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Authors: M. C. Grant

Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area

Devil With a Gun (10 page)

BOOK: Devil With a Gun
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Seventeen

The sound is more
like scratching than anything sinister.

I move my hand toward my butt and feel the warm fur still pressed against it. If Prince isn't in his litter box …

The scratching stops and there is a clunk and scrape of metal sli
ding back into its stainless-steel sheath. My upgraded security locks have just failed their first test.

I slip off the couch and ease the Governor from beneath the pillow. It feels heavier in my hand than it did at the range, but the rubber grip holds secure despite the film of perspiration that coats my palm.

I thumb off the safety, revealing the ominous red dot, and cup my shooting hand with my left to form a triangular support. My eyes never leave the door as I move sideways toward the armchair, its antique solidity making it the most protective piece of furniture in the room.

By the time the door begins to swing open on whispering hinges, I am steely-eyed, petrified, and concentrating on my breath. Unlike at the range, I am having trouble keeping my inhalations calm and steady.

When the door is three-quarters of the way open, I see a silhouette straightening up from a crouch in the doorway. The ever-burning hallway light is dark, but loose strands of moonlight entering through the small street-side window are enough to let me know that whoever is standing there is a solid object.

When the silhouette steps forward, I thumb back the Governor's hammer with a click that sounds more like a thunderclap.

The dark figure freezes in place and its head turns in my direction.

I wonder if I should speak or if it's better not to let the intruder know that I'm alone. If he has an imagination like mine, he might wonder if the room isn't filled with ninja assassins or a ruthless biker gang that owes me a favor and plans to use his limbs as baseball bats.

Neither of us moves, but I wonder if he can hear my heart on its thudding journey from chest to throat.

Perhaps deciding the sound was in his imagination, the intruder lifts his foot to take another step.

“I will shoot,” I say, hoping I sound more like
24
's Jack Bauer than
Three's Company'
s Jack Tripper.

“We need to talk,” says the silhouette.

“I have a phone for that.”

“I can help you.”

“If that were true, I doubt you'd be breaking into my apartment in the middle of the night.”

The silhouette moves his head, surveying the room. He doesn't appear to be wearing night-vision goggles. In the movies, they always glow green, and no part of him is glowing, but the longer he stands there, the clearer he's becoming as my eyes adjust to the dark. Which also means his eyesight is improving, too.

“Are the sisters here?” he asks.

“What sisters?”

I see his lips bend in a smile and it worries me. Soon, he'll be able to tell that I'm alone, in my underwear, hiding behind a chair.

“You won't be able to protect them by yourself. Mr. Lebed is far too powerful to take on alone.”

This catches me off guard, since I assumed it was Lebed who sent him.

“You don't work for Lebed?” I ask.

“I didn't say that.”

Now I'm even more confused. “I want you to leave,” I say.

“If you answer one question.”

“What's that?”

“Who sent you?”

The bedroom door creaks open as the question sinks in and I realize it's the same one that the dead Russian had been asking me on the street.

“Dixie?” calls out Bailey. “Who are you talking to?”

The silhouette moves forward and turns toward the bedroom in the same instant that I call out for Bailey to get back inside. I see the intruder's arm rising, the shape of a gun in his hand.

I fire.

The Governor booms, unleashing one of its shotgun shells in a spray of lethal force.

The intruder spins and curses, his own gun firing in a rapid succession of trigger-twitching anarchy. Plaster rains from the ceiling and stuffing flies from my protective armchair.

I crouch down low and roll to a new position behind the couch. From this vantage point I still have a clear view of the bedroom door. Ears ringing and eyes stinging from dust and sweat, I've lost sight of the intruder. But I know what he's after.

The sisters.

So with eyes fixed on the closed door to his targets, I allow my ears to scan the room.

They come up empty.

I wait in silence until Sam's voice calls from the hallway outside.

“Dixie? Are you OK?”

I don't want to call back and give away my position, but I can't let Sam walk into danger.

“Stay in your apartment, Sam,” I yell back.

“I've called the police,” Sam yells. “They're on their way.”

“You hear that?” I say to the darkness as a rush of relief ignites the adrenaline pumping through my bloodstream. “If you're still here when Detective Fury arrives, he'll fold you in half and stuff your head so far up your ass you'll need a snorkel to breathe.”

The darkness doesn't answer.

Eighteen

Frank hands me a
coffee mug and tells me to drink. Expecting coffee, I shudder slightly as ice-cold vodka splashes over my tongue and burns my throat.

“You have a lousy liquor selection,” says Frank. “But that'll help with the shock.”

“I should have one, too, then,” says Kristy. “My whole body is shaking.”

Kristy and Sam are beside me on the couch. After making sure that I was alive and uninjured, Sam has been silently fuming on the far cushion. She's in full-blown I-told-you-so blame mode in her belief that the mere presence of the gun brought armed trouble to my door. Kristy sits close and rubs my arm, making comforting cooing noises like a dove in its nest.

When Frank doesn't move to fetch Kristy a drink, she nudges Sam into action.

“And get Dixie a refill,” she tells her. “This is a lot of shock. A shoot-out in our own home.”

“It wasn't a shoot-out,” I say.

“It was,” insists Kristy. “He had a gun, you had a gun. The clock struck midnight—”

“Who fired first?” Frank interrupts as he hitches his pants and crouches down to eye level.

I hear his knees crack.

“I did,” I say.

“Because you felt your life was in imminent danger,” says Frank. He's not asking the question, but guiding me on the proper response.

“He came for the sisters,” I say. “I'm sure he was planning to kill them. He had a gun. He was aiming … ”

Sam returns with the vodka bottle and a second cup for Kristy. As soon as she splashes a mouthful into my cup, I swallow it. Hole in one. Doesn't even touch the sides.

I hold up my cup for another, but Frank takes it away instead.

“I need you sober,” he says.

“I don't,” I answer.

Frank's lips twitch. “There's blood on the wall, so we know you wounded him. None of it appears arterial, but I've put out an alert to the local hospitals and walk-in clinics.”

I shake my head. “He's smarter than that. Lebed will have his own doctors.”

“You don't know that this man works for Lebed. You told me you didn't see his face.”

“No, but he didn't deny working for him, either.”

“Did he have an accent?”

“No. Not everyone in the organization does.”

Frank glances in the direction of the bedroom, where young Detective Shaw and an attractive female officer with flawless Halle Berry skin are interviewing Bailey and Roxanne.

“Why would Lebed want the sisters dead?” he asks.

“Roxanne belongs to him. I took her away.”

Frank dismisses the statement. “He keeps a large stable. One misplaced girl isn't going to mean much, and he definitely doesn't want me on his case when—and I hate to sound crude—but a flash of cash can make these girls come running back to work much easier than a threat.”

I want to argue, to stand up for Roxanne, but I know Frank's right. Roxanne didn't exactly plead with me to get her out of the hotel. I look over to the bedroom and meet her gaze. She's barely listening to the two officers as they interview her sister. Her eyes are focused on me, and they're hurting. A pain that I'll likely never fully comprehend is pulsing behind aqua blue jewels clouded in a crimson mist.

I wonder if, despite her denial, she knows the gunman. What if she made a secret call while I was out? Told him where she was.

She didn't know I had a gun. Neither sister did.

“What are you thinking?” Frank asks. “I can see the gears working from here.”

“I need better locks,” I say.

“Best locks in the world won't keep out a determined man,” says Frank. “We have a guy on Entry Squad named Dozer who can swing a battering ram like nobody's business. If Dozer can't get it done, we switch over to Gently, an explosives' expert who makes holes in walls any size and shape he wants. I saw him enter a crack house through a hole that, I swear, looked just like the Death Star.”

“That's not comforting,” I say.

Frank shrugs. “It's reality. A good deadbolt does the job ninety percent of the time. For the other ten, you need something better than a lock.” He glances over at the blue case resting on the coffee table. “Good job you opened your birthday present early.”

“I forgot to thank you for that.”

Frank's lips dance and his hand stretches out to squeeze my knee. “The best thanks I can ask for is seeing you sitting here in one piece.”

“Awww,” says Kristy as she reaches out to pat Frank's hand. “That's so sweet.”

Frank's face instantly returns to a block of unyielding granite as he retrieves his hand and stands up.

As soon as they see their boss standing, Detective Shaw and the female officer leave the bedroom and approach.

“Anything?” Frank asks.

Shaw glances down at me, obviously wanting to take the conversation out of earshot.

“It's OK,” says Frank. “If she doesn't hear it now, she'll just annoy the hell out of you until you tell her later anyway.”

Though pretending not to be listening, I smile, pleased with the compliment.

“Neither of them saw his face,” says Shaw. “The younger one is a piece of work though. She's fighting it, but she's riding a snake.”

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Riding a snake?”

“Snakes and ladders,” injects the female detective. “Your friend is sliding into withdrawal. Judging by the track marks, I'd say heroin is her main course, but she's also smoking a between-meal snack of either crack or crystal.”

Her tone is factual rather than judgmental, which I appreciate. Pity she's so attractive, as I'm already halfway to my quota.

Dixie's Tips #16:
Super attractive friends are fine, but never have more than two at one time—otherwise your odds of being the sacrificial “ugly one” for the handsome boy's “wingman” increase to a seriously depressing level.

She holds out her hand. “I'm Betty. Detective Betty White.”

“Like the actress?” I say.

“Except younger, darker, and nowhere near as funny.”

I grin—too late, I like her—and shake her hand.

“How do I treat withdrawal?” I ask.

“Two ways,” says Betty. “Cold turkey, which means tying her to a bed, taking a shitload of verbal abuse, and cleaning up puke for a week. Or take her to a clinic and get her enrolled in a methadone program.”

“But?” I sense the unspoken words in her tone.

Betty meets my gaze. “She thinks she's handling it, which means she isn't ready to admit there's a problem. She's injecting between her toes because she believes that if no one sees the injection points, no one can tell. I've known addicts who inject themselves in the corner of their eyes, nasal passages, and moist places you don't want to think about, and they still think they don't have a problem.”

“So, option one,” I say.

“Both options get them clean, but neither one keeps them that way. That's a bigger step.”

Frank interjects. “Are we done here?”

Both detectives straighten up and nod.

Frank turns to me. His face is weary and disappointed, like a father who's found a condom wrapper in his teenage daughter's nightstand drawer.

“I'll leave a uniform in the lobby until morning. Get some sleep, Dix. We'll talk about this mess later.”

After everyone has left, Bailey and Roxanne return to bed, while I curl into a ball on the couch.

I resist the urge to suck my thumb and pout, though I do keep the gun case on the coffee table close at hand.

I doubt I'll be able to get any sleep, but I surprise myself by drifting off.

When I open my eyes again, darkness has been replaced by morning light and Bailey is gone.

Nineteen

“Did she say anything?”
I ask.

Roxanne is in the armchair; a bullet wound bleeding antique white stuffing inches from her head. She's drowning in a borrowed pair of fleece pajamas with her knees pulled up to her chin. Her bare feet are bruised, a purple-yellow cancer spreading from between her toes. Tension pulses in waves through her undernourished frame making her eyes practically bleed, and her dripping nose is that of a pouting child rather than a woman hardened in the kiln of neglect.

She sniffs and shakes her head.

“No note?” I press. “Nothing?”

She glares at me, angry at the repetition.

“OK.” I back off. “We'll find her.”

The glare intensifies. “You think she's gone to
him
, don't you?”

I shrug, but there's a reason I bet on horses and dogs rather than play poker.

“Don't!” She hisses. “Don't you treat me like a child. I grew up a long time ago.”

“I know you did.”

“Don't do that either.”

“What?”

“Act like you give a damn. I don't need nobody to care for me.”

“We all need someone—”

“I don't! So stuff your caring. You think you can—” She looks away and scrapes at her eyes, but her skin is impermeable to tears. “You think you know me? You have no fucking clue. Do-gooders like you think it's about sex. That sucking a dick is sucking a dick, and you can just put it behind you.” She laughs, but there's no humor in it, only pain. “Fucking, sucking, pissing, whipping … that's the least of what
I do.”

“I don't understand,” I say.

“And you never will. You think that pen in your hand gives you a right to dig into my life and try an' fix things? Well, it don't. It's just a fucking pen.”

“This isn't my fault,” I say.

Roxanne snorts. “Then whose is it? If you hadn't stuck your big nose in, Bailey would still be cutting hair and I would be … where I'm meant to be.”

“And where's that? Screwing sailors and sticking needles between your toes to pretend you're not dead inside?”

Roxanne blanches and tugs the pajama cuffs over her exposed feet but instantly punishes herself for the flinch by nipping her inner cheek with her teeth. It's something I've noticed her do before, but I didn't realize it was on purpose. Her inner flesh must be a transit map of repressed pain.

“Yeah,” she snarls, her head turning away from me to focus on the front window. “Cause that's what I am, daddy's little junkie whore.”

“Who calls you that?” I ask in a gentler tone.

She doesn't answer.

“Lebed?”

Her eyes fix on mine again, but their intensity is sputtering, like a fire that's consumed most of the oxygen in a room and has nowhere left to go.

“You can't help yourself, can you?” she says. “Always questions.”

“It's the only way I know to get answers.”

“And why do you need them?”

“Because I want to help.”

“Why?”

My words stumble as I struggle with the question. “I'm not sure I—”

“Why do you stick your nose in other people's shit? Why write stories?”

“I guess it's how I make a difference,” I blurt. “I don't want to fight in a war, I don't want to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out or make my mark in public office, but I want to connect—to let people see what and who is behind the headlines. I still believe that reporters make a difference. Our stories open eyes, keep most politicians honest, and act as the community's watchdog. It's the storytellers who are tasked with not just reporting history as it's made, but being a public voice to stand up for injustice and shine a spotlight on corruption. It'd be easier not to give a damn, but we're made this way—too flippin' curious.”

“Then maybe this is how I'm made,” says Roxanne.

“No!” Once ignited, my anger burns hot. “No woman, and especially not a child, is born to be a whore.”

Roxanne actually smiles. It's almost pretty.

“I'm glad you used that word,” she says. “I hate it when people say ‘sex worker'. Makes it sound like I jerk off chickens for a living. I'm a whore, plain and simple. Give me cash and you can use my body as a fucking ashtray.”

I blanch. “Who calls you daddy's little whore?”

She smiles again, but it's thinner and sharper than before. “You guessed right, but it was a long time ago. I was Lebed's plaything until puberty hit. Soon as my tits started showing, he threw me out of his house and onto the circuit.”

“The circuit?” I ask.

She hugs her knees tighter and wipes her nose on the fleece. “It starts out okay: private clients, five-star treatment, nice clothes, pedicures and manicures; a lot of threesomes, fantasy games, deflowering the sons of important men. That's actually a word they use:
deflowering
. As if the horny little pricks haven't been jerking off for years. Some of the boys were sweet, though, especially those who were too scared to tell their daddies they were gay. Others were assholes, turning their fathers' disapproval into a cruel streak. I fell from top-tier to bottom faster than most after I stuck a letter opener through one idiot's cock. He was threatening to cut off one of my nipples as a souvenir at the time and I panicked.”

“What were you supposed to do?” I ask. “Let him cut you?”

Roxanne releases her knees and lowers her feet to the floor as Prince jumps off the couch and onto the arm of her chair. With a warm, fleece-lined lap exposed, Prince steps onto her thighs and kneads a little before turning around three times and curling into a furry cinnamon roll.

Roxanne pets the purring cat without answering my question.

I ask another. “Is the hotel where I found you the bottom rung?”

She shakes her head. “It might look like it, but there's lower. Lots lower.”

“Why haven't you left?”

“And go where?”

“Your sister loves you. She'd take you in.”

Fresh tears glisten in swollen eyes. “Until last night, I wouldn't have believed that.”

“And now?”

“We need to get her back before it's too late.”

“You agree she went to Lebed?”

Roxanne nods.

“To bargain for you?”

She nods again.

“And what will he ask in exchange?” I ask.

“There's only one thing he's interested in.”

“What?”

“My father.”

“So, your father's alive,” I say.

“He has to be.”

“Why?”

“Because if he isn't, Lebed wouldn't give a shit about us. He'd have used us and tossed us without a second thought, but he's always kept close watch—we're his bait.”

“You and your sister?” I say. “Even when Bailey was living in Boston?”

Roxanne nods. “He'd tell me. Lebed. When he was lying beside me, making me do what he wanted, he'd tell me about my sister, where she lived, who she saw, what he would do to her if I ever tried to run away.”

“Jesus, what a bastard.”

Roxanne grins. “Oh yeah.”

“Bailey thought she escaped.”

“There is no escape. He has eyes everywhere.”

“And why does he want your father?” I ask.

“I tried to ask, but he would never get into specifics and always got angry if I pressed too hard. But it has something to do with that night before I was born; the night Bailey remembers when Lebed came to my parents' apartment. He hired my father to do something, but I think Dad was supposed to die, too. Only he didn't, and Lebed's been looking for him ever since.”

“Twenty years is a long time to stay in hiding. He could be anywhere. South America? The North Pole?”

Roxanne shakes her head. “No, he stayed close.”

“How do you know?”

Her voice is barely a whisper. “I've seen him.”

“What? Where? When?”

“Just … glimpses. Sometimes at the hotel; sometimes in the street. He's never talked to me, and at first I thought it was my imagination putting my father's face on other men's shoulders. After all, I only know him from pictures, but it's him. I'm sure of it.”

“Did you tell Bailey this?”

She shakes her head and chews at her nails.

I stand up and run fingers through my unkempt hair. “She's got nothing to bargain with. What the hell was she thinking?”

There's a crack in Roxanne's voice. “She's trying to be a big sister again. After all these years, she still thinks she has to protect me.”

I glance down at the blue case on the coffee table. “I need to see Lebed.”

“Why would he see you? He holds all the cards.”

“Not all of them,” I say.

“No?”

I lock eyes with Roxanne. “I still have you.”

BOOK: Devil With a Gun
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