And this murder investigation is my business.”

         Joseph frowned, “I’m certain that I don’t need your help.”

         “Joe, I have just turned down more than ten million bucks for this property and as you so reminded me, it was my mother’s and father’s murder. I’m in on this.”

         Ava saw the slow rage burn in Joseph Manning’s eyes.

         “Ava Meadows, if you are in on this, the whole city of El Paso will know more about this investigation than me.”

         “Joe, if I don’t get my money for this, then I am getting in on this investigation.”

         Just then, Ava saw a woman at the white picket fence. But where had she come from? There was no vehicle that she could have arrived in, only the helicopter.

         “Joseph Manning!”

         Joseph didn’t turn around when the woman called.

         Ava looked at the woman calling from across the yard but Joseph Manning appeared not to hear her.

         “Joe, you’re being called.”

         Joseph frowned harder. “What?”

         “You’re being called.”

         “Where?”

         The woman no longer stood there. Ava squinted her eyes and looked harder at the empty place.

         “She’s not there anymore. My goodness. I saw her. I heard her! But, she’s gone. Oh, my! There’s no place to hide.”

         Joseph Manning frowned and straightened. He looked closely at the area. He shook his head and placed the huge caliber weapon back into its hiding place. “They call this a Law. And I don’t want you touching it,” he placed the boards back over the weapon.

         “What’s the matter, Joe? You act like you’ve seen a ghost.”

         He seated himself on the step and rested the weight of his forearms on his knees while Ava settled beside him.

         “You sure you saw someone?” he asked.

         “Oh yes, she was waving and yelling to get your attention.”

         What did she wear?”

         “Wear?” Ava had to think hard. The woman’s rapid movement to get Joseph’s attention held her memory. “Well, it was a shawl. It looked like it had many colors on it.” The colors seemed to spring into her thoughts, “Oh yes, it held primarily the colors of orange and turquoise.”

         Joseph took a deep breath, “Have you ever seen her before?”

         Ava laughed, “Joe, she was yelling your name and you didn’t even hear her.”

         Joseph heaved another breath as though he labored for the explanation. “The woman may be a ghost.”

         “Oh really, Joe. She looked a little too pretty to be a ghost.”

         “Can you explain what you saw?”

         Ava frowned at Joseph’s attitude. He appeared too serious. She rushed to give him what he asked. “Well, she had long black hair. It looked straight. It fell passed her shoulders. I couldn’t see the color of her eyes. She looked slender.”

         Several seconds clicked by in silence.

         “Well, does my description of the woman match this so-called ghost that you say you think it is?”

         After several more seconds, he said, “Do you remember a Jolene Bancroft in school?”

         Ava’s eyes widened. “It was her! But it couldn’t be her. She was killed . . .”

         “She was murdered on the border. Her body left naked. But a turquoise and orange wrap was found. They assumed rape, but there was little they could find of semen since her body was well deteriorated when they found it.”

         “Joe, stop!” She frowned harder. “Why would you be getting these calls from a dead person? You didn’t see her. You didn’t even hear her. I had to get your attention.”

         “Goes to show you what a good actor I am.”

         Ava gasped, “Don’t tell me that you were play-acting?”

         “Yes, I was ‘play-acting’ like you call it. Whatever this evil is, it can’t read minds. It’s not omnipotent. It can’t tell what I am really thinking. God’s the only one that can do that. So, I’m not giving this entity any high-fives that it might be weirding me out.”

         “Entity? Jolene? An entity?”

         “I’m talking about occult activity, paranormal activity. It’s dangerous. And the kids around here are playing with it all the time. The thing that you saw was not Jolene.”

         “Paranormal?” She laughed.

         “If you choose to make fun of why you saw a woman and then she disappeared, that is exactly what I’m telling you. And the entity is not Jolene. It’s a demon.”

         Ava felt the hairs on her nape rise. She definitely needed in on this investigation.

 

Chapter Two

Secrets

Darkness shadowed the bright lights of the city. Ava steered her rental car following Joseph's black pickup through the streets. Most of the buildings held the same names, but ten years created changes to the structures’ appearance. El Paso looked much larger.

            Finally, Joseph pulled into an underground garage and he waved for her to follow. The pickup pulled near the elevator and Ava parked alongside.

            “Ava!”

            She heard her name echo across the garage parking lot. A much taller version of who she remembered as Samuel Manning sprinted toward her. He stopped in front of her. “Joe called me on the way here. Wow! You’ve changed. What have they done to you in North Carolina? You look fantastic! So glad to see you.” He hugged her.

            “I could say the same for you, Sam. You’re now as tall as Joe.” Ava felt surprised by Samuel’s welcome. She had always been closest to Joseph, her big protector in high school. But Joseph seemed distant, somehow. Four years younger than Joseph, Samuel was her age.

            “It’s good to see you, too, Sam. I hear that you’re a real estate agent now.”

            “Yes, and I’m glad that you didn’t get me as your agent.”

            Ava straightened and frowned.

            Her reaction made him explain. “Joe would never have let me hear the end of it. I would have been hauling you to town instead of making the sale. And, yes,” he pointed to his brother, “I hear Joe made certain that you didn’t get to sell your own property.”

            Joe frowned at the comment. “You two can gossip about me on the way to the room. I think that Ava needs a shower and bed. She traveled most of the day.”

            “Oh? You’re staying with us. I don’t think you’ll like it. It’s a pad made for men, you know.”

            Joseph pulled her bags from the rental and lowered his brow on his younger brother, “I think she’ll survive for a while, Sam.”

            “There’s no groceries, and only beer in the fridge.”

            “And who told you to get beer, Little Brother.”

            “Well, I could have bought milk, but I have to keep reminding you, I am over twenty-one, now by several years.”

            Ava looked back at Sam before she stepped into the elevator, “Well, I won’t need milk, anyway, so all the better.”

            Samuel laughed.

            Joseph lifted an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t drink.”

            “Whatever gave you that idea?”

            The elevator started for the fifth floor.

            “I don’t know why I would be surprised,” Joseph said absently.

            “Well, I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m on a milk-free diet – something to do with lactose something or other.  So, I’ll take water if you don’t mind.”

            Ava entered the apartment filled with leather covered chairs, a shining hardwood floor with one throw rug placed between the chairs and couch.  A mahogany gun rack sat in the corner filled with six polished rifles of different calibers.

            “What a beautiful room. You two keep this place lovely.”

            The two brothers lifted eyebrows at each other.

            “Joe makes me pay half the cost of the maid that comes in once a week. It’s killing me. I even think it’s killing her. She’s always complaining about the mess.”

            Ava gave a dramatic sigh of relief and touched her forehead with the back of her hand. “Oh, that relieves me to know that you men aren’t beating me in housekeeping. We women still have our place.”

            “Yes, you definitely have your place,” Joseph nodded and carried her bags into the back bedroom.

            Ava frowned as Joseph walked away with her bags. “I know what you’re implying, but I’m still in, Joe. No getting me out now.”

            “What does that mean?” Samuel asked but easily forgot his question as he moved the burgers onto paper-plates at the table and pulled a beer out of the refrigerator. “Hey Ava, I forgot, we have Coke.”

            “Thank you, but I’ll take water.”

            “How about you Joe?” He yelled down the hallway.

            “Water’s fine by me if we have ice.”

            Sam fixed the drinks and set them on the table.

            “Come and eat, Ava. We’ll watch the ballgame tonight.”

            “Not me. I’m going to sleep, thank you. After losing over ten million dollars today, I think I deserve a little rest.”

            Sam frowned, “What do you mean?”

            Joseph narrowed his eyes on her and gave a subtle warning with his frown.

            The signal made Ava feel awkward as though she shouldn’t have said anything. She lowered her eyes. Maybe she needed to keep quiet about the offer. Samuel, as a real estate agent might know Mark Landis and open questions on the offer. She waited looking back at Joseph to explain, but he remained silent and took a bite of his food.

            Finally, as Samuel kept staring at her, expecting an explanation, she said, “Oh, it’s just a saying that I always come up with after being disappointed.” She lied. But she saw that Joseph narrowed his eyes on her with a lifted brow over one eye. It announced how ridiculous her statement sounded to her own ears. She added, “Joe told me land isn’t selling around here. I’m just disappointed by the low offer.”

            Still, Joseph wasn’t making an explanation, and she considered that he wanted to keep it that way.

            “Yeah, Ava,” Samuel picked up the topic, “with the crime on these border ranches, it’s a real estate nightmare. There was that rancher, Mack Simpson, that was shot in the head because he refused to let some people cross his land unannounced. Joe even thinks that your parents were slain by people coming over illegally.”

            “Mack Simpson?  Why, he owned the land on the south side of us.”

             “Yeah. And then the Gettys…”

             “The Gettys? They were on the other side of us! Why, Sabastian and Sarah were

              "Mama’s and Daddy’s best friends. Joe, why didn’t you tell me?”

            “I did.”

“You told me that there were a lot of murders in the area and on the border. But you didn’t tell me who.”

Joseph looked at her like she needed to remain quiet. She still had to ask, “What if the murders are for that very purpose, to bring down the land price. What if the drug cartel or the illegal aliens are just used as a scape goat to start usurping border land?” She paused with a frown. “But for what purpose? What if someone only wanted us to believe it was as simple as the drug cartel or Mexicans. That would make it much easier for someone to get away with many murders on the border property and it would significantly bring down land prices. The murders would scare people off in keeping the land or from purchasing it if it were up for sale. I suspicion a lot of things here.”

            Ava met Joseph’s penetrating gaze across the table. His raised eyebrow made her think that he would roll his eyes in disgust that her hunch was way-off-base. She knew that Joseph Manning didn’t want her in on the investigation. The death of her parents and her neighbors clearly called her name. Regardless of Joseph Manning’s preferences, she was in.

            However, she remained quiet about the land through the rest of the meal and Joseph looked relieved.

            Ava stepped into the warm water and rested, leaning her head against the tub. She felt her eyelids droop as she felt exhaustion settle in every bone. She squeezed the liquid soap onto her sponge and swiped bubbles over the surface of her skin. After a thorough bath and rinse, she stepped out of the tub, put on her gown and housecoat, and stepped into the hallway. She heard the TV announcer scream “homerun.”

            She walked to the end of the hall and saw the back of the men’s heads as both sat on the edge of their seats with popcorn and beer wedged on the table between them.

            Good thing they have a maid, she smiled.

            She walked back to her bedroom and closed the door. Crawling underneath the cover, she felt wonderful. She had just given up more than ten million dollars today and she felt wonderful.

            You’re truly crazy, Ava Meadows.

            But she fell asleep easily.

            She awoke just as easily. It must have been hours since she fell asleep. She turned toward the door and was startled.

            “Joe?”

            “Yes,” he snapped on the lamp by her bed.

            “What….”

            “Thanks for not saying anything to Sam. I think he knows Mark Landis. There would be too many questions to answer. Then Sam might question Mark. That could prove dangerous for Sam. And just for your information, we hadn’t nailed down the real estate agent and their prices before I heard Landis’ offer today. Those who inherit the property generally aren’t ranchers. They’re kids of these old timers and they work and live in cities. When the land sells, we can’t track them as to who they sold to. They are disappearing like the ghost you saw today. On the paperwork at county, it’s a foreign corporation.”

            “Out of Mexico?”

            “No, not Mexico like you assume. Those that sell must have been paid in cash because there’s no paper trail. But now you’ve been offered a cashier’s check. I think you’re in danger. I think Mark Landis may have had other plans for you today.”

“Like murder, do you mean? Then why would he have a check?”

“Just in case, I’m thinking.”

“So, I’m in.”

Joseph ignored her comment, “Recently, I did locate a couple for questioning. But they had a fatal car accident before the interview. I don’t think it was an accident. It is like the real estate crew and someone in law enforcement may be in cahoots, playing high stakes roulette with border property owners. Thanks again for your quick insight on keeping quiet.”

            He took her hand and squeezed it.

            “Then, I’m in. I can help you.”

            “You’ve already helped me. I would never have found which agency was offering the high land price if you hadn’t been there today and been given the offer.”

            “Why do you suppose that he offered such a price in front of you if he wanted to keep his firm’s name out of suspicion?”

            “Isn’t that the question, Little Ava? He knew that I had already seen him. I had seen his vehicle. He thought we were a couple even if not married. He had his backup helicopter scoping the area. I think it had to do with his perception of where I might be from. I think he may have thought that I wasn’t necessarily from El Paso but maybe even closer to where you live now. Maybe his statement of having an alternate client that wanted to sell was false. What if he needed your borderland right now? Why else would he offer twice the price? And the helicopter was to seal the deal. They were going to get the land, no matter what.”

            “Yes, that sounds logical. But you said that your agency also had helicopters. Why weren’t they there?  Do you think we should go out there and do surveillance?”

            “Surveillance?”

            “Yes, you know, to make certain their helicopters don’t land this side of the border.”

            Joseph sat down on the edge of her bed. “You know, Little Ava, that is a good idea.”

            Ava felt the weight of one of his arms on her left side and one of his arms on the right side.

            “What are you doing? Let’s go.”

            “I thought you were tired.”

            “I thought that you said that my idea of surveillance was a good one. And your agency’s helicopters certainly weren’t there when you had to down theirs.”

            “I did say you had a good idea,” he said as a smile touched his lips.

            “So.”

            “So, I’ve already got the Sheriff’s department out there doing that heavy-duty surveillance while you take your beauty sleep tonight.”

            “My beauty sleep, my foot. You’re laughing at me. And it doesn’t look like the Sheriff was too careful earlier about surveillance when you needed him!”

            Joseph ignored Ava’s complaint about the Sheriff. “No, I’m just remembering how angry you use to get when someone didn’t answer your questions the way you thought they needed to be answered.”

            “And I remember how you never thought my questions were that important.”

            “That’s not true.”

            “Oh yes, it is.  And you are still treating me like you know better.”

            “Well, I hate to say it, but in law enforcement procedures, I might have the edge.”

            “But I—”

            “Yes, I know. In questions that bend the mind to start thinking, you have a full house over my duce.”

            “Just what does that mean?”

            “It means that I’m glad you’re back from wherever you ran off to.”

            “North Carolina. And I didn’t run off. You’re the one that went to the other side of the world. I only went to North Carolina.”

            “And I’m glad that you aren’t selling the farm.”

            “Well, that makes one of us. But it would have been pretty sweet – over ten million dollars.”

            “Blood money. But I didn’t realize that I could miss all those curious questions.”

            “Well, he missed my questions – he ran off to Afghanistan and he missed my questions.”

            “Now why do you sound mad, Ava?”

            “I don’t think you could have cared less about anything I cared about when you put yourself into harms’ way,” she punched him hard in the chest, her eyes moist with tears. Her voice broke, “You could have gotten killed over in a foreign land. They may never have brought your body home!”

            Her vision blurred and she started to shake and then she cried in earnest with ragged sobs.

            “Oh, come on, Little Ava,” he wrapped her in his embrace, holding her to him.

            “I don’t like you calling me Little Ava.” She wiggled out of his hold and looked into his eyes. “You said it yourself. I’m not Little Ava, anymore.  I’m a woman, full grown.”

            “Well, yes.” Joseph frowned heavily. “You certainly are. You’re a beautiful woman.”

            “I’m Ava, a beautiful woman. And I’m in on this investigation. Do you understand?”

 

 

Chapter Three

Investigation

 

            Samuel stood in the kitchen, scrambling eggs as Ava stepped out of her room. Joseph sat at the table, dressed in a clean shirt and Levis. His black boots were polished.

            Samuel gave his brother a sidelong glance and frowned as Ava sat down beside Joseph.

            “Are you headed back to North Carolina, Ava?”

            Ava lifted her gaze to see Samuel’s expression. “No, Sam, I have no plans to leave soon.  Why do you look so worried?”

            “I’m just worried about Joe. He went to sleep late last night and got up early, no sleep. I just think he needs to let the local Sheriff do this job. Joe needs to step back.”

           Ava nodded as Samuel shoveled eggs out of the frying pan onto the large platter.

            She frowned at the continued silence between the brothers. Joseph’s narrowed look told her to keep silent with her ever-pressing questions.

            Finally, Samuel spoke in anger, “I don’t sell the blasted land on the border with all the invaders taking over. My policy stands, it’s too dangerous for the people.”

            “But, isn’t that crippling your business?” Ava wondered at the anger in Samuel’s voice.

            Samuel seated himself and sipped some coffee. He turned to Joseph, “You were right, Joe, Ava’s questions seem to be a statement of fact.”

            Ava sipped her coffee, not knowing what to ask.

            “Have you told the buyer about your parents’ murder?” Samuel challenged.

            From the deeper frown passing over Joseph’s face, Ava decided not to give further information, “Of course not, Sam, as you indicated, I would only get pennies. I have decided to wait to sell until the violence stops.”

            Samuel looked appeased, “Well that sounds reasonable and a lot safer. And I’m glad that you came here last night instead of sleeping out on the range like sometimes our new cowboy does.”

            Ava lifted her eyebrows at the cavalier hand signal and name that Samuel indicated as he pointed at his brother.

            “I’m not a new cowboy. I’ve always been a cowboy. I just took up soldiering as a hobby. I’m just checking the border as my hobby masters assigned.”

            “Yes,” Samuel frowned. “These powers that be are really getting on my nerves making you go out to the borderland while they sit safely in their offices. And you go in disguise. How come you’re not wearing your uniform? I bet you don’t even know who ‘they’ are by name.”

            “I know who they are Sam. But you’re not supposed to know. That’s what’s killing you. You’re as curious as Ava, here.”  Joseph frowned as Samuel turned to Ava. “Joe only got two of your bags out of the car last night. Do you want to stay here?”

            “I think not.”

            “What?” Samuel questioned, “Don’t let our brotherly love get in the way of my hospitality.  Joe is generally never here, anyway. But, after all my splendid welcome and bed and breakfast service, you better be staying.”

            Ava smiled. “I’m certain that you have your ladies over and you want a life without supervision. I plan on staying a year to see this through. My university has approved my grant for a study on border flora and fauna. So, I need my own place.”

            “It would be a lot more exciting if you stayed at my place and partied down.

            Ava laughed, but immediately turned to Joseph. “When are we starting?”

            Joseph’s eyes narrowed on Ava with a greater frown. He had left her room immediately last night when she demanded to be in on the case.

            Sam looked between the two, “Oh my gosh! Ava, are you in on Joe’s James Bond action?”

            “It’s called Joe Boy action, little brother. And that’s all the answer you get one way or the other.”

            The wide smile on Samuel’s face faded. “I think it would be fun to be a private eye if it wasn’t so dangerous.”

            “I am not a private investigator, Sam. This is a military assignment on national security.”

            As though a new idea just came to mind, Samuel’s smile returned. “Hey, we have to go to the rodeo tonight – your friends from Oklahoma are coming in.”

            “That’s tonight?”

            “Don’t tell me you forgot! You’ve been talking about it for a month. Your buddy, the grand champion bronc rider Richard Barnett, rides tonight. He called expecting you’d come. I’m going too.”

            Joseph heaved a sigh, “I needed to go see old lady Wayans this evening.”

            Ava jerked to attention. “Old Lady Wayans? You mean Matilda Wayans on Tenth Street. The old lady we called the Witch in high school?”

            “Well, a lot has changed since we’ve lived here. Madam Wayans lives on Beverly Street now, not Tenth Street. And she’s known as a medium these days, a politically correct nomenclature.”

*

So far, Ava felt as though she was getting her request. While the breakfast seemed awkward, Joseph was allowing her to ride with him through El Paso to check on Old Lady Wayans. From her passenger seat, Ava turned to look at the people walking the streets and there stood Jolene Bancroft, staring at her from the sidewalk. Ava jumped and turned to grab Joe, “Joe, look!” She looked back. Jolene was gone.

Joe never looked at her as he raised a brow and steered his pickup into another lane. “She won’t appear so often, if you don’t encourage her.”

Cold chills lifted the hair on Ava’s arms.

The ride across El Paso took more than thirty minutes.

            Finally, after driving through the older part of town, Joseph pulled in front of a Victorian mansion. An exotic sign hung over the front porch with its wide portico. White rocking chairs set as a welcome.

            Ava followed Joseph to the door that announced ‘Closed for Business on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.’ Today was Monday and Ava started to turn away.

            Joseph grabbed her arm, “Oh, no you don’t. You want in on this investigation. I’m going to show you some of the boring details of the trade.”

            “But she’s closed.”

            “All the better to not be interrupted.”

            The door suddenly opened. “Hello Joseph Manning, and you too, Miss Meadows. I’ve been waiting for you.”

            Ava wanted to question how Old Lady Wayans knew their names and why she had been waiting for them. But one look at Joseph told her to keep quiet. Ava looked at the shriveled little woman with her dark purple dress and matching shawl. Her gray hair was plaited over the top of her head appearing like a crown. Her dark eyes hinted at Hispanic descent.

            “May we come in?” Joseph asked.

            Ava realized that entering this woman’s home was one of the last items of any list that she would ever want to make.

*

            “And you say that you suspect Satan worship?” Old Lady Matilda Wayans was in high spirits. It was apparent that she was having fun with Joseph’s questions. Her toothless smile made Ava narrow her eyes wondering why Matilda seemed so happy.

Matilda enjoyed making people uneasy.

            “No, Ma’am, I didn’t say anything about Satan worship, in fact you’re the one who brought up the subject.”

            “Well, have it your own way, you handsome devil. I won’t complain. If that’s the way you want to play it. That’s fine with me.”

            Ava frowned harder at the woman’s sarcasm.

            Joseph asked another question. “Since you say that you don’t know if there is a coven that meets across the border, down Mexico way, can you name anyone that you suspect that might practice in the coven that you mentioned?”

            Silence marked the moments. Only quiet answered him.

            But Joseph had learned as an interrogator, he needed to remain quiet after stating a question. After several silent moments, Joseph’s patience paid off.

            “Oh well,” Matilda waved her hand in the air and leaned forward, the loose wrap around the old woman’s bones fell forward revealing many scars across her upper chest above her flat breasts.  “There’s that new guy, Geraldo.”

In Ava’s observation, Matilda’s mannerisms seemed much more nervous. Matilda looked around the room in anxiety and didn’t seem happy about talking at all now. Ava realized that Old Lady Matilda had just been playing a game to delay answering the questions that she was afraid to answer.

*

            “Don’t you think that Matilda could have lied?” Ava asked as she rode back to the apartment.

            “Well, let’s hope so. After all, using college students in Satan worship as sacrifices to get one’s request approved by the Master isn’t something I ever wanted to hear,” Joseph Manning turned a lowered brow to Ava. “Do you wish you hadn’t been so curious about what I was investigating?”

            Ava released a worried breath. “You know that I could never have let you go alone after I saw Jolene Bancroft.”

            “I’m not one to get involved with any of the current hoopla that seems to be practiced in the spirit world.”

            “I know, Joe. I remember at a Halloween party where someone was trying to claim spirit talk through a Ouija Board, and it scared the two girls playing by spelling someone’s name that they were thinking about, but you wouldn’t put up with it. You questioned them until they admitted that they only dramatized it to scare the whole group. Is that what you’re thinking about this situation? That it’s just a trick?”

            Joseph turned a heavy frown toward her and then looked quickly back to the highway, “No, I don’t think that is what I’m doing now. I would like to think it was only a trick. But after you confirmed with your own witness that you saw Jolene, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m just tasked to find who killed these women and men. And that’s all that I can do. I think the rest of the operation actually is in the area of forces that I have no authority over.”

            “That’s it, Joe, it is a higher authority that you are trying to investigate. It’s an evil authority. It has a lot more power than you or me. It is evil because it’s causing death. But when you and I see visions of spirits that look like Jolene and yet you think that it’s not Jolene, then who is it?”

            Joseph turned his head to look at her again.  “That’s the question, isn’t it? I think it’s a higher authority—an evil higher authority—that you’re talking about. Whether spirit or human, who knows? The FBI has been investigating this for years. But they always stop short. They are in and out. When they get close, someone shuts it down.”

            Ava thought hard about his explanation, but a heavy fear rose in her, “You know the Ouija Board at the party, the girls just got tired of answering your questions. They told me later it wasn’t them who spelled out the name. They were very afraid. They said it was some kind of spirit. And you were so thorough with those two girls, you kept asking them questions, even though you weren’t an investigator back then. I know you’re not going to stop investigating even if the FBI calls it off, are you?”

            Joseph didn’t look over at her or answer her. He kept driving.

            “Joseph Manning, you plan to investigate this to the end, don’t you?”

            What does that mean?”

            “It means that whatever or whoever this Jolene vision is that I have seen and obviously you have too, it means that no matter where this force, this spirit, this evil demon is coming from, you’re going to deal with this and find an answer. Joe, you just can’t. This is too dangerous.”

            Joseph Manning remained silent.

 

*

             Ava remained as quiet as she could. She tried not to exchange another word as the pickup kept its pace back through El Paso. Ava hoped to not ask any more questions if it pertained to sex trafficking and her parents being killed because of some evil abuser of children. But she felt her whole body ready for a fight. She felt her blood heat in rage. She wanted to hit someone. She reasoned that Joseph was way too big for her to release her rant. She forced herself to cool down, a habit that she developed due to her tendency to spin out-of-control when it came to atrocities like child abuse. She had already heard the discussions pertaining to nationwide missing children and women. She had never connected the dots – the missing with sex trafficking. She also didn’t understand why the federal government failed to close the borders.

            Her reasoning led her to open a conversation with Joseph that she dreaded. “You know, Joe, that I suspect that certain nameless individuals—those unaccountable bureaucrats either in state and federally paid positions—receive a big money benefit that keep the border open for illegal activity like this. This keeps coming back to me. I feel like I’m going to burst if I don’t tell you. Why else would the FBI keep shutting down the investigation as soon as they get close unless some unelected bureaucrat has something to gain by the continued open border.” Ava felt the thought sink deep into her brain. It seared any restraints on her too vivid imagination. Sordid visions grasped her attention in her mind’s eye.

            The pickup barreled down the ramp to Samuel’s parking garage.

            Joseph sighed, finally acknowledging her rant as he steered the pickup around the parked cars.  “I’m here not only because of the murders and sex trafficking. I was primarily called in because of the paranormal activity that you’ve already witnessed.”

            “Jolene?”

            “In fact that’s what the government is funding, research on the paranormal activity in this area. I just call it spirit appearances. They are studying what type of personality sees them and what type of personality doesn’t see them. At this time, I haven’t told them that I see anything.”

            “You don’t trust them, do you, Joe? Oh, my heavens, tax monies for psychic phenomena when people are being murdered? That is so federal government ‘gone-a-muck,’ Joe.”

            “It is so deceptive, Ava.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “I now believe that the government is attempting to cover its own tracks.”

            “I just thought they were inept as always.”

            Joseph parked his vehicle. “The ones that are in key positions are not inept.”

            “Do you think that someone suspects that you’re onto them? I mean, if some bureaucrat whose job is easily protected because of all the massive federal rules that saves their job, wouldn’t you be in trouble? Do you think you might need to act like you ‘know nothing, see nothing, do nothing’ to uncover their wrongs?”

            “I think it’s too late for that. I think that is why I’m seeing this vision.”

“So, you were pretending to not see Jolene to fool their – other worldly activity?”

“It’s spiritual warfare on steroids.”

Ava frowned in confusion. “Joe, what do you remember about Jolene?  I mean, why would we see her.”

            “I looked at her background and the reason that she was murdered,” he paused as he shook his head.

            “So, why was she murdered?”

            “She was in contact with a federal agent. She was trying to escape from a sex trafficking gang. Here on the border, it’s a sex trafficking industry…”

“Industry?”

“Well, I could call it business, or criminal activity, or perversion. But whatever, this

industry is using young people the age of Jolene when she was murdered. It’s using them as sex slaves; recruiting them right on the college campus across the nation. I speculate that the student falls for it because they can’t pay their massive student loans. They are promised easy money.”

            “And of course, anything pertaining to a right way to make money is now too ‘old hat.’ What could be more insidious than sex trafficking?”

            Joseph started to speak, but he paused, “Ava, I really think you need to pack up and get out while you can. That federal agent that Jolene contacted for help ten years ago had an accident before her body was found on the border. He was electrocuted while trimming his yard tree. You are still in the area. Your land is up for grabs. Someone made certain your neighbors were murdered, your own parents murdered – and the kids left. What could come next, but make certain you leave, also – permanently.”

            Ava pulled in a quick breath, “Joe, my mom and dad, weren’t sacrificed, were they?” The memory of the funeral home warning that they should not open the casket because their bodies had been out in the weather for days and it should be a closed casket farewell had not set right with Ava. But she couldn’t deny that she always wanted to remember their laughter and their smiles – and she wanted no trauma to stain the endings of her memories of them.

            When Joseph didn’t answer her, but kept seated looking straight ahead, she laid her hand on his forearm, “It’s alright, Joe, you can tell me.”

            He looked over at her, “I would tell you if I could. I wasn’t here. I had a date in Afghanistan.”  He turned back to look at the parking garage and added, “But I have been asking around, and it was a topic of conversation that they might have been sacrificed. But no one saw their bodies but the Sheriff and his Deputy and a man and wife at the funeral home. I contacted them when I got back here. They did confirm what you said, that the bodies had laid out in the weather so long that it would have been hard to determine if they were tortured or sacrificed. That man and his wife no longer live in the area.”

            “Tortured?” Ava frowned.

            “Well, this is hard to explain, but unless the people that sell drugs also administer drugs during their rituals, this might verify why they can get by with torture. The victims feel nothing.”

            “Oh, Joe,” Ava hugged herself as she shivered.  “Why are you now calling it a ritual?”

            “Because I am seeing signs when I get to those areas before anyone else. When I go in alone, I find a few pieces of clothing with blood. I also find dead bodies. It’s becoming a pattern. The leftovers look like a ritual.”

            “The places where you find the dead bodies? Don’t tell me that this happens often.”

            “Ava, I have already told you more about my investigation than I have admitted to anyone that I am supposed to report to. I can’t release that information to you. But of the land that’s being sold which is public record, the buyers can’t be located, their addresses are in foreign places, and the sellers move out of the region.”

            “How many?”

            “You don’t have a need-to-know on that question. However, I’m thinking the wheels are turning on just how you’re going to jump over that hurdle. And as I admitted, I’ve already given you too much information for you to be satisfied with just going back to the east coast. So, I’ll tell you another observation that may ease your mind. The murders always happen this side of the border, I’ve found the blood, the torn and bloody clothing, the vehicles. But if it is someone that they torture for a sacrifice, they bury what’s left of the bodies, usually ashes, down Mexico way.”

            “Then you don’t think that Mama and Daddy were tortured or sacrificed?”

            “I hope as much as you do. I loved them, too.”

            Ava nodded. She knew that her mom and dad considered Joseph the son they never had.

            “In this business of demon forces, human sacrifices and rituals, it’s best not to think or talk too much, Ava. Just stay alert. I have too many questions myself. And that doesn’t insure your safety here.”

            “This is scary.”

            “That is what someone wants to use as a bull whip to make the ranchers and farmers move off from this area. They’re very successful in that mission. There are a lot more people leaving their borderland farms.”

            “And that’s why you don’t want me to sell.  But, of course, if the ranchers can get money like Landis & Landis are offering, why shouldn’t they want to move and eliminate the danger from all the violence.”

            “Now that I was privileged to witness an offer to you, I’m considering why an anonymous individual or a big foreign corporation is offering a lot more money than the routine price even with all the violence. I’ve casually mentioned to the Sheriff that he may need to call in Mark Landis for questioning. I haven’t told the Sheriff anything about the offer you had. I just recommended that he might want to question him.”

            “Joe, you’re certainly not getting rid of me, now. You need some help here. You haven’t even told the Sheriff all the things that you know. You really don’t trust anyone here, do you?”

            Joseph heaved a heavy breath as he nodded with a frown and opened his pickup door to step out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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