The Ways of Wolfe: A Border Noir

The Ways of Wolfe: A Border Noir

by James Carlos Blake

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A Mexican-American convict escapes prison to find his daughter in this “gripping ride” by the Los Angeles Times Book Prize–winning author of The House of Wolfe (Arizona Daily Star).
Axel Prince Wolfe was the heir apparent to his Texas family’s law firm and its ‘shade trade’ criminal enterprises. Then he took part in a robbery that went wrong. Abandoned by his partners, he was the only one caught. His family was disgraced, his wife absconded, and his infant daughter Jessie was left an orphan.
Two decades later, Axel has given up his desire for revenge against his partners. All he wants is to see the woman his daughter has become, despite her lifelong refusal to acknowledge him. With eleven years left to serve, Axel escapes with a young Mexican inmate, evading a massive manhunt by heading down the Rio Grande and into a desert inferno. But as his chance to see Jessie comes within reach, a startling discovery sends Axel headlong toward a reckoning many years in the making.
Winner of the Maltese Falcon Award and the Grand Prix du Roman Noir Étranger, James Carlos Blake has been hailed as “one of the most original writers in America today.” The Ways of Wolfe continues his acclaimed saga of the Wolfe family (Chicago Sun-Times).
“James Carlos Blake has long been one of my favorites, but his Wolfe family saga may be his best work to date.” —Ace Atkins, on The House of Wolfe

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802189417
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Series: The Wolfe Family , #4
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 308,436
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

James Carlos Blake is the author of twelve novels. He is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and a recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for In the Rogue Blood. He was born in Mexico, raised in Texas, and now lives in Arizona.

Read an Excerpt


You can't chance it.

The thought comes to Axel the moment he wakes once again from this hot night's fitful sleep. The dim tier light casts a cross-barred shadow on the wall. He has each time wakened with a start, not knowing what time it is or how long he has been asleep. Each time wakened to the hoarse snoring of his cellmate, to the mumblings and sleep whimpers from neighboring cells, once to the footfalls of a guard passing by on the iron walkway, doing the night head count. Each time wakened to the same fearful thought like a low voice in some dark corner of his mind.

You can't chance it.

* * *

"Hey, old man, what say we bust out of this zoo?"

That was how Cacho had broached the idea. He was Mexican but spoke English well and with only a slight accent. They had known each other six weeks at the time, and Axel did not yet know that Ramirez was not his true surname.

He had laughed and told the kid to forget it. There was no way. He'd been in prison since before Cacho was born, and he had been privy to a lot of escape plans but never joined any of them. Always for the same reason. Because he knew they wouldn't work. Only a handful of them were ever attempted, he told Cacho, and not one of them succeeded.

The kid gave him a pitying look. "All these years inside and you never once tried to bust out?" Axel's advisory did not dissuade him nor diminish his confidence. He was sure there was a way out. "There's always a way," he said. "All we gotta do is figure it."

The "we" made it clear from the start that he considered Axel to be in on it and was in any case counting on his assistance by way of information. Over the following weeks he questioned Axel daily, mining his extensive knowledge of the prison's protocols and procedures, its routines, its personnel.

Axel answered his questions as well as he could. He didn't see any reason not to. He knew the information would lead to nothing, that the kid would never devise a feasible breakout. The Q&A sessions were anyway a pleasant diversion from the daily tedium, and in the course of them Axel surprised himself with how much he had come to learn about this place where he had been for the last ten years — the last four of them as a trusty — far longer than in any of the other prison units where he'd served portions of his sentence.

Besides, he liked the kid, who was the sole exception he'd ever made to his longtime prison practice of befriending no one. All prisons abound with bravado, but hardcore optimism is generally in short supply, and he felt a benign amusement about Cacho's confidence in concocting a successful break. Of course, the kid was only twenty.

His amusement gave way to incredulity when Cacho told him — on a late Saturday afternoon and not quite three months after his first mention of it — that the break was all set and would take place in nine days. It was a visiting day and the kid had seemed antsy ever since his weekly meeting with his lawyer a few hours earlier. For his part, Axel had been feeling low all day, as he always did on visiting days when his brother Charlie didn't come to see him, never mind that Charlie had been there just two weeks ago and that each of his monthly visits was a daylong undertaking for him, having to fly from Brownsville to Fort Stockton, then rent a car for the drive to Zanco.

They had just finished their daily presupper jog around the perimeter of the exercise yard and were still winding down, circling the yard at a walk, when Cacho told him the plan was in place. Axel had stared at the kid's wide smile and said, "Bullshit." But when the kid explained the particulars — and told him his real name was Capote and his older brother was the head of a subgang of a major Mexican criminal cartel — his disbelief gave grudging way to absorption.

"And just how were you able ... well hell, the lawyer, right?" Axel said. "Somoza? Through him, in the visits. You all the time telling me he's working on an appeal."

"How else, man? First time he came to see me he said to find somebody who really knows this joint and get him to tell me everything about how it runs, about the towers and the gates, especially everything about the bosses and the guards. Didn't take long to know that guy was you — been here the longest, been a trusty for a while. You told me the sorta stuff he wanted to know, I told him, he told our guys, they went to work and put the thing together. Somoza brought it to me today. Jesus, Ax, just think, nine days, man. Each one's gonna be a month long, know what I'm saying?"

The thing relied on bribery, the oldest and generally most effective of means, and usually the simplest. Axel favored simplicity. He had grown up among people who held it for a rule that the simplest approach was usually best, a view borne out by his own experience. But these bribes involved prison insiders, and that, Axel pointed out, was the plan's flaw.

"You ought to know by now you can't trust anybody on the inside. Not a convict, not a CO, not anybody."

"I'm on the inside," Cacho said. "I'm a convict. You too. You don't trust me? We don't trust each other?"

"Present company excepted."

Cacho laughed. "Present company excepted. I love the way you college dudes are always covering your ass with fancy talk. You and my brother sound just alike." In the kid's estimation, Axel was a "college dude" by dint of having completed three years at a university. His brother, he had told Axel, had graduated from the University of Texas.

Cacho said there was no cause to worry about the inside guys. There were only four of them, and none of them convicts. "One civilian and three corrections officers," he said, sardonically emphasizing the bureaucratic term for prison guards, "who are doing what is most correct for their greedy-ass pockets."

He told Axel who the COs were and that all of them were already so deeply compromised they couldn't back out without burning themselves too.

"You mean they already took the money?"

"I mean they already took the money," Cacho said. "These hacks don't get paid jack shit. Drop a few packs of Bennies in front of them, they slobber all over theirselves. They'd sell their fucking mothers for a hundred G's."

"They really got a hundred per man?"

"Somoza's guy personally gave the money to each one. Said it was the same with all of them. Eyes about bugged outta their heads when they saw it. And they know if they break the deal they get their throat cut. If they break the deal and somehow find a place to hide, they get ratted to the cops, the feds, the press, everybody. They got no out, man. And check this ... all three of the COs know who the civilian is, but each of them thinks he's the only prison insider. The civilian, he knows there's somebody else in it but don't know who or how many."

"Nice engineering."

"I told you, my people don't fuck around. It's all set. Only a matter of waiting for the insiders' schedules to line up. That'll happen in nine days. Nine days! All we got to do till then is think about the fun we're gonna be having in ten days. Now come on, gramps, before they shut down the chow line."

He could have opted out any time. Could've said thanks but no thanks and stepped away from the whole business. But he didn't. To the contrary, only a few days later, as they were discussing the details of the thing yet again, he heard in his own voice the same confidence as in the kid's. The same note of conviction that the plan would not fail. And the conviction had held strong.

Until tonight. Until the thought came to him like a whisper on the first of his wakings on this final night before the thing takes place. The thought he's had on every waking since.

You can't chance it.

They'll kill you or catch you. And if they catch you —

The cell block lights come ablaze and the PA blares the wake-up call.

It's four o'clock. The daily commotion commences. The vocal din. The shrill chirrings of electric locks and the clashings of iron doors. The harsh squawkings of the PA. The customary cacophony.

The showers are open and breakfast will be served until 5:30. Then comes a cell head count. Then crews to their jobs at 6.

The day is here.


Axel Prince Wolfe was three years old when his mother died giving birth to his brother, Charlie Fortune. His sister, Andrea Marie, was two. Their father, Harry McElroy Wolfe, was only a few years out of law school but already the main criminal defense attorney at Wolfe Associates, the family law firm in Brownsville, Texas.

In addition to their practice of law since the early twentieth century, the Wolfes have conducted a variety of illicit enterprises under the collective name of the "shade trade," the main enterprise of which has always been gunrunning, the bulk of it to their Mexican relatives, also named Wolfe and concentrated in Mexico City. For their part, the Mexican Wolfes operate a small and highly secretive cartel of their own, Los Jaguaros, which chiefly sells guns and information of all sorts to other cartels.

By family rule, any Wolfe who aspires to be part of the shade trade must first earn a college degree, which can be in any major except physical education or anything that ends in "Studies." The exception of the "Studies" major is of much more recent vintage than the college requirement itself, which has been in force since the 1930s and is without dispensation. The rationale behind the rule is not only that higher education is a valuable asset in itself — no less so to the criminally inclined than to the legally minded — but also that, in the process of earning the degree, one might stumble onto one's true calling.

Once you reach the age of sixteen, you can, if you wish, spend your high school summers learning the ins and outs of the shade trade's main components, but you cannot take an active role in any actual undertaking. You can learn about gunrunning and other forms of smuggling, about document forgery, about finding people who are lost or in hiding or in captivity. There are any number of specializations you can concentrate on, and you also receive training in the arts of self-defense, such arts of course being equally useful for persuasive or retributive purpose.

From the time he first learned of the shade trade, Axel knew it was the career for him. His father, however, had a greater expectation of him, namely that he go to law school and then join Wolfe Associates. Still, because Harry Mack believed that the more one knew about criminal ways the better equipped one was for the practice of criminal law, he was not opposed to Axel's learning as much as he could during his high school summers about shade trade operations. To avoid argument, Axel agreed to go to law school after getting his bachelor's degree, but in truth he intended to renege as soon as he got the BA and was eligible for the shade trade, regardless of his father's opposition.

His closest bond was with his brother. Axel taught Charlie how to fight, sail, play baseball, fish, shoot, drive a car. The spring Axel graduated from high school, Charlie turned fourteen, and as a birthday present to him, Axel persuaded a companionable girlfriend named Mickey to introduce him to the delights of sex. The exuberant event took place in Mickey's bedroom, and when they at last rejoined Axel in the kitchen, Charlie was beaming and Mickey affecting a glazed-eyed stagger that got a laugh from both brothers. They drank celebratory beers deep into the evening and got happily drunk, another first for Charlie, who couldn't stop staring at Mickey in adoration. At a later hour that night he asked her to marry him as soon as he graduated from high school, in another three years. She giggled in response and Charlie looked so stricken that Axel roared with laughter and fell over backward in his chair. Which made Mickey laugh so hard she snorted beer out of her nose. Which made Charlie laugh so hard he got a case of hiccups that took forever to get under control, and every time it seemed like it was, he'd suddenly hic and they'd all bust out howling again.

It was obvious to Mickey that Charlie venerated his brother. She noted his emulation of Axel's walk, his two-finger grip on a longneck, his mode of sitting with the chair tipped on its rear legs. "That kid," she once remarked to Axel, "would wear a dead rat for a hat if you did. Please don't ever tell him to kill me, because he'd do it without even asking why."


Constructed in 1918, the Charles Zanco Unit is one of the oldest prisons in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Located in the Trans-Pecos region, in the upper eastern reach of the Chihuahuan Desert, it occupies eight hundred acres in the southwest corner of Terrell County, one of the largest counties in the state and, with fewer than a thousand residents, one of the most sparsely populated. The vast majority of its inhabitants live in Sanderson, the county seat and only actual town, set on Highway 90 and a dozen miles northwest of the prison. The closest town of moderate size is Fort Stockton, sixty-five miles farther north, in Pecos County. Less than seven miles south of the Zanco Unit is the nearest portion of the Rio Grande, or as it's known in Mexico, the Río Bravo. The border.

This is arid, windswept country of limestone hills and rocky plains rampant with scrub brush and cactus and bony mesquites, an outland of spectral mountain ranges carved with canyons and snaking with cottonwood creeks too far-flung to serve for irrigation. The winters are short and chill, the summers long and roasting. The sandstorms can scour the paint off a car. Rainfall is scant but once in a great while there are thunderstorms of uncommon ferocity, generating flash floods that tear through the gullies with freight train force. Other than petroleum and natural gas, the earth here produces little of economic worth. Goat farms. Small cattle ranches. A scattering of pecan groves.

Although Zanco is classified as a medium-security prison, popular opinion holds that its surrounding desert presents as formidable an obstacle to escape as any at the max-security units in the TDCJ. Even so, the prison was built here only because the land it stands on was bequeathed to the state by a former lieutenant governor who specified the property could be used for no other purpose. The institution has neither a cooling nor a heating system. In winter the place is colder within than outside. In summer it swelters. Among Texas prison guards, an assignment to Zanco has long been regarded a prime test of one's commitment to a career as a corrections officer.

* * *

The prison's population is nearly the equal of the county's, varying between eight and nine hundred inmates. They are serving sentences of from two years to life, for crimes ranging from murder to driving drunk for the third time or more. The grounds are enclosed by a chain-link fence fifteen feet high, topped with double rolls of razor wire, and watched over by armed tower guards. In addition to the cell blocks and administration buildings, the prison contains a small plant for the manufacture of state-issue footwear, a large garage for the maintenance and repair of state motor vehicles, and a kennel for the training of commercial security dogs. The kennel also houses the prison's tracking hounds, though in the institution's ninety-year history there has never been need of them.

* * *

There have been only two escape attempts from Zanco, and none in the past forty years. In 1937 a trio of convicts made it out of their cell block and to a darkened section of the fence — it was then only eleven feet high and crowned with barbed wire — and they had scaled it to the top when the spotlights found them and the tower guards opened fire and killed them all. The fence was thereafter made four feet higher and additional barbed wire was added. In the early 1960s the wire was replaced with razor coils.

The more recent effort was in 1968. Four convicts overpowered a pair of guards, held shivs to their throats, and demanded that the warden provide a car and guns for them at the front gate. The car was brought and the inmates shuffled out of the building in a tight group, holding the guards close to them as shields. They were halfway to the gate when a quartet of sharpshooters on the roof fired simultaneously, the volley of head shots dropping all four convicts, three of them dead and the fourth critically wounded. The warden took his time about summoning the prison doctor from his home in Sanderson, and when he arrived he was directed to treat the rescued guards for their scrapes and bruises before attending to the wounded prisoner. When the doctor finally turned his attention to the convict, the man was dead.

Today the front entrance of the Zanco Unit bears a large bold-lettered sign found at other Texas prisons as well:



Excerpted from "The Ways of Wolfe"
by .
Copyright © 2017 James Carlos Blake.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Other Works by James Carlos Blake,
Title Page,
Part One: Charles Zanco Prison Unit, Texas 2008,
Part Two: Fugitives,
Part Three: Reckonings,

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