Authors: Sidney Bristol
“Cut the bullshit. I have a lovely redhead keeping me
company, but she won’t for long if you don’t stop playing stupid.”
Jake squeezed the steering wheel with one hand and clenched
his teeth. Nicole couldn’t pay for his sins. That’s not how this worked. The
bad guys were supposed to come after him, not her.
“What do you want?”
“That’s more like it.” Cruz chuckled and Jake’s vision hazed
red. “I want to have a meet. Just me and you. If I see anyone else, she dies.
You know the drill. Five a.m. Do you have a pen? Write down this address.” He
rattled off an address.
“I need proof Nicole is still alive.”
“Hello?” Jake pulled the phone away and stared at the home
screen of his phone.
The call had ended.
He popped his seatbelt and got out of the truck. Both Cole
and O’Neil were clustered around the driver’s side door of the last vehicle,
their gazes on him.
“Did you trace it?” Jake asked.
“Yeah, pay phone. Patrol is headed there now. Who is it?
What did he want?” O’Neil had one phone pressed to his ear but his attention
was on Jake.
“It was Diego Cruz.” He wiped a hand across his mouth. “It
was Diego Cruz and he has my wife.”
An invisible hand squeezed his heart. He wanted to protect
her, to shield her from this, but Nicole was out there.
Gravel crunched under Jake’s boots. Caffeine had his veins
hopping with false energy and grit filled his eyes. The few hours of sleep he’d
caught with Nicole wrapped around him felt like a lifetime away now. He’d
burned through that rest and now he ran on fumes and determination.
The dark sky was pierced by the lights of the warehouse
district. In the distance the clouds were beginning to turn gray, a distant
herald of the sunrise. But there would be no hope with this dawn. There were
many hours to go before this wreck was over.
There was no guarantee that he or Nicole would survive this.
Hostage situations were hell on the lifespan of the victims, but he had to
believe that out of all of them, Nicole would survive. She was an innocent
whose only crime was loving a man who made it his business to be a thorn in the
sides of criminals.
He glanced at his watch—5:05 a.m.
Where was Cruz?
Jake turned in a slow circle.
The meet spot was straight out of a movie. Warehouses
bordered the gravel lot on all sides. In a few hours semi trucks would arrive
to unload or load deliveries. But now it made for a warren of hidey-holes and
escape routes. There was no way to guess from what direction Cruz would approach,
how he would leave or even if he was operating out of the area, which was
unlikely. There was also no way to get backup on site without it being
Jake had opted to go without a wire. His cell phone,
however, was rigged to be a one-way transmission device. Everyone had cell
phones these days. They were just being a bit more creative in their use. He
also had direct cover from Becca Jameson, in position on top of one of the
warehouses with her sniper rifle. If things went bad, it was Jake’s life, and
hopefully Nicole wouldn’t pay the price for his choices.
A sliding door rumbled open on the far side of the lot
across the two-way street and a moment later an older model truck pulled out
and headed toward Jake.
He turned and watched the vehicle approach. The headlights
effectively blinded him so that all he could make out was the vague shape of a
person behind the wheel. He held his breath as the truck seemed to be headed
straight for him. Did he run or stay?
Nicole wouldn’t be rescued if he walked away from this.
At the last moment the truck swerved away from him and
stopped in a puff of dust and spray of gravel. A grease monkey with a few
missing teeth and scraggly gray hair leaned out of the window.
“You Jake?” he asked.
“I am. Who are you?”
“I’m Rex. I was paid to taxi you over to meet a fella.”
Jake’s stomach sank. “Okay.”
He circled the truck and got into the passenger side. The
cab smelled of cigarettes and motor oil.
“Where are we going?” Jake closed the door and debated the
seatbelt. Without it he could get away faster, but it might also save his life.
There was no way to know what to prepare for, so he buckled in and hoped he
wouldn’t need to make a run for it.
“Just up the road here.” Rex glanced at him, a toothpick
between his lips. He had the type of old, weatherworn skin that made
determining age and race difficult. “I don’t need or want to know what you
fellas are doing.”
“Understood.” Jake couldn’t fault the man. With the economy
suffering, he wasn’t going to begrudge the man for making a buck.
They passed through the heart of the warehouse district and
merged onto the main drag headed toward the loop around the city, but passed
under it. Jake noted the streets while keeping one eye on his driver. Rex
claimed to be nothing more than a taxi, but he wouldn’t put it past him to play
a role in this drama.
Rex pulled into the parking lot of a tiny dive bar. Semi
trucks idled in the field-like parking lot, their drivers tucked in for a few
hours of sleep.
“This is your stop.” Rex pointed at the bar, which appeared
to be locked up tight. “He said he’d be waiting for you in there.”
“Buzzard’s Bar. Looks as good as anyplace, I reckon.
Thanks.” Jake spoke not for the benefit of his driver, but those listening in
still on the cell transmitter. He got out of the truck and glanced around the
Any one of the truck drivers could be in on this. Was Nicole
in one of the trucks? Was she inside? How scared was she? Had she been injured?
He took a deep breath and pushed his emotions way down. Right
now he needed a clear head.
He approached the front door and gave it a pull. He was a
little surprised when it swung out. The interior of the bar was dim,
illuminated by a few bulbs. He could make out ancient beer signs and framed
pictures on the walls, but it held little other adornment. This was a place for
people with one purpose. Drinking.
There was only one other person in the small building Jake
could see, and he sat at the bar, a pistol across his thigh and a glass in
Jake almost didn’t recognize Diego Cruz. The scars that
pockmarked his face did a hell of a job disguising him, but nothing could
change the soulless darkness of his gaze or the sadistic twist of his mouth.
This was a man who lived to bring death and misery to others.
“Have a seat, Officer.”
“Don’t mind if I do, Cruz.”
Jake strolled to a stool a few feet away from the lowlife
and perched on the edge, one heel hooked on a rung. He stared into the
inky-black eyes of a man with no heart, and the names of all those people he
knew had been murdered by this man scrolled through his memory. His wife would
not be added to that list.
“A better question would be how do you get her back?” Diego
set the glass on the bar and propped his elbow on the counter.
“I’ll bite. What do you want in exchange?” Jake knew there
was a price, the question was whether he could pay it.
“Nothing much. She’s alive, just so you know.” Diego pulled
his cell phone from his pocket and tapped the screen. He turned to show it to
Half of Nicole’s face was in the frame. Her eyes were wide
and her mouth bound with tape. A newspaper lay across her lap with that
morning’s headline. It was early still to get the daily paper, which meant
Diego was holed up near a drop location or the printing facilities.
Jake dug his fingernails into his palm. He could punch the
bastard in the face and get a bullet to the gut.
“What do you want?” Jake’s jaw ached from clenching his
“Nothing much. You’re a police officer. You have access to
certain things law enforcement won’t be using. I’d like to take them off your
“And that would be?”
“A million in cash, unmarked bills of course, untraceable.
MCPD has recently come into possession of a large quantity of narcotics. I’d
like those delivered to a drop location and left for pickup. And I’d also
appreciate the current files on my former associates still at large. Not much
for a well-connected officer like yourself.”
Jake’s mind reeled. There was no way he could get these
pushed through. If it would even be entertained, it would take weeks of cutting
through red tape.
“When?” Jake asked.
“I’ll give you until Monday. That should be enough time,
don’t you think?” Diego tapped his empty glass and rose to his feet.
He couldn’t leave yet. There was no way Nicole could suffer
“I’m going to need more time. Why don’t you trade me for
Nicole?” Jake stood, towering over the man.
Diego’s gaze narrowed. “Why would I do that? I’ve got what
you want, your heart. That means you’ll do anything for me, and I intend to
make use of that. Don’t try to follow me. If I don’t make it back in time to
your precious beloved to let a little air into her prison, she’ll suffocate.”
“Go,” Jake practically yelled.
Diego laughed in his face and slid the pistol into the
waistband of his trousers.
Jake barely held himself back. When Nicole was safe and
secure, Diego’s nightmare would be Jake. He’d take the bastard down, and if
Diego was lucky, he’d go to prison again.
Diego turned and ambled around the bar and through a set of
swinging doors into the back of the building. As the doors creaked back and
forth, Jake glimpsed a spreading pool of red and a dark-skinned hand.
“Fuck.” Jake vaulted over the bar and rushed into the
kitchen facilities. It stank of grease and grime. In the middle of the dingy,
off-white floor, a black man in his late fifties lay on his back, eyes open but
no breath stirring his lungs.
Diego’s laugh echoed as he stepped through the emergency
exit and into the dim morning light.
Jake crouched, careful to not disturb the blood, and felt
for a pulse. The body was cold and the odor of urine and feces confirmed that
this poor soul had died hours ago.
He slid the phone out of his pocket and rocked back on his
“I have a body. Diego’s gone.”
He paused. There was a slight rustling before O’Neil’s voice
came over the line. “And we can’t follow him. He knew you had eyes and ears.”
“Yeah. Come on in. I get the feeling customers will start
coming by soon and I’d prefer to not have to deal with that right now.” Jake
stood and wiped his hands on a roll of paper towels sitting on a nearby
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sending in a team now to take
care of the scene. Someone will come and get you and we’ll meet up at the
station.” O’Neil blew out a breath. “Why do these things happen on the damn
“I don’t know.” Jake replied on autopilot, his brain wasn’t
in it. He pushed out of the bar, needing to get away from the death Diego left
in his wake without a thought to the lives he’d cut short or the families he’d
Nicole could be that man in the bar.
“We’re going to get her back,” O’Neil said.
“Yeah. I see the cars. Be at the station soon.”
Jake ended the call and watched two patrol cars and a dark
SUV pull into the parking lot. He quickly briefed the two officers before going
to the third vehicle and climbing in the passenger-side seat.
Cole didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. They’d been
doing this long enough to know the odds. Earlier that year, Cole had beaten the
odds with a terrorist hostage situation where Tanya was one of the hostages. It
was unlikely they would both be so lucky.
They made the entire trip back to the station without a word
said between them. In a way, it was easier to deal with Cole’s silence.
There were so many things he wished he could take back,
starting with this last year. He could have been a better husband. He could
have told Nicole how much Willow’s death hurt him. Hell, he could have simply
said “I love you” more. He’d give his life in a second if it meant she would be
spared, if Diego would trade her for him.
At the station he walked as if in a daze through the
bustling morning shuffle and headed to O’Neil’s office. Cole peeled off and
headed toward a pot of coffee.
O’Neil and the chief of police, Charlie Manzo, were standing
with their heads together inside the glass fishbowl office. Jake tapped on the
door, swallowing down the knot in his throat.
Here’s where they give me the I’m sorry speech.
“Vant, come in.” Manzo gestured to the unoccupied chairs.
“I’m sorry about this nasty business.”
“Thank you, sir.” Jake remained standing. He was exhausted,
but sitting made him anxious to be moving, doing something.
“We’re talking about Diego Cruz’s list of demands.” Manzo
shook his head. “I’m not sure we can do this.”
“I understand, sir. What are our other options?” There had
to be something they could do. If Jake could think clearer, he was convinced a
plan would come to him, but he was human and exhaustion weighed him down.
“We’re putting together some leads. Was there anything he said
or did that gave you any indication where he’s holding your wife?” Manzo leaned
against the desk. He was aging, and the process was not graceful.
Jake quickly related the details about the photograph.
O’Neil and Manzo began tossing locations and intersections around. They knew
more about the locations the paper distributed to than he did.
He sat in one of the desk chairs and let the other two talk
They weren’t willing to front the drugs or money to Cruz. If
they caved to one criminal’s demand, all the officers would become the target
of every petty criminal and lowlife just to get a fix. He understood that. But
this was his wife. His Nicole. If they weren’t going to trade for her he would
have to do it himself.
* * * * *
Nicole’s head swam. It felt as if there was a hive of angry
bees trapped between her ears. Her lungs felt heavy. Or maybe they were tired,
it was too hard to tell. Everything hurt. The way she was all folded up to fit
in the plastic barrel had her legs cramping. She’d scraped her elbows and knees
raw hitting the sides.
She’d learned very fast that no one could hear her.
The worst part about her prison, besides the swiftly
declining oxygen levels and cramped quarters, was that it was impossible to
Her head was still foggy from the drugs. Or maybe it was a
combination of drugs, sleep deprivation and lack of food. The best she could
tell it was Saturday. But it could be Sunday or even Monday for all she knew.
If it was Monday, Jake would be coming for her. Her captor
had said as much, but it hurt to think about that, so she leaned her head
against the side of the barrel and stared into the darkness.
Sleep would be easier, but it was not her friend. Anytime
she drifted off, the nightmares started. All the dreams the past week of
shadows in her bedroom, they weren’t dreams at all. This man had been in her
house. With her. The thought sent her heart pumping harder and she panted, but
there wasn’t enough air in the barrel. Her lungs ached and her head swam more.