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Jimmy Franks smelled a rat.
It wasn't until he opened his eyes and saw the dark beady eyes and whiskers twitching near his nose that he knew he'd hit a new low. He swung a weak fist at the varmint, which merely scuttled behind a pile of empty boxes in the alley where he had just spent the night.
The taste in Jimmy's mouth was a perfect accompaniment to the stench in the alley. Gagging between breaths, he staggered to his feet. It took a few moments for him to gain his footing; when he did, he took the first good look at his surroundings. It wasn't the Hilton. He wasn't sure how he'd gotten here or even exactly where "here" was, but he was definitely in a garbage-filled alley between two abandoned buildings.
Groaning softly from the aches in his bones and the roiling in his belly, he swiped a shaky hand across his face and stumbled toward the street, anxious to find a bathroom. As he did, a gust of wind rushed through the redbrick canyon, whipping dirt into his eyes. He turned away from the blast just as a couple of sheets of old newspaper wrapped around his ankles. Thinking the paper would be useful to use for toilet paper, he grabbed the pages and headed for the open doorway of the building on his right. He was halfway over the threshold when his gaze fell on a headline in the middle of the page. He stopped.
Local Bondsman Survives Murder Attempt
As he read, he began to curse. His attempt at revenge for himself and his brother, Houston Franks, had gone south. This was pathetic. He couldn't even shoot a man and make it stick. His need for a bathroom forgotten, he wadded up the paper and headed for the street.
He couldn't believe it! He'd made a vow to make Wilson McKay pay for having him arrested for assault, so he couldn't bail Houston out of jail. He had pumped numerous bullets into McKay as payback and had been so certain the deed was done. But McKay was alive and, according to the reporter who'd written the piece, healing nicely.
"Damn it! Damn it all to hell!" Jimmy yelled, as he stomped out of the alley and down the street.
He was so angry he could hardly think. He needed to talk to Houston, but Houston had already hightailed it out of Texas. It was a disgrace. Jimmy still couldn't believe his own brother had left him stranded like this. He didn't have any money. He didn't have a place to stay. And even worse, he needed to find a dealer.
Sick to his stomach and shaking with every step, Jimmy began looking for familiar territory and faces. He was, by damn, going to finish what he'd started with McKay.
But first he needed to find himself a fix.
Luis Montoya was a short, stocky Latino with the blood of his Aztec ancestors strong on his face. His eyes were dark, and his mouth was wide and full. He had a stubborn cut to his jaw and a head of thick, black hair that he wore in a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. He'd been a part of the Mexican police department in Chihuahua for eleven years, the last five as a detective in Homicide. He was a proud man who didn't play favorites, and he was not influenced by people with money.
This morning, he'd had a fight with his wife, Conchita, a flat tire on his car and had burned his tongue on his first sip of coffee. All that, and it wasn't even eight o'clock. Then he'd gotten to work only to be handed a case no one wantedone with no new leads.
All he knew was that the victim's name was Solomon Tutuola. His body had been found in the debris of a home fire. According to the records, Tutuola had purchased the mansion only days before his death. But Tutuola hadn't died in the fire. According to the coroner, it was the multitude of bullet wounds in his body that had done him in. The fire had only added insult to injury.
Someone had committed murder. It was now his job to find out who.
Montoya picked up the file, patted his pocket to make sure his cell phone was there and headed for the door. He had an appointment to meet with Chouie Garza, the Realtor who'd sold Tutuola the mansion. The man had already given a statement the night of the fire, but Montoya liked to question his own witnesses.
He glanced at his wristwatch as he slid behind the wheel. A few moments later, he was pulling out of the parking lot and into traffic. The hunt for a killer had begun.
Thirty minutes later, he'd found the location, pulled off the highway and started up the drive leading to what had once been a grand home. Now there was nothing left but ruins. A small white Honda was parked near a saguaro. There was a man leaning against the hood. Chouie Garza, he hoped.
Montoya pulled up beside the Honda, then got out with his cop face on.
The little man came forward, nodding nervously. "Sì. Sì, señor."
"Detective Montoya. I want to ask you a few questions about Solomon Tutuola, the man who died here. You sold him the house, did you not?"
Garza nodded again. "About three days before the fire."
Montoya began to make notes. "Was anyone else with him when you met with him?"
"No. He was alone."
"What was your impression of him?" Montoya asked.
Garza's eyes widened. "El Diablo."
Now it was Montoya's turn to be surprised. "How so?"
Garza made the sign of the cross, then glanced over his shoulder, as if merely speaking of the man might resurrect his ghost.
"There were strange tattoos all over his body even his face, which had recently been burned, I think. The skin was still pink and healing, and he had no hair on that side of his head."
Montoya frowned. "Can you describe the tattoos?"
"Geometric designs, you know, like something on an old pottery. His teeth were filed into points, and when he smiled, it was like looking at a lion."
Montoya remembered the picture that had come into their office. It was true: the man had a devilish appearance, and Garza's description verified the identity again.
Montoya glanced up, eyeing the burned-out rubble.
"To your knowledge, was he living here alone?"
Garza shrugged. "I think he had hired a cook and a yard man, but I never saw them. I only saw him and his money." He shifted nervously from one foot to the other before smoothing his hands over his thickly pomaded hair, then wiping them on the legs of his pants.
Montoya arched an eyebrow as he watched Garza fidgeting. He didn't think the man was lying, but his actions did explain the slightly shiny appearance of the legs of his suit pants. It wasn't from pressing marks; it was grease. His interest shifted as he resumed his interrogation.
"You say Tutuola had money. What kind of money are we talking about?"
Garza began motioning with his hands. "When he decided he would buy this house, he wanted to take possession immediately. I told him that was impossible, that papers had to go through a process. So he offered to pay the owners whatever they wanted to let him take immediate possession. When they agreed, he opened up the trunk of his car. There was the bag, like a suitcase, and it was full of money. I never saw so much money in my life."
"He paid you cash?"
Garza nodded. "By the handful."
Montoya smiled. Motive. Now things were beginning to make sense.
McKay Ranchoutside of Austin, Texas
Morning came softly, without warning or fanfare. It broke on the eastern horizon with little more than a hint of the warmth to comea flourish of light bathing the sky in hues of pink and yellow. A jet trail running from north to south took on the appearance of a hot-pink comet as the sun continued its arc.
Cat Dupree watched the display from the back porch while her coffee went cold in the cup. She'd been here beforeto the ranch where Wilson had grown up. Only that time, she'd been the one who'd been recovering. This time it was Wilson, who, unlike Humpty Dumpty, had been put back together again by the skill of the surgeons at Dallas Memorial Hospital.
If she thought about it, she could still feel her panic as she'd stood at Wilson's bedside and watched him flatline. She'd screamed. First in shock, next in rage, then, finally, in denial. She'd refused to let him die.
So he hadn't.
And now they were together again, figuring out where to go from here.
The family cat came trotting up the back steps, then leaped into the porch swing beside Cat and head-butted her elbow. She set down her cold coffee, freeing up her lap.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Cat asked.
The old tomcat chirped once, hopped up into her lap, sniffed the two buttons on the front of her blue chambray shirt, then curled up on her legs and began cleaning his paws.
Cat was scratching at a spot between his ears when she heard the back door open.
She glanced over her shoulder. The man coming out was pale and a good ten pounds thinner than he had been the month before. But the thick, spiky hair, the single gold earring and the gleam in his eye were still the same.
"Wilson. I didn't know you were up," she said.
"I couldn't find you," he said.
Cat shook her head, then patted the empty spot beside her.
"You should have known I wouldn't be far."
Wilson eyed the cat in her lap. "Is there room?"
She grinned. "Stop pouting and come sit."
Wilson eased himself into the seat beside her, then gave the cat an additional scratch before sliding his arm around her shoulders.
"Why are you up so early?" he asked. "Couldn't you sleep?"
"Didn't want to miss the show," she said, pointing to the sky, which was slowly turning to day.
Wilson looked up, then sighed softly. "Oh, yeah. I see what you mean."
Cat put a hand on his leg, grateful for the pulse of lifeblood as it flowed through his veins.
"Living in a city makes you forget things like sunrises."
"Living in a city makes you forget all kinds of things," he added. "Like how to enjoy life without buying into the rat race."
Cat leaned against him, making sure not to put weight on any of his still-healing wounds.
"A person could get used to this."
"Definitely," Wilson added, then, like Cat, let himself in on the light show breaking in the east.
As Wilson sat, he looked down at the woman in his arms. The defiance that had been with her for so long was gone. Losing the fury that came with the need for revenge had made room for his love. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he'd first seen her, carrying an unconscious man over her shoulder and out of a burning building. He hadn't known then that she was a bounty hunter, but he knew it now. The woman was fierce beyond belief. She'd tracked down the killer of her best friend with relentless determination, then dragged him kicking and screaming back to Dallas to stand trial.
And no one but Wilson knew the depths to which she'd gone to exact retribution from the man who'd killed her father, then cut her throat and left her for dead. After endless years of looking, she had finally found him, trailed him through the Mexican desert to Chihuahua, and ended what she'd begun to fear was a hopeless quest.
When Tutuola died, Cat's rage had died with him. And their relationship, which Wilson had sometimes feared was one-sided, had begun to flourish. Then he'd been shot. And according to Cat, his heart had stopped when he'd come out of surgery. He didn't remember much about that, but he did remember hearing Cat screaming at him, begging him not to die on her, too. She was a formidable woman to oppose.