Authors: Sable Hunter
When she reached the garage, she opened the rickety old door and entered. A sense of peace settled over her. She was with her with her father’s thing, his writings, the few items they’d been able to bring from home. Silently she walked through, touching photos and picking up her father’s pipe from a crowded bookshelf. Her life had been hard, but she knew if given a chance, she could have a worthwhile purpose.
The silence inside the concrete structure was deafening. She felt so alone. Last night in Deacon’s arms, she’d had the audacity to dream of more. Setting down the pipe, her eyes were drawn to a faded photograph. The only one she’d kept of her mother. It was a family portrait, she and her parents–before everything had gone crazy. Taz had thought they were happy, she hadn’t been aware of the underpinnings of deceit and treachery threatening all she held dear. Was it wrong for her to want some semblance of normalcy? She replaced the photograph where she’d found it, but this time she turned it upside down.
Still in his office, Deacon drained his coffee cup, then chunked it as hard across the room as he could. “Fuck!” He was between a rock and a hard place. How had his world changed so drastically in just a couple of days? Exhaling loud and long, he went to clean up his own mess. He could answer his own question. The reason he felt like his heart was being squeezed in a vice was the woman he’d just hurt. The one whose dreams he could crush in his hands. The woman who had asked nothing more of him than a recommendation for a job she was imminently qualified to hold. A woman who’d come to his bed and healed him with her kiss. A woman he didn’t want to walk out of his life–even if he had to hold her against her will. Hell!
The ringing of his phone shattered the heavy silence. “Yea!” He didn’t even have the heart to identify himself.
Grey Holden’s voice cut through his brooding. “Hell, Grey, I’m not ready for this.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to say?”
“Yea, you want a verdict–one way or the other on Natasha Levin and I’m not ready to give it to you.”
“Feeling torn?” Deacon thought he heard a faint chuckle.
“This isn’t funny. Levin is a class-act, more than capable…”
“But, she’s a woman.” Grey stated the obvious.
God, was she ever.
“And you don’t want to be culpable in case she gets hurt or killed on the job.” Grey continued. “I got it. However, something has come up that puts this discussion on the back burner. I’ve got a job for the two of you.”
“For the two of us? Grey, haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?”
“Just listen. There’s a stand-off on the Texas-Oklahoma border. What we want to prevent is another situation like up in Oregon. This is a dispute between citizens and the federal government over the feds intent to seize land these ranchers hold the deed to and have paid taxes on for generations.”
Deacon went to his desk and sat down, listening. “An imminent domain issue?”
“Close. The Bureau of Land Management has informed a rancher named Charles Ainsley that about half the acreage constituting his ranch is no longer his. The feds are rejecting the deed on file, saying the state made a mistake. The Ainsley homestead is built on the disputed acreage the BLM claims to be public land.”
“I bet that didn’t go over well. I don’t understand, this doesn’t sound like our normal case. What can we do?”
“Give me a second, I’ll explain.” Deacon could hear muffled voices in the background, then Holden came back to continue. “Sorry, about that. Athena said Natasha called and said she no longer wished to be considered for the job. What did you do to scare her off? Sleep with her?”
Deacon knew his friend was joking, but he wasn’t laughing. “I thought we weren’t going to have this discussion now.”
“If that’s the way you want to play it. Anyway, Ainsley and his son took a stand and barricaded themselves in their home, refusing to vacate it. What started this all is that the Red River has changed course over the years, so the line separating public land from private has slid south for about half a mile, swallowing a good portion of Ainsley’s ranch.”
“This sound complicated,” Deacon sighed, not really seeing the urgency.
“Well, it gets worse. There’s a cloudy rule whereby if the river’s course change is due to natural erosion, the feds can pursue the land grab and if its due to avulsion, or change in course due to a flood or some other catastrophe, the landowner prevails. No one has settled this argument over why the river changed course to anyone’s satisfaction. The Ainsley’s were staging a peaceful protest, a lot like that stand-off between the Texas Rangers and a guy named Ponder who assaulted a DPS officer down in Henderson County. Heard of him?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Deacon propped his good foot up on the desk. “I’m sure you’re going to tell me about it.”
“Yes, I am. Ponder just holed up in his house for fifteen years and nobody went in after him. He’d said they better bring body bags if they ever came. Truth was, most just forgot about it. They weren’t willing to put their officers in danger over a simple assault charge. He and his family patrolled their property line with rifles to keep people off their land. During that time, the charges were dropped against him but he didn’t believe it when someone tried to tell him. I guess you could say he put himself in prison and stayed there for fifteen years.”
Deacon let his head loll back against the chair. He’d forgotten how long-winded Grey could be when he got started. “So what’s the problem? If this is peaceful and he isn’t hurting anyone, who’s calling in the Omega Team?”
“Well, the game seriously changed not long after it started. Ainsley isn’t necessarily the problem anymore. The publicity over this deal–Rancher VS the Federal Government–has drawn the wrong kind of attention. Three radicals who just love a fight have come and joined Ainsley. One is named Ron Helmer, he’s a former mercenary from New Mexico. He’s anti-Islam, anti-Obama, just generally anti and angry. Another is a man called Paxton Rice, a plumber from Wyoming. He claims to be a Navy Seal, but we’ve found out that claim is false. The last guy is a former wildcatter, Curtis Burgess, he voluntarily patrolled the US/Mexico border. Anyway, these three are there at their own instigation and we understand Ainsley has even asked them to leave and they won’t. They seem to have something to prove.”
“Sounds like it could turn into another Ruby Ridge.”
“Oh, it gets much worse. The Bureau of Land Management Agent, Tex Zachary traveled down from Amarillo to Wichita Falls to negotiate with Ainsley personally. They met on neutral ground at a neighbor’s house. Zachary is just a guy trying to do his job. He decided to take his family with him and give their seven-year-old a treat by taking him to the Six Flags amusement park close to Dallas afterwards. The problem is that while he was talking to Ainsley, Rice and Burgess crept out and snatched Zachary’s kid right out of the car with his mother screaming and crying, running after them. They’re holding this little fella hostage on the Ainsley ranch and demanding the BLM back-off or they’ll kill him. But listen to this, they’re also demanding the release of a friend of theirs who’s in jail for killing four women and a doctor outside of an abortion clinic.”
“Shit.” Deacon sat up straight at this news. A kid was involved. “What can I do?”
“The situation is getting heated. The Texas Governor, Kyle Chancellor, called me. He’s a friend of mine and he knows what we do. He has his own team, the Equalizers, but right now they’re in Mexico tracking a human trafficking ring. But know this–Texas, being Texas, is never going to support the Federal Government snatching land, but that’s not what this is really about anymore. It’s turned into a stand-off between armed homegrown terrorists and a few Texas Rangers. Kyle doesn’t want to call in Federal troops, this could turn into another Waco siege, but he does have the full support of the President and if all else fails–that’s what will be done. Are you too young to remember when the Branch Davidians and David Koresh clashed with the ATF outside of Waco? Seventy people ended up dying. It was a fiasco.”
“It was 1993, I was about nine years old. But yes, I remember, it was all over the television. Now get specific, this sounds dangerous and I don’t see any reason to involve Natasha. You just tell me what you need and I’ll do it.”
“It’s not that simple. A hostage negotiator from Dallas is there and he’s attempting to work out some kind of deal. What I need is for you two to get up to Burkburnett, not far from Wichita Falls. Once I’ve ironed out the plan with the Governor, I’ll contact you. Be prepared for anything.”
Deacon was far from satisfied. “I’ll go, there’s no use for Taz to be involved.”
“I’m not giving you a choice. I don’t send an agent in without back-up and there’s no one else to send right now. We’re up to our eyeballs in alligators here. We’ve found a house full of explosives, a tip that ISIS is involved, and a couple of missing bombs.”
“I don’t like this, Grey.”
“Let me ask you something, Deacon. With your guidance, is she capable of handling this?”
“No. Yes.” Suddenly, he was feeling sick at his stomach. “If she gets hurt, Holden…”
“Well, make sure she doesn’t. I’ll be in touch. And don’t think you can override me on this, Athena has already let our girl know. She’ll be gunning for you for sure.”
* * *
A few minutes earlier…
“Yes, I appreciate your confidence in me, Athena. I wished things had worked out. Clearly, I’m not Omega Team material. Deacon is right. Like the game show I watch sometimes, I come with far too much baggage.”
“Nonsense. We all have baggage. Deacon has a full matching set himself.”
Taz smiled sadly. “Hopefully he’ll be able to let go of some of his now.” She rose from the bed to open the closet door where she’d hung a few items.
“I wanted to call and let you know I’m moving on. I think I’ll head up north, maybe west. I’m thinking of changing my name, something more American.”
“Just hold on a minute.” Taz waited hearing the sound of subdued voices. She didn’t try to eavesdrop. Instead, she anchored the phone between her face and shoulder so she’d have her hands free to fold her clothing. “I’m back,” Athena said. “Look, I need to tell you something.”
“Okay. Sure.” She placed the clothes in a pile, then walked across the hall to get her toothbrush.
“You’re need to postpone your hasty exit. Something’s come up and we need your help.”
Taz immediately became alert. “What is it?”
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the news lately, but there’s a situation unfolding in North Texas. I won’t go into the details, but it’s a hostage situation. A child. The authorities are fearful things will escalate. I’m sure you realize things are tense in our country. Race relations. The country is split on politics and ideology. There’ve been more mass shootings than days of the year lately. This stand-off is between ranchers and a bureau of the government who wants to seize their land based on some obscure law. But that’s not important, what is important is that the men who’ve aligned themselves with the rancher have kidnapped the son of the government representative and they’re threatening to kill him if their demands aren’t met.”
“How old is the child?”
“What can I do?” Hearing a child was involved crushed her heart. She well remembered the terror of being at the mercy of someone.
“Grey is speaking to Deacon now.”
“He doesn’t want to work with me.”
“He’s a team player and he doesn’t have a choice. He needs back-up. Grey never sends anyone into a situation without it, and we’ve no one to spare at this point in time.”
“Of course I’ll help; I’ll be glad to do anything I can.” Even though he might not want it, this would give her a little more time with Deacon. She could prove herself to him and keep him safe. Ending the call, a shiver of unease wafted over her. As elated as she was to do this, she knew he would be equally furious.
Taz began to pace back and forth across the room. “Okay, Levin, time to pull yourself together. You’re not a pushover. You will stand up to this man and do what needs to be done. Don’t let him intimidate you. You are every bit as good as he is.” As soon as the words left her lips, she knew they weren’t true. She’d matched his performance in some areas, but she hadn’t known he was working at a disadvantage. Losing his leg would affect his balance–which would affect everything. And she’d never known. The realization she would be his backup hit her hard. They would be partners. He was her responsibility. “I can do this.”
“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?”
Taz jerked her head around to find him standing in the doorway of her bedroom. “Neither. It’s just a statement of fact.” She gave him a challenging stare. “You need me.”
Yea, he might. But not in the way she thought. “I’m stuck with you.”
Stuck with her? She mulled the phrase, pondering its meaning. “Since we’re not glued together, I assume this is an insult.”
“You assumed correctly. This is not my choice, it’s a bad idea. I don’t want to work with you.” Why was he being such a jerk? As he watched her absorb his words, her body stiffened and straightened as if arming herself with an invisible shield. “But a child’s life is on the line, so we’re going to have to deal with it.” He glanced at the pile of clothes on her bed. “Are you ready? We have to leave immediately.”