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Sunday afternoon—Bordelaise, Louisiana
A storm was brewing, and Nick Aroyo could tell, even from inside the Bordelaise Police Department, that it was going to be a strong one. The day had begun with sunshine and a breeze, but for the past couple of hours the wind had continued to rise, until now it had elevated to a high-pitched whine that he could hear through the three-foot-thick concrete block walls of his jail cell.
For Nick, jail was the last damn place he needed to be, but getting arrested on a Friday night in Bordelaise, Louisiana, meant you awaited the judge's pleasure when it came to a "prompt" arraignment, and for whatever reason, this time it wasn't happening until Monday.
In his other life, away from the undercover world of the DEA, Sunday meant sleeping in, hot wings and watching football on TV. But there would be none of that today. The jailer had yet to pick up their food trays from lunch, and the cockroach crawling on top of his leftover macaroni and cheese was so damn big he was afraid to turn his back on it. As for sleeping, at four inches over six feet tall, there was no way Nick could get comfortable on a jail bunk. So he paced, thinking about the three other men he'd been running with for the past eight months and who'd been arrested with him, and trying not to think of the luxurious extra-long mattress back in his Miami condo. Even though he knew his mother was keeping an eye on his place, he was anxious to put this case behind him and go home.
There had been a time when he'd thrived on undercover work, but the older he got, the more he realized that real life was passing him by. He had yet to have one serious relationship survive his unexplained absences, and at thirty-six, his own biological clock was ticking. He wanted someone to come home to and a kid who called him Daddy.
Suddenly he became aware that the wind outside had changed to a roar and a siren was going off somewhere, and when something hit the roof of the jail with such force that he felt the vibration beneath his feet, he ducked. To his horror, seconds later the corner of the roof began to lift. Knowing he only had moments to take cover, he grabbed his mattress, hit the floor, then slid beneath the frame of his bunk, pulling the mattress in on top of him.
The sounds that followed were like something out of a nightmare. The air became a living, breathing banshee—screaming nonstop and ripping the roof and rafters from above him before sucking them up into its vortex.
He clutched the mattress against him, then closed his eyes as he began to be pelted by rain and f lying debris. Suddenly something hit the bottom of his boot with such force that his entire body slid a foot to the north.
Above the wind, he could hear a scream and thought it was Wayman French, one of the men with whom he'd been arrested. Then the winds ripped the mattress from his grasp, pulled him out from under the bunk and slammed him against the front of the jail cell. Before he could get a grip on the bars, his body went flying backward, slamming up against a wall; then he was turned around and slammed back against the bars. Realizing he'd just been handed a second chance, he locked his arms through the bars and ducked his head, trying to protect his face and eyes from the rain and wind-whipped debris. The last thing he was thinking was that his mother would have to identify his body; then something hit the back of his head and everything went black.
When Nick came to he was laying on his back, looking up at the sky, rain pelting his face. The roof was gone, as was the back wall of his cell.
His first thought was to make a run for it. He needed to contact his boss, Stewart Babcock, the deputy chief of the DEA, and tell him where he'd hidden eight months worth of intel. It would suck to have spent the last months of his life in the underbelly of society and then die before he could turn over the goods. The info was comprehensive—from the lowest of runners all the way to the top man in the drug ring—and it mattered too much for him to lose it.
Nick staggered to his feet, slipping once on the rain-slicked floor before he finally gained steady footing. A quick body check revealed he was bleeding in several places, although nothing that appeared deep or serious. There was a knot on the back of his head and it hurt to breathe, but he'd didn't think any ribs were broken. After a quick scan of the alley behind the jail, he crawled out over the rubble that had been the back wall and started moving, looking to see if the other three men were alive.
Lou Drake was the first to climb out to meet him—a stocky, bald-headed man of average height and less than average intelligence, and vicious without thought. He was wild-eyed and bleeding but obviously mobile, as he jumped over a hunk of drywall and clapped Nick on the back.
"Damn! Can you believe we lived through that? Let's make a run for it before someone comes looking to see what happened."
"What about Tug and Wayman?" Nick asked.
Lou shrugged as if the French brothers were no longer his concern, then frowned when Nick climbed back into the building.
"Fuck it," he said. "It's every man for himself."
Nick turned. "Then run, damn it. If they're still breathing, I'm not leaving them behind."
Lou cursed but knew enough to realize he would need more than his street smarts to get through the backwaters of Louisiana. He was originally from Detroit. His comfort zone was the streets, not alligator-infested swamps.
Wayman French was conscious, but pinned beneath debris. He could hear the others talking and was already calling for help. When he saw Nick climbing toward him over a pile of concrete blocks and rafters, he started waving his arms.
"My leg! I'm caught!" he said urgently, pointing to the piece of rafter that had fallen on top of the bunk where he'd been lying, pinning him to it.
Nick pointed at Lou. "Get in here and help me!" he said, and together, they began moving rubble, sliding around in the rain, until Way was free.
Way rolled out of the bunk onto his knees, then pushed himself up from the rain-soaked, debris-strewn floor.
"Thanks, man," he said, and then started looking for his brother, who'd been in the next cell. "Tug! Tug! Oh, damn, I don't see him!"
Lightning snaked across the sky, followed by a loud rumble of thunder, as Nick crawled over into the next cell and began digging through the rubble. Tug French was the undisputed leader of their gang, but he was nowhere in sight.
Way's panic increased as he started to sob. "The twister…the twister…it musta' took him."
Then they heard a moan and saw a hand slide out from beneath a chunk of drywall. They scrambled forward, their movements frantic as they began removing rubble, knowing that with each passing second, their chances of escape were lessening.
When they heard the first siren, Nick's hopes fell. They were going to get arrested again before they even got off the block. He could, of course, confess his identity to the locals, but it would end his career as an undercover operative, plus, if word got out before his boss got the information, the possibility existed that the big dogs could make a getaway, and they were the ones Babcock wanted most.
The sirens set Lou off. He began to curse. "The longer we wait, the more certain we're gonna get caught!"
Wayman French was large in size and a little slow in the head, but the thought of leaving his big brother behind wasn't on the table. He grabbed Lou by the throat with one hand and started squeezing—just enough to remind the other man that he could still die today.
"You help get Tug free or I will break your fuckin' neck," Wayman said.
"Both of you! Shut up!" Nick said urgently. "Someone's gonna hear the noise. Lou! Grab the end of that rafter. Way, you grab Tug's shoulders. When I say so, you drag him out from under this, okay?"
Way gave Lou a last glaring look, then slid his hands beneath Tug's arms and waited. Nick and Lou grabbed opposite ends of the rafter.
"Okay, Lou. On three." Nick began the countdown. "One. Two. Three. Lift!"
They gripped and lifted in unison, putting every ounce of their strength into the effort—and the rafter moved—just enough.
Suddenly Tug was free.
Way swung him up into his arms, then threw him over his shoulder and started climbing out of the demolished jail. Nick and Lou followed.
The rain had become a downpour, and they could hear sirens as they ran—an indication that the rescue efforts had begun. Way was limping but showed no signs of stopping. Tug was bleeding profusely from the head, but the rain would wash away the blood along with their tracks. What they needed was a car and something to wear besides jail-bait orange if they were going to have any chance of making a getaway.
Just as they turned a corner, Nick saw that the department store across the street had taken a direct hit, and that most of the front of the building was missing.
"In there!" he shouted, and darted across the street and into the store with the others right behind him.
The once neat shelves had been emptied of goods and the racks of clothing strewn about in chaotic abandon by the force of the wind. They began combing through the jumble, looking for something in their sizes.
Nick was relieved to find jeans long enough to fit and quickly changed, ripping tags off the pants and a T-shirt before putting them on.
Tug had regained consciousness. He was groggy and in obvious pain, but he knew enough to get out of his prison garb. When Wayman found a pair of jeans and a shirt in Tug's size, Tug put them on. As Lou began to change, he tossed his prison uniform on the floor in plain sight.
"Hide it," Nick said, pointing to the neon orange jumpsuit Lou had just abandoned.
Lou shoved them in among the rest of the debris just as Tug staggered and slumped against a table. Wayman grabbed him, frantically trying to rouse his brother.
"Tug! Tug! Are you all right?"
"He needs a doctor," Nick said.
"Hell, no," Tug muttered. "No doctor."
Nick swore beneath his breath. "It's your funeral," he said, then grabbed a package of men's undershirts, tore them open, ripped one into strips and bandaged the open wound on Tug's head.
"That'll slow the bleeding down, but it won't fix what's wrong," he said.
Tug pushed away his hand. "Let's just get out of here."
Moments later they were back on the street, minus their prison garb but still afoot.
Nick's ribs were getting sorer by the minute, Wayman was definitely dragging his right leg, and Nick could tell by the way Tug was moving that he was about to pass out again. They needed a ride.
All of a sudden an ambulance shot across the intersection in front of them. Nick stopped, then held his breath, certain they would be seen, but the driver never even looked their way. As soon as it passed, Nick made a decision.
"Way, take Tug into that alley and stay out of sight. Lou and I will find wheels and come back for you."
"Hell, no!" Wayman said. "We don't split up."
"They'll be looking for four men, not two," Nick said. "And Tug's about to pass out. I won't leave you. I swear."
Wayman wavered. He glanced meaningfully at Lou and then back at Nick. "He would."
Nick put a hand on Wayman's arm. "He's free to go anywhere he wants. But I don't run with Drake. Tug's the boss. I'll be back."
Wayman took a deep breath, eyeing the expression on Nick Aroyo's face, then finally nodded.
"Yeah…okay, but hurry."
"As fast as I can," Nick said. "Just stay out of sight and stay put."
Wayman led his brother into the alley as Nick and Lou dashed across the street.
"Smooth move," Lou said as they continued to run, dodging downed power lines, broken glass and miscellaneous debris.
"It wasn't a move. I meant what I said," Nick said.
Lou glared "Then you're a fool, taking a chance on getting caught for them. They wouldn't do the same for you."
"I walk my own path," Nick said. "So…either you're part of the problem—in which case, beat it—or you're part of the solution, in which case keep an eye out for a pharmacy and wheels big enough for all four of us."
"Pharmacy? What the hell for?"
"Tug needs first aid."
Lou cursed beneath his breath, muttering something about ass-kissing and do-gooder.
Nick ignored him as they ran, making sure to stay out of sight of the growing number of rescue vehicles. When they finally found the drugstore, a tree from the town square had been driven through the plate glass windows and the door was standing ajar.
"Time for a little shopping," Nick said, and darted into the doorway, past the limbs and broken glass. He grabbed a large sack from behind the checkout stand and handed another one to Lou. "Get bottles of water and food…crackers, energy bars…candy bars…what-ever you can find."
Lou headed toward the cooler on the west wall, while Nick started down the aisles, looking for first aid. The window between the pharmacy and the rest of the store had been shattered. He vaulted over the counter, scanning the shelves until he found antibiotics and painkillers, then headed back to the front, grabbing gauze, surgical tape and alcohol. After making sure no one was in sight, he and Lou slipped out of the store and bolted across the street.
They walked up on an older model Lincoln one block over. The doors of the big white car weren't locked, and when Nick slid in behind the steering wheel and pulled down the visor, a set of keys dropped into his lap.
Lou chortled as he jumped in beside him. "I love me some stupid, small-town hicks!"
Nick thrust the key in the ignition.