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Being a part-time private eye put a serious crimp in Liz Norton's social life. At half-past eleven on a Friday night in May, she ought to be wearing lip gloss, dancing, flirting and licking the suds off a beer that somebody else had paid for. Instead, she'd spent the past two hours and seventeen minutes on stakeout with Harry Schooner, her sixty-something boss.
She slouched behind the steering wheel of Harry's beat-up Chevy. Even with the windows cracked for ventilation, she still smelled stale hamburger buns from the crumpled bags littering the backseat. On the plus side, the cruddy, old car blended with the rundown Denver neighborhood where they were parked at the curb away from the streetlight, watching and waiting.
In the passenger seat, Harry pressed his fist against his chest and grunted.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
His digestive system provided a source of constant complaint. Long ago, she'd given up lecturing him on the evils of a strictly fast-food diet. "Did you take your pill?"
"What are you? My mother?"
"A concerned employee," she said. "If you keel over from a heart attack, where am I going to find another job as glamorous as this one?"
He peeled off the silver wrapping on a roll of antacid tablets, popped the last one in his mouth and tossed the wrapper over his shoulder into the trashed-out backseat. "That reminds me. You're done with your semester. Right?"
"Took my last exam two days ago."
At age twenty-six, she'd put herself halfway through law school. The accomplishment made her proud, even though she still heard echoes of her mother's refrain:
"Why bother with an education? The only way a girl like you can make it is to find a manto support you." This bit of advice came right before the grooming tips: "Lighten your hair, shorten your skirts and stand up straight so your boobs stick out."
Of course, Liz did the exact opposite. Her thick, multi-colored blond hair remained undyed and unstyled except for her own occasional hacking to keep the jagged ends near chin-length. Her wardrobe included exactly one skirtknee-length and khakithat she'd picked up at a thrift store for a buck. Mostly, she wore jeans and T-shirts. Tonight, a faded brown one under a black wind-breaker. As for Mom's advice to show off her chest, Liz had given up on that plan long ago. Even if she arched her back like a pretzel, nobody would ever confuse her with a beauty queen.
Her twice-married mom had actually done her a favor when she'd shoved her only daughter out the door on her eighteenth birthday and told her that she was on her own.
Liz had done okay. Without a man.
Harry groaned again and shifted in the passenger seat. "You'll come to work for me full-time during your summer break. I could use the help. I'm getting too damn old for this job."
"Thanks, Harry." She'd been counting on this summer job. "But I still need Monday and Wednesday nights free to teach the under-twelve kids at the karate school."
"I got no problem with that." He made a wheezy noise through his nostrils and shrugged his heavy shoulders. His formerly athletic physique had settled into a doughy lump. Only his close-cropped white hair suggested the discipline of long-ago military service and twenty years as a cop. "How's my grandson doing at karate?"
"Not exactly a black belt, but he's hanging in there." She'd met Harry at Dragon Lou's Karate School when he'd come to watch his six-year-old grandson and ended up offering Liz a couple of part-time assignments.
Some aspects of being a P.I. were just plain nasty, like serving subpoenas or confirming the suspicions of a heartbroken wife about her cheating husband. But Liz enjoyed the occasional undercover disguise. Most of all, she liked grumpy old Harry and his two grown daughters. The Schooners represented the family she'd never had.
She peered through the scummy windshield at a ram-shackle bungalow, landscaped with weeds and two rusty vehicles up on blocks. Gangsta music blared through the open windows. In the past hour, a half-dozen visitors had come and gone. She'd caught glimpses of three or four skinny children playing, even though it was way past normal bedtime, and she hoped the drug dealers inside the house weren't selling in front of the kids. Or to them.
"Are you sure we have the right address?"
"My source gave me the place, but not the time. He'll be here tonight." Harry rubbed his palms together. "Once we have photos of Mr. Crawford making a drug buy, we're in for a real big payday."
Liz found it hard to believe that Ben Crawfordmillionaire adventurer and playboywould show up in person. Didn't rich people hire underlings to do their dirty work?
But she hoped Harry was right. The Schooner Detective Agency could use the cash. They'd been retained by Ben's estranged wife, Victoria, who wanted enough dirt on her husband to void the prenup and gain sole custody of their five-year-old daughter. Photos of Ben making a drug buy would insure that Victoria got what she wanted, and she'd promised a huge bonus for the results.
Though Liz felt a twinge of regret about separating a father from his child, Ben Crawford deserved to be exposed. He'd been born with every advantage and was throwing his life away on drugs. In her book, that made him a lousy human being and definitely an unfit father.
A shiny, black Mustang glided to the curb in front of the house. This had to be their millionaire.
Harry shoved the camera into her hands. "You take the pictures. Don't worry. I'll back you up."
"Stay in the car, Harry."
"Get close to the front window," he said as he flipped open the glove compartment and took out an ancient Remington automatic.
A jolt of adrenaline turned her stakeout lethargy to tension. If Harry started waving his gun, this situation could get ugly. "Put that thing away."
"Don't you worry, Missy. I don't plan to shoot anybody." With another grunt, he opened his car door.
"Go for the money shot. Crawford with the drugs in his hand."
Holding the camera to her eye, Liz zoomed in on his Another man with a scraggly beard staggered outside and pointed.
Liz glanced over her shoulder to see what they were looking at. Harry crouched between two cars at the curb, his white hair gleaming in the moonlight.
"Hey, old man." The dealer came off the porch. "What the hell you doing?"
Harry straightened his stiff joints. "Guess I got lost."
"You watching us?" The two men stepped into the yard. From down the street, she heard ferocious barking, the prelude to a fight, and she knew Harry wasn't up to it.
She stashed the camera in the pocket of her wind-breaker and rushed toward her partner. "There you are, Gramps. I've been looking all over for you." To the two men in the yard, she said, "Sorry if he bothered you. He wanders sometimes."
Their cold sneers told her that they weren't buying her story. The dealer snapped, "Stop right there, bitch."
"I'll just take Gramps home and"
The crack of a gunshot brought her to a halt. She froze at the edge of the yard, praying that Harry wouldn't return fire. A shootout wouldn't be good for anybody.
Liz turned and faced the two men, who swaggered toward her. Her pulse raced, not so much from fear as uncertainty. She didn't know what to expect. Forcing an innocent smile, she said, "There's no need for guns."
"What's in your pocket? You carrying heat?"
As long as they didn't immobilize her, she ought to be able to take these two guys. Her five years studying martial arts at Dragon Lou's gave her an edge. Liz was capable of shattering a cinderblock with her bare hand.
From across the street, Harry yelled, "Leave her alone."
Please, Harry. Please don't use your gun. She had to act fast. No time to wait and see.
Liz aimed a flying kick at the bearded guy, neatly disarming him. Before his buddy could react, she whirled, chopped at his arm and kicked again. Though her hand missed, the heavy sole of her boot connected with his knee, and he stumbled.
The bearded man grabbed her forearm. Worst possible scenario. Both men had more brute strength than she did. Her advantage was speed and agility. She twisted and flipped, wrenching her arm free. He still clung to the sleeve of her windbreaker. She escaped by slipping out of her jacket.
Before they could brace themselves for another assault, she unleashed a series of kicks and straight-hand chops. Not a pretty, precise display. She wouldn't win any tournament points for style, but she got the job done with several swift blows to vulnerable parts of their anatomy. Throat. Gut. Groin.
Both were on their knees.
Another man rushed out the door. And another. Behind her back, she heard Harry fire his automatic. Five shots.
She ran for the car.
Harry collapsed into the passenger side as she dived behind the wheel and cranked the ignition. Without turning on the headlights, she burned rubber and tore down the street.
Gunfire exploded behind them.
Liz didn't cut her speed until they reached a major intersection, where she turned on the headlights and merged into traffic. Her heart hammered inside her rib cage. They could have been killed. The aftermath of intense danger exploded behind her eyelids like belated fireworks.
Thank God for Dragon Lou and his martial arts training.
Beside her in the passenger seat, Harry was breathing heavily. With the back of his hand, he wiped sweat from his forehead. "Did you get the pictures?"
She cringed. "The camera was in my windbreaker. The bearded guy pulled it off me."
"But you're not." She took note of his pasty complexion and heaving chest. "I'm taking you to the emergency room."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? Kick the old man out of the way and take over his business."
"Yeah, that's my evil plan. Adding your debt to my student loans." Sarcasm covered her concern for him.
"That's every girl's dream."
"Seriously, Liz. I don't need a doc." He exhaled in a long whoosh that dissolved into a hacking cough. "This was a little too much excitement for the old ticker."
"Is this your way of telling me that you have heart problems?"
"Forget it. Just drive back to the office."
Checking her rearview mirrors, she continued along Colfax Avenue. She didn't see anyone following them; they'd made a clean getaway. Just in case, she turned south at the next intersection and drove toward the highway. "We need to call the police."
"Harry, those guys shot at us. They assaulted us."
"But I returned fire." He cleared his throat, breathing more easily. His clenched fist lifted from his chest. "And you kicked ass. You might look like a Pop-Tart, but you were a fire-breathing dragon."
"My form wasn't terrific."
"You did good." He reached over and patted her shoulder. Always stingy with his compliments, Harry followed up with a complaint. "Too bad you messed up and lost the camera."
"Don't even think about taking the cost out of my wages." At a stoplight, she studied him again. He seemed to have recovered. "We need to fill out a police report. Those people are dealing drugs."
"And I guarantee that the narcs are well aware. Leave the drug dealers to the cops, we've got problems of our own. Like how to get that juicy bonus from Victoria."
Tomorrow, she'd put in a call to a friend at the Denver PD. At the very least, she wanted to see those children removed from a dangerous environment.
Harry sat up straighter. "Time to switch to Plan B."
"I don't like the sound of this."
"My source is the housekeeper who works at the Crawford estate near Evergreen. She can"
"Wait a sec. How did you get to know a housekeeper?" She glanced toward the backseat. "You've never tidied up anything in your whole life."
"I served with her dad in Vietnam, and we stay in touch. Her name is Rachel Frakes. She's actually the one who recommended me to Victoria."
That connection explained a lot. The Schooner Detective Agency wasn't usually the first choice of the rich and famous. "What's Plan B?"
"Rachel gets you inside the estate. While you're there, you dig up the dirt on Ben."
"An undercover assignment."
That didn't sound too shabby. Maybe she'd impersonate a fancy-pants interior decorator. Or a horse wrangler. An upscale estate near Evergreen had to have several acres and a stable. Or she could be a guest maybe an eccentric jet-setting heiress. A descendant of the Romanov czars. "Who am I supposed to be?"
He almost smiled. "You'll see."