James O. Born

Escape Clause

Filled with “top thrillwork” (Kirkus Reviews), “characters so believable they seem plucked from the South Florida streets” (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel), “and some good laughs, too” (The Miami Herald), James O. Born’s Shock Wave won even more praise than his acclaimed debut, Walking Money.Escape Clause

And his new novel is better yet.

FDLE agent Bill Tasker’s boss is worried about the stress Tasker’s been under, but he has a solution. The governor wants somebody from the outside to take a look into an inmate homicide at Manatee Correctional Prison, and the boss figures he can do the state a favor and give Tasker a break at the same time. Some break. Turns out there’s a whole lot going on at Manatee. The prison captain likes to enforce discipline by fairly unorthodox methods. The psych ward has been known to misplace a mental patient occasionally. A trustee named Luther has far more on his mind than working in the prison library—though the rods holding up the shelves do make very nice shivs. The prison inspector is carrying a number of very uninspector-like secrets. And something very bad is about to happen to Tasker’s next-door neighbor.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

Escape Clause is the third volume in the Bill Tasker series.


ONE

Bill Tasker took his daughter’s hand as they crossed the parking lot heading into the Bank of Florida branch in Kendall, just south of the city of Miami. The blond eight-year-old saw a license tag from Quebec on a rust-riddled Nissan pickup truck and turned to her father and asked, “What’s that mean?” pointing at the phrase on the tag.

“Je me souviens?”

“Yeah, what is it?” Her blue eyes wide.

“French.”

“But, what’s it mean?”

“Not sure, sweetheart, but I think it means, ‘I brake for no apparent reason.’ ”

She gave him one of her looks.

“Or it means, ‘I drive slow in the left lane.’ ”

She kept her look until he laughed and then asked him again, “What’s it really mean?”

“I think it means, ‘I remember.’ ”

“Remember what?”

Tasker shrugged. “I dunno, baby. Maybe they should remember not to start a war with the English.”

She gave him another look, but seemed satisfied with the answer as they pushed open the tall, glass front door and walked inside.

The smell of banks bugged him—that fake, clean, antiseptic odor. Just like the fake nice furniture—the expensive-looking veneer pasted over cheap pressboard, designed to be replaced every few years when the constant swarm of people turned it black with dirt. After a couple of minutes, his biggest concern was that Emily would damage some of it. When they were fifteen people back in line, she had dropped to the floor to do a full split. Now that they were ten people back, she was leaning on a stool with one hand and lifting her whole body off the ground in short bursts.

“Look, Daddy,” she said, as her entire body floated off the ground, muscles straining, balancing on her left hand.

Bill Tasker smiled and said, “That gymnastics class is paying off.”

An older Latin man next to Tasker said, “That is a real talent.” He was sincere and Tasker had to admit he was proud of the athletic ability of his youngest daughter.

She lowered herself with control and stepped back to her father in line. “What are all those stars for?” she said, pointing at a large poster.

Tasker said, “Those are asterisks. They mean free checking costs six bucks a month, and four percent interest on a CD is really two and a half.”

She looked at him in confusion.

He smiled and said, “It just means that when the big letters say something, you have to read what’s at the bottom of the page, too.”

She shrugged, just happy to have a few minutes with her dad. He felt the same way. He saw her and her sister, Kelly, at least once a week even though they lived with their mother seventy miles north in West Palm Beach. They stayed with him in his town house every other weekend, and then he visited one or two nights a week for dinner. Their mother seemed to appreciate the visits as much as the girls.

Today was an extra weekday—a teacher’s planning day in Palm Beach County. Tasker had taken a rare day off from work just to spend with them, directly addressing his ex-wife’s contention that he focused more on work as an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement than on the girls and her. A belief that was, unfortunately, built entirely on fact. Police work, especially investigations, required an alarming amount of time. FDLE tended to get involved in the biggest of cases and there often wasn’t time to just take off and see your family. As he and the girls grew older, he realized what a mistake that was.

He could watch either of his girls all day long. Granted, Kelly, the oldest, had a much more refined streak and mature attitude, but he thought of her as perfect. Emily was almost like the son he never had. He took in a deep breath of recycled air, appreciating the fact that he had a day with them he had not expected.

Emily playfully started to pull on his arm and climb off the ground, but he stopped her. He hated to admit it but the toll of the last six months had caught up to him. Among his other injuries during a hunt for a fugitive, he had torn the ligaments in his left shoulder. The fugitive, Daniel Wells, had been wanted for the bombing of a cruise ship. Tasker had allowed him to slip through his fingers once and, determined to catch him, had made an ill-advised leap into the back of Wells’ speeding pickup truck. He felt the result of his exit from the moving truck every day. The new scar on his forehead didn’t bother him, but chronic pain was starting to mount up. He still hadn’t started back to practice with the Special Operations Team.

Tasker and his daughter exchanged small talk and played games until they were near the front of the line. He had allowed the day off and the attention of his daughter to relax him more than he’d been in months.

Out of nowhere, Emily said, “That lady is pretty. Would she be fun to go out with?”

Tasker’s eyes followed her finger to a petite Latina with layers of lustrous light brown hair and dark, intelligent eyes. She was cheerfully directing the tellers as she calmed the impatient crowd. Tasker noted that she had a touch too much makeup, then caught himself. That picky attitude might explain why he’d been celibate for almost six months. He had to admit he’d been lonely, due to this shit-heel, critical attitude and the fact that he was still hung up on his ex-wife.

“Why would you ask that, beautiful?”

She shrugged her tiny shoulders. “Mom goes out with Nicky sometimes. Kelly and me want you to be happy, too.”

He ruffled her hair and smiled. “I am happy. You guys make me happy.”

“But she’d make you happy, too, wouldn’t she?”

Tasker looked back at the vivacious, radiant bank manager with the extra eyeliner. “I’m sure she’s a nice person.”

“Will you ask her out?”

“Let’s see when we get up there.”

“So you might?”

He smiled and let out a little laugh. Before he could answer, though, a blast of warm, humid South Florida air hit him as the front door swung open. He looked up and …couldn’t pinpoint the feeling exactly, but his hand almost instinctively came to rest on the small, green belly bag that concealed his off-duty Sig P-230 automatic. Two men in their early twenties stood next to the door, talking. Tasker scanned them from their ratty Keds to the grubby University of Miami ball caps on their heads.

They looked up at the security cameras and then up and down the row of tellers. They never even looked at the customers. Tasker knew what they were up to. The only question was whether they had the balls to go through with it right now.

Every instinct told him to draw now and preempt what was coming, but Emily’s presence at his side slowed him, as did the other innocent bystanders. Unless there was an immediate threat to someone’s life he shouldn’t worry about a bank losing money. Besides, maybe these guys were just workmen assessing a painting job. Oh please, he was thinking like an attorney now.

His heart rate picked up as he watched the two men, dressed in jeans with unbuttoned shirts over T-shirts, separate, one staying near the front door, the other heading toward the counter. He noticed the tattoos on the neck of the guy walking toward the counter. The other had both ears and an eyebrow pierced. He wanted to give a good description when the Metro-Dade detectives asked him what he had seen.

He turned to Emily. “Hey, let’s play a little game.”

She immediately lit up.

“You try and hide where I can’t see you, under that table with the marble-looking top.” He pointed to a table in the small loan area twenty feet from the line. “You stay there, out of sight, until I come over and get you.”

Without hesitation, she scurried over to the empty loan area and disappeared under the table.

Tasker took a step to the side, moving out of the line, then started to step forward past the few remaining customers toward the counter and the would-be robber. As he took a step, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Where do ya think you’re goin’?”

He turned quickly, and at first thought no one was there, then looked down and found that an elderly lady, not much taller than Emily, had reached up and grabbed him.

“No cutting in line. We’ve all been here awhile.” She had a sharp New York accent.

“Yes, ma’am, I know. I wasn’t cutting in line.” As he was about to turn back, he heard a loud voice.

“Nobody move.”

It was one of the men he’d been watching. He stood next to the counter and held a large-framed revolver. The other man blocked the front door, with a much smaller revolver in his hand. It looked like a Smith five-shot .38.

Tasker’s stomach flipped as he glanced back to the table Emily was under. He didn’t see her. Good. He stood still, letting this thing unfold. It was the smart move, keeping everyone out of the line of fire, but it went against his nature.

The robber at the counter turned to the tellers and started barking commands as he pulled out an empty pillowcase from somewhere under his open shirt. “Fill this quick. When it’s heavy enough, I’ll leave and you can go back to business. You fuck with me and I’m gonna pop a cap in somebody’s ass.” He tossed the pillowcase to the closest teller, who immediately started shoveling cash from her drawer into it. She passed it to the next teller, who did the same.

Tasker zeroed in on the redneck accent and figured him for a Homestead thug who’d watched too much TV where people were always popping caps and holding their guns sideways. That shit annoyed Tasker as much as robberies. He stole another glance toward Emily’s table and still saw nothing. Poor, tiny Emily was probably squished in the corner, terrified.

The man at the counter banged the grip of the revolver on the counter saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” as his eyes darted around the bank’s lobby and the pillowcase made its rounds. His partner appeared much calmer, watching the people in line and occasionally glancing out the door. His head bobbed to some private beat in his brain.

Then things changed. The small, pretty manager Emily had fancied as a stepmother took the case from the last teller and approached the robber. The pillowcase was stuffed with cash now. She struggled with the heavy bag as she handed it to him, then took a short step backward. She stood silently, her brown eyes taking in every detail. Tasker wasn’t the only one gathering a description.

The robber set the bag on the counter and dug through it with his free hand. After a few seconds of searching, he froze, then yanked something from the bag. Tasker could see it was silver-colored, probably a dye pack. The man heaved it across the tellers’ space, causing one of the younger female tellers to let out a yelp. The robber stared at the manager silently and raised the gun to the young woman’s head.

“Think we’re stupid?” he shouted, sticking the gun barrel in the middle of her delicate forehead. She remained placid and said, “I’m sorry, it—”

Then he pulled the trigger, the sound of the gun echoing hard on the tiled floor of the bank. The bank manager’s legs went limp and she dropped straight to the ground, her long brown hair floating over her face as she fell. Everyone gasped, and for an instant the bank was as quiet as a library. Then came the screaming. The noise seemed disconnected from the people making it.

Tasker took the moment to grab a look at the punk with the piercings at the front door, who appeared startled by the violence, then to each side. These people were in danger if he took action, but by the look of the guy at the counter, they were in danger if he didn’t. He took one last peek at Emily’s hiding place and didn’t see her.

The shooter stood over the manager, staring at her body. He still had the gun up pointing at the tellers. His gaze came up as he looked for a new person to order around.

That was it. Tasker decided to take advantage of the confusion by reaching for his pistol.

He stepped away from the crowd and yanked a string that opened the front of his bag, revealing the pistol in a holster and a yellow badge patch with the word POLICE under it. He drew the flat gray Sig smoothly, bringing it directly on target without a sound, then fired at the gunman. He was worried that the small caliber might not have enough stopping power, so he reverted to his years of SWAT training and automatically fired three times, twice in the body and once in the head. He caught the robber before he could aim his revolver. The round in the head stopped every brain function the man had and the gun slipped to the floor a second before his dead body.

Tasker didn’t pause. Blocking out the screams and movement of the customers, he pivoted and dropped to one knee, his pistol sight coming onto the chest of the man at the door, his eyes wide, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like it was broadcasting a redneck Morse code.

Tasker assessed his target and saw the young man hadn’t raised his gun; he just stood there in horror.

Tasker raised his voice above the chaos and, once again following his training, said, “Police, don’t move,” in a clear, direct tone.

The man froze. Tasker stole a look past him toward the front door. No one else was coming in. The bank seemed to quiet down as if on cue.

“Drop the gun, now.” Clear, not panicked. That took effort.

The small revolver clanked on the tile floor.

“Step toward me, now.”

The man stepped toward Tasker, and more important, away from the gun.

Tasker stood, keeping his pistol on the man’s body, and said, “On the ground and spread your hands.”

The man complied and then everything rushed into Tasker’s head at once as he came out of his tunnel vision.

He stepped to the man and searched him roughly with one hand as he held the gun to his head. He leaned in close and asked, “How many more?”

The young man shook his head violently and said, “Just Vinnie the driver, but he ain’t got a gun.”

Tasker touched the barrel of his gun to the man’s head. “If you move when I stand up, you’re dead meat. Got it?”

The man nodded his head vigorously.

Tasker backed away until he was next to the robber he’d just shot. There wasn’t much blood because of the head shot. His heart had stopped getting the signal to pump before he’d hit the ground, but Tasker reached down to check his pulse anyway. Nothing. He picked up the two dropped revolvers and held them with one hand. He hopped onto the counter, still watching the prone man, and then turned to see the young manager sprawled at an odd angle on the carpeted floor. One neat, nearly bloodless hole in her forehead. He didn’t risk losing his line of sight to the remaining robber to check her. She was dead.

Then he sprang down and darted past the line and looked into the loan area.

Emily’s face was white as she crouched on the far side of the table.

In the distance he could hear the sirens.