Excerpt from Strong Vengeanceon Jun 18 in Blog Posts, Normal by cosproductions
Gulf waters off the coast of Texas, 1820
“Give me our bearings, Mr. Jeffreys,” Alfred Neal, captain of the Mother Mary, asked his first officer.
Jeffreys met Neal’s gaze with his hooded eyes, then once more consulted his map in the light shed by a lantern hanging from a pole. “The fog’s waylaid my direction, but we’re steering on course, Captain.”
The massive four-masted schooner creaked through the murky night, clumsily negotiating the Texas coast’s swampy channels. Low-hanging cypress branches scraped at the multi-decked galleon’s sails, as gators darted back up on sodden land to avoid her lumbering menace. The fetid heat and stagnant air left the sweat to soak through the woolen jackets and cotton breeches of the men standing on the bridge, further attracting hungry mosquitoes fat with blood. The buzzing, blood-crazed swarms hung over the deck, thickening as the night wore on, perhaps having summoned more of their hungry brethren from the nearby shores.
“We’d best hope so,” Captain Neal grunted and rotated his spyglass again. But the night yielded nothing through the dense fog other than stagnant water the color of tea from fallen leaves both clinging to the surface and lining the bottom. Besides the gators, packs of swimming nutria, and an occasional Night Heron, the only signs of life the Mother Mary had encountered since nearing the Texas shores was an Indian paddling an old pirogue boat carved out a tree trunk. And that was precisely the point, given the nature of the cargo now contained in the hold below. That much Neal had fully expected; it was the passenger who accompanied the cargo that had taken the ship’s captain by surprise.
“This is the right channel, sir,” Jeffreys resumed, returning his map to belt pouch. “I’m sure of it.”
“You’d better be,” came the voice of that passenger from the other side of the bridge. Both Neal and Jeffreys watched the squat bulbous form of the man who said his name was Quentin Cusp step into the thin light cast by the lantern. “It’ll mark the end of your days on the seas, if you’re wrong. Both of you.”
“I know I’m right by the smell, sir,” First Officer Jeffreys told him.
“And a foul odor it is. Musty and sour.”
Captain Neal almost told the man to smell himself. “I hate these damn waters,” he groused, “and I hate whatever it is you’re carrying there in your belt.”
Cusp jerked both hands down to his waist, as if to protect whatever his belt was concealing.
“I’ve seen you checking the hidden pouch or whatever you’ve got sewn in there ever since we picked you up. A man of your standing wearing the same trousers these many weeks leaves anyone of sane mind wondering as well.”
“Wondering isn’t what I paid you so handsomely for, Captain,” Cusp snapped, clearly offended.
Neal squared his shoulders and held his gaze on Cusp’s belt. “Maybe you’re a spy for the British. Maybe whatever secrets you’re carrying brands me a traitor by association. I don’t intend to hang for your crimes against the country, Mr. Cusp.”
“I’m no spy, sir, and you were hired for your reputation for discretion as much as anything, Captain, apparently not well earned.”
“You mean like those gunmen who cordoned off the dock while you waited for our skiff?”
Cusp looked surprised.
“My men are trained to be observant,” Neal continued, “especially in dangerous waters.”
Cusp started to turn away. “Then I hope they serve you just as well as sailors, Captain, so we might make port before the light gives us up. Because if we don’t—“
Cusp’s words halted when the ship shook violently. A scraping sound rose through the night, and the sailors of the bridge were jostled about as the Mother Mary’s hull shuddered and quaked before grinding to a halt that pushed tremors through the black water.
“You’ve run us aground, Mr. Jeffreys!” Neal said, swinging around. “Helmsman, bring us hard to port to catch the currents!”
“Aye-aye, Captain!” yelled back the helmsman, already fighting with the wheel.
“They’ll be hell to pay for this, Captain,” an enraged Cusp hissed, cutting off Neal’s path to the wheel.
Neal pushed him aside, studying the utter blackness of the night. “Hell might be just where we are,”
He continued moving to take the wheel himself, when a steel baling hook soared over the aft portion of the deck and jammed itself into the gunwale.
“My Lord,” Cusp uttered, “what in the name of the Almighty is—“
“Sound the general alarm!” Neal ordered the mate nearest the bridge bell.
Even as the mate’s hand, wrapped in tawny leather, began ringing, Neal glimpsed more baling hooks being hurled through the fog over theMother Mary’s sides fore and aft, snaring on the gunwales. The ship’s mate continued to work the bell, rousing the sleeping sailors from their berths as a succession of dark shapes climbed on board and dispersed in eerily synchronized fashion.
“Pirates,” Neal realized, wheeling about in search of some form of weapon to find only a hand-held axe used to cut lines in a storm-wrought emergency. He twisted past the lumbering Cusp and dropped down to the main deck just as the fog parted to reveal a tall man with a thick, well-groomed mustache that hung over his upper lip standing ten feet before him.
“Best of the evening to you, Captain.”
“I’ll be damned,” Neal managed.
“I see you recognize me,” the pirate grinned.
“Jean Lafitte . . .”
Lafitte stepped further into the thin light shed by the bridge lantern. His black eyes twinkled. “At your service, Captain.”
He was tall and sinewy thin with keen black eyes peering out from beneath a battered black felt hat angled low over his forehead. He wore a tight red jacket that clung to his bony shoulders and stopped just short of the baggy trousers wedged into his well-worn black leather boots.
His neck seemed too long for the rest of his body, almost bird-like, Neal thought, also noticing bands of stringy muscle lining that neck and extending all the way to a frayed bandana neatly tied just over the collar of his low-hanging shirt.
“You dare mock me, Captain?”
Neal showed his axe. “Have at it then.”
Ignoring the challenge, the pirate brushed back his coat to reveal both musket and sword at the ready.
Neal continued to brandish his blade. “You’ll not have my ship!”
Lafitte glanced back through the fog at his well-armed pirates taking the first sailors to emerge from below prisoner. “It would seem it’s already mine, so drop your weapon, Captain.”
But Neal held fast, feeling the now moist axe handle quivering in his grasp.
“Your weapon, Captain.”
“Then I’ll save you for last, so you can watch all of your men die.”
Neal felt his breath seize up, the pressure building in his chest. He’d let his ship be taken when at its most vulnerable, the pirates’ measured assault too much to overcome. He released the axe and listened to it clamor to the deck.
“There’ll be hell to pay this time, Lafitte.”
“Why, Captain, didn’t anyone tell you the import of slaves into any United States port is illegal? But rest easy, sir, my partner and I will be glad to take them off your hands,” Lafitte said, turning at the sound of another man’s approach.
In that moment, Neal noticed a shorter man draw even with Lafitte, a man who held a musket in hand and knife sheathed to his belt instead of a sword.
“I know you,” Neal said, squinting to better see through the night.
“I should think so,” the man followed. “Our paths crossed when we beat down the bastards from England a few years back.”
Neal’s arms stiffened by his sides. “Jim Bowie?”
Bowie bowed slightly. “At your service, Captain. And you should be aware that Mr. Lafitte fought on our side as well.”
“Until the governor of Louisiana put a five hundred dollar bounty on my head.”
“Good thing you had an answer for him,” Bowie said to the pirate.
“Indeed,” Lafitte acknowledged, addressing Captain Neal. “I offered fifteen hundred for the governor’s.”
Neal knew that story, just as he knew Lafitte had been born to a poor family in France in 1780. A sharp-witted, quick study of a man who spoke English and Spanish as well by the early 1800s when he accompanied his brother Pierre to the United States. There he set up shop in New Orleans to warehouse and disperse goods smuggled by his brother before turning to the pirate’s life himself. By 1810 he was presiding over his initial band of outlaws on Grande Terre Island in Barataria Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1814 the British offered the pirate a pardon, a captaincy in their navy, and $30,000 if he would aid them in an attack on New Orleans. Lafitte refused and proceeded to inform the United States of the British plans, offering the services of the Barataria smugglers to the U.S instead. He fought with General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans and received a pardon by President James Madison for his efforts. When the end of war came, he moved his headquarters to Galveston Island off the Texas coast where he established a colony called Campeche and went back to the pirate’s life, partnering with Jim Bowie in running slaves through the newly established Texas territory.
“You might even call my friend Jean here a hero,” Bowie quipped to Captain Neal, drawing broad laughter from Lafitte’s assembled pirates now holding the whole of the Mother Mary’s crew hostage on their knees, most still stripped down to their skivvies. “But we’ve little time to spare with such pleasantries,” he cautioned. “We need to get the slaves loaded onto the Goelette la Dilidente before first light.”
“Then bring me the first mate,” Lafitte ordered.
Mr. Jeffreys, now with arms tied behind his back, rose to his feet and was dragged to Lafitte by one of his pirates.
“You’ll do no harm to any of my crew, sir!” said Captain Neal, shoulders stiffening and chest protruding outward.
“Turn around,” Lafitte ordered Jeffreys, ignoring him.
As the first mate of the Mother Mary swung around, Jim Bowie whipped out the knife that would one day bear his name. Before anyone could so much as breathe, the blade came down in a blur and sliced neatly through Jeffrey’s bonds.
“Good work, cousin,” Bowie said, as Jeffreys swung around to face him.
“Running the ship aground was nothing, cousin,” Jeffreys said back, stretching his arms. “I still know these waters like the back of my hand.”
“Traitor!” Neal shouted, launching himself into a feeble lunge Jean Lafitte effortlessly intercepted.
The pirate kicked Neal’s legs out from under him, dropping the captain hard to the deck where he placed a booted foot atop his chest. “Don’t tempt my graces further or next you’ll feel the tip of my sword.” Then Lafitte spotted Quentin Cusp hanging back in the darkness of the bridge, his bulbous form squeezed behind a thin abutment that left his stomach protruding. “And what have we here?”
“A passenger, nothing more,” Neal gasped from the deck. “Paid for passage to our next port of call.”
“Was access to the bridge part of his ticket?”
Lafitte gestured to a pair of his pirates who rousted Cusp and dragged him down from the bridge. “State your business, sir.”
“I don’t answer to you or any pirate,” Cusp insisted dryly.
“Would you rather answer to the gators snoozing on the shoreline?”
Cusp swallowed hard, his bravado vanishing as quickly as that.
“I didn’t think so.” Lafitte noticed the thick belt enclosing Cusp’s considerable waist. “And what have we here? Allow me to relieve you of your burden, sir.”
And with that Lafitte stripped the belt free to reveal a thick, narrow pouch sewn into the back of its leather lining. “Now, let’s see what the captain’s good passenger has been hiding, shall we, Jim?”
Cusp feebly tried to pull free of his captors. “You’ll live to regret this, I swear it! Know that I have powerful friends, pirate!”
“Do you now? Then I’m sure I’ve crossed paths with them before. And each time they emerged on the wrong side of the battle, as they will again,” he said confidently, eyes twinkling and flashing a smile in the thin spray of lantern light.
Lafitte tore the pouch open at the seam and pulled the material apart to better inspect its contents.
“Mother of tears . . .”
Jin Bowie’s mouth dropped at the sight, his eyes bulging. He blinked several times, as if to reassure himself the sight was real.
“Are those what I think—“
“They are indeed,” Lafitte answered before Bowie could finish, before looking back toward Cusp. “It would seem we’re in the company of a man who stows his riches with his brains—just over his ass.”
“I’m only a messenger,” Cusp railed, remaining strident. “And if you don’t leave them in my possession, my employers will kill you for sure.”
Lafitte wrapped the pouch back up, careful not to disturb its contents. “They’ll have to catch me first, won’t they?”
“And catch you they will. You can rest assured of that, pirate.”
Lafitte moved his gaze to Captain Neal before returning it to Cusp. “Captain.”
“Prepare your crew to evacuate your ship.”
“But . . .”
Lafitte now held Cusp’s stare with his black eyes. “I’m going to sink her, Captain. Punishment for the rudeness of your guest.”
Neal’s face reddened with rage. He pulled futilely against Lafitte’s pirates still holding fast to him. “I beg you to reconsider, captain to captain.”
“Too late for that, I’m afraid. Your fate is sealed.”
“And yours too now, pirate,” Quentin Cusp said, quivering in the cool of the night. “Yours too.”
San Antonio, the present
“This isn’t your play, Ranger Strong,” Captain Consuelo Alonzo of the San Antonio police said to Caitlin Strong beneath an overhang outside the Thomas C. Clark High School. Her hands were planted on her hips, one of them squeezing a pair of sunglasses hard enough to crush the frame.
Caitlin took off her Stetson and let the warm spring sunlight drench her face and raven-black hair that swam past her shoulders. Her cheeks felt flushed and she could feel the heat building behind them. She’d left her own sunglasses back in her SUV, forcing her to keep her view shielded from the sun which left the focused intensity in her dark eyes clear enough for anyone to see. Her cheekbones were ridged and angular, meshed so perfectly with her jawline that her face had the appearance of one drawn to life by an artist.
Caitlin met Alonzo’s stare with her own, neither of them budging. “Then I guess I heard wrong about a boy with a gun holding hostages in the school library.”
“No, you heard right about that. But this isn’t a Ranger matter. I didn’t call you in and my SWAT team’s already deployed.”
Caitlin gazed at the modern two-story, L-shaped mauve building shaded by thick elm and oak trees. The main entrance was located at the point of the school where the L broke directly before a nest of rhododendron bushes from which rose the school marquee listing upcoming events, including graduation and senior prom. A barricade had been erected in haphazard fashion halfway to the street to hold anxious and frantic parents behind a combination of saw horses, traffic cones, and strung-together rope.
“SWAT team for one boy with a gun?” Caitlin raised.
A news helicopter circled above, adding to Alonzo’s discomfort. “You have a problem with that? Or maybe you’ve never heard of Colombine?”
“Any shots fired yet?”
“No, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”
“Then I do have a problem, Captain. I do indeed.”
Alonzo’s face reddened so fast it looked as if she were holding her breath. She’d lost considerable weight since the day Caitlin had met her inside San Antonio’s Central Police Substation a couple years back. They had maintained a loose correspondence mostly via e-mail since, both appreciating the trials and tribulations of women trying to make it in the predominantly male world of law enforcement. Plenty accused Caitlin of riding her legendary father and grandfather’s coattails straight into the Rangers. But Alonzo’s parents were Mexican immigrants who barely spoke English and lacked any coattails to ride whatsoever. She was still muscular and had given up wearing her hair in a bun, opting instead for a shorter cut matted down by her cap.
“This is the Masters boy’s school, isn’t it?” Alonzo asked Caitlin.
“Yes, ma’am. And he still uses his mother’s last name—Torres.”
“Well, I can tell you the son of that outlaw boy friend of yours is in one of the classrooms ordered into lockdown, while we determine if there are any other perpetrators involved.”
Caitlin glanced at the black-clad commandos squatting tensely on either side of the entrance. “When was the last time your SWAT team deployed?”
“That’s none of your goddamn business.”
“Any shots fired, innocents wounded?”
The veins over Alonzo’s temples began to throb. “You’re wasting my time, Ranger.”
“And you’re missing the point. You’re going in with SWAT without exhausting any of the easier options.”
“Me,” Caitlin told her.
San Antonio, the day before
It had been four months now since Cort Wesley Masters had turned himself into the Texas authorities on an extradition request from the Mexican government. The first two of those months had been spent in a federal lock-up and the next two in the infamous Mexican Ceresco prison just over the border in Nuevo Laredo across the Rio Grande. With no other adult in the lives of his two teenage sons besides an aunt who lived in Arizona they didn’t remember meeting, Caitlin had taken it upon herself to step in and fill the void.
She’d moved into their home in the San Antonio suburb of Shavano Park, never imagining Cort Wesley’s freedom wouldn’t be secured in a timely manner, much less him being imprisoned south of the border. Having the responsibility for his boys Dylan and Luke thrust upon her for what was now an indefinite stretch of time left her feeling anxious, feeling trapped and claustrophobic. On edge in a way that made her feel like a tightrope walker negotiating a typically precarious balance, while blindfolded to boot since she’d never been responsible for anyone but herself. Given her already close relationship with the boys, Caitlin had assumed the transition would be easy and the duration relatively short, neither of which had proven true. Rangering and child rearing, even in modern times, just didn’t seem to mix well. Although she’d cut back on her duties as much as possible, raising a pair of teenagers was without question a full-time job that had hit her with the brunt force of a glass door you didn’t know was there.
“Mexican authorities haven’t given at all on the visitation rights,” Caitlin had told her captain, D. W. Tepper, just yesterday in the smaller, shaded office he’d moved into because it was cooler in the hot summer months. The office already smelled of Brut aftershave and stale cigarette smoke with stray wisps clinging to the shadowy corners well after Tepper had finished sneaking a Marlboro.
“What happened that one time they let you in?”
“I made a few comments about the conditions.”
“Imagine that didn’t go over too well.”
“State Department help some?”
“Well, since they got involved, even the e-mails stopped. He could be dead for all we know.”
“This is Cort Wesley Masters we’re talking about, Ranger,” Tepper said matter-of-factly, as if that were something Caitlin didn’t already know.
“He ain’t dead.” Tepper pulled his finger from a furrow that looked like a valley on his face and checked the nail as if expecting he’d pulled something out with it. “How’s this mothering thing going?”
“How do you think? I figured it would last a few weeks tops. That was four months ago now.”
“No choice I can see. And they’re good boys anyway, ‘less Dylan gets in his head to mix it up with stone killers again.”
“I think he’s had his fill of that. Caught him with a joint, though.”
“You arrest him?”
“Thought about it.”
“Thought about that too.”
“I caught my oldest smoking a Winston when he was twelve. Made him put it out and eat the damn thing.”
“Now that,” Caitlin told Tepper, “I didn’t think about. I don’t believe it’s a regular thing.”
“”Course it’s not,” Tepper said with a smirk. “Never is for a high school boy.”
“Dylan’s got himself in the Honors program now. Starting to get his mind set on college, even talking about a college prep year. And Luke’s so smart it’s downright scary.”
Tepper leaned back in his desk chair far enough to make Caitlin think he was going to topple over. “So how’s it feel?”
“How’s what feel?”
“Hanging up your guns.”
“When you start doing stand-up comedy?”
“When was the last time you drew your pistol?”
“Patriot Sun shoot-out, right?”
“What’s your point, Captain?”
“That in a crazy way this experience has been good for you. Something to bring you into the current century instead of figuring yourself the last of the old-time gunfighters.”
“It was never me doing the fancying.”
“You embrace it or not?”
“What’s that matter?”
Tepper tightened his gaze on her, the spider veins seeming to lengthen across his cheeks. “It’s bound to catch up with you, that’s all I’m saying.”
“You ever been known to be wrong?”
“I was going to ask you the same question.”
“Nobody’s perfect, D.W.”
Tepper’s eyes didn’t seem to blink, looking tired and drawn. “’Cept when you draw your gun, Ranger, you’d better be.”
San Antonio, the present
Captain Consuelo Alonzo closed the gap between them in a single quick step, close enough for Caitlin to smell sweet smelling perfume and stale spearmint gum. Alonzo’s neck was sunburned as if she was religious about slathering sunscreen on her face while neglecting pretty much everywhere else.
“Listen to me and listen good, Ranger,” she said, shoulders stiff and squared to Caitlin. “You got a reputation that precedes you by about a mile, and the last thing we need is your trigger finger making the call in there.”
“Save it, Captain,” Caitlin returned dismissively. “I had six weeks training with the FBI in Quantico and I’ve diffused more hostage situations without gunplay than your SWAT team has even dreamed of.”
“And this has nothing to do with Cort Wesley Masters’ son being inside the building?”
“You told me he was in a locked-down classroom, not a hostage. School of 1,500, nice to see you’ve got your thumb so centered on the situation.”
Alonzo’s cheeks puckered, her eyes suddenly having trouble meeting Caitlin’s. “Truth is we haven’t got a firm fix on who the gunman’s holding in the library.”
“I thought so. What about the suspect?”
“Near as we can tell, it’s a junior named William Langdon, age 16. Honor student with no previous criminal record. Principal says he’s been bullied.”
Caitlin turned her gaze again on two SWAT officers poised on either side of the school entrance, armed to the teeth and wearing black gear and body armor. “Yeah, men like that oughtta be able to talk him down for sure.”
“Why don’t you just button it up?”
“Because your actions are about to get people killed, Captain.”
“I’m well aware of the risk, Ranger.”
“I don’t believe you are. In rescue situations most hostages are actually shot by SWAT team commandos acting like they’re playing paintball. Once the bullets start flying, they tend to do strange things, like hit people they weren’t necessarily aimed at who have a tendency to start running in all directions.”
Alonzo looked Caitlin in the eye again. “You know your problem? You take this ‘One Riot, One Ranger’ crap too much to heart. That might have been the case a hundred and fifty years ago, but the simple truth is it’s not any more. You’re a dinosaur, Ranger Strong, a goddamn anachronism.”
“You finished, Captain?”
“Yes, I am, and so are you. You just haven’t figured it out yet.”
Spine stiffened, Captain Alonzo walked off to confer with a deputy San Antonio police chief who’d just arrived to provide political cover once the press showed up in full force. Caitlin waited until her back was turned before approaching the school entrance as if she was doing exactly what she was supposed to, pausing at the entrance to eye the SWAT commandos posted on either side.
“I’m glad to be in the background on this one, boys,” she said, reaching for the glass door. “Don’t bother moving. I’ll let myself in.”
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