four corners pd
By: Cin and Heidi
Day Three: Saturday (cont)
Ten minutes after the end of the crying jag, teeth brushing, and face repair, Ezra showed up with Ace in tow. “Felicitations, dear lady,” he greeted her, holding aloft a pastry box from the bakery. “I brought the confections for this humble little soiree.” His mind still whirled from the encounter in the park last night and he wanted to arrive early to visit with her before the others arrived, even if it meant a loss of precious sleep on his part.
Ace bounded up to her, stared at her for a second, and gently nudged her for a greeting, not jumping like he usually did. She reached down and hugged him, delighting in the affection he gave her.
The canine handler’s practiced eye swept her appearance, finding her long hair hanging straight down and brushing the back of her elbows. A white T-shirt peeked out from under an oversized sweatshirt nearly hitting her knees. Her jeans fit her snugly and showed wear in several essential places. No makeup adorned her face and the black circles attested to the lack of sleep. A slight, swollen redness in the irises intrigued him; if he asked, he knew she would say lack of sleep so he would watch and wait until she decided she needed a friend. The amount that he wanted to be that friend both surprised and frightened him simultaneously. A loner by nature, wanting to comfort her felt strange and startling to him.
Nina took the offering. “Bless you,” she said, opening the flaps and downing a éclair without putting the pink cardboard box down.
“I assume you are suffering from lack of sleep?” He ignored her manners this time…usually she showed more couth.
“I got home at eleven,” she flatly replied. “Something else interrupted my sleep and I haven’t been back to bed yet.”
It was just as he suspected; she admitted to tiredness only. Carefully he suggested, “Perhaps this is an inconvenient time and you should go rest.”
She smiled at his concern and felt oddly touched by it. “Nah. I’ll doze while you play. Besides, Ace needs exercise.”
An eyebrow arched. “Does he?”
“He certainly does.” She emptied the box onto a platter, covered it, and placed it with the rest of the food downstairs in the ‘gaming room’ before finding Ace’s favorite Frisbee. Ezra stood on her deck, sunglasses covering his eyes, hands on the polished rails, and looked on in amusement as she took his highly trained police canine and turned him into a playful puppy. As he watched the two frolicking, he observed that there was more going on here than a rough end of shift case or lack of sleep. Nina acted as tightly wound as a cuckoo clock about to sound. If he was right, she was not far from breaking.
Deciding for a better view, he strolled down beside the pool and noticed Ace visually check him over before returning his attention back to the Frisbee currently going over his head. The black lab chased it and executed a perfect jump, bringing down the plastic disk and returning it triumphantly to the laughing female.
The two chased the Frisbee, running around in circles across her tree-lined backyard behind the in-ground pool. Ace finally decided to wrestle with her and tackled her gently to the ground, neither caring about grass stains. Finally, both dog and human required liquid refreshment and they started for the pool area. With a grin, Nina launched the Frisbee at Ezra, standing near the deep end of the pool, watching them. Reaching over his head and taking a couple steps back, he caught it then stared in disgust at his hand. Dog drool. Lovely - parts and parcel of owning a dog.
Ace took one look at the pool and jumped in. Swimming quickly back to the stairs, he scrambled out and shook himself vigorously, hundreds of water droplets flying everywhere. He loved the water and swam every chance he got when ‘not working’, no matter how badly it annoyed his human.
Nina started laughing as she watched Ezra glare at his playful partner. A mischievous glint came into her tired eyes as an idea crossed her mind. Fetching a towel, she carried it over by Ezra and handed the smaller one to him, letting him wipe his hand off for a second. As he did, he was very unprepared for the sudden clothesline across the chest.
Reflexively, he grabbed her and held on as he fell backward into the pool, pulling her in with him. They landed with a big splash and started sinking. Ezra pushed them both to the surface but did not let go of the prankster. Her laughter echoed across her backyard, and for one second he was thankful she heated the pool year round to swim laps. He disliked the thought of hitting the water at the cold temperature it should be this early in May.
As she continued laughing, he fleetingly gave a thought to his shoes that she probably ruined and his natural sarcasm came to the fore. “I must protest this treatment, Ms. Caswell,” he drawled once he reached a point he could stand, still keeping the squirming female trapped in his arms. With the way that they fell and he held on, she faced him while still trying unsuccessfully to separate herself.
“So formal for a man that just got dunked,” she teased.
“I believe I shall return the favor.” With those words, he twisted her and held her briefly under water, his name forming on her lips as she went under. As he pulled her up, he laughed as her hair fell in her face and her hands immediately swept it away. The sweatshirt added to her weight, but he held her easily.
“Hey!” Nina sputtered as she surfaced. “Watch the hair. I spent all of ten seconds on it,” she cracked. One hand reached up to muss his chestnut locks and he tipped her under again.
When he brought her back up this time, he found himself laughing right along with her. His hands shifted until he brought her face to face and chest to chest with him. “I believe you owe me an apology for this.”
“Like hell,” she replied with a big smile. Nina struggled against him and he tightened his grasp, pulling her closer. “Too tempting a target.”
Ezra raised an eyebrow and said, “You find me tempting?”
Just before she could answer or act, they felt a weight climbing on top of them, Ezra specifically. Four black paws paddled and kept the lab afloat while he dug into his handler as he attempted joining the duo. Ezra’s hands slipped off Nina as he dodged the cutting toenails.
With a laugh, Nina rubbed the lab on the back before swimming over to the ladder and pulling herself out. Ezra, after receiving several licks to the face from his partner, gave him a push toward the stairs. Then using clean freestyle strokes to reach the ladder, he applied his own well-muscled arms to lift himself onto the cement deck. His clothes clung to him outlining his physique, his loafers were ruined, and he felt as if he could cheerfully strangle her, while she walked away still laughing. A bark came from the shallow end.
“What are you looking at?” he snapped at the lab, who stayed on the second step halfway in the pool. Ace’s tongue hung out and Ezra would swear he laughed at him. The head and tongue bobbed up and down before Ace shot out of the water following the female to the building to the right of the pool neatly tucked out of sight and blending into the scenery.
Nina called this building the pool house and kept everything she needed in the
five small rooms. As one entered, doors split off from the main room. The left
side held a restroom for each sex, large enough to change in. The two rooms on
the right held the mechanical devices that heated the pool and the supplies to
maintain it. The center room, was a large storage space. It featured several
shelves along the walls filled with various toys, rafts, and water volleyball
net. The back wall also held a door leading out and beside it a stack of
shelves filled with towels and sunscreen.
After wringing out as much water as she could from the sweatshirt, but not taking it off because of the see-through white T-shirt beneath it, Nina grabbed a towel and wrapped up her hair. Ace stood inside watching her closely. The second towel went around her body and the third hit Ezra square in the face as he opened the door. His fast reflexes allowed him to catch the towel, and he scowled while using it.
Nina cooed to the lab, “Hello, baby. Let’s get you dried off.” When Ace stopped shifting around the tight quarters, he waited near the other door causing the female to bend over and rub vigorously. As Ace started his fight with her over the towel, she kept her back to Ezra and he saw an opportunity he could not resist, especially after hearing Tanner’s challenge the other night.
Slowly he twisted the towel in his hands as she played tug of war with Ace.
Grinning evilly, he snapped it hard, cracking across her backside. He smirked
when her feet cleared the floor and her spine straightened and arched.
“This means war, Standish,” she yelled just before twirling the towel in her own hand. The next few minutes they snapped towels at each other while Ace tried grabbing the ends of them. Finally, Ezra got the upper hand and disarmed her, pinning her back against the wall between the two changing rooms. He used his weight to press her into the wood and he smirked. Ace sat on the pile of discarded towels and watched.
“Surrender, Caswell, for the South has won this war.”
“Never,” she hissed back at him.
“Must I demonstrate what a precarious situation you find yourself in?” he asked her.
“Yes, I do believe you must.”
“Pray tell what the original dunking was for and perhaps I’ll oblige.”
“For the little gift you gave me last night.” Nina tried glaring and failed miserably.
His smirk deepened as he remembered planting a hickey on the back of her neck. An idea crossed his mind. “What gift?”
“You know,” she said.
“I don’t believe that I do.”
Nina hissed in frustration. “The hickey, Standish, pay attention.”
“What hickey? I do not recall leaving anything like that on your person.”
“It’s right here on the back of my neck,” she complained, tilting her head to one side so he could see it.
“I believe you burned yourself with your curling iron,” he replied.
“Bull,” she answered. “Look closer; that’s not a burn, that’s a hickey.”
He asked, “Right here?” just before he leaned down and nuzzled that section of her neck.
Nina cleared her throat. “A little to the right,” she whispered.
“Here?” he asked, finding another spot and feeling her shiver beneath his touch. He shifted his kisses closer to her mouth, but just as he leaned down enough to touch her lips, Ace growled.
Both handler and woman shifted to glare at the canine for interrupting.
Another low growl came from the dog as a familiar voice reached them, “’Lo? Anyone out here?”
“I should have guessed,” Ezra mumbled, thinking Buck’s timing needed serious improvement. This was only the second time in their years-long friendship that the flirting between the Southerner and the female corporal ever went past the verbal stage and feelings started to emerge. He experienced a deep sense of loss similar too what he felt the night before, as he reluctantly released her arms. Instead of immediately breaking the embrace, she wrapped her arms around his damp waist and squeezed.
“I know. His timing’s always sucked,” Nina replied, hugging Ezra and not letting go.
Ace growled again, moving to the back door.
She considered the situation for a moment, and then grinned. Leaning around Ezra, she opened the back door and the lab barreled out. With a finger to the Southerner’s lips, she warned, “Listen.”
Ezra knew immediately what would happen and shifted them to the doorway, setting it ajar enough they could see out, but Buck could not see them.
“Hey! Ezra? Nina? Where are ya?” The rogue walked beside the pool and started for the pool house.
Both suppressed their laughter as they watched a black streak fly through the air and land squarely in the side of the corporal, knocking him sideways into the pool. Ace twisted mid-air to land firmly on the edge, and growled low in his throat when Buck surfaced.
“Son of a…Ace! How could you do this to ol’ Buck?” His hand went to his ruined hair as he brushed it out of his eyes. He lunged for the dog that nimbly dodged and barked continuously at his favorite chew toy. Buck barked back.
By this time, both Nina and Ezra found themselves incapable of speech while watching the antics of the two. They composed themselves enough finally to exit the pool house. Nina carried the wet towels and a few dry ones to give to Buck.
“Hi, Buck. See Ace greeted you properly today,” Nina called as she patted the dog on the head.
He lifted himself out of her pool and accepted the towel tossed at him. “Guess I’m not the only one that he got.”
Ezra just gave a look to Nina that spoke volumes to the rogue.
Buck started laughing. “You clothesline him when he wasn’t looking?”
“Payback, Buck, for the gift last night. Come on, let’s get inside and changed before everyone else gets here. By the way, I still owe you and Larabee.”
“Now, darlin’, you might consider this dunking as your payback.”
Nina laughed evilly. “Nope; that was Ace’s idea. I just enjoyed watching you fall in all because of a big, bad dog. Come on, Ace, into the house we go.” She led the way up the deck stairs and into the house, Ezra gallantly holding the door for her.
“Since I don’t have any dry clothes, I’ll just run home real quick and change. Back in a few!” called Buck. He took a towel to sit on as he left to drive the short distance to his own apartment, taking a quick shower before returning to Nina’s. He showed up early to see how she was; he figured the case at the hospital probably was a little rough and wanted to be there if she wanted to talk. Finding Ezra there surprised him, but then in a way it didn’t; he saw the growing closeness between them and vowed not to interfere.
Back at Nina’s house, the pair toweled Ace again until he was passably dry. Ezra gave his partner the bright red plastic Frisbee that he carried up from the pool.
Ace headed for the food and water dishes Nina kept available for him when she knew the lab was coming over. After drinking his fill, he realized some went up his nose and he sneezed with a half-shake, spraying it all over his owner’s leg. More water from his swim flew everywhere, but concentrated on his human. Nina laughed as she handed Ezra paper towels to wipe his face – his clothes didn’t matter at his point - and gave Ace a large, basted rawhide bone to chew. The Southerner tossed the used towels away when he finished.
“You do realize what effect that has on him?” His mouth turned down in disapproval as the lab found his favorite spot and started licking the beef-basted treat.
“Yes, but he loves it. You would not want to deprive him of his treats, would you? You’re not that mean of a Daddy, are you?” The childlike look she gave him caused him to narrow his eyes.
Biting back a smirk, he replied, “Only if you have a treat for his Daddy.” He knew giving her a truly loaded comment like that should bring her naturally twisted sense of humor to the forefront.
Instantly her body shifted from childlike to woman. Somehow, she pulled it off even in grubby, wet, grass stained clothes. “What does Daddy want?” she purred.
“What did you have in mind?” He leaned back against the counter and graced her with a smile full of boyish charm.
Here we go, she thought to herself. Heavy-duty flirting that never goes anywhere. The last two encounters with this man simultaneously excited and frightened her. Nina was so afraid of messing up their friendship, and especially in losing his trust in her, that she held back from going over and kissing him senseless like she wanted to do. That budding trust he gifted her with took a long time to earn from the guarded Southerner.
Besides, she sourly thought, she had already screwed up one relationship. “I have lots of things in mind and not enough time to do them all.” Her impish grin and exaggerated wink caused him to laugh. “Unless, of course…” Nina took a couple steps to the door for the laundry room downstairs.
“Of course what?” What could she possibly want in the laundry room?
“You want to make a day of exploring my mind, say, when we’re off?” Hell, they could always go out as friends. The absurd thought crossed her mind that Chris, Buck, and Vin had her saying hell before every other statement and she nearly giggled. So much for the language instructors her mother paid for to prepare her debutante daughter. Her mother. Damn. She scowled then shoved it away.
Ezra noticed the scowl and her attempts to hide it along with the rest of her troubles. Nina often kept closed-mouthed about her problems, sharing only what she wanted people to know in minute bits. “I would be delighted,” he replied. This sounded intriguing, with a guarantee of a win-win situation. If they kept it friendly, they could have fun; if things developed from there, then that could very interesting. Last night, he thought, was very interesting, and without the constraints of working, it might be even better. Today whet his appetite, making him calculate the possibilities.
“Good. Tuesday?” Both slept hard and heavy on their first day off, Monday in this case, and planned nothing if possible. Tuesday was their second day and usually the liveliest.
“Two o’clock? I will pick you up?” Southern manners insisted he drive and pick her up at her house.
“Wonderful.” The smile she gave him looked heartfelt and warm. They spent a moment in silence staring at each other, emotions charging the air around them. She looked away first. Thoughts of her mother and the biting remarks reminding her of her perceived undesirability filled her brain, and that stopped her from proceeding any further. Ezra deserved better than her.
Opening the door, Nina stripped off the soggy sweatshirt and tossed it down the stairs into the laundry room. Ezra’s eyebrow arched again as he read the back of her t-shirt: “Co-Ed Naked Law Enforcement”. It hung near her knees once the bottom was free from the waist of the sweatshirt. The white material was nearly sheer and clung to her skin. He swallowed once. “I assume Mr. Wilmington provided you with that shirt?” The material served as another reminder of the tangled web of personal relationships.
“He did, but he might not remember it.”
When she turned around, his male mind appreciated the clingy material, and then his genteel upbringing kicked in and he stared at a point above her head. Before things caused him to be extremely uncomfortable, he said, “Do you mind if I change in one of your guest bedrooms?”
“Certainly not. I’m sure you’re going to shower also?”
Thoughts of the guest bedroom on this floor reminded her about her office. These thoughts made her think that Brett should have faxed the papers to her by now. “Ezra, can you do me a favor?”
“I’ll need you to witness so paperwork for me.”
“Come with me and I’ll explain.”
She led them through the house to her office and sure enough, papers sat waiting for her on the fax machine. Ripping them off, she read them quickly before signing them. “If you don’t mind, would you just witness here?”
“What precisely am I signing?”
“Read it if you want; I trust your discretion.”
Ezra accepted the papers and started skimming them, stopping when he realized the content. The papers cut off her family from the financial support she provided them every month beyond their pre-determined monthly allowances. The money came from a large trust in Nina’s care left to her by her father. His green eyes lifted to study her pain-filled blue ones. “Much as I want to know, I do not believe this is the time for us to discuss this. Am I correct?”
Her shoulders slumped slightly. “Yeah.”
“I’ll sign, my dear, and I hope when you are able, you will discuss this with me.”
“I owe you an explanation since I’m asking you to sign. Just…not right now. . . please.”
“Of course.” Ezra signed each of the pages, somewhat staggered by the amount of the monthly allowances. He also added the fact she controlled what appeared to be a considerable fortune. Many questioned the source of her well-heeled life style, and were suspicious of it. It was easy to discover the source was her inheritance from her departed father, however, she downplayed the fact so well, no one was aware of the true nature or extent of the funds.
“Thank you,” she said when he handed them back.
He nodded, choosing not to speak at this time. He watched as she fed the papers into the fax machine and hit a speed dial button, waiting until the papers went through before gathering them up and locking them in her drawer. Ezra said, “If you don’t mind excusing me, I’ll shower and change.”
“Uh-huh. Catch you in a few,” she said, ducking up the stairs. After fetching a bag from his car complete with a fresh set of clothes, Ezra retreated to one of her guest bedrooms and showered quickly. He laughed when he found all the products he could need in trial sizes in the bathroom, and then used them to mostly fix his hair. He met her a few minutes later in the kitchen, noticing she had a new shirt reading, ‘Big Johnson Nightsticks’.
“Do you have an unending supply of Mr. Wilmington’s shirts?”
“Actually, no. This one is very comfortable and I hope to catch a nap in it.”
“Don’t you believe he will remember that particular one?”
“Probably not,” she answered while straightening a few things around the kitchen.
“I guess we shall soon find out if he recalls,” the Southerner noted as the ladies man’s patrol car parked in the driveway.
“Hmm…five dollars says he’ll try to take the shirt.”
“Ten with him trying to take it while you’re wearing it.”
“He won’t get it,” she confidently stated. “Unless I chose to give it to him.”
“Of course not.” His tone dripped sarcasm.
“Make it twenty and you buy me dinner at Bailey’s Tuesday night.” Bailey’s was a moderately expensive restaurant both liked for the well-prepared and excellently cooked menu.
He flashed his gold tooth. “I thought you knew better than to take losing bets.” Even if he lost, he won by having her company for the entire day and for dinner.
Ezra was saved from her scathing comment when Buck knocked once and walked in the kitchen carrying a large selection of drinks. He knew what everyone liked and brought a little of each for all of them.
“Never fear, Buck’s back here,” he jovially exclaimed. A growl came from the stretched out lab. Buck turned and smiled. “Hey, Ace.” Handing off the drinks to the unprepared handler, who juggled them frantically while glaring at the larger man’s back, he approached Ace. “Come here, buddy, a little payback’s waiting for you,” he coaxed, starting an impromptu wrestling match on Nina’s floor with the dog, both growling and barking at each other as they rolled around. After setting down the drinks, Ezra quirked an eyebrow as he watched the two; it always amazed him how his dog seemed to turn them all into little kids again.
When they finished, Ace visited his water bowl again while Buck helped himself to a cold beverage from the refrigerator. He knew his way around her house well enough to know to get it himself or go thirsty.
Buck was eyeing Nina as she bent over with a newly filled water dish, reading
the back of her shirt. “Hey! I have a shirt just like that.”
Ezra buried a smile as Nina straightened. “Really? I do not recall seeing you wear it,” the Southerner said, earning a furtive glare from the only female present.
“I haven’t for a few years…I thought I lost it.” Comprehension dawned as he realized what Ezra hinted. “You’ve had it all this time?”
“Who, me?” Nina took a step back as he advanced on her, trying to look innocent and smacking Ezra’s leg as she passed.
“Yeah, you. Don’t give me that innocent look; it doesn’t work on me.” He backed her into the edge of the kitchen sink and leaned an arm on either side of her, effectively pinning her with his weight. “I want my shirt back.”
“Too bad. I’m wearing it.”
Ezra continued watching and anticipating his win.
“That can be fixed,” he told her. Two hands reached down and grabbed the bottom of the material. She slapped them away. “Once I get this, I’m going to search your closet and find out what else I don’t know I’m missing.”
“Buck,” she hissed, laughter still evident in her tone.
When he reached down to go for that particular spot on her neck that made her compliant, he saw the brandy snifter in the sink and stiffened. “Either you’ve taken to drinking that horrible shit of your mother’s or she was here. Which is it?” Angry blue eyes nailed hers in place.
All amusement left her face. “Leave it alone.”
“She was here?”
Two hands came up and forcefully shoved him back. “I said leave it alone.”
Buck roared, “What the hell did that bitch want now?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she yelled back, falling into the familiar pattern of their old arguments.
Wilmington paced a few angry steps in a circle while Ezra silently watched. “Nina, damn it, what kind of bullshit did she say now? You know it’s better if we deal with it straight out than to let you think on it.”
“I was dealing with it just fine until you brought it up,” Nina snarled.
“You’re not fine; anyone looking at you can see that!”
“Leave me the fuck alone!” Before she knew it, the brandy snifter was airborne across the room into the wall, shattering with a loud clatter in the silent kitchen.
At the noise, Ace shot out of his corner to the entrance of the kitchen. He stared at the glass then at her. Those brown eyes made her realize what she did and that her emotional walls crumbled again. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, looking from one knowing face to a stunned male face. “I’m sorry.” Her voice broke on a sob and she fled for her bedroom, Ace following behind her.
Buck sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and then went into a cabinet for the dustpan and brush. “I hate that bitch,” he muttered under his breath as he angrily swept up the glass and threw it in the trashcan. Next, he used the portable mini-vacuum to make sure no slivers of glass remained on the floor.
“I assume you refer to her mother and not Nina?” said Ezra, still in a state of surprise at the sudden change of emotions from both and the deep depths of them.
The rogue took a deep breath. “Yeah, her mother. That’s right; you’ve never had the misfortune. Lucky you. Nina usually calls out sick or takes leave whenever Bethany’s around or called.” He sighed.
“Why hasn’t anyone said anything to me about this before now?” Ezra showed his hurt at the omission.
Buck stared, really looking at the smaller man. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “It’s like that, is it?”
“Like what?” Green eyes hardened in challenge.
“Nothing.” Wilmington shook his head, surprised at what he saw. It explained a few things, but now wasn’t the time. “Chris and I have been dealing with the bitch’s damage for years; we cover for Nina whenever possible. It’s just…hell, Ez, you know how secretive Nina acts. She doesn’t want anyone to know how bad things are with her mother.” He shrugged. “We don’t want a loose cannon on the street with a gun. So we say nothing, she says nothing, and we all try to forget the bitch until her next disastrous encounter.”
“You and Mr. Larabee are the only ones who are aware of this situation?”
“I suspect Josiah knows something because she goes to him for advice like a lot of us do.”
“Is she always this emotional?”
“You’re pretty emotional when Maude visits.”
“So, you’ll have to forgive Nina, Ez, because that bitch sends Nina into a tailspin every time they get within verbal range of each other. Usually she doesn’t throw things unless the bitch really upsets her.”
“She’s thrown things before?” To this point, he never recalled seeing Nina act this way.
“Yeah. I lost three glass beer mugs she was carrying to the sink that way once. ‘Course, she had reason to be spitting mad, but that’s beside the point. Nina rarely lets her temper loose because if she does, she hurts everyone around her. It’s that fierce.” He received the harsh effect of that temper during their many arguments, especially when he pressed her for marriage.
Ezra asked the ladies’ man a question. “Is there something about her mother I should know about as not to further upset the young lady?” Nina rarely spoke of her mother and the Southerner did not want to push any bad buttons. He never saw her lose her temper this way; he only saw the parts of her she allowed others to see. The paperwork he signed earlier he kept to himself; playing uninformed usually netted him more information. The papers indicated the severity of this visit.
Buck gave him a sidelong glance. “She never told you?” Ezra shook his head. The taller man ran his hand down his face and sighed again. For him, either he sighed or he hit something. He’d rather hit her mother, the only woman he would hit, but that was not an option. “Bethany’s difficult.”
The corporal tried finding the explanation that would still protect Nina’s privacy and give inklings of what was wrong to her friend. Inspiration struck so he went with it. “Maude, she’s real big into appearances, right?”
Ezra nodded once, remembering all the little things Maude did to insure people saw what she wanted them to see and not the truth.
“So’s Bethany. She’s what you call a society matron, and Nina, well, she doesn’t go for all that hooey.”
“If I understand you correctly, Mr. Wilmington, Nina’s mother finds her a disappointment for not being what is expected of a daughter. Would you say that is a fair assessment?”
Buck clasped his shoulder. “Exactly, Ez. I knew you’d understand.”
“All too well, Mr. Wilmington.”
A white cloth smacked the mustached man in the face. “Here’s your shirt, Wilmington.” The sprite disappeared from sight back upstairs.
Buck’s shoulders slumped as he set the shirt he intended to use as a joke on the table. He met the green eyes of the canine handler. “You coming?”
Ezra played dumb. “Where?”
“To talk to her, calm her down a mite before everyone gets here.”
“I am not sure I would be welcome.”
The rogue gave the Southerner a shove, knowing he was not quite ready to face her alone. They proceeded to the base of the stairs. Buck knew first hand the devastation Bethany wreaked in her daughter having dealt with this one time too many. Hell, he never should have had to deal with this shit at all if Bethany knew how to be a mother.
The hard kick on the kitchen door saved Ezra. He had no idea what to say to her and Buck …well, they shared a strange relationship. One never knew if they were ‘on’ or ‘off’, especially when Buck often showed his obvious feelings for Inez. Of course, the way Nina responded to him last night and today demonstrated her willingness to pursue something different. It was a confusing situation and one he was sure was not going to be sorted out right now, if ever.
“I will answer the door, Mr. Wilmington. Perhaps you should tend to Ms. Caswell.”
“Gee, thanks, Ez.”
The Southerner watched Buck move off up the stairs for a moment, before turning to answer another knock at the door. His mind was in turmoil and he wasn’t sure if the jumbled emotions and thoughts would ever be straightened out. One thing he knew, as a betting man who only bet on a sure thing, he would steer clear of any wager made on the outcome of this mess.
Vin followed Roland’s dark sedan from Nettie’s diner to the northwest side of town. This section of the city held a variety of larger homes where some of the ‘old’ money and wealthier citizens of Four Corners lived. First driving through several middle class sub-divisions, they continued to the section that bordered the remaining farm and ranch land surrounding the city. Here the homes almost qualified as mansions and the lots were measured in multiple acres instead of square feet or partial acres.
The two pulled into the gated circular drive of a large two-story white two-story, antebellum style home. Six columns graced the front. Rising to the second story, which featured a wraparound balcony guarded by an ornate black-ironed railing.
Roland pulled his vehicle off the driveway extension at the right of the house and continued around the rear to park in front of a four-car garage behind the house. Designed to look like a stable, the garage was also painted in white with a steeple in the center of the roof sporting an iron weather vane of a prancing horse.
Pulling his Mustang up beside Roland’s sedan, Vin parked, exited and locked the car, and then met Roland as he waited for him at the back of his own vehicle. As the pair neared the back door a tall man, who could fit the true definition of a henchman, met them. Standing at about six foot four the man owned a barrel chest, with a thick neck and equally thick biceps. His legs were tree trunks. Dressed in a dark suit that looked like it would split open if he breathed wrong, or breathed at all, the henchman wore his hair cropped short with an ear piece in his left ear. A wire ran from the earpiece to a hidden radio beneath his coat. With a practiced eye, Vin also noted the bulge under the left-hand side of the jacket that he knew would be the bodyguard’s weapon.
Tanner was stopped by the raised meaty hand of the guard and given the obligatory pat down for guns before he was allowed access to the house. He almost snorted aloud as he found the mass of brawn without matching brain size missed the carefully concealed knife in his right boot. It was still easily accessible, and his time on the reservation along with Special Forces training guaranteed he knew how to use it as an extension of his hand. Seeing the man’s expression as he moved aside to allow him entry, his thoughts redirected to the fact the man may actually be smarter than he appeared. Perhaps he was aware of the weapon. Vin felt he’d just been issued a challenge to see how he would act on it, or he passed some test he was not aware of.
Once in the kitchen, a matching bodyguard, although only slightly shorter and less broad, performed yet another search for hidden wires. While the undercover agent remained wired throughout most of his assignment, Vin breathed a sigh of relief he was not wearing the usual equipment now.
Recently, he depended almost solely on the backup equipment issued to him. The backup equipment only a few knew about or would know about. Haskill certainly wasn’t aware of it, and it was more sophisticated than most of the law enforcement in this area was use to seeing, much less the criminals having the ability to buy or detect. So far it remained undetectable for all but the most advanced devices, which none of his adversaries or supposed allies had access to apparently. Vin’s wire was a tiny transmitter located in the small ‘diamond’ stud earring. A small tape machine hidden in the undercarriage of the ‘Stang recorded everything onto digital tapes as long as he stayed within a mile of the vehicle.
The undercover officer was finally led through the back of the house towards the front. Roland rapped sharply on a set of massive oak doors before opening them into an impressive study. The room was lined on three walls with floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with a collection of equally distinctive leather bound books. The fourth wall was a large paned window with a window seat that stretched the length of the room, covered in a thick cushion of neutral colors and matching pillows. It oversaw the circular drive at the front of the house. The hardwood floor of the room was covered in a fine, antique Oriental rug. The furnishings included a large oak desk opposite the window. In the bookshelf behind the desk, a built in computer alcove held a flat screen monitor that flickered as the screen saver of fast moving stars blinked. Arranged in front of the window was a masculine but welcoming sitting group that included a deep leather couch and chairs in rich mahogany brown.
Vin felt a myriad of emotions as he entered the room behind Roland and spotted the figure seated in one of the chairs facing the window. One feeling was of surprise that the man was not one of the persons he expected to find. Still, newcomer or old foe, here he was about to meet one of the men responsible for this whole charade. He was getting one step closer to putting an end to this whole thing and getting his life back. He hoped. With guarded interest, he watched as a tall, slender dark-haired man dressed in an expensive charcoal suit rose from one of the deep cushioned chairs and moved to greet the new arrivals. As he came face to face with the man, Vin noted that although he was smiling, it did not reach his eyes. The deep emerald green orbs were as cold as ice. Practice kept him from showing the shiver of apprehension he felt when he accepted he man’s hand in greeting.
“Taylor, so we finally meet, Bram McBride.” The man’s smile was almost feline, his speech holding a hint of an Irish brogue, a clue to his ethnic heritage. “I’ve been hearing some good things about you.”
Vin slid a glance towards Roland, whose expression betrayed nothing. “Wouldn’t believe all I hear,” he finally said. He kept his own drawl thick to further his ‘good ol’ boy’ image.
“Oh I hope I can. I need some good men, and I’ll think you’re just what I’m looking for. Are you interested in a job, Taylor?”
“That depends.” Vin kept his guard up. “Thought I already had a job, and I’m here fer a promotion.” He wanted to play this as if he was interested but would walk out if he wanted to, all in keeping with his cover persona.
McBride’s smile fell slightly as he motioned Vin towards one of the chairs in the sitting group. “I’m sure we can come to a mutual understanding. Care for a drink?” He moved to a small rolling cart bar set up off to the side of the room, its top was covered with several cut-glass crystal decanters and matching glasses.
“No thanks. Jest finished lunch when he found me.”
McBride shrugged pouring himself a glass of the Irish whiskey he favored. He then settled himself into the seat opposite of Vin.
“What’d ya have in mind?” Vin questioned.
“A man that gets right to the point. I like that,” McBride tilted his glass towards Tanner in a mock salute. “As I said, I have heard some interesting things about you . . .and your skills. I think you have the requirements I need.”
Vin cast another glance at Roland who moved over to the bar to fix himself a drink.
Roland was obviously at home and welcomed in McBride’s company. The crew boss remained silent, and his expression revealed nothing as he turned back to face Tanner.
“What skills are ya talkin’ about?” He looked right at McBride instead of Roland.
“I understand you served some time in the Army.” The feral gleam returned to McBride’s eyes. “As a sniper.”
Vin sat back in his chair and let out a deep sigh. His background information had been altered prior to him going undercover. He knew the information paralleled his own life except for the name change and some of the places he had lived. Just as his wilder younger days helped him fit into his role, the parallels made it easier for him to live this lie, giving him less information to remember. Left him less lies to tell too.
Regarding this particular information, he knew he’d never mentioned it before nor offered freely. It was a time he would rather forget, and a skill of no useful purpose in his opinion. In fact, he was very tight lipped about anything in his background or his life. This man, McBride, had done some serious digging to pull up this information. That nagging feeling about things getting worse came back full force.
McBride eyed the young man before him, watching the play of emotions across his face as he took another sip of whiskey. “I make it a point to find out all I can about people that interest me. Especially if I aim to employ them and tie their name to mine, however vicariously.”
“What makes ya think I want what you’re offerin’?” Tanner injected a defiant edge in his tone as if to say, ‘so you know about me, but do I really want to work for you? Convince me’.
McBride looked up at the man standing beside his chair then, “Roland here detailed your successes on some of the jobs you’ve done for him. He was pleased with the results, as was I. He said you might be interested in something to make more money.”
“Maybe.” That one word was Vin’s hesitant answer. He knew he needed more on the bigger operatives to end this game, but he wasn’t happy with how far this charade was going to have to go. It made him wonder about the ends justifying the means.
“I’m a very successful businessman, Mr. Taylor.” McBride stood and poured himself another whiskey. “I have a variety of interest. Some legal,” he paused and shared a significant look with Roland, “and some not so legal.”
“Don’t cotton ta the law.” Vin declared this with a shrug.
The Irishman smiled at that. “Yes, I’ve heard of some of your encounters with our local constabulary. Some of the jobs you’ve done for Roland have also been a bit on the shady side.” He quirked an eyebrow toward Tanner as he reseated himself.
“Man’s gotta eat.” Vin was still trying to play hard to get, seeing how far McBride was going to go to get him in.
“Yes, well I can believe I can offer you much more. A man with your talents could make quite a reputation for himself.”
“Ain’t interested in makin’ no name. Famous criminals go ta jail or die too young.” Vin stared hard at the man across from him. “Mr. McBride, why don’t you quit dancin’ around it and jest tell me what ya want?” Again, he took the aggressor’s role in fitting with his current ‘attitude’. Also, if McBride stated plainly what he wanted and it was illegal, they had him on tape without the threat of entrapment.
The feral gleam deepened. McBride ran his tongue around his lips and looked down at the glass he held in his left hand. A gold class ring of some sort gleamed from the ring finger and a smaller domed ring with a bright emerald glistened from his pinky every time he moved his hand. “My businesses have suffered a set back lately. The citizens of this town bringing in this new police force is not to my liking. Nor am I impressed with their zealous attitudes, either the citizens or the police.”
“Ya don’t think I’d get rid of a whole bunch of cops for ya? I don’t aim to get myself killed as somebody’s flunky or spend my days locked up in a prison. Ain't no amount of money worth that.” Vin did not have to fake his anger and he moved to stand.
McBride waved him back down and held Roland back with a glare. “No, Mr. Taylor, I’m not asking for anything of the sort.”
Vin settled back, but kept a wary glare on the man. “So?”
“I had an amicable working relationship with the previous law keepers here, and I would like to renew that acquaintance, and perhaps establish a new one with some of our current protectors.”
Vin snorted and shook his head, thinking it was true criminals were basically stupid, especially those with delusions of grandeur like this guy. The hint that he was around and had some sort of connection to the previous sheriff was more than a little unsettling. Not that Vin moved within the true criminal element, but he had been aware of most of the major players, or so he thought. It made more sense, though, if someone like McBride rode in on the previous head honcho's coat tails instead of some new blood moving in. Still, he wasn't acting the underling he was expected to be trying to move up through the ranks. But this guy couldn’t really believe he could get in dirty with someone like Travis, did he?
Tanner carefully said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”
McBride smiled and waved his hand to encompass their surroundings, “All things are possible, my boy. And I have found that all men and women have their price, no matter what side of the law they’re on. Some are just harder to persuade. ”
The Irishman moved to refill his glass once more. "It doesn't take a genius to figure you can't move within our circles and remained untouched by the law without a bit of help now and then. We've enjoyed assistance from both sides of the law, including some very well heeled and well-respected members of this community. Of course they had their own agendas and reasons for their assistance and not without receiving their own adequate recompense. They were the reason for our success. Of course when the Sheriff left town and the new law moved it, it sent many of our friends running scared. We need some help to correct that."
“What do ya think I can do?” All of the undercover officer’s senses were on high alert now.
“Deliver a message.”
“Told ya I don’t cotton much to the law.”
“Should make this easier then.” The smile on the man’s face resembled that of cat who had trapped his mouse. “I want to let the new folks know that I’m a force to be reckoned with and remembered. And a reminder to those that need it about who is really still calling the shots around here. From you, I need to know you’re someone I can trust. I demand loyalty, but the rewards are unlimited.”
“I don’t squelch on nobody.” Vin declared adamantly.
“That’s good to know, but I still like proof. I want you to deliver my message.”
Vin narrowed his eyes. “How?”
“I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to figure that out.”
Vin felt the icy glare directed straight into his soul. “I ain’t killin’ no one!” He stood and moved towards the door.
Roland moved to block his exit. McBride’s chilly laughter filled the room.
“And I assure you, Taylor, I have no death wish myself. I only want them to realize how vulnerable they are, and what a mistake it would be to continue making an enemy of me.”
Vin did not return to his seat but turned to face McBride. He held his arms out in frustration. “Okay, what’s yer grand plan? Spell it out fer me.”
McBride’s eyes narrowed on Tanner, “You would do well to remember not to make an enemy of me as well.” He stood then and moved to stand in front of Vin. “I want to show them how easy it is for me to take them out, but I don’t need to go that far.”
Vin made no comment, but did not back down from McBride’s angry glare or the violation of his personal space.
“I have a demonstration planned. All I need for you to do is provide the proof. A single shot, and the bullet will be fake.”
"Yer kiddin', right?" Vin stared unbelievably at the arrogant man before him.
McBride's smile darkened. "Oh I have a sense of humor, Mr. Taylor, but I don't joke."
"What good's yer demonstration with fake bullets?"
"I believe in keeping things simple. No need to yell when a whisper will do. Those that need it will understand the message. More so than making a larger statement. Our allies will realize we are still in control…we are calling the shots, so to speak. The others well…they will realize we are still a force to be reckoned with."
Tanner’s heart sank to his stomach. He did not believe this man, had no reason to from the limited intel they had on this organization.
McBride, for his part, tried to follow Tanner’s expressions but could read nothing as they stood face to face.
“Regardless, I protect my own,” McBride finally continued. “As I said, I have no death wish myself.” He smiled again while glancing around the opulent room, “And as you can see I think a jail cell would not be to my customary standard of living.”
“You don't believe this will actually work?” The longhaired man couldn’t help but disbelieve the man’s audacity.
The evil grin was back, “It has before, with far less. They will come to see that there is much to be gained for their cooperation.”
Vin paused, mulling the offer over. “And the payment?" He finally asked going along with the charade. His stomach churned, but he remembered his duty, no matter how distasteful.
McBride finally turned, moving to the rolling bar as he sat his glass down. That damnable feral smile was locked in place. “My protection, and of course this would be higher if it were an actual kill, but for the demo, $10,000. If your successful, I’m sure we’ll have a very compensatory relationship.”
"If I'm successful." Vin snorted. "Thought you were so sure of your plan."
"Oh I am," McBride sneered. "It's you I'm not certain of."
Vin shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans, clenching them tightly. Catching Roland’s stance by the door from his side vision, he felt – no, he knew - he wouldn’t leave this room alive if he didn’t agree to McBride’s offer. Shrugging his shoulders in resignation he turned back to the grinning Irishman, “Fine, when, where and who?”
“Glad you see things my way.” McBride said softly. “Tomorrow. As to who, let's just say it is someone who has been giving me a lot of grief lately.”
Tanner knew the surprise of the quick timetable showed on his face. The other fear, specifically of whom, he hoped he kept hidden, because there were still too many possibilities to be considered. He felt the target had to be someone of importance. He only hoped Haskill warned Travis to be on alert and take precautions with any possible targets. At least he would be able to pass on some more to Chris and Nina at the poker game later. “Okay, where?”
“I’ll be accompanying you, Mr. Taylor so you’ll find out when we get there. I’m looking forward to seeing you in action.”
“I don’t like an audience.”
“And I like to see what I’m paying for.”
All the longhaired man could think of was that he wanted to run as far away from this mess as fast as possible. Instead, he stood his ground and said, “Fine, what time do you want me to meet you?”
“You’ll be staying here.”
“What?” Tanner couldn’t help the outburst.
The Irishman moved toward him again. “I told you Taylor, I don’t trust you . . .yet. No matter what kind of glowing report Roland has given on you, and no matter the excellence of your work in the past. You have to prove yourself . . .to me, and I want to be sure this plan goes off with no problems.”
“Ya think I’d want to put a noose around my own neck?”
“You haven’t done anything yet. I don’t want you to warn anyone, or decide you don’t have the aversion to cops that you claim to have. Do not worry; you will find the accommodations adequate. I treat my employees very well.” The satisfied cat grin returned. “Perhaps after receiving a taste of what is possible, you will not be so hesitant in the future.”
Vin continued to stare at the man, the tingling apprehension returning full force. Hell, he just felt cold fear hit his entire body. All hopes of getting a final warning out just died, and this did not bode well for him or whomever he had to ‘shoot’.
McBride held his hand out to Vin, “Your keys please, Mr. Taylor.”
Feeling like he was caught on a runaway train racing out of control, Vin reluctantly handed his car keys over to the devil that had just sealed his fate.
“Don’t look so worried Mr. Taylor, you will find I’m a very generous host. Roland, show him to his room.”
With a final narrowed look at his new employer, Vin turned and followed the silent man from the room. McBride tossed the keys in his hand and caught them again, releasing a satisfied chuckle. He returned to the bar cart and filled his glass with his beloved whiskey. Moving to gaze out the window as he sipped the smooth drink, enjoying the growing buzz, as he thought he needed to make a phone call to report his progress. He smiled knowing that his friend was right. These upstarts would soon learn they were trying to bite of the tail of the tiger, but that tiger was about to bite back.