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"Mad Dog Manson still in the wind?" Cord Braddock asked casually as he pocketed the much-needed check he'd just received for his last job. Another messy divorce case. Yeah, the guy was cheating, and Cord had delivered the proof that would net the soon-to-be ex-wife a nice settlement. But if he had to spy on one more sleazy, lying dirtbag husband, he was gonna
"Who caught him?" His gaze shot to Leslie's impassive face.
"No, you can't have the job." Slowly, she shook her head, her blue gaze firm and unwavering. Behind her on the beige office wall was a poster from one of her earliest movies.
"So no one else has bagged him yet." Now, that was some serious money to be made. Enough for five months' rent, five lease payments on Cord's Porsche and next year's gym membership.
"You're a private detective, not a bounty hunter, and even if you were, I wouldn't give you this one." Leslie slid open her desk drawer and pulled out a strongbox where he knew she kept petty cash. "This is Manson's third strike. He's not coming in without taking down anything that moves."
Yeah, Cord had his P.I. license now, even a gun and permit to carry it, but calling him a private detective was being too generous with the kind of jobs he'd been doing. "I'm not looking for easy."
"You should be." She gestured with a lift of her chin. "How's the shoulder?"
"I want Mad Dog, Leslie." Out of habit, or because she'd called attention to it, he flexed his injured shoulder. Today it didn't hurt too much. "I'm dead serious about this."
She leaned back in her creamy yellow leather chair and stared at him with a sympathy he found hard to stomach. Yet she wasn't that unlike him. Chewed up and spitout by Hollywood when her use and youth had hit a wall. Still, she'd done okay for herself, invested well while she'd been making some dough, and then bought old man Barker's detective and bail bonds agency.
Cord hadn't been so smart. He'd spent the considerable money he'd made as a stuntman on cars and women as fast as he pulled in paychecks, too caught up in the good life to see that inevitably it would come to a crashing end. He pushed up from the too-small chair facing her and stretched out his legs. Nice office, but more chic than practical. Not that he knew anything about practicality. If he did, he'd give up the Porsche.
"Come on, Leslie," he said smoothly, giving her his best pleading puppy-dog eyes.
Leslie sighed. "No."
Cord exhaled sharply and looked out the window at the blue California sky, marred only by the persistent gray smog that hung over the Valley. Maybe it was time to move. L.A. was expensive and crowded and toxic. But where would he go? Not back to Arizona. Certainly not back to the reservation. The mere thought sent a shaft of dread down his spine. He'd go back to begging on the streets of L.A. before he'd end up there again.
"I need work, Les, but not this nickel-and-dime stuff."
"Even the small stuff pays the bills."
Cord drove a hand through his hair. It was long. Too long.
Bad enough being six-three since his size made it hard to blend in when he did surveillance. Looking like the half-Indian he was didn't help matters. "Don't worry about my shoulder. I'm back to bench-pressing three times a week. I'm fine."
"Right." Her mouth twisted wryly. "That's why the studios are pounding down your door to offer you work."
He gritted his teeth, angry, but worse, a heartbeat away from panic. A year had passed since the accident and he still didn't have full range of motion. One more injury, the doctor had said, and Cord's arm would be totally useless. "It's an insurance issue. It doesn't mean squat."
"Hell, Cord, make peace with it already," she said, annoyance flashing in her eyes. "You're out of the stunt business. For good. Got it? You're thirty-three, which isn't so bad, granted, but with your shoulder hanging on by a thread, there will be no more plum jobs. Not the kind that used to pay for your Porsche. For God's sake, we don't even know half the guys calling the shots anymore. You understand as well as I do how this town works, you've got to know somebody. You've already been replaced, my friend. Deal with it."
She was right. That's what stunk. It didn't matter that he still worked out six days a week, that he was strong and fit and had a unique look that had once earned him top dollar when westerns had made a comeback. It meant nothing that he'd never balked at a single stunt they'd asked him to do. The more dangerous, the more willing he'd been to take on the challenge. The truth was, a year out of the business, coupled with an injury that made him a liability, and he was forgotten.
"All the more reason I need better gigs than chasing after scumbag husbands. I need some credibility if I want to make it as a private detective and attract worthwhile clients."
"You're absolutely right." She looked pleased, obviously having bought his line of crap. "That's why I have a proposition for you."
"The Winslow case. The sisters are still missing."
"Not exactly a news flash." The daughters of actors Brad and Linea Winslow, a Hollywood powerhouse couple, had bi-zarrely disappeared within six months of each other. Like vultures feasting on roadkill, the media had been all over the story. Until some upcoming young actor had shoved his male lover off the hill below the Hollywood sign.
"Other than the FBI and Malcolm Baxter, who I hear the Winslows have kept on retainer, I doubt many people are working the case at this point. It's been too long and costly."
Malcolm Baxter. The smug, condescending bastard. The guy's name alone was enough to make Cord's insides clench. Everything about the older manfrom his Armani suits to his trademark tasseled Italian loafersmade Cord want to teach the guy a lesson. It wasn't the man's success Cord begrudged, but something in his penetrating soulless eyes that seemed to remind Cord of every humiliation he'd suffered since the day he'd left the reservation.
He forced away thoughts of Baxter. "What's it been, a year and a half since they went missing?"
"Nineteen months, to be exact." She reached behind and swung her black designer purse off the gleaming mahogany credenza that matched her desk. She set down the fancy bag and fished out a small key.
Yep, Leslie had grown to like nice things. Just like him. Difference was, she could afford them. "According to news reports, the trail went cold fast," he said, watching her unlock the strongbox. "I don't think the police picked up a single lead. Not even when the second sister went missing. Even the FBI turned up nothing."
"That's right. The mystery of the century some reporters were calling it." She took out a wad of cash and looked up at him, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement. "Imagine the publicity when someone finally finds them. I mean, they couldn't have both vanished into thin air. They have to be somewhere." She gave a small shrug. "Even if it's just their bodies that turn up."
He waited for her to finish, and then finally got her meaning. "And you think" He shook his head in disbelief. At the time, the best in the business had taken up the search. Private dicks and bounty hunters from all over the country had crawled out from under rocks and descended on the vacant house the women had inherited in Deadwood, South Dakota, and where each had last been seen, in hopes of claiming the reward. Even tabloid reporters had dived into the frenzy. Everyone had come up empty. "You're nuts."
"You wanted credibility. Not even considering the million bucks the Winslows are offering to locate their daughters, find them and you'd be able to write your own ticket. You'd be in so much demand, you wouldn't even need me."
"I can't afford to go on a wild-goose chase. You know that. Not to mention the expense of traveling all the way to Deadwood. I need a paying job."
"That's why I'm willing to stake you."
Cord briefly eyed the cash. Two stacks. Made up of hundreds. Temptation pulled at his gut. "Why?"
"For half the reward money, and publicity for my agency."
"So why the sudden interest?" he asked, waiting for her to squirm. This was a bunch of crap. They both knew it.
She didn't even blink. "Because the Deadwood house has been sold. The new owner is tearing part of it down and having some extensive renovation done to the rest of the building in order to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. This may be the last chance to uncover any clues."
He still didn't buy her motive. "The Winslows sold the house when it's their last link to their daughters? That doesn't make sense."
"I couldn't agree more." The corners of Leslie's mouth quirked. "But I heard that the almighty Malcolm Baxter convinced them that the place was a dead end. Probably got a kickback from the Realtor for convincing them."
Cord knew she'd never liked Baxter, either. Whatever her reasons, he wasn't sure. Probably had more to do with professional rivalry since the guy was a shameless publicity whore and managed to snag the best clients. Cord's dislike went deeper, and Leslie, the conniving little witch, was using Baxter to play Cord. "What makes you think I can do what no one else could?" Grudgingly, because the man did have an uncanny knack for closing a case, he added, "Including the almighty Baxter."
"You're good at tracking."
Cord smiled in spite of himself. Coming from anyone else he would have found the remark a snide commentary on his being half-Navajo. Hell, too bad it hadn't come from Baxter. It would've been Cord's perfect excuse to pop the guy. Show everyone just how good his shoulder had healed, at the same time send the smug bastard halfway to hell. But someone like Baxter was far too slick and cunning to be an open bigot. Especially not here in good old liberal Hollywood.
Unlike some of the townspeople who lived near the reservation. When the economy was down, there were folks who accused the "dirty, rotten Indians" of taking their jobs, taking food out of the mouths of their children. Cord had been a blameless child himself when he'd crossed into their world. But they'd dragged him through the mud, spat in his face, shaved off his long black hair.
Had circumstances been different when they'd first met, Baxter could've been any one of those men. Cord knew the truth of that deep in his gut. He saw it in Baxter's eyes. They reminded Cord of a past he wanted to forget, pure and simple.
But he wouldn't let that distract him now. Leslie was right, he was damn good at tracking, but the idea that he could make headway on the high-profile case was ridiculous. He knew exactly what this was about. The sparkling eyes, the phony excitement in her voice, all a nice touch. But of course she'd been a decent enough actress at one time.
"If I'm so good at tracking, why can't I go after Mad Dog," he reminded her. "That could net us each a nice payoff."
Leslie sighed with disgust. "Let it go, Braddock. I'm not helping you cripple yourself for life." She flipped through the first stack of hundred-dollar bills, as if mentally counting, but he had a feeling she had something else on her mind. "You still seeing Brenda Carlisle?"
Leslie's lips curved in a rueful smile. "This town isn't good for you anymore, Cord. Some friendly advice? Get the hell out while you still can."
He knew she meant well. Brenda was just like the rest of the women in his circle, a circle getting smaller by the day. She was a taker. And lately he had less to give. He shouldn't resent Leslie's concern. She was the closest person he had to a friend. He did, anyway.
Clutching the back of the leather guest chair, he watched her lay the two stacks of bills on her desk and then slowly push them toward him.
Hesitating, he tightened his grip. The late afternoon sun filtered through the tinted window and caught his watch. The gold gleamed under the beam of sunlight. Damn, he didn't want to have to pawn it again.
Cord clenched his jaw, and reached for the money. Only a year ago he'd been sitting on top of the world, his phone ringing off the hook with job offers and A-list party invitations. Then one wrecked shoulder and it had all come to this. His pride was as fragile as the colored beads his grandmother had strung to keep food on their table. And here he was, accepting charity.
She wasa sly one, that Leslie. Cord shook his head as he sank to the edge of his bed, irrationally annoyed at the plushness of the burgundy comforter his interior decorator had insisted upon, and pulled off his boots. Not only had Leslie slipped him enough money to pay next month's rent, but she'd also effectively stopped him from chasing down Mad Dog.
The guy was big and mean but dumb as they came. Wearily, his gaze went to the leather duffel bag sitting on the floor near his walk-in closet. He still hadn't checked on flights to Deadwood. Going there would appease Leslie, but be a huge waste of his time. He laughed humorlessly. Time was about the only thing he had lately. No money. No prospects. Just a hoity-toity apartment he could no longer afford.
He could downsize, get a cheaper one bedroom in Culver City. Unload some of the furniture through one of those fancy consignment shops. Getting rid of some of this stuff wouldn't kill him. But the Porsche
Man, he loved that car.
Even after two years he got a kick out of how valet parkers rushed to the curb when he pulled up. Nah, the car was a deal breaker. He had to do whatever it took to keep her.
He kicked his boots in the direction of the armoire, and then lay back and closed his eyes. The air conditioner kicked on with a low hum and he knew he should get up and close the window. Better yet, turn off the air. Eighteen years he'd been away from the reservation and he still hadn't acquired a taste for the indoors. He liked an actual breeze skimming his face.
Summers on the reservation had been hotter than hell itself. Burning wood to cook hadn't helped. Come winter, the mountain of wood Cord kept chopped and the scratchy handmade wool blankets were the only things that kept them warm. His grandmother never complained. Not even when, at seven, Cord had been dropped at her doorstep because his mother had died in a car accident and his father didn't want to be saddled with a kid.