Texas ranger Caitlin Strong is involved in an international plot rooted in secrets from the Cold War in Strong Light of Day, the seventh installment of Jon Land's New York Times bestselling Caitlin Strong series.
Caitlin Strong is a fifth generation Texas Ranger as quick with her wits as she is with her gun. Over the years she's taken on all manner of criminals and miscreants, thwarting the plans of villains to do vast damage to the country and state she loves. But none of that has prepared Caitlin for an investigation that pits her against ruthless billionaire oilman Calum Dane, whose genetically engineered pesticide may have poisoned a large swath of the state.
How that poisoning is connected to the disappearance of thirty high school students from a Houston prep school, including the son of her outlaw lover Cort Wesley Masters, presents Caitlin with the greatest and most desperate challenge of her career. As if that wasn't enough, she also has to deal with a crazed rancher whose entire herd of cattle has been picked clean to the bone by something science can't explain.
The common denominator between these apparently disparate events is a new and deadly enemy capable of destroying the US economy and killing millions, a foe it will take far more than bullets to bring down. There's yet another player in the deadly game Caitlin finds herself playing: Russian extremists prepared to seize an opportunity to win a war they never stopped fighting.
Caitlin's race to save the United States weaves through the present and the past, confronting her and Cort Wesley with the most powerful and dangerous enemies they've ever faced, human and otherwise. The Cold War hasn't just heated up; it's boiling over under the spill of a strong light only Caitlin can extinguish before it's too late.
Caitlin Strong stopped her SUV at the checkpoint on Route 83 heading toward Crystal City. The sheriff’s deputy approaching her vehicle seemed to recognize her as soon as she slid down her window, well before he could see her Texas Ranger badge. He was an older man, long and lean, with legs crimped inward from too much side-to-side stress on his knees while riding horses.
“You got no call to be here, Ranger,” the deputy said, having clearly been warned to expect her, his light complexion a rosy pink shade from the sun and heat.
“You mean driving on a public highway, Deputy?”
“I mean heading into the shit storm that’s unfolding a few miles down it.” He had brownish-purple blotches on the exposed flesh of his right forearm, the kind of marks that cry out for a dermatologist’s attention. Then she noticed the bandages swathed in patches on his other arm and realized they were probably already getting it. “We got enough problems without you sticking your nose in,” the deputy continued. “Wherever you go, bullets seem to follow, and the last thing we need is a shooting war.”
“You think that’s what I came here for?”
The deputy folded his arms in front of his chest so the untreated one stuck out, the dark blotches seeming to widen as his forearm muscles tightened. “I think you’ve got no idea how Christoph Russell Ilg will react when a Texas Ranger shows up. You don’t know these parts, Caitlin Strong, and no stranger known for her gun is gonna solve this problem the sheriff’s department has already got under control.”
“Under control,” Caitlin repeated. “Is that what you call an armed standoff between sheriff’s deputies, the highway patrol, and that militia backing Ilg? I heard they’ve been pouring in from as far away as Idaho. Might as well post a sign off the highway that reads, ‘Whack jobs, next exit.’”
“If the highway patrol had just left this to the sheriff’s department,” the deputy groused, face wrinkling as if he’d swallowed something sour, “those militia men never would’ve had call to show up. We had the situation contained.”
“Was that before or after a rancher started defying the entire federal government?” Caitlin asked him, unable to help herself.
“The goddamn federal government can kiss my ass. This here’s Texas, and this here’s a local problem. A Zavala County problem that’s got no need for the Texas Rangers.”
The deputy tilted his stare toward the ground, as if ready to spit some tobacco he wasn’t currently chewing. Then he hitched up his gaze along with his shoulders and planted his hands on his hips, just standing there as if this was an extension of the standoff down the road.
“You should wear long sleeves,” Caitlin told him.
“Not in this heat.”
She let him see her focus trained on the dark blotches dotting his arm. The breeze picked up and blew her wavy black hair over her face. Caitlin brushed it aside, feeling the light sheen of the sunscreen she’d slathered on before setting out from San Antonio. She’d taken to using more of it lately, even though the dark tones that came courtesy of a Mexican grandmother she’d never met made her tan instead of burn.
“Better hot than dead, Deputy,” she told the man at her window. “You need me to tell you the rate of skin cancer in these parts?”
He let his arms dangle stiff by his sides. “You really do have a nasty habit of messing in other’s people business.”
“You mean trying to keep them alive, sometimes from falling victim to their own stubbornness.”
“Who we talking about here, Ranger?”
“Christoph Russell Ilg. Who else would we be talking about?”
ZAVALA COUNTY, TEXAS
Caitlin reflected on what she’d learned about Christoph Russell Ilg, for the next two miles down the road. His second wife had just given him his ninth child, his sixth son, even though he was somewhere close to either side of seventy. His parents were German immigrants who came to Texas as migrant farmworkers. He’d been born on one of numerous farms they worked in the years immediately after World War II, when birth certificates were optional. Ilg himself swore he didn’t even know his own birthday and, as a result, he celebrated his and all his children’s on the same day in June, exactly six months after Christmas.
For more than a century, ranchers and feedlot operators had been grazing their cattle on South Texas grasslands. Then the Environmental Protection Agency, working in concert with the Army Corps of Engineers, interpreted the Clean Water Act as giving them the right to redefine cattle ponds, and even ponds formed over flooded land, into what they called “waterways of the United States.” The Bureau of Land Management then crafted a law requiring ranchers to get permits for land on which they once free grazed. Short of that, they could be fined for polluting or contaminating those newly proclaimed federal properties.
The fact that the EPA’s efforts were as well intentioned as the ranchers’ protests were strident probably hadn’t registered with Ilg, who’d paid none of the two dozen citations he’d been issued, amounting to nearly fifty thousand dollars in fines. In fact, he’d been purposely setting his cattle to graze near those waterways on a regular basis, including the day the sheriff’s department came to serve him with an arrest warrant for the unpaid levies. The first of the militiamen who’d come in expectation of exactly that moment sprang from positions of cover, training their guns on the four deputies, who had the sense not to draw theirs in response.
By the time the reinforcements they summoned arrived, more militiamen had spilled in, and more continued to show up, seemingly by the hour. They formed a perimeter around the area Ilg had staked out and returned with his cattle every day to graze, further inciting the potential for violence the militiamen seemed to thirst for while pawing the triggers of their AR-15s and hunting rifles. One had been arrested during a routine traffic stop after a highway patrolman had spotted a Gatling gun in the back of his pickup.
The stand-off had been going on for three days now, with neither side showing any signs of giving in or up. For his part, Ilg had no reason to acquiesce either to the demands of the EPA to stop grazing his cattle amid federally protected waters or to the attempts of the Bureau of Land Management rangers to collect the bulk of the fines levied against him. For their part, the militiamen who’d gathered at Ilg’s ranch not far from Uvalde likely saw his faux crusade as another last stand to preserve the so-called real and free America. They wore the fatigues and gear of real soldiers, imagining themselves to be as brave and skilled as true servicemen fighting real wars instead of imaginary ones. Anointing themselves as the only just moral arbiters, when all they really wanted was an opportunity to parade around with their weapons in the hope of someday getting an actual chance to use them.
Caitlin saw the second roadblock at the head of a side road off the highway leading straight to Christoph Russell Ilg’s ranch. From this distance, the scene had the look of a child’s play scene with toy soldiers staged to confront each other on a papier-mâché battlefield. Drawing closer, Caitlin was able to see the true scope of the danger. Heavily armed highway patrolmen were poised in flak jackets behind their vehicles, while even more heavily armed militiamen peeked out from behind various boulders, trees, and thick fence posts. A television truck bearing the markings of a national cable news channel, meanwhile, was parked between the rival fronts. A technician unloaded equipment while a reporter Caitlin thought she recognized looked on casually.
She pulled her SUV over and was met by a highway patrol captain she’d worked with before, as soon as she climbed out.
“Morning, Frank,” she said to Captain Francis Denbow.
“You got no call to be here, Caitlin,” he said, mopping the sweat from his brow with a sleeve.
“That’s what they told me at the checkpoint back up eighty-three.”
“Well, you should have listened to them.”
“Not telling me you have the situation under control.”
“Because we damn well don’t. A car backfiring could set off a whole shooting war here over waters not fit to drink. Last thing we need is you stirring the pot. Hope you don’t mind I called Austin to get them to call you off.”
“Too bad my cell phone’s not working,” Caitlin told him, reaching back inside the SUV to grab a set of trifolded pages from the visor.
Copyright © 2015 Jon Land.
Jon Land is an author of thriller novels. His books include the Caitlin Strong novels about a fifth-generation Texas ranger, and the Ben Kamal and Danielle Barnea books, about a Palestinian detective and chief inspector of the Israeli police.