• David Darling

COURSE OF ACTION


Course of Action: The Noah Hunter Series: Book 3

(sneak peak) 5/31/22


Eighteen years after four-year-old Angela Taylor was kidnapped, Detective Noah Hunter

receives information that the girl may be alive. The cold case is reopened, but someone would rather see the police detective dead than publicly reveal what happened all those years ago.


Dodging government agents and hired contractors, a small-town police officer pits himself against those responsible. But powerful people are interested in the outcome, controlling the narrative—something he could not imagine.


This time Noah will solve the case, no matter the cost.



Chapter 1


Noah Hunter stood beside the front door in full tactical gear with his Glock 17 ready. When he nodded to the US Marshal, he counted down, “Breach in three, two ….”

On one, Sedore swung the battering ram, and it collided with the door just under the locking mechanism. The thirty-five-pound Enforcer shattered the wooden frame and bent the dead bolt—it didn’t stand a chance against the four tons of force generated.

Noah threw the flash-bang grenade and leaned away from the opening. The loud explosion resonated throughout the house, and despite the fact he was around the corner, Noah’s ears rang from the concussive wave. Anyone inside would stagger from the noise and be temporarily blinded by the light, which gave them an advantage.

A plume of smoke shot out the door and began to fill the interior room. Sergeant Angie Dickinson took a deep breath and tapped her hand on Noah’s left shoulder, and they entered the small home in a rush.

Noah cleared the left corner while his partner swept the living room’s right side. “Clear.”

Despite his ears ringing from the grenade, he still heard a young baby shriek down the hall.

Dickinson stepped to the side at the doorway to the kitchen, brought her Glock 19 to shoulder height, and fired two rounds at the older man with the knife.

Noah crouched and peered around the corner when the blade hit the floor. “Covering.”

“Moving.” Angie stayed to the right with her back to the kitchen wall, barrel trained to the man’s head. Her shots had hit an inch apart, dead center of his chest.

“Clear.”

Smoke filtered into the remainder of the home as Noah moved through the kitchen and down the hall. The sound of the child crying intensified, and he gestured to the first bedroom on the right. Angie stood at his back and covered the two closed doors down the hall. “Ready.”

With a surge of energy, Detective Hunter flung the door open. He didn’t hesitate when spotting the shotgun. A three-round burst from his pistol hit the woman in the head, and she flew back into the curtains, then toppled sideways across the nightstand. The baby continued to scream on the bed as the sound of small-arms fire filled the bedroom.

“Clear!”

There was no time to deal with the infant as they proceeded down the hall, Dickinson in the lead. When the door at the end flung open, Angie fired at the same time as she reeled from a hit to her shoulder. Her shot went wide and into the top of the door frame. The large man wore a balaclava and had withdrawn into the room while she swore and fell against the wall.

“Stay here.” Noah stepped around his partner and attempted to slow his heart rate. He couldn’t let the excitement impair his judgment. When a figure leaned around the open doorway in the last bedroom, Noah squeezed the trigger in reflex, and his Glock jumped in his hands with the recoil.

By then, it was too late.

The woman in the gray dress slumped to the floor, the warning klaxon sounded, and the bright overhead lights came on.

Noah couldn’t help but groan, and Angie swore under her breath as she regained her feet.

“It’s okay. Everyone falls for the switch with the first run through here.”

The US Marshal had followed several steps behind and punched him in the shoulder as they turned and filed out of the training house. Angie kicked the mannequin in the kitchen as she walked past and holstered her pistol. The exhaust fans turned on while the crew prepared for the next team.

They had received permission to train at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia. Over the ten-day session, they took advanced evasive and defensive driving techniques classes, electronic countermeasures, and enhanced communications lectures. Noah had recognized Marshal Daryl Sedore, who volunteered to work with them for the house clearing (CQB) drills. FLETC was also home to the US Marshal’s training center, and Daryl had taken them under his wing.

“Hunter and Dickinson, briefing room Charlie.”

Noah’s instructor leaned over the observation platform and pointed at the set of offices toward the far end of the warehouse. Noah gave him the thumbs-up.

“Good luck. Will I see you for dinner?”

“Sounds good.” Sedore removed the training vest and glasses before going to the storeroom. It had been half a year since they worked with him in Arrow Point. His knowledge and expertise were essential to their last case. They had almost captured the serial killer before a hangman’s noose solved the issue of a trial.

“I should have covered the door better.” Sergeant Dickinson was the most demanding critic of her performance.

“You were fine. I was the one to shoot the hostage. I didn’t verify my target.”

Angie nodded, but Noah could tell she wasn’t thrilled. The debriefing room had several desks that faced a large display monitor where the instructor would play back and analyze their last session. The Arrow Point Police Department lacked a tactical division or a quick reaction force where this training type would be standard. Long as the budget allowed, the chief would authorize cross-training of this nature.

Noah had done such room-clearing drills while in the military as part of his work-up training before deployment. That was over twenty years ago, however, their techniques hadn’t changed.

Angie collapsed behind a desk and pulled out her notebook to go over the two-person room-clearing drills yet again.

When Noah’s phone vibrated, he answered when Steve Hutchings’s name popped on the screen. They talked for a minute when Noah abruptly stood. The chair tipped over onto the floor and was ignored.

“You have to be kidding me …”

He couldn’t help but grin at the news and scratched his new short dark beard. Angie gave up studying, closed her manual, and waited.

Hunter looked at his watch. “Give me sixty minutes, and then I’ll be at the airport and back in Wyoming soon. You better wait for me. We’ve waited eighteen years for this, so a few more hours won’t kill you.”

After he disconnected the call, Noah closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.

Angie placed the manual off to the side and smiled. “So, are you going to let me in on this, or will I have to guess?”

The excitement was too much, and Noah grinned. “New information on an old abduction cold case. The first investigation I worked on, actually.”

Noah had been a rookie and with the Arrow Point Police Department for two weeks when the call came in. They hadn’t found the little girl that went missing, and despite the eighteen years that passed, he had never forgotten.

Angie took off her training gear. “There isn’t a chance I’ll be staying here. They better have room for us both on this flight.”

Noah gave her a wink and immediately called the airline while his right foot tapped as he waited to connect. Dickinson left to find their instructor and turn in the gear.

His mind spun with the possibilities, and he was ready to re-open the case. This time he would find answers, and the likelihood that the little girl could still be alive fueled hope.

After eighteen years, he knew Angela’s parents hadn’t given up on finding their daughter, and neither would he.


Chapter 2


The next flight from Georgia to Cheyenne wasn’t until the following morning. However, Noah found a direct flight to Denver International Airport that same afternoon. There wasn’t a chance of waiting until the next day. Noah tried to rest during the three-hour flight and go over all the details from the missing child case.

I was only gone for a minute! When I turned around, my daughter was missing.” Sergeant Steve Hutchings and Constable Noah Hunter heard the mother scream when they first arrived at the motel. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time Noah listened to a similar statement from a parent. Those words and that moment in time still resonate eighteen years later.

The Taylor family was on holiday and passing through Yellowstone National Park. They stopped at the Travel Resort Motel in Arrow Point and would continue their drive the next morning. Leslie Taylor brought in the luggage had let her daughter Angela sleep in the car while her husband, Joe, went to the motel office.

Leslie had thrown the suitcases on the bed, and when she returned to the car, the door was wide open, and her daughter was missing. The four-year-old couldn’t reach to unbuckle the harness from the car seat, which only left one option. Someone had taken her.

They had quickly set up a perimeter search, and the highway patrol and the county sheriffs arrived on the scene within thirty minutes. The FBI was called as well. After several days of searching, they slowly called personnel away for other tasks due to the lack of viable leads. The various statements from the witness in the area and the road drivers didn’t provide any credible information. Leslie and Joe Taylor eventually returned to Washington, D.C., heartbroken. Their life and hearts had shattered. Regardless, there wasn’t anything the police could do without new information.

Noah opened his eyes when the flight attendant asked him to raise his seat fully. They began their descent into Denver, and he looked out the small window at the countryside. The early fall weather had turned the trees brilliant oranges and yellows, and winter would not be far away. The farmer’s fields were bare and ready for spring planting.

Georgia was humid and warm, but they had to wear a light jacket when they got off the plane. The Colorado autumn weather hinted at an early winter.

In a rental vehicle, they took Interstate-25 north from Denver. Construction outside of the city slowed them down, but he relied on his badge to get him out of trouble if it came to it, and he quickly made up the time.

Two-and-a-half hours after they left, the Chevy Equinox nearly sighed in relief when he closed the car door. “Much better than a four-hour drive.”

Angie stepped out of the car and stretched as the engine ticked. “I think you’ve set a new record.”

She stood two inches taller than Noah at six-foot-one and had recently cut her long brown hair to shoulder length. Angie looked much younger and had a few problems with her apparent youth despite being twenty-eight. After four years with the APPD, she was the youngest officer promoted to sergeant. Despite her misgivings, she had scored perfect on her exam and was excellent at her job. Noah didn’t hesitate to choose her as a partner, a decision he never regretted.

Eight hours after receiving the phone call, Noah walked through the police department’s doors, eager to find answers.


~


The FD-258 fingerprint card was standard for background checks through any government agency with the FBI. Noah remembered the application process as part of his police department background check.

He held the form up to the light and tried to read the blacked-out, redacted text. “Have we verified this with the Feds? Why would that information be left out?”

Staff Sergeant Steve Hutchings took the form, held it up to the light, and squinted, but he couldn’t see anything. He sighed. “This didn’t arrive through the regular channels. Someone wanted us to see this.”

The top half of the fingerprint sheet had an area for name, address, aliases, etc. There were only two pieces of information not redacted: the gender marked as female and the state of Florida.

It arrived with the daily mail to the police station, care of Noah Hunter, with no return address. Since 9/11, the staff sergeant processed all incoming mail and packages as a security precaution. Hutchings ran the prints in their system and got a match within minutes.

“Do you think it’s real?” Noah handed the form over to Dickinson as he sat behind the conference room table.

The staff sergeant nodded. “Without a doubt.”

The prints matched those of Angela Taylor, but as an adult. They had dusted and found a complete set of fingerprints from the four-year-old at the scene, but nothing else. The abductor must have worn gloves.

“Who do you think sent this? They must have known I worked the case.”

Hutchings shook his head. “Not sure, but the good news is she’s alive.”

“Do you still have the envelope it came in?” Angie slid the prints across the table and took out her notebook while Hutchings removed the large manila envelope from a folder.

She examined the paper at the corner. “This didn’t run through the post office. There isn’t a postal meter. Hand-delivered?”

Hutchings ran a hand through his short white hair and shook his head. “No. It was in the pile of mail early this morning.”

“What about this?” One end gaped opened, the other sealed by the sender. “Any chance of prints on the inside?”

“We can send this to the lab to look for trace, but I wouldn’t put much hope in it. More importantly, this is a solid lead. Review the files and go over the evidence. Start from square one.”

Angie grinned at Noah, and the dimples deepened. “Maybe your new girlfriend can help?”

“We’re just friends.”

Even Hutchings smirked.

Noah and Jessica Ross had a casual relationship, but he enjoyed her company despite the age difference—she was easy to talk with and twelve years older. Jessica was focused on her work at the lab and side business. Noah realized he wouldn’t get anywhere without some type of answer. “We went on a couple of dates, but that’s it. First, I need to sign out the evidence and go over the files.”

Steve picked up the paperwork. “I’ll have the FBI run the prints through their system. It’s their form, and they should know more. I want to put this one to bed before I retire. Get crackin’ rookie.”

Once they were alone, Angie asked. “How much longer is he going to call you that?”

Noah chuckled. “Rest of my career, most likely. It’s his way of saying he cares. Maybe.”

Despite the long day and drive, he was anxious and filled with energy. “I’m going to need my own office before we begin. We won’t be able to work in the general area properly.”

The second floor’s main workspace had a large open area filled with desks, which all the officers shared. The only rooms on the second floor were the captain’s office and the conference room. Captain Haslam preferred to work the night shift, and Lieutenant Bydal worked days. Rarely was there a problem sharing an office. It had been done this way for decades due to lack of space.

Angie frowned. “Not too sure where you want to set up. Not much free room left.”

Noah stood. “How many times have we used all three holding cells at once?”

“You want to have an office in lockup? There’s a definite odor there.” Angie tapped her pen on the table while she thought. “How about the travel trailer in the parking lot?”

The twenty-eight-foot trailer was a mobile command unit and rarely used, except for a recruitment information center at Casper College this last spring.

“At least it wouldn’t smell like disinfectant. I think it’ll work. Call Bruce and see if he can set up a phone and at least two computers. I have some more driving to do tonight.”

Noah wanted to get to work right away, but he still had to go to Cheyenne Regional Airport and get his truck and return the rental. With a quick look at his watch, he figured he would be lucky to get a few hours of sleep. After eighteen years, a night without rest would be a small price to pay.


Chapter 3


Noah was on his fifth black coffee by three o’clock the next afternoon as he toured Dickinson around the Travel Resort Motel property. He used to wear a suit while he worked, but it wasn’t practical in the end. His default uniform was jeans, running shoes, a dress shirt, and a suit jacket. The shoulder harness was replaced with a holster for the Glock 17 on his right hip. Since Angie’s promotion to sergeant, she had worn much the same clothing, opting for comfort and practicality.

He passed her the photos and the AS-32(a) report (initial form including sketches and distances) as they stood in front of the motel room.

“The Taylor family arrived at 18:53 on August third and checked in with the office. Joe Taylor moved their vehicle and parked in front of room eight, ten minutes later.”

Angie studied the eight-by-ten pictures, then the building. “Not much has changed.”

The motel’s shape resembled a long L, with twenty-four rooms that faced the parking lot. The office was next to the road, with ice and vending machines underneath the overhang—the sign on the road advertised air-conditioning and free Wi-Fi with each room. The red sheet-metal roof had faded with time, giving the building a worn-down look.

“Why did Joe go back to the office after he parked the car?” Angie looked across the parking lot. The office was one hundred feet away at the end of the building.

Noah read the report typed from his notes. “The couple in room nine was loud, and he wanted to see if there was another room available.”

The rooms were in numerical order, and room nine shared the same wall as eight.

“Do you think we can see inside?”

“Let’s see if it’s vacant, just to have a quick peek.”

Despite having the interior pictures, it didn’t compare with seeing it in person. When they walked into the office, silver bells hanging off the hinge rang, announcing a customer.

A chest-height check-in counter stood next to a display filled with local attractions and restaurants pamphlets. Large windows showed views of the interstate on one side and the parking lot on the opposite.

Noah eyed the coffeemaker and stepped forward but was interrupted when a young blonde woman came out of the offices.

“Detective Hunter and Sergeant Dickinson, APPD.” Noah flashed his badge and identification. “Could we get the key to room eight? It will be only for a few minutes.”

The nametag on the woman’s shirt read Sandy. “Is there something wrong? That unit has been vacant for weeks.”

“We’re following up on an old case.”

Sandy frowned but nodded. “That won’t be a problem.”

Noah walked across the parking lot two minutes later with a white security key card. Inside the room, two double beds were on the north wall with a nightstand between them. A large dresser filled the opposite wall, with a flat-screen television next to a small coffeemaker. A small pedestal table and chairs were inside the door, underneath the front window.

Noah headed to the closet next to the bathroom door. “This is where Leslie Taylor placed the bags, then washed her hands. When she returned to the car, she found the rear door open, and Angela was missing. The call came in at 19:04, and we were on scene within six minutes.”

Dickinson opened the closet door before inspecting the standard motel bathroom. “Are the curtains open all the time, or would they be closed when she first walked into the room?”

Noah flipped through the typed notes and reports. The half-inch stack was freshly printed. “Not recorded. Hold on.”

There was only one other car in the parking lot. He walked under the overhang and checked a few different rooms before returning.

“It looks like the vacant rooms have the curtains drawn. But, I’m not sure how they were eighteen years ago.”

Noah wasn’t sure of his memory. The minor details had faded or were misremembered. Angie opened the drapes above the small table and stood in front of the closet. Noah could see her reflection in the mirrored door.

“Because, if I’m standing here, with the curtains open, I can see where they parked. Same as the bathroom.”

Straight ahead inside the bathroom, a large mirror ran the length of the wall above the sink and counter. Glasses with paper caps and wrapped soaps awaited the next occupant.

Noah stood at the sink. “They would have had a full visual and even partial if the door was left open from this angle.”

“Stay there for a second, and I’ll move the cruiser.” Noah left the door and curtains open. Seconds later, he stood at the vehicle’s rear door and left it open. He could see straight into the bathroom from that location, and when Dickinson stood near the closet, he could see her through the window.

Noah looked around the parking lot and at the front office as he stood outside. He could see the young woman behind the counter watching. There were no blinds or curtains in the office. Anyone behind or in front of the counter would have a full view of the parking lot.

Angie joined him beside the cruiser. “Unless things have changed in the last eighteen years, they should have seen everything.”

Noah slowly nodded. He should have noticed this eighteen years ago, and the fact that the girl’s parents didn’t mention they had line-of-sight to their vehicle raised a red flag. His sense of unease increased.

“I can only guess that the curtains were closed, and the clerk was busy. Let’s head back to the station and start going through the full file, step by step.”


*****


Dress shoes clicked against the polished stone floor as she strode around the older man with the red dust broom and his veteran’s ballcap.

“Sorry, Andy.”

“No problem, ma’am.”

He had kept the lobby clean for over thirty years, and everyone knew Andy. However, she didn’t have time to talk. The woman absently smoothed the gray dress suit and tucked the file folder under her left arm as she continued.

She passed the one-hundred and thirty-three stars engraved into the marble wall, as well as the black book encased in a display of steel and glass. Her passing caused the American flag to stir as she reached for the myriad of security passes and identifications that hung around her neck. Next to the staircase, the black security door had a card reader and a biometric scanner, and it took the woman a few seconds to find the correct card before she was through.

The thirty-foot hallway ended at the door with a wooden plaque. The Latin motto was engraved in large letters, Tertia Optio. Directly translated, ‘a third alternative,’ more commonly known as ‘the third option.’

Yet another security card opened the door, and she walked into the small set of offices. She took a moment to look in the mirror behind the display cabinet and fix her hair. The stress of the job had aged her. Despite being sixty-five years old, the woman could have passed for seventy on a good day, but typically older. Her once long blond hair was now short, streaked with gray, and cut over her ears. The lines on her face had deepened over the years, and her oval glasses would slide down her nose when she bent forward. She would always stand with her shoulders back, and head held high to avoid this.

The woman knocked on the middle office door, looked up at the wall and ceiling corner, and waited. It was hard to see the camera inside the black housing, but she knew it was there.

The lock clicked, and she stepped inside.

“It’s been a while since you’ve been here, Miriam. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

The large office hadn’t changed in over two decades, and it still resembled a 1940’s cigar lounge with dark leather chairs. Law books and encyclopedias filled the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Six TV screens decorated the south wall and there was a small mahogany bar-cart beside the sizeable executive desk’s right side. This was the only office with a twenty-by-twenty-foot area rug in the entire building. Somehow it seemed to fit.

The gentleman stood when she entered, walked around the desk to give her a brief hug, and gestured to take a seat.

He was in his late seventies and wore his usual dark slacks and a golf shirt, and his short white hair resembled a military brush-cut.

“Is the room secure, Walter?”

He held a finger in the air, sat behind his desk, and flicked a switch inside the top drawer before nodding. “We’re good.”

All electronic communication now ended at the walls. Nothing could be broadcasted nor be received. They couldn’t do anything about internal recording devices, but a crew swept the room weekly.

Miriam relaxed into the comfortable leather chair while Walter sat across from her. He gestured to the bar, and she shook her head. “I only have a few minutes before I have to go.”

She handed him the file folder while he pulled a pair of reading glasses out of his breast pocket and studied the reports.

When he frowned, the lines on his forehead deepened. Miriam knew he had finished the first-page summary.

Once he completed the remainder, he folded his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “How many others know this information?”

“Including us, only four.”

Walter nodded before he passed over the paperwork. “All roads will lead to a dead end. I’ll make sure the Florida field office acts accordingly.”

Miriam stood. “I thought you should be aware.”

“I appreciate the heads-up. It’s been a while. Dinner sometime?”

Walter gave her another brief hug after they stood. A sheet of paper fell out of the folder and landed at his feet. He picked up the FD-258 form and handed it over.

“I’ll give you a call if there is any new information. No need to wait for our next meeting.” With a half-smile, she left without a response to his question. Some things she wasn’t willing to forget. However, Miriam could not see the cold, deadpan look that overcame Walter’s face as he watched her leave. Not looking back would cost her dearly.


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