"You gotta watch your back out here."
Lucia's voice was full of Texas and I wondered how she ended up patrolling Arizona. She looked like a Mexican dyke with her Marine haircut and skin almost as dark as mine. Maybe that helped her on the job. She guided the Ford through the desert scrub with one lazy hand, and drove so slow, I could hear the cicadas serenading the night over the truck's grumbling engine. Lucia flung open the glove box and leaned nearly into my lap as she rummaged through the stack of maps and blank report forms. She tossed blue boxes, empty of their caffeine tablets, onto the floor.
I didn't ask what she was looking for, just squeezed against the passenger door to give her room. "Yeah," I said, "I hear the drug cartels have more guns than the Mexican army."
"The cartels mainly keep to their side of the fence." She slammed the glove box shut and started frisking the door pocket on her side. There were no lights in the cabin. Lucia said they made us an easy target; said the first thing agents did to a new vehicle was pull the bulbs out of the interior. While she rooted around the truck's storage compartments, I kept an eye on the few yards of dirt rolling through the headlights, even though I knew there was nothing bigger than a cactus we could run into.
I could think of a hundred places I would rather be than in a pickup truck creeping along the border in the dark. I'd rather wait tables than work for the government, but a single mom with a sick kid doesn't get a lot of choice, and Homeland Security cut me a hefty bonus check for signing a two-year contract. I was supposed to be collating data in Tucson, but someone decided I was more use on border patrol. Probably needed to fill some sort of minority quota, and they got a twofer with me - black and female. It pissed me off, but Evan had been to the hospital twice already this year, and Homeland Security offered a solid family insurance plan.
So, there I was, prowling the desert in a truck that smelled like a pool hall with some middle-aged Hispanic lesbian named Lucia who was supposed to teach me the ropes.
"Who do I need to watch out for?" I asked.
Lucia flipped the sun visor down, and a half-empty and mostly crushed pack of Marlboro lights landed in her lap. She smiled like she'd found an old friend.
"The wolves." She dug around the crack of the bench seat between us until she unearthed a tattered book of paper matches.
I had no idea what she was talking about. "Doesn't the government let wildlife cross the border anymore?"
"These wolves walk on two legs," she said like she was telling me what beer she drank.
"Is this a werewolf joke?"
"They ain't werewolves," she said, squinting out the windshield at the night, "but even the cartels keep clear of las lobas."
"OK. I'll play along. Tell me about these lobos."
Lucia hit the brakes, and even though we were only moving at a snail's pace, the truck slewed sideways in the gravel, kicking up dust that wrapped around us like a dirty shroud.
"Las-Low-Bahs." She enunciated each syllable, slowly, as if I were a retarded child. "She-wolves," she growled. " Listen up, rookie, HomSec put me behind the wheel of this truck when the Tohono O'odham tribal police found my last partner's body strapped to a saguaro. They still haven't found his head. Before that, I got my place in that seat," she pointed at me with her bent Marlboro, "when the guy before me thought he'd chase down una loba in the dark. He didn't wait for backup, and got a gut full of twenty-gauge buckshot for his trouble."
I held up my hands in surrender. "OK. Las lobas."
She killed the headlights, then scratched one of the paper matches to life. I could see deep creases under the corners of her mouth as she lit her cigarette, like she spent a lot of time frowning. I thought she didn't look that old when I met her, but everything's different at night. She tossed the match out the window, and for a moment I couldn't see anything in the dark except the ember on the end of her Marlboro.
"I asked for you specifically. You're green, but I wanted a female partner because the men don't understand. Not too many women on Patrol."
So, I wasn't filling some kind of quota. Nice to know, but it made me wonder what plans she had for me. At that moment, I had a sharp sense of just how far we were from anything resembling civilization. "I'm listening."
"You remember the Clean Milk act?"
"The thing Obama signed into law right before he was shot? It outlawed growth hormones in cows."
"And antibiotics." Lucia sucked on her cigarette and blew the smoke out the window.
"I remember. Republicans made a big stink, some cows died, the industry cleaned up the pens, got better at isolating the sick cows, and we still have milk and hamburger."
"With no antibiotics and no synthetic hormones."
"Fine with me. I don't want a side of bovine growth hormone with my T-bone." My eyes were adjusting to the dark, and I could make out the silhouettes of saguaros, their arms raised like hostages in a bank heist. "What do las lobas care about Clean Milk?"
For a minute, Lucia said nothing. Just fiddled with the keys dangling from the ignition switch. Then she took the last drag from her cigarette and flicked the butt into the darkness. "You've seen the public service ads about children with stunted growth succumbing to influenza?"
"Can't get away from them. Plastered on every billboard, bus and taxi in town."
"It's because of the Clean Milk act."
I couldn't help rolling my eyes. "You believe that bullshit dairy-industry propaganda?"
Lucia leaned toward me, her eyes narrow, like she was searching for something.
"It ain't bullshit. I may talk like a redneck, but I ain't stupid. The CDC keeps epidemiological stats, breaks them down by date, age, height, weight and a dozen other vectors you can chart with any spreadsheet program. Obama made the industry cut antibiotics and hormones out of the cows, cut them out of the meat and milk, and now the kids don't grow and they stay sick. Sometimes they die. Doctors won't write a scrip for antibiotics before a kid comes down with something nasty." She leaned back against the driver's door and closed her eyes. "And it's impossible to put your hands on growth hormones in the States anymore."
"But the stuff's still legal in Mexico."
"Shit, you can buy name-brand European bovine growth hormone by the crate in Nogales."
"So, las lobas traffic hormones."
"Fastest growing illegal substance trade of the decade." She drew another bent Marlboro out of the pack, twirling it between her fingers.
"Wait. Las lobas means she-wolves?"
"So these are women."
"But your average soccer-mom can't drag a crate of BGH out to the mini-van, much less distribute it nationwide."
Lucia parked the cigarette between her lips but didn't light it.
"It takes a team; transport, logistics, lookouts, informants, inside men, guns and funds, and who knows what else." She took the cigarette out of her mouth and pointed out the windshield at the horizon. "But we've got mothers all over these great United States who'd do anything to make sure their babies grow up tall and strong. Millions of mommies skimming profits from the PTA bake sale, tracking shipments on their i-Phones, and burning up sick-leave to take turns as drug mules."
Lucia didn't look like a law officer condemning a nation-wide drug trafficking network. She looked...proud. And one word echoed in my head.
"You said, we."
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. Ran her hand through her short hair.
"You said, we've got mothers."
Lucia took a deep breath. It made me think of someone ready to dive for pearls.
"You know the number one reason for wild animal attacks?"
I couldn't see what the question had to do with drug-running mommies. "Campers leaving their food in the tents?"
"No. Female animals defending their children." She tapped her finger on the steering wheel like she was pointing out our position on the map. "Just last week, I read in the paper, a hiker sees a bear cub and says, 'get a picture of me playing with the Teddy bear,' and next thing he knows, mama bear's on top of him, all teeth and claws and breath hot as blood, and he's lucky if he spends the next three years having reconstructive surgery to put his face back on straight."
While I chewed on this, I looked out the window. My eyes had fully adjusted to the dark and I saw the stars scattered across the sky, and it reminded me of the glitter Evan spilled on the carpet. I'd vacuumed it over and over, but no matter how much I cleaned, it still sparkled like a fairy playground.
"You got kids, Lucia?"
For a minute, the only sound was the cicadas' rattling dirge.
"My daughter died three years ago. She got a staph infection after she skinned her knee. Used to be, kids didn't die from skinned knees."
I thought about Evan; how his tiny feet barely reached the pedals on his tricycle; five years old and he'd spent more time in the hospital than I had in my whole life.
"You know, I've got a boy at home."
She nodded. "I said, I requested you specifically."
I began to see the shape of Lucia's plans emerging from the night. "I think I understand why."
Lucia started the engine and put the truck in gear. "Welcome aboard, partner."