The Rio Grande River separating Mexico and the US was not
just murky. It was toxic. Danika Morales respected the
riverâ€™s temperamentĂłlazy and rushing, crystal and muddy,
breath-taking and devastating. To many illegal immigrants,
its flowing water signified hope and an opportunity for a
better tomorrow, while others viewed the river crossing as a
means of smuggling drugs or spreading terrorism. But for
Danika, the depths meant death, and it didnâ€™t discriminate
among its victims. That was why she chose a Border Patrol
badge and carried a gun.
Shortly after the 8:00 a.m. muster, Danika snatched up the
keys to the Tahoe
assigned to her for the next ten hours and checked out an
M4. A hum of voices, most with Hispanic accents and clipped
with occasional laughter, swirled around the station. A
labyrinth of sights and sounds had succeeded in disorienting
her. A daze. She took a sip of the steaming coffee in hopes
no one saw how the dayâ€™s date affected her. Her hands shook.
The twelfth of July. The second anniversary of Tobyâ€™s
murder. She thought she could handle it better than this,
but the raw ache still seared her heart.
â€śTough day for me too,â€ť Jacob whispered beside her. â€śWe can
get through this together.â€ť The familiar tone of voice, as
in many times before, nearly paralyzed her. Jacob sounded so
much like his brother.
She stood shoulder to shoulder with her brother-in-law and
glanced at his muscular frame and the silver streaks in his
closely cropped hair, everything about him oddly different
from Toby. Gone were the gentleness, patience, and the
out-stretched arms of love.
â€śThanks. But Iâ€™m all right.â€ť
He frowned, a typical expression. â€śWell, Iâ€™m not, and you
shouldnâ€™t be either.â€ť She was in no mood to rile him today.
â€śI miss Toby every minute of the day, but we have to move
on. He would have wanted it that way.â€ť
â€śNot till his murderer is found.â€ť Jacobâ€™s jaw tightened.
â€śIâ€™m disappointed in you.â€ť
Danika took another sip of the hot coffee, burning her
tongue. Caustic words threatened to surface and add one more
brick to the wall dividing them. â€śI want the killer found
too. Iâ€™m committed to it. I think about him everyday and
mourn for our daughter who will never know her daddy. But I
choose not to spend my time harboring hate and vengeance.â€ť
â€śYou must not have really loved my brother.â€ť
The words cut deep, and Jacob knew they would. No woman
could have loved Toby like she did. â€śI refuse to be
brow-beaten by you any more. Your hate is going to explode
in your own backyard one day.â€ť She stopped herself before
she lit a match to his temper. Actually, sheâ€™d rather have
been dropped in the bush for the next ten hours with a
shotgun and a can of OFF than argue with him. But the time
had come to distance herself from Jacob.
â€śHey, Danika,â€ť an agent called. â€śDo these belong to you?â€ť
She turned to see wiry Felipe Chavez carrying a glass-filled
vase with a huge bouquet of roses. They remembered. She
swallowed a chunk of life. â€śOh, guys, you didnâ€™t have to do
Felipe made his way toward her. The other agents hushed,
then one of them started to clap. She smiled through the
tears as he handed her the clear glass vase. The sweet
fragrance no longer reminded her of death, but of life and
her resolve to live each day in a way that commemorated
Tobyâ€™s devotion to her and their little daughter. Perhaps
this was what the two-year marker meant. She took the roses
and studied the small crowd of agents. Good men, all of
â€śWe cared about what happened to Toby too,â€ť Felipe said,
with a grim smile. Danika brushed her finger around one of
the delicate petals and formed her words. Memories had
stalked her like a demon since last night. â€śDonâ€™t know what
to say except thank you. Toby was a soldier for his own
cause, and he spent his life doing what he believed in. Just
like all of us.â€ť
One agent shook his head, frowned, and left the room. Far
too many reasons for his disapproval raced through her mind.
But Danika needed to put the ugliness behind
her. She set the flowers on the long table in front of her.
â€śToday is the second annive sary of Tobyâ€™s death. All of you
have looked after me and my daughter, especially during
holidays and special occasions. His death is why Iâ€™m more
dedicated than ever to help protect the border.â€ť She paused,
sensing her emotions rushing into chaos. â€śI appreciate your
remembering him and the sacrifice he made, especially since
his beliefs were controversial.â€ť Enough said. She took a
deep breath, what many called a cleansing breath. â€śI brought
And they were buttermilk, Tobyâ€™s favorite.
She glanced at Jacob, hoping to end the tension between
them. How Barbara could stay married to him was beyond her
comprehension. He treated her and their four kids like
yesterdayâ€™s trash. Danika wound through the crowd of agents,
greeting those who offered condolences and others who
offered a good-morning. The Field Operations Supervisor,
Agent Oden Herrera , stood in front of the flagsĂłthe US,
Homeland Security, and the Border Patrol. Pushing the
emotions of regret and grief about Toby aside, she captured
the supervisorâ€™s attention.
â€śDuring the muster you said intel had picked up a cocaine
drop last night?â€ť
Herrera walked to a wall map and pointed. â€śLike I said
earlier. Arrested seven men and two women right along here,
your area. A kid had a small bag of cocaine on him. Most
likely a deterrent. The drug smuggler either hid it before
being apprehended, or heâ€™s out there waiting for someone to
pick him up. Dogs have been out there most of the night, but
Barnett and Fire-Eater are headed that way in a few minutes.â€ť
Danika finished her coffee and made her way into the
stifling heat to Jon Barnettâ€™s truck. As Fire-Eaterâ€™s
handler, he had everyoneâ€™s admiration, and the Belgian
sheepdog had a reputation of being the best of the K-9s.
Barnett snapped on the dogâ€™s leash and waved.
â€śI hear weâ€™re working the same area today.â€ť She refrained
from patting Fire- Eater. Some days he wasnâ€™t people
friendly. After seeing the dog in action a few times when
heâ€™d found drug runners, she sometimes felt sorry for those
he brought down.
Barnett grinned and wiped the sweat already beading on his
face. â€śHeâ€™s a good dog, Morales. Just needs a little help
with his people skills.â€ť He laughed, his freckles deepening
in the intense sun. â€śAnd heâ€™s great with the wife and kids.
Like another member of the family.â€ť He pulled out his keys.
â€śDo you want to talk? We have a few minutes.â€ť
All she really wanted was for the day to be over. Talking
increased the chances of liquid emotionĂłwhich was more
lethal than the river flowing between the US and Mexico.
â€śNo, thanks. Iâ€™m fine.â€ť
â€śDo you need to talk?â€ť
â€śItâ€™s been two years.â€ť Therapeutic or not, she would not
open up, even to a sweet guy like Barnett. Sheâ€™d spent hours
building a reputation as a tough agent, and she wasnâ€™t about
to take a nose dive now.
â€śRight, and the sooner you admit that today has crept up on
you worse than a case of food poisoning, the better youâ€™ll
She had to agree. â€śHave you turned psychologist?â€ť
â€śFire-Eater and five kids taught me all I know.â€ť
â€śI had a dog when I was a kid,â€ť she said, looking for any
subject except Toby.
â€śGentle, sensed my moods, smart. My best friend. Sure missed
him when he was gone.â€ť Danika blinked back a tear, despising
her reaction. She stared at Fire-Eater rather than look into
â€śI bet he slept at the foot of your bed.â€ť Fire-Eater climbed
into the backseat of the double-cab truck.
â€śSometimes in it. We even shared meals. I didnâ€™t like meat,
and heâ€™d eat it for me.â€ť
â€śWhoâ€™s your best friend now?â€ť
She swallowed the ever-increasing lump in her throat.
â€śTobyâ€™s gone, and I have a tough time in church.â€ť
â€śConfession is a beginning. Any family?â€ť
â€śTobyâ€™s family has been good to me.â€ť Never mind Jacob. â€śMy
folks never approved of my marriage.â€ť She sucked in a
breath. It hissed like the poisonous snakes she feared.
â€śWell-meaning friends do this to me.â€ť
â€śDo you feel any better?â€ť
Sneak. â€śYeah, thanks, doc. You--â€ť
Fire-Eater barked. No doubt anxious to get moving. The
animal and Jacob had similar personalities, but today sheâ€™d
rather be with the dog.