Under cover of darkness, p.1

Under Cover Of Darkness, page 1

 

Under Cover Of Darkness
 


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Under Cover Of Darkness


  ELIZABETH WHITE

  As a teenager growing up in north Mississippi, Elizabeth White often relieved the tedium of history and science classes by losing herself in a romance novel hidden behind a textbook. Inevitably she began to write stories of her own. Torn between her two loves—music and literature—she chose to pursue a career as a piano and voice teacher.

  Along the way Beth married her own Prince Charming and followed him through seminary into church ministry. During a season of staying home with two babies, she rediscovered her love for writing romantic stories with a Christian worldview. A previously unmined streak of God-given determination carried her through the process of learning how to turn funny mushy stuff into a publishable novel. Her first novella saw print in the banner year 2000.

  Beth now lives on the Alabama Gulf Coast with her husband, two high-maintenance teenagers and a Boston terrier named Angel. She plays flute and pennywhistle in church orchestra, teaches second-grade Sunday school, paints portraits in chalk pastel and—of course—reads everything she can get her hands on. Creating stories of faith, where two people fall in love with each other and Jesus, is her passion and source of personal spiritual growth. She is always thrilled to hear from readers c/o Steeple Hill Books, 233 Broadway, Suite 1001, New York, NY 10279, or visit her on the Web at www.elizabethwhite.net.

  Under Cover of Darkness

  ELIZABETH WHITE

  Published by Steeple Hill Books™

  STEEPLE HILL BOOKS

  ISBN 978-1-5525-4335-1

  UNDER COVER OF DARKNESS

  Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth White

  All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the editorial office, Steeple Hill Books, 233 Broadway, New York, NY 10279 U.S.A.

  All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.

  This edition published by arrangement with Steeple Hill Books.

  ® and TM are trademarks of Steeple Hill Books, used under license. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Trade Marks Office and in other countries.

  http://www.SteepleHill.com

  I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

  —John 10:9–10

  This book is dedicated to my husband, Scott. I love you more than I can say.

  Abundant thanks to my critique partners, Tammy and Sheri. I feel sorry for other writers who don’t have you two, but I’m not sharing!

  I would also like to express my gratitude to several people who let me pick their brains for this project. First I’m overwhelmed by the bravery and dedication of our U.S. Border Patrol Service, now under the Department of Homeland Security. These men and women tirelessly guard our far-flung national boundaries. For the sake of the story, I had to make up a bad guy, but I never ran across one “in real life.” These guys are true heroes! In particular, I’d like to thank Border Patrol Chaplain Brian Henderson and retired Agent Bill Harrington for helping with story details. All mistakes are mine.

  Credit also goes to Robin Burgin and Carolyn Whittington, who both allowed me to trot along behind them learning a little about landscaping design and gas-powered augers. Thank you for sharing your time and creativity.

  Muchas gracias to Señor Garry Morrison and Señora Jane Myers Perrine, who helped with Spanish translation. I hope I understood you correctly!

  One more note. Thanks to my brother in Christ, Pastor Gabriel Cortes, who ministers to the Spanish-speaking community of south Fort Worth. Your loving, joyful congregation richly blessed me when I visited. May the Lord continue to multiply the Kingdom through you.

  Dear Reader,

  The idea for a story about an undercover border patrol officer came about while my husband and I were in seminary in Texas more than ten years ago. This was when I first became aware of the tension between the protection that the border patrol provides for American citizens, and the thousands of immigrants whose desperate longing for a better life in our great country often leads them to ignore our immigration laws. Add to this the growing threat of international terrorism, and you’ve got a hot-button topic! Years of research and interviews would not be enough to fully cover all the ramifications.

  My intent in this story, however, is fairly simple. What happens when compassion meets justice? I wanted to explore the emotions of a man and a woman operating on opposites sides of truth, who genuinely want to behave as Christ would have them behave—despite forced secrets and old wounds. Yes, even when they’re reluctantly falling in love.

  I fully believe that no situation is too complex or too dark to withstand the illumination of Scripture. If circumstances in your own life seem beyond your ability to resolve, I encourage you to go to God’s Word, the Bible, for help and hope. As the Gospel of John says, Jesus Himself came to be the Light of the World.

  I love to hear from readers via my website, www.elizabethwhite.net. Or you may write to me at Steeple Hill Books, 233 Broadway, Suite 1001, New York, NY 10279. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the story! Stay tuned in December for Sounds of Silence, the second book in the Texas Gatekeepers series.

  Blessings,

  Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  COMING NEXT MONTH

  Prologue

  Eagle Pass, Texas

  The black iron skeleton of the old railroad bridge known as el puente negro arched across the Rio Grande in bold relief against a clear, starlit sky. The odors of jasmine, fish and mud drifted on a damp summer breeze down to the two uniformed men searching the riverbank.

  U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jack Torres struggled through tall banks of carrizo cane as he followed behind his partner, their powerful flashlights cutting a path through the heavy vegetation. They were looking for broken stalks that would indicate human movement, listening for the sounds of fearful panting and rustling, the telltale ripple of water.

  Jack stopped Rico by touching his elbow. “Too quiet around here, man,” he whispered. “Something’s wrong.”

  “I know,” Rico agreed. “Not even a bullfrog singin’ us a lullaby.”

  Shoulders tight, Jack moved closer to the water. The illegals often chose to come across under the bridge, where the darkness hid them until they crawled right up into the cane along the bank. Jack wondered how they could stand it. He had recurring nightmares about going under, sucking river water into his lungs. Submersion had always scared him; he’d had to make himself learn to swim just before going into the Academy.

  Rico had been after him to get baptized since his conversion a month ago, but Jack continued to resist.
I’m thinking about it, man,” he would say, and Rico would laugh and call him a sissy, giving him a hard time until Jack found something to razz back with.

  They stood listening until Rico, always hyper, started to move. Jack motioned for him to wait. “Turn off your light.”

  Rico complied. “We should’ve been off thirty minutes ago,” he grumbled under his breath. “Isabel worries when I don’t call.”

  “I’ll tell her you were unavoidably detained.”

  Jack lifted his night-vision glasses to scan the blackness downriver. Not so long ago the only thing ground agents worried about was controlling the swimmers. They came across without benefit of steel or pavement—some on rafts or inner tubes, many floating on planks or doors, most simply dogpaddling across. Lately, however, as dope peddlers moved into Piedras Negras over in Mexico, the action had gotten a little more interesting.

  “Did you hear about Zuniga and Berg?” Rico said.

  Jack loved Rico like a brother, but he wished he’d shut up. Had that been a footfall on the bridge? He couldn’t be sure. He trained the glasses on the apex, but didn’t see anything.

  Rico kept whispering. “Last week they caught three MAK-90’s. Sixty-one hundred rounds of ammo, too. Then the very next night they picked up 450 pounds of marijuana. Can you believe that, man?”

  Rico talked too much when he was nervous. Jack knew his partner was tired, had been up ’til all hours last night with a sick kid. Maybe they should call it quits after all—

  The noise on the bridge again. Louder, footsteps running, a body slamming against the side rail, somebody yelling Spanish curses. Where were the border patrol guys at the checkpoint?

  The lights on the bridge went out.

  Jack stood up, heart pounding, hand on his gun. “¡Párese y identifíquese!” he shouted. “Rico, cover me.” The running continued. Why didn’t they listen to him and stop? “¡Dije, ‘Párese!’” Jack stumbled toward the bridge, finally clear of the cane, but briars and other weeds caught at his clothes.

  A gun fired, the bullet whizzing past his shoulder. Jack dove into the cane for cover. More gunfire blasted—deafening, confusing, bursting in obscene pops, making it impossible to identify the direction of the sound.

  “Oh, God, protect us!” Jack groaned. “Rico, where are you?” He didn’t know if his partner could hear him or not through the noise.

  Where was Rico? He looked around, afraid to shoot because he couldn’t find him. Oh, God let him be all right.

  Shots blasted overhead again, and this time Jack placed the sound at the base of the bridge, only a hundred yards away. He raised up, saw three dark shapes running toward him; he fired and saw one of the figures fall. The other two split, one plunging into the river, the other disappearing.

  As suddenly as the fusillade had begun, it was over. Numb dark silence dropped into place. Where was his backup? The agents from the bridge should have come running at the first sound of gunfire.

  “Lord my God, please don’t let any of those guys be down.” Jack got up on his hands and knees. He looked around and heard nothing, then half stood, chest heaving. The gun shook in his hand as if it were alive. He staggered to his feet.

  “Rico?” he whispered into the unnatural stillness. Cold hard stars blinked in the sky. Rico was worse than a kid, playing tricks. “Rico, I’m telling you this isn’t funny. I nearly got my shoulder blown off.”

  He stepped backward, turned around.

  “Rico!” he shouted. Then he moved to the edge of the water, where the cane was crushed in a zigzag path.

  The lights on the bridge flickered back on, and the wail of a siren blared from the direction of the city.

  Jack remembered his flashlight. He turned it on and, slipping, nearly falling, shone it into the broken cane.

  Broken cane. Broken cane. Water. Red water. Blood.

  Rico.

  Chapter One

  Fort Worth, Texas

  “Oh no, not again!” groaned Meg St. John. She dropped her forehead onto the steering wheel of her company truck. “Please tell me this is a heat mirage.”

  She was alone in the truck, but as a little girl she’d developed the habit of talking out loud to Jesus. She’d never seen any reason to abandon it. Meg lifted her head and looked again, letting the air-conditioning blast her in the face. It might be ninety degrees in the shade today, but she definitely wasn’t seeing things. Or not seeing things, as the case may be.

  “Lord, this is not funny,” she muttered, rubbing her temple. Then she sighed. “Well, maybe it is.”

  Just over an hour ago she had left an eight-man crew preparing the new Fort Worth Savings and Loan site for planting. All but three of them had disappeared, leaving rakes abandoned midswipe and shovels stuck here and there like old grave markers.

  Appropriate, she thought, for the direction my career just took.

  Crew leader Manny Herrera stood on the front sidewalk, shoulders hunched and hands deep in his olive-drab uniform pants. His younger brother Tomás and their uncle Diego hunkered down in the meager shade of the little Bobcat dirt-mover that was parked, engine still running, near the drive-through. The Herrera family, loyal to the end.

  With a deep breath for fortitude, Meg hopped out of the truck. As a licensed landscape architect, she was the official crew chief responsible for interpreting the design blueprints. Manny, however, was vital, because he oversaw most of the practical aspects of the job and served as translator for the Spanish-speaking crew.

  “Manny!” She got his attention by waving her cap. “How many got caught?”

  She didn’t have to ask what had happened. The last time border patrol came by, five members of her crew had been bused back to Mexico. The job had been pushed several days behind while a new crew was hired and trained.

  “Two.” Manny gave one of the shrugs that accompanied almost every sentence out of his mouth. “Cruz and Rivera ran away when they saw the truck coming. Vega had good papers, but he left anyway. Said he’d be back Monday.” Manny removed his black plastic sunglasses, revealing the anxiety on his thin, scarred face. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I tried to stop them.”

  “Good grief, it’s not your fault.” Though it wasn’t her fault, either, she still felt responsible. Meg looked in despair at the six-foot trailer still loaded with crape myrtles, dwarf nandinas and begonias. Somehow she had to pull things together and finish the task. “The main problem is,” she said, “the savings and loan is supposed to open on Monday.”

  Manny’s expression tightened even more. “You better call the office and ask for help.”

  Meg gulped. If Kenneth Warner got wind of this, he’d find some way to blame it on her. “No, let’s just install what we can by five o’clock. Maybe I can come back tomorrow and finish it myself.” Her day off would be blown to pieces, and salaried employees weren’t paid for overtime. But less than her best was out of the question.

  According to some cultural custom she didn’t understand, the Mexican men rarely met her eyes. But now, Manny’s dark gaze lifted and held hers for a long moment. Meg saw that he understood exactly what she was afraid of. She felt an odd kinship with this quiet, sad-eyed man.

  “Okay, ma’am,” he said, “we’ll do what we can.” He turned and beckoned the other two men. “Tomás. Tío. ¡Ven!”

  The four of them settled into a frantic teamwork that Meg would have enjoyed if she hadn’t been aware of the sun moving over relentlessly, notch by notch, in the hard-baked blue sky.

  Shortly after noon, she and Tomás were crouched in the center of a curved bed on the north side of the brick building. Meg’s stomach had been rumbling for quite some time. Her bowl of Lucky Charms had been scarfed down at dawn while she stood on the porch waiting for Gilligan the Wonder Dog to sniff around the yard. She’d brought an apple with her, but had given it to Tomás. Yesterday he’d fainted, claiming it was the heat, but Meg suspected he couldn’t afford more than one meal a day. She was going to have to call a break soon, before they a
ll passed out from dehydration.

  For nearly an hour she had been marking shrub spacing, Tomás following with the plants. They worked in quiet companionship, making steady progress, with little need for conversation. A bluegrass CD blasted from a boom box on the porch rail. Tomás had initially wrinkled his nose at Meg’s choice of music, but during the last few minutes his bony shoulders had been rhythmically moving.

  “Tomás, do you play an instrument?” She glanced at him and saw his dark eyes widen. Looking over her shoulder, she saw a red BMW sedan gliding up beside her truck.

  “Okay, I see absolutely no humor here.” She sat right down in the dirt, looking up.

  “¿Señorita?” inquired Tomás. “¿Está usted bien?”

  Was she all right? No. In that car was the one person who consistently made her life miserable.

  Realizing the boy felt her anxiety, Meg took a stab at a smile and touched his shoulder. “Sure I am. Sí.” Stomach flipping, she got to her feet.

  After her junior year of college, Meg had spent the summer in her hometown. Sunset Landscaping, owned by cattle baron, artist and entrepreneur Theodore “Ted” Crowley, had offered her a much-coveted internship. Discovering that she actually enjoyed the practice of what she’d been studying, Meg pushed herself hard and graduated at the top of her class with a master’s degree in landscape architecture. To nobody’s surprise, her old employer recruited her to come back, and Meg accepted the job with delight.

  Then reality hit. The company’s new financial officer took one look at Meg and decreed that she was too inexperienced—and too female, Meg secretly suspected—for a management position. He’d convinced Mr. Crowley that she needed another year of in-the-field “seasoning” before moving into the design office.

 
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