Army combat veteran Ty Stone has now joined the ranks of DKI, a veteran-operated organization waging war on human trafficking. He splits his time between training in Arizona and his home in Virginia. He's doing better at the training than the winding down, struggling with his relentless PTSD symptoms if he has too much time on his hands.
Ty is eager to help when a local law enforcement contact involves him in the investigation of a drug-treatment clinic rumored to be buying children from their desperate patients. While Ty brings in some of his DKI resources, he can't stop at that. Unable to stay in his lane, he becomes obsessed with the hunt for a pregnant drug-addict intent on staying out of the legal system. She knows if she can have her baby without legal entanglements, the undocumented pregnancy will bring in the biggest payday she's ever seen.
Despite progress, Ty is still struggling on all fronts—trying to keep his symptoms under control and avoid making impulsive decisions. He's constantly running afoul of the rules. He knows in his heart that the hunt for traffickers is his calling but can he do it by the DKI playbook? When the answers comes, it takes Ty in a direction no one could have predicted. One from which there is no coming back.
Release date: January 21, 2021
Print pages: 332
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Child With No Name
Glade Spring, Virginia
When CEO Allen Harden took the podium at the grand opening he grinned and waved to the cameras as the audience applauded. He appeared to enjoy the adulation given to him by those who attended the event. He spoke in quotable sound bytes that would show up in local newspapers and on television stations. The CEO had practiced this role in the mirror for two weeks and this was his moment. He'd memorized dozens of pat responses to any question someone might ask. He'd felt ready and he was nailing it.
In the audience, Harrison Prescott smiled at the CEO's performance. He took the applause as a sign that his man was saying all the right things. When his opening remarks were complete, the CEO joined the rest of the local team behind the red ribbon. There was Dr. Jacoby, the physician who'd be working this location, administering the suboxone protocol. There was the receptionist, the nurse, and the nurse practitioner who'd all been recently hired.
The counselor, Karen, was not a new hire. She'd worked for Harrison in some capacity since she was a very young woman and he'd directly groomed her for this position. She was one of his inner circle, privy to the true mission of his organization. Harrison had dozens of these clinics around the country and dozens of trusted associates just like Karen working as counselors. They were all doing their best to find more product. All keeping the wheels of commerce rolling.
The receptionist handed the CEO a pair of oversized scissors that matched those held by the rest of the clinic staff. He counted down and on three they all dramatically snipped the ribbon, the scarlet fragments fluttering to the ground around them like fallen leaves. The CEO raised the scissors over his head in a gesture of victory and got more applause.
He returned to the microphone and spoke again. “I’d like to thank you all for coming. Again, I’d like to thank each of the clinic staff for explaining our mission and their roles to you. They’re hardworking folks and they all know their jobs better than I do. As a company, we appreciate your support. If you know of anyone with a substance use disorder I hope you’ll send them our way. Thanks again and have a wonderful afternoon.”
A few local reporters stuck around to snap the CEO's picture with his staff. The television press wanted to film footage of the interior of the clinic so they offered tours to those who were interested. Gradually, over the course of the next forty-five minutes, the parking lot emptied until it was only Harrison, the CEO, and his staff remaining.
The CEO congratulated the staff on a job well done, but reminded them that the real work began in the next few days when patients started to show up. "You'll probably not see me again, but I know you'll all do your best to make this clinic a success. The community is counting on you. I'm counting on you." With that, he dismissed the staff and sent them home for the rest of the day.
In a few minutes it was only Harrison, Karen, and the CEO left in the gravel parking lot. Harrison extracted an envelope from the pocket of his sport coat and handed the CEO an envelope with five thousand dollars in cash. "You did an excellent job. You recall that you signed a non-disclosure statement, correct?"
The CEO nodded. "This role doesn't go on my resume. If someone claims to recognize me from this event I tell them it must be a mistake."
Harrison smiled. "Exactly. Thanks again."
The CEO extended a hand, shaking with Harrison and Karen. "I appreciate the opportunity. Thanks again."
The CEO headed toward a battered Subaru and pulled out of the parking lot, loose tailpipe rattling. He wasn't really the CEO of anything. He was only the latest actor Harrison hired to portray the CEO of their company. He hired someone different for every public function. The name they assigned to him, Allen Harden, was fake and the face was a different actor every time. The rest of the corporate structure was as tangled as a briar thicket. An impenetrable mire of foreign registrations, mail drops, and dead ends that might, eventually, lead you to Harrison Prescott.
“Karen, do you mind driving me to the airport? I have business in Miami this afternoon.” His Challenger 350 was sitting at an airport about thirty minutes away, the pilots awaiting his return.
“I’d be glad to,” she replied.
Harrison followed Karen to her Cadillac Escalade. “I hope we’re leasing this for you,” Harrison said, admiring the vehicle.
Karen smiled as she touched the key fob and unlocked the doors. “You are and I appreciate it.”
“Wouldn’t you have preferred a luxury car? A classic Benz or a Lexus?”
“Not if I’m transporting product,” she replied. “And sometimes families with questionable to nonexistent hygiene.”
Harrison climbed into the passenger seat. “Ah, I see. Then this spacious tank is what you must have. I trust you found suitable living accommodations?”
“I'm leasing a house in Abingdon, Virginia. It’s a nice little town about twenty minutes away. The pace is slower than I’m used to but there are some good restaurants. It's tolerable.”
“Well, you won’t be here forever. A couple of years and we’ll close the clinic. We’ll cite funding issues and regulatory restrictions, then we’ll move on. There's always another community desperate for someone to come in and fix their problems.”
“Do I get to pick the next place?”
Harrison laughed. “Sorry, Karen, the crisis dictates the location. Who knows what drugs we’ll be dealing with in a few years?”
She sighed. “Surely some nice tropical locations have substance abuse problems.”
“They might,” Harrison agreed. “But larger communities have more competition. The patients tend to be involved in more social programs. Those entanglements complicate things. Isolated rural communities are easier to plunder. The people are simpler and have fewer opportunities available to them.”
When they got to the airport, Karen parked near the terminal. Harrison opened his briefcase and removed a fat manila envelope sealed with packing tape, passing it over to Karen.
“That’s one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in there. Consider it seed money. Let’s see what you can do with it.”
Karen took the envelope and felt the weight of it in her hand. A lot of people would be considering what that envelope of cash could do for them personally, but Karen was a long-term thinker. She was more concerned about what she could turn this envelope of cash into. Her fantasies did not revolve around a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They revolved around millions of dollars. Enough to give her an early retirement in an exotic tropical setting.
Lost in the jumble of red dirt and boulders, Ty Stone didn’t spot the crude landing strip until the single-engine plane banked and lined up for approach. The pilot made a low pass to visually inspect the runway for debris. Satisfied there was nothing there that would cause his plane to face-plant or blow a tire, he banked a turn then started descending.
Ty had done a lot of sketchy stuff in his military career but small planes freaked him out a bit. They sounded more like lawnmowers than the planes he was accustomed to. They didn’t have entire teams of mechanics like military aircraft. Often it was just the owner wrenching on them in a hangar like the plane was an old Chevy truck. Ty didn’t breathe easy until the wheels were down and they were coasting.
Before killing the engine, the pilot deftly turned the plane and aligned it for a quick takeoff. When the prop quit and the dust settled, Ty and his fellow Door Kickers International operator, Badger, exited the plane. Ty stretched as he assessed his surroundings. It had been a short flight but he got edgy when he was sitting still in tight spaces, especially when it was in the run-up to an operation.
“Over there,” Badger said, pointing to a rusty hangar with the door gaping open.
They followed a dirt road from the landing strip to the hangar, casually scanning the area around them. Though there was no one in sight, Ty felt vulnerable. He wasn’t carrying a gun. It was one of the rules of this operation. Instead, he wore a cap sporting some college football team with a camera and microphone embedded in the bill. If the camera was discovered things would get really ugly. Physical altercations sucked when the bad guys didn’t have the same rules of engagement and could shoot you full of holes.
“You good?” Badger asked, interpreting Ty’s silence as nerves.
“Cool as a fucking cucumber,” Ty replied. It was basically true. Operations amped him up a little but it wasn’t a bad thing. Adrenaline served a purpose in situations like this. He never felt so alive, so tuned-in, as when he was casually walking toward what might be his own death.
They reached the hangar door and saw no one in the recesses of the dark interior. Badger banged a ham-sized fist on the hanging steel door, the rattling loud enough to wake the dead. A door at the back of the hangar opened and two men stepped out of an office. One was dressed casually, almost slovenly, in a tropical print shirt worn unbuttoned over a grubby t-shirt and ill-fitting pants. He carried a beer in his hand, an Estrella Jalisco, and pinched a short cigar between two thick fingers. A .45 automatic was jammed in the front of his pants.
His companion was younger and more neatly dressed. He waved at Ty and Badger to enter, a grin on his face. “Come in, amigos. Join us. Welcome.”
The two operators exchanged a glance, then entered the dark hangar. It was late in the day and the air was stifling, but the hangar mercifully spared them from the direct rays of the sun. The younger of the two men gestured at a folding poker table set against one wall of the building. The group converged on the table and assessed each other. There was no handshaking. Instead, Ty and Badger tried to appear nervous since that would be in character for the roles they were playing. They weren't cool, experienced operators at the moment. They were amateurs out of their depth, meeting scary men to talk about sketchy shit.
The sloppily-dressed man yanked out a folding chair and collapsed into it, sticking his cigar into his mouth. He appeared to be in his late forties, bloated, with thick, curly hair. He looked to be of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean heritage.
The younger man nodded at the two Americans. “I’m Efra. I’ll be your interpreter. Please have a seat.”
Ty and Badger pulled out folding chairs and started to take a seat when the unkempt man barked something in Spanish. They froze and looked at Efra.
Efra looked apologetic. “I’m sorry but before you’re seated Señor Auroja asks that you both raise your shirts and turn around. He says that a man in his line of work cannot be too careful. There are men out there who are less than honorable.”
Ty looked a bit nervous at being asked to do this but complied. He and Badger raised their shirts to their chests and spun around, showing Auroja that they weren’t carrying guns, nor were they wearing wires.
Auroja nodded, apparently satisfied, and gestured at the two empty seats. Ty and Badger settled into them while Auroja rattled off a few sentences in Spanish. Though Ty understood some of the language, the man spoke too fast for him to decipher what was being said. He was only able to pick out a few familiar words here and there.
When he was done, Efra picked up. “Señor Auroja wants to know what you’re looking for. Specifically.”
Ty cleared his throat. They’d practiced this. “Our company has business in Guatemala City in two weeks. While we’re here in the country, my boss will be celebrating his fiftieth birthday. He asked us to arrange something special for him. Something, you know, he might not be able to get at home. Something young and fresh.”
Efra relayed that to Auroja. The older man listened to the interpreter without taking his eyes off Ty. Though Ty was incredibly cool and focused during ops, he didn’t want to appear that way now. He tried to look uncomfortable with the situation, even embarrassed.
Auroja made a vague gesture, a sweep of his hand, and spoke to Efra.
The interpreter nodded and addressed the two Americans. “Señor Auroja says that you could be referring to textiles or the local rum. Perhaps even produce. He is unsure as to what you are referring to.”
Ty threw a nervous look at Badger, something he’d practiced in the mirror so that he could make it appear genuine. “Our employer would like the company of a girl for the evening. A young girl.”
Auroja grinned and raised his beer in a questioning manner. Ty and Badger shook their heads, declining the offer. Auroja placed his cigar in an ashtray in the middle of the table, then removed a fat hand-rolled cigarette from his pocket. He lit it and inhaled deeply, blowing the cloud of marijuana smoke across the table at the two Americans. He offered the joint to them, as if it might be a more enticing offer than the alcohol, but they waved it off as well. Auroja shrugged to indicate it was their loss. He reached into his pocket and removed something else, tossing it down on the table in front of Ty.
It was a stack of Polaroid photographs and they fanned out like a deck of cards when they hit the table. The top photo was of a nude child posed in a sexual position. The face had been scratched off to hide her identity. There was no way this was a woman, even a young woman. It was obviously a child. This was exactly what they were here to arrange the purchase of. It was the gift Ty and Badger were procuring for their fictional boss.
Auroja gestured at the stack of pictures, indicating that Ty should pick them up. Ty hesitantly did so and flipped through them. As he’d practiced, he tried to look at them without looking. He verified that the pictures were what he came for, while trying to block the sick feeling in his gut. As he looked, Auroja said something.
“That’s only some of the inventory,” Efra translated. “He might have more in two weeks. Did your boss express some kind of preference? An age or sex? A hair color?”
Ty couldn’t answer immediately. He mechanically flipped through the photos because that’s what he was supposed to do. He had to be certain the pictures depicted children and not simply young adults made to look like children. As he scanned them, he held the pictures far enough from his face that the camera in the bill of his cap recorded what he was looking at. That would be crucial for evidence later.
Despite his best efforts to block out what he was looking at, the contents of the pictures seeped into Ty's mind. These were pictures of children doing things children should not be doing. He felt his face flush and his head swim. He wanted to throw up, but more than that he wanted to murder the man in front of him. He couldn’t do that though. Murder was obviously outside of the rules of engagement. If he blew the op, they might capture Auroja but there was no guarantee they'd ever find or rescue these children. Ty had to choke it down.
Auroja leaned forward over the table, staring at Ty with bleary red eyes. He took another hit off the joint, exhaling the smoke from his nose. He whispered something that Ty didn’t understand.
Ty looked to Efra, who shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “What did he say?”
“Señor Auroja says he sees the way you look at those children. He says you're curious. He wonders if you're really here to make arrangements for your boss or if you're shopping for yourself. He says he can take you to a place right now where you can sample for yourself if you want. For a nominal fee, of course.”
Ty shifted his eyes from Efra to Auroja. The older man grinned widely as his message was translated, a gold tooth winking from a row of decaying teeth. Ty met his eyes and smiled as all his training, all his preparation, went out the window. He flipped the table over onto Auroja and the man’s chair toppled over backward. The move sent Efra sprawling onto the concrete as well. Auroja's legs jutted from beneath the overturned table. Ty grabbed them and tugged him free of the melee.
“Dude! Dude!” Auroja screamed in English but Ty wasn’t hearing it.
He dropped onto Auroja’s chest and drew back for a punch. Before he could drop it, Badger tackled him from the side, rolling him up in a bear hug.
“Ty!” Badger screamed. “Ty!”
Then they were instantly surrounded by more people, all of them speaking Ty’s name, trying to bring him down. As their words seeped in, his fury dissipated. Cliff Mathis broke through the circle of bodies and stared down at Ty. He didn’t even have to say a word.
Ty released a deep breath and tried to force his muscles to relax. “I’m sorry, Cliff. I fucked up. I lost it, man.”
“Auroja, you good?” Cliff said.
Auroja walked into Ty’s line of sight. “I’m fine, bro, but that shit was close. Thanks, Badger. You saved my ass.”
Badger gave him a nod. “No prob.”
“Okay, back to work, everyone,” Cliff said. "Let's clean up this mess."
Badger eased his grip and rolled free of Ty. Ty lay on his back on the gritty concrete, staring up at the ceiling.
“I fucked up," he repeated.
Cliff stood overtop him and extended a hand. Ty took it and Cliff hauled him to his feet. “We’ve all been there, man. That’s the point of the training. No one has the tools in their arsenal to deal with this shit right out of the box. It's too messed up. Every fiber of your humanity tells you that what you're looking at is wrong."
Ty was shaking his head in frustration. “That's exactly it, man. I saw those pictures and this wasn’t training anymore.”
Cliff led Ty away from the rest of the team. “You’re not the first to do that. That’s why we train. That’s why I bring in shady characters like Auroja to keep it real. He thinks like a criminal and acts like a criminal because he was a criminal. He throws in stuff like drinking and blowing weed smoke in your face because that’s the kind of shit the enemy will do.”
“He totally convinced me. I lost sight of this being an exercise. I forgot the objective.”
“You can’t do that in the field, Ty. Blowing an op means kids don’t get saved. That’s what you always have to remember. If we don’t succeed, there may never be another chance at that group of kids.”
“I didn’t expect the pictures.”
“They’re not real. They’re computer-generated to look real.”
“They fooled me,” Ty said, rubbing his hand through his hair. “I kind of blacked out after that.”
“You have to expect the unexpected. You’ll see worse than those pictures on real ops. You’ll see videos. You’ll see real kids paraded in front of you like livestock. There will be offers of things that will sicken you to your soul and you’ll be forced to decline them politely. That comes with time and practice. You’ll get this.”
Ty was shaking his head, staring at the floor as he walked. “I don’t know, man. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.”
Cliff patted him on the back. “Have faith, buddy. Now let’s get you to the hot-wash so we can run another team through.”
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