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"K-9 unit 349. Convenience-store robbery, corner of State and Grand. Suspects are on the run."
As she pushed the talk button to respond to dispatch, rookie officer Valerie Salgado felt that strange mixture of fear and excitement that came every time she responded to a call on patrol.
"Copy. I'm about five blocks from that location. Any idea what direction our perps were going?"
Dispatch responded. "Clerk doesn't know which way they ran. Three males. Two Caucasian, one African American. All dressed in dark clothing."
For the past few months, every call had an extra sense of danger attached to it. A rash of robberies, drugs and murders that had been escalating in Sagebrush for years had recently been linked to a crime syndicate with an unknown leader.
Valerie hit her siren and sped up.
Maybe this was just a run-of-the-mill robbery, but maybe it was another symptom of a city under siege.
In the back of the patrol car, Valerie's K-9 partner, Lexi, paced from one window to the other, emitting an almost ultrasonic whine. The only one more excited to catch a criminal than Valerie was her two-year-old Rottweiler.
Dispatch came across the line. "Clerk says that two of the men were armed."
Valerie took in a deep breath to calm her nerves. "At least we know what we are dealing with, huh, Lex?"
The dog whined as though she understood.
As she neared the convenience store, Valerie scanned the streets and sidewalks for any sign of movement. Now that it was 10 p.m. and dark, it would be easy enough for the robbers to blend into surroundings if they were smart enough to walk instead of run. Traffic was light, and most of the shops were closed. The all-night burger joint up the street had attracted a little bit of a crowd.
Valerie pulled into the convenience store parking lot. The clerk was easy enough to spot, a distraught fifty-something woman pacing by the store entrance. Valerie got out of her patrol car.
The woman came toward her, eyes wide with fear. The unnatural hair color and heavy makeup revealed rather than hid the woman's age.
The clerk wrapped her arms around herself. Her gaze flitted everywhere. The robbery had shaken the poor woman up. Valerie wanted to hug her and tell her it was going to be all right. But that was not what cops did. Instead, she pulled a notebook out of her utility belt.
She hoped her voice conveyed the level of compassion she felt for what the clerk had just been through. "Ma'am, I'm Officer Salgado. Can you tell me what happened here?"
The woman combed her fingers through her hair. "They took over three hundred dollars. My manager is going to fire me." Her agitated state made her south Texas drawl even more exaggerated.
"How long has it been since the robbers fled the store?"
The clerk closed her eyes as though she were struggling to answer the question. "Umm they made me lay on the floor facedown." She let out a heavy breath. "I waited until I was sure they weren't going to come back. I I called as quickly as I could." She put a trembling hand to her chest. "Maybe five minutes."
Valerie felt torn between desiring to comfort the clerk and wanting to catch the thugs who had terrorized her. Picturing her own mother having to go through something like this made her resolve even stronger. The best comfort she could give this woman would be to see that these perps went to jail.
Valerie glanced up the street. Flashing neon signs for budget hotels stood in contrast to the dark Texas sky. In a pursuit, five minutes was a big lead time.
She cupped the woman's shoulder with her hand, hoping to provide some reassurance. "You go back inside and wait. My dog and I will get these guys."
"Thank you, Officer."
Valerie opened the back door of the patrol car, and Lexi jumped out.
"Get 'em," Valerie commanded, leading the Rottweiler toward the entrance of the convenience store. It would take only minutes for Lexi to pick up on the fear odor that people in flight emitted the second they took off running. Though people couldn't smell it, the scent was extremely distinct to a dog trained to detect it.
Lexi placed her nose to the gravel, trotting in wider and wider circles, returning to the store entrance a couple of times.
Across the street, a dark car with tinted windows came to a stop.
As Lexi worked her way toward the edge of the store parking lot, Valerie glanced at the car. No one got out. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as a chill ran over her skin. For weeks now, she had had the sensation of being watched, of eyes pressing on her from dark corners.
The reality of the long arms of the crime syndicate had come home to roost for Valerie. Though she didn't know it at the time, while heading in to the pharmacy a few weeks ago, she'd seen the woman who had most likely murdered Andrew Garrya local real-estate agent and one of the crime syndicates middle managers. She'd glanced at the woman briefly as she passed her on the dimly lit street outside a vacant building by the corner drugstore. Valerie didn't act on her suspicions that night, but something about the lady in the hooded jacket seemed off. Though she couldn't ID the woman outright, Valerie had the feeling that she would know her when she saw her and that she'd seen her somewhere before. It was just a matter of time before something in her brain clicked.
The initial death threat had come the next day only hours after Kip the cadaver dog and his handler had found Garry's body, confirming her suspicions about the woman she'd seen outside the vacant building. Her police email had been hacked into. The threat flashed on her computer screen If you testify, you die maybe even sooner.
Living with a death threat had become even more complicated. Valerie had recently become guardian to her eighteen-month-old niece, Bethany, after her sister Kathleen's death over two months ago.
The department had offered her protection during her off-duty hours. On duty was a little harder, but she noticed that another patrol car always seemed to be close. Sagebrush P.D. looked out for their own. She felt safe while working as long as she had Lexi with her.
Lexi stopped, lifted her head and barked twice. She'd found the trail. "Good girl. Let's go."
Lexi ran hard, leading Valerie up the street. On the opposite side of the street, the dark car with the tinted windows remained. It was probably nothing. She had to let her unfounded fears go. She couldn't do her job if she was suspicious of everything.
Increasing her pace, Lexi pulled through to an alley that led into a residential neighborhood.
Valerie pushed the talk button on her shoulder mic. "I'm on State Street headed south pursuing suspects. I could use some backup."
"Captain McNeal is within a couple of blocks of your location," came the reply from dispatch.
It was unusual for her supervisor to be out on patrol at this hour. As captain of the Special Operations K-9 Unit, Slade McNeal had more than the lion's share of paperwork. Since his beloved K-9 partner, Rio, had been kidnapped by the syndicate, he had limited his time on patrol, utilizing Rio's father, Chief, when needed. A snitch with a long rap sheet had revealed to police that Rio was taken by the head of the local crime syndicate to find something in the Lost Woods, a huge forest on the outskirts of Sagebrush. The snitch was later found dead. The syndicate's structure was such that no one knew the identity of the leader, a man simply known as The Boss.
The loss of Rio over two months ago had been a blow to the whole department. These dogs weren't just useful resourcesthey were partners and beloved pets. Even though one of McNeal's well-to-do war buddies, Dante Frears, had offered a substantial reward of $25,000 for Rio's return, so far none of the leads had panned out.
Lexi pulled hard on the long canvas leash. Valerie couldn't trouble herself now with what McNeal was up to. After all, she had criminals to catch.
Lexi led Valerie through backyards and over fences, past living rooms with illuminated television sets and houses with dark windows. Though she saw no signs of the suspects, Lexi's persistence told her they were headed in the right direction. The scent trail that a person in flight left was like a glow-in-the-dark line to a dog's keen nose.
Lexi stopped suddenly in a yard that had stacks of roofing shingles piled on the walkway and a ladder propped against the roof. Valerie had noticed another ladder on the opposite side of the house, as well. The dog circled and sniffed the ground again. She'd lost the scent.
"What's going on, girl?"
In the distance, she heard the alto barking of a German shepherd. That had to be McNeal with Chief. The insistence of the barking suggested that Chief was onto something.
Valerie talked to dispatch through her shoulder mic. "Be advised. I am at 620 Kramer. Something is up with Lexi. The trail may have gone cold."
Agitated, Lexi ran back and forth in the yard, stood by the ladder for a moment and then put her nose to the ground again. What was happening?
She watched Lexi pace the yard, running in all directions. The dog stopped, lifted her head and let out a single "Woof." She still had some kind of scent, but it was confusing her.
Chief's insistent barking reached her. He had definitely alerted to something. But what ? As the realization dawned on her, Valerie pushed her talk button. "I think our suspects split up."
"Copy that. We are sending another patrol unit your way. ETA is about five minutes."
The bushes in the yard across the fence shook. Valerie lifted her head just in time to see a man emerge. The look of fear and guilt on his face told her everything she needed to know.
"Stop! Sagebrush P.D."
The man took off running.
Lexi yanked on the leash, barking and pulling wildly as the man ran around the back of the house. Knowing she couldn't crawl over the fence as fast as Lexi could jump it, Valerie clicked Lexi off the leash. The dog leapt over the fence and bounded after the suspect, her rapid-fire bark a clear sign that she was hot on the trail.
Her heart pumping, Valerie gripped her gun, prepared to run out to the sidewalk and through the gate to meet Lexi. She heard a scraping noise right before something crashed hard against her shoulder, knocking her to the ground.
Dazed by the impact, she stumbled to her feet. Shingles and a busted-open box spread across the walkway. She looked up. Was the second perpetrator on the roof? Had each of the three suspects run in a different direction?
Lexi's barking pressed hard on her ears, but grew farther away. The dog could handle herself. With her shoulder aching and still a little fuzzy headed, she hurried most of the way up the ladder using the roofline for cover.
She lifted her head up a few inches, catching movement by the chimney. "Sagebrush P.D. Drop your weapon." She ducked just as the whiz of a pistol shot shattered the night air. She fired off a round.
She lifted her head a couple of inches. The suspect had come out from behind the chimney, aiming his gun at her.
He slipped on the sharply angled roof, falling on his side and dropping the gun. The gun skittered across the shingles and fell to the ground below. This was her chance. She didn't want him escaping down the ladder she'd seen on the other side of the house.
Valerie scrambled up the ladder, attempting to balance close to the top rung and aim her gun at the same time. "Put your hands up."
The man lifted his hands partway and then dropped them, dashing toward her. All the air left her lungs as fear enveloped her and she whispered a quick prayer. He intended to push the ladder away from the roof. She couldn't crawl down fast enough. She grabbed the ladder with her free hand as the man bolted toward her. It had been a stupid mistake to go up the ladder. She'd break her back if she fell that far.
The suspect's feet seemed to be pulled out from under him, and he was slammed facedown on the roof. Some unseen force pulled him backward away from her. As the suspect scrambled to his feet, she saw the silhouette of a second man, tall and broad through the shoulders.
The second man landed a blow to the suspect's face, knocking him on his back. The perp kicked the man's feet out from under him, and he slid down the steep angle of the roof toward the edge. He caught himself, pulling his body back up toward the suspect who sought refuge close to the chimney.
Valerie climbed onto the roof. Seeking to balance, she lifted her gun. "Put your hands up."
This time, the assailant complied. "I don't want to fall off here."
Neither did she. Valerie looked down and behind her. How on earth was she going to get this guy off here without killing herself and without giving him opportunity to run away?
The man who had helped her apprehend the perp stepped out of the shadows. "Officer Salgado, why don't you crawl down and wait at the bottom?" The man's hand went to a holster on his belt. "I'll stay up here and make sure this guy doesn't get any ideas."
She had no idea who this man was or where he had come from, but everything about him said law enforcement, and he knew her name. Still, this whole thing might have been a setup from the syndicate to get at her. "Who are you?" she shouted across the rooftop.
"FBI Agent Trevor Lewis. I rode in with Captain Mc-Neal and saw that you were in trouble."
He sounded legit. She didn't have a lot of choices and would have to check his I.D. later.
"Okay. I'll go down the ladder first," she said.
Agent Lewis held up his own gun. "I'll make sure this guy doesn't try to get off the roof by way of that other ladder."
She descended the ladder and waited while the suspect followed her. When his feet hit the ground, she pointed her gun at him. "Turn around, on the ground facedown, sir."
A look of hostility compressed his features, his lips curled. "I don't wanna go to jail. I'm innocent." The suspect stepped toward her with his hands out to grab her.
She adjusted her grip on the gun. "I said facedown on the ground, now."
"Do what the lady says," came the strong bass voice from the roof.
The perp tilted his head, grimaced and dropped to the ground.
Valerie pulled the cuffs from her belt. "You're innocent? Like everyone decides to shingle their roof at ten o'clock at night." She was still mad at herself for having climbed up the ladder. She'd broken a cardinal rule of training by putting herself in a vulnerable place.
Agent Lewis climbed to the bottom of the ladder. "At last, we meet." As Valerie stood up from cuffing the suspect, he held out his hand to her.
Why would an FBI agent want to greet her? Along the street, another black and white came to a stop, the additional backup dispatch had sent.