The Territory A Novel - By Tricia Fields


Chief Josie Gray sighted down the rifle scope at two black sedans prowling the empty streets of Piedra Labrada. She was posted atop a fifty-foot-high watchtower, looking across the Rio Grande into a two-block area of squalid bars. For forty-five minutes, Josie had listened to gunfire coming from inside the Garra del Tigre, one of the five bars on the strip, but there had been no movement until the sedans came into view. The watchtower, used jointly by Border Patrol and local police, stood on the U.S. side of the river, just a quarter mile from downtown Piedra. From her vantage point, Josie could see an access road that followed the Rio, then a half dozen blocks of factories fanning out from the collection of bars situated directly south of the tower. She lowered her rifle, slowly scanning the area for a reaction to the cars. Something was about to open up.

The sedans rolled to a stop in the middle of the empty street in front of the Tigre. Although the occupants’ identities were concealed behind black tinted windows, Josie was certain the cars belonged to either Medrano or La Bestia. The Medrano cartel was a family-run drug operation that had terrorized northern Mexico into submission. La Bestia was a newly formed cartel with enough money and firepower to pose a threat to Medrano: a death sentence for anyone caught in between.

Garra del Tigre’s front door hung from its hinges, the wood splintered with bullets. The inside of the club appeared dark and still, but she knew the gunmen maneuvered at night with the ease of cockroaches.

Josie rubbed her neck and rolled her shoulders, trying to ease some of the tension from them. She could feel blood humming through her veins, the tingling of nerve endings on her scalp: Her body was on alert. She was thin, with arm muscles strong enough to surprise a full-grown man if the occasion called for it, and was above average height for a woman. At thirty-three years old, she knew she was attractive, but lately she felt that side of her served little purpose.

Heat lightning snaked across the night sky, and she caught a glimpse of the blue and white jeep patrolling River Road below her with its headlights off. She pulled her cell phone out of her uniform shirt pocket and called the driver, fellow officer Otto Podowski. She disliked leaving him on the ground with no backup, but they were the only officers on duty that night.

Otto answered on the first ring. “Anything?”

“Two sedans just pulled up in front of the Tigre. They’re watching. This has to be a battle between the cartels. Any movement on our side?”

“Not a soul in sight.”

“You see cars pushing across the river? Don’t be a hero. Get out of their way.”

“Backup on the way yet?”

“Are you kidding?” She and Otto made up two-thirds of the Artemis Police Department. The three-person police force should have been enough for a border town with a population of 2,500. But given the current violence across the border, she needed at least triple that number of officers. Without constant vigilance by police agencies, the violence would spread like wildfire through the Southwest.

One block south of the nightclubs, Josie watched two uniformed Piedra police officers approach the east side of the strip, on foot with guns drawn.

“Jesus, there’s two cops ready to run right into the middle of it. They’re walking up the side street. They can’t see the cars yet.”

Josie hung up on Otto and tried the Piedra Labrada police dispatch but received the same busy signal she’d heard for the past two hours. She called her local dispatcher, Lou Hagerty. Lou was a fifty-year-old chain-smoker with a voice like gravel, but no one handled stress better than she did.

“I can’t get through to dispatch in Piedra,” Josie said. She could feel the panic in her throat as she watched the officers approach the corner of the building. Then the panic turned to dread. She grabbed her binoculars off the deck railing and focused them with one hand.

“Every phone line in Mexico must have been slashed. I can’t even get through to the gas station,” Lou said.

Josie focused on the officer who stood almost a foot taller than the other man, and recognized Lorenzo Marín. She had worked with him frequently on cross-border issues. He was a good-natured officer, with a million stories to tell and a loud, high-pitched laugh that could get even the most cynical cop to smile. He