December 27, Interstate 45, Texas
Parker watched the Houston Skyline tower into view, buildings like sentries waiting to close in on him. He was in a pissy mood, not at all interested in talking about the night of the hit-and-run. Why was Flannigan so friggin keen on the subject, anyway? They’d be quits soon as she dropped him at the county jail.
“Tell me about the guy who stayed late at the Green Hornet,” she said.
“Again? Nothing’s changed in two hours.”
The bounty hunter’d cut the twenty-two-hour trip to seventeen, driving like a Tasmanian devil — with the fortitude of a camel and the bladder of a friggin elephant. Stopped once, for gas, leaving him locked in the backseat without a prayer of breaking free.
As the mile markers whipped by, he’d tried to get her talking about herself — family, work, anything to give him an edge. The bitch ignored him! Kept asking about his case, same questions over and over, more relentless than the friggin cops who arrested him. Maybe she was brushing up on her cross-examination techniques, planning to go back into litigation.
“Humor me,” she insisted. “What did the man look like?”
Parker crossed his arms, turned sideways, and leaned against the car door.
“Light brown hair, receding hairline. Ears stuck out from his head. Six-one, hundred and eighty pounds, lanky –“
“Lanky, is that the same as wiry?”
“Hell no. A guy that’s wiry, he’s slender but muscled. Tightly wound, like a spring. This guy was running on idle.”
With downtown Houston still painted in lights against the night sky, they reached the bypass leading to the county lockup. Flannigan took the turn, and Dann’s chest tightened. He recalled all too vividly his brief stay in this miserable place: Crowded. Smelly. Volatile. A cauldron of bile with no vent. Even now, months later, he heard doors clang shut behind him and apprehension squirmed like worms in his belly.
Been kidding himself thinking he’d get loose from Flannigan. Charm her, he’d thought. For a while, back at the motel, it seemed to work. She’d combed her hair and softened up a little. Then whap! She shut down. He won so many friggin gin games, he knew she wasn’t paying attention. Laughed when he tried to sit up front. She had a great laugh. Gave him the Mountain Spring Water bottle and started on the third degree. So much for his fancy escape plan.
“Lanky,” she said now. “Not wiry. How old was this guy?”
“Thirty-eight, forty. But baby-faced, like he could look young even when he’s older — “
“Tattoos? Scars? Moles?”
Dann was about to say no when a picture popped in his mind, a butterfly with a human head. Bright. Intricate. On the man’s left forearm. Why hadn’t he remembered that before?
He told her about it. “Why are you harping on this, anyway?” There was something screwy about the whole deal, Flannigan getting on his trail so fast.
“Belle Richards believes you’re innocent. She doesn’t want you screwing up your chance of acquittal. You’re lucky she sent me to find you.”
“You mean the DA doesn’t know I cut out?”
“Officially, then, I’m not a fugitive…”
“Dann, you were a fugitive as soon as you crossed the state line. Right now I’m the only one who knows.”
“What about Richards?”
“I haven’t talked to her since I agreed to scout around, see if you were bending an arm at one of your favorite haunts.”
That put him back where he started when he left the courtroom. Richards must have picked up somehow on what he was planning.
Flannigan pulled off the road and stopped. Parker looked out to see razor-sharp barbed wire curling along the fence that encircled the Criminal Detention Center. Doors clanged shut in his mind. His stomach started to squirm.
“So…” he said, his voice sounding dry as paper in his ears. “What now?”
“Now we have a dilemma.” She turned to face him. Light from the Center’s sodium flood lamps cast an orange glow along one side of her face. Her brown eyes were as impenetrable as the night. “If I take you inside, it’s all over. You stay locked up until the jury reaches a verdict. The fact that you skipped will tip the scales against you.”
“You could drop me at home.” We wiggled his eyebrows, tried to smile, feeling how pathetic it must look. “I’ll stay put till the trial.”
She didn’t say anything, just stared with those big, soft eyes. Smirking.
“What do you want, Flannigan, a guarantee signed in blood?”
“You have seven days until your trial resumes. The closer it gets, the more you’ll sweat the jury’s decision. You’ll get itchy feet, Dann.”
He hated to admit she was right. The weight of truth settled on his shoulders, and hope seeped out through his teeth in a rush of air. Probably bolt before her Mustang was out of sight.”
“Hell. Maybe I’ll be lucky. Maybe the jury mellowed out over Christmas.”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
She was chewing on something. He wished she’d spit it out. “Got an alternative?”
“Maybe.” She studied him for a minute, her eyes soft and unreadable. “I could turn you over to Belle Richards, collect my fee, and forget about you. Belle is way too trusting, so you’d soon find a way to skip town again. Then I’d haul you back and collect another fee.”
“Sounds like bounty hunting pays well.”
“With fewer hours than prosecuting, and less stress.” She yawned. He could tell she was taking her time, either stalling to make up her mind or enjoying watching him sweat. “There’s another alternative,” she said, finally. “How handy are you around a house?”
“Handy? You mean fixing things?” She nodded, and he said, “Fair, I guess. Fix up my own house when it needs it.” As long as it didn’t include plumbing, wiring, or carpentry.
“I can put you up until your trial resumes. In exchange, you do odd jobs. And maybe I’ll look around, see if I can turn up any new evidence.”
“Why would you do that?”
She hooked a thumb toward the building across the road.
“There’re too many criminals on the streets who ought to be locked up over there, and maybe a few inside who don’t belong. The system would work a hell of a lot better if cops, lawyers, and judges did what’s right instead of just doing their jobs. Barney Flannigan used to say, ‘You’re either part of the solution, Dixie, or part of the problem.’ I believe that I also realize it’s possible you got a raw deal.”
Parker started to speak, but his throat went suddenly tight, and he had to turn his face into the shadows. Crazy, the way hope made your eyes water.
After a few moments, he said, “Think you’ll find something the cops missed? And Richards’ PI missed?”
“If you didn’t drive your car the morning Betsy was killed, someone else did. Let’s say someone stole it and hit the girl by accident. Why bring the car back to your house? Why not abandon it across town where no one would connect it with the girl’s death, at least not immediately?”
“Sounds like one of the DA’s arguments against me.”
“Face it, the DA has a tight case. But he didn’t start from the position that you might be innocent.” She paused, looking thoughtful. “The thief may have brought the car back to your door knowing it would focus the investigation on you, at least until you were cleared and by that time his trail would be cold. Your being drunk might’ve been an unexpected bonus.”
Parker didn’t want to get his hopes up, only to have them smashed in the courtroom, but if Flannigan could find some evidence… “While you’re out snooping, how do you know I won’t skip?”
She started the car. In the rearview mirror he saw her smile.
“I have a good friend I can trust to keep you in line.”
Friend? Another Superbitch? Parker envisioned a dungeon master with whips and chains.
Driving back the way they’d come, she passed downtown and turned on the Southwest Freeway. A mile or two outside the city, she exited the freeway and turned on a two-lane road.
“I take it you don’t live in Houston,” he said.
“About twenty miles out, in Richmond.” She stopped in front of a sprawling country house. “But right now we’re picking up my friend.”
He watched her stroll to the door, stretching as she walked. Before she even rang the bell, the porch light flicked on. The screen door opened, and Flannigan disappeared inside. Five minutes later, she came out with a dog, part Doberman pinscher, by the look of it. Maybe part mastiff. Its head reached almost to Flannigan’s shoulder. Had the coloring of a Doberman, but heavier, more muscular. Muzzle a foot wide, like a bulldog’s.
Parker could hear Flannigan murmuring soothing phrases. When she opened the front passenger door the beast lumbered onto the seat. Snarled through the steel mesh.
“Parker Dann, I want you to meet my best friend, Mud. For the next seven days, he’ll be your roommate and bodyguard.”
Jesus, that thing’s teeth are like daggers. Dann could feel them piercing a leg, crunching right through to the bone. The dog growled low in his throat, eyes steady with malice.
“He hates me,” Dann said.
“Don’t be silly. Mud doesn’t hate anybody. But he can pretend he hates you if you get out of line.”
“Mud? What kind of a name is that?”
“Short for Mean Ugly Dog.”
Join me right here next week for another Bitch Factor chapter.
Meanwhile, grab a Copy of Slice of Life, another Dixie Flannigan thriller. You can see a quick, fun preview in the video below: