Authors: Dixie Lee Brown
Whatever It Takes
DIXIE LEE BROWN
This is for you, Julia. Thanks for your sound advice, for listening to me talk all day long, and for the laughter. Friendship—priceless!
slammed his empty glass on the filthy table in front of him. The only other patron in the sleazy waterfront dive jerked awake and nearly toppled from his bar stool. The burly bartender reminded Nate of Goliath as he postured, hands on hips, and stared across the smoky gloom with narrowed eyes that held a silent warning. Nate barely resisted the temptation to flip him off.
What was the friggin’ holdup?
Daniels should have made an appearance by now if this drug deal was going down tonight, and Tito was usually fairly reliable. Of course, if Nate had learned anything, it was that snitches didn’t always get the story straight. He scowled. The whole place reeked of smoke, sweat, and vomit. Why would anyone pick this miserable joint in which to drown their sorrows, least of all Willard Daniels?
The bastard was one hard-ass drug dealer, controlling his territory by drawing first blood on anyone who even thought about getting in his way. Nate had no trouble convincing his captain to set up this undercover operation in the hopes of offering Daniels access to a new supplier from southern Oregon. All Nate needed to do was get his foot in the door—convince Daniels to trust him—and he’d take the man, and his empire, down from the inside.
“Hey, Nate. You’re about to have company.”
The voice rasped from his earpiece, and muffled laughter followed. He scraped a hand over his whiskered face. They wouldn’t be laughing if it was Daniels headed this way.
What in the hell were Burke and Anderson up to now?
“Oh yeah. She’s a real looker. Help you pass the time.” Burke snickered, ending with a piglike snort.
Comforting as hell to know the two detectives charged with watching his back in a parked car, halfway down the block, were keeping themselves amused. Nate counted on them for advance warning of anything out of the ordinary. Apparently, they were as bored and impatient as he was.
The door to the street swung wide, and the object of his friends’ taunting stood in the opening for a moment, her exhaled breath clearly visible in the chilly night air. A short, tight skirt hugged every curve and didn’t leave much to his imagination. A worn denim jacket draped her shoulders, and one hand held the front closed. Her gaze swept over him, traveled to the drunk at the bar, and rested for a second on Goliath before she stepped across the threshold in hot pink stilettos.
The door closed behind her. She shrugged off the jacket, revealing a skintight black leather vest that lifted and scrunched into a fine display of cleavage. Casting another glance his way, she shook out her long platinum hair, sashayed to the bar, and ordered a drink.
Three . . . two . . . one . . . and . . . here she comes.
Nate had lost track of the number of times he’d been propositioned by hookers. When he first started with the Portland Police Bureau, it was almost humorous. Now he just felt sorry for them.
This woman had caked on the makeup, probably to hide the fact she was older than the average lady of the evening. Necks and hands never lied, however, and he’d put her close to forty-five. As he watched her sure, deliberate progress in his direction, he couldn’t help wondering what had landed her out on the street at her age.
The front door opened again, and his gaze darted hopefully to the new arrival.
Damn. Still no Daniels.
A short, slightly built man—boy, really—stepped inside, stomping his feet and rubbing his hands, obviously trying to generate some warmth. Strange, he appeared cold even with the oversized canvas coat he wore, a muffler flung around his neck, covering his mouth, and an Aussie outback hat, the brim hiding his eyes in shadow.
“Hey, sugar. Lookin’ for some company?” The hooker smiled as she redirected Nate’s attention to her. She set her drink on his table and laid her hand on the back of the chair next to his.
Her smoker’s voice was so raspy the sound practically hurt his throat. The strong scent of cheap perfume surrounding her, no doubt meant to hide the smell of cigarette smoke, made him strive to hold his breath. In spite of his repugnance, he forced a polite smile.
“Not tonight, beautiful. I’m waiting for someone, but thanks for asking.” On the job, Nate spent his fair share of time around women just like this one, and he’d quickly come to realize they had hopes, dreams, and feelings just like everyone else. Some poor choice or circumstance in their past set them on the course that dropped them on a street corner, or on a bar stool at a grimy establishment like this one, or sometimes in the back of the coroner’s van. Most wouldn’t choose the life of a hooker, but once there, it was a self-perpetuating fate. He’d decided early on that he’d treat them with respect unless they proved they didn’t deserve any.
She preened at the compliment, picked up her glass, and raised it in salute. “Too bad. If your plans change, let me know.”
“You got it, sweetheart.”
The woman turned toward the bar, studied and dismissed the drunk slouched on his stool, and seemed to regard the young man who’d just come in with an equal amount of disdain. Like Nate, she probably wondered if the boy was old enough to drink legally.
Unless Goliath was interested in a good time when he got off work, it was pretty slim pickings in here tonight for a woman like her. She strode to the bar and took a seat toward the end, away from everyone else.
When the bartender caught Nate’s eye and pointed, he raised his glass and nodded. He’d nursed the first drink as long as he could, but Goliath was beginning to throw him dirty looks. It could be worse. Nate could be outside with the detectives in their cold car. Early March was known for frigid nights. They’d probably give anything for a drink to warm them about now.
Goliath, a deep scowl creasing his face, threaded his way through the tables and set a fresh drink in front of Nate, sloshing it carelessly on the floor in the process. Oh yeah. He’d be glad to see the last of this place.
Holy hell! What was taking so long?
His gaze wandered to the bar. The hooker sipped her drink, painting on a fresh coat of lipstick between swallows. She’d be ready for the next man who walked through the door. Nate prayed it would be Daniels. Waiting was driving him nuts.
Please, just let Burke and Anderson say Daniels is in the neighborhood.
He frowned as the hairs rose on the nape of his neck like someone just laid a rose on his casket. He hated that creepy, sixth-sense bullshit. Good, old-fashioned detective work was what he used to build a case, but he’d also learned not to ignore his gut.
The hooker crossed her legs, and the short skirt slid up her thighs another inch or two. Actually, she wouldn’t be that tough to look at if she didn’t try so hard. Naturally, Burke and Anderson wouldn’t look beyond the skimpy clothes and the garish makeup. At least they didn’t come back with more trash talk after she’d hit on Nate. They must have decided to give him a break tonight.
His gaze continued down the bar until it stopped on the boy. He’d removed the scarf that covered his mouth but still wore the hat that shaded most of his face. An untouched drink sat in front of him. The boy perched on the bar stool, sitting erect and looking straight ahead. A mirror behind the bar wasn’t positioned quite right to allow Nate to see the boy’s face, but he had the uncomfortable feeling the boy could see him. That odd, prickly sensation rolled across the skin of his neck again. There was just something . . .
Nate sat straight in his chair, and his gaze swung back to the hooker. It wasn’t like Burke to give up so easily if he thought he could get a laugh at someone’s expense.
He ducked his head and covered his mouth as though to cough. “Hey, you two see anything?” His whispered query went unanswered.
Not good. They hadn’t made a peep since the hooker had walked in. Nate’s gaze snapped to the boy in time to see him avert his eyes from the mirror. Burke and Anderson were supposed to give him a heads-up when anyone approached the bar, yet they’d been silent when the kid came in too. A chill prickled along his skin. There was only one reason he could think of for that.
Nate jumped to his feet, and half a dozen long strides brought him to within reach of the doorknob. Experience cautioned that the boy might be trouble, but he sat immobile. Likely the only trouble he’d get in tonight was breaking curfew. Nate’s gut told him he had to check on Burke and Anderson. Everything else could wait.
As his hand touched the knob, it turned and the door suddenly flew open. Nate backed away, distancing himself from the four men, built like linebackers, who swarmed into the bar. The man that Tito the snitch had identified as Willard Daniels followed them in and took center stage.
?” A sadistic grin twisted Daniels’s already ugly face. Graying hair hugged his scalp in a fashionable cut, held in place with a generous application of gel, while dark stubble grew haphazardly around the ski slope that passed as his nose. Of medium height, he had a slight paunch that made him appear shorter than he was.
Well, what was going on here?
Daniels knew who he was—knew he was a cop. That couldn’t be good. Nate’s lip curled in a sneer as he looked Daniels slowly up and down.
Always keep control of the situation.
They’d drilled that into all the recruits at the Academy. There were varied opinions about what to do once control was lost, but Nate figured pretending like hell he had an ace up his sleeve was the best he could do on short notice.
“Figured I’d call it a night.” Nate took a step toward the door, and the half circle of steroid addicts closed ranks around him.
Daniels blocked his path and his grin disappeared. “The night’s young. Sit down.” He motioned toward the closest table.
Nate held his gaze and didn’t move until one of the bodybuilders shoved a chair into the backs of his legs, buckling his knees, and he dropped into it. Daniels reached beneath Nate’s vest and lifted his forty-five from where it rested against his side, placing it on the nearby table.
With a little bit of luck, they wouldn’t frisk him and also find the Beretta he had strapped to his leg. Even so, this wasn’t going well, and short of Burke and Anderson making an appearance, Nate couldn’t see how it was going to get much better.
Daniels scraped a chair across the floor and sat facing Nate. He motioned to one of his men, who headed straight for Goliath at the bar. “Let’s have a drink. Shall we? I have a proposition for you.”
Nate crossed his arms. “Why not? I’m intrigued.” From the corner of his eye, he watched the interaction between the bartender and Daniels’s lackey. Maybe he was seeing bad guys under every rock now, but those two seemed a little too friendly. The drunk was still asleep, head down on the bar. The kid studied something in his lap, the brim of his hat completely blocking his face. Good. If there was one thing Nate didn’t need in here tonight, it was a vigilante. Everyone would be fine as long as they minded their own business.
The hooker was apt to be trouble, though. She checked out the influx of men as though she’d just hit the jackpot. Nate tried to catch her eye and warn her off, but she was apparently through wasting time with him. She’d set her sights on fresh game.
What had Tito gotten him into? This was no drug deal. Daniels, with his Armani suit, two-hundred-dollar haircut, and well-dressed bodyguards, clearly wasn’t out to score a kilo of heroin. That he didn’t seem at all surprised to find Nate here—in fact seemed to expect it—was worrisome . . . and, again, probably not good.
The muscle-bound henchman returned with a bottle of Black Velvet and two glasses. Daniels poured some in both and handed one to Nate. He accepted, threw it back, and slapped the glass down on the closest table, never taking his eyes off Daniels.
Nate sat forward. “Let’s cut the bullshit and get to the small print.”
A muscle ticked in Daniels’s jaw and his eyes narrowed. “Leo Madera stole something from me. I want it back.”
Before Nate could stop himself, a snort escaped. “
uncle Leo? You’re either a liar or a lunatic.”
One of the bodyguards grabbed his arms from behind, pinning Nate in the chair, while another stepped in front of him and swung a beefy fist into the side of his head. Shards of pain radiated through his skull as his head snapped to the side, and sparkly lights floated in front of his eyes.
That was apparently all it took for the hooker to lose interest. She gave a squeak, slid off her bar stool, and grabbed her jacket. Threading her arms in, she scurried, head down, toward the door.
A wall of flesh stepped in front of her, and she ran into the man. “No one leaves until we’re done here.” He looked around and pointed at the bartender. “You got a problem with that?”
Goliath wagged his head from side to side, continuing to lean his elbows on the bar and watch the show. The hooker slunk back to her seat and lit a cigarette. The drunk was still out cold, his head resting on the bar. With any luck, he’d sleep through the whole thing.
The boy was missing from his bar stool in front of the mirror, but Nate didn’t have time to search him out. Daniels’s smirk demanded all of his attention.
“It’s my sincere desire to impress upon you that this is not a joke. Nor is it to be taken lightly. Are we clear?” Daniels took another sip of his drink.
This guy was starting to piss Nate off. “Uncle Leo never stole a damn thing in his life.”
“Come now, Detective. He left you a sizable fortune when he died. Where do you think he got it?”
“He worked hard and invested wisely.” Nate stared Daniels in the eye even though he didn’t have a clue where Uncle Leo’s money came from. It had been a source of speculation between Nate and his partner, Ty, but they’d never found any evidence to suggest his uncle was a thief. Until he did, Nate would continue to defend him.
Daniels’s scornful laugh cut off abruptly. “You’ll have to take off those rose-colored glasses if we’re going to get anywhere.”
“Here’s an idea. Why don’t you just tell me what it is you’re looking for and I’ll give it to you?” What in the hell had his uncle been involved in to be associated with the likes of this scumbag? Nate had always stayed out of Uncle Leo’s business affairs. The old man could have been involved in something illegal for all Nate knew, but he’d never found one reason to question his uncle’s honesty . . . and that was good enough for him.