Marshall's Law by Ben Sanders is the 2nd book in the Marshall Grade series (available April 4, 2017).
Ex-undercover cop Marshall Grade is hiding out in California when he learns that federal agent Lucas Cohen has survived a kidnapping. Cohen was Marshall’s ticket into witness protection, and his captors have a simple question: where’s Marshall now?
Marshall’s undercover work gave him a long list of enemies, and the enemy in this case is a corrupt businessman named Dexter Vine. Vine’s almost broke, in debt to people even worse than himself, and he wants to settle old scores while he has time. He’s hired Ludo Coltrane—a nonchalant psychopath and part-time bar manager—to find Marshall at any cost. Ludo’s no stranger to killing, but his associate, the cash-strapped ex-con Perry Rhodes, may prove more of a liability than an asset.
The question is: what has Marshall done to make Dexter want him dead? And are the contacts from his old life—ex-colleague Lana, and the heroin dealer Henry Lee—prepared to help him, or will they just sell him out?
Marvin Lisk at the sheriff’s up in Los Alamos called Cohen on Monday morning, said they had Tommy Lee Warren in custody.
Cohen said, “Why you telling me about it?” Saying it dry, knowing Marvin would hear a smile in it.
Lisk said, “See he missed a court appearance down your way Friday, thought you might like to come get him.”
Cohen put his elbows on the desk, looked out his window. Early December, a light snow falling slantwise, already two inches on the courthouse lawn. Soft glazing for the trees lining South Federal Place. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, enthusiasm lacking at this hour on a cold Monday. He said, “Where’d you find him?”
“Post office, believe it or not. You know that big parking lot out back? Patrol said he was just sitting there, guys saw him kinda slumped in the seat, thought it mighta been a heart attack.”
“Nah. He was just spaced out on something. Stolen car, too, so it was a good catch.”
“He say what he was doing?”
“Reckoned he couldn’t remember, and he blew a one-eight, so it’s probably the truth. But I see it’s a possession charge he’s skipped court on, so maybe he was looking to buy something, I don’t know.”
A taxi crawled past, tire tracks crisp in the new powder. His reflection like a watermark on the view. Cohen said, “Probably does mail-order crack, sends in a coupon.”
“Yeah. I’ll ask him.”
Cohen swiveled in his chair, phone cord wrapping round his chest, thinking who might help with prisoner transport. He said, “You sure you don’t want to keep him?”
Lisk laughed. “No. Tommy’s all yours.”
* * *
He took Karen Kaminski with him. Normally he’d choose someone else for backup, Karen not exactly a chatterbox, but she was new to the marshals, and could probably do with the practice.
They got up there just before ten in the morning. The Sheriff’s Department in Los Alamos operated out of the grandly named Justice Center. It was a big low-rise cluster of tan buildings, pretty subdued this morning under its layer of snow, not really living up to its fancy name.
A deputy took them through to the holding cells. Tommy Lee Warren had been brought out already, standing handcuffed behind the grille, a cop on each elbow.
“Ah shit, I just knew, soon as they said Marshals Service, it’d be Lucas Cohen coming to see me.”
Cohen went over and smiled at him through the bars, let Karen handle the paperwork. “How’s things, Tommy?”
“Things is shit. I don’t remember anything since Thursday; this is just a joke.”
“That’s something you need to discuss with your attorney.”
“Yeah, well, I want to discuss it with someone might actually let me out of here.”
Cohen rested a hand on his gun, kept the smile going, all part of looking like a seasoned lawman. “Sorry, Tommy.”
“Sorry, bullshit. Might as well tell me I kidnapped Mrs. Obama, have just as much memory of it.”
“We’ll stop by the hospital on the way back, get you an MRI.”
“Yeah, funny guy. Look, I had every intention of making court on the Friday.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I can’t remember.”
“It’s a long drive in this weather, Tommy. You can tell me on the way.”
“Yeah, I will. You just make sure you have the tape running.”
The deputies helped put him in the car, and they were on the road a minute later, Tommy safe in back behind the mesh, Karen driving, Cohen up front beside her. He liked times like these, riding shotgun when he was actually holding a shotgun. He had a Glock .40 on his hip as well, a Smith & Wesson Airweight .38 on his ankle. Tommy had done time for possession and assault, not exactly a ray of sunshine, not exactly an easy character to deal with, either. His tactic was to come on friendly, get you close enough to spit or scratch. Cohen had learned that the hard way.
Karen got them onto 502 heading east, the cloudscape dark and quilted. Snow still falling, the air crack-your-teeth cold. There wasn’t much traffic: One car behind them a quarter-mile back, mostly heavy freight coming the other way. Truck headlights a soft yellow in the gray distance, like ghosts sweeping through the dim morning.
Tommy leaned forward, put his mouth to the screen. “Where we going, anyway?”
Cohen said, “You got one night’s free accommodation at Santa Fe Correctional, and then you’ve got court in the morning, apparently. Who knows, after that, you might be back in the pen.”
Tommy was quiet a while, looking out his window and tapping one foot, and then he said, “Hey, if I tell you something, are you actually going to listen, or are you just gonna sit there daydreaming?”
Cohen looked at him in the mirror. The trick was to avoid turning around, lest you get a face full of spit. Tommy was about thirty-five, bald up top, with a thin curtain of hair just hanging on around his ears. Not a healthy look, and the scabs from his meth cravings didn’t help.
Cohen said, “I might tune in if you’ve got something good to say.” He settled low in his seat, the shotgun upright between his knees, looked at Karen. “What about you?”
She’d been with Army CID in North Carolina before joining the marshals, and Cohen didn’t imagine folks got too far in the military police by being tolerant of tall stories. She said, “I think I’ll probably just zone out.”
Tommy said, “Well, Christ sake.”
Cohen said, “Tommy, far be it from me to impinge on your First Amendment rights; you feel free to talk as much as you like, but I can’t guarantee we’ll be taking anything on board.”
Tommy slumped back, let his breath out. “Look, honestly, I’m not shitting you, I don’t remember anything since Thursday, it’s blank all the way through. Last thing I remember, I was thinking, man, I got court tomorrow, and then, wham.”
Cohen looked out his window. Snow-draped mountains at the end of the snow-draped plain, the gray sky bearing down on them, closing up like a drawstring bag. It looked more sinister out here, seeing the spread of the terrain, nothing safe from the elements.
He said, “Where’d you get the car?”
“I don’t know, that’s the point. I woke up, it was kind of like, hey, presto, you know?”
Cohen said, “I’m just trying to figure out why you’d be stupid enough to skip court, knowing you’d then have us pick you up.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t. Sheriff’s did.”
“And sheriff’s called me, so it still counts.”
“Whatever, look, it’s all a blank. There should be some good-faith thing, like, if you actually planned to get to court, then they kind of take that into account.”
Cohen said, “Put it in the suggestion box. What were you doing at the post office, anyway?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you. Probably mailing you a Christmas card. No, probably sending you a great big fucking present, that’ll be it.”
Cohen didn’t answer.
“Hey, you don’t believe me, whatever. I’m used to being treated like shit, so this is an upgrade.”
Cohen didn’t answer.
“But you know what’s funny? I’ve been ‘Tommy’ my whole life, always ‘Tommy,’ but soon as I get picked up, go inside, suddenly ‘I’m Tommy Lee Warren,’ you know how they always use your full name? ‘Tommy Lee Warren,’ like some fancy title, like you’re more important or something. But they still don’t give a shit what you say, even if every word’s the truth.”
When the car hit them they were doing close to sixty, a hard nudge from behind to the rear left quarter panel that sent them fishtailing. Cohen’s head snapped forward with the jolt. He grabbed the dash, glimpsed headlights in his side mirror as he came upright, Karen fighting the wheel, trying to haul them back straight. She nearly had it, reining in the crazy lurch, the long scrawl of tire marks shrinking with each swerve.
And then the vehicle behind struck again.
The world tipped horribly, a crazy tilt on some weird axis, and then the car went over, air bags exploding as they rolled, shattered glass in a hurricane through the cabin. A murder screech of ruined metal as they tumbled again, and then a third time.
The car tried for a final flip but didn’t quite get there. It teetered on its side wheels, thought about it, and then thumped back down. Cohen’s ears were ringing, a tinny shell-shock buzz. A flood of blood and glass through the cabin, and the hood in mangled folds, steam leaking through the gaps. He tried to push away his air bag, looked over at Karen, saw her hanging limp against her belt, head on her shoulder. He reached out for her, and then his door wrenched open with a squeal. Something cold on his temple, and a voice telling him:
A brief sawing sound as they cut his belt, and then the guy grabbed him by the front of the jacket and pulled him out onto the road. Facefirst into the snow, cold that made him gasp. He realized he’d dropped the shotgun without thinking, car-crash shock too much to let him hang on. Someone else’s voice now, muffled and distant: “C’mon, lock him up, let’s go.”
The guy’s shape a blur, too, everything fogged by trauma. He felt hands at his waist, the Glock coming off his belt, cuffs tugged from their holder, phone and keys and wallet from his pockets. They locked his wrists, and he started to panic. One of those cop terrors, prisoner in your own cuffs, shot with your own gun.
“Keep still, asshole.”
A hand at his collar, another at the cuff chain, and he was jerked upright, face thick and numb where he’d lain in the snow. He saw his car sitting skewed in the lane, everything crumpled, like the thing had been through the crusher. Tommy Lee Warren hanging out a shattered side window, torso draped on the sill and his curled fingers brushing the ground. Karen Kaminski still motionless in her seat. Cohen called out to her, a garbled, underwater shout even he couldn’t understand.
The vehicle that rammed them had swung in front and parked at the shoulder, and they pushed him toward it, hands taking his weight, his feet just stumbling through the motions. He dug his heels in, trying to brake, but he just skidded in the slush. His shins hit the fender as they shoved him into the back, his shoulder crashing down as the door slammed behind him. He felt the car rock with the impact, and then again as the two men climbed in up front. It was silent now, engine noise lost to the ringing in his ears as the car sped away.
* * *
The fog lifted after a minute, but fear replaced it, a white-knuckle terror that came with visions: flashes of wife and daughters, an image of a funeral with no body. Maybe this was some rendition, take him down to Mexico and send him back in pieces. FedEx him home, limb by limb.
He tried to ignore it all, get his head back to blank. He started counting, nice and measured, trying to visualize the numerals. They had the same font as his warrant applications—Times New Roman. He made it to thirty, pretty calm when he got there. His breathing slowing down.
He wasn’t bleeding, and he could move all his limbs. Aches and pains in most places, but none of that broken-bone sort of agony.
So you’re probably okay.
He squirmed and rolled on his back. The car was an SUV, maybe a Suburban, plenty of space for captives. Black tint on the rear windows, a steel grille above the rear seats protecting the cabin. The air smelled like wet dog. He hunched forward in a sit-up, teeth clenched with the strain, risked a glance in the cabin. The rear passenger seats were empty. Just the two guys up front, both of them in balaclavas and heavy winter gear. Gloved hands at ten-and-two on the wheel, a limp triangle of roof lining hanging in the passenger’s face.
“Lie down, asshole.”
Cohen complied. Bruised abs wouldn’t hold him, anyway.
The guy’s accent wasn’t local. East Coast maybe, a bit of Boston or New York in there. Cohen put his weight on his left shoulder and drew his knees up. The .38 was still in its holster, the inside of his left ankle. Not much use while his hands were cuffed, unless he managed to roll over and shoot them when they opened the rear door. But he’d need them both right there, unarmed and shoulder to shoulder, slow to react. Wishful thinking. And as the name implied, a .38 Airweight didn’t offer much kick. Which meant that while he was cuffed, the gun was probably more of a liability. If they frisked him properly and found it, he’d get a bullet through the head sooner rather than later.
He couldn’t be caught with a weapon.
He tucked his legs in like a crouch and arched his back, trying to reach his ankle. No good. He was thirty-six years old, in good shape, but flexibility wasn’t his forte. He was about six inches short. The speed didn’t help, either. It felt like they were doing close to ninety, getaway pace, too fast for this weather. The back end was sliding even in the shallow turns, threatening to spin them. He felt nauseous with the motion, a seasick lurching with every curve, at the mercy of his inner ear.
He tried again. No good. He didn’t have the reach. The only option was to pass his wrists under his thighs, like sitting on his hands.
The truck made a sharp left, and he fell on his back, bit down hard on his groans.
“The fuck are you doing? Keep still.” The East Coast guy again.
Cohen took a breath and rolled gingerly onto his shoulder, drew his knees back into the crouch position, worked his hands down past his butt, under his thighs. They were off the highway now, traveling much slower, the terrain uneven. He worked his hands in behind his knees, the cuff chain taut, the bracelets cutting deep. He arched his back again, pushed his chest out, stretched. This bizarre contortion, eyes bulging, barely contained. An almost herniating effort. Nearly there. He arched his back, arched his neck. Every fiber stretched and burning. The final desperate inch. He hooked his trouser cuff with the tip of his middle finger, drew it carefully up his leg. The holstered gun now exposed. The truck jouncing on some potholed track, snow-laden pine trees out his window. Where were they? Tesuque, maybe, out on the edge of the National Forest. He stretched again, grinning and lockjawed with the effort, got a finger around the grip, withdrew the pistol. His mouth paper-dry from panting. He squirmed closer to the rear seats, felt around for where the base cushion met the upright. There was a slim gap, just enough to conceal a .38 Smith & Wesson. He wedged it in muzzle-first, the truck still jolting around on the uneven road. They’d slowed right down, the trees pressing in close. Probably a private access way, safe from public view.
He knew he needed to lose the holster, too. If they found it, they wouldn’t just dismiss it. They’d search for the gun, and it wouldn’t be a hard find. But the holster posed a bigger challenge than the pistol. It was secured around his lower calf with a long strip of Velcro, only a month or so old, still stiff and bristly. Impossible to remove quietly, and not the sort of noise he could conceal with a coughing fit. Which meant he had to wait until they were out of the car, out of earshot.
They stayed on the track for what felt like ten minutes. He thought they were ascending gradually. Periodic turns implied an uphill zigzag. He felt a lift in his stomach as they crested a rise, and then a brief downhill swoop onto a flat. He hit the back of the seats as they came to a sharp halt. The driver set the brake and shut off the engine.
He lay on his back and waited. A pine-tree pattern out the window. Snow-heavy limbs against the gray sky, sharp leaves peeking through the starch-white. He stretched again, flushed and straining, gripped the end of the Velcro tab. His old one would have been perfect, straight off with barely a whisper, but Loretta made him ditch it, on account of it leaving marks on his socks. Bless her soul, but this is where obedience got him.
“Come on, get out of the car.”
They were talking in low voices, words masked by the blood rush in his ears. Doors opened, not quite in unison. Two slams.
He jerked the tab, and his fingers slipped free.
He gnashed his teeth, strained, arched his back, gripped the tab again. They were coming around the back of the truck, still talking, arguing about something.
Do it now—
He ripped the thing hard. One long, clean stroke, and the holster came free. A balaclava at the glass.
Shit, don’t let him—
The rear door swung open. Polar cold, and a faint pine smell.
“The fuck are you doing, why’re you all twisted up?” A different voice, more local.
He feigned incoherence, mumbled something. The holster was out of sight, behind his leg.
The East Coast guy, farther off: “You want to torch it now, or wait?”
The man at the door turned away. “No point burning it till he gets here, I don’t want to be stuck out in the cold. And plus, it’s like a perfect smoke signal.”
“So how long’s he gonna take?”
The guy at the door took a step away from the truck. “I don’t know. Did he text back?”
Cohen felt around beneath him, found the holster.
“You could check the phone, that’d be a good start.”
“You are actually allowed to do some things yourself.”
Cohen pushed the holster in through the gap, the Velcro strap sticking out. Get it all in there—
The guy at the door grabbed his ankle, yanked him out of the truck. Cohen thumped down onto gravel, solid with frost, like landing on concrete. He gasped with the impact.
Cohen looked up at him, the guy looking back through the balaclava, a gun in one hand.
Cohen said, “This is a kidnap.”
Both of them laughed. The other guy was about twenty feet away, hand to hip, looking out through the trees.
The near guy said, “We noticed.”
Cohen said, “Sort of thing that lands you in all kinds of trouble.” Trying to sound calm and understated, a veteran of trunk rides.
The near guy said, “We’re committed a little too far to back out.” No mouth hole. His lips moving behind the wool. He dropped to a crouch. “Sorry to tell you, there’s nothing gained by letting you go now.”
“Other than ten years off your sentence.”
“If we get caught.”
Cohen said, “Do I know you?”
The guy shook his head slowly. “Nah. You don’t know us. We’re just guys.”
“But I probably know who hired you, right?”
The guy didn’t answer.
Cohen said, “Can you take the cuffs off? My shoulder’s killing me.”
The guy leaned closer. An inch of dark hair curling out the bottom of his mask. He said, “You’re going to answer some questions for us.”
“Sure. You want to join the marshals, you need four years of college plus some prior law-enforcement experience.”
“Yeah. You’re real funny.” He put the gun against Cohen’s knee.
“What do you want?”
“Your voice has cleared up pretty quick. You were all mumbly before.”
“What do you want?”
The woods dark and brittle, silenced by frost. The branches all snow-daubed. The guy said, “The Santa Fe division of the Marshals Service has an ex-NYPD officer in witness protection. The guy’s name is James Marshall Grade. He normally just goes by Marshall.”
Cohen didn’t answer, the fear coming back now. They didn’t want him. He was just the means to an end, an expendable informant. He glanced around. The track terminated just in front of the truck. He guessed it was a fire road, which meant the chance of someone coming by in December was about zero.
The guy stood up and aimed the gun at Cohen’s head. He said, “This is the part where you start talking.”
“I don’t know where he is.” Trying to keep his voice even.
“I know you’re lying.”
“Take the cuffs off.”
“Start talking and I might think about it.”
“If I’m lying here cuffed, I’ll freeze to death and you’ll never know anything.”
“So you do have things to tell me.”
“Take the cuffs off.”
The guy kicked him in the gut. Cohen retched, hunched into it. He panted through his teeth, wheezing, tasting road dirt and smelling frost.
“Take the cuffs off.” Gasping as he spoke.
“C’mon, man, just take them off. He’s probably all chewed up from the crash.”
The near guy said, “Chrissake.” But he knelt and patted Cohen down again. Nothing in his jacket, nothing in his trouser pockets. He ran a hand up and down each leg.
“Roll over, asshole.”
Cohen rolled over. A sound like keys being sorted, the guy taking a while, probably not that dexterous in the gloves. A moment later he felt the bracelets being jostled, two clean little clicks as the locks opened. He rolled onto his back and massaged his wrists, the guy still standing over him, the gun lined up with Cohen’s head. A good incentive to behave.
Cohen said, “I know the guy.”
“Yeah. I know you know him.” The muzzle lined up on his nose, like some kind of lie detector.
Cohen said, “I don’t know where he is. Nobody does. He’s never used the address we set him up with. He’s always sublet it.”
“But you have contact with him.”
Cohen shook his head. “Nobody knows where he is.”
No reply. The woods in stunned silence. Frosted beauty a strange backdrop to their Q-and-A. The guy said, “There was a hit man from New York down here last year. He found him in Santa Fe.”
“And Marshall killed him.”
Cohen said, “And now he’s gone.”
The guy stood looking down at him, no waver in the gun. He said, “There’s a friend of ours on the way. You can either talk to us now, or you can talk to him later. But I warn you, he likes things pretty messy.”
Cohen said, “I need a piss.”
The guy thought about that. He looked at Cohen hard, like weighing up some business offer. Wary of being scammed. Then he stepped back and gestured with the gun. “If you run, I’m going to shoot you in the leg. So I’d take it nice and slow.”
Cohen turned on his shoulder and brought his knees to his chest, rolled over into a crouch. He rose cautiously, one arm outstretched, trying to look unsteady.
“Six feet ahead at all times.”
Cohen lined up a tree and headed over, favoring one leg, swaying a little as he walked. He settled into a good stance, knees slightly bent, one arm propped on the cold bark. He urinated and shook off, got everything back where it should be. Not easy with one hand, but the one-arm lean was a nice touch. His piss wending a few different ways through the gravel.
He turned around and the guy moved back out of his way, the gun at arm’s length, sighted on Cohen’s head. Cohen started over toward the Suburban, moving more freely now.
“Back on the ground, pal.”
Cohen didn’t answer. Almost there—
“On the ground—now!”
Sharp enough to make his spine tingle. He said, “Prefer it in here. I don’t want to freeze.”
He climbed into the rear of the truck, brought a knee up, reached for the back of the seat—
“Asshole. I didn’t tell you to get in the car.”
A hand on his collar and the guy hauled him backward, kicked his legs out from under him. Cohen fell hard on his stomach, arms trapped under him, and the guy kicked him in the ribs, a sharp blow that made him groan and writhe.
“Dumb-ass. Stay on the ground.”
Cohen counted to five, getting his breath, blood pounding at full force, and then he rolled over and shot the guy through the head with the .38.
There was a nice moment, a brief instant really, with the guy’s brain matter in a pink mist behind him and the corpse beginning to topple, the guy twenty feet away looking back aghast over his shoulder, slightly crouched and with one arm raised, shocked at the sound. He had a gun, but he didn’t raise it. He was running by the time Cohen brought the Airweight around to aim. He squeezed off three more rounds, all of them wide, crash and kidnap stress skewing his aim. The guy made the ridge and kept going, out of sight now, just the sound of him crashing in panic through the frozen brush.
* * *
The keys were still in the truck. Cohen found a cell phone in the dead man’s pocket and drove back down to the highway, more comfortable now that he wasn’t cuffed in the back. He didn’t see his runner. He didn’t see anything. It was a winter landscape, dead and birdless.
He parked at the shoulder and called for backup, hearing the shake in his voice, the operator hearing it too, telling him sugar-sweet there’d be help in no time. He clicked off and dialed Miriam at the marshal’s office.
She said, “Whatever you called about, it’s caused some fuss.”
“I’m a fuss-worthy man, Miriam, I’ve always said it.” Too breathless to sound genuinely upbeat, he said, “I’ve got an incident out here could take me a while, but would you be a darling, let my Mrs. Cohen know I’ll be late this evening? I’d tell her myself, but I’m sort of gathering my thoughts.”
“Of course. Are you all right?”
He said, “Yep, I believe I am.” But he did have to think about it.
It took them twenty minutes to arrive. First thing he wanted to know was if Karen was all right, but no one had a straight answer. Last they’d heard, she was critical, and Tommy Lee Warren was clinging on by a thread. He borrowed a cell phone and made another call sitting in the back of an ambulance, paramedics taking his blood pressure, sticking thermometers in his ears.
He hadn’t lied about Marshall. Nobody knew where he was. All Cohen had was a phone number, and all he ever got was voice mail. This time was no different, straight to the beep.
Cohen said, “Call me when you get this. People are looking for you, and they want you dead.”
Copyright © 2017 Ben Sanders.
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Ben Sanders is the author of three previous New Zealand Fiction Bestsellers: The Fallen (2010), By Any Means (2011), and Only the Dead (2013). Sanders’s first three novels were written while he was studying at university; he graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Engineering, and now writes full-time. American Blood, his highly-anticipated American debut, published in November 2015. Sanders lives in Auckland, New Zealand.