Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Friday, June 3, 2016
They were driving north on I-10 toward downtown Tucson with Nick in the passenger seat and Matt and Dane in the back. Jesse Martinez was already in custody and going through the bargaining process of reducing his sentence for information on Reynoso’s Uranium-trafficking deal. The Familia Reynoso was greeted quite harshly by a CIA-FBI taskforce a half mile offshore from the Puerto Vallarta port. It would be a long process, but the FBI’s Russian contacts would eventually lead them in the right direction. In the digital era there were always trails to follow and the FBI would get their due.
Matt was looking down at his phone scanning his emails when he glanced at Dane. “We found your friend.”
Dane’s mouth opened and stayed there. “How? Where?”
“He crawled his way to the front door of some unsuspecting family just inside our border,” Matt informed him. “He was suffering from multiple gunshots and many broken bones, but it looks like he’s going to survive.”
“What? That’s crazy!”
Hal looked over his shoulder at the kid from behind the wheel. “Really? That’s crazy?”
“Leave him alone,” Nick said. “He’s delirious.”
“That’s the nicest thing you could say about him,” Hal said.
Hall turned onto an exit ramp with the sun lighting up the eastern horizon.
“Where are we going?” Dane asked from the back seat.
“You think we’re going to let you go free after all the trouble you caused?” Nick asked.
“But . . . but . . .” Dane stammered, his eyes pleading with anyone who would look his way.
No one did.
Hal turned right and maneuvered down a two lane road, then turned into the entrance to a small hospital overlooking the highway.
“But I helped you find that Reynoso guy, right?” Dane said, looking at the parking lot and recognizing something. “Wait, that looks just like my mom’s car.”
“That’s because it is your mom’s car,” Nick said.
Hal swung the SUV around the semicircle drop-off area fronting the entrance to the hospital and stopped.
“What’s going on?” Dane asked.
Nick swiveled around in his seat and said, “Your friend is inside and I’ll bet he’d like to see you.”
“So . . . I can go?”
Dane looked at Matt and he nodded without looking up from his email check.
Dane pulled the handle on the door and when it opened, he said, “Are you coming with me?”
“No,” Nick said. “We’re leaving. We have more important challenges ahead of us. You’re free to go.”
“Your car is at Palisades Repair Shop a mile from where you drove it into the ocean. I hope you have good insurance.”
“And I’m not going to be arrested?’
“What about those guys that were waiting for me outside you complex? You said they were going to be at my house.”
“We lied,” Nick said. “It was a couple of college kids. The driver’s mom is an old friend from Baltimore. They were glad to sit in the rain for a couple of hours for a little extra cash.”
Dane tried to put the pieces together while sitting there with his hand still on the door handle.
Nick finally raised his eyebrows. “You can go, Dane. You did something very stupid and broke some laws in the process, but you are a guppy in an ocean of sharks. We’re after the sharks. Stay out of Mexico for the rest of your life and you’ll be just fine.”
Dane still couldn’t believe his ordeal was ending. “What if I have more questions?”
Matt rolled his eyes, then pulled a business card out of his coat and tossed it at the kid. Dane lifted from his lap and gave it a serious examination, as if it might be a fake.
“Go,” Matt said, “before we change our minds.”
Dane got the hint. A smile creased the side of his face. He jumped down out of the back seat and just as he was about to shut the door, Matt said, “Hey kid.”
Matt gave him his best FBI agent glare and said, “Don’t be greedy.”
Monday, May 16, 2016
They were driving across the desert once again, Hal Dixon behind the wheel asking questions and Nick explaining the results of their trip from the back seat. The SUV’s headlights swept through the darkness while Jessie poured coffee from his thermos into Hal’s cup on the console.
Hal thanked him and glanced into his rearview mirror at Dane who was pinched between Nick and Matt like deli meat. “You see what you’ve done kid?”
Dane was doing his best to keep his eyes open but losing the battle. He was safe now and the drama of the past twenty-four hours mixed with the relief of escaping a death sentence had overtaken his body. His head was dropping with each bounce of the suspension system over the dips in the desert terrain.
Nick elbowed Dane. “Hey, someone’s talking to you.”
Dane murmured, “I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?”
Nick leaned his head back and sighed. “It’s amazing what people will do for money.”
“Greed,” Matt said resting his head against the window, looking like he was about to nod off.” “That’s what it is. Greed.”
“Hey kid,” Hal said. “What were you going to do with the money anyway?”
“I was going to buy a car.”
Matt shook his head. “You could make seventy-five cents an hour doing prison laundry. That’ll add up after a decade or so.”
“What?” Dane’s face exploded into a look of shock. “Prison? What did I do? You know I was forced to do it.”
“That’s a good story,” Nick said. “I’d stick with it.”
Dane pouted. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean you’ll be arrested and tried for acts of terrorism.”
Dane searched the inside of the SUV as if someone there could help him. Jesse was banging a flashlight against his knee to get it to work, when it sprung to life and shined directly onto his face.
Dane’s eye’s popped open, but he remained perfectly still. Jessie glanced back at him for a moment, then turned and put the flashlight back into the glove compartment.
Dane nudged Nick with his elbow.
When Nick looked at Dane he saw the wide-eyed kid staring at Jesse. Dane leaned into Nick’s ear and whispered, “That’s him.”
“Stop the vehicle,” Jesse said from the front seat. He had his pistol out and aimed at Hal.
“Oh crap,” Nick said.
“I told you,” Dane blurted. “That’s the guy I saw in your book.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “You were right.”
“No one ever believes me.”
Nick let that one go.
Hal slowed the SUV to a stop. With a deep exhale, he said, “Jesse, how could you?”
“I’d give you a hundred thousand reasons why.” Jesse grinned, tapping on the interior lights.
“Greed,” Matt muttered from the back seat.
“Yes,” Jesse said. “A way to take care of my family without working sixty hour weeks and being too tired to play with my kids. That’s why. Now, put your hands on your head.”
Everyone in the car complied.
“Good,” Jesse said. “If anyone takes their hands off their head I will end this.”
“Are you going to let us go?” Dane asked with a quiver in his voice.
Nick answered for him. “No, Dane. He’s going to have to kill us because we know his identity.”
Jesse retained a smug grin.
Dane turned to Matt and said, “Do something.”
Matt shrugged. “I’m a good draw, but I’m not Superman.”
Dane was antsy, wiggling his torso while keeping his hands firmly on his head. “Why are we waiting here?”
“We are waiting for the Reynoso execution squad,” Jesse replied, giving a quick glance out the front windshield.
“Isn’t it worth something that Matt didn’t kill your boss?” Nick said.
“Sure,” Jesse said, turning the pistol toward the group in the back seat. “In return I’m going to let you live long enough to know that the Uranium you discovered was only the first ten percent. The other ninety percent—“ he glanced at his watch, then continued, “is going to dock in Puerto Vallarta in less that ninety minutes.” A beautiful craft by the name of the Familia Reynoso. Catchy name, huh?”
“I told you,” Dane said. “How come you didn’t believe me?”
Matt rolled his eyes. “Really?” You feel you have a credibility issue?”
“You told them what?” Jesse asked.
“Wait,” Dane said. “You told me he was an FBI agent. You lied to me.”
“It happens,” Nick said, ignoring Jesse’s request.
There was a flicker of light on the horizon, bobbling up and down with the contour of the rough desert floor.
“Well, no matter now,” Jesse said, “here comes my team.”
“But why would you lie?” Dane pleaded. His eyes glistening up. “Why? I told you it was him.”
“We believed you,” Matt finally answered.
Jesse looked at Matt with an inquisitive expression. “What did you believe?”
The headlights grew stronger, winding around the cacti and shrubs as it drew closer.
“He picked your face out of a book of Border Patrol Agents,” Matt said. “That’s how we suspected you were working with Reynoso.”
The charging headlights came to a skidding stop directly in front of their SUV. A black Ford Explorer sat behind a cloud of desert dust floating across its headlights. All the doors opened and four men wearing FBI windbreakers jumped out of the vehicle with their pistols out. They spread out and crouched their way toward the Border Patrol SUV.
Jesse looked at Matt who took his hands down from his head and said, “Sorry Jesse. We’re the FBI. We don’t always play fair.”
Jesse’s face turned into a snarl and he pointed his pistol at Matt and pulled the trigger. A click. He pulled and pulled with no success. Then he looked at his gun as if it were betraying the laws of physics.
Hal yanked the gun from his partner’s hand and said, “I am so very disappointed in you.”
The doors flung open and a voice commanded them to get out.
Jesse’s face turned soft. As he was pulled from the vehicle, he looked at Hal with a childlike innocence and said, “I’m sorry.”
Monday, May 2, 2016
Reynoso made a familiar gesture to the bartender, then held up three fingers. The older gentleman hesitated for a moment, then recognized the signal and placed three shot glasses on the bar and filled them with Reynoso’s favorite tequila. Reynoso took one of the glasses, then pointed to the table with the Americans and the bartender shuffled out from behind the bar and placed the remaining shot glasses on their table.
The two FBI agents seemed to recognize the gesture. Their final drink before they died. Both men picked up their glasses and they toasted Reynoso as the three of them tossed the tequila down their throats.
“Very nice,” Nick said, sensing the end coming. “But in my introduction to my partner I failed to mention his prowess with a gun.”
The tall American, Matt, pulled aside his jacket and exposed a shoulder holster with a pistol. For some reason he smiled.
The bodyguards lifted their shotguns, ready to fire.
“You think this is some form of threat?” Reynoso asked. “I have two of my best men aiming a shotgun at each of you.”
Finally the partner spoke. “Here’s the thing. I’ve practiced drawing my weapon several hours a month. Sometimes I do it while watching TV just to keep fresh. I’ve been ready for this my entire life.”
Reynoso laughed. “You are a very stupid man. Wasting your life on such a useless activity.”
“So now I have a question for your men,” Matt said. “That’s a Mossberg 500 pump action shotgun they’re holding. What they need to ask themselves is--Can they actually rack and slide a shell into their chamber before I can draw and double-tap my Glock?”
Reynoso sensed a tightness in his bodyguards demeanor. He could tell they were wondering the same things themselves. Could this guy really be that good?
“Wait,” Reynoso said, pointing at Nick, “you will not be shooting your weapon?”
“Nah,” Nick said. “Be a waste of time. I’m pretty slow on the draw.”
Then he looked at Matt. “And you will draw your weapon and fire two shots before they can shoot their shotguns?’’
“Yes,” Matt said. “I think you’re catching on.”
“Come now,” Reynoso said. “Are you being serious with this?”
“Yeah, and listen, I want to make sure these guys understand English, because I warned someone earlier that might not’ve understood me. You see, I shoot to kill.”
Reynoso assessed his men and saw their nerve being tested. They didn’t have the same determination they had begun with.
“You should tell them to place their weapons down,” Matt said in a non-threatening tone. “It’s the humane thing to do.”
“And if I let you go?” Reynoso said. “Then what?”
“Then we leave,” Matt said. “And you go on with your corrupt lifestyle intimidating innocent people and killing anyone who threatens you.”
Reynoso was calculating the damage to his authority should he decide to let the Americans leave. With everyone watching, he couldn’t afford to be seen as weak. Word would spread. He needed something to save face.
“All right,” Reynoso said. “I will allow you to leave.” Then he nodded at the kid at the bar. “But he stays.”
The boy screeched, “No. You can’t do that.”
The two Americans looked at each other, considering the offer with a look of disgust on their faces while the kid sobbed and begged.
Finally Nick said, “Believe me, we’re tempted to leave him here, but we’re going to have to take him back home and deal with him there.”
The kid’s sobs became moans of gratitude.
Reynoso was up against a wall. He couldn’t afford to have these foreigners bully him in front of his people. He rubbed the back of his neck and frowned. “I am sorry, but the boy must stay. That is my final offer.”
Dane’s eyes were swollen and glossy with small childish noises coming from his throat.
Matt stood there with a look of disappointment. The fingers in his right hand fluttered by his side. “Then it seems we have a problem.”
“Yes,” Reynoso said. “We do.”
It was so quiet in the bar, the only sound came from a squeaky ceiling fan above them. Reynoso glared at the Americans with a determined expression. “It is unfortunate.”
“We don’t need to do this,” Matt said with a hint of sympathy in his voice.
“Yes,” Reynoso said. “We do.”
Matt’s stare was intense, but Reynoso noticed he was staring directly at Reynoso’s torso, as if looking through him. It became apparent that Matt was watching for any quick movement his bodyguards might make with his peripheral vision.
In the silence, Nick said, “Please, let us go. You can save your men’s lives. These are good men. They work hard for you. They have families.”
The entire room stool perfectly still, as if posing for someone to paint scene.
Reynoso lifted his finger like a gun and aimed it at the two FBI agents. Immediately the bodyguards took their cue and furiously pumped back on the rack of the shotgun. Two loud shots exploded inside the low-ceilinged room. Reynoso flinched. The two bodyguards dropped hard to the floor. As they landed Reynoso could see a bullet hole in the center of both of their foreheads.
A woman screamed. A bottle of tequila slipped from the bartender’s hand and crashed by his feet.
Nick Bracco walked over to the kid at the bar and grabbed the back of his shirt, then pulled him from his bar stool and tugged him toward the door.
Matt holstered his pistol and moved toward Reynoso. He looked down at the dead men lying next to their boss and with a look of disgust, he said, “Better call their families, Jefe. Tell them how brave they were.”
As Matt was walking out the door, he turned to Reynoso and added, “Have us followed and you’ll be making phone calls the rest of the night.”
Monday, April 25, 2016
Juan Carlos Reynoso sat at a poker table in a dusty back room of the Chico Rico Grill in northern Tijuana and stared at the pair of threes as if they might somehow become Aces if he stared long enough. The rest of his poker playing opponents were becoming impatient, but were too afraid to rush the mafia mogul. The room was musty and subbed as a storeroom for the supplies, with cases of beer and boxes of taco shells piled in the corner. Reynoso’s two large bodyguards were playing their own private game of gin on top of one of the stacked cases, never out of reach of their shotguns.
“Jefe,” one of the players said, pointing at the cards in his hand. “Por favor.”
Reynoso looked at the large pot and grunted while slapping his cards face down and shoving then under the pile of chips in the center of the table.
The door opened and Reynoso’s cousin stuck his head in. “Jefe,” he said looking at Reynoso. “That kid. The one with the briefcase.”
Reynoso’s cousin glanced around to be certain he didn’t say any more than he needed. “He is here.”
Reynoso squinted. “What?”
Reynoso’s cousin just nodded.
“He can’t be,” Reynoso’s voice elevated. “Our contact never received the package.”
“Maybe he is here to return it?” his cousin suggested.
Reynoso slid his chair back and gestured to his two bodyguards. That’s all it took. They were already at the door, one of them holding it open, both of them with their shotguns. They strode down the short corridor to the bar where the kid sat on a barstool sipping a glass of beer, his eyes darting everywhere. The Chico Rico Grill was packed and the Mariachi band playing up against the wall in the back had five couples dancing in front of them. The rest of the bar was filled with partiers around wooden tables with small unlit candles in the middle of them.
As if the regulars knew to stay away, the kid was alone at the bar, five empty stools around him. As soon as Reynoso showed up with the two shotgun-wielding bodyguards, a hush came over the crowd, while the band played on eerily.
Reynoso dropped into the stool next to the kid and rested his arm on the bar. “You came here to bring me back my briefcase, yes?”
Reynoso was close enough to see the kid’s lips trembling. He was clutching the glass of beer as if it might escape.
“I uh . . . not really,” the kid said, shooting glances at the dirty mirror behind the bar.
Reynoso examined the mirror and found the reflection of two Americans staring directly at him. Two men dressed in collared shirts hanging over their pressed blue jeans. These were not usual customers. Reynoso turned to face the table where they sat.
“Quien es los gringos?” Reynoso asked the bartender.
The old man behind the bar could sense the gravity of the question and didn’t want to have the wrong answer. He simply said, “No se, Jefe.”
Every Mexican in the city knew to obey Reynoso’s orders, so he never had to ask twice for anything. On occasion, however, an unwitting American would cause him a temporary moment of disrespect. Now one of the Americans leaned back in his chair and placed his feet on the table, as if in complete disregard for Reynoso’s authority.
Reynoso simply flicked an index finger toward the men and his body guards began to move toward the table. The second man at the table stood up. He was tall and lean and was favoring his left leg, as if he was suffering from an ankle sprain.
The bodyguards stopped, one on each side of Reynoso taking a protective stance with their shotguns aimed at the tall American. The band immediately stopped playing and in the silence there was shuffling of feet moving away from the confrontation, creating a open pathway between the two combatants.
“Who are you?” Reynoso asked indignantly.
Surprisingly, the guy sitting with his feet up spoke. “I’m Nick Bracco, this here is my partner Matt McColm.”
The kid’s words came out scratchy and insecure. “I didn’t want to come, Jefe, but they forced me.”
Reynoso looked at the kid, then the two men. “Is that true?”
Reynoso didn’t like the tone of the man’s voice. There was a certain attitude that came with it. As if he wasn’t sitting in the middle of Reynoso’s home bar and staring down the barrel of two shotguns.
Reynoso got to his feet. More shuffling. More whispers. “If you want to live another thirty seconds I suggest you take your feet off that table.”
The man calling himself Nick slowly removed his feet from the table top and remained seated. “Your problem,” he said, “is that you rely too much on fear and intimidation. That’s what causes you to travel with such a small crew. Two gunmen. That’s not enough.”
Reynoso shook his head in pity. “You do not think I have men protecting this place?”
The tall American frowned and said, “Not anymore.”
Reynoso was intrigued by this brash invasion. He wanted to know more about these men. He asked the obvious, “You have other men outside?”
Nick shook his head. “Nope. Just us.”
There was no conceivable reason why such an admission would be made. Even if they were alone it made no sense to admit this.
Reynoso pointed to Nick. “Keep your hands on the table where I can see them.”
Nick leaned forward and placed his hands palm down on the table.
“Good,” Reynoso said. “Now why don’t you tell me why you are here.”
“We’re with the FBI,” Nick said. “We came to ask about the package you sent with Dane.”
Reynoso almost laughed. “You want to know about its contents?”
“And why would I tell you this?”
“Well, full disclosure, we already know it came from a Russian courier. One of your men already admitted this to us outside.”
Reynoso cursed under his breath, knowing it must’ve been his nephew Pedro. The kid was always a weak link. That was the danger in running a family business, you were always dealing with weak links that you couldn’t kill.
“Is he alive?” Reynoso asked only mildly interested.
“Yes,” Nick said. “All three of them are alive. Just tied up and gagged.”
Reynoso kicked at the floor. Dust particles drifted up and dissipated under the slow moving ceiling fans. “That is enough insults.” He lifted his hand and the two bodyguards brought their shotguns up and aimed them at the two men.
Nick held up a hand. “Before you shoot us. We’re curious about the briefcase you gave the kid. This Russian. Was that a onetime thing, or was it part of a series of deliveries?”
Reynoso tapped one of his bodyguards on the arm to get him to stand down. “You are quite inquisitive about this package. I will tell you before we kill you. The Russian who gave us the package is now dead himself. He did not tell us all the details about the package until the delivery was already moving. He will not be using our services, or anyone’s services any longer.”
Nick rose to his feet. “Good,” he said. “That’s really all we came for.”
Reynoso placed his hand on his chest. “Do you think you have jurisdiction in my country?”
Nick slowly shook his head. “No. We’re here on our own. Just a couple of American citizens having a beer.”
“And do you think you can just leave now?”
“I know we can.”
Reynoso like the man’s bravado, going down with dignity. He searched the crowd and saw no one who could cause him trouble. He owned the police department so a killing inside the Chico Rico Grill would never even raise a solitary question.
Reynoso turned toward the kid at the bar, who was shaking like a wet dog. “You think you will survive this too?”
The kid’s eyes widened.
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Monday, April 18, 2016
Matt dropped to the floor of the tunnel and felt the ricochets of the bullets winging all around him. There was a sharp pain in his calf where he knew he’d been hit. He was inside the enclosure and if he tried to climb the ladder to escape he would be dead before he reached the second rung. Hal was still shining the light down on him offering the shooter a nice target.
“Shut the door!” Matt shouted, feeling the wound on his leg and grateful the bullet didn’t hit an artery.
There was a hesitation, voices above him arguing over the request, but he could see Nick reach over and slam the door shut. Immediately the tunnel became complete darkness. There was no sunlight to slip through the cracks of the trap door.
Matt scurried to the other side of the dirt floor and curled up, his heart pounding, his gun up and ready. He tried to slow his breathing. Adrenalin was his enemy. He needed to be still and quiet. There was movement from down the tunnel and he couldn’t tell whether the movement was going away from him or towards him.
There was nothing Nick or anyone could do for him now. He was on an island by himself and he needed his wits and his training to escape. As soon as that door opened above him he would become a Piñata for target practice. He was bleeding and needed medical attention, but he had more serious issues ahead of him.
The tunnel became still. Without light his hearing went into hyper drive. His other senses trying to compensate for the loss of sight.
An agonizing long time went by. Minutes. Matt thought he could hear breathing. One person? Maybe two. It was a small enclosure so it didn’t make sense there would be more than two shooters. Matt decided to take off his belt and tie it around his leg to slow the bleeding.
The shooters thought he was trapped. The only way to save Matt was to come through the door above him and expose his position, so they had time on their side. But Matt was a sniper in the Army. Special Forces. He knew things these drug smugglers didn’t know.
There was one issue they were probably mulling over just now. If they shot at Matt in complete darkness there would be a muzzle flash. It would be a short flash, but in this environment Matt would see this and respond immediately. If they were smart they would’ve kept firing while the door was open and he was exposed. Now they were deciding how to proceed. They were coping with the same sensory deprivation and relying on their hearing to make their decisions. This was important.
Matt could find a pebble and toss it across the tunnel and hope for a response, but they might be ready for that. He needed to give them a sense of urgency. Something that would cause them to fire their weapons impulsively. They would need to feel threatened.
Matt slowly pulled down on the heel of his shoe, keeping his breathing low and slow. He lifted the shoe with his right hand and trained the Glock on their position with his left hand. He drew back the shoe, low to the ground and skipped it across the dirt floor directly toward his attackers.
Matt got the exact response he wanted. Two bright muzzle flashes continued to fire at the ruse. He made two quick shots, one for each gunman. Years of training had him locked into the exact target. From the angle of shot he could tell both shooters were right-handed. This made it easy to connect the dots and make two direct shots in less than a second.
Matt rose to his feet, wincing from the bullet wound, then pulling off his other shoe with his free foot. He tip-toed down the tunnel, then pulled out his flashlight to illuminate his shooters. One was already dead. Headshot. The other was on his back moaning, clutching his shoulder and stretching toward his gun lying a few feet away.
“Don’t,” Matt said. “I don’t play games, I shoot to kill.”
The guy ignored Matt’s warning and kept straining to get to the weapon, just inches away. As his hand reached the butt of the pistol, Matt frowned then shot the guy through the temple. The guy went limp.
Matt shined the light farther down the tunnel to be sure there was no one else with them. There wasn’t.
He bent over to pick up the two pistols and looking down at the guy he shot, he said, “I told you no.” Then something dawned on him. “I sure hope you understood English.”
Matt limped down the corridor and managed to climb up the ladder using one leg and two strong arms. He pounded on the door.
The lid swung open quickly with Nick and Hal and Martinez all training their weapons on Matt.
“You okay?” Nick asked.
Matt held up his arm and grunted. “I could use a lift.”
Nick hauled up his partner, then examined Matt’s leg under Hal’s spotlight.
Dane leaned over the wound and looked like his was going to be sick. “Man, that’s real disgusting.”
“You’ll need stitches,” Nick said.
“Yeah,” Matt agreed, placing his arm around Nick’s shoulders and taking the pressure off his damaged leg.
“We can have the chopper swing back,” Hal said. “He could be here in ten minutes.”
Matt looked at the Border Patrol Agent. “You have a laceration pack in the truck?”
Hal glanced over at his SUV. “Sure, we keep one in every vehicle. You never know when you’ll be stuck miles from help.”
“Does it have Lidocaine? Syringes? Some nylon suture?”
Hal nodded. “Yeah, well the Lidocaine might be expired, but it’s only there for extreme emergencies. We’ve got plenty of time to get you to a hospital before that thing causes any issues.”
“It’s already caused me issues,” Matt said. “But I can sew up my leg better than most plastic surgeons.”
Nick was already shuffling Matt toward the SUV. “He’s not going to let this go,” Nick told Hal. He glared over his shoulder at Dane who followed the group like a stray dog. “Let him fix it, then we’ll take Mr. Uranium here and find Reynoso.”
Hal shined the spotlight on the kid. “You’ve been a real pain in the ass haven’t you?”
From behind them Matt heard the kid squeak. “Sorry.”
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