Strong at the Break
A Caitlin Strong Novel
By Jon Land
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2011 Jon Land
All rights reserved.
Quebec; the present
From the street the house looked like those nestled around it in the suburban neighborhood dominated by snow cover that had at last started to melt. A McMansion with gables, faux brick, and lots of fancy windows that could have been lifted up and dropped just about anywhere. The leaves had long deserted the tree branches, eliminating any privacy for each two-acre spread had the neighbors been around to notice. Problem was the neighborhood, part of a new plot of palatial- style homes, had been erected at the peak of a housing boom now gone bust, so less than a third were occupied.
Caitlin Strong and a Royal Canadian Mountie named Pierre Beauchamp were part of a six-person squad rotating shifts in teams of two inside an unsold home diagonally across from the designated 18 Specter, the marijuana grow house they'd been eyeballing for three weeks now. She'd come up here after being selected for a joint U.S. and Canadian drug task force looking into the ever-increasing rash of drug smuggling across a fifteen-mile stretch of St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation land that straddled the border.
Beauchamp lowered his binoculars and made some notes on his pad, while Caitlin looked at him instead of raising hers back up.
"Something wrong, Ranger?"
"Not unless you count the fact I got no idea what we're trying to accomplish here."
"Get the lay of the land. Isn't that it?"
"Seems to me," Caitlin told the Mountie, "that the DEA got that in hand already. You boys too."
"It's task force business now. We need to build a case for a full-on strike."
"You telling me the Mounties couldn't have done that already, on their own?"
"Not without alerting parties on the other side of border, who'd respond by dropping their game off the radar, eh? When we hit them, the effort's got to be coordinated and sudden. That doesn't mean two law enforcement bodies working in tandem, it means two countries. And that, Ranger Strong, is never a simple prospect."
"So we've got to tell both sides what they know already."
Beauchamp shrugged. "Put simply, yes."
"I guess I'm just not cut out for this sort of game," Caitlin said and sighed.
The thunk of car doors slamming froze Beauchamp's response before he could utter it. Both he and Caitlin had their binoculars pressed back against their eyes in the next instant, watching six big men in black tops, black fatigue pants, and army boots approach the grow house from a dark SUV lugging assault rifles and what looked like gasoline cans.
"Uh-oh," said Beauchamp.
"Hells Angels?" asked Caitlin, following a bald pair of black-garbed figures who looked like twins.
"What exactly they doing here now, while there's people and drugs still inside?"
The Mountie moved his gaze back to her, his expression flatter than she'd seen in the three weeks they'd been working together. "Only one thing I can think of."
Mohawk Indian Reservation; three weeks earlier
The DEA's lead agent, Frank Gage, drove Caitlin out to the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation first thing when she reached St. Lawrence County in upstate New York, her unpacked bags stowed in her motel room. They turned off Route 37 down a bumpy road formed of cracked pavement lost to the snow the farther they drew into the woods. March was the absolute dead of winter in these parts, and Caitlin had never seen so much snow and ice in her entire life, enough of it to make the trees sag under its weight.
"Peak of the season, this road's got more snow than you can imagine," he said, finally snailing his car to a halt in a clearing that opened into a picturesque, white-encrusted scene of a frozen river that somewhere contained the border between the United States and Canada.
Caitlin followed Gage out of the car and down a slight embankment atop snow that crunched underfoot before hardening into ice. Her boots had the wrong tread for this kind of ground and she found herself slipping, unsure exactly of where the land ended and frozen water began beneath them.
"Welcome to the source of our problems, Ranger," Gage told her.
"Where's the border exactly?"
"There isn't one. That's the problem," he said, pointing across the vast whiteness to the woods on the other side. "That's Canada over there, but it's also part of the Mohawk Reservation on their side of the border too."
Caitlin followed Gage's gaze and spotted an old Indian man cutting a hole in the ice. He had a fishing pole resting on a foldout chair behind him; if he was aware of their presence, he chose not to acknowledge it.
"Old tribal cop. A legend in these parts who hates the druggers almost as much as he hates us. Comes pretty much every day to catch his dinner. Locals say he might be as much as a hundred years old."
Caitlin watched the old man plop down in his chair and ready his pole over the perfectly circular hole he'd fashioned in the ice.
"That all makes this a virtual sovereign nation the Canadian authorities are reluctant to violate even more than we are," Gage said, picking up where he left off before Caitlin had been distracted by the old Indian. He turned toward her, breath misting in front of his face. "More drugs come into the country over this and other frozen rivers, what we call 'ice bridges,' than any other spot in the country."
"No, Ranger, not excluding Mexico at all, no offense to you."
"None taken," Caitlin said, trying to make sense of what the DEA man was telling her.
"We estimate fifty-five billion dollars a year in drugs now comes in through Canada. Compare that with forty-five, maybe fifty, through Mexico."
"You telling me we been fighting the war on drugs in the wrong place?"
"I'm telling you that over the past five years or so a new front's opened up in that war and you're looking at it. Starts with the grow houses, pharma and meth labs organized throughout Quebec and parts of British Columbia by the Hells Angels."
"Same biker gang we got?"
"They operate on both sides of the border. An elaborate network of fully franchised businessmen backed up by the usual armed sons of bitches riding Harleys. Angels are responsible for manufacture and shipment across Mohawk land here with the Natives' full blessing, since plenty of them end up as major distributors of the product themselves. I'll show you the homes of some of the biggest suppliers later. Goddamn mansions sitting just down the road from shacks generally unfit for human habitation. Tribal dealers use runners to sell their product to networks loyal to Russian organized crime throughout New York, Ohio, and Michigan. And that's just for starters since it doesn't even include the truckloads bound for other suppliers."
"You've sold me on the severity of the problem," Caitlin told him, feeling the wind sift through her hair. The air was bitingly cold, the bright sun offering a measure of respite, though not very much. "But I don't really see how the Texas Rangers can help you solve it, sir."
"Rangers can't; you can."
"You've become a real authority on the subject, Ranger Strong."
"Not by choice, I'll tell you that much."
"All the same, you've been fighting your own war on drugs for more than two years now."
"Sure, back where it's smuggled in through tunnels dug out of the desert floor or old irrigation lines. Where I come from, we still got drug mules carrying product in rucksacks or on the backs of donkeys."
"While up here," picked up Gage, "it's driven by the truckload across frozen rivers by men who speak French instead of Spanish. You can see what I'm getting at."
"Not really, sir, no."
"Problem's the same; only the language and geography's different."
"I speak Spanish, not French."
Gage gave her a longer look this time. His thinning hair blew about in the stiff breeze, exposing a swatch of bald patches. He smoothed it back into place as best he could, but then a fresh thrust of wind tousled it once more.
"Only language drug people speak is money. Accents don't matter a whole hell of a lot to them. Where we're at now is the planning stage. Trying to handle this piecemeal's gotten us nowhere. What the task force is putting together is an overall strategy, kind of a master plan."
Gage had continued to kick at the gathered snow, revealing a deep symmetrical, crisscrossing pattern cut in the ice. Caitlin followed the pattern farther out onto the ice, convincing herself it ran from one side of this frozen swatch of the St. Lawrence River all the way across to the other.
"What is it?" Gage asked her.
"These trucks of yours carry enough weight to need snow chains?"
"Never thought about it."
Caitlin rose from her crouch, brushing the snow from her gloves. "You should, sir. What we got here looks to be big freight jobs running on double tires with only the outer ones chained. You're talking about some haul if it's drugs they're carrying in those cargo bays."
Gage finally looked up from the chain marks and studied Caitlin for what seemed like a long time, long enough for her to note his cheeks had gone cherry red in the cold while his nose remained milky pale, like his whole face was out of sync.
"I'm operating on a shoestring here," he told her. "Six agents, some locals and state cops out of New York, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a tribal policeman, and now you."
"Well, now that makes me feel a whole lot better."
"It's like this," Agent Cage explained. "The growers buy homes at foreclosure sales mostly across Quebec and British Columbia as well as outside Toronto and other venues. They pretty much gut the interiors to turn them into grow houses for an especially potent strain of marijuana known as BC Bud. The head growers get all the soil laid down, seeds planted, lighting and environment set up and turn things over to immigrants to handle the tender loving care."
"Did you say immigrants?"
"I did indeed, Ranger. Chinese mostly, totally beholden to the druggers for their very lives after being smuggled out of their home countries. A separate syndicate charges a fee to get the immigrants into Canada and then turns them over to the druggers to work off the rest with a ticket to the good old USA when the time comes. Poor bastards can see the American Dream across the border and will do pretty much anything they're told."
"My granddad arrested plenty of Mexican runners in the thirties bringing marijuana and black tar heroine across the border for pretty much the same reason."
"Hard-core druggers have certainly made a life's work out of feeding on desperation, haven't they? By the time their pigeons realize they've signed on to a sham, fear keeps them in line." Gage shook his head, thin wisps of hair shifting with it. "Not much changes."
Caitlin looked toward the vast expanse of land across the frozen river that looked postcard pretty and very small in the distance, thinking about another front opened in a war they were already losing. "In this case, it just gets worse."
Quebec; the present
"What do you mean?" Caitlin asked Beauchamp, watching the black-garbed figures heading up the walk to the front door, three of them lugging the gasoline cans.
"Didn't Agent Gage explain what the Angels do to the houses once they're done with them, once the mold sets in?"
"Burn them to the ground. Only this house hasn't been harvested. No mold yet, nothing like that. And there's still people inside."
"Jesus Christ," realized Caitlin, binoculars still glued to her eyes, "they're on to us."
"It does seem that way, eh?"
Caitlin moved closer to the window in response. "How many immigrants we got in that house?"
Beauchamp checked his notebook, flipping back a few pages. "Seven, by my count. I recognized two of the Hells Angels, the big bald ones with those arrow tattoos painted on their skulls: the LaChance brothers. They're from your side of the border in Michigan but wanted for murder in Canada too."
Caitlin lowered her binoculars and watched the Mountie fumble for his cell phone. "Then how 'bout we go arrest them?"
But Beauchamp had the phone at his ear. "We gotta call Gage first. See how he wants this handled."
Caitlin was already on her feet, pushing the blood back into her legs, taking her mind to a distant, yet familiar place. "Only one way it can be handled, Mountie."
"He's not answering." Beauchamp's eyes flared in the room's thin, ambient light. "I've heard the Rangers are the next best thing to Mounties."
"Funny," said Caitlin, "I've heard almost the same thing."
Standing now, Caitlin pressed her binoculars back against her eyes and focused on the grow house. She caught splotchy glimpses of some of the Angels spreading the gasoline about, dousing everything in their paths. There were glimpses too of the biggest ones, the American LaChance brothers, smacking a few of the Chinese around, ignoring their protestations since clearly they held no more value than the lumber and furnishings about to go up in an inferno.
"They're gonna burn those Chinese along with everything else," Caitlin said and pushed back her jacket to expose her holstered SIG Sauer nine-millimeter pistol.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Beauchamp asked her, pocketing his phone and ripping out his pistol in its place.
Quebec; the present
Caitlin slid across the icy street, the wind and cold feeling like bramble shrubs brushing against her cheeks. Beauchamp was heading around to the rear of the house, their plan to trap the Hells Angels inside in their cross fire. Her heart had steadied to a slow, rhythmic pounding, her breath steady and a bit rapid. She felt her ears perk up, her vision suddenly able to pierce the night like a cat's, seeing the world the way she would through a rifle's crosshairs.
A gunman's cloud, her granddad had called it. The first time Caitlin had experienced violence firsthand had been in the parking lot of the Tackle and Gun in Midland, when she'd stepped out to join her father with Earl Strong's Colt heavy in her grasp. After that day she'd resolved to never let the same hesitance and fear conquer her again, and truth be told, it hadn't. Thing was, violence, when it did come, was normally a sudden thing, as unexpected as it was unpredictable. Walking into firestorms like this was rare indeed, and time slowed to a crawl the moment she reached the grow house's front yard, clinging to the shadows.
Caitlin lived every breath, every thought, every glimpse through the home's windows with the naked eye. Going up against eight men was bad odds for sure, especially when they were spread through the house, which made taking them all by surprise impossible. The air misting with frost and moonless sky would keep them from seeing her approach, but once she and Beauchamp started blasting, stealth would be forfeit.
The booming report of a heavy pistol shot smacked Caitlin's ears like a baseball bat slung against a wood beam. She recorded a muzzle flash at the distant edge of one of the windows just crossed by one of the LaChance brothers. She felt herself picking up the pace, surging into the neat slivers of light sifting out through the windows. SIG raised and ready when she came to the nearest, a bay offering the best view inside of an unfinished great room rich with dark figures slithering about, locked down as targets in her mind.
It was no different from what Jim Strong must have felt when he climbed out of their truck to finish things with the Reverend Max Arno once and for all. He knew what was coming then just as she did now.
Almost to the window glass ... Caitlin's mind cataloging placement and movement, the calculations as instinctive as her motions now ...
There was glass to consider, what it did to the trajectory of bullets, bending them all over the place, and how that had to be anticipated in the shots that were about to start flowing.
Caitlin didn't remember pulling the trigger. There was recognition of one of the LaChance brothers about to put a bullet from his hand cannon, a long-barreled Magnum, into another Chinese man before she fired her SIG twice through the glass. The first shot grazed his shoulder, spinning him around. The second, already reprogrammed to account for what she'd learned from the first, took him dead center in the face, throwing him backward into the wall directly beneath the spray of gore from the exit wound that painted the wall. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Strong at the Break by Jon Land. Copyright © 2011 Jon Land. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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