J. A. Jance

Desert Heat

The first book in the Joanna Brady series, 1993


“Write it,” Antonio Vargas ordered, without raising his voice. “Write it now.”

Wayne M. “Lefty” O’Toole looked down at the piece of gold-embossed, creamy-white stationery from the Ritz Carlton in Phoenix. He had taken it from his room the morning after he stayed there, as proof to himself that he had been there once, that a kid who had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in Bisbee, Arizona had made it big time enough that the Ritz had once rolled out the red carpet for him. But now that time seemed eons ago-another lifetime, maybe even another body.

The aging RV, a converted school bus, was stiflingly hot. Rivulets of sweat dribbled down his face as Lefty picked up the pen, a fiber-tipped Cross-another relic from his salad days-and studied the scrap of paper Vargas had placed on the table in front of him. Typed on it were the words he was expected to copy. He glanced back at Vargas who was lighting yet another cigarette although the cramped room was already thick with a haze of smoke.

“Couldn’t we talk about this, make an arrangement of some kind?” Lefty asked tentatively.

He had hoped they wouldn’t find him in this godforsaken corner of Mexico, but now that they had, he knew he was a dead man. Still, it didn’t hurt to try. Never give up, right? Never say die. It was funny that he could make jokes with himself about it even then, but Tony Vargas wasn’t laughing.

Studying Lefty impassively and without blinking, the way a cat might watch a doomed and cornered mouse, Vargas drummed his fingers on the table. Lefty hadn’t noticed it be-fore, but Tony was wearing a pair of thin, flesh- colored rubber gloves-surgical gloves. That was a bad sign, a very bad sign.

“The time for talking ended some time ago, Vargas said with an indifferent shrug. “There will be no arrangements. Our side doesn’t make arrangements. I think you have us mixed up with those other guys, your good friends at the DEA. They’re the ones who do all that plea bargain shit. We’re more straight-forward.”

Lefty let his breath out in a tired sigh. How did they know about those negotiations? The fact that he was asking to get into the Federal Witness Protection Program was supposed to be top-secret. His life had depended on those negotiations being kept secret, but someone had betrayed him. That’s why Vargas was here, wasn’t it?

With hands that shook despite his best efforts to control them, Lefty put pen to paper, copying the text verbatim from the typewritten crib sheet:

A. B.,

By now you should have received the money. Thanks for all your help. My associates are pleased, and we will be back in touch when we need assistance with another shipment. In the meantime, my best to your wife. She shows a good deal of talent for this kind of work.

Regards, Lefty

After scribbling his name, Lefty shoved the completed piece of paper across the table. While Vargas examined it, Lefty was aware of more trickles of acrid sweat. These coursed down his rib cage from under his arms. He had done his stints in Nam flying numerous combat missions. He recognized the rank stink of his own fear, but he tried to ignore it.

“Who’s A. B.?” He asked the question casually, as though it were only a matter of idle curiosity, although, with sinking heart, Lefty suspected he already knew the answer.

In reply Vargas sailed the piece of paper back across the chipped formica table top. “Not good enough,” he said. “It looks like my grandfather wrote it. Do it again.”

Lefty swallowed hard and picked up the pa-per. Vargas was right. The handwriting was so frail and spidery that it might have come from the hand of an elderly person suffering from an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease. In this case it was impossible to tell the difference between the ravages of old age and the tremulousness of sheer terror.

Lefty reached for yet another piece of Ritz Carlton stationery-sorry now that he had taken so many-and began again, concentrating on the shapes of each individual letter in exactly the same way he had once struggled with the exercises in penmanship class. The sharp-tongued nuns had insisted that he make endless rows of a’s or o’s. They required that all the letters slant at exactly the proper angle and point in the same direction. He had al-ways been lousy in penmanship, but his second attempt at copying the note passed inspection.

“Fold it,” Vargas directed, “and put it in this envelope. Here’s the address. Copy it, too.”

Taking both the envelope and the scrap of paper, Lefty studied the words that were writ-ten there-”Andrew Brady, Box 14, Double Adobe Star Route, Bisbee, Arizona, 85603.”

As soon as he saw the familiar name and address, Lefty knew the name and face of his betrayer. He had bet everything on the wrong horse. It all made terrible sense. They had used Andy-who would ever have suspected Andy?-as bait to flush him into the open. It had worked like a charm. Nothing like sending one of your old students on a killer, end run play.

For the first time he fully understood the depth of his betrayal, and the realization robbed Lefty O’Toole of his last possible hope. Sitting there across the table from his executioner, it was all Lefty could do to keep from wetting himself. At last, ducking his head, he laboriously bent to copying the address onto the envelope. It wasn’t just Andy’s address he was writing. Lefty O’Toole knew he was signing his own death warrant.

When the envelope was finished, Lefty handed it across the table. This time Vargas smiled as he took it, revealing a mouthful of expensive gold dental work. “Good,” he said, sealing the envelope and placing it in the pocket of his sweat-dampened sports jacket. “Let’s go.”

“Where?” Lefty asked.

“For a ride,” Vargas replied.

Lefty knew that if there was any chance of escape, it had to be soon. He had to make the attempt before they left the mobile home park where, if he called for help, there might be a chance of someone hearing him and coming to his aid. But Vargas lifted the hand in his coat pocket, the one that held the huge.357 Magnum, and motioned toward the door. “Move it,” he said. “Now.”

It occurred to Lefty then that perhaps he should leap up and lunge across the table, grabbing Antonio Vargas by the throat and throttling him, but there wasn’t much hope in that, either. He might be lucky enough to es-cape Vargas this time, but other enforcers would be sent for him later. It was clear to him now that even the damn Witness Protection Program was full of holes. Sooner or later they’d get him.

Resigned to his fate and without another word, Lefty rose and moved toward the door with Vargas only half a step behind.

When he opened the door, the desert’s over-powering September heat hit him full in the face, instantly drying his sweat-slick skin. As he stood on the shaky wooden step and looked around, he found, much to his surprise, that his limbs were no longer quaking. Knowing he had passed through the worst of the fear gave him renewed courage, restored his determination not to whimper or beg. No matter what, he still owned that much self-respect.

“What now?” he asked.

“Like I said,” Vargas replied, mopping his brow, “we go for a ride in your car. If anyone sees us, I’m an old friend from the States, and we’re going into town for a beer.”

“Where are we going really?”

“Out into the desert. Something may go wrong with your car. In this heat, who knows what will happen? Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to find your way back to the road. Let’s go.”

In the searing noontime heat, they took Lefty’s Samurai and drove slowly through the little gringo

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