Chapter 1 – Never Let Them See You Cry

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Stacey Reynolds held her daughter and granddaughter tighter. She never wanted to let them go. She knew it was for the best. She had made a mess of everything. And her girls were paying the price for her mistakes.

But no more.

She closed her eyes and inhaled that sweet smell of innocence as she kissed Rehab’s dark, wild curls. This ended now. She placed her hand on Elena’s distended abdomen and felt this latest granddaughter move inside her middle child.

She opened her eyes and met the frightened ones of her little girl. Stacey squeezed her daughter’s hand as she turned to her son-in-law.

“Bradley, it’s your job to take care of them now.” Somehow she managed to push those words past the pain and hurt of a lifetime that clogged her throat and clouded her mind.

The young Methodist preacher stepped forward. Brad wrapped his arm about his wife. Elena practically collapsed against her husband as more tears slid down her face. Rehab, with the innocence of a child, wiped her mother’s tears away and pleaded, “Mommy, no cry.”

Stacey fought back the rebuke that sprang to her lips. Never once had any of her girls seen her cry. Not in the almost four decades since that ‘mistake.’

Not when the INS agents had raided their small trailer at gunpoint and taken her ‘husband’ of five years away in handcuffs. Not when the prosecutor in his case revealed that their marriage was not valid, because the man had another wife and family in Mexico. Not when her self-righteous, sanctimonious parents had stood up and walked out of the courtroom. Withdrawing all their support and leaving Stacey to raise her daughters alone, with the stigma of bastardy in small-town Sebida, Texas.

Not the dozens of times that they turned off power to the old trailer that was falling down around them. Not when all they had to eat for Thanksgiving was bread, eggs, and milk. Not when Christmas morning came, and all she could afford under the tree were old stuffed animals and dolls that she had bought from the Salvation Army’s bargain bin. At the very last moment, when they had cut the price even further. Was that to get rid of the stuff or because the older woman that ran the store took pity on them?

Hell, she had not even cried or pleaded for her life the dozen or more times that she had stared down the barrel of a gun held in the trembling fingers of some punk ass kid or stoned out psycho.

That did not mean Stacey Reynolds never cried. Only that she made damned sure that her daughters never saw it. Just as she fought back those tears now.

The chickens had come home to roost.

She did not blame her oldest daughter Laura for this. That girl had done all she could for them. Hell, she had bought them a new trailer with her first bonus check. It had stung Stacey’s pride to accept it from her child, but as Laura had pointed out, she had Elena and Mercy to think about.

No, this was her fault. All of it. If she had made better choices, Laura might not have been so driven. Driven to make money, climb the corporate ladder, prove herself to the world. Or maybe it was just Sebida, Texas, Laura had needed to impress? Stacey knew that her daughter’s job as General Counsel for McBride Industries came at a high price. Still, she could not stop Laura from selling her soul to the devil.

Stacey was so grateful that these past nine months, they had re-established the mother-daughter bond. No matter what happened, they had that precious time, and she had another remarkable granddaughter to show for it.

She forced that smile. The one she had taught her girls. The one that hid the pain. “Ya’ll have everything?”

Brad nodded, “Are you sure this is necessary?”

“No, but better safe than sorry. You have the burner?”

The young man nodded his head, and his Afro bobbed in the mid-afternoon sunlight. Bradley Williams was a good man. He would take care of his family. She might not like his job. Stacey Reynolds had good reason to hate the small Methodist church this man now led.

It was the same one that had once been her father’s. Most of the people in those pews had turned a blind eye to the ‘accidents’ that were all too common for her and her mother. She may not even buy his Jesus bullshit. But she knew this man would do whatever it took to keep Elena, Rehab, and this new baby safe. Did anything else matter?

“I wish you’d take some of this money back. Forty-thousand dollars is more than we need.”

“No, we don’t know how long any of this is going to last. I want you to promise me that the minute you cross the border, you’ll ditch this car. Buy something new — a private sale, not a dealer. Then drive. Drive as far as you. Put as much distance as you can between you and Sebida, Texas.”

“But Mama…”

Elena’s tears still fell. She was always a gentle soul. This middle child had neither Laura’s stubborn determination nor Mercy’s toughness. Hell, she had even screwed up on naming her girls. This one had far more mercy than her baby sister ever would.

Stacey inhaled and squared her shoulders, rising to her full five-foot three-and-a-half-inches. “Don’t you Mama me. You know that the Reynolds women have one another’s backs. We can’t let Laura down. It’s the least we owe her. She did all this for us.”

She softened her tone just a bit and gave her daughter another gentle squeeze, “You promised your sister that you would leave.”

Stacey turned her gaze to her son-in-law, who had earned her respect over the last three-and-a-half-years. “You’ve been planning and saving for this pilgrimage for years. Consider it a holiday, a well-earned vacation.”

The solemn tone returned, “But under no circumstances do you bring them back to this country. We’ll come for you when this shit is over. We have a general idea of where you’re going. I’m sure it won’t be too hard to trace a mixed-race American preacher and his white wife in Rwanda.”

She looked at her granddaughter, whose light brown curls now rested against her mother’s shoulder. Rehab’s eyes were almost closed, and she had her thumb between her lips. “Wait a minute.”

She walked back to her old SUV. The thing was close to fifteen years old. It had been bought third or maybe even fourth hand. But at least this vehicle was made in this century. The last one had been a beat-up Toyota pickup from the eighties.

She opened the passenger side door and rummaged in the oversized faded green duffle bag that she had bought used at the Salvation Army. She pulled out the two stacks of fifty-dollar bills, another one of hundreds, and three of twenties. That was almost another thirty-grand. She left a single packet of the twenties in the bag.

She’d be joining Mercy soon. Her youngest daughter had more cash in her bug out bag. Besides, Laura wanted them just to hang out at Ole’ Injun Joe’s casino until things died down. What use would they have for all that cash?

She took the money to her son-in-law. “No arguing. You have a family to take care of.”

She could see the reluctance in the man’s eyes. Was it pride? Was it some lingering doubt that this money was ill-gotten? Or was it just his worry for her? He really was a decent human being – even if he was a fucking Methodist preacher.

He looked to his wife. Their eyes held, and what Stacey Reynolds saw there almost stopped her heart. This man loved her daughter. She was reasonably sure she had caught glimpses of that same look in Ryan Ranger’s eyes when he looked at Laura. When her tough as nails corporate attorney daughter had her head turned, of course. But there was not a single doubt that either man loved their little girls. Would die to protect their daughters. Whatever Brad had seen in his wife’s eyes must have been enough, because he nodded and tucked the stacks of bills in the bag with the rest of it.

“Remember to transfer most of that to gold and gems. But not loose. Jewelry that you can claim is costume. Unless you need the cash. I don’t know how you’ll buy plane tickets without a credit card, but hopefully, that will be easier south of the border.”

She was rambling. She knew it. But now, as it came time to say goodbye to her daughter and grandbaby, for the second time this day, Stacey felt the world closing in on her.

“I’ll figure it out,” Brad pulled her into his arms.

She stiffened immediately. She could not help it. She did anytime a man touched her. Even her son-in-law. And this time she had not been expecting it. She forced her mind away from those images. She inhaled and willed her muscles to relax. She pasted that smile on her face. Even if she could not bring herself to return the innocent embrace, she would do her best to slough it off as ‘not being the touchy-feely type.’

But dammit, those tears were getting harder to fight back. She had to get them out of here and on the road before she lost it. She was not about to cry in front of her daughter, not after almost four decades.

“Ya’ll better get on the road, then.” If her voice betrayed her, well, she did her best.

The next couple of moments were a blur. She recognized that outer-body shit. She had experienced it more than once. But somehow, she managed to get through it. Another hug from Elena. A kiss on the top of Rehab’s soft curls.

Would she ever see any of her grandbabies again? She hoped so. But she would do whatever it took to keep them safe. And her girls, too.

Thankfully, Bradley had settled for a handshake this time. But was there some knowing look in his dark eyes as he said, “God bless you. You’ll be in our prayers.”

She found the strength to ignore his words. She knew he meant the best. But Stacey Reynolds had long since lost any faith that god would bless her. If anything, the man, and there was no doubt in her mind that if there was a god, he was a man. And he had it out for her for some reason.

Well, god was not the only cruel, misogynistic bastard she had ever dealt with. She had a long history with those. Going right back to the beatings from her father, the man who had held the position of minister at that same Methodist church in Sebida for almost half a century.

That in itself was unheard of. Unlike the Baptists, Methodists moved their preachers from church to church every four or five years. They had tried that once with her daddy, too. But the man had quit the ministry, sat in the front pew of ‘his’ church, and generally made life living hell for the young kid fresh out of seminary. He had not lasted six-months. A letter from the deacons, signed by every member of the congregation, except one, had settled the matter for another quarter of a century.

Until the man became too senile to continue, he was still alive the last time she heard. In one of the church’s retirement homes near Austin. Her mother, also. Not that she gave a damn. Like they said outside that federal courthouse in Houston, after Ignacio’s immigration hearing almost thirty-five years ago, they didn’t have a daughter. And Stacey Reynolds did not have parents.

But that was the least of her worries right now. She waved and watched as that fancy hybrid thing struggled over the rocky dirt road. She hoped that whatever Bradley traded it for over the border was more sturdy than his damned environmentally-friendly shit.

The car was out of sight before she slipped into the driver’s seat of her own battered but reliable SUV. She knew that she needed to head back. She had already called Mercy. She was meeting her youngest daughter at the old casino. She wasn’t sure if she liked this sudden change of plans that her probable future son-in-law insisted upon. Of course, that was if they all made it out of this mess.

Stacey started to turn the key, but her fingers were trembling too severely. Instead, she pounded the steering wheel and cussed as the flood of tears burst its dam, “Fuck!”

Now was not the time. Not for another flashback. She needed to get to her baby girl. Mercy was all she had left now — the only reason she had to keep her shit together anymore.

But Stacey Reynolds knew that the day would come when her girls no longer needed her, when she could no longer keep it together. She had been planning that time for the last twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days. She looked at the clock on her dashboard. It read three-fifty-six. Fourteen hours and fifty-one minutes.

Yes, she had it all planned out. When that day came. When this was all over. When Elena and Brad were back home in that little church where they belonged. When she had watched Laura walk down the aisle to the man that Stacey knew her daughter loved, even if Laura was too proud or too stubborn to admit it.

And once she knew that Mercy would be okay. Her baby girl was too much like her. She was not sure the girl would ever marry and settle down. Not unless one of the heroes from her trashy romance novels came to life. Then again, she had never thought that Laura would find someone either.

She would be satisfied just to see her youngest daughter out of Sebida, with a good job somewhere. Or maybe her books would sell well enough that she did not need to work, some crappy part-time minimum wage job, even if it did come with a fancier title than any her Mama ever had?

Whichever, when that day came, if it ever did, she had it all planned out. She was going to do what the special prosecutors from Austin and the federal government could not do. She was going to clean up Sebida, Texas. Or at least cut-off Medusa’s head.

Yeah, she still remembered that Greek mythology shit from high school. But it was another head that she was going for on Sherriff Earl Kerr. The tiny one that the man had used to destroy what little of her life was left after Ignacio Garcia and her parents were finished.

Stacey inhaled deeply, practicing those same deep breathing exercises that had gotten her through three labors and birth without medication. And forty-seven rapes. And way too fucking many other flashbacks, panic attacks, and dissociative episodes to count over the past twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, fourteen hours and fifty-four minutes.

This time her hand was more steady as she wiped those god damned useless tears away and turned the key in the ignition. She checked her phone in its holder on the dashboard. No messages from Mercy. That must be a good sign, right? Maybe Bradley’s prayers would get god off her damned back for a bit. Just once, she needed a break.

Because right now, she had to face her worst nightmare. Lie through her teeth. And smile. But then again she had done that forty-six times with the man. After that first rape, she was determined she would never give him the satisfaction of seeing her broken and afraid again. So, she had put on an act each and every one of those other forty-six rapes. Hell, as much as it had turned her stomach, she had even pretended to enjoy it. That seemed actually to turn the sorry bastard off.

What was one more Oscar-winning performance before she joined Mercy at the casino and hid out until all this blew over – or blew up? She hit the button on her phone. That song filled the confines of her vehicle and her fucked up mind and heart. She focused solely on the road and singing along as she turned back towards the small wood-framed house at the corner of the main crossroads in Sebida, Texas. The house that Laura had been renting from her high school English teacher for the past eight months.

“And they don’t lose any sleep at night, ’cause Earl had to die, goodbye Earl,” she sang along with her favorite band and dreamt of the day that her Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Special did what she had been dreaming of for twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, fourteen hours and fifty-eight minutes.

Until then, she would do whatever it took to keep her girls safe. Lying was easy. She only hoped that at fifty-eight, she was much too old to appeal to the good Sherriff of Sebida County. But she knew that if it came to it, she would do even that. It might have been more than a quarter of a century since any man had touched her, but what was one more rape if it kept her daughters and granddaughters safe.

Reb Smith scanned the video feed on the dozen monitors around him. He just needed five more minutes to brief the man, who he was leaving in charge, about the latest upgrades he had done to the equipment. Given the trouble they had been having lately with the local Sherriff, his boss, Jack, wanted as much of the hotel, bar, and casino floor covered as possible.

So, if Jack was worried about trouble with the ‘good’ Sherriff Earl Kerr, why was his friend pulling him from his usual tasks to handle glorified babysitting duties for two local women? It made no sense. But then again, he didn’t really work for Jack. He was just helping out a friend and lending his security expertize. Until it came time to move along. So, if this favor was more important to Jack than those final checks on the system, what was he to say?

Reb was not the type to stick to one place for long. That’s why he had started his own security company. But he had already been in Sebida for almost two months, over twice as long as he stayed in most places.

Then again, Jack was more than just his client; he was as close to a friend as a man like Reb got. He could not just abandon the kid when they knew that trouble was brewing in this small Texas town. He owed Jack more than that. So, if that meant he was babysitting some small-town librarian and her middle-aged mother, well, how hard could that be?  

Reb checked the time on the video feed closest to him. Deep lines, probably far deeper than a man of forty-two should have, creased his forehead. Then again, life was never easy when you were born to a free love hippie and her three husbands, especially when your mother named you Rebel Zappa Moonchild. He knew his mother loved him, and maybe one day, he would even forgive the woman.

But today, he had other things to worry about. Like why the women were almost two hours later than Jack told him to expect them. It could be anything, of course. Jack did not even fully brief him on why he needed the women to ‘stay out of sight’ at the casino. Or especially what a librarian and a middle-aged woman could have done or know that would put them in such danger that they needed a former Army Ranger sharpshooter to play bodyguard.

All Jack said was that he was going to be away for a day or two, and he needed Reb to drop everything else and keep a close eye on Mercy Reynolds and her mother, Stacey. His friend had said that he would try to call later to check in on things. He’d give him more details then. But that was almost five hours ago, and Jack had said the women should get to the casino within a couple of hours, three max.

Reb wound down the debriefing. Other than the women, there was nothing all that special happening at the casino. Certainly, nothing that George Strongbear could not handle. The man might not be all that tech-savvy, which is why Jack had brought in Reb to make these upgrades to the security system, but the guy did know the casino and this town. George had lived around here his whole life. That was a terrifying thought for a man who had spent his entire adult life moving from place to place and town to town.

Reb was just wondering if he should head over to the library in Sebida, check things out a bit, when his phone rang. “Hey, boss, what can I do you for?” He liked teasing Jack with that title, just because he knew that it got under the guy’s skin. After all, the kid was almost a decade younger than Reb and had served under him in the Army for most of Reb’s final tour of duty.

“Just checking in. Making sure that Stacey and Mercy Reynolds arrived safely. I know you have it all under control.” Was Jack’s voice unusually tight and stressed?

Or maybe it was that Reb did not look forward to sharing the news with his friend. “Nope. Neither one of the little ladies has arrived. I was just wondering if I should head over to Sebida, check out the library, or something.” Reb frowned at the display on the monitor, “But the library should have closed hours ago.”

“Fuck!” It was not that Reb was not accustomed to hearing such words from Jack’s mouth. Like most of the guys in their unit, that word was universally used. As a verb, an adjective, a noun, an adverb, hell, even a conjunction sometimes. No, what shocked Reb was how Jack uttered that word. He knew that tone too. And it meant only one thing… the shit had hit the fan — big time.

If that were not bad enough, the police band radio that they kept in the office, just to sometimes get a heads up on the ‘good’ sheriff’s surprise visits, crackled to life.

The slightly slurred but all too familiar voice came out of the old speakers. “Officer down, officer down. Sebida County Library.”

Another voice, this one feminine, responded, “Is everything okay, Sherriff?”

“Fuck, no, everything is not okay, Dottie. That little cunt shot me. And some Ninja dude on a motorcycle clocked the hell out of me.”

This was not looking good, and Reb was about to confer with Jack when the radio blared back to life. “Fuck, I’ve been out cold for almost two hours. Little fucking cunt.”

“I’ll send an ambulance now, Sherriff.”

“Fuck the ambulance. I want every fucking deputy we have called in. I want every corner of this county searched. I want that little bitch found. NOW!”

“Who, Sherriff? Who shot you?”

“That fucking librarian, Mercy Reynolds. I want a statewide, fuck that, nationwide APB out on that little bitch. And make certain it says that the suspect is armed and considered dangerous.”

“Fuck,” this time, it was Jack who was cussing again.

“I take it I don’t have to ask if you heard that, Jack?”

“No, I heard. Fuck, fuck, fuckety, fuck, fuck, Fuck.”

Reb would have laughed if the situation had not been so dire. Then again, Jack only blared curse words when it was.

“So, what you want me to do now?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll need to talk to Ryan and Laura. I don’t fucking relish that one. But for now, I need you to find them. Find Mercy and Stacey Reynolds before our ‘good’ Sherriff does, Reb.”

So that was it? Laura Reynolds. McBride Industries. Not that that surprised Reb. The moment that Jack called him, he had googled his charges. Of course, the first hit had been the Sebida County Library personnel page. But the second had been Mercy Reynold’s connection to her older sister.

Reb was not even surprised about the timing of things. He made it his business to stay current on the news. Local, state, national, and international. He had learned long ago that being aware of such things gave you an advantage, a bigger picture perspective.

So, he knew that McBride had been found dead. That meant the feds would be rounding up everyone vaguely connected to the man, trying their damnedest to find any leads, any information they might have missed. Unfortunately, that also meant that sometimes innocent bystanders like family got pulled into the shit. He had figured that was what this was all about.

Reb half-listened as the dispatcher issued an all-point bulletin for Mercedes Reba Reynolds and an unidentified person on a motorcycle. He knew that the woman’s next task would be calling in every deputy and auxiliary in Sebida County. That meant a lot of men with very little professional training, and itchy fingers would be after the girl. And the armed and dangerous bit was basically a license to commit murder. All of them would be looking to shoot first and ask questions later.

He ran his hands through his thinning hair as he tried to figure out some plan of action. He could hear voices in the background on Jack’s end too.

“Hey, Reb, you should see this.”

He turned to the monitors, and his blood froze. Reb gripped the metal desk until his knuckles turned white, and he feared that there would be permanent marks in its cold surface. George’s voice and Jack’s on the phone became nothing more than a jumble of incomprehensible high-pitched whines and whirls. He could not breathe, and the room spun around him.

He knew that face. That panicked and frightened face. It was the same one that he had seen in his dreams every night for the past month. Though there was no blood covering her nor fires licking around them, Reb knew there would be. It was just a matter of time. His dreams were never wrong.

Dreams that he thought he had left behind him. Over there. Dreams that always came true. No matter how hard he fought Fate. What was the fucking point of premonitions if he was powerless to change things?

And this time the stakes were even higher. Because this time, Rebel Zappa Moonchild knew that the petite, curvy red-head looking around the casino like she had seen a ghost was his destiny.

“Who is she?” Reb did not doubt that George would know. The man knew everyone around here. Hell, if he had been listening, the man had probably told him her whole fucking life story by now.

By the look of George’s face, the way the wrinkles around his mouth tightened, he was certain the man must have, “Stacey Reynolds.”

“Fuck,” this time, it was Reb who cussed. And that was unusual. For the man who had grown up with virtually no rules or boundaries, he had never seen the point in that word. It was nothing special. A word like any other. Until that moment.

He pushed himself off the desk where he had been leaning. He picked up the phone, “I’ll be in touch when I can, Jack.” He did not wait for a response before disconnecting. He did not hear anything else that George was saying as he headed out the office door and down the dimly lit aisles of the casino towards her.

Stacey Reynolds. His Fate.

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