A kid in trouble is my weakness. That’s why Tony Martinez, president of the Hombres motorcycle club, hires me to track down a five-year-old Native American girl who’s become a pawn in her parents’ custody dispute.
Simple, right? Find kid, collect fat fee, and celebrate my superior PI skills with the dangerously sexy MC overlord. Except…Martinez neglected to mention a few crucial details. Like the girl’s father is the foreman on the controversial new Indian casino under construction, and the girl’s mother works at a rival Deadwood gaming hall run by an East Coast crime family.
After bullets start whizzing at me, I’m in Martinez’s face, demanding answers. Turns out plenty of people are determined to stop the casino from opening, including competitors, local ranchers, and a Lakota holy group.
As the violence escalates and the bodies pile up, everything around me begins to tumble like a house of cards. My search for a missing girl puts me on the wrong side of tribal politics and at odds with everyone—Kevin, Martinez, and even my father.
In a fight for my life after I attract the killer’s attention, I realize no place is safe…not even hallowed ground.
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By Lori Armstrong Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Lori Armstrong
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Chapter One One week earlier ...
The dog days of summer didn't incite the euphoria I remembered from my youth.
No agenda except endless hours of swimming and bike riding. Running through the sprinkler. Stretching out in the freshly mown grass, watching clouds billow into mysterious shapes or form towering thunderheads. Drinking Kool-Aid. Making mud pie masterpieces and dandelion necklaces.
A wave of sleepiness washed over me. What I wouldn't give for a nap right about now. I lifted my hair, letting the gentle breeze cool my sweaty neck and soothe my overworked adult soul.
The breeze turned gusty, shearing the documents on my desk into a mini-tornado. Pity, the paper that had landed on my cigarette didn't immediately burst into flames, like the cool burning map at the start of Bonanza. But, the edges did start to char quite nicely.
I grabbed the smoking paper and accidentally tipped over my Big Swig. Crap. Four hours worth of paperwork now swam in a lake of Diet Mountain Dew. Looked like the Jolly Green Giant had pissed on my desk.
"Fuck," I yelled to nobody in particular, complete with hand gestures. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"
Two raps sounded on the open door adjoining my office to the reception area.
I glanced up.
Tony Martinez leaned against the jamb.
Hello. My heart did a slow roll then a hard thump.
He lifted a dark brow. "So, blondie, was that an invitation?"
"Not for you." I resisted the urge to smooth my hair, check my teeth for lipstick smears, pop a TicTac.
"Shame," he said, flashing perfect white teeth at me, complete with a sexy dimple deep enough to fall into. "And here I'd hoped you'd changed your mind."
I gave him a cool once-over, which he allowed.
Martinez and I had gotten tangled up in a case a few months back. I hadn't seen him since, but I remembered, and had seriously considered, his open-ended invitation to get tangled up in his sheets. His offer still held a certain appeal, which my common sense refused to acknowledge-an attitude my body tried to change.
Despite his badass biker appearance, Martinez is, for lack of a better term, a businessman. He owns two bars, Fat Bob's, a biker hangout, and Bare Assets, a strip joint. Oh, and he's the president of the Hombres, a local motorcycle "club" rumored to control nefarious commerce in our area.
I busied myself scooping up the soggy mess. "What brings you to the respectable side of town?"
"Just checking to see how the private dick business is treating you."
"Swell." The Cromwell report made a soft, wet thud as it plopped into the metal wastebasket.
"Nice office. Great artwork." His astute gaze passed over rust-colored walls, showcasing my collection of local artists and lingered on the large green and blue Sioux pottery wedding vase nestled next to the golden buffalo skin chair.
"Thanks." I'd slaved to create a warm, welcoming space, unlike the austere, utilitarian office I'd left behind three months ago. After quitting my secretarial job at the Bear Butte County Sheriff's Department, I'd hoped the mundane part of my life had ended. Truthfully, the working hours of a PI were worlds apart from TV shows. My days were spent verifying and documenting research. Followed by piles of paperwork to fill out and file. Endless phone calls. Snooze city.
With the Internet, I had access to information from my brand-spanking new Gateway.
No wire taps, no confrontations between jilted lovers, no aha! moments. My hard-hittin'-hard-livin'-PI fantasies had been dealt a serious blow. I'd wrinkle up like Jessica Fletcher if I waited for trouble to stumble in. Few clients crossed our humble threshold, preferring to conduct business via telephone, fax, or email.
Tony Martinez was far from humble. Why he chose today to cross my threshold remained to be seen. Pathetic, that I'd gladly embrace his brand of trouble just to relieve the tedium.
"You been busy?" I asked, remembering my manners.
"Hit a slow patch this time of year." He shrugged. "It'll pick up next month."
August. Sturgis Rally. Bike week. A motorcyclist's version of heaven, my personal vision of hell. Half a million bikers descended on the sleepy South Dakota town that boasts 7,000 full-time residents. Shuddering, I made a mental note to pencil in vacation time.
Liquid oozed between my knuckles as I wadded up more squishy paper. "Why are you here?"
"I want to hire you."
I peered at him over my accidental papier-mâché' project. "What?"
"Before you say no, give me a chance to explain." He briefly disappeared, returning with a stack of cheap brown paper towels from the bathroom and helped me mop up the mess.
Okay, for the Mr. Clean impersonation I'd at least listen to his spiel.
I sat, motioning him to the chair opposite the desk. Silently praising the cellophane wrapper that had saved my smokes, I lit up and considered him through the haze.
"You want to hire me? This isn't that same bullshit offer about me riding around on the back of your Harley, is it?" I inhaled.
"You sound disappointed."
I blew smoke in his face.
He waved a meaty hand through it. "You interested or not?"
"I'm all ears."
For a second, tough guy Martinez almost seemed ... bewildered. My eyes locked on him, waiting for the expression to reappear. When it didn't, I wondered if I'd imagined it.
After a time, he said, "Remember Harvey?"
The man in question popped into my head. Huge, rude, and tattooed. "Kung fu man? Second in command of your clandestine operations and purveyor of all things evil?" I expelled another smoke cloud.
Brown eyes went from indulgent to cold. "I'm not kidding around."
Chastised, I said, "Sorry, habit. Go ahead."
"Why aren't you taking notes?"
I tapped my forehead, taking another long drag.
He sighed. "First off, I know you and Harvey don't see eye to eye-"
"Does Harvey know you're here?" I did not want, in any way, shape, or form, to get on Harvey's other bad side; being on one was plenty.
"This is about his sister, Rondelle. She's gotten herself into a situation that makes Harvey see red and makes him worthless to me. His reaction time is slow. I've had to call in reinforcements just to handle normal bar problems."
If Harvey, bouncer and all-around mean mother extraordinaire wasn't doing his job keeping peace in Fat Bob's, a bar even the cops avoided, Tony's tense posture was understandable.
Martinez continued, "So far, I've stopped him from heading down to the rez to handle the situation on his own. He'll break bones first, ask questions second. I don't need him in jail."
As the chief enforcer, Harvey knew the Hombres organization inside out. I doubted he'd betray Martinez, but I wouldn't want to take that chance either.
"Tell me about his sister."
"Rondelle isn't the problem. It's her daughter, Chloe. She's sort of missing."
My cigarette made it halfway to my mouth before it stopped short. Oh hell no. Not another case about a missing kid. I choked, "Sort of missing?"
"Before you freak, you should understand this is nothing like the Samantha Friel case."
I grudgingly unearthed a slightly damp legal pad and a feathered pen. "Let's start at the beginning with full names and a full explanation."
Martinez pulled out a photo and a crumpled piece of floral stationery from the pocket of his black leather vest. He handed them to me across my desk. "The mother's name is Rondelle Eagle Tail."
Fairly common Lakota name. I frowned. As siblings did she and Harvey share the same surname? Funny, I'd never considered that Harvey had a last name. I'd built him up into an entity unto himself with a singular moniker, like Elvis. Or Charo. Or Hitler.
"Daughter's name is Chloe Black Dog."
"How did it happen that Chloe is 'sort of' missing?"
"Rondelle dropped off Chloe at the Smart Start program in Sturgis. When she swung by to pick Chloe up after her shift at a casino in Deadwood, the daycare worker told her that Chloe's father had already been there."
Dread settled in my stomach as I studied the moon-faced, dark-eyed girl in the picture. "Don't most daycare facilities have safeguards to prevent that situation?"
"That's the problem. Donovan had authorization to pick up his daughter, without restrictions. Rondelle didn't think anything of it until it became obvious Donovan wasn't planning on returning Chloe any time soon."
When had it become obvious to Rondelle that Chloe was missing? An hour? A day? A week? Or when the Department of Social Services credit didn't appear in her bank account?
Cynical? Yep. Welcome to my world.
"This situation stem from child support issues?"
"No. Before you ask, there's no suspected abuse on either side. For whatever reason, we're guessing he took her to Pine Ridge. He used to live there, and his family still does."
"Where does Donovan live now?"
"Doesn't matter," he said.
"Let me decide that." I drummed my pen and waited.
The don't-fuck-with-me aura Martinez projected usually scared the hell out of me, but at times it pissed me off. Stoicism wasn't winning him points. He'd better play nice and cough up more substantial details or I'd kick him to the curb.
His resigned gaze caught mine. "Fine. He'd been renting a trailer in Black Hawk. But we know he hasn't shown up there in the last few days."
"If you've already got someone doing surveillance on his place what do you need me for?"
A calculating smile deepened his dimple. "Blondie, I'm gonna keep that very intriguing question in a strictly professional context." He sobered quickly. "I need someone who won't spook Donovan the minute they set eyes on him. Unfortunately, Harvey doesn't fit that bill."
"I assume Donovan has a job?"
"He's foreman for Brush Creek Construction Company. Travels between the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and White Plain reservations, overseeing projects."
"So no one has talked to him?"
He shook his head. "We've tried. Left messages with the business office, his cell phones and his pager, but he hasn't responded."
No kidding. I wouldn't respond either if I knew Harvey and Martinez were hot on my tail. But with that much professional responsibility, it wouldn't be easy for Donovan to vanish.
"Tell me about Donovan."
Martinez rattled off info: the vehicle Donovan drove, his general physical description, favorite hangouts, friends. Something was missing.
I ground out my smoke. "Has Rondelle contacted the authorities? Child welfare?" Why wasn't she here, hysterical, demanding the father's head on a pike?
"No. Not only is Rondelle Lakota, she's a single mother with an arrest record dating back to juvenile. The courts or the tribal police won't do a damn thing. Do you know how many kids get shuffled from foster home to foster home on the reservations?" he countered. "Or passed off from one family member to another?"
"But the FBI-"
"Don't give a damn about one five-year old Indian girl. I do. Harvey does." He paused. "And I thought you would, too."
Shit. He'd reeled me in and he knew it.
He angled forward, tattoos rippling on his forearms as he rested them on his knees, the picture of sincerity. "Go down to Pine Ridge and find her."
"And if I can't?"
His confidence in my abilities didn't inspire the same ballsy feeling within my own skin.
I scanned the crumpled paper and the scant notes. Three names. An unclear chain of events. Phone numbers that might be disconnected. "With this little scrap of information?"
"All I could come up with. That's why I need you to use your contacts to find her."
"My contacts?" Being new to the PI biz, I hadn't cultivated many contacts, and my partner Kevin hadn't been around enough to share his. That was another noconfidence admission I kept to myself.
"Wasn't your half-brother Lakota?"
Clever, how Martinez had one-upped me on personal stats. I'd do a little digging on him to level the field. "Ben was from White Plain, not Pine Ridge."
Yes, it did, and Martinez damn well knew it. Individual tribes were as particular about their bloodlines and sub bands as the English were about their titles and estates.
"I'll make it worth your while," he added.
I sank back in my chair. "It's not that."
Did I admit to Martinez my wounds hadn't healed from the last time I'd (unsuccessfully) involved myself in a child's life? Or, more importantly, maybe Kevin wouldn't want me to accept this type of case?
As the senior partner, Kevin had assigned me projects, corporate stuff mostly. I never complained. Then again, I hadn't taken any initiative to bring in new clients. This case offered me a chance to get out of the office.
Would it restore my self-confidence after the way I'd handled the screwed up situation with my neighbor, Kiyah?
As I battled my ghosts, Martinez floated a personal check in front of me.
My stomach jumped at the sight of all those zeroes. "Five thousand bucks?"
"A retainer. You find her, you keep it, plus I'll pay your normal fees."
Why did it feel like a bribe? The beige check bearing his name in neat, block letters, sans address and phone number, stared back at me like a dare. I picked it up.
"It won't bounce, I guarantee it."
Sad to admit his wicked grin clinched the deal, sucker that I am for a handsome face. Five thousand smackers would go a long way in proving the case's worthiness to Kevin.
But I hedged. This was too ... pat.
"If I do find Chloe, what do I do with her?"
"Nothing. Keep track of her until Harvey and I can get to wherever you are. Then we'll return her to Rondelle."
"Sounds good in theory. In reality it's a felony called kidnapping."
Martinez reclined back in the chair. "So is Donovan keeping Chloe from her custodial parent in the first place."
He had a point.
"You in?" he asked tightly.
"Maybe. Two things." I held up my hand, halting his questions. "First, is that if I take this case, I run the investigation my way without complaint from you, or interference from Harvey. That means if I see one of your henchmen following me at any time, then the deal is off and I keep this." I fluttered the check like a yellow warning flag.
His mouth twitched. "Henchmen?"
"Bodyguards, or whatever the hell you call them."
"Deal. What's the second thing?"
All the fury, hurt, and frustration I'd felt about Samantha's murder and Kiyah's sad life darkened the sunny room like a cloud of sulfur. "If this missing child angle is bogus and you're using me to do your dirty work because Donovan somehow double-crossed you and the Hombres, I will make it my mission to take you down."
Pointed silence weighted the air.
"I'd expect nothing less, blondie."
"Then I'm on it."
I whirled my chair toward my computer and opened the standard contract document file. "Hang tight for a sec while I print out the agreement."
Outside on the street below, air brakes from a tour bus whooshed, followed by squealing tires, angry voices, and blaring horns. The smell of diesel fuel and burnt rubber drifted in. Gotta love tourist season.
"Where's your partner?" he asked.
"In and out. Why?"
"Curious. His girlfriend still hanging on?"
My hands froze on the keyboard. How had Martinez found out Lilly lingered at death's door? Far as I knew, hoods and librarians did not run in the same circles. Then again, it had been awhile since I'd stepped foot in either crowd. Might be a new literacy program, "Books for Bikers" or some damn thing.
Before I could ask specifics, he said, "Jimmer told me."
Jimmer. Our mutual friend: pawnshop owner, suspected commando for hire, and other sketchy occupations I didn't waste brainpower contemplating. "You seen him lately?"
"Yeah, last week at Bare Assets."
Don't ask. I bit my tongue and wheeled around as the printer kicked out the paper.
I managed not to leap to the rafters when I saw Martinez lounging with one hip cocked on my desk.
"Almost done," I said brightly.
"Good." His rapt gaze roamed my face. "You cut your hair."
"Uh. Yeah." Smooth, Julie.
"Thanks." I grabbed the contract. Handed it over along with a feather-tipped pen and watched as he scrawled his signature across the bottom.
When he finished, he lightly drew the feather down my bare arm from my shoulder to my wrist. "Seeing anyone these days?"
With Martinez as a client, I had a legitimate reason for rejecting his advances, much as it secretly pained me. There'd been a powerful one-two punch between us from the start. I pretended to be oblivious to it. He didn't.
I'd successfully avoided all memories of it until now.
"Actually, I am," I said, snatching the pen from him. "How about you?"
His low, sexy chuckle stirred a hormonal response in me, which I virtuously ignored.
"No one I wouldn't ditch in a hot minute for a shot at you."
On the outside I didn't blink. On the inside? My heart revved into high gear like a nitro drag bike at the starting line.
Excerpted from Hallowed Ground by Lori Armstrong Copyright © 2006 by Lori Armstrong. Excerpted by permission.
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