Beck Richards struggled to keep his battered pickup on the bluff and out of the Pacific Ocean. Up ahead the dirt road ended at a sheer cliff. He stopped and studied the coastal sage, searching for a turnoff back to the highway.
“Where are we? I don’t recognize this stretch.” Beck glanced at Parry Simms, his navigator and best friend. Parry slept soundly. “Hey.” Beck punched him in the arm. “Wake up.”
Parry yawned and muttered drowsy gibberish.
“You’re supposed to be navigating,” Beck said.
“Sorry, bro. Tired.”
They searched the map for a beach they’d camped at years ago, a good place to sleep at night and surf at dawn, but the contours revealed nothing. With dusk approaching, they decided to camp on the bluff and backtrack in the morning.
Beck studied the empty Baja coastline, sandstone headlands the shade of creamed coffee. The air hung rich with ocean, sage, and burning refuse. A turkey vulture circled overhead in a sinister, slow glide. Broken glass littered the ground. He felt uneasy, had a weird sensation of being watched.
They unloaded camping gear, cooked rudimentary burritos, and drank three beers each. Dusk settled over the desert. The sky bled red to black, endless. After dark, they spread a tarp near the bluff and unrolled their sleeping bags.
The moon floated high and clear in the east, a thick cloudbank crept over the ocean and muddied the western darkness. As Beck drifted into slumber, he was jerked awake by headlights bumping up the road. The lights drew closer and stopped a hundred feet from camp. Beck sat up in his sleeping bag. Ten feet away, on the other side of the tarp, Parry snored obliviously.
“Psst,” Beck said. “Parry. Hey. Wake up.”
Parry moaned and shifted but remained asleep.
The headlights darkened and Beck saw the outline of a pickup truck and the silhouettes of several men standing in the bed. He heard clipped chatter, a hacking cough, and a breaking bottle. Then everything went quiet. Seconds passed with no sound or movement from the truck. A breeze ruffled the tarp, waves crumbled on the beach below. Nothing human.
He heard truck doors open and shut, the squeak of battered shocks. Five men crept into camp, rifles glinting in the moonlight. Beck glanced around, heart pounding. They were alone on the coastal bluff with no place to run or hide. He had to do something, had a few seconds to ward off impending disaster. His mind raced but came up blank, so he cowered in his sleeping bag.
The men circled the tarp. One of them pressed a pistol to Beck’s head. The moonlight illuminated a bent nose, face like leather. His eyes looked hard and distant. He reeked of liquor and desert and filthy denim.
The bandido uttered a simple request: “Money.”
Beck just lay in his bag, frozen. The bandido yanked Beck to his feet and shoved him forward. When they reached his truck, Beck removed his wallet from under the seat. The man grabbed it and motioned toward Parry. Beck found Parry’s wallet in a duffel bag and handed it over. The bandido pushed Beck to the dirt. He gripped the pistol in his right hand and pinned Beck’s shoulder to the ground with his left. Beck’s face was just inches from the man’s hand and he saw tattooed in the crook of the left thumb and forefinger a snake, coiled and ready to strike, mouth agape, and fangs dripping with venom.
From his prone position, Beck caught glimpses of the thieves rummaging through camp. He heard the sound of shattering glass. Parry continued to sleep with a rifle barrel three inches from his head. Beck had never seriously considered his mortality until that moment, and if it ended right now, what had his life amounted to? Not much. Not much at all. He felt the dirt beneath his fingers and the cold metal against his neck and smelled the earth and sage and sweet, moist dank of the Pacific and the feral funk of this drunken shithead, and he thought about her and would they ever meet again and why had he waited and what had he feared and had he turned off the stove in his apartment and locked the front door?
After some minutes, the rustling around camp stopped and he heard voices trail away, distant commotion, a slamming door. The gun retreated from his neck. The bandido kicked him in the ribs and walked off. Beck lay in a fetal tuck, moaning, watching the red taillights retreat north.