Down Mexico Way
Down Mexico Way
by Julianna Petite
It was just as well. Isabella looked at the surrounding pastures, only a hundred and sixty acres. Her ownership of land measured insignificant compared to larger Texas spreads. However, the open range she owned framed her childhood home. Even when away, all the buildings, fences, hills, and trees shimmered in memories and she could see each clear as day, what the trees looked like in autumn with burnished red oak leaves, what the air smelled like in spring with the honeysuckle wrapped around all the fence posts. She turned in a full circle. This hot Texas day felt like home – much better than memories.
However, while uncomfortable with her recent decision, no other choice made sense.
She paused at the door and frowned. An old black pickup barreled along the pasture road. She supposed it must be Mark Landis, the lawyer. She called and persuaded him to come. But this vehicle he drove failed to match the cost of El Paso’s prestigious firm of Landis & Landis’ name or reputation. She grimaced as she knew the hot wind hit the arm hanging out the lowered cab window. She guessed teaching at a women’s college back east gave her a distorted perception of thinking a lawyer with a concentration in real estate might prefer a vehicle with air conditioning.
As the black pickup raced closer, her eyes narrowed. The man behind the wheel wore a cowboy hat and his arm lay swathed in a blue plaid western shirt. The vehicle slammed to a stop, the dust lifted and danced in the sun.
The memory of a senior prom spilled into her thoughts. Then the flickering lights at the dance streamed over Joseph Manning as he dramatically knelt on bended knees and asked Isabella to marry him. The whole class watched. Laughter lifted the mood. Only intended as a humorous gag, he enacted it to make her feel better. Joseph Manning’s proposal proved successful in silencing the elite senior girls’ mockery of Isabella’s clothing – a childish prom dress. He kept bragging about Isabella’s beauty – “more lovely than Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, pleasure . . .” While just an act, Isabella remembered her joy. Since most of the girls held crushes on the high school football captain, the little scene silenced any criticism of the awkward little genius, Isabella, in their midst. But immediately Joseph enlisted in the Army. He left the pleasant streets of El Paso for the troubled landscape of Afghanistan.
Metal clanked. It brought Isabella’s focus back to the present as Joseph opened the gate to the white picket fence, she smiled broadly in recognition. “How good to see you! How did you know I was here?”
He didn’t respond or smile. He maintained his quick pace as each step sounded on the stone path toward her. When he stopped too close as though a threat, his voice sounded harsh with no friendship. “Why didn’t you call for entrance to this property.”
She frowned, touching her cheek in confusion. “Well, let’s see. How was I supposed to call you, Joe? It’s been over ten years since you decided to save America. I didn’t even know you were back in the area?”
Joseph’s frown turned more sour. Then suddenly his eyes filled with recognition. He stepped back with a start. He frowned harder as though he tested what he saw. “Little Bella? Is that you?”
She laughed as she stepped forward a pace and threw her arms around his neck in a hug. She felt him stiffen under her embrace. “Yes, Joe. It’s me.” With her face against his shoulder, she frowned at his reaction to her touch, but her expression of worry remained hid from him as she looked out at the surrounding pastures. An unexpected sadness filled her. He has changed. She decided to smile as she turned to peck him on the cheek whether he wanted it or not. She held him close and looked directly into his face. “That’s for all your help in high school. I can’t believe it, Joe. You didn’t recognize me! And who was I going to call, your Mom?” She released him and stepped back.
“No.” He paused and looked down. He looked back at her with narrowed eyes. “She died last spring. Did you try to call old friends to keep contact?”
Discouragement surrounded her. “I’m so sorry, Joe. I didn’t know. But I could never have called old friends. They were not my friends – they were yours.”
“That’s not true.”
“They were never my friends.” She dismissed his claim. “Joe, I’m so glad to see you. Dad heard you got all sorts of medals, bronze star – or was it silver star? No, it was both. Anyway, Daddy was just gushing over the telephone about your combat medals.”
“Bronze Star would be the combat medal.” Joseph’s visage slipped into harder lines as he changed the subject. “It’s good to see you.” His frown gave no evidence to support his words. He shook his head. “It’s true, I didn’t recognize you, Bella. You look like a woman now, not a little girl. I guess I won’t be calling you ‘Little Bella’.” No smile came to warm his words.
“But how did you know anyone was here?”
“There is surveillance.”
“Oh, you don’t mean it.”
“There’s activity on film at night. We’ve managed to clear them out by helicopters. I come daily to check on all those antiques of your parents. You need to move them. You know there’s a rumor you’re selling the farm.”
It was Isabella’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 your old friends…’
“Sam’s new real estate agency in El Paso.”
“Oh, your little brother, Sam. Yes, of course. I called several real estate agents, but I never spoke to him. How is he?”
“He thinks he went into the wrong business. It’s hard to make a profit selling land with unsolved murders.”
Isabella nodded as she whispered. “Yes.”
He picked up her left hand. “You mean no special guy proposed yet?”
“Oh, yes, my special gentleman did.” She looked at Joseph with laughter in her eyes as she reminded him. “But then he ran off to war.” She pulled up his left hand to inspect. “No ring yet? I’m thinking he loved guns better than finding a wife and having a family.” She shrugged lightly and placed the back of her hand against her forehead in pretended sorrow.
Joseph’s eyebrows lowered as he stated, “Well that stupid guy. I hope he didn’t get killed over there.”
“Oh no.” Isabella played along, trying to coax him to laugh. She once could make him respond with the rich bass sounds of joy like the notes of a saxophone. He looked much too serious. She continued. “In fact he brought back medals, you know, I’m told. Many medals worth more than all the families in the world.”
Joseph frowned harder as he looked across the open field. He finally responded with a change of subject. “Bella, I’m now assigned as an investigator here. Actually, it’s what the military is setting up for national defense.”
“What?” She looked at his faded blue jeans, his black cowboy boots, his rodeo buckle. “You’re not even in a uniform. Are you still in the military?”
“You could say that. It’s a national security threat. I’m assigned on an investigation into the unexplained activity on the border – the unsolved murders – your parents being two in the group.”
Isabella’s smile faded. “I don’t want to talk about it, Joe. I should have been here. I might have been able to save them.”
“If you’d been here, I’m certain you would be buried with them.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I could have helped.” She sighed heavily. “Do you know anything about the murders?”
“At this point, border land is being sold. New owners don’t want to be bothered with anyone on their property. Soon your parents’ murder scene will belong to someone else, too.”
“No one has told me any of this.” She frowned. “And if I don’t sell? Are you close?”
“Little questioner, Bella!” He shook his head as he stepped back further. “Always buzzing around the classroom with your questions. That’s why you passed through four grades in two years. That last year you sat in my class I’ll never forget those questions. However, some of your questions were only curiosity. They never should have been asked.”
“Oh no you don’t, Joseph Manning. My questions mattered. I wanted to make certain you chose the right girl.”
A scowl covered his face. “Well, if you find her, call me, Bella, but right now I’m busy.” He turned further away to look across the pasture again.
“Do you have a lead?”
He turned back. “No, and it’s not looking good. You can’t stay here, either. These murders are unsolved. This property is considered a place where the murderers will return.”
“It’s been two years!”
“Your parents were murdered because someone needed more land along the border. This area is not safe. Arizona has put up with this for years. But 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 Isabella’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.”
Isabella grabbed his arm and pulled him with her, “Come on, you might want to get pointers for your brother.”
Isabella 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,” Isabella called from the picket fence.
The lawyer paused and frowned, “You didn’t tell me you were married.”
Isabella’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.
Mark focused on Isabella and ignored Joseph. “My client will gift you with more than the current rate for land in this area.” The lawyers eye never left Isabella’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.”
Isabella’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 an alternate lawyer look at the contract first.”
The lawyer’s eyes remained on Isabella 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.” Her 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 another 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 the people who are buying the land after unsolved murders don’t want a wall now.”
Joseph’s eyes never left the lawyer as he spoke to Isabella, “It’s your parents’ life we’re concerned with, Isabella.”
The lawyer waited as Isabella lowered the check and continued to frown at it in silence. She finally shook her head and spoke, “I’m sorry, I do need an alternate lawyer to review the contract.
The lawyer sighed 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 think these friends are not real friends at all.”
Isabella 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 already instructed me that if you refuse his generous offer, then he will have no need to pay you. We will dispose of the cashier’s check.”
Isabella felt her heart sink. She couldn’t maintain the taxes on both this border property and her 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 he expected her to meet.
“It was your parents that got murdered, Isabella. 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 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 Isabella 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. Isabella 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. Isabella frowned in confusion as Joseph pulled a large weapon from its hiding place.
“Get in the house!”
Isabella froze in place.
Joseph pushed open the door and shoved her inside. He jumped off the porch and Isabella watched through the window as he turned away so she saw only his profile. The huge barreled weapon looked many times larger than a rifle. He placed it to rest over his shoulder. It held a large cartridge which Joseph aimed and released blasting and hurling a huge bomb rapidly toward the craft. The explosion from the weapon’s rear rushed in the opposite direction. The thrust of its exhaust would have toppled the wall she stood behind if he hadn’t turned it away from the house. The chopper blew into flames and crashed into the nearby sandy field. Black smoke rose high overhead.
Isabella 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 Isabella. What this helicopter means is that we’re going to investigate Landis and Landis.”
“You don’t mean it.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then I’m in on this investigation.” She took a deep breath.
“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 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.”
Isabella saw the slow rage burn in Joseph Manning’s eyes.
“Isabella Meadows, if you are in on this, the whole city of El Paso will know more about this investigation than me.”
“Joe, I’m in already.”
Just then, Isabella saw a woman at the white picket fence. But where had she come from? There was no vehicle she could have arrived in, only the helicopter.
“Joseph Manning!” The woman called.
Joseph didn’t turn around at the sound.
Isabella looked across the yard but Joseph appeared not to hear her.
“Joe, you’re being called.”
Joseph frowned harder. “What?”
“You’re being called.”
The woman no longer stood there.
Isabella squinted her eyes and looked harder at the empty place. She felt the hairs on her nape rise. “She’s not there anymore. My goodness. I saw her. I heard her! But, she’s gone. 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 but remained quiet.
“What’s the matter, Joe?”
He seated himself on the step and rested the weight of his forearms on his knees while Isabella 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?” 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?”
Isabella laughed, “Joe, she was yelling your name and you didn’t even hear her.”
Joseph took 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?”
Isabella 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 you say you think it is?”
After several more seconds, he said, “Do you remember a Jolene Bancroft in school?”
Isabella’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 nearby. 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.”
Isabella gasped, “Don’t tell me you were play-acting?”
“Yes, I was ‘play-acting’ like you call it. Whatever this is, it can’t read minds. Can it? It’s not omnipotent. So, I’m not giving this entity any high-fives that it might affect me.”
“Entity? Jolene? An entity?”
“What else would you call it? We know Jolene is no longer alive. It could be occult activity, like paranormal. It’s dangerous. The kids around here are playing with it all the time. The thing 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. It may be some new technology like virtual reality.” He shrugged, “Or a demon.”
Isabella felt the hairs on her nape rise again as she looked out on the field where the helicopter should lay burning. She grabbed Joseph’s arm. Nothing lay there. She saw only the huge shell casing from Joseph’s weapon.
“Joe, do you see what I see?” She whispered in a panic.
He frowned as he narrowed his eyes on the vacant space, but she saw no surprise in his expression as he kept looking. “That’s just it, Isabella. What are we seeing? What is real and what is this other thing?”
“You’re acting like you’ve seen a whole helicopter disappear before!” Isabella lifted a shaking hand to cover her mouth.
“Not another helicopter. But a UFO the size of a football field.”
Darkness shadowed the bright lights of the city. Isabella 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 Isabella parked alongside.
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.” Isabella 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 you’re a real estate agent now.”
“Yes, and I’m glad you didn’t get me as your agent.”
Isabella 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 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 Isabella 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.”
Isabella looked back at Sam before she stepped into the elevator, “Well, I won’t need milk, anyway, so all the better.”
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.”
Isabella 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 came today, and is always complaining about the mess.”
Isabella 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 have your place, but it’s not on the case.” Joseph nodded and carried her bags into the back bedroom. Isabella frowned as Joseph walked away with her bags. She yelled at his back. “I know what you’re saying, 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, and pulled a beer out of the refrigerator. “Hey Isabella, 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, Isabella. 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 shake of his head warning with his frown.
The signal made Isabella 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 probably knew Mark Landis. 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 I always come up with after being disappointed.” She saw Joseph narrowed his eyes on her. 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 he wanted to keep it that way.
“Yeah, Isabella,” Samuel picked up the topic, “with the crime on these border ranches, it’s a real estate nightmare. There was that rancher, Mack Simpson, who was shot in the head because he refused to let some people cross his land unannounced.”
“Mack Simpson?” She looked at Joseph. “Why didn’t you tell me, Joe? He owned the land on the south side of us.”
Samuel didn’t wait for Joseph’s answer. “Joe even thinks your parents were slain by people coming over illegally. Then the Gettys . . .”
“The Gettys? They were on the other side of us! Sabastian and Sarah were Mama’s and Daddy’s best friends. Joe, why didn’t you tell me?”
“You only told me 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 price of land. 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.”
Isabella met Joseph’s penetrating gaze across the table. His raised eyebrow made her think he would roll his eyes in disgust. Perhaps her hunch was way-off-base. She knew 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 seemed less tense.
Isabella stepped into the warm water and rested, leaning her head against the tub. She felt her eyelids droop as the exhaustion settled 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 “home run.”
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 at the far end of the hallway and closed the door. Crawling underneath the cover, she felt wonderful. She had given up more than ten million dollars today and she felt wonderful.
You’re truly crazy, Isabella Meadows.
But she fell asleep easily.
She awoke. It must have been hours since she fell asleep. She turned toward the door startled.
“Yes,” he snapped on the lamp by her bed.
“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 after the murders 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. It’s being blocked somehow. 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. 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.”
“I’m in on the investigation.”
Joseph ignored her comment. “Recently I located a couple for questioning. But they had a fatal car accident before the interview. I don’t think it was an accident. It’s like the real estate crew. 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 with Samuel.”
He took her hand and squeezed it.
“Then, I’m in. I can help you.”
“You’ve already helped. It would have taken longer to find which agency was offering the high land price if you hadn’t been there today and been given the offer.”
“Why do you suppose 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? Landis knew I already saw him and his vehicle. He thought we were a couple even if not married. I’m thinking he had his backup helicopter scoping the area. It had to do with his perception of where I might be from. I think he may have thought I live closer to your current residence in North Carolina. Maybe his statement of having an alternate land owner who wanted to sell to his client 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.”
“That sounds logical. But you said your agency also had helicopters. Why weren’t they there? Do you think we should go and do 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. “That’s a good idea if someone wants to chase disappearing choppers.”
“I thought you said my surveillance idea was a good one. And your agency’s helicopters certainly weren’t there today when you downed theirs with that . . . what did you call it?”
“You did think my surveillance idea was good, didn’t you?”
“You had a good idea.” A smile touched his lips.
“So, I’ve already got the sheriff’s department out there doing that heavy-duty surveillance while you take your beauty sleep.”
“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 Isabella’s complaint. “No, I’m just remembering how angry you use to get when someone didn’t answer 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 and national security, I might have the edge.”
“Yes, I know. In questions that bend the mind to start thinking, you have a full house over my ace.”
“Just what does that mean?”
“It means 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 you’re not selling the farm.”
“Well, that makes one of us. But it would have been pretty sweet – over ten million dollars.”
A long pause ensued. Isabella questioned, “What’s wrong?”
“I didn’t realize 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, Bella?”
An unexpected emotion overtook her. “I don’t think you could have cared less about anything I cared about when you put yourself in harms’ way.” She punched him hard in the chest, her eyes now moistened with unspoken grief. Her voice broke, “You could have gotten killed over there. They may never have brought your body home!”
Her vision blurred and she started to shake. She cried in earnest with ragged sobs.
“Oh, come on, little Bella,” he frowned in surprise. He wrapped her in his embrace, holding her to him.
“I don’t like you calling me little Bella.” She wiggled out of his hold and looked into his eyes. “You said it yourself. I’m not little Bella, anymore. I’m a woman, full grown.”
“Well, yes.” Joseph nodded. “You certainly are. You’re a beautiful woman.”
“I’m Isabella, a beautiful woman. And I’m in on this investigation. Do you understand?”
Samuel stood in the kitchen, scrambling eggs as Isabella stepped out of her room. Joseph sat at the table, dressed in a clean cowboy shirt and Levis. His black cowboy boots shone like leather military gear.
Samuel gave his brother a sidelong glance and frowned as Isabella sat down beside Joseph.
“Are you headed back to North Carolina, Isabella?”
Isabella 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.”
Isabella nodded as Samuel shoveled eggs out of the frying pan onto a large platter. She wondered at the continued silence between the brothers. Joseph’s narrowed eyes made her feel awkward in asking her ever curious 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.”
“It’s crippling your business?” Isabella wondered at the anger in Samuel’s voice.
Samuel seated himself and sipped some coffee. He turned to Joseph, “You were right, Joe, Isabella’s questions seem to be a statement of fact.”
Isabella sipped her coffee, not knowing what to ask.
“Have you told the buyer about your parents’ murder?” Samuel challenged.
From the deeper grooves crossing Joseph’s brow, Isabella 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 you came here last night instead of sleeping out on the range like sometimes our new cowboy does.” Isabella lifted her eyebrows at Samuel’s hand signal as he pointed at his brother.
“I’m not a new cowboy. I’ve always been a cowboy. I took up soldiering as entertainment. Now I’m entertaining myself on the border.”
Samuel nodded. “Your bosses are really getting on my nerves making you go out to the borderland while they sit safely in their offices. You go in disguise! How come you’re not wearing your uniform? I bet you don’t even know who your bosses 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 Isabella, here.”
Samuel turned to her. “Joe only got two of your bags out of the car last night. Do you want to stay here?”
Isabella shook her head. “I think not.” After Joseph’s intrusion in her room, it would prove too close quarters.
“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.”
Isabella smiled. “I’m certain 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. I need my own place.”
“It would be a lot more exciting if you stayed at my place and partied down.” Samuel wiggled his eyebrows.
Isabella laughed, but immediately turned to Joseph. “When are we starting on the case?”
Joseph’s eyes narrowed on Isabella, a grimace formed. 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! Isabella, 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.”
“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.”
Isabella straightened 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 high school. 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, Isabella felt as though her request was granted. While the breakfast seemed awkward, Joseph allowed her to ride with him through El Paso to check on Old Lady Wayans. From her passenger seat, Isabella turned to look at the people walking the streets and there stood Jolene Bancroft, staring at her from the sidewalk. Isabella jumped and turned to grab Joe, “Joe, look!” Isabella looked back. Jolene was gone.
Joe never looked at Jolene, but Isabella noticed 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 Isabella’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.
Isabella followed Joseph to the door which announced ‘Closed for Business on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.’ Today was Monday and Isabella 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. We won’t interfere with her money-making, and we won’t be interrupted.”
The door suddenly opened. “Hello Joseph Manning, and you too, Miss Meadows. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Isabella 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. Isabella 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.
Isabella realized, as she stepped into this woman’s home, this was the last thing she wanted to do.
“And you say you suspect Satan worship?” Old Lady Matilda Wayans acted in high spirits. It was apparent she was having fun with Joseph’s questions. Her toothless smile made Isabella narrow her eyes wondering why 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.”
Isabella frowned harder at the woman’s behavior.
Joseph asked another question. “Since you say you don’t know if there is a coven that meets across the border, down Mexico way, can you name anyone you suspect who might practice in the coven you mentioned?”
Silence marked the moments. Only quiet answered him. But Joseph had learned as an interrogator he needed to remain quiet after each question. Several silent moments slipped by. Joseph’s patience paid off.
Matilda waved her hand in the air and leaned forward, the loose wrap around the old woman’s bones fell forward revealing many scars. “There’s that new guy, Geraldo.”
In Isabella’s observation, Matilda’s mannerisms seemed much more nervous. She anxiously looked around the room, and didn’t seem happy about talking at all now. Isabella realized Old Lady Matilda had been playing a game to delay answering questions she was afraid to answer.
“Don’t you think Matilda could have lied?” Isabella 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 want to believe.”
Joseph turned a lowered brow to Isabella. “Do you wish you hadn’t been so curious about what I was investigating?”
She released a worried breath. “You know 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. The two girls playing got scared by spelling someone’s name they were thinking about, but you wouldn’t put up with it. You questioned them until they admitted 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’s what I’m doing now. I want to think it’s only a trick. But after you confirmed with your own witness 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 I can do. I think the rest of the operation actually is in forces I have no authority over.”
“That’s it, Joe. It is a higher authority you’re trying to investigate. It’s an evil authority. It has a lot more power than you or me. It’s causing death. When you and I see visions of spirits that look like Jolene and yet it’s not, then who is it?”
Joseph turned to look at her again. “That’s the question, isn’t it? 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.”
Isabella thought hard about his explanation, but a heavy fear rose in her, “You know the Ouija Board at the party where 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 a 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. 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, 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.”
He remained silent.
Isabella remained as quiet as she could. She tried not to exchange another word as the pickup kept its pace back through El Paso. She hoped 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 she developed due to her tendency to spin out-of-control when it came to atrocities like child abuse. She already heard the discussions pertaining to nationwide missing children and women. She 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 she dreaded. “You know, Joe, I suspect 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.” Isabella 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 nodded, 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, but also the paranormal activity you’ve already witnessed.”
“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 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, Isabella.”
“What does that mean?”
“I now believe the government is covering 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 someone suspects 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’s why I’m seeing these visions.”
“So, you were pretending to not see Jolene to fool their – other worldly activity?”
“It’s spiritual warfare on steroids.”
Isabella 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 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…”
“Well, I could call it business, or criminal activity, or perversion. 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 high school and college campus across the nation. I speculate the student falls for it because they of home life or 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 paused, “Isabella, I think you need to pack up and get out while you can. That federal agent Jolene contacted for help ten years ago had an accident before her body was found on the border. He was electrocuted while trimming a tree in his yard. You are still in the area. Your land is up for grabs. Someone made certain your neighbors were murdered, your parents were murdered. What could come next, but make certain you leave, also – permanently.”
Isabella pulled in a quick breath, “Joe, my mom and dad, weren’t sacrificed, were they?” The memory of the funeral home warning 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 Isabella. But she couldn’t deny 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 they might have been sacrificed. No one saw their bodies but the Sheriff and his Deputy and a man and his wife at the funeral home. I contacted them when I got back. They confirmed what you said. The bodies 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?” Isabella 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,” Isabella 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.”
“Isabella, I have already told you more about my investigation than I have admitted to anyone. I can’t release to whom I’m to report the information. Of the land 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.”
“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 they torture for a sacrifice, they bury what’s left of the bodies, usually ashes, down Mexico way.”
“Then you don’t think Mama and Daddy were tortured or sacrificed?”
“I hope as much as you do. I loved them, too.”
Isabella nodded. She knew 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, Isabella. 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 you know. You really don’t trust anyone, do you?”
Joseph took a deep breath as he nodded with a frown. Then he opened his pickup door to step out.