Striking Distance

Chapter 1

 

Faint shadows were cast across the pavement as I hoofed it across the nearly deserted parking lot, tugging my messenger bag full of graded papers against my hip. The closer I got to my car, the faster my steps grew, and a trickle of uneasiness settled over me. The air thickened with a heavy tension that threatened to choke me. Even the normally chirping critters who came out at dusk were quiet and still. I scanned my surroundings, but there were only a few cars scattered here and there.

Cursing myself for overreacting, I slowed my steps and ignored the lead weight in my belly. I reached my car and tossed my bag across the inside of the vehicle to land with a thud on the passenger seat.

A warm, strong hand clapped over my mouth. My scream was muffled behind the tight grip. I scratched and clawed at the other hand that wrapped around my waist pulling me away from the safety of my car. The strong scent of expensive cologne hit my nose, and heavily accented words pierced my eardrums despite my struggles and strangled cries for help. “You may not be that puta, but you’ll lead me to her.”

My heels dragged along the pavement. My chest burned with the need to pull in air. My brain screamed at me to think. A surge of adrenaline kicked in, and I called on all the self-defense techniques Ines had taught me. I fought back, slamming my head backward as hard as I could. The crunch of my skull connecting with the face behind me sounded loud in my ears, but I didn’t have time to savor it.

“Mierda!” The curse came out nasally. 

My body went totally limp, and I slid out of his grip, dropping to my knees. I quickly rammed my elbow up and into the groin of my assailant. Ignoring his bellow of pain, I jumped to my feet and ran as fast as I could back to the school, my ragged breaths echoing through the cool evening air.

I raced down the hallways, hollering. “Somebody, help!“

I collided with a soft body, and my scream was piercing.

“Ms. Jenkins, what’s wrong?”

I pulled back at Willie’s voice. “Call 9-1-1 now. Someone just tried to grab me in the parking lot.”

“Shit. Come on.” He tugged me into the nearby janitor closet and locked the door behind us. I wrapped my arms around myself to try and control my shivering while he pulled a cell phone out of his pocket. “Are you okay?”

I absently nodded, my entire focus on the door, and prayed the unknown man didn’t try and enter. I only vaguely heard Willie talking next to me.

“The police are on their way.”

I blinked and locked eyes with him still holding the phone to his ear. At his words, my adrenaline high crashed, and I burst into tears. He wrapped an arm around me, and I cried against his shoulder. My tears eventually stopped. Pounding footsteps and loud voices interrupted the silence. “Secure the area. Check every nearby room.”

We waited. Finally we heard a chorus of “All clear.”

A loud knock on the door made me jump.

“Police, is everyone all right?”

Willie opened the door, keeping me behind him. I spotted the first uniformed officer over his shoulder, and my body sagged in relief. My eyes moved to the second man, and my heart skipped a beat, then started another wild pulsing in my chest. Victor.

  The first officer shifted, blocking my view, and our connection was severed. “Miss? Is everyone okay?”

“Yes,” I focused on his words. “Sorry.”

“I’m Officer Gladstone and this is my partner, Officer Rodriguez. Can you tell me your name?”

“Estelle Jenkins.”

“Miss Jenkins, why don’t we step in here and you can tell us what happened?”

He gestured to the nearest classroom and pulled out a notepad.

“Do you need me for anything?” Willie asked.

The two officers exchanged glances and Gladstone shook his head. “Not at the moment, but we may call you in to answer some questions.”

“I’ll be here a little while longer. Come find me. I’m glad you’re okay Ms. Jenkins.”

“Thank you for your help, Willie.” I hugged him before he disappeared down the hall.

I led us inside while Gladstone called into dispatch, acutely aware of Victor on my heels.

“Our forensics team is on the way. Now, I understand someone grabbed you in the parking lot. Can you tell me anything about your assailant? Man or woman? Height? Hair color? Any details you can recall would be extremely helpful, no matter how small you think it might be.”

“It all happened so fast. Definitely a man. He came up from behind me, so I didn’t get a look at him. Once I got free, I just ran.”

“Do you mind if I ask how you escaped?” He paused in his writing.

“I dropped to my knees and shoved my elbow straight into his nuts. Then I took off running.”

Both men winced and shifted uncomfortably.

“Oh, there is one thing. He spoke with a heavy Spanish accent. Called me a puta. Said something about me not being her, but I can’t recall his exact words. I’m sorry.”

Finally, Victor spoke. “It could have been Miguel Álvarez.”

I sucked in a breath. My gaze darted to meet his. “After all this time? Why now? And how would he even know about me? I never met him personally. Only Alejandro, and he’s dead.”

Victor scoffed. “The D.E.A. has been looking for Álvarez since he escaped, but rumor has it he’s been spending these last months doing everything he can to rebuild his empire. He still has loyal employees. Ones who no doubt saw you with Ines. She never should have stayed in contact with you while she was undercover. He knows he can use you to get to her.”

He paced, running one hand through his hair, and it was then I finally noticed how tense he was. His jaw was clenched, and I’d never seen that expression on his face before. It was filled with so much rage. His brown eyes were as dark as pitch, and his fists were balled at his sides.

A throat cleared and we both glanced over at the other officer I’d forgotten was in the room. His gaze darted between the two of us. “Does someone want to fill me in on what you two are talking about? It’s obvious you know each other, and have intel I don’t.”

“It’s possible our perp is Miguel Álvarez.”

Gladstone’s eyes bulged. “As in the head of the Juárez Cartel? Why the fuck would he want to kidnap Miss Jenkins?” He darted an abashed glance in my direction. “Pardon the language, ma’am.”

I waved him off. It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard the word before. I was practically raised in the Rodriguez household. One made entirely of boys, aside from Ines.

Victor gave his partner a brief rundown. “It was kept quiet, but about eight months ago, my sister went undercover to find our missing brother. When it was all said and done, Álvarez escaped, and his nephew, Alejandro, was dead. His entire empire was taken down by an undercover D.E.A. agent. My guess is he wants revenge against my sister and Brody. Estelle is the key to that.”

“No way. I’m not the key to anything. I don’t know anything of value to him. I don’t even know exactly where Ines and Brody are. They said it was safer that way.”

“It’s possible Álvarez thinks otherwise.”

The door opened. Both men went for their weapons at the same time. Victor pulled me behind him. A man wearing a forensics shirt stepped into the room, and everyone relaxed. Guns were put away.

“We’re still processing the scene, but we found this on the ground outside the vehicle.” He held out my messenger bag. “We didn’t bother dusting it for fingerprints due to the fabric. You might want to check and make sure everything’s there.”

Victor took the bag from his hand and gave it to me. I was careful not to touch him.

“My cell phone and wallet are gone.”

He cursed. “He has your ID. He knows where you live.”

My stomach sank. “What does that mean?”

Officer Gladstone answered. “It means you go home and hope this was a random incident.”

“And if it wasn’t?”

He put his notepad back in his pocket. “If you’re uncomfortable with that idea, we can request a patrol car to periodically stop by and check on you. A more drastic option, and more difficult one to get approved, is you can request to stay in a safe house.”

“Or you can stay with us,” Victor added.

My eyes darted over to meet his, and I was already shaking my head. No way was I staying at the Rodriguez house. Not with Victor there. I’d take my chances requesting either a patrol car or a safe house.

I turned to Gladstone. “If a safe house was approved, what all would that entail?”

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