Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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Free Chapters of Beyond Texas

 
Beyond Texas

Chapter 1

     “Are them titties real?"  The drunk blasted Twinkle Sue "Twinkie" Carmichael with tequila fumes before lunging across the counter and trying to grab her aforementioned ta-tas.  She'd watched the stranger stagger across the highway, do a face plant on the sidewalk, and then crash into the Clown Motel's glass door before finally stumbling into the lobby. 
     Twinkie reached under the counter and grabbed the .44 caliber magnum she kept stowed in a drawer for emergencies.  No telling what kind of mischief this guy might be bringing their way. 
     She pointed the gun's muzzle toward the ceiling.  “Not that it’s any of your business, but they’re as real as my little friend here."  Twinkie hoped she sounded calm.  "I won't use this unless you give me a reason, but believe me, I can shoot the eye out of a rattler at a hundred- feet."  She cocked the revolver to emphasize her point.  Maybe, just maybe, good sense would trump his booze-induced stupidity.   
     "FYI, if you do something dumb, I'll blow a hole the size of Dallas right through your sorry mid-section.  The damn shame of it would be that guts and gore would splatter all over my clean lobby."  Twinkie paused, trying to gauge his reaction.  "I suggest you make yourself scarce.  I'm the mayor of this town, and if you show your face again, I guarantee you won't like the consequences.”       
     “Hey, lady, ain’t no big deal, no big deal a’tall.”  The man threw up his hands and backpedaled so fast he tripped over the newspaper rack.  “I'm a-goin'.  Don't get trigger happy."  His words trailed off as he flew out the door and hightailed it down the road.
     "Good Lord, child.  I almost had a heart attack when you pulled out that cannon."  Marvela Carmichael, Twinkie's mom, slapped her hand on her chest and dropped into one of the leather chairs scattered throughout the motel lobby.   
     "Take a deep breath," Twinkie yelled as she ran to lock the front door.  She didn't think the man would return, but she'd rather err on the side of caution.
     Mission accomplished, she plopped on the sofa and leaned back, praying her heart would resume its normal cadence. 
     "Mama, would you make me a tall glass of sweet tea?  My mouth's so full of cotton I couldn't spit if my life depended on it."  Truthfully, she'd rather have a double shot of Jack Daniels, but tea would have to do for now.
     "Sure enough," Marvela said.  Her coffee kiosk had been the talk of the town when it opened, but after six months of operation, grizzled cowboys frequently popped in for a double-tall special brew.
     In a community the size of Mirage, Texas, population 2,642, diversity had to be the name of the economic game, and the Carmichael mother/daughter team lived by that credo.  They co-owned the Clown Motel, the One Shot or Two Coffee Kiosk, and the Pump 'Em Up convenience store.
     "That dude's prison tats looked like they were done by a two-year-old with a ballpoint pen."  Marvela snorted in disgust.  "What do you bet he has a rap sheet a mile long?" 
     Even though Twinkie felt as twitchy as a mare in heat, she couldn't resist a giggle.  "Was it the 'Pigs Suck' on his neck that gave him away?"  
     "Yep."  Marvela filled two glasses with iced tea, adding a sprig of mint to each.  "Here you go."  She handed Twinkie her drink and joined her on the sofa.  "Are you sure you're all right?"
     "I'm good, thanks."
     "Would you really have plugged him?" Marvela asked.  "Not that I would have blamed you.  There's meanness everywhere, and that man had bad news written all over him."
     Twinkie thought a few seconds before answering.  "Only if I thought he'd hurt us.  Even then, I wouldn't have gone for a kill shot." 
     Marvela rolled the cold glass across her forehead.  "That works for me," she said with a grin.  "What do you think about expanding our operation to include booze?  Right now, I'd sell my first-born for something alcoholic.  And by the way, do you have a bottle of wine stashed in the office refrigerator?"
     "First of all, I'm an only child.  Plus, getting a liquor license is expensive and time-consuming.  And no, I don't have a bottle of wine, but I certainly wish I did."
     Marvela jumped up.  "Screw the tea.  I'm making us a couple of triple mochas with double chocolate.  If we can't have wine, we might as well go for the best alternative." 
     "That sounds like my idea of heaven."  Twinkie's initial surge of adrenalin seemed to be receding, so she might as well replace the natural high with a caffeine and sugar pick-me-up.
     Marvela had the milk steamer going full blast when a male voice boomed, “I'll bet that boozer would give his bottom dollar for a pair of dry underwear." 
     Talk about piddling her drawers!  Twinkie squelched her scream when she realized the voice belonged to her assistant manager.  “For heaven's sake, Jesse Roy!" she yelled.  "I didn’t hear you come in."  Her ticker seemed to be getting a workout today.  "Did you see what happened?"
     "Just enough to know that 'ole boy was up to no good,"  Jesse Roy said.  "I'm glad you scared him off, 'cause I'm not in the mood to kick his butt." 
     At five-foot-seven and a wiry hundred-and-forty-five pounds, Jessie Roy Walker might appear to be a push over, but he rarely met anyone he couldn't put a whoop-ass on.  His résumé reflected a variety of occupations, including motel night- manger, county undertaker and rodeo clown.       
      "Ain't nobody died lately, so I decided to take the sandwich board out and try to drum up some business for the motel.  But I didn't count on that damn sand blowin' hard enough to take the hide right off a man."  He pointed out the window as a tumbleweed the size of a small Honda rolled by.        
     Twinkie had been so preoccupied with her assailant she hadn't noticed that a haboob had blown in, bringing howling winds and reducing visibility to only a few feet.  Sandstorms weren't unusual in the deserts of far West Texas, especially in the spring when the wind roared in like a dervish, leaving grit on every available surface.  The thought of all that grime invading her space and seeping into her pores gave Twinkie a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.  And that reminded her of the Deke debacle.  A couple of years back her no-good fiancé used the cover of a haboob to sneak out of town with a ton of her money in his pocket and a bimbo at his side.  
     What kind of mischief did this storm have in store?  Marvela and Jessie Ray kept up the chatter, seemingly oblivious to her change of mood. 
     "I think we should call Dan," Mama said as she topped off their drinks with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.   
     Twinkie had to nip that idea in the bud.  "I don't want to bother him.  The weather's probably making a mess of the traffic.  And if that drunk has any working brain cells, he'll hunker down somewhere to sleep it off."
     As nice as it would be to have someone else take care of her problems, help from her ex–who also happened to be the sheriff–came with a lot of unwanted advice.  Sheriff Dan Baldwin had appointed himself Twinkie's bodyguard in the third grade, and regardless of the fact they'd been divorced almost six years, he'd never relinquished the position.
     "You know how protective he is," Twinkie said.  "Swear to goodness, if he finds out I pulled a gun on someone, he's likely to go bonkers."  She shook her head.  “The .44 is my little secret, and if either of you spill the beans, you'll be sorry." 
     Jesse Roy straddled one of the small bistro chairs Marvela had added to jazz up her kiosk and gave Twinkie a sassy salute.  "Yes ma'am."
     The Paris sidewalk theme didn't quite jibe with the western ambiance of saddles, cow horns and rodeo posters.  And with the collection of clown paintings, and Twinkie's photos of the local ghost lights tossed in, the decor could only be described as funky.
     Marvela brought Jesse Roy his drink.  "I made you a three-shot espresso."
     He took a sip and chuckled. "That ought to put hair on my chest."
     Jesse Roy and Marvela's friendship had begun on the professional rodeo circuit, when Marvela was a championship barrel racer and Jesse Roy saved many a cowboy's neck as a rodeo clown.  Regrettably, he'd been powerless to help when a two-thousand-pound bull flipped and crushed Twinkie's dad during the Professional Bull Riders' finals
     After her husband's death, Marvel fell apart, relying on her buddy for support and advice.  She reciprocated when Jesse Roy's wife left him with a broken heart and an empty bank account.  Together they'd endured a myriad of personal upheavals and celebrated just as many triumphs.
     He threw back the rest of the espresso as if it was a shot of Jose Cuervo.  "And might I add that you're looking mighty nice today?"    
     "What a gallant thing to say."        
     "Did you do something different to your hair?"
     Marvela patted her blonde curls.  "Y-vonne called it jackin' it up to Jesus.  She claims the bigger the hair, the closer we get to the Lord."  
     Good grief!  Twinkie closed her eyes and counted to twenty.  A few minutes ago, some cretin had tried to grab her boob and they were blabbering about hair.  Hopefully, they'd forget about calling the sheriff.
     No such luck.  Jesse turned his attention to Twinkie and said,  "So our constable doesn't know about your pop shooter."
     "No, he does not.  And let me say again, I do not want Dan involved."
     Jesse Roy shrugged.  "Okey-dokey.  You're the boss."
     "And don't you forget it."
     "Here you go."  Marvela handed her daughter a sixteen-ounce to-go cup full of feel-good calories.   "You should at least call Pam at the Pump 'Em Up and let her know what happened, just in case the drunk manages to catch a ride in someone's stock trailer."   
     Twinkie smacked her forehead.  "I must be rattled.  That went right over my head."  She pulled out her cell, dispensed with the chore, and then leaned back to enjoy her mocha.  In her world of voluntary celibacy, chocolate was her favorite guilty pleasure. 
      Marvela joined her on the couch.  "Dan's such a nice boy."  She had a soft spot for her former son-in-law.
     "He's not a boy."  No, sir.  Dan Baldwin happened to be a one hundred percent, red-blooded American male.
     The failure of their marriage couldn't be attributed to animosity.   In fact, they'd mutually come to the conclusion that they were better friends than lovers.  In the beginning, they'd mistaken teenage lust for a till-death-do-you-part kind of relationship, and that proved to be a huge mistake. 
     Twinkie's mental walk down memory lane came to a halt when she heard the loud roar of a Harley.  
     "Look what that no-good wind blew in now," Jessie Roy mumbled.  "She-eit, old Beelzebub really does have it in for us."
     A lot of folks shared his pessimism.  In her dual duties of town mayor, and vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, Twinkie had assumed the job of head cheerleader, but even her optimism had its limits.
     First, they'd endured the media circus surrounding the polygamist cult that had spilled over from the adjacent county, and now they were in the middle of a ball-busting, ground-cracking drought the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Great Depression.  It had gotten so bad the Baptists were baptizing with sprinkles of water instead of going for their normal dunking.   
     Mama scampered over to unlock the door.  "We have a customer."  Lord love a duck!  Wave a dollar bill in her face and she morphed into Silly Putty. 
     Twinkie watched as the rider dismounted and took off his helmet.  His HOG wasn't any run-of-the-mill Harley.  This guy rode a low-slung custom Blackline with polished chrome and red flame racing stripes.       
     The man strolled into the lobby oozing testosterone.  With hair the color of midnight and a five o'clock shadow, he had the bad-boy persona down pat.   Please God, her eyes weren't bugging out.         
     "Thank you, ma'am."  He nodded at Marvela.  "It's a treat to have such a lovely concierge," he said as he ran his fingers through his hair.  "I'm glad I found a place to stop.  That storm's a real b...bad devil."      
     Twinkie had always been a sucker for broad shoulders, and those biceps–well, let's just say that a Texas Cowboys T-shirt with the sleeves ripped out had never looked so good.  Faded jeans encasing very long legs and an impressive ass completed the picture.  At least that's what she thought until he took off his mirrored aviator sunglasses and she discovered he had eyes the color of Mama's sapphire ring.  Oh boy, the big bad wolf had just rolled into town.      
     Jesse Roy pulled out his cell ready to punch in Dan's number.  "This time I'm definitely calling the sheriff."  
     "We don't sic the law on our customers."  Twinkie took a deep breath to regulate her breathing.  Lord in heaven, she hadn't clapped eyes on anyone like him in a very long time.  "That's not a good business model." 
     Actually, the only business Twinkie had on her mind was monkey business.  She hated to admit it, but she hadn't enjoyed as much as a kiss in more than six months.  That had to be the reason her lust-o-meter had rocketed into the stratosphere.
     "Do you have a vacancy?" the newcomer asked.  He had a Texas drawl as smooth as hot butter melting on one of Aunt Dolly's biscuits.
     "Uh...uh..."  Jesse Roy jabbed her in the ribs, jerking her out of her stupor.
     "Uh, yes we do."  She sailed the registration book across the counter.  "Please put down your name, address, and a plate number.  Will that be cash or a credit card?"
     "Cash," he said as he took out a thick roll of bills.    "How long do you plan to stay?"
     "I'm not quite sure, but this should take care of my charges for a couple of days."  He thumbed off three brand-new hundred-dollar bills and passed them across the counter.  "If I decide to stay longer, you'll be the first to know."  When he grinned, the bad boy impression momentarily disappeared, but then it returned with a vengeance.
     "Oh, uh...okay."  Twinkie turned to grab his room key and discovered that Jesse Roy had disappeared.  Dollar to doughnuts, the twit had slithered off to the office to call the sheriff.  And knowing Dan, it wouldn't take him more than three minutes to show up. 
     Sure enough, Twinkie could see a police cruiser pulling into the portico.
     Jesse Roy sidled up with an apologetic look on his face.  “I guess I’m in trouble, huh?”
     "That you are," Twinkie muttered as she drew him aside.   "Give Mr....uh-" she glanced at the registration form, "-Thornton his key.  I have some damage control to do."
     Jesse Roy looked like a kid who'd been called to the principal's office.  "I just thought we might need a little backup," he mumbled.  "You have to admit it's been kind of crazy around here."
     Twinkie couldn't stay mad at her friend, especially when he was right.  "I'll take care of Dan.  You see to our guest."        
     Even though they were only friends at this stage, the sight of her ex never failed to impress Twinkie.  With shoulders a mile wide, sun-kissed hair and a smile that could melt a spinster's heart, he presented quite a delectable picture.
     She met Dan at the door and kissed his cheek.  "What brings you around this afternoon?" she asked despite knowing exactly why he'd dropped by the motel.  "Don't you have a car crash somewhere out there in all that sand?"
     "Not right this minute.  Most folks pulled off to the side of the road when the wall of dust roared in.  I heard a rumor you had some trouble, so I figured I'd drop by to see if you needed my help."  He scanned the lobby and then shot the Clown Motel's newest guest a glare.
     "How about you, son, what are you doing in these parts?"
     "The name's Cole Thornton."  The newcomer stuck his hand out.  "And considering I'm thirty-five, and we're about the same age, I doubt you're my dad." 
     Holy Moley!  Dan's big, bad lawman act didn't faze the Harley guy.
     "But in answer to your question, I represent a Hollywood group that might be interested in making a movie in these parts."
     Twinkie's ears perked up.  She could almost see dollar signs in the air.  Money from a movie could keep the economy afloat for years.  As the mayor and the vice-president of the fledgling Chamber of Commerce she'd be very happy. 
     "What kind of movie?" Dan asked, adding a sneer.  "I don't abide pornography in my town."      
     "Nothing like that.  The producer is a fan of old flicks, and he's considering doing a remake of Giant."  The original movie that featured Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean had been filmed near Mirage in the 1950's.             
     "I'll be wandering around the county checking things out.  If it's okay with you, I'd like to pick your brain sometime."
     A profanity seemed poised on the tip of Dan's tongue, but he obviously thought better of it when he glanced at Twinkie. 
     "Sure.  Anyone can point you toward my office."
     "Nice meeting you, Sheriff," Mr. Thornton said.  "It's always good to have an in with local law enforcement." 
     He turned back to Twinkie and missed the dirty look Dan threw his way.  "May I have my key now?  I've been on the road a while, and that storm did a number on me.  I have a hankering a hot shower."
     The image of him naked with rivulets of water running down his body almost gave Twinkie a coronary.  "Oh, right.  Jesse Roy, hand our guest his key and help him with his bags." 
     "No bags," Mr. Thornton said, then held up the key with its attached plastic clown head.  “I can't say I've ever seen anything like this before."
     "People generally remember to return it."  Twinkie mentally grimaced.  The keys had been another one of Mama's hare-brained sales gimmicks.      
     "Check out is at eleven.  The ice machine is in the breezeway next to the office and we have a monthly rate.  You can park in front of your room, and if you need a guide, I can give you the names of some folks who know the county inside and out."
     "I'll keep that in mind."  Mr. Thornton sent her another one of those grins before sauntering off.        
     Twinkie Sue managed to control herself until she heard the Harley roar to life.  "A movie!  Did you hear that?  If we can score a film, the town's troubles will be over."           
     Dan put his hands on his hips.  "I don't believe a word that guy said." 
     Could it be they were two peas-in-a-pod members of an ultra-macho brotherhood? 
     Dan's suspicious nature was part of what made him a good sheriff.  But darn it, why did he always have to be a wet blanket? 
     "What is it about money that you don't you understand?"
     "I got the part about the money.  But I still say there's something off kilter about him.  I don't know what it is, but I intend to find out." 
     He pointed his finger in Twinkie's face.  "And if you draw a gun on anyone else, I'll throw you in jail so fast it'll make your head spin.  Consider yourself warned."  On that note he stomped out.              Twinkie focused her ire on Jesse Roy.  "You, my friend, are walking on thin ice.  If you ignore me again, I'll make sure that when you get your celestial discharge they plant you in the graveyard next door."
      The Clown Motel's closest neighbor was a derelict cemetery that dated back to the days of outlaws and cattle drives.  During the latter part of the 19th century, Mirage had been known statewide for the eccentricities of Judge Harry Shore.    
     Depending on his mood, and the amount of booze he'd consumed, the judge's sentences ranged from a two-buck fine to an unfortunate date with the gallows.  Boot Hill, with its wooden crosses and ghosts of cowboys and outlaws long deceased, was the only remnant of that era and Shore's unusual sense of jurisprudence.
     Marvela clapped her hands as if she'd had an inspiration.  "Why don't we take advantage of our history and market the town as a Wild West show?  We could become another Tombstone.  Those folks make money hand over fist."  
     At first blush, Twinkie didn't think she wanted regularly scheduled gun fights in the street, but desperate times sometimes called for out-of-the-box remedies.       
     "I ain't gonna spend an eternity there."  Jesse Roy gestured at the graveyard and shivered.  "That place creeps me out."
      Twinkie grinned.  As a teen she and her friends had  enjoyed several memorable keggers in the old cemetery.  "Ghosts are just dead people who haven't made it their destination."  Or at least that was what she hoped, particularly since she'd seen more than one apparition drifting through the old burial ground. 
      "Personally, I'm more interested in the Mirage lights.  I wish we knew their story," she said.
      "Folks have studied those things every which way from Sunday."  Jesse Roy shook his head.  "And we're still not any closer to having an answer."
     For hundreds of years people had been mesmerized by colored lights that danced across the high desert.  Theories about their origin ranged from the mundane to the extraterrestrial, to the spiritual–including both heaven and hell.
     Marvela's next words pulled Twinkie out of her reverie concerning the origin of the mysterious lights.
     "You were conceived during an incredible light show."  She had a faraway look.  "Those beauties were bouncing around like Mexican jumping beans.  And the colors."  Marvela fanned her face.  "It was a very hot night," she said with a grin.  "I named you Twinkle because those lighted twinkled like stars from a far-away galaxy."  Marvela threw in a sassy wink.  "And your daddy had quite a twinkle in his eye." 
     "Mother! TMI."  Twinkie made a slicing motion across her neck, hoping her mom would get the hint.  Discussing her mother's sex life had as much appeal as enduring a bikini wax.   
     Twinkie knew from personal experience that the ghost lights were magical.  Her connection to them transcended their tourist potential, but that was a thought for another day.
     The storm continued to buffet the motel with sand and debris.  It was a lonely sound, almost as if the ancient spirits were trying to tell her something. 
     A cold chill skittered up Twinkie's spine.  Were the winds warning her about Cole Thornton?                                                    
                                                                 Chapter 2            
 
     Coleman Thornton Claiborne–aka Cole Thornton–slipped into his room and took a deep breath.  The nine-hour drive from his condo in Houston had been hellacious.  Just keeping his bike on the road required almost supernatural strength.  Several times he was sure he'd made a date with his maker.              
     The devil's fingerprints were plastered all over that storm.  As a drug enforcement officer–and later a jail inmate–Cole had seen evil up close and personal.  And that brought to mind his constant loop of worry concerning his sister.  There were monstrous men all over the world, and one of them had kidnapped Victoria.            
     He wiped sweat and dirt from the back of his neck.  He’d seen enough sagebrush and cactus to last him a lifetime, but something told him he'd encounter a lot more West Texas flora and fauna before this mission was complete.                  
     Cole threw his bags and helmet on the bed and stripped off his sweat-soaked T-shirt.  His skin felt as if it had been sandblasted.  He should have grabbed his leather jacket before starting out on this trip, he thought as he sat down and pulled off his boots and dirty socks.  Then he leaned back and considered his encounter with the lawman.               
      Dad had abso-damn-lutely guaranteed that his new ID and background would pass muster, but Cole didn't want to test it his first day in town, especially when the encounter involved a suspicious cop.  And speaking of Dudley Do-Right, what was his connection to the lady innkeeper?            
     With glossy black, waist-length hair and exotic almond-shaped eyes, she looked like she'd be more at home in a Las Vegas revue, or in a Monaco casino, than behind the desk at the Clown Motel.       But for the time being, that question had to go into the neither here nor there category.  Cole was on a life-or-death mission to save his sister, and failure wasn't an option.             
     With that troubling thought in mind, he unpacked his bag and found a safe place to stash his encrypted satellite phone and GPS.  After securing the vent where he'd hidden his equipment, Cole stood in front of the AC window unit in an attempt to lower his body temperature.            
     He'd kill for a shower, but he decided to check in with his father first.  This early in the game he felt safe enough to make the call on his regular cell.  Later he'd resort to using his secure device.           Cole tapped out a number he knew by heart.  "I'm in Mirage and I'm registered at the Clown Motel,” he said when Jackson Claiborne answered.            
     Laughter erupted from the other end.  "The Clown Motel?  No foolin'?"  Regardless of the situation, he could rely on his dad to have a sense of humor.           
     Cole glanced at the turquoise and lime green walls.  "I'm looking at a 20"x26" clown picture painted on black velvet as we speak."            
     Jackson Claiborne continued to chuckle.  "Only in Texas," he said, and then asked, "Is the place clean?"           
     "I haven't given it a white glove inspection, but if the antiseptic smell is any indication, you could probably do minor surgery in here."             
     "At least you won't get bed bugs.  Those things are damn nasty."  His dad accompanied that observation with another belly laugh before he got down to business.           
     "Do you think Victoria is still in the area?"            
     "I don't know, but I do believe we're on the right track.  I stopped by the Pump 'Em Up convenience store.  That's where Victoria made the call.  The clerk was a chatty young girl who remembered seeing a guy who looked like an albino.  Her exact words were 'that dude would fry to a crisp if he sat out in the sun for more than ten minutes.'  That sounds like Lars to me.  I asked if I could check the credit card receipts, but she said I'd have to talk to the manager.  I'll go over there in the morning to see what I can find out."            
     "Good," Jackson said.  "Could it be they were just getting gas and heading on?"                  "  
     "Anything's possible, but I doubt that's the case.  If they were going to El Paso or Juarez, they would've stayed on the interstate.  And even though Mirage is close to the Mexican border, it's not on a direct path to any of the larger cities."              
     "I suppose that's a point in our favor," his father conceded.  "Tell me about the town. I need to visualize what we're dealing with."               
     Cole mentally reviewed his initial impression of Mirage and decided to provide his dad with the Cliff Notes version.           
     "The motel's next door to an old graveyard with rows of wooden crosses."  He usually didn't give much credence to the paranormal, but that did seem weird.  "Other than that, it's a typical West Texas community with a Victorian limestone courthouse sitting in the middle of the town square."  Cole paused, wondering what else to say.  "Basically, it's an oasis in the middle of the sagebrush."                  "I've been in a few of those places in my time."  In his younger days Jackson had been a hands-on oilman.  "But back to business.  According to the weather forecast, the storm's going to blow through in the next couple of hours."             
     "Glad to hear it.  I've had my share of dirt."  Cole fell back on the bed and put his arm over his eyes.  He didn't want to contemplate what the next couple of weeks would hold, so he went for the mundane.  "I'm so hungry I could eat an elephant."                  
     "Is there a McDonald's?"            
     "Nope, not even a Sonic."            
     "That's too bad," Jackson said, and then asked, "What's your game plan?"             
     "I'm going to poke around, get the lay of the land.  I mentioned the movie when I checked into the motel, and they seemed interested.  I think the woman who runs this place might be a good source of information."  Cole ran a hand over his chin and glared at the grime left on his fingers.  "I'd bet my best Stetson she knows everyone and everything."           
     "Is the lady a West Texas cutie with big hair and lots of make-up, or is she someone's great-aunt Maude with a butt the size of a double wide?"           
     Cole chuckled.  "Neither."  For some inexplicable reason, he didn't want to share his impression of the innkeeper.  "There's a cafe across the highway that looks interesting.  I'll brave the wind and walk over, but I need to hop in the shower first.  I feel like road kill."           
     "Be careful," Jackson said.  "And remember, I can be there in a couple of hours if you need my help."            
     "I'm counting on it."            
     There was a long pause before his dad spoke again.  "I've talked to everyone I know, and I still haven't been able to get in touch with Rafe.  His cover is so deep that he checks in only when the mood strikes him."            
     As a member of the Texas Department of Public Safety's Ranger Reconnaissance Team, Cole's brother, Rafe, had the toughest of job of all–to gain the trust of men who made the devil look like one of the good guys.            
     Cole shook his head, not that the man at the other end could see him.  "Hopefully, Emilio and I can handle this without his help.  If not, we still have friends in the unit who'll be willing to pitch in."              Cole and Emilio had been partners in the fight against the burgeoning drug cartel traffic.  Following a particularly heinous SNAFU, they were targeted by an overzealous U.S. Attorney.  As a result, they lost their jobs and spent six months in prison for injuring a prisoner.  It didn't matter that the drug dealer had pulled a knife on Emilio.  According to the attorney, they'd denied the gangster his rights.             
     What a crock!  Everything about that situation stuck in Cole's craw.  But he realized he had to get rid of that baggage or it would come back to bite him on the ass during his most important mission.        "I mean it, son.  Be careful.  I can't lose you as well as Victoria."          
     "I'll be okay," Cole said, trying to reassure his dad.  "I know we've discussed this until we're blue in the face, but would you go over one more time how she ended up in this mess?"            
     Just thinking about his sister getting mixed up with a kidnapper made Cole want to put his fist through the wall.  "I don't understand how a screwball preacher could get his hands on her.  She's too smart for that."  Cole ran his hand down his face.  "None of it makes any sense."                
     Jackson sighed and then said, "There's something I didn't tell you.  It's about Emilio."       
     What about Emilio?"            
     "You knew they were dating, right?"           
     "Yeah."  Cole wondered where this was going.            
     "It was much more serious than I realized," Jackson admitted.  "Vicky was in love with him, and after they broke up she felt like a two-time loser.  Her divorce from that race car driver hit her hard, but she really fell apart when Emilio left.            
     "Did she tell you what happened?" Cole asked.            
     "She didn't want to talk about it, but she did say it was her fault the relationship ended," Jackson muttered an expletive.  "I wanted to be helpful so I suggested that she do some volunteer work.  I wish to God I'd kept my mouth shut."             
     Before she went missing, Victoria had a thriving clientele as a nurse practitioner with a specialty in obstetrics.  "She started volunteering at a free clinic in the West San Antonio barrio," Jackson said.  "I remember her saying she felt like she was making a difference by helping the immigrant moms who didn't want to go through the regular channels."            
     At the time, Cole had been so immersed in his own problems, he hadn't paid much attention to Victoria.  He had to be the most selfish bastard on the planet.              
     "So how did she go from there to getting involved with that wacko church?"             
     "She apparently met this Lars character when he was handing out pamphlets outside the clinic.  The last time we talked she said she planned to go to Mexico on a mission trip."  The clink of a glass indicated that Jackson was pouring himself a stiff drink.  "She seemed happy.  I don't know why I didn't do a background check on the jerk."            
     "Don't beat yourself up.  If I hadn't had my head so far up my butt, I would've realized something was wrong," Cole said.  "Victoria was always a soft touch, otherwise she wouldn't have bailed me out of trouble when we were kids."            
     Jackson chuckled.  "Believe me, I was aware of most of the stuff you and Rafe pulled."           
     "I'll bet you were.  You had us convinced you really did have eyes in the back of your head."            "You have to improvise when you're dealing with ruffians like you and your brother."  Jackson changed the subject.  "I know there are plenty of guys in the department who think you got a raw deal.  And I realize they'd be more than happy to give you a hand, but I can hire enough firepower to handle just about anything."             
     Cole didn't doubt that for a moment.  When his dad put on his CEO voice, he sounded like he could move mountains.  "We're only in the reconnaissance stage.  First, we need to make sure we're in the right place," Cole told his father.  "I'll get in touch if it looks like we need to call in the cavalry."      "Victoria's counting on you."             
     "I know."  Cole sighed.  "I'll talk to you later."            
     "Okay.  Remember, I'm available 24/7."





For more of Twinkie and Cole's story-







Enjoy!

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