Card Front

SHATTERED LIVES

Chapter 1

Utah, Northbound I-15, October 3rd, 2:07 A.M.

Tommy Ramirez jerked his bobbing chin off his chest. The white dashes on the interstate weren’t where they were supposed to be.

His pulse thumped in his ears, then disappeared in a deafening rumble—the semi-truck’s dual tires roared over the sleeper line etched on the road’s shoulder. Muscles taut throughout his body, Tommy jerked the oversized steering wheel back toward the center lane. The 48-foot trailer jolted the cab as it shifted sideways.

Tommy’s stomach plummeted.

¡Ay Dios! It’s gonna jackknife! Going against instinct this time, Tommy twisted the wheel toward the trailer’s slide and the edge of the road. He checked the mirrors.

Are the sidelights lining up?

Breathless seconds passed while he waited. Sweat trickled past his ear, and his chest heaved as if he’d used his bare hands to push the semi back where it belonged.

The lights slowly realigned. Tommy sucked in air, and then blew it out in a rush.

“¿Qué pasa?” Dino moaned. Awake for the first time since they left Las Vegas, Tommy’s cousin flopped around in the semi’s bunk bed behind him.

Before Tommy could answer, spheres of light in the side view mirrors caught his attention. At this time of morning, usually only truckers and cops were out. These lights weren’t high enough to be a trucker’s.

A nail-embedded knot formed in Tommy’s stomach. Although he’d been driving since he was nine, he didn’t have a license. Even if he had one, at nineteen, he’d still get busted for being too young to drive a semi-truck.

If I get caught, how long will it take them to deport me? What’ll happen to Mamá and my sisters? Sweaty palms made it hard to grip the wheel.

“Hey! ¿Qué pasó?” Dino grumbled.

“Eh, that might be a cop.”

“¿Qué?”

The headlights passed them. The tension in Tommy’s body turned into rubbery muscles that could’ve oozed across the floor. “It’s not a cop. Dino, get up here before I kill us.”

When his cousin didn’t move, Tommy ground his teeth. “Now, loser! I’m falling asleep!”

Dino shoved the cab’s curtains out of his way. The reek of tequila and clashing scent of his $80 cologne came out with him. Ever since Dino got a new job he’d been wearing his extra money. Today his crinkled, mall-bought shirt gaped open showing off his wife-beater tank top. A bandanna hung out of his khaki pants pocket like he was showing colors again. If he wasn’t careful, he’d still look like the cholos he used to hang with.

“Where’re we?” Dino asked.

The city skyline, a river of lights with one large, white, glowing building on a hill, was boring compared to San Diego’s brightly lit skyscrapers reflecting off the ocean. It was nothing compared to Vegas’ lights and noise either. “We’re seven hours down the road. Next time you get us a job, you’d better do it sober.”

The idiota hit the sleeper’s dome light and fumbled around by the fridge. Barely over five feet tall, Dino usually maneuvered around in his cab easily. Now he might need coffee to do it.

“You need to respect your elders, ese. Where’s my—did you take my duffel bag, pocho?” Dino’s voice rose, sharp and accusing.

“No, but I tossed your tequila. You know, the stuff you called ‘liquid courage.’”

Dino hurled insults, but Tommy didn’t care. After he’d found Dino drinking in a casino in Vegas when it was the baboso’s turn to drive, he’d wanted to pound him; but now Tommy was too tired to do anything. As long as Dino—the only one licensed to drive a semi—was sober, that was all that mattered.

After a minute, Tommy glanced over his shoulder. “Where we gonna stop?”

Jumping, Dino crammed something into his duffel bag, like he didn’t want Tommy to see it. Too small to be a bottle—maybe it was cash to buy more booze. The idiota dropped his bag beside the passenger’s seat, sat down and studied the GPS suction-cupped to the windshield.

“It says we’re in Bountiful. Ogden is still about thirty minutes out. I, eh, gotta take a leak now. We’ll, eh, we’ll get some diesel too.” Dino bird-flapped his jacket as if he needed the A/C on and then smeared his hands on his jeans, like they were as sweaty as Tommy’s.

“You gonna rob a bank, or take a leak?” Tommy asked and threw the fuel book at Dino so he could find a truck stop.

The book bounced off the side of his face. Dino caught it before it hit the floor mat and tossed it back without looking at Tommy. “I gotta piss a river. The GPS’ll find a stop.” He pulled it off the windshield and tapped the screen. “Can you figure out the exit signs?”

Tommy blinked. Usually letters on street signs only moved around like stirred alphabet soup if he spent time trying to figure out what they spelled. When he was this tired, they did it no matter what he was doing. He yawned. “No.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yeah. You were supposed to drive. When’d you start drinking on the job?”

Wiping his palm down his jeans, Dino shook his head. “I don’t. It’s just I, eh, I broke up with my woman.” He tapped the GPS’s touchscreen twice. “You like my new toy? It says we need to get off at exit 316, and we’re coming up on 315 now.”

Dino cycled through girlfriends every other week. Why was ditching this one so hard? Too tired to ask, Tommy glanced at Dino’s GPS. A British woman’s voice would tell him he was off route for taking an exit. If Tommy ever got a voice-activated GPS, so he didn’t have to read, the gadget would work for him too. “Yeah, it’s cool.”

“I knew you’d like it. That Arab worm is working you too hard. I met with my boss last week. He’ll give you a new phone with a personal assistant and GPS.”

Working with him full-time was all Dino had talked about for the last three weeks.

I already told him no. Why does he keep bugging me? Tommy flipped the splitter and winced as he switched out of sixth gear. His left thigh had stiffened up after double-clutching through heavy traffic in Vegas.

Dino noticed. “Drive more often and you’ll get used to that. There’s our exit. You’re gonna want the Phillips 66. C’mon, it’s good money. I know you need it.”

That was true. Tommy had only come on this run ‘cause he needed to pay for Mamá’s $200 seizure meds, and Alexia’s princess jacket had been stolen at school. Alexia couldn’t use Liliana’s, because his other sister had given the secondhand jacket she’d outgrown to a friend. So, now they both needed jackets. Yeah, he needed cash, but Tommy’d learned Dino’s job offers needed to be checked on as often as the guys who hung around his older sister.

Yawning, he aimed for the truck stop with the red bar that looked to him like it wriggled across the top of the awning. The 66 on the red badge sign did it too. The motion messed with his stomach. If he didn’t sleep soon, he was gonna spew.

“You’re working too hard,” Dino dug in his duffel. “That raghead—”

Khalil is giving me all the hours I want.”

“Hours, huh? Were you with a Chiquita last night? Alexia said you didn’t come home.”

“No. A lady didn’t want her husband to know she wrecked his Maserati while he was out of town. She paid us a lot to fix it quick. Took us twenty-six hours straight.”

Dino jerked a cigarette out of the pack in his duffel and pointed it at Tommy. “My people won’t make you work that hard, and they’ll pay you real good.”

Tommy pulled up to the pump and cut the engine. “I’ll stick with Khalil. He’s reliable; and I don’t babysit drunks, or do stupid stuff that gets me busted and sent back to Mexico. You really gonna light up at a gas station?”

Grumbling, Dino tossed the credit card and cigarette in a cup holder, leaving Tommy to get the fuel started.

Instead of taking the card, Tommy watched his cousin head for the gas station. Satisfied Dino could walk a straight line, Tommy opened the semi’s door and got slammed by a gust of icy wind. It helped steady his stomach and woke him up; but he buttoned his thin, ragged jacket against it and headed for the pump.

By the time Dino got back, Tommy was almost too tired to walk a straight line himself.

“Hey, ese, you gonna go in? Bathroom is on the left-hand side. Go right, then go left.”

Tommy followed Dino’s directions inside. He passed the counter, turned right, and crashed into a tall girl with a big, ugly ring hanging from her nose. Tommy grabbed her upper arms to keep her on her feet. The girl’s eyes flashed angrily at first, then they widened and her mouth fell open.

“Sorry,” he mumbled and moved to step past her.

She slid sideways to block him and hid her broom behind her back. “Are you new here? Do you like to party?”

Not now. “Just driving through.” He got past her without any more invitations, but when he came out of the bathroom, her high-pitched whispers carried.

“I swear he looks just like that model on the poster in your room, but hotter. He’s taller than your basketball star too. Serious, you can ask Carol to see the security camera. Yeah, gorgeous blue eyes …”

Rolling his gorgeous blue eyes, Tommy headed for the door. The cold air smacked him in the face and took his breath away. He pulled his jacket tighter. After growing up playing in the ocean near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, southern California was as far north as Tommy ever wanted to get. Who would’ve thought I’d miss the Sonoran Desert heat?

As he approached the curb, a police car pulled up. Tommy’s heart slammed against his ribs, but he forced his shoulders to relax and walked towards the semi-truck. Dino on the other hand, came around, saw the patrol car, and ran to the back of the trailer.

Baboso, why don’t you just wave the Mexican flag?

Dino’s size, darker skin, and heavy accent were harder to hide than Tommy’s half-Mexican, half-Dutch ancestry.

After living here without papers for nine years, why’re you acting like we just crossed the border?

A female officer got out, her eyes on their trailer.

This had better work. “Hello, Officer,” Tommy said, and smiled at her.

When she looked at him, the cop’s eyebrows spiked in the middle, and her lips almost twitched into a smile. She nodded instead and went inside the gas station.

Dino owes me again. Seconds later, he rounded the semi’s trailer, and found Dino hiding behind it. “Whassup with you?” Tommy asked.

Dino wouldn’t look at him. “¿Estás loco? If that cop knew you drove, we’d be hosed.”

You just about got us busted. Why’re you—oh no, you didn’t.”

Sometimes Dino smuggled other Mexicans over the border. They needed help, but Tommy had his family to think about. He’d checked the load before they left the warehouse. It was full of furniture boxes. Maybe, for extra money, his cousin had hidden something inside the boxes.

Tommy’s stomach suddenly churned like he’d swallowed a can of nuts and bolts. He clenched his fists. “We’d better not be muling dope, man.”

Shaking his head, Dino shoved past Tommy and looked around the corner. “We aren’t. Eh, I just hate cops. Okay, she’s leaving. We might have another fifteen minutes before we’re done fueling.” Shifting into the shadows like he could hide in them, Dino held out an open soda can. “Here, I got you a Pepsi.”

That wasn’t all he got. Tommy pointed at Dino’s six-pack of beer. “You wanna drink, you’re paying for a motel. I can’t drive anymore.”

“I wish I could get drunk now. This is for later. Here, take your Pepsi.”

Tommy took the can, but with a quick motion, grabbed the six-pack too.

“Hey! What’re—”

“You’re lucky I don’t throw it away.” Tommy hauled the stuff to the cab, and threw the Pepsi in the trash. If he did the same with the beer, Dino would just get more. He dropped the beer on the bunk and shoved it against the far wall. Keeping his back to Dino and his mumbled curses, Tommy followed the six-pack into bed and fell asleep before the fueling was done.

Sometime later, the semi jolted to a stop, waking him. The growling engine lulled him back to sleep before the big rig started moving again.

“You stupid son of a—” Dino shouted.

Tommy jerked awake as he was thrown to the edge of the semi’s bunk bed. He would’ve flown over the top of the seats into the cab, but the forward motion shuddered to a stop.

A sudden jolt toward the passenger’s side sent Tommy sliding down the length of the bunk. The big rig is tipping!

Kicking his feet, Tommy fought it, but he slid into darkness anyway. Something shot past him. The beer? It struck his foot and kept going. Tommy saved his face by throwing his palms out seconds before crashing into the semi’s side as the big rig slammed into the road. Its impact shook the cab. The screech of metal and the rumble of fiberglass skidding over asphalt tore at his ears. The motion ground to a halt and then silence took over.

Holy Mother of—I’m standing in the bunk bed’s window. “Dino!”

His cousin didn’t answer. Shoving the curtains out of the way, Tommy looked down on the tilted cab. The dashboard’s light silhouetted Dino’s crumpled body lying against the passenger’s door.

“Dino?” Tommy scrambled over a captain’s chair into the cab.

Dino groaned and looked around dazed, as blood from a gash over his eyebrow streaked his face.

Tommy snatched his cousin’s bandanna from his pocket. “Hold this right here.” After positioning Dino’s hand, Tommy grabbed his arm. “C’mon, we gotta go. If the fuel tank got—”

CRACK!

Something pummeled the windshield. Throwing himself forward, Tommy shielded his cousin’s body with his own. Another strike splintered the glass, but it didn’t shatter.

Dino shifted in his seat, groaned and clutched his bloody head. “Where’s my bag?”

CRACK! The sound echoed farther away—like the guy whacked the semi as he went down the length of it. Dino shoved at Tommy’s chest. “You gotta stop him! If something happens to this load, we’re dead.”

The tight feeling in Tommy’s gut exploded. “Why? What’re we hauling?”

Dino hid behind the bloody bandanna. “This isn’t about the shipment! Someone came up on me honking and flashing, and then we hit a construction ditch. They’re loco! Stop ‘em!”

“Yeah, right. We’re gonna talk later.” Twisting around, Tommy reached over his head, and pushed on the door that weighed as much as an armored truck’s. It was a fight Dino would’ve lost, but Tommy got it open. Cold rain pelted him as he hoisted himself out and stood up on the cab’s side, ten feet above the slick road. At least I can’t smell leaking fuel.

The ground level headlight wasn’t working. The other one lit up the construction cones and a two-foot ditch in the road’s shoulder. Dino probably buried a wheel in the hole and the shifting weight threw the trailer off balance.

Who caused the accident? Why were they beating on the window? Taillights caught his eye. A mid-sized truck had stopped a hundred feet ahead of the cab.

He studied the shadows. Nobody moved inside. What was beyond headlight range?

Where’d they go?

Tommy turned in the other direction. They’d crashed halfway up the on-ramp a quarter of a mile away from the nearest shops and businesses. The stores looked closed and everything beyond them disappeared in blackness.

We might be able to get outta here before the cops find out. He looked at his watch and focused on the wiggling numbers: 3:21 AM.

Whoever had been banging on the windshield started whacking again. Loud, metallic thumps now came from the back of the trailer. It took three seconds to decide staying on top of the big rig would make it easier to sneak up on the attacker. Hoping the crash hadn’t busted any of the trailer’s seams; Tommy cat-stepped on the side panels. One flexed, popped, and dropped three inches beneath his weight. Tensing, he pulled his foot out of the hole, and backed away from the weakened area. Nothing else broke when he crossed over to the other side and closed in on the sound.

Peering over the edge, Tommy cocked his head to the side and stared. A slender woman tinted red from the taillight frantically hammered the cargo door with a baseball bat. Her knee-length, form-fitting coat and the scarf around her neck danced over the tips of her cowboy boots in an odd mix of wealthy and redneck.

She must be crazy. “Lady, what’re you doing?”

The woman’s boot heels clicked when she jumped and whipped around trying to find him. While she turned the scarf fluttered and then fell to her sides. “Let them out!”

“What’re you talk—” Tommy paused. A girl’s screams sounded like they came from inside the trailer. Not again. Crouching down, Tommy lowered himself over the side and dropped the last few feet to the ground. The Crazy Lady came flying at him, bat raised.

Throwing his hands up, Tommy jumped back. “Hey! If you want help, put it down!”

She stopped short of swinging at him, but didn’t lower her weapon.

He pointed at the trailer. “How’d you know someone was in—”

“Just open it before they come!”

Tommy jerked a glance over his shoulder afraid he’d see red and blue lights. The Crazy Lady leapt forward, grabbed his arm, and dragged him towards the cargo doors.

“Lady, that bat isn’t gonna break the lock. You know that, right?” He grabbed the metal strip the shippers put in place so they’d know if someone messed with the load. The sharp edge sliced his fingers. He sucked in a breath and shook his hand. “I’ll go see what I can find in the cab and look for the key. Is that your truck up front?”

She flicked the scarf out of her way and nodded.

“Go get it. We’ll need its headlights.”

Wordlessly, they ran together toward the front of the semi and then split up. When he got close to the windshield and saw Dino in the dome light, Tommy lost it. “Are you loco? You almost got my family killed doing this!”

Dino made a slashing motion across his throat and pointed to the phone at his ear.

Snarling curses, Tommy climbed up the side and lowered himself into the cab. The tight squeeze forced him to squat to reach past the passenger’s seat.

No tools, just Dino’s duffel bag. He dumped it onto his cousin’s lap. Dino clutched at it like abuela did her purse—when it had collection plate money in it. Tommy wrenched the arm of the chair instead of Dino’s neck. How much had the Mexicans paid him for muling them to Cali and then this far north? “Can’t you find legal work?”

Dino flipped him off.

Tommy fumbled around behind the seat and found his Leatherman Super Tool and a crowbar. He pocketed the super tool and barely stopped himself from bashing Dino on the head with the crowbar. Instead of making himself feel better, Tommy jerked the flashlight out of the safety clips on the driver’s door. That’d be a nice weapon too. He turned to Dino. “Gimme the key to the cargo doors.”

Dino shrugged and pointed at the phone. “Sir, we’re, eh, gonna be late. We got a flat.”

Disgusted, Tommy left his cousin to lie his way out of trouble again. Back outside on the ground, Tommy skidded on the wet road, but kept running until he rounded the semi’s corner.

The lady’s Ford crept along because of a flapping front tire beneath a loose fender that looked like wrinkled tin foil.

Did she do that tangling with the semi?

She really is crazy.

Flicking the flashlight on, Tommy stuck it between his teeth, so he could use both hands. The beam lit the seal on the double doors, and the lock Dino ‘didn’t’ have the key for.

One problem at a time.

Tommy jammed the crowbar into the crevice just as the Crazy Lady’s headlights further lit up the cargo doors. While he pried at the seal, a shadow fell over him. “Get out of the light,” he mumbled around the flashlight. When the shadow didn’t move, Tommy looked up, expecting the Crazy Lady to be hovering over his shoulder.

Dino stood with the bandana cinched around his head. His expensive shirt hung limp and lifeless while blood stained his wife-beater.

Tommy took the flashlight out. “You okay?”

Dino aimed his eyes at the F150. “We gotta go.”

Tommy turned back to the seal, resisting the fresh temptation to pound his cousin with the crowbar.

The Crazy Lady ran up, grabbed his flashlight, and aimed it at the seal. Tommy still couldn’t see because she stood in her truck’s light and twitched like she expected an ax murderer to come hurtling out of the darkness.

“We’ve got to call the cops before they find us,” she said.

Dino grabbed the crowbar in Tommy’s hands. “Ahorita ya, Tomás.” The red glow from the semi’s taillights made Dino look like he was the ax murderer.

Tommy jerked the crowbar free. “You want me to hurry? Get the key to that lock.”

“Get them out!” Crazy Lady said, pounding a hollow echo on the semi’s door with her fist.

Dino’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils did the bull-before-a-charge-flare.

You’re pissed? Tommy ignored him and focused on the girl shouting inside the trailer. “Please, don’t leave! Get us out!” She spoke perfect English.

A cold chill swept through Tommy. “What’s going on, Dino?”

“¡Tomás, ya viene la Muerte porti!”

Ignoring his cousin, Tommy shoved the crowbar back into the slit. “Whaddya mean, ‘death is coming?’” When Dino didn’t answer, Tommy called to the girl inside. “We’re gonna get you out. Is anyone hurt?”

“Yes! We were scared to say anything. We thought you were the kidnappers.”

“Kidnappers? Dino, you stupid son of—”

“Is Samantha Taylor in there with you?” Crazy Lady’s voice cracked with desperation, as she pressed her cheek to the door.

She’s saner than Dino.

Someone on the other side pounded the door. “Charlotte, is that you?”

The lady whose hair looked blood-red in the taillights put her trembling palms flat on the semi’s locked door. “Sammie has curly, red hair and green eyes. Is she in there?”

The girl on the other side banged on the door. “Charlotte, you moron! I’m in here because of your stupid questions! You almost got us killed!”

“And now I’m saving you, Paula, so shut up and listen! Is my daughter in there?”

“Yeah, but she’s not moving. Hurry! We got thrown in here with the ones being sold tonight! They’re not going to let us get away!”

¡Ay Dios! How could this get worse? Tommy popped the seal out, and turned toward his cousin. “Where’s the key?”

Dino shrugged and took a step toward the Ford.

Tommy raised the crowbar. “¿Dónde?”

“I swear I don’t have it. ¡Vámonos! La Muerte viene.” His wide eyes didn’t lie.

Turning to the frantic mother, Tommy grabbed her hand. “Charlotte, right? We’re never gonna break this lock. C’mon. I’ve got an idea.” He called to the girl inside, “Paula, we’re gonna try another way in! We won’t leave you!”

Paula kept pounding on the door, and her screeches grew louder.

Tommy spun, led Charlotte back along the trailer, and climbed up the side of the cab. “There’s a busted seam up here. I should be able to use it to get in.”

As they scaled the downed semi, Charlotte’s cowboy boots slid on the rain-slick side, but she stayed right behind him. Wind threatened to blow him off as he crawled up over the edge. Putting his back to the gust, Tommy pulled Charlotte up the last few feet. He held onto her, and used the flashlight to find the broken panel. “There it is. Hold this.” He gave the flashlight to her, and began hacking through the semi’s side.

Charlotte kept looking around, and every time she did, the flashlight shifted with her.

“Hey, I need the light here.” When she got it pointed in the right direction again, he banged the last of the sharp ends down. “Who’s after them?”

“Men who have enough money to make anyone disappear—the shouting stopped.” She aimed the light down in the hole. “Paula? Paula?”

“We’re here! Get us out!” Two girls staggered out of the darkness and then scrambled up onto plastic crates, just below the opening he’d made.

Leaning over the edge Tommy reached out to them. “Give me your hand.”

“Take Felicia first,” said the girl, who’d been yelling through the door.

Felicia waved like a cheerleader at a football game, but he grabbed an arm and pulled her up. She looked old enough to be in college, and teetered like a drunk. Charlotte held onto Felicia to keep her from falling over the trailer’s edge.

Paula’s pink hair blew into her face. She swept it away revealing a flowering vine tattoo wrapped around her neck. The tattoo stretched like a noose when she looked wildly around. “The others are drugged worse than Felicia; but they wanted me to know what was coming.” Paula’s voice hardened with anger, but terror tormented her roving eyes. The noose stretched tighter when she turned to glare at Charlotte. “Where’s the cops?” Paula asked.

Charlotte grabbed Tommy’s hand and dug her nails into it. “What if they don’t get here fast enough? Please! Help me get Sammie out. Paula, where is she?”

The tattooed girl gave Charlotte a die-ugly glare then grabbed Felicia’s arm. “C’mon!”

“Why don’t we fly?” Felicia said. Both girls had bloody scratches, and Paula held her arm tight against her chest, but Felicia ignored the deep gash on her shoulder. She spread her arms wide and flapped. “I’ve always wanted to parachute.”

“We can all go in my truck,” Charlotte said, “But no one is leaving until Sammie is out.”

Tommy didn’t doubt Charlotte would beat anyone who tried.

Paula tugged on Felicia’s hand and they quickly disappeared into the shadows. By the time Tommy looked down, Charlotte was already crawling into the hole.

“Oh! It stinks!” she said. “Shine the light down here.”

She’s right. Rank, stale air and the coppery scent of blood reminded him of his family’s nightmare ride across the U.S. border in the back of Dino’s truck. The twenty-five people hiding in it for two days had learned about true misery with temperatures in the 90’s, and very little water. Before they got out, one man knifed another for his canteen.

After Charlotte got down off the plastic crates, he passed the light to her. She pointed it so he could see where to put his feet. The crate shifted when he stepped on it. Tommy threw his hands wide to steady himself and almost dropped the crowbar on her.

“Go to your left,” Charlotte said. “Now down.”

The flashlight’s beam touched at least a dozen crates with holes near the top of their rounded corners. They were solid on all sides except for a single metal cage door—like a dog crate. Yes, they were large-breed dog cages, piled like kids’ blocks against the side of the semi. He and Charlotte had climbed down two that were stacked on top of each other. The crash had shattered some, while others were tightly wedged together. He grabbed one with its gate side down, and eased it over. It was heavy, and something in it made a soft thump, but it was too dark to see inside. Another crate had a human hand with butterflies tattooed on it limply pressed against the metal. A gold lock dangled from the latch.

Someone’s gonna get beaten for this.

“We need to call the police. Where’s your phone?” Charlotte asked, scrambling from one crate to another, taking the light with her.

The dark crate, and the butterfly hand held him captive. How could anyone do this?

“I found her! Open this cage!” Charlotte knelt by a crate near the semi doors and another busted panel. The pickup’s headlights shone through the panel’s crack into an area that should have been filled with furniture boxes. Instead the light filtered through a jagged hole in a sheetrock wall.

This isn’t the trailer we left San Diego with. Did Dino switch it out in Vegas?

“This is my daughter, Sammie,” Charlotte said, pulling his attention back. “No matter what happens, you remember our names. If we die, we will haunt you.”

Okay, we’re back to Crazy Lady.

Tommy struck Sammie’s lock twice with the sharp edge of the crowbar before the lock broke. Charlotte shoved Tommy out of the way and yanked the door open. Sobs shook Charlotte’s shoulders making it hard for her to pull her daughter’s limp body out. “Sammie, Mommy’s here! Can you hear me?”

The girl couldn’t have been more than twelve—his sister’s age. She looked dead.

“Is she breathing?” Tommy asked dropping to a crouch beside her.

Charlotte caressed Sammie’s lifeless face. “Yes, but she’s so cold!”

Tommy ripped his jacket off and handed it to Charlotte, and then pointed at the broken sheetrock closer to ground level. “It’ll be easier to make that bigger and get them out through—”

“Shh! Listen,” Charlotte hissed.

Familiar metallic clatters drown out Dino’s cursing.

Is he gonna leave us? “He’s probably fixing the tire,” Tommy said, trying to make them both feel better. He dodged past Charlotte and used the crowbar to hack toward the light.

After he’d made the gap big enough to get Sammie through, he spun around. “Give me the flashlight, I’ll get the others.”

A woman’s piercing scream shivered his skin. A gunshot silenced the sound.

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SHATTERED LIVES

Chapter 1

Utah, Northbound I-15, October 3rd, 2:07 A.M.

Tommy Ramirez jerked his bobbing chin off his chest. The white dashes on the interstate weren’t where they were supposed to be.

His pulse thumped in his ears, then disappeared in a deafening rumble—the semi-truck’s dual tires roared over the sleeper line etched on the road’s shoulder. Muscles taut throughout his body, Tommy jerked the oversized steering wheel back toward the center lane. The 48-foot trailer jolted the cab as it shifted sideways.

Tommy’s stomach plummeted.

¡Ay Dios! It’s gonna jackknife! Going against instinct this time, Tommy twisted the wheel toward the trailer’s slide and the edge of the road. He checked the mirrors.

Are the sidelights lining up?

Breathless seconds passed while he waited. Sweat trickled past his ear, and his chest heaved as if he’d used his bare hands to push the semi back where it belonged.

The lights slowly realigned. Tommy sucked in air, and then blew it out in a rush.

“¿Qué pasa?” Dino moaned. Awake for the first time since they left Las Vegas, Tommy’s cousin flopped around in the semi’s bunk bed behind him.

Before Tommy could answer, spheres of light in the side view mirrors caught his attention. At this time of morning, usually only truckers and cops were out. These lights weren’t high enough to be a trucker’s.

A nail-embedded knot formed in Tommy’s stomach. Although he’d been driving since he was nine, he didn’t have a license. Even if he had one, at nineteen, he’d still get busted for being too young to drive a semi-truck.

If I get caught, how long will it take them to deport me? What’ll happen to Mamá and my sisters? Sweaty palms made it hard to grip the wheel.

“Hey! ¿Qué pasó?” Dino grumbled.

“Eh, that might be a cop.”

“¿Qué?”

The headlights passed them. The tension in Tommy’s body turned into rubbery muscles that could’ve oozed across the floor. “It’s not a cop. Dino, get up here before I kill us.”

When his cousin didn’t move, Tommy ground his teeth. “Now, loser! I’m falling asleep!”

Dino shoved the cab’s curtains out of his way. The reek of tequila and clashing scent of his $80 cologne came out with him. Ever since Dino got a new job he’d been wearing his extra money. Today his crinkled, mall-bought shirt gaped open showing off his wife-beater tank top. A bandanna hung out of his khaki pants pocket like he was showing colors again. If he wasn’t careful, he’d still look like the cholos he used to hang with.

“Where’re we?” Dino asked.

The city skyline, a river of lights with one large, white, glowing building on a hill, was boring compared to San Diego’s brightly lit skyscrapers reflecting off the ocean. It was nothing compared to Vegas’ lights and noise either. “We’re seven hours down the road. Next time you get us a job, you’d better do it sober.”

The idiota hit the sleeper’s dome light and fumbled around by the fridge. Barely over five feet tall, Dino usually maneuvered around in his cab easily. Now he might need coffee to do it.

“You need to respect your elders, ese. Where’s my—did you take my duffel bag, pocho?” Dino’s voice rose, sharp and accusing.

“No, but I tossed your tequila. You know, the stuff you called ‘liquid courage.’”

Dino hurled insults, but Tommy didn’t care. After he’d found Dino drinking in a casino in Vegas when it was the baboso’s turn to drive, he’d wanted to pound him; but now Tommy was too tired to do anything. As long as Dino—the only one licensed to drive a semi—was sober, that was all that mattered.

After a minute, Tommy glanced over his shoulder. “Where we gonna stop?”

Jumping, Dino crammed something into his duffel bag, like he didn’t want Tommy to see it. Too small to be a bottle—maybe it was cash to buy more booze. The idiota dropped his bag beside the passenger’s seat, sat down and studied the GPS suction-cupped to the windshield.

“It says we’re in Bountiful. Ogden is still about thirty minutes out. I, eh, gotta take a leak now. We’ll, eh, we’ll get some diesel too.” Dino bird-flapped his jacket as if he needed the A/C on and then smeared his hands on his jeans, like they were as sweaty as Tommy’s.

“You gonna rob a bank, or take a leak?” Tommy asked and threw the fuel book at Dino so he could find a truck stop.

The book bounced off the side of his face. Dino caught it before it hit the floor mat and tossed it back without looking at Tommy. “I gotta piss a river. The GPS’ll find a stop.” He pulled it off the windshield and tapped the screen. “Can you figure out the exit signs?”

Tommy blinked. Usually letters on street signs only moved around like stirred alphabet soup if he spent time trying to figure out what they spelled. When he was this tired, they did it no matter what he was doing. He yawned. “No.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yeah. You were supposed to drive. When’d you start drinking on the job?”

Wiping his palm down his jeans, Dino shook his head. “I don’t. It’s just I, eh, I broke up with my woman.” He tapped the GPS’s touchscreen twice. “You like my new toy? It says we need to get off at exit 316, and we’re coming up on 315 now.”

Dino cycled through girlfriends every other week. Why was ditching this one so hard? Too tired to ask, Tommy glanced at Dino’s GPS. A British woman’s voice would tell him he was off route for taking an exit. If Tommy ever got a voice-activated GPS, so he didn’t have to read, the gadget would work for him too. “Yeah, it’s cool.”

“I knew you’d like it. That Arab worm is working you too hard. I met with my boss last week. He’ll give you a new phone with a personal assistant and GPS.”

Working with him full-time was all Dino had talked about for the last three weeks.

I already told him no. Why does he keep bugging me? Tommy flipped the splitter and winced as he switched out of sixth gear. His left thigh had stiffened up after double-clutching through heavy traffic in Vegas.

Dino noticed. “Drive more often and you’ll get used to that. There’s our exit. You’re gonna want the Phillips 66. C’mon, it’s good money. I know you need it.”

That was true. Tommy had only come on this run ‘cause he needed to pay for Mamá’s $200 seizure meds, and Alexia’s princess jacket had been stolen at school. Alexia couldn’t use Liliana’s, because his other sister had given the secondhand jacket she’d outgrown to a friend. So, now they both needed jackets. Yeah, he needed cash, but Tommy’d learned Dino’s job offers needed to be checked on as often as the guys who hung around his older sister.

Yawning, he aimed for the truck stop with the red bar that looked to him like it wriggled across the top of the awning. The 66 on the red badge sign did it too. The motion messed with his stomach. If he didn’t sleep soon, he was gonna spew.

“You’re working too hard,” Dino dug in his duffel. “That raghead—”

Khalil is giving me all the hours I want.”

“Hours, huh? Were you with a Chiquita last night? Alexia said you didn’t come home.”

“No. A lady didn’t want her husband to know she wrecked his Maserati while he was out of town. She paid us a lot to fix it quick. Took us twenty-six hours straight.”

Dino jerked a cigarette out of the pack in his duffel and pointed it at Tommy. “My people won’t make you work that hard, and they’ll pay you real good.”

Tommy pulled up to the pump and cut the engine. “I’ll stick with Khalil. He’s reliable; and I don’t babysit drunks, or do stupid stuff that gets me busted and sent back to Mexico. You really gonna light up at a gas station?”

Grumbling, Dino tossed the credit card and cigarette in a cup holder, leaving Tommy to get the fuel started.

Instead of taking the card, Tommy watched his cousin head for the gas station. Satisfied Dino could walk a straight line, Tommy opened the semi’s door and got slammed by a gust of icy wind. It helped steady his stomach and woke him up; but he buttoned his thin, ragged jacket against it and headed for the pump.

By the time Dino got back, Tommy was almost too tired to walk a straight line himself.

“Hey, ese, you gonna go in? Bathroom is on the left-hand side. Go right, then go left.”

Tommy followed Dino’s directions inside. He passed the counter, turned right, and crashed into a tall girl with a big, ugly ring hanging from her nose. Tommy grabbed her upper arms to keep her on her feet. The girl’s eyes flashed angrily at first, then they widened and her mouth fell open.

“Sorry,” he mumbled and moved to step past her.

She slid sideways to block him and hid her broom behind her back. “Are you new here? Do you like to party?”

Not now. “Just driving through.” He got past her without any more invitations, but when he came out of the bathroom, her high-pitched whispers carried.

“I swear he looks just like that model on the poster in your room, but hotter. He’s taller than your basketball star too. Serious, you can ask Carol to see the security camera. Yeah, gorgeous blue eyes …”

Rolling his gorgeous blue eyes, Tommy headed for the door. The cold air smacked him in the face and took his breath away. He pulled his jacket tighter. After growing up playing in the ocean near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, southern California was as far north as Tommy ever wanted to get. Who would’ve thought I’d miss the Sonoran Desert heat?

As he approached the curb, a police car pulled up. Tommy’s heart slammed against his ribs, but he forced his shoulders to relax and walked towards the semi-truck. Dino on the other hand, came around, saw the patrol car, and ran to the back of the trailer.

Baboso, why don’t you just wave the Mexican flag?

Dino’s size, darker skin, and heavy accent were harder to hide than Tommy’s half-Mexican, half-Dutch ancestry.

After living here without papers for nine years, why’re you acting like we just crossed the border?

A female officer got out, her eyes on their trailer.

This had better work. “Hello, Officer,” Tommy said, and smiled at her.

When she looked at him, the cop’s eyebrows spiked in the middle, and her lips almost twitched into a smile. She nodded instead and went inside the gas station.

Dino owes me again. Seconds later, he rounded the semi’s trailer, and found Dino hiding behind it. “Whassup with you?” Tommy asked.

Dino wouldn’t look at him. “¿Estás loco? If that cop knew you drove, we’d be hosed.”

You just about got us busted. Why’re you—oh no, you didn’t.”

Sometimes Dino smuggled other Mexicans over the border. They needed help, but Tommy had his family to think about. He’d checked the load before they left the warehouse. It was full of furniture boxes. Maybe, for extra money, his cousin had hidden something inside the boxes.

Tommy’s stomach suddenly churned like he’d swallowed a can of nuts and bolts. He clenched his fists. “We’d better not be muling dope, man.”

Shaking his head, Dino shoved past Tommy and looked around the corner. “We aren’t. Eh, I just hate cops. Okay, she’s leaving. We might have another fifteen minutes before we’re done fueling.” Shifting into the shadows like he could hide in them, Dino held out an open soda can. “Here, I got you a Pepsi.”

That wasn’t all he got. Tommy pointed at Dino’s six-pack of beer. “You wanna drink, you’re paying for a motel. I can’t drive anymore.”

“I wish I could get drunk now. This is for later. Here, take your Pepsi.”

Tommy took the can, but with a quick motion, grabbed the six-pack too.

“Hey! What’re—”

“You’re lucky I don’t throw it away.” Tommy hauled the stuff to the cab, and threw the Pepsi in the trash. If he did the same with the beer, Dino would just get more. He dropped the beer on the bunk and shoved it against the far wall. Keeping his back to Dino and his mumbled curses, Tommy followed the six-pack into bed and fell asleep before the fueling was done.

Sometime later, the semi jolted to a stop, waking him. The growling engine lulled him back to sleep before the big rig started moving again.

“You stupid son of a—” Dino shouted.

Tommy jerked awake as he was thrown to the edge of the semi’s bunk bed. He would’ve flown over the top of the seats into the cab, but the forward motion shuddered to a stop.

A sudden jolt toward the passenger’s side sent Tommy sliding down the length of the bunk. The big rig is tipping!

Kicking his feet, Tommy fought it, but he slid into darkness anyway. Something shot past him. The beer? It struck his foot and kept going. Tommy saved his face by throwing his palms out seconds before crashing into the semi’s side as the big rig slammed into the road. Its impact shook the cab. The screech of metal and the rumble of fiberglass skidding over asphalt tore at his ears. The motion ground to a halt and then silence took over.

Holy Mother of—I’m standing in the bunk bed’s window. “Dino!”

His cousin didn’t answer. Shoving the curtains out of the way, Tommy looked down on the tilted cab. The dashboard’s light silhouetted Dino’s crumpled body lying against the passenger’s door.

“Dino?” Tommy scrambled over a captain’s chair into the cab.

Dino groaned and looked around dazed, as blood from a gash over his eyebrow streaked his face.

Tommy snatched his cousin’s bandanna from his pocket. “Hold this right here.” After positioning Dino’s hand, Tommy grabbed his arm. “C’mon, we gotta go. If the fuel tank got—”

CRACK!

Something pummeled the windshield. Throwing himself forward, Tommy shielded his cousin’s body with his own. Another strike splintered the glass, but it didn’t shatter.

Dino shifted in his seat, groaned and clutched his bloody head. “Where’s my bag?”

CRACK! The sound echoed farther away—like the guy whacked the semi as he went down the length of it. Dino shoved at Tommy’s chest. “You gotta stop him! If something happens to this load, we’re dead.”

The tight feeling in Tommy’s gut exploded. “Why? What’re we hauling?”

Dino hid behind the bloody bandanna. “This isn’t about the shipment! Someone came up on me honking and flashing, and then we hit a construction ditch. They’re loco! Stop ‘em!”

“Yeah, right. We’re gonna talk later.” Twisting around, Tommy reached over his head, and pushed on the door that weighed as much as an armored truck’s. It was a fight Dino would’ve lost, but Tommy got it open. Cold rain pelted him as he hoisted himself out and stood up on the cab’s side, ten feet above the slick road. At least I can’t smell leaking fuel.

The ground level headlight wasn’t working. The other one lit up the construction cones and a two-foot ditch in the road’s shoulder. Dino probably buried a wheel in the hole and the shifting weight threw the trailer off balance.

Who caused the accident? Why were they beating on the window? Taillights caught his eye. A mid-sized truck had stopped a hundred feet ahead of the cab.

He studied the shadows. Nobody moved inside. What was beyond headlight range?

Where’d they go?

Tommy turned in the other direction. They’d crashed halfway up the on-ramp a quarter of a mile away from the nearest shops and businesses. The stores looked closed and everything beyond them disappeared in blackness.

We might be able to get outta here before the cops find out. He looked at his watch and focused on the wiggling numbers: 3:21 AM.

Whoever had been banging on the windshield started whacking again. Loud, metallic thumps now came from the back of the trailer. It took three seconds to decide staying on top of the big rig would make it easier to sneak up on the attacker. Hoping the crash hadn’t busted any of the trailer’s seams; Tommy cat-stepped on the side panels. One flexed, popped, and dropped three inches beneath his weight. Tensing, he pulled his foot out of the hole, and backed away from the weakened area. Nothing else broke when he crossed over to the other side and closed in on the sound.

Peering over the edge, Tommy cocked his head to the side and stared. A slender woman tinted red from the taillight frantically hammered the cargo door with a baseball bat. Her knee-length, form-fitting coat and the scarf around her neck danced over the tips of her cowboy boots in an odd mix of wealthy and redneck.

She must be crazy. “Lady, what’re you doing?”

The woman’s boot heels clicked when she jumped and whipped around trying to find him. While she turned the scarf fluttered and then fell to her sides. “Let them out!”

“What’re you talk—” Tommy paused. A girl’s screams sounded like they came from inside the trailer. Not again. Crouching down, Tommy lowered himself over the side and dropped the last few feet to the ground. The Crazy Lady came flying at him, bat raised.

Throwing his hands up, Tommy jumped back. “Hey! If you want help, put it down!”

She stopped short of swinging at him, but didn’t lower her weapon.

He pointed at the trailer. “How’d you know someone was in—”

“Just open it before they come!”

Tommy jerked a glance over his shoulder afraid he’d see red and blue lights. The Crazy Lady leapt forward, grabbed his arm, and dragged him towards the cargo doors.

“Lady, that bat isn’t gonna break the lock. You know that, right?” He grabbed the metal strip the shippers put in place so they’d know if someone messed with the load. The sharp edge sliced his fingers. He sucked in a breath and shook his hand. “I’ll go see what I can find in the cab and look for the key. Is that your truck up front?”

She flicked the scarf out of her way and nodded.

“Go get it. We’ll need its headlights.”

Wordlessly, they ran together toward the front of the semi and then split up. When he got close to the windshield and saw Dino in the dome light, Tommy lost it. “Are you loco? You almost got my family killed doing this!”

Dino made a slashing motion across his throat and pointed to the phone at his ear.

Snarling curses, Tommy climbed up the side and lowered himself into the cab. The tight squeeze forced him to squat to reach past the passenger’s seat.

No tools, just Dino’s duffel bag. He dumped it onto his cousin’s lap. Dino clutched at it like abuela did her purse—when it had collection plate money in it. Tommy wrenched the arm of the chair instead of Dino’s neck. How much had the Mexicans paid him for muling them to Cali and then this far north? “Can’t you find legal work?”

Dino flipped him off.

Tommy fumbled around behind the seat and found his Leatherman Super Tool and a crowbar. He pocketed the super tool and barely stopped himself from bashing Dino on the head with the crowbar. Instead of making himself feel better, Tommy jerked the flashlight out of the safety clips on the driver’s door. That’d be a nice weapon too. He turned to Dino. “Gimme the key to the cargo doors.”

Dino shrugged and pointed at the phone. “Sir, we’re, eh, gonna be late. We got a flat.”

Disgusted, Tommy left his cousin to lie his way out of trouble again. Back outside on the ground, Tommy skidded on the wet road, but kept running until he rounded the semi’s corner.

The lady’s Ford crept along because of a flapping front tire beneath a loose fender that looked like wrinkled tin foil.

Did she do that tangling with the semi?

She really is crazy.

Flicking the flashlight on, Tommy stuck it between his teeth, so he could use both hands. The beam lit the seal on the double doors, and the lock Dino ‘didn’t’ have the key for.

One problem at a time.

Tommy jammed the crowbar into the crevice just as the Crazy Lady’s headlights further lit up the cargo doors. While he pried at the seal, a shadow fell over him. “Get out of the light,” he mumbled around the flashlight. When the shadow didn’t move, Tommy looked up, expecting the Crazy Lady to be hovering over his shoulder.

Dino stood with the bandana cinched around his head. His expensive shirt hung limp and lifeless while blood stained his wife-beater.

Tommy took the flashlight out. “You okay?”

Dino aimed his eyes at the F150. “We gotta go.”

Tommy turned back to the seal, resisting the fresh temptation to pound his cousin with the crowbar.

The Crazy Lady ran up, grabbed his flashlight, and aimed it at the seal. Tommy still couldn’t see because she stood in her truck’s light and twitched like she expected an ax murderer to come hurtling out of the darkness.

“We’ve got to call the cops before they find us,” she said.

Dino grabbed the crowbar in Tommy’s hands. “Ahorita ya, Tomás.” The red glow from the semi’s taillights made Dino look like he was the ax murderer.

Tommy jerked the crowbar free. “You want me to hurry? Get the key to that lock.”

“Get them out!” Crazy Lady said, pounding a hollow echo on the semi’s door with her fist.

Dino’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils did the bull-before-a-charge-flare.

You’re pissed? Tommy ignored him and focused on the girl shouting inside the trailer. “Please, don’t leave! Get us out!” She spoke perfect English.

A cold chill swept through Tommy. “What’s going on, Dino?”

“¡Tomás, ya viene la Muerte porti!”

Ignoring his cousin, Tommy shoved the crowbar back into the slit. “Whaddya mean, ‘death is coming?’” When Dino didn’t answer, Tommy called to the girl inside. “We’re gonna get you out. Is anyone hurt?”

“Yes! We were scared to say anything. We thought you were the kidnappers.”

“Kidnappers? Dino, you stupid son of—”

“Is Samantha Taylor in there with you?” Crazy Lady’s voice cracked with desperation, as she pressed her cheek to the door.

She’s saner than Dino.

Someone on the other side pounded the door. “Charlotte, is that you?”

The lady whose hair looked blood-red in the taillights put her trembling palms flat on the semi’s locked door. “Sammie has curly, red hair and green eyes. Is she in there?”

The girl on the other side banged on the door. “Charlotte, you moron! I’m in here because of your stupid questions! You almost got us killed!”

“And now I’m saving you, Paula, so shut up and listen! Is my daughter in there?”

“Yeah, but she’s not moving. Hurry! We got thrown in here with the ones being sold tonight! They’re not going to let us get away!”

¡Ay Dios! How could this get worse? Tommy popped the seal out, and turned toward his cousin. “Where’s the key?”

Dino shrugged and took a step toward the Ford.

Tommy raised the crowbar. “¿Dónde?”

“I swear I don’t have it. ¡Vámonos! La Muerte viene.” His wide eyes didn’t lie.

Turning to the frantic mother, Tommy grabbed her hand. “Charlotte, right? We’re never gonna break this lock. C’mon. I’ve got an idea.” He called to the girl inside, “Paula, we’re gonna try another way in! We won’t leave you!”

Paula kept pounding on the door, and her screeches grew louder.

Tommy spun, led Charlotte back along the trailer, and climbed up the side of the cab. “There’s a busted seam up here. I should be able to use it to get in.”

As they scaled the downed semi, Charlotte’s cowboy boots slid on the rain-slick side, but she stayed right behind him. Wind threatened to blow him off as he crawled up over the edge. Putting his back to the gust, Tommy pulled Charlotte up the last few feet. He held onto her, and used the flashlight to find the broken panel. “There it is. Hold this.” He gave the flashlight to her, and began hacking through the semi’s side.

Charlotte kept looking around, and every time she did, the flashlight shifted with her.

“Hey, I need the light here.” When she got it pointed in the right direction again, he banged the last of the sharp ends down. “Who’s after them?”

“Men who have enough money to make anyone disappear—the shouting stopped.” She aimed the light down in the hole. “Paula? Paula?”

“We’re here! Get us out!” Two girls staggered out of the darkness and then scrambled up onto plastic crates, just below the opening he’d made.

Leaning over the edge Tommy reached out to them. “Give me your hand.”

“Take Felicia first,” said the girl, who’d been yelling through the door.

Felicia waved like a cheerleader at a football game, but he grabbed an arm and pulled her up. She looked old enough to be in college, and teetered like a drunk. Charlotte held onto Felicia to keep her from falling over the trailer’s edge.

Paula’s pink hair blew into her face. She swept it away revealing a flowering vine tattoo wrapped around her neck. The tattoo stretched like a noose when she looked wildly around. “The others are drugged worse than Felicia; but they wanted me to know what was coming.” Paula’s voice hardened with anger, but terror tormented her roving eyes. The noose stretched tighter when she turned to glare at Charlotte. “Where’s the cops?” Paula asked.

Charlotte grabbed Tommy’s hand and dug her nails into it. “What if they don’t get here fast enough? Please! Help me get Sammie out. Paula, where is she?”

The tattooed girl gave Charlotte a die-ugly glare then grabbed Felicia’s arm. “C’mon!”

“Why don’t we fly?” Felicia said. Both girls had bloody scratches, and Paula held her arm tight against her chest, but Felicia ignored the deep gash on her shoulder. She spread her arms wide and flapped. “I’ve always wanted to parachute.”

“We can all go in my truck,” Charlotte said, “But no one is leaving until Sammie is out.”

Tommy didn’t doubt Charlotte would beat anyone who tried.

Paula tugged on Felicia’s hand and they quickly disappeared into the shadows. By the time Tommy looked down, Charlotte was already crawling into the hole.

“Oh! It stinks!” she said. “Shine the light down here.”

She’s right. Rank, stale air and the coppery scent of blood reminded him of his family’s nightmare ride across the U.S. border in the back of Dino’s truck. The twenty-five people hiding in it for two days had learned about true misery with temperatures in the 90’s, and very little water. Before they got out, one man knifed another for his canteen.

After Charlotte got down off the plastic crates, he passed the light to her. She pointed it so he could see where to put his feet. The crate shifted when he stepped on it. Tommy threw his hands wide to steady himself and almost dropped the crowbar on her.

“Go to your left,” Charlotte said. “Now down.”

The flashlight’s beam touched at least a dozen crates with holes near the top of their rounded corners. They were solid on all sides except for a single metal cage door—like a dog crate. Yes, they were large-breed dog cages, piled like kids’ blocks against the side of the semi. He and Charlotte had climbed down two that were stacked on top of each other. The crash had shattered some, while others were tightly wedged together. He grabbed one with its gate side down, and eased it over. It was heavy, and something in it made a soft thump, but it was too dark to see inside. Another crate had a human hand with butterflies tattooed on it limply pressed against the metal. A gold lock dangled from the latch.

Someone’s gonna get beaten for this.

“We need to call the police. Where’s your phone?” Charlotte asked, scrambling from one crate to another, taking the light with her.

The dark crate, and the butterfly hand held him captive. How could anyone do this?

“I found her! Open this cage!” Charlotte knelt by a crate near the semi doors and another busted panel. The pickup’s headlights shone through the panel’s crack into an area that should have been filled with furniture boxes. Instead the light filtered through a jagged hole in a sheetrock wall.

This isn’t the trailer we left San Diego with. Did Dino switch it out in Vegas?

“This is my daughter, Sammie,” Charlotte said, pulling his attention back. “No matter what happens, you remember our names. If we die, we will haunt you.”

Okay, we’re back to Crazy Lady.

Tommy struck Sammie’s lock twice with the sharp edge of the crowbar before the lock broke. Charlotte shoved Tommy out of the way and yanked the door open. Sobs shook Charlotte’s shoulders making it hard for her to pull her daughter’s limp body out. “Sammie, Mommy’s here! Can you hear me?”

The girl couldn’t have been more than twelve—his sister’s age. She looked dead.

“Is she breathing?” Tommy asked dropping to a crouch beside her.

Charlotte caressed Sammie’s lifeless face. “Yes, but she’s so cold!”

Tommy ripped his jacket off and handed it to Charlotte, and then pointed at the broken sheetrock closer to ground level. “It’ll be easier to make that bigger and get them out through—”

“Shh! Listen,” Charlotte hissed.

Familiar metallic clatters drown out Dino’s cursing.

Is he gonna leave us? “He’s probably fixing the tire,” Tommy said, trying to make them both feel better. He dodged past Charlotte and used the crowbar to hack toward the light.

After he’d made the gap big enough to get Sammie through, he spun around. “Give me the flashlight, I’ll get the others.”

A woman’s piercing scream shivered his skin. A gunshot silenced the sound.

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The Mason Jar Series is about a crime-fighting family that will make you despise bad guys, laugh with the good ones, and cry for helpless victims.
In the end, you may just want to reach out to rescue somebody in need.

The Mason Jar Series is about a crime-fighting family that will make you despise bad guys, laugh with the good ones, and cry for helpless victims.
In the end, you may just want to reach out to rescue somebody in need.

© 2017 Kierstin Marquet. All Rights Reserved. Published by Soul Mate Publishing.

© 2017 Kierstin Marquet. All Rights Reserved. Published by Soul Mate Publishing.

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