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A Sleight of Hand

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She tips back her head and shakes the canteen over her open mouth, praying for one more drop. One last wet lick. But like yesterday, and this morning, it remains dry, and she tosses the empty canteen along with the last of her hopes to the burning sand.

Stretching stiff fingers, she counts off the days.

One.

Two.

Three. Three days since the food ran out. Three. She squeezes her eyes tight. Shakes her head. Gasps in a deep breath, her fisted hands buried in her eyes. That means Mark’s been dead a week. A week…

Why wouldn’t he listen to her? Mexico, she said. Over and over again. They could take a boat across the Gulf to Venezuela. It was a no brainer...there’s no extradition there.

She pinches the shoulder strap of the backpack wishing she could cry, shed even a single tear. But she barely has any spit.

They met at Berkeley. Being young, idealistic, ready to do anything to change the world, she’d volunteered tirelessly on political campaigns, demonstrated against the never ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, marched for climate change, and somehow found the time to become a campus celebrity as an advocate for women’s rights.

It was late June between her junior and senior years when she was arrested protesting at a nuclear power plant. Trespassing was the charge, her first of any kind, and it carried about as much validity as the power company’s claim to plant safety. Being a student and poor, as most students are, her case was assigned to the Public Defender’s office.

At that same time, Mark, having just passed the bar, was planting his feet firmly on the first rung of the corporate ladder, poised for a grand ascent into the upper echelon of his father’s firm. In addition to their political connections, providing legal services to any number of the members of Congress and those wishing to join that club, Menlo, Mason, and Williams represented many of the top ten companies in the Fortune 500.

But part of the façade was keeping a community face, and as such each new member of their team, even if he happens to be the founding partner’s son, “volunteered” their time at the Public Defender’s office.

She became his first case.

From behind a rumble gives her a start and she twists, slowly pulling herself up the face of the rock. But the moment she leaves the safety of her shade, the sun, like a lion waiting in the weeds, catches her off guard, pouncing on her back, tearing, sucking what little life she has left.

She stops, heaves in a deep breath, and then risks a peek over the top, gazing into the valley below.

A plume of dust shoots high into the air, entrails of a vehicle slicing its way along the desert floor. In the blur of the rising heat, it looks more ghost than real, but when she squints her dry eyes, gets a little focus, she can tell it’s some sort of Jeep, maybe an SUV. It cuts from left to right, gradually disappearing behind its own cloud.

She melts back down into the narrow strip of sanctuary, her hands dragging well behind. For a few seconds a sheen of sweat marks where she laid against the rock, then fades into the relentless sun.

They’re coming. She knew they would be, just not this soon. Breathe, she tells herself. Breathe.

She tucks her head into her knees, weaving her hands into sweaty hair. Time passes, how much she’s not sure, but she realizes she must have dozed off, slipped into the void. She cocks her head, giving a careful listen. No sounds spill over the rock from the valley, but she knows they’re coming back. Of course they are. It’s just a matter of when.

Her eyes once again fall on the backpack. The heat saps her will, her strength, even her courage, yet she stretches out, zips open the lower pocket, and pulls out the baggie. She has to blink several times, convinced her dry weary eyes are playing tricks, but in the end, the flash drive is still gone, a BIC lighter resting in its place.

She wraps her fingers around it tightly, at least as tight as she can. Why, Mark? Why would you do this? What were you thinking?

What are you thinking now?

She almost wails out, screams in the pain of a broken heart. But, as irrational as it might seem, she instead begins to chuckle, her gaze dropping to the lighter. How many times had she asked him to quit smoking?

Too many. She hated everything about it: the ashy breath, the smell in his clothes, the running out at all hours for another pack. Yet, god knows why, despite the smoking, despite his political views, despite his career, despite the other women, she couldn’t let him go. He may have had her charges dropped that day on some technicality, but she was convinced it had been his charisma, the easy way he’d won over the judge.

The same way he’d won her over.

They saw each other off and on for the next few years. A lot more off than on. And even calling it “seeing each other” might have been a stretch. She’d stayed true to her causes, which of course made for an awkward situation at his firm. And even worse should she ever have been discovered by his father. Never mind the fact she was Hispanic.

It was after about one...no, more like two years – she finds herself counting on her fingers again – before she first noticed the shadowing. Who knows how long they’d been watching before she caught on. But everything was different by then. She’d joined a group called First Right, their agenda a little more radical, a little more pronounced than anything she’d been part of before.

Mark made no secret of his anger at her involvement, that is, until the last couple of months. Something changed. He became more accepting, going so far as to attending several of the meetings with her. There came a point he seemed to share her disgust at the mounting evidence of the government’s meddling in every aspect of our lives. The biggest surprise in the end was when he agreed to help her with the hacking.

She stares at the lighter. Maybe it wasn’t such a surprise after all.

An engine noise cuts through the silence and she pushes the baggie into the pack. Dragging herself back up the rock, she peers out once again into the valley. The SUV – she can make it out now, it’s black with black tinted windows, one of those Suburbans or Tahoes – has returned. Still a good half-mile away, it races along the inner curve of rocks leading to the outcropping where she hides. She hopes it’ll stay true to its course, simply follow the curve right back out of the canyon.

But, instead, at the bottom of the bend, the point closest to her, the vehicle slams on the brakes sending up a cloud of dust. The passenger door flings open and someone dressed in desert camo hops out, taking to the rocks to her left at a dead run while the SUV speeds away.

She slides back down, her reddened face rubbing the rock. Closer. They’re getting closer. But will it matter? Will she even be alive when they find her?

The desert is winning. The heat, the dryness, the emptiness as far as you can see are sucking the last of her essence deep into the sand. Now she only sees visions, a mirage of the man in camo becoming Mark, tall and handsome as ever. He’s holding an icy bottle of water, so icy in fact, it drips with sweat.

She wants tears now. Wants to cry remembering watching the car he was driving explode into a million pieces, the impact of the blast burning her eyebrows, knocking her over. Falling. Falling. Falling…

Footsteps reel her back. The mirage has a voice. Mark’s voice. “Hello, Elizabeth. I must say, you’re pretty good. It took us a little longer to find you than we thought.”

He takes another step closer and then drops to a knee. With a smile, more malicious than kind, he unscrews the bottle’s cap and take a long draw. “Hell of a time picking up that tracker in this damn desert heat.” He feigns surprise. “Oh, you didn’t know about the tracker? Why’d you think I let you keep the backpack?”

Elizabeth reaches out, but Mark pulls the water back.

“Uh-ahh, not so quick. Funny thing happened when we plugged in that thumb drive, Bethy.” He cocks his head. “It is okay if I still call you Bethy, right? I mean, we’re still friends, aren’t we?” A smile, then a tsk. “All we found were pictures. Pictures of you and me, Bethy. Ah, the memories, huh?” He reaches over and grabs a matted strand of her long black hair, rubbing it between two fingers. “I almost started to laugh, I should have known you’d have switched them; that you’d figured me out. You always were too smart for your own good. But, unfortunately the folks I work for didn’t see it quite so humorously.” He leans back against a rock and wipes his forehead with the bottle, another smile breaking across his face. “What say we make a little trade, eh? One bottle of water, slushy with ice, for the real drive?”

She squints her eyes, licks her leathery lips. Why can’t the mirage just shut up and give her a drink of that water? One tiny sip. She can practically feel the cool rushing across her parched tongue, down her baked dry throat.

He sighs. It’s long and impatient. “Where is it, Bethy?

“Y-You gave in too qu-quick, Mark. I coul-dint trust you anymore. But I st-still l-loved you.” She heaves a sob, but still no tears will come. Why won’t he give her any of that water? “We have…have to let every, everyone kn-know.”

“You know, of course, no one really cares. It’s old news, Bethy. This stuff happened twelve years ago. All anyone wants to hear about now is some juicy gossip on some celebrity. Give me a good divorce or a cheat, now that’ll get you some hits on You Tube.”

She shakes her head. “You’re…you’re wrong, Mark. The people need to know. That video shows they…they were wa-waging a campaign”--she takes in a long, raspy breath—“to convince us there was a connection be-between 911 and Sa…Sadam. It needs to been seen.”

“They won’t care, Bethy. Now hand it over.” His voice is a little sterner, his eyes filled with fire.

She tries to spit, but nothing comes. “If no one cares, Marky, why do you w-want it so-so-so bad?”

His head jerks with the sarcastic “Marky” and he stands, his stance rigid, his face firm. “Let’s get this over, Beth. Give me the damn drive.”

“It..it is over, Mark. I g-gave it to the New York Times…”

 

Bio:

Jim Bartlett lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and golden retriever (shhh...she doesn't know she's a dog)

 

 

 

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