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Fifteen years later
HEATHER DROVE SLOWLY along the service road of
the busy Katy Freeway. Her unmarked van was filled with supplies — food, water, toiletries, blankets — she'd packed before starting her rounds that evening. A full mobile pantry testified to the money-stretching skill she'd honed since childhood. And now she was using it to help other kids. Kids in trouble. Runaways.
Her gaze shifted from the traffic ahead of her to the parking lots alongside the Houston interstate. She'd developed keen night vision to spot her delicate quarry.
A group of youngsters stood waiting for her to pull into the driveway of a tired-looking strip mall, one of her usual stops. She recognized two girls — Brenda and Alicia — and wanted to cheer. Return visits meant trust...at least some trust. Without it, she'd fail, despite her best intentions.
She turned into the mall and pulled forward, parking parallel to the road, careful not to block the driveway. She shut off the motor and groaned when it groaned. That would take more money to fix, but she'd worry about it later. She grabbed a box of PBJ sandwiches and chips, pushed the door open and stepped out.
"Hey, y'all. I'm so-o-o glad to see ya. Who's hungry?" She reached into her carton, distributed the items, studying the youngsters as casually as possible.
Youngsters? A few of the new boys seemed older. Or maybe it was the expression on their faces that made her think so. She turned to Brenda. "Going to introduce me to your friends? Or...aren't y'all together?"
Alicia spoke up. "Oh, yeah, we are. These guys got a place to live. So we don't have to eat up your sandwiches anymore. We just wanted to say bye to you and thanks."
"Baby G, you talk too much," snapped one of the new members of the group.
"Sorry," Alicia whispered, looking at the ground. The dynamics had changed in the past few days and not for the better. "What's going on?" she asked Brenda, the more confident of the two girls.
Brenda shrugged. "We got a place of our own now. And jobs. Easy jobs. That's all." She looked away. "Ask them."
Heather turned to the three newcomers. "Like the girls said, they're with us now, and we'll take care of them." One male stepped forward. The leader, in posture and gesture. Letting her know what's what. Possibly he thought she'd go looking for the kids if they didn't show up. Maybe get the cops involved. "We're just letting them say goodbye to the nice lady. Because we're nice boys. Right?"
His two cohorts chuckled, but Heather focused on the speaker. In his twenties, Latin, husky build, a couple of inches taller than her. "And you are...?"
He grinned, full of confidence and machismo, before his expression turned hungry, like a rattlesnake tasting the air. His dark eyes traveled slowly down her body and back up. His easy grin became a sickle-shaped smile, sharp and predatory. He stared at her without blinking.
She met his gaze head-on, but goose bumps burst out all over her skin. She could probably handle one of them. But three? She rocked on the balls of her feet, ready to run.
The man cocked his head before replying. "Just call me el Jefe — the boss." He nodded at the girls Heather had been helping. "Go. Jet outta here."
The kids obeyed instantly.
Heather heard cars passing along the service road, and one actually entered the lot. But the driver kept going, intent on finding a parking space closer to the set-back stores. Probably never noticed her. And neither would anyone else.
Heather stepped backward — closer to her van. "I've got more stops to make," she said. "People will be looking for me. If you're hungry, grab a sandwich. Take the whole box." She tossed it to the leader, who let the food hit the ground. She inched backward again, glad she'd left the door open.
"No, chica. No van," he said, swaggering toward her until he was only a few feet away. He pointed at one of his friends, and nodded toward the vehicle.
"Take a look."
Look for what? Blankets? Heather watched in dis-belief, her anger rising, as the man got in her van. She'd worked hard on this mobile outreach project. "What do you think I've got in there?" she demanded. "Drugs?"
The "boss" and his cohort outside the van loomed closer, and she groaned silently. When would she learn to keep her mouth shut? And why hadn't she been able to find a partner tonight? She heard the third man rummaging in her vehicle. Heard him behind her when he called out.
"Mira, amigos. Look what she keeps for playtime. All different colors, too."
The box of condoms. For the kids who asked her. So children wouldn't have children.
El jefe"s eyes lit up. "A consolation prize," he said, "from the beautiful lady."
Bile rose to her throat, but she forced it down. He reached toward his waist, snapped his wrist, and metal gleamed in the light of the streetlamp. He held a knife with a long ugly blade.
"Into the van, Ms. Heather. And no noise." They could drive away with her. They might kill her. But to go quietly?
"No-o-o!" she screamed at the top of her lungs, running at the man, counting on surprise to give her an advantage. She kicked him flat-footed in his solar plexus, and he stumbled, giving her space to spin around and kick him a second time. Directly in the groin. He doubled over, howling, and dropped the knife.
She targeted the other two men, each with similar weapons in their hands. By the feral light in their eyes, she could tell they wanted her blood.
She was screwed.
OFFICER DAVE MCCOY approached quietly. The
players were so intent on their drama, they hadn't noticed him yet. He hadn't been flying lights or sirens, merely cruising the freeway as part of his patrol. But he'd recognized Heather Marshall's van, held together with spit, as he'd mentioned to her on numerous occasions.
When he spotted it, he'd slowed to make sure she hadn't broken down. He hadn't planned on stopping. He knew she wanted him to stay away from "her" kids. Except when he cut his wheel to enter the lot, he'd heard her scream. He'd braked hard and quickly made his way around the back of her van in time to see her connect with some guy's family jewels and a weapon fall to the ground. The other two thugs pulled their knives and he ran forward, gun in hand. "Drop them." He hoped his voice was as menacing as his weapon.
As one, they turned toward him. Then Heather raced to kick the knife away from the guy on the ground.
Dave kept his eyes on the men, but spoke to the woman. "Get behind me...go to my car and call for backup. Code 8. When you tell them I can't get to the radio, they'll be here in seconds."
He sensed her disappearing behind the van. "I said drop those knives. Now!" he barked.
One hit the floor.
He waited a heartbeat and aimed his weapon at the suspect still holding his knife. "Resisting arrest. I'll start with your knee...."
The knife dropped. "Smart boy. Both of you — put your hands on your heads." Now his voice was quiet, full of authority. "You're going to stand there nice and easy...because I just had target practice today...and I'm damn near perfect...." And just as he'd predicted, it didn't take two minutes until he heard the sweet blare of sirens closing in.
The perps heard it, too. "Smart boy" turned and sprinted toward the row of stores at the back of the lot. And out of the corner of his eye, Dave saw a blond whirlwind fly after the guy. "No!" she screamed at him.
"Let him go!" Dave yelled. The woman was putting herself in more danger, and he could do nothing at the moment.
But then his buddies arrived — Powers, Jazzman, Yorkie and two others. "Cuff these two," Dave ordered as he sprinted after Heather. "Bring 'em in. Weapons are on the ground, but search them again. And Miranda them. One of you follow me."
Heather was gaining on the guy. The few shoppers on foot quickly got out of the way. Between Heather giving chase, and the people watching him, the suspect seemed to get confused. Dave veered left to cut him off, his timing perfect. The perp almost ran into his arms. Dave turned him and cuffed his hands behind his back.
And there stood Heather Marshall. Unstoppable. Her blond hair in disarray, sexy enough to raise any man's blood pressure. She came straight at the cuffed man, her hands fisted.
"Where are my kids?" she screamed.
"She's crazy, man. Loco," mumbled the perp.
"We didn't do nothin' to those kids." The man indicated with his head. "See? Mira." He stared over Heather's shoulder.
"Are those yours?" asked Dave.
Heather turned. Her smile answered him.
"Jazzman," called Dave, "take this suspect into custody." He watched his buddy haul the guy off, heard him begin, "You have the right to remain silent...." That was enough for Dave.
He turned back to Heather, who hadn't moved, simply staring at the teens. "Ms. Marshall?"
She looked up at him, her face pale in the dim light, her lips trembling. So unlike her usual self. "McCoy," she said in a small voice, "I — I don't feel well...." He caught her before she hit the ground.