Chapter 2 - HARD TARGET

Dallas, Texas

He stared in disbelief at the damning words crawling across the bottom of the muted twenty-four hour news channel. DEA Agent Leland Hollis testifies for the cartel in drug bust debacle at home of Ellis Colton. Colton sues government for six million dollars.

Jesus. His picture on the screen was larger than the one of the president stepping onto Air Force One for the weekend. He didn’t even turn up the volume, he’d heard enough earlier in the day. Trust the media to sensationalize the details and interpret them in the most shocking way possible

Shaking his head, Leland turned off the TV and headed for the hotel balcony with a bottle of single malt scotch and a glass. Rain had been falling for so long he assumed the patio chair cushion would be waterlogged when he sat, but a wet butt was a small price to pay. He wouldn’t be wearing this suit again.

He longed to leave the hotel, but the thought of running into someone he knew was more than he could stand since the story had hit the newsstands along with the cable networks. Ellis Colton’s attorney had insisted he stay at a hotel instead of at home, and given the nature of the case, Leland had been fine with that.

Being a DEA agent, there were plenty of Vega cartel members ready to take a shot at him, and several who knew exactly where he lived. One more reason to be grateful he was single. Leland would be going crazy right now if he had a family to protect in the midst of this insanity.

Still, tonight the walls of the Best Western were closing in, particularly after the life-changing decision he’d just made. Mentally, he’d left the agency when he’d made the phone call to the civil attorney weeks ago. But yesterday in the courtroom that determination had become etched in stone when he broke the ‘blue wall of silence.’ Finishing his testimony this afternoon had cinched it.

He plopped in the seat with a minor squish and propped his orthopedic boot cast on the glass-topped table, grateful to be outside. The pain in his ankle was knifing its way up his leg into his back. Three more weeks and he’d be out of the boot.

He contemplated taking a pain pill as the unopened bottle of Laphroaig 18 Year Old beckoned—a toss-up as to which was worse for his career. One was illegal, the other insidious. But in light of those headlines, it didn’t matter anymore. He’d just quit his job, whether he’d wanted to or not.

The irony was that the only one who understood was Ford Johnson. After the fiasco that almost killed him, Johnson visited Leland in the hospital. Supposedly he had stopped by to check on his downed officer, but really the man had needed to talk. Ford had felt as much to blame as Leland for the disastrous bust.

Vicodin was in his dopp kit in the bathroom. His last bottle, although he had means to get more, and he was oh-so-tempted. It was easy with his contacts.

He’d like to tell himself he hadn’t had much of a choice. But he’d always had a choice with the pills. He’d just chosen poorly once and had been paying ever since.

His feet vibrated from the bass thrumming in the room under his. He hadn’t realized the speakers on the hotel televisions were that powerful. Taking a deep breath, he broke the seal on the bottle and poured the inaugural shot for his private pity party as the sliding glass door opened on the first floor patio below him. Dark music filled with despair and angst rocketed skyward, melting the balcony railings.

Wasn’t that perfect?

Guitars shrieked with ear-splitting intensity and he wondered if he was going to have to call the management when he heard a woman’s voice over the heavy metal. “Turn it down, honey. That’s too loud.”

“Mo-om!” Exasperation was clear in the one word as the patio door slammed shut, and a semi-peace ruled again with a slight lessening of the thrumming bass at his feet.

God bless America and mothers who would fuss about headbanger music played at thundering decibels.

The burner cell phone in his pocket jangled, surprising him. He recognized the incoming caller, the only person he would have picked up for. “How the hell did you get this number, Gavin?”

“You’re not that hard to find. This is what I do.” The CEO of Armored Extraction Guards and Investigative Security, or AEGIS, Gavin Bartholomew specialized in private security, risk management, and the recovery of people and assets in foreign countries.

“I know. You do it all. I shouldn’t be surprised you found the number, but I just bought this thing yesterday. The only person who knows I own the phone is the checker at Walmart.”

Gavin snorted. “Well I know now. The National Enquirer can’t be far behind.”

“I would laugh if I thought that wasn’t true.”

“Relax, Buddy, I lied. You weren’t that easy to find, but why did I have to hear about this crap on CNN?”

Leland could hear the hurt in his former partner’s voice. “I didn’t want to bother you. You’ve had a lot going on. How’s Kat?” Gavin’s wife was one of Leland’s favorite people. He stared at the glass of liquor but didn’t pick it up.

“Feeling crappy. Nauseated. She’s thrown up everything except her toenails today. She’s finally resting now.”

Stage IV breast cancer metastasized to the liver. Just when you thought your own problems were insurmountable, someone else could remind you how much you’d rather not trade troubles with anyone.

“She saw you on the news before she fell asleep. Asked me to check on you,” added Gavin. And that was so like Kat. To think of others even when she was . . . dying. It physically hurt to think about that.

“They warned us it would be this way, but I never thought . . . God, I fucking hate cancer.” The fear in Gavin’s voice made Leland’s heart ache for both his friends.

They’d treated him like family, and he’d dropped off the face of the earth. Leland hadn’t known what to say then, and he didn’t know what to say now, but his friend refused to dwell on the horror that was coming. “Sooo. How are you? Gotta say, the news cameras did not get your best side.”

Leland forced a levity into his voice that he didn’t feel. “Screw you, Bartholomew. Every side is my good side.”

Gavin’s deep chuckle echoed over the line. “It’s good to know you still have a rich fantasy life. What have you gotten yourself into?”

Leland didn’t miss the unspoken subtext: How did you end up testifying for the defense? He had kept Gavin out of the loop on purpose because of everything going on with Kat, but if his friend had tracked him down—especially in the midst of his own personal crisis, he deserved an explanation.

“The cable news folks have covered all the basics, if not the finer points of the situation. A snitch sold a civilian CPA, Ellis Colton, as a Class One Columbian drug smuggler to my supervisor, Hank Preston.”

“How did it go down?” asked Gavin.

Leland quit staring at the glass on the table and finally took a deep sip of the scotch. The salty vanilla taste and peat smoke were like coming home. He savored the feeling. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself the luxury. Besides, this was hard to talk about.

“The DEA hit the Coltons’ home with a commando SWAT team made up of local police and federal agents. They killed a sleeping toddler, critically wounded a second and severed Jan Colton’s spine, putting her in a wheelchair for life. Except they had it all wrong.”

Leland remembered the look of devastation on Ellis Colton’s face. He took another sip and started to knock back the rest of the scotch but couldn’t. Love made people so freaking vulnerable. He never wanted to be that unprotected. It took him a moment before he could keep talking.

“The criminal informant was lying about everything, and Hank Preston refused to accept that he was being played. Not one illegal substance was found in the CPA’s house. Preston’s snitch was Juan Santos. Remember that bastard?”

Gavin made unhappy sounds on the other end of the phone.

“Santos was paid over thirty grand for a fabrication and has since disappeared. It’d be comical if it wasn’t so damn tragic.” Leland could still hear the Colton babies screaming if he let himself focus on that night. He didn’t even have to close his eyes anymore before prickles of sweat would break out on his upper lip.

“What happened during the raid?” asked Gavin.

“Ellis Colton had a gun and a permit to carry it. Something Preston would have known if he’d bothered to actually manage the case and order a background check. When SWAT broke down the front door, Colton thought someone was breaking into his house to rob him and fired back.”

“How did you get shot?”

“A freshman SWAT member got caught up in contagious shooting. Bullets that got me and one of the babies were both from his gun. Guy was torn up about the kid. Not sure he’ll ever come back from administrative leave.” Leland wouldn’t have been able to.

“And your career at DEA?” Gavin was forever the pragmatist, no matter how passionate the point of view.

“Toast. From the moment Preston ordered me to go on the raid. I should have gone up the chain of command and found someone who would listen to the facts. I didn’t.”

That was the piece giving him trouble. He hadn’t been able to reach Ford Johnson. If he’d only done it differently . . . insisted on talking with Hank’s boss, no matter what kind of high-level meetings the man was in or the shit storm it would have caused going over Preston’s head.

“What are your plans?” asked Gavin.

“I just signed my DEA resignation letter.”

“So, I’ll finally be able to hire you away from my former employers. When do you want to come to work?”

Leland shook his head even though Gavin wasn’t there to see it. “I don’t know, man. I’ve got to take some time. Get this figured out. The boot comes off in three weeks.”

Below him, the sliding glass door opened again and music roared, but only for a second before it was turned down.

“This place sucks, Mom. Why can’t we stay at the Hilton? They don’t have a pool here and there’s only Disney and news on cable. I don’t have my video games or my phone…I still don’t understand why you didn’t grab my stuff when you were packing. This completely blows.” The voice was unmistakably that of a teenage male. It had cracked several times during the diatribe, so he guessed the boy to be no more than thirteen or fourteen.

Jesus. Leland had given his own momma hell at that age. But she’d given it right back, usually with scathing words or sometimes the back of her hand. He braced for what he feared might be coming.

“I’ve been telling you for three years, you could have a job with AEGIS whenever you wanted.” Gavin’s voice was in his ear, pulling him out of the teen drama downstairs.

Was working for an elite executive protection and risk management company what he really wanted? He stared at the almost empty glass. He was too young to retire and too old to go back to school. Still, he’d actually felt a weight lifting from his shoulders when he’d signed those official resignation papers earlier.

A woman’s voice drifted up over his balcony. “Zach, I’m sorry you don’t like the hotel. I know this is hard to understand, and I’m more sorry than I can say that your father’s and my problems are spilling over onto you. We won’t be here long. I’ll try to figure out something about your gaming system. Just give me a little time.”

God, didn’t we all need that.

Leland let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. So she was one of those. A “Nice Mom.” Leland had prayed for one as a young child. By the time he was twelve, he’d given up praying and accepted the bleak reality.

“Are you still there?” asked Gavin.

“Yeah. Let me think about it,” replied Leland. “I need . . . a little time.”

“What’s there to think about exactly?” asked Gavin.

“So what do I do till then?” demanded Zach at the same time.

“How about we buy an in-room movie, or we could go to a theatre? That new superhero blockbuster we saw the previews for last month has just been released.” Nice Mom was cool as a cucumber.

“Yeah?” The snarl in the boy’s ’tude was checked a bit.

“Heck, we’ll do both. Let’s find a time for the nearest theatre and then if we’re up for it, we’ll order another show from the on-demand menu when we get back. It’ll be a movie marathon. There’s bound to be a cinema close by. We can grab a pizza afterward and bring it back with us.”

Nice Mom was working it—hard. Zach didn’t realize what a lucky young man he was.

“Just trying to get my head straight,” mumbled Leland into the phone.

“Why couldn’t I stay with Dad in Mexico for the weekend? I still don’t get that. They were having a party and everything,” the boy’s voice wasn’t quite as snarky now.

“I’m sorry. I know you’re disappointed. I told you, the hospital called and insisted on more blood work before the surgery. I understand it’s very frustrating. How about that pizza?” asked Nice Mom.

“Dunno. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll let you know.” The door slid closed with a firm snap, and the shrieking guitars increased in volume, the bass echoing through his feet.

“I’ve got to think about it,” echoed Leland.

“You do that, darling. I’ll be right here.” Nice Mom’s words were whispered, but Leland could hear them, along with the bone-deep sigh, even from where he sat, although he doubted she realized he was above her. The music was probably too loud right outside the window. Furniture creaked on the floor beneath him as she settled into what he assumed was an equally damp seat.

“Leland? What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Sorry.” Leland shut out what was happening downstairs, lowered his voice and focused on answering Gavin’s question. “I’m fine. Nothing’s going on. I’m just . . . working through this. Don’t know how long it will take till I’m back to full-speed with my ankle after I get out of this boot. I appreciate the offer, but frankly, I don’t know what I want.”

There was a beat of silence. “Okay. I think I understand.”

And the hell of it was, Gavin probably did. He had quit the DEA to start his dream company. The difference was Gavin Bartholomew had known exactly what he wanted to do when he resigned his government position. These days Leland’s life felt so out of control, he had no clue.

“This is a weird place for me. I’ve always had a plan.”

“Give yourself time. Let me know if I can help. You’ve got a job if you want it. And next time you’re on TV, show ’em your good side.”

Leland almost laughed. “Bite me. I’ll be up to see Kat in a few days. We’ll talk more.”

“Sounds good. But . . . don’t wait too long on that visit.”

The words were so matter-of-fact, Leland didn’t catch the real meaning at first. It took a moment to sink in—Kat was closer to the end than he’d realized. Damn.

He hung up the phone with an aching soul, hurting for his friends. God, he was tired. He leaned back in his chair, staring at the bottle of single malt scotch again. He wanted to keep drinking until he felt pleasantly numb, or perhaps until he felt nothing at all.

The music under his feet kicked up another notch and the furniture below scraped across the concrete again, reminding him of his downstairs “neighbors.” A teenage boy and a single mother who were obviously in the throes of a divorce. His well-honed “stay away” tendency kicked in and he started to rise, but before he moved off the seat, he heard the distinct sound of a cell phone keypad dialing.

Years of undercover wiretaps for the DEA gave him no compunction about eavesdropping, even though some things he’d overheard on the job he’d prefer to scrub from memory. Still, he suspected this woman had no idea he was on the corner balcony directly overhead or how well the sound carried, even over the rain and the music. She obviously couldn’t hear him over the thundering beat in the room behind her.

With his orthopedic boot there was no way he could be quiet if he walked inside. He stumped everywhere these days. So he sat with his bottle of scotch and unfinished drink, wondering why he cared one way or the other.

“Hi, Sweetie, I hate talking to your voicemail. We’re here. It was crazy, but we got out on the last afternoon flight. Zach’s angry, and I still haven’t told him why we really left. I don’t know if he’ll believe me. Hell, I don’t know if I’d believe me. Thanks for wiring the cash. I think I can access my own funds, but I’ll have to be careful. Max froze our joint bank account.”

Leland listened, mildly intrigued. This sounded like a soap opera. As a diversion it certainly beat the Disney channel, and at present he knew all the intimate details about what was on cable news.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do about checking Zach into the hospital. Children’s Transplant Center has security, but Max can still get to him there unless I’m with him every minute. Liz, I’m scared. And I really wish you lived closer to Dallas. Call me when you get this, okay? Love you.”

What the hell?

Something definitely did not sound right, and it was more than just a woman ditching her husband. Did the guy hit her or the kid? Was her son ill? Over the years Leland had learned he could dismiss a lot of things, but people who hurt women or children were his personal kryptonite. Thanks to his own difficult childhood, he couldn’t walk away.

The floor abruptly quit vibrating under his feet and the patio door below opened. “Mom? There’s someone at the door to see you.”

“Is it housekeeping?”

There was a non-committal answer from the boy.

“I ordered more towels. I had no idea you could use so many . . .”

Her voice was teasing, fading as she walked inside. But she didn’t close the slider. He heard a murmur of voices. A man’s low rumble, slowly rising then yelling.

“How did you find us?” The woman’s voice was louder than he’d heard it all evening.

“Watch out!” The boy was yelling. “Mom!”

Leland heard shattering glass and a woman’s piercing scream. “Oh my god! Stop!”

Copyright © 2013 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

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© Kay Thomas 2018