Force of Nature
It was a hot, humid night. A sweaty night.
A night exactly like hundreds of other hot, sweaty Saturday nights in Sarasota, Florida.
The moon was nearly full and it made the Gulf sparkle. The beautiful, fine white sand of Crescent Beach seemed to glow.
As he walked toward the crowd gathered at the southernmost lifeguard station on the public beach, some of that sand shifted into one of Detective Ric Alvarado’s black dress shoes, where it was significantly less beautiful.
“Over here,” Bobby Donofrio called, as if Ric could’ve missed his bald head gleaming in the searchlights that had been set to illuminate the crime scene. He was standing with wiry Johnny Olson, who could’ve been the department’s best detective if he’d cut back on his drinking. “’Bout time you showed up.”
It had been only fifteen minutes since Ric got the call. He’d made good time on the road. But there was never any point in arguing with Donofrio. “Any witnesses?” he asked.
“None so far,” Johnny said, turning toward him. He whistled. “Nice suit, kid.”
“We caught you in the middle of a hot date or something, huh?” Donofrio asked.
“Or something,” Ric responded, unwilling to rub their noses in the fact that they, unlike the other members of the detective squad, hadn’t been invited to Martell Griffin’s party for passing the bar exam at the Columbia Restaurant out on St. Armand’s Circle.
Which was where Ric had been just fifteen — sixteen — minutes ago. Listening to the salsa band his own father put together with only a few hours’ notice when the club’s regular musicians got stranded at the Key West airport. Flirting with a pretty blond teacher on vacation from Ohio. Celebrating his best friend’s well-deserved success.
It was where Ric had been enjoying himself — before Donofrio had called him in to translate, even though Lora Newsom, who spoke fluent Spanish, was among the uniformed officers on the scene.
“Why am I here?” Ric kept his voice even as he gazed at the heavy-set detective, but he knew his annoyance showed in his eyes.
“Because the victim’s sister don’t speak bueno English and the last thing we need is another weeping female.” Donofrio rolled his eyes toward a woman who was, no doubt, the sister. She’d collapsed in the sand, several of the uniforms keeping her back so that the crime-scene photographer could finish taking pictures of the body sprawled on the beach. “One is bad enough.”
That was crap. Newsom was one of the few women on the force, which meant she’d worked twenty times harder to get there than any of the men. Compassionate yet firm, capable of kicking ass when she had to — she was a rock in a crisis. But ever since she’d broken down in the locker room at the news that her mother-in-law had died in a car accident, she’d been getting all kinds of grief. Especially from Stan and Ollie here.
One incident, one time, and now it was all these clowns could remember.
Thanks to his famous father, Ric knew that he stood on that same shaky ground.
“You don’t think the sister has the right to cry?” Ric asked. He should have just ignored Donofrio, but he was pissed. One of these days, this son of a bitch was going to push him past his breaking point. And Christ, as he got closer, he could see that the victim looked to be no more than eleven or twelve years old. He knew the gangs were initiating ’em younger these days, but this kid was an infant.
“Guess we blew your chances at getting lucky.” Skinny Johnny O. would not let go of the fact that Ric was out of his usual uniform of sneakers and jeans.
“Not necessarily,” Donofrio quipped. “The sister’s a mamacita. You could still make time if you play your cards right. Make her think it’s about comfort.”
He wasn’t kidding. Ric had to turn away. One of these days…
It was then that he saw them.
Two kids. Older than the dead boy, but not by much. They were separated from the rest of the onlookers by a good forty feet, standing in the shadows outside of the light from the spots.
There was little for him to do until the photographer finished her morbid task. Ric could tell just from looking that the sister wouldn’t be good for questions until after she was allowed to approach the victim. Even then, she probably wouldn’t be up for a police interview until the body was sent to the morgue.
So Ric sauntered down the beach, careful not to head directly toward the pair of kids. His intention was to flank ‘em, to put them between him and the crowd of police officers and detectives, but he didn’t get far before Donofrio spotted them, too.
“Hey! You kids! Come ‘ere!” he shouted.
Of course they turned and ran.
Johnny and Bobby D took off after them, but even in his dress shoes, Ric was faster.
He chased them up into the dunes — ecologically fragile areas that were off-limits to the public. They were running full out, and Ric scrambled after them, through the brush that divided the beach from a poorly lit parking area.
He was finally starting to gain on the boys, his lungs burning as he pushed himself even harder, faster, when one of them — the taller one — tripped.
He went down hard, but came up almost immediately, moonlight glinting off of metal in his hand.
The kid had a handgun.
Ric could see it clearly, the stainless-steel slide gleaming. It was a Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter, tiny but deadly.
He had his own weapon out as he shouted, “Drop it! Suelte el arma!”
But the kid didn’t drop it and the world went into high-def slo-mo.
Details stood out in sharp relief. The black grip of the pistol. The tightness and fear on the perp’s face.
He was older than Ric had first thought, probably more like eighteen or nineteen, but small for his age.
The other kid was long gone.
“Suelte el arma,” Ric shouted again, the words stretched out long and loud as it took an eternity and then another eternity for his heart to pump his blood through his body, roaring in his ears.
But the kid didn’t drop it and still didn’t drop it and Ric’s weapon was up and he had a clear, easy shot, but God damn it, hadn’t one dead boy on the beach been enough?
Apparently not, because the kid fired twice – a quick double pop – and a hot slap to both his side and his left arm spun Ric around. So much for his new suit.
The kid fired again, this time missing him, giving Ric enough stretched out endless fractions of a second to re-steady his own weapon and take the kid down.
He pulled the trigger, and the kid hit the sand, his weapon flying out of his hand.
But damn, Ric couldn’t keep himself standing and he, too, fell heavily to his knees just as Johnny and Bobby D crested the dune.
“Officer down,” Johnny shouted as Donofrio fired.
“No,” Ric said, but they didn’t hear him, couldn’t possibly hear him as Donofrio unloaded most of his magazine into the scrawny kid. Two, three, four, five, six, seven shots, and the night’s body count was doubled.
Son of a bitch.
“Hang on, kid,” Johnny told Ric, leaning close, his breath smelling like lower-shelf whiskey and cigarettes. “Help’s coming. Just hang on.”
Annie Dugan was sick and tired of late-night emergency phone calls.
For months she’d lived on the brink of disaster, cursing the inevitable. She was a prisoner of the specter of approaching death, trapped in a corner yet still fighting like hell against the odds – for someone who, in the end, had gone and quit on her.
Pam’s funeral was lovely, of course. Pam had made all the arrangements herself, in advance, and her parents were there to see that it went off without a glitch. Annie had sat in the back of the church, too tired and still too angry at her best friend to cry.
The house – a rustic New Hampshire farmhouse that Pam had renovated with her artistic flair two years before she was diagnosed as inoperable – sold almost immediately, mere hours after the hospice bed was removed from the front parlor.
It had felt as if it were all happening too quickly to Annie, but in her heart she knew it was a good thing. As much as she’d loved that house, as much as she thought of it as a home, it wasn’t her home and she didn’t want to stay.
Annie had gone back to Boston. Templar, Brick and Smith hired her back, just as they said they would. Eunice Templar, known throughout the business world as the Dragonlady, had gotten tears in her eyes when Annie had explained she couldn’t just take a month’s leave of absence, that she was moving to New Hampshire for an indeterminate amount of time so that her best friend, Pam, could live out her last months at home, instead of in a hospital, surrounded by strangers.
After Pam died, Annie went back to work at the accounting firm. She found an apartment in Newton, and took her furniture and business suits and shoes out of storage.
This was when, the hospice coordinator and the grief counselors had all said, she would slowly but surely find her life returning to normal. It would take time, though. She should be patient. Expect bumps in the road.
It would feel strange at first, going back to work in a cubicle, after spending so much time outside. It would feel surreal, even. Almost as if she’d never left, as if the past few months hadn’t happened.
She should continue with counseling, they’d told her, so she dutifully went. Once a week, as part of her new/old routine.
But it had been months now, and still none of it seemed even remotely familiar – at least not until the phone rang tonight, interrupting Jon Stewart, at a quarter after eleven.
It was Celeste Harris, the woman who had bought Pam’s house, and she was clearly distressed. Pam’s dog, Pierre, a tiny mutt, part poodle, part mystery, had run away from his new home with Pam’s mom and had shown up again, in Celeste’s backyard. She’d tried to coax him inside, tempting him with food, but he’d shied away. It was cold out and getting colder. She’d called the town dogcatcher, but he couldn’t make it out there until the morning.
Celeste was afraid that would be too late – that Pierre would freeze to death by then.
So she’d called Annie, hoping she could help.
And here Annie was. Heading to the rescue. North on Route 3. Shivering as her car took forever to warm up in the cold New England night.
She’d called Pam’s mother, who reported Pierre had run away a full week ago — she hadn’t wanted to bother Annie with that bad news. That dog was such a trial. Always hiding under the desk in the kitchen. Refusing food. Pooping at night on the dining-room floor.
Pam, who’d arranged every detail before she’d done the unspeakable, had made sure Pierre would go to live with her cousin Clive, of whom the little dog had grudgingly approved. But when Clive was offered a promotion and a move to his firm’s London office, Pierre went to live with Pam’s mom.
It was nearly 1 a.m. when Annie turned off the road and onto the crushed gravel of the drive that led back to Pam’s house. Pam’s former house.
The lights were still on, both porches lit up. The kitchen windows glowed, too, and the back screen opened with a familiar screech as Annie parked and got out of her car.
“Thank you for coming.” Celeste came out onto the back porch, followed by her two daughters.
Pam would’ve loved the fact that children were living in her house. She wouldn’t have loved the hatchet job they’d done on her beloved mountain laurels, though.
“He’s over by the garbage pails,” the younger girl announced. “Alongside the garage.”
“It’s a barn, dimwit,” her older sister loftily corrected her.
“Yeah, but we keep our car there, so it’s also a garage, stupid.”
“Girls,” their mother chastised.
Annie was already heading — slowly, carefully — around the side of the barn. “Pierre,” she whispered, very softly.
Pierre had had a painful past, Pam had once told Annie as she snuggled the little dog in her arms, his head possessively on her shoulder. Long before Pam had met Pierre at the animal shelter, someone had neglected and even beaten him. It was hard for him to trust anyone, but he’d finally bonded with Pam. She’d told him, every day, that no one was going to hurt him, not ever again.
“Pierre, it’s me,” Annie whispered now. Not that he’d ever deigned to give her his attention before. Of course, back then, Pam was always there – his goddess, his all.
She heard him before she saw him – the tinkling of his tags as he shifted and then… He poked his head out into the dim light, wariness in his brown eyes.
He was almost unrecognizable. His hair was matted and dirty. And he was skinny. Skinnier. And shivering from the cold.
“Hey, puppy boy,” Annie said softly, using Pam’s pet names for him as she crouched down and held out her hand for him to sniff. “Hey, good dog. Everything’s okay. No one’s going to hurt you…”
To her complete surprise, he didn’t hesitate. His tail even wagged slightly as he came out of his hiding place and licked her outstretched hand. Looking over his shoulder, as if to make sure that she was going to follow him, he trotted out onto the driveway and over to her car.
Annie stopped short. Did he really want…?
“Wow, she likes you,” the littler girl said, admiration in her voice. “She doesn’t like us very much.”
“He doesn’t like you,” her older sister pointed out. “Probably because you can’t tell the difference between a girl dog and a boy dog.”
Pierre looked at Annie, looked at the car, and then back at Annie, as if to say, What are you waiting for?
“I can’t have a dog in my apartment,” Annie said, as if he could actually understand her words. “Plus, I work full-time…”
Celeste opened the screen door. “Why don’t you come inside?” she invited Annie. “Both of you. It’s too late to drive back to Boston tonight. You can stay over on the couch and we can figure out a plan of action in the morning.”
The thought of going into Pam’s house was both appealing and dreadful. But it was late, and Annie was exhausted. “Thanks,” she said.
Amazingly, Pierre didn’t protest as she scooped him up. She followed the smaller of the girls inside, and… It was beyond weird.
Because it wasn’t even remotely Pam’s house anymore.
They’d repainted the walls, muting Pam’s bright colors. And their furniture was vastly different from Pam’s wicker and white painted wood. It was faux Colonial now – all dark veneers and copper drawer-pulls.
It smelled different, too.
“Bathroom’s down the hall, second door on the left,” Celeste said. “Of course, you know that. I’ll be right back with some blankets.”
She disappeared, shooing her daughters along to bed, leaving Annie and Pierre alone in the living room.
“I can’t have a dog,” Annie told him again, but he put his head down, right on her shoulder, the way he used to do with Pam, and he sighed. His entire little body shook with his exhale, and the crazy thing was that Annie felt what he was feeling, too.
If it wasn’t quite contentment, it was pretty darn close.
It was oddly familiar.
Vaguely normal and very right, in spite of the freaky abnormality of their surroundings, in spite of Pierre’s unfortunate aroma.
It was far more normal and right than she’d ever felt in her cubicle in Templar, Brick and Smith. Even before Pam got sick.
Celeste came back with an armload of bedding. “Worse come to worst, the dogcatcher’ll be here in the morning. I know it’s not the best solution, but at least the dog’ll be warm in the pound. He’ll have food…”
“I’m keeping him,” Annie told her.
“But you said your apartment—”
“I didn’t really like it there,” she admitted. She didn’t particularly like her job, either. Or Boston’s relentless cold – the winters that lasted for nearly half the year. “Thanks for your hospitality, but I’m awake enough to drive. We’re going home.”
“Are you sure?” Celeste asked, following her to the kitchen door. “Because it’s really not an imposition—”
“I’m sure,” Annie told her. “Thanks again.”
The gravel crunched under her boots as she took Pierre to her car. He didn’t seem anxious as she set him down on the passenger seat. He just made himself comfortable, watching her expectantly.
Annie sat behind the wheel, started the engine. “Well,” she said to the dog as she backed into the turnaround and headed down the drive, “now we just have to figure out where exactly home is.”
His team leader, Peggy Ryan, hated him.
It was an inane thing for FBI agent Jules Cassidy to be thinking, considering that a shooter had suddenly opened fire on the crowd of law enforcement personnel, all of whom had just rushed out from their protective cover behind half a dozen police cars.
But to be fair, this entire situation was drenched in extra crazy. It reeked of some serious what-the-fuck, too, starting with the cozy-looking little Cape-style house, located here on what should have been a peaceful suburban D.C. street.
The catastrophuck began ten hours ago, when the report of a hostage situation first came in. Jules’s counterterrorist team had gotten a call because the hostage taker was a well-known bubba – a wanted terrorist of the homegrown variety.
They were told that – as best they could allege — there were three hostages being held by that lone HT in this unassuming little house with its flower gardens and white picket fence. As a full variety of police and FBI teams arrived on the scene, surrounding the structure and setting up the cars as a barricade to keep them all safely outside of Bubba’s rifle range, negotiations had been started.
After hours of standoff, to Jules’s complete and utter surprise, the bubba had surrendered.
He came out of the house and into the yard with his hands up and empty – no weapon in sight.
At which point, Peggy gave the order to take him into custody. She and the local police chief — a bear of a man named Peeler – led the charge into the yard as Jules and the rest of the team headed for the house to see to the safety of the hostages.
The game was finally over.
Except, not so fast there, you.
Apparently, the real game was just beginning.
Because no, that wasn’t just one shooter firing at them from that Cape, making them scatter. There were at least two. Crap, make that three. As Jules looked up at the house, he counted, yes, three different shooters – all firing rifles from the second-story dormer windows.
“What the hell…?” Jules’s FBI team member Deb Erlanger said it all as she and Yashi and George scrambled, pulling Jules with them, back behind one of the state police cruisers.
“Our radio’s hit,” Yashi announced.
Of course it was.
It was times like this that reinforced the importance of law enforcement personnel giving heavier weight to the presence of the word allegedly in the facts surrounding the decision-making process. Allegedly was a lot like assume, but in this case it didn’t just make asses out of their team leaders, it made people dead.
Apparently, there wasn’t one hostage taker and three hostages. Instead there were at least three hostile gunmen, apparently all determined to commit suicide-by-SWAT-team, while taking as many FBI and police with them as possible.
From Jules’s new proximity, he could see that Chief Peeler had been shot. How badly he was wounded, Jules didn’t know, but Peeler lay motionless in the Cape’s front yard, protected only marginally by the garden’s flimsy picket fence.
All but one of the shooters had what looked to be terrible aim – a clue that probably meant two of the three were amateurs.
Most of the FBI and police had made it safely back to cover behind the cars, with limited casualties — except for Peggy Ryan, who hated Jules and was pinned down in the yard, behind a small outcropping of rocks. She was plastered flat against the ground, weapon drawn, halfway between Peeler’s sprawled body and the full cover of a neighbor’s garden shed.
She’d dropped her radio. Jules could see it near Peeler’s leg.
“Center window,” Jules told Yashi, Deb, and George as he reached into the cruiser and grabbed the medical kit. He was going to take it with him just in case he and Peeler got pinned behind Peggy’s rock. “Whoever’s up there’s the only one who can shoot worth shit. Focus your fire there. Keep it up until I get the chief back behind that shed.”
George expressed his incredulity. “You’re going to move Peeler?”
Yashi had a far more pertinent question. He held up his regulation sidearm. “Range on this thing’s too short. It won’t—”
“Just do it,” Jules ordered. With luck, it would cause the shooters to take cover. It was hard to aim and shoot to kill whilst ducking.
“Now!” Jules said, and medical kit slung over his shoulder, his own weapon out, he ran out into the street, toward the yard. Deb and Yashi and George’s sidearms roared behind him, and as he headed straight into what could potentially be a hail of bullets from the holed-up gunmen, he realized he’d blown the perfect opportunity to say, Cover me, I’m going in.
Bullets from the shooters in the house hit the ground around him, sending puffs of dirt into the air. But there was no turning back now.
Jules fired his own weapon – not easy to do while running full out — aiming as best he could for that center window. He slid to a stop in the grass near Chief Peeler, tearing out the knee of his pants. Dang, this was his favorite suit, but perspective was important here. Last time he’d looked, Men’s Wearhouse didn’t sell internal organs.
The chief, however, hadn’t been as lucky. He was lying with his head in a pool of blood. Expecting the worst, Jules felt for a pulse. To his surprise, he found it, steady and strong – and he realized that the chief had merely been grazed. A bullet had creased his hairline, over his left ear, hence the copious bleeding. It had knocked him out, but the man was alive.
For now, anyway.
Jules covered Peeler with his own body as a new rain of bullets pinged the ground around them.
He grabbed the radio that Peggy had dropped. “Cover me,” he ordered whoever was listening on the other end. “I need some weapons with real range aiming for those windows. Keep it going while I pull the chief to the shed.”
He didn’t wait for confirmation – he pitched the radio over to Peggy and grabbed Peeler beneath his massive arms.
Jules may have been small of stature, but he was strong. He dug in his heels and dragged, but sweet Jesus, why couldn’t the chief have taken a trip or two to the salad bar over the past few years instead of relentlessly supersizing the cheese fries?
But then Peggy was there, helping him, and together they pulled the chief all the way to that shed, where a medical team was already standing by.
“You hit?” one of the medics, a woman with her hair swept back into a tight ponytail, asked him.
Jules shook his head no. Miraculously, he wasn’t. “Peg, you okay?”
She was already barking orders into the radio, calling in the SWAT team. If she was bleeding, she wasn’t letting it slow her down.
“Man, you got balls,” the other medic said. “And a shitload of luck. You know, Channel 4 news got it all on camera. You’re going to be a hero. People ’round here love Chief Peeler, and you saved his life.”
Great. Jules was going to have to call Laronda – the boss’s assistant – and get her on top of smothering that merde cream pie as quickly as possible. Last thing he needed was his face on the evening news.
But it wasn’t until later, until after the SWAT team sang and the dust had settled around the body bags being carried out of the newly secured house, that Jules was finally able to reintroduce himself to his cell phone. And even then, he had to pocket it, when Peggy Ryan approached him.
Peggy Ryan – who hated him. Who probably wouldn’t give a hoot if his name and likeness were plastered all over the national news.
In fact, she would use it as reason number 4,367 why he should quit.
It was then, as she was heading toward him, wearing her official business face, that Jules realized that by saving Morgan Peeler, he’d been saving Peggy Ryan.
“This doesn’t change anything,” she told him, trying to wipe the ground-in dirt from her starched white blouse. Her helmet-hair was messed up, too, but her eyes were just as they’d always been. Cold and distant. “Between us, I mean. I still don’t think you belong in the Bureau.”
“Gosh,” Jules said, unable to keep his temper under check. Not that he’d expected a total change of heart, but was a simple “Good job” too much to ask? Or how about “thank you”? “In thatcase, I guess I just should have let Chief Peeler die.” He shook his head in disgust. “Believe it or not, ma’am, I didn’t help him because I thought you would approve. I did it because someone had to help Peeler and you sure as hell seemed to have lost control of the entire situation. You had no radio and, frankly, until I went out there, you didn’t seem to be concerned with much more than saving your own ass.”
She flushed. “How dare you!”
Okay, so maybe that was a little harsh. Things had happened fast, and she had been pinned down. But he was sick of her crap, of her refusing to admit – even now – that he was an important player on their team. He’d tried winning her over with humor, but that hadn’t worked. He’d hoped that today’s heroics would at least gain him her grudging respect, but now he finally had to admit it. She was never going to accept him.
“I don’t give a shit whether or not you think I belong here,” he told her quietly. “The only two opinions I care about are mine, and the boss’s. And we both think I’m doing fine. If you don’t want to work with me, lady, you’re going to have to put in for the transfer. Because I’m not going anywhere.”
She wasn’t listening. She never did. “If you think—”
Jules cut her off, got even farther up in her face. “I saved your soul today. You were team leader. You gave the order. If Peeler had died, you’d have had to live with that forever. That must really gall you, huh, Peg? The gay guy rescued you. That must really grate.”
She spun on her heels – or heel, rather. One of them had broken off in the brouhaha. As Jules watched, she stalked away.
“You’re welcome,” he called after her, but she didn’t even so much as look back.