Sixteen year old Leona Valley woke up shaking from a cold sweat. Anxiety slithered through her veins like a fiery serpent, burning through her tempered skin. She peeled away the hair sticking to the back of her neck and bunched it into a ponytail. Her clothes were beginning to have a hamper odor of perspiration and grime. Humidity, even for this hour was miserable. Leona tossed the thick checkered blanket she had filched from Walmart the night before to the floor board of the decrepit Dodge Neon – also acquired illicitly a few days earlier. Leona sat up in the backseat of the Neon fighting to breathe, still trying to escape the bloody restaurant in her nightmare. The same restaurant she’d been trying to break free from every night for the last four years. The restaurant in which her mother and father had been killed, murdered, by a man who wore tan snake skin cowboy boots with shiny metal toe tips. Leona thought of him as the devil with a Mexican accent.
The only words the devil spoke that day were written on the insipid wall of her mind in blood. All six words, twenty-four letters, nine syllables, and nine vowels ran crimson down the edge of sanity. Words Leona wished she could forget. Erase from her mind. And yet, words she held on to as though they were all she had left.
Mr. Cortez is tired of waiting…
3 TOM GARLAND
That’s it. That is all he had said. And then the Mexican devil with the tan cowboy boots and metal tips on the toes fired two shots that changed everything. Leona’s mother was first. Her lifeless head slamming down on the hard wooden restaurant table was what usually pulled Leona from the ongoing nightmare.
Leona’s father had saved her that terrible day. She recalled how his demeanor changed with a quick, unsettling, glance out the vast restaurant window - like he knew what was about to happen.
Leona, get under the table and promise me you will not make a sound. At twelve years of age Leona had never questioned her father, and she did not question him now. She did as she was told, got under the table and squeezed her small frame against the back wall. Screams from the few other patrons in the restaurant was the only reason the killer did not hear Leona weeping into her sweaty palms beneath the table as her mother’s blood splattered on the floor inches from her face. The police officer, a black woman whose face Leona would never forget, sat on the floor and spoke softly to her until the coroner arrived and the bodies of her parents were taken away. Leona had refused to come out from beneath the table. To do so would have meant crawling through her mother’s blood. The heavy booth tabletop had to finally be removed to get her out.
That was four years ago. Leona had lived in a nice house and attended a private school. She was spoiled but not rotten. She had a dog named Dick, a gold fish named Harry and cat named Flipper. Leona had friends. She had her own bedroom full of toys and girly things. She had nice clothes, new shoes and clean underwear. But most of all she had parents who loved her and took care of her. She missed them every moment of everyday.
The Dodge Neon was parked a quarter of the way back in the Walmart parking lot - the same Walmart she had pilfered the blanket from the night before. Judging by the empty parking slots, Leona guessed the time to be around 2:00 a.m. She chose Walmart parking lots to camp out in because, regardless of the time, at
least a third of the slots were occupied. It’s hard to look conspicuous in a Walmart parking lot in a beat up Neon.
Leona stretched out on the backseat and slept, nightmare free, until 6:00 a.m. At which time she carefully folded the checkered blanket, after slicing a six inch hole in the middle with her pocket knife. She then repackaged the blanket and carried it in a Walmart bag to customer service. The young Hispanic girl at the service counter didn’t flinch when Leona said she had lost the receipt. With a friendly smile the Hispanic girl dished out, in cash, 24 dollars and 16 cents. Leona went straight to the McDonald's inside the store and purchased coffee and an egg, sausage and cheese biscuit. After visiting the facilities where she brushed her teeth, washed up, and even shampooed her hair in the sink, Leona went to the teenage girls department and picked out some clothes. Leona wasn’t particular about style as long as they didn’t stink. This early in the morning the dressing area was unattended. Leona put her old clothes over her new clothes and left. The first time she had pilfered clothes from Wally World was about two years ago. Scared out of her mind and bathed in guilt, Leona had roamed the store for two hours before summoning enough courage to walk out the door. Now it was second nature.
After peeling off her old clothes in the back of the Neon, Leona left Wal-Mart and drove to Quick Stop convenient store. She purchased a couple quarts of oil for the Neon, and ten dollars of gas. Leona snatched a Snicker’s bar from the shelf and slipped it into the rear pocket of her new camouflaged cargo pants on her way out.
Martin Vamp had been Nicholas and Wynona Valley’s good friend, personal attorney and silent partner long before they were murdered, long before an
5 TOM GARLAND
attorney was a necessity in the Valleys life. His firm handled everything for the Valleys, including their wills and personal finances. A graphic engineer by trade, Nicholas had created a software gaming system that would have put all other gaming systems to shame. Martin Vamp had been there every step of the way, handling the legal side of things. Wynona handled the marketing and sales end. Unfortunately, with a number of engineering setbacks and financial landmines, the project fell way behind schedule. In their wills, Nicholas and Wynona left the company to their only child, Leona. Of course, at the time it looked as though the Valley Company was going to be a gold mine. As it turned out the Valleys were so far in debt that their daughter received nothing other than a few family trinkets and old furniture. The only thing remaining from her inheritance was a locket she wore around her neck with her mother’s and father’s picture inside.
Martin Vamp was called the first time when - then thirteen year old - Leona ran away from her first foster family. “How far can a thirteen year old girl get with no money and no place to go?” That had been the question presented to Martin Vamp when the authorities showed up at his Houston home at two in the morning.
“Leona is a very resourceful young lady,” Martin had told them. He knew this for a fact. Nicholas and Wynona had been the adventurous type, hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, mountain climbing - anything that had to do with the outdoors. And they included their daughter in everything. Nicholas, even though driven as he was, was a huge conspiracy theorist. He believed those able to survive off the land had the best advantage when the time came. And Nicholas Valley truly believed he’d see it come in his lifetime. His daughter’s for sure. That was why when Leona was four he moved the family from Dallas to Austin. The hill country around Austin had so much more to offer. He had taught Leona to use a bow and arrow, to fish with a spear. Ignoring his wife’s vigorous objections, Nicholas has taught Leona how to shoot with a petite .38 Smith and Wesson. Leona had been found two days later by a police officer in downtown San Antonio on the River Walk. She was sleeping under a bridge. The second time Leona ran away she disappeared into the hill country where she had grown up. It took five days to locate her that time.
The third time she ran off was a little over two years ago. Leona doubted that anyone cared enough to even look for her anymore.
CHAPTER 2 6
At first, when he answered his office phone, Martin Vamp did not recognize Leona’s voice. She sounded so mature. Vamp gathered himself before speaking.
“Leona, is that you? My heavens, you sound so grown up. How old are you now? It’s been a while.” Vamp took a deep breath and continued when Leona didn’t respond. “It is good to hear from you. How are you?” Vamp said. It had been at least six months, maybe longer, since her last call. Before that she’d call at least once a week, always with the same question, which Vamp had grown to regret. Because each time he’d have to reply with the same bleak answer. The call usually lasted around thirty seconds.
The dreaded question he expected did not come so he said, “It’d sure be nice to see you. Margaret and I can come and get you. You know we have an extra room, a pool.” A swimming pool was usually enough to get any kid’s attention - but not Leona. She was not your typical sixteen year old. “You there, Leona?” Martin Vamp could hear her breathing. Was she sniffling? It was then Vamp realized the day, May 11th. Four years to the date Leona had lain at the feet of her dying parents. Martin Vamp felt the lump in his throat grow, and subdued the hard swallow that followed. “Leona, dear, let me help you.”
And then came the dreaded question:
“Have you found Mr. Cortez?”
7 TOM GARLAND
“Why is one man so hard to find, Mr. Vamp?”
“Leona, you can call me Martin. And to answer your question…, sadly, I don’t know. It is likely or at least possible that Mr. Cortez is dead. He may have never existed to start with.”
This line of thinking Leona was familiar with. The police and homicide detectives at the time of her parent’s murders were of the mindset that Leona was too young and far too disturbed, not to mention in state of shock, to recall what had happened. Even the police psychologist had thought at the time that young Leona’s traumatized mind was quite possibly playing tricks on her. But the words rang crystal clear in her head just like the resonating thud of her mom’s head had when hitting the table. Mr. Cortez is tired of waiting. Mr. Cortez was real. The two questions Leona wanted answers to were: who was Mr. Cortez? And what had he been waiting for?
Leona was street smart and that put her maturity level way beyond her sixteen years.
“Martin…” she said with a tone that caught him off guard. “Don’t BS me. I know and you know what I heard was real. I thought you were going to help me find him.”
Martin Vamp recalled the words he had spoken to a terrified Leona Valley four years earlier at the police station. He had been the only person to tell her that he believed her. He was the only person to promise her that he’d find Mr. Cortez if it was the last thing he did.
“I have never stopped looking, Leona,” Vamp lied. “If he’s out there, I will find him.”
“When you do…” Leona paused. She wanted to believe Mr. Vamp. He and his wife had been trusted friends of her parent’s. But she did not trust him. His words were not real. They were empty, just like the promise he had made her four years to the day. “…kill him!” Leona finally said, and then abruptly disconnected the call.
Martin Vamp sat in his office chair, the receiver still in his hand. Leona’s call put a knot in his stomach the size and weight of a sixteen pound bowling ball. Not having heard from Leona for six months, Vamp had wondered if she had finally been lost to the streets. She would cross his mind now and then but rarely did he give her much thought. Taken back by her last words: Kill him! Vamp couldn’t help but wonder what had become of Leona Valley. How was she making it? Did she live on her own? Should he have tried harder to find her?
His hand trembled as he sat the receiver down. Pull it together, Martin. He had court today and needed to be on top of his game. Winning today was everything. His plan was to disappear, buy a condo on faraway beach somewhere and start over. He had always liked Rio. Mysterious and exotic, would suit him fine. He’d leave Margaret the house, the cars, the dogs, the bills… the memories of their twenty-one years of marital hell. Martin just wanted to escape it all. At fifty-three he was in good health, descent shape, which with a little work could easily be transformed to good. With the money he’d make by winning this case, he’d be able to attract a young foreign girl, middle twenties - early thirties. He wasn’t that particular. He didn’t even care if she spoke English. All he knew for sure was that he needed to get away, start over, and pretend the last twenty-one years never happened.
Leona’s mom and dad had always preached education to her. Life is a process of learning, her parents preached. Literally – as far back as she could
9 TOM GARLAND
remember. Flashcards were as much a part of life as was sleeping and eating. Even camping trips and hiking expeditions included flashcards. “Knowledge is the key.” They’d say and say and say. Preschool for Leona was a joke. She was so far ahead of all the other children that she didn’t fit in. All through elementary school she was called teacher’s pet. Was there anything she couldn’t do? Leona was not only smarter than all the other children; she was stronger and more athletic. “Only the strong survive,” was another of her parent’s favorite sayings. Did they know that she’d end up on her own? Her dad used to say: The brain is so complex that you know things you don’t realize you know. You see things you don’t realize you see. Our minds are in a constant state of flux, gathering information, processing, analyzing - even predicting.
She often wondered if her father had known about that tragic day, and if so why had he not prevented it. But Leona was smart enough to know that seeing into the future was just not possible. Had it been possible her daddy would have never allowed her to be on her own, living on the streets, stealing food and clothing to survive.
Leona clicked the mouse and the internet popped up. Rosenberg Library on Galveston Island was one of her favorite hangouts. When cleaned up she looked like any other teenager with half a brain. If asked her age, she’d always say eighteen. That’s what her fake driver license said. No one ever questioned her about it. Leona looked eighteen. She knew the librarian by Ms. Wilson. Leona liked Ms. Wilson, and was probably more open with her than anyone. They’d usually talk grownup stuff like politics, the declining state of the world’s economy and morality. Leona never ceased to amaze Ms. Wilson with her knowledge. But when asked about high school - of which Leona had never attended – Leona would lie, lie, lie. Ms. Wilson always asked about college and her plans for the future. Leona lied about that, too. Leona’s only plan for the future was finding Mr. Cortez and the man with the metal toe snakeskin boots. What happened after that was anybody’s guess. She’d let fate decide that for her.
She found the Google search engine and typed in Nicholas Valley. The Valley Company appeared. She read, even though every word had been
committed to memory she read anyway. The website had been designed as a prelude to what was coming. The purpose of the site was intended to get the billions of gamers excited and anxious to purchase their product. Games were so advanced, so realistic that gamers were always on the lookout for something new. The site promised an evolution in gaming they’ve all been waiting for. Two lengthy paragraphs were devoted to Nicholas Valley’s biography and ended with his masters from MIT. Two pictures of Nicholas: one at graduation and another of him wearing the revolutionary light weight gaming glasses – soon to hit the shelves and change forever the way games are played. Leona gazed at the photos of her father and wished, as she always did, that her dad and mom were still alive to love her and take care of her. Leona folded her hand around the locket as tears rolled down her cheeks.
The page ended with a brief summary of Nicholas and Wynona Valley’s tragic deaths. The world will never know the depth of Valley’s gaming system, the article read. Leona had no idea who designed the website, who wrote the brief eulogy. Was it a friend, a partner?
Leona wondered as she often did how life would be had her parents been alive. But she pushed the thought away as she always did. Her parents were dead, nothing would ever change that. It was stupid to wonder about something that would never be.
Leona stared at the blank screen. She wiped her nose with the back of her wrist as a lonely tear made its way down her cheek.
11 CHAPTER 3
Leona was sure her parents would not have approved of her choice of reading material for this day, but Leona was on her own; therefore, free to make her own decisions. Besides, Ms. Wilson had recommended the books and she was a librarian, a retired school teacher – middle school - who Leona thought looked way too young to be retired. Ms. Wilson, of all people, would not lead young Leona down a harmful literary path. She was an educator.
For the most part, Ms. Wilson’s and Leona’s relationship revolved around books. Their immense love for the written word was their bond. Ms. Wilson had never met a girl Leona’s age with such an intrinsic thirst for knowledge. It was uncanny. At times a bit disturbing, like the time she caught Leona researching hand guns. “What on earth…”
Leona had been so engrossed in her research that she hadn’t realized Ms. Wilson was behind her, spying on her. Leona’s reaction had surprised even her. After the initial jolt of being startled, Leona turned to Ms. Wilson with a look that caused the librarian to take a step back. The moment passed quickly and Leona smiled.
“You scared me.”
“Sorry… the sight of guns freaks me out,” Ms. Wilson said, and left it at that.
Leona, since living on the street had acquired the art of improvisational storytelling, said. “My daddy’s an FBI agent. He has a gun like this one.” Leona pointed at a specific pistol on the seventeen inch screen. Beneath the picture it read: SIG Sauer P226 9mm.
“Your dad is an FBI agent?” In the previous three months of their acquaintance this was the first time Leona had made mention of her father.
Early on, when they had first made each other’s acquaintance, Ms. Wilson had asked about Leona’s family. Over her many years of teaching she had developed a fairly acute insight, intuition if you will, into the psyche of the younger generation. Leona’s abrupt exit at the mention of her parents was a pretty good indication that the girl’s home life was not very good, perhaps abusive. It was two weeks before Leona returned to the library. Since then Leona’s family life had not been mentioned. Ms Wilson figured she’d wait for the right time, right opening. And now suddenly her father’s an FBI agent?
She had not believed Leona that day; in fact it had created doubt in her mind about this unusual girl. Today her curiosity got the best of her. Maryann Wilson knew that she was infringing on the girl’s privacy, and that it was wrong to do so. But she had to know. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching, but Ms. Wilson was alone. Libraries were not as popular as they once were. Back in the day, the library had been bustling with children of all ages who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the next Harry Potter, R.L Stine, young adult vampire series and such. The list was endless. These days the library was quiet, malls and computer games were the things of interest now. Reading for pleasure…, with movies on demand, you’ve got to be kidding? It made the educator sick to her stomach. Leona was a breath of fresh air.
Maryann Wilson happened over to the computer Leona had been on. She sat down, once again looking to see if anyone was watching her. She logged on and went directly to history. It actually surprised her that Leona had not erased her history.
Leona had never mentioned her last name. She had never applied for a library card. Ms. Wilson had suggested it once but she had said her parents didn’t want her checking out books. I might forget to bring them back. On two different occasions Maryann Wilson had asked Leona what her last name was and both times she managed to avoid answering by pretending not to hear and then asking a question of her own. Maryann found the website, and read of Nicholas and Wynona Valleys brutal murders. The mention of poor Leona Valley nearly caused Ms. Wilson to black out.
She turned the computer off after erasing its history and then stared at the blank screen until her tears dried up. “Dear God!" She brushed her hair back with the palms of her hands. "The poor child!” She whispered rising from the chair.
Maryann Wilson ambled about the library thinking about what she had just seen and wondering what to do about it. What could she do? And then curiosity once again getting the best of her, she went to her desk and logged in on her computer. The Valley website had mentioned Austin. She typed: The Austin
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Daily and followed with Nicholas Valley. Several newspaper articles popped up. She located the one she was looking for. The date was May 11th – today’s date. Maryann read the article three times and each time it read of the Valley’s only child, twelve year old Leona being the sole survivor. No mention of grandparents, aunts, uncles… Leona was alone. Twelve… 12… “Dear, God the child is only sixteen!” The tears returned to her eyes and her heart pounded with fury. Leona’s father was not an FBI Agent; he was an engineer, apparently a brilliant engineer. It was no wonder that Leona was so smart, it was in her genetic makeup. But who took care of the child? Where did she live? Why did she lie about her age? Maybe she had foster parents and perhaps the father figure in this arrangement worked for the FBI.
Ms. Wilson pondered this for the rest of the afternoon, before it dawned on her the books she had purchase at Half-Price Books and had given the poor child as a gift was a trilogy about kids killing each other. How freaking insensitive. And you call yourself an educator?
Leona drove along Seawall Boulevard blending with the heavy summer traffic. It usually started in May. The beaches were packed on the weekends. She liked it that way. The more people there were, the less likely it was that she’d be noticed. June, July and August were her favorite. The months always brought a sea of humanity flocking to the white sands of Galveston Island. Leona’s favorite beach was the eight dollar beach. Of course, she never paid. This beach had showers. She had also befriended a guy who worked the front desk three nights a week at the Ramada Inn on Seawall Boulevard. He was twenty-one. She had offered herself to him one night. She had felt like a tramp for doing so, but it all worked out. Because when he came to the room he came with a twelve pack of cheap beer, and proceeded to guzzle six before getting the courage to approach her. By then he was drunk, and fell asleep fully dressed. Leona, however, was not going to let him off the hook. While he was out-to-the-world she had stripped him all the way to his skivvies. When he awoken the next morning she convinced him the deed had been done. He had actually been quite proud of himself. Leona got what she was after: free room and board on the nights he worked. There was usually an empty room available. One night he told Leona he couldn’t give her a room anymore. Being the survivor she is, Leona told him that she was sixteen and if he did not give her the room she would go to the police and would have him arrested for rape.
“There’s no way you can prove we had sex,” he had said.
“Quite the contrary, old chap.” She smiled. “You’re a college boy...” He was a senior at A&M. “Surely you’re familiar with DNA. I have a sample.” She raised her eyebrows in triumph. Of course, she had no such thing, but he didn’t know that. Three nights a week during the summer she slept in a nice
comfortable bed with fresh linens, took warm showers, had clean towels to dry with, and a television to watch. Best of all she enjoyed a free breakfast of pastries and cereal, juice and coffee. Her favorite was the basket brimming with oranges and apples of which she’d take enough to get her through the day.
Court had not gone well for Martin Vamp this May 11th. He had put just about every penny he had into his team of lawyers. Four years, nearly four years anyway, and it all comes down to an unjust ruling of a single judge.
“Mr. Vamp, we warned you of this possible scenario—“
“From the onset,” another of his high dollar attorneys added.
Vamp didn’t want to hear any of this. Rio flashed through his head. He imagined the jet crashing onto a pristine Rio beach. That’s how he felt: crash and burn. Now what? He had spent nearly all his and Margaret’s money they had been saving for years. Vamp hadn’t bothered to tell his wife either. She had no idea they were on the verge of bankruptcy. How could he have been so stupid? Martin Vamp had always criticized the idiots that threw their hard earned money away in Vegas. Chances of winning were so small why waste your money? And yet, he had laid nearly every cent he had on the roulette wheel and lost. Who’s the idiot now?
Vamp poured a drink from the bar in his office and guzzled it down and poured another. He raised his glass. “Any of you care to join me?” He tilted his head back. The whiskey burned his throat and gave him immediate heartburn. “How about a gun? You wouldn’t possibly have one in your fancy briefcase, would you?”
The lead attorney, Michael Redington, stepped forward. He was in his late fifties with a full mane of gray hair and had distinguished lines jutting from his eyes. Redington was the kind of man you wanted on your side. Martin chose him because he never lost. Never say never, Martin, his mother used to say
“Don’t panic,” Redington offered; his tone calm. His demeanor relaxed, not a care in the world. Hell, why should you worry, you have all my money, Vamp thought as he listened to the man, who at the moment he felt like killing. “Just because the judge ruled doesn’t mean that it’s over.” He paused and glanced at the two men behind him. “Go get me some coffee. I saw a Starbucks just down the street.” The less important of the two started to leave and Redington said with a wave of his index finger. “You both go.” He turned to Vamp. “I’ll have that drink now.”
Vamp viewed Redington with suspicion and then glanced at the door his 2nd and 3rd counsel had just exited through. Vamp poured drinks.
“Sit down, Martin.” Redington received the drink, took a sip and sat it on the edge of Vamp’s massive desk. Vamp was slouching like a defeated athlete. "Martin, this is not over. You need to pull yourself together. Get a grip.” Redington took another sip as he watched Martin Vamp straighten up in his desk chair, defeat falling away at the sound of Redington’s words. “I do not lose. So trust me when I say this is not over. I told you when we started this case what it would take to win. Your short sightedness and greed got in the way.”
Vamp was about to fly out his of chair. Redington simply held up his hand and Vamp relaxed. “You work for me; do you really think you should be talking to me that way?”
Redington finished his drink. Leaning back he rested the empty glass on the thick padded arm of the chair. He stared intently into Vamp’s eyes until Vamp could no longer hold his fiery gaze. “I did not get to where I am by being nice, Martin. Let’s not pretend to be friends. I work for you, yes, but it’s my reputation on the line as much as your financial future. I know what you have invested thus far in your legal counsel. I also know there’s not much left in the kitty. So here’s the deal…” Redington took his attaché from the floor and sat it on his lap. The latches popped open and he pulled a new contract out and sat it on the desk, closed the case and returned it to the floor. “If we win this case… Let me rephrase that statement. When we win this case you will be in sole possession of a gold mine. We’ve done our research, made the projections, studied the market and reached the conclusion that you will be a very wealthy man.” Redington tapped the contract he had just sat on the desk. “If I am to continue as your legal counsel a few adjustments need to be made.” Redington held Vamp’s gaze.
“What do you have in mind?” Martin Vamp stared at the new contract Redington was about to hit him with.
Redington shot him with a devilish grin, and then slid the contract across the desk. It was several pages in length. “You want the synopsis before you read it?”
Vamp leaned back, knowing whatever was in those cryptic pages he was not going to like it. Redington looked harmless, professional. The old saying “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”; was coined for men like Michael Redington.