At half past midnight, after depositing Dann and Mud at her home in Richmond, Dixie turned the Mustang into an alley behind a four-story abandoned brick building at the edge of Downtown Houston. The night was still, clear and unnervingly quiet. No sign of the snow that had thrilled Ryan on Christmas Day.
She slipped the car into a niche between two buildings, then trod gingerly among broken bottles and other trash to a back entrance, where a rusted padlock sealed the door. The lock hadn’t been opened in years. Fingering a small black button at the bottom edge of the brick, Dixie watched a double bay door slide silently upward. The room inside was as dark as an oil slick on a moonless night.
Visiting the Gypsy Filchers’ headquarters was like visiting another planet. They were only available between midnight and dawn. With first light, they’d be as gone as smoke in the wind. And no matter where they set up shop, the place took on an otherworldliness similar to nothing Dixie had ever experienced. Their short-circuited youth seemed to heighten their imagination and resourcefulness, like the lost boys from Peter Pan.
Stepping into the dark building, Dixie waited for the door to close completely, then swept the walls and floor with a penlight, instantly setting off a rustle of activity among the ancient newspapers, empty oil drums and wooden pallets that littered the floor. Her light caught a pair of tiny red eyes before it swept past to what she was looking for: an ancient hydraulic elevator with a hand-lettered sign that said OUT OF ORDER.
Using the penlight, she located a small rusty wall panel, which she pushed aside to disclose a twelve-digit keypad. She tapped in a code. Moments later, a soft hum started the car downward.
Electricity pirated from a building down the block enabled the team to operate the elevator and other equipment. Blacked-out windows, machinery that ran smooth and quiet, and a schedule enforced with military precision had enabled them to work undetected from this location for almost a year.
The elevator doors yawned open, revealing a cubicle even blacker than the surrounding room. Dixie flashed her light across the walls and floor. She didn’t want to step into an open shaft. She was scarcely inside when the car started upward. Halfway between floors, it jerked to a halt. Dixie experienced a momentary panic. Was the mechanism faulty? Was someone playing games? But the car started upward again and moved smoothly to the top floor. When the doors opened, she found herself squinting into a halogen spotlight.
A gangly young man shared the spotlight with Dixie — stringy blond hair, freckles, and a double-barreled shotgun aimed straight at her chest. Beyond the lighted circle, everything was dark.
“It’s okay, Gabe.” The voice came from the darkness. “Let her in.”
The overhead fluorescent lights flickered on. Across the room, Brew, a sandy-haired kid just past his teens, slouched behind a computer desk, a telephone at his ear and a keyboard in his lap. He held up a finger, which Dixie interpreted to mean “just a moment,” then continued tapping out a string of characters. Her gangly escort disappeared.
She glanced around the warehouse. Packages of disposable diapers lined one wall, rising four feet high in some places, higher in others, as if some packages had been removed. Near the diapers were piles of toys and a rack of clothes. Boxes of food and other neatly stacked merchandise lined another wall. The desk and a few chairs occupied a corner.
“You don’t see a thing, Flannigan,” said a voice behind her, a woman’s voice, slick with loathing. “Keep your eyes to yourself.”
“Hello, Ski.” Dixie forced a smile as she turned to face the female member of the Gypsy Filchers’ management, a willowy platinum blonde with delicate features and deadly hands. She wore tight black jeans, black boots, a black turtleneck shirt. Dixie had never seen her dressed in anything else. Ski wasn’t her real name, of course. The team had taken street names so long ago they probably didn’t remember their birth names.
Ski sailed a seven-inch stiletto at a regulation dart board, burying the point in the bull’s-eye, then planted three more blades beside the first, thunk, thunk, thunk. The center of the board had taken so many hits already that the cork was spongy. One of the knives fell out to land on a rubber mat, apparently placed beneath the board for exactly that purpose.
Dixie watched the girl bend double, as only the young-and-supple can, to scoop the knife from the mat. She plucked the other two from the cork. Whirling abruptly, she sailed a blade past Dixie’s right ear, so close the air sang. It took all Dixie’s nerve not to flinch.
Ski hefted another knife and aimed.
“I could take out your left eye from here — or the right one — I’ll let you choose.”
“Frankly, I’m partial to both.” Dixie allowed a broad grin to spread across her face. “I have a strong attachment, you might say.”
A mean little smile hovered on Ski’s lips. She feigned a throw, and when Dixie remained unblinkingly steady, the smile turned sour. Then Ski let the knife fly, and it sliced the collar of Dixie’s jacket.
Sauntering to the desk, the girl stood behind Brew, her hand on his shoulder as if marking territory. He mumbled something into the telephone and winked at Dixie.
“Whatever you’re peddling,” Ski said, “we don’t want any.”
“Peddling? As I recall, I’m usually on the buying end of our negotiations. Where’ Hooch?”
Dixie had met Brew and Hooch, the third and oldest member of the Filchers’ management team, four years earlier when the local police charged them with stealing a delivery truck full of goods from one of Houston’s successful grocery-store chains. The truck driver identified Hooch as a passenger in a car he saw tailing him, but none of the stolen goods were found in Hooch’s possession, and seventeen homeless people swore he was helping them erect a lean-to on the afternoon of the hijacking. Dixie had gotten a tip that the groceries were distributed in great haste t0 the homeless community, where they quickly disappeared into hungry bellies. As a caring human being, she could sympathize, but as an ADA, she had a duty. In the end, by mentioning the line of homeless people outside her office, ready to swear to Hooch’s whereabouts at the time of the theft, she convinced the store owner to endorse a lenient sentence of deferred adjudication. The store got some favorable publicity and the Filchers were scared into staying clean — for a while.
Right or wrong, Dixie believed the three kids and their gang of cast-away teens caused fewer problems with these Robin Hood heists than if they turned to less discriminating crime. Maybe they were even doing a little good, so she’d left them alone — but included them in her information network.
From the beginning, she’d hit it off with Brew and hooch, but Ski was a different story. Something dark in Ski’s early years her skewed her thinking. With a vengeance bordering on psychotic, the young woman despised all authority figures, and even though Dixie was no longer with the DA, Ski maintained Dixie would turn them in as soon as she no longer needed their services.
Dixie watched her now, knowing that without the Flannigans’ rescue she herself might have turned out as bitter.
“Dixie!” Brew hung up the phone, wheeled his chair around the desk, and pulled her close in a powerful bear hug. His legs had been crushed in a playground accident before he was school age. To compensate, he spent hours each day developing upper-body strength. “Been too long, Dix. Hope you got our invitation.”
Ski plucked her throwing knife from the wall and drifted into the dark recesses of the warehouse.
“Invitation?” Dixie had picked up the mail when she arrived home but hadn’t sorted it.
“Our New Year’s Eve bash. You have to come. It’ll be a gas. Hey!” He spun the wheelchair around the desk. “I’m glad you’re here. You can preview my new magic show for the day-care tours. Watch this.” Reaching over the desk, he pulled a huge storybook onto his lap and opened it.
“Once upon a time…” he read with grave emphasis, “there were lee pittle thrigs.” Three fat rubber pigs popped up to peek over the top of the book. “The first pittle thrig built a haw strouse.” Brew snapped his fingers and a handful of straw appeared.
“The second pittle thrig built a hig twouse.” A bundle of twigs popped out of his shirt pocket, into the air, and rained all around him. “But the third pittle thrig worked lard and hong, building a brouse out of hicks.
As Brew turned a page in the storybook, a brick appeared in his other hand.
“How’d you do that?” Dixie said.
“Great, huh? How about the spoonerisms? Think the kids will understand?”
“With the visual aids, sure they will.” And if the kids didn’t understand, they’d love the show anyway. When Brew turned on his showmanship, he was a regular Pied Piper. Kids followed him everywhere. “But, Brew, I need–“
“Wait till you see the wig wad bolf, all clangs and faws–“
A furry puppet popped over Brew’s shoulder, baring its fangs and claws. Dixie laughed. But after seventeen hours on the road, she was tired and needed some answers. “Brew–“
“I know. You didn’t come downtown for kid stuff.” Grinning, he laid the storybook down. The fat little pigs disappeared inside it. “What’s happening?”
He scooped two sodas from a foam cooler beside the desk and tossed one to Dixie.
“Last May,” she said, popping the aluminum pull tab, “there was a hit-and-run killing in Spring Branch, a girl on her way to school.”
Brew nodded. “The dude that did it is on trial right now.”
“If he did it. Something doesn’t feel right about the case. I’m wondering if anyone was working the area that night. Maybe picked up the car, hit the girl by accident, then returned the car to throw the investigating officers off track.”
Brew shrugged. “Eight months is like forever. Who remembers what went down eight months ago?”
“People who keep good records. People with long memories who hear stories from other people who can’t keep their mouths shut.”
He shrugged. “Won’t hurt to ask.”
Picking up the phone, he pecked out a number. When it answered, he turned away from Dixie to speak privately. Taking her cue, she strolled across the room to a pile of toys and rooted around until she found a rubber ball. Bounced it a few times on the concrete floor. Pop. Pop.
She head the elevator hum. The doors opened and Hooch stepped out. It took him all of five seconds to spot her.
“Say, I knew there be a dang good reason to stop here, my main squeeze paying a visit.”
He wrapped his enormous arms around Dixie, lifting her off the floor to plant a substantial kiss on her cheek.
Hooch looked like something out of a horror movie. He stood six-four and weighed 240 without an ounce of fat. His face had never been handsome, but before it was nearly sliced in half by an ax blade, it might have been bearable. The jagged scar crossed the inside corner of his right eye, the bridge of his nose, and the left side of his mouth, where the ax had split his jaw, displacing some teeth and severing nerves and muscles necessary for smiling. Now Hooch only smiled on one side; the other remained frozen in a toothy sneer. Most who saw him preferred he didn’t smile at all.
“If Lissie hears that ‘main squeeze’ bullshit, you’ll be needing a patch for the other eye.”
His grotesque grin spread across half his face.
“Lissie got selective hearing. She don’t hear nothing she know I don’t want her to hear.”
“Hooch, you might convince somebody else you’re a mean mother, but I know you too well.”
He chuckled. “Danged if you don’t. Say, girlfriend, you see the stuff for the Casa?” He waved an arm toward the wall of diapers and toys.”
“The hospice for kids with–“
“Yeah! We took over a whole truckload of toys and clothes. Diapers, too. Save these for later, you know, so they wouldn’t be overstocked–“
“Or get suspicious about where they came from.” The Casa took care of children under six who were HIV positive. The Gypsy Filchers had a special soft spot for kids. Many of the team’s “charities” were homes for abused or sick children, But Hooch didn’t like to think about what happened to HIV kids when they disappeared. The only time Dixie had ever seen him violent was when a boy he’d grown attached to was returned to his abusive parents. Brew, Ski, and Hooch — they would never say whether the names parodied the old cop show team, Starsky and Hutch, or were further bastardizations of slang terms for beer and whiskey, brewsky and hooch — had slipped into the house after everyone was asleep, captured the abusive couple in their bed, and threatened to carve them into dog food if any member of the team ever saw so much as a bruise on the boy again. It seemed to work for a while. Then the child was admitted to the emergency room with multiple fractures. That same night, the couple disappeared, leaving their home and car behind. Dixie never knew whether they vanished on their own or with a strong suggestion from a big, scary black guy.
“I’ll bet the president of Kimberly-Clark would be proud to learn their missing truckload of Huggies is so hugely appreciated,” she told Hooch. “I hope you sent a thank-you note.”
“Don’t we always?”
Dixie felt someone slip up catlike beside her.
“Hooch,” Ski said, “you make that pickup?”
“Like clockwork. Being unloaded as we speak.”
“Good. I need the truck for a delivery.”
“The truck be all yours, Ski. Need any help?”
She seemed to think about that for a moment, eyeing Dixie all the while. Although the trio acted like brothers and sister, Hooch was the only one Dixie had ever seen with a date, and Ski was fiercely possessive of both men.
“Yeah, I do need your help,” she said.
“Then let’s be doing it.” He ruffled Dixie’s hair as he turned to go. “You, girlfriend. Don’t be so scarce.”
“Good to see you, too, guy.” Dixie looked back at Brew, who was still on the phone. He waved her over.
“–forget it,” he said into the phone. “We’re even now. Thanks for the help.” He wheeled around to face her and tapped a pencil on the desktop.
“I’m not sure this is what you want to hear,” he said. “Nobody was working that part of Spring Branch the night the girl was hit. Nobody professional, that is. We can’t rule out amateurs or someone passing through town.”
“If it was somebody passing through town, we’re sunk.”
“Yeah, well an amateur would either freak out and skip town with the car or dump it far from the accident. He wouldn’t calmly drive back and park it where he stole it, then trip away into the moonlight.”
“That’s how I see it, too.”
“Does your man have enemies?”
“I don’t think he stays in one place long enough to make anybody hate him. No family in town, no close friends.” But Dixie knew that a person could make enemies without being aware.
Before leaving, she promised to attend the New Year’s Eve party and forked over fifty dollars to send some teens to a big-screen pay-per-view bowl game. Yawning, she looked at her watch. As a skip tracer, she attracted strange friends who kept strange hours.
Arriving home at three A.M., she found a single light burning in the kitchen and a note propped against a plate of brownies on the table.
Your cupboard’s bare. I found four eggs, shortening, some flour and sugar in the canisters & a partial can of cocoa, hard as brick until I beat hell out of it with a tenderizing mallet. I threw out the fuzzy green stuff in the fridge. God knows what it was before it started growing hair. 2 of the eggs I scrambled and ate. I used the other 2 in the brownies. Eat these, they taste fine. You owe me breakfast. — Dann
Dixie studied the brownies, lifted one from the pile and took a hesitant bite. It was good. In fact, it was excellent. Her can’t-fail box type invariably came out tasting like cardboard.
She eased open the guest-room door to find Dann snoring and Mud curled up on the floor beside the bed. The dog raised his ugly head, yawning.
“Good boy,” Dixie whispered. Mud lowered his chin across freshly manicured paws and winked out. The vet would no doubt send a whopping bill for the extra days of kennel service.
Dixie considered what to do about breakfast. Taking Dann to the local cafe and supermarket in Richmond should be safe enough, with Mud along. If Dann liked to play chef, she’d buy whatever he needed. Home-cooked meals had been damn scarce since Kathleen died.
Cooking meals might also keep Dann too busy to cook up trouble. She could count on Mud to take Dann’s leg off if he tried to leave the yard, but a desperate criminal with too much idle time might eventually outwit even the World’s Best Watchdog.
Join me right here next week for another Bitch Factor chapter, and if you’re just tuning in, you can find chapters 1-24 below.
Meanwhile, grab a Copy of Slice of Life, another Dixie Flannigan thriller. Here’s a quick, fun preview: