Two men stood on the hill above Border Field Park, surveying the terrain that led out to the beach. A low ceiling of gray clouds hung over them like smudged cotton.
“Whattya think?” said Max Gemeinhardt, scratching his beard.
“What am I supposed to be looking at?” said Rolly Waters.
“There. That’s the preserve,” said Max, pointing to the area just below them, a boundary of short wooden posts connected by low-hung steel chains. “You see those tire tracks?”
“Yeah. I see ‘em,” Rolly replied. Beyond the posts and chains, ground-hugging plants scrabbled across low mounds of damp sand. Tread marks crisscrossed the area, making it look like a large, sandy doodle pad. In the history of environmental crimes, it probably didn’t count for much, but that hardly mattered to Max. For Max this was personal.
“The least terns lay their eggs down there,” he said. “I want to nail this bastard.”
Rolly had no idea what a least tern was, or what made it least, but he’d seen the signs posted by the park service, warning visitors to stay clear of their nesting area under penalty of fines.
“You sure those tracks are new?” he asked.
“They weren’t there yesterday. I’ve been down here the last three mornings. Audubon Society’s doing a census this week.”
“I thought maybe you could get an imprint or something, before the wind covers them up, use Plaster of Paris or something like that?”
“I guess that might work,” replied Rolly. He didn’t know how to make imprints of tire tracks, or what to do with them if he did. That was advanced stuff, for specialists, for TV detectives with their high-tech laboratories. He was a private investigator, and a part-time one at that. His resources were limited. Even that was an understatement.
“What about the border patrol?” he asked.
“I talked to a guy up here earlier,” said Max. “He said it wasn’t their jurisdiction. Hell, one of them probably did it. They drive around here like they own the place.”
“Whose jurisdiction is it then?”
“He said it was Parks and Rec. California State Parks.”
“Maybe we should talk to them.”
“You see any rangers around?”
“It’s still kinda early.”
“Say the ranger shows up today, which is unlikely as I haven’t seen a single one here in six months. Maybe he files a report. Whattya’ think happens after that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, in case you haven’t heard, the late great State of California is broke. Cutting back hours, putting workers on furlough. They gotta prioritize.”
“Best scenario, they get around to dealing with this in six months, maybe a year. Probably never.”
“How about the police?”
“The cops won’t come out here unless someone’s dead. That’s why I need you to look into this.”
Rolly checked his watch. It was six-forty-five in the morning, too early to look into anything but the back of his eyelids. He turned away from the scene, looked across the parking lot at the border fence.
“That’s the new fence, huh?”
“There’s two of ‘em now,” Max said. “Ninety feet in between. No man’s land, like we’re in a war zone or something. You see that little stone obelisk there in the middle?”
“Nineteen-seventy-one,” Max continued. “I came to the ceremony. Pat Nixon was here. She dedicated that monument. Now you can’t even get close enough to read the damn thing.”
“What’s it say?”
“Commemorates the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Eighteen-forty-eight. End of the Mexican-American war. That’s where they set the border. She made ‘em cut a hole in the fence so she could go over there.”
“Pat Nixon. There was a big crowd on the Mexican side of the border. She made the border patrol cut a hole so she could go through and talk to them, made a nice little speech about taking the fence down someday. Seven presidents later, we got two fences.”
“I remember you bringing mom and me down here once, after the accident. There were all those families over there, having picnics, trading stuff through the fence.”
“Yeah, this place used to give me hope for humanity. Might as well be Berlin now. Except this wall’s going to last even longer.”
“That’s why they call it Monument Road, huh?” said Rolly, recalling the road signs on the way in.
“The excuse now is Homeland Security,” Max continued. “We went to court, tried to stop it.”
“SOCK. Save Our Coastal Kingdom. I’m their counsel. We got an injunction, on environmental grounds, but the judge threw it out.”
“You see those tractors back at the entrance?”
“Yeah. I thought maybe they were fixing the road.”
“Nah. That would actually be useful. Did you know more species of birds pass through this spot than any other place in North America?”
“No. I did not know that.”
“First it’s new fences, then a new road, a couple federal trailers, the next thing you know they’ve paved over the whole thing, put in housing developments, shopping centers. Pretty soon there won’t be any birds out here, just another set of suburbs and cul-de-sacs with bird names on the street signs.”
Rolly grinned. Retirement hadn’t slowed Max down. It had only given him more time to hack at the gorgon-heads of government bureaucracy.
“Well, it’s your dime,” Rolly said. “I’ll take a look around if you want me to.”
“You need any help?”
“Nah, I’m okay.”
“I’m heading home, then,” said Max. “I’ve been here since sunrise.”
“How’s your census going?”
“Pretty good. I saw a spotted grackle and a pair of western tanagers this morning.”
“Can I go in there?” Rolly asked, indicating the area inside the posted boundary.
“I guess you might have to,” said Max. “Keep an eye out for the eggs, though. The nests are just these little divots in the sand.”
“You’re sure there’s no rangers around?”
“I’ll pay any fines, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“The thought crossed my mind.”
“I’ll cover any and all expenses. Just don’t make things any worse.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Your mom doing OK?” Max said, patting his pockets.
“You want to go to the game tonight?”
“Got a gig tonight,” Rolly replied. “At Patrick’s. You should come over and hear us after the game.”
“I’m too old for that shit. How about tomorrow?”
“You mean the game?”
“Starts at one,” Max said, still searching through his pockets. “Maybe you’ll have something for me by then.”
“Maybe. What’re you looking for?”
“My keys. Here they are. Meet in the lobby? Twelve-thirty tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there,” said Rolly.
“I bet it’s one of those AFA assholes,” said Max.
“I’d love to nail them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Those tracks, in the park. These AFA guys think they’re allowed to do the border patrol’s job. We sued them too.”
“Did you win?”
“Not exactly. At least we got ‘em to give up their guns.”
“Should I worry about these guys?”
“You got a California driver’s license?”
“Then you don’t need to worry. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Rolly watched Max walk down the hill to the lower parking lot and drive away, then turned back to survey the upper parking lot. On the ridge of hills across the border stood middle class suburbs of Tijuana, well-kept houses and apartments, a motley architecture painted in bright shades of yellow and blue, pastel greens. The Tijuana suburbs ran out to the bullring. It sat on a promontory overlooking the ocean, directly across the border fence. The Coronado Islands slumbered offshore, shapely female figures half-immersed in a bed of liquid blue. He wished he were in bed, with a woman, or without. It was too damn early to be out in a place like this. It was too early to be out anywhere. He turned back to the bird preserve, looked at the trash and tire tracks.
His private investigator training had taught him a lot about looking up names, searching through public records. It provided lots of information on legalities, how to cover your ass. It even taught him how to set up a stakeout, but he couldn’t remember any lessons covering tire treads. He’d have to figure those out on his own.
A cloud of dust swirled across the least tern preserve. It blew up into his nostrils, arid and warm, a reminder of the approaching dry season, the hot Santa Ana winds that came in from the desert. He sighed, anticipating a morning of parched defeat.
A twinkling reflection caught his eye, a sparkle of light winking out at him from inside a tangle of low-growing plants. He walked to the bottom of the hill, stopped to check for any potential witnesses to his intended trespass. No one appeared. He stepped over the low-slung chain links and into the least tern breeding grounds, walked towards the blinking reflection.
Something screamed, flurried up from below him. A scrambling brush of feathers whirled up in front of his eyes. He raised his hands to protect his face. The feathers twisted away from him, catching an updraft. A gray and white bird floated above him, screaming, calling him names. He looked down at his feet, saw two brown-speckled eggs nestled inside a shallow depression of sand. He stepped around the nest, and moved on, keeping a careful eye as he followed the tire tracks. Pieces of eggshells and their dried-up contents littered the tread marks. He leaned down, looked closer. The screaming bird flew away. Embedded in the edge of one tread mark was a mashed chunk of crushed feathers, a tiny yellow beak. At least one tern chick had been lost to the driver’s recklessness.
He pulled out his cell phone, switched to camera mode, snapped some photographs of the treads and crushed feathers. Slipping the phone back into his pocket, he saw the blinking light again, inside a patch of ice plant. He walked closer, spotted what looked like a CD case clutched in the plant’s tentacles. The square plastic case quivered in the wind as if trying to escape. He leaned down, picked it up. On the front cover of the album, an alluring young woman stared out at him. She was naked except for the strategic cover of a few jungle vines across her breasts. A large snake, a cobra, curled around her upper leg and spread across her hips, covering her womanhood. Jungle Love was the title of the album, by a band called Serpent. Rolly flipped the case over, tried to read the back credits, but the type was too small for his aging pupils. He opened the case, found a blank CD inside, sans label.
“Attention, Attention,” a distorted voice blared across the morning air.
Rolly jolted, turned his head in the direction of the voice. A black pickup truck sat next to the ranger’s booth, just inside the park entrance.
“Attention. You are in a restricted zone,” a voice blared from the truck. “You must return to the trail. Attention. Return to the trail.”
Rolly waved in acknowledgement.
“Attention,” called the voice. “Return to the trail or you will be placed under arrest.”
Rolly waved again, slipped the CD case into his jacket pocket and walked back towards the trail.