“Three kids with penny-ante possession charges across the last year. All from Cochise College—and not a one of them over nineteen.”
Clay Wayland’s voice was harsh and tight over the phone. The county sheriff sounded way rattled, and way past pissed as he continued. “We found the remains on a tip, in an old warehouse. The place has been shut down for two decades, but the vat of lye was new.”
Wayland paused, and Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Luke Denver gripped his miniature secure cell so forcefully he was afraid he’d crack the battery. Most of the road between Douglas and Bisbee was reasonably straight and flat, which was a good thing, since his mind had gotten stuck on three dead teenagers who would never come home for Christmas break.
No doubt the kids were running drugs, probably small stuff, maybe to the campus or even to local high schools. It was a common way to make extra bucks these days—stupid as hell, but they didn’t deserve to get murdered and left to dissolve in a vat of lye like exterminated rats.
“I think we’ve got ourselves a turf war,” Wayland said. “But who in Christ would be stupid enough to poach on Guerrero’s territory?”
Denver guided his classic turquoise-and-white ’69 Chevy truck west as fast as he dared to push the limit. “We must have weakened Guerrero when we took down the cattle rustling part of his operation near the MacKenna ranch. Had to hurt when we wiped out their inside contact in local law enforcement. Now some other group thinks it can move in while Guerrero’s cartel is distracted.”
“Perfect.” The sound of Wayland smacking something with his fist made Denver wince. “Fucking perfect. This little Christmas charity bash you’re headed to better turn up some good intel, or a shitload more people are gonna get dead in Douglas before New Year’s Day.”
“I’ll call Rios when it’s over, and he’ll be in touch.” Denver punched off and tucked the small cell into its hiding place in his black duster. His gut churned as he covered the last few miles into town, then drove the truck up the winding rain-soaked street and into the last remaining parking spot below Nevaeh’s Bed-and-Breakfast.
Nevaeh’s was situated just off Main Street in Old Bisbee, on one of the sloping hills that reminded him of San Francisco. He’d heard that at one time, Bisbee had been called little San Francisco. Under normal circumstances, he’d enjoy the view.
He shifted into first, cut the engine and the lights, and fi rmly set the parking brake—he sure as hell didn’t want that truck taking a journey of its own. The old Chevy had been his grandpa’s pride and joy, and shortly before he died, the old man had given it to Luke. He didn’t have much that mattered to him other than his job and that old Chevy.
Luke sat for a second or two, reminding himself of the basic details of his cover ID of Luke Rider.
Who the hell came up with these undercover names?
Had to be some soap- opera-obsessed technician in Accounting.
For better or worse, whoever named him, he was Luke Rider, ranch foreman on the Flying M. He worked for Skylar MacKenna Hunter and her new husband, Zack Hunter. Zack was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE—agent who recently moved back to Douglas, his hometown.
Thanks to the cattle rustling bust, Zack and Skylar knew about Luke’s real identity and purpose, but they were one hundred percent on board with helping him continue in his role. With any luck, the ongoing and intense joint efforts of just about every local and federal law enforcement agency in the region might yield enough intel, leads, data, and arrests to bring down Guerrero’s operation.
As he reached for the Chevy’s door handle, Luke caught the familiar vibration of his phone. It was powerful enough that he felt it from within the hidden pocket in his specially designed gun holster sewn to the inside of his duster. He reached under the black duster, slipped the phone out from below his firearm, and checked the caller ID.
It was his partner, Cruz Rios, who’d managed to get himself hired on as a ranch hand at Coyote Pass Ranch about a week ago. Rios was busy getting info on Wade Larson, owner of Coyote Pass, among others in the area— rancher, lawman, and cowhand alike.
Coyote Pass Ranch bordered the Flying M, and after that came a short string of border ranches also owned by longtime Douglas ranchers. All of them would eventually have to be investigated.
“Denver,” Luke answered in his slow and easy Texas drawl. Luke’s and Rios’s cell phones had such sensitive reception that he could hear, as clear as day, cows lowing in the background and the chirrup of crickets.
“Trouble at Larson’s,” Rios said.
Luke pressed the phone harder against his ear. “Yeah?”
“I’ve got cut fences and footprints,” Rios said, “but get this— the tracks lead onto the ranch, not off it. It’s not illegals. Wrong direction. And it’s not Guerrero mules, either. These guys didn’t seem to know where they were going, or maybe they weren’t sure about what they were doing.”
Rios coughed, and Luke heard him spit on the ground. Not a good sign. Rios only spit when he was worried.
Luke’s partner continued. “When I followed the trail, I found blood—a lot of it, but no body.”
“Shit.” Luke clenched his free hand. “Larson?”
“Safe in his house. All the hands, too.” Rios paused, and Luke could almost smell the man’s frustration over the encrypted digital connection. “Looks like the bastards turned on one of their own. We may never find what’s left of him—or her. But I think this makes Larson a less likely target for our investigation. Even an idiot wouldn’t kill somebody on their own spread and leave the evidence in plain view.”
Luke didn’t like Larson, especially after he’d watched the man try to possess Skylar MacKenna when she didn’t want him, but he knew Rios was right. Skylar had been a suspect, too, way back before the rustling investigation exploded, but Luke knew she was clean. Larson had helped them bring down the cattle-rustling op
eration along with bringing down the rogue deputy running it— and Larson was probably clean, too.
Luke gave Rios the short on the dead kids the sheriff had discovered in Douglas, and listened to Rios swear for a full thirty seconds before the words came out of his mouth. “Turf war.”
A shitload more people are gonna get dead before New Year’s Day . . .
“Call the sheriff’s office and our fi eld office— get some extra officers out there to search Larson’s ranch and the surrounding area,” Luke said. “See if you can find where they dumped the body. We need some clue who’s moving in, and why they think they can start a war with Guerrero’s cartel and win.”
“We need to take down the rest of Guerrero’s operation, and right now,” Rios said. “That’s the fastest way to find out who the new players are. You get into that charity party and make nice with Francisco Guerrero. And don’t shoot the fucker unless he draws on you fi rst.”
Rios punched off.
Luke glanced through the rain-speckled windshield, to the upper story of Nevaeh’s B & B, and saw a woman’s curvaceous silhouette pause in front of the sheer curtains. Two floors below, in the living room window, a second outline appeared, this one tall and heavily muscled, topped with an unmistakable hat. Luke couldn’t see the hat, but he could call the make and model—O’Farrell, a Cheyenne Pinch, probably black, pure beaver, and with a beaded edge.
That hat cost more than most people made in a month.
And Luke Rider had been helping to investigate the bastard wearing it for the better part of a year.
The youngest son of the worst drug lord ever to cross the border.
Francisco Guerrero was a relatively new player in the family operation, brought into the fold by his two older brothers a little over three years ago, when the old man died.
Guerrero, the youngest, had a pre-law degree from Cornell, an impeccable set of American manners, and a thin but glossy patina of respectability thanks to owning a string of auto dealerships throughout Cochise County. He was slowly buying up businesses and property in the Douglas-Bisbee area, digging himself and his family operation so deep into Douglas that it would be pure hell rooting him out.
Since Guerrero had come to Douglas, the drug trade volume had doubled, never mind the body count. New ideas, new methods of illegal operation all the law enforcement agencies were just beginning to sort out—the bastard was a real game changer.
Luke got out of his truck, all too aware of the weight of his Glock against his leg.
“Look out, sugar,” he said to the woman in the upstairs window, then glanced back at Guerrero’s outline. “Wouldn’t want you to get caught in the crossfire.”
Excerpted from Luke by Cheyenne McCray.
Copyright © 2009 by Cheyenne McCray.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproductionis strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.