First TemptationBy: Joan Swan
SUPERVISORY BORDER PATROL AGENT ZOE BROOKS muscled the ATV beneath her at top speed across the rock-studded desert terrain of El Centro, California. Her heavy breathing echoed in rough pants over the headset.
“Boss.” Nighthawk’s voice scraped over Zoe’s headset. The chopper cut through the sky almost directly above her and the whap of its blades sounded simultaneously in real time and in the background over the radio. “You’ve got three runners due east, copy?”
With a jerk on the handlebars, she steered east and scanned for the smugglers through her night vision goggles.
“Copy. Do they still have the cargo?” Zoe said, the rough earth bouncing under her tires, making her voice jerk.
Her tires hit a puddle left over from a recent flash flood, and the ATV floated sideways. Zoe shifted her weight, twisted the handlebars, and eased out of the skid.
“Nice moves, boss.” Nighthawk’s voice warmed with appreciation. Zoe grinned, and the mud on her face cracked. The icy desert air cut through her uniform. “You’re coming up on them, boss. They’re still carrying packs. Another ten meters— Whoa, hold on.” Nighthawk’s voice rose with urgency. “They got spooked. Dropped the drugs. Took a hairpin. All three are headed freaking straight at you, boss.”
Zoe’s heartbeat kicked higher. Her gaze scanned faster, searching for glowing green figures in her viewfinder. “Come on, where are you…?”
“Nighthawk to Roadrunners.” The pilot spoke to the team as a whole, which included four other Border Patrol agents scattered through the desert surrounding these Mexican smugglers from the El Diablo cartel. “Boss is going to need cover, over.”
“Copy that, Nighthawk. Trigger and Smoke inbound.”
But they wouldn’t reach her in time for anything but cleanup. “Runners in sight.”
Zoe angled sharply, gritted her teeth, gripped the handles tight…and let the first one run right into her ATV.
He grunted, and his momentum nearly flipped him over her handlebars. She stopped the ATV and fisted the man’s shirt, throwing him to the ground.
“Alto! No se muevan,” she yelled at smugglers two and three, who’d stopped running just out of her reach.
With her boot on the first smuggler’s back, Zoe drew her weapon, turned on her flashlight and flipped up her night vision goggles. “Déjame ver sus manos, sus manos! Al suelo!”
The second smuggler put his hands up as directed. But not the third. And his eyes darted around, searching for escape. She ordered them to the ground, threatening to shoot. “Voy a disparar! Conseguir Al suelo o disparo!”
Number Two dropped face-first to the ground.
As Zoe suspected he would, Number Three ran.
“Goddammit.” She holstered her weapon and jerked handcuffs from her duty belt. Breathing hard, she wrenched the first smuggler’s hands behind his back. “Nighthawk, I lost one.”
“I see him,” the pilot responded. “Running south.”
“Not for long,” Zoe muttered, securing the free cuff to the thick trunk of a manzanita bush and pulling out a second set.
Once Number Two was secure, Zoe took off on foot after Number Three. The brush was too thick for the ATV here…and she had a lot of adrenaline to burn.
“In pursuit…” she said between heavy breaths. “Give me…eyes, Nighthawk.”
The chopper’s floodlight cut through the night sky, swamping the desert in a circle of halogen. Zoe lifted her arm to shield her eyes until they adjusted to the sudden light.
“Little more to your right…” Nighthawk said.
She altered her path.
“Two meters dead ahead, boss. Trigger and Smoke have your other two runners. Joker and Ranger have the drugs. Huge haul, boss.”
Zoe couldn’t take in the details. Couldn’t feel the triumph. Not yet. There was still one out here. One loose.
Even one was one too many.
Number Three moved in the distance. Excitement spurted through her chest. “Got you, cabron.”
She pushed all her strength into her legs and pumped out the distance, coming up on the smuggler fast. He caught sight of her, turned into a frenzied, hunted animal, and hauled ass.