Cruising toward home on U.S. 59, Dixie turned on the windshield defroster and counted the days until court would reconvene next Monday, January fourth. Today was Tuesday, her second full day back in town, and she hadn’t picked up a crumb of information linking the accidents that killed Betsy and Courtney Keyes. A squeamish part of her mind hoped she was barking up the wrong tree this time.
The Paynes had not seemed particularly distraught over the loss of their daughters. But then, Betsy’s death had taken place in May, Courtney’s swimming accident in August. This was December. Even after such tragedies, life goes on.
Dixie turned down the defroster’s blast of hot air and turned the radio to a news station. “Colder,” the weatherman predicted cheerily, “with possible freezing rain.” What if she tried her damnedest, yet on January fourth had gathered no new evidence in Betsy’s case? What made her think, anyway, that she could accomplish what Belle’s trained investigators had failed to do? A skip tracer’s job was pig simple — bring the bad guy in for due process. Period.
But she’d been truthful when she told Dann the justice system would work better if its caretakers were more conscientious. She’d seen her share of bad guys over the years; Dann somehow didn’t fit the mold. On the drive to Houston, she’d questioned him ruthlessly, and she believed he was telling the truth — which didn’t rule out the possibility that he was so drunk out of his mind he didn’t know the truth. Yet, in the five days they’d spent together, she hadn’t noticed any usual signs of alcoholism.
If Belle Richards said the jury was ready to convict, Dixie would lay money on it. Assuming Dann’s innocence, Betsy’s killer was still on the streets. And if Dixie turned Dann in, without being convinced of his guilt, her conscience would needle her to her grave. As Barney would say, “The most painful wound of all is a hard stab of conscience.”
Bell had left three messages. So far, Dixie had successfully ignored them, since talking to the attorney now would mean skirting the truth. Sooner or later, though, she’d have to return those phone calls. Sooner or later, Dann would have to face the jury. The clock was ticking. Certainly, no one heard it louder than Dann himself.
He’d been a model prisoner these two days, but Dixie wasn’t fooled. While biding his time, hoping she’d turn up new evidence, he was probably also plotting alternatives. And as the clock ticked on, he’d get panicky. Desperate men couldn’t be trusted.
The pecan grove came into view: rows of trees, stripped now of their foliage, cast long bony shadows in the afternoon light. Closer to the house, the Flannigans had planted live oaks for year-round shade and wind protection. Kathleen’s sporadic interest in gardening had produced seasonal vegetables and occasional flowers, but the beds had long since weeded over. Maybe Dann could clean them out. Maybe he could also stain the rail fence.
She was turning into the driveway when she remembered the Valdez job. Now, before Rashly released Hermie Valdez from jail, was the time to wire the house for sound. It would take only an hour or two. If Dixie hurried, she could pick up the equipment from home, install a few choice pieces at Hermie’s, and still make it to Amy’s on time for supper.
She parked the Mustang in the four-car garage, an old barn that had formerly housed the shelling and packaging machines of the pecan business. Barney had sold the equipment, except for one sheller, when he started sending the pecans to a commercial packager, and now the barn housed a variety of vehicles Dixie found handy at times — a tow truck, a taxicab, a gray van. She’d purchased all three cheap from owners who wouldn’t be driving anytime soon.
Jogging to escape the cold, she entered the house through the utility room, caught a whiff of cooking aromas, and heard Mud’s toenails tick across the kitchen floor. When she opened the door, he was eagerly waiting. She rubbed his ears.
“What a fine guard dog Mud is.”
Mud licked her hand. Then he pranced to the stove and sat down beside Dann, who stood over a burner stirring a pan that emitted the delicious aroma. The man looked totally engrossed.
The homey scene stirred a slew of emotions in Dixie. This kitchen needed someone who enjoyed filling it with the bubble and sizzle of food preparation. It was designed for that. After Kathleen’s death, Barney had lost heart for anything more complicated than scrambled eggs, and Dixie’s efforts had been dismal. She fell into the habit of stopping for carryout every evening. There was something comforting about coming home now to the aroma of good food cooking.
On the other hand, she’d never enjoyed a domestic moment with any man her own age. Not that she was a stranger to long weekends, sleepovers, breakfast in bed — but such occasions had a defined purpose in the dating-mating-compulating game. This situation was emphatically different. Did any of her books on law enforcement define appropriate behaviours for jailors and prisoners?
“You’re early. Dinner won’t be ready for an hour.” Dann toasted her with the spoon. “My specialty, Chicken Piccata.”
“Hmmm. Interesting choice.” How could he know she’d had it for lunch? “But I’m expected at my sister’s for dinner.”
The spoon sagged in his hand. He looked so disconcerted she wondered if he hoped to win her allegiance with food. Not a bad gambit. She wasn’t hungry, yet her taste buds were harkening.
A pasta pot bubbled on the back burner; a plate with three cooked chicken breasts sat on the counter. Dann looked at the stirring spoon, tasted it, and shrugged.
“Great sauce.” He laid down the spoon, dipped a clean one, and held it out to her.
Mud bolted upright and bared his teeth. A growl rumbled deep in his throat. Dann jerked his hand back, spilling sauce on the stove top.
“It’s okay, boy.” As Mud relaxed, Dixie peered into the pan simmering on the stove. “What are those green specks?”
“Green specks? You mean the herbs? Here, try it.” He scooped a fresh spoonful.
“I don’t remember buying any herbs.” she tasted the sauce, tentatively at first, then licked the spoon.
“We bought the parsley,” Dann said. “But I found tarragon and chives in your garden.”
Dixie stopped licking. “Those weeds out there? How do you know they’re edible?”
“Relax. I’m not going to poison you. See?” He took another sip. “Actually, you’d have a nice selection of herbs and vegetables if they hadn’t been neglected.
“You mean I could’ve been throwing those weeds on on my chicken all this time and it would taste like this?”
“Sure. Of course, you also have a castor been plant. Eat that and you’re dead. The narcissus, too. Easy to mistake the bulbs for green onions.” He picked up a knife and began slicing a chicken breast, his fingers quick and precise. “I noticed the bulbs need dividing.”
Dixie tasted the sauce again. “How do you know what to put in?”| Did everybody in the world besides her know how to cook?”
“A recipe helps, but mostly I experiment with flavors I like — celery seed with green beans, marjoram with carrots, dill or rosemary with chicken.”
“Maybe if I pour some herbs on my steak it won’t taste like boiled chip board.”
Dann made a funny sound in his throat. Dixie wasn’t sure whether he was laughing or choking.
“A touch of herbs,” he said, “adds flavor. “Toughness usually comes from overcooking. How long do you broil it?”
“Broil? I fry it till it’s good and dead, then throw in some flour and milk to make gravy.”
Dann winced. “Keep the pantry filled while I’m here, and I’ll make sure you eat well. Gives me something to do. Otherwise, the only difference between here and jail is the company’s better.”
Dixie finished the bit of chicken and took another small piece. “Mud, I think that compliment was meant for you.”
“Mud’s ears pricked up. He gave a soft bark. Dann chose the largest chicken slice and held it for the dog to eat.
“Hey, don’t feed him that–“
But Mud already had his teeth in it.
“Piccata makes lousy leftovers,” Dann explained lamely.
“Just what I need, a mutt with a gourmet appetite.”
“That whole chicken breast probably didn’t cost any more than his dog food. Look how he’s enjoying it.”
“Of course he’d enjoying it. It’s damn good.” In fact, her untrained palate found it better than what she’d eaten earlier at the famed Garden Cafe.
“So,” Dann said. “Going to fill me in on your day?”
“Dixie licked her fingers and headed for the hall closet where she kept supplies.
“Not much to tell.”
He followed her, Mud padding alongside. After a moment of silence, while Dixie unlocked the supplies closet, Dann cleared his throat.’
“I know you’re not obligated,” he said. “Only I’m sitting here with my stomach in knots wondering when the firing squad’s going to show up.”
Dixie opened the closet door. She could think of no reason to keep Dann uninformed. He’d be less antsy if he thought they were gaining ground.
“I talked to Homicide about getting a look at the police report.” Quickly assessing the closet’s contents, she selected a UHF transmitter, about the size of a cigarette pack, and a receiver. Between the two, she could listen to sounds and conversations in Valdez’s home from as far away as a mile. “The investigating officers didn’t find any evidence your car was stolen, but that doesn’t rule it out. They did note your claim of a spare key hidden under the frame and the fact that no key was found.”
She painted in the details of her day, making it sound more fruitful than it really was, relating her meetings with the Paynes and her phone call to Ellie’s real father, Jonathan Keyes.
“Tomorrow, I’ll stop by Keyes’ office.”
“If he’s a reputable businessman, an architect, what makes you think he’s involved in car theft?”
“I don’t.” Dixie invariably found it easier to do a thing than talk about it. Explaining her abstract method of reasoning out a problem had never come easy, even as an ADA working with an investigative team. But Dann’s question deserved answering. While she considered it, Dixie selected a telephone tap and digitizer, for transmitting phone conversations to a recorder outside the Valdez house. She packed the equipment into a battered metal toolbox with shock-resistant foam padding.
On a shelf beside the toolbox sat her camera.
“Ever take any travel photos?” One of her law professors had told her that every complicated idea could be explained with a simple analogy.
“Snapshots,” Dann said, shrugging it off. “Can’t say I’ve ever done anything as good as that Yucatan shot in your album.”
Dixie sitffened. “You looked through my scrapbooks?”
He blinked, his mouth tightening. “I didn’t see a KEEP OUT sign.”
“And I didn’t realize I’d have to mark ‘hands off’ on all my personal belongings.”
‘Okay, so I had an acute case of indiscretion.” His voice was low and measured. “There’s not a hell of a lot to do around this place.”
“Tomorrow I’ll buy some fence stain. You’ll have plenty to do.”
Mud, sensing the discord, nosed between them.
Dixie glanced past Dann to the kitchen, which he’d obviously cleaned and polished before cooking the dinner she refused to eat. She knew he was cozying up, hoping she’d start trusting him and let down her guard. But, hell there was nothing secret in the house, nothing dangerous, except ammunition, which she kept in a locked cabinet, and guns, which she carried with her. And her badass-bitch routine didn’t play comfortably in her own home. A long breath seeped out between her teeth.
“Sorry,” she said. “Being a recluse breeds suspicion. I’m not used to having visitors.” She turned back to the shelves, added a VHF beeper for Valdez’s car and a canister of CS tear gas to the other equipment in the toolbox. She could feel Dann watching her.
“What’re you going to do with all that?”
“A side job, in payment for looking at the Keyes file.” Most of the stuff she wouldn’t need. Like the shiv in her boot, it was merely insurance. She started to shut the closet, then saw the Pentax and realized she’d never finished answering Dann’s question about why she wanted to talk to Jonathan Keyes. She picked up the camera.
“When I travel, I like to capture the sense of a place in six or eight shots… buildings, boats, cars, parks and beaches where people gather, close-ups of local people doing things, items that represent the culture — food, jewelry, clothing, whatever makes the area unique. When I’m finished, I know the place I’m visiting as well as my own yard. The photographs paint the entire experience.” Dixie set the camera back on the shelf. “I approach an investigation the same way, which is what I was doing this morning. Trying to capture a true picture of Betsy Keyes and what happened the day she died. Jonathan Keyes is part of the picture. I need to know where he fits in.” Dixie locked the closet and moved into the den.
“Makes sense, I guess.”
She triggered a hidden electronic lock and opened a spring-mounted bookcase to reveal a row of narrow shelves. One shelf held stacks of gun shells. She removed a box of .45s for the semiautomatic and a box of double-aught buckshot for the combat shotgun.
She felt Dann’s interest perk right up at the sight of the ammunition. Not much use to him without guns, even if he managed to break the electronic code — unless he was as handy at making bombs as he was at making Chicken Piccata. With a mental shrug, Dixie relocked the cabinet. Trust was a useful measuring tool at times, but she’d remember to check later for tampering.
In the kitchen, she took a photographer’s vest from the coat closet. The vest’s custom lining would stop a 270-grain shell from a .357 Magnum. Several of the vest’s fourteen pockets contained items she occasionally found useful — sandwich bags, tape, putty, wire, a glass cutter, a Lock-Aid tool for instantly opening any lock except high security, a pair of binoculars.
Dann held a pocket flap open while she inserted the cartridges.
“This side job looks serious,” he commented quietly. “Should I be worried about you?”
“Worried?” She looked up.
The top of her hair brushed his chin, and she found him studying her, eyes hooded and dark. A weighted silence hung between them. Dixie wasn’t used to having anyone worry about her. Except Amy.
Dann swallowed, as if his mouth had gone suddenly dry. She noticed a web of laugh lines that framed his eyes and thought he must laugh a lot during less stressful times. She knew she should look away, but the concern that filled his gaze was very real. It was also strangely gratifying.
Kidnap victims often developed an emotional attachment to their captors, she’d read. Complete dependency on a person for food, shelter, human companionship and approval created false endearment. Was that happening here? And if so, why was she feeling it, too?
An invisible cord seem to draw them closer.
“What if something happens to you?” Dann said softly.
His voice had the rich sensuousness of dark velvet. She’d noticed it before; now it enveloped her like a plush, warm cloak. She liked the sound.
She also liked the strong line of his chin. And the way his brown hair waved over his ears.
Her chest felt suddenly tight, her breathing shallow. She zipped and unzipped a pocket flap. A strand of hair fell across her cheek.
He reached for it–
Mud’s jaws snapped over Dann’s wrist with the speed of a viper.
Join me right here next week for another Bitch Factor chapter, and if you’re just tuning in, you can find chapters 1-28 below.
Meanwhile, grab a Copy of Slice of Life, another Dixie Flannigan thriller. Here’s a quick, fun preview: