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Strong Enough to Die
By Jon Land
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 Jon Land
All rights reserved.
San Antonio, the Present
"But you made it," Rita Navarro, director of the Survivor Center for Victims of Torture, said from behind her desk, after Caitlin had left her story off with being felled by the second bullet.
"Barely," Caitlin told her.
"And the other Ranger, Charlie Weeks?"
"He didn't make it."
Navarro slid back slightly from the edge of her desk chair, checking the résumé before her again as if in search of new information. The light in her cramped office, once a treatment room in the clinic that had formerly occupied this building, came from ceiling-mounted, overly bright fluorescents. But natural light wasn't an option since the room's windows had been frosted over by a thick layer of dust and grime. Sometime during the transition from clinic to treatment center, the building had been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair requiring more funds to remedy than were available.
"I'm glad to have had the opportunity to meet you, Ranger Strong —"
"I'm not a Ranger anymore."
"— but what exactly are you doing here? We never advertised for a security specialist."
"No, you advertised for a counselor and therapist. That's what I'm applying for."
"Oh," Navarro said dismissively, and flipped to the second page of the résumé. She was younger than Caitlin had expected. Her name suggested a Hispanic heritage, but Caitlin thought she detected some Native American, Commanche probably, in her peaked cheekbones, narrow jaw and straight dark hair that dropped to the midpoint of her back. She had an engaging smile that Caitlin had so far glimpsed only upon exchanging a quick handshake, finding Navarro's firm and slightly callused, evidence of a woman who liked to garden in her free time.
Caitlin crossed her legs, then uncrossed them. The stiffness of the wood chair forced her to hunch forward, leaving her shoulders tense. And she was beginning to regret her decision to swap her jeans for pressed light cotton slacks. The jeans did a better job of accentuating her curves and making her long legs stand out less. At five foot nine she had her father's height and grandfather's short torso, a model's body she'd often been told before adding substantial muscle to her frame with regular weight lifting workouts. Her wavy auburn hair was the longest it had ever been, tumbling just past her shoulders. Besides the hair, Caitlin looked no different than she had five years before. Maybe she was trying to freeze time going back to that night in the West Texas desert near the Mexican border. Do that and maybe she could figure out how to make it run backward too.
She still got out in the sun a lot, leaving her skin drier and tighter than she'd prefer. But her complexion was smooth and dark, the rosy cheeks she'd been teased about as a child staying with her to this day.
"After leaving the Rangers, I went back to college and got a master's in psychiatric social ser vices," Caitlin explained. "Got myself certified in crisis management and intervention. Nice complement to my undergraduate degree in sociology."
Navarro went back to the first page. "You were, let's see, seven years with the highway patrol before you joined the Rangers."
"You need at least that much service with the Texas Department of Public Safety before the Rangers will even consider you."
"I understand only one of every hundred applicants actually makes it."
"Something like that. Since I was the one I didn't give it much thought."
"Family tradition, it seems."
"Yes, ma'am. My granddad was the last of the real gunslingers. Took down a gang that had robbed four banks in the street outside number five."
"He happened to be having a cup of coffee in the diner across the way. My dad could hit the bull's-eye with his pistol from a hundred yards nine times out of ten. And my great-granddad and great, great-granddad took part in some of the most famous Ranger campaigns in history."
"The Mexican War being one of them."
"That'd be my great, great-granddad. He was there all right, fighting skirmishes on both sides of the Rio Grande. What makes you ask?"
Navarro tapped her desk with her index fingers, flashing a look that suggested she was leaving something unsaid. "I looked you up on the Internet. Seems like you were in the process of making your own legend with the Rangers."
"But you took down the man they called the most dangerous in all of Texas. McMasters or something."
"Masters. Cort Wesley Masters."
"You didn't list that on your résumé."
"It was just an arrest. I made dozens of those."
"Only female Ranger ever, is that right?"
"There've been a few others, but it never quite worked out, ma'am."
"I imagine it could be a tough job for a woman."
"Well, truth be told, it's a tough job for anyone, but it's a lot to ask of a woman, especially, to ride into some Texas town been doing things a certain way for a long while and tell the elected sheriff that you're the resident Ranger on a case he thought he was in charge of."
"Didn't seem to bother you much with this Masters."
"I had some luck, ma'am."
Navarro let it go at that, passing Caitlin a faint smile that said she knew there was plenty more to the story. Caitlin was grateful, in no particular mood to rehash her near gunfight with the most feared man in the state. Today was about moving forward, not back.
Navarro studied the pages again, less cursorily this time, no longer feigning interest. "You received a commendation for what happened at the border, saving your partner and all."
"I didn't save him for long."
"Special Medal for Valor, it says here."
"I didn't deserve it."
"Because we got ambushed. Seems all wrong getting rewarded for being ambushed."
"You left the Rangers on your own?"
"I did, ma'am."
"Not on disability, it says here."
"I wasn't disabled."
"Six months after the gunfight in which you were wounded."
"There was the hospital stay."
"Two months," Navarro said, after consulting the pages before her, "to treat two primary bullet wounds."
"Something like that."
"Rehab cost you another two," Navarro read. "Then you rejoined the Rangers for two months, before leaving for good."
"You want to know what happened."
"I am curious as to the circumstances."
"How much you wanna hear, ma'am?"
"How much you want to tell me?"CHAPTER 2
El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican Border, 2004
Caitlin had never been shot before, knew in those moments she was lying on the ground intertwined with Charlie Weeks that all the stories she'd heard about the feeling didn't do it justice. It wasn't the pain that scared her; it was the heat and the awful stench of her own burnt-smelling blood.
But she had the good fortune of dropping into a slight depression in the dirt that offered the mea sure of cover she needed to right herself and the Ruger.
"Where are they? Can you see them?"
The words were shouted in English again, the speaker closer than he'd been before.
She sighted on a drug mule rushing in toward them wildly with a nonstop staccato burst pouring from his assault rifle's barrel. But it was Charlie who downed him with rounds fired from the SIG he still had a hold of. Charlie Weeks, who had gunned down bank robbers and prison escapees, managing an impossible shot while lying on his back bleeding from a gunshot wound to the gut.
Caitlin saw another mule coming at them and let loose with the Ruger. Wild shots, breaking every rule of the range her father had taught her. No one had ever explained how to shoot from the ground with at least one bullet dug deep inside her. All that experience, instinct was supposed to take over, but in the end it was panic and having enough bullets left to get the job done.
Caitlin saw the mule go down as if someone had yanked his legs out from under him, heard him crying out in Spanish and screaming. She propped herself up to find him writhing in a fissure of radiant moonlight. Strangely, he stopped moving in the very instant the clouds released the darkness once more, his own light extinguished at the same time.
She'd lost count of how many there were, how many were left. She heard shouts from voices sounding more distant, moving farther away from her and Charlie instead of closer. Caitlin counted out the seconds.
"Come on! Come on!"
An engine flared, followed by the sound of tires spitting gravel and pebbles in their wake before headlights blazed into the tunnel and then disappeared.
"I think they're gone, Charlie," she said, her breathing steady again. "I think we're good now. Charlie?"
She twisted round to find Charlie Weeks's eyes closed and his head drooped toward his chest.
"Don't you die on me, Charlie Weeks! You hear? Don't you fucking die on me!"
Caitlin didn't know where she found the strength to stand back up and lift him into her arms. Didn't remember the final stretch to their SUV that ended with her laying Charlie across the length of the backseat. Her next clear memory was the sight of flashing lights miles and miles down the same gulch-ridden desert road that had nearly delivered Caitlin and Charlie Weeks to their deaths.
The night played tricks with the distance, the lights much farther away than they had originally seemed. But an EMT wagon was among the vehicles responding. Turned out she'd driven eighty miles, the memories of which must have seeped out of her with the blood.
EMTs laid Caitlin and Charlie Weeks side by side on gurneys inside the wagon and she was sure he was alive when her mind finally gave up its last tenuous hold on consciousness. She felt her eyes closing and dreamed she was sitting with her father, the great Jim Strong, under a cottonwood tree near their favorite swimming hole. They were eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches and drinking root beer from bottles cold with frost from the cooler, while Jim Strong told stories of the exploits of Texas' infamous hanging judge Katherine Hansen.
When she woke up at the hospital, Charlie Weeks was dead.CHAPTER 3
San Antonio, the Present
Caitlin ended the story there, studying Rita Navarro's expression that had paled to the point of looking as if someone had borrowed the blood from it. She regarded Caitlin differently; tentatively, Caitlin thought, with a slight bit of unease, maybe fear, making her regret that she had held nothing back.
Finally Navarro leaned forward and rested her elbows on her desk. "I'm skeptical — skeptical that a person of your background is best suited to work with those who've been victimized by violence."
"Because I practiced it."
"Quite well, apparently."
"Torture's a different kind of violence. It's more like rape. The strong dominating the weak."
"You know a lot about rape, Miss Strong?"
"I know a lot about strength and weakness, Miss Navarro."
"So am I sometimes."
Caitlin felt the tension in the room ease a bit. Something had softened Rita Navarro's stare. She wasn't sure what.
"I dealt with a number of rape victims with the Rangers," Caitlin told her. "It doesn't say that in those pages, but I did. Ended up holding a lot of hands waiting for the sheriff's department or highway patrol to show up. I once had to do a rape kit in a ser vice station bathroom."
"You want this job."
"You feel yourself qualified."
Navarro glanced down at the pages before her again. "Your application lists you as married to a Peter Goodwin, but you're not wearing a ring."
Caitlin smiled faintly. "Another old habit, I'm afraid. My dad was the best shot I ever saw and he never wore any jewelry, not even a watch. Only metal he wanted near his hand was his Colt 1911 model .45. Everything else just got in the way. As for my husband Peter, he passed away."
"I'm sorry. How?
"Nope. Worked in computer software for one of those private contractors. He was working on a cable television system for Baghdad when an IED blew him up."
"You never took his name," Rita Navarro noted.
"Guess I felt it'd be doing my dad a disservice. My mom passed 'fore he got the son he wanted, so responsibility for the family name fell on me."
Navarro tucked the pages of Caitlin's résumé back into the file folder with her name stenciled on the tab. "Why victims of torture, Miss Strong?"
Caitlin had thought long and hard about that question, knowing it would be coming sooner or later. She'd even rehearsed answers — nice, neat and pat — except none of them stuck or sounded even halfway genuine.
"How much you wanna hear, Mrs. Navarro?"
"You asked me that before."
"As much as I want to tell you, you said. So lemme say I've been on both sides of some pretty bad things. You do 'em and you live with 'em, 'cause it's what you are and what you figure you'll be left with when everything's said and done. But sometimes said and done comes quicker than it's supposed to, and you don't like what you're left with at all."
Rita Navarro rose stiffly from her desk chair, Caitlin figuring the handshake and polite good-bye were coming.
"Let me show you the facility, Miss Strong," she said. "See if it might be what you're looking for."CHAPTER 4
Huntsville State Prison, the Present
Cort Wesley Masters followed Warden T. Edward Jardine down the long caged walk toward his freedom.
"Wanted to see you off personally, Mr. Masters," Jardine told him.
"Seems a bit of a hollow gesture at this point, don't it?" Cort Wesley shot back. "Considering I never should've been here in the first place, I mean."
The pungent stench of disinfectant, laid over stale urine and feces that wafted out of the cell block, dissipated the closer they got to the other end. Cort Wesley never thought he'd welcome a sound as much as the sound of his boots clacking atop the worn linoleum floor. Those boots were the one thing he'd taken into Huntsville he was taking out. He shifted his feet about inside them, thinking about how many livers, kidneys and ribs had perished to their steel-toe boxes.
"Being bitter is no way to start your first day of freedom."
"I been bitter a lot longer than that, Warden. You wanna stand there and try telling me I don't got call to be, then go ahead."
Jardine didn't. "May I make a suggestion?"
"Free country, last time I checked. For most, anyway."
"I'll expect you to take full advantage of the next phase of your rehabilitation."
"Rehabilitation ... that what you call it? I never should've been jailed in the first place, so there's not really anything I gotta be rehabilitated from. Right or wrong?"
"Glad we got that straight, Warden. DNA test fully exonerated me. No parole or probation. You and me, we're on the same terms. That's why we look so much alike now. Equal ground. Man to man. How's the view from where you're standing?"
Jardine's upper lip quivered ever so slightly. Cort Wesley watched him glance over his shoulder to check where the nearest bull was. Cort Wesley grinned, teeth even whiter than they were when he came in thanks to an almost religious ritual of brushing twice daily. One of the things he held onto that helped him get by.
"Don't worry, Warden. I'm not gonna hurt you," he said from inside a shirt stretched at the seams by the hard layers of muscle stitched along his torso. The stiff prison-issue khakis he'd been given sagged some in the waist and the belt didn't have enough holes to hold them up. Cort Wesley didn't like the way they felt, reminding him too much of the way Latino gang members wore theirs to suggest toughness by having their boxers showing.
"You managed to keep yourself out of trouble for almost five years, Mr. Masters. In a place like The Walls, given your reputation, that's a heck of an accomplishment and I'd hate to see it squandered."
"Not my intention, I assure you."
"Temptation's a powerful thing."
"I gave up drinking my first day in."
"I wasn't talking about alcohol, Mr. Masters."
Warden T. Edward Jardine looked at Cort Wesley's shirt, as if seeing through it to the tattoo beneath. "Your tattoo, 'Vengeance Is Mine.'"
"See that it remains a slogan and not a prophecy. People who are falsely imprisoned have to fight the urge to lash out, to get back at those who put them away."
"Got that ink before I came in, Warden."
"I think you're missing my point."
Excerpted from Strong Enough to Die by Jon Land. Copyright © 2009 Jon Land. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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