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I ducked under the crime scene tape the way I always do, like I know exactly what I'm doing, but this time I was a little more careful on account of the black-clad SWAT guys drawing down around the perimeter. Sometimes I think the only things standing between me and certain doom are instinct, pure dumb luck, and a kick-ass hairdresser.
"Little early, aren't you, Cauley?" Jim Cantu was lounging against his cruiser looking like a Hispanic Marlboro Man as he surveyed the rugged limestone hills and gnarled oaks at the back of the Barnes' ranch. "What we got here is your basic suicide threat," he continued, squinting into the hot Central Texas sun. "Don't obituaries get written after somebody's turned up a corpse?"
"This isn't for the Sentinel," I said, swatting dirt from the seat of my jeans. "Scooter called me this morning and said he wanted to talk."
"Doesn't matter. No media behind the line," he said, nodding toward the SWAT guys. "You're lucky you didn't get shot." "Calling m e media is pure charity on your part," I said. "And I almost never get shot."
Cantu grinned down at me as I settled in beside him. Every now and then, Cantu cuts me a break because once upon a time, he'd been a rookie beat cop when my dad was a detective, and he sometimes steps in where my dad left off.
Cantu and I stood, staring at the tumble of weathered planks that comprised the shed where Scott "Scooter" Barnes had holed up, presumably sucking on the business end of a shotgun. This wasn't the earth-shattering incident it might seem elsewhere in the world. Here, you don't ask if you have any crazy people in the family; you ask which side they're on. In Texas, we believe our own myths, and the wet heat of summer presses heavily on already fanciful minds.
Crossing his arms, Cantu looked at the bruise that was blooming on my forehead. "All right, blondie, I give. What happened to your head?"
"Banged it on a big piece of wood," I said. Despite a raging hangover, I'd climbed a crosstie fence to get past the police line. I was hot and sweaty, and I had enough dirt under my nails to repot a geranium. Plus, now I had a bump on my head and a hole in my jeans, which showed a big patch of Wal-Mart underwear. These things almost never happen when you're wearing nice undies.
"Hurricane Cauley." Cantu shook his head. "You want off obits? Go chase a real story. I hear El Patron's on the move." 3 I had to stop myself from growling. Cantu knew I'd sell my great aunt Kat's china for a story that would get me off the obituary page, and while I'd been assigned to do some of the research on El Patronthe latest South American syndicate to set up shop in Central Texasthe News Boys on the City Desk got the byline on the story. For the most part, I spend my days rewriting death notices, and if I'm lucky, I occasionally get to do legwork for the real reporters.
But getting something on El Patron could fix that for me. Organized crime was nothing new in Texas, but El Patron crossed the city limits into Looneyville when they shoved a heavy-duty Firestone around some poor bastard's shoulders and burned him alive. Talk about a front-page scoop.
"Yeah, well, El Patron will have to wait," I said, and winced as one of the SWAT guys with an orange-stocked sniper rifle disappeared into a thicket of sage. "Did you have to call the Jump-Out Boys?" I said, staring at the rest of the SWAT team, which was scattered among bushes and perched in the gnarled forks of live oaks.
"Had to," Cantu said. "I got dinner duty tonight."
"You called SWAT because it's your turn to cook?" I said, thinking of Cantu's three kids, who could make a sane person call SWAT on a good day. "You know Scooter would never hurt anybody."
"And he won't hurt anybody. Captain's called a negotiator."
"We don't need a negotiator. Let me talk to him."
"You talked to him last time."
"Hey," I said. "That thing with the goats was not my fault."
Cantu snorted. "You busted in the back of that pet store and scared los cabras so bad they passed out cold."
"They were those weird fainting goats," I said, staring at the shed. I shook my head. "Exotic animals. I don't know why Scooter can't sell dogs and cats like a normal person."
"He's not a normal person. He's a serial suicide. This is the second time he's threatened to bite a bullet this month. It's standard procedure to call SWAT and I shoulda never let you talk me out of it the first time."
I started to say that serial suicide was an oxymoron and that Scooter had issues, what with his wife leaving him and all, when I sucked in a breath and stopped dead in my tracks. "Who is that?" Near the fence line, a lone man loomed, speaking into a cell phone as he surveyed the scene. I'd practically grown up in the West Side substation, and I knew all the precinct cops and most of the usual suspects.
This guy was no usual suspect.
Tall and bronzed, with a wide-legged stance, he was a dead ringer for Captain America. I had to remind myself to close my mouth. Probably my hormones. The closest I've been to a steady relationship has been since I set my cell phone to vibrate.
"Tom Logan." Cantu scowled. "FBI."
"You don't like him?"
"Nothing personal. We just don't need a bunch of feds fucking up a local case."
"They're here on a suicide threat? Why would the feds care if Scooter Barnes is having a bad day?" I said, but the rumble of an engine rolled over my voice.
"Miranda," I swore.
Miranda Phillips stepped out of a white van, shook out her platinum hair, smoothed her slim skirt, and tapped her Ferragamo-heeled foot while her television crew set up outside the flapping yellow crime scene tape. She might have been annoyed. It was hard to tell because her face never moved. It was frozen in a permanent look of surprise on account of all those Botox injections.
Miranda has her own wildly successful syndicated column at the Austin Journal, the Sentinel's flashier, better-funded rival newspaper, and she's broadening her already triumphant résumé by breaking into television.
Miranda never did time on the obituary page.
Miranda is Barbie, if Barbie gave up her Malibu Beach house to pursue a career in journalism. She's tall and blond and has all the accessories, including a closet full of fuck-me pumps. I, on the other hand, look like Skipper, Barbie's little sister. Permanently disheveled and always trying to keep up.
As long as I've known Miranda, I've never seen her sweat. She uses pretentious words like "exquisite" and "extraordinary" at inappropriate times.
I know this because a couple of Christmases ago I walked in on her riding my former husband like a wild, wet pony. Exquisite, she'd panted. Extraordinary.
"How'd she find us so fast?"
"Probably she has that OnStar navigation thing," Cantu said. He looked down at the hole in my jeans. "You should get that."
"I don't need any help," I said. The old shed was hard to find if you didn't know where to look. It was perched on a wooded knoll behind Scooter's dad's house on a bend in the Pedernales River near Paradise Falls. My friends and I used to spend sultry summer afternoons skinny-dipping in the cold spring waters, a memory not even two years in northern California could extinguish.
"You are sneaking into a crime scene," Cantu pointed out.
"You're not supposed to be here at all."
"Yeah, well, if it makes you feel any better, these were my favorite jeans."
Miranda had finished tossing her hair and did a double take when she caught sight of me and Cantu.
"Well, hello, Carrie," Miranda purred as she prowled toward us, but she looked right past me like one of those smart bombs in search of a target.
"Cauley," I said, like she didn't already know.
"Right," she said without looking at me. "Like the dog."
I narrowed my eyes.
"What do we have here?" she said, and I was about to think of something really clever to say, but it didn't matter because she was staring at Captain America, who was still stalking the fence line, talking on his cell phone.
I glanced over the horizon expectantly. The News Boys would be on the scene soon.
Luckily, I had anticipated this. You can only screw me four or five times before I start to notice a pattern. From somewhere down the tree-lined road, a red Toyota 4 × 4 rolled up and slid to a stop next to Miranda's van.
A rangy, pimply faced kid climbed out of the truck and yelled, "Somebody order a pizza?" His voice only cracked a little, and it was hardly noticeable, what with all the sniper rifles ratcheting his direction.
"Thirty minutes or less." I grinned at Cantu. "Just like the ad says."
The kid was reaching across the passenger seat to pull out a big white pizza box when a deep voice yelled, "Freeze!"
I watched as six SWAT guys had the pizza kid spread-eagled on the ground and Miranda was mobilizing her troop of television techs. Seeing as folks were busy, I made a break toward some business of my own.
"You could go to hell for this," Cantu called after me.
"They're trained professionals," I called back. "They almost never shoot anybody."
I could hear the falls rushing in the near distance as I scrambled toward the backside of the shed. The natural spring plunges down a forty-foot cliff to rush nearly fifteen miles through the Hill Country, pooling in Paradise Covenot what most people picture when they think of Texas.
Texas is hot, but it's not all barren and rocky like the movies, where John Wayne rides into the sunset over a desert dotted with saguaro cactus. The only pitchfork-shaped cacti here are imported from Arizona, and John Wayne was born in Iowa. Not that we let little things like facts get in our way.
I pounded on the back door. "Don't shoot, Scooter! It's me, Cauley."
A rustling sound came from inside, followed by a half-hearted sigh. Scooter's voice drifted through the back door. "You're too late. Go away."
"Can't do that, Scooter. They've got the place surrounded. You're going to have to come out."
I tried the door and heard a chain rattle from the inside. Scooter didn't say anything. It was getting hotter by the minute and the smell of cut grass was about to pitch me headlong into an allergy attack. Mindful of the SWAT team perched around the perimeter, I crept around the corner of the shed until I found a hole just big enough for a smallish body.
"Well, crap," I growled. With much bitching and moaning, I shimmied through the narrow hole, tearing my shirt on a splintered board. Apparently I wasn't as small as I thought.
"Ow!" I swore, and spit out a mouthful of red dirt while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The shed was about fifteen by fifteen, and its most prominent feature was a warped box-bench against the far wall. A bare bulb hung from a frayed wire, and a few rusty tools and half a dozen sagging cardboard boxes were scattered along the side and back walls. I pulled my mini recorder out of my back pocket, more out of habit than anything else, and hit the record button.
"Go away," Scooter said. He was sitting on the box-bench in the corner near a pyramid of old paint cans, where he'd surrounded himself with a semicircle of assorted weaponry.
I heard a loud squawk and blinked in the dim light. The big blue parrot that always hung out near the cash register at Scooter's pet store was perched atop the paint cans.
"Hey, Scooter," I said amiably, still eyeing the bird as I smacked red dirt off the back of my jeans. "Rough day?"
I started to sit down next to Scooter when the bird shrieked and threw open his enormous blue wings.
I yelped and almost tripped backward over an old, rusty shovel.
"Why'd you bring the parrot?"
"Sam's a macaw," Scooter said dully. The man was no MENSA candidate, but he was practically a savant with animals. The bird ducked his great feathered head at Scooter, who reached out and scratched the bird's fluffy neck.
"Sam's good company," Scooter said absently. "Did you know miners used to take birds with 'em down into the mine shafts? They're sensitive to fumes."
"The birds alerted when there was a gas leak?"
"No. They dropped dead. It was a sign things were about to go south."
Wow. I hoped that wasn't an omen.
Sam made a garbled noise that almost sounded human. "I know, buddy," Scooter said, staring at him sadly.
I winced. When Scooter called me earlier that morning, I'd been taping The Maltese Falcon on Turner Classic Movies. I'd seen what could happen when people got obsessed with birds. But then, I have found that most of life's problems can be solved with wisdom gleaned from Bogart movies.
"You know," I said in my best Bogart, watching as Scooter picked at the rusty lid of avocado green interior-exterior, "if you want to off yourself with paint fumes, you're going to have to do better than a can of twenty-year-old latex."
"A lot you know," he muttered. "She left me."
"I know," I said and sighed. If we were going to talk about Scooter's wife, it was going to take a while. Searching in the dustmoted shafts of light, I found a big, musty box. I shoved it closer to Scooter, coughing at the cloud of dust I'd stirred up, hoping I hadn't stirred up anything worse than dust, like a nest of nasty brown recluse spiders or a pack of red stinging scorpions. Settling in on the box, I really looked at Scooter. I almost didn't recognize him.
Scott Barnes slumped on the box-bench, a shadow of the big, blond legend he'd been at Marshall High School. Once upon a time, he'd been a kick-ass running back, which was how he got his nickname. Scooter wasn't the brightest match in the box, but he could blaze through a defensive line like Sherman through Georgia, so much so that he got a full ride to the University of Texas. He left school early for a coveted contract with the Dallas Cowboys and made front pages all over Texas when he married Selena Obregon, first runner-up in the Miss Texas pageant. Once upon a time, his life had seemed charmed.
"Have you talked to Selena?" I said, hating the question. I wasn't comfortable playing marriage counselor because I wasn't qualified, and if I was going to be brutally honest, I wasn't wild about Selena. Oh, sure, she was small and fragile, with hair the color of spun gold and big, morning-glory-blue eyes and the faintest trace of an Argentinean accent that made men lose twenty IQ points. Selena and I had gone to school together, and she beat me two years running in all-state drama with her heart-rending portrayal of Blanche DuBois. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers . . .
"Zorrita," Scooter said, and I couldn't help but smile. Little Fox. In the South, nicknames tell as much about the person who gives them as the person who wears them. "I can't find her." No big surprise there. Just after the honeymoon, their little southern-fried fairy tale went sour when Scooter blew out one of his million-dollar knees line-dancing in a honky-tonk in Oklahoma, ending what would have been a stellar career. No gazillion-dollar contract. No shopping sprees at Tiffany's. Just a quasinormal life changing cat boxes in a little pet store west of Austin. Sighing, I thought about hitting the off button on my mini recorder, but I didn't want Scooter to know I had been taping our conversation in the first place. This was about an old friend. There would be no scoop today.
"Scooter," I said carefully. "When you called this morning you said you wanted to talk to me about something?"
Scooter stared blankly at the front door. "Why'd they have to go and call SWAT? I never hurt anybody."
"You threatened to hurt yourself," I pointed out, accepting the change of subject. Whatever the reason he'd called me, he clearly wasn't ready to talk about it.
"You don't want to do this," I said, and Sam squawked, ruffling his feathers. "What about your pet store?"
Scooter shook his head. "I got a guy helps out, looks after the animals, cleans the kennels. Does some computer-type stuff at the shop."
"A Renaissance man."
"He needed a job when he got out of prison."
Scooter always did have a soft spot for strays. I wiped my damp forehead. It had to be a hundred and ten degrees inside the shed, and the smell of mold and motor oil was making my throat close. And I couldn't think of a single thing that would ease his mind. Surely there had to be life beyond Selena. I was running low on ideas.
"You know what I like?" I finally said. "The sound of the lake lapping the shoreline on a hot summer night."
I looked at Scooter and he seemed to be listening, so I went on. "I like the taste of a Fredericksburg peach late in the season, all sweet and so juicy it runs down your chin when you take a big bite . . . I like the smell of mountain laurel, right when it first blooms"
"Smells like grapes," he said.
"You remember when we were kids and we played dodge ball?" he said.
I barely remembered. Scooter was three grades ahead of me and I hated dodge ball, but I nodded.
"You run and run, and they hit you with that ball," he said. "No matter what you do, you can't get away, and even if you win, you lose because they're still gunning for you with that goddamned ball." I stared at him. Scooter had enough testosterone to fuel a Third World army. He kicked butt at every sport known to mankind. But I had a feeling we weren't talking about the playground anymore.
"Yes," I said. "But you could always yell do over! And you got to start some other game with a clean slate."
"Not always." He looked so unhappy I wasn't sure what to say. I took a deep breath. "You know what I used to do when I was a kid? I used to make grass skirts out of newspaper, get a couple of cans of pineapples, and drag a box out on the roof. Then my sister and I would climb out the window and sit in the box and wish we were in Hawaii."
Scooter stared at me. "You were a weird kid."
"Maybe. But I thought if you wanted anything bad enough, you could have it. I thought I could get us to Hawaii with the sheer power of my brain."
Scooter snorted. "Did it work?"
"No," I said. "But I didn't break my neck goofing around on the roof, so now I can go to Hawaii if I want."
Silence stretched between us as he sat, picking at the paint can. "What happens if I walk out of here?" he said. "You know, with SWAT?"
"Well, the guns had orange stocks, which means they're loaded less-than-lethal."
"They're gonna shoot me with beanbags?"
"Probably they won't shoot you at all, but if they do, a beanbag won't kill you. Most likely."
"Still hurts." This from a guy who used to make a living getting charged by linebackers the size of bull elephants. I'd bet half my student loans it wasn't physical pain Scooter was worried about.
"Probably hurts like a sonovabitch," I agreed. "But if we don't come out soon, they're going to start lobbing tear gas in here, and that can't be good for your bird."
"Am I gonna get arrested? They never called SWAT before." I shrugged. "I think they're finished cutting you breaks. You'll probably have to go to a hospital for some sort of psych evaluation."
Scooter considered that. "What about Sam?"
The bird snapped his big beak at me and I flinched. I'd seen parrots bend spoons with their beaks, and Sam was much bigger than your garden-variety bird. "You said you had somebody to take care of the animals," I said. "Give me the number and I'll give him a call."
Scooter nodded, then reached into his shirt pocket. "Will you give this to Selena?" I looked down as he pressed a worn gold coin with something that looked like a two-headed bird into my palm. "It's for luck."
I looked at Scooter's sallow face and thought Fat lot of luck it's brought you, buddy, but I said, "You can give it to her yourself." I tried to give the coin back to him, but he just sat there, staring at the thin shafts of sunlight streaming through the door and then around at the old shed.
His red-rimmed eyes seemed to sink deeper in his gaunt face and he let out a long sigh. "I wish I was in Hawaii."
"I know," I said. I leaned in and took his hand. "Me too." 15 "We're coming out!" I yelled. "We're unarmed!"
Scooter locked the rickety door behind us and we walked out of the darkness, blinking in the bright afternoon sunlight. A deep voice yelled, "Hold it right there!"
Like a rolling black thunderstorm, the SWAT guys charged in and had Scooter facedown and frisked. A bit excessive for a suicide threat, I thought.
They cuffed him and stuffed him into the back seat of an idling blue and white, and as the cruiser pulled down the treelined drive, I could see Scooter through the back window, his head down, like things just couldn't get any worse.
A smooth, familiar voice startled me. "Well, if it isn't the Obituary Babe. Little early, aren't you, Cauley?"
I came up short when a microphone was shoved under my nose, and I turned and stared into the too-handsome face of Alex "Live-at-Five" Salazar.
"You know, when y'all call me that it wreaks havoc on my social life," I said. "And this isn't for the paper."
Ignoring me, he turned to his cameraman. "Cauley MacKinnon was taken hostage by a desperate man earlier this morning," Salazar said to the camera. "Down-on-his-luck Dallas Cowboy Scott 'Scooter' Barnes barricaded himself in a shed at the back of his parents' property . . ."
Great. The News Boys had officially arrived. As he spoke into the camera, Salazar discretely signaled the KTEX television crew into position. All four local affiliates were roaming the scene, and I could hear Miranda with the KFXX crew interviewing the pizza kid about police brutality.
SWAT always drew a crowd.
"Can you tell us his demands, Cauley?"
"Scooter Barnes did not take me hostage, and there were no demands," I said, shoving my hair out of my eyes and the microphone out of my face. "He just wanted to talk."
"You've spent nearly an hour negotiating with an armed man," Salazar went on, his big white teeth glinting in the sun. "How does it feel to be a hero?"
I squinted against the glare off his incisors. I was hot and sweaty, and the last thing I wanted was to wind up on television in ripped jeans, Wal-Mart underwear, and hair that looked like it'd barely survived a nuclear disaster. I popped the tape out of the mini recorder and shoved it and Scooter's coin into my back pocket.
"It wasn't an hour, I'm not a hero, and you can read all about it in the Sentinel," I said, which was a big fat lie. I'd never spill ink on a friend's personal tragedy, even if it meant getting off the obituary page, but Salazar didn't need to know that. I pushed past him to head for my old, stripped-down Jeep.
I didn't look back.
All's well that ends well, I figured. Miranda had her exclusive, I talked Scooter out of the shed and the shotgun, and Cantu had his dinner if he could get to the pizza before the SWAT guys. I was about to congratulate myself when I looked toward the fence line and noticed something was missing.
Captain America was gone.
When I finally pointed my Jeep down Lakeside Boulevard toward home, it was late afternoon. I was dirty and sticky and my hair felt like twenty pounds of blond mattress stuffing. Despite the lingering effects of a monstrous hangover, I'd called Burt Buggess, Scooter's lawbreaking bird man, to go wrangle Sam and take care of the store until Scooter got out of stir.
The warm wind whipped around in the open Jeep, making me feel marginally better. Now all I needed was a shower and a nap and a half-pound of Prozac. I glanced into the rear-view mirror. And an emergency hair appointment.
Drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, I stared absently through the windshield, the winding road ahead of me shaded by a leafy arbor of oak trees.
"Why on earth is an FBI agent interested in Scooter Barnes, and why did the SWAT guys come down so hard on the pizza kid?" I said to no one. "I mean, it was a suicide standoff, not some Waco-type siege. It wasn't like the pizza kid was smuggling guns or bombs into the shed for Scooter."
Maybe I'd just find that FBI agent and pump him for information . . .
I almost didn't see the dog in the road. My heart jammed in my throat and I stomped on the break. The Jeep jerked and skipped toward the animal.
The dog had a strange white face and he looked a lot like a wolf. I yanked the wheel a hard right, tires squealing, horn honking as I spun onto the gravel shoulder. The dog stood, staring at me.
"Jeez!" I yelled. There were strict leash laws in my neighborhood. Dogs didn't just roam the streets like wild animals.
I turned in my seat. "Good grief, dog, who the heck left you in the middle of the road?" But I was yelling at nothing. The dog was gone. I sat for a moment, trying to catch my breath.
When I got my pulse under three hundred thirty, I put the Jeep in gear and headed up the steep hill toward Arroyo Trail and felt marginally better when my eclectic little neighborhood unfolded on the hilltop before me. I live in one of those 1940s lake-area neighborhoods that started out as a resort community and evolved into a funky little soccer-mom neighborhood. It's settled along the banks of Lake Austin, but it's still excitingly close to the downtown corridor of tie-dyed hair and body piercing. Turning into my drive, I slowed to a stop and stared at my sprawling white porch, where a large man lounged on the porch swing.
"Captain America," I whispered and sucked in a breath. Glancing at my reflection in the rear-view mirror, I swore every swear I could think of and made up a few more for good measure. My cheeks were smudged with red dirt and my hair was an unmitigated disaster. Not exactly a Chic magazine Glamour Girl moment.
"Cauley MacKinnon?" the man said as he rose from the swing. He was a lot taller and way better looking up close. I sat, glued to the driver's seat. Why on earth was the hot FBI guy camped out on my doorstep?
"Special Agent Tom Logan, Federal Bureau of Investigation." He held up his badge. "Do you have a minute?"
I blinked at him. "How did you find me?"
"Hey." He grinned. "I'm FBI."