Chad’s fingers trembled as he turned the combination lock on his grandfather’s old gun safe. It was his third attempt. Right now, he wished that he had changed it out for one of those newer things. But that was the least of his worries. When he turned the handle this time, it finally opened.
He did not bother trying to decide what to take. He emptied everything into the duffle bag that sat on the floor. He had never been a violent person by nature, but the Marines had trained him to be a killer. And for the first time in his life, he felt what he could only assume was blood lust.
He wanted to kill. Anyone and anything that came between him and his daughter. Beginning with whoever had Grace. Despite what Rose said and the one-sided conversation he had listened to, he could not understand how anyone, especially a federal agent, could do something like kidnap an innocent child.
His hands shook as he lifted his grandfather’s old double-barreled shotgun out of the gun safe. That was not true. Not totally. Wouldn’t he do the same to protect Grace and Rose? He wanted to believe that even then, he would find some other way to keep them safe. But if he couldn’t? He did not want to consider that too carefully.
He had already put in a call to the ‘hippie commune’ that Reb’s mother operated. He knew more about the man’s family than most people. He still could not understand how someone named Rebel Zappa Moonchild ended up enlisting in the Marines, but that would never justify what they had done to the kid.
He was sure that even he did not know the full story. You didn’t get as fuck-up as Reb had been when he came to sharpshooter school, not just from being ‘roughed-up a bit.’ No, there was lots more to it than that. He had his suspicions, but that was all they were. He knew too that even female Marines who reported that stuff often faced more retaliation than the perpetrators. Besides, that was almost twenty years ago. There was not much he could do about it now.
He did not bother carefully packing all the ammunition stacked on the shelf into the bag. He had a rough idea of how many rounds he had anyway. Instead, he just raked it into the sack and zipped it up. He needed to get back upstairs as quickly as he could. The reception out here was not the best, especially in the basement.
He had called Reb almost half-an-hour ago. He thought he had made it clear to the man who answered that this was an emergency. So, why hadn’t Reb called him back? What if… No, he refused to believe that his friend was messed up in all this. But still, Rose had said that woman’s daughter was involved in this somehow.
He took the stairs two at a time as his mind raced through scenarios, considered who he could call on for back up, and what the hell they were going to do to get their daughter back. And he was determined that he would do whatever it took to get Grace and Rose to safety. Yes, whatever it took.
He had just hit the top step when the kitchen phone rang. Was it Grace again? Further demands? Reb? He raced the short distance far faster than he would have thought a man his age could. “Hello?”
Chad sighed with relief. He might not totally be sure if he could trust Reb, not at this point. But as he had concluded before making that call, what other choice did he have? “They have Grace.”
“They? They, who?”
“I don’t fucking know. You tell me. Friend.” His heart was pounding so fast now that he could hear each beat. “Who the hell is Will? And what the hell does your woman’s daughter have to do with kidnapping mine?”
“Stacey’s daughter? Laura? You’re not making any sense, man.”
“No, not Laura. Mercy and some federal agent named Will. He helped McBride escape and bring my girls to me. But now he’s working with somebody named Diego Garcia. He’s the guy that McBride was laundering money for.”
It all came spilling out. “And he wants it back. He thinks Cassie, I mean Rose, knows where it is. So they’ve kidnapped Grace to force her to come to them. But we know it doesn’t work like that. Even if she did know, and she don’t, someone like that would never let them go.”
“Diego Garcia? Are you certain?”
“Yeah, that’s what Rose said. We haven’t had time to talk much. I just know what I overheard between her and this Will. But she said something about him not having any choice. That Garcia had his cousin and girlfriend or some such shit. I’m not sure I buy it, though.”
“Fuck. Are you sure that was what was said?”
“Yeah, pretty sure. But right now, I’m not even certain what my own fucking name is. All I know is some mean motherfuckers have my fourteen-year-old daughter and that they intend to use her as bait to draw the woman I love to them. So, excuse me if my fucking facts aren’t god damned straight.”
Chad’s fists clenched at his side as he listened to the tight laughter on the other end of the phone. “Fuck off.”
He was about to place the receiver back in the cradle and come up with some other fucking idea, although he had no idea what, when he heard the yell, “Wait. Please, Chad. We can help.”
He debated hanging the phone up anyway. But the man would probably call right back. And he would answer it even knowing that because he could not take the chance, it was Grace or her kidnappers.
He shook his head, questioned his sanity, and brought it back to his ear. “This better be fucking good.”
“I’m sorry, Sarge. But I just heard you cuss more in a single breath than the two decades we have known one another.”
That observation brought a half-smile even to Chad’s lips, but the next words did not. “This is bigger than you realize, and we need some serious help.”
“No cops. No federal agents. I’m not entrusting their lives to bureaucrats. Besides, McBride was convinced there were leaks in the feds. That’s why he brought them to me.”
“There are. We don’t know how many, but we have a good idea of who a couple of them are.”
Chad was at the end of his rope, and his temper flared, “We? Who the fuck is we? And what the fuck have you told them about us? Is that how they found my family?”
“No, Chad, I swear, I haven’t told a soul about you or them, or where you are. Hell, I betrayed them to you once already. Well, almost. Remember, I told you that Stacey’s oldest daughter used to work for McBride. She’s been hiding out with a former federal agent, the father of her kid.”
“This Will fellow?”
“No, last we heard, he was in Mexico with Stacey’s youngest daughter, Mercy. They were trying to go undercover with Garcia.”
“Well, fucking congratulations. It looks like they might have succeeded if he kidnapped my daughter. But I don’t get it. How? Garcia doesn’t sound like the type that just hires thugs off the street. What made them think they could get inside what I’m guessing is one of the cartels?”
“Because Diego Garcia is their half-brother. The oldest son of Stacey’s ex-husband and the father of her girls, by his first wife.”
“Yeah, that about sums it up. Listen, man, I know that right now, you aren’t sure if you can even trust me. I get that. But if you have any chance whatsoever of getting your little girl back and protecting her Mama, you need my help and theirs.”
“Like you say, how do I know I can trust you? Let alone them.”
“Because I haven’t betrayed your trust, have I?”
“Then, how the fuck did they find us?”
“That, I don’t know. But I promise it was not us. Look, you called me. That must mean something. Either you still trust me, or you’re desperate. Either way, I’m telling you, the only shot we have is to get their help.”
Chad closed his eyes. His head was beginning to pound in time with his heart. He did not need this right now. But Reb was right. His gut told him that he could trust his friend. And he was definitely desperate, no doubt about that one. What choice did he have?
“Alright, meet us in Laredo. I’ll text you where once we get there.”
“No, Laredo is too close to Garcia. He might have his people looking out for you. You know we would have eyes on it if it was us.”
Chad knew that Reb was right, “Okay, so where then? It’ll just be a waste of time for ya’ll to come here. And we can’t afford to take the risk of waiting around. Who knows what they’ll do to Grace if Rose doesn’t show up there on schedule.”
“You’re right. How about this? Laura and her man are hid out somewhere west of you in the Hill Country, I think. Let me get in touch with them. And Jack. Remember my friend Jack from the Rangers? We need all the help we can get here. Let me call them. See if they know somewhere, we can meet up.”
“I need to talk to Stacey too. That’s why I asked if you were sure about them having Will’s girlfriend. That’s her youngest daughter, Mercy. We haven’t heard from them since they crossed over the border into Mexico over a month ago.”
“Well, you fucking have now. Yeah, I’m sure. Rose said that they had this Will’s cousin and girlfriend. That’s why he kidnapped my daughter.”
“His cousin, too?”
“Yeah, I think.”
“Fuck, man, we need to talk. But damn, I should have thought of this sooner, not on the phone. We can’t know who might be listening. Shit, I’ve been out of this too long.”
Chad had to chuckle at that, “Not nearly as long as me, my friend.”
“And that’s another reason we need help. Young blood.”
“Yeah, well, there’s something to be said for experience.”
“I got to go. I will text you a location as soon as I talk to them.” There was a pause. “Hang in there. I promise you these are good guys. And we’ll all do everything we can to get your little girl back.”
“I better go see how Rose is coming. I asked her to pack some stuff for her and Grace while I got my stuff ready.” He knew that Reb would have a pretty good guess what that ‘stuff’ was. “Talk soon.”
He hung up the phone and leaned his pounding head against the wall. He knew he could not afford long, but he just needed a moment to calm his turbulent mind. He had more questions than he had answers. More doubts than he knew what to do with.
He still was not one-hundred percent confident that he could trust his friend. Let alone these strangers that he wanted to bring into this mess. He wished there was someone who had his back. He frowned at the idea.
There was someone. But he did not know Trav that well. He was almost a decade younger and had just been a little kid during those summers he spent here with his grandparents. But the Bakers had been good neighbors to them and him. He had only gotten to know the man a few months ago after his Mama died. They had met at the diner. Of course, it had not taken them long to discover they shared something in common – the Corps. Oorah!
But he knew a bit of the man’s story. One damned thing about living in small towns was the gossip; everyone knew everyone else’s business. So, he learned about how Trav had ‘lost it’ and taken a knife to the Simpson boys. Not that Chad could blame him, those boys had run wild every since their mother got ill.
After that, Travis Baker had just disappeared. For three years. The rumor was that he had been homeless, another veteran who lived on the streets. But no one knew for sure. And he certainly had not felt it his place to ask the man about those years.
He was not sure that he could call the man a friend, more like a neighbor. And this was a helluva a lot more than helping to put up a new fence between the properties. But Reb said that they needed all the help they could get. And Chad knew Travis was well-trained.
He had to ask, at least. As Reb also said, he was desperate. He reached for the phone. Then he felt the warm hand on his shoulder. He half-turned and did his best imitation of a smile. “You ready to go, sweetheart?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
He could feel her trembling as he turned around and drew her fully into his arms. Chad bowed his head and kissed the top of hers. He did not want her to see the tears that glistened in his eyes. He knew that she needed him to be strong now. For both of them. “We’ll bring her home. I promise.” And he meant it. Whatever it took, even his life.
Rose pulled back from his embrace, “I just want you to know that no matter what happens, these past weeks have been the best of my life.” Her fingers that were decidedly rougher from dishwashing and working in the garden caressed his cheek. “I love you, Buford Wilson. I probably have since that first dance. I will until my dying breath. And if there is something out there, after this life, I will for all eternity.”
Chad did not like the finality of her words. Yeah, he was going to make that call. He had no other choice. Because he was determined to bring them back here. Safe. All of them. Because he wanted a lot more than a few measly weeks with this woman.
And it was about damned time that his little girl learned the truth. Grace was a Wilson through and through. Wilson women were strong. He sent up a silent plea to his grandmother, the other Grace, to watch over her namesake. Until he could.
Then he would spend the rest of his life making it all up to them. Those lost fifteen years. All those missed Christmases and birthdays. All those lonely nights. He would not fail them again.
He brushed the tears from her eye and kissed the top of her head again. He missed the blond, but the red looked good on her, too. Would she keep it when this was all over? And it would be over. He was not having any of this shit hanging over them for the rest of their lives.
He picked up the bag at his feet and grabbed the one from her hand, “I’ll get these loaded. You lock up, sweetheart.”
He had already checked that all the windows and front door were locked, but he needed the time for one more phone call before they hit the road. He did not like not knowing where they were heading precisely, but the Hill Country was over four hours from here. If he did not hear back from Reb by then, they’d head straight to Mexico. Hopefully, with one person he could trust riding shotgun.