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The situation read like a bad book: The Auto-Frickin-Biography of Erren Rhodes. He was pathetic. He would dread going through the motions of this meeting, but he was numb. Numb to the filth he dealt with on a daily basis. Numb to the filth he'd portrayed for the last six years. Numb to his filthy shell of a life.
Pike was dead and in the ground. Ambushed. Executed. No witnesses.
Rhodes was certain no one had seen him at the funeral of his mentor, the man who had kicked his teenage years into shape. He'd stayed out of sight. He'd hung around the edges of the cemetery just as he did the edges of his fictional existence.
It was a dark and stormy night blah, blah, blah. He'd laugh if it weren't playing out in front of him like a colorized black-and-white film. It was time to get out of deep-cover work, but not before he found Pike's murderer. He wouldn't let the bastard go without justice.
Unfolding his legs, he climbed from the rundown rental he'd taken for the op. His first mistake. He should have insisted on something flashy like the sweet SUV at the end of the alley. Second mistake? This dark real estate. Drug deals went down at steak restaurants. Always in public places. So why was this meet for information set like a bad flick?
Backlit by the car's headlights, two men came at him, arms extended, guns aimed at his chest. This was not the plan.
"You dudes have been watchin' too many movies." Yeah, he was mouthing off like a street thug—something he shouldn't do but couldn't help. He knew the drill and placed his hands at the back of his neck when Beavis and Butthead stepped closer. "Holdin' the barrel sideways like that, empty casings can hit—"
"Shut up, fool." The gold-toothed, eyebrow-pierced Butt-head took another confident step closer.
Six years ago adrenaline shoved him to recklessness. Now it didn't register. All these guys acted the same. Digging in with pond scum required a dedication he no longer had. His Dallas handler waited around the corner. Like he needed backup for this two-bit op? He could do this in his sleep.
Butthead shoved the barrel of a .357 Magnum under Rhodes's chin while patting him down.
"You don't talk 'til we says you talk," the bleach-blond Beavis barked, nervously shifting from one foot to the other in front of the rental.
Nodding, despite the barrel rammed into his Adam's apple, Rhodes let them think they were in charge. Two bad-ass-wannabes who didn't know him from Jack. Butthead lifted Rhodes's gun from its shoulder harness under his Ed Hardy jacket and dropped it into his pocket. His eyes never met Rhodes's straight on.
Flashy guns and jewelry, designer-label clothes and a Lexus. Not the ordinary run-of-the-mill street crap he'd been led to believe he'd be dealing with. Rhodes's nostrils flared at the cloying scent of heavy French cologne floating through the smell of old garbage. Did he have the right guys? They sure seemed to know him since two barrels pointed straight toward unprotected parts he'd like to keep.
Shake it off. Nothing was wrong. He'd done this before. First-meet jitters. That was it. Yeah, that crappy feeling in the pit of his stomach had nothing to do with Beavis or Butt-head and everything to do with the drive-through burritos for dinner.
"Get in the car," Butthead demanded.
Rhodes stiffened. "No one said anything about a ride. I have the money in my backseat." He came to conduct a small exchange of money for information. These punks were somehow connected to Pike's murder and he was close to finding a serious lead to seal the coffin on the creep they had in custody. But that slippery grin behind the gun wasn't the normal evil he faced every day.
These guys looked nervous, high and prepaid
"Do what you're told," Beavis yelled in a crazy-high voice.
"What's wrong, man? I got the cash." Rhodes searched his right, hunting Dumpster locations. Butthead shoved the pistol barrel in his back again, pushing him toward the Lexus. No way was he getting in that SUV.
"Get your ass in the car." Butthead circled the barrel of the gun in the air. "Get in!"
This op might get his blood pumping after all.
Rhodes shook his head. "What's up, man? I'm only pickin' up a package." Getting in that car would be the last thing he ever did.
"You got that wrong, dipwad. You're deliverin' tonight," Butthead said, hissing a laugh between clenched teeth.
Cryptic messages were not a good sign. With one step, Butthead had cut him off from his car. That sealed it. He'd been set up. What would they want with him? Or was someone trying to push him out of the picture? These guys had answers and he had lots of questions. A different dread took over his body. His mind released its hold on his tensed muscles. Everything automated, ready for a fight.
Patrol lights flashed at the end of the alley. Butthead froze. Wrong move. Spinning, Rhodes lifted his leg and let his worn-out Air Jordan knock Butthead's gun behind the strip mall's Dumpster.
Butthead wasn't going down without a fight. Rhodes didn't want to go mano-a-mano, but he threw a punch to Butthead's chin. The man dodged, dipped his shoulder and gave a blocking tackle to make any football coach proud. Right into Rhodes's gut.
Air whooshed from his lungs as they crashed to the ground, splashing water from a pothole. Bright bits of light flashed across his briefly closed eyes. Thrusting the big goon off, he kicked out, catching the perp's face. His shoe should have knocked the living daylights out of the goon.
Butthead sat up, spit out his gold cap and grinned.
Rhodes caught sight of Beavis's weapon waving around, attempting to follow their rushed movements. A bullet pinged off the rental car behind him. Then Beavis dove behind the Lexus's car door and fired a couple of rounds toward the lights.
Rhodes squinted into the blinding floodlights, expecting his backup. Who was shooting? Why weren't the cops demanding they drop their weapons?
Ricochets sent him scrambling for cover as a sudden surge of bullets peppered the broken asphalt. Beavis crawled into the Lexus, kept his head down and backed up, leaving rubber in the potholes. One of the patrol cars quickly pursued him around the corner.
Rhodes couldn't make it to his car and turned toward his alternate exit, but Butthead jumped him from behind. Even with the unknown gunmen firing shot after shot, this stupid dog wouldn't let go of his bone—which just happened to be Rhodes's neck.
He recoiled from Butthead's blood-speckled face and fetid breath, but the solid pressure against his throat was making things fuzzy. With no other choice, he pushed his fingers into Butthead's eyes. There was a growl in Erren's ear and a rush of air into his lungs. The rapid fire around their heads had him wincing. He wanted this guy alive and talking. He wanted to stop the cops from shooting, but had little chance to catch his breath as he stumbled backwards.
"Give it up, man. It ain't worth losing our lives," Rhodes shouted. It really wasn't. And right now those cops didn't know he was one of the good guys.
Butthead pulled a switchblade, popped it open and charged. Rhodes grabbed the giant's wrists, keeping the blade inches away. They went down a second time. Rolling over. Then back. Every rock jabbed into Rhodes's bruised, sore body. The knife was between them. Then somehow pointing under Rhodes's chin.
Desperate, he pushed Butthead's hands further south. Butthead outweighed him by fifty pounds and the searing pain along his side proved that the bigger man had gained the upper hand.
"Aarrggh!" God, he was on fire. The expectation of the blade tearing his flesh again was worse than knowing he'd been double-crossed. His hands shook while he kept Butthead from twisting the handle and slicing his insides to shreds.
The blade slowly and painfully slid away.
A car window exploded above him. Butthead's body blocked most but not all of the glass. He cringed, giving Rhodes the split-second chance he needed. He threw Butthead off and rolled to a crouch.
Butthead leaped to his feet. A bullet whizzed by Rhodes and hit his adversary straight in his heart. A flower of blood blossomed over Butthead's shirt and he fell to his back.
"Don't shoot!" Rhodes threw up his hands and faced the flashing lights. He quickly brought his left arm back down to his injured side.
Another round whistled past. Son of a Who was shooting from above and behind him? The cops returned fire, leaving him caught in the dead zone. Any rookie could tell a man was down and his hands were empty. What more did they need?
He'd sort through the explanations later. Rhodes ran to Butthead and searched for his gun. He found an envelope. Maybe this was the evidence he needed.
The rented Honda hatchback was perforated with holes and lacked a passenger window, but he didn't need to drive it far. He punched the gas, heading through the alley onto the deserted street.
Completely deserted. No Drug Enforcement Agency backup in sight. Maybe he was the lone shooter? Just what he needed, confirmation he was on his own. But his priority was to stay alive.
He pressed the pedal to the floor, turning several corners to evade anyone following. The only thing he'd done right was stash his Suzuki four blocks away. He ditched the rental in a parking garage and avoided cameras on his way out of the building.
Up to his neck in alligators. Totally on his own. His gut told him not to follow protocol, ditch everything familiar. Someone wanted him to lay off Pike's case. His stomach rolled and his side throbbed. He reached down and a warm stickiness oozed through a jagged hole.
"Man, he ruined my favorite Ozzy shirt."
Pulling the lock from the wheel of his cycle, he straddled the bike and tore open the envelope. Inside was a photo of Pike with an unknown man. On the reverse was a hand-drawn map, some scribbles and instructions from his mentor for a meeting that should have happened three days ago.
Things were getting more dangerous by the minute.
Darby O'Malley stared at the freshly painted and very blank white walls. Blank. And white. She appreciated the simplicity of the unadorned space. Perhaps because nothing in her life could ever be simple. And it didn't help that her decorating talents sucked.
"White? You need to brighten this place up." Her brother Sean smiled while complaining about the lack of color. "I saw some purple fuzzy pillows at Grapevine Mills Mall that would look great. Or maybe some orange frames for all those pictures you had me haul in here last week. Or maybe neon-pink flamingos. Nothing red though—we don't want to clash with your hair."
Her hair wasn't red. At least not O'Malley red. She paid good money to add those "natural" highlights. The teasing had lasted throughout the entire fix-up day and continued through the Mexican food and beer that night.
Brothers were supposed to do that. Right? Be intrusive and try to repair more than the broken items around your house. She should know. She had three very intrusive O'Malley brothers and a sergeant major for a dad.
Darby appreciated Sean's desire to play best friend, but this particular problem couldn't be fixed over a couple of Coronas. They hadn't spoken about their brother lying comatose in a hospital bed inside a lockdown ward. They couldn't visit. Couldn't help him recover.
She needed to be by herself. Away from a dad who barked orders, and the brothers who followed them.
Finally living on her own at the age of twenty-six. Finally no roommate to eat her favorite cereal. Finally no dirty dishes in the sink except her own. She was more than ready. And no one understood. She hardly understood it herself. She'd lived with someone since college and tolerated way-out-there tastes. Purple was not her favorite color. She wasn't even certain she had a favorite. Weird. She'd never given it much thought before.
This was a new beginning. A time for new goals. But not the time of night to unpack boxes of old memories.
Tonight, it had taken an hour and her promise she'd come by Sunday before Sean would leave. As far as her brothers were concerned, there wasn't a problem in the world that couldn't be solved over a Cowboys game and a grilled steak.
If only their brother Michael's problems were that simple.
"Michael will wake up and I'll clear his name." She had to. She was a cop. A cop whose brother had been accused of murder. Talk about your conflicts of interest.
A thump interrupted her nightly pity party. She hit the mute button on the remote, hoping it was a sound effect from the old Lon Chaney movie on TCM. Nope, there it was again. She crossed the new carpet and tile, looked through the very unsafe, four-paned back door and didn't see a thing. She shrugged, took a step back and heard another whack on wood.
The back porch's light lit the entire deck. No one stood on the other side of the triple locks. At least not that she could see. She slid her hand into her holster on the counter and pulled her Glock from its resting place. She'd chosen this neighborhood in North Dallas because of the low crime rate, but someone could think she was an easy mark. Not likely.
And then again, the kids across the street were famous for their practical jokes. She'd heard all about them the day she'd moved in. Just what she needed a neighborhood of pranksters. If she barged out there as if she was on a drug bust, she'd probably scare those children directly into therapy.
So don't overreact.
There it was again. A solid bump on the deck. Kids or no kids, she wasn't going anywhere without her Glock pointed straight ahead.
She should call the local P.D. and teach those kids a lesson. But then she'd have every parent on her back for as long as she lived here. And the last thing a new owner needed was trouble with the neighbors.
No way. She was a trained police officer. She could handle a couple of kids. So what if she scared them with the gun?
It was after eleven. How had so many hours passed since she'd gotten off work? Still dressed in her uniform right down to her shoes. Well, at least she'd changed her shirt when Sean had come over.
Squinting through the lacy curtains the previous owner had left, she now saw a shadowy figure lying on the steps. With her eyes on the body, she quickly unlocked and opened the door. Darby stepped outside and scanned the shadows in the tiny backyard. No potential threats. Nothing. He seemed to be alone.