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Seven months ago
"Get out of the vehicle. Get out of the vehicle!"
Detective Jack Riley pulled his Glock 9 mm and pointed it, along with his flashlight, at the three-hundred-pound behemoth who ignored his badge and his command and started the engine. Shit.
As the drug dealer shifted his customized Chevy Suburban into gear, Jack jumped back inside the cab of his pickup and slammed it into reverse, hoping to block his target's exit from the convenience store parking lot. But Lorenzo Vaughn slipped past him, burning an acrid trail of black rubber onto the pavement as he swung out into the street.
Silently apologizing to the truck's big bruiser engine, he shifted into drive and ruthlessly gunned it.
Jack flipped on the siren and warning lights of his unmarked truck, praying Vaughn would take this pursuit to the open road. With a long, straight stretch ahead of them, Jack's years of training behind the wheel would give him the advantage. But it might already be too late. There were too many hills, too many trees and houses blocking his line of sighttoo many things wrong with this takedown.
The original plan he and his drug enforcement team had worked weeks on had gone way beyond south.
"Come on, baby." He urged as much speed out of the engine as he dared this time of night with so many cars still on the streets.
"Jack? You in trouble?" His partner Eric Mesner's voice crackled over the radio. "We're hung up in traffic at least five minutes away from your location."
Jack swore, yanking his steering wheel to the left to swerve around a car pulling out of a driveway. "We're already a day late and a dollar short, buddy. Vaughn didn'tstick to his regular schedule. He got away from me. I'm in pursuit."
"Son of a bitch. Did you see the drugs?"
"Didn't get a chance to. But the Chevy he's driving has been modified like the others. Looks like a monster-sized race car. If it's street legal, I'm your Aunt Fanny. Whatever he's selling was either transported in there or is still hidden inside."
Rather than risk their lives or any innocent bystanders' lives by confronting Vaughn at his housewhere guns, drugs, lieutenants and a reputed fighting dog stayedthey'd wanted to arrest him when he slipped out to pay a nightly visit to one of his girlfriends. "You watch your back, Jack. Don't take this guy on by yourself."
"Too late for that." Jack had been spying on Vaughn's house, tracking his routine for weeks. The closest they could figure was that Vaughn was getting his drugs stashed inside one of the new vehicles that seemed to show up at his house about once a month. The plan had been to grab the man, grab the car, and break both down until NPD had the proof necessary to bring down one of the city's biggest drug rings. But their precisely timed plan was turning into a flat-out road race. "You're coming to save my ass, right?"
"We're coming," Eric assured him. "Let's get moving. Now!" he shouted to the other team members who were closing in on Jack's lead position.
Jack switched his radio to an all-call channel and reported his location. "Officer in pursuit. I could use some backup."
Flying through intersections and leaving streetlights and startled drivers in the dust, Jack needed to think fast. He glanced at the name of a side street, pulled up a map inside his head. Hell, yes. Flexing his fingers around his truck's taut leather steering-wheel cover, Jack took a deep, steadying breath and jerked the wheel to the right. He cut through an alley, skidded around the corner and pressed on the gas, his eyes peeled for any sign of pedestrians or civilian vehicles as he zoomed ahead of Vaughn's position on a less-populated parallel street. He couldn't safely outrace Lorenzo Vaughn, but he could damn well outsmart him.
Spotting the cross street he wanted, Jack spun left. By the time his two left wheels hit the pavement again, he had his target in sight. He floored it. "Gotcha."
Forty damn years old and Jack Riley could still play a gutsy game of chicken. Vaughn's head turned. He saw the inevitable rushing toward him and Jack grinned. He was either going to turn Vaughn toward the highway entrance ramp or T-bone him.
Only Vaughn didn't understand the rules of the game he was playing.
"Turn, you son of a bitch. Turn!"
Vaughn's SUV loomed larger and larger. He was close enough to see Vaughn's oh, shit expression now, close enough to count down the seconds until impact or victory, close enough to
A blur of blue and red flashed through Jack's peripheral vision. In the same instant a bold, taunting voice blared across his radio. "I've got this one, old man! Back off!"
A black-and-white unit whipped around the corner in front of him, almost clipping Jack's right fender. Adrenaline whooshed out of his body as Jack stomped on the brakes to avoid the crash. "Shit. Billington!"
Vaughn jerked his vehicle to the left as Jack skidded through the intersection behind him. In the seconds it took Jack to regain control of his truck, Vaughn's SUV and the black-and-white unit had careened onto the highway ramp. He was blocks behind the chase already. But Paul Billington kept his speed steady, falling into close pursuit.
He'd asked for backup, hadn't he? But Jack had been looking for his seasoned drug enforcement team to show up and save the daynot this fast and furious wannabe who'd answered the call from street patrol.
Cursing the young hotshot, Jack closed the distance between them, slipping into the unfamiliar role of playing backup on the arrest he was supposed to have made. "Damn it, Billington!" Jack watched the black-and-white police car slide into position to tap the rear of Vaughn's vehicle and slam him into a spinout. They were going too fast. Too damn fast. "Billington!"
The kid was cocky. Reckless.
In a matter of seconds, the perp's car had rolled to a stop in the ditch and Billington was dragging a dazed Lorenzo Vaughn from behind his deflating air bag. Jack pulled up in front of the wreck and climbed out. "Nice driving," Jack conceded. "I appreciate the help."
"Happy to save your ass anytime, Grandpa."
With Eric Mesner and the rest of the team finally reaching the scene to set up traffic control around the accident, Jack lowered his voice and reprimanded the young officer for the unnecessary risk he'd taken upon himself. "Speeding through a residential neighborhood where collateral damage is a definite possibility is not the way to prove you've got the cajones to make the drug squad."
Billington jerked Vaughn to his feet and turned him toward the black-and-white. "Back in the day, when you set the police course driving record I've been trying to break since my rookie year, you would have gotten the job done yourself instead of calling for backup and giving me a lecture. Maybe it's time to step aside and let some new blood into vice."
"Back in the day?" Jack winced at the mix of awe and sympathy in Billington's tone. "I'm hardly ready to retire."
"Oh, yeah?" Billington's expression blazed with an arrogance all too reminiscent of Jack's earlier days on the force. "Who just made this arrest?"
"Good work, buddy." Eric Mesner patted his shoulder as Jack eased the tight clench of his fists. "It's good to see that bastard finally going to jail."
Nodding, Jack replayed the night's events in his head, trying to figure out where he'd lost that half-second advantage to Vaughnand Billingtonand wondering just how many other young bloods in NPD had taken to calling him Old Man and Grandpa.
Eric nodded his approval to Billington as he closed the back door of the official vehicle on Lorenzo Vaughn. "I've got the rest of the team securing the Suburban. We'll check the accessible places for any hidden drugs. Otherwise, it'll be up to the lab to break it down. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to putting him in an interrogation room and finding out how he's getting his supply into Nashville in the first place."
"You still coming over to the house for barbecue tomorrow afternoon?" Eric switched topics as smoothly as Jack eased through the gears on his truck. "I figure it'll be the last weekend we can be outside before the cooler weather sets in. The kids and the missus haven't seen you for a while. Not since you and Rosie broke up."
Hell. His ego was taking it in the shorts tonight. There was no woman at home for him anymore, waiting to listen to his troubles, willing to ease his doubts and frustrations with the lush warmth of her body. Jack's live-in lover of over a year had moved out a month ago because her job offer in St. Louis had been more tempting than a marriage proposal from him.
He liked Eric's kids, was godfather to his oldest son. Even Eric's wife welcomed him like a long-lost brother. But he didn't feel much like celebrating with the family right now. Jack turned and headed back to his truck. "I don't know."
"Don't know what?" Eric followed. "Hey. We got our guy.
We'll find where the cars and drugs are coming from. The rest will fall into place. We did good."
"No, Eric, we sucked." Jack pulled up and turned to his partner. " I sucked. If it wasn't for Hotshot's help back there, Vaughn would have gotten away. He could have dumped the car and the drugs and we'd have zilch. Nada. Nothing."
"So we had an off night." Eric propped his hands on his hips at the hem of his flak vest and shrugged. "How many times in the past have we had to punt and go to Plan Bor C or D because Plan A didn't work out?"
Jack raked his fingers through his hair. "Yeah, but we were always able to make B, C and D work for ourselves. We never had to have some punk ride in to save our asses before."
Eric's dark eyes narrowed in that wise, patient way of his as he tried to assess Jack's surly mood. "We may be slowing down, but our glory days are hardly over."
Slowing down? Shit. Just the kind of pep talk he didn't need.
"Back in the day, my ass." Jack thumped the truck's steering wheel with his fist. It was late. He was tired. And his patience with himself had worn down to the driving need for an ice-cold beer or a long, hot lay to purge the restless frustration that gnawed at him.
But he was still on the clock, and there was no sweet, sophisticated Rosie waiting for him back home.
He couldn't keep a woman. Couldn't do the job. Eric had said it was an off day. That they'd crack the case tomorrow. Damn optimist. Probably why Eric's wife had stuck with him for almost twenty years. Probably why Jack respected his partner so much. Eric could see the promise of tomorrow. He believed in it.
Meanwhile, Jack ? Well, hell. Even with the windows down and the damp autumn air blowing in his face as he cruised along Interstate 40, he couldn't seem to cool down. Something was eating at him tonight.
And it damn well wasn't the fact that he was forty, unattached and horny as hell with some adolescent need to prove he was still the man he once was. Yeah, right.
Exiting the highway, Jack veered onto Broadway Nashville's brightly lit, noisy magnet for tourists, partygoers and country-music star wannabes. Maybe there'd be a purse snatcher or scam artist he could haul in to headquarters. That's it. Make an arrest. Protect and serve.
That'd get his mojo back. Then maybe he'd believe in tomorrow again, too. Jack inhaled deeply, feeling a surge of renewed confidence.
Scanning Broadway from sidewalk to sidewalk, Jack watched for anything out of the ordinary. Neon lights blinked on and off in modern contrast to the old brick buildings they adorned, marking open-mike joints, dance clubs and honky tonks. Despite the chill in the air, every door stood open to let the music inside pour out into the street.
With a beefy bouncer standing guard at every bar, he suspected there wouldn't be anything to worry about there. Instead, Jack turned his attention to the crowds milling up and down the sidewalk. He took note of the tourists strolling toward a line of horse-drawn carriages, hoping to catch a leisurely tour of the capitol building and other historical and musical landmarks in the downtown area. He spotted a trio of derelict musicians hauling their instruments, bedrolls and backpacks in and out of doorways, looking for work and a place to sleep. Jack nodded to the two uniformed bicycle cops who'd pulled off their helmets and stopped to chat with a street-corner huckster who was probably selling overpriced tickets to something that didn't even exist. Their answering salute told him the two men had the situation well under control.
Soon, he'd run out of roadand opportunitiesand hit the Cumberland River that looped through the city. Jack rolled to a stop at the next light. He drummed his fingers against the wheel, thinking his apartment and a cold shower were his best bets to save this night, when a shrill voice pierced the night air.
"You touch me again and you'll take back a stump."
A swirl of honey-gold hair drew his eye to the street-corner commotion in front of Jasmine's Saloon.
Petite yet stacked in a way that reminded him of country-music icons and teenage fantasies, a young blond woman marched down the sidewalk, bumping her way through the crowd. Her makeup had been applied with a heavy hand, and the little black dress she wore was far too shorther strappy silver stilettos way too highfor that sexy get-up to be anything other than an invitation for trouble.
Trouble followed in the form of two college-aged boys who hurried along behind her. "What if we pay you double?" the taller one shouted.
The blonde spun around on wobbly legs. Before Jack could wedge his truck into the entrance to a parking alley, Blondie drew her arm back and swung. He winced in sympathy at the slap that connected with the cheek of the gangly, red-haired young man. The young man's buddy laughed, but quickly fell silent as both Red and Blondie turned and glared at him.
There was a story behind that assault, and Jack intended to find out the details before Blondie struck again or the two men retaliated. Closing the door behind him, Jack jogged down the sidewalk for a closer look.
While Blondie tottered on her heels in a less-than-dignified retreat, the red-haired kid massaged his cheek and made some kind of suggestion to his shorter companion. With a nod of agreement, Red and Shorty hurried after their target, perhaps intent on taking what she hadn't been willing to give them.