Caitlin Strong wages her own personal war on drugs against the true power behind the illicit opioid trade in Strong from the Heart, the blistering and relentless 11th installment in Jon Land’s award-winning series.
The drug crisis hits home for fifth generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong when the son of her outlaw lover Cort Wesley Masters nearly dies from an opioid overdose. On top of that, she’s dealing with the inexplicable tragedy of a small Texas town where all the residents died in a single night.
When Caitlin realizes that these two pursuits are intrinsically connected, she finds herself following a trail that will take her to the truth behind the crisis that claimed 75,000 lives last year. Just in time, since the same force that has taken over the opiate trade has even more deadly intentions in mind, specifically the murder of tens of millions in pursuit of their even more nefarious goals.
The power base she’s up against―comprised of politicians and Big Pharma, along with corrupt doctors and drug distributors―has successfully beaten back all threats in the past. But they’ve never had to deal with the likes of Caitlin Strong before and have no idea what’s in store when the guns of Texas come calling.
At the root of the conspiracy lies a cabal nestled within the highest corridors of power that’s determined to destroy all threats posed to them. Caitlin and Cort Wesley may have finally met their match, finding themselves isolated and ostracized with nowhere to turn, even as they strive to remain strong from the heart.
San Antonio, Texas
Caitlin Strong pushed her way through the gaggle of reporters and bystanders clustered before the barricade set up just inside the lobby of the Canyon Ridge Elementary School building.
“Look,” she heard somebody say, “the Texas Rangers are here!”
She’d focused her attention on the six men wearing black camo pants and windbreakers labeled I-C-E in big letters on the back, glaring at her from the entrance to the school to which they’d clearly been prevented from entering. She pictured several more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stationed at additional exits in case their quarries tried to make a run for it.
“We didn’t call the Rangers,” snarled a bald man, the nametag he was required to wear reading ORLEANS.
“No, sir,” Caitlin told him, “that would’ve been the school principal. She told Dispatch you’d come here to collect some of her students.”
She let her gaze drift to a windowless black truck that looked like a reconfigured SWAT transport vehicle.
“Just following orders, Ranger. Doing our job just like you.”
“My job is to keep the peace, sir.”
“Ours too, so I’m going to assume you’re going to assist our efforts, given that we’re on the same side here.”
“What side would that be?”
Orleans snarled again, seeming to pump air into a head Caitlin figure might’ve been confused for a basketball. “United States government, ma’am.”
“I work for Texas, sir, and the principal told me all the kids you came for were born on Lone Star soil.”
“That’s for a court to decide.”
“Maybe. And, you’re right, the both of us are here because we’ve got a job to do and I respect that, sir, I truly do. My problem is it’s never right in my mind for adults to involve children in somebody else’s mess.”
Canyon Ridge Elementary was located on Stone Oak Parkway, part of San Antonio’s North East Independent School district and featured a comfortable mix of Caucasian and Hispanic students in keeping with the city’s general demographics. The building featured a rounded arch entry where Caitlin could see any number of faces, both child and adult, pressed against the glass. She also glimpsed a heavy chain looped through the double doors to prevent entry, although numerous chairs, boxes, and what looked like an overturned cafeteria table had been piled into place as well. Caitlin pictured similar chains and barricades barring entry at any of the other doors as well, the eyes of both children and adults alike gaping with hope at her arrival through the glass.
“As a Texas Ranger,” Orleans responded finally, “you enjoy a degree of discretion I don’t have. I wish I did, but I don’t. And as long as I don’t, I’ve got orders to follow and that’s where my discretion begins and ends.”
“Where are you from, sir?”
“Not around here, that’s for sure. Does it matter?”
“That ICE is about to take six US citizens, all under the age of ten, into custody matters a lot,” Caitlin told him. “Some might even call it kidnapping.”
“Did you really just say that?”
“Like I said, I’m only trying to keep the peace. Exercise that discretion you mentioned.”
“It’s not your jurisdiction.”
“San Antonio was still part of Texas last time I checked.”
Orleans’ spine stiffened, making him look taller. “Not today, as far as you’re concerned. You don’t want to push this any farther than you already have, Ranger, believe me.”
“It’s about the law, sir—you just said that too. See, the Texas Rangers maintain no Intergovernmental Service Agreement with ICE; neither does the city of San Antonio. And, according to the city’s detainer agreement, a local police officer has to be present whenever you’re staging a raid. And I don’t currently see an officer on site.”
“That’s because this isn’t a raid.”
“What would you call it then?”
Orleans’ face was getting red, taking on the look of sunbaked skin. “There’s a local inside the building now.”
“Right, the school resource officer. What was his name again?”
Orleans worked his mouth around, as if he were chewing the inside of his cheeks.
Caitlin cast her gaze toward the pair of black, unmarked Humvees that must’ve brought the ICE officials here. “You got assault rifles stored in those trucks, sir?”
“Never know when you might need them.”
“Sure, against fourth graders wielding spitballs. Report I got said those and the fifth graders helped barricade the doors.”
“So arrest them and let us do our jobs,” Orleans sneered, his shoulders seeming to widen within the bonds of his flak jacket.
“Be glad to, once you produce the official paperwork that brought you this far.”
“We can give you the names of the students we’re here to detain, Ranger.”
“What about warrants, court orders, something that passes for official?”
Orleans shook his head. “Not necessary.”
“It is for me.” Caitlin took a step closer to him, watching his gaze dip to the SIG Sauer 9-millimeter pistol holstered to her belt.
“Don’t make me the bad guy here, Ranger. I’m doing my job, just like you. You may not like it, all these protesters might not like it, but I don’t suppose they’d disobey the orders of their superiors any more than I can.”
“I know you don’t make the rules, sir, and I respect that, to the point where I have a suggestion: Why don’t you stand down and give me a chance to fetch the kids you’re after from inside before somebody gets hurt?”
A skeptical Orleans nodded stiffly. “Sounds like you’ve come to your senses, Ranger.”
“Never lost them, sir. You’re right about orders and mine were to diffuse the situation through whatever means necessary. That’s what I’m trying to do here. The lawyers can sort things out from that point.”
Orleans hedged a bit. “I didn’t figure something like this fell under Ranger domain.”
“This is Texas, sir. Everything falls under our domain. In this case, we can make that work to your advantage.”
Orleans nodded, his expression dour. “The doors were already chained and barricaded when we got here, Ranger. That means somebody tipped the school off we were coming, even fed them the names of the kids we were coming to pick up.”
“It wasn’t the Rangers,” Caitlin assured him.
“No, but somebody in the Department of Public Safety must’ve been behind the leak after we informed them of our intentions as a courtesy.”
“That’s a separate issue you need to take up with DPS, sir. For now, how about we dial things back a few notches so the two of us can just do our jobs?”
“That sounds good to me, Ranger. The United States government thanks you for your support.”
Caitlin stopped halfway to the school entrance beneath the curved archway and looked back. “Don’t confuse what I’m doing with support, Agent Orleans. When things go from bad to worse, blood often gets spilled. What do you say we do our best to keep the street dry today?”
San Antonio, Texas
Caitlin watched the school’s principal, Mariana Alonzo, unfasten the chains after enough of the makeshift barricade had been removed to allow one of the entry doors to open.
“Thanks for coming, Ranger,” Alonzo greeted, locking the chain back into place.
“I’m sure your sister would have preferred intervening herself, ma’am.”
Alonzo swallowed hard. “Did you mean what you said out there, that you’re going to deliver the kids to ICE?”
“I also said I was here to diffuse the situation through any means necessary.”
Mariana’s Alonzo’s sister Conseulo was a former San Antonio police captain and deputy chief currently climbing the law enforcement ladder at the Department of Public Safety in Austin. She’d called Caitlin immediately after first getting word of ICE’s pending arrival at Canyon Ridge Elementary, though not before alerting her sister to what was coming.
“All six of these kids are honor students, Ranger,” the school principal noted.
“This kind of thing would be just as wrong even if they weren’t, ma’am. I imagine your sister believed that more than anyone. I’m surprised she didn’t come here herself, instead of calling me.”
Now, an hour after that call, the sister of DPS’s Deputy Police Commissioner was looking at Caitlin with the same hope she’d glimpsed on the faces of the kids pressed against the glass.
“She wanted to,” Principal Alonzo said, “but I wasn’t about to let her throw her career away. Then she told me she had another idea. Nobody messes with the Texas Rangers, right?”
“Your sister and I go back a ways, ma’am,” Caitlin told her, not bothering to add that not all their interactions had been positive.
Alonzo steered Caitlin away from the throng of children unable to take their eyes off her badge and gun to a corner of the hall. They stopped beneath an air conditioning baffle blowing bursts of frigid air.
“What now, Ranger?”
“Where are the children, ma’am?”
“In my office,” Alonzo said, tilting her gaze toward an open door through which Caitlin spotted a pair of school secretaries busy fielding a nonstop flurry of phone calls behind their desks. “Be nice to keep as much of a lid on this as possible.”
Caitlin weighed her options. “That lid got blown off when your sister called me in on this. I don’t figure on ICE breaking down the doors, but they’ll wait us out for as long as it takes. Means we need to find a way to take these kids out of their reach.”
“Is that even possible?”
“I’ve got a couple of ideas.”
“You want to do what?” D. W. Tepper, captain of Ranger Company G, blared over the phone.
Caitlin pictured him reaching for a cigarette. “You heard me, Captain.”
“Well, that’s a new one, anyway.”
“First time for everything.”
“Our necks better be made of Silly Putty, if we’re going to stick them out this far.”
“Not the first time for that at all. And put down the Marlboro, D.W.”
“Jeeze, Ranger, what are you, psychic now, like that seven-foot Venezuelan giant of yours?”
“Speaking of Colonel Paz . . .”
San Antonio, Texas
Twenty minutes and another phone call later, Caitlin inspected the three-page document Principal Mariana Alonzo had printed off an email attachment she’d just received.
“You Rangers sure work fast,” she complimented.
“Always been our way,” Caitlin told her, folding the document in thirds so the proper section was face out, “long before there was any such thing as email or even electricity.”
“You ever wonder what it was like ranging in those days?”
“Strongs have been Rangers almost as long as there’s been a Texas. I never really had to wonder, since I’ve heard all the stories about their exploits.”
“I’ve heard of your grandfather, your father too.”
“Well, ma’am, my great-grandad William Ray and my great-great-grandad Steeldust Jack had their share of adventures too.”
“I’d love to have you back some time to talk about that history to our students.”
“Let’s take care of the ones I came here about today first,” Caitlin said, pocketing the now tri-folded set of pages.
“You sure about this, Ranger?” Mariana Alonzo said to Caitlin, after bringing the six students from Canyon Ridge Elementary that ICE officers had come to collect from her office to the main lobby, just out of sight from the barricaded entrance.
Caitlin ran her hand through the hair of a trembling girl who looked all of ten years old, then used a tissue to wipe the tear stains from the cheeks of a boy who was all of nine.
“As sure as I am that if we don’t do something fast, ICE might breach the building.”
“What happens then?”
“This is still Texas and I’m still a Texas Ranger, ma’am. Just ask your sister.”
“I did, after she told me you were coming.”
“What’d she say?”
“To stay out of your way. That everything I’d heard was true.”
Caitlin bristled. “I wouldn’t put much stock in those stories. The press is prone to exaggeration.”
Alonzo nodded. “She told me you’d say that too.”
Caitlin felt the boy whose cheeks she’d swiped clean tug at her sleeve.
“Are you going to save us from the bad men?”
She knelt so they were eye-to-eye and laid her hands on his shoulders. “What’s your name, son?”
“Diego. I’m scared.”
“Well, Diego, let me show you what happens to men who scare little kids.”
The bald ICE agent named Orleans smirked when Caitlin emerged from the school entrance with the six children ICE had come to collect in tow, school principal Mariana Alonzo bringing up the rear. Cameras clacked and whirred, as she brushed aside microphones thrust in her face.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Orleans said, once Caitlin reached him, her charges gathered protectively behind her. “Good thing you came to your senses. If it makes you feel any better, I hate this part of the job as much as anybody.”
“I hope that’s the case, Agent, I truly do.” Caitlin eased the document Captain Tepper had just emailed from her pocket. “Because this is a duly executed warrant naming these six children as material witnesses to a crime, subject to protection by the Texas Rangers until such time they are called to testify.”
Orleans started to turn red. Caitlin could feel the heat radiating through his uniform, dragging an odor that reminded her of a gym bag with yesterday’s dank workout clothes still stuffed inside.
“You lied to me, Ranger.”
“No, I didn’t, sir. I told you I was here to diffuse the situation and that’s what I’m doing. I said I’d fetch the kids from inside before somebody got hurt, and that’s exactly what I did.”
“You mean, nobody’s been hurt yet, Ranger.” With that, Orleans snatched the warrant from her grasp. “This is bullshit and you know it,” he said, having barely regarded it.
“That’s not for either of us to say, sir. It’s for a court to decide now.”
“You want to tell me what crime exactly these six suspects are material witness to?”
“Did you just call them suspects?”
“Answer my question, Ranger.”
“I’m not at liberty to say, sir. It’s a confidential investigation.”
Orleans turned his gaze on the imposing group of five armed men dressed in black tactical garb behind him, then looked back at Caitlin and smirked again. “So you think we’re just going to let you parade these subjects past us all by yourself? You really think we’re going to just back down and stand aside?”
The blistering roar of an engine almost drowned out his last words, as an extended cab pickup truck riding massive tires tore onto the scene and spun to a halt between the ICE agents and their Humvees. The springs recoiled, as a huge figure with a pair of M4 assault rifles shouldered behind him emerged from the cab, towering over those he passed, including the men with I-C-E embroidered on their jackets.
“This is Colonel Guillermo Paz,” Caitlin told Orleans, “an agent of Homeland Security, just like you, sir. He’s going to help me parade these ‘suspects’ past you.”
“Colonel Gee!” a first-grade boy beamed, coming up only to Paz’s waist as he hugged him tight before Paz could lift him into the backseat of his truck. “You remember me from pre-school?”
“Of course I do, Marcus.”
“Do you still work there?”
“No, I moved on. I do that a lot. Learn what I can from a place and then try another.”
“I miss you, Colonel Gee. You never finished the story of what you did to those bad men who tried to hurt you when you went home for your mommy’s funeral.”
“They’re not alive anymore, Marcus.”
Paz fixed his gaze on the ICE agents who’d edged closer, weighing their options. “It’s what happens to bad men.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Caitlin said through the window, eyes even with Paz’s in the driver’s seat.
“’The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.’”
Paz’s eyes widened. “I’m impressed, Ranger.”
“Just a lucky guess.”
“Edward Bulwer-Lytton didn’t believe in luck. He called it a fancy name for being always at the ready when needed.”
“Describes the two of us pretty well, I suppose.” Caitlin looked at the four kids squeezed into the big pickup’s backseat, Diego and Marcus in the front staring wide-eyed at the giant behind the wheel. “You know where to take them.”
Paz cast his gaze back toward the ICE agents, frozen in place fifteen feet away with scowls plastered across their expressions. “And if they follow?”
“They won’t get very far,” Caitlin told him. “Principal Alonzo yanked out the valve stems on their tires while we were loading the kids.”
Caitlin’s phone rang with a call from Captain Tepper, just as Guillermo Paz was driving off and the ICE agents were discovering their flat tires.
“Now who’s psychic, Captain?” she greeted. “Kids are safe and I didn’t even have to shoot anybody.”
“Good thing you saved your bullets, Ranger, ‘cause there’s somewhere else you need to be right now. A town in the desert called Camino Pass, formerly with a population of two hundred and eighty-eight according to the last census.”
“Looks like they’re all dead, Ranger. Each and every one of them.”
Excerpt from Strong from the Heart by Jon Land. Copyright 2020 by Jon Land. Reproduced with permission from Jon Land. All rights reserved.
Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of fifty-two books, including eleven featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. The critically acclaimed series has won more than a dozen awards, including the 2019 International Book Award for Best Thriller for Strong as Steel. He also writes the CAPITAL CRIMES series and received the 2019 Rhode Island Authors Legacy Award for his lifetime of literary achievements. A graduate of Brown University, Land lives in Providence, Rhode Island.