Chapter One

 

“OH, MY GOD!” Shelby shouted. She dove under the sleeper portion of her truck, belly down. Her hands covered her head, and her nose was against the cement as shots rang out around her. Then, there was a sudden silence.

She slowly lifted her face and peered through the space between the two front steer tires. Fire and smoke rose in the air. The mangled metal of several eighteen wheel trucks and bodies—a lot of bodies—were strewn all over the parking lot where the Dallas truck stop once stood.

“Shelby, Shelby!” a voice rang out. Angelica slid out from under her truck, where she had taken refuge and crawled toward Shelby. “Shelby, are you okay?”

The ringing in her ears was so intense that Shelby could barely recognize her best friend’s voice.

“Angelica, it’s Shield Sheik. They’re attacking us; I know it’s them.”

The DEA agent, still stunned, stood up and held out her hand, encouraging Shelby to emerge from under her truck.

“I agree with you that Shield Sheik has something to do with this.” Angelica pointed toward the fire and carnage. “Two Shield Sheik trucks, or at least what’s left of them, are parked right over there next to the store.”

“I told you they were planning to do something awful!” Shelby was yelling, because she was still unable to hear clearly. She took in the devastation around her. “We just came out of that café…All those people in there…Oh, Angelica, this is worse than I could have ever imagined.”

Angelica looked at the parking lot and turned her thoughts to triage. “Right now, we have to go help as many of those people over there as we can.” She looked at her shaken partner. “Are you hurt?”

Shelby brushed at the dirt from her clothes. She was still in shock, which kept her from feeling any pain. As her head cleared, she surveyed the bodies, the store—now a pile of smoldering wood and broken bricks—and the fuel island. It was ablaze with flames that seemed to reach toward heaven. “I’m fine. Come on!”

* * *

“Oh, Angelica, she’s the cutest little girl I’ve ever seen.”

Angelica swelled with pride at the sight of her child. Angelica, her husband Rex, Jack, and Shelby, with little Harley Amber Brighten cradled in her arms, were enjoying a morning of breakfast, coffee, and conversation at the FJ Truck Stop.

“She’s been a really good baby,” Angelica replied. She pointed with her fork toward Rex, “Harley started sleeping all night at about three weeks, and Rex appreciates the extra sleep.”

Rex sipped his coffee. “I sure do. Believe me, that little girl has some lungs on her when she’s hungry! As long as I make sure her butt’s dry and her tummy is full, she’s content to just play and coo all day.”

Rex gently bumped Angelica with his arm and looked with fondness at his wife. “Kind of reminds me of her mother: make sure she has a full tank of gas in a big truck, a bad guy to hunt down, and she’ll play all day long on the road.”

Jack laughed and pushed his plate to the center of the table. He picked up his mug and gulped the last of his coffee. “I know what you mean, Rex. Since Shelby graduated from the academy, she’s been chomping at the bit to get back into a rig.”

Shelby put the baby closer to Jack so he could take hold of a tiny hand. “Doesn’t this make you want to have one of our own Jack? You know I’ve always wanted a little girl.”

Jack quickly pulled his hand back. He raised his cup in the air so the waitress could see he wanted more coffee. “No.”

Shelby cuddled Harley. “Oh, come on, Jack. You can’t tell me that having a little girl in the family wouldn’t be fun. The boys would love her, and she would have three big brothers to protect her.”

“No,” Jack said emphatically, waiting impatiently for the waitress the fill his cup. “Enjoy holding her and spoiling her from time to time Shelby, because we are not having any more kids. Who do you think is going to take care of that little girl while you’re out saving the world? Not me. I just don’t have the time, especially now that I’ve been promoted to Corporate VP. I barely have time for you these days.”

Shelby sighed and continued cuddling the infant. “I know, but she’s so beautiful.”

Harley began to whimper and Angelica handed Shelby a baby bottle. “I tell you what, Shelby, now that the agency has moved us to Dallas, and we are partners, you can come get her whenever you like and keep her for a few days.”

“That would be awesome.” Shelby put the bottle in Harley’s mouth and cradled the little girl.

Jack smiled and touched the baby’s hand again. “That’s what I’m talking about; you can come stay with Aunt Shelby every once in a while.” Jack looked at Rex. “She’s wonderful, Rex, but I sure don’t envy you. I love my boys and wouldn’t trade them for the world. I even like having the grandkids around once in a while, but I’m glad that the ‘raising kids’ part of my life is over.”

“I hear you, brother, but I really love taking care of Harley when Angelica is away. I think we are going to have one more and that will be it for us.” Rex looked at his wife.

Angelica laughed. “Not right away, mister. Maybe in a couple of years we can think about having another one. I just lost the baby fat and got cleared for duty. I’m not giving up all my hard work for another baby right now.”

Rex put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and pulled her close to him. “Not right now, silly.”

“Good. I was thinking I was going to have to hit you over the head with that breakfast skillet to help you think more clearly.”

Rex moved in for a kiss, but Angelica’s cell phone rang. She looked at the screen, nodded at Shelby, and motioned for Rex to move out of the way so she could slide out of the booth. “Here we go; it’s Cody.”

Rex sat back in the booth after Angelica removed herself. Shelby handed Harley to Rex, and then she motioned for Jack to let her out. “I’d better go use the little girl’s room; looks like we just got orders.”

As Angelica moved toward the front door, she listened to her new handler’s instructions over the phone.

Shelby met up with her in the parking lot. Angelica filled Shelby in as they quickly made their way to their trucks. “That son-of-a-bitch Shades somehow slipped away from the agents in Alabama.”

“Seriously? The bastard got away again? How?” Shelby was dumbfounded. “We got a tip that someone may have him spotted in Atlanta,” Angelica replied. “Cody wants us to truck our way to Georgia. We aren’t exactly assigned to finding Shades. Our assignment is to track down Glacier Transports Associates.”

“Who is Glacier Transports Associates?” Shelby asked.

“It’s actually an international holding company that’s not really in our jurisdiction. They’ve got outlets in the U.S., and that is our main area of investigation, but Cody knows how much I want to catch that prick, Shades, so he’s keeping me up on that investigation, as well,” Angelica explained. “The truck ring that’s supposedly smuggling coke and other drugs around the country has two trucks currently headed down The 20, possibly toward Georgia. Cody wants us to follow them and keep an eye on all their stops and contacts. Since we’ll be in the Atlanta area, he says we can also unofficially conduct our own surveillance on Shades.”

“I really want to catch that monster.”

“Me too, Shelby.”

The women reached their respective trucks. “I’ll be down on channel 22; we can talk more about this when we get on the road,” Angelica said. “I want to at least find those trucks and make it to Birmingham before nightfall.”

Shelby nodded at her DEA partner. “I got it—channel 22, Birmingham, Alabama before nightfall.” She reached into her jean pocket and pulled out the keys to her truck. Before she could get her door open, she suddenly felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned with a start and then smiled when she realized it was only Jack.

Jack lifted up her purse and held it out for her to take. “I think you forgot something in the restaurant.”

Shelby took the purse and threw her arms around her husband’s neck. “Thanks, Jack, you’ve always got my back. I was having so much fun with baby Harley, I forgot all about it.” She gave him a deep kiss. “Are you sure you don’t want to try to have a little baby girl? It would be so fun making one.”

Jack returned the passionate kiss and then stepped back. “You know I’ve got your back, and I would absolutely take you right now in the back of this big truck, but we are not having, adopting, or fostering any little girl or boy. I love you, Shelby Mathews, but I do not want any more kids.”

“I know, but it was worth a second try.” Shelby pulled away to open her driver’s door.

Jack wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her neck. “We’ve been through a lot over our years together, and I wasn’t thrilled with you becoming a trucker, nor am I thrilled that you’ve decided to join the DEA, but you know you’re my girl. I love you. I will support you.”

Shelby turned and gave her husband a deep kiss. Then she opened her door and climbed the stairs. “I know, baby. You’re my man.” She threw her purse into the passenger seat and sat in the driver’s seat.

Shelby started her truck while Jack stood on the steps for one more goodbye. “Please be careful, Shelby. Some really terrible stuff is taking place around the world, and they say it could be coming here.”

Shelby gently stroked her husband’s face. “Always and forever. Remember, Jack, always and forever.”

With that, Jack kissed Shelby one last time and stepped down off her truck. He walked around the front of the big rig and waved.

Angelica and Shelby pulled their trucks out of the truck stop and Shelby keyed her CB mic. “You know it’s going to be hard making Birmingham before dark.”

Angelica responded over the CB, “I know that, rookie, but I wanted to make sure you knew I was in a hurry. You take too long saying goodbye to that old man of yours.”

Shelby laughed. “Yes, ma’am, boss lady. You know it’s funny, these last few times I’ve changed companies you’ve been my trainer.”

“Welcome to the DEA, Mrs. Mathews. Remember, we are here to keep the people of America safe from the drug dealers and their cronies.”

“Protect and serve.”

“I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry that you couldn’t put the ‘Barbie Car’ out here on the road with you. I know you wanted to drive her, but she’s too distinctive and unique for this undercover stuff we do.”

“It’s all good. I hired a cute little blonde female driver to keep her running for me in the oil patch.”

“Like Barbie’s little sister, Skipper?”

“Yep, she’s turning out to be a good sand hauler.”

“That’s great.”

“Yeah, I’m still making money with my truck while being an undercover agent. Jack likes that the truck’s not just sitting at the house.”

“Good. Let’s get down this highway as far as we can before our eleven hours of driving time expires. Shades was in Alabama about two days ago, from the last intel Cody had on him. Apparently, he is back with Dante in Atlanta, and Dante is protecting him.”

“Why would he be doing that? Didn’t Shades cause Dante a lot of trouble?”

“Cody seems to think Dante is making deals with some new trucking company out of the Middle East. So, things could get really interesting.”

“What’s the name of the company?”

“Shield Sheik, or something like that. It’s owned by some rich Middle Eastern guys, but they’ve got subsidiaries here in the U.S. They mostly hire and do business with American citizens of Middle Eastern decent.”

“I’ve never heard of Shield Sheik. It must be a fairly new company or still small-time when I was long hauling. Most of the international drivers were very private. Most of them had family, or at least their wives with them, but they kept to themselves. They were very much about doing their jobs and sticking to business. I wonder why Dante is trying to use them? Better yet, why would Shield Sheik want to mess with Dante?”

“At this point we have no idea if Shield Sheik is actually doing business with Dante. He’s originally from Louisiana and his family is Cajun, but I suspect it has something to do with the money. Cody says the company is growing by leaps and bounds, with several new trucks. They are constantly hiring new drivers.”

“Didn’t the DEA take out most of his distribution?”

“We did, but somehow Dante avoided prosecution. He needs trucks to distribute his products, but he knows we are keeping a close eye on him. This company is so private that Cody has had a lot of trouble tracking down their terminals and their load information. The company hauls just about everything, and doesn’t ask too many questions of the businesses that they haul for, which is a benefit for Dante. Somehow they are able to stay under the radar.”

“That doesn’t make sense if the people who own Shield Sheik are Muslim, Cover Girl. Doesn’t Islam forbid drugs and alcohol? Do they even know what they are carrying?” Shelby asked.

“We all know of situations where followers have disobeyed their faith. Heck, I know people in my own congregation who are hypocrites,” Angelica replied. “I can’t even say for sure if this company has anything that has to do with Islam or if the owners or employees are Muslims. I never really thought about it. All I know for sure is that they are headquartered in the Middle East, but if they’re in business with Dante, they’re involved in something illegal. Their drivers might not ask too many questions about their loads, but the upper management of that company knows very well what they are hauling. Right now, we need to find those trucks Cody asked us to track. The last he knew, they were located around Tyler.”

“How do we know they are still in that area?” Shelby asked.

“We don’t. Most of the information we are getting is from truckers, working as informants for some of our agents in the area. They’ve been paying close attention to their routines and behaviors. There is plenty of reason to suspect they are transporting drugs. They may even be into human trafficking, and if that’s the case, the FBI will want to get their share of the take down.”

“That doesn’t seem fair; if we bust them for human trafficking, that bust should be ours,” Shelby objected.

“I hear ya, Barbie. Of course, they’ll wait for us to do all the leg work before they come in and take over, but our job is to take out the kingpins, dealers, and mules who are distributing drugs across this country. We leave the rapists, kidnappers, and scumbags that sell other people for profit to other agencies.”

“What’s the plan if we can’t locate them in Tyler?”

“Well, the company name on the side of the trucks is, ‘Glacier Transportation.’ Checks on the legitimacy of that company’s name have turned up nothing. We haven’t had anyone close enough to the trucks yet to get a DOT number. So, that will be one of our first jobs when we locate these guys. Our informants are supposed to let us know when they move, if they can. Hopefully, they will stay put until we can get there.”

“Are we going to take them down as soon as we come in contact with them?”

“No, we will get as much information off their trucks as possible. Then we will follow them as far as they go. We need to track their movements, find out who they are meeting, and if possible, what cargo they have in their trailers. We can get permission to bring some trusted truckers into the operation if their assistance helps take down some of the nefarious local connections. I plan to make as many busts as I can. I want Dante to squirm and know that I’m back and coming for him and his little drug smuggling operation.”

“I see. This is kind of like what Pig was doing, just with different people.”

“Exactly, Shelby. The problem with Pig’s takedown by the FBI and DEA was that they didn’t shut down the whole operation. I’m pretty sure a lot of the people who we are tracking had some type of connection with Pig before he got busted. I’d also bet that the Mexican cartel that kidnapped you is still moving their product the same way, just with different players.”

“Wow! That’s got to be a lot of folks. How are we going to shut them all down? It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole—we get one group down and two more pop up.”

“That’s about the size of it, but we just have to keep chipping away at these organizations. When we take them down and confiscate their stuff, we get them where it hurts the most—their pocketbooks. This outfit we are tracking might be under the radar, but this could possibly be one of the biggest takedowns ever. The intelligence shows that this cartel is pretty brazen; they’ve been using a lot of their own family members to distribute their stuff.”

“You mean people in their immediate families?”

“Yep. And extended family, too. People they know will be really loyal. ”

“That sickens me. How can they live with themselves, knowing that they are putting their own family members at risk of going to jail or getting killed by other dealers, or even by us? Any number of things could happen to them, especially the women.”

“They don’t care, Barbie. Most of these cartels are family-run businesses like the Mafia. The only thing important to them is the money. Remember what they taught you at the academy: keep your emotions in check, your instincts on high alert, and always question everyone’s motives. Sometimes your instincts will be correct and sometimes they won’t, but never underestimate a perp or a possible perp. Don’t trust, always verify,” Angelica instructed.

Shelby reviewed the instruction in her head and then recited, “Take everything someone says as a lie, until you verify what they say is truth. Take unexpected movements as flight or aggression, until they comply with your verbal requests. Use lethal force only when you feel that your life or someone else’s life is in imminent danger.”

“Those rules will keep you from getting your ass in a jam out here, and your body off a slab in a morgue.” The warning was clear in Angelica’s voice.

“I will do my best, partner. I know I have a lot to learn, but they gave me the best trainer out there.”

“Just watch my back.”

“You got it. Hey, we are almost to Tyler?”

“Yeah, I just got a text from Cody. The trucks we’re tracking appear to be preparing to leave. I’ll send you into the truck stop when we get up here. I want you to check out the parking lot to see if they are still parked or if they’ve already left. It will take us a few minutes to get to that exit. I’m not sure if we will need to hold back and wait for them or haul ass to catch them.”

“I got it, Cover Girl.”

“I will let you know in a few minutes. You should back off a little, that way if they aren’t coming out on the ramp, you can take the exit; then I’ll back the truck down to a slow cruise until you let me know whether they are coming out of the truck stop or if they have already hopped onto the big road.”

“Okay.” Shelby backed her truck down and waited for Angelica’s instructions.

Angelica’s calm voice came across the CB. “Forget the exit, Shelby. Our two rigs are in the ramp right now. Come on up here and put your nose in my back door. We’ll slow cruise for a while and give them time to pass us. I want to get a look at those DOT numbers.”

“I’m almost at your back door.” Shelby observed the two blue Petes pulling white box trailers with enormous pictures of sun-drenched mountains on each side. “Wow, they went all out for a fictional company logo, didn’t they?”

“That’s common, most of these cartels will go to great lengths to appear legit.”

“I see two male drivers; one might be Hispanic. I couldn’t get a really good look at the driver of the truck in the back.” Shelby shared.

“Good job, Barbie. Way to be observant. We’ll get a better look at both of them when they pass us up. Back your truck down to sixty-five, they’ll pass us for sure at that speed. You stay here on our channel. I’m going down to 19 and channel eight to see if they are communicating.”

“Okay, but channel eight?” Shelby was confused.

Angelica spoke quickly and quietly, “I’ll explain later.”

As soon as Angelica went over on the other channels, Shelby felt a quiet envelop her in her truck. She turned on the radio to listen to the news for a while. “The final year of this administration is coming to a close…” Shelby pushed the button on the screen in her dash to locate another station. She wasn’t in the mood for politics. “It is predicted that terror attacks will increase this year in America,” a voice from the next station announced. Shelby pushed another button.

“Who wants to hear about all the things that might happen? I want to know about what is happening right now.” She pushed one more button and finally located a country music station. The song playing brightened her mood. “That’s more like it.” She hummed along to the tune and began singing to herself.

She was suddenly interrupted by her partner’s voice on the CB radio. “How about you, Barbie?”

Shelby keyed the mic to her CB. “You got Barbie. What’s happening, Cover Girl?”

“Barbie, I overheard them talking on channel eight. They’re headed to Birmingham to make a small pickup before heading to Georgia in the morning. That will be perfect for us, we can check out their trucks and maybe even find out who they are making contact with in Birmingham for that pick up. They’re conversing in Spanish, so I’m pretty sure they are involved with at least one of the Mexican cartels.” Angelica was energized. “I’m going to continue to monitor channel eight for a while just in case they might have any change of plans.”

“Okay, do you want me to move to channel eight, too?”

“No, stay down here on this one. Most of the language spoken on eight is Spanish, anyway. I can understand most of what they are saying, but I need a safe channel where I can talk with you when I get more information.”

“Channel eight is a Spanish channel?”

“Yeah, I’m surprised you didn’t know that. It’s been that way for a long time, especially in West Texas.”

“I suppose I should have known, but I never had cause to change from channel 19 unless I was in a sand or pick-up yard. Most everyone I ran with used 19. You go ahead and take the Spanish channel, I’m not fluent enough to know exactly what they are saying.”

“You might want to start studying up. It will help you be a better DEA agent since we deal with so many Spanish-speaking people. Besides that, it’s a beautiful language everyone should know; I’d be happy to teach it to you.”

“That would be awesome. Like I said, I know some words, but being able to speak and understand all of it would be terrific.”

“Cool, we will start working on that tonight. Hey, look out your window; here come those two trucks. I knew if we held back on the speed for a while they would go around us. Listen up, I want them a few truck lengths ahead of us so we will fall in behind them and follow them all the way to Birmingham.”

“Sounds great, Cover Girl, but I need to find a little girl’s room real soon.”

“Okay, no problem. Just before we cross the line into Shreveport, there’s a roadside park. You get off and get back on the big road as fast as you can, and I will stay with our boys until you catch up. They aren’t hauling butt, so it shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Sounds good, Cover Girl. I have the plan in my pocket. Now it’s time for you to get back to your Spanish channel and me to get back to my country music!”

Angelica caught Shelby’s attempt at a joke. “Funny, Barbie. Talk at you soon.”