Ryder Creed and his dogs have been making national headlines. They’ve intercepted several major drug stashes smuggled through Atlanta’s airport. But their newfound celebrity has also garnered some unwanted attention.
When Creed and one of his dogs are called in to search a commercial fishing vessel off the coast of Pensacola Beach, they discover a secret compartment. But the Colombian cartel’s latest shipment isn’t drugs. It’s human...
Meanwhile, FBI agent Maggie O’Dell is investigating a series of murders she suspects to be the work of a brutal assassin. By the time she uncovers a hit list with Creed’s name on it, it might be too late to help him. For someone is already on the way...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From the time I was able to crawl, I’ve been enamored with dogs. I even have a few scars that could have and probably should have discouraged me. My earliest memory is of the day I decided to follow our two farm dogs anywhere they went. They were my constant companions when my older brother and sister were in school and my younger brother was too little.
On this day I remember joyously trotting along with the dogs until I glanced over my shoulder and saw that our farmhouse was quite tiny in the distance. I must have been three or four years old at the time, and of course, I don’t need to tell you that my mother was frantic by the time I wandered back with my two friends.
For years now I’ve included dogs in my novels, but I’ve been itching to create a character who not only shared my love and my awe of dogs but who would be truly happy and most comfortable living in the company of dogs. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have the dogs be strong characters, as well? As much as I love research, finally I would be writing about a subject I knew quite well.
Needless to say, I’m excited about this new series, but never once did I realize nor could I predict how very difficult it would be to write about dogs while losing one of my own. And not just any dog, but my sixteen-year-old buddy, Scout, who had been at my side—literally sitting next to me—while I wrote all fourteen of my novels. He even waited until I finished this one before telling me he’d had enough of fighting kidney disease for two years.
My good friend Sharon Car said it perfectly: “Big personalities leave a big hole, and I’m sure Scout has left a crater in your heart.”
That, he has certainly done. But one of the privileges of being a writer is finding some small way to honor those we love. At the end of the book, you might notice that Jason names his puppy after Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. But in truth, Jason’s dog is named after my Scout who was actually named after my favorite literary character. In future books you’ll get a glimpse of my Scout’s quirks, like chasing his tail, giving kisses on demand, and making everyone—including the other dogs—laugh . . . a lot.
In addition, this book is dedicated to my boy, Scout. And although he was a West Highland terrier, something tells me he would have approved of being represented by a Labrador. His spirit is definitely big enough.
SWEAT SLID DOWN AMANDA’S BACK. Her stringy hair stuck to her forehead. The room was stifling and reeked of greasy fried pork. She felt nauseated, and the smell wouldn’t let her forget the slimy soup she had been given to coat her throat. A small dish of the golden liquid sat in front of her, its surface beaded with oil. The soup was for her benefit, Leandro had reminded her.
“It contains a special medicine.” His tone was always so gentle and reassuring. “It will be good for your throat and make your task much easier.”
Amanda knew he was right. Last week, when she did this for the first time, she didn’t even feel what she was swallowing. It was as if her entire mouth had gone numb, just like in the dentist’s office.
Still, she stared at the remaining balloons piled up on the scarred wooden tabletop, and she couldn’t shake the sick feeling in her stomach.
Last time she had swallowed fifty-one balloons. Leandro had been so proud of her. And every single one had come out without any problems—well, no problems meaning none had ruptured. The coming-out part had not been pain-free as Leandro had promised. But Amanda had been so relieved that she didn’t mind the pain.
This time she had downed only thirty-six before the nausea hit her.
Leandro would be disappointed. How could she disappoint him when he had given her so much? When he had been so good to her.
She watched him fill the last of the balloons. He had explained to her that he used only the strongest condoms available. He told her he did it for her benefit, because he cared so much about her and because this would eliminate the risk of a balloon rupturing while inside her stomach.
Amanda had asked what would happen if one of the balloons did break, but Leandro had waved his hand at her as if he were swatting flies. It was a gesture that was becoming familiar, and it was usually accompanied by his favorite phrase: “This is something you do not ask. This is something you leave to Leandro.”
But now, as Amanda watched his slender fingers stretch the condom over the top of a glass vial, she wondered what would happen if one of the balloons broke inside her. Is that why she was feeling sick now? The thought made her shiver, and she forced herself to sit up straight, as if that would give the balloons in her stomach more room.
She tried not to think about it. Instead, she continued to watch Leandro as he carefully spooned the cocaine into each condom. When the latex tip bulged out a half inch to an inch in diameter, Leandro tied a knot, keeping it small and tight. Then he trimmed it close and neat, so there was less to swallow. When she’d watched him last week, he had explained that this, too, was another detail he did out of concern for her.
She glanced around the room. The three swallowers and Leandro’s partner, the old woman they called Zapata, paid no attention to Leandro. They all were focused on their own tasks in front of them. But Amanda watched how his muscles bulged under his T-shirt and yet how gentle his fingers were. He was focused on making everything easier on her, and it made her love him even more. He would never let any harm come to her. And certainly she could ignore a little stomachache.
She licked her lips and realized she couldn’t feel them. Instead of panicking, she quickly reminded herself that it was only the special medicine in the soup. She must have gotten some on her lips. She tried not to think about it. She needed to calm herself. Her stomach probably wouldn’t be upset at all if it weren’t for the new girl. And now Amanda realized that her discomfort was definitely the girl’s fault.
She’d been crying since they brought her into the room, even while she ate the greasy soup. Pathetic sobs, all soft and quiet except for that irritating hitch to her breathing.
The girl was a year older than Amanda. She’d heard Zapata tell Leandro that the girl was fifteen. She sure didn’t act like it. She was probably just faking to get Leandro’s attention, because now suddenly he left his work of filling the balloons and went over to her.
“Lucía,” he said gently.
Then he put his hand on the girl’s back, almost a caress. Amanda stopped breathing, straining to listen as Leandro bent over and whispered something to the girl. His lips almost touched her ear. Amanda couldn’t make out the words. She didn’t know enough Spanish, but she couldn’t help noticing that Leandro’s tone sounded soothing, as if he were coaxing and persuading Lucía that everything would be okay. It was the same tone he used with Amanda.
Amanda grabbed another balloon from the pile. She dropped it into the small dish in front of her and rolled it around in the greasy liquid, using her fingers and not caring that they became slick, too. Then, still watching Leandro, she put it quickly into her mouth. Her throat was still numb, and she swallowed it with no problem.
She took another and followed the same process, just as Leandro had taught her. Then she did another and another, letting her anger sweep them down. Already her nausea started to leave. Before poor Lucía had cried and choked down two balloons, Amanda had added a half dozen. And her reward was Leandro looking over. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, then a smile transformed his entire face. By the time they were ready to leave for the airport, Amanda had swallowed two more than last week, while Lucía—still crying and now grasping her stomach—had managed to get down only twenty-five.
Amanda found herself silently telling the girl that she would never win over Leandro with such a pathetic performance. Although the older girl was so very pretty, with long, silky black hair and rich brown skin. By comparison, Amanda’s hair was stringy and dirty blond, her face spattered with freckles that she wished she could scrub away. No matter how many balloons she swallowed, she was still jealous of the new girl. Jealous and worried that Leandro might find her more suitable because Lucía was Colombian while Amanda was just poor white American trash. That’s what Zapata called her despite Leandro’s scolding the old woman.
When Amanda had first met her, she thought Zapata was Leandro’s mother. But there was something so cold about the old woman that Amanda didn’t think she was capable of being a mother. Not like Amanda had much to go on. Her own mother had thrown her out of the house, told her never to come back. All because she couldn’t keep her own boyfriend off her daughter. Her mother had caught the asshole slam-dancing Amanda against their kitchen counter.
Instead of asking if Amanda was okay, instead of kicking the asshole out, she made Amanda leave.
It ended up for the better. She needed to get out of that house. And she would never have met Leandro if she hadn’t left home. He treated her so much better. He appreciated her. And maybe after today, Zapata would also realize that Amanda was worthy of her respect.
At least today Zapata was screeching at Lucía. More Spanish, but Amanda didn’t need to understand it to know that the old woman had become impatient with the new girl. Franco had come to tell them he had the van out front, and the others were already grabbing their backpacks, heading for the door.
Except for Lucía. She was crying even harder now, her arms wrapped tight around her stomach. Her face was streaked with sweat, not just tears. She looked as if she were in pain.
Amanda shuffled toward the door, watching and waiting, wanting to sit next to Leandro in the van. But his attention was focused on Lucía.
And then suddenly the girl collapsed, falling to the floor. Her head slammed against the heavy wooden table leg.
Amanda couldn’t believe it. Was she faking it?
Zapata was shaking her head and saying something to Leandro, only the old woman’s voice was eerily calm and quiet. And it was Leandro who was cursing under his breath.
Amanda couldn’t take her eyes off Lucía. She couldn’t look away. She was waiting for the girl to move, but Lucía didn’t flinch when Leandro shoved her. There was nothing gentle about his touch now. When Lucía didn’t respond, it only made him angrier, and Zapata grabbed his arm before he could shove at Lucía again.
“She’s done,” Zapata said. “Get it out.”
Then she noticed Amanda. Her eyes widened, and Amanda thought she saw a flash of panic before the cold black eyes returned to their usual hard stare. Zapata walked toward Amanda, gesturing for her to leave, but Amanda couldn’t stop watching Lucía and Leandro standing over her.
“We must go,” Zapata told her in a calm, steady voice as she took Amanda by the elbow. “We can’t miss our flight.”
The old woman squeezed and pulled at Amanda’s arm to turn her toward the door, but not before Amanda saw Leandro pull a knife from his boot. He was still muttering to himself or cursing Lucía. Amanda didn’t know which. She had never seen him like this. He didn’t seem to notice that she was still in the room. He started cutting Lucía’s clothing with the knife, ripping at it with urgency and anger. Was he helping her? Could he save her? Maybe it wasn’t too late.
“What’s he doing?” Amanda asked.
“It is none of your concern,” Zapata said as her fingernails dug into Amanda’s arm and she dragged her along.
The old woman pushed her out the doorway, but not before Amanda saw Leandro plunge the knife again. This time into Lucía. And now Amanda knew what happened if a balloon ruptured inside her stomach.
OFF PENSACOLA BEACH, FLORIDA
OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO
THE COAST GUARD HELICOPTER pitched to one side, sending Ryder Creed sliding. He tightened his grip on Grace. His other hand white-knuckled the leather strap that kept him anchored to the inside wall. Grace was tethered to him, one end of the nylon restraint secured to her vest and the other end wrapped around Creed’s waist. Despite never having flown in a helicopter before, she didn’t appear stressed at all.
Creed, however, didn’t have a good feeling about this trip. In fact, he was beginning to regret taking the assignment. None of his dogs had ever been in a helicopter before. He couldn’t help thinking the sixteen-pound Jack Russell terrier felt even smaller cradled next to him.
But Grace was taking it in stride, already used to the thumping of the rotors and treating the roller-coaster ride as if it were just a part of the adventure. She watched and sniffed at the unfamiliar surroundings, anxious to get to work, because as soon as her vest went on, she knew they were headed for a job, and this girl loved her work. That was what made her such an excellent air-scent dog. She possessed a natural curiosity. The tougher the puzzle, the more excited she became.
“She’s not exactly what I expected” was the first thing Commander Wilson had said when he met Grace and Creed on the helipad before takeoff.
While Wilson handed Creed his own “mustang”—the aircrew’s term of endearment for the orange flight suits they wore—he stared at Grace as though perhaps Creed might have brought the wrong dog. Even the rest of the crew—copilot Tommy Ellis, flight mechanic Pete Kesnick, and rescue swimmer Liz Bailey—looked at the terrier as if they weren’t sure what to do with her.
But it was actually Grace whom the Coast Guard had requested. Last week she’d made the national news when she managed to sniff out two kilos of cocaine at Hartsfield’s international terminal in Atlanta. A Colombian woman had creatively found a way to make chocolate bars with cocaine centers. She had made it through customs and was headed out of the area when Grace pulled Creed off the line they were working and raced after the woman.
Two weeks before, Grace had stopped a duffel bag filled with a case of peanut butter. It was coming down the conveyor belt out of the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight from Iquitos, Peru. They had already spent a morning going over checked luggage from incoming international flights when Grace alerted Creed to the red-and-black duffel that looked brand-new. Sure enough, in the gooey middle of each jar was a triple-bagged stash of cocaine. Each sixteen-ounce jar of extra-crunchy contained almost a kilo. Creed was told that the twelve-pack carton had a street value of nearly a million dollars.
Suddenly they were becoming celebrities. Just two days ago, Creed and Grace had traveled to prerecord an appearance on The View that was scheduled to air this week. Creed’s partner, Hannah, was fielding calls for more appearances, on Good Morning America and Fox & Friends. Grace, of course, was taking the attention the same way she reacted to everything else—as if it were just another part of her daily adventure.
Creed not so much.
He’d worked hard to carve out a mostly private life for himself despite building a nationally known K9 business. At first he bristled at the media attention, until Hannah convinced him it could be a way for his sister, Brodie, to find him.
“Rye,” Hannah told him when he groaned at another photo of him and Grace, this time on the front page of USA Today. “What if Brodie is still alive? She might see you. She’ll recognize the name, if not the face. Maybe all this is a blessing.”
That was Hannah, always finding a positive spin, seeing blessings where Creed saw only chaos. That’s how she had saved him in the first place. Seven years ago she’d seen promise in the drunk and belligerent marine who had taken on three guys in a bar fight. It happened at the end of her shift at Walter’s Canteen on Pensacola Beach.
In all his life, Creed had never had to deal with an angry black woman, especially one whose anger came in a calm and measured sermon that had sobered him more than any drill sergeant ever had. Somehow he ended up with a mop in his hands, cleaning up broken glass and sticky beer, instead of in an alley with a busted skull or broken ribs.
It was Hannah who’d convinced Creed to use the skills he’d learned as a K9 handler in his marine unit to start his own business. And since that night she’d managed to become his business partner, his confidante, his counselor, his family. She was usually right, even about the things he didn’t want to admit. And maybe she’d be right about this.
Fifteen years ago his sister, Brodie, had disappeared, taken from an interstate rest stop. She was only eleven. Creed was fourteen. Brodie’s body had never been found. It ripped apart his parents and forced Creed to grow up too soon, haunted and forever burdened by that autumn day when suddenly Brodie wasn’t in the restroom anymore. She wasn’t anywhere to be found.
His search for her inspired Creed to start K9 CrimeScents. The company had grown into a multimillion-dollar operation with a dozen employees, a training facility on fifty acres, with a waiting list for their services as well as for the dogs Creed trained.
Every cadaver search got his hopes up, because even though Brodie had disappeared as a little girl, there was always the possibility that she had lived on for any part of the fifteen years she’d been missing. So every time Creed’s searches discovered a body—whether it was that of a child, a teenager, or a young woman—there was always a chance, always the slightest possibility, that it could be Brodie. And each time the body was identified as someone else, Creed felt the same overwhelming mixture of relief and misery. Relief that maybe, just maybe, his sister could still be alive. And misery, because if she was, what kind of a life was it?
Initially, when the despair from searching for dead bodies almost did him in, Hannah insisted Creed start training some of their dogs for search and rescue, and then she added bombs and drugs to the list. That was why she had him doing drug searches these past several weeks. When she found him passed out in his loft apartment or saw too many women coming and going, she knew he needed a break from tracking dead bodies. Otherwise the stench of death and the false hopes would suck the life right out of him.
So Creed told Hannah that he’d tolerate the media attention as long as it didn’t bother Grace. And he would do a few more drug searches. But this helicopter ride was bringing back other memories that Creed had not expected, and now he wished he’d said no to Hannah and to this assignment.
Grace licked his hand. She was staring at him. An intense stare was supposed to be her cue to him that she had found what they were searching for. Grace was one of his few multitask dogs. All Creed had to do was put a different vest or harness on her and Grace knew what he wanted her to sniff out. But this stare was different. Dogs could detect their handlers’ emotions, too, and Grace knew that something was wrong. She was an amazing little dog. He had found her half-starved and hiding underneath one of the double-wide trailers he kept for hired help. Hard to believe that someone had discarded her like trash. But then that was how Creed had gotten most of his dogs.
Hannah shook her head at him when he brought in another stray.
“Folks just taking advantage of your soft heart,” she’d tell Creed.
What no one understood, not even Hannah, was that the dogs he rescued—those abandoned mutts that were worthless to someone else—had flourished into some of his best search dogs. There was a loyalty, a bond between Creed and the dogs. He’d given them a purpose, a second chance. In a sense it was exactly what they’d given him.
But now, for Grace’s sake, he needed to shove aside those memories that had jolted him with the simple smell of diesel and the sound of the rotors. It was Grace’s first helicopter ride, but it was hardly Creed’s. Almost as soon as he’d boarded, the vibration had drummed out a rhythm that threatened to swallow his heartbeat. Without warning, his chest felt as if it might explode. He craned his neck so he could look out and down at the emerald-green water below. He took deep breaths and calmed his nerves. He tried to remind himself that it was the Gulf of Mexico under his feet and not the suffocating dust and rock of Afghanistan.
Times like this, it surprised him how much he could still feel that place. And yet, he had no one to blame but himself.
He’d been looking for an escape from his life and thought the marines would take him far away from his troubles, but instead he discovered that there were worse versions of hell than the one inside you.
“We’re almost there.” Commander Wilson’s voice blasted through Creed’s helmet, startling him a bit.
Creed scratched behind Grace’s ears—their signal that everything was okay. Finally she put her head down on his leg, but her ears were still pitched forward, letting him know that he wasn’t fooling her.
ON BOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER
THE WATER CHURNED AROUND THEM and the winds had picked up. Creed was impressed with the smooth landing that Commander Wilson had managed onto the deck of the Coast Guard cutter. Its crew had already halted the boat in question. The commercial fishing vessel, named Blue Mist, was a beaut. A seventy-foot long-liner that Creed guessed could keep at least eighty thousand pounds of fish in its hold. But the Coast Guard had reason to believe there might be something extra under that day’s catch.
Commander Wilson had explained earlier to Creed that the Coast Guard had been watching the Blue Mist for a couple of weeks now. It usually long-lined for mahi-mahi in the Gulf, following the fish’s migratory path. But recently the boat had started going down into the Caribbean Sea as far as the coast of Colombia. That in itself wasn’t unusual, except that the Coast Guard tracker watched the fishing boat pass by several mile-long stretches of sargassum. The brownish seaweed floats on the ocean surface, and mahi-mahi traditionally feed on the creatures attracted to it.
Now on board the Blue Mist, Creed looked down into the hold. He was struck by how beautiful the fish were, even piled up on top of one another. Their sides glittered gold, blue, and iridescent green, their bellies white and yellow. They were bigger than he expected, three to four feet long. The heads varied in size and shape, and he suspected that the difference was linked to whether they were male or female. Most of them had rounded heads, a few protruding above the body line.
“Mahi-mahi used to be bycatch fish,” Wilson said, and only then did Creed realize that the commander had followed and come up beside him. On the deck across from them, two guardsmen were getting an earful from a barrel-chested man in a ball cap, baggy trousers, and a white T-shirt, most likely the Blue Mist’s captain.
“Fishermen thought they were a pain because they’d end up on their longlines when they were trying to catch tuna and swordfish,” Commander Wilson continued without any encouragement from Creed. “Now restaurants are going crazy over mahi-mahi—including the European market.”
“Could be their hold was already full when they passed by the sargassum,” Creed said while he took out the items he needed from his backpack.
“True. But if that were the case, why continue south?” Wilson asked.
Thankfully, it wasn’t Creed’s job to have an answer. He pulled rubber waders up over his hiking boots and slipped a mesh pouch with a nylon strap over his head and shoulder. He had no idea why people did half the things they did. One of the reasons he preferred the company of dogs.
He did know, without Wilson giving him any more details, that there was a new Colombian drug cartel trying to establish itself. Choque Azul—“Blue Shock”—had been busy in the last six to eight months reclaiming old drug routes up through the Gulf. The routes had been abandoned in the 1990s, when it became easier to cross the Mexican border into Texas and Arizona than it was to chance bringing their product up the Gulf.
But these days the brutal wars among the Mexican cartels—the Zetas and the Sinaloas—had sent the Colombians looking for new and creative ways to do business. Chocolate bars and peanut butter jars were small snatches, innovative and quirky tests. But homemade submersibles and commercial fishing boats were for the serious hauls. If the Coast Guard was correct about this vessel, then it was possible there was cocaine somewhere on board. Most likely underneath the piles of mahi-mahi.
Creed had never done a search of a fishing vessel before, and now, as he adjusted Grace’s vest, he realized this wouldn’t be easy. Wilson must have seen Creed’s indecision.
“Bet you’re wishing you’d brought a bigger dog,” Wilson said as he watched.
Grace was wagging and panting and anxious for Creed’s command so she could dive down into the hold and get to work.
“Bigger isn’t always better,” Creed told him.
Then, with Grace’s eyes focused on him, Creed patted his right palm to his chest. Grace jumped up into his arms. He tucked her under his elbow and into the mesh pouch that hung from his shoulder. He attached her harness to clasps inside the pouch and let it drop to his side. This way Grace would travel comfortably above the fray while Creed waded through the piles of slippery fish. All she had to do was sniff, when he cued her to what she was to search for. Ironically, the cue word he used for drugs was “fish.”
“Go find fish,” he told the dog as he felt her getting excited and wiggling in the carrier. But as Creed headed down into the pungent smell, he wondered if this might be too overwhelming a task for any air-scent dog.
They worked a grid for almost thirty minutes. The fishing vessel’s captain was still yelling at the guardsmen about his “dorados spoiling in the sun.” Grace’s nose moved back and forth. Twice she went into rapid breathing, but still no alerts. Not even for secondary residue. Creed tried to shove aside the glittering fish to see the bottom of the hold, but he was knee-deep and it was like trying to dig a hole in sand. The fish slipped quickly back into the hole he tried to create. He never saw the bottom.
Without warning, Grace started squirming. Her nose lifted higher and began twitching. Her breaths came fast, with hardly a break in between. Creed slowed his pace, listening and watching, treating the small dog as if she were a live Geiger counter.
Suddenly he felt Grace’s body go rigid. He stopped. Her eyes came up to his and she stared at him. It was their signal, her alert. But then she did something she’d never done before: she started whining, a low, soft cry that made the hair at the back of Creed’s neck stand up.
“We’ve got something here,” he yelled to the guardsmen above.
They stared down at him. Even the Blue Mist’s captain had gone silent.
In minutes four men in rubber waders made their way down to the hold. They carried what looked like snow shovels, the blades three feet tall and just as wide. The shovels were able to push aside the fish and keep them from slipping back into the space the men cleared.
Creed kept his eyes on Grace. He’d pulled her close to him and stuck his hand into the mesh pouch so he could pet her. She’d quieted her whine but she was trembling now. Creed had sweat running down his back and forehead from the sun and heat, but Grace was shivering.
He didn’t like this. He’d never seen her do this before.
The men cleared a ten-by-ten space all the way down to the bottom of the hold, hitting wood. And although Grace stared at the empty spot, she didn’t stop shaking.
“There’s nothing here,” one of the men said, and looked at Creed. Then the man craned his neck to look up at Commander Wilson, who had stayed on deck above them. “We’ve got nothing.”
“Maybe your dog isn’t so lucky this time,” Wilson called down.
“Under the floorboards,” Creed said without having a clue as to whether Grace had been thrown off by the overpowering smell of fish. There might be nothing at all under the boards either.
The men looked to Wilson, but before he could respond, one of them yelled, “There’s a plank loose!”
And suddenly the others were pulling crowbars from a canvas bag that Creed hadn’t even noticed until now.
“Careful,” the one in charge told the men.
The wood creaked and snapped. Grace began to whine again, and it seemed to make the men go slower, but with a new sense of urgency. Nails screeched loose. Two boards popped away. Only then did Creed realize that Grace had stopped whining, but he still heard a low hum, almost a cry, that wasn’t coming from Grace. It was coming from under the floorboards.
He heard more wood crack, and then suddenly one of the men said, “Holy crap. There’s someone down here.”
THEY WERE KIDS. Creed guessed the oldest was maybe thirteen, fourteen at the most. Three girls. Two boys. One boy looked younger than ten. Each of them crawled slowly out of the hold like a timid animal, needing assistance, then jerking and blinking at the sunlight. Wild eyes darted all around, looking for permission as much as trying to anticipate what came next in this terrifying journey.
They were filthy. Hair matted and tangled in clumps. Faces dirty and feet bare and bruised. Despite the stink of fish, Creed could smell the sweat and urine and feces that soiled their clothes. But through the smears of dirt and grime, one thing was obvious. These weren’t Colombian kids. They weren’t being trafficked from their South American homes to the United States.
Now, in the sunlight, even the dirt and grime couldn’t hide the obvious. Smears revealed blond hair and streaks of white skin as pale as the fish bellies that surrounded them.
These kids looked like they were from the United States.
Creed remembered what Commander Wilson had said about this vessel bypassing feeding grounds for mahi-mahi, its hold filled but continuing south, out of the Gulf of Mexico and closer to the coast of Colombia. Usually traffickers smuggled people into the United States. When did it start to go both ways? Were they delivering this cargo to South America?
Everyone on board had gone silent, even the guardsmen as they helped the kids up. They’d been looking for smuggled cocaine. Not human cargo. And certainly not kids.
The wind had calmed, almost as if it, also, were gasping at their revelation. In the silence Creed could hear the lapping of waves against the boat. A few gulls dared to hover closer to inspect the load of fish. But there was still a faint humming, a sad whimper like that of a scared or wounded animal. The same sound Creed had heard before the floorboards were yanked away. Grace had heard it first, and she still cocked her head, listening. Creed saw that her eyes were staring at the source, and he followed her gaze.
The sound was coming from the littlest boy.
He was small, with bony shoulders and stick legs. Creed caught a glimpse of his eyes. Fear had been replaced with the vacant look that often accompanies an overload of shock. His skinny arms were wrapped tight across his body. His chin tucked into his chest. He didn’t look scared or upset. He simply didn’t look like he was there anymore, an empty shell. Except for the whimper that came from inside him. It came without him opening his mouth or even moving his lips.
The other kids didn’t seem to notice. Their own eyes were just as vacant.
And their rescuers? The guardsmen glanced at one another, and Creed thought they looked lost and uncomfortable. They were used to dealing with the criminals who did this sort of thing. They rescued victims from capsized boats and ministered to those brought out of the water. Usually their victims were glad to see them. But these kids cowered as if they still weren’t sure who was friend or foe. And the guardsmen responded by keeping a safe distance, not wanting to treat them like cornered animals, refraining from any attempt to touch or comfort. Afraid it might spook the kids even more.
It was Liz Bailey, the Coast Guard rescue swimmer—and the only woman on board—who broke the silence. Suddenly she was there, having waded down through the mahi-mahi. She still wore her flight suit, and instead of its bright orange fabric scaring the children, they all looked at her as if they were bedazzled. Creed had to admit that, with her short, spiky hair and aviator sunglasses, she did look like a superhero.
“Let’s get you something to drink,” she said to them while she pulled bottles of water and sports drinks from her shoulder pack.
Creed was closest to Bailey, and he moved in to help distribute her offerings. That’s when he noticed that the rescue swimmer’s hands were trembling.
“We need to get you hydrated.” Her voice was friendly and soothing but had the authority of a mother at summer camp, and it did not reveal an iota of the tremor or her uncertainty.
But the kids still didn’t move.
Bailey gave the drinks to Creed to hold. She dug into her bag again.
“I have protein bars, too,” she told them.
The kids didn’t budge. Instead, they huddled even closer together. The oldest girl just stared at Bailey as if she knew there could be nothing in that pack that would make this right.
“We’re gonna get you back home,” one of the guardsmen finally said. But he stayed back behind his oversized shovel that kept the fish from sliding into the small reception area they had created.
Still, the kids just stared. None of them made a move toward Bailey’s offerings or responded in any way to the guardsman’s attempt at reassurance.
Creed felt Grace wiggling against him, restless in the mesh carrier under his arm. Bailey’s taking treats out of her pack must have reminded Grace that she’d found what they were looking for, and yet she had not been rewarded. But it wasn’t treats that Grace was interested in, though some of Creed’s dogs did prefer treats. Grace insisted on her pink squeaky elephant, and she knew that Creed had it somewhere on him.
She poked her nose under his elbow. He put his hand inside the carrier to calm her, but Grace wasn’t satisfied. She pushed her head and shoulders forward and swatted at him with one paw.
That’s when the little boy noticed her, and his eyes grew wide. The empty shell that up until now had only stared and whimpered, suddenly pointed and shouted, “There’s a puppy dog!”
All the children’s heads bobbed up, following the boy’s finger. For the first time, they were wide-eyed and alert. Creed took a step back, not wanting to add yet another object to fear. He started to gently push Grace farther into the mesh carrier when one of the girls asked, “Can we pet her?”
Before he could answer, the other little boy asked, “What’s her name?”
“Does she bite?” It was the same little girl who wanted to pet Grace, but the question seemed instinctive, from years of parental instruction, as if it were something she was always supposed to ask before approaching a dog she didn’t know.
“Is she your dog?”
“How old is she?”
Finally Creed smiled and put up a hand to ward off more questions. “She’s my dog,” he told them. “Her name is Grace. I’m not sure how old she is because I found her when she was already grown up.”
“Where did you find her?”
“She was hiding under a trailer on my property. Someone had taken her from her home and dumped her. She was hurt and hungry.”
He watched their faces and realized what they were thinking. Grace wasn’t much different from them.
Then the oldest girl said, “I bet she was scared, too.”
Creed nodded. “Yup, she was very scared. She wasn’t sure who to trust. But she’s not scared now. You all can pet her if you go slow and if you’re gentle.”
He stood in place, waiting for the kids to decide on their own to come to him.
The littlest boy, who had noticed Grace first, came forward slowly and offered his dirty hand for Grace to sniff. She immediately licked his fingers and the boy giggled.
Suddenly Creed and Grace were surrounded, all five children taking turns, remembering to be gentle and letting Grace sniff, then lick. Smiles and giggles, even a laugh.
Creed looked over at Bailey and the guardsmen. They still kept their distance and continued to stare at the macabre scene, all of them in awe as one Jack Russell terrier transported these scared and bruised victims back to being kids.
AMANDA STARED at the television screen as she clutched her stomach. Another luxury hotel. A gorgeous room on the fifteenth floor. Who needed a television in the bathroom? This room was larger than her bedroom at home. It was pristine white, the tiled floor wonderfully cool to the touch. Moments ago she had laid her curled body—fetal-position tight—on the smooth surface, her hot and sweaty cheek flat against the floor. She wished she could stay there forever, but again, the cramps jolted her. That, and Zapata pulling at her, insisting she get up and use the toilet.
“It is time,” the old woman coaxed Amanda, a whispered calm so uncharacteristic that Amanda could hear the strain in Zapata’s voice even as she tried to hide her impatience.
“I hurt so bad,” Amanda said, while her eyes stayed on the television screen and yet another guest was introduced on The View. “It didn’t hurt like this the last time.”
She didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to say it out loud, but Amanda worried that one of the balloons had burst inside her. What had happened to Lucía . . . what if it was happening to her, too? Would Leandro slice open her belly before she was even dead? She couldn’t stop seeing the girl slumped on the floor. She couldn’t stop thinking about the knife in Leandro’s hand. There had been no hesitation. And all that blood. Amanda had never seen anything like it.
“She was a weak girl,” Zapata said suddenly, as if she could hear Amanda’s thoughts. “You must not think about her. You are strong. Much stronger.”
The unexpected compliment pulled Amanda’s attention away from the television to find the old woman’s eyes. They were black stones—cold and hard, which reminded Amanda of the tiled floor, but unlike the tiles, there was absolutely nothing soothing or comforting in Zapata’s eyes.
The old woman held out the drinking glass in her hand, offering it to Amanda as though it were a gift. Amanda had already drunk half a glass of the chalky liquid that she knew was a laxative.
She shook her head. “I’ll puke if I drink any more of that crap.”
Then she saw the flash of anger in the old woman’s eyes—brief and electric, but shockingly powerful—before Zapata realized her mistake and stashed the anger back behind the cold stones.
“Where’s Leandro?” Amanda wanted to know.
What People are Saying About This
“Bristling with unrelenting suspense, Breaking Creed by Alex Kava hurls retired Marine Ryder Creed on a harrowing search for smugglers who’ve been using children as drug mules. Creed is special, a memorable character – he trains homeless dogs to sniff out contraband and hunt criminals. When he teams up with Kava’s iconic FBI forensics specialist Maggie O’Dell, you’ll discover the most exciting crime-solving duo of the year.”—Gayle Lynds, New York Times best-selling author of The Assassins
“I’m always first in line for the next Maggie O’Dell novel, but Alex Kava’s latest, BREAKING CREED, simply blew me away, mostly with the introduction of a character who can finally and truly stand toe-to-toe with O’Dell. Ryder Creed—along with his dogs!— is a true inspiration: tough, smart, dynamic. The pairing of Creed and O’Dell elevates this thriller to the next level. It left me both breathless and awed. For any dog lover, it’s a must-read. For any lover of nail-biting suspense, it’s a book you’ll not be able to put down. Get it now!”—James Rollins, New York Times best-selling author of The Sixth Extinction
“Bestseller Kava introduces Ryder Creed, who has started his own search-dog business after serving in a K9 unit in the Marines, in this superior introduction to a new thriller series. In the Gulf of Mexico, off Pensacola, Fla., Creed and his team inspect a commercial fishing vessel, which the authorities suspect is being used to smuggle drugs. Unexpectedly, one of Creed’s dogs uncovers human cargo hidden in the hold—five filthy children who appear to be Americans. Meanwhile, FBI agent Maggie O’Dell, the star of the author’s other series (Stranded, etc.), tries to identify a floater found in the Potomac with marks of torture. O’Dell and Creed later unite in Alabama to search the property of another murder victim, who may have been tied to stakes in the ground atop a mound of fire ants. Romance fans will enjoy following how the attraction between O’Dell and Creed plays out. Dog lovers will also find a lot to like.”—Publishers Weekly