Series: The Jericho Quinn Series #7.1
Published by: Pinnacle
Release Date: June 27, 2017
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Every summer, thousands of families head to the nation’s largest water park, famous for its 21-story waterslide the “Dead Drop.” This year, one visitor didn’t pack his bathing suit. He packed explosives. When the bomb goes off, dozens of people are instantly killed. The rest are herded into the park’s massive pool by the bomber’s accomplices. An organized team of fanatical but well-trained terrorists, they seal off the entrances, turn the waterslide into a watchtower, and train their sights on the families below. But one hostage isn’t playing along. He’s special agent Jericho Quinn. He’s on vacation with his daughter. And he’s about to turn this terrorist pool party into one righteous blood bath . . .Add on Goodreads
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Come now, and follow me, and no hurt shall happen to you from the lions.
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress
Fifteen minutes earlier
Jericho Quinn threw the Impala into park and took a deep breath, reminding himself that everywhere on earth was not a war zone — despite his experiences to the contrary. Still, a nagging sense that something was wrong gnawed at his gut — the Japanese called it haragei,the "art of the belly" — and Quinn had learned not to ignore it.
Even under the best of circumstances, he was not the sort of man to leave his guns in the car, but this evening he had, in fact, gone against every ounce of his better judgment and left his Kimber 10mm and his Japanese killing dagger locked in the safe back at his apartment in Alexandria. The "baby" Glock 27 was locked in a small metal vault in the vehicle's console — where he knew it would do him absolutely no good. The usual complement of weapons that had driven his ex-wife to divorce him had been reduced to a thin Benchmade 943 pocketknife that he'd tucked discreetly into the inside pocket of his swimsuit. The huge summer crowds at Buccaneer Beach Thrill Park and the fact that Quinn was with his eight-year-old daughter only added to the helpless angst of being unarmed.
"What time do they close?" Mattie said, unbuckling her seat belt and leaning forward to stick her head between Quinn and his girlfriend, Veronica "Ronnie" Garcia, who sat in the passenger seat. The two wore matching canary yellow one-piece swimsuits, but, mercifully for Quinn, his little girl still had a few years before she would be able to wear it even close to the way Garcia did.
Mattie had the park's website memorized, and Quinn knew full well that her question was not a question at all, but a jab at him for having to work late. Even the fact that he'd been in a meeting with the president of the United States was no excuse for cutting short their promised day at the amusement park.
"We still have four hours," he said, eyeing the colossal waterslide that loomed in the dusky evening beyond the park gates like a skyscraper, with its looping, twisted guts hanging out. "Looks like we'll make it in before the sun goes down."
"Just barely," Mattie said, falling — no, throwing herself — backward into her seat. The words came on the heels of an exasperated sigh that reminded Quinn of his ex-wife when she was angry.
"Don't know if you've heard," Quinn turned to look between the bucket seats at his daughter. "But they have this cool new invention called the electric light. Makes it so you can actually have fun after the sun goes down."
Mattie ignored him. She had the passive-aggressive thing down to level-ten expert. But she couldn't stay mad for long. The sight of the waterslide known as Dead Drop — so named for its trapdoor beginning — made it impossible for the little girl to even sit still. Pressing her face against the window to stare, her voice fell to a reverent whisper, as if she'd just discovered the golden idol in an Indiana Jones movie. "There she is ... Shawn Thibodaux says she has a hundred and eighty-nine steps to the top."
Ronnie Garcia turned to give Quinn a sultry wink, touching one of the many pale shotgun-pellet scars visible below the hem of his board shorts on his otherwise copper-colored thigh. "You didn't tell me that freaky, ginormous slide was a she." Thick black hair cascaded over her broad shoulders and fell across the leather upholstery. She reached out and ran the tip of her index finger across the stubble of his dark beard. Quinn had shaved for the Oval Office meeting but, as usual, grown a healthy five o'clock shadow by noon. Thankfully, Garcia didn't seem to mind that even in a suit, he typically leaned toward the shaggy side.
Quinn shrugged. "I didn't know it was female, either, until just now." He threw a glance back at Mattie, who was now up on her knees staring out the window. She had his dark hair and copper skin but, thankfully, her mother's oval face.
Garcia's head lolled against the seat. Her full lips perked into a smile. "I guess it makes sense," she said, hints of her Russian and Cuban heritage seeping out in her accent. "Mattie's been hanging out with the Thibodaux boys over the last couple of weeks. To hear their dad talk, all the scariest things in the world are female."
Quinn smiled while he chewed on that for a minute but was too smart to agree out loud.
Garcia was attached to the same working group — she from the CIA, he from Air Force Office of Special Investigations, or OSI. Both fell under the immediate supervision of the President's National Security Advisor. She'd been present in the Oval Office meeting earlier that day. Quinn had known her long enough to be able to tell by the way she hummed softly under her breath that she was busy processing all the new information. Garcia was always more contemplative after intelligence briefings, as if she took terrorist threats personally. Quinn couldn't blame her — not considering the things she'd been through, the way she'd been hurt.
"Well, we got here, anyway," Quinn said, banging the flat of his hand on the top of the Impala's steering wheel like a judge imposing a sentence. "Now remember, we have to stay together."
Garcia smiled at him again and opened the door, gathering her gauzy cover-up and small handbag in her lap before climbing out into the sticky evening heat. Quinn didn't like crowds, but as he sat and watched her exit the Impala, he couldn't help but look forward to an evening with his buxom girlfriend and her yellow swimsuit. He wasn't artistically or musically inclined, but if he were, she was the sort of woman who would inspire great works from him.
Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jacques Thibodaux, Quinn's friend and partner, wheeled the black fifteen-passenger van he called the TAV — Thibodaux Assault Vehicle — into the vacant spot beside the Impala. Quinn counted four round faces pressed against the side windows. He knew there were three more somewhere in the van. The Thibodaux boys ranged in age from twelve to one — no small feat considering the gunny had spent much of the last eight years deployed to various hot spots around the Middle East.
Shawn, the oldest, shot a glance at the setting sun as he jumped out of the van, followed by five of his younger brothers. A frown turned down on his freckled face. All of them wore matching white T-shirts and blue board shorts like their dad, but Shawn had taken a pocketknife and cut the sleeves off his shirt.
"Marlin Shawn Thibodaux!" his mother bellowed as soon as she saw him. "That was a brand-new shirt, mister!" A dark and brooding South Carolinian of Italian heritage, Camille Thibodaux seemed to get pregnant every time Jacques walked by her. Seven energetic sons had made her an expert bellower. A sheer white cover-up hung to her hips, revealing her black one-piece swimsuit that showed off her full figure. She gave one of her patented glares.
The boy shrugged, flashing her a grin. "Sun's out, guns out, Mama," he said, flexing his newly discovered biceps. He'd spent much of his life in the northeastern United States, but there was a definite Cajun drawl to his voice. Five minutes around the kid and it was apparent he took after his daddy in physique and irreverent demeanor. He was only twelve, but he was already taller than his mother. Mattie thought it was a secret, but Quinn was well aware that she had a crush on the boy.
One of the other boys, a sensitive eight-year-old named Denny, bent over the pavement beside the open door of the van.
"I need a Band-Aid, Mama," he said. Blood dripped from his nose.
"You can't bandage a bloody nose, son," Jacques said.
"It's for his wart," Camille said. "He's been pickin' at it." She turned her attention to Denny and left Shawn alone to show off his "guns."
"Warty toes and bloody noses," Thibodaux winked at Quinn. "See what you're missin' havin' just the one kid?"
Quinn was sure all the Thibodaux boys were just as grouchy as Mattie at having their day at the amusement park postponed while their daddy met with a bunch of men in suits. Jacques sauntered around the corner of the van and gave Quinn a high five with a hand that looked like it could palm a bowling ball. He was a mountain of a man with an iron jaw and a Marine Corps–regulation high and tight. A black eye patch, courtesy of a gunfight in Bolivia while on a mission with Quinn, made him look even more severe than the haircut did.
"Well, we made it, Chair Force," he said, never missing the chance to take a jab at Quinn's branch of the service. "And that ain't no small feat. Getting all my boys here without someone throwin' up or one bitin' a hunk out of another is a minor miracle. Know what I'm sayin'?"
Mattie ran up and tugged on Quinn's arm. "Come on, Dad. Shawn says the line to Dead Drop probably gets even longer after the sun goes down."
"He does, does he?" Quinn shot a glance at Thibodaux. "Do I need to worry about your boy there, partner?"
Jacques gave a solemn sigh. "I would," he said. "Poor kid's just like I was at his age."
Mattie ran ahead with the two oldest boys so they could stare together in awe at the distant waterslide. All three had carefully measured themselves several times over the last week to make certain they would meet the fifty-inch height requirement to step on the trapdoor that would take them down the Dead Drop. Now, even Shawn looked a little shaken by the sheer height of the monstrosity.
Camille stooped beside the van to blot Denny's bloody nose with a tissue that she dug out of the pocket of the sheer nylon cover-up.
"You sure you don't want to put on more clothes, Cornmeal?" Jacques called his wife by her pet name, throwing a diaper bag over his shoulder. "I ain't gripin' about the peek at your legs, mind you, but it's liable to get chilly after the sun goes down."
Camille shot him an impatient glare. "I shaved those legs in great anticipation of this trip," she said. "And I'm not about to waste a wax by covering everything up." Leaving Denny pressing the crumpled tissue to his nose, she leaned into the van to drag the baby out of the car seat and then nodded to the diaper bag in Thibodaux's hand. Quinn had seen the big man in so many firefights and bloody brawls that it was odd to witness him acting like the big teddy bear that he was.
"Don't forget to put a half dozen more diapers in there," Camille said, strapping the baby into the stroller she expertly unfolded with one foot. "I just put a new bag behind the seats."
Quinn walked with his friend to the twin ambulance doors at the back of the van. He shook his head as Jacques stuffed diaper after diaper into the pack. "The park closes in less than four hours. How many do you think he'll go through?"
Thibodaux gave a long, low whistle while he mashed in more diapers. "I swear my Henry's like some baby alchemist. He can manufacture a half gallon of poop from two tablespoons of strained peas."
Quinn grinned, then turned more sober, nodding toward the park gates. "What do you think about all this?"
"I'm with you, l'ami," Thibodaux said. The big Cajun looked sideways at the high walls and constant flow of people coming in and out of the park. "My first instinct is to keep 'em all stashed away behind the safe walls of my home. But I guess there's risk in everything. There's sure enough risk in makin' our little ones grow up locked inside a fortress, that's for certain." A wide smile spread across the Marine's face as his wife walked up beside him, pushing the stroller. "As it is," he said, "I get to spend the next few hours looking at the best pirate booty around."
Camille punched him in the arm, but the glow on her face said she never got tired of the attention he heaped on her.
Ronnie sidled up next to Quinn, holding one of the younger Thibodaux boys by the hand. Mothering suited her, but Quinn didn't dare point it out. Apparently able to read Quinn's worries from the look on his face, she fell easily into the conversation. "I have to admit I don't like being unarmed, either," she said. "I thought about putting a gun in my bag, but then I wouldn't be able to leave it anywhere. There's just no way to carry in a water park."
"Speak for yourself," Jacques said as the group began to walk toward the gates. Mattie and the three eldest boys took the lead, scampering ahead. Camille pushed the stroller while Jacques threw one boy up on his wide shoulders and took another by the hand. Quinn was the only one not watching out for a Thibodaux boy, which was all right with him. It allowed him to keep an eye on his daughter. He knew she felt like he watched over her with the intensity of a thousand suns — but he didn't care.
"Wait a minute," Quinn said, picking up his pace so Mattie didn't get too far ahead. "You're armed?"
"Damned right I'm armed," Thibodaux said. "Got a little Ruger .380 under my board shorts." He shrugged. "It ain't much, but it'll do for a gun-gettin' gun. I figure if it ever hits the proverbial fan, there's liable to be guns aplenty. I can use this to get me something bigger." He gave the crotch of his shorts a tap. "Crossways, right here."
"Looks like a way to shoot yourself in the femoral artery," Garcia chuckled.
"Well," Thibodaux raised the brow over his good eye and wagged his head. "I ain't pointin' it at anything important."
Mattie drifted back, falling in beside Quinn as they neared the gate. "Dad," she said, apparently having forgiven him for their late arrival. "Shawn says he'll save me a place in line, but I'm so excited I have to go to the bathroom."
"We'll find one as soon as we get inside," Quinn said. He tried to give Shawn Thibodaux a fatherly glare, but Ronnie punched him in the arm.
"That's okay," Mattie said. "I memorized the map. We turn left and walk through the food court. Restrooms are right on the way to Dead Drop."
"Good job on the map, kiddo," Quinn said. "But are you sure you want to start with the biggest slide in the park?"
"Daddy!" she said, lowering her voice so Shawn Thibodaux couldn't hear. "Don't act like I'm a baby. I'm almost nine, you know. We've been waiting all week to do this." She blushed. "Anyway, Shawn said he'd go before me so I can see what it's like."
Quinn sighed. Maybe the nagging feeling in his gut had to do with Mattie discovering boys. If Shawn hadn't been Jacques Thibodaux's son, he might have taken the Dead Drop together with the boy and had a little man-toman talk — even if he was only twelve.
Mukhtar paced back and forth in the outer waiting area of the park offices. He'd demanded to see the manager, Mr. Cunningham, but Ms. Tiffany, the two-hundred-pound ball of rules and regulations who was his personal assistant, had decided any meeting would just have to wait.
Before now, Mukhtar had never known the sun to sink at such an alarming rate. It was well below the trees, and he could picture his father joining other neighborhood men at the mosque down the street from their apartment for Maghrib, or sunset prayer. The stone in the boy's chest grew heavier at each passing moment.
Mr. Cunningham made it a point to tell all of his employees when they were hired that while he did not want to interfere with any religious practices, park rules forbade them from praying in public and frightening the guests. Mukhtar knew this was probably against some law, but decided he needed the job. Fadila did not argue with the boss, but made it clear to anyone who would listen that Buccaneer Beach was an evil place and Mr. Cunningham was little more than a dog. If she and Saleem were going to do something violent tonight, it would happen during Maghrib.
Mukhtar wheeled from the window and stood directly in front of Ms. Tiffany's desk. "He is coming back soon?"
Ms. Tiffany was high enough up the park pecking order that she didn't have to wear one of the stupid pirate costumes. Her green blouse and round figure made her look like an unripe tomato. A pair of white earbuds hung beneath frizzed red hair.
"I told you, hon," she said, popping out one of the earbuds. "I do not know. Tell me what it is you need and I will pass it on to Mr. Cunningham."
"You have to listen to me," Mukhtar said. He leaned across the desk, talking through clenched teeth. "This is a matter of life and death."
"I see." The woman's jowly face blanched white. She picked up the desk phone with one hand and her cell with the other. "Are you threatening me? Because I will not hesitate to call the police."