Meet Tom Smith, the entrepreneur-founder of "Road Wheels" a hugely successful company that carries people and their cars from city to city in uniquely designed, double-deck tractor-trailers. While tailing a car that his company brought north from New York City and unloaded at Niagara Falls, a car he believes is smuggling contraband into Canada, Tom is ambushed, knifed and left for dead. An alert Canadian border official, Alonzo Sierra, saves his life by bringing him to a Toronto hospital. During his recovery, Tom decides to feign his own demise and continue his investigation incognito, his true identity known only to the top managers of his company and to Alonzo.
Wearing silver aviator glasses to mask his face, Tom follows a trail that leads him from New York City to a remote island in the South Pacific. As he gets ever closer to finding his attacker, a vicious killer known as the "Enforcer" and the Enforcer's boss, an evil woman who leads the smuggling operation, he loses his ownership of Road Wheels and unknowingly enters their deadly trap.
While following the twists and turns of his investigation, Tom meets one person after another who desperately needs his help. He takes time to stop whenever and wherever he finds injustice to protect the innocent and bring the wrongdoers to task. Step by step, Tom finds his true self, and a hero is born. He becomes the "Road Ranger" destined to travel the highways with his all-black tractor-trailer and silver motorcycle, accompanied by his young companion, Alonzo, whom he has dubbed "Toronto."
|6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.77(d)
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THE ROAD RANGER
By Karl Milde, Bob Berry
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Karl Milde
All rights reserved.
Bonnie came running out of the RoadWheels office when she saw Tom pull into the Clarence Travel Plaza with his all-white tractor-trailer and ease to a stop, air brakes hissing. Bonnie reached Tom just as his tall, lanky frame swung down from the tractor and his cowboy boots touched the tarmac. Without so much as a "Hello! How are you?" she let him have it with both barrels: "Houston," she said urgently, "we have a problem."
"Let's talk" was all Tom said to her as he motioned to Bonnie to follow him and pressed a hidden button on the underside of his trailer. A powered doorway on the side flipped outward and down, forming a staircase. Tom climbed up the few steps into the building on wheels and, when inside, took another narrow stairway to a second floor deck. Bonnie gave her blonde locks a quick shake, kicked the stairs to knock the dust off her UGG boots, and dashed lightly up, two steps at a time, following the tall man up to his spacious office.
Bonnie sank into one of the comfortable seats at a conference table. Tom took a seat facing her and nodded. "Okay, talk to me," he said. "What's going on?"
"For some months now I have ... noticed things," Bonnie began, slowly and deliberately. "I think we have become a link in a chain of smuggling into Canada."
"Smuggling? What, drugs?" Tom stared at her, startled, his square jaw tensing.
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Why would anyone use our system?"
"I think ... to avoid detection. Possibly getting stopped on the highway by the police."
"Stopped for what?"
"For anything. Speeding, changing lanes, broken taillight. DWFB, whatever. The police have their quota."
"Driving while female blonde," she said sarcastically, giving her shoulder-length blonde tresses a toss for emphasis.
"Yeah." Tom smiled, conveying he liked the joke. "So how do you know there's a problem?"
"Their cars are—uh—different. They've been modified."
"They're Mini Coopers—very heavy, like they're carrying lead. But they're powerful. Been souped up."
"How do you know this?" Tom asked.
"We drive them on and off the trailers, remember? The guys have even weighed these cars."
"We became suspicious, so we got some road scales. Like the ones they use at the truck weigh stations." Bonnie's voice inflected upward as if she had asked a question. "Placed them at the end of the ramp and weighed the cars as we backed them out. Nobody could guess what we were doing."
"What'd you find out?"
"We knew the standard weight of that model Mini Cooper. We knew the weight of the driver. We just subtracted them from the weight we measured."
"There was a difference?" Whatever the difference was, Tom knew, was probably contraband.
"It varied a bit from car to car. But the average load on those Mini Coopers was about one hundred pounds."
"What about luggage? That could explain it," Tom probed.
"I suppose. Pretty heavy luggage, though. And you could see into the trunks of those cars through their back windows. The luggage compartments were empty."
"So the cars were extra heavy. That's it?"
"No. There's more," Bonnie continued.
"Oh? What's that?"
"The cars would never travel south with us to New York City. But we noticed these same cars kept coming back from New York. It was always one way."
"Same cars? How did you know?" Tom looked at her skeptically.
"Good question. The license plate numbers were always different, but we checked the VIN numbers on these Minis. Our guys became familiar with these cars. It got so we could easily identify them."
"Did you check out the license plate numbers?"
"Yes, we did. Those plate numbers were issued to real people, all right, but when we checked on these people, it was clear they weren't the ones who owned those cars. The plates on the Minis were fake. Made with forged numbers."
Tom paused for a moment to reflect. "Did you alert the police?"
"No. I wanted to speak with you first. We don't want this to affect our business. It might scare customers off."
"Don't worry about that," Tom said assuredly. "I want RoadWheels to do the right thing. But the police might spook these guys. Once they're onto the police, they'll just stop doing what they're doing and the police won't have enough evidence to get a conviction. Maybe I should check into it first."
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Bonnie warned.
"Oh? Why not?"
"These cars trickle in on a steady basis. When they arrive, there's this kind of entourage of forces that meets them here at this RoadWheels station and follows them north toward Canada."
"Nothing too obvious. It's just that if you were here, operating this station as long as I have, you would start to notice things. Whatever's in those cars must be very valuable and worth protecting. Those guys have guns. I've seen them."
"How do you know they're heading for Canada?"
"My boyfriend's a customs officer at the border. He tells me things."
"Things? Like what?"
"Like the Mini Coopers that leave here always cross into Canada."
"If your—uh—boyfriend suspects them, why doesn't he check out the cars at the border?"
"No probable cause. They can't just tear a person's car apart with no good reason. The drivers have passports; the plates appear legal."
"What about that entourage? Doesn't that raise enough suspicion?"
"That's just it. Those guys with guns never cross the border. My boyfriend's never seen them."
"Do you think another group meets the car on the other side?"
"I don't know, but I would think so. They're going to a lot of trouble to make sure the cars get to wherever they're supposed to go."
"Well, it should be easy to find out just where those cars are going. Just tail one of them," Tom said definitively. "I can do that."
"Don't let them know you're following," Bonnie cautioned.
"Don't worry, I can stay well back—provided you do one thing for me."
"I want you to attach this device to the next suspicious Mini that comes in." Tom stood up and, reaching over to his workbench, picked up a black object that looked like a small hockey puck. "It has a magnet on the bottom, so it will stick to the car wherever you put it."
"It's a bug?" Bonnie asked.
"A locator. I'll be able to trace the car with my computer."
"Wow, that's great! You just sit here in your office and watch where it goes."
"Unfortunately, it only transmits a couple of miles. And if you put it out of sight under a car, it can't transmit to a cell tower or a satellite. I'll have to follow with my van on ground level to pick up the signal."
"Got it. No problem. I'll take care of it," Bonnie replied, getting up from her chair and starting to leave. She wore a form-fitting sweater and tight jeans that showed off her contours.
"Thanks," Tom said. "So how long do you think it will be until the next Mini comes in?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, my men are unloading one as we speak."CHAPTER 2
"Don't call the police just yet," Tom said. "As soon as I come back, we'll talk and make a plan."
Bonnie stood and faced Tom squarely as he also rose to leave. "Please be careful," she admonished with real concern in her voice. "These men are dangerous. There's no telling what they'll do if they find out you're on to them."
Tom nodded as if to give Bonnie his promise and led the way out and down to the tarmac. As Bonnie was about to go, he held out his hand. "Thank you, Bonnie, for watching out for the company. There is so much more to running a business than running a business."
Ignoring his hand, Bonnie embraced him with a big bear hug. "Don't mention it. Just come back safely—and soon."
When Bonnie left, Tom sprang into action. He climbed the few steps and entered his trailer again, but this time he turned to the right on the main deck to face a large control panel on the wall. Throwing one switch he closed the door behind him and, activating two others, he raised the rear door of the trailer and ejected a ramp down to the ground. He then walked back through the garage space in the interior of the trailer, past a low-slung red sports car, to a white panel truck in the rear.
Tom climbed into the driver's seat of his van and backed it out. Pressing buttons on a small device clipped to the visor, he reversed the commands and watched as the ramp retracted into the trailer bed and the rear door lowered itself, leaving the trailer enclosed and secure.
Tom then headed over to the restaurant and restroom facilities of the huge travel plaza and parked the van inconspicuously in plain sight, as if he were one of the hundreds of visitors that stopped there each day to take a break from a long drive on the New York State Thruway. While he waited for a call from Bonnie telling him the Mini was on the move, he set up the van's telecommunications system to receive and process the locator signal and to display the Mini's position on a dashboard-mounted computer screen.
Within a few minutes, Tom got the call.
"Tom, you there? It's me, Bonnie."
"I'm over near the restaurant, parked and ready to go."
"The Mini's heading out. I don't see any others following."
"Maybe they're getting cocky ... no, wait. There's a black Mercedes that's just backing out of a parking space here. Maybe—oh, and there's another! They are both queuing up to leave and appear to be waiting for something ..." Tom paused for a moment. "Yes! Here comes the Mini, and one of the Mercedes cars pulled right out in front of it. The other one is ... following the Mini now. I'll wait until they're out of sight and follow them."
"Do you have the locator signal?"
Tom glanced over at the map on the dashboard screen. There it was, a little red dot moving slowly upward on the road that represented the thruway.
"Got it! We're set. I'm on my way."
"Be very careful" was the last thing Bonnie said. Tom heard her voice tighten with concern.
"Don't worry. I'll check in frequently."
Tom backed out of his parking spot and headed for the superhighway. As expected, the Mini and its entourage stayed on the thruway past Exit 49 and took Exit 50 for Niagara Falls. Following the three cars as they traveled the interstate I-290 northwest to I-190, and then heading northwest again on I-190, the main route to Niagara Falls, Tom stayed back a good mile to avoid any chance of detection. The red dot on the screen kept moving steadily forward on I-190 as it traversed the Grand Island and finally crossed over the Niagara River into Canada.
The customs station was on the Canadian side of the river, just over the Peace Bridge. Tom noticed the little red dot had stopped at that point on the map, and although he slowed while still traversing Grand Island to give the Mini time to pass through customs, he nevertheless caught up and caught sight of it as he approached the booths. The driver had stopped at one of the booths and was apparently being interviewed by a customs official.
However, the Mercedes were nowhere in sight. Where did they go? Tom wondered, looking around to see if they had stopped at other booths or were turning around to head back to Grand Island. They had vanished into thin air.
Tom picked the shortest line and pulled up behind another car waiting to pass through another of the booths. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the Mini was cleared to enter the country and took off again on the Queen Elizabeth Way toward Toronto. Still thinking about the two black Mercedes, he edged forward toward the customs booth as the car ahead of him was cleared and sped away.
"Hello, officer. Here's my license." Tom held out his driver's license for the official to review.
"Sorry, we need your passport."
"Damn! I completely forgot. I don't have it with me."
"You people always think of Canada as just another state. Well, hello! We're another country, eh?"
"That's very funny. I'm sure you get a lot of laughs with that one." Tom looked at the young man and took a wild flyer on the off chance that the customs official happened to know Bonnie by way of her boyfriend. "By the way," he added, "have you heard of a Bonnie Salerno?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I'm her employer. She works for RoadWheels."
"You're ... Tom Smith! Well, duh. Sorry I didn't recognize you. Welcome to Canada, my friend."
"You mean I can go in?"
"Well, no. No passport, no entry. That's the rule nowadays."
"You still didn't answer my question."
"Can you come in? The answer is no."
"I mean my other question. Have you heard of Bonnie?"
"Yeah, of course! Everyone here knows Bonnie. She's our best customer."
"On a good day she sends us almost a thousand people."
"That's a good thing?"
"Good for the economy, eh?"
"She told me her boyfriend works here."
"Boyfriend? She called me that? I'm flattered."
"You're her boyfriend?"
"The one and only. At least I think so."
"She said you've been nice enough to provide her with certain ... uh ... information."
"Issat so? Now what kind of information is that?"
"About some Mini Coopers that keep going back and forth between our country and yours."
"She told you that?"
"Yes," Tom acknowledged.
"Okay, yeah. We're looking into that, it's true."
"Small Mini's without a mini weight."
"Aye. We're trying to find out where they are going. They keep giving us the slip."
"So you're on to them?"
"Bonnie thinks they may be smuggling something in."
"Why don't you just tail them?"
"Can't. No probable cause."
"Well, I can. And I was tailing one of them until you stopped me."
"Yes. And if you let me pass I'll catch up with the guy and maybe find out what's going down."
"Nope. Nice try. Can't let you in. No passport, remember?"
"You'll make me turn around and go back?"
"You can't go forward, that's for sure. You see any other way except back?"
"You're very funny," Tom said, looking in the rearview mirror and seeing a car directly behind him. "So how do I do that?"
"Head over there and turn around." The customs officer pointed to a marked-off area to the left. "I'll bet that next time you'll bring your passport!" he shouted as Tom sped away.
Neither Tom nor the customs officer noticed a black Mercedes with tinted windows parked way over on the side of the large expanse of roadway.CHAPTER 3
Tom was allowed to drive forward through the customs booth area to turn his car around. Returning in the way he came on I-190, he chided himself for forgetting his passport.
As he crossed over the bridge onto Grand Island, he glanced in his rearview mirror and noticed a black Mercedes tailgating closely. The car could have easily passed him on this near-empty stretch of superhighway but it continued to follow. Before he had time to think about what to do, he noticed a second black Mercedes dropping back on the highway in front of him. The timing was too perfect. The Mercedes behind must have called the Mercedes in front. Obviously, they were working together, but what did they want?
It didn't take long for Tom to find out. No sooner did Tom realize that he was locked in tight, between these two black cars, than his cell phone rang. He answered using his cell's Bluetooth connection by saying aloud, "Accept the call." Instantly, background highway noises came over the speaker and, after a beat, a gravelly male voice announced, "Pull off at the next exit."
"That's not where I'm going, fella," Tom replied, with as much conviction as he could muster under the circumstances.
"Yes, you are. You can't see them, but we have guns trained on your vehicle."
Tom was in the right-hand lane. He tried to move left into the passing lane, but the car behind him sped up while the car in front slowed down slightly, adjusting their speeds until they both made contact with Tom's car, front and back. Tom's car was suddenly squeezed between them like a hamburger patty between two buns. He considered briefly turning the steering wheel sharply to the left to force his way out of the box but thought better of it, realizing that his car would become unstable and start tumbling, involving the Mercedes in a major tangle that could cost him his life. Instead he eased off the gas, and he and the two Mercedes, behind and in front, began to slow down.
"You're doing just fine so far. Now we'll get off at the next exit," came the gravelly voice.
As if Tom had a choice. He passed a sign that announced Whitehaven Road and knew he had only a few brief seconds to take some action before he reached the exit ramp. He grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911.
"Don't do that," came the voice over his speakers.
"Do what?" Tom said aloud. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"You're calling 911. Put down the phone, now!"
Excerpted from THE ROAD RANGER by Karl Milde, Bob Berry. Copyright © 2013 Karl Milde. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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