In The Line Of Fire
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Molly didn’t like what she was thinking. She felt nauseous, but maybe that was just the pizza. She pawed through the papers and reports on the table that she had yet to file and found notes pertinent to Bancroft. The general consensus was that he and Malloy had been sucked in by Carmine Mercado and his boys into moonlighting for the Texas mob. It felt right to Molly. Green canvas bags, she thought again. Weapons, drugs, something being moved through the country club’s kitchen. And whose domain were those things in South Texas? The mob’s, of course. If Malloy and Bancroft had kidnapped Jake Anderson in order to keep him from talking about what he’d seen, they’d done it on orders from whoever was responsible for the blast. That indicated that the organized crime network had owned them.
It always upset her when a cop turned. She thought about all the officers at the scene again. Were Bancroft and Malloy the only ones? Or had some of the others had a staked interest in that explosion?
There were other theories. Heaven knew the Wainwrights and Carsons had been going at each other’s throats for the better part of a century now, but Molly couldn’t see two of Mission Creek’s elite families blowing up the spectacular and lavish club they had jointly established generations ago. There were rumors around town about the involvement of a South American terrorist group, but as far as Molly was concerned, that just smacked of pulp fiction. What would terrorists want with Mission Creek, Texas? Mission Creek already had its own bad boys in the form of Carmine Mercado and his mobsters.
Molly finally pushed her chair back and stood. She’d only gotten halfway through organizing the book, but a glance at her watch told her that it was time to move on to the rec center. She turned away from the table to find Paulie McCauley standing in the door watching her, his arms crossed over his fairly significant chest.
“Solve the case yet?” he sneered.
“No.” Molly shook her head and walked toward him, squeezing past him when he wouldn’t move aside to give her space. “But you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m going to.”
“Danny, Danny, Danny.”
He looked up from his seat on the chintz-covered sofa in his mother’s living room, the one that had smelled faintly of over-cooked cabbage twenty-five years ago and still did. If he inhaled hard, he could detect it beneath the strident lemon tang of the cleaning solution his mother tended to use with a heavy hand. It made his heart move in a way it hadn’t done for a very long time. This was home.
Some things never changed, Danny thought. Including the money in the shoe box on his lap.
“There’s nearly thirteen thousand dollars in here,” he said.
“You told me to keep it for you. Here. Have another cookie.”
“Mom…” He felt twelve again, but Danny took the cookie.
She went to the threadbare chair across the room from him and sat. Her hair was still as iron-gray and as ruthlessly scraped back from her face as it had been six years ago.Her face was just as seamed. He recognized her blue polyester slacks and the dimpled, dotted Swiss blouse she wore from the years before he had gone away. As near as he could tell, the stubborn woman hadn’t bought herself a damned thing in six years.
He loved her so sweetly and savagely it stole his breath for a moment, so he did the only thing he could do. Danny grinned at her as he shook his head in defeat.
“I told you to use what you needed and to keep the rest of the money for me,” he clarified.
“Which I did.” Mona Gates took a cookie for herself and watched the change come over her boy’s face. Thirty-two years old last month, she thought. She’d visited him in jail with a birthday cake, but they’d hacked it all to pieces before they’d let her give it to him. If she had been going to slide a file in there, she would have done it six years ago when he had first gone away, not weeks before his chance for parole. Fools.
On that day, on his thirty-second birthday, her Danny’s beautiful brown eyes—as soulful and hopeful as a puppy’s, she’d often thought—had stayed fixed on her face, never wavering. She knew he had gone through the motions of celebrating for her sake, not his own. Mona had watched him right back, knowing his gaze missed nothing in that visiting room, not a single movement of the guard standing near the door or a gesture made by the couple sitting at the table beside them. To Mona’s knowledge, Danny hadn’t smiled in six years.
His mouth had a way of crooking up at one corner—almost like he was abashed, but then there was that devil’s own gleam in his eyes. He’d had a way of winking that made anyone who saw the gesture feel as though they’d just been let in on some wonderful, exciting secret. Danny didn’t wink anymore, either.
After a moment his smile faded. “You used less than four hundred dollars, Mom. I gave you thirteen thousand three, and you’re giving back most of it.”
“That was what I needed. I get my Social Security now.”
And he could just imagine how much that added up to each month.
“I have everything I want,” she insisted.
For a second her eyes twinkled, the way they had long before his father had left them with nothing, before she’d worked too many jobs trying to see them through and before Danny had accepted Ricky Mercado’s offer of a job to pull them out of a particularly bad financial hole. That had started him down a long road that had ended with him knowing every one of Carmine Mercado’s secrets…and needing so desperately to get away from them that he had spent six years in jail to do it.
“You can get a cab back now, can’t you?” Mona asked.
Danny nodded. “I’d say so.” His feet still hurt from the walk.
“Buy yourself a car,” she advised.
“I’m planning on it.” But it wouldn’t be the black Lexus he’d owned six years ago. All the same, it was time to move on, Danny thought. He stood and scraped two thousand dollars off the top of the money in the box. She probably wouldn’t spend that, either, but he was damned if he was walking out of here with it.
Although he’d been picked up by the police without warning, he’d been able to tell his mother where to find this stash. He’d kept it in a safe deposit box at the bank because anything could happen in the profession he’d chosen, and often did. His mother had been authorized for access to that box. She’d picked up the money for him and had held it all this time.
He laid the two thousand dollars on her scarred coffee table. “Buy yourself a new sofa.”
“I don’t want a new sofa.”
“Then that crocheting machine you used to want so much.”
She thought about it. “That’s only about a hundred.”
She laughed and stood suddenly to hug him. “Danny, Danny, Danny. It’s so good to have you home. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
He finally extracted himself from her arms and folded the remaining eleven thousand back into the shoe box. He looked around for her telephone. She read the direction of his gaze and pulled a cordless from the cushions of the chair she had been sitting in.
“One of those newfangled ones. I bought it with forty dollars of your money when the arthritis started hurting me too bad to get to the phone fast.”
Danny laughed. That was something, at least. “Good for you.”
He used it to call for the cab he hadn’t been able to afford two hours ago. It arrived within fifteen minutes. He was half hoping it would be the same driver who had snubbed him in the rain, but it was a young Hispanic guy with what might well have been the whitest smile Danny had ever seen. He flashed it a lot, too, as though he had only just discovered what a jolly place the world was. Danny didn’t particularly agree with that assessment so he stared at the guy in the rearview mirror until he stopped grinning and looked away.
Eleven thousand dollars left.
The cab let him out at a used-car lot on Scissom Street. He negotiated a fourteen-year-old Dodge down to two thousand dollars and didn’t like the look the salesman gave him when he paid in cash. He’d paid cash for a lot in his life, but back then he hadn’t given a damn what anybody thought. Danny wanted to warn the salesman that if the car didn’t run for at least eight blocks, he was going to come back and bury him in it. But that kind of remark would probably get him in trouble so he kept his mouth shut.
He finally took possession of the car and drove…home.
The rec center was a beleaguered tan brick building on the eastern edge of Mission Creek. He pulled up at the curb and stared at it. Rain funneled down from the corners of a flat roof that covered most of the building. The water formed a solid, wet sheet cascading from the green metal awning hanging over the front door. The place took up most of the block, and the door was dead center with two barred windows on either side of it. Stuck to the top of the left side of the building was a square addition, sided in well-aged cedar. That had a window on each of its four walls.
His apartment. And the kids loitering beneath the green awning, getting wet but not seeming to care, were his new job.
Danny had agreed with his parole officer to teach basketball to these underprivileged kids, most of whom had already had a few skirmishes of their own with the law. For this he would receive the impressive compensation of eight bucks an hour. He could also have the apartment in exchange for acting as a handyman/caretaker/night watchman. Danny got out of the Dodge and reminded himself that this was what he had decided he wanted during his long, lonely nights in that cell.
The kids eyed him. He eyed them right back.
There were three boys and a girl. The boys were all wearing identical baggy jeans that clung to their narrow hips in a way that defied gravity. Two of them wore T-shirts and the third wore a green wool sweater that had seen enough launderings that the knit had gone loose and given way to nubs.
The girl scared him a little. Her hair stuck up from her head in spikes. Her roots were jet black and the ends purple. She was a beauty, with smooth dusky skin and intense dark eyes. It couldn’t be more than fifty-five degrees today, and the sky was pouring cold rain to boot, but she stood with one hip cocked in a stretchy black sports bra and a very small green leather skirt. A silver ring had been inserted into her belly button. Danny rubbed his own midriff against a reflexive sympathy pain.
One of the boys came forward, his chin jutting, ready to protect his territory. Danny pushed his hands into his jeans pockets, a deliberately nonthreatening gesture. He hadn’t been off the streets so long that he didn’t remember how it was.
“Who’re you?” the kid asked.
“The answer to your prayers. And you would be?”
He didn’t answer but one of the other boys stepped forward. “How come you want to know?”
“So I can call you something besides ‘Hey, you.”’
Glances were exchanged. The girl sidled up to join the other two. “Well, I’m Cia.”
“Hi, Cia. Are you going to play basketball in those boots?”
She looked down at her feet. They were encased in more leather with chunky, killer heels. “Who said anything about basketball?”
He had his work cut out for him, Danny thought.
He kept his eye on the one boy who hadn’t yet come forward. He was bone thin with dark hair that had been cut ruthlessly short. One to watch, Danny thought. There was something about him, something that said he was more desperate than the others. There was a certain hollowness to his eyes.
The other kids scattered as Danny passed by them beneath the awning, but the loner held his ground. Only his eyes moved as Danny walked past him. Danny pulled open the rickety screen door to the center, then he paused to read the graffiti on the bricks to one side of it. It was significantly more creative than it had been in his own youth.
“Is that even physically possible?” He nodded in the direction of the words scrawled in red paint.
The first boy snorted. “Not for you, maybe. I can pull it off.”
Cia laughed. “In your dreams, Lester.”
So he had Cia and Lester, Danny thought. So far so good. “Meet me inside on the court in fifteen minutes.”
“What for?” Lester demanded.
“I’m going to teach you guys basketball.” If not today, then tomorrow, Danny thought, but sooner or later they’d come into his gym.
He stepped through the door into a vestibule floored with cracked blue linoleum. The walls had once been white, but they were filthy now with graffiti of their own. There was a single door to his left and double, swinging doors straight ahead. The door to the side wore a small metal sign that read office. Danny went forward. He pushed through the double doors and stepped into the gym.
A glance around told him that, surprisingly, it wasn’t in total disrepair. He could work with it, and what he couldn’t work with, he could fix. He’d never set foot in this place when he was a kid—he’d had the school gym at his disposal until Ricky had taken him under his wing and had shown him more lucrative ways to spend his time.
Thoughts of Ricky had his heart seizing a little. Best to take care of that little problem straight off the bat, he thought. Otherwise he wouldn’t live long enough to coach anybody.
Beyond a door at the back of the gym were stairs. The light bulb overhead was burned out so Danny made his way up cautiously, finally stepping into a single room, half of it given over to a sofa bed of deep, depressing green. The other half of the room was taken up by a kitchen straight out of the sixties. Danny didn’t have to open the bathroom door to know that the facilities in there would be prehistoric. He spotted an old rotary-type telephone on a coffee table in front of the sofa and he went straight for it.
He dialed in the number from memory, glancing at his watch. It was two o’clock. Ricky would be home. He was the type who did his prowling at night.
The line picked up midway through the second ring. “H’lo.”
“Some problems never go away,” Danny said calmly. “They just lie dormant for a while.”
He was gratified by a pause before Ricky Mercado spoke. “So you’re out. I heard they were going to spring you sometime this week.”
He’d loved the guy like a brother. But Danny didn’t feel like playing games. “You heard about it the instant I stepped through that jailhouse door this morning and you were waiting for this call.” He knew the way it worked. He knew too much. Therein lay the problem.
He was still as much of a threat to Carmine as he had been six years ago, Danny thought, when the mob had framed him and had him put away because he’d left their ranks. The fact that he had remained silent for six years, not singing like a bird to gain his own release, would hold minimum sway with the old man even now. Danny knew he was alive only because Ricky had probably interceded for him back then, convincing his uncle to go for the prison term instead of eliminating the problem of Danny Gates entirely.
Ricky finally laughed. The sound was rich and familiar. “Okay, we kept tabs on you. So I guess you’re not calling me for a lift somewhere.”
“No. I’m already where I need to be.”
He heard Ricky accepting this in the ensuing silence. “You’re definitely still out then.”
“What do you want to do about it?”
“We need to meet and work out a stalemate.”
This time Ricky didn’t hesitate. “How about tomorrow?”
“No. Friday. I’m going to need a little time.” This, Danny thought, would be the true test of how much of their friendship remained. They both knew what he was going to do with that time. “Can you hold Carmine and the others off until then?”
“I guess I have to.”
Danny let himself breath again. Cautiously.
“I’ll meet you at the country club at one o’clock,” Ricky said.
Danny thought about that. As long as Ricky had kept his nose reasonably clean these past six years, meeting with him wouldn’t be a violation of his parole. It wasn’t against the law for an ex-con to meet with a suspected mobster—yet. “You haven’t been charged with anything while I was gone?”
“Bro, I’m way too clever.”
Same old Ricky, Danny thought. “I thought I was, too.”
Ricky ignored that. “Friday. One o’clock. In the Yellow Rose Caf?.”
Danny’s eyes narrowed hard and fast, like blinds slapping down to cover a window. It worried him that Ricky hadn’t chosen the Men’s Grill for old time’s sake. “Why the change?” he asked.
“Because the grill isn’t there anymore. Somebody blew it clear to China last month.”
“Sky-high, buddy. It’s a pile of rubble.” Ricky laughed again.
Danny didn’t ask if the Mercados had been behind the explosion. It was just one more thing he didn’t need to know. “All right. The Caf?, then. In the meantime you’ve got my back, right?”
For now, Danny thought. After Friday, who knew?
He disconnected and shifted his shoulders back and forth, trying to rock some of the tension out of them. Then he cocked his head to the side. From downstairs came the thump-thump-thumping sound of a basketball hitting the gym floor. He grinned to himself. The kids had already come inside.
He returned to the stairs and trotted down, then he went still, holding the door to the gym open with one hand. Whatever was going on out there more closely resembled a game of keep-away than basketball. And it didn’t resemble keep-away much at all. He suspected this all had something to do with the woman who had pulled the kids inside onto the court while he’d been upstairs.
As he watched, she more or less tackled Cia on the hard flooring and began tickling her. The two of them came up gasping for breath. Somehow Cia managed to keep her modesty in that tiny skirt. Then the woman sprang to her feet again. Laughing, she scraped her hands through her hair, pulling it back from her face. It was a wild mass of curls that had hidden her features, but when it was swept clear, Danny saw delicate cheekbones and a spattering of freckles across her nose.
She was small, compact and she had the voice of a drill sergeant. She spun to one of the boys who’d stuck his tongue out at her behind her back—a new one who hadn’t been outside. “Keep it in your mouth, Fisk, until you figure out how to use it.”
“Hey, babe, I know how. Want me to show you?”
“Grow up first. Maybe we’ll talk in ten years.” She caught the ball that Lester shot to her. And fast, without looking, she threw it in the direction of Fisk. The boy was startled, but caught it. “Good job,” she said. “See? Your hands actually work for something besides picking pockets.”
Then she threw herself into the game, or whatever it was.
Her face changed, Danny thought. Her eyes went hot. Passion, he thought. It was there on her face, a hunger both for the release of the exercise and the need to win, assuming her game even had rules. Her hair bounced, all long, dark ringlets that made a man’s hand itch for palms full of it.
A new girl had joined the kids from outside, as well, he realized. She caught the sleeve of the woman’s white sweater. In an instant the woman stopped playing and turned, looking concerned. Then she slung an arm over the girl’s shoulder and together they moved off the court in his direction, their heads close as they whispered.
“Ah, man,” Lester said. “Damn Anita’s got more problems than an ex-con.”
Somehow Danny doubted that.
The woman made a semirude gesture in the boy’s direction and it shut him right up. Passion and kindness, he thought, and no-nonsense guts. He felt one corner of his mouth try to pull into a smile. Danny rubbed his palm over it to get rid of the reflex.
When she looked up and saw him, she stopped midstride. “Who are you?”
Danny lowered his hand and stepped out of the stairwell. “Danny Gates.” Her eyes were emerald green, he noticed, and she definitely had freckles.
“Is that your rattletrap out there?” she demanded.
“My what?” She’d lost him.
“Your car. There’s a car out there in my parking space.”
“There’s no assigned parking out there.”
“I always leave my car at the door. There’s an old yellow Dodge there now, in my spot.”
It was her turn to frown in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”
“Lemon. That’s what the salesman called it.”
“He might have been referring to its condition, you know, not its color.”
That snagged his pride. He walked past her. “Yeah, if the car in question is lemon, then that would be mine.”
“A rose by any other name…” She shrugged and pivoted to follow him with her gaze. “Are you leaving now? Because if you are, I’ll move my car back to where it belongs since the rain’s tapered off a little. I don’t want to have to run a block in a downpour to get to it when I’m done here.”
He stopped and looked back at her. It had been a while since he’d had occasion to handle a woman, Danny thought, but he was pretty sure he could remember how the routine went. Something told him that this one was used to having her own way, to giving orders. He’d have to fix that if she intended to spend any time around here playing with his kids.
“Finders keepers,” he drawled. “I was there first. Live with it.”
“I’m staying here for a while, and you’re not!”
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