Homicide detective Dean Hammer has two dead bodies on his hands and just one connection: a pretty activist named June Latham. She swears her only concern is rescuing the tropical birds she loves, but something isn't adding up. As Dean begins to unravel the mystery of June's troubled family, he realizes she's in danger.
But that's not all. Dean's hotter for June than even the sweltering Miami weather can explain. Now if only she would put aside their differences and let him protect her Otherwise she'll be next in the sniper's scope.
|File size:||526 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When June entered the air-conditioned chill of the North Beach Pet Shop, dozens of colorful birds came to life with raucous squawks. Well, no wonder. She glanced up at the bell rigged to clang whenever the front door opened. An early warning system.
To her left, a tall man in his forties behind the counter nodded at her. Colorful tattoos curled around both of his biceps. Piercings in both ears and his left nostril. "Let me know if I can help you," he said.
"Just looking," June said, in her best attempt at portraying a bored browser. She'd gotten good at that.
He returned to reading a magazine. Was this guy the owner or an employee? That would make a huge difference in his reaction in the next few minutes.
She sniffed the air to detect any foul odors. Mostly old cedar chips from the bottom of cages. Not too bad. At least this shop kept the smuggled birds in fairly decent conditions.
June snuck a glance to the rear wall, where the birds continued their noisy protest in floor-to-ceiling cages. A majority of monks. Some yellow-headed amazons and a few macaws. Exactly what the informant had reported. Birds flapped obviously clipped wings in futile attempts at liftoff. A few made it off perches and slammed into the wire barrier blocking their escape with a disappointed shriek.
June bit her bottom lip and looked away. After the initial rush of sympathy, familiar anger mushroomed inside her chest, making her heart rate ramp up. No good, June. Remain calm if you want to help. Inhaling deeply, she lifted a container of dog shampoo from the display next to her and pretended to study the ingredients.
Remember, these birds are the survivors, she reminded herself, allowing the breathing technique time to work. Triple or quadruple this number didn't survive the journey.
She strolled toward the right side of the store, where an assortment of puppies romped or dozed in five-by-five wire cages stacked one on top of the other. A honey-colored cocker spaniel eyed her hopefully as she approached. When he reared up on his hind legs, she reached through the wire and stroked his soft head. This immediately gained the attention of a feisty Jack Russell terrier who pounced over to nudge the spaniel out of the way.
Too bad she couldn't save these furry sweeties. Their lives were equally sad, but disgustingly legal, products of puppy mills all over the country. She tested the air again. Definitely less pleasant on this side of the shop, but lingering disinfectant made the smell tolerable.
She glanced back at the clerk. He kept his head down and remained focused on his reading, so she continued toward her target: the birds. She needed evidence. Even from a distance of six feet she could see that their legs were banded, supposed proof of being bred in captivity. But she knew better. The barbarians now created counterfeit bands to thwart the Fish and Wildlife Commission's attempts to curb smuggling.
As if counterfeit bands could make this group of wild birds appear tame.
Of course, FWC didn't approve of her unorthodox methods. Even less of her trips to South America with the Tropical Bird Society to stop poachers at the source. Bird smuggling was hardly a high priority to the US government. They were much more worried about drugs. FWC didn't have enough manpower or budget to stop thousands of birds from being murdered each year.
She reached inside her jeans pocket, fingers tightening around her phone. She needed one good peek at a counterfeit band for confirmation. She'd take photos, enlarge them and she'd have her proof.
The door clanged behind her, signaling the entry of another customer. Her heart tripped into a faster pace again, but maybe this arrival would provide a distraction from her own activities.
The clerk murmured a greeting, and the newcomer, a male, grunted a reply as June leaned closer and peered at the leg of a magnificent scarlet macaw who glared back at her with haughty disdain. The bird stepped away with a short cackle.
"Hold still, my beauty," June whispered, focusing on the leg band, looking for the telltale signs of the fake markers, a bruised leg and missing scalesyes, there. Definitely bogus. She nodded to herself. But she already knew that.
With another sideways look at the clerk, she raised her phone, positioning her body to hide her actions. The second customera manstepped next to her. She ignored him and raised the camera. You're in the wrong place at the wrong time, buddy. Sorry.
The customer said something during her first click, but he whispered his words and she couldn't stop gathering evidence to ask him to repeat himself. She kept clicking, gathering images of as many captives as possible.
"Hey" came a rough shout from behind her. "What the hell you think you're doing?"
June ignored the clerk. Beside her the new guy spoke againthe inflection sounding like a questionbut his words were lost in the resumed squawking of agitated birds roused by the hostility of the clerk hurrying toward her.
"Damn it, lady. Stop taking photographs."
June didn't stop until a rough hand closed around her upper left arm and squeezed hard.
"Hey," she said, trying to pull away. "That hurts."
"It's gonna hurt a lot more if you don't hand over that camera."
She glared at himbut went still when she met his dark eyes. Fear flared in her belly as the man tightened his grip. This was precisely what Agent Gillis had warned her about. She shouldn't have come alone when Jared got sick and canceled.
She slid the phone into her pocket. "Let go of me or I'll file an assault charge."
"I don't think so, lady. You just give me your phone."
"Or else you'll be very sorry. These are my birds, and I don't want you taking photographs."
So he was the owner. Bad luck, but explained his vigilance. June again tried to wrench out of his grasp, but he only squeezed harder. She swallowed, the pain in her arm now making it difficult to concentrate. She pushed away the stirrings of panic. Would this man really hurt her?
Hell, yes. The jerk's greed caused the murder of hundreds of smuggled birds.
"I'll scream," she said.
"And who do you think will care?"
Before she could answer, a brilliant red bird swooped over her head. She ducked instinctively, as did the shop owner.
"What the" the owner shouted, finally, blessedly, releasing his grip.
The macaw flapped madly, but clipped wings made it impossible for him to go far.
Rubbing her arm, June turned in time to watch the new customer fling open the last cage and urge its prisoners to flee.
"What are you doing?" the owner shouted.
As if in answer, birds streamed out of confinement. Triumphant screeches resonated through the shop as feathered creatures in hues of green, blue, red and yellow attempted flight, but most only hopped awkwardly around shelves and the filthy floor of the shop.
The front door clanged again, and June focused on the back of the liberator as he rushed outside. A flight-worthy yellow-headed parrot zoomed for the opening. Oh, no. Fearing he'd be crushed by the closing door, she held her breath. But vivid green wings flapped through safely and disappeared into a patch of blue sky, no doubt headed for the closest tree.
"Shit," the owner moaned.
With a sigh, June withdrew her phone again and called the police.
Detective Dean Hammer heaved himself out of his police cruiser into heavy tropical air. Shaking his head, he eyeballed the peeling paint of the mom-and-pop pet shop in the seedy business section of North Miami Beacha long eight miles from South Beach. He'd been busted not only off his beat, but off his regular gig. His lieutenant's cute idea of punishment. Yeah, real cute.
"Hey, Hawk," his temporary partnera fresh-faced rookie whose training was also part of his exileasked across the roof of the vehicle, "when was the last time you responded to a disturbance at a pet shop?"
"Yeah, well, that would be never, Sanchez."
Sanchez grinned. "Do you think the pets inside are rioting?"
"Funny. If you learn one thing while working with me, Sanchez, you need to be ready for anything on a call."
Sanchez nodded and glanced toward the shop's facade. "Yeah, I know, I know."
You just think you know, rookie. Dean patted the Kevlar vest under his shirt and moved toward the entrance. "Things can go south in a heartbeat."
"And you must be prepared," Sanchez mimicked. "I bet you won't need your Remington M24 here, though."
"God, I hope not," Dean said as he jerked open the door. A sniper gun at a pet shop? A giant cowbell clanged overhead as he entered.
"Jeez," Sanchez breathed behind him over a cacophony of shrieking birds. "What the hell happened here?"
Good question, Dean thought, focusing on dozens of colorful parrots hopping and leaping in aborted flight attempts around the shop. No bodies. No citizens bleeding. No apparent robbery.
Damn if Sanchez hadn't nailed it. The birds had staged a riot and broken out.
A man, presumably an employee, chased the animals with little success. As soon as he got close to a parrot, the bird squawked and deftly hopped away. He'd managed to capture a few, though, since cages in the rear of the shop housed parrots. Dean looked for and spotted a surveillance camera on the back wall.
"Be careful where you walk," the man shouted. "Don't step on any of them."
"Uh, right," Dean said, his attention zeroing in on the only other person in the shop, a tall, knockout blonde in her midtwenties who stood by the cash register yacking on a cell phone.
"And arrest her," the bird chaser said. "She's responsible for this."
Arrest her? Dean's mood lightened. He'd like to interrogate this one, her sophisticated beauty reminding him of the Russian models who frequented Ocean Drive.
"You the owner?" Dean asked the man.
After a pause where he seemed to consider his answer, he said, "Yes. David Glover."
"Did she release the birds?" Sanchez yelled over the bird noise.
"I did not," the woman replied. She lowered her phone and gave the owner a look that would freeze lava.
"But your partner did," the owner shouted. "I don't have a partner," she said. "Yeah, right. Like you never saw the guy before."
"Never. And you're the one who should be arrested."
The blonde turned to Dean. "I called the authorities."
"You bitch," Glover said. "Only because I was too busy with"
"Hold on, hold on," Dean interjected, the squawking of both human and bird now giving him a major headache. "Sanchez, help this guy round up the birds while I interview this nice lady."
The blonde nodded and dropped her phone into a large purse slung over her shoulder, its strap pressing between very nice breasts.
Sanchez grinned. "Good thing you warned me to be ready for anything."
"You're a real comedian, Sanchez." Dean pointed a finger at the owner. "We'll talk after you get your merchandise under control."
The blonde smiled. "Let me know how that turns out," she said to the owner.
Dean suppressed a laugh and interrupted the owner's heated response. She had a point. The shopkeeper wasn't dealing well with his escapees.
"You got an office in the back I can use?" he asked.
Dean noted Glover's second hesitation. Apparently the man had secrets to protect. "I won't look at a thing," Dean said, holding up his arms.
"Yeah, go ahead," Glover said and resumed chasing his birds, sidestepping around a growing accumulation of bird droppings.
The blonde smiled again, obviously finding the owner's frustrated lunges for his elusive birds hilarious. Glad to escape the noise, Dean ushered the woman toward the back. He liked the way she movedher legs seemed to glide over the floor and she held herself with perfect graceful posture.
Inside the tiny dump of an office, he motioned for her to sit in a chair facing a messy desk. He also sat and removed his interview notebook.
"Why aren't you in uniform?" she asked.
"Because I'm a detective."
Her eyes widened. "They sent a detective?"
Dean nodded. "Bird riots demand the full attention of the Miami Beach Police Department."
"What's your name, ma'am?"
After he got the basics, he said, "So, why don't you tell me what happened here this morning, Ms.
"This pet shop markets illegally captured wild birds."
Dean glanced up from his notes. "How do you know?"
"Their leg bands are counterfeit." She shifted her weight to one hip and crossed a slim, shapely leg. "I came here to gather proof for Fish and Wildlife."
Dean rubbed his chin, thinking. "So you liberated these illegal birds so they could fly free again."
"Of course not. Releasing them without a safe harbor plan could harm them." She bit her bottom lip and looked down. "Actually, I should go help that clod before he harms one. He has no idea how to handle birds."
"And you do?"
"Yes." She leaned forward. "Can you arrest him?"
"Like he said, for what?"
"For selling illegal"
"I think you know I can't do that."
She sat back and crossed her arms. "An arrest would teach him a lesson."
"Not my job." Although, considering his forced time with rookie Sanchez, maybe lessons were his job. "So, who released the birds? That's the crime I'm investigating."
"I don't know who he was. Some customer in the shop. I never saw him before."
"Give me a description."
She shrugged. "I barely looked at him. Maybe fifty or sixty, bald. Taller than me, maybe six feet. Really thin."
"Not bad for barely looking at him," Dean said. "So, what happened?"
"When that jerk grabbed my arm Hey, that's a crime." She sat up straighter. "Assault."
"Do you want to file charges?"
She leaned back, glancing toward the outer room. "Let me think about that."
"Go on. The owner grabbed you "
June Latham rubbed her arm with long, graceful fingers. Dean followed her movements, noting with disgust a red mark where someone had taken a stranglehold on her body. No question the area would bruise. He also noted well-toned biceps and triceps and wondered where she worked out.
"He wanted my phone. He wouldn't let go of me.
We argued. Suddenly a macaw flew over my head. When I turned, I saw this customer opening all the cages and urging the birds to escape."
"So you maintain you had nothing to do with releasing the birds."
She raised her chin. "I never lie."
"Good to know," he said, closing his notepad, believing she told the truth today. But everybody lied on occasion. "You're free to go." Review of the video surveillance would reveal if there had even been a crime.
She didn't move. "You're not going to do anything about the smuggled birds, are you?"
"I wish I could." See, now, there was a lie. Although he'd love to score points with this tall, blonde goddess, he was a homicide cop, not a bird savior.
"Do you know that wildlife smuggling is the third largest illegal trade in the world economy? Only drugs and weapons are bigger."
Actually, no, he didn't know that little factoid. But of course she didn't lie. "So take your proof to Fish and Wildlife."
"You know the birds will be gone by the time they act."
"I can't help that."
"You could impound the birds as evidence."