Five Star/Gale, Cengage, 2014, 304 pp., $25.95
Harlequin Worldwide Mystery, 2016, 332 pp., $7.99
I leaned back against a cool granite tombstone and gazed at the chandelier of stars faintly lighting the old country graveyard. The two-note song of crickets lulled me. Caution and the steamy heat kept me awake. The temperature had cooled from the low nineties—a typical August day in Missouri—to the low eighties, but the Kevlar vest Annalynn had insisted I wear over my black top kept sweat trickling down my back.
Achilles, my K-9 dropout, sneaked up and licked my face. That was his favorite joke. As I wiped off his kiss, he stretched out his long black and fawn body beside me and sniffed my paintball gun, Annalynn’s preferred weapon against the young thugs who’d been vandalizing graveyards in northern Vandiver County.
“Phoenix, grab your spotlights. We have an emergency,” Annalynn called from the squad car hidden behind an evergreen tree.
I sprinted to pick up the two remote-controlled lights I’d placed atop tombstones and stash them and the paintball gun in the trunk. I let Achilles into the back seat, slid under the steering wheel, turned on the motor, and stepped on the gas. “Did the kids hit Oak Grove?”
“No, the dispatcher got an all-hands call from Sheriff Towson.” Her voice was tight. “Four men with assault rifles are holed up in an abandoned farmhouse five miles from here.”
“Bloody hell!” I hit the brake. “We can’t respond to a call like that from another county. You’re not even supposed to be on a stakeout in your own county.”
“Go, damn it, go!”
I hadn’t heard her swear since sixth grade. I went. My adrenaline surged at the prospect of a real challenge.
“Turn right.” She took a deep breath. “I have no choice, Phoenix. He has only two deputies there. No one else is within thirty miles. I can at least handle coordination to free up a trained officer.”
Leaving me out of the game? No way. Skepticism intruded. “Who are these supposed desperados? How do we know these guys aren’t our tombstone tippers drinking in an empty house to work up their courage?”
“Sheriff Towson had placed a motion-sensor camera outside the house to watch for meth cooks. He recognized a man who grew up here. The FBI identified him as one of the four people who robbed a bank in Cleveland, Ohio, Friday afternoon. They killed at least one person.”
I pushed the Crown Victoria toward eighty, the max the blacktop road allowed.
“Turn right at the top of the hill. We report to a deputy two miles from there.”
I slowed enough to slide around the square turn. Two miles later I braked to a stop ten feet away from the beige squad car blocking the road.
A decidedly pregnant officer came from behind the car holstering her gun as I lowered my window. “Please tell me you’re Phoenix Smith and you brought an MP-5.”
“I am, and I didn’t.” I’d never met this young black woman with corn-rowed hair.
Annalynn leaned toward my open window. “I’m Annalynn Carr Keyser, acting sheriff of Vandiver County. Phoenix is a volunteer.”
“A reserve deputy,” I pointed out.
“Lieutenant Willetta Volcker. I’m coordinating the operation. Honored to meet you both.” She peered past my shoulder. “You, too, Achilles. What weapons do you have?”
“Our Glocks and a deer rifle with a night scope.”
“Damn. You’re no better armed than we are. They have at least two AR-15s.” She leaned down. “Sheriff Towson just texted me that they heard movement in the house. He thinks they’re getting ready to leave. There’s brush and tall weeds all around the place. He’s afraid they’ll get past him and Wolf to a car. Lord knows where they’ve got that stashed.” She hesitated. “He’d like for you two to guard the back way out.”
“Certainly,” Annalynn said matter of factly.
I knew that her overdeveloped sense of duty had prompted that answer. Okay by me. I released the trunk lid and opened my door. “I’ll get the rifle and our remote-controlled spotlights. We’ll set those up to use if the robbers make a break for it. Are we sure enough of who they are to shoot to kill?” If we faced AR-15s, we had no other option.
“Well, give them a nanosecond to surrender before you fire. And hide behind the biggest tree you can find.”
Annalynn turned off the dome light and maneuvered into the driver’s seat. She prepared her Glock to fire. “We can’t use our radios. How do we communicate, Lieutenant?”
“By texting. We need to exchange numbers.”
I handed my mobile to Annalynn, made sure the rifle had a full load, readied my Glock and extra magazine, and slipped into the passenger seat.
“We’re all set,” Annalynn said. “Where do we go?”
“Halfway up this rise, douse your lights. At the top, cut your engine and coast down a long hill. Go past the driveway on your right that leads to the farmhouse. About three hundred yards after that you’ll see a gravel road that runs behind the house. Leave the squad car across it and walk toward a dirt road—a track—that leads up to the house. Text me as soon as you’re in place.”
The officer stepped back from the car. “My sympathies for the loss of your husband, ma’am. He’d be awfully proud of the way you’ve taken over the sheriff’s department.”
“Thank you,” Annalynn said, her even tone giving no hint of the grief that plagued her day and night. She closed her window and edged around the officer’s squad car. “I’m sorry, Phoenix. I couldn’t let a pregnant woman half our age take this risk.”
“You’re in charge, of course. Did you ever face a situation like this in the CIA?”
“No.” I’d crawled through fields to evade Hungarian border guards several times early in my career as a covert operative. Being the hunter scared me less than being the prey. “If the bad guys try to leave, we have to shoot them before they can shoot us. And from as far away as possible.” If they got close with those AR-15s, we’d become sieves.
She shut off the headlights. “I’m terrified, Phoenix. I’ll never forgive myself if you’re hurt because I talked you into helping me try to catch some young hoodlums.”
Always attuned to Annalynn’s moods, Achilles whined. Before I rescued him, I hadn’t realized a Belgian shepherd, a Malinois, could be so sensitive.
I reached back to stroke his dark head. “They’re not expecting us. We’ll be fine.” My subconscious contradicted me. Once again I smelled the spices in an Istanbul bazaar, heard a submachine gun chatter, and felt a bullet rip through the flesh beneath my ribs. I blocked out the flashback. If I flinched, we’d be goners. “You won’t have time to ponder the moral issues of killing, Annalynn. If these men don’t drop their weapons the instant you say ‘Police,’ we both have to fire until they’re not just down but dead.”
“I understand.” She turned off the motor.
“I’ll fire from right to left. You fire from left to right. Just the way we practiced at the firing range.”
“Okay.” Her voice held steady.
I marveled at the nerves of a woman who had spent most of her adult life raising two children, organizing charity drives, and running her hometown’s school board.
We coasted past the driveway to the gravel road. Annalynn pulled over to block it. “I’ll carry the spotlights,” she whispered. “Should we put the leash on Achilles?”
“No need. Quiet, boy, quiet.” Free, he’d stand a better chance of escaping if we took bullets. I peered down the gravel road until I could make out the outline of brush and trees along the sides. Nothing to hear but crickets. The moon and stars provided just enough light that I could see nothing moved for fifty yards or so. “I’ll go first. We’ll walk by the undergrowth on the left side of the road until I find a place to set up an ambush.” I had to ease the tension. “I must warn you: You may get your uniform dirty.”
“Very funny, Pigpen.” She took a deep breath. “It’s really quiet out here. I don’t think we should risk closing the doors.”
I relaxed. Fear hadn’t stopped her from thinking. “Right. Ready?”
I opened my door as quietly as I could and eased out with my finger on the rifle’s trigger. Achilles landed on the ground beside me and pressed his shoulder against my left leg. As soon as Annalynn stepped out, I closed my door to within a finger’s width of the latch and crept down the left side of the road. It was unfenced. On the other side, wood fence posts leaned like the Tower of Pisa. Probably barbed wire held them up. Thick brush and small trees on that side blocked our view of the farmhouse.
Annalynn nudged me at the same moment I saw the turnoff to the farmhouse ahead. I nodded, stepped deeper into the undergrowth, and moved forward gingerly until a thigh-high obstacle blocked my way. A fallen tree. Badly needed protection. “Wait,” I whispered. I worked my way along the thick trunk about eight feet before a large limb blocked me.
I edged back to Annalynn. “Walk until you feel a limb. That’s your spot. Find a place on a branch or sapling five or six feet high and at least that far to your left to set up one light. I’ll do the same on this end.”
She handed me a spotlight and remote and inched her way down the tree trunk.
Three long minutes later we knelt behind it, as ready as we could be. Achilles, quivering with fear, pressed against me.
Annalynn’s iPhone glowed near the ground as she texted the pregnant deputy.
I shifted my eyes back to the grassy track barely visible among the weeds and brush, imprinting what I saw so that I could recognize the slightest change. Too bad Vandiver County couldn’t afford night-vision goggles. I tested the night scope on the rifle. Junk. Still, better than the naked eye.
Achilles tensed and stood to stare at the sloping hill ahead of us.
I heard a faint sound. A car door?
Achilles grabbed the tail of my vest in his teeth and pulled.
“Let go. Stay.”
He gave up on me and burrowed under our tree trunk.
I stared at the grassy track. A shadow moved in the farthest reach of my vision. I found it with the night scope. “A car,” I whispered to Annalynn.
She texted the alarm. I focused on the car’s left front unlit headlight and then the windshield. No head visible behind the wheel. They had opened the front doors to push the car down the rough slope. They moved slowly but steadily, but they’d turn on the motor when they hit the flat some two hundred feet away from us. I didn’t dare let them get any closer to us than that. Besides, they’d be a much tougher target in a speeding car. I gripped the remote to the spotlight on my right.
“Yell ‘Police’ when I turn on the light,” I whispered.
“Wait a sec.” She punched in something on my cell and then on her iPhone. “Ready.”
I hit the remote switch and moved my hand back to the trigger. The far edge of the light revealed a man behind each front door.
“Police. Put your hands on your head,” Annalynn shouted.
The man on the driver’s side stepped to his left and raised an assault rifle. He annihilated the spotlight as I put the first of three bullets into his chest.
Annalynn turned on her light, and the other man dove into the car. I put a bullet into the left front tire.
Bullets shattered the spotlight and showered us with leaves and twigs from the saplings behind us. The motor roared and the car leapt forward.
Annalynn and I both fired as fast as we could pull our triggers. The car turned onto the gravel road, skidded, and headed straight for our tree trunk.