In this action-packed thriller starring war veteran Peter Ash, a well-planned and flawlessly executed hijacking reveals the hidden dangers of Colorado's mellowest business, but Ash may find there’s more to this crime than meets the eye.
Combat veteran Peter Ash leaves a simple life rebuilding hiking trails in Oregon to help his good friend Henry Nygaard, whose daughter runs a Denver security company that protects cash-rich cannabis entrepreneurs from modern-day highwaymen. Henry’s son-in-law and the company’s operations manager were carrying a large sum of client money when their vehicle vanished without a trace, leaving Henry’s daughter and her company vulnerable.
When Peter is riding shotgun on another cash run, the cargo he’s guarding comes under attack and he narrowly escapes with his life. As the assaults escalate, Peter has to wonder: for criminals this sophisticated, is it really just about the cash?
After finding himself on the defensive for too long, Peter marshals his resources and begins to dig for the truth in a scheme that is bigger—and far more lucrative—than he’d ever anticipated. With so much on the line, his enemy will not give up quietly...and now he has Peter directly in his sights.
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The chain-link fence was ten feet tall with razor wire at the top. It began at the front corner of the repurposed cement-block warehouse in North Denver, wrapped in a neat rectangle around the side parking lot and the rear loading dock, and continued to the opposite corner of the building.
Peter Ash stepped down from the back seat of Henry Nygaard’s big four-door pickup to pull open the rolling security gate. He kept his head on a swivel, eyes chasing from the street to the fence lines to the windows and flat rooftops of neighboring buildings.
He wore a decent secondhand armored vest and one of Henry’s spare pistols strapped to his leg, neither one exactly hidden under an untucked flannel shirt, but not particularly visible unless someone was looking for them. Which was more or less the goal.
He could feel the warmth of the blacktop through the soles of his boots, and the late-September sun was hot on his shoulders and the back of his neck. The waistband of his pants was damp from the sweat trickling down his back.
Peter didn’t mind. He’d been in hotter places, wearing and carrying a lot more shit.
Deacon, the driver, pulled Henry’s truck through the gate. Peter closed it behind them, waved to the camera mounted high on the warehouse wall, and waited to hear the magnetic lock clang shut. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it wasn’t bad, either.
He hopped back in the pickup for the sixty-meter run to the back of the warehouse, where it became clear to every member of the Heavy Metal Protection team that their schedule was shot.
As it turned out, it was the grow manager’s thirtieth birthday, and the cultivation workers had gotten stoned out of their gourds at lunch. Someone had brought takeout tacos and a chocolate layer cake and things had gone downhill from there. The workers sat on cheap vinyl chairs, leaning back against the white-painted block wall, eyes closed, faces raised to the afternoon sun like potted plants.
“You got to be kidding me,” Deacon said. “Nap time? Ten to one says they’re not ready for us.”
He hit the horn and the grow manager popped out of his chair like a jack-in-the-box, standing even before he was fully awake.
In the front passenger seat, Henry looked at his watch. It was big and sturdy and dependable, just like Henry. “We’re okay,” he said. “We’ll make up time on the freeway.”
“Y’all are dreaming,” said Banjo, the youngest. “Rush hour gonna kill us.”
The other men wore sidearms, too, and armored vests under light shirts. Each man also had an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the civilian version of the M16, magazines in place but the chambers cleared, butt-down in the footwell. They left the long guns in the truck unless absolutely necessary, because they attracted too much attention.
Peter didn’t say anything.
He had only worked for Heavy Metal Protection for a few days, doing a favor for Henry.
None of them wanted to do the job in the dark.
They were all thinking about what had happened the week before.
Peter was tall and rangy, muscle and bone, nothing extra. He had wide, knuckly hands and a lean, angular face, his dark hair long enough to cover the tips of his slightly pointed ears. He had the thoughtful eyes of a werewolf a week before the change.
Even out in the parking lot, he could smell the heady green funk of the growing plants.
Henry said it was bad form to call it marijuana unless you were talking about medical marijuana, which was a legal term. For many people in the industry, the word “marijuana” had racist undertones from the first attempts to regulate the plant in the 1930s, when officials tied its recreational use to Mexican immigrants.
The Latin name for the plant’s genus was Cannabis, the industry’s preferred term.
And it was definitely an industry.
Call it weed, ganja, bud, or chronic, it made billions of dollars each year.
And Heavy Metal Protection was part of it. The company provided secure facility consulting, uniformed static guards for at-risk sites, and armed mobile protection for moving cash and product from point A to point B.
The mobile protection arm was nothing like an armored-car service. An armored car was a giant rolling strongbox, painted in bright colors, and made an excellent target. Heavy Metal’s invisible, late-model civilian rides had no logos. The two-person teams were armed and wore ballistic vests but no uniforms. They looked like accountants or electricians, anyone but who they were: highly trained former military personnel with a job to do.
Most cannabis-related crime occurred at grow facilities, because they were usually located in neglected or industrial areas where the rent was cheap and traffic minimal, and also because you could find them with your nose.
Growers told their employees not to be heroes. Even if cured product was as good as cash, worth more than a thousand dollars a pound wholesale, two or three times that broken down for retail, nobody needed to die to protect a pound of weed.
But when security was done properly, with hardened facilities, visible security measures, and varied delivery schedules, robberies were rare.
Problems generally happened for one of several reasons. A security lapse, like a door left open at the end of the shift because somebody’s magic brownie kicked in earlier than planned. A nighttime smash-and-grab on a small new facility that assumed, incorrectly, that nobody knew where that funky smell was coming from. Or something as simple as a guy walking in like he belonged, grabbing a pound or two of vacu-packed product, tucking it under his arm like a football, and taking off like O.J. at the airport.
What had happened the week before was different, a new and much larger problem.
Heavy Metal had lost an entire vehicle, its crew and cargo.
As in, could not be found.
Two men and a Dodge Dakota. One of the men was the company’s cofounder, Henry’s son-in-law. The other was the company’s operations manager. Their cargo was three hundred thousand dollars in cash, gross profits headed for the client’s cash stash in the mountains. The vehicle’s GPS tracker had dropped off-line somewhere on I-70 headed west. The men’s phone signals had disappeared.
No sign of any of them since.
Peter had asked the question his first day on the job. “Did they get hit? Or just run with it?”
Henry didn’t comment. He glowered darkly out the windshield, as if all his suspicions about his son-in-law had been confirmed.
“They could have run with it,” said Deacon, shrugging a thick shoulder. “Maybe I got a dim view of human nature.”
Banjo shook his head. “Had to be a hijacking,” he said. “Three hundred grand isn’t enough to fuck up your life and turn yourself into a fugitive.”
With no evidence either way, what had happened was anyone’s guess. The state police had been looking into it for a week. Officially it was considered armed robbery and a possible double homicide.
But it wasn’t going to happen again.
Today, they had another big payload. Henry had brought the heavy crew, four capable men, their heads on a swivel in the Mile-High City, sweating behind razor wire under the hot September sun.
Henry stepped down to get the grow manager moving. Deacon stayed with the truck. Banjo jogged back to the gate, where he had a view on three sides. Peter jogged forward to the opposite corner of the building, where his own three-sided view completed the perimeter.
They’d all had duty like this before.
Peter hadn’t thought the work would be a problem for him. He’d been the tip of the spear for eight long years, a Marine lieutenant with more combat deployments than he cared to remember. He’d been done with his war for a while now, but the war wasn’t quite done with him. It had left him with a souvenir. An oddball form of post--traumatic stress that showed up as claustrophobia, an intense reaction to enclosed spaces. He called it the white static.
It hadn’t showed up until he was back home, just days from mustering out.
At first, going inside was just uncomfortable. A fine-grained sensation at the back of his neck, like electric foam, or a small battery inserted under the skin. If he stayed inside, the feeling would intensify. The foam would turn to sparks, a crackling unease in his brainstem, a profound dissonance just at the edge of hearing. His neck would tense, and his shoulders would begin to rise as the muscles tightened. He’d look for the exits as his chest clamped up, then he’d start having trouble catching his breath. After twenty minutes, he’d be in a full-blown panic attack, hyperventilating, his fight-or-flight mechanism cranked into overdrive.
He’d been working on the static pretty steadily since spring. He’d joined a veterans’ group, had been talking to a shrink. His friendship with Henry was a big part of that. He’d been making progress. He could be inside for more than an hour now.
But there was something about sweating inside the armor again, strapping on a sidearm, the familiar feel of the AR-15 in his hand. He was losing ground. He’d been having trouble sleeping since he’d gotten to Denver. He told himself it was just the noise of the city, but he knew better.
He’d told Henry he could give him a week, maybe two. No more than that.
Peter had other plans. Better plans. There was a woman he needed to see again. There was something between them, he hoped. Something real.
Heat floated up from the parking lot, turning the chain-link fence into a shimmering abstraction. Peter kept his eyes moving, searching the roads and driveways, the windows and rooftops of the neighboring buildings.
Out of habit, the way another man might tap his pockets for his keys and wallet and phone before leaving the house, Peter touched his fingertips to the butt of the pistol Henry had loaned him for the job.
It was a Sig Sauer .40, an older high-performance weapon unremarkable except for its pristine condition. Everything Henry owned had the patina of long use and meticulous care. His truck was from the late nineties, but it looked like new, except for the creases on the leather seats.
Henry was over seventy years old, although you’d never think it to look at him, standing tall, his shoulders broad and square, a stubby Honduran cigar unlit in the corner of his mouth. His voice was a hoarse whisper, but it just made the other men lean in closer to hear him.
By the time Henry signed the paperwork, carried ten cardboard boxes with labels and security tape out of the facility, and loaded them into the heavy steel toolbox bolted to the bed of his pickup, they were more than an hour behind schedule.
Peter saw Henry pat his chest over his shirt pocket, as if making sure his pen was still there, before waving Peter and Banjo back to the truck.
“Mount up,” he called, his hoarse whisper somehow still carrying across the parking lot in that thin mountain air. “We’re burning daylight.”
The Heavy Metal team rolled onto the streets of North Denver, Henry’s pickup looking like a hundred others around them. Their next stop was Denver’s Finest Kind, a recreational cannabis retail shop in Curtis Park.
Peter had always thought of Denver as a mountain city, but it stood on the High Plains, straddling the Platte River, nothing but dry farmland to the east for five hundred miles and more.
To the immediate west of Denver, though, was the whole of the Rocky Mountains, rising to the sky like white-tipped teeth. They gave the city a definite flavor. Peter could see the Front Range and its foothills from many parts of the city, just looking down the broad avenues. Denver had a busy, frontier feeling, a growing city constantly reinventing itself like the rest of the Mountain West.
A block out from Denver’s Finest Kind, Deacon drove a recon route, looking for trouble and finding none. He parked out front like any other customer. Peter and Henry got out while Deacon and Banjo stayed with the truck. Peter kept his hands free and his eyes on the move while Henry climbed up into the bed of the truck, removed a cardboard box from the big orange toolbox, hopped down with the box under his arm, and walked the quarter-block to the retailer’s front door.
Peter followed Henry inside. He felt the white static get louder in the back of his head.
But he’d been practicing. He was doing fine.
The security vestibule was a small room with a vase of flowers on a tiny table, a spotless bulletproof glass window, a closed-circuit camera, and a slot to pass the customer’s ID to the cheerful receptionist. There was also an ATM in the vestibule, because the cannabis industry ran almost entirely on cash. Henry had texted ahead to the Heavy Metal guard on-site, so the man was expecting them and buzzed them through immediately.
The interior of Denver’s Finest Kind was sleek and modern in glass and chrome, like an Apple store or a high-end boutique, although the verdant smell of the product was strong. Behind a long, elegant display counter stood three attentive salespeople, chatting with customers about particular cannabis strains and their effects. Did you want to be energetic and creative, or calm and relaxed?
Henry walked into the back room with the manager while Peter monitored the progress of the static, watched the exits, and glanced at the inventory. He loved the names of the various strains.
Purple Haze, Buddha Sativa, Skywalker, White Rhino, Gorilla Glue, BrainBender, Agent Orange, Green Crack, Trainwreck, Blue Lightning, Ass Hat, Chocolope.
Who came up with this stuff?
Or people trying to appeal to stoners.
In addition to the attractive glass containers of fat green buds, the store sold hashish, THC-infused oils, and edibles, everything from the traditional pot brownie to cookies, chocolate, and hard candy.
Peter had only been in Colorado for three days. He still couldn’t quite believe selling weed was legal. But once he started looking for them, he noticed cannabis retailers and the green cross symbol of medical marijuana everywhere. He’d stopped for gas in Aurora and found four retail stores in his line of sight from the pump.
It was like a whole different country.
Peter wasn’t particularly interested in getting high himself. He liked good scotch, and was happy to crack a cold beer on a hot day. But he’d found that more than one or two drinks made it harder to handle the static.
On the other hand, some of the veterans Peter worked with smoked weed on their time off, and they said that certain strains really helped with their post-traumatic stress. The medical in marijuana. If it worked for you, Peter figured, what was the harm?
Excerpted from "Light It Up"
Copyright © 2018 Nick Petrie.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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