Since graduating from the Academy eight months before, Special Agent Corrie Swanson had learned to expect almost anything. Nevertheless, she hadn’t expected to be serving warrants on bawling teenagers. As she rode back through the mountains with the rest of the FBI team, she felt relieved that a difficult day was almost over.
They were returning from the town of Edgewood, having served the warrant on a pimply-faced hacker who, when he answered the door of his mother’s house, had broken down in tears at the sight of them. Corrie felt bad for the kid, and then felt bad for feeling bad—because, after all, he’d hacked into a classified network at Los Alamos National Laboratory “just for fun.” Now his computers, external hard drives, iPhone, USB sticks, PlayStation, and even home security system were all loaded into the black Navigator with tinted windows that was following their vehicle with Agent Liz Khoury at the wheel and Agent Harry Martinez riding shotgun.
Corrie sat next to her boss, Supervisory Special Agent Hale Morwood, who was driving the least likely G-ride Corrie had ever seen: a late-model Nissan pickup, loaded, in candy-apple red with racing stripes and a Chinese dragon decal running diagonally across the hood. It was totally unlike Morwood’s dry personality. When Corrie had finally screwed up the courage to ask her boss why he drove it, his response had been “I travel incognito.”
“So,” Morwood said, shifting into his mentoring voice. “Enough excitement for you today?”
Difficult or not, Corrie knew that the day had been a reward of sorts. She’d put in more than her share of desk duty, worked hard to impress Morwood, and even managed to play a major role in a recent case. To Morwood, no doubt this was the equivalent of a field trip.
Still, she knew he wouldn’t like a display of gratitude. “I felt a little silly,” she said, “wearing a bulletproof vest on a call like that.”
“You never know. Instead of just yelling, that mother might have pulled out a .357 Magnum.”
“What are they going to do with all that computer equipment?”
“The lab will look at it, find out exactly what he did and how, and then we’ll go back and arrest him—and his life will be over.”
“Seems harsh to you?”
“He didn’t fit my idea of a criminal, to be honest.”
“Me neither. Smart kid, stable middle-class home, straight-A student, promising future. That in a way makes it worse than, say, some kid who grows up in the inner city and starts dealing drugs because it’s all he knows. Our boy is eighteen, he’s an adult, and he broke into a system that holds classified nuclear bomb information.”
“I get it, totally.”
After a moment Morwood said: “It’s good to have compassion. That’s something a lot of agents lose over time. But balance it with a sense of justice. He’s going to get a fair trial in front of twelve ordinary, commonsense Americans. That’s how it works—and it’s a beautiful system.”
Corrie nodded. Morwood was a twenty-year agent, and his lack of cynicism continually surprised her. Maybe that’s why he’d been tapped to mentor new agents during their two-year probationary period. So many of her fellow rookies—most of the guys, even some of the women—were already trying on a tough, cynical, hard-boiled macho persona.
They were passing through the town of Tijeras, on old Route 66, when Morwood reached down and turned up the volume on the police scanner, which had been murmuring in the background. Domestic, Cedro Peak Campground, report of shots fired…
Corrie brought her wandering thoughts to attention.
Reports indicate a domestic dispute and shots fired in a camper, possible shooting victim, possible hostage situation. Location Cedro Peak Campground, New Mexico 252, Sabino Canyon turnoff…
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Morwood, fiddling with his navigation program, “that’s just around the corner. Looks like this is one for us.” He pulled down his mic. “Special Agents Morwood and Swanson, Khoury and Martinez responding. We’re passing through Tijeras on Route Six-Six, turning onto New Mexico Three-Three-Seven south. Ten minutes out.”
Morwood accelerated, talking to the dispatcher and the agents in the following car. The tires squealed as he took the turn from Route 66 onto 337, heading into the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. As he did so, he reached for the dash, hitting the siren and activating the hideaway lights. The SUV followed suit.
The dispatcher relayed all the information she had, which was precious little. Essentially, others in the campground had called 911, reporting an incident in a pop-up camper—a loud argument, a woman screaming, shots fired. One said he thought he heard a little girl crying as well. Naturally, everyone in the campground had gotten the hell out.
“Looks like we’re going to get some real action, not just a crybaby hacker,” Morwood said. “We’re the first responders. Check your weapon.”
Corrie felt her heart accelerate. She removed her Glock 19M from the underarm holster, popped out the magazine, checked it, then reinserted and reholstered. Per standard procedure there was already a round in the chamber. She was glad to still be wearing the bulletproof vest.
“Domestics,” said Morwood, switching again into mentoring mode, “as you probably learned at the Academy, can be the most dangerous of calls. The perp can be irrational, agitated, and often suicidal.”
The speedometer edged up to seventy miles an hour, which while not fast in itself was frightening enough on a mountain road with steep drop-offs and few guardrails. The tires gave a little protest of rubber at each curve.
“So what’s the plan of action?” Corrie asked. This wasn’t some pimply kid; this was real. This was her first active shooter call.
“They’ve called in a SWAT team and a CNU negotiator, and the FBI’s got the CIRG on alert. So what we do is, we take up defensive positions, announce, assess, and de-escalate. Basically, we keep the guy talking until the pros arrive.”
“What if he’s taken a hostage?”
“In that case, the key is to keep him talking, reassure him, and focus on getting him to release the hostage. Unless it’s a crisis, the less we do the better. The most dangerous moment is when we first arrive and the shooter sees us. So we go in nice and easy, no shouting, no confrontational stuff. Should be a cakewalk. Good experience for you.” He paused. “But if things go south…just follow my instructions.”
“Remind me of your shooting qualification score?”
“Um, forty-nine.” Corrie reddened; that was barely above qualification, and followed weeks of practice at the range so intense her forearms had ached for days. Shooting just wasn’t her forte.
Morwood grunted a nonreply and pressed still harder on the accelerator, the truck flying up the meandering two-lane road that climbed through piñon- and juniper-clad hillsides. Five minutes brought them to the turnoff for the Cedro Peak Group Campground in Cibola National Forest, and another five to a gravel road. Morwood eased back on his speed. In a few more minutes they arrived at the campground: a peaceful, grassy basin with picnic tables, a group shelter, and firepits set among piñon trees, with the great mass of Sandia Crest rising behind.
At the far end of a loop road, she could see a lone camper attached to a white Ford pickup. The rest of the campground was empty of people, with a few tents scattered around.
Morwood turned his truck into the right side of the loop and gestured out the window for Khoury and Martinez to go around the other way and converge at the far end.
“Keep down in case he shoots at us,” said Morwood. “I’m going to drive in as close as I can.”
He pulled the truck to within twenty feet of the camper. No shots were fired. The camper was one of the kind that fold open, with sleeping compartments on either side of a central living space, screened in with mosquito netting and white nylon. The thing was practically see-through—and Corrie could, in fact, see a man standing in the living space, holding a little child in a hammerlock, gun pressed to her head. She was sobbing in terror.
“Oh shit,” breathed Morwood, crouching down in the seat and sliding out his weapon.
The man said nothing, did not move, keeping the weapon to the girl’s head.
Corrie also reached for her gun.
“Get out on the far side and use the truck as cover. Stay behind the engine block.”
They both crept out and crouched behind the front of the truck. Morwood had grabbed the vehicle’s mic cord and pulled it out with him. He now spoke into the mic, voice unhurried and neutral over the truck’s loudspeaker.
“We’re Agents Hale Morwood and Corinne Swanson, FBI,” he said. “Sir, I’m going to ask you to please release the girl. We’re here to talk to you, that’s all. No one’s going to get hurt.”
There was a long silence. The man was backlit through the netting, so she couldn’t see the expression on his face. But his chest was heaving and she heard the rasp of his breath. And then she noticed: blood was draining out the door and running in rivulets down the camper’s steps into the dirt below.
“You see the blood?” Morwood asked.
“Yes.” Her heart was in her throat. The guy had shot someone inside the camper already.
“Sir? We’re asking you to release the hostage. Let the child leave. As soon as you do that, we can talk. We’ll listen to what you have to say and work things out.”
The man pulled the gun from the girl’s head and fired twice at them. Both rounds missed the truck entirely.
I’ve been shot at before, Corrie thought. I can handle this. Besides, he can’t aim.
Morwood spoke again, his voice steady. “Please, let the child leave. If there’s anything you need from me in order to do that, tell me.”
“I don’t need shit from you!” the man suddenly screamed, so full of rage and gargling hysteria that the words were hardly intelligible. “I’m going to kill her! I’m fucking going to kill her right now!”
The child began to scream.
“Shut the fuck up!”
Morwood continued to speak, steady but firm. “Sir, you are not going to kill a child. Is she your daughter?”
“She’s the bitch’s daughter, and I’m going to kill her right now!”
Corrie saw him raise the gun and fire two more shots toward them, one of which slammed into the truck’s rear side. Then the man pressed the gun back to the child’s head.
“She’s gonna die, count of three!”
The girl’s tiny, terrified scream sounded like a metal blade cutting through tin. “No!” she choked out. “Please, Uncle, no!”
Morwood turned to Corrie and spoke quietly and rapidly: “I’m authorizing deadly force. I’m going to the right to get a side angle on him. Cover me. If you get a clear shot—and I mean absolutely clear—take it.”
The Glock felt like a block of heavy wet plastic in her trembling hand. Calm down and focus, for fuck’s sake. She peered over the hood and then took a low shooting stance, bracing her arms. It exposed her, but the guy couldn’t aim worth shit. She repeated it in her head: The guy can’t aim worth shit.
She carefully drew a bead on the man’s head and placed her finger lightly on the trigger. He was holding the girl in front of him, and ten yards was too far for a positive shot.
Morwood bolted from behind the truck and scrambled to a piñon tree thirty feet to the right, throwing himself down into a prone shooting position.
Corrie kept the man square in her sights. A head shot at this distance with her Glock 19M was still way too risky for the child. She glanced to her left and noted that Khoury and Martinez were behind their SUV, guns trained. Now she could hear the faint sirens of the SWAT team coming up the road.
Thank God—they were almost there.
Morwood fired his weapon, but Corrie instantly understood it was a decoy shot to distract the man, stop him from shooting the girl—and distract him it did. He pulled the gun from the girl’s head and returned fire, two wild shots. And in that moment the girl twisted away and broke free of his grasp, lunging for the door, but slipping and falling short.
In that moment the man was isolated, alone, and perfectly silhouetted against the netting. The girl was on the floor. Corrie had the man dead in her sights.
She squeezed the trigger.
The gun bucked and the round, missing the head shot she was aiming for, smacked into his right shoulder instead. The hit spun him to the side; he swung his weapon around to return fire, but was off balance and aiming wildly. Corrie saw the flash and kick of the weapon just as the girl scrambled up, grabbing at the flimsy door of the camper. She tumbled down the steps to the ground, pigtails whirling, Princess Leia hair clips flying.
“You bastard!” Before she could think of what she was doing, Corrie charged the camper. Simultaneously, a fusillade of shots rang out from Morwood and the other agents. The rounds connected and the man jerked back, his body a macabre imitation of a Raggedy Ann doll as he was thrown through the rear netting of the camper.
In a second Corrie had reached the girl and scooped her up, turning her own back to the shooter. The child was motionless, covered in blood. And then the SWAT team was suddenly swarming everywhere. Corrie looked up to see an ambulance screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust, the paramedics leaping out. She ran toward them and they surrounded her, gently removing the girl from her arms and putting her on a stretcher.
One paramedic held Corrie’s arm as she staggered. “Are you all right, ma’am?”
Corrie, paralyzed and heavily blood-splattered, merely stared at him.
“Are you injured?” He spoke loudly and distinctly. “Do you need help?”
“No, no, not my blood,” she said angrily, shaking his arm off. “Save the girl.”
Morwood was suddenly at her side, arm around her, supporting her. “I’ll take over,” he told the paramedic. Then he turned to her. “Corrie, I’m going to walk you back to the truck.”
She tried to move her legs and stumbled, but he held her up. “Just one foot after the other.”
Out of the corner of her eye she could see the paramedics madly working on the girl.
She followed Morwood’s murmured instructions as best she could, and he eased her into the front seat. She realized she was hyperventilating and sobbing at the same time.
“Okay, take it easy, easy now, Corrie. He’s gone. Take a deep breath. That’s it, a deep breath.”
“I fucked up,” Corrie said, choking. “I missed. He killed the girl.”
“You just take a deep breath now…Good…Good…You did nothing wrong; you took your opportunity, you fired, and you hit him. We don’t know the girl’s condition.”
“I missed the head shot. I missed—”
“Corrie, just take a moment to stop thinking and breathe. Just breathe.”
“He shot the girl. She’s—”
“Listen to what I say. Stop talking, stop thinking, and just breathe.”
She tried to follow his directions, tried to breathe, tried to stop thinking, but all she could see was the man’s shoulder turning, turning, while he swung the muzzle of his gun to fire at her, the premature shot going straight into the girl instead…and then the little body sprawled on the ground, bloody Princess Leia hair clips lying in the dirt.
Two Weeks Later
As Sheriff Homer Watts reached the pass at Oso Peak, he paused to slip his canteen off the saddle horn and take a swig of water. The view from the pass was spectacular: the land fell away through piñon-clad foothills to the desert many miles away and thousands of feet below. September had brought a pleasant freshness to the mountain air, redolent with the scent of pine needles. It was Watts’s first day off in a while and it was a gorgeous one, a gift from the gods.
He gave his horse, Chaco, an affectionate pat on the neck, hung back the canteen, and touched the horse’s flanks with his heels. Chaco moved forward easily, starting down the trail to the upper reaches of Nick’s Creek. Watts had packed all he needed for a quiet day of fishing: his bamboo fly rod in an aluminum tube, a box of flies and nymphs, creel, knife, compass, lunch, flask of whiskey, and his grandfather’s old pair of Colt Peacemakers, snugged into holsters almost as ancient.
He rode lazily down the trail, through shade and sun, past stands of ponderosas and glades of wildflowers, lulled by the gentle rocking of the saddle. On the shoulder of Oso Peak, the trees gave way to a broad meadow. Three mule deer grazed at the meadow’s far side: a buck and two does. They were startled by his sudden appearance and bolted. He paused to watch them bound away.
Crossing the meadow, he glimpsed, far away to his left, a puff of smoke in the foothills, on a mesa extending from the base of the mountains. He stopped his horse again, took out his binoculars, and gave it a closer look. A fire at this time of year, when everything was bone dry, would be disastrous. But the glasses revealed it wasn’t smoke at all, but irregular clouds of sand-colored dust raised by some sort of activity on the mesa. It was coming from a location he knew well, an abandoned mining camp named High Lonesome, one of the most isolated and unspoiled ghost towns in the Southwest.
Clouds of dust. What did it mean? Someone was up to something. And given the size of the cloud, it probably wasn’t good.
Watts paused, thinking. To his right the trail would lead him to Nick’s Creek and a peaceful day of fishing in a burbling stream, its deep pools and hollows flashing with cutthroat trout. To his left was a trail that would take him to High Lonesome and a day, perhaps, of aggravation and trouble.
Son of a bitch. Watts gently reined his horse to the left.
The land dropped away steeply, the trail switchbacking down the flanks of Gold Ridge. As the elevation decreased, the ponderosas gave way to juniper. As he rounded the side of the ridge, the ghost town came into view, a scattering of old adobe and stone buildings on the tongue of a mesa. He paused to once again glass the scene. And sure enough, it was as he suspected: a relic hunter. He could see the man shoveling sand from the basement of one of the ruined houses, pickup truck parked nearby.
Watts felt his blood quicken. He knew High Lonesome well, from the time his dad first took him there camping as a kid. The ghost town, remote and little known, had largely escaped the casual looting and destruction that had stripped most of the deserted mining towns in the state. There had been the occasional vandalism, for sure, mostly drunk teenagers from Socorro out for a weekend of fun in the mountains, but nothing on a large scale. The place wasn’t even listed in any of the guidebooks to the ghost towns of New Mexico. It was just too hard to get to.
But here was some son of a bitch vandalizing the place.
He reined his horse off the trail and rode down through the piñon trees. He didn’t want the relic hunter spotting him and taking off before he had a chance to collar the guy. While this was all Bureau of Land Management land and thus not his jurisdiction, he was the elected sheriff of Socorro County and he still had the right to arrest the bastard and turn him over to the BLM police.
After a while the slope leveled out. Moving his horse at an easy walk, he emerged into the open behind the town. The looter was at the far end, now out of sight because of the intervening buildings. Watts rode on through, keeping cover between him and the digger. A steady wind muttered through the ruins and a tumbleweed came rolling by, just like in all the Westerns ever made.
As he approached, he got a good view of the pickup truck. He recognized the old Ford as belonging to Pick Rivers.
Pick Rivers. This was a head-scratcher, and no mistake. Rivers had once been a cocky little shit, fond of meth and known to sell relics to get it. But he’d cleaned up his act about two years ago—after a brief stint in the pen had scared him straight—and he hadn’t been in any kind of trouble since.
As he reached the far end of town, Watts brought Chaco to a halt behind a building, dismounted, unlooped his lead rope, and tied the horse to a wooden post. He gave him another pat on the neck and a murmur of affection. He hesitated, then lifted the holster from the saddle horn, removed the gun and checked it, reholstered, and buckled it around his waist. Just in case. Rivers was one of those dudes who was into open carry, and Watts knew he liked to go around with an S&W .357 L-frame strapped to his hip.
As Watts walked around the corner, he could see the building Rivers was digging in. It stood off by itself, a two-story adobe structure, the top floor mostly collapsed. The man was in the basement, heaving shovelfuls of sand out a broken window frame. And he was working hard, too. Watts wondered what he had found.
He approached cautiously, his hand resting on the butt of the revolver on his left hip. Rivers had obviously uncovered something, because he was now bending down and digging more cautiously. And as Watts watched, the man dropped to his knees and started using his hands to sweep away dirt and sand. He was so engrossed in what he was doing, and the basement so full of dust, he had no idea Watts was approaching from behind.
The sheriff moved to where he had a good view of Rivers through the cellar entrance, laboring away. Then he called out: “Rivers!”
The figure froze, his back to Watts.
“It’s Sheriff Watts. Come out, hands in view. Now.”
The man remained motionless.
“You gone deaf? Show your hands.”
Rivers obliged, back still turned, holding his arms out to either side. “I hear you, Sheriff,” he said.
“Good. Now get your ass out here.”
“I’m coming.” The figure began to rise—and then, suddenly, the hands disappeared and he whirled around, .357 Magnum gripped in both hands, aiming dead on.
Watts yanked out his Colt just as Rivers’s .357 went off with the boom of a cannon.
A mummified corpse, over half a century old, is found in the cellar of an abandoned building in a remote New Mexico ghost town. Corrie is assigned what seems to her a throwaway case: to ID the body and determine cause of death. She brings archaeologist Nora Kelly to excavate the body and lend her expertise to the investigation, and together they uncover something unexpected and shocking: the deceased apparently died in agony, in a fetal position, skin coming off in sheets, with a rictus of horror frozen on his face.
Hidden on the corpse lies a 16th century Spanish gold cross of immense value.
When they at last identify the body—and the bizarre cause of death—Corrie and Nora open a door into a terrifying, secret world of ancient treasure and modern obsession: a world centered on arguably the most defining, frightening, and transformative moment in American history.