13 Aug A Storm Does This Way Come
“A Storm Does This Way Come”Written by J.C. Fields Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 30 minutes
Fog shrouded the old suspension footbridge crossing the ravine. Visibility stretched only twenty feet in any direction magnifying the isolation Dakota Storm already felt. The muffled sound of water rushing over rocks and boulders seventy-five feet below could be heard. Otherwise, the world remained silent.
He felt his heart pound as he stared at the bridge whose length disappeared into the mist. His determination, built since the accident, waned as he approached the steel cabling securing the bridge’s expanse. Doubts about his decision crept into his conscience.
Is this what I really want?
Pain and guilt consumed his every waking moment. He needed an escape. But was this the coward’s way out? He did not know the answer, nor did he care. All he knew was his wife and three-year-old son were gone forever. Killed in a senseless car accident caused by a drunk driver. The thought of spending another Christmas without them gave him a painful hollow feeling.
The image of his wife on their wedding day came to him as he closed his eyes. Her white dress and the crown of white statice and lavender remained as vivid in his memory as the day she wore them. But now, two years since the incident, the image resembled a picture rather than a real person. He could only remember his son’s face if he focused on a photograph. His guilt deepened as his memory faded.
Grasping the steel cable, he stood still for what seemed like forever. The wooden planks under his feet darkened as dusk settled over the park. He put one foot on the bridge and heard it creak.
Through the gloom created by the fog, a sound of whimpering could be heard. He stopped and concentrated on the noise. Tilting his head toward the sound, it grew in intensity. As an ex-military dog handler, he knew the tone of an injured canine. On instinct he yelled, “Where are you, boy?”
From the depths of the mist surrounding the bridge came a series of desperate barks. His original purpose for being at the bridge vanished as he rushed toward the sound of a wounded animal.
Halfway across the creaky, swaying bridge, he could discern the shape of a medium size dog tied to one of the bridge planks. As he approached, the dog barked, then bared its teeth in a snarl.
Storm steadied himself, holding on to the top cable of the bridge as it swayed from his movement. “What’s wrong, boy?” His voice remained calm and soothing as he walked slowly toward the animal. “Are you caught?”
Staring at the approaching man, the canine stopped barking, dipped its head and whimpered. Storm kneeled a foot away from the dog’s closest reach and spoke in a gentle voice. “You’re a pretty one.” As he spoke, he searched for the spot where the dog was tied. It appeared to be a leash or rope entangled in amongst the wooden planks of the bridge.
The trapped Border Collie displayed the standard black and white coat. Its bright eyes revealed the full intelligence of the breed. He sat in front of the dog, crossed his legs and started talking to the animal. What he said mattered not, using a calm, soothing voice did. From its appearance, the dog had been trapped for a while. The hair was soaked and matted, but the ears pointed up while the tail wagged with anticipation. Storm could see a choker collar, used for training, attached to the leash. On closer inspection, it appeared to be adjusted to keep the animal from escaping.
As darkness descended, he made an attempt to touch the dog. To his surprise, it allowed his hand to pat its head. The more he talked, the calmer the canine grew. Taking a leap of faith, he untangled the leash. “Let’s get off this bridge and get you something to eat.” Without hesitation, it followed.
Four hours later, with the animal fed, watered, and bathed, clumps of matted hair littered the bottom of the bath tub after trimming them while he brushed. The dog now slept on a blanket next to his bed as he searched several websites for any news of a missing Border Collie in the surrounding area. The search proved fruitless. Sitting back against the headboard, he watched the dog’s chest rise and fall. “How could anyone abandon such a beautiful creature?”
The dog raised its head to look at Storm, his tail occasionally thumping the floor. He knew the canine was incapable of smiling, but it sure looked like one.
“What am I going to call you, boy?”
The collie’s tail thumped the floor harder.
“What about Apollo, the Greek god of light and healing?”
The speed of the thumping increased two-fold.
“Then Apollo it is.” A new thought made him smile. “Maybe God put you there. Maybe he put you there to give me another chance to see the light and possibly heal.”
St. Louis County, Missouri
December – One Year Later
Dakota Storm and Apollo entered the St. Louis County Sheriff’s locker room thirty minutes before the start of their shift. As he placed his civilian clothes in his locker someone behind him yelled.
“Hey, Storm, Cap wants to see you in his office.”
Turning, Storm saw his shift commander, Brad Garrett, at the end of the locker row with his hands on his hips.
Garrett shrugged. “Don’t know, above my paygrade. All he said was for you to report as soon as you arrive.”
“Got it. Thanks, Sarge.”
As he maneuvered his way through the locker room, Apollo stayed on his left side in perfect step as they approached Captain Guy McBride’s office. When he arrived, he noticed the Captain’s door open. After knocking on the frame, he remained outside the room.
Looking up, McBride smiled and waved him in. “Shut the door, please.”
Storm’s first thought was, Uh, oh. What have I done now?” He stood at parade rest in front of the desk waiting for whatever chewing out might follow.
“Relax, Storm, have a seat.”
Complying, he lowered himself into one of the two wooden chairs in front of the ancient gray metal desk.
McBride smiled, gathered the paper work, tapped them on the surface to make a neat stack and placed it in his out-basket. He glanced at Apollo sitting to the left of Storm. The Border Collie panted. Its eyes glued to the Captain while it sat ramrod straight. “Is that dog always by your side?”
“His name is Apollo, sir.”
“Yes, I know, you didn’t answer the question.”
“You wanted to see me, Captain.”
McBride chuckled. “Like I said earlier, take it easy. You’re not in trouble. The reason you’re here is because I got an odd email this morning.”
Storm’s posture relaxed slightly, but he kept his guard up. “I take it the email concerned me?”
The captain nodded. “The message also concerned, Judy and your son?”
At the mention of their names, Storm stiffened again. “What about them?”
“The email was not specific, but there’s an inmate at the Jefferson City Correction Center who is dying. His last wish is to talk to you about them.”
“Who is he? Someone I arrested?”
A nod from McBride confirmed his statement.
“What’s his name, Captain?”
“Eli Burns, do you remember him?”
“Vaguely, wasn’t he part of a stolen car ring?”
“Yeah, that’s him. You were undercover and helped convict him. He’s in the JCCC infirmary and dying from cancer. Reportedly, he only has a few days to live and wants to talk to you.”
Storm blinked several times. “Not sure I want to talk to him?”
“Don’t blame you, but according to the warden’s email this morning he said he has information you need to know.”
“I’m on duty for the next five days, sir.”
“Not any more. I want you to get out of your uniform and head to Jeff City when we’re done.”
“Am I on special assignment?”
“As of five minutes ago.”
“What do you think this is about, Captain?”
“Don’t know. Hopefully you’ll know by the end of the day.”
JCCC rules did not allow canines into the facility, so Apollo stayed in the car. Being late fall with temperatures in the mid-fifties, he was safe and comfortable in Storm’s old Ford F150. After showing identification as a St. Louis County deputy, he was escorted to the infirmary and a small room with one bed. The individual residing there appeared emaciated and barely alive. A male nurse attended to various tubes attached to the inmate’s body. He looked up as Storm entered the room.
“Are you Deputy Dakota Storm?”
A nod was his answer.
The nursed touched the patient’s shoulder. “Eli?”
The man’s eyes fluttered and he stared confused at the figure above him.
“Eli, the deputy you wanted to speak to is here.”
The man turned his head toward the door and saw Storm. Dull blue-gray eyes attempted to focus. The dark circles under them contrasted with the translucent skin and hairless head. The fluorescent light above the bed gave the man a ghostly appearance. With a croaky voice, he said. “You Storm?”
He raised his right hand with great effort and waved the deputy closer.
Approaching the man’s bedside, Storm thought he saw a small tear trickle down the inmate’s face.
In a voice barely above a whisper he said. “As you can probably tell, I’m dying.”
Storm’s only response was to fold his arms.
“You already know that, so I’ll be brief. The death of your wife and son wasn’t an accident. They were killed on purpose.”
Tilting his head, Storm remained silent.
“The guy wasn’t supposed to be drunk. He was paid to make it look like a one vehicle accident.”
The world spun as Storm steadied himself with a hand on the wall next to him. “What do you mean, he was paid?”
The inmate shook his head and then a series of hacking coughs racked his body.
The shock of the revelation gave Storm pause. He waited for the patient’s spasms to settle down. When they did, he leaned over the bed. “What do you mean he was paid?”
The infirmed man blinked rapidly for several seconds. “Because I was asked to supply the car. The plan was for him to run your wife’s vehicle off the road. Make it look like a hit and run. But he’d had a few drinks and fucked up. He was headed in the wrong direction when he hit her car head on.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Through gritted teeth he said, “Because you need to know the truth and I can die in peace. I’m not a murderer, Storm.”
“There’s a reason she was killed.”
“It had to do with who she was.”
“What are you talking about? She was Judy Storm.”
Burns shook his head. “Her name wasn’t Judy…” The man stiffened with another bout of pain. He looked at his caregiver. “The morphine is wearing off—please.”
A nod from the nurse and then a syringe was inserted into the tube attached to the patient’s left arm. As the chemicals flowed into the inmate’s body, his demeanor changed and he relaxed. “That’s better.” He looked at Storm. “I didn’t know who she really was until I got here.”
“Burns, you’re not making any sense. Her name was Judy Thorn and I met her at a friend’s birthday party.”
“Her name wasn’t Judy Thorn.”
“What was it?”
The man shook his head. “Don’t know.”
“Whose idea was it to kill her?”
“I knew him as Gimpy”
“What kind of a name is that?”
“Nickname. No one used their real names in the group. He walked with a slight limp.”
“Why was she targeted?”
“Because she escaped…” The man shook with a coughing fit. His eyes closed as he gasped for breath.
Storm looked at the nurse.
“It’s the drugs. I have to use more each time to control his pain. Eventually, either the morphine or the cancer will kill him.”
Burn’s eyes closed.
Storm watched the man for several seconds. “How long before he’s conscious enough to talk again?”
“Couple of hours, maybe more.”
Storm returned four hours later and was once again escorted to the infirmary room where two orderlies were cleaning. When he knocked on the door frame, one turned. “Deputy Storm?”
“Yes, where’s Burns?”
“Passed away about thirty minutes ago.”
Storm took the scenic route back to his home in Chesterfield, Missouri. The two-hour drive from Jefferson City gave him time to think and talk with Apollo. His conversations with the dog were more thinking out-loud sessions than true discussions. So far, since finding the Border Collie a year earlier, it had never offered an opinion, just unwavering loyalty.
Thirty minutes into the drive, Storm glanced at the canine strapped into a dog seatbelt harness in the passenger seat. It’s keen eyes on the road ahead. “What do you think, Apollo?”
The dog turned its head and started panting.
“Yeah, that’s what I think. I don’t know if I should believe the guy or not.”
Apollo kept his gaze on Storm, tongue out and panting. He displayed the same look he did the night Storm and he first met, the appearance of a smile. “
Storm continued. “Why would someone I vaguely remember drag me to Jeff City to tell me that Judy was really someone else?”
Apollo tilted his head slightly, but as was his habit, did not answer the question.
“That’s just silly, when we were dating, she showed me the house she grew up in and we drove by the elementary school she attended. I saw her high school year book with all the notes her friends wrote in it. She even talked about her days in college and the guys she dated.” He watched the road and lapsed into silence. Ten minutes later, he said, “She never talked about her parents because they died when she was young. She lived with her aunt.”
He stopped. “You know, Apollo, she and I never visited the aunt. I wonder if she’s still alive. If she is, maybe we could find her?”
Apollo lay on the seat, his eyes closed.
After a quick glance at his canine partner, Storm returned his attention to the road. “I’ve never been through her personal papers. I just couldn’t make myself do it. There has to be information within them that would help me find the aunt.”
Glancing at Apollo again, he noticed his companion with one eye open, looking at him. “Thanks for the talk, buddy. I’m not sure I buy the old man’s fantasy.”
The canine raised his head, yawned, shifted position, and closed his eyes.
With a smile, Storm chuckled. “Leave it to you to remind me to get back to reality.”
Two Weeks Before Christmas
With three years having passed since his wife and son’s untimely death, Storm had not felt the need to trim his home for the holidays. Bringing the decorations into the house from the attic in the garage, he felt it time to move on and accept the fact they were gone.
When he opened the first plastic tote, he almost stopped and took all of them back to the garage. Judy’s favorite decorations were on the top. One of them was a music box depicting the manger scene. As tears formed in his eyes, he straightened and took a deep breath. He exhaled slowly.
With renewed determination, he started arranging the items from the container around the house. To the best of his memory, he replicated how she decorated the rooms. In another storage box, he found the Christmas tree bulbs. As he rummaged around, he noticed a strange ornate jewelry container on the left side. Judy insisted each year that she and she alone would decorate the tree. Now, he found something in the container he had never seen before.
With trepidation, Storm lifted the box out and examined it. Apollo appeared by his side, having awoke from his morning nap. Looking up at his master, he proceeded to pant at his normal rate. Storm looked down. “Should I open the box, Apollo?”
A small whimper came from the animal.
“Yeah, I think I should, too.” Storm studied the wooden box with intricate carvings on the top and sides. He found a latch and flipped it open. The contents amounted to a leather-bound journal. After a moment of hesitation, he lifted the book and opened it. His late wife’s eloquent hand writing greeted him.
My dearest Dakota,
If you have found this journal, my past has caught up with me. For that I am sorry. I did not mean to fall in love with you, but did. You have made me happier than I ever thought possible. Plus, I was almost able to forget where I came from. I am currently pregnant with our son and hope the three of us can live in peace forever. But sometimes the gods do not allow past transgressions to go unpunished.
Within the pages of this journal, I have recorded information you will need to keep yourself and our son safe.
I know I should have told you the truth from the beginning, but if you had known the facts, you would have walked away. Call it selfish, but I could not take the chance of losing you.
Take care of yourself and our son knowing my love for you will never die.
Storm read the passage with disbelief the first time and grudging acceptance by the third. He sat cross legged on the floor next to the plastic tote. As he looked up from the journal, Apollo laid his head on his knee. His eyes seemed filled with sorrow, reflecting his owner’s feelings. Placing a hand on the dog’s head, he whispered, “Holy, shit, Apollo.”
Storm rapped on Shift Commander Garrett’s door frame.
Garrett waved him in. “What’s on your mind, Storm?”
The deputy handed the man the journal. “I found this in some of Judy’s personal things I had not gone through.”
The sergeant hesitated to accept the book. “Uh—not sure that’s any of my business, Dakota.”
“In reality it is, Sergeant. It outlines the structure of a criminal enterprise working out of both St. Louis and Memphis. The connections stretch all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans on the coast.”
Taking the journal in his hand, Garrett thumbed through the pages. “Drugs?”
“Yes, plus illegal guns and sex trafficking.”
Focusing on Storm, Garrett asked, “Was Judy…”
“No, sir. According to the journal, she escaped their clutches in her late teens and managed to start a new life.”
Setting the book down, Garrett said, “Was she killed because she escaped?”
Storm shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s my assumption.”
Folding his arms, the sergeant tilted his head. “Let me guess, you want to investigate all of this?”
“Then why bring it to me?”
“I’m requesting vacation time.”
“To investigate it?”
“No, to clear Judy’s name.”
“Not really.” He paused. “Besides, I haven’t used any of my vacation since the accident. I’ve got five weeks built up and believe it’s time to take it.”
Garrett grew quiet as he focused on the tall man standing in front of his desk. “All right, Storm. Vacation granted.”
“Thank you.” The deputy retrieved the journal and turned to go.
Just before he exited the office, Garrett said, “Dakota, if you run into trouble, call me.”
Turning, Storm gave the man a sad smile. “Thanks, Brad.”
Two Days Later
Christmas lights lit the night skyline of Memphis as Storm drove through the downtown area. Apollo sat next to him taking in the cheerful decorations. His destination, the industrial part of town between the airport and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railyards north of East Shelby Drive. According to Judy’s journal, the warehouse he sought could be found on Malone Drive.
Storm wore black jeans, long sleeve black layered insulated shirt, black New Balance athletic shoes and a rolled up black balaclava. Apollo’s white sections of his coat were dyed black with a canine safe coloring dye. The two would be invisible in the darkened recesses of the area they sought.
Consulting the GPS unit on his phone, the vacationing deputy drove by the location looking for any signs of guards or security cameras. He saw no indication of physical sentries but he did note the presence of numerous surveillance devices.
Parking his Ford F150 half a mile from the warehouse, Storm rolled down his balaclava. With his face covered he grabbed his black backpack and exited the truck with Apollo hot on his heels. Keeping to the shadows far from the lights of the area, it took them twenty minutes to reach the rear entrance of the building. Remaining in the shadows, he extracted an exotic looking gun from his backpack and aimed it at the security camera covering the rear entrance to the warehouse.
The red paintball bullet splattered on the lens, effectively blinding it. He adjusted his aim and fired at another one. With both cameras disabled, he ran to the back door. Testing the knob, he determined it would be faster to use a crowbar. Not subtle, but effective. Fifteen seconds later, he and Apollo entered the building through the now open door.
Kneeling beside the dog, he made a circling motion with his index finger and the canine took off into the interior of the structure. Visibility within the building came from numerous security lights. Before he could start his search, he heard Apollo yelp once.
Storm rushed in the direction of the sound. He found the dog sniffing at a door that appeared to be the entrance to a separate section of the warehouse. Placing his ear against the door, he heard female voices pleading for help.
By means of the same crowbar used on the back entrance, he jimmied the door open and was greeted to the sight of ten young girls. All appeared terrified.
One brave soul asked, “Who are you?”
“Are you all okay?”
The same woman said, “Do we look okay? We’re in a warehouse in the middle of who-knows-where with no food or water. How do you think we are?”
Abandoning his plans to search the warehouse, Storm said, “If you want out, ask your questions later. Right now, follow me.”
He turned and used his flash light to guide the ten girls out of the building.
Thirty minutes later, police cars, ambulances and firetrucks gathered around the warehouse. Female police officers attended to the young girls, who Storm learned, ranged in age from fourteen to eighteen. All were run-aways from Mississippi and Louisiana.
A sergeant with the Memphis police department stood in front of Storm. “While we appreciate your help with finding and freeing these young ladies, what the hell were you doing in there?”
“Following a tip.” He showed the officer his St. Louis County Deputy Sheriff ID.
“You could have come to us first.”
“I could have, but I didn’t.”
“I don’t need to remind you about the number of laws you broke with your illegal entry into the building.”
“No, you don’t. But are you missing the fact that ten underage females were being held against their will inside? Did you also fail to recognize that they are probably part of a sex-trafficking ring that extends from New Orleans to St. Louis?”
The tall officer looked at the group of girls and then back at Storm. He offered his hand, “George Stevens.”
As Storm shook it, he said, “Dakota Storm.” He pointed to the Border Collie sitting next to him. “That’s Apollo. He’s a certified K9 officer.”
“Okay, Storm, how did you learn about this?”
“From an informant before they killed her. I have her notes.”
Stevens sighed. “We knew something was off about this warehouse, but never could obtain enough evidence to get a search warrant.”
Storm did not answer. Another Memphis police officer walked up to Stevens and whispered in his ear. The sergeant’s expression changed immediately and he said, “You’re not free to go yet, Storm. Stay put. I have something I need to take care of.” He hurried away following the other policeman.
Turning to Apollo, Storm scratched its head and said, “Good find, buddy.”
The dog looked up, tongue out and panting, seemed to smile.
After a few minutes, Storm lowered the tailgate on his pickup. Apollo jumped up and lay next to where the St. Louis deputy sat with his legs dangling.
The young woman from the group of ten girls who had spoken to him earlier walked up. “They tell me you’re a police officer.”
With a nod, Storm said, “My name’s Dakoda. What’s yours?”
The young woman looked around and then refocused on him. “They call me Angel.”
“Yeah, but what’s your real name?”
“Well, Isabelle, it’s nice to meet you.”
“I wanted to thank you for getting us out of there.”
Storm shrugged. “Glad I could help.”
She clutched the blanket someone had given her tighter around herself. “We’re not the only ones, you know.”
Raising an eyebrow, the deputy remained silent.
“This place is an overnight stop for us girls. We would have been moved again in the morning.”
“How do you know that?”
“That’s what we were told. Those shitheads didn’t even give us food or water.”
After closing his eyes and shaking his head slightly, Storm asked, “Who brought you here?”
The girl took a deep breath and blew it out. “Tall, bald guy. Said his name was Billy. I didn’t believe him. Who would use your real name in this kind of a situation.” She took another breath. “Before he locked us in the room, he said he’d be right back with bottled water and burgers. Asshole never returned.”
“Did you know where you were headed?”
She shook her head.
“Who are these girls, Isabelle?”
“Mostly run-aways. Two of us aged-out of the foster care system with nowhere to go.”
“What about relatives?”
“Most of us don’t have any or they’ve disowned us.”
“How old are you, Isabelle?”
Storm folded his arms and focused on the young woman. The silence lasted for an uncomfortable length of time.
Finally, she said, “Eighteen.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“I’ve never met my father. My mother’s in prison somewhere in Louisiana.”
She shrugged. “Not your fault.”
“What about your last foster care parents?”
After a chuckle, she said, “They didn’t give a shit. Once the state stopped paying them, they kicked me out.”
Stevens returned to the pickup. “Well, Storm, you uncovered a hornet’s nest here.”
“There’re enough stolen guns in there to arm a division. We also found a body.”
Raising an eyebrow, Storm remained silent.
“Looks like someone killed him execution style. Bullet to the back of the head and he’s face down on the concrete floor.”
Isabelle asked, “What’s he look like?”
“Bald and tall is all I can tell you at the moment.”
“Now I know why he never came back with the food.”
With a frown, Stevens looked at the girl and then Storm.
The deputy said, “She just told me someone matching your description brought them here. He was also supposed to bring them food and water.”
Folding his arms, the police sergeant stared at her for a few moments. “Can you identify him?”
“Yeah, if you want me to?”
“Follow me.” He turned to Storm. “You stay here, don’t leave.”
By mid-morning, Storm and Apollo were still waiting by the Ford F150 for Stevens to release them. Noting he wasn’t under arrest kept him from being too worried. Apollo, after consuming the contents of Storm’s last water bottle, remained quiet, lying next to him on the truck tail gate.
The girls were on their way to a clinic. Those under eighteen would be transferred to a facility for homeless children. Isabelle and another eighteen-year-old girl would then be taken to a shelter for battered females.
Apollo raised his head and stared at the Memphis police sergeant as he approached.
“You’re free to go, Storm.”
Sliding off the tailgate, the St. Louis County deputy asked, “What changed your mind?”
“I talked to your commanding officer.”
Storm remained quiet.
“He informed me you are one hell of a good deputy and you were in St. Louis yesterday until six p.m.” With a slight pause, Stevens smiled. “The medical examiner thinks the bald guy died around six-thirty last night.”
“What about the girls?”
“They’re safe.” Looking back at the warehouse, Stevens continued. “There are signs throughout the building this is a regular stop for human trafficking. While we knew about it, it’s been off our radar for a few months. We appreciate you exposing it for what it was.”
“Any idea who owns the place?”
“A local investment company. The building is handled by a property management service who leased it to a manufacturer out of New Orleans.” He chuckled. “The outfit in New Orleans has no record of leasing the building.”
“How’s the rent paid?”
“Whoever rented the building paid cash upfront for a year.”
“In other words, a dead-end.”
“Appears that way.” He paused, stroked his chin and then took a breath. “Uh, we found some disturbing evidence in another section of the place.”
“Let me guess, drugs.”
Stevens shook his head. “Blood on the floor of a different storage room. We aren’t sure what it means, but the forensic guys are telling me it’s from five different individuals.”
At fifteen minutes before nine p.m., Storm and Apollo were situated in a motel on the city’s south side. While he studied his wife’s journal, Apollo slept on the floor next to him. Without warning, the Border Collie’s head snapped erect and his ears straightened.
Storm heard a growl building deep within the dog’s throat. He reached over to the bed and extracted his personal automatic pistol, a Sig Sauer P226, from his backpack.
Apollo stood and approached the door, sniffing the sill. He then started barking furiously. Stepping over to a wall next to the room’s window, Storm moved the curtain so he could peek out. Two men stood there, their faces covered with ski masks and holding pistols. They both pointed their gun at the door.
Storm whistled and Apollo ran to his side just as the two men started firing into the door of his hotel room. The larger of the two raised his foot and slammed it against the door, which flew open.
As the intruder rushed into the room, Storm fired his Sig Sauer twice. The man collapsed on the floor. Blood immediately started seeping into the carpet.
The only sound the deputy heard was the footfalls of someone running off into the darkened hotel parking lot.
Memphis police sergeant George Stevens examined the body lying in the entrance to the hotel room. He looked up at Storm. “I know this guy. He’s been the topic of many conversations during our morning briefings. I seriously doubt anyone will miss him.” Standing, Stevens examined the bullet holes in the door. “Looks like they were pointing down.”
Storm nodded. “Apollo was at the door barking.”
“Glad they missed.”
“So am I.”
“Okay, Storm, why did they come after you?”
“I have no clue, sergeant.” He folded his arms. “My question is how did they know where I was staying. I didn’t even make the decision to stay here until I drove past it.”
“Apparently, they know you’re the one who found the girls. Probably followed you here from the warehouse.” He watched the medical examiner technicians load the dead man on to a gurney. “We have a positive ID on the body we found there.”
“Who was he?”
“Isabelle told me he wanted to be called Billy.”
“There you go. He’s from New Orleans and one of the NOPD detectives told me he’s knee deep in the smuggling trade there. He also expressed relief he was now my problem.”
Storm tilted his head. “Why are you telling me all of this, sergeant?”
“Because we didn’t know any of this twenty-four hours ago until you showed up. Now I’ve got two dead thugs and ten homeless teenage girls.”
“Better than ten dead ones.”
Stevens looked over his glasses at Storm. “There is that.” He paused. “Why is it, all this happens after you start snooping around.”
Walking over to the desk in the hotel room, Storm picked up the journal and tossed it to Stevens. “Because I found that.”
Catching the object, Stevens flipped through it. “It’s a book, so?”
“Are you going to arrest me?”
The sergeant shook his head. “No, Storm, you seem to know more about this situation than anyone. I’d like to get your help.”
Pointing at the book, the deputy said, “My wife and son were killed in a head on collision three years ago.” He then told Stevens about the prisoner who confessed to orchestrating the accident on his death bed. “I found the journal with some Christmas ornaments I had not touched for years. It outlines the criminal organization William Mallard belonged to. The sex trafficking has been going on for at least a decade or longer. It tells how my wife escaped and started a new life. These guys chose to punish her because they thought she’d talk. She never told anyone about her experiences. Except in the journal. I would like for her words to help shut these assholes down.”
Stevens skimmed over several pages, shut the book and handed it back to Storm. “Like I said, my department is requesting your help.”
“I’d have to clear it with my commander.”
“That’s already in the works. My boss will be talking to yours sometime today.”
The ringing of Storm’s cell phone interrupted the discussion. “Just a second, sergeant.” Pressing the accept call icon, the deputy said, “This is Storm.”
“Dakota, it’s Carter.”
“What’s up?” Storm could hear emergency vehicles sirens spooling down and the din of men shouting above a roar in the background.
“We got a call about a fire. It’s your house, man.”
Silence filled the hotel room as Storm stared at a wall. “How bad?”
“Looks to be fully engulfed, but then I’m just a county deputy, not a firefighter.”
Glancing at his watch, Storm did the math in his head. “I’m four hours away, I’ll leave right now.” After ending the call, he looked at Stevens. “My house is on fire. I’ve got to go back to St. Louis. Give me your cell phone number and I’ll talk to my commander while I’m there.”
“Dakota, you’re probably guessing this gang set it on fire.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to bet against it.”
Going on close to thirty hours without sleep, except for a quick nap during the afternoon, Storm headed north on I-55. The time approached two a.m. as he passed the last exit for Sikeston, Missouri. At this time of night, traffic on the divided highway could only be described as non-existent. So, when he noticed a pair of headlights rapidly approaching from behind, he paid attention.
He lifted the lid for the center console of the F150 and extracted his Sig Sauer. “Heads up, Apollo.”
The dog, having fallen asleep on the back seat, jumped into the front on the passenger side. His attention on the back window.
Storm mumbled, “This could be nothing, but let’s not take chances.” The headlights approached rapidly and appeared to almost collide with the back of the pickup. Just as fast, it swung to their left trying to pass.
Slamming on the brakes , the F-150 skidded as a larger vehicle sped past. Storm heard a loud crack as a star burst pattern formed on the far-right side of the windshield.
The other truck accelerated and disappeared into the night. Looking at Apollo, who appeared unharmed, he said, “You okay, boy?”
The dog just panted and looked at Storm.
“Good.” He pulled the truck over to the shoulder and parked. Consulting his cell phone, he looked for an alternate route north. “We need to find a less obvious way home.”
Five hours after leaving the hotel in Memphis, Storm pulled up to his now burned-out house. The deputy who called him earlier, stood next to a squad car talking to a fireman. One fire engine remained on the scene and yellow crime scene tape roped off the perimeter of what remained of his home.
Storm walked up to the two men. Apollo close to his right heel. As he and Carter shook hands, Storm said, “Looks like this was a tough one to put out.”
Carter nodded. “Dakota, this is Jake Riley, he’s the fire marshal.”
The two men shook and Storm asked, “Where’d it start?”
“We think we’ve identified three accelerant locations. All on the rear of the house. By the time the first engine got here, the back half of the house was fully engulfed. The house was lost before we even started fighting it.”
“So, it was arson.”
“Rather aggressive arson if you ask me. No effort to make it look like an accident.”
Taking a deep breath, Storm blew it out as he gazed over the charred remains of the house, he and his wife purchased five years earlier.
Placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder, Carter said, “The captain’s aware of what’s happened. He asked me to tell you, anything you need, just let him know.”
“I appreciate that.” After a short pause, he turned to the fireman. “How long before I can access the site?”
“My team will have to search it first, but I’d say we can give you access sometime late today.”
With a nod, Storm returned to his pickup. Allowing the dog to jump into the Ford before he got behind the wheel, he said, “Now I’m pissed, Apollo. Let’s find these guys and shut them down.”
Four Days Later
Negotiating with the insurance company about his house and replacing his old pickup for a different vehicle took most of the week. Storm found a used Ford Police Interceptor Utility vehicle available at a local Ford dealership. Being the police version of a Ford Explorer, he traded the F150 for the SUV. With a more powerful engine than a civilian Explorer, he would be able to outrun another highway incident. The vehicle also gave him another advantage, he knew how to maneuver it having driven one as a deputy.
On day four, he met with Captain Guy McBride.
“Are you going to rebuild the house?”
Storm shook his head. “No, a real estate company has the lot for sale and I’ll use the insurance money to buy somewhere else.”
“I’m sorry this happened, Dakota.”
“Sir, I have reason to believe the individuals who burned my house are also the ones who killed Judy and Todd.”
“It’s personal, now.”
“Not a good combination, Dakota. As a friend, I’d advise against pursuing this vendetta.”
“What would you do?”
McBride remained silent for a long time. Finally, he shook his head. “Probably the same thing. What can I do to help?”
“Authorize me to be on loan to the Memphis police department.”
“Do you plan to come back?”
“I plan to, but…”
“You’re a good officer, Storm. I’d hate to lose you.”
“If I don’t help stop these guys, they’ll eventually succeed in shutting me up. So, you’d be assisting my return to St. Louis.”
Southwest of Memphis
Utilizing information provided by Judy’s journal, Storm staked out an old rundown motel just outside of Tunica, Mississippi. According to the missive, the location served as a way-station for transporting sex workers who worked the Tunica casinos.
Sitting in his Explorer with Apollo in the seat next to him, he watched the comings and goings of the area surrounding the inn. Hidden in the parking lot of a strip mall across from the building, he concentrated on a van parked at the northern end of the structure.
The van possessed a Louisiana license plate. Plus, the windows were heavily tinted, preventing observation of the passengers. At exactly 9:40 p.m., four young females entered the van and a burly man got behind the wheel. It pulled out and headed west toward the Casinos.
Storm picked up his radio and said, “Target is traveling west on 713 toward Casino Strip Resort Blvd.”
“10-4. We see it.”
Storm noticed another car pull out of the motel parking lot and follow the van. From what he could see, two men sat in the front of the vehicle.
“White Toyota Camry with two men following van.”
“10-4.” There was a pause. “Got it. Keep an eye on your location. Notify if needed.”
Putting the Explorer in gear, he eased the vehicle out of the parking slot and headed toward the motel to see if he could detect any additional activity. Just before he exited the mall parking lot, his radio went active.
“Shots fired, shots fired, officer down.”
Without hesitation, Storm accelerated the vehicle in the direction the van and Camry traveled.
Coming up on the scene, Storm saw two men on the ground next to the Camry and another by the van with two officers administering first aid. The four females faced the van, their hands above their heads against the vehicle, a police officer behind them. He screeched the SUV to a halt and jumped out. Apollo followed, hot on his heels .
Sergeant Stevens, who kept an eye on the girls, pointed toward a vacant field. “The van driver took off on foot, see if you and Apollo can find him.”
Yanking his badge attached to a lanyard out from under his sweatshirt, he gripped his Sig Sauer and took off into the open field. Apollo sprinting out in front of him. The dog stopped and sniffed the ground for a few seconds. He then took off at a hard run heading toward Storm’s left.
With a waxing gibbous moon in the eastern sky, Storm was able to follow Apollo fairly easily . As the canine neared a grove of trees, he slowed and looked back at Storm. Catching up with the dog, the deputy kneeled beside him. “Where is he, Apollo?”
Taking off again, Storm followed his partner. After the dog rushed into the grove, the deputy heard a man curse as he exited the cover of trees at a run. Apollo, doing what the breed had been bred to do for hundreds of years in Scotland, basically herded the man out of the trees. He could be seen constantly nipping at the fugitive’s heels and then backing off. Suppressing a chuckle, Storm took a Weaver Stance and yelled, “Halt, let me see your hands.”
The man looked at Storm and then the dog. He stopped running, shook his head and raised his arms.
As he approached the fugitive, the deputy said, “On your knees, hands behind your head.”
Looking up, he said, “You’re Dakota Storm.”
Ignoring the statement, the deputy placed handcuffs on the man’s wrists and swung his arms behind him. The prisoner continued, “Did you know you’re a dead man walking, Storm?”
George Stevens approached the desk currently occupied by Dakota Storm with two cups of coffee in his hands. He set one in front of Storm and then settled into a chair at the desk next to his new friend. “Tomorrow’s Christmas, Dakota.”
Taking his attention away from the computer screen, he looked at Stevens. “Thanks for the coffee. Yeah, I know.”
After taking a sip from the paper cup, Storm shook his head. “Not really. If the weather holds, I thought I’d take Apollo somewhere and let him run. Why?”
Stevens just nodded as he sipped coffee. “The wife and I are having a few friends over for dinner, would you like to join us?”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“Nonsense. Swing on by around one. I’m deep frying a turkey.”
Storm nodded. “Thanks, sounds good.”
“Have you spoken to Jacob Gordon, yet?”
“Not today, why?”
“He’s been asking questions about you. Seems he’s some kind of big shot within the US Marshall Service.”
“No, he hasn’t talked to me other than when I turned the van driver over to him.”
With a chuckle, Stevens stood. “I meant to tell you nice work bringing him in so fast.”
“Apollo deserves the credit.”
“Yeah, well, nice work anyway.”
Five minutes later, Storm’s coffee, now cold, needed a warm up. As he stood, he saw Jacob Gordon making a bee-line toward his desk.
After the two men shook hands, Gordon said, “I understand you recently lost your house in a fire?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What are your plans on where to live?”
“Since I’m here in Memphis, that hasn’t been a problem yet.”
Gordon nodded. “Nice work bringing the van driver in so quickly.”
“Thanks. Apollo did all the heavy lifting.”
Standing two inches taller than Storm, the man folded his arms. “Ever thought about applying to the US Marshal Service?”
“When I got out of the military, I did. But my late-wife was pregnant at the time and didn’t want me away from home. So, I took a job with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s department.”
“Sorry about your loss, Storm.” He paused. “You were a dog handler in the military, right?”
“Yes, sir. Actually, I was a trainer at Lakeland Air Force Base in Texas.”
Gordon nodded. “I read that. I’ve been authorized to offer you a chance to become a US Deputy Marshall. Are you interested?”
“Doing what, sir?’
“What you did the other day. Tracking down fugitives and bringing them in.”
“What about Apollo?”
Gordon smiled. “I wouldn’t want to break up a winning team.”
“Can I think about it?”
“Sure, let me know after Christmas.”
Arriving an hour late at George Stevens’ house, more than likely saved Dakota Storm’s life. Approaching the residence in a nice neighborhood of Germantown, the presence of police and EMT vehicles caused his stomach to clinch. After parking on the street, he clipped his badge on his belt and opened the door. Turning to Apollo, he said, “Stay.” The dog relaxed and remained in the passenger seat.
Rushing across the street, he ducked under yellow tape and immediately went to an officer keeping attendance of who entered the scene. Showing his badge, Storm told the man his name.
The policeman wrote it down and said, “US Marshall Gordon wants to see you. He’s in the back.”
With a nod, Storm sprinted around the house. When he rounded the corner, he saw Gordon talking to several uniformed officers. As he approached their location, Gordon broke away from the group and met Storm. “Glad you’re here.”
“Stevens was out here tending to a turkey in a fryer when five men in ski masks confronted him. They forced him inside.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, but his wife and three of his guests are. He’s critically wounded, but was able to tell first responders what happened.”
“I was supposed to be here at one.”
“Best you weren’t. Where’s Apollo?”
“In my SUV.”
Storm let Apollo sniff around where the turkey fryer had been. When the dog stopped and looked at his partner, he sat. His signal he had a scent.
When the deputy made a circling motion with his hand, the dog took off toward the northwest, it’s nose close to the ground.
Following his partner, Storm could tell the canine had a strong trail to follow. He did not deviate from his tracking nor did he stop and sniff the air. He kept his nose to the ground and forged ahead. Located in a relatively new neighborhood, numerous vacant lots surrounded George Stevens’ home. When Apollo stopped at the curb of a cul-de-sac, he raised his nose and sniffed the air.
Catching up to the dog, Storm surveyed the few homes in the area. On one across from where he stood, he saw what he needed.
Jacob Gordon stood in front of the members of the task force in the briefing room. He said, “The hospital reports George Stevens is in critical condition. Prognosis is not good.” Surveying the room, he continued. “Deputy Storm located a ring camera image of the attackers.” He touched a button on an open laptop and an image on the screen behind him appeared. “This is a still shot of the vehicle the men arrived in. Note there is a clear shot of a license plate. Deputy Storm was able to trace it to the Avis rental kiosk at the Memphis airport.” He touched the mouse again.
Another image appeared. “This is a photograph from the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles. Meet the individual who rented the SUV identified in the picture. His name is Frank Jackson, aka, Gimpy. The vehicle was returned to the airport and at this moment is being processed by an FBI forensic team.” The picture showed a dark-haired male in his mid-thirties.
A hand shot up in the back of the room. Gordon pointed at the man. “Yeah, Bob.”
“We found that name registered at the motel where the girls were found.”
Looking at the image on the wall, Gordon took a breath. “Ladies and gentlemen, this might be our first break.” He turned back to the group. “Let’s find out everything we can about our Mr. Frank Jackson.”
Storm parked his car outside the door to his hotel room. He turned to Apollo and held up the sack from a local Chinese carry out. “I know it’s not a fancy Christmas meal, boy, but there’s not much open tonight.”
Apollo sat and panted. Suddenly, the dog’s ears perked up and he stared out the rear driver’s side passenger window. Dropping the sack, Storm grabbed his Sig Sauer, he now kept within easy reach and ducked below the window.
Just as he did this, the driver’s window shattered as he pushed the door open. A shadow drew his attention and he fired the 9mm pistol. Apollo dove out and chased after the shadow.
Rolling on the driveway, he jumped up and took off in pursuit of Apollo and the assailant. A shot sounded and he felt the bullet whiz by his ear. Adrenaline pushed him forward with the need to protect Apollo at all costs.
The sound of the dog catching the running man came to his ears as he closed the distance. He heard Apollo growl and the man curse. A street light illuminated the scene before him. The suspect stood with his pistol aimed at the canine.
When he saw the deputy running toward him, he raised his weapon. Storm fired just as the assailant’s gun went off.
Jacob Gordon leaned against the door frame of the hospital treatment room. A smile on his face. “Well, Dakota, looks like you’re gonna live.”
A sad smile came to Storm’s face. “How’s Apollo doing?”
“Fit as a fiddle.”
“Good. Where is he?”
“He had a gash on his rib cage which the vet said probably came from Frank Jackson’s pistol. He’s resting comfortably at the vet’s office.”
“How’d you find a vet this late?”
“I’m with the US Marshall Service. We take care of our team.” He paused. “How’s the shoulder feeling?”
“Other than a bullet passing through muscle, stiff.” He paused. “Where’s Jackson?”
“After being patched up by EMT’s they transferred him to the FBI office here in Memphis. He’s singing like a bird. Apparently, once they explained to him how he was being charged with the murder of a police officer and three others, he found religion.”
“He told me he thought you were going to pull the trigger any second while you waited for back up.”
“The thought crossed my mind.” The deputy paused. “I heard you say, Jackson goes by the name Gimpy.”
“An informant told me he was the man who ordered my wife and son’s murder.”
A frown crossed the marshal’s face. “You have any evidence?”
“No, just the word of a dying man.” Storm took a breath and let it out slowly. “Any news about Stevens?”
“Yeah, he didn’t make it. Sorry, Dakota.”
“He was a good man.”
“Yes, he was.” The “Did you have a chance to think over my offer?”
“As long as it’s a package deal with Apollo included, I’m on board.”
Gordon chuckled. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: J.C. FieldsPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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