James O. Born

Field of Fire

Wes Lukowsky, Booklist, January 1, 2007

A bombing in a Florida migrant-labor camp kills a child,. and ATF agent Alex Duarte is assigned the case. The Justice Department links the incident to a series of union-related bombings across the country and assigns a DOJ lawyer to work with Field of FireDuarte. The intended bomb target is petty criminal Alberto Salez, whom Duarte catches then loses. The chase is on. Diffusing Duarte’s inherent laser focus is the bomber, who still wants Salez dead, and the DOJ lawyer, who seems to know more about the case than she’s letting on.

Born, a law-enforcement professional, shifts narrative points of view among all the major characters and also tinkers with chronology to keep readers on their toes. Born dedicates his fourth novel to Elmore Leonard, whose influence is evident. Leonard’s best books (think City Primeval, 1980) have been urban noir with flawed, hard-bark protagonists consumed by the pursuit. Duarte would fit right in. Born has talent and momentum; don’t be surprised if, soon enough, he has his own, Leonard-like breakthrough.



He looked over the dash of the new Ford Taurus, already littered with PowerBar wrappers, thanks to his partner. The constantly shifting sea of people spread out over the front of the migrant labor camp for the Bailey Brothers main farm. Even with the good Tasco binoculars he’d been using, he had a hard time telling one man from another.

His partner probably had the same problem but would never admit it. That’s what you could expect from a guy who was never in the military. He had the “cover your mistakes” mentality.

The big, lumpy man in the passenger seat kept adjusting the binoculars as if they might compensate for the fact that every man between twenty-five and forty in the camp was about five-seven and had dark hair.

His partner scanned the large compound on U.S. Highway 27 in extreme western Palm Beach County and said, “Don’t see him, Alex. What’d ya say we pack it in for today?”

Alex Duarte looked out over the labor camp silently, then at the afternoon sun. “Only been here three hours. Let’s give it a few more.”

“A few more hours?” His partner, Chuck Stoddard, turned his wide frame. “No way. I gotta pick up the kids at day care by six. It’ll take an hour just to get back east.”

Duarte shrugged. “I can grab this guy. Go ahead. I’ll drop you back at your car.”

“Alone? Not a chance. The warrant’s for selling guns. We should even have a few more guys with us now.”

Duarte let it slide. He’d found it didn’t pay to argue about something you weren’t going to change. He looked at the warrant again. It was for the arrest of Alberto Salez for violations of criminal statute 18 USC 44§ 922. A federal firearms statute. Duarte knew that it was probably bullshit like a lot of their regulatory cases, but it wasn’t up to him. He followed instructions. The whole thing looked simple to him. This guy broke the law, he and his partner were given the warrant and now they had to find him. An informant had told them Salez stayed in one of the trailers at this shithole. Sometimes he just wished Stoddard wasn’t whining about going home already. How could you ever get ahead if you weren’t willing to put in a little extra effort? That was the problem with most of the guys he worked with: they didn’t want to get ahead. They were satisfied with just being street agents.

After the long silence, Stoddard said, “Okay, we’ll wait, but my wife is gonna be pissed.” He snatched his cell phone off his hip and started mashing buttons.

Duarte blocked out his partner’s pleadings with his wife over the fate of the kids. Instead of being drawn into the call, he concentrated on the information sheet and small, profile mug shot attached to the warrant.

He studied the black-and-white photo, trying to figure out something that might single out Salez. Under section titled “Scars/Marks/Tattoos,” Duarte noticed a comment: “Lower left ear missing.” It would help up close, but from this distance it didn’t seem to apply.

When Stoddard had put away his phone, Duarte said, “We need to get a lot closer. See?” He held up the sheet and tapped a finger on the ear information.

“How do you figure he lost part of his ear?”

Duarte shrugged.

Stoddard said, “But if we go into the camp and he’s not there, we’ll never get another chance. Once he hears a couple of ATF agents were looking for him, he’ll be on the next bus to California.” Stoddard took another look through the binoculars. “What if you went down, alone, undercover?”

“What’d you mean ‘undercover’? I’d never fit in. They’d pick me out in a second.”

Stoddard hesitated. “I mean, ah, they are your people.”

Duarte was confused. What was his redneck partner talking about?

Stoddard added, “You know what I mean. Spanish.”

Duarte turned to him. “I doubt any of those little people picking fruit are from Spain. And I was born in West Palm Beach. So I don’t know what you mean.”

“I know you’re a . . . a little taller and dressed nice. I just meant that they’d pick me right out.”

Duarte said, “I can get down there and get a good look without mixing in the crowd. I’ll call if I see anything.” He opened the car door and slid out. He wore a loose shirt over a T-shirt that showed a surfer on a Costa Rican beach. Also under the loose shirt was a Glock model 22, .40 caliber pistol.

Stoddard started to get out too.

“You wait here. We’ll need the car if I see him.”

“What’d you mean? Why’re you going down there if you don’t think you can mix in?”

Duarte shut the door. He had faith his partner would figure out what he was doing. He tromped off through the weeds in the vacant lot next to the car. He could see the labor camp as it sunk away from the built up highway, almost making it look like it was set up in a valley instead of the Florida swamp.

Duarte crossed the highway a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the camp and then turned back, ducking low into the brush along the perimeter of the flat camp. He felt the stab of a Florida holly bush in his neck as he dropped down to the ground and began to crawl through the dirt. His faded jeans were a lot tighter than fatigues, but he still felt more comfortable doing this kind of activity than he would have trying to mix with the Central American laborers. The heat was bearable. It was May, but no one from the Northeast would consider the temperature “springlike.”

The camp itself had a dusty feel. The pathways and the single road were lime and unpaved. The soil out here in the glades was black and rich, but the sun dried the top layer in a matter of days, which contributed to the haze. In the distance, a cane field fire added a smell and a soft white dullness to the whole camp. Duarte didn’t mind—in fact, he liked crawling around like this more that his usual duties at the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. At least he wasn’t looking at gun store records or typing up a report.

He traveled down one row of brush then crossed over to another that ran closer to the line of trailers where people seemed to be coming from every few minutes. He found another row of brush turning right and switched onto it like he was on the 1 and 9 subway in New York. No one noticed his tall, thin frame slide through the mix of Florida holly, weeds, ficus and areca palms. After a few minutes, he realized there was a system to the brush and realized it was used as a wind barrier around certain crops. He found a good intersection and then settled in to look for Alberto Salez. From his hiding place, he could clearly see in three directions.

It was comfortable in the shade of the brush. He had sat in worse spots in Bosnia, watching Serbian tanks make their short and usually unsuccessful assaults.

He looked down at the scar that ran along his left forearm and thought about that unfortunate low crawl into barbed wire outside Broka. He didn’t worry about barbed wire here. Of course he hadn’t worried about it in Bosnia either, and now he had a fourteen-inch scar that itched most nights while he lay awake. He reached down and unclipped his Nextel cell phone and carefully turned off all the rings and beeps, placing everything on vibrate. Then he chirped his partner.

In a low whisper, he said, “Chuck, I’m in place, stand by.”

“I’m looking with the binoculars. Where are you?”

He kept his voice low even though no one was close and there was a lot of noise from the traffic on the highway and salsa music blaring from one of the trailers. “I’m directly south of the office trailer with the two red flags.”

After a minute his phone shook, and he heard Stoddard say, “I don’t see you.”

“Trust me, I’m there. I’ll call if I see him.” Duarte had to admit, at least to himself, it was satisfying to have Stoddard unable to see him. He hadn’t forgotten all his training from Fort Leonard Wood or Bragg.

He watched the regular late-afternoon movements of the camp and noticed that people knew what to do and seemed to do it without complaint. No one had to yell orders and everyone was busy. After just thirty minutes, Duarte figured he had seen most of the camp’s workers. Then, just as he was contemplating heading back to the car, Duarte heard a female’s shout drift across the camp. He tuned in the direction of the angry voice and saw the open door to the trailer at the rear of the residential area.

A well-dressed woman in a tan skirt shoved a man outside, emphasizing the act with some sharp phrases in Spanish. He didn’t know the exact words, but he caught the meaning well enough.

After the woman had slammed the door, the man looked around, almost as if he was daring anyone to have noticed the incident at all. In fact, the people in the camp appeared far too busy to worry about a minor argument between two adults. The man, dressed in a colorful polo-type shirt and clean jeans, looked out of place. His clothes didn’t belong to a working person. He strutted past some men trudging back from a field. He wasn’t working; he was showing off. Duarte had little use for show-offs, especially in front of people like this. He waited as the man came closer. The problem was that as he walked toward the row of old, beat-up parked cars near the highway, his left ear was on the wrong side of Duarte. He wouldn’t see it clearly as the men walked past. His right ear was intact, with a giant, round gold hoop earring dangling from it. The single, side view of Salez from the old arrest photo didn’t really look like this guy. There was no bushy mustache in the photo, and his skin looked rougher than in the photo that was a few years old.

He waited as the man passed and Duarte could get a good look at him. It was hard to tell from the photo. Then, just as the man passed, Duarte called from the bushes: “Alberto.”

The man turned quickly, like someone used to being on guard. He looked down the row of trailers and never even glanced in Duarte’s direction.

It was enough. Duarte could clearly see the mangled ear. This was their man. Duarte waited until the man continued his trek toward the cars and then chirped up his partner. “Chuck, he’s walking toward the highway near the row of vehicles. Come on down, nice and easy.”

“On the way.”

Duarte stepped out of the bushes away from Salez. No one even noticed as he stood up and brushed himself off; his army training to always stay neat kicking in, despite his urge to chase after the fugitive. He stepped out to the pathway and started walking casually toward Salez, who was now looking at the rear tires of a beat-up Ford Mustang.

Duarte knew to wait for his partner, but what was taking him so long?

Then Salez, still unaware of Duarte as he approached, stood up and turned toward the driver’s-side door. Duarte picked up the pace and closed in on the car as Salez lingered at the door. As he broke into a run, Duarte pulled out a badge on a chain from underneath his shirt and let it hang like a necklace down his chest. He looked up but didn’t see Stoddard in the Taurus yet. He surprised Salez while he was still standing next to the car. “Alberto Salez?”

The man’s head snapped at the sound of his name. His eyes darted to the badge, and he sprang to the front of the car and paused, his eyes shifting to each side. Duarte slid to a stop at the rear of the rusty Mustang. He hadn’t drawn his Glock, and wasn’t the least bit out of breath. He just wanted to give Chuck a chance to roll up and help corral this guy. He said to Salez, “Don’t run.”

“Why not?”

Duarte thought, that’s a good question.

Salez turned toward the road, then saw Chuck Stoddard in the ATF Ford Taurus pulling onto the side of the roadway. The fugitive looked back at Duarte, then toward the rear of the camp, and broke into an all-out sprint away from the highway. He managed to slip past Duarte’s lunge by using the trunk of his Mustang to block him, and by keeping a good pace.

Duarte matched his effort, but was a good ways back, and not quite as fast. The gun on his hip threw off his stride, but he preferred it to trying to run with a pistol in his hand. He didn’t really like the feel of any pistol in his hand.

He watched as Salez tore past all the trailers, attracting the stares of the other residents. Duarte didn’t know whether the fugitive was hoping for help or had an escape route. Either way, Salez had company as Duarte chased him past a packing house with a loading dock and then into a crop of tall corn. It wasn’t hard to follow the man as he brushed cornstalk after cornstalk. They came out into an open field, and he could see the fugitive start to lose steam. Finally Duarte saw him duck into a long shed with wide double doors. Duarte didn’t hesitate to burst into the shed. The biggest problem was that, as he came in from the fading sunlight, he had no night vision in the dark shed.

Duarte still hadn’t drawn his gun. He preferred his fists, or even a good explosive, if he had to choose a weapon. He didn’t pause by the door, where he was silhouetted by the sunlight. He turned and ducked to the side, then crouched to get what limited view he could of the shed. It was longer than he thought, and there was only one door. He was in here with Salez.

Duarte eased next to a large riding mower and listened. He was breathing a little hard from the run, but this was the kind of stuff he liked. He even smiled slightly for the first time all day. Then he sensed movement directly in front of him. He felt the swoosh of a shovel as it crashed into the hood of the mower.

Duarte didn’t wait for a second swing. He sprang up in the direction the shovel had come and threw his body into the smaller Salez. The fugitive fell back to the other side of the shed, bouncing off the flexible aluminum walls.

Duarte moved to the right, forcing Salez to move toward the door and into the light. Now Duarte had a clear view of the dark man holding a short shovel like a baseball bat. Duarte feinted toward him, causing Salez to swing full force at him. After the blade of the shovel had passed, Duarte sprang forward and landed an open shuto strike across Salez’s face. The hard edge of Duarte’s hand made the man drop the shovel and stumble back until he regained his composure again. In a quick, smooth motion, Duarte reached up and stuck his finger through the large hoop earring and yanked as the man passed him. Salez pivoted and screamed in pain, as Duarte delivered a roundhouse kick to his ribs, followed by a left punch on his chin. He dropped straight to the ground without another sound.

Duarte looked at his right hand and saw the hoop earring with a one inch hunk of flesh dripping from it. He had solved the mystery of the fugitive’s other missing ear.