Category Archives: travel

Awesome Authors–Charles Ray

Author photoToday on Awesome Authors I’m pleased to interview prolific writer, former diplomat, journalist, and current intrepid world-traveler, Charlie Ray. I first became aware of Charlie through Indies Unlimited,where he’s a frequent commenter. He’s much more active online than I could ever hope to be, as he maintains several blogs, regularly posts on Google+, LinkedIn, and Facebook, not to mention taking the time to stop by other blogs to show his support. Not only that, but he pens both fiction and non-fiction, is a fabulous photographer, and a fine artist. Whew. I wish I had that kind of energy and talent! Intrigued, aren’t you? Then what the heck are we waiting for? Let’s get to the interview:

(From the author’s bio): Charles Ray has been writing fiction since his teens. He won a Sunday school magazine writing contest when he was thirteen, and having his byline on a short story published in a national publication forever hooked him on writing. During his time in the army (1962-1982) he often moonlighted as a newspaper or magazine journalist, and was the editorial cartoonist for the Spring Lake (NC) News, a weekly newspaper, during the 1970s. In addition to his writing, he was an artist/cartoonist and photographer for a number of publications, including Ebony, Eagle and Swan, and Essence, and had a monthly cartoon feature and did several covers for Buffalo, a now-defunct magazine that was dedicated to showcasing the contributions of African-Americans to the country’s military history.

After retiring from the army, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service, and served as a diplomat in posts in Asia and Africa until his retirement in 2012. He has worked and traveled throughout the world (Antarctica is the only continent he hasn’t visited), and now, as a full-time writer, continues to globetrot looking for interesting things to write about, draw, or take pictures of.

DV: Hi Charlie! Thanks for being here. Please tell us about yourself and what you write.

CR:  I grew up in a small town in rural East Texas and fell in love with books at an early age. I wrote my first fiction (a short story for a Sunday school magazine) when I was 13, and it won first place and was published, so I became hooked on writing as well at an early age. I write like I read – in a variety of genres. I’ve done books on leadership and management, a couple of books of my photographs (I’ve done newspaper and magazine photography, and taught it at an L.A. City College overseas program in Korea in the late 1970s), and several books of fiction. I do a mystery series (starring a PI based in Washington, DC) and a western/historical series about the Buffalo Soldiers. I’ve also done fantasy and comedy, and did a sort of dystopian sci-fi bit about the confluence of political/religious extremism and climate change (The Culling). My wife says my problem is twofold – I have a short attention span and I refuse to grow up.Cover for Death and Taxis

DV: 🙂 You’ve had quite the storied career in the U.S. Army as well as the State Department. How have these experiences influenced your writing?

CR: As you might imagine, a lot of the things I’ve experienced naturally find their way into my writing – including people and places. In the main, though, having spent nearly 50 years traveling around the world has taught me to be observant and store impressions that can later be called up in the stories I write. Everything, including what I see and hear on my subway commute here in DC, is grist for the creative mill. I got the idea for my first book on leadership watching an old lady chastise a couple of loud teen girls on the subway one day (Things I Learned from my Grandmother about Leadership and Life).

DV: Obviously, you’ve done a LOT of traveling. Which places are foremost in your memory and why? Do you plan to use them in future writing projects?

CR: The only continent I’ve never visited is Antarctica. As to which stand out – they all do in one way or another. I’ve visited the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge, walked the Great Wall, and flown over Colombian and Panamanian jungles. Angkor Wat is one of my favorite places, but so is the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. I once flew from Cape Town, South Africa to Copenhagen, Denmark in the middle of December – that was an unforgettable experience – and have lived in the German Alps. I’ve been all over the U.S., and loved every inch of it. Little bits of places and people I’ve encountered find their way into almost everything I write. I’ve lived in Washington, DC off and on since 1982, and a lot of my current work (except the Buffalo Soldier series) is based mainly in the DC area. Long answer to a short question, but the short version, is, yes I do.

“…having spent nearly 50 years traveling around the world has taught me to be observant and store impressions that can later be called up in the stories I write…”

DV: I’ve always wanted to visit Angkor Wat. I’ll have to pick your brain about it later 🙂 Please describe your latest release.

Cover for Frontier JusticeCR: I just finished Frontier Justice, a fictionalized account of the first two years of the service of Bass Reeves the first African-American deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. Even though the accounts are fictitious, they’re based on historical research.

DV: That sounds intriguing. What prompted you to write Frontier Justice?

CR: After reading a couple of my Buffalo Soldier novels, my daughter, Denise, suggested that I should do more western/historical stories about the Old West because of the distorted images of the period by popular media. In my research for the Buffalo Soldier series, I’ve learned that a lot of what I thought growing up watching western movies in cinema and on TV was wrong. Ten percent of the cavalry on the frontier, for instance, was African-American, as well as the infantry units. After the Civil War, most of the U.S. Army was deployed west of the Mississippi to support the country’s westward expansion, so if the movies were accurate, many times the cavalry coming to the rescue would be men of color. Moreover, many of the cowboys and outlaws were minorities. So, I’m just trying to use my fiction to fill in some of the blanks.Cover for Buffalo Soldier: Yosemite

DV: We definitely need more historical accuracy in our educational system. I always found it odd that no one questioned what we were taught in school. You’re definitely a prolific writer having written both non-fiction and fiction, including the Al Pennyback mystery series and the historical Buffalo Soldier series. What do you enjoy about writing in each genre? What do you find challenging?

CR: I like mysteries and westerns – always have – because they’re action oriented and usually have a sort of Aesop-fable moral to them. I like mysteries because of the puzzle factor, and westerns because of the way the world is seen in simple terms. The challenge is to take the formulas of these two genres and create fully fleshed, interesting characters and less-than-simple plot lines, and tell an interesting story. The other challenge is to keep from sounding too similar when I switch from one to the other.

“I’m just trying to use my fiction to fill in some of the blanks.”

DV: How long does it take you to write a novel?

CR: Depends. The mysteries take a month or two because of the need to work out clues and red herrings and the like. The westerns I can do in about three weeks as soon as I’ve decided on the opening and ending.

DV: Do you research before the start of each book or while you write?

CR: Both. I do basic research before starting, but as I write, I’m constantly looking up things like weapons capability, date of events, etc. Research never ends.

DV: Do you outline or make it up as you go along?

CR: I do a chapter by chapter sketch. Main action and characters involved. But, I leave space between chapters, because sometimes as I’m writing, something new will come up and things get changed. I don’t do excessively detailed outlines because that constricts the creative flow. What I do is end each day’s writing session by starting the next chapter. Then, I visualize in my mind the action, get a feel for smell, sound, etc., and then start writing.

“I don’t do excessively detailed outlines because that constricts the creative flow.”

DV: Great method. I think Hemingway worked like that. Do you edit as you go or wait until you’re finished and then go back through the manuscript? Do you hire a professional editor for your work?

CR: I correct gross and obvious mistakes as I work, but wait until I’m done – let it cool off a few days, and then go back over it from page one. I thought about paying for a professional editor, but from what I’ve seen of many traditionally published books, errors will still creep in. As long as they don’t interrupt the flow of the story, or are just so numerous they indicate carelessness, I don’t think it makes a great difference. I’m more concerned with getting the layout looking smooth and professional.

DV: What made you decide to “go indie”?

Cover for The CullingCR: I worked as a freelance journalist for decades. Pay was low and slow, and only the few best sellers had any control over their work. I was also curious about the mechanical side of publishing.

DV: What kind of marketing works best for you?

CR: I’m still experimenting. I do a blog and a lot on social media, and that does generate a few sales. In the highly competitive world of today, I don’t expect a 50 Shades of Gray response, just modest, regular sales, with increase over time as word gets around. I also do speaking, keep spare copies of books with me to hand out when I travel, and get the word out through a couple of professional associations I work with. I worked with an organization at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, for instance, and got a spot in their magazine about my Buffalo Soldier series. Leavenworth happens to be home to the Buffalo Soldier monument. After the article appeared, my sales shot up over a thousand percent for three or four months, and that series continues to do relatively well.

DV: Nice. Niche marketing is a great way to do it. What advice would you give to a new writer?

CR: Write – write every day. Don’t let self-doubt or naysayers turn you off from it if writing gives you a thrill. Read a lot, and not just the genres you write. You can learn a lot from what others have done. Don’t have a thin skin about criticism.

“I don’t expect a 50 Shades of Gray response, just modest, regular sales, with increase over time as word gets around.”

DV: In light of the huge changes in the publishing industry, where do you see yourself in five years? How do you think publishing will change in the future?

CR: Hopefully in five years I will still be writing, only to a larger audience. I think the e-book and Indie revolutions have changed publishing, making it more democratic, and as it matures it will become more ‘traditional.’ Unlike many, I don’t think physical books will be completely replaced by e-Books. I think the prices of books will go way down, so anyone looking to become rich by writing should perhaps look for another occupation.

DV: And now, my favorite question: If you could travel anywhere through time (either backward or forward) where would you go and why?

CR: I’d actually do both. I’d like to go back to the post-Civil War period to see what it was actually like (my grandmother was born in 1895, and told interesting stories about growing up), and then I’d like to go forward a hundred years to see what the world will be like.

DV: Great idea! I’m certainly curious to see how everything works out in the future…

Thank you for stopping by today, Charlie, and good luck with your writing!

If you’d like to learn more about Charles Ray and his work, please see the links below. But first, here’s an excerpt from his newest release, Frontier Justice:

EXCERPT:

Bass Reeves was a big man.

At six-feet, two-inches, and weighing one hundred eighty pounds, he would have been an imposing figure even without the bushy black mustache that covered his upper lip and hung down to the edge of his square chin, the long, muscular arms, and hands, each of which was bigger than two hands on most men.

He had just returned to his farm from a scouting job with the U.S. Marshals over in the Indian Territory, and during his absence, many of the chores which were beyond the abilities of his young sons had remained undone. Dressed in a faded pair of brown canvas pants and a blue wool shirt, he was hoisting a fence pole into the hole he’d just finished digging when he saw the rider approaching along the road from the town of Van Buren.

His curiosity was aroused. It wasn’t often that people from town came out this way, most especially just before the middle of the day. Removing the battered brown Stetson, he took a cloth from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his broad, brown brow, and stood watching as the single rider drew nearer.

When the rider was about a hundred yards off, Bass was able to distinguish features. He saw that it was a white man with a long, dark brown beard that came to a point midway down the front of the black coat he wore. His hair, dark brown, almost black, splayed out from under the white hat he wore pulled down low over his forehead. Bass saw the butt of a Winchester rifle jutting out of the scabbard attached to the right side of the saddle, and assumed that the man also had at least one pistol in a holster. Few men, white or black, went anywhere this close to Indian Territory without a firearm. Bass’s own weapon, a Winchester repeating rifle, was leaned against a small tree about ten feet from where he stood. He’d left his Colt .44 pistols at the house, not figuring he’d need them just to mend a little fence. And besides, they’d just have been in the way.

Not that he was in any way worried. The stranger didn’t seem to pose any threat. He rode up, pulling his horse to a halt about ten feet away. Up close, Bass noted that he was almost as tall as he was, but considerably lighter, maybe a hundred fifty pounds or so. His expression, while not hostile, wasn’t particularly friendly either. There was something about the face that seemed familiar.

The man dismounted. He left his rifle in the scabbard and tied his horse to the fence post Bass had just an hour earlier planted in the ground. As he walked closer, his coat flapped open revealing a revolver high on his right hip.

“Don’t seem particularly friendly,” Bass thought. “But, don’t seem threatenin’ neither.”

The man stopped just beyond his reach.

“You Bass Reeves?” he asked.

END EXCERPT

Blog and Social Media Links:

http://charlieray45.wordpress.com
http://charlesaray.blogspot.com
http://redroom.com/member/charles-a-ray
https://www.facebook.com/CharlieRay45
http://www.linkedin.com/in/charlieray
https://plus.google.com/u/0/106101898215720668007/posts
https://members.nationalgeographic.com/55370966487/
http://www.viewbug.com/member/charlesray

Links to selected recent books:

Frontier Justice:
Kindle
Paperback

The Culling:
Kindle
Paperback

Death and Taxis:
Kindle
Paperback

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Thriller Ink Interview

Keyboard and penThere’s a fun interview over at Thriller Ink today–find out why I write action/adventure and whether I put real people in my novels 🙂

http://thrillerink.com/d-v-berkom-author-interview/


Readers Want to Know…Yucatan Peninsula

Lately, I’ve gotten emails from readers asking how I came up with some of the scenes in Yucatan Dead and thought it would be fun to post the photographs that inspired them from my latest trip to Mexico. I’ve found actually traveling and researching a specific area and noting the sights, sounds, smells, and general feel of a place works wonders on my imagination and lends more credibility to the scenes.

Ek Balam

At the ruins of Ek’ Balam– a true Indiana Jones moment…

Before I left on the trip I’d been writing what I thought was going to be a mystery with my character, Kate Jones. This trip was supposed to be for researching a future novel. But Mexico changed all that.

And, as I’ve learned, you don’t argue with Mexico.

So, my mystery turned into a full-on thriller about the ruthless drug cartels that have destabilized so much of that country. Since I’m a novelist and basically lie for a living, I made up a group of off the grid commandos working deep in the jungle, fighting the cartels. Little did I know at the time, but groups of locals had steadily begun taking up arms against the cartels. Some of these groups have been backed/trained by the CIA and/or the DEA, as well as the Mexican government. Some continue to operate clandestinely. Many are now being hunted by the cartels, and the number of people from several ‘hot’ areas in Mexico who are requesting asylum in the United States has skyrocketed. Although there are still several places deemed by the State Department as safe to travel in Mexico, obviously, there are some areas you should avoid. Driving through Sonora and Sinaloa in an old jeep in the middle of a scathing hot September would be one of them 🙂

El Castillo

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

Back to the trip: in the book, I gave one of the drug cartels Kate ends up fighting against the name of El Castillo, which is the name of one of the main structures at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza. Visitors are no longer allowed to climb the pyramid after someone fell to their death a few years back, but it’s still mighty impressive to look at.

There’s a scene where Kate stumbles upon an undiscovered Maya site (of which there are said to be hundreds in Mexico and Guatemala) which had a cenote, or fresh water spring hidden beneath decades of jungle growth.

photo of jungle

It’s a jungle out there…

If you look closely, you’ll see an ancient wall underneath all that vegetation…

photo of hacienda

Hacienda

While inland, I stayed at a historic hacienda built on top of an ancient Maya site by the Spaniards in 1523. These Spaniards went so far as to use the stones of a Maya temple for its walls (the hacienda is now run as an eco-tourism resort managed by Maya). In Yucatan Dead, Kate is kidnapped and taken to a hacienda deep in the jungle to meet her nemesis, Roberto Salazar. The description of the place grew from my experience while at the hacienda, and my jumping off point was the entrance (note the brick wall–these were ancient Maya building materials, most likely from the temple that had stood there centuries before).

Hands-down, my favorite places were the ancient Maya archaeological sites of Ek’ Balam and Coba (Chichen Itza and Tulum were pretty fantastic, too, but sooo crowded, it was hard to get a good feel for them). The showdown between Kate and Salazar takes place at a fictitious Maya site that I based on a combination of them all. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of Ek’ Balam, one of the most recently discovered sites on the peninsula (yes, those are my hiking shoes):

photo of Ek' Balam

The ruins at Ek’ Balam

The next picture is where I got the idea for the entrance to the temple at the top of the pyramid. This is called the Temple of the Jaguar, and is located on the tallest pyramid at the site. You can still climb this structure as well as the rest of the buildings, although I’m not sure how long that will be true. More and more people are discovering the site and the impact of all those tourists on the ancient structures is growing.

Photo of Temple of the Jaguar

Temple of the Jaguar (Ek’ Balam)

Roughly translated, Ek’ Balam means black jaguar, or bright star jaguar, and the big cat figures prominently in Yucatan Dead. In the photo above, the teeth along the bottom form the lower jaw, depicting the open mouth of a jaguar.

photo of carved jaguar

Carving of a jaguar

There are carvings of winged beings, some sculpted with a distinctly smaller arm, allowing for the Maya belief that people born with physical differences had special powers.

picture of winged beings at ek' balam

Nohoc Mul

Nohoc Mul

This picture is of the pyramid at Coba, which you can still climb (as of 2013). It’s the tallest pyramid on the peninsula (138 feet) and when you’re at the top you can see dozens of mounds in the distance that are thought to be undiscovered ancient Maya sites. The view from the top is fantastic, to say the least, and was one of the high points of the trip.

A structure with a small room sits at the top of the pyramid, with a carving on the outside depicting the Descending God, an upside down dude with a helmet. He’s also referred to as the Honey God, since honey was one of Coba’s main trade products. No one really knows who or what he represents, but that’s their best guess.

An interesting tidbit: many of these sites are connected by what are called sacbes, or raised paved roads (usually white since they were/are covered in limestone and stucco). One of them runs from Coba all the way to the coast and many were used as trade routes between communities.

The Observatory at Chichen Itza

The Observatory at Chichen Itza

Another structure referred to in the showdown scene in Yucatan Dead resembles the Observatory at Chichen Itza, which is thought to have been used by the Maya for studying the cosmos.

And, of course what pictorial essay about Mexico would be complete without the obligatory Caribbean beach shot?

photo of beach at Tulum

Beach at Tulum

The Yucatan Peninsula was one of the most intriguing places I’ve been to and I plan to re-visit the area. It’s relatively safe, although you still need to be on the lookout for the ubiquitous gas station pumping scams and slow-moving farm machinery. Cartel violence has been reported just outside of Cancun, but is miniscule compared to other places in Mexico so don’t worry unnecessarily about going. Victims are generally related to the cartels in some way, either by being in the business or knowing someone in the business. Don’t take stupid chances like walking alone at night, or going into a dangerous area alone (just like when you go anywhere new). Otherwise, the Mexican people are warm and welcoming folks, and will treat you well if you treat them the same. Mexico is a fabulous country to visit and has many, many faces. I guarantee if you keep an open mind, you’ll enjoy what it has to offer.

Author sitting next to Hacienda arch


Ode to a Library

I don’t know about you, but libraries will always have a special place in my heart. I remember my mother taking me to the town’s only library every week, and while she perused the art and mythology sections, I would ransack the children’s nook. If I didn’t find anything interesting there, I’d move on to more adult genres,books,boys,education,libraries,men,people,readings,research,shelves,students,studying,academic like mysteries and spy novels. When I got older, I devoured the biography section along with whatever caught my fancy, from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to photojournalism to the French Revolution. Luckily, my mother spent countless hours there, so I was able to feed my overactive imagination without worrying about running out of time.

I haven’t been back in a long while, and I’m sure it’s not nearly as big a building as I remember. I don’t even know if the structure is still there. Several levels opened to the lobby, all boasting heavily polished floors and creaky wooden shelves, groaning under the weight of so many hard-bound tomes, giving it an old world, floor-to-ceiling bookstore feel. Early on I discovered an ancient circular stairwell behind the stacks and when I grew tired of searching for something new, I’d hide there, alone with the subject du jour, lost in another world of my choosing.

The lobby at SPL

2nd Floor Lobby at SPL

This past weekend my cousin Fieke, visiting from the Netherlands, suggested we visit the Seattle Public Library.  She works as a photographer in Eindhoven and was acquainted with the photographer who assisted the architect, also from the Netherlands. I’d been to SPL a couple of times before, but hadn’t been able to take the time to really discover the place.  If you haven’t had the chance to visit, put it on the list for whenever you’re in Seattle. It’s an amazing, mind-bending building dedicated to all things literature.

The structure is a honeycomb of concrete, gleaming steel, and glass. The natural light streaming in through the walls is impressive on a sunny day–and it’s a fabulous place to be in the middle of winter when the skies are the same steel-gray as the supports. Each floor is its own world and conveys a different feeling, from future-shock orderliness to saturated, mind-warping tomato reds and neon yellows. Nothing here is understated. Every nook and cranny demands that you pay attention.

Photo of the 4th floor of the Seattle Public Library

4th Floor Red

That Seattle voters chose to support the revitalization of the library system in such large numbers is a telling regional character trait. Folks who live in the Pacific Northwest, from Vancouver, BC to Portland, Oregon, are known as voracious readers. (Yes, we’re heavy caffeine abusers and like our wines and microbrews, but when it’s dull gray and bone-chilling wet outside, curling up with a good book, be it on our Kindle, Nook, iPad, or the printed page, is one of this area’s favorite pastimes.) The libraries in western Washington embraced eBooks early, and several offer a large selection of audio books for downloading. One of the benefits of living in a tech-heavy area (Amazon and Microsoft are based here, among several other tech organizations) is that early adopters drive innovation and concepts are introduced here long before other areas of the country.

Below are a few more of the photos I took of the interior. Do you have a library story?  I’d love to hear it 🙂

Happy Monday!

Photo of SPL

Looking down at the 2nd floor

Neon Yellow Escalator

SONY DSC

SONY DSC


Serial Saturday

DV at Hacienda RuinsHey there. I’m finally back from the wilds of Mexico and since I haven’t written word 1 in about 3 weeks, I thought I’d post the first novella in the Kate Jones Thriller series here, just to make it look like I’m being productive.

The one that started it all, Bad Spirits, was originally published as a serial in the fall of 2010 (I took it back in May of 2011 and uploaded it myself, so the pub date reflects that). Yes, it’s totally free at most etailers, but I figured a lot of us are just too damned lazy to hop over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or iTunes or what have you and download something, so thought I’d try to entertain ya’ll right here, right now. I’ll post each Saturday, for a whopping 5 Saturdays. Whew! That, my friends, is dedication. Especially after lifting so many Margaritamargaritas on the beach at La Buena Vida…So, without further procrastination, here you go.

And don’t say I never gave you anything…. 🙂

BadSpirits1

BAD SPIRITS (Part 1)

Something didn’t feel right.
Dark.
Dirt floor.

My left side ached, and I could barely swallow. I sat with my eyes closed and tried to recall what happened. The events from the previous night came crashing back into the present, and the fear of discovery threatened to overwhelm me again.

I peeked around the corner of the corrugated steel building. A lone goat munched on some dried grass near a split-rail fence. A few yards away a rooster pecked at the hard, dry earth. An older woman with salt and pepper colored hair and skin like a walnut scattered seed in front of him. She clutched a brown and white serape around her against the early morning chill.

Everything appeared calm, bucolic, even. I leaned back against the metal wall and took stock of my position.

Salazar ruled this little section of Sonora with an iron hand. The woman outside would not help me, for fear of payback. In fact, no one who knew him would be fool enough to assist Salazar’s crazy American woman.

Especially when she took something that belonged to him. Something he valued above all else. And it wasn’t only his pride, although that would be enough to get me killed.

I opened the canvas backpack next to me to make sure the contents were still safe, that I hadn’t somehow lost it all in my mad rush to escape.

The cash was all there. I breathed a sigh of relief. It meant my survival. Without it, I would have nothing with which to bargain for my life, if it came to that. As it was, the stash wouldn’t get me the immediate help I so desperately needed. It wasn’t like I could call a cab in this part of Mexico, even if I had a phone.

If I knew Salazar, he’d already locked down the small airport a few miles away, and was probably trying to bribe aviation officials in Hermosillo, Obregón and even Puerto Peñasco, although each of the towns lay miles from his hacienda.

I needed to get to San Bruno, a small fishing village on the Sea of Cortez. Salazar didn’t have much pull with the ex-pats who lived there. Besides, they’d help a fellow American.

Especially one with a boat load of dinero.

I zipped the backpack closed, stood up, and heaved it over my shoulders. Funny how much money weighed.

I waited until the older woman had stepped inside her weathered home, and then I quietly slipped away down the dirt road, careful not to disturb El Gallo as he strutted past the disinterested goat.

I tucked my blonde hair up under a baseball cap to hide it and hitched a ride west on the back of an ancient Ford pickup. The driver looked me over once and waved me into the truck bed to sit with the alfalfa, probably thinking I was some silly gringa on a tourista’s adventure. I was glad I had grabbed an older jacket from one of Salazar’s bodyguards. All of my clothes were too new, too expensive. I’d be a prime target for bandits. As it was, I was a sitting duck lugging around the cash, paranoid that everyone knew I’d stolen millions of dollars from a notorious drug lord.

What I’d seen last night confirmed my worst fears, and then some. I’d been in denial about Salazar’s true nature, and it hit me like a bullet to the brain. His expression held no remorse, even as he sliced through the man’s throat- a man who, until that moment, had been a loyal soldier in Salazar’s increasingly bizarre attempts to own the Sonoran drug trade. My sense of self- preservation skyrocketed, and I took the only way out.

It seemed like the Hand of God had intervened, and I’m not given to religious hyperbole. I’d abandoned the delivery van a few miles from the ranch the night before, and grabbed as much cash as I could stuff in the backpack. The vehicle had been parked in the drive with the keys and money in it. I simply took the initiative.

I made myself comfortable, and had to inhale great gulps of dusty air to counteract the nausea and shaking as I watched the sun rise in the distance, and the road race away from the back of the pickup.

I woke as soon as the pickup stopped. We’d parked next to the imposing white mission of the town of Santa Theresa.

“This is as far as I am going,” the driver said in Spanish. I thanked him and asked where I could get a good breakfast. He pointed down a nearby street and indicated the second restaurant I would come to served the best Huevos Rancheros in town.

I sat in the shade under the palm roof, aviator sunglasses on, a can of Fanta in my hand, as the aged Mexican woman prepared my breakfast. A dark-haired boy, about four years old, played hide and seek with her while she cooked. I’d always loved the casual, family-centered vibe of Mexican restaurants. No hurry, enjoy your meal. It didn’t matter what you looked like, or where you were from, you were there to share in one of life’s greatest gifts: food.

The woman set my plate down in front of me and smiled shyly. The little boy stood next to her and peered over the edge of the table, curious to see how the gringa ate her breakfast. I grinned at him and thanked her, and poured her homemade salsa on my huevos. Then I topped it off with a few jalapeños. The woman walked away and after a moment’s hesitation, the little boy scurried after her, giggling.

I finished my soda and had walked to the counter to pay for my meal when a white SUV with smoked windows drove by, slowing as it passed the restaurant. I moved behind one of the roof supports. The truck looked familiar. The woman behind the counter glanced at me, then shoved the little boy underneath the brick counter with a terse admonition.

The SUV moved past us and turned the corner. Not waiting for the change, I grabbed the backpack and ran out the rear of the restaurant, into the alley.

The white SUV sat idling at one end. The passenger side door opened. I heaved the pack over the fence in front of me and scrambled after it, scattering chickens and dogs as I landed hard on my ass. The sound of squealing tires told me I needed to move, now.

I sprang to my feet, shouldered the pack, and sprinted through the backyard, headed for the door of the cinderblock house. The teenage boy sitting on the couch didn’t have time to react other than to open his mouth in surprise as I burst through the door and plowed through his living room, knocking over chairs and leaping over plastic toys on the floor.

I skidded to a stop when I reached the front door and eased it open, careful to check each end of the dirt street that ran in front of the house. The SUV was nowhere in sight, so I slipped out the door and started to run.

I heard the SUV before I saw it and veered right. I ignored the heavy pack mashing my kidneys as I ran, determined to escape with both my life and every ounce of the money. I caught a glimpse of the kid from the last house out of the corner of my eye, running parallel to me. If he kept it up, there’d be two dead bodies in the street.

“Get back inside!” I yelled. He continued to match my direction and motioned for me to follow him. I couldn’t think of a better plan, so I did. He slipped behind a rusty corrugated building and I tracked right behind him.

The sound of the SUV skidding to a stop on the gravel street, followed by angry male voices spilled over me. I ran like I’d never run before, knocking crates over, oblivious to anything not nailed down in front of me, never once losing sight of the boy’s red shirt.

He led me into a rabbit warren of alleyways, jogging first one way, then the other. I was completely disoriented by the time we stopped. I bent over, trying to catch my breath, and let the backpack sag to the ground. He was breathing heavy, too, although not as much.

He held a finger to his lips. I struggled to slow my breathing and listened. A television commercial for a sports drink blared a few doors down. Somewhere a dog barked. There was no sound of Salazar’s men or the SUV. I sighed with relief.

“Who are you?” I asked the kid in Spanish.

“Manuel.”

I held out my hand. “Manuel, I am so happy to make your acquaintance.” He smiled and shook my hand, nodding.

“Why did you help me?”

Manuel shrugged. “You were in trouble.”

Good enough for me. I inspected the area where we stood. A six foot high concrete wall surrounded us, the space open to the sky. Mismatched plastic chairs surrounded a white plastic table covered with a cheerful flowery table cloth. A metal bird cage hung from a wrought iron stand, with no bird in sight. Two wooden cases of empty Seven-up bottles stood in the corner.

“How do I get out of here?” I asked.

Manuel frowned. Then his face split into a big smile.

“My Uncle Javier can give you a ride in his truck. He will take you wherever you want to go.”

“I have a little money. I can pay him.”

Manuel grinned. “Even better. My uncle will do almost anything for money.”

###

The panel truck was a tad overcrowded. It appeared that Uncle Javier had a side business that involved smuggling humans.

There were a total of thirty two people besides me in the back. I sat between a young couple from Jalisco and an older, indigenous man dressed in a poncho. I didn’t understand his dialect very well, and after a few attempts at communication, I gave up and talked with the younger couple. The smell of excitement and fear permeated the truck. Everyone there had paid dearly for the chance to cross the border into the US, and stories about disreputable ‘coyotes,’ as the smugglers were called, abounded.

I felt a small measure of safety, since I wasn’t taking the same route. Once Uncle Javier dropped his cargo off at a prearranged place, he’d drive me to San Bruno, where I’d be able to find simpatico ex-pats who would help me leave the country.

The rest of the travelers, however, didn’t have it as good. The US government had recently beefed up security along the Arizona border, and bandits had flocked to the area, attracted by the easy money of ripping off the migrants, who needed help to get across.

The compartment grew stuffy and uncomfortable, but no one complained. The young couple from Jalisco had dreams of opening a restaurant in a small town outside of Flagstaff, where several of the woman’s relatives lived. They asked me many questions about what they could expect, and I tried to give them realistic answers, explaining that Arizona was not what you’d call immigrant friendly. They’d heard about the controversy, but had been told they’d be able to get work visas easily. I told them I thought there was a very long wait for these visas. They remained undaunted.

After a few hours, the truck slowed to a stop. The sound of slamming car doors and muffled voices echoed in the dark. Someone disengaged the handle on the other side of the door and rolled up the panel. Silhouetted against bright headlights, two masked gunmen pointed AK-47s at us.

My hand moved instinctively to a zippered pocket on the backpack. Luckily it was dark, and the gunmen didn’t notice. I slid my hand back to rest on my thigh. There was no reason to pull out a gun at this point. I’d be dead in seconds, as would the rest of the occupants in the truck.

“Everyone out!” The taller of the two gunmen waved his weapon to indicate where we should go. People began to gather their things. Husbands wrapped protective arms around their wives as they murmured in fear. I helped the indigenous guy to his feet. His eyes had an intensity I found oddly reassuring. We moved toward the open door. Once ten people had climbed out, the gunmen barred the rest from getting off the truck.

I barely overheard the other gunman’s orders as he demanded the people hand over all their valuables, or they would be shot. They opened their belongings and he rifled through, looking for money or jewelry. Once the first group had been robbed, the next ten were told to come out of the truck. The younger couple, the indigenous guy and I stayed behind in the last group. I wouldn’t give up my backpack without a fight. I moved to the back of the line, quietly pulled out my gun and shoved it into the waistband of my jeans. It was loaded with a round chambered. Eduardo had taught me well.

We inched closer to the gunmen. Adrenaline took the place of the fear I’d been feeling, and everything appeared crystal clear. I was probably going to die, but would damn sure try to take out the gunmen before they hurt anyone. The thought didn’t surprise me. After living with a man like Salazar, I’d never again be the same person who’d traveled on her own to Mexico three years ago.

It seemed like a lifetime.

I watched as the rest of the passengers stepped off the back of the truck. The gunman motioned for the older man to get out. He bent over as though to tie his shoe. Then he straightened and whipped his poncho to one side, revealing a sub machine gun. He let loose with a barrage of bullets, mowing down both of the gunmen. The assault was so unexpected neither of them could get a shot off before the old man’s aim found its mark. Miraculously, he hit none of the passengers.

With a sharp cry Uncle Javier ran blindly into the creosote bushes. The old man let him go.

At first stunned, soon everyone clamored to touch his hand and thank him. I slumped against the wall of the truck in relief and closed my eyes against the grisly sight of the dead men.

The young couple I’d been talking with said something to the old man that I didn’t catch. He replied and nodded his head. I moved closer to the couple and asked what he’d said.

The young woman had tears in her eyes. “He said he was sent to protect us.” She wiped her eyes with her hand. “He said the spirits moved him to come to this place and bring a gun. He also said to tell you to trust no one on your journey.”

Apparently. How the hell was I going to make it all the way to San Bruno without trusting someone?

After recovering the items taken from them, a few of the male passengers dragged the dead gunmen out of sight. The older man in the poncho guided everyone else into the back of the truck. His eyes held mine for a moment. He seemed to look through me, as though he knew my mind. The young couple walked up beside me and the woman took my hand.

“He says you are not coming with us.” Her expression mirrored the concern on her husband’s face. “You must be careful.”

The old man murmured something to her and she turned to me.

“He says there are bad spirits surrounding you. He will say a prayer to intercede for you, but you must not rest- not even when you think you are safe. It is for this that the spirits wait.” The old man leaned over and pointed at me as he spoke again.

The woman’s eyes darkened. “He tells me your destiny is to live looking over your shoulder, never knowing when these spirits will come for you- until you give up everything. Only then will you be free.”

Okay then. Well. I’d never been good at taking advice, and tonight was no different.

“Tell him thank you, and that I will consider his warning.”

She spoke in rapid sentences. The old man looked up, shook his head and laughed, then walked away. She shrugged and said, “He’s an old man,” by way of explanation.

I said goodbye to them both and walked over to the gunmen’s truck. The keys dangled from the ignition.

I took the initiative.

###

I drove through the night, glad for the anonymity of the darkness. I had to swerve to avoid a small herd of steers somewhere outside of Moctezuma. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful. I stopped for fuel at a tiny roadside station and woke the proprietor, who did not appreciate the interruption.

I’d made it to the outskirts of Hermosillo by sunrise, and decided to try my luck by continuing to drive in daylight. The truck didn’t agree.

The four-wheel drive coughed and sputtered its way to the side of the road, and then died. I got out and lifted the hood and checked the belts, the hoses, and whatever filters I could find. I had no idea what was wrong. It had been a long time since I’d worked on a vehicle, and my skills were rusty. Not to mention the truck was a later model, and most of its components were either electronic or impossible to get to.

I lowered the hood and reached in the passenger side for my backpack. With a sigh, I shrugged on the pack and started to walk.

The first couple of cars zoomed by me so fast I barely had time to stick my thumb out. The third slowed and stopped just ahead, waiting for me to catch up. It was an old Ford Galaxy convertible- long, low and sea green, with a trunk the size of Manhattan. The driver had a goatee and wore Wayfarer sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap with a purple Vikings logo.

I threw the pack in the back seat and sat in front. The gun was still in my waistband, just in case this guy turned out to be a serial killer. Or a Fox News anchor.

“You like the Vikings?” I asked.

“Yeah. They haven’t won a playoff in years.”

So he was American. I looked more closely at him. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Probably some celebrity. “You from Minnesota?”

“Nope. Virginia. I just like the Vikes. How about you?”

“Minnesota, born and bred.”

We drove in silence for a while.

“What’s in the pack?”

I tensed. Too personal. The old man’s warning flashed in my mind. “Just stuff,” I replied.

He snorted. “Stuff? What kind of stuff?”

A feeling of dread swam through me. Just take it easy, Kate. He’s a friendly American, that’s all.

“Oh, you know, the usual. Clothes and things.”

“Looks pretty heavy.”

“Well, there are shoes, too.” I hoped my smile looked innocent enough.

“What’s a pretty thing like you doing out here in the middle of the Sonoran desert?” He glanced in the rear view mirror. “That pickup truck back there on the side of the road yours?”

“I wish. I’ve been hitching for days.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Roberto Salazar, would you?”

I nearly choked.

He smiled. The scenery reflected off his sunglasses.

“I guess you do.” He glanced at me. “Don’t freak out. I’m one of the good guys.” He reached for the glove box, hesitating until I nodded for him to go ahead. My hand rested under my jacket near the gun.

He pulled out a badge that read Drug Enforcement Administration, Special Agent.

Shit. A backpack full of drug money and I catch a ride with a DEA agent.

My options had just narrowed considerably. The larger question was how did he make the connection? Had news of my escape really spread that fast?

I was torn. If I told him who I was, he’d detain me for questioning, and possibly arrest me since I’d been involved with Salazar. On the other hand, I’d get a free pass to the states, maybe even a new identity if I volunteered information. It was possible he already guessed my identity.

I decided to test the waters.

“I’ve heard of him.”

“What have you heard?”

“That you don’t want to get on his bad side.”

“Sounds about right. Ever met him?”

“Once, at a party, I think.” Better to establish a slight link rather than play completely stupid. “Hey- do I know you from somewhere? You seem familiar.” My hand inched toward the door handle.

He chuckled and pushed on the accelerator. The Galaxy’s speedometer read sixty-five, then seventy. Alarm shot through me like a lightning bolt, and that old familiar panic returned.

“Why don’t you slow down? You’re making me nervous.”

He sped up in response. “How can a little speed make you nervous? Living with Salazar was so much more dangerous.”

I glanced out the windshield. We headed straight toward a bend in the road. I strapped on my seatbelt. His grin reminded me of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

“Scared, Kate?” He turned to look at me.

“Stop-” The words died in my throat as the Galaxy plowed into the side of the black steer standing in the road.

As if in slow motion, my upper body and legs flew forward from the force of the impact, the center of my body anchored in place by the single strap of the seatbelt. Glass shattered and metal screamed, drowning out the animal’s bellow.

A deathly stillness followed the crash. The punctured radiator hissed steam. Dazed, I unhooked the seatbelt and opened the passenger side door, and fell onto the roadside. My gun dropped onto the road with a clatter. I grabbed it, then dragged myself up onto the door to stand, gasping and choking from having the wind knocked out of me.

I felt around for broken bones, but didn’t find any. The driver’s seat held shards of glass instead of the driver. Warily, I stepped around to the front of the car.

The steer’s dead body lay wedged underneath the front wheels. At least it had been quick. My backpack rested a few yards further up the road. It appeared to be intact. I walked over to retrieve it when I heard a moan.

He sat slumped against a mesquite tree on the side of the road. Blood from a head wound stained his Hawaiian shirt a dark red. His left leg canted out at an unnatural angle. The ball cap was nowhere in sight. He watched as I approached, his breathing ragged.

With no cap and sunglasses, I finally recognized him, even through the blood on his face.

I aimed the gun at his chest.

“I thought you said you were one of the good guys.”

“You won’t make it, Kate. Salazar’s got everybody out looking for you, and he didn’t say he wanted you alive. I came to find you before they did.”

“Gee, thanks John. That was real nice of you.” I should have known the square jaw, the aquiline nose. John Sterling was DEA, all right, but not the good kind. He wanted the money, not me.

“Give me your gun.” I pointed at his armpit.

He sighed as he slid his hand underneath his shirt to the shoulder holster I knew he always wore. The rhythmic rise and fall of his chest belied the difficulty he had breathing. After a couple of futile attempts, he let his hand drop to this thigh.

“I can’t.”

Careful to keep my gun out of reach, I leaned over and slid his Glock out of the holster, then stepped back.

He closed one eye and squinted. “You gonna kill me?”

I considered the question for a moment, let him sweat. Then I shook my head.

“No.”

He nodded. “Didn’t think so.”

I turned to go. The backpack felt much heavier than before.

“He’ll find you. Salazar never quits.”

I shrugged the pack onto my back.

Neither did I.

***

Bad Spirits Part II – Just Passing Through / Saturday, March 9

Bad Spirits Part III – Rock and a Hard Place / Saturday, March 16

Bad Spirits Part IV – Last Chance / Saturday, March 23

Bad Spirits Part V – Bad Choices / Saturday, March 30


Storytelling, Travel & Nature

Photo of Petroglyph Trail

Petroglyph Trail

Recently I hiked to one of my favorite places in Arizona: Petroglyph Trail in Gold Canyon, outside of Phoenix. It’s a fairly easy hike and it gets you into the desert quickly—always a plus when you only have so much time. I tend to prefer hikes that are scenic the whole way and provide a good payoff at the end, and Petroglyph delivers.

Pools

Pools

The payoff I’m referring to is a pair of cascading pools surrounded by massive granite boulders covered in the art of the ancient world: petroglyphs. As soon as you crest the small ridge you notice the clear water beckoning you to take a dip, but what really makes the hike worthwhile are the figures carved and painted into the rock by long-ago hands. It’s easy to imagine storytellers as they entertained a rapt audience by reenacting legends handed down through generations. Dangerous hunts and thrilling encounters with spirit animals or other tribes were all fodder for these ancient bards.

As a writer, I’m honored to be one of many to carry on the storytelling tradition. Human beings have done this since the beginning of our time here, whether for education or entertainment, and will continue to do so long after you and I are gone. For me, this thought places life and all of its detours and false starts into proper perspective, giving me a longer view of things, and is one of the main reasons I travel. Life looks different when you experience it from another angle. Fresh ideas become more abundant and my dreams are often more vivid when I’m away from business as usual.

Picture of petroglyph

Petroglyph

All of this replenishes the well, so to speak, and helps me bring a different perspective to the craft of writing. For me, being close to nature does more for my mood than a week at a luxury spa (although I certainly wouldn’t turn it down). I envy the ancient storytellers their connection to the wild, and enjoy imagining the evenings they performed, campfires blazing, children watching in awe, the convivial banter between attendees…

With a scene so evocative, I may just have to sit down and write…

More petroglyphs


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