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The Bleeding Edge
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHolding his straw Stetson tightly in one hand, John Howard Stark stepped out into the Texas heat. The glass door of the medical office hissed shut behind him on its pneumatic closer. Stark, a tall, broad-shouldered man with the sort of compelling presence that made people look at him twice, paused, standing there in the bright sunlight for a long moment.
Six decades of living had put plenty of silver in his thick, dark hair and in his mustache. But he still stood straight, an obviously powerful man despite his age.
Right now, however, something had etched furrows in his weathered cheeks. The things the doctor had told him had come as no surprise, and he had nodded stoically as he listened, but something inside him had drawn tighter.
Now he stood there looking at nothing, his gaze pointed out at the Texas town around him. Across the street from the brick complex of medical offices was an elementary school. Beyond that was the high school, the bigger buildings around it visible from where Stark stood whether he actually saw them right now or not. A block to his left, a nice Italian restaurant on the corner of the highway that also served as the town's main drag, with its multitude of fast food joints, auto supply stores, gas stations, and big box discount stores. Traffic along the road was a never-ending hum.
Stark ignored all of it.
Then something besides his own thoughts finally caught his attention. He lowered his gaze to something more immediate, the parking lot right in front of him. He'd had to park on the outer edge of the lot when he'd gotten here an hour earlier. His pickup still sat there.
And some damn fool was trying to break into it.
Stark's eyes narrowed. He put his hat on and stepped down off the sidewalk to cross the parking lot. The young man standing next to the pickup either didn't see Stark coming or didn't care. He continued trying to work the unfolded wire hanger down to the door lock. Stark's pickup was old enough that it didn't have electronic locks, just a little knob that had to be pulled up.
Old and out of date, just like me, Stark thought.
The would-be thief wasn't alone. He had two companions, both dressed like he was, in baggy blue jeans and floppy shirts, with bandannas tied around their heads. One of them nudged the guy working on the lock and said, "Hurry up, Chuy. Somebody's comin'."
Chuy glanced over his shoulder at Stark and said, "It's just an old man."
Stark came to a stop near the back of the pickup and asked, "Can I help you fellas with something?"
"Go away, hombre," Chuy snapped. "This ain't none of your business."
Stark laid a hand on the sidewall around the pickup's bed.
"This is my truck, so I think that makes it my business."
"It was your truck," one of the other young men said. "It ain't no more."
Disgustedly, Chuy slid the hanger out of the tiny gap at the top of the driver's-side window. He threw it to the pavement and said, "The hell with it. Gimme that pipe. I'm gonna smash the window."
"What's it matter to you, old man?" Chuy demanded. "Like Angel said, this ain't your truck no more. It belongs to us."
Stark shook his head.
"I don't think so."
"You gonna give us trouble?" Angel sneered and lifted his shirt to reveal the butt of a revolver tucked into the sagging waistband of his jeans. "You better run, man, 'fore I light you up."
The one standing next to Chuy grinned and said, "Better run, better run," in a singsong voice.
Stark lifted both hands, palms out.
"Take it easy, son. I'm not looking for trouble."
Angel curled his fingers around the gun butt.
"I ain't your son, you—"
Filth spewed from his mouth as he cursed Stark. He was so caught up in his creative obscenity that he failed to notice Stark edging closer.
When he finally noticed what was going on, he yelled, "Hey, man, don't crowd me!" and jerked the gun from his waistband.
Before he could lift it, Stark kicked him in the balls.
It was a swift, hard kick that made Angel scream and crumple forward. Stark closed his right hand over the revolver, gripping the cylinder so tightly that even if Angel managed to pull the trigger, the gun wouldn't fire. With his left hand he grabbed the front of Angel's shirt and heaved him against the pickup. Angel's head cracked against the metal.
Stark ripped the gun from Angel's hand. He was on the passenger side, with the pickup between him and the other two thieves. As they yelled angrily and clawed under their shirts for their guns, Stark bent low and quickly circled around the front of the vehicle, putting himself behind the sturdier protection of the engine block.
As Chuy and his companion opened fire, shooting wildly in Stark's general direction but not really coming close to him, Stark went even lower and triggered two shots under the truck. Each bullet found its mark, shattering bone and spraying blood across the pavement. Chuy and his companion went down howling in pain, each with a destroyed ankle. They would be lucky to ever walk normally again.
Still moving fast, with grace and agility that belied his years, Stark charged around the pickup and kicked away the guns Chuy and the other thief had dropped. Then he backed away so that he could see all three of the young men. Angel was on the ground, too, still stunned and senseless from having his head rammed against the pickup.
Stark reached in his pocket for his cell phone to call the police, but it wasn't necessary. The door of the doctor's office opened and the young woman who worked there as the receptionist rushed out, calling, "Mr. Stark! Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, Bonita," Stark told her.
"I saw everything that happened. I already called the cops."
Stark heard a siren in the distance. He smiled and nodded.
"Muchas gracias," he told the receptionist. "You better go back inside now, in case these fellas try to cause any more trouble."
The two crippled thieves were lying on the pavement, clutching their ruined ankles and whimpering. Bonita looked at them and shook her head, saying, "I don't think they're going to be bothering anybody for a long time."
"We can hope not," Stark said.
Chuy twisted his head around to glare up at Stark. Panting breathlessly because of the pain, he said, "You're dead, man! You're ... dead! You hear me?"
Stark ignored the threat. It wasn't like he and death hadn't been close companions for many years.
Lights flashing, a police car came around the corner off the highway, onto the side street where the medical offices were located. It squealed to a stop, and the uniformed officer inside got out hurriedly, crouching behind the open door and pointing his gun at Stark.
"Put your gun on the ground!" he yelled. "Now!"
Stark could tell the cop was young and inexperienced. Moving carefully and deliberately so there wouldn't be any excuse to shoot, he bent over and placed the revolver on the ground at his feet, then backed away from it and held his hands up at shoulder level, in plain sight.
"Now you get on the ground, too!" the cop ordered. "Facedown!"
"Oh, stop it," Bonita said in a scathing tone. "Don't you know who this is? This is John Howard Stark."
The cops eyes widened.
"One of the heroes of the Alamo?"
Stark tried not to wince. He had never thought of himself as a hero, and certainly not as a latter-day equivalent to Crockett, Bowie, Travis, and the other men who had died defending the Alamo in 1836. They were true heroes.
"That's right," Bonita said. She pointed at the three young men on the ground. "And he was just defending himself from those three punks who tried to steal his truck. You shouldn't be yelling at him. You should be pinning a medal on him!"
Stark had to smile ruefully at that. With the way things were in the country now ...
Well, the chances of anybody ever pinning a medal on the likes of him were pretty doggoned small.
Chapter TwoThe sleekly groomed and coiffed news anchor on the TV screen was saying, "This bloody shooting was merely the latest violent incident in which Mr. Stark has been involved. Known for his clashes with drug smugglers several years ago, which resulted in the death of his wife, and then later for his involvement with the so-called defense of the Alamo, Stark has been a lightning rod for controversy."
The shot cut to pre-recorded video footage of a handsome Hispanic man saying, "Given Mr. Stark's history of violence directed toward minorities, the refusal of the police to carry out more than a perfunctory investigation of this incident is an outrage." A graphic at the bottom of the screen identified him as Victor Martinez, attorney for the three young men charged with assault. Martinez went on, "I think it speaks volumes that my clients are the ones being prosecuted here, and yet they're the ones who are in the hospital while Mr. Stark, hale and hearty, walks free."
The live shot of the news anchor replaced the footage of Martinez. She said, "Representatives of the Justice Department in Washington have indicated that they will also be looking into the matter with an eye toward determining if any hate crimes occurred during the incident outside a local doctor's office." A bright smile lit up her face as the expression of grave concern vanished. "In other news, there are further indications tonight that the administration's efforts to bolster the economic recovery are succeeding as the national unemployment rate plummeted last month from 16.3 percent to 16.2 percent. This dramatic decrease in unemployment, coupled with the recent announcement that the national debt rose by only 1.2 trillion dollars in the first quarter of the year, prompted an administration spokesman to say that this is tangible evidence the country is on the right track."
Chief Dennis Feasco used his foot to nudge a trash can toward Stark. He pushed the button on the remote control that turned off the TV and said, "If you're going to throw up, do it in that, not on my desk."
"Why would I throw up?" Stark asked.
Feasco jerked a thumb toward the now-blank screen.
"Isn't that enough to make you sick?" he asked.
"If I let the swill coming out of Washington bother me that much, I'd have been throwing up for the last ten years. I'm too busy with other things to get that worked up over it."
Feasco sighed and said, "You'll be busy making license plates and trying to protect yourself from the Hispanic gangs in prison if Martinez has his way."
"He won't," Stark said. "The district attorney's got the testimony of Bonita and half a dozen patients and employees from Dr. Browner's office that those three jumped me when I tried to stop them from stealing my pickup."
"That's not the story that Martinez is telling to anybody who'll listen. The way he tells it, his clients were just walking peacefully by the parking lot when you attacked them. He's getting plenty of sympathetic ears for that version in Washington. The Justice Department is liable to bring federal civil rights charges, regardless of what the DA does here."
"I reckon I'll deal with that when the time comes, if it does."
"I just wanted to give you a heads-up on this, John," Feasco said.
"Well, I appreciate that, Chief." Stark reached for his hat, which was sitting on the corner of Feasco's desk. "Is that all?"
"Yeah. Except ... you'd better keep an eye on your back. As far as we know, there are no direct ties between those three and any of the cartels. They're just local punks, about as far down on the totem pole as they can get. But Martinez getting involved in the case worries me. He doesn't come cheap. Whoever's paying him to jump in may be somebody who has a grudge against you."
"There are plenty of 'em out there who fall into that category, I suppose," Stark said as he stood up.
"Yeah. All the way from here to the White House."
"I never caused any trouble for the fella who's in there now."
"No, but you made his side look pretty bad a few times, and you know how those bastards hold a grudge."
Stark inclined his head in acknowledgment of the chief's point. He put his hat on, lifted a hand in farewell, and left the office. As he walked out through the police station, several of the cops who were there smiled and nodded to him. As a general rule, police officers didn't have much use for anybody who could be classified as a vigilante, but these cops, who had to deal every day with the increasing lawlessness along the border between Texas and Mexico, couldn't help but respect the way Stark had stood up for himself and others.
His pickup, the pickup that had started this trouble, was parked out front. Stark wasn't sure why those three had wanted it so badly. Sure, he kept it in fine condition, but it was old and wouldn't have brought much from a chop shop. Enough to buy some drugs, though, he supposed.
He got in and started the engine, listening to its well-tuned purr for a moment before he put the truck in gear. A few minutes later he was rolling out of town toward home.
Once, home had been the Diamond S ranch, a successful spread a hundred miles west of here. Following his wife's death in the war against the Mexican drug cartel that had tried to take over the ranch, Stark had kept the place going for a while. His sons, David, a Navy pilot, and Pete, a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, had come home for a while to help out, but eventually they'd had to return to their duties. David was on a carrier in the Indian Ocean. Stark didn't know exactly where Pete was, but he suspected Afghanistan even though American troops supposedly had withdrawn from that troubled country.
Stark didn't hear from either of them very often, and that was fine; they both had their own lives to live, and they were doing important work. Somebody had to help hold the line against an increasingly savage world, even when those in power in Washington seemed determined to kowtow to every two-bit, crackpot dictator on the other side of the globe in the name of "international cooperation."
Eventually, even though he hated to do it because the land had been in his family for generations, Stark had been forced to sell the Diamond S. He couldn't keep it up by himself, and people didn't want to work for him because they were still worried about possible retaliation from the cartel. He'd had to sell the place for much less than it should have been worth, but he'd been lucky to find a buyer at all. Most real estate within a hundred miles of the border was virtually worthless now because of the drug smugglers who had taken over. Even on the Texas side of the border, the gangs ran things. It was a pitiful state of affairs.
After selling the ranch, Stark had moved east along the Rio Grande, settling near the medium-sized city of Devil's Pass. He had a nice mobile home in Shady Hills Retirement Park.
At first he had wondered what in the world had prompted him to buy a lot there. The place was full of old geezers.
But then he realized that he fit right in there, and for the past few months he'd been relatively happy. Without Elaine, he knew he would never be completely content again, but he had his books, a satellite dish for the TV, and he'd even discovered that the Internet wasn't as bad as he had thought it would be. He'd even had a Facebook page for a while before he'd had to shut it down because of all the people who'd posted their liberal vitriol there. To a lot of folks he was a villain, a symbol of everything that was wrong about America as they continued their quest to transform it into a European-style welfare state.
He shook those thoughts out of his head as he reached the arched gate in the white picket fence that enclosed the twenty acres of the retirement park. He was home.
Chapter ThreeLocated in South Texas, the Shady Hills Retirement Park was neither shady nor hilly. The former came closer to being true than the latter, because at least there were some small trees growing here and there among the mobile homes and modular housing that made up the park's residences. Those trees provided a little shade. But there wasn't anything resembling a hill anywhere in sight on these plains. You had to go farther west along the border to find that.
It was evening when Stark reached the park, a little after supper time. His doctor's appointment had been at one o'clock, he had come out of the office a little before two, and after the dust-up with Chuy, Angel, and the third would be pickup thief, he had spent the rest of the afternoon being questioned by the police and the district attorney.
Then Chief Feasco had caught him on the way out of the station and asked to talk to him for a minute. Dennis "Fiasco," as he was sometimes called (as opposed to "Feesko," as he pronounced it), was a good man. Stark didn't know him all that well, but he was confident that Feasco was honest and did his best in a thankless job.
Excerpted from The Bleeding Edge by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2012 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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