Death, Taxes, and a Skinny No-Whip Latte
By Diane Kelly
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Diane Kelly
All rights reserved.
It's a Terrifying Job, but Somebody's Gotta Do It
"I'm scared shitless, Eddie."
I looked over at my partner as he pulled his maroon minivan into the parking lot of the downtown Dallas post office. Eddie Bardin was tall and lean, sporting a gray suit and starched white dress shirt with a mint-green silk tie. Though Eddie was African-American, he was more J. Crew than 2 Live Crew, like a dark-chocolate version of President Obama. Not that Eddie'd ever condescend to vote for a Democrat.
Despite the fact that my partner was a conservative married suburban dad and I was a free-thinking single city girl, the two of us got along great and made a kick-ass team. Problem was, the current ass we were aiming to kick was a very frightening one.
A row of cars stretched out in front of us, a solid red line of brake lights illuminating the early-evening drizzle. Apparently I wasn't the only slacker who waited until April fifteenth to file their tax return.
Eddie pulled to a stop behind one of those newer odd-looking rectangular cars. Cube, was it? Quad? Shoebox? He glanced my way. "Scared? You? C'mon, Holloway. You've been slashed with a box cutter and shot at and lived to brag about it." His scoffing tone might have been more believable if I hadn't noticed his grip tighten on the steering wheel. "We're invincible, you and me. Like Superman. Or toxic waste."
I scrunched my nose. "Ew. Couldn't you have come up with a better metaphor?"
"I'm exhausted, Tara. And besides, it was a simile." He muttered something under his breath about me being the child the education system left behind.
I might have been offended if I thought he truly meant it. You didn't become a member of the Treasury Department's Criminal Investigations team without a stellar academic record, impressive career credentials, and a razor-sharp intellect, not to mention a quick hand on both a calculator and a gun. Not that I'm bragging. But it's true.
I toyed with the edge of the manila envelope in my lap. "Battaglia and Gryder were chump change compared to Marcos Mendoza, and you know it."
Eddie and I had recently put two tax cheats — Jack Battaglia and Michael Gryder — behind bars, but not before Battaglia had sliced my forearm with a box cutter and Gryder had taken pot shots at me with a handgun and pierced Eddie's earlobe with a bullet. Not exactly polite behavior. What's more, neither of those men had a history of violence prior to attacking us. The focus of our current investigation, Marcos Mendoza, was an entirely different matter.
Due to a lack of evidence, Mendoza had never been officially accused of any crimes. Yet his business associates had a suspicious history of disappearing.
They'd found parts of Andrew Sheffield, a former employee of Mendoza's and presumably his most recent victim, spread among garbage receptacles from Harlingen, to Houston, to San Antonio and beyond. The sanitation department of El Paso found Sheffield's right foot, still clad in a pricey Ferragamo loafer, in the trash bin behind the police headquarters. Andrew had yet to be fully accounted for.
Hence my scared-shitless state of mind.
We inched forward, the only sound the occasional swish of the intermittent wipers as they arced across the windshield.
I knew Eddie well enough to know his lack of response meant he agreed with me. But perhaps some things are better left unsaid.
Think happy thoughts, I told myself. Fluffy kittens. Colorful rainbows. Big tax refunds. Of course it would be easier to think happy thoughts if my right arm wasn't bearing a plaster cast. I'd fractured my wrist diving out a window to evade Gryder. The con artist was rotting in jail now.
Hey, now there's a happy thought.
Finally, we reached the bleary-eyed postal worker standing in the parking lot. She wore a dark blue rain slicker and held an umbrella in one hand, a white plastic box bearing the postal service eagle logo in the other.
I unrolled my window, letting in the dank air, and dropped my return into her nearly full bin. "Thanks. See you next April fifteenth."
A drop of rain rolled off the tip of her nose as she forced a feeble smile.
How much longer would I file single? I wasn't yet ready for diapers, playdates, and PTA meetings, but the thought of joint tax returns didn't frighten me as much as it used to. Maybe because of Brett Ellington, the sweet, brave, and incredibly sexy landscape architect I'd been dating the past few months.
I rolled up my window and checked my watch. "Six thirty-seven P.M. That's a personal best."
Eddie snorted. "I filed my return two months ago. Already got my refund."
I cut my eyes to him. "Oh yeah? And what did Sandra and the twins spend the money on?"
He turned away, letting me know my jab had hit home.
"Ha! You are whipped, dude."
"Better to be whipped than to be a procrastinator."
"Hey, I've been busy." Busy shopping and packing for my upcoming trip to Fort Lauderdale with Brett. I'd made no less than three trips to Victoria's Secret before deciding on the red satin teddy with black trim and those little clip thingies to hold up a pair of old-fashioned fishnet stockings. I couldn't wait for Brett to see me in it. He was a perfect gentleman in public, but in the bedroom, well, let's just say he left his decorum at the door.
A new red chiffon cocktail dress had made its way into my shopping bag, too. The spaghetti straps and handkerchief edge gave it a feminine and festive feel. It was the perfect outfit for the American Society of Landscape Architects' awards banquet, where the society would bestow its prestigious Landmark Award on Brett for his work at city hall. I'd scored the dress forty-percent off at an after-Easter sale. Christ may have risen, but Neiman's had lowered its prices. Hallelujah!
I stifled a yawn. Not surprising I was tired since we'd been on the job since nine o'clock that morning and at the office until midnight the last few nights reviewing paperwork. The Mendoza case was so highly sensitive we'd been forbidden to discuss it with anyone, even our coworkers. To maintain secrecy, we'd been forced to perform some of our work after hours.
Why the secrecy? Three years ago, a special agent named Nick Pratt had infiltrated Mendoza's operations and purportedly obtained evidence that Mendoza had earned enormous sums of illegal, unreported income. Though the details were sketchy, Mendoza allegedly got wind of the investigation, bought off the agent, and set up the traitor in a luxury beachside condominium in Cancún, Mexico.
Tough life, huh?
Lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice fought to extradite Pratt back to the U.S. on charges of obstruction of justice and theft of government property, but the Mexican judge refused to cooperate, claiming all Pratt did was quit his job at the IRS, which wasn't illegal. He argued the theft charge wouldn't stick since Pratt's government-issued cell phone and laptop were mailed back to the department. Of course all of the data had been wiped clean, the hard drive erased. Presumably Mendoza had the judge in his pocket.
If only money were at stake, the government might have let the case go. But given the recent increase in body count, the case was reopened.
Come hell or high water, Mendoza had to be stopped.
And it was up to Eddie and me to stop him.
We'd been on the case only four days, since Eddie had returned from his medical leave, sans one bullet-damaged earlobe. We'd finally finished our review of the documentation. We'd painstakingly searched through Mendoza's tax filings and those of the businesses linked to him, document by document, page by page, entry by entry. But this guy knew how to cover his tracks.
We'd found no evidence. No leads. Nada.
Nada damn thing.
Eddie drove on, pausing at the exit to the parking lot. "Where to?"
I pulled the papers out of the manila envelope and riffled through them until I found the printout listing directions to Pokornys' Korner Kitchen, a small Czech bakery and café located in an older section of Garland, one of the many mid-sized cities making up the sprawling Dallas suburbs.
"Central north to Loop Twelve," I instructed.
Eddie gave me a salute. "Aye, aye, captain."
He took a right turn out of the parking lot and in minutes we were driving north on Interstate 75, known to locals as Central Expressway, one of a dozen freeways that crisscrossed the extensive Dallas metroplex area. We had a seven-thirty appointment scheduled with Darina and Jakub Pokorny, the owners of the bakery.
Early last week, the head of the Treasury's Criminal Investigations Department had flown in from Washington, D.C., to meet with our boss, Lu Lobozinski, aka the Lobo. George Burton had asked Lu to put her top agents on the Mendoza case. She'd immediately assigned Eddie to the investigation. Eddie was one of the more senior special agents, experienced, clever, and intuitive, the crème de la crème of the Dallas team. As a rookie, I hardly qualified as crème of any sort yet. I should've been flattered to be put on the case. But I feared it was my skills with weaponry rather than my skills with a calculator that landed me the assignment. If ever there'd been a case that called for an agent adept with a gun, this case was it.
As far as career enhancement was concerned, this was definitely the job to be on. As for my boyfriend Brett, well, if he knew what I was up to he'd shit a brick. Maybe even a cinder block.
Before coming to work for the IRS, I'd spent several years in the tax department of Martin and McGee, a large regional accounting firm. I'd learned a lot at the CPA firm, earned a lot, too. But sitting in a cubicle day after day, week after week, year after year, sorting through paperwork and staring at a computer screen, had eaten away at me. I'd felt unsatisfied, caged, trapped. It was a good job, but it wasn't right for me.
Of course I still dealt with a fair share of paperwork and computer screens at the IRS, but I loved the action in Criminal Investigations, hunting down clues, the thrill of the chase, the sense of purpose and justice. My job called for financial savvy, investigation expertise, and weapons proficiency, a unique skill set possessed by very few. This job was made for me.
Still, Brett worried about the risks my job posed. Who could blame him? He'd recently witnessed me cowering in a hole amid a shower of bullets and risked his own life to rescue me from certain death. Of course I'd done my best to convince him that the attack was a fluke, that the vast majority of tax evaders surrendered peacefully, that most special agents went their entire careers without facing real danger.
But I wasn't most special agents. As Eddie'd once pointed out, something about me brought out the homicidal tendencies in people.
Forcing that ugly thought aside, I rubbed my eyes, which were beginning to feel heavy. "I sure could go for a latte."
"Not a bad idea."
Eddie took the next exit and pulled into the drive-thru of a twenty-four-hour coffeehouse. New York isn't the only city that never sleeps. Dallas doesn't doze, either. "The usual?"
The barista at the drive-thru opened the window, releasing the invigorating aroma of French roast. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Mmm."
Eddie placed our order. "Small coffee. Black." Eddie was a purist. I was anything but. "And a large caramel latte. Extra whipped cream, heavy on the drizzle, sprinkle of cinnamon on top."
Just the way I liked it. Eddie knew me well. I handed Eddie a ten from my wallet. "My treat."
When we received our drinks, I removed a dark-skinned doll from one of the cup holders. "Nice job on Barbie's hair," I said, holding up the doll. One of Eddie's girls had pulled the doll's hair up into a ponytail on the top of her head and the black locks cascaded down on all sides of the doll's head, making her look like a palm tree.
"That's not Barbie," Eddie said. "That's Christie. Barbie's black BFF."
"Yeah. My girls set me straight on that right away."
I tossed the doll into the backseat. "Girls'll do that for ya'." I sipped my hot drink. Yum. I could live on these things.
Eddie stuck his cup in the holder, pulled out of the drive-thru, and headed back onto the freeway.
My thoughts returned to the case, to Mendoza and the earlier agent he'd bought off. What kind of guy would turn like that? Give up his job, his reputation, his life for money? Nick Pratt had to be one sorry-ass son of a bitch. "Hey, Ed. I was wondering. How well did you know Nick Pratt?"
Eddie hesitated a moment, seeming to consider his words. "Nick and I partnered on several big cases, had a beer together after work every now and then. He covered for me when the twins were born."
I snorted. "You make him sound like a nice guy." As if. Nice guys don't sell out.
"You would've liked him. He was a country boy, wore snakeskin cowboy boots with his business suits. Didn't take crap from anybody." Eddie cut his eyes my way. "He was a lot like you, only with —"
"I was going to say more muscle and less mascara. He could handle a gun almost as good as you, too."
I offered a derisive snort. "Nobody handles a gun as good as me." They didn't call me the Annie Oakley of the IRS for nothing.
Eddie rolled his eyes. "I said 'almost.'" He stopped talking for a moment and looked solemnly out his window as if looking for answers to questions that had none. "When Pratt disappeared, Lu told the rest of us he'd turned in his resignation. Claimed the stress of the job got to him."
"Did that seem odd to you?"
"Odd? Yeah. He was smart as they come. Hardworking, too. But he could be a little intense at times, so we bought the story. Figured he'd burned himself out. It happens." Eddie's jaw flexed as he clenched angry teeth. "But I can't believe he turned on us."
"Guess you never can tell, huh?"
Eddie turned back to me then, our eyes locking. "People aren't always who they seem to be."
Twenty minutes later, our nerves buzzed with caffeine as Eddie and I pulled into the cracked asphalt parking lot next to the bakery. We climbed out of his minivan, lugging our briefcases with us.
Pokornys' Korner Kitchen was clearly a mom-and-pop — or should I say matka-and-tata? — operation. The redbrick storefront was narrow with plate-glass windows bearing white eyelet curtains. Their posted hours were from six A.M. to three A.M., their market primarily the breakfast and lunchtime crowd. A sign saying SORRY WE MISSED YOU! sat in the front window next to a cardboard clock with red plastic hands noting the bakery would reopen at six o'clock the following morning.
The front porch light flickered in the evening dusk as we approached the door. Although the seating area at the front of the café was dark, a light shone through an open doorway leading into the kitchen and storage areas at the rear. Moving shadows indicated people working in the back.
We stepped up to the door and Eddie rapped on the glass. A short, plump woman poked her head out of the backlit doorway inside. She gave us a wave, set aside her broom, and headed toward us. As she unbolted and opened the door, the warm, enticing scents of cinnamon and vanilla greeted us. Apparently the couple was getting a head start on the morning's baking.
Darina Pokorny was an attractive woman in her early fifties, with a round face and pink cheeks. Her blond hair bore undertones of white, her short curls springing from her head like a pack of frisky poodles. She wore white cotton pants and a long-sleeved white shirt covered by a red-and-white-checkered apron that, in turn, was covered by powdered sugar and smudges of what appeared to be lemon cream filling.
Mrs. Pokorny flipped on the lights and offered a pleasant but cautious smile. "Come in, please." Her Czech accent was still thick despite more than two decades in Texas.
I stepped through the door. Before me stood a lighted glass-front display case containing cookies and cakes, pastries and pies, tarts and tortes. Some were slathered in chocolate, others oozed vanilla cream. Sugar crystals sparkled, glazes glistened. It was all I could do not to rush to the case and press my face to the glass.
Should've had more than a latte for dinner.
"Down, girl," Eddie said from behind me. I swear the guy could read my mind. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Death, Taxes, and a Skinny No-Whip Latte by Diane Kelly. Copyright © 2012 Diane Kelly. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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