Absolute Vengeance

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Other Books in the Series

The Helios Conspiracy
I Am The Sheepdog

Read the Excerpt

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

— Confucius

 

 

Prologue

 

Chelsea, the bus is here!” she yelled as she saw the bright yellow school bus rounding the corner. Lindsey Shepherd finished filling her thermos with the coffee her husband had started for her three hours earlier before he left for work. It was something he always did for her, either before leaving when he worked day shift or right after getting home at 5 a.m. when working nights.

“I’m coming, Momma,” little Chelsea Shepherd replied excitedly as she dragged her book bag into the kitchen. The five-year-old struggled to lift the bag onto the nearby chair as their Miniature Dachshund, Rex, shadowed her every move.

“Do you have everything?” Lindsey asked, as the sound of the diesel engine grew louder.

“Wait!” Chelsea cried. “Where’s Buttons?”

The troubled five-year-old frantically searched the kitchen and then ran to the living room as she continued the search for her favorite stuffed dog.

“Where did you last see him?” Lindsey asked.

Chelsea paused for a moment. Her face crinkled as she tried to remember the last time she had seen Buttons. “In the bathroom!” she yelled as she started for the bathroom. Her blonde pigtails bobbed as she ran through the living room with Rex close on her heels.

“Don’t run sweetheart,” Lindsey warned as she looked out to see the bus pull to a stop in front of their modest three-bedroom home. Lindsey threw her own bag over her shoulder as she picked up her coffee and Chelsea’s bag. It was the first day of the new school year. For Lindsey, it was only her third year as a teacher at Mandeville Elementary School teaching Third Grade. For Chelsea, it was her first day of Kindergarten. Lindsey had decided to ride the bus with Chelsea on her first day to make sure everything went well, one of the perks of teaching at her daughter’s school.

Chelsea returned with her tattered stuffed dog, smiling ear to ear as she hugged Buttons. “Put him in here, sweetie,” Lindsey said as she held Chelsea’s backpack open. Chelsea carefully placed Buttons in the backpack with its head and floppy ears exposed just above the partially open zipper.

“He needs to be able to see,” she said cheerfully as her mom grabbed her tiny hand and led her out the front door.

Lindsey and Chelsea hurried toward the waiting school bus. Its red lights flashed as the driver waited for the two ladies to make their way around the front and up the stairs. “Thanks for waiting, Mr. Miller,” Lindsey said as she ushered Chelsea to a seat next to another little girl and then took her own seat at the front of the bus. The bus was nearly full of kids from age five to nine on their way to the suburban elementary school.

“How many times do I have to ask you to call me Aaron?” the older man asked with a warm smile as he closed the door and started toward the next stop in the neighborhood.

“Sorry, first day back,” Lindsey said with a shy smile. “How was your summer, Aaron?”

“Not bad,” Aaron responded. “Not much different than any other day. Semi-retired life will do that for you.”

Lindsey smiled. Aaron Miller had once been the Principal of Mandeville Elementary, but in retirement, he just couldn’t let it go, opting to pick up a part-time job driving school buses during the school year. He had retired just as Lindsey was finishing her first year of teaching. The kids all seemed to love him, and Lindsey enjoyed hearing his stories of the “Golden Years” of teaching as he called them – before No Child Left Behind and Common Core.

“How about yours?” Aaron asked.

“It was good. Alex has been working a lot of overtime since they cut a lot of the details in the department. And when I wasn’t teaching summer school, I was working with Chel-Bell on reading,” she replied as she looked back to see Chelsea quickly making friends with her seatmate.

“I noticed his police car wasn’t in the driveway. I take it he’s working today?” Aaron asked.

“Five to five on day shift,” Lindsey said before taking a sip of her coffee. “Plus SWAT training from six to ten tonight.”

“Burning the candle from both ends, huh?” Aaron asked, shaking his head. “That has to be hard on both of y’all.”

“It is,” Lindsey said. “But Alex loves his job, and although the pay isn’t great, the benefits are great, and he’ll be able to retire with a full pension after thirty years when he’s fifty.”

“So what’s that? Twenty more years?” Aaron asked as he picked up the last of the children in Lindsey’s neighborhood and started toward the subdivision’s exit.

“Fifteen,” Lindsey replied.

“I appreciate his service,” Aaron said. “Not many people stick it out the full thirty these days. It’s pretty political, especially during election years like this one.”

“Oh, he loves the Sheriff,” Lindsey said. “And he’s running unopposed again this year. But anyway, enough about us. How’s Mrs. Miller?”

“Same as always. Why do you think I started driving this bus?” Miller replied with a wry smile.

“Oh, stop,” Lindsey said playfully. “She’s wonderful.”

“If you say so,” Aaron said with a hearty laugh as they pulled out onto the narrow two-lane road toward the elementary school.

Mandeville was a mostly affluent suburb of New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Mandeville Elementary School had been built on the outskirts of town in a wooded rural area, accessible only by a narrow two-lane highway. Its isolation was something of a concern Alex had often discussed with Lindsey. With the recent threats of active shooters in elementary schools throughout the nation, it posed tactical problems for quickly getting rescue personnel into the area while evacuating others. Lindsey didn’t understand most of it, but she knew Alex was passionate about it, so she promised that she would be vigilant with the students. That was Alex.

As she thought of Alex, Lindsey pulled her phone out of her pocket to text him. She typed “Good morning, Babe. First day of school! I love you. Have a great day,” and hit send, only to be greeted by a warning that she was outside her coverage area and that it would be sent when she received signal again. That was the real downside of the school’s location, Lindsey thought. The cell phone reception in the woods north of I-12 was terrible.

“Uh oh,” she heard Aaron say as she felt the bus slow. She looked up to see a late model Toyota Camry in the middle of the road with its hazard lights flashing. The bus slowed to a stop behind the broken-down car. There was no other traffic at that time of the morning, but Aaron activated the bus’s red lights as he came to a stop.

“Probably a parent trying to get to school,” Aaron said. “Stay here and watch the children. I’m going to make sure they’re OK.”

“OK,” Lindsey said as she looked down at the time on her phone. 7:20 a.m. She still had forty minutes to get Chelsea settled into her new classroom, and then get ready for her own classes. She watched as Aaron opened the doors and hobbled down the stairs. The car looked empty, causing Lindsey to wonder if they hadn’t already found a ride and would send for a tow truck later.

As she looked back down at her phone to see if her message had gone through, she was startled by a loud crack outside. It didn’t register at first, but as she looked back up, she watched Aaron stumble forward toward the Camry. Gunfire? She heard four more shots in rapid succession as several of the children started screaming.

Lindsey froze as she tried to process the scene. She saw Aaron face down next to the Camry and three masked men approaching with rifles pointed at her.

“Everyone get down!” she yelled.

“Stop there!” one of the men yelled as he approached the bus with his rifle up.

Lindsey leapt toward the door and pressed the button, closing it as she scrambled into the driver’s seat. She had no idea how to drive the bus, but she knew she needed to get the children out of there.

“Mommy!” she heard Chelsea scream behind her. It took everything she had to not run to grab Chelsea and shield her.

As she tried to get the bus in gear, one of the men maneuvered to the front of the bus and started firing, peppering the windshield. Glass shards sprayed around her, and the kids were screaming. “Get down!” she yelled.

Lindsey found the parking brake and disengaged it. The bus rolled forward in neutral as she watched one of the men approach the door. He fired another volley of bullets, striking her in the hip. The pain was almost blinding as the bus rolled forward into the Camry. The man tried to break through the bus doors.

Realizing he was moments away from entering, Lindsey rolled onto the floor and tried to drag herself to Chelsea who ran toward her.

“Mommy!” Chelsea screamed.

“Run, honey,” Lindsey groaned. The five-year-old fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around her bleeding mother. The masked man forced entry through the bus door and ran up the stairs, followed by two other armed men.

Lindsey grabbed Chelsea and pulled her close in a last attempt to protect her. “Allahu Akbar,” she heard as she closed her eyes and felt the hot rifle barrel press against the back of her head.


 

Chapter One

 

Alex Shepherd is dead. He died with his family on a warm August morning in southeast Louisiana. There was no funeral, and if he would have had one, his obituary would have simply read, “Died of a broken heart.”

He was a loving father and husband, a devout Christian whose god had seemingly abandoned him. His family was his entire world. His soul was taken as tragically and brutally as their precious lives. He left no one behind.

Although his soul departed, his body lived on – as an emissary of death, the embodiment of vengeance. It was merely the vehicle by which a personal crusade, a war against evil, had to be waged. There would be no honor or glory in its victory. Like a sheep dog standing against the growling wolf in the darkness of night, his was a thankless but necessary mission, one to be fought to the end.

My story is not one of redemption. There can be no happy ending. For me, there is no salvation. Instead, I leave this as a warning, a cautionary tale of a quest for vengeance and its path through the gates of hell.

 

 

*   *   *

 

 

It was almost a year ago. I kissed my wife Lindsey on the forehead as I crawled out of bed and got ready for work as quietly as I could at 3:45 in the morning. I was on day shift in District 3 with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, which meant I had to be at shift change at 5 a.m. As the corporal on the shift, I had to be there twenty minutes early to get the pass-on and prepare the shift change briefing for my team.

Once dressed, I made my way to my daughter’s room. She was so beautiful, sleeping peacefully with her stuffed dog Buttons tucked under her arm. I quietly walked up to her bed and gave her a kiss. She looked like a little angel as I watched her sleep.

After a minute or two, I turned back toward the door. “Daddy,” her little voice called as I reached the door.

“Go back to sleep, Chel-Bell,” I said as I turned to see her stirring in bed. “Daddy will see you this evening.”

“I love you, Daddy,” she said as she turned and curled up with Buttons.

“I love you too, baby girl,” I said softly, as I walked out of her room and closed the door behind me.

I set up a pot of coffee for Lindsey before grabbing a protein bar and heading out the door. I unlocked my marked unit, a Chevy Tahoe, and started the engine before going to the back cargo area to make sure I had everything I would need for SWAT training that evening after my shift.

Aside from being the shift’s corporal, I was also a sniper on the SWAT Team. It was one of the things I was most proud of in my time with the Sheriff’s Office. I had never been in the military, and SWAT was the closest I would ever come. I had volunteered for every school they would send me to, and after five years on the team, I had a feeling I was being eyed for command.

I closed the hatch after confirming everything was there. All of my uniforms, my Remington 700 rifle, my SWAT M4 carbine, and body armor were exactly where they should have been. The Tahoe was much better equipped for my role on SWAT than the Crown Victorias had been. My last Crown Vic unit had needed special springs installed to support the weight of all my additional gear.

Shift change went uneventfully as my team broke up into its various zone assignments. It was opening day for most of the schools throughout the parish, so we planned on enforcing school zone speed limits and keeping an eye out for suspicious persons near the campuses. As the corporal, I was essentially a float unit, able to back up any of the units on calls. For the most part, it was a typical quiet Monday morning. The roads were empty as the western side of the parish started its week.

I was busy approving reports when the first call came in at 0630. It was a 62A. An audible alarm at someone’s house was going off, and the alarm company had called us to check it out. Even in a sleepy town like Mandeville, those were fairly common. Usually they were false alarms – someone’s dog tripping a motion sensor or a door blown open by wind – but we never took any call for granted. Since I was in the area, I decided to back-up the responding unit.

The responding deputy and I arrived nearly simultaneously, and we parked away from the house in question. After a short investigation and verifying that the house was secure, the responding deputy cleared the call. The Rottweiler barking from within the house was the likely culprit for the motion alarm.

After the call was cleared, I decided to head toward the nearby town of Madisonville to do a school walkthrough and check on our School Resource Officer on his first day back. As I was heading west on Highway 22, my radar unit lit up showing the approaching vehicle on the two-lane highway doing 67 mph.

Now, generally speaking, I’m not big into pulling people over on their way to work, especially for speeding, but twenty-two miles per hour over the posted forty-five mile per hour speed limit was a bit excessive, so I decided to make the traffic stop.

I called the stop in to Central Dispatch as the driver noticed my lights and pulled over to the shoulder. As I approached, I noticed the personalized license plate of the small SUV read, “Remember the Fallen,” and had a Gold Star on it.

“Good morning, ma’am, Corporal Shepherd of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office,” I said as I reached the window. The woman was wearing blue scrubs and didn’t acknowledge me.

“The reason I pulled you over is that I had you doing sixty-seven in a forty-five zone,” I said as she hunched her shoulders. “Where are you heading this morning?”

“Just got off work at the hospital,” the woman mumbled.

“Do you have your license, registration, and insurance card, ma’am?” I asked.

The woman found the items and handed them to me with shaking hands. “I’m really sorry,” she said softly. I could tell she was shaken up by the stop.

“I’ll be right back with you,” I said as I returned to my Tahoe.

I ran her information through my laptop and then did a quick Google search on my phone for what the plate represented. I had never seen a plate like that before. The first result told me everything I needed to know.

“You’re a Gold Star family member?” I asked as I returned to her window.

“Yes, sir,” she said meekly.

“Do you mind if I asked who was killed in action?” I asked.

“My son,” she replied slowly. “He was killed by an IED in Afghanistan.”

I handed her information back to her. “Ma’am, please slow down. These roads are pretty dangerous,” I said solemnly. “Drive safely.”

“Is that it?” she asked, confused as she shuffled through her insurance card, ID, and registration, seemingly looking for the ticket that wasn’t there.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Thank you for your sacrifice for our country. Please be safe.”

The woman’s shoulders started to shake as she began to cry. I couldn’t imagine the pain she had gone through losing her son. I thanked her again and returned to my unit. I cleared the call as she drove off.

As I pulled back onto the highway, one of my deputies called into dispatch that he was stopping for a disabled vehicle near Mandeville Elementary School off Highway 1088. A vehicle breakdown was not an unusual occurrence for a Monday, especially on the first day of school, but I decided to turn around and start heading that way anyway. I’m not sure why, but something in my gut told me that it was more than just a vehicle breakdown.

“Ninety-eight forty-four, Central, we’ve got a 30-S here!” the deputy yelled over the radio moments later.

I tried to push the accelerator through the firewall as I activated my lights and siren. A 30-S was a homicide by shooting. Someone had been murdered within miles of a school, and the murderer was still potentially on the loose.

“Ninety-eight forty-eight is responding,” I said over the radio as I maneuvered around the few cars on the roadway. “Any units in the area, step it up.” I wanted to let any other units responding know that they should run Code 3 with lights and siren.

I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the shift sergeant as I sped toward the area.

“I’m headed that way,” Sgt. Taylor said. I could hear the siren in the background.

“We might want to roll SWAT,” I said. “And get the bird in the air.”

“It’s a little early for that, Alex,” Taylor responded.

“The shooter is on the loose and near a school,” I shot back. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. We need to lock the area down.”

“I’ll make the call,” Taylor conceded before hanging up.

Just as I hung up with the sergeant, my phone started ringing. The caller ID showed Justin Hyatt. He was the deputy that had found the car.

“What did you find, Justin?” I asked.

“The car was partially off the roadway. It looked like it had been hit from behind,” Hyatt replied. “There are 7.62 casings everywhere.”

“Shit!” I hissed. Small caliber handgun rounds would lend credence to the idea that it was an isolated roadside robbery, but 7.62 rifle rounds on the first day of school meant bad things. My stomach turned.

“The body is pretty fresh,” Hyatt said. “And I don’t think this is his car.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Mississippi plates,” Hyatt replied. “And the victim is from here. You probably know him.”

“Who is he?”

“Remember Mr. Miller, the retired principal?” Hyatt asked.

“You’re fucking shitting me!” I yelled.

“I wish I were, but I remember him from when I was in school,” Hyatt replied.

“Secure the scene, I’ll be there in a few minutes,” I said.

As I ended the call and started to dial Taylor, I nearly dropped the phone as the realization hit me. Miller had started driving school buses in his retirement. Lindsey had told me the day prior that she and Chelsea would be riding to school on his bus that morning.

For the first time in my adult life, I started to have a panic attack.