A tiny town on the Mexican border in Southeastern Arizona suddenly becomes prosperous. Everyone has their suspicions but nobody is talking, and everyone in the now thriving community is pleased not to ask any questions as long as the wealth is spread around.
After numerous attempts to discover the source of prosperity by the Feds to no avail, their clandestine court of last resort, The Outfit sends down Bakoda Pak during Hell Dorado Week to make a point by taking out the mayor who apparently has the most to benefit. The tables quickly turn in this western theme town and no one is surprised more than Bakoda.
"Hell Dorado Days," the sign read next to the state road as I traveled south. "More Fun Than A Hangin'," it continued in slightly smaller sub text. "All This Week in Big Lizard. Just 15 Miles Straight Ahead". Below it was next Monday's date through the following Sunday's. It was the end of summer, almost the beginning of fall.
It was Saturday mid-afternoon. I had left Phoenix about ten o'clock that morning and was almost there. I had skipped lunch, driving straight through and my stomach had begun to growl.
I wondered what epicurean experience awaited me in Big Lizard. I wasn't too optimistic, but at the moment anything edible would do.
To get my mind off of my stomach for the next quarter hour or so until I got to Big Lizard I reviewed my mission and the circumstances that led up to this assignment in my mind.
I was dressed pretty Western, and as much as I hated to admit it my boss and his needling had been dead on. I had on a pair of boots that had been in my closet since I dated a barrel racer back ten years ago and used to accompany her to rodeos around Arizona and New Mexico. My bosses' "buckarette" observation had been annoying but in reality brought back some pretty good memories. Too bad she finally threw me over for a bull rider. As unfair as it is I still harbor the hope that he ultimately got thrown badly, gored and stomped to death.
Levi 517s boot cut, the originals, not ragged but well worn, a big belt with a big buckle inlaid with turquoise over silver or what passed for it, again a remnant of past rodeo weekends and a western cut and tapered shirt with faux mother of pearl snaps.
I planned to be down there for at least a week, maybe ten days, so I had filled a liberal duffel with an appropriate supply of toiletries, socks, underwear and similar outer garb.
I couldn't bring myself to add a cowboy hat to the rig though and just donned my red Diamondbacks cap a bit sweat stained around the edges from hot days in Sunnyslope, North Phoenix working around my little house at the top of Central Avenue at the base of North Mountain. Working outside at a hundred and twelve degrees in the summer generates plenty of sweat and creates a genuine patina around the "sweat band", appropriately named, of the cap. The once ironing board stiff bill had been molded into a sincerebend and roll on both outer edges shading both eyes and my forehead.
I hadn't shaved for a few days and a turf of brown stubble covered my face.
I didn't look like a dude but perhaps a working ranch or farm hand or as my phony creds identified me, as a contractor named Michael or "Mick" Hatcher from up north in the Verde Valley area, Cottonwood, Sedona, Jerome, Camp Verde and the like. Lots of rural community construction owners dressed like I did and some were very successful and that was my cover identity. Besides building in the area I had an address outside of Cottonwood on some acreage, some horses and a couple of dozen cattle, or so the cover story went. I drove a red extended cab Ford F-150 pickup, in great shape though a few years old and appropriately dusty, purchased in Phoenix five days ago and titled using my assumed identity.
The Hell Dorado Week celebration provided the perfect cover for me, again something my annoying boss had figured out. Any other week a stranger in a small town would be the focus of attention, but they expected ten thousand visitors for the celebration all the way from Mister and Misses America and their kids to duded up cowboy wanna bes and reenactors, to guys like me who were coming down to check out the festivities, raise a little hell, maybe get laid and pick up something at the gun show the following Saturday and Sunday and hopefully nothing else catching if they got lucky with the local gals.
If anyone asked I was looking for an old 1873 Colt Single Action Army .45 six shooter, investment grade, at the right price at the gun show. I had six thousand dollars in hundreds in two envelopes to back up my claim in case anyone, particularly a member of the local constabulary, might ask. And I brought down a vintage black powder Winchester '73 44-40 lever action rifle ostensibly to sell or trade at the gun show but in reality it was the weapon that I planned to use to dispatch the mayor unless by happenstance something more contemporary and quieter became available, or perhaps another method proved appropriate. The Outfit left my methods up to me which I appreciated and often I free styled only making a final choice just prior to the execution depending on the circumstances of the moment. At any rate, hopefully I would simply blend in with all the visitors and in a little over a week I would leave town, a town flush with cash from the festivities but minus a mayor and I would simply be someone who came and went leaving no trail behind.
This mission was a little different from most of the previous ones. It seems that Big Lizard had been a conduit for drugs coming across the border, at least that's what the Feds supposed and all of their information indicated. The upshot was that they really didn't know how. They suspected tunnels coming under the border into the town but none could be detected even using ground penetrating radar save one about five years ago which was a primitive affair and located courtesy of an informer, a mule from the Mexican side of the border who had been picked up by the Policia Federal on another charge and gave up the tunnel to mitigate his sentence.
As part of my briefing for the assignment I read a report by The Congressional Research Service. A portion of it was about tunnels and the conclusion was that even with ground penetrating radar they are difficult to detect and that the technology is not generally effective. The report concluded that surveillance of suspected tunnel locations and the information garnered from informers has led to far more location detections of tunnels than has been detected by technology, exactly how that lone tunnel was located that extended about three hundred feet from a warehouse on one side of the border to an abandoned horse barn on the other on the outskirts of Big Lizard.
The tunnel that was located was not up to the standard of the cartels whose tunnels included air handling systems, lighting and often extended as far as a quarter of a mile or more and up to forty feet below the surface of the earth.
If there were no other tunnels that had been detected then how were drugs coming through Big Lizard? There is a border crossing just on the outskirts of the town and manned by border patrol and customs agents but there has been no success monitoring there with drug sniffing dogs and searches of vehicles. Yes, there was the occasional small load of pot or other contraband, but nothing on the scale that had to be coming through Big Lizard. And yet when the track of illicit trafficking in controlled substances was traced back throughout Arizona and New Mexico a substantial amount seemed to begin in Big Lizard, but nobody could explain why or how.
The town was also flush with prosperity. It was surrounded by ranching country and had a small service industry that catered to the needs of the ranches, but these were subsistence enterprises making a small profit for the owners but no one was getting rich on that commerce. The only tourist income came from Hell Dorado Week and after that the town offered little to attract travelers throughout the rest of the year as it was off the beaten path. There were a few wineries scattered around the country side but none were noted for the excellence of their product.
Ostensibly the source of the thriving overlay of the town was The Border Ranchers and Growers Association or the BR and GA. They poured money into Big Lizard and had big plans. The little town had three hotels, one of which I was staying in, The Gunslinger's Inn. Hell Dorado Week would guarantee that they would be filled up and the balance of the people who would come for all or part of the week would be staying at the ample R.V. park on the outskirts of town or in communities like Bisbee, Benson, Douglas, Wilcox and even Tucson around a hundred miles away. Other than an occasional visitor doing business with the community businesses or ranchers, the hotels had to be basically vacant for the balance of the year, but the overall plan was according to the association to make Big Lizard a tourist destination and a retirement community with some of the surrounding ranchland to be converted into sub-divisions.
And why was Big Lizard so prosperous beyond the supplemental influx of capital from The Border Ranchers and Growers Association? Only one answer as far as authorities were involved, an underground economy and the whole town was involved. Oh, the DEA had swept down on the place a few times and the border patrol was forever watchful but nobody had come up with anything save that makeshift tunnel discovered years ago.
As an example, back when the reclamation of the town began there was no city sanitation system, everyone was on septic tanks and leech fields. The Border Ranchers and Grower's Association, as one of their first projects, constructed a sewage treatment plant with all the bells and whistles including a huge sewer line that ran right through the middle of town and down skirting a few hundred feet from the border to the treatment plant. The DEA knew that such sewers, in essence large tunnels were often tied into tunnels carrying contraband from down in Mexico, so they swooped down on Big Lizard again. Net result after all the fuss and the Feds trudging through about a mile and a half of raw sewage on its way to the treatment plant; no tunnels, no contraband and the community in masse professed to know nothing as usual except that their toilets were more efficient and their bathrooms didn't smell from backed up septic gas.
The question was why I being sent down to take out the mayor? After all else had failed the idea was simply to send a message, to cut the head off of the snake. Ben Riggor as mayor had an annual salary, a matter of public record, of about twelve thousand dollars a year and owned the local hardware store. As far as could be determined he had not inherited any substantial estate nor had any other form of investment income, yet he lived in the largest and most opulent home in Big Lizard on several acres, raised prize quarter horses and had another residence on Coronado Island across San Diego Bay from San Diego. California.
Where did it all come from? The hardware had an annual gross income of one point two million dollars, of which the net profit was almost six hundred thousand. It was impossible given the local ranching economy and yet that was how it was reported on tax returns.
In the parlance of the old mystery detective novels, the whole thing was pretty "hinky".
To me the whole thing seemed pretty futile, the sending a message and such by me eliminating the mayor, but I was sent to Big Lizard to do a job and that was my job so I would do it. Also, this was a bit of a different assignment. Usually I was in and out, but I had also been asked to try to determine, if possible, what was going on down here. I was told to 'try and fill in the gaps". I would keep my eyes open while down here to do a job but as far as I was concerned 'the gaps" were as wide as the Grand Canyon. I'm not Sherlock Holmes, just a very good assassin, but I would do my best, but my main personal objective was to take care of business and get the hell out of Big Lizard.