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Danger Zone
by Shirley Palmer
Mira, 2002

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They were waiting as he knew they would be. He'd placed the call himself on Friday, a less than sixty-second conversation that couldn't be traced but he'd used a voice scrambler anyway to make sure.

Their Cherokee was slowing, just nosing through the gates of the private terminal at New Orleans International. He looked at the Jamaican impatiently.

"Come on, let's go." He pointed to the Learjet two hundred yards away, the only aircraft fired up, poised for flight. At the bottom of the steps a man dragged on a cigarette and kept his eyes on the Cherokee. "That's it."

The Jamaican tapped the steering wheel, eyes roaming, examining the perimeter of the airport. There was no one at the gate, no visible security of any kind. The Jamaican did not move.

"You crazy, mon? How you know the cops or the army or someone ain't sittin' around out there someplace playin' with theirselves, just waitin' to take us down?"

"I don't." And it didn't matter. Nothing did. Hadn't since before Bear Mountain. Six days before, to be exact. He dragged his mind back to the present, to the Jamaican sitting next to him reeking of ganja and some shit smelling island hair oil, to the stink of cordite from the weapons and urine from the kid lying across the seat behind them in soaked pajamas, mercifully silent now, unconscious from the shot he'd given him.

He nudged the Jamaican's arm. "You took the pay. The job's not finished. Go."

The driver eased the Cherokee through the gates, down the line of small tethered aircraft, their wheels chocked. He stopped a few feet from the Learjet. The man at the bottom of the steps was still, a hand in one pocket, eyes watchful. He dropped the cigarette, ground it under his shoe. A moment passed. Nothing moved.

Satisfied, he looked at the Jamaican. "Okay. Get the kid. And take this stuff." He handed the Jamaican the syringe and Ketamine.

The man got out, opened the rear door, dragged the damp boy across the seat.

He looked at the tousled head falling back over the Jamaican's arm, the soft childish limbs dangling like the limbs on a rag doll. His own boy had once looked like that, sweet and innocent. He turned his eyes away.

"If he wakes, tell them to give him another shot. Only one, otherwise they'll have a dead kid on their hands. He has to stay alive for the next few days. Tell them someone will be in touch."

The transfer took seconds. By the time the Cherokee was at the exit gate, the jet was battened and had started to move out onto the runway.

He looked at his watch and saw that it was still only 9:15. A bright Sunday morning in Louisiana.

* * *

October 3rd

Sam Cady tightened his arms around his wife and Maggie wriggled her shoulders in response, burrowing her back deeper into his chest. A light breeze off the lake ruffled her hair, blowing strands like silk across his face. Sam bent his head, breathing in the rose scent she used. The picnic had wound down to the marshmallow-roasting and guitar-strumming stage, but earlier Jimmy's triumphant grin when he slid into home plate had been a sight to see.A milestone for them both, their first father/son softball game.

Sam took another moment to listen to the end-of-day sounds: the chorus of bullfrogs and cicadas, Petey Le Pont's guitar riffs from the other side of the fire as he noodled his way into a tune, the murmur of sleepy kids, the soothing voices of their mothers.

It didn't get much better than this. But it was time to leave. He put his lips against Maggie's ear. "Honey, I've got to go, but you and Jimmy stay. You can get a ride later with Petey and Elle."

"No, we'll come with you. It's been a big day. He should be in bed." Maggie shifted Jimmy's little boy weight in her lap. "And he's too big for me to carry now."

The four-year-old protested as Sam lifted his son from Maggie's lap. "I can walk, Dad."

"Okay, buddy." Sam set him on his feet, met Maggie's eyes and they both grinned as Jimmy took a few sleepy steps. Lately Jimmy had been doing his best to copy his father's swagger, but at four he was still having difficulty with a loose-hipped stride.

"Just because that man of yours has to go to his high-payin' job, don't mean you have to leave, no," Petey called. "Plenty poor policemen here love to see you home, cher."

Sam placed a possessive arm across Maggie's shoulders. "Think I trust my wife to you guys?" he called back. "Know you too well, yeah." Sam imitated the exaggerated Cajun accent his former partner liked to sport on social occasions. "See you next Sunday, Pierre. If the weather holds, the brim will be jumpin' sure."

Maggie blew a farewell kiss to Elle, who was leaning contentedly against her enormous husband, their son, Yves, asleep in her arms. "Best party yet, Elle."

"You say that every year, cher, but I do love hearing it. Let's talk later in the week. We'll go shopping, spend some real money while these two go fishing, okay?"

The remnants of the potluck picnic were packed up on the trestle table under the oak trees, and Maggie sorted through to find her own dishes and the slices of the anniversary cake Elle had wrapped for them. Above the table a banner, "Elle and Petey Happy Tenth Anniversary," sagged in the moist evening air. They answered the chorus of goodbyes from the other guests, Sam responding in kind to the good-natured ribbing about his high-paying job from cops he had served with in his twenty years on the New Orleans Police Department.

The ride home was quiet. In spite of early protests that he wasn't tired, Jimmy fell asleep the minute he was strapped into his child's seat in the back; and Sam and Maggie were content to drive in companionable silence. It had been a long day.

As usual Max was waiting in the hallway as the front door opened, giving small whimpering sounds of welcome, his big body twisting as he wagged a vestigial tail. Sam had argued for a hunting dog, a tick hound, a redbone, even a Lab, but Maggie had got the Rottweiler she'd wanted. She rubbed Max's ears, let him out into the garden while Sam carried Jimmy up to bed. She filled the percolator for coffee, smiling as she listened to the murmur of voices upstairs.

Excerpted from Danger Zone by Shirley Palmer. Copyright © 2002 by Shirley Palmer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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