Patriot Plaza Truck Stop, 5:15 AM Friday July 10
Karl Bartholomew dreamed of a warm, supple woman arching into his caress. Her hair smelled faintly of fresh-cut lemons and her smooth skin felt delicate under his hands. Her long legs tangled with his and he turned his face into the sweet touch of her hand, kissing her palm.
An alarm sounded, shrill and unwelcome, jerking him out of the dream. She wasn’t his. Couldn’t be his. Not even in his subconscious.
The shrill sound of the alarm blared in his ear and he reached over and slapped at the clock on the nightstand until it fell to the floor. After a long night going over the monthly financial reports, he’d planned to sleep an extra hour before heading back to work.
The alarm screamed again and with an oath, he realized it wasn’t the alarm clock at all. It was his phone, screaming with the abrasive ringtone he set for business calls from the truck stop downstairs.
He rolled to his side, trying to focus on the display long enough to check the time. 5:15 AM flashed brightly above the symbols to answer or ignore the call.
When he’d left the Army for the private sector, he really hadn’t thought through his business decisions. There were thousands of other ventures that didn’t require a man to rise at stupid-early hours. But he hadn’t chosen any of those. He’d chosen to go his own way and create a solitary haven for truckers and travelers on this sparsely populated stretch of Interstate 95 in the middle of nowhere Virginia.
He managed to swipe the right symbol and accept the call. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Jenny, sir. I’m locked out.”
Bart sat up. Since he’d added a restaurant two years ago, his cook, Tim Jensen, was always first in and he unlocked the doors for the first shift cashiers.
“Did you try around back?”
“It’s Bart,” he said, tossing aside the sheets. Jenny was new to the staff and young enough that sir was still entrenched from her high school days.
“Yes, s – Bart,” she said. “Tim’s car isn’t here.”
“Okay. I’ll be right down.”
He was ready and dressed in a matter of minutes, pulling on clean cargo pants and a t-shirt from the neatly folded stacks in the closet. He shoved his feet into a worn pair of boots and dropped his phone and keys into his pockets. God bless the Army for teaching him an efficiency not even the past seven years of civilian life had erased. And God bless civilian life for the more relaxed attitude about shaving.
Those ingrained habits were part of the reason he’d hired Tim in the first place, he thought, hurrying down the stairs from his apartment to the main store. An Army infantry veteran, Tim swore he was up every morning anyway, might as well be productive instead of playing solitaire on his laptop.
Bart understood exactly what the older man meant. Sometimes it was the crap they’d survived, other times it was the utter lack of excitement. Either way, sleep wasn’t something that came easy for either of them.
Following habit, his glance swept over this side of his property, counting the trucks parked in the overnight area. The diesel engines rumbled where drivers had slept over and soon they’d be up and wanting breakfast before getting back on the road.
His brilliant business expansion didn’t seem quite so great in the pre-dawn hours when he was the one doing the cooking.
“Morning,” he said to Jenny who was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. He shook out the key and opened the deadbolt, then tapped his wallet across the gray square security panel. The card in his wallet greeted the panel, making happy electronic noises as the locks opened. The perky sound irritated him.
“There you go.”
“Thank you, si –”
He cut her off with a look.
“I mean, thank you.”
“Thanks for calling me.” The girl had initiative, a quality he looked for in his staff. His monthly networking with other business owners assured him most employees at her pay level would have simply gone back home. “I’ll unlock the register for you and then get started in the kitchen.” He checked the clock above the door. “If any of them ask, tell them we’re fifteen minutes behind.”
Everything looked normal in the dining room as he walked through, but he only turned the lights on over the counter. He checked the staff board, pleased to see Maria was on the schedule for a double shift today. The oldest of the waitresses, the woman moved faster than lightning, made everyone smile, and never let a coffee cup run dry.
Bart flipped switches, turning on lights as he headed for the walk-in cooler. He breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted two large pans of the breakfast casseroles Tim made up for weekend service.
He carried those out to the prep table and turned on the oven to preheat. The casseroles would salvage the schedule and satisfy the early risers until Tim showed up. Bart stared at the grill and fryers, hoping like hell it didn’t come down to him doing the cooking. Owner or not, his Army service focused more on covert ops than cheese omelets.
Riding a wave of wishful thinking, Bart stuck his head out the back door to check for Tim. Like Jenny said, the man’s Army salvage Jeep wasn’t in the usual spot. “What the hell, Tim?” he muttered to the humid summer morning as he dialed the number for Tim’s house.
When the voice mail prompted him, Bart left a curt message and pocketed his cell. He couldn’t go looking now, but as soon as the breakfast rush was over and someone else was here to help Jenny, he would drive out and find his AWOL cook. And when he found him, he’d insist the man start using a cell phone.
With one more look around, he was turning back to the kitchen when he noticed the clamp they used to secure the lids on the big trash dumpster had fallen to the ground. He made a mental note to talk with whoever had closed up last night. Raccoons and opossums were forever rooting through the scraps and trash, a serious downfall of being the only business in the immediate area. He stomped over, ready to take out his frustration on any unwanted visitors in the bin. It wasn’t his first time dealing with the wildlife and he pounded on the side before he raised the lid cautiously.
No reaction from inside. That was good news, but he wanted to be sure he wouldn’t be trapping a wild animal for the day before he put the clamp back in place. Holding his breath against the stench of rotting garbage, he found a foothold and leaped up to peer inside.
Fury whipped through him and he nearly lost his footing. “Dammit.”
Bound and gagged, Tim’s body had been tossed on top of yesterday’s trash. Bart checked for a pulse, but his cook was well beyond any lifesaving effort. Tim stared sightlessly at the lightening sky. Bruises marred his face and blood soaked through the fabric of his shirt and jeans. Even with his hands bound, it was clear a couple of fingers had been broken and crushed by something heavy.
He spotted a spiral notebook in Tim’s shirt pocket and pulling a pencil from his pocket he slid it out and turned a couple of pages. Just produce orders and a new recipe that didn’t make much sense to Bart.
Bart was tempted to take a closer look, but he didn’t want to contaminate the scene further. Pushing the notebook back into Tim’s pocket, he dropped back to the ground and pulled his phone from a side pocket of his pants.
Pacing away from the dumpster, he swore at the streak of orange paint across the knee of his pants. He looked back and saw the glowing orange graffiti of a skull and crossbones on the dumpster. Instead of the usual one-eyed grimace found on pirate flags, the skull had ‘X’s for eyes and a wavy line for a smile. He’d seen the sign in the news recently and reporters tied it to a Mexican cartel moving into the area and stirring up trouble with gangs in the urban areas further north.
How the hell had Tim managed to piss off a drug cartel?
He took a picture with his phone. Switching to his contacts page, he scrolled the short list of names and numbers until he found the sheriff’s office. No sense dialing 911 and rousing all of the volunteers in the county for a body.
He dialed and while he waited for an answer, he looked up toward the one security camera trained at this door. The vandal had covered the lens with that same neon orange spray paint. They might find the vandal, but odds were against finding whoever dumped the body.
What he wouldn’t give to kick these criminal crews off the planet. It seemed his best years had been spent cleaning up streets and communities just in time for the next wave to move in.
When the deputy on the desk duty answered, Bart gave the few details, relieved to have a tangible task. Then he just stood there, angry, a little sick, and unsure of the next step.
It felt wrong to leave Tim’s body out here alone, but he should walk through the kitchen for any sign that Tim had been dragged into something shady. He also wanted a look at the security tape without an audience. Bart knew his cook wouldn’t have willingly done anything wrong, but those injuries indicated something more than a mugging or car-jacking gone bad.
Bart recognized signs of torture, even a fast job like the one someone had put Tim through.
With a heavy sigh, he made another call, this time to his ex-wife, holding the phone away from his ear so her scathing greeting wouldn’t break an eardrum.
“Good God, do you ever check a clock?”
It had been a familiar refrain on the rare times he’d been able to call home when he was deployed. “Sorry, Beth, but it’s important.”
A fact he appreciated since it meant his son was vacationing far away on the Jersey shore with her at her family’s beach house.
“Listen to me,” he growled into the phone. “I have a situation here and it might spill over.”
“You never could stop –”
“Not the time, Beth.” She’d told him often enough how he put the Army above his wife and son. “Can you just keep Kyle with you until I know it’s clear down here?”
“Is this some kind of joke? He’s telling everyone about getting back to you and that car you’re supposed to rebuild. A project you didn’t bother to clear with me. It’s all he can talk about. You can’t let him down.”
“I won’t.” Bart scrubbed at his face, while the old laundry list of his failures as a husband and father put a sickening spin in his gut. “I swear I won’t. Stay alert up there, Beth. I mean it.”
“I’m sending you a text with a phone number. If you have any concerns, if anything feels the slightest bit off, call that number and you’ll have help.”
“You’re scaring me.”
Good. Bart glanced at the dumpster. “Just stay alert,” he said, more gently this time.
As far as mornings went, he thought, this could only be worse if it was a Monday.
* * *
Baltimore, Maryland, 8:00 AM Friday July 10
“Your witness is dead.” The statement was accompanied by the loud slap of a file hitting the desk. Pictures of the crime scene spilled out.
Special Agent Hannah Thalberg didn’t want to look. Not at the pictures and definitely not at her boss. But she was a professional so she straightened the paperwork and opened the file properly.
A few days ago, she’d met with the young woman who wanted to exchange information about a mobile meth lab for a better life for her and the baby she was carrying. Instead, they’d been ambushed by three gangbangers loyal to Carlos Gonzales, the witness’ boyfriend with known ties to an ambitious Mexican cartel.
Outgunned, three to one, it was only a matter of time before the crew sent to recover Krystal succeeded. Hannah had taken a grazing shot across her upper arm, but they’d taken her witness and disappeared. Considering the cartel’s established pattern of brutally silencing witnesses and then going after the agent who’d tempted them to turn, she’d been leashed to her desk for her own safety. For three days she’d seen nothing but the inside of this office and been shadowed every step by the mandatory protective detail.
Hannah was weary of the restrictions and extra eyes watching her every move. There was no privacy and some things she just wasn’t ready to share. Not even within the parameters of a mundane report. Especially since… but she couldn’t think about that now. She had to focus on one thing at a time.
“When and where was she found?”
“Last night in the dumpster out back. She couldn’t have been there more than a day. The garbage men found her during their route, called it in.”
Hannah looked up. “I beg your pardon? She was dumped here at our office?”
“Sends a message, doesn’t it?”
Maybe the protective detail was a good thing after all. She forced herself to examine the pictures, willing her stomach to settle. Having never been squeamish about these things, it would raise too many questions if she turned green – or worse – now.
Gruesome didn’t begin to cover it. The scene was raw and her heart dropped at the sight of Krystal’s body marred head to toe with burns, bruises, and lacerations of a lengthy, violent interrogation. She’d done that. In her determination to break up the mobile meth lab system, she’d gotten this girl and her baby killed.
Hannah turned the page and skimmed the coroner’s report. The photos attached were worse. Somehow cleaning away the dirt and gore only illuminated the terrible pain Krystal had endured in her last hours.
She reached over for a sticky note and wrote down two names, then pressed the note to the preliminary report.
“What’s that?” Her boss tilted his head.
“Baby names. She deserves to have her baby listed as a victim. By name.”
Her boss raised an eyebrow, but didn’t argue. “You know what’s next.”
Hannah swallowed the surge of bile and met her boss’ grim gaze. Special Agent Henry DeVries had led the Baltimore office for three years. He’d welcomed her when she transferred in and if she wasn’t careful he’d soon be escorting her out the door.
She wanted to argue, but knew it would be a waste of breath. This crime scene, this sadistically clear message marked the end of her involvement with this investigation. It might well mark the end of her time in Baltimore.
DeVries pushed his glasses up his nose. “Come on into my office. Bring the file with you.”
Her stomach rolled again. Anxiety. Guilt. Sympathy. A woman and her unborn child had been murdered to show Hannah and the DEA that the cartel was untouchable.
She paged through the file as she followed her boss to his office. Yeah, she knew what was next for her: a transfer to a different assignment far away from the life and friends she’d made here. It was a standard risk of the job and she’d gone into it eyes wide open. She’d never expected the lowest point of her career to collide with the most stressful moment of her personal life.
As much as she tried to put it out of her mind, to focus on the file and the case, her mind wandered back to the little pink plus sign on the pregnancy test she’d taken this morning.
Her stomach clutched. The inevitable relocation wasn’t just about her anymore. The father of her child deserved to know and he deserved to hear it from her.
How much time could she buy?
She sat down, waiting for her boss to drop the relocation bomb when her eyes lit on an order for a wiretap, but the area code was Virginia, not Maryland. The phone number and business listed were for the truck stop owned by her friend Karl Bartholomew.
Her office and investigation were trying to run down the cartel’s mobile meth lab system, but she hadn’t seen anything pointing to Bart’s place, until Krystal had mentioned the store a couple of weeks ago. It was the reason she’d tried to turn Carlos Gonzales’ girlfriend into a witness against him. The reason she’d pushed hard enough to get the woman and her baby killed.
This was the first she’d heard that anyone else on the investigation was treating Bart’s operation as a potential suspect. The wiretap order in Krystal’s file was no coincidence. Hannah’s stomach clenched and rolled, but she blamed it on anxiety rather than morning sickness this time. She had to find a way to learn more so she could warn him.
“Have a seat and let’s figure this out.”
“I can still contribute here.”
“No.” DeVries shook his head. “It’s too dangerous.”
“My instincts got us this close. That’s obvious by the way they retaliated.”
“Hannah, I wish it was that simple. Do you have a location request or do you want me to handle it?”
“What about my vacation time?”
“You can use that to get settled in your new area.”
She sighed. “Then I request Virginia.”
“Absolutely the wrong direction. You cannot stay on this case.”
Absolutely? She thought about the wiretap. What on earth did they think tapping Bart’s phones would accomplish? The man frequently assisted the DEA with tips about potential illegal activity with truck drivers or cargo that came through his truck stop on a regular basis. It was how she’d first met him last year.
“What about the Pacific Northwest?”
Her hand instinctively went to her belly and she masked the tell-tale move by fiddling with the jacket buttons on her pale blue linen summer suit.
“It’s beautiful country. Lots of things to do besides round up the bad guys. You’ll love it.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Yes. Before the cartel manages to do it on their terms.”
She preferred to avoid that outcome as well. “Okay. Fine. I’ll get my things packed up and report next week.”
“I’ll have you on a flight tomorrow morning.”
“I have vacation time,” she insisted. “I can’t leave tomorrow, there’s too much to do.”
“We have admin for that.”
“Thanks for the offer, but can’t you give me the weekend at least?” She needed time to figure out who was looking at Bart’s business and why. Needed time to tell him about the baby.
“I’ll get the paperwork ready. Admin will handle the logistics. It’s early enough we might be able to get you out tonight.”
“Hang on. This is ridiculous. You have a protective detail assigned –”
He pulled off his wire-rimmed glasses and glared at her. “This, Agent Thalberg, is reality.”
“Then you’d better start the paperwork for two IDs,” she said, rolling back her shoulders. The second probably wouldn’t be necessary, but her boss didn’t need to know that yet.
His gaze narrowed. “Why?”
She was working the timeline in her head, praying she could swing by her apartment on her way out of town.
“Because if you’re relocating me immediately my husband will want to come along and I’m not sure he can get away as early as tonight.” A small voice in her head clamored that Bart would never want to see her again after telling that whopping lie. But she had to get out of the office, shake her protective detail, and find some way to warn him.
Her boss’ mouth dropped open. She understood how he felt. The previously unmentioned marriage was a shock to her as well.
She nodded once.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “That trip I took to Las Vegas.” She slid a glance at her watch, knew she had at least two more hours before offices opened in Nevada and her lie could be exposed. “A few weeks back.”
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