SHE LOVES HER WORK—CASE CLOSED.
IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway can calculate tax penalties to the penny. But seeing the world of white-collar crime through rose-colored glasses? Priceless.
Tara's career comes with a lot of pros and cons—which is a nice way of saying that she's kick-a$$ in her fight against professional con-artists. And she's tough enough to deal with all the money-launderers, tax-evaders, and other such criminals who cross her path…Until her own boyfriend, Nick, joins their leagues. Now all bets are off.
Nick is about to go deep undercover—and the stakes are higher than Tara could have ever imagined. It's all part of a joint task force with the DEA to bring down a powerful, violent drug cartel. It's going to take more than a pair of dime store shades for Tara to bring their dark deeds to light. Can she help Nick without blowing his cover…and ending up in harm's way herself?
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About the Author
Diane Kelly is a former assistant state attorney general and tax advisor, who had many brushes with white-collar criminals during her career. When she realized her experiences made excellent fodder for novels, her fingers hit the keyboard and thus began her Special Agent Tara Holloway romantic mystery series. Diane is also a proud graduate of her hometown's Citizen Police Academy. Diane lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her own romantic hero and a houseful of spoiled rotten cats and dogs.
Diane Kelly is a former state assistant attorney general and tax advisor who spent much of her career fighting, or inadvertently working for, white-collar criminals. She is also a proud graduate of the Mansfield, Texas Citizens Police Academy. Diane combines her fascination with crime and her love of animals in her stories. Diane now lives in North Carolina, where she spends her days catering to her demanding cats or walking her dogs in the region’s beautiful woods.
Read an Excerpt
Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses
By Diane Kelly
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Diane Kelly
All rights reserved.
Nick's New Assignment
I slid my gun into my purse, grabbed my briefcase, and headed out to my car. Yep, tax season was in full swing once again, honest people scrambling to round up their records and receipts, hoping for a refund or at least to break even. As a taxpayer myself, I felt for them. But as far as tax cheats were concerned, I had no sympathy. The most recent annual report indicated that American individuals and corporations had underpaid their taxes by $450 billion. Not exactly chump change. That's where I came in.
You've probably heard of my earlier exploits, but just in case you haven't, let me introduce myself. I'm IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway. My hair is chestnut brown, my eyes are grayish blue, and I comport myself with the style, manners, and grace expected of all graduates of Miss Cecily's Charm School—except when I don't. I might stand just five foot two, but I stand my ground. When men say I've got a nice rack, they're not lying. My gun rack holds five rifles. My bra, on the other hand, holds a couple of 32As.
After earning my accounting degree from the University of Texas—hook 'em, Horns!—I spent four years preparing tax returns at a CPA firm here in Dallas. I learned a lot about taxation, business, and business people, which was great. But I sat at a desk for eight to twelve butt-numbing hours a day, which was not great. When my butt refused to stay in that chair a second longer, I applied for a job with IRS Criminal Investigations.
The agency accepted me as a candidate for the program, then did its best to kick my ass in training. Fortunately, I'd learned how to study hard at UT, developed a good work ethic at the accounting firm, and been taught by my father how to shoot an empty can of root beer off a fence post at a hundred yards. I aced both my written exams and my physical and weapons tests, so now here I was, fighting for truth and justice on behalf of honest taxpayers like you.
And can I get a raise, please?
* * *
It was a gorgeous spring morning in late March as I drove through downtown Dallas with the top down on my red convertible BMW. Despite being mere knockoffs of the more expensive Brighton brand, my tortoiseshell sunglasses blocked the early sun's rays with reasonable effectiveness. My stereo speakers blared Miranda Lambert's feminist revenge anthem, "Gunpowder & Lead." Yep, Miranda got it right. Those two things were what little girls were made of, at least where I was concerned. Nobody had ever accused me of being made of sugar and spice. Not unless that spice was cayenne pepper.
As I turned into the parking lot of the IRS building, my eyes noted a sporty Volvo C70 in the rear of the lot. Given the rolled-up purple yoga mat standing in the backseat, the pink hoodie hanging from the driver's headrest, and the "Above the Influence" bumper sticker gracing the back bumper, I knew the car belonged to DEA Agent Christina Marquez. She and I had worked several cases together in the past and become fast friends. You pair two badass female federal agents together and sic them on a drug-dealing ice cream man and they're bound to bond.
I pulled into the spot next to Christina's car, punched the button to raise the top on mine, and removed my sunglasses, sliding them into the breast pocket of my blazer. Before climbing out I performed one last visual check in my vanity mirror, fished my tube of Plum Perfect gloss out of my purse, and applied a fresh coat. Probably not necessary since I'd been dating my coworker, Senior Special Agent Nick Pratt, for months now and he'd seen me many times without any makeup on. Still, it never hurt to put some effort into it, right? Our relationship was solid, but we had yet to officially seal the deal with rings and a license. Of course we'd only been dating a few months and it was too soon to think about marriage. It wasn't too soon to think about thinking about it, though. I was already in my late twenties and Nick had hit thirty. We weren't exactly kids anymore. That fact didn't prevent us from acting like children on occasion, though.
I rode up in the elevator, sipping my skinny latte as I thumbed through e-mails on my cell phone. Mom had sent me a recipe for pecan-encrusted fried okra. As if I ever cook. Give up on it, Mom! My favorite clerk at Neiman Marcus had e-mailed to let me know the petite department had a new line of suits in stock. I'd stop by on my lunch hour to take a look. My best friend and roommate, Alicia, who worked at the same downtown accounting firm I'd escaped from nearly a year ago, had sent me a message from her office at 6:08 this morning that simply read Ughhhhhh ... Poor girl. Looked like tax season was getting her down. I'd have to make up a pitcher of peach sangria later and have it waiting for her when she got home.
As I stepped off the elevator, my eye caught a flash of lima-bean green over which towered a pinkish-orange beehive. My boss, Lu "the Lobo" Lobozinski, was heading down the hall that led to my office. Christina, dressed in black slacks and a gray blouse, walked beside her. The two slowed in the hallway as they approached my office, but rather than turning right into my digs they turned left into Nick's office, which sat across the hall from mine. After they slipped inside, Christina pulled the door closed behind them.
What was Christina doing meeting with Lu and Nick? Did the DEA have another case that called for an agent with financial skills? If so, why hadn't she recommended me for the gig? Christina and I always had fun working together. Performing stakeouts, plotting tactics and strategies, taking down criminals. Heck, I think some of the criminals got off on being manhandled by a couple of young women.
It was totally nosy and unprofessional of me to stop in front of Nick's door and put my left ear to the frame to listen. But, yeah, sometimes I'm nosy and unprofessional.
Lu's voice was the first I heard. "Got a new drug case for you, Nick."
"Oh, yeah?" Nick replied.
Drug cases were standard fare at IRS Criminal Investigations. Drug dealers rarely reported their earnings and paid their taxes to Uncle Sam. The few that did usually laundered the money in an attempt to make it appear as if the funds were legit.
Christina spoke next. "We've been working with Mexican drug authorities for years trying to bring down an extensive drug network. We recently got a break that could help us nail these guys."
Nick spoke now. "A break? What kind of break?"
"A guy on the inside who wants out," Christina replied. "An informant. Alejandro was forced into the family business, so to speak. He never wanted to be involved."
And apparently he was now willing to spill the frijoles to help law enforcement. Bueno.
Despite my best efforts to eavesdrop, my ears couldn't quite make out what she said next. Was she asking Nick to help track a money trail? To review financial records to prove money laundering? While Nick had the financial skills to perform a financial analysis, any agent in the office was equipped to handle that type of work. So, why Nick? What did he have to offer that the rest of us didn't? Only one way to find out. I pressed my left ear closer to the frame and stuck a finger in my right to block out the soft whir-whir-whir of the copier down the hall.
"I'm going to pose as Alejandro's girlfriend," Christina continued. "We'll bring you in as a friend who can help move the money."
"So we'll be going undercover?" Nick asked.
"Deep undercover," she replied.
"Meaning what, exactly?"
I had the same question myself.
"No contact with the outside world until the case is resolved."
The outside world? Wait a cotton-pickin' minute here. Would I be considered part of that "outside world"? Or, as a fellow member of law enforcement, would I be exempt from the no-contact rule?
Nick hesitated for a moment before responding. "How long do you expect the investigation to take?"
"Weeks," Christina said, "maybe months. But we've got to put some people on the inside if we're ever going to break up the ring. This could be our chance to finally nail El Cuchillo."
"El Cuchillo?" Nick repeated. "The Knife?"
That doesn't sound good at all.
I swallowed hard and kept listening.
"He's a key member of the network," Christina said, "one of its most trusted drug runners and a suspect in dozens of kidnappings and murders in Mexico. His weapon of choice is a butcher knife. Evidently, he thinks using a gun to kill someone is too impersonal. If we can get him, we could take down an arm of the Sinaloa cartel."
My hand, still clutching my cell phone, flew involuntarily to my chest. A soft crunch told me the sunglasses in my breast pocket were DOA. Nick, too, could end up DOA if he worked on this case.
From previous conversations with Christina, I knew the DEA had been after the Sinaloa cartel for years. Known previously as La Alianza de Sangre, or Blood Alliance, the cartel worked with other drug-trafficking organizations in a loose federation that extended upward all the way from Argentina to the northernmost parts of the United States. Not only did the cartel supply drugs to distributors in Latin and North America, it also supplied parts of Asia and Europe.
Though the cartel often bought its way into power via bribes and threats, its members were not above kidnapping, torture, and murder to achieve their aims. In recent years, the cartel clashed violently with the Juárez cartel in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city just across the border from El Paso, Texas. The battle for power left thousands of innocent residents dead, along with untold numbers of rival cartels members. The cartel had kidnapped numerous people and held them for ransom, including at least one high school student. The cartel had also kidnapped reporters in Mexico in an attempt to force them to spread criminal communications, and gone so far as to invade a wedding being held by purported members of another drug ring. They'd kidnapped the groom, his brother, and uncle, and left their tortured, lifeless bodies in the back of a pickup truck that was found days later. A fourth person was killed at the wedding. Men with ties to the cartel were responsible for the execution-style murders of seventeen people at a drug rehabilitation center in Mexico. When one of their own lost hundreds of pounds of marijuana in a drug seizure by law enforcement, the cartel beat the man to death and severed his hands above the wrists, placing them on his chest and dumping his body on a Juárez street as a reminder to others within the cartel to carefully tend to their business.
Things had become so bad the U.S. State Department had issued travel warnings for people considering visits to Mexico. Texans who had previously flocked to Mexican border towns and beaches for vacation were now thinking twice before heading south.
Of course the violence didn't stop at the border. Not only did it spill over into Texas border towns like El Paso and Laredo, but it headed farther north as well. The cartel had hired thugs from MS-13, a gang founded by former members of the El Salvador military who fled to Los Angeles in the 1980s following the civil war in their country. In St. Paul, Minnesota, the gang members kidnapped and tortured two teenagers whom they'd suspected—wrongfully—of stealing drugs and money from the cartel.
Forbes magazine had estimated the fortune of the cartel's leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, or "Shorty," at $1 billion, making him the wealthiest drug lord of all time. He'd escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 and later evaded apprehension at his home in Culiacán by escaping into a secret tunnel system through a hidden hatch under a bathtub. Finally, in early 2014, he was captured by Mexican marines in a predawn raid in Mazatlán.
The arrest of El Chapo had left a power void within the cartel. As those who remained vied for control, the violence had escalated even further. The instability posed not only further threats to security in Mexico, but also provided a unique opportunity for law enforcement to go after the cartel while it was vulnerable.
My stomach flooded with acid and my mind went fuzzy from fear. When it cleared, I knew one thing for certain. The only way Nick would be going undercover inside a violent drug cartel would be over my dead body.
I grabbed the handle and threw the door open. It banged against the wall with a resounding BAM that rattled the window behind Nick's desk.
Nick, dressed in his customary white business shirt, navy Dockers, and cowboy boots, stood from his desk, his tall, broad-shouldered form blocking some of the light streaming in the window. He cocked a dark brow in question.
"No!" I shrieked. I turned rage-filled eyes on Christina and Lu before returning my focus to Nick. "You are not going to work on this case. You'll get killed!"
Lu leaped from her seat and closed the door behind me. "Tara! Keep your voice down!"
"No!" I cried again, shaking my head so violently it's a wonder my brains didn't rattle. "No. NO. NO!"
Nick sent me a pointed look, his amber-colored eyes on fire. "Get a grip, Tara."
Oh, I'd like to get a grip all right. I'd like to grip him by the ears and shake some sense into him!
"Were you listening in the hall?" Lu demanded.
"Yes," I spat, "and if you're expecting an apology you're sorely mistaken."
"Well, now." Lu pursed her lips. "If you're expecting me not to note this unprofessional outburst in your performance report, you, too, are mistaken."
My boss had probably hoped her threat would bring me to my senses, but frankly it only added fuel to the fire, making me more upset.
"This is a big case, Tara," Nick said, a defensive tone in his voice. "This type of opportunity doesn't come along every day."
"Opportunity?" I was flabbergasted. "This isn't an opportunity. This is a suicide mission!"
Nick crossed his muscular arms over his muscular chest. "Call it what you want but I've been waiting my entire career for a case like this."
Looked like I'd get nowhere with him. After all, he could be just as stubborn as me. Fueled by terror and rage, I turned to, and on, Christina. "You've told me how dangerous the Sinaloa cartel is. How could you drag Nick into this?"
She knew how I felt about Nick. I loved the guy, dammit! What kind of friend was she to involve him in this case?
Christina gave me a look that was both pointed and apologetic. "You know why, Tara." She gestured at Nick. "He's got the perfect set of skills for this case."
I could understand why the DEA would want Nick on the case. He'd lived in Mexico for three years and was virtually fluent in the language. Of course the time he'd spent there was in forced exile after his cover had been blown in an earlier undercover investigation. Nevertheless, he knew more about the language and culture than any other special agent in the Dallas office.
Nick was also especially equipped to handle cases calling for physical intimidation and defensive skills. Not only had he been a linebacker on his high school football team, he'd been raised on a farm and engaged in physical labor that had further developed his muscles and stamina. Thanks to time at the shooting range with me, his aim had improved vastly. He'd never match my sharpshooting skills, of course, but he was nonetheless one of the best shots in the office.
Despite Christina's undeniable logic, I wasn't about to surrender. "How can you call yourself my friend?"
Lu intervened. "This is business, Tara. It's not personal. Besides, putting Nick on the case was my call, not Christina's."
I turned on Lu now. It took every bit of my restraint not to rip off her false eyelashes and beat her with them. "There's gotta be someone else," I said. "Another special agent who could handle this. What about ..."
Excerpted from Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses by Diane Kelly. Copyright © 2015 Diane Kelly. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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