TOURING FOR DEATH
Getting up at the crack of dawn shouldn't be in anyone's job description.
At least, not anyone who has a life.
I guess that says a lot about me, since I was at the crest of Black Top Mesa waiting for the sun to rise.
My name is Kate and I guide Jeep tours in the high desert of northern Arizona. Of all the jobs I'd had in the years since Mexico, being a tour guide in red rock country fit.
I’d just finished telling an old Navajo legend to the two couples on the tour – a retired Army Colonel and his wife, their daughter and her husband - when the sun reached the summit on the far side of the canyon. The intense colors bled into the landscape, and the gnarled mesquite trees and dusty jojoba bushes surrounding us morphed into ancient beings come to life.
The Colonel and his wife snapped some last minute photographs while I stowed leftover Danishes and the remaining coffee in the Jeep, and everyone piled back in to continue the tour.
"Where to now?" the daughter asked.
"Now we head back down the trail and follow along the dry creek bed. Keep your eyes open for wildlife."
I turned the Jeep around and started down the steep grade, avoiding the largest ruts.
"Everybody belted in?" I glanced in the rear view mirror.
"Ma'am, yes ma'am," came the reply. I smiled. Ya gotta love the armed forces.
We started to gather speed and I shifted into low. We’d traveled a few yards when an ear-splitting screech severed the early morning quiet. The Jeep shuddered.
I pumped the brakes - my foot hit the floor. Confused, I tried again.
The Jeep dropped into a free fall.
Panicked, I grabbed the gear shift and tried to ram it into low. The shriek of metal on metal pierced the air. I tried second.
We hurtled downhill like a rodeo clown on a pissed off bull. The Jeep hit a rut and tore the steering wheel from my hands.
The Colonel lunged across the console to grab the wheel. I held on with my left hand and used my right to haul on the emergency brake. No luck. The Jeep careened down the almost vertical trail.
We hit something big and rocketed sideways onto two wheels. Someone in the back screamed.
I steered to the left to angle the path of the Jeep, missing boulders and barreling between piñon pines. Branches slashed at the sides. I tore through every bush I could find, trying to slow us down.
The Jeep jerked to a stop about fifty yards from the base of the trail.
I didn't have to say it twice. The group scrambled clear.
"Is everyone all right?" I checked to see if any of the passengers had sustained contusions or broken bones. Aside from being badly shaken, the Colonel's wife and daughter and her husband appeared to be okay. The Colonel, on the other hand, looked furious. His red face and flashing eyes told me I'd better damn well be ready to explain what happened.
I didn't know what to tell him.
"What the hell kind of half-baked outfit is this? Who does the maintenance on your fleet? I want their names, now." His voice ricocheted across the canyon. He glanced at his family and then back to me. Anxiety radiated off him in waves.
"I understand your concern, Colonel, but our maintenance schedule is the best in the business. I'm as confused as you are. I need to see if I can locate what caused the failure." My voice sounded a lot calmer than I felt.
The Colonel took a deep breath and gave me a stiff nod. The color in his face started to fade. “I used to work on these things in the service. Let me have a look.”
We walked over to the Jeep and I popped the hood. Both of us began to search for the source of the problem.
It wasn’t hard to find.
Art arrived in his Hummer forty-five minutes later, followed by Sandra Simpson of Simpson’s Fuel driving the tow truck. Sandra walked over to the Jeep to look at the damage while Art saw to the passengers.
The Colonel's family climbed into the Hummer. By now they were over their fright and hadn't said anything about suing us, so I figured I'd done a good job calming everyone down. Art promised to refund their money and offered them all gift certificates for a future tour.
The Colonel took me aside and leaned in close.
"You'd best be careful, Kate. I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, and don’t want to know.” His gray eyes were riveted to mine. “Those sliced brake lines and the leak in the tranny were no accident." A small shiver tracked up my spine.
The Colonel walked back to the Hummer to join his family. He stopped and said something to Art before he got in. As soon as Art made sure everyone was secure, he headed my direction, his mouth set in a grim line.
"You doing okay?" he asked. The frown on his face combined with his thick neck and bristly crew cut reminded me of a bulldog. I nodded.
"I called Cole and he's on his way." He gave me a look. "Come by the office when you're finished." He didn't wait for a reply and strode back to the Humvee.
They left and a few minutes later Sheriff Cole Anderson pulled up in his SUV. The seriousness of the situation wasn't lost on me. I'm nothing if not good at denial but this went way beyond even my abilities. Cole walked over to where Sandra and I waited by the disabled Jeep.
"Tell me what happened."
I started from when I got to the office that morning and ended at the point where the Colonel and I found the sliced brake lines and the punctured transmission. He listened in silence.
"How are you holding up?"
"Pretty well, considering. No one was hurt and the Jeep's still in one piece." And my knees were shaking. Other than that, I was golden.
Cole peered under the Jeep. Sandra pointed out the cut in the lines and the small hole where the tranny fluid had leaked out. He worked his way around the vehicle and shot several pictures with a digital camera, stopping at intervals to take notes. After he'd gone over the entire Jeep, he stood up and brushed the dirt off his jeans.
He turned to Sandra. "Once you get this towed back to town, let Jason know it’s down at the shop so he can check things over. I don't want to miss anything." Jason was the Deputy Sheriff and the town's resident computer geek.
"Sure thing, Sheriff." Sandra gave me a look loaded with questions as she walked over to get the tow truck.
"You want a ride back?" he asked.
I'd normally jump at the chance to be alone with Cole, get to know him better, but I needed time to regroup. The possibility that Mexico may have caught up with me had me fighting a panic attack.
"Thanks, but I'm going to stay with the Jeep."
“Stop by when you get back.”
I said I would, and he climbed into his truck and left.
This couldn't be good. I didn’t need any trouble. Years ago I’d testified against two drug lords and a corrupt DEA agent in Mexico. I'd changed my name and address so many times since then, it was hard to remember who I was supposed to be. The way I figured it, anonymity was way better than dead. This kind of attention could lead to some serious problems.
Like being found.
Unless it already happened.
As far as I knew, no one had been released from prison yet. There'd been no indication they even knew where I was since I left Alaska. I’d almost stopped looking over my shoulder.
Sandra lay underneath the Jeep, working the tow hook. I leaned against the door and waited. My heart rate slowed as I worked to calm myself. Finished, she slid out and I gave her a hand up. She frowned as she wiped her hands on her coveralls. Nervous, I cracked a joke about my bad driving habits, but she didn't laugh.
"Kate, you know as well as I do that you're in some kind of shit if someone deliberately cut your brake lines."
"Hey- it could have happened to any of the guides. There are a lot of rigs to choose from. We need to check the other Jeeps to see if they were vandalized. It was probably some stupid, messed up kid."
Even I didn't believe me.
Sandra shook her head. "Art had Armand do a quick check of the fleet before we left, just to be sure. None of them had a problem." She hit the button for the winch. The motor whined as the Jeep's front end started to rise. "It's not like it's a secret that this ride is your personal favorite. Even I know it, for chissake. The creep didn't just slice your brakes. They punched a hole in your tranny. Whoever did this wanted you dead and didn't care who else came along for the ride."
She was right. But what could I do? Sure, from now on, I'd make it a point to check every vehicle I used, but if someone wanted me dead, I doubted they'd hit my vehicle again. That wasn't the only way to kill someone, and certainly not the most efficient.
Explosives or decapitation were more their style.
Sandra got into the tow truck and started the engine. I climbed in the passenger side and put on the seatbelt, making sure it clicked close.
"You okay?" she asked.
I nodded and took a deep breath. Why let a little thing like a sabotaged vehicle bother me? Besides, the people I worried about wouldn't know which name I was using now.
Sandra shoved the truck into gear and we headed for town. Something told me my old friend denial wouldn't work this time.