Laura patted a sleeping Chloe’s back. She wore the baby sling that they had borrowed from Jaycee and Rex. Of course, she was not as sexy in it as a bare-chested Ryan with their daughter snuggled close to his heart. She fought back the tears. This was all she could do for him now.
For them – her baby sister was there too. Mercy was not much older than Chloe when Mama had to go back to work. They supposedly had a babysitter, but the elderly neighbor, more often than not, forgot them while she watched soap operas all day.
Back then, Laura had been so angry that the woman did not take better care of them, especially Mercy. Most days, she returned from school to discover a crying baby in the old crib, who had not been fed or changed. Oh, she had hated that woman. Now, Laura realized the woman was probably showing the early signs of dementia that claimed her life.
By the time she went to junior high, she had convinced Mama they didn’t need a sitter. That it was an unnecessary expense and they could use the money for other things. From then until she went off to college, her sisters had become her responsibility. She had lost the battle with those tears. Damned hormones should be better by now.
She brushed them back and waved to Jaycee, who was chatting with that woman. It turned out that Sheriff Earl Kerr’s wife was her friend’s client. She knew all the rumors about the woman – a drunk. Turns out there was another explanation for those ‘falls,’ bruises, and broken bones. She should know things were not always as they seemed.
And through it all, Angel swang. Had she ever been that care-free? Probably not. She certainly could not remember it anyway.
Three other children came running onto the playground. The oldest looked to be a teen boy, another boy was seven or eight, and a little blond girl toddle on chubby legs. But it was the man in starched khaki pants, a button-down shirt, designer sweater, and loafers that drew her attention. Even a ‘casual’ J. T. Tyler had a pickle up his ass, as Mama would say.
He said something to his oldest son. She watched the older boy help the little girl into a swing as the other one began to converse with Angel. After only a few words, they ran off to the rope ladder and climbing frame. The man pretended not to notice Jaycee and, as casually as he could, walked to the bench where she sat.
“Is this seat taken?”
“No.” She waved with her hand, indicating for him to take a seat at the other end of the bench.
They sat in silence for several minutes, watching the children play. When he finally spoke, his voice was so low that Laura strained to hear it. “Sorry, I was late. They took Stephens into custody an hour ago at the hotel. He claimed that I had sent him to take you into custody.”
One down, but she believed, perhaps knew, there were two more to go. “They found a second cellphone on him. A burner. With numbers that rang through to my personal assistant and another agent. As well as Sheriff Kerr and a high-level soldier in the Garcia cartel. It isn’t enough to arrest any of them. But I have reassigned Trent.”
“And the agent? Kerr?”
“We don’t have enough to arrest Kerr. That man is more slippery than a greased pig. Hell, we know that he got away with murder by framing the district attorney for drunk driving.”
It had been big news when she had arrived back in town almost a year ago. The Sebida District Attorney, who had dared to prosecute the sheriff for the murder of a low-level drug dealer who had refused to cut him in, had been pulled over and arrested for drunk driving.
Sure, everyone realized that it stunk to high heaven. Perhaps the man would have managed to survive the storm and clear his name, except for a letter to the editor of the local paper. The author of that letter had been one of Mercy’s friends, a young woman who owned the local diner. Lizzie Patterson had lost her mother and step-father in a drunk driving accident. Her younger brother was left paralyzed.
Lizzie had been barely out of high school when the responsibility for her brother’s care and the restaurant were thrust on her. She had become a vocal advocate for stricter laws and enforcement. District Attorneys from prominent families were not above the law, and she made her case passionately.
Laura had to wonder if Wanda Kerr wasn’t right. None of them would be safe as long as that man was alive. She had no doubt that even behind bars, Earl would pose a danger. But that still left, “Saunders?”
The man half-smiled and shook his head, “I never said the agent’s name. But for now, I believe it might be more useful to keep Agent Saunders in his position. See if he can lead us anywhere useful. But be assured that we are watching the man closely. Now that we are not in my office where we can be overheard, what more can I do for you, Ms. Reynolds?”
She looked around the small neighborhood park in the affluent neighborhood. They were the only ones there this late in the day when most parents were finishing up homework and getting the children ready for bed. So, unless Tyler had worn a wire, and she had no reason to believe he would, then this was as safe as it would get.
“We told you this afternoon. Jaycee’s husband and Ryan are in Torreon. Most of the rest is true too. But we left out a few details. For obvious reasons. Rex and Ryan are leading a small band of highly-trained former military special operatives. They are there to rescue my sister, the McBrides, Will, and his cousin.”
If she had not been trained to observe her opponents for the least sign of weakness, Laura would have missed the brief look that flittered across Tyler’s face as he spoke. Discomfort? Perhaps even guilt? “Yes, Agent Williams told me about the young girl during his questioning.”
In a court of law, she would have focused on that weakness, dug deeper until she was satisfied, but this was not a courtroom, and this man was not the enemy. They were the ones that needed his assistance, so she let it go.
“Besides the numbers, the other thing that we lied about was the time frame. They are already in place. Jaycee received a text message confirming that a while ago. Right now, they are running reconnaissance. Trying to locate everyone, look for routes in and out of the compound, and how many men Garcia have.”
“And you want me to organize a take-down operation using that information?”
“No, a raid might be counter-productive. Garcia would just kill them and hid the evidence. Our team, because it is small, has a better chance of getting in and out. What we do need is your protection and diplomatic expertise getting everyone back across the border. We need you to take custody of Cassie and Callie McBride, depose my sister and the girl. Gather the evidence that can be used in court. Then after everyone is safe, take your team in and make the arrests.”
“You’re asking me to sanction vigilante justice?”
“No, I’m allowing you to gather legitimate evidence from a private black op. Make no mistake, Mr. Tyler. This operation will move forward. With or without you. With you is our preference. It will be safer for those women if we can safely deliver them into your hands in Mexico.”
“You get their testimony. And put Garcia behind bars where he belongs. Then everyone can go back to their lives. Or as close to it as they can.”
She paused for a moment to allow the implications to sink in before she continued. “Or we can get them all out ourselves. Place them in safehouses where not even you will find them.” Laura waved her hand towards the other woman leaning against the swing and chatting as if nothing were happening. “Do you recognize her?”
“What did you think happened to the good Sheriff’s wife?”
She watched the pink spread up Tyler’s neck to his ears. Laura had forgotten how much fun it was making your opponent squirm. She loved her daughter, but damn, she was like a shark scenting blood. She and Ryan needed to talk. She wanted back in the game.
“We weren’t sure. We checked out Kerr’s story but could never locate her or his daughters back in Virginia. We found a couple of restraining orders, but the trail went dead. We were afraid…”
“That he might have done something to them? Wanda came to Jaycee a year ago. She helped her get those restraining orders. But there was no women’s shelter safe enough for them. And if Wanda filed for divorce, well, there was always the possibility that Kerr would get custody or even visitation. As Wanda says, they would never be free of him.”
“So, Jaycee helped them to hide. I’m sure that you are aware that this country still has an underground railroad. But it is slaves of a different kind that it hides and protects. Make no doubt about it, survivors of abuse are enslaved to the past and often their abusers. And sometimes the justice system meant to protect them only perpetuates that.”
“So trust me when I tell you that we can all disappear. Ryan and I, my sister and Will, his cousin, the McBrides – all of us gone. And your case will be gone with us. With Gerald dead, you need us.” She sat back and patted her daughter for a moment, giving Tyler time to consider what she said.
“Okay,” was all Tyler said. But it was enough. Now, they all waited. Waited for the information they needed from Torreon. And prayed. Prayed that it came. And for the safety of those they loved.