Renee Esterhaus peered out of room fourteen of the Flamingo Motor Lodge at the intersection of Highway 37 and the middle of nowhere, shivering a little in the crisp October air. She cast a nervous glance left and right down the sidewalk in front of the other rooms, then turned her gaze to the gravel parking lot and the dense pine forest beyond it. Everything seemed quiet. No suspicious-looking people. No cars she hadn’t seen before. No helicopters circling overhead, ready to drop a SWAT team.
Nothing but the evening breeze rustling through the trees.
She slid out the door, leaving it ajar, then scurried to the snack machine in the breezeway between her room and the motel office, telling herself to calm down, that no matter what she’d done, the SWAT team thing was pretty unlikely.
She plugged two quarters into the machine and was getting ready to insert the third when the skin prickled on the back of her neck. She froze, the quarter poised at the slot, then swallowed hard and glanced over her shoulder.
She let out the breath she’d been holding. Her imagination was getting the better of her.
If only her old Toyota hadn’t chosen the worst possible moment of her life to fall apart, she wouldn’t be stuck overnight in this ratty little motel swearing that someone was looking over her shoulder. She prayed the mechanic at the Mobil station down the street would keep his promise and have a new fuel pump installed first thing in the morning. Then she’d be back on the road again, one step closer to New Orleans, Louisiana, and one step farther away from Tolosa, Texas.
New Orleans. She didn’t know why she’d chosen that city, except that it had a lot of restaurants so she could easily get a job, and the dark mystery that surrounded it meant she could probably lose one identity and pick up another. Of course, she had no idea how a person went about becoming someone else, but she couldn’t think about that now. She’d get her car, get on the road, and figure out the rest later.
She shoved the quarter in, pushed a button, and her dinner fell to the bottom of the machine—a package of peanut butter crackers. She leaned over and plucked it out of the slot. As she stood up again, an arm snaked around her waist and something cold and hard jabbed against the underside of her jaw.
"Missed your court date, sweet thing."
In a blinding rush, she felt herself being spun around and slammed against the snack machine. That cold, hard thing—a gun—now rested against her throat. And right in her face was the biggest, ugliest, most menacing-looking man she’d ever seen. He had to be pushing fifty, but not an ounce of muscle had gone to fat. His clean-shaven head, death-theme tattoos, and single gold earring gave him a sinister look that bordered on the psychotic.
"Wh-who are you?" she stammered.
A cunning smile curled his lips. "Max Leandro. Bond enforcement officer. And your luck just ran out."
It took a moment for Renee to comprehend his words, and when she did, a huge rush of panic swept through her. She’d been watching out for cops, who she assumed would announce their presence with bullhorns and bloodhounds. The last thing she expected was to be nabbed by a two-ton bounty hunter who looked as if he could bench-press a Buick.
He shoved his gun into the waistband of his jeans, yanked her wrists together in front of her, and snapped on a pair of handcuffs. He half led, half dragged her around the comer to his old Jeep Cherokee parked on the west side of the motel.
"No!" Renee said, trying to pull her arm away. "Please don’t do this! Please!"
"Oh, but I’ve got to. See, they’re holding a party at the county jail, and your name is at the top of the guest list."
"Wait a minute!" She looked back over her shoulder. "What about my stuff? You can’t just leave—"
"Sure I can."
He pushed her into the passenger seat through the driver’s door, then slid in beside her. He lit up a Camel, shoved a Metallica CD into the player, and peeled out of the motel parking lot.
Renee stared at the dashboard, feeling shock and disbelief and a whole lot of anxiety. In less than two hours she’d be back in the hands of the Tolosa police, and they wouldn’t be letting her out on bail again.
She glared at Leandro. "How did you find me?"
"By being the best, sweet thing."
Damn. Why couldn’t she have been chased by a bounty hunter who graduated at the bottom of his class?
She tested the handcuffs with a furtive jerk or two, found them unyielding, then took stock of the rest of her situation. The door handle had been removed from the passenger side of the front seat.
Glancing over her shoulder, she could see the back doors had gotten the same treatment. It appeared that plan A—leaping out of a moving vehicle—was not going to be an option.
"You’re making a terrible mistake," she told him, putting plan B into action. "I’m innocent. You don’t want to take an innocent person to jail, do you?"
He made a scoffing noise. "Innocent, my ass. You got caught with the loot and the weapon."
"The old lady who was robbed said the perp was a blond woman."
"There are thousands of blondes—"
"She picked you out of a lineup."
"I don’t know how—"
"Then there’s your record."
Renee sat up suddenly. "How did you know about that?" Leandro gave her a smug look. "I have ways."
"I was a juvenile. Those records are supposed to be sealed!"
"The records are sealed. But cops’ lips aren’t. When you got dragged down to the station on the armed robbery rap, that headful of blond hair of yours spurred a few memories." Leandro grinned. "Shouldn’t pour beer on a cop’s shoes, Renee. They don’t tend to forget that."
Oh, God. Renee buried her head in her hands as that nasty little memory came flooding back. She was a bit fuzzy on the details of that night, except that she’d gotten very irate when a certain cop suggested that perhaps she and her friends shouldn’t be wandering around downtown at one in the morning, underage and dead drunk. She’d told him what she thought of his assessment of the situation by upending her Bud Light all over his spit-polished shoes. That had bought her a ticket to the county jail.
"How could he remember that?" Renee said. "It was over eight years ago!"
"I guess you’re unforgettable, sweet thing. Particularly when you add in the rest of your record.
Shoplifting, vandalism, joyriding—"
"I’ve been clean since then!"
"Once a criminal, always a criminal."
She wished she had a nickel for every time she’d heard that, even though she knew it wasn’t true.
When she was seventeen, and had gotten caught riding with her boyfriend in a stolen car, the judge finally decided he’d had enough and tossed her into a juvenile detention center. Her mother had sobered up just long enough to attend the hearing, then went home, pulled out her bottle of Jim Beam, and toasted the judge for finally making somebody else responsible for the daughter she’d barely bothered to raise.
After she’d spent about three months in detention, the pain of incarceration became clear to Renee. But even though she’d seriously started to question the wisdom of a life of crime, she was still way too cool to let them see her sweat. With her attitude still in question, she’d been invited to spend the day at a "scared straight" program, complete with twelve cussing, hard-core, screaming female convicts whose job it was to convince her and half a dozen other wayward teenage girls that prison was the last place they wanted to be. It had been a lesson Renee had never forgotten, and when they finally released her from the detention center, she promised herself she’d walk through hell if that was what it took to keep from having to go through that experience again.
It had been a long trip up from rock bottom, but she’d managed to make the climb, even when the first step had been a waitress job at Denny’s. Her juvenile record was history—or at least, it had been, until some cop with a savant-like memory decided to open his big mouth.
"There’s no way I could have committed that robbery," she told Leandro. "I can’t stand the sight of guns. How could I possibly—"
"You’re wasting your breath. I don’t give a damn whether you’re guilty or not. I get paid either way."
Renee gave a little snort of disgust. "Yeah. Charming profession you’ve got there."
"It beats robbing convenience stores."
"I told you I didn’t do it!"
He smiled. "That’s what they all say."
Renee wanted to beat her head against the dashboard. This guy wouldn’t know innocence if it bit him on the nose. She turned and stared out the passenger window, watching the miles between her and incarceration slip away like sand through her fingers.
On the day the robbery happened, she’d been offered the assistant manager’s job at Renaissance, a four-star Italian restaurant with upscale clientele and an honest-to-God wine cellar. About to burst with excitement, she’d called her best friend Paula Merani to celebrate, only to remember that she was away on one of those weekend-for-two packages at a local hotel with her no-good boyfriend, Tom Garroway. So Renee ordered dinner from China Garden and ate it while she flipped around on the tube and thought about all the things she was going to do as assistant manager to help Renaissance get that elusive fifth star.
Then she decided her wonderful new job entitled her to splurge in the finest way possible—with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia—so she grabbed her purse and headed to the twenty-four-hour Kroger. A cop pulled her over because her taillight was out, and she couldn’t believe it when he extracted twelve hundred dollars and a semiautomatic pistol from the backseat of her car. To her utter amazement and subsequent horror, those items pointed to a convenience store robbery in the area only hours before. She didn’t have a clue how they’d gotten there. The arresting officer had been unmoved by her profession of innocence, and before she knew it, she’d landed in jail.
She met with the best defense attorney her savings could buy, a munchkin of a man who wore a tie wider than his chest and still had a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shaving cut on his neck. When his message seemed to be, "We both know you’re guilty but I have to defend you anyway," Renee had a flashback to the walk she’d taken down a long row of prison cells with those convicts leering and jeering at her. That eight-hour descent into hell was a big part of the reason she’d built a respectable life, and ironically, it was the reason she was running now. Unfortunately, a big, bad bounty hunter with a heart the size of a pea had tracked her down, and innocent or not, she was going back to jail.
Renee glanced around the Jeep. Being driven to jail in this vehicle was like riding to hell in a New York subway car. A dozen cigarette butts littered the floor of the front seat, mingling with a handful of Milky Way wrappers and a copy of Muscle magazine. In the back, file folders stuffed to overflowing were scattered on the seat, interspersed with piles of crumpled fast-food sacks. It smelled like a Dumpster.
"This car is a pigsty," she muttered, hating Leandro’s vehicle, hating his music, hating his choice of occupation. Hating him.
Leandro took a long drag off his cigarette and blew out the smoke, adding to the carcinogenic cloud already saturating the car. "My cleaning lady didn’t come this week. You just can’t get good help anymore."
"That smoke is burning my eyes. Think what it’s doing to your lungs."
"Turning them black as the ace of spades, I imagine."
"Ever think of quitting that nasty habit?"
"Never crossed my mind."
"Would you mind putting it out?"
"Yes. I’d mind that very much."
Renee knew she was ranting, but she was irritated and scared and she just couldn’t stop. "Secondhand smoke’s a killer, you know. There was a story about it on TV just last week."
"Gee. Sorry I missed that."
"There have actually been cases where smokers were taken to court for polluting other people’s air."
"So sue me."
"You know, that’s not a bad idea. I bet there are at least a dozen nasty lawyers in Tolosa just dying to—"
"Oh, for God’s sake!" He took a huge, sucking drag off the cigarette, then ground it out in the ashtray. He tossed his half smoked pack of Camels and his blue Bic into the console beside him and slammed the lid. "There. Happy?"
Not particularly. When it got right down to it, what difference did it make whether she died a slow death from lung cancer or threw away half her life in prison?
Then her stomach growled, which reminded her that she’d eaten next to nothing since she’d left Tolosa, which made her think of the only restaurant they were likely to encounter out here in the boondocks. Dairy Queen. She brightened a bit, not because of the food, but because that might be a dandy place to ditch a bounty hunter. Exactly how, she didn’t know. She’d have to figure that out when the time came, assuming she could get him to stop.
"I’m hungry," she said.
"No problem. I hear the food in the county jail is five-star cuisine."
Renee winced. She could see it now: a row of wrinkled old ladies wearing hair nets, slopping swill onto plastic trays.
"Would it kill you to pull through a drive-through?" She glanced into the backseat, crinkling her nose.
"God knows it wouldn’t be the first time."
"Sorry, sweet thing. Dousing the cigarette took me right to the limit of my hospitality."
"What if I have to go to the bathroom?"
"What if you’re trying to get me to stop somewhere because you think it’s your only shot at getting away?"
Renee huffed disgustedly. "You’re a real jerk, you know that?"
"Yeah," he said, smiling with delight. "I know."
She glared at Leandro, then stared out the passenger window again, trying to hold on to her feelings of loathing and disgust because they were about the only things keeping her from melting into a sobbing, hysterical, emotionally distraught wreck. She wasn’t going to get out of this. Innocent or not, she was going to prison, where she’d spend the best years of her life pacing a six-by-eight cell, eating unidentifiable food, and trying to convince large, sexually ambiguous women that she did not want to be their girlfriend.
They topped a hill, and Renee saw a railroad crossing ahead. As they approached it, red lights began to flash and the gates started down. Leandro stomped on the gas to run the gates, but the car in front of him—a rusted-out Plymouth with a handicap insignia on its license plate—didn’t. Leandro screeched to a fishtailing halt, practically driving right up the Plymouth’s tailpipe. The gates fell into place, blocking the crossing. Renee looked left and right. No train was coming.
"Weave through the gates!" Leandro shouted, as if the other driver could hear him. He laid on his horn. The old guy looked into his rearview mirror, but his car stayed put. Leandro slammed his car into park and stepped out, leaving the door open and resting his arm against the top of the car to survey the situation. Renee glanced at the steering column, and her heart leaped with hope.
He’d left the key in the ignition. She might not be able to run faster than Leandro, but she was pretty sure she could drive faster. If he decided to go have a word with the guy in the Plymouth, then maybe—
"Move it!" Leandro shouted. "There’s no train!" He reached a hand into the car and laid on the horn again. The Plymouth didn’t budge.
"Shit. Probably got his hearing aid turned off." Leandro moved away from the car and started to close the door. Renee held her breath, poised for attack. The moment the door clicked shut, she’d leap over the console, punch down the lock—
The door came back open. Leandro reached inside and jerked the keys from the ignition. He shook a finger at Renee. "Stay put. You hear me? I don’t want to have to chase you down." He slammed the car door and stalked up to the Plymouth.
Renee slumped back in the passenger seat. What was she going to do now? She had only one way out of this car, and that was the driver’s door. But with Leandro looking back at her every few seconds, her window of opportunity was minuscule. If she ran, he’d drop her like a lion would a gazelle. Besides, this was the middle of nowhere, with no place to hide. She saw a little diner about a quarter mile up the road from the railroad tracks, but what good would that do her? Unless she could divert Leandro long enough to get a sizable head start, she didn’t stand a chance.
Then, just like that, it came to her. She sat up suddenly, her breath coming faster, her heart beating double time. Leandro’s bad habits just might be her salvation.
She dug through the console and extracted Leandro’s Bic lighter. She glanced out the windshield and saw him pointing wildly down the track, his mouth moving like crazy. But the old guy was a rock. He just sat there, probably quoting Amtrak disaster statistics, refusing to move an inch.
She reached into the backseat for one of the wadded-up fast-food sacks, the handcuffs straining against her wrists. Judging from the grease stains, Leandro’s favorite meal was a triple cheeseburger and a giant order of fries. Perfect.
She held the sack beneath the dashboard and flicked the lighter beneath it, shifting her gaze to Leandro every few seconds to make sure he was still reaming the old guy out. In moments the sack flamed. She tossed it onto the floor of the backseat, then reached for a couple of other sacks and tossed them on top of the burning one. The flames spread.
Renee put the Bic back in the console. At the same time she spied a key. Praying it unlocked the handcuffs, she plucked it out.
Just then Leandro gave up and started back toward the car. She stuffed the key into her pocket, shut the lid of the console, and stared at the dashboard, trying to look nonchalant. Behind her, another sack caught fire, then another, and another....
Leandro yanked open the door. "Old fart," he muttered, climbing into the car. "He coulda made it. But no. He had to park his hemorrhoidal ass at the crossing the minute he saw a few red lights, and now the train’s coming. At the rate it’s moving, we’ll be sitting here for a week."
Renee glanced down the track to see the train finally make an appearance. It chugged along like an overweight asthmatic at about fifteen miles per hour, its cars stretching down the track as far as she could see.
"They ought to jerk his driver’s license," Leandro fumed. "If he even touches a set of car keys, he ought to be shot. And you can bet your ass I’d volunteer for the job."
The burning sacks cracked and popped, but Leandro was so consumed with his loudmouthed trashing of anyone over age seventy that he didn’t notice. Renee waited, her heart beating madly. The flames grew. She waited another second, then another, and then...
"Fire!" She let out an ear-piercing squeal and pointed madly to the backseat. "Fire! The car’s on fire!"
Leandro snapped to attention and spun around, his eyes flying open wide. He put a knee in the driver’s seat, leaned over the back of the seat, and slapped at the burning sacks, only to pull away with a painful hiss, shaking his hand.
He leaped out and flung open the back door. While he was whacking away at the flames with a file folder, Renee scrambled over the console and out of the car—no small task with her wrists still handcuffed. The moment her feet hit pavement, she ran.
"Hey! Get back here!"
He took off after her. She was less than three strides ahead of him, and he made up the ground in a hurry. Alongside the old man’s car he reached for her arm and missed. Then he dove at her, his arms around her hips, and sent them both crashing to the road. Renee’s knees skidded across the pavement.
Ignoring the pain, she whipped around and smacked Leandro on the side of the head. He recoiled, cursing wildly, then fumbled around and managed to catch her wrists below the cuffs. He hauled her toward him until they were nose-to-nose, his eyes wild with anger and his teeth bared. A little foaming at the mouth and he’d look just like a rabid dog.
Renee smiled sweetly. "How do you like your barbecued Jeep? Well done?"
He spun back around. Smoke was pouring out the back car door. He could hang on to Renee, or he could put out the fire. He couldn’t do both.
With an anguished groan, he let go of Renee and jumped to his feet. He pointed down at her. "Stay there!"
As he hurried back to the burning vehicle he hollered at the old man, who gawked out the window of his car with his jaw hanging down to his chest. "Make sure she doesn’t get away!"
Renee leaped to her feet again, infused with hope. If Leandro had resorted to deputizing senior citizens, he probably wasn’t in complete control of the situation.
The train was less than twenty yards from the crossing. She wove through the gates, and in a single bounding leap, she flew over the tracks and landed on the other side. Seconds later the train filled the railroad crossing. The last thing she saw before it blocked her view was Leandro peeling off his tank top to whack away at the flames. Watching him go nuts over that wreck of a car was a beautiful sight, but she couldn’t hang around to bask in the moment.
She pulled the key out of her pocket, fumbled it into the handcuff lock, and held her breath. She twisted it a little and heard a tiny click. The right cuff fell open. Her luck was holding after all. She unlocked the left one, too, then threw the cuffs as far as she could on one side of the road and the key on the other.
Once the train passed, Leandro would be after her again— in his car if he managed to put out the flames, or on foot if it had completely gone up in smoke. Either way, his nasty attitude had already taken a turn toward the homicidal. If he nabbed her again, by the time he dumped her on the steps of the police station they’d have to use her dental records to identify her body.
Her first thought was to hop the train and let it carry her down the tracks, but while it was moving slowly, as trains went, its speed was still too great for such an arm-wrenching experience. If Leandro thought that was what she’d done, though, it might buy her a little time.
She turned and jogged toward the diner, praying some other means of escape would present itself, and fast. No matter what she had to do, she wasn’t going back to Tolosa.
No matter what she had to do.
* * *
John DeMarco sat at the counter of the Red Oak Diner three miles outside Winslow, Texas, with the front page of the Winslow Gazette spread out in front of him and his hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee. He took a sip of the thirty-weight liquid and winced, wondering how much more of this stuff he could drink before he overdosed on caffeine.
He glanced out the window. Evening was edging into dusk, filling the countryside with the muted shades of twilight. Soft sizzling sounds came from the kitchen, like raindrops on a tin roof, mingling with the muffled conversation of a gangly teenage boy and his mousy girlfriend, who were sharing an order of fries in a booth by the window.
This place was like a hundred other backwoods multipurpose establishments—a diner that also carried convenience store items, a small collection of action-adventure videos for rent, and a rack of magazines that centered around four topics—hunting, fishing, hot cars, and sex—aimed directly at the rifle-toting, tobacco-chewing, kick-ass locals on the assumption that they could actually read. Marva Benton served up Texas home cooking guaranteed to clog your arteries, while her husband Harley ran the cash register and shot the bull with the locals. Just about anything you needed to sustain life you could find at the Red Oak, as long as you didn’t set your standards too high.
For the past week John had made a valiant attempt to forget about his job and concentrate only on sleeping late, dressing like a slob, and sitting by the lake with a fishing pole in one hand and a beer in the other.
Easier said than done.
This was the third night in a row he’d come here for dinner. He had to drive twelve miles, but it sure beat cooking, particularly since the cabin he was staying in didn’t have a microwave oven. Or an oven, period. Or a television. A hot plate, a Hide-A-Bed, and indoor plumbing—that was about it. The boredom factor had settled in about fifteen minutes after his arrival, so when he found this diner he considered himself lucky.
Take my cabin for a week or so, Lieutenant Daniels had told him. Do nothing for a while. Just sit. Think. Clear your head.
What Daniels had really meant was Get a grip on yourself, and don’t come back until you do.
Harley rang up a Hot Rod magazine and ten gallons of gas for a twenty-something cowboy type in skintight Levi’s and a plaid western shirt. The guy sauntered out of the store, giving John a territorial stare from beneath the brim of his hat that said I can tell you ain’t from around here, so watch yourself.
Harley pushed the cash register shut, then gave John a gregarious grin, displaying brown teeth, gold teeth, and no teeth all in the same mouth. "So, John. How’s the vacation going?"
John was already on a first-name basis with the proprietors of the Red Oak, a familiarity that appeared to be commonplace in rural Texas. Back in Tolosa he didn’t even know his next-door neighbor’s name.
"Slow," John said.
"Well, slow’s good if you’re lookin’ to relax, right? Take a break from the big city?"
Big city? John had to smile at that one. Tolosa, Texas, was hardly a major metropolis. But from Harley’s point of view, John figured it looked like Tokyo compared to Winslow.
"So what do you do for a living, John?"
He sighed inwardly. Sometimes people acted funny if they knew they were talking to a cop. "Just between you and me, Harley, I’d rather not talk about what I do for a living."
"Which is it? Low pay? Long hours? No respect?"
Harley had just described a cop’s life perfectly. "All of the above."
But as irritating as those things were, they weren’t at the heart of John’s frustration right now. Nobody in his right mind became a cop and expected to get rich, work short hours, and have people pat him on the back, so he’d been prepared for all of that. But what he hadn’t expected were the massive injustices of what was supposed to be the criminal justice system.
After a month of investigation, John had finally nabbed a nasty little scumbag who’d been beating up senior citizens and then robbing them in the hallways of their apartment buildings. Only one of the victims agreed to testify—a stoop-shouldered, gravel-voiced octogenarian who told John, essentially, that he was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Then the day before the trial, the old guy had a myocardial infarction and ended up a vegetable in the coronary care unit at Tolosa Medical Center. Later that day his family pulled the plug, and the prosecution’s case went to hell.
Without an eyewitness to tell his story, the defense attorney was able to fill the jurors’ minds with a truckload of reasonable doubt about the identity of the perpetrator. John showed up for the verdict, and when the jury pronounced the guy not guilty, his stomach twisted into a tight knot of fury and frustration. He tried to tell himself it was just part of the job. You won some, you lost some. The world went on. But all the while he seethed inside, hating the thought that some bad-to-the-bone, guilty-as-sin loser he’d fought to incarcerate was free to walk the streets again.
Then, as he came out of the courtroom, he saw the little bastard standing in the marble-tiled lobby, grinning like a hyena and backslapping his attorney. As if on cue, he turned and met John’s eyes. A slow, cocky smile spread across his lips, joined by a mocking stare that screamed louder than any words could possibly have.
I win, sucker. And that means you lose.
John wanted desperately to cross the lobby of the courthouse, back the guy up against a wall, and choke him until his eyes bugged out. As an officer of the law, though, he hadn’t been free to exercise that option. Instead he headed to the men’s room to cool off. He took several deep breaths and doused his face in cold water, hoping that would do the trick, and when it didn’t he spun around and whacked the paper towel dispenser with his doubled-up fist.
Now that had felt good.
It felt so good, in fact, that he did it again. And again. And again. And all the while he thought about how wrong it was that somebody could hurt defenseless people, take their money, then never have to answer for any of it.
Unfortunately, the bathroom fixture John was substituting for the guy’s face wasn’t in the best of shape, and slug number five dislodged it from the wall and sent it crashing to the floor. About that time, two uniformed cops wondered what all the noise was and hurried into the bathroom. To their great amusement, they saw that a certain police detective had gone three rounds with a paper-towel dispenser, leaving it bruised and battered on the floor in an uncontested knockout.
By the end of the day, John’s battle with an inanimate object was comic legend around the station, leading his colleagues to ask him if he intended to beat up a trash can next, or maybe take on a toilet or two. By then he truly regretted losing his temper, but that hadn’t stopped Lieutenant Daniels from calling him in and giving him a twenty-minute lecture on professionalism, impartiality, and the inadvisability of dropping by the courthouse for jury verdicts.
Forget guilt or innocence, DeMarco. Your job isn't to make sure justice is served. Your job is to bring the scum in so other people can make sure justice is served.
In John’s mind, those people were doing a piss-poor job of it, but in light of the circumstances he’d kept that thought to himself.
An emotionally involved cop isn’t worth a damn, Daniels went on. They do dumb things. You know, like murder an innocent paper-towel dispenser in the prime of its life.
The lieutenant had concluded his lecture by handing John the keys to his out-of-the-way cabin on Lake Shelton with the suggestion that he take a little vacation. John had read between the lines. The vacation wasn’t optional.
He’d reluctantly taken the keys and started out the door, but Daniels hadn’t been through with him yet. He’d mentioned— quite offhandedly, of course—that he’d made his annual contribution to the Joseph DeMarco Foundation to benefit the families of officers killed in the line of duty. And the timing of that remark had really pissed John off.
Eight years before, John’s father had taken a fatal bullet during what should have been a routine traffic stop, and it wasn’t by accident that Daniels chose that moment to mention the foundation set up in his honor. It was his not-so-subtle way of saying to John, What would your father think about how you’re behaving now?
If he were alive today, Joe DeMarco, the most by-the-book cop the Tolosa Police Department had ever known, would have plenty to say about what he would deem to be another of his son’s frequent lapses in judgment. And he would have said it far more vehemently than Daniels could ever have hoped to.
Now John was forced to vegetate in a backwoods cabin for a week, with the implication that he was to do some serious soul-searching and arrive at an effective means of controlling his temper. But as badly as he hated to admit it, Daniels was right. And his father would have been right, too, if he’d been around to orate on the subject. John knew he’d gone over the edge. Find them, arrest them, move on—that was what he had to do. Other cops seemed to have no trouble maintaining that all-important professional detachment. Why couldn’t he?
He finished off the last few sips of his coffee, managing to down it before it congealed into a dark blob of pure caffeine and crawled right out of the cup. Harley filled it again, then checked his watch. He called over his shoulder.
"Hey, Marva! John’s been waitin’ twenty minutes! Move it on the steak!"
A gravelly, two-pack-per-day female voice boomed out of the kitchen: "You want it fast, or you want it good?"
"I want it today!" Harley growled.
"Shut up, you old coot! You’ll get it when I bring it!"
Harley rolled his eyes a little, then leaned over the counter, his expression becoming one of a long-suffering saint. "Thirty-three years I’ve put up with that. Can you imagine?"
John didn’t buy Harley’s "poor me" routine for a minute. He knew shtick when he heard it, and this pair had mastered it. If they were smart, they’d start collecting a cover charge for entertainment. When he was younger and a whole lot more naive, John assumed that someday he’d have a wife he could fight with right up to their fiftieth wedding anniversary. But the older he got, the less likely it seemed that would ever happen.
The kitchen door swung open and Marva appeared, a gigantic horse of a woman wearing purple polyester pants and a Hawaiian-print shirt. Her iron-gray hair was swept back in a sweat-soaked bandanna. She slapped a platter down in front of John. The chicken-fried steak lopped over the edge of the plate, dripping gravy onto the counter. It smelled like heaven.
"There you go, sweetie," she said with a smile full of hospitality. "That rotten husband of mine doesn’t understand that good things take time." She shot Harley a look of total disgust. Right on cue, Harley sneered back.
Marva turned to John. "Thirty-three years I’ve put up with that. Can you imagine?"
With a weary shake of her head, she clomped back into the kitchen. Harley glanced furtively in her direction, then reached under the counter. "Hey, buddy. Take a look at this." He slid a Hustler onto the counter and opened it to the centerfold, displaying a healthy brunette in all her naked glory. "Miss October. Ever seen anything like her in your life?"
"Can’t say as I have," John said, admiring the photo. Hell, it had been so long since he’d seen a naked woman, he was surprised he still recognized one.
"Didja see Miss September?"
"Sorry. Missed that one."
"Shoowee. She was better’n this one, if you like ’em blond."
Just then Marva reappeared carrying a rack of silverware. She saw Harley’s reading material and rolled her eyes. She slapped the silverware onto the counter, then closed the centerfold and the magazine with a definitive whap, whap, whap.
"Dirty old man," she muttered. "Didn’t I tell you to keep your hands off the smut?"
"I’ll show you smut, woman," he retorted, meeting her nose-to-nose. Then the edge of his mouth rose in something that just might have been a smile. "Later."
Marva rolled her eyes. "Promises, promises." She turned to John, talking behind her hand in a loud stage whisper. "Ever since he turned fifty, that’s all I get. Promises."
As she headed back toward the kitchen, Harley gave her a smack on her generous rump. She squealed and went on into the kitchen, then looked back out the window of the swinging door, shaking her finger at him before disappearing again.
"Women," Harley muttered. "Gotta keep ’em in line, or they’ll walk all over you."
John wasn’t sure who was keeping whom in line, but somewhere deep inside he felt a funny twinge of longing. No, he did not want to lose half his teeth, marry a backwoods Amazon woman, and run a shabby diner in the middle of nowhere. But sometimes, in the middle of the night when it was just him alone in a double bed, he wanted someone so badly he could taste it. But a cop married to his job made one hell of a poor husband. A cop who had a hard time controlling his temper when faced with the realities of the job made an even worse one.
Maybe he should get a subscription to Hustler and let it go at that.
* * *
Renee reached the parking lot of the diner, gasping a little at the uphill jog in the cool evening air. She glanced back over her shoulder at the train, encouraged to see that it didn’t seem to be picking up any speed.
She thought about ducking into the woods behind the diner, zigzagging in and out of the dense foliage, but the piney woods of east Texas went on forever. She had no food, no water, no coat, and no sense of direction, so sooner or later she’d be buzzard bait. Besides, it was past sunset and nearly dark, and she feared snakes and bobcats and great big spiders almost as much as she feared Leandro. Spending the night hugging a tree and praying a lot didn’t seem to be the best solution.
What she needed was wheels.
In the parking lot she spied a tired old Corvette, a beat-up red Chevy pickup, and a forest green Explorer with dark-tinted windows. She took a serpentine route through the lot, nonchalantly scanning each of the vehicles for keys, then realized she was actually considering car theft.
No. She couldn’t steal a car. That would be a real crime, and she promised herself eight years ago that she’d never commit: one of those again.
Well, okay. There was the little fire she’d just started in a certain bounty hunter’s car. Destroying personal property was a crime. But really, when you thought about it, that car of Leandro’s was a rolling fire hazard anyway. It was bound to happen sooner or later. One cigarette butt flicked in the wrong direction, and poof!—up in smoke. She’d done nothing more than hasten the inevitable.
Renee took a deep, calming breath. All this rationalizing was making her a little woozy. She needed another plan, and fast. Surely the owner of one of these vehicles could be persuaded to take her...somewhere.
She opened the door to the diner and stepped inside. She was greeted by warm air and the smell of deep-fried everything. A teenage kid was taking his change at the register, his arm draped around a dark-haired girl. They probably belonged to the Corvette. It was a two-seater sports car, though, and Renee figured she’d be a little too easy to spot if she rode on the roof.
That left the pickup truck and the Explorer.
She matched the pickup with the overall-clad hayseed standing at the snack-cake rack trying to decide between Twinkies and Ding Dongs. She weighed the possibilities for a moment, then discarded his vehicle in favor of the Explorer with its tinted windows. Perfect for tooling around the countryside incognito. By process of elimination, she decided its owner must be the man sitting at the counter having dinner.
From the back he looked like a standard-issue country bumpkin, with a red-plaid flannel shirt stretched over a broad pair of shoulders, threadbare blue jeans, and boots. His dark hair just brushed his collar in the back, and she’d bet the rent he didn’t even own a comb. And he was undoubtedly dumb as dirt.
Okay. She had her target. But what was she going to say to get him to take her anywhere but here?
She couldn’t lie and tell him she had car trouble, or that she’d run out of gas and needed a lift. A lift where? To a phone? There was one right here. Back to her car? She didn’t have one. And if Leandro showed up, she couldn’t say he was the bad guy and expect anyone to do anything about it. He probably had ID that said he could drag her anywhere he pleased. Besides, he had a very large gun and a face that would scare the average person out of ten years’ growth. Asking for protection from him would be like asking someone if they minded pulling you out of the jaws of Godzilla.
If only she had time to think.
Praying a plan would come to her, she slid onto the stool next to the guy having dinner. "Hi, there."
He turned at the sound of her voice. Renee blinked with surprise. This was not Jethro Bodine. This was not L’il Abner. No way, no how, not in her wildest dreams.
She’d been fooled into thinking he was a local yokel when his back was turned, but she wasn’t fooled now. This man didn’t belong there any more than she did. He looked to be in his early thirties, but she got the feeling those thirty years hadn’t come easily. A few days’ growth of beard darkened his cheeks and chin, but it couldn’t hide the sharp planes of a boldly handsome face. His skin was still sun-bronzed even in early October, his nose sharp, his jaw well defined. By contrast, his lips looked warm and sensual, a surprising feature on a face that held so much raw strength. His dark eyes regarded her with blatant intensity, as if he were assessing every breath she took and didn’t much like what he saw. Somehow he managed, with just a few seconds of eye contact, to make her feel wildly attracted and scared to death all at the same time.
Renee tore her gaze away and glanced around hopefully for the kid or the hayseed, but both of them were gone.
"Is that your car outside?" Her voice came out like a mouse squeak. She cleared her throat. "The Explorer?"
"Yeah. It’s mine."
Those eyes again. Staring at her. Staring right into her, as if he could see her brain working. And if only it really were working, she might just find a way out of this mess. Adrenaline rushed through her, scrambling her thoughts. How does a woman get a man’s attention right now?
Her brain cells whizzed through the various possibilities, like a hundred search engines activated all at once. And all of them returned the same solution.
She took a deep, furtive breath, sidled closer to her target, and gave him a smile, hoping it didn’t look as phony as it felt. "Do you live close by?"
"Yeah. For a while, anyway."
She nodded down at his hand. "I don’t see a wedding ring."
"That’s because I’m not married."
As he moved his fork down to have another bite of chicken-fried steak, Renee ran a fingertip along his arm, raising a trail of goose bumps in its wake. He froze, his fork in midair.
She swallowed hard. "Well, then. Wanna go to bed?"