Fiction – “Hard Ride to Yuma” by Nathan Crowder

The quiet squad room in the small Yuma police station was lit only by hallway lights casting a lonely square of light across the white floor. The room was empty but for a single, slender figure in a black leather bodysuit crouched in the near darkness, facing the week’s duty roster. Eyes hidden behind the black visor in a motorcycle helmet sculpted like a yowling cat head, his emotions were masked. The fearsome visage of the intruder twitched almost imperceptibly towards the door as footsteps sounded on the linoleum on the other side of the door.

Lights flickered on. Officer Gordon scanned the empty room, his eyes catching the open window. Concern furrowed his brow. Things were tense in Arizona these days, especially so in Yuma where the arrest of a Los Angeles journalist under Arizona’s new anti-immigration law had drawn national media attention. Gordon went to the window. No ledge to hide on, nothing but asphalt and concrete on the street three stories below. “Nerves are getting to you, man. Making you jump at shadows.”

The intruder was already two blocks away and moving fast. His custom black motorcycle purred quietly beneath him without lights. The low-light filters in his helmet made the cracked asphalt as clear as midday. “Uno,” he whispered. The integrated cellphone dialed his sidekick.

The uplifted panda answered on the first ring. “Hey boss, what can Snowflake do for ya?”

“There are some interesting gaps on the duty roster,” Gato Loco said. “A few people got moved off tomorrow’s transfer and replaced by names I don’t recognize. I want you to run them and see if they got transferred in from another department in the area.”

A pause and the click-clack of Snowflake checking email on the California side of the border. “Okay, file is attached. I’ll do some digging. What’s next on your night?”

“I’m pretty sure I know two of the cops who were removed from Gabriel Mendosa’s transport detail. I’m going to pay them a visit, and confirm my theory.”

The cycle sliced through the night towards the GPS marker on the inside of his visor. The first stop was outside the Yuma city limits by a few dark and lonely miles. Gato Loco lowered his head, focusing on the task at hand. There would be time for emotion later. If he let emotion take control now, he wasn’t sure how far it would carry him.

Outside of town, a pair of Arizona Highway Patrol officers held a sacred duty. This was a major trucking route between Arizona, California, and Mexico, and speeding truckers were as certain as sun in the summertime. The radar gun beeped and flashed, registering a 260mph reading that caused Trooper Wallum to spit coffee across the dash and windshield. Two pairs of eyes turned to the dark road. No vehicle. Nothing but shadows and strange hum that receded into the darkness.

Both men shared the same thought, but neither of them said it. “If it was one of those night-driving smugglers in the sports car and night vision goggles, wouldn’t we still have heard the car?”

Their eyes turned from the road to the radar gun to each other. An unnamed dread settled into their bones as they refreshed the radar gun. These were dark times.

And the devil was on the road tonight.

Officer Parton’s place was easy to find, but the GPS didn’t hurt. There weren’t a lot of homes out this stretch of highway, and the American flag made of Christmas lights on the trailer’s roof would have let Gato Loco find it from space. There was a truck in the driveway, but the hood was up, the engine in the middle of what appeared to be a major overhaul. There were no lights on in the trailer, and a close inspection of the dusty driveway showed that Parton owned two vehicles. “Snowflake, can you get me the DMV records for Officer Dale Parton at the first address?”

“I’ll get on it,” the panda mechanic answered. “You want the info on those names you gave me?”

“Any red flags?”

“None,” Snowflake said with certainty, confirming Gato Loco’s suspicions. “These guys are both clean, called in from Mesa. One has a wife who was born in Guatemala, so I don’t think you’ll have a problem with him.”

Gato Loco took a closer look at the truck. Definitely out of commission and likely to remain so. The engine was in pieces. He couldn’t help but notice the empty three-tier gun rack in the back window. “Okay. Send me the registered vehicles for Parton when you have them.”

“Where you off to next?”

Wind blew the ashes from a small charcoal grill around in a black dust-devil. No, he realized. Not ash. Burned paper scraps. “Once I’m done here, I’m heading to the next address.”

“Well, don’t dally. Time’s wasting,” Snowflake said, referring to the dawn transfer of Mendosa to the cells at the courthouse.

The scraps of paper left in the grill were too charred to be of much use. The corner of one page remained, showing the boxed corner of something long-since burned away. The paper was delicate, like newsprint, but what little shape remained from the charred and curled pages suggested that the page was too small to have been from a newspaper.

He rolled his cycle to the side of the trailer, out of sight of anyone coming up the driveway. It was unlikely that Parton was going to be coming home at 3 in the morning, but stranger things had happened. Comfortable with the bike’s hiding place, he jimmied the window and slid inside the dark trailer.

Again, the filters allowed him to make out the details of the small, clean space. Parton was a fastidious man. The dishes had been done, the bed made, and laundry folded. A housekeeper this tidy made it easy to notice something out of place, like a phonebook tossed on the chrome-edged dining room table. Gato Loco thumbed it open and found the missing page in under a minute. Judging from the pages on either side, the phonebook’s map of Yuma had been torn out.

Until now, it had been suspicion. Until the moment his gut told him someone had plotted then conspired to cover up the plot, it was nothing more than loudmouthed, racist cops. Now, the phonebook feeling heavy in his hand, he knew that things were only going to get worse. He returned the phonebook to the table, but left it open to the missing page. The camera function of his visor snapped a picture and filed it.

One more address to check. And as Snowflake had said, time was running out.

Anyone looking might have seen the cycle kick up a rooster-tail of dry, Arizona dust as he cut down the network of access roads. But this time of morning, not even the most diligent farmer had crawled out of bed. And with no lights or sound, the dust was just as likely to be explained away a freak wind. It certainly made more sense than a leather-clad specter of justice.

There had been a time when Gato Loco was just a concept – a gadget-filled suit that enabled dangerous and anonymous cycle racing through the streets of Mexico. Over time, that had changed, and its wearer sometimes lost track of where the suit ended and he began. Without the suit, he was just a man – talented but broken, plagued with uncontrolled visions and ruined legs. With the suit, he was a demon, a shadow made flesh. With the suit, he could make a difference in ways he had never imagined in his years as a cop in Mexico City. When he left his home for America, he had gone to Cobalt City, not for himself, but for the suit. It was where heroes went to prove themselves. But in the end, he had realized that the road was the only place he could find peace.

The road, the suit, and some inherent drive to tilt at windmills had brought him here to Yuma when things started to get dangerous. It was the suit that made it possible. His distinguished career as a homicide cop on both sides of the border didn’t matter here. To some of the cops in Arizona, he was a crippled wetback with an attitude problem.

The miles vanished beneath his wheels. And with the miles, his doubt melted away. Yuma, if not the rest of Arizona, was primed for a blood bath. As an immigrant himself, he understood the frustrations of immigration policy. But as a cop, he understood the realities on the ground as well. Not all cops were going to use the new Arizona SB 1070 to hassle anyone lower down on the Sherwin-Williams color-chart. But enough would that it was bound to be a mess.

Mendosa hadn’t been doing anything illegal when he had been pulled over. But someone who looked Mexican carrying a camera made the wrong people nervous. They made a deal out of it, demanding a driver’s license, social security card, and birth certificate. Mendosa had come looking for a story, and was prepared for confrontation. He sure as hell got one. It didn’t matter that he was doing a story for a prominent Los Angeles Latino paper. It didn’t matter that he had been born in Chino, California. What mattered was that he was brown, and he pissed someone off.

There was no way the arrest was going to stand up in court. As many news crews that had shown up in the past few days, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t Mendosa going on trial, it was the law – a law that some people thought was unjust, and others people saw as necessary.

The GPS flashed, letting him know his destination was less than a half-mile away. He throttled down the speed, coasting towards a barely visible farmhouse. Ahead of him, a car fired to life at the farm. Gato Loco diverted the bike behind a saguaro cactus and laid it down flat. Seconds later, headlights scrolled past and an old beater Chevy rumbled back the way he had come. It didn’t match Parton’s other car, or the late-model Camero that Officer Osler owned. Gato Loco made the decision to leave his bike where it was, and crossed the rest of the distance on foot. The synthetic muscles in his legs let him close the gap quickly and quietly in a series of cat-like bounds.

Unlike Parton’s trailer, there was a light left on at the farmhouse. Watching it carefully for signs of movement, he missed the “Beware of Dog” sign staked out in an overgrown patch of weeds. He caught the edge of the sign just enough to make it vibrate, waking the Rottweiler chained to the sign post. The dog exploded from the shadow of a garden shed with a storm of throaty barks.

Gato Loco had misgivings about hurting dogs. Like children, they were products of their environment. In his experience, there was no such thing as a “bad dog,” just bad dog owners. This was clearly one of those. He triggered the thousands of tiny force-fields that surrounded his body to cascade outward in a synchronized wave. While it left him momentarily defenseless, the action of the tiny fields passing the ear caused a massive equilibrium crisis. The dog fell unconscious in a heartbeat, sliding to a stop in the grass and gravel of the yard.

Despite the interior lights, there was no sign of activity at the house. Osler must have left a light on for when he came home. But the barking did elicit some cries for help from the garden shed. Muffled, certainly, but Gato Loco recognized his mother tongue when he heard it. He stepped over the sleeping dog and checked the door. Padlocked from the outside with a new lock.

The picks from the belt pouch made short work of the new Masterlock. The door swung wide revealing two Latino men in their thirties. Both had been stripped down to underwear and bound by the wrists to a ceiling hook with nylon rope. They blinked in surprise at the lanky silhouette of Gato Loco. Two heartbeats passed. An explosion of pleas erupted from them at the same time. He was recognized as a legend, a nightmare to criminals, but a savior to those in need throughout Mexico and the highways of the United States.

It took only a moment of calming the two captives down before Gato Loco had their story. Both men were from Mexico originally. David had become a citizen two years earlier, and Luis was on a valid work visa. Luis had found David on the side of the road, his car broken down, and being the good Samaritan that he was, offered to give him a lift to a nearby garage. Officers Parton and Osler found them first, the red and blue strobe of police lights flashing a warning before they had even passed out of sight of David’s car. David and Luis hadn’t broken any laws, and certainly weren’t expecting to be arrested when the squad car pulled them off to the side of the highway. They quickly learned that this wasn’t just a normal arrest. David put up a fight and had the red eyes from the pepper spray to show for it. Both men had been loaded into the back of the police cruiser and brought to the shed where they had been locked up for the better part of the day with no food or water.

Less than an hour earlier, the officers had come back, stripped both men, and forced David and Luis to fire guns loaded with blanks into the ground. The last step had left the prisoners mystified. They were both certain that they would be killed soon.

The pieces fell into place for Gato Loco. The two rogue officers were going to stage a rescue, making sure that Mendoza was killed in the process. He wasn’t sure if they would go the extra mile to kill the officers handling the transfer, but anyone who tried to stop Parton and Osler was likely going to get shot. After fleeing in apparent failure, Parton and Osler would frame their two captives. David and Luis would be killed by the two cops who set them up, who would look like heroes for doing it.

And the clock was ticking.

The dawn broke cold across the Yuma skyline. Two squad cars rolled out of the jail’s secured garage – two men in the front car, three in the back. They rode in silence, eyes sharply turned to any potential threats in the road ahead of them. Gabriel Mendoza sat in the back of the second car, hands in his lap, eyes closed with exhaustion.

The roar of a big sedan engine caught their attention mere seconds before an old junk car slammed into the front squad car from a side street. The impact caught the first car just behind the rear tires, sending it into a spin that ended on the curb in front of a Western-wear shop. The path ahead blocked, the second police car slammed on the brakes.

Those in the attacking car had the benefit of not having to fight through deployed airbags, and were out of the car in seconds, guns at the ready, bandanas obscuring their features. The driver of the attacker’s car used a pump shotgun to shred the front squad car’s tires. His associate pumped two rounds from his shotgun into the tires of car carrying Mendoza. Sparks flew as the rims bit into the asphalt.

The gunman on Mendoza’s car chambered another round. He leveled the barrel at the window of the squad car.

A sleek black motorcycle with a leather-clad rider hunched low sliced out of nowhere, inches from the gunman. The gun was knocked free and came to rest in the gutter across the street. The cycle slid to a stop just beyond the gun.

Gabriel Mendoza recognized the masked rider and crossed himself. “Oh, dios mio.”

The crash drew the neighbors to their windows and porches. Their looks of concern gave way to confusion which in turn gave way to a different kind of concern as the guns turned towards Gato Loco.

Gato Loco, the shadowy hero of the oppressed, the devil of the highways, the avenger in black, descended upon the two armed gunmen like vengeance made flesh. Every bullet they poured into him met the resistance of thousands of tiny force-fields that sapped the lethal slugs of their kinetic force. Lifeless, the slugs and shotgun pellets rained upon the asphalt as the grim avenger sprang at those who fired at him. Those watching felt the charge in the air, saw the barely-controlled fury in Gato Loco’s movements. To their amazement, his blows did not seem intended to harm the gunmen. Swift kicks knocked guns from hands. When the gunmen drew fresh weapons, those too were knocked free.

The two gunmen found themselves so occupied with the costumed avenger that they forgot about the police and prisoner they had originally set out to kill. Four wary officers surrounded the action, service revolvers drawn. They held until the final threatening gun hit the asphalt before they shouted, “Freeze!”

Parton and Osler snapped to a sudden awareness as if from a dream. Wide, panicked eyes suggested they might bolt, but neither man made a move. The brutal reality of the situation set in. Even if their borrowed car could do more than limp away from the scene, they would be dead before they reached it.

In the distance, the wail of sirens pierced the chill, tension-fraught air. The steady THRUM of a helicopter joined the street sounds. The witnesses, lulled by the drama unfolding on their streets, inched closer, as more people awoke and took to the street.

Gato Loco took half a step back, his motion tracked by two of the police revolvers. The senior officer repeated the orders to “Freeze!”

“Is that a news copter?” Gato Loco said inside his helmet.

Snowflake answered after a quick click of a mouse. “U.S. Marshals.”

“Good.” Gato Loco showed his empty hands to the attending police. They looked no less nervous. He slowly moved them towards his neck. The sensor in the helmet’s clasp read the chip implanted in his glove and released. With a handful of cops and private citizens bearing witness, the helmet was lifted free to show the tanned, smooth features of Manuel de la Vega.

It was a gamble. Manuel realized that once revealed his motives would be suspect. Wearing the helmet and leathers, Gato Loco was beyond race, beyond nationality. The suit let him be something else, something bigger than any one man. But one thing it could not do was change who he was inside. And who he happened to be was a proud Mexican.

The newly-passed law that was causing so many arguments was just that: a law. It was a tool. And as a tool, it was neither good nor evil. Every tool can only be judged by how it’s applied.

The lead officer’s voice was level and practiced. His blue eyes glinted like ice beneath his cap. “We need to get this man to trial.”

“I’m not here to stop you.”

A murmur went through the crowd. Two of the surrounding cops looked to their senior officer for direction. The other had already turned his attention back to the two gunmen who had rammed his car.

Gato Loco made no attempt to move, but the sirens drew even closer. “Am I under arrest, officer?”

The lead officer didn’t waver, his gun held firm and level. A slight smile ticked up in the left corner of his mouth. The gun was shifted back to the two attackers. “It’s your lucky day, sir. Get moving.”

When Gato Loco put his helmet back on no one flinched. The anxiety in Snowflake’s voice hinted that he had been trying to get Manuel’s attention for some time. “Boss?”

“It’s all good, Snowflake.” Gato Loco mounted his cycle. With a whir and hum, the sleek machine accelerated away from the growing crowd. “But keep your eyes on the internet for any video of me with my helmet off. We might have to do some creative video editing.”

“Did you get the bad guys?”

“They’re in custody and our man is on his way to court.”

Snowflake was quiet in the trailer over in California for a long moment. “So, we’re okay with that?”

Gato Loco flew past a line of squad cars going the other direction. He had vanished from their rear-view mirrors within ten seconds. “I don’t agree with this law. I’d be lying if I said I did. But it isn’t for me to decide. If it gets challenged in court like it is today, than maybe it can be fixed, or maybe just go away forever. Until then, all I can do is voice my objection to it, and hope that it doesn’t get abused.”

The panda mechanic snorted. Gato Loco could almost see him rolling his eyes. “Yeah, and when it does get abused?”

Gato Loco lowered his head and edged the speed up to 250mph. “Then I’ll be there.”


About the Author

The eldest child of an existentialist librarian and a teacher/child-care specialist, Nathan Crowder had always tended towards the literary. Now living in the Bohemian wilds of Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, he plies his trade writing superhero novels for the Cobalt City universe, as well as short fiction for magazines and anthologies such as 2010′s Rigor Amortis and Cthulhurotica, and 2011′s Human Tales. Not content to live within genre bounds, he is nevertheless a member of the HWA, and has his sights set on other affiliations in the future. He is currently working on his next Gato Loco novel for Timid Pirate Publishing.