At the postmortem, also held in the visitor center after the tourists had cleared out, the team brainstormed ideas for how best to encourage participation among reluctant visitors. About fifteen employees were present, including the coyote, the runners, the border patrol, the grounds crew, and two of the four security officers. Jack let the group socialize a little longer than usual on account of the A-Wall excitement. He’d read that letting employees fraternize was an essential component of keeping productivity rates high, and though “productivity” was a concept difficult to apply to Border Run!, he thought of it as good advice, generally.
During the discussion, everyone agreed that participation resulted in a higher level of satisfaction. This fact was underscored by Larry, the sales manager, who produced a hand-drawn chart depicting post-show sales generated by groups who’d helped catch a high number of aliens vs. those who, like the group that afternoon, just stood there and watched. Above the graph he’d drawn a rainbow that sprung from a cloud to the left and ended in a pot of gold beside the higher numbers.
“It’s plain as day,” Larry said. He was bald, and his scalp was covered in freckles and moles. “People just feel better if they feel helpful.”
“Thank you, Larry,” Jack said. “Anyone have any thoughts?”
Archie stepped forward. Archie was a lanky young man with posture so upright it seemed showy. He’d only been hired a few months back, and his job was to orient the visitors, help them up the stairs, and stay with them in the tower.
“I’ve been praying on this,” he said, “and I think it’s a matter of visibility. So I was thinking the runners could wear bright clothing. Maybe the tourists just can’t see them in the dust.”
A jeep driver named Rodriguez argued that the tourists must have a far better view than patrol does.
A grounds crewman thought clearer instructions might help.
Then Archie spoke up again. “What about if they waved their arms around?” he said.
He was beginning to try Jack’s patience. A small gold cross around the boy’s neck caught Jack’s eye.
“I know visibility is an issue, here, Archie. But we want to retain at least some of our fidelity to what we’re trying to represent.”
The unspoken specter here was the slow ebb of the rainy season further and further into the summer. You could once count on a shower by the end of June, but they could now make it all the way through July without so much as a sprinkle. It was a terrible thing to think about, and he didn’t want to get into that discussion. Fortunately, someone changed the subject.
“What about planting a mole?”
It was Senora, a widow whose husband had died in an accident on Jack’s watch. She peeked out from under her black mourning veil—a now constant accessory—with a look somewhere between resignation and bliss.
“I think you might be on to something, Senora,” he said quickly. “What about posting someone up in the watchtower while the show is going on, someone who could lead by example? I think that’s a great idea.”
Everyone seemed to agree that it was worth trying, and Jack told them he’d work out the details and come back to them with something more concrete. He considered introducing the idea of planting someone to stir things up in the visitor center too, but decided to hold back on that for now. He didn’t want too much thought given to how to deceive their guests. At least, not all at once. Once deception enters the conversation, it’s not easy to shake.
“Oh, and one last thing. I want to make masks available to the tourists, too.”
There was the usual murmur and grumbling assent and then, with the meeting officially over, Jack’s employees filed out of the small, stuffy room to begin preparations for the next tour bus. He watched them go, noting the heaviness of their movement, until the sound of an engine pulled Jack’s attention toward Warsaw Canyon Road, where a clean white car was turning down the driveway. When it drew close, Jack could see Paco Esteban in the driver’s seat. Paco was a Federal Agent who lived an hour outside of Tucson and bred Aussies. He’d sold one to Jo years ago, and when she’d left it stayed, so Jack had grounds for occasional contact with the man wholly unrelated to Paco’s job. Just two months ago, Jack had gone to him when the dog had been acting strange, ceaselessly running and stopping and pacing. Paco said she was bored.
Jack went out to meet him in the parking lot.
The car stopped and Paco slid out, followed by his passenger, a fair skinned man in a sharp blue suit, doubtless from ImPass. He was carrying a manila envelope. Jack was a tall, well-built man—some proof that his Seminole blood, however thin, still held some magic—and he summoned what he hoped was an imposing stance for the meeting, something to add credibility to the forgone conclusion that he’d have to disappoint them. He looked from the stranger down to Paco’s small, fine-boned face as they approached. They shook hands, and Paco’s white button-down short sleeve shirt fluttered against his thin body like a dove.
“It’s funny,” Jack said, ignoring the envelope. “No matter how bad business is, I can always count on these little visits. It’s almost a comfort.”
Paco had been coming with a rotation of ImPass men ever since Jack had come into the land. The corporation worked closely with the Federal government, and it was Paco’s job to play escort, a role he’d adopted uneasily, his loyalties obviously split. The reason for the visits were simple: they wanted the land, and each time they offered a larger sum. Paco had long ago stopped introducing the men.
“Just doing my job,” Paco said impatiently. “Take the damn thing, for Christ’s sake. I have an Indian wants to buy a dog.”
The man held the envelope out in front of him and shook it a little, a broken rattle. Paco knew, and Jack knew that he knew, that for Jack to sell was unlikely in the extreme. But as he said, he was just carrying out orders. There was truly little difference between the interests of the Federal Government and those of private groups like ImPass, and it did little good to upset the status quo. “Now, what’s an Indian want with one of my dogs?” asked Paco. “Don’t they have their own system?”
The stranger shook his envelope again, then let his arm drop.
Jack felt a little embarrassed. “I don’t know what to tell you, mister,” he said. “This isn’t really negotiable.” He nodded over at the car they’d come in. “That new?”
“Sure is,” said Paco. “She’s a guzzler.”
There weren’t too many cars on the road anymore, let alone guzzlers. At least not in the desert. Mostly just those owned by ImPass, the Feds, or the occasional high roller slumming over from the coast and too good for the tour bus. The bright white sedan was parked alone on the far end of the largely empty lot, and sat there like a missing piece, an absence, like someone painting by numbers hadn’t reached that number yet.
“Nice car, but I’d never drive one.”
Paco’s silent partner dropped the envelope at Jack’s feet and started walking back to the car. The two men stood there and stared at it, listening to the man walk away.
Once he was out of earshot, Paco leaned in close. “Listen, you and I are friendly, okay? I don’t blame you for not selling. Heck, you own the last private border land in the state. But see, and I’m not saying nothing, but word is this’ll be their last offer.”
“Well, that’s good news.”
Paco shook his head. “I didn’t say they’d stop trying.”
Jack’s long black hair was pulled back behind his head, and a few strands danced in the desert charge, waving upward like charmed snakes. He reached down for the envelope—it seemed like a friendly gesture—but he didn’t open it. He knew it was more than he could ever spend. Thing was, there just wasn’t anything to spend it on. The two men stood, acknowledging their impasse, and watched a small brown moth spin awkwardly between them as if caught, though there was more space than man to make the circle.
Paco was the first to speak. “How’s the dog? Still bored?”
“I’m thinking about putting her to work in the show.”
“Herding the immigrants, yeah.”
The two men looked at their feet. Jack hated that Paco reminded him of Jo, though the two couldn’t be more different, or occupy a less similar position in the pantheon of people he wished he could leave behind.
“Well, Lightning, I got to go sell a man a dog.”
“Stay cool, Paco.”
Paco spat. “Shiiiiit.”
He tipped his hat and ambled to the idling car. He opened the door, shook his head, and climbed into the cab. With a precious growl, the car retreated back up the long dirt drive toward Warsaw Canyon Road, disappearing in a dream of chalk-white dust.
Jack watched them drive off. What did they have in mind, he wondered, in place of another offer? Why, more importantly, wasn’t he willing to sell? This last was a question that continued to haunt him even though he’d long since stopped trying to answer.
Jack turned to find his grounds crew captain, a man named Angel and one of Jack’s first employees, standing a few paces away. Angel was a large quiet man, very independent, with slow, steady movements easily mistaken for sloth, or melancholy, though he was neither slothful nor melancholic. He was rather a pensive man, considerate. Seeing Jack had finished his business with the law, Angel approached him with his straw hat crumpled in his strangely soft, clean hands, and smiled.
“Will Mrs. Lightning,” he said, “be staying for long?”