Cut and Run Page 2

She sat for nearly a half hour before she made her decision and shuffled to the dresser, the chain clinking and rubbing as she moved. She pushed the cheap piece of furniture away from the wall, knowing exactly what she wanted.

She’d had months to explore every inch of this room, and she’d found initials on the back of the dresser.




If she’d ever had doubts that there’d been others before her, the initials proved she wasn’t the first and probably not the last. She shifted her focus to the second discovery she’d made eight weeks ago. It was the air vent behind the dresser and two loose screws that were nearly stripped. Initially, she’d thought she’d found a way out, and hope had exploded so violently it hurt. But as soon as the vent cover had been off, she had realized it was too small for any human body. It wasn’t an escape route.

But it was a hiding place.

She jostled the grate free, careful not to make a sound for fear he was still lurking outside her door, listening. As the silence stretched, she grew bold, stuck her hand into the dark vent until her fingers skimmed what she was looking for. Amazing what you could discover if all you had was time.

She removed the magazines, replaced the grate, and pushed the dresser back in place. She never knew when he’d return, and it was always smart to look guiltless.

She righted her mattress on the floor and then smoothed out her bedding and pillows. She settled on the bed, discovering it was even harder and more uncomfortable without the squeaky frame of the cot. She read the writing scribbled on the edges of the magazines she almost had memorized.

If you read this . . .

She’d have added her own, but there’d been no pen. And she’d spent too many hours searching for and wondering what had happened to the one they’d used. But now she had her own. Perhaps just a small victory, but she had to believe it was a lifeline. Now she could write her own thoughts in the margins next to the notes of JJ, OM, and KS.

She pressed her hand to her sore jaw and winced as she worked it back and forth. She clung to every win, knowing small victories like this kept her from going insane.

She carefully put the old magazines back in the vent and replaced the grate in case he should return. Picking up a newer magazine, she flipped past the magazine’s title page to the first page with a lot of white space. She drew tiny circles in the upper left-hand corner until the blue ink flowed.

With a trembling hand she wrote,

If you read this . . .

My name is Paige Sheldon.

It’s summer 2018.

What I like: binge-watching television. My smartphone. Chocolate ice cream.

What I hate: That my mom will never know that I am sorry.


Sunday, June 24, 4:00 p.m.

Texas Hill Country, Forty Miles West of Austin

Two buzzards circled overhead.

Their broad, pale wingspans caught the wind currents as they glided round and round in a tightening circle, dropping lower, zeroing in on what had summoned them. Like him, buzzards didn’t have an elegant reason for being. Like him, they cleaned up the mess death left behind.

Texas Ranger Mitchell Hayden turned off the paved rural route onto the long dirt driveway that fed into Jack Crow’s salvage yard. Hayden had not been in the Hill Country for a few years. Not since before his wife had gotten sick. Sierra used to coax him out here to visit wineries or browse the tony little shops. He’d always indulged her, grateful for her laugh and the smile she brought into a life dominated by so much darkness. She was gone now, and he’d stopped coming here.

The movement of the buzzards drew his gaze up again, alerted him that their target was on this property. The muscles banding around his skull tightened, and he knew that whatever was up ahead was going to be bad.

He’d received a call late Friday from an informant whom he’d worked with over the years. Jack Crow was a salty old man, every bit in his late sixties, who collected old auto parts, sold a few, but mostly let them pile up around him like a mountain of metal. Crow had been an army medic way back in the day, got caught stealing morphine, and earned himself a dishonorable discharge and a jail sentence. But he’d done his time and since then had been clean enough. Sure, he patched up people who didn’t want to explain a gunshot or knife wound to an emergency room doctor, but he also stayed out of the very tempting human trafficking and drug trades of South Texas. Those who went to Crow knew he never snitched on the people he patched up, unless they were hurting women and children. In cases like that, all bets were off. Hayden assumed yesterday’s call would lead him to another drug dealer or violent coyote.

Dust kicked up around Hayden’s SUV as he drove through the salvage yard that to an outsider looked like chaos. He knew from experience, however, if you asked Crow where a part was in these rambling heaps, he could find it within minutes.

Two more buzzards joined the original duo, and together they squawked as an eerie quartet. Soon the buzzards would fill the bright-blue sky, rushing to beat the Texas heat that would eventually drive everything to find cover.

He drove toward the trailer Crow had called home for almost thirty years. He’d had numerous offers to sell in the past few years but had refused them all. The land was worth far more to developers now than a fading salvage business, but the old man had jealously guarded his territory. He had nowhere to go.

Hayden slowly rolled up to the trailer, came to a stop, and shut off his vehicle. He unfastened his seat belt and removed his weapon from its holster. Like the buzzards above, he smelled the very familiar scent of death.

Crow had a small deck out back that faced west and gave him a view of the sunsets. The old man liked his twilights, and he spent most evenings sipping whiskey from a saloon glass that reflected the sun’s oranges and yellows in the amber liquid.

When Hayden came around the side of the trailer, he saw two buzzards pecking at a man’s leg as he sat in his lawn chair, facing west toward a sunset that was still hours away.

“Get on out of here!” Hayden shouted. “Get out!”

The birds hopped several paces and then flapped their wings, landing on top of the trailer so they could watch until this new predator cleared out.

The old man was slumped back in his chair, and even from fifteen feet away, Hayden could see fingers bent and twisted at horrific angles. Several of Crow’s fingernails were also missing, and puddles of blood dripped and pooled onto the deck.

Whoever had killed him had left slices in the flesh, knowing the smell would bring the buzzards from over a mile away.

Judging by the evidence, he knew Crow had been dead for several hours.

“Jesus, Crow.” Sadness circled like the buzzards, but Hayden chased it away as well.

Instead of rushing toward Crow, Hayden searched the horizon for signs of an ambush. He moved around the trailer, scanning every angle before he climbed up the four narrow porch steps, crossed the wooden platform, and opened the front door.

Finger resting on the trigger, he switched on a light and peered inside. The place had been tossed. The cushions on the couch had been pulled off and cut open, the recliner had been upended, and the drawers from a small desk had been dumped out on the floor. A collection of pictures, mostly of a younger Crow and a little girl, lay crumpled in the center of the room, their thin black frames smashed along with the glass. Worn carpet muffled the sound of his boots as he moved deeper into the trailer toward the back bedroom, where he discovered an upended mattress hacked open, its white tufted innards scattered around.

Determining the trailer was secure, he returned to Jack Crow’s body and found that two buzzards had landed back on the porch. He stamped his booted foot on the deck and yelled violent curses until the raptors left him alone to study the body.

The old man’s rugged face was covered in white stubble, and thin lips twisted into a snarl born of pain and anger. His plaid shirt was unbuttoned, exposing a round belly protruding from a white T-shirt stained with blood and sweat.

This close, he could see Jack Crow’s legs were turned at odd angles, as if someone had taken a hammer or crowbar to his kneecaps.

Hayden holstered his weapon, allowing the first flicker of sadness. The old bastard might have broken a few laws in his time, but under all the gruff and bluster there’d been a decent soul.

Hayden searched Crow’s pockets, not expecting to find anything. However, in his front breast pocket, there was a playing card. It was the king of spades. It was clean, the paper slick as if it had just been removed from a fresh deck. None of the gangs who circulated in the area used cards like this, but it was clear. Someone was sending a message.

Hayden reached for his phone and called the local sheriff, then the state medical examiner’s office. Crow hadn’t given any hints about why he’d wanted to see Hayden. He’d just said it was real important. “Crow, what the hell did they want?”


Monday, June 25, 3:00 p.m.

Austin, Texas

Dr. Faith McIntyre of the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office stood at her autopsy station studying the body of the sixty-four-year-old male lying on the gurney against a stainless steel sink. Country music played softly from a small set of audio speakers next to a whiteboard covered with her daily schedule written in tight cursive. Beside it rested a TEXAS mug filled with red, green, and black dry-erase markers. Above the gurney hung a microphone as well as a large adjustable light that reflected on the stainless steel instruments on the tray.

According to the death investigation report, the subject of her examination had been found sitting outside his trailer in a lawn chair and had sustained multiple traumas to his joints. Paramedics had declared him dead at the scene.

When the body had arrived at the medical examiner’s office and his clothes and shoes stripped, she’d immediately noted horrific signs of torture, including seven broken fingers, lacerations, and a shattered kneecap.

This was the kind of death reserved for those who landed on the wrong side of the drug cartels. “Did he have a connection to drug trafficking?” Faith asked.

Her question was directed at Texas Ranger Mitchell Hayden. His tan face, weathered by years in the Texas sun, was stoic and with no hint as to what he was thinking. Large hands weren’t clenched at his side, but were primed to curl into fists in a blink of an eye. His large, muscled body, which had taken a gunshot directly into his Kevlar vest just three weeks ago, was as still as stone.

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