Our favorite police procedural series reveals the protagonist’s gravity towards humanity despite the crumbling world around them. Ace Atkins delivers on this next book in his Quinn Colson series.
Before he was an Army Ranger who came home to become Tibbehah County Sheriff and take down a corrupt system, Quinn Colson was a kid who got into trouble--a lot of it. So when juvenile delinquent TJ Byrd insists that she doesn’t know who killed her mother—an unreliable addict who has disappeared—Quinn’s inclined to believe her. But no one else does--not the town, not the sheriff in a neighboring county, not her mother’s older boyfriend, and certainly not Quinn’s friend and former deputy, U.S. Marshal Lillie Virgil.
The Byrd family has always been trouble, and sixteen-year-old TJ is known for petty theft, fighting, and general hellraising. She’s also no fool, and when she senses she’s about to take the fall for her mother’s murder, TJ, her boyfriend, her best friend, and her nine-year-old brother go on the run. As Lillie Virgil tracks the kids across a trail of burglaries, stolen cars and even a kidnapping, intent on bringing TJ to justice, Quinn sets out to find the truth back in Tibbehah. Someone has gone to a lot of violent trouble to make TJ and her friends the logical target of the investigation. It’s easy, and who cares about a bunch of lawless kids?
As the bloody evidence against TJ piles up, Quinn knows someone truly evil is at work here--and that puts TJ and her friends in more danger than they can imagine.
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Tanya Jane Byrd, known to her friends as TJ, never gave a damn about being famous. But here she was, four days on the run from Tibbehah County, Mississippi with that girl Chastity passing along the burner phone to show they now had more than a hundred thousand followers on Instagram. They only had six posts, the newest one from just two hours ago after TJ cut her hair boy short, dyed it black as a raven’s wing, and made her ultimatum to that cowardly son of a bitch Chester Pratt. She called him out for not only her mother’s murder but the money she and her little brother John Wesley were owed.
On the forty-five-second clip shot outside the Tri-State Motel in Texarkana, she held up her fist on the diving board to an empty pool and said, “Fair is fair” remembering the line from one of her mother’s old VHS tapes in the trailer.
“What do you think?” Chastity asked.
“I think I better drop that phone into the nearest creek.”
TJ saying crik as she had her whole life, never caring about talking proper or right. To hell with how other people said it. At seventeen years old, TJ had no intention of being no different than she’d always been. Famous leader of the Byrd Gang or not. Five feet tall, skin as white as a china plate, and eyes that folks said reminded them of a Siberian Husky.
“When we gonna eat?” John Wesley asked. Her nine-year-old brother lying on the other twin bed, kicking his legs back and forth while watching a show about street racers in Memphis. The host some middle-aged douchebag in sunglasses and a tight tank top to show off his big belly and sleeve tattoos.
“We eat when it’s safe to go out,” TJ said. “Damn, John Wesley. You just downed a pack of them little Krispy Kreme donuts. I swear to Christ, your stomach is gonna get us all kilt.”
In the motel room, it was just her, John Wesley, and Chastity. Holly Harkins, TJ’s best friend since kindergarten, had decided enough was enough and left them on the side of the road, saying she planned to walk all the way home. Now it was night, they were flat-ass broke, and TJ’s boyfriend Ladarius had headed out to steal them another car. They stole the one they had now from a marina parking lot back in Hot Springs after escaping the cops and riding in a boat across Lake Hamilton. TJ was worried as hell about Ladarius after the news of their escape from the law had been broadcast damn near everywhere. Grisly Discovery. Teenage Lovers on the Run.
It had been more than a week since her mother had gone missing and five days since they’d found her body stuffed in that oil barrel over in Parsham County. The law didn’t take long before looking right at TJ, accusing her and Ladarius of things that weren’t true, had never been true, trying to make it seem like some kind of race thing, even though her mother had never been too interested in TJ’s personal business. Why they decided to up and blame her, she had no idea, but wasn’t about to stick around and find out. Her whole life had been a struggle, trying to break free of folks trying to put her down or use her up. TJ Byrd wasn’t standing for that shit anymore.
“Hope Ladarius steals a fast one,” John Wesley said.
“Hope he steals a nice one,” Chastity said. “Maybe a Lexus. Or a Mercedes like mine.”
“Just what are you getting out of all this?” TJ asked.
“Don’t you know, TJ?” Chastity asked. “Justice. I want justice for all y’all.”
TJ looked over to Chastity, with her ringlets of blonde hair and wide-set blue eyes and that hooked nose that kept her just on the wrong side of being pretty. The makeup and clothes perfect, down to her three-hundred-dollar frayed jeans and little frilly white top. The only frayed jeans that TJ had came from her pants getting worn slap out. All this damn talk about being a social influencer and reaching the world with a message of truth was giving her a headache. The only reason they let Chastity come along with them was on account of her threatening to call the police back at that mansion on the lake. Of course, the girl did have a point, since the house belonged to her rich daddy, and TJ, Ladarius, Holly, and John Wesley had busted in and made themselves at home. Two days at the big house and an endless buffet of stolen steak dinners, smoked almonds, cocktail olives, and mini cans of Coca-Cola had allowed them to rest, catch their damn breath, hole up and think on where they’d be headed next. California? Texas? Florida? Spin the damn bottle, boys.
“I know you’re innocent,” Chastity said.
“Good,” TJ said. “So do I.”
“Only your people back home don’t want you to be.”
“What do you know about back home?’
Chastity gave a reckless little look while she played with the tips of her hair and shrugged her shoulders, a mess of freckles across her chest and a half dozen thin gold chains around her neck. One with a diamond-crusted compass on it saying, Daddy’s Little Girl Is Never Lost.
“You think Holly will go to the police?” Chastity asked.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because she’s Holly Goddamn Harkins,” TJ said. “My best friend since we was five, before you showed up and damn well elbowed her to the side.”
“I think she got pissed we pretended I’d been kidnapped.”
“No shit, Chastity,” TJ said. “Why else do you think she gave me the middle finger?”
Chastity didn’t say anything but gave a small grin as TJ pushed herself up off the bed and walked over to the curtains. She looked out onto the empty pool and the abandoned storefronts across the road, not a mile over the Texas border from Arkansas, the first time TJ had been in either state. Furthest she’d ever been out of Tibbehah County was a visit up to Memphis to the zoo or Incredible Pizza on John Wesley’s birthday. He ate a million pepperoni slices and stuck his whole hand right into that chocolate fountain. He puked all the way back home.
TJ let the curtain drop and headed back into the bathroom, closed the door, and turned on the rusty faucet. She had on a flannel shirt over a red tank top from Wal-Mart and a pair of frayed green camo pants. Her daddy’s old .38 was stuck into her waistband with plenty of bullets jangling down in her side pockets. Splashing cool water up into her face, she barely recognized the girl she saw. Her skin pale white, newly black hair up off her head. It had been Chastity’s idea to do it. She said it made her look just like some French woman who got burned at the stake.
When she walked back into the room, Chastity had taken her place on the bed, head up on the pillow and scrolling through a new phone they’d bought at Walmart right after leaving Memphis.
“I don’t think you should be doing that,” TJ said.
“Why?” she said. “It’s not registered to you. There’s no way to track us. Wow. You should see these hits. We added five hundred more likes in five minutes. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
TJ nodded, her mouth feeling dry and her stomach empty. She nodded to Chastity.
“And what are they saying?” TJ said. “All these people?”
“Lot of boys want to see you naked,” she said. “But mostly folks calling you a hero.”
“A hero?” TJ said. “For what?”
“For snatching me up to your cause,” she said. “For sticking it to that greasy Chester Pratt.”
“What the hell do you know about Chester Pratt?”
“Only what you told me,” she said. “And that was plenty.”
“And you’re sure they can’t track us?”
“No way.” Chasity said, not looking up from the phone. “We’re all being too careful.”
Deputy U.S. Marshal Lillie Virgil hung up the phone, turned to her partner Charlie Hodge and said, “They’re in Texarkana,” she said. “The McCade kid just got caught trying to steal another car.”
“Why couldn’t these little bastards steal a car back in Memphis down on EP Boulevard?” Hodge said. “I haven’t been home in two days. I need a shower and some decent food.”
“Kid’s in bad shape,” Lillie said. “Some dogs got to him.”
“Dogs?” Hodge said. “Holy Christ.”
For the last 24 hours, they’d been working out of the Marshals office in downtown Hot Springs, an ancient government building up the hill from Bathhouse Row and across from the abandoned veteran’s hospital. The big brick fortress with dark windows reminded Lillie of an old-time asylum.
“That’ll teach him to throw in with TJ Byrd,” Lillie said. “Ladarius should consider himself lucky.”
Lillie stood up, reached for Hodge’s black slicker, and tossed it to him.
Lillie was nearly six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a walk that some whispered looked a little like John Wayne. She’d been in law enforcement for nearly twenty years, working in Memphis, down in Tibbehah County, and now with the Marshals. She was stronger than most men, a better shot than all, and suffered few fools. Lillie reached for her Sig Sauer and Winchester 12-gauge while she waited for Hodge to follow.
“I haven’t seen Rose all week,” Lillie said. “That doesn’t exactly make me mother of the year now, does it?”
“Who’s driving?” Hodge said.
“Now you’re just trying to be cute,” she said. “With you behind the wheel, we’d be lucky to hit the state line by sunup.”
Charlie Hodge was in his last years as a Marshal, nearly twenty years Lillie’s senior. A wiry fellow with flinty blue eyes, gray hair, and a thin gray beard, he’d been both a Marine and an undercover agent in Mississippi, working for years against the Dixie Mafia. They’d spent the day going over the mansion where those kids had hid out for two days on Lake Hamilton and later checking out the marina where they’d parked their boat and stolen a brand-new Kia Sorento.
“What about Quinn?” Hodge said, slipping into his jacket. “You gonna call him?”
“Rather not,” Lillie said, already headed to the staircase. “We didn’t leave things on the best terms.”
“And that Sheriff Lovemaiden in Parsham County?” Hodge said, walking in tandem with Lillie down the steps to the street.
“You trust that bastard?” Lillie asked.
“Me neither,” Lillie said. “He and Chester Pratt have gotten to be thick as thieves and neither one of them have got the sense God gave a squirrel to keep their fucking mouths shut. Gina Byrd was a good friend before she got on drugs and flushed her life down the toilet. Her people had quit on her. But I won’t.”
Lillie unlocked her Dodge Charger -- a special model called the Hellcat confiscated from a drug dealer in Orange Mound -- crawled behind the wheel, and pressed the starter. She revved the engine, making it growl and purr as Hodge got in. “Damn, Lil,” he said. “Can I at least buckle my belt?”
“Hold onto your nuts and call the locals,” she said. “We’re southbound and down. These goddamn kids aren’t getting away twice.”