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There were framed black-and-white photographs of Texas Rangers on the walls of the San Antonio Texas Ranger office. Like sepia ghosts of times gone by, they watched over the modern complex of telephones and fax machines and computers. Phones were ringing. Employees at desks were interviewing people. The hum of working machines settled over the office, oddly comforting, like an electrical lullaby.
Sergeant Marc Brannon was sitting kicked back in his swivel chair, his wavy blond-streaked brown hair shimmering under the ceiling lights as he pondered a stack of files on his cluttered desk. His narrow, pale gray eyes were almost closed as he thought about a disturbing recent mishap.
A close friend and fellow Texas Ranger, Judd Dunn, had been almost run over by a speeding car a few weeks earlier during a temporary assignment to the San Antonio office. There were rumors that it had something to do with a criminal investigation into illegal gambling that the FBI was conducting on local mob boss Jake Marsh in San Antonio. Dunn had been working with the FBI on the case, but shortly thereafter, Dunn had transferred down to the Victoria office, citing personal problems. Brannon had inherited the Marsh investigation. The FBI was also involvedrather, an agent Brannon knew was involved; a Georgia-born nuisance named Curtis Russell. It was curious that Russell should be working on an FBI case. He'd been with the Secret Service. Of course, Marc reminded himself, men changed jobs all the time. He certainly had.
Apparently, Russell was knee-deep in the Marsh investigation. Attorney General Simon Hart had spoken with Brannon on the phone not two days ago, grumbling about Russell's tenacity. The former Secret Service agent was now in Austin giving the local officials fits while he dug into state crime lab computer files on two recent murders that he thought were tied to Marsh.
And who knew, maybe he was right. But pinning anything on the local mobster was going to take a miracle.
Marsh had his finger in all sorts of pies, including blackmail, prostitution and illegal betting, mostly in San Antonio, where he lived. If they could get something on him, they could invoke the state's nuisance abatement statute, which permitted any property to be closed down if it were used as a base of operations for criminals. Since Marsh was known to be involved in prostitution and illegal betting at his nightclub, all they had to do was prove it to oust him from the premises. Considering the real estate value of that downtown property, it would hit Marsh right where he lived. But knowing he was conducting illegal operations and proving it were two whole different kettles of fish. Marsh was an old hand at dodging investigators and searches. Doing things by the book sure seemed to give career criminals an advantage.
Pity that you couldn't just shoot the bad guys anymore, Brannon thought whimsically, eyeing a hundred-year-old framed photograph of a Texas Ranger on horseback with a lariat pulled tight around a dusty and wounded outlaw.
His lean hand went to the dark wood butt of the Colt .45 he wore in a holster on his hip. Since Rangers didn't have a specified uniform, they were allowed some personal choice in both dress and weaponry. But most of the men and women in the office wore white shirts and ties with their star-in-a-circle signature badge on the shirt. Most of them also wore white Stetsons and boots. To a Ranger, they were neat, conservative, polite and professional when they were on the job. Brannon tried very hard to adjust to that image. Well, he tried to, most of the time. He was more cautious about his job now than he ever had been before. He'd made the mistake of his life two years ago, misjudging a woman he'd grown to
care for, very much. His sister said that the woman didn't blame him for the mess he'd made of her life. But he blamed himself so much that he'd quit the Rangers and left Texas for two years to work with the FBI. But he'd learned that running from problems didn't solve them. They were portable. Like heartache.
He could still see her in his mind, blonde and sassy and full of dry wit. Despite the miseries of her life, she'd been the brightest, most delightful person he'd ever known. He missed her. She didn't miss him, of course. And why should she? He'd hurt her terribly. He'd ruined her life.
"Nothing to do, Brannon?" a female Ranger drawled as she passed him. All the women thought he was a dish, lean and slim-hipped, broad-chested, with that square sort of face that once graced cowboy movie posters. He had a sensuous mouth under a nose that had been broken at least once, and an arrogant sort of carriage that excited more than it intimidated. But he wasn't a rounder, by anybody's estimate. In fact, if he dated, he was so discreet that even the office gossip couldn't get anything on him.
"I am doing something," he drawled back with a twinkle in his eyes. "I'm using mental telepathy on escaped criminals. If I'm successful, they'll all be walking into law enforcement offices all over America as we speak, to turn themselves in."
"Pull the other one," she chuckled.
He sighed and smiled. "Okay. I just got back from testifying in a court case. I've got half a dozen cases to work and now I have to decide on priorities," he confessed. He flicked a long finger at the file stack. "I thought I might flip a coin
"No need. The captain has something urgent for you to do."
"Saved by new orders!" he joked. He jerked forward and his booted feet slammed to the floor. He got up and stretched enormously, pulling his white shirt with the silver Ranger badge on the pocket tight over hair-roughened, hard chest muscles. "What's the assignment?"
She tossed a sheet on his desk. "A homicide, in an alley off Castillo Boulevard," she told him. "White guy, mid-to-late-twenties. Two detectives from CID and a medical examiner investigator are already on scene, along with a couple of EMTs and patrol officers. The captain said you should go right now, before they call a contract ambulance to transport the dead body."
He scowled. "Hey, that's in the city limits. San Antonio PD has jurisdiction." he began.
"I know. But this one's tricky. They found a young white guy with a single gunshot wound to the back of the head, execution-style. Remember what's on Castillo Boulevard?"
She gave him a smug look. "Jake Marsh's nightclub. And the body was found in an alley two doors down from it."
He broke into a smile. "Well, well! What a nice surprise to drop in my lap, and just when I was feeling sorry for myself." He hesitated. "Wait a minute. Why's the captain giving it to me?" he asked suspiciously, glaring toward the head Ranger's closed door nearby. "The last assignment he gave me was looking into the mysterious death of a mutilated cow." He leaned down, because he was a head taller than she was. "They thought it was aliens" he whispered fervently.
She made a face. "You never know. Maybe it was!"
He glared at her.
She grinned. "He's just ticked because you got to work with the FBI for two years, and they turned down two applications from him. But he said you could have this murder case because you haven't embarrassed him this month. Yet."
"It won't be uncomplicated. In fact, I'll bet a week's pay that by dark it's going to turn into a media feeding frenzy," he said.
"I won't take that bet. And, by the way, he said you should stop getting gas at that new all-female gas station downtown, because it's giving the department a bad name."
He lifted both eyebrows. "What's he got against women pumping gas?" he asked innocently.
"Gas isn't all they're pumping." She flushed when she realized what she'd said, gestured impotently at the assignment sheet and exited in a flaming rush.
Brannon grinned wickedly as she retreated. He picked up the sheet and went out of the office, grabbing up his off-white Stetson on the way.
In Austin, a slender woman with her long blond hair in a bun, wearing big gold-rimmed glasses over her twinkling dark brown eyes, was trying to console one of the state attorney general's computer experts.
"He really likes you, Phil," Josette Langley told the young man, who was in the first month of his first job out of college. He looked devastated. "Honest he does."
Phil, redheaded and blue-eyed, glanced toward the door of Simon Hart, Texas Attorney General, and flushed even redder. "He said it was my fault his computer locked down while he was talking to the vice president online about an upcoming governors' conference. He got knocked off the network and couldn't get back on. He threw the mouse at me."
"Lucky you, that it wasn't attached to the CPU at the time," she said with a wicked grin. "Anyway, he only throws things when Tira's mad at him. It doesn't last long. Besides, the vice president is his third cousin," she pointed out. "And mine, too, come to think of it," she added thoughtfully. "Never mind, Phil, you have to learn to just let it wash over you, like water on a duck's back. Simon's quick-tempered, but he gets over it just as fast."
He gave her a baleful look. "He never yells at you."
"I'm a woman," she pointed out. "He's very old-fashioned about yelling at women. He and his brothers were raised strictly. They don't move with the times."
"He's got four brothers and he says they're all just like him. Imagine that!" he said.
She remembered that Phil was an only child, like herself. "They're not just like him. Anyway, they live in Jacobsville, Texas. The married ones are a lot calmer now." She didn't dare allow herself to think about the two remaining Hart bachelors, Leo and Rey. The stories about their homemade biscuit-craving and the things they did to satisfy it was becoming legendary.
"The bachelor ones aren't calm. One of them carried a cook out of a Victoria restaurant kicking and screaming last week, and they sent the Texas Rangers after him!"
"They sent Judd Dunn," she replied. "He's our cousin, too. But it was a joke, sort of. And she wasn't exactly screaming
Well, never mind. It's not important." She was talking too fast. She felt her face go hot at the mention of the Texas Rangers.
She had painful memories of one particular Texas Ranger, whom she'd loved passionately. Gretchen, Marc Brannon's sister, had told her that Marc Brannon had gone on a drunken rampage two years ago, just after they broke up and ended up on opposite sides of the courtroom in a high-profile murder trial. Marc had left the Rangers shortly afterward and enlisted with the FBI. He was back in San Antonio now, back with the Rangers again. Gretchen also said that Marc had almost driven himself crazy with guilt over an even older incident when Josette was fifteen and he was a policeman in Jacobsville. Odd, she thought, remembering the painful things he'd said to her when they broke up.
Josette had told Gretchen that she didn't blame Marc for his lack of belief in her innocence. Part of her didn't. Another, darker part wanted to hang him by his spurs from a live oak tree for the misery of the past two years. He'd never really believed her story until their last disastrous date, and he'd walked out on her without another word, after making her feel like a prostitute. She'd loved him. But he couldn't have loved her. If he had, he'd never have left Texas, not even if the murder trial had set them at odds.
She cleared her throat at the erotic images that flashed through her mind of her last date with Marc and turned her attention back to poor, downcast Phil Douglas.
"I'll square things with Simon for you," she promised him.