Tough-as-nails Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong returns in this electrifying tenth installment of the series, by USA Today bestselling author Jon Land
1994: Texas Ranger Jim Strong investigates a mass murder on a dusty freight train linked to a mysterious, missing cargo for which no record exists.
The Present: His daughter, fifth generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, finds herself on the trail of that same cargo when skeletal remains are found near an excavation site in the Texas desert. She’s also dealing with the aftermath of a massacre that claimed the lives of all the workers at a private intelligence company on her watch.
These two cases are connected by a long buried secret, one that men have killed and died to protect. Caitlin and her outlaw lover Cort Wesley Masters must prove themselves to be as strong as steel to overcome a bloody tide that has been rising for centuries.
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About the Author
Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of more than fifty books, over ten of which feature Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. The critically acclaimed series has won more than a dozen awards, including the 2019 International Book Award for Best Thriller for Strong as Steel. He is also the author of Chasing the Dragon, a detailed account of the War on Drugs written with one of the most celebrated DEA agents of all time. A graduate of Brown University, Land lives in Providence, Rhode Island and received the 2019 Rhode Island Authors Legacy Award for his lifetime of literary achievements.
Read an Excerpt
"You want to tell me what I'm doing here again?" Caitlin Strong said to Captain Bub McNelly of the Texas Criminal Investigations Division.
McNelly, who favored string ties and shiny cowboy boots, turned to the quartet of figures in equally shiny windbreakers, milling behind him in the makeshift staging area. Caitlin had heard he was a descendant of the famed Texas Ranger captain Leander McNelly, a man who'd once told the whole of the U.S. government to go to hell, but wasn't too keen on the freedom with which Rangers still operated today.
"Special Response Teams hang their hat on being multijurisdictional," McNelly told her. "Consider yourself the representative Ranger."
"Since when does an SRT look more comfortable holding briefcases than firearms?"
"I need to tell you that computers are the real weapons these days?" McNelly asked her. "And those boys accompanying us are forensic experts who know how to fire back."
"Just two guns, yours and mine, backing them up," Caitlin noted.
"I don't need a computer to do the math, Ranger," McNelly said, while the four techs wearing windbreakers hovered behind them in front of the elevator. "You and I serve the warrant on the geek squad upstairs and let the experts do their thing with brains instead of bullets. How hard can it be?"
They were about to serve a search warrant on an information technology firm on the forty-second floor of the Bank of America Plaza, the city's tallest building. Caitlin had served plenty of more "traditional" search warrants in her time, on the likes of biker gangs, drug dealers, and various other suspects. The kind of service that found her backed up by guns, and plenty of them, instead of briefcases and backpacks.
A chime sounded ahead of the elevator door sliding open.
"In my experience," Caitlin said, stepping in first to position herself so the door didn't close again before the SRT computer forensics techs were inside, "it pays to have brains and bullets."
McNelly smiled thinly. "That's why you're here, Ranger. You were specifically requested for the job."
"I don't know. Orders came from the top down."
The cab began its ascent. If this were a Ranger operation, as opposed to CID, Caitlin would have insisted on securing the space in question prior to bringing up the civilians. Because that was clearly what these personnel in ill-fitting windbreakers pulled from a rack were. Civilians.
"Get your warrant ready, Captain," she told McNelly, as the cab whisked past the floors between L and 42.
He flapped the trifolded document in the air between them. "Got it right here."
"What's CTP stand for again?" Caitlin asked, referring to the acronym of the company on which they were about to serve the warrant.
"Communications Technology Providers. I thought I told you that."
"Maybe you did, but you never told me what the company did to get on the Criminal Investigations Division's radar. I'm guessing that's because somebody ordered you to take me along for the ride. All well and good, in this political world we live in, until something goes bad."
McNelly flashed Caitlin a smirk, as a chime sounded to indicate the elevator had reached its desired floor. "I can tell you this much, Ranger. The suspects we're after here don't know a gun from their own assholes. Worst thing they can do is infect us with a computer virus."
He led the way through the open door, without waiting for Caitlin to respond. She exited next, followed in a tight bunch by those four computer techs in their windbreakers, which made it look like they'd stuck their arms through Hefty bags.
The doors along the hall were uniformly glass, sleek and modern, some frosted. According to the building layout Caitlin had studied, Communications Technology Providers occupied a pair of adjoining office suites adding up to nearly five thousand square feet in total. One was a corner office, meaning at least a portion of those suites would enjoy wraparound windows and plenty of natural light.
Caitlin had just reflexively shoved her jacket back behind the holster housing her SIG Sauer P-226 nine-millimeter pistol, when the glass double-door entrance to Communications Technology Providers ruptured behind a fusillade of gunfire.CHAPTER 2
"Do you have anything to say before sentence is carried out, Colonel?" General Santa Anna Vargas asked Guillermo Paz.
"I was wondering about your name," Paz said from atop the gallows in the military prison yard outside Venezuela's capital city. "Were you named after Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican general who lost Texas?"
Vargas's expression turned quizzical. He looked about at the officer cadre poised with him atop the platform, as if to exchange smiles at the doomed man's flippant remark. But they had heard too much about Guillermo Paz and the reputation he'd earned as a colonel with the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, better known as the Venezuelan secret police, to find any amusement in anything the man said.
Paz figured that God's tolerance for his murderous actions could only get him so far, the fact being that, while he'd long ago lost track of the number of people he'd killed, the Almighty certainly hadn't. So maybe it had finally caught up with him. He'd come back "home" for his mother's funeral, unable to deny himself the fulfillment of an obligation and duty he saw as sacrosanct to the mission his life had become. What kind of man didn't come home to attend his mother's funeral? Guillermo Paz, all seven feet and three hundred rock-hard pounds of him, wasn't about to risk squandering all the moral progress he'd made by shirking such a duty.
He felt a soldier position a stool behind him, to facilitate the task of looping the rope noose around his neck. He could feel the man's trembling hands struggling to complete the simple task, and might have offered to help if his hands weren't bound behind his back. Three additional soldiers, not part of the execution squad, stood farther back, assault rifles trained on Paz in case those bonds didn't hold. Two of them had made the mistake of positioning themselves so the sun blazing down out of a cloudless sky shined straight into their eyes. Not that it should have mattered to a doomed man. It was just something Paz couldn't help but notice amid the humidity that made the air feel like someone was wringing moisture out of a sponge.
"You haven't answered my question," he said to Vargas. "You can't kill me until you do."
"Yes," Vargas relented, "I was named for the great man and general."
"Too bad your parents forgot the Antonio López part. Not much of a first name they gave you. I'm wondering if people think you may have been named after Santa Claus instead."
Vargas took a step backward and signaled a priest holding an open Bible to come forward. "I understand you found religion."
"More accurately, you might say it found me."
"Our esteemed president insisted on extending you this courtesy. Do you have a favorite prayer?"
Paz felt the soldier on the stool behind him tighten the noose. His eyes swam about the ground below, the military prison yard filled with soldiers from the Venezuelan army, standing at attention, called to witness the price of Paz's indiscretion and perceived treason. Paz couldn't even begin to count them all. He wondered if they were really here as a warning or, perhaps, to further discourage any attempt at escape.
Paz aimed his gaze back at Vargas. "Is your mother still alive?"
"I hope you make time to visit her often. I wish I had visited mine more. I wish I hadn't waited until her funeral."
"Do you have a prayer you'd like the padre to read or not?" Vargas snapped, impatient to have this over with.
Paz responded with his gaze on the priest, who was clutching his Bible in a grip so tight he'd squeezed the blood from his fingers. "I remember another priest who steered me down the proper course in life, to choose good over evil. He was murdered by the gangs because of his efforts. I was ten years old when I found him bleeding to death from a knife wound suffered for no more than trying to help the local impoverished lot the gangs sought to control. I held his head in my lap, my own tears falling onto his robes, as my first priest took his last breath. I closed his eyes and crossed myself the way my priest had taught me, silently swearing to avenge him. Then I went about collecting the bread and vegetables the man had died for, that had spilled out of the grocery bags when he fell."
His impatience growing, Vargas signaled the priest to start reading, without waiting for Paz to make his selection.
"Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo," the priest started, reciting the Lord's Prayer in Spanish. "Santificado sea tu nombre."
"I found my mother crying when I returned to the tiny clapboard house with a tin roof I shared with my four brothers and sisters," Paz said, interrupting the priest's train of thought and causing him to lose his place. "She'd been struck by one of her visions she called desfallecimientos, which was Spanish for 'spells.'"
A gust of wind flipped the pages of the Bible about, the priest quickly struggling to find the one he'd lost, which contained the Lord's Prayer.
"You see, my mother was a bruja, a witch," Paz continued to Vargas. "The people of the hillside slum where we lived, in Caracas, stayed away from her as a result, even the most hardened criminal element afraid to cross her, lest they risk a spell being cast against them.
"'I didn't steal it,' I told her, laying out our small share of the food the priest would've allotted us. 'I didn't take anything that wasn't mine.'"
The priest relocated the page he'd been reading from and resumed. "Venga tu reino. Hágase tu voluntad en la tierra cmo en el cielo."
"'But you're going to take plenty in the years to come,' my mother told me. 'You're going to take more lives than I can see. Your fate was sealed today, and now I see why, just as I see the blood staining your clothes.'"
"'I didn't hurt anyone, Madre,' I insisted."
"'But you will. You will hurt many, more than you or I can count.'"
"'I'll find another priest,' I pleaded. 'I'll pray!'"
"'It won't matter,' my mother said. 'The smell of blood will be forever strong on you, Guillermo.'"
"Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día," the priest resumed, his voice quickening to be done with his reading of the prayer as quickly as possible. "Perdona nuestras ofensas, como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden."
"And, true to my mother's word, it has been — even stronger than she could've possibly foreseen," Paz continued, still ignoring the prayer and aiming his next words straight at General Vargas. "But I'm not that man anymore. I haven't been since the day I first crossed paths with my Texas Ranger."
Paz could have elaborated further but chose not to. He'd been retained to kill that Texas Ranger, a woman, of all things, a fact that bothered Paz not in the least, until their eyes met in the midst of a gunfight and he saw what had been missing in his own. He'd never returned to Venezuela after that, calling Texas and America home now, thanks to an arrangement with Homeland Security that kept him inoculated from prosecution. All he needed was to do the bidding of a shadowy subdivision of Homeland, under the leadership of an equally shadowy man.
"Don't get me wrong," Paz continued, "I've spilled plenty of blood since, but the smell of it no longer clings to me the same way. It's important to me that you know that, because I'm about to spill a whole lot more and I want to confess that in advance." He moved his eyes back on the priest. "So, Padre, will you hear my confession? Can you absolve me of the sins I'm about to commit?"
Vargas stepped over to the wooden lever that would release the trapdoor beneath Paz's feet and send him plunging to his death.
"No nos dejes caer en tentación y líbranos del mal," the priest said, taking that as his cue to resume. He tried to meet Paz's gaze, but couldn't. "Amén."
"Lo siento," Paz said to him, as Vargas's grasp tightened on the lever. "I'm sorry."
And that's when the first shots sounded.CHAPTER 3
The glass blew outward like ice crystals, showering the air, pinging to the floor in oddly melodic fashion.
"Get clear!" Caitlin ordered the four techs wearing windbreakers, her pistol already palmed, adding "Take cover!" when they failed to budge.
Then she was in motion, pressed against the near wall, with McNelly pinned close enough that she could smell the lavender-scented soap he must've showered with that morning. He was using a walkie-talkie feature on his cell phone to call for backup, and, in that moment, how Caitlin wished he was indeed a descendant of the legendary Texas Ranger captain Leander McNelly and just as good with a gun.
She could hear the soft rat-tat-tat clacking of silenced automatic fire, overcome in splotches by the desperate cries and screams of those at which that fire was aimed. Going in guns blazing to any situation was hard enough without having a clue about the number and placement of the opposition, much less with a partner Caitlin figured hardly knew his way around a gunfight. McNelly had his own nine-millimeter in hand by then, his hold on it anything but steady.
"Stay here and wait for the backup," she rasped to him, her tone just above a whisper. "I don't need you in my way. Only way you use that Glock is if somebody with a gun comes out ahead of me."
* * *
Caitlin's boots crunched over the first shards of glass, fifteen, maybe twenty feet from the shattered entrance of Communications Technology Providers. That much force concentrated behind that many bullets had its own way of rewriting the rules of physics.
The screaming intensified when she neared the door and caught the first glimpse of movement, as shadows or reflections off the jagged remnants of the glass double doors. Movement was what Caitlin had learned to key on from her grandfather, the great Earl Strong, from the time she was seven.
"Little girl," he would say, "if you wait to see the whites of a man's eyes, they'll be the last sight you ever see."
Inside the suite of offices, shadows swept across walls, seeming to merge into one another, as the acrid stench of gun smoke and muzzle powder pushed into Caitlin's nostrils.
Three shooters, four at most. ...
Just short of the shattered entrance to CTP, she managed to identify three separate fire streams, along with a potential fourth. Caitlin reached the entrance to find a gunman in black fatigues wearing a ski mask, angling what looked like an assault rifle she didn't recognize over a desk, before firing a three-shot burst into whomever had taken cover there.
She sidestepped through the steel frame that had supported the shattered glass, snaring her jacket on a jagged shard stubbornly clinging to a corner. She felt the fabric tear as she added a second hand to her SIG and put two bullets in the back of the gunman's skull. Impact snapped his head backward, then violently back to the front, doubling the gunman over and slamming him face-first into the same desk behind which his final victim had taken cover.
Caitlin cursed herself for not better familiarizing herself with the layout of Communications Technology Providers, gleaning now that it featured an L-shaped open floor plan dominated by floor-to-ceiling glass that splashed sunlight in all directions. She felt a breeze and realized that bullets had stitched a splotchy pattern of holes across the entire far wall. The stench of blood stung her nostrils. Too much was happening too fast to record the multitude of downed bodies and impressionistic blood patterns dripping down the sleek glass forming the walls.
A second masked gunman spun out from the back side of the sprawling floor's L-shaped design, alerted no doubt by the heavy boom of Caitlin's SIG. She'd already trained her gun that way, and she fired five more shots the instant his dark shape flashed before her. Caitlin thought she recorded three hits, one and maybe two in the throat and the other dead center in the face, coughing bone, cartilage, skin, and blood into the air, nothing left recognizable where they had been.
She hit the floor next, close enough to an automatic burst fired by the third gunman to feel the heat of the bullets sizzling over her. She landed with her legs straddling one body and her torso perched on another, ready with her SIG the instant she heard click.
Even polished gunmen often forgot how quickly a magazine gets drained when firing on full auto. The third gunman had ejected the spent mag and was jamming home a replacement when Caitlin got him low, bullets in both ankles, enough to yank the world out from under him. He hit the floor, already draining his fresh mag, fibers of the drop ceiling showering the air.
He managed to right his fire on Caitlin, just as she rolled off the two bodies that had cushioned her drop. No angle on him from where she found herself. The downed gunman was plenty the worse for wear, but his aim was still on mark. So she sighted in on a fire extinguisher bracketed to the wall, put two bullets into it, and heard the instant hiss of white, noxious gas escaping. Enough to force the third gunman to roll straight into her line of sight again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strong as Steel"
Copyright © 2019 Jon Land.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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