Swift Vengeance: New Excerpt
Read the first two chapters of Swift Vengeance by T. Jefferson Parker, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of his latest thriller!
Swift Vengeance by T. Jefferson Parker is an incendiary new thriller where Roland Ford hunts down a mysterious killer, jockeys for position with the FBI, and risks everything to save a friend in terrible jeopardy.
Returning hero and private investigator Roland Ford is on the trail of a mysterious killer who is beheading CIA drone operators and leaving puzzling clues at each crime scene. His troubled friend Lindsay Rakes is afraid for her own life and the life of her son after a fellow flight crew member is killed in brutal fashion. Even more terrifying is the odd note the killer left behind: “Welcome to Caliphornia. This is not the last.”
Ford strikes an uneasy alliance with San Diego-based FBI agent Joan Taucher, who is tough as nails but haunted by what she sees as the Bureau’s failure to catch the 9/11 terrorists, many of whom spent their last days in her city. As the killer strikes again, Ford and Taucher dash into the fray, each desperate for their own reasons—each ready to risk it all to stop the killer from doing far more damage.
The first time I saw Lindsey Rakes she was burning down the high stakes room in the Pala Casino north of San Diego. Roulette, and she could do no wrong. Big woman, big attitude. Daughter of a Ft. Worth-area Ford dealer – “Hit Your Brakes for Rakes!” — and a high school chemistry teacher, I found out later.
Lindsey had drawn a crowd that night. Not difficult, in her lacy dress and leather ankle boots. And all that sleek dark hair. She looked like some exotic life form, dropped from above into the chain-smoking slot machiners and the glum blackjack casualties. When the wheel stopped on another winner, her throaty roar blasted through the room: Baby, baby, BABY! Towers of chips rising from the table in front of her. Mostly hundreds and fifties. Just enough twenties to tip the cocktail waitresses, who kept the drinks coming. I had work to do, so I didn’t witness her crash.
Now, almost two and a half years later, Lindsey sat at a long wooden picnic table under a palapa behind my house. She looked not very much like that booze-fueled gambler who had moved onto my property the day after we’d met in the casino. Now she looked defeated and afraid. She wore a faded denim blouse and her hair was lumped into a ponytail that rode side-saddle on her chest.
I held the sheet of paper flush against the tabletop, a fingertip at diagonal corners, and read it out loud for a second time.
Dear Lt. Rakes,
I want to decapitate you with my knife, but I will use anything necessary to cause you death.
Until then, fear everything you see and everything you hear and dream. This terror is personal, as you are beginning to understand. Vengeance is justice. The thunder is coming for you.
One short moment ago, when I’d first read this note, I’d felt a tingle in the scar above my left eye. I earned that scar in my first and last pro fight. Its moods have become a kind of early warning system for danger ahead: use caution. Now it tingled again.
The death threat was hand-written in graceful cursive script that looked like a combination of English longhand and Arabic calligraphy. The letters slanted neither forward nor back but stood up straight. A calligraphic pen had been used to vary the thicknesses of line and curve. The loops were large and symmetrical. The lead-ins and tails of each word were thick, straight and perfectly horizontal, as if traced over invisible guidelines. They began and ended in pointed, up-curved flourishes, like candle flames. The letter had arrived one day ago, on Saturday, December 8, in Lindsey’s post office box in Las Vegas.
She set the envelope beside the letter. On the envelope were printed her name and Las Vegas PO Box number. It was postmarked Wednesday, December 5, in San Diego, California. It had a Batman stamp and a return address that Lindsey had found to be World Pizza in Ocean Beach.
“Lindsey, this letter should be on an FBI light table, not on a PI’s picnic table.”
“Is it real? Do you believe it?”
“It’s real and I believe it. You’ve got to take this to the FBI. The agents are trained to deal with this kind of thing.”
“You know any of them?”
“One. Kind of.”
A failed smile. “I’d sure appreciate it if you’d take this letter to them. I can’t face law enforcement right now.”
I tried to make sense of this request. It was strange and irrational that I was sitting here with a rattled young woman who had been threatened with death by a murderer-terrorist-psychopath-crackpot calling himself/herself Caliphornia, and was now refusing to talk with the law. Strange and irrational that Lindsey would come to me first.
“Because of your son,” I said.
Lindsey pulled off her sunglasses and tried to stare me down. Her temper is rarely distant. “Of course, my son. I’ve filed another request with the court for a custody amendment. You can only do that every eighteen months. I’ve been living clean as a Girl Scout, Roland. I’m teaching math at a private school, hitting the gym, no booze or dice. But Johnny’s growing up without me. He’s the whole reason I left here and moved back to Las Vegas. And if the court gets wind of this death threat, my custody petition gets red-flagged. The Bureau would poke around, right, talk to my employers. Investigate me. Right? Say goodbye to shared custody.”
She was correct on those counts. I wondered about her Girl Scout claim because I’m suspicious by nature and profession.
“You saved me once, Roland, and I’m hoping you can do it again.”
She slid her sunglasses back on.
Three years ago, Lindsey Rakes – then Lindsey Goff — had been flying Reaper drones out of Creech Air Force Base north of Las Vegas. She was the sensor operator. Or, as the drone flyers call them, simply a “sensor.” Her missions as a sensor were often top secret and CIA-directed. Some were surveillance, some were kill-list strikes. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan. Her flight crew called themselves The Headhunters. We flagged some bad guys, she had told me more than once.
Then, at the end of her contract in 2015, she quit the USAF against the wishes of her superiors. Experienced drone operators were in high demand at that time, the Air Force couldn’t train them fast enough to keep up.
After six months as a civilian she’d fled to California, landed in the Pala Casino, and ended up renting a place here on my property. Back then, as we began to know and trust each other, she’d told me about her life at Creech: the six-day work weeks, the twelve-hour days, the strange psychosis brought on by sitting in an air-conditioned trailer in the desert and flying combat missions 7,500 miles away. Then heading off-base at sunrise to pick up something for breakfast and maybe some vodka too on her way home to husband Brandon and their young son, John. Little John. The light and anchor of her life. But not quite enough of an anchor.
Because some days, Lindsey had confessed, she’d get off work too nerve-shot and sickened to even look at her own son. And Brandon was always angry at her anyway. So, instead of going home she’d blast off in her black Mustang GT, a wedding gift from father Lewis — “Hit Your Brakes for Rakes” – and race downtown to gamble hard, drink harder and forget the things she’d seen and done in that cramped little trailer.
Until Brandon took Little John to a new home across town, filed divorce papers and a complaint of child neglect against her.
“How bitter was it?” I asked.
Behind the dark lenses, Lindsey studied me. “Very.”
“And how is Brandon Goff’s anger level these days, with your new move for joint custody?”
“No,” she said. “Brandon wouldn’t threaten me like this. He would do it clearly. Not hide behind a cryptic name and a threat.”
Lindsey would know her ex well enough to judge his capacity for murder. Or would she? I’d seen enough people fooled by their spouses to always leave a door ajar.
I looked out at the gray December sky, the breeze-burred surface of the pond, the cattails wavering. Fall, I thought. The big hush. The time to exhale. Always makes me feel the speed of life. I tried to warm up to the idea of cutting off the head of a living human being with a knife. Thought of videos of fear-blanched men in orange jumpsuits forced to kneel in the dirt. Told myself that Christmas was coming soon, birth of Jesus and forgiveness of sin, peace on earth, joy to the world.
“Roland? I’m afraid. I’ve been to war but my life was never at stake. Weird, isn’t it? But this has gotten to me. I have that Smith nine and know how to use it. I’d feel safe if I could land here for a while. This Caliphornia won’t know where I am.”
Lindsey and I had shot cans off of rocks way out on the property here a few times, against a hillock, so the bullets wouldn’t fly. She was pretty good against a can. When the target is human, of course, nerves change everything.
More importantly, I couldn’t be sure that this so-called Caliphornia wouldn’t find her here.
“You’re in the public record of having lived her once,” I said.
“Nobody quoted me.”
“But the Union-Tribune named you as a tenant.”
“One time was all. My name in the paper, once. And I never gave out this address when I was living here. Nobody. This was my secret hideout. Where you helped me put myself back together. Sort of back together.” She wrung her thick ponytail, looking down at the table.
I remembered that night in the Pala Casino, later, when Lindsey crashed onto the stool next to me in one of those thinly-peopled, regret-reeking bars found in casinos around the world. She looked like something the devil would eat for breakfast. Or, had eaten.
“Welp,” she’d said, curling a long finger at the bartender. “Lost it all.”
“Maybe you should have stopped.”
She had looked at me, eyes skeptical and held steady by force of will. “I’m Lindsey Rakes. You’re obviously Saint Somebody. So the least you could say to someone who’s just lost her last dollar is, there but for the grace of God go I. Or, I go. Or however you saints say it.”
After Lindsey Rakes had finished her drink I paid for it, got up, and offered to get her a casino hotel room, a taxi or a ride home. House security was circling. She took option C. Out Highway 76 she told me she didn’t have a home precisely this minute, except for her Mustang, which, after a night in the back seat made a woman her size feel like she’d been sawed in half by a bad magician.
“I didn’t just lose the money,” she had told me. “I’ve lost my son, my husband, my home too. I can do without any of it except my son. John. Six years, seven months and one day old. Not being able to see him is like living in a world where the sun won’t rise. What did y’all say your name was?”
I hadn’t so I did.
“And how did you do at the tables tonight, Rolando?”
In fact, I hadn’t gambled much at all. I’d come to the casino to observe a man suspected of embezzlement by his friend and business partner. They were a two-partner practice specializing in family law. I came to discover that the man who had hired me was in fact the embezzler, and the friend/partner he had “suspected” of the crime – and who had lost around five thousand dollars that night by my loose count – was an addicted gambler but a reasonably honest law partner.
I wasn’t thrilled being stuck with a drunk hard-luck case who had nowhere to go but I did what I thought was right. I usually do. It’s a blessing and a curse.
“I can take you back to the casino hotel or put you up for the night,” I had told her. “There’s an empty casita on my property and it locks.”
“Furnished. I rent them out.”
She was leaning back against the door of my pickup truck. The hills around us were dark. In the faint moon-and-dashboard glow I could see the pale shape of her face and the glint in her eyes as she deliberated. “Kinda Norman Batesy.”
“You’re big and not real pretty, but you don’t look mean enough to worry about.”
“It’s the little pretty ones you have to watch.”
“Once upon a time.”
“I was Air Force. Lt. Lindsey Rakes. I hate being this drunk.”
I didn’t have anything useful to say about Lt. Lindsey Rakes’s drunkenness or hatred thereof. As a man who has overdone certain things in his life, I know that the world won’t change, but you can. Over the six months she lived in my casita, I saw her battle the booze and the gambling and the Clark County Superior Court, which refused to allow Lindsey to visit her son more than one Saturday per month in a county facility adjacent to the jail. Lindsey had done okay with all that. Just barely okay.
Now, almost two years since I’d first met her, it felt right but also surreal to be making her the same offer again. You could say full circle but nothing in life is round. “Your old casita is taken, but three and four are vacant.”
“I’ve missed the Irregulars,” she said.
I call my tenants The Irregulars because they tend to be non-regulation human beings. And a changing cast.
“And I remember, casita three was always vacant,” she said.
“For times like this.”
“I can’t pay you for protection, Roland. But I can make the rent.”
“Don’t worry about my time until we put a stop to this.”
I set my phone on the table, searched “Caliphornia,” got what I expected:
A picture of Governor Jerry Brown, wearing a mocked-up jeweled turban, “declaring himself Caliph and establishing Sharia law in California.” He was actually signing AB 2845, designed to shield Muslim students from bullying in public schools.
Caliphornia, a self-published futuristic suspense novel about an Arab Caliphate and runaway global warming.
“Caliphornia,” a song by Box O’ Clox.
Barenakedislam, a website whose motto is “It isn’t Islamaphobia when they really ARE trying to kill you.”
Counter-Jihad T-Shirts with various anti-Muslim messages and images.
Such as Koran-Wipes toilet paper made from 100% recycled Korans.
Such as Hillary in a hijab
A fools’ parade on the Internet.
Rage and volume turned up high.
Made me wonder how America was going to make it through the next week.
I shook my head, closed it all down. Looked up to find Lindsey watching me. “You still have Hall Pass Two?”
“You bet I do.” My Cessna 182, to be more accurate. One of the older ones with the Lycoming engine and the bass roar of a beast when you punch it down the runway. I fly it for business and pleasure. There is a story behind it.
“And have you been really busy — privately investigating?”
“Just one open case right now,” I said.
“Oxley,” I said, pointing to the poster that was stapled to one of the thick palm trunks that support the palapa. The poster featured a color photo of a hefty gray-striped cat. He looked peaceful. The photo was cropped so the cat seemed to sprawl in the middle of the flyer, as if lying on a cushion. MISSING CAT was the headline. The surrounding text explained that Oxley was missing from his Fallbrook home as of a week ago, that he was much loved, and that his owner – Tammy Bellamy – was heartbroken. Oxley had “hypnotic green eyes” and weighed twenty-two pounds. Tammy had given me a stack of the posters, all professionally printed on very heavy and expensive card-stock, to aid my search and post on my travels. Cats could go far, she’d explained. By the time I got my wanted posters, there were already scores of them put up in and around Fallbrook — on power poles, roadside oak trees, stop signs and traffic light stanchions, storefronts, shop windows, walls and fences. I’d stapled this one to the palapa so the Irregulars could keep their eyes out.
“Tammy is elderly,” I said. “And she can’t actually pay me. Except in homemade jam.”
“I’ll bet the coyotes would help her find that cat,” said Lindsey.
I nodded, fearing that the cat had already been killed and eaten. Fallbrook was brimming with coyotes. If they hadn’t gotten him, then a car probably had. On the other hand, cats are great survivors, so maybe Oxley had found shelter in one of our many avocado or citrus groves, or on some relatively secure, fenced property. Or maybe someone had taken him in and knew nothing of Tammy Bellamy’s emotional plea for help.
I looked at Lindsey’s black Mustang, parked up by the main house. The Las Vegas sun had not been kind to it. It still had the child’s seat in back. Back when I’d first heard of Lindsey’s child-custody quest, the safety seat had seemed to me more a symbol of a goal than a necessity. But she was closer to that goal now, apparently. I refolded the letter, carefully placed it back in its envelope and set it on the table.
“Lindsey, has anything unusual happened to you lately? Unsolicited visits? Weird phone calls or hang-ups? Anything out of pattern in the people you work or socialize with? Neighbors even.”
She shook her head but indecisively. So maybe I’d brushed up against something. To me, Lindsey had never been a full-disclosure person. There was always more, something else, another layer.
“Anything, Lindsey,” I said. “Even the great PI Roland Ford needs help against a stalker-terrorist with beheading on his mind.”
She set her elbows on the rough old table, raised and joined her fingers, nodded. She hadn’t needed to think too hard. “Well.”
“Two weeks ago I went out with a guy,” Lindsey said. “First time. I’d met him a little over a year ago, through work. A widower, like you. He was the father of one of my new fall students. Nice guy, and nice looking. Almost formal, but just enough off-center to make me smile. Well-groomed and well off. Gave me his full attention. He reminded me of someone but I didn’t know who. I started getting this funny feeling when we were in the same room. I liked it. He’s a landscape architect. Designs golf courses all over the world. Shows horses for fun.”
She watched me through her dark glasses.
“He’s Saudi by birth,” said Lindsey. “His parents both came here on student visas in seventy-eight. Married very young. Rasha Samara. Born in Riyadh after they had graduated and returned home. He went to Saudi schools until he was six, then came here with his parents. Became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His extended family lives in Saudi Arabia. Of course.”
I thought about that.
“Roland, I spent almost a year learning how to kill violent jihadists in the Middle East, and another year and a half doing it. So when I met this guy, I didn’t know if it was morally desirable – or even possible – for me to have any kind of relationship with him. Muslims aren’t Christians and vice versa. But I also know that people of those two faiths can get along fine. On account of something that happened to me and I experienced first-hand.”
She took off her sunglasses again and leveled her chocolate brown eyes on me. “I’ve never told you this, but my mother is an Indian Muslim. Shia. Dad’s a Methodist. They’ve been married for thirty-eight years and they’ve never said an unkind word to each other in my presence. Silences, yes. They met at Rice in Houston. Her English was very English from school in Delhi but she took the time to learn to say ‘Y’all perfectly. Practiced it. She became the most Texan Indian you can imagine. Loves her Cowboys. Loves her Longhorns. Loves her dancing and her turquoise and her country music. Loves Dad and his Fords. Still quietly observes the Muslim holy days, too, and she prays and believes and fasts. Observant but not devout. Hasn’t worn a headscarf since the day she was engaged, except to mosque a few times a year. Used to tell me Christmas was more fun than Ramadan but Ramadan left her feeling closer to God. So, with Rasha, I thought, okay. You can look back at him. I saw some of mom in there. And I thought he might be solid, Roland. So when he asked me if I would like to ride horses I said yes.”
I’d always been taken by Lindsey’s dark eyes and lustrous hair, her striking facial structure. “So, that’s where you got your good looks.”
“Mom’s an Indian goddess with a Texas drawl.”
“I’d say I’m happy for you meeting Rasha Samara, Lindsey, but I get the feeling there’s more to this story.”
“Oh, yeah. Isn’t there always? He lives outside of Las Vegas, a swanky development called Latigo. Big custom houses, pools and clubhouse, tennis courts, golf course and landing strip. Stables and livery. And of course equestrian trails so you can ride just about anywhere you want. Guys in quads with trash cans and shovels to keep up with the horse poop. You can take the trails right out to the foothills. He’s got Arabians, of course. Mares. Very nimble. I grew up on larger mounts so I wasn’t comfortable at first. Got over that pretty quick. We brought them to a gallop then gave them a long cool-down. Watered them then sat on red rocks and had salami and cheese and wine and watched the sunset. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We talked like you do when you don’t know the person but you like them – respectfully and not too deep because you don’t know what’s there. He seemed honest and gracious and he was very much interested in me and the world around him. Not just himself. And that was about it. The Monday after the holiday he came by my school after class and asked me out again. Another ride. I declined. Two days later I got a nice thank-you card from him, with a pen-and-ink sketch on the front that he’d done. Some nice words inside.”
“Why no second date?”
A pause from Lindsey. Then, “I’d thought about him a lot. But I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to take things any further. That I would call him when I was ready. I didn’t tell him this, but I liked him and thought that I could go further with him. That thrilled me. Scared me. And I had John to think of, and my petition before the court, and what complications might ensue if Rasha became party to that. He was hurt but…still gracious.”
Lindsey sighed and worked her sunglasses back on. “But then I was thinking about seeing him again. I turned that idea over and over. Changed my mind every hour or so. Felt like such a schoolgirl.”
She brought her purse close and pulled out a small square envelope addressed to her PO Box in Las Vegas. Postmarked Las Vegas, Monday, November 26. It was heavy for its size and I had to worry the card out a little at a time. When I finally righted it I looked down at a skilled ink drawing of two horses cantering along together, heads high, proud. No ground, no background. Sky horses. Arabians, with their short backs and wedge-shaped heads. They were done in just a few lines and would have seemed casual and dashed off if not for the attitudes that the two animals displayed.
“His thank-you card,” she said.
Dear Lindsey Rakes,
Thank you so much for your time. I’ve never seen a more beautiful desert sunset and I hope you enjoyed those moments of splendor as much as I. The horses, of course, are insisting that they be taken out again. I understand your reluctance to consider a relationship. I have similar doubts. Not about you, in any way. But about myself. May God bless you in your life.
The note looked computer-printed, a common Roman font, ten-point maybe.
But Rasha was signed by hand, and looked a lot like the writing in the death threat. It jumped at me. Not quite the same straight up-and-down posture, but close. Graceful, full-bodied letters. Similar calligraphic flourishes – the varying thickness of line, the graceful lead-ins and tails. I unfolded the death threat and held the thank-you card beside it. Lined up Rasha and Rakes. A similar marriage of English and Arabic.
Lindsey was watching me closely. “Ten days later, when I got the threat and compared the signatures, I completely freaked out.”
“This makes me unhappy,” I said.
“I have to tell you something else. When Rasha and I sat up on the big red rocks and had our wine and cheese, he cut that cheese with a sharp looking folding knife. Very deftly. Then he served the wine in two silver goblets with calligraphic engraving on them. They were in his saddlebag with the food and wine, wrapped in white napkins. They looked old. Maybe passed down through his family. Nice. When I got the threat letter, the writing on those goblets rushed into my mind, and the way he used the knife. And rushed in again, when I got this note from Rasha. Roland, I get people. I know right from wrong and good from evil. So, if Rasha wrote that threat I’m the most wrong-assed I’ve ever been about anybody in my life. But still…”
I let my vision track back and forth between the two “R’s”. Let the letters blur, then squinted them back into focus. Subtle differences, but my first and persistent reaction was: same writer.
“Have you communicated with him since you got the threat?”
“Hell no. Where are you going to start, Roland?”
“Where you probably should have.”
“You know a local FBI agent?” she asked.
“We worked the federal counterterror task force together. Before I went private.”
San Diego FBI special agent Joan Taucher would curse me – a former San Diego County Sheriff deputy who should definitely know better — for contaminating the letter and the thank-you card. But Lindsey had beaten me to most of it. The contamination, that is.
More importantly, special agent Taucher would want to interview Lindsey. Lindsey could refuse, up to a point. That’s why she’d come to me. And Taucher would briefly tolerate me – as a conduit. But I could only run interference between Lindsey and the feds for so long, and I’d never known Joan Taucher to show much patience.
If I had one any leverage at all with Joan Taucher, it was knowing that she was a woman possessed.
And that Lindsey might be holding a piece of what possessed her.
“Brandon Goff know about Rasha?”
“No. Roland, am I just one giant fuck up?”
“You’re not giant at all.”
She set her hands over mine and looked out at the spangled pond.
Copyright © 2018 T. Jefferson Parker.
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