Snow Dogs. Trace Rawlins sat at a table in back of the Texas Cafe thinking of his client and her white rapper husband, Bobby Jordane, the lead singer of the wildly successful rap music group, the Snow Dogs.
It seemed the perfect name for the mangy group, who sang about decadent society yet seemed to be the root of the problem. Only Bobby was married, his beautiful wife of the last three years was a creamy cocoa-skinned African American. Why she had ever married the guy, aside from his seven-figure bank account, Trace couldn't imagine.
Apparently, Shawna had come to the same conclusion, for she sat a few tables away next to her attorney, Evan Schofield, there for a meeting with Bobby.
Bobby Jordane was a wife beater par excellence, and he was extremely unhappy that Shawna had filed for divorce. But Schofield had managed to set up a meeting at a neutral location kept secret from the media, in the hope something could actually be accomplished.
The restaurant was old and narrow, with wooden floors and a long, varnished-wood lunch counter, a place for locals where a guy like Bobby wouldn't even be recognized. This time of day, the lunch crowd was gone and it was too early for dinner patrons. Only two other tables were occupied, one by an older man and his wife drinking chocolate shakes, another by two young women eating hamburgers. One of them was a foxy redhead Trace tried not to notice, but his gaze wandered back to her again and again.
Unfortunately, he seemed to have a penchant for trouble where redheads were concerned.
He returned his thoughts to the meeting at hand, which was supposed to include only Bobby and his attorney, Shawna and Evan Schofield, Trace's longtime friend.
But Bobby was a hothead, and Evan was no fool. He didn't trust Bobby, and neither did Trace. Everyone in Houston had read about the couple's fiery clashes and Bobby's out-of-control behavior, which recently had landed him in jail. Shawna had threatened to file a restraining order, and Evan had hired Trace, a private detective and the owner of Atlas Security, to keep a protective eye on his client.
The bell above the cafe door rang, flipping the little ruffled curtain above the glass. True to form, Bobby sauntered in without his attorney, just the other two obnoxious members of the Snow Dogs.
Clyde "The Mountain" Thibodaux hailed from New Orleans. Big, bald and tattooed, he was bare-chested beneath his leather vest. A small black goatee clung to his chin.
Lenny Finks, known to his fans as Lenny the Sphinx, was the nerd of the group. Skinny and homely, with kinky auburn hair, he was the talent behind the act, the guy who wrote the music, though Trace refused to call it that. Lenny was harmless, except for the viperous tongue he used to lash at the group's critics. He was a necessary component and the reason for the group's unbelievable success.
Bobby himself was as tall as Trace, about six-two, and as lean and solidly built. Having taken years of martial arts, Bobby thought he was a tough guy. Trace flicked a glance at the bruises on Shawna Jordane's beautiful face, clamped down on a surge of anger and wished he could show him ex-Ranger tough.
Instead, he tipped back his white straw cowboy hat, shifted in his chair and sipped his coffee, his gaze fixed on Bobby, who swaggered over to Shawna's table, his friends close behind.
"Hello, Bobby." Her voice held the faint edge of fear.
Bobby turned a hard look on the man beside her. "So
you wanted me to come down here so we could have a little chat. Is that right?"
The lawyer, a slender man with sandy brown hair and intelligent eyes, sat up a little straighter in his chair. "I was hoping we might be able to make some progress in the matter of your divorce," he said.
Bobby shifted, his legs splayed in a belligerent stance. "You get my wife to file for divorce and you want me to come here so we can talk?" Reaching out, he grabbed Evan by his red-striped power tie and hauled him to his feet. Shawna screamed and Trace went into action.
Tossing Lenny out of the way like the skinny little runt he was, he reached out and grabbed hold of the back of Bobby's black, silver dragon T-shirt. Trace spun him around, waited an instant for Bobby to throw the first punch, then ducked and nailed him solidly in the jaw. Bobby went down like a sack of wheat, his head hitting the wooden floor with a melonlike thump that had his eyes rolling back in his head.
"You son of a bitch!" Clyde's blunt, meaty hands balled into fists as he lumbered forward, swinging a roundhouse punch meant to send a man to his knees. Trace ducked, turned a little and threw a straight-from-the-shoulder blow that sank four inches into the big man's stomach. Clyde grunted, doubled over, and Trace took him out with an uppercut to the chin.
Blood gushed from his nose and Clyde flew backward, knocking over a table and sending the surprised older couple scrambling out of the way. It was exactly the kind of thing Evan Schofield had hoped to prevent when he had hired Trace.
Evan held up a hand. "Not your fault. I should have known this wouldn't work." He grinned. "Besides, it was worth it to see Bobby get what he had coming."
Shaking off the ache in his hand, Trace reached down and picked up his cowboy hat, settled it once more on his head. Lenny stood next to Bobby with his mouth gaping and his eyes wide. "Y-you shouldn't have done that."
"You don't think so?"
Bobby's gonna be really mad."
Trace chuckled softly. "If you're smart, you'll get him out of here before somebody calls the police. He doesn't need any more trouble."
Evan pulled out Shawna's chair. "Let's go."
She rose shakily to her feet and turned to Trace.
"Thank you, Mr. Rawlins. You have no idea how good that made me feel."
A corner of his mouth edged up. "Oh, I think I do."
Shawna turned and started walking, but before she had reached the door, a camera flashed, capturing her retreat. Then the photographer turned toward the man moaning softly on the floor. The camera flashed again and again, taking photos of Bobby Jordane that would be wildly embarrassing to a guy with an ego as massive as his.
Trace inwardly cursed. The redhead. Just as he'd figured, they were nothing but trouble.
Striding toward her, he reached out and jerked the camera from her hands, turned it around and deleted the last series of digital photos.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing? You can't do that!"
"Nice camera," Trace said. Walking over to the lunch counter, he handed it to Betty Sparks, the owner of the cafe.
The sexy redhead raced along behind him. "Listen, whoever you arethat's my camera! You can't just"
"I just did. And you can have it back as soon as they're gone." Trace tipped his hat to the redhead and her friend, a tall, svelte brunette a year or two older. "Have a nice afternoon, ladies."
Turning, he strolled out of the café.
"Did you see that? Oh, my God!" The brunette's attention followed the man who strode down the sidewalk outside the window. "Who was that gorgeous hunk?"
Maggie O'Connell's gaze jerked toward the window just as the tall, lanky cowboy in the white straw hat disappeared from view. "What are you talking about?
That bastard just ruined my pictures. Bobby Jordane and his estranged wife? You know how much photos like that are worth?"
Maggie turned at the sound of a groan, saw the guy with the kinky hairLenny the Sphinx, his fans called himhelp Bobby to his feet. Clyde the Mountain swayed upward until he was standing. Wordlessly, the small group staggered toward the door.
Maggie looked longingly at the lady who held her camera, but the older woman just shook her head.
Maggie sighed. She wouldn't be getting photos of Bobby Jordane sprawled on the old plank floor, beaten to a pulp. Not today.
"I hate to remind you, but you aren't the tabloid type," said her best friend, Roxanne De Mers. "You didn't come here to take pictures. You came for a late lunch with a friend. It just turned out to be a little more exciting than we planned."
Roxy swung back to the window, watching the rap stars as they made their way to the long white limo waiting out front. "I wonder who he was."
Maggie didn't have to ask who her friend was talking about. The cowboy was, at the very least, impressive. Tall and lean, with wide shoulders and slim hips, he had thick, dark hair neatly trimmed, golden-brown eyes and a set of biceps that were impossible to miss.
Still, she didn't appreciate his interference in her business. As the limo door closed, shutting the three men inside, she walked over to the counter to collect her camera, which the broad-hipped woman readily handed back to her.
"So who was he?" Maggie asked, nodding toward the window. "The Lone Ranger out there
what was his name?"
"You a reporter?"
"I'm a photographer. Mostly I do outdoor shots. I just saw an opportunity and took itor tried to."
"Sorry it didn't pan out."
"Me, too. I can always use a little extra money."
"Name's Betty Sparks," the woman said. "Me and my husband, Bill, own this place."
"Nice to meet you, Betty. I'm Maggie O'Connell. You make a great burger."
The woman, who was in her late fifties, with a cap of short, curly gray hair, tipped her head toward the door. "His name's Trace Rawlins. Owns Atlas Security. He's a private investigator."
Walking up beside Maggie, Roxanne sighed dramatically, a hand over her heart. "I think I'm in love."
"The redhead's got a better chance," Betty said. "Trace has a weakness for 'em."
"No, thanks. I don't do cowboys."
Betty chuckled. "If I was twenty years younger, I'd dye my hair."
Maggie laughed. "How much do we owe you?" She walked over to the purse hanging on the back of her wooden chair and started digging for her wallet.
"On the house," Betty said. "It's the least I can do."
Maggie smiled. "Thanks."
"You new in the neighborhood?"
She nodded. "I just bought one of those town houses they built a few blocks away. Vaulted ceiling upstairs. Good north light, great place to work, you know?"
"Welcome, then. Maybe we'll see you again."
"If it's always this much fun in here," Roxanne said, "I'm sure you will."
Betty just laughed.
Maggie put her Nikon back in its case and slung the straps of the camera bag and her purse over her shoulder. Roxanne tossed a couple bills on the table for a tip, and the two walked out the door.
"You know that trouble you been having?" Roxy said.
Maggie paused. "What about it?"
he's in the security business and he's an investigator. He might be able to help you."
Maggie started to argue, to say she didn't need any help. Then she thought of the way Trace Rawlins had handled those three men. "I hope it doesn't come to something like that."
But it might and both of them knew it. For more than a month, someone had been following her, phoning her and hanging up, leaving messages on the windshield of her car. So far it hadn't been more than that, but it was frightening just the same.
When she got home, she was going to look up the number for Atlas Security.
And write it down beside Trace Rawlins's name.
Trace returned to the Atlas Security office on Times Street. He lived in a house in the University District not far away, a place with a yard for Rowdy, his black-and-white border collie, with big shady trees and an old-fashioned, covered front porch. When his dad died, Trace had inherited the house along with the business, a company his father had started when he first got out of the army.
Seth Rawlins had been a Ranger, a tough son of a bitch. Following in his footsteps, Trace had also enlisted and become a Ranger, figuring on a career in the military. Then six years ago, his dad had been killed in a car accident and Trace had come home to take over the business as he knew his father would have wished.
He slowed his dark green Jeep Grand Cherokee, pulled into the parking area in front of his office and turned off the engine. Recently, he had purchased the two-story brick structureor rather, he and the bank owned it together until he paid off the mortgage. Which, since his profits were up and he was making double payments, he hoped wouldn't take too long.