Could their backgrounds be any more different? Rick Vasquez, a K-9 unit sergeant with the San Diego Police Department, fled drug-related violence in Mexico as a boy. Madison Long, who recently became primary veterinarian to the SDPD's canines, is the privileged daughter of a judge. Rick has dedicated his life to curtailing cross-border drug trafficking and preventing other young boys from being drawn into the dark world of the cartels. But everything Rick and Madison value, and the growing love between them, is threatened by the dangers of Rick's job, and the risks he's determined to take
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Enrique flinched at the burst of gunfire. That slight motion nearly made him lose his balance. He'd been hiding in the corner of his closet for a while, as high up as possible, bracing himself with his back against one wall and his feet against the facing wall. It wasn't the first time he'd hidden there, trying to avoid discovery, but at twelve he was almost too big to fit. His muscles spasmed from the exertion. He rubbed his thigh, trying to get the blood circulating.
The next round of gunfire sounded as if it came from the hall. Despite the stifling heat in the dark, cramped space, he felt icy perspiration on his brow. The door to his room banged open, accompanied by a rapid exchange in Spanish and the clatter of booted feet rushing in. He bit down on his lower lip to keep from crying out. He heard a swooshing sound, which he guessed was the cover being torn off his bed; under it, he'd stuffed a couple of pillows to resemble a body. He'd prayed they'd take their shot and not bother to check if he was there.
He wasn't that lucky.
A loud crashlikely a piece of furniture topplingstartled him. Movement halted as the cartel enforcer yelled again to someone outside the room.
Then he heard heavy footsteps approaching. His closet door was yanked open and light flooded in. Looking sideways, he saw the barrel of a machine gun slide in and ruffle the hanging clothes that were concealing him.
The barrel paused a mere six inches from his hip. He knew he was as good as dead if they found him. Petrified, the boy held his breath
And waking from his nightmare, the man bolted up in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping for air.
Rick Vasquez raked back the damp hair from his forehead with both hands and glanced at the glowing red numerals of his bedside clock. Still shy of five in the morning. He'd barely had three hours' sleep, but getting any more was out of the question. This was not how he'd hoped to start his day.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed. With his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, he gave himself a moment to let the vestiges of the nightmare fade and his heart rate level out.
Sniff, his narcotics-detection canine partner, scurried to his side and nuzzled him.
Rick straightened and stroked the yellow Labrador retriever's head. He felt Sniff's tension subside. He and Sniff had been working together since the day he'd joined the San Diego Police Department's K-9 Unit six years ago. They were as connected as it was possible for any man and dog to be. The contact steadied him as much as the dog.
Sniff slid down and stretched out across Rick's bare feet, head nestled between his paws.
Rick exhaled heavily. It had been a while since he'd had the nightmare. He recalled the fourteen-year-old kid he'd caught the night before, crossing the San Ysidro border from Tijuana into San Diego with a kilo of marijuana, and he should've expected that the nightmare would revisit him.
He gently nudged Sniff off his feet and stood. Placing his hands on the small of his back, he stretched and yawned. He wasn't due at work until the evening shift, but he'd go in and have a strenuous workout to clear his mind. He had plenty of time before he and Sniff were scheduled to be at La Valencia High School for their drug-abuse awareness session. His yawn turned into a smile. He and Sniff loved the work they did counseling inner-city youth about the dangers of drug use. If, through their efforts, they managed to keep just one kid from using or selling drugs, that made it worthwhile. But he hoped their influence was much wider-reaching than one kid.
Rick tugged on a pair of gym shorts and a San Diego Police Department T-shirt that had seen better days before letting Sniff out in the backyard. He winced at the dog's awkward little hop as he navigated the final step of the deck. He'd make a point of taking him to the veterinarian again, although there wasn't much that could be done for the dog's morning stiffness.
It was all part of the aging process, he acknowledged philosophically but with regret. He had to face it: Sniff was no longer a young dog. Police dogs tended to be retired early because they had a dangerous and demanding job. Sniff was exceptional at what he did and enjoyed doing it. That was the main reason Rick hadn't already initiated the process to retire him, but well aware of Sniff's physical limitations, Rick was careful not to overexert him.
Maybe it was time. Sniff had more than earned the right to retire, Rick thought as he stuffed street clothes into his duffel.
After Sniff had his breakfast, Rick helped him into the back of his police-issue Ford Explorer. On the way to the division, he pulled into a Starbucks to grab a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. Before he had a chance to indulge in his meal, his radio signaled.
"We have a situation," the dispatcher announced.
Rick took a sip of his coffee and cursed as the hot liquid burned his tongue. In sharp contrast, apprehension chilled his skin.
"What kind of situation?"
"We have an officer down."
The chill slithered up his spine. Rick knew it would be one of his team if they were contacting him. "Who?" he inquired.
The voice on the other end was barely audible. "It's Jeff."
"What happened?" Jeff Bradford was one of his best officers and specialized in narcotics, just as he did. Rick prayed the injury wasn't serious.
"We received a tip at oh-four-hundred this morning about a drug shipment coming in. We got the route, the vehicle description and the estimated time of travel. Jeff and a couple of guys from the Narcotics Task Force took the call. Jeff was shot."
A million questions crowded Rick's mind, but he asked the one that mattered most.
"What's Jeff's condition?"
"It doesn't sound good, Rick," the dispatcher responded. "Jeff took a bullet in the neck above his body armor. He was unconscious and was transported by ambulance to Ocean Crest Hospital."
"How did it happen?"
"The captain is certain it was a setup."
"Is Jagger in?" Rick asked about K-9 Unit captain Logan O'Connor by his alias. He needed the details.
"No. He's at the hospital. Jeff's family has been notified, and they're being taken there by a couple of uniforms."
Rick thought of Jeff's young wife and their two-year-old son, and grief and anger warred within him. He placed the coffee cup in the center console holder, tossed the unopened sandwich on the passenger seat and switched on his lights. "I'm on my way to the hospital."
"No. Wait! The captain and half the unit are already at the hospital or headed there. Jeff'll be in surgery for a couple of hours at least. Logan asked me to contact you," she said. "He wants you at the scene. He wants you to find Zeke." Zeke was Jeff's narcotics-detection dog.
"What do you mean, find him? He's trained in handler protection. Even if he wasn't, he would've stayed with Jeff until the ambulance took him away. Why didn't someone from the division get Zeke? There must've been others on the scene by then."
He heard a drawn-out sigh. "From what I understand, Zeke was injured trying to protect Jeff. Also a gunshot wound, we suspect. No one's seen him since Jeff was loaded into the ambulance for transport. Logan figures that Zeke stayed with Jeff as long as he could, but his injury must be serious. In all the confusion, he must've gone off "
She couldn't finish the thought. None of them wanted to think about losing an officer or one of their dogs. Rick assumed Logan was correct. Injured animals tended to find a quiet place to be on their own. If Zeke hadn't been hurt, there was no way he would've left like that.
There wasn't anything Rick could do for Jeff right now, except pray, but maybe he could help the dog. "I'm on it," he said in a flat voice as he drove out of the parking lot.
If Rick hadn't taken all that extra time to do what he had for that Mexican kid coming across the border the night before, detaining him well beyond the end of his shift, he was sure he would've been the one called in to respond to the tip instead of Jeff. Would that have made a difference? Would he have done anything different? Would he have seen something because of his intimate knowledge of the cartels that Jeff or the others had missed?
As Rick sped along I-5, he spoke to the detectives conducting the investigation so he could gather as much information about the incident as possible. From what he was told, Jeff had done everything right. They'd found the cube van parked at the side of the road, apparently abandoned. Jeff and Zeke had been doing the perimeter check for narcotics to establish probable cause to search the inside of the van. When they'd approached the back, the doors had swung open and the shooting started. One of the Narcotics cops had been at the side of the van, out of the line of fire. He'd taken down the shooter, but it had been too late for Jeff.
There'd been no drugs in the van. Just the shooter. It had to have been a setup, as Logan thought. Their unit had been making a huge dent in the activities of a number of the cartels. This must have been payback from one of them. The guilt burned through Rick and settled in his gut, a hard, uncompromising knot. It should've been him, if anyone. Not one of his men. Not a cop with a young family.
His assumption about his own absence was confirmed when he spoke to Logan. They'd decided not to call him for the reason he'd surmised. If he hadn't helped that kid the night before, it would've been him at the back of that cube van when the scum with the rifle had taken his shot. If he'd been there instead, Jeff wouldn't have taken the bullet and wouldn't be in the hospital with critical injuries.
It was hard enough when one of their own got hit, but to make matters worse for Rick, the burden of guilt weighed heavily on him.
As for Jeff, they were hopeful he was going to make it through the operation. After that the doctors couldn't say. The guilt surged up again and Rick tasted bile in his throat.
Rick had to take comfort in the fact that Jeff was receiving the best possible care. Right now his concern was Zeke. He knew Zeke well. He'd helped train him when he'd come to the K-9 Unit from the Czech Republic as a cute, floppy-eared shepherd puppy. Rick wanted to stay positive, but if Zeke had gone off on his own, it wasn't a good sign. Rick rubbed his eyes when the road blurred in front of him. He stopped by a cordoned-off area, a cube van at its center. Leaving the air-conditioning on in the back of his SUV for Sniff, he jumped out.
By the time he got to the crime scene, there were cops everywhere. He greeted the ones he knew and headed to where the detectives were gathered. It was obvious where Jeff had been shot from the pool of blood on the pavement, but Rick could see a second, smaller pool, too and the trail of drops that led away from it.
He followed the trail at a fast jog to a residential yard, where it ended by a wooden step at the base of a deck.
Rick crouched down and peered into the dark, confined space. Relief flooded through him when he heard the panting. Even before he dropped to his belly and shone his light in, he started to murmur to Zeke in a calm, reassuring tone. He wanted to reduce the chances of the injured animalout of pain or self-defenselashing out at him.
He needn't have worried. Large chocolate-brown eyes stared up at him and a warm, dry tongue brushed the back of his hand when he reached in. Zeke was lying on his left side. From what Rick could see, he must have taken a bullet on his right side. Judging by the dark crimson stain on the packed dirt, he'd lost a considerable amount of blood.
But Zeke was alive and conscious. Rick needed to get him to a vet. And fast.
Resting his flashlight on the grass, Rick elbowed into the tight space and maneuvered the big dog gently out from under the deck. He could tell from the whimpers that he was hurting Zeke, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. The dog remained stoic, seeming to trust him implicitly.
"I've got you, pal," he murmured. "You're going to be okay."
Rick carried Zeke to his truck as fast as he dared. He didn't want to jostle him too much, didn't want to cause him more pain, or aggravate his injuries and blood loss. At his vehicle, he looked around quickly. Not wanting to set Zeke down only to have to lift him again, he needed help. He saw another cop from his division and called out, "Give me a hand, would you, Steve?"
The cop glanced at Zeke. His brows drew together and his mouth formed a hard, straight line. "It's terrible what happened to Jeff. Is his dog going to be okay?"
"If I have anything to do with it, yeah. There's a blanket on the floor just behind the passenger seat. Get it for me, and help me wrap it around Zeke. I want to stem the flow of blood, and keep him warm and still, if possible."
"Sure." The cop did as he was asked.
"Now recline that seat all the way."
"Why don't you put him in the back? Wouldn't it be more comfortable for him?"
"My dog's in there, and there isn't room for both of them." Almost as if on cue, a short bark and a whine came from the back compartment of the SUV. Sniff must have sensed Zeke's presence and his distress.
"Besides, I want Zeke up front with me so I can keep an eye on him," Rick added.
"All right," Steve said, and complied with Rick's directions.
They slid Zeke carefully onto the near-horizontal seat.
"Thanks, man. I owe you one," Rick said, slapping the other cop on the back. Then he skirted his truck at a run.
He buckled himself in, put a reassuring hand briefly on Zeke's head and turned on his lights. He needed to get Zeke to the Mission Bay Veterinary Clinic as swiftly and smoothly as possible. He called ahead to make sure they could see Zeke right away.
Despite the short interval, by the time Rick drove into the clinic's parking lot, Zeke's breathing had become shallow and labored. His eyes had drifted closed.