Ground Truth

Ground Truth

Rob Sangster

September 2012 $16.00
ISBN: 978-1-61026-096-1

Book 1 of The Jack Strider Novels

Our PriceUS$16.00
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Practicing law has never been so deadly.

Hotshot Stanford law professor Jack Strider is on the fast track to serve on the Supreme Court until a bullet and a nasty, front-page family scandal shatter that ambition.

After he’s unjustly fired from the law school faculty, a powerhouse law firm run by a former Secretary of State offers Jack a job and a chance for redemption. His first assignment: do whatever it takes to defend a sleazy corporate client in Juarez, Mexico, the Murder Capital of the World. Soon, Jack realizes that if he can’t stop his client, millions of people on both sides of the border will be poisoned.

Plunged into the violence of the Texas-Mexican borderlands, Jack discovers that he can trust no one, not even the law firm he works for, so when attorney Debra Vanderberg is sent to assist Jack, he doesn’t know whether she’s an ally or a spy. He has no choice but to trust her and pray he isn’t wrong.

Racing against the clock and dodging bullets, Jack and Debra uncover corporate greed and political corruption that lead all the way from a sacred cave in the Mexican mountains to the Oval Office. When the President of the United States refuses to stop the impending catastrophes, Jack risks everything, including his life. But can he learn the "ground truth” fast enough to save the millions destined to die?


"A masterful, high-stakes thriller.” —Lisa Turner, bestselling author of A Little Death in Dixie


Chapter 1

May 30

5:30 p.m.

A SQUALL SWEPT across San Francisco Bay, pummeling a dozen sailboats racing for the Commodore’s Cup in the chaotic water.

Jack Strider, stuck in second place, wrestled the tiller, keeping Simba on the fastest heading she could handle without capsizing. Already heeled hard over to port, a strong gust could drive her sails into a wave and rip her rigging apart. Several skippers had dropped their mainsails all the way down. He could do that too—and lose the race. No way he’d play it safe. Feet braced to keep from being washed overboard, he kept a wary eye on a stretch of nearly submerged rocks to his left. His course was dangerous, but still the best way to pass Mistral, the red-hulled sloop just ahead.

Mistral’s captain glanced back and edged his boat to the left in front of Simba. He waved for Jack to fall back.

Jack quickly calculated distance and wind speed. He still had room to squeeze between the red-hulled boat and the rocks, but only if Mistral didn’t continue to crowd in front of him. Knuckling a blast of salt spray out of his eyes, Jack pointed to the closing gap, signaling his intention to sail through.

Judge H. Peckford Strider, Jack’s father, gave Jack a scornful smile as he eased Mistral’s tiller more, cutting off Jack’s route and moving so far left he was close to driving both boats into the rocks.

Damn him. Trying to win a trophy had never made Peck act like this before. Had he gone nuts?

At the last second, Jack steered sharply to starboard, Simba’s bow passing inches behind Mistral’s stern. The instant he was clear, he cut back to port, passing close to Mistral’s right side. Simba’s big sails blocked the wind and left Mistral’s sails flapping uselessly.

As he shot past Mistral toward the finish line Jack couldn’t hear Peck over the wind, but saw him shouting angrily.

He’d gambled that Peck was so intent on winning that he’d misread Jack’s strategy until it was too late. And he had. The bang from the starter’s gun signaled Jack that he had crossed the finish line and won the Commodore’s Cup.

Fifteen minutes later, Jack had secured Simba’slines to cleats on the pier and climbed back aboard to make her shipshape for foul weather. While he was fastening the sail cover, Mistral pulled slowly into her space at the far end of the pier. After making her lines fast, his father sat hunched over in the cockpit with his cell phone to his ear, ignoring Jack.

Jack was locking the cabin hatch when Peck strode past Simba, cap pulled low, still not looking his way. No congratulations, not even "kiss my ass.” The silent treatment was out of character, but it was for the best, because right now he was primed to tell his father exactly what he thought of his race tactics.

As Jack walked toward the clubhouse, he stopped and turned to admire his boat, a 29-foot Dragon racing sloop with mahogany planks and teak decking. She was a thoroughbred. Together they’d won the Commodore’s Cup and beaten his father. Damned good job.

IN THE CLUBHOUSE, he changed into dry clothes and walked into the Schooner Room where skippers and crews gathered after races. Aromas of fried onions and sizzling burgers filled the room. It was a comfortable place with a long redwood bar, cedar paneling, and barrel armchairs around the tables. Photographs hung on the walls of mustachioed schooner captains, all long dead, and tall ships in exotic ports. There were a few blue-blazer types in the crowd, but some of the other men could have stepped out of the old photos.

He was greeted by cheers and applause.

From the far end of the bar, Ronnie Patterson called, "You’ve got guts, Jack. Nasty trick Peck pulled, trying to drive you into the rocks. What got into him today?”

He raised his glass to Patterson. "No big deal.” Maybe not, but his triumph felt tarnished by Peck’s behavior.

He’d known many of the guys in the room since he’d been a kid in Learn-to-Sail classes. Later, he’d given summer sailing lessons to pay for his own sailing gear, a rebellion against his father’s attempts to use money to control him.

As he built his skills, some of the old salts had invited him to crew for them, teaching him how to read the wind, trim sails, and win on race days. A few of them had become like surrogate fathers, accepting him for who he was. Which was more than his own father had ever done. No matter how little they might have in common outside these walls, here they were family.

"Hey, Jack,” the bartender said, "where’s your old man? Pissed off because you stuck it to him?”

"He took off up the pier while I was still aboard Simba. Now, how about Dark ‘n’ Stormys all around—on me.” It was a tradition for the winner to buy a round, and a little rum would change the subject.

As usual, the guys debated race tactics—which ones worked and which failed miserably. Tonight they were topping one another with stories of how badly the squall had knocked them around and what they’d done to survive. And every time the talk circled back to Peck and the rocks, Jack got more slaps on the shoulder. The ones that meant the most came from the old salts who had been his mentors. Drinks were disappearing faster than normal.

When his cell phone rang, he pulled it out and checked caller ID. It was Peck’s latest lady friend, a relentless shark in pursuit of his father. Provocative in uninspired ways, she was determined to seduce Peck into marrying her and made it clear she didn’t intend to let Jack interfere. At this moment she was possibly the last person on earth he wanted to talk with but, since she almost never called him, instinct told him to answer.

"Yes, Anita?” Terse but not rude.

"I’m at your father’s house. He got home a little while ago, headed straight for his study and slammed the door. Something’s terribly wrong. You have to help me.”

Wheedling and high drama were Anita’s favorite modes of speech. This time she’d chosen the latter, the one Jack found most jarring.

"Forget it, Anita. He’s just angry that I beat him for the Commodore’s Cup.”

"That’s not it. I know he flares up then gets over it, so I knocked on the door and said, ‘What’s the matter, sweetie?’ He jerked it open, gave me a nasty look, and said, ‘The biggest shit of all time is about to hit the fan. Get your ass out of my house and don’t come back.’ Then he locked the door. He’s never talked to me like that before.”

Jack knew all about his father’s flare-ups. He’d been on the receiving end too often.

"Look, I’m tied up at the club. I’ll stop by in a couple of hours.”

"No, come now. I knocked on his door two more times, but there was no answer.” Her voice rose almost to a shriek. "He could have had a heart attack or something.”

Damn it.Maybe something really was wrong. "Okay, I’m on my way.” He clicked off and called out to the room, "Have to take care of something, guys. Shouldn’t be long.”

"Get back in time to pick up your trophy,” Patterson said.

Yeah, right.He’d wanted to win the race, but he didn’t give a damn about the two-foot tall silver cup donated by a former Commodore whose name was inscribed on it three times: H. Peckford Strider.

In the parking lot, he stuffed his long legs into his black BMW convertible. Halyards still clattered against masts, but the fierce wind had slacked off. As he sped down Beach Road toward his father’s house the sky ahead looked menacing.

Jack had been in the mood to get a little buzzed and talk about sailing. If this was just about losing the race, his father deserved a swift kick in the ass.

He dug out his phone, hit speed dial, and called the private number that rang only in Peck’s office. One ring. Three. Five. Seven. Was Peck playing him again, smirking as he listened to the phone ring? Or was he lying on his back, red faced and gasping for breath?



Chapter 2

May 30

7:00 p.m.

AT THE END OF the long driveway, he pulled up in front of Peck’s house, a Craftsman redwood rustic place at water’s edge. As soon as he got out of the car, Anita, wearing tight jeans and a form-fitting cashmere top, ran along the flagstone walkway and threw her arms around him.

"Hey, take it easy.” He held her shoulders at arm’s length. "Let’s find out what Peck’s up to.”

He tossed his jacket on a chair inside the door and walked from the entrance hall into the great room. After Jack’s mother died, Peck bought this place to suit his new life: gourmet kitchen, hot tub and sauna, wine cellar and floor-to-ceiling west-facing glass to take in the spectacular view of Sausalito and Mount Tamalpais. Jack hadn’t grown up here and had never related to it. All he wanted now was to get this over with.

He turned right and walked down the corridor past the game room to Peck’s study at the end of the hall, Anita sniffling close behind him.

He knocked on the door. Nothing. He knocked again, harder, and tried the handle. Locked.

"Damn it, Peck,” he called, "I didn’t leave the club and drive over here to be jerked around.” The answer was more silence. Worried now, he went back to the game room for the set of house keys Peck kept taped to the bottom of the billiard table. When the lock clicked, he swung the door open and walked in.

Peck, still wearing his sailing gear, sat behind his antique walnut partners’ desk. His puffy cheeks and full lips made him look self-indulgent and dissolute, very unlike his formal portrait at the far end of the room in which he wore a judge’s robe.

He didn’t turn his head as Jack approached. He simply shifted his gaze like an owl, his face fixed in a stern expression, head tilted just a few degrees back from vertical. Jane’s Fighting Ships, the massive book Peck often read as a kind of diversion, lay open on the desk in front of him. Next to it was a bottle of Glen Breton Rare Canadian single malt whiskey and an almost empty glass. Odd. Not like his father to drink whiskey early in the evening.

He also didn’t look sick, and his bad temper had to be about more than losing the race. That wouldn’t have caused him to order Anita out of the house. He walked to the desk.

"You’re just in time,” Peck said in a flat tone.

Before Jack could ask what the hell he was talking about, Peck raised a remote control and pointed it at a television monitor across the room. The sound came on, screen filled with the heavy-jowled face of the KNBC NewsCenter 5 anchorman.

"... and that’s the uplifting story of how one Menlo Park mother got her child the care he desperately needed.”

The anchorman’s tone dropped into his trademark melancholy growl. "Now we have a tragedy to report. KNBC has learned that Customs and Immigration officials boarded Pacific Dawn, a cargo ship tied up at Pier 7, and discovered a horrifying scene. The bodies of six women were shackled together in a locked container against the bulkhead of Pacific Dawn’s engine room where temperatures are reported to exceed 120 degrees. Likely causes of death were dehydration and heat stroke.”

Peck usually offered a string of critical comments during the news, but never for a listener’s benefit. That was Peck. He was the star of Peck’s World in which everyone else was a bit player. This time he was silent, watching the screen as if hypnotized.

"KNBC NewsCenter 5 investigative reporter Mary Kim has learned that Pacific Dawn was chartered by a trading company based in Panama City. District Attorney Rick Calder said his office is in the process of tracing ownership of the vessel. More at eleven.”

Peck clicked the TV into silence, finished the whiskey in his glass, and took in a deep breath, as if appraising the alcohol’s bouquet.

"That’s terrible,” Anita said softly from beside Jack.

It was, but why had Peck wanted to watch it? Jack asked, "What did you mean when you said we were ‘just in time?’”

"Forget that. Just get out, both of you.”

"No, I want to stay with you,” Anita cried.

Peck looked at her with no empathy in his expression. "Touching thought my dear, but you’re already a dead woman.”

That sounded like he was pronouncing sentence on a convicted defendant.

Anita gasped and covered her mouth with her hand.

Peck paid no attention to her. Instead he shifted his gaze to Jack. "Your life is about to change more than you can imagine, and there’s nothing you can do to prevent that... not that I give a damn.” His tone was cold. "But I’ll tell you this,” he said with more energy, "those bastards on Wall Street have it right. Buy on the rumor, sell on the news. Well, you just heard the news.”

From behind Jane’s Fighting Ships,Peck raised the silver Smith & Wesson .45 that he always kept in the second drawer of his desk. "To fend off pirates from Sausalito,” he’d once told Jack.

Index finger curled around the trigger, Peck swung the muzzle toward Anita. She screamed and turned away, bending over at the waist. "No! No! No!”

Jack hurled himself across the desk to knock the gun from his father’s hand.

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