A Caitlin Strong Novel
By Jon Land
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Jon Land
All rights reserved.
El Paso, Texas; the present
Caitlin Strong approached the police command post set up behind the ring of squad cars bearing the markings of both the El Paso Sheriff's Department and Texas Highway Patrol. The cars formed a makeshift perimeter, essentially barricading the city's Thomason Hospital. Above, clouds raced across the sky, leaving the sun to come and go over the scene.
El Paso's sheriff Bo Reems and Captain Rafael Mercal of the highway patrol saw her coming at the same time, sharing a glance that dissolved into a sneer.
"Took your sweet time getting here," Mercal said between lips now pursed into a scowl.
"Rangers covering the area been sent to watch the border," Caitlin told him.
The blazing sun slid out from beneath the clouds again and she studied herself briefly in the reflection off Mercal's mirrored sunglasses. Free of her Stetson, her black, wavy hair tumbled past her shoulders, evidence of a broken promise to herself for weeks now to cut it. Her skin was naturally tan and unblemished, save for the scar left on her cheek a year before when a Mexican drug lord had bitten down in a fight that had left him dead. At first glance her dark-blue eyes seemed too big for her face. But Caitlin had learned from her grandfather how to hold them wide enough to see things people would never have thought she could, like the sheriff's deputies snickering and whispering just out of earshot.
"You boys wanna join us up here?" she asked them and, embarrassed, the deputies quickly turned away.
Caitlin felt a sudden breeze kick stray patches of her hair across her face.
"Austin figured watching the border was more important under the circumstances," she said, brushing the hair aside, her back to the snickering deputies now.
"Austin," Sheriff Reems started, "didn't need to send nobody here at all."
"More like bullshit, if you ask me."
"I didn't," Caitlin said and swept her gaze about the ring of officers watching the cordoned-off access road, wielding shotguns and M16s as if they expected an attack any moment. "Looks like you're fixed to fight a full-scale war."
"These drug cartels out of Juárez want to get somebody, no border's gonna stop them," said Mercal. "No Ranger either."
Mercal had been an all-conference defensive end for the University of Texas. His record for tackles had stood for some time and he would have gone pro if not for tearing up his knee in the Cotton Bowl. Caitlin noticed him grimacing now, but not from the pain, she thought.
"Sandoval?" she asked, referring to Fernando Lozano Sandoval, a commander with the Chihuahua State Investigations Agency who'd survived an assassination attempt and was being treated inside.
"Mexican gangsters cut through six of his guards that were fronting the building and four more inside," Sheriff Reems answered. In stark contrast to Mercal, he looked as wide as he did tall. One of Reems's officers had once told Caitlin that the sheriff had never once left the state of Texas. He breathed noisily through his mouth and she could never recall a time when the underarms of his khaki uniform shirts weren't darkened by sweat, today being no exception.
"They killed a bunch of bad guys in the process," added Mercal, turning his gaze back on the building. "But the rest took Sandoval hostage in the intensive care wing."
"How many bad guys left?"
"We got no eyes inside the building to tell us. Best guess is three or four of the original dozen come to finish the job on Sandoval that started in an ambush on the other side of the border in Juárez. This being the only level-one trauma center for three hundred miles, he got brought here."
Caitlin joined Mercal's gaze on the hospital, holding her eyes on a third-floor bank of windows. "Snipers?"
"Four of them," Mercal added, "best I've got. But the Mexicans left inside know enough to stay clear of the glass. SWAT team on site and ready to go."
"But no communication with anyone inside."
"Not a peep," said Sheriff Reems. He pulled a wad of tobacco from his cheek and tossed it to the ground. "We been calling every phone on the wing and used the bullhorn to tell them to call us." He shook his head, his bulbous jowls flapping like twin bowls of Jell-O. "Nothing."
Caitlin dug a finger into her hair. "You mind if I try something?"
"Matter of fact, I do," Mercal said, spine straightening to give him back the height that was mostly a memory. "Austin says we gotta have a resident Ranger, that's fine. They don't say we need to let you involve yourself in our affairs."
Caitlin returned her gaze to the windows. "People in that intensive care wing might feel otherwise. And you been at this too long already for it to end any way but bad."
Mercal exchanged another glance with Reems, whose cheeks puckered as if he were readying to spit the tobacco he'd already discarded.
"I'm offering you cover here, Captain," Caitlin resumed, paying deference to the man in charge while ignoring the sheriff. "Things end bad, it'll fall on the Rangers."
"What exactly is it you're fixing to do, Ranger?"
Caitlin pulled the SIG Sauer from her holster and handed it to him.
"You'll know soon enough, Captain."
Holster empty and Stetson back in place, Caitlin stretched her hands into the air and walked straight for the hospital's main entrance, feeling the gazes of the deputies and highway patrolmen following her the whole way. But it was something else she felt even stronger coming from the third floor: the eyes of other men upon her, likely perched behind some wall cover where a glimpse was all they could grab unless they decided to expose themselves to a shot.
Caitlin passed members of the SWAT team camouflaged by the bushes set in a small strip garden just before the glass doors, but didn't acknowledge them for fear of alerting the men watching from the third-floor windows to their presence. She walked slowly through the glass doors and then straight to the elevator, doing everything possible not to conceal her presence.
Inside the cab, she tightened her Stetson over her hair so it rode lower on her forehead and pressed 3, then stood right in front of the doors with hands raised again as the door slid open.
A pair of wide-eyed gunmen sweating in the air-conditioned hall greeted her, holding Heckler & Koch submachine guns — expensive hardware for simple drug gang members.
"Acuéstese en el piso!" said one with a deep scar that looked like an exclamation point down the right side of his face. "Down on the floor!"
Caitlin lay facedown on the tile just beyond the elevator.
"El Rinche," Scar spit out.
He checked to make sure the elevator cab was empty while the other gunman patted her down roughly through her jeans and denim shirt, paying special attention to her boots to make sure no pistol was holstered to her ankle.
"¡Levántate! Get up!"
Caitlin rose, hands back in the air.
"¿Qué te quieres?"
"I want to make your lives easier, that's what I'm doing here," Caitlin said in Spanish. Then, when her remark produced only a confused stare from Scar, "I'm gonna take the place of those kids over there." She gestured toward a pair of boys and a girl trembling so hard beneath their bedcovers their IV lines were jiggling. "Means you can let them go."
Caitlin could see eight other beds occupied, all set against the windows with only terrified faces visible above the bedcovers, one of which belonged to Fernando Lozano Sandoval. A third gunman stood against the wall nearest the windows while a fourth man, the youngest of the bunch, sat in a growing pool of blood with his shoulders propped by an empty bed, bleeding from both leg and shoulder wounds.
Caitlin's gaze met Sandoval's briefly before moving on to a pair of children a few beds down. Arms still raised, she started slowly forward, sliding between Scar and the other gunman.
"¡Para te! Stop!"
"You're in better shape than you think," she told him, her gait purposely deliberate. "Once we get the kids out, I'm gonna talk you through walking out of this as protected witnesses in the service of Mexico instead of perps. Right, Mr. Sandoval?"
The man from the Chihuahua State Investigations Agency nodded fearfully, looking like a disembodied head resting atop the pillows.
"I'll shoot you, el Rinche!" Scar threatened.
"Do that and I won't be able to help you and your wounded young friend down there. Two of you look alike. You brothers or something?"
She reached a young boy's bed and laid her Stetson down atop the bedcovers. "Let's get you ready to move," she said as reassuringly as she could manage to him.
Caitlin began to unhook the monitoring machines. She heard Scar yelling at her, glimpsed the third gunman lurch away from his perch against the wall.
"No!" Scar screamed at him too late.
The first sniper bullet caught him in the face, the second in his throat, resulting in twin plumes of blood splattering over Caitlin and the bedcovers. She felt the sting of splintered bone smack her cheeks, as she dug a hand into her Stetson and yanked out the .40 caliber pistol she'd taped under the dome.
She saw Scar twist his submachine gun on her, finger finding the trigger an instant after Caitlin jerked hers twice. She put two bullets into his chest, and he dropped like an oak tree, getting off a single wild spray that found nothing but wall.
Caitlin felt the hiss of a bullet surge past her ear and swung toward the final standing gunman, dropping into a crouch. She registered the pistol trembling in his hand as she shot him dead center in the forehead.
He fell at the feet of the wounded man, more of a boy really, who was fumbling a pistol into his off hand. Caitlin could still feel the surge of adrenaline rushing through her, electricity dancing along the surface of her skin, turning her nerve endings raw. Instinct took over before thought could intervene. She'd shot the wounded kid three times before she even felt the pistol reheating in her grasp, muzzle flashes flaring like shooting stars she used to wish on as a little girl.
The blare of the gunshots deafened her to the screams and sobs of the hostages, all safe and alive, as Caitlin turned toward the window, raised her arms, and waved them to signal Captain Mercal and Sheriff Reems that it was over.
"You Rangers sure know how to make a mess," Mercal told her, huge beads of sweat still dappling his face.
He and Caitlin watched the body of the last gunman being carted away.
"Gotta make a mess sometimes to get things cleaned up," Caitlin said.
Mercal swiped a forearm across his brow, leaving a patchy wet streak upon his sleeve. "Well, you got the biggest set of balls I ever seen, woman or not."
"Stop, please," Fernando Lozano Sandoval told the orderlies wheeling his bed from the room when they reached Caitlin. "I know who you are, señorita."
"You can thank me later, sir."
Sandoval's expression wrinkled in displeasure. "I would rather thank you now. Many in Mexico know of you. They believe it would be better if you stayed out of our country."
"It's out of my jurisdiction anyway, Mr. Sandoval."
"I'm talking about your most recent investigation into missing Mexican girls."
Caitlin felt heat building behind her cheeks. "You mean the ones being sold as sex slaves?"
"These are dangerous men, Ranger."
"I thought we were talking about the girls."
"You saved my life. I'm trying to return the favor. You do not want these men as your enemies."
"If they're bringing kidnapped children across the border, they're already my enemies. Why don't you just tell me where to find them?"
"You want to die that much?"
"Funny how you didn't ask me that when I was gunning down your captors. I'm starting to think I've been looking in the wrong place, Mr. Sandoval. Instead of warning me off, just point me in the right direction. Do that, sir, and we'll call it even."
Sandoval looked around him, picturing a different outcome. "Nuevo Laredo," he said finally.
"That where I'm going to find what I'm looking for?"
"Only if you're loco enough to try." Sandoval's gaze recovered its focus as quickly as it slipped away. "The men you are looking for have much of Mexico in their pockets."
Caitlin backed away from Sandoval's bed, so the orderlies could slide him on again. "Then I guess it's a good thing I'm from Texas."
Albion, Texas; the present
Like all fourth-grade teachers, Faye Magruder hated rainy days. A bunch of nine-year-olds being cooped up inside for recess was a recipe for disaster if ever there was one. In the late spring, when it grew especially hot, she'd conduct her class outside beneath the thick canopy of a cottonwood tree. It got so her students prayed for the heat it would take to move their studies outside and, for her part, Faye Magruder didn't blame them. She'd spent her whole life in the southwest Texas she loved in spite of the droughts, stifling heat, and crazy storms that turned the air thick with ozone. She'd done plenty of traveling in her time and it was always the smells she missed the most. Other places smelled fake and unnatural to her. The smells of Texas, especially this close to the desert, had likely been the same since the Ice Age had shifted the continents about.
But lately things had been smelling funny to her, enough so that she'd seen the doctor, who quizzed her about allergies and colds and inquired whether she'd been using any different cosmetics that may have affected her olfactory senses.
Faye Magruder told him she hadn't changed her cosmetics in fifteen years, even stopped using them altogether after her husband was killed by an IED in Iraq and she'd buried her favorite perfume with him in the ground. Anyway, cosmetics couldn't explain the pounding headaches that had been racking her as of late. She'd never suffered from migraines, but imagined this must have been what they felt like. They were at their worst in school, especially bad by the end of the day.
And having her young charges stuck inside while hailstones pounded the classroom windows wasn't helping things either. The kids were wild and unruly and Faye Magruder was willing the day to end when Molly Beaumont approached her desk holding a pair of scissors and a cutout floral design she'd traced herself.
"Now, what have we here?" Magruder said, spreading the floral design out before her.
She never noticed the little girl raise the pair of scissors she was still holding, much less see them come down. Not until the blades had pierced the back of her hand and dug deep did she realize something had gone terribly wrong — and then only because her hand was literally stuck to the desk by the scissors that had dug into the wood beneath it.
She felt her ears bubble and it took a moment for her to realize it was her own scream doing it, as little Molly Beaumont looked on, giggling with glee.
Sweetwater, Texas; the present
"You understand why I asked you to meet me here, Meeks?" Hollis Tyree III said to the man keeping pace with him down Main Street of Sweetwater, Texas.
"No, sir, I don't."
"That's right, you haven't been with me long enough. I walk like I own the town, don't I?"
Meeks remained silent.
"That's because I do pretty much, the real estate anyway. This is home, Meeks, where it all began, where I come when things need sorting out and I need to be left alone." Tyree gazed about almost whimsically. "Only place people just let me be, besides a friendly hello. You see, my grandfather was constable of this town when the oil boom hit. To hear him tell it, it was the most lawless time imaginable. But he stuck it out and a good thing too, since the biggest strike of all was found smack dab on his two-hundred-acre spread. Birth of the Tyree family fortune. Now it's the only place in the world I can walk around like normal without a parade of bodyguards and business suits following me." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Strong Justice by Jon Land. Copyright © 2010 Jon Land. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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