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PIPELINE

by Steve Elam

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Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Quds forces are partnering with major Mexican drug cartels. They’re learning Mexican culture, as well as Spanish, and are starting to blend in with native-born Mexicans.

     

“Los Zetas and Hezbollah, a Deadly Alliance of Terror and Vice”

Terence Rosenthal –– Center for Security Policy

July 10, 2013

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The right of the people...to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.   

   4th Amendment – United States Constitution

~  ~  ~

I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves.

 

Thomas Jefferson

Prologue

    A towering purple thunderhead devoured the full moon above Lake Michigan. Jagged bolts of lightning burst across ink-black skies, turning night into day and back again. And on the tortured waters below, a 36-foot yacht struggled against the summertime storm.

    Belted into the captain's chair of the pitching craft, a silver-haired foreigner gripped the helm with strong brown hands. After making ten nautical miles west of Muskegon, he cut the engines and shouted orders to his crew in Arabic.

    "Bashir, Tariq, get those whores off this boat. Hurry, my brothers, before the Americans discover our presence!”

    The men mumbled at leaving the yacht's cozy interior.

    “Rasul," the foreigner called out again. "Go stand watch.”

    “Yes, Qasem,” Rasul replied then closed the doors to the luxurious salon, muting the cries of its owners bound and gagged inside.

    Rasul tightened a rain hood around his youthful face and climbed above the pilothouse to search the darkness. 

    Nobody would be out on the lake in these conditions, Rasul thought but gave it his best effort anyway. After all, Qasem had threatened to kill them too for endangering their holy mission.

    But it was Bashir and Tariq who'd insisted on sexual delights before their coming day of glory with Allah and stole away the three maidens to enjoy their last earthly pleasures. Then upon discovering the cell's transgressions, Qasem cut the women's lovely throats.

    Rasul hadn't shared in his brothers' wickedness. He was content to await his arrival in paradise to enjoy such pleasures. Yet, he'd truly liked his partner, Mariposa, a 15-year-old virgin from Mexico and two years his junior. They’d held hands and spoke in Spanish of better days ahead. She’d even let him touch the strange mark on her shoulder.

    Nevertheless, Qasem killed her too. 

    They'd been Gallina's women, slaves actually, smuggled across the Mexican border with the drugs, guns and human traffic the same way he and the other jihadis entered the United States––

    Through the pipeline.

   From his perch atop the yacht, Rasul caught the rattle of heavy iron chains over the howling wind and booming thunder. Then there were three distinct splashes as Bashir and Tariq dumped the weighted bodies overboard, sending the only witnesses to al-Qaeda in America into the depths of Lake Michigan forever.

    Qasem revved the engines and motored off into darkness.

     

    

ACT ONE

 Let It Burn

    

1

    Billy Ray Jenkins had been walking for miles since leaving Texas, hundreds of miles actually, going to her, to Rebecca Payne. 

    The road had been long and lonely. Motorists stopped occasionally, easing his fatigue. Kindly folks in small towns dotting the way brightened his journey. And there were dangers, too. Yet, he didn’t mind being on foot. Feeling the earth beneath him was better than being buried in it. 

   Now that road led upward, climbing high into the evergreen forests of Washington State. Only the peaks and valleys of the rugged Cascade Mountains stood between him and the woman he loved.

    Billy Ray heard a familiar whistle overhead. He paused to watch a lone hawk circling in the blue skies above. The call of the stately bird echoed through the dark valleys of his soul, tempting him to stay in the mountains and never come down.

    And why not? Rebecca would probably turn him away anyhow. She’d made it clear that it couldn’t work between them.

     So what good was love if it hurt?

     “About like breathing," he said to the hawk. "Worth the try."

     A vehicle approached from behind, large, judging by its engine and snorting air brakes. Then a motor coach rolled to a stop beside Billy Ray. Gold lettering on the side read Jackpot Tours.

   The pneumatic door opened with a hiss and a man called out, “Hey, mister, twenty bucks gets you aboard!”

    Only then was Billy Ray’s focus interrupted. Visions of Rebecca’s auburn hair, full lips, and shapely body, vanished. He turned to see a burly black man in a Jackpot Tours uniform standing on the coach steps.

    “How ‘bout it?” The driver flashed a warm smile and shiny gold tooth.

    Billy Ray looked skyward. The hawk was gone. Also, the angle of the sun indicated afternoon. If he was to play Jeremiah Johnson in the high country, he’d best set up camp.

    On the other hand, there was Rebecca.

    The driver thumbed over his shoulder. “Long way to town, mister. And these lucky folks want to make the bank before closing.”

    Silver heads stared at Billy Ray through smoked glass windows. Their faces were like so many others he'd encountered on his travels––innocent.

    At last he made his choice

    Mountain man life would have to wait.

-1-

   Billy Ray shucked off his backpack, fished a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket, and handed both to the driver.

    “I’ll take that as a yes,” the driver said, pocketing the cash and pointing at the empty seats in the front of the bus.

    Without a word, Billy Ray climbed aboard, but chose the back instead. As he moved down the isle, women blushed at his rugged looks: muscular chest stretching a gray tee-shirt, faded jeans, dusty brown hair, and hazel eyes. The men just stared suspiciously.

    After making a short call on a cell phone, the bus driver boarded and resumed the trip.

   The tour group reanimated. They chatted excitedly about hitting big at the casino. The gamblers among them told how they couldn’t miss, and how they were escaping with the tribe’s money for once.

    Billy Ray was soon forgotten...anonymous.

   His thoughts drifted back to Rebecca, as he pictured her still body lying in a hospital bed, recovering from a near-fatal bullet wound. It’d been a year since seeing her last in Texas. Sadly, their chance at happiness ended that day with a long kiss goodbye––except it hadn't.

    Because he couldn’t get her off of his mind!

    They'd barely survived a bloody battle at the Texas Waterland Family Park against an enemy hellbent on murdering millions of gullible Americans by way of a ghastly new form of methamphetamine, called Rapture. Ironically, the bullet that nearly killed Rebecca that night hadn’t come from terrorists, but from the gun of her own father, Sheriff Roy Payne––a bullet meant for him.

     Ex-sheriff, Billy Ray reminded himself. Roy Payne now rotted in the same prison cell in Houston where he’d wasted ten years of his life for a crime he didn’t commit, sent there by Payne for the death of Rebecca’s older sister.

    Miraculously, the copper jacketed slug missed Rebecca’s heart. Then after recovering, she'd packed up and left Texas to begin a new life in Seattle, alone.

    Billy Ray could still feel the sting of Payne’s hatred and how it had caused damage no speeding bullet could ever match––it killed love.

    Or had it?

   He was eight years a Navy SEAL before the trouble with Payne. To complete such extreme training, and then survive the rigors of battle, required that a man never give up, no matter what. He hadn’t rung the bell in surrender then, nor could he bring himself to quit on Rebecca now.

   Then he realized a hard truth: warfighting was one thing, battles of the heart quite another. No training on Earth could prepare lovers for hard times––only living.

-2-

   Plus there was the matter of him having been engaged to Rebecca’s sister, until the awful day when Brenda Payne killed herself.

    So there it was: two sisters––one alive, one dead––and a hate-filled father who'd stop at nothing until Billy Ray Jenkins was buried deep downriver.

    Perhaps Rebecca was right, no good could come from their love.

    A voice cut through the fog, “Excuse me, mister."

   Billy Ray turned away from ghosts in the window to see one of the tour passengers taking a seat across the aisle.  The man had on a ‘Viet Nam’ ball cap. His face was weatherworn, but firm, and sporting a bristly mustache. The most striking feature about the old warrior, however, was the empty sleeve pinned to his side.

    The sight of it made Billy Ray sit up straighter.

    “Yes, sir?”

    “I watched you come aboard. You’ve had training.”

    “Training?”

   “Military...I saw you staring out the window as if the world was gone. I’ve seen the thousand-yard stare before.”

     Billy Ray let out a breath. “Just tired, sir. Too many unwinnable battles.”

    “I thought maybe we could talk," the veteran said awkwardly. "I’m not too big on this casino stuff. Hell, I don’t even gamble, my wife does.”

   Billy Ray had that in common with the man. Beyond an occasional game of Liar’s Poker, using the serial numbers on dollar bills, he wasn’t big on risking his money.

    No, just your life! said the ever-present voice in his head.

    The man pointed at a silver head up front. “That good lady wagered all her chips on me fifty years ago. So that makes me the big winner.”

    Billy Ray felt respect. He’d known some of the toughest hombres on the planet. None were big on speeches––real heroes whose humility was kryptonite to the arrogant---men who could die and could cry.

    He nodded. “Then I’ll take a chance on you too, sir.”

    The man thrust out his hand. “Steve Hailey.” 

   After introductions, Billy Ray added, “And yes, Mr. Hailey, trained by the U.S. Navy. Plus a bunch of other hellcats who shall remain unidentified.”

    Hailey smiled knowingly.

   They talked easily, men drawn together by a special bond. Although they were from different eras, both had operated deep in enemy territory, dark places where no one would hear you scream.

   Moreover, Hailey showed the kind of maturity that only came with having seen the elephant and heard the owl. He’d been a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam, ferrying Special Ops forces and CIA spooks with the 195th Assault Helicopter Company, until being shot down. Fortunate for Hailey, friendly villagers rescued him, patched him up, then risked their own lives hiding him from the Viet Cong.

-3-

    So yeah, Hailey had made the ultimate gamble and it cost him an arm. But in the end he’d won at life. And he was was ready to do it all again, saying he still owned one good arm for working the collective on a helicopter, should he ever get the chance.

    Billy Ray didn’t doubt the veteran pilot’s capabilities one bit. After all, he’d witnessed an elderly Marine in East Texas save millions of lives one year earlier. Lesson learned––?

    Don’t ever doubt a man with the fire in his belly.

   The veterans were enjoying their talk when they noticed the bus slowing, and not to negotiate another sharp turn on Chinook Pass, nor so the passengers could view the majestic summit of Mount Rainier and dizzying cliffs along the roadway. Rather, three Caucasian men stood in the road flagging down the bus.

   Billy Ray noticed immediately that none of the men carried backpacking equipment. Instead, they were dressed in business attire.

    The bus door hissed open and the group’s spokesman mounted the steps. He spoke about having car trouble, and could they get a lift to the next town. The driver looked around at his curious passengers then pointed to the empty seats in front.

    The trio boarded and made themselves comfortable.

    To Billy Ray, the men looked innocent enough––professional attire, average height and build, mid-thirties...entirely nondescript. But one item bothered him. Each buisness coat showed the outline of a concealed weapon.

    Off-duty cops?

    Billy Ray resumed his talk with Hailey, but still kept a wary eye on the strangers. A mile or so later, the bus drove past a viewing turnout. A slick new red Camaro was parked in the lot, hood raised, and a cloud of steam drifting skyward.

    He managed to catch part of the car's license plate...MAX.

    Hailey lowered his voice. “My wife hit it big at the casino today, so did a few others on the bus. Pat and I can finally pay off the ranch.”

     “That's big indeed. Congratulations,” Billy Ray said quietly.

    Some minutes later, the bus entered another turn.

    Billy Ray caught a flash of red outside the window. It was a new Camaro. His instincts went on full alert!

     Hailey noticed the distraction. “What is it, Jenkins?”

    “Not sure. Would you mind moving to the far window and get a plate number on that red car behind us?”

    “Sure, no problem.”

    "And Hailey––”

    “Ya?”

    “Keep this between us.”

-4-

    Hailey moved to the window. The bus slowed through the next turn, giving him a clear view of the suspect vehicle. Then he scooched back and whispered, “MAX - 616.”

    Billy Ray smelled a rat, three rats actually. Men with guns, a busload of seniors flush with cash from the casino, and a speedy chase car?

    He leaned close to Hailey. “Keep your cool with what I’m about to say.  I think this bus is about to get robbed.”

    Hailey remained quiet, only staring forward at his wife.

    “We can’t phone for help, there’s no signal.” Billy Ray thought for a moment. “Go back to Pat. I’ll head this off. But Hailey––”

    “Ya?”

    “If I fail, stay calm. I’m guessing these guys only want your money.”

    “How do you know they intend to rob us, where’s the proof?”

    Billy Ray nodded at the new arrivals. “They’re armed. And now their broken-down car is tailing us. As for proof, that’ll be a gun in your face.”

    Hailey studied Billy Ray. “How do I know you aren’t part of this?”

    “You don’t, so trust your gut.”

    Hailey showed nerves of steel staring into the eyes of a possible villain. Then he two-finger saluted and went forward.

   Billy Ray scanned his surroundings––the battlefield––assessing height, length, and width. He made a quick study of the passengers, many still chattering on about blackjack, loose slot machines, and all the free stuff lavished on them at the casino.

    And now these people were about to lose it all!

    The heist team made their move.

   The group's spokesman rose and looked all around. Then he spotted the toilet in the back of the bus and started down the aisle. The guy’s action might appear innocent to a casual observer, but not to Billy Ray. Toiletman's move was purely tactical––the heist team intended to pen the tourists fore and aft.

   As the bandit went by, Billy Ray stared out the window at the passing scenery. He caught the man's reflection in the glass checking him out, probably wondering what a stocky dude half the age of all the other passengers was doing on the bus.

    Billy Ray considered their predicament.

   Here were three men with guns and heaven knew what else. Meanwhile, he carried only a multi-tool on his belt and the trusty MPK dive knife strapped to his calf. The rest of his equipment was stowed beneath the bus. As had been the case so often in his life, he found himself outmanned and outgunned, all alone.

    Three armed men needed to become two. He would begin by isolating the leader in the lavatory then move forward and disarm the others. Afterward, he'd return to settle Toiletman’s problems.

    That was the plan anyway.

-5-

    The restroom door closed.

    Billy Ray moved to the aisle and saw Hailey peeking back at him.

    Hailey nodded at the commode and made hand gestures. To which Billy Ray signaled affirmative, and for Hailey to create a distraction up front.

    He hated involving Hailey. But if these seniors were to be spared a terrible fate, he saw no other choice. Assurances from evil men were worthless.

   Hailey approached the bus driver playing the role of a carsick senior. He asked how soon they’d be off the mountain. The driver replied saying they’d only just cleared the summit, that it would be some time yet, and to please return to his seat.

    Hailey made a show of getting further agitated, which prompted alleged robber number one to react loudly. “Hey old-timer, you heard the driver. Go sit down!”

    Hailey spun around. “Who you callin’ old!”

    “Shut up and sit down!” the loudmouth said rudely.

    Bingo!

   A stranger manhandling a passenger was proof enough for Billy Ray. These guys weren’t cops, thus confirming the other choice.

    Just where on Chinook pass the thieves intended to perform their evil deed, he could only guess. Probably after they cleared the current stretch of SR-410 trapping the bus between volcanic cliffs on one side of the road, and a thousand-foot drop-off on the other.

    Billy Ray used the distraction.

   He unsheathed the dive knife and jammed it hard into the floor next to the restroom door. The razor-sharp titanium point sank an inch deep in the deck.

   Then he moved forward, bidding the ladies hello, and using his peripheral vision to acquire targets. Hailey saw him approach and returned to his seat.

   Billy Ray stopped beside an old couple seated behind the driver and struck up a conversation. As he spoke, he calculated the distance and angles to the two crooks seated behind him.

    Loudmouth told him to sit down, the driver too.

    Billy Ray ignored them.

    Again Loudmouth yelled, “You deaf, dude? Go sit down!”

    And again Billy Ray ignored the man, knowing the reaction it would cause.

    Loudmouth stood up. “Hey, mister!”

    Billy Ray gauged the target rising behind him. 

    Three . . . Two . . . One.

   He leaned forward as if to ask the couple another question, then pivoted and snap-kicked the man in the head, sending him over the safety barrier into the stairwell, out cold.

    A woman screamed!

-6-

    Billy Ray now faced thief number two.

    The man went for his gun, thus forfeiting all rules of engagement, and earning a chop to the throat. The crook suddenly lost interest in guns and reached for his crushed windpipe, wheezing and gasping for breath.

    Billy Ray ended Wheezy's struggle with an iron fist to the temple.

    One bad guy who’ll never rob again.

    Shots rang out from the back of the bus!

    Billy Ray saw three holes form in the bathroom door.

   He retrieved the guns from the immobilized crooks and started down the aisle to end Toiletman’s day.

    But a voice behind him said, “Don’t move or you're a dead man!”

    Billy Ray froze. So the driver was in on the heist. A black bus driver and three stranded white businessmen...he hadn’t seen that one coming. The reason for the driver stopping his tour bus to offer a lone hiker a ride made better sense now. It was all a ruse. The man knew excatly where on Chinook Pass cellular service would be lost. A lone hiker just happened to be at that exact spot talking to a hawk.

    “Now put those guns on the floor and turn around. Slowly!”

   Billy Ray put down the guns down and turned to see the fourth gangster gripping a pistol in one hand and the steering wheel with the other. 

    “In case you’re wonderin’, I got me no problem drivin’ and pluggin’ yo' ass at the same time.” The driver smiled and the gold tooth twinkled mockingly.

    Just then the bathroom door flew open with a mighty crash.

    Everyone turned toward the commotion except Billy Ray. He focussed attention on the bus' large overhead mirror. While placing the guns on the deck, he posistioned them for quick retrieval.

   Hailey must have read his mind. Seeing that the driver had taken his attention off the road, he pointed and shouted, “Look out!”

    The ploy worked. The driver spun around, providing the split-second Billy Ray needed. He bent down, grabbed the guns, located Toiletman rushing up the aisle, and fired Annie Oakley-style between his legs. 

    Hot gunpowder burned his pant legs.

    Toiletman managed a single shot before three holes stitched across his middle. Then he dropped his gun and fell to the deck clutching his gut.

-7-

     Wasting no time, Billy Ray attacked the driver by swinging both pistols at the crook’s outstretched arm. The driver’s gun lifted a split second before discharging into the ceiling and then clattering onto the deck.

    Billy Ray lost a pistol in the collision, too. So he wrapped the free arm around the driver’s neck and squeezed.

    Consequently, the chokehold caused the driver to pull hard on the wheel, rocketing bus across the road and scraping along the volcanic cliff.

    An ear-piercing screech filled the cabin. 

    Sparks flew across the windows.

    Again women screamed, men too this time. 

    Seat belts clicked.

    In an attempt to break Billy Ray’s grip, the driver yanked the wheel hard the other way. But the bus shot back across the road toward blue skies and a wide green valley.

     Their fate filled the windshield!

     Billy Ray reacted instantly by releasing the driver’s neck and wrestling the wheel hard to port. His quick action saved everyone’s lives. But it also allowed the bus driver to reposition and rapid-punch him in the stomach.

    The man was strong. If not for ten years of sit-ups in a Texas prison, the blows would’ve doubled Billy Ray in half. And continuing to clutch the second gun while trying to stabilize the bus was putting him at a terrible disadvantage.

    So Billy Ray let go of the weapon, grabbed the wheel with both hands, and righted the bus. Then he cocked an elbow and rammed it hard into the driver’s face.

     A gold tooth popped onto the floor.

     “Arrg!” the driver bellowed. “Let go! You’re gonna’ kill us all!”

    Billy Ray had no such intention and proved it by cracking the guy in the nose. Blood exploded everywhere.

    Toothless went berserk, punching and twisting, then attempting to stand and dislodge Billy Ray’s body. But in doing so, he accidently pushed the gas pedal to the floor.

     The bus shot forward, kicking up gravel as it came mere inches from toppling over the edge and into the deep canyon. And now everyone was screaming and bouncing around in their seats!

     Billy Ray struggled to guide the bus away from land’s end. Then the driver slapped at his face, missed, and struck the door actuator instead.

     The door hissed open and ninety-mile-an-hour winds blasted through the coach, creating a blizzard of paper and personal effects. Loudmouth's unconscious body rolled out the door and onto the highway. Billy Ray felt the thump-thump of the wheels rolling over the man.

-8-

 

     The struggle for the wheel reached a stalemate. The bus inched closer to the canyon. Billy Ray got a clear view of what lay only inches beyond the steps. Nothing––

     A thousand feet of nothing!

     If he didn’t end this now, surely they’d all die.

     But how? If he let go of the wheel, there was no guarantee the driver would steer the bus to safety and give himself up.

     He got an idea.

     “Hailey!”

     No answer.

     “HAILEY!”

     “YA!”

     “Get ready to fly again!”

     Billy Ray couldn’t see it, nor did he need to. He’d known men like Hailey, and had no doubt the old chopper pilot was ready to rock and roll.

     “Now!”

     Two things happened immediately.

     One––Billy Ray let go of the wheel, grabbed the driver, and log-rolled to the door. Balance and leverage worked their magic as the driver’s body had no alternative but to follow.

     Two––Hailey vaulted into the driver’s seat, righted himself, and grabbed the steering wheel with a long strong arm a half-second before the bus and all its passengers exited the roadway, permanently.

     The driver was Billy Ray's same length, but huskier, very strong, and at least ten years younger. The worst of it was that the crook ended up on top, had already struck him with a massive fist, and was rearing back for the kill shot.

     Their bodies slid down the steps as they grappled. A few inches more and they’d both go flying into empty space.

    Billy Ray hadn’t been fitted for wings yet so he needed a plan fast. He got one.

    Top position in a fight was normally dominant, but not always. While fighting for his life in Texas against the madman Joseph Wiggins, the enemy had held top position. The end result, though, was Billy Ray still walked among the living while Wiggins swam with the fishes. The very same maneuver that saved his life then was about to do so again.

     The driver used a powerful arm to pin Billy Ray’s head down as he drew back the other to deliver the crushing blow.

     Billy Ray feigned defeat by relaxing his body.

    Sensing victory, Toothless unleashed the punch, but he'd failed to notice how their weight had shifted and the angle of balance now pointed some distance beyond the door.

    Billy Ray timed the in-coming ham hock-sized fist perfectly. At nearly the point of impact, he bucked upward and sent the man flipping out the door and into empty space.

     Peace in the big valley was spoiled by a long, hideous scream until a sudden change in direction ended the crook's ordeal.

     Billy Ray somersaulted, too, but he managed to catch the bottom step with the toes of his hiking boots and the doorframe with his fingertips.

     His body formed a cross in the doorway.

     And he was slipping.

-9-

    Seeing Billy Ray’s dilemma, Hailey steered the bus away from danger and called out to one of the passenger, “Craig, help Jenkins. Quick!”

    A tall senior ran up, pulled Billy Ray aboard, and then the coach door hissed shut.

   He grabbed his knees to catch a breath and whisper a short prayer. Then he went to check on Toiletman. The thief lay curled in a ball, gutshot and bleeding out.

    Billy Ray looked hard at the man––

    Just what predators like him deserve.

   Next he checked for weapons but found only the one, some extra ammo, and a cell phone. He pocketed the items and returned to the front of the bus.

    All eyes were on him. He could’ve heard a pin drop.

    He broke the spell.

     "Thanks for saving our bacon, Hailey.”

     “Told you I could fly, Jenkins. But it was you who did the hard work.”

   Billy Ray searched the two dozen anxious faces. Thankfully, no one was hurt beyond bruises and frayed nerves.

     “This may not be over with," he warned. "Those guys had a chase car.”

    Hailey spoke up, “If you mean that red Camaro, it’s gone. Blew past us after seeing our driver make like a bird.”

    “Still, we can’t know for sure. With all the money I’ve heard talk of, they could try again. So how far to the next town?”

   “Sorry, partner," Hailey said. "Pat and I are just a couple of cowpokes from Mesa looking for excitement. You'll have to ask Craig, the guy who just saved your butt from a road rash.” He signaled for Craig to join them.

   “We need to get you all to safety," Billy Ray announced. "The sooner you’re in the hands of law enforcement the better.”

    “What about you?" Craig asked. "Won’t the cops want to question you?”

    “I’ll get off as soon as possible.”

    One of the women said, “But you killed three men, for God’s sake.”

    “Actually, it was for your sake,” Billy Ray replied even-toned.

    A voice from the back called out, “Make that four dead. This guy just expired.”

  Seeing Toiletman lying in a pool of blood reminded Billy Ray of the Bible verse that warned whosoever lived by the sword would die by the sword.

    Unfortunately, that included him.

    Billy Ray shook off the cold finger of death.

    “So where to?”

   Craig’s wife Mary spoke up, “We don’t trust anyone else, not even the police. Please take us home.”

    Voices agreed in unison. Heads nodded.

    “That could land me in jail," Billy Ray said.

    Hailey stated the obvious, “You’re probably heading there anyway. But we’ll back you. If you hadn’t stopped those men, we could all be dead.”

    Billy Ray looked into Hailey’s eyes, then those of Craig and Mary, and finally Pat and all of the others. Innocence cried out. Vulnerable souls beckoned.

  Then he noticed the bus approaching a viewing area––the very turnout where the robbery would likely have occurred.

    At last, Billy Ray made his choice.

    “Pull over, Mr. Hailey. I’ll take it from here.”

    And the devil be damned.

2  

 

     Johnny Lam was the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Dallas Division. But he kept getting asked the same question, “Why Michigan?”

     Even had POTUS and the ultra-secret K-KEY Group authorized him to answer the tiresome probe, Michiganders would’ve been shocked and frightened: shocked to know a hallucinogenic-form of methamphetamine, called Rapture, was in their good state; and then frightened to learn the drug had been converted to a deadly poison by a madman from a secret underground facility in Texas.

     The 2012 case of a naked man in Miami, Florida, attacking and eating his live victim was believed to have been the appalling result of a single dose of the new designer drug. Luckily, the source of the Rapture was discovered in a tiny town in East Texas, and then destroyed before it could be dispersed to targeted American cities.

     But not all.

     One tanker truck of Rapture had somehow slipped through the government’s robust nation-wide dragnet and remained unaccounted for. Cellular phone signals captured by the National Security Agency revealed that the rogue cargo was diverted to the Wolverine State by Angel Gallina, the head of the notorious Gallina Drug Cartel. Regrettably, the Fed’s overwhelming collection of electronic data muddied the SIGINT stream. By the time the NSA processed the signal intelligence, analyzed the content, and then released an intel report to Homeland Security, ten thousand gallons of the deadliest drug the world had ever known simply disappeared, Angel Gallina was dead, and the trail gone cold.

     It was believed no one outside of the K-KEY Group actually knew of the drug’s poisonous nature. Regardless, the President had made it abundantly clear upon promoting Lam as SAC in Dallas that he was to seek and destroy the Rapture, “No matter where. No matter what. No matter how.”

     So where in Michigan?

     Nearly a year had elapsed since he was assigned to the case and he still had no clue where the drugs could be. Furthermore, it was a mystery why the missing shipment hadn’t been released into the market yet. Once crystallized and then broken into individual doses, Rapture could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

     Maybe the cartel chemists hadn’t figured that out yet, since Gallina got blown to bits before he could provide more information. Or maybe Angel Gallina had been double-crossed by Joseph Wiggins, and never knew the drug no longer promised untold wealth, only death. After all, Wiggins had screwed over Kim Jong-il on the matter, so why not Gallina.

     Too bad Joseph Wiggins had met his end before the government could interrogate him, or Lam wring the bastard’s neck for kidnapping his daughter Katie. Wiggins' body was never found, so Lam's only consolation was that his daughter was safe and the evil prick was fish scum at the bottom of the Loma Reservoir by now.

     So many questions, so few answers. But he was sure about one thing––

     The Rapture was coming.

-11-

 

     Unless he located the missing tanker soon, the good citizens of Michigan could find themselves vexed by a nightmare of demonic proportions from thousands of drugged-up Miami-like zombies ripping and clawing their way through unsuspecting towns and neighborhoods. No one would be safe.

     So it was true he was in Michigan on a seek-and-destroy mission. That was the where. Locating the dangerous Rapture drug was the what. But it was POTUS’ no matter how statement that troubled Lam to his core.

     He was conflicted––safeguard the public from villains and lone-wolf terrorists seeking to rape and raze America . . . but do so while stretching the nation’s Constitution like a cheap rubber band.

     Simply put, the how of his mission could tear a free society apart. He’d always believed it best to separate military and the police. The one fights enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state become the people.

     As a federal law enforcement agent, Lam had always held sacred the notion that he served the public and not the other way around.

     But for some, that belief had changed.

     During the desperate hours following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, a select group of scientists, businessmen, and military leaders assembled. They were the elite of the elite, the best and the brightest, patriots one and all. Their sole interest was the survival of the United States––no matter how.

     They called themselves the K-KEY Group, men and women authorized by their Commander-in-Chief to operate beyond the bounds of common law and without regard for the nation’s Bill of Rights.

     Lam now doubled as a K-KEY Group operative, and carried two forms of identification. One was his traditional FBI wallet and badge for police work and general identification. The second, and more formidable leather case, to be used whenever necessary, identified him as a K-KEY agent. It proclaimed AUTHORITY OVER ALL in ghosting scarlet type and used a peculiar trident insignia that pointed down at a photo of the President.

     Lam found the symbol's arrangement quite disturbing.

     Who could be higher than POTUS?

     Nevertheless, it was this second ID that empowered him to act without warrant, conduct enhanced interrogations, and terminate belligerents with extreme prejudice when deemed necessary.

     He’d been an Army Green Beret before joining the FBI and knew full well how to conduct hybrid warfare. Indeed, he and his Special Forces unit had been highly decorated for performing those very functions.

     But he was a cop now, not a jungle fighter. Pursuing missing drug shipments and chasing down bad guys shouldn’t require a wholesale suspension of the nation’s Constitution.

     Could he even bring himself to fire against his fellow citizens?

     Lam’s internal discord was interrupted by the loud buzzing of his Blackberry phone.

     It wasn’t the Rapture.

-12-

 

     The incoming call was police work, actual crime-fighting. The message read 187 followed by the letters H and T. One-eight-seven was the police designation for homicide, while HT was his own shorthand for human traffic.

     It was the third victim in five days. Local authorities suspected a serial killer at-large, due to a repeating M.O. of Latin woman stripped naked, signs of sexual abuse and torture, and no forms of identification beyond tattoos, scars, and dental work.

     Lam disagreed with that assessment, believing instead that the women were victims of human trafficking rather than females chosen and murdered by a psychopath.

    He stared at the message. Doing so served to remind him of one immutable fact: he was a cop first, last, and always, not a secret extra-constitutional operative.

     Battling the shameful crime of human slavery had become his own personal war since the very day Wiggins ordered Katie's abduction at the hands of the late Angel Gallina––made forever late by a well-placed rocket propelled grenade fired by his friend Billy Ray Jenkins.

     If not for that assault on his family, he surely would have told the K-KEY Group to take a hike. But now he could tap into the K-KEY Group's assets to bring the trafficking scum to justice . . . as a cop.

     He keyed the GPS coordinates into his phone. A map appeared.

     Port Sheldon . . . Pigeon Lake.

     Lam put the rented Crown Vitoria in gear and drove away from the FBI resident agency headquarters on Ionia Avenue in Grand Rapids.

     While departing the downtown area, he was struck by how different the city looked from his first visit years earlier.

     The world had changed. And so too had Grand Rapids, converting from reliance on heavy industry to that of medical science, research, and higher education. Impressive new buildings ringed the once world-renowned Furniture City like glittering jewels, including an arena and downtown plaza. Century-old factories had been converted to modern uses. Even the downtown culture showed new life, transforming from dingy limelight districts typical of dying factory towns to that of art museums, restaurants, microbreweries, and blues music venues.

     His favorite kinds of fun!

     He accessed the Gerald R. Ford Freeway and headed west toward the coast of Lake Michigan. An hour later, he arrived at the Port Sheldon public boat launch on Pigeon Lake, a body of water formed where Pigeon Creek widened before emptying into Lake Michigan through a channel lined by quarter-mile-long jetties.

     Waiting at the water’s edge in a 25-foot Boston Whaler was an Ottawa County Sheriff detective in a business suit, accompanied by a uniformed marine officer.

-13-

 

     Lam boarded and said to the detective, “I’m getting tired of us meeting like this.”

     Lieutenant Keith Talsma responded, “So are the victims, Agent Lam.”

     “Good point, Tals.”

     It hadn’t taken Lam long to gain respect for the tough Sheriff Lieutenant. In sharp contrast to Lam's own dark features and flashy clothes, Talsma was pure Dutch, all business, and owned a thick mane of blond hair to go with piercing blue eyes.

     The boat sped off.

     “What do we have today, Lieutenant?”

     “Same as the others. Naked Latina, throat cut ear to ear, deep water submersion.”

     “Chains?” asked Lam.

     Talsma nodded. “Yup.”

     The devil’s baptism. Lam shuddered. 

     Talsma continued, “But there’s a difference with this Jane Doe.”

     “Like what?”

     “No signs of sexual abuse prior to her throat being cut.”

     Lam thought a moment. “Conclusions?”

     “Too early, Lam. But I can offer you a theory.”

     Before Talsma could answer, the marine officer banked hard right to avoid a Jet Ski driven by a lobster-red cowboy chugging a beer. The officer toggled the siren. Bronco Bob’s expression went from rapt pleasure to dread, then slowed his water toy in the no-wake zone.

     “Dumbass,” Talsma said under his breath.

     The marine officer righted the Whaler and motored along the calm waters of Pigeon Lake. The sky was blue, the sun hot, and the crystal waters inviting . . . the very pleasantness that lured so many families to the sandy shores of Michigan.

     Then they rounded a bend and all that changed.

-14-

 

     A collection of boulders and concrete slabs lined the north side of Pigeon Lake forming a breakwater. While a massive steel discharge pipe from a nearby power plant traversed atop the bank for a half-mile until submerging into the depths of Lake Michigan in the distance.

    In a tiny cove formed where the breakwater bent toward open water, a group of police boats idled as investigators and CSI staff in white Tyvek suits climbed among rocks ringed by yellow crime scene tape. Their attention centered on a set of swollen brown legs protruding from a clump of sea grass and bare sun-blistered feet twisted at unnatural angles.

     Lam turned to Talsma. “I’ll hear that theory now.”

 

* * *

     Tami Tafoya snuck another peek under the table at her cell phone.

     She should’ve been paying more attention to her date, a handsome butcher named David or Donald or . . . well, whatever.

     She didn’t get many dates.

     Not that she wasn’t shapely and pretty, or lacked interest in men. Hell, she had those attributes in spades. Rather, it was her reputation as a workaholic.

     But so what!

     She loved being an investigative reporter for Channel 13 News. And she was damn good at it, too. She ate, drank, and slept crime reporting.

     Though sadly, that also meant she ate alone, drank alone, and slept alone. Talk of murder had a way of punking intimacy.

     “Are you listening to me?” asked Whatshisname.

     Tafoya looked up from her phone. “Sure. Veal cutlets––”

     “No. I asked what kind of drink you’d like.”

     “Oh, sorry. A hurricane.”

     Dale . . . or Dan’s eyebrows danced. A hurricane was a strong drink. He flagged the waitress and placed the order, his voice full of hope, like so many men before him hoping the rumors about the foxy Cuban reporter babe weren't true.

     The dinks came, interrupting Tafoya cycling through her text messages. But the rum felt good going down. It warmed her body.

     Her date drained his beer and said, “Shall we have another?”

     Tafoya looked from her phone to her empty glass. “Sure . . . Darin. It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

     “The name’s Douglas. And it’s five o’clock here.”

     Tafoya gazed out the window of Captain Jim’s Bar and Grill at the clear waters of Lake Michigan. The evening promised another glorious sunset. Maybe this would be her lucky night. It was obvious by her date's happy expression that he felt the same.

     “So it is, Douglas. Perhaps one more before the drum sounds.”

     Douglas grinned real big.

     Tofaya gathered her purse. “If you'll excuse me a moment, I need to powder my nose."

     Just as she reached the ladies’ room, the chime on her cellphone blinged. It was a text message that read 187, Port Sheldon, Pigeon Lake.

     The police code for murder!

     She looked back at her happy date now placing an order with the waitress. Then she looked out the front door and spotted a taxi cab idling near the entrance.

     Without a second thought, Tami Tafoya headed for the door.

-15-

 

* * *

   Lieutenant Talsma pointed to the macabre scene at the breakwater. “You can draw your own conclusions, Lam. The Medical Examiner is about to move the body.”

     The marine officer slowed the police boat in anticipation of mooring to a stationary pontoon.

     Suddenly, another boat sped past, beating them to the landing. Then without any hesitation, a thirty-something woman with long dark hair and shapely hips leapt onto the pontoon and jumped to the rocks.

     Lam could hardly believe his eyes. “Who the hell invited J.Lo?”

    Talsma said, “That, my esteemed federal agent, is Tami Tafoya. She’s a news reporter.”

     “What’s she doing here, this is an active crime scene.”

     “She’s an investigative reporter.”

     “So tell her to go investigate at the library. I don’t want unauthorized persons mucking around our crime scene!”

     “Can’t do that, Lam. She’s connected with everyone from the Governor on down. But I do share your sentiment.”

     Lam transferred onto the breakwater, keeping mindful of his footing. The last thing he needed was to slip and break a leg. It only took a few minutes scouting among the rocks to determine he wasn’t looking at the actual crime scene, merely where Jane Doe’s body had washed up after the recent thunderstorm. Weather on the Great Lakes could be as dangerous as the world’s oceans, with waves rising as tall as a three-story building and then reaching down to churn the depths.

     As with the previous bodies, this Jane Doe had been wrapped in chains then  dumped into the lake, only to be wrenched from her liquid purgatory sometime later and returned from the dead.

     There was little hope of finding evidence at Pigeon Lake. But Lam squatted low and searched among the stones anyway, hoping against hope that some clue, some stroke of luck, might reveal Jane Doe’s identity or that of her killer. Police work was like that.

     It took hope.

     As he searched, thoughts of his daughter Katie came to mind, and how fortunate she'd been to be rescued from her abductors. So few victims of human trafficking were ever rescued or even heard from again.

     It was as if the ground opened up and swallowed them whole.

-16-

-16-

     A silky voice behind him said, “Hello, Johnny Lam.”

     Lam turned to face the woman who’d raced past him to the crime scene.

     “I’m told you’re an FBI agent,” she said.

     “And I’m told you’re not a cop,” Lam replied coldly. “That makes you unauthorized to be here.”

     The woman didn’t flinch. “That depends.”

     “Depends on what?”

     “On who’s authorizing.” She held out a business card. “Tami Tafoya.”

     Lam ignored the woman’s offering. He hopped to another rock and resumed the search.

     The site investigation was coming to an end. Despite his raw hands and aching kneecaps, the area failed to produce any evidence. A dead body remained the only proof that a terrible crime had taken place. Soon the yellow crime tape would come down. The area beneath the giant pipe would return to its former serenity. And another precious soul would vanish forever into obscurity.

     The Medical Examiner and CSI staff showed great care handling the remains. After dozens of photos, the corpse was gently placed into a body bag. The ME began zipping the bag shut.

     Something caught Lam’s attention . . . a mark on the victim’s left shoulder. It was the size of a child’s fist and had the color of port wine. The mark resembled a butterfly.

     He pointed. “Is that a tatoo?”

     The Medical Examiner said, “Nevus Flammeus . . . a birthmark.”

     Lam lifted his Blackberry to snap a photo of Jane Doe’s shoulder, but another flash lit the area and spoiled his shot.

     He turned to see the reporter holding an expensive camera. “You can’t do that.”

     “Can’t do what?” Tafoya asked innocently.

     “You can’t post that picture without authorization.”

     “Oh? Not a big believer in the First Amendment, I see.” Tafoya turned and hop-scotched to the pontoon and then her awaiting boat.

     The Medical Examiner zipped the bag shut.

-17-

      The sun was dipping low in the west by the time the Boston Whaler returned to the Pigeon Lake public launch.

     Lam thanked the marine officer and then turned to Talsma for a final word.

     “Call me with anything new, I want to crush these trafficking scum!”

     “Preaching to the choir, Agent Lam. But I’ll call you.”

     He bid Talsma farewell and headed to his rental car for the depressing drive back to town. As he approached the Crown Vic, he was shocked to see the reporter leaning against the passenger door.

     “It’s about time,” she said.

     “Time for what?”

     Tafoya softened her stance. “My taxi abandoned me.”

     “Wise choice. If I was your dog, I’d abandon you.”

     “I don’t need a dog. I need a ride back to Captain Jim’s.”

     Lam said nothing, just got in the car and locked the doors.

     Tafoya’s muffled voice came through the glass. “Pleeaasse?”

     Lam stuck the key in the ignition.

     He could turn it, start the motor, and just drive away––easy.

     No, not easy.

     Lam pressed the automatic locks. The passenger door opened and Tafoya slid inside. He didn't bother hiding his annoyance. “Okay, lady. Where to?”

     “Captain Jim’s Bar & Grill. It’s not far.” Tafoya stared at Lam's profile.

     “What’s at Captain Jim’s?”

     “My date. I got the 187 call on my way to the ladies room and then sort of skipped out on him for a minute.”

     Lam shot Tafoya a hard look. “It’s been more than a minute . . . he’ll think you fell in. By the way, how’d you know which car was mine?”

     “Oh puh-lease. Need you ask? I traced all the cars until I got a hit.”

     Lam shook his head.

     Talsma was right, the lady was definitely plugged in. He’d met plenty of reporters in his day; a particular slimeball in East Texas came to mind. But never had he met one like Tami Tafoya.

     “Just drive, Agent Lam. I’ll show you the way.”

-18-

 

     It turned out Captain Jim’s wasn’t so close to Pigeon Lake. The restaurant was located thirty miles to the north on a wide sandy beach in Muskegon. The place was popular with boaters who could drop anchor in the shallow waters on the lee side of the jetty and then wade ashore for burgers and beers––no shirt, no shoes, no problem.

     Lam cruised a third time through the parking lot.

     “I don’t understand it,” Tafoya said, sounding genuinely confused. “How could he just leave me?”

     Hearing that, Lam nearly plowed through a row of Harley Davidson motorcycles parked in front of the restaurant. “You’ve got to be kidding! You get a guy all juiced up, head off to the little girls’ room for two hours, and then wonder why he ditched you?”

     Tafoya raised her dark eyebrows as if to say, Yeah . . . so?

     Lam just shook his head. “So now what?”

     “I’m hungry.”

     Actually, Lam was hungry too. But he wasn’t so sure eating with Tafoya wouldn’t cause heartburn.

     “And I’m thirsty,” she added.

     “Listen up, lady. We’re not here to get wasted.”

     Tafoya acted hurt. “Is that how you talk to a gal on a first date?”

     Lam parked, rounded the car, and opened Tafoya’s door. “This is no date. We eat. We drink. We leave. Got it?”

     Tafoya smiled and walked off.

     Lam locked the car door and caught up with her. In all the distraction, he failed to notice a camo-painted pickup turn in at Captain Jim’s and park at the back of the lot. The two men inside of the truck made no attempt to exit, nor were they dressed for volleyball on the beach.

     The waitress seated them at a table facing Lake Michigan then brought their drinks: tomato juice for Lam, a hurricane for Tafoya. The tomato juice went down slow. The hurricane disappeared.

     “Hey, take it easy,” Lam warned.

     “I think I liked my other date better. At least he didn’t act like a cop.”

     “I am a cop. And this is no date.”

-19-

 

     Lam began seeing a change in the newshound, a softening of sorts. It was probably just the rum. But there seemed to be something else.

     Loneliness?

     He wasn’t one to pile on, so he loosened his shirt buttons and dialed down a notch.

     The food came. It looked decent and was priced right, plus it had those big Michigan portions. Lam lifted his fork. But before he could chomp down on his chow, Tafoya said, “Put your fork down!”

     “Huh?”

     “I said put your fork down!”

     Lam did so.

     After a few seconds, she said, “Okay. You can pick it up now.”

     “What the hell’s that about?” Lam said, attacking his meal.

     “Tradition,” she said proudly. “When my family gathers for dinner, mi abuelo slaps the table and yells at everyone to put their forks down. Then he thanks God for America.”

     Lam eased his tone. “Your grandfather’s a wise man.”

     They finished the meal. Tafoya ordered another hurricane. Lam didn’t say a word this time. He just sipped his tomato juice and watched a group of musicians setting up for the night’s show. The band’s signboard read The Outer Vibe.

     Tafoya waved at a female band member, a sexy gal with blue hair, leather pants, and a sequined motorcycle jacket. Lam wondered if Tafoya also listed biker chick on her resume to go with pain-in-the-ass reporter.

     She noticed Lam’s look. “Her name’s Lisa. I did a TV special about the band's Teen Rock Camps.”

     Lam continued his bored expression.

     “You’re not much of an artsy guy, are you?”

     He ignored Tafoya's question.

    “Well, mister, art begins with beauty.” She stood and pushed her chair back. “C’mon, I want to show you something.”

     After the fork thing, Lam was suspicious. “Show me what?”

     “Follow me.” She led him outdoors and pointed at the setting sun. “Behold, G-man.”

     Lam watched while the sun dissolved into the emerald waters of Lake Michigan. A few clouds turned red and hung like rubies in the azure sky. Then it happened. Just as the last rays of the sun passed through the prism of water, a green light streaked across the sky.

     He’d never seen the green flash before.

     Tafoya stared at him a moment then went back inside the restaurant.

     Lam remained on the deck enjoying the view across the broad sugar-sand beaches and endless surface of Lake Michigan.

-20-

 

     He returned to their table to find the waitress asking if either of them cared for desert. He shook his head and said they’d be leaving soon. Tafoya, however, ordered a coffee nudge. Again, a drink containing alcohol, he noted. But at least this one came with a caffeine kicker.

     The Outer Vibe began their show with a Jimmy Buffett cover, a perfect match for the warm summer night at Captain Jim’s. Had there been palm trees, Lam could’ve sworn they were at Margaritaville.

     Then the band switched to a lively number, which got the whole place clapping and hopping around.

     Tafoya came out of her chair, too. “Hoka Hey . . . I love this song!” She rounded the table and stood beside Lam. “Dance with me!”

     “I don’t dance.”

     “What? A tall, dark, and handsome man like you?”

     Lam caught the racial reference. “Half dark. My mother was French.”

     “Well then, the best of both worlds.” Tafoya slid backward towards the dance floor, beckoning with her finger. “Come on!”

     Lam checked his watch, it was getting late. He should be going––

     Hell, he should never have come!

     "Oh well, when in Rome . . ." Lam rose from the table. "Always dreamed of dancing with Jennifer Lopez, but I guess you'll do."

     Closing time came to Captain Jim’s. Lam and Tafoya joined the crowd filing out to the parking lot.

     The night air was balmy and a pleasant breeze blew in off the lake. Lam shed his teal blue sport coat and slung it over his shoulder.

     He could almost consider transferring permanently to Michigan.

     “Thank you for dancing with me, Agent Lam,” Tafoya said politely.

     Lam felt guilty. Maybe he’d misjudged her. Tafoya actually wasn’t so annoying once she got going . . . and drinking.

     As they reached the car, Lam said, “How about we go to first names. Please call me, Johnny.” He extended his hand.

     Tafoya ignored the offer and stepped into his arms instead. Her body was warm and moist from dancing. Her hair smelled of sweet shampoo. The rise and fall of her chest, her hot breath . . . it all made him want to––

     Lam pushed Tafoya away and opened the car door.

     For a long, awkward moment, she stared into his eyes. Then she turned away, slid into the car, and pulled the door shut.

     Lam cursed.

     Did he always have to be so professional, so hard, so . . .

     Cold?

-21-

 

     Lam got in the car and drove away. He had no way of knowing that after departing Captain Jim’s the camo-painted truck pulled out, too.

     Lam peeked over at Tafoya as she stared straight ahead. He knew what she was thinking.

     “I’m sorry for pushing you away.”

     She looked at him for a fleeting moment then turned back to the dark road ahead.

     “With my job,” he began to explain then gave up. He'd never been good at making excuses. “Let’s just say I don’t get out much.”

     She didn’t respond.

     “I enjoyed our dance, though. It felt good,” he offered sincerely. 

     While still staring forward, Tafoya said, “I'm sorry. I feel so awkward sometimes . . ."

     Lam let her talk.

     "It's like I don’t know how to act with men.”

     Lam thought for a moment. “You could start by reducing your time in the ladies' room.”

     Tafoya busted out laughing. The sound was honest and delightful. Lam liked that.

     Finally, she said, “You’re right. Let’s go to first names. I’m sure we’ll be running into each other from time to time. Please call me Tami.”

     Before Lam could respond, he noticed a set of headlights in the far distance enter their lane. The road leading to the interstate was straight and flat, and bordered by farms. Car lights could be seen a long way off.

     He turned back to Tafoya. “Let’s hope our next meeting isn’t so rocky.” He thought of the breakwater at Pigeon Lake.

     “Then you’ll need to let me do my job at the crime scenes,” she said.

     “But you’re not a detective. You’re just a reporter––”

     Bad choice of words.

     Tafoya turned in her seat. “I beg your pardon. I’m more than just a reporter!”

     “Tami, I didn’t mean it that way.”

     “Then how did you mean it?”

     Lam didn’t get a chance to answer. From straight ahead, headlights once again appeared in their lane. They seemed to be speeding toward them.

     Then without warning, a large truck sped up from behind and doused the interior of the Crown Victoria with powerful flood lights.

     The glare inside the car made it impossible to see.

     Lights speeding toward them! Blinding lights behind!

     Lam pulled hard on the steering wheel to make the next farm road. As he did so, a dark shadow appeared before them.

     Tami screamed!

     Lam jammed hard on the brakes and cranked the wheel with all his might. The last thing he saw before his world went black was a massive corn combine, its sharp cutting heads pointing at them.

     Then the sound of crashing steel filled the night air.

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