By Libby Fischer Hellmann

Tumbleweeds skitter across the desert at random, like dust motes caught in a shaft of light. Zack swallows as he drives, but the air is so dry his tongue is coated with dust. The huge Texas sky hangs down on all sides of him like the flaps of a tent. When he was little he felt tucked up and secure in tents, but this one is too vast, too relentless.

His eyes hurt when he looks up. He bears down on the gas. The Pontiac shudders, then shoots forward. Past uneven fence posts linked by barbed wire. Past an abandoned oil derrick rising out of the brush. He tries to shake it off, this unease, but it has already penetrated, like water seeping through a leaky roof. A distant ribbon of grey detaches itself from the horizon. A few minutes later it puckers into geometric shapes. He has reached the outskirts of Laredo. He cruises south past a cluster of ramshackle buildings. Colonias, they call them, inhabited by Mexicans who cross the border to work at menial jobs for less than minimum wage. Third-world shantytowns is more like it.

He slows and parks next to a cantina. A chalk-board with several letters missing announces cold beer inside. As he opens the door, a gust of cool air slaps him. He tries not to think of the old westerns where the bad guy swings through the saloon doors.

A radio blares out a tune by the Judds. On one side is the bar, a slab of splintered wood which will pierce his skin if he isn’t careful. Folding chairs and card tables sit on an uneven floor. Except for a Budweiser sign, a dusty mirror, and a Texas map with Webb County outlined in black, the walls are bare.

He glances at his reflection. With his Nikes, Dockers, and Polo shirt, he has Yankee written all over him. He lifts his sunglasses and scans the place without seeming to, the way he’s been trained. A stocky Mexican woman lounges behind the bar with a bored expression. The only other customer sits at one of the tables, a long-necked Bud in front of him.

Zack studies him. A beard covers his face, making it hard to take in his features. He wears a buckskin jacket and camouflage pants, and his long hair is tied back with a leather headband. The man is a cross between Davy Crockett and one of the weirdos Dennis Hopper always plays.

Zack steps up to the bar. “I’ll have a beer.”

The woman fishes a longneck Corona out of a cooler and holds up five fingers. Zack digs out a five. He knows he’s being ripped off. She stuffs the bill inside her shirt. He tips his head back for a long swig, hoping to rinse the grit from his throat. and glances at the man. The man stubs out a cigarette. Zack takes that as a sign of greeting and nods.

“Long ride?” The man asks.

“Long enough.” Zack walks over and pulls out a rickety chair. “Why here?” He waves the Corona in the air.

“It is what it is.”

Zack sits down. It doesn’t really matter where the meet is. Or the cross-over. He’ll be well out of it by then.

The man thumps a pack of Camels on the table. “So I put out feelers and one name comes back to me. Just one. Zack Mueller. Special Agent, FBI.” Zack shifts in his chair. The man has a flat Midwestern accent, but he affects a twang, as if he wants Zack to think he’s a bubba.

The man slips a fresh Camel between his lips. “How does an upstanding federal law enforcement agent turn into a gun runner?”

“Hard work and initiative.”

The man’s eyes narrow. “How do I know you’re not fixin’ to set me up?” Zack shrugs. It has taken time and effort to get this far. But he is prepared. He keeps his mouth shut. The man, perhaps sensing a stalemate, lights his cigarette.

A flash of light strobes Zack’s peripheral vision. Someone has opened the door to the cantina. A young Hispanic woman dressed in cargo shorts, a white shirt rolled up to her elbows, and desert boots. The man with Zack nods to her. She closes the door. In the dim light the girl’s skin is the color of burnished copper. Her dark eyes glow like polished obsidian.

“You made good time,” the man calls out.

She calls to the woman behind the bar. “Mamacita,” she says, “como te a ido?”

The woman smiles, revealing a mouth with several teeth missing. She turns down the radio. “Estoy bien a veces. Un poco causada pero.” I’m okay. A little tired.

“Trabajas demaciado.” You are working too hard.

“No tengo otra alternativa.” I have no choice.

The girl nods sympathetically. “Una Pepsi.”

The woman opens a cold Pepsi. The girl throws a dollar bill on the bar, hikes the bottle to her mouth, then joins the men at the table.

“You know her?” The man jerks his head in the woman’s direction.

“No,” the girl says. “Yes.” She eyes Zack. “I’m Dora. Dora Anuncion.”

“Zack Mueller.”

They both look at the man. His turn. “I’m what you might call -- an agent, too,” he laughs. “For some Indians in the Mayan Rainforest. They have endowed me with the – uh -- authority to buy them a shitload of guns.”

“What do we call you?” Zack asks.

“You can call me Elvis.”


“The Indians think I’m their king—no, their fucking messiah. You know. Gonna save them.” A half-smile plays on his face. Zack wonders if he’s pasted it on for effect.

“You know the rainforest?” Elvis asks. Zack knows it’s in southeastern Mexico, Belize, part of Guatemala. “A lot of in-di-ge-nous,” Elvis draws out each syllable, “Indians down there. You know the type. Running around naked. Never saw a white man ‘till twenty years ago.” Elvis shifts in his seat. “But now it seems progress has come.”

“How’s that?” Zack asks.

“An American oil company thinks there’s a gold mine of reserves under the forest. They’re fixin’ to come in and drill. At the invitation of the Mexican government.” Elvis glances at the girl.

Dora clears her throat. “The government wants to jump-start the economy of the region, create jobs.”

“But the Indians don’t want it,” Zack finishes for her. “Right. The drilling will destroy their homes, their sacred ground. Not to mention what it will do to the habitat.”

“I met Dora in the jungle.” Elvis takes over again, Zack notices. He doesn’t like to relinquish control for long. “She’s on our side. Now the Indians, see, they started out saying they were gonna commit mass suicide if the oil company comes in. But we changed their minds.” He chuckles again.

“You’re encouraging armed insurrection.”

Elvis points a finger at Zack. “Your words.”

Zack rolls his beer on the table. “How’d you get to me?”

Elvis glances at Dora. She takes a breath. “I’m an environmental anthropologist. Before the Maya Forest I was in Colombia.”

Zack nods. He remembers Colombia. The Indians there kept blowing up the pipeline to keep the multinationals out. When that didn’t work they escalated to kidnapping, then to Russian arms. He had been in the middle of it.

“But that’s jack-- Zack -- compared to what we want to do.” Elvis smiles at his own joke. “Can you help us?”

Zack scratches his cheek, pretending to think. “Depends on what you want.”

“Don’t they got AK47s, stun grenades, rocket launchers, explosives down in Colombia?”

“They placed an order.”

Elvis fingers his beard. “One from Column A, one from Column B.” His smile fades. “Who the hell are you, man?”

Zack drains the last of his beer. “I’ve been with the Bureau twenty-five years. Retiring next year.” He is ready. He feels it. The fatigue of too many years at the same job. “My daughter has cerebral palsy,” he lies. “She needs care. Insurance won’t cover it. So I started moonlighting.”

Elvis tilts his head as if he can somehow divine the truth of Zack’s words. “What’s your connection?”

Zack smiles. “I can’t tell you that.” Mentally he flashes back to Petrovsky, the Russian general who didn’t speak a word of English. Always in uniform, as if it proved he was once an important man. Petrovsky, accompanied by Sergei, his younger partner, who did speak English. And wore those cheap, shiny Euro knock-off suits. They’d negotiated a small deal, the three of them. It went down without a hitch. Afterwards Zack lured Petrovsky to Atlantic City with promises of wine, women, and more business. The Bureau nabbed him at the Newark airport—the general never made it to the crap table. But Sergei, who stayed home, disappeared from sight. Now he was Zack’s business partner.

“Who are you man?” Elvis repeats.

“Just a guy looking out for his family.”


Elvis and Zack discuss terms. Zack doesn’t ask where the money is coming from. The Indians may be primitive but they’re not dumb; they’ve been dealing coca and weed for years. In Colombia, over forty per-cent of the economy depends on the drug trade. He’s not sure about Mexico. He tells Elvis a front company will accept a wire payment through a bank in the Caribbean. “Except for my fee. I want it up front. In cash.”

Elvis wavers. “How do I know you won’t cut me loose?”

“You don’t. But that’s how I do business. My man at the port will want his cut too.”

Elvis gazes around the room, as if considering Zack’s terms. Finally he nods. They’ll meet back at the cantina tomorrow.

Zack finds a relatively clean motel on the edge of town and boots up his laptop. He sends some e-mails and waits for the replies. He will drive Elvis to the port of Houston; he needs to make sure his team is in place. He leans back against the headrest. The sheets are cool, the pillows surprisingly soft. He has been on the road for a while. A knock on his door wakes him. Through the blinds he sees that the late afternoon sun has turned heavy and red. He rolls out of bed, cracks open the door. Dora Anuncion steps in, sits down on the bed.

“So, can you do this?” she asks. Zack smiles. She digs into her cargo shorts, pulls out a scrap of paper. “Here is the wire information you’ll need.”

Zack takes the paper. “I’m thirsty. Let’s get a drink.”

“I should get back.” She looks at her watch, one of those Dick Tracy numbers with the time, temperature, directions, maybe the whole Internet on it too. “He’ll wonder where I am.”

“Tell him I tried to put the moves on you.” She smiles. They get into the Pontiac. “So who is this joker?” Zack keys the engine. “Name’s Duane Pollack. We’re not sure where he’s from. He showed up a few months ago.”

“No one’s checked him out?”

She turns her face toward him. “What do you think?”

Zack shrugs. They backtrack through the colonias, past squalid shacks, a rusted car, a child’s tricycle upside-down at the edge of the road. Nearby is a dump overflowing with glass, fast-food wrappers, a dented bucket. The detritus of a desperate population.

“This looks like a refugee camp,” Zack says.

“They have to live someplace,” Dora says.

“Why do they keep coming?”

Her laugh is hollow. “Because the alternative is starving in Mexico.” Her face gets a faraway look, as if she’s dwelling on a painful memory. “These places have grown unsupervised for years. No electricity, running water, sewers. Two or three families sharing one home.”

“The law looked the other way?”

“Until the developers showed up.”


Dora’s lips curl. “They promised to provide electricity, running water.

The infrastructure to turn these slums around. They lied. Never built anything. Just took the money.”

Zack nods. It is an old story.

“Eventually it got embarrassing. So the legislature decided to outlaw new settlements. Made them illegal.” Her voice tightens. “Which, of course, was worse than doing nothing. The developers moved on to their next prey. But the people – they have nowhere to go.”

Zack grunts. “What will happen to them?”

She presses her lips together. “Maybe they’ll ask for your services one day.”

“How do you know so much about places like this?”

“I was lucky. I made it out.”

They get a drink, then drive back. She hops out of the Pontiac, leans her elbows on the open window. “I don’t have to go.” She smiles lazily. Zack considers it. Dora is his type. All legs. But the time isn’t right. He swallows. “Not yet.”

She glides back to her car. He watches her hips sway. She wants him to know what he is passing up.


Zack hears from Sergei the next morning. The deal is on. A shipment will leave Odessa within sixty days. Once the cargo is offloaded, Elvis will truck it across the border.

Zack waits for Elvis and Dora at the cantina, but they are late. Finally the door swings open and a young Latino hurries in. He waves his arms at the woman behind the bar. Even in Spanish, the words can’t spill out of him fast enough. The woman tightens her lips. She looks over at Zack. He approaches the bar. “Is there a problem?”

The boy looks at Zack, then at the woman. The woman stares at the floor, perhaps mulling over her options. Then she gestures to the boy. “Di le que paso. Con la mujer.”

Zack stiffens. “Tell me what about the woman?” He leans across the bar, splinters be damned.

The boy answers in unaccented English. “Your friend, the girl. She was here early this morning. I drove her to the airstrip.”


The boy explains there is a private airstrip a few miles from the cantina. Oilmen used it to visit their wells. Dora asked him to show it to her. “When we got there, she told me to stay in the car, but she got out. She hid behind a ridge.”

“Go on,” Zack says grimly.

“A few minutes later, I heard the sound of an airplane. I snuck a look. A private plane landed. A man wearing a suit got out. He had a briefcase in his hand. Then, I see the man who was here yesterday. –“


The boy nods. “He just appears. From nowhere. And the woman is in front of him.”

“He and the woman together?”

“They were walking toward the plane. Slowly. Close together. The man in the suit gave him the briefcase. And then –” Zack reads the fear in the boy’s eyes. “They pushed her, pulled her up the ladder. She disappeared inside. The man – Elvis – went down the steps. And then the plane took off.” Zack runs his tongue around his lips. “Describe the man in the suit.”

“An Anglo. He looked rich.”

“What about the plane?”

The boy hesitates. “One engine. White. Blue numbers and letters on the side.”

He tells Zack the numbers he recalls. Zack feels the door open behind him. He raises a finger to his lips and turns around. It is Elvis, a briefcase in his hand. Alone. “Everything okay?” Zack asks.

Elvis smiles. “Couldn’t be better, compadre.”

Zack makes a show of looking behind Elvis. “Where’s Dora?”

“I sent her back, man. She couldn’t wait to get back to them Indians.” He makes a sound that could be a laugh or a sneer. “This thing she’s got for them, you know. She’s like a goddammed saint. Gonna save them.” “From who?”

Elvis hesitates, a lopsided grin on his face. “You know, man. The bad guys.”


The scenery changes as they drive northeast on Fifty-nine. Patches of irrigated desert give way to fields of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. Farther on, a mantle of green covers the prairie. Despite the air conditioning, the close, humid air inside the car settles on Zack’s forearms. He smells the tension on Elvis. After an hour, he pulls into a rest stop. While Elvis goes inside, Zack places a call to his intel analyst back east. Elvis comes out with a bag full of candy bars and soda. His face twitches. Zack wonders how much he put up his nose last night.

Outside Houston, Zack loops south to the port, a huge facility that stretches twenty-five miles from the Gulf inland. He heads toward the mouth of Galveston Bay. Sergei will hide his shipment inside a cargo of steel rods and bars the Russians will dump on the U.S. market. Zack flashes his ID and he and Elvis are admitted to the Barbours Cut terminal. As they make their way to the wharf, they maneuver around warehouses and sheds, forklifts, trucks, and cranes. Railroad tracks curl around the sides of the buildings. Zack wrinkles his nose, surprised by the briny tang in the air.

They head toward a small shed behind the pier where his port contact should be waiting. Everything looks normal to Zack. Too normal. No odd movement catches his eye. Something is wrong. Where is his backup? They have almost reached the shed when Zack’s cell phone rings.


“Zack, it’s over. Let it walk.” It is his contact agent.

“You know, I’m kind of tied up right now,” Zack says into the phone. His eyes stay on Elvis. “I’ll talk to you about those motorcycles later.” “It ain’t gonna happen today, man. Let it walk.”

“Got it.” Zack snaps off the phone. He slows his breathing, forces himself to remain calm. Something has happened. Something bad.

“What’s up, man?” Elvis tilts his head.

Zack shakes his head and opens the door to the warehouse. He doesn’t like what’s going down, but he follows orders. A beefy man with a tomato-red face and neck is waiting for them. Zack pushes up his sunglasses and pulls him aside. When they finish their business, Zack watches as the man and Elvis make their deal. But his mood progressively sours, and when Elvis hands over the cash, needles of rage edge up his spine. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He pulls his shades over his eyes.


Inside the hotel room three agents and the ASAC sit at a round table. All four, with their impassive Bureau faces, seem hewn from the same block of granite. Zack’s anger has been building, twisting inside him all day. His icy calm has vanished; he feels as weak as tufts of tumbleweed.

“What happened?” He swipes his forehead with his sleeve. The heat in the room is oppressive.

“We lost her,” the case agent says.


The agent nods. “She didn’t report in.”

“What happened?” Zack repeats, suspicion coating his words.

“We don’t know. That’s why we pulled you out.”

“But she spent months putting it all together. And Elvis is a punk. Someone’s behind him.” Zack eyes his superiors. They don’t disagree. “Let me find out who it is.”

The ASAC shakes his head.

“Why not? You know as well as I do it’s the only way.”

“No,” the ASAC says. “We lost a good agent. We can’t afford to lose another. Go home and regroup, Mueller. It’s over.”


Back in his room Zack stares at the ceiling, a series of spongy panels peppered with tiny holes. He wants to leave this damp, deadly place where the green grass looks painted on and the pretense is as thick as air. He takes a swig of bourbon. As he swallows, his cell phone trills. “Yeah?”

It’s the analyst he called on the way to Houston. “That plane? I ran down the numbers.”


“It’s a Cessna. Belongs to Maverick Oil.”

Zack sits up straight. “Say again?”

“A Grand Caravan. Registered three years ago.”

He thanks the analyst and disconnects. The plane belongs to Maverick Oil. A suit got off the plane and handed Elvis a briefcase full of money. Why would an oil company give money to a scumbag like Elvis? Unless he was working for the oil company. Unless they are the ones behind him.

Zack paces the room, thinking it through. It is crazy, but it fits. Maverick backs a spurious arms deal. Stage-manages an insurrection, knowing the Mexican government will come down on the rebels. Then with their cover in place, the oil company comes in and drills. Zack blinks. A corporate-sponsored war. With the indirect support of the Mexican government. It’s crazy all right. Crazy like a fox.

He corners the room. No one at the Bureau has said a word about any of this. Not one of the people in the hotel room. Zack calls the analyst back. “What do you know about Maverick Oil?”

“I was wondering when you’d ask,” the analyst says. “It’s a small company, but they’re expanding into Mexico and South America.” There is a pause. “The CEO is an old college pal of Huntington’s.”

Zack sucks in his breath. Gerald Huntington, the ASAC of the Houston office, has made known his desire to retire from government service. With six kids, his public sector salary just can’t pay the bills. “They were frat buddies at Texas A&M.”

“I see,” Zack says.

Once again he hangs up. Images of rainforest people dance across the white wall. The Indians are caught in an intractable vise. If they rebel against the oil company they will be overpowered. If they turn on their own soldiers, they will be killed.

But now it makes sense. Lured with the promise of wealth by his old buddy, Huntington sanctioned Maverick’s plan. Allowed it to go down. Hell, he probably saw it as a slam-dunk. It was easy to rationalize: an economy based on oil is much preferable to a drug cartel. There is only one problem. Dora’s blood is on their hands. The Bureau’s, Maverick’s, even the Mexican government’s. Dora, who came from nothing. Who was cheated out of the opportunity to make a difference. For Zack, it is an issue of loyalty. Huntington’s. Dora’s. His own. Again he paces the room.

Later that night he slips into Elvis’s hotel room. The shower is on. Zack hears off-key singing from the bathroom. At length Elvis emerges, a towel around his waist. When he sees Zack’s Sig Sauer aimed at his chest, his singing stops.


Houston, Texas (AP): The FBI today announced it is searching for Duane Pollack, a mercenary known to be active in the Mexican rainforest. Pollack, aka Elvis, disappeared several weeks ago after two million dollars from Maverick Oil was reported missing. FBI sources fear the money will be used to finance an armed revolt in the Mexican rainforest, an area Maverick Oil hoped to explore. US ports are on alert for suspicious cargo. Meanwhile, Maverick Oil’s plans to explore in the rainforest have been put on hold.

In related news, former Houston FBI chief Gerald Huntington says he’s rejected an offer of employment at Maverick Oil, although there is some dispute at Maverick headquarters whether an offer was ever tendered.

Zack finishes his coffee and folds the newspaper under his arm. He tosses a few coins on the counter. Elvis won’t be surfacing. He made sure of that. Neither will the cache of weapons. Sergei was happy to switch the port of entry back to Newark, especially after Zack warned him that the FBI might be on to him.

He opens the door of the restaurant. A cold clammy drizzle is falling, but he smiles. He is home, back East, thousands of miles from Texas. The drilling has been blocked. The Indians are safe. And since his recent retirement, there is a healthy bank account, a commendation from the Bureau, and an arsenal of Russian weapons in a nearby warehouse. He whistles as he moves down the street. Dora would be proud.

Copyright © 2000 Libby Fischer Hellmann