Money Land is the sequel to the bestselling and riveting, Blood Land, that introduced the Sheriff James Pruett Mystery/Thriller series. Big crime has come literally crashing down on the small town of Wind River, Wyoming.
When a small plane bound for the Canadian border carrying money for the Sustantivo Cartel smashes into the glacial Wind River Mountains, the event brings a heartless evil presence to one of the more remote places on earth.
The tail of the plane is discovered, empty. No drugs. No money. Shortly afterward, people start dying. When the cartel comes to town, Pruett will do anything within his power to save his town, his people, the land, and his family. Anything.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
“Well, I am no thief,
but a man can go wrong
when he’s busted
The food that we canned last summer
is gone and I’m busted
The fields are all bare
and the cotton won’t grow,
Me and my family
got to pack up and go,”
Ray Charles, Busted
MARK COULEE sat in the cramped, sweltering office in the near-deserted airport outside Tempe, Arizona, lines of sweat mixing with fear mixing with a sad feeling of complete bewilderment. A scorpion scuttled across the open, filthy floor, making a break for some kind of freedom until Mark stomped on it with his boot. The pattern of insides and scorpion blood formed a design that looked like the Star of David and Mark thought for a moment about his father.
His dad had been a sometimes-practicing Jew who was what most people call a hardworking man, which meant he spent the bulk of his life working for a company that could not have cared less about who he was, what his dreams might be, how beautiful and loving his wife was, or what was really going on inside his head. He lined the pockets of the corporate executive pigs and all the stockholders and then was laid off unceremoniously without pension, severance, or self-respect.
Mark’s dad committed suicide. He shot himself through the temple with a .22 pistol he’d never fired before the day he left the world and he did it in a place and time when Mark, then seventeen, would find him lying in a surprisingly trifling pool of blood, the lesser caliber slug having caromed around inside his head like a tiny pinball.
He’d never been particularly proud of Mark even though Mark had managed to pull good enough grades to get into any college he wanted and had won several full academic scholarships.
Mark wondered how it was a man woke up one day and found his life resembling that of someone completely different than he set out to be. Perhaps that was the day a man considered turning a gun he’d never fired once in his entire life on himself.
No, that was NOT the day. Mark had already faced that day—the day his company laid him off—and he’d not considered committing suicide (later when he pondered the “why?” he just figured he got his will to live from his mother).
But he’d considered since then that he ought to have killed himself that day; instead Mark was now a man who he’d never dreamed he could become; a man he no longer recognized when he walked past a mirror; and a man who harbored thoughts of things he’d never imagined before all this. It wasn’t a physical or psychological condition by any stretch. It wasn’t depression, or low self-esteem, or unfulfilled expectations. He was on the wrong side now. A lawbreaker. To put it in terms of the old Westerns Mark watched alone as a child: he was one of the “bad guys” now. And he worked for even worse people—people that made “bad guys” seem like pretty good catches. Evil men. Heartless men who Mark was certain had no souls—not that they’d once had them and lost them along the way. Men who’d been born soulless and cruel and remorseless.
Of course Mark believed he no longer had a soul either, at least not one worth saving. He believed he had one to begin with. He’d never been a religious man, but he believed in God, and he figured that there were things God forgave, but he also believed there had to be a line, and that he’d very likely crossed it, if not by his own actions and deeds then by proxy of those for whom he hired out his pilot services.
Mark swathed his entire face and head with his forearm. The sweating was relentless, as if it came from a faucet. Down his face, underneath his clothing, all the way down into his boots. He hated the heat of Arizona; hated it so much that he’d promised himself a hundred times that the next person who said the words “dry heat” would get a shiv in the eye.
He stank. He’d not showered in three days because he’d not gotten out of bed in three days due to the stress from what was going down. Much worse than how he smelled, of course, was the person he had become. Most would call him a drug-runner. Or a money-runner. Mark wasn’t sure there was really any difference and both might appear on the sheet of charges as they were read in a court of law. He didn’t think there was really much of a distinction. One turned into the other and back again and Mark would fly whatever they wanted him to fly anyway, wherever they wanted him to fly it. It wasn’t as if he had the courage to ask them something as bold as “what are you asking me to fly today?” and he certainly didn’t have the balls to deny them, no matter what it happened to be.
Normally it was money. Mark flew millions of dollars of large bills north to Canada to be laundered and then back into the United States in smaller denominations and clean of all wrongdoing—from the accountant’s perspective anyway. Mark of course knew the money represented a relentless flow of terrible narcotics into his own country (among others) and contributed to far worse crimes, a truly inconceivable amount of death and harm and addiction, even to children.
But he’d crossed the line in need of money.
Could the answer be so simple? Had he sold his soul for the almighty dollar? He and God both knew the answer to that one. Nearly all men sold their soul to that beast at some point. That was practically the definition of a career (though Mark didn’t kid himself that what he’d succumbed to was far, far worse than drudging to a job he hated and dying without having accomplished the things he’d set out to do in life).
And the irony was that the young Mark Coulee had accomplished all he’d set out to do. And he had not done it with any sort of intent at all to end up a common criminal. He completed Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola at the top of his squadron, served two tours in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, made his twenty years for military retirement with distinction, accepted a coveted position as a pilot for a major airline—and he had not done all that with the intent to one day fly illegal goods for the Sustantivo drug cartel from the heat-baked desert of god-forsaken Arizona across the country and over the border into Canada.
Or had he? Was that the path that had always been laid before him and he just didn’t know it? Could God be so cavalier and cruel? He wasn’t even forty yet and his life had disintegrated before him as a dried leaf left too long in the arid heat. Laid off from the airline despite his unquestionably stellar record and reputation as a pilot—one of the best in their large-liner fleet, in fact—because seniority was all that mattered. While Captain Mark Coulee was risking his life overseas for his country, three-quarters of the pilots back home had gone straight from college into flight training programs and began racking up what would later amount to the coup de grace to excellent flyers like Mark:
Years on the job. Mark had never realized the seniority policy even existed until it sucker-punched him. Why would a company keep someone simply based on time and not skill?
After his layoff, his wife promptly left him. There were no other similar pilot prospects, not in the current economy, and Marla enjoyed the life of a pilot’s wife too much: the steady money, the house they couldn’t afford, the ability to spend what he earned while he was gone, her substantial time alone to choose carefully whom she would screw behind his back. Thank God they’d never had children; thank God Mark didn’t have to worry about explaining his terrible plummeting from grace to them one day.
Oh, and Marla didn’t just leave him either; she cleaned out the accounts. The house was already tits up, the Mercedes and Land Rover months behind in their lease payments, the credit cards run up to their limits.
Destitute. Him, a heralded naval aviator, a decorated war veteran, a hard-working, moral, successful man. Ruined. Pushed to the brink. Run down, run over, and nearly run into an early grave like his old man. For the first time in his life he really had no idea what his next move might be.
Until his best friend dialed him up on the phone. His best friend who flew for a different major carrier after leaving the military but had fallen out of contact with Mark over the past few years.
Sammy talked Mark out of the bottle of scotch into which he’d lowered himself to dull reality and he did it quite easily, actually: by dangling an opportunity to make real money. A shitload. Fifty thousand dollars per flight.
Mark thought back on that night in the bar; the night Sammy came in, Mark already twelve fingers deep in whiskey, and talked him into throwing away any decency left in his soul for the promise of the big flow of green cash.
“You can’t imagine how sweet this deal is,” Sammy had said. Mark and Sammy had flown as pilot and copilot before, for almost ten years in the service of their country. They both retired at the same time from the Navy. Then Sammy eventually took another offer at a different airline.
Men who had fired rounds into columns of soldiers and watched them die horrible deaths in service of Country did not think about such things as seniority at a commercial airline company.
Mark wasn’t an idiot, not even when he was so drunk he could barely keep his balance on a barstool. He knew nothing legitimate—nothing even in the vicinity of legitimate—paid that kind of cash. But he was beyond all that. Life had kidney-punched him once too often. God had deserted him long before. The next stop for Mark was to sell all his furniture, buy a sleeping bag and gas camping stove and squat in his own home until the sheriff forcibly evicted him and he set up camp under a bridge somewhere.
He had nothing.
And so there he sat; in that shitty little airport he’d flown in and out of so many times before. Sitting. Waiting. Sweating. Oh he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign banks, but here he was, sweating like a bricklayer, the Cross of David in scorpion blood at his feet. Something had gone wrong, and it had been looming. Whispered looks. Rumors. Mark had just not known when, therefore the days on end in bed, showerless, prideless, and witless. And now it was late afternoon and instead of loading the plane with the money to be laundered north of the border, then waiting for the orange ball of fire in the sky to finally relinquish the day so they could fly the Cessna 172, blanketed in the obsidian darkness of night, Mark was waiting in an office with no air-conditioning; waiting for Cristóbal Casales, son of Enrique Casales. Father and son were two of the most feared men in all of Mexico and Central America, but the word had long ago spread through the ranks of Sustantivo was that Cristóbal redefined all the terms his father had established to put terror in the hearts of the strongest of men.
Mark was worried, not so much for himself, but for his friend. For Sammy. But his worry—like everything else in his life—was to be partitioned and doled out evenly. Today, Sammy received his share of Mark’s worry; today Sammy was in the hot seat. His copilot—the man who had brought him into the fold and given him a fresh chance to rebuild his world financially. Best man at his now ruined marriage.
The rumors had been about Sammy. The cartel knew they had a rat. Some felt Sammy had been turned. Of course the gringos were suspected first, but Mark knew it could not be true—if for no other reason than he knew Sammy would never put at risk the money they were making. That was the whole point. That was Sammy’s sell to him:
“We do our jobs,” he told Mark that night, Mark stinking drunk and desperate for a way out—like the Ray Charles song. “Whatever is asked of us,” Sammy told him, “we do. We don’t make friends; we don’t make enemies. We become part of the machinery. Then, one day, we’ll break free. Until then, it’s like any other job. You clock in, be the best, clock out.”
So why would Sammy risk all of that? Had he been caught somehow? Had the DEA knocked on his door and told him that the Attorney General would be making only one deal and Sammy’s name had come up? Turn on your lifelong friend and we’ll hand you a cardboard Get Out Of Jail Free card? Still, how could he have done such a thing without Mark’s knowledge? They flew every run together. Drank together. Degraded nice women in the bars together. They even worked out together at the same gym. He never saw it in Sammy’s eyes. He would have seen it there; he was sure of it. Yet now, where was Sammy? In another room. Presumed guilty.
It felt as if a stone had dropped into Mark’s bowels. If the cartel thought Sammy capable of such a thing—
Before he could deal with the stone in his guts, the door to the stifling office flew open and Cristóbal Casales burst into the room, larger than life, arms wide open, beckoning Mark out of his chair and into his loving embrace. Two men with mirrored sunglasses and necks like oak trees entered silently behind him, arms crossed, big gun bulges underneath their thousand dollar suits.
“Marcus, Marcus, Marcus,” the younger Casales greeted him, patting him on the back heartily, hugging him hard as one would a brother, then grasped Mark’s face with his huge, simian hands and stared him straight in the eyes.
“Cristóbal,” Mark said, his voice shaking, betraying his deference to the man standing before him. Mark Coulee, who had held the rank of Captain in the Navy; the equivalent of Colonel in any of the other armed forces—he had been a Naval aviator and a war hero and Cristóbal Casales could, with a glance, have him pissing himself.
“Tóba,” Cristóbal said. “I have told you, we are family, and my family all call me Tóba.”
“Tóba,” Mark said. “It’s good to see you, sir.”
“No, no, no—no ‘sir’. Family, tu eres hombre. Mi hombre. Mi familia.”
Casales motioned for Mark to sit back in his chair and then wheeled over a second chair facing him. He sat, locking eyes with Mark once again. This time his expression had changed; a placid, unhappy look had washed away the moment before. His eyes were one color and not readable. Those were not the windows to anything, much less a soul.
“Do you know who is not family, Marcus?”
Mark didn’t want to hear him say it. He knew the answer. He just didn’t want the word to be spoken aloud. Maybe somehow if the name were never spoken it wouldn’t be true. And even if it weren’t true, if Cristóbal Casales said the name, it would make it true. Men like this; they did not take betrayal lightly. In fact such men loathed disloyalty more than any other thing in the world beyond theft of their profit (which was, of course, disloyalty itself).
No matter. Once the name was in the air, spoken by a man with the nature of a Cristóbal Casales, there would be no taking it back. When a soulless man spoke your name in irreverent, loathsome, accusatory terms, guilt and innocence became the things of children.
Mark shook his head and looked at the floor.
“Yes you do, Marcus. You know. I don’t mean to imply that you knew. If you knew, oh, mi amigo, we would not be having this conversación right now. I want you to speak his name and then we are going into the other room and when we come out of that room, we will never utter it again, ¿Comprende?”
“I-I understand, Cristó—Tóba. I understand,” Mark said, shaking in his chair, sweating like a water buffalo, wanting to bawl like a fucking baby. “Please, let me talk to him. I know—”
Casales was shaking his head. “No, Marcus. It’s well beyond that now. You know this. I would not be here. Do you think I would have come here, across the border, risking everything, if I knew this terrible thing not to be one hundred percent true?”
“This can’t be real. This can’t be happening.”
Cristóbal cupped his hand behind Mark’s neck and pulled him close. Mark could smell a mixture of tequila, cigar smoke, and breath mints. There was water in Cristóbal’s eyes but Mark knew it was probably just sweat. “You think this is easy for me, compadre? He was my friend and employee before I knew you; family before you were family. Do you think I would act without, what’s the word, assurances?”
Mark shook his head.
“What must be done must be done,” Cristóbal said.
“Samuel,” Mark whispered.
Cristóbal pulled him tighter, forehead to forehead, the power in his hands palpable. “Yes, Marcus. Samuel. My mother, she made the finest lechón in the world. That is all the suckling pig is good for, Marcus. For the slaughter.”
He leaped from his chair, spun, and nodded to the gargantuan bodyguards as he walked past. They motioned to Mark to get up and follow, their faces void of any feeling, detached from any involvement beyond doing what needed to be done.
As he walked from the office Mark’s knees gave way, he dropped, and vomited in a trashcan like a weak, terrified sorority boy who’d had too much to drink, sweat streaming down his face. As he stood, the two Latino gorillas waiting dispassionately for him, Mark Coulee felt the first tremolo of anger begin to quietly reverberate in his chest.
In the hangar four men in sweat-stained shirts hustled to load the plane—Mark’s plane—with the bags of cash. Eight bags. The plane carried exactly eight bags with three point five million dollars per bag. Twenty-eight million dollars in ten thousand dollar packets. Not that Mark had ever looked at, much less touched one of the packets. But he knew. Twenty-eight million dollars crossed the northern border in large bills to return a few months later, laundered, with a fifteen percent fee absconded by agreement.
Cristóbal led the bodyguards through the room. The thick men in turn led Mark. They walked until they were at the doorway into another room in the rear of the building. It was darker and Mark’s eyes took a moment to adjust from the dying sunlight that poured into the open hangar outside. But he could hear the soft whimpering of a child, or rather, the whimpering of a man whose spirit had been crushed beneath the omnipotent cruelty of other men until all feeling that had matured inside a man over a lifetime became childlike again.
Sammy was bound to a chair with rounds of dull silver tape, his clothing so red with blood there was no telling what color it had been before the beatings and the slicing and the clipping and the clubbing began. His head hung as if on ball bearings, the wires that held it upright long since snapped in two. He did not look up—could not. He was capable only of the low broken sounds, red bubbles of air forming on his lips, drool running freely from his toothless mouth. His eyes were purple mounds, swollen shut.
“The thing that bothers me most,” said Cristóbal, “is that he went to them. Can you believe that? He wanted more money from us. He asked for more. I told him ‘Marcus is the pilot; how can I give his copilot more money than him?’ and do you know what he said to me, Marcus? ‘Fuck him.’ I swear it’s true on my mother’s eyes. Greed. There is nothing more poisonous, more insidious, and more merciless than greed.”
He walked behind Sammy, who had now stopped his whimpering and cocked his head as if listening, blindly wondering what would come next, perhaps praying for the sweet, adoring arrival of death. Cristóbal lowered his lips to one half of a bloody ear and spoke something between only them.
Sammy began crying softly, once again, the child, dreaming of a death that was too far away.
Cristóbal stood erect, straightened his suit, and motioned with his fingers as if calling someone to him. There was movement in the shadows and a dark-skinned man of Latino descent stepped forward, dressed in jeans, tan button-down shirt, and worn leather boots. His hands were crossed in front of him, like the gorillas that shadowed Cristóbal.
“This is Palo. He is your new copilot. Please, Marcus, make this your finest run yet. Dios esté con vosotros.”
Mark’s head felt like a lead ball; he still could not understand why his friend would betray him. In betraying the cartel Sammy had done a stupid, stupid thing but had he thought at all about the fact that he was making the decision for the both of them? Mark entertained no fucking delusions; he knew he was lucky he was not back in the room with what remained of his friend. He also knew it was in part because of his own unmatched skills. Sammy would never be as good a pilot as Mark, and above all else, excepting loyalty, the Casales family respected employees who got things done and could be trusted with their goods.
The anger was no longer a simple tremolo inside but rather the kindling of a fire beginning to burn in his chest. Trust.
Because Sammy had made his choice, trust was no longer on the table for Mark.
“I am sorry about your friend,” Palo said in almost perfect English.
“If he’s done what they say, then he’s not my friend anymore. And you and I have barely met.”
Palo held his hands up, palms flat against the air. “You are the boss, jefe,” he said, emphasizing a thick accent on the last word only.
Mark stopped and turned to face him. “Do you have any idea how long that man in there and I have been friends? We were soldiers together. He is like a brother to me. And they are taking him apart in there.”
“If what they claim he did is true, I would suggest he deserves that and more.”
“My point is that you should keep your fucking mouth shut about my friend, or about anything else for that matter, and give me some time to process what the hell is happening.”
“Si, Marcus. You’re right. I apologize sincerely.”
“And where did you come from all of a sudden? Out of the woodwork and, presto, another pilot? Cristóbal just had you sitting around waiting for a gig?”
“I was flying planes south, along the coastline of Central America—El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua—on my last run a Sandinista on a mountaintop got lucky with a burst from his AK-47. He chopped off my rudder plus a foot and a half off my right wing.”
“And yet here you are? Alive?”
“I flew as long as I was able. The plane, she crashed in the jungle, but not until I was close to the Guatemalan border. I grew to adolescence in Guatemala. When I reached familiar territory, I put it down. I could not have gone much further anyway.”
Mark nodded and started walking to the plane again. “I’m sorry to come off like an asshole. I thought I was going to die back there.”
“I understand,” Palo said.
“I feel like I should be doing something. Like I’m a coward for not speaking on behalf of my friend,” Mark said.
“May I speak to you candidly?” Palo said.
“Please.” Mark needed for someone else to speak anyway. He felt as if he were going to vomit again.
“The cartel can be very violent—their retaliation is cruel and without mercy. But they are not capricious. They do not give out such punishment as is being given in that room without being certain.”
“It’s not easy for me to say Sammy is no longer my friend,” Mark said. “But under the assumption that he betrayed me—the cartel—in such a deceitful matter, I say it. Still I cannot wish for his death. That I cannot do. I still must maintain my humanity. At times it feels like the only thing I have remaining.”
“I promise you, Marcus. Your friend back there—your ex-friend—he is going to wish for death before this night ends. He wishes for it already.”
Mark stopped. “Stay here,” he said to Palo and turned, heading back to the room where Sammy was being tortured. The gorillas at the door stopped him.
“Tell Cristóbal I need to speak with him. Tell him now.”
One brute looked at the other and shrugged his shoulders. He went to get his boss.
“Marcus,” Cristóbal said when he came out a few moments later, blood now on his own hands, his linen sleeves rolled up, sweat running freely down his face and neck. “Our business here is finished.”
“I felt like a coward, Tóba. Not defending my friend in there. Not doing something to come to his aid.”
“There is nothing more to be said about this matter, Marcus. There would be nothing you could have said to stop the inevitable. I told you we are certain and that is all that matters.”
“But there is still something I can do,” Mark said.
Cristóbal looked at him curiously. “And what is that?”
“I can beg you for his quick death. Clearly he has suffered greatly. The man in there was like a brother to me. I have served you well. I beg you, Tóba, to end his suffering now. Kill him. Do that for me, jefe.”
Cristóbal stood there, as if contemplating all that Mark had just said. He then reached behind him and removed a 9 MM pistol from his belt. He pulled back the slide partway to verify a shell was chambered. He then held the weapon out in his palm, offering it to Mark.
“What I will do for you, Marcus, is allow you to end his suffering. If he were my brother, I would consider such an offering to be an honor. I honor you with this offer to deliver the mercy of quick death to our betrayer. To your betrayer, vato.”
Mark accepted the pistol. A few minutes earlier he had felt drenched in the stink of his own cowardice. Now he was being offered an opportunity to be brave—not so much for himself but for the friend in the other room. Mark owed Sammy that much. He walked through the doors. Sammy was slumped in the chair again, bloodier, broken in more places. Mark crossed the room swiftly. He could not allow the bravado to drain from his will. He knelt beside his friend and whispered in his ear:
“I loved you, Sammy. I love you still. And because of that, I end this for you now.”
Mark put the muzzle against Sammy’s head and pulled the trigger, blowing a hole the size of a grapefruit out the other side of his ex-friend’s skull.
On the way from the room he returned the weapon to Cristóbal and said nothing more.
Click on the title below to download the entire book and keep reading