When homicide detective Jolie Burke awakens to intruders in the dark of night, she’s forced to flee. Jolie’s nobody’s victim, but she cannot fight this faceless enemy alone. She reaches out to Cyril Landry, the ex–Navy SEAL who is long on special-ops skills and short on patience. He suffers no fools—ever. But when Landry rolls into Branch, New Mexico, Jolie is gone, and there’s nothing waiting for him but trouble.
As Landry hunts for Jolie, he becomes immersed in a quagmire of corruption—a toxic brew of graft, homicide, and the ominous shape of something much bigger. Framed for murder and dodging a sexy FBI agent and a suspicious sheriff, Landry finds himself pitted against a psychopath with secrets even blacker than his sinister sports car. Now Landry’s on a double-barreled mission: reach Jolie before the killers do and dig up some dirt on his enemies before they get the chance to dig his grave.
A Cyril Landry Thriller
By J. Carson Black
Branch, New Mexico
Jolie Burke heard something.
There were plenty of noises in her house, a former miner’s shack with thin walls and a corrugated tin roof. Too many to categorize, but all of them were familiar. The sound the dog made when he dipped his tongue into the aluminum water dish. The sound of the house settling—a tiny cracking sound every once in a while. The hum of the refrigerator. A car driving by at night. Voices of neighbors outside. There were so many identifiable sounds that her subconscious—her cop mind–sorted them without her knowledge: This is annoying. This is the usual thing. Cars driving by late at night—that happened, since there were teenagers living two doors down.
But this is out of the ordinary.
What awoke Jolie was another sound—a car door opening quietly.
Not the sound of the car driving up the street, or the engine turning off—
But the faint click of the car door opening, then closing. The car door coming to—just a kiss of metal and rubber suction.
Her first thought was visceral: “The Inside Man”–a serial rapist who had targeted women in three states. He broke into womens’ houses and surprised them when they came home.
But The Inside Man was last year’s news. He hadn’t been active in over a year. The theory was, he’d taken off for parts unknown.
She went into the bathroom where the narrow window overlooked the street. The glass was pebbled, but Jolie could see a white car parked on the street—couldn’t tell much but the shape was not curvy as the late models were.
Three dark shapes approaching the front of her house. Dark. Melting into the expanse of the front yard.
She thought they might have split up, one going around the back. If that were the case, these guys were good.
She was good, too, but there were at least three of them.
Call 911 and stay and fight them, or slip out.
She had an escape route—out through the kitchen side door and in to the garage.
Whoever these people were, they were professionals.
Her cat and dog.
The cat was probably asleep in the linen closet.
And her dog was never much of a watch dog. Despite the fact that he was a rottweiler.
Listen to him now: not one bark.
Her purse hung on the doorknob as it always did. She grabbed it up along with the thumb drive from the bedside table. Where was her phone? She needed to get out! Where was her phone?
Heard voices, a scuffling of feet. Back window.
Then she saw it, lying on the floor. She must have knocked it off the night stand while she was sleeping. She shoved it into her purse. There was no time to get her laptop from her office. She kept it hidden, but the hiding place wouldn’t fool a professional. She’d have to go without her service weapon, too. Earlier today a friend had come over for lunch with her three-year-old daughter. Jolie had locked her service weapon in the safe—
Jolie heard someone jimmying the window in the spare bedroom from the front. They’d found a way to disarm the alarm, and quickly. She had to go, now!
Jolie made it out the side door to the carport as quietly as she could. She could see two dark shapes—one at the window, one at the door. Weapons drawn, careful.
Where was the third?
She squinted in the vague moonlight and saw no one at the carport–her main method of escape. Why?
Her mind went to last night—the car behind her. At first she’d thought it was just another car, someone coming back from work at one of the agricultural farms, or from the small settlement south of here.
But when she’d turned, they’d turned.
When she’d reached her little pocket neighborhood, the car had turned off. One street before her street—as if they knew….
Once was coincidence. Twice was—
A muffled voice. “Back yard.”
Jolie duck-walked around the hood of her car. Registered the smell of gasoline but ignored it.
From now on, it would get noisy.
She prepared. Did she really want to do this? Maybe it would be wiser to slip over the neighbor’s wall into their backyard, and then out to the alley. But what if there were more than these three?
She didn’t want to involve her neighbor.
She got into position, hand ready to yank open the door, and hit the alarm button to unlock the car. The shrill alarm was deafening. She dove inside, just as the two shapes in the front yard yelled and hurtled toward her. The car started immediately–she was worried the lever wouldn’t hit reverse the first time–but it did. Jammed it in reverse. Hit the gas and rocketed backwards, nearly hitting one of the two men in black coming at her.
Instinct and training kicked in—think evasive driving maneuver–
The car swapped ends in the street and the next thing Jolie knew she was hurtling down toward the corner.
Within a minute a car was on her tail. Screaming around corners, headlights juddering in her rearview. She came to the Y in the road—make a decision! One way led to a lonely road with plenty of curves that slowed you to a crawl up the hillside to expensive homes—a maze of one-lane blacktop dead-ends. The other shot through the last of Branch and out to the highway.
The lonely highway.
Neither choice was optimal.
But one was easier—turning right. Right on the road out of Branch.
The moment she turned she realized it might be a mistake. Why didn’t she swap ends again and head for the middle of town?
Afterburners on. Nothing ahead of her. Jolie peered in the rear-view—no car behind her. No car speeding, no headlights. How could that be? They had to be running dark. She squinted at the mirror, almost willing a dark shape to come hurtling toward her from behind.
Out in the lonely expanse of New Mexico desert now.
This time she did see headlights, way back.
She goosed the accelerator, prepared for the car to respond.
But the car engine wasn’t as smooth.
Something was wrong.
She pushed on the accelerator again, hard, but after a half-hearted surge, the car slowed.
The engine was knocking. Out of gas?
But she’d filled the car yesterday. She looked at the gas gauge. The needle was on empty.
Smelled gas at the same time—how could she have missed that?
But I filled it yesterday, her mind insisted. Did they siphon her gas?
“Shut up,” she muttered. “And suck it up.”
She had to ditch the car. Had to find a place where she could hide it.
There was an old ranch house on the right. Middle of the night, nothing stirring. The road led to the ranch house and two outbuildings. She drove onto the washboard dirt road, nursing the car and glad there was a slight decline in the path, her eyes cutting to the rear view mirror, looking for headlights, and then she was there. No lights on in the house. No cars.
The place was abandoned.
Jolie doused her lights, drove behind the barn.
Just in time. The car shuddered, stinking of gas, and died. She opened the barn door and saw piles of junk—but enough room in the aisle for her to push the car in.
It was not easy, but she managed. The last little bit, there was a slight decline. The car rolled to a stop.
She pulled the doors closed and barred the gate.
Pulled out her phone.
“Shit!” she muttered. She looked around. Jolie knew this area well. There was a lot of land, but very few houses. Hardly any around here. As she recalled, the closest building was abandoned—the Circle K.
It had been closed a couple of months ago.
But Jolie remembered the pay phone on the wall outside. She hoped the pay phone still worked. It was a shot. No way would she stand by the road and hang her thumb out—whoever the people were who came to her house would still be looking for her.
She estimated that the Circle K was five or six miles away. She’d been a long-distance runner in high school. She’d also had to run to pass the fitness requirement as a sheriff’s recruit in Florida, but that was over fifteen years ago. Unlike many of her hard-ass, gung-ho friends in the Branch Sheriffs Office., she was in good shape. Good shape, not great shape. That hadn’t mattered—until now. She would go cross-country, in the desert.
Hell, they gave death row inmates one phone call.
She’d make sure hers would count.
There wasn’t much cover but there was some—creosote bushes, mostly. Jolie kept track of the road but stayed about ten lanes off it, on the far side of the barbed-wire fence that seemed to go on forever. She’d stuck to a jog-trot as long as the moon was bright.
No one had driven by on the two-lane rural road. Not surprising—it was probably around two in the morning.
Way up ahead she finally saw it. A square building paralleling the road. She squinted. Black against the dark gray of the surrounding terrain. The pole sticking up into the night sky.
The Circle K.
She tried her phone again. Still no bars.
Jolie always thought she was good, but not lucky. Now she hoped she would be both lucky and good. She altered her path, moving diagonally in the direction of the store.
At the barbed-wire fence thirty feet back from the road, she removed her shirt, doubled it up and placed it over the lower strand of wire. Held it down, bent it in half and stepped through. Donned her shirt again on the other side.
The moon had slipped behind a cloud. Everything got a whole hell of a lot darker. Jolie slowed to a cautious shuffle—there were gopher holes out here and she didn’t want to break a leg–but kept moving in the direction of the Circle K.
The road was empty at this time of night. Flat around here, just some low hills far away to the south.
Jolie tried not to feel disheartened.
She told herself she would be careful. If she heard an engine she would hide in the tall grass growing in the ditch alongside the road. It wasn’t much cover, but some.
It was one of those old Circle Ks built in the seventies. It sat there like a building block against the navy blue of the night sky and a billion stars. The front plate-glass windows and door had been boarded over with plywood.
But, as she remembered, there was the pay phone on the side wall.
It felt too much like a nightmare where you thought you had help but you didn’t. Where your last hope was an old pay phone at an abandoned convenient store in the middle of nowhere and you expected to hear a dial tone but of course there wasn’t one. That would fit in with the way things had been going of late. In what dream could this phone possibly work?
Not gonna happen.
It’s there. Try it.
She darted across the patch of ground, aware of how exposed she was. Pressed against the wall, picked up the receiver. “This is crazy,” she muttered, just as she heard the dial tone.
She punched in the number of the only person in the world she knew she could trust. The one number she had committed to memory.
The phone rang. The message came on.
Jolie heard the rumble of an engine, way off in the distance, finished her message and headed for the brush by the side of the road. She squinted in the direction of the sound, but saw nothing.
But a car was coming. No headlights; it was running dark. Way out there on the road. A big engine—
A muscle car.
The engine idling along, the car moving slow. The sound of the deep-throated engine reverberating off the pavement.
But she couldn’t see anything.
Every instinct told Jolie the driver was looking for her. That might not be logical, but instinct trumped logic every time—especially in this kind of situation. So if she was going to hide, it had to be now. She stayed behind the Circle K, climbed back through the fence and into the dark and fallow field.
She lay flat on the ground and squinted at the road. The car came closer, the shuddering engine loud—
But still she couldn’t see it.
She needed to make sense of this—now. Someone was looking for her.
She was surprised, but not as surprised as she would have thought. Jolie disciplined herself to clamp down on the adrenaline, use her head. She knew the car. She knew the owner.
The car was now right in front of her. Virtually invisible. But then she saw something—a diffused red glow, possibly the interior of the vehicle, barely there. She couldn’t see the car but she could see negative space: what resembled a cut-out of the inside of the vehicle, dim but there. Just enough light to illuminate some of the driver inside.
As the car came abreast of the Circle K she could see the ghost of the door strut, the shape of the window, one or two shapes reflected off the dash inside.
But nothing else.
Jolie was ninety percent sure the car belonged to the kid, but there were plenty of black muscle cars in this town. She could be wrong. She needed to expand her horizons, think of who else might have a car like that. She couldn’t assume anything at this point.
Think! Who did she know who owned a muscle car? Plenty, at the sheriff’s office. It seemed every other guy she knew had bought into the muscle car dream: late model Mustangs, Chargers, Challengers, Camaros. Many of them black, silver, or charcoal gray. Mean machines.
And the sheriff’s department was full of practical jokers. Their favorite victims were the women cops in the department, which was probably the way it was everywhere.
Maybe that was it, one of the guys playing a practical joke on her, but she didn’t think so.
Whoever had come to her house meant business.
The car slid past like a shark cruising through the murky water. No light delineated its shape except for the inner cherry glow, so faint she sometimes didn’t see it at all and the whole thing just…disappeared except for the noise. She could track it better with her ears than her eyes. Past the Circle K, the car picked up speed and hit the afterburners, the red glow turning into a thin trail as the car accelerated.
Then it was gone, rumbling off into the distance.
Now you see it, now you don’t.
The moon had broken through the clouds; it was bright enough to see where she was going now. Jolie broke for the fallow field behind her, hoping for an undulation in the ground, a fold that would hide her—
And found it. A quarter mile away, after a hard run, she landed stomach-down in a small ditch.
Cold out here.
Minutes dragged by.
It seemed like hours.
Just as her heart rate returned to normal, she heard the noise of the engine again.
The muscle car cruised back the way it had come. Almost as if the thing were an entity to itself, patiently stalking her. The loud engine reverberated. She knew from that sound that if push came to shove, it would scream like a catamount. She peered over the hump of earth and grass and looked.
The ghost car turned in to the Circle K.
At least she thought it did–
Keep your head down!
Jolie realized she’d squeezed her eyes shut. It took every trick she knew to open them. She was that scared.
The driver cut the engine. Jolie heard the creak of a car door opening, then the stealthy click of the door latching shut. The sound of shoes on gravel. Sound carried out in the boonies.
Voices. She couldn’t understand what they were saying.
She recognized one of them, though—
The man shouted, “Jolie! I know you’re out here. Why don’t you come out and we’ll talk?”
“Jolie? I just want to talk to you. Don’t play games.”
She heard someone else talking on a phone, but couldn’t hear what was being said. Then: “Where the hell did she go?”
Another voice said, “She could be in the next county by now.”
Jolie recognized this voice, too. For a moment she was stunned, but then she realized she’d been expecting it all along.
“If she knows what’s good for her, she’s already gone.”
The car door opened and clicked shut again. The engine gunned. The car pulled out onto the highway. Jolie couldn’t help but look at it–
What she could see. Just the dark that was darker than the night, and in the center of it a faint infrared glow.
Then the lights came on and the car arrowed down the highway, the taillights eventually swallowed by the dark.
San Clemente, California
Cyril Landry held the lime-green tennis ball, aware that he was not hefting it with confidence.
Which was unlike him.
“Don’t worry,” the cricket-like man in the gaudy Hawaiian shirt said. “It won’t go off on its own. Has to be activated by the racket.”
“Not any kind of racket,” Landry said. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
The man in the Hawaiian shirt nodded and his gray ponytail nodded right along with him. “That’s correct. You’re right as rain. Otherwise…”
He left it open to conjecture.
Landry had gone out for a day of paddle-boarding, but as the sun dropped low over the water, he’d stowed the board and paddle into his Subaru and wandered in to downtown San Clemente for a bite to eat.
Even at this early hour the restaurants were crowded, so Landry ducked in to this cubbyhole of an antique shop, with an eye on the Beachcomber Bar and Grille across the street, hoping a table would open up.
A friend had told him about the old hippie. Landry wasn’t in the market for anything right now, but curiosity had finally gotten the better of him. His friend had said, “You won’t believe this guy. He was in Nam. Some elite squad, what I heard. He sells knickknacks and the occasional hellfire missile.”
His friend had been joking about the hellfire missile. At least Landry thought he was.
But once Cricket Man, aka Terrence Lark, knew he was for real, he’d shown him some nice stuff.
“If you’re interested, let me know,” Lark said, before tucking the tennis ball reverently back into the box with its mates.
After his solo dinner, Landry walked by the shops and restaurants down by the water. The white-washed stucco buildings dated from the 1920s. Almost all of them had red tile roofs. The Spanish colonial style look had been a requirement when the resort town was built and incorporated in 1928. At the time the town was called “San Clemente by the Sea.”
San Clemente appealed to Landry. He liked that it felt like a small town tucked inside a large sprawling chain of cities and freeways—quickly accessible to airports and ways in and out of L.A.
He always looked up the celebrities and famous people in the towns he decided to live in, and San Clemente was no different. San Clemente didn’t have a lot of notable natives. Richard Nixon’s Western White House was here. But otherwise, the pickings were scarce: Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney, Jr. Cara Fawn–a porn star–and Carl Karcher, the founder of Carl’s Jr. Such a beautiful place—idyllic. You’d think San Clemente could have done better than that.
On Friday night, the street was a hive of locals and tourists. Every shop was open at night. Throngs of people bubbled along the sidewalks like packing peanuts on a conveyer belt, only these packing peanuts were dressed in T-shirts, shorts, flip flops, and swim trunks. There were surfers, baby boomers, beach bums, working stiffs, Maserati-owners, chefs, charter boat captains, and the younger families who came from the bland neighborhoods across the San Diego Freeway where houses measured more in square feet than originality. Landry did not like the fact that there were more of these houses every day, perched on the buff and gray hills like Monopoly hotels. But who was he to judge? The Millennials made good money. Landry saw them coming into town for dinner and shopping with their spacious SUVS and collapsible strollers and very cute offspring.
Landry blended in, just another beach bum/surfer type. Every picture tells a story and he made his own. His longish brown hair had gold streaks in it, which he had applied himself. A goatee concealed the lower half of his face. Even the car he drove, the 2000 Subaru Outback, fit the mold. He rented a seventies-era bungalow on Avenida de la Estrella, a short walk up the hill from the main drag and the pier and the ocean.
San Clemente was easygoing and forgiving. He had plenty of time for his new pastime-bordering-on-passion: paddle boarding.
Del Mar was a short drive up the freeway. He could watch his brother’s racehorses run, although he missed being on the backside in the mornings. But he couldn’t drive in through the horsemen’s gate. He did not have a license. To apply for one, he would have to be fingerprinted.
Worse, he would be recognized right away.
Landry walked up the steps to his bungalow. He scanned the pocket yard, looking at every potential hiding place, his roof and the roof next door, his door and the door next door. Finally, he ducked under the banana tree and, key ready, eyeballed the small pebble he’d set on the middle of the doorstep. It was still in place. Only then did he unlock the door. He pushed the door open and stood to the side. SOP—Standard Operating Procedure.
Inside the bungalow, Landry’s gaze made a visual sweep of the room—the configuration of the furnishings. Everything looked the same. He eyeballed the kitchen alcove. Nothing had been touched.
He took the hallway to his bedroom, opened the walk-in closet and reached into the jacket pocket of his navy suit for his other cell phone. Walking back into the living room, he punched in the number for the answering service and entered the security code.
As he waited, he stood inside the doorway looking out at the patch of ocean off to the north. The air, redolent of the ocean, blew past him, fluttering the banana tree leaves. The sky had turned the color of a red plum. It would be a nice night to sit out on the terrace with a beer.
The message played.
“It’s Jolie. I’m at an old Circle K outside Branch, New Mexico. Mile Marker 138. I need you to come. Hurry.”
He made a note of the time, date, and number, so the phone company could track the location, then punched it in. The phone rang but there was no answer.